The sun was touching the western horizon, turning the dark blue of the ocean a fiery orange as Adair entered the courtyard of his mansion situated in the hills overlooking Bastul. All was quiet except for the voices of his son Kael and Ajani, the youngest of the slaves. Ajani was only slightly older than Kael, but much taller. The two were throwing makeshift spears at a nearby tree, and from the look of determination on their faces, it was a competition.
“Hello, boys,” Adair said as he walked up behind them.
“Hello, father,” Kael answered without looking. The boy was holding a spear above his shoulder, readying himself for his next throw.
“I don’t wish to disturb such a fierce competition, but I was hoping that you might know where I could find Saba?”
“He’s gone until tomorrow,” Kael answered.
Adair paused with his hand on his chin. “Well, please continue,” he told the boys with a wave of his hand and walked toward the main entrance of the house. To the right of the stairs, he found Maeryn sitting on a rock ledge which surrounded a broad-leafed tree. She was pruning a flowering bush with her back turned to him. Adair suddenly found a mischievous grin spreading across his face as he decided to sneak up behind her.
“Those flowers just don’t stand a chance at looking beautiful when you are next to them,” he whispered in her ear.
Maeryn jumped at the unexpected sound, spinning around.
Adair couldn’t help the huge smile of amusement that spread across his face.
Maeryn’s startled expression quickly melted. She sprang to her feet and threw her arms around him. “Where have you been? Is something the matter? You left so early!”
Adair rubbed his forehead. “There is always something the matter; never a moment’s rest for me.”
For an instant, a flicker of some emotion crossed Maeryn’s face. Adair had a talent for reading people. It was one of the skills that allowed him to rise so quickly through the ranks to his current position of authority. But sometimes his wife was a complete mystery to him. And now was one of those times. He knew he should ask her what was wrong, but it had been a long day and he wasn’t in the mood for an emotional conversation. “Kael said Saba will be gone until tomorrow?” he asked instead.
“Yes. He left just after dinner. I think he was going to visit a friend. Anyway, he said he should be back before sundown. Are you hungry? I could fix you something to eat.”
Adair smiled. “I’m starving. That would be great!” He knew Maeryn suspected that something was wrong but dinner would be a good distraction. Besides, he couldn’t tell Maeryn what had happened. Especially when he wasn’t sure exactly what had happened himself, or how dangerous the situation might be. Whoever attacked Bahari out at sea was thorough enough to search the beach for survivors, and it wasn’t safe to involve Maeryn at this point.
It was midnight, and there was a slight chill in the breeze coming off the ocean. Adair had been unable to fall asleep and had wasted away the last few hours watching the curtains at the balcony dance in the breeze. Only minutes ago, he decided that the arrowhead wasn’t going to lead him anywhere. Saba was the only one who would be able to make some sense of it and turn it into a usable clue. Unable to bear the boredom any longer, Adair rose from his bed, dressed, and grabbed a cloak before heading toward the guest quarters in the east wing of the mansion. In Saba’s room he found a scrap of parchment in one of the desk drawers and laid it on the desk next to a burning candle. Pulling a quill from its ink pot he began to write.
Something terrible has happened to an acquaintance of mine. I am looking into the matter, but have been unsuccessful in finding any useful information to this point. The only clue that I have thus far is this arrowhead. I leave it in your possession to find out what you can about the people who made it. I have been unable to find any meaning in it and would, therefore, be grateful for any information that would aid me in my searching.
After blowing on the ink to speed its drying, Adair rolled the parchment and tied it with a thread. He slid the arrowhead inside the tube of parchment and left the message on Saba’s writing desk before blowing out the candle and leaving the room.
Even in the early morning hours, the streets of Bastul were busy, though to a lesser degree than during the day. The majority of the traffic belonged to merchants, wheeling their carts down to the docks to be ready for business as soon as the sun came up. Groups of men clustered in the shadows nursing bottles of wine, occasionally shouting at the passersby, offering some meaningless challenge before collapsing from the exertion of raising their voices.
