And the second half of the rather long opening chapter…
Republic Chapter 1, Part 2
“There isn’t time for further debate.” Sicarius pressed the sword into her hand, keeping his black dagger for himself. “I will distract them. You will take the boat out of the harbor.”
“Fine, fine.” Amaranthe stepped onto a neighboring branch for a better look at the rock promontory. “Where do you want me to wait while you’re distracting people?”
She didn’t receive an answer. He was gone.
“I liked it better when you were going along with my orders,” she mumbled and started along the branches, hoping she could get closer to those rocks before climbing down. She decided her last words hadn’t been fair–she hadn’t given any orders, after all–or particularly true. After being responsible, however inadvertently, for the deaths of so many during the upheaval in Stumps, she wasn’t eager to deliver orders to anyone anymore. This last couple of months free of responsibility had helped her heal, but some scars would remain forever.
Amaranthe passed the snake, as it continued along the branches on its way to sun itself on the beach, or whatever snakes did. She gave it a wide berth–fortunately, it didn’t pause to contemplate her in the way one might an Emperor’s Bun, a pastry that would need a new name now that an elected president ruled the nation–and found a likely spot to go down.
Using the palm trees for camouflage, she picked her way to the promontory without attracting attention from the men farther up the beach. Nothing grew from the volcanic rock itself, but its humps and craters offered numerous hiding places. Staying low, she jogged along the bottom of a crevice heading toward the water. Though she wasn’t working as hard as she had been during the run, sweat slithered down her back and dripped into her eyes. The sun was dipping lower toward the horizon, but the air remained warm and humid.
When she reached a protrusion jutting up like a thumb, she peeked around it to study the lagoon. The aborigines on the beach were gone, and rowers were paddling one of the catamarans toward the shore. Unfortunately, the other boat remained by the submarine with six natives sitting all-too-vigilantly inside. One man’s eyes came close to settling on Amaranthe’s spot, so she lowered her head.
The catamaran floated near the submarine’s hatch, but if she could sneak past the men somehow and slip inside, she could seal that hatch and keep them out while she started the engine. Once the craft dove, they would have no way to track her. Picking up Sicarius would be a simple matter.
Yes, but how could she reach it without being seen? Swim underwater? The pale blue lagoon was clearer than any lake back home. She had thought it beautiful when they had arrived. At the time, she hadn’t been contemplating sneaking up on boats. It was a long swim from the rocks or from the beach too. There was no way she could stroke the whole way underwater while holding her breath. She remembered old stories where clever soldiers sneaked up on riverside enemy camps by cutting reeds and using them to breathe through. Alas, this island had only coconut trees, spiky ferns, and at least seven types of foliage that made her skin itch every time she brushed against them. No reeds.
A splash came from below, and Amaranthe chanced lifting her head. An enormous turtle paddled away from the rocks. It was either done sunning itself for the day or…
Ah. Another one of those green snakes was slithering along near the waterline. She wouldn’t think it big enough to swallow a turtle, but maybe the turtle knew something she didn’t.
Amaranthe touched a finger to her lip. If the snake’s approach had alarmed a turtle, might it alarm a catamaran full of men? She had a sword. If she could distract those islanders for a moment, long enough to clamber into the boat, she might be able to get the best of them. Six on one wasn’t ideal, but they would have a hard time attacking her all at once on the narrow boat.
“So how do I get that snake from here to there?” she murmured.
Giving up on the turtle, it slithered inland and dipped into the shady crevice. Amaranthe tapped the hilt of the sword thoughtfully. She could get to it without being seen now, but that didn’t answer her question.
“Shouldn’t have left that purse full of trade goods in the village.” Not that she ever would have been able to stuff the big snake in a purse. She snorted at the image of herself trying. No, she would need something larger. Her hand strayed to the buttons of her shirt. “Well, that can be my second distraction for the men if the first doesn’t work.”
After removing her shirt, Amaranthe crept from her hiding spot, staying behind cover as she angled toward the snake. Out in the water, the big turtle had stopped to nosh on a straggly clump of seaweed bobbing with the tide. She wondered if turtles could be coerced to paddle in a desired direction.
