The bridge over the locks was remarkable. It crossed the waters at a point where the canal had been carved deeply into a ridge, giving the bridge significant high ground for its foundations. The bridge was supported upon a single stone arch, high enough that ships could pass underneath, drawn by mules, without dismantling their masts. There was room underneath to allow ships in and out of Kings Cove, and room on the road above to carry wagons in either direction.
As Gamba showed his orders to the men taking tolls, Raf thought to himself that he had never seen a work of engineering this impressive in all of Vincentia. He surveyed the canal from seaward to coveward. Monumental ships approached the bridge in either direction, drawn by teams of mules, banners flying, hulls low with cargo. Raf knew they had paid precious tolls to navigate the canal. Governor Willam Bernes had developed his lands quite admirably.
As they crossed the bridge, he ventured a glance at Schank and Skilling. They were bored, staring forward at their steps on the bridge’s stones. That told him either that they’d seen this place before or that they were unsalvageably dull of mind.
Gamba strode into his vision with a purpose. His brown eyes glared into him, forcing him to settle in his seat.
“You are in your master’s lands,” he said. “Are you prepared to submit to his aims?”
Raf glanced at his fellows in the cage. They did not meet his gaze. They knew he was at a disadvantage.
“Of course,” he said. “We discussed this.”
“You attested,” Gamba said. “I wanted to make sure we were both still on the same path.”
Raf chuckled at that and looked at the road ahead, fading leaves framing a pale brown road.
“We are on the same path to Angel Shore, both literally and figuratively.”
The headman nodded, taking in the attention of Schank and Skilling and the other transports to the conversation.
“Well said,” Gamba said.
“Mr. Leybold,” the governor called out, “shut the door, please.”
The man stepped into the sitting room with a slight bow and pulled the door closed as he stepped back. Bernes lifted his snifter and tipped it at Gamba.
“The transports are secured.” His words were not a question. Gamba knew it meant the governor trusted him.
“The Emberi seem peaceful and quiet.”
The governor sipped at his brandy and nodded. “That is good. Word on them has proven correct.”
“They do not speak Handrian,” Gamba said.
“That’s their first order of business, then.” He set the snifter on the table next to the set of cards. “You and I have a serious matter to discuss.”
The headman assumed this was about the remaining transport, the white man. He reluctantly lifted his snifter and took a sip. He did not like the sharp, sweet taste.
“He is yet unknown to me,” he said.
Bernes shook his head. “Not him. I will assess him myself later.”
This sent an odd feeling through Gamba’s blood.
“You may not find this to your liking,” the governor said. “I have arranged for you and Lord Blake to trade places. He will travel through the mountains and you shall be going to Antu.”
Gamba sat back at that. He had not been back to his homeland in all the years he had served Angel Shore. He found himself practicing the language in his head and stifled it. He was captured, imprisoned, and transported from there. His family had all died there.
“This had been my aim all along.” Bernes leaned toward the fire and set his right elbow on the back of the chair. “I only needed to incite my daughter to go south.”
Gamba scooped up the brandy and took a long swig. “My lord? Lady Snow will be going with us? Into the south?”
“She was not, until dinner yesterday.” He glared into the fireplace with a fierceness, as if in defiance of the flames. “It was Grigarius’s presence on the mission that drove her to insist I include her in it. I knew she would feel protective over him. She still thinks of him as a cub.”
Gamba closed his eyes and shook his head to clear it. He set the glass on the table.
“She thinks it was her idea, and I intend for her to continue believing that.” The governor smiled into the crackling logs. “I lost face in front of my guests giving in to her protests, engineered by myself or not.”
“But why? She is your only daughter.”
The governor turned to Gamba and sat straight in his chair. His lips were pursed, his eyes steady and serious. He lifted his brandy to his face.
“You and Grigarius will see her through it.” He took a sip, his eyes never leaving Gamba’s. “On the other side, the near southern shores of the inland sea, where Archer and Moreton reported the Peyri are more peaceful. I need Blake and Arland to blaze a near trail east, but I need you and Grigarius to carry Snow to the leaders of the Peyri.”
