A Matter of Trust

“Should see the harbor-master any time now.”

Cook’s voice broke into my thoughts.  We’d sailed through the breakwater and were now gently gliding across the calm, busy bay making up the Port of the Cascades.  I’d been lost in thought, wondering about my old sailing master.

A quick glance around showed us still clear of traffic, but Cook was right, we should see the harbor-master soon.  Even as the thought finished, a small 4-oared boat came around a coaster and changed path to approach us.  A young man stood up in the bow, cupped his hands, and with obvious arrogance hailed us.  “HOY! You the Pawd-he?”

I grimaced at his butchering of Pa’adhe’s name.  “The what?”

“Pawd-he!  That your ship?  You the Pawd-he?”

“Aye, this is my ship.”  Irritated that he had word to be watching for us but hadn’t bothered to learn the proper pronunciation, I decided to make him earn his pay.

“Answer me!  If you want a berth, you’ll answer!  I’m ordering you answer me!”  He all but stamped his foot.  “Are you the Paw…”

Before he could finish butchering her name again, a deeper, more commanding voice cut through his words.  “Hoy, Pa’adhe!  Welcome to port again!”  The voice came from an older man in a similar four-oared boat just rounding a merchantman being towed out into the bay.  “Namic!  I’ll handle the Pa’adhe.”

Aye, Harbor-master!”  With a final glare in my direction, the young man gestured towards another ship entering port and the rowers in his boat set to work.

A few orders were shouted to the tow pulling the merchantman to return and pull us in to berth then the harbor-master was alongside.  Grinning up at me, he asked, “Permission to board, Captain?”

“Aye, permission granted.”

A rope ladder went over the side and the harbor-master was quickly on deck.  He glanced around before asking, “Anything to be declared?”

“Just regular goods, sir.  We’re fresh from Vascri by way of Ogra Port.  Hides and wines from Vascri; cloths, iron, and steelwood from Ogra Port.  That’s all this voyage.”

“Good.  We need those.”  He handed me a cord with a complicated knot, giving me permission to berth.  Business taken care of, he held out his hand.  We shook as he said, “Welcome back!  He’s really not so bad, just needs to learn.  He’s an in-lander new come to the job.”

“It’s always good to be here, Avar!  He’d better learn to say the names right.  Has he had his bay-bath yet?”

Avar laughed out loud.  “No, but I imagine it’s going to be fairly soon.  Aye, he’s going to be tossed in the bay soon or late.  I thought you might be the one to do it, just now, but….”  He gestured off to the bow.  We made our way to the bow and Scarl discreetly made his way aft, ostensibly to confer with Cook on the rudder, but really to give us privacy.

“I couldn’t let it happen, the fuss would delay things.  Someone’s come from above the Cascades and word came from Upper Port, directly from Macrom:  when the Pa’adhe comes to port she has priority berth.”

I looked at Avar in surprise.  Macrom was the Dode of Port of the Cascades, a good man, stern, strict but fair, a well-liked ruler who rarely interfered with comings and goings at this level.  “Who and why?”

Avar shrugged.  “No word.  Only that you were to have priority berth, Macrom is to be notified immediately, which was done when you came through the breakwater.  Also, you’re to be given every assistance to be able to leave immediately.”  He grinned at that last.  “As I recall, the exact words were along the lines of ‘no excessive haggling, get him unloaded, re-stocked, and ready to go.”

I grinned.  That was almost license to ask whatever I wanted for my goods.  Of course, I had to balance that against my next trip to Port of the Cascades, so the smart thing was to not overdo it.  Then I frowned.  “Sounds good, of course.  But that means I’m not going to have much choice in the matter of the coming job, eh?”  A slight shake of Avar’s head confirmed that.  I’d have to deal with that when I could.  “Any word on the street as to what the job is?”

Avar hesitated before answering.  “Not really.  There’s always rumors, of course, but they’re so commonplace that in your case they can surely be discounted.  And that’s what’s really got some people worried.  The only good thing about it, I guess, is that word definitely did come directly from Macrom.”

The tow came alongside so we headed back to where his harbormaster boat was loosely tied to us.  As he left, I handed him a skin of Vascri wine.

The tow made quick work of pulling us to the berth assigned to us and we were soon tied to the pier.  As we finished setting things to right the tramp of feet echoing on the pier demanded our attention.  A squad of the Guard was headed our way.  The crew glanced at me and I signaled it was nothing to worry about.  The squad stopped several paces away from the bow of Pa’adhe while the Sergeant continued to the gangplank alone.

“Permission to board the Pa’adhe.”  It was not a request so much as a polite demand.

“Granted.”  I watched the Sergeant come up the plank and approach where I was standing.  Either he knew me or he knew that only the captain would give permission in such a situation.  Things are getting very interesting, I thought.

“You are the captain of the Pa’adhe?”  At my nod, he pulled a folded parchment from his glove and offered it to me.

I took the parchment, and no further word being offered, walked to the rail away from the pier to read it.  It was straight-forward, pretty much laying out everything Avar had told me.  It ended with the request that I give orders to prepare the ship for departure as soon as might be convenient and accompany the Sergeant to Upper Port.  It was signed with what I assumed was the signature of the Dode or one of his staff and had the Dode’s seal stamped on it.  Definitely official looking enough and the squad was in Guard uniform.  The Sergeant had remained in place but turned to keep an eye on me.  I rolled up the parchment and went up on the afterdeck where Xinu was.  I noticed the Sergeant again hadn’t moved other than to be able to watch me.  I handed the parchment to Xinu while calling for Cook.

When Cook arrived, I gave my orders.  Xinu and Cook were to oversee the necessary refitting.  Xinu and Scarl would handle selling the cargo.  I gave strict orders that they were to get a good price, but to keep it decent since we wanted to continue doing business here in the future.  I gave Cook similar instructions regarding purchasing supplies and services.  I bade Xinu and Cook use the parchment only if necessary to expedite things.  Heading back to the Sergeant, I called for Xinu to join us.

Facing the Sergeant, I asked, “With your permission, I’ll clean up a bit.  However, I need your assistance.  You are familiar with the contents of the parchment?”

“Yes, sir, you may and I am.”

