by Kuroi Fuji (九呂井ふじ)
“…Singers were welcomed by the sea-going, because having the Song aboard kept the spiritwrack away. It almost guaranteed that the biggest problems of a voyage would be mundane: contrary winds or unpredictable currents, rather than plagues of nightmares, food inexplicably spoiling in a day, ropes suddenly snapping, or wood suddenly giving under a man’s feet…. Still, despite their usefulness, it was whispered that Singers were best treated like expert bladesmen or Old Tech riflemen: handy to have aboard, but you’d best make sure they wouldn’t go unhinged and take out your whole crew. For it was said that the very Song that kept the malicious dead away also waxed and waned with the tide, and you never knew if one night a Singer would have the power and will to make not just dead souls dance to their tune….”
—Malachai Drecker, History of the Song and the Sea
Eiron shivered, rolled over, and wasn’t surprised to find the other half of the bed cold and abandoned. The music floated to him again, tinged with the tang of Song, making his skin itch and his fingers twitch. “Goddammit, Kor,” he muttered, throwing back the blanket and grabbing his breeches off the floor.
The night air was warm, the breeze moist and salty against his face as Eiron came up on deck, scraping back blonde hair into a tail. The stars shone above, thick as thieves against the black silk sky.
The music was louder out here, and Eiron twitched irritably as it crawled up his spine again. He nodded to Jasen, who was standing watch on the quarterdeck. The young man nodded to him, and if he could feel the half-assed come-hither-spell that had carried Eiron out here, he was smart enough not to let on. Maybe he couldn’t sense it. Maybe all he heard was their Singer out on deck, sleepless and with restless fingers.
Eiron hoped so. To save his pride if nothing else.
The flute music changed as Eiron drew near, sliding into a laughing, sly version of “The Jolly Captain”.
“Ah, stow it,” Eiron grumbled, kicking the crate that formed the backrest of Rikor’s favorite spot facing the bowsprit. “Knock that shit off.”
A chuckle from the shadows of the crate. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Uh huh. Right.” Singers were valued for their way of warding off the stray spirits and geists and Ridden that could turn any trip to disaster, but no man liked having his own spirit muddled. Eiron was no exception, and Rikor knew it. Rikor’s insistence on pushing was, as far as Eiron was concerned, just another sign of him being just as nuts as a Singer should be.
Eiron fumbled in his pockets, glad to find his pipe right where he’d left it. He packed it with his thumb and struck a match off the foremast.
Dark hair and sun-browned skin blended in with shadow and darkened wood, but the matchlight picked Rikor out of the darkness by the shine of eyes and teeth as he laughed. His flute rested against his chest, pale bone and metal shining before Eiron shook the match out. “My apologies, captain. No harm done.”
Eiron pulled in a breath, let it out scented with the clove-and-spice of good Maican tobacco. “You sure about that?”
“Of course,” Rikor’s voice was rough, like it’d been dragged over broken glass. Startlingly unlike the high, clear delicacy of his playing. His fingers stroked over his instrument slowly, more tender than Eiron’d ever known the Singer to be with a lover. He looked up at Eiron, smile inscrutable. “Would I do it otherwise?”
Eiron grunted. It was nights like this that he was tempted to throw Rikor’s flute over the side. Sometimes he thought that the spiritwrack would cause him less grief than Rikor’s Song. “I’ve long since given up trying to figure you out.”
“As well you should.” Rikor held his hand out, his fingers wiggling impatiently.
Eiron sighed and took a last long drag before handing over his pipe. “Demanding bastard.”
“Always.” The word drifted into the air on tobacco smoke.
Eiron looked out into the darkness. There was no moon, and the starlight wasn’t quite enough to illuminate the waves. “What’re you doing out here?”
Rikor breathed in and out, the coal of Eiron’s pipe glowing. “The sea’s restless.”
“Perhaps. More restless than dangerous, though.”
“Same thing.” Eiron leaned on the railing, eyes falling past the bowsprit to the black waves lapping at the keel. Somewhere under there, so the tale went, was one of the fabled continents. A great island of land so large that it would take months to travel across it, its people plentiful and thick as flies. Most of them drowned when the vengeful sea rose, claiming body and soul. Millions and millions of souls, thicker than fish in the water, jealous of the living, and wreaking their vengeance on any who travel the seas.
“Not quite,” Rikor said mildly. Magnanimously, he passed back the pipe, and Eiron got a good drag off it before it went out.
Rikor’s fingers played over his flute, a warding charm taking shape as he looked out over the black waves. It sounded vaguely like what he played as the men went below after dinner: a ward against nightmares and possession in one’s sleep.
Eiron tapped his pipe out over the side. “Come on. Time for all good Singers to be in bed.”
Rikor grated a laugh and let his flute hang about his neck from its cords. He stood and stretched, then headed belowdecks, with the air of one who was NOT following orders but had WANTED to go that way all along.