Gamba was starting to unravel the man’s plan. One team was clearing a physical road. The other was clearing a political one.
The governor waved his hand left and right. “I would not send my daughter with that lascivious upstart Blake, nor that transport Arland with his scheming mind. I don’t want their clever words in my daughter’s ear. Their talents are better served in more contentious encounters.”
The headman set his hands on the table. “Your daughter you intend for a more agreeable encounter.”
“If you can see clear to win her introduction to a Peyri lord, on the other side, in the peaceable land that Archer and Moreton called Rafenia.”
Gamba had heard that name, long ago. Rumored in the southern Emberi colonies as a rich land beyond the eastern end of the Kansha mountains. He had seen the skull of a great fish, the size of a cow’s head, brought back from that sea by a brassy Ohuru adventurer. He had tasted the crimson eggs of that fish, which the adventure claimed as a delicacy among the Peyri. Gamba had found them gritty and of a disagreeable taste.
Gamba felt himself drawn to the crimson walls of the sitting room, dancing in the crimson firelight. The twin missions were planned in crimson blood. Blood would be spilled in the Vale of Ladjor, there was no doubt of that. Perhaps Blake’s and Arland’s blood. If the Emberi discovered that the southern mission was not to make trade in lumber, there might be blood spilled there as well. And, finally, the governor sought to mix his blood with the inhuman Peyri, offering up his only daughter as a sacrifice to trade.
“By your own account,” he said, “Lady Snow is not a woman easily swayed to another’s ends. Even her own father’s.”
The governor nodded. “She is not. But, by accounts, the Peyri are the most attractive people in the world. I have no doubt she and whatever Peyri lord to which you devise an introduction will find a way to seal our trade in a most stable alliance. That of marriage.”
“And if she is not agreeable to him?”
“Well then,” the governor said, with lowered eyes. “You shall introduce her to other Peyri lords until she is agreeable.”
Raf tapped at his emptied pewter plate with his pewter fork. There was not much else to do in the transport’s shack as the sun fell into the west. His belly was full, his mind settled to his fate. He listened to the calls of crows through the barred window and noted they were unlike the language of crows he’d heard in Vincentia. They were not much like even the crows he’d heard on the road from Kingsport. Crows had tribes.
“Would you stop that tapping?” said the soldier outside.
Raf tossed the fork into the plate and set the plate on his cot. “My apologies, sir. I’m bored.”
“So am I. Duty is like that.”
Raf nodded at that, in futility. He set the plate on the floor and laid himself back on the cot.
“My lord,” the soldier said.
Raf considered responding in jest that he needn’t be addressed so, but a dreadful curiosity at the obvious presence of the governor conquered his thoughts.
The door’s lock clanked. The door swung open. An older man wearing a blue velvet coat and black pants and white wig stepped into the shack. He waved off the soldiers and gestured for the door to be closed. It was, dutifully.
Raf sat up in his cot and bowed his head at the governor. The man did not react. He simply stood there, hands behind his back.
“Can you be brought into the house?”
That was unexpected. He knew he was for some important cause, but to be invited into the governor’s house was an honor that hardly seemed fitting for a condemned man. Nevertheless.
“Can I be trusted in your house, my lord?” He nodded with practiced contrition. “I would be greatly honored.”
The governor waved his right hand and huffed. “Of course, you’d be honored. Don’t ply your trade with me. I need an honest answer.”
Raf shrugged and nodded. “I know where my interests lie, and that’s in alignment with yours. I see how Mr. Gamba has risen in your service. I would be a fool not to take encouragement from that.”
Bernes considered him.
“And I wasn’t lying. I genuinely would be honored.” He glanced out the window. “My fellow transports won’t be joining me.”
The governor chuckled. “They cannot even speak the language. They’ll be schooled first, and then given their assignments.”
“They’re good men. They were nice to me, and never resisted Gamba.”
Bernes studied him for a new gambit. Raf sighed and let his elbows rest on his knees.
