Goodly Creatures 09

CHAPTER NINE

The Tulippomik was a formidable river. The far shore was at least five hundred feet away, lined with trees and bushes. Down the river, near where it curved south, a barge loaded with crates was being poled along by a team of four.

Blake’s men were gasping for breath on a leafy terrace above a steep drop down to a sandy shore. Trees clung to the edge of the drop, roots exposed to the river. A tuskrat sat on its hind legs, paws playing at its gray face, staring up at Raf.

“Who did we lose?” Blake said.

A man next to him started pointing, counting in his head. Raf glanced up and down the line of men on the trail, leaning against trees or thighs or each other.

“Only Marian,” Raf said.

The counting man turned to Blake and nodded. “Only one missing.”

Blake looked at Raf, curious. Raf shrugged.

“I keep track of people.”

Blake slapped him on the shoulder. His face was pained but determined. “Marian’s gone. I need a lieutenant. You’re it.”

Raf took a step back and blinked. “Wait. Wait, why?”

“Third of three. Behind lieutenants Fromme and Djande.”

That didn’t answer Raf’s question, but Blake had moved on to take in the condition of his men. Perhaps his knack of keeping track of people was enough. Perhaps it was recompense for introducing potshots to the skirmish.

Fromme was a quiet man, a Marchais from the northern colonies, Raf believed. He had no accent, but something about his steady face reminded Raf of a collier’s captain from Palias he once knew. He spent a lot of time inspecting the men’s weapons.

Djande was close to Fromme, but Emberi. He was built like a stone pillar. He wore a peculiar wool cap of green and black stripes with the green knit looser and standing out. He was very friendly with the men, who often shared their food and drink with him. Given the man’s size, without the extra rations he’d likely starve.

Now, he was among their number. He suspected Djande had been a transport Fromme met in the north colonies, Fermiene and Bressia, or perhaps the cold wilderness of Colchassen. Given Lord Blake’s reputation for dealing with Marchian traders from the Sweep Valley, Colchassen would explain their place as the captain’s lieutenants. Those two had history. He was the odd man out.

Raf glanced down the river. The boat was gone. He glanced up the muddy trail. There was no sign of Durban’s raiders. He glanced at the ground. The tuskrat was gone. He was just standing there, idle, looking the fool. The men were shouldering packs. He shouldered his.

They moved down the trail at a forced march. Several boats passed them on the dark waters of the Tulippomik, sailing upriver and poling downriver. Soon the trail descended from its terrace toward a beach. There were buildings on the rise above the beach, and a crude dock extending into the river. A ferry barge was tied up there.

Mosiah’s Ferry.

The buildings were in the black brick Raf had become accustomed to seeing in the colonies. Bricks fired from the local black clay. These were covered in Spring and Summer with a weak whitewash, to deflect the sun’s heat. In late Sevenmonth, the colonials left the summer’s lime to wash away in the rain to reveal the dark bricks, which gathered up the sun’s warmth during winter. It was an ingenious custom.

The locals were happy to see Blake’s coin, replacing supplies lost at the campsite. Like so many Raf had met on his winding way from Kingsport, the people of Mosiah’s Ferry were unlike anyone Raf had known in Vincentia. Rougher yet happier. Their clothes were crude and often ragged. Their smiles were not. Their men were jolly and square-shouldered. The women, by the Lady the women—full-bodied and full-lipped and wide-eyed. And everyone always with a warm smile.

Here in the wilderness, on the border between colonies, harassed by mongrels, living on whatever trade goods made their way up and down this remote waterway, these people had found joy. There was none of the weariness of the people back home in Medimeria.

Raf found Blake on the dock, scribbling on a scrap of paper. Fromme and Djande were beside him. Fromme was holding a blue wax rod over a lit match.

“Captain?”

“Lieutenant.” That rank felt weird in Raf’s ear. Blake blew on the paper, rolled it, and held it out to Fromme. The lieutenant dripped wax on the overlap. Blake lifted a fist to press a ring into the wax.

“What’s the way forward?” Raf asked.

Blake smiled at him. “The ferry, and the trail, and Rose Oak plantation. Lord Kenleigh’s house.”

Djande handed Blake a leather tube. He took it, slipped the paper inside, and set the cap. Djande leaned in with the melted wax and set it to the cap. Blake sealed it with his ring.

“I feel there’s more to this plan,” Raf said.

Blake looked at him and winked. He motioned to the ferryman.

“After Rose Oak,” he said to Raf, “we make for the confluence of the Sweep River, then south through the back country of Matthiana and across the vale of the Ivian Range.”

