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Authors: Richard Lee Byers

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BOOK: Queen of the Depths
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Captain Clayhill sprang to her feet. “Give me your sword,” she snarled to Sealmid.

Tu’ala’keth remained seated, as if the human’s anger was of no concern to her, thus maintaining the appearance of strength. “Will you strike me, then? To what end? Will the other reavers finally respect you if you kill me sitting in my chair?”

The captain gripped the hilt of Sealmid’s broadsword but didn’t raise it to threaten Tu’ala’keth—not yet. “The other reavers do respect me!”

“No,” said Tu’ala’keth, “they do not. To gain their admiration, you strove for your captaincy, but the manner in which you achieved it makes it a lewd jest.

“You know this, and it gnaws your soul. You tell yourself you would do anything to achieve true respect, but you lie. The trouble with the mask of servility is that, worn too long, it starts to impress its shape on the face beneath. Without realizing it, the pretender opens himself to genuine meekness and uncertainty.

“So it is that you fear to wager what little you have already gained. Even though no pirate wins glory except through daring and ferocity.

“Umberlee wishes to wake these sleeping virtues in you. Because you have the potential to be the greatest of reavers and stain the waters red with the blood of your prey. I see it now. It is why she sent me to you.

“But to achieve your destiny, you must pay heed when she speaks through me. It begins here. Do what other captains fear to do. Plunder the Thayans. Win the respect of Dragon Isle, so that one day, you may rule it. Vurgrom and his rivals aspire for supremacy, like Immurk in his day, but the prize will be yours if you find the strength to take it.”

Captain Clayhill stared at Tu’ala’keth in manifest astonishment. Finally the human’s lips quirked upward. “It’s tricky to know how to respond when somebody insults you with one breath and praises you with the next.”

“I did neither. I spoke the truth as the Queen of the Depths revealed it to me. Hear or ignore it as you please.”

Captain Clayhill turned to Anton. “Tell me your idiot plan again,” she said, “from the beginning.”

<§?ŚŠŚ <§>Ś

When she’d set sail, Shark’s Bliss had been a sleek, handsome, two-masted caravel. As Anton considered her now, he supposed she was still handsome, but it was harder to see. The primary impression was one of

calamity. The ship wallowed low in the waves, as if she were sinking. The sails hung in tatters.

The crippled state of the vessel made the pirates grumble. Just as tense, Captain Clayhill stood beside Anton on the aft castle gazing out over the heaving, gray-green expanse of the sea. Her fingers with their gleaming rings kneaded the rail. Even on the brink of battle, she still wore a frilly, impractical gown, like a lady attending a banquet or ball.

“Where is she?” the captain asked.

“She’ll be back soon,” said Anton, hoping it was so. Tu’ala’keth could take care of herself, and was inconspicuous when she swam primarily beneath the sea. Yet even so, it was chancy to go looking for a Red Wizard’s vessel. She couldn’t know what enchantments he had in place to detect sentient creatures, or spellcasting, in his vicinity.

Finally Durth, the ore in the crow’s next, called, “I see her!” In another moment, Anton did, too, as she parted company with her seahorse and swam to the ship. He tossed the rope ladder over the side, and blue skin and black fin wet and gleaming, the shalarin climbed upward with a facility that demonstrated she’d finally mastered the knack of moving nimbly even out of the water.

“Did you find them?” Captain Clayhill asked.

“Yes,” said Tu’ala’keth. She adjusted the strap securing her tinted goggles to her head. “I spoke to the wind and current, and they shifted their courses. As a result, the Thayans will come close enough to sight us.”

“Good.” The captain turned and shouted down the length of the ship: “It’s time! Go below if you’re supposed to. If you’re staying on deck, look tired, thirsty, and helpless. If you’re carrying a weapon bigger than a knife, get rid of it.”

“Prejudice against ores, that’s what this is,” Harl said. All the members of his warlike race had to hide

in the cramped, half-flooded hold. Otherwise, the Bliss wouldn’t look as they needed her to look. He gave Anton a wink and headed for the companionway.

Kassur and Chadrezzan had to go below as well, but did so with an ill grace. Tu’ala’keth dived back over the side to conceal herself beneath the waves.

Then, once again, there was nothing to do but wait. Anton had spent much of his life on one ship or another, and knew how long it took for two vessels to rendezvous on the open sea. Still time crawled.

