If you need to find the first five Quest for Rinarias, the links are here:
The Quest for Rinaria, Par I ~ Secrets of Old
The Quest for Rinaria, Part II ~ The Riddles
The Quest for Rinaria, Part III ~ The Dragon's Nested Clutch
The Quest for Rinaria, Part IV ~ The Whale's Eye
The Quest for Rinaria, Part V ~ Where the Sea Nymphs Rise
The Quest for Rinaria ~ Part VI
The Gray Shore
Ksheygha was hard on Korep’s heels as he scrambled toward the bowsprit. Not five ship-lengths ahead of them was an enormous cloud of white fog, glowing soft and gold in the sunrise, resting lightly on the sea. Korep eyed it for a moment, and then quietly muttered, “Yes!”
Ksheygha stared at it wordlessly, her mouth slightly open. She’d never seen anything so beautiful. This was, after all, where the sea nymphs rise, and the pirate could easily imagine sea nymphs emerging from this ethereal, beautiful mist.
“D’ y’ ’ear them?” Korep murmured quietly.
Seagulls were screaming overhead, and the waves were lapping quietly. Ksheygha nodded. “Land is near,” she murmured.
“It’s a pity those clues didn’t give us any idea of ’ow near,” Korep murmured.
“The mist must not be constant,” Ksheygha deduced. “The wind blows some of the outer stuff away, and then it builds up again when the wind is still. They can’t have, Korep.”
Korep flashed her a grin. “This is why I said y’ ’ad t’ come along!”
Ksheygha had learned to mask her reactions with politeness; she responded to Korep’s praise with an impersonal smile, but inside warmth splashed like a fountain from her ears to the tip of her toes.
“Wynraser’s stopped an’ ridin’ ’er anchor,” Korep added. He called to his navigator, “Think we c’n pull up alongside Wynraser?”
“Should be safe!” the navigator shouted back. “At this point, anyway. Wouldn’t chance it farther on in the mist.”
“Helm, stop us next t’ Wynraser!” Korep shouted. “Bosun, r’lease the anchor!”
Ksheygha watched as the two ferrets Korep had commanded shouted out instructions to the sailors designated to assist them. She always seemed to be learning from Korep; when they were younger, he taught her to fight and stand up for herself, and now he was teaching her how to handle a large crew. Her captain’s crew consisted of almost two hundred foxes and ferrets, and she was responsible for making them do their jobs. There were few creatures willing to help her, and her captain sometimes seemed to go out of his way to make it harder. Korep had an even larger crew, and he managed his flawlessly.
And his crew managed his ship flawlessly; so, in spite of Oceanflower’s size, she stopped neatly next to Wynraser.
“You were right, Korep!” Shartalla shouted from where she stood on the railing of Wynraser. “There’s no current ’ere.”
“There’s a fair wind, though!” Korep shouted back. “Think it goes all the way to this Gray Shore?”
“I dunno,” Shartalla replied doubtfully. “The mist sh’d be blown away if the wind were that strong.”
“’Less more keeps comin’ in,” Korep suggested.
Shartalla nodded. “’t’s all I c’n think of.”
“Then let’s sail in soon as Eneng an’ Winterblade catch up!” Korep shouted back. “I’m ’oldin’ Winterblade t’ ’er bet!”
If I become captain, Ksheygha thought, I’m forbidding drink at sea.
It wasn’t that she had anything against alcohol, but she could foresee Winterblade fighting to get out of her bet.
“If that’s the case, y’ owe me a cask fer waitin’!” Shartalla yelled back good-naturedly. “Ksheygha, ’ow y’ ’oldin’ up?”
It was a moment before Ksheygha realized Shartalla had addressed her directly; she covered her lapse by replying quickly, “I’ve been thinking about the Gray Shore. It has to be some kind of swamp.”
“So y’ve said,” Shartalla called back. “Why d’ y’ keep puzzlin’ over it?”
Ksheygha shrugged. “Just making sure,” she replied, ignoring the chill that crawled up her spine whenever she heard the words gray shore. “We don’t want to sail through that mist with absolutely no idea of what to expect.”
“Touché,” Shartalla acknowledged.
About that moment, the Seawraith halted behind Wynraser. “Is this it?” Winterblade shouted from the prow.
“It is,” Korep yelled delightedly. “An’ I seem t’ remember a bet o’ some kind. Ksheygha, d’ y’ recall what it was?”
