The setting sun dipped below the peak of mount Rinittu, casting a long shadow over the three travelers as they trudged along the river road. Sapphire in particular was pleased at the relief from the heat and smiled as she deftly stepped over the broken cobblestones. Hiwei stumbled several times, looking over the river for any sign of Tub. As they rounded the base of the mountain, the outline of Samek came into view. They passed under the bows of cultivated trees which lines the road on both sides.
Once on the west side of the mountain, the road ahead went up a steep incline to the Great Spanâ€™s approaches. It was near at the base of this incline that Sapphire stopped, bringing all of them to a stop as well. She looked at the bridge, slowly taking in the whole span before finally staring at Fort Durus. As she paused, Hiwei and Hitepshu began glancing around as well, both feeling a bit nervous. After a minute or so Sapphire took a step back and leaned against a nearby tree, closing her eyes for a moment of thought.
â€œUhm, Sapphire? Hiwei said nervously, tapping her lightly on the shoulder. â€œWhy are we stopped?â€
â€œThe bridge shall be guarded, those guarding it shall be peering for me, for Giorgio has beaten us here.â€
â€œHuh, youâ€™re probably correct. So, how to we get to the city then?â€
â€œI do not know,â€ she admitted slowly, â€œI had desired to bypass the bridge by boat, but that boat paddled away, so to speak.â€
â€œOk, so, whatâ€™s our plan now?â€ Hitepshu asked insistently, â€œI really need to reach Sippiru.â€
â€œI just spoke that I did not have a plan,â€ Sapphire replied, â€œHmm, we could try swimming.â€
â€œNot a chance,â€ Hiwei said shaking her head, â€œthe currents at the Great Dossiger Fork are far too dangerous. Perhaps we could simply bluff our way across the bridge? I mean, we might get lucky.â€
â€œI, I do not reckon we can bluff our way across,â€ Sapphire said flatly, â€œHowever, uh, I think I might have an idea of how to get these across.â€
Sapphire pulled a fist full of papers sheâ€™d snatched and brandished them at Hiwei. She took the water damaged, torn, and barely legible papers and examined them for a few moments.
â€œShamus needs those,â€ Sapphire said, â€œI hid the Kieven language copies on Tossmekâ€™s barge, but I canâ€™t be sure those reached him. But, if we can get Hitepshu across the bridge, I am certain these will reach him.â€
â€œJust how are you intending to get him across?â€
â€œWhy, all three of us walk across the bridge,â€ she began.
â€œOk, with you so far,â€ Hitepshu said encouragingly.
â€œThen Hitepshu will run to the guards claiming we were holding him hostage,â€ Sapphire continued. â€œConfused, they will allow him into the city. The commotion on the bridge will get the attention of one of Shamusâ€™s men, who will contact Hitepshu.â€
â€œUh, um, ok,â€ Hiwei stammered, â€œWhat about you and me?â€
â€œWe shall become captured, and wait in the dungeon of the fortress for Shamus to take over the fort,â€ Sapphire finished, stunning Hiwei further. â€œWell, I uh, I never said it was a good plan.â€
â€œUhhhhahahahah, no, you didnâ€™t. Is-isnâ€™t there another way across?â€ Hiwei asked exasperated. â€œANY other way across?â€
She looked at Sapphire and then to Hitepshu, hoping someone would have a new plan. Hitepshu shrugged and then accepted the bundle of papers, sliding them carefully under his shirt. With the sun dipping low over the horizon Hiwei thought of an idea at last.
â€œWait, wait, I have an idea,â€ she said quickly, waving her arms to make absolutely certain she had everyoneâ€™s attention.â€We could do that night time crossing thing, extinguish the lamps and rush across; the same way we did at the bridge near Shal-Qhas.â€
Sapphire paused, casting her gaze to the setting sun. That bridge had had only a handful of skittish guards, and was half the length of this span. Still, she thought, it would not be too long before nightfall. The thought of avoiding capture was enough for Sapphire to settle down against the tree and wait for a time.
