Binding the Restless Wave
The 1920s are a turbulent time--the moreso for the monarchy o...
The Al-Ki is a two-hundred foot tramp steamer with the beam of a battleship and the eager speed of a racing yacht. She's got two screws, four diesels that'll put out near eighteen thousand horsepower on a good day, and a refrigerated compartment I built with my own two hands. Even riding low, fully-loaded she's got freeboard you could rappel down but she's rock-solid in a gale and the day she capsizes is the day I hang up my lifejacket and never leave dry land again.

Her type doesn't win beauty contests but to me she's gorgeous. Nigh twenty years I've been running her and not a spot of rust you'll find, I swear. In the morning, watching the sun come up over her bow in some obscure little port, she sparkles like a floating diamond. I make sure of it. Sometimes it's a bit of trouble, but I don't mind. It's a handful but it's well worth it. The Al-Ki's worth it--love works that way.

And, of course, she's got a soul.

Don't let anyone ever tell you that machines don't have souls. You meet a guy who says that and you're meeting someone who's never known anyone like the Al-Ki. Can't blame 'em for being sceptical, I say, but damned if I'm going to buy their stories. They don't know what they're talking about. She's got as much of a soul as me.

I remember once, when we hadn't been together long, I was sailing down the Westland Maritimes, close to shore. We were in the Dauphin Shoals, that wretched graveyard, and I was nervous every second of it. It's a treacherous place, the Shoals--I don't trust them more than I can throw them, which is not at all. You need to keep your wits and your map about you that close in or you'll go aground. But it's faster than sailing the Tashi Cape, and sometimes the risk is worth it.

As I said we were new then, and we didn't know each other well, and would you believe the compass started going off-true? I knew we were sailing straight and I had one eye on the compass and one on my charts and the compass started drifting.

A little drift isn't a big thing when you're in the Eastern Sea and there's nought but ocean for miles around. Sure it'll mess you up, but once you spot the coast you're home free. On the Shoals, though, you're often as not half a mile from grounding and even the tiniest little error can sink you--quite literally. There are lots of reminders off the sandy Westland coast--great sailing ships with their rigging like cobwebs and only ghosts for crews, little yawls and ketches some fool on his first day out didn't take proper care of. And iron boats, too, rusting hulks that look like some beached leviathan.

So I was scared, watching my compass go to hell. One thing I'll say is that with all the skeletons around you never forget the risks you're in sailing the Shoals, and I knew them well. I was frightened and I was pissed. I remember cursing, throttling back the turbines and wondering what the hell I was going to do--I had cargo to deliver, you must understand!

But cursing is not a way to deal with anyone. After I'd gotten my anger out I distinctly remember feeling very, very small and saying something like, "Al-Ki, miss, please don't do this right now"--some rather ridiculous bit of anthropomorphism, at any rate. I explained a little the situation and as I watched the compass began to swivel back to where I knew it needed to be. And she didn't spin the damn thing off-true a single time until we were well out in the Southern Ocean and it didn't matter, and then I spoke to her for a good half-hour and we came to a sort of understanding, and I haven't had any problems since.

That's just a little story, just an illustration--you may not believe it, it's your choice. And it's ok, really. I didn't used to think ships had souls either. But they do, and she'll be in Heaven running coal for Saint Peter himself one of these days. Me, I'll be stoking the boilers for Lucifer, is my guess--I've made some mistakes--but the Al-Ki, well, that's not even a fair question.

So this is a little chapter, I guess, in a story about us, as well as someone else, who is important because the Al-Ki brought me to her, which is more than I ask anyone. Please keep that in mind--it's a personal request of course, but I'd prefer it not be forgotten, as you might want to. I write this even now from her wheelhouse, and if there's one thing to which I am sworn by loyalty, it is doing her justice.

THE CRUISER RELIANT



June 1926 was an interesting time. A civil war had broken out eighteen months earlier in the Gaarderrike Republic and by the summer of '26 the Bolsheviks had the allegiance of the Gaarderrike military and control of most of the country's population, if not the land area. I didn't understand the rebellion--something about a Prussian named Marx, and the triumph of the working class--but I knew everyone was worried.

People wondered aloud if the rebellion would spread, and by June it no longer seemed a question worth asking. There were daily riots in Prussia and the Grand Republic. Two of the most populous city-states of Daral swore their allegiance to the new doctrine of 'socialism' in April. My own government, the Union, was considering cracking down on the spread of the radical new way of thinking, and debate raged fiercely in the Congress.

If one was at all interested in these events one read newspapers avidly. I myself mostly read newspapers because they reported on Union baseball, but it was hard to miss what was going on in the wide world, even for someone so blissfully unconcerned as I. And regardless, the affairs of a turbulent world can seem somewhat distant when the sun is shining high in the sky and the air is warm and pleasant, as it happened to be on the cheerful day in late June when this story begins.

The Al-Ki was docked in Hamina, a port in Eastern Karelia, and I was idly considering my plans for the next few weeks as the world slowly came to pieces around me. The spread of Bolshevism had not quite touched Hamina yet, although Tampere, the Karelian capital, was paralysed by what seemed to be a nascent rebellion and it looked to all as though the last major monarchy in the world was about to fall.

The docks were a bustle of activity, shouting voices and a surging, pulsing mass of people who moved quickly about, driven by a purpose that I, sitting some feet above the docks and watching them, could not wholly understand. There was the ever-present noise of ship's whistles and horns, and the rumbling of the engines of great freighters. There was the shouting of the hawking merchants. There was the piercing cry of the seagulls that wheeled overhead, and intermittently the clamour of a cathedral's bells carried over the din of the buskers.

Underneath it all was something that it's hard to put one's finger on. There's always a sort of energy you find at harbours and major ports, this undercurrent of frenetic motion and the unfiltered bustle of a commercial society. It's the feeling that prevails at that juncture where civilisation meets the most foreboding environment one could ever hope to find, the deep blue sea with it's roiling whitecaps and it's invisible depths. Even inside the jetty, waves lapped constantly at the docks and it was impossible to pretend that anything but the ocean lay beyond the reach of the seawall.

Textbooks of history that I have read, though, call this city quiet. In comparison to Tampere, with the gunshots and the din of angry rioters and the sounds of the mounted policemen, I suppose it was. Hamina was cosmopolitan, as port cities tend to be, but resisted change heavily, and as long as I had been sailing there it was redolent of the maritime tradition, and the way of the sea. If this traditionalism is quiet, I suppose Hamina was. But then, I have the suspicion that most history textbook authors don't spend much time at the docks.

As I took all of this in I was refilling the ship's tanks. They had been almost three-quarters full when we docked at Hamina, but I was pumping diesel fuel into them anyway. I kept the story of the HMS Reliant close, as did many mariners.

The Reliant was a Northland cruiser with a crew of six hundred that served in the Great War. From the pictures that I've seen she was a beautiful and awe-inspiring ship with an impressive gun complement and a belt of armour thick enough to stop the biggest shells of her day.

She was laid over for repairs and coaling in Castleton, although the captain had reasoned that he had a significant margin of safety and had delayed the latter while one of her barbettes was being refitted. A patrol boat in the channel, though, reported a Prussian detachment sailing at high speed for Castleton and the Reliant quickly fired her boilers and got underway with half a load of coal left.

The story is that through careful evasion and diligence on the part of her captain she escaped the pursuing Prussians and broke into the open ocean. Faced with a difficult choice, and knowing the number of Prussian commerce raiders in the Eastern Sea, the captain radioed the Admiralty and informed them of his intent to reach the friendly Westland Maritimes.

He never made it. The Reliant didn't have enough coal to get three quarters of the distance she needed to travel, and the ship apparently ran dry more than two thousand miles from the closest land. A fishing trawler picked up a single distress call over the wireless, and that was the last anyone heard of her.

In 1919 a Karelian zeppelin exploring Greenland noticed what appeared to be a derelict ship a hundred miles north of that island, drifting in the Ohee Current. A party sent from the airship stayed aboard for less than thirty minutes before they refused to go further, and only the logbook was recovered.

It's a grisly story, as you might expect. There was a mutiny, which failed, and then another one, which succeeded, two weeks after the coal ran out. The captain was executed, and order returned for between three and six hours, near as anyone knows, until complete anarchy took over. There wasn't enough food, although the log indicated that they... well, we'll say they creatively took advantage of the consequences of their fighting.

But if that was solved, there were other problems. The water ran low after three weeks and the ship was becalmed. Nobody answered their distress signals. They took to firing the Reliant's main guns in desperation, but no help came. An explosion rocked the ship's engines and all three driveshafts were disabled.

Progressive writing in the log shows an increasing degree of desperation. The entries become strange, dreamlike. One says the ship was boarded by soldiers who looked like walruses and spoke like crows. Several report that land has at last been sighted and they will be ashore within hours. Near the end, as the dementia became untenable, one sprawling note claims that a surprise reserve of coal was discovered, and the engines were repaired. The last log entry is illegible.

And the Reliant hasn't been seen since. She's our age's Flying Dutchman.

So I make a point of always running on full tanks when I can help it.

JOE



Although I am the sole owner of the Al-Ki, I'm not the only crewman. There are two of us. Myself, and a fox named Joe Biello, who is best described as my assistant, although this doesn't really give him the credit he deserves. He's almost as competent as I am, where boats are concerned, and speaking to him I always have the nagging thought that he's probably smarter than me. But I've got my own boat and he doesn't. For the moment.

It's hard to hate someone named Joe, I think. It's a likeable name. People named Joe, I have this stereotype, are sort of garrulous, but friendly and hard-working and intelligent and so on. Perhaps my vision is just coloured by Biello, but I doubt it. I seem to recall thinking these things before I hired him.

Joe reads a lot. Not just the baseball game scores, either--he actually reads about politics and society and the real news I tend to skip because I don't understand it and when I do it's always pessimistic. But when he's not working or sleeping, Joe always is staring at some book or some newspaper--whatever we have on hand. I think that's where his paycheque goes, but I don't ask. Part of me thinks it's better than whores, at least, which is the other big outlet for we mariners' disposable income.

"Joe," I said, as I watched the gauges on the fuel tanks swing slowly, slowly towards being full. "You know what I want?"

He looked up from the book he was reading--I didn't catch more than the word 'Nietzsche' but sometimes that's really all you need. "A wife?"

I shook my head. "Nah."

"What, a husband?"

I shot the fox a glare. "Go to hell, Joe." He grinned his trademark stupid, toothy, horribly endearing grin. I shook my head. "Nah, I'm thinking I need a submarine."

"Oh, right," Joe said. "You and Nemo."

"No," I told him. "I don't have any lingering hatred of the civilised world that I need to take out in violence and destruction."

"That's why you challenged the captain of the Anglia to a duel?"

"That was different," I protested.

"You said you hated everything that he stood for. As I recall your exact words were..." he paused for a second to recall them and I cut him off.

"I know what my words were. The magistrate made them very clear to me." Joe grinned again.

Joe was good at keeping me from giving in to my somewhat vitriolic temper and throttling him. He'd stayed longer than any of my other partners--in 1926, it would've been nearly ten years. I'd hired him in a bar while the Al-Ki was in dry-dock being heavily refitted. He was friendly and outgoing in the way I think foxes seldom are, and he was good with his hands and intelligent and there really wasn't much doubt in my mind about bringing him aboard.

He also tended to be calm where I was wild, reasoned where I was impetuous, intelligent where I was a little bit of a fool. And he had this splendid little way of telling me when and how I was wrong without making me want to kill him. And of course he had a great name.

Joe is the person who has come closest to understanding the Al-Ki--he doesn't know her as well as I do, but at least he respects her, which is more than I can say for the handful of other people I've hired to help me out aboard the ship. It takes a certain perceptiveness to be able to communicate with and understand anyone, and of course machines are especially difficult. But he did pretty good.

"So why a submarine?" Joe asked.

"Well," I said. "I figure you're going to want a cargo submarine, not a warship. I mean think about it, you wouldn't have to deal with the problems of the surface. Things get rough there, you just go underwater. You could completely avoid bad weather."

"Or the Coast Guard," Joe pointed out.

"Or the Coast Guard," I agreed. The Union Coast Guard had the incredibly silly notion that I was running contraband weaponry from Pan-Chalaardon to Hejaz. I don't know where they got the idea from.

"You could waterproof the Al-Ki," Joe suggested.

I laughed. Then I gave it some thought and patted the deck lovingly. "You being serious?"

"No," he said, and shook his head. "I can't even imagine how much work it would take to turn this into a submarine. Or why you'd do it."

I sighed. "No, you're right."

The two of us were quiet for a few seconds. I expected him to go back to reading his book--he had picked it up again--but some thought seemed to strike him and he set the book back down. "You know what your problem is, boss, is you're too pragmatic."

I shrugged. "It took me almost six months to convert the Al-Ki from coal to fuel oil. That was pretty radical too."

"I guess you got a point."

I shrugged again. "Well, I was just thinking anyhow."

"Yeah. How are we doing on the fuel?"

I checked. "I give it another ten minutes. They're running pretty slow today." And I looked up from the gauges just in time to see the head appear from over the side of the ship.

KRISTINA



As I've said, the Al-Ki has a lot of freeboard--the space between the deck and the waterline. I don't generally run a gangplank from the dock to the ship; there's a ladder that runs down almost to the water and Joe and I get on and off via that. And now a woman's head poked itself over the top of the ladder.

She looked like one of those vaguely wolfish creatures--I don't really ever remember what they're called. Sort of like a Spitz, very solidly-built. I associate them with Karelia and Torrstat, the northern countries. Perhaps unfairly, I don't know. I'm a seaman, but even though I see a lot of diversity in my line of work I can't tell you shit about all these different races. They're almost as confusing as the newspapers.

She might even have been a wolf. I sort of hoped that she wasn't, to be honest--now mind you, I don't have any problem with wolves. We just, I find, don't tend to get along together. Couldn't say why. As a consequence I tend to eye wolves with a little bit of suspicion, and I eyed the newcomer in this fashion.

Of course I eyed other things as well. She wasn't bad-looking--had a pretty face and dark points that sort of swept back towards her ears, which were pricked upright and alert. Her hair had been neatly tied behind her head and it looked dark as well. Her brown eyes were pleasing, soft and yet vivacious. You are thinking that this sounds cliché and, actually, my recollection may be tainted with nostalgia--but I don't overstate things by much.

"I'm looking for a boat," she said, still apparently hanging off the side of the Al-Ki. "They told me you'd be a good place to look."

I shook my head. "No. I've only got a ship here, no boats I can lend you." I turned to Joe. "See, that why we need a submarine." Ships, you see, are bigger than boats. Submarines are always boats though, no matter how big. Joe smiled.

"A ship would work," the woman said. She spoke with a slight Northland accent, although that didn't really mean much. A lot of the people in Prussia and Karelia learned their English either in Northland or from Northland teachers and they tended to have the accent. I guess it's one I find sort of appealing, truth to tell.

"Well maybe I can help you, then." I stood up and offered her a hand but she swung herself onto the deck without my assistance. "Welcome to the Al-Ki." She nodded, looking around the ship. I introduced myself. "My name's Bill Plowman, that clown over there is Joe Biello. You'd be?"

"Kristina," she said. "Kristina Gyrith."

"Pleased to meet you, Kristina." I spoke cautiously--around strangers I can be a little laconic, I admit. But I wore a smile on my face, regardless.

"You as well I'm sure." She sighed. "Mr Plowman, sir, I'm in need of a ship, and possibly rather urgently."

"What do you need to move?" I asked.

