NIGHT, AND THE CLEAN SMELL of salt. Slap of waves and wind-flapped canvas. Creak of leaping timbers. An urgent overhead call, and a soft but substantial splat.
I just served that, Prosatio Silban thought in mild vexation, and grabbed a nearby mop.
It was not the beefy cook’s first brush with someone else’s seasickness, and in fact he himself had suffered from the Mariner’s Malady for the first three days of his current adventure. For he was aboard the Golden Rose, working his passage around and across the Rimless Sea by helping out in the galley (and environs) as needed. Right now, that meant standing vigilant on the weather deck with seedcakes and a hotpot of yava to ballast the crew’s queasy stomachs – and a ready mop for when he couldn’t.
Prosatio Silban sighed and drew the top of his dark woolen cloak more closely against the evening chill. The Golden Rose was as modern a deepwater merchantman as the Soharis fleet could boast: six tall masts with azure lateen sails; five decks; a half-dozen holds bulging with wheat, blue rice, jaraanga beans and other bulk trade comestibles; and four private passengers’ quarters. The ship was overseen by a greybearded captain, an ambitious mate, three ship’s cats, and a sturdy crew of twenty-three from various coastal towns around the Rimless Sea.
Sailors are typically a superstitious and hungry lot, and the Rose’s crew shared both those qualities in abundance. Among them were more than a few who were convinced that having a self-defrocked Sacreant aboard like Prosatio Silban likely meant misfortune taking an active and malevolent hand in the ship’s proceedings. Anyone who turned his back on the Flickering Gods was viewed by most of the crew as horribly unlucky. And who would want to sail with such a one?
For this reason Prosatio Silban mainly kept to himself when not serving his galley shift. He mostly spent his off-hours staring disconsolately off the foredeck rail, looking for near-surface aquatic life (dolphins, wingfish, or grey or blue whales), or stretched out in his bunk with Barbatus the Elder’s Rimless Tales (a thick anthology of stirring sea sagas).
Right now, however, the only souls above-decks with the former holyman were the steersman and navigator, with five sailors aloft; everyone else was sleeping below. Night sailing could be a tricky business. Even this far out on the Rimless Sea one could never tell what hazards lurked on or just below its rippling surface.
Despite his mighty thrashings, one sailor took hold of his legs and another his arms, preparing to toss him to his doom.
At least, until one was right on top of them.
The first clue Prosatio Silban had that all was not right was a sudden lurch forward. The yava pot and seed-cake basket flew out of his hands to crash on the deck. He tried to grab the portside rail, but missed and sprawled flat on his belly.
Stark cries came from overhead as the aloft crewmembers sought purchase on spars or rigging. The captain came roaring out of his cabin aft of the steering-hutch. “What the devils was that?”
“I don’t know, sir,” replied the navigator. “The following wind has brought us near the border of the chart. Supposedly, we’re over some of the Rimless Sea’s most unfathomable depths here.”
“Deploy torches!” cried the captain. “I want to see what we hit, or what hit us.”
By this time, some of the crew had come up on deck and were milling about in half-awake disorder. Soon, a torch was lit; others were lit from it, and a ring of light quickly formed around the ship’s perimeter. Prosatio Silban grabbed a torch and held it over the portside rail, leaning into the blackness.
At first, he thought there was something wrong with his eyes; despite the torch’s dancing brightness, he couldn’t see any water lapping against the side of the ship. Confused shouts arose from the other light-bearers.
“There’s nothing there!” cried one.
“What demonic mayhem caused this?” called another from the opposite side.
“I bet it’s that Sacreant cook’s fault,” said a third. “Where is he?”
“We must appease his gods!”
“Let’s throw him overboard!”
“There he is!”
A cold weight crushed Prosatio Silban’s bowels. He tried to ease away from the rail, but his torch betrayed him and the mob was on him in a heartbeat. Despite his mighty thrashings, one sailor got hold of his legs and another his arms, preparing to toss him to his doom.
“Wait!” shouted one of the officers. “Don’t kill him. His death will further curse this vessel. Make him pray for our deliverance instead.”
The sailors holding Prosatio Silban relented, and stood him on the deck. “You heard the bo’s’n,” one said angrily. “Pray! Pray as if your life depends on it – because curse or no curse, it does.”
Prosatio Silban looked at the unkind faces encircling him. He coughed, knelt, raised his hands, and closed his eyes.
“O Porthunis the Oceanlord,” he began. “O Thupitor, God of Impeded Travel; and Penteget, Goddess of Just Desperation; hear our plea and grant our boon. Your children are in the direst of straits. Help us to help You to manifest Your grace ‘pon this ship, that we may be set upon Your path and travel the way You intend.”
“We affirm,” murmured the sailors in one reverent voice.
The wind, which had been lustily blowing from astern, ceased. The sails sagged. A dead quiet settled around and over the ship.
