CAPTAIN VERLIOT STOOD PROUDLY at the bow of his ship, the Free Spirit. If there was one thing Verliot was proud of, it was his ship. She was small, as far as boats went, but there was plenty of cargo room for silks from Crestrie, glassware from Zalorx, and rare oils and spices from Litlorp. Captain Verliot even had carved figurines from Shirber, and they were particularly hard to get.

Shirber was one of the only lands on earth where a person could find the perfectly carved figures of people and animals carved in the red Selvor wood. Nobody was sure what type of tree this wood came from, but it seemed to only be found in Shirber, and was only used in their figurines- not for the building of houses or ships or any of the other uses for such strong, durable wood.

This wasn't the only reason the carved figures were so rare, however. For years now, Shirber had been cut off from the rest of the world, isolating themselves from any outsiders. Captain Verliot had heard horror stories of ships that had crashed upon Shirber's rocky shores. When the crews were found by natives, they were executed as spies.

Verliot, as a trader, made a point of following politics rather closely. Only by knowing which countries were friendly with which, and which kingdoms were on bad terms was he able to exploit trading routes, and by knowing which countries were out of contact, Verliot knew which goods to hawk as very rare, and where he could get the highest prices for his merchandise.

This was how Captain Verliot knew that the land of Shirber had not only refused trade with other countries, but they refused to talk politically as well. Ambassadors were sent away at the borders, or killed. Rumor had it that the country was locked in some sort of inner turmoil, and the leading faction had closed off the country so their opposition couldn't gain assistance from the outside. Knowing these facts, Captain Verliot considered himself very lucky to have found the figurines in the port city of Yerliev, several miles south of Shirber.

Now, as he thought these dark thoughts, he glanced to his left. The night was growing dark and shore was many miles away, and he knew it would be impossible for him to get a glimpse of the frightening land of Shirber, but he was still very aware that the land was there. Normally, Captain Verliot would have avoided the area entirely, as the water was shallow and rocks were hidden in the murky bays near the land, ready to puncture the hulls of ships.

Even without knowledge of the hostility of Shirber people, most seafarers didn't think the journey past Shirber was worth the danger to their ships. Sometimes, Captain Verliot skipped the trip as well, but this time, as he made his rounds, he felt very lucky. He knew of islands just past Shirber where people would pay very well for some of the spices he carried, and Captain Verliot planned to become considerably wealthier once he returned to his homeport.

Captain Verliot smiled and squeezed the railings of the Free Spirit, taking in the beauty of the darkening night around him. There was nothing he loved more than sailing the sea- whether he watched a calm night or he was weathering a fierce storm. When Verliot sailed over the ocean, he felt truly alive, and one with nature. He felt as if he was part of something great and powerful.

Just as Verliot felt that, the entire ship began to jerk, nearly toppling Captain Verliot over the ship's railing. Before he could even demand an explanation, a man ran towards him. Captain Verliot didn't recognize the sailor, but before he could ask for the man's name, he shouted, "Captain! Captain! We've run aground- I think the ship's sinking!"

Captain Verliot blinked. How could they have made such an assessment so quickly? He groped wildly about himself, touching the railing and the deck below his feet. His ship- could the Free Spirit really be sinking? Everything had been going so well! The ship couldn't really be sinking, could it?

Knowing he had to maintain his composure for the sake of the crew, if nothing else, and that meant he couldn't mourn the loss of his ship before them. He cleared his throat, and quietly said, "I see." The boy watched him, waiting for him to say more, and Captain Verliot had to think of what to say next. He'd thought about this hundreds of times- the idea had haunted his nightmares. What was he supposed to do? Finally, he remembered what he was supposed to say. "Evacuate the ship, have the men get on the life boats and make for shore," he ordered the man.

Wide eyed, he turned and ran to relay the orders. Captain Verliot trusted his men to know what to do- they were always calm under pressure. Always. As for him- he had his own things to take care of. He turned and leaned over the bow again, feeling a slight breeze pick up. The sky that night was especially clear, and Captain Verliot wondered if he'd ever seen so many stars on one night.

There was a tradition among captains that many people were familiar with. He patted the railing, as if the Free Spirit was alive, and could feel him there. Sometimes, Captain Verliot thought maybe she was. He looked out over the night, ignoring the sound of his men shouting at each other, and whispered, "Well, I guess we'll both end our journey tonight." In response, the ship creaked.

MAERIEL ROWED FOR SHORE, his fellows working with him. The night had seemed endless, and Maeriel knew there was still more to come. It seemed like years had passed since he'd been jolted awake from his sleep to the new that the ship was sinking, and he had to escape. Now, while he rowed, he thought of his mother and his father, and wondered if he'd ever see them again. How would they react when they heard that the ship had sunk? Would they think he'd been killed? What about his grandfather? He'd always had a bad heart; would the news be too much for him?

Maeriel grunted with the effort of rowing. He wouldn't need to worry about his parents if he survived. He was sure that as soon as they reached the island, he and his fellows would find someone willing to take them back home. Continuing to row, Maeriel made a promise to himself that if he ever survived that night, he would give up on sea travel, and live a safe life on shore. He wondered if the others were thinking similar thoughts.

There were five men with him- filling the capacity of six men per lifeboat. With him was his friend and bunkmate- Geriorj. They'd reached the lifeboat at the same time, and now Maeriel was grateful for the familiar face. In addition to Geriorj was a man named Lepduiot, one named Herchor, and one named Qerklirk. Maeriel didn't know them very well, and the sixth man he didn't know at all; he didn't even know his name.

"Row!" Geriorj shouted, and as one, the six men lifted their oars and pushed through the water toward the shoreline, which grew larger with each stroke. Geriorj was a natural leader, and it was one more reason Maeriel was appreciative of having his friend along. "Row!" Geriorj shouted again, and the six men lifted their oars in unison one last time before the lifeboat ran ashore on a sandy bank.

When he realized that they were safe, Maeriel leapt from the boat, not caring what the other men thought. He heard their splashing behind him, and knew that they, too, had grasped their first chance to stand on land, even if that land was under three feet of water. Maeriel waded forward, then paused.

The islands didn't have shallow banks like this- most of them were rocky, with drop-offs that made if simple for large ships to pull right up to the land itself. As he looked over the surrounding land, he noticed more things that were wrong. There were no straw huts or trading posts- but a group of men were running towards them, torches in hand. Realizing who these people were, Maeriel took several cautious steps back.

Qerklirk realized what was happening at the same time as Maeriel, and he began to curse in his distinctive, nasally voice. The natives swarmed around the six, and one of them said, "You are under arrest, by order of the Shirber government, for the crime of espionage."