She was silent for a moment, then indicated herself. "Me."

I groaned inwardly. Refugees were a terrible, terrible pain to have to deal with. I didn't like taking them. "Well that could be a problem, miss. There are laws against taking aboard refugees," I explained slowly, thoughtfully--musing over them myself as I did so.

"I'm not a refugee," she said. I raised an eyebrow. "Look, my father's a Northland businessman living in the Transnarrows. I've been studying in Karelia but with the situation heating up he's asked me to return home."

I offered up a silent prayer of thanks--though I had a policy of not taking aboard refugees, I also had trouble refusing their requests, and I suspected that given enough time she would've swayed me regardless. "Well that's different," I told her. If she was a foreigner, well, that wasn't nearly so bad--indeed it was reasonable. But I had been fielding requests, from Karelian nationals who wanted out of the country, for the four days we'd been docked at Hamina--so I was understandably wary. "When do you need to leave by?"

"It's actually somewhat urgent that I depart as soon as possible. Today or tomorrow, at the very latest."

"That could be a problem too," I said. "My ship's not nearly loaded for departure yet. Joe, we got anything besides the spices in the forward hold?"

"No," he said. "We're empty aft and in the secondaries."

"You see I'm a merchant captain," I told Kristina. "I can't afford to just leave empty like this."

"Twenty thousand pounds now," she said by way of reply. "As a down-payment. Another thirty thousand when we reach Tan Palyra."

I betrayed no emotion. But fifty thousand pounds--hell, even twenty thousand--was an amazing sum. It was easily two or three good trans-Eastern trips for me. Better profits than I'd made since the war. I thought about it. The spices were bound for Westland but the Transnarrows could easily be made into a stop on the way down. And the payoff was impressive. And Kristina seemed sincere. And the more I thought about it, she was sort of cute... I mean, not that I was going to let that affect my judgment or anything.

"Joe," I said. "We get underway in an hour. Start prepping the ship." Joe said nothing, but he closed his book deliberately and stood up. "Do you have any possessions?" I asked Kristina.

She nodded. "Just one, a suitcase. I can get it pretty quickly." I suggested that she might do that and she clambered back over the railing and headed down the ladder.

Only when she was out of sight did Joe finally speak.

"Boss," he said. "What the hell are you doing?"

DEPARTURE



"It's good money," I said.

"If she's got it."

"If she doesn't we won't take her," I told him. "It's as simple as that."

"I thought we were out of the refugee business." And we were. I'd helped to move people during the war and just after when they were displaced and homeless and were looking for a new start in the Union, or the Transnarrows, or Westland. But it was difficult and it was never worth it. There were always more and the trips were made with such a thin profit margin that I couldn't afford to continue them.

"We are." I stopped and turned the Kristina Problem over in my head. "She's not a refugee."

Joe didn't seem to like the answer, but he shrugged. "I guess."

"Can we be ready to go in an hour?"

"Yeah, easy," he said. "I've just... I've got a bad feeling about this, skipper. I don't think this is a good idea."

I looked at him. I trust Joe's judgment, what he says--it's impossible not to; we've grown very close over the years. "Why?"

"It's hard to say, boss. I just think it's going to be more trouble than it's worth. Even if she's got the money, which I guess she might but... well, I'm a little wary of her claims."

"You don't think there's a Northland businessman trying to bail out his daughter?"

He canted his head a little and looked at the deck. "Maybe. But fifty thousand pounds?"

"It's his daughter, Joe," I said.

Joe gave a half-hearted shrug. "I'm just saying..."

"I listen to you, Joe, don't worry. But I'm not going to back down on this. You say we can be ready in an hour?"

His shoulders dropped a little. "Yeah."

"All right. Get it done. I'm going to need to talk to the harbour master and see if we can get out of here."

We could. It didn't take me more than twenty minutes to learn that, during which I thought of little but Joe's apprehensions; when I returned Kristina was on deck again, an expensive-looking suitcase at her side. She waved at me and I nodded back.

"I hate to be blunt, miss, but... you mentioned payment?"

She nodded and took an envelope from the suitcase. "Here you are."

I opened it and discovered a neatly bound sheaf of five hundred pound notes. I counted them carefully. There were forty. I nodded to her. "All right, this looks like it's in order."

I may have sounded a little surprised, because she smiled at me. "I wasn't lying, Mr Plowman."

"Bill," I said, and she agreed that I could call her Kristina. It was interesting--only a decade earlier and that would've been unthinkable for a man and a woman who had just met. But times change, and so do I.

The superstructure of the Al-Ki was designed around berths for sixteen people, split up into four separate rooms, plus one for the captain. But since Joe and I are only two people, and I've got the captain's quarters, three were generally unused. I directed Kristina to one of these, pointed out the head and the shower I rigged up--I'm quite proud of myself for that one. She seemed appreciative. I left her there to unpack and went back out on deck.

The ropes tying us to the dock had been cast off and the only thing keeping us in place was our anchor. I looked at Joe and he nodded. "We're ready to go," he confirmed, and gave me a thumbs-up. He headed back for the engine room and I for the wheelhouse.

From there it's possible to control all the functions of the ship--start the engines, muck with the fuel flow, direct the cranes. It's quite nice, really, and it has an excellent view. The ship's telephone rang and I picked it up.

"I'm in position," Joe told me. "We can start whenever."

"All right," I said, and hung up the phone. I took a couple of seconds to take one last look around and decided all was to my satisfaction.

Getting underway is really a fascinating business. It's not that difficult, but there's always the sense of the great adventure one might well be embarking on--I think it's that sense that keeps people at sea when the profits are dodgy and the work at times so taxing you think it might kill you. I pressed the engine starters and felt the diesels deep in the Al-Ki's bowels shudder to life--starting the diesel engines can be quite brutal; it takes a lot of force to get them going.

But they started, and the reassuring hum began. I'd thought I would miss the sound of the turbines when Al-Ki made the switch away from coal but she's adapted well to her new propulsion. You can feel the diesels just like you could the turbines, and there's a new sound too. With the engines running, the Al-Ki purrs, and through your feet you can feel every little vibration of the spinning screws. "Ok, girl," I told her. "Let's do this."

I pulled the throttle levers backwards from their detent and could feel the clutches disengaging, the driveshafts beginning to take up the power. Inexorably, the ship began to pull backwards from the dock. It's a delicate manoeuvre, getting out of port, but in twenty years I've learned intuitively how the Al-Ki moves and she helps me when the going gets rough. When I sensed the ship had cleared just the right distance I began to spin the wheel to starboard and the ship's bow swung the same direction. You might think that's counterintuitive if you've only ever driven cars but on the older steamships you turn the wheel in the opposite direction you want the bow to move. It's a holdover from the days when you moved the rudder with a tiller.

We cleared the dock with a perfect margin, a couple of yards maybe--so there was no risk of collision but we took up as little space as need be. And the Al-Ki's bow directed itself towards the open harbour. I pushed the throttles forward and the ship's backwards momentum died quickly. She began to pull forward, slowly--maybe just a couple of knots. Not even enough to draw a wake.

There wasn't much activity in the harbour, fortunately. There were a couple of fishing boats and a big Gaarderrike freighter, but we were soon out in the deeper waters of the port; I increased the ship's speed and we began to clear the jetty.

You can feel when you're in open ocean, even in the bigger ships. Hamina is a nice protected little harbour, so it's always tranquil there, even in pretty big storms. But the Karelian Sea isn't very forgiving and it's rarely tranquil. The transition from the flat calm of Hamina's port to the chop of the sea was noticeable and nearly instantaneous. But I grinned anyway--the subdued violence of the ocean doesn't bother me nearly as much as it used to. And I thumped the throttle box reassuringly. "There's the way to do it," I told the Al-Ki, and then I opened the engines up and we were away.

THE STEAMER AL-KI



I set our course and lashed the wheel. The Al-Ki's a fast little boat, thirty-two knots rated and I've got her up to near forty before in a favourable wind, believe it or not. We were now doing about twenty--fast enough so that when you stepped outside the wheelhouse you could feel it, feel the bite of the spray and the whipping wind. And when you looked behind, a wake was beginning to form, defying the dark blue sea with its fluorescence.

It's a thrill, being one's own master--well, as close to one's own master as one can be with the awesome and terrifying power of Neptune around you always, making your living on the fringes of those inhospitable depths. All the same it's a thrill, and when you've a got a lady like Al-Ki, who responds perfectly and behaves in all the right ways and doesn't heel when you throw her tiller all the way just for the sheer hell of it because you both love that exhilarating sense of tested and broken borders... ah, you need more than words for that.

People speak of the call of the sea, and I listen to that call with my whole body. You can't ignore the ocean. I grew up on a little ranch in Rennsylsmark. It was pretty close to the Pacifica border, in Fitztown, a tiny little place of about two hundred people. My folks raised sheep. It's a collie thing to do, raising sheep, and they had plans to hand the farm over to me eventually. But it was hopeless.

When I was seventeen I graduated from high school a year early--I didn't drop out or anything, my parents insisted that I get an education--and I took a trip out to the sea. We'd been before but neither of my parents and none of my siblings really understood what the ocean meant. They didn't like it much. As for me, I spent a week in Port Rennys, the state capital, and was captivated. It was impossible to break free, to shut the beckoning of the ocean from my ears. You've heard of sirens... well, anyone who's anyone knows there weren't no such thing as sirens because they were calling those sailors entirely the wrong direction.

By the grace of God alone I was hired as a cabin boy on a barque sailing the Rennsylsmark coast--it wasn't really an ocean-going ship. There were just twenty-six of us on board. She was the Bellerophon, a five-masted sailing ship with an auxiliary coal-fired reciprocating engine that we carried no coal for. She had a donkey too, but the chief engineer had to beat it with a wrench to get it started and the shafts were all out of alignment so it threw belts like horseshoes whenever it was run.

The Bellerophon was sailing the Union coast just about thirty years too late--by then steamships were hardly uncommon, even out west. And her captain was as much an anachronism as his boat, a superstitious man who refused to believe that steam power could ever overtake the sail and scorned coal like it would single-handedly destroy our world. He was gruff, but he was a powerful man and one of the noble old guard of the ship captains, the chivalrous and the brave. It was as good an experience for me, naïve and unversed in the ways of the ocean, as I could have hoped for.

Six years after I signed on the Bellerophon my second contract expired and I left rather than trying to renew it. But by then I was regularly conning the ship and had my license from the Union Merchant Marine--one accumulates experience surprisingly quickly. I was accepted as first mate on the side-wheeling steamer Kittiwake and I served there for just under four years when the ship was disabled by a boiler explosion as she sat in port. The insurance was worth more than the ship, and the captain sold her. So I struck out on my own.

As good fortune would have it, I met a retiring captain in a pub in Port Rennys and he told me that he intended to sell his ship, a little tramp steamer called the Al-Ki. He said it was dilapidated and in need of repair, but it was seaworthy. So I sold everything I owned--literally everything; I kept a box with my papers in it and a single change of clothes. It wasn't a small sum--I'd been paid well, and I'd collected quite a bit of valuables on my time at sea, and with some haggling it came to just enough to pay the captain off without having to go into debt.

I'll never forget the first time I stepped aboard the ship as her owner. Everything was marvellous, from the charismatic rusted stains on the ship's bow to the windowpane in the wheelhouse--cracked, her captain had said, when a rogue wave struck it in the Arctic. A hat rack, well-worn, told the story of many years of loving use; a plaque by her wheel carried a note from Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

It was all as novel as it was glorious. The intricate machinery--she was then driven by a coal-fired reciprocating engine--fascinated me, and that day I started it just to watch the shafts spin. She had an automatic fuel feeder of sorts, coupled to the ship's throttle, but for thirty minutes I shovelled the coal myself and revelled in the sense of power it gave me.

But then, I stopped shovelling at thirty minutes because one of the ship's pipes burst and sent a jet of scalding steam not three feet from my head. I dogged the engine valves and went about fixing it--didn't sleep for eight hours getting things working again. And when I fired the engine up a second time it lasted nearly forty-five minutes, and I was just feeling good about my work, when a second fitting popped itself off with enough force to dent one of the ship's bulkheads.

I realised then what I had gotten myself into, standing in the engine room of a rusting freighter with white steam clouding my vision and the air thick with coal dust and my hands stained so black from grease they looked a lot like the bitumen the Al-Ki burned. I shut everything down again and went topside, on the verge of tears. I was resigned--my experience was simply not enough to repair the damage below-decks and get her engine working properly; the inventory of the ship's problems I'd checked with the captain that had seemed so insignificant, so easily fixed when I stood on the dock with her owner and looked at the freighter now hung like Damocles' sword over me. And he hadn't even mentioned the damn engines.

I'd lost track of time and when I popped my head out on deck I was surprised to find that it was night. There was a full moon out, huge and bright as it climbed up into the sky, and the light it threw down on the world cast interesting shadows on the ship and on me. It glinted off the water and the ship's paint and it filtered through rigging and the two big cranes fore and aft. It was a night soaked in that strange sort of light the moon brings us, and it felt very surreal to me.

The Al-Ki and I were in a quiet little part of the harbour at Port Rennys and there were few people about--strange in a port city. It was very atmospheric, and even though I was tired I felt compelled to take in the sights for quite some time. The moonlight was subdued and much of the ship lay in darkness; the soft illumination seemed to pick out random parts of the ship; I watched with growing curiosity as the mast stood out in stark whiteness amidst the shadows, then the wheelhouse; here a hatch, there a porthole, like some heavenly spotlight shone upon them. It was somewhat captivating and as a result I was awake and watching, enthralled, as the moon rose to a point where it shone full upon the nameplate. The brass lettering seemed to glow; it hid in quiet, dark insignificance the surrounding superstructure, drew my eyes so strongly I could not pull my gaze from the four letters of the ship's name. Watching the metal glow like some magical enchanted stone in a fairytale I saw nothing else.

It was the first time she spoke to me, and I knew what I had to do. I made a silent promise--to myself and to the ship--that she would leave port, under power, with me at her helm and I would not stop until this happened.

I didn't. It took time; I didn't have the money for a mechanic and I had to make all the repairs myself. I tore down the steam engine and put it back together piece by piece--checked every gasket and pipe and valve and dog and made sure they were every one of them working. I scoured the iron of her engines, straightened parts heated in a forge that burned her coal, on an anvil made of her engine block. I went over every square inch of her hull, spent hours underwater as I scraped the barnacles from her copper sheathing. My eyes ran over miles of wiring in the electrical system, hundreds of gears and shafts in her steering and her massive cargo cranes.

But it was doable, and I did it. Eight months after I'd bought the ship I was finished with her. The last thing I did was to repaint her hull and superstructure so that they gleamed brilliantly in the afternoon sun, and I replaced the broken window in her wheelhouse. I scrubbed down every bit of metal until it shone, and then I was ready. Her old captain was there when I finished resealing the last bit of teak on her wooden deck and he nodded to me, his eyes slightly wet and filled with a sort of unspeaking admiration--for me or for the ship, I don't know.

Before I made my first cargo run I decided to take the ship out on sea trials. There I learned how she handled, that the Al-Ki was fast and nimble, with a huge rudder and so streamlined a hull that she moved like a porpoise. I stood in the wheelhouse late at night, out at sea with the running lights on and drawing power from the ship's generator for the first time in six months. And I watched another full moon rise over the stern and with nothing to obscure the light everything was bathed in it, the Al-Ki and myself and I felt at once overwhelmed and godly. I watched the moon come up and then I watched the sun follow it, and the ship glowed pink and orange in the heat of the sunrise, and so did I, inside and out.

