Soshet sat in the apartmentâ€™s bathhouse, trying the think clearly over the dayâ€™s events. She ran a wet cloth over herself, steam rising all around. Feeling overwhelmed, a part of her simply wanted to stay put for eternity and push the terror away. She sighed, pressing her forehead against the wall. What Artyom and his compatriots wanted seemed impossible. At least, without getting the royal family killed.
The images of that horrible day flashed through her mind once again. To go through something like that again was abhorrent. And yet, the alternative seemed so much more unbearable
â€œWe cannot become a colony,â€ she told herself, â€œSomething, something must be done.â€
With some regret, she left the comfort of her steamy room and redressed. The outside air gave her strength and for a time she wondered around in front of her apartment building. A feeling of dread crept over her. With returning to work in a building rigged to blow up out of the question, she began pondering what she would do with herself. The resistance, they needed her. Staring down the road, back towards work, she decided then and there she would help them.
â€œIâ€™ll do it,â€ she said quietly.
â€œDo what?â€ Talaku asked, approaching her.
â€œJoin them, Artyom and the others.â€
â€œHmm, you sure?â€
â€œI am, Iâ€™m completely certain,â€ she said as much to herself as to Talaku, â€œwill you join too?â€
â€œIf youâ€™re set on it, I canâ€™t see myself not,â€ he replied, smiling. â€œWhere to now?â€
â€œUh, well, um,â€ she stuttered, trying to think of their next move.
She glanced at the setting sun, considering simply calling it a day. It had certainly been eventful enough. Another thought crossed her mind. Soshet looked over at Talaku, feeling an odd sensation. Deciding to ignore it for now, she brushed it aside and decided that enough had happened for one day.
â€œI think I need to get some rest,â€ she said quietly, turning to go inside. â€œShall we meet up in the usual restaurant?â€
â€œSounds like a plan,â€ he replied, walking down the street. â€œSee you tomorrow Soshet.â€
â€œYeah, you too.â€
She slowly closed the door, feeling a pang of regret as Talaku vanished from sight. Soshet mounted the stairs and returned to her room, looking forward to seeing him again. Once seated on her bed, she couldnâ€™t help but look over at the small drawing of her family. On the far left of the frame stood little Pahwon. She closed her eyes, running through all the facts again. Nobody found his body. He could have easily escaped. He was her little brother, her only brother. Motherâ€™s only son.
â€œHeâ€™s alive, he is alive,â€ she said to herself, willing the words to be true. â€œInnana would never allow her son to be killed.â€
A strange voice called to Pahwon. Intrigued, he opened his bleary eyes and stared at the source. A frog croaked at him, before hopping into the stream. He stared at the spot, a gnawing hunger coming over him.
â€œI wonder what he would have tasted like,â€ Pahwon murmured, rubbing his stomach.
â€œProbably not very good.â€ Tossmek said, handing him a mushy fruit. â€œPicked it awhile ago and it didnâ€™t make me ill, try it.â€
â€œUgh, tastes like mud.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t say it was fine dining, uh, how do you know what mud tastes like?â€
â€œA bet with Soshet, which I won.â€
â€œWould you kindly spare me your disgusting stories?â€ Rudolpho asked.
â€œNope.â€ Pahwon stuck the remnants of the fruit into his mouth.
â€œPuhff, grahh, this tastes like mud.â€
â€œUh, you know what mud tastes like?â€
â€œMy brother and I did not get along very well.â€
â€œThatâ€™s more than I need to know.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s going on?â€ Sapphire asked, sitting upright. â€œIs that food?â€
â€œYeah, here, it doesnâ€™t taste very good, or so Iâ€™ve heard.â€
â€œIndeed, it tastes of my pillowâ€™s stuffing.â€
â€œWhatever, Hiwei, are you alright?â€
â€œI feel much better, thank you.â€
â€œYou, wouldnâ€™t really, I mean,â€ Tossmek shuddered, leaning in close. â€œYou couldnâ€™t killâ€¦â€
â€œLetâ€™s just say I am willing to do what it takes to see this through, and leave it at that.â€
Tossmek nodded. Once their hunger was satiated, the five picked up their trudge where they had left off. For the rest of the morning, they waded through hip deep water, trying to keep their bearings. The sun was starting to set when they finally reached the end of the swamp. The river lay just over a small mount to their left, a dreary little town appearing in the distance.
