The wicked heroine, p.46
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.46

           Jasmine Giacomo


  The caravan lumbered on; the last days until they reached Yaren Fel were filled with more towns and far more interaction with the locals. Rhona and Ruel took to riding back amongst the wagons, and often Salvor joined them. Geret, for all his dislike of the arrogant Vinten nobleman, appreciated his gesture of solidarity and protection for Geret’s guests.

  Ruel told Rhona about Meena being the Shanallar; he tried his best to recreate the stories Meena had told him as they’d walked through the Springfest. At first he himself had not believed, because Salvor had clearly been disinterested. But the way she had spoken, and her attitude of indifference to her own stories, made it clear she hadn’t merely been trying to impress him. Rhona listened, amazed at the stories Ruel shared. She also found a growing appreciation for the confidence her cousin was beginning to exude. He had just blurted out the information about Meena; back at sea, he would have asked her permission first.

  Rhona, for her part, continued to follow Geret’s instructions for her own quest, although with towns so close together now, scouting for water wasn’t necessary anymore. Her actions made Geret feel like a complete bully, but when he told her she could leave off, she surprised him by insisting on completing her tasks until the caravan reached Yaren Fel.

  Geret had to smile; when he’d first met Rhona, he hadn’t been impressed with her at all. Now, he had to admit, she was quickly becoming someone he liked to be with, and he was already wanting to postpone their arrival in Yaren Fel. He didn’t want either Rhona or Ruel to leave. Not only were they both enjoyable company, but when they left, Geret would have to spend a lot more time around Salvor, and aboard a ship, too. He was dreading that lengthy confinement.

  The day before the caravan rumbled into Yaren Fel, the Counts sent emissaries ahead of them to meet with their ship’s captain and with the Kirthan sultan. Late that night, hoof beats thundered into camp, and in minutes Geret had been awakened by urgent servants. He threw on a shirt and boots over his rumpled breeches, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and stood up while one of the servants lit the lamp in his tent. The three Counts and the emissaries pushed their way in, and Geret knew something had gone wrong.

  “Runcan, what is it?” he asked, his last word slurred through a yawn.

  “My lord, there is trouble in the Kirthan capital. The sultan has a situation.” The red-haired Count looked to the emissary that had tried to reach the sultan with news of the arriving prince of Vint.

  “My lords,” the short, slender man said, bowing, “the Inner City is in revolt. Its gates are locked from within, and none without know what is happening. The merchant guild are in uproar, and from what I could gather, they are either in control of part of the sultan’s senate, or they are controlled by them. Most believe there is actual bloodshed going on, and that it has to do with fighting for the guild’s rights. We would do well to swing wide of the Inner City, and wish the sultan well from afar.” The man’s voice was steady as he spoke to his masters, but his body showed fatigue and strain.

  “Thank you. Get this man some food and drink,” Geret said, addressing one of the servants in the background, who nodded and directed the emissary out of Geret’s tent.

  “There’s more, my lord,” Count Armala said, glancing at the other emissary, a black-haired woman.

  “Yes? What news from the ship?” Geret asked her, concern warring with eagerness. Raised in a landlocked country, he had yet to see any ship at all with his own eyes, let alone one of the Sea God class.

  “My lord,” the woman said, bowing her head respectfully, “I was able to meet with Captain Galanishav. He is worried about the revolt in the Inner City as well, and mislikes leaving his ship within range of the sultan’s navy. When I asked him his intentions, he said if it came to it he would sail without us.”

  “What?” Geret blurted. “He can’t do that!”

  “My lord Geret,” Count Sengril said, rubbing tiredly at his large nose, “I’m afraid he can. The ship is his to command; he must protect his own interests in case of danger.”

  Geret covered another jaw-cracking yawn with his hand, then said, “It’ll take us two days to load everything onto the ship, if I remember right.” Runcan agreed. “Then we should trim the caravan down and get to the ship as soon as we can.” He addressed the emissary again. “Get a few hours’ sleep, and ride out again so you reach Yaren Fel at first light. Tell Captain Galanishav that we will be there tomorrow for loading, and that anything we can’t load up by dusk, we’ll leave behind. That should hold him till we get there.”

  The Counts muttered while the emissary bowed in assent and slipped out of the tent.

  “My lord,” Sengril argued, “everything we’re bringing with us is essential. That’s why we needed to charter one of the Sea God ships in the first place!”

  Runcan was already thinking out loud. “We can’t leave the food stores; they’ll have to come. The trunks full of foreign protocol will need to come too…we can do without the sample bins–”

  “No, we can’t,” protested Armala, golden stubble winking along his cheeks. “There’s so much to be learned about the new plants and animals we discover along the way! The task of collecting samples is one of my main purposes for coming on this quest!”

  “Gentlemen!” Geret called. He waited until the Counts were silent. “We have to leave something. In fact, we have to leave most of it. It’ll take us half a day to reach the Dock District; that leaves us one quarter of our estimated loading time before dusk tomorrow. We need to cut our supplies and people by three fourths.”

  “Three fourths?” Sengril repeated blankly.

  But Geret’s mind was already working on the logistics. “Come on, we’ve got work to do,” he said, pushing through the Counts. “Let’s wake up the caravan masters and get some help. If we start now, we should be able to take some of nearly everything with us and only cut our load by about two thirds.”