At last, squinting, he glimpsed the Thayan caravel, a speck far to the northeast. He was sure the Thayans’ lookout had spotted Shark’s Bliss as well. But would they change course to meet her?

He thought so. She flew the flag of Aglarond, Thay’s bitter enemy, and looked defenseless. Were Anton a Red Wizard, he’d certainly take the time to plunder the foundering ship, capture those on board to ransom or enslave, and salvage the vessel itself if possible. It was too juicy an opportunity to pass up.

Yet he sweated until he could tell the Thayans had in fact turned southwest.

He supposed he still had reason to be anxious. The Thayans could conceivably maintain a certain distance and batter Shark’s Bliss with magic, volleys of arrows, and bolts from their ballista. If they did, the pirate vessel, unable to maneuver or run, had no hope of surviving. His ruse had seen to that.

But the Thayans wouldn’t take that tack, not if convinced they had nothing to fear. Such a barrage could only diminish the value of their prize.

The Thayan caravel was larger than the Bliss. Her hull, sails, and streaming banners were all varying shades of crimson, and she maneuvered so smartly that enchantment was surely involved.

“Prepare to be boarded!” someone shouted. Grappling hooks flew, and crunched into the pirate vessel’s

timbers. The Thayans heaved on the lines, drawing the ships together. With Shark’s Bliss riding low in the water, the red caravel’s deck was a few feet higher, but even so, it would be possible to clamber from one to the other. t

The Thayans proceeded to do so. Clad in leather armor and armed with javelins, boarding pikes, and short swords, the shouting warriors herded their new prisoners into a single clump. Anton tried to look scared and submissive while studying the newcomers. He needed to identify the spellcasters.

He could see only one magician, a short, tubby Red Wizard with a rosy-cheeked, incongruously jolly face. Like all members of his fraternity, the Thayan had shaved every hair from his head, eyebrows included. Vermilion tattooing showed on his neck and wrists. He was likely marked over much of his body, but the scarlet robe hid most of it.

It was lucky the Thayans had only one warlock, and that he’d elected to come aboard Shark’s Bliss, where his foes could reach him more easily. Armed with a spiked ball and chain, clad in flame-yellow vestments, a priest of Kossuth the Firelord still stood in the forecastle of the crimson ship. He could be trouble.

“Now then,” said the Red Wizard in a cheerful tenor voice, “who’s the skipper of this unfortunate vessel?”

“I am,” Shandri Clayhill said.

The Thayan’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “Are you indeed? How charming. May I ask, how did the ship come to grief?”

“A squall. Look, I have coin and land back in Vel-printalar. I can reward you for rescuing us.”

The Red Wizard chuckled and fingered one of the gold-and-diamond necklaces dangling on her bosom. “You already have rewarded me, dear girl, and will again later, more intimately. If you’re enthusiastic, perhaps you can avoid—”

Still bound together, the two ships fell.

As planned, Tu’ala’keth had cast a spell to scoop the water from beneath their hulls. They dropped several feet, down a hole in the gray-green sea. Everyone slammed down hard when the vessels hit bottom, but at least the pirates had known what to expect, whereas the sudden plummet caught the Thayans entirely by surprise. Some surely suffered sprains and broken bones. All looked stupid with astonishment.

The spell effect ended as abruptly as it began. Saltwater crashed across the deck, engulfing everything, and Anton was suddenly afraid they’d remain submerged, that they lacked the buoyancy to rise. But then they bobbed up into air and sunlight.

Screaming crazily, pirates erupted from every hatch that led down into the hold. Despite their lack of weapons, the freebooters who’d remained on deck also sprang at the stunned and disoriented Thayans.

Anton looked for the Red Wizard. Though the reavers currently had the advantage, a powerful mage might alter that with a single spell. But not if he was denied the time to cast it.

There! The plump wizard had placed his back to the rail, and some of his bodyguards had positioned themselves in front of him. The man in red intoned a chant as sonorous as a dirge and swept his hands in slow passes. Cool, whispering gloom drifted across the deck, as if the sun had passed behind a cloud.

Anton knew he’d never fight his way through the bodyguards in time to stop the spell, but fortunately, that wasn’t his only option. Another Thayan—swept overboard or killed by a pirate, the spy neither knew nor cared—had dropped his javelin on the deck. Anton snatched it up and threw it.

It was a difficult throw because the spear had to pass between two of the guards to reach its mark, but he managed it. The point drove deep into the Red

Wizard’s chest. Looking bewildered, he stumbled backward to slam into the rail. It cracked in two, and he tumbled into the sea. Sunlight scoured the shadow from the air.

