The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 6
Chapter Six. At Jade Island – All Aboard!
Read by Asclepius
Yesterday morning, back in Jade Valley while focusing on the driving need to catch up with Violet’s ship, Zyrina had eventually convinced herself to get on board this airship – she had persuaded herself that she could get in the air again. Even if it brought her to a cold sweat at the mere idea of leaving the safety of the earth, she was determined to overcome her dread. Airships didn’t crash every time, and when Lucy looked her in the eye and bet her farm that this one would not crash, Zyrina took a deep breath and accepted her ticket. She knew she would do whatever she needed to do to see this search to the end. She was counting on Lucy’s opinion of this bloody contraption and her love of her farm. She was still not sure it was a sound choice but there was also her promise to help her friend find Kitty. And then there was the book. She had not forgotten.
Finding Kitty, and then Torgin and Phlebus, was all absolutely essential because of the book they all sought. It had caused far too much damage in the world already and Zyrina would do far more to see it recovered than simply lose her breakfast over the edge of an airship. Her hope that Phlebus would find a way to safely keep or destroy it kept her steady. She knew he would not give up and she would not either. She knew what she had to do, and she was determined to do it.
It would be nice if it didn’t involve quite so much nausea though. Zyrina closed her eyes trying to stop the inner swells from swamping her. Glancing up from the rail, the big oval balloon billowing above did not dispense the same sense of comfort to her as most of the others felt. In fact, its undulating form was now a catalyst to the rippling inside her stomach. Zyrina leaned over the rail of the airship again.
Hanging on to the thick rope rigging with all her strength, she emptied the contents of her gut yet another time. Relief was immediate. Complete emptiness and freedom for a few precious minutes, until the waves of nausea would once again entirely swamp her existence; this short reprieve was all that kept her from flinging herself over the side too.
A fresh breeze on her face rejuvenated her failing spirit and she pulled herself from the brink. Back in their shared sleeping cabin, she carefully rinsed her mouth and washed her face before climbing into her cot after a large swig of the cool peppermint tea that Lucy had left in a pewter jug beside her bed. Zyrina suspected that Lucy was responsible for the hot water and clean towel, as well.
She smiled a little, thankful for her friend’s compassion. Lucy continued to bring her sense of serenity and comfort with her no matter where they wandered or how rough the accommodation and Zyrina was keenly aware of all the ways that Lucy smoothed the path for everyone in their small troupe.
Watching people was a specialty of Zyrina’s. She noticed things that other people were not aware of, like the way that Lily seemed to go completely still every time that Torgin’s name came up in conversation. Or the things that Lucy left behind her like a breadcrumb trail back to the beginning. Zyrina shifted in her bunk, pulling the rough blanket up under her chin.
Days into our journey I leaned far over the side and shouted gleefully into the wind: “WheeeeeeEEEEEeeee!” My hair whipped back from my face and the warm sun soaked right through my closed eyelids to shine bright orange patterns where they danced in my mind. I was having a moment of complete abandon. There was little I could accomplish while we travelled so as well as writing copious notes, I spent time exploring the ship.
The ride up to the large airship in the small air balloon from Jade Valley was the smoothest transfer I had experienced; at least I hadn’t screamed the entire time this time. After the air balloon docked and we climbed into the airship, the First Officer arranged for payment and transferred our belongings over to the ship too. This was all becoming familiar to me. However, the beauty of the long-range airship had not struck me before today. I think fear had made me blind to the splendor around me. I looked around deck at the graceful lines of polished wood and thick rope. This bigger air vessel gave me a strange sense of stability, and permanence.
These days Zyrina mostly stayed in her bunk; Lucy had made friends with the crew and was leading some sort of group on first-aid-on-a-sailing-vessel, and I apparently was not allowed very many places on board. The crew moved around me almost invisibly when they didn’t want my attention. If they did want my attention, they were very clear too, generally it was “Get off that” or “Miss you aren’t allowed up here” and my favorite “How did you manage to do that?”
However, I did make friends with someone. The engineer who was bemused by my interest and horror enjoyed some company none the less. Passengers didn’t often pay attention to the mechanics of the flight and he had a chance to talk about the machines he loved and the land we were traversing.
