He tucked the pendant into his shirt and fought against the leggings. He cursed the tight seal of their leather cords around his waist. He was on the verge of pissing his pants.
“Raf?” came a voice from the camp.
He yanked the leggings aside and tugged down his pants. His cock flew free. He ignored the cold and let go with a groan.
“Just finishing up!” he shouted.
“You’re going to flood the bay!” the voice came. It was Lieutenant Marian’s.
He breathed hard as he emptied himself. Suddenly, the cold on his cock and thighs was oppressive. He finished off, shoved his parts into his pants, tied up the leggings, and let the bearskin coat fall over them.
Something made him pause. He looked down at his hands as he pulled them away from his groin, out of the shadow of his body, into the light of the campfires yards behind him. He looked up into the woods. The same campfire danced in the eyes of several faces just beyond the darkness of the woods.
He slapped his hands together as if he’d seen nothing, then listened as he dug gloves out of his coat pockets and stuffed his hands into them. There was no sound except the voices of the men behind him. He straightened his body, straightened his coat’s belt, and turned. He walked back to the camp at an even pace. Once among his fellows, he stepped up to his tree stump and scooped up his weapon belt, sword and pistol clattering.
Marian looked up at him, settled his mug hand on his knee.
“Are you quite alright, Mr. Arland?”
Raf nodded. “Get the men prepared for a skirmish, quietly.”
The man sat upright.
Raf nodded and sat with a glance over his shoulder. “Yes. There are men in the woods. I saw the firelight in their eyes. I don’t think they know.”
All of the men around the fire were looking at Lieutenant Marian. He nodded with a dash of his eyes at Raf. The men stood and began heading toward the other campfires.
“Get the campfires more ale, boys!” Marian shouted into the woods.
Raf grinned at him for the ruse, then found his throat tight. He settled his hands on his weapons.
The men went from fire to fire, whispering to the highest ranking men. Raf looked across the camp, where Lord Blake was erect in his chair, hands on weapons, staring past him into the woods.
Raf’s left ear burst in pain. An arrow plunged into the campfire.
He ducked behind his tree stump as a rain of arrows fell over the campsite. Men were stooping behind stumps and chairs and each other.
“What the fuck?” Raf touched his ear and looked at his fingers. Very little blood. “Arrows?”
“Mongrels,” Marian hissed. “Arrows are quieter and easier to make. Powder takes—”
Raf leapt over the stump and slammed his body against the trunk of a large tree. He had no idea what he was doing. He’d never been in an open fight. A second volley of arrows fell over the camp. He saw Marian’s black hair torn by a shaft. Cries rang out from the men.
“Get cover!” Blake roared.
Raf heard the shuffle of arrows in quivers. He rolled around the tree and found another, closer to the foe. His hands tugged sword and pistol from his belt. He was breathing hard. He could hear the complaint of bowstrings.
A second volley of arrows whistled through the dark, night air. This time, not a man cried out. They had found cover.
He glanced around the trunk and saw them. They weren’t human. Gray fur, black around the eyes. Crude leather clothes. Raccoon-men, standing just beyond the firelight.
“Advance!” came Blake’s voice.
Raf rolled and found a new tree for cover. He remembered the location of the nearest mongrel. With a push of his boot, he spun and aimed. His finger squeezed, his pistol barked, and the creature collapsed in a spray of blood.
He tucked the pistol back into its holster. Men were moving into the trees before him. Pistol and musket fire rang out like the thunder of a nearby storm. The forest was alight in sporadic gunpowder light.
He was suddenly enraged. The feeling rose in him, unbidden. He heard the shuffle of arrows in quivers again. He felt his body spin. He found the nearest mongrel and slashed his sword across his neck. The raccoon-man’s bow and arrow fell to the ground. He turned and found another. He shoved his sword into its chest.
A third whistling of arrows and a second thunder of firearms. He made his way down the line of the raccoon-men, cutting down one after another.
A rustling of leaves, and Raf found himself alone in the dark woods. The mongrels were fleeing.
He stood panting as men filled the woods around him, reloading pistols and muskets.
A voice shouted over his shoulder. “The Raton are routed, men! Back to camp and double the watch.”
He turned. Lord Blake put a hand on his shoulder.
“How many did you take?”
Raf stood, panting. He looked his his bloodied sword. On an impulse, he wiped it on his fur leggings and slipped it into its scabbard. He knew he was stalling, his mind trying to work out the number.
