“Guinevere, will you marry me?” Gale sighed and smoothed back his straw-blond hair, re-straightening his threadbare canvas shirt for what felt like the hundredth time. “No, wait, that’s not right…”
He fixed the angle of his cracked shaving mirror against the rocking of the ship, looked himself in the eye, and tried again. “Guinevere, I’d be honored if you’d see fit to marry—damn, that’s wrong too…”
The ship groaned as though in agreement. Gale sighed again and tried another tone.
“Shift’s up, Gale. Final turn’s yours to… what’re you doing?”
Gale dropped the mirror face down and leapt to his feet. “Blazes, Crawford—y’damn near scared me to death!”
Crawford raised his eyebrow and leaned forward, glancing skeptically from Gale’s face to the upturned mirror. “Aye? An’ what has you so jumpy?”
“Ain’t no business o’ yours.” The two men stared each other down for a long moment, then simultaneously burst out laughing.
“Ain’t no business o’ mine? Ain’t no business o’ mine? Blast and becalm me, Gale, I drop a pin an’ you’re jumpin’ outta your skin—hell if that ain’t my business, mate. All the years I’ve known you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you strung so taut.”
Gale gave a rueful smile. “Aye, I s’pose you’re right. It’s Guinevere, Crawford. I’m… I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”
Crawford froze. “Guinevere? As in Guinevere Syren—with the shop on Green Street? That Guinevere?”
“Aye,” Gale said, nodding. “I’m gonna ask her as soon as we make port. Way I see it—if I don’t hurry up and get my act together, I’ll go ashore one day to find she’s gotten sick of waitin’ an’ moved on with her life without me.”
“Aye…” Crawford nodded slowly. “Well, one way or the other—right now you got a windshift to run. Better get on that, or the captain’ll keelhaul us both.”
Gale laughed. “Aye, but then he’d go an’ lose the two best windworkers in all of Alinor!”
Crawford grinned. “Fine then. Worse than keelhaulin—Cap’n might dock our pay.”
“Now there’s a penalty to fear! Gods know my wallet ain’t already loose enough. I’ll catch you later, aye?”
“Aye, now get outta here ‘fore I kick you up that ladder myself.”
Gale laughed again, giving Crawford a cheerful salute as he swung himself up the ladder and onto the deck.
Out under the sun, the ship bustled. Sailors went about their work, shouting orders and singing shanties as they filled their nets with shining silver fish. A gull flew down and landed on the deck, where it turned into a man. He pointed out a new school of fish to another sailor, who promptly jumped overboard, shifted into a dolphin, and swam away to herd the school towards the ship. Likely they’d ask Gale to push the vessel that way in a few minutes so they could scoop up the school before any of the other ships could reach it.
Gale leapt into the rigging and climbed his way to the top of the mast, where he took his place beside the lookout in the crow’s nest. Down below, the signalman made a broad gesture with his left hand, sweeping it outward and up. Gale nodded to himself and called the magic in his blood, summoning a stiff breeze from the sea to push the ship further out into the wide blue world—right up to the edge of Alinor’s domain.
The ship pulled within a hundred yards of the edge before Gale stopped the wind, becalming the ship. The other sailors scurried about, readying the nets, and Gale leaned against the low handrail to await his next order. Occasionally he would divert a stray breeze conjured by some other ship’s windworker or readjust his own power to account for a shift in the world’s wind, but the tasks left his mind with plenty of time to wander.
Though he tried to be attentive and watch the signalman, Gale found his gaze wandering out over the open ocean, away from the distant shore and the innumerable masts and sails of the other assorted fishing boats. The light in the waves, the color in the water—it distracted him like little else could. The deep, beautiful murky green of Alinor’s home water shimmered comfortably next to the brilliantly sparkling blue over the domain border—that unnaturally straight line in the sea that no ship dared to cross—and beyond that, the world was a patchwork of blues and greens and silver-greys, all the way out to the horizon.
The waves gleamed, swelling and ebbing with the breath of the world, and the waters shifted—sea blurring with sky and vanishing, giving way to foreign patches of water as the domains of the ocean disappeared and reappeared to the gods’ chaotic design. Gale’s eye drifted lazily over this tapestry of constant motion, eventually coming to rest on the single line of color that neither moved nor vanished. One narrow band of red-tinted water stretched out beyond the bounds of human sight, reaching all the way to the distant shores of Mikare.
“What d’you think it’s like out there, Harisin?” Gale eventually murmured to the lookout. “Sailin’ on the Rose Line, I mean.”
