PreviousFiction IndexCatalogue and CommisionsArt GalleriesSend feedbackNext

 

The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Ten

 

With tunic and hood, the big man might have been any laborer coming home from a hard day's work, a canvas pack over his shoulder, a warm meat-filled pastry in his hand. Other than passing glances at his impressive size, no one spared a second thought to his passage through the meaner streets of Vahnatu.

Wing had been in the port city for a day, had avoided the docks since folk there might be more likely to recall him, despite his desire to see how the Luck faired and was going about hunting down the contacts Garney had suggested. He was having a hard time of it. The men he sought were not the most outstanding of citizens and when a stranger asked after them folk tended to get cagey. He knew the routine, having grown up on the back streets of a city many times the size of this one, with many more vices hidden in the shadow of its rules and regulations. The word would get out that someone was looking for a few particular men, and if those men were curious enough they would seek him out. Theo would have been better at the game. Theo had a silver tongue and a charisma that swayed folk to his side. Wing merely made folk nervous, with his size and his penchant for few words.

Late into the night he took his ease in a seedy tavern that catered to the poorest of the city's inhabitants, sitting drinking watered ale at a corner table watching the scant drunkards that staggered in at such an hour. He had mentioned a the names of the men he sought to the bar keep, so the rumor might spread where he was, but no one approached him until the hour before dawn.

He was almost dozing when a dingy figure slunk towards him. Between the ale he had nurtured all night and the state of his exhaustion the man was almost upon him before he noticed the advance. Blinking up at the newcomer, it occurred to him that the face was a familiar one. The lips pulled back in a grin, revealing a missing tooth. It was the young man from the gates. Lhoki.

"Well hello again." Lhoki said. "See you haven't run afoul of the lady's bullies yet."

"What do you want?" Wing was in no mood for nonsense.

"Heard somebody was looking for a friend of mine, Greiggi the Slip."

Slowly Wing nodded.

"Greiggi lost his hands to the magistrate last month. Stole the purse of one of her highness's tax collectors. Infection set in and he didn't last the week out."

"Damn." Wing swore. One name down. His resources were running out.

"Dylon the Book, he's moved on too. Decided Pu Kan was more to his tastes. Too many taxes here even for his line of work."

This was most certainly leading somewhere. Wing beetled his brows and waited for the young man to tell him some dire news of the last name he'd been bandying about.

"Well, Tinus the barber, he's still here, but he's gone pretty much legit lately. Scared of the arm of the law, if you know what I mean. He'll run to ground soons as he hears someone's asking after him."

"And this means what to you?"

"I just come, being a friend of poor Greiggi's and all. Then I saw it was you and figured I'd give you a few helpful tips. Now, if you was planning on hiring Greiggi for something then I might be able to offer you me services. There ain't nothing he knew that I don't know twice as well."

Wing rose, having no further need to dwell in this dingy bar, frustration pounding behind his eyes. He brushed past Lhoki and out the door into the cool, pungent air of the Vahnatu slums. The young man followed and was ignored. What to do now? Risk the docks and recognition?

"You ever find your friends?" Lhoki was an irksome presence at his side a slim, nervous figure with a hint of desperation behind the cock-sure set of his face. Wing studied the young man, recalling that he had led them straight about the gate guards and Tiana's forces in town. He was desperate himself and willing to trust a boy he would not have normally.

"I've more to find. I've a need of someone to ask questions for me in places I dare not go."

The gap toothed grin appeared. "Oh, I can ask questions plenty good."

* * * * *

A troop of black armored mercenaries rode down the center of the street, bullying pedestrians out of their path. Lhoki barely waited for them to pass before darting across the street, practically brushing the hind end of the trailing horses as he hurried towards the doorway Wing took shelter in. Wing watched the menacing group until they disappeared around the next bend before turning his attention to the young man bouncing before him.

"There's a rumor among some folks that Kaval the Sailmaker has taken on new apprentices. He hasn't had apprentices since his three sons was conscripted into the lady's black fleet three years gone."

