It took every ounce of willpower Sapphire possessed to repress her fear. She and Pahwon came upon the first bridge guard, their first major test. The man approached the filthy pair. Before he could look too close, Sapphire spoke.
â€œHere to deliver message.â€
â€œHere, look.â€ She held out the sealed scroll.
â€œOf course, Montagueâ€™s messenger.â€ He nodded, beckoning them to follow. â€œFunny, didnâ€™t know woman took to piracy.â€
â€œSome of us, uh, do things because we have no other choice,â€ she wheezed, softening her voice.
â€œWhoâ€™s the kid?â€
â€œMy guide, translator, and, uh, other, sort of.â€
â€œFascinating. His highness will want to see this immediately.â€
The bemused guard led them across the bridge. At the other end lay the princeâ€™s citadel. Unlike Durus, or the rest of the city Sapphire realized, the placed looked like it had been properly maintained. The whitewash was fresh and only cracked in a few places. Before them was a large gatehouse.
The towers loomed overhead, lights flicking through the arrow slits. The guard knocked on the heave wooden gate. Someone on the other side interpreted his message and swung it open. With a new set of eyes now inspecting her, Sapphire felt increasingly exposed. She carefully dipped her hand into her pocket, smearing a bit more dirt onto her neck.
The guard led them into the courtyard. Sapphire noticed a long gallows standing at one end. The sight alarmed her, a reminder of what failure would mean. The guard led them to the largest tower which stood on the western wall, overlooking the river. Inside they were greeted by an older man in fine clothing. The man gave them a disgusted glance as they passed.
Up a flight of stairs and down a well lit corridor lay the princeâ€™s quarters. A pair of soldiers flanked the door. The men stood at attention, shouldering their bayoneted muskets, as the lantern man knocked. Pahwon and Sapphire stood in silence as several latches were undone. A butler pulled the door ajar and offered them entrance. Inside was a small office, a scorching fire in the hearth turning the room into a virtual sauna.
On the other side of a paper strewn desk stood the young man they had seen earlier in the day. He gazed out a large window, staring at something, Sapphire assumed. He wore a long blue overcoat and a hat shaped like a melon slice. The door slammed shut behind them. Sapphire looked back from the prince to the fire and waited for something to happen.
At last the boy turned and faced them, his eyes flashing between Sapphire and Pahwon before he seated himself at the desk.
â€œEhem, I have been informed that you possess a message for me?â€
â€œIndeed, this scroll was sent by the admiral himself.â€
â€œI have no interest in that,â€ The prince said quickly, â€œbecause Iâ€™m certain itâ€™s been tampered with.â€
â€œI beg your pardon?â€
â€œYou disguise is terrible, Sapphire Magnus, as is your accent. I see you havenâ€™t improved since last we met?â€
â€œI doubt you would remember me, it was too long ago. Too passing, I have grown so much since then. But, oh, Beautiful Sapphire, I could never forget you.â€
â€œPlease, youâ€™ve not exactly been subtle during you travels. Iâ€™m not entirely sure what your game is, what you and Krauss intend to do, but it ends here. Guards, guards come in here.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s going on?â€ Pahwon asked.
â€œWe have been discovered.â€
The door flew open, the two guards barging in with muskets leveled. Without thinking, Pahwon took a fist full of dirt and hurled it into their eyes. The two men staggered, momentarily blinded. In the seconds they had, Pahwon and Sapphire disarmed the pair before shoving them out the door. As they barred the door shut, Pahwon spotted the butler, who was approaching them with a steaming kettle in hand.
Without thinking he smacked it away with a swipe of the bayonet. The scalding water fell onto the unfortunate man, sending him to the floor. Pahwon wasted no time, turning away from the horrible sight and lunging for the prince. With all his might he tackled the man, sending him to the ground. Behind him Sapphire barred the door shut with the butt of a musket. Just as she was backing away someone up slammed against it.
â€œGgrr, you two have lost your senses! Give me up, and there is a chance I shall not order your executions.â€
â€œListen to his highness; youâ€™ve no path of escape.â€ The butler moaned, slithering away. â€œSurrender.â€
The door burst open sending Sapphire scampering behind the desk. She peaked around the corner as a dozen enraged soldiers poured into the room. They lowered their muskets and slowly advanced.
A palpable dread settled over Sapphire. She turned to Pahwon and looked at him, her mind completely blank. He remained silent, tilting his head towards the window while tapping the desk chair with one hand.
Then, with more courage than Sapphire could muster, he stood up, holding the prince as his shield. The soldiers stopped, spotting the blade at their sovereignâ€™s neck. In a flash Sapphire realized what was happening. With the prince as cover she seized the chair, stood up, and hurled it through the window, smashing the glass into the billion tiny pieces.
