The Coldest Sea

Chapter One : Fallstar

Maggie Juell stopped at the foot of the gangplank and turned to look behind her. The people on the docks went about their work and no one seemed to notice her.

Not that she stood out among them. She looked like just another passenger, except she was about to board a freighter—and secretly wished she wouldn’t have to.

Turning, she checked the name painted on the hull. Fallstar, so she was at the right place. Two dockworkers carried a crate to the gangplank, and she stepped back to make room for them. Everyone on the ship except the captain was a stranger to her, but the captain probably had better things to do than stand there keeping an eye out for her. So whether she liked it or not, she had to go aboard.

Besides, the deck would give her more of a vantage point, a better view of the busy dockside. One face in the crowd, that was all it would take.

Hefting her valise in one gloved hand and her violin case in the other, she climbed up the gangplank. A woman on the deck saw her and moved to the head of the plank, barring the way.

Well, that was to be expected, since it wasn’t a passenger ship. Maggie smiled, hoping her arrival wasn’t completely unexpected. The woman’s face was as closed as a clamshell.

“I’m Maggie Juell.” If the worst came to the worst, she’d drop her brothers’ names, but for now, the captain’s would do. Aboard his own ship, it had better do. “I’ve arranged passage with the captain.”

She put her cases down, fished out the letter he’d sent her and handed it over. As the woman unfolded the paper, Maggie looked around the deck, but it wasn’t easy to see people with the sails in the way. The captain could be in the rigging somewhere, inspecting the ship before its departure, and she didn’t know what he’d be wearing, since the only uniforms she was familiar with were those specific to warships.

Finally the woman handed the letter back, with no change in expression. Maybe she wasn’t familiar with the captain’s penmanship, and it wasn’t as though the document was official or sealed. Or even signed with a full name, instead of just the initials VS.

To Maggie’s relief, the woman moved aside. “I’m Joama Kley, the first mate. Welcome aboard Fallstar.”

“Thank you,” Maggie said, relieved.

“I’ll have someone take you to your cabin.” She called out a brusque order.

A cabin. No one could see her if she was belowdecks. But she couldn’t remain here; the deck was busy, especially with the ship about to leave harbor. Besides, a small cynical part of her pointed out, the man she’d once hoped to marry knew which harbor she would leave from. He knew the ship’s name and its time of departure. It wasn’t as though she’d kept silent but was now waiting for him to figure everything out somehow and save her.

For the last time, she looked out over the docks, searching the crowd. It was cold, so some of the people had covered their heads, but no one made for Fallstar with purposeful speed. No one looked around desperately, much less called for her. In that moment she knew he was well over two hundred miles away.

A pointed tapping sound came from behind her, and when she turned, Joama was waiting none too patiently, a man beside her. “Jak will take you below,” Joama said.

The man touched his cap politely, then took her cases. Maggie followed him to the nearest hatch and down the ladder. The confines of the passageway below were slightly less cold, and Jak led her to a cabin lit by pallid sunlight from a tiny window.

Maggie had a feeling the place would have looked better in the dark. A rusting washstand beside the wall supported a chipped pitcher and basin. That, a chair, a hammock and a rug were the only signs the place was intended to hold a person, rather than crates of supplies. The rug, which might once have been red and blue, didn’t reach the corners of the cabin, but those were taken up by cobwebs anyway. Jak set her cases down and turned to leave.

“Wait,” Maggie said quickly. “When are meals served?” She wasn’t in the least hungry, and in that cabin, she might never be, but she didn’t want to be abandoned, as if she was a piece of freight brought aboard. Which wasn’t exactly fair, since she wasn’t paying for her passage and this man probably had plenty of duties to occupy him—but then where was the captain whose letter had granted her permission to travel on board?

“Oh, the midday meal is served at twelve bells, ma’am,” Jak said. “And supper at six. You’ll have to go to the galley for those.”

“I will.” She certainly hadn’t expected anyone to carry her food to her cabin. “Thank you. One last thing. I—I was expecting to see Captain Solarcis.” She stopped, wondering how best to continue. “Would you let him know I’ve arrived?” she finished, a little lamely.

