Kushiel's Justice (Page 72)

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“Look at you,” Urist observed, propped by the fire. “A right savage.”

I glanced around. It didn't take long for the trappings of civilization to fall away. All of us looked like wild men, unkempt and half-clad, huddled around the fire, chewing and smacking our lips. I shrugged. “I'm just trying to survive like everyone else here.”

“You're good at it.” Urist pulled his stick out of the fire, inspected his fish, and stuck it back into the flames. “Never would have expected that when I first met you.”

“I'm full of surprises,” I said wryly.

“Aye.” He nodded. “That you are, my prince.”

I raised my brows. “Your prince, am I?”

“As good as any, Imriel of Clunderry.” Urist withdrew his stick and plucked the fish deftly from it, juggling it from hand to hand. “Saved my life, didn't you?”

I skewered another herring and began roasting it. “Not really. But I would have felt a right fool if I'd left you to die only to find you stuck there on the rocks, cursing my name.”

He chuckled. “Aye, you would.” He regarded his splinted leg, amusement fading. “Never thought I'd end up a cripple. Suppose it won't matter if we die here on this godforsaken island.”

“It was a clean break,” I said. “It may heal clean.”

“So I can face death on my feet like a man?” he asked dourly.

“No.” I watched my fish curl in the flames, the scales crisping. “I'm not giving in to despair, Urist. I've lived through too damned much to die here on this island. I can't bear to think about it, any of it. It will drive me mad. Captain Iosef thinks we can get this boat ashore and repair it. I have to believe it's true. So I'm not thinking about a damned thing except making that happen and keeping ourselves alive in the process.”

“Stubborn bugger,” Urist said, but there was warmth in his tone.

I pulled my fish out of the fire. “Damned right I am.”

Between the fishing nets and the hunting bows—we managed to salvage the quivers, and Urist set his hand to making an additional stock of crude arrows—our sources of nourishment improved considerably. A good thing, too, because our work got harder. The fore of the ship's hold was packed with bales of wool, waterlogged and swollen. If we had any hope of raising the ship, we had to empty it.

We did, bale by bale. Teams of men, two and sometimes three, plunged into the dark hold, working in blind concert underwater to shift the cursed things. It was exhausting and unspeakably difficult. What I'd told Urist was true. I didn't let myself think about anything but the task before me. Betimes my chest ached, but the new scabs didn't split, so I ignored the pain and kept working. And slowly, bale by bale, we emptied the hold.

On Iosef's orders, we saved a few bales, towing them ashore on a raft of pine branches. The wool was spoiled, but I supposed if the weather turned cold before we succeeded in rescuing ourselves, we'd be glad of it. The rest, we tipped into the sea.

Then it came time to raise the ship.

It was a near-impossible task. We didn't have to raise it clean out of the water, Iosef said; just far enough to clear the damaged hull. By this time, I understood him well enough on my own. With Ravi's help, I'd picked up a bigger smattering of Rus, but much of it simply came from working with the Vralians, day in and day out. I didn't need to speak their tongue to understand them. Much of the time, we worked without words, all of us knowing what had to be done.

A good deal of preparation went into raising the ship. We stripped it of its sail and every bit of line. Ropes were spliced. Trees were felled, hacked into planks. A ramp of logs was laid at the shore. Pitch was gathered from the abundant pines and heated in the ship's lone cooking pot. The bales of wool we'd salvaged—cut loose from their bindings and dried in vast mounds—were towed back to the rocks. Iosef's plan came clear; he meant to use them to plug the hole before patching it.

If it was to be done, it would have to be done quickly. That much, we all understood. Once the hull was lifted clear of the jagged rock piercing it, only our strength would keep the ship from sliding into the depths, and that wouldn't last long.

The day we raised the ship, we carried Urist to the distant lookout post with its signal pyre that he might tend its fire. He grimaced at the pain, but didn't complain. All able hands were needed for the endeavor.

I saw very little of the actual effort. We'd found only one bucket, and Iosef had assigned me to bailing duty, reckoning I had the fastest hands of the lot. Men dove behind the stern, threading rope around it. Others drew the ropes taut, perched on awkward footholds on the rocks. The divers clambered out of the water and took up positions beneath the hull. I perched on the ladder descending into the submerged hold, waist-deep in water. Captain Iosef and a fellow named Ruslan who had experience as a carpenter stood at the ready with all our hard-won supplies.

