Barrel-chested, sunburned Herv Wallak roared out his laughter and pointed. Leef looked where he was pointing, knowing what he would see before he looked, and grinned. The familiar sight of green land over blue water jutted before them. Home.
After three weeks at sea, Leef Undertree scarcely noticed the roll and rise of the fishing trawler. He had become a rider of the waves, the small ship serving as his horse, rising and falling in a rhythm that had become second nature to him. In fact, after three weeks on the Inland Sea, he had begun to feel more at home here than at his home in Salonika.
He tightened down the lines leading to the jib, and glanced once again over the gunwale at his prize: the largest spearfish ever seen in these water, since, well since ever. It lay strapped to the outside of the gunwale, too large to fit in the hold of the ship. It had taken him many hours to land the beast, first with pole and line and later with grappling hook. And even now the trail of blood in the water and his own bloody hands reminded him of the battle he had undertaken—and won. Now it was only their speed that kept the spearfish from serving as food for the monsters that trailed behind them.
The spearfish’s meat would feed the village for the rest of the season, but it was worth far more than that to him. It would mean that his father would regain his reputation as a leader in the community. And it would gain him something else, something far more important than prestige.
He envisioned the locust-wood deep draft ketch that he and his father had been working on for three years. His father, the master shipbuilder, had refused to name it: tradition stated that the ship’s first captain had that honor. But Leef already had a name selected for his first love: Dionysus. The name chosen for the god of wine honored the many nights his father had sat drunkenly supervising his hard work, and it honored the drunken joy that he felt right now. For he now knew where he would spend the rest of his life. Salonika was no longer his home. His home was the sea.
The next two hours slipped by quickly, and soon Herv and he were cutting across the smooth water of the harbor and toward the dock where he could see his father waiting with a cluster of other men. Theirs was the last fishing trawler to enter the harbor, and he suspected that others had seen his catch and had stolen his opportunity to surprise his father and the rest of the village.
Sure enough, as they pulled up to the wharf and Herv tied up the bowline and he tied up the sternline, a dozen men piled onto the trawler, eager to see the enormous spearfish tied on the other side of the boat. Others waded out into the water alongside the boat. As the men untied the monstrous fish and towed it through the water to the winch that stood just beyond the bow, Herv barked out orders.
“Careful now, that fishy’s got a lot of stories tied up in it, but there will be many fewer if it gets scarred in the process,” he told them. “And I will have the hide of any of you that don’t respect the efforts of this young man.” He turned and grinned at Leef.
“If that don’t buy you free drinks at Whaley’s Pub for the rest of your life, I’ll skin Whaley myself.”
“I’m not concerned about Whaley’s Pub,” Leef said, turning to look at his father on the wharf. “I have something more important on my mind.”
“Ah, he’s proud of you, can’t you see?” Herv said. “If he’s of a right mind, he will give you your inheritance here and now.”
“We’ll see,” Leef said, more to himself than to Herv. Without his eyes leaving his father, he climbed over the gunwale and climbed the moss-covered ladder to the wharf above.
“That’s a grand fish you have brought in,” Bard Undertree told his son as he joined him. Leef turned with his father to watch them hoisting the fish up on pulleys by its tail. The crossbeam with the pulley stood a good ten feet off the surface of the wharf, but even so, it wasn’t high enough to keep the head of the big fish from lying on the wharf.
“It is all yours,” Leef said to his father. “I brought it back for you to sell and pay off the debt on the business.”
“There is no debt,” Bard said. “You can keep the honor of the fish, and the money that comes with it.”
“What do you mean, there is no debt?” Leef echoed. “What happened to it?”
Bard grasped his son by his shoulders and looked into his eyes. “I have been thinking about getting out of the business for some time now. Your brother brokered a deal—a good deal—with the Hazard family. They have agreed to take over the debt, provide a yearly stipend for me until I die, in exchange for the business and all its properties.”
Leef couldn’t believe his ears. He looked at his father blankly, then across the wharf to where his older brother Mact stood with Mr. Hazard and his daughter Lizbeth. Leef noticed how closely Mact and Lizbeth stood together, and suddenly he understood.
