I woke up that night, well before morning, because something felt wrong: I was alone. I hadn’t been alone when I went to bed! (And it’s funny how quickly waking up alone starts to feel wrong.)
It’s not like Aylwyn had gone far; I didn’t even have to look for her. The room was noticeably illuminated, and I could hear her voice coming from the corner of our cabin. It sounded like she was singing softly to herself… no, talking, I realized. Speaking Celestial. The language always had a distinctly musical quality to it, to my ears at least.
I’d never seen her do this, whatever this was, before, and I was naturally a little worried to see her over there all alone, talking to herself, right after such a stressful time. Had she snapped or something?
“Aylwyn,” I asked softly, “are you all right?”
She turned and looked at me, a look of intense concentration on her face. “You will please wait a moment,” she stated a bit brusquely, then went back to the Celestial. So I waited. It’s not like there was much else I could do, afterall.
A few minutes later, she wound down whatever she was doing, then came back over to me.
“I apologize if my ♫♩ woke you,” she said.
“Your what? I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch that word.”
She nodded. “It is a word that has no good translation in Silva. Perhaps the closest words to its meaning would be ‘joined speech.'”
“Joined? Like singing in harmony?”
She shook her head. “Joining great distances. Between worlds, in this case. I was speaking with my coordinator, from home.”
“You can do that?”
“Not frequently. It is a difficult power, known to few even among the Paladins, but I felt it was necessary.”
I nodded slowly. “You needed to talk with someone about what happened tonight?”
“Yes. If the thing that I did is possible, and the sailors know of it, why did I not know of it?”
“That’s a very good question. Did you get any sort of useful answer?”
She sighed, leaning against me a little. “The answer was… troubling. The Paladin Council knows of ‘stormbirding,’ as it is called, but it is never taught nor spoken of to trainees.”
“Why not?” I asked, holding her close.
When she answered, her voice was soft, subdued. “They believe it is a skill that can only be learned through the purest, most desperate need. I was told that they used to teach about it, but every paladin who ever tried to use the skill, knowing about it beforehand, died in the attempt. No one has ever succeeded at it the first time, if they already knew it is a real thing that can be done.”
“The first time?”
She nodded. “A very few, perhaps a dozen, have ever managed it twice. Only one succeeded a third time, and he is believed to have died on his fourth attempt.”
That was a sobering thought. Even though I knew we might have all been killed in that storm if she hadn’t done what she did, the idea that I might have lost her sent chills down my spine. But with her clearly feeling a bit out of sorts after that communication–should I call it “prayer,” even facetiously?–I didn’t want her to think that I was anything less than a solid, dependable rock of support at the moment. So I held her and whispered in the darkness, “Do you realize what this means?”
“It means I was lucky, and I should not attempt it again.”
I shook my head. “If you hadn’t, we would have all died anyway. No, what it means is, my wife is amazing, and I am the luckiest man on this ship!” I grinned, leaned in, and kissed her, and she smiled. Just a little, but she smiled.
* * *
In the morning it was back to business as usual aboard the ship. Well, mostly. Everyone was being even more deferential around Aylwyn than usual. At one point one of them even asked me if I could ask “the Stormbird” to help with something! For her part, Aylwyn tried to deflect all of it, saying she was simply doing what she could, and the true credit belonged to the crew, particularly the helmsman, for being able to follow her lead even through the wild, thrashing weather, and I was more than happy to put up a united front with her on this issue; last thing I needed was any of this veneration rubbing off on me! So I told the crewman she would surely be happier if he asked her himself. Ugh. She was a person, not some sort of goddess, and I was definitely not her priest! But life went on aboard the Silver Wave, and things started to get better.
I really had no way to tell if the one had anything to do with the other, but Aylwyn advised Resspeh to stop using his weather magic while he recovered, and I stopped feeling so intensely seasick all the time. And more to the point, I didn’t want to think about that too much, because it led to some disturbing conclusions.
The Twist had sometimes caused a feedback effect that did strange and unpredictable things to magic or the people using it, but it had never affected me before! I had always heard and been told that the Twist was a chaotic thing, but it had always seemed relatively stable. If it was changing in an unknown way, this thing inside of me… yeah. I really didn’t want to think about that. I’ve always been a scientist and an engineer at heart, and so I’ve never been comfortable with things I have no way of observing, testing or analyzing. Having such a thing bonded to my soul in my first place was bad enough. Having it doing things, though, that was so much worse!