That was rare for him, though he was quite knowledgeable. He was a quick- witted fellow and didn’t mind talking about his work and especially about this airship which I think he never left. At all. He gave a few good lectures while we travelled north. I learned more about the geography of Novia and about the planets in the sky than I had in decades back home. Central Britanny was a glowing jewel in the night as we floated above it.
Novia was simply stunning from the sky. Even Zyrina had to admit the views were amazing (between puking sessions that is). I think both of us benefited from the discussion on safety measures in case something went wrong with the air heating device. The balloons that we used to get up to the air ships carried passengers back to the ground as well. I learned that the large airships rarely land but traverse the entirety of the world in the air above and were truly a sight to behold. If I could get over this dratted fear of heights this experience would be a far more pleasant one but even so, not letting in to fear was a useful thing to learn how to do and I was determined to overcome this one. It did give me a great deal of comfort when I found out there were air balloons that would be deployed if something went wrong. Though it wasn’t till after I was able to inspect one and know how to deploy It myself that I truly felt like I was flying and not just waiting to die.
Almost two weeks later we three weary travelers jumped down from the small air balloon that delivered us to the ground from the airship. After our luggage was heaved over the side and my feet landed on ground my knees buckled and I nearly fell over. I looked over at Lucy, who had been the first of us to stand and then manage to gather up her belongings. She was steady on her feet and already examining one of the weeds growing from the edge of the stone platform we landed on. As soon as I could stand without tilting from side to side, I gave a thank-you wave to the balloon pilot, who took off again almost immediately to catch back up with the ship as there were no passengers waiting to get onboard.
I was unsteady but assured myself that I just needed to regain my land legs. It had been an exceedingly long air trip from Jade Valley to Jade Island. It was one that Lucy and I both found exhilarating, though this was not so for all the members of our traveling party. I gave a sympathetic glance toward Zyrina who had fallen to her knees when we landed, and not yet risen. After covertly checking on my still-green friend, I gathered up my belongings and started looking around the dock a little.
Ahead of me and now staring into the harbour, Lucy wondered aloud, “Is that the Sea Byrd?”
I looked out into the bay, “Nope, that looks like a passenger ship.” I squinted into the sun to see the outline of the ship that Lucy was pointing out and said, “Violet’s ship is smaller, a galleon, and has a pirate flag.” I turned to look straight at Lucy, “Weren’t you just on board recently?”
Lucy nodded. “Maybe my eyes are worse than yours.” She shrugged. “I didn’t pay attention really, and I didn’t notice the flag colours.” She mused without thinking, “Do you think that her sea ship is faster than the air ship we took? Do you think they are docked here already?”
“Snails and anthills are faster travel than air ships,” mumbled Zyrina as she stared hard at a patch of dirt just in front of her. “That is the last time I fly!” she swore with vehemence.
Zyrina did NOT prefer air travel nor sea travel. She preferred walking or wagon or riding horses. She had been airsick or seasick almost the entire journey and was the most grateful person in Novia the moment her boots touched the soil again. She didn’t kneel down and thank the Titans out loud, but she definitely did that in her head while on her knees.
I sighed and confessed, “Rina, I won’t make you do it again. Promise. We’ll travel by land if we can from now on. Promise. Pinky Promise.”
Zyrina nodded once, mollified. It was all she could manage without nausea swelling up again. There was extraordinarily little that would make Zyrina continue to do something she didn’t want to do. It said a great deal about her feelings for us that she had even got into the air machine in the first place. It also indicated how serious the mission for recovering the book we sought. I thought to myself ‘this could get a lot worse than it’s been.’
I was scanning the horizon looking for my sister’s ship but, of course, I could not find it among the motley group of ships and tubs in the vicinity. Jade Island’s proximity to the large Kingsport harbour on the Hidden Vale made it an attractive spot to anchor the variety of not-quite-respectable ships that shared the shipping lanes with the bigger passenger ships, so there were quite a few to search.
Violet loved Jade Island and often came here to enjoy the company of the local craftsman at his beachside resort. She called him OZ and he was a fine craftsman of weapons and garments and, especially, of musical instruments. Years ago, he had crafted me a lovely harp that had the deep rich tone that I still preferred over all others. Over the years, I had gotten to know him as well. If he were entertained, you could hear his laugh from across the bay. He kept his shop near the beach. Violet traded with him regularly but that’s not where I was heading now. I looked carefully through the ships again, to be sure I hadn’t missed seeing my sister’s ship.
