Snow Bernes walked into the officer’s mess in a simple white dress, unembroidered. Her shoulders were back, her face placid. She moved to the seat opposite the captain, Gamba standing at the seat on her right corner. She smiled at the headman, and he smiled back. One of the lieutenants swept the lady’s chair back with one hand and a bow. She nodded and took her seat, the men following her. She noted Schank and Skilling along the table beside Gamba.
The table was set humbly. Very low-edged porcelain plates, flat silverware, only one of each piece. The table top was divided by inch-high strips of wood into squares roughly a foot and a half on a side, three rows of them down the length of the table. The place settings were in the outer squares, low-edge plates and pyramid-shaped bottles in the middle.
Snow noticed there was no stemware. All the glasses were quite squat. She sniffed and set her serviette on her lap.
“Captain Martyn,” she said, looking over the simple food set out. “This is a very interesting table.”
“My lady.” He nodded around the table for those attending to begin eating. He nodded at the lieutenant beside him. “Please serve the lady.”
Snow waved him off. The man glanced at the captain, who nodded him back into his seat.
“The table,” he said, “and its wares are of my own design. After years at sea.”
She scooped scrambled eggs clumsily onto her plate. “And, its purpose?”
The captain filled his wine glass. He wrapped his fingers around it and slid it forward against the wooden strip at the edge of his square. It came still with a thump.
“In case the waves decide to interrupt our meal.”
She sat up in her seat. This man clearly understood the sea. She felt her lips grow tight.
“Captain Martyn, I would like to apologize for my behavior in regard to the matter concerning—” She cleared her throat and forced herself to look the man in the eyes. “Mr. Grigarius.”
The men around the table slowed to a stop and the room grew quiet. Gamba put his hand over hers on the table. Martyn regarded her for a moment, then scooped up knife and fork to cut into his ham.
“I’ve lost close companions at sea. I did not always react as well as you did.”
He stuffed ham into his mouth, shrugged, and waved his fork at her.
She nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
Gamba nodded across the table at Schank. Snow guessed that he had sent the man to persuade her. She felt indebted to them both.
The morning sun broke the tops of the trees, shining hard on his face. He grimaced, lifted his face from the sand, and shook his head.
He was on a beach. The air was surprisingly warm. A welcome change in the weather. There was a wall of pines in either direction above the beach. By his calculations, he was on the coast of Catarina or Margara. The former was Vincentian land, like his own. Governor Austrand’s colony. The latter was Lucanian land. That would be bad news, as he would not only be suspect as an Orsar but as a potential spy.
He looked up and down the beach. The sand was glimmering white in the morning sun. He squinted into the dark trees. To the south, they extended in an unbroken line as far as he could see. To the north there was a break in the trees. The sand revealed nothing, but a stream would be well below the beach on either side.
Grigarius pushed himself up on clawed hands.
The last things he could remember about the night before were his muscles aching, the wind picking up, but the waves falling away. He had rolled onto his back to float and rest. He must have been inside some cove. He looked over his shoulder to the sea. The waves were weak, but he could see no land arcing around a cove or inlet.
He suddenly wished he had studied maps before setting out on the Breedlove. He had no idea where he was. His knowledge of the lands south of Johannia were sketchy at best. He didn’t know the board he was now playing on.
He spun his body and sat on the strand. His leather was stiff and frosted with salt. His fur was matted with salt and sand. He glanced to the north toward the break in the trees. There could be fresh water there. Water he could drink. Water in which he could wash away the sand and salt.
Gulls swooped down to the beach in front of him, pecking at something washed up in the surf.
He growled and shoved himself to standing. He had no weapons but what he was born with. He wondered for a moment whether it would be wiser to stay close to the treeline or keep his distance from it.
“Fuck,” he said out loud. “I’ve got myself in it this time.”
He shook his fur, sand flying in every direction. North was the direction of the stream, if it were there, and the direction of Vincentian lands. If he were in Margara. That was an obvious play. He set out, halfway between the surf and the trees.
There was almost no movement in the air, except for the occasional gull. He trudged across the sand. His stomach complained, his head complained, his muscles complained. He just needed to make it to fresh water.
There was movement in the trees ahead. A trio of men stepped onto the beach and set themselves in his path. They were wearing leather armor. Swords and pistols hung at their belts. They were professional soldiers. Their faces and equipment looked Vincentian to Grigarius.
He kept pushing his legs to walk until he was within ballshot of them.
