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Chapter 14 – Two Birds, One Stone

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Dart steeled his nerve and squared his shoulders, let his eyes darken with concentration. He was alone, facing down the monster that might as well have been a nightmare borne on wings.

He knew the others were behind him, the prince clasping the terrified wood-elf girl as though if he held her tight enough the monster would go, the moon elf standing with her saber drawn, trying to decide whether or not to go and aid him. For some reason, he though of Jaen'el and Hallarelle and Marea and the others who had once all toasted to the glory of battle with ale glistening on their chins, laughter echoing like a storm in the distance. He could have stood alone for them, couldn't he? Couldn't he?

Even in his mind he stood alone for them now, now when death itself opened its flaming maw and howled unintelligible insults at him. Dart bellowed his own cry, fiercely brandishing the staff and the dagger with the spider embedded in the amber of the pommel, challenging the monster that sought to do the Dragon's dirty work for him.

Dart hadn't taken the dagger for its sharpness or practicality amid the faerie selection. He'd taken it for a reason that he prayed none but he would never know. He'd taken it because of memory, memories even older than those of signing the line that sold his sword arm away to the highest bidder, memories of Maelkorre. He'd been afraid of spiders once, for reasons that he still didn't know. Whether it was their quick, dangerous motions or the fact that they had more than four legs—which was in his opinion already too many—he had been terrified of them as a small boy. Even now, if they were big and nasty and hairy enough, he was still afraid of spiders. Looking at that dagger and seeing the spider trapped within some ancient tree's golden tears, it was a symbol of sorts, a symbol of taking what he feared and forcing it to a place where it couldn't touch him.

For the spiders, that place was the amber.

For this monster, it was death.

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He moved like an animal, without a cry, without a shout of fear or rage or pain or any emotion. He went, eyes blazing with sullen fire, lips pulled taut like a wolf's. The monster dove in snapping and snarling and twisting but he brought the sturdy blackwood up, trusting it as he would an iron bar to keep the monster away.

Bone talons—were they bone, or something of fouler shadows? —scraped with a sound more horrible than the monster's screeching against the staff, pressing with incredible weight and threatening to swipe the mercenary's balance away like a rug beneath his feet. Dart made no noise, only fell back a cautious step, drills from his training at the military academy ringing in his head.

"Let them drive you back, but do it with meaning. Let them forsake their footing for a moment of fleeting triumph before your sword comes for their neck."

The monster pushed, and Dart fell back, forcing the black shadow back as he kicked out with all his strength, a kick that could have put an ogre out for hours. The monster shrieked as it retreated a yard, then two, watching the mercenary stagger with a moment's daze—

It waited.

One second it waited, watching its prey falter from spent effort. It was not enough to put him down, but it was enough to show a weakness, and it lunged with speed that no mortal, elf or other, could have matched.

Dart stumbled, fell to one knee, sudden red dripping like syrup onto the snow that frosted the marsh mud below. Drops of blood scattered, he put a hand to the numbed pain in his side and shivered violently at the touch of mangled flesh. The wound was deep, far deeper than the scar the wolves had kindly left on his shoulder, and the mercenary staggered, the dagger dropping amid the blood flecked snow…

Emotion came then, a passion for battle that Dart hadn't felt since the battle on the dunes, the battle for his own life and so many others'. Screaming in rage and pain he fought his way to his feet, tensing and then lunging without a moment's thought at the monster before him…

Thirty or more feet of wickedly spiked tail swung out of nowhere, painfully grazing his shoulder. Dart roared in agony, feeling stinging venom on the edges of his torn and bleeding skin, but that, that and the fear, were pushed into the amber of his mind, trapped where they couldn't touch him.

"He's a dead fool," breathed Lia, eyes wide in what might have been horror. Randir buried her eyes in Annadan's blue tunic, sobbing. She couldn't bear to watch…

He dodged the second swing of the tail, cursing as he lost his balance and went over in a sort of half-somersault, tumbling into deep mud but not noticing the sticky mess. He turned and tensed again, narrowing his blue-gray eyes like a hunter dealing with a deer that danced tauntingly out of range.