Iosef gave the order. “Go!”

The divers strained to lift the hull free of the rocks. The rope-men hauled. The ship creaked and moaned. For a long moment, it didn't shift.

And then it did.

It came free with a lurch, sliding forward. The bottom scraped along the rocks, the prow nosed skyward. Water poured from the ragged hole in the hull. I was flung free of my perch on the ladder of the hatch. I trod water in the sinking waters of the hold, scooping water and flinging buckets of it over my head. A futile effort, mayhap, but every bucket less was less chance the ship would sink. Outside, I could hear men groaning under the strain of holding the ship in place, while Iosef and Ruslan worked frantically to pack the hole with wool to stem the tide of water and drill holes to peg the planks in place, slathering them with pitch.

The ship shuddered.

“It's going!” someone shouted.

It went, easing slowly backward into the water. Rocks, scraping. I kept bailing grimly. If it sank, I would swim. And we would be doomed.

It didn't sink.

With a hold full of water and a leaking patch, it wallowed. It wallowed so low the deck barely cleared the surface of the sea, but it didn't sink. We didn't dare try to board and row it ashore for fear the additional weight would submerge it for good, so I stayed in the hatch and kept bailing while everyone else plunged into the water, struggling to get hold of the ropes and begin the long, arduous process of towing it to shore.

It took the better part of a day, but we did it. By the time we got it into the shallows, the sun was hovering low on the horizon and we were too exhausted to attempt to roll the ship over the log ramp we'd built. My arms had gone completely numb. The patch had held, but it leaked like a sieve. The water in the hold was at the same level it had been when I'd begun.

Still, we'd done it.

At Captain Iosef's orders, I clambered out of the hold and hefted the anchor overboard, my arms shaking at the effort. He wedged it under a rocky outcropping to ensure the ship wasn't going anywhere. I climbed over the railing and dropped wearily into the shallows, splashing ashore to collapse on dry land. All of us sat in poses of utter exhaustion, contemplating our achievement.

As the day's last light faded, a lone figure hobbled down the shore, splinted leg swinging in an awkward arc. Urist had spent his day on futile lookout duty fashioning himself a pair of crutches from a couple of sturdy, forked branches he'd pillaged from the pyre. He stared at the ship for a long, wordless moment.

“I'll be damned,” he said at length. “You did it.”

Chapter Fifty

It took another two weeks to get the ship repaired and seaworthy.I lent a hand with all of the unskilled work; chopping wood, gathering pitch, fishing. I was a fair shot with a bow, but there were others who were better. Whenever we caught a sizable haul of fish, more than we could eat, we built slow-burning fires with green wood and smoked them on makeshift racks.

Captain Iosef was exacting in his repairs. Although the weather was growing cooler by the day, he wouldn't be rushed. Damaged planks were removed and new ones hewn to replace them. It was a mercy that the inner framework of the ship was intact. Slowly, slowly, it took shape, and I began to believe that we would leave the island.

I tended to my neglected weapons, polishing and whetting them. I began my days by practicing the Cassiline forms for the first time in long weeks.

The first time I did so, the Vralians stared in open astonishment. If anyone remembered the bow with which I'd greeted Captain Iosef so long ago in Norstock, I daresay they'd thought it was a mere homage to their hero. I ignored them, concentrating on telling the hours.

“Where did you learn that?” Ravi asked me that night around the campfire.

I smiled. “From the man who taught Micah ben Ximon.”

He laughed. “No, really.”

“It's true,” I said. “Where did you think he learned it?”

“From an angel who appeared to him in a vision,” he said seriously.

“No angel,” I said. “Just a D'Angeline.” I told him about the Cassiline Brotherhood and their training, and the story of how Joscelin had come to befriend the Yeshuite community of La Serenissima, teaching the art to a young Micah ben Ximon and others. How they had helped Joscelin and Phèdre thwart a plot to assassinate the Queen of Terre d'Ange during her visit there.

Ravi stared at me, wide-eyed. “And you know these people?”