“And my assignment?”
The governor glanced out the window. “You’ll be assigned to a scouting party to the east, under Lord Julius Blake.”
“I haven’t heard of him.”
“He’s newly elevated.”
Raf allowed himself a grin. “As am I.”
The governor looked at him with a frown. That made Raf regret his grin.
“Not so elevated as yet,” Bernes said. “But, I requested you for your own good.”
The man was standing easily. Raf felt the conversation had become candid. “You delivered me into servitude for my own good?”
Bernes chuckled. “You delivered yourself into servitude by your misdeeds.”
Raf nodded. “I take your point about our respective roles. But I would insist that the Crown’s Court in Channal delivered me into servitude.”
“Does it matter? Here you are.”
“I am.” He stared at the floor. “I suppose it hardly matters why now. What matters is whence.”
He grimaced. “I mean, whither.”
“Perhaps you need schooled in Handrian along with your fellows.” The governor’s eyes lowered on him. There was hint of a grin on his cheek. The man was bantering with him.
“I could do with some improvement,” Raf said.
“So,” the governor grinned. “You are capable of admitting mistakes. That encourages me.”
“It humiliates me.”
“All the same, I requested you for your own good. I only get involved in such matters for the good of the transports.”
“You get involved quite a lot, from what I’ve heard.” He looked into the governor’s narrowed eyes. “Rumors on the road, my lord. And, Parson Booth, whom I met at Willows, let me know that you take particular interest in transport exchanges with the Emberi.”
The governor stiffened. Raf worried he had overplayed his hand.
“Parson Booth is involved with those exchanges, but he is not privy to my underlying purposes.” He sniffed and relaxed. “But I intend you to be.”
The governor smirked. It was a conspiratorial smirk.
“Because you are clearly good at ferreting out the hidden motives of men in positions of power. I have no intention of setting myself up as your opponent in this.”
To avoid reaction, Raf stared at the dirt floor of the shack, which contrasted sharply with the governor’s polished leather boots.
“So, you requested my transport to put me to good use.”
The governor slapped his coat and walked toward the window. He waved off the soldiers eavesdropping outside with an annoyed look.
“I requested Mr. Gamba because I detected in his story a man with powerful insight. A man who was simply without an honest opportunity to employ his insights. He had taken to banditry after his family was lost to the Red Withering. He was making the best of the pips the gods rolled.”
“Gods,” Arland said. “That classical reference would not please the parson.”
Bernes ignored him. “I exchanged Mr. Gamba for a smuggler, a Mr. Virginius Ruth, whose crimes included being too familiar with the wives of powerful men.”
“I heard of him from Parson Booth. A philanderer.”
“Not exactly.” The governor studied him. “He was procuring fancy clothing for them. And comparing the fashions and the fit.”
Raf elected to press the story forward. “Are you saying he was trying on the clothes?”
The governor stiffened at that and walked back to his previous position. His hands were once again behind his back.
“The less said about it the better. At any rate, the parson was not amenable to him remaining in Johannia without his skin doused in oil and set aflame. So, I selected him as the transport exchange for Mr. Gamba.”
“For his own good.”
“For his own good.” He considered Arland with cold, blue eyes. A decision showed in his face. A candidness.
“The Emberi have different attitudes toward that sort of thing. Mr. Ruth’s deviancy. I knew I could provide Mr. Gamba the opportunities he would not find among the Emberi, where his loss of family made him persona non grata. And, I knew that the Emberi in those colonies would provide Mr. Ruth with opportunities he would not find here on St. Vincent’s Bay.”
Arland took in all of the implications. “And, you’re providing me with opportunities I would not have had in Vincentia.”
“I am. There are two great families, the intrigues of which you might find a proper challenge.”
“I have a feeling you’re not talking about the politics of colonial families.”
Bernes chuckled and clapped his hands before his chest. “My vision is far larger than the squabbles colonial lords get into about the tobacco and cannabis trade.”
Arland stared at the window. His mind worked. “The two houses are humans and Peyri.” He looked back at the governor.
