The fist ray of dawn fell through a small window. Instantly Pahwon Letalâ€™s eyes shot open. He sat bolt upright, nearly toppling out of his hammock. He steadied the swinging cloth, bonking his head against his cricket bat. Carefully he slid to the cold floorboards, and pulled on his linen shirt, wool skirt and boots.
After tightening his belt, Pahwon ducked under the door frame and through the cloth divider into the kitchen. His mother was stooped over the cooking fire, searing potatoes in the frying pan. She turned, surprised to see her son up so early.
â€œMy, my, youâ€™re up early.â€ Isharra mused. â€œAnd completely dressed too. What could be the occasion?â€
â€œFatherâ€™s ship is come in today,â€ Pahwon replied quickly, â€œOught to be here within the hour, uh, so whatâ€™s for breakfast?â€
â€œWell,â€ She said, straightening up, â€œThese are almost done, grab some bread for now.â€
Pahwon grabbed a piece of fresh flatbread and slapped some butter onto the steamy surface. Two bites later it was gone.
â€œGoodness,â€ Isharra commented, placing the pan and a wooden cup on the table. â€œYou seem awfully hungry.â€
â€œNot hungry,â€ he insisted, grabbing for the new offerings. â€œIn a hurry.â€
Isharra looked out the window at the dawning sun and yawned before turning her gaze back to her son Â as he gulped down the coffee. Some of the drink dribbled out the corners of his mouth. Instinctively she walked over to him and dapped at his cheeks with a scrap of cloth. He tried to wave her off, but Isharra was persistent and cleaned his face.
â€œIs that all youâ€™re up to?â€ She asked curiously.
â€œThere, might be something after that,â€ Pahwon said hesitantly, â€œSome of the other boys are going to see the old sword trainer.â€
Isharraâ€™s face twitched slightly, unease entering her gaze. Pahwon scrutinized his mother carefully for several moments. After a minute or so, she walked over to the table and slid the cooked potatoes onto his plate. She then reached for the coin-stash, under the table.
â€œI am going to the market; hopefully before the rush,â€ She turned back to him, â€œyou know how fast those pin-app-lets go.â€
â€œPineapples, Mom,â€ Pahwon softly corrected her.
Smiling, Isharra leaned in and kissed him on the forehead. He looked into her face, which he noticed looked slightly saddened. She turned and walked through the door with a last backward glance. Pahwon stared over the table, light now filling the room. As he slowly drained the coffee his thoughts drifted to his father. He wondered if Prussia was really half a world away, and tried to imagine the size of the world.
His gaze wandered over a small row of figurines arranged on a shelf, wondering if the next trinket would be as amazing as the others. With nothing more to do in the house, Pahwon strolled out the door careful to pull the heavy wood slab until he heard the tell-tale latch clack. Pahwon turned up the street; the white-washed adobe houses gleaming in the early morning sun.
â€œForward,â€ he said confidently, pointing down the road. â€œTo Kassar and beyond.â€
â€œWho are you talking to?â€ Hiwei asked.
He spun around, the short figure of Hiwei before him.
â€œOh,â€ he stammered, staring straight forward, his eyes locked on the top of her head. â€œJust jabbering.â€
She nodded, her black hair bobbing in his vision. Pahwon looked down into her round face, or, would have if it hadnâ€™t been buried in a scroll. Always reading, thatâ€™s how she was.
â€œHowâ€™s the sorcery going?â€ he asked.
â€œMage,â€ She corrected, shaking her head, â€œIâ€™m going to be a mage.â€
â€œItâ€™s all magic stuff, right?â€
â€œSure, but sorcery is destructive, more so, sort of; itâ€™s complicated.â€
â€œUh, ok then.â€
â€œY-youâ€™re certainly up early today,â€ Hiwei said hastily.
â€œFatherâ€™s coming in today,â€ Pahwon replied. â€œI want to greet him as he comes ashore.â€
â€œBetter get a move on then,â€ she said, darting past him.
â€œHey now, where do you think youâ€™re going?â€
â€œSame place as you.â€
â€œEh, ok then,â€ Pahwon said uncertainly, following her down the river road.
The two walked past the twin bridges, past the two story brick court-house and the statue of Dimitriev. They arrived at the dockside gates, Pahwon pulling them open. The guard was not at his post, he noticed, slipping past. The entire port seemed strangely quiet; the river barges nowhere in sight. He made his way past several crate stacks, through an old brick warehouse, before arriving in front of the harbormasterâ€™s office.