Jak shifted his feet. “I’ll be sure to ask the first mate to let him know, ma’am.”

Something seemed wrong, but as the man let himself out, Maggie told herself not to imagine things. There could be a chain of command she wasn’t aware of, certain proprieties to be respected and ways of doing things, such that an ordinary deckhand didn’t approach the captain for any reason but went through the first mate instead.

She could only hope Joama Kley would pass the message on, because the first mate had looked indifferent at best to the prospect of a passenger. Perhaps she didn’t like the idea of such people on a freighter—especially if they hadn’t paid for passage but would need food and water—though in that case she should have taken up the matter with the captain.

Maggie’s lips twitched as she thought of how her older brothers, both captains in the navy, would have responded to such a complaint. She wished she could have gotten passage on their ships instead, but neither of them was heading north to Half Moon Harbor, part of the city of Lyrance.

Once she reached Lyrance, she’d be fine. The other letter in her pocket offered her a position at an academy of performing arts there, and she had written to accept. Three weeks’ travel, and she’d be far away from everything. Whatever the situation on Fallstar, she could survive three weeks of it. Especially after what had happened at home.

That was enough dithering, so she got to work. Nothing to be done about the floor, since she didn’t have a scrub brush or a pail, but she unhooked the hammock and shook it out. She did the same for the blankets folded inside. Then she took a clean rag from her valise and wiped away every cobweb she could reach. The spiders went through the open window, where they could benefit any fish that managed to survive in harbor water.

Having the window open made her shiver, but thankfully it faced away from the docks, so she wasn’t tempted to keep watching in a futile yet stubborn hope. Instead she worked, listening to the distant orders shouted from above and the whap of canvas snapping taut with wind. Finally she washed her face and hands—the water in the pitcher was cold, but since they hadn’t left harbor yet, at least it was fresh—and moved the single chair so she could look out of the window.

Mooring ropes were cast off, and she heard a sliding metallic rattle that she guessed was the anchor chain being raised. No going back now. She wrapped her arms around herself.

The ship rocked gently and began to move. Maggie watched the harbor go by, sliding steadily backward until the docks disappeared. A bell rang the fifth hour and unseen seabirds shrieked. The ship creaked and thudded all around her, but the sound of the sea was deeper and all-pervasive in comparison.

The sunlight, pale to begin with, grew dimmer and soon there was nothing beyond the window except miles of water. Maggie closed the shutters. It would be suppertime shortly, and though she’d never been seasick, she wasn’t particularly hungry either. She felt isolated, alone in her cabin. If only she’d had enough money for a berth on a passenger ship, where there would be other people to meet and talk with.

If only she were back home, with the man she loved.

Stop that. She would go to the galley for her meal, and if Vinsen Solarcis was there, she would know at least one person on the ship. Then he’d introduce her to his officers as her brothers would have done—which was how she’d met him in the first place.

In fact, she might be asked to join him for supper. She knew that much about naval etiquette. The captain always invited his officers and guests for a meal in his cabin on the first night of a journey, and the food was supposed to be especially good at such a time. Best to get ready, then.

With a tiny mirror in her valise, she examined herself. A stray cobweb clinging to her would be very noticeable on her black coat. No, she was clean and tidy, so she tried to smile, but it wasn’t very convincing.

Her looks had never really mattered to her. Perhaps because she’d grown up roughhousing with two older brothers, the focus of her life was music, and she’d always known she was no great beauty. Everything about her was long—long face, long fingers, long legs—except for her hair. That should have been long, so it had turned out wide instead.

But Anthny had known her from the time they were small children. He’d seen her muddy and gap-toothed and gawky, and he didn’t seem to have minded.

What he hadn’t seen was her younger sister, Feona.

No, she wasn’t going to think about him, especially now that it was too late. She tucked a stray curl back into place in the net she always wore, confining her too-abundant hair like a haul of fish, and put the mirror away. Finally she found a bottle of sandalwood scent and spared a drop for each wrist before she sat back down to wait.

