â€œThere she is.â€ Saphire said quietly.
â€œYou sure thatâ€™s her?â€ Belariti asked.
â€œItâ€™s her, of that I am certain.â€
From her perch on top of the tower, Hiwei had begun to unfurl a long strand of thin fabric. Slowly it descended to the rocky shore below, the weight of a clay jar keeping it mostly strait. Sapphire took it, running her fingers over the delicate substance.
â€œBut, that would never support our weight.â€ Belariti said puzzled.
â€œIndeed not, but, it might support that.â€ Sapphire pointed down the wall. Pahwon had reappeared, a long rope ladder slung over his shoulder. Several other conspirators had arrived with him, baring weapons.
When Pahwon reached her, Sapphire took the rope ladder and tied one end securely to the fabric strip. Slowly Hiwei began pulling it aloft, Pahwon carefully feeding out the ladder as she pulled. Soon it was dangling off the crenulations, though it seemed that it wasnâ€™t quite meant for a wall so tall.
â€œGive me a boost,â€ Pahwon said, barely able to touch the bottom run with his finger tips.
â€œHere, take this,â€ a man handed him a scimitar.
â€œThanks,â€ Pahwon said, sliding the cold scabbard into his belt.
With a leg up he grabbed hold of the ladder and began to climb. He was less than halfway up when a slight breeze blew him an inch or so to the side. The feeling caused a near panic, the swaying of the ladder making the ascent even more taxing. A thousand different ideas floated through his mind of how he would rather have gained entry, each one more ridiculous than the last. When he at last reach the top Hiwei reached her hand down and pulled him over the rim.
â€œIâ€™m here,â€ he whispered.
â€œYes, now get down, before someone sees you.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve found the royals?â€
â€œUh, well, one of them; I-Iâ€™m sorry, the pirates wouldnâ€™t let us any deeper into the fortress.â€
Hiwei vanished down the hatch, leaving Pahwon to help the others along. Belariti was the next up, a man he did not know following behind. By the time Sapphire reached the top something had begun happening below them. An angry voice was emanating from below, Hiwei pleading with him about something. Cautiously, Pahwon approached the hatch, inching it open to get a look.
â€œâ€¦kidding me. That boy is fit as a fiddle.â€
â€œHeâ€™s no such thing,â€ Hiwei cried, â€œI need to perform a more extensive examination, the infection could be life threatening.â€
â€œPu-leeze, I donâ€™t know what youâ€™re playing at, but the fact isâ€¦â€
â€œPull it open a bit more,â€ Belariti whispered.
â€œâ€¦Could pull a wagonâ€¦â€
â€œWhat?â€ Pahwon asked.
â€œâ€¦from here toâ€¦â€
â€œYou heard me.â€
Hastily, Pahwon pulled the hatch open wide, only for his fingers to slip. The thick wood clunked against the roof, alerting the pirate to a disturbance. A chill when through Pahwon as they made eye contact. A whooshing noise came from behind him. Instantly the pirate crumpled to the floor, an arrow in his throat. Silence fell. Belariti replaced his bow, stepping past the stunned Pahwon and clambering down into the tower.
â€œW-w-w-hat?â€ Taldumu squeaked, clutching Hiwei tightly. â€œIs-is-he? Oh no.â€
â€œMy liege, I am Belariti, fourth level catalog organizer and head of the department archery team.â€
â€œTh-theyâ€™re here to rescue you,â€ Hiwei stuttered, gently patting his arm. â€œItâ€™s going to be ok, youâ€™ll see.â€
â€œPlease, it is our duty.â€
â€œPahwon, youâ€™re here,â€ Kinnut said, looking up through the hole.
â€œHad to see it through,â€ he replied, sliding down into the tower. â€œSo, where is the King and the Queen mother?â€
â€œIâ€™m not sure,â€ Hiwei said.
â€œNot sure? Didnâ€™t you ask his highness?â€
â€œYes, but heâ€™s not very descriptive.â€
â€œPerhaps, he could lead us there?â€ Pahwon suggested hesitantly.
â€œNo, not going back, not, wonâ€™t.â€
â€œDo you think itâ€™s wise?â€ Hiwei asked.
â€œHeâ€™s the only one who knows the way.â€
â€œThatâ€™s Prince Taldumu,â€ Belariti cried.
