Chapter Twelve

Dec
03

Chapter Twelve

The interior of the tavern was spacious. Derin felt mild surprise at how far apart the tables were in comparison the taverns back in Finglis Mirror. There, he was hard-pressed to find the room to scoot his chair far enough back from the table without bumping into the person sitting at the table behind him, but here there was at least enough room between tables for a man to stretch widely without fear of touching his neighbor’s shoulders. The floor was packed dirt and stone like the streets outside, worn rock-hard over the years by boots, sandals and feet. There were three Islanders at the tables, far enough gone in their cups that nothing more than an ale-addled glance was raised at his and Jerion’s entry. There was the faint familiar smell of ale and smoke lingering over everything, but there were also strange scents that tickled his nose with their unfamiliarity. He pulled his shirt into a more comfortable position over his shoulders and stepped through to let Jerion enter behind him.

The man behind the bar was half asleep, and he roused himself as they entered. He was wiry and tall, with the dark skin of the Islanders and gray hair tied into several braids and gathered into a knot the size of his fist and falling to his shoulders out of the back of an otherwise shaven skull. There were several tattoos along the side of his head, although Derin did not look long enough to see their meaning. He was otherwise clean-shaven, and looked to be in his forties. The man’s eyes narrowed slightly as they approached the bar.

“Not from around here, are you.” It was not a question. His voice was raspy, but thick with the Island accent.

Derin put an easy smile on his face. “Fresh in off the sea,” he said in a friendly manner. He was nervous, but hopeful. Hopefully everything he had been told was true, but it was always best to ere on the side of caution. “A friend of mine told me your establishment had rooms available. Said I should speak to one called Geri.”

“Fresh in off the sea at this hour?” The man behind the counter snorted incredulously, his nose crinkling at the smell, then looked beyond Jerion and himself to the patrons at the other tables, then pitched his voice lower as he leaned forward slightly, his hands on the edge of the counter. “What friend might that be,” he asked ominously.

“Pliten,” Derin replied. He watched the man’s face for a reaction, and felt relief as the man nodded and visibly relaxed.

“The wings of the bird are soft and warm,” the man started, then waited expectantly.

“A safe haven for the flock,” Derin finished softly. “You’ll be Geri, then?”

The man nodded. “Bit of a shock, seeing you two come through the door. We don’t see many from Lucimia these days, other than the military, which you two obviously aren’t.” He eyed them curiously. “Especially in that clothing. You do realize this,” he pointed to Jerion’s shirt. “Is a woman’s attire?”

Derin felt the weight of the past few nights suddenly falling away. He felt relieved enough that it almost brought tears to his eyes, and he smiled at the slight joke as Jerion looked down at his shirt and shrugged.

“I am afraid the tailor was not the most efficient at his task,” the prince replied dryly.

Geri grinned, his white teeth markedly brilliant against his dark skin, the braids of his knot bouncing as he nodded slightly. “True enough.”

Derin glanced towards the direction of the bay, but could not see anything through the window, despite the glow of the eastern sky gently turning the blackness of night into a soft gray that would soon burst into brilliance. The slavers would be on shore today for supplies, and best to be hidden out of sight by then. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he said as he turned back, his voice soft but curt, “but we need to get out of sight, and soon. Our arrival here was not exactly planned.”

“Say no more,” Geri said. He gestured for the two of them to follow and made his way through a door behind the bar. Derin bowed his head and let Jerion follow first.

It almost felt like home. Despite the harshness of the past few days, the weariness of his limbs from the long swim, and the dull burning where his wrists and ankles had chaffed raw from the shackles, Derin could almost let himself believe that none of it had ever happened, that they were still back in Finglis Mirror. He had spent his entire life in the back alleys of the city, meeting contacts in darkened taverns and slipping into back rooms to avoid detection, or having secret meetings with men and women whose business shunned the light of day and the watchful eyes of authority. Ferrying messages, delivering packages, those had all been part of his routine as a Runner, and despite the tattoo now upon his chest he almost felt as though those days had returned as he followed the tall Islander through the kitchen and into a side room, where a trap door was set into the floor. The light from the kitchen’s stove was muted, the fire stoked and smoldering, waiting for its chance to burst into life again with the morning meal, but it was enough to shine through the doorway and show him the dim outlines of the door set into the floor.

The Islander grunted slightly as he heaved it open, revealing a set of stairs going down. “I hope you don’t mind the dampness of the cellar, but it will keep you safe from prying eyes.” Geri stepped back into the kitchen for a moment and returned with a small lantern. He led the way down the stairs into the darkness.