It irritated Ksheygha to death when Korep tried to drag her into his games, and she answered evenly, “You obviously do, so why do you ask me?”
Winterblade laughed and Shartalla shook her head disparagingly. Korep rolled his eyes heavenward, then shouted to Winterblade, “Spirit rations, Ksheygha. That was the bet.”
Winterblade leaned against the railing. “I recall,” she replied smoothly. “An’ I brought it all on deck.”
She waved her paw at a paltry six firkins, which stood on their ends behind her.
Korep stared at them for a minute, then curled his paw around the rope. “Just keep ’em,” he growled. “They ain’t worth the trouble.”
He turned away from the edge and climbed the stairs to the helm; Ksheygha saw the two female captains start giving orders to sail forward.
“Is there anyone be’ind?” Ksheygha heard Korep shout.
Eneng’s voice drifted faintly back to the deck of Oceanflower. “Not that I c’n see!”
“Sailin’ onward, then!” Shartalla shouted.
A few moments later, Wynraser started boldly forward into the fog.
“Let me an’ Eneng go next, Winterblade!” Korep called. “We need t’ be able t’ at least see the ships in front!”
“If you insist,” Winterblade shouted back.
Ksheygha heard Oceanflower’s anchor rise from the water; the sails were shaken loose, and then Oceanflower glided forward.
On an impulse, Ksheygha ran up to the helm and leaned against the stern railing. The morning behind them was bright and clear, and at first the mist shone like tangible light. Ksheygha stared hard at the seas behind her, until the bright, glowing mist hid the sky completely.
Oh, Bear King, she prayed, I hope we have this right.
For hours, the mist retained the same color, and Ksheygha realized that as the mist got thicker, the sun also got brighter.
When the bell rang at midday, she slipped down to the galley. Only the part of the crew that was off duty lined up for meals; some of the cook’s assistants would take food to the ones working. Ksheygha, out of habit, was always last to eat. This habit had earned her loyalty aboard Wideprow; it was also the one thing that preserved her dignity as first mate. Every order from her captain was meant to humiliate and shame her, but when she stepped back and allowed her crew to go before her, she displayed captain-like concern for a crew.
It also reminded the crew of Oceanflower that she was not just another crewmate; that had seemed a good thing until yesterday, when Korep told her his crew thought that bad luck.
Anyway, the ship’s cook was used to seeing her last, and he was waiting for her when she approached with a plate. “Everything normal topside?” he asked as he dished out rice and sweet tangy sauce onto her plate.
“Aye,” Ksheygha replied. “Except that the tiller’s tied in place and we can’t see far ahead.”
“But the other ships ain’t strayed, right?” the cook asked, pausing in the action of slipping a piping hot roll onto her plate.
“No, they’re all in sight,” Ksheygha replied easily. “Shartalla’s hanging a red banner from her stern, and I think I saw her crew putting some lanterns up for when it gets dark.”
The cook nodded. “That’s good t’ hear,” he murmured. He gave Ksheygha a scrutinizing look. “An’ you? How’re the crew treatin’ you?”
“Better than my crew does,” Ksheygha smiled.
She was a pretty ferret when she smiled; there was a thin line of naturally black fur around her amber eyes, which glowed like coals in a fire. Her fur was snowy white, and there was a gold hoop in each of her ears, which accentuated her eyes. Because a chronicler was merely an ornament aboard a ship, beauty was a prerequisite, and Ksheygha’s beauty, though never superlative, was the kind that didn’t fade much with age.
In any case, her appearance was surpassed by her intelligence and discernment; she was, in fact, so well-known for it that her crew threatened to mutiny unless the captain made her first mate. This was how she became first mate in the first place, and was also the reason for her captain’s dislike of her.
“Why don’t you ever dine with the captain?” the cook asked now, very innocently.
Maybe too innocently.
“I’m not his first mate,” Ksheygha replied easily, extending her paw to get her plate back.
The cook didn’t give it back to her right away. “I ’eard you an’ the cap’n used t’ be friends,” he said mildly.
There was nothing malicious in his asking, but Ksheygha was used to treating any curiosity about her past as a potential threat. “Well, we did serve on the same ship once,” she answered nonchalantly. “A long time ago.”