â€œHmm, I suppose it is worth a try.â€
â€œGood,â€ Hiwei said relieved, â€œso, now we wait.â€
â€œOk, so what do we do in the mean time?â€ Hitepshu asked, before supplying his own answer. â€œOh, Iâ€™ve got a story.â€
As the sun set, Sapphire and Hiwei were treated to the thrilling tale of Hitepshuâ€™s grandfather and how he single handedly rescued King Dimitriev from the clutches of his enemies. When he began recounting how his grandfather fought an entire army while Dimitriev received aid, Hiwei kindly stopped him by pointing out the sun had set.
â€œSorry, family history can get me going.â€
â€œYeah, I can imagine,â€ Hiwei said laughing, wondering if anything he had just heard was true. â€œSo, to the bridge then.â€
As they began the one way trek towards the bridge, Hiwei turned to Sapphire and decided to ask her something she had wanted to for some time.
â€œSo, uh, Sapphire, Iâ€™ve been wondering something. Why are you doing this?â€ She paused for a moment. â€œI know why Iâ€™m going, but, I mean, what do you get out of this, if you will pardon the phase.â€
â€œI owe Shamus a great deal,â€ Sapphire said quietly, â€œI, I,-I do not have an easy answer to that, when we make it to safety, then I shall tell you.â€
Hiwei fell silent, nodding. The three of them made their way up the incline before making one last turn and walking onto the great spanâ€™s approaches. They stood still for a moment, the glowing windows of fort Durus looming over their prospective path. Hitepshu took the decisive step forward, walking boldly onto the bridge and down the roadway. Sapphire hurried to catch up, spotting something she hadnâ€™t expected. The entire bridge was lined with lamps, at least twenty on each side, forcing a slight rethinking of their tactics.
Fortunately there appeared to be only about half a dozen guards patrolling the length of the bridge, perhaps because the pirates assumed no one would be dumb enough to try and cross a span next to a large fortress. Walking as close as she dared to the light, Sapphire sent a wave of cold air through the night, extinguishing a number of the lamps around her. This immediately attracted the attention of the nearest guard.
â€œUgh, hey, send for some oil, the lamps have gone out again!â€ the guard called exasperated.
â€œOk, here is what is about to happen,â€ Sapphire frantically whispered. â€œI am going to run up and bonk that man on the head, then when they all chase me, run over the bridge.â€
Before any of them could protest Sapphire dashed forward wielding a baton of ice and smacked the surprised guard over the head just as she had explained. His cries of pain instantly attracted the other guards, who spotted the blue haired foreigner immediately. Sapphire charged at them, sending forward a blast of cold air. Many of the lamps were extinguished in the gust and for a moment it looked like the five guards would break and run.
Then they all brandished their sharp spears and advanced down the bridge, which Sapphire had hoped they would not do. Thinking fast, she lunged towards them before jumping to the side at the last second. With a final gust she extinguished the remaining lamps, but now found herself quite tired. One of the guards lighted a lantern and all five formed up around Sapphire hemming her in. As she backed up to the railing, Sapphire spotted Hiwei and Hitepshu slinking past the guards in the veil of darkness. Unfortunately, in that darkness they bumped into another guard.
â€œWhat the, hey, who is that?!â€ The man called, recoiling back.
â€œSay what?â€ the guard with the lantern called, spinning around. â€œAhk, more of them!â€
The light fell on Hiwei and Hitepshu who broke into a run. In an attempt to draw the guardâ€™s attention one last time, Sapphire threw the ice chunk she was holding, smacking the lantern out of the manâ€™s hand. This had the desired effect of giving her accomplices an extra second. Surrounded, she flirted with the idea of surrendering, but decided against it. Instead she stepped up onto the railing and jumped backwards into the river below. It took about half a second of staring into the dark abyss below for Sapphire to regret her decision.
