“Shield Tiscilla,” said Captain Sarovy, “you realize you are in trouble.”
On the other side of the captain’s desk, the burly islander nodded drunkenly. He had cuts and scrapes all along one side of his face from where the bar staff had planted him on the floor, and more on his arms and ribs—all recently checked and cleaned by Medic Moren. Only a few had required bandaging, leaving Tiscilla free to be reprimanded.
Captain Sarovy tapped a finger on the man’s file, frowning. The list of infractions there was already long—most related to breaking curfew and public drunkenness, but one or two involving fights—and Sarovy was getting tired of it. Tiscilla had paid all the previous fines almost cheerfully, then gone on to break the rules again. He was starting to consider the lash as a behavior-modification tool.
“’M sorry, captain,” the islander slurred. “I just meant to have the one drink, but when I’m in my cups, all these landside rules just sorta…” He gestured vaguely with a callused hand. “Fall away.”
“Is this the norm, where you served before?” said Sarovy blandly.
Tiscilla nodded, some of his greasy curls working loose from their tail at the bob of his head. “Oh, yeah, trus’ me, half the time everyone’s smashed. Even the nobility. The noble ladies, you should see what they get up to when they come down-island to a proper tavern! But you lot don’t even have proper taverns here, you jus’ have a….a single-bar setup, s’like for children, and everyone gets all up in arms over a bit of fondling, y’know?”
“There have been some complaints from civilian women, yes.”
“When y’wear a bodice like that, sir, s’for a reason.”
“I do not believe the woman in question was for rent.”
“Psh. They’re all for rent, jus’ a matter of how much you can pay!”
As the islander guffawed in his chair, Sarovy took a moment to add to his file’s notes: require escort if ever necessary to leave with female. Medic Moren seemed to have escaped unscathed, but then she was a quick hand with a scalpel.
“And when you run into the negative on your pay, Shield Tiscilla?” he prompted as the chortles died down.
Tiscilla shrugged brawny shoulders. Like the other islanders that had signed on with the Crimson Army apparently from boredom, he was low-slung but solidly built—the kind of man it would be hard to tip over, and who could be mistaken for a keg in a dark ship’s hold. The Illanic sun had browned him thoroughly, but he had been fairly dark to start, only his eyes—pale sea-green—making him stand out from the local folk.
That and the way he wore his hair long, knotted back in a style most Imperials would consider girlish if not paired with his blunt face.
“When I run out of coin, I run out of coin, sir,” he said philosophically. “Suppose I’ll dry out until next payday, yeah? With the army paying for the rest—“
“And the women?”
Tiscilla’s face scrunched. “Women’re expensive, sir. Gotta budget for ‘em. Still, sometimes some will give a down-on-his-luck fellow a free go.”
Sarovy sighed and rubbed the spot between his brows. “So you would not attempt to…have your way without paying?”
The islander looked taken aback. “What, go after some woman just for fun? No sir, they’re in business too; ladies gotta eat, same as men do. If she’s giving it away, sure, but otherwise it’s no better than stealing.”
Minimal concept of local mores, Sarovy wrote below the first note.
“And you would not wish to be considered a thief?” he prompted.
Tiscilla’s lip curled back from his square yellow teeth. “No sir. I’m an honest man. I stab my enemies in the front, not the back, I pay my women proper, and I never take anything I didn’t earn. Gifts, sir, gifts are dangerous where I come from—especially if it’s a woman giving them. Sometimes a fellow can’t help it, but I try to control myself.”
“How are gifts dangerous, Shield Tiscilla?”
With a snort, the man said, “You must not know anything about us. It’s the…the basis of everything about us. Nothing is a gift; nothing is given without expectation, and nothing can be stolen without getting cursed. If you fish in the sea, you’d best sacrifice to it too, or it’ll take its own sacrifices. And you never, ever keep anything the sea tosses up to you—not without expecting its true owner to come after it.”
Sarovy arched a brow. Tiscilla was right; he knew almost nothing about the so-called Brother Islands, Ycinth and Graviena, except that they were the largest of the few landforms that sprinkled the Lisalhan Ocean. Since the sinking of Lisalhan millennia ago, a haphazard shipping network had been set up among all the lands with fresh new coastlines, but all of them clung close to shore—except for those that struck out toward the Brother Islands, the only safe refuge on the water.
