“Are you sure splitting up is the best idea?” Crofton asks, leaning against the wall of the bridge.
“We need to find a ship quickly. The longer we stay here the more dangerous it is.” Tying the string of her cloak tight, Ari adjusts the cloth to be sure the brands on her face are covered.
The patrons in the Rotten Rotrauk barely cast a glance at her, but standing at the entrance to the bridge she already noticed many eyes linger on the marks burned into her skin. Heddy didn’t ask the circumstances of the marks, but Ari knew it was only a matter of time before her curiosity got the better of her.
“How will we know when someone’s found a ship? What if we find more than one? How do we choose? How are we going to pay them?” Crofton’s eyes watch each person pass them, glaring if they stare too long at Ari.
“You’re forgetting about Kamen.” She turns to the third person standing on the other side of Crofton. “Kelis?”
Jumping at her name, the young water magic user holds up a white stone. “If anyone finds a ship, they can contact Kamen with this and he’ll tell everyone instantly.” Kelis had been surprised when Ari asked her to search for a ship with her and Crofton.
Vico had been surprised, too. He joined his sister and Kemp leaving earlier in the morning.
Smiling, Ari nudges Crofton’s arm and makes an amused sound. “Scared to be alone with the two of us? Afraid you’ll be outvoted?”
Crofton stares at her, his eyes darkening. “Okay, but what about money? We barely had enough even before Lorel told us ships stopped sailing. What’re we going to do now?”
“We have other things to offer.”
Grabbing him, Ari squeezes his upper arm. “We have muscle and magic users who can be helpful. Worse case, we risk staying here awhile and het work to make enough money.”
“You know we can’t do that.” Crofton glares at a group ogling Ari and Kelis.
“Then we better hope we find a ship. Let’s go. Everyone else has already left.”
The three cross the bridge, Marpidium city proper growing before them. Hundreds of masts climb to the sky like hands reaching for heaven.
City is a misleading title. Something closer to what it actually is would be Harbor Island. Though perhaps at one time the city originated on the coast, it didn’t take long for it to ease its way into the sea. As more and more ships sought shelter and a place to trade, the docks grew in number.
An entire vast network of docks and no longer seaworthy ships creates the entirety of the island. So many docks were built or ships added on, the great labyrinth of dead ends and never ending pathways cause many to become easily lost. Those who lived in the city found it easier to move with the docks in order to increase their businesses. Many ship crews didn’t want to wander far from their vessels in case they needed to set sail sooner than expected.
Unlike most cities where the center tends to be the lifeblood, Marpidium’s outskirts are where the action can be found. With so many ships filling any available space, hundreds work endlessly to satisfy the sailors and gain their gold.
Ships circle the city, searching for an opening at the docks. Those that have given up drop anchor off shore or manage to find room at forgotten docks by the bridge towns, the remnants of Marpidium’s origins. Those who couldn’t find room on the Harbor Island remained behind, choosing to serve those who travelled on foot rather than those by sea.
At the center of the city, an immense ship towers above the surrounding docks. It’s unclear from its appearance where it originated from or what its original purpose could’ve been.
Ari stares at the large ship with wonder, but she knows she’ll have to ignore the feeling for now. It’s time to find a ship to Deirak.
“Tal, we should be heading to where the ships come in.” Indra’s calm voice easily booms over the noise of the crowd.
“We are. We’re just taking a more scenic route. How can you not be eager to explore this place?” Tal moves through the crowd, many clearing the way when they see her and Indra walking towards them. But eyes linger on the two unable to discern whether they came by ship or from the mainland.
Instead of heading straight for the docks, Tal wandered towards the center of the city. The large ship caught her eye and her curiosity told her something of interest was probably waiting for her there. So, she’s been dragging Indra along to satiate her inquiries.
The crowd isn’t as thick as the docks, but the walkways are narrower. The ships this far into the city are businesses and overstuffed inns. Loud voices and laughter echo out and an occasional drunk sailor lay passed out on small areas, hands or feet dangling close to the water. Some inebriated men wander the walkways singing songs of sailing, open skies, or even legendary men of the sea.
As Tal passes them, they whistle and call to her. Most tend to stop once she shows no interest, but one becomes emboldened by his drunken state. He reaches for her only to have her grab him by the wrist and toss him into the water.
His mates rush to his rescue, a couple preparing to fight on his behalf. Indra and Tal draw their weapons and the fight leaves the tipsy men.
“Let’s keep moving. They’re not worth the effort.” Tal walks away, Indra soon following. They both sheathe their weapons as the men disappear from view.
They continue heading for the towering ship at the center of the city. Only hitting dead ends twice, they finally reach their destination. The hull of the ship is bared open, stairs clearly visible. Strange decorations cover the walls, symbols painted on the dark wood. But the truly awe-inspiring thing is the sheer size.
