Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 11
by Peter S. Beagle
The Absence of Stars
by Greg Siewert
The Sin Hypothesis
by Elizabeth Lustig
The Urn of Ravalos
by Rebecca Day
From Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Free Seas
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Urn of Ravalos
    by Rebecca Day
The Urn of Ravalos
Artwork by James Owen

"The captain wants to see you."

I did not bother to look up from the plug I was whittling. I doubted that the bo'sun was speaking to me. As a carpenter's apprentice, I wasn't the lowest crewman on the Fox, but I certainly wasn't the sort of person the captain would call to his cabin to share his rum ration.  We'd been tied up at Kulhran Harbor for a good three days taking on cargo and making repairs and this was the first chance I'd had to just sit in the sunshine. And it wouldn't last. Kulhran was well named -- port of rain. Already I could see thunderheads massing to the west. 

"Aeduin, lad, he wants to see you now."

I scrambled to my feet.  Geberich, a good-natured man whose face had wrinkles running in seams deeper than the mines of Bel, looked unusually dour. 

"What's it about?"  I couldn't remember any infraction or error I'd made of late.  It had been a rough sea, but I was finally settling into this life that had been thrust upon me.

"Two mages in the captain's cabin." Geberich stomped off towards the rigging, but not before I saw the fear in his eyes.

Mages.  Five hundred miles and two years gone, and still I couldn't escape my past.  With deliberation, as an act of faith that I would return to finish what I had started, I set aside my knife and the almost-finished plug, brushed the wood debris from my trousers and tried, best as I could without mirror or water, to tame my wiry hair, to wipe the smudges from my face. I had spoken with Captain Teilos just once before, when I was brought on board.  Our paths did not cross, and I was content to have it so.  There is a certain peace that comes from being nobody. Unnoticed. Anonymous.

That peace, I felt certain, was about to be shattered.

I made my way aft.  The ship was largely deserted, with most of the crew either taking liberty or replenishing the last of the supplies.  Or hiding from the Watch.  Whether the Fox was a privateer or a pirate ship depended largely on your point of view.  Not exactly pirates, not exactly traders, not exactly smugglers.  Captain Teilos took whatever jobs he could manage to get, and in these times, that sometimes meant looking down the wrong side of Justice's sword.

I tapped lightly on the captain's door.

"Come," he said. I swung the door open. Captain Teilos, a slender man with pockmarked skin and sleek hair the color of a bull seal's, sat at his battered mahogany desk staring out the open porthole.  It was early spring, and the northern breezes were strong and bracing and carried a hint of the steel scent of rain. The mages were nowhere in sight, but I could feel their presence, like a distant itch in my mind. 

"Aeduin. Yes. Thank you for coming so promptly. You were once a mage, I understand?"

"A journeyman only, Captain, and not a very good one, I'm afraid."

"But you can work magic?"

You don't work magic. If anything, magic works you. But I'd never be able to make him see that. "Of a sort.  I have the Talent, certainly, or I'd never been taken into the magery, but my training and experience are minimal at best. May I ask what prompted this question, sir?"

He scowled, looking down at a stack of papers tacked to the surface of his desk with pins and weights made of sand in cloth. Nothing on a ship stays still unless it's forced to it.  "An educated man shouldn't be wasted carving plugs and patching holes."

I said nothing.  I was quite content with my plugs and holes.

"And you know how to keep quiet too.  Good." Captain Teilos ran his hand through his hair and gave a half-smile, then looked back down at the papers. "So here's the thing, Aeduin.  Two mages, and I don't trust mages any further than I can heave them, no offense."  He glanced up at me.

"None taken."  In truth, I agreed with him.  When the press-gang had dragged me out of the coracle, after my initial panic at being in the hands of pirates, I had felt relief.  I had been forced into the life of a mage, as was every boy whose Talent bloomed, but it had never been for me. Every moment of that life had been like walking a tightrope over a pit of tigers.