â€œQuiet you idiot.â€
â€œTaldumu, would you take us to where theyâ€™re keeping your mom and brother? I promise to keep you safe.â€
â€œI-I, Iâ€™ll never have to go back though, you promised.â€
â€œB-Very well, you can go back with them, and theyâ€™ll take you to safety. But, we might not be able to find your family.â€
â€œHuh, might not, but, but, Iâ€™ll take you there. Do I really have to?â€
â€œYou donâ€™t have to, it would just be very, very helpful to everyone.â€
â€œItâ€™s this way.â€
â€œThis isnâ€™t a good idea,â€ Belariti fumed.
â€œWhat would you have us do then?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know Artyom, perhaps what weâ€™re supposeâ€¦â€
â€œPlease pipe down,â€ Pahwon said, manning the door, â€œweâ€™re moving out.â€
Silently, Prince Taldumu emerged from the door and looked around to make certain the coast was clear. With the patrolman dead, the section of wall before them was left vacant. With Hiwei at his side, he led them down the wall and into a small courtyard below. At the far end stood an old and rotten door, their entry into the keep.
They crept along the base of the wall, keeping a look out for any guards. With none in sight, a strange unease settled over them. The feeling that they should have seen someone made them wonder if they were being led into a trap. By the time they reached the door, no one wanted to open it. After a tense pause, Pahwon stepped forward and pulled it ajar. Before him was a darkened chamber filled with selves of bottles. Relieved for the moment, the prince retook the lead, now starting to find his way.
Beyond the bottle room was a stairwell, leading up to the next floor. It was halfway up that they encountered the first signs of life. A pair of muffled voices could be heard, chatting about something. Pahwon again stepped to the front, cautiously moving up the stairs until he could see down the next hall.
Two pirates were seated halfway down the hall, playing cards on a commandeered crate. A third man was walking along the hallway, several pistols protruding from his belt. Pahwon ducked out of sight as he turned to walk back down the hall.
â€œThree of them, one walking down the hallway, the others seated about halfway down.â€
â€œThatâ€™s the hall way he took me down,â€ Taldumu said, poking his head up above the lip. â€œGot to get to the other side.â€
â€œGreat, who are we supposed to do that?â€
â€œWeâ€™re armed, arenâ€™t we?â€ Belariti said coldly. â€œWe take the one as he reaches the end of the hall andâ€¦â€
â€œOy, whatâ€™s this over here?â€ the guard called, foot falls approaching the stairs.
â€œThat settles it,â€ Hiwei said, rushing foreword.
The pirate stopped in his tracks as she emerged, confused at the sight of her. Just as he was reaching for his pistol, she summoned energy into her palm and let it fly. The blast struck him in the face, killing him instantly.
Down the hall, his two friends leapt to their feet and sprinted towards her. As the lead one shouldered his musket, Belariti emerged around the corner and shot him with an arrow. He fell, screaming to the stone floor. Their cover blown, Pahwon raced out and stared down the last pirate.
The man drew out his sword, eyeing his pistol lying beside the overturned crate. Before he could return his gaze to Pahwon, he looked over his wounded friend lying on the ground. His jaw quivered. Pahwon took his chance and charge down the hall at him, bashing his scimitar through the weak parry and clobbering the pirate with the blunt edge.
â€œPrince, we need that direction, now.â€
â€œThis, this way, down here,â€ Taldumu cried, desperately ignoring the horrors before him.
As they arrived at the end of the hall, another pirate rounded the corner, taking aim with his musket. Sapphire gave him a blast of cold, freezing his eyes. The man gasped, inhaling the sub zero air around him. He fell to the floor and began convulsing, coughing and clawing at his eyes.
Beyond him lay the final set of stairs. They quickly mounted them, arriving in the vaulted atrium of what had once been an opulent quarters. Cracked and deteriorating frescos lined the walls and ceiling. A circular hole in the roof opened onto the starry night sky.
A shout echoed from below. Taldumu pointed to the door on the left. Immediately behind it was a lone guard who had barely time to register what was happening before Pahwon bludgeoned him. Before them was a long corridor, a dozen doors on either side. On the far end a lonely window looked back at them.
With time running short, they split up, knocking door after door inwards in a matter of seconds. Prince Hashemel was behind the third door as it happened. He blinked when Hiwei blasted his door inwards, not even bothering to rise from his shabby cot.
â€œNo time to explain your majesty,â€ Hiwei said, grabbing him by the arm. â€œItâ€™s time to leave.â€
â€œWell you certainly know how to make an entrance,â€ he said quietly, tapping on the charred door as they left.
The moment he saw Taldumu his demeanor changed. He embraced his little brother, tears welling up in his eyes.
