Roland adjusted the stack of papers before him for what seemed to be the millionth time. He drummed his fingers against his desk and looked questioningly at Howard, who lounged on the hammock swinging to his right.
His younger twin shrugged. "No idea, Roland. I haven't seen him for a few days, now. Don't worry. I'm sure he'll be here soon."
"I's not so unusual for th' yun prince ta be a mite late, cap'n." Neb leaned against the window seat behind Roland's desk, watching the patterns of white foam left in the ship's wake. The bright sun streamed in through the large window, glinting in the silver hair the sailor kept pulled back in a ponytail.
There was a knock at the cabin door.
"Tha's prob'ly 'im now."
Before Roland could respond, the door opened, and Carl's reproachful voice could be heard.
"Oh please, Katjè. You don't have to knock. It's just Roland's room." Carl paraded in, carrying a rather chagrined looking Katjè in his arms. "I mean, really. They are expecting me, after all."
He strode over to the hammock. Howard struggled to get up, but Carl dropped the princess directly into his older brother's arms. He then spun around and bowed to Roland with an elaborate flourish.
"I," he paused dramatically, "am here."
Roland scowled. "Fashionably late as usual, I see."
Katjè had a her arms in a vice-like grip around Howard's neck. Her eyes were tightly shut as they swung gently back and forth. "Roland!?" she squeaked.
"No. It's Howard, actually."
She didn't loosen her grip.
Carl spun around. "Oh." He looked sincerely surprised. "Howard. Didn't see you there, ol' chap. Sorry."
He moved to retrieve Katjè, but Howard held up a hand. "S'okay. I got her." He carried Katjè over to one of the chairs and set her down. "I put you in the middle chair in front of Roland's desk," he said. "Just so you know."
She nodded, swallowing visibly.
Carl shrugged, collapsing gracefully into the hammock. "Well, are we having a meeting or not?"
Roland shot him a black look. "I suppose that you've already forgotten that you were the last one here?"
"Yes, well, Katjè was late, too…"
Roland sighed, letting his breath out through his teeth in a snake-like hiss.
Howard sat on the desk, holding a length of parchment up before his twin's face. "Just read the agenda."
"Skip the agenda," said Carl with a flippant wave of his hand. "You always spend eighty-six minutes telling us what we're going to discuss just before we discuss it. It just wastes time."
Roland grated his teeth. He usually appreciated Carl's humorous antics, but sometimes his younger brother was just annoying. Drumming his fingers against the desk impatiently, he cast Howard a pleading glance.
Howard hopped off the desk and pushed the hammock with his foot, sending it rocking crazily. "We waste more time waiting for you to shut up, actually," he said matter-of-factly.
Carl sprang up from the violently swinging hammock. He scowled, narrowed his eyes, and brushed his hair back into place in a thoroughly offended manner. Flouncing over to an empty chair, he seated himself primly, nose in the air. Then he burst out laughing. "Hohaha, sorry, chaps. Carry on then."
Roland shook his head. "Very well. We'll skip the agenda." He waited until Neb had seated himself and then held up a map that was nearly as wide and tall as the front of his desk. "As you can see," he paused for a second. Katjè actually couldn't see. He wondered if she'd notice. "Umm. As you can see, I've already mapped out the islands of Optica, Esidara, Revosid, and Yresi according to their relative location to the coast. We're pretty far out now, about six hundred and thirty leagues from Kamenlad heading away from Revosid and Yresi. According to Neb, the Seven Isles should be about one hundred and seventy three leagues to the north and three points west."
He moved his left hand to indicate the position, but the parchment rolled closed as soon as he released it. He looked at the ceiling in exasperation as Carl sniggered and Howard quickly came to his twin's aid. Katjè simply stared rather blankly at the wall as Howard held up the map's left corner. Roland pointed out four faintly circular masses near the top of the map.
"Neb said he couldn't remember exactly what shapes the Seven Isles were, so I only sketched out rough outlines."