"You're sure it's them?"

"Sure as rain." Lhoki grinned.

"Where is Kaval the Sailmaker's place?"

"Out on the northern arm of the lagoon."

Lhoki led the way, passing on bits of gossip about various people or shops they passed. He was a well spring of useless trivia and after a while Wing tuned his chatter out, more interested in keeping a wary eye to the occasional armed mercenary they passed. There were a good number of soldiers in town, many more than he had noted before Theo's jaunt to the lady's keep. According to Lhoki the docks were crawling with her men. He hadn't ventured close to the Luck by Wing's strict order, but he'd heard that no laborer had laid a finger to her in days. At least they hadn't scuttled her for good.

They took a roundabout way to the Northern arm of the city, bypassing the harbor streets and coming in from behind. The sailmaker's shop sat in front of a small warehouse facing the water. There were a few small piers, but the water was too shallow here for anything but small rowboats to be moored. Across the lagoon the masts of greater ships could be seen and in Wing squinted he could just make out the odd shape of a ship suspended by gin poles in drydock. He turned away, wincing and opened the door of the sailmaker's shop. A small well kept front room with a counter and curtained doorway leading to the back met his eye. There were coils of rope and samples of folded canvas of varying quality. He stepped inside, Lhoki crowding in behind him and moved the counter, knocking on the wooden top to gain the attention of the shopkeeper. With a rustle of cloth a stout man appeared from the back room, eyeing Wing and Lhoki questionably.

"What can I do for you?"

"I've heard you've taken on some new apprentices and I believe they might be friends of mine." Wing was not one for the mincing of words.

The sailmaker's eyes narrowed marginally. "I have taken on a few boys. Orphans who I doubt a man such as yourself would know."

"And did you take on their foul mouthed old grandpapy as well?"

For a long moment more the man studied him, then with a decisive nod of his head he gestured to the back. He went through the curtain without a word and Wing followed with a sharp word to Lhoki to stay and watch the street front. Behind the curtain was the shopkeeper's living quarters and beyond that a door that led to the warehouse where he practiced his trade. Along the walls were various tools and stores, but the center of the floor was bare, contributing the large space needed to lay out and cut canvas. Pieces of a sail were laid out now and several young men sat sewing the canvas together. Others looked up from the sidelines, in the midst of finishing the noon day meal. Every one of those faces brightened as Wing stepped into the warehouse. A flock of the youngest of his crew abandoned what they were about and scrambled towards him, calling out his name, babbling a dozen questions all at once. He managed a quick head count while they were milling around him, and completed it satisfactorily as Adella hobbled towards him in a slower fashion, his lined face creased with a grin.

"Took you damn long enough." the old man complained. "Where're the rest of the lads?"

"Safe. Safer than you are here."

"Ah, tell me of it. Not a day after you left, and the harbor was crawling with the witch's men. Took the boys here to Kaval, who's a friend of captain Darius and he was good enough to put us up, having no love for the lady himself."

"The ship?"

The bosman's face turned grim. "Guards around her. Waitin' for us to return, I suppose. She's wantin' the captain bad, I'd say."

He looked at the anxious faces of the Luck's junior crew. At Urchin and Stol and the others who were green enough not to have been risked in a forage into enemy territory. They were safe enough here for the time being, until he could figure out the best course of action to take. The guard around the ship could not last forever. Sooner or later it would be lightened and they might be able to manage some clandestine work on her. That was the only reasonable thing he could conceive of, because fleeing into the Danarian wilderness and abandoning her was unthinkable.

 

Studying at home with time and comfort on her side would have been by far more enriching than the haphazard, hurried lessons master Pyphin thought to give her on the run in dark Danar. Dharva was improving though. In a matter of days, with his guidance she found a greater mastery over her magic. He proposed new concepts and sent her out to dwell upon them, asking the next day what conclusions she had reached. Admittedly against his better judgment he taught her the basics to more dangerous spells, that he would have waited months to introduce her to had they been back in Kava. Her puny little balls of fire were nothing in comparison to the angry spells she now knew.

