by Rebecca Fraimow
Suradanna’s parents had spent a year’s savings to buy their only daughter her place as an apprentice navigator, and they waved her goodbye from Salamadan Port with a certain air of complacency. The captain of the Phoenix With Seaweed Feathers had a reputation for luck. His crew boasted that they’d been sailing fifteen years, and the ship had barely a scratch on her. Suradanna’s future, her parents agreed, was certain to be secure.
It was a pity, Suradanna thought, as she threw another piece of wood onto the signal fire, that her parents had not thought to consider her prospects from the opposite angle: after a fifteen-year run of luck, the Phoenix With Seaweed Feathers was just about due for a colossal smash-up. Still, Suradanna couldn’t say that she’d been entirely unlucky. True, she was now stranded alone on a deserted island, thousands of miles from home. But at least the island had a freshwater spring and a decent supply of driftwood, and Suradanna had a packet of sulfur matches in an oiled pocket of her jacket – and now that she’d been tending the fire for two days, she was almost sure she saw a sail on the horizon.
Suradanna did not like to think of herself as the sort of person who was swayed by fancies. Therefore, she waited until she was absolutely sure it was a sail that she saw before she allowed the haze of relief to carry her legs away from under her, and sank to the ground.
She was about to be rescued. It had been nothing like certain that she would be. This was not a frequently-traveled area; the rocks around this particular archipelago were known to be treacherous, and most ships, less notoriously lucky than the Phoenix With Seaweed Feathers, avoided it in favor of the longer and safer route around Cape Hostera. Very soon the entire episode of the shipwreck would be behind her, nothing but a story that Suradanna could take out to tell people of the interesting life she intended to lead. Now, for just a moment, she dug her fingers into the sand and let herself feel it.
Then she got up again, and brushed the sand off her trousers, and smoothed her braids down as neatly as she could. Nobody ever got far in life, Suradanna thought, by making a bad first impression, no matter what the circumstances.
The name of the ship that came to pick her up was the Dolphin Breathes Fire. The captain was quite young for her position, with a smooth stern face and straight black hair that didn’t show a single strand of gray. She looked foreign and somewhat exotic to Suradanna’s eyes – taller and stockier than most people Suradanna knew, and her skin lighter, with an almost bluish haze to it.
“Welcome aboard,” she said, and Suradanna promptly gave the correct salute. She was sure it was correct, though the captain didn’t give her any sign of acknowledging it. In fact, she hardly seemed to want to look at Suradanna at all. All she said was, “We’re running short on space, so you’ll have to see if there’s someone downstairs who doesn’t mind trading off hammock-shifts. Have yourself something to eat, and see if anyone can spare you a change of clothes. At sundown, come to my cabin to report.”
She dismissed Suradanna, with a flick of her hand, and strode off. Familiar faces immediately crowded in – Suradanna wasn’t the only refugee from the Phoenix With Seaweed Feathers that the Dolphin Breathes Fire had picked up along this set of islands. Then there were stories to trade, and someone had to go find the one crew member of the Dolphin Breathes Fire who was Lalidani like Suradanna and had clothes small enough that they might fit her, and in all the hubbub Suradanna didn’t even have a moment until it was nearly sundown to wonder about the captain’s summons. The only other rescued crew member who’d been asked for a private report was the second mate, and he knew far more about the Phoenix With Seaweed Feathers and the original plan for the voyage than Suradanna ever had.
Suradanna made sure to show up promptly, all the same. Her parents had paid no apprenticeship money to the captain of the Dolphin Breathes Fire; still, she was a captain, and it was not at all impossible that someday she might be in a position to hire Suradanna, or work with her in some other professional capacity. Besides, Suradanna had gotten the sense already that the captain was an impressive sort of person, and she wanted to impress her.
The captain was sitting at her bolted-down desk when Suradanna arrived, frowning at charts of the channel they were traversing. She glanced up when Suradanna entered, and then looked away again.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” said Suradanna. She felt much more herself than she had a few hours ago. The neat borrowed trousers and seaman’s vest were only a little bit too large, and they were tidy, and relatively clean.
“Mm.” The captain indicated, with a gesture, that Suradanna should close the door behind her, which Suradanna did.
“So,” said the captain. She picked up the chart and started to roll it up. “How long were you on that island for, er –”
“Suradanna,” said Suradanna. “Three days, sir.”
“And you were completely by yourself there?”
“You had no supplies with you?”
“No, sir. I was fortunate that the island had fresh water. I waited until I saw a bird drink from it,” she added, conscientiously, “and then drank only a small amount at first, to make sure that it wasn’t contaminated or likely to cause any harm to my health.”
There was a brief pause. Suradanna wondered whether the captain might be about to commend her for her cool-headedness. Certainly not every young person, finding herself stranded on a solitary island, would have kept herself together so well, or thought to keep matches in an oil-proof pocket in case of an emergency to begin with. It was possible that the captain was impressed.
But the captain did not look particularly impressed. She carefully finished rolling up the chart and set it equally carefully aside. “Well,” she said. “Let me see. Suradanna-li, do your people –”
“Lalidani,” said Suradanna, helpfully.
“Yes, Lalidani, thank you – do your people have any legends about, ah, bodies of water with unusual properties?”
This was a confusing line of questioning, but Suradanna was determined not to lose her poise. “I don’t know if you’d say legends, sir. There are a number of well-studied phenomena in the Zu-narai forests, and there’s the Zan-dulan River, which brings misfortune to anyone who sails it with a guilty conscience. And the waters of Lake Amarrat give a purple tint to the hair. They sell it in some of the shops in Salamadan Port. It’s a luxury item.”
“Ah. Yes,” said the captain. “Well. This wouldn’t be like that. Though some people do have legends of it, I believe.” She sighed, and made a visible effort to focus in again on Suradanna. “Well, Suradanna-li, the spring on the island where you were stranded – I suppose the most accurate way to describe it is that its waters grant unusually long life.”
“That’s not possible,” said Suradanna immediately, and then flushed. There was no excuse for flatly contradicting a superior officer, and an elder at that – even if she was only elder by a few years.
The captain just raised her eyebrows. “Why do you say so?”
“Sir – if such a spring existed, there would be hundreds of traders coming through every year. You wouldn’t be able to sail through these waters, they’d be so thick with travelers coming to drink from it. It would be like bottling gold. But hardly any traders come this way,” Suradanna said, as politely as she could, “and nobody in any of the ports we’ve stopped in knows about it, or sells it in any of the shops, so a thing like that couldn’t possibly exist.”
Amusement flickered briefly over the captain’s stern face. “That’s most likely so, if anybody knew about it. But as it happens, very few people do.”
Suradanna bit down on the inside of her lip. No matter what kind of nonsense she talked, a captain was still a captain. “If you say so, sir.”
“Mm,” said the captain. “Well, at any rate, I’ve told you now. You’ll see in a few years, and then you’ll be glad to know the reason already, so you don’t have to wonder about it. Thank you for the report, Suradanna-li. You’re dismissed.”
She picked her chart back up and started to unroll it again, just as carefully as she’d rolled it up the first time. Suradanna made sure to deliver her parting salute perfectly, despite the fact that the captain seemed determined not to look at it, and left with a certain degree of indignation.
She half-expected the captain to summon her again the next day and tell her it was all a joke, or a test, or provide some other explanation. However, nothing at all happened of note for the rest of the voyage, except for the minor inconvenience that Suradanna found she didn’t seem to sleep well on shipboard anymore, and kept waking up in the middle of the night to fumble for her matches. Eventually, the Dolphin Breathes Fire dropped Suradanna and the other survivors of the shipwreck of the Phoenix With Seaweed Feathers off in Dhalmaren Port. The captain and her ship sailed away, and that seemed to be that.
Suradanna spent two months in a charity home for stranded sailors, eating boiled rice and dried mackerel, waiting for her parents to send money for her passage home, and reconsidering her career options.
The harbormaster had promised that if a ship called the Dolphin Breathes Fire were ever to dock in Salamadan Port, he would let Suradanna know right away. When she finally received word, Suradanna wasted no time in sending a runner to the harbor with a note, informing the captain of the Dolphin Breathes Fire that Suradanna-zsi of House Marradon requested a meeting in the Marradon main offices at her earliest convenience.
The captain arrived promptly at noon. Suradanna noted, without surprise, that she looked exactly the same as she had when they met nineteen years ago, from her straight black bob to her smooth blue-grained skin. She hadn’t even bothered to change the way she dressed – though presumably her loose trousers and red captain’s sash were not in fact nineteen years old, or they would have shown more wear. Suradanna filled the guest-cup from the pitcher of local water behind her desk, took the obligatory sip, and handed it to the captain. While the captain sipped in turn, Suradanna said, “You drank from the stream too, of course.”
The captain placed the cup carefully on the side table, and glanced at the paper paneling that alternated with the lacquer of the walls.
“Don’t worry,” said Suradanna, “it’s designed to block sound. Nobody will hear us.”
The captain shrugged in acknowledgment before lifting her eyes to make a study of the expensive artifacts that lined the office. “I see you’ve made your fortune selling the waters of immortality.”
“Not yet, of course,” said Suradanna, stiffly, aware that the captain was mocking her. “Or you would have heard about it.” She took a breath, and folded her hands in front of her in the consciously dignified pose she had learned to utilize at these moments. She was grateful for the trappings of middle-aged respectability: the heavy horsehair braids that hid her lack of gray; the tinted egg-white paint that gave her skin a mahogany shine and disguised the smoothness of her face, along with a convenient number of her expressions. It was infuriating to be nearing her fortieth birthday and still subject to fits of teenage irritability. “How many people know about the spring now?”
“As far as I’m aware,” said the captain, “two.”
Suradanna stared. “That can’t be all!”
“There was a young man from Dal Amria that I found shipwrecked there,” said the captain, “in circumstances similar to yours, about two and a quarter centuries back. And another man, a priest, lived there for a while as a hermit.”
“So?” said Suradanna. “What happened to them?”
The captain shrugged. “They’re gone.”
Suradanna looked at the captain, whose eyes were once again fixed innocuously on the paneling, as if she hadn’t just casually mentioned something that happened two hundred and twenty-five years ago. Even knowing what Suradanna knew, it was hard to fathom. The captain didn’t look as young as her face, but there wasn’t anything like ageless wisdom in her eyes – only the kind of distant reserve that you might find anywhere. “How old are you?” Suradanna demanded abruptly.
The captain blinked her attention briefly back to Suradanna, and then away again. “That’s a rude question, isn’t it? Or is that not so for you Lalidans?”
Suradanna attempted to repress her irritation. “Lalidani. And no, it isn’t.” Lalidani business hierarchies were strictly ordered on age; it was perfectly appropriate to ask where one wasn’t sure, or else one would be forever accidentally giving the wrong salute and using the wrong honorifics.
“Fair enough,” said the captain. “I’m three hundred and seventy-nine years old.”
Now that she had the answer, Suradanna didn’t know how to wrap her head around it. “And in all that time,” she said, instead, “you still haven’t learned the proper plural for discussing more than one Lalidan.”
“There are a lot of kinds of people out there,” answered the captain, unfazed. “I haven’t often had to deal with more than one Lalidan at a time. Salamadan Port’s not one of my usual ports of call.”
“I know,” said Suradanna. “I was waiting long enough for you.”
The captain frowned into the middle distance. “I’m just here to fulfill a commission,” she explained politely – rather as if she wanted to make certain that Suradanna could not possibly be under the misapprehension that she might be here specifically to see her.
Suradanna said, “There’s a possibility that could change. The fact that Salamadan Port isn’t on your regular route, I mean.”
The captain raised her eyebrows.