“Well, that’s it, we are going to have to find the Harbour Master”, I sounded tired but undefeated. “Because I can’t see her ship here anywhere. Maybe it’s moored farther away. She doesn’t generally put down an anchor at the main dock. Something about secrecy, privacy, or piracy, or something like that…”
Lucy chuckled at that comment.
I brightened up, “There are also a few surrounding smaller islands.” I looked around again. “She may be anchored at one of those. I don’t remember the last time I traveled here on her ship or where it was that we dropped the anchor. It was YEARS ago,” I added seeing the looks on my friends’ faces.
“I just hope the Sea Byrd is still here.” Lucy was munching on a piece of bread and cheese and mumbled her comment under her breath, hoping that no one heard her.
“We need to find Green’s Inch” Lucy reminded me.
“Oh, yeah that’s right” I nodded.
Zyrina gestured with a nod of her head behind them. There was a town crier standing chatting with someone on the pier nearby. She pulled herself to a standing position from her knees, brushed herself off, and didn’t lose her stomach contents. This was improvement. Picking up her backpack with a graceful arching move, she spoke over her shoulder, “If anyone knows, that town crier will be the one who does.” Her voice trailed behind her as she strode toward the crier.
We scrambled to gather our things and follow her over to our only real hope of finding Violet’s ship in this maze of islands and secret coves.
“Hello there, good sir,” she interrupted the pair on the pier, “can you tell us if a Captain Violet Green has registered a ship at the harbour here?” Lucy and I heard the tail end of Zyrina’s polite request as we stopped nearby.
“Um…let me see. Could it be registered under another name by any chance?” He made a pointed glance to his empty palm held surreptitiously by his side. Zyrina looked at me and raised her eyebrow. I fished in my purse and covertly offered him a few gold coins. He felt their weight then continued, “It could be listed under any of the crew members depending on who paid the docking fee.”
Stepping forward, I spoke up, “Try searching for Jenny Hawkins, or Aslinne Gradh, or Purser Scallywag, or Mr. Flint, or…” here I trailed off as the town crier had started nodding his head.
“Ah, here it is.” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other and turned to look toward the water, “Let’s see, if you go to the end of that pier, beside the Viking longboat you will find a small rowboat,” he pointed at the pier on the right as we faced the sea. “You can take that ferry out to Green’s Inch where Captain Violet likes to dock-”
“Aha!” Lucy clapped her hands together and startled the town crier.
He looked the three travel-worn women up and down, “-as long as you bring it back. Row out to the small island, just past the spit of land you see there.” He nodded out past the docks, past the resort on the beach, to a rocky jut of a peninsula with a few palm trees sprouting out of it like hair.” With this, he pocketed the gold that Lily had given and turned away from the travelers back to his companion on the dock.
“Now we are getting somewhere,” I spoke as I started moving toward the small rowboat. It looked a little unsteady, but we climbed in anyway and tucked our gear under the oilskin at our feet before we headed out to sea. Lucy took up the oars and began singing.
“Row, row, row your boat…”
There were several groans but, in the end, even Zyrina chimed in with her rich contralto. It helped pass the time too, and we soon spotted the outline of a ship in the distance.
“Yes!! It’s the Sea Byrd!” My excitement nearly overturned the boat as I jumped to my feet.
“Sit DOWN, you fool!” Lucy didn’t mince her words as she kept pulling on the oars and her strong, even strokes drew us closer and closer. I gave her an annoyed look but sat back down all the same. The ship did not look like it was planning on going anywhere, the anchor was down and there were no crew members immediately visible as they got close enough to make out the name of the ship on its bow spelled out in runes.
“Ahoy there, permission to come aboard?” I called out in a clear voice as we approached the private dock. Violet’s ship looked deserted to me, but I could see someone reading a book on the dock. It looked like Violet’s Purser, Scallywag.
Scallywag looked up from her well used dog-eared novel and scoffed. “Like you need permission to come on board your sister’s ship? Welcome, Lily. Who are your friends?” She looked the other two up and down then set her book down on the crate near the chair she had brought from the ship to sit on. It was hot and tiring when supplies were being loaded and boring when they weren’t, but the sturdy chair made the entire process of being purser far more pleasant for her old bones.