“I get it,” he said slowly. “You get a retirement fee, Hazard gets the business, and Mact gets Lizbeth. What do I get?”
“What do you mean?”
“Where is my inheritance?” Leef said. “I don’t want the business. I just want the boat we spent the last three years building. The Dionysus.”
“I never promised you an inheritance,” Bard said, and Leef noticed an edge coming into his father’s voice. “Life is hard, and you will have to make your own way, just as I have spent the past 40 years making my own way. Besides, an inheritance goes to the firstborn.” Leef had always felt close to his father, even when he had had to walk him home drunk from Whaley’s Pub. But now, as he stared at his father, he realized that a barrier had come between him and his father. He had never gotten along with Mact, who was only interested in making money as a merchant. His father had had to choose between him and his brother. And Leef had lost out.
“The boat belongs to Mr. Hazard now,” Bard said. “Talk to him. Maybe he will be willing to sell it to you.”
Leef stood and stared as his father walked down the wharf and disappeared. Leef turned to the cluster of people around Mr. Hazard and walked up to his brother.
“That is the biggest fish I have ever seen,” Mact said to him. “Congratulations.”
“It’s the biggest fish this village has ever seen, and that’s a fact,” Leef said, no joy apparent in his voice. “And I will give it to you gladly in exchange for the boat.”
Mact looked at Leef and slowly shook his head.
“That boat belongs to my future father in law,” he said. “And he plans on selling it to King Zhukov in Sparta. In fact, the King has already sent his deposit.”
“I spent the last three years building that boat,” Leef said. “I know every plank, every turnbuckle, every dowel that went into her. She’s mine.”
“I could care less how much time you spent working on her,” Mact said. “All that matters is what the court will say, and all that matters to them is this slip of paper.” He held the bill of sale over his head as if it were a club to strike Leef down. And for Leef it was.
A sudden wave of despair flooded Leef. Choking back a sob, he said:
“Then I give the fish to you as a wedding present. May you have a long life and many children.” He turned and walked away from his brother for the last time.
The crowd of well wishers had thinned somewhat, but a few men still slapped him on the shoulder and wished him well. Leef hardly heard or felt them. All he wanted was to be alone. In a matter of two hours, he had gone from a sense of elation and the feeling of having a world of possibilities to one where he saw no future. His father had officially retired, his brother had taken the results of three years’ labor, and he was without a job, a home and future.
He looked back at Herv. Perhaps Herv would be willing to take him on as a deckhand? But no, it had cost him a month’s wages to convince Herv to take him on this last trip. Herv was no rich man, and he knew he couldn’t afford to hire Leef for his trawler. And most, if not all, of the fishers were in the same situation. No, the only answer was for Leef to go into business for himself.
And the answer to that—he realized—was to do the unthinkable.
Leef walked away from the wharf, buried in his own grief. He hardly saw the young girl that stood where the wharf ended and the string of shops along the harbor begun. He started to step past her, but she stepped in front of him.
“Excuse me,” she said in halting Common. “I am looking for passage to Sparta.”
“I can’t help you,” Leef mumbled. “Try one of the captains on the wharf.”
“I have tried,” she said. “I have tried them all. No one will help me.”
Leef shook his head, annoyed by the girl’s persistence.
“Trades are blowing the wrong way this time of year,” he said. “I don’t blame them.”
“Yes, but,” she said, insistently. “My name in Mara. My brother was kidnapped. I need to get to Sparta to get him back.”
“Take it up with the police in Sparta. Oh, that’s right, you need to get to Sparta. Sorry, can’t help you.”
“Look, I don’t have much money, but I will gladly pay you later for passage. But I need it right away.”
“Listen girl,” Leef said. “What part of no don’t you understand?”
“I can’t afford to accept no,” she said, tears coming to her eyes. “I’m all out of options.”
Leef nodded. “I know exactly how you feel. Sometimes you have to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Sorry.”