“Maybe six. Or seven?”
Blake squeezed his shoulder. “Come back to my fire. We’ll count them in the morning. No doubt, that’s more than any other man’s count.”
Raf glanced over his shoulder, into the woods. “Will they come back?”
Blake laughed. “Looking to take more?”
Gamba squeezed his lady’s shoulders. She wept in her chair, one foot tucked under her opposite thigh.
“He’s a strong swimmer,” was all the man could say. The deck of the cabin swayed gently as the storm fell away.
“Why did you get him a rope?”
Gamba stood erect and withdrew his hands.
“Why, Gamba?” She turned to stare at him over her shoulder. “Why?”
He stepped back, his heart frozen.
She thrust her face into her hands and sobbed.
“And, why wouldn’t the captain turn the ship?”
“Because,” said Captain Martyn from the doorway, “it would have endangered the entire mission, my lady.”
She spun, the chair scraping against the floor. She jabbed an icy finger at the captain.
“You! You could have saved him!”
Captain Martyn defiantly took two steps into the cabin. He shook his head.
“It is not certain the Breedlove could have recovered your servant.”
Snow collapsed, elbows on knees. She sobbed.
“What is certain is that turning in that wind, in those waves, could have dipped our gunwales under the sea. The entire ship might have been sunk, had we turned.”
Gamba reached out toward Snow’s shoulder, but withdrew. Her red curls shook.
“You didn’t even try.”
Captain Martyn straightened his rain-soaked jacket. “I did try, to save your father’s purpose from the foolish impulses of your bear-man. I will take no responsibility in his fate. He chose that when he leapt overboard.”
Snow sobbed, her face falling to her knees.
Gamba held his hand out. “Please, captain. Some time.”
The captain nodded and withdrew from the cabin, closing the door behind him.
Gamba turned to Lady Bernes and set his hands on the back of her chair.
She took two deep breaths and sniffled.
“Mr. Grigarius,” he said, “is quite a strong swimmer. He could—”
“He’s drowned,” she said. “This ship was his only chance, and the captain saw fit to deprive him of that.”
Gamba closed his eyes. “My lady.”
“And, you,” she said, turning to stare at him. “You said not one word to oppose him in the moment.”
“My lady,” he said. He stepped back and nodded. Her cold, green gaze did not move. He nodded again and turned to step out of her cabin.
Blake had requested Raf at the front of the column as they departed Scraven’s Mill, having filled their provisions on the governor’s account but not to the governor’s profits. The woods closed in on the road. Raf had become accustomed to these colonial roads. Very unlike the ancient highways he had known in Handria, paved by flagstones and surrounded by fields and meadows.
These were all dirt trails, worn by wagon ruts, between dark expanses of wilderness, here and there broken by farms, inns, and ordinaries, cleared land around them letting in the sun. And the warmth. There were no milestones. Only a rough wooden sign at each crossroads explaining what lie in each direction.
A light snow fell over Raf and Blake as the team trundled forward behind them, grumbling among themselves about the cold.
“Isn’t that a problem?”
Blake looked at him with dark eyes and grinned.
“You mean the men complaining?”
Blake shrugged and looked at the road ahead.
“When I can’t hear them complaining, when they’re keeping it a secret, that’s when it becomes a problem.”
Raf appreciated that. He tucked his gloves into his coat pockets and kept walking.
“We won’t be on such a road for long,” he said.
Blake shook his head.
“At Gorman Furnace, there’s a trace that leads east into the wilderness. Basically just a foot path.”
The lord shrugged.
“More farms. Backwoods farms with tougher men than on the main roads. Men who don’t trade so prosperously. Men who envy the farmers granted lands on the governor’s roads.”
Raf absorbed that. Resentful backwoodsmen. Just the sort of men who might spread word to the escaped Captain Durban.
“How long before we turn east?”
Blake glanced at him with a grin.
“Eager for more action?”
Raf shrank at that. He was still trying to process what had happened with the raccoon-men.
“Not really, my lord.”
“You did well enough. Was that your first action?”
Raf nodded with low eyebrows. “Yes, it was.”
“Well, you’re fit for it. Seven Ratons under fire. I’d have an entire platoon of you over half these bothers behind us.”
Raf glanced over his shoulder at the men tugging their clothes against the cold. He put his hand against his coat, checking the book and pendant tucked there.
“The way ahead is clear?”