"Well, these two mages have offered me five hundred royals to secure passage for themselves and their cargo to Konodaro.  I asked to see said cargo. They got belligerent, so I pressed the matter. They've brought it to be inspected and I want you here.  They say mages can't lie. Not sure I believe that, but even if it's true, sometimes the truth is bad enough.  With you here, I've got an advantage. Will they know you?"

"My magery was in Marfras. It's unlikely."

"Yes, not many travel so far."  Teilos gestured for me to take a position beside him. He crossed the tiny cabin in three steps and called up to the quarterdeck. "Gentlemen, I'm ready."

Footsteps, slow and measured, and two men in dark crimson robes suddenly filled the tiny cabin. They kept their hoods up, which was a mark of subtle disrespect.  One hides one's true face from the unworthy and inferior. The leader was so tall that his head brushed the ceiling. His companion was small, about my height, but round and squat, making him appear much shorter. He clutched a wooden crate about the size of a large lapdog to his chest. At a nod from the taller man, he set it down upon the captain's desk with great deliberation, as a mother relinquishing her only babe. The crate was covered with the faded remnants of painted sigils, closed with a slender silver lock.

"Captain." The taller man pushed back his hood revealing hawk-like features and smiled so that his teeth gleamed in the lantern light. "Here is the cargo in question.  As you can see, it is nothing. A trifle. One of hundreds of similar boxes from the treasure room of Beladon, utterly harmless."

Now that troubled me.  It was said that the great treasure room of ancient Beladon had contained a thousand thousand magical objects, carefully collected by twenty generations of emperors.  Half of them were undoubtedly frauds.  Half of the rest were harmless trinkets -- spells to change the color of hair or eyes, spyglasses that would show the viewer a loved one or an enemy.  Child's toys.  Of the rest, some were malignant, but of limited scope.  A bow that would send an arrow through the soul of an enemy, enslaving his essence to the bow's master.  Scrolls that would, when read aloud, cause the reader to wander forever in a fog of confusion.  Weapons to be used against one opponent only, no more than the magical equivalent of sword or pistol.

A few, an infinitesimal few, were something else entirely.

I bent down so the mages could not hear me without use of their Talents.  "Ask him to open it." Even if I couldn't identify the contents, their reaction to his request would tell me what I needed to know.

Captain Teilos gave the two shrouded mages a measured look.  "Nothing rides on this ship that I don't see. Open it."

"For what we are paying, we are entitled to privacy." The taller man loomed across the desk casting shadows over Teilos's papers and pins.

"For what you're paying, you're entitled to precisely what I give you," Teilos said calmly.  "If you don't care for my terms, then I suggest you take a walk down the docks. There should be two or three merchant ships under Kolhrani flag and at least one galley of the line.  I'm sure one of them would be delighted to assist you in your . . . errand."

Any ship under a flag would ask questions, keep records. The two men looked at each other, and I could see their gloved fingers flying in the secret speech of mages, but at the angle, could not make out their words.  Silence extended like a long rope letting out an anchor.  Outside the captain's window, a gull called and the ship danced lightly against the anchor as the seconds passed by with excruciating slowness. 

At last, the taller man, who I decided to call Hawk as it was unlikely he'd ever give me his true name anyway, clenched his fists. Their silent conversation was done. The shorter, Dwarf, I named him, worked the lock, lifted the box's latch and reached inside. He took out a simple gold-painted ceramic urn, gently rounded in an arc as graceful as the wings of a swan in flight. The lid was carved with an ancient and achingly familiar keyhole pattern and sealed on two sides with hoary wax. I did not need to look further.  If the urn were turned upside down, the maker's mark on the base would be three triangles.  I knew this urn. Knew it well.

Captain Teilos reached his hand forward to touch the lid.

"Don't!"  Hawk's hand shot out of his robe and grasped the captain's wrist.  "It is not for you."