Despite the closed window, she heard the bell ring the sixth hour.

There was no knock on her door. Maggie waited. Then she waited some more, though once again a hollow misgiving crept through her to tell her she was searching for something that would never be there.

The captain didn’t owe her his company, she reminded herself. He’d given her free passage aboard his ship, which was a favor she couldn’t repay. He was certainly under no obligation to do anything more. So since she had to eat at some point, best to go do it before the food was all finished.

She locked the door behind her. Lanterns had been lit against the gloom below, and although the passageway was cramped, it wasn’t too cold. She could imagine what the chill would be like topside, since that winter promised to be a sharp-toothed one.

A deeper kind of chill came from the crew. People were still lined up for their meal, but if they talked at all, they did so in subdued mutters. Most of them didn’t seem to notice her, and no one said a word to her. She had never felt so self-conscious, but she pretended unconcern and at least the dog tethered outside the galley was friendly. A big black-and-white pointer, it licked her fingers when she scratched it behind the ears, and it seemed to be a favorite among the crew too. A lot of them tossed scraps its way, and the dog gobbled those as though it had never been fed in its life.

Maggie might have given it her meal too, since the food was an unappealing slop of chopped meat and beans stewed together, but it tasted much better than it looked. When she thanked the cook for the meal, she might as well have spoken in another language. But he silently pushed a piece of hardtack into her hand, which was the kindest gesture she’d encountered all day, and she took that to her cabin. She could eat it for breakfast, which meant she didn’t need to go out until it was time for the midday meal—or even supper, if she could last that long.

But after she lit a candle, tuned her violin and began to play, familiar music filled the cabin, and she slipped without a second thought into the thrumming, heartbeat-fast chords of “The Descent”. Not as good without drums, but still powerful enough to make her feel strong too.

No, she wasn’t going to hide in her cabin, especially since she didn’t want to make the same mistake she’d made at home. Her parents had told her she wasn’t to blame for Anthny’s breaking off their betrothal, but she did bear some responsibility for it. Anthny had never been aware of how much she had loved him, because she had never told him.

It hadn’t occurred to her to do so, partly because they had been friends for so long and partly because their fathers had always wanted them to marry. Maybe she had taken him for granted. Besides, she had never been very good at verbalizing her deepest feelings, and by the time he’d fallen in love with her sister, it was too late.

Well, she could change that much about herself. Rather than being reserved and held-back, she’d go after what she wanted, and what she wanted was to be treated as if she mattered. Whatever was happening on the ship, she had every right to be here, and she’d start at the top—with the captain.

She finished the song, blood tingling through her arms, and reread Vinsen Solarcis’s letter by candlelight. It was short, as terse as his signature at the end. All it said was that she was welcome to travel on Fallstar, and a cabin would be available. He gave the date and time of the ship’s departure, and named the exact dock where it—she, Maggie corrected herself—would be moored.

She folded the paper, drawing her fingernails along the creases to make them sharper, and thought what to do. Once she settled on a plan, she put her violin away and undressed, shivering until she pulled on a flannel nightgown and wrapped herself in the blankets. The candle went out in a puff of breath and she was asleep in moments.

She spent the next morning practicing in her cabin—nerving herself up, she knew—and climbed topside an hour before the midday meal. The sun was brighter, though the wind was strong, and a sailing master shouted orders to the crew as they hauled at ropes. Ships like Fallstar were supposed to be decomissioned and retired in favor of new technology, but the sails looked splendid, huge and straining at the ropes that ran off in all directions and the yardarms that held them to the masts. Even higher were the crows’ nests and the black-circle-on-white flag of Denalay.

With the wind in her ears and all the activity on the deck, she didn’t hear the approaching footsteps until they were close enough to make her turn. It was Joama, the hood of her jerkin pulled up over her head.

“It’s safer for passengers to be belowdecks,” she said.

“I was wondering if, uh—”

“Yes, I told Captain Solarcis you were aboard.”