The two story brick edifice stood as a remnant of Dimitrievâ€™s days. Its windows were unusually dark; the place giving Pahwon and Hiwei the creeps. The two walked quietly towards the door, glancing nervously up and down the vacant harbor roads. Only a single ship was in the harbor and it seemed devoid of life as well. Pahwon pushed against the door, only to find it was unlocked. A moment later he realized that lock wasnâ€™t broken, it was smashed apart.
Pahwon looked back at Hiwei who seemed as mystified as he was. Cautiously he pushed the door aside, revealing the ransacked interior. Destroyed desks lay strewn over, and several overturned lamps lay on the paper covered floor, their fuel spilling and collecting in oily puddles. Slowly, he surveyed the devastation, eventually spotting something on the left. A single piece of paper nailed there on a post. On closer inspection, it bore the Kassari Royal Seal. Intrigued, Pahwon attempted to read the document. The letters were sloppy and hard to make out.
â€œThe part-no, port, is being put under new supervision, and all current documents are to be turned over,â€ Hiwei read quietly.
Increasingly alarmed, the two advanced into the building, stepping carefully over the broken furniture. The dark room proved hard to navigate, the few beams of light only illuminating some of the obstacles. After stumbling several times, Pahwon heard a noise from up the stairwell. He turned to look at Hiwei who shrugged nervously.
Cautiously he began clambering up the stairs, placing on hand on his wooden sword. The sound became louder, a moaning he thought. He pushed his way into the upstairs room he had never entered before. This room looked less devastated than the downstairs, but there were still plenty of things lying on the floor, including a man. Pahwon and Hiwei rushed forward to the groaning figure, leaning in close to see who he was.
â€œPa-Pahwon, is that you?â€ Muhar croaked, staring dazed through his broken spectacles. â€œWhat are you doing here?â€
â€œOh dear! What happened to you?â€ Hiwei exclaimed, running her hand along his side.
â€œIâ€™ll be fine, just lend me a hand,â€ Muhar replied stubbornly, reluctantly raising his hand.
Pahwon seized the outstretched limb and pulled his fatherâ€™s friend upright. Muhar wobbled slightly, bracing himself against the wall before looking Pahwon over properly. He sighed before gazing back out the window.
â€œYou should leave, like Iâ€™m about to,â€ Muhar said hesitantly, â€œI know what you must have seen coming up here, hah, I heard the crashing myself; but you oughtnâ€™t get yourself mixed up in this.â€
â€œWhat is this exactly?â€ Pahwon pressed insistently, â€œI have seen things going on, things that donâ€™t add up and then to find you here, and this office like this. Something is happening, and I want to know about it.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry Pahwon, but Isharra would kill me if I told her youngest, uh, her son, too much,â€ He said quietly. â€œListen, youâ€™re a smart guy. Just, just pay attention for a little while. Everything might become a little clearer. Now, Iâ€™m going to get some help; think they banged my head pretty good. You two should go back home.â€
â€œIâ€™m an apprentice healer,â€ Hiwei offered, â€œI could-â€
â€œNo, just, no,â€ Muhar insisted turning out the door. â€œTake care you two.â€
With that, harbormaster Muhar stepped carefully past them and slowly slinked down the stairs. After a minute he was gone, leaving Pahwon and Hiwei in an uneasy silence. Out the window a ship could be seen on the horizon. Hopeful once again, Pahwon walked up to the large window overlooking the docks and looked carefully at the vessel. After a few minutes it became clear it was large enough to be his fatherâ€™s cargo hauler. Without hesitation he turned and dashed down the stairs, running through the dockyard.
â€œPahwon, wait up,â€ Hiwei protested, dashing down after him.
Once outside, Pahwon took a moment to breathe in the cool salty air. He glanced back at Hiwei before starting towards the docks.Â As the ship drew closer, Pahwon felt a strange unease. Quickly rethinking his approach, Pahwon dashed into a nearby warehouse overlooking the dock. Once inside, he mounted a ladder and peered out at the ship. Instantly he knew that it was did not belong to his father.
â€œWhat can you see?â€ Hiwei whispered.
â€œUnsure,â€ he mumbled, trying to take in the scene.
The vessel slowly maneuvered into the harbor, the decks bustling with activity. As men onshore rushed out to greet them, Pahwon felt increasing alarm and panic. The men greeting the ship were definitely foreign by their complexion and attire. More distressingly, they were all armed. The ship docked only a few feet away, a group of them forming up before the gangplank.