The captain glanced at Mr. Gamba, then returned his gaze again to the horizon ahead. The breeze over their shoulders was warm for autumn, the sea quiet.
“Clear of storms. But, we are threading the straights south of Aspra and Tosca. Lucanian islands but not much under Lucanian law.”
“Pirates,” Mr. Gamba said.
Captain Martyn shrugged with a look to the man at the helm.
“Not if we’re lucky.”
Gamba set his hands on the banister. The sky was clear, the sun bright, the men cheery in the warmer air. But, his soul was clouded and dark.
“Your lady yet mourns,” the captain said.
“She does,” said Gamba. “She will only take food in her cabin. She does not allow me entry.”
Martyn turned to glare at him.
“She is being a ridiculous girl. Her father should never have trusted her on this voyage.”
Gamba sighed and leaned over the weatherdeck.
The captain brushed the man away from the helm and took the wheel in his bare hands.
“Mr. Gamba, you are the governor’s headman. You must get control of her.”
Gamba leaned back and forth on the rail. His own status on the ship was now at play, he knew. Lord Bernes might respect him, but that only went so far. He stood and made his way down the ladder to the weatherdeck. Schank was standing there, beside the gunwale, looking at him.
“Perhaps,” the man said, “a new voice would better give solace to your mistress.”
Gamba took the last step onto the weatherdeck and frowned at the quartermaster.
The man shrugged and glanced up at the captain. Then he lowered his eyes on Gamba’s.
“She’s inconsolable. Your words have not moved her. Perhaps a stranger? Someone whose impression of the bear-man is not stained by sentiment.”
Gamba sighed. Then, he felt himself nodding.
“Would you do this thing for me?”
Schank nodded. “I would consider it my duty. To the governor and his mission.”
Leybold entered the sitting room without request. That alone was enough to set the governor’s nerves afire. He was drowning his concern over Blake’s leadership in brandy, grinding his teeth over the lost profits of his mill. Binding his fists over sending his daughter on a fool’s errand to Antu. An unexpected storm had washed over the coast the day before, and he felt himself doubting the survival of her ship. The captain was capable, but he was a ruffian from Bressia. His loyalties were always in play.
The evening was settling the room into darkness, light from the fireplace already taking the place of sunlight from the windows.
“What is it, man?”
The butler straightened his livery.
“My lord, a ship has arrived at Angel Shore wharf.”
The governor waved his pale hand in the air.
“Ships often do such.”
“The ship is carrying the banners of the governor of the Royal Colony of Catarina, Lord Francis Austrand.”
The governor’s body sank at the butler’s formality. His hand rose shakily to wrap around his snifter.
“Likely to challenge my successes in the tobacco trade.”
Leybold bowed again.
“I do not know, my lord.”
Bernes lifted the glass weakly to his lips, sipped, and set it again on the table.
“Do see our fine visitors to rooms befitting their respective stations.”
Leybold nodded and retreated to the doorway. He paused, doorknob in hand.
“Will you be meeting with them?”
Governor Bernes groaned.
“Not tonight, Mr. Leybold. At breakfast.”
Snow lay upon her bed, swaying in the easy seas. She was beyond weeping. Her heart felt like a dead clump of flesh in her chest.
She wanted so badly to talk to Raf, to share her loss with him. But, the pendant had been lost with Grigarius. She was cut off from the only two men she wanted to speak with.
There was a shuffling in the common area outside. Gentle boot-steps. A gentle knock at her cabin door.
She glanced over her shoulder.
“Who is it?”
She expected Gamba again. Or Captain Martyn, as the headman’s request.
“It is the quartermaster,” came the voice. “Mr. Schank.”
She leaned up on an elbow, suddenly curious.
The door opened with a creak, and the man stepped inside. He glanced at her, then took in the accommodations. He closed the door behind him.
He slid his hands down the chest of his jacket.
“I lost a friend once, at sea.”
She sank and turned away from him.
“You’ve come to console me.”
“I have not.”
She looked over her shoulder at him.
“I knew a man named Jim. Jim Lonarock.”
“Of the house?”
The quartermaster nodded.
“His father was Lord Lonarock of Barker House. I worked for him as a house-servant, and grew very close to his son. Jim was lieutenant on my last voyage.”
Snow nodded. She turned her body toward him.
“The one with the republican captain.”
“There was another lieutenant, Mikolas Abergail, on that voyage. They were the captain’s mates.”