“I see,” the cook replied, handing her the plate. “Well, if y’ ever want t’ tell some’n about it, I’m right ’ere an’ all ears.”
Ksheygha smiled wordlessly, and went to a table with her meal.
After noon, it began to grow darker. Ksheygha stayed in the pavilion on deck with the clues. One of the other she-ferrets had lent Ksheygha a thick wrap, and it hung loosely around her shoulders.
But at only three in the afternoon, it became too dark to read without a lantern. Ksheygha lit one and hung it on a hook; then she stopped.
She held out both paws to the lantern; then she pulled them back. And her paws weren’t cold.
How many days had they been sailing north? Two? Three? They had to be at least fifty leagues north of Arashna by now, and it was getting late in the fall. So why wasn’t it freezing cold?
She quickly blew out the lantern and hurried up to the helm. Korep leaned against the stern railing, looking up at the mast where lanterns were being lit.
“Notice anything odd?” she asked.
“Y’ mean other’n the fact that Shartalla’s crew’s singin’ like they’re in a tavern?” Korep offered. He looked disturbed that anyone would enjoy sailing blind through fog.
“It’s too warm,” Ksheygha pointed out. “It should be colder. We sailed on the Whale’s Eye for two days, and that started an entire day north of Arashna. We have to be a hundred leagues north of where we set out. So why isn’t it far colder?”
Korep frowned. “Good question.”
For a few minutes he looked as if he were racking his brains for an answer; then he added, “I really don’t know. Must be some kinda wind current.”
Ksheygha nodded, but she didn’t agree. The breezes that blew the ships northwest didn’t feel strong enough to bring heat.
But Korep was an able captain, so Ksheygha didn’t argue with him about opinion. Instead she asked, “About how fast are we sailing?”
“About five knots,” Korep replied. “We got some resistance in the water.”
“A current, you think?” Ksheygha asked.
Korep shook his head. “The tide’s goin’ out right now. It means we’re close t’ land.”
“How close?” Ksheygha asked, puzzled.
“Depends on ’ow deep the water is, an’ how strong the undertow is,” Korep murmured. “The longer the beach, the stronger the undertow. I jus’ sent some’n’ t’ get the depth – they sh’d be back soon. It’ll probably get cold at night, too. Wish we c’d land before dark.”
“If we can’t, we’ll just have to anchor for the night,” Ksheygha offered.
Korep made a face. “An’ then the current swings the ship ’round the anchor chain. Then, when we hauls it up, ’o knows if we’ll be sailin’ the right way? But I don’t wanna sail inter shallows with absolutely no visual. May just ’ave t’ be content w’ the lanterns.”
Ksheygha looked at the deck beneath her paws. Did Korep share that nervous foreboding that plagued her? Like there was something dark at the other end of the fog?
A moment later, she heard pawsteps on the stairs, and a young seaferret scrambled up to the helm. “Depth is at six fathoms, Cap’n,” he reported. “Measured it twice, an’ there was no change.”
“Very good,” Korep replied briskly. “Measure again at the bell.”
The ferret nodded obediently and hurried back to the main deck.
“Shartalla’s slowin’ down, too,” Korep noted. “Wynraser c’n take anythin’, she al’ays says. Guess she’s really nervous.”
“Come on,” Ksheygha smiled. “In spite of the fact that Shartalla never shuts up about how fabulous her ship is, have you ever seen her let Wynraser take anything?”
“All cap’ns love their ships,” Korep commented, patting the railing of Oceanflower happily. “But Shartalla’s way over the rim about Wynraser. She acts like Wynraser is the ’ole wold.”
“The key to all her dreams,” Ksheygha murmured.
Korep glanced sidelong at her. “Little romantic for Shartalla, ain’t it?”
Ksheygha fiddled with the gold hoop in one of her ears. “Shartalla is nothing if not a hopeless romantic.”
Korep snorted softly, and she knew this was his way of disagreeing without objecting. Just as she had done earlier.
“I’m going to look at the drawing of the shore,” Ksheygha decided. “Just to make sure.”
“Tell me somethin’,” Korep said, facing her full on for the first time. “Why are y’ so edgy ’bout this Gray Shore? Is it the fog, or somethin’ else?”
“Probably the fog,” Ksheygha admitted. “I just have a bad feeling, that’s all.”
