Sarah Tolcser

Song of the Current

Chapter 1

There is a god at the bottom of the river.

Some folks will tell you that’s just a story. But us wherry folk know different. When the reeds along the banks whisper that a squall is rushing across the marshland, we listen. When the tide flows up from the sea, flooding the river with muddy brown water, we know enough to watch.

The god in the river speaks to us in the language of small things.

That’s how my father knew something was wrong even before we rounded the bend into Hespera’s Watch.

“Caro, take the tiller.” Pa leaned over the stern to dip his hand in the river.

Our wherry was loaded up with timber for the lumberyard in Siscema. The boat rode low in the water, so he had no trouble reach- ing the surface. A tiny wake curled after his fingers, forming a wobbly line of bubbles. The sun had disappeared below the moss-draped trees, and the river grew stiller by the moment.

He pulled his hand back as if it had been stung.

I sat up straight. “What was that?”

“I don’t rightly know.” He looked as if he wanted to say more, but he only added, “He’s unsettled tonight.”

He meant the god in the river. Everyone knows it can be bad luck—even dangerous—to speak of a god by name. The wherry- men usually call him the Old Man.

“Fire,” whispered Fee. The frogmen aren’t a people of many words.

Pa turned to her. “You feel it too?”

Fee perched on Cormorant ’s cabin roof, her webbed toes spread out upon the planks. Her skin was the slick greenish-brown of a river bullfrog. With yellow eyes that protruded from a bulbous forehead, she stared unblinking at the water. The hem of her linen dress was shredded, threads trailing away behind her.

It’s said that many thousands of years ago, time out of mind, the god in the river fell in love with a sailor’s daughter. Their children became the frogmen. The land folks wrinkle their noses and call them dirty, but inlanders are ignorant about many such things.

I sniffed. “I don’t smell any smoke.”

As I spoke, the wind shifted and an acrid smell poisoned the air. Any moment now we would come into sight of Hespera’s Watch, the first town south of the Akhaian border. I gripped the tiller so tightly my knuckles turned pale.

 

Cormorant’s stiff black sail swung halfway out on the starboard side. The heat of the day still warmed her planks, though the sun was gone. I spread the fingers of my free hand upon the decking, as if peace could somehow seep from her into me.

The god in the river doesn’t speak to me like he does to Pa. Not yet. “The day your fate comes for you, you’ll know,” Pa always tells me. “The way I knew when it came for me.”

Well, it seems to me my fate might hurry up a little. Pa was fifteen when the god in the river first whispered his name. I’m two years older, and I’ve yet to hear anything. But I keep my ears open, because I’ll inherit Cormorant someday. Eight generations of Oresteia captains have plied their trade on these rivers. All of them were favored by the god.

We slipped onward through the shadowy water. The trees fell away, and the port of Hespera’s Watch was before us. Or would have been.

“Xanto’s balls!” I swore, my eyes stinging. I grabbed the sleeve of my sweater, holding it over my face.

Smoke poured from the warehouse roofs. The masts of sunken ships stuck up like dead tree trunks in the ugliest, most desolate swamp. This part of the river wasn’t deep, so a few of the wherries were sunk only to their cabin tops. One had been ready to sail—the gaff and boom floated, sail billowing between them, under the surface. It looked like the dress of a drowned woman. Coals smoldered orange on the blackened posts, and bits of ash drifted on the air. The docks were gone.

“Those wherries—” Dry coughs racked me. I returned the sweater to my mouth and drew in a blessedly clean breath that tasted of yarn. No matter how I squinted at the wreckage, I was unable to make out any of the boats’ names. “Pa, those wherries don’t belong to anyone we know, do they?”

Cormorant’s sail gave an angry clap, making me jump. In my shock, I’d loosened my grip on the tiller. I tore my gaze away from the debris, hastily straightening our course.

Pa hadn’t even noticed my steering lapse, which wasn’t like him at all. “Give the dock a wide berth.” He squeezed my shoulder. “We don’t want to run up on any wreckage. Find a spot on the bank, near to the road as you can get, and head up into the wind.”

“We’re anchoring?” My mind leaped to our second cargo, the crate of muskets roped to the deck and surreptitiously covered by a tarp. We never stopped in towns when we were smuggling. “I thought we were making for Heron Water.”

