Authors: Missy Sheldrake
Call of Sunteri
Call of Sunteri
2015 Missy Sheldrake
All rights reserved,including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
First published by Missy Sheldrake November 2015
Illustrations, Design, and Cover Art by Missy Sheldrake
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Illustrations for this story were created using the Procreate iPad Application
For my mom.
Filth and grunge. Rats. Rot. Bones. Cobbles. Stench. Sobbing. Striking. Silence.
“Climb the wall.”
Yes, climb the wall. My feet are swift and sure in the darkness as I leap and cling to the rough stone. They find each crevice perfectly, anchoring me as I push myself up. Climbing feels good. Free. The higher I go, the better I can see the city stretched out before me. In the dye fields, they tell stories of Zhaghen with eyes full of awe. How beautiful it is. How majestic. For me, it’s a place that breeds greed. Cruel. Twisted. Soiled.
Yes, higher. The towers are dark tonight, unprotected. Not as scary as I thought they’d be, stretching up into the sky. I creep closer to a slotted window and pause. Sniff. The air here is thick with the scent of old paper. Books. A fan of shining black hair flicks into my memory as my fingers grip the stone through soft leather gloves. My new gloves.
Yes, inside. My feet find the ledge and I crouch on the sill. Velvet drapes flap in the wind. Crimson, like the flowers we picked. Tucked safely into the shadows, I peer below into the darkness. It was a good climb. A long climb. Now I’m higher than any city boy could climb. Higher than I’ve ever climbed. Far up above the city. So easy here to ignore the suffering below. To live unaware of it. The cries of the starving, the stench of the gutters, they could never reach this far up. Only the Mages. Mages and students. Worse. Sorcerers. My hatred for them pushes me forward.
Yes, the hearth. I slide from the sill and land lightly on my feet. My new boots are silent on the plush carpet. The room is still. Huge. Dark except for dying embers crackling in the distance. Far beyond tables piled with pages and books. Shelves. Scrolls. Bottles and jars. The ceiling is high. Domed. Glass. Stars shine above. No one is here this late. The tower is asleep. Empty, except for books. Hundreds. Thousands. Ancient. Irreplaceable. Sacred. Neatly arranged on dozens of shelves. Good to hide behind. To sneak behind.
I take a sheaf of parchment from the shelf as I creep forward through the last row. The glow of coals lures me. The fire is dying, but soon it will grow. I light the sheaf. Watch the edges flare and curl black. I move away through the room. One by one I tuck the burning pages into place on shelves and tables. Everything is so dry and old, it catches quickly. I back toward the window, my escape. Watch the glow of flame that crawls up shelves and across tabletops. I did this. Alone. This is my revenge. Their precious knowledge, turning to char. Ashes. Dust.
Yes, outside. I slip through the window. My fingers find the crevices and I start my descent. Watch the smoke pour from the window. Hear the cries from inside. Fire! Fire! My feet are swift in new boots. My hands are steady. I land lightly on the cobbles and stroll away from the smoking tower. The gloves come off, tuck into my tattered bag. They’re too fine for the rest of me. They’d give me away.
“On to the next.”
Yes, on to the next. I step around the corner, into the gathering crowd. Necks craned up, watching smoke billowing. Some rush the doors with buckets of water, but even in this crisis they’re turned away. No one notices me, the whelp in field clothes, older than a boy but not yet a man. I’m nothing to them. Unimportant. Unnoticed. I disappear as the crowd thickens around the base of the tower. On to the next.
Six pillars of black smoke rise into the night sky. Six towers burn. My work is done. The city is awake now. Watching, Screaming. Crying. Cheering. I don’t need to run. Nobody suspects me. Nobody notices the poor boy in field clothes.
“Into the sea.”
Yes, into the sea. I tuck my new boots safely into my bag and jump from the harbor wall into the deep. The water is warm and calm. I go under. Scrub the soot from my hands, face, and hair. Hulls of tall ships loom over me, swaying eerily. Massive dark shapes against the darker sky, anchored in the inky water. I’m a fair swimmer. I find the ship with the crest I need: purple chevron under a blue ring. I reach it and pull myself into a skiff lashed beside. Rest a moment. Listen. Way up on deck, men are talking. Watching the smoke rise. Wondering if it will delay their departure.