"Come on," he grunted slowly, speaking low enough that he knew the monster couldn't hear. "Come on, now, you…"

Like a skilled archer his blue gray eyes watched as the monster growled threateningly, even as the mercenary curled his own lip as if in response. He grinned thinly, though there was no sarcastic humor in that wolfish smile.

"Come on," he repeated, tightening his grip on the staff and the dagger.

The monster came in with its unnatural speed, speed that made Dart's blue-gray eyes dance with pale lights that didn't exist. He felt shadow-flesh ram into him with the force of nothing he'd ever felt, like being trampled by a thousand horses in a hundred pounding rapids of the world's deadliest rivers—

He couldn't breathe.

His blood must have frozen instantly in his veins, his adrenaline must have become ice in that split second of death-filled chill. The cold was more intense than the worst winters in Maelkorre, driving into his chest like a cruel, deathly cold icicle, straight to his heart, with pain to rival the suffering a man could only feel in deepest hell.

Dart screamed.

His heart felt like a phantom grasped it, chill dread squeezing like an inhumanly strong hand as the shadow beast screamed in delight.

This was what the worst death felt like.

Icy cold.

Suffocating.

Shrieking in morbid joy, shrieking as eyes widened and lungs strained for air that had long fled for fear of the horrible cold.

Once more, Dart threw his head back and screamed, but not in pain.

Rage.

Dart's rage revived him from the monster's grip, the chill touch of death. It pounded like a drum, gave sudden heat to his curdled blood. He would not die. He would not die!

With a fierce cry in some forgotten language Dart brought the nearest weapon up, the dagger gleaming with its own private malice as he drove it as hard as he could into the monster, hitting bone. It grated horribly, made Dart shudder, but the young mercenary drove the knife deeper. The shadowy flesh writhed in an emotion even death itself could not elude—

Pain.

It screamed in every one of the young man's muscles as he knew what he had to do. The knife blade wasn't long enough for what he needed to do…

Dart seized the hilt of Annadan's sword, the blood-slick hilt still standing fast in the flesh of the monster. The mercenary pulled, blood staining his fingers… the blood was black, and icy cold, a horrible parody of the lukewarm crimson spilling from the wound in his side—

With all the strength he could muster Dart brought the surprisingly lightweight sword up, striking hard into the bone cage that could only have protected the creature's vitals, whatever they were. The sword went with terrible smoothness—it was a fine blade, and he'd confess it—into the shadowy flesh, piercing what the dagger couldn't.

Dart gave a faint smile as he felt more cold blood trickle, staining his half-gloves, running into the working on his leather bracers.

Death itself felt death.

The monster fell still without a shriek, Dart viciously yanking both blades from the beast's flesh and watching as the shadow that served as terrible flesh crumbled into ash, a great pool of it beneath the monster's battered skeleton.

Annadan's sword fell to a patch of sparse, stiff marsh grass as the mercenary swayed, exhaling deeply.

"In Polonus' na… name…"

Unable to complete his mild oath, Dart let go of the dagger. His eyes rolled back and even as they cried out and leapt forward, he promptly fell over.

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Dart blinked as he came to, though it hurt to breathe. Lia was there, leaning over him and frowning, brushing her hair behind her pointed ears… The pretty-boy prince was there as well, winding a bandage around two fingers.

"Is it dead?" Dart asked thickly, staring straight up.

Lia nodded slowly above him. "You're lucky you aren't too."

"I ain't?"

"You aren't," said Lia grittily, wincing at his grammar.

"Oh," he said, somewhat ruefully. "I suppose you'd be naked if I were."

"Not where you're going," she said darkly, though she grinned.

