5 A Fine Trader

On a chilly afternoon two weeks later Ivy scrubbed the deck, humming a tune she had learned from the traders. She let the song guide her work, moving the mophead to its rhythm, slogging it into the bucket to rinse when she paused between verses. The traders sang new songs every night and made up new verses to the old ones, but this was the only song whose words Ivy wasn’t embarrassed to repeat even to herself. The traders might have been embarrassed, too, had they known she was a girl. Not all of them accepted her even as Kennell. Some wouldn’t give her more than a grunt unless work demanded it. But the master had granted her a place in his crew and Mantry deemed her a worthy apprentice, and none of the men dared defy them. A few, mainly the older ones, were happy to teach her whatever they knew.

And so Ivy had learned far more than mopping and sea chanteys, even if she remained first on call for the menial tasks no one else wanted. She was fast learning how the ship was rigged and why, though she wasn’t yet allowed to touch the knotted ropes that held ship and sail together. She had learned to handle the great square sail to answer changes in the wind—at least in principle. The yard to which the sail attached was far too heavy for one sailor to maneuver alone, and the first time she tried to help it nearly knocked her into the sea. The men laughed uproariously and let her scramble back onto the deck unaided, but they slapped her on the back when she had struggled to her feet, ruefully rubbing her shoulder where the swinging tree trunk had smacked it. They considered the episode a sort of initiation, and Mantry told her later that Bennis—as she had learned to call the notch-eared trader she had met her first day aboard the Ox—had been thrown clear into the waves on his first attempt and nearly drowned. Ivy didn’t need to be told not to remind Bennis of that story.

More important, she was learning the wild vagaries of the coast and its winds. Uncle Wilton’s fishing boat had taught her to sail, to judge a change in weather and tack against a headwind, angling the boat back and forth in an unwieldy zigzag. Her father’s book had taught her the positions of islands and villages, the prevailing winds of various seasons, which harbors were safe and which were dangerous. But the coastal waters held wonders and hazards beyond the understanding of all but the longest experience, and the Ox handled less like a two-man fisher than like the broad-shouldered, stubborn beast for which it was named. Sailing again and again the same calm waters off Ennatin Ivy had never needed to read the sea, but now she learned to judge the water’s depth by the shade and angle of the waves, to find the best winds, to gauge how close to hew to land and where to anchor.

Mantry, seeing how fast she learned, might bark out a question as he walked past. “Kennell! Find me the sandbar!” She would scan the sea for half a mile off the bow, then squint and point. A short laugh told her she was right.

Now, as she paused to straighten her shoulders and let the wind dry the sweat on her neck and arms, she heard a voice behind her. “Kennell! How far to Landfall?”

She knew, roughly, the answer, from comparing her handwritten log to her father’s maps, but she also knew that to use that knowledge now would be cheating. All around the horizon lay blue against blue where the sea met the sky, but to the north a few dark specks circled far, far above the waves. Only one thing flew so high, and it was no ordinary coastal bird.

“Eagles,” she said, and saw the pleasurable twitch at the corner of Mantry’s mouth. “If this wind holds we’ll be there by dusk.”

“Aye,” said Mantry, and grinned as he left her to her work.

Landfall, Ivy thought, where the mountains veered so near the coast that the land fell into the sea. For a hundred miles there were no towns, only brief rocky shores and the steep cliffs on which those eagles built their nests. Landfall marked the southern tip of Northsward. Beyond it Acelia would disappear from sight, and she would be in a new country. But its beauty made her forget the great ports that lay ahead and the home she was leaving behind. The setting sun made the cliffs rage in gold and vermillion. Their seaward faces darkened ominously, but here and there the light sought out some hidden treasure among the crags and made it shine for a fleeting moment with bright eerie fire. The surf crashed high against the boulders as if it meant to quench those flames or batter the land to pieces in trying. The eagles, meanwhile, drifted unconcerned in dwindling circles until they disappeared into the dark ledges of their precarious homes.

Ivy watched from the rail of the deck until twilight shrouded the land in velvet. As the first stars twinkled into view she heard a low voice at her elbow.

“Sunset over Landfall.” It was the old sailor they called Sharkey, a moniker earned in some long-ago adventure whose story Ivy hadn’t heard. His voice was hushed. “One of the wonders of the world, it is.”