“Eh? Hard and dangerous,” the older man replied, running the back of his hand across his nose, “Line to Mikare—may as well call it a straight shot to Mother Ainsley’s Keep. I swear near half the men who set out across those waters end up dinin’ with the old girl in her cold halls. Sure, the other half that make it back get paid in gold—but I don’t value any cash as worth more than my life. Now put the thought out of your head, lad. The signalman is wavin’ us home.”
Sure enough, Gale glanced down and saw a rather irate signalman flagging him down.
“What do you know,” Gale said as he called up a landward breeze, “I thought we’d be out here for at least another hour or two.”
The lookout snorted. “What, you lose track o’ time with your head in the clouds, Gale? We ain’t got long ‘til sundown, now. I don’t know about you, but I wanna be good an’ drunk afore curfew falls.”
“Aye,” Gale laughed, filling the sails with wind, “that’s a fair plan, and no mistake! Have a drink for me, will ya? I won’t be able to make it, tonight.”
“That girl o’ yours again?” Harisin snickered. “Boy, she’s really got you wrapped around her finger. You used to know how to have fun.”
Gale shrugged, giving an easy smile. “I say it’s worth staying sober if it means seein’ her smile.”
Harisin rolled his eyes and laughed. “Aye, you say that now—but if I know a thing about it, you’ll be drinkin’ to forget her scowl the day after you go and get yourselves hitched. Mark my words, Gale—it ain’t worth the time or the effort.”
Gale grinned and commandeered a tiny breeze to sweep his hair back out of his eyes. “If that’s what you think, Harisin, I don’t reckon you’re doing it right.”
* * *
Three quarters of an hour later, every able-bodied man was back in human form and working to bring the ship safe into port. As Gale pushed the vessel forward, the rest of the crew got to work hauling lines, securing cargo, and doing everything they could to see the ship docked safely. When that was done and the massive barrels of fish had been signed over to the dockworkers to unload, Gale received the three shiny silver coins that made his five days at sea worthwhile.
Swaying happily to the motion of a ship that no longer rocked beneath his feet, Gale pocketed his pay and strolled away, down towards the dockside market.
The setting sun lit the sky and the sea with a light like fire, lending a warm orange glow to the narrow market streets. The black-pebbled beaches, the low stone buildings—everything looked as though some whim of the gods had painted them gold. Even the people seemed brighter than usual; the normally sullen dockworkers bustled cheerfully among the ships, the returning sailors sang as they wandered from tavern to tavern, and even the cutpurses and pickpockets seemed to be going about their evening work with a particular odd glee.
Gale shouldered through the crowds, greeting everyone he met with a grin and a friendly “good evening,” albeit with one hand guarding his wallet. He’d need every coin to pull off what he had planned.
The door to the Sunrise Blue Tavern swung open as Gale passed. Warm firelight spilled out onto the street, coupled with energetic music and raucous, happy laughter.
Gale hesitated—then shook his head and got back to walking. Guinevere would be waiting.
The thought brought a dreamy smile back to Gale’s face. One glance from her was enough to make his heart pound. Her kiss was better than the finest wine. He found himself humming as he strolled past the taverns, past the fishmongers and fruit salesmen, down to the little shop in the back alley off Palm Street where the seaside district met the far edge of the nobles’ quarter.
Gale pushed the door open, and a little bell chimed to welcome him. Behind the tall counter, a tiny old woman looked up from her book.
“You back again, Gale, y’scoundrel? I hope you have coin in your pocket, this time. I ain’t gonna work for free.”
“Aye, you old sea witch. I’ve got the coin, if your dry old bones still have a drop o’ magic left in ‘em. I ain’t payin’ ‘less the job gets done.”
“Rascal. I don’t need to take that kind of talk from you. Come here.” The old woman hopped off her stool and spread her wrinkled, tattooed arms, the silver beads in her hair clinking with every motion. Her wizened face split into a broad, weatherbeaten smile.
Gale grinned back and embraced her. “It’s good to see you again, Missus Smith. Been too long since we last spoke.”
Missus Smith cleared her throat, giving a few gruff coughs to hide her own affection. “Wouldn’t have been so long if you’d have come back to visit sooner, boy.”
“Aye, well—you made me swear not to return ‘til either I had the coin for the job or the sense to give up on it, and I’ve yet to grow any more sense. I do got the brain to know you didn’t raise me to go around breakin’ my word, though.”
The old woman clicked her tongue and chuckled. “Boy, I reckon by this point I didn’t raise you so much as I ruined you. I figure it a wonder you grew up at all.”
Gale laughed. “Ruined me? Gave me life, more like. What manner of man would I have been if you’d never brought me to the sea? A kitchen boy? A lawman? A clerk?”