The walls were lined with barrels and casks, as well as shelves with bottles. There were two timbers as wide as Derin rising from the dirt to brace several other timbers that held the ceiling firmly in place above, and it was low enough that Geri’s head was a hand away from brushing it, and Derin could easily reach out and touch it. The air was cool, and slightly damp, and there was the scent of spices and wine overlying the earthy smell. The Islander led them to the far corner where he handed the lantern to Jerion and moved two barrels slightly to the side before bending down and pressing his hand to the wall. There was a muted thud and then the muffled sound of stone grating on stone, and a small section of the wall suddenly swung inwards.

“The rooms aren’t much,” the man said as he took the lantern back from Jerion and entered ahead of them. His voice came back muffled. “But you can stay here as long as you need.”

There were two rooms beyond the door, and both were indeed small. The ceilings were lower than those in the cellar, causing Derin to stoop instinctively despite his head still being a finger’s span away from touching, and the first room contained a small desk, two chests and a wooden wardrobe, perhaps three feet across, carved out of plain wood. Geri lit a candle at the desk with his lantern and then moved into the second room and gestured towards three small beds that lined the walls. There was barely room enough for the wooden frames and the chamber pot in the corner, and they were little more than canvas stretched between the frames to form a hammock of sorts, but after countless nights in the hold of a ship, with nothing between his body and the hardness of the deck but his skin, Derin had no doubt that the cots would feel like the softest, thickest mattress he had ever slept on while still back in Finglis Mirror.

Geri gestured at the desk with his free hand. “There’s a few slips of parchment in there, along with some ink and a quill, should you need to pen a message. Not sure if there’s anything left in the chests from the previous occupants, but you are welcome to anything you find.” He set the lantern down on the chest alongside the candle and turned, his hands folded across his chest. “And because it might do me some good asking, I’m curious if there will be any looking after the two of you come the morning.”

“Possibly,” Jerion answered. There was a sudden weariness in his voice as he looked towards the cots. No doubt he felt as tired as Derin did, and wanted nothing more than to fall asleep for as long as his body would let him.

“The matter is a bit complicated,” Derin replied. “Suffice to say that we escaped from a rather undesirable position with the help of Pliten, and we’d prefer it if those who were our captors thought us lost at sea.”

Geri’s eyebrows raised slightly as Derin spoke. “Pliten’s ship isn’t due in until tomorrow morning,” the man said incredulously. “You swam here?”

Derin nodded. “They’re a day early then, and anchored off-shore, waiting for daylight to ferry in provisions. I can only assume that once they find out we escaped they will rouse the alarm, but what I don’t know is if they will simply assume we were two of the dead ones carted over the side, or if they will realize two live ones escaped.”

“Say no more,” Geri’s face hardened suddenly. “I’ll take no part in slaving. It’s a filthy business, chaining men’s souls and binding them against their will. You two rest here as long as you need. I’ll keep a weathered eye out and keep you appraised if any come asking.”

Derin nodded, relief flooding his body. Finally, they could get some sleep. And after that, a proper bath, some clothing, and a long conversation with Geri regarding the Blackbird operations on the Islands. Then, it would be time to figure out what he and Jerion were going to do. All of that could wait, however. “We are in your debt, Geri.”

“Phaw!” The older man waved his hand in negation. “It’s not often we get your kind from across the water, and I’m always keen on hearing what’s afoot on the mainland. I’m sure our conversation later will more than make up for it. In the meantime,” he ducked his head slightly as he exited back into the cellar. “You two rest up. Just tap on the cellar door when you are ready to come out, and someone will let you know if it’s safe.”

“Thank you,” Jerion’s voice drifted in from the other room, soft with sleep. Derin murmured his thanks as well and pushed the hidden door shut behind Geri. It closed with a muffled thump, leaving them in the relative darkness of the chamber, the only light that of the lantern and the candle. Derin heaved a heavy sigh and blew out the lantern. He had never been this tired in his entire life. He took the candle into the other room, his limbs heavy with exhaustion.

Jerion was already stretched out on a cot, one leg draped over the side, his eyes closed and his breathing slow and regular. Derin placed the candle on the floor. Hopefully it would last until they woke, as he did not have a flint or tinder to relight it if it went out, and as dark as it would be in here it would be nearly impossible to find  the door trigger to let them out when he awoke. He laid his head back against the canvas and sighed softly to himself. The canvas creaked slightly beneath his weight, but it did indeed feel as soft as any mattress he had ever had the pleasure of lying upon back home. Sleep came within an instant.