“I didn’t ask you to meet me here to reminisce,” said Suradanna. She turned the guest-cup upside down and placed it carefully on her desk, signaling that business negotiations were about to begin. “I want to hire you.”
“Why?” The captain, Suradanna noted, looked rather wary.
“I’ve done my research. The Dolphin Breathes Fire has a reputation as one of the most reliable ships out there for delivering small shipments at speed – well, that doesn’t surprise me. I know from experience that you’re comfortable navigating shortcuts that few others can travel safely. You must have spent more time sailing these waters than anyone else alive.”
The captain said, “That is almost certainly true.”
“House Marradon is interested in branching out into luxury goods and high-risk, high-profit items. Most of the ships that we work with right now are large cargo vessels – reliable, but not fast. We need some partners who are better suited to this line of operations. You seem like one of the best options out there.” Suradanna pulled out a contract and placed it on the desk. “We’ve received a tip recently that there’s a man in High Alameida who’s willing to pay a substantial amount for a collection of one thousand live poison fire-toads.”
This, at last, got the captain’s attention focused directly on Suradanna once again. “…Why would anyone want a thousand live poison fire-toads?”
Suradanna spread her hands – she didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. “What’s important is that it’s a one-time demand, not an open market. Sitting on the border of the Zu-narai, we’ve got an edge in amassing the fire-toads, but if our shipment isn’t the first to arrive, the opportunity will likely be lost. We’d like you to transport the fire-toads to High Alameida for us, and ensure that a sufficient quantity arrive still living. If you successfully complete the commission, it’s ten percent of the profits – and we expect this trip to be extremely profitable.”
She waited patiently while the captain picked up the contract and skimmed through it. She knew that it was generous. House Marradon had not achieved its well-deserved reputation in Salamadan Port by treating its partners poorly.
“I’ll need to read this in more detail,” the captain said, finally, “but from what you’ve described, I’m willing. I’ve one condition, though.”
To all appearances, the captain was still absorbed in reading through the contract. “I don’t want you as my contact.”
“You heard me,” said the captain. “I’ll do the work for House Marradon. But I don’t want to see you.”
Suradanna composed her face into its blandest and most dignified lines, and resisted the childlike urge to ask why. Her makeup sat stiff and heavy on her skin. There was no particular reason the rejection should sting, except in the way that rejection always did, no matter who it came from. “That’s easy enough. My junior colleague Belarunna would be glad to manage your work for us. You needn’t see me at all. Shall I send for her to introduce you while you read through the contract?”
“Yes,” said the captain, “I suppose you had better.”
Suradanna gathered her heavy silk robes around her and left the captain to finish reading over the contract. It was, after all, a satisfactory outcome. Honest conversations were a rarity in her life, but that was true for almost anyone in her line of work. She would continue to do very well without them.
“I’ve checked the cargo against the manifest,” the captain of the Dolphin Breathes Fire told Young Hunnelic – Young Hunnelic had replaced Alsarinna as the captain’s contact about two years before, who herself had replaced Belarunna fifteen years before that – “and those missing fourteen bales of spider-silk arrived this morning, so that’s the last thing we were waiting for.”
“Except the passenger,” Young Hunnelic reminded her.
“Well, if she still wants a ride, she’d better show up soon. The tide’s in, and we’ll be sailing as soon as I get back to my ship.”
It seemed an appropriate moment. Suradanna stepped into the room from behind one of the velvet curtains (imported from High Alameida) that had replaced the paper panels in the walls. “I’m ready to go if you are,” she said.
“This is Suradanna,” said Young Hunneric, and bestowed upon Suradanna the kind of tolerant smile reserved for youthful antics. “You may recollect her great-aunt of the same name, who passed away last month – a great loss to our House. Young Suradanna is going abroad to serve an apprenticeship with our partners in High Alameida.”
Suradanna looked at the captain. She had changed drastically, she knew, since the last time they had met. The heavy wig was gone, and so were the silk robes, replaced by a light bloused shirt that had recently come back into vogue and loose trousers very similar to the captain’s own. Without makeup, her skin was its natural terracotta color, and the waters of Lake Amarrat gave a deep purple tint to her hair.
She did not expect any of this to give the captain a moment’s doubt as to her identity. Their meetings had been brief, but extremely memorable. The captain wouldn’t say anything, of course – how could she, without giving away the secret? – but if she was angry that Suradanna had broken their bargain, she would presumably find a way to let her know about it.
The captain did look extremely dry, although not as irritated as Suradanna had half-expected. “Do you have baggage, Suradanna-li?”
“It’s being delivered to the ship right now,” said Suradanna.
“Then I suppose that takes care of it,” said the captain. She flipped the guest-cup back over, gave Young Hunneric a nod, and headed for the door.
“Thank you, Hunneric-zsi!” Suradanna saluted, and then turned to run after the captain with an exuberance she didn’t have to feign.
Once she reached High Alameida, that youthful exuberance would have to disappear. It was going to be an infuriatingly long time before anyone in High Alameida treated her with as much professional respect as she’d long been accustomed to receiving. Bouncing around like a teenaged apprentice would only hold her back.
But she was leaving Salamadan Port, and what she did here didn’t matter for Young Suradanna’s future. She’d been forcing herself to move with calculated slowness for decades. Forty years of pent-up energy surged through her muscles like sparkling wine.
Within a few paces, she passed the captain, then spun around and walked backwards in front of her before turning again to fall into step beside her. She wasn’t worried about bumping into anything; she knew Salamadan Port like the back of her hand. She smiled at the captain, and said, “I hope you don’t mind too much that I broke our agreement.”
The captain glanced at her out of the corner of her eye before turning her eyes to the road in front of her. “I expected you would eventually,” she said, amiably enough.
“That’s not much of a compliment! I do usually keep my word.”
They were passing by the copy-scribe’s office, where House Marradon brought documents when they needed twenty identical fair copies made. Suradanna had known the proprietor for years, though of course she hadn’t seen her since faking her own death.
She’d hadn’t left Salamadan Port since her first ill-fated voyage, all those years ago. After she left today, she wouldn’t see Salamadan again for a long time – a few decades, at minimum. There was no point in having second thoughts about that now. In changing lives, she’d cut herself off from most of the people she’d known in her past life already. Almost all of them had turned up to see Suradanna the younger scatter some ashes labeled as Suradanna the elder’s into the harbor, in the same spot where she’d scattered first her mother’s and then her father’s ashes, several decades before; it had felt like a suitable ending, and she was ready for a beginning.
She returned her gaze to the captain. “But,” she said, “your record is by far best of any of the captains we work with, and I’m not going to put myself on anything less than the best. You really never have damaged a ship.”
“Very flattering – but I never told you that I’d never damaged a ship.”
“No – but I looked up the records of the Dolphin Breathes Fire. She’s been on the books for the past two hundred years at least, though nobody’s ever recorded an owner’s name. At the time she was registered, it was still legal for illiterate persons to sign their documents with a mark. And there’s no documents of sale or transfer.”
“How interesting,” said the captain, politely.
The young Suradanna would have been too polite to push the point after this; the old, sage Suradanna of a few months ago would have been too circumspect. Suradanna now was enjoying the rare opportunity to simply say what she liked. “I suppose that’s why you don’t give out your name. No need to reinvent yourself. People remember the role, not the person. Am I right?”
“It seems logical,” agreed the captain.
Suradanna felt more encouraged than ever. She’d been expecting her to sound more annoyed by now. “You might tell me your name. I’ll be around as long as you, won’t I?”
“Barring unforeseen circumstances. But to talk like that is just tempting fate,” said the captain. “I’d hate to ill-wish you.”
By now Suradanna could see the dense forest of masts from the ships at anchor in the port, looming over the garishly colored food stalls that competed for the attention and coin of sailors on leave. The low, tan structure of the harbormaster’s office squatted off to the left, standing out by virtue of its very blandness. In another few minutes, they’d reach the harbor, and the Dolphin Breathes Fire, and the conversation would be over.
“Well,” said Suradanna, “if you won’t tell me your name, will you answer another question for me?” She turned to the captain, her face frank and earnest. She’d been holding the expression in reserve, as it played better on a girl of sixteen than a woman of sixty. “To be honest, I’ve been wondering how I offended you so badly, the last time we met. I know I was a little brusque, but I didn’t mean to insult you – and you must have met and worked with many people who are much more offensive than me.”
The captain looked down at her, and let out a sudden bark of laughter. “That’s true enough!”
Suradanna’s first impulse, as always, was to stiffen in offense at the idea of being laughed at, but she’d lived long enough by now learn how to wait and see what her second impulse would be. It was the first time she’d heard the captain’s laugh. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but in that second moment, Suradanna decided that she liked it. It sounded confident – like a woman who had known who she was for a long, long time, and wasn’t afraid who else knew it either. She smiled back at her. “Well, then?”
The captain was still visibly amused. “So instead of giving offense, you’ve decided to charm me with flattery and smiles?”
“No,” said Suradanna. “This is what I’m normally like.”
The captain raised her eyebrows, but let this pass. “Well, you didn’t offend me particularly. I liked you fine.” Privately, Suradanna thought that she was certainly not going to abandon the smiles and the flattery, if they could get the captain to be as forthcoming as this. “Anyway,” the captain went on, “one expects rudeness, from a young person.”
“I wasn’t all that young.”
“You were,” said the captain. “You are still.”
The captain was just about the only person who could possibly know how true that wasn’t, which suffused Suradanna with indignation and made it remarkably difficult to answer with dignity. She’d already lost the captain’s attention again, anyway; they were walking into the harbor proper now, and the harbormaster was standing between the Dolphin Breathes Fire and her nearest neighbor, consulting his paperwork. The captain waved.
The harbormaster – Lalidani, and short as that usually implied – grinned up at her. “Time for you to pull this floating bucket out of here? There’s people waiting for your spot.”
“Don’t rush me,” the captain retorted. “Think how you’d cry if I never came back.”
They clapped each other on the shoulder in the manner of old friends. Suradanna had known the harbormaster well, in her previous life, but he’d never seen her without three layers of tinted egg wash on her face. She gave him the salute of a young person to a respected professional; he returned with a half-salute of his own, and turned his attention back to the captain. They stepped aside to go over the final paperwork for the departure of the Dolphin Breathes Fire, the captain looming about a foot over him, as she did most people in Salamadan Port.
Alone, Suradanna started up the gangplank. She kept her chin high, and did not look down at the water. It occurred to her that the captain had not, in fact, answered her question about what she had done to offend her so badly before.
Most ships took six months for the voyage from Salamadan Port to High Alameida. The Dolphin Breathes Fire, keeping stops to a minimum and taking several somewhat reckless shortcuts, completed it in four. When the captain wasn’t around, the crew speculated to each other about the reasons for the rush.
Suradanna happened to know that a significant part of the reason was because the cargo hold contained – in addition to fifteen bales of spider-silk, forty-five bales of bombazine, sixty drams of Amarrat-water, two hundred cases of rice-wine, and Suradanna’s own not-insignificant collection of personal belongings – a large and precious quantity of zuiran extract, refined from the sap of the giant vines of the Zu-narai Forest. Zuiran extract was the most powerful fertilizer on the market; a relatively small amount could make nearly anything grow nearly anywhere, from the driest desert to the bottom of the ocean. The vines didn’t grow anywhere other than in the Zu-narai, and zuiran extract could only be made from fresh plants. If zuiran extract sat too long near anything wooden – such as, for example, a ship – the wood would eventually start to swell and sprout roots and tendrils, which tended to have a negative impact on the vessel’s water-tightness. Even storing the extract in metal or glass containers wouldn’t protect any nearby wood for long. As a result, zuiran extract usually didn’t travel further than Dhalmaren Port.