Pahwon wondered if they would be able to find anything at all of use there. He looked at Tossmek, who simply shrugged. With nowhere else to go, they marched the rest of the way. Several rows of hovels stood around the waterâ€™s edge, a shallow inlet forming the centre of the village. A sign covered in strange glyphs hung near the entrance.
â€œI think weâ€™ve crossed the border.â€
â€œNo kidding,â€ The Prince said derisively. â€œThis changes nothing, you will be found by my men.â€
â€œNot if we contract transport beforehand.â€
â€œUh, guys, do we have anything of value?â€ Hiwei asked.
â€œI bet his highness does,â€ Tossmek said, pulling open the princeâ€™s shirt. â€œAhah.â€
â€œOy, unhand me you harlot.â€
With a mighty grab she relieved him of a gold necklace. He tried to lunge at her, succeeding in flipping himself onto the ground. A pair of rings sparkled on his bound hands. In a flash she scooped them up, eyeing the two new prizes. Hoping it was enough treasure to bargain with, Tossmek began looking for someplace to trade. Before sheâ€™d taken three steps a thought occurred to her.
â€œHmm, perhaps we shouldnâ€™t take the bound man into the town?â€
â€œIâ€™ll wait with him.â€ Hiwei said, grabbing him firmly by the arm. â€œHe wouldnâ€™t dare run from me.â€
â€œIf youâ€™re sure.â€
Feeling a grim satisfaction at the prospect of trading the princeâ€™s wealth, Tossmek walked along the main road, looking for anyone with a wagon. Along the way she passed a few traders sitting in the dirt. Around them on dusty mats was an array of trinkets of dubious usefulness. Beyond them were a few farmers offering dates, onions, and pomegranates. What none of them saw was anyone likely to offer them transport.
At the other end of the road, she spotted the only wagon in town, its owner hitching up his mule and making ready to leave. Desperate, Tossmek sprinted down the road, a part of her knowing it was pointless.
â€œWait, wait please,â€ she called, coming to a stop before him. â€œWe need transport.â€
â€œUakh, do not startle anyone like that,â€ he scolded, spinning around. â€œWhat yah after little Tuparian woman?â€
â€œI be travel to my home, maybe a wagon be by tomorrow or the day after. Till then leave alone.â€
â€œI-I, uh, damn it.â€
Pahwon and Sapphire reached her side just as the man was pulling out of town. Pahwon tapped her shoulder.
â€œâ€¦The only wagon in town? I suspect it was.â€
â€œNow what shall we do?â€ Sapphire asked, looking around the town. â€œI doubt weâ€™re very much safer here than in the swamp.â€
â€œYou might have a point, still, I doubt the Portuguese would come here. Then again, for him, maybe.â€
â€œDid he say anything useful?â€
â€œNope, I think weâ€™ll just have to wait and see if tomorrow brings us more luck.â€
â€œAt least we wonâ€™t have to eat dirt-fruit again,â€ Pahwon said, eyeing the produce on display.
â€œRight, thatâ€™s something at least.â€
With the princeâ€™s ring she procured a sizable bounty and the blanket the seller was seated on too. The three returned to the edge of town with their haul, finding the prince and Hiwei engaged in a staring contest.
â€œHey, Hiwei, weâ€™ve got some food.â€
â€œGreat, pass it here,â€ she said without moving her head.
â€œUh, you two feeling alright?â€
â€œFine, thanks for asking. Did you find transport?â€
â€œI got a blanket.â€
â€œWeâ€™re staying the night then?â€
â€œWeâ€™re staying the night.â€
â€œPerhaps we should try walking?â€
â€œIt is about fifty miles across open desert from here to Kharoâ€™ic.â€
â€œOk, so, we wait?â€
â€œThatâ€™s the plan,â€ Pahwon replied, flopping the blanket down between them.
â€œHey, I was in the middle of something,â€ Hiwei protested.
â€œOh, never mind, it wasnâ€™t important anyhow.â€
â€œThatâ€™s good; Iâ€™d hate to cause anything between you two.â€
â€œLaugh it up while you can, my men will cause that to cease permanently.â€
â€œThe more you say that, the more it sounds like an idle threat.â€
â€œGo ahead, think that, it, it will make it-uh, funnier, when my men c-catch you and rescue me.â€
The prince shifted uncomfortably. A strange feeling came of Tossmek as she looked over him. As she smoothed out the blanket, the strange feeling grew stronger. Something about the last day wasnâ€™t adding up. She lightly plopped down next to the young man and observed him closely.