Yes, I ought to.
“Ho there, sirs!” I shout. Footsteps. Faces peering down at me. Men with trimmed beards. Hair tied neatly. Uniforms. Swords.
“Who goes?” one says. He’s stern-looking. Straight as a pole.
“It’s just a boy,” another answers. Leans way over to peer down at me.
“You swim all that way, boy?” asks the first.
“Yes, sir. I’m a fair swimmer, sir,” I say.
“What for?” the first again.
“I need passage to Cerion, sir,” I reply. Try not to sound desperate.
“Passage to Cerion!” the spyglass one scoffs. More come to look over the side at me. Scoffing. Laughter.
“We’re no charter, boy!” One of the newcomers chuckles. “Find yourself another ship.”
“I have no money for a charter, sir. I mean to work for it,” my voice is getting hoarse. My throat is dry from the salt water.
“Work for it!” More Scoffing. Laughter. Footsteps. A deep voice growls about the racket. The men go quiet. Hushed discussion of the boy in the skiff. A broad man with a pitted face and squinted eyes leers down at me. Looks me over. Calls out an order for the rope ladder.
“Climb it,” he says. I do, as quickly as the flames that licked the shelves. I stand before him. Bow respectfully. “You want to work, eh?” He eyes me. “Why should I let you?”
“I’m a fast learner, sir. A hard worker. I don’t complain. I’ll do any task. I’m not squeamish. I’m quick. I can climb. I can swim.” I say. He grabs my wrists, inspects my hands. Looks at my fingers stained red.
“From the dye fields,” he grunts and lets go. “Hard working, I’m sure of it. Ever been on a ship before?”
“You’ll get seasick.”
“I’ve been on a carriage before, sir. A bumpy one. Never got sick, sir.”
“A carriage!” Laughter again.
“A carriage is a far cry from a ship tossed by the waves of a storm. We’ve got a crowd in the rows ashore, boy. Men. Strong men. All waiting to work for passage. Seafaring men. Men who know what they’re doing.”
“I know. That’s why I swum out. I could have stowed away, but I want to work. I’ll work harder than them. I’m honest. I won’t argue. I don’t eat much. I don’t like to sleep. I’m respectful. I don’t steal. I’m not afraid of anything. I’ll do my work, you won’t even notice me. None of them swum out. They don’t want it as much, sir.”
“Look at him, Cap, sir. Somethin’s not right,” one of the uniformed men murmurs. I cast my eyes down. Don’t let them look too hard. Cap’s staring. I can feel it.
“Climb the foremast,” he says finally. Gruffly. “Untie the lashing on the fore moonraker. Stow it back proper again.” He crosses his arms. He doesn’t think I can do it. None of them do.
I’ve never heard of a moonraker or a foremast, but I don’t question. Somehow, I know what to do. I run to the ratlines and climb all the way to the top. Even anchored in the calm, the mast rocks. I grip hard with my legs. Work the knots. Drop the edge of the highest sail. Bind it up again. Tie it. They watch from below. I’m sure they’re impressed. A boy from the dye fields shouldn’t know knots, rigging, and sails. They’re right, I shouldn’t, but it comes to me anyway. I lash it up again, exactly as it was. Make perfect knots. Slide down the ratlines. Land light and sure at the captain’s feet. Salute.
“Well done,” Cap says. He’s impressed. Pleasantly surprised. I nod once, but don’t smile. Don’t want to look too proud. Powerful men don’t like that. “You can stay on. Do as you’re told. One wrong move and we cast you over. Agreed?” he offers his hand, and I shake it. “What’re you called, boy?”
“Welcome aboard, then, Tib,” he says.