Raf had no context for any of that information, except that the Sweep River flowed from Relles Pass which led to Colchassen, something he’d learned from tradesmen at Davis Market. That path went north, which seemed the wrong direction.

The ferryman stepped up to Lord Blake and nodded with a smile. Blake handed him the leather tube.

“We’re taking the ferry across. Without you.”

The ferryman was suddenly not smiling. He stared down at the tube in his hands.

“Take that message, or send it, to Crossing plantation. That’s my house. You will be made whole and more.”

Raf glanced down the dock. Blake’s men were already boarding the ferry barge.

“My lord?” the ferryman said.

Blake put a gold coin in the man’s hand. Raf had rarely even seen a gold coin, and had never touched one. He knew that would likely be a month’s wages to a backwoods ferryman.

“Go up to the tavern,” Blake said, “have an ale and luncheon on House Crossing.”

The man glanced at his ferry with hollow eyes. Then, he nodded at Lord Blake and shuffled off the dock. Raf watched the man walk up to the tavern with sunken shoulders. That seemed odd, since he was suddenly wealthier than he probably ever had.

Raf turned to the captain.

“We’re sinking the ferry on the other side.”

Blake nodded at him, blandly. Fromme and Djande were already on their way down the dock.

“Scouts saw Durban’s men just up the trail. But, they won’t be following us across the river, unless they swim.”

The captain looked at the broad, swiftly flowing waters of the Tulippomik and slapped Raf on the shoulder.

“And, good luck to them with that.”

“This works?”

Wilbrook Embald nodded, then shrugged. Then, he nodded again, more certainly. Bernes rolled his eyes at the headman.

“What do I do?”

The sitting room was stripped to planks. Leybold had not yet installed the new decor.

Embald took a step forward. “I believe, my lord, just hold it out and think about who you want to talk to.”

Bernes leaned back in his chair and glanced at the bare bricks of the fireplace. He determined to scold Leybold on his schedule. He held the pendant out in front of his face and sighed.

“My daughter,” he said out loud. “Lady Miranda Snow Bernes.”

The pendant hummed in his fingers, like the feeling of a cello sounding a low note. It glowed gently. The governor’s eyes grew wide. He looked at Embald, who was grinning and nodding.

They sat there in the afternoon light, which poured into the room through unblinded windows. The pendant continued to hum and glow.

Bernes sighed. He tapped the table with his free fingers. “Do you think the furniture should be replaced?”

Embald surveyed the table. “It’s not overtly Coromello.”

Bernes nodded. “That’s what I was thinking.”

The pendant kept humming in the governor’s fingers. He looked at Embald. The headman’s lips played against each other.

“She may be busy. At dinner with captain Martyn?”

“She has to do the same?”

“I believe so, my lord.” He looked at his knees.

Bernes lowered the pendant. It went dark and stopped humming.

Embald’s fingers interlocked. “Perhaps try the transport?”

The governor’s shoulders sank. He lifted the pendant again.

“Rafelan Arland,” he snapped, not sure if that was required.

The pendant glowed and hummed in his fingers. Bernes lowered his eyes on Embald, who was staring intently at the hearth.

An oval of light shimmered around the pendant. Bernes sat upright. Embald leaned forward. A face appeared, trees behind it.

“Snow?” a voice spoke.

“Her father,” Bernes said and left his mouth open.

Raf squinted in the image. He shook his head and blinked.

“My,” he said. “My lord. I did not expect you.”

“I did not expect this to work,” Bernes said. He had closed his mouth and regained his composure.

“Neither did I, the first time.” Raf gathered himself. “My lord, has the Breedlove returned to Angel Shore?”

Bernes groaned. “It has not. Snow has not. Her pendant has not. I have another Emberi pendant.”

Raf nodded, taking it in. “So, the ship made it through the storm.”

“I do not know,” the governor said, annoyed. “I am contacting you to learn of your progress.”

The man in the oval shrugged. He took a deep breath.

“Well, we were attacked by a party of democrat raiders. Walt Durban was leading them. We escaped and commandeered the ferry. Mosiah’s ferry on the Tulippomik. Do you know it?”

Bernes huffed. “I do. Democrats?”

Raf shrugged.

“That’s what they’re calling themselves. Rebels, republicans, words are immaterial.”

Raf grimaced at his own flippancy. “My lord.”

Bernes scowled. “Are you a liability to my mission, Mr. Arland?”

The man gathered himself. “According to Durban, who parlayed with Lord Blake during the raid, his true purpose is to thwart your mission east, not seek revenge on me.”

