Gavin Guile lay on his back on a narrow skimmer floating in the middle of the sea. It was a tiny craft with low sides. Lying on his back like this in the past, he would almost believe he was one with the sea. Now, the dome of the heavens above him was like a lid, and he a crab in the cauldron, heat rising.
Two hours before noon, here, thirty leagues from the Seers Isle, the Cerulean Sea should be a stunning deep blue-green. The sky above, cloudless, mist burned off, should be a peaceful, vibrant sapphire.
But he couldn’t see it. Since he’d lost the Battle of Garriston four days ago, wherever there was blue, he saw gray. He couldn’t even see that much unless he concentrated.
His fleet was waiting for him. Hard to relax when thousands of people are waiting, but he needed this measure of peace. He looked to the heavens, arms spread, touching the waves with his fingertips.
Lucidonius, were you here? Were you even real? Did this happen to you, too?
Something hissed in the water, a sound like a boat cutting through the waves.
Gavin sat up on his skimmer.
Fifty paces behind him, something disappeared under the waves, something big enough to cause its own swell. It could have been a whale.
Except whales surface to breathe. There was no spray hanging in the air, no whoosh of expelled air. And from fifty paces, for Gavin to have heard the hiss of a sea creature cutting through the water, it would have had to have been massive. His heart leapt to his throat.
He jumped to his feet and began sucking in light to draft his oar apparatus—and froze. Right beneath his tiny craft, something was moving through the water. It was like watching the landscape go by when you’re in a speeding carriage, but Gavin wasn’t moving. The rushing body was huge, many times the width of his craft, and it was undulating closer and closer to the surface, closer to his own little boat.
A sea demon.
And it glowed. A peaceful, warm radiance like the sun itself on this cool morning.
Gavin had never heard of such a thing. Sea demons were monsters, the purest, craziest form of fury known to mankind. They burned red, boiled the seas, left fires floating in their wakes. Not carnivores, so far as the old books guessed, but fiercely territorial—and any intruder on their territory was to be crushed. Intruders, like boats.
This light was different. A peaceful luminescence, the sea demon no vicious destroyer, but a giant traversing the seas and leaving barely a ripple to note his passing. The colors shimmered through the waves, grew brighter as the undulation brought the body close.
Unthinking, Gavin knelt as the creature’s back broke the surface of the water right underneath his boat. Before the boat slid away from the swell, he reached out and touched the sea demon’s skin. He expected a creature that slid through the waves to be slimy, but the skin was surprisingly rough, muscular, warm.
For one precious moment, Gavin was not. There was no Gavin Guile, no Lord Prism, no scraping sniveling dignitaries devoid of dignity, no lies, no satraps to be bullied, no Spectrum councillors to manipulate, no lovers, no bastards, no power except the power before his eyes. He felt small, staring into incomprehensible vastness.
Cooled by the gentle morning breeze, warmed by the twin suns, one in the sky, one beneath the waves, Gavin was serene.
It was the closest thing to a holy moment Gavin had ever experienced.
And then he realized the sea demon was swimming straight toward his fleet.
The trick with sharks is the nose. Not so different from a man. You bloody a bully’s nose, and he goes looking elsewhere.
I am Gunner, and Gunner ain’t no easy meat. The sea’s my mirror. Fickle as me. Crazy as me. Deep currents, monsters rise from her depths too. What others call sea spray, I call her spitting in my face, friendly like. Unlike most of this lot, I can swim. I just don’t like it. We do our admiring best at a short distance.
I must have pissed her off something fierce.
The shark she’s sent after me is a tiger shark. Good hunters. Fast. Curious as a crotch-sniffing hound. Mad as a starving lotus eater. Usually twice as long as a man is tall. But the sea’s shown me respect, as she ought. My shark’s bigger. Three times as long as I am tall, looks like. Hard to tell through the water of course. Don’t want to exaggerate. Hate exaggeraters. Fucking hate ’em.
I’m Gunner, and I give it straight.
The scraps and shrapnel lines and barrels of the shipwreck litter the cerulean waters everywhere, but that tiger’s coming back. Depending how tenacious she is, it’ll take me a few minutes to swim to an appropriately sized—
“Oy, Ceres!” I shout as a thought occurs to me. “I know why you’re mad!” Not many people know it, but the Cerulean Sea is named for Ceres. Not the color. Those tits and twits at the Chromeria think everything revolves around them.