“Harriet Scallywag, meet Zyrina, and you have met Lucy Featherbright before.” I nodded to each woman as I introduced them, and they each ducked their heads in greeting.
“Hmm. Well, there is room now if you want passage. Earlier on this voyage, there was a full passenger list out of Mistrendur, but they have all found their ports. There was even a lynx on board and a mage who hired the private room, but he left the ship at…” she trailed off seeing all three of them go still and quiet.
Bursting out all at once rendered us incomprehensible and loud but Harriet was used to drunken sailors talking and this was similar.
“That’s enough now. One by one. You first.” She pointed squarely at me. Having grasped that we were looking for the lynx. She nodded, “Yup, that big cat got off at the same place that Aslinne the cook debarked.”
“Was Kitty with Aslinne?”
The next round of questions was harder for old Scallywag to ungarble. She glared at me. In the end the other women calmed down and let me do the talking, but I could feel their impatience.
“Harriet, do you know why the lynx left the ship?”
Harriet seemed relieved to only have one woman asking questions, “Yup, it jumped ship after Aslinne, and Jenny left, along with that mage. Can’t recall his name. In Etceter. That lynx looked like it was following them.” She added, “But none of them was going to Etceter. Leastwise I don’t think so.” Here she looked a little unsure.
“Do you know where they were going?” I pushed.
“Well, let’s see now,” Harriet scratched her forehead and tossed her grey hair out of her face. She was just warming up to her subject, “Cap’n Violet sent Aslinne to accompany Jenny to her parents’ Inn in Darkshire, the Bent Bow Inn I think it’s called.” She shook her head sadly, “Jenny has quit the sailing life and is going back to being a landlubber. I’ll miss that quick laugh of hers, but she had a heap of trouble on her first voyage and I think it made her skittish.” Harriet mused, then added with more gusto, “Then Aslinne is going fishing at some fancy fishing place before travelling north and stopping in at a restaurant in Ordanis Mortis, rumored to have the best phoenix bites anywhere. I think she’s trying to get the recipe. Then off to Stinging Tree Hollow to visit a friend of hers, some cook or another, there is some sort of fish recipe they are working on together. The cap’n is going to go meet Aslinne in Stinging Tree Hollow before coming here to meet up with us. Then we sail back to the Mistrendur. That mage was on his way somewhere in the desert beyond. He’s accompanying Aslinne and Jenny to Darkshire on his way wherever he is goin.” She then confided to Lily in a half-whisper “Our Aslinne is sweet on the mage but I never did catch his name. He was an odd fella alright. Not right in the head, I don’t think. Muttered to himself all the time but nary a word to another living soul ‘cept our Aslinne.” Here she nodded agreement with herself. “Din’t talk much, but at least he decided to travel with Aslinne and Jenny. There’s safety in numbers travelin’ through Novia by foot,” She nodded to herself. Harriet had heard tales of travel on land. She avoided touching land herself if she could manage it. “Never felt safe there, and that’s the truth.” She stared suspiciously toward the shore.
I looked toward my friends with a definite slump in my shoulders, “They aren’t here.” I was resigned.
“But Lily, we know where Aslinne is going to be. Kitty is bound to be near, or she will know where Kitty stopped following her at the very least. We just need to travel to the places she hasn’t reached yet,” Zyrina reminded me. “Stinging Tree Hollow, then to Ordanis Mortis, and Darkshire Hills. We will find her if we work our way south. We are bound to come across her either on the road along the way or at one of the locations that Scallywag just gave us. It sounds like Aslinne must be aware of Kitty following her and knows something about Kitty, too, or at least Kitty is following her. Stinging Tree Hollow is not far from where we are now.” Zyrina turned back to Scallywag, “Can you tell us any more about the mage?”
Here Lucy and I both perked up to listen again.
“Well, let’s see.” Harriet seemed to ponder thoughtfully for a short time, “He weren’t a talker. That’s for sure. He was on board since Mistrendur an’ I think t’only person he even spoke wit was our Aslinne. She nursed him back to health during the voyage y’know? Dat can bond a pair sure as the surf. He’s a landlubber. No sea legs on him even after all that time on the ocean.” She shook her head, “More came outta him than went in, I never seen the beat of it afore.”