“Then you know that apparently speed is of essence.”  He nodded. “Do you know how many people will be coming on board?  Do you know where we might be bound?  That knowledge is necessary to properly outfit my ship.”

“I do not, sir.  I was given the parchment, told to read it, deliver it, and return to the Dode’s Palace with the captain of the Pa’adhe.  That is the extent of my knowledge.”

“In that case, there is nothing to do about it.  We are a small crew, and I will not leave my ship unmanned.  Since I do not know what provisions are necessary, I will not take care of that until I have the necessary information.  Our cargo needs to be sold, and that will take two of the crew off the ship.  Will you assign a guard to the ship while we handle this?”

“That I can do, sir.  I will assign three men to watch over your ship.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.  I’ll be just a few moments.”  He stopped short of saluting and returned to his squad as I gave Xinu instructions to hold off provisioning until I returned.  A short while later, washed and in a fresh shirt,  I joined the Sergeant on the pier.  He glanced at the long knife on my belt but said nothing.  Three of his men took positions on the pier near Pa’adhe while the rest formed up behind the Sergeant and myself as we left.

* * *

At the base of the cliff opposite the port the Sergeant dismissed the squad.  He and I entered one of the lift baskets along with two other people.  Once we were seated, the lift-manager set the signal from black to yellow and shortly after the lines tightened and we began to rise up the cliff.  The Sergeant, apparently, was a man of few words but the other passengers were quite companionable, passing the time discussing the view, the Cascades, and sharing news.

We were 100 paces below cliff top when shouting could suddenly be heard. Shortly after the lift stopped and sounds of unseen combat drifted over the edge.  We glanced at each other then back to the cliff edge above us.  As a result, it was only out of the corner of my eye I saw the flash of steel, barely giving me time to react. Instinct alone allowed me to block the knife thrust, grasping his wrist and pulling his hand on past me.  I promptly released his wrist and slammed my elbow into his face, momentarily stunning him.  A fist to the side of his neck put him out of commission.

I quickly looked to the Sergeant in time to see him take a slash to the chest then get head-butted in the face by the remaining passenger.  The Sergeant momentarily stunned, the assassin turned her attention to me.  She thrust her knife at me, screaming “Vin Logarthi dai!”  Burdened by the unconscious body of the first attacker, I could only lean back while partially blocking the thrust.  I felt the knife sting my arm as it slashed through the shirt.  Left-handed, I smashed my fist into her face the same time the Sergeant smashed his into the side of her head.

The would-be assassins taken care of, I gave the Sergeant a quick look-over and grinned.  Through his slashed uniform was the glint of mail.  He returned the grin as he used some of his torn shirt to staunch the blood from his nose.  He’d come out of this a little better than I had.  I quickly checked my arm, determined it was a minor cut, and wrapped it with the remains of my shirt sleeve.  Priorities taken care of, we turned our attention to the two unconscious bodies.

Together the Sergeant and I shifted them back into the seats across from us.  A groan from my first assailant rewarded him with a quick blow to the back of his head with his own knife-pommel, putting him out of his misery for the time being.  Satisfied things were under control, the Sergeant and I looked to the cliff-top where the sounds of battle had ceased.  After a few heartbeats, a helmeted head poked over the railing and called down asking if all was OK.  The Sergeant yelled back that all was, at which point the head disappeared from view.  Immediately after the lift resumed rising, quickly clearing the cliff-edge railing and swinging over land.  As we were lowered to the ground, we saw the bodies of two lift workers laid out to the side and the bodies of six attackers still laying where they fell.  Two Guardsmen were having their wounds tended while the rest of the group stood guard.  Just then another squad of Guardsmen arrived and after a quick check of the situation took up perimeter positions.

As we stepped out of the lift basket, two Guardsmen trotted up.  The Sergeant gave instructions regarding our prisoners then listened as the remaining Guardsman reported on the events.  The first squad had arrived based on the time the signal had been given to begin our lift so they could be here and ready just before we cleared the edge.  Arriving a little early, they were just in time to see the attack on the lift workers.  Two of the workers managed to hold off the attackers just long enough for the third to lock the lift before he was struck down.  At that point the Guard charged, engaging the enemy just as the second lift worker was slain preventing an attacker from cutting the lift lines.  None of the attackers gave any quarter nor asked any, fighting to the death.  Had the attackers been just a bit earlier or the Guard a little later, it’s quite likely that we’d have been killed in the drop back to the base of the cliff.

Satisfied things were being taken care of, the Sergeant ordered three of the newly arrived Guardsmen to accompany us and we headed off to the Dode’s palace.

* * *

It was clear word of the attack had already arrived at the palace.  As soon as we stepped inside the palace, the Sergeant and I were separated.  I was led to a room where a basin and a new shirt were waiting.  I was informed that my presence was required in council where a light lunch would be available and a servant would come to fetch me.  As the servant left, a man entered and introduced himself as a healer.  Bidding me sit by the basin he quickly cleaned and checked the wound, which he proclaimed was clotting quite nicely.  Applying a poultice, he bound it and excused himself.  Once I finished cleaning the remaining dried blood and had the new shirt on there was a knock on the door promptly followed by “Sir, I’ve come to take you to council.”

Talk about efficiency.  Or spying.  I grinned as I followed the servant, his prompt appearance was just a little too well-timed.  Arriving at a door, the servant bowed, motioning for me to enter.  I nodded my thanks and he immediately left.  Stepping into the room I paused briefly to survey the scene.  Several men were standing in small groups talking with each other.  Making my way to the sideboard where another man was selecting some cold cuts, I similarly loaded a small plate for myself while listening.  The topic of the day was apparently the attack.  As I turned from the sideboard, I saw a man gesture to caution a speaker apparently about to say something I shouldn’t hear.  The man cautioned didn’t even pause his flow of words, but clearly he’d changed what he was about to say.  At that moment, there was the thud of a staff hitting the floor and a steward called all to the table in the middle of the room.  I lingered to see where an empty seat might be left, having already determined there were as many people present as chairs.

Once everyone was seated, the man at the head of the table spoke.  “Please continue eating as we talk.  General, your report, please?”

