From the Journals of Mairena the Traveller, vol IV

Of all the maritime customs I encountered in my voyages, the most unusual, pervasive, and society-shaping is that of the inhabitants of the Western Archipelagos. Like the Darland Coast, they hold that the Prophet came from on high, that the Adversary lurks in the ocean depths, that any child born at sea is subject to possession by a demon, and that the end of the world itself will be brought about by such a sea-born child. Unlike the Darlanders with their wealth of land and resources, life among the Archipelagos requires much travel and trade, and they chose not to ban women from their ships, but to separate them. Vessels in the west are crewed entirely by either men or women, and though they mingle on land like anywhere else, at sea they brook no contact with one another. Even the hulls are color-coded, bright red for the women and gleaming white for the men, that other ships may know from a distance which sex crews them.

The men's ships put to port much as any ship would in the absence of the taboo, save that women are not allowed on board at all, even for the briefest of stays above-decks with an escort, no matter how much your narrator begged for a tour. I even tried to eye a glimpse of the hold of one by dressing as a dock-boy and loading cargo onto it, but the high-cut shirts and tight trousers of the local fashion stymied my plan, perhaps intentionally. I did obtain stories from sailors in dock-side taverns for the price of a mug, and learned nothing of interest to you, my reader.

Boarding one of the women's ships to continue my journey was by far the more interesting half of the tale. In the Archipelago's ports, there is a large walled section known as the Moon Town (or, by the crude, as the Blood Town). The only gates on land are guarded by women at all times, and men are never allowed within on pain of emasculation. To gain access, I had to endure an exceedingly private audience, in which a stern matron confirmed that the blood moon was upon me, as proof that I could not possibly with child. While the occupants are allowed to leave at any time, they may only re-enter at this time of month. Even the guards for the two sides of the gate are different and live upon different sides. There is also a rather brisk business in pleasant inns on the outside of the wall, that offers discounts on stays by the week for women who wish to embark but timed their arrival poorly.

Once within, I found a thriving dockside town, populated entirely by women and serving the likewise all-female crews of the gaudy red ships lined up on that side of the harbor. They seemed exceedingly happy and carefree, much more so than the womenfolk of other ports that I have laid call in. From there, I booked passage to Riordes by way of the Calamitous Shore, and put to sea. The truth of the ships' hulls was proven when we were rounding the Hornspur, and the scout, a girl of no more than fourteen years, began to shout that there were pirates on the horizon. In all the bustle that ensued, I was able to ask the first mate how they knew the other ships were pirates, given that all I could spy with my scrying-glass was a pair of red and white hulls with none of the markings I have previously described as a warning to hand over cargo or die. She replied that it was precisely because there were two ships, one red and one white. Merchant caravans travel like with like, that they may help each other if trouble strikes upon the waves. The pirates traveled with one ship of each type, that they might be able to board with impunity any ship they might overtake, whether crewed by women or men, without even the appearance of mingling at sea.

I was skeptical that such a prohibition would hold even with those so far outside the law, but the proof of the matter came late that day, when the pirates overtook us. Though both fired shots, aiming to rend our sails and cripple us, only red ship pulled alongside to board. It was a pitched battle, like two wildcats in a sack, but we repelled them, and our grenadier set their sails alight, which consumed their attention once we disengaged. The men aboard the white ship cheered what I later discovered were mostly their wives, and unloaded shot upon us, but never once made a move to come on-board, though it would easily have turned the tide of battle, and they made no effort to help their companions deal with the fire. (Which they extinguished—even though they threatened my life, I admit that it would have made sick to see them die, especially while their husbands held still and did nothing to help them.)

I am glad to report that the rest of the trip was entirely uneventful, giving me time to learn a smattering of Calamite vocabulary (enough to make it clear that it's a distant cousin of Antuvian, giving credence to the theory that the lost colony of Anutuvia once lay on the Calamitous Shore), as well as hone my skills at shuffle-ball and stumble through many a shanty best sung when drunk and far from the company of men.

The Ninth Book of the Companions

And so it came to pass that Jhrad chose to leave the Company of the Traveller, and wandered in the desert for a moon and a day. On that day, he came upon a pool in the sand, exactly equal to the measure of a man in all directions, and as he bent down to slake his thirst, the pool turned to blood before his eyes, then roiled and bubbled with the fury of the sun.

