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Chapter 9

"I hope she isn't always this cranky," Vistaren said. He dusted off his trousers and looked across the ocean. As far as he could see, there was nothing but water and sky and clouds.

Lo's laugh was rueful. "Usually. But she doesn't mean anything by it."

Vistaren snorted. Better you than me, he wanted to say, but didn't. After all, who knew what Azmei would be like? And Vistaren was going to be married to her. He had no choice about it, no say in the matter at all. He would be tied to her forever, all in the interests of securing a lasting peace. At least Lo had a choice.

Beneath them the deck shuddered. Vistaren stumbled and widened his stance. "What the--"

"Hang on to something," Lo ordered. His voice was taut as a bowstring, all humor fled. "She was right. We're too close to the rail."

"Wait--" Vistaren's fingers were tight on the rope that served as a ship's rail. The sea just off the starboard bow was roiling and churning. "What is that?"

Lo came up next to him, one arm on either side of him and gripping the railing. Lo was shielding him with his body, holding him steady. A year ago it would have thrilled Vistaren. Now it just embarrassed him. No man, not even a prince, should be worth so much. "What is what?"

"There." Vistaren pointed. "See where the water's a lighter shade of--"

A vast shape broke the surface, lunging upward with such force the water exploded around it. Vistaren felt cold spray hit his face even as he reeled backwards. The ship bucked. Someone screamed. Someone else was chanting something. A prayer? It couldn't be witchery, could it? He didn't know witchery had words.

"Vistaren!" Lo's voice was frantic. Strong arms closed around him, then he was falling backwards, away from the railing. They were both falling. He thought Lo had thrown himself backwards as soon as he grabbed Vistaren. He relaxed, letting the general have his way. They landed amidships hard enough to bruise Vistaren's hips, but they hadn't gone overboard.

"What the blazing hells is that?" Arama roared. She sounded angry more than anything, and at that, some of Vistaren's fear faded. He tried to sit up, discovered Lo's arms were locked tight around him, and set about trying to work his way free.

"Are you all right?" he demanded.

Lo coughed and let go of him. He opened his mouth to speak, coughed again, and nodded. "Got the wind knocked out of me. You?"

"I'm fine. I had a nice cushiony landing." Vistaren gave him a half-grin and pushed to his knees, craning his neck. What had happened?

"It's a leviathan!" Lo breathed next to him.

Vistaren's head whipped around. "They're real?"

"Real enough. Arama told me she saw one once, from far off." Lo's voice was so hushed he was nearly whispering. "They're shy of boats. The stories say they travel in herds. Arama only saw one, though. She said it blew a stream of water as high as the mast into the air."

"Do they eat people?" Vistaren hoped his voice didn't quaver.

"I don't know. It looked like it was trying to eat us." Lo had rolled to his feet and was half-crouching, looking around them.

Kinnet Ardelis dashed across the deck to the railing. "Go'way!" she howled. Vistaren tried not to wince. He knew she couldn't hear herself, but how could she have no idea of just how loud she was? She'd shouted almost in his ear. "Go'way! Go'way!"

Something about her behavior struck him as odd. He couldn't say just then what it was, but he held out a hand to Lo. After a moment's hesitation, Lo pulled Vistaren to his feet. Vistaren grinned at him and followed Kinnet to the railing. He could see the lightning crackling around her fingertips, but she didn't look like she was afraid the leviathan was going to eat them.

He gripped her upper arm. When she looked at him, he mouthed, "What is it?"

Her gaze was fierce and hard. For too many heartbeats, those silver eyes pierced him. Then she said, "Lonely."

Vistaren's heart broke.

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