The journey is long. Days into weeks. I sleep anywhere but below. It’s too cramped there. The wood encases me, reminding me of the trees, the roots, the past. The crow’s nest is my favorite. I can see all around me. Watch passing ships grow and shrink. See the ocean stretch to a thin curve all the way out on the horizon. I’m talented with the lamplight. I learn how to send signals to the navy ships that follow us, too slow to keep our pace. We are their scout ship. We watch for danger.
I am invisible to those more important to me. They don’t notice me. I can lurk. Pick up conversations. Learn things. One of those navy ships carries Prince Vorance, the only prince of Sunteri. He courts the eldest daughter of the king of Cerion. Her name is Sarabel. She is smitten with him. Six ships come with him including ours. Six is an auspicious number, they say. A circle number. I’m not sure what it means, but I can’t ask. If I do, they’ll know that I’ve been listening.
One month. We sail into the mouth of the river they call Jairun. I don’t like it. We move slower here through the center of Elespen. The jungle creeps into the water on both sides of us. Days more of this. Days of watching jungle become village and jungle again, and then sand and only sand as far as I can see. An ocean of sand. Too much like Sunteri. Too much like the home I never wanted to see again. I feel the panic rise in me. I don’t want to be in the desert.
Yes, sleep. I curl up in the safety of the fore nest, and when I wake the stars stretch out endlessly above me. Noise. Lapping and chatting. Laughing and shouting. Bargaining. Unloading. The thud of the hull against the pier as they tie it up.
“Boy!” Cap shouts. I slip down the ratlines and drop to his side. The deck is deserted except for the pair of watch guards at the gangway. I stand straight and look Cap in the eye, as he has told me to do. It keeps a man honest, he says, to meet his crew’s eyes.
“Sir!” I shout. He taught me to do that, too.
He tells me I’m a hard worker. I have earned five copper, which he jingles in a pouch. I like the sound of it. I have never held coin before. It has more weight than I expected. He tells me I can go ashore if I want to, and then he goes back below. I peer out at the city. Cresten. Capital of Elespen. It’s different from Zhaghen. Cleaner. Brighter, even in the starlight. Noisy, but the noise is happier. They don’t have towers here to watch and rule over them. Just a castle, low and sprawling. Music drifts merrily from the taverns into the street. People in beautiful colors dance in the glow of torchlight. Others toss coin at them. Even in the night, merchants in booths cook and sell. The aroma is exotic and flavorful. My mouth waters.
Yes, stay aboard. I tie the coin to my belt and wrap the sash around it three times to keep it safe. Then I climb into the nest and go back to sleep.
I wake to the signal. The air is cooler, even with the sun bearing down. We’re sailing again, flying across the water. North still, but more west now. The jungle is far behind us, just a line of deep green between the sea and sky. I train the scope behind, find the trailing ship. Read the message. Flash the mirror to acknowledge.
Two months now at sea, since we left Zhaghen. Sea and days of messages filled with nothing. All is well. All is well. Back and forth. Over and again. Still, the work is easy. Not like the fields. Freer, even confined to a ship. I keep to myself way up here, and nobody bothers with me. The main nest collects the same messages as mine. Cap tells me I’m the backup. My keen eye is valuable. I could do the main nest one day, if I stay on. He thinks I want a life of this. He doesn’t know.
Cerion’s cliffs are unmistakable when they appear. A white slash between the cloudless blue sky and the crisp blue-green sea. They grow impossibly high as we approach. So high it would take ten of our ship’s highest masts to reach the top. As we dock, Cap pays me again. Tells me I’m welcome to stay on. I say little in the way of farewells. I know I’ll never return to the sea.
The climb up the cliff seems as long as the sailing itself. Stairs and more stairs. My legs are strong, though, from climbing the ratlines. I scurry past others who trudge and cling to the ropes. The stone glints wet beneath my feet, catching the sun. Wet but not icy, which I find strange. The wind threatens to carry me off, and I keep close to the wall as it lashes at me. I have never felt cold like this before. Winter. Sunteri has no winter. The chill is painful. I am not dressed for it. I have my gloves. I have my new boots. No cloak, though. No sleeves to cover my arms.