That must be Macrom, then.  I studied him as the General of the Guard gave his report.

“Yes, sir.  While the Sergeant was being seen to, I talked to him directly.”  At Macrom’s lifted eyebrow, he continued, “He’s uninjured except for a bloody nose.  It’s his opinion that the assailants in the basket were not professionals.  They were most likely those pursuing your guest, in my opinion.”

“Not professionals?  Are you sure?  You said the Sergeant mentioned the cry ‘Vin Logarthi dai’.”  This was from a young man seated to my right, a member of the nobility judging from his clothes.

Unfazed by the interruption, the General said, “I repeat, it was the Sergeant’s opinion that they were not professionals.  The cry you refer to was indeed spoken, but if there were indeed Assassins of Logarthi involved in this attack, they were not full fledged assassins, given their actions.”

“Perhaps it was their first charge.”  This was from another richly dressed man.  The young nobleman looked at him, relief evident at the perceived support.  “It’s possible they were supposed to just verify the captain’s identity,” he glanced at me as he continued.  “Hearing the battle above, they might have tried to carry out the assassination believing those above had failed.  The sounds of battle could lead them to believe the other team failed to secure the lift.”

The young nobleman chimed in, “After all, the Assassins of Logarthi are supposedly fond of stealth.  The sounds of battle would speak to not accomplishing their goal quietly as is their wont.”

I finally spoke up, “Begging your pardons, but I don’t think they really were Logarthi Assassins.  The pronunciation was not quite true, and Logarthi Assassins do not allow outsiders to join them.  Also, I was scratched by one of the knives and there’s no sign of poison.”  That earned me a quick glare from the young nobleman.

Macrom spoke up.  “Can we really rule them out?  They don’t always use poison, though you are quite correct about the insularity of the group.”

The General answered, “None of the dead at the lift were Logarthi, according to the report.  Neither of the two prisoners are Logarthi either.  We have to assume they are from the group against…your guest, Sire.  We know some of them have arrived in the city.  Clearly they were out to prevent that person from leaving.”

Taking my chance to find out what’s going on, I pointed out, “Killing me, while regrettable, would not prevent that person from leaving.  There are other captains, other ships.”

“True, but there are certain niceties involved.”  Macrom was obviously carefully selecting his words.  “Regrettable is one way of putting it, but truth be told you are the only captain my guest trusts.  Killing you would literally prevent that person traveling to the desired destination in the time still available.”

“Something bothers me about all this.”  The old man by the Dode spoke up.  “How did they know which lift to attack?  None of the other lifts were attacked and we know at least one other was in operation at the same time.”

“They must have been followed.  A third person could have signaled to the clifftop.  It’s the only thing that makes sense.”  The merchant that spoke looked around at everyone.  “It’s what I would have…”

The young nobleman interrupted, “That, or the Sergeant was in on it and knew what lift to use.”

Everyone looked at the nobleman, saying nothing.  Very quietly, the General spoke.  “The Sergeant was not in on it.”  The nobleman glanced around quickly but found no friendly eyes looking back.  There was no questioning that statement.

“But…”

“No. For one thing, the captain would be dead if that were true.”

I nodded my support of that statement, though it was not sought.  The thought ran through my mind, Is he really that stupid?

“That would mean, then, that there had to be a crew at every lift.”  The old man looked at the general.  “If so, at least you know the minimum number of the group.”

The general nodded grimly.  “Possibly.  There could have been fewer groups spread to quickly cover all lifts.  Either way, someone had to signal from Lower Port to Upper Port.”

“Nothing we can do about that now.  Come, gentlemen, we need to focus on what happens next.”  Macrom looked around the table.  “What now?”

“I’ve already sent a squad to take over guarding the Pa’adhe and her crew.”  The general looked at me as he spoke.  “I don’t know how your crew will react to Guardsmen dogging them, but there’s no help for it.  Your ship, your crew and yourself are non-negotiable.”

“My thanks, General.  I had been concerned about them.  I think they will behave themselves.”

He nodded.  “There are still ways to attack.”

The merchant spoke up, “Some of that can be eliminated.  Word has been put out that the crew is to be herded to Vislurbo for provisioning and to Avascri’s chandlery for any ship’s needs.”  He looked straight at me.  “The merchants’ guild has agreed to this only because the Dode requested some means of controlling access to provisioning and outfitting Pa’adhe.”  The message was clear and I nodded my understanding.  He stared at me for a little longer before looking around the table.  “The shopping crew will be informed that of necessity they must deal with those two individuals, though not why.  That will eliminate any question of poisoning or sabotage.”

“That leaves only a direct attack.  Even with the entire pier guarded, it’s still possible to attack Pa’adhe herself.”  I felt a lurch in my stomach at the thought.  “I can think of all sorts of ways I could attack my ship even though,” I glanced at the general as I spoke, “the Guard wards the pier.”

The general nodded his agreement, but to my surprise it was the younger nobleman that spoke up.

“That is not a concern.  So long as the Guard does their duty ashore, I have the harbor taken care of.  There will be no attack on the ship from that side.”  As with the general, there was no doubt whatsoever in his voice.  “Any who attempt such will be dealt with.  Severely.”

Seeing me glancing at him Macrom nodded slightly before speaking.  “Then by land and water we’ve done what we can.  General, thank the Sergeant and the squads for me.  Please, if there are no other questions I would like to speak with the captain in private.”

After a brief pause, everyone else rose and left.  When the room was clear, Macrom raised his hand.  The steward opened the far door, spoke quietly to someone outside the room, then closed the door and returned to his position.

“I imagine you are curious about all this.”  It was a statement, not a question.

“Curious, yes, but also irritated.  I do not like being backed into a corner.”

Macrom smiled at the implication.  “I understand, really, because I was put in the same position at the start of all this.  Like you, I had no real choice in the matter.”  He shrugged lightly.  “It’s quite simple.  A personage wants to go from here to Perl Domule.  For various reasons, this personage has my greatest respect, so I was…very willing to assist.”  The Dode grinned ruefully.  “I should have learned more before so willingly agreeing to help.”  He gestured helplessly as he continued, “I would have put any ship I had at his service but he already had one in mind:  the Pa’adhe and her crew.  I pointed out to him that he’d be there sooner if he didn’t have to wait for you to come to Port of the Cascades when you happened to arrive.  His reply was that you’d be here soon enough.”