Through it all, no one noticed the silent, cloaked figure that walked briskly through the alleys, keeping to the shadows so as not to attract attention. Adair was heading for the Shipping District, just as the merchants, but for an entirely different reason. He would have preferred to take a direct route, but thought it best to stay out of sight. It is not often that someone of his position goes skulking around in the early hours of the morning. …or, rather it is not often noticed!
Three blocks from the ocean, he came upon a series of small stone buildings that made up the majority of inns and pubs in the city. Adair peered around the corner and could see a few people hanging around in the street. They were either waiting to be the first customers of the day, or else, they were the last ones of the night. Adair glanced behind to make sure that nobody had followed him and when he was assured, ducked down the back alley. All of the business owner’s living quarters faced away from the main street and toward the alley, so Adair walked softly until he found the building he was looking for.
He walked to the appropriate door and knocked softly. When no one answered, he tried again, a little louder this time. The thick wooden door finally opened just a crack, orange candle light spilling from the opening. Adair pulled back his hood just enough to reveal his face to the person inside and the door opened all the way. A short, fat man filled the doorway, waving his hand rapidly for Adair to come inside the house.
After closing the door, the man put a finger to his lips and turned to walk through a low doorway at the back of the house. Once inside the back room he shut this door behind them as well and offered Adair a seat at a small wooden table. The table wasn’t the only thing that was small; in fact, it fit the rest of the room perfectly.
“What’s the occasion?” the man asked, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Why don’t you offer me something to drink, Gursha?” Adair said as he took off his cloak and draped it over the chair before sitting down.
“Sorry,” the large man muttered, and walked out of the room.
While he waited, Adair studied his surroundings as a matter of habit. The table was obviously where Gursha ate his meals, but the walls were lined with shelves stuffed with an assortment of knick-knacks that didn’t appear to be kitchen related. Before he was able to come to any conclusions, Gursha returned, carrying a bottle of wine and two dirty glasses. He set them down on the table and slumped into his chair with a look of exhaustion. Adair waited for Gursha to pour him some wine, but the man was clearly flustered with this meeting and overlooked it completely. Adair wasn’t used to meeting his informants in their own homes, so he felt a little out of place, but obviously not as much as Gursha.
“Thanks,” Adair said, pouring himself a glass instead. “I can see that you don’t prefer to meet in your home, but I can assure you, it will be worth your time.”
A greedy smile spread itself across Gursha’s wide face and then quickly retreated, replaced by a forced look of seriousness. Usually, Adair didn’t have to pay any of his informants. There were other methods of extracting information from people. Some were happy to tell all just to escape the punishment that they justly deserved. Others found themselves in trouble so often that they would do just about anything to have friends in high places. Adair had found that Gursha was a unique case. He ran the pub next door and was a legitimate businessman. But there was a way to get to anyone, and Adair had a special way of knowing people better than they knew themselves. The truth was that the Dockside couldn’t survive on its own. Adair timed his meetings perfectly to coincide with Gursha’s financial troubles and was now in a position of providing the pub owner with a necessary second income, to which Gursha had become accustomed.
“Tell me what you know about a man named Bahari,” Adair said as he took a sip of wine, ignoring the stains on the side of his glass.
Gursha grunted and scratched his chin before his eyes lit up.
“A merchant. Hasn’t been doing well lately…specially this year with the bad growing season and all. He’s in pretty deep with Quartus. Last I heard…took a shipment to Nucotu. Hopin’ to get paid better up there.”
Adair liked what he was hearing so far. “When is he due to return?”
“Should’ve been back a few days ago. Missed his deadline from what I hear.”
“And why do you think that is?” questioned Adair.
“Don’t know. Haven’t heard nothin’.” Gursha’s eyebrows wrinkled as he tried to think of where these questions were leading. “Didn’t have nothin’ to do with it,” he said defensively.
“Well,” he paused. “You say he’s missin’, maybe you think I did sumthin’.”
“I didn’t say he was missing,” Adair corrected. “You did.”