Everyone stared at it, not even Sapphire believing they were really going to jump. One of the men discharged his gun, the ball flying harmlessly into a wall. The sight and sound encouraged them to escape.
The prince protested in the final moments. â€œIt is a sixty footâ€¦stop, stop, ach, ahh!â€
All three fell to the dark waters below, unaware if they were close to the boat or if they would even survive. Sapphire landed hard, the impact sunning her momentarily. As she bobbed to the surface she noticed the prince barely able to stay above water. Instinctively she swam to him and tried to help in stay afloat. The boy kicked at her, cursing as he slipped under the water.
Out of the darkness a silhouette appeared. The boat floated into view. On the verge of panic, Sapphire grabbed the prince and hauled him up. With all her strength she kept the squirming boy and herself afloat long enough to reach the safety of the barge. It was only then that she realized Pahwon was not with her. Frantically she looked around, spotting him struggling in the water.
Horrified she leap back into the water and took Pahwon into her embrace. Once she had dragged him back, Tossmek hurriedly spread him out on deck. There was a nasty gash across his forehead. Hiwei laid a hand on it and began trying to heal the wound while Sapphire rummaged for bandages. A shot rang out from above, sending Tossmek flying to the tiller.
Reluctantly Sapphire dropped the medical bag and ran to the mast. As they started to get underway the entire garrison in the fort began to awaken. As they passed under the bridge, the shouting above them grew louder. They passed by the rigged column, Tossmek lighting the long fuse as they passed.
â€œRight, here goes nothing.â€
The boat had moved a barely adequate distance up river when a terrific explosion ripped through the night collapsing part of the span into the river. Hoping it would be enough; Tossmek guided them towards opposite bank, confident that the bulk of the soldiers were now trapped on the west bank.
â€œGruuh,â€ Pahwon moaned.
â€œCareful,â€ Sapphire said, leaning down next to him. â€œYou got a bad cut there.â€
â€œIâ€™ll be fine, smacked it on something.â€
â€œDesate-me sua puta!â€ The prince shouted. â€œVocÃª vai morrer!â€
â€œOh kindly clam up.â€
â€œBah, you are going to be in a world of hurt when my soldiers get a hold of you.â€
â€œNot when, if; and that is a very big if with the bridge down.â€
â€œWhat about the reserves in Kuungana?â€
â€œThe what now?â€
Sapphire cast a wary eye to the shore, hoping the prince was lying. Nothing seemed amiss, which reassured her that his words were empty. She settled down next to Pahwon. He had pulled himself upright and was now looking down on their prisoner. A troubled look crossed Pahwonâ€™s face. She looked from him to the prince, overcome by a similar sensation. Prince Rudolpho had stopped resisting and now appeared to be an innocent young man.
Before she could think through her misgivings a light on the beach drew everyoneâ€™s attention. Several lanterns appeared in the darkness, bobbing up and down. It was only after a silhouette appeared that Sapphire realized who it was. A patrol of Portuguese soldiers was approaching on horseback.
Before they could attempt to pull further out into the river at least half a dozen men dismounted and lined up on shore. Without thinking, Sapphire dragged the prince up to see.
â€œNow you are going to receive what you deserve,â€ he wheezed. â€œMen, do you duty.â€
Nothing happened. The soldiers nervously eyed the boat, slowly reforming as the boat moved up river.
â€œWhat are you waiting for? Kill these brigands.â€
â€œThey wouldnâ€™t dare fire on a prince.â€ Sapphire realized, holding their shield aloft. â€œWe have to enact something, this is our one chance.â€
â€œShoot them.â€ Tossmek uttered, diving for the musket crate.
She kicked the box open, Pahwon kneeling beside her. They began pulling muskets from it and firing, dropping them once spent. The first soldier fell on the third shot, clutching his neck. A second staggered back with a hole through his chest. Within seconds it was over. The soldiers were dead. A terrible silence fell over them, as the hazy cloud of smoke began dissipating. Pahwonâ€™s ears rang, cold sweat leaking down his face.
â€œW-w-weâ€™ll n-never make it by boat,â€ Tossmek called, â€œTheir horses, weâ€™ll ride their horses.â€
The barge crashed into the bloody shore, everyone scrambling ashore. Pahwon and Tossmek grabbed three of the panicking horses, as Sapphire hauled the petrified prince from the deck. In near pitch darkness they made their escape, Prince Rudolpho held in Pahwonâ€™s firm grip, while Sapphire took the lead. Behind her Tossmek helped hold Hiwei in their saddle. The unwieldy troop rode into the night, hoping that their luck would hold out.
The sky was barley beginning to brighten, when Pahwon realized they were in trouble. Their exhausted horses were slowing down. The prince seemed to notice this as well and had stopped his token struggles. He leaned forward, a confident smile now dominating his face.