A sinking sensation filled Pahwon as he tried to think of what to do next. Slowly his gaze turned towards the shipâ€™s flag. The banner only added to the confusion. It was Tuparian, but appeared faded. Feeling overwhelmed, Pahwon slid down the ladder and retreated from the warehouse. Hiwei dashed after him, wondering what he looked so worried about. They reached the gate, the harbor now starting to bustle with activity again.
â€œWait, please tell me what you saw,â€ Hiwei insisted, grabbing Pahwonâ€™s sleeve.
â€œArmed foreigners,â€ Pahwon replied, â€œUnder our flag.â€
â€œW-what? You must be mistaken.â€
â€œNo mistake, armed men.â€
Unable to believe what she was hearing, Hiwei opened her mouth to speak when a loud noise grabbed their attention. A pair of horses galloped out from behind the nearest building, heading straight for them. Hiwei grabbed Pahwonâ€™s arm and dragged him out the gate, the two flattening themselves against the wall. Moments later, the two horses shot out the gate and up river road. Pahwon gulped, starting to regret getting up so early.
â€œWhere do you reckon theyâ€™re headed?â€
â€œCouldnâ€™t say for certain, but, I think I know what teacherâ€™s going to talk about now,â€ Hiwei breathed.
â€œMaybe the old sword trainer and his knights could do something?â€
â€œWorth a try.â€
Pahwon started up the river road, nervously glancing back toward the harbor. A creeping paranoia spread through him. Hiwei broke into a run, overcome by a similar feeling, or so he assumed. Pahwon started after her, closing the distance quickly. Hiweiâ€™s sandals clacked loudly on the cobblestones, the sound spurring him on.
A horse rode into their path, and both dodged quickly around the beast. The stone street turned to gravel as the houses gave way to an open field, the harbor now far out of sight. The two slowed to a walk as the immediate panic subsided. They walked calmly the rest of the way to the hall, passing by a golden field of ripening wheat.
The large, barnlike training hall came into view, standing beside a long field of short grass. Only two people were in sight, both standing by the door. Then Pahwon froze, spotting two horses tied to a nearby fence. Knowing that these might be the two riders from the harbor, he hesitated, thinking about how best to approach unnoticed. While he pondered, Hiwei tapped him on the shoulder.
â€œErr, Pahwon, what are you doing?â€
â€œThinking about how we should approach them.â€
â€œYou mean the people standing out front?â€
â€œThose are Tossmek and Kuhhal, you can tell from her long hair and his red scarf.â€
â€œOh,â€ Pahwon said sheepishly.
â€œLetâ€™s say hello.â€
As they approached, Pahwon recalled the last time he had seen Kuhhal. His shoulder ached just thinking about it. Just as he reached up to rub the spot, Kuhhal snapped his head around and looked right into Pahwonâ€™s eyes. They stared for a moment, Kuhhalâ€™s handsome face partially covered by a tuft of dark hair.
â€œStill hurtinâ€™, eh?â€ He whispered.
â€œYou aimed that pitch at me,â€ he muttered.
â€œNot my fault you canâ€™t hustle.â€
â€œGerr, whatâ€™s going on here?â€ Pahwon asked, looking away.
â€œSomething serious, Zalthed sent everyone home when the messengers arrived.â€ Tossmek said without turning around. â€œThey are demanding something, butâ€¦â€
â€œSpill it, what did you hear?â€
â€œDocuments, I think.â€
Intrigued, Pahwon and Hiwei leaned in and put their ears to the door.
â€œOne last time old timer, if you donâ€™t have them who does?â€ A man growled.
â€œYep, yep, weâ€™ve checked everyone else.â€ A second man chimed in.
â€œI have no idea where they are, why donâ€™t you check with the Town Administrator,â€ their master coldly retorted.
â€œDid that already,â€ the growler said, â€œAnd he didnâ€™t seem to know anything eth-you know what, screw it.â€
A thud echoed inside.
â€œYou southerners are no help at all. Iâ€™ll be back in a day with thirty of my buddies and then weâ€™ll tear through every inch of this place. You better hope we find nothing.â€
At the sound of approaching footsteps Pahwon, Tossmek, and Kuhhal jumped back from the door. They dodged out of sight as two strangers stormed out the doorway. The two men mounted their horses and rode away, kicking up a cloud of dust as they departed. Zalthed emerged into view, his tall muscular frame hunched over from age. He scratched his beard, clearly upset, before looking to either side of the entrance.
â€œDid they notice any of you?â€ he asked, exasperated.
