Fabius had never wandered near Lushrow before but the vast acreage of farms spread around the city impressed him. The lands of Awad were the most fertile of the south and only the northern states claimed more production of wheat and pulses. No wonder Droullin grabs so much attention of the King. But being sent to investigate loss of salt caravans did not merit the involvement of a prince.
“Yes, we all know that you’re being punished by the king for your misdeeds. Now can we find some worthy taverns and not waste the one day we saved by riding hard?” Ainsley clubbed him on the back with his fist.
“Stop doing that, will you?” growled Fabius. “And no, we aren’t going to a tavern today. We get spotted in Lushrow and we’ll have to report to Droullin. I don’t intend to waste my time on finding the infernal salt caravans till I really have to.”
“But who in the world steals salt? I mean, there are caravans of spices on this road which nobody’s touched. Doesn’t make sense.”
Fabius glared at Ainsley, who laughed. “Okay, okay, sourface. If we are not going to Lushrow, what are we doing today?”
“What in the world is that?” Ragnasary pointed at a wisp of smoke rising from the east of the city.
“Don’t fret, it’s not a cooking fire,” guffawed Ainsley.
“Most certainly not,” exclaimed Fabius to himself, turning Bretun towards what Ragnasary had pointed at. The smoke rose from the top of an enormous red and orange conical tent which stood around twenty feet tall. Even from a league afar, it looked as big as the Hall of Learning in Sen-Tian.
“It’s a showman’s tent!” Ainsley gave a joyous whoop. “I always loved those. Great fun, wonderful tales and sometimes they have the most exquisite collection of liquor from around the land.”
“Never seen one that big before, though.” Fabius mused.
“Bah, come on. When have you refused to visit a showman? Remember when you wanted to become one yourself?”
Fabius waved him away and laughed. “And now I’m hunting salt thieves. I don’t see much of a difference, though.”
The company made way towards the tent. The horses had been watered an hour ago, which meant the ride took less than half an hour at a trot.
Close up, Fabius could discern that the tall teepee only formed the entrance of the tent and a large circular ring extended around it, only about half as high and a deep shade of red, unlike the teepee which had orange flames over the red background.
“Thormane’s Luxury Travelling Guide – visit the wonders of the Kingdom. This isn’t a showman!” Ainsley looked at the huge purple banner strung between two bamboo shoots.
“No, it doesn’t seem so. And who in the world would pay to see the wonders of the kingdom. Whatever they are.” Fabius craned out his neck to look beyond the teepee.
“Quite a few people, actually.” A melodious voice rang out. “People pay for anything they think they haven’t heard or seen of. I show my esteemed customers what they would best love to see because not everybody knows the sights and attractions of each state. Speaking of which, have you young lads ever seen the whispering caves of a hundred colours?” An old man with long flowing white hair and a short cropped beard stepped out from the tent, wearing a bright purple robe. “I am Thormane and welcome to my humble abode.”
“Humble garish abode, you mean,” sniggered Ainsley. The others joined in the laughter.
“A showman’s true badge of honour, young sire. If we don’t dazzle you, who will?” the man flashed a pearly white smile.
Fabius dismounted. “You’re a showman too?”
“Of course I am.” The old man flailed his arms in the air, drawing circles with his index finger. The company gasped simultaneously as small clouds of different colours burst all around them.
“That is one neat trick, showman Thormane,” Ainsley clapped, a big grin lining his face.
Fabius looked at the dissipating green cloud to his right. He doesn’t seem like a showman. But the trick had been impressive. “So you’re a showman who also takes people travelling?”
“Not at the same time, my young friend. We perform near towns and take people along with us to show them the wondrous creations till we reach the next city, where we arrange for caravans to take them back to their home cities. Depends on how far you want to come with us.”
“And where are the whispering caves of a thousand colours?” asked Ainsley.
“Hundred,” corrected Thormane. “And they lie not far from here. Fifty leagues northwards we go, till we brush against the marshes. Then we weave through the bogs and pits, till we reach confluence of the underground river Saras and the majestic Nayuna. A short swim under the confluence will take you to the most wondrous caves in the entire land.” The showman weaved and danced as he described the route. “We set out in a few days, good sirs. Will you be making the trip with us?”
Despite the theatrics, Fabius found himself intrigued. “No, unfortunately not, showman Thormane. We have some business in Lushrow, which may take a while. Although, if you’re hosting a show sometime today, we would definitely attend.” He looked around towards his company, most of him nodded in agreement, although a few seemed a little disgruntled. He actually sold the darn caves to them!
Thormane bowed gracefully and waved them inside the tent. “Come in, come in. We have a show once the sun descends. Till then, step out of the sun and sip some spiced wine with us.”
Ainsley nudged Fabius. “See, I told you they have exquisite wines. Mmmm, I haven’t had spiced wine in five years.”
Fabius ignored his friend as he led Bretun inside the huge tent. He couldn’t shake the knot in his stomach. There was something odd about the showman, what he couldn’t tell.
Darius sat hunched over a table fixed to the wall in his cabin, poring over the ledgers submitted by the fifteen trading houses that had been permitted to work the Halan route. As mundane as the task seemed, he knew from experience, not being aware of the ground realities of a situation always led to errors and always came back to haunt a man.