Pa rubbed the stubble on his chin, surveying the ruins. “A wherryman always helps a wherryman in need.”

The sight of those lonely wrecks made my skin crawl. Where had all the people gone? I didn’t need the god in the river to know something was very wrong.

Pa and Fee went forward to drop the sail. Pushing the tiller over, I steered Cormorant in a slow arc until her blunt white- painted nose pointed into the wind. She inched through the water, easing to a stop. Pa paid out the anchor rope, and we went about our ordinary tasks of stowing and settling the wherry.

Smoke permeated the air belowdecks, making the cabin seem even more cramped and close than usual. Pa shrugged on his good wool overcoat, arranging the collar so it fell just right. His somber manner heightened my worry. He only wore that coat to temple, or to pretend he hadn’t drunk too much the previous night.

Candlelight flashed on something metal at his waist—his best flintlock pistol.

I paused with my hand on the locker door. “Weapons, then?” “Better safe than sorry,” he said gruffly.

I grabbed my leather-sheathed knife from the locker. Stuffing it in my pocket, I bounded up the cabin steps.

We rowed the dinghy ashore and walked into town, our footsteps scraping the gravel road. It was the only sound but for the mournful murmur of reeds along the riverbank. Pa kept glancing apprehensively at the river. Fee’s head was cocked toward the water, listening with that elusive sixth sense I would’ve given anything to possess.

I swallowed down my envy, goose bumps prickling my arms. It was spring in the riverlands, and the temperature still dropped after sundown, but the chill I felt was mostly inside me.Why hadn’t the god in the river protected the wherrymen whose ships had been sunk? And what did Pa and Fee know that they weren’t tell- ing me?

We found the dock inspector standing beside a pile of crates, surveying the docks with reddened eyes. From the haphazard way the boxes were stacked, it seemed they’d managed to salvage at least some of the cargo from the fire.

“You’re a lucky man, Nick,” he greeted Pa, as they clasped hands. “If you’d a been here two hours ago, I reckon that’d be your boat at the bottom of the river. Ayah, along with the rest.”

Pa kept his voice low, out of respect. “What happened?”

“Eleven wherries sunk.” Smoke trailed in a thin curl from the dock inspector’s pipe. His voice was calm enough, but I noticed his hand trembled. “The ship come down from Akhaia. Victorianos.”

“The name don’t strike a bell,” Pa said.

“She were a cutter. Speedy looking, with six four-pounders. They had ’em loaded with fire rockets.”

I glanced up the river, almost expecting to see the ghost of the cutter rounding the bend. There was nothing but the trees’ dark shadows, lengthening across the water. Looking at the charred masts, a pang of loss pierced me. Wherries weren’t just cargo ships. They had personalities. They were homes.

I turned back to the dock inspector. “A cutter like that is wasted on this part of the riverlands,” I said. “She can’t use her speed proper with all these twists and turns, and her keel’s too deep to get into the best hidey-holes. She belongs on the sea. What were they doing up here?”

“Trying to destroy the docks?” Pa asked. “Or one of the warehouses?”

The man shook his head in bewilderment. “Far’s I can tell, neither. They aimed at the wherries first. Three of ’em were load- ing. The cargo all went up. Then the docks caught, and the fire spread to the first warehouse. We managed to get a bucket line going, but two boys were badly burned fighting the fire.” He gestured at the stack of crates. “This is all that’s left of the cargo.”

The dock inspector looked so solemn, I knew there was more. “How many killed?” Pa asked softly.

“Only two. The Singers were asleep aboard Jenny.”

“Current carry them.” Pa pulled off his woolen cap, smoothing back red hair streaked with silver.

“Current carry them,” I echoed in a whisper, clenching my hands into fists. The ragged edge of one bitten nail dug into my palm. I couldn’t imagine who would do something like this. The burned skeletons of the wherries poked out of the still water, where several wooden casks and crates bobbed.

We had anchored in a graveyard.

“Hair like weeds,” Fee whispered, swiveling her eyes toward the dark water.

Before I had a chance to ask what she meant, a voice sounded behind us.

“Nicandros Oresteia, captain of the wherry Cormorant?”

