The rulers of tiny, impoverished Swansgaard have twelve daughters and one son. While the prince’s future is assured, his twelve sisters must find their own fortunes.
Disguising herself as Clarence, a sailor, Princess Clarice intends to work her way to the New World. When the crew rebels, Clarice/Clarence, an expert with rapier and dagger, sides with the handsome navigator, Dominick, and kills the cruel captain.
Dominick leads the now-outlawed crew in search of treasure in the secret pirate haven known as The House of Four Winds. They encounter the sorceress Shamal, who claims Dominick for her own—but Clarice has fallen hard for Dominick and won’t give him up without a fight.
Full of swashbuckling adventure, buoyant magic, and irrepressible charm, The House of the Four Winds is a lighthearted fantasy romp co-authored by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. The book is available August 5th from Tor Books, but you can read an excerpt below now!
Farewell to Swansgaarde
The early-morning sunlight shone through the French doors that led out to the balcony of Princess Clarice’s tower bedroom. From the balcony was the sweeping vista of the Borogny
Mountains, spreading their pristine robes for admiration, their high peaks crowned in clouds and their slopes robed in snow year-round. They were the first thing Princess Clarice saw each morning as the sun rose over the Swanscrown.
I shall miss this. The thought came before Clarice quite realized she was awake.
There was no point now in trying to convince herself she was asleep. Throwing back the covers, she shrugged into her wrapper, tucked her feet into her slippers, and padded over to the French doors. Taking a deep anticipatory breath, she flung them open and stepped out onto the balcony. As always, the dawn chill made her catch her breath, but she had done this every morning for as long as she could remember. Today, she would do it for the last time. In the distance, she could hear the faint music of the bells at the university calling the students to their morning lectures. Any other day, Clarice would have watched the valley awaken until she was chilled clear through. But today was a day unlike any other in all her previous eighteen years, and she was in a hurry to meet it.
Breakfast was normally a noisy family affair, but today Clarice saw only three places set at the long oak table. Duke Rupert was seated in his usual place at the head of the table, but the Duchess was seated to his right, instead of at the far end, and a place was set for Clarice on his left.
“Come in, darling,” Yetive said encouragingly.
“Where is everyone?” Clarice asked curiously, coming in and taking her seat.
“The ballroom,” her father answered, taking a slice of toast from the toast rack and buttering it. “Today is your birthday, after all. Had you forgotten?”
“Of course not!” Family tradition was that the birthday child had breakfast alone with Mama and Papa. Even Dantan had had his special day, though then, on his first birthday, he had been much too young to appreciate it.
And Clarice would not be here for his next one.
“I was just so…” She stopped. She couldn’t say exactly how she felt about leaving Swansgaarde. Preoccupied, absolutely. Nervous? Perhaps. Curious? Daring?
“Excited?” Mama asked.
Clarice smiled gratefully. “Yes. That. I can’t wait to begin, but at the same time, it feels almost disloyal to be so happy.”
“I shall call for the royal executioner at once,” Papa said, helping himself to eggs and sausage from the silver chafing dishes on the table. The Duke had a particularly dry sense of humor and generally cloaked his stronger feelings in it.
“Don’t you remember, dear?” Mama replied with a little smile. “Your great-grandfather pensioned the last one off and we haven’t had one since.”
“Drat,” Papa said mildly. “What’s the use of being a duke if you can’t order anyone beheaded?”
“Oh,” Mama said with a saucy wink, “you may order it as much as you like.…”
Clarice laughed, as she was meant to, at her parents’ gentle teasing. Duke Rupert was the mildest of men, preferring a day of fishing on the banks of the Traza to a day of making ducal pronouncements. Clarice knew that other countries were ruled very differently—why, far-off Lochrin, which she had studied in her geography class, had a parliament and a prime minister and hundreds of people who did nothing all day but help Queen Gloriana rule her vast empire.
“So,” Papa said. Breakfast was finished and the footmen had come in to clear away the dishes. “Today, Daughter, is your eighteenth birthday. Have you decided where you will go and what you will do?” He steepled his fingers. “Given your chosen ‘trade,’ I would become a very exclusive instructor, if I were you. I think you would excel at it.”
Clarice refrained from making a face. Granted, she probably would make a good instructor—and eventually that might be what she would do. But not before she had a chance to see more of the world!
“I shall seek adventure, of course,” Clarice said with a laugh. “Think how disappointed Damaris would be if I said anything else! But the best adventures come when one is not looking for them, so I have it in mind to see something of the world. Besides, the best instructors all have continentwide reputations, and I’m not going to get enough pupils to earn my living without one. I believe even traveling all the way to Lochrin itself will be far less costly than staying quietly in Swansgaarde.” And perhaps adventure will find me. “It isn’t as if I can’t do without servants, after all.”