Embald sat back in his chair. Bernes glared at him, then turned to the hearth’s dying fire. He closed his eyes and brushed his wig from his head in a cloud of powder.

“The word is out. Even among the rebels. That’s fine.”

“Lord Blake,” Raf continued, “has secured our escape by scuttling the ferry. We’re near Rose Oak and our way ahead looks promising.”

Bernes nodded and breathed. He slapped the wig onto the table.

“My lord,” Raf said. “Is there trouble I should inform Blake about?”

Bernes looked into the man’s eyes through the magical oval of light.

“You’d reveal the pendant to him?”

Raf stood upright.

“If it furthers our mission, I would do whatever it takes.”

Bernes glanced at his new headman. Embald was wearing an impressed frown.

“Well,” the governor said, “if you see fit to share with Lord Blake, tell him that our mission is under a royal inquiry.”

That made Raf blink hard.

“My lord, are we in trouble?”

Bernes waved his free hand in front of his face.

“I don’t think so. Governor Moore is involved and it’s Governor Austrand calling the inquiry and he’s simply resentful that he wasn’t involved.” He considered the man’s station and clarified: “Moore is governor of Matthiana, which you will soon be crossing. Austrand is governor of Catarina, south of that.”

Raf was staring down, perhaps at his boots.

“I will speak with the captain.”

Bernes nodded. The effort had exhausted him. He nodded again at Raf and lowered the pendant.

“That was strange,” Raf said to himself. He tucked his parts back into his pants. He had not expected the governor to contact him during a private moment. That was serendipitous. Or ominous. He wasn’t quite sure.

The men were setting up camp among the trees on the south side of the river. He could see the tents being set up. If the weather held, they wouldn’t need them, but it was comforting to see their stained white angles against the trees.

He sighed. He couldn’t bring himself to walk back to camp. Had the Breedlove survived the storm? The governor had seemed inordinately casual about that. Bernes surely understood ships better than he did. If his daughter was in peril, he wouldn’t have been so dismissive. Would he? Raf did not know the man.

Raf wanted to speak to Snow. She had not been answering his calls on the pendant. He wanted to know she was alright. Had she answered her father’s calls, but not Raf’s? How would she know the difference? If she hadn’t been answering any calls, why had Bernes not been more concerned about not talking to his daughter?

The pendant hummed against his chest. The governor wanted to speak with him again? He was not ready for that. But, he didn’t want to undermine whatever trust he had earned. He stared into the campsite being set up in the woods. They were starting fires to cook dinner. His stomach beckoned him toward the camp. He turned away from it and tugged the pendant from his shirt.

As he held the pendant out, a glistening oval appeared around it. The image resolved into a scene of trees, with nobody there. The governor had been in a crude, wooden room. The image spun.

Raf was looking at the bear-man’s face.

“Grigarius?”

The Orsar growled.

“Where is Snow?”

Grigarius nodded and glanced to the side.

“She’s still on the ship. I was washed overboard with the pendant.”

He lifted the pendant from the waters of the Niogra. It looked clean. Just for good measure, he plunged it into the water and shook it again.

He walked back to the stolen boat and stared at the stolen supplies. He really needed to scrub the blood from the corners of the boat, in case he encountered anyone on his way south.

Grigarius sat on a rock. The wind whipped at the trees along the shore and played at his fur. He scanned the water for alligators. The river was heavy with them. He didn’t see any. Suddenly, he realized he was stalling, because he did not want to talk to the only person he had to talk to.

He held the pendant out and realized he should string a cord through it again. There were leather cords in the stolen supplies.

Grigarius knew the man had tried to contact him. It was the buzzing of the pendant minutes before that had incited the need to pass it. An ugly and uncomfortable moment.

There was nothing for it. He looked at the pendant and decided to contact the reckless, manipulative transport. On an impulse, he lifted the pendant to his nose and sniffed it. It smelled like the Niogra. It was vibrating and glowing. He had triggered it somehow. He held it out and turned its face toward him.

“Grigarius?”

Something about the man’s face annoyed him. He growled.

“Where is Snow?”

Of course that would be the man’s next thought. He was a climber, a ruffian seeking an inside angle to a prosperous family. Grigarius nodded and distracted himself with the boat’s supplies.

“She’s still on the ship. I was washed overboard with the pendant.”

Raf nodded. “The storm?”

Grigarius nodded. They stared at each other blankly for a moment.

“Where was the pendant? You didn’t answer earlier when I called.”

“Yes, let’s not talk about that.”

Raf frowned. “Can we talk about the Breedlove? Did it weather the storm?”

