Excerpt from Book II, The Men of the Sea

A Sneak Peek At
The Men of the Sea
Book II of The Astreya Trilogy

Book cover: Astreya, Book 2, The Men of the Sea

“Adramin, can you make another crossing tonight?”

Adramin’s answer came almost at once. “No, Master.”

Oron turned his face to Astreya. “You see, already we are too far away.”

“Then turn this ship around!” demanded Astreya.

Oron shook his head. “Even for you, my grandson, I cannot,” he said in a tone different from anything Astreya had so far heard. The tone of command was gone, and in its place was an exhausted matter-of-fact statement of circumstances the old man could not change. “Other ships claim our attention,” he continued. “There is a summoning to the City of the Sea. Even for your death, Estraella, my son’s son, it cannot be otherwise. The safety of the fleet and my ship demand it.”

“When will you return?” asked Astreya.

“We can be back to these waters in less than a month, if the fish run true,” said Adramin.

Astreya and Oron continued to look at each other, probing the relationship of blood and likeness. Oron stared at his grandson for a moment, unguardedly. Astreya’s eyes fell to the table between them, more persuaded by the old man’s momentary emotional weakness than he had been by his tone of command. Oron was foreign, strange, and the latest of many people to thwart him, but there was a subtle shift, a softening of his grandfather’s attitude toward him, which might be turned toward agreement. While Astreya searched for something that might persuade the old man to let him return, Oron drew his cloak around him and lowered his head so that he stared fixedly at the green stone in Astreya’s bracelet on the table in front of him. Astreya followed Oron’s gaze.

“Put it back on, Estraella,” said Oron quietly. “It’s yours, even though you have much to learn before you can carry its authority.”

Astreya’s hand twitched, but he did not reach out. His anger was waning, and with it, his strength of purpose. Something demanded that he reclaim his bracelet, but he fought against it.

“What is it to you?” he asked.

“Badge of rank, talisman, signal of belonging, but first and foremost the heart of navigation. It points to the mother ship, where the shipstones are. And with training, it can be used to control them. When your father didn’t return I watched his echo stone, knowing that when it dulled, he would be dead. It dimmed, and never showed the white light at its center that would have allowed us to trace it, but it kept the same luster, season after season, year after year. Then this year, it re-awoke.”

“When I started wearing this,” said Astreya, pointing to the stone.

The old man nodded. “We came north as we had done before, and it kept brightening. I hoped Estraella might be alive.”

Astreya felt himself a poor substitute in Oron’s eyes, and his moment of sympathy for the old man evaporated. Then, when Adramin cleared his throat as if to enter the conversation, and Oron glanced sideways in his direction, Astreya understood that they expected him to be showing some sign of distress at separation from his bracelet. His fingers strayed to his arm, where the stone had tingled so often, and he felt an indefinable sadness, a sense of loss. As he inspected the feeling, he became aware that the value of what lay on the table was far greater than he had imagined. He was sure that there was more, much more that Oron could show him. The desire to learn that Scar Arm Ian had awakened in him flared into a curiosity stronger than anything he had ever experienced. Despite his annoyance at the unfairness of the Men of the Sea, who kept secrets from men like Roaring Jack and all the other skippers who needed a way of finding their way home, there was much here he wanted to know.

Should he – could he return to Lindey, or should he learn to control the stones? Astreya was poised between the two in an excruciating moment of indecision. He had made the case for returning, but at the back of his mind, now he wanted to stay. Perhaps he could learn and take back the secret. He could carry skills and knowledge to others – to share with Lindey. She would be proud of him. She would see reason in his staying, and abject foolishness in missing the chance to amass knowledge. Besides, he had no way of returning. As Adramin said, it was too far to swim.

“Master. Grandfather. Will you put your hand on your own green stone and tell me that you will return soon?”

Oron’s piercing eyes fixed on him and the old man’s clasp glowed on his arm. Astreya regretted his last vague word.

“When you take your clasp and return it to your arm,” he said. “And I will do as you ask later, if you still wish it, grandson.”

Behind his shoulder, Astreya heard Adramin suck in his breath.

Astreya guessed that his cousin was appalled that the Master was bargaining rather than commanding. Astreya felt his advantage return as he guessed that Adramin’s ring stone was not as powerful as Astreya’s, which was the same size as the one on Oron’s arm.

“Promise that you will return,” said Astreya.

The old man’s hand moved slowly to cover his stone, and he stared into Astreya’s eyes. “When you know more of what you are and can do, I will ask you if…”

“When you’ve done whatever it is that you must at the city…” prompted Astreya.

“Very well. We will confer after the City of the Sea,” said Oron.

Astreya slowly reached out his hand, took up his bracelet and clipped it onto his left arm. The green light intensified, and the white spear flashed. Opposite him, Oron’s shoulders lowered as the old man’s tension ebbed.

“Show him his quarters, Adramin. Outfit him as befits a kinsman and Man of the Sea. Help him learn our ways. I charge you in this.”

The stone on Adramin’s finger flashed as he brought his fist to his throat. “At your command, Master.”

“Estraella, you will attend me tomorrow morning,” said Oron.