I looked over to Zyrina who shuddered in sympathy, having intimate knowledge of the process of that Scallywag described.
She went on, “Then dere was dat big white cat, Kitty you call it? Well, Kitty kept a close watch on dat mage on da ship for the whole voyage, then it leaped off the deck at Etceter with the others. Most of us gave both of them a wide berth. Kitty kept the rat population down on the ship, though, and Aslinne surely was thankful for that. I think she gave it extra rations when no one was looking. Not sure why the cat was so fascinated by dat mage. He weren’t good at the magic, that’s certain.” Here she rolled up here sleeve to show a healing spell he put on a wound that Scallywag had gotten while climbing in the rigging a week past. It was slowly healing but her skin was discoloured and bent the wrong way somehow, and it looked a little swollen around the edges.
Lucy gasped, then stepped forward and quickly took Harriet’s arm in her two strong hands and with a swiftly-spoken healing spell, “Asen-Reno,” she soon mended Harriet’s botched wound. The relief in Harriet’s face was immediate. Lucy did such a good job that Harriet could not now even tell she had ever been damaged.
“Why, thank you Miss Lucy. You have some mighty powerful magic there. Dat there is a gift from the Titans. Mark my words.” Then she went on but appeared almost lost in memories, “I wish that mage was as competent. He messed up most of the spells he tried and one night we even had to put out a fire in his room. Then there was the main sail fire. Gadzooks, that was a night alright,” she grimaced a little and nervously laughed. “Fire on a ship is ‘bout the worse mistake you can make out on the ocean and not somethin’ sailors get over. Fool mage. Tried some magic spell out of that little book he carried. There was some nasty screeching sounds and it felt like the world was being ripped apart.” She shrugged, “but what’er it was it din’t take and sparks flew every which way. Jenny said that there was spider silk all over the mages room when she went in to swab it and change his bedding the next day. It was a mess to clean up, sticky and strong webbing too. That’s about all I know. You can try asking Old John Sliver, the cook’s assistant we picked up somewhere in the Mistrendur. He took over cookin’ while our Aslinne is on shore leave. All I can say about that is I sure feel the loss of Miss Aslinne’s cookin’ and I look forward to her coming back and makin’ fish stew again.” With this she trailed off while staring into the water below the dock.
Zyrina sighed. “Thank you kindly for all the information. Where is Old John Sliver?”
“He’s on board somewhere. Try the galley?” She waved them away and went back to reading the novel in her lap. I thanked Scallywag and we headed to the ladder on the dock.
Lucy led the way up the Jacob’s Ladder and jumped lightly into the ship. There was no one about. Rina and I were close behind her and we fanned out, searching for the cook. Lucy found him in the belly of the ship swabbing the floor and called out to Zyrina and me to come down.
I jumped down the ladder and was met by the enormous solid form of a giant man. “A-Ahoy,” I stammered, looking at the massive girth of the cook. “I’m Lily Byrd, Captain Violet Green’s sister.”
Old John Sliver looked furtively around and saw no escape. “I didn’t take em.” He blurted then added, “I’m called Salty John around here.”
‘Take what?” I inquired innocently.
“Why Salty John?” Lucy added.
“Oh, well. Never mind then.” The cook looked relieved then nodded toward Lucy, “It’s on account of the accident I had with a block of salt and the fish soup on the first day I took over cook’s spot, Miss.”
I exchanged meaningful looks with Zyrina.
I went on, “My friends and I are looking for a snowy lynx, the one that was onboard until Etceter, and any information you have about the mage who booked the guest cabin. Can you help us?”
“Mage, huh?” The cook tried to look nonchalant. “There was a mage on board?”
“You better start at the beginning.” Zyrina encouraged, stepping forward with her bow notched, and steel in her liquid brown eyes. “What didn’t you take?”
Instinctively backing up a step, the cook didn’t waste a minute and in his extensive rambling we found out some interesting bits tucked into the myriad of ship’s gossip. We learned there were several dragon eggs onboard in a secret room. They belonged to the captain. Two went missing in Ardoris and the cook was worried that someone would think he had taken them.
He swore he didn’t, “I was just dusting them when I noticed some missing”. Or so he claimed.