He might not have ever taught her some of the violent things he did, if the situation had not been so dire. Even if they got home to Khell, the danger still persisted. She knew firsthand that there were associates of Tiana there. It was a very real possibility that it was not merely Tiana who wished to break the Second Stone, but a whole sect of powerful Kerisai sorcerers. And against that threat they needed all the protection they could get.

Even the return to Vahnatu would require more luck than the fates normally provided. Theo was working on that. He and Collin and Garney had their heads together a great deal planning on just how two men the lady wanted very badly might slip unnoticed into a city owing fealty to her. Dharva was content to let them figure it out, more interested in practicing with master Pyphin in the woods or on the beach where the superstitious pirates would not be offended by the show of magic.

Finally, on the third day after Pyphin had finished the seal, Theo announced that they had a plan for getting back to Vahnatu. Dharva was perfectly willing to go along with anything they'd come up with before she heard of the part she was to play.

"I will not be a slave." Her cry of indignity pierced the night air as the lot of Theo's men, Pyphin and Garney sat around the outdoor table. She glared accusingly at Theo as if he'd come up with the plan merely to irritate her.

"You're not going to be the only one." he tried to mollify her. "We'll be traveling the slave route to the port city and gaining entrance through the slavers gate, it's only logical that if we go in the guise of slavers we ought to have a few slaves."

"I won't wear chains." She seethed.

"Only when we get to the city."

She glared at him, crossed her arms over her breasts and prepared to sulk. She'd bet the clothes off her back that Theo wouldn't be traveling as a slave. They spoke of the names they would mention to get past the city gates, the mannerisms of slavers and slaves alike. The pirates had a good deal of slaver paraphernalia for a group that claimed not to indulge in the trade.

In the morning they set off, five of the Luck crew armed and outfitted with light leather armor, the rest of them plainly clothed and carrying nothing but heavy sacks of supplies strapped to their backs. Even Pyphin had a sack, though his was relatively light weight. The lot of them that were to play the part of captured slaves carried sets of manacles, just in case they passed some other group on the route and needed to quickly get into character.

Collin was to play the slave master, since his captain needed to keep a low profile. Theo merely walked near the back of the group with his usual arrogance, playing with a whip that was one of a slavers tools of the trade.

It took half the morning to reach the slave route, which was nothing more than a wide dirt path that cut through the forest leading north and south. According to Garney they would leave the forest in about ten leagues and travel along the boarder of the vast fields of wheat and beans that thrived in the soil hereabouts. Another ten or fifteen leagues and they would find a split in the route that would take them to Vahnatu.

She practiced a few simple spells to horn her control of her fickle elemental spirits under Pyphin's supervision for the first half of the journey. It was well into afternoon when one of the 'guards' walking rear patrol came running up the trail, warning that riders were on the way. All the slaves made haste putting on the bulky manacles. With a detestable click the lock caught on the wristlets and the heavy length of short chain fastened her hands together.

They trudged on, and soon the sound of hooves pounded loudly behind them. Looking over her shoulder she saw a band of some six men on horses approaching. They slowed on passing their group, and trampled the outskirts of the broad field of wheat that bordered the route as they passed. She felt their eyes scanning the ranks of imprisoned travelers. Not mercenaries, not from the look of them anyway. They were armored no better than the guards of their own group, and each sported a fair amount of gaudy jewelry about their persons. Slavers for real, she thought. Or land pirates.

A horse pulled abreast with her, a man's leg brushing against her as she walked. She fought the urge to glare up and rebuff him for it, instead staring solidly at the ground before her feet. She could feel his eyes upon her. Someone else came up on her other side and a hand gripped her upper arm, pulling her inward and away from the horse. Startled she looked up and caught Theo's grim expression as he changed places with her, buffering her against the other man's gaze.