There was no measure of time, but the candle was still flickering softly when he awoke. His eyes were adjusted to the darkness and he could make out Jerion on the cot against the opposite wall, his back turned towards him as he slept on his side. Derin’s entire body ached as though he had been dropped from the heights of the Finglis Mirror palace walls. He wet his lips with his tongue and lay in silence, listening to Jerion breath as he took stock of their position. His stomach felt as though his backbone was poking through, but oddly enough his bladder did not feel as though it needed to be relieved, probably because he had not drank anything of substance for days. The chaffing around his ankles and wrists was much relieved; he could barely feel the burning now, although they would likely hurt more with activity. His most pressing concern was his aching body. He had felt similar pain before when he had gone through sword training, but nothing quite like this. The swim from however many hours earlier had left him feeling weak as a babe, and unable to move without wincing with the effort. He closed his eyes and pondered.

What was the purpose of removing Jerion from Finglis Mirror? Furthermore, why not simply kidnap him and ransom him? What was the point of shipping him off as a slave? It was a pressing issue, and one that he could not puzzle out. There were several reasons that sprung to mind, but what was more confusing than anything else was why they had not simply assassinated the Prince, rather than sell him off into slavery. Ransom was obviously not part of their captor’s plans, or they would have simply removed Jerion to a safe and guarded location until they could issue their demands to the Crown. Instead, they had placed the Prince on a slaver vessel and shipped him off like a piece of cargo. It was madness, and Derin could not unravel the why of it. It made no sense. Regardless, he was sure that he was just a casualty of acquaintance, and nothing more. After all, he was a nobody. The thought made his lips curl in distaste, but there it was. He was simply a young man, one of the newest members of the Blackbirds, and completely expendable. The Prince was the one that mattered, and his safety was Derin’s responsibility, as per the Raven’s instructions.

At least they were off the ship. That was one thing in their favor. He scratched at his scalp, wrinkling his nose slightly. The cool scent of musty earth hung over everything in the cellar, but he could still smell the faint hint of the putrid reek of that slaver hold. That smell will likely never fade, he thought to himself with chagrin. It was certainly there now, a pungent reminder of the fate that had only so recently been avoided. Or at least delayed. There was still the issue of the two of them being stuck on the Islands with no contacts, no money, no weapons, and no way of knowing who the people behind their capture were, or how far they would go to find them, if indeed they even made an effort in the first place. There were many questions, and he needed to find answers to as many of them as he could, pain or no pain, unknown city or not.

He gently swung his legs over the edge of the cot and sat up, sucking in a breath at the pain of the effort. Jerion’s breathing never faltered, despite the creaking of the cot beneath Derin’s frame as he sat up slowly. The Prince was a heavy sleeper, or at least he was now. Derin could not blame him. He could likely have slept through a war himself given the past few days. He let his legs adjust as he sat. The floor was cool dirt beneath his feet, and solid. He closed his eyes and uttered silent thanks to gods he didn’t believe in. If he never stepped foot onto the rocking deck of a ship again in his life it would be too soon. He bent to retrieve the candle and hobbled to the other room.

The wardrobe held two shirts and a pair of pants, all of which were too large for him. Still, there was a pair of sandals much like the ones the rest of the Islanders wore, and they fit, although loosely. He sat down in the chair and laced them up, then carefully stood and made his way over to the chests. They creaked slightly when he opened them. One held a pack of some kind, oiled against the weather. It was empty, and meant to be slung over the shoulder. A sailor’s bag, from the look of it. There was also a shirt much like those worn in Lucimia, and two pairs of pants, as well as a pair of knee-high boots. He did not bother trying any of them on. It would not do to dress like a foreigner while on the Islands, at least not for now. They wanted to avoid detection, not draw it to them, and he had no doubt that Geri would be able to set them up with proper attire.

Which led to the other issue. How long were they going to be on the Islands? He put the clothing back into the chests, but kept the sailor’s bag. It was an interesting thought, and one he contemplated as he sat back down in the chair and idly went through the things in the desk’s single drawer. A lot of it depended on what information he could find regarding the slavers, and whether or not Jerion was still being pursued, or whether their original captors had simply written him off. It would be best to send a message back to the Raven through secure channels, and see what he recommended, but such a message could take weeks at best to get there, and then a similar passage of time to return. He could not simply sit idly by while they waited. No, he needed a course of action, and the only way to do that was to get back on his feet physically and mentally and out there in the city, doing what he did best: gathering information. He rubbed his eyes and closed the desk drawer. He needed a bath and a shave, along with a decent set of clothes, and to find out what time it was.