On the catamaran, the islanders maintained their vigilance, despite numerous shouts that had arisen in the jungle. One man pointed toward the dented green crown of the dormant volcano at the center of the island. A thin line of dark gray smoke wafted toward the blue sky.
Amaranthe grinned. “Sicarius, you’re getting crafty now that you’re not simply killing everyone in your way.” The villagers probably believed the volcano dormant, too, but a wisp of smoke still wouldn’t be taken lightly. “I hope that’s his work anyway.”
After a deep breath that wasn’t as fortifying as she would have liked, Amaranthe descended into the crevice with the snake. Its tail was to her, though she didn’t know if that mattered. It might sense her creeping up through vibrations in the rock. Her grip tightened around her sword. Lopping of its head wouldn’t leave her with a very effective distraction, though she would reserve the tactic if necessary.
She tiptoed closer, trying to estimate the snake’s size–and whether it would fit in a shirt. It lay stretched out rather than coiled up–taking a nap, she hoped. It didn’t seem as big as the one in the tree… maybe only six feet long and with less girth. She passed the brown-spotted tail and approached the back of its head, suspecting it would be the most dangerous part. Though that was a guess; for all she knew, it was some species of constrictor.
The flat, arrow-shaped head reared up, its maw opening, fangs catching the fading sunlight…
Amaranthe lashed out with the flat of her blade. She aimed for the back of the head, but the snake had been spinning toward her and she connected with the side instead. The maw smashed into the side of the crevice with a crunch. Doubting it would be stunned for long, if the tough creature was stunned at all, Amaranthe leaped in, thrusting her shirt over its head. She had buttoned it and done her best to turn it into a bag, but, even as she stuffed the long sinewy body into it, she feared her flimsy trap wouldn’t be sufficient.
The fear spurred her to speed. With the sword in one hand and her “bag” in the other, she raced for the water, toward a spot that was out of the boat’s line of sight. They would see her if she swam toward them, but maybe…
She paused to poke her head over the ridge and check on the turtle. It was still floating beside the seaweed. Good.
Amaranthe immersed herself in the cool water, took a deep breath, dunked her head, and pushed off the rocks. Swimming with her hands full was a challenge. She would have thanked Sicarius for all the horrible sculling and treading-water drills he had inflicted on her if she weren’t so busy. The sword didn’t weigh much, but the snake was stirring, bulging and flexing against the confines of her bag. Snakes doubtlessly had the same concerns about drowning as humans.
The clearness of the lagoon allowed Amaranthe to navigate, and she spotted the dark shape above her. She came up a couple of feet behind the turtle and angled herself so its bulk would hide her from the boat. She rapped the snake a few times with the flat of the blade, hoping to stun it again, though she was probably irritating it to a murderous state instead. Then she switched the sword to the same hand that held the bag and grabbed the back of the turtle’s shell. She expected it to take off or turn around and snap at her, but the large thing didn’t react. Maybe it was too busy eating to care that she had latched on.
Amaranthe kicked, trying to propel the turtle forward, away from the seaweed and toward the boat. It snapped up a few more bites of its meal. She was about to give up, to swim over to the catamaran on her own, hoping the men were too focused on the volcano to notice, but then the turtle started paddling. It nearly clobbered Amaranthe with one of its fins, or flippers, or whatever sea turtles had. She would have to ask Starcrest’s biologist daughter Mahliki about them if she survived this craziness.
Whatever its limbs were called, the turtle swam away from the seaweed, not bothered, or at least not overly slowed, by its tagalong. Amaranthe kicked as well, trying to guide the creature in the direction she wanted. It chose its own route though, one that headed toward the second rocky promontory that framed the other side of the lagoon. The path would take Amaranthe close to the submarine and allow her to remain hidden, so she judged it close enough.
A soft tearing sound reached her ears. Uh oh. The shirt.
The catamaran was less than thirty meters away. That would have to be close enough. She took another big breath, submerged, then smacked the side of the blade against the shirt again. A foot of snake body stuck out through a tear. At least it wasn’t the head. Amaranthe angled toward the boat.