Astreya wondered whether to copy Adramin’s gesture, and decided instead to nod.

“Then follow the Law and await my command,” said Oron.

Astreya recognized a formula of dismissal. He stood up, slid his chair back into place, and followed Adramin out the door.

“My father’s book!”

Adramin closed the door and paused. As he turned on Astreya, the lantern lit his face in profile, sharpening its arrogant angularity.

“Forget your book: it’s the Master’s now. He’ll tell you about it when he’s ready. When he’s taught you more than you’ve ever dreamed,” he said through tight lips. “Now, grab your jacket, and follow me.”

He walked swiftly down the passage, balancing to the movement of the ship with the ease of one for whom it was second nature. Astreya followed him, pulling on his jacket as he went. As the green light of the stone vanished under the black waterproof material, Astreya thought of Lindey, and his spirits sank. He had sold out. Greed for knowledge of the mystery behind the green stones had won out, and he was ashamed. And Oron had his father’s book. What would he make of the riddle? Astreya slowed, stopped and stood. The words his father had written ran through his mind.

hand of gian far draws on shore
star sets in song where stones roll in the tide
son of or on plots a course to the city of the sea
as dim clasps light no stones

“Thinking of your little piece ashore? Going all teary eyed? Get a move on, lubber.”

Astreya started as if he had been struck. His fists clenched, he strode forward so quickly he almost ran into Adramin, who had stopped and opened a narrow door.

“Your space,” said Adramin. “For as long as you measure up to the Master’s expectations. And mine, too,” he added scornfully.

Astreya took a step into the gloom, staggering as Adramin’s hand shoved him between his shoulder blades.

The door closed behind him with a metallic click and Astreya was alone in the dark, listening to the sound made by the ship’s hull rushing through the water. He took off the waterproof jacket and light bloomed from his bracelet, illuminating the cabin. It was not much longer fore and aft than the bed that lay beside the slightly curved wall, on the other side of which Astreya knew was the sea. He turned, banged his shins on a chest against the passage wall and sat on it, grateful of the chance to relax some of his tension. Leaning his forearms on his knees, he took a deep breath and tried to make sense of the last few crowded hours. His meeting with Oron had run the gamut through anger, defiance, a sudden craving for knowledge, and in the end, a compromise that left him ashamed. That way lay despair, so he deliberately reflected on the trip on Adramin’s strange, fast boat that had brought him to the ship. He recalled first sight of the huge hull in which he now was – what? A prisoner? A prodigal grandson? An unwelcome relative, as far as Adramin was concerned, that was certain. And as he mused, he again was torn by the abrupt parting from Lindey, and rueful that he had capitulated to Oron’s vague promise.

He stared at the stone, noticing that the spear of light was aligned with the ship.

“I didn’t ask it to do that,” he muttered, and in the instant decided to rebel against whatever controlled his stone.

Astreya replayed Gar’s words in his mind. “Think north, Astreya.”

At first, nothing happened, and then gradually the spear of light pointed at almost a right angle to the ship’s midline. Astreya smiled grimly. He did have control, even here. He tried to swing the spear of light away from north, and again was successful, although behind his eyes he felt as if he were pushing his head against a wall. He rubbed a spot above his right eyebrow, and tried again. This time, nothing happened. His head now ached, but he did not give up. The cabin darkened. He blinked, momentarily at a loss, and greenish light again flowed from the stone on his bracelet.

“That’s it!” he said aloud. “I made it wink.”

He refocused his concentration, and the cabin darkened again. He counted two heartbeats, willed the light to return, and it did.

“Three’s a charm,” he muttered.

One more time, he was in darkness, and then his stone blazed again. The pain in his head lessened, but he suddenly needed to lie down. He took off his shirt and breeks and dropped them on the chest. He stood, took the short stride to the bed, and slid between rough blankets. Once he was lying flat, he felt the soothing movement of the ship, but although he was exhausted by the events of the day, he could not sleep. Where was Lindey? Was she safe? Did she blame him for what had happened?

“Did your stone wink, Lindey? Did I reach you?” Astreya asked the darkened cabin.

There was a knock on the cabin door.

“You all of a piece in there?” The voice was neither Oron’s nor Adramin’s.

“I’m all right,” he answered as firmly as he could.

“Word from the Master. You’re not to do whatever you’re doing with your clasp, because you’re throwing the ship off course.”

“All right,” said Astreya. “I wasn’t planning to do anything more, anyway.”

“You’d better not. Master’ll be right upset if you do, and that’s something you don’t want to see, take it from me.”

“Um… Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. ‘Dramin tell you about the head?”

“The what?”

“Washplace… toilet… shitter…”

“No.”

“Two doors ahead along the passage.”

“Thank you.”

“‘Night then.”

Astreya could not hear footsteps going away, but since he had not heard them approach, he did not know if the passage was empty. He sank back onto the bed and listened to the water rush past, only a hand’s breadth of the ship’s hull between him and the ocean. He thought to pulse his stone again, in spite of Oron’s orders, but he was too tired to do more than watch its green glow until he could no longer keep his eyes open.

As he slept, he did not see his stone dim and brighten three times.