Yes, climb faster. The work keeps me warm. Up and up I go, until I reach the top and the city stretches out before me. Low. Plain. Clean. Someone stops me. Offers me a clay mug filled with a sweet, hot drink. Kind. Smiling. Welcoming. She tells me I should visit their tavern, and moves on to those behind me without asking for payment. I sip it and it warms me to the toes.
Children run past laughing. Cloaks of fur flap behind them.
“Follow the children.”
Yes, follow the children. I leave my empty cup at the stall and jog after them. The bitter cold numbs my toes and stings my fingertips, even through my boots and gloves. My teeth chatter. I rub my arms as I pass booths selling thick furs and warm knit shawls and fine winter clothes. One of them displays rolls of soft woven fabric and barrels of ground dye powders, heaping with red and blue and orange dust.
“Ten silver a scoop,” a lady bundled in red smiles at me. I wonder if she knows the work that goes into one scoop. The picking, the hauling, the drying, the grinding. Thousands of blooms plucked. The workers who break their backs in the field for a loaf to feed their family and a roof over their heads.
Yes, the children. I tear myself from the booth and chase after their laughter. When I catch up, I find them standing in a crowd lining the streets. Five of them. Two boys, three girls. I creep close to them in the crowd and stand next to a girl. She’s my age. Bright red curls poke out from beneath her hat. She bumps my shoulder.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asks, eyeing my bare arms. Her eyes are green. Jungle green. Pretty. I shrug.
“Raefe,” she says, and tugs the cloak of the boy beside her. Older. He has his own spyglass and cranes his neck over the crowd to peer through it. He’s bundled like the rest of the children. Fur wraps, thick woven hats, and bulky scarves that wind round their necks up to their noses. They have mittens, too, that make their hands look like paddles. The girls’ hats and mittens are decorated with lots of colorful ribbons. I wonder what the point of that is. They can’t even use their fingers. It’s not very practical.
“The carriage is coming. It’s slow,” Raefe says on tiptoe. “Wish we could climb up on something.”
“Nessa said no climbing, Raefe,” says another girl. Older. Bossy. “It’s too icy.”
“Can you see the prince? Or the princess? Can you see her round belly?” A younger boy hops up and down beside Raefe. Tugs on his arm. “Let me look!”
“Ruben!” The prim girl scowls and pokes the boy. “Don’t be disrespectful!”
“Rae.” The red-haired girl tugs Raefe’s other arm. “I need a cloak.”
“In my bag, Saesa.” Raefe leans toward her, still watching. “No, can’t see inside the carriage. The curtains are closed. They might open them when they get closer.”
“I want to see!” Ruben whines while Saesa rummages through Raefe’s shoulder bag.
“Here,” she pulls out a thick green wool cloak and hands it to me. I eye it, and her. “Don’t be so suspicious,” she says. “It used to be Raefe’s but it’s too small now. It’s still good, though. Nobody else wanted it. We all just got new ones, you see, so Nessa said find someone who could use it. It has a hood and everything.”
She nudges me with it. My teeth chatter, but I still don’t accept. A drink is one thing, but this cloak is expensive. A gift is a trick, my Nan would say. Don’t trust it. Anyone who gives freely just wants power over you. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen.
“Here they come,” cries Raefe over the gasp of the crowd. “The curtains are open, now, too!”
“Let me up, Rae-Rae,” the youngest girl whines. The ribbons on her hat bounce as she tugs him.
“Okay, but hold on tight, Emmie,” Raefe says as he hefts her to his shoulders. She squeals and waves to the carriage. I feel the cloak drape my shoulders and wrap snug around my arms.
“Don’t argue. You’re cold, I can tell,” Saesa smiles at me as she ties the laces closed. Then she ducks to peek through the mass of the crowd in front of us. I should protest, but I don’t. It’s warm. Nice.
“Stay with them.”
Yes, stay with them. The crowd around us cheers as the carriage moves past. Through the crowd I catch glimpses of gold and purple and burnished wood. Those before us bow, and so do I as it passes. But I’m one of the first to look up.