"Don't bruise the merchandise." Was Theo's suggestion to the mounted traveler. The man laughed then and spurred his horse forward, joining his fellows at the fore of the group. The riders seemed to be conferring up front, and Collin who walked at the head of the column held up a hand to halt the progress.

"What do they want?" she whispered to Theo's back. He just shook his head, drifting forward. She wanted to catch hold of him and stop him. "No. Don't go up there." she hissed.

But he ignored her, pushing past the manacled figures of his own men and standing at the outskirts of the gathering. Collin was talking with the leader of the riders, standing at ease with his hands on his hips.

"You're bound for Vahnatu?" A lean faced, black bearded man was asking. Of the riders he was the best dressed, his boots polished to a gleam, the jewelry at this throat of the highest quality. An intricate tattoo in blue ink swept down from the hairline of his right temple and surrounded the corresponding eye.

"Aye." Collin answered. "And you?"

The rider shrugged. "There and past. This lot bound for the mines?"

Collin nodded. "Got a guaranteed sale from Old Man Vergal."

The bearded man nodded, looking back over the group. "And the girl? Where's she bound for?"

Collin rubbed his chin, a thoughtful look crossing his face, slowly he grinned. "Might not be bound for anywhere just yet. Bought her down in Deslar and she's proved to be a right warm distraction on a cold night."

In the middle of the cluster of slaves the girl in question stared furiously at the ground.

"Pretty little thing. How much for her?"

"She's still good for a few nights." Collin said amicably. "I'm not ready to sell her just yet."

"I'll give you ten gold pieces."

"Well," Collin said, as though thinking the offer over. "It's a fair offer, but - - no I think I'll keep her."

"Do you know who I am?"

Collin stared up, caught in a question that just might be their downfall, if this was some slaver prince that all slavers ought to be familiar with.

"Well, I'm sorry, but no."

Some of the riders around the tattooed man laughed. The tattooed man himself inclined his head. "Sinnah. Of Corath."

As if that explained everything, Collin nodded, inclining his head in return. "Honored to meet you. I'm Sibeth and work under master slaver Inuba."

"I know Inuba." Sinnah of Corath said. "He, when it gets right down to it, owes a fair bit of allegiance to me."

"The girl's not for sale." said Theo from behind Collin. Collin took an imperceptible breath and tried not to look that way. The eyes of Sinnah immediately fixed on Theo.

"Are you master of this caravan, or do your men speak for you, Sibeth?"

"Forgive him, master Sinnah, but he's developed a fondness for the wench, which is part of the reason I'm loath to part with her."

"Bad business, to let your men dally with the slaves." Sinnah observed, still watching Theo, who stared stonily back, very much not liking the imperious slaver and not willing to play politics.

Collin sighed tragically. "I try to tell him, but what can you do with the vigor's of youth?"

"Perhaps a few lashes would help."

Theo's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps you'd like to try."

Collin jerked a warning hand in Theo's direction. "Stop it." he snapped, fixing his captain with a baleful gaze. Then turning to Sinnah, he inclined his head in apology. "Forgive him."

"He seems not to know the boundaries of his own capabilities." Sinnah observed lazily, dark eyes glittering with malice.

If Theo said another word, Collin was personally going to jump on him. On the other hand he was getting a little tired of bowing and scraping to this obviously high ranking slaver. If it came right down to it, he thought they could take them, mounted or not. They had two magic users on their side after all.

"I'll make it a point to make him aware of them, but the fact remains that the girl is not for sale. Now I've a mind to make Vahnatu before dark, so if you don't mind, we'll be on our way."

"By all means." Sinnah spun his horse and put heels to it's flanks, sending it bounding off down the road. His men followed, stirring up a cloud of dust in their wake.

"Theo," Collin said, not turning his gaze from the rapidly shrinking horsemen. "Is there some particular reason you want me to drop dead of heartstroke?"

"I didn't like him."