The door trigger was a simple wooden lever the size of a sword hilt. He grasped it firmly and pulled, peering closely to see if he could determine what mechanism attached it to the door, but it was hidden from sight within the wall itself. The familiar thump sounded, and the door swung inward with a slight grating sound. He peered out but the cellar was empty. He left the candle on the desk for Jerion. The lever mechanism was harder to find in the cellar, but after a moment of careful looking he found it: a small pressure plate at the bottom of the wall behind the barrels Geri had moved earlier. He pressed his hand into the alcove and pushed, nodding in satisfaction as the door ground shut again. Fascinating work. It was too bad he did not have more time to discover its workings. Such things always intrigued him.

He rapped softly on the trap door, twice. There was no immediate answer so he waited several moments, then tapped again, only this time louder. He heard a muffled curse and the sound of something hitting the floor above him with a loud clang, then hurried footsteps making their way to the door. It was heaved open and a baleful glance aimed at him by a middle aged Island woman, her dark hair tied back in a knot and several beads of sweat dripping down her face. The smell of spices and food rolled in like a wave, and Derin nearly gasped as his stomach suddenly grumbled at him.

“What do you want,” the woman asked. Her voice was irritated, nearly a growl.

Derin put on his best smile, aware that his scruffy beard, unkempt appearance, and smell was likely countering whatever effect he might have once had with such measures. “To compliment you on your accommodations and your generous kitchen,” he replied smoothly, making sure to emphasize the last part as the smell of food had his stomach suddenly aching with hunger.

She snorted as she pushed the trap door open all the way and turned back to her kitchen. “Flattery will do you no good, boy,” she replied over her shoulder as she disappeared through the door of the side room into the kitchen. Her voice drifted back. “You might as well come on up. I’ll get Geri and let him know you’re awake”.

From the looks of the kitchen it was the middle of the morning meal, which meant he had slept a good six or seven hour and it was now mid-morning. There were more dishes being prepared than he could count, sign of a busy tavern morning, and the pungent aroma of spices and seafood were thick in his nostrils, washing away the odorous stench of his latest adventure. He could make out several different types of fish happily sizzling away on the top of the stove which had, hours before, been merely stoked for the evening. Now it was roaring away, the heat warming the room enough that he felt beads of sweat forming on his forehead and between his shoulder blades despite only having been in the room a moment.

There were several loaves of ropy bread laid out on a countertop, one of them missing half of its length, likely to feed someone in the kitchen. Bowls filled with creams, sauces, sliced vegetables and some squishy-looking dark things covered in some sort of slime rested along another countertop, and there were knives and spoons and cutting boards and other utensils hanging from the walls in all directions. Derin cast a quick glance around and seeing as how the woman was still missing from the room he quickly tore himself off a slice of bread from the already-halfway finished piece and covered it in cream from one of the bowls. He took a mouthful and grunted in surprise. It wasn’t exactly cream, but some fish-flavored concoction that caused his mouth to moisten so quickly that it caused his jaw pain. He quickly wolfed it down and was about to tear himself off another piece when the door to the common room opened and Geri came through, the large, middle-aged woman behind him.

“Enjoying yourself?” she asked him pointedly. He tried to look innocent but she reached a dark finger up to his chin and quickly wiped a dollop of the cream off and showed it to him. “Worse than a cat, you are. Which is why we don’t have any in my kitchen.”

“Enough, woman,” Geri said with a chuckle. “The lad’s been tied up in a slaver vessel for the gods know how long.” He bowed slightly towards Derin. “Would you care for a bath, or a meal first?”

Derin’s stomach grumbled. “Food, please. I can bathe after I eat.”

The older man turned to the cook. “Have some food sent up to the reading room, my dear.” He glanced back at Derin. “Will your friend be joining us?”

Derin shrugged. “He was still sleeping a moment ago.”

Geri said no more, and led the way through the door out into the main room. Derin felt a moment of indecision as he was faced with the prospect of the common area of the tavern and all those watching eyes. You are being ridiculous, he admonished himself. There was absolutely no way the slaver vessel could have docked, supplied, and sent out search parties this early in the day, and there was still no guarantee that they would be looking for them in the first place. He steeled his nerves and followed Geri out into the room.