Down she plummeted, splashing into the dark river. Though the cool water was at first a relief, the strong current soon put Sapphire back into a panic. She quickly surfaced and for a moment tried to fight against the riverâ€™s pull. Then it dawned on her that in the darkness she had no idea which way to swim. Tired, she lay back and concentrated on keeping her head above water; allowing the mighty Dossiger to take her to her next destination. After a time she washed ashore, the gritty texture rolling across her back. She stood up in the shallows, looking around for direction. The lights coming back on over the river were surprisingly close.
Cautiously optimistic, Sapphire walked up the shore, finding herself in a rundown area of the city. After picking her way through the gaps between buildings and over several refuse piles, she emerged onto something akin to a street. It took only a moment before a bright light blinded her, the sound of approaching bodies filling her ears. The blow landed across her forehead and Sapphire saw stars. Dazed from the blow and tired from the swim, she could offer little resistance to her captors. Soon her vision cleared and she found herself nearly back were her ill-fated swim had begun.
Sapphire was back at the end of the Great Span, standing before the great tower of Fort Durus. At the base of the tower stood a large open doorway which many soldiers and a few pirates now marched around, many more searching down the bridge. Two others stood shackled before her, their faces pale. Sapphire tried to reach towards them, but found her own hands bound tightly in iron manacles.
â€œI, Iâ€™m sorry,â€ Hiwei said quietly, her words almost lost amidst the pirateâ€™s racket.
â€œNo, no,â€ Sapphire said softly, unable to think clearly.
â€œSo, what do we do now?â€ Hitepshu asked.
â€œWhat was that young man?â€ Demanded a cold voice.
The crowd parted, allowing two figures to pass through. The grim visage of Giorgio Montague came into view. In his hands was the prize Sapphire had risked so much for. At his side was his sneering translator, who smiled mockingly at Hiwei and Hitepshu as they walked past. Giorgio sighed, walking right up to Sapphire and brandishing the parchment.
â€œSo, Miss Sapphire, we meet at last,â€ he said calmly, â€œI hope your little adventure was worthwhile, because you are going away for a long time, your highness.â€
â€œHeh, as though you could frighten me more than my own family,â€ she spat. â€œSo, what do you intend on doing to me?â€
â€œHonestly I havenâ€™t given it much thought,â€ Giorgio replied, â€œAn interrogation is in order, to be sure, but after that Iâ€™ll just hand you over to the Portuguese and leave you to their tender mercyâ€¦after the lazy bastards arrive, of course. Err, frankly I couldnâ€™t care less what happens to you, Iâ€™m far more interested in a nice payment and an easy retirement.â€
â€œSir,â€ One of his men called, â€œShall we kill these? I doubt they have any useful information.â€
He gestured to the other two prisoners, causing Sapphire to cry out. She pulled on her restraints, her mind unable to accept what she had just heard.
â€œNo, no, that might upset our hosts unnecessarily,â€ he replied hastily, eying the numerous government troops around them. â€œThe dungeon should hold them well enough.â€
With that, he snapped his fingers, directing the three prisoners through the doorway and into the impenetrable Fort Durus. They marched through a short entry hall and into a large circular interior space. A long spiraling staircase ran along the walls, terminating above them on the towerâ€™s second deck. Sapphire took in everything, knowing that all this information would aid in their escape. Another well protected door stood against the opposite wall, probably leading into the courtyard.
Just before they reached this door, Hiwei and Hitepshu were instead led down another set of stairs into the towerâ€™s basement. Hiwei squirmed, forcing two additional guards to grab her by the shoulders to keep her in line. She stole one last terrified looked at Sapphire before her head vanished down the stairs. Sapphire, however, was led up the stairs instead, to a room on the second floor. Loopholes ringed the floor, with numerous crates and barrels stockpiled in the centre. A short barrel was brought out upon which Sapphire was seated.
Giorgio took a seat on a sturdy old crate across from her, looking quite triumphant. A line of about ten pirates took up position around her, readying their muskets. In a small way this heartened Sapphire, since the pirates clearly thought of her as a significant threat. Not that she could actually do much with her hands secured, but the sentiment was nice nonetheless. For a time they simply stared at one another in the flickering candlelight, the admiral hunching down slightly to look right into her eyes.