I stared at the thing, and the thing stared back.  It sang in my blood, touched the heart of my magic and twisted it into white-hot agony.  "It's the Urn of Ravalos," I whispered.

"How do you --" Dwarf began, but Hawk swiftly cut him off.

"This urn holds the remains of one of my ancestors, and I am moving it to my cousin's home."

"And for that you're willing to pay five hundred gold royals?"  Captain Teilos leaned back, arms folded across his chest.  I watched the mages carefully. This was the Urn of Ravalos, without doubt.  They could not lie -- they were geas-bound to honesty.  But like all of their kind, they would have been trained to bend the truth to the breaking point. I ran their words again through my mind, analyzing each syllable for nuance and shade of meaning. Sometimes what was not said was as revealing as what was.  His ancestor's remains might well lie within the Urn, but they weren't alone.

"Other members of my family do not wish my ancestor's remains to be moved.  They may try to stop it.  By force," Hawk said.

"By magic?" Teilos glanced up at me. I shook my head slightly.  They wouldn't use magic, for any magic powerful enough to retrieve the Urn would put it at risk of being destroyed. 

"No, no.  Just ordinary force," Hawk assured.  "Swords, cannon.  And even that, I assure you, is highly unlikely.  What I predict, Captain," and I could hear the false smile in his voice, "is a dull and uneventful journey.  Easy money.  Do we have a deal?"

"I need to consult with my . . . er . . . advisor." 

I stifled a laugh. He could hardly have said, 'I need to consult with my carpenter's apprentice.'  As the two mages stepped outside, I went to the door to seal it against eavesdropping.  A simple spell, one even I should be able to manage. But my stomach lurched with nausea at the unfamiliar expenditure of energy, and I collapsed against the door, sweat pooling on my forehead.

"Don't take the money."

"It's a lot of money.  You're going to have to give me a reason, Aeduin."

I studied the Urn, which, surprisingly, they'd left uncrated and unattended on Teilos's desk.  Though I had seen drawings, I had never been allowed so close before.  It both repelled and attracted me. 

"It's the Urn of Ravalos." That ought to have been reason enough.

Captain Teilos shrugged.

"The Battle of Ravalos.  Have you heard of that?"

"Something vague, half-remembered. From the schoolroom or a song."

I turned away from the Urn, towards the open porthole, gulping in blessed stinking salt air.  "Captain, a thousand years ago, give or take a century, the Beladonian empire was besieged on all sides by barbarians who had been whittling away at their territory for several generations.  The emperor at the time was Osirius --"

"Osirius Magnus?  Him I've heard of.  We took a chest of his coins off a Marfrasian merchant galley three summers back."

"No, his great-grandson, Osirius the Cursed."

"I'm guessing he didn't end well."  Captain Teilos poured a shot of whiskey from a silver flask he kept in his boot.  Surprisingly, he handed it to me. Just as surprisingly, I took it and tossed it down.

I shook my head, letting the burning liquor settle. "No, sir, he really didn't.  He decided to put an end to the barbarian threat once and for all, and led the entire Beladonian army, a hundred fifty thousand men or so, out to the Plains of Ravalos in Stohl.  As Osirius didn't bother to expend any energy on intelligence he didn't know that the barbarian horde numbered at least twice that.  Of course, considering his arrogance, he wouldn't have cared."

"One of us is worth ten of them," Teilos observed. "Hardly an original thought, that."

"Yes.  Except they weren't. The barbarians were superb warriors.  The armies fought three days on the Plains. The bards say the blood ran in rivers, and men's legs tangled in the viscera of the dying as they walked."

"War, my mage-turned-carpenter friend, is not pretty.  That's why I am not in any form of military service.  I like being a privateer. I fight, I run away, I live to fight again.  No damn fool general can order me to sacrifice myself for his lost cause."

