Hunt

“We fear Evil as we fear the wave that drowns us, but it rests atop an ocean of smaller evils.”

– Extract from the transcript of the ‘Sermon of the Shores’, as spoken by Sister Salienta

Of all the ships in her father’s fleet, Hye Su loved the Venerable Tortoise the most.

It wasn’t like the others because it’d come from across the Tyrian Sea, from Asadal: the faraway land where her father had been born. Most of the ships he’d led when he went into exile had sunk in the crossing so there weren’t many left, and of those that remained the Venerable Tortoise was by far the largest. It had four masts and two decks, squat but swift because it’d been built as a warship to fight the Yan Tei. It wasn’t because of that Hye called it her favourite though: the Tortoise was the first home she’d ever known. The earliest thing remembered was the sound of wood groaning as the keel cut through the waves.

Hye had been born a sailor, everyone said so. She had her own table on the forecastle, where if she was good she was allowed to work on her letters and numbers instead of in her father’s cabin, and today she’d been diligent even if Asadal formal characters were just the worst. She loved the days out at sea, so it was a little sad that the Tortoise was headed back to Relic Reef. Although, by the look on her father’s face as he looked into the Baalite eye, maybe they wouldn’t be heading there quite just yet.

“Is it a merchant ship?” Hye eagerly asked.

Iseul Su, Admiral-in-Exile of the Southern Fleet, was a tall man with a thick build and a rounded belly. Hye’s father was tanned to leather from sun and salt and his feathered hat was raggedy around the edges, but his long beard and mustache were always immaculately groomed. Mother said that it was because he was his own true love so he took best care of himself but Dad always insisted that it was just his duty to be well-groomed as an admiral of the Asadal navy, which was the finest in Creation. Her fathers set down the longview and patted her head.

“Ashuran, my little petrel,” Admiral Iseul said. “A trader with belly full of goods by the way she drags water, headed south for Penthes.”

It must be coming back from Thalassina, Hye thought.

“You always say Ashurans are thieves and swindlers,” she said.

“As is only natural,” her father solemnly replied, “since they are descended from the Baalite Hegemony, who are the greatest swindlers and thieves to ever live.”

“So they’re going to be strong if we try to take the ship?” Hye asked. “Tae says the Hegemony was a great empire, so they must have been conquerors once.”

“The Hegemony would never do anything so impolite as conquering, petrel,” Admiral Iseul replied, amused. “They only colonize land that other people mistakenly believed was theirs, then defend it most vigorously.”

That sounded like a lot more effort than just stabbing people for their things.

“So we can take the Ashurans then,” she sagely said. “’cause they’re weak.”

Her father grinned, patted her head again.

“I believe we will,” he said. “We’ve the time to spare before we sail for the Reef. Be a good girl and find Tae, yes?”

She nodded even as he peeled away and began bellowing orders in Koryo, his native tongue, the crew cheering. Hye hadn’t even put away her scrolls and ink yet when Tae found her instead of the other way around, the tall and grizzled sailor nodding approvingly at her efforts. Tae was nice, especially when he drank and said too much, but Hye was oathsworn to resent him because he was her designated keeper. She was already debating spilling ink on his boots, which he definitely noticed by the warning look he gave her.

“If you clean up well and quickly, I’ll let you sit in the crow’s nest with your bow,” Tae told her.

He always spoke in tradertongue when her father wasn’t around. There were still some crew from Asadal who thought that their admiral would one day lead them back across the Tyrian Sea, but Tae wasn’t one of them.

“Fine,” Hye loudly sighed, trying to hide her eagerness.

And failing, from the way he grinned at her through his drooping moustache. Pursuing the Ashurans took hours, the other ship trying to slip them and ride the wind to League waters in the hopes that a patrol might bail them out, but their hull was full and the Venerable Tortoise more of a hare when the wind was at her back. True to his word, Tae took her up in the crow’s nest with the grown-up bow her mother had given her last year and a quiver full of arrows.

“Only shoot if they don’t surrender,” Tae reminded her.

Hye shot him an offended look.

“I’m a pirate too,” she replied, indignant.

Were people ever going to stop ruffling her hair? Ugh. The Ashurans struck their sail when it became clear they weren’t going to get away and allowed the Tortoise to approach. Her father shouted back and forth with their captain a while, promising to spare the crew if there was no fight, and it looked like this was going to get done the nice way until a hard-eyed woman on the Ashuran ship screamed out something in High Tyrian and Dasom’s torso exploded in a whirl of wind.