I gained a name for myself quickly, with lightning runs from Port Rennys to the East Coast and to the Westland Maritimes and even to the Continent. The Al-Ki shipped coal, machinery, iron ore, lumber and, at the very beginning of the Great War, arms and ammunition to the beleaguered Northlanders. Then we were co-opted by the Union and she carried vital supplies for our army, bandages and medicine and tools and fuel oil. And we were attacked--it's impossible to know for sure how many times exactly but I watched the gut-wrenching wakes of half a dozen Prussian torpedoes streaking by us; and although we came close the both of us lasted the war without ever being hit.

It was at that time, in 1917, that I hired Joe, and in 1920 the ship was in dry-dock for six months while we took out her obsolete reciprocating engines and put in their stead four of the new diesel motors that burned fuel oil instead of coal and developed more power for each pound they consumed. It was I believe a refit well worth the effort and time--especially as more and more harbours started manning their oil tenders more than their coal ones.

And we went back to regular work, faster than before. In 1922 I converted a compartment in the ship's stern for refrigerated goods. There wasn't much space, but for people with the money the Al-Ki and I were one of the only ships offering that particular service. Mostly we carried agricultural products in there, although twice now someone has asked me to return a departed relative to their homeland and I've done so, handling everything with the appropriate reverence.

And now the bow of the Al-Ki cut through the Karelian Sea like a knife as we steamed north, north towards the Eastern Sea and my newly-adopted destination.

THE PAPER



It's not really a good idea to leave the bridge unmanned and I hate having to do it, but I needed something from my cabin so I gave one last look around--nothing as far as the eye could see, and I was pretty confident that the Al-Ki could handle herself--and took the stairs down into the ship's superstructure. Looking back from the wheelhouse I could see our passenger, walking back near the stern. I thought about whether or not I should warn her to be careful, and decided it wasn't worth it to be so patronising--she didn't look like she was foolish enough to cause herself harm.

I was going through some papers in my cabin when there was a knock on the door. "Come in," I said, and the door opened.

"Skipper, you might want to take a look at this," Joe said. He tossed a folded newspaper at me. I glanced at it cursorily. The headlines were nothing spectacular, more of the same--the Karelian riots, the unstoppable stock market back home. A new steamship service was being inaugurated between the Northland and Anderia, the Union capital. "It's today's paper."

"What am I supposed to be looking at?" Joe leaned over me, unfolded the newspaper, pointed to a headline near the bottom. In bold, capitalised face it read, "KARELIAN PRINCESS TAINA MISSING." I skimmed the article.

"The papers in Tampere picked up on her disappearance right away, apparently," Joe said. "This went to press this morning, I guess." I nodded.

"Why do I think this is important?" I asked him.

"There's a picture of her on the other side of the page."

I turned it. He was right; there was a picture printed. I'm sure you can see where this is going. "She looks sort of familiar."

"A little," Joe said. "If the woman in that picture cut her hair, say, and changed out of the royal outfit, you might think she was the daughter of wealthy Northland businessman."
I stared at the picture a little more carefully. "You might." I shook my head. "What do you want me to do, Joe?"

He shrugged. "I don't know, boss. It's up to you."

"Kiel?"

"Kiel is right up the coast," Joe said by reply. "We could put in to port there."

I shook my head again and sighed. "I don't really want to. It's not the worth the hassle, part of me thinks."

"How solid is your refugee policy?"

I looked at him. "You're really hung up about that. It's as solid as any policy I make is. When it isn't any good anymore, I stop following it." I chewed absently on my tongue for a second. "If we stop in Kiel I won't take the money, obviously."

"Obviously."

"I sort of feel obligated to find her passage on..." I trailed off. "I need to think about this, Joe," I finally said. "Thanks for showing me the paper."

"It caught my eye," Joe said, shrugging. He tossed me a brief salute and left the cabin, shutting the door softly behind him. I lingered, unmoving, for a minute or two before getting back to the papers I'd been rifling through before. Presently I set them aside and took up the newspaper again. There was very little doubt that Princess Taina and Kristina Gyrith were the same person. I turned courses of action over in my mind, sitting alone in the quiet of my room, for half an hour until the thought crept back into my mind that I had left the bridge alone, and I folded everything up and started climbing the ladder back to the wheelhouse. And with each step I took up the ladder, what to do became less clear.

Refugees were one thing. Political refugees, even. But it struck me that attempting to spirit away the crown princess of Karelia was in a completely different league. I wondered how long it would be before they sent the warships out after me. I wondered whether I'd be imprisoned. I wondered if the Transnarrows would even take her.

I missed a step and slammed my muzzle against a rung. I winced with pain that drove other thoughts from my head and as I started climbing again I considered the other side. Kristina hadn't confided her identity to me--why did I need to pretend like I knew? She was a paying customer like anyone else. It only seemed right to take her to Tan Palyra. Too, I wondered if anyone even had the authority to block her passage. I wasn't sure.

But the risks. If we were caught... I didn't even want to think about what unpleasantness might lie ahead. Imprisonment was a likely possibility. They might even impound the Al-Ki, and I liked that thought even less. I stepped onto the deck and looked around--the seas were still clear and, as I checked our heading and speed, so were we. It was a little short of noon and the sun was still climbing. The air was warm. It was a good day for relaxing, taking life easy--not for trying to weigh the risks of transporting foreign royalty through waters that could, depending, turn hostile at a moment's notice. But I sat on the deck beside the wheelhouse and continued thinking.

THE LONELY SEA



"It's beautiful," a voice said, startling me from my thoughts. I glanced hurriedly at my watch--it had been a matter of minutes since I'd sat down. I turned and saw Kristina standing next to me.

"Pardon me, miss?" I said.

"It's beautiful..." she paused while she sat down next to me. "The way the sun hits the water, and the way you can see a little bit of the shadows on the west coast. Ah..." she regarded me curiously. "Look at you, you feel the same way. You ought to be a painter, then more people could see it."

I chuckled a little at that. "If they want to see it, a painting's not going to do them any good anyway," I said. "You miss out... on the rocking of the boat, and the music of the waves and the seagulls. And the wake, and the water that gets blown from the bow..." I was letting myself wax romantic, so I stopped.

"You like the ocean," she said, still half as a question. I got the impression that she herself was not a fan of the sea. Perhaps that's why I don't much like wolves. Very few of them understand the appeal of blue water.

"No," I told her. "I don't like the ocean. I am the ocean, and the ocean is me. Being without salt water is like... not breathing." I looked at her and she said nothing. "In port, between trips, it's hard. I keep waiting--hoping--for the ground to rise and fall under my feet, to hear the water parted by the slicing bow of a steamship. I spent a few months back at my parents' ranch when they needed some help--my father was laid up after an accident. I couldn't stand it. Too dry, and even when it rained it was the wrong kind of wet. I couldn't wait to get back out to Port Rennys."

"You must go down to the sea again," she said softly.

I looked at her. "Nah, we're already there," I said. "And besides, anymore I don't leave the coast."

"No, no, it's a line from a poem," she explained.

I nodded, understanding. "I don't read much poetry."

"You should. The poem is by a guy named John..." she fumbled for the name. "John Masefield, I think. He wrote it... twenty years ago, it's been now."

"I don't think I've heard of it," I said.

She thought, then drew a deep breath.

"I must go down the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky," she began. "And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by. And the wheel's kick, and the wind's song, and the white sails shaking..." she paused. "And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

"I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide, is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied. And all I ask is a windy day, with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume and the seagulls crying.

"I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life. To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife." Her voice began to quiet as she continued. "And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover. And a quiet sleep, and a sweet dream, when the long trick's over." She said this last almost a whisper, and then there was a perfect silence between us. Even the sound of the waves against the Al-Ki's bow seemed to mute and fade away.

"I'd never heard that before," I said finally. "It was..." I tried to find words. "That was quite wonderful," I finally settled on, and, "thank you."

She smiled. "You understand the sentiment?"

"I live the sentiment," I clarified. "The sea... ah, that poem, it's like everything I'd want to say. Just prettier."

Her smile broadened. "Poetry is like that."

I shrugged. "I'll have to give it a look, then."

She nodded. "You should look for a poet named Robert Frost. He's very good."

"He wrote that?"

"No, that was John Masefield, like I said. I don't know if Masefield wrote anything else. Just that one."

"It's pretty good, though."

She smiled a little. "My father... really likes it. He used to have me read it to him, over and over. That's why I have it memorised."

I nodded. Then I sighed. "Your father... he must be worried about you."

"Probably."

"How much does he know about where you are right now?"

She looked at me sideways. "What do you mean?"

"What does he know about your plans? I mean... does he even know you were at Hamina, your Highness?"

Her jaw dropped for a moment before she caught it--just a split-second, but enough to know that I had her. "What do you mean?" she asked again, carefully.

I shrugged. "Look, I'm not stupid." That struck me as a bit insincere, so I corrected myself. "No, that's not true. I am stupid, but my first mate brought me today's paper. Something about... someone famous going missing. You're quite popular, Princess Taina."

At her name, she finally stopped protesting. She seemed to pick words carefully deep within her brain before she finally spoke. "Bill--Mr Plowman... please don't tell anyone."

I shrugged again. "I know who you are. But I only know because Joe told me, so Joe knows. If you know, it can't go much further."

"You've got a radio." I nodded. "You could call someone. Get them to come."

I looked into Princess Taina's eyes. They were quite pretty, brown and dark, but I thought I detected a hint of something in them, some fear. I wanted to make that gone--I hate having that sort of control, I hate making people feel uncomfortable. But I still hadn't made a decision when I opened my mouth. "Your Highness... I... No, damn it. This isn't a problem. You are a paying passenger on the merchant vessel Al-Ki, right? Well, I'm her captain. I don't have to take this shit," I said, firmly. "You're getting to Tan Palyra if there's anything I can do to make it happen."

Relief flooded her features so completely that the contrast took me by surprise. "Oh thank you, thank you." She briefly covered her muzzle with her hands. "I don't know what to say. Back at Hamina I heard Joe talking about refugees, and I..."

"Joe apparently has a bigger problem with them than I do," I said. "I don't know why exactly." I watched her intently--she was still unwinding from what I guessed were days if not weeks of pent-up tension. Living like a wanted man. "Your Highness--"

"Please call me Taina, then," she said. I clicked my tongue in a bit of surprise. It was shocking to me when she said I could call her Kristina, you'll recall... it struck me that royalty should be accorded yet more deference. But then, I suppose we don't have royalty anymore, do we? Well. If you don't count the industry magnates.

"Taina." I acknowledged.

She shook her head and corrected my pronunciation with what was almost a smile. There were two vowels in 'Tai,' apparently.

I don't speak Karelian, but I tried, and she seemed to accept my effort the second time. "Taina, then... again I guess I'll ask, how much does anyone know about where you are?"

Her shoulders raised in a half-shrug. "I think... my father knows because I told him that I was fleeing. He was going to tell the Northland but... I think undesirable people have a spy with them, the information might fall into the wrong hands, if they knew where I was."

"Does he know that you were at Hamina?"

"No, I told him I was going by land through the Grand Republic to the Naffis Sea."

I scratched my chin. "That's something. Who would be out to get you?"

She stared distantly at something I couldn't see--maybe that no-one could see--for a while before answering. "The country is very close to being in a true civil war. Karelia is still divided, and... most of the country supports the monarchy, but... the Gaarderriken, you know, they've moved to support the socialist rebellion, the workers' riots in Tampere and so on. They would be looking for me. So would the socialists."

"Where are the loyalties of the Karelian military?"

Her eyes searched for something in her mind. "With my father. I think. They are for now." She shook her head slowly. "Socialist Karelian military units might be out and about too."

"What would they do if they found you?"

"Take me back to Karelia. To the royal palace, with my family."

Stupidly I asked, "Is that bad?" although as soon as I said it I realised that obviously she was fleeing for a reason.

She looked at me directly now. I could tell Taina was trying to keep her emotions in check--she seemed on the verge of tears, and her body looked strained, put upon--as it had, not five minutes earlier, before I made my decision. "Think," she said so softly I almost couldn't hear it, "about the Romanovs, hmm?"

Well if it was all the same I didn't want to--had seen some pictures, read some stories in the pulp magazines. "I think that might be a little... extreme, don't you?"

"They're very angry in my country," she said. She had to stop to collect her thoughts, slow her breathing. "They want someone to blame. Someone to hurt."

"And you think your life is in danger?"

"They shot Anastasia in cold blood," Taina said, her voice a harsh whisper. "That's what angry people do. Afraid people. Downtrodden, upset people. They shoot helpless innocents and leave them to bleed to death with no one to hear their cries for help."

Taina's words were piercing, and I was left answerless. "Well..." The sympathy she felt for the Gaarderrike royal family was interesting--they'd not had so much support in the Union, from what I could recall.

"The rioters, they don't know what's going to happen to them. But I think they probably know what's going to happen to my father and mother," the princess said. "My brothers." She bit her lip. "Angry people," she began again and I suppose she couldn't say anything else, because she stopped.

"Do you think you'll be safe in the Transnarrows, then?" I asked.

She didn't say anything. I let time drift to a halt, gave her the chance to think. "Yes, I do," she said, eventually. "I think I'll be safe there."

I nodded, let out my breath through my nose in a bit of a dramatic sigh. "Then we're getting there. I swear it."

Taina smiled at me. "That's good to hear. I suppose I should trust you." She laughed ruefully. "Well I guess I haven't any others to trust now, do I?" I lifted my hands in a shrug. "I wish there was something someone could do about the rest of my family. I'm worried about them. There's so much pressure on them, and so little support..."

"I thought Britannia had promised to assist if requested to do so."

The princess shook her head slightly. "The Northland doesn't want to get involved. The politicians in Britannia may make these promises but... the rest of the nation, you know, all the countryside and so on, they don't want to risk another war. Not so soon, not after the last one. And I think they resent that we didn't do more in the Great War." She sounded a little bitter--at whom, I didn't know.

"I always thought you did your part," I told her.

"I may think that too," she said, her voice soft again. "We fought, after all. There were battles--my father and his two sons were in charge of many of the attacks... but." She looked up at the sky, squinted into the bright sun. "Try telling that to a country that lost a generation of its youth fighting far from home, on a continent that their homeland was isolated from. I lived a sheltered life during the war of course but I volunteered once, with a nurses' corps. It was a... a proper thing to do, very wise politically."

"Were you on the front lines?"

"Close enough to know what was happening out there. So much blood... oceans of it. I wonder if they're still sorting them out, Saint Peter and all, all the dead. And then the people who weren't dead, at least when I was there, oh... maybe that was worse." I gestured sympathetically. "Did you serve?" she asked--curious, though, not accusing.

"No," I shook my head. "I was above the optimal age, too old--wasn't worth it. And I had a ship, so I was more valuable to them as a captain than as a doughboy."

"This ship?"

"Yeah," I confirmed. "We... in the very early days, before the Union got involved, we ran ammunition and guns illegally to the Northland and the Republic. Then war was declared and we were just another little conscripted merchant ship."

Taina gestured towards the front of the ship. "Is that where you got that from?" A tarp on the forecastle covered an old machine gun. I wondered for half a second how she knew that.

"No. Those we bought surplus after the war. When people started reporting pirates, criminals on the east coast. Rum-runners, some of them. Probably some of them running stuff that's a little worse. We, uh, got a license to mount those. There's another one aft, by the crane." I pointed in the direction of the stern.

"Oh, that makes sense. Have you even been attacked?"