â€œSo your highness, Iâ€™m curious, what are you doing here?â€
â€œThese papers you stole, do you even know what they are?â€ Giorgio demanded, brandishing one of the sheets at her.
â€œUh, they are-.â€
â€œA supply requisition, or so my translator tells me,â€ he said, answering his own question. â€œOh, and a few personal letters.â€
â€œAh, thatâ€¦thatâ€™s interesting,â€ Sapphire stammered, waiting for a response. â€œI, Iâ€™m here to meet with Shamus.â€
â€œBah, the hell you are,â€ Giorgio spat, â€œHeâ€™s a businessman, not a general. No doubt some of his security personnel are here and perhaps a few mercenaries, but that man wouldnâ€™t set foot near a war zone. However, you were coming here to meet with his men; which means you must know where they are hiding.â€
â€œWell, as a matter of fact Iâ€™m not sure where they are,â€ she said hesitantly, â€œthere was to be a rendezvous near the centre of town, but they were going to find me.â€
â€œPoppycock, nobody walks into an occupied city unless they know where a safe house is,â€ he exclaimed, shaking his head. â€œNobody, nobody is thatâ€¦unprepared, uhâ€¦â€
Giorgio trailed off, looking over at his translator. For a few moments he considered the dayâ€™s events, and then thought back to the incidents along the river. Something was not adding up. He examined Sapphire, considering that he might have been overestimating his opponents. He stood, and the guards pounced on Sapphire and pulled her to her feet as well. With a wave of his hand they were off, back down the stairs and then into the dungeon. A feeling of doom crept into Sapphire as they passed through the darkened archway and into the towerâ€™s dank underbelly.
They spun around, so to speak, at least once during the decent before coming to a halt in a large holding room. The layout of the long caged rooms and architecture of the walls gave the impression of a secure armory rather than a dungeon. Sapphire poured over the room, the hefty iron bars running floor to ceiling and double-gated entries added to her growing despair. She was led through a one of the gates, Hiwei staring blankly through the cold bars. Sapphire was forced into the cell opposite her, the door loudly slamming shut. Before she had gathered her senses Giorgio entered the room and stood between the two cells. After looking back and forth several times he confronted Hiwei.
â€œGirl,â€ he said through his translator, â€œwhat was the cause of the Qarrahum insurrection? Was it this woman?â€
â€œNo,â€ Hiwei said on the verge of tears, â€œit was, was, was something-.â€
â€œHow did you escape after losing your mounts?â€
â€œIt, it was a rhyme-.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€ he demanded.
â€œHitepshu, he remembered an old story, that, that helped us escape.â€ She explained, not seeing the point in lying.
â€œSo then, you did not intentionally delay us in Qarrahum, or force us to stop and search for you allowing a saboteurâ€¦but then, huhâ€¦â€ Giorgio trailed off, realizing it had all been coincidence and luck.
He had not been playing a game of chess against Kraussâ€™s agents. It was just a small group of desperate locals hoping they had found an ally. There was no planned insurrection, no plot to sink his ship, no grand escape plan, and no coordinated attempt to lure him from the fortress and waste men chasing down the two lowlifes who had attacked one of his patrols earlier in the day. And most critically, no clever theft of vital intelligence. There was only a group of incompetent fools who had gotten lucky
As all the events of the past few days lined up in his head, Giorgio looked down at the captives and felt a small amount of pity for them. Mostly though he felt relief knowing that the entire north fork of the River Dossiger was not about to rise up in rebellion. With a sigh, he left the dungeon, posting ten guards at each door and another four to patrol the main aisle. Incompetent they might be, he thought, but they still posed a threat. He knew that somewhere in the surrounding city some of Kraussâ€™s men plotted.
â€œFort Durus is the key to Samek,â€ he told himself quietly. â€œThey will come here and soon.â€
As he stood in the courtyard, Giorgio Montague looked up toward the stars. The small of salt was missing from the air, the calming gentle waves of the ocean-sea. How he longed to sail back down the wretched river and return to where he belonged.