There were perhaps eighteen or twenty individuals scattered throughout the common room, Islanders and foreigners alike. None of them paid much attention to the two of them as they exited the kitchen, in some cases lifting their eyes only briefly to see if it was a servant with their food, while in others only raising their eyes momentarily from their plates of food. There were two serving girls and a serving boy making their way with platters throughout the tables, and a young boy sweeping the hardened-dirt-and-rock floor with a whisk broom, making his way slowly towards the front door. Geri led them to a set of stairs, then took them two at a time, surprising Derin with his agility. He followed more slowly, his body still aching from the night before.

The reading area was a large room off of the hallway as soon as they exited the stairs. It was decorated in a strange fashion, with painted walls made to resemble a forest clearing, marred only by several bookshelves. The branches were full with summer foliage and worked their way up the walls to the ceiling, where they showed a bright blue sky and glistening sun shining through various cracks where the leaves and limbs allowed. The only section not painted was the window looking out over the city, although Derin noticed the shutters on the inside were painted in the same fashion as the walls, continuing the scene without interruption when they were closed. Currently they were open, and Derin could hear the muted din of the street below, the familiar sounds of people and wagons and horses filling him with a certain sense of peace.

There were two low shelves on either side of the window, hewn of a dark wood that was sanded and polished, but otherwise unadorned. They were filled with scrolls and books of various sizes. A larger bookshelf, stretching from the floor to the ceiling, was on the wall to his right as he entered the room, this one full of leather-bound and wood-bound books. The left wall was bare, other than for a simple desk and chair. All were cut from the same wood as the two shelves. The floor was wood, with a round rug that filled the center area, and two simple couches cut from a dark linen with a pair of matching chairs were ringed around a low, glass-topped table. Geri gestured for him to be seated, and he took one of the chairs facing the window.

“I apologize for my appear—” he began, but the older man waved his hand, cutting him off.

“Think nothing of it. A bath will come later, when you have filled your belly. In the meantime, I am sure you have questions, which I will attempt to answer, and then you will eat.”

Derin moved his gaze to the window, looking out over the low roofs of the port city. It was so different from Finglis Mirror. There were no castle walls, no towers, no looming buildings constructed by the Dwearhe of old. Instead it was simple wood and stone construction, with clay tile roofs that stretched as far as his eyes could see. In the distance he could make out some heavily-forested hills at the edge of the city, rising towards three lonely peaks that could count as small mountains. It was yet another reminder that he was in a foreign city, a stranger to their culture, their streets, and their countryside.

He brought his attention back to Geri. “First off, I must apologize for my manners earlier. I forgot to introduce myself. I am Derin.” He bowed his head slightly, then continued. “I find myself in a strange position. First, I am not ashamed to admit that I feel somewhat out of sorts. I am not familiar with the ways of the Birds here on the Islands. Your sign language, for example, is something I had never seen before.” It galled him somewhat to admit a lack of knowledge, but he swallowed his pride and continued anyway. “However, the more pressing issue is the slaver vessel, and whether or not they will send a search party out.”

Geri raised a hand. “I must interject at this point, friend.” He leaned forward, his eyes searching Derin’s face. “A slaver vessel would never send a search party out for a pair of mere slaves. While our country does not practice slavery, we do allow their type moorage for supplies, but they are always quick stays, just long enough to resupply their ships before heading to Sunaria.” He spat at the mention of their name, although there was no spittle. “If they do come, I can only assume that one of you is more than you have mentioned. Is this true?”

Derin felt mild surprise, but then admonished himself. Such a man, with years of watching people and dealing with the intrigues of the Birds day in and day out, would obviously have an extremely sharp mind, otherwise he would not be in the position he was in as liaison for other members of the organization. “You must forgive me for my reluctance to speak of it,” he said slowly. “I am in a foreign land, and the last two weeks have not been kind to myself or my friend.” He thought on it a moment longer, then pushed forward. “My companion is a man of some worth. More than that I am not willing to say at this time. But suffice to say, I am worried that the captain of the slave vessel may know who he is, and send out a party to find us.”

He briefly told the man of their capture in Finglis Mirror, leaving out the fact that Jerion was the prince, only that they had been at the coronation festival during the assassination of the King. Geri’s face registered shock at hearing of the King’s death, but he kept silent while Derin told him of their attempted escape from the feasting hall, only to knocked unconscious in the servant corridors.  Derin told him of their awakening on the first ship, the care that was taken not to harm them despite keeping them drugged, and their eventual transfer to the slave ship from where they had escaped the night previous. “I must question why one ship would take such care to keep us safe from bodily harm, while on the other ship we were locked in the hold with the rest of the slaves. It may have been a test to break us before we arrived in Sunaria, but I am unsure. I am, however, almost certain that ransom is not part of their plan, otherwise why transport us at all, much less have us on a ship bound for Sunaria?”