Collin glanced to his side as Theo moved to stand next to him. The girl pushed up, master Pyphin on her heels.

"I really, really hate this slave business." she spat, shaking her manacled hands between the two of them. "Whatever did he want with me?"

Theo and Collin both looked at her, wondering if she were actually unawares.

"Shall I explain in detail?" Theo offered sweetly. After a moment of his none too innocent stare her eyes widened and her cheeks turned red, then she turned away with a little huff and stalked off.

"That man has great presence." Pyphin observed mildly.

"Should we be concerned?" Theo asked.

"Only should he cross our paths again."

"We'll try to avoid that." Collin promised and called for the group to get moving again.

 

Almost they reached Vahnatu too late to enter the city. The gates were firmly shut at darkness and opened for no one and it took a great deal of cajoling on Collin's part and a great deal of name dropping, to convince the guards at the slave gate to let the small group slip past and into the port city. It was a cool enough evening that no one thought it odd that several members of the company walked with hoods up. As soon as they had left the vicinity of the city walls, the slave paraphernalia was discarded and hidden. The weapons in the packs were handed out amongst the men and it was decided that they split into small groups each finding lodging with inns in the seedier part of town.

Theo, who had more reason to lay low than most, and should have been content to take shelter behind closed doors while the most inconspicuous of his men asked about after the men Garney had suggested might help, was the most discontent.

"Your wife and her da upstairs sleepin'?" The innkeeper's daughter who had shown them their rooms loitered in the small lobby, when he came down. She smiled at him half heartedly, not weren't certain whether it was worth her while to flirt with a married man, of which he claimed to be, much less one with a young wife considerably prettier than she. Of course the wife's da was with them, so there couldn't have been much passion happening upstairs and the husband was pleasing enough to look at that it hardly mattered whether he had a copper or two to spare for her favors.

He didn't answer her, going to the door and looking out at a very dark street. In this section of town no one could afford the cost of oil for street lights. She slunk up behind him, noticing the cloak over his arm. "You going out for a walk, master?"

"For a drink, yes." he turned bottomless brown eyes on her and she felt warm in certain sensitive places.

"We've got drink here." she suggested. "And a soft bed that you won't have to share with no old man."

"If his elbows get too bony, I'll keep it in mind." He swung the cloak around his shoulders.

"Your wife, she looks to be a mite bony, too." The innkeeper's daughter felt opportunity slipping through her fingers.

"I beg your pardon?"

The pock-faced girl turned, caught red handed by the very same young wife who stood half way down the stairs, glaring accusingly down at both of them. "Nothin' ma'am. Nothin'" The innkeeper's daughter hurried to the back room, muttering about laundry needing folding.

Dharva watched her go with a frown. "Where do you think you're going?"

She marched the rest of the way down the steps and stood staring up at him. Theo set his lips, pulling the hood up over his head.

"To the docks. Just going to pass by and see the Luck.."

"Are you out of your mind? I thought we'd covered this, Theo? They know you at the docks. They're probably waiting for you at the docks. Are you completely stupid?"

"Obviously." he opened the door and stalked out. Dharva threw out her hands in absolute disbelief and followed.

"You can't even abide by your own plan?" she hissed at him. "Are you always this whimsical or is it only under duress?"

"Go back and stay with your master." he suggested.

"I should go and tell Collin what you're about."

He whirled about in the middle of the street, catching her arm and bending down to glare nose to nose with her. "I know what I'm doing."

"Oh, right."

"Go away."

"If you're going, then I'm coming with you." She crossed her arms and lifted her chin with her most formidable expression. He stared at her a moment more, then straightened with a reckless laugh. He didn't bother to comment as he continued down the street, so she stomped along behind him in as much silence. Half-witted man.

Not a word was exchanged the entire way to the docks. Then Theo without warning threw an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, slowing his pace to a casual saunter. She was flabbergasted and speechless at the abrupt change in attitude. It took her a good moment while she collected her wits before she could stammer. "Wh-what are you doing?"