Ivy could think of nothing to say that wouldn’t diminish the spectacle they had just witnessed, so she only nodded. Then Sharkey frowned, and he jutted his chin toward the dark rocks. “Many a good ship has gone down in them waters,” he said. “Many a good man gone to the bosom of Mother Sea before his time.” He looked at Ivy, and in the shadows his face seemed sad, though his eyes glinted sharply at her. “Beware o’ too much beauty,” he said. “Everything ain’t what it seems.”

Sharkey’s face in the falling light was as cragged and shadowed as Landfall, and for a moment almost as ominous. Then he chuckled. “Aye,” he said. “We won’t die tonight. But we’re lettin’ this pretty sight distract us from a decent supper, eh?”

The first village in Northsward didn’t look like much. The land sloped gently upward over rolling hills thick with forest, with no escarpment to guard the village from an angry sea, and so the houses, little more than shacks, were strung close to the shore and built on stilts made from trunks of great trees driven deep into the ground. The houses gave the impression of having been built in a day, but on closer inspection they were built to last a century, impervious to waves and flood tides. The villagers came out to watch the traders arrive, women looking up from their gardens, children shimmying down ladders, old men rising slowly from their work. The younger men, Ivy guessed, were out fishing. Maybe Northsward wasn’t so different from home after all.

Ivy knew better than to get in the way of business, but she wanted to listen to the women’s conversations. Their accents made their voices sound hollow, as if they were speaking from inside a barrel, and they used expressions Ivy had never heard before. She didn’t realize that she had crept closer to hear better until a gray-headed women exclaimed, “Ach! Are ye nappin’ babes now from their mamas’ breasts?”

Sharkey, who was overseeing the market, turned sharply to Ivy. “Boy, stay clear!”

Ivy stepped back quickly, but the woman said, “Ah, be gentle, ‘ee’s only a lad. Not much older than my Janny. Gone these two years to Mother Sea,” she sighed.

Sharkey shot Ivy a look, and she knew what he was thinking. Sad tales bring bad sales. But she said, sympathetically, “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“Ah, well, the sea takes us all in its own time, don’t it?” The woman smiled sadly.

Ivy knew she was overstepping her bounds and would catch hell from Sharkey later, but she couldn’t reject the woman’s kindness. “I never knew my parents,” she said. “My mother died giving birth to me and my father died at sea.”

“Who raised ye’ then? These hearty fellas?” The woman sounded aghast, but her friends laughed, and she joined in with a chuckle.

“My grandfather raised me. He died last summer.”

“A wee pup with no parents!” She clucked her tongue. When she smiled she looked younger, no older than Ivy’s own mother would have been had she lived. She wore a brightly colored cloth over her hair, as did all the women, and though their dresses were plain, every headscarf was stitched and dyed in its own elaborate pattern.

“’E needs to stay out of the way,” one of the traders grumbled. They had begun shortening the pronoun they used to refer to Ivy to just the single vowel, and she guessed that they had seen through her disguise but were respecting it for the time being—or were under orders not to reveal it; surely Mantry couldn’t still be fooled.

The woman’s expression made Ivy fear she might give away her secret. But the woman only nodded thoughtfully to herself.

“Best be getting back to work,” one of her friends said. “We can’t pull apples in the dark.”

“Ay,” the first woman agreed, still looking straight at Ivy. “What ‘ave ye got to sell me, then?”

Ivy hesitated only a moment before plunging in. “We have some lovely southern leather,” she said, and—noticing the belts the women all wore over their tunics—dug the best samples from the bottom of the pile. “Perhaps a new belt to show off your girlish waist?”

The woman blushed, while her friends laughed, heartily. “He’s a charmer, he is!” one observed. Ivy grinned innocently.

She chose a fine-tooled belt and a small stoneware bowl glazed with a blue color that Ivy told her, truthfully, was unique to Acelia. Ivy named the usual price—she had been eavesdropping on markets for weeks—and the woman said “Ay, and these fellas have taught ye well, ain’t they?”

Ivy smiled in a way she hoped looked bashful. “For you, ma’am, I can go…” and she named a price lower than the traders would have offered next but still more than they’d have expected to get. The woman, clearly amused, tried not to smile—but she handed over the coins and walked away with her purchase, humming.