He stepped past her and walked away.
The midday turned to evening, and evening to night. The captains and their crews were all in Whaley’s Pub, celebrating the end of another successful trip into the Inland Sea. There were no fatalities this time around, and that was reason enough for most of them to get drunk. Leef’s catch had added to their good fortune, and so as the night went on, any captain who didn’t have the fortune—or misfortune—to have a wife or children who would come and walk them home to a warm bed, found themselves asleep by the hearth at Whaley’s. Jim Whaley was used to it, and knew who his regular customers were. His accommodations were comfortable, and he didn’t charge much for a sailor to sleep on a table—or underneath one.
All of this time, Leef was nowhere to be seen. His father and brother didn’t look for him. His father knew that his son would need time to absorb the news of the sale of his business. And so he left him alone to stew in his own juices.
But Leef wasn’t wasting time in anger. Instead, he had taken the night hours to slip onto the deck of the Islander, one of several boats owned by one Hakk Smeatson, the richest and most successful fisher and exporter in Salonika. Leef knew for a fact that Hakk would be spending the night in Whaley’s. He also knew that his best mate had a girlfriend that he hadn’t seen in a month, so he wasn’t around either. That meant the Islander was empty, and easy pickings for someone who knew what he wanted, and needed it badly.
Leef didn’t consider stealing the Islander. It was too well known, and Leef had no desire to be pursued by ships he knew were faster than the trawler. Instead, he slipped into the hold for a fresh set of canvas sails, a hundred cubits of rope and a can of pitch.
An hour later, he had the sails, rope and pitch loaded into the Dionysus. If he had his druthers, he would have given the boat a fresh coat of paint, made sure it was waterproof with an extra coat of pitch in the hold, and properly named and launched her. But desperate times called for…well, he would properly launch his love at another time. Right now, his priority was to slip out of the harbor with the tide, early enough that no one in the harbor saw them leave.
The boat house had been locked, but Leef had been in it so many times that he knew every loose board and rafter. He slipped in through an upper window and loaded his supplies. When he had the mast stepped and the sails mounted, he hopped out of the boat, checked through a lower window to make sure no one was out on the wharf, then used a mallet to knock the chock out from under the rollers beneath the ship. A second later, he heard the boat begin to roll like a sled on a track. By the time the stern of the Dionysus met the wooden doors, it was rolling fast enough to knock the doors open with a crash.
“Well,” he said to himself. “If that doesn’t wake them, I don’t know what will.”
He stood on the shore, watching the Dionysus float on the water outside the boathouse. He hesitated, then as if remembering what he was there for, dove into the water and swam out to the stern of the boat and hauled himself aboard.
Five minutes later, he was sailing quietly out of the harbor, a stiff morning breeze and the outgoing tide allying with him in his escape. He looked back at Salonika as it grew smaller in his vision behind the boat. He had no idea where he was headed; he only knew that he would never be welcomed in his home town again.
“They hang horse thieves,” he thought aloud. “What do they do with people who steal ships?”
“I think they hang them too,” he heard a voice say. As he looked at the door leading down to the hold, a dark head appeared. It was the girl who had confronted him hours before. Mara, she had called herself.
“Maybe they keelhaul them,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “Whatever keelhauling is.”
“What are you doing on this boat?” he said, an edge in his voice. “How did you get on her?”
“Same way you did,” she said. “I snuck on in the dead of night. Face it, we are both criminals.”
He stared at the young girl, hardly a teenager, and realized she was right.
“You know, I could just throw you over the side,” he said.
“You could, but then you would be a murderer AND a thief,” she said. “And I don’t think you will. I’m a pretty good judge of character.”
“You are, are you?” he said. He stared at her for a long while, and realized that once again she was right. He had stolen the boat in a rash act, had no plan and no provisions. He had never been to a port beyond Salonika, and yet stolen a boat that was promised to the King of Sparta, the richest and most powerful land on Brindlestar.
“So where do we go now?” he said finally.
“Where else?” she said, matter-of-factly. “We head for Sparta.”