Grigarius looked up into the sky. He tried to convince himself. “Yes. Captain Martyn elected to sail on rather than turn to collect me. Which was a wise choice. It was well on its way when I lost sight of it.”

Arland’s eyes lowered on him.

“They abandoned you?”

Grigarius shrugged and stared across the swirling waters of the Niogra. “Martyn did the right thing. The sea was rough.”

When he looked back into the glimmering oval, the transport was still studying him. He looked sympathetic.

“You didn’t wash overboard. The pendant did.”

The bear-man sat upright on the rock.

“You,” Raf said, “dived in to save the pendant, knowing how much it meant to Miranda.”

“Lady Snow,” he said.

“Right, right. I apologize. That was too familiar.”

Grigarius brooded over the man’s face. His insight was remarkable. But what was his play? He was a rogue.

“Yes. The pendant went overboard in a swell and I went in after it. Gamba was holding the line, but it slipped.”

Raf took several breaths.

“I was just promoted to lieutenant.”

The bear-man squinted.

“Into the place of a man whose death I caused.”

That was a revelation. Grigarius tried to imagine the board Raf was playing on. An unwelcome sacrifice, like his. But Raf’s sacrifice came with an awkward advantage. The man was confessing to him.

“Wait,” Raf said. “Where are you?”

Grigarius shook his head.

“Heading south on the Niogra,” he said. “To meet up with the Breedlove in Antu. How did you cause this man’s death?”

Raf sniffed and let out a lungful of air. He frowned.

“We were raided by Durban’s men. You know Durban?”

“The rebel captain, yes.”

“I took a potshot outside the volleys. They took a potshot in return, and killed Lieutenant Marian.”

Raf shook his blonde curls, staring at his feet.

“One of Blake’s lead men. Blake promoted me into his place.”

The board shifted in the bear-man’s mind. Arland was genuinely troubled by this promotion. His ambition knew moral boundaries.

“Now,” Grigarius said, “I have been elevated above my lady.”

Raf blinked.

“What?”

Grigarius took a breath. He was moving his piece into vulnerability.

“Snow chose you to hold the other pendant. Lord and Lady only know why.”

Raf nodded. He seemed about to speak. Grigarius set to interrupt him.

“Shut up,” he said. “I was promoted in her stead, by circumstances.”

Raf nodded again, but there was a process in his face.

“I am not happy about that promotion either, Mr. Arland. But, here we are. This is our game.”

Raf smiled.

“I heard you were a master at Saints War.”

Grigarius chuckled.

“That game requires enmity. Our game requires cooperation.”

Raf nodded.

“You need to meet Snow in Antu.”

Grigarius nodded.

“And you need to survive the wilderness.”

The Breedlove slipped into Guaya Bay with six other sails on the waters around. There was no war on, so Martyn elected to keep the Vincentian flag flying. There was so much Lucanian and Metzal navy in those waters that the risk of pirates was negligible.

All this Snow had taken in from the bow while the captain was discussing the course with his lieutenants and Gamba at the wheel. She tried to feel fortunate they were the seventh set of sails. They would enter Guaya Bay, controlled by Margara, then turn south into Jiun Bay, controlled by the Metzal colony of Birabir. They were choosing the people of the Lord over the people of the Lady.

Snow tried to find that intriguing. She tried to work out the politics. She tried to stop staring into the waves thinking of Grigarius.

She found herself still watching the water as the ship was tied up on the dock at Qabak. The scent of grilled meat rose in her nose. Her stomach immediately responded with an un-lady-like growl.

She also smelled the tar and wood of the wharf. She glanced back at Gamba from the bow. He was still standing on the quarterdeck, by the wheel, talking to the captain and his lieutenants. She wished Grigarius was there. He would be with her at the bow.

Snow turned her eyes to the city for the first time. Her chest emptied. White stone and yellow brick climbed up the slope, bright against the blue sky. There were red and purple and blue banners here and there, fluttering in the warm breeze. She saw the light brown cloth of tents on flat roofs. It was warmer there. People would spend time atop their houses, on the flat roofs.

It was charming. She felt herself relaxing a bit. The defiantly bare stone and brick was a pleasant change from the summer whitewash of the dour, black-bricked buildings of the Vincentian colonies. She sniffed for the scent of grilled meat again. There were spices in it.

This was the adventure she had imagined, whether Grigarius was there or not. He was a strong swimmer. Surely, he had made it to land. He was on his way back to Angel Shore, or on a Catarinan ship to Antu.

The ship’s crew disembarked, and she followed Gamba and Martyn to an inn where the tables were outside along the street. She had heard of such a custom in Palais and Barthiz in Coroma. She had no idea the Metzals did this, but it made sense. They lived in warm lands that barely knew a winter.