Her burdens made the swim slow, but the wooden bottom of the vessel came into view before her breath ran out–or her prisoner escaped. She didn’t hesitate. She angled toward the bottom of the lagoon, so she could push off for momentum, then burst out of the water inches from the boat’s side, thrusting the shirt into the craft. She dropped back down and swam under the hull to come up on the other end.
Pausing only long enough to ensure nobody waited with a spear aimed at her head, Amaranthe pulled herself over the side. The volume of the mens’ shouts made her wince, but at least nobody was facing her. The snake had shredded the shirt and escaped–she glimpsed its green body on the other end, with four men backpedaling from it. Four men. The other two… She glanced out to the pontoon, making sure nobody was behind her. No. They were in the water swimming away. Good.
Amaranthe slammed the hilt of the sword into the back of the closest man’s head. He didn’t crumple into unconsciousness the way people did when Sicarius clobbered them, but he bent in half, his spear falling into the water. She shoved him over the side. Three left to go.
At that point, someone noticed her. Fortunately, it was the man farthest from her and on the other side of the snake. He would have a hard time throwing his spear or getting to her through his comrades. But his shouts made the other two men glance in her direction.
Though fighting in a wobbling, tilting boat wasn’t her forte, Amaranthe darted in quickly enough to catch the first before he could do more than gape. She sliced her sword through his spear, cutting it in half, then slammed the flat of the blade into his side. He grunted, but didn’t tip into the water. He hurled the broken half of his spear at her. She could have simply ducked but thought it might worry him more if she displayed some unexpected weapons prowess, so she whipped her blade up and sliced the wood haft in two before it could strike her head. The ends veered away, splashing harmlessly in the water. Not as impressed as she’d hoped, the man launched himself at her. Amaranthe dropped to her knee and thrust up with her arms. With her help, his trajectory took him over her shoulder and into the water.
When she stood again, the man behind him had a spear raised to his shoulder, ready to throw. The obsidian point was aimed at her heart. She forced herself to relax, the sword ready before her. She had deflected the stick. She could do this too.
Before he could throw, the man flung his head back and screamed. The snake had plunged its fangs into his calf. He jabbed down at it with his spear. The last man, the one behind the snake, forgot about Amaranthe and also tried to stab the snake to death.
She thought about hurling them both in, but decided they were busy enough where they were. The natives she had flung overboard already weren’t waiting around–they were headed toward shore.
“Always nice to have a little luck,” Amaranthe said and dove out of the boat.
She reached the submarine and unfastened the hatch, hoping none of the natives had been clambering about inside. As fine of an engineer as President Starcrest might be, she imagined a spear through the navigation controls–or maybe that glowing orb that powered the engine–would be trouble.
Fortunately, the floor was dry with no sign of wet footprints. She pulled the hatch shut, securing it behind her, then double-checked to make sure she was alone before starting the engine. Angry clangs reverberated through the hull–someone banging at the hatch with a spear. Though she doubted they could find a way in with their primitive tools, Amaranthe was glad when the power dial on the control panel hummed to life, showing the engine ready. For all that the glowing energy source in the back unnerved her–even after being around Akstyr for a year, she wasn’t fully over her Turgonian superstition toward magic–she appreciated that it didn’t take the twenty minutes to fire up that a steam engine would.
Beyond the viewport, the scenery shifted as the submarine descended. Dials and gauges warned her of the shallow floor and other obstacles as she navigated toward the deeper ocean. She spotted a sea turtle chewing on waving grasses growing on the bottom of the lagoon. It might not be the same one, but she gave it a quiet salute anyway. She would owe Sicarius a salute too. She doubted she could have handled two boats, though throwing the snake in had upset them more than she had dreamed it would. After seeing the bite it had inflicted on that fellow’s calf, she could see why. She had a feeling only luck had kept her from a nasty bite of her own. And here she had been warning Sicarius to be careful because they were so far from civilization.