â€œI am free?â€
â€œNot yet,â€ Pahown warned, bashing in his fifth door. â€œHey, is this your mom Taldumu?â€
â€œMom!â€ he cried, nearly knocking Pahown over as he rushed inside.
â€œMy dear, it is good to see you,â€ she said softly, running her hand through his hair.
â€œCome on, weâ€™ve got to go.â€
The first pirate arrived in the atrium, firing a wild shot down the hall. Artyom and Sapphire rushed to the door and slammed it shut, hoping to buy a few seconds. Without anything to block it Hiwei did the only thing she could think of. She pulled off her robe and laid it at the base of the door before setting it on fire. Soon the blaze caught the door alight. Smoke starting to fill the chamber, they quickly rushed to the window. Pahwon looked out, seeing nothing but a long fall to the jagged rocks below.
â€œDid anyone think to bring a rope?â€
â€œI did,â€ Hiwei said, unfurling her long strip of fabric.
â€œThat will never support our weight.â€ Belariti protested.
A loud bang echoed though the hallway. He paled, glancing back at the burning door.
â€œM-maybe if itâ€™s been doubled up? Try that.â€
The gaggle of pirates who had gathered around the burning door parted as their leader approached. Pauler looked back, his men putting down their makeshift battering ram before saluting.
â€œSir, weâ€™ve almost got the doorsâ€¦â€
â€œRead this.â€ he uttered, shoving the small note into his Lieutenantâ€™s hand.
â€œIt, looks like a message from the kid.â€
â€œExactly, I get this, moments before weâ€™re attacked. That is not a coincidence.â€
â€œSo they have to leave by ship, and coincidentally there is another ship in harbor at this very moment, that carried this message.â€
â€œGo. To. The. Docks. NOW!â€
â€œYes, yes, yes sir, men, go, weâ€™re going, going, come on, letâ€™s move.â€
His men scattered, rushing down the stairs. Soon he was alone. The room fell quiet, save for the crackling of the fire. Montague lingered in the chamber, trying to work out how everything had gone so wrong. Something bothered him, aside from the loss of three more of his crew. As he pondered, the charred door began to buckle. He stepped back as it collapsed into a pile of smoldering cinders on the floor.
As the smoke began to clear, he saw something in the hallway beyond. Curious and furious, he stepped across the threshold and approached the last figure in the room. He caught sight of a young man, standing over the window. The lad looked back, his face so familiar. Montague reached for his pistol when it clicked in his head.
â€œThe boy from Durus,â€ his whispered. â€œNo, how could you be here?â€
A man began coughing. Instantly he looked down and spotted old Charlie laying on the floor. He reached down and helped him to his feet. By the time he looked back, the lad was gone.
Five feet from the ground, Pahwon decided her could take the fall, and let go of the fabric. He stumbled on the rocky shore, Sapphire picking him back up. Knowing they had only minutes to spare, Pahwon, Sapphire, and Hiwei rushed down the wall, hoping they werenâ€™t already too late.
The royals had already rounded the corner, and Pahwon knew Belariti would want to leave the moment they got back on ship. Still, he also knew Tossmek wouldnâ€™t leave without them. He ran as fast as he could, stumbling several times along the way.
Above them shouts flew through the air, the fortress now lighting up like a lantern. Several pirates leaned over the wall and took shots at them, though none came close to hitting. As they rounded the last corner they came upon a firefight.
Gunmen on the gate were shooting at their ship, their comrades returning fire as best they could. Pahwonâ€™s heart skipped a beat when he realized it was starting to move. Without hesitating he dove into the water and swam for his life.
The sound of gunfire was muffled by the water, which calmed him. In the back of his mind he knew they were just as deadly, but the noise seemed somehow less threatening. A sharp pain shot through his arm. He gasped, reeling back from the shock. He coughed out a lungful of water as someone grabbed him and pushed him the last ten feet.
He emerged next to the ship dang grabbed the nearest rope with his good arm. Sapphire emerged next to him, Hiwei a moment later. A shot impacted the railing above them, sending splinters down upon them. Undeterred, Pahwon heaved himself on deck and inspected the damage.
It was a graze, but the wound stung from the saltwater and bled profusely. Sapphire jumped down beside him, taking a look herself. She turned him around and wrapped her cloth belt around it. Then she kissed him. A final shot slammed into the deck a few feet away and the guns fell silent.
