The Quest for Rinaria, Part X
The Hidden City, Part 2
“We found it!”
Spread out below them was a nearly symmetrical valley bordered by two headlands that fell to the sea as smoothly as a skirt. It was covered with light gray sand, scraggly grass and vines, and broken stone ruins, some bearing scorch marks, most barely taller than a ferret. Beyond the valley was a beach with bright gold sand, and then a circular bay of brightest blue. Wynraser was anchored in the middle of the bay.
Korep and Ksheygha stood staring a moment longer. Then Ksheygha spun around and shouted, “Come on!” while beckoning the pirates with both paws.
Korep drew his largest knife and held it up high so that the sun glinted off the blade. After a few minutes, there were responding flashes from Wynraser.
Aboard Shartalla’s ship, there was a loud cacophony of cheering when they saw the knife signals. Shartalla’s paws barely touched the deck as she swung down from the bowsprit toward the mainmast. “Shore parties, int’ the boats!” she crowed. “We’re landin’ port o’ the white rock! Bring all yer gear!”
Zuryzel hurried in her wake; as the pirates began climbing overboard into the longboats, she caught Una’s paw. “We made it, Una!” she practically shouted. “We’re here! It’s Rinaria!”
Una nodded. “It’s dry land.”
The princess and the raccoon gleefully followed Shartalla into the largest longboat. The pine marten simply vaulted the railing and landed on her paws in the middle of the boat; Zuryzel and Una, along with Tsanna and most of the other pirates, had to make use of the rope ladders. Those who would be taking the first watch on the ship tossed equipment like rope and shovels in after them. When Shartalla judged the boat loaded enough, she shouted, “Shove off! Out oars!”
The oars that had been held vertically were now laid flat.
“Start rowin’!” Shartalla crowed.
Zuryzel could not recall a time when longboats when faster than that day as they sped toward the shore.
At the base of the Icy Cliff, the last of the pirates were beginning to climb. Snowhawk had stayed at the back – no doubt uncomfortable at the idea of having any of the pirates at her back. She was the last to set paw on the ice. As she straightened from pulling herself into the lowest crevice, a steel sword suddenly appeared at her throat.
She stifled her gasp and turned to look at the wielder. “Dejuday. I didn’t realize you were here.”
The Wraith Mouse pressed the sword a little closer against Snowhawk’s throat, preventing her from shouting for her crew. The odd shadows thrown by the sunlight and the crevices weren’t night, but they were the next best thing. It was hard to tell, but the ice reflected the sun like a thousand-layer mirror, meaning that the pirates’ eyes were virtually useless in the shadows. Wraith Mice were almost as adept at using shadows as they were at using their nightly magic. Dejuday had been waiting for over an hour for Snowhawk to start climbing.
“Why is Mokimshim having you follow us?” he demanded in a low voice, wary of it echoing to her crew.
“He ain’t,” Snowhawk replied quietly.
“Then what is he paying you to do?” Dejuday snapped. “You must have followed us here, since I can’t think of any other way for you to know about this island. Unless someone told you too much, but I can’t think of anyone here who would tell you anything. It baffles reason for you to be here.”
“But you expected I’d show,” Snowhawk said quietly.
Dejuday did not at all like the glimmer in her cruel black eyes. Ksheygha might have seen her as young, and Eneng might have seen her as the creature who rescued his sister, but those traits notwithstanding, Snowhawk was still a threat, and that was how Dejuday saw her. “I wondered,” he replied coldly. “It was too coincidental – you showing up in the tavern only a few minutes after Ksheygha came in. It got me wondering if you were really following Ksheygha. After all, Mokimshim hates her, and every time we’ve stumbled across you in a tavern, Ksheygha was there as well. But the Wideprow’s not here, so there’s no reason for you to know Ksheygha would be here, either. What is Mokimshim paying you for?”
“Mokimshim’s pay,” Snowhawk said flatly, “goes only as far as the coast. What I do when I sail the islands is my time, no one else’s. At least, not fer now. I got ’ere by followin’ Seawraith. I stopped at Mauggiak Island an’ they said Winterblade ’ad been there. They mentioned Eneng an’ Korep, too, but Winterblade was the one I was followin’.”
Dejuday didn’t think she was lying. But she was a pirate, and Dejuday was sure she was a very skilled liar. Besides –
“And why did you stop at Mauggiak in the first place?” he persisted.
She shrugged. “Mauggiak’s water keeps its taste e’en after months o’ bein’ in a barrel. I like fillin’ my water casks there.”
“You’re in Mokimshim’s employ, you just happen to show up when we’re all in Myanka, and you just happen to land at Mauggiak Island soon enough after we left that you could follow us?” Dejuday snapped. “That’s a lot of happens, Snowhawk!”
But they hadn’t decided to sojourn to Mauggiak until after their sojourn to Serapis and Windcriers Reef, Dejuday remembered, and they had been at Mauggiak for two weeks with no sign of Snowhawk.
“It’s only one happen,” Snowhawk replied quietly. “O’ course I was watchin’ fer you an’ the princess in Myanka. But only in Myanka. I don’t don anythin’ fer Mokimshim outside o’ the Cliff Mouse Cities.”
“Watching us why?” Dejuday pressed. “Why does Mokimshim have you following us?”
“I ain’t asked,” Snowhawk snapped. “Mercenaries never do – it ain’t our job t’ ask.”
Slowly, Dejuday lowered his sword. What she said was believable – especially if Mokimshim were paying her out of some kind of official treasury fund. He could legally use that money on mercenaries as long as their activities didn’t go beyond the Wraith Mouse jurisdiction, and the Cliff Mouse cities were inclusive in that. Dejuday doubted Snowhawk knew that, so it didn’t make sense for her to be lying about what Mokimshim’s instructions were.
As soon as Dejuday’s sword was no longer blocking her way, Snowhawk turned and faced him. “After you.”
“I think not,” Dejuday replied, his voice brittle. “You’re the mercenary paid by someone who wishes me ill – I won’t expose my back to you.”