They passed a drunken sailor, staggering with bottle in hand perilously close to the water. He leaned over her, solid warmth and strength, brushing his lips across her ear.

"Just go with it, Dharva." Was his whispered advise. She had no choice since every pore on her body chose that moment to goose pimple.

The docks never slept. Seamen left or returned to their ships, dockside whores called invitations to passer by, there was an argument here or there between sailors and the ships always creaked and groaned with the tides. They strolled down the pier, one couple among many, passing by the one crippled ship that hung suspended above the water, it's hull half-way stripped of the outer layer of wood, untouched treated timber lying on the docks before her berth. They passed the slip and Theo shifted into the shadow of a closed shop doorway, putting his back to the locked door and pulling Dharva against him as if in intimate embrace.

"There's a guard." he whispered into her hair as intent on scoping the ship as she was in listening to the pounding rush of blood in her ears. "And a second." he noted. He brushed his lips across hers and she thought she might die. She'd never been kissed by anyone before. Not really kissed and she found herself wishing one of the guards would walk this way and make him do more than just pretend to kiss her.

He tired of his observation and led her out of the doorway and if his arm hadn't been firmly around her shoulders she might have merely stood there on numb legs, at a loss at what to do. It was a horrible let down as they cut up a side street away from the docks and he took his arm from her shoulder. He paced a little ahead of her, thoughts churning at what he'd managed to see of his precious ship, while she stumbled along, a growing feeling of shame washing over her. She had thought - - - she didn't know what she had thought for a while back there, but it embarrassed her deeply now. A tear leaked from the corner of her eye and she wiped at it furiously lest Theo turn around and see.

He wasn't the fool. He was very obviously adept at getting what he wanted. She was the fool.

 

Dharva was very quiet throughout breakfast, answering even Pyphin's questions with monosyllable replies. When Collin and one of his seamen, Tarith came by after breakfast to tell them word had been put out inquiring of Garney's contacts, she declined from tattling of their late night visit to the docks. It was a relief not having to defend his own impatience to the cook. He'd seen the ship and might now be satisfied to lay low until the Furazol returned to port and they could ship master Pyphin and Dharva off to Khell.

He spent an intensely boring day up in the room with the sorcerer and the girl, waiting for word to come of anything. When they weren't meditating or talking of arcane things he'd rather not hear, Pyphin dozed and Dharva had grown of a sudden reluctant to converse with him. Her moods on the whole were the most changeable he'd ever encountered in a woman. After a few failed attempts to engage her he gave up and let her sit morosely by the window, while he played game after game of fortune, a game particularly popular with the sea faring class, with a deck of cards acquired from the innkeeper's daughter.

It was almost evening when a knock came at the door that startled all three of them. Theo held up a hand for the other two to remain where they were, took his sword from it's sheath and opened the door.

A dirty faced young man stared at him, gap toothed grin on his face, a stench traveling the space between hall and door. The door, which opened inward hid the sword in Theo's hand. He leaned on the frame with the other and inquired.

"What do you want?"

"Not me." the vagrant said, and jerked his head towards the right where a creaking of boards signaled the approach of someone else. Theo brought the blade out and around, laying the tip on the breast bone of the young man at the door. Dark eyes shifted down to stare at that sharp point threatening to pierce his tender skin. The Adam's apple convulsed reflexively even as the boy tried to maintain an air of calm.

"Theo, no!" A voice called. "Damnit Lhoki, I told you to wait." Hurried steps on the weak flooring and Wing pelted up beside the young man.

"Uh, he's with me." Wing said when Theo looked from him to this Lhoki with an arched, questioning brow.

"Yeah, I'm with him." the boy reiterated, gingerly trying to pry the blade away from him with thumb and forefinger. Theo dropped his sword arm to his side and stepped backwards to make space for the newcomers to enter the room. Lhoki strode in like he owned the place and with a grim smile Wing followed, shutting the door behind him before clapping a hand on Theo's shoulder.

