The heat of the midday beat down on the loading docks as the last of Kraussâ€™s supplies were loaded onto the Tub. Pahwon shifted the crate into place, glad to be rid of the load, before straightening up and putting his lucky cap back into place. Tossmek sat against the tiller, watching the proceedings. As her crew got everything in order, she turned to the disheveled looking Shamus Krauss.
â€œGot everything youâ€™ll need lass?â€
â€œYes, I think so,â€ Tossmek replied, looking over her well stocked barge, â€œHiwei, think we could fit anything else onboard?â€
â€œI doubt it,â€ she said quietly, dangling her feet off the bow. â€œI hope weâ€™re not weighed down too much.â€
â€œSo, Mister Krauss, where do you think youâ€™ll be heading next?â€ Pahwon asked, slinking around the crates.
â€œI suspect theyâ€™ll ship me back to Al-Ness-Mah, for my own safety of courseâ€¦â€
â€œIn that case, would you take this with you?â€
He pulled out a rolled up piece of papyrus and held it out. Shamus took the scroll, knowing it had to be important. He read the name scrawled across the top before carefully placing it inside his jacket. From the other side of the docks appeared a familiar figure. Sapphire approached the ship, blushing at the sight of Pahwon.
â€œWell, get onboard please,â€ Tossmek called, â€œwe need to get a move on.â€
â€œYeah, ok,â€ she said quietly, stepping over the gunwale.
â€œAw, I hoped you might stay here,â€ Krauss said a bit disappointed. â€œOh, I know why youâ€™re going though, lass.â€
â€œI shall return soon Shamus.â€
â€œI hope so,â€ he murmured, untying the last line. â€œYou keep safe now, all of yuh.â€
With a little push the Tub was underway. She floated out into the river, Hiwei and Pahwon unfurling the sail. The gentle breeze began pulling them away from the dockside and towards the riverâ€™s centre. As they sailed away from Samek, Tossmek guided the Tub out of the main current and up the mighty Dossiger. After awhile, the great city faded away; the sprawl giving way to farmlands and rolling hills. The wide river spread out before them, the current slowly dissipating across its breadth.
The vastness of it all gave Tossmek an odd sensation. She gazed westwards, feeling the wind blowing at her back and the gentle rocking of the boat. For a time she took it all in, feeling relaxed and at home. As she looked around, her gaze fell on Pahwon. He busied himself sharpening his saber, leaning against one of the empty crates. After a minute, Tossmek realized she had been staring at him non-stop. She shook herself, refocusing on the task of steering her ship.
â€œHey, Hiwei,â€ she called, â€œcome and take the tiller for a minute.â€
â€œWhatâ€¦oh, are you sure?â€ Hiwei asked nervously, â€œIâ€™ve never steered a boat before.â€
â€œRight, so this is as good a time as any to learn.â€
Hiwei approached apprehensively, unsure if this was a wise idea.
â€œRight, so straighten her out a bit,â€ Tossmek said patiently, â€œcompensated a little too much there, just take it easy.â€
â€œIâ€™m not really feeling comfortable doing this.â€
â€œYouâ€™re doing fine; just hold course while I adjust the sail and take that curve gently. Hey, Pahwon, give me a hand.â€
Tossmek quickly adjusted the sail, making note of the upcoming curve in the river. Then The Tub began drifting in the river. It rocked slightly, though the river seemed calm. She turned and looked over at the tiller, seeing the nervous Hiwei trying to keep them on course.
â€œEase it, Hiwei, she isnâ€™t running up the river.â€
â€œCould you take the tiller back, please?â€ Hiwei asked, the Tub starting to drift into the current.
â€œRight, maybe I should be steering for now.â€
Hiwei gratefully relinquished the tiller and walked back over to the bow of the ship. Back on her perch, Tossmek put them back on course with a few deft pulls. The river bend was fast approaching. It was then that she spotted a small wisp of smoke rising from the north bank. She considered the sight for a few moments, wondering if their journey might already be over.