Outside the window, the sun was setting. Dusk came early this far to the north.  My silence spell would not hold for much longer, especially if those mages were working against it.  They were masters.  I was a failed journeyman.  "Anyway, to make it short, at the end of the three days, the entire contingent of imperial troops lay slaughtered. The emperor was taken and executed in a rather disgusting manner that I won't share with you --"

"Thank you," Teilos said dryly, and poured himself another whiskey.

"The barbarians took their dead and wounded off the field to attend to in their own way, piled the imperial corpses around a pyre and incinerated them.  Burned them to ash."  I turned and stared at the Urn.

"You can't seriously expect me to believe that the remains of a hundred thousand men are in that thing?  Even cremated, a human body takes up a good bit of space. The damn thing would have to be as big as the Fox!"

"Magic," I reminded him.  "The inside of the Urn is larger than the outside.  It will hold whatever it is designed to hold."

Teilos's eyes narrowed.  "Can you put a charm like that on our hold?"  I could see stacks of gold royals dancing in his head.

"That technique is lost."

"Perhaps by study of this urn, you could regain it?"

"You have a great deal of faith in me, captain.  Every mage in the Five Lands has been trying to work that one out since we began to rebuild the mageries."

A small bell tolled the hour.  "As unpleasant as this little story is, Aeduin, it's quite literally ancient history. I see nothing in it that should prevent us from making an easy five hundred royals."

I picked up a linen towel from the floor and keeping the cloth carefully between my hands and the Urn, lifted it back into its box and latched the cover.  "The Beladonian mage who created the Urn put a curse upon it.  If the contents of the Urn mix with the Tears of Mhear, the warriors within will arise, undead and undying, to seek vengeance on the barbarians who destroyed their empire."

"Seems a bit stupid to me.  Why didn't the fellow just reconstitute them right then and there and send them after the barbarians?"

"I've no idea. So much of that time is lost to us." 

Teilos stood, adjusting his worn leather jerkin.  "So the whole thing might well just be a myth. That could be a jar full of sand."

I felt my eyes drawn inexorably back to the Urn and shuddered. "I don't think so."

"Well, as long as we keep the thing away from these Tears of Mhear, we should be fine."

"Mhear was the Beladonian goddess of the sea, Captain.  The phrase 'Tears of Mhear' is generally held to mean salt water."

I could see that set him back, but five hundred royals is a mighty enticement.  "Look, lad, even if, by some off chance, the Urn takes a dunk, and assuming this spell or charm or whatever it is actually works, there's nobody for the dead men to fight. Those barbarians are long gone."

I stared at him.  "Captain, those barbarian tribes went on to establish the Five Lands. Those barbarians are us." 

We took the job anyway, as I knew we would.

Five days out, we'd just rounded the Knob, headed for open sea, and my dreams were troubled. Skeletal armies and hulking, rotting bodies wielding verdigris swords strung with seaweed carved my flesh away by inches. Sun-rotted corpses littered a valley floor while the dark shadows of ravens rippled over them.  I could hear the Urn of Ravalos all the time. It throbbed like a dirty cut, whistled around my head like wind howling off the northern ice plains. And I was hardly the only one affected. The entire crew seemed set on the edge of a precipice. Tempers flared, small slights turned into great gaping wounds, and every man was ready to make port and be done with this voyage.

Davin, who slung his hammock next to mine and was the nearest I had to a friend, was the first to approach me.

I'd come off watch and was gnawing on a leathery piece of hardtack, trying to blot out the thrum of the Urn and wishing I had a larger rum ration.  Davin slumped down next to me, covered in tar and stinking of sweat and fear.  "Aeduin, the men asked me to come talk to you. They want you to go to the captain for them."

There is no privacy on board ship.  I sensed the presence of the others, lounging around the hold carefully looking away, pretending to eat or carve or count their small treasures.  "The quartermaster's the one to take your troubles to, or the bos'un.  Not me. I'm nobody."

"Quartermaster's not a mage --"

"Neither am I," I said, but I set my hardtack down, half finished. Let the rats have it.  I had no appetite left.