They looked towards shore, reckoning they were now out of range. A few cheers went up as the ship began turning into the wind. Pahwon and Sapphire walked over to the side, looking out at the fortress as the pirates impotently shouted from shore. Then, the other ship moored on the dock began to move.
â€œUh-oh,â€ Pahwon said, turning to Tossmek, â€œHey, does anyone here know how to fire a cannon?â€
They have to be stopped,â€ Sapphire said quietly, â€œIâ€™ll have to stop them.â€
Silently, she walked over to the shipâ€™s edge, summoning all her power into her hands. Then she reached down into the water and sent two columns of ice towards the boat, pouring all her strength down them. When they hit the keel, she froze as much as she could expending all of power into an expanding ball of ice. The ship was stopped dead in its tracks.
Exhausted, she started slipping over the side. Pahwon reached down and pulled her upright. She swayed on the spot, her mind starting to go fuzzy. She fell back, Pahwon caching her before she hit the deck.
â€œIâ€™m going to take a long, long nap now,â€ she replied, â€œcause that, was quiet, a, thing.â€
Unable to stay awake, Sapphire lost consciousness, and slipped into dreamland.
Giorgioatched as the ship sailed out of his reach, on the verge of a breakdown. He dragged his fingers down his face, trying to restart his brain.
â€œWhatâ€™s going on Giorgio?â€ Argider called, rushing out onto the dock. â€œWhatâ€™s happened?â€
â€œMontague, whatâ€™s happening?â€
â€œWhy, your murder,â€ Giorgio replied, drawing his pistol. â€œConsider our arrangement null and void.â€
Giorgio fired, blowing the top of Argiderâ€™s head off. A sweeping sensation of relief spread through him as the personification of all his woes fell dead before him. He holstered the pistol, suddenly in a much better mood.
â€œA-admiral?â€ Pauler called, â€œAre you alright?â€
â€œJust-fucking-peachy. Chop that, thing, into chum,â€ he ordered, pointing Argiderâ€™s corpse. â€œThen start getting the ship de-iced. Weâ€™re setting sail at dawn.
â€œA certain empireâ€™s shipping lanes, of course. After everything that has happened, I believe they owe us a fairly substantial sum, and I aim to take it from them; one way or the other.â€
Archers prowled the rooftops of Kassar, peering through binoculars for any sign of trouble. Below, platoons of soldiers patrolled the perimeter of Muâ€™at square, a crowd eagerly awaiting the kingâ€™s coronation. On the plinth were gathered the rebels whoâ€™d rescued the monarchy. Artyom and Belariti stood centre stage, Girvki and Soshet nearby, with Talaku in standing by her side.
She looked down at her brother, wondering why he and his friends were so far down from where they belonged. Before she could ponder it too much, the royal carriage pulled into view, flanked by eight musket armed horsemen. The guard leader pulled open the door, letting a jittery Hashamel out before his people.
Taldumu poked his head out, not emerging until his mother gave him a little push. The two princes and the queen mother mounted the steps, the king to be looking over his shoulder more than a few times. Quietly he took his seat, priestess Kinnut going ratherÂ quickly over her lines. As she spoke, he admired the statue of Dmitriev, hoping he could make as good a king as he had.
At long last the crown was lowered over his head and he was king. The crowd cheered, though most seemed simply eager to get away. With the heavy gold now on his head, he walked by his rescuers, shaking each of their hands in turn. After Shaking hands with Sapphire, he turned to Pahwon, wondering why the lad was so far down the plinth. He shrugged, and shook his hand as well.
With the formalities over, the king rushed to his carriage, though Taldumu beat him inside. As the crowd dispersed Pahwon took his leave, walking quickly into the thickest part of them. Before he could get far, a hand landed on his shoulder. He turned around, knowing who it was.
â€œHey, why did you let Belariti and the others take centre stage.â€
â€œBecause they wanted it.â€
â€œBut you, you deserved to be up there as much as they did.â€
â€œDid I? Perhaps, but, it just didnâ€™t feel right to me.â€
â€œSo you say.â€
â€œHey, Iâ€™ve got some things to think about, I think all of us do.â€
â€œThatâ€™s certainly true.â€
â€œI-Iâ€™m going into government, Soshet thinksâ€™ she can get me a spot.â€
â€œHuh, thatâ€™s pretty good.â€
â€œAnd, Sapphire, will you stay around here?â€
â€œI would very much like that, if youâ€™ll have me.â€
â€œThen, youâ€™ll be seeing me around for a very long time.â€
â€œThatâ€™s good to hear.â€