“And what sorts of things wash ashore, Shield?” he said, curious despite himself.
Tiscilla shrugged loosely. “The usual stuff. Bits of wrecked ships, trunks, bodies—we can bury those, they don’t count as gifts, heh. More like unaccepted sacrifices. Lessee. Old things, like rusted armor, though you wonder how those can get washed around, right? Strange things like these big bug-wings that washed up near my cousin’s hometown once—dozens of them, each the size of a man, all perfectly preserved like stained glass windows. Some folk wanted to keep them but the town magistrate said throw ‘em back, and about a week later a man was snatched from his hut by the beach and it turned out he’d kept one of the wings under his bed. There were sucker marks all over the door, the wood all broken. Wasn’t smart to keep what wasn’t his.”
“Some kind of monster took him, then?” said Sarovy.
“Eh…” Tiscilla scratched his stubbled chin. “I wouldn’t call ‘em monsters so much. They’re the folk who live under the waves, down in the ruins of the old empire. Them rubbery ones with all the extra limbs. Coramaelans, I think? Anyhow, they get real big and real strong, but they don’t bother us much unless we start breaking the rules of the sea. Then they come up to make things right.
“That’s why we don’t have many pirates around the Islands, you know. You’d think we would, yeah? I hear you’ve got a mess of pirates along the coastline, probably because you don’t have any ruins sunk near you. The Coramaelans, sometimes they feel social and will climb up on a ship to visit, but if they see anything untoward, they can bite through the bleeding hull. They’re very strict about it. Pirate crews used to sacrifice all sorts of treasures to them, trying to get permission to operate in our waters, but the moment they did something the Coramaelans didn’t like…. Schwomp, down into the depths they went.”
“Then the Coramaelans don’t abide by the gifting and sacrificing laws?” said Sarovy.
“Oh, they do. They just…they’re enforcers. Take your gifts and give you the leeway that buys, but if you go beyond their limits… Heh. Not all the pirates get dragged into the depths, you see. Some always get left behind on lifeboats and the like. Sometimes cut open, their gold and jewels or other offerings stuffed in the wound. Sometimes covered in these blood-sucking barnacle things that’re all over the deep sea floor and the big critters. Those things’ll take a chunk out of you the size of a fist if you try to pry ‘em off. I heard they left one fellow stuffed so full of seaweed there were still tendrils coming out of his mouth—and he was alive, he survived it. Never spoke right after that, but survived.
“And they’re not the only things in the depths. Those bug wings, those were fresh. Though why a bug’d need wings if it lives in the deep water, I don’t know.”
Sarovy frowned. Not that he doubted anything specific about Tiscilla’s tales—he had heard plenty of Lisalhan Ocean stories, and they were all strange to the point of terrifying—but the man spoke them with such relish, it worried him. Perhaps living so close to such potential horrors inured one to them.
“I was under the impression that most of your people were pirates, Shield,” he said.
Tiscilla snorted derisively. “Your folk just have stiff-britched notions about propriety, that’s all. You see a bunch of foul fellows at a bar, carousing with the local ladies-for-hire, and you think ‘criminals’! This whole territory, this Illane, everyone looks at us like we’re monsters if we let out a belch in public. Let me tell you, we’re not so troubled about such niceties on the Islands, nor do we bother with so much clothing.” He picked disdainfully at his uniform undershirt, the coat hanging unbuttoned over it.
“This is our regulation attire,” said Sarovy.
“Well, it’s stupid. No offense, Captain, I know you’re just enforcing someone else’s stupid rules, but we’re in the bloody desert right now. Why do we gotta wear a coat and a shirt and britches and unders and everything? On the Islands we’d wear some short britches, maybe a tunic if the sun was particularly beaming. Ladies for rent sometimes’d just wear a skirt and a whole lot of flowers up here, being all coy.” He sighed regretfully. “Sometimes I wonder why we left, you know? To come here where everyone’s wrapped up from heel to head.”
“Our regulation attire is non-negotiable,” said Sarovy, “but yes, that is a question I have been asking myself ever since you and your comrades were assigned to me.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, captain, but we sure didn’t come here for your pretty face.” Tiscilla chortled to himself, then elaborated, “The islands are tight-knit. Have to be, as the only bastion against the wild sea and all. So when a fellow gets a bad reputation, there’s nothing to be done but make up for it or go landside and lose yourself. Suffice to say that a couple of us, we needed to get lost, and the rest—we’re all like brothers. We figured we should go together.”