Carl raised a hand, eyes wide and lips pursed, as if he were trying not to smile. "Um, Roland, you only drew four islands…"
Neb broke in before Roland could respond. "Aye, sir, an' tha's zactly right. There was only four isles on th' maps they showed me on th' Hunter. Ah poinded ou' tha' very same fact, an' they said t'id al'ays ben so. 'Parently, there was once three more'n the sea rose an' washed 'em all away. Th' Islanders just kept right on callin' 'em the Seven Isles, even though there was only four." The sailor shrugged at Carl's bewildered expression. "Ah'm jus' repeatin' what they tol' me, sir."
Carl shook his head. "Weird."
Roland continued. "Anyway, if the weather holds out, we should probably make it to the Seven Isles in one or two weeks." Roland let his corner of the map go and it rolled itself neatly into Howard's hand.
Roland took the map, filing it into the top left-hand drawer. "According to Neb, the Islanders have the same language as we do, they dress similarly, and the way their ships were built was relatively comparable. However, they also have different customs and many superstitions." He cringed. "Dad wasn't too specific on what to do if we met people, so any suggestions on how to proceed would be appreciated."
Carl stood up straight, throwing a hand across his brow. "No," he gasped. "Not people! Give us stowaways and storms and … evil water that… ruins people's…. lives…" he faltered slightly, but quickly recovered. "Give us anything but," he took a few deep breaths, "people." He collapsed into the chair.
Roland pressed his lips together. "It's slightly more complicated than that. It doesn't hurt to be wary. But then, I suppose you've never been scared of anything, have you?"
"'Course not. What in the Realms do I have to be af-"
At that very moment, the door opened and Jane walked in. Carl took one glance and nearly swallowed his tongue. He immediately slouched deep into the chair and tried to look nonchalant.
Roland grinned. "You were saying, Carl?"
The young prince looked around, wide-eyed with innocence. "Who me? What? I didn't say anything. I'm not even here."
Luckily for Carl, Jane wasn't paying him any attention. She strode up to Roland and placed a vial of water before him. "It still isn't fizzy."
Roland quirked an eyebrow. It took him a moment to realize that Jane was talking about her tests on the water from Yresi.
Jane took his silence as an invitation for more information. "That means that it should be edible. But, obviously, it's not." She flung her hand back to Katjè.
Katjè looked toward Howard. "What's happening?" she whispered.
Howard shifted his chair closer to her, quietly relating everything that she couldn't see. Carl crossed his arms over his chest, sinking further down into the chair.
Roland nodded slowly. "So, you think… what, exactly?"
Jane tilted her head. "It's edible."
Roland spread his hands. "How did you come to that conclusion?"
Jane carefully dropped eighteen small, red berries onto his desk. "Because of yew berries."
Roland looked at the berries, then looked up at his sister's triumphant face, and then back down at the yew berries. He could remember nothing about yew berries that pertained to this situation. He frowned. Yew branches were used to make bows. That was the only thing he could remember. He could not call to mind a single one of its medical uses.
Grinding his teeth together, he cast his twin a helpless glance. But Howard was busy trying to keep Katjè from absolute confusion. Roland turned his gaze to his sister.
Jane shook her head. "Yew berry seeds are poisonous," she explained, "but the flesh of the berry isn't." Taking one of the berries between her fingers, she used her long fingernail to cut into it. She peeled the bright red outer layer off and held up the small green-brown seed. "Poisonous." She proffered the red fruit on her other finger. "Not poisonous."
Roland looked at it suspiciously. "You want me to eat it?"
The tall red-head nodded.
Roland took the fruit and put it on his tongue, cringing slightly. "It's rather slimy," he said, making a face.
"Yes, but the point is that it isn't poisonous. Right?"
"Well, I haven't died… yet…"
Carl snorted and opened his mouth to say something, then cast Jane a worried glance and closed it slowly.
