.


Epilogue


Kino sat amidships in her white shirt, her bare feet dangling between the ship's railings. Belk handed her a fizzy drink of some kind.

"It'll pass in a couple of days. And the sea tames a little once we're away from the coast."

"Thanks." Kino smiled wanly and drank up. The sweet ginger drink helped calm the tempest a little. "Don't misunderstand, aside from this I'm really enjoying the trip. Tell me about Yardheath, mister Belk?"

"Good and bad, like most places. And plenty of sights to see beyond."

"And roads to ride," Kino smiled. "A whole new place to explore."

"Well, you give a wide berth to one such," the mate cautioned. "There's this city just beyond the northern desert, has a right wicked king. Makes anyone he gets hold of fight in a bloody coliseum for his amusement."

"Wow! Thanks for the warning; I'll definitely steer clear."

"Back to the galley with you, mister Kino. Dinner won't cook itself."

"Can I finish this first? It's good."

The mate nodded and she raised her mug to him in thanks.

Kino sat on the ship's rocking side watching the sun's reflection in the seas, and the gulls circling and cawing above. They reminded her of something poetic a man had told her.

But then a different voice spoke from her memories, and her hand reached back to gently rub her backside.

"I'll definitely steer clear."


Hermes, do you remember a little girl on her first ride, you had to teach her how to shift gears?

- I liked the pink dress.


"You're gonna drink us out of Shandy, young mister Kino."

Kino grinned. The ginger drink had helped keep her on her feet and cooking during her first week aboard a rocking ship. Now she'd developed a taste for it.

"Alright," Kino said. She pointed to each item in turn as she named it. "Tiller, transom, poop deck, helm, quarter deck, main deck, main mast, capstan."

Kino's day had become a busy routine. Awakened long before sunrise to prepare breakfast, she no sooner finished than she immediately cleaned up and begin to prepare lunch and dinner. On top of that she was expected to prepare beverages and snacks for the crew in between meals. Somehow she managed, despite not having a "cook's mate."

The work and the day's heat combined with the heat of the kitchen - "galley," Kino mentally corrected herself - to exhaust her. But she always took an hour to hang up her apron and come out of her hole onto the main deck to enjoy the sunset and the cool evening air.

Mister Belk was always there to meet her, and had initiated this game for his new cook's benefit.

"Port and starboard," Kino concluded with a smile, facing forward and pointing left and right in turn.

"We'll make a sailor of you yet, mister Kino," Belk said. "Time for a new lesson."

"Hmm?"

"Follow me."

But instead of walking across the wooden deck, Belk reached up and started climbing the rigging. Kino's eyes turned upward, and upward, toward the rocking crow's nest high above.

"Oh no! Uhh, mister Belk, I really think I ought to keep my—"

"None of that, mister Kino. That's an order. Up with you."

So Kino took hold of the web of ropes and started climbing. The entire thing felt flimsy and treacherous to her clenching hands and booted feet, but it could be climbed. And the higher she climbed, the more every muscle in her body clenched, until she slowed to a glacial crawl. The rope under her hands shook because she was shaking and this time she couldn't force her muscles to stop.

At last she struggled up beside Belk, who smiled at her. "High enough. Wrap your arms and legs about like this and you'll be quite safe. Take a hurricane to shake you off."

Kino did as she was told. Immediately the feeling of danger passed, and with it the terrible shakes. They were flapping about at the whim of the wind, but yes, she was safe for the moment. Her muscles unclinched and she felt limp. Her hair was growing back nicely and now the breeze hissing through it felt delicious.

"Now now, no good to look down. Look out there."

There was the coastline they'd followed for the first few weeks of their voyage, and what looked like a harbor, though in all her travels she'd never seen a harbor from the seaward side. The ship's prow knifed through the water, and white foam swirled past the hull to a churning wake behind them.

"Beautiful... it's beautiful up here!" she said.

"Aye."

How did I call myself a traveler and miss this? Long overdue!

Kino put up with all the inconveniences and hardships of her vagabond life just so she would know such moments, and she savored it to the fullest.

Finally Belk spoke again. "Now I've new orders for you."

"Hmm?"

"That's Taviston we're sailing into. Go below and don't be showing yourself on deck even once until we sail. You don't seem the type to jump ship but the Captain paid you in advance."

"Mister Belk, My motorbike's in your hold and I'm not leaving without it, not even if we sink."

"Fair enough, but that's Captain Forester's policy."