Bernes appeared surprised. Raf decided to continue.
“You’ve indicated it’s not among colonial families. That could mean something as parochial as the conflicts among Vincentian colonies. Or our competition with the Coromellos, the Metzals, the Emberi, the Tou, who also have colonies here in the east.”
“You verge on classical rhetoric, Mr. Arland.” The governor scowled at him. “Despite being unschooled. Is this how you accomplish your intrigues?”
Raf grinned, setting his hands on his knees. “You’ve let me in. I am letting you in.”
Bernes nodded. “Do go on.”
“A mission into the east, as you have described, I can only imagine seeks to break through the mountains, by way of the wild Vale of Ladjor, into the vast lands around the fabled Peyrian Sea. Engage the Peyri and secure trade with that inhuman race.”
Raf went on. “Secure a trade that could upend the balance of power not only among the Vincentian colonies, but also among all of the colonial powers. You’d be the most prosperous— no, the most powerful man in the Eastern World.”
The governor raised one finger to point at Arland.
“You do not disappoint. You are the man for it.”
After the governor left, Raf gathered up his few possessions. A change of clothes. A cockle shell from the beach near Channal. The iron pommel from his father’s dagger, the handle of which had rotted away, and the blade of which had broken off in a way the old man had never revealed. A journal he hadn’t set a pen to since leaving Vincentia. He had no pen. He had no ink. Schank had been unwilling to provide them on the journey.
Once it was all in his tattered bag, he knocked on the door of his transport’s shack. Asking to be invited to the outside world. There was a clanking of keys and locks. Light shone in.
“Ready to go?” a soldier asked.
“Is it just you, then?”
The man was suddenly suspicious. “It is. Will that be a problem?”
“Not for me.” He smiled wide at the man. “Would it be a problem for you if you were invited into the governor’s house?”
The man huffed and set his long gun on his shoulder. He started walking away from the door and Raf followed him.
There was a small village attached to the Angel Shore house. Smithies and houses and powder houses and such. There were mud streets. There were people moving to and fro on their day’s business. On the governor’s business. Trading goods from the plantation and its wharf.
There was an undertaker’s shop with several coffins out front and a wooden placard that read: “Simple Pine Box by Charity of ye Governour. Other Casings at Reason-Worthy Prise.” Raf was reminded of the parson’s warning. “The backwoods are the realm of death. Evil spirits haunt its hollows and groves.” The spirits of the dead were not something Raf was looking forward to confront.
Ahead of the undertaker’s was a cart with baked goods. Negotiating with a old woman stood Schank and Skilling, looking cheerful.
“My good quartermasters!” He glanced at the soldier to request a pause. The man rolled his eyes, stopped, and adjusted the long gun on his shoulder.
Schank and Skilling were suddenly less cheerful. Schank nodded at the woman, handed over coin, and started gathering buns.
“Mr. Arland,” he said.
“Mr. Schank. I would hope that our new circumstances would mean a clean slate. At the very least, I freed you from a corrupt captain and delivered you unto a better one.”
“The governor is advanced beyond captain,” mumbled the soldier. Raf glanced at him with disapproval.
“You did that,” Schank said, handing Skilling half of the buns. “I am happy to be rid of Durban.”
“Perhaps not yet rid,” Raf said. “Word among the soldiers is that he escaped Kingsport.” He glanced apologetically at his escort, who was scowling at him.
“We are not on your mission into the wilderness, so Durban is no longer my concern.”
“Oh,” Raf said, at a loss.
“We are to go south by ship. The governor’s envoy goes to the Emberi colonies to secure a prosperous trade in lumber. So, Durban and his republicans are your problem all on your own.” The man grinned, taking pleasure at the revelation.
Raf gathered himself. “You’re to be a quartermaster again?”
“I am, with Skilling as my deputy.”
“That’s a step up from escorting me to this place. You’re right that Durban is my problem. I am sent inland.”
“I’ve heard. Securing the backwoods.” The true mission was being kept secret.
“Indeed. Dealing with the mongrels most likely.”