Gursha opened his mouth to defend himself, but promptly closed it when he realized that he had nothing to say. Adair was amused at how easy it was to get this man where he wanted him.
“Look,” Adair offered. “I know you wouldn’t be involved in anything like that. But I want to know, in your professional opinion, why would a man like Bahari not meet his deadline? And think carefully about your answer.”
Gursha looked down at the table while he considered the question. Adair knew that this man had all kinds of information in his head. Most of the time, he didn’t even realize it. You don’t run a local pub without coming in contact with all sorts of people who like to tell stories. But the best way to get information from Gursha was to make him feel as though he is constantly on the verge of losing his precious second income. Fear tended to make this confused man think clearly.
Gursha finally started to speak. “He was doin’ better ‘till this year. Was close to having his debts paid off. Things turned bad. Maybe he ran away.” He smiled as the words came out, pleased with his conclusion.
“However,” Adair countered. “He’s got a wife. And you just said he was close to paying off his debts. He wouldn’t just leave with the prospect of getting paid more in Nucotu.” This line of questioning was really irrelevant. What Adair needed to find out was where Bahari was when he was attacked, without revealing any information of his own.
Gursha returned to his thoughts with a look of determination on his face. Adair thought he looked like he needed a push in the right direction. “What are some other reasons that a man might disappear?”
“Two things,” Gursha responded. “If he got in trouble…” His speech trailed off as the thought got away from him and then returned in another form. “He coulda been drunk, crashed his boat. Course, he wasn’t a big drinker.” He paused in mid-thought, still staring at the table. “If he was tryin’ to get back on time…probably wouldn’t stop to sleep. Coulda fell asleep and wrecked on the reef, people do that all the time.”
Adair’s attention perked up at this news. “Why is that?”
“Well, if he was comin’ from Nucotu, he should’ve stopped early before passin’ by the reef. But if he was in a hurry, he coulda tried to go right ahead through the night.”
Adair smiled as Gursha said these words and pulled a bag of coins out of his cloak, setting it on the table. Gursha was visibly relieved to hear the sound of coins clinking together. Obviously, he was worried that his information wasn’t valuable to Adair.
“Do you have a map that I can look at?” asked Adair.
Gursha’s chair creaked as he leaned back and grabbed a piece of parchment from the shelf, disturbing a layer of dust that seemed to have been accumulating for years. Everything was at arm’s length in the tiny room. “Here you go,” he said and laid the old map in front of Adair.
Adair unrolled it and set his glass in one corner to keep it from rolling back. After inspecting the portion of the map that showed the western shoreline of Bastul, he stood up and lifted his glass, emptying it in one last gulp. He set the glass down and slid the map back across the table.
“Thank you Gursha. It’s always a pleasure.” Adair took the bag of coins off the table and tossed them to the fat man who was still sitting. Gursha snatched the bag from the air with an unexpected quickness.
Adair looked at the tavern owner and waited until he had full eye contact. “As always, I was never here, and we never talked about any of this.”
“Talked about what?” said Gursha, his sense of humor the only thing about him that was finely tuned.
“Precisely,” Adair said and couldn’t help smiling.
Gursha grunted as he rose from his chair and showed Adair to the door. When Adair stepped outside, Gursha glanced nervously up and down the street before shutting and locking the door.
The early morning air was cool on Adair’s face. The lurching of the ocean was mesmerizing and he realized how easy it would have been for Bahari to fall asleep trying to make it back to Bastul to meet his deadline. But the normal shipping routes between the coast and the reef were used regularly and situations like Bahari’s didn’t occur often. Bahari was attacked by someone, but it probably didn’t happen on the eastern side of the reef. Remembering Gursha’s map, Adair wondered if Bahari might have fallen asleep, like Gursha suggested, and missed an important turn just before the northern tip of the reef began, causing him to sail down its western side. There were many strange stories about that part of the sea, folklore mostly, told by drunken fishermen who didn’t have much credibility to begin with. However entertaining the stories of sea serpents might be, it was common knowledge to stay away from that side of the reef. It was also dangerous to sail in that water for no other reason than the sharp coral that could sink a boat in a matter of minutes.