This, too, was true. From the time they were fourteen, the princesses were required to spend a month of each year waiting on their sisters, and at sixteen, to spend three months living in the Royal Hunting Lodge without a single servant. It was one thing to be able to shoot a goose—any noble worth his salt could do that. But could he gut and skin it, then cook and serve it?
Duke Rupert’s daughters could. And polish a pair of boots, make up a bed, or muck out a stable. It was excellent training, Duke Rupert always said, in case one had to go incognito among someone else’s servants—or flee into the wilderness.
Clarice was unsurprised to see her mother nod. “An excellent choice,” Yetive said.
“I thought that was what you would decide,” the Duke added approvingly—but then, the Duke so trusted his wife’s judgment that he was inclined to approve anything she endorsed. “I have made arrangements with my banker in Heimlichstadt for the necessary funds, so remember to see him before you go.” While each of them would be expected to earn her own living, each princess would leave Swansgaarde with everything she needed to take up her chosen trade, and enough money to support her for perhaps a year. While it might seem like a great deal of outlay—especially since the entire purpose of this plan was to not bankrupt Swansgaarde—even the whole cost of sending twelve princesses forth to seek their fortunes was less than the cost of twelve royal dowries and twelve royal weddings.
The Duke got to his feet; Clarice and the Duchess stood as well. “And I wish you luck, love, and adventure, my darling.” He hugged her tightly.
“Adventure most of all,” her mother said, putting her arms around Clarice in turn. “And so you don’t forget us on all your adventures…” The Duchess cocked an eyebrow at her husband.
The Duke reached into his pocket and drew out a small blue box. “What’s a birthday without presents?”
Clarice opened the box. Inside, on a bed of royal-blue velvet, lay a golden brooch, perhaps as long as her thumb. Upon it, in silver and blue enamel over gold, were the swans and towers of Swansgaarde. As a proper princess, Clarice had had lessons on heraldry, and she could blazon the device as easily as the chief herald: argent and azure, shield quartered per chevron; center base, a swan swimming, argent; to dexter chief, a tower, argent; to dexter sinister, a mountain peak, argent. The arms were bordered by a double ring of diamonds alternating with pearls, and the back of the brooch was as ornate as the front, its smooth gold etched with an intricate drawing of Castle Swansgaarde. Engraved beneath was the family motto: Je me promène là où je vais. The first Prince of Swansgaarde had come from Wauloisene, and Waulois was still the official court language. “I wander where I will.” Perhaps it is a good omen.
“Of course it is bespelled,” Mama said. “So long as you have it, you will always be able to find your way back to Swansgaarde.”
“I shall wear it always—and think of all of you,” Clarice said proudly.
The Temese docks were a noisy, bustling place, even at dawn. Dockers and wharf rats were everywhere, carrying loads almost larger than they were. The air was noisy with whistles and shouts, and ripe with smells—some exotic, some merely foul. At this hour, mist still skirled over the surface of the river, like steam in a cook pot, adding a dreamlike aspect that would disappear as soon as the sun rose higher.
Clarice had been surprised to discover the capital of the Lochrin-Albion Empire was not a coastal city, and that Lochrin was many miles inland. The fountainhead of its vast maritime empire was the river Temese, which flowed through the city itself—or perhaps it was more accurate to say that the sprawling city bordered the Temese. It was the largest city she had yet seen in the half year since she’d left home.
Clarice had been in Albion for a sennight. In that time she had entirely ignored the shops and playhouses, and even the parks and menageries. The docks held her interest, with their bustle of ships coming up the river or setting off down it. She always came to watch the docks at dawn because ships sailed on the ebbing—morning—tide, when the flow of the Temese ran unimpeded toward the sea. Now, one of the ships had cast off, drifting leisurely into midchannel with the aid of a oar-driven towboat. As Clarice watched, someone in the towboat tossed the towrope loose. As the sturdy craft backed nimbly out of the way, the trailing rope was drawn up to the deck of the ship and its sailors hoisted narrow, triangular sails, which quickly caught the morning wind. The ship began moving with slow grandeur down the river.
I want to go wherever she is going, Clarice decided firmly. Somewhere far from any of the lands I know.
Lochrin-Albion was a wealthy and far-flung empire. And the cornerstone of that power was thaumaturgy.