"You're the closest we got."  He glanced around, uneasy, as if the foreign mages might somehow be listening.  Which, of course, they might have been.  "There's something off about that damn crate, something wrong with this whole voyage. And now there's an uncanny storm behind us.  Chasing after us, and I say it's because of those mages."

Davin's weather sense was well known -- he could sense storms coming days away, and I trusted him now. The mages of Marfras would be coming for their stolen Urn.  They would never have sold it or abandoned the trust they had held for centuries to strangers.  They would come with all the force of their magic behind them, riding a storm they'd craft out of air and water and blood. They'd come, skimming the waves like a flock of gulls, and I would have to decide whether I was mage or sailor.  Which oath bound me, which life compelled me.  I could not help Davin.  I could not even help myself.

But he was waiting for an answer, so I put my hand on his shoulder, trying to be comforting.  "I think --"

"Sail ho! Sail!  Off the starboard stern!" 

We froze for the barest second, then, as if a spell had been broken, scrambled and shoved our way up the ladder to the main deck. 

"Sail!"  Cupper, in the crow's nest, pointed frantically behind us. We rushed to the stern, men straining to see what he, with his spyglass, had clearly made out.  Sails, far distant, but growing. White and full, being driven by a wind that somehow did not touch us.  I could feel, more than see, the wall of water behind it.  Weather magic, old and powerful. 

They had come for the Urn.

The two mages must have felt it too, for they'd come out of their cabin, Hawk looking up at the gathering clouds, Dwarf behind him wringing his hands in a parody of the finger speech.  They pushed their way through the crowd of sailors.

"We must outrun them," Hawk said.  "I will instruct the captain to put on all speed."

"Speed? Speed from where? We got hardly any wind!" Geberich hurried from the forecastle, shoving us every which way. "And you, you lazy dogs, get to your posts!"

We jumped to our places, scrambling up the rigging, heading below to man the Fox's two paltry cannons.  My job at times of crisis was to man the ropes that controlled the jib and generally do what I was ordered to do.  The Fox didn't fight -- she ran. She was a sloop, built for speed, not strength. But there was no wind and the sails lay slack and limp against the masts.  No wind, and yet the other ship was still coming on.

"How do they have wind?  We're cursed!" said Davin.

"It's the gods-be-damned box!  Toss it over the side!" said Geberich. His words sparked a chorus of agreement.

My heart hammered within my chest and the two mages exchanged glances.  They could not allow it to fall to the sea.  Nor could I.  I was sworn to protect it. 

Captain Teilos erupted out of his cabin, spyglass in hand. He took the ladder to the poop two rungs at a time and studied our pursuer. Lowering the glass, he turned and caught sight of me.  "Aeduin!"

I dropped the limp and useless rope I'd been holding and scurried up the ladder myself, the two mages close behind.  From this higher vantage point, I could clearly see the ship which followed us.  They'd unfurled their flag -- the azure dragon of Marfras. 

"Suggestions?" the captain asked, raising one eyebrow. 

"Give them their property back," I said, all pretense falling away.  Dwarf began to sputter like a leaky bilge.

"You stole that Urn from the Marfrasian Magery.  Don't bother to deny it."

"Why should I deny it?" Dwarf said. "The Marfrasians had no more right to the Urn then we do. By displaying it openly for any fool to steal they put us all at risk."


"The men on that ship," Hawk said, grabbing at my arm.  "You're one of us. Don't you bother to deny that! Look at that ship.  Look at it!"

I knew he meant for me to look with more than just my physical eyes, so I stretched out, listening within for the familiar voices of my order.  I heard nothing but chaos, jumbled confusion. Noise. They were not my people. 

"They will use it for the worst possible end," Hawk said.  "If they get the Urn, they'll take it to the heart of the Five Lands and raise the army.  Not one man, woman or child will be left alive when they are done."

"How do you know that?" Captain Teilos asked, but I already knew. Hawk's betrayal weighed on him like a sodden cloak.

