Authors: Marie Rutkoski
He told himself a story.
Not at first.
At first, there wasn't time for thoughts that came in the shape of words. His head was blessedly empty of stories then. War was coming. It was upon him. Arin had been born in the year of the god of death, and he was finally glad of it. He surrendered himself to his god, who smiled and came close.
Stories will get you killed,
he murmured in Arin's ear.
Now, you just listen. Listen to me.
His ship had sped across the sea from the capital. Now it nosed in among the fleet of eastern ships docked in his city's bay, nimble sloops of war, flying their queen's colors of blue and green. The sloops were Arin's, at least for now. The Dacran queen's gift to her new allies. The ships were not as many as Arin would have liked. Not as heavy with cannon as he would have liked.
told his ship's captain to sidle up along the largest of the Dacran sloops. After giving his captain orders to dock and find Arin's cousin in the city, Arin boarded the sloop. He approached the commander of the eastern fleet: Xash, a lean man with an unusually high-bridged nose and brown skin gleaming in the late spring sun.
Arin looked into Xash's eyesâblack, always narrowed, and lined with the yellow paint that indicated his status as naval commander. It was as if Xash already knew what Arin would say. The easterner smiled slightly.
“They're coming,” Arin said.
He explained how the Valorian emperor had arranged for the water supply to Herran's city to be slowly poisoned. The emperor must have sent someone months ago into the mountains near the aqueduct's source. Even from the deck of Xash's ship, Arin could see the arched trail of the Valorian-built aqueduct. It was faint in the distance, snaking down from the mountains, carrying something that had weakened the Herrani, making them sleep and shake.
“I was seen in the capital,” Arin told Xash. “A Valorian ship chased mine almost to the Empty Islands. We must assume that the emperor knows that I know.”
“What happened to the ship?”
“It turned back. For reinforcements, prob ablyâand the emperor's orders.” Arin spoke this man's language in a clipped tone, his accent heavy, the syllables quick and hard. The language was new to him. “He'll strike now.”
“What makes you so sure there's poison in the city's aqueducts? Where did you get this information?”
Arin hesitated, unsure of the Dacran words for what
wanted to say. “The Moth,” he answered in his own language.
Xash narrowed his eyes even more.
“A spy,” Arin said in Dacran, finally finding the right word. He spun the gold ring on his smallest finger and thought of Tensen, his spymaster, and how the Valorian ship that had followed him could be a sign that Tensen had been arrested even as Arin had left the imperial palace. The old man had insisted on staying behind. He could have been caught. Tortured. Forced to speak. Arin imagined what the Valorians would have done . . .
. The god of death set a cold hand on Arin's thoughts and curled tight around them.
You're not listening, Arin.
“I need paper,” Arin said out loud. “I need ink.”
Arin drew his country for Xash. He sketched Herran's peninsula swiftly, his pen sweeping the curves. He hatched the islands scattered south of the peninsula's tip, peppering the sea between Herran and Valoria. He tapped Ithrya, a large, rocky island that created a thin strait between them and the peninsula's tip. “The spring currents in the strait are strong. Difficult to sail against. But if a Valorian fleet's coming, this is the route they'll take.”
“They'll take a strait that's hard to navigate?” Xash was skeptical. “They could sail around the three islands and turn north to hug the peninsula all the way up to your city.”
“Too slow. Merchants love that strait. This time of year, the currents are strongest, and push ships from Valoria right up to Herran's doorstep. Shoots them fast through the strait. The emperor expects to attack a weakened city. He
expect resistance. He'll see no reason to wait for what he wants.” Arin touched east of Ithrya Island and the peninsula's end. “We can hide here, half the fleet just east of the peninsula, half on the eastern side of the island. When the Valorian fleet comes through, they'll come through fast. We'll flank them and attack from either side. They won't be able to retreat, no matter what the winds. If they try to sail back into the strait, the currents will spit them out.”
“You've said nothing of numbers. We're not a large fleet. Flanking the Valorians means splitting our fleet in half. Have you ever been in a sea battle?”