The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. And that was where he was headed. He knew it was hopeless, but he had to follow through with checking out the area. After all, it was all he had to go on. Who knew how long it would take Saba to find out anything useful with the arrowhead, or if he ever would? By then the trail might be cold.
As soon as he left Gursha’s house, Adair went straight to the docks and boarded a small but fast patrol boat, taking a few soldiers with him. If he did manage to run across the people that attacked Bahari, he would need to be able to maneuver quickly and it would help to have experienced soldiers with him. I should be at home, in bed next to Maeryn! But he knew that on nights like these, his mind would race and he would lie awake for hours only to watch the sun rise. This way, at least he was doing something about the situation.
After a few hours of heading north along the shore, the sun began to rise. It peeked over the mountains to the east, only a bright orange sliver at first. The ripples on the water picked up the color and suddenly the whole ocean seemed to glow around them. Within a few minutes, the sun had risen enough to be seen in its entirety above the mountains. The light quickly changed to a pale yellow which illuminated the whole sky and the orange glow disappeared.
As the morning drew on, Adair wondered about the consequences of leaving so suddenly. He had left a message for Thaddius to watch over things for a few days until he could return. But Thaddius wasn’t a soldier, just an official elected to deal with the social issues that the governor didn’t want to deal with, or else, wasn’t able to because of a military absence. Adair held the position of Colonel in Orudan Military, but, as with all colonels, he also ruled over a city and was charged with its protection. Adair found the dual responsibilities taxing and leaned heavily on Thaddius to handle most of the decisions that were not specifically military in nature. He knew that the city would be in great hands for the duration of his short trip, but he was now starting to consider how dangerous this excursion might really be. What if something happens out here and I’m unable to return to Maeryn and Kael? It was too much to think about and he shook his head to make the thoughts go away.
“Colonel,” one of the soldiers called to him from the main deck, breaking the silence. He walked quickly across the deck and climbed the short ladder to the navigational deck where Adair sat under a canopy. “Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, what are we doing out here?”
The soldier was close to Adair’s own average height with dark brown hair. He had a fierce look in his eyes and it was obvious that he was asking not out of a sense of fear for himself, only curiosity, but didn’t want to offend his superior by questioning his reasons.
“I am investigating the death of an acquaintance. He was attacked out near the reef where we are headed.”
After a moment of silence, one of the other soldiers spoke up. “What do you hope to find? If it was pirates, there won’t be any sign of them by the time we get there.”
Adair smiled. “This acquaintance had an arrow embedded in his leg. Our patrols haven’t seen any signs of pirates in years, but more importantly, pirates don’t use arrows. They are not trained in the military arts. Usually, they are commoners who rely on surprise to overtake their victims. These men were soldiers. And if they were not our own men, I would like to know what rogue soldiers are sailing through the waters of the Empire.”
The sun was directly overhead, beating down on the small crew when they reached the northern end of the reef. They were making excellent time and, as the swift boat made its way around the tip and began heading southwest, Adair’s senses began to tingle with anticipation. He wasn’t sure what he would find out here on the ocean, if anything. Part of him expected to sail around for hours, not seeing anything that would give him a clue as to what might have happened. Another part of him, the part that got excited in dangerous situations, expected to meet confrontation. He was prepared if that was to be the case.
Much to his disappointment, the minutes turned into hours, and still there was no sign of what he was looking for, whatever that might be. He watched clouds roll in from the north, covering the sky in a thin veil of gray. The sun slowly crept west and eventually slipped behind the horizon, turning the sky from pale gray to a brilliant purple. Adair had just come to the decision that this trip was a failure and was about to give the order to turn the boat around when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. He scanned the southern horizon, trying to find what had grabbed his attention, but now there was nothing except for a smooth ocean surface.
“Keep your eyes open for anything unusual,” he called to the men at the bow.