"Because he's one of them."

"No longer." Hawk glanced up at the oncoming ship. "Captain, you must fight.  If you cannot run, it is our only option."

"Can't you do some weather magic of your own? I don't like our chances in a fight."  Teilos stroked the hilt of his sword, and I knew what he was thinking.  They were larger, would have a bigger crew complement.  More weapons.

Dwarf shook his head. "No. Even if your man here helps, it would take twice our number.  Don't worry about the cannons.  They won't risk sinking this ship.  They'll grapple and board."

The other ship, a huge three-masted square rigger, was making for our starboard side.  A massive grey-green wall of water reared up behind the enemy ship like a cliff. She was coming on under the force of the storm's momentum and would be on us in moments.

"We fight, then," Teilos said, and drew his sword.  "Prepare for battle!"  He wheeled away from us, heading downship.  "Prepare for battle! Move like your lives depend on it!"

My first battle, and no time to prepare my soul for Return, and neither priest nor priestess to shrive me in any case. We lined up before Geberich who passed us each a weapon; cudgels and long knives for the common sailor, cutlasses and pistols for the more experienced. The rounded hilt of my knife dug into my hand as I stood trembling, waiting for the other ship to close.

"Stick with me, Aeduin, and you'll be fine," Davin said, grinning. Whatever fear the Urn had ripened in him had fallen away with the promise of action.

"Why don't we fire the guns? I know why they don't fire at us, but surely we don't care if they sink?" The sky was turning a horrible charcoal grey as the force of the magical storm covered us.

"Guns are on the port side, they're approaching to starboard. We could try to turn, but with no wind, it's a chancy thing."

The shouts of the enemy became audible over the roar of the sea. They lined their deck, clothed in the colors of the Red Clans, shaking their weapons and howling curses to their blood-stained gods. Mercenaries.

Davin aimed his pistol and fired. Across the water, a man fell. "Got him! Listen, stay low, plunge that knife into bellies and legs, whatever you can reach. Don't --"

A hiss of arrows rained down on us. Davin fell, a long shaft sticking from his throat. For the space it took to take a man to breath, the ship stood frozen in the unnatural calm. Then harsh iron smashed onto wood -- grappling hooks, heavy chains clattered onto our deck and the Fox lurched sideways. They had us. The ship shuddered as the enemy vessel slammed against it. The mercenaries, like a flood, poured over the side. Our men moved forward to intercept. The clash of steel, the sound of shots and the screams of men hung heavy on the trembling air.

I fled. Boys of noble birth are trained to arms from childhood; the common lot fight as easily as they breathe. But mages may not strike a man in anger; the magical orders ascribe, officially at least, to peace. To stab a man, to feel the force of the blade slicing through his body as his life drained away? I couldn't do that. So I dropped the knife, thrust poor Davin's pistol into my belt and fled down into the upper hold.

There it was. The cursed Urn lay half out of its crate as though Hawk and Dwarf had made an abortive attempt to remove it to safety. It was safer here in the security of the hold, out of sight of the enemy. Out of sight of everyone but me. Footsteps echoed on the decks above me. They'd be searching the hold soon. No time to think. I grabbed up the Urn and ran, thinking only to take it as far from the water as I could. Up, then, up to the deck, I darted through the thicket of swords, protected by some god or fortune. Men were dying around me, pierced by arrow and sword, shot through by pistol, but I remained untouched. I would have said it was magic, but I was no mage. I was a pirate, and I carried my booty tucked close to my chest.

To the crow's nest, away from the battle and the stench of blood and powder. Fear sped my passage and strengthened my arms and legs for the unfamiliar climb. From so high, looking down on the fighting, it seemed like a child's game, like the tin soldiers boys would push around a table, pretending to be Javitz at Melanolia or some other famous general defeating their nation's foes.