By the time she came up in deeper waters on the other side of the promontory, the sun was about to dip below the blue horizon, and reds and oranges filled the western sky. After scanning the shoreline with the periscope and not spotting anyone, Amaranthe risked opening the hatch. Figuring it would take Sicarius a few moments to reach the meeting point, she allowed herself to admire the view. They hadn’t decided how much longer their vacation would last, but she would miss these tropical waters, inhospitable natives notwithstanding. Back in the capital, there was probably still three feet of snow on the ground.
An uncomfortable feeling disturbed her moment of sunset appreciation, the sensation that she was being watched. Sicarius? She checked the shoreline again and spotted a bare-chested man with a spear raised to throw. Not Sicarius.
The submarine had to be close to fifty meters from the shore, but she lowered herself anyway. No need to present a tempting target. Maybe she ought to simply shut the hatch and wait for Sicarius to swim out and knock.
She’d no more than had the thought when a naked man glided out of the foliage behind the islander. Mud and blood smeared Sicarius’s flesh, though he didn’t appear wounded, at least not significantly. Normally he wouldn’t make a sound sneaking up on someone, but he must have cleared his throat, for the native spun around. Sicarius held his dagger and could throw the weapon easily enough–probably faster than that fellow could throw his spear–but he hadn’t lifted it from his side. It didn’t matter. The islander threw down his spear and sprinted down the beach and into the brush.
Sicarius strode down the sandy swath as if he had expected no less. He waded out, then stuck the dagger between his teeth and swam toward the submarine. Amaranthe wondered if he would chastise her for gaping at the sunset like some mawkish poet composing verse.
She dropped inside so he would have room to enter, which he soon did, clanging the hatch shut behind him. The water had cleaned him of grime and blood, leaving a sleek, powerful form that a panther would envy. It crossed her mind to help him dry off, but she waited for him to comment on the spear wielder she almost hadn’t noticed. At least she had thought to change clothes–and dig out a clean shirt–before bringing the submarine up. His sardonic eyebrow would have even more reason to twitch if she’d been standing shirtless before him, trying to explain what happened to the garment.
But there was nothing sardonic about his gaze when it landed on her, nor did he open his mouth to deliver a lecture. Rather he used his mouth for something exceedingly rare… a pleased smile. “You did well.”
His smile always warmed her, but surely he didn’t refer to her shirtless acquisition of the submarine. He would have been too busy in the jungle to watch that.
Sicarius stepped toward her, slipping an arm around her waist. “Bagging up a poisonous snake to hurl at one’s enemies is dangerous, but it was effective, as so many of your schemes are.”
Amaranthe would have liked to bask in this rare praise, but her mind hiccupped at one of his words. Poisonous? Dear ancestors, he had said the one in the tree looked similar to a poisonous breed, hadn’t he? And she’d even noted that the one on the rocks was smaller. The markings had been the same, hadn’t they? She decided not to ask how poisonous the snakes were–or how close she had danced to her death. Instead she offered an eloquent, “Uhm, yes.”
“You handled the men on the boats easily as well,” he said, bringing the other arm around her waist. “However interestingly clothed.”
Erg, he had seen that. He’d seen it all. Well, he was praising her instead of mocking her, so she couldn’t complain. Unless it was to point out that he was getting her wet; but she wouldn’t push him away for that. She had spent too many months dreaming of having a nude Sicarius pressed against her to have grown blasé about it yet. She wished she had managed to secure her trade before that scout had burst into the village… She would have to tell him, especially since his eyes had softened and his mouth had drifted closer to hers…
“I, ah… I’ve seen you dispatching enemies while utterly nude before, so it could be said I’m only emulating my tutor.”
“Remember that discussion we had as to whether or not you could be menacing without wearing black all the time? It’s clear that those people were intimidated by you. That fellow with the spear nearly pitched backward into the ocean when you strode out of the jungle. Naked. That should prove that I was right.”
“In that discussion, you argued that I could be menacing in a lemon yellow shirt and plaid shorts. That has not been proven yet.”
“Yet? Does that mean you’re willing to don such clothing for an experiment?”