Magery was said to have come from Ammon, the son of King Solomon, who had first learned, and then taught, the ways of magic to his people. But when the Age of Exploration dawned, the Cisleithanian and Albionnaise and Wauloisene and Rossiyskayan ships had discovered vast kingdoms that had never heard of King Ammon—Khemetia and Khitai and the lands of Ifrane. From theurgy, magery had become thaumaturgy, a science just like geomancy or astromancy. It had taken centuries and been neither simple nor bloodless—as Clarice knew full well from her lessons in both history and thaumaturgy. But the realization that magic was but one of the natural sciences and not a mysterious indication of divine favor—as Dr. Albertus Karlavaegen was so fond of saying—had laid the foundation of the modern world in which she lived. Thaumaturgy guarded the great empires, armored their soldiers, empowered their physicians, and made travel across the great oceans a commonplace thing.
Thaumaturgical power was the product both of innate gift and long training. It was no more mysterious than skill with a blade, which was also the product of both gift and training, but its products were primarily the purview of the Crown (of whatever land) and the wealthy. Thaumaturgy could heal a wound, cure disease, suspend decay—so that bread or flowers would remain fresh and pristine for months or even decades—and do many other wonderful and miraculous things.
It didn’t take any particular magical ability to see magic, Clarice knew, because she certainly didn’t have any aptitude for spellcraft. It was more a case of learning to see. Dr. Karlavaegen had taught languages and magic to the royal family of Swansgaarde for the past three dukes, and he had told his young charges that most people saw what they expected to see. He intended, so he said, to teach them to see what was really there instead.
Now Clarice watched closely as a lady in satin and velvet stepped from her carriage to ascend the gangplank of one of the merchant ships. The lady’s trunks were being hoisted onto the deck in a net, and the lady was accompanied by a small parade of servants: maid, footman, bodyguard. The lady wore the highest of high fashion, with voluminous ground-sweeping skirts over an enormous hoop petticoat—but even through the dockside was far from clean, her skirts remained pristine. And no wonder: the yards of lilac silk had been bespelled—probably on the loom—to repel dirt and stains. It was easy to tell if you knew what you were looking for: the use of thaumaturgy gave its objects a kind of hyperreality, so that even at several yards’ distance, Clarice could make out every pleat and seam of the garment, and every separate hair of the fur-lined capelet the lady wore over it. Even the rings on her fingers were sharp and distinct, probably bespelled with a Finding Charm so that if they were misplaced—or stolen—they could easily be traced. Such wonders came at a high price, when they could be purchased at all on the open market. Clearly the lady in lilac was a wealthy woman indeed. Wealthy—or well connected.
The lady and her entourage vanished in the direction of the stern of the ship—only the best passenger accommodation would do, clearly—and Clarice’s attention was claimed by movement farther along the dock. Another ship was departing. She stepped forward, to the very edge of the quay, hoping to watch the departing vessel as it began its journey.
“Hi! You! Laddie!” An urgent shout caused Clarice to spring backward just in time to escape being flattened by a net full of crates being swung to shore. The man who had shouted at her glared. Then his eyes flicked to the sword belted at her hip and he contented himself with warning her to watch her head.
He would have been demanding to know where my brother or my husband was had I been wearing a dress, Clarice thought smugly to herself.
No one would have recognized the slender, blond-haired, young man standing on the docks as Princess Clarice of Swansgaarde. She had a man’s height, and all that had been needed to transform the princess into Mr. Clarence Swann was an artfully cut suit of clothes and a specially made corset that flattened her breasts. The current fashion was for a full-skirted coat that fell to midthigh, and the waistcoat beneath it—worn buttoned up nearly to the throat—was almost as long. Her soft leather riding boots, flaring out at the knee, with their tidy spurs buckled across the instep, and wide-brimmed felt hat—fashionably turned up at three sides, and decorated with a stylish plume—completed her transformation from princess to adventurer. She had played the part of a boy in many of the family’s amateur theatricals, and if Mr. Swann seemed to be nothing more than a beardless youth, the rapier he wore at his hip—and his obvious ability to use it—discouraged his fellow travelers from attempting to take advantage of him, a matter she’d proved to her satisfaction many times in the past six months.
Clarice had never regretted her decision to masquerade as a young man, for in all the tales she’d read, it seemed that the princes got to have the adventures while the princesses had to languish in a high tower or a woodland cottage and wait for something exciting to happen. As she’d made her way westward, no one had ever for a moment suspected she was other than what she presented herself as: a young man of good family and modest fortune out to see the world. Though she’d presented herself on several occasions as perfectly ready to duel, her confident assumption of victory had meant there was no opportunity to practice her skills.
Having reached this bustling island at the edge of Eurus, Clarice had been trying to resign herself to retracing her steps. But in the days she had spent watching the passengers board the ships and the ships set sail, Clarice realized she had made up her mind: excitement and adventure were to be found in the New World, and that was where she would seek them.
A quick trip to the portmaster’s office and a small gratuity bought her the information that the next three ships sailing to the New World were the New Prometheus, the Cutty Wren, and the Asesino. Another small gratuity bought her advice on how to find their captains.