“You speak Handrian?” He tried to keep his voice in the human register.
The men looked back and forth among each other, and glanced at the trees. That meant there was at least one man staying behind in the forest. He pretended not to notice.
“We do,” the lead man said. “We are the border guard of the Royal Colony of Catarina.”
“You had to have seen me lying on the beach. Why didn’t you investigate?”
The lead man spat into the surf. “Bear-man, where are you from?”
“The Royal Colony of Johannia,” he said. “I am the governor’s ward, Grigarius. I know you’ve heard of me. I am just aiming for the stream ahead. What is it?”
The lead man cracked his neck and set his hands on his weapons.
“That’s the Niogra River. And, we do know of you. How did you find your way onto this beach? Your ship foundered in the storm?”
“No,” he said, “I was washed overboard. They sail on.”
“On a traitorous mission.”
Grigarius sighed. Clearly, rumors of the true purpose of the mission to Antu had spread beyond the governor’s inner circle.
“I don’t know about that. I only seek conveyance to Angel Shore or to join my comrades in the south.”
The men grinned and laughed among themselves.
“The nearest Vincentian port?” Grigarius asked.
“There will be no mission to the south. Our governor has called a royal investigation.”
That was bad news. Still, he needed to find his way back to allies.
“Back to Angel Shore for me, then. To give the royal emissary my testimony.”
“The word of a mongrel?”
Grigarius stared at the beach and considered where this play was heading. The lead man stepped forward two steps and pointed at him.
“Your ship thinks you were lost.”
Grigarius took a deep breath. He glanced at the woods. He could only see one man skulking there, but there could be more.
“They know I’m a good swimmer. I’ll be expected.”
“A shark could’ve taken you.”
He grunted. “A shark did not take me.”
“You’re not going back to Johannia, bear-man. Not to help your traitorous governor stir up trouble between our colony and Margara.”
“How is he doing that?”
“By making deals with inhumans. Like you.”
That was the end of the conversation, Grigarius knew. He raised his rough palms.
“You have the advantage,” he said. “I will come with you.”
The men passed glances back and forth. The lead man drew his pistol. The other two men, upshore from him, took a step back.
“We have no shackles,” the lead man said raising the pistol in his direction.
Grigarius waved his hands in the air. “You can use my belt.” He glanced down at it. He was fifteen feet from the man.
“I can certainly use it for something,” the man said, leveling the pistol at his chest. “Take it off.”
Grigarius stopped and shrugged. He reached down and unbuckled the belt. He slipped it free with a tug and flung it at the lead man’s face.
He tucked his head and rolled toward the man’s right side. He stood, took a long step, and wrapped one paw over the man’s pistol, the other on his shoulder. The other men drew their weapons. A man was rushing from the woods. Grigarius yanked the pistol free, took aim, and squeezed. The gun popped and the man running from the trees fell backward.
The lead man grabbed his paw, but he was held fast. Grigarius flung the spent pistol at the two men approaching. One of the men fired his gun in panic and the ball hit the lead man in his shin. He crumpled out of the bear-man’s grasp.
Grigarius stomped on the lead man’s back and ran up the beach toward his two companions. The first man slashed his sword through the air, well before Grigarius reached him. The bear-man batted him aside and set his eyes on the last man.
The man fired at him. The ball tore through his left ear. He stepped forward and slammed claws against the man’s face.
Grigarius stood on the beach, panting, staring up into the forest for more humans. None came. He looked down at the man at his feet. He was gone. His face was gone.
He glanced behind him. One man lay curled like a dead shrimp in the sand. The other was sprawled in a pool of blood. Neither was moving.
“That was fucked up,” he said out loud.
He knew now, there would be no way through Catarina back to his house or his mission. His mind struggled to imagine the board he was on. The way north was blocked by more Catarinan colonials. Snow and Gamba were headed around Margara to Antu, which was directly south or south-southeast of him overland. He knew the Niogra was the boundary between Catarina and Margara, which meant that the “border guards” he just killed were, in the strictest sense, trespassing in Margaran territory.
He also knew that the Niogra flowed from The Waste, a desert that was just north of a plain known as the Suhral, the realm of lion-men. Antu was just south of that.
Grigarius gathered up his belt. He gathered up all the pistols and selected the best. He took all of their powder and balls. He took their food and waterskins. He took the lead man’s sword, which had an interesting snake design on its hilt.