â€œNope,â€ Tossmek confirmed, emerging gingerly.
â€œWe were careful, Master,â€ Kuhhal reassured him.
The four slowly trotted from behind the building, Pahwon looking a bit ashamed. They lined up, Kuhhal looking expectantly at his master. Zalthed straightened himself, and shook his head.
â€œGo, all of you! Return home. I will give my message when all are present at midday.â€
â€œBut, Sir,â€ Kuhhal protested.
â€œAll. Are. Present.â€
Kuhhal fell silent. The elder knight turned and strode back into his hall. Tossmek reflexively walked forward and closed the great doors with a bang. She turned back around, a worried look across her face. A wagon approached from the open plains, clearly heading into town.
â€œLetâ€™s get a ride back,â€ Pahwon suggested, breaking the silence.
The other three nodded. They raced towards the vehicle, waving their arms. The driver stopped, and when pressed for a ride refused. Clearly bothered, he left the three of them to walk the back into town. So, they turned down the road and began the trek back into the city. Pahwon and Kuhhal turned to Tossmek.
â€œSo what else did you overhear?â€
â€œRight, those men were after some papers, something about Fort Durus.â€
â€œDurus?â€ Kuhhal retorted. â€œThe old fort near Samek?â€
â€œOh, something about the town Administrator,â€ she added. â€œI think he was being replaced.â€
â€œHim and the Harbormaster,â€ Pahwon murmured.
â€œWhat was that Letal?â€ Kuhhal said stopping. â€œHarbor what?â€
â€œWe found the Harbormaster, Muhar, badly beaten,â€ Hiwei explained.
â€œWorse, the whole place was ransacked. Broken chairs and desks everywhere.â€
â€œProbably by the armed foreigners,â€ Pahwon said, â€œReckon there were fifty of them, all sailing under our flag.â€
â€œWhoa, whoa, whoa, armed foreigners you say?â€
â€œI know, something is terribly wrong.â€
â€œAlright, we need to get to the bottom of this,â€ Tossmek said firmly.
â€œActually, I need to get to my lesson,â€ Hiwei said bashfully, checking the sun. â€œI-Iâ€™m sorry guys, Iâ€™m late.â€
â€œSuit yourself,â€ Kuhhal said, turning to the others. â€œYou two, weâ€™re going to the administratorâ€™s office.â€
â€œI-Iâ€™ll try and get meet back with you later,â€ Hiwei called, breaking into a run.
â€œSure, see you then,â€ Pahwon said, feeling strangely uneasy.
â€œLetâ€™s get a move on then. Come on Letal, faster.â€
Pahwon picked up his pace, the three hurrying to the old bridge. On the far side stood a few old buildings, a statue of Dmitriev standing in the far square. The orphanage, the office, and a few other buildings huddled there across the river, surrounded by long fields of shorn grass. They crossed over as quickly as they could, feeling exposed on the structure.
Once across, they marched up to the administratorâ€™s office, which had seen better days. The door laid ajar, several ax holes hacked around the now missing knob. What could be seen inside resembled the harbormasterâ€™s office, though none approached to close. A breeze swung the door partially closed, a paper sign nailed to the front. Kuhhal pushed forward and attempted to read it, but after several embarrassing seconds Tossmek pushed him aside and gave the notice a once over.
â€œItâ€™s closed,â€ she said quietly, â€œand the old administrator has left.â€
â€œSurely it says more than that,â€ Kuhhal said uneasily.
â€œThereâ€™s more written, but thatâ€™s the gist of it.â€
â€œDoes it mention the destruction?â€
â€œNo, though the hand writing is very sloppy, which might be connected.â€
â€œHey, that might be connected too,â€ Pahwon said quickly, pointing back over the bridge.
Across the river was a large gaggle of men marching up river road. Though far away, it was clear these were more of the foreigners. One, near the front of their pack, held their black banner aloft.
â€œWhat now?â€ Pahwon asked, turning pale.
â€œRight, we should go into the orphanage; thatâ€™ll be a better vantage point anyway.â€
â€œWeâ€™ll do that then,â€ Kuhhal retorted, â€œAnd not because you told us.â€
The three walked up to the door, where Pahwon was struck by an idea.
â€œIâ€™ll keep a look out from down here,â€ he said quickly. â€œMaybe Iâ€™ll see some things you wonâ€™t.â€
â€œRight, just donâ€™t get caught,â€ Tossmek said, relived there was one less person to vouch for.
â€œThanks for the advice.â€