"Not yet. Hopefully," I said, "we never will be."

She nodded. "Hopefully." Taina looked around, taking in the horizon. "You'd think you'd be safe on the sea. It's so... empty. I bet you could disappear forever if you wanted." She sounded a little wistful.

"Well," I said. "Lots of people do. For better or for worse... I tend to think that... the sea..." I apologised for my clumsiness and she smiled but said nothing. I put together new words and tried again. "It's like that poem, you know the one you read. The lonely sea. Well it's a mixed blessing, really. Part of the appeal is that you can be so distant from anyone else. But then, part of the danger is that too. Even in the Karelian Sea I'm sure there are places and times where you could fire distress flare after distress flare and no-one would ever see them."

"Given a choice between the risk of being alone and the risk of being surrounded by people, I think I might take being alone," she confided.

"I don't think anyone would begrudge you that," I said to her.

"People, as far as I'm concerned, are just as dangerous as the worst typhoon."

I looked at her. "You haven't ever lived through a good typhoon, I'm guessing." You may guess that I had done so, and you would be right. In particular I was thinking about an especially nasty storm north of the Westland Maritimes, when the ship had heeled over until the arm of the crane kissed the swells of the sea, and an errant wave knocked one of the lifeboats clean off--davit and all. Very, very little can compare with the fury of an angered ocean.

"I have, once, actually," she said. "On the royal yacht. But even so... something I keep thinking about is that earthquakes and floods and on and on, all the things God visits on us. They're sort of impartial. People, though, you know... they make a choice to be destructive. Make a choice to kill and torture. Hurricanes don't make that choice."

"I suppose that's a good point," I admitted.

"That's why I'm so worried about my family," Taina said. "I can't even pray to a god, because I don't know what he could do. Sometimes I think we've grown up so much he can't control us anymore. Certainly, I don't think he's controlling those mobs outside the palace. I hope he's not controlling the executioner, in the end, when their little revolution succeeds."

"If it does."

She gave a short laugh framed by shakily-drawn breaths. She was getting emotional again. "It will. What can stop it? This... socialism. It's gotten into everything. And they're going to... " she shut her eyes tightly. The fur on her eyelids looked slightly wet to me now and she apparently felt the same way because she brushed at them absently.

I put my arm around her and she suddenly opened her eyes and turned to me, tears present but momentarily forgotten. "That's a little presumptuous of you, isn't it?"

I looked at her wearily. "I'm not courting you, miss. You looked like you could use some comfort."

She seemed to think about this. Then she leaned on my shoulder. "I suppose I do. It's a confusing time, sort of... scary."

"We'll do all right."

I could feel her nod against my shoulder. "I hope so. Right now I guess I'm just taking my comfort in this lonely sea."

STARDUST AND SECRETS



Taina stayed next to me like that for some minutes--probably twenty or so--before my attention was suddenly drawn to a dot on the horizon. I rose to fetch my glasses and felt her stir as I did so. She thanked me quietly and sat up straight. "What's going on?" she asked, consciousness apparently returning slowly.

"I think there's a ship on the horizon. Just want to see who it is," I told her.

Putting the heavy binoculars to my eyes I scanned the seas until I found the dot again. "It's a ship all right," I said. "I think it's a Union steamship. Probably heading south. Karelia or a southern Prussian port."

"Is that a problem?" she sounded anxious.

"I don't think so. They're the good guys," I said. "I guess I should try to get hold of them."

She followed me to the wheelhouse, watched intently as I first checked lines on my map, then took the radio microphone off the hook and switched it on. "Steamer bearing south at thirty east by sixty-five north, can you hear me?"

There was the crackle of static, and then a clear voice cut through it. "This is the Union steamer Stardust, I've got you loud and clear. Who is this?"

I turned to Taina. "See? Friendly ship." Then I clicked the switch on the radio mike. "This is the Al-Ki, I'm heading north, say, thirty east by sixty-four and a half, maybe."

"Plowman?"

"That's the one. Do I know you?"

"Nah, man," the voice on the radio said. "I think you might have been a little drunk at the time." Over the radio I laughed and admitted that it was possible.

Half an hour later, having fetched Joe from belowdecks and cautioned Taina to stay invisible--advice she took readily--the Stardust was floating alongside. "Bill!" I heard a shouted voice across the distance, and my eyes fell upon the skipper of the Stardust. He was an older man, the perfect picture of a captain--grey and, one got the impression, probably somewhat salty. And he wore a natty uniform.

I waved. "Pleased to meet you!" I shouted back.

The Stardust was a ship much like mine--a little less well-kept, a little shorter. She had two huge cranes on her stern and I supposed that she probably moonlighted as a fishing trawler--it wasn't unheard of in the business. But with her wide beam and deep hull she was built on the same mould as the Al-Ki, the Trans-Eastern light merchanter vessel.

The two ships drifted slowly closer, with Joe and I watching carefully to make sure they didn't actually collide. Presently someone on the Stardust tossed a rope over the narrowing gap and we secured our positions. A few minutes later, with a gangplank down, the grey captain stood aboard the Al-Ki's decks.

"Scott McKade," he introduced himself with a warm handshake and a clap on my shoulder. "We met in Oceanside, six months ago." I nodded, still having absolutely no recollection of the man. He was a collie too I think, although one of those black and white ones you usually see with a crazy look in their eyes. His were not crazy; they danced in a friendly manner--but I still had no idea who he was.

"I don't rightly recall that," I said, hesitantly. "But I'm pleased to meet you all the same."

He laughed heartily. "You bet me you could beat me at darts."

"And did I?"

He nodded. "Drunk as a fox, no less. My aim's not that good anymore."
I shrugged. "I must've gotten lucky."

"Maybe." He looked out to the horizon. "You been monitoring the wireless news?"

"Nope," I shook my head. "Anything exciting?"

"You bet. Although..." He gestured to the ship's superstructure. "Inside, maybe?"

My cabin has a desk in it and I sat down at it; McKade took an opposing seat. Joe had gone off to watch the ropes, leaving the two of us alone. I set out a pair of glasses and poured first him, than myself, a drink from some of the wine I happen to keep aboard for just these occasions. He nodded, thanked me graciously.

"So you were coming up from the south," he said. "Where were you docked?"

"Hamina," I said. "Taking on some spices from the Grand Republic, shipping them down to the Westlands."

"You know about all the riots in Karelia?"

I shook my head noncommittally. "Heard some stuff from the merchants, but all the unrest hasn't reached the coast yet."

He indicated his understanding with a dip of his head. "Good to hear, good to hear. Well anyway there's big riots down south in Tampere, the capital. The royal family's under siege from all these... communists," he said, using the new word for the revolutionaries. "It's hell down there, Bill. Most of the country still supports the monarchy, but these rioters have got the capital building completely surrounded and they're threatening violence. Now..." he leaned forward, conspiratorially. "I guess the crown princess wasn't in the palace at the time and they think she's escaped, somehow."

I nodded. "Interesting."

"Well, the line of succession falls to her if anything happens to the rest of the royal family. So everybody's got a massive manhunt going on. Both sides, people want to find her." He sipped his wine. "They say she's in the Naffis Sea and the Gaarderriken and the Grand Republic are fighting for control of the straits." I nodded. "A couple people say she was seen up in the north but most people agree she's, uh, way down in the south. Hell, maybe in Assuli by now." He looked at me. "You don't happen to have a princess stashed anywhere, do ya?"

I chuckled. "Not unless she's a stowaway. Though I'll tell you, I was mighty worried about those riots. Hell, this probably won't turn a profit. I'm only running half-full." He made a noise of sympathy as he took another drink.

"Big news, though," he began again, "is why I'm stopping all the friendly traffic heading north through the Karelian Sea." He looked at me intently.

I furrowed my brow. "What's going on?"

"Yesterday the Union zeppelin Powhatan reported a reinforced Gaarderrike protected cruiser squadron moving around the Great Cape and down into the sea. They're staying in international waters at the moment but... heavens to Betsy, I wouldn't want to get caught up in that."

"What are they doing?"

"Nobody knows. Some people think they're trying to start a rebellion in north Karelia, where support for the king is strongest. Me... I think they're just waiting for something interesting to happen."

I meditated on this. "How big is the flotilla?"

"It was cloudy--the Powhatan's skipper said he couldn't be certain. Pretty good sized, though, and they've got some guns."

I drew a thoughtful breath and finally sighed. "What's the Union advice in situations like this?"

"Get the hell out," he said. "Avoid them if you can, at all costs."

"Good idea."

"I think so. Don't got a choice, what with the stuff I got in my holds." McKade frowned, stuck his tongue against the inside of his cheek so it made a visible bulge. "For what it's worth the Union has a couple of destroyers if you can make it out of the Sea. They're watching for the communists and they're trying to protect the shipping coming out of the Karelian Sea, 'til everything calms down."

"Are they advising the Marine to stay out of the area?"

"Not yet."

I clicked my tongue. "Protected cruisers, though?"

McKade shrugged at me. "Yeah. I've been trying to pass the word on since I found out. They haven't transmitted it publicly... I guess they're trying to keep it a secret."

"Thanks."

"It's not a problem. I've only seen you and the SS Mustang, so it's not like I've lost a whole lot of time. And I'm carrying textiles, I figure they'll keep."

"Probably."

"You look sort of concerned," Scott McKade said.

"Well..." I thought aloud. "They won't stop a Union-flagged merchant ship. They'd be crucified in the League of Nations, especially if any Union destroyers do get involved... I'd think we'd be safe." I said this out loud; I was thinking, however, about the secret I was trying to keep.

The Stardust's captain drained his drink. "Hope so. I won't be coming back up for at least two days, probably a week... Gives 'em lots of time to get settled in. Blockade the Karelians even, maybe. So if they've a mind to board me... I can't stop 'em or anything."

I shook my head. "Same here, cap'n, same here."

We talked idly for another ten or twenty minutes before he allowed that he probably needed to leave and I saw him off. Joe and I undid the ropes and cast them back onto the deck of the other ship. We drifted apart, and then the smoke pouring from the stack of the Stardust built and she moved off under her own power. I eyed the ship until I could no longer make out individual people, and then turned to Joe.

"We've got a bit of an issue," I said. "Captain McKade says that the Gaarderriken have a protected cruiser squadron moving south into the Karelian Sea. Yesterday they were rounding the Cape, so they're undoubtedly getting close to our area now."

"What are we going to do?"

"We're going to hug the coast, see if we can't stay hidden against the cliffs. We don't produce nearly so much smoke as they do... maybe they won't notice us."

"What if they do?"

I had no idea. Fighting was out of the question. "We'll play it by ear."

"Kiel?"

I shook my head. "No. This ship doesn't put into port until Tan Palyra." He nodded, accepted my decision without demur. "How much ammunition do we have for the machine guns?" They were useless in a fight--they were too light to be of much use, and neither of us could fire them very well anyway. But it was reassuring to think about them.

"Two hundred rounds each. Fore and aft, in those watertight boxes. They haven't been checked for... oh, half a year at least."

"Check them," I said, firmly. "Just in case." Joe gave me a crisp, military salute, and I grinned. "We won't fire them but... might as well have 'em ready." He started towards the stern, and I climbed back into the wheelhouse and swung the bow towards the coast.

THE FIRST NIGHT



We stopped for the night about a mile off the coast. I clicked on the running lights and idled the throttle--by and large it wasn't worth the effort to stop the diesels, then start them again in the morning. We had decided, Joe and I, that it wasn't worth the risk of trying to camouflage our location at night--we could turn the lights off and be invisible, yes, but to both the warships and any civilians who might be headed along the same path. Unfortunately the sky was moonless and pitch black; there was little visibility.

I fixed sandwiches and coffee in the mess; Taina accepted the meal I proffered gratefully. We talked a little over dinner--meaningless things. My life, her life. Karelia--about which she spoke, despite everything, with love and passion. The ocean, some more--I felt she might be swayed, might grow to understand the appeal of the open ocean. Maybe--even if she was a wolf.

We didn't sail at night except under very special circumstances. Joe and I tended to work eight or nine hour shifts, driving the Al-Ki from four in the morning to eight at night--making use of all the daylight, when you could see other ships, ice floes, hidden rocks. With a larger crew we could've travelled more, at night, but in the end it simply wasn't worth the risk. I used to think you could make out plenty in the little light that was still visible at night, but a close call with a reef down in the Maritimes had changed that--I was a cautious man, and from my point of view it just wasn't worth the risk. I'd been thinking about putting spotlights on the ship's bow to illuminate the sea in front of us, but it probably wouldn't have been enough, so I didn't bother. And we stopped, each night, weighed anchor when we could to make it easier to position ourselves in the morning. I'd lowered the anchor with Joe at seven thirty. We wouldn't start to pick up on our real schedule until the next day.

After dinner I went back to my cabin and thought about strategy. There were maps on my wall, and I traced my finger over the route we would take, planned out detours and other paths in case we were followed. A protected cruiser squadron could seriously be a bad thing, if Taina wanted to stay hidden. They would board us--she would be found out, inevitably, and the game would end there. Simplicity itself.

We couldn't fight back, but we could run. The Gaarderriken simply didn't have enough ships to have every corridor in the northern Eastern Sea blocked off. So they had a bunch of guns off the Karelian coast--so what? We could make it past them and be home free--all the protected cruisers in the world wouldn't change that. The Al-Ki was a far sight faster than anything the Red Navy could field to catch us. We might well be their hare, but the greyhounds were too slow to make any use of it. I patted the bulkhead affectionately.

It would be easy.

MORNING



I awoke into a practised, well-worn routine. Three thirty, get up. Visit the head. Take a short shower, grab some coffee in the mess. Then up to the wheelhouse to winch the anchor up. Open up the throttles and be on your way by ten past four--if that. Today it only took thirty-five minutes, and white water was already foaming behind the Al-Ki by the time the clock struck the hour. I was invigorated.

Although the sun hadn't truly risen, the sky was lightening enough that I felt safe moving--and as far north as we were, full light came earlier than usual. It was a blessing during the summer months, a curse in the winter--but then, everything about the Arctic was a curse then, wasn't it? At five, an hour into the day's travels, I took a quick break to fix a breakfast--oatmeal, more coffee, the luxury of an orange. No grog on the Al-Ki.

I sat in the wheelhouse and watched the sunrise over the flat, unbroken ocean to the east. It cast itself in bright colours, threw vibrant splashes against the walls of my ship, which I didn't mind. Sometimes, morning or evening, you can catch a flash of green for just a split-second when the light's at just the right place but today I missed it. I missed it most days--just wasn't looking at the right time. It was hard to know exactly when your eyes should fix themselves on the horizon.

By the time the sun was finally visible--I beat the lazy thing up by a fair spell--we were well underway, and I was settled into the business of ship's chores--washing the deck, the superstructure, checking joins and struts, always with an eye out for anything unusual or threatening. An iceberg, a jutting rock, another ship. A white whale. Protected cruisers.

But there was nothing. At eight I considered myself done. There was still no movement on the ship and for all that anyone stirred the Al-Ki and I might have been alone in the world. I downed another cup of coffee, watching the coastline drift by us as we fled north, up towards the open ocean. As the hours passed the day seemed so normal that I began to doubt Scott McKade and his mythical Gaarderrike cruisers. They were nowhere to be seen. I suspected finally that we had passed them, and a great weight lifted itself from my mind.

At eleven thirty, I spied Taina on the ship's bow, holding carefully to the railing as she walked the perimeter of the ship. I wondered how long she had been awake--having to that point seen neither hide nor hair of the other two persons aboard. But I didn't ask, and presently she vanished again.