“An’ you just ’eld a sword t’ my throat,” Snowhawk snapped. “An’ in case you didn’ notice, I ain’t got any o’ my weapons. Eneng’s got ’em until ’is sister is safe back aboard the Seawraith.”
It was hard to argue with her logic there, Dejuday reflected. And without her weapons, she’d be even more defensive, and less willing to back down. Well … he’d just have to keep his sword drawn and ready.
It was hard to say how far it was from the tip of the ridge to the sea – a mile, maybe? The first third of it looked as though it had never been inhabited. The last two thirds were completely scattered with the broken rubble and burnt-out structures of what had once been a great city.
For Shartalla, that was enough. But she knew that some had been hoping to find treasure. And there was none.
The ruin reminded her of the standing stones in Serapis – there was some great history behind them, but it was completely unexplained. The stones seemed to whisper to her, telling her how they came to be ruins, but it was in a language she couldn’t understand. She remembered Ksheygha’s warning about there being a volcano, and the great mountain standing over these ruins certainly looked capable of erupting – that must be it.
Zuryzel wandered beside her, brushing her paw against the ruins. For the most part, the only things still standing were curved pieces of rock that almost looked like they were the ribs to some kind of dome.
“None o’ these are tall enough t’ belong to a house,” Shartalla murmured to her friend.
“Think the city was buried?” Zuryzel murmured. “Or just shaken apart?”
Shartalla shook her head. “No idea.”
A little later, the scattered crew of Wynraser heard familiar voices calling. Korep and the rest of the crews had made it down the mountain. Shartalla climbed atop the nearest steady piece of rock. Waving her paws, she shouted, “Korep! Over ’ere!”
She stayed atop the rock for a few more minutes; then she could make out Korep and Ksheygha hurrying toward them, and she hopped lightly down.
The two ferrets joined them a few minutes later. Ksheygha’s fur was speckled with gray dust and still stood on end in excitement; Korep’s expression was mildly amused.
“Well,” he said, sounding like he was trying not to laugh at Ksheygha. “Ain’t what I imagined.”
Zuryzel ignored that. “Guess whose ship we saw on the way here.”
“Nygoan?” Ksheygha offered wryly. “Yeah, we ran into Snowhawk and her landing party. Interesting things happened.”
“Winterblade fell into a hot spring,” Korep elaborated. “Snowhawk pulled ’er out.”
“Is Winterblade all right?” Shartalla exclaimed.
“Alive,” Korep replied. “I ain’t seen ’er.” He tapped the nearest ruin. “So – we found Rinaria. C’n you believe it?”
“Snowhawk and Eneng had a bet going,” Ksheygha added, smiling. “And now she’ll have to tell us how she followed us.”
“We were wonderin’ if maybe a volcano could’ve done this,” Shartalla said to Ksheygha. “What d’ you think?”
Ksheygha shook her head. “I don’t think so. If a volcano erupted, it wouldn’t have knocked these buildings over like they are. I think it was an earthquake – that would explain why all the buildings look so shaken.”
There was the crunching of footpaws, and then Eneng and Snowhawk appeared behind Korep and Ksheygha. Both pirates looked as though they were trying not to look like children who had woken up on the day of their birthday party only to discover that all of their friends had canceled.
Ksheygha gave them a cheerful smile. “We were just speculating about what happened to the city.”
Snowhawk waved an aimless paw at a wide, flat piece of rock that had fallen against a narrow pillar that might have been a supporting column. “An’ what were you thinkin’?”
“An earthquake’d leave these buildin’s in the shape they’re in,” Korep replied.
“That wouldn’ta killed ’em all,” Snowhawk pointed out. “The survivors could’ve rebuilt.”
“Unless the quake came after they’d left,” Ksheygha said enthusiastically. “If something killed everyone here, or drove them out – a plague would do that!”
Eneng finally whipped his head around to glare at her. “So what ’appened t’ all the treasure in Rinaria?” he demanded snappishly. “Why is this all that’s left?”
He angrily waved his paw at the ruins.
Shartalla sighed silently. She had expected this from Eneng, and no doubt Winterblade, too.
“Perhaps the stories were exaggerated,” Ksheygha suggested mildly. “Eneng, it doesn’t really matter!” She waved her own paw at the ruins. “Look at this! We found the old city!”
Eneng glanced between Shartalla and Zuryzel at the coast. “Per’aps.”
Snowhawk shot Eneng a sidelong glance. “I told you – she almost died fer nothin’.”
And this is where we split, Shartalla thought. She tapped Zuryzel’s shoulder and jerked her head toward one of the ruins a few feet away, indicating that they should go examine it. Zuryzel followed her promptly, leaving the older and wiser creatures to deal with Eneng and Snowhawk.
The ruin Shartalla had selected resembled a wide, perfectly circular basin big enough for a few creatures to stand in. The pirate bent close to inspect the rim. “Huh – looks like there mighta been some markings. Zyna, I think this was a fountain!”
She glanced over her shoulder, and saw that the Wraith Mouse princess was on her knees a few steps away, examining the ground.
“Shartalla,” the said ponderously. “What kind of rock is the ground made of?”
The pirate bent down and brushed away a little dust. “Looks like pumice – it’s made from volcanic ash. Means that mountain must’ve gone off at some point.”
Zuryzel nodded and got to her paws. “Pumice is the rock that floats, isn’t it?”
“Aye,” Shartalla replied. “It's used fer scrubbin’, too.”
The Wraith Mouse kicked at the dust a little. “Hm. Okay – what did you want me to see?”
“It looks like there were some carvings on this thing. ’ere –”
Shartalla had half-turned back to the fountain as she spoke, and so caught what happened next out of the corner of her eye. Zuryzel took one step forward, and suddenly the pumice collapsed beneath her! The Wraith Mouse princess disappeared into the ground with a startled yelp. A moment later, there was a heavy thud.
“Zyna!” Shartalla screamed.
Two raced steps brought her to the hole where Zuryzel had fallen through. Shartalla dropped to her knees and peered down, careful not to block the sunlight. The hole showed down into inky blackness. A circle of light illuminated Zuryzel flat on her stomach, her face turned to one side.