A knock sounded on the door and Tarvus entered. “We should be entering Halan waters in another fortnight.”
“That’s excellent news. And it’s been only two months since we set sail.”
“The Morning Tide isn’t the fastest ship in these waters just by name, Darius. Besides the strong headwind we’ve had since we left the coast of Sen-Ahearn has cut down our oar time. Fresher hands on the deck means better use of the sails.”
“You intend to teach me to work a ship, don’t you Tarvus?”
“Your brother’s quite an expert. I see no reason why you shouldn’t know the basics too. Infact, sailing teaches you organization and hard-work like no other job.”
“Does it also teach you to read year-long ledgers filled with obscure handwritten records of items I’ve never heard of?” Darius broke out his sputtering chuckle, which surprised the captain.
“Can’t say it does, but what items are you speaking of?”
Darius turned around the ledger and beckoned Tarvus forward. “Have a look. What are prayer sticks? And why are people in the Throdden kingdom buying it? We don’t worship any deity.”
“I’ve carried a shipment or two of that myself. They are incense sticks we use in houses. They aren’t used for prayers here but I guess the Halans found a market for them in our kingdom anyway.”
Darius scoffed. “Why import from them when we produce incense ourselves?”
“Darius, you know how trade works. Maybe they make it cheaper than we do. And maybe they just make it better.” Tarvus sighed, sitting down on the plush bed opposite the table. “I’m no one to give advice to a prince but I would tell it to Fabius if needed to hear it. Would you that I speak in the same vein?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Tarvus. Speak your mind.”
“I suppose you have good cause to hate the Halans, so I’m not going into that. But you cannot let your personal feelings cloud your judgment against everything related to them. Whether you like it or not, they exist. And for twenty years they have existed in peace. You cannot judge incense simply because it’s from Halaa. A prince and a future king has to rise above that and be impartial, however much it pains him inside.”
Darius wanted to shout at the captain. What does he know about what I lost? But he knew the captain’s advice mirrored that of his fathers. “Tell me Tarvus, how have you gained so much wisdom at such a young age?”
Tarvus gave a sad smile. “Believe it or not, Darius. I’ve held similar grudges and they do not turn out well. And as for wisdom, the unlikely source is your brother.”
Tarvus nodded. “He spends so much time with the common folk from all over the land that his mind is uncluttered from all bias. He is always able to see the other person’s perspective, however wrong it may seem to us. And while it may be wrong in reality, to pass judgment without offering an explanation is as wrong.”
Darius nodded. It made sense. And it seemed the path he should walk. But how can I ever forgive them for killing my mother?
A loud shout rang out from above. “What in Sucellok’s name!” Darius exclaimed, rising from the cane chair.
Tarvus was already outside the door. “Ships have been spotted. Maybe hostile.”
“How did you make out all that from that?” Darius called out, but Tarvus had moved beyond earshot.
He rushed to the upper deck. Deckhands milled about adjusting ropes, washing the deck; some even sat peeling taters. Nothing looked amiss and no one appeared to be concerned about the shout.
He spotted Tarvus on the stern deck with a spyglass in hand. “What is it, captain?” He peered out to the green expanse of the sea. His eyes could pick out nothing apart from a blazing sun overhead.
Tarvus’ deep brows furrowed. His face betrayed both concern and confusion. “Have a look.”
Darius took the bronze spyglass, which felt lighter than it should’ve. He raised to his eye and brown wood obscured his vision. “What the…” he tried again, but moving the spyglass only served to show more wood or green water.
“Oh wait,” Tarvus said, flicking the lens in front of the long tube, which turned away from covering the spyglass.
“Three lenses?” exclaimed Darius.
“A development from the vaunted Halls of Learning. Three lens to adjust the magnification. You should be able to see clearly now.”
Darius looked the tube with new found appreciation and put it to his eye again. Several small ships about a quarter of the Morning Tide came into view, with dirty sails pulled up to single masts. A sweeping view showed him more boats than he could count.
He looked at Tarvus. “Who are they? Fishermen?”
“Certainly not. There are no fish this far away from the coast that these small ships can catch and these are not even trawlers.”
Darius raised the spyglass again. “They are flying no flags.”
“Which is what worries me. This is a trading route. No Throdden state can travel these waters without hoisting their colours.”
“Is it the Halans then?” Darius asked, the muscles in his neck tensing.
“No, Darius. Halans don’t like the sea. They use frigates if they ever have to. We set up their only port, remember. These boats are handcrafted. Not made by any of the shipmakers I know of.”
“It must be the Halans.”
Tarvus waved him off, deep in thought. “We haven’t entered Halan waters. And besides, they are approaching us from the opposite direction.” His eyes widened. “Oh my….we are passing bandit lands.”
“Bandits? Since when did bandits start having ships?” Darius chortled.
“Now would seem an appropriate answer.” Tarvus turned towards his crew. “Loosen the lines. Man the rigging. Raise the sails. Let’s pull for all the speed we can. I’m not losing her to bandits.”
Darius’ eyes widened at the transformation of the captain. The jovial man had turned fierce and determined in a moment. So it’s the bandits you hate!He turned his attention to the pursuing boats bobbing about three leagues away. The man on crow’s nest duty had counted twenty-one of them.