These men would probably have a fort nearby. There would be more of them. He had to tread carefully.
As the sun rose toward noon, he marched up the beach toward the Niogra, to clean his fur in the fresh water, find a boat, and row his way south.
The morning was significantly warmer as the team packed up camp. That was a welcome change, but it also meant they’d have to carry their heavy, storm-wet clothes on their backs along with the tents and other gear.
And, as Raf tied up his leggings and coat, he realized heavy would mean heavy. Everything was damp from the rainstorm that had raged throughout the night. The tents had kept them from getting soaked, but the water still found its way into everything.
He shook mud from his boots and hoped his powder was still dry. The sky was clear. Birds were rushing from tree to tree, migrating south in what seemed thousands. They had become accustomed to the camp and their calls were a constant chorus above them.
“Boys,” Blake shouted. The camp came to an immediate halt and all of the men turned toward their captain. Raf was impressed.
“The scouts tell me that the Tullipomik is right below this rise where we made camp. We’ll make our way up the shore to Mosiah’s Ferry, where we’ll cross. It will be a while before we come across the trace south to the Yanapasik. Lieutenant Marian knows it, so he’ll be at the van.”
Marian nodded. Raf suddenly realized that most of these men likely knew the way ahead, at least to the trail south. Blake was just giving them as much certainty as he could. Easing nerves, building morale.
“So,” the captain said, “let’s be ready to move in ten minutes. I’ll be happier with five.”
“Hoop-hoop!” the men shouted in unison.
“Hoop,” Raf said, a moment to late. Blake chuckled at him.
“You’ll get into it,” he said. “You ready?”
Raf shook his pack. It dripped at the bottom. “Is there a reason we haven’t brought horses?”
“The way ahead might not accommodate them. And, we’d be tempted to pack too much.”
Raf nodded at that. “I’m ready. I need to go take a piss first.”
Blake thrust his chin toward the woods and turned to walk among the men.
Raf searched the nearby treeline for a rooty trunk where he could set the pack without getting it muddy or wetter. He picked one and trudged in that direction. He leaned the pack on roots against the tree, checked the weapons at his belt, scraped his boots on the tree, and set off into the woods.
Once he had found a good spot, he decided to relieve himself first. That out of the way, he dug the pendant from his shirt and held it out.
It glowed gently and began to hum against his fingertips. He looked over his shoulder and adjusted his arm to make sure nobody would see the mild light.
He scanned the woods, peering down the slight slope along the trace that had brought the team to the campsite. A few squirrels dug through the leaves here and there, filling the quiet trees with a soft rustling sound.
He sighed and looked at the pendant. Nothing. Perhaps she was at breakfast. He stuffed the pendant back into his shirt.
A single bird called through the damp morning woods. Another bird answered it. Raf looked up into the trees. The quiet, empty trees. When had that happened?
He forced himself to hock and spit, as casually as he could muster. He lifted his hat and ran his hand through his hair in order to steal a glance into the woods.
He saw trees. A few of them with shoulders peeking from behind them at about the level for a crouching man. They were quite spread out. That meant a lot of crouching men.
Raf said a silent prayer to the Lord and Lady that this was not Durban and his Republicans. If it were, and if Durban had seen him, he had just given away the mission.
He sniffed, coughed, and squared his hat on his head. This was the raccoon-men all over again. He had to make his walk back to camp casual, give no clues to the hot blood raging through his arms and legs.
A tree near his head exploded in a shower of bark and splinters. He took off at a run, angling past a large tree for cover.
“Durban!” he shouted. Blake, at least, would know what he meant.
The captain’s men were already crouched behind trees when he stumbled into the campsite. He drew his pistol and joined them beside his pack.
The woods were suddenly filled with thunder and smoke. The air whistled all around them. This was their moment for a return volley. The men spun around cover and fired into the woods. Raf waited until they were done, glancing twice around his tree, pistol in hand. One of the raiders peeked around his cover. Raf raised his arm and squeezed.
The man’s head jerked backward. He collapsed into the wet leaves.
The sound of metal against metal shredded the air as both sides reloaded. Raf looked up to see Blake staring at him as his arm worked the muzzle.
“You saw him?”
Raf shook his head. “Erred on the side of caution, captain.”
Blake nodded and reset his ramrod. Just beyond him, Lieutenant Marian was peeking around his tree.
“Durban!” the captain shouted.
He was answered by a second volley of musket fire from the raiders.