With a faint smile, Annadan handed the wound bandage to Lia. Dart vaguely noticed that he still gripped the sword, which hung limply in one badly bruised hand. As Annadan gently tugged at the still-bloodied weapon, he slowly let go of the hilt, his fingers aching as he gingerly flexed them. Annadan's face then vanished, slipping out of Dart's view as he took the sword away to clean it…

"I need to sew this up," said Lia, biting her lip and pulling the damp cloth away from Dart's side. There was blood staining the tip of the rag, and slowly—with visible pain— he pushed himself slowly up, gritting his teeth and flinching with every breath.

"I need… I need you to take off your shirt," said Lia, somewhat timidly as she went pink about the ears. He cracked the usual sarcastic grin.

"Changed your mind about me then?" he said, with a dry laugh.

"Just take it off," said Lia, narrowing her eyes and then turning half-around as he undid the laces of his tunic and pulled the somewhat battered cotton shirt over his head. Without a further word to each other, he laid back down with a distinct wince and then she resumed gingerly dabbing at the now bare wound.

She stopped for a moment, lightly tracing the path of a red-brown line across his stomach, a fainter one slashing diagonally across it. No doubt they were the glancing blows of swords barely dodged, or worse wounds from days as a hired blade…

He watched her with calm eyes. "You never seen a scar before?" he said quietly.

She pulled her hand away instantly, shifting. "Of course I have," she said, in a voice equally as soft. She shifted, though, and he caught the movement.

Had Dart been sitting up, he might have shrugged. "There are others," he said, with a rather careless air, as though he was noting a rather interesting collection of foreign coins or the like. "All over." He gestured vaguely to the small white slashes crisscrossing his knuckles, some of the more recent additions still only half-healed.

"You'll have another, I'm afraid," Lia informed him, biting her lip as she took the rag to the gash in his side once more.

"Pah," he said, with a dry grimace. "Employers like scars if you're a mercenary. They pay you more if you've got scars." He flinched as she firmly pressed a clean rag to his side.

"They must have hurt." She said it more to distract him from the pain rather than to initiate conversation, but he only shifted beneath the rag.

"Pain's the only thing that really makes you stronger," he said, still watching her with absent interest. "You get hit down, and you get back up only to get beat down again, but the second time, it doesn't hurt as much when you hit the floor… it makes you harder, I suppose. Faster, too."

Lia frowned and then nodded, noticing a black-inked bit of tattoo curling over his bare shoulder. He noticed where her eyes fell.

"Clan insignia," he said, although it came with bitterness. "Crescent moon and upside-down sword, couple of runes too. Haven't seen it in awhile," he said casually.

"Maorian?"

He nodded slowly. "Coming-of-age," he said. "Fourteen years old, if you're counting with a human. You flinch as they tattoo you and you're cast out of Maelkorre and branded a failure at life."

"Did you flinch?"

He snorted. "My father would have strung me up himself if I had," he said. "I was his only son, and for me to fail the ritual would have brought dishonor on my whole family."

"Did they do the same to girls?"

"No," he said, shaking his head. "The girls either must go into the clergy of a goddess and remain faithful for a year or leap off a two-hundred-foot precipice with a vine tied around their ankles. Most favored the first," he said, with a dry laugh. "Plants don't grow too healthy and strong underground, as you can imagine. Breathing things weren't meant to live in caves all their lives," he said, as she brought out a needle in thread.

Lia said nothing, only took a deep breath.

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Annadan looked up, finally taking the rag from the sword. "Randir," he called, half-turning. She was sitting cross-legged on a patch of dry ground and frowning at the damp, upside-down map.

"Mm?" she said absently, not looking up.

"What are you doing?"

"Looking at the map, silly," she said, as though it were obvious and he was an ignorant child. "Lia, it says that there is s'posed to be a city or something here. Right here, where we're standing."

Lia stood, looked over her shoulder, and sighed. "Randir, sweetie, that's Won."

"But we just left—"

"Look, Rand," said Lia, pointing. "You've got the map upside down." She gently took it and flipped it the right way, and then pointed. "See?"