The Twist was, for all intents and purposes, part of me, and yet in another way it wasn’t. I had no reason to believe I was born with it; apparently it happened to me as a side effect of being pulled across from Earth to this world. Ken’tu Kel had been able to take it away from me, and Ryell had restored it. So it was less of something that was a part of me and more like a parasite of sorts that was attached to me. The last thing I wanted was to have it moving around and acting on stuff. (Especially on me!)
But anyway, the seasickness got better. It didn’t go away, but it stopped being so debilitating after the storm, and I was able to spend more time with the crew. I didn’t try to actually join in on their work like Aylwyn did–although I was in decent shape, I knew full well I wasn’t nearly as strong as they all were, and so I’d probably be more of a hindrance than a help–but I spent a lot of time with Karr, looking over his charts with him and learning how the process of navigation worked. One thing that surprised me was finding out that his tattoos weren’t simply ornamental; he pointed out how the ones on his chest, stomach and upper arms–where he could most easily see simply by looking down at himself–actually depicted some of the most important stars and constellations, and relations between them. He had turned his own body into a “cheat sheet” of sorts, and he told me that many of the other crew members had done similar things with their own tattoos.
We sighted the Elfstar low on the horizon the first night after the storm. We were already pretty close to due west of it, so with a minor course correction we started to sail for Ìludar. It’s not like we were very close, though; according to Karr we still had well over 4000 miles to cover before it would be overhead.
After several days, I asked Karr something that I’d been wondering about for quite a while. “I notice you don’t look like most of the other crewmen, you and a few others.” They really didn’t. The majority of the crew had facial features that looked almost Asian to me, complete with eyes with epicanthic folds, which looked kind of strange to me on such dark brown skin. But a handful of them, including Karr, were taller, with a more tan skin tone and different facial features that looked to my Earth-raised mind like some sort of cross between Arabs and Native Americans.
He just nodded. “Captain Jeresh and his crew, they are Keth. I am a Rel. There are seven Rels on board, we are all that remain of a Re’kera ship that sank in a storm. Jeresh rescued those of us who survived.” He closed his eyes and paused for a moment. “That was eight years ago.”
Wow. “So, Re’kera? That name sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it.”
“It is my homeland. The Rel people live in the northeastern parts of Lened; the Keth are of the northwest.” He pulled out a map and showed me where they were located.
I nodded. “Why eight years? Wouldn’t you want to go home, be with your own people again?”
He laughed softly. “These are my own people now. I have served under several different captains, and Jeresh is the greatest I have known.” Then he looked into my eyes briefly, before looking away again. “Besides, we could not go back. The ship we lost, she carried very valuable cargo, for a powerful lord with a short temper.” He shook his head slowly. “No, it is best for all of us if she remains lost with all hands, my friend. So, if I cannot go back, I move forward instead.” Now he looked at me and grinned. “I have a Keth wife, waiting for me in the Silver Wave‘s home port. You too have a wife who is not of your people, but you bring her along on a voyage. You are a braver man than I!” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but from the mirthful expression on his face it was obviously meant to be a joke, so I laughed with him.
“And aren’t we all glad I did?” I asked.
That made him laugh even more. “Oh, yes! May the winds always blow us brave men and mighty women!”
I nodded and laughed along. Gotta agree with that one!
* * *
It took a few weeks, but eventually we sighted land. We approached the island over the next few hours, and eventually the vague shape in the distance resolved into a port, with several other ships anchored there. This caused a bit of a commotion among the sailors.
“What’s wrong?” I asked the captain, gesturing to the worried-looking crew. “Is this a bad place to arrive?”
He shook his head slowly, uncertainly. “I am not sure, Mister Stark. In all my years I have never seen this.”
“You’ve been sailing to Ìludar for many years and never seen that port?”
“No, no, you don’t understand. That is clearly Tyla Harbor!”
“Isn’t that our destination?” I really didn’t understand.
“Yes! That is it! Nobody arrives at their destination straightaway! Not this ship, not other vessels, not even Elven ships. The coastline is chaotic; you arrive at some place by chance, and then you navigate to the destination.”
I thought about that for a moment. In the Silva language, the words for “chaos” and “random chance” were the same. Gamblers spoke of the rolls of the dice as being chaotic, for example. “Well isn’t that to be expected?” I asked. I gestured to a barrel. “Imagine a barrel filled with a thousand gray stones, and one that’s blue, and you have to draw the blue one out. Most of the time it would take a lot of looking, but one time in a thousand, you would expect, the blue stone would be the first one you grab.”