“Only nudity, eh?” Amaranthe rested a hand on his shoulder, thumb brushing his collarbone, the defined muscle beside it…. “I suppose I wouldn’t mind seeing you roam around menacingly in your… natural state. So long as you don’t get cold.”
Sicarius caught her hand, his gaze locking onto hers. “I am not feeling cold right now.”
She wanted to ask him what he was feeling, but stopped, sighing. “My… shopping mission failed. I suppose we shouldn’t contemplate further heat today.” Or tomorrow, she thought glumly. Or the next day, or any other day until they returned to the empire or somewhere else that they could restock certain supplies. “Although I do wonder. I don’t even know if I need egata tea, or whatever the islander equivalent is. I may not be able to…” She avoided Sicarius’s eyes. He had never proclaimed that he wanted to have children with her, but he had hinted from time to time that a second chance at fatherhood might have its appeal.
“There is a way to find out,” Sicarius said softly. His hand lifted, as if to stroke her cheek, though he hesitated. They had grown closer and more comfortable with each other in the past months, but he still didn’t quite seem to know what to do in situations that involved her feelings.
Amaranthe caught his hand, kissed it, but ultimately released it. “That is true, but I don’t want to find out by becoming pregnant. I mean, eventually I could see having children,” she rushed to correct, lest he think she was eternally opposed to the idea, “but I don’t think I’m ready yet. I’m still trying to figure out… I’m not sure who I am now that I’m not fighting to save the empire. A mother should know who she is, shouldn’t she? And I’m not sure I’m ready to give up having adventures yet, either, though I’m terribly relieved not to be responsible for anything or anyone anymore. Out here… it’s been quite delightful seeing and experiencing new places. Though I suppose one needn’t stay locked in a tower once one has a baby. The Starcrests went all over the world, raising their children on a submarine, didn’t they? And it worked out. Their kids are all bright. Though they’d have to be, you’d think. With, uhm.” She realized she had been talking for a long time. The topic made her nervous and brought back her burbling tendency, as Sicarius called it. They had never discussed children other than obliquely. Just explaining she had lost her special tea–yes, she had called it “special tea” like she’d been talking to a toddler rather than a grown man–to the pirates had been difficult.
“I meant you could see a doctor,” Sicarius said.
“Oh.” Amaranthe flushed. He hadn’t been suggesting sexual abandon after all. “Yes, that makes sense. Though I’m not sure I trust imperial medicine in this manner. Er republican medicine.” She grimaced, not sure if that was the right term. It would take a long time to get used to thinking of Turgonia as anything except an empire.
“We could visit the Kyatt Islands,” Sicarius said. “Their scientists are known for medicinal acumen.”
“That’s true. We could even visit Akstyr.”
Sicarius’s expression grew flat.
“I didn’t mean visit him for medical advice,” Amaranthe said, in case that hadn’t been understood–Akstyr might have healed her before in an emergency, but she shuddered at the idea of asking a teenage boy for advice on her… womanly parts. “I meant we’d stop by and check on him as long as we’re there.”
Sicarius grunted. She suppose she couldn’t expect more enthusiasm. Those two had never bonded.
“While I’m there,” Amaranthe said, “you might be able to get in to see some of the other submarines Admi–President Starcrest built there. I understand there’s a whole fleet of science vessels.” There, that ought to stir his interest more than chatting with old comrades.
Before he could verify her supposition, an unfamiliar noise came from the sleeping cabin, a long beep that repeated three times. Amaranthe had grown used to the various glowing and blinking doodads–or Made devices, as the practitioners called them–around the boat, but she hadn’t heard this before.
Sicarius headed for the compartment. The cabin didn’t hold much more than a bed, but that bed had cabinets beneath it, and he delved into them. As soon as he opened the one on the left, a bright yellow glow washed over him.
“Er.” Amaranthe hadn’t realized she had been sleeping above some strange wizard device during the whole trip. “What would that be?”
Sicarius set it on the bed. “A communication artifact.”