  Geret led the way to the ring of tents where the caravan masters slept. Once they were awake, things began to happen in quick order. The wagon loads were already inventoried onto onboard scrolls, and switching the loads around was just a matter of deciding what would go where.

  Servants scurried about by the dozens, unloading trunks, boxes and barrels everywhere. The only holdups were when Geret and the Counts, and many of the other nobles who came on the quest for reasons of their own, argued about what would be kept and what should remain behind.

  In the end, Geret had to pull rank. The quest’s purpose was to find the Dire Tome, and Geret himself, as a prince of the realm, had been charged with that duty. Everyone else on the quest had either been assisting with that goal, or at least not hindering it, until now. Geret had to tell all the nobles who had attached themselves to the caravan for personal glory to go back home. He longed to lump Salvor in that group, but he knew he couldn’t, not with the other Counts’ solidarity toward Halvor Thelios’ son.

  With the departure of all the hangers-on, much of the baggage and many of the servants went as well, making Geret realize just how bulky the caravan had been. Ah, politics, he thought.

  That still left a large portion of the caravan to sort through. Once the Counts realized Geret meant to take a little bit of each of the projects they held dear, they were more supportive of him. By dawn they had slashed the caravan’s wagon count from one hundred and twenty down to thirty-eight, with a similar reduction in the number of people accompanying them.

  Geret and the Counts let the caravan masters decide which of them and their personnel would head to Yaren Fel and which would return to Vint. It turned out that Brem would be the only caravan master continuing to Yaren Fel, but he was taking nearly half the servants, in order to get the wagons to the docks and load all the supplies onto the ship in a timely manner.

  Not many people slept during the night, but since Geret’s camp circle was one of the furthest away from the wagons, everyone who was still in their tents did sleep, and woke to a beehive of activity at br
eakfast time. Those who were being booted from the caravan insisted on having their breakfast first, so the cooks’ tents and wagons were still in full use, their supplies not yet packed.

  Rhona and Sanych went together to get breakfast, still sleepy in the pre-dawn dimness. They walked back to their own fire, eating porridge with raisins, watching and listening to the chaos all around them.

  “What’s going on?” Rhona asked.

  Sanych glanced at the two groups of wagons, and the busyness around each. “I don’t know,” she replied.

  “Morning, girls,” Meena called, catching up to them with a bowl in her hand.

  “Do you know what’s going on?” Rhona asked her.

  “The caravan’s splitting. Some trouble in Yaren Fel, and our ship’s about to leave without us.” Meena grinned and took a large bite of porridge.

  “Ship?” Rhona said, alarmed. “When were you going to tell me you’re taking a ship? I thought you were going to Yaren Fel and then turning around for home!”

  “And why are you so happy?” Sanych added, not answering Rhona.

  “Well, that’s your fault for not asking enough questions, Rhona,” Meena responded. “As for happy, I guess it feels like old times.”

  “So where are you really going?” Rhona seemed strangely insistent.

  “Old times?” Sanych asked curiously.

  “Stop, you two. I do have two ears, but only one mouth.” Meena looked at Rhona, her expression almost fond. “Once in Yaren Fel, a Sea Clansman saved my life during a bit of a rush like this one will be.”

  “He what?” Rhona asked, stopping.

  “Yes,” Meena said. “Tossed me a rope as I ran along the docks, and shot the Kirthan right behind me with his hand crossbow. He went down, and the rest of the mob on his heels tripped over him. Gave the Clansman just enough time to pull me aboard, as his sister’s ship set out to sea after a raid.”

  Sanych took the story in stride as yet another fascinating bit of Meena’s life, but an odd look was creeping over Rhona’s face.

  “Amazing…that’s just like…how…gods above and below, that’s impossible!” she finally managed. “How do you know that story?”

  “What story?” Sanych asked, while Meena and Rhona watched each other closely.

  Rhona shifted her gaze to Sanych for a few moments to say, “It’s the story of how my grandmother’s grandmother joined the Clans. It was before Agonbloom rose to become First Clan. She stayed with us for a dozen years, and then…”

  “Then she what?” Sanych couldn’t stop herself from asking.

  Meena’s expression had dimmed a little under Rhona’s intense scrutiny.

  “She fell overboard during a storm. Trying to save her daughter,” Rhona said.

  “It was a hurricane,” Meena murmured. “We hadn’t been able to reach safe harbor before it caught us. Foolish girl was up in the rigging for a dare. I gave her the worst tongue-lashing of her life up there in the wind and rain.”

  Rhona’s jaw went slack, and her breathing sped up. “Clan law changed because you died. Yet you’re here, alive. How? And why didn’t you come back?” Rhona’s last, plaintive question made Sanych shut her mouth and look to Meena.

  Meena looked pained. “I…” Her eyes flickered to Sanych, and the Archivist suddenly had a suspicion that Meena hadn’t fallen from that rigging by accident.

  “Eat up, ladies!” Geret’s brisk voice carried to them as he jogged by on the way back to his tent. “The sun will be up in half an hour and we need to be on our way then. If you want your tents and belongings to come with you on the ship, you need to get them packed.”

  Meena and Sanych headed for their tents, eating large bites as they went.

  Rhona stood in the middle of the camp path, hands held up in frustration, and called after them, “What ship?”

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