Suddenly the little boat surged upwards, and the crashing sound of waves gained in volume. “We’re here!” Ean blurted with sudden excitement. Moments later, he leapt from the boat and sloshed through hip-deep surf to stand, dripping, upon the shore. To left and right, jutting cliffs sliced into the bay, but between them lay a swath of sand that sparkled faintly in the moonlight. Looking buoyant, Ean opened his arms and spun around as if to embrace the air of his homeland, breathing deeply of its fragrance.
The sailors took the skiff all the way in, surfing the last wave until the flat-bottomed boat scraped the shore. Creighton swept up his ermine cloak into the safety of one arm, then stepped across the bow onto the beach, turning to face the waves as his boots sank into the soft sand.
Above them spread another sea, this one a starry splay of jewels surrounding the moon at its zenith. Just east of the satellite, high within the arch of sky, flamed a seven-pointed constellation. Creighton swallowed. “Ean,” he murmured, pointing with his free arm. “Look.”
Ean lifted his gaze to follow along Cray’s line of sight. His ebullient expression faded when he saw the grouping of stars. “Cephrael’s Hand.”
At this utterance, both sailors turned faces to the sky.
“Tis an inauspicious omen for your return,” Creighton observed, unable to hide his sudden unease.
One of the sailors grunted at this, and the other spat into the sand and then ground his boot over the mark.
Ean cast him a withering look. “Ward for luck if you wish, helmsman, but we make our destiny, not superstition.”
“Epiphany’s Grace you’re right, Highness,” replied the sailor. “But you won’t begrudge me if I keep my knife close tonight, I hope?”
Ean caught sight of Creighton loosening his own blade in its sheath and stared at his blood-brother in wonderment. “Creighton, you and I both have studied the science of the stars. How can you believe—”
Creighton turned him a troubled look and cut him off, hissing under his breath, “How can you not, Ean?”
Ean pushed a chin-length strand of cinnamon hair behind one ear and crossed arms over his chest. He couldn’t discount the terrible events that had happened beneath the taint of Cephrael’s Hand—two brothers lost—even if he chose not to believe in the abounding superstitions surrounding the constellation. The memories evoked a sigh that felt painful as it left his chest. “We blame the gods too often for things no one controls,” he answered his friend.
“That’s your father talking,” Creighton argued.
Ean shot him an aggravated look. “Sometimes he’s right.”
A gusting breeze brought the stench of seaweed and wet rock, and something else, some proprietary scent seemingly owned by that beach alone. Ean remembered it well; it and all of the memories it harbored, memories carried like autumn leaves spinning in funnels across the sand. “I said goodbye to both brothers upon this very spot,” he observed, recalling a much younger self who watched as first one brother and then the next was carried away toward an awaiting royal ship at anchor, much as the Sea Eagle was now. Neither brother had returned from their journey south, one lost to treachery, the other claimed by the Fire Sea. Now Ean stood upon this shore not as a boy but as a man, and it was never more apparent how different his life had become, how much the fingers of tragedy and obligation had molded and changed him.
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