â€œHey, your-um, highness, what arenâ€™t you telling us?â€
â€œI have no idea what you are implying,â€ he replied, a bead of sweat running down his forehead. â€œMy menâ€¦â€
â€œHang on, you keep repeating â€˜my menâ€™, as though they might be someone elseâ€™s.â€
â€œIndeed, I have noticed that as well,â€ Sapphire said quietly, â€œThis, thi-you know, somethingâ€™s seemed off ever since we slipped away so easily.â€
â€œMy thoughts exactly, so, prince, what are you not telling?â€
â€œI. Shall. Say. Nothing. More.â€ He closed his eyes, grated his teeth.
â€œTell the truth,â€ Hiwei said, grabbing his shoulder. â€œTell us what youâ€™re hiding.â€
A menacing glow emanated from her hand. The prince stared at them, terror in his eyes. Satisfied, Hiwei released him. Then the young man burst into tears.
â€œW-what?! What are you doing?â€
â€œVai se foder tudo, vocÃª arruinou tudo! Por que vocÃª veio, porquÃª, porquÃª!?â€
â€œGahha, Sapphire, whatâ€™s he saying?â€ Pahwon asked, flabbergasted.
â€œUhm, prince, Rudolpho, what-t-t, what?â€
â€œYou bitch, you peasants, I would have shown the old king what I am truly made of. I would have been a hero, the redeemer after the northern blunder. Not to be, not to be, I would have shown them all.â€
â€œI see, may I assume you did not actually have authorization to use the army?â€
â€œMy closest supporters will be jailed because of this, my chance at the throne snatched away, all your fault.â€
â€œSapphire? Whatâ€™s he saying?â€
â€œIf I understand correctly, then heâ€™s saying that we are in the clear.â€
â€œApparently he wasnâ€™t supposed to launch any invasion, and, it would seem, that he will be in a great deal of trouble now.â€
â€œY-y-ye-es, you four have r-ruined everything.â€
â€œThey will not violate the border to rescue him?â€
â€œNow thatâ€™s good to hear,â€ Tossmek said quietly, leaning back on the blanket. â€œDoes this mean weâ€™re in the clear?â€
â€œI believe so,â€ Sapphire said thoughtfully. â€œThough, the task of traveling to Kharoâ€™ic remains.â€
â€œHeh, no problem at all,â€ Tossmek sighed, gazing at the sky. â€œWeâ€™re finally on the right track.â€
Satisfied that the end was near, Tossmek took a bit from their spoils. She savored the flavor, soon eating her fill. Full and feeling safe, Tossmek was at last relaxed again. She stretched out on the blanket beside the others. Above, the stars came out as the sun took its leave. Beneath the warm night air, she counted the twinkling lights until sleep took her from the waking world.
A scream awoke Pahwon from his slumber. He shot upright, looking around for the source of the noise. The sound came again, though sounded slightly different. Still half asleep, he turned and spotted a whining horse a few feet away.
â€œOh,â€ he mumbled, â€œjust a, huh?â€
It was only when he spotted the approaching figure coming alongside the animal that he realized what was happening. He jumped to his feet, grabbing the heartiest thing available.
â€œIs that a stick?â€ the dusty man asked, stopping at the edge of the blanket.
â€œS-so what if it is? Who are you?â€
â€œThe man with the sword,â€ he replied, drawing a scimitar from his belt, â€œwhich means it will be me asking the questions.â€
â€œWhy do I keep seeing your face?â€
â€œFirst in Qarrahum, then in Samek, then Kuungaga, and now here. Why?â€
â€œWeâ€™ve been getting around, in a way, and, uh, thatâ€™s why.â€
â€œNot good enough,â€ he said, snapping his fingers.
Three other ruffians approached from the opposite direction.
â€œW-wait, Iâ€™ll tell you everything, but, are you with the Portuguese?â€
â€œGrah,â€ he spat, stepping to within an inch of Pahwon. â€œI hate, hate, those pompous thugs; well dressed highway men. Donâ€™t you dare toâ€¦â€
â€œTheir prince, we have their prince,â€ he said. â€œLook, Rudolpo, here.â€
â€œIt cannot be.â€
Behind him the others began to awaken, disturbed by the commotion. Pahwon took his chance and dragged Prince Rudolpho upright, brandishing him at the stranger. For his part, the dusty man looked oddly pleased at seeing the prince, sheathing his scimitar before coming in for a closer look.