"Don't worry. You won't die," Jane continued. "Now, when I put the yew berries in the aciden, it comes out like this."
She held up another bottle and indicated the dark, faintly fizzy mass at the bottom. "Poison." She lowered the vial slightly, pointing to the red smudge floating at the top of the clear liquid. "Not poison."
Roland massaged his temples. "And the water from the island did that?"
"Not exactly." She put the bottle down on his desk. "But, I have a theory. Because the aciden didn't register normally, the water must be edible but," she paused, "only sometimes."
Carl opened his mouth again, and again he stopped before saying anything, twisting his mouth into a scowl and folding his arms over his chest in annoyance.
Howard stood up and examined the yew berry in the vial of aciden. "So, you're saying that maybe it's only edible if you…" he pursed his lips, thinking, "drink it with food?"
Jane nodded. "Something along those lines anyway."
Roland chewed his lower lip, adjusting the stack of papers before him. "But, if that were the case, wouldn't you have to put food in the aciden too for it to register as edible?"
Jane gathered up both of the bottles and the yew berries, depositing them in one of her many pockets. "Correct."
"Maybe you have to filter something out of it? Boil it, or something?"
"The aciden would show that too."
There was a moment of thoughtful silence. Everyone but Carl was trying to figure out how the water could be edible. Carl was trying to figure out how he could sneak away without Jane noticing.
Jane shook her head. "Oh well, I'm sure I'll figure it out eventually."
She turned to go, but then Howard held up a hand.
"Unless," he stared out the massive window for a moment, "unless maybe it just has to be taken in small amounts?"
In a strange mimic of Carl, Jane opened her mouth and then closed it. Her eyebrows went up and she smiled. "That might just be it…" She took her younger brother's hand and shook it enthusiastically. "It's the best thing anyone's come up with so far anyway! I'll go and see what I can find out!"
With that, she strode out of the cabin.
The others stared blankly at each other for minute. Neb shook his head. "Ah cannae fallah any o' tha,' cap'n. Ah 'spose ah jus' weren't-" He stopped suddenly and looked around. "Where be yun master Carl?"
The young prince was gone.
Katjè made a face. "I suppose he left me here to fend for myself."
Howard patted her shoulder consolingly. "Don't worry Katjè, I'll take you back to sickbay."
Neb grasped the arms of the chair and lifted himself up. "She's no' in sickbay anymore. An' there's no need far ye ta carry 'er. Ah think she can probably make it 'cross th' deck ta her room, 'long as someone's there ta catch 'er if she falls."
Howard shook his head, helping the princess up. "I don't know, Neb. If the goal is to get her into her normal routine, maybe I should carry her. It seems to me that Katjè always had someone there willing to carry her even before she became blind."
Katjè smiled as she took his arm and let him help her out of Roland's cabin.
Nebrinî chuckled as he retrieved his walking stick.
Roland took one of the papers on his well-ordered desk and began to scan it. "I suppose it doesn't really matter that I never gave Carl the actual coordinates we'll be using?"
Neb shook his head. "Ah'm sure Joseph'll see to i' tha' th' Lady fallahs the Queen an' th' Squire. Ah doubt they'll get lost."
Roland filed his papers into the drawers and nodded, then swiveled about in his chair to gaze at the empty sea behind him. He smiled. "As long as this good wind holds, we'll be at the islands in a week or so."
Neb shuffled over to the door, nodding. "Aye, cap'n. S'long as the wind 'olds."
"Roland, we have a problem."
The three older princes stood on the deck of the Queen Kathlyn,watching as Katjè received her first lesson in quarterstaff combat. Roland tore his gaze away from the scene and turned toward Howard, who had voiced this ominous statement.
Carl grinned impishly. "We sure do. Jane's cooking again tonight." He laughed. "Seriously, why did Neb have to choose staff fighting? I mean, he's already done enough lessons so that Katjè can get around on deck without falling on her face, why couldn't he have started on getting her to cook again? I'm always afraid that Jane's going to slip dandelions into my soup or something."