But never did tin soldiers bleed so nor cry out for their mothers. I looked away, away from the Fox, which had become a death ship, and studied the enemy ship from this higher vantage. Its sails now hung as limp as our own. Beyond it the wall of water waited. All the power of the storm held in check in by the mages on that ship -- seven in all, I saw, standing in a circle with heads bent in fierce concentration. If they released their hold, the water would overwhelm us all. And they would have to release it. That much power had to be grounded eventually.

That must have been what they intended. Once they had the Urn, they would disengage, allow themselves to drift to a safe distance, and then let loose the storm, trusting in their larger and more capable vessel to safeguard them while we would founder and die. I glanced down; Captain Teilos's sword flickered furiously against a man half a head taller with arms as thick as the Fox's mast. The battle was not going our way. I'd been a fool to think I was safe in the crow's nest. Their mages would scry the Urn's location and they'd have it from me as easy as having the skirts off a thrupenny whore. The Urn would be taken, and I would be twice forsworn; once as a mage for failing to guard it, once for running from battle.

I raised my hand to shade my eyes from the blinding sun and looked east. At the very limit of my sight, I saw a haze of green. Land. We were so close -- if the Urn could be got safely to land, it could be buried, hidden. The wall of water was to our west. When it came crashing down, it would drive us towards the land. All I had to do was break the concentration of that circle of mages. And protect the Urn from the sea.

I exploded with hysterical harsh laughter that sent a gull perched atop the mast wheeling into the sky. How could I do all that? A failed mage, a carpenter's apprentice? But I had to. The spell to repel water was one of the first they'd taught us; it was useful in protecting our scrolls and books from rain. But half the time on rainy days, the ink ran down my scrolls in black rivulets. Half the time, I'd come to class drenched and dripping to the derisive taunts of my peers. This would have to be one of the other times. I couldn't fail, not now. A man screamed, and, smelling smoke, I looked down to see the mainsail ablaze. There was no more time.

I set the Urn down at my feet then drew magic around me like a cloak -- a thin cloak barely fit for a beggar, but it would have to do. I pushed with my mind and sent the shimmering veil of protection around the ancient jar. Hold, hold, hold. I drew the pistol. It held but one shot, and I had never fired before. But I knew the theory.

Trying to ignore the Fox trembling around me like a dying man gasping out his last breath, I steadied my hand and took aim at the tallest of the enemy mages. The cloak of power still burned around me, the force of the magic gripped me like a fist thrust through my gut. Guide my shot, I thought, praying to my power, to the gods of magic, to the open sky and the waiting storm. From far below, I heard Captain Teilos call my name.

The force of the pistol's retort knocked me back into the rough boards of the crow's nest. As I struggled to rise, I heard a roar like thunder, saw the wall of water rushing towards us, a black mountain of salt-stink. The joined ships lurched and bucked as the wave hammered down on us. Then I felt nothing more.

I came to myself with my head resting on a hard cushion of sand, my legs half-submerged in lapping waves. Every inch of my body ached as though I'd been beaten. Debris and wreckage floated around me, pieces of ship and bodies. I staggered to my feet and turned away from them, not wanting to see if they were friends of mine. A little way up the beach, I saw the slender figure of Captain Teilos sitting with his back to a spindly tree, staring down at something in the sand. I approached.

Blood streaked his clothes and he bore a purpling bruise on his left cheek, but was otherwise unscathed by the both the fight and his journey through the waves. If I'd not known better, I'd say he had magical protection to survive when so many had died. He showed no surprise at my presence.

"I should have known you weren't dead, lad. It would take more than a storm to kill you." He continued to stare down into the sand. I followed the direction of his gaze.

The Urn. It had survived, but some force had broken the seals. The lid had come off; the contents spilled onto the beach. But what spilled out of it looked like sand. Just plain beach sand, yellow-white and gritty, interspersed with the occasional flash of white shell. Or was it bone? Was this what the remains of a hundred thousand dead men became with the intervention of time and magic?

"Is it sand?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I don't know. But I wouldn't want to be on this beach when the tide comes in, just in case."

