The first book in a new environmental epic fantasy series set in a world where ships kept afloat by magical hearthfires sail an endless grass sea.
On the never-ending, miles-high expanse of prairie grasses known as the Forever Sea, Kindred Greyreach, hearthfire keeper and sailor aboard harvesting vessel The Errant, is just beginning to fit in with the crew of her new ship when she receives devastating news. Her grandmother—The Marchess, legendary captain and hearthfire keeper—has stepped from her vessel and disappeared into the sea.
But the note she leaves Kindred suggests this was not an act of suicide. Something waits in the depths, and the Marchess has set out to find it.
To follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, Kindred must embroil herself in conflicts bigger than she could imagine: a water war simmering below the surface of two cultures; the politics of a mythic pirate city floating beyond the edges of safe seas; battles against beasts of the deep, driven to the brink of madness; and the elusive promise of a world below the waves.
Kindred finds that she will sacrifice almost everything—ship, crew, and a life sailing in the sun—to discover the truth of the darkness that waits below the Forever Sea.
Release date: January 19, 2021
Print pages: 464
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The Forever Sea
Joshua Phillip Johnson
Kindred threaded her hands deep into the fire and sang a quiet song.
Around her the ship was chaos: boots pounded rough tattoos over the deck as crew members rushed to secure and tie and pull and coil; shouts-panicked, angry, excited-shook the air, threatening to break Kindred's concentration. The captain's voice was a silver bell amid the turmoil of The Errant; Kindred couldn't make out her orders ringing through the noise, but the toll of authority was recognizable nonetheless.
And amid and above and below and through it all, the threat that had The Errant hurtling fast across the Sea, bearing hard for port.
Kindred's hands spasmed in the fire as she thought of the ship pursuing them, of wild, jagged predators' smiles.
"Focus in, girl," a voice hissed in Kindred's ear. Rhabdus, the senior hearthfire keeper, leaned over her shoulder, supervising with a sneer Kindred felt without needing to see. "I don't fancy sinking into the deeps because of your incompetence and creativity."
Kindred took a breath, stilling her thoughts and trying to ignore Rhabdus's wheezing sighs and the play of her imagination. She focused on her present: the hearthfire blazing indigo before her, the rustle-touch of flames arcing around her wrists and fingers.
And her song.
The whispered words countered the storm on deck and staved off the fear slinking sideways along the alleys of her mind.
A litany for the fire.
"Burn bone, ay lay, burn bone to black
sing white, ay lay, brand bone to black
for ship and Sea and crew, ay lay,
to sail the green, to sail the grass, ay lay.
A fire, ay lay, a prairie flame
a blaze, ay lay, a blaze of bone
for ship and Sea and crew, ay lay,
to sail the green, to sail the grass
ay lay, ay lay."
Kindred's song stilled the fire, changing the color from a dark indigo to a cloudy grey and revealing a tree-like structure of bones at the center of the flames. Kindred monitored the interplay of air and flame and bone there at the center, the rush of heat swooping and rising through the tendrils of bone and winding amid caverns made of air and flame. She noted breaks in the structure, bone branches drooping from where she had set them earlier.
Rhabdus scoffed, her derision nasal and low.
"Inefficient and idiotic," she said, leaning in, nails digging deep into Kindred's shoulder. "You're the hearthfire keeper, girl. You own it, you control it-now start acting like it. Enough with the imagination." Rhabdus snarled the word. "Quit messing with my build and follow the shit-spitting rules."
Kindred swallowed her indignant response-Rhabdus knew her name, had been mentoring her some time now, but still refused to call her anything other than "girl."
Your build was ugly and plain, she wanted to say. Your build had no spirit. Your build will kill us.
"Understood." Kindred released a calming breath and examined the fire and bone.
Somewhere in that phantom movement of flame and air was mystery, pure and awful. Despite Rhabdus's shortsighted insistence on the rules, Kindred felt no urge to challenge the fire's mystery with clumsy attempts at misguided logic-that was for the scholar-stylists on Arcadia and the Mainland, and for those hearthfire keepers like Rhabdus who felt a need for control over everything natural, everything untamed.
Such a need to possess the flames was distasteful to Kindred, and wrong, like a child given a palette of beautiful colors and mixing them all together into a muddy, monolithic brown.
That the fire demanded a captain's bones to burn, Kindred knew.
That it kept a ship afloat, gave it lift and speed on the grasses of the Forever Sea, Kindred knew.
That it spoke a language unwritten and inscrutable, a language like rain, like the changing Sea itself, Kindred knew.
The whys and hows were the flames' mysteries to keep, and it was to them Kindred sang.