As before, he was nowhere to be seen. Maggie knew her brothers loved being on the decks of their ships, and even if they hadn’t, they would have been there, making their presence felt to the crew. She didn’t understand why the captain of this ship hadn’t so much as acknowledged her either.

“Is it something I’ve done?” If that was the case, she’d have to revise her plan. “Other than being on the deck, that is. If so, please let me know, so I can stop doing it.”

Her bluntness seemed to make an impression. Joama’s face didn’t change—the woman was inscrutable—but there was a flicker in her eyes, as though she’d blinked too fast to be seen.

“It’s nothing you’ve done,” she said shortly.

As if she has to pay silver for every word she speaks. “Is Captain Solarcis all right?”

“Are you a friend of his?”

Maggie started to say yes, then shook her head reluctantly. She wasn’t that good a liar. “I know him through my brothers, that’s all. Lieutenant Kley, I thought—”

“This isn’t a warship. We don’t have those ranks. Joama will do.”

“Joama.” The conversation felt like pushing a rock uphill, but Maggie had to be certain of what she was going to do. “I thought it was tradition for the captain of a ship to eat with guests on the first night of a voyage. I’m not paying for my passage, but…”

“I’m aware of that tradition.”

“So it’s him, then?”

Even as she said that, she knew she’d overstepped a line. Joama didn’t bother to check that the captain wasn’t within hearing distance, which meant she didn’t expect him to be on the deck. “I need to return to my duties.”

“Will you do one thing for me?” Maggie said. “Will you tell Captain Solarcis that, bearing this tradition in mind, I’ll expect to see him at suppertime today? Six bells, in my cabin.”

Joama looked mildly surprised—if the fractional twitch of her brows was any indication. Or perhaps it was the glance she leveled at Maggie, piercing but not unpleasant, as if noticing her as a person for the first time.

“Yes, I will,” she said, and walked away.

 ★

 Vinsen Solarcis added up a list of numbers for a second time, made a note in the account book about the discrepancy and blotted the page with sand. He worked alone in his cabin, as he usually did, but his daily routine was about to change. He was only too aware of another kind of sand—that which kept falling through the hourglass on the sideboard as the time ticked away to six bells.

He set the book aside and weighed the loose papers down with a little osprey carved out of driftwood. Candles burned in puddles of wax as he got to his feet.

No choice about going to supper, of course. He’d been so taken aback by the invitation—it was the first time anyone on the ship had asked to eat with him—that before he could say anything, Joama was gone. It would be rude to ignore the request, though Joama had phrased it more like an order. Maggie Juell’s cabin, six bells.

Maggie Juell. He’d met her once, but that had been almost ten years ago. He tried to remember what she looked like, but all that came to mind was an impression of a girl still somewhere between the schoolroom and the dance floor.

On the other hand, she was hardly to blame for anything that had happened, so the best thing to do was to go to supper with as much enthusiasm as he could muster and get it over with.

He didn’t bother looking in the mirror before he left. He washed and shaved each morning, and he hated seeing the colors he now had to wear. The bell rang for the sixth hour as he left his cabin.

A door opened and shut elsewhere. Overhead, the shift would have changed—some of the crew climbing down from the rigging while others took their place, the boatswain shouting orders, the helmsman at the wheel, the first mate watching over everything. He pushed that out of his mind and knocked at Maggie’s door.

It opened. “Captain,” she said, and smiled, stepping back to make way for him. “It’s good to see you. Come in.”

Vinsen was almost too startled to enter. He hadn’t expected such a welcoming smile, one which lit up her eyes—and those were unusual too. Though perhaps he wasn’t used to smiles lately, welcoming or otherwise.

“Thank you,” he managed to say, and shut the door.

“Sit down,” Maggie said. “Make yourself comfortable.”

Even the cabin wasn’t what he’d been prepared for. Oh, it was small and drab and dingy, but in the middle was a low square table draped in ivory cloth. Battered tin plates had been polished until they shone in the light of several candles, and they rested on what looked like lace-trimmed place settings.