A few seconds later, he saw it again, but it was only visible when he didn’t look straight at it. It was a disturbance on the surface of the water; an area where the reflected light from the sunset danced a little differently than it did in the surrounding water. Being a reef area, there were shallow spots everywhere around them, but something was different about this. It wasn’t just a sandbar or a coral shelf.
“What is that?” one of the soldiers asked.
“I’m not sure, but head straight for it,” Adair answered, hoping that he’d gotten lucky.
Are my eyes deceiving me? It seemed as if something was there on the water, but he couldn’t make out any distinct shape. The men on his boat busied themselves with adjusting the sails to make the change in direction, trying to take full advantage of the wind coming from the west. As their sails bulged once again with air, something inside Adair told him that this was what he was looking for and with every second, he was getting closer.
He was just starting to detect a shape in the shimmering water when it began to change. A dark area began to grow on the eastern side of the shimmer. The darkness seemed to emerge from nowhere and finally detached itself, moving to the left.
A ship! Then another appeared on the right side of the shimmer. Suddenly, his eyes found their focus and it all made sense to him. The ships were emerging from behind a structure on the surface of the water. The pale light in the western sky was growing darker with every second, but now that Adair was able to make sense of what he was seeing, more and more details were becoming visible. It was a circular structure with polished metal walls that reflected the surrounding water, giving the illusion that nothing was there. The camouflaging effect was stunning and it wasn’t until the second ship emerged from behind the wall that Adair was able to understand what he was seeing.
The two black ships which had been moving in opposite directions away from the structure, turned north simultaneously, heading straight for Adair’s small vessel. It only took a few seconds for everyone to realize that they were not equipped to handle this fight.
“Colonel?” one of his men asked, sensing danger.
“Head for the reef. They won’t follow us in there.” We’re small enough to maneuver around obstacles and this boat doesn’t run deep. If they try to follow us, they won’t make it out alive.
One of the men pushed on the rudder and the small boat carved a sharp turn to the port side and headed for the reef. The others jumped into action, trimming the mainsail to keep the westerly wind. The larger boats moved from their intended flanking positions to a direct chase and they were closing in fast, but Adair already saw what he had come to find. These people were doing something out here that they wished to keep a secret. Judging by what they did to Bahari, they were willing to kill for it. But now Adair knew of their presence. He couldn’t hide the smile on his face and soon, the other men were grinning as well, with admiration for their superior.
As soon as I get back to Bastul, I’ll bring the fleet back and find out what they’re hiding.
As their small vessel entered the shallow water of the reef area, they slowed just enough to maneuver through the sharp coral, while still maintaining their lead. The pursuing boats, which dwarfed Adair’s boat, came to a stop as they neared the reef. Adair exhaled a deep breath, relieved to be a safe distance away and protected by the coral. Turning his attention back to the difficult task of navigation, he heard a sharp cracking noise from behind.
All the men turned to look back at the large black boats that had positioned themselves with their starboard sides facing the reef. Their silhouettes were barely visible against the sky in the east. Halfway between them and their pursuers, something landed on the surface of the water. Adair squinted just as it skimmed past the prow, leaving a wake on the mottled ocean surface that quickly faded from view.
An unsettled feeling began to grow in his stomach and his heart began to race as he realized his pursuers had projectile capability. The sunset was almost gone now and within a few minutes, there would not be enough light to navigate the dangerous reef. Just as the thought came to him, he noticed the water in front of the boat getting lighter.
“Hard starboard!” he yelled to the men as he pushed on the rudder.
The boat pitched and swerved to the right. Adair almost lost his footing, grabbing the railing for balance.
Another sharp crack sounded as the crew struggled to adjust the sails, hoping to maintain their momentum. Adair turned to see a splash on the rippled surface of the water as another projectile came skipping toward them. Judging by the angle, it was aimed more accurately than the first.
“Brace yourselves!” As the words left his mouth, the middle of their tiny boat erupted in a shower of saltwater and splinters. The jolt knocked Adair off his feet and he rolled across the deck as the boat pitched to the port side and began to fill with water. He clawed at the wood decking to get a handhold, when his eyes settled on the body of one of his crew only a few yards away. The man’s midsection was almost completely missing. It looked as though the projectile went straight through him as well as their boat.