“Ship mage,” Tae cursed. “Their pride always gets crew killed.”

It was a bloody fight after that, but the Ashurans did most the bleeding. The Tortoise’s crew was twice as large and they’d all been fighters for years, so the merchant ship’s deck was swept in half an hour and the last survivors holed up in the hull surrendered not long after. Hye shot three arrows and wanted to kill the ship mage but Tae stopped her firing at the woman.

“Don’t draw her attention,” he warned.

She came down when it was all over but her father wasn’t back yet. He’d gone over with the boarders, in the first wave, and now he was talking with some of the survivors to see if they wanted to join his fleet. The merchant ship hadn’t even been damaged much, so maybe they’d get keep it! Hye went to get arrows out of bodies, starting with her own, and that was when her father found her. He was covered in blood and in a fine mood.

“Petrel,” he grinned, sweeping her up as she shrieked in joy and dismay. “I saw you up there with the bow. Did you get anyone?”

“I killed twelve,” Hye lied.

He cocked any eyebrow at her, then shot a glance at Tae.

“One,” the traitor said. “Clean, right through the throat. Two wounded.”

“If you’d said two I would have believed you,” her father told her. “Tailor the lie to the believable, daughter.”

She pouted. Hye was totally capable of killing twelve men, she just hadn’t gotten into the swing of it yet.

“The day’s young and we’ll be moving around the cargo for hours yet,” he continued. “Be a dear and return to your table, yes? You’re not done with your letters.”

“But I want to see the loot,” Hye whined. “And there’s too many characters, anyway, I’ll never use them all.”

“You are nine already, petrel,” Iseul Su firmly said. “Before you are ten you must either be an educated and graceful lady knowing all her characters or have slain one hundred men. I will tolerate nothing less from my daughter.”

Ugh, that was so unfair. She was never going to fight enough people to get out of learning the characters, actually killing people with arrows was hard. Her father tweaked her nose.

“There’s a word for people who stop learning, petrel,” he said.

“Corpse,” she dutifully finished.

“Good girl,” he smiled, and was about to speak when a shout came from above.

It was Haneul up in the crow’s nest and she’d called out a word in Koryo that Hye didn’t know. Father cocked an eyebrow, then stroked his beard.

“Tae,” he said, “get the good tea out and a kettle boiling while I get changed.”

The grizzled man nodded. Hye frowned at her father as Tae left.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because Haneul is seeing someone running on the water towards us,” he said. “Either your mother’s returned, petrel, or an Emerald Sword caught us on the open water.”

He laughed.

“Either way, it deserves tea and a fresh shirt.”

It was Mother.

She’d been running on the sea for three days, half of it through a storm, and she’d wrecked her sword again. Which she blamed Father for, but when he poured her a cup of that disgusting yellow tea she decided to forgive him and kissed the side of his neck. The crew had been happy to hear she was on her way, calling out that ‘Lady Borean’ was returning as soon as Mother’s long red coat became visible on the horizon. Hye sat in her chair with her hands in her lap, back straight, and waited for her mother to finish shedding off her coat and setting aside her bow.

Her mother’s people didn’t really have last names the way humans did, but when Hye had been small Mother had once told her that her family had once titled her Borean Longsorrow. She was tall and slender, her hair was black like Hye’s but her skin pale and smooth, and her eyes dark eyes larger than any human’s. Tae said that Mother moved like a blade, carving through life, and sometimes Hye thought she knew what he meant. It was in the way she moved, like the world had to get out of the way or else it would get cut.

The girl had gotten lost in her thoughts, a little bored waiting, so when her mother flicked her forehead she nearly fell from her chair.

“I see how it is,” her mother said. “I leave for a month and suddenly my own daughter ignores me.”

“Tea is stupid,” Hye told her. “So it’s your fault.”

Mom laughed while her father glared at her from the corner of his eye. He took tea pretty seriously.

“You’re growing quickly, Hye,” her mother said. “Every time I leave you seem to have shot up another inch.”

“I’m going to be taller than you,” she swore.

“We’ll see,” Borean smiled. “Have you been practising with your bow?”

“I’m getting better,” Hye said, then turned sly. “But it’d be quicker if you were there to give me exercises.”

Her father snorted.

“Is that so?” Mother lightly said.

“Maybe you should live with us on the Tortoise again,” Hye innocently suggested. “Like when I was little.”

Mother shot a look at Father, who looked very amused.