To Tal, it rivals the mountains she’s seen in the distance. She’s never seen anything so huge made by man. Magic must’ve been used to some capacity, but a man was no larger than a rat when standing next to the ship. What could its purpose possibly have been?
Angling her head to stare straight up, Tal feels dizzy. Indra places a hand on her back to keep her from falling backwards.
“You used to do the same thing when you were little,” Indra says. “You’d stare up at your father and fall back.”
Embarrassment flushes her cheeks. “Yeah, and I’d fall on top of you cause you were smaller than me…once.”
“I didn’t want you to get hurt. You were always getting hurt.”
“Some things don’t change.”
They head into the open ship. Men and women rush in all directions. Why, the two couldn’t understand. Some carried boxes filled with food, weapons, or some other unidentifiable shapes. Others speak quickly in hushed voices, afraid of curious ears.
Grabbing a man walking alone, Tal smiles as sweetly as she can muster. “What is this place?”
“What?” The man doesn’t act as someone who’s been stopped suddenly by strange people. He acts as though their disturbance is an unexpected obstacle to his day.
“What’s the purpose of this ship?” Indra asks.
“What? Why’re you bothering me with stupid questions? There’s a major crisis going on.” He tries to break free of Tal’s grip, but she’s by far the stronger of the two.
“An all out pirate war is coming to Marpidium. Don’t you know anything?” He wriggles free and runs off.
Tal and Indra glance at each other before Tal grabs an older woman. “What is this ship?”
The woman glares at Tal, twisting the papers in her hands tightly. “You won’t leave me alone until I tell you, will you?”
“Every ship that docks at our city must pay a docking fee. It doesn’t have to be money. In fact we prefer food, weapons, or any other kinds of supplies. We store all of it here not for any greedy reason. It’s in such events as we’re facing. If all out war of any kind comes to Marpidium all the residents, and those who’ve paid their docking fees, retreat to this ship. It’s a safe haven to protect our people.”
“How can it protect anyone with a giant hole in it?” Indra asks.
The woman eyes Tal. “You’re a magic user, aren’t you? You should be able to answer that better than me.”
“What does that mean? How do you know I’m a magic user?” Tal asks.
“All magic users have a specific kind of air about them. You’re no different.” The woman sighs and points down. “The hole you’re referring to can be closed. The rest of the ship is below the water, kept there by magic. Once everyone has retreated into the ship it’ll be covered.”
Indra looks at the wood of the ship. “But how can this wood protect anyone? It must be hundreds of years old.”
“Thousands,” the woman corrects him. “There’s an old magic mixed into the wood. It’s far harder than any metal. Only a specific bloodline of magic users can even put a dent in it. They live inside, but even they don’t know the origins of this ship or why their magic can cut it.”
“And there’s enough room for everyone, you’re sure?”
“Absolutely. What you see of the ship continues beneath the sea. We can fit two Marpidiums if needed. Anything else you want to know?” The woman inches away, eager to be free of the two.
“What is this pirate war?” Tal asks.
“The pirates are sick of fighting. Those vying for the title of pirate lord of the east are going to have the deciding fight here. If you’re smart you’ll leave before they get here.”
“When will that be?”
“Two days.” The woman leaves, finished talking.
“Guess we have a time limit here,” Tal says. “We should let everyone know.”
Nodding, Indra motions her to follow him. “Not here. The…chaos is uncomfortable.”
Placing a comforting hand on the side of his face, Tal smiles at him. “Reached your limit already? Let’s go.”
They leave the excitement of the ship for somewhere more private. Fewer people walk by as they turn down a pathway leading to a dead end.
Once sure they weren’t followed, Indra pulls out the white stone Kamen gave each group. “Hope this actually works.”
“Kamen’s a great connector,” Tal says, playfully nudging him.
“Yeah, when he does it right.” He holds the stone up to his lips and blows on it. The white stone glows blue.
“Kamen here. What’d you find?” Kamen’s voice rises out of the stone.
“This is Indra and Tal,” Indra says. “We haven’t found a ship, but we did hear important information.”
“Hold on, let me connect everyone. It’ll take a second.” The stone stops glowing.
“How long do you actually think it’ll take him?” Tal asks.
Indra smiles at her with a knowing look, but before he can answer a heavy force slams into his back sending him sprawling on the ground. He’s barely able to hang on to the stone, but he sees two figures grab Tal and, placing a bag over her head and strange handcuffs on her wrists and ankles, carry her off. The heavy thing keeping Indra down leaps off him and he watches as a third man follows after the other two.
The stone in his hand glows. “All right, everyone can hear you,” Kamen says.
“They took Tal!” Indra jumps to his feet and chases after the men.
Voices crowd the stone, but one rings loud and clear. “What happened, Indra?” Ari yells.
“They took Tal!” As he spots the men ahead of him, Indra realizes where they’re going. “They’re taking her down to the docks on the western side!”
“We’ll save her,” Ari confirms.
The stone stops glowing and Indra knows one thing for sure. He will get his wife back.