Adair pulled himself to his feet and scanned the boat, trying to get a sense of the damage. Water poured across the deck and the weight was rolling the ship back to its starboard side. The remaining soldiers jumped overboard, abandoning the ship which was nearly ripped in half and sinking fast.
Adair ran to the nearest port railing and dove over the side. The other men were already a short distance away and splashing so loud that Adair could follow them by sound alone. He began to swim east with a steady pace that he could maintain for a long time. At this point, the most important thing is to keep moving. It took only minutes to catch up to the others. They had slowed considerably after using up their energy with panicked strokes. As Adair closed in on the men, he risked a look behind, but the light was gone from the western sky and nothing could be seen. Even their sinking boat was only a slightly darker blot on the water.
Shouting voices came across the water from the direction of the enemy ships and Adair’s heart dropped. He had hoped they would be satisfied with sinking his ship, but it sounded as though he and his men were being pursued.
“Ahh!” one of his men grunted.
We’ve reached the coral. “Try to stay on the surface as much as possible. The water is shallow, but we should still be able to get over it if we’re careful.” Adair tried his best to sound confident for the men, but he was out of his realm of experience. He really wasn’t sure how close the coral grew to the surface, but it sounded good, and at this moment, keeping the men from despair was important.
Adair flipped over on his back and began to swim with a backstroke, keeping his body on the surface. Then he noticed an orange light hovering over the water behind them. A lantern! The flickering glow illuminated what appeared to be six men rowing and several others standing. Whatever hope Adair had of escaping these men, it had just ended. The rowboat was much too fast for panicked swimmers. We’re not going to make it.
“We’ve got to split up,” he called to the others. No one acknowledged him. He repeated his words a little louder, but all they could hear was their own splashing. Adair decided not to risk yelling any louder to the men and veered to the left, taking his own advice instead. He quickly lost sight and sound of the other men, but the orange light continued to move forward. Adair adjusted his own course even more to stay out of the light, turning directly to the north.
“Stop where you are!” The words came across the water to him and for a brief second, he thought he had been sighted. Then he heard shouts, followed by complete silence.
I’ve just lost my crew!
He quickened his pace and continued to swim north. The minutes passed slowly and Adair began to grow tired. After fighting fatigue for as long as he could, he slowed to an easier pace. The glow of the lantern had disappeared. He wasn’t sure how long he had been swimming, but he knew that he couldn’t keep this up forever. Gradually, the sky lightened and he turned to see the moon rising over the eastern horizon. As it climbed higher in the sky, the concealing darkness vanished.
The orange light of the lantern reappeared a moment later. It was only fifty yards away and it looked like they had already spotted him. The rowboat moved swiftly, coming alongside of Adair as he floated in the water. The men standing in the center of the boat were holding bows, stretched taut with arrows ready.
“Climb aboard,” came a raspy voice.
Adair knew it was pointless to resist, though his mind still raced to find a way to escape. Against his instincts and years of training, he swam over to the boat and grabbed the extended hand of one of the rowers.
“That’s it, nice and easy,” the man with the lantern spoke again.
The rower pulled and Adair slid into the boat, rolling over the side and slumping onto his back with exhaustion. The bottom of the boat had a musty smell like it hadn’t touched fresh air in a long time.
The man with the lantern stepped forward and held the lamp over Adair’s limp body. “I already know from your late friends that you are the Captain.”
Captain? Adair was relieved that his men hadn’t told the whole truth. Although the position of Captain evidently gave him some measure of safety, being a Colonel and the Governor of Bastul was something that should stay hidden.
“Yes, that is true,” he replied, sitting up and wiping the saltwater from his eyes. “What do you…”
Out of the corner of his eye, Adair caught a sudden movement. He didn’t even have time to flinch before something hard slammed into the back of his skull and everything went black.
Copyright 2008-2010 by Jason Tesar
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