When night came fully, Korep had a brainwave about remaining anchored and still facing the same direction; he suggested, through Craic, tying the ships together prow-to-stern and using all anchors from all ships to keep them together. Ksheygha scrambled down to the galley so she was out of the way. To make herself feel like she was actually accomplishing something, she brought the clues with her and studied them by the light of a single candle.
She had managed to completely tune out the shouting above her, so it was a complete surprise when she heard Zuryzel’s voice say, “Ahoy.”
Ksheygha looked up sharply to see the Wraith Mouse princess standing in the doorway, smiling. “Hey,” the pirate said warmly. “What are you doing here?”
“I haven’t really spoken with you since Mauggiak Island,” Zuryzel replied, crossing the galley to Ksheygha’s table and sitting down gracefully. “Had any more brainwaves about the clues?”
Ksheygha shook her head. “No. This Gray Shore worries me, though.”
There was a lurch, making Ksheygha grab her candle to make sure it didn’t tip. Zuryzel nearly fell off the bench; when she righted herself, she looked in alarm at the wooden beams above her. “What was that?”
“The anchor,” Ksheygha replied, bewildered. “They’re hauling it up.”
Zuryzel jumped to her paws, but Ksheygha caught her sleeve. “Wait. You don’t want to get in their way.”
A few minutes later, the cook came scrambling down, looking as if he’d been cleaning the galley’s smoke funnel and hurriedly gotten out of the way.
“What’s going on?” Zuryzel called.
“The bottom’s too sandy fer the anchor,” the cook reported. “None o’ the anchors caught. We’re sailin’ on ’til the bottom’s rockier.”
“None of the anchors caught?” Ksheygha exclaimed.
“Do Korep and Shartalla both know I’m here?” Zuryzel queried.
“Aye, Highness,” the cook answered. “They both know.”
There was a gentle downward motion from the ship, after which Ksheygha cautiously set the candle back on the table. The cook threw down his cleaning brush and went to scrub some pots and pans. Zuryzel tapped her paw on the table a few times, then asked, “Is everything all right?”
“Everyone keeps asking that,” Ksheygha replied. “Who are they asking for?”
Zuryzel shrugged. “I’m asking for myself. I can’t speak for anyone else.”
Ksheygha began playing with her gold earrings again. “It’s nothing I need help with, Zuryzel,” she murmured. She didn’t add, At least, I don’t need the help of a creature ten seasons younger than me who’s barely lived life.
It would have been unfair to Zuryzel to add that, anyway. The princess was shrewd enough to understand much of what she had not experienced firstpaw.
“All right,” she relented. “But if you change your mind, I’ll always listen.”
Ksheygha looked right into Zuryzel’s gaze, and switched languages to Miamuran. “Do you speak this language?”
“I do,” Zuryzel replied fluidly. “I thought most pirates only spoke Simalan.”
“You thought right,” Ksheygha assured her. “Tell me, what is it that makes you think something is wrong?”
“The way you avoid Korep,” Zuryzel answered instantly. “Even when you’re standing right next to him, you try to keep yourself as estranged from him as possible. Like when he walked in with the rum on Mauggiak Island. And earlier today.”
Ksheygha nodded slowly. “I see,” she murmured curtly.
Zuryzel contemplated the candle flame. “You used to be friends, didn’t you?”
Ksheygha smiled bittersweetly. She debated answering honestly and deflecting the question. Then she said, “We were more than friends.”
Zuryzel’s eyes snapped to the pirate’s face as her comment hung in the air. Ksheygha let it hang, smiling; then she added, “But we were never romantic.”
Zuryzel chuckled at herself.
Ksheygha glanced over her shoulder at the cook, making sure he couldn’t hear – even if he could understand Miamuran – and then continued. “I was – alone, I guess, on a ship with three hundred sailors. I was just a chronicler. An ornament. A prize. Useless. And above all else, defenseless. Most pirates don’t bother with someone like that, but Korep – well, he was young, too, and maybe a little idealistic. He did bother with me. Whenever we were docked, and everyone else went ashore to celebrate, he would drag me down to the cargo hold, usually against my will, and instruct me.”
“About fighting?” Zuryzel asked.
Ksheygha nodded. “Yes, but more than that. He taught me not to let anyone downtrod me. He taught me everything I needed to stand up for myself, both weapons and confidence.”
“What has that got to do with your –?” Zuryzel trailed off, not sure what word to choose.