Jeresh looked dubious. “This is not a rare thing,” he reiterated. “It is a thing that does not happen.”
“And yet…” I gestured at the coastline.
He nodded at that. “And yet here we are. You see why the men are nervous.”
I didn’t, not really, but after what had happened with Aylwyn, I was less inclined than I might usually be to dismiss the sailors’ sea lore as superstition.
I had a worry of my own, but not one that the sailors would understand, as I knew something about one of their passengers that they had never been told. What if it didn’t mean “random” in this case?
What if this was a capital-C Chaotic land’s way of welcoming one of its own? For some reason, the thought filled me with a vague, wordless unease.
Despite the crew’s worries and my own, nothing noticeable went wrong with our arrival. We sailed into port, found a pier to tie up alongside, and the captain sent a crewman to fetch various contacts to take delivery of the cargo.
Aylwyn and I said our goodbyes to the crew, and loaded the small chest of belongings we had brought along onto the cargo crane, but as we were about to leave, I heard Karr’s voice behind us. “Mister Stark, Lady Stormbird, wait!”
I turned and saw the tall navigator heading for his quarters. He emerged a few minutes later carrying a polished wooden box.
Captain Jeresh rolled his eyes when he saw it. “Not this again, Karr,” he said, sounding exasperated.
“I believe they may be the ones,” he said as he approached us.
“You believe that of every passenger,” the captain scowled. “How many of them have actually achieved it?”
Karr grinned. “How many of them have been Stormbirds, or men who could win the heart of one?”
Aylwyn lowered her voice and said to me, “he expects another great thing that no one can do?” But she looked up at Karr and asked, “what is it you think we can do?”
The captain sighed as Karr stepped forward, holding the box. “My master, from whom I learned my craft, gave me this. He said that one day, I would pass it on to an apprentice of my own, or find its true owner, the one who can open it.”
Aylwyn’s eyes widened slightly at the sight of the box: it bore a strong resemblance to the puzzle box she had once owned, carved with intricate designs and patterns all over its surface.
“Be careful,” I chided. “If you let my wife near one of those, she’ll keep on trying to open it for years!”
She shook her head and reached for the box. “I will only take a moment to see if I can open this or not.” She immediately began to run her fingers over the surface, seeking out loose pieces, then finding them, pressing, sliding, twisting, and generally making it look easy.
It took about three or four minutes before she managed to get the lid loose. Karr was grinning from ear to ear as she opened it. “Truly you are a great Stormbird indeed!”
She sighed and shook her head. “This is very much like another box I once owned, but simpler. I opened it almost entirely by memory.”
Apparently that didn’t matter too much to Karr. “Be that as it may, it is yours.”
She pulled the lid off, and we looked inside. It appeared that the box was mostly solid wood, with a shallow indentation that held a very strange metal ball-like thing. Aylwyn lifted it and I saw it was made of three gimbal rings, mounted at right angles to each other, enclosing a metal needle. Strangely, even though the needle didn’t appear to be counterweighted in any way, it always pointed straight up, no matter how Aylwyn turned the ball.
“What is this?” she asked. “Do you know?”
Karr nodded. “Would that I had known we had a sel’han aboard ship. It would make our travels much easier. It is a thing that is like a compass, except it points the way to the Elfstar and not to the north or the south.”
Meanwhile, while Aylwyn looked over the sel’han, she had somewhat absently passed the box off to me, and I couldn’t help but poke at it a little. Something wasn’t quite right. Obviously there needed to be some interior volume to support the puzzle mechanism, but it just seemed like the box was too large to hold nothing more than a little thing the size of an egg.
The circular depression that the sel’han had rested in turned out to be a bit loose, and I realized there was a barely-perceptible seam there. I couldn’t get it to move to either side, so I pressed down with two fingers and tried to twist it, and the piece of wood turned and came loose. I was able to slide it to the side then, revealing another rounded depression beneath, but with a small hole in it.
Aylwyn looked over and saw what I had done. “Another puzzle?”
I nodded, thinking fast. I knew Aylwyn. “You don’t have much use for a sel’han, do you?” She shook her head. “And neither do I. It’s valuable to this crew, but not to us. You were going to offer to trade it to them for food or supplies, I’d guess.”
Aylwyn nodded. “Yes?”