James Galloway was the first name on her list. New Prometheus was a fine new ship, the portmaster’s clerk had told her, one that would suit Clarence Swann’s needs admirably. Apparently it also suited the needs of a great many other people as well, for Captain Galloway told her regretfully that he had no space for another passenger. She thanked him courteously and proceeded to the next name on her list.
The Cutty Wren had a berth available, but she was primarily a courier vessel delivering mail and documents to New Hesperia, and her passengers sacrificed amenities to speed. Aboard her, Clarice would have to share her accommodations with as many as five other passengers. That sort of communal arrangement would make the preservation of her masquerade impossible. Captain Hawthorne was a cheerful man and took no offense at Clarence Swann’s desire for more private quarters and suggested several ships that would admirably meet his needs. Unfortunately, none of them was sailing within the next fortnight.
“What of Asesino?” she asked. “She is sailing soon and was recommended to me.” She was careful to keep her voice slow and low. A woman speaks quick and high, like the flight of birds, she reminded herself. A man speaks with the low, measured bark of a hound on a scent.
Captain Hawthorne frowned thoughtfully. “She’s one of Bellamy’s fleet and sails with a hired captain. I have not heard that Sprunt has any fondness for live cargo, begging your pardon, sir, but it will do you no harm to ask. You will find him at the Mandrake; it is his usual tavern. You’d best hurry; Asesino sails on the morning tide.”
Thanking Captain Hawthorne for his advice, she paid for her shot and left the Mermaid’s Locker.
All things in life had a hierarchy, she had discovered on her travels. Sometimes of money, sometimes of birth, and sometimes of inclination. She wondered which of the three was behind Captain Sprunt’s choice of drinking establishment, for the Mandrake was clearly several steps below the Mermaid, where her first two prospects had been found.
Sawdust was on the floor, and from the look of it, it had not been swept out recently. The air was thick with the fumes of tobacco and the smell of stale beer. But by now she was no stranger to places even more dire than this; Clarice stepped boldly through the doorway and hailed the barkeep. “I am seeking Captain Samuel Sprunt of the brig Asesino. Is he here?”
“Depends on who’s asking,” the man replied.
“Why, someone who wishes to pay him money, of course,” Clarice answered lightly.
That seemed to be the right answer; the barkeep jerked his chin toward the back of the tavern. “Table under the window, and you can tell ’im from me, ’e ain’t getting another pitcher until ’e pays for the last three.”
This comment did not seem to require an answer, so Clarice merely inclined her head and walked in the direction indicated. The position of the table—and the two empty pitchers upon it— were ample indication she had found the right man.
Samuel Sprunt was not the sort to instantly inspire confidence. In other circumstances, Clarice would have had little hesitation in dismissing him as nothing more than a common seaman, for his clothing was dirty and stained, evincing hard use and little care, and his thinning black hair was pulled back into a tarred rattail as was the curious custom of the sea.
She seated herself without waiting for an invitation, removing her hat and setting it on a portion of the table that, if not clean, was dry.
“Here, now. Who do you think you are?” Sprunt growled. “This is a private table.”
“My name is Clarence Swann, and your ship was mentioned to me as one upon which I might purchase passage.”
At that moment the barmaid arrived, asking what the gentleman would have to drink.
“Bring me another pitcher,” Sprunt said. “I’m dry as a dog’s bone.”
“Pockets empty as his dish, too, I’ll wager,” she said unsympathetically.
“I’ll pay.” Clarice took a silver quarter-angel from her pocket and set it on the table. It was the smallest coin she had on her, but from the barmaid’s expression, it was a great deal larger than what was usually seen here. Sprunt and the barmaid both grabbed for it; the barmaid got there first and whisked it into her apron.
“Won’t be a moment, lovey,” she said, scooping up the empty pitchers and sauntering off.
“You’re mighty free with your coin,” Sprunt growled.
“I find it’s easier to pay for what I want than to argue about it. More peaceful as well.” Clarice put a hand on the hilt of her rapier.
“Well, as I was saying, my lad, normally I don’t like to take passengers, but you seem like a good enough sort.” She had no trouble deciphering the crafty gleam in Sprunt’s eyes: he thought Mr. Clarence Swann was easy prey.
“Your ship is bound for the Hispalides and New Hesperia with a cargo of tea, spices, brandy, and wool. It sails tomorrow. I shall require a private cabin. Do you have one available?”
“Well, as to that, something might be arranged. I’m not sure it’d be up to the standards of such a fine lord as yourself.”
Clarice gave him a mocking look and said nothing.