“You played her like a fiddle, laddie,” Sharkey muttered. He sounded, if not exactly pleased, at least admiring.

“I was only being friendly.”

“What say you be friendly with the rest of these ladies and learn what it profits us.”

As the other women of the village passed by the tables Ivy asked them about their families, their gardens, the harvests, the flavors and textures of the apples they grew. She learned that each woman made headscarves in her own pattern, but that they were similar within families. She told them what lovely children they had and found something unique to compliment in each headscarf’s stitching, and the wary looks they usually gave traders melted. She found one woman a pair of earrings that matched the colors of her scarf and another a set of nesting bowls in sizes right for the children she mentioned. She sold goods that had languished on their tables for weeks. Sharkey—who, he would tell Ivy later, would let a seagull do his selling if there was profit in it—kept out of her way now, stepping forward only when she had to consult him on a price, though she knew he was watching her every move. Occasionally she heard a faint grunt or saw a shadow of something like disapproval pass over his face, but he said nothing.

Back on board the ship that night Mantry growled, “I hear you sold a pot for a tenth its price.”

Ivy’s good mood deflated like an empty waterskin. “Oh… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I just…”

“I also hear we had the richest market we’ve had in a month.” Mantry’s expression didn’t change, and his voice was as stern as ever, but Ivy knew she was safe.

“Go find Sharkey and Bennis,” he said. “They’ll school you on the goods and their value, so you’ll have a little knowledge to fall back on when your charm runs out.”

Taking off her jacket that night she noticed for the first time a slight bulge in the side pocket that shouldn’t have been there. Inside was a folded cloth, light and smoothly woven, dyed turquoise and gold and embroidered with accents of burgundy. She recognized the pattern of the woman who had lost her son. When she unfolded the scarf a note fell out. In case you know a girl who needs one. Safe travels — A friend.

Ivy tucked the headscarf carefully in the bottom of her satchel.

The city of Warmon beckoned from miles out on the ocean, its crowded buildings jutting high above the treeline. To Ivy it was something out of her grandfather’s stories of ancient days before the Dark Times—and Warmon, the traders assured her, was only the third-largest city in the north. Its port was guarded by a narrow cape that curved like a crooked finger seven miles into the sea around a broad, calm harbor. The wharf held half a hundred ships whose crews scurried about like chipmunks in a winter forest of masts. Beyond the docks on a warren of winding streets waited the merchants with their luxurious offices and vast storehouses who bought and sold goods by the holdsful. The Ox’s master had arrangements with one of those powerful men and would handle this port’s trading himself. Day trading in seaside villages kept the crew fed, but the big ports paid for the ship.

With little to do, the crew took leave in shifts. When Ivy’s turn came she headed straight for the great bazaar in the heart of the city where merchants sold goods from all the known world. For nearly a mile it sprawled, a city-within-a-city of tents and tables that shifted by the day and the season. At the edges farmers and fishmongers and bakers sold their harvests to locals, and old women sold cakes and meat pies to anyone with a few tamut to spare. The air of the street sang with spices and herbs, the cries of vendors and the sweet hiss of meat on fires.

To a girl who had spent her life in a tiny village eating fish and corn cakes and the past weeks subsisting on dog biscuit, the aromas alone were pure heaven. She wanted to taste everything she saw. At last she bought a spiced meat pie from a woman who trilled Tai-ai! Tai-tiddle-ai! A kiss and a sigh, all baked in a pie! and a fragrant, juicy pear from a boy who let his fruit speak for itself. She made the pie last as long as she could, taking tiny bites and chewing them until they melted into nothing in her mouth, and stashed the pear in her satchel for later.

Deeper into the bazaar the business grew more serious. Along crowded lanes great tents squatted, each the size of a room and some bigger than the biggest house in Ennatin, all brightly dyed and garlanded. Some displayed their wares out front, where shrewd-eyed men perched on stools and ducked inside only at requests from insistent customers. The tables, Ivy guessed, held only samples, but even the samples surpassed anything she had dreamt. She wandered for more than an hour, imagining the people who would buy such luxuries. Clothes in dozens of styles, fancy hats, sturdy boots and delicate slippers. Rugs woven with geometric patterns, strange symbols, shapes of flowers and animals in every color. Knives of every shape and size, and even swords. Pottery and tinware. Chairs and tables. Teas and spices. Elaborately dressed women draped themselves with fine cloth and posed for friends. A seller of musical instruments played a harp with a hundred strings, whose music wove itself through the bustle of the crowd.