Randir squinted at the tiny lettering. "Oh," she said, somewhat disappointed. Lia patted her on the head like a child and then turned back to where Dart lay half-bandaged beneath a stubby tree, on the driest patch of land that the mud-coated companions could find.

"But Li, there is too a city! Right there!" she protested, pointing. "It's not labeled, but there's a dot, right smack a couple… I dunno, feet? Yards? Miles? Right there, beside where we are."

Lia knelt and frowned. True enough, there was a tiny dot beside where she'd marked their route so far in slightly smeared black ink. Randir hadn't been making it up.

"What—?" She blinked at it, and then gestured to Annadan. "Hey," she said. "Look at this."

He stood, Dart protesting beside him, and knelt beside her, grasping one side of the map. His pale brows knit in concentration.

"What does this mean?" he said vaguely, glancing at the others.

"I don't know," confessed Lia, frowning. "But there is a mark there, no doubt of that."

Playfully Randir stuck out her tongue. "Told you so," she said, grinning. Lia rolled her eyes.

"What do you think?" said Annadan suddenly, smiling faintly at Randir's antics. "Should we head toward it?"

Lia shrugged, glancing back at Dart. "Can he walk? It's at least three more miles away…" she finished, looking down at the scale on the slightly damp vellum.

"I can walk," said Dart's bitter voice.

"Good for you," Lia added dryly.

"I'd rather walk than have to spend the night here," said Randir, shuddering. Even though that monster was dead, no more than a pile of ash above the marsh mud, she was slowly starting to hate this swamp with its faint will-'o-the-wisps and such things.

"She has a point," concluded Lia. "Get him on his feet. We don't have much time until sunset."

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Wearily Annadan sank deep into the hot bath, groaning in an odd cross between relief and welcomed luxury. It was the first time his worn body had felt true comfort in almost three long fortnights, seeing as their stay at the Kingfisher Inn had fallen a bit short. Annadan ducked his head beneath the luxuriously steaming water, holding his breath for as long as he could and simply soaking in the bath…

There had indeed been a town there, surprisingly large for having been marked with a seemingly harmless speck with no name. Literally. Even underwater Annadan grinned faintly. They'd reached the city barely two hours ago, and upon doing so immediately found a knowledgeable-looking man on the streets and promptly asked him what the name of the city was.

He'd blinked skeptically at their demand. "Noname," he'd said quickly.

"What?" Lia had lifted an eyebrow.

"The name of the city. Noname."

"Quit fooling around," Dart had growled. "Do you think we look like idiots?"

"No," the man had said, shaking his head. "You must never have been 'round these parts. Noname is the name of the city…" At Lia's puzzled expression, he had rolled his eyes and sighed. "The city. It's called Noname. I know it's odd, but it keeps pesky adventurous types away. After all," he chuckled. "Who'd bother venturing into the sewers or searching for hidden treasures in a place called Noname?"

Lia and Randir exchanged glances. "Might you know of an inn nearby, good sir?"

"Inn?" The man thought hard. "Eh… there might be a few taverns with rooms above down in the Second Quarter, but your best bet for good room and board… I think a place called Tamarain's, down in the Shallows. That way," he said, pointing to a cloud of faint white smoke rising from some tavern fireplace. "You'll see the sign from this street, I believe."

They had thanked the man, still puzzled about the odd name of the town, and continued down the terrace until the saw the brightly painted name of the inn in golden letters on a sign of chipped scarlet paint.

That was where they were now, bathed and fed and ready to collapse into the fluffy-looking clouds that the inn staff had stuffed into pillow shams and bed linens and doled out for ten silver a night.

Annadan surfaced, inhaling deeply. Silently he stepped from the bath—the towels were almost as soft as the bed linens back in his family's palace in Kilsavar. Brushing his sodden hair out of his face, he wrapped the towel about his waist for modesty.

He started at a slight knock on the inn room door. Randir's voice wafted from behind the door. "Are you decent?" she asked timidly.

