I came to, my head pounding fiercely. My mouth was dry, tasting of salty seawater, my clothes crusted from it. The rocking of the ship was calm, the breeze cool. I felt the sun on my face, hot and causing me to itch. The sound of gulls met my ears. We must be close to land. I pried open my eyes, moving slow as I sat up. As they adjusted to the beaming light, I realized I was on the main deck still, laying in a pile of nets, not unlike Meleryn had been just a day before. A shadow moved to block out the sun. I peered up into the hardened face of Jon’s sister. My heart clenched.
“Where is he?” I croaked, my throat raw from yelling and swallowing seawater. She set her jaw the same way her brother always did.
“Gone.” she said. I nodded, having already known what her answer would be.
“And where are we?” I asked, more out of a desperate act to distract myself.
“Coming into harbor at Baldera. The gods must not be done with us yet,” she said. I breathed in deeply, inhaling the sweet, warm air. Her black clothes had been washed pale. Salt flaked off in the breeze as she dusted her pants.
“Did he die?” I said, unable to meet her eyes.
“When the mast fell, so did their boat. I only saw ’em once, drifting away from us.”
I struggled to stand, but when I managed, I stood level with her. She made no move to help me.
“What does your instinct tell you?”
Her eyes flickered with emotions, struggling between what she knew in her heart, and what reality likely was. Her eyes narrowed as she smiled, her cheeks lifting.
“Aye, the bastard’s alive. For now.”
I returned her smile, feeling it in my heart as well.
“Then what’s our plan to find him?”
Setting foot on solid ground was a peculiar feeling after spending so much time at sea. I still felt as though I were undulating, though I knew I wasn’t. This caused another wave of nausea, from the absence of the now-familiar rocking of the ship. I turned, my hand gripping the post at the end of the dock, to stare at the Early Dawn and all her broken beauty. Fletcher already had men attacking the fallen mast to right it; he’d said his delay wouldn’t last long and wished us well on our journey. Gray clouds rolled above the port town of Baldera, the calls of seagulls, the shouts of men, and the rancid smell of rotted fish all attacked my senses. If the lack of motion didn’t succeed in making me vomit, the smell surely would. Bear licked my hand to remind me he was there. I scratched his ears. How he’d survived the storm was a miracle to me.
I followed Meleryn, careful to keep close. This town was much larger than Reyka; the walls of square stone jutted up out of the port, buildings crammed helter-skelter and perched precariously along the edge. We switchbacked up the path from the port to the main hub of town. I noticed people of every descent; red hair, black hair, pale skin, dark skin. Mel had warned me this city was huge, the people were gruff, and it smelled something awful. So far, she’d been right on every aspect. I felt no need to conceal my identity here, though. This city had a tense alliance with Mount Tier and scattered clans. Both needed this port for trade and transport. It was the center of the wheel, with each spoke connecting to it in some way.
I felt Remi brush my side, cautious and weary of the city’s inhabitants. Three young women, traveling alone. It was recipe for disaster. Mel had formulated a plan, though, giving me time to commit it to memory and study an old map of the surrounding area. We were within the shadow of the Mountain, and it was tangible.
Remi was to set out tomorrow—on horseback with one of Fletcher’s most trusted guards—the hope and purpose being that she’d bring word to Macdara about Jon’s disappearance during the storm, and that Bane or Bjorn would head up parties in search of him. While Remi completed her task, Meleryn and I would search Baldera and the surrounding area for any sign of Jon. Fletcher promised he’d ask around and send Jon our way. If he had survived the storm.
“Ye must be careful,” Mel had warned. “There’s a few clans around here that hate Macdara more than they hate Mount Tier. They’d burn us at the stake if they got hold of us.”
We set out along the cobblestone path, careful to jump out of the way of horses pulling carriages and carts. They never slowed their pace for passerby, the rickety wheels splashing dirty water onto us. Men teetered outside of a tavern, some falling into the gutter. A light rain began. Soon, we were to the market. Mel warned us not to look anyone in the eye, or they’d try their hardest to sell their wares. I pulled my hood up to keep anyone from seeing my face. The smell of fetid fish overwhelmed me. I stopped short, gripping a tent post for support as I swallowed the bile in my throat. Remi and Mel glanced at me with worry.
“Are ye well?” Mel grabbed my arm. I breathed through my mouth, nodding.
“Just felt a bit sick. It smells awful here.”
“I warned ye.” she laughed and pulled me forward. People yelled out to one another, bartering prices. The market sounded like an angry hive of bees. I breathed the cold air deeply as we made it past the market. The Inn was close.
“Fletcher’s guard will pick ye up here tomorrow with Jon’s horse,” she reminded Remi for the thousandth time. Remi only nodded, too afraid of Meleryn to voice any annoyance. The Inn was massive compared to the one in Reyka; a hundred men and women sat scattered around the dining room floor, with enough space left to be comfortable. The warmth and smell of sweet bread wafted to my nose, causing my mouth to water. We hadn’t had a proper meal in days. Mel pushed her way to the innkeeper, paying for our room and requesting dinner and hot water be brought there. The graying woman eyed Bear.
“That a wolf?” she asked, still piling mugs onto a tray. It was plain to see Mel’s irritation as her lip twitched.
“It’s a dog.” she said. The woman shrugged, turning to go about her business. We followed Mel to the stairs, Remi skipping up them two at a time. It brought me joy to see she was a child once more. Before I ascended, I felt wary. Gripping the railing, I glanced about the dining area. No one was staring. My eyes fell upon the figure of a man, hooded and dressed in black from head to toe. His clothes were thinner than those of someone from a clan. He must have been from Baldera, or a pirate. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I could feel his stare as he sat alone by the blazing fire.
“Elise?” Mel peered down at me from the top of the steps. I shook the eery feeling away and made my way up.