Marian leaned around his tree, aiming his musket. His chest burst in blood and cloth. He fell forward against the roots of the tree.
“Watch yourself boys!” Blake shouted. “They’re potshotting!”
Raf knew he’d put that idea into their heads. He cursed himself and leaned around the opposite side of his tree. One of the raiders was moving forward. Raf put a ball in his belly.
“Durban!” Raf shouted over another volley. “Durban! Is it me you want?”
The woods were quiet but for the scrape of ramrods.
“I should thank you, Mr. Arland!” came Durban’s voice through the lingering smoke. “In fact, if you step out, I will!”
The raiders laughed from their hiding places. Raf glanced at Blake, who glanced at Marian. The lieutenant was gone.
“But, no,” Durban shouted. “You freed me from ferrying goods in secret to my fellows. Freed to oppose the royal governor outright!”
“Keep him talking,” Blake hissed. He turned to a nearby man. “A wolves’ retreat, five men at a time. Leave what isn’t packed. Make it happen.”
The man starting pointing, selecting the first five.
“If I’d known that,” Raf shouted, “I’d have kept my mouth shut!”
He turned to Blake. “What are we doing?”
Blake peeked around his tree and returned to cover. “They outnumber us. Probably outflanking us as we speak.”
“Never you worry, Mr. Arland!” Durban yelled. “All will be made right soon enough.”
Raf looked back to see the first five men jog off down the trail. The rise they were on would hide their movement from Durban.
“You and your republicans?” Raf said.
Durban cackled. “We’re not Coromellos. We want a true democracy, fitting for Handrians, not a minced republic.”
Blake spun and took a potshot down the slope. “Got one.” He yanked the ramrod free and set to reloading.
“Now, Mr. Arland. I thought we were having a nice chat. That wasn’t very nice.”
“That wasn’t me,” Raf said with a shrug toward Blake. “You’re democrats then.”
Five more men went jogging down the trail.
“Enough of this banter,” Durban said. “I need to discuss the terms of your surrender with Lord Blake.”
“No, I’m not!” Blake shouted. He looked at Raf and jerked his chin to direct Raf back toward the trail. “I have three terms that I will need to you address.”
“Go on,” Raf heard Durban sneer as he lifted his pack. He crouched and set out across the mud of the campsite.
“First, no man shall be harmed.” Before Durban could reply, he said: “Second! We shall be traded for traitors being held at Kingsport. Third!”
Raf and four other men ran down the trail. His breath came in gulps. He heard no gunfire behind him.
Blake’s plan was obvious to Raf. He hoped it wasn’t obvious to Durban. Set out all of the terms at once, so the response would take longer, giving Blake and the last men time to slip off down the trail.
No, Durban was too much of a dullard to guess at that. And, if the flanking raiders had caught site of what was going on they surely would have opened fire.
The lead man of Raf’s five suddenly turned off the trail, making his way through the woods alongside, leaping over brush and fallen trees. The second man followed.
“What the fuck,” Raf said under his breath. When it was his turn, he saw that the mud of the trail ahead was clean of footprints.
He grinned and leaped from the trail to follow the rest of the men through the woods. When Durban followed, he’d have to decide whether Blake’s men were setting up an ambush or using the threat of an ambush to put more distance between them. But, with an ambush in the cards, Durban’s men would have to slow down to keep a better watch on the woods.
“A wolves’ retreat,” Blake had said. He was clever, Raf saw, and his men were well-trained.
Despite the raiders likely rushing behind to put lead balls into his body, Raf Arland suddenly felt far more enthusiastic about his chances of surviving this madman’s errand of the governor.
The curtains were drawn against the clear morning sky, glowing green with the direct light of the rising sun. The heat in the room came mainly from the windows; the fireplace was barely crackling. The wood around the fireplace had been torn away, per the lord’s instructions, and the mustard-colored paper stripped from the walls to expose bare planks. Coromello decor shorn away to be replaced by simple, colonial trappings.
Bernes did not comment on the condition of the room. He surveyed the simple pewter utensils and plain cream plates. He glanced around at his guests: Parson Booth of Binton Parish, Sheriff Sevy of Kingsport, Lord Amundson of Bounty Fields, Lord and Lady Humway of Buck Point. The governor cleared his throat.
“Lord and Lady Austrand are absent as Francis has elected to visit Kingsport on business while his—” He snatched up fork and knife. “—inquisitor voyages from Breston.”