At twelve even I heard clunking footsteps on the ladder and Joe's fiery head appeared over the white edge. I waved to him.

"Anything unusual, boss?"

I shook my head. "Not a damn thing. If there are Gaarderriken out here, I'm done worrying about them."

Joe bobbed his head. "All right. Well I'll take over from here if you want, skipper." I tapped the ship's wheel with my hands and then lifted them palms out, towards the fox. He stepped forwards to the column and took the shiny brass circle with his own two paws. "Good day for a sail," he said.

I looked out at the sea, then nodded. "Clear as polished glass, and the barometer's not giving us anything to complain about either." Joe sighed heavily, and I left him to his thoughts in the wheelhouse.

THE HORIZON



As was my custom, I wrote a little in the diary that I keep, after I'd left the wheelhouse and retired to my cabin. I've always found that it helps to keep my thoughts straight--if I don't they wander and when I really want to remember I'm at a loss. Sometimes I think I'm going senile a wee bit early, but maybe I'm just a worrier.

I had finished my entry for the day--it was curt; they tend to be--and was finishing off the bread I'd made the night before when Joe's head poked into my cabin. "Boss," he said, "I think you need to come topside." Though I caught the urgency in his voice I tilted my head and asked for clarification anyway. I'd been wool-gathering.

"The, uh, the Gaarderriken," Joe stammered--he was not one to unreasonably stammer--"they've really been working on their protected cruisers lately..." My teeth clacked together, just barely missed my tongue, and I jumped up and sprinted for the wheelhouse.

Yes, there they were--black dots on the horizon, beneath a larger black smear that was the smoke from their stacks. I grabbed my binoculars and scanned for them. They were easy to find.

"Christ almighty," I breathed, as they came into focus. "I'll be damned if that's a protected cruiser..." It was too large, at this distance it appeared longer by a third than it should've, and her superstructure was all wrong. The Red Navy had afloat no protected cruisers that looked like what I now saw. "Joe, take us hard to port, swing us into shore."

"We'll lose manoeuvring room that way," he cautioned.

"God damn it Joe, hard to port!" He said nothing further, but I could feel the ship begin to shift beneath my feet, and I had to turn to keep the Gaarderriken in view. "Joe, has there been any indication that they see us?"

"No sir, not that I know." I made the sign of the cross on my chest and prayed for continued secrecy. At the same time I caressed the Al-Ki's railing and whispered to her of the situation's importance.

The ships sailed on. They grew larger as they came ever closer, and yet they gave no sign that we had been spotted. I manned the helm and Joe kept track of them. Thirty minutes passed this way, and then an hour. I could see them clearly, and I thanked the Lord that the Al-Ki gave off as little smoke as she did. I watched, waited--as soon as our distance began to widen again, I would know that we had won.

But it never did. "I... I don't like the looks of this, skipper. The lead ship is turning to starboard. Either they're heading back to Moscow, or they've spotted us, sir." I took the binoculars from him and looked for myself. Sure enough, the large ship in front seemed to shorten as less of her profile was presented to us. I swore an oath.

"Take the helm, Joe." I looked at the map in the wheelhouse, plotted positions and drew quick lines. I shook my head and went through the process again. "All right, Joe, this is it. There ain't no way we're getting out of here if they don't want us to. Does it look like they're going to reverse their course?"

"No sir," he said, his voice a little raw. "They're moving to intercept. It looks like they've split into two columns. One of them is staying on their old course, the large ship in the fore of the group is leading a detachment our way."

"They're too close," I told him. "At flank speed, they'll still cut us off before we can get away." I looked at the cliffs, half a mile to the west. "Should we try to take her into shore?"

"They'll follow."

"Not with that tub they won't," I said. "They'll have to send gunboats after us... maybe launches from the... dreadnought, whatever it is."

"Just buys us time, then."

I swore again. "I think we're gonna get boarded, Joe." He looked at me and on his face was written his agreement with my prediction. He did not speak. "We've got awhile, though. We can plan out a strategy."

He stared incredulously. "Such as?"

"We'll hide the princess, and her luggage. Send out a distress signal to the Union destroyers McKade told me about. Hope they don't try to take the ship. I don't think they're going to want to cause an incident, do you?"

"Not if they have a reason to," Joe agreed. "So you say don't put up any resistance?"

"We don't have anything to hide," I said. "Well, we won't anyway."

"Where are we going to put her royal highness?" he asked. I shook my head, thinking about possible answers already.

"Probably not the cargo spaces," I thought aloud. "They'll look there if they've a mind to find anything." Joe nodded. I had committed the blueprints of the ship to memory, of course, and I reviewed them quickly in my mind. "There's a compartment next to the refrigerated hold," I recalled. "That's where the air from cold storage gets vented to..."

"Big enough for a person?"

"Yeah," I said. "Big enough for three or four, actually... it used to hold the machinery for an auxiliary crane the last captain ripped out. It'd be cold though... freezing, maybe. I'd have to seal the vents from the refrigerator."

"That won't be too tough. Simple job with a wrench and a hammer," he pointed out. "But we'll have to get on that right away... it'll take them maybe forty-five minutes to close the distance, but they'll have a good view of the ship if they've got a halfway decent spyglass maybe twenty minutes before then."

"Not much time," I confirmed. "All right. Get Taina and her belongings together quickly, send her aft. When the Gaarderriken are thirty minutes out, start sending a distress call. CQD or SOS, doesn't matter. Actually," I thought. "Don't. Don't use Morse. Stay on the Union emergency band."

"They'll be monitoring that..."

"Good for them. Give 'em something to think about." I started down the ladder to the deck.

THE CELL



Joe was right. It was a simple enough matter to seal off the vent space. It didn't even take a hammer--the wrench worked fine for that. It was however decidedly cold, and although I knew it to be false I couldn't help thinking that it got colder with each passing minute.

"How's it coming down there?" I heard Taina's Northland-accented voice call down to me.

"Another few minutes," I said. "Just a few more open hatches to bang shut. They've all stuck open--must've been two years since I last checked 'em."

"Ok..." the Karelian said. "Joe says he's started hailing the Union and he hasn't a response yet."

"Give it time," I told her, wrenching another vent shut. God, but there seemed to be dozens of them. "They'll come."

"Boss!" I heard Joe shout. "You better be done right this minute because if they can't see clearly enough to pick out individual people on deck, they're blind as bats and about as stupid! It may be too late already!" I flipped someone off--Joe, the Gaarderriken, God--and hammered shut another of the metal grilles. No use--too many of them left.

"Taina," I said. "Toss your luggage down here and the jump in yourself. I'll finish sealing them off and then you stay put, you hear?"

"I hear," she replied. A canvas bag hit the bottom of the cell two feet from me and I cringed. Then she landed softly on top of it, and we were then hidden from view. I went back to work. Presently a shadow fell across the sunlight streaming in through the open vent top. I looked up and saw Joe.

"You done?"

"No," I said. "Give me another five minutes."

"You don't have it, skipper. If you're not done now, either get up here or I'm closing the vent on you both."

I looked up at him, wrench in hand. "All right. Lock it down tight. You're the Al-Ki's first mate. I'm back in Port Rennys with... oh, 'flu or something. Make it up."

"Why am I out here?" he asked.

"Um... you were offloading cargo. Oh! I took a zep home to be with my family, how's that? I'm ok, my pop's not. You're just getting home as fast as you can after the unrest and all."

He frowned. "All right." It got dark again as he began to slide the vent's cover back. "Good luck," he said as it was almost closed. "I'll do what--" and then it fell into place and he was cut off. We were in pitch blackness. I took a flashlight from the toolbox and clicked it on. The battery seemed to be well-charged, for it cast a reassuring yellow glow over the cell I now occupied with the princess. I looked at her from my position, sitting on the floor. She was still standing, and the torch cast her face in intermittent shadow as she turned and took in her surroundings. She looked worried.

"This was not quite how I was planning this," I said.

She nodded, still looking at the small enclosure. "I understand, I understand." She didn't sound accusing, which I thought was good. "Nobody plans on the Gaarderriken being out and about. It's cold in here," she noted, offhandedly.

"That's not quite how I was planning this either." I tapped the wall with my wrench. "The cold air from our refrigerated compartment blows through here. I'm trying to close them but there are a lot of vents, some of them pretty stubborn."

She laughed a little. "That's ok, Bill. I'm from Karelia after all. It's not like I'm any stranger to the cold."

"I'm not either," I said. "All the same, you're not dressed for it and neither am I." To punctuate this I forced the last vent closed. "Five minutes, I told him. Five minutes." I shook my head in the flashlight's glow. "But no, he couldn't give me that." I stood up slowly, checking the vents again as I did so.

I faced Taina. She looked tired, I thought. Not just physically tired, but emotionally exhausted as well. I felt sorry for her, but there wasn't much I could do. There was nothing to see in the small little room, but her eyes darted about anyway, as though she were looking for the Gaarderriken then, waiting for them to appear inside.

The vent was too insulated to tell what was going on above deck--curiously; I wondered how well the air circulation was if I couldn't even hear the outside. But I could pick up vibrations, little movements. I think she could too, for her pointed ears cast about, picking up the little rumbles and shudders, trying to piece them together into a picture of what was going on.

"I don't think we can tell much," I said.

"We're in the dark..." she breathed, wonderingly and only a little unnecessarily. "No way to know what's going on until that vent opens and some brute with a red star pokes his snout in."

I was again amazed by the anger her voice sometimes acquired. "Yeah," I conceded. "Something like that."

She sighed. "I wish we could know a little more."

So did I. I said so, and pointed out that it was really too late to do much about that anyway; she looked at me and smiled thinly. There was fear written into her countenance, little hints of it in her soft eyes and the twitches of her facial muscles. "Bill," she asked me quietly. "Are we safe here?"

I gave it a second's thought. "Yeah. We're safe here."

"You promise?" she sounded like a small child, afraid, and I was torn between honesty and a desire to comfort her.

I sighed. "No. I can't promise anything." I was surprised--had thought she couldn't look more dejected, but my pronouncement seemed to hurt her. "Well," I corrected myself. "No, I guess I can promise you one thing, miss. We're not going down without a fight."

She looked at me, peered into my eyes, my thoughts, my soul. "You mean it?"

I felt myself nod. "Yeah. I mean it."

"That's good enough then," she said, reassured. And suddenly, I felt her lean against me. I'd underestimated how close we stood, I suppose, and her move almost knocked me over--not because of her weight but because of how surprising it was. But I took it in stride, and put my arms around her a little hesitantly. After a second or two she reciprocated the gesture. She sighed heavily. "Thank you, you know. For everything."

I shrugged my shoulders--just a little. "I don't think I could live with myself if I didn't do what I could. You know me, the white knight and all." She laughed, very softly.

We were quiet for a minute, again letting the silence soak us thoroughly. She had laid her muzzle crosswise on my chest and we stood like that, not moving, while outside the ocean pounded its ceaseless rhythm and above us a drama we couldn't guess at was being played out. Then Taina lifted her head and looked at me. "You know," she said. "This is the closest I've ever been to someone who wasn't my family."

"Really," I responded, leaving it up to her to interpret what I said as a statement or a question.

"They always controlled very carefully who I consorted with," she explained. "I suppose in time I would have looked for a mate, some prince or the like, but there hasn't been the time and it's all been so... unsettled."

"I see." I thought about that. She wasn't very old, it was true--in her late twenties, maybe. I'd struck up my first romance when I was still in school, I recalled, marvelling at the gap between our experiences. "We... we peasants do things a little differently, I suppose."

She grinned, perhaps the first real smile that I had seen cross her face. "You do." She cast her eyes down for a moment, then fixed them on me. "But... perhaps that isn't foregone..."

"What do you mean?"

"I've never been kissed, you know," she said, as though she hadn't heard me.

"Well," I said. "I suppose all in good time, or something like that." She stared intently at me. I felt my knees go a little weak. "What are you suggesting?"

"That for right now, on your boat, out at sea, maybe I could be as much a peasant as you are."

I blinked in surprise. Taina pressed herself a little closer to me, and I could feel my throat constrict as she did so. "Well... that..." Her muzzle was scant inches from mine, and I could feel each breath, warm on my nose in the cold of the refrigerated room. "I mean..." Conflicting thoughts bounced crazily in my head. She was overwhelmingly close, though. I felt myself drawn ever nearer to her.

Our lips met just barely. That first touch was hardly a kiss, but she tilted her muzzle and with her arms at my back she pulled me into her. Her lips were soft and warm, and the pressure she put on me was firm, but not overbearing. It was I who broke it, after only a few seconds. "What... what is..." I said, almost panting. Her eyes sparkled, and she kissed me again, her lips half open.

This time she was more dedicated. Our tongues touched--briefly at first, and a shiver ran down my spine at the sensation. She seemed to know what to do well enough, and she was insistent. Our lips were pressed surely together, our tongues danced. She was not especially good--not the best by far, even from my experience. But if she was inexperienced, she was enthusiastic, and she kissed me passionately, hungrily.

When we finally separated we were both out of breath, and she giggled. "That's what you peasants do, huh?" I nodded, dumb.

"I'm not certain this is... appropriate," I began, until she silenced me with another quick kiss.

"I don't mind," she said. She looked at me, her eyes filled with a coy feigned sorrow. "And you don't, do you?" Baser instincts I'm accustomed to thinking should be shelved around royalty shouted lewd comments that I wisely ignored. No, I didn't mind. Of course not, not really... it was hard to mind. Even if she was new to the game, she still felt wonderful in my arms.

"No," I said, almost stammering. She grinned again, then slipped from my arms and sat in the cramped space, indicating the bare floor next to her. I sat down as well.

"Now... it may look," she said, "like this is so unusual and... strange." She closed her eyes. "It might be strange, I wouldn't know because I've never been in this position before, you see. But it feels... right." I nodded slowly. She twisted her body and leaned against me, put an arm on my shoulder. I reached my own arms so that they encircled her again. It did feel right. "You're a nice man, Bill," Taina said quietly. "I've always thought I'd... look for someone like that."

"I'm glad you think I'm a nice person," I said, trying to think of something to say.

"Well, I do. I've never... been close to a man like I am now. But I... I used to read things, in the books in the library. Things about romance. I talked to... friends of mine, servant friends and the like... just to learn, to think about what to expect."

"What brings this up?"

"I don't know." She looked up at me. "I just know that I was... scared. I still am, but when you held me like that it didn't seem so bad out there, and I found I didn't want you to let go. I wanted to be closer." She looked at the ground, then at me again. "Is this what love is like, Mr Plowman?"

I sighed and tried to think of how I'd explain love to someone. "It could be, I guess," I managed--not my finest orating, but I was in a difficult spot. "I don't know that anyone knows how to explain love. It just is."

"Then I think I might love you, Mr Plowman." I felt her lay her weight now full against me, pressing softly into my coat. For my part I sat in a stunned silence, shocked out of my capacity for speech. I wondered even right at that moment why I hadn't seen the comment coming--but it still hit me hard.

"I..."

"I'm not going to ask if you love me," she said. "I don't think that would be proper. But I do think that I harbour feelings for you, Bill. I don't know how to explain them but that they're... very strong."

I held her a little more tightly, hoped that she would take this as my response. Apparently she did, because she didn't speak. I reached up and turned off the light and we just sat, enjoying the moment and the feel of each other's bodies, until I began to drift off, suddenly comfortable even deep in the cold bowels of a tramp steamer.