I wheeled around. An army officer stood on the dock, his knee-length blue coat covered in road dust. He was lit from the back by the last rays of the setting sun, so I couldn’t see his face.

Pa and I exchanged glances. My pulse fluttered nervously.

The man spoke again, his voice carrying across the water. “I’m looking for the captain of the river wherry Cormorant.”

Pa slowly turned. “I’m him.”

“By command of the Margravina of Kynthessa, I’ll need you to come with me now.”

I sucked in a sharp breath. He wore a longsword and two pistols. He had drawn none of the weapons, but he didn’t have to. They were easily visible on his belt, a silent threat.

“Really,” Pa said, equal notes of teasing and disbelief in his voice. “Didn’t think the Margravina knew my name to command me. We ain’t acquainted.”

Slowly I moved my hand, the one the commander couldn’t see, toward my pocket, where my knife was stashed. I’d grown up on tales of Oresteias making mad, reckless escapes from men in uni- form. I was ready.

Pa shook his head at me, and I paused, my hand hovering.

“I am Commander Keros,” the stranger said, “of the Margravina’s Third Company. I’m authorized to speak as her voice, as I’m sure you well know. Will you be so obliging as to come along with me to the harbor master’s office?”

Then soldiers marched onto the dock behind him, and I knew he wasn’t asking.

I spoke up. “You don’t really think we had anything to do with this.”

“Of course not, girl.” The commander glanced at me the same way I might look at a minnow or an ant. He directed his words to my father. “I have an offer I wish to discuss with you, Captain. In private.”

“But I’m—” I started.

Pa jerked his head toward town. “Go up to the Spar and Splice, Caro. I’ll meet you there.”

Before I had a chance to protest, they whisked him up the blackened cobbles, pressed between the commander and the soldiers. I wasn’t fooled by his casual saunter. His shoulders were stiff as he burrowed his hands into the pockets of his overcoat.

I watched until my father was out of sight. It had happened so fast. My fingers twitched, brushing the outline of my hidden knife. They’d let him keep his pistol, I reminded myself. He couldn’t be in that much danger.

“Well,” I said to Fee, then grimaced. I’d intended to sound confident, but it had come out as almost a shout. “Let’s go.”

Hespera’s Watch had but one tavern, the Spar and Splice. Its roof tiles were singed, but it was otherwise undamaged by the fire. I took the steps two at a time, barging through the door. Fee padded along behind me, her knobby elbows gleaming green in the lamplight.

A floorboard creaked under my battered canvas deck shoe. I glanced down, and realized I stood in a puddle of water. It trailed down the hall, staining the planks and soaking the woven rug.

Light flickered from an open door. I heard hushed voices, both male and female. Curiosity pulling me closer, I peeked into the room. Something long and lumpy was laid out on a bed, shrouded in a wet linen sheet. At first I didn’t realize what I was seeing, until my gaze fixed on the boots sticking out from under the sheet.

I swallowed. I’d only known the Singers to shout hello to. Mrs. Singer had had lovely hair, long and straight. It spilled out from under the sheet now, like a black jumble of eels, drip, drip, dripping.

Hair like weeds. Remembering Fee’s cryptic words, I pictured Mrs. Singer’s hair tangled with the slimy green reeds at the bot- tom of the river, drifting in the murky current.

A shiver went through me.

Averting my eyes from the bodies, I stumbled down the hall to the barroom. I’d never seen a dead person before. My heart hammered in panic. Stupid. It was stupid to be afraid. Corpses couldn’t hurt anyone.

Fee touched my shoulder. “Strong.”

I nodded, inhaling deeply to steady my nerves.

Tension lay over the crowd in the barroom like a held breath. People huddled and whispered in small groups, occasionally slamming mugs on the bar. I could almost smell the shock and anger above the stale scent of spilled beer. There were many women, and one small boy, who stared with saucer-shaped eyes as his mother held on to his collar. It was not uncommon for wherrymen to sail with their families aboard. Two frogmen sat at a corner table, mottled heads leaning together as they croaked in their own language. On any other night, Fee would have hopped over to join them. Tonight, she only stepped protectively closer to me, her wary gaze darting around the barroom.

Someone whistled. “Ain’t you Nick’s girl?”