Stolen zuiran extract was occasionally sold on the black market by desperate individuals who were willing to make a risky bet on a very high reward. Legitimate merchants, who poured real money into creating and acquiring the extract, were more inclined to reap the sure profits available by selling the extract regionally than accept the possibility of a dead loss on investment if it sank en route. There was a fortune waiting for anybody who could get a reasonable quantity of zuiran extract to sell in High Alameida. Convincing House Marradon to commit to the gamble had been one of the last and greatest coups of Suradanna’s former career.
The fact that Suradanna was willing to book her great-niece passage to High Alameida on the exact same ship had certainly helped to convince her peers that the Dolphin Breathes Fire could complete the trip in the required time. Nobody would put a relative of theirs on a ship carrying zuiran extract unless they either had enormous amounts of confidence in the captain’s ability to complete a voyage on schedule, or they secretly wanted to get rid of them.
Suradanna did have enormous confidence in the captain. The captain, after all, had agreed to the trial herself – and a person who was almost four hundred years old wouldn’t risk their life on a venture they didn’t think would succeed.
In any case, worrying about the zuiran extract maturing in the hold stopped her from worrying about the sea in general. It was perfectly rational to be nervous about sailing on a ship full of zuiran extract. Not that she was going to let anybody see she was nervous – especially not the captain.
Though she didn’t see much of the captain, as it turned out. She was a mere apprentice, a passenger of not much importance, and it would seem peculiar and disrespectful for her to impose herself frequently upon the senior staff. She made friends with the shipboard apprentices and the cabin boys, as might be expected of a high-spirited young person; rebuffed the advances of the flirtatious third mate, as might be expected of a high-spirited but sensible young person from a good family with a lucrative career ahead of her; and kept her ears open for as much gossip as she could glean, as might be expected by anyone who knew Suradanna, though of course at this point in time there was hardly anyone at all who did.
She learned that the captain had a reputation for hiring relatively untrained young sailors, and keeping them on until they knew their trade well. Not many stayed with her for long. The Dolphin Breathes Fire was a profitable ship, but the captain paid out percentages on the low end of fair – reasonable for new recruits, but not as appealing to old hands who’d proved themselves over several voyages. “It’s a clever scheme,” said the third mate, with the air of giving credit where it was due. “She must make a fortune, but it doesn’t work out too badly for most of us – she gives a good recommendation, never begrudges anyone for taking off. She’s got an eye for a good sailor in the rough.”
Suradanna thought it was a clever scheme, too, though not for the same reasons that the third mate did. She wondered what the captain would do if she accidentally hired anyone who got too loyal to move on – but then, she must have an eye for ambition, as well as for talent. “She seems a bit aloof,” she said. “Does she ever loosen up?”
The third mate laughed. “Not around any of us! But –” He leaned in slightly, conspiratorial. “She’ll slip off when we drop anchor, and Hathan swears that she caught a glimpse of her once in one of those wine-holes they’ve got in Seltira for women – you know, only for women, you know what I mean? That a thing that happens with you Lalidans?”
“Lalidani,” said Suradanna. “I think that’s a thing that happens everywhere, more or less.” She smiled. He’d think it was teasing, which it was, a little. He didn’t have to know the rest of the reason she was pleased with herself. She’d had absolutely no evidence to base a supposition on. After all this time, her guesses on this sort of thing were rarely wrong, but it was nice to have confirmation.
“Well, maybe,” said the third mate, a little dubiously. “In girl’s schools, women’s retreats, female God-houses – that sort of thing, I guess, where there’s no men around to scratch the itch. Not as much as it happens in Seltira, though. Anyway, it just goes to show –” He waggled his eyebrows hopefully at her. “– even the most uptight person’s got to loosen up sometime, right?”
“Well,” said Suradanna, sweetly, “maybe if we were going to Seltira.” The third mate laughed. Suradanna laughed, too, and tried, with some success, not to think about the zuiran extract in the hold, and all the miles of water beneath it. She appreciated the third mate’s efforts. Flirtation was a wonderful distraction.
The days passed fairly easily this way; the nights, less so. Occasionally she wished that she was the sort of person who could afford to take the third mate up on his frequent invitations, just to pass the time, but it simply wouldn’t do. At this stage in her career, she couldn’t afford the risk of starting a rumor that would lead her future colleagues to take her lightly.
Still, the night before they were due to reach High Alameida, Suradanna decided to take one risk after all. Once the watch shifted over, and the night crew were all at their stations, she slipped out of her room and went down the hall to knock on the captain’s door.
“Yes?” said the captain. “Come in.”
Suradanna slid inside and closed the door behind her, feeling oddly shy. The captain raised her eyebrows when she saw her, but said nothing, and went back to scrutinizing the papers she’d been looking at when Suradanna walked in.
Suradanna squared her shoulders. She didn’t have to be the teenaged apprentice Suradanna just now. “I just wanted to thank you – and congratulate you,” she said, pitching her voice as low and adult as she could. “You’ve taken a great risk with this journey, and succeeded beyond our hopes. Of course you’ll be well rewarded for this, and for future voyages. After this success, we’ll be eager to repeat it.”
“Pardon me for my bluntness,” said the captain, “but you don’t have the authority just at present to arrange that, do you?”
Suradanna refused to allow herself to be flustered. “Well, just at present – no, of course not. But I left certain instructions before arranging my death, and I’ve no reason to believe they won’t be carried out. Of course it will be a little time before I’m in a position again to make decisions on any further trade ventures in my own person, but that should be a relatively brief inconvenience.”
“I gather that the Alameidans don’t care as much about age as you Lalidani,” the captain agreed, courteously.
“They don’t,” said Suradanna. “So the House branch there doesn’t, either. It’s often convenient to adopt local customs. And once I’ve returned to a more useful position in the House, I intend to take over handling your contract. Nobody else has as much experience as I do, and now I’ve taken this voyage myself I’ll have a much better idea what to expect. I trust that at this point you don’t have any objections?”
The captain gave her paperwork a mildly amused look. “You trust? Isn’t that a bit of a leap?”
Suradanna took one breath, and let it out, more calmly. “Well, if you’re going to nitpick –”
“It helps to be precise,” said the captain. “If you did really trust that I wouldn’t mind, you’d have gone ahead and arranged everything without coming here to tell me so. But then, of course,” she added, turning the page on her account-book, “I might have complained about you to the partners in High Alameida, which might have inconvenienced your career as a phoenix.”
“A phoenix?” Suradanna suspected she was meant to have gotten more irritated by this; in fact, she was rather charmed. “I think I like that. It’s too bad taking it as a second name would give the game away a little. There’s no point dropping really blatant hints.”
She grinned at the captain, who laughed. “They don’t use that kind of second name in High Alameida anyway. It’s patronymics.”
“Yes, I know. How long do you think I’ve been trading with High Alameida? Do you think I didn’t do my research?”
“No,” said the captain, “I’m quite sure that you did.” There was a pause. The captain once again dropped her eyes to her accounts. Suradanna could feel the wall that she was putting up between them. But she knew it wasn’t insurmountable; it had lifted, briefly, when the captain had laughed.
She said, “You still haven’t actually said if you have an objection or not.”
“I do,” said the captain. “The same one I always did –”
“Which you’ve also still not explained,” said Suradanna.
“But,” the captain went on, ignoring Suradanna’s complaint, “it’s also true that this partnership with House Marradon has been very profitable for me – and so long as I’m working with House Marradon I expect you’ll go on trying to work me round. So if I want an easy life, I may as well give in.” She looked back up again, one eyebrow raised, and added, “You young people just have so much energy. I don’t have the stamina to keep up.”
The captain, Suradanna realized, was teasing her. She leaned back against the door of the captain’s office and smiled serenely. She could see from the way the corners of the captain’s mouth twitched that she was having to work at not smiling back. “It’s all right,” she said, gracious in victory. “Not many people do.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised about that,” said the captain. “However, if we’re going to begin a professional relationship, you might stop attempting to flirt with me –”
“Attempting!” said Suradanna, with some indignation.
“– and get back to your own cabin, before any rumors get started that might reflect poorly on the both of us in the future.”
“And blight my phoenix career, yes, I know,” said Suradanna. “It’s very solicitous of you. See you in a few years.” She gave the captain the appropriate salute for a colleague and respected equal, then slipped out the captain’s door, feeling rather pleased with herself. She’d known the captain would come around eventually. The next few years were likely to be rather frustrating – it had been a long time since she was at the bottom of the rung of the ladder, and she wasn’t particularly relishing going through it all again – but at least she had a concrete goal to work towards, and that would help tremendously.
“So you’re going back to Salamadan Port?”
“Yes,” said Suradanna. “I think it’s time, don’t you?”
The captain merely opened a hand, to indicate that she had no grounds to hold an opinion on the matter.
They weren’t in the House Marradon offices this time. Nobody in High Alameida did business in their offices. If you had a meeting in High Alameida, you went to one of the city’s many fashionable coffee shops, and commandeered as central a table as you could find, and tried to find a delicate balance between listening in on everybody else’s business and conducting your own. It had taken Suradanna some time to get used to this, but after fifty-three years, she felt she about had the hang of it.
Still, she missed the brightly-colored market stalls and the low walls and broad streets of Salamadan Port. She missed waking up in the morning and smelling the sea first, before anything else. High Alameida was set back enough from its port that the ocean breeze came in only as a distant undertone to the city-smells of people and pet birds and cows and copper and leftover garbage, and of course the ever-present odor of coffee. She missed passing strangers her own height in the streets – most of the Lalidani in High Alameida were the ones who worked for House Marradon or the other major trade companies, and she knew all their faces too well. Her neck had a crick in it from looking up.
It was time to go home.
She took a last sip, winced at the bitter flavor, and then turned over the cup on its saucer. There was no guest-cup custom in High Alameida, but she’d never been able to quite break the habit. “I’ll be taking over the zuiran end of the commodity trade in Salamadan, after Mudderic made such a mess of things. Here’s the manifest for what we’ll be sending with you – besides me, of course.”
“You could have a cabin with windows, if you liked,” said the captain. “Not fond of the sea view?”
“Not a bit,” said Suradanna, frankly. “Still, it’ll be worth it to see home again.”
The captain took a sip from her own cup, found it empty, and frowned down into it. “It will have changed, you know,” she said, after a moment. “I hope you expect that.”
“Oh, of course. I’d be disappointed if it hadn’t.” Stagnation meant death, for a trade city. Suradanna knew that as well as any merchant did.
“If you say so.” The captain tapped the documents on the table until they formed a neat pile. “I’ll look these over when I get back to the Dolphin Breathes Fire. Who’ll be my contact here when you’re gone, by the way?”
“Alin zu Aman. He’s Alameidan – you remember him, the apprentice who accidentally mixed up the alchemy texts for that school in Seltira with the shipment of blacklisted romances for – well, it’s not very kind of me to remind you of his mistakes, that was at least twenty years ago now and he’s grown into a very competent young person.”
The captain said, blandly, “Nice of you to give me ammunition for future negotiations.”
Suradanna laughed. Over the years that they’d been meeting in this coffee shop, Suradanna had found the captain exactly as congenial a business partner as she’d always expected – sensible, straightforward and concise, with a talent for cutting to the heart of a negotiation. Their interactions, of course, had always been entirely professional. You couldn’t be anything but professional in High Alameida, where the competition was always watching.
On the ocean – between the cities where business took place and people went about their lives and the things that they did mattered – on a ship, anything might happen.
Or might have happened, if Suradanna were traveling as a young person. However, this time she traveled in state, as an honored elder of House Marradon, with another member of House Marradon and several merchant partners. The circumstances required her to maintain all of her usual habits, along with the dignity that by this point was beginning to weigh on her as heavily as the braided wigs she’d worn during her first old age.