The sight was incongruous, the last thing that belonged on a ship like Fallstar—and yet as Maggie seated herself across the table from him, she behaved so impeccably he had no choice except to do the same. And she had clearly spent time arranging it all. He couldn’t disappoint her.

“You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble,” he said.

“It was no trouble.”

“It was no trouble to get an extra chair?” He lifted a corner of the ivory drape—a large silk scarf—and saw a flat wooden surface beneath. “To find a crate?” The place settings were lace-edged handkerchiefs, and covered dishes steaming in the cold were placed on another crate nearby.

“How did you get the food?” He felt as though he’d walked off the ship into an inn room somewhere. “You can’t have cooked.”

“Cutwater gave it to me.”

Vinsen wouldn’t have pegged the cook for the type who’d give a nonpaying landbound woman his nickname, let alone a meal for a special occasion. Then again, she wasn’t easy to refuse, let alone ignore. Now that he was closer to her, and with the candles on the table, he could see her clearly.

A dark coat wrapped her and her trousers were black too, except each leg was split from the knee down to the ankle in front, so a wine-red underlining appeared and disappeared as she walked. Though even the black alone was a good color on her, he thought, bringing out a warm tone in the deep burnished hair, and her eyes looked golden in the light.

Not wanting to be caught staring, he studied the room instead, to see any other changes she might have made. A black fur cloak hung from a nail and an oddly shaped case was stowed on a shelf. Of course, a violin. Her brother Alyster was musically gifted; obviously that ran in the family.

“Wine?” Maggie handed him a bottle. “You can open it. I was never good at that kind of thing.”

Vinsen reached for his knife—old habits died hard, and he would have felt naked without a weapon—but she was prepared for that too, and passed him a wine key. Relieved to have something to do that would take his attention off her, he extracted the cork and examined the label. Over twenty years old, from the Nectar River vineyards.

When he poured it, the scent was almost as good as hers, though he couldn’t quite make out what her fragrance was. He swirled the wine in his glass and tried a mouthful.

“Excellent vintage.” Then his natural skepticism caught up with him, because she couldn’t have been that prepared to have supper with him. “What made you bring it on board?”

She raised her glass and sipped. “I have good taste in wine.”

“Answer the question, Maggie.” Even as he said it, his tone mild but firm, he realized it was the first time he had said her name. Maybe he should have addressed her as Miss Juell instead. But her name had slipped out before he could think twice, and it seemed like the most normal thing in the world to call her that, especially after they’d talked and shared a glass of wine.

Besides, he would much rather she took her cue from him and used his name, rather than continuing to address him as Captain.

She set the glass down. “It was a gift.”

“Not for me, surely?”

“Um, not really. But it is now.”

Vinsen felt like a heel. He hadn’t even asked her to eat with him, and here he was drinking someone else’s gift. Worse, he had no intention of stopping, because the wine went down smoother than silk.

“Whom is it for, then?” he said.

“Lwisa Cadder. My new employer in Lyrance.”

“Damn.” Oh, it just got better and better. “If I could put the cork back in, I would.”

“I’d take it out again if you did.” Maggie underlined that by holding her glass out across the table. “Enjoy your wine.”

Vinsen poured more for both of them, then clinked his glass against hers. “To your new work in Lyrance. Tell me about it.”

She had been sipping delicately, but she finished the rest of her wine with one flick of her wrist. She had supple hands, though he supposed that was normal for musicians.

“There isn’t much to tell.” She went over to the makeshift sideboard. “I’m going to work in an academy of performing arts as a music teacher—violin and flute.”

“That’s wonderful.” Vinsen got up to take the heavy tureen from her. He had a feeling she’d busied herself to avoid talking about her new occupation, which was odd.

“Yes, isn’t it?” Maggie brought the bread over and broke it for them.

“Your parents must be very proud.”

She lifted the lid of the tureen and ladled out crabmeat simmered in a creamy soup, fragrant with spices. All her concentration seemed to be focused on serving them both exact portions.