At the mention of Perl Domule I was beginning to really get alarmed.  Someone was out to stop someone else who could so easily get the Dode of Port of the Cascades to accommodate him.  And Pa’adhe and her crew were right in the middle.  I did not like it one bit.

The door behind me opened.  When Macrom looked past me and smiled, I resisted the impulse to turn around and look.  When he rose in greeting, I politely did likewise but still did not turn.  The man who came into view had his hood up, so it wasn’t until Macrom invited him to sit that I had a chance to see who it was.  As he sat, he pushed his hood back and smiled at me.

Recognition dawned as I sat back down.  “You again, Virohan!”  My tone quickly became neutral.  “You are responsible for all this?  Are you going to tell me up front this time, or shall I throw you over the side as soon as I clear port?”

Macrom glanced quickly at the two of us but the Virohan smiled.  “Greetings, O Captain.  I shall not make that mistake with you again.  It is I, indeed, but not just I that am responsible for all this, as you put it.”  He looked at Macrom.  “This captain is the one of which I spoke that bore us to Caer Headland, and that is the reason I would have the Pa’adhe and no other ship provide transport.  If he will not carry us, then we will make do.”  Looking back to me, he continued, “I would, however, feel much better if it were you, Captain.  You, I have reason to trust.”

I said nothing.

“First, let me introduce myself.  You recognize me, of course.  My name is Cyraie.  When first we met, I was merely Virohan.  Since then, I have become one of the Comorts.”  He paused and I nodded.  The Comorts were the two hundred Virohan selected to guide the order.  “I mention that so you might know what resources I have to help.  Now let me explain this situation.

“The first thing you need to know is that I would travel with you again.  As you surmise, we want to reach Perl Domule with as much speed as possible.  I’m given to understand that now is not the best time of the year for passage to Perl Domule.  It is the time of storms?”

I nodded confirmation.

“Yet, if we travel overland it’s two months to the hinterland of Perl Domule.  If we can sail, it’s two weeks at best.  Time is of essence, so I would sail if at all possible.  I have seen how you handle the Pa’adhe and I know she is faster than most ships her size and even many a bit larger.”

I decided to push just to see what would happen.  “Just because you time things poorly doesn’t mean I need to drop everything just to give you passage.  I’ll want top price for this, it’s going to mean no trading for the four week journey there and back, at best.  I’ve a crew to pay and a ship to maintain.  Why should I do this?”

Macrom started to speak but Cyraie overrode him.  “Top price is fair.  As to why…because of your reputation.”  My eyes narrowed.  “Not only do I have my own opinion from what I’ve seen, but word in various ports supports my estimation of you.  When no other ship is willing, catch the Pa’adhe.  That’s the reputation you have, of doing and going where no other ship dares.”

“OK, I’ll listen.”  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Macrom relax a little.

“You’re right, poor planning on our part should never be an emergency for someone else.  In this case, it’s not.  The person I want you to carry with me came to the Virohan at Fos Rawis asking for help.  After hearing…her…case, we determined she needed help that she might not otherwise get, or live to get.  She is of concern to us, in that she asked our help and time is against her.”

“Ah, so.”  I shrugged impassively, though internally I was surprised at the mention of the High Center of the Virohan.  Access there is not easy, so high up in the Mala’a, the backbone of the world.  “Several times now there has been mention of a group.  How many and who?”

“Three Virohan besides myself, the Lady, her two handmaids, and her remaining guard.”

“How many in the guard?  You’re already pushing our capacity, especially if we have any storms.”

“One.  Of the twenty-three she started with, only one survived to reach Fos Rawis with her and he was sore wounded.”

I adjusted my position to better watch Macrom.  “Who hunts them?”

Cyraie grinned, guessing at my question.  “Not the Prae’aer, at least not that we’re aware of.  Nor do we seriously consider the Assassins to be after them.  As best we can tell,” he glanced at Macrom, “her cousin wants her dead.”

“Just one person wants her dead and because of that all this has happened?  Just who is this Lady and who is her cousin?”

I caught the faintest headshake from Macrom as he looked to Cyraie.  We sat in silence for several heartbeats.  Finally, Cyraie spoke directly to Macrom.  “He was not kidding about tossing me overboard.  At least I don’t think so.  I will not put him in that position again.”

Watching the two of them, I could tell Macrom wanted to talk without me hearing.  I got up and went to the sideboard, helping myself to some more cold cuts then went to stare out a nearby window.  I could hear whispering but not make out anything.  I wondered about Cyraie’s last sentence.  Was it to appease me or is he trying to prepare for the future?  What am I getting into here?  The distant horizon gave me no answers.

“Thank you, Captain, for that courtesy.”  Macrom’s voice broke into my thoughts.  I finished my cheese before returning to the table.  “She is the true heiress to the Turob Kingdom.  Her cousin…ah…disputes that claim.  Rather than wait and provide the requisite proof he thinks that it would be more convenient if she were to simply disappear.  Which is ironic because she has no desire to rule and is quite willing to step down.  Her cousin, of course, wishes a more permanent solution.”

“One that won’t come back to haunt him if the situation changes.”  Macrom nodded.  I looked at one then the other.  “Yet, this does not explain why it has to be my crew and my ship.  Sure, I might make it to Perl Domule in two weeks, but any coaster can make the trip in far less time than overland.  There’s more to it than just getting her safely to Perl Domule.”

Cyraie chuckled.  “I told you, Macrom.”

“You did.”  Macrom stared at the ceiling to gather his thoughts then brought his gaze down to me. “There are two parts to this.  The first, I’ll let Cyraie tell.  The second…also has two parts.  She is also my cousin and her death would mean war between Port of Cascades and the Turob Kingdom due to an agreement with the old king, her father.  I would avoid that if at all possible.  We’d win, but it would be bloody and expensive on both sides.  Turob Kingdom provides a convenient buffer between us and the Plains Nomads and war between us would risk that.  The second part is that any ship that she takes passage on is a risk to her, save one.  Cyraie assures me the Pa’adhe and her crew are completely trustworthy.  Further, you have the skill to sail directly to Perl Domule in this season, saving time and avoiding risk from land that coasters would entail.”