Just like Eiron did NOT watch the roll of the Singer’s hips.
He waited another quarter hour, just to spite the bastard, before heading below himself.
Rikor was already in bed when Eiron got there, splayed out over the sheets in the bare lanternlight. He stretched, catlike, as Eiron tossed his shirt over the chair. Cheeky bastard. He was sexy and he knew it, chuckling as Eiron pushed him back on the bed. The hard kiss tasted a bit of rum, a bit of pipesmoke, a bit of cinnamon-spice. Eiron’s hand fell to the Singer’s hair, tugging his head back so he could get at Rikor’s throat, and Rikor laughed, nails scratching lightly down Eiron’s back.
Eiron was busy nipping at dusky skin, rolling a knee against Rikor’s very interested cock when he felt Rikor stiffen: an odd, full-body freeze. Puzzled, he pulled back–
And then the warning bell sounded from the deck.
“What the fu–” And then Eiron looked up. Rikor’s eyes were open, staring, the solid, glowing white of possession. An unearthly rattle grew in his throat.
Eiron’s legs tangled in the sheets, and he was lucky he didn’t kill himself scrambling out of bed. “RIKOR! Get the fuck ahold of yourself!” His hip came down hard on his boots, and he caught up his knife from his bootsheath. The noise from outside got louder: the wooden banging, shouts, the pound of running feet.
The warning bell sounded out “enemies aboard”.
Rikor’s head lolled back, his hands twitching spasmically.
There came a pounding on the door, someone calling his and Rikor’s names. Fuck, if they were calling for the Singer then the commotion must be more spiritwrack out there and Rikor was still being Ridden by something strong enough to make it past the ship wards and into a SINGER, for fuck’s sake. Eiron didn’t know what a spirit could DO with a Singer’s body, especially a spirit mass that could convince Rikor that the sea was ‘restless but not dangerous’. He was afraid to find out and settled his knife in his hand.
There was a buzzing of music in the back of his head. It was raw, slightly ragged, almost sickening in its asymmetry. Some ungainly mix of Rikor’s grating voice and his flute. But Rikor wasn’t singing, and his flute was still on the table.
The tune got louder, strengthening. Eiron shook his head to try and clear it, yelling at whoever was beyond the door to go rouse the men, get everyone on deck–
The racket coming from Rikor evened, as if the whole band had finally decided to play the same tune and it took on the soul-shivering timbre of true Song. Eiron wondered for a heartbeat if this was some spirit trick. Wondered if maybe he should throw the knife before the Rider could do something unholy terrible to the whole ship with Rikor’s Singing. Before he could make up his mind, though, the tune spiralled, lost its sickening edge, and suddenly it was the simple spiritwrack ward that Rikor’d been playing earlier, but a thousand times stronger, ringing and clear. So strong that Eiron could feel it shuddering through his flesh and bones. Rikor’s convulsions eased as the Song spread, blanketing the mind like warm wool and pushing the buzz of malicious spirit energy before it. Eiron could SEE the Riding spirit pushed out of Rikor’s body, a wisp of sickly ivory with a vague face, empty eyes, grasping, elongated hands. It shredded as it was pushed up and away through the deck.
And as the last stanza of the ward resounded through the ship and faded away, there was a moment’s blessed silence.
Eiron still held the knife in his hand. “…Kor?”
Rikor’s head slumped forward, and he brought his hand to his eyes, movements fumbling. “Got ’em. Strong fucker.”
“Ship’s clean. Ship’s clean….” Rikor slumped back into bed, curling weakly around his pillow. He was out cold by the time Eiron got over there to check him, but his pulse was steady, his breathing even.
The whole thing had taken less than two minutes.
Eiron rubbed his face. “Fuck, I hope you’re right, this time.”
Eiron grabbed his pants for the second time that night and went to make sure his ship was still in one piece. It was. Evidently there’d been a few possessions, some poltergeists, a few ghasts clawing their way up on deck. Some weaker spirits following in the wake of the one that’d possessed Rikor, probably. The men said that Rikor’s Song had driven it all away, the geists silenced, the Riders forced out, the ghasts boiled away to ectoplasm in slimy streaks on the deck. The men were in awe. They’d never seen anything like it.
When Eiron climbed back into bed, swearing that any man that disturbed him before noon was going to be hung from the yardarm, ship and crew were fine, sailing steadily north to the Chain. He wrapped an arm around Rikor and leaned over to blow out the lantern. His eyes fell on Rikor’s flute on the table, just like it’d been since Rikor’d come down from deck.
Singers weren’t SUPPOSED to be able to bring the Song without their instruments. Well, NORMAL Singers, the fifth and sixth rank ones that were the only ones that a lowly seadog like Eiron’d ever have contact with, weren’t able to. There were tales about the higher ranks, though, that their powers were fierce as the hurricanes, strong enough to guard whole islands…
Or strong enough to exorcise an entire ship and yourself without touching your instrument?