“They’re not?” Vinsen said.

She closed the tureen and shredded her portion of bread. “Well, my father had other plans.”

“He didn’t want you to leave home?”

“He wanted me to marry his best friend’s son.”

Vinsen started eating, mostly because food cooled fast in that kind of weather, and after a moment Maggie did the same. The soup was delicious. Either he hadn’t been given a chance to enjoy Cutwater’s talents before now, or something about the company made a difference.

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with marriage in and of itself,” he said finally, not knowing what else to say. She hadn’t sounded too enthusiastic, but he didn’t want to pry. He wondered why she hadn’t worked closer to home, if she preferred being unwed. Perhaps there weren’t any schools of performing arts where she lived.

Or maybe it was easier to make a clean break from her family. He understood that only too well.

“Of course not.” Maggie cleared the bowls away and rose to serve the next course, shaking her head when he got up to help her. “A lot of people are happy being married—I’m sure you are. But our betrothal didn’t last.”

Vinsen hardly heard the last part. She thinks I’m married? He’d been divorced for five years, and he barely remembered what it had been like to have a wife.

Then he remembered when he had met Maggie before, for the first time. He and Sabryna had been only a few weeks away from their wedding when they’d been invited to a celebration held for Captain Balt’s victory in the north of the Archipelago, a triumph that had cost Balt a leg and gained him a promotion. Alyster had introduced them to his younger sister, but she’d changed quite a lot since then.

He started to tell her that he was divorced, then caught himself. Maggie had her back turned while she served more food and she hadn’t noticed.

She thought he was married. So everything she’d done for the night had been out of sheer—friendliness, a warm, kind gesture she would have made for anyone. No other reason.

There could hardly be any other reason, since she had made the elaborate preparations without knowing anything more of him than what she’d learned when they’d first been introduced. He had no rational grounds for feeling at all disappointed. Except the fact that she’d treated him well seemed to have brought down a wall he kept between himself and other people, so subtly he hadn’t quite noticed that happening.

It didn’t help that she was so attractive. Even bundled in a coat, with her hair pulled back from her face, she made the dingy surroundings of the worst ship he’d ever been on seem warmer and less shabby. Her eyes stood out like candle flames.

He wished he could spend more time in her company. The three weeks of the voyage would pass so much more agreeably with her nearby. But it wasn’t as though she’d invited him for anything more than a meal, and most of all, she was a refined woman from a respectable family, with two older brothers who were celebrated captains in the navy.

Not that he was afraid of them; if he wanted a woman, he would have gone through the entire Denalait fleet for her. Instead, when he thought of her brothers, it was as though, rather than an expensive wine, he had drunk acid.

Maggie turned, and he forced himself not to show what was going through his head. He took his plate, jabbed a fork into a slice of beef and reminded himself to continue the conversation. Her father had wanted her to marry a friend’s son, that was it, but the betrothal hadn’t lasted.

“What does his friend’s son do?” he asked.

“He’s going to become a Voice of the Unity, if you can believe that.”

That would have set her up for life, Vinsen knew. She’d never have any unpleasant surprises after marriage, either. People were investigated very closely before the Council of Eyes and Voices permitted them to try for a place in its ranks, and no sordid behavior or scandal was permitted in Skybeyond.

“Very prestigious,” he said, as diplomatically as he could. Of course she’d be fit for marriage to a Voice of the Unity, though being confined to the tower of Skybeyond wasn’t the kind of life he wanted. There was nothing like the freedom of a ship.

Though that wasn’t a pleasant thought, given he would never sail on one again. He wiped rosecurrant sauce from his plate with the last scrap of beef and refilled their wine glasses. Maggie licked a stray drop from the corner of her mouth.

“I’m sorry, but there’s no sweet other than oranges,” she said.

“Oranges are fine.” Since the day before his thirteenth birthday, he’d been working on ships, where those were the only fruits a man could see for months. She sank a fingernail into an orange, stripped the peel off and separated it carefully into sections before handing them to him.