“That’s not the sort of godly help we were asking for,” groused one of the sailors.
Then the mate spoke.
“Where did the stars go?” he asked. “They’re neither above us nor behind us.”
An alarmed grumbling arose from the crew. The captain shouted it down. “We must have sailed under clouds without knowing it,” he said.
“But I’ve been watching the stars, sir,” countered the navigator. “Just before the lurch, they … well, they vanished from all around us, all at once. Clouds wouldn’t account for that. We have sailed past the edge of our charts, and…” His voice trailed off.
The captain pressed him. “’And?’ And what?”
“And apparently, at least according to legend, past the edge of the world,” the navigator said.
There was a profound silence.
“Is that possible?” asked the mate.
“How did we do that?” asked a sailor.
“How do we find our way back?” asked the bo’s’n.
The captain frowned. “Excellent questions all. If we were still in the water, I would lower some oarsmen in the longboat and have them pull the ship along after it,” he said. “But I’m not sure there’s anything to lower the boat into.”
“I’ll find out,” said the mate. He strode to the main deck’s starboard rail with a coil of rope, and made fast one end to a mooring cleat. He tossed the other end over the side and mounted the rail. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
The crew watched as the mate slowly clambered down the rope toward the thick darkness below. When he thought he had gone far enough, he stretched out a tentative leg.
“I don’t see anything – not even the rope’s end,” he called up. “There’s no resistance to my foot. I’m going to lower my other leg and see what happens.”
He did so, inching hand over hand down the rope. Suddenly, with a sharp cry, his hands slipped and he disappeared into the blackness below.
“Haul away!” shouted the captain.
“You must have everyone focus on the waters surrounding us. Do not be afraid. Do not even think. Just … be.”
Three sailors sprang to obey, but retrieved only the rope. The captain cursed.
As these events unfolded, Prosatio Silban found himself thinking of a lesson from his early days as a Sacreant-in-training. “The map is not the territory,” one of his teachers used to say. “Just because you know the description of something, doesn’t mean you know the thing itself.”
The young initiate had always found that a difficult concept. “How can you know something without being able to describe it?” he asked.
His teacher simply smiled. “Someday you’ll understand,” she said. “And when you do, there will be no doubt.”
This must be that day, Prosatio Silban said to himself. He closed his eyes, slowed his breathing, and concentrated his thought. In his mind he was picturing a vast, disk-shaped sea, afloat with islands of every size and landscape. The picture was a kaleidoscopic patchwork of overlapping images – some in sharp detail, others unspecific – infused with the sense-memories of the disk’s varied populations. Within the kaleidoscope was everything known; outside of it, everything unknown. The task, as he saw it, would be to meld the border between.
I suppose this is why they call it the Rimless Sea, he thought, opening his eyes. He felt a deep and confident tranquility. The vision in his mind held steady.
“I know a way out of this,” he said to the captain. “You must have everyone focus their attention on the waters surrounding us. Do not be afraid. Do not even think. Just … be.”
“What the devils does that mean?” asked the captain. “There are no waters surrounding us.”
“There will be,” Prosatio Silban said. “In the name of the All-Mother, you must trust me.”
“What good would that do?” asked the bo’s’n. “You already asked for divine assistance, and failed. Tragically.”
The sailors agreed. “That’s right.” “I don’t believe this.” “We’re doomed.”
“This has nothing to do with the Flickering Gods,” replied Prosatio Silban with equanimity. “It has everything to do with us, with how we see the world. We are going to change that world. But I need your help to do it.”
Some heartbeats later, the captain sighed. “Let it be so,” he told the crew.
“Close your eyes. Breathe deeply,” Prosatio Silban said. “And don’t think of anything other than the planks beneath your feet and the Rimless Sea supporting them.”
After a few diminishing complaints, the sailors obeyed. Soon, the deck was quietly resonant with their coordinated breathing.
In a near whisper, the cook addressed the navigator. “Now,” he said. “Draw a supplemental chart. One that surrounds our ship.”
The crew inhaled, then exhaled.
The navigator picked up his pencil, protractor, and divider. He affixed a new sheet of parchment to the one he had been using, sealing the edges with candlewax. Soon the addition was filled with the curious symbols of his ancient profession.
Prosatio Silban’s eyes closed as he bent his gaze inward. The picture in his mind had changed; instead of the kaleidoscopic patchwork, all he saw was an image of the blue, blue sea. Slowly, the water consumed his inner vision, blotting out everything around it.
I am the ocean, he thought. WE are the ocean.
The pencil scratched. The sailors breathed.
A long moment, then the navigator spoke. “Done.”
He looked at Prosatio Silban. Prosatio Silban opened his eyes and looked at the captain. The captain was looking into the distance.
From the hull below came the gentle slap of water. The captain could see it rippling toward the starlit horizon. He exhaled heavily.
“Prepare to lower the longboat,” he said. “And to row like you’ve never rowed before.”