Amates 20, 1277. Town of Banye, far too early in the morning. Nursing bruises and a cup of coffee.
I bit off another piece of Awari root and grimaced. The taste of Awari didn’t improve the more I chewed on it. That spicy, fibrous texture also didn’t go well with coffee. It may help with the new bruises, but it didn’t take the knots out of my frustration.
The night wound up swallowing Mikasi and his kidnappers whole before I took out after them on a horse. Not that I didn’t try to find them. I set out on horseback along the last route I saw the kidnappers. Evi, the Justicar, and others from Banye joined me on the search.
Justicar Landry Copeland wasn’t irate with me for any part of this mess. There was enough sign at Mikasi’s workshop that gave a clear portrait of what happened. Mikasi was well-liked by the locals, especially Justicar Copeland, who considered the inventor a good friend. I could feel the frustration, and the anger, in the air while we looked for tracks.
We didn’t find any; it was too dark and the ground too dry.
It was still night when we returned to Banye, exhausted and in a dark mood. I slept for several hours after that, harassed by nightmares fueled by what happened. Angry tears, exercise, and a brief yell at the morning sunrise later, I mostly had my head together.
So there I sat in the Sheldrake on a bench by my favorite window, chewing Awari root. The others had gone back out to beat the bushes for any idea of where the kidnappers took Mikasi. I couldn’t go. Kiyosi said I needed to get some sort of rest after sleeping too little and fighting too hard.
I rolled my eyes at that, then bit into the bitter-spicy Awari. One day I would remember to beg or bribe Ki to fix the flavor of these things. Maybe dip them in chocolate or something. But since he liked them bitter and spicy, he probably wouldn’t. After a sip of coffee, I sighed and looked out the window.
Planus prairie wind drifted in with its scent of dirt, wildflowers, and grass while warm sunlight drove a few aches away. Behind me, the methodical churn of the Sheldrake’s rotating boiler provided a low rumble in the air. Together, they did more than the Awari root to soothe my mind and frustrations. It helped me think about the Crystal, Mikasi, and this whole situation.
The creak of the gangplank rattled my thoughts. I saw Ki come aboard, covered in a fine cloud of Planus prairie dust.
“Anything new?” I asked.
Ki raised his eyebrows, before he shrugged out of his maecri to knock some of the prairie off of him.
He slapped the coat twice, then waved the dust away from his face. The musky smell drifted through the common room.
“We started at the back of the boardinghouse, then followed the first set of hoof prints leading out of Banye. We lost them about where you did at the first rocky hills to the East. But Justicar Copeland picked up where the Crimson Company turned down a shallow stream bed to hide their tracks.”
I scowled at my coffee.
“Hells and dark water! I knew I should have checked that stream,” I groused.
“Don’t start,” Ki chided me. “The only reason Copeland saw anything was because it was daylight. None of us would’ve seen the tracks in the dark, even with the moonlight.”
He sighed and hung his maecri on a nearby wall peg. After that, he joined me at the window.
“That trip the kidnappers took along the stream made them move south for maybe half an hour before they moved east again. Copeland lost the tracks when the kidnappers crossed a wide stretch of broken rock. We came back to get some food and water before heading out again. So, I came to check on my favorite irritable patient.”
I shot a sideways glance at him and saw his all too cheery grin. It’s really hard to be mad at him when he’s like that. I pursed my lips and ignored the twinge from my bruise on my cheek.
“I’m mostly fine,” I said with a sigh. “Just an ache here and there.”
Ki studied the fading black eye and the fresh bruise on my cheekbone.
“I know that saying ‘stay out of fights’ is useless, but you could duck better next time?”
I considered pouring my coffee on him, but that would be a waste of good coffee. Instead, I settled for a deadpan glare.
“So funny,” I replied in a sour tone. “Anyway, what you’re saying is that the kidnappers have a huge head start on us and they’re somewhere east of Banye? That’s all we know?”
“For now,” Ki said while he gently touched around the recent bruise on my cheekbone. Fortunately, the Awari root had stolen away the sensitivity there, so I didn’t wince.
I shot a dark glare at Ki that made him jerk back.
“We need to get him back,” I growled.
He held up his hands in defense.
“Of course we do.” Ki arched an eyebrow at me. “Once there’s been a quick meal and more Awari in you for your bruises, then we work on getting him back.”
I blinked, then sighed again. Shaking my head, I looked back out the window.
“I’m sorry, Ki. You didn’t deserve that. I’m just,” I let the words hang in the air a moment, “frustrated.”
He gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“I know, Tela. So am I. We all are.”
Ki squinted at me like he struggled with a thought.
“How in the High Tides did they get here? The Crimson Company I mean. I thought we left them behind in Ishnanor?”
“I can answer that one,” Tyre replied somberly from behind us. “A few other things, too.”
