About a dozen men milled about the deck of the pirate sloop. Standing near the helm, overlooking the whole operation was a man Sapphire recognized instantly from his wanted poster. A worn composition cap bearing the insignia of the Russian Merchant Navy topped his aged grim face. A long deep blue storm coat hung over his frame and fell to his knees, which gave Giorgio Montague, the so-called â€œPirate Admiralâ€, the appearance of a military man of the Old World. He stepped forward, looking intently at the barge off his port bow. He knew that a barge had ferried the raiders escaping Shal-Qaz, though he thought his chances of locating the attackers was slim.
â€œMarkus, give me a head count!â€ Giorgio called.
â€œYou sure? I donâ€™t want any surprises.â€
â€œCraftâ€™s too small for them to be concealing any more than, oh, maybe one person.â€
Giorgio nodded, hoping Markus knew what he was talking about. Slowly the sloop overtook the tiny barge, slowing as they came along side. Several men threw ropes down to it, the two occupants hesitantly pulling them up to the ship. The hapless boat knocked against the Bailerâ€™s hull as three of his best men marched to the ladder. The tiny crew stood on deck, nervously glancing at their captors. Admiral Montague himself strolled to the edge and looked down at the youngsters, glad to see the show of force had had the intended effect.
The boarding party hesitated for a moment. He gave the signal, his command sending a pair of men down the ladder. Once on the tiny ship, his translator confronted the two occupants. To his surprise it was the girl who walked up to him. With a slightly trembling hand she presented him with the ships documentation. He seized the worn piece of papyrus and gave it a quick glance.
â€œSo miss Tossmek Poteryalli, this is your boat?â€ the translator asked in a harsh tone.
â€œYe-yes it is, and Iâ€™m c-captain Tossmek Poteryalli.â€
â€œAh yes, so, Captain, it appears you came into ownership of this craft only a few days ago,â€ he said ominously, â€œIn the port of Shal-qaz. Are you aware of the disturbance there?â€
â€œNo, we have no idea what happened,â€ the boy blurted out awkwardly, â€œUh, I mean, we must have left before that happened.â€
The translator sighed, knowing that something fishy was going on. He grated his teeth in frustration, thinking for a moment.
â€œWhatâ€™s going on down there Andy?â€ Giorgio called impatiently. â€œIs that the one or not?â€
â€œHold on,â€ Andrew, the interpreter retorted.
â€œHurry it along, we canâ€™t delay-,â€ Giorgio began, something catching his eye on shore.
He spun around, spotting a trio of riders slowly passing by. For a moment he stared, convinced it was too good to be true. He grabbed Markusâ€™s spyglass, training it on the middle rider. For a moment she looked straight down at him before hastily looking away. Giorgio grinned, knowing who she was, even from the brief glimpse of her. He shoved the spyglass back into Markusâ€™s hands, the plan of attack already forming in his mind.
â€œM-Marlow, ready the guns; Pauler, bring us in to shore; and Andy, get the hell back up here. Pronto! Weâ€™ve got our best shot at this bitch!â€
His men sprang into action, word of their intended targets spreading quickly. Giorgio leaned against the port side railing, nodding in his targetâ€™s general direction.
â€œIvan, get a landing party together!â€ Giorgio added, still hoping to take Sapphire alive, â€œand try not to kill our little princess.â€
â€œWhich one is our target?â€
â€œThe middle one, I want her alive. Shoot the others.â€
The fuse was lit. Giorgio watched it burn down, nodding at the doomed rider. Then the cannon roared. The shot flew towards the shocked and terrified Hiwei. The round struck her mule, killing the poor animal instantly. The jolt flung her to the roadway.
Horrified, Sapphire jumped from her mount and seized Hiwei, pulling her upright. Hitepshu jumped off his mule to lend a hand just as the creatureâ€™s tail was hit. The panicked mule rushed down the road, his brother following suit. The three stood there for a moment, the air suddenly quiet, as they watched their best hope for escape running away.
â€œWell, uhâ€¦â€ Hitepshu stuttered, looking over his companions with concern.
Another shot flew over their heads causing Hiwei to drag Sapphire to the ground. Hitepshu got the message, falling quickly to earth as the pirates let fly a second volley. They looked at one another, conscious of the smaller boat coming towards shore.
â€œAh, Ah! These must-m-must be those people granddad was scared of!â€
â€œWait for it!â€ Sapphire exclaimed, listening to the sound of gunfire.
â€œGo, weâ€™ve got to go now,â€ Sapphire exclaimed as a second lull in the firing began. â€œTheyâ€™re reloading, go!â€
They made a mad dash for a thicket of trees just off the road. Several arrows slammed into the ground near them, the menacing thuds nearly causing Hitepshu to faint. He staggered the last yard, throwing himself behind the foliage. An instant later Hiwei and Sapphire landed atop him.