"Aye sir. You wouldn't really 'use me to clean the barnacles off,' would you sir?" Kino teased.

"That's called 'keel hauling' and no I wouldn't. We're the merchant marine; that's for the navy... speaking of which, have a look here." The first mate pointed and Kino saw a magnificent ship.

She whistled. "What is that?"

"That's a cruiser at dock. A beauty too, isn't she?"

The climb down was equally terrifying, and Kino felt immensely grateful to have the solid, rocking deck back under her feet. Not that she would have missed the experience for anything! Soon, Kino climbed down below decks and tidied up the mess. She considered descending into the hold to visit Hermes before finding her hammock. But... she had no news to relay and the climb had left her very tired.

The truth was despite mister Belk's encouragement she felt eager for this unpleasant job to end. She'd boarded the Moirae exhausted. Once her seasickness had subsided a gently rocking hammock had cured her, mind and body. But a single daily hour of waning sunlight and endless repetitive work had also cured her of any romantic notions she'd had of the high seas. This was a work-a-day world of tedium and featureless ocean. She felt caged.

You got Hermes back. That's what counts. You can do this, she told herself.

She'd just finished when the rumor reached her - the crew's mutterings as they passed sent a horrid shock through her. She heard that awful word again: impressment.

Despite her promise to mister Belk, she followed the crew back up onto deck and hid herself just at the door.

What do they call this door again? Oh never mind that!

Naval officers had boarded the Moirae and strutted about as if they owned the ship. And Kino overheard enough to confirm what was going on.

So we're to be impressed into a navy? Kino scowled. She'd just barely escaped a similar fate when the raiders of Koth-Shem tried to recruit her. Slaving away in a galley until they see fit to let me go? "Kissing the gunner's daughter" if I don't say "yessir!" fast enough? No. Oh no, I will blow a hole in the hull first and sink us all!

But what to do? Kino clomped back down into the lower decks. Obviously the naval crew had guards set at every possible exit. Even if she jumped and swam to shore, there was Hermes still down in the hold. She was unarmed too, save the one knife Corina had returned to her.

Kino sat in the galley and felt once again hot tears forming around her eyes. She'd worked so hard to make things right, had stared down a loaded Persuader for it. When had traveling become so dangerous? Lately it seemed everybody she met was trying to force her to quit traveling and shackle her to some obligation or another.

Stop. Relax. Think.

"Hatchway," she muttered to herself. Mechanically, she poured a mug of shandy. And by the time she'd finished it, a devious ploy had formed in her mind. She pulled out her knife, reached over to her apron and started cutting it apart.


"...subject to all naval discipline in accordance with the Laws of War," the naval Captain concluded. "Buffer, begin signing the men to the register, starting with this ship's master."

It was at this moment that the man noticed he was no longer the center of attention. All eyes had turned to observe—!

"Eyes front!" The naval captain ordered, and immediately his men locked their eyes forward, away from—!

The crew of the Moirae gaped as one at the sight of—!

Kino slithered provocatively onto the deck, wearing a revealing white canvas halter top and skirt that mister Belk would only days later realize she'd hastily improvised from that apron.

"Impressed into the navy?" Kino pouted. "I guess that's the end of my pleasure cruise, isn't it?" And as she passed the naval captain she fluttered her eyelashes at him coyly. "Although... I do so love a man in uniform."

She raised a finger to toy with one of his shiny buttons and felt the man's eyes drift across her bared belly.

"I'm up here, sir."

The crew of the Moirae laughed as one despite their sorry situation.

"Mister Mate," the flustered naval captain commanded Belk, "see to it all your ship's passengers are escorted off immediately."

"Yessir," Belk saluted and turned to Kino. "You're full of surprises aren't you, Miss Kino?"

"I am sorry you're all being hauled off to some silly war," Kino said solemnly, almost breaking character as she said it. "I mean that. Would you see to it my cargo's brought up?"

"Why, I'll tend to that myself."

Within minutes, Hermes was set safely on the dock, and "Miss Kino" waved goodbye to the astonished crew of the Moirae. The wind caressed her bare skin as she mounted and accelerated away.

Hermes was cunning enough to wait until they'd put some distance between themselves and the wharf before he asked, "Kino? What on earth are you wearing?"

Kino burst out laughing, a laugh of relief and triumph as she revved Hermes' engine higher. She raced away from the seaside village and tore across the road astride Hermes again at last, unarmed and penniless but free and beholden to nobody.