â€œHey, you see that?â€
â€œWhat are youâ€¦Oh, the smoke,â€ Hiwei said, â€œThat might be where he camped for the night!â€
â€œOr is still lingering,â€ Pahwon said hopefully.
â€œProbably worth checking, at least,â€ Hiwei said thoughtfully.
â€œUh, how do you know it is not a local who set the fire?â€ Sapphire asked quietly.
â€œBecause itâ€™s on the north bank,â€ Tossmek replied.
â€œWhat do you mean by that statement?â€
â€œOh, right, I suppose you wouldnâ€™t know,â€ Tossmek said, â€œalong time ago, back when Dmitriev was king, a nest of Black Magic wielders took residence deep in the interior of Tuparium.â€
â€œHe battled against them,â€ Pahwon added, â€œbut the best he could do was keep them south of the central desert and north of the Dossiger. For the most part, that is.â€
â€œI believe theyâ€™re all gone now,â€ Hiwei assured her, â€œbut, so are almost all of the people who lived north of the river.â€
â€œBut wait, Qarrahum and a few other places are north.â€
â€œWell, people have been returningâ€¦though the Qarrahum you saw wasnâ€™t the first city built thereâ€¦â€
â€œAnyway, thatâ€™s all in the past now,â€ Hiwei said, hoping to change the subject. â€œThe point is there is now no longer any danger in landing on the north shore. None, at allâ€¦â€
An odd silence fell over the Tub as Tossmek steered them around the river bend, soon rounding the hillock and coming within sight of a rotting dock. The old wooden structure stood out like a sore thumb, instantly becoming their target. Tossmek began to slow them down and they gently crunched into the rotting wood. Two hills stood high above them, a small collection of buildings nestled between them, which seemed to be where the smoke was rising from.
Hiwei cautiously stepped off the boat, the planks making an unnerving noise beneath her feet. Pahwon followed her, dragging a line with him. He and Tossmek tied the boat off as quickly as they could, though neither trusted the timbers much. Tossmek was about to disembark when Sapphire spoke up.
â€œUh, perhaps one of us should remain here, on the boat?â€ she suggested.
â€œYeah, thatâ€™s probably a good idea,â€ Hiwei said quietly. â€œTossmek, you ought to stay, itâ€™s your boat.â€
â€œRight, that makes sense,â€ she said nodding. â€œPahwon, you stay here tooâ€¦in case I need some help getting back here.â€
Pahwon nodded, stepping back onboard. Sapphire looked at Hiwei who appeared quite nervous. Dispite this, she followed Sapphire onto the shore. It was a short walk to the village above; though the closer they came, the slower they approached. There were about twelve buildings remaining in the ghost town, large holes washed through the adobe walls allowed the emptiness to be viewed more easily.
In the centre of town was a dry well, the smoke trail emanating from a few embers within. With dark openings surrounding them, all decided that lingering was a bad idea. Sapphire quickly checked the area, discovering where the fire starter had slept. A small imprint remained by the makeshift fire pit.
â€œNo one would sleep out in the open,â€ Hiwei murmured. â€œNo one, who knew history, that is.â€
Satisfied, they bid a hasty retreat back to the Tub. Sapphire cracked one of the planks, knocking the mooring loose. Panicked, she jumped onto the boat, nearly toppling into the river. Tossmek quickly steered back towards the safety of the opposite bank. After making several course adjustments, she decided it was time to move the sail again.
â€œPahwon, hey, you take the tiller for a minute.â€
â€œAlright captain,â€ he replied, hopping over to the steer.
With the boat in good hands, Tossmek turned the sail into the windâ€™s new direction. Once satisfied they were going fast enough, she settled down on the deck, happy to let someone else steer for awhile. The shadows grew longer as the sun dipped low on the horizon. Tired, Tossmek pulled supplies out of the stash knowing she would need something to keep herself awake all night. As she pulled out the bag of beans, it occurred to her that they hadnâ€™t planned how they were going to keep sailing constantly. The pirate had a dayâ€™s head start, Tossmek thought to herself as she crushed the beans, but they had to stop.