The cooling shade and thickness of the trunks gave them enough time to get a better look at their surroundings. Ahead lay the long, raised river road which offered no cover or protection from their pursuers. With the river to their right and the pirates behind them, the only way out was down the embankment and through an orchard. The thin trees seemed to offer little protection, but Sapphire knew there was no other path to take.
â€œThat way, through the trees,â€ Hiwei exclaimed, catching Sapphire by surprise.
â€œUh, yes, what she stated.â€
With the menacing sound of boots and clanking weapons fast approaching, they wasted no time sliding down the short dirt slope before running headlong through the fruit trees. Shouting came from behind them, as did several gunshots. They ran as quickly as they could. After nearly stumbling through an irrigation ditch, Sapphire realized they were almost out of trees.
The three of them emerged into a wide field of harvested wheat, no cover for hundreds of yards in every direction. As they continued to flee through the dried stalks, Hiwei realized there was only one way they were going to make it. She twisted around, pointing her arm towards their pursuers. Through clenched teeth she murmured the incantation, summoning the destructive energy into her palm. When the first grizzled pirate emerged from the trees she let the blast fly.
The spot was instantly set alight, giving the pirates pause. She sent two more blasts towards them, creating a wall of fire. Out of the corner of her eye, Hiwei caught sight of a small house built into the hillside, near the edge of the field. There stood a balding man, staring horrified at his burning field. At the sight of him, she felt a pang of physical pain. For a moment she considered shouting that she was sorry, but realized there was nothing she could offer in words or property that could repay what she had done. Well, maybe one thing.
â€œRUN!â€ She bellowed, the man looking in her direction at the sound, â€œThey will, will kill you, invaders, RUN!â€
The man stared uncertainly at her before turning around and running into the building. Hiwei had a hunch the pirates might check this building for them, or simply for plunder. She stared at the closed door, hoping that he would flee out the back. A flaming arrow whistled past her head, striking the ground a few inches away. Panicked anew, Hiwei sprinted as fast as she could, passing Hitepshu and Sapphire before vaulting over a fence at the edge of the field and arriving breathless atâ€¦another long field.
Fatigued, she stopped to catch her breath, staring disheartened over the long open stretch of open grass. The other two came to a stop next to her, both similarly tired. They looked at one another, the shouting of the pirates still worryingly close. A long green meadow stretched out ahead of them, a small village lying on the far side. For a single moment, as she gazed over the expanse of beautiful flowers, Hiwei thought that if she had to die, this place might not be a bad to do so. An instant later she recoiled from the thought, the determination to live reasserting itself. Though still winded, Hiwei began trudging through the field towards the village.
â€œHey, hey whatâ€™s the name of the town ahead?â€ Hitepshu asked earnestly.
â€œUh, let me check,â€ Hiwei said, straining to read the sign ahead. â€œI think it reads Palatsdurum.â€
â€œWait, wait, Iâ€™ve got an idea; I know how we can escape.â€
â€œThat is indeed good,â€ Sapphire said, glad one of them had an idea.
â€œWe just need to get a little further past the town.â€
They arrived at the edge of the town, Sapphire taking a moment to glace back over the distance they had covered. Fire and smoke had engulfed the field Hiwei had set alight, the blaze so large now that many of the villagers had emerged to stare at the inferno. They looked at it and the people running from the blaze with suspicion and fear. All of them seemed quite glad when the three strangers had gone. Hiwei was glad that at least her fire had delayed their pursuers.
Numerous animals grazed in the field on the other side of Palatsdurum; most seemed uninterested in the people running through their home.Â In the middle of this field stood a large stone structure of some kind, and when Hitepshu saw it he began shouting and pointing. A bit concerned, Sapphire looked from him to the stonework and back again. It appeared to be the ruins of a fortification, the crenellations and remnants of a tower became visible as they approached. She realized that this would be a very bad place to hide, since it would no doubt be the very first place the pirates were likely to check, after the town.
They approached the ruin, Hitepshu ran out ahead, in awe of the site. They arrived outside the ruined gate, the cracked stone and bent tower making Sapphire even more hesitant to enter the place. Her friend, on the other hand, had no such reservations and plunged straight through the crumbling archway, beckoning them to follow. Hiwei and Sapphire exchanged a nervous glance before cautiously following him into the ruin. After passing through the rickety gatehouse the two emerged into the courtyard. The ground was overgrown with weeds and most of the buildings within the walls had collapsed into rubble piles.
â€œUhm, Hitepshu,â€ Hiwei began, looking around for the source of his enthusiasm, â€œI donâ€™t think this is a very good hiding place.â€
â€œOh, weâ€™re not going to hide here,â€ He said with a laugh, â€œDonâ€™t you remember the old rhyme?â€
Hitepshu clearly thought this was sufficient explanation and began poking around the empty doorframes that were still standing, absentmindedly humming a tune as he searched. After about a minute he seemed to settle on the door leading into the ruined keep and pointed excitedly through it.