“Zyna?” Shartalla’s panicked cry was heavily colored with pleading. “Are y’ all right?”
At her friend’s cry, Zuryzel stirred. She raised her head. “Aye,” she called. “I’m fine.”
But she likely wouldn’t have been if she wore her sword on her waist instead of on her back. At least she wasn’t lying awkwardly, meaning she likely hadn’t broken any bones. “Can y’ stand?” Shartalla pressed.
The commotion had drawn the attention of the other captains; Eneng raced up to look over Shartalla’s shoulder, followed by Korep and Ksheygha, and then Snowhawk at a much more leisurely pace. Zuryzel groaned and pulled her knees under her, lifting herself into a kneeling position.
And then she froze.
“Zyna?” Shartalla urged, frightened again.
Zuryzel’ didn’t reply at first; she was staring at something off in the darkness.
“I’m all right,” Zuryzel said quickly. “Shartalla – I think you’d better get down here.”
Zuryzel’s Wraith Mouse eyes were of almost-nocturnal quality; she could see in nearly-total blackness as well as in broad daylight. When she had fallen, she thought she’d fallen into some kind of natural crevice.
But the ornate table quickly dispelled that theory. So did the thirty or so chairs clustered around it. Not to mention the gold plates, silver cups, and gem-studded serving dishes set perfectly in place atop it. Or the upward-spiraling stairs that began six strides from her right paw.
The Wraith Mouse princess managed to pull herself out from under the circle of light, leaving room for Shartalla to land. When she glanced up, she saw Shartalla lower herself into the hole, clinging with her forepaws; a moment later, she released her grip and landed in a smooth crouch.
“Showoff,” Zuryzel muttered.
Shartalla ignored the jibe and extended a paw. “Y’ okay?”
Zuryzel accepted the proffered paw and managed to stand. “Sure, just bruised.”
“Then why’d y’ want me down ’ere?” Shartalla asked in amazement.
Without a word, Zuryzel pointed.
Shartalla squinted into the darkness. “Zyna, my eyes are still adjusted t’ the sun. What’re y’ pointing at?”
Wordlessly, Zuryzel pulled Shartalla forward, out of the light. She then guided the pirate’s paw to a plate resting on the banquet table. There was seasons of dust piled on top of it.
“Pick it up,” Zuryzel murmured. “Then hold it up, facing the light. And keep your voice down.”
“Why’m I keeping my voice down?” Shartalla murmured back.
“So we can surprise Eneng,” Zuryzel smirked.
Shartalla gave a dubious look more or less in her direction; then she turned to face the light, and held the plate in front of her eyes.
“Are y’ two all right down there?” Korep called. “We can’t see you!”
“We’re fine,” Zuryzel called back. “Hang on a bit.”
Shartalla turned the plate over and over in her paws; then she whispered, “Is this a plate?”
“Indeed it is,” Zuryzel murmured. “There’s a long table just behind you, and there are some stairs going upward to your left. Wait here a minute. Don’t say anything.”
With that, she hurried for the stairs.
They spiraled up in a counter-clockwise direction, which meant they were definitely not meant for defense; usually stair spiraled clockwise, so as to not hamper the right-pawed defenders. Zuryzel, being left-pawed, usually found stairs to be an annoyance. But these were made of heavy wood – still somehow sturdily intact – and, judging from the designs carved into the pawrail, were purely decorative.
“Zuryzel? Shartalla?” called Dejuday’s voice.
“We’re fine!” Zuryzel shouted back. Her voice echoed, no doubt perplexing those listening by the hole. “Just a bit!”
About four stairs form the top, she saw the underside of the ground above. Touching it carefully with her paw, she realized it, too, was pumice. She shook her sword sheathe, sword and all, from her shoulders; then she drove the hilt of her sword upward against the pumice.
It broke as easily as she’d thought it would, letting in a single ray of afternoon sunshine. Using her sword, Zuryzel knocked aside more of the pumice until she had made a hole big enough for her to fit her head and shoulders through. Slinging her sword back over her shoulders, she poked her head above the ground and smiled.
A crowd had gathered around the place she’d fallen, Una the raccoon among them. As she rested her paws on the ground, Dejuday called again, uncertainly, “Zuryzel?”
“Yes?” she asked.
Every head turned, and just about every jaw dropped. Korep pointed at her and said, “What?”
“The cavern I fell into isn’t natural,” she smiled. “I’m standing on some stairs.”
Ksheygha slipped between Korep and Eneng. “Is it a tomb?” she asked interestedly.
Zuryzel grinned. “Actually,” she said, “it looks more like a banquet hall.”
The commotion to enlarge the two holes kept Eneng and Snowhawk from getting near to either of them. The two ferrets stepped back, watching as the creatures who sailed under them hacked earnestly away at the pumice. However antagonistic the two captains were towards one another, their crews worked together fine. Eneng strongly suspected that it had something to do with how Tine had saved Winterblade; most of his crew loved his sister.
There was a rhythmic whoosh to his left, and then Snowhawk uttered a startled cry and jumped backwards into him. Eneng managed to keep his balance and grabbed her shoulders to keep her from moving again; when she was steady, he asked, “What is it, Craic?”
Snowhawk snatched herself away before Craic responded; the raven glanced at her and cawed, “I have word. Your sister lives, is safe on her ship.”
“C’n I ’ave my weapons back, then?” Snowhawk snapped, still keeping her distance from the great black bird.
Eneng drew the sword, gripped the flat, and extended the hilt to her. She snatched it and sheathed it with such vehemence Eneng wondered if she had been trying to slice his paw. He then drew both her knives out from his belt and extended them to her much the same way. Her snatching was less vicious this time.
“’ow is she?” Eneng asked the raven, ignoring Snowhawk.
Craic fluttered his wings, a raven equivalent of a shrug. “She shook off the bandages as swiftly as she could. She sails in her ship with the healer and her crew to find you all.”
“What?” Eneng cried. “Wait – no! Craic, go back, tell ’er not t’ come. Tell ’er t’ wait with Searaider an’ Oceanflower!”