Howard smiled a tight, forced smile, dismissing his brother's questions as rhetorical.
"What's the problem, Howard?" Roland asked, leaning against the ship's railing.
His twin grimaced slightly, running his fingers through his blonde hair. "I was just talking to Jane. She's completed the inventory." He stopped uncertainly, watching as Neb whacked Katjè softly across the back with his staff.
Roland waited expectantly. Carl, who had completely stopped paying attention, cheered as the princess finally got a hit in by sheer luck.
Howard took a deep breath. "She says that unless we spot the Seven Isles today, we're all going to have to go on half rations starting tomorrow. We have only enough water for a week and a half; less if we start using the oars, and we might have to if the wind doesn't pick up."
Roland had anticipated this.
The good wind had not held. Only four days after the captains' meeting, it had died away. The three ships had been becalmed for over a week now, and hadn't been restocked since Esidara. The crew had consumed the three crates of oranges from Revosid long ago, and most of the supplies gleaned from Yresi had been dumped overboard. Their supplies were running out all too quickly.
Roland sighed heavily and looked northward, towards the bow of the ship. He knew that if only the wind would fill the slack sails, they could reach the islands in just a few days time. But the wind showed no signs of changing.
The sun shown brightly out of the clear, blue sky, reflecting up from the pristine salt water. A few wispy clouds skittered by high above them, blown by a breeze that would not descend to fill the sails.
Katjè raised her staff to block Neb's slow-motion blow and then stepped back, promptly tripping over a length of coiled rope. She sat there for a moment, mouth wide open in horror and humiliation. Carl clapped a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing, and Roland and Howard smiled identical crooked grins.
Neb held a hand out to her. "Wouldja like some 'elp, miss."
She put her hand out grudgingly and the sailor helped her up. The corners of her mouth pulled down in a frown. "Can we be done for today?"
He laughed. "We jus' started!"
She shot the staff out suddenly and hit his crutch askew, causing him to nearly fall. Howard stepped forward quickly and caught him.
Katjè stared around blankly. "Did I get him?"
Neb was shaking, and it took a moment for Roland to realize that this was from laughter. "Aye. Ye sure did, miss." He shook his head, setting his crutch back in place. "Beaten by a blind princess… what's th' world comin' ta?"
Katjè grinned broadly, leaning against the tall staff. "Ha. Did you see that, Roland? Carl?"
Roland nodded and, distracted by his present problem, didn't remember to correct himself. Luckily, Carl made up for it.
"Whoo! That was awesome. A bit low I must admit, knocking a man's crutch out from under him like that, but really Katjè, you were brilliant!"
Neb chuckled. "Aye. Brillian.' All right, miss. Ye get yer wish. We're done far now, but well 'ave another lesson af'er the midday meal."
Still grinning, Katjè nodded.
Howard watched as Neb hobbled off towards the sailors' quarters, then he turned to her. "I'm not sure that really counted. You didn't give him any warning."
She shrugged. "It's not like I got a warning every time he was going to hit me. If he had, then I wouldn't be in so much pain right now." She grimaced. "I'm going to have so many bruises…"
Carl laughed, patting her on the back. She winced. "Ow."
"Oh, haha, sorry. Whatever you do though, do not go see Jane for those bruises. She'll probably just tell you that you'll die unless you drink gallons of that awful tea. I honestly don't think she's ever tasted it. If she had, then she'd realize how inhuman it is to force it on people. Someday… someday I'll give her a taste of her own medicine. Yeah. That's what I'll do." He nodded sagely, waved to Howard and Roland, and left for his own ship.
Howard shook his head, watching his younger brother leave. "Does he have one real problem?"
Roland nodded. "Yeah. He has the same problem that we do. He just doesn't know it yet."