Thisbe Brixton was in her thirties, with a thick blond braid down her back and a tattoo of a serpent winding around her forearm.The sun had bleached the hairs on her arms white and creased the skin at the edges of her eyes. I was momentarily overwhelmed with relief to see someone I knew—until it hit me that Captain Brixton’s wherry must be among the sunken boats.

I elbowed my way to the bar. “Why are there soldiers here?”

“Don’t know.” She beckoned the bartender over and ordered two mugs of the strong dark beer they favored in the northern riverlands. “They arrived right before you did.”

“They wanted to talk to Pa.” My voice sounded hollow. I was shaken, still remembering the disconcerting stillness of the dead bodies and the brusque way the soldiers had hauled my father away. “Said it was about a job.”

From the red rims of Captain Brixton’s eyes, I could tell she had been crying. “I don’t like any of this,” she muttered.

I curled my hand around the cool mug. Despite the horrible circumstances, I couldn’t help feeling pleased she thought me old enough to order a drink. I’d always admired Captain Brixton. Her wherry was one of the few crewed only by women, and she carried the prettiest pistol I’d ever seen, engraved with a pattern of swirls and flowers.

“Thank the gods your pa’s here,” she said. “We’re putting together a crew to hunt down those bastards what did for the Singers.”

The old man beside her shook his head. “We are not.”

“Oh, stuff it, Perry. The time to act is now.” She banged a fist on the bar, setting the mugs clattering.

If someone sunk Cormorant, I reckon I’d be raging to charge off and fight too, four-pound cannons be damned. Something like excitement stirred recklessly inside me. I shoved it down. People were dead. Pa was in trouble.

I turned to the old man. “Your wherry too?”

“Ayah,” he said, “though we fought like hell to save her.”
I couldn’t believe he’d lost Jolly Girl. Captain Perry Krantor had been sailing her since before Pa was born. She was a lovely old boat, with a cheery red-painted deck and a weather vane at the top of the mast carved like a windmill. As for the captain himself, he’d been a friend of my grandpa. It was too awful to take in.

“Was the damage bad?” I asked. “Can she be raised?”

“Bless you, Caro,” he said, and my heart ached at the way his sun-spotted hands trembled around his mug. “I don’t know as she’s a total loss, but that’ll be for the assessor to decide. And the sal-vagers. We sent off a runner to Siscema. On a gods-bedamned horse.” He twisted his lip to show what he thought of a wherryman stooping to send word by road. “Not a boat left bigger than a dory.”

I suddenly saw Jolly Girl ’s weather vane, warped and blackened, paint curling from the heat of the fire. My fingernails bit into my palm.

“Reckon you and your pa don’t get down south much these days, eh?” Captain Brixton said. “Well, I do. Heard of this Victorianos. Her master is Diric Melanos, and we all know who that black- guard runs with.” She spat on the floor.

I didn’t know. She was right—we didn’t get down south much.

Seeing the question in my eyes, she leaned in close. “The Black Dogs.”

“Black Dogs?” My head shot up. “This far up the river?”

Everyone knew to steer clear of the Black Dogs, an Akhaian mercenary crew—pirates, really—whose fast ships terrorized the Neck, the long saltwater bay in the southern riverlands. Now I knew why Captain Krantor wasn’t keen on putting together a crew. Standing against the Black Dogs was a good way to get yourself dead.

“Pirates,” hissed Fee. She dipped a long green finger into her beer and pulled it out again, examining the bubbles on her fingertip. Captain Brixton paid this no mind. Wherry captains were used to the frogmen’s odd mannerisms.

“There’s something gods-cursedly fishy about this whole business. They didn’t even take nothing.” Captain Brixton took a big pull from her half-empty mug. “First Black Dogs, and now soldiers.”

“You ought to slow down, is what,” Captain Krantor told her.

“And you ought to mind your own business, old man.”

I pushed my beer away, untouched. If pirates had set fire to those wherries, they might attack others. My thoughts leaped to Cormorant, anchored alone and unprotected out there on the river. Those pirates hadn’t been looking to capture prizes or coin. Their purpose was to destroy, and with six cannons they were well equipped to do it.

“Black Dogs.” My throat was hoarse. “I have to tell Pa.”

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