The big man walked off the gangplank then across the Sheldrake’s common room, hands buried in his fearnought long coat. I glanced over while he approached as I leaned a shoulder against the window ledge. Tyre didn’t look as confident as I was used to. Right now, he looked both embarrassed and more than a little angry.
The wind stirred through the window again. Tyre took a deep breath before he continued.
“While everyone’s been out beating the bushes into salad, I’ve been having a chat with our new ‘friends’ the Justicar locked up for ‘disturbing the peace’, as he called it.”
I felt a bit useless and out of touch. That was a terrible feeling. Everyone was busy doing something while I was ‘resting’. I savagely bit off another piece of Awari root in frustration.
“That bunch of Crimson Company we fought last night? They say anything?” I asked.
Tyre's expression turned pensive.
“Not to me, not directly. Most of they said to me was insults when I had them all together.”
Then Tyre smiled with a slight twinkle in his eye while he hooked his thumbs in his wide leather belt.
“But then I learned they talked to each other some, and one has a habit of talking when he’s nervous.”
I swapped a puzzled look with Ki.
“You did something,” Ki said to Tyre. “You’re being all ‘you’ again, which means you did something.”
“Ki, stop,” I said while I waved a hand at him. “Tyre, what did you find out?”
“Well, I figured out the skinny one, the one you kicked in the gut at the start of the fight, is a nervous talker. So I took turns talking to each one of them alone. The skinny one? I rattled his nerves enough that he told me a little more about what was happening here. Turns out, he’s not comfortable kidnapping people.”
Tyre gestured out the window.
“We were all wrong about the fight behind the Salty Nightingale. They weren’t trying to get my maps. They wanted to slow down any Windtracer expedition from leaving Ishnanor. Vincent Vargas knew all too well you’d ask me to take you out to the Great Chasm, Tela. So he sent muscle to steal my maps, break one of my legs, something.”
Ki crossed his arms over his chest.
“Well, that obviously didn’t work.”
“No, it didn’t. But it also means they set out from Ishnanor about when we did, if not a few hours before. Probably a few hours before.”
I rubbed my eyes.
“Aile Shavat!” I took a deep breath. “What about Mikasi?”
Tyre nodded and raised a finger.
“About that. You two will like this part. Vargas has information about the Crystal, too. Our talkative little friend mentioned seeing copies of two journals that Vargas is keeping in a strongbox with something else. He doesn’t know what, just that the strongbox is stuffed full of papers and straw.”
“That Baron. Marius Apollinare.” Ki frowned and lightly scratched his chin while his tail swayed in thought. “Notes and research from the Baron?”
“Copies of those journals by Foldor Gilstock and Nilna Sestoros, too, probably,” I added. “Anyone can get those from the Windtracer Record’s Hall. They’re on public display.”
Tyre nodded again.
“True. But in any case, Vargas can’t make sense out of it. Not any of it. He’s been raging about it for days. That’s why he went after Mikasi. He needs a translator.”
I set my cup down.
“Did you get him to say where the Crimson Company is now?”
Tyre’s bright, mischievous grin lit up his beaded face while he spread his arms wide.
“Now Tela, of course I did! They’re a few hours east of here, past a snake-like dry riverbed. He wasn’t much for description, but he mentioned an odd rock pile with white and tan striped rocks stuck up sideways and looked like a tree trunk.” His grin got wider. “I’m pretty sure I recognized that rock pile he talked about from a couple of trips I’ve taken out that way before.”
I immediately stood, then raced for my maecri hung on a nearby peg in the wall.
“What are we waiting for?”
“Food. Water. More Awari root in you.” Ki answered dryly. “Maybe a plan?”
I shot a scowl at him.
Tyre held up his hands to slow me down from running out of the Sheldrake.
“Ki’s right on that last one, Tela. Planus is flat out there, you know that. Sound carries on that prairie wind. Vargas isn’t stupid. He’ll have guards out around the Crimson Company campsite. If we’re not careful, they’ll hear us coming long before we get there.”
He jerked a thumb back toward the gangplank.
“We need to talk with Copeland and figure out a way to slip over there without being heard. Scout it out quietly and lay an ambush? I prefer to do those at night. Ambushes go off better that way.”
“Vargas will have moved his group by nightfall,” Ki suggested.
“That can’t be helped. Besides, Mikasi won’t be eager to help Vargas, and Vargas won’t risk killing Mikasi. Vargas needs Mikasi’s mind too badly. That’ll slow them down.” He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “I’m just not sure how to get in close to where their camp is.”
“We need to see their camp first,” Ki replied. “There might be dry riverbeds, gullies, or all sorts of landscape we could use. Surely there has to be something that will let us get close enough to see that.”
An idea sprang to life, fully formed in my head. It was risky, and probably even stupid. But it if worked, we could get a good look at where the Crimson Company was camped. It could even give us a way inside to get Mikasi back.
“I have an idea,” I suggested with a smirk, then looked at Ki. “You’re going to really hate this one.”