I narrowed my eyes and said in a quiet voice “How did you know some were missing if you hadn’t found them before you were ‘dusting’?”
“There were two missing.” His big brown eyes blinked quickly but he could not look less innocent as he went on, “I looked all around the ship. They’re nowhere.” He sounded guilty, “You can tell Cap’n Violet it wasn’t me.” Here he narrowed his eyes, “I bet it was that mage.”
“Why do you say that?” I wanted to know, already half sure the cook had the dragon egg hidden somewhere.
“Well, he was a sneaky fella, that scurvy dog. Poking his nose every which way. Always with that book o’ his. Never managed a proper spell the whole time he was here and set fire to his room to boot.” Stroking his chin, he went on, “He had plenty of time to steal em and hide em in his baggage before he left the ship.”
“Yup, I spied him looking through the captain’s desk, and another thing: he just didn’t seem to be much like anyone else. He didn’t mix with anyone on the ship except the cook who hired me on, Aslinne Gradh. Somehow, he got in her good books and they spent a lot of time on the aft deck whispering to each other. Aslinne was sunk, spent all her time sighing and staring into space. When she and Jenny left the ship, the mage tagged along with them. It didn’t seem right somehow but who am I to know?” He shrugged. “Just as long as you all know it weren’t me what stole those eggs, savvy?”
Missing dragon’s eggs and a mage with a magic book? It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together. This had become instantly far more interesting to Zyrina. And Lucy. And me.
“Thank you, John. When did you notice the eggs were gone?” I asked politely.
Cookie John shifted his eyes from side to side as he answered, “Oh, that would be some time after we docked at Ardoris because when we docked here at Green’s Inch is when I discovered it gone. After the Cap’n went off to find them black oysters that is. I didn’t mean to find the secret storage room but since Jenny were talking about it, and what might be inside, I decided that I’d look for it when I was swabbing the sleeping quarters.” He looked furtively toward the rear end of the crew quarters.
I knew where the secret room was located but didn’t want to go snooping in my sister’s private treasures just then. Besides, I didn’t know what was supposed to be in there, but I would tell Scallywag before we left about Salty John’s tale.
I asked, “Do you know where the mage is now?”
He shrugged, “Nope. He hopped ashore at Etceter with Aslinne and Jenny and good riddance. He was never healthy and caught the ship on fire more than once.”
He grunted, “They were planning on taking the road up to Darkshire Hills as far as I know. Aslinne took Jenny home, then she was ordered to take some shore leave and said she’d go to Stinging Tree Hollow on her way back. We are here in dock until she makes her way up here before we head back on our route. No one expects her to arrive for a fortnight. Did you see her anywhere in your travels?”
“No. but we are looking for a snowy lynx named Kitty.” Lucy was not going to give anything much away to this greasy bear of a man. He didn’t seem all that trustworthy to her. She stood directly in front of him and crossed her arms in front of her chest while she asked, “Do you know where the snowy lynx is?”
Old Salty John took a step back, then gave a quizzical look, almost whispering while he answered Lucy, “That was another strange thing. That cat rarely took its eyes off of that mage. That cat sneaked off the ship just after Aslinne, Jenny, and the mage debarked at Etceter. I think it’s tracking the mage from what I can tell.” He seemed relieved.
I nodded to the other two and we all thanked the cook politely and left him leaning on his mop beside a pail while we climbed the ladder back to the galley. In the kitchen at the captain’s table, we huddled together to drink the tea and try the cakes that Salty John put there for tea. They did not look fresh. It was time to make a new plan. But first the food. Lucy dug right in and soon had a heaping platter of cakes and cookies and pies in front of her and I wasn’t far behind. There were lemon buns. Irresistible ones. Rina took a cup of tea but avoided the sweets. I didn’t notice really because she rarely ate dessert.
Lucy summed up as her hand hovered over the tray of squares again, “So this fellow keeps showing up in all the places we are interested in, it looks like Kitty is intent on following him, and Aslinne is googly eyed over him. Right? I’m getting more and more interested in him and in his little book. ‘Rina, do you think it’s THAT book?” She turned to see Zyrina’s neutral expression. “And what about these missing dragon eggs? You don’t think he’s going to try to control another dragon?”