The vent was open a crack--a few beleaguered strands of daylight poked their way into the cell. I felt Taina sit bolt upright, and draw a sharp, startled breath. I tried to reassure her silently, embraced her more firmly. With the groan of metal on metal the vent slid a little more, and I could feel Taina's breath increase in rapidity with every passing second.

Suddenly the vent was open all the way, and sunlight filled the cell. I gently pulled myself from the princess and stood, blinking in the harsh sun. A head poked into the chamber. Joe.

"You son of a bitch," I told him, suddenly laughing with released tension. "I thought you were a communist."

"Nyet, tovarischi," Joe said, grinning broadly. "Ni gavaryu pa russki." I shook my fist at him. "You need any help getting out?"

"No, I think we'll be ok." I reached a hand down to Taina; felt her grip it as I pulled her to a standing position. "How long has it been?"

"Almost three and a half hours," Joe said. "I waited to get you until they were out of sight."

On the deck, the three of us conversed. "So were we boarded?" Taina wanted to know.

"Yeah," Joe said. "They sent a launch over with a crew of soldiers. I kept the ship stationary, boss, helped 'em aboard--figured it wasn't worth the trouble." I nodded. "They wanted to search the ship."

"And?" I asked.

"I protested. I said that by boarding a Union ship they were violating two international agreements and that I wasn't bound to allow them free reign."

"Did they buy that?"

"No. The lead soldier was very pleasant. He said..." Joe affected a Gaarderrike accent. "'Those agreements were signed by the Tsar. When we burned the royalty, we burned their treaties as well.' Very dramatic." Next to me, Taina shivered a little. "But I played them long along to make my story sound sincere, and then I caved in when one of them drew a revolver. They weren't very thorough, actually. Went through all the rooms, the storage closets, the cargo holds. It would have taken them some looking anyway, to find that machinery room you guys were in, but they didn't even try."

"That's good."

Taina spoke next. "So we're safe now?"

Joe shrugged. "I think so. That's the bulk of their fleet in the Eastern Sea. And we'll reach the open ocean... soon." I looked at the map of our area in my head, calculated our position. The weight that I felt lift from my shoulders almost seemed tangible.

WHAT MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE



It was very late in the afternoon then--almost evening. Joe watched the boat, kept it on course, and I retired back to my cabin, glad that the Gaarderrike hurdle had been cleared. I dozed in the heavy chair behind my desk, and was half-asleep when someone rapped on the door. I told them to enter--it was the princess.

I stood from behind the desk and we exchanged brief pleasantries. She sat down on my bed. "Joe says he's going to stop for the night soon. The light's getting a little bad." I looked at my watch--it was nearly ten; Joe had run the ship two hours longer than normal, probably making up for lost time.

"That's understandable," I replied. "We lost a fair bit of the day, standing dead in the water."

She nodded. "Are we really set very far back?" I shook my head in response.

"No, especially not if he's run the ship as late as he did." She seemed relieved. "Taina," I began. "About today... ah, what happened in that cell..."

Taina looked at me. "If you wanted to know, Mr Plowman, I didn't say what I said idly or lightly." I dragged a chair in front of my bed and sat down opposite her.

"Be that as it may... I... I still don't think that this is a good idea, ma'am." She moved closer and her gaze grew more intense. "I just... can't shake the feeling that it's sort of inappropriate, you know?"

"Why not?"

I put my muzzle into my hands and sighed. "Taina, I don't... if you want me to be as honest as possible... it's not that I don't have feelings for you. I do... but..."

"Is there someone else?"

"No," I said quickly. "It's just a question of... partly, if I started to express my feelings, or let our... relationship, you know, escalate... how long would we have together? Just to the Transnarrows? What if we wanted it to last longer than just five days? What would people think? It's a... difficult choice, you know. I don't want to hurt you, and I can't just ignore my feelings... what can you do?"

"I really like you, Bill," she said. "I think I could see this lasting longer."

"And what would people think, ma'am? What would your parents think--the world?"

"It's an uncommon way, to be sure," she said. "Maybe unheard of. But it's not a problem, being an iconoclast. Sometimes."

"Maybe."

"That's the other choice you could take, you know. We could be unique." She put a hand on my knee. It was warm--I could feel it through my pants. "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood; and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveller, long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth," she spoke softly, in her sweet voice with that lovely accent. "Then took the other, as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear--though as for that, the passing there had worn them really about the same. And both that morning equally lay, in leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the other for another day... yet... knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back..." Taina drew a deep breath, dramatically. "I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--I took the one less travelled by. And that has made all the difference."

It was something about Taina's voice, the insistence and power in her soft elocution, that made everything she said as compelling as it was. I leaned forwards and kissed her, my choice already set in stone. As she kissed back I felt her hands on my shoulders, and suddenly I was atop her on the bed. I tried to extricate myself, muttering a slightly breathless apology, but she put a finger to my lips, silencing me. I rolled to my side and off of her, although she clung to me like a garment and the end effect was that the distance between us did not increase an inch.

Although I'd had to contort my body some and my legs were still off the bed--as were hers--the positioning was not, for all of that, especially uncomfortable and I found that I was content to continue laying there indefinitely. That was not to be; there was a sharp knock on the door and I fairly leapt to my feet. Taina sat up more slowly as I opened the door--not very much. The bed was hidden from view, fortunately.

"I've stopped the ship for the night, boss. I figure we're maybe ten, fifteen miles behind--not much at all."

"That's good to hear--we can make that up tomorrow, I think. Hope, maybe. Any word from the Union?"

He shook his head. "Nope, none at all. My guess is they either missed us coming down, or they aren't close enough to hear us yet."

"All right. Thanks, Joe. " He nodded and I closed the door softly.

When I turned around I found that Taina had repositioned herself so that she lay lengthwise along the bed, although she had propped herself up on an elbow. "Well?"

"Well... we're not very far behind. I'd say we'll still make Tan Palyra in three days, easily. Four on the outside."

She smiled distantly. "That's good to hear. You don't think there'll be anymore unexpected surprises?"

"Well... if I thought there would be, they wouldn't be unexpected." I sat down on the bed. "But no, I'd imagine we're pretty much through. The Karelian sea is one thing--but once we round the cape, it'll be the devil's own work trying to catch us."

I put my hands on my temples and groaned. It had been, you see, a hell of a day--throwing at me situations alternately more stressful and more relaxing than anything my wildest dreams could've produced. There was movement from behind me, then a pointed muzzle on my left shoulder. "Are you ok?" a soft voice asked.

I nodded. "It's been a long day, is all."

"Perhaps," the voice suggested. "You should end it."

It was an excellent idea, not to mention one that I agreed wholeheartedly with. I did not remain conscious much longer, with the metronome of Taina's breathing lulling me to sleep. I was fully aware however, that at that point I could no longer see where the roads had diverged, and I doubted very much whether I should ever come back.

AN UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, BUT MORE BUOYANT



I woke up at my accustomed time the next morning and immediately regretted it. I was tired, this is true. It was cold outside, this was also true. More, though, I was extremely comfortable. With the exception of the fact that we were different colours, an observer would scarcely have been able to tell where Taina ended and I began, so close were we. Ordinarily you could not have motivated me to move from this position if you'd held a gun to my head, and it was only by reminding myself that I was her only hope for salvation that I managed to gather the willpower to separate us.

She was as far as I could tell still fast asleep when I clicked the door shut behind me, which was good as I hadn't wanted to disturb her. Joe, too, was undoubtedly not awake yet, and I sat on the bridge with a cup of coffee and looked out ahead of me. The dawn was still to my right, though by the end of the day we would be well on our way into the Eastern Sea, riding into the sunset. That warmed me, as a sailor, more than the coffee.

As a person, you might have begun to suspect, I was warmed by something else entirely. I decided that I would no longer even pretend to have reservations about the impropriety of the relationship between the princess and myself, which, had it not already transcended boundaries into the realm of love, was certainly threatening to escalate in that fashion. I didn't mind; she didn't mind. Were I more mature, I guess, it might've been a bigger problem.

I did not, however, know what to do about the end of our journey. Everything that happened between Taina and I felt very right, so I didn't question that I might be mistaken in assuming that it was. Unfortunately, the life of royalty and the life of a tramp steamer captain do not intersect in a particularly friendly way, and I wondered how it would be possible to sustain our relationship once the Al-Ki was safely docked in the Transnarrows.

Presuming that, like the scientists keep saying, our species is very old, and presuming that we have fallen in love since the beginning, then the dilemma I faced was as old as sailing itself. Long voyages have been part of the ocean life since the Greeks at least (you may not think of me as a scholar, and I am not, but every saltwater drinker knows the story of Odysseus), and I recalled hearing something about the tomb they'd opened in Assuli several years ago. If King Tut had boats, the sailors on them knew the heartbreak of leaving loved ones behind.

It's a terribly stressful sort of existence for both parties. Joe, I believe, had a sweetheart somewhere--probably in Port Rennys, though this was something he was quite secretive about and I never bothered to pry. I myself had not really been in any sort of relationship since I dove headfirst into the ocean straight out of school. It was not, so near as I could tell, worth the emotional trouble. Well--no. It hadn't been. The slumbering wolf in my cabin made me suspect that it might be now.

Of course, Taina was also no average fisherman's wife, and this could not be discounted either. She had a strong sense of loyalty, I knew, to the Karelian monarchy and was unlikely to simply give it up. Then again, I did not think that I--an uncultured man from an uncultured country, who did not even speak French, let alone Karelian--would be welcome in the court--presuming that the monarchy even survived.

It was something that we were going to have to discuss, obviously. Given a choice I knew I would pick Taina over the open ocean, much as it would pain me. I'm not a great statesman, but I thought I might be able to convince her of the h have my cake and eat it. But I needed that opportunity first, and I still didn't know whether or not it would be presented to me.

Just before true daybreak I swung the ship to its new western course, and from there preceded to divide my time between the scanty bits of navigation that were needed--mostly updating our position on the chart--and daydreaming about the previous day. Wool-gathering as a rule is not particularly conducive to alertness, and I didn't notice when, at about six o'clock, someone joined me on the bridge until they put their arms around me. I had been standing facing the railing, looking east towards the sunrise.

I turned my head back towards her and opened my mouth, but she put a finger to her lips. Then she made an encompassing gesture with her arms towards the colour-streaked area where the sun now clambered laboriously through a field of reds and oranges. "It's better quiet," she breathed. It was. We watched the colours fade into an azure no less glorious, and the silence was broken by nothing but the ocean until I felt her turn around, then turn back, and say--still in a whisper, as though she feared discovery: "there's something on the horizon."

That startled me into action, although it didn't take long for my heart to stop pounding. From the moment I put the glasses to my eyes and perceived the flush-decked four-funnelled silhouettes heading in our direction, I relaxed. I hugged the princess, to her evident surprise, and informed her of the impending arrival of the cavalry. When they drew close enough that I could read a hull number on the lead ship, I felt better still--as though I was in the company of friends. And when the radio crackled to life, I was ecstatic.

"Union-flagged steamship bearing two six zero at latitude six-nine degrees eighteen minutes, please identify yourself."

My happiness was contagious; I caught Taina grinning as I picked the microphone off its cradle. I winked at her. "This is William Plowman of the steamer Al-Ki, and boy are you a sight for sore eyes."

"Al-Ki, this is the Union warship Litchfield. You are hereby ordered to stand down your vessel and prepare to be boarded."

At this I blinked for a second, stunned. "Come again?" I asked, confused.

"Maintain present course and speed. We will close the distance between our vessels and you will allow us to come aboard at that point." Taina's smile had now completely faded and she was back to worrying.

"Is there some kind of problem?" I asked into the radio.

"I think you already know the answer to that, Mr Plowman. Do you acknowledge our orders?"

He couldn't hear me sigh nervously, and he certainly couldn't see the shake of my head. "That's affirmative. We will maintain course and speed until instructed otherwise." I hung the radio back on its hook and turned to the princess. "There's been some kind of... there's an undoubtedly an issue with--" and I couldn't even find a reasonable excuse. I used an old standby. "We'll be ok."

She didn't look convinced. "Why would they want to board you?"

"It's probably pretty innocuous," I tried to reassure her. "We got through the Gaarderriken--though; the Union's on our side, remember?" The nod she gave me as noncommittal at best. I hugged her tightly, and then went to go get Joe.



The launch from the Litchfield was hoisted aboard with no problems and I found myself face-to-face with a grim-visaged captain of the Union navy, flanked by a handful of sailors wielding dangerous-looking weapons. He introduced himself as Commander Dougherty, as though Commander were his first name, and without losing his gruff demeanour for an instant he allowed me to lead him to my cabin. Unlike the Stardust's skipper, he rejected my offer of the alcohol, and as soon as the door was shut he began speaking.

"Mr Plowman, we have a situation on our hands that is potentially very serious."

I sat down opposite him. "And that would be?"

"You're aware of the rebellion taking place within the kingdom of Karelia, I presume." It wasn't a question, although I nodded anyway. "Your ship was docked at Hamina, which has not faced the worst of the rebellion--but it would be hard to miss it. You may also have been made aware of the disappearance of the crown princess, who is believed to have attempted to flee the unrest in her home country."

"Captain McKade, of the Stardust, told me something like that, yes."

Dougherty nodded slowly. His eyes never left mine. "What you probably do not know is that we have impeccable intelligence placing the princess aboard your vessel as it left harbour. That would mean, since you have made no other stops and all your launches are still in place, that she is still here."

"What kind of intelligence is impeccable?" I tried to remain calm.
The Commander's eyes flashed briefly. "It's of no concern to you. A dockside worker who is an informant of the Union government. Mr Plowman, we know you are sheltering the princess--will you at least be so kind as to admit it?"

I looked past him at my map of the world, pursed my lips, and then looked back with a sigh. "All right, you've got me." I prayed fervently that I had not betrayed her.

Reassuringly, some of his harshness seemed to fade. "That's good. At least you're not going to make me play mind games with you. Captain Plowman, this is a very delicate situation. As you're aware, there is staunch isolationist sentiment in the Union congress. Consul Lodge has been complaining that our very military presence in the Eastern Sea represents unnecessary aggression."

"I'm not a politician," I said. "None of this concerns me."

"It very well could," Dougherty corrected me. "You may not hold a commission, but you are a citizen of the Union of Free States. That means that this is more than just an academic concern, even for you."

"What are you saying?"

He sat back to gather his thoughts, and leaned forward. "The disappearance of the princess is bringing the situation closer and closer to a flashpoint. Nobody wants to repeat the Great War, especially not so soon after it's ended, but the threat that socialism could spread is very real. It's being debated every day, in every public and governmental forum. 'War' is on the tip of everyone's tongue, Mr Plowman." He took a deep, dramatic breath through his nose. "The Gaarderriken navy is struggling for control of the Gibraltar Strait with the Grand Republic--lives have already been lost. It's only good fortune that the French government hasn't voted for war already. And if the Karelian monarchy asks the Northland to follow through with their promise for assistance..."

I saw the picture. "We could be faced with an ideological war spanning the Europan continent." I turned my hands upward in frustration. "So what should anyone do?"

"Stay the hell out of this," Dougherty said forcefully. "Europa is one huge tinderbox at this point. All it's going to take is a spark. If more lives are lost, or if there's an actual engagement between major surface vessels of any two countries--right now that seems like a real possibility, and were that to happen, it could plunge us straight into another war."

"Which nobody would want," I finished. "But you said yourself that isn't an academic concern. If the Karelian monarchy collapses, we'd be left with no friendly states east of the Grand Republic. Surely that's not desirable."