He opened the door and smiled. She grinned and kissed him lightly. "I'll wait outside while you get dressed," she said. He nodded, closed the door, and hastily pulled on the mercifully clean shirt and trousers that had been laid out for him.

She leaned into his arms when he reopened the door, fiddling with his wet hair. "You look distracted," he said gently, brushing back strands of her deep black hair. "What is it?"

She shook her head, though tears had started to cloud her dark eyes. "Anni…" she said softly, choking on a sob as she leaned into his chest.

"Come on," said Annadan quietly, taking her hand and closing the door. "What's wrong, sweet?"

"I…" She shook her head, wiping tears on her sleeve. "It… it's nothing… it's immature, and besides, it… it's stupid, you wouldn't care…"

He touched her cheek. "Randir…"

She broke into sudden sobs, throwing her arms around his neck. "Oh, god, Anni, I love you," she whispered. "More than anything… anything, I swear…"

"You know that I return it," he said, smiling faintly and pulling her close. "Tell me," he said quietly. "What is it, Randir?"

"It's not fair!" she cried suddenly, bursting into tears and pulling away. He frowned, touching her arm.

"Randir—"

"It's not fair!" she sobbed. "Why can't we be married in peace? Why must we wait for the stupid law of Kilsavar to change? Why can't we… can't we fall in love the same as any other—"

"Please, Randir…"

"It's… It's not fair!" she sputtered, leaning into his arms. Her whole body was racked by her sobs as he held her close. Gently he hushed her, stroking her hair and kissing her forehead.

"I know, Randir," he said softly, cupping her round face tenderly in both hands. "I know it isn't fair that we can't marry, not yet, but someday I promise you—"

"Why not now?" she sobbed. "Why can't we run away and marry beneath a tree in a country where no one knows our names and no one knows our laws—"

"No," he said suddenly, clasping both her hands. "We won't run. We won't elope, we will not sink so low," he finished firmly, though his voice was a lover's and was not harsh. Randir looked up with tearful eyes. "Someday, Randir, someday I promise you we will marry in the temple in Kilsavar as the whole city watches, when these laws don't exist and we are free to marry in honor, in truth. I promise you," he said, touching her cheek. "Why should we hide what we have, Randir? Why should we hide our love?"

"We have to," said Randir quietly, staring defiantly up at him. His lips tightened for a brief second before his face softened.

"Someday, love, we can stand in the eyes of all Kilsavar and not have to," he said soothingly, taking her in his arms. "Someday. I promise."

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"No," said Lia firmly, shaking her head as she pulled a comb through her long hair and began to plait it. Dart had never truly noticed just how long her hair was—it brushed below even her lower back…

"A route through Aborakis will do us no good," she continued wanly, glancing back at the others standing or sitting in various places in the room. Randir sat cross-legged on the edge of one of the beds, absently stroking the tavern cat Piyeto. Dart leaned against one wall with his arms crossed over his chest and his trademark moody expression plastered across his freckled features. Annadan was yanking a comb through his own blond hair, which had dried uncombed into limp curls near the ends.

"Then Flaye…?" He looked at her.

"It would be safer," said Dart quietly. "And faster."

"If you can call it safer," snorted Lia. "We'd have to leave the peninsula through the Strands—" she mentioned a series of intricately connecting rivers on the edge of one side of the peninsula—"and then north, through the Searaman Bay into Haven and the colonies of Maelkorre down near the shore."

"The Searaman's a voyage dangerous enough on its own," said Annadan cautiously, glancing at Dart. "We would have to find a ship that would brave the Wrath…"

He spoke of an odd triangle of particularly restless sea that stretched lengthwise through the entire bay, a dangerous place that had long barricaded sea trade between Mithan and Flaye. It was a perilous crossing that only a few had dared and even fewer had come out of alive.

Randir looked up, shuddering as she touched Annadan's arm. He took her hand, still looking at Lia.