â€œIâ€™ll bet itâ€™s this one!â€ He announced stepping across the threshold, â€œcome quickly, follow.â€
â€œOk, stop, stop right there,â€ Hiwei ordered. â€œWhy have you led us here? Whatâ€™s so important about this place that we have to waste valuable time searching this ruin? Please explain yourself.â€
â€œExplain? Surely you know the tale?â€ he asked confused. â€œThe brave defenders of Palatsdurum, who held this post against the witches and Warlocks? Who were supplied through the underground aqueduct? Uhm, really, you donâ€™t know the tale?â€
â€œWhat is he speaking about?â€ Sapphire asked, hoping she had misunderstood. â€œHiwei?â€
â€œOh, oh you really donâ€™t want to know,â€ Hiwei sighed, burying her face in her hands.
â€œHuh, guess you really donâ€™t know it then,â€ he said shrugging. â€œI thought we could escape down the aqueduct the story spoke of.â€
With that, he walked through the doorway still humming quietly, leaving Sapphire and Hiwei to ponder their next move. For a moment they remained still, both considering turning back through the gatehouse the way they had come to try to make up lost time. Then Hiwei sighed and followed Hitepshu. She had made a promise to his grandfather and intended to keep it.
The darkened corridor wound sharply from side to side before ending a cavernous room. The hall was filthy; the long, splintered tables were covered in broken bits of pottery and rotting wooden goblets. A large skylight in the centre of the domed ceiling barely let in enough light to view the interior. Not that either of them particularly wanted to do so. Hitepshu was busily clearing some of the debris away, tapping his foot against the floor as he did so.
â€œWhat, oh, never mind,â€ Hiwei began awkwardly, â€œso how close are you to findingâ€¦whatever it is youâ€™re finding, uh, well?â€
â€œThe cover to the cistern should be near the middle of the great hall, er, this hall, rather,â€ he replied, still enthused. â€œThatâ€™ll be our passage out of here.â€
â€œI certainly hope so,â€ Sapphire muttered, looking over her shoulder nervously.
â€œAha!â€ He exclaimed, raising his hand in triumph. â€œHere it is; our path to safety.â€
Relieved, Sapphire and Hiwei walked over to the spot. A wooden covering, dinged and splintered by time, sat in the middle of the floor just as Hitepshu had said. He looked at Sapphire, clearly proud of his find, before giving it a solid kick. To the surprise of only Hitepshu, the thick wooden covering did not collapse with a single blow. As he jumped back in pain Hiwei leaned over the covering to try and prey it loose.
After failing to get a purchase on it, she decided that enough time had been wasted and pressed her hand down on the thing. She began casting the spell, welling up as much energy as she dared before slamming one side with a solid blast. The lid popped off, flying straight up towards the ceiling. They scrambled for cover as the thing came crashing down, landing in a smoldering heap across the room.
â€œWh-what did you do?â€ Hitepshu asked, both impressed and terrified.
â€œI gave it a blast on one side, erm, I gave the magic energy, molded itâ€¦solid sort of, uhm,â€ she said breathlessly, winded by the exertion. â€œHow about Iâ€™ll explain it later, letâ€™s get out of here.â€
Sapphire walked over to the dark hole, looking down into the cistern. All she saw was a black abyss staring back. Unsatisfied it was safe, she turned and grabbed the nearest piece of debris with any weight and tossed it in. The shard made a sickening splooshing sound, which told Sapphire that whatever liquid lay at the bottom would not be pure water. She snapped back towards the entrance, positive a noise had come from outside. She glanced at Hiwei one last time, both realizing that they didnâ€™t have much choice now.
With a final sigh Sapphire stepped over the rim and fell into the depths. It took about half a second for her to reach the liquidâ€™s surface, and another half second to regret what she had just done. The fluid filling the cavernous cistern was seemed to be foul, filthy water, impregnated with a slimy substance that she imagined would haunt her nightmares for years to come. For a few moments she feared she might drown in the stuff, but discovered quickly that the bottom sloped upwards away from the centre. With great effort, she slogged through the effluent before turning back to the dim light high above.
â€œWell, it is a survivable plummet,â€ she called, hoping that was helpful.
â€œWeâ€™d better get a move on then,â€ Hiwei said, bracing herself for the fall.
â€œOh, and, be certain to keep your mouth shut,â€ Sapphire warned, before adding, â€œWhen you hit the water, that is.â€
â€œOh, uh, ok,â€ Hiwei replied hesitantly, deciding to hold her nose.