The tables were low, surrounded by short benches that required them to cross shins under the table.

There was a spicy salad, flatbread, some sort of ground meal, and of course grilled meat. On wooden skewers. She decided to follow Captain Martyn’s lead in how to eat it, as he seemed most comfortable in Qabak. She was unsure how to start, as there were no utensils.

“Did you ever meet Mr. Ruth?” the captain asked Gamba, tearing his bread and scooping up the meal. Snow did as he did. It was nutty and creamy.

“Once,” Gamba said, snatching at the salad in his fingers. That seemed crude to Snow. But, she was on an adventure. When in Matzal—to use the proper Metzali territorial term she had learned from her history lessons in Kingsport as a girl—do as the Metzals do.

“In fact,” Gamba said, “it was here as I was coming north and he was going south.”

Martyn tugged a hunk of grilled chicken from a skewer, chewed it well, and swallowed it. Snow watched the process. He was fastidious in clearing his mouth before he spoke.

He pointed at Gamba with the skewer. “Did you get a measure of the man?”

Gamba nodded. “Somewhat. He seemed happy to be leaving Johannia.”

“For what was he transported?”

“Officially?” Gamba dug into his skewers. “Smuggling. But he had deviancy charges that the governor had dismissed.”

Martyn nodded with a frown. “Deviancy?”

Snow looked up from her fingers, to which bits of salad were clinging. She had not heard much about Virginius Ruth from her father. Parson Booth seemed to have a peculiar grudge against the man. Booth had seen him off at the dock of Angel Shore and shoved a book of scripture into his hands.

“He,” Gamba looked into the warm sky, “was smuggling clothing for well-placed ladies. And…”

His eyes moved from Martyn to Snow and back again. “And trying them on for them.”

“Why?” Snow said, drawing out the word.

Martyn and Gamba looked at each other, then chuckled. The captain put a hand on the table, as if he were placing it on hers to comfort her.

“Some men feel,” he started.

She sat back in her chair, closed her eyes, and waved her hands in front of her. She felt bits of salad fall away from her fingers.

“I think I have it.”

“Are you captain Martyn?” a voice said.

They looked up. There was a Metzal woman standing there beside one of the Breedlove‘s lieutenants. Martyn gave the man a quizzical look. His lieutenant nodded at the woman.

“My name is Taquma Nandan,” the woman said, standing straight in her dark red gown, an elegant yellow scarf draped over her black hair. Her face was placid in a way that told Snow she was not intimidated by Martyn’s rank. She was remarkably beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful woman Snow had ever seen.

Martyn stood and nodded to the bench to his right. Gamba was standing as well as Nandan took her seat. The lieutenant sniffed and stood behind her.

“I have heard,” she said with a nod to Martyn, “from your men that you seek to make contact with the fay.”

The captain scowled up at his standing lieutenant. “My men need to learn to shut their mouths.”

Nandan smiled. “I am glad they have not yet learned that discipline.”

That, Snow knew, was exactly the right thing to say. Taquma confirmed the captain’s misgivings and opened an avenue forward. Snow could see this woman sitting at her father’s table, working through the colonial politics that Snow found so draining.

Martyn nodded his head side-to-side. “What brought you to speak to me?”

Nandan straightened her gown and scarf. “I was delivered to the Emberi as a slave. They were unexpectedly kind.”

Gamba seemed suddenly obsessed with his salad.

She continued: “I found out later that this was because they intended to trade me to the fay.”

“Fay,” Martyn said with a practice calm, “is a Handrian term. I appreciate that, as we are speaking in Handrian, but I am Marchais and I speak Metzal and the Optan of the Emberi. You can use their word, which is the same as the Peyri’s own name for themselves.”

Nandan nodded, her lips pursed in thought.

“You are right. You are on a diplomatic mission and we should use their words.”

“A trade mission,” Martyn said.

She nodded.

“I spent three years among the Peyri in Rafenia. They were also kind to me, considering my position.”

Gamba caught Martyn’s eyes. The two men shared a nod.

“But,” Nandan said, “I escaped from them and made my way back to Birabir.”

Martyn looked intently at Snow. He wanted to gauge if she were taking in the implications.

“I think,” Snow said with a breath, “that this lady would make a productive addition to our party.”

The captain smiled at her.

“At the very least,” he said, “she can prove her worth along the way.” He turned to Taquma Nandan and lifted his glass of tea.

Snow handed her glass to Nandan so she could meet the captain’s toast.

CHAPTER TEN – TO BE POSTED