"Our challenge wouldn't so much be braving the Wrath than finding a captain crazy enough to," she said, snorting. Ruefully Annadan nodded, and Dart made a small noise that sounded like an agreement.

"I think I know a man," said Dart suddenly, looking up. "We hired him to sail us on a mission in Silvara, back when I was in the army."

Lia looked at him and then shook her head. "You're infamous around here, aren't you? All these contacts in Won, and now here…?"

"I made a name for myself," he said, grinning leanly and shrugging.

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"Silver Anchor?" said Lia dubiously. "They should have tried 'Rusty, Disease-Infested Anchor,'" she continued dryly, squinting through the smoky interior of the Silver Anchor Inn. She had a point, the others had to confess. The place was dim, musty, dirty, and in almost every way utterly foul. The whole inn seemed to give off a rancid odor like alcohol splashed on raw steak left too long in spoiling sun. There were nails poking from the seats of the barstools and the floorboards were uneven, as Randir found out when she tripped and almost fell flat on her face.

A rough fellow engaged in a violent fistfight tumbled over the bar, and both Annadan and Dart stood back as glass shattered and his opponent vaulted atop of him, shrieking foul curses.

"Nice enough place," said Annadan dimly, grimacing.

Lia wrinkled her nose, a silent agreement, but Dart leaned casually over the bar, summoning the scruffy, hare-faced bartender.

"Jim Apelburry," he said. "Where is he?"

"You got money?" the man said keenly, meeting Dart's eyes. When the young elf said nothing, the man grinned thinly. "Then I don't know where in Aspenda the ol' searat is."

Dart leaned over further, knocked over a glass of sherry rum, and took the bartender violently by the shirtfront. "You sure you don't know?" he said, eyes flashing. "It'd be easier for you to tell us if you still had all your teeth." Dart made a fist, and the man's eyes widened.

"Back rooms," he practically gasped. "Door eighteen, though I'll be warnin' ya he don't much like visitors at this hour he don't know—"

Dart let go of the man, pushed him back into a rack of liquor bottles, and smiled innocently. "I'm sure he won't mind a call from a friend," he said, tipping an imaginary hat. "Good day, sir," he added dryly, smirking as he led the others through the door beside the kitchens until he found a suitable door.

The smudged, dented plaque affixed at a crooked angle to the door read 18, though on top of that was a badly crossed-out 16. Dart gave the door a vicious hammer, until one of the hinges threatened to release its halfhearted grip on the heavy door.

"I don't want no more tomatoes!" barked a voice. "But if you gots some o' those cherry truffles I'll take one o' those, and maybe a cute kitten to boot—"

A round, weathered face opened the door a crack. The man's muddy brown eyes peered out from beneath thick black eyebrows, and his beard was braided and beaded and trickling with liquor. He wore a patch like some of the more feared pirates might have had over a ruined eye, although his was strapped across his left ear.

"Are yins from the downtown asylum?" he said suspiciously, looking at them as though they were ghosts. "'Cause I be tellin' yins, the voices went away soon as I patched me old sailor's ear—" He slapped the patch and harrumphed with satisfaction. "Old Aunt Mayburry ain't spoken with me since I got me good ol' patch."

"Captain Jimmerson Apelburry?" said Dart, looking up from vaguely examining his fingernails.

"Aye, that be me," he said, eyeing the elf, who stood a full head taller than him. "Yins be wanting to hear the tale of Cap'n Apelburry and the Sincus of the Strands? I tell ye, it's a good 'un, and it starts in the midst of the most horrendous storm the world'd ever seen since the Divine War of Time. The waves were crashin' high as mountains in the northern lands, great masses o' water that had no intent but to swallow our battered ship 'ole—"

"The tale can wait, Captain. I've heard it a good four times," muttered Dart, producing a tattered if not decidedly bulging drawstring bag that chinked with steel coins. "We seek to buy passage from you, and find a cabin on your ship."