The barmaid returned with a tray that held a pitcher and a pewter tankard. She set the tankard in front of Clarice, leaning low over her to pour it full, then indicated the coins on her tray. “Two spaniels a pitcher. Less you want to pay for what he’s already drunk.”
It was forty silver angels to a gold angel, and a silver angel was worth forty spaniels. Clarice scooped up all but one coin deftly. “I don’t pay for a man’s drink unless I’m drinking with him,” she said with a smile. She dropped the coins into her pouch and picked up her tankard. Sprunt had already taken possession of the pitcher and filled his own tankard.
“Grasping harpy,” he said as the barmaid departed. “Do you travel on business, my lad? Asesino’s a good ship—the best—but she’s not so fast as some. It might be you wouldn’t see Lochrin again for a good half year. Won’t your family miss you? A sweetheart, perhaps?”
He is fawning in one breath and bullying the next, like a fearful dog that is too cowardly to bite. And far too interested in her personal life for Clarice’s taste.
“That’s hardly a matter for your concern,” she said repressively. “As it happens, I travel upon a small stipend bequeathed me by my late aunt. Alas, the whole of the principal vanishes into the hands of her lawyers at the moment I breathe my last, so I am determined to live a very long time.” The story had served her well in the past, explaining her leisured lifestyle without giving the impression that any great sum of money could be extracted from her. “Now. We were speaking of the availability of a private cabin?”
Sprunt had already drained his tankard and refilled it. “Fine accommodations, fit for a fine lord such as yourself. You’ll eat at my own table, same as my officers, and I’ll see you dry-shod to the streets of New Hesperia.”
“Then all we have to settle is the cost of such fine dining and fine accommodation.”
“Five gold angels. Payable in advance, of course.” The pitcher was empty once more, and Sprunt flourished it meaningfully in the air.
It wasn’t a small sum of money by any means, but it was more or less what Clarice had expected to pay. She dug into her pouch and produced a gold half-angel.
“Take this in token of my desire to sail with you. I shall provide the balance, of course, before we arrive at our destination.” Clarice had no intention of paying the whole of Mr. Swann’s passage until they were within sight of the Hispalidean Isles, for she had received a quick yet thorough tutorial in the untrustworthiness of hired assistants during her memorable passage through the Borogny Pass.
The coin vanished swiftly.
The barmaid returned, and Captain Sprunt ordered another pitcher. Since he looked prepared to spend the entire day drinking at Mr. Swann’s expense, Clarice rose to her feet.
“Then as we are in agreement, I will take my leave. There are a number of errands I must run before we sail.”
Before Captain Sprunt could argue—or attempt to try to convince Mr. Swann that as another pitcher had already been ordered, he must pay for it—she collected her hat, bowed, and made her escape. She had nearly reached the door when a young man— clearly a ship’s officer—entered.
No greater contrast with the slovenly captain Sprunt could be imagined, for the newcomer’s coat and trousers were immaculate, and his soft brown hair was cut short, rather than tarred and pigtailed. Clarice stood aside to let him pass, then lingered in the doorway as he made his way to Captain Sprunt’s table. He was roughly her own age, she judged, which was not uncommon, since many seamen of both naval and merchant fleets began their apprenticeships as young as eight. The young man approached Captain Sprunt and bent over to speak to him. Whatever the officer had to say was evidently not to the captain’s liking, for apparently it took a good deal of persuasion before Sprunt heaved himself to his feet and stomped out. He attempted to rearrange his features into a pleasant expression as he passed Clarice and was not entirely successful. She watched him depart with mild curiosity, wondering if she should reconsider her choice of ship. A half-angel, even if it was gold, was a small price to pay for avoiding unpleasantness.
“Pardon me, sir, but are you the gentleman who has booked passage aboard the Asesino?”
Clarice turned, to find herself face-to-face with the young man who had spoken to the captain.
“I am.” She frowned in puzzlement.
He held out his hand. “Then on behalf of Asesino and all her crew, I bid you welcome! I am Dominick Moryet, and I have the honor of sailing as her navigator. I should like to—” He broke off, blushing a little. “I should like to ask you not to mind Captain Sprunt’s manner overmuch. He has a few odd ways, but he is one of the best captains to be had in all of Albion. And lucky as well—he has twice been boarded by pirates, and yet, as you see, he is still here.”
Dominick held out his hand, and Clarice shook it firmly. His grip was strong and warm.
“I am Clarence Swann. He did not look at all pleased to see you.”
Dominick grinned. “I came as the bearer of bad news, sir. We sail tomorrow, as you know, and I’m afraid I told him that he must go and buy our cook out of jail, if we are to have any feeding at all.”
Clarice smiled back. “I should hate to starve all the way to the Hispalides, for that is a voyage of some weeks, is it not?”
