The water in Southeastern Loch was deep, thick blue and quieter than the translucent, churning open sea. Twenty miles long and surrounded by steep bluffs on all sides, the loch had protective walls but a narrow door that squeezed the boundless sea in toward land. Here was the most vulnerable access to the rich, fertile Rocan interior, the ideal landing place Matin searched for: on the comfort of land he could travel with his army north and attack the main city with solid ground under his feet. A sea blockade in the north and siege in the south; a siege was how the Carians first took Isloch hundreds of years ago.
A mile off shore and another mile from the mouth of the loch I steadily treaded water while long pure white clouds floated in the sky above me. The water’s surface was crystalline and a little choppy; I bounced a bit with the current but I was still strong. I could tread water for a long time, but I couldn’t tread water forever; Castor needed to hurry up. Even Rocans could drown.
“Castor!” I yelled, “Castor!”
A fast boat rushed toward me. From the water it looked like a shark with a million bladed fins about to shred me into a million pieces.
From its stern, Castor screamed: “Oars up!”
The fast boat slowed and although my heart sped up I held my position. Successful rescues were measured in millimeters and high degrees of trust. Castor thrust his arms down and pulled me up into the boat. For one breath I hovered in the air like a caught fish and the next I rested on a wood bench in the stern behind him.
“Down!” he screamed, “go, go, go!”
He reached back and squeezed my knee; sometimes there was a little spark of Pollux in him. He flexed his right arm proudly, grabbed his oars, picked up the beat and joined the rest of his crew. The boat picked up speed again and headed toward the training pier on shore where Peter, Margaret and a medical crew observed us. I watched Castor row; his stroke was smooth and he showed no weakness and no awkward bone structure. His right shoulder had healed and through rehabilitation he looked even stronger than before his injury. As we tapped into the pier he turned around to me.
“You look a little tired,” he said.
“I was out there twenty minutes waiting for you,” I said.
“You’re alive,” he said, and pointed to his shoulder, “feel this.”
“Indulge me,” he said, “I want you to feel confident when I go out again.”
I touched his shoulder and pressed my fingers into his bare muscle, wet with sweat and sea spray. His chest expanded and contracted in wide deep breaths as his pulse slowed. He was fit. Only Margaret and Peter could say officially otherwise.
“Tell me you wouldn’t send me back out,” he whispered.
I would. But, I said, “it’s not up to me.”
“It has to be,” he said.
“I can try.”
A long, powerful shadow cast itself over and between us. I shivered; I was still wet and when I looked up I was staring at Rowen’s belt buckle. I hadn’t expected to see him here but I wasn’t surprised; Rowen had undergone his own long and deep extensive rehabilitation many years ago, only much worse than Castor’s. He held out his hand and pulled me out of the fast boat. His upper body was strong and powerful; Castor’s rebuild had his guidance all over it, as well as his recently demanding attitude.
“The sooner Castor’s back out the better,” Rowen said and wrapped a towel around my shoulders.
The demands were coming from coordinated angles.
“Should I send you back out there too?” I said and pressed my finger into his damaged right thigh.
He pressed my hand tighter against his thigh. There were muscles and nerves in there still alive, I was sure, but he seemed to revel in re-experiencing the pain, or reminding me of it.
“You’re too late for me, but not for him.”
Castor and the rest of the fast boat crew piled up onto the pier and lined up a few feet away. Rowen and I watched Margaret and Peter walk down the line visually examine each rower. From here they looked as energetic and fit as Castor but they fought more to impress Rowen than the doctors. It was an interesting change of fortune for him.
Rowen was aware of his effect: “That was a strong row,” he told them. They visibly relaxed; even Castor cracked a smile.
“Just swim and combat left,” Castor said.
“Go easy on the swim,” Rowen advised Castor, like a father to a son, “this is about fitness for duty.”
Peter and Margaret conferred over a clipboard; she made a few marks on Castor’s assessment form but gave no indication of how she believed he did. Peter, on the other hand, shouted enthusiastically:
“Excellent time, boys!”
The rowers clapped energetically. Margaret looked slightly annoyed – very annoyed. Doctors were objective assessors not pier-side cheer squads.
Rowen still held my hand. “You looked strong out there,” he whispered.
“Castor’s the one rehabilitating,” I said.
“Huh,” he said as if he didn’t believe me. With Ambrose potentially circling the drain, Rowen assumed my active interest in naval operations meant I was willing to – finally – take over the Administrator’s chair.
Peter and Margaret finished their assessment and came over to us. I dropped Rowen’s hand.
“How’s he then?” Rowen asked them.
“Fit,” Margaret said, “the dislocation is fully healed and his leg shows no weakness. The entire group can go onto the swim to the second pier.”
The men shouted and clapped again, with Castor rallying them up for the next leg. The second pier was just a little over a mile away deeper into the loch. After the men swam to the pier they immediately boarded one of two training ships moored there and started the deck combat test. As the last test of the day, final medical clearances came right after.
Castor and his crew stood ready at the edge of the pier to dive in. He glanced back at me, a competitive spark in his eyes then said to Rowen: “What was your best?”
Rowen crossed his powerful arms and laughed derisively. Men and their contests.
“Fifteen oh-six,” he said, “I said go easy.”
“Fifteen oh-six is easy,” he said and hit the water.
He surfaced a few seconds later several feet away and started into a strong crawl. His crew shouted and followed him in. They headed out toward the pier as a pod. An observer boat paced them while Margaret and Peter stepped into another boat to assess them. I waved them on and they pushed back.
Rowen watched the swimmers like a commander assessing the strength of his men. He turned away from them and looked down at me.
“Your father and you seem to have reconciled,” he said.
“Don’t waste this opportunity,” he said, “The loch is not secure. Matin finds it, we’re over. He has a path straight inside. We need Arthur.”
I looked around but the pier was mostly empty now. “You need to shut the fuck up.”
Rowen shut up. I shivered. He pulled another towel around my shoulders and touched a strand of my wet hair. This time there was some sentiment; powerful affection. Matin’s father Hugo had so painfully, soundly and profoundly defeated him yet here he was still alive, even more raw and powerful.
“I want to see you,” he said, how voice raw.
“For what purpose?”
His fingers tightened around the strand of my hair.
“To reconnect,” he said.
I hated being drawn to him but he was right: the loch was not secure. And more than anyone, he knew how to secure it. Reconnecting with Rowen was both wise and very, very stupid. When I was with him I felt both powerful and completely powerless.