“He was exceptionally kind to me,” Ksheygha murmured, “and it earned him ridicule from some of the other sailors. And he gave up shore leave for this, too – gave up all the music, the spirits, the company of pretty she-ferrets – so he could teach me what I needed to know. He did all that because he believed in me, Zuryzel. And I –”
She broke off and swallowed hard, feeling old and filthy. “I let him down.”
“Why do you say that?” Zuryzel asked, puzzled.
Ksheygha sighed heavily. “Zuryzel … you’ve seen how it is aboard Wideprow. I spent the first few months of my service there trying to not let anyone lord it over me. But then I just slipped back into my old habits and became … invisible, again. I only earned the trust of the crew through an accident. I only became first mate because the crew threatened to mutiny otherwise. And I was only wanted for first mate because the crew knew I don’t have the strength of will to make them do what needs to be done. The sea does that, if anything does. I’m … I’m just as downtrodden as if I’d taken everything Korep taught me and tossed it overboard.”
“I don’t think Korep sees it that way,” Zuryzel murmured. Her eyes were round with sympathy – not the condescending kind of sympathy that would rub lesser creatures’ fur the wrong way, but friendly sympathy.
“I know how Korep sees it,” Ksheygha sighed. “He still believes in me. He won’t accept that I can’t live up to his faith.”
There was a sizzling sound; Ksheygha looked around and saw that the cook had tossed a hot spoon in cold water. A barely-visible cloud of steam rose above the cool pot, and Ksheygha frowned.
“Zuryzel,” she said, now speaking in Simalan, “how warm is it topside?”
“Not as cold as it should be,” Zuryzel replied.
“But still chilly, right?” Ksheygha pressed.
Ksheygha pushed away from the table and hurried over to the cook. “Could you put another hot spoon in the cold water?” she asked.
The cook looked at her strangely.
“Please,” she pressed, smiling sweetly.
The cook rolled his eyes, but he thrust another scalding spoon into the icy water.
More steam arose.
There was a scraping sound as Zuryzel pushed away from the table; she came to stand beside Ksheygha. “Onto something?”
“Aye,” Ksheygha replied, not sure if the news was good or bad. “Zyna, do you know what makes fog?”
“Early morning?” Zuryzel guessed.
Ksheygha shook her head. “No. It’s what happens when warm water clashes with colder air.”
“So you’re saying the reason the fog is here is because the water is so warm?” Zuryzel exclaimed.
“Yes,” Ksheygha replied, smiling. “That’s exactly it. No one ever bothered to measure the water temperature!”
“So what’s making the water warm?” Zuryzel asked. “A hot spring? A current?”
Ksheygha’s smile faded, and her delight was replaced with the foreboding that had been haunting her about the Gray Shore. “No,” she murmured. “Nothing that harmless.”
There was one way to prove her fears. She grabbed Zuryzel by the paw and scrambled for the stairs.
Korep was standing in the pavilion, scowling, no doubt irritated that they couldn’t find rocky ground. Ksheygha burst into the pavilion, eyes huge, and Korep exclaimed, “What?”
“The fog,” Ksheygha panted. “Is it thinning? Is the air getting warmer?”
“I can’t tell,” Korep replied. “It’s night, fer the love of the Bear King.”
“This is important, Korep!” Ksheygha exclaimed.
But before Korep could reply, Zuryzel asked, “Can you smell anything?”
Both pirates took a deep breath. Korep wrinkled his brow and answered, “Salt an’ … maybe some other minerals.”
That clinched it for Ksheygha. She grabbed Korep’s shoulder and exclaimed, “Korep! Signal Shartalla to slow down!”
“What’s gotten int’ you?” Korep cried.
“The Gray Shore,” Ksheygha replied. “I know what it is, and it’s not a marsh!”
“Well, what is it?” Korep demanded, looking about out of patience.
“Good news,” Ksheygha began, “it’s the island where Rinaria is. Bad news …”
She took a deep breath. “It’s volcanic. The island is a volcano.”
“Cap’n!” the watchferret shouted. “Wynraser’s stoppin’!”
The three in the pavilion darted out. Ksheygha was only three steps out when she saw what had caused Shartalla’s abrupt halt.
High in the night sky was a single star.
No sun, nor star, nor moon to guide, until the Gray Shore is in sight, Ksheygha thought. She raced up to the prow and tried to pick out the shore.