Something poked him in the chest, Rikor grumbling against his skin. “Stop thinking.”
“Can’t help it. You gave quite a show.”
Rikor grumbled a curse he’d probably learned from one of the sailors.
Eiron leaned back, hand behind his head. “So. Gonna tell me why you shipped out with a trader for a fifth-rank’s pay?”
“Why, I fell in love with your irascible good charm, of course.”
“You’re such an asshole.”
“I thought that was what you liked about me.”
Rikor shifted restlessly in the dark. “I’m fifth rank. Right now. I got…stronger right before I signed on with you. They wanted to retest me, bump me up. I didn’t want them to. That’s all.”
A snort. “Why would a seagull choose to fly free rather than live in a cage?”
Eiron frowned. “A cage? How far up did they want to rank you?”
The thump of a fist into the bedding, and Rikor’s voice, frustrated, moved as he half-raised himself up on his arms. “It doesn’t CHANGE anything! It doesn’t change me, it doesn’t change what I want. And I don’t want to be stuck on some rock somewhere, doing the same thing, day in and day out, watched all the time, treated like some fucking precious treasure that shouldn’t see the light of day or drink or swear or fuck. I’ve SEEN the island guards, Eiron, and they’re DEAD, even before the wardings–” He stopped, cut off as if by a knife.
“…before the wardings do what?”
Rikor laid back down, back to Eiron. “You don’t want to know.”
Eiron grabbed his shoulder, but managed to restrain himself from shaking him, which was what he really wanted to do. “Dammit, don’t give me that.”
Finally, Rikor rolled back towards Eiron, onto his back. “The Song is…not like magic’s supposed to be. Not a making the gestures and saying the words and poof, something happens. It’s a…fight. Manual labor. Just not with your muscles.” A movement in the darkness, as if he was trying to find the words. “Every ward has a bit of the Singer’s soul woven into it. Every Song is the Singer’s spirit grappling, reaching out, holding back, ripping apart, caging in, spreading itself thin. We can shape ourselves into whatever we need to be, like iron. But like iron it…wears on us. Too many forgings and we become brittle. Or misshapen, hardly able to stay in our skins anymore.”
Eiron frowned, “But I’ve met old Singers….”
He could feel Rikor shake his head. “It’s a matter of degree. Most Singers aren’t strong enough to do themselves real harm. Up around second and first class, though, when you can ward entire islands….”
“Live maybe twenty years after they take office, tops.”
Eiron wasn’t sure what to say to that. The island guardians were necessary…vitally so. People had tried to start cities without strong enough Singers as guardians, and it’d driven those who tried to live there mad.
Rikor shifted, restlessly. “It’s not something the Guild likes to talk about. Those with second and first rank potential are…not required to do it. Not really. It’s just seen as…selfish not to. Frowned upon. After all, there aren’t that many of us, and what’s half a man’s life weighted against tens of thousands?” The last sentence was wry, as if Rikor was quoting something he found more than a little distasteful.
Eiron snorted. “I imagine that’s something for the man to decide.”
Rikor turned to face him. “You don’t think I’m selfish?” He almost sounded unsure. Eiron couldn’t be sure, because he’d never heard Rikor say anything in that tone before.
“Oh, I think you’re selfish, all right. You’re also arrogant, catty, and a manipulative son of a bitch–”
“You’re such a sweet-talker, Eiron…”
“–but that doesn’t mean that it’s not your choice.” Eiron shrugged. “You didn’t ask for it. And in case you hadn’t noticed, seadogs like me’re real big on being able to choose our own way.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed.” Eiron didn’t think he was imagining the slight relief in the Singer’s voice. “Ruggedly independent. Stubborn.”
“Mulish. Pig-headed, even–”
“I can still throw you off this boat, you know.”
Rikor’s raspy chuckle was almost its usual self. A light touch found Eiron’s chest. “I’ll go, someday. To the islands, I mean. I’m not that much of an ass. Just not…not yet. I’ve got so much else I want to do first.” The touch turned seductive, sliding over one shoulder, circling one nipple coyly. “For instance….”
Eiron rumbled, “I thought you were tired.”
“Oh, I am.” The fingers were followed by a warm, wet tongue, hair tickling along Eiron’s skin. “You’ll have to do all the work.” His hand slid down Eiron’s flank, sliding between his legs to stroke him hard.
“I…think I could handle that,” Eiron growled, rolling over to cage the Singer in with his arms.
He could almost see Rikor’s face, smiling in the darkness. “Careful now. I’m delicate, you know.”
“Like hell,” Eiron muttered, leaning down to find smiling lips and finish what he’d started earlier. With perhaps a bit more hunger than usual.
And later that night, when they were both sated, Eiron told Rikor that he was STILL only getting a fifth-rank’s pay, and Rikor hit him with a pillow, and the ship rolled underneath them, the sea current bearing them placidly north.