Those wigs were enormously out of fashion now, as was the egg-white face paint. Suradanna had considered finding religion, to provide herself with an excuse to wear the veil, but her colleagues would have been convinced she’d lost her edge – the Lalidani commercial sector didn’t have much use for Alameidan gods – and anyway she’d miss being able to use the array of smiles she’d cultivated for negotiations. Instead she over-dyed her hair, the bright purple of a woman desperate not to show any gray, and spent hours each morning tracing fine lines onto her face with an extremely expensive skin-treatment pencil that was designed to do the exact opposite of what she was using it for.
It was hard work, and everything took twice as long when they were at sea. The constant motion of the ship caused her to jostle and smudge lines she’d made a thousand times over on land. Last time she’d been on the Dolphin Breathes Fire, she could run and laugh as much as she’d liked; she could flirt, and nobody thought anything of it. There’d been a hundred way to distract herself from the vast, terrible expanse of open water all around her.
Being old on this ship was a new experience. She found she didn’t like it much.
In the second week of the voyage, the captain found Suradanna staring moodily into the depths. Suradanna saw her approach out of the corner of her vision, but didn’t turn to greet her. The captain regarded her for a moment, then leaned backwards on the rail of the deck next to her. Her sleeves were rolled halfway up her forearms, well-muscled and freckled nearly indigo by the sun. “Last time,” she remarked, “you were sailing away from everything you knew, on a ship full of zuiran extract, and you bounced around like a hummingbird. This time…”
“I’m a little too old,” said Suradanna, ruefully, “to bounce like a hummingbird.” She pulled her gaze up from the ocean and turned to the captain, self-conscious. She hated that this trip seemed to have turned her vain. On the shore, where she had her work and responsibilities, the need to look old hadn’t bothered her. Here, she was cut off from all the news and activity that gave her role purpose, and she was all too conscious of the uneven pencil lines on her face, the slightly garish false eyelashes, the coarseness of her hair from too much dyeing.
It didn’t help that the captain looked, as always, exactly the same as she ever had. The wind fanned her black hair around the stark planes of a face that had seen wind and weather, but no age and no cosmetics either. She wasn’t beautiful by any standards Suradanna had encountered, either in High Alameida or Salamadan Port – too tall for a Lalidani, too broad for an Alameidan, too flat-haired for a Seltiran, too hairless for a Dhalgri, too blue-skinned and too wide-stanced and too harsh-looking for any established tastes that Suradanna knew of – but on the deck, with the waves tossing behind her, she was clearly in her element. She looked strong, and young, and very much herself.
And her cool grey eyes were entirely focused for once on Suradanna – she’d come looking for Suradanna – and Suradanna was hidden under two layers of ill-applied paint and surrounded by watery doom that she couldn’t seem to ignore. It was profoundly unfair.
“I can’t wait,” she said, fervently, “to get back home.”
The captain gave her a light pat on the back and shifted her gaze out over the water. “It’s not so long a trip, and you’ve made it before. You’ll hold up.”
Suradanna wondered if the captain would have been warier of touching her like that, casual and friendly, if Suradanna had not looked so old. She said, “Would you do me a favor?”
“Depends,” said the captain, still looking out on the horizon.
“If I invited you to dinner in my cabin about once a week, would you come? I could use the distraction. And the conversation.” The other partners and clients onboard ship were all Lalidani, and all significantly younger than Suradanna – well, so was almost everybody, but they knew themselves to be significantly younger, and as a result were painfully stiff and formal around her.
The captain hesitated a little, then said, “All right.”
It didn’t feel particularly novel, dining with the captain. They’d eaten together over negotiations many times before by this point, and were moderately accustomed to each other’s ways. But there wasn’t anybody looking or listening this time, and the last time that had happened, Suradanna hadn’t known how to appreciate it.
Over the course of the dinner, the conversation turned, gradually but inevitably.
“To be honest,” Suradanna confided, after a glass of Alameidan brandy, “I’d always planned to be young again when I made this trip. I meant to start over, like I did last time.”
“I always thought you would,” agreed the captain. She was on her second glass of brandy as well, and her usage of the common trade language had shifted and taken on an accent that Suradanna couldn’t quite place. “But I shouldn’t be surprised when you surprise me, I suppose. The indefatigable Suradanna. Why didn’t you?”
“If it wasn’t for that catastrophe with the last zuiran shipment – but that’s the Salamadan office all over, these days. They’re cutting corners right and left. Sending a tugboat like the Golden-Maned Seahorse on a trip like that? What were they thinking?”
“That the demand for zuiran extract in High Alameida is only increasing, I expect,” said the captain, a little sardonically, “and if House Marradon doesn’t fill it, somebody else will.”
Suradanna made a face at her over the table, which was not something she would have done in a business meeting. She’d washed off all her make-up before the captain came, old-age lines and all, and scrubbed her cheeks until they glowed with youth and health – which was exactly the kind of reckless thing a stupid young person would do, but she felt like being reckless, one way or another. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d talked to another person without paint of some kind or another on her face. “Well, it’s not acceptable, either way. Suradanna-li the apprentice wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, so the respected Suradanna-zsi will just have to beat them into shape before the old bat passes on to her well-deserved rest.”
“I’m sure that the respected Suradanna-zsi,” said the captain, “will soon rule over House Marradon of Salamadan Port with an iron fist.”
“A trading house is a cooperative enterprise. There certainly won’t be any ruling. Just,” said Suradanna, primly, “some very insistent suggesting.”
“I thought the eldest always did rule, with you Lalidani. The way your people scurry around you here –”
“Ah, yes,” said Suradanna, “our quaint Lalidani ways.”
The corners of the captain’s eyes crinkled. “Well, I didn’t say it.” Suradanna frowned, and the captain looked a little embarrassed. “Sorry. Most people’s ways seem strange to me, one way or another.”
“Are your people’s ways so different from most people’s?”
The captain paused for a moment, then shrugged and took another gulp of brandy, her gaze drifting away. “Probably not so different by now, come to that. I wouldn’t really know.”
Her tone wasn’t particularly unfriendly; nonetheless, it decisively discouraged further questioning in that line. Suradanna, not easily discouraged, decided to try another angle. “Well, you’re right, I will be the eldest in the Salamadan Port branch of the House. It doesn’t make me a dictator, it just makes me – well-respected.” She grinned. “Deservedly so, of course.”
“Of course,” agreed the captain, straight-faced.
“Not,” Suradanna added, after a moment, “that all that respect doesn’t occasionally get a little tiring. But you must know what that’s like. A captain on her ship is much more of a dictator than any partner in a merchant house, and you’ve been captain for – how long have you been captain for? Since before you…”
The captain swirled her brandy, and, for a moment, Suradanna thought she wouldn’t answer. When she did speak, though, her tone was as natural as if it had been any other question. “No – I suppose not since before. I was only the Dolphin’s second mate when we landed on that island.”
“Oh, yes. Six of us, resupplying – but only the six of us drank from the source, and the other five were killed in a pirate raid a few years later. We’d no idea what had happened to us at that point, of course. Jodan was the youngest, but we just thought he was stunted. I was captain, by the time I realized, and I didn’t work out how it happened until long after that, when I picked up Joru. The young man from Dal Amria,” she added, catching Suradanna’s blank look. “He was shipwrecked there, like you.”
“And you just … stayed captain, after that.”
“The Dolphin and I have been through a lot together. She’s about the only thing I know,” said the captain, “that’s older than I am.”
Suradanna protested, “Now that I know for a fact is not true. I’ve walked with you through the central forum in High Alameida, and that’s over five hundred years old. There’s a plaque.”
“Oh, well, a plaque, you must be right then,” said the captain. Suradanna laughed. “Honestly,” the captain went on, “I can hardly recognize a thing in the cities decade to decade, let alone century to century. Besides, I’ve just about got things the way I like here. It would take a terrible time to get comfortable anywhere else.”
“But don’t you get –” Suradanna broke off before she could say ‘lonely’; it sounded too obvious, and too angling. “Bored, ever?” she said, instead. “Of the same thing, all the time?”
“Since you turned up, boredom’s the last thing I’ve –”
The captain broke off, looking, to Suradanna’s delight, almost flushed. Suradanna beamed at her. “More brandy?”
“Ah,” said the captain. It was endearingly possible, thought Suradanna – though before tonight she would not have thought it probable – that the captain couldn’t hold her alcohol. She never had seen her drink much before. “Tea. If you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course not.” Suradanna stood and went over to the side cabinet, where the bottle of brandy sat next to the small portable brazier. She lit the fire and stood waiting for the water to boil. “Now, if I were able to tell anybody how old I really am,” she remarked, to the brazier, “I very well might become a dictator. They’d have to come up with a new honorific.”
“You could still reveal the location of the stream,” said the captain, “and become wildly rich.”
“And very wildly well-respected, yes. It’s an option in reserve.” The water was starting to simmer. Suradanna spooned some orange-blossom tea into a gauze bag, tied it off, and dropped it into the cup. “But being a dictator really would be boring. Anyway, I’ve gotten used to feeling secretly superior to all the children around me.”
“Mm,” said the captain, thoughtfully.
Suradanna heaved an exaggerated sigh, and amended, “Except for one, of course.”
“If a young person like you starts talking in such a jaded fashion,” said the captain, “I’m really going to start feeling old.”
Suradanna picked up the pot, ready to pour it into the cup. “If a young person –”
The ship chose that moment to take a shuddering lurch.
Suradanna didn’t drop the water-pot, for which she was grateful, in a distant sort of way.
“Suradanna?” said the captain, after a moment.
Suradanna didn’t answer. She wished she couldn’t hear the blood thrumming in her ears. She wished there wasn’t so much water around her. She wished she could put down the pot, but braced for impact as she was, she couldn’t seem to move.
She heard the captain, behind her, push her chair back.
“Shouldn’t you go see what that was?” She had always been good at controlling her voice, and it sounded almost natural, she thought.
“Yes,” said the captain, her own voice rather odd, and then paused, and then said, “I’ll be back.” Suradanna heard her footsteps retreating, and then the door to her cabin closing behind her.
She had to put down the pot. If the ship really was in trouble, there were things she was going to want to prepare to take with her, and a pot of boiling water wasn’t one of them. She had always been the kind of person who liked to be prepared. But, she thought, very clearly, if the ship did lurch again, and the pot spilled hot water all over her, that would be unfortunate as well. If there were a window in her cabin, she could pour the hot water out of it, and get rid of it that way. But she’d picked a cabin with no windows, so she wouldn’t have to look at the nearness of the ocean when she didn’t want to, or hear it at night. There simply wasn’t a good solution to the problem. So she stood there, holding the lukewarm pot, and running through lists in her head of the things she would want to grab onto if the ship really sank.
The pot was almost cool again the time she heard the door creak open again. Belatedly, she realized that the ship was rocking again under her feet, with the same gentle motion that she’d been slowly growing accustomed to again. She put down the pot very quickly and turned around.
The captain was already standing inside the room, just within the door. “It’s all right.” Her voice was pitched to soothe – not confidently, but cautiously, as from one who was aware she was not by nature soothing. “Some kind of weed that’s been growing up – well, it doesn’t matter. Nothing breached the hull. I’ve noted the anomaly, and we’re back on course now.”
“Good,” Suradanna said. She could hear herself talking, as if from far away. “That’s good. I’m glad it’s not serious.”
The captain’s gray eyes were focused on her. “You’ve sailed before. Was it like this last time, too?”
“You make it sound like it’s irrational to be worried about a shipwreck. It’s perfectly rational.”