“Why’s that?” Korep called from where he stood amidst the mass of amateur excavators, most of whom had stopped chipping away at the pumice to see what was going on.
“She almost died twice yesterday!” Eneng snapped, hardly able to believe it had only been yesterday. “The way she’s been burned, if she ’as one more event like yesterday’s, it won’t be an almost.”
“When was the first time?” Una asked, puzzled.
“When we a’most stepped on a geyser,” Eneng growled. He glared back at the raven. “Tell ’er not t’ come, Craic!”
“She’ll want t’ see all this,” Korep said, just loudly enough to be heard.
“There is much to see,” the raven agreed.
“Then tell ’er there ain’t nothin’ ’ere,” Eneng retorted. “Tell ’er this coast is empty. She c’n be as mad at me as she wants when we gets back, as long as she’s alive.”
Now all activity around the holes had ceased. For a few moments there was complete stillness; then the dust whispered with the sound of one set of paws heading toward Eneng and Craic. When they stopped, Eneng felt a gentle presence near him and turned to see Ksheygha.
“Winterblade was the first creature across the geyser field,” she said calmly. “She deserves to be here.”
“Yesterday, you said goin’ across the geyser field was foolish,” Eneng snarled.
“And did that stop you then?” Ksheygha challenged him.
No. It hadn’t. Reluctantly, Eneng turned back to the raven. “Tell her t’ be careful.”
“An’ tell ’er t’ leave my ship alone!” Snowhawk added.
She winced as Craic’s eyes turned to her. “I saw a new ship – yours, I presume. It will be here soon. It is not far.”
With that, he took off, winging over the mountain and back toward Seawraith.
Snowhawk sighed and released her grip on her sword.
Once the raven was out of sight, the pirates returned to digging.
Eneng glanced around, but no one was paying him or Snowhawk any attention. There was something he’d been wondering about his sister’s rival, and her reaction to the presence of a raven only confirmed it. He took a few steps nearer to her so he could speak quietly, and said, “I didn’t know yer father served on Deathwind.”
Snowhawk looked at him as though he were crazy. “Beg pardon?”
“Well, that is why you were on Mauggiak, right?” Eneng pressed. “Visitin’ yer father?”
“What makes you think my family ain’t on Pelleck?” Snowhawk queried.
“Oh, y’ talk with a Pelleck accent,” Eneng allowed. “But the range y’ use is low an’ husky, e’en though you c’n clearly speak in ’igher ranges when y’ choose. All the ferrets I spoke with on Mauggiak did that, too. Also, y’ were nervous about that raven. On Mauggiak, I ’eard ravens were signs o’ darker times comin’ – like storm clouds on the horizon. Not t’ mention, there’s no ale on Mauggiak island, which is why I figure y’ lets yer crew drink at sea.”
Snowhawk blinked. “An’ what ’as any o’ this got t’ do with my father an’ the Deathwind?”
Eneng jerked his head back at the mountain. “When we were restin’ las’ night by that glowin’ river, I thought y’ looked like you were wrapped up in a fish scale. An’ you – what’s the phrase? – ‘bore a striking resemblance’ t’ a ferret who met us at Mauggiak wearin’ a cloak made o’ fish scales. I spoke with ’im at one point, an’ ’e used a phrase I remembered my father usin’. I asked if ’e’d ever been aboard Deathwind.”
Snowhawk blinked again. “Yer father was on Deathwind?”
Eneng snorted. “He was the cap’n.” After a moment, he asked, “Is that what y’ needed all the money fer? Something on Mauggiak?”
“Ain’t none o’ yer business,” Snowhawk growled. She gave an uncomfortable shrug of her shoulders. “When I saw ’im, ’e gave me a pawband. ’Twas silver with emeralds. Was that yours?”
Eneng nodded. “I’d given it him as thanks – ’e’d helped me figure out what the Whale’s Eye was.”
When Shartalla’s eyes finally adjusted enough for her to see what Zuryzel had seen, she could have cried.
They were most definitely standing inside a palace of some kind, no doubt buried by volcanic ash. But before the ash, it had been a place of superb grandeur. Between the settings on the table, the torch brackets on the wall, and the artfully-made ornaments scattered about the hall, there was enough treasure to more than load up all their ships. The hole Zuryzel had fallen through was a sunhole cut into the roof to allow the sunlight or starlight to filter in on fine days. There were shreds of tacked to the stone on either side, so when the volcano erupted it must have been covered with cloth that had rotted away over time.
Dejuday hadn’t waited for the holes to be enlarged before following his mate down the stairs, and before he’d looked at the banquet all even a little, he’d wrapped her in an embrace – no doubt he’d been worried when Zuryzel fell through the roof. Shartalla smirked as she waited for them; once Dejuday was satisfied his beloved princess was unhurt, he gazed around with the same expression she’d worn.
Shartalla pointed to a passageway snaking off in wall opposite the stairs. “C’n we explore that?”
“We’re not stopping you,” Zuryzel replied distractedly.
“I can’t see down there,” Shartalla pointed out.
And over the next four hours, the Wraith Mice and the raccoon, who had until now been of little use on this venture, became invaluable. They lead the way through different stone passages, their nocturnal eyes sensitive to even the tiniest speck of light. They found sleeping chambers with low wooden beds, rooms that were clearly meant just for show (much to the pirates’ delight,) and rooms that were intended for servants’ uses.
Shartalla and Zuryzel were, of course, in the same group. Behind them, pirates were leaving torches along the routes they’d come, so no one would get lost in the darkness. Ksheygha was frantically dashing back and forth among the now-lit passages, warning the pirates not to move anything until she’d taken a good look at it. Shartalla and Korep obliged her, ordering their crews to leave things alone until Ksheygha could document them on a roll of parchment she’d gotten from Wynraser; but from the sounds that echoed back and forth among the otherwise-deserted palace, it sounded as though Eneng and Snowhawk had ignored her.