I looked to Cyraie and he continued the explanation.  “As Macrom stated, the other part to this is mine.  There is one way in which she can live and be left alone.  But for that to happen, she must be in Perl Domule within three weeks.  She has the skills and Talent to become Virohan and that ceremony takes place in four weeks at a certain location in the Perl Domule hinterland.  If she does not make that time, her life is at risk for a year more.”

I looked back and forth from one to the other.  A grin slowly formed and I started to chuckle.  Macrom looked a little nonplussed but Cyraie returned my grin.  He said, “I thought you might like that.”

“From one voyage, you got that?”

“From one voyage, and from gathering what others think of you.”

I shook my head.  “Aye, you don’t know me, but you know me.”

At that moment a soldier entered the room and quickly approached Macrom to whisper in his ear.  Macrom’s face got hard.  “Two of your men have been attacked and your ship.  The Guard intervened to aid your men.  They are fine, their assailants not so much.  There was an attempt to fire-ship the Pa’adhe.  That failed and those involved are dead.  We need to move fast.”

I nodded.  “Aye, we do.  With four Virohan and her guardsman, we should be able to handle anything until out of sight of land.  Once out of sight of land we should be able to outrun any ship long enough to find a storm to hide in.  Can you get word fast to Cook how many he needs to provision for, and for three weeks?”  Macrom nodded.  Thinking rapidly, I continued, “I’ll need to get to Pa’adhe and check our storm sails.  We should be good, but there are one or two things I’ll need to get.  I’ll get word to Avascri’s chandlery and if he can supply us by sunfall, we can leave on the night tide.”

Macrom gave instructions to the soldier who then hurried out.

“Cyraie, I’ll expect you and your company on the pier at midnight, ready to board.  It’ll be cold once we clear harbor.”  I looked at Macrom.  “Now the matter of payment…?”

* * *

The two tows were already hooked up to Pa’adhe when Cyraie and his party arrived.  As soon as they were on board and their gear stowed away, we cast off and the tows quickly pulled us away from the pier.  There was a furor on the pier as two men forced their way past the Guard and ran to the end of the pier.  One man yelled but his words were lost.  At the rail Scarle shrugged, his hands held wide.  The other man ran back to the Guard.  He quickly returned, accompanied by one of the Guard.  The Guardsman held up his bow as the man with him quickly attached something to an arrow.  As soon as he was done, the Guardsman took the arrow and fired it at us.  The arrow glanced off the mast and jammed behind one of the sails’ lines.  Scarle waved to the receding pier as Xinu brought me the arrow.  I looked at the strip of parchment wrapped around the arrow and handed it to Cyraie.  He frowned at the Virohan sigil scrawled on the parchment.  Unwrapping it, he read the message then offered it to me.  I took it and read the obviously quickly scrawled glyphs.

“A traitor, eh?”

Cyraie didn’t answer at first.  Instead he took back the parchment and looked at it again before answering.  “No, I don’t think so.”  He was quiet for a bit.  “You and crew, us Virohan.  No doubts there.  Herself?  Unlikely.  Her Guardsman?  Again unlikely.  That leaves the two handmaids.  Also unlikely.”

I nodded as he enumerated the possibilities.  “Unless they have no intention of living past the deed.”

“True.  There is also this…”, he pointed to the Virohan sigil on the parchment, “…it’s not quite right and so not to be trusted.  Even if it was hastily scrawled, there’s a certain…key-stroke…that’s missing here.”

At that point there was shouting between the two tows.  I nodded to Cyraie and left to take over the steering oar as we cast off from the tows and got ready to sail out the breakwater.  Almost as soon as the lines were cast off the sail was up and booming out, maintaining the momentum already gained from the tows.  I saluted both tows as they turned back into the harbor then gave my attention to getting us out to sea.

* * *

As we approached Mya’a Rhyt after 5 days sailing, thanks to high winds from the edge of a storm, I called Cyraie aside.

“We’ll put in at Ava’a Rhyt briefly for water and some small provisions.  It’s a small fishing village around the tip of Mya’a Rhyt.  It’ll probably be safe enough, but just in case, the women and Guardsman should stay in the cabin.  But we have a problem.”

“I wonder if it’s the same one I’ve been thinking of.”

“The traitor?”

“Yes.  It’s been bothering me why they would do that.  Granted they don’t know about the key on the sigil, why would they try to make us think there’s a traitor aboard?  What could that achieve?”

I leaned on the rail, staring over the sea at Mya’a Rhyt’s mountains slowly rising above the horizon.  “Discord?  Hoping to sow distrust?  Even that makes no sense.  What good would that do other than make us watch the three: Guardsman and handmaidens.”  I shook my head slowly.  “No, the only thing that makes sense is if it’s a distraction.  But from what?”

We stood there in silence for a while, each buried in our thoughts.  I finally broke the silence.  “Could they get a message to Mya’a Rhyt before us?”

“Perhaps.  There are ways, but they would involve a high level of mastery.  It’s possible but that would indicate a wider conspiracy than we originally thought.”  Cyraie looked at me thoughtfully.  “The Virohan have specialists in such communications far and wide.  Including on Mya’a Rhyt.  I had thought to ask permission to go ashore, intending to contact the Virohan there and see if I could get information from Port of the Cascades.  Perhaps I should.”

“I do not like what that suggests.”  I looked at him, unease growing in my mind.  “I think you better see what information you can get, especially about those two that ran out on the pier.  If we’re right, one of the three, or even the Lady, are indeed traitors of a sort.  The Lady’s life may never really have been in as much danger as we thought.  It just might be all a diversion, to get one of them to Perl Domule and then to your ceremony.  The real target just might be there.”

“It can’t be the Lady…”

I cut him off.  “No?  What proof do you have?  She came to you with only one Guardsman and her handmaidens, the rest supposedly all killed by pursuers?  Why was there was no attack on them in Port of the Cascades?  The attack on the lift may have been real, but was it meant to stop us?  The attack in the basket, was it intended to succeed?  Neither person in the basket was skilled enough to take out either the Sergeant or myself in close combat.  And the blades were not poisoned.  No, Cyraie.  Unless you can provide indisputable proof, even the Lady is suspect.  How better to get an assassin or disruptor to your ceremonies?”