"It's not," he admitted. "But it's also not your place to take action. The monarchy's not likely to fall, and--and even if it did, there's just not enough support for the revolution to make the country go socialist. Look, I'm not saying that everything's hunky-dory, but it'll work out--you're... you're playing with fire, Mr Plowman."

"With all due respect," I said, as reasonably as possible, "All I did was take a paying customer aboard in Hamina, in good faith."

"I understand, but this is not something you can get involved in. There's no support at all for intervention in the Union, and you're placing us in international jeopardy."

"I'm not asking the Union, though." I tried my best to be persuasive. "I'm not looking for help."

Dougherty nodded and for the first time I almost thought I saw him smile. "You're not looking for support from the Union?"

"That's right."

"In fact, having been made aware through some governmental channel of the risks you are taking, you have elected to take them anyway?"

I wasn't sure what he was getting at. "Yes."

"And you know full well that the government does not support at all what you are doing?"

My brow furrowed. "I do..."

He nodded. "That's a very important point, Mr Plowman." He stood abruptly and looked over the map on the wall. "Now. Everything has happened very quickly, and it's all somewhat confusing. Nonetheless..." he picked the grease pencil from the string it hung from and began to draw on the glass. "The goal is to position two destroyer squadrons in the north Eastern Sea, in a line from here..."--a circle--"...in Dahen Bay, to here..."--and another--"... just off the coast of the Transnarrows."

I was still lagging behind his explanation. "What's going on?"

"What I am indicating, captain Plowman, are your new best friends. The Litchfield commences the chain, and from there to the Reuben James, and then to the Overton, and so on down the line. The idea, as you can see, is that you will be a one-man underground railroad, but more buoyant."

"I thought you said..."

"I did, and it's important that you know that the Union government will admit no part in what it is doing. The deployment of these destroyers is based on a clandestine order directly from the president, and nobody's going to talk. Not even you."

"What are the destroyers for?"

"Support, if you need it. They'll also try to keep you informed as to what the situation looks like. If the story breaks, I believe the president is likely to say that the presence of warships is intended to protect all Union shipping, not just your vessel--though I haven't been told. In reality, we're watching out for you."

I nodded. "Thanks. Why... why didn't you just tell me that to begin with?"

"Because like I said, Mr Plowman, I'm not really here, and you're doing this all on your own."

I told him that I guessed that was ok. It's always easier to do things alone when you do them with someone else. I would've been content with a reassurance that they wouldn't try to take the princess by force--actual support was more than I ever could've hoped for. After Dougherty left, when I called everyone together, Joe was much less surprised by the announcement of the Union destroyer picket than I had been--but as I've said, he's smarter than I am, and maybe he saw what was happening. Taina appeared to be surprised, too, although the feeling I most got from her was relief at another temporary reprieve.

I was in good spirits once more by the time I gave the wheel over to Joe, with the Reuben James just becoming visible on the horizon. The Union destroyers were the last even potential threats that I could truly foresee, and I felt confident there would be no more true impediments to our progress. It freed my mind up once more to meditate on more personal issues, and I retired to my cabin to think.

SEA FEVER



I had intended to first chart a course for the remainder of the voyage (we were now past the halfway mark) and then to go over how to broach the subject of our future with the princess, but I never really got the chance. I was not alone in my cabin, though I didn't know this until I shut the door and was fairly pounced upon by a grey streak that had evidently been lying in wait somewhere around the area of my bed.

Whatever may have been said for subtlety though, her aim was good, and our lips had come together before I was truly aware of what was happening. When she broke the kiss I confessed my surprise, and she laughed--a little giddily, it seemed to me, but then she had been under a lot of strain. It was good to hear, anyway.

"How long have you been waiting here?"

"Not long. I was at the back of the ship when I saw you hand the wheel over to Joe, so I... scampered up here when you were talking to him." She grinned so warmly that I wanted very, very much to kiss her again. She precluded this by springing away from me and to my wall chart. "Where are we?"

I pointed our position out to her, and when she touched her finger to the glass I moved it along the course we would take, pausing at intervals to tell her how long it would be before we were there. She took this information in enthusiastically, accepting it with what I thought (hoped!) was genuine interest. From the light in her eyes when she turned to confirm something I had said, I felt very sure I was right.

"You know," she said, and pointed out my window to the surrounding blue. "I think earlier today, I might have seen a dolphin!"

"It's possible," I said. "They're virtually everywhere along the coast--not so much in the deep waters, but... you might've, yes. They're beautiful, you know--so very well adapted to life in the ocean."

She nodded. "I know. It looked very... happy there."

"It probably was. Dolphins are supposed to be sailor's friends--though," I laughed, "it could be the other way around too. I think we understand each other, at least."

"That's good, it makes sense you'd get along... I'd never seen one before, though. I can't imagine I went so long and never saw a dolphin. You read about them, you know, but it's not the same."

I nodded. "There's a lot out here that's like that. You see things..." I tried to find words as a dozen different experiences ran through my brain. "You see things you just can't ever describe to anyone else. However long people have been speaking, I don't know, but they don't always have the right words, I'll tell you that much."

"You've seen things like that? Leviathans, maybe?" She grinned at me.

I shook my head. "No. But... things that if I hadn't seen 'em with my own eyes, you couldn't get me to believe for all the money in the world."

"'They that go down to the sea in ships, and do business in great waters, they see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep,'" she offered.

"They do. More poetry?"

She raised an eyebrow at me. "No, the Bible. Psalm 107." I shrugged helplessly. "It's a good book," she said. "I like the psalms." Something caught her eye as she began another sentence and she stopped abruptly. "What's that?"

I turned to see where she was pointing and laughed shortly. "Oh, that. That's a sextant--bit of... ancient history, I guess you could say."

"Nothing wrong with ancient history..." she seemed captivated by the instrument. "What does it do?"

"It... lets you find out your latitude--you know, how far north or south you are. Basically it just measures the angle between the horizon and the sun... uh... tell you what, I'll show you how it works." Her ears perked forward briefly, which I took as agreement, and I carefully lifted the sextant down from its place on the wall. It hadn't been used in years--but I prided myself, to be honest, on my fluency in celestial navigation. I carefully rubbed the dust off the mirrors of the instrument before leading Taina back towards the stern.

The sextant was one of those revolutionary discoveries in navigation. It was much more precise than the astrolabe, which was what preceded it, and because of that was one of the most significant steps in removing the hazards of long ocean voyages. At sea the most pressing question on a sailor's mind is always "where am I?" Sextants take out a lot of the margin of error--it is telling that we use them even now, in an era of long-range radio direction finding. I don't think Joe can use a sextant, which may wind up working against him one of these days, if he decides to strike out with his own boat.

I showed Taina how to align the mirrors and, at the right time, called out for her measurement. We worked through the mathematics of the position-finding together, and took another reading. This she did mostly on her own. Setting the instrument down--with appropriate care, I noted happily--she turned to me. "This is how they did it on the old days, hmm?"

I nodded. "Still today, too. I don't just use it to be old-fashioned. Makes you feel like a right Horatio Nelson, though."

"And this tells you latitude?"

"That's right. I don't know all the astronomy behind it exactly, I have to admit."

"How do you find out where you are, uh, the other way? You know the..." She trailed off and looked at me expectantly.

"Longitude?" Ah! A nod. "Um. It's a similar sort of technique. You have... the Al-Ki has, in my cabin, two chronometers--these are extremely precise, very delicate timepieces. They're set to the time back in Port Rennys, and what you do is you determine your time of day--based on a reading from something like the sun or the moon; it's not that difficult. Then you compare the time you have to the time back home, and you can get from that how far away you are, uh, longitudinally." I was trying to keep things simple; because or despite this, Taina seemed enraptured.

"How old are... chronometers? Like that?"

"A hundred and fifty years, maybe? Two hundred, at the most. It required a lot of precision."

The princess sat on a capstan and looked out at the wide ocean. "What did they do before that?"

"Pray." She smiled. "No, really. Navigation was very difficult, and it was very dangerous to sail long distances--especially into uncharted waters. You can get a long way with just, uh, educated guesses--dead reckoning, basically. If you know where you are generally, that is. The early explorers had more luck behind them than science."

"But it's different these days?"

"It's different these days," I echoed. "Even without all this equipment, we've got radio gear that'll let you find out where you are pretty easily. It's... simple trigonometry, basically. Anyone could do it. The sextant is a dying art."

"You sound like an old sailor," she said, with a wry smile.

"Well I'm not quite," I said, and sort of believed. "But I've been around for awhile."

"Oh, I bet... ah! Sit down," she commanded, and I did--would have, you know, even if she hadn't been royalty. "You must have stories..." I shrugged humbly, but she was not dissuaded. "You should tell me one!" Again I shrugged, as though I didn't really care either way, and then the words came.

I told her about my first experience sailing in the south, watching the sun rise over icebergs, listening to the roar of the Antarctic ocean with her fickle ways. Her expression told me that she captured my words with the same wonder I had felt myself in seeing what I described to her now, so many years before. So I told her about the time on that journey when I saw deep below me--this when I was sailing by myself, quite foolishly--a glowing soft light in the waters far below, pulsing like a dying torch. I told her how eerie it felt to see that the first night, not knowing where it came from. I could feel the same cold fingers of dread I had felt that night crawling up my spine as I described the vigil I kept, waiting for something terrible to arise from the murky depths.

When I finished I told her about the sun coming up, and the light below slowly fading to nothing, as though by agreement with the daytime. I still don't know what I saw, I told her, I still don't know what it was, down there, and I've never been back. I marked the position very carefully, the ghost light under the sea, and I never intend to return. There was something about it, I said. And I said it again, and then was quiet. She was too; it took her a few moments to realise that I was done speaking. She shook her head slowly, and I winked at her. "Your turn."

She didn't protest, although she was thoughtful for a while before speaking. Taina was an excellent storyteller, I discovered. She painted a vivid, almost frighteningly real image of a garden her mother had kept, in her spare time, all by herself. When she was old enough, the princess said, she helped her mother, bringing forth life in beautiful colours from the drab black soil. It was amazing, she said, how time would seem to stand still there, when the flowers bloomed, when bees came to pay their respects, when spiders worked at their beautiful gossamer nets like faerie fishermen. The world, she said, faded away to silence.

Offhand she excused the banality of the story with an apology she did not really mean and I did not accept. There was magic in the way she talked, magic I hope I can convey to you, because a good story is the most beautiful thing there is in this world. She knew the apology was unnecessary and she kept on, talking of afternoons spent when she was not a princess, nor even a little girl, simply one with a garden, part of the flowers, growing from the earth. She talked of knowing then that there was a communion between man and nature; one which, she said, she had endeavoured to preserve in the long years since. She felt that communion again, she told me, when she saw the dolphin, and I could see that she was more enchanted with the ocean than I could've ever imagined.

With sadness she described slowly growing out of the garden, as the real world intervened, as politics approached, as life marched on. Her mother kept it on, she said, but there had come a time when she had simply never returned, because she knew that something had been lost--in her. It was not, she said ruefully, the garden's fault. "I never really forgave myself," she whispered, "for giving it up--even though I don't think I had any choice." She looked wistfully at the ocean, up at the clouds, down to the waves. "Sometimes I think it might not really be gone. That's really what I hope for--silly, I know." At some point during her story she had dismounted the capstan and shared the teak with me, and when she deprecated herself I put my arm around her and informed her that, far from being immature, it might have been the wisest thing I'd ever heard. She sighed, and I tightened my embrace.

The afternoon passed this way in an exchange of histories, each one drawing us closer together, each one somehow more meaningful than the last. We were speaking to each other and something else: the ocean, the sky, eternity. It was only when I chanced to look behind me and saw the sun touching the horizon that I realised how long we had spent. I'd not corrected my charts at all, had not done anything I had planned to do.

It was, of course, the best afternoon of my life.

SONGS AND WORDS AND DEEDS



Joe came down to eat with us for dinner. There had been a favourable tailwind, he said, and we were some distance ahead of schedule. I was torn as to whether or not I thought that was a good thing--every reasonable part of my body screamed that I should find it so; the rest counted every mile saved as more time I would be unable to spend with Taina. To be honest, I think Joe might've seen this--he's very perceptive. At any rate after dinner the princess announced her intention to retire for the evening, and I accompanied Joe up to the wheelhouse.

"We've kept in touch with the destroyers," he said. "So far, so good."

"Good to know. Make Tan Palyra... tomorrow? The day after, maybe?"

"Maybe," he said. "Tomorrow's not out of the question, but I'd think it'll take a bit longer than that." I nodded, and then Joe smiled--not his wide toothy grin, a more subtle one. "Say, boss," he said. "How are you and Kristina getting along?"

It was the delay in response while I tried to find a way of minimising our relationship that told him all he needed. He shook his head. "You lucky bastard." From him that was as close to vindication as one might ever get. "You thought of what's going to happen when we dock?"

I had. "Yes. But I don't have an answer yet."

He accepted this. Then he shrugged. "You get yourself into some pretty unenviable situations."

"Perhaps. But... I have faith, Joe. It'll all work out."

He considered this, and then turned back to the wheel. "Goodnight, boss. Get some rest--think about it in the morning."

"I will. Make sure the Union knows we're stopped for the night when you shut down." He nodded, and I headed for my cabin.

That Taina was there was not really a surprise, of course. I think indeed I would've been disappointed had she not been. We talked for a time, about nothing much, her sitting on the bed and me in my chair; then she yawned and said she thought it would be best if she went to bed. I agreed, and after she did not move for a minute I gathered that she did not intend to spend this night in her own cabin either, which was not something I opposed. She took my failure to comment on her lack of mobility as tacit approval, which it was; I perceived as I fetched my log book that she was disrobed, although by the time I had finished writing the day's entry she was beneath the covers of the bed. Watching me.

I turned the light off and joined her, discovering as I did so that my perception had been correct. She pressed herself against me, and after this did not move, and neither of us spoke. The only sound was the breaking waves, and below that the steady breathing of the princess and I. It was--of course--she that broke the silence, because only she knew what to say.

"O listen to the sounding sea, that beats on the remorseless shore," she began. Because we were so close I felt each word as well as her hot breath ruffled the fur on my shoulder, and this was a sensation which must be replicated to be fully understood. "O listen! For that sound will be, when our wild hearts shall beat no more. O, listen well and listen long, for... sitting folded close to me. You could not hear a sweeter song, than that hoarse murmur of the sea."

"I doubt this," I returned, as quiet as she had been. "Because I just did." I felt her smile, and then the warmth of her arms on my back, and then she kissed me. The moment dictated that it was the only acceptable course of action, and we were both slaves to the moment. This time when we separated we were out of breath, and something had turned serious--become heart-deep, soul-deep. We were not, at that moment, two different people.

When we kissed again it was different, more profound, and it lead inexorably, indisputably, to the sequence of events that followed, which I will not describe here because you can no doubt fill in the gaps yourself. Suffice it to say it was perfect, everything was perfect, and transcendent, and even looking back now there was a hint--just a glimpse, nothing more--of heaven, and we were infused with each other and with the world and rolling ocean below.

And afterwards, together, trying to find our way back down, I realised something: that not all songs have music, and possibly--I think it is possible, at least--it is the ones that do not which are beautiful, and most poignant.

HEROISM



I was standing watch the following morning at around eleven, and had just signed off from the USS Bernadou, when I caught a sparkle and a flash of white off to starboard. When I looked through the binoculars, I nearly dropped them in shock. As I picked up the intercom microphone, I thought a brief second about what I said to Taina after she'd pointed out the machine guns, and then I pressed the key to talk.