Missus Smith reached up and lightly cuffed the side of Gale’s head. “A whole lot politer, that’s what.” She paused, staring up at Gale’s face for a long moment, examining the cast of his features and the light in his eye. “A kid with magic like yours… I couldn’t stand the thought, knowing your talent was stuck rotting away in some children’s home. The Brother Gods hate waste, an’ I ain’t about to offend them. But that don’t mean I did it for you—I’m a selfish woman and I wanted your power on my ship, and you’d best not forget that. But… I s’pose you could’ve turned out worse.”
Gale nodded amicably. She gave this speech nearly every time he stopped by to visit. Sometimes when he wasn’t paying attention, he found himself mouthing along. Now, though, he called a grin. “I turned out fine. I’m doin’ fine. What I’ve got suits me fine, an’ I’m gonna thank you whether you like it or not, Missus Smith.”
“Aye, everything you are is thanks to me,” Missus Smith agreed, nodding as she hobbled back around the counter to her stool, “I done you too many free favors, boy. More than my share, Brothers help me.” Though she frowned, the stern look did not reach her smiling eyes.
“Well, don’t you fret, ma’am, you won’t be workin’ for free this time. I wasn’t spinnin’ tales when I said I had the coin.” Gale opened his wallet and upturned it next to Missus Smith’s book on the countertop. Silver and copper coins spilled out and rolled every which way. Missus Smith’s eyes widened. Gale grinned.
“There you have it, ma’am. Twenty silver. You owe me a necklace for my lover.”
Missus Smith muttered something incomprehensible, herding the escaped money back into a neat pile. She counted the coins, separating and sorting them—then she sighed. “You must be serious about this girl, Gale.”
He nodded. “Guinevere means the world to me. I’d save a thousand times over if that was the only way I could show her my heart.”
“Guinevere, eh? That wouldn’t be the Syren girl now, would it? Markus’ daughter?”
“The very same. In all my life, I’ve never met a girl so—”
Missus Smith cut Gale off with a gesture. “Her mother was old money, Gale. Old blood. And her father’s a wildcard and no mistake. I hope you don’t expect a pretty bauble to impress her, boy. She probably owns trinkets worth twice what you can afford, an’ if she’s got half her father’s spirit it don’t matter to her in the least.”
“That ain’t the point, ma’am. It’s not about the worth of the thing—it’s about showing I love her. We’ve been talkin’ a while—as near to courtin’ as we can get while keepin’ proper, an’ I’m fair certain she loves me back. I reckon it’s time I take it forward.”
Missus Smith chuckled and drew a hand down her face. “You’re a fool, boy. A blasted sun-baked fool. Does her father know?”
Gale gave a lopsided grin, smoothing back his salt-stiffened hair and shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Know I’m a blasted sun-baked fool, or know that I hope to marry Guinevere?”
Missus Smith let out a single barking laugh. “The second option, boy—the first point is plain enough for anyone with half an eye to see.”
Gale scratched his cheek, shifting his weight again and shuffling his feet. “I haven’t quite told him my plan, yet, but I’m fair certain he knows Guin and I have been talking.”
“And the gods only know what he thinks of that,” Missus Smith said, shaking her head slowly. “I’ll do the job I said I’d do as best I can, but I pray you don’t wind up disappointed.”
Gale shrugged. “A man’s gotta dream, ma’am. And then a man’s gotta have enough steel in his soul to chase that dream. Fish can’t fill nets you don’t throw—ain’t you the one who told me that?”
“I swear, Gale—if I weren’t retired, I’d give you the hiding you deserve. Throwing my words back at me… Hah! Who do you think you are? ‘Cause to me, you don’t look like more than a young fool.” She sighed, her harsh edge melting away to something softer. “You listen to me now, Gale—don’t ever get old. It ain’t worth it.”
“I’ll try, ma’am.” He chuckled softly.
Missus Smith sighed again and clicked her tongue in mock disapproval, shaking her head as she collected Gale’s money. She gave him one last appraising glance, then stepped into her shop’s back room to gather her materials. Gale crossed his arms and leaned against the wall to wait.
A few minutes later, Missus Smith returned, carrying a heavy-looking toolbox with both of her frail-looking arms. Gale stepped forward and offered to take it, but she shooed him away, thunked the box down on the counter, and gestured for him to pull up a stool and sit.
“So. Let’s go over again: just what is it you want me to make, Gale?” Her flint-brown eyes pinned him in place.