“Would you accept my word it cannot be her?”

“No.”  I watched the brief flash of irritation in his eyes but made no other comment.

We stood there, staring stonily at each other.  Finally, a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.  He nodded and leaned against the railing.

“You have no reason to take my word for it.”  When I said nothing, he continued, “The Lady has been a novice Virohan for several years now.  For her to get as far in her studies as she has and be a traitor would be unheard of.  No, my Captain, it has to be one of the other three.”

“Maybe, but with no proof other than your word, I will continue to suspect her with the other three so long as she’s aboard.  I owe my crew and passengers that.  Once we reach Perl Domule, she’s no longer my problem.”

He started to nod then abruptly looked at me, a hint of unease in his eyes as if something had just occurred to him, something he didn’t like the thought of.  “Captain, you have raised a valid objection and in doing so have forced me to think of things I’d rather not.”  He gaze wandered away in the distance.

As I turned to head to the steering oar, I barely heard him say, “Thank you, Captain.  Thank you.”  I gave a brief wave and continued on.

* * *

The stop in Ava’a Rhyt was brief, just long enough to take on water and fresh fruit and vegetables.  As soon as Cyraie returned, we cast off and headed back out to sea, our next stop Perl Domule.  Once we cleared land and things settled down to a routine, Cyraie sought me out.

“Something happened in Port of the Cascades.  Two men were found floating in the bay, and a Guardsman recognized one as one of the two on the pier.  Neither man was Virohan.”

“So, verification the message was fake.”

“Maybe.  I’ve been thinking more.  What better way to misguide someone than to give them something real in such a way they believe it fake?  I fear we do indeed have a traitor and the message was an attempt to misdirect us.”

I nodded.  “The only problem there is that there is risk we would figure it out this far.  Why not be safe and merely keep quiet?  Unless it’s to explain why there’s no attack between Port of Cascades and Perl Domule, possibly between Perl Domule and the location of your ceremony.”

“That is what I’ve been thinking.  It’s a risk on their part, one that might just have turned against them.  For sure, it’s making us suspicious.”

“Anything else you were able to learn?”

“Yes, but for now I’d rather keep it to myself.”  When I looked at him, he said, “It will not risk your ship or crew, nor the passengers and I would like to think on it more.  A day or two?”

“Very well.”  I grinned at him.  “At the end of the second day from now, be prepared to share or swim.”

* * *

The storm hit the second day out.

That morning the sky had been red, and any sailor worth their salt knew what that meant.  All that day I’d been keeping a weather eye out, as I knew the rest of the crew was.  Without orders, they’d been putting the ship to rights for the storm we could see building off our stern.  Coming out of the northwest, we’d be able to run before it for a bit, but we’d soon or late have to cut to the east to make our landfall.  My plan was to run across the storm front now so that if I had to run before it I’d already be close to Si’irola Headland and could hopefully duck around the point if need be.

When the wind was strong enough to force the last reef in the sail, I banged on the cabin door.  Briefly, I wondered how the inhabitants were handling the pitching and rolling caused by the twenty foot waves.  When it opened, I made no move to enter, but waited until all inside were looking at me.  “The storm is going to hit very shortly.  I expect you all to stay inside, no matter what.  If you come out and go over the side, pray to your gods for we won’t be able to pick you out of the water.”

“You mean this isn’t the storm?”

I smiled at the handmaid that blurted that out.  “No, the storm hasn’t even hit yet.”  I looked at each person in the cabin, making sure they were paying attention.  “We’ve only been in high winds and rough seas.  The storm is going to make it a more interesting ride.  I suggest you find somewhere you can sit or lay and brace yourself.  It’s going to be a wild ride.  I have no idea how long it will last, so you may be confined for some time.  Get comfortable.”

I shut the door and turned to see Cyraie approaching.  When he was closer and before he could say anything, I spoke.  “Get yourselves into the forepeak.  Brace yourselves for a long ride.  Don’t come out until one of us says.”

“By your leave, I’ll ride on deck.”  I eyed him from head to toe, making sure he saw my skepticism.  “Put me somewhere out of the way and I’ll be glad to stay there.  I’d rather ride out here instead.”

“Why?”

He shrugged.  “Curiosity.  I’ve never been in a sea-storm.  I’d like to experience it.”  He obviously figured what I was thinking for he quickly said, “Sure, I could experience some of it from the forepeak, but that would be just as a passenger.  I’ll still be a passenger, but I’ll be out in the storm, experiencing the storm rather than just riding through it.”

“Get to Xinu, have him give you some weather gear.  Then have him tie you out of the way somewhere.”  I shook my head as I watched him go to Xinu then put it out of my mind.  I needed to make my final preparations for the rapidly approaching storm.

As the first drops started falling, I looked over the ship.  Seeing Cyraie I caught his attention.  He held up the length of rope running from around his waist to a pin on the railing.  I nodded, knowing Xinu would have tied the knots himself.  Climbing up to the steering oar, I took it from Scarle.  We quickly sorted out a few remaining things and he headed off to handle them.  Xinu came up and stood by, ready to relay my orders and assist with the oar if necessary.  We were as ready as we’d ever be.

Laughing, I yelled over the wind, “Let the storm come!  We’re ready!”

Xinu grimaced, shaking his head.  “Someday, Captain, you’ll become the storm!”  I grinned back at him then turned my attention to sailing Pa’adhe through the growing storm.

* * *

The rain intensified until it was as wet as if we were under water.  The wind howled around us and screeched through the rigging.  By now it was as dark as a moonless night and the rain was driven hard enough to feel like knife cuts.  Constant lightning tore the darkness apart and thunder boomed.  Blue fire began to appear anywhere there was a point on the ship.  It was impossible to tell where sky and sea met.  The only indication we were not sunk was the wild ride of the ship over forty foot waves.  I was no longer running east, but just running before the storm.  In the faint light, I saw a line go slack and risked a hand off the steering oar to point, yelling at Xinu.  He nodded but before he could go Cook slid low across the deck, fetching up at the railing and made quick work of the loose line.  A sudden crack made us all look up the mast, but nothing was obvious.  We’d have to trust and wait until calmer times to check.