The tent she longed to find had no table, no samples, only a sign hand-painted with an open book. Its curtain was drawn back, and peeking inside Ivy saw a row of shelves, each shoulder-high and ten feet long, all crammed with books, and more stacked on top. She walked inside as if drawn by a string and stared in wonder.

At the back of the tent, behind a table strewn with papers, stood a man shorter than Ivy and shaped like the pear in her satchel. He wore a soft round hat that flopped over one ear and a mustache that ended in curls an inch beyond his cheekbones, and he watched her through eyes that were much too small for his face.

“Do you seek something particular?” He spoke crisply as if he would rather not have been bothered.

“Do you have any books of stories?” Ivy asked, feeling foolish.

The man nodded curtly and pointed to a shelf. She felt his eyes on her as she walked along its length, drawing out volumes at random and gently opening their covers to see what they held. Some, with beautiful illustrations or hand-colored block prints, she knew instinctively she couldn’t afford. Others were densely lettered in languages she couldn’t read and hadn’t known existed. She felt increasingly hopeless and silly, and she sensed the man growing impatient with her. Then she found a slim volume of simpler stories, its burgundy cover faded and creased, its pages immaculately lettered but yellowed at the corners. The stories were like those her grandfather had told her, tales of heroes and magic, but they came from the north, and most were unfamiliar to her.

“An excellent volume,” the man said. “Collected tales of the Isles.”

“How much will you take for it?”

“Ten stater.”

“Ten stater!” The price was half a trader’s annual wage. Even Ivy’s book of maps could not have cost so much, or her father could never have afforded it.

“Quite rare,” the man said. “Only a few copies were made.”

“There are no illustrations,” Ivy protested, “none at all. Ten stater for a dozen stories, written as plain as a ship’s log? I’ll give you two.”

The Warmon bazaar and the sight of so many books had reminded her she was only a girl from Ennatin, but now they were bargaining.

The man snorted. Then he emitted a high-pitched noise that sounded more like a giggle. “Two! Perhaps in the south such treasures are worth so little.”

“In the south they are worth far more. Here books are more plentiful,” she said, realizing that the man had recognized her accent and pegged her for an easy mark.

His tiny eyes narrowed further, something Ivy wouldn’t have thought possible. “I could accept seven,” he said.

Ivy mustered her own snort, trying to sound disgusted. “For children’s stories? Two and five.”

“The stories may be plainly written, but they are well told. The collection is quite rare,” he repeated.

“Then you might have taken better care of it! Look at this cover. Cracked and worn, it hasn’t seen oil in years. It will take months of daily care to bring it into shape, and probably repairs if it’s to last. The pages are golden at the edges—was it stored in the sun?”

A sound like a growl emitted from the man’s throat, but he dropped his price.

“Even the hand is weak,” Ivy said, looking sadly at the fine lettering on one of the pages. In fact the lettering was fine, but she guessed the man wouldn’t remember that. They argued for twenty minutes, and she got the book for three stater five lepta. The sum represented a month of her Uncle Wilton’s hauls of fish, and she shuddered to think what he would say if he knew she had spent such treasure on a book—and yet she also knew the book was worth far more.

Emerging from the bookseller’s tent she heard a familiar voice. “More stories, eh?”

It was Mantry, on one of his rare trips ashore. Ivy flushed. She hadn’t wanted the others to know she was buying books. But Mantry was in a good mood and looked amused. “Well?” he said. “Show us your prize!”

He paged through the book, taking the pages delicately by their corners, grunting and nodding at tales that must have been familiar to him. “Aye, the devil ship,” he said, and laughed. “Hope ye don’t be learning about the real one soon enough!” He handed the book back to her with a grin.

“The real one?”

“Pirates, lad.”

They walked slowly down the lane of tents, she pestering with questions, he resisting. “Will we meet pirates?”

“Likely not.”

“Then what’s the devil ship?”

At last he sighed and explained. “Aristok,” he said, pronouncing the name like a curse, “the foulest pirate in the northern waters. It’s said his ship sails without a crew, though he carries one for fighting.”