â€œHey, I just thought of something,â€ she said quietly to everyone, â€œsince the pirate has to stop for the night every night, perhaps we could stay moving and catch up to him. Weâ€™d have to sleep in shifts, though.â€
â€œOk, that sounds like a good idea,â€ Hiwei said yawning, â€œIâ€™ll take the first shift asleep.â€
â€œMe too,â€ Pahwon added.
â€œI as well,â€ Sapphire concluded.
â€œGreat,â€ Tossmek said sighing.
â€œIâ€™ll stay up,â€ Pahwon said quietly.
â€œThanks for that.â€
Soon the sun had set, and half the crew had adjourned for their long naps. Tossmek sighed, taking a long gulp of coffee.
â€œWell, Pahwon, I guess itâ€™s just you and me now.â€
â€œYeah, I suppose it is,â€ he agreed, letting out a yawn, â€œCould you get me a cup too?â€
â€œOf course,â€ she replied, pulling out the water jug. â€œOh, and Pahwon; I appreciate you staying up with me.â€
â€œNo problem,â€ he said, â€œIâ€™m glad to be withâ€¦.be up with you.â€
She smiled, handing him a steaming mug. Pahwon took his mug, keeping them on course with one hand. Tossmek pulled out the lantern, holding it out over the bow to light the way forward. For a time they simply sailed in quiet, listening to the soothing sound of the waves lapping against the hull below them.
â€œSo, Tossmek, what do you think youâ€™ll do afterwards?â€ Pahwon asked slowly.
â€œYou mean, after we get the messenger? Well, Iâ€™ll start hauling cargo. Probably rubber, the Prussians seem to be mad over the stuff, so there will be a need for quite a few transports.â€
â€œHmm, but the with the expansion of Prussian industry theyâ€™ll probably need much larger transports to keep the prices economical,â€ Pahwon commented, â€œmy dad told me of huge Union transport ships, much larger than even his schooner.â€
â€œMaybe not rubber then,â€ Tossmek said thoughtfully, â€œthe distillers in Samek are also an option, once they get going again.â€
â€œPerha-ha-haps,â€ Pahwon replied yawning. â€œProbably be in high demand after the central distillery in Kassar was shut down.â€
â€œYeah, kind ofâ€¦â€
â€œLet me take the tiller then.â€
Pahwon gratefully relinquished the tiller, taking over Tossmekâ€™s position on the bow. He scanned the river ahead with the lantern, looking for any obstacles or changes in the current. Slowly though he began to tire out, sitting down before finally laying down. Then he rested his eyes for a moment, leaving Tossmek alone. She sighed, taking a drink of cold coffee while sorely wishing she could be right next to him.
The night seemed to drag on, wearing Tossmek down. She blinked heavily, staring out over the darkened river. The outlines of hills and other shapes were the only guides to keep from running aground. She looked straight forward, glaring at the river before them. It didnâ€™t like her, Tossmek thought bitterly. The long night seemed to drag on, the sun refusing to rise. She looked back, checking the horizon again for any sign of light, but saw nothing
Then suddenly the sky seemed to light up, but in an odd, sickly color. She spurn around, seeming to enter slow motion. They were in the middle of a desert somehow, scorching sand stretching out on all sides. Panicked, Tossmek leapt off the Tub, the earth shaking beneath her feet, and ran from the rotting ruin, passing several bleached skeletons. Without warning the nearest began speaking.
â€œHey, weâ€™ve beached,â€ the skeleton said.
â€œWhat?â€ Tossmek asked.
â€œHey, wake up.â€
â€œTossmek, weâ€™ve beached,â€ Pahwon said insistently.
â€œOh, it is you,â€ she said groggily and then realized what had happened. â€œOh, I fell asleep didnâ€™t I? What did I steer us into?â€
â€œRelax Tossmek,â€ Pahwon said reassuringly, â€œthe boat grounded softly, and I donâ€™t think we lost much time.â€
She nodded, glad that she hadnâ€™t ruined her ship. Still feeling exhausted, Tossmek unsteadily rose to her feet, staring around the blurry landscape. Unable to keep her eyes open, she staggered across the deck and flopped down on her comforting cot. Tired and sore from her uncomfortable nap, she pulled off her shoes and tried to settle in for a proper rest.