“No one would say it wasn’t,” said the captain. She took another step into the room, and closed the door carefully behind her. “Suradanna –”
“I look at the ledgers,” Suradanna went on, hearing and hating the defensive note in her own voice. “I see how many ships we lose each year. There’s nothing strange about being frightened!”
“Most people,” said the captain, “aren’t that frightened.”
“Well, they’re probably that frightened of something else,” Suradanna snapped. “Everyone’s that frightened of something.” She’d barely noticed that the captain had outstretched a hand.
It stilled now, and then dropped. “Quite right,” the captain said. Her voice had flattened out, and her accent was quite gone. “But if you’re that frightened of something, there’s no need to put yourself through it. I’m sorry you did.”
Suradanna’s hands fisted at her sides. She didn’t mind playing at being a distressed damsel any more than she minded playing at being anything, but being taken for one when she hadn’t at all meant to be was another thing altogether. She could handle herself perfectly well. She’d gotten through plenty of nights on the ocean alone, and nobody had ever bothered about it before.
“Please remember,” she said, as levelly as she could manage, “that I am not a child. This is the quickest way to get home, and I need to get home.” She was infuriated to hear her voice shake. It was profoundly unfair that she should sound so young when talking about the things that made her feel the oldest. “For something that’s important, you can’t let – it’s worth a little discomfort. It’s worth it in the end.”
The captain looked at Suradanna for a moment longer. Then her eyes dropped to the table, with the empty brandy-glasses, then to the cabin floor, with the rich carpet Suradanna’s partners had insisted on providing for her aged feet. “I don’t think that’s true,” she said, and turned back towards the door. “But for you, I’ll hope it is.”
The next morning, Suradanna sat up in her well-outfitted berth, in a ship that moved smoothly through a calm ocean, and put her head in her hands, and groaned out loud.
The captain had wanted to stay. Oh, she clearly didn’t have the faintest idea how to comfort another human being, but she’d obviously wanted to try, if she’d been given half a chance. She’d said Suradanna’s name without honorifics, twice.
What an opportunity, and how Suradanna had wasted it!
Two months later, the Dolphin Breathes Fire sailed into Salamadan Port perfectly on schedule, as it nearly always was. Suradanna, wearing her most imposing layers of Alameidan corsetry, and with the old-age lines perfectly applied on her skin, bade the captain a formal and dignified farewell on behalf of the entire House Marradon party.
The captain bowed in response, which startled Suradanna briefly until she remembered that Dhalmaren-style bows had now largely replaced salutes in Salamadan Port.
Once inside the palanquin that had been sent for them – Suradanna would have liked to walk, but the venerable and respected Suradanna of House Marradon was far too important to walk anywhere – Suradanna took the opportunity to remark on the change to her traveling companion. “They’re more elegant, I suppose, but they don’t allow for quite as much nuance. Don’t you agree?”
Young Farralan, who was around forty herself, laughed and said, “I suppose. But of course, the difficulty in establishing how old everybody in a room is before you walk into it, and the awkwardness when somebody is present whom you didn’t expect! You remember how many mistakes I made in our High Alameida offices, before I got used to it.”
“Ah, so they were already using the bows here, when you came to our office?” Suradanna laughed as well. “You must think me tremendously archaic.” Farralan had come as an apprentice to High Alameida when she was eighteen or nineteen – so a little over twenty years ago, only thirty years or so after Suradanna herself had left for High Alameida. It seemed very fast, for something so important to change so profoundly.
But of course, Suradanna reminded herself, plenty of things had changed just as quickly over the lifetime she’d spent in Salamadan Port before then. Wigs had come into fashion and then gone out again, gambling at sticks had become legal, the use of zura-nut powder had become illegal, House Marradon’s trade agreement with the Hosteran barbarians had ensured that cashmere wool was used in every rug in Salamadan Port – the only difference was that she’d been there to watch these things happen, and understand why.
Farralan smiled. “Honored Suradanna-zsi, you look so young that it’s always surprising to be reminded how much of life you’ve seen.”
“Flatterer,” said Suradanna, who knew perfectly well how true it was, and also perfectly well how many dividends it reaped to pretend that you thought truths were flattery.
Encouraged, Farralan went on, “Age brings many rewards, but I’m sure we all hope to pay as low a price for them as the honored Suradanna-zsi.”
This was starting to become fulsome, and embarrassing for Farralan, who ought to know when it was appropriate to stop. But, of course that, thought Suradanna, was also why Farralan made so many mistakes in etiquette regarding the salutes. Farralan was clever enough, but her instincts couldn’t be trusted, and she never made the proper preparations.
The palanquin settled down in front of the House Marradon headquarters. From outside, the edifice looked very much the same – an imposing and expensive building constructed from imported Alameidan ironwood, impervious to fire and weather and rain-rot, large as a palace but more approachable. There were a few minor additions and repairs here and there, but if Suradanna had not herself been the one to arrange for the import of replacement ironwood from High Alameida, she never would have noticed.
When she’d left, House Marradon had been one of only three or four great Houses that could afford the cost of ironwood construction. Not only was ironwood expensive to transport, but it held heat in a punishing way, requiring additional expenses of construction and maintenance to ensure that the building remained comfortable during the dry season. Ironwood was only really practical as a statement: this building was intended to last into the centuries.
All the same, House Marradon’s profits in ironwood shipments had picked up dramatically over the last ten or fifteen years. Now, looking down the street, Suradanna was seeing the results. She controlled her face, and, when she glanced back at Farralan, had the satisfaction of seeing the other woman’s eyes widen as she stepped out of the palanquin.
“House Barra must regret those black lacquered roofs in the summer,” murmured Farralan, and Suradanna repressed a smile. Farralan wasn’t entirely an idiot.
Her smile faded, however, as the collection of apprentices who had been sent to greet them ushered them inside House Marradon.
The anteroom had previously been a large, open space, with comfortable cushioned pallets where visitors to the House could sit in comfort and take refreshments before their appointments. Now, instead, the front door of the House opened onto a long corridor with rooms leading off in all directions.
The dizzying array of twists and turns that brought them to the central meeting room was most likely intended to make visitors feel the vast complexity of House Marradon’s operations in their bones. Suradanna didn’t disapprove of this in principle, but in practice, it made her tired. Most of the senior staff of the House Marradon office waited there to meet them – as, indeed, was Suradanna’s due. Each of them bowed to her, and Suradanna repressed a twinge of anxiety and irritation over the fact that the bows did not clearly indicate her position of authority as the eldest individual in the house.
Various persons asked solicitously about her journey, and inquired after acquaintances in the High Alameida office. Suradanna bore it with a patience that felt increasingly numb. Refreshments were provided. She’d been hoping for the fresh fish and roe that had always been served to guests in her day, to demonstrate the bounty of Salamadan Port. Instead, she was offered heavy dough-wrapped meats and tiny Alameidan-style pastries. These had clearly been crafted with great expense, and were presumably intended as a kind of honor to Suradanna, who had, after all, spent most of her hypothetical life in High Alameida. It was a respectful gesture. She couldn’t complain any more than she could complain about the fact that they all spoke to her in the common trade language used for negotiations and in international offices, rather than the Lalidani tongue.
After months of enforced idleness, what she really wanted was to get down to business, but of course that wasn’t going to happen until tomorrow. It would be unconscionably rude for anybody to expect or demand that a person as old as the honored Suradanna-zsi would get straight to work after a long and fatiguing sea journey. The welcome gathering kept strictly to small talk. The small talk, of course, was designed to let the current leaders of the Salamadan Port office to get her measure while she was, presumably, at a disadvantage. Suradanna would not have expected anything less.
She received a number of increasingly suave compliments from Muderric, the person currently in charge of directing the zuiran trade, and made it a point to be visibly charmed and flattered. He either had no idea of the lightning bolt that was about to fall on him, or was doing a very good job pretending that he had no idea. Either way, she wasn’t about to put him on guard until they had their first official meeting. The more insufferable he was now, the more she would enjoy it later.
After the socially mandated hour of conversation had passed, the apprentices took Suradanna to her quarters. When arranging for her transfer to the Salamadan Port office, she had requested to be placed in the same rooms that her supposed great-aunt, Suradanna the elder, had inhabited sixty years ago. She’d explained that she had many fond memories of visiting her great-aunt in those rooms, and would like to revisit them.
As she walked in, she realized that this had been a terrible mistake.
Someone had in fact done rather well at recreating the furnishings of the era in which she’d left. The paper hangings on the walls were familiar, and so was the silk-dressed futon on the floor. It was so markedly familiar – and so markedly different from everything else in this current version of House Marradon – that it came as a blow to the throat that blocked almost everything that she might say.
She realized belatedly that the apprentice carrying her bags was saying something about how hard they had worked to confirm which rooms once belonged to the elder Suradanna. Apparently no one had reminded him not to speak in Lalidani. His vowels were so flat that she almost hadn’t recognized her own language. She waved the apprentice off, closed the door firmly behind her, made sure that the locks were drawn, and then collapsed into a kind of heap on the futon.
This wasn’t productive, she told herself, five minutes later, when she was still curled up with her arms around her knees. She should start unpacking, or preparing for tomorrow’s meeting – or, if she couldn’t do that, she should take a nap, like the old person that she wasn’t, and get enough rest to make herself more fit for her task. Sitting in a heap on the floor feeling melancholy about the past wasn’t doing herself or anybody else any good. Forward motion, that was always the key.
Suradanna pushed herself to her feet, and briskly started to put her notes and paper and brushes away in the lacquer desk under the window. It was almost exactly like her old one, except that it practically shouted ‘expensive antique.’ She avoided looking out the window itself. One glance had been enough to show her that the view was completely unrecognizable.
The Dolphin Breathes Fire was scheduled to depart two weeks from the date of its arrival, carrying another shipment of zuiran extract back to High Alameida. Suradanna and the captain had arranged to meet and tie up all their business two days before the ship’s departure.
The captain arrived promptly at the door of Suradanna’s office, and then stopped on the threshold, her brow slightly furrowed.
“Close the door behind you, please,” Suradanna said. She’d scheduled the meeting for a time when not many people were around. Still, anybody might still happen to walk past the open door, and see the venerable Suradanna-zsi’s smooth and unlined face.
The captain closed the door, then turned back around to Suradanna, a wary question in her cool gray eyes.
Suradanna took a breath, and consciously refrained from folding her hands behind her back, or folding her arms in front, or in fact doing anything with her hands whatsoever instead of letting them sit confidently at her sides. “There’s a change to your manifest,” she said. “You’ll be taking another person on the Dolphin Breathes Fire when you leave.”
“You,” said the captain.
“Yes.” She’d expected surprise. The captain’s eyes did widen briefly, but after that her face shuttered. “Going back to High Alameida, so soon?” She picked up a guest-cup and considered it carefully, without drinking, before putting it back down again. “What about the zuiran shipwrecks, and the Salamadan Port office?”
“The Salamadan Port office,” said Suradanna, “can go sail down the Zan-dulan River for all I care. They’re making enough of a profit that they don’t care about the risks, or the lives lost in the ships wrecked by careless zuiran transport. They don’t care about warnings from an elder, either. Perhaps no one in Salamadan Port cares about their elders anymore. Fine. It’s not my concern anymore. I wash my hands of it.”
“Your meetings with the partners here went poorly,” the captain translated, “so you’re giving up.” Her eyes flicked to Suradanna, then back to the guest-cup. “That seems –” Suradanna waited for the word ‘childish.’ “Uncharacteristic,” the captain concluded.
“Don’t try to embarrass me,” snapped Suradanna. “I know perfectly well that I could do what I came to do, if I kept at it. I could claw my way back to being in charge of this office. The question is whether I should. And I believe the answer is that I should not.”
The captain was silent.