“And what was this reputation for?”
Grinning, Tiscilla shook his head. “That’d be betraying the trust, sir, and I can’t do that. You don’t pay me near enough for it.”
Sarovy made a mental note to have a session with the Vintara brothers soon. They seemed the most likely to have fallen face-first into exile.
“In the proper time, we’ll all go back, I’m sure,” said Tiscilla, and waved as if to indicate the land beyond Sarovy’s office. “This Army thing is interesting enough, but it’s too much work. Too many more problems to add onto what we’ve already got. I can handle the Coramaelans, sir—I had one for a buddy when I was a boy, he was just a little squiggly thing but he was friendly, we got along good. I can handle tossing back the sea’s gifts, or giving what I gotta give in order to keep ‘em. I can handle hacking down monsters that want to clamber up my ship in the dark of the night and eat all our faces. That’s familiar, sir. But the whole thing this Army has going on—the monsters hiding among us, wearing people-faces? At least at sea, you know a monster the moment you see it.
“I don’t know how you lot can take it, but I suppose Imperials are used to Imperial problems, and us Islanders are used to Island problems, right?”
Sarovy nodded marginally, not wanting to discuss the Imperial abominations. “And your people would let you return?”
“They’d let us return right now, sir. Only we’d be bloody well ridiculed for running off and then coming back without anything to show for it. It’s not about crime, sir, it’s about reputation and honor. I admit we’ve got some silly ideas about armies and wars and the like, from hearing you landside folks’ stories; we thought it’d be a great idea to come here and sign up. We’d have victory and glory and all those fire-tale things. But this war stuff is actually pretty boring, isn’t it? When no one’s actively trying to kill you. So if we don’t figure out how to get ourselves some glory soon, we might move on. Maybe south, see if we can…I don’t know, fight some dragons. Or at least see them. I hear the dragons in Jernizan are really just big dumb lizards.”
Sarovy made a noncommittal sound. He had seen enough of those to know they were not as unintelligent as people said, but also that they were not true dragons.
“So you want to make names for yourselves,” he said.
Tiscilla shrugged. “Not that so much as gather some stories. Like I said, sir, we’re a land of drinkers, from the fine to the foul, and nothing pays for drinks better than outlandish stories that come with evidence of truth. I want dragon teeth, sir. I want phoenix feathers—is the Phoenix real or just something you lot made up to have a big fiery bird on your banners? I want some wraith bits. We’re gonna war with them again, aren’t we? I heard they’re enemies of the Empire. I want some ghostwing claws, a goblin skull, some piece off those walking metal folk your lancers say you fought…”
“Shield Tiscilla,” said Sarovy, “if you’re just in this army for trophy-hunting—“
“No, no, this whole military experience thing is good too,” said the man quickly. “Maybe we can hire on as noble guards when we go back. Become captains ourselves, you know? There’s no big wars on the islands, we just don’t have the space—too many vineyards, and nobody’d disturb the wine-making crop, that’s just not right—but there’s enough noblemen trying to kill each other over drunken slights at any moment that being a bodyguard can be a well-paying job. So we clear up our friends’ reputations by working with you stiff-necked types, we gather up some good stories and trophies, we go back and suddenly we’re not a bunch of shore-village brats—we’re weathered soldiers, explorers, adventurers. The women swarm to us, the noble types pay gold for our services, and we retire in drunken luxury. Perfect plan, sir.”
As Tiscilla sat back with an expression of deep satisfaction on his bleary face, Sarovy wondered how the Brother Islanders ever managed to surface from their cups long enough to build ships, let alone come ashore.
“And to that end, you will abide by all the rules necessary, or else risk losing your reputations here as well?” he said.
“Not that a landside reputation would hold us back once we’re on the Islands, but…it’s the principle of the thing. Yes.”
“Then I think we should talk a bit more in depth about what the Army…gifts to you, and what you must do in return to avoid its curses.”
Tiscilla’s face sobered dramatically at that, and he sat forward, tugging at his uniform coat. “Curses…you have curses, sir?”
“Of course we do,” said Sarovy, smiling thinly. “They are called ‘latrine duty’.”