“We can talk about it after this year’s festival,” her mother said.

“You’ve been on so many trips lately though, and for so long,” Hye whined. “You never did that when I was a kid, you never even left the ship without Father.”

“It is only natural that a young couple’s heart should be as one,” her father drawled. “Alas, time passes. But perhaps your mother will not tire of me entirely for a few years yet.”

“Or maybe this will be the year, Iseul,” Mother smiled, then sipped at her tea.

Hye could tell when a conversation was over, so she asked about the trip instead.

“Did you find the ship you wanted?” she asked.

“Caught up to it in the middle of the storm,” Mother told her. “It was already sinking, I had to drag out the missionary to interrogate him.”

Some Yan Tei priest, Hye knew, from across the sea. Sometimes they came to Calernia, probably because they were tired of losing battles to the Asadal.

“Interesting news of home?” Father asked.

“The House Wars are still raging and have grown even bloodier since last century,” Mother smiled, lean and mean. “The massacres are dragging in the ancestor families on all sides, so now elves are fighting each other as well.”

She sounded deeply satisfied. Mother had not left the other elves on good terms, Hye hadn’t need to be told that to figure it out.

“We warned them that reckless breeding would cost us dearly,” Mother said. “But did they listen? No. Let them reap what they have sown.”

Father rolled his eyes. He always did that when they talked about elves, because he didn’t take them very seriously. Said it was a good thing they’d burned their fleet after coming to Calernia, because the ships had been fit only for firewood.

“Anything of Asadal?” he asked.

“The Yan Tei attempted invasion and were turned back at the Mountain Gate,” Mother said. “The Western Fleet sacked a few coastal cities in retaliation. That and the usual games in the Closed Sea.”

That put her father in a good mood, he always liked to hear about the Yan Tei losing at war, so after they finished the tea talking about little things. Father left after a bit to ensure their ship would set sail while the wind was at their back, leaving Hye to talk with her mother. Which was fine, because a question had been burning at her throat for an hour now.

“Mothe,” the girl said. “You know that thing you do when you walk on water?”

“Assertion,” her mother stated. “What about it?”

“Will I be able to do that too when I’m older?” Hye asked.

“No,” Mom bluntly replied. “You are only a halfblood.”

“You said there’s a bunch of other half-elves across the sea, though,” Hye pressed. “Not one of them could do it?”

“Perhaps if one lived long enough they might succeed,” her mother mused, “but I’ve known few to last longer than a millennium. It is not done.”

“There has to be a trick to it,” Hye pouted. “I’ll figure it out one day.”

“It’s not a trick, Hye, those come from outside,” Mother said. “Assertion, the act of asserting yourself on the fabric of Creation, it is…”

She trailed off.

“It is to perfect an aspect of yourself in a way that not even the world can resist,” she finished.

That didn’t help at all, but Hye nodded to pretend it had. Mother asked about her lessons after, because she never liked talking about elf stuff much.

“Tae’s been on my back a lot lately,” Hye said. “I think he’s practising.”

“For what?” Mother asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“His wife is pregnant again,” Hye said. “He says it’s going to be a boy.”

“How many does that make now?” she snickered.

“Five,” Hye said. “You know, some of the old crew say that Father should have more kids too. That it shows favour from the Gods when a man has many children.”

“You have at least a dozen half-siblings across the sea, daughter,” Mother reminded her. “Though as far as I know you are the only issue he ever personally raised.”

“It’s not the same though,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “I think I’d like a little brother. Sometimes I have to carry too much stuff around.”

“Family is complicated, petrel,” Mother lightly said. “And I have never done well with siblings.”

“You left ‘cause you argued with yours,” the girl slyly said.

Mother looked surprised so Hye grinned. She’d overhead the crew talking, but she hadn’t known if it was true until now.

“Close enough, I suppose,” her mother said. “I killed all seven of my sisters.”

Hye gasped. That wasn’t what she’d heard at all.

“Was that in the war?” she asked.

“The first I slew in a duel,” Mother said. “I believed that we needed strict laws, Hye, to prevent disaster. That elves should have no more than three children with humans and any who went over that number should lose the right and have all mixed descendance removed from Creation. My eldest sister had already founded five families and she took my beliefs personally. We settled it with blades.”

“Then the rest got angry ‘cause you won,” Hye guessed, frowning.

Sore losers.