Zyrina paled and then frowned before answering, “Phlebus would know for sure but it’s sure starting to look like it might be. I wonder what clue Torgin has followed. Right now, I think we need to go take a look and see if we can find Aslinne. We need to learn more about this mage.” Zyrina seemed sure.
I agreed. Lucy simply gathered up their snack and put it all away in her picnic basket, ready to travel again. Her smile told the world that all was right again since her belly was full. Nothing seemed to interfere with her good mood even though we had travelled the length of the land and still hadn’t found Kitty.
“I’m just going to take a quick look around the room that mage was using before we leave,” I shouted over the sound of the wind, “I’ll catch up in a minute. Meet you at the rowboat?” ‘Rina nodded as she climbed down to the dock after Lucy.
First, I climbed the ladder to my sister’s private rooms. I left my quickly scribbled paper on her desk where she would find it. Scallywag had told me she was out looking for oysters along the shore somewhere, but I didn’t really have time to go try to find her.
I can’t stay and wait for you, but I wanted to let you know I had been here. I finally caught up with your ship after a very long airship ride all the way north through Novia with Zyrina and Lucy. Remember them? It was magnificent!
We are searching for Lucy’s cat, and have gotten the message that Kitty left your ship at Etceter. We are heading out to try to find Aslinne. Maybe she knows where Kitty has gone.
Scallywag says you are off looking for pearls somewhere nearby, but I don’t have time to try to find you. I’ll catch you up with this latest adventure when you come back through Jade Valley. I know you will be back for the annual family gathering up at the keep; I’ll be sure to keep the light on for you.
Don’t be late,
PS The Sea Byrd looks amazing! That new varnish is the perfect shade, just like you thought it would be.
PPS John Sliver snuck in your treasury; he knows two dragon’s eggs are missing. I don’t trust him.
With that done, I headed back down the ladder and over to the fancy guest room. This was the room I usually got to use when I sailed with my sister and I knew it well. It was left in a semi-tidy condition, but I wouldn’t trust that the bedding was fresh. I always brought my own when I sailed on the Sea Byrd. I gave it a quick sniff to confirm. Yes, I was correct. I shook my head to clear it and started rifling through the small desk in the room. There was a little mess left in the cabin and no one else had booked the room after the mage (I checked with Scallywag on that) but he had left not a lot behind. No one had bothered to clean it up yet because there wasn’t a booking. Why clean an empty room? Although I could see some logic in that I was mostly only glad no one had touched anything in there. Spider webbing was still evident in the room and there were several papers beside the bed. Also, some kind of strangely coloured charcoal in the bottom of the waste bin in the corner of the room with charred papers. So, here I was going through the garbage on my sister’s ship, again. I did also look under the mattress and under the bed and all the usual hiding places. Nothing there. I had to giggle a little: nerves, I think, but at last I did find some interesting bits of crumpled paper in the small desk in his room.
One of them was an advertisement for the Pickled Spinster Bed and Breakfast in Stinging Tree Hollow. Someone had underlined the name several times and put stars in the margins around it. Now why would the mage be going to Stinging Tree Hollow? If Aslinne was going there, and the mage then obviously that was absolutely our next stop. Rina had guessed right.
I had a friend with a bakery in that town, maybe she would have heard something about these mages and miscreants who moved far too secretly around Novia. There was also one for a restaurant in a town called Ordanis Mortis and it had the same underlining and little stars all around it: Los Gardeñias Restaurant and the name Nestor doodled a few times in the margin. The last advertisement had Darkshire scrawled across the top in big square runes. Hawkins, Bent Bow Inn written on it in the same runic language. And at the bottom with a question mark after it in everyday Novian: Southern Red Branch: Nestor. Just a name. Well, most of this wasn’t news since I already knew that Aslinne had been heading for Darkshire. Though Nestor had no meaning for me, I did wonder who that was. Was it the mage’s name? Then I found a piece of paper that had been torn into pieces. It took me a few seconds to discover that there were six pieces of paper and that I could piece them back together. I carefully laid out the pieces in order and read:
To the nameless Mage H of the Southern Red Branch that I met in Laketown at the dock;
Soon after you left, there was a few men in black asking after you. Three of them. I heard them talking about meeting with Nestor and Nestor not happy that they had not found you yet. I didn’t tell ‘em where you was going though. They seemed none too friendly.