And as for the treasure? Everything small enough to fit into a sack was lifted up, dusted off, and, if deemed pricey enough, was collected carefully by the pirates. Tiny jars studded with gems, gold-and-silver lamps that could fit into a paw, goblets encrusted with emeralds, and sheets of obsidian that Ksheygha judged had been used for mirrors all lined the loot bags of pirates. Shartalla discovered a golden necklace with three heavy ruby pendants dangling from the chains. She extended this to Zuryzel, but the Wraith Mouse shook her head.
“No rubies. Wraith Mice don’t wear them – they resemble an eclipse too much.”
Shartalla smiled and draped the necklace around her own neck. “Yeesh! It’s ’eavy! Why’d anyone wear somethin’ like this?”
Zuryzel shrugged. “Haven’t you ever seen my mother’s official crown? It weighs enough that she can’t wear it for more than a few hours.”
This exchange took place in a long corridor; the necklace had been on display on a decorative table beneath a torch bracket. When Shartalla tucked it into a pouch she wore at her waist, Zuryzel started forward again. She had almost disappeared into the gloom when Shartalla heard her shout.
“Shartalla! Look at this!”
The pirate captain hurried forward, only to have Zuryzel’s paw grab her arm. “Wait – don’t rush! You’ll fall off!”
That made no sense to Shartalla, who could see nothing but a wall of black. A moment later, she felt a familiar cold creep through her fur. “Doin’ this again?”
“Why not?” Zuryzel muttered. “It’s not that different from the maze in Ezdrid.”
Suddenly Shartalla began to see little strands of silver light across her vision. As Zuryzel’s magic settled into her, the silver began to dance and swirl, until the pale light and darkness had all settled into what lay in front of her.
And … yikes.
They stood just in front of what was left of a staircase – only six steps remained – and that staircase went up to a door on the other side of an abyss. Even Zuryzel couldn’t see to the bottom of it.
“This staircase must have been more fragile than the one in the banquet hall,” Zuryzel murmured in a small voice. “But I wonder what it was supposed to lead to…”
Shartalla mentally measured the distance from the corridor they stood in to the door the stairs had led to. It was the only door in a wall of stone – but the stone had either been badly cut or was somewhat natural, because the face was rough and craggy.
The pirate backed away from the edge. “Bring some torches an’ a rope – slowly!” She shouted.
“Shartalla?” Zuryzel asked in alarm. “What are you going to do?”
Shartalla spared a grin for her friend. “Somethin’ y’ can’t do unless y’re a pine marten.”
“It’s too dangerous!” Zuryzel exclaimed.
“Not fer me it ain’t.”
The rope and torches were brought by Skorlaid, Shartalla’s first mate. She briskly tied one end around herself, while Skorlaid confidently tied the other end around a spike of rock. As she checked all the knots to make sure they were tight enough, she heard Eneng’s voice.
“What’s ’oldin’ this up?”
“A chasm,” Zuryzel called back.
“But not fer long!” Shartalla added cheerfully.
Oh, Zyna … Shartalla thought gleefully.
She stepped up to the base of the stairs, and then pulled back a few steps. Briefly her eyes closed, and then reopened. And then she ran.
On the sixth step, she pushed off with her powerful hind legs, leaping as only a fully-grown pine marten can leap. She was airborne for a few seconds; then her claws caught on the rock.
She hugged the rock for a second, regaining her breath; then she began climbing upward with ease. When her paws found the wooden threshold of the door, she hauled herself up and ducked inside the strange room, looking for a place to make the line secure.
“That makes my paws ache,” Snowhawk grumbled as Shartalla glided smoothly up the rock wall.
Zuryzel smirked to herself. She’d never thought much of the mercenary captain before, but after hearing of her climb on the great glacier… well, an idea was forming in the princess’s rarely-still mind.
“It’s tied off!” Shartalla’s voice echoed. “Zyna, need you t’ see!”
Zuryzel clicked two pieces of metal on her sword’s sheathe into place, thus locking her sword into the sheathe. Then she reached up with both paws and hoisted herself up, until she hung by all four paws. Don’t look down. As calmly as she could, she climbed paw-over-paw, pulling herself along the rope. The abyss lay beneath her like a hungry mouth, but she ignored it. There was silence throughout the ruins as the princess climbed, and far sooner than she’d expected, she found herself in the room on the far side.
“Nicely done!” called Eneng’s voice.
Shartalla’s paw squeezed Zuryzel’s shoulder as the princess released her footpaws. Then she let go of the rope and turned around to survey the room.
“I c’n see some shelves,” Shartalla murmured. “But that’s it.”
Zuryzel stared for a few seconds. Then she called, “Get Ksheygha over here!”
“Why?” Eneng shouted back, his voice echoing thunderously. “What is it?”
Ksheygha was almost too excited to breathe when her paws touched down on the library’s threshold. She removed the lit torch she’d clamped between her teeth and held it out eagerly as she burst into the library.
The term library was actually a little generous, she soon found; the library on Pelleck Island was more extensive, and she was sure the ones at Arashna or Pasadagavra would have dwarfed that one. But still – this was exactly the kind of thing that could keep her happy for hours.
The books, she noted, were all bound with plant fibers, and each of them had a title written on the spine. The words were faded and dusty, but they were all written in the same language that the strange clues had been written in.
“Zuryzel?” Ksheygha called. “Shartalla? Where are you?”
Zuryzel’s voice sounded back to the ferret. “At the back, Ksheygha.”
She sounded sad, the ferret noted. Frowning, Ksheygha hurried past the rows of shelves – they were made of stone – to “the back.”
The princess and the pirate stood on the edge of a circular basin that stood in a corner; on each wall, there was a spigot, which might have expelled water into the basin, like a fountain. Clustered around the fountain were the one thing Ksheygha hadn’t seen in the entire ruins.
“They were ’ere fer the water,” Shartalla said quietly.
“They look like otters to me,” Zuryzel added. “And some mice, here and there.”
Ksheygha stared at the skeletons – there were maybe eighty of them? An old story she’d heard on Pelleck Island returned to her, about how ghosts from a sunken ship rose from their skeletons to guard their treasure, and she turned away from the sight.