As melody slipped from her lips, Kindred reached farther into the flames, lifting the structure where it drooped, sculpting the supple, malleable bones to better articulate Rhabdus's vision of speed, of escape. She found and eliminated her own improvisations-extra branches plucked from here and twining vines carved there, each meant to offer more speed to the ship, each one almost there, if only Kindred could have had more time without Rhabdus leering over her shoulder, following her every movement, criticizing her every decision.
The word echoed again in her mind, threatening to pull her down into the chaos and anxiety of the ship. She fought the urge to stand from where she huddled amidships next to the hearthfire. Perhaps she could leave the hearthfire to Rhabdus and quickly climb to the quarterdeck, get an update from the captain, allow her eyes to follow the disturbed grasses tossed about in their wake, to see the pursuing black sails, the scarred hull, the jeering, leering pirates flinging forth their unnatural magics, their broken grins-
Kindred cursed, breaking her song and pulling her hands back from the hearthfire, which grew hot and nipped at her wrists, punishment for losing her connection to the flames.
She felt the drop in The Errant's speed and saw it in the disarray of the flames.
"Idiot child!" Rhabdus wheezed, pushing in to kneel next to Kindred on the deck, her veined hands mottled with old burn scars and age marks, plunging into the fire as she sang her clipped song. In the swirl of flame, she slapped Kindred's hands away, giving her a hard-eyed look despite the relative softness of her song.
Rhabdus moved quickly, her motions practiced and perfectly efficient, brutal in their precision. Her hands were tools that ordered and owned, demanding where Kindred had appealed; where she molded soft curves, Rhabdus imposed hard lines.
The words of Rhabdus's song were mostly nonsensical. Every keeper Kindred had ever met-save one-sang to the fire in this way, with some measure of gift for the language of the hearthfire but no real understanding of it. Like a child mimicking her parents.
It was what set Kindred apart, what gave her the edge over every other hearthfire keeper she'd ever met. She not only sang to the flames; she understood what she sang, and what's more, she understood what the hearthfire sang in return. When Kindred kept the fire, she was not breaking a wild animal to her will as Rhabdus sought to, singing thick-tongued nonsense; when Kindred worked, she worked with the fire.
"Keeper!" Captain Caraway shouted. "What is going on? We need more speed, not less!"
Kindred turned to see the captain standing fore on the quarterdeck, her wild hair tossed by the wind, her eye ablaze with a gallows light. She wore the black of her station, the only concession to color a dirty white strip of cloth covering one eye. She grinned into the wind.
Gods, she's enjoying this! Kindred thought with a start.
Since Rhabdus was engaged with the fire and couldn't yet break her song, Kindred responded.
"My fault, Captain. Apologies. It won't happen again."
Before joining up with the crew of The Errant, Kindred had asked around about the ship and its mysterious captain. Most knew nothing other than the stories: wild, dangerous, insane, and protective of her crew beyond all else. But she had heard other rumors, little bits and fragments of gossip: Captain Caraway sailed too far; Captain Caraway took crew members aboard who had not been sanctioned by the ruling bodies on Arcadia; Captain Caraway liked her crew rough and strange and just as wild as herself.
All of this flashed through Kindred's mind as she shouted at the captain across the madness of the deck-between them, the crew moved in a chaotic dance to adjust and coil and pull and climb and sail.
Captain Caraway nodded, her smile predatory and gleeful.
"See that it doesn't," she shouted, and turned her attention to the frenzied activity of her crew. "Quartermaster! Aft defenses!"
Kindred saw Little Wing, the quartermaster, tall and powerful, lope across the deck, moving aft to follow the captain's orders.
Each to her place; each to her power, Kindred's grandmother had always said about the hierarchy aboard boats.
A pair of red comets sailed high and wide over The Errant before bursting into a shower of sparking magical energy. She tried not to think about how close the pirates had to be to start hurling their magical assaults. Too close.
The fire had returned to a calmer shade of red, and still Rhabdus wrestled with it, her hands moving in ugly straight lines, devastating the imperfections that continued to appear in the bone structure, making out of the bones and the fire a ruled thing. Kindred had let the bone tree in the heart of the fire flourish, pulling bone blossoms into existence and etching creeping vines along the trunk. She had envisioned the build and the hearthfire as a piece of the world, as something blending with wind and sky, the grasses of the Sea and the long-cut line of the horizon. Not solely the pure source of energy Rhabdus saw; not an unruly beast burning in the center of The Errant's deck, brutish in its power and possibility.
Rhabdus let her song wind down, her voice ragged even after so little singing.
Kindred tried not to rub at her wrists where the fire had burned her. Hundreds of tiny, furious bubbles had broken the surface of her skin. She would deal with it later.
"Always these flourishes with you, girl," Rhabdus said, voice raspy. She slapped the deck with one hand "Feel how The Errant sails steadier now that the build isn't burdened by your nonsense."