There were three women who sounded interested in you too, but they was looking for a cat. That about covers the gold you paid me to keep you informed. We is even now, and my debt paid in full, too.
Thanks for doing business,
“That conniving scamp!” I exclaimed. How Finn managed to get a letter to the mage before he left the ship at Etceter boggled my mind. It certainly arrived before we did. Then I realized why Finn had been so nervous around us and unwilling to be found in the first place; he’d been questioned before we arrived in Ironhall. I had to tell the others. No wonder Lucy didn’t trust him. He was double-dealing. I guess business is business, but I sure could not stomach the idea of Finn passing along information about any of my friends or me. Gathering up these pamphlets and scraps of paper, I took another look around the room and, as nothing else had any special markings that I could see, I didn’t bother taking anything more.
Showing Zyrina and Lucy when I joined them, Zyrina narrowed her eyes and nodded somberly, “Stinging Hollow’s not even a day’s ride from Kingsport. We can stop there for a rest and a look around.” She pointed at the pamphlet for the Pickled Spinster laid on my lap. After thinking for a minute, she added, “I think Ordanis Mortis is further south in Novia, south of Central Britanny. We will go there after Stinging Tree Hollow if we don’t find Aslinne tomorrow. That’s the restaurant that Lily was telling you about yesterday, Lucy.”
“Oh?” Lucy nodded looking more interested.
“And I know a pretty amazing baker who lives in Stinging Tree Hollow, too.” I threw in, hoping to entice Lucy to want to carry on past Kingsport today. “She is one of the best fighters I’ve had the pleasure to go adventuring with, but …” I paused looking at my friends, “…maybe those are stories for a different afternoon.”
“Oh, good, a baker and an adventurer?” Lucy joined in after coming closer. “I’m hungry.” She gracefully stepped her large form into the rowboat and had herself settled without even causing a ripple in the water.
I watched her pick up the oars and place them in the locks with such ease and familiarity that I wondered where and when she had learned to be so comfortable on the water in such a small vessel but could see from the look on her face that she was not interested in my questions even a little bit. “Come on, I don’t want to wait till we get all the way to Ordanis Mortis before we eat, either. Let’s go. Singing Hollow, you say?”
I stuck all the papers into my belongings and gently began to nudge my way into the rowboat, “No, STINGING TREE Hollow.”
“It’s because of the kind of nettles around that town. They have barbs and once they puncture your skin, they release something that burns to the very core of your body. We DON’T want to get stung there.” Zyrina rubbed her shins in memory as she spoke.
After Lucy’s harsh words last time I rocked the boat, I wasn’t about to do it again. And almost succeeded. We didn’t tip over, at least. With that, we left the Sea Byrd, rowed back to Jade Island’s main dock in the rickety rowboat (this time loudly singing dirty sea shanties all the way back) then took the ferry from Jade Island to the dock in Kingsport. In the end it was too late in the day to continue to Stinging Tree Hollow and we found lodgings for the night in the port city.
Early the next morning from the old city, we made our way on the south route staying east of the Ravenswood Forests; none of us wanted to tangle with the Shadow Wood. By the time we had reached Stinging Tree Hollow, all three of us were ready to collapse.
I pointed to the sign ahead. Stinging Tree Hollow, it said. Ye Olde Pickled Spinster, it said.
“I don’t know much about Ye Olde Pickled Spinster, though I’ve stayed there a few times on my way through this part of the Hidden Vale in the past,” and I showed them the pamphlet again. “Let’s keep our wits about us while we go in. Ask if they have seen any mages around town.”
“Yeah, that sounds like something we can do. Walk into a strange Inn and demand to know if there are mages of questionable virtue about the place? That doesn’t sound sane.” Zyrina had another idea. “Let’s just stick to some general sort of questions, nothing too specific. See if anyone knows more than they should.”
“How will we know if they know what they shouldn’t know?” Lucy was in earnest, but tension had gotten the best of me. I admit I started giggling then and couldn’t stop.
“Yup, it’s time for a break,” Zyrina agreed, rolling her eyes, and laughing.
Lucy just nodded her tired head and turned to go down the trail toward town without a further word; she too was done for and didn’t much like being laughed at just then. I followed her down the trail, still giggling over the silliness.