â€œWho is this foul man?â€ The prince demanded.
â€œFantastic, the ruiner himself.â€
â€œWho are you?!â€
â€œIâ€™m the one whoâ€™ll be collecting that pretty bounty.â€
The man grabbed the prince by the throat and dragged him off the mat, his comrades preventing an resistance.
â€œPahwon, whatâ€™s going on? Hey, bring him back!â€ Tossmek called.
â€œNot a chance, Queen â€˜Ankirasha will be paying me the silvers on his head.â€
â€œWait, what silvers?â€
â€œThe silvers youâ€™re after, of course.â€
â€œBut, weâ€™re not after silvers.â€
â€œOf course you are, our queen must have placed a bounty, revenge for the eight month war.â€
â€œThere is no bounty, no silvers to speak of,â€ Sapphire insisted.
â€œLairs. Without silver there is no motivation to capture him.â€
â€œHow about stopping an invasion? Protecting our homeland,â€ Pahwon said, looking him right in the eye. â€œPlease, this isnâ€™t about money. We can prove it, too, if youâ€™ll listen.â€
â€œWhat reason would I have to listen to the likes of you, foreigner?â€
â€œIâ€™ve got gold, for one thing.â€ Tossmek said, holding up the princeâ€™s necklace.
â€œIs that so. Hmm, stopping invasion, maybe, maybe I did hear something â€˜bout that.
â€œCan you take us to Kharoâ€™ic? Weâ€™ll pay you with what we have, and, if there is a bound on the prince you can just throw us away and take it all for yourself anyway.â€
â€œOr we could kill you all here, take your gold, and the prince too, and be done with it.â€
â€œNice job Pahwon,â€ Hiwei said.
â€œNot my fault they found us, not one bit.â€
â€œEnough, I am Sapphire Magnus, and I can guarantee you all a great deal of money if you agree to transport us.â€
â€œI work for Shamus Krauss, he would pay you handsomely for assisting us.â€
â€œShamus Kr-why didnâ€™t you say so before, silly?â€ He shoved the prince back toward them. â€œThat necklace will be down payment, and, uh, youâ€™d best not be lying.â€
â€œI am not. Now, let us get a move on.â€
â€œAre we really going to go with them?â€ Tossmek asked through her teeth. â€œSeriously?â€
For a moments they looked at one another, fearing that they were making a terrible decision. Without warning the dusty man leaned over and grabbed the prince, throwing him over his shoulder like a sack. He whistled to his compatriots, signaling them to move.
â€œHurry up Pa-hu, Tassimek, weâ€™re moving out,â€ Dusty man called. â€œGotta find a place to stow his royal highness.â€
With a heavy sigh Tossmek followed the strange man, tapping the dagger tucked under her coat. The prince was tucked under the tarp in the lead wagon. The smugglers rolled them out and hitched up the donkeys.
Pahwon and Tossmek boarded the lead wagon next to Dusty, as they named him, and settled in for a long ride. Hiwei laid down in the rear wagon by the prince, Sapphire taking her seat by the driver. Hitched up and ready to go, the smugglers piled in and began the procession down the north road. The wagons slowly gained speed until they reached the main route.
Pahwon looked out over the flat farmlands, a strange dread creeping over him. The caravan passed over a small hill and emerged onto a vast desolate plain. He slid his arm around Tossmek, who did the same. For some reason the desert felt wrong to him. It looked so much like the great expanse to the north and yet was different somehow. He looked for something out of place, some explanation behind the feeling.
â€œItâ€™s all wrong,â€ Pahwon said quietly.
â€œYeah,â€ Tossmek agreed quietly, â€œthereâ€™s no water any ware.â€
Slowly the featureless desert and rhythmic noises of the spinning wheels lulled them into a dazed stupor. Time passed it fits and starts, punctuated by bits of dried meat and a canteen being passed around. It must have been hours later before Pahwon emerged from this feeling. The rhythmic noise stopped, pulling him back to reality. He glanced around frantically and realized they had stopped. Concerned, he hopped down and discovered they were at a watering hole.
The smugglers were chatting with another group of merchants while filling up on water. Deciding he needed something to do, Pahwon strolled around the oasis and took in the sight. After looking at the tree next to the waving reeds, he grew bored with the sight and instead picked up a few bits of discarded wood. He took these back to the wagon and took a knife from behind the seat. Soon they were on their way again, Pahwon whittling at the wood block for the rest of the day.