“Oh, right.” She had seen a set of those before–her first nemesis Larocka Myll had communicated to her Forge allies with them. “Is someone trying to reach us? Or maybe someone’s trying to reach Starcrest.” Who from superstitious Turgonia would know how to use one of these devices? Maldynado would probably think it a lamp or a hand-warmer. She smiled at the thought, a twinge of homesickness touching her. Though she had enjoyed her time with Sicarius, she did miss her friends back home.
Sicarius placed a hand on top of the orb. This seemed to be the required gesture, for the yellow glow faded, and shadows stirred behind the opaque surface. President Starcrest’s head and shoulders came into view. The short gray hair, dark eyes, and handsome if determined visage were as Amaranthe remembered, though the furrows along his forehead and the creases framing his eyes seemed deeper, his face more tired.
She would not want that man’s job.
Starcrest turned his head toward something or someone out of sight–the orb showed only him and a few maps on a wall behind him.
“Ready,” a faint voice said. Professor Komitopis?
Starcrest nodded and faced forward, giving the illusion he was gazing at them.
Sicarius straightened like a soldier coming to attention. Amaranthe found herself leaning forward with interest. Nobody had contacted them before. This might signify trouble.
“Sicarius and Ms. Lokdon,” Starcrest said, his voice sounding tinny through the device, not quite the rich baritone she remembered. “I trust you are both there and well. I apologize for interrupting your vacation, but we have… a problem here.”
“Just one?” came the faint voice from the side again. Yes, judging by the fondness in Starcrest’s not-quite-squelching glower to the side, that was definitely his wife.
Starcrest faced forward again. “We have one problem in particular that’s proving nettlesome and, I hate to ask, but…”
Amaranthe braced herself, anticipating some soul-devouring favor. A request to return to the capital to lead her men again. A request for Sicarius’s assassin’s skills, skills she wanted him to be able to retire. Some mission that would thrust them both into the deadliest dangers again.
Starcrest cleared his throat. “We need the sub back.”
“What?” Amaranthe blurted, but he was still talking. This wasn’t a live conversation, she realized, but a message that had been saved to display when she and Sicarius noticed the flashing orb.
“Building a new one would take time,” Starcrest said, “and if there are any Makers looking to open their shops in the new Turgonian Republic, I haven’t heard of it yet. Again, I apologize for this inconvenience, but I would appreciate it if you would return as soon as possible. Thank you.”
The orb went dark, though Sicarius continued to gaze at it for a time.
“What do you think’s going on in the city?” Amaranthe asked. “Or in the lake?” Starcrest couldn’t need the sub for any land-based purposes, surely.
Amaranthe tried to decide if he looked pensive, or if she was, as usual, reading things into his bland features that weren’t there.
“We’ve left a few, uhm, inconvenient relics on the lake bottom in the last year,” she said, thinking of the underwater laboratory in particular. “Someone might have dug them out. Or started up a new underwater base from which to vex the city. Forge? No, we decimated them, and Starcrest’s new economist is working hand-in-hand with that Curlev woman, right? Some other enemy then? The Nurians? They couldn’t have been pleased with how things worked out.”
Sicarius was watching her, his face unreadable.
“What?” she asked, wondering if the term burbling would come up.
“You sound intrigued.”
Huh. Was she? A minute ago, she had been cringing at the idea of being called back for some mission. Was it possible she had missed the chaos of the previous year? The need to come up with harebrained schemes on the fly? The need to talk fast and promise faster in order to win allies to her cause? She did miss her friends, that much she had no trouble admitting. As to the rest… perhaps she would welcome new challenges into her life.
“Maybe I am,” Amaranthe said. “Aren’t you?”
“Perhaps. Though…” Sicarius let his fingers trail down the riveted steel bulkhead next to him.
“You don’t want to give back the submarine?” Amaranthe grinned. “Because it’s a sleek mechanical wonder, a Starcrest original and a prototype among the fledgling new generation of underwater exploration conveyances? Or–” she wiggled her eyebrows, “–are you reluctant to let it go because we made so many unique memories in this little cabin?”
“Yes,” Sicarius said, the familiar glint in his eyes.
That’s it for now. The manuscript is heading off to the editor later this week. Look for an early-mid April release. Stayed tuned to the blog too. I’m going to give away some review copies.