Schank took a deep breath.
“We had a transport.”
Snow sat up on the edge of the bed. Her skin grew cold.
“The same,” Schank said. “He was at the house. You heard of him?”
She nodded, blinking. “I have. He has gone with Lord Blake into the wilderness for my father.”
Schank looked at the ceiling and sighed.
“Well, Mr. Arland maneuvered the lieutenants into a wager.”
She set her hands on her knees.
Schank looked at her until she met his gaze.
“Aye. A wager on the fidelity of their respective wives.”
He stepped over to the fireplace, waving his hands through the air.
“So, they traded rumors and allegations for several days. Each growing more incensed at every slander.”
He set a hand on the mantle.
“I tried to warn them off. Get them to see that the transport was playing them against each other in some intrigue.”
Snow was suddenly aware of her disarray. She straightened her dress and looked up at the man standing over her hearth.
“They wouldn’t listen?”
He shook his head.
“No. The contest took them. It came to pistols, and both fell.”
He turned to look at her.
“I lost a dear friend that day.”
She slid hands down her thighs, to rest on her knees.
“Due to Mr. Arland.”
The quartermaster shrugged.
“And, due to my own inability to control the situation. I just thought that you might see that such things are often beyond anyone’s control.”
She nodded and ground her teeth against each other.
“Except for those that engineered the situation.”
Schank turned toward her.
“Perhaps, my lady.”
She looked up at him with a steady face.
“Thank you, Mr. Schank.”
He stepped toward the door.
“Will you be joining us on the deck soon?”
“You may inform the captain that I shall join him for breakfast on the morrow.”
He smiled, nodded, and pulled the cabin door open.
The governor sat the table in the dining room, hands resting on the saffron cloth. The table was set, as were his teeth. The morning light glowed through the east-facing windows. The rest of the seats were empty.
Leybold stepped through the doorway, followed by two footmen. The footmen took their places behind chairs nearest the door, opposite Bernes.
“Lord and Lady Austrand of the Royal Colony of Catarina.”
Francis Austrand stepped through the doorway in a gaudy uniform of purple, red, and white. Quite patriotic, Bernes noted. He had opted for plain black and white himself. Lord Francis had thought to show him up. A frivolous impulse. The governor nodded him to the seat opposite.
A footman drew the chair back and Austrand seated himself with a flutter of his white wig.
Dinaella Austrand entered the room in a plain cream dress, unembroidered. Her dark curls fell without adornment over her shoulders. She curtseyed at Bernes and moved to her husband’s right. Her chair was drawn back for her to sit.
Bernes waved his hand at Leybold. The man snapped his fingers and exited the room. More footmen flowed into the room from all three doorways, setting dishes, bowls, and decanters on the tables. Plates and glasses were filled in quiet, offerings from the footmen approved by nods or declined by gestures.
“Your table is empty, Willam.” Lord Austrand plunged his fork into potatoes and chopped peppers.
“Indeed,” he said around a mouthful of eggs. “All of my best men are off on their duties. I remain to manage my colony for the crown.”
“Yes,” Austrand said. “And yet I am here.”
“Yes,” Bernes said. “What brings you from Catarina?”
The lady looked suddenly uncomfortable. She stared into the glass of milk in her hand.
Austrand leaned forward. “I came to address the colonial privileges of the crown.”
Bernes set his fork in his plate. He cleared his throat. “The privileges of the crown.”
Lord Francis leaned back in his chair and lifted his water glass.
“The privileges of the crown to approve colonial relationships with foreign powers.”
“Ha!” Bernes let his hands fall hard on the table with a clatter of plates. “Like your covert sympathies with the Lucanians in Margara?”
“I have no trade with Margara.” He sipped at his water.
Bernes leaned into the table. “What is this about, Francis. Speak with a gentlemanly candor, for once.”
Austrand looked into his wife’s eyes and settled a hand over hers. She glanced up and took a deep breath.
“I am here,” he said, “to meet the arrival of a royal emissary. Expected within the week.”
Bernes’s lips ground against each other. He lifted the cloth on his lap to with his mouth.
“What is the purpose of this emissary?”
Austrand lowered his eyes on the governor of Johannia.
“To investigate rumors that you have set out to establish trade with inhuman powers in the east. With the collusion of Lord Moore of Matthiana.”
Bernes fumed. He remembered the presence of the footmen and restrained himself from outburst. He nodded and cleared his throat.
