Alone, Sapphire sat on the gunwale and dipped her toes in the river, wondering what everyone was doing. A strange rustling noise emanated from the bushes at the edge of beach. She leaned closer wondering what it could be. Then from the darkness emerged a horse. Sapphire blinked, certain she was seeing things. The horse reared back as a man emerged as well, causing her to suspect she had fallen asleep. The hunched figure pulled the unwilling animal across the beach, looking quickly from side to side.
Suddenly Sapphire realized what she was looking at. She grabbed the lantern and blasted the light, freezing the figure in fright. In a flash she froze the wet sand around the manâ€˜s feet, instantly sticking him in place. The man cried out, releasing the horse which turned and trotted away. Sapphire lunged towards the hapless figure, who could only throw up his arms uselessly, and tackled him to the ground The two flailed in the darkness for a few moments before the stranger gave up and lay still in the cold sand.
â€œWhatâ€™s going on?â€ Tossmek called, running up to the commotion.
â€œI have gotten him!â€ Sapphire exclaimed, the pirateâ€¦messengerâ€¦youâ€™re not him, are you?â€
â€œW-who are you?â€ the middle-aged man asked, blinking at his captors. â€œY-you with the invaders? No, youâ€˜re going to kill me, arenâ€™t you?â€
â€œNo, Administrator,â€ Tossmek sighed, pulling Sapphire off of him. â€œYou are the administrator for this region, arenâ€™t you?â€
â€œOnly for the past twenty years,â€ he grumbled, wearily sitting up, â€œthen I caught wind of those pirates. I knew theyâ€™d be coming up river next. Theyâ€™re here for plunder, so I skedaddled.â€
â€œRight, Iâ€™m sorry about this,â€ Tossmek said, offering him a hand. â€œMy friend here got a bit over excited; Iâ€™m Tossmek, Tossmek Poteryalli.â€
â€œOh, itâ€™s a pleasure young lady,â€ he said, graciously accepting the assistance. â€œNow what might you all be up to? Besides stalking an old administrator in the night, that is?â€
â€œWeâ€™re looking for a messenger,â€ Pahwon said quickly, â€œA pirate; he may have important information, sir.â€
â€œHmm, a messenger, now I did hear somebody pass by here not long before dusk, seemed to be in a real hurry.â€
â€œThatâ€™s great news,â€ Hiwei said clapping her hands together. â€œWe ought to get going then.â€
â€œRight, right,â€ Tossmek said quietly, â€œso Mister, is there anything we can do for you? You know, to make up for the trouble we caused.â€
â€œWell now, you could tell me about Samek. Iâ€™ve been in the dark for some time now.â€
â€œGood news there, the pirates have been driven out,â€ Hiwei said quickly.
â€œHuh, that is good news. Good news indeed. Well, I better start looking for that horse.â€
â€œYeah, we need to get a move on too,â€ Pahwon said, heading for the Tub. â€œGood luck, sir, may Innana look kindly upon you.â€
â€œAh, well, good luck to you as well my boy.â€ He replied, strolling off into the darkness. â€œFarewell, all of you.â€
Tossmek glanced nervously from side to side, the thick forest lands lining the Dossigerâ€™s shores seeming to press in toward them. The Midday sun only dimly lit the shaded areas, putting them on edge.Â All of them except their non native friend.
â€œWhy are you all so, um, tense?â€ Sapphire asked, splashing a bit more water on herself.
â€œOh right, you wouldnâ€™t know,â€ Tossmek said, realizing how strange it must seem, â€œthe cursed magic wielders, the witches and warlocks, used to prowl these forests, and well, we grew up hearing about that.â€
â€œUh-huh, but I thought they were all gone.â€
â€œYeah, we think theyâ€™re all gone,â€ Pahwon replied. â€œProbably…â€
â€œYou all need to relax,â€ Sapphire said dismissively, â€œOh and I think I am getting better a bit at speaking your language.â€
â€œPerhaps,â€ Hiwei said, keeping a close eye on the south shore.
With nothing better to do, Pahwon pulled off his lucky cap and then pushed the crates around to make a space in the bilge. He then lay face down on the deck and proceeded to push himself up with only his arms until he had reached maximum height before slowly sinking back down. Tossmek watched him exercising, glancing a few times at the river ahead. Another barge passed them, a much larger boat loaded with cut timber. It was good to see another mariner, Tossmek thought. She waved a greeting, receiving only a halfhearted gesture in response.
â€œApparently not the friendly sort,â€ she muttered, looking back at the river ahead. â€œHey, I see a dock.â€
â€œWha-oh, you are correct,â€ Sapphire said, seeing it as well.
A few yards ahead the tree line broke, revealing a small village nestled in a clearing. The wooden houses appeared quite odd to Pahwon. He wondered if those who lived inside had to worry about splinters whenever they touched the walls. With a twist of the tiller Tossmek brought them to the dock. A tall, muscular man marched out to greet them. Tossmek hoped that this greeting would go a bit smoother than the last one.
â€œAhoy,â€ she called, signaling for the sail to be furled.
â€œWhat business brings you here, miss?â€ he asked suspiciously.
â€œOh, uh, well,â€ Tossmek stuttered, spotting something unexpected.
Tied up on a parallel pier was a boat, obviously flying a Portuguese flag. She bit her lip, not sure what to make of this development. For a moment she considered lying and tried to think up a plausible alibi. This plan was ruined seconds later when Sapphire decided to chime in.