The tiger shark is circling me, dorsal fin cutting beautiful arcs on the open water. I’m on the edge of the wreckage. I got out first, saw that the fires were headed for the powder magazine. But being on the edge means that shark doesn’t have to go through the distraction of all the other meat to get to me.
I turn constantly, keeping my face to the beastie. The cowards like to pull you down from behind. These big bastards float along with these tiny little moves, like soaring buzzards, making you think they’re ponderous, but when they strike, their speed is pants-drenching. The wedge-shaped head circles a bit closer, veers. And . . . now!
Gunner is the master of timing. None finer. Not even the sea, who stomps and rages like a toddler when you’ve drunk three skins of wine and want a little peace while the hammering in your head stops. I kick, stabbing one foot hardened to leather and bone by a life barefoot right at its nose. I see a flash of the milky membrane over its eyes as I’m thrown, almost lifted out of the water by the force of its strike.
But the shark shivers, stunned.
“Ceres! You think I did this? I didn’t! It was the Prism! Gavin Guile! That damn boy blew up the ship, not me. Go get him, for Orholam’s sake!” Ceres hates it when you dirty her face with exploded ship, and I’ve done that more than a time or three.
The shark recovers, darts away. For a second, I think I’m safe, that Ceres is going to be reasonable. Then it turns, starts swimming back.
“Ceres! Don’t do this! It’s on your head if you do.”
I’ve got a pistol still. Lost my musket when it blew up in my hands during our battle with the Prism and his Blackguards—which is infuriating, impossible, I’d never double-charge a musket. But that’s something to worry about later. The pistol might even still work, despite my plunge into the water. I’ve been working on making a pistol that’s proof against water for years. Nothing’s worked against a full plunge into water, though, and shooting into the water is a fool’s game anyway. Ceres protects her own too well. But I do pull my knife, its blade three hands long.
“Damn you, Ceres. Why’s it always got to get personal?”
The tiger shark comes straight at me. No subtlety, and I’ve got her timing down now.
She strikes, my heels colliding straight with her soft nose one more time. This time, I absorb some of the blow in my knees, still giving a good shock, but not letting myself be thrown far away. I stab for the eye, miss, bury the knife in its gills.
A mortal blow, but not a fast death. Damn.
The wound stains the water crimson in the high sun, and the tiger shark veers away. I swim as if a furious goddess is on my heels. I get to the dinghy just as some younger tiger sharks are arriving, shorter than Ceres’ hellhound, their stripes more pronounced.
It’s a miracle the dinghy survived—a miracle slightly tainted by the fact there’s no goddam oars. I stand up in the ship, see that there’s other men swimming for the dinghy. The first is a Parian with something shy of six teeth. His name’s Conner, and for good reason. The damned shovel head has got the oars. He doesn’t look pleased to see that I’m in the dinghy first.
“You look wet,” I say. I got no oars, but I’m not in the water with sharks.
“First mate,” he says. “You’re captain. And we need us a crew. Take it or leave it. The winds and waves aren’t like to blow you to shore from here.”
He’s quick. Always hated that about Conner. Dangerous one, he is. Still, how good of a conman can he be? He let himself get named Conner.
“Hand me the oars then, First Mate, so I can help you up,” I say.
“Go to hell,” he says.
“That was an order,” I say.
“Go to hell,” he says again.
I give in.
He insists on holding the oars as I pull him in—which is good. It keeps his hands busy while I stick my knife through his back, pinning him to the gunwale.
Even as the men watching from the water curse, surprised at my sudden move, I pry the oars from Conner’s fingers. He might be dead already, hands convulsed, locked tight. I have to use the butt of my pistol to smash his grip open and drop the oars into the dinghy.
I rip my knife free and Conner’s body drops into the sea. One more meal for Ceres the Insatiable.
I stand up, knife in one hand, pistol in the other, and address the swimming, desperate men who’ve just seen me murder Conner.
“I am Gunner!” I shout, more to Ceres than to the men in the water. “I have done what satraps and Prisms only dream. I am cannoneer of the legendary Aved Barayah! I am sea demon slayer! Shark killer! Pirate! Rogue! And now, I am captain. Captain Gunner is on the look for a crew,” I say, finally turning to the men swimming, surrounded by sharks. “Must be willing to take orders.”