“A necklace for Guinevere,” he answered immediately, “something silver—but magicked up so it won’t tarnish. I’d like it shaped like a sea flower, too—with all those delicate leaves and vines and such. Oh, and I’d like if you could work these in, too.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny drawstring bag, which he opened to reveal a slightly misshapen pearl and five tiny pieces of sea-polished glass ranging from blue to green. “I found all this on the beach over the course of the year. I thought if you could use ‘em it’d make the gift more… I dunno. Personal, I guess.”
Missus Smith took Gale’s contribution, examining the glass and testing the pearl between her fingers. “I guess no one can say you ain’t thoughtful. I’ll see what I can throw together, and you give this mess your best shot. Guinevere’s a lucky girl, to have your heart.”
Gale grinned, and Missus Smith opened her toolbox to withdraw several lumps of dark metal. When she had four or five good-sized lumps, Missus Smith cracked her knuckles as she always did when she called her magic. The lumps of silver shivered as though alive. One by one, they shuddered and morphed, birthing tiny beads that pulsed and quivered with a rhythm like breath. Missus Smith closed her eyes, and the beads ran together to form tiny puddles on the countertop. Then the puddles stretched into strings and the strings wove together into a soft braid of living metal.
Gale watched as more shapes began to form. The brightest silver pooled in the center, collecting into a brilliant sphere that exploded into the perfect image of a sea flower. The metal seemed somehow more alive and more real than the living plants that grew by the shore. Missus Smith opened her eyes and carefully pressed the pearl into the center of the flower, where it stuck. The bits of polished glass found their homes spaced equally along the braid, and then all at once the metal grew to encase the additions in a delicate network of gossamer wire.
Sweat beaded on the old woman’s brow. The metal grew brighter—and like an image appearing through misted glass, the details emerged, growing and twining into delicate leaves and elegant vines until at last Missus Smith exhaled and the metal faded back to lifeless silver.
Gale exhaled as well. “Ma’am, you’ve outdone yourself. I’ll never be able to thank you enough.”
“Start by promising me you’ll keep that head on your shoulders where it belongs, Gale. You get fair stupid when you let it float off into the clouds.”
Gale nodded, gently scooping the necklace up from the counter and stowing it away. “On my honor as a child o’ the sea, ma’am. I’ll keep my idiocy to the bare minimum.”
“Good,” Missus Smith said, collecting her leftover materials and returning them to her toolbox. “That’s a promise I expect you to keep. And you’ll start by takin’ this.” The old woman extended her hand. Five pieces of silver and three copper coins rested in her palm.
“What? What do you—”
“Just take it, Gale.”
“But you made me swear to pay the full cost—you insisted I—”
“Aye, that I did. And if I know you, you were in such a hurry you didn’t keep a single copper back, an’ you probably haven’t eaten. I didn’t take you outta that home to watch you starve to death.”
Gale smiled and clasped her hand with both of his, accepting the money and pulling Missus Smith into another hug. “I owe you too much, ma’am. Someday I’ll repay you.”
“Oh, belay that gushing, boy. It ain’t proper.”
Missus Smith could not hide the grin in the corner of her mouth. “You paid me with cold coin like everyone else and there’s no call to get sentimental. Stop wastin’ time with these old bones and go off to your girl. She’s waitin’, aye?”
“Aye!” Gale clasped Missus Smith’s hand again, hardly aware of the faint breezes his joy stirred up in the room. “Aye, that she is! Thanks a million, ma’am—I’ll stop by again ‘fore I set to sea! Until then, wish me luck!”
Gale gave a small salute and a wide grin before he turned and fled the shop, taking the restless breezes with him.
He ran all the way down Palm Street, though the market, past the docks, and onto the streets where the sea folk made their homes. He cut through the slums to reach Molly Street, then followed that further into the city before a left on Keller Road took him back seawards. From there, Gale only had to hop a wall, climb a tree, edge through a back alley, and then he was throwing pebbles at Guinevere’s window. The sun was down, sunk well below Alinor’s high stone walls, but Gale knew Guinevere would be awake.
Sure enough, after the third stone she opened her window and her smile lit up the world.
Gale’s heart tripped, and his breath caught in his throat. Guinevere held up a finger, mouthed something inaudible, and disappeared from view.
Gale crossed his arms and leaned against the nearest tree. His face hurt from smiling, but he didn’t care.
Two minutes passed. A faint breeze rustled the sleeping flowers in their neatly-ordered beds. Crickets chirped in the manicured hedge.
Guinevere reappeared at the window. She had a jacket on, now, and her long brown hair was braided over her left shoulder.
Gale smiled and blew her a kiss, sending a light breeze to carry it towards her. She laughed softly and blew a kiss back, before swinging her leg over the windowsill and climbing down the ivy trellis to meet him.