"General quarters. I say again, take your stations immediately." It had the same effect as simply calling Joe to the bridge, but it made it sound more urgent, and indeed he was vaulting over the ladder to the wheelhouse within a minute.

"What's going on?"

I pointed out to where I had seen the unnatural glint. "There's a periscope out there. It wasn't above surface for very long, but..." I stopped, because I then could make out a disturbance in the water, and presently a dark form like a great steel whale rose above the waves. Nothing further happened for a few minutes, as though we were sizing each other up. Then, through the binoculars, I saw a hatch open on the submarine's sail. I thought I could see a flag being raised and I focused my eye on this, so that I was distracted when the forward deck gun opened fire, and in fact didn't know that this had happened until I heard ricochets and the sound of shattering glass. I hit the deck and found that Joe had beat me there.

"Oh sweet Mary," Joe breathed in the period of silence that followed. Then the gun opened up again, and this time I was aware of every shot that struck home.

"Are our guns working?" I asked--in a whisper, as though that mattered. He nodded. "All right. Take the bow gun and return fire on my signal. I'll head for the stern." I gave the order with more conviction than I actually felt--evidently with enough that he didn't bother to question me, but slid forward on his stomach towards the ladder. Keeping as low a profile as possible, I reached the radio set, told whoever was listening that we were under attack, and then made my way down to the deck as well.

Sprinting for the back of the ship I caught a glimpse of the princess and motioned for her to stay low. I had no way of confirming that she understood this, but I trusted her judgment and kept running. As I reached the heavy canvas tarpaulin over the after machine gun I heard the one on the bow fire for the first time ever--a single shot, probably simply to determine whether or not the weapon worked. There was no answering fire. Although I worried for Joe's safety I was grateful for the distraction, since it let me uncover my own weapon and thread the cloth ammunition belt into the gun. It was simpler than it looked at first.

As it clicked firmly into place I heard a voice call out across the water, as though aware of my preparations. "We order you to strike your colours!" it rolled, and I grew cold. Even in the most treacherous counter-Prohibition lanes I had never encountered raiders such as these. "Union ship!" the voice boomed again--I imagine even today this is how God must have sounded to Moses. "We order you to strike! How do you respond?"

Well I tell you, I thought of a lot of things then. I thought about that first night I took the Al-Ki out and swore to myself I'd never let anyone touch her without my say-so. I thought about the daydreams I'd had, when it became clear that I was not going to have to serve in the Great War--the fantasies about my awe-inspiring captaining, daring rescues and fantastic exploits.

With the Union destroyers so close it seemed fairly likely that surrender would not be fatal for us--by which I meant Joe and I. I entertained no such illusions about the princess. Fighting, of course, would like as not kill us too--but my mind drifted back to the last few nights, to soft-spoken lines of poetry, to a garden I'd never seen but knew by heart. My fingers found the trigger of their own accord. They didn't have to ask for a response a third time before I gave them one.

When I pulled back on the trigger for the first time I still had no idea what would happen, and I was decently surprised to feel the weapon go off. Adrenaline meant, though, that the shock of the recoil and the horribly loud stuttering of the discharge itself wouldn't register until well afterwards. The gun on the submarine's foredeck twinkled merry death.

I heard the bow of my own ship descend into the cacophony of Thanatos automated, joining me--without, perhaps, the motivation I had, but there was no time to meditate. For the moment, I aimed towards the only real target I had available. The deck gun seemed the most important thing and I fired perhaps fifty rounds at it in a kind of frenzy before I noticed that it was no longer firing. Neither was Joe.

The silence that followed this was heavy and sickening. As I waited fear, began to creep back into my thoughts, and I found my ears ached from even the short time I had spent manning the machine gun. I didn't want to pull the trigger again; unconsciously my hands left the firing mechanism and I sat back. And waited. After an agonising minute I thought I could see something change on the deck of the submarine, and after another dark smoke was pouring from what I could only guess was the hatchway.

I stood back from the gun nervously, like I thought it might come after me. My progress towards the Al-Ki's wheelhouse was cautious and slow until I was about halfway there, at which point I broke into a run. I swung my ship away from the burning submarine and pushed the throttle in as far it would go. Perhaps sensing the ship's new movement, Joe looked up at me and I waved him to stand down. I kept a careful eye on our would-be attacker as we drew steadily away, and told the closest destroyer what had happened. I also gave coordinates--though it wasn't as though much direction was needed. Thick, dark smoke now rose in an ominous column.

The entire encounter had taken perhaps five minutes, and it took seeing splintered wood and paint chips strewn from the superstructure of the poor Al-Ki to really drive home that it had happened. As I said, I didn't serve in the Great War; I'd never fired a gun before with the intent of harming someone else. Fortunately the distance had been great enough that I could successfully pretend that this had not really been my intent at all.

I met Taina on the deck to the right of the superstructure; Joe joined us less than a minute later. It looked as though the gun had been of too small a calibre to do much serious damage to the ship itself--though a lifeboat had been partly reduced to matchwood and looked irreparable. The porthole that looked into Taina's cabin had been smashed by a lucky shot; no doubt the interior was covered in glass. I didn't look forward to the repairs, but that was nothing--I simply appreciated the miracle that nothing important looked to have been harmed.

"Kristina's going to have to find a new place to sleep," Joe commented, and she nodded with clearly feigned regret. "Hell of a day boss, what do you say?"

Now I started shaking. "Hell of a day," I said in kind, uncertainly. "I'd say we should count ourselves fortunate."

The fox nodded his head, but any reply he had been planning was summarily cut off by the princess. "Hey, Joe!" she said suddenly. "You're bleeding!"

This surprised him as much as it surprised me, apparently, for he touched the dark stain on his vest as though the blood might easily have been someone else's. "Huh, so I am." Taina and I led him into the kitchen; while she forced him--under some protest--to sit, I fetched what I could find from what passed for our medicine chest.

The injury was superficial--Joe and I, discussing it later, agreed that had probably come from a splintered piece of the machine gun mount, not an actual bullet--but it strove to appear differently. When he removed his vest we discovered the cut, which was not really very deep but ran a significant length along his chest. Having been told by someone some years back that it was useful in preventing infection, I poured most of the hydrogen peroxide solution we had on board into the wound, at which point he threatened--through gritted teeth--to kill me.

"You'll thank me later," I assured him. Left to his own devices he probably would've done nothing for his injury. I chalk this up to his never having seen the results of a serious accident at sea--I have, and although I don't like thinking about it much, the risk of death is far too great to be ignored, if one is careless about one's health.

Taina, who of course had more medical experience than I, forced my first mate to accept a bandage as well. As she applied it he began fuming--mostly light-heartedly, although there was no doubt he was in actual pain. Red showed quickly through the bandage, and the contrast seemed to catch the wolf's eye. She tilted her head, then looked from him to me and back. "You know," she said haltingly. "You're both heroes."

"Come again?" I asked, not really certain I'd heard her properly.

"I... I don't know how else you might say it. You must know why they attacked you..."

"Sure," Joe said, before I could answer. "But that's no matter. You're as important as either of us--right boss?" I nodded. "It wouldn't be right to leave you out to dry, you know?"

"So you put yourselves in danger to protect... me?" Taina spoke as though she wasn't sure, so I made sure the nod I gave her in response was appropriately vigorous.

"Yes."

"Willingly," she said--not entirely as a question, not entirely as a statement.

"Yes," I said once more. "And I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

"So--" Joe winced as the wolf cinched down a final bandage. "So would I."

"Really?"

"Absolutely."

Joe--whom I don't think she trusted entirely, after he had spoken so vehemently about refugees--confirmed what he had said as well. "There's many a thing in this world that I doubt. Einstein I doubt. Coolidge I doubt. God Himself I'm not always sure of--but I know that if those scum shove another submarine my way, I'll fight them off with my bare hands before I let them touch this ship--or my friends."

Taina looked at Joe curiously. "I... I can't even begin..." she swallowed; when she spoke again her voice was unsteady. "I can't even begin to thank you." Joe shrugged--halfway, because the bandages and his injury restricted his movement. Suddenly she bent down and kissed him lightly on the nose, then excused herself from the room. Her eyes, I saw, glimmered damply.

"That was interesting," I said.

Joe touched his nose. "I'd say."

"I'm going to go finish my shift. Take it easy."

"I'll be fine," he said, with an easy shrug.

I was half out the door before I turned. "And... thanks for being with me."

Joe shook his head and waved dismissively. "Think nothing of it. We're in this together, boss."

I nodded and stepped out into the open air again. And not that I would want to ever admit it--being a sailor who takes a hearty cup of machismo with his evening grog--but my eyes, too, were wet.

BUT



I didn't see Taina again until six o'clock that evening when she knocked on my door. I thought at first it was Joe, but when I bade the visitor enter it was she that stepped, softly, into my cabin. She seemed subdued as she crossed the room to my bed and sat down, indicating that I should join her. When I did she sighed. "I'm sorry about earlier today. It was not especially... dignified of me."

"That's ok," I said. "You seemed..." I tried to think of the right word. "Touched."

She looked sideways at me as she considered this, and nodded. "I was." Then she shook her head. "No, I am. You know I grew up surrounded by bodyguards and servants--it's the way of things. Expected. I felt fondly towards them, and as far as I know they felt that way towards me--but I do not think they would have laid down their lives for my sake."

"It surprises you that we would?"

She seemed ashamed to be nodding her head. "I guess my view of things is more cynical than I thought." I hugged her. "Thank you, I... I mean I owe my life to you, don't I? I figure I probably do."

"It doesn't matter. It was a choice that I made very easily." She smiled faintly for a moment.

"We should reach the Transnarrows tomorrow?"

I bobbed my head almost imperceptibly. "I'd figure we'll make port about ten o'clock."

She looked to the map on the wall. We were within a few hand spans of the coast now, on the chart. "What happens then?"

Our voices grew quieter by the word. "I don't know. That's up to you."

Her eyes remained glued to the line that marked our course. "If I could be so bold, Bill... how do you feel about me?"

Although I paused before answering, it wasn't something I had to think about. "I would have to say that I love you very much, Taina." I saw her lips crease in a smile, even as she faced away from me.

Then she turned back. "Without a single doubt--even a small one!--I feel the same way about you." I nodded slowly. "I'm sure you can see that this isn't very simple." Again I nodded. "Because I... well, we are in love. But--" and there was that word, the word I thought I was going to have to use, although it seemed she had now beaten me to it. "My country needs me, Bill."

"It does." What she said was inescapable truth; among any feelings she had for me--and deeper than them too, I guessed, in a way--was a fierce and unwavering loyalty to her country, her people, her family. That made agreeing with her statement no more palatable.

"And the ocean needs you."

"The ocean needs no-one."

She shook her head in a way that made me think of mourning. "No. Without mariners, the ocean is... just another puddle. We of the land don't understand it--that takes you. And even the ocean didn't need you, you need it. I know that."

"I can always get by," I said.

"You say that, but... but you'd wither to nothing, away from the ocean. I see the way you light up when you talk about it, when you talk about this ship. Without that light, you'll die."

I hated her for saying it, and I hated me for the truth of the statement. "Perhaps."

"Not even perhaps. And I won't kill you, not after all you've done for me." Her eyes squeezed shut for a second, two, three--to the two of us, then, time was nothing but a spectator. "I don't know what to do."

"I don't either," I admitted. "It's not a simple thing."

"The choice is small--just a word, a phrase. It's living with it that's not simple. I want... I want to be able to spend all of eternity with you, and then more time after that, until everything is gone but the two of us, because I can't imagine ever needing more."

I sighed. "Would that it were possible. I'd wish the same thing."

"But," she said. Just one little sound, that, and I echoed it, and it hung coldly. "I don't see how we can continue," she finally finished.

"I don't know that I do either."

"Then we can't."

"Perhaps not."

She blinked back tears. "I hate your map."

"Then I hate it too."

Taina leaned into me, and gave a heavy sigh. "Your chronometer. It is very accurate, yes?" Yes, I said, it was. "Then... how long does it say we have until the morning?"

I didn't even have to look. "A while."

"It could be made the most of, then, without tears," she said reflectively.

"It could."

Because she had ordered it so, and because I respected this order, and because I loved her, there were no tears. There were other things, though. There was the heavens, and rapture, and the poetry of people--without meter, without rhyme, without words. Communication that needed no sound, stories that needed no narrator. The sun had gone away to nothing at all when we left my cabin--Joe was already asleep; the ship was at dead calm. We spoke to each other before an audience of stars, and a crescent moon that swung from the ether like a scimitar. We pledged things to each other with Triton as our witness--he is a good one. Many secrets are kept in the ocean's bosom; there these shall remain forever as well.

Morning found us underway again, with her asleep in my arms. I didn't dare move, that I might let her rest peacefully; the Al-Ki steered herself, and in due course the coast of the Transnarrows appeared ahead like destiny personified. Because I respected her, because I loved her, because she had ordered it so, there were no tears.

But.

END



It was not an end I wanted, obviously. It was, however, one that I could not avoid. The gangplank was down; Taina had contacts in the city and she would meet with them soon after leaving the ship. She felt very certain that she would be safe; Joe and I received another round of thanks, another kiss. With the suitcase she had carried an eternity ago--when I thought she was Kristina, when I thought she was nothing--in her arms once more, she faced towards the milling crowd of the busy harbour.

She almost put a foot on the gangway, then turned to look at me. I thought of words I had found etched in a plaque, in the wheelhouse, those long, long years before--everything, of course, that preceded Hamina was now Before. But I called Taina's name softly to get her attention, and when her eyes met mine I spoke: "Sunset, and evening star, and one clear call for me. And may there be no moaning of the bar, when I put out to sea. But such a tide as moving seems asleep, too full for sound and foam, when that which drew from out the boundless deep, turns again home. Twilight, and evening bell, and after that the dark. And may there be no sadness of farewell, when I embark. For though from out our bourne of Time and Place the flood may bear me far... I hope to see my Pilot face to face, when I have crossed the bar." I finished only with difficulty, through a constricted throat. And my vision blurred as I watched her nod, and then walk down the gangway, cross the bar, and be gone.

You have the advantage of hindsight that I did not. You know that the monarchy did not fall. You know that she returned--that even today, as Karelia stands beleaguered against her foes, she remains the princess of that country. I should be able to think about this story, this time of my life, without thinking of her--surely being boarded by Gaarderriken, fighting off a submarine, surely these things should stand on their own.

They don't. Not for me at least; I hope you know why.

We still write, Taina and I. She is happy with the man who is now a prince of Karelia; I am happy with the Al-Ki. Happy does not describe what we were, I think; there is something beyond mere happiness that I can't define, precisely, but we lived there--just for a few days, and that was enough to change almost everything. It seemed like a much greater amount of time than that--and at once, much less.

But it was a time that I will never forget. Nor, in a thousand years and a million voyages, will I ever lose my last memory of her, watching her back as she disappeared into the crowd, watching as she parted from view, watching her leave my life. I knew then, once she had gone, once she took the last step, that as she had said about her garden something magical had evaporated, something fundamental had shifted, something wondrous had run its course--something I was powerless to stop. I was sad, to be sure, but of a sentimental sadness and no more--because there was nothing else to do. Because it was finished.

After a time I turned around and went back to the wheelhouse, where Joe was standing--quietly, respectfully. And we started the motors, and we turned around and went back to the ocean, down to the sea again, out into the dark blue desert. We sailed away from Hamina, away from Tan Palyra, with memories as possession but not anchor. Away from Before, towards Now.

And the long trick was over.
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