“A month if the winds favor us, two if they do not. Have you sailed before?”
“No great distance,” Clarice said dismissively. “Perhaps you will give me some idea of what I might expect—if you are not engaged elsewhere, of course.” She gestured toward the table Captain Sprunt had just vacated.
“I should be pleased, Mr. Swann. I am of no use at all until we are at sea—and then, I flatter myself, I am vital. But may I suggest a change of venue? There is a coffeehouse not far from here that I am accustomed to frequent when I am in Lochrin. You might find it agreeable.”
“Lead on, Mr. Moryet.” Clarice gestured for him to precede her. “I have not been so many days here that I know the city well, and I would be glad of your instruction.”
The establishment her new friend led her to was different in every way from the Mandrake. The Golden Wheel had large bow windows and was light and airy. Its bare wooden floor seemed to have been scrubbed within an inch of its life, and the brass footrail of the polished counter gleamed as brightly as new-minted gold.
The atmosphere inside seemed to be almost that of a private club. The tables at the back were all occupied by grave, bespectacled gentlemen who consulted together over stacks of paper and rolls of maps.
“They are assurance agents,” Dominick said, noting the direction of her glance. “A ship cannot sail without being indemnified.” He directed her to a table at the front. It could seat ten, and two of the chairs were already occupied by a man and a woman a few years older than Dominick, both reading the newspaper. The woman’s skin was the same shade as the beverage she drank, its darkness a vivid contrast to the whiteness of her linen collar and russet wool gown.
The first time Clarice had seen someone with skin of such a color had been in Vinarborg, and for a moment she had been astonished, until she realized she was seeing her first Ifranian. Ifrane was a continent so large that all of Eurus could fit into it several times over. Since then she had become accustomed to the sight, for Ifranians lived in every great city of Eurus.
It seemed to be the custom to share tables here, for the woman looked up and smiled, gesturing them to the unoccupied chairs before returning to her reading.
“What do they assure?” Clarice asked as they seated themselves.
“Why, that a cargo and a ship should arrive,” Dominick answered, sounding surprised. “What a ship carries is rarely her own property and has been bought and sold long before she leaves port. If she does not arrive—I assure you that is a rare occurrence— someone, the Cornhill Society in this case, must make good the loss.”
The server arrived and presented the bill of fare. Clarice discovered that one could order tea or chocolate, call for a pipe of tobacco or a cup with dice, and even request bread, cheese, and oranges.
“There are many who arrive when the Golden Wheel opens her doors in the morning and do not leave until the lamps are lit,” Dominick said with a smile. “They would starve were there not food to be had.”
“It seems entirely convenient.” Clarice ordered chocolate—for it was a luxury she had often missed on her travels—and bread and cheese.
“Enough to share,” Dominick said, placing an order for a pot of coffee. “And a bowl of oranges, too. Fresh fruit is the thing I miss most on a long voyage, and I dare say you will, too, for we go weeks without it. You have said this is to be your first time at sea, Mr. Swann?”
“It is, and I look forward to the experience. But you must call me Clarence, Mr. Moryet, if only for introducing me to the pleasures of such a delightful establishment.”
“And so I shall, Clarence. And you must call me Dominick,” he said charmingly. “For we are no ship of the line, to stand upon formality.”
“Dominick,” she agreed. “Perhaps you can tell me what I might expect? I have the promise of a private cabin, but I understand Asesino does not commonly carry passengers.”
“As to that, I cannot say,” Dominick answered carelessly, “for this is my first voyage on her as well. But I know her type. She is a good merchant brig. We sail first to Cibola in the Hispalides and then on to New Hesperia, where we shall make port in Manna-hattan. I have been there many times; it is a vast island that lies near to the mainland, and its harbor is excellent.”
Clarice repressed a smile. Just as a carpenter might look at a forest and describe it in terms of its excellent timber, she supposed a sailor might view all cities in terms of harborage. “You mentioned that Captain Sprunt has previously been boarded by pirates. Are they common upon this route?”
Their server returned, wheeling a small cart, and set out their food. The oranges were presented in a blue-and-white porcelain bowl that had surely come from Khitai, the bread was fragrant and still warm from the oven, the wedge of cheese still wrapped in its cloth. The fragrance of the coffee nearly made Clarice regret her choice until she picked up the wooden handle of her own pot and tipped it over her cup. The rich scent of the chocolate made her sigh with pleasure.
“I think chocolate is one of the best things to come from New Hesperia,” Dominick said with a smile. “It is a great pity, of course, that both chocolate and coffee come from Iberian lands rather than Albionnaise. But you mentioned pirates. Permit me to put your mind at rest. They know that a ship sailing westward is less likely to hold much of value to them, and even on an eastward voyage, they are less likely to trouble a ship of Albion than one of the Hesperian treasure ships. They know our cargo is more likely to be furs, cotton, and sugar, rather than gold, silver, and gems. You may expect an uneventful voyage in both directions.”
