Across the clatter of hulls ramming each other, the patter of feet on decks wafted through the night. So many bare feet, dirty toes, ragged boots, sandals worn smooth with time, they slipped across the distance between ships. They gathered around Jaraeden’s boat, watching, waiting.
They had heard the promise: a paladin whose god had not abandoned her.
Now came the test they awaited. Soon, they would leave. Soon they would go to a land where a great light shone in the sky. A place without the constant wetness. A fabled city.
Through the night, Alathea prayed. She read all of Jaraeden’s calculations, catching what he had missed. She planned. She prayed more. She itched for her Scriptures, but they were left back with the captain who had carried her here.
Were they safe back on that boat?
She didn’t matter, she reminded herself. Her God promised that if she died, another would rise up to take her place. It freed her to fail.
It chained her as well.
It didn’t matter. As long as the shard was returned to the glass princess.
She prayed for her kingdom, too. So many enemies… had the wars already started?
She absently ticked the boats off. Each model on Jaraeden’s table had a name. She memorized them. She prayed she had the pronunciations right.
These people were used to fakes. But enough had seen her God work through her. They thought she was like any other paladin. And that meant they would listen if she spoke their language.
But it would make her God seem like one of their fake gods.
But it would bring them all home.
If she didn’t speak their language, they wouldn’t listen. She’d fail. She’d be killed. They’d all still be marooned down here, including Matt and Talon. And the shard.
What was more important: To do the right thing by her God, or by these people?
Her mentor had told her once: The most difficult thing is not to decide between right and wrong. That decision is always easy. The hardest decision is to decide between right and right.
And what was most right here?
The door swung open. Jaraeden stepped in. He gestured to the door, both eyebrows up.
“Do you want to go home?” Alathea’s voice trembled. It always did when she lacked sleep. Of course she’d seem weak when she had to be strong. Why should she be surprised? She should have slept.
“What do you value more: Truth or going home?” Stupid tremor.
Jaraeden shook his head. “If it takes us home, it is the truth.”
Fine then. The truth it is. She won’t demand the sacrifice. They’ll balk. What god would give anything without payment? And they’ll stay down here.
Alathea stepped out onto the misty deck. This deck stood clear; she and Jaraeden alone occupied its space. But people crowded the raised decks to either side, illuminated by countless torches. The surrounding ships likewise appeared crammed with many men and women. Whispers shot through them. Some took to their knees as Alathea appeared.
Jaraeden strode to the center of the deck and gestured to Alathea. He bowed at the waist and stepped away from her.
Well. Show time.
“People of the Graveyard, I didn’t know what I’d find when I came here.” Speak louder! How could they hear her? Stupid voice! Behave! “But my God has not abandoned me. He has not abandoned you, though you didn’t know it. I can tell you this: No payment will ever be enough to free you. He demands no sacrifice from you. He chose himself to become the sacrifice you needed.” She licked her lips.
The people glanced at each other. Whispers muttered through the assembly.
“She’s a fraud.”
“She can’t do it.”
“Her god’s useless!”
“If he won’t be paid, he’ll never help us. Forget it!”
She shouted over the clamor. “But if you would rise from this graveyard, you will burn these ships.” Yes. Burn your homes. For some of you, all you’ve ever known. “They weigh you down. Burn these ships, and you will return to the place you fell from. For you to go home, let the Graveyard burn.”
And so continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.