Then she saw a lone skeleton, clearly an otter, sitting in a chair. The poor creature grasped a book in both paws. Very carefully, Ksheygha slipped the book from the bones’ grasp, went to the nearest table she could find, and opened it.
“What is it, Ksheygha?” Shartalla asked.
Ksheygha scanned the first page, keeping the torch as far away as she could. “‘The account of the adult days of Mydi the otter.’ It’s a journal.”
For the next hour, Ksheygha was oblivious to the comings and goings of the pirates she’d sailed with. True, there weren’t many – few of them were interested in a library. But she only looked up from the journal when something metal was laid gently on the table beside her.
“Fer you,” said Korep’s voice.
He’d placed a beautiful replication of a lily-of-the-valley on the table beside her. The stem and two broad leaves were made of silver, the little bell-shaped flowers of gleaming mother-of-pearl. It stood on a stand made of obsidian. Ksheygha smiled at it, and then up at her friend. “It’s beautiful.”
Korep smiled mischievously.
Ksheygha reached over to pick it up by the stem, and the flower came free of the base. “What – Korep, is this a pen?”
“That’s why I saved it fer you,” Korep replied quietly.
Now Ksheygha’s eyes filmed over with tears. When they’d been shipmates, Korep would occasionally bring her back little gifts from his rare, brief excursions ashore. Sometimes they’d been things like a woven bracelet or container of face paint, but other times they’d been related to her role as a chronicler – a beautiful new pen, jars of colored ink (most of which she still had, since she’d considered them too precious to use except on special occasions.) None of those gifts bore any purpose except to surprise her, but Ksheygha had treasured them.
And now she had another piece of treasure. “Thank you,” she murmured, smiling up at him.
Korep looked at the rickety stool on the opposite side of the table, and apparently decided to stand. “So – find anything interestin’ in that book?”
Ksheygha couldn’t help squirming like an excited child. “Ah – I’m glad you asked! You know those clues we all thought were a map of some kind?”
“Y’ mean the ones Zyna an’ Una found in Lunep?” Korep replied. “The ones that we followed t’ get t’ this island? Those’nes?”
Ksheygha nodded and drew the clues in question out of her vest, laying them flat on the table. “Aye, those ones. Well, they weren’t a map.”
Korep stared at her. “Then what were they?”
“They were a poem,” Ksheygha replied cheerfully. “Just that – a poem written as a gift, actually. They were a reminder to come home, not instructions to get home.”
“Just start at the beginnin’!” Korep teased.
Ksheygha grinned at him. “All right. This book is the journal of an otter called Mydi – I assume she’s the skeleton sitting in the chair, because it was holding this. She mentions early on that her brother, Streidi, is planning to go sailing. He used to absorb the stories brought by the merchants who came to this island, but lately, there’d been none at all.”
“That makes sense,” Korep replied. “The Dark Ages ’ad started, an’ no one from the mainland was tradin’.”
“Exactly,” Ksheygha replied. “Well, Streidi wasn’t too happy about that. He was fighting cabin fever on the island, and wanted to strike out on his own. In Mydi’s words, ‘He seeks to make his own stories.’ But she was worried that if he left, he’d never want to come back. She was afraid their family would be a case of out of sight, out of mind. So – listen to this: ‘Of all the poems I’ve written, this is the first one written for another’s eyes. But it is for my brother – a reminder that I will be watching for him to come back. Every day I’ll climb to the top of the mountain and look for a ship which will be carrying him back home to us. So long as he keeps that poem with him, I know, he’ll never forget, and he will come back.’”
Korep stared at the book. “Does she mention what she calls the poem?”
Ksheygha shook her head. “No – but compare her journal with the poem. Look at these two letters – here and here – they’re the same. They were written by the same paw.”
Her friend’s jaw was open. “Incredible.”
Very carefully, Ksheygha turned the pages until she’d reached the last entry. “Want more ‘incredible?’”
Korep nodded. “Why not?”
Ksheygha sighed. “Then listen:
I walk among the dead. The others have dropped, swiftly. I think it must be something in the water. I’ve not touched it today, and the others all drank from it deeply. Within three hours, they were all dead. I am the only one alive.
This does not distress me overmuch. What truly stabs at my heart is the undeniable truth that I will never see my brother again. I feared that would be the case when he sailed, but I was wrong about the reason. It is not because he will never come back; oh no, it is because I will not be here when he does.
Streidi, when you find this, know that I love you. I hope to see you in Cerecinthia.”
Korep had no response. Then they both heard Zuryzel’s voice behind them: “Considering where we found those clues, I doubt she would have seen him again anyway.”
Both ferrets turned to look at her, but she swept away, going back towards the rope.
Korep watched her disappear; then he gripped Ksheygha’s free paw and laid his cheek atop her head, as though thinking of the parting that lay before them when Ksheygha would return to Wideprow.
On the other side of the rope, Zuryzel searched all the passageways and empty rooms until she found Snowhawk. The ferret captain was inspecting a sleeping chamber, lifting up little bracelets and inspecting them.
“So why were you following Winterblade?” she asked.
The pirate jumped and whirled around. She relaxed into annoyance when she recognized Zuryzel. “If this is about yer brother, let me put y’ at ease. Yer mate already confronted me, an’ I already told ’im everythin’ I’m goin’ t’ say about Mokimshim.”
Zuryzel carefully tested the sturdiness of a divan; when it held firm under her paw, she sat down on it slowly. “Did he ever say why he wanted you to do whatever it is he wants you to do?”
“No, he didn’t,” Snowhawk replied indifferently. “An’ I didn’t ask. Gold is gold.”
“But it isn’t,” Zuryzel said quietly. “Coins from Myanka have… added features, that treasure from lost cities don’t have. A widely-accepted value, for instance, and far less uniqueness. They’re far harder to trace.”
Snowhawk leaned against the stone wall. “Okay.”
She was a good liar, Zuryzel reflected, but the princess had learned to watch for lies from some of the world’s master deceivers. She’d pegged one of Snowhawk’s weaknesses. “The coin from Arashna’s treasury gives you an advantage over other mercenaries. But Mokimshim isn’t the only one who can get his paws on it.”