I nodded. “I'm their foster-son.”

In all the time we'd been together, working side by side, I'd told him very little about myself. Ravi whistled through his teeth. “I thought you were just… I don't know, an adventurer or a scout sent to explore.”

“Oh yes, of course,” I said, realizing he'd just handed me a vaguely plausible reason for our journey to Vralia. “That too.”

“Do you report to the Queen of Terre d'Ange herself?” He sounded awed.

“I do.” Elua knows, that was true. “And Urist is in the service of the Cruarch of Alba.”

Ravi winced. “They'll not be impressed by our shipwreck. Will you tell them it doesn't happen often? It was a very bad storm.”

I glanced over at the dim hulk of the ship, still visible in the fading light of day. “Ravi, if we get off this island and Urist and I return home in one piece, I promise you, I will tell them that the courage and strength of Vralia's men is without equal.”

His young face beamed. “Well, that's true.”

I felt guilty at lying to him; to all of them. We'd grown close during our travail in the wordless way that men do working together for a common cause. Still, what could I do? Urist and I were seeking to enter Vralia under false pretenses. If there was a dangerous task to be done here on the island, I would trust Ravi or Captain Iosef or any one of these men with my life. But I didn't dare tell them we were hunting a man who had entered Vralia as a Yeshuite pilgrim, intending to kill him.

Although it wasn't we anymore.

We hadn't talked about it yet, Urist and I, but I daresay both of us knew. He was lucky to have kept his leg, lucky it was a clean break, lucky it appeared to be healing. But a broken thigh-bone was a serious injury. It would take months to mend. Urist was able to hobble about on his crutches, but he couldn't put any weight on the leg, and there was no way he could ride.

I would be hunting Berlik alone.

At least I was hale. If nothing else, I had these weeks of hard labor to thank for it. Thinner than I had been, subsisting on a diet of fish and fowl, but with lean, hard muscle on my bones. The deep gouges Berlik's claws had rent into my flesh had healed, leaving angry red scars where they'd cut the deepest. Still, they were scars. Oftentimes they ached, and when I overexerted myself, I could feel them burn and tug, but they were scars.

On the thirty-first day of our ordeal, as reckoned by Urist's tally, Captain Iosef determined the ship was ready to be tested. Her hull was intact, her rigging restored. We rolled her down the ramp of pine logs into the deep water, setting our shoulders and heaving. She floated proudly. A handful of us stood ashore, watching as the others set to at the oars. Watching the sail unfurl.

They didn't go far, just far enough to test her seaworthiness. I shaded my eyes, watching the sail bob on the choppy waters, sporting its crimson cross. I thought about the pilgrims in Maarten's Crossing, sporting their muslin caps. Iosef ordered the ship brought back to shore, rolled up the pine ramp. He crawled into the hold, inspecting the seams. Measuring the bilge. He called for moss and more pine tar to caulk the seams. We scoured the forest for moss, gathered pitch in sticky handfuls.

Three days later, Iosef tested the ship again.

“She's ready,” he said briefly upon returning. “We'll sail on the morrow.”

Ruslan the carpenter had built a crude barrel. We tramped back and forth to the spring-fed pond, filling waterskins and our bucket, dumping their contents into the barrel. We packed the ship with our stores of smoked fish. As it transpired, the hardest part was getting Urist aboard the ship. In the end, we hoisted him in a cradle of rope, his splinted leg sticking out at a stiff angle. He cursed and swore as we wrestled him over the railing. I found an out-of-the-way place on the aft deck and tried to make him comfortable.

“You know I'm finished,” Urist said to me, his jaw clenched. “I can't go on.”

“I know,” I said quietly.

His eyes glinted. “You'll not give up?”

“No.” I sat cross-legged beside him. Captain Iosef gave an order. Men shoved; the ship lurched over the pine logs. Floated. Men shouted, scrambling to board the rope ladders. Set to at the oars, the ship turning. She presented her stern to the island. The sail was unfurled. It caught the wind, snapping. I watched the barren, inhospitable shore dwindle behind us and thought about Dorelei. Her dimpled smile, her lilting laugh. The son we might have raised together if she had lived. All those things Berlik had cut short, no matter how much it grieved him.