As the blood bubbled, it burst, and spewed forth in all directions, covering Jhrad and the sand with its rich wetness. In place of the blood lay a mouth, and it addressed Jhrad in a voice that came from deep beneath the earth yet was not of the earth. "Who are you that wander this trackless desert, where no man may breathe more than three times without becoming dry as a stone and still as dust?"

"I am Jhrad, sorceror. I was one of the Companions of the Traveller, and I shall be again, but now I must seek that which cannot be held in the presence of the Traveller."

"That which you seek lies in the hands of the Queen of Fire, whom no man may bear to approach unless he bears the Red Mark."

"By your blood I am red from head to toe, and thus bear all red marks."

"You are wise, for one who seeks something so foolish," and with that, the mouth grew wide, and Jhrad stepped within.

The tale of Jhrad's battle with the locusts is sadly lost to us, with only the scrap regaling of how he "smote the second seven-hundred count of their number with the breath of dreams, and charmed the last third into slaying themselves" still existing on this mortal plane. His approach to the Fortress of Angoreth is also lost, and we must resume following him after he has passed the first gatehouse.

And at the second gate, twice as tall and four times as fearsome, Jhrad again called out, and again a face appeared at the battlements, with eight times more teeth and sixteen burning eyes. It called out to him, "In all time, but thirty-two seekers have passed the first gate, and none have gone further."

Shifting the giant's spine to his other hand, Jhrad answered, "I know the sixty-four secrets of the stars, and shall use each one to pry loose a nail from the gate, and it shall fall."

"Then I shall let you pass, for the gate must not fall, and the stars themselves would slay you if you were lying."

And thus he passed the second gate and came to the throne room of the Queen of Fire. It was a vast and opulent hall, with pillars of living flame supporting a dome that was stolen from the roof of the world, before the lesser gods had to craft the mere sky to take its place. Under the dome sat the Queen of Fire, red and perfect, burning since before Fire was tamed and made to swear its oaths to only burn where fuel is to be found.

Jhrad called out, "Queen, I have come to claim your favor and your gift."

"And why should I favor you, half-mortal as you may be?"

"I bear the Red Mark of your Ladyship, though no man, not even I, knows how it is drawn, for to do so would insult your sovereignty."

"You also bear the red whorl of the Unburnt Knight, sorceror. I should kill you for that."

"Ah, but you see, your Ladyship, your mark is on top of his, for you are superior."

"You are clever. Come, claim your gift."

Jhrad approached the throne of glass, and embraced the Queen, and she drew out his breath and burnt it and infused it with fire and he died and was reborn and knew the ways of Passion. Releasing her, he turned his head, for he could never look at her again, and as he turned, he spied Mhzad, who had been waiting for him at the side of the throne the whole time, having come by the Twilight Ways. He kissed her, and she too knew the ways of Passion, and in perfect silence they left to rejoin the Traveller as his Trials of Joy and Anger were to begin.

Shall we gather by the river…

I have seen the past, and now I am old. It is only upon the realization that time has passed that we age. Were we to remain oblivious, we would be children forever, free to bang our drums and climb trees and frolic away from the cares of life.

Time is a river, and we float upon it like garbage, rushing downstream to be dumped into the vast ocean. It is only by the remembrances of the fishermen lining the banks that we can leave a mark of our passing.

To the fish in the river of time, the rafts of junk that make up our lives are great places to hunt. All sorts of tasty bugs lurked trapped in the crevices of our lives—little mad, twitching things that we refuse to show to others and hide underneath our air bubbles, hating them but afraid to drown them. When the fish catch them, we convince ourselves that we never liked them at all, despite their being the only things that truly matter.

Somewhere, far out at sea, a giant raft is forming from all the millions of lives that flow downstream into it. One day, this raft will achieve sentience and claw its way upriver like the great, blind beast it is, devouring the fishermen that have in turn eaten the fish that once consumed our dark secrets, closing the cycle and unmaking all things as it stumbles back into the source of eternity. On this day there shall be only Joy and Pain and Oblivion.