His guests around the table, and the footmen standing at the peripheries, shuffled in visible discomfort. Bernes waved his pewterware at his guests to eat.
Parson Booth lifted his own crude utensils, noting the sword sigil of St. Vincent on the handles.
“I came as soon as I heard, my lord.”
“As did we all,” Amundson growled. “A royal inquiry is a serious matter.”
The parson nodded at the lord sheepishly. “Indeed. I met Blake’s men at Willows.”
“Did you?” Bernes said.
The parson nodded. “Indeed, my lord. Your transport took a book of scripture from me.”
“Did he? That’s good.”
Booth smiled. “Yes, my lord. I hope it lifts their spirits as they cross the haunted lands to the east.”
Bernes tugged ham from his fork with his teeth. “I’ve sent for testimony from Elias.” He cut into his eggs with a scrape of knife against porcelain.
“With two royal colonies behind the endeavor, and Catarina’s territory not in play, I am sure the emissary will see reason and that it is no affront to the crown. Francis is simply resentful at being left out.”
Sheriff Sevy glanced at Amundson, then turned toward Bernes.
“Do you yet have the correspondence in which you previously discussed the adventure with Governor Moore?”
“Adventure?” Bernes licked yolk from his lips. “It is no adventure. It is a trade mission.”
He speared a chunk of boiled potato. “And, we discussed our plan during his last visit to Angel Shore. Midsummer.”
The sheriff glanced at Amundson again. Bernes took note of the empty chair beside the lord of Bounty Fields.
“Bri,” he said with a wave of his fork. “Where is Irenea? I’m sure we all miss her company.”
Amundson stood straight in his chair. Lady Humway stared into her food, poking at it absently.
“Lady Amundson is visiting her sister, at Montalban.”
Bernes scraped butter onto toast. “I certainly hope everything is alright.”
Brihann Amundson glanced at the sheriff and parson.
“She was feeling not quite herself, as I told her, and elected to seek comfort with her family.”
Bernes nodded. He took in the sheriff’s face, which was blank.
“Lord and Lady Humway,” Bernes sighed. He could feel the table was divided against him. “How are your eggs?”
They smiled and nodded at the governor.
The breakfast concluded in silence and the guests retired to their rooms. Bernes sat with his hands at the sides of his chair, palms back to take in the dying heat of the stripped fireplace. The footmen cleaned the table and filed out of the room.
“Governor,” a man said from outside the door.
The man turned into the doorway. He was wearing rough leather. A true protégé of Mr. Gamba, if not an adequate replacement. The man’s dark face was placid, his eyes fixed on the wall over the governor’s shoulder.
“I can offer no insight into your intrigues with the governor of Catarina.”
“And yet?” Bernes set his hands on the table. His fingers played at the simple, green table-cloth Leybold had chosen.
“There may be something to offer in regard to the progress of your missions.”
The governor sat upright at that. The storm that had passed over Angel Shore had him concerned for the survival of the Breedlove and the condition of Blake’s team.
“Speak up, man.” He waved his hand in the air before his face. “And, stand at ease, for the Lord and Lady’s sake.”
Embald took a step forward and settled his hands on the back of a chair.
“Mr. Gamba brought pendants from our homeland. Your daughter has one. Your transport has the other.”
“That’s a nicety, Wilbrook. How does this give me insight into my missions east?”
The man gathered himself.
“My lord, these pendants have a magic in them. To allow those who hold them to speak to one another.”
Bernes sat upright in his chair.
“A magic? And this is more than some Emberi superstition?”
Embald nodded. “Indeed, my lord. Lady Snow tested it with Mr. Grigarius.”
Bernes nodded, staring at his knuckles. “And Gamba saw fit to give these to Lady Snow and Mr. Arland?”
Embald’s shoulders fell.
“Mr. Gamba gave two of them to Lady Snow. She gave one to Mr. Arland.”
The governor’s lips grew tight at that. “I see. Two of them?”
“My lord,” Embald said. “There is a third pendant, which Mr. Gamba bid me keep secret unless at the utmost need.”
“Are we,” the governor said, “in your estimation, at the utmost need?”
Embald stood erect. “It is not my estimation that matters. I merely raise the possibility to my governor.”
Bernes leaned back in his chair.
“With this third pendant, I could speak with my daughter or with my transport?”
Bernes waved his hand in the air. “Bring it to me, Wilbrook. And I’ll see you get an extra ration of rum for your revelation.”