He held back a smile. If someone like Joama had done that for him, he’d have taken it as a condescending gesture, being treated like a child. But it was clear that for Maggie, taking complete care of her guest was her role as hostess. If he asked for entertainment, she’d pick up her violin.

“Do you want to talk about it?” She popped a segment of her own fruit into her mouth.

“About what?” Vinsen said.

She chewed and swallowed. “The situation on this ship.” In the pause that followed, she added quietly, “I’m not blind, you know.”

Vinsen concentrated on the fruit he could no longer taste and forced it down. “I’m sorry that’s been brought to your attention.”

The cool, arm’s-length courtesy in his tone was echoed by the edge to hers. “Well, to be fair,” she said, “it was brought to my attention when I didn’t get a supper invitation yesterday.”

Oh, wonderful. He hadn’t asked her to share a meal with him because tradition required the officers of a ship be invited too, and having her alone in his cabin would have been far too intimate. Besides, his cabin was the only place on the ship where he had some privacy. But even if he had lost his mind enough to confide his problems to a woman he barely knew, his difficulties with his crew were between them and him.

“I apologize for that too,” he said evenly.

Maggie put down her glass. “Vinsen, I didn’t ask you here for apologies. I—is there anything I can do to help?”

“No. I don’t mean to be rude. But there’s nothing to be done, because this is my last voyage.”

“Your last voyage aboard Fallstar?”

“No, last ever.” He drank the rest of his wine, and was somewhat surprised to notice how little remained in the bottle. Might as well finish it off then.

“Oh.” She blinked. “You’re retiring?”

“That would be a good word for it.” Retiring, at the ripe old age of thirty-two, though that would be better than commanding Fallstar. As if any commands from him were needed or wanted.

Maggie cleared the plates away. “You’ll have a lot of time to spend with your family, then,” she said when she had finished. “Any plans?”

“No.” When she said “family”, she was clearly thinking of a wife and maybe children, whereas to him, the word meant his mother and stepfather and half-brothers. They hadn’t had anything to do with him since he’d left home one night and not stopped walking until he’d reached a harbor.

She interlaced her fingers on her knee and stared at them before she looked up at him. “You could write your memoirs. Call it A Life at Sea. No, something a lot more exciting. Miri—you know, my brother Alyster’s wife—she wrote the story of that race they ran, and it was printed before I left. She’s making plans for selling it in other cities now.”

Vinsen supposed she was only talking because he had done a good impression of a clam, but the last thing he wanted to hear about was her family. Or, specifically, her family’s successes. Even someone who’d only married into the Juell ranks seemed to be doing splendidly.

“That’s wonderful for her.” His pocket watch had become waterlogged and stopped working after his ship Mistral had capsized, so he had no idea what time it was, but he got to his feet anyway. “It’s getting late, so leave the dishes. I’ll have one of the cabin boys collect them in the morning. And thank you for the supper.”

She was clearly taken aback at the abrupt end to their conversation, but she collected herself fast. “You’re most welcome. Have a good night.”

Well done, Vinsen thought grimly as he shut her door behind him. The one person on board who’d gone out of her way to make him feel welcomed, and he’d probably left her wondering what the hell had happened. Even the good meal and the better wine wasn’t likely to help him sleep soundly.

His cabin seemed quiet and empty after being in hers. It had been a long time since a woman had shared his bed, but that wasn’t as much of a vulnerability as his liking for her. No matter how much he drank or how alone he felt, he could never risk bringing down his barriers to the point where he’d be tempted to confide in her. That would reveal his failures—which would be all the worse compared to her brothers’ successes. It was bad enough the crew distrusted and avoided him, without seeing the warmth in her eyes turn to disdain—or pity.

But before he left her safely in Half Moon, he’d give her the best of his carvings to repay her hospitality. Maybe even to remember him by, if she wanted to keep it.

With that in mind, he let the sounds of the ship and the water lull him into sleep.

Want to find out what happens next? The Coldest Sea is available at:

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and Samhain Publishing.