Suradanna’s fingers flexed, wanting to clench. She forced them straight. She tried to keep her words measured, to keep the authoritative tone she’d started out with. “It was a mistake to come back, like this. I lived out one life here, but that’s past. I can’t go back to it. Everything’s changed, and I didn’t change with it. It’s all too different, and – I know you knew how it would be. You tried to warn me, and I didn’t listen. I understand it now.”
Suradanna reached out, and slammed the guest-cup upside-down on the desk. Startled, the captain looked up. Suradanna met her eyes and held them, with all the force she could muster. “I can’t stay here. I don’t belong here anymore. I’m coming with you.”
“To where,” said the captain. Her tone was flat, as if she already knew there wasn’t going to be an answer.
Suradanna answered her anyway: “Anywhere.”
“Please,” said Suradanna, and heard her voice break on the word. She stepped forward, reached her free left hand up to the back of the captain’s neck to brace herself, surged up as far on her tiptoes as she could, and pressed her mouth desperately against the captain’s.
As close as she was, she could feel the captain’s heart give a quick thud of astonishment. The captain’s mouth was cool and tasted, unsurprisingly, like salt – like most people’s mouths, Suradanna vaguely remembered, did in Salamadan Port. But all thoughts of anybody else’s mouth receded as the captain’s arm came around her waist. Her grip tightened on the back of the captain’s neck, and she tried to lift herself even higher on her toes.
Then the captain’s hand rose to Suradanna’s shoulder, and she pushed her down and away. Suradanna’s heels came down with a thump. “Why?” she demanded. “You like me – you know you do –”
“Well, yes,” said the captain. She exhaled. “Most people do like you. You’re quite pretty, and charming when you choose to be –”
“– and you can’t think I wouldn’t be useful to have along. I know the secrets of every trading house between here and High Alameida!”
“Suradanna,” said the captain, “you’re afraid of the ocean.”
“So? That’s my problem, not yours. And I’ve bet my life on the Dolphin Breathes Fire before. I do trust that ship. I trust you.” Suradanna looked up at the captain, trying to put everything she felt into her face. The captain did think she was pretty, at least, and certainly looking pretty right now couldn’t hurt. She’d left her makeup off for just that reason. “What else in the world can I depend on, except you?”
“And that’s why you want to come with me?”
“Yes! I –”
“It’s not a very good reason.”
Suradanna stared at her. “How can you say that? You, of all people!” If anyone else would know what it was like, to know nothing else would ever stay the same besides yourself and just one other thing –
“I didn’t say it wasn’t a compelling reason, or didn’t feel important,” said the captain. “I just said it wasn’t very good.” She hesitated. “I think I mentioned to you before that there were two others that I knew of who drank from the stream.”
“Yes. They died, you said.”
“The first time – Joru. From Dal Amria. He went back home eventually. He lived sixty more years, as normally as he could. When his family and children were all gone, he decided he didn’t want to go on any longer than that either.”
Suradanna said nothing. She couldn’t say the story came as a particular surprise.
“The old man, the religious hermit, he didn’t make it quite as long. He thought he’d been blessed for a few years. Then he decided he’d gotten it wrong, and he’d been cursed instead. He told me that the last time I saw him. The next time I went to look in on him, I heard he walked out into the desert and didn’t come out again. Don’t take offense,” said the captain, “but to be honest, I didn’t think that you’d last much longer than either of them.”
“But,” said Suradanna, “you were wrong. I did last. I’m going to last.”
She took a step forward. The captain took a step back, and then, for safekeeping, another. She fixed her eyes and her attention on the detail of a lion in one of the embroidered tapestries by the door. “You seem to be doing very well so far. But –”
“And what makes you any different? Why should you be more worried about me giving up and walking into the desert, or whatever, than I’m worried about you? You’ve been around longer than I have, haven’t you? Isn’t that much more time to get tired of everything?”
“But you don’t worry about those things,” the captain pointed out, eyes well above Suradanna. “You’re attached to me because you think I’m some kind of constant. The point I’m trying to make is that people – no matter their circumstances – make very bad constants.”
“You can’t live that way! Maybe people do make bad constants, but you can’t be human and not attach yourself to something!”
“Some things,” said the captain, “only get harder the longer you last.”
“So that’s it?” Suradanna demanded. She lifted a sleeve and angrily rubbed at her eyes – she was going to have to draw all her careful old-age lines again after the captain left. She was going to be drawing old-age lines forever. “You have – what, your ship and the sea, and that’s fine? Just those, always the same, and nothing else?”
The captain did look back at her then. “You’ve been very brave,” she said, “to try to keep yourself going with things that change, things that can go away – to keep changing yourself. I never was that brave, and I’m afraid I’ve only gotten less so. I’m sorry, Suradanna.”
She took a step forward, and bent down. Suradanna, blinking through blurry vision, felt the brief pressure of the captain’s lips on top of her hair.
Then the captain stepped backwards again, and took another step backwards, and then she was gone.
It took a year for the news to come back from High Alameida that after delivering her latest cargo, the captain of the Dolphin Breathes Fire had decided to sever her professional relationship with House Marradon. Suradanna couldn’t say that she was surprised.
Some people, once they’d lived for a long time, might become stubborn and set in their ways. Some people might put blinders around their eyes, and refuse to look at any other possibilities that came their way.
It was fortunate, thought Suradanna, that she was aware of these dangers now, and thus could avoid them.
She hadn’t changed her mind. There was no role for her in House Marradon anymore. All the same, she forced herself to remain there for another year. She had various loose ends and responsibilities to wrap up, and she was hoping that when she finally walked away from the person she’d been for the first two hundred years of her life, she could do it with no regrets. It didn’t quite work; she did have regrets. She kept herself sane through that period by using all her free hours to write a scathing monograph about the risks of the zuiran trade when undertaken irresponsibly and all the poor choices being made by House Marradon’s current leadership.
Then she sent the monograph to her counsel, with instructions to publish it after her death, and let the Honored Suradanna-zsi of House Marradon disappear. By the time the monograph came out, she was working as a beer-girl in one of the fried food stalls around the harbor, and making bets with herself on how long it would take her to work her way up to the point where she could buy out the owner.
By the middle of that lifetime, she’d expanded the fried food stall into a reasonably-sized pub. By the end of it, the pub had gone bankrupt due to an outbreak of bad oysters, and Suradanna was near-penniless. It was her first major business failure. Cutting her losses, she painstakingly re-created herself as a young accountant just returned from abroad and took a job with House Artillan, a small but respectable trading firm that eschewed risks and focused on transporting stable commodities such as cloth and minerals. She worked steadily, and trundled up the ladder of success at a measured pace. After fifteen extremely stable years, she gave it up out of sheer tedium.
Her work at House Artillan was dull, but it did help her amass a reasonable large sum of money. She decided to use it to spend a few years experimenting with irresponsibility. She created Suradanna the socialite, the wealthy and spoiled daughter of tragically dead merchant parents, and proceeded to pursue every whim that came into her mind. She indulged in eccentric behavior and wild romances, though she drew the line at addicting herself to illegal substances – that was a bad habit, after all, that could have consequences for several lifetimes. She also made sure to develop a famous aversion to having her portrait drawn. There were enough people in Salamadan Port that looked more or less like Suradanna that a portrait probably wouldn’t have haunted her too badly, but it still seemed a risk worth avoiding.
Sober and respectable people were scandalized by her behavior, and several scathing satires appeared on the lecture-circuit about the generalized immorality of young people in this day and age. The general consensus was that Salamadan Port was descending into an age of degeneracy that would make its revered foremothers and forefathers turn over in their graves. Some people even suggested that the increasing number of merchant ships meeting accidents on the route to High Alameida reflected a judgment from the gods. Suradanna found this one of the funnier things she’d heard that decade. She was fairly sure that her parents’ only concern with her lifestyle would have been the admittedly reckless spending.
However, the trouble with pursuing every whim that came into her mind was that she’d gotten into the habit of maintaining a very well-ordered mind. Suradanna liked having goals. Aimlessness made her restless. After becoming tired of general debauchery, she developed detailed project plans for the romantic conquest of all the most famously attractive people in Salamadan Port, one or sometimes two at a time. She was not always successful at this, but she improved as she went. Soon she found herself becoming more interested in the political impact of her romantic affairs than she was in the romances themselves. After she started drawing up a strategic plan for utilizing one intimate dinner to sway several of the outcomes of the next general meeting of the trade union of Salamadan Port, she decided it was high time to end the career of Suradanna the socialite. It was one thing to scheme and manipulate the political sphere for the greater benefit of a trade house and all the persons affiliated with it; it was quite another to do so simply because she was bored.
Suradanna the socialite died a magnificently tragic death when she ignored all sensible advice and took her sailboat out for a jaunt in the middle of a terrible storm. She’d spent several unpleasant but necessary months beforehand developing a highly visible passion for boating in order to make this convincing. While she did not enjoy the hours she spent on the water, she felt strongly that this particular life deserved a suitably dramatic conclusion. Driftwood from the boat was found floating in the middle of the harbor the next day, and the fact that no body was ever discovered added an extra layer of romance to the story. Suradanna made sure to leave a carefully vague note behind that indicated that her unwise choices might, or might not, have been due to a great passion for a carefully unnamed individual with defining characteristics that could have applied to at least five or six of her past lovers. She was looking forward to reading transcripts of all of the inaccurate poems and even more inaccurate historical essays that were bound to appear on the lecture circuit.
Over the months in which she lay low to allow her hair to grow out its natural black, she considered investing the remains of her funds in some form of education that would allow her to try a new career path – apprenticing to a doctor or an architect, or joining the guild of natural research for an extended course of study in botanical phenomena. But she’d never been particularly studious, and the idea of immuring herself away to pore over books for years made her feel claustrophobic. Besides, the failure of that pub three lifetimes ago still nagged at her. It was the only time she’d ever definitively failed at anything – besides, of course, that last memorably embarrassing meeting with the captain of the Dolphin Breathes Fire, an encounter which she was determined to think about as little as possible.
She started again as a beer-girl at a food stall, just as she had fifty years ago. It took her ten years to buy out the hostel in which the food stall was located and start making improvements. Her clientele were mostly traveling merchants and well-to-do sailors with good reputations; she spent most of the time that she wasn’t at the books in the dining room of the establishment, listening to the bits of gossip that her patrons let drop. She told herself that she was only planning to use the information that she overheard to improve the Salt Anchor’s service and appeal.
She was eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation between two merchants about the bad harvest in Seltira – some merchant house could make a killing on Quipan rice this winter if they acted fast to buy up stock now, not that there was any reason for this to be relevant to Suradanna at the moment – when a familiar voice across the room suddenly swung her whole attention around like a flipped compass-needle.
“You do! Well, then, you’ll be pleased to know it’s one of our best-selling wines here.” This was He Quier, the newest waitress, an emigrant from Seltira. She was young and charming, if a little obvious with her flattery. Suradanna liked He Quier, and thought she was likely to make a success of herself, but it wasn’t He Quier’s voice that had caught her attention. “You must be terribly brave, to make that long voyage.”
“My ship’s one of a hundred that carries Dhalgran reds. ‘Terribly brave’ seems an overstatement.” It was the light, deflective tone that Suradanna recognized, even more than the voice. Suradanna had spent enough time trying to flatter the captain that she ought to know it.
He Quier laughed. “Perhaps every one of you is terribly brave, then. Or perhaps it’s me that’s a coward. I was frightened to death on my trip over here from Seltira – you’re not Seltiran, are you?”
“Not in the least.”
“Oh – I thought you might be, at least a little,” said He Quier, “with those lovely light eyes, you know. You don’t see many of them here in Salamadan Port.”