"The old Tomato Queen?" Captain Apelburry sighed, stroking a smooth piece of wood woven into his beard. "I'm afraid she's long been tarried in the deepest lockers of the Winterwaters. She was sank a time ago. By Ermin, is that a flying carp?"

He looked vaguely at a hideous painting plastered on the inn wall. Dart steered his gaze back, plopping the heavy bag of coins in the old sea captain's grubby hand. "We'll pay you well if you can get us passage across the Searaman Bay," he said evenly.

Apelburry blinked at the bag of coinage. "I told ye, it's bloody hard to make a crossing without a ship! Queenie sank three fortnights, years, I don't know." The captain sighed, suddenly deeply interested in his elbow. "D'you remember that patch there?" he said abruptly, pointing to the swath of lemon yellow fabric.

"I've never seen it in my life, Jimmerson, and pay attention in the name of all merciful gods!" snapped Dart, tugging on the old man's beaded beard. A bell jingled faintly and the man paid attention with a hurt look on his weathered face.

"If you're the old sea devil I know you are the fact that your tomato ship is sunk should make no difference," snapped Dart. "Find your old mate Leighman, if you must. We need passage, and soon. Now, if you can."

"Leighman? I don't remember—"

"Yes you do," said Dart, patting the captain on the shoulders. "And he's got a ship, if you want it so badly."

"Y'know," said Apelburry, grinning somewhat vaguely. "I think Adym's still hangin' round the docks these days, and if he's still there he's bound to have a few ol' crew buddies. We'll rename Leighman's ship and get you to yer ol'… ah…"

"Flaye," said Dart. "Port Kindran, if you will."

"You're crossing the Searaman?" Apelburry's eyes widened. "I know a man who could rig for us and get us a ship, if you pay good passage. Name's Leighman, down in the sea district, and if he'll hire us we'll have killed two birds with one stone, a mate and a ship—"

"Yes, we know," snapped Dart, patting the old captain's hand. "Go find Adym and tell him to round up a crew."

"Adym! Dear boy, he is! You know where he is now? I ain't spoken with 'im in weeks!" exclaimed Captain Apelburry excitedly.

Lia and Annadan exchanged glances. "Am I the only one who thinks he's mad?" whispered Annadan, raising an eyebrow.

"You're not alone," said Lia, chuckling. "He's mad."

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"Adym!" hooted Captain Apelburry, taking a confused-looking young porter who couldn't have had more than twenty-two years into a bear hug. The young man gagged at the muggy smell of the captain's apple-red coat, which he'd promptly donned along with a purple tricornered hat and a pair of mismatched boots (one was black, the other khaki).

"Cap'n?" the youth choked, pushing himself out of the man's embrace and gratefully breathing fresh air. The young man's shoulder-length black hair, faintly curly beneath his knit porter's cap, gave a wide grin lined with teeth so small they could have been a child's. "Cap'n! What're you doing down here, I thought the good Tomato'd sank a while ago, and now you come running back… are we going for another voyage?" He said all this very fast, dark eyes glinting with excitement.

"Easy, Adym," said Captain Apelburry. "We're taking these fine passengers through the Strands and up into the Searaman and the Wrath. D'you know where Leighman is now? We need to pick up the Onion Rind and then he can serve as first mate!"

"We can gather the crew of the Tomato!" said Adym keenly. "And put 'em all back in business! Raid a few merchant ships on the way, get back into the mode!" He winked at the four. "The sea gets in your blood, it does, when you're up in the rigging with the wind on your face, balancing on the very prick of the flying jib and feeling like a gull over water, like there's nothing freer—"

"What're you talking 'bout, rigging?" laughed another porter, a burly man with a scruffy beard who obviously knew both the talkative youth and the insane sea captain. "You served as a cabin boy all through the first time. The most excitement you got was the breeze while you swabbed the deck!" He laughed, his whole chest shaking with the deep chortles. Adym gave him a dark look.

"Let's find Leighman and the others!" he said, grabbing Apelburry's arm. "I'm itching to feel good planks beneath my feet again!"

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