â€œI donâ€™t know what youâ€™re so happy about.â€
â€œOh, but you do. It will not be long before my men catch up.â€
â€œI doubt that,â€ Pahwon replied, looking back over his shoulder. â€œI, I really do.â€
â€œTime will tell.â€
Within minutes of their exchange, Sapphireâ€™s horse came to a stop. The animal trotted off the side of the trail and lay down in the grass. After a futile attempt to make him move, Sapphire turned to the others.
â€œGreat, I suspect my horse has run its course.â€
â€œRight, our mount isnâ€™t doing too well either.â€
â€œI must say, you have all come further than I anticipated. Perhaps if the lot of you could simply wait here for my men, then I could persuade themâ€¦â€
â€œShut it,â€ Pahwon snapped. â€œHow close are we to the border? Does anyone know?â€
â€œNot particularly,â€ Sapphire muttered, looking around the arid landscape. â€œThough, it cannot be far from here, I believe.â€
â€œYou have not the foggiest clue where you are, and my men will soon find you. Heed my words forâ€¦â€
â€œMind if I gag him?â€ Pahwon asked, shoving a wad of cloth into Rudolphoâ€™s mouth. â€œAnyone?â€
â€œN-no. He does have a point though; we need to find out where we are and how we get to the border.â€
â€œWe shall have to walk,â€ Hiwei said, hopping down to the ground.
â€œStop, youâ€™re, youâ€™re.â€
â€œI am what, Tossmek? Well enough to stop being a burden, thatâ€™s what.â€
Despite a few quiet protests, Hiwei began down the trail on foot. Behind her the others dismounted and followed her lead. As Pahwon wrangled the prince into line, Tossmek thought to look through the saddle bags for any helpful supplies. From them she pulled out some dried meat and a knife. After tucking the blade into her belt, she passed the scant foodstuffs around.
Hours passed as they wandered into the arid wastelands. The forest near the river gave way to scattered grove of scraggly trees and tufts of yellow grass. By midday they were approaching exhaustion. Sapphire spotted a small oasis in the distance. Fearing it was a mirage, she continued at their slow pace until they were nearly on top of it. Once assure it was real, she leapt at it, grabbing water by the handful. The others gathered around, the parched prince now quite compliant.
â€œWhere do you reckon we are?â€
â€œOut of harmâ€™s way, I hope.â€
â€œI doubt very much you will evade the elite scouts much longer.â€
â€œFunny thing is, I havenâ€™t seen any sign of pursuit.â€ Tossmek said quietly.
â€œTo lure you into a false sense of security, no doubt.â€
â€œIt is true, I assure you.â€
â€œRight, sure it is. Quick question, does anyone have a map?â€
â€œNo, was there not one on the boat?â€
â€œJust a river chart, which doesnâ€™t do us much good on land.â€
â€œSo, northward bound, I guess?â€ Pahwon said, rising to his feet. â€œLetâ€™s get moving then.â€
â€œNo thank you.â€ The Prince said quietly. â€œI shall be remaining here.â€
â€œUh, no, youâ€™re coming this way.â€
â€œOr what? You obviously need me alive.â€
â€œDo we, really,â€ Hiwei said, stepping over him. â€œIâ€™m not so certain of that. Killing you would at least leave a dent in the invasion plans.â€
â€œHiwei,â€ Tossmek breathed.
â€œI could burn you, alive, make you feel a-a single fraction of the pain youâ€™ve caused.â€
â€œI-I, listen, you must understandâ€¦â€
â€œNo, you shall listen. You are coming with us or you-ou, are going t-to die on this spot.â€ A menacing white glow emanated from her right hand. â€œThat is a promise.â€
Silence fell upon them. The words rang in everyoneâ€™s ears, the shock still permeating them when Rudolpho rose to his feet. Shaking, the young man followed them across the arid plane, his eyes darting between Hiwei and the ground. Nervously, Pahwon eyed him and Hiwei, only now aware that some strange change had come over his friend.
As the afternoon passed, the landscape began to change. Before them the yellow grasses gave way to green. The sickly trees became taller and greener as well. By sunset they were in the middle of a swamp. This seemed to make Tossmek quiet happy.
â€œWhy do you look so happy?â€ Pahwon asked, sloshing through another pool of muck.
â€œBecause, thereâ€™s a swamp on the Mwepesi mto that straddles the border.â€
â€œMeaning we are close, correct?â€
â€œNot really, but it does mean that any potential pursuers will have to go on foot as well.â€
â€œBut, I thought you said it straddles?â€
â€œIt does, but, itâ€™s getting late, and Iâ€™d rather not try to cross it in the dark.â€
â€œDo you have any idea how big this place is, Tossmek?â€
â€œI glanced at the chart, for a minute, letâ€™s find a place to stay, shall we?â€