“Them, and the rebels. Good luck that you don’t run afoul of Durban once again.”
Raf surrendered to an indignant impulse. “As you know, I handled—”
“You did not,” Schank pointed at him. “You lucked into rumors about the captain’s misdeeds. That was his doing, and undoing. His station descended significantly due to your intrigues in Kingsport, I’ll grant you that. But, yours did not improve.”
He glanced at his escort. The man was amused.
“I’m on my way to a room at the house.”
“Near ours, perhaps,” Schank countered, with a smirk.
Raf smiled. He knew he was beaten. Or was he? “I’m proud to have been a part of your recovery.”
Schank groaned. “Spare my patience, Mr. Arland.”
Raf nodded. This may very well be a final farewell. He wanted it to be cordial and poignant.
“Well, with my utmost sincerity, may the Lord and Lady look kindly on your voyage, Mr. Schank.”
The old quartermaster studied his eyes and nodded at what he saw there. He nodded and extended a hand. Raf took it and shook it.
“And, may you survive the winter, Mr. Arland.”
The bear-man sat in a chair designed for him. Few human chairs would hold him. He and Lord Blake had flagons of ale, a defense against the well water of Angel Shore, which yet produced the cholera and swelled the graveyards. They looked out from the back porch of Angel Shore over the small village of out-buildings built up by the governor to support his trade. All sorts of humans moved here and there on their errands.
Blake sloshed his flagon. “I should be getting back to my preparations. We both have rough paths ahead.”
Grigarius lifted his flagon to clank it on Blake’s. Both sounded hollow.
“Another board when we meet again,” the bear-man said.
Blake smiled and drank his flagon dry. He set it on the table.
“I’ll take the pieces, you take the board?”
Grigarius emptied his flagon and slid it onto the table. He did not like the taste.
“The board might rot in the south. I’ll take the pieces.”
Blake stood, sliding his chair back with his calves. “That’s a smart deal.”
Grigarius grabbed the arms of his chair and lifted it from the porch as he stood. He dropped it behind him and reached a paw toward Lord Blake.
They shook hands, and Blake retreated into the house. Grigarius sighed and looked out over the cluster of buildings, chimneys smoking in the closing autumn. A soldier approached the house, long gun over his shoulder. Alongside him was a human in a soiled cotton shirt, a red velvet vest, and dark green pants. He had curly blond hair dancing on his shoulders. His eyes were wide on Grigarius.
As the two humans climbed the porch stair, the bear-man held out his claws.
“Is this the transport?”
The soldier blinked and nodded.
“I will take him from here.”
“Yes, Mr. Grigarius.” The soldier nodded and turned and was gone at a quick pace.
The transport stared at Grigarius, uncomprehending.
“I am a ward of the governor. I, too, am set upon a mission by our lord. You shall be going with Lord Blake into the backwoods and I shall going by ship south to foreign lands for trade.”
The human nodded with pursed lips. “I know two men you will be shipped with. The quartermaster Schank and his deputy Skillling.”
Grigarius settled his paws on his belt, his left near his axe and his right near his pistol.
The man shrugged with a sudden casualness. “They’ve done well by me.”
Grigarius shook. “You and I both will be heading into dangerous territory. Are you prepared for the deprivations?”
“I have been deprived since birth.”
“The winters here are harsher than in Vincentia.”
The man studied Grigarius’s eyes. “You’re accustomed to them. I trust you have prepared the governor’s company for them, and I am in that company.”
Grigarius groaned. “I would be a better man in the wilds than you. But, my destiny is for greater things.”
The man grinned in a way the bear-man did not like. “Yes, I understand you’re chosen to gather twigs. I am chosen to gather heads.”
Grigarius knew the truth of his mission, but did not see fit to let this rogue in on the secret.
“I am chosen to protect the lord’s daughter as she gathers twigs.”
“The lord has a daughter?”
Grigarius cracked his neck. The man grimaced.
“He does. You shall not encounter her before your transport east.”
With that he gestured the man to enter the house and led him up to his room.