"But we were going faster with my changes," Kindred said, raising her voice enough to be heard over the tumult on deck. "The textbook build has a limit on speed! If only we could try-"
A shout of alarm warned Kindred a moment before The Errant was rocked by the impact of a spell slamming into the aft defenses. Kindred was thrown to the deck. Rhabdus spilled onto her side, cursing in hoarse syllables.
Only Captain Caraway, it seemed, held her feet. Kindred looked back and saw the captain holding tight to the great wheel, shouting orders and encouragement to the rear guard who maintained their meager magical defenses.
"Piss and nonsense," Rhabdus said, righting herself and settling in before the fire. "The textbook builds are textbook for a reason, girl. They work. They're safe, which is more than I can say for your nonsense. Now get over here. I need a melody."
This had been Kindred's primary role since coming aboard The Errant. In theory, she was the junior hearthkeeper, training to keep the fire on her own someday. In practice, she served as a replacement for Rhadbus's tired, dying voice.
"Keepers!" Captain Caraway shouted. "We need a push!"
"Sing speed," Rhabdus ordered as she jabbed her hands into the blaze.
Kindred took a breath, stilling her mind, pushing away thoughts of pirates, of bitter senior hearthfire keepers, of wild and mad captains.
Speed, she sang to the flames as Rhabdus broke and reformed the bone structure, making it stronger, funneling the fire and air up and out.
Speed, she sang, as her melody moved and pitched with the fire's delicate dance.
Speed, she sang, listening to the crack of bones releasing their ancient power, a force Kindred felt in the abyss of her stomach, tasted on her tongue, bitter and overwhelming.
"Arcadia, ho! Land and port, ho!" Ragged Sarah called down from the crow's nest.
Kindred spared a glance above, seeing Sarah perched atop the mainmast, surrounded by a corona of winged shapes-birds, come to offer advice to the crow-caller. Sarah's frayed clothing and many-colored hair, so distinct when she walked among the crew, made her resemble one of the birds, each flap of torn cloth or whip of raggedy hair like the flair of a wing on the wind.
The Errant pushed forward, the fire obliging Kindred's request and Rhabdus's enforcement, and Kindred felt hope rise in her chest for the first time since that first cry of "Pirates!" came from Ragged Sarah. Hard sailing for nearly two full days, coaxing more and more from the fire without breaking it, an exhausting marathon as the pirates neared and neared, first a flutter of black near the horizon, then sails, then hulls, more and more, and Kindred bound to the hearthfire and subjected to Rhabdus's constant insults, insulated from the danger and acutely aware of the way it grew in echoes across the deck.
Unbidden, a fragment of a conversation with the captain from the previous morning came to Kindred's mind, a conversation between Rhabdus and Captain Caraway during which Kindred had stood silently in the corner of the captain's quarters, listening to these two women who had sailed together for nearly forty years.
"We've pushed out too far, Captain," Rhabdus had said. "Aren't we too near the Roughs, to pirate grasses?"
The captain had smiled up from the maps and diagrams and correspondences littering her table.
"Aye, I would think so, Rhabdus. But those grasses nearer Arcadia are harvested to nothing. And look at the bounty we've already cut." The captain tapped a ledger on which she'd marked their harvest thus far. "Ninety bundles of lie-leaf and twenty-two of prairie smoke-both much desired by the medickers for their herbwork and cures. Another seventy-odd bundles each of bluestem, thrice-root, giant stalk, and coneflower-all wanted by the mages for their battle magics, the cooks for their creations, and the schools as they teach the next crop of hopeful sailors how to burn a plant to release its magic. I expect we will sell at our best prices yet."
"Aye, Captain," Rhabdus replied, snorting, "it will be a mighty payday."
"It will," Captain Caraway said, fierce suddenly, her smile sharp and wide, "enough to keep us sailing free and out from under the Collective's grip for many years to come."
Now, sitting before the fire, coaxing as much speed from this particular structure as it would give, Kindred wondered what really drove the captain-money to sail and harvest freely or the ever-increasing need to push at freedom's boundaries, to sail into danger, not for money or independence or fame but to define freedom itself.
A great shock sent tremors through the ship, and Kindred nearly lost her seat again.
"Hit! Hit!" came a cry, and Kindred looked around to see one of The Errant's sails badly damaged, the sheet caught in the spread of a wicked flame that reminded Kindred of paintings she'd seen of the old prairie fires that used to sweep across the Forever Sea. Those fires, she'd been told, burned with abandon, with purifying and rejuvenating vengeance, and she saw some of that now.
"Quixa! Cora! Gwen! Get on that fire!" Captain Caraway shouted, and Kindred saw Long Quixa, Cora the Wraith, and Stone-Gwen leap to take care of the blaze.
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