I smiled and reached over, taking the sel’han from her hand and looking closely at it. “So by the time you discovered this, they’d have long since sailed away…” I started pushing on the gimbals to line them up inside one another, leaving the needle bare. Somehow, I couldn’t push the needle around, though. It would make the whole sel’han slide around in my hand, but it wouldn’t change orientation. After a few moments of futility, I turned the box upside-down instead and lowered the hole onto the needle. “…with the key.”
As I pushed it all the way in, I felt something click, and the box felt a lot looser. I tried to turn the box over, but it didn’t seem to want to rotate with the unyielding pin of the sel’han stuck in it, and when I tried to pull the sel’han free, it didn’t seem to want to budge. “Can you remove the sides?” I asked with a bit of confusion.
Aylwyn reached over and lifted the outside of the box free from the inner volume. What was left was about 2/3 of the original box, with a simple lid on top that opened upwards on hinges. Inside I found a collection of metal pieces, each strapped down with leather straps into little indentations lined with soft blue velvet, and a pair of small mirrors.
“That looks like an angle,” Karr said. He held out a hand. “May I?”
“Go ahead.” I handed the box to him, and he took a few minutes to assemble it, joining the pieces of metal together, fastening them with little pins that were included in the collection, and attaching a mirror, turning it into a navigator’s angle not unlike his own. Then he paused, frowning. “This cannot be right…”
“What is it?”
“This arm will not fit on any other way,” he said, showing me how they fit together, “but look. The point to attach the mirror is here, on the wrong side! The two mirrors cannot face one another!”
I took it back and took a minute or two to look it over, then handed it to Aylwyn to do the same, but we all came to the same conclusion upon examining it: there was really only one way to assemble the thing, and it didn’t allow the two mirrors to face one another.
I groaned as I realized what had to be going on. Someone was messing with me again. Anyone other than the combination of Aylwyn and myself, working together, would most likely never have found this thing. It looked just like something recognizable, but with one little change that made it essentially useless. I had read enough fantasy stories back home to know that that could only mean one thing: at some point in our journey, we were bound to find ourselves in some bizarre situation in which the angle’s strange configuration would be exactly what we needed to overcome some sort of problem or obstacle.
(More than once I had wondered why the world I found myself in bore such a strong resemblance to the fantasy stories I had enjoyed as a kid. The only explanations I could come up with, though, tended to be too disturbing in their implications to be worth dwelling on.)
“Looks like whoever set this up has a strange sense of humor, my friend,” I said, taking the last mirror and attaching it. “But if this is simply an item with no practical use,” I mused, stepping over and opening up our trunk, “perhaps I should offer such a thing in exchange.” I removed a box from the trunk, a little bit larger than the one Karr had given us, one of four I had brought along. Inside it contained everything he would need to build a simple electric motor from Stark Academy and a McConnell battery to power it, with printed instructions in both Silva and Elvish.
“This is one of our newest inventions at the Academy. I’m sure a scholar as accomplished as yourself can figure out how it works. Be careful, there is one thing it doesn’t say inside: keep it dry. Water, and especially sea water, will ruin the device.”
Karr took it with a thoughtful expression. “What do you mean, no practical use?”
“We can make this turn, but there isn’t enough power to do much with it. If you can find something useful to do with it, Stark Academy would gladly welcome the discovery the next time you’re in Cleron. It would be recorded in our archives who had invented it and what it was that you made, and published throughout the human kingdoms.”
Jeresh frowned at the suggestion. “We come up with some new thing, and you teach all of our competitors how to do it too?”
I shook my head. “We teach everyone that the men of the Silver Wave came up with it, and other ships may know how to make it, but yours is the crew with experience in using it. Also, we ensure that, should the worst happen, the knowledge would not be lost with your ship.”
Karr gave a little snort. “We would not be worried about competition then, it’s true!”
Jeresh still looked dubious, but he nodded. “Perhaps, Mister Stark.”
After that we said our goodbyes and I packed the new box in our chest, making sure it was in there loosely with room to rotate if the chest got jostled, because it still had the sel’han stuck in there and it didn’t want to turn or come free, and I really wasn’t interested in a practical demonstration of the immovable-object-versus-irresistable-force paradox inside our luggage!
We disembarked and headed off into town, looking for the port governor’s offices. From there we would be able to arrange travel to Ileona to meet with the elf-queen and her court, and hopefully find information there on how to locate the the Zassi.
After all the stress of the ocean crossing, hopefully the worst was behind us now.