"Didn't expect to see you again so soon. Lhoki here heard that there were more folk asking after Garney's contacts and came to me."

"We're all here. Are 'Della and the boys okay?"

"They are. The ship's not so good."

Theo nodded bleakly. "I saw."

"I've already seen Collin this afternoon. Took us a while to track him down. He told me where you were, told me what we're planning. It's risky."

Theo looked back to Dharva and Pyphin. "As soon as someone comes up with a better plan, I'm game. Where are you staying?"

Wing told him, and informed him of what he'd learned since arriving in the port city. It was depressing news to hear just how many troops Tiana had at her beck and call. They had avoided the majority, coming in the slave gate and staying to the slum section of town. It seemed the wisest action for Theo and Pyphin to remain secluded until the Furazol arrived at port. Wing would make sure the captain of that vessel was notified of the clandestine passengers that needed quiet boarding of his ship. The young man, Lhoki, who looked more a beggar or thief than anything else, bragged of his ability to hear every whisper of gossip in the city.

Theo was not certain he trusted him, but Wing, who was generally adept at separating scoundrels from honest men, seemed to have faith in his informant. Theo had little choice but to trust in his friend's judgment.

For the next several days it was not Wing, but Lhoki who communicated with Theo, coming to the inn at odd hours to report on the state of the ship, or of what Tiana's troops were about, or just to relay Wing's wishes to stay calm and concealed. The young man took a great deal of pride in his role as messenger, strutting about with a cock of the roost assurance that his was an crucial service that none of them could have done without. Theo tolerated it and watched his purse when Lhoki was in the room.

Lhoki was taken with Dharva, watching her avidly whenever she was about something else and not paying him much heed. He remarked to Theo on several occasions was a fine, polite girl she seemed, since she had only ever smiled and spoken kind words to him. Theo refrained from mentioning what a shrew she could be if one got on her bad side. But it did annoy him when she went out of her way to be nice to Lhoki when she had hardly spoken a word to him in two days and him stuck in a room no bigger than his ship's cabin with her. That irked more than anything else, so he tended to be short with Wing's beggar and shoe him out as quickly as possible. Dharva would glare all the more at him if he was particularly rude.

There was a fine mist of rain coming down outside on the day Lhoki came bounding in with news that the Furazol had sailed into harbor and by that afternoon Theo and Dharva were on their way to meet with the merchant captain on the neutral grounds of an inn in the tailor's district. Not a section of town where one would expect to find sailor's dallying. Lhoki led the way, chattering about the grief the sorceress' men had been giving the people of Vahnatu lately.

Wing was already at the inn, sitting at a round table in company with the Furazol's captain and first mate. Both men's faces split into grins of delight when they saw Dharva. She took their hands, genuinely relieved at their presence. She inquired whether they'd had a profitable trip down the coast and they nodded, well pleased with the gain. Their smiles faded as Dharva related the dire events that had happened since they had last seen her. They were not only willing, but eager to take her and her master on, even going so far as leaving port days early and without the benefit of a full hold. Captain Skawag, it seemed was an amateur follower of Kurisar lore and was greatly impressed and worried by the tale Dharva told.

Everyone, it seemed, but Theo, had some sort of grasp on the arcane. He blundered around it blindly, superstitiously, wishing he'd never had the occasion to discover it at all. Ah, well, some things the spirits and fate were damned and determined to torment a body with.

"I'm sorry about your ship, lad." the old captain shook his head grimly. "Hurtful thing to happen to a good boat. What'll you do about her?"

Theo wished he could answer that. He felt like a cripple given sympathy from a whole and hale man. It hurt, that condolence, making him think of things dead and unresurrectable.

"We can bring the old man tonight." Wing suggested, while Theo's thoughts still revolved darkly around his ship. "He's likely safer there than in town."