â€œWe are here looking for someone,â€ she said, oblivious to the enemy flagged ship. â€œDid a man on horse hind ride into town recently?â€
â€œI, I wouldnâ€™t be the one to ask,â€ he replied carefully. â€œJust donâ€™t start any trouble, you hear?â€
â€œOh, donâ€™t worry,â€ Tossmek said reassuringly. â€œWeâ€™re here on business.â€
â€œYou had better be,â€ he muttered before walking away.
Once the guardsman was out of earshot, Tossmek turned to Sapphire and stared her down.
â€œDid you not see the Portuguese flag on that boat over there?â€
â€œUh, no, no, I did not,â€ she replied hastily, â€œOh dear, that could haveâ€¦â€
â€œBeen bad,â€ Tossmek finished, rising to her feet. â€œLetâ€™s not announce ourselves anymore than we have to, alright?â€
â€œYes, I understand.â€
â€œRight, so Iâ€™m going ashore, Pahwon and Hiwei, you coming?â€
â€œWait, why are we going ashore?â€ Hiwei asked, â€œShouldnâ€™t we just get a move on?â€
â€œProbably,â€ Tossmek admitted, â€œbut I have to know what that boatâ€™s doing here.â€
She jumped down onto the dock, hastily mooring the Tub. Satisfied that it would be there when she returned, Tossmek checked the name of the enemy flagged boat before heading ashore. Pahwon and Hiwei followed, Sapphire remaining behind to look after the boat. At the end of a dock was a modest statue of Enki, a number of offerings laid at his feet. Tossmek stopped for a moment, considering making and offering herself. She thought better of it and walked straight to the waterside tavern.
Inside, a few customers were milling about. Tossmek waited a few moments for Hiwei and Pahwon to catch up before venturing into the tavern. As they approached the bar, Tossmek sized up the few denizens, wondering who might be the owner of the boat. She slowed down, realizing that this might be a waste of time. Deciding to press on regardless, she walked up to the barkeep and asked directly.
â€œUh, may I ask you something?â€
â€œYou just did,â€ he retorted. â€œNow, either buy something or get out.â€
â€œRight, ok, give me a, uh cup of the wine, I guess.â€
The barman grunted, depositing a clay cup into her hand and filling it halfway up. He then held out his hand, which confused Tossmek for a few moments. Then she remembered that payment was in order and gave him a coin. She carefully took a sip, the sour liquid refocusing her on the task at hand.
â€œWhat can you tell me about the boat in the harbor?â€ She asked hesitantly, realizing that all eyes were on her now. â€œThe one with the odd flag.â€
â€œHmm, what do you mean exactly, Easterner?â€
â€œTossmek, I think we ought to go,â€ Hiwei said quietly, pulling her towards the exit.
â€œYeah, right,â€ Tossmek said, finally realizing she would get no information from the barman.
With a sigh, she and Hiwei turned and left the establishment. The short walk back to the dock seemed awfully long, Tossmek cursing the time they had wasted. Determined not to leave without accomplishing something, she poured the remainder of the bitter wine at Enkiâ€™s feet as an offering.
â€œMaybe youâ€™ll give us some luck.â€
â€œWere you the one asking about my boat?â€ A cold voice asked.
â€œOh no,â€ she said trembling, wondering whom she had angered this time.
â€œWho are you girlie?â€ he snapped, pulling her around. â€œAnswer me.â€
â€œRight, Iâ€™m Tossmek, and weâ€¦err, I amâ€¦â€ she sputtered, looking up at the tall figure towering over her.
He narrowed his eyes, pushing her back a pace. The stranger wore a long dark coat with buttons running up the side and a hat vaguely reminiscent of Pahwonâ€™s. Though his complexion was Tuparian, his long sleeves and upturned collar disguised his identity fairly well. Then it struck Tossmek that his clothing choice might be intentional.
â€œAre you aâ€¦trader?â€
â€œYes, I trade goods up and down the river.â€
â€œWhat do you think of the Portuguese?â€
â€œI think, young lady,â€ he whispered, leaning in to just an inch away from her ear. â€œThat you ought to sail back the way you came. There is nothing good up river from hereâ€¦â€
With that he turned and walked away, not once glancing back. For a few moments Tossmek stood still, wondering what had just happened. Pahwon walked slowly up to her, looking concerned.
â€œWho was that?â€
â€œIâ€™d rather not guess think,â€ she replied softly. â€œWe need to leave.â€
They made their way down the dock, an odd sensation prickling through Tossmek. She brushed it off, taking her place at the tiller. She yawned, waiting for the sail to be realigned. Once away from the dock, the Tub sailed smoothly up river. With the town fading behind them, Tossmek felt an urge to look back. The stranger was out on the dock, readying his boat to sail. She quickly grabbed her spyglass, passing the tiller off to Pahwon and took a better look.
The stranger was indeed readying his boat, but not to sail. He shoved away from the dock into the current. Tossmek watched as he slowly drifted away down the river. Soon he was gone from sight, though she continued to look in that direction for awhile. Feeling odd again, she collapsed the spyglass and decided it was time for a rest. Tossmek kicked off her sandals and flopped down onto her cot, feeling fatigued.
Then she realized what was bothering her, the pang of fear jolting her. If the stranger had been with the Portuguese, they might all be dead. He would have walked up to her and shot her from behind, or stabbed, or if the whole town had been captured they might have simply been massacred where they sat. The danger of their game hit home, leaving her breathless. Slowly she calmed herself, going over all that they had been through in the past few days. We will all need to be more careful, she thought, especially me.