Sirrah Bear stood on the deck of the ship, looking far out to the horizon. He never really belonged on this tiny island, cramped with inert human life. His paws were chained together behind his back, and a muzzle clamped his jaws shut. A millstone was tied to his foot, but he maintained his dignity, the longing in his eyes stronger than any physical bond they place on him.
“You are here sentenced to death for these charges: murder, theft, and impersonation of the Prince, may he rest in peace.” Here the sailors and guards drew two fingers down their lips, in silent remembrance of the dead Prince that stood concealed before their blinded eyes. “May the seas wash you of your guilt.”
There was no ceremony in these words; the lector meant them. There were still a few who believed, though many consider it vague superstition. If Sirrah Bear was innocent, the sea would save him. In one slow movement, the lector signalled the sailor next to the bear. “Hold fast,” the sailor said, and for the first time Sirrah Bear looked at him. The millstone went over the bow and the bear jumped, refusing to be pulled down by its weight. Under the water he thrashed, snapping the ropes that were loosened around his wrists and kicking steadily against the weight of the millstone. The muzzle was water-tight, and with those precious seconds of air he yanked at the chain and it broke, trailing far under him to the navy depths of the sea. His great lungs were far from tired, and he paddled swiftly into the sea, far from the island and ever closer to home.
Onboard the ship, the sailors returned to their tasks as the captain shouted orders across the deck. Next to him, a sully figure dressed in dark colors leaned over the bow, searching the ocean for any sign of life. The crew avoided him, keeping their eyes low when they approached to speak with the captain. The mood above deck was shallow, a farce of energy and activity that hid the atrocity of the trial.
The ship swiftly tacked to head back into the harbor, carrying with it news of the bear’s death. The sailor who dropped the millstone was the first to land on the dock, sprinting swiftly through the streets to arrive at a small two-story house in the shadow of the cliffs. Inside the sailor paused, jotting down the bare bones of a message on a warm sheet of parchment. He passed it to the clerk, who neatly rolled it and sent it down into a schute behind the desk. In the wan electrical light, their faces were grim as they spoke briefly, trading worn-out information and secrets so silent they were barely more than movement.
“Do you think he got the message?” The clerk asked.
“It’s hard to tell, but he realized something. At least he recognized me, I think.” The disguise was clever enough to blur suspicious eyes, but the sailor’s blue eyes and light dialect were enough to give her away to anyone who knew her. “And anyway, we know those bonds wouldn’t have held him. The millstone was barely attached to the chain, all it would take is one kick for Justin to free himself.”
The clerk nodded slowly, confirming his assumptions. “Did Dorian recognize you?”
“Of course not.” She shook off her headwrap, letting loose forgein blonde hair that set her apart from the backwater crowd. “I struggled to roll the stone, though. For a moment I thought they would figure me out, but one of the other sailors helped me, and I lucked out.”
“I don’t know why we chose to send you in.” The clerk chuckled, shaking his head at her comment. “If only Leon wasn’t so easily recognizable…”
“Speaking of Leon, where is he?” She asked, fiddling with the scarf in her hands. The clerk looked mildly irritated, as if the name brought back bad memories.
“He got caught up.” The clerk was quiet, and the sailor-girl nodded. “Oh, and Stephanie? Please don’t try to find him.” She nodded, picking up a cloak from the chair behind her and throwing it over her shoulders.
“I suppose he’ll just have to find me instead.” Neither of them looked satisfied, but they both simply nodded goodbye, as if enough had been said. Out in the shadows of the cliffs, Stephanie shivered. Her hair was cloaked safely in the hood, but she was still a wanted woman. It was unlikely that she would make it home without someone recognizing her from the boat, so she slipped down a quiet alleyway and knocked on a wooden door, prepared to run at the first sign of danger. The door opened slowly, and a wizened face peaked out.
“Stephanie? Come in, darling, come out of the damp.” Mama Harley always called the weather ‘damp’ in this quarter of town, where the sun only reached the streets at midday. Stephanie walked into the firelit parlor, shaking off her muddied boots at the door. “Here, have some camel crackers.” She placed a plate of oatmeal crackers on the table by the armchair, and Stephanie gratefully let the brown sugar melt in her mouth, the taste of far away places and home.
“I suppose you are still up to no good with that wizardry club?” Mama Harley asked, sitting down opposite of Stephanie.
“Ha… Mama, it’s not magic, it’s electricity, you know that.” Stephanie smiled slowly, and Mama Harley shook her head gravely.
“Not much difference to an old mind like mine.” They sat in silence for a while, and Mama Harley began to doze off in the warmth of the flames. Stephanie felt tears well up in her eyes as she made a decision. Packing a couple more of the crackers in her purse, she tiptoed out the door and shut it. Better to leave no trace when she left than have the patrols knocking on her door. Mama Harley had been on the island since childhood, and already memory loss was chipping away at her once bright mind.
Back on the streets, Stephanie headed away from the harbour, steadily trekking up the hill into cleaner air. The sun was slipping down the horizon, and she wanted to watch the sunset from the top just one more time.
The scorching rays had just begun to golden when she reached the top of the island, a flat plateau full of green grass and wildflowers. There was only one house up here, belonging to an old recluse who refused to give up her land. Stephanie had seen her gardening once, but her shape was so bent and hands covered in dirt she would have hardly recognized her anywhere else.
She sat down quietly, picking at stalks of grass and twining violets and dandelions into a string. Maybe she would press them between the pages of her journal and dry them so they lasted on the mainland. She didn’t know if she could bear the dry dust at the back of her throat after such a wonderful year here; such lovely green things would be missing from her life again, and this time she couldn’t contemplate ever seeing them again.
“You have such pretty hair, Adeline.” A voice from behind her startled Stephanie, but it was only the recluse. White hair was braided around her face intricately and her hands were stained a rough brown, not at all like Mama Harley’s soft lady-hands.
“Oh, I’m not from here,” Stephanie answered back, surprised at the familiar term. She was far from royalty, or at least the royalty of this island.
“People here used to have hair like yours.” She reached out and stroked a reddish highlight, even more pronounced in the dying sunlight. “Fire was the closest thing to magic for us, before we could harness lightning.” Stephanie’s eyes flashed at the familiar idiom, but they quickly dulled out of habit.
“We still have fire,” she protested, standing to look the recluse in the eye. “Our magic isn’t gone.” The woman simply lowered her hands, a smirk tugging at her lips. Stephanie quickly bowed, afraid to be caught up in something she never hoped for.
“You’ll figure out what’s at stake; heavens only know if you’ll be on time.” And with that final word, the woman with the white hair pressed her fingers to her lips, a final farewell, an acknowledgement of death. Stephanie was unsure how to respond, so she simply bowed again and ran down the dirt path back to the streets and into the harbor, shaken by her encounter and thinking only of her escape.