An interested gleam lit up Snowhawk’s eyes. “Are y’ trying t’ buy me o’er t’ yer side?”
Zuryzel’s smile was almost playful. “No, of course not. Then I’d never know if Mokimshim paid you even more than I did. I’m offering to pay you to be on both our sides.”
Snowhawk watched her warily.
“You see,” Zuryzel said very seriously, “I never wanted to undermine my brother. Even now, I have no desire to outmatch him in power or support. But I don’t want to be unable to protect myself from him if I have to – and I have a feeling I will have to one day. I’m sure you’ve heard there’s been some heightened friction between us, no?”
Snowhawk shrugged. “The way he tells it, you began it.”
Zuryzel smiled mirthlessly. “After he tried to countermand some of Queen Demeda’s orders, I requested some of the palace guards to watch him. Just to see how he acted when neither I nor Queen Demeda were around. When he found out about that, he began spying on my correspondence with others, especially King Galledor of Miamur. And then I heard you were in his pay from Ksheygha. So, Snowhawk, you judge who began it.”
Snowhawk shrugged. “It don’t matter t’ me.”
Zuryzel nodded. “I didn’t think so. This, then, is what I offer: I will pay you exactly the same as my brother. No more, no less.”
Snowhawk blinked. “T’ do what?”
“Two things,” Zuryzel replied in a business-like way. “First, do not tell him I’m paying you. Secondly, report on me.”
Snowhawk looked as if she couldn’t believe her ears.
“Tell him everything I do, and the reasons for it,” Zuryzel elaborated. “I’ve never done anything but defend him in front of other creatures – tell him that. Any watching him, or spying on him, that I’m engaged in, is purely precautionary – tell him that. But neither am I afraid of or unprepared for a fight with him – tell him that, too. If there’s no trouble to be had, that should make him back off. If I’m right, then he’ll think twice about crossing me or Queen Demeda.” She smiled. “It’s in your own interests to make sure I’m not outmatched, Snowhawk. As long as I’m around, he has a challenger. As long as there’s a challenger, there will be a fight. As long as there is a fight, there is a need for mercenaries.”
Snowhawk nodded slowly, thinking it over. After a few minutes, she nodded. “All right, Princess – I accept.”
She extended her paw, and Zuryzel shook it.
Digrent, Winterblade’s crewferret, offered to help her walk without any prompting at all. Winterblade had repeatedly told him that her fall wasn’t his fault, and so had the rest of the crew that had been hazing him mercilessly the day before. But she did not dismiss his supporting paws.
Everything burned, but Winterblade refused to let that prevent her from seeing Rinaria.
Limping down the stairs was tricky, and it wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Eneng was waiting for her at their base, wearing a scowl of severe, almost angry disapproval. As she reached the bottom, he snarled, “You should be resting.”
Winterblade coolly met his gaze. “I translated those clues, Eneng. I was with you when we found ’em. D’you really think I’d miss actually seein’ this place?”
Eneng sighed and shook his head. Then he tossed a knotted sack at her paws. “Fer you. I gathered all the things I thought you’d like best.”
Still clinging to Digrent with one paw, Winterblade bent down and picked up the sack. Blisters had formed on her free paw, but she ignored them. “Thanks, Eneng,” she said sincerely.
Thanks was one of the few words of kindness ever heard between them, and when Eneng heard it, his scowl melted. He brushed Digrent aside and looped his sister’s paw over his own shoulders. “C’mon. I’ll show you this place.”
Winterblade briefly rested her cheek on his shoulder. Eneng did not touch her healing ear as he murmured, “Are we still meetin’ up in Scattered Stones Keys after this?”
His sister lifted her head off his shoulder before nodding.
It was midnight before the pirates were satisfied with their haul. Searaider and Oceanflower had joined the other three ships, and their holds were loaded heavily, especially Oceanflower’s, and there were still whole rooms in the palace left untouched. Bonfires were lit on the beach, and the pirates lounged around them, showing off their spoils and occasionally trading with their shipmates. Soon, though, they began dropping off to sleep.
An hour had passed before Eneng remembered something. He nudged Snowhawk with a footpaw and said, “So ’ow’d y’ follow us?”
Snowhawk turned and called to her first mate, who sat around the nearest bonfire. He hurried over, bearing a sharkskin case. Snowhawk accepted this and opened it. “With this.”
She held up … a telescope.
“We all ’ave telescopes,” Korep frowned.
Snowhawk stretched it out. “I know. But I got this from a slave trader Nygoan sacked a few seasons back. It’s got about twice the number o’ lenses in it than most telescopes do. ’ere – Korep, try it on the top o’ the mountain.”
Korep held it up to his eye; then he jerked back in surprise. He peered through it again and his jaw dropped. “I c’n see individual rocks up there!”
For the first time since Eneng had seen her yesterday, Snowhawk smiled. “Aye – I c’d trail Seawraith from a distance, an’ no one c’d see Nygoan.”
All the captains, as well as Ksheygha, Zuryzel, and Dejuday, tried the amazing contraption. When it had gone around, Snowhawk shut it back up in its case and stood.
“If that’s it – then Nygoan’ll be sailin’.”
The sea breeze blew her fur sideways, and the moon lit half her face while keeping the other half in shadow. She almost looked like one of the carvings on the wooden poles at Mauggiak.
“Hey, Snow’awk,” Eneng said. “I think it might be best if none o’ us talked about this.”
She shrugged. “The sailors’ll talk sooner or later. It won’t be a secret fer long. But I’ll tell ’em t’ keep quiet. That sh’d keep the secret a secret a little longer.”
She turned, put her paw to her lips, and whistled. Her crew heard her and stepped away from the fires, nudging their sleeping shipmates to their paws. As they started for the longboats, Snowhawk turned around and solemnly raised her paw to the others at her fire. All of them returned the gesture; then turned and rejoined her crew, who in no time at all were in their boats on their way towards Nygoan.