“Mr. Leybold,” he said. “Some privacy, please.”
The man stepped into the doorway, but the footmen were already filing out of the room. Lord Francis was grinning, cutting a slice of ham with knife and fork. Lady Dinaella was staring at her plate, hands on her lap.
Once the room was empty, Bernes set his elbow on the table and pointed at Austrand.
“You vile hypocrite. You do not seek to protect the crown, but to claim the benefit of an endeavor you had not the enterprise to conceive.”
Austrand looked at Bernes impassively.
“Despite,” Bernes growled, “that the passage to the east beckoned at your border for the entire fourteen years of your governorship.”
“You accuse me of hypocrisy, sir.” He lifted the cloth from his lap and settled it on his plate. His wife echoed him in this. “But, I have only ever governed my colony within the limits set for me by the crown. In that, you have strayed.”
Bernes scoffed and leaned back in his chair.
“You have maintained a traitorous familiarity with the Coromellos of Margara, forgiving their bandits, enabling their illicit trade with the farmers on your frontiers.”
Austrand nodded his wife toward the door. She scraped her chair backward. Mr. Leybold appeared in the doorway, but she was already curtseying to Lord Bernes. She hastened out of the dining room.
“Fine counter-charges, Willam.” Austrand glanced back at Leybold, who stepped forward to grab the lord’s chair. Lord Francis stood as the butler withdrew the chair.
“But, we shall see the emissary decide what is more damaging to the crown’s privileges.”
Bernes huffed in his chair for a moment.
“We shall.” He waved the man off, as one would a common servant.
Lord Austrand bowed at the governor, bowed at Mr. Leybold, and stepped out of the room.
Leybold lifted the chair as he replaced it under the table, so as not to make a noise.
Bernes looked up at him.
“I have a task for you.”
Leybold nodded. “Yes, my lord.”
“It must be done quickly.”
“Of course, my lord.”
Bernes tore the wig from his head and slammed it on the table. He stared at it, grinding his teeth.
“Tear out all the Coromello affectations in Angel Shore house.”
Leybold set a hand on the back of the recently vacated chair. “My lord?”
“Replace them with simple, colonial trappings. I will no longer compete with Catarina for Lucanian luxury. It’s time to make Johannia a true colonial reflection of Vincentia.”
Leybold stood erect.
“A very wise call, my lord.”
Julius, which the lord had insisted Raf call him, was not jesting about the trail into the wilderness.
Gorman Furnace was a small collection of buildings supporting a mine, several smelters, even more smiths. It was a small village in a circular clearing in the wilderness, pine forests all around. There were no farms. Perhaps five hundred souls supported entirely on trade in iron.
The trail was behind a row of hovels at the eastern edge of the settlement. As the team set up camp there, Raf took in the path ahead. It was a thin line cleared through the brush. Perhaps two men could walk abreast. The ground of the trace was well-trod, but the overarching trees kept all light from reaching it.
The journey into the wilderness began there.
The men were piling wood into several campsites. The sounds of pounding hammers and anvils rang out from the settlement behind them. The air had grown warmer, the snow had melted, and the sky was blue and warm.
“How long to the Tullipomik?” Raf asked.
Blake shrugged, hands on his sword and pistol.
“Perhaps noon of the second day. Evening if we have a hard time of it.”
He looked up into the clear sky.
“Doesn’t look like we shall.”
Blake turned to him and smiled.
“You’re a good man, Mr. Arland.”
He stood erect. He wasn’t sure where this was going.
“I rose from humble beginnings, like you. You’ve got a good future ahead of you, if you keep your wits about you.”
Raf gathered himself and sniffed.
“Pardon me, my lord, but how does this relate to the trail to the Tullipomik River?”
Blake laughed and pointed into the darkness of the trace.
“That is only the beginning of it. Beyond that, once we turn south toward the Yanapasik, is untrailed land. Then, the Vale of Ladjor, and Lord and Lady know what we’ll find there. Wolf-men, rogue giants, unknown horrors from the giants’ wars with the Peyri. But, you’ve got to look beyond tomorrow, beyond next month, beyond next year.”
Raf took this in. Blake was basically confessing that the months ahead were going to be pure, icy hell. But, the man had a long-term goal in mind.
“And, beyond next year?”
Blake slapped an arm over Raf’s shoulders.
“Beyond next year, you and I deliver the first treaty between humanity and an inhuman country. We become history. Our names live forever.”