Amates 20, 1277. Still evening. Still swimming nose-deep in trouble. Inside an overly fancy tent in the middle of nowhere.
Vargas kept his tent guarded about as well as the other one. Like before, timing and a bit of luck helped me get inside. Once the guard on patrol vanished out of sight, I slipped under the waxed tent cloth.
The interior was dark, with the only light being a dim glow that seeped in past the front flap. Scents of old hay and musty, weathered canvas hung in the air. They didn’t blend well with the lingering fragrance of Vargas’ cheap cologne. I stood still and winced in the half-light while I let my nose get used to the clash of odors.
This was the largest tent used by the Crimson Company, but ‘large’ didn’t mean ‘spacious’. Military field commanders often use tents like this. Those tents are just large enough for a sleeping bag or cot, a folding field desk with a chair, and a backpack or two. This particular tent was a shade larger, but not by much.
Here, Vargas had added his own touch. The folding desk supported a nest of papers, a quill pen, and inkwell. The edge of a journal peeked out from underneath the stack. On the main tent pole, a brass-gilded mirror, only about two hands wide, hung from a small peg. A folding coat rack with the Vargas family crest burned into it completed the decor.
In comparison, the lurid, blood-red embroidered emblem of the Crimson Company draped on the outside of the tent looked almost tasteful.
I shook my head. Even in the middle of nowhere, Vargas tried to be ‘fashionable’ about his military campaigns and expeditions. In my opinion, Vargas and ‘fashionable’ parted ways a long time ago.
But what did I know? I was the child of two ship captains. Fashion wasn’t a useful tool for me.
It took a second, but my nose finally surrendered to the sting of odors. Carefully, I slipped over to the front of the tent, and ‘closed’ it with one of the frog-knot buttons. It wouldn’t stop anyone determined to get in, but it would give me a few seconds' warning if they tried. After that I got to work.
The papers on the small desk turned out to be a set of maps that covered what anyone knew about the Planus continent. Large parts of Planus were still unexplored, especially the east coast that is dominated by the Great Chasm. These particular maps focused on the middle region of the Chasm.
I knew that area all too well. It’s the deepest, and worst, part of the Chasm that holds a lot of unpleasant things, like Long Deep. The spot is due east of Osidore, the largest of the water-towns in the Belari river region. Based on the route drawn on the map, Vargas considered taking the Company that way after Banye.
It was a good route, but not the only one. I kept that in mind before I set the map aside. Quickly, I sifted through the other maps for any sign of Mikasi’s work. There was nothing.
Frustrated, and a little frantic, I turned to the rest of the tent. Tyre had mentioned learning that Vargas had papers stuffed in a strongbox with straw. That had to be where the crystal piece was kept. Unless Vargas had it with him.
I finally found what I was looking for stashed underneath the tent’s folding cot. The modest-sized strongbox was no longer than a person’s forearm. I put it at about nine sizu long. It was crafted out of a stout, dark wood that had the light fragrance of juniper and linseed oil. A metal hasp and lock kept the box closed.
It was tempting to grab it and go. But what if, after all this, it was empty? Or just held socks or something? I winced. It would be better to check it now.
Breaking open the box was out of the question. That would be too noisy. I spared a nervous glance at the front of the tent. The guards were still there. I even heard one yawn. Feeling time trickling away, I shoved my nerves aside, then pulled my small pouch of skeleton keys from an inside coat pocket.
It took half of a long, nerve-rattling minute and four skeleton keys later to get it open. Inside were the straw and papers as described. The top document was one of Mikasi’s diagrams. It was another of his ‘light pump’ ideas. Below that was select pages, copies of course, from the same journals I had. The ones written by Foldor Gilstock and Nilna Sestoros.
The real prize? It was in the straw at the very bottom.
A fist-sized piece of the Automatic Crystal lay cradled in a straw nest. It was quartz-clear, except for one side, which was slightly curved and had a dark charcoal tint. I wasn’t sure, but that dark outer part looked like a separate piece of crystal. The deep smoky charcoal on the outside reminded me of obsidian.
Raised knobs and long, smooth grooves had been carved into the clear portions of the crystal. I agreed with Mikasi that this wasn’t broken. This looked like it should fit together with something else, like a puzzle piece or a key.
I turned it over. The dim light of the tent played off and through the facets. Reflected light shimmered with a ghostly aura, which eclipsed my hand for a moment.
There was more there that nagged at my attention. But this wasn’t the time for any sort of intense study. That would have to wait. I stuffed the papers back into the box and closed the lid. The crystal was going into my long coat, just in case. The lock clicked shut when I heard the tent flap move behind me.
I was on my feet in a second, then raced for the back of the tent. A shadow loomed large from guard strolling by, taking his own sweet, agonizing time. I bit down on a hard curse.
“Find anything interesting?”
Tension shot up my spine like a cold spike. I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax. After that, I turned around to face the speaker.
It wasn’t Vargas.
I had no idea who this man was.
He wasn’t a guard or dressed like any member of the Crimson Company. From shirt to boots, his clothes were far too tailored, trimmed, and polished for that.
This man was tall, lean, with a strong air of ‘dignified’ mixed with a generous helping of ‘above all this and you’. A human, whose straight, dark hair was pulled back and kept contained neatly behind his head with a burgundy cloth tie. It was embroidered with saffron-colored thread in some frilly design.
He was the very picture of a low to middle aristocrat from Sol or any of the other major cities. One that got outside just enough to chase away that pasty-pale look of pampered nobility.
Except for his amber-green eyes.
Those eyes were bright. Hungry. They belonged to a wild animal on the hunt, not to a person.
I gripped the crystal chunk in my hand until my knuckles turned white. His eyes flicked down to that, then to the strongbox in my other hand. A slow smile wormed up at the corners of his mouth.
“You must be the Windtracer that Vargas rants on about. If you’re here, and no one spotted you, then I see Vargas has every right to be worried.”
The man slowly inclined his head.
“Baron Marius Apollinare, at your service, m’lady. I think we have something to discuss.”