So this was death, and I could not have been more astonished. The gritty beach beneath my cheek was dark. It slipped away under a dark sea, the muscular waves curling back like lifted fists of lead and silver, heavy and slow in their power. I heard the metronomic booming of their assault on something obdurate and lifted my head to peer about in the moonlight. I lay in a tiny cove, a wash of ashen shingle scattered in the gap between smooth black rocks that towered into the night. Above them, a wall rose in continuous shadow, and though the sea did little more than suck hungrily at the sheltered slip of beach on which I lay, further down the coast it battered itself against that wall.
I stood, wet and shivering, and cast my gaze up. There were lanterns hanging in the black high above the wall, or some source of light not produced by stars. I had the impression of immensity. I was an insect in the shade of whatever hulked against the sky. I felt shattered, my mind skittering over the possibility that I still lay trapped in my dying body in the alley – that this was a dream – and I clutched at the rocks. I fell against them and pressed my lips to their saltiness. I could feel the shudder of the waves transmitted through them, and I crept around them into the violent spray. A tumble of mighty cobbles stretched before me, and the sea foamed over them, but in the near distance I could make out the lights of a harbor and the bold, black lines of ships’ masts against the night. My heart thumped in jubilation at the sight, and I began to make my way over the milky smear of moonlight and foam that glazed the rocks.
I slipped and slithered over that stony stretch, falling and bashing myself, breathing in the flying sea. I felt pain and cold, the bite of the icy salt spray on my face that caused my eyes to burn and tear, and marveled that even in this place beyond death my body shouted against its abuse by the elements. Though I floundered against the rocks in rib-smashing style, I rose again without serious injury. Finally, I could go no further. The seawall thrust up like a colossus, curving away to embrace the harbor, slick and implacable as black ice.
I sagged against it, drenched in rhythmic lashings of seawater, and thought I would be pummeled until I was little more than a salt-encrusted barnacle on the wall, when something came whispering down the smooth face of my prison and touched my neck with rough, hairy fingers. I started back from it, and with the next heave of the sea, it slapped my face. A rope ladder hung before me, and a blur of light hovered at the top of it.
“Latch on, sonny, if ye ain’t in the mood for a long swim,” cried a cracked voice. “You’re wet enough for one night’s misery, by damn.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I caught the thick, tarry rung of the ladder and pulled myself hand over hand up its length until I could get my boots on it. It was the work of a minute to scramble to the top of the wall, where the angry sea cracked like a whip but lost its wallop. My benefactor hunched against its sting, his cap pulled low over his eyes, a grizzled seaman in a sodden cloak. He lifted the lantern toward my face.
“Almost missed ye, with Her Highness in such a state,” he shouted.
“Her Highness?” I could only parrot him dumbly, my teeth knocking against each other like castanets.
“The sea, boy, the sea.” He waved the lantern at its unceasing wrath. “Lucky for you there was a Guild ship making port tonight. Got their eyes on the Wall, damn em.” He grasped the front of my coat to pull me down closer to him, and the seawater ran from the wrung wool in a flood. “They seen ye, but they’d never a cared to help ye. Don’t pull in the ones Her Highness tosses up, they don’t. But what are we standing here jawing for? Let’s get out of this and warm our bones.”
He dragged me along, obedient and shambling in my half-frozen state, and we climbed a series of stone stairways cut into the living rock. I could see the City above me, mounting in a dizzy welter of serpentine streets to the stars, aflame with lamps and torches. Below me, the harbor lay like a mirror of polished jet, and the ships riding at anchor on it were all black, the lanterns hanging at their masts winking like golden eyes. We reached a narrow street of brick, and the old man whisked me along it until we came to a tavern door under a sign made of a bit of flotsam and hung with cordage from the rafters of the balcony above. ONE-EYED JACK it read, and its crude mascot leered down on us, a scaly merman with an eye-patch and a grin full of shark’s teeth.