Cautiously she stepped forward and jumped, splashing down into the muck. Hiwei was glad she had taken Sapphireâ€™s advice to keep her mouth closed. As she paddled away from her landing spot, Hitepshu jumped through the hole and nearly fell on top of her. The two struggled in the dim light, both eventually finding their way to where Sapphire stood. Once regrouped, they began feeling around the perimeter for the entrance to the aqueduct.
â€œIt has to be around here someplace,â€ Hitepshu said confidently, feeling along the walls.
â€œShh, I think I hear something,â€ Hiwei murmured.
All three listened for a moment, holding their breath. They could hear nothing above, and continued their search. It was just as Sapphire began feeling ill that she found a large gap in the wall. She tapped excitedly, hoping not to make too much noise. She felt around inside the gap, realizing it was the right angle for a pipe. The other two arrived behind her, both still trying to see something in the dim light. A loud noise echoed from above, giving them their cue to leave.
Their progress was hindered by the nasty debris that filled the aqueduct. What the stuff was exactly was hard to determine in the darkness, but Sapphire felt several large cracks in the ceiling and guessed some of it might have been from there. From behind them the sound of shouting voices could be clearly heard. Hiwei stole a look back, spotting a light shining down into the cistern behind them. The light snaked across the room before vanishing, a loud voice calling out in a foreign tongue immediately after it had gone.
â€œNope, no one down there, either,â€ Markus shouted, â€œanyone else have a stupid suggestion?â€
â€œHey now, I was trying to help,â€ Andrew countered, â€œso, where does that leave us?â€
â€œAt the end of a wild goose chase,â€ Markus sighed, â€œBetter radio the admiral.â€
â€œEveryone out, to the courtyard, now!â€
The pirates filed out the twisted hallway, glad to leave the unsafe structure. Once outside, Pauler grabbed the mike off the ancient radio set and blew several times to make certain he was getting through. Several crackles from the other end gave him the answer.
â€œUh, Admiral, itâ€™s Markus, over.â€
â€œGo on, over.â€
â€œOh, so, we just finished searching the old fort those locals pointed us to, and nothing. The princess wasnâ€™t in this castle, over.â€
â€œThat is quite disappointing,â€ the admiral replied, â€œVery well, getting to Samek quickly is our top priority. Iâ€™m calling off the search, Markus. Gather your men and head straight to the river. The ship will meet you there. Giorgio out.â€
Giorgio clicked off the radio set, disappointed that Sapphire had slipped away yet again. He strolled past Pauler and looked over his ship, already missing the sway of ocean swells. His eyes narrowed as he looked over at the three Portugese officers strolling about on his deck. The princeâ€™s men had been hard enough when he could deal with them at armâ€™s length, now that they were living on his ship and insisted on talking to him every day, Giorgio was beginning to despise them.
Now all three were gathered round a small table at the base of the main mast, pouring over something they deemed important. Mildly curious, Giorgio walked over to them, hoping to at least be a bother. Their leader greeted him with a grunt, not even turning his head. They appeared to be looking over his very valuable map, something he had told them not to do. He carefully reached to it and pulled it away from them.
â€œI thought I told you not to touch this,â€ Giorgio growled, rolling up the valuable paper carefully. â€œThis is my ship, and you will follow my rules while onboard.â€
â€œReally now? Need I remind you whoâ€™s funning this operation?â€ The officer asked, crossing his arms. â€œWeâ€™re trying to study the area, find where those rebels and Sapphire might have fled to.â€
â€œUnimportant,â€ Giorgio snapped. â€œCapturing Sapphire is of little importance if we donâ€™t make it to Samek before Krauss. That man is the biggest impediment to the plan, and you know it.â€
â€œRudolphoâ€™s plan,â€ the officer corrected, â€œIt was my young master who drew up our strategy. You and your men are a great asset to us, but nothing more than that.â€
Giorgioâ€™s hand strayed towards the hilt of his saber. He flirted with the idea of gleefully hacking the men into pieces. Had he been in his prime, anyone addressing him in such a manner would have died on the spot, destined to feed the sharks. The three men stared at one another in silence for a time. Then he sighed and pulled his hand back, walking back toward the helm; the map firmly in hand.
â€œSir,â€ called Pauler, â€œgot a problem.â€
â€œOh, what is it now?â€
â€œSome of the search party got lost it seems, turned around someplace, or something.â€
â€œOh, bother,â€ Giorgio sighed, unrolling the map for a quick reference. â€œUh, looks like thereâ€™s an inlet just past the next bend, have the ship anchor there for now.â€
As the ship began steering towards the shore, Giorgio looked out towards the north. The vast desert gave him an eerie feeling deep down. He pulled out a small mirror, looking over his lined face and the grey hairs poking out from under his hat. Finding no comfort there, he returned to the stern and looked down the river, watching it meander towards the sea. He leaned against the railing, gazing at the horizon; gazing towards the far off ocean where he belonged.