The Dragon Round by Stephen S. Power
Just before dawn and still eight hours from Hanosh, the captain of the penteconter Comber feels the rowers start to flag. They’re pulling together, but behind the drummer’s beat, and if he lets them get away with it, they’ll fall apart. He can’t afford that. However exhausted they are, having rowed for seventeen hours, he brings his galleys in on time.
Jeryon’s about to leave his cabin and go below when a whip cracks and he hears his oarmaster, Tuse, call for twenty big ones. The galley lurches forward, and by the seventh heave the rowers are tight again.
Tuse has some promise. Jeryon likes that call. Not twenty for Hanosh. Not twenty to save the sick. Just twenty. Tuse focuses on the job he has, not the one he wants, unlike his other mates.
The first and second mates are on the stern deck above, two whispers through the wood. Jeryon closes his eyes to listen. So far they’ve only said what all mates say: to advance they have to earn another captain’s ship. They’re getting bolder, though. It’s a short trip from earn to take.
If Jeryon didn’t need them for the next eight hours, he’d put them off, maybe before they reached Hanosh. As it is, let them think he would sleep. Once the medicine’s unloaded, he’ll wake them to reality.
Livion, the first mate, soft-cheeked and slight, leans against the stern rail. Solet, the second, stands to starboard with the rudder trapped between his thick chest and hairy arm. They have the wind, which fills the galley’s sail and muffles the crack of Tuse’s whip.
“I wish she’d left the city,” Livion says over the wind.
“Why?” Solet says. “The flox was in the Harbor. It’d barely touched the Hill. Without some moon-eyed sailor to carry it all the way up to the Crest—”
“Plagues don’t care what lane you live on.”
“Apparently your woman doesn’t either.” Livion’s eyes narrow, but Solet ignores him and goes on. “And if her father cared before we set out, he won’t after we dock and save the city. A father might not want a sailor in his family, but what owner doesn’t want a hero in his business?”
“I’m not using her to get to him.”
Solet snorts, and Livion stiffens. Sometimes Solet oversteps himself. Hanoshi don’t discuss their private lives, which makes an Ynessi like Solet want to pry all the more. The first mate finds it easier to give in a bit and get it over with than to resist. It’s his fault, anyway, for trading a long look with Tristaban as they were casting off.
“I want him to find me worthy of command,” Livion says.
“Worthy?” Solet says. “You sound like the captain. You sound like my grandfather. There’s no worthy anymore, just worth.” Solet taps the rudder with the blade he wears in place of half his right forefinger. “Get your woman. Get your command. Get your fortune. That makes you worthy. Money is money to her father, to all the owners. You don’t want to end up like Jeryon, do you?” Solet taps the deck with his foot.
“I could do worse,” Livion says. “He’s been captain for years.”
“Decades,” Solet says, “which makes him—”
“Stalled. He doesn’t reach. He’s captain of a monoreme. Has been. Always will be. He might as well push a milk cart.”
“That milkman,” Livion says, “is the real person who’ll save the city.”
“And he’ll give the Trust all the credit for sending him. They’ll give him a pat on the head and a perk for being on time. There’s a whole city waiting to cheer us, the purest coin there is, and he won’t want any of it. Wouldn’t you want a taste of that? Wouldn’t your woman? She won’t settle for nothing, anyone can see that. You shouldn’t either.” He half closes his eyes. “We’ll have triremes.” His eyes shine. “What I could do with a trireme.”
Livion says, “I’m starting to understand the Ynessi reputation for piracy.”
“You wound me,” Solet says. “I’m no pirate. But I do need a ship to start, so once you have your woman, you could put a word in her father’s ear and see the captain rewarded with a desk while I get Comber. That I would settle for.”
Sunlight bubbles on the horizon, then erupts and flows along it. The sky is filled with blood and gold and the palest blue. The mates smile at each other.
The whip cracks again. “What about Tuse?” Livion says.
“He’ll get all the wine he can drink,” Solet says.
The portholes glow, and the cabin has gone from dark to dim. Jeryon can’t disagree with Solet. I am a plodder. I’m also fairly rewarded and content. In a city like Hanosh, where one eats well, four eat poorly, and five don’t eat at all, it’s better to be hardtack than an empty plate dreaming of steak.
He feels sorry for Livion. The boy had promise before he started listening to Solet, and probably this woman. If she’s as manipulative as Jeryon thinks, Livion will count himself lucky after the Trust learns of his plotting. He won’t get another Hanoshi ship, but he’ll be rid of her.
Solet will have to return to Yness, likely a little bruised, where he’ll be welcomed with open arms and, knowing the Ynessi, open legs. Jeryon doesn’t understand why the Trust puts up with them. A wild people. A wasteful people. At least the Aydeni on board has proven trustworthy.
The door to the adjacent cabin opens. He hears the Aydeni enter, slam the door, rattle through a box of phials and slam out again. He can imagine why she’s rattling and slamming. As an apothecary, in addition to making medicine, she has to treat the rowers, and she doesn’t approve of the Trust’s new tonic. So be it. She was only contracted for this trip. In eight hours she’ll be gone too.
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