“There was only one side left for me in the war after that and it was not theirs,” Mother shrugged. “They sought me out on the battlefield and fell short until none were left. If I had not sailed with the Wise King my mother likely would have sought to kill me as well. That match I would not have won.”

Hye solemnly nodded. Her grandmother had taught her mother the sword, like her mother would one day teach her.

“I’m your only kid, though,” the girl pointed out. “So you could still have two more.”

“One is enough for me,” Mother smiled, ruffling her hair. “Any more and I fear the King would take personal offence.”

“He sounds like a prick,” Hye opined.

Her mother snorted.

“He is ancient and powerful,” Mother said. “His grandmother woke with the First Dawn, and even more dangerous than his magic is his foresight. He knew we would lose the war long before we did, it is why we had the ships to cross the sea.”

“Still sounds like a prick,” Hye honestly replied.

Mother laughed, and that was that.

Relic Reef was deep in the Tideless Isles, and it was the secret port where Admiral Iseul’s fleet made its home. There was a large hidden island behind the maze of reefs and the strange stone pillars that the waves sometimes revealed, and a small town on it. Hye’s mother said that the pillars were a wonder of magic, the reason while the tides around here were so strange.

“Titan’s work,” Mother had said. “Not power to trifle with.”

Every year the entire fleet came back here for a week, all the crews and ships spreading across the beaches to celebrate what they called the Festival of the Hunt. Hye had been told by some it was about the ships taken during the year, the captains boasting about their prizes, but Tae always avoided answering when she asked him so there must be more to it. Besides, her parents did that strange ceremony every year after everyone got drunk where they stood on a beach and it looked like they were about to duel but never did.

A lot of the wives and husbands who lived on the Reef all year long thought it was romantic, like a sort of pirate wedding, but older sailors said it wasn’t that. They’d been doing it for nineteen years – twenty this year – and Hye was only nine. She knew her parents hadn’t always liked each other before she was born, so it wouldn’t be that. This year the festival seemed larger than ever, probably ‘cause the fleet was the largest it’d ever been: twenty-nine ships if you counted the Ashuran trader that’d been dragged in by the Tortoise, and Hye thought you should.

There were hundreds of people on the beach, from all over Calernia, and even more in the town that’d been carved out from the island rocks. Hye’s father would be out with his captains until late and her mother didn’t like crowds, so it was Tae who took care of her after spending some time with his family. He took her to the beach games, but a few times they took a detour so he could buy a bottle of strongwine. He was getting very drunk, Hye thought, and very quickly.

“Are you sure it’s safe if you drink this much?” she asked him.

He’d never done that before even when he drank.

“Tonight, child, you’re the only safe person on this island,” Tae said.

She frowned at him. Part of why she needed a keeper was in case someone tried to get at her father through her.

“I don’t get it,” Hye admitted.

“The seal was supposed to last fifty years, but Lady Borean is powerful as any sage,” Tae sighed. “She’s been going further away and for longer. She’ll break it tonight, I’m sure.”

“What seal?” she asked.

“Two hearts as one,” Tae laughed. “She was going to pluck us out for news like that poor Yan Tei fuck in the storm, but the Admiral tricked her. One dies, so does the other. And if she touched any of us he’d trigger the seal.”

“You’re lying,” Hye hissed. “They’re in love.”

Tae smiled sadly.

“We’ll know by the end of the night, girl,” he replied.

He was a filthy liar, so she kicked him and ran away. He was too drunk to catch her when she went into the crowd, so Hye went off on her own and hid. It was a lie, had to be. It was getting darker out though, and she knew what that meant. The ceremony on the beach. She snuck in with the crowd when it began to gather, keeping away from the people looking for her. Her parents were on the beach already, facing each other. They both had swords in hand. They frowned, looking at each other, until finally there was some sort of snap. Hye felt it and the crowd did too, murmuring uneasily. It’d never happened before.

“Twenty years to the day,” Father said, smiling. “I had not thought that possible.”

“You might have stretched it out if you had a sage around,” Mother replied.

Their eyes met.

“And now?” Father asked.

“Now we balance the score,” Mother replied.

She struck, moving faster than Hye had ever seen anyone move and Father parried the blow just a little too late. There was a long cut across his cheek. Hye froze in terror and grief as Father received one wound after another, never landing so much as a blow. One, two, five, eight – and then, after she slashed across his torso shallowly and scored her eleventh wound, Mother took a step back. Father watched her, face unreadable.

“And the nine left?”

“Those I liked,” Mother easily said. “So it is now a done thing.”