The war that had swept from Albion to Rossiyskaya Imperiya as Cisleithania and the Lochrin-Albion Empire fought for possession of New Hesperia had been fought on every battlefield: land, sea, and air. It had ended almost a generation ago, and then there was peace, but men who had reveled in the freedom and danger of privateering and blockade-running were not inclined to give them up simply because ancient enemies had now become wary allies. They’d struck the colors of the nations that had commissioned them and raised the Red Ensign in their place. And so piracy was something any sea traveler had to be concerned with, much as those on land would guard against bandits and highwaymen. It was possible, she knew, to survive capture and even sail away with one’s ship intact, were ship and crew skilled or lucky.
Apparently Captain Sprunt was lucky.
“That is good to know,” Clarice answered honestly, for though she sought adventure, she didn’t feel she’d be likely to find it at the bottom of the ocean.
“I have been a sailor nearly half my life,” Dominick said, “and I have never, I am happy to say, sailed upon a ship that was taken. You are more likely to find yourself a victim of boredom than of buccaneers.”
They spoke for some time—about the conditions aboard ship and what she was likely to experience as a passenger. Dominick expressed no doubts that she would receive the private cabin she had specified, but warned her she must not expect it to be spacious: “There is not a great deal of room aboard a ship. Not as you landsfolk reckon it.”
Clarice found him easy to talk to, willing not only to answer her questions, but to anticipate them. She told him much the same tale of her history as she had given Sprunt, about journeying to the New World to seek adventure. She added something she had not confided to the captain, that she was eager to increase her reputation so that she could set up an exclusive swordsmanship sallé when her adventures were complete—provided she had not found her fortune in some other way.
“I should think Cibola will suit you admirably, Clarence,” Dominick said. “It is very much Iberia in miniature, and I have seen many duels there.”
“Perhaps I shall fight some and make my fortune.” She smiled, pleased with the success of her masquerade, for though they had spent more than two hours together, Dominick clearly had no clue as to her true gender.
At last he said, with some reluctance, that as they sailed at dawn, he must be off to his guildhouse to settle some necessary matters, and after a gentle wrangle over who was to pay the bill, he rose to go. As he did, Dominick offered one last piece of advice, which turned out to be the most useful of all.
“There is no reason you may not board as soon as you like. Better tonight than in the morning—it will give you time to get settled before we are on our way.”
“I thank you, Dominick. I believe I shall do so.”
She watched him as he walked from the Golden Wheel, a smile on her face. She liked Dominick Moryet, and a new friend would make the coming voyage even more pleasant.
It was early evening before Clarice returned to the docks. She rode in a carriage this time, for she had left her horse at the Borogynian embassy’s stables—the seventeen tiny Borogny Principalities shared, out of convenience and economy, a single ambassador to Queen Gloriana’s court—with instructions that it was to be returned to Swansgaarde when convenient. The next messenger to Swansgaarde would be glad to see such a sound beast waiting for him. Perhaps one day she and her faithful companion might meet again.
Her shopping had occupied much more of the afternoon than she had expected it to, but she had listened closely to Dominick’s tales of seafaring life and made purchases accordingly. He had said that boredom was a great enemy, so she had purchased a portable chess set, a cunning thing little larger than a book. Each square of the board had a small hole drilled in its center, and each of the pieces had a corresponding peg in its base, for Dominick had said that storms were not uncommon, and that the ship might grow “lively” if it ran into weather. She’d also purchased a small selection of medicinal items that should serve against anything she might reasonably be expected to encounter, since she couldn’t risk accepting the ministrations of the ship’s doctor.
But her most expensive purchase—and the hardest to find—had been a spellmatch.
The spellmatch was a golden tube about the size and thickness of her longest finger. It was threaded at the middle so that the two halves could be screwed together, and when opened, one half contained a spindle the size and shape of a nail: the match itself. When removed from its case, it would burst into flame, burning until it was closed away again. It would do so forever, if the case was not crushed.
They had been common enough in the castle, and only when she found herself without one had she mourned the lack of its convenience, but she had never had a compelling reason to replace it until now. Clarice possessed, and had often used, humble flint and steel to start a flame. But that not only took time and tinder, but light to see by, three things that were not likely to be easily available on shipboard.
To contain her possessions, she had purchased a sea chest with strong brass strappings and a stout lock. It was broader at the bottom than the top to prevent its toppling over, and its handles were ring shaped, the better to lash it into place against the wall of her cabin against the possibility of heavy seas. The stout leather saddlebags that had previously contained her possessions would hardly be useful at sea, she had discovered: leather tended to mildew.
