The Crimson Serpent was not an appropriate name.
But that was what they called it, this ship that they called home. Days turned to weeks in the Encircled Sea, with little to show for it. Maybe that was why Yorrin wondered about the name. If the wood had once been red, months of weathering had turned it a dull, dark brown. The ship did not evoke thoughts of a serpent, either: it was not sleek, nor slithering fast. It was a fat, squat trading cog that had been converted into a ship of war. An ugly, twisty-looking snake was affixed to the bow, splashed with an old, faded coat of red paint. Far as Yorrin could tell, that was the most lip service the ship-master was willing to give the poor girl’s name.
It had taken Yorrin most of the first stretch of their journey to get his “sea legs,” but by the time they left Ozu-Cale he felt as comfortable on the deck of the ship as he did back on the streets of Nasarat. Aleksandr had taken longer, and seemingly started over when they set out from Ozu-Cale, but color was finally returning to his cheeks.
Bear seemed perfectly fine on the water. He immediately began drinking and dicing with the other sellswords and sailors, boisterously joining them as if he’d been on board the ship for months. It would be a stretch to say they welcomed him, but they certainly didn’t exclude him. His copper was as good as anyone’s.
Of the sellswords aboard the Serpent, it seemed more than half were part of a single mercenary company. They called themselves the Free Spears, captained by a Victorian named Terence Tanner. As far as Yorrin could tell, they were made up of the dregs of the Midlands. Caedians, Kirkies, folk from the outer kingdoms of Torathia, and, above all, Victorians. They prided themselves on being “free men,” not serfs beholden to any king or lord. Typical Victorian claptrap, that was. Yorrin said as much the next time he joined them at dice.
“We’re all the same on the open water,” Yorrin said. “Getting paid for the sweat of our brow. My coin won’t go to a lord, it’ll go in my pocket. I’m nobody’s man but my own, same as you.”
“You don’t understand, Yorrin,” said one of the Free Spears.
He was one of Terence’s serjeants, a man they called the Whip. Not for being a cruel taskmaster—as far as Yorrin had seen he was an easygoing sort—but he was tall and freakishly lean, almost gaunt. Just a few layers of skin and sinew stretched over a skeletal frame.
“Clearly,” Yorrin replied. “Because from where I’m sitting, you Victorians make a big to-do about the kind of freedom any guttersnipe can grasp.”
There were a few grumbles from some of the other Free Spears, but a chuckle from a Nasaratian sailor. Someone passed the dice to the Whip, and he tossed them onto the table. A middling roll, carrying into another throw, so he gathered them up.
“Totally different,” the Whip insisted. “The kind of freedom you’re describing… freedom to strike out on your own, maybe. The freedom to sink or swim, usually sink. But if you’re not careful, you’ll run afoul of the nobility. Out here, they have all the power, and you have what they let you have. Not like back home.”
Yorrin rolled his eyes, and groaned along with everyone else when the Whip’s next throw won the round. Damned Victorians. Their little nation wasn’t much more than a single city, dwarfed by a great power like Torathia. Victoria, the so-called City of Kings, was notable only in their history. Ages ago—centuries, Yorrin was pretty sure—it had been one of the only Middish kingdoms to throw off the rule of the old Cassaline Empire. Victoria retained independence despite numerous attempts to reclaim it, until, much later, Torathia rose and shattered Cassala’s Empire for good and all.
To Yorrin, it seemed that Torathia was the remarkable part of that story. The holy land, birthplace of the Faith, breaking the oppressive reach of the old Empire. Victoria’s resistance was a footnote, a curiosity. But to men like Terence Tanner and the Whip, it was the defining moment of their nation. The Victorians had declared themselves free, independent, abolishing slavery and serfdom in their city. Every Victorian is a king in his own home, the saying went.
What a bunch of bullshit.
“Too much talk!” Bear roared, grabbing the dice. “Nobody care, Whip. All Middish look same, all speak same tongue like mouth too dry. Drink more!”
As if to demonstrate, Bear took a swig of his beer with one hand, and threw the dice with the other. A poor throw, he lost the round immediately. He just laughed, finished gulping down his drink, and doubled down his coppers in the pot.
Everyone chuckled along with the barbarian. Bear was abrasive, rude, and surprisingly endearing. He lost as freely and cheerfully as anyone Yorrin had ever seen. He would make a fantastic partner in any of a dozen easy cons and grabs.
Yorrin’s turn to throw. The dice were heavy in his hand. He could feel the grain of their carving, uneven, cheaply made. The table was rough, too, pitted and worn. With a night of practice, he could probably improve his odds of winning at this table by half, just by changing the way he flicked his wrist.
Quit it, Yorrin thought to himself. You’re done with that life now.
Before he could throw the dice, however, a sailor poked his head down below.
“All hands! Enemy sighted!”
Everyone snapped into action, the dice and coppers instantly forgotten. Bear scooped up his axe from where he’d kept it leaning against the table. The Free Spears grabbed their spears, and everyone hurried abovedeck. Yorrin followed, hand dancing across the hilt of his daggers.
Aleksandr was already on the deck. He was clad in his mail, Kholodny sheathed at his side. He held his unstrung hunting bow and quiver of arrows in one hand. He was staring out across the water, brow drawn in concern. His cheeks were pale, making Yorrin wonder if he’d upchucked breakfast again.
Bear and Yorrin both fell into position beside him.
“How bad?” Yorrin asked, voice hushed.
“It does not look good,” Aleksandr said. “They say it is… long ship? Very fast.”
Yorrin squinted out on the horizon. It just looked like a speck, to him. “Longship? Shallow draft, likely oars and sails both. It’ll outpace us, for sure.”
“Is fight?” Bear said. He tightened his grip on his axe. “Finally! Bear is ready!”
Aleksandr nodded, passing Yorrin his bow and arrows. “Da, I think it will be.”
Yorrin slung the quiver over his shoulder and strung the bow in a single quick motion. “That’s what they pay us for,” he said. His heart thumped in his chest.
“Da. Bear, stay close. We each are watching other’s back, da?”
“Watch foes, Aleksandr! Not backs!” the barbarian bellowed
“Bear.” Aleksandr’s voice was quiet, just a single word of warning.
Bear grunted. “Your back. I watch. Da.”
“And me?” Yorrin asked. Adrenaline kept his pulse thrumming, and his hands felt numb as he clenched the bow tightly.
Aleksandr’s mouth flickered into a smile. “Watch both our backs, da? Stay safe.”
Of course. Yorrin thought. You’re a scrapper, not a fighter. Don’t get in over your head.
Their plan laid out, they turned to face the coming ship.