Anton instantly pivoted to find the priest of Kossuth. Curse it! Nobody else had neutralized the divine, and he was conjuring, too, bellowing and swinging his chain weapon over his head. The spiked ball at the end had ignited and left an arc of flame behind it like a tame shooting star.

Anton would never reach the brazier, as such folk were called, in time to stop him. He peered about for another missile, even a makeshift one, but nothing came to hand. He wondered just how horrific the fire magic was going to be.

Then the brazier lurched forward, and blood gushed from his mouth. His knees buckled, and when he collapsed, he revealed Tu’ala’keth standing behind him. She yanked her stone trident from his back and raised it in salutation.

Anton grinned and nodded back. Then they each turned to find another foe.

The fight lasted only another minute before the Thayans started throwing down their arms. They were able warriors, but without leadership or magic of their own, they couldn’t stand up to the pirates’ fury or the flares of flame, lightning, and withering darkness with which Kassur and Chadrezzan assailed them.

The freebooters cheered, and Anton smiled and shook his head. All things considered, the first phase had gone easier than expected.

•ŠŚŚŠ••ŠŚŚŠŚ Ś&

Tu’ala’keth declaimed the sacred words and with the aid of her helpers, shoved the surviving Thayans over the side, one at a time. Some of the naked prisoners

merely wept or advanced to the sacrifice as if sleepwalking. Others begged for mercy, screamed curses, or struggled to break free of their captors’ grips.

Their resistance didn’t bother her. It was appropriate that the sacrifice should fight to survive if it could. Umberlee even spared a few of them, as she’d spared Anton. What vexed Tu’ala’keth was the attitude of many of the pirates, who mocked and jeered at the doomed Thayans, behaving as if the ritual was an entertainment.

“Silence!” she cried at last. The spectators gaped in surprise. “This is a holy occasion. Do you wish to anger Umberlee, who gave you victory? She is quick to anger, I assure you. You can easily turn her against you.”

“Glory to the Bitch Queen,” said Harl. The ore was one of the pirates who’d volunteered to assist in the rite. Other freebooters repeated the phrase in a ragged chorus.

The deference pleased Tu’ala’keth—until she thought to contrast it with the apostasy of her own people. Then it took an effort of will for her to maintain a worshipful frame of mind until the conclusion of the ceremony.

After that, she turned her attention to the hold. Her magic could help the squeaking, gurgling hand pumps draw the water out. But before she could begin the prayer, a joyous whoop aboard the red caravel snagged her attention.

“Look at this!” called Durth. He threw back the lid of a brass-bound leather chest and lifted out a fistful of pewter vials, displaying them for all to see. No doubt they contained magical elixirs. A second box yielded gleaming, finely crafted broadswords and rapiers, surely bearing enchantments bound in the steel.

“The hold ith full of magic!” Sealmid cried. Everyone cheered, and when the clamor subsided,

Kassur and Chadrezzan were standing with Durth, Sealmid, and the other folk who’d gone to explore the Thayan vessel. Tu’ala’keth blinked, for she hadn’t seen the Talassans make their approach. All at once, they were simply there, at the center of attention.

“It is a rich prize,” said Kassur. Tu’ala’keth had yet to hear Chadrezzan utter a word. Either he truly was a mute or he’d sworn a vow of silence. “I say we take it back to Dragon Isle and enjoy it.”

“As I recall,” said Anton, “we’ve only completed the first part of our plan. Stripped to the waist, a rope in hand, he stood at the base of the Boss’s aft mast, where he’d been helping to replace the tattered sails with serviceable ones. “We have the talismans that were going to Saerloon, but not the gold the Thayans expect to send home. I say we steal everything.”

“That’s foolish,” the man with the eye patch answered. “We were lucky once. Our prize had only one Red Wizard and a single priest aboard, and we caught them by surprise.”

“As we expect,” Anton said, “to take their counterparts in Saerloon by surprise.”

“That may not happen,” Kassur said. “Even if it does, I guarantee you, we’ll find several Red Wizards on hand, some far advanced in the mysteries of their craft. We’ll find defenses in place, and whatever the shalarin claims, I doubt her scrying discovered all of them. It isn’t worth the risk. Let’s pass the dice while Lady Luck’s still smiling.”

BOOK: Queen of the Depths
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