Her shopping and packing done, she ate a last meal at the inn and settled her account, then, as thoroughly prepared as she could render herself, presented herself at the foot of the Asesino’s gangplank.
In the twilight, the ship seemed nearly insubstantial, its great bulk illuminated by nothing more than a few lanterns. No one was in sight, but after a few moments a sailor looked over the side and saw her, and a few minutes later—just as she was wondering if she should have asked the coachman to carry her trunk on board—a man in a hastily donned coat, his hat askew, hurried down the gangplank to greet her.
“Are you Mr. Swann? I am Simon Foster, quartermaster. We do not sail for some hours yet.”
“Indeed, I hope you do not, as your captain said you would leave on the morning tide. But Mr. Moryet told me I might board earlier, if I wished to.”
“Yes, of course.” Mr. Foster inspected her for a moment, clearly assessing her breeding and fortune. Clarice had become accustomed to this in her travels, and she was once again grateful that her dress proclaimed her to be a respectable gentleman of good family. She suspected that if it had not done so, Mr. Foster would have told her to carry her own luggage, but he nodded, as if to himself, then stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly.
“Mr. Foster!” the response came from the deck, from the same sailor who had seen her before.
“Here’s our passenger, Mr. Swann. Take the gentleman’s trunk to his cabin, Neddy, and see him squared away!” Mr. Foster called up.
As Neddy hurried down the gangplank, Clarice saw that he wore only a shirt and breeches unbuttoned at the knee, and his feet were bare. He hefted a corner of the trunk to gauge its weight, then heaved it onto his shoulder with an ease that spoke of long practice and formidable muscles. Clarice followed him up the gangplank and onto the deck. There, Neddy paused to collect another sailor, an Ifranian, garbed in much the same dress as Neddy. The newcomer took up a lantern, then, carrying the chest between them, the pair went through a door and down a narrow flight of steps.
“Mr. Foster called you Neddy,” Clarice said, hoping to start a conversation.
“That’s right, sir. Ned Hatcliff’s my name, and this here is John Tiptree. Best topsail man in the seven seas.”
“Mind the ladder, sir,” John said, and Clarice was glad of the warning, for the ship’s interior was decidedly dark. By the time they stepped out again, they had gone down two decks.
The passageway was narrow, the ceiling so low that the heads of both the seamen nearly grazed it. At a door that seemed identical to all the ones they had already passed, the two men dropped the trunk to the deck. Ned opened the door. “Here you are, sir. Breakfast is at two bells forenoon.”
At Clarice’s look of incomprehension, both men smiled slightly. “Nine o’clock, as they say on the land. I’ll send young Jerrold down to show you to the captain’s mess. No fear you won’t be awake. We’ll be under sail by then.”
Ned and John carried the trunk into the cabin. After a bit of awkward shifting about—Clarice had to move up the passageway before they could exit—she was alone. She entered her new accommodations with curiosity.
The cabin was so small it would have been overcrowded with the three of them present. The only illumination came from the lantern John had hung on a hook jutting out from the beam that bisected the ceiling—low enough, Clarice was certain, that she would have to resign herself to banging her head upon it at frequent intervals—and she was once more pleased at her foresight in purchasing the spellmatch. The bunk filled the whole of the wall to her left; to the right, a small table, apparently meant to serve as both desk and table, was built into the bulkhead, its lowbacked chair fitting neatly beneath it. Her trunk had been set against the wall opposite the door, and also upon that wall were several pegs, as much of a wardrobe as the cabin possessed. The door was louvered, for which she was grateful, as there was no other means of ventilation.
Clarice latched the door, unbelted her sword and hung it by its belt upon one of the pegs, and seated herself on the edge of her bunk. Ned had seemed to think she would remain here until morning, but until the moment she sat down, she had planned to make her way back up to the deck to see something of her temporary home. Now, she decided it had been a long enough day without finding herself lost in the maze of passages. She pulled off her boots, debated with herself for a moment, then undressed (hanging her hat beside her sword), put on her nightshirt, selected a book on the natural history of the New World from her trunk, and transferred the lantern to a hook at the head of the bed.
Though the ship lay at anchor and had not seemed to be moving when she had gazed at it from the dock, she now sensed a tiny rocking motion and saw that motion reflected in the slight sway of the lantern. It gave her the odd feeling that the ground beneath her had suddenly become strangely insubstantial, though of course there was no ground beneath her now at all. The motion, though new, was not unpleasant, and she read barely a chapter before the day’s excitement caught up to her. Blowing out the lantern, she was quickly asleep.
The House of the Four Winds © Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, 2014