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datatime: 2022-09-29 22:29:26 Author:qhSOYlWI

Miriamele slipped from the bed. After dressing quickly. she edged out into the narrow passageway.

Girl, wake up

Gan Itai made a little humming noise of dismay. She helped Miriamele to get her feet out of bed and onto the floor, then brought over the small mirror that Aspitis had given to Miriamele when he had still been pretending kindness.

Miriamele could not imagine how she could ever again walk across the deck under the eyes of those grinning sailors-could not imagine it any more than she could imagine standing naked before them. It was one thing to be suspected, another to be part of the casual knowledge shared by the entire ship: when he was needed in the night watches, Aspitis could be found in her bed. This latest degradation seemed to creep over her like a heavy, numbing chill. How could she ever leave the cabin again? And even if she did, what did she have to look forward to in any case but a forced marriage to the golden-haired monstrosity? She would rather be dead.

What is this I hear on deck? The sailors are saying that Earl Aspitis is to be married on Spenit-married to you Is that true?

Because if we can't get there, he can't marry me, Miriamele whispered.

Give it to me, said Miriamele.

When she had finished, Miriamele stared around the cabin in frustration, unwilling to believe that she could simply fail. Abruptly, she remembered the chest into which she had seen Aspitis pushing bags of money. Where had that gone? She dropped down onto her knees and pushed aside the bed's hanging coverlet. The chest was there, draped by Aspitis' second-best cloak. Certain that any moment the Earl of Eadne and Drina would walk through the door, Miriamele forced herself under the bed and dragged it out into the light, wincing at the loud scraping as its metal corners cut into the plank floor.

At last, as dawn was glimmering in the sky above-decks, she fell into a heavy, muddy sleep with the earl's dagger still clutched in her fist.

Go away, she told the Niskie. She tried to push her head back under the blanket, but Gan Itai's strong hands clutched her and pulled her upright.

As she stood, she saw it at last. It had been hanging on a hook behind the door all along. She took it down and slipped it into her belt beneath her cloak, then stepped into the doorway. When she was certain that no one was coming, she hooded her lamp and made her way back to her own cabin.

Miriamele was crawling under her blanket when she suddenly understood the significance of the white robe. In her oddly detached state, this realization was only one more tally added to the earl's overloaded account, but it helped to stiffen her resolve. She lay unmoving, breathing quietly, waiting for Aspitis' return, her mind set on her course so firmly that she would not allow any thoughts to distract her-not memories of her childhood and her friends, not regrets about the places she would never see. Her ears brought her every creak of the ship's timbers and every slap of the waves on the hull, but as the trudging hours passed, his booted footsteps never sounded in the passageway. Her door did not creak open. Aspitis did not come.

At last, groaning, Miriamele rolled over and opened her eyes. Gan Itai peered down at her, a look of concern furrowing her already wrinkled brow. Morning light from the hatch in the passageway outside spilled in through the open door. The achingly painful memories of the day before, absent for the first few moments, rolled back over her.

A quick examination of Aspitis' room turned up nothing useful. The earl's sword lay across his bed like some heathen wedding token, a slim, beautifully wrought blade with a hilt in the shape of a spread-winged seahawk. It was the earl's favorite possession-except perhaps for her, Miriamele thought grimly-but it was not what she sought. She began to investigate a little more thoroughly, checking the folds of all his clothing, rummaging through the caskets in which he kept his jewelry and gaming-dice. Although she knew that time was growing ever shorter, she forced herself to refold each garment and lay it back where it had been. It would do her cause no good to alert Aspitis.

Give it to me, said Miriamele.

Miriamele was crawling under her blanket when she suddenly understood the significance of the white robe. In her oddly detached state, this realization was only one more tally added to the earl's overloaded account, but it helped to stiffen her resolve. She lay unmoving, breathing quietly, waiting for Aspitis' return, her mind set on her course so firmly that she would not allow any thoughts to distract her-not memories of her childhood and her friends, not regrets about the places she would never see. Her ears brought her every creak of the ship's timbers and every slap of the waves on the hull, but as the trudging hours passed, his booted footsteps never sounded in the passageway. Her door did not creak open. Aspitis did not come.

Time was running short. Miriamele sat on the floor, full of a dreadful, cold hatred. Perhaps it would be easiest just to slip up on deck and throw herself into the ocean. It was hours until dawn; no one would know where she had gone until it was too late to stop her. But she thought of the kilpa, patiently waiting, and could not imagine joining them in the black seas.

Because if we can't get there, he can't marry me, Miriamele whispered.

What is this I hear on deck? The sailors are saying that Earl Aspitis is to be married on Spenit-married to you Is that true?

In the dark, Miriamele made a small noise. Slowly, as if approaching a dangerous animal, she considered this last idea for a moment-it was stunning in its power, even as an unvoiced thought. She had promised herself that she could outlast anything, that she could float with any tide and lie happily beneath the sun on whatever beach received her-but was it true? Could she even marry Aspitis, who had made her his whore, who had aided in murdering her uncle and was a willing catspaw of Pryrates? How could a girl-no, a woman now, she reflected ruefully-how could a woman with the blood of Prester John in her veins allow such a thing to happen to her?

Miriamele could not imagine how she could ever again walk across the deck under the eyes of those grinning sailors-could not imagine it any more than she could imagine standing naked before them. It was one thing to be suspected, another to be part of the casual knowledge shared by the entire ship: when he was needed in the night watches, Aspitis could be found in her bed. This latest degradation seemed to creep over her like a heavy, numbing chill. How could she ever leave the cabin again? And even if she did, what did she have to look forward to in any case but a forced marriage to the golden-haired monstrosity? She would rather be dead.

Gan Itai gazed at the silver osprey carved so that it seemed to be alighting on the dagger's pommel. This is the earl's knife.

Miriamele covered her eyes with her hands, trying to keep out the light. Has the wind come up?

The chest was, as she had seen, full of bags of money. The coins were mostly silver, but each sack contained more than a few gold Imperators as well. It was a small fortune, but Miriamele knew that Aspitis and his family were the possessors of a very large fortune beside which this was a mere handful. She carefully lifted out a few of the sacks, trying to keep them from jingling, noting with some interest that her hands, which should have been shaking, were as steady as stone. Hidden beneath the top row of sacks was a leather-bound ledger. It contained lists in Aspitis1 surprisingly fastidious handwriting of places the Eadne Cloud had stopped-Vinitta and Grenamman, as well as other names that Miriamele decided must have been ports visited on other voyages; beside each entry was a line of cryptic markings. Miriamele could make no sense of it, and after a moment's impatient study she put it aside. Beneath the ledger, rolled into a bundle, was a hooded robe of coarse white cloth-but this was not what she was looking for either. The trunk contained no further secrets, so she repacked it as well as she could, then pushed it back beneath the bed.

Girl, wake up

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