â€œTossmek, do you want anything?â€ Pahwon asked quickly.
â€œNo, nothing, sleep,â€ she replied, â€œPahwon, take, the tiller.â€
â€œOk then,â€ he said, pulling the curtain shut. â€œHave good rest.â€
Pahwon yawned, having not gotten much sleep either, as he walked to the stern. Once he had the tiller in hand, Sapphire pulled a long pole from beneath the gunwale and pushed them back out onto the river. Hiwei unfurled the sail, and Pahwon turned the Tub to sail once again up the mighty Dossiger River. The day began heating up, making Sapphire more uncomfortable than she already was.
She leaned over the side and splashed water onto herself for a few minutes, trying to alleviate some of the discomfort. Still too warm, Sapphire whispered a quick spell and froze the water still clinging to her skin. Feeling a bit better, she looked back at Pahwon. He didnâ€™t seem to notice, which was good because Sapphire didnâ€™t know what to say to him. She looked down at the rushing water below, staring at a shimmering reflection.
â€œWhat is going on with me?â€ she murmured to herself, looking back at Pahwon again.
Sapphire looked out over the river before them, looking towards the horizon. Out of the corner of her eyes she spotted something of great interest. A small boat had run aground against a hill. It looked just like the launches on Kraussâ€™s transport.
â€œHey, view over there,â€ she exclaimed. â€œA boat, a vessel is there.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t think it could be the pirateâ€™s boat?â€ Hiwei asked, running up to the prow. â€œThis could be it.â€
â€œWe wonâ€™t know until we get there.â€
When they rounded the hill, a small village came into view. A group of thirty or so buildings, most clustered around the beach, lay before them. Several people pointed at them from the shore. Sapphire stood up and waved, hoping they might know something about the boat tied up at the dock.
The villagers turned and ran into their houses, which was not the reaction Sapphire had anticipated. She looked back, nervously, to the others, who seemed equally confused. As they neared a small dock, a welcoming party marched out to greet them. The welcoming group appeared to be armed, causing Pahwon and company to rethink their plans.
â€œUh, perhaps we should just sail on,â€ Hiwei suggested, â€œI doubt thatâ€™s the right boatâ€¦or anythingâ€¦letâ€™s go, go.â€
â€œYou on the boat!â€ called the largest man on the dock, â€œstop immediately or weâ€™ll rain arrows down upon you!â€
â€œOk, I guess weâ€™re stopping then,â€ Pahwon said, hastily turning towards the dock.
â€œEhhg, w-whatâ€™s going on?â€ Tossmek asked, â€œWhy err-we slowing?â€
â€œWell Tossmek, you seeâ€¦â€ Sapphire began, moments before they were boarded.
The posse went straight for Sapphire, brandishing knives and pitchforks. For a moment she hesitated, glancing at the welcoming river. Before she could make a move the largest of the group grabbed her by the arm. He and one other pinned her to the deck, while the others pointed their deadly implements at the others.
â€œThat is quite rude of you,â€ she murmured meekly. â€œPlease, let me up.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s boarding my ship?â€ Tossmek demanded, spilling out of her cabin. â€œAnswer me, now.â€
â€œSo this is your ship, maâ€™am?â€ the largest man asked, looking down at her. â€œPlease explain the presence of this foreigner.â€
â€œI assume you mean Sapphire, right? Ok, sheâ€™s helping us in our mission.â€
â€œMission? What mission might that be?â€
â€œTracking down someone,â€ Tossmek retorted, rising to her feet. â€œA pirate messenger, he might have-.â€
â€œYou mean the thief?â€ the man asked interrupting. â€œWho landed here yesterday, robbed the town and stole a horse?â€
â€œYes, that sounds like him,â€ Pahwon said slowly, â€œis that his boat over there?â€
â€œIt is,â€ the mob leader said, tentatively lowering his weapon. â€œPerhaps we ought to discuss a few thingsâ€¦â€