Which meant that Dharva would accompany him. Theo met her eyes across the table with the sudden and surprising ache of missing her, already coiling in his gut. He had sort of gotten used to her moods and headstrong ideas and tomorrow she would be gone. And he would still be here with a hopeless task given him by her master and a ship that might never sail the seas again. He preferred not to dwell on the other dilemmas facing him, such as the wrath of the lady who ruled supreme on this shore. That would only serve to deepen the depression he had already managed to emerge himself in.

And then his thoughts skipped back to Dharva's eyes, which were indigo in the lamp light and filled with distress. Wing and Captain Skawag discussed plans across the table in front of him and Theo could have cared less. The realization that he was going to miss Dharva ate at him and he could not quite dislodge it. He wanted to tell her he was sorry - - no one thing came to mind - - just for a great number of things he had done or said to her since he'd known her, but not in front of Wing and the others.

Not on the way back to the inn either, when Lhoki rejoined them from where he'd waited outside and he and Wing both walked the dark streets with them back to their rented room. Collin was with the old man, and listened to the rendition of the evening attentively, seeming pleased with the speed with which events were transpiring.

The whole time Wing and Collin and master Pyphin were talking Dharva walked around the tiny room as if looking for something to pack for the voyage and able to find nothing that she didn't already wear. She looked lost and displaced, hugging her arms about herself. Theo watched her from his corner, feeling much the same himself. The old man called her over after a while, talking of colleagues of his in Kava who might aide them when they reached that faraway port. She listened and nodded at the appropriate places, but if Theo was any judge she seemed distinctly distracted. His own attention was diverted enough that Wing had to call him twice to gain his notice. He got up and went to where Collin, Wing and Lhoki stood by the door, the latter two preparing to leave.

"Tomorrow after the Furazol sets sail we should all met at the sailmakers." Wing suggested.

"I'll let the rest of the men know when and where." Collin said.

Theo shrugged, that plan sitting as well with him as any of late. Wing watched him warily, broad face beginning to show a hint of concern. He opened the door and shoed Lhoki and Collin out before him, vowing to follow shortly, waited for them both to descend the stairs before taking Theo's arm and drawing him out into the hall.

"Where were you tonight, Theo."

"Is there a trick to this question, or would you prefer the obvious answer?" Theo asked dryly.

Wing beetled his brows, weighing his words carefully. "Do you recall half of what we spoke of over dinner tonight? You barely spoke a word."

"You did well enough." He might have been offended if in checking his memory he had retained more than a fraction of what went on between the captain of the Furazol and Wing.

"Don't play at words with me, Theo. If something's wrong, tell me."

"Nothing's wrong." It was a laughable declaration, considering and it did not fool Wing for a moment, Wing knowing him better than any one else alive. Wing Continued to stare, trying to break Theo's reluctance to share. It had been a tactic that worked when they were children and Theo had always, sooner or later relented and divulged all his secrets, shames or crushes to Wing.

At the moment, he was uncertain enough of exactly what he was feeling towards Dharva, to declare anything. He looked back through the crack in the door, where he could see a sliver of her and hear the murmur of her voice and sighed.

"Spirits." Wing whispered harshly. "You've fallen for the little witch."

Theo opened his mouth to deny it and Wing just shook his head at him solemnly. "Can't say it surprises me, her being pretty and in the vicinity. Just don't mope when she's gone."

One might almost get the impression that Wing thought Theo easily developed attachments, one might take offense at the observation and warning, if one were not vaguely aware of one's own fallibility.

"Don't worry about me." he suggested to get some control of the situation back. "Just get yourself back to 'Della and the boys without tripping over Tiana's mercenaries. And keep that cutpurse you've taken up with from babbling our plans to half of Vahnatu."

"He's not a bad lad. Just has a tendency to chatter."

Theo pushed him down the hall. "Tomorrow, Wing."

The big man looked back once, cautiously, then hunched his shoulders and tread down the hall.

 

 

PreviousFiction IndexCatalogue and CommisionsArt GalleriesSend feedbackNext