Geri leaned back in his chair, a frown on his dark face. “This news of your King’s assassination is most dire,” he said gravely. “For years, King Teril was the only wall between our own Island nations and the Sunarian plague. It was his troops and mercenaries from your own kingdom that defended our shores against the Sunarian’s continual aggressions until the treaties were signed. Now that he is gone, I am afraid of what might come to pass.” The man paused as there was a knock on the door. “Enter.”

It was one of the serving girls from the common room. Geri continued to talk as she entered the room and placed two platters of food on the table, laden with bread, fish, two mugs filled with what looked to be ale, several bowls of various sauces and creams, and one that looked to be a stew or some kind. “As for who your friend is, I will let the matter go for now, but we will speak on it again. For now, please satiate yourself.”

Derin thanked the girl and Geri, then proceeded to eat. It took him nearly ten minutes, but he sampled everything on the platters. The bread was fresh, and still warm, with a hint of spice that he could not place. There was some of the cream he had sampled earlier, and the fish was breaded slightly on the outside with a peppery crust  that had a slight zest to it that left his tongue somewhat tingly. The soup turned out to be some form of broth that was heavily laced with coconut milk, and the mugs were filled with a dark beer. Geri ate some of the food as well, although only sparsely. When Derin began to feel full he leaned back and uttered a sign of contentment as his companion smiled and nodded his head.

“Good food and a full belly can often make a man change his entire outlook on life, no?”

Derin groaned with an exaggerated manner and felt his worries slipping away for the first time in many days. “I must agree.” He patted himself contentedly.

Geri smiled, but it did not reach his eyes. Instead, he looked out the window and leaned back in his chair again, crossing one leg over the other as he did. “This matter of the King, as I said earlier, is most distressing. But beyond that is why the Sunarians are involved. I have read reports from our sources in the desert kingdom that there have been strange activities brewing throughout the countryside and along the coast, rumored murmurs of supply shipments and troop movements, but there has been nothing substantial.”

Derin shook his head in amazement. It had been astounding enough to discover a Blackbird on a sea vessel bound for Sunaria, and to know that they had a network on the Islands themselves, but to have a reach that extended all the way to Sunaria? “I am newly appointed to the Blackbirds,” he admitted to Geri. “So the thought of having brothers in arms so far across the sea is something of a shock to me.”

Geri grunted. “Would that our network there was as far-spread and integrated into their society as it is in Lucimia, and here in the Islands. Unfortunately, the Sunarians are a secretive people, and it has been extremely difficult to find trustworthy men to use as agents on their shores. You and I,” he pointed to Derin’s white skin and his own darker complexion, “would never pass as Sunarians, and outsiders are never trusted in their country. You are either born Sunarian, or you are a foreigner. That is their way. Suffice to say, the information we receive from their land is sparse at best. Rumors, for the most part. But what I have heard in the past year begins to make sense, at least when looked at in a certain light. Their plotting and grasping has been going on for years, but I never thought to see the day when they would actually reach for their hands and attempt to take Lucimia herself.

“The Islands I can understand; we are a small nation, and without your kingdom’s help over the years we would have fallen to their invasion forces, but to take on the combined might of your kingdom?” He shook his head. “I still cannot believe it. There is no way their fleet would ever make it past the Islands without being spotted, and with the combined might of the many realms of your country they would not stand a chance. There must be something else at work, some hidden agenda.” He punched his fist against the edge of the couch. “Damn me, but I wish we had better eyes and ears in the dunes!”

Derin nodded. He understood some of what the man spoke of, but he was still fairly unfamiliar with the Sunarians as a people, much less as a country. He felt a brief moment of pain as he thought about Thorn, but he quickly pushed it aside. That had been his first encounter with a Sunarian, and while he had also been exposed to their slave traders, from what he understood there was a vast difference between their magi and the working class. He fought down a sudden, spicy burp and hiccupped. “My apologies,” he said, suddenly ashamed. He prided himself on his manners, and here he was belching like a common street worker!

“Think nothing of it, young Derin.” The older man stood suddenly, changing the subject. “Now that you have a full stomach, I assume you are interested in a bath and a shave?”

Derin trembled as he thought of hot, soapy water and a razor. “I am in your debt,” he said as he rose from his chair.

Geri smiled a mysterious smile and led him to the wash room.

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