“How can a ship sail without a crew? You mean it sails itself?”

“Aye, and with two masts and three sails.”

“Two masts!”

“And worse, for those who mean to run, it sails against the wind. Straight into the storm.”

“But how…”

“The story,” Mantry said, nodding toward the book in her hand, “is of a man who traded his soul to the devil for the fastest ship ever built. The devil’s ship. Some say Aristok traded his own soul. Sure as wind he ha’n’t got one now.”

“So… it’s magic?”

“Ha! Nae such thing. The story I believe has the Makrin made it, though that’s as may be just as dangerous.”

“Are ye tellin’ of the devil ship?” The question came from Pinyon, an eager but slow-witted boy not much older than Ivy. He had been walking the bazaar with Bennis and the two men had fallen into step with Mantry and Ivy, though she’d been too intent on Mantry’s story to notice.

“Ach, the curiosity of children will kill us all,” said Mantry.

But Ivy persisted. “Who are the Makrin?”

Mantry frowned. “Funny small people of the isles. Of one isle, far to the east. Keep to themselves. Some say they ain’t even people. But they can build anything, and build it better than any you ever saw. They make the pulleys for ropes and rigging for every trading ship that sails the eastern waters. The best shipbuilders in Northsward can’t touch them for that kind of craft. Only the Makrin have the skill. It’s said they’ve kept it from before the Dark Time.”

Ivy wanted to ask another question, but she was interrupted by an angry shout. She turned to see the bookseller running toward her—waddling, really—elbowing people aside as he went. He stopped in front of Ivy and flung something at her feet. She heard it clink. Coins.

“False money!” he said, and spat.

“What do you mean, false?”

“Cheap southern coin! It’s probably half tin!”

“It’s silver,” Ivy said, feeling her temper rising, “and you know it.” She had thought the funny little man harmless, but his yelling was drawing a crowd.

The merchant’s eyes flared, and he stepped closer to her, raising a finger to point in her face. But in the same instant Ivy saw Mantry’s arm go up to stop him—and then Bennis stood between her and the bookseller, towering over the little man. “That’s our mate you’re accusing,” Bennis said, pronouncing his words precisely but firmly, “and no mate of ours is a cheat.” He scratched his ruined ear with one finger, thoughtfully.

Behind the bookseller two others of the Ox’s crew had appeared, drawn as if from nowhere by the turmoil. The man was surrounded. He wheeled around, looking panicked.

“It’s pure silver,” Ivy repeated, stepping out a little from behind Bennis and looking the merchant in the eye. “Three stater and a half.”

“Silver spends the world over,” said Mantry quietly. “If I were you I’d take those coins and handle your business.”

The bookseller’s face turned beet red. He stammered. “You traders think you’re a law unto yourselves. But you’re not!”

Shoppers had gathered to watch the argument, tittering and whispering to one another. Ivy guessed that this, too, was part of the fun of the bazaar.

“That’s as may be,” Bennis said, in tones so calm and polite for the circumstances that his words rang as the clearest possible threat, “but I think you ought to do as this gentleman suggests.”

The merchant took a step back and nearly stumbled into the other traders, who parted to let him leave. Then, thinking better of it, he stooped to pick up his coins. No one helped him, and he huffed from the effort of bending over. When he had recovered his money and stepped outside the circle of traders he jabbed a finger at them. “Change is coming!” he snapped. “New winds are blowing from the North! The likes of you had better watch out!” But he was already moving away as he said it, and the traders ignored him. Bennis silently surveyed the little crowd around them, looking each man and woman briefly in the eye until they too dispersed.

“What was that about?” asked one of the traders.

“Three stater five lepta,” said Mantry, looking at Ivy. “You ran the little fella a ride on that book, laddie. Our friend regretted the deal and thought he’d extort a bit more from you. Welcome to the North!” He chuckled, then broke into a roar of laughter and slapped her on the back. “Aye, yer a fine trader, y’are, on both ends of a deal!”

The sun was setting behind the city. The tents cast long shadows across the lanes. The crowd had thinned, and the merchants began packing up their goods. The traders walked back toward the dock, the six of them together, and Ivy realized that for the first time since she stepped out of her Uncle Wilton’s doorway, she felt absolutely safe.