“Y’ know,” Eneng smirked, “I c’d learn t’ like ’er.”
Winterblade spat into the fire. “’er an’ ’er fancy telescope!”
Everyone at the fire burst out laughing.
Dawn hadn’t fully risen when the pirates took their leave of each other. Eneng and Winterblade were bound for Scattered Stones Keys; Korep and Ksheygha, for Myanka; and Shartalla, with Zuryzel, Dejuday, and Una, for Arashna. Korep was in a dark mood, no matter how much gold was now aboard Oceanflower; he hated saying goodbye to friends. Accordingly, his farewell was short, and Oceanflower was the first ship to leave.
They had sailed back into the fog – Where the Sea Nymphs Rise – before he spoke to Ksheygha, and even then, that was by her choice, not his. He was leaning on the port railing when she quietly stepped up beside him.
“My captain gave me three months before I had to be back aboard Wideprow,” she murmured.
“It’s barely been three weeks since then,” Korep replied.
“Aye,” Ksheygha answered. “So could we maybe take a long way back? Maybe stop at the port cities on the way, or some of the other islands?”
Korep smiled. “That’d be perfectly all right with me.”
She cleared her throat. “By the way – you asked a few days ago why I apparently found your company less appealing than I used to. I don’t. You’re still my dearest friend, Korep. It’s just that I knew we’d have to say goodbye far too soon, and I thought, maybe, it would hurt less if I avoided you.” She laughed. “I should have known better. It was six seasons between when we first parted ways and when we saw each other again, and for every one of those days, I could still hear your voice on the wind and see your face in my dreams. Avoiding you since then wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Korep couldn’t find the words to tell her that he’d seen her face and heard her voice, too, every single day for the last twenty seasons.
Ksheygha kept talking. “All those books back in Rinaria – I still have Mydi’s journal, but I’m afraid to open it in sunlight. Sun can bleach out ink, especially old ink. But the librarian at Pelleck Island has a method for preserving ink, so I’ll take Mydi’s journal to him. And then all the other books back at Rinaria. Creatures will be able to read them again!”
“Wait,” Korep interrupted her. “You’re gonna tell yer cap’n about Rinaria?”
Ksheygha shook her head. “No.”
“Then exactly ’ow d’you plan t’ get back t’ Rinaria fer all those books?” Korep inquired.
The amber-eyed ferret allowed a slow smile to spread up her face.
“You’re gonna challenge ’im?” Korep asked, with no small amount of delight.
Ksheygha nodded confidently. “I am. If there’s one thing I gained from all this, it’s my self-confidence. I was right about the clues, and about the road being cut into the Icy Cliff. I realized I don’t need to doubt myself anymore.” She smiled up at Korep, amber eyes glinting. “I have my own adventures to make, and I’m not going to let that old drunk get in the way of them any longer.”
And now joy thrilled through Korep’s heart – joy and pride. He grinned at his best friend and said, “You’ll be a great captain.”
“Thanks to you,” Ksheygha replied, “I believe I can.”
The heat in the Scattered Stones Keys had nothing to do with a volcano or hot springs, for which Eneng was profoundly grateful. The beaches were covered with white sand, the huts meant for relaxation were shaded by massive palm trees, and there was an abundance of grass, fruit, flowers, and all kinds of pleasing vegetation everywhere.
Most importantly – at least for Winterblade – there was lots of aloe.
She lay on a patch of soft grass in the shade of a tree; Eneng reclined only a step away, on warm sand in the beautiful sun. They’d been here for two days, and Winterblade’s burns were healing nicely. She’d taken to wearing a silver necklace with a snowflake pendant – one of the treasures Eneng had snatched for her at Rinaria.
“When y’re all ’ealed,” Eneng suggested, “d’you think we sh’d stop by Pelleck Island?”
Winterblade looked at him like she thought he was crazy. “What? An’ see Father?”
“’e won’t be there,” Eneng replied dismissively. “It’s gettin’ nearer t’ winter, an’ this is the time ’e usually patrols the waters around the Ranger’s land. It’ll just be Mother, all by ’erself.”
“Oh,” Winterblade murmured. “Yeah – we c’d see ’er. But let’s not tell ’er why we just decided t’ stop by, agreed?”
Eneng gestured at his sister’s burns. “No kiddin’. That’d just worry ’er.”
Winterblade gingerly rolled over onto her stomach. “So – Snow’awk mentioned she got that fancy telescope from a slave trader. What d’you think the odds are that I c’d get one o’ my own.”
Eneng shook his head wearily. “Y’re still gonna fight ’er, eh?”
“I don’t see why not, brother mine,” she smirked.
“Whatever,” Eneng shrugged. “Just leave me out of it.”
Wynraser stopped at Serapis the evening before they were set to return to Arashna. This time, Shartalla brought Zuryzel up to see the Standing Stones.
Zuryzel balanced on the edge of the great rock rim, staring down at the waves crashing below her. “Great Cerecinthia! That’s a long way down!”
“Keep on yer knees,” Shartalla suggested. Zuryzel quickly dropped to all fours and followed Shartalla to the nearest Standing Stone.
But her attention couldn’t be taken by the mysterious carving that Shartalla indicated. They were on the southeast part of the rock, and soon Zuryzel found herself looking across the sea. Shartalla noticed her distant expression. “Thinkin’ about Arashna?”
Zuryzel nodded. “I am. And my mother, and my brother.”
Shartalla leaned against the Standing Stone. “Did Mokimshim know you were on this voyage?”
“I doubt it,” Zuryzel replied dismissively. “He was at Kardas when we left, and I don’t think he’s come back yet.”
Shartalla sighed. “Zuryzel – I think ’e’s up t’ somethin’.”
“I’m almost sure he is,” Zuryzel agreed. “And when I get back to Arashna, I’ll have to get back to work making sure I’m not blindsided by whatever he’s got planned.”
The pirate chuckled. “Y’ don’t sound too disappointed.”
Zuryzel smiled, and the now-familiar thrill of excitement blossomed inside her. “Whatever’s coming,” she said with anticipation, “I’ll be ready for it.”