She flicked away the blood and sheathed her blade. There was still a lot of confusion in the crowd but it looked like it was over and no one was dead, so when someone started cheering soon after everyone was. A lot of the older crew looked pathetically relieved. Hye ran out of the crowd to her parents, hovering around her wounded father but afraid to hug him, and he lightly patted her head.

“No need to cry, petrel,” Father smiled. “I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist keeping me around.”

Mother rolled her eyes at him, but she did not say otherwise.

After all the excitement Hye had gone to bed exhausted, but she woke up in her bed in the middle of the night. There was something wrong. Somehow she could feel it, there was something wrong. Throwing aside her covers she dragged on her boots and left the house, the full moon’s light shining down like a lantern. None of the crew were guarding the house, that was the wrongness she picked up on. There was always someone around the house, especially if she was in it. So she took the streets, and there the stench had her emptying her stomach on the stones. Blood, so much blood. And there were bodies everywhere. Every house, every street, and when she ran down to the beach it was like a sea of corpses. Even the ships were drenched in red, like someone had moved inch by inch across Relic Reef and taken every life.

Hye never saw the blade until it was slapped away from her neck.

Without so much as a whisper of warning Mother was standing in front of her, and four people in cloaks faced her. Mother had a sword in hand and her shoulders were tight.

“Try that again, Dusk, and I’ll cross the sea to butcher every single kin you have left after I’m done with you,” Mother coldly said.

“Abomination,” one of the strangers spat. “He sends us to bring you home and we find you have waded in filth.”

“Run back to the Golden Bloom, Dawn, before I decide you’re in need of a refresher in manners,” Mother retorted. “You should remember how the last one went.”

“Mother,” Hye whispered, “who are they?”

“Old students of mine,” she replied. “Who forget I named the Emerald Blades because they are still so very green.”

“You cannot defend both her and your… pet,” a stranger said.

“No,” Mother agreed. “But if you take either of their lives, I’ll kill all four of you afterwards.”

Hye hid behind her mother, gripping at the red coat. Silence stretched out.

“We will return,” the Emerald Sword said. “All of us.”

“Tell him the Wise King tonight counts as my resignation,” Mother replied, unimpressed. “He can find himself another champion.”

And then they were gone, just as suddenly as they had appeared. Almost like it’d all been a dream, except that the stench around them would not let Hye believe that even a moment. Mother stood there for a long time, then sighed. Her shoulders loosened and she lightly rested her hand on her daughter’s head.

“Come, Hye,” she tiredly said. “If I know your father, he’s found us a ship to sail off this island by now.”

She’d been right.

It was not a nice ship. It was small and dinky and it stank of old fish. But they would be able to sail it with only three people and take some things with them. Hye took her bow and her arrows, nothing else. What would be the point, when all it took was a blink of an eye for it to be gone? Everyone she knew was dead.

“Where to?” Mother asked, pushing their boat into the water.

“Well,” Father hummed, pulling at the sail, “I stole some Praesi state secrets two years back. They should buy us refuge in Ashur for a time.”

Just for a time, she thought. Was it going to happen again, tonight? Was she going to find another world and one night wake up to find it had been slaughtered?

“And after that?” Hye asked.

“After that,” Mother softly replied, “the hunt continues.”

7 thoughts on “Hunt

  1. caoimhinh

    Hmm, so Hye has been a murder-happy psychopath ever since she was a child. I thought her attitude had been born out of getting jaded after centuries of rough experiences.

    Kind of weird that she threw up due to the smell of blood, considering she was fine with blood and killing and saw slaughters on a regular basis.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ThreatoftheNile

      I think it was the sheer amount of blood spilled combined with the fact that she knew (and even cared about) everyone who had died.
      It’s the difference between fighting in a mostly controlled battle (thrilling, fun, not too much danger of the people she cares about actually getting seriously hurt or dying) and waking up to the aftermath of a massacre (everyone and everything she’s ever known except her parents are dead) that had her throwing up, not just the blood and violence.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. SeventhSolar

      I think there’s a strong difference between “a shooting victim from another ship” and “entire town full of dissected corpses”. There’s definitely a very strong difference between “soft merchants” and “everyone you know and love”. Pirates are a thing in real life, as are looters, thieves, murderers, soldiers, etc. The path to psychopathy for Hye Su is learning that no one matters if they’re not stronger than her, not anything to do with whether or not killing people is okay.

      Liked by 1 person

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