I was feeling very much alive and in my element.  By the gods, I love these storms!  I laughed with delight like a child, the sound ripped away by the wind.  And this is a storm, the mother of all storms!  I had no idea how I was keeping my feet while Xinu was definitely struggling to keep his.  I glanced where Cyraie was stashed and laughed at his pale face and open mouth.  Pa’adhe felt alive beneath my feet and the steering oar challenged me but I knew I was its master.  I could barely see the prow, barely see the water slicing to each side as Pa’adhe drove into the white seas.  The world outside Pa’adhe was white spume and black skies blinded by rain.  I looked above in time to see lightning arc from sea to sky on each side of Pa’adhe.  Everywhere I looked, lightning or the flash of lightning was visible.

Pa’adhe lurched and rolled but I felt no fear…she was solid beneath my feet, a living creature as much as I.  The steering oar strained and eased and strained again.  All that afternoon we ran before the storm.  All too soon, it seemed to me, the wind began to ease.  I now turned Pa’adhe yet more towards the left, hoping it was to the east, and though the wind seemed not to change direction I felt it ease as we moved slowly away from the main part of the storm.  Far too soon we were in lesser seas and the wind was merely howling.  Off on the now barely visible distant horizon I could see a glimmering of red from the setting sun.  It would be clear sailing tonight.  For a brief moment a ray of sunlight shone beneath the dark storm clouds and lit land far off just long enough to identify it before night fell.

We had cleared Si’irola Headland.

* * *

Pa’adhe rolled in the swells left by the storm, her trailing wake glowing in the night.  The stars and the slivered moon played among the clouds overhead.  Still wide awake from the exhilarating sail through the long afternoon storm, I was manning the steering oar and watching the ship while the crew slept.  The passengers had been released from the cabin and the Virohan from the forepeak but none had sought relief on the deck yet.  The quiet was soothing my soul and even Pa’adhe seemed content to just race through the night in peace, her sail full-bellied once again.

Cyraie came out of the forepeak and looked around.  Cook raised his head from where he slept and Cyraie gestured to where I stood watch.  Cook nodded and promptly went back to sleep.  I watched as Cyraie made his way down the pitching deck and climbed to stand by the rail nearby.  For some time we sailed in silence.

“Who are you?”

So softly spoken were the words that I barely heard them.  I looked at Cyraie, my head to one side, reluctant to break the peaceful silence.  Cyraie was staring at me as one stares at a puzzle he must solve.

Softly, he repeated the words.  “Who are you?  I have never heard tell of someone that sails a storm like you just did.  Fire in your hair, fire on your steering oar, fire all over the ship.  The ship plunging like a wild horse when someone first tries to ride it.  The violence of the storm, the crew thrown about unable to keep their feet, and you…?  You stood there as if the deck were still, laughing to the gods as if daring them to throw more your way.”  He shook his head slowly.  “Who are you?”

I shrugged.  “I am who I am, neither more nor less.”

“You have a power in you, that much I already knew.”  I glanced at him sharply.  “That much I sensed when you took me to Caerl Headland.  Now this.”  His eyes narrowed.  He seemed to be talking to himself more than to me.  “I wonder.  Our writings tell of such a power….”

I interrupted him.  “I told you once and I tell you again.  I will not become Virohan.”  I gestured to the world around me.  “I love all this too much.”

“I remember.  I respect.”  He was quiet for a while and I went back to simply enjoying the sailing.

I sought out certain stars, noted their alignments, then said, “The day is almost done.  Would you like to swim?”

The look on his face made me grin.  I gestured off to the left.  “Land is off that way somewhere.”

“Ah.  About that.”  He relaxed against the railing again.  “No, thank you, I would not care for a swim.”  He stared up at the sky.  “Your comments…,” he looked towards his feet then at me.  “You created a chain of thought that worried me.  It still worries me but I have no way to test it at the time.  I quite agree with you that I was unwise to assume what I did.”

I could tell he was concerned about being overheard by those below in the cabin.  I gestured to the bow and he nodded.  I called Cook to take the steering oar and we headed forward.  Reaching the bow, we settled against the railing and he resumed talking.

“I was wrong to not include the Lady in my suspicions.  I still believe that she is no traitor, or something should have come to the fore during her training as a Virohan novice.  But you are right, I have no proof and there is one possibility that I’d overlooked: if she were controlled, especially without her knowledge.  She may well be true to our caste, beliefs, rules, and faiths but deep within her could  be buried a hidden command from someone, a command to be triggered by some event or sight.  It would mean that all her life has been guided to this one point in time.  To get her to this ceremony.  Someone would have to put a lot of time and effort into this.  Her cousin, the one that drove her forth, could have been manipulated into doing so.  Which would mean that whomever is behind this is running out of time.”

“Yet, she must attend this ceremony, or her life is forfeit over a year until the next.”

“That’s what worries me and what I wanted to think on.  I think perhaps whomever is behind this is dying.  He or she wants to see this come to fruition, and so is acting now to force events rather than waiting for them to come to pass on their own.”

“What is it you fear?”

“She will be the only one of the four that will actually be at the ceremony.”  He looked at me appraisingly before continuing.  “Along with most of the Comort, the Naori’i and all the Peror will be there.  So will some of our most precious icons.”

“You do realize, don’t you, that if what you fear comes to pass, she will die anyway?”

“Yes.  If she doesn’t make the Ceremony, she will likely be killed by her cousin’s agents.  If she makes the Ceremony and I’m right and she does act on that buried command, she will be killed there.  Without proof, I dare not take her to the Ceremony.”  He looked at me bleakly.  “She is a dead woman in spite of all.”

I stretched.  “Well, at least now we know why the fake message.”  He looked at me questioningly and I shrugged.  “It seems pretty obvious.  If the message is false, it could have been a way to keep her from the Ceremony once you thought this through.  That way they gain a year in which to kill her, and you know they’ll probably succeed.  If true and she is under compulsion like you say, the result is she gets killed, perhaps even before she can act for she will be closely watched by you now.”