“I hope you don't mean that one in this bay the night of the Firstwinter Rebellion.”
Arin was silent.
“That was in a
,” Xash sneered. “A pretty little cradle with gentle winds for rocking babies to sleep. It's easy to maneuver
. We are talking about a battle on the open sea.
are talking about weakening our fleet by cutting it in half.”
“I don't think the Valorian fleet will be large.”
“It doesn't need to be, not to attack a city whose population has been drugged into lethargy. A city,” Arin said pointedly, “that the emperor believes has no allies.”
“I like a surprise attack. I like the thought of pinning the Valorians between us. But your plan only works if the emperor hasn't sent a fleet that vastly outnumbers us, and can easily sink each of our flanks. It only works if the em
truly doesn't know that Dacra”âXash's voice betrayed his disapprovalâ“has allied with you. The Valorian emperor would love to crush such an alliance with an overwhelming show of naval force. If he knows
here, he might very well send the entire Valorian fleet.”
“Then a battle along the strait is better. Unless you'd rather they attack us here in the bay.”
rule this fleet.
have the experience. You're barely more than a boy. A
When Arin spoke again, it wasn't with his own words. His god told him what to say. “When your queen assigned you to sail your fleet to Herran, whom did she name with the ultimate command of it? You or me?”
Xash's face went hard with fury. Arin's god grinned inside him.
“We set sail now,” Arin said.
The waters east of Ithrya Island were a sheer green. But Arin, from where his ship lay in wait for the Valorian fleet, could see how the currents pushing out of the strait made a broad, almost purple rope in the sea.
He felt like that: like a dark, curling force was working through him. It flooded to the tips of his fingers and warmed him. It spread his ribs wide with each breath.
When the first Valorian ship flew out of the strait, Arin was filled with a malicious joy.
And it was easy. The Valorians hadn't expected them, clearly had no idea of the alliance. The size of the enemy
eet matched theirs. The slenderness of the strait made the Valorian ships sail out into Herran's sea by twos. Easy to pick off. The eastern fleet drove at them from either side.
Cannonballs punched the hulls. The gundecks fogged the air with black smoke. It smelled like a million burnt matches.
Arin boarded his first Valorian ship. He seemed to watch all this as if from outside himself: the way his sword cut a Valorian sailor apart, and then another, and on until his blade was oiled red. Blood sprayed him across the mouth. Arin didn't taste it. Didn't feel the way his dagger hand plunged into someone's gut. Didn't wince when an enemy sword crossed his guard and sliced his bicep.
Arin's god slapped him across the face.
Arin did, and after that, no one could touch him.
When it was done, and Valorian wrecks were taking on water and the rest of the enemy ships had been seized, Arin could see straight again. He blinked against the lowering sun, its light an orange syrup that glazed the fallen bodies and gave the blood an odd color.
Arin stood on the deck of a captured Valorian ship. His breath heaved and hurt in his chest. Sweat dripped into his eyes.
The enemy captain was dragged before Xash.
“No,” Arin said. “Bring him to me.”
Xash's eyes were bright with anger. But the Dacrans did what Arin asked, and Xash let them.
“Write a message to your emperor,” Arin said to the Valorian captain. “Tell him what he's lost. Tell him he'll pay if
tries again. Use your personal seal. Send the message and I'll let you live.”
“How noble,” Xash said, contemptuous.
The Valorian said nothing. He was white-lipped. Yet again Arin marveled at how the Valorian reputation for bravery and honor so often fell short of the truth.
The man wrote his message.
Are you really a boy, like Xash says?
the god asked Arin.
You've been mine for twenty years. I raised you.
The Valorian signed the scrap of paper.
Cared for you.
The message was rolled, sealed, and pushed into a tiny leather tube.
Watched over you when you thought you were alone.
The captain tied the tube to a hawk's leg. The bird was too large to be a kestrel. It didn't have a kestrel's markings. It cocked its head, turning its glass-bead eyes on Arin.