“It’s been my experience that you see a little bit of everything in Salamadan Port,” said the captain. She looked – now that Suradanna could see her face – rather amused. “I never could keep up with this place. But you were going to recommend me a wine?”
“Why, certainly. If you’ve already tried the Paper Hills red, then perhaps –”
“I’d recommend the Blue Koi,” said Suradanna, “for your tastes.” She seated herself across from the captain and placed a tray, with a bottle and two glasses, in the middle of the table.
She smiled at He Quier, who was looking between the two of them with undisguised interest. “He Quier, would you mind checking over the bar’s stock for me? Last I heard we were running low on citrus oil, and probably a few other things as well.”
“Of course, Suradanna-zsi,” said He Quier, though she looked a little wistful. Suradanna couldn’t blame her. It would have been reasonable for her to assume, from what Suradanna had seen of their interaction, that the captain might at least have given her a reasonably-sized tip. Too bad for He Quier; there were plenty of other successful individuals to flirt with in the bar. Suradanna didn’t watch her go.
Neither, she noted, with a small grain of satisfaction, did the captain. The light gray eyes that He Quier had remarked on were fixed squarely on Suradanna. Suradanna smiled back at her, perfectly poised – at least on the surface. It was better to confront the situation directly. The element of surprise gave her an advantage, which she rather felt she needed.
She seemed to have lost the knack of reading the captain’s face over the past several decades. All she could tell was that the glimmer of relaxed amusement she’d seen while the captain was talking to He Quier – an expression that she remembered, vividly, from their night drinking together on the Dolphin Breathes Fire – had vanished once again.
“Can I pour you a glass of wine?” said Suradanna.
As soon as she spoke, the captain’s eyes shifted away to focus on an elegant resin table a few feet away. “Nice place,” she said. “If I’d known you owned it, I wouldn’t have come.”
As an attack, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. “I’m rather surprised to see you in Salamadan Port at all,” said Suradanna, coolly. “I would have thought you’d prefer to avoid the chance of meeting me altogether.” She poured the wine, though the captain hadn’t asked for it, and handed her the glass.
The captain’s fingers closed around the stem of the glass, without touching Suradanna’s. “There’s a great demand for business here. It’s difficult to avoid.”
“I’m not surprised. The merchant houses are desperate for reliable transport these days. They say one in four ships in and out of Salamadan Port don’t make it to their destination.”
“Rumors.” The captain frowned into her wine. “The number’s exaggerated.”
From the tallies Suradanna had been quietly keeping of the sailors who came and went from her hostel, she did not think that the number was exaggerated. She wondered a little at the captain’s dismissive tone. She did not believe in all the rumors either – strange oversized sea-plants that sucked sailors right down under the waves, once-safe channels that had sprouted teeth to rend the bottoms of unwary ships; it sounded like nonsense to her, excuses for cargo carriers to raise their prices. Nonetheless, if there was a trend in the risk to overseas shipments, there had to be a reason for it, and one would think a captain would be curious about it. She herself was certainly curious about it, and she was not even in the trading business – at least, not currently. Still, she’d quietly donated a certain amount of money to the guild of natural research, to support their studies. “You must have noticed that the harbor’s emptier than it was.”
“Well, the fire-ships,” said the captain, and, added, with a sudden unexpected level of vehemence, “Thank every little god that the harbor-master’s got enough sense not to let those iron monstrosities berth next to a real vessel.”
“Mm,” said Suradanna, neutrally. Rumor indicated that the harbor-master might be changing his mind about that any day now. Gossip said that a not insignificant amount of merchant-house money had gone into influencing that decision. Gossip also had not forgotten about the enormous fire-ship explosion in Dhalmaren Port, which had sunk two neighboring ships and set four more aflame. Many ship-owners and captains with wooden vessels would still choose to anchor further out along the river and row their goods back and forth rather than risk spending too long next to a fire-ship. Still, the great Houses were agreed that metal ships were likely to be a godsend in the long run. The posthumous publication of Suradanna’s monograph on the reckless practices adopted by House Marradon had kicked off a spate of similar investigations. The trade council, pressured, had cracked down hard on the practice on transporting zuiran in wooden ships, but you could transport barrels and barrels of zuiran extract in a fire-ship, and there wasn’t the faintest risk that it would go green.
“Well,” Suradanna went on, blandly, “you seem to be doing well.” The captain did look well – or at least, she looked as she always did, though perhaps a little more tired than Suradanna was used to seeing her. Suradanna knew that she herself looked well, too. It was early enough in her current career that she still could afford to look young, though not too young. She wore vests dowdy and respectable enough that the wild Suradanna of her last life would have scorned them, but the material was good, the fit well-tailored, and the bright red sash of the food-purveyor’s guild suited her well. She had nothing to be embarrassed of. She was surviving; more than that, she was thriving.
“I heard about your last death,” said the captain, and Suradanna’s self-satisfied line of thought shuddered to a halt. “I was almost certain it was you. Suradanna’s not a common name these days.”
“It’s coming back into fashion, actually,” said Suradanna – the first thing she could think of to say.
She had not thought yet thought consciously about the possibility of the captain hearing of her past life’s exploits. She waited for a rush of embarrassment, and was first surprised, then horrified to find that there was none. It was as if a part of her had always expected the captain to know about everything she was doing, or even wanted her to know; as if an extremely shameful and illogical bit of her mind had enjoyed the notion that the captain’s poise might be disturbed if she heard about the wild affairs of glamorous, seductive Suradanna. This was not only stupid – it was patently obvious that the captain would simply find the glamorous, seductive Suradanna wildly immature – but distressing. She’d really thought, all this time, that she’d been acting entirely to please herself.
But then, she’d also thought that if she happened to see the captain again, she would simply ignore her with dignity and wait to be approached. And look how that had turned out.
“Really, you heard about my death all the way in High Alameida?” she said, as lightly as she could. “I thought I was only locally notorious.”
The captain looked down at her wine, as if surprised to find it there, and took a sip. “Gossip travels.”
Suradanna found her suspicion was piqued. Perhaps gossip did travel – if, perhaps, a person happened to be listening for interesting news coming in and out of Salamadan Port – but that was wishful thinking, and she needed to have done with it.
A new, less pleasant suspicion struck her. “Did you think perhaps I really had died, that time? Is that why you’re back here?” She did her best to keep her arms still, and her face calm, as if the answer didn’t matter to her at all.
The captain paused for just long enough that Suradanna felt certain this was the case. “It didn’t seem particularly like you –”
“Drowning myself in the ocean? No,” said Suradanna, trying, and failing, to keep her voice from sarcasm. “It’s not particularly like me.”
“– but, to be honest, I wasn’t sure. After all this time –”
“The hermit,” said Suradanna, “and the young man from Dal Amria. Yes, I know, I’ve heard it before. I did tell you I was going to last. I wonder why you have so much trouble believing me? You must have been very disappointed –”
The captain’s eyes jerked up.
Suradanna went on, “If you were hoping to be able to come back to a port that you’d been avoiding for years, only to find you’ve got to go on avoiding it after all – quite an inconvenience, isn’t it?”
“Do you really believe that,” said the captain, wonderingly, “or are you trying to make me feel guilty? It’s a cheap trick, Suradanna, if so. Of course I’m glad to find you’re not dead. You must know that.”
“Are you? I think, if I did die –” The words were pouring out of Suradanna now without forming in her head for consideration first, but as she spoke, she knew that she believed every one. “– if I did die, you would be sad, of course, but you’d be relieved, as well. You could go back to doing as you pleased – not that you don’t already, of course, do exactly what you please – but whatever little nagging worry you’ve got in your head, listening for the name Suradanna and wondering if I’m still out there somewhere after all, it would be done and over with. You wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Being alone is very uncomplicated, isn’t it?”
The captain put down her glass. It was still mostly full; the wine sloshed as it hit the table. “I’m going to leave now,” she said.
“Wait.” Suradanna’s hands clenched in her lap. She stilled them, consciously. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to – that’s not what I meant to say.”
The captain was standing now, with her hands on the table. She looked at Suradanna, and waited, saying nothing.
Suradanna took a breath, and pulled her poise back around her, as much as she possibly could. She was better at controlling her expressions now than she had been even fifty years ago, though her sixteen-year-old face still betrayed her on occasion. “What I wanted to say is that – I wanted to tell you that I wish you wouldn’t avoid Salamadan Port on my account. I would hate to think you were losing out on profit or opportunities, for fear of enduring another awkward scene. There’s no reason we need to have anything to do with each other going forward.”
“That’s very generous of you,” said the captain, slowly.
“But,” said the captain, “when the honored Suradanna-zsi of House Marradon makes an unexpectedly generous offer, one has to wonder what she hopes to gain from it.” If said with more nuance, it would have been a remarkably courteous insult. In the captain’s flat tone, it was simply a jab, the bluntest that the captain had ever hit her with. In an awful kind of way, Suradanna found it satisfying. She had never before shaken the captain enough to make her lose her temper. In accusing Suradanna of selfishness and duplicity, the captain had lost her own moral high ground. They were, at least, on the same playing field now.
That would have to be closure enough.
She looked up at the captain, keeping her face composed. “The honored Suradanna-zsi of House Marradon is long dead, captain.”
“Of course,” said the captain, savagely polite again. “Suradanna the phoenix.”
“It’s true, I have a motive,” said Suradanna. “I don’t want you hanging over my head, any more than you want me hanging over yours. If you’re staying away on account of me – that’s still a weight, and it’s one I don’t need. Captain, I’m offering a fair contract. If you come here, I won’t seek you out. If I see you in the street, I’ll pretend I didn’t see anything. And you’ll easily be able to avoid me –”
“Oh?” The captain lifted one hand from the table and made a gesture that encompassed the whole of Suradanna’s hostel, with its modern resin tables and imported glassware and small neat array of sailor’s shrines in the corner. The implication was clear: Suradanna might be anywhere, at any time, being anyone and doing anything.
“Yes,” said Suradanna, firmly. “I’m going back into trade.” The decision had come to her just now, but she felt sure as she said it that it was right. Unpredictable losses at sea kept the value of commodities bobbing up and down like a cork in the river. The game was more exciting now than it had ever been. It had been driving her wild with frustration for years, to sit here with invaluable information constantly coming and going under her nose, and barely being able to use it for anything. “I’m going to found my own merchant house – so give me ten years or so, and then, one way or another, you’ll be able to find me at House Suradan. By which I mean,” she amended, “you’ll be able to avoid me, as I said. I think that’s more than fair.”
The captain was silent for a long while, her face unreadable again. “I’ll consider it,” she said, at last.
“Fine,” said Suradanna. “Then I won’t think about it anymore. Good luck to you, captain. Let’s not meet again.”
The captain gave her a proper salute, respect between equals, which Suradanna had not seen for a hundred years now. Then she picked up her bag, and she left – just another figure with the wide-legged walk of a lifelong sailor, a little taller and a little more blue-skinned than most people in Salamadan Port, but otherwise just like anybody else.
Suradanna watched her go. She allowed herself that much, since it was the last time.
She really was glad, she decided. She was tired of making all her choices with one eye on the captain of the Dolphin Breathes Fire. Perhaps the captain had indeed been right, all those years ago. She didn’t need an anchor, to tie herself down in stagnant waters. It was time and past time to cut herself free.
It wasn’t that House Suradan was in decline. All of Salamadan Port was in decline. House Suradan was declining no more than anybody else, and less than most.
Suradanna made sure to remind herself of these facts as Zuradankiher – He Quier’s great-great-granddaughter, or was it great-great-great? – read off the dismal letter.
“It’s been six months, and we’ve received no word from either the Dragon Fishes the Waves nor the Whale Sprays Gold. Hallverann in Dhalmaren Port reports that we must consider them both lost.”