He nodded.  “And now I have a week at most to decide her fate.”

* * *

The last three days had been pleasant sailing.  From the stars and the land off our portside, I knew we would make the entrance to the fjord leading to Perl Domule by nightfall.  I did not envy Cyraie one bit.  On a ship the size of Pa’adhe it was obvious he was avoiding everyone.  He spoke when spoken to, but it was clear he was under a lot of strain.  He had missed several meals even when Cook had put them in front of him and it was clear he’d not been sleeping much either.  In short, he was a wreck.

Something has got to be done, and soon.  But what?  I knew that even with the neutrality Perl Domule enjoyed, there could well be not one but two or more deaths before this was over.  I kept telling myself to let it be, it wasn’t my problem.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t just let it go.  This was one of my passengers and I meant to deliver him in the shape he came on board.  I summoned Cook and took him aside to give him specific orders.  Then I sent Xinu to the Lady and to Cyraie with very explicit orders as to what to say.

At the appointed time, Scarle set up some pillows and a low table mid-deck.  I gave Xinu his course orders and left him on the steering oar as I went to the setting.  I noticed the Lady approaching with a handmaid while the guard remained by the cabin door.  Greeting the Lady, I invited her to be seated, then looked around for Cyraie.  Not seeing him, I sent Scarle to the forepeak with orders to fetch him.  I chatted briefly with the Lady until I heard returning footsteps.  I looked up to see Cyraie coming along passively as if he had no will left.  His appearance was even more shocking, I’d left him alone to himself since that conversation and not seen him up close until now.  Haunted…that’s what he is immediately ran through my thoughts.  I greeted him and invited him to be seated then seated myself after he silently complied.  This is worse than I thought!

Cook brought tea and some cakes, served everyone, then left.  In vain I tried to get Cyraie to join the conversation but he simply sat there staring at the Lady.  As she got more and more nervous, I finally had it with the situation.

Furious, I quickly drew my dagger and slammed it into the table.  I barely noticed as the guard leapt to his feat and was intercepted by Scarle.  The dagger got a brief reaction from Cyraie before he lapsed back into his haunted state.  The Lady looked around wildly for help only to find none before nervously waiting to see what happened next.

My anger under tight rein but noticeable in my voice, I said, “Fine.  Let’s have it out now.  There lies the entrance to the fjord of Perl Domule.  Between here and there, between now and then, she dies or she lives.”  Cyraie looked at me, some brief spark of life finally in his eyes again.  I looked at him coldly, then at the white face of the Lady before looking back at him.  Without looking at the handmaiden trying to get behind me, I ordered, “Sit down!”  The thump of her sitting down was the only sound.

“You, Cyraie, are a fool.  You, Lady, are a dead woman if we don’t work this out.”

A glance at the Lady showed her mouth open and shut as she tried to speak several times before giving up.  I glared at Cyraie.  His broken stare infuriated me even more.  I grabbed the nearest hand of each and forced them to the grip of the dagger.  When all three of us touched the dagger, something happened.

Pain.  Searing, piercing pain.  Glimpses of a cold, smiling face.  An adult hand pulling my child wrist.  A ring on the adult hand.  A candle flame and coldness.  Words of fire in blackness.  Throughout it all, piercing, searing pain, the kind you don’t feel but experience.  An explosion of light, a light consisting of all colors seen clearly at once.  A scream of rage, felt rather than heard.  A sudden feeling of peace.

All that happened in a blink.  An eternity compressed into the smallest amount of time.

Even as all that passed, I saw the Lady fall to the side, her hand pulling away and breaking the moment.  Cyraie blinked as one waking from sleep, staring in wonder at the dagger, his hand, the Lady, me, and the dagger again.  A thud in the background caused me to look towards the cabin door as the guard hit the deck, unconscious thanks to the belaying pin in Scarle’s fist.  A crash preceded the rush of the Virohan from the forepeak but before anything could happen Cyraie held up his hand, forestalling their rush.

“The Lady!”  Cyraie’s voice sounded urgent but though weak, normal again.

I glanced back to the Lady.  “She breathes.”  I reached over to feel her neck.  “She has a pulse.”

“Firamar!  Check her, please.”

One of the Virohan broke from the group, hurried over, and began examining her.  Eventually he looked up to say, “I think she just fainted.”

Cyraie looked at me then at the handmaid.  “Your mistress requires your assistance.  Please make her comfortable.”  Glancing at Firamar, he said, “Check the guard, please.”

As Firamar left, he said, “I think whatever it was has been taken care of.  I’m not sure why or how, but I think our problem has  been solved.”  His voice hardened.  “And I know who is responsible for all this.”

“The ring?” I asked.

“Yes.”  He looked at me thoughtfully.  “I did not do this.  The Lady did not do this.  That leaves you.”  As my eyes narrowed, he held up his hand.  “I will not raise that point again, nor ever, with you.  You have a power, that I know for sure now.  I suspect what it is, for it is the only answer.  I will not stop searching for the answer, and if ever you ask I will answer.  I owe you my life now.  I had given up completely, for I loved that Lady in the past and still do.  Even if not for that, I had given up and no longer wished to live.”  He looked me straight in the eyes.  “If ever you need help, send word to me.  But know, too, you cannot stop me from looking for the answer to what you are.”

I snorted.  “I am what I am.  Captain of the Pa’adhe.  For me, that’s enough.”

He chuckled.  Gesturing to the table, “Where’s the rest of this repast?  Suddenly, I’m starving!”

* * *

Late afternoon three days later we docked at Perl Domule.

The Lady had recovered and during talks with Cyraie mentioned some dim irritant had gone from her, faintly noticeable only by its absence.  Cyraie was his normal self, perhaps a little wiser now.  I was glad to see them gone, though pleased with Cyraie’s parting gift.

I wonder if he knows how much it costs?  I shrugged. He’s going to find out if he doesn’t.

I handed Cook the knotted cord and the parchment with the Virohan sigil.  “I don’t have to tell you to get the best price you can.  Get what we need for the voyage to Biedeb.  Charge it to the Virohan.”

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