I knelt beside the Urn and let the contents sift through my fingers. I felt nothing. No hint of power, no thrum of magic. It was dead as rock. As sand. Had it always been sand? Or had Hawk and Dwarf somehow managed to secret the contents away?

"You know, Aeduin," Capain Teilos said. "It occurs to me that you have an opportunity here. You could take the Urn back to your magery in triumph. They'd probably welcome you with open arms."

"The seals are broken. They'll know it's not intact." They'd know I failed as I had always failed. I suspected the masters had been secretly relieved when I'd been taken."

"So fix them. They're just magic, aren't they?"

"I don't have that kind of power."

Teilos laughed. "I saw what you did to those foreign mages. Don't tell me you haven't got the power."

"I don't know what you mean. I shot the leader with Davin's pistol which distracted the others."

Teilos rose to his feet and stretched, brushed the sand from the back of his trousers. "Davin fired his pistol at the start of the battle. I saw that too. You don't know much about guns, do you? That was a single-shot flintlock. Did you reload?"

Numbly, I shook my head.

"Thought not. It wasn't a bullet killed that man. It was magic. Your magic."

"I can't . . . I didn't . . ." But I had. The pistol had been the focus, but what had burst through that barrel hadn't been lead and powder. It had been raw power. If I could do that, I could remake the seals. I could fill the Urn with sand, remake the seals and none would be the wiser. I closed my eyes, thinking of how my former tormentors would have to pay me homage, how the masters would embrace me as one of them. I could walk with kings. If I went back.

"By my reckoning we're about two days' walk from the Port of Bees. If any of the rest of the crew survived, they'll head that way. The Fox is gone, but I've got funds enough in reserve to get myself a new ship." Captain Teilos smiled. "I'll need good men. If the life of a mage doesn't appeal, you might consider the life of a pirate."

"Can't I be both?"

I'd only just discovered my power, to give it up without exploring it, without seeing how good a mage I could be? I couldn't do that.

"Mages belong in mageries. That's how the world works, isn't it? The gift of magic must benefit king and country, not be used for private gain. That's the tradition." He spoke bare truth, but his tone was full of mockery. "The choice is yours, lad."

I watched him start up the beach. A strong breeze, a remnant of the false storm, came off the sea, bringing the smell of salt with it. I remembered the feel of a ship beneath my feet, how I'd struggled to learn to walk like a sailor. But now the land felt wrong, foreign. I hadn't chosen to be a sailor any more than I'd chosen to be a mage. I'd been shoved down those paths against my will and had done my best to walk them, and to keep my two worlds separate as the world said they must be.

The Urn still lay at my feet, a reminder of how my two worlds had come together. Whether or not it had ever held dead men's bones, it held me. I picked it up, marveling at how ordinary it now felt. Had the Urn changed, or had I? With all my strength, I smashed it against the tree. It splintered into gold-streaked shards which rained down onto the ground becoming nearly indistinguishable from the sand.

Awkwardly, I ran through the soft sand to catch up to my captain.

He didn't break stride, but looking out of the corner of my eyes, I saw him smiling with satisfaction.

"So much for tradition, eh?"

"Tradition had us wasting a thousand years guarding a clay jar full of sand. Tradition would lock me behind walls where I'd never feel the sea spray on my face again. I can't give up magic, it seems, but I can't give up the sea either. If you need a carpenter's apprentice, I'm your man."

"I was thinking of something with a little more responsibility. A pirate-mage would make a formidable first officer, at least till you set your sights on your own ship."

I started to say that I'd never want such a thing, then stopped, unwilling to close any doors till I'd at least tried to walk through them. "Done."

I looked back at the remnants of the Urn lying alone and abandoned on the beach. The tide was coming in, each white-tipped wave drawing closer and closer to where it lay. Sand. Just sand. At least, that's what I told myself as I turned my back on it.

The Port of Bees and a new life lay ahead of me.

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