Suradanna drummed her fingers on the table. “I always thought the Whale Sprays Gold was an astonishingly unlucky name. What kind of an idiot tempts the gods by boasting like that?”
Zuradankiher frowned. “If that’s the case, then why did you employ the Whale Sprays Gold to begin with?”
Suradanna shrugged. “Sometimes gambling on an idiot is worth the risk.” The truth, of course, was that there were precious few ships in and out of Salamadan Port now to gamble on at all. Metal fire-ships were safer by far than wooden ships, but they were still at risk of getting caught by the overgrown sea-plants that tangled up shallow passages, or the beasts that lurked in the depths, growing larger the longer they lived in the zuiran-saturated seas. And then, of course, there was still always the possibility that a fire-ship under pressure might explode.
The seas were dangerous everywhere these days, but everyone knew that it was worst around Salamadan Port.
Suradanna sighed, and rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. High, heavy hairstyles were back in fashion. She had not missed them. Everything people wore these days seemed consciously designed to mimic what people had worn two hundred years ago, as if it were Salamadan Port’s glory days all over again. This time, however, they were cheaper, more impractical, and fell apart more quickly. “Is there any news from our overland caravans?”
“Alarran reached the Dhal border, but the civil war is worsening and they wouldn’t let him through. He sent word back with Selu that he would try to slip through by a different route. Most of the spider-silk remains in commercial condition, but the bales that have been the most exposed are starting to show some signs of rot. Alarran says he’s writing off the rotting bales as a loss in order to protect the rest of the cargo, and still has hopes of a good profit, if he can get through. Shemilanhier is still stuck in Quipa waiting for her permit to arrive before she and her team can continue on to High Alameida – or at least she was as of last month, when this letter is dated. The permit may have arrived by now. She sent an account of how much of her stock she’d had to donate towards expediting the process.”
This was about what Suradanna had expected. “All right. Leave Shemilanhier’s tally on my desk and I’ll look at it tomorrow. Thank you, Zuradankiher-li.”
Zuradankiher gave a bow and exited. She did not look very much like He Quier; the curl of her hair had a hint of Seltiran volume, but her dark eyes and red-brown skin were all Lalidani. Still, there was something about the broad curve of her smile that reminded Suradanna frequently of Zuradankiher’s great-great-grandmother – and her great-grandmother and grandmother after that, though Suradanna had known some of the Quier women much better than others. As the years went on, Suradanna found herself increasingly inclined to staff House Suradan with faces as familiar as she could find. It made for some challenges in scheduling her demises and resurrections, but Suradanna had never been one to shrink from a challenge.
Not even the challenges that now faced Salamadan Port.
She sat at her desk for a moment longer before closing her ledger with a decisive motion. Brooding was another habit that she didn’t intend to start now.
The main office of Suradan House sat at the edge of the financial district. Over the centuries since Suradanna had belonged to House Marradon, the practice of providing all members of a House with room and board inside the House offices had fallen out of favor. Suradanna appreciated the shift. It was much easier to produce the occasional granddaughter or great-niece out of nowhere when you didn’t have all of your colleagues and employees living in your pocket.
As largest shareholder, Suradanna did have certain privileges that the other members of Suradan House did not. She kept a personal room above her office, and almost all of her entertaining for business and social functions happened within the House space. Still, when she could, she preferred to spend time in her small private apartment, about fifteen minutes away from Suradan House. She knew that the other members of her business circle considered her eccentric for choosing to walk back and forth on a daily basis, rather than using her private sedan chair, but at her age, she felt, a little controlled eccentricity could do no harm. The walk was important to her. She didn’t want to feel like she was sealing herself away inside House Suradan like a sand-crab inside its gritty palace. She’d learned her lesson from those sixty years she spent in High Alameida, and the dissonance she felt after. She knew the difference, now, between changes you changed with, and changes you missed.
There was no doubt that the city was changing. Near the financial district, the streets seemed as busy as ever. Lines were long at the marketplace, and prices high. The two shrines between the office and her apartment were mobbed. But the luxury stores all stood empty, and several pieces of property that would have been snapped up for a tidy sum fifty years ago stood empty and abandoned. The bustle that she saw had a hectic air to it.
Suradanna had always known a ship could sink. She’d never thought to associate that sick feeling of unsteadiness with a city.
Still, she reminded herself, Salamadan Port wasn’t sunk yet. The Dhals could not continue fighting each other forever. Only one of the fire-ships built with the latest fuel processing advancements had exploded to date, and technology continued to improve. The guild of natural research claimed that they were seeing remarkable success with their experiments in developing more potent anti-zuiran agents.
And if land and sea continued to prove insurmountable, then there was always the air to consider.
She was entertaining herself by imagining a fleet of trade-balloons sailing serenely over Dhal army blockades to land safely on the other side of the fighting in Dhalmaren Port when she turned the corner of her street, and saw the captain of the Dolphin Breathes Fire leaning against the outer wall by the front gate of her apartment.
“I’ve had a devil of a time walking here,” said the captain. “You might let me in.”
The captain looked different. That was the second shock. Instead of swinging loose around her jawbones, her hair was clipped back in some kind of practical knot which emphasized the harsh planes of her nose and jaw and made her face look thinner – or perhaps she really was thinner. For the first time that Suradanna could remember noticing, her style of dress had changed. She wore a hat, which she had never done, and a heavy leather coat, likewise, and instead of her loose sailor’s pants she wore tight trousers tucked into flat boots. The boots themselves were low quality, covered with mud, and worn nearly through.
“You walked here?” said Suradanna. “From where?”
The captain shrugged. “It gave me time to think.”
Now that she was looking properly, Suradanna wasn’t sure that the captain had always had that heavy scar on her neck. But of course it had been a long, long time since she’d seen her. She might easily be misremembering.
Suradanna said, “Where’s the Dolphin Breathes Fire?”
The captain looked directly at her, expressionless. She didn’t have to say anything; before she’d asked the question, Suradanna had known what the answer had to be.
Still – knowing was one thing, and believing was another. The seas weren’t safe for wooden ships anymore, had not been safe for twenty years at least, but the Dolphin Breathes Fire didn’t belong in the same category as other ships. She was a constant. “She didn’t – oh, she didn’t go green. Not the Dolphin!”
“Swelled, sprouted, and cracked up like a smashed gourd,” said the captain. “She’s at the bottom of the sea now.”
It had been a long time since Suradanna had felt herself at such a loss for words. All she could think of was the crash of the Phoenix With Seaweed Feathers as the deck broke up under her feet, the sound of the waves in her ears.
“I’m sorry,” she said, finally.
The words sounded distant, far away and inadequate, and the captain didn’t bother acknowledging them. She looked away from Suradanna, her gaze tracking vaguely over the buildings across the street. “I’ve been walking longer than I can think,” she said. “Are you going to let me in?”
Suradanna’s apartment was on the third and highest floor of the building, with balconies that stretched inwards, over the central garden, and broad windows that looked out on the street and let in the sun. Most people, if allowed up there, took a moment or two to admire the view. The captain made straight for the divan in Suradanna’s anteroom and lowered herself down onto it.
Suradanna looked down at her a moment, and then turned and went to the kitchen to pour two glasses of water from the filtered barrel that was delivered to the apartment once a week. When she walked back into the room, she was unsurprised to find that the captain was fast asleep.
When the captain’s face was slack and still, it was easy to see how young she must have been when she drank from the stream. It felt almost like a trespass to see her that way without permission. Suradanna put down one of the glasses of water on the table in front of her and left the room again.
It was a good six or seven hours later, well into the night, when Suradanna – leaning on the balcony over the garden, watching the durra-birds come and go from the nectar feeders in the branches – heard footsteps come up behind her.
Either it was the captain, or it was the woman who came to clean for her, and she would have called out. “How long do you think it would have taken,” Suradanna said, without turning around, “for someone else to figure out that it would be possible to make the zuiran run from Salamadan Port to High Alameida? If it hadn’t been me?”
A short pause. “No way of knowing.”
“But someone would have done it eventually. I know that I did it first –”
“We did it, really,” said the captain. “You, me, and the Dolphin Breathes Fire. But you’re right, of course. Most likely someone else would have done it sooner or later.”
“Still, I can’t imagine you don’t hate me for it a little.”
She could almost feel the captain’s eyes on the back of her neck. The captain said, “You don’t hate yourself for it?”
Oddly, it didn’t sound like an accusation. The captain sounded like she really wanted to know.
Suradanna said, “No.”
She wanted to turn around and see the captain’s face, but she forced herself to keep looking out at the garden. If she turned to look, her words, her tone would change in response to what she saw there; she wouldn’t be able to help it. And the captain deserved a more honest answer than that. “No, I don’t hate myself for it. That seems to me like it would be an awful waste of time. I’m sure everyone changes the world a bit, don’t they? The only difference is that you and I are around to see it happen. I’d rather change with it than sit around brooding on what can’t be changed at all.” She hesitated, her hands curling around the balcony rim. “I’m sorry – I’m sorry, this must sound so tactless. I am sorry about the Dolphin. I don’t disclaim responsibility. You can hate me as much as you like, of course.”
To her surprise, she heard the captain laugh.
Suradanna turned around. She kept her face still, but her cheeks felt hot – after all these years, she still had to fight down that same petulant teenaged impulse to stiffen when somebody laughed at her.
The captain was still laughing a little, low and helpless, as if she couldn’t stop. It wasn’t much like confident bark that Suradanna remembered from the docks of Salamadan Port all those years ago. “You don’t change as much as you think, do you? Suradanna the phoenix – always flying somewhere, and something’s usually catching fire after you. It makes for quite a show, anyway.” She took a breath, let the last of her laughter go. “It is good to see you, Suradanna.”
“Oh,” said Suradanna. To her horror, she felt herself fighting down a flush. She coughed, and reached back to the balcony for her glass of water, which at least gave her something to do with her hands. “Well. Look. You needn’t be embarrassed – I wouldn’t have thought you’d come to me if you had any other choice. Did the Dolphin sinking leave you with debts? Do you need help? Funds?”
“Suradanna,” said the captain, “that’s not why I’m here.”
“Then why are you here?”
The captain looked at her, with a crooked self-mocking smile — looked down at her hands – and then, with some apparent effort, fixed her light gray eyes back on Suradanna. “My ship sank,” she said. “I had to think hard about whether there was something that might matter to me now it’s gone. It seemed like something might, so I came here. But there’s no reason that has to matter to you. I’ve had a rest, and a guest-cup. You’ve been kind to give me that much.”
Suradanna’s heart seemed to be stopped somewhere in her throat. “You said people make bad constants,” she said, faintly.
“So do ships,” said the captain. “Apparently.”
Suradanna put the cup of water back down on the balcony-ledge without drinking from it. “And to think you accused me of being selfish.” Despite herself, her hands were fisting at her sides. She took a step closer to the captain. “I needed you for years. And you had your ship, so you didn’t need me, and now –”
“You don’t need me,” said the captain. Her voice was steady enough, but Suradanna could hear the accent in it, and the hesitation in the breaths between her sentences. “I don’t know that you ever did. You could send me off now, and keep on doing perfectly well.”
This was the most ridiculous suggestion Suradanna had ever heard. She reached out and grabbed for the captain’s hands, to make it clear how ridiculous she thought it was. The callouses the captain had developed over centuries of sailing had nowhere near faded, though it had surely been months since –
The realization hit her all over again. “I don’t even know what to call you now!”
“You might try my name,” said the woman who had once been the captain of the Dolphin Breathes Fire, and told her.
Rebecca Fraimow is a digital archivist by day, a rogue video preservation expert by night, and a writer in whatever time she manages to get in around the edges. Her work has most recently appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Diabolical Plots.