“One must always strive to see beauty, especially in ugly places.”
Unknown Priestess of Athena
With a firm grasp on the hilt of his sword, Jake watched as Uric Valencia eyed the well from all angles, notebook in hand. He had wished to never return to the cave and if he did, he hoped to remain outside. The Count, however, wanted at least two knights and four marines to be present during the professor’s inspection. All heavily armed and ready for anything. Jake had his two pistols tucked into his belt. He preferred the mobility of a light load over extensive firepower. Brom carried four pistols, being an advocate of the other school of thought. Their rifles were never out of reach, leaning against the cave walls.
Varro and Salvo stood near the professor to answer any immediate questions he may have.
“There is a presence here unlike any I have felt before,” Uric said quietly, holding an open hand over the well.
“More than any of us have ever felt,” Varro said reverently.
Uric ran his hand over the well and closed his eyes, sucking in a breath of air through his teeth.
Suddenly, a drop of water fell from a hanging stalactite and landed on the back of the professor’s hand. He retracted it as if the water had burned a hole in his skin. He rubbed the spot with a grimace, his gaze locked on the well.
“That voice. The well speaks to me,” he said as if enchanted by the water, still grasping his delicate hand.
“Yes. You have heard it later than most.” Varro placed a hand on Uric’s back and gestured with the other for him to step away from the rim. It seemed as if he was gently prying the man from the well.
The professor’s eyes did not abandon the dark water as if he were looking upon the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“Come, I will show you the previous case reports. Which incidences have you read already?”
With this question, Uric returned to reality as if nothing had happened. “I have only seen the case report of your knight, whatever his name was. I dismissed it as insanity upon my first impression, but now I believe there is much more to it.”
The Count shrugged off the blatant disregard of one of his fallen soldiers and led the man out of the cavern followed by the marines. Salvo stood between Brom and Jake with his arms in the opposite sleeves of his robe.
“This was much more frightening than the Count had shown. Do not be fooled by his cool countenance. It was for the professor’s benefit. We must watch Sir Uric Valencia even closer now, I fear.”
Tankards clanked on the rough wood tables. Jake sipped from his pint and glanced around the inn, taking in his surroundings. The knights sat along both sides of a long rectangular table. A quiet afternoon crowd occupied the rest of the room, sparsely scattered. Some dock workers, shop owners and other townsfolk who had stopped in for the inn’s daily stew. Jake overheard one merchant speaking to another.
“She can’t be too sick to whip up some decent stew. Must we suffer at the hands of her husband?”
“You don’t have to come here and eat it, you know.”
“And where else should we eat? The Pearl? Likely to get the pox from their chairs. All I ask is the old man get a few tips from his woman. It seems as though he doesn’t have any taste buds.”
“Well why don’t you suggest that to him?”
Both men looked to the burly innkeeper behind the counter. The old man noticed the merchants and twitched his mustache, inquisitively. The merchants kept their gaze moving around the room as if they were looking for something else.
“He doesn’t need to hear it from me,” said the complaining merchant.
“Then quit crying about it.”
Jake smiled. He’d had a bowl of the stew earlier. It did seem blander and the vegetables seemed soggier since the innkeeper’s wife had taken ill. He wondered if the tavern was so empty because patrons went elsewhere for better food. Still better than rations on the front, thought Jake.
The wounded knights had finally been able to rejoin the group. Amir hobbled on stiff joints. Dogwa was unable to sit back in a chair without showing discomfort on his usually stoic face. Both were well enough for a drink once again.
The other knights, besides Margaret slowly sipping her ale, were already on their third. Given light duty for the rest of the week, spirits were high. Even Brutus laughed out loud. His big dark cheeks brightened his whole face and his chipped and jagged teeth showed through his thick black beard.
The plan was to not go looking for Fogwater. Instead, the knights would remain armed and ready at all times and let the native come to them. So they had been given a drink limit and they were not to go anywhere alone. However, Jake worried that if Fogwater caught two knights off guard, it would not matter how armed they were. Their only duties, for the time being, were to relieve guard positions at the cave every two days and to take turns bodyguarding the professor two at a time. The rest of their time would be spent celebrating their victory over two of their three monstrous enemies.
“You should have seen it,” Margaret said to Amir, over the low roar of the room. She dropped her voice to a low whisper. “We didn’t see the body float to the surface. We were all thinking about what to do. Next thing you know, Lieutenant Fitzand stripped from head to toe.”
Amir chuckled explosively under a bandage on his cheek and the patch over his left eye. “Right in front of you, eh? Bet that was an experience.”
“I mean, really. Sometimes it amazes me. It’s like I must remind you all a lady is present,” she said.
The men immediately turned their heads, scanning the room.
“Oh, you mean you,” Amir said attempting to bottle a choking laugh. She glared at his scarred face. The table was silent. “We thought you meant a real lady.”
Margaret slapped the back of his head and let a smile slip. “A real lady probably couldn’t whip you, but I’ll wager I could.”
“I’d pay to see that,” Jake said.
“Ah, Mags. You know I’m just buggin’,” Amir said, rubbing the back of his head. “Besides, a real lady wouldn’t—couldn’t hit like that.”
“I have yet to meet a real lady who could slit a man’s throat with his own dagger,” Jorn chimed in then gulped from his mug. “Maybe if you wore a dress once in a while.”
The knights erupted into laughter. They finished their drinks and Jorn ordered another round.
“I better not have another. I’m meeting Miss Crane in an hour,” Brom announced, rising from the table. Jake snagged Brom’s sleeve and pulled him down close.
“We are to stay together,” Jake spoke softly.
“I’ll be at the governor’s mansion,” Brom chuckled. “I’m not taking a third wheel courtin’”
“Lover boy has to get freshened up, eh?” Amir said with a smirk. Brom blushed and gave a bashful smile as he climbed the stairs to their room.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Margaret said with a twinkle in her eye. “He really loves her.”
“Far too early to tell,” Jake said.
“Are you the expert, Mister Zimmar?” Margaret asked.
“If there is any expression of emotion at this table, let it be laughter,” Amir said as he slammed his fist on the table. “None of that talk of love. Now is the time to drink and make merry. Will you not have another, Mags, my dear?”
“No, I will not.”
“And why not, may I ask?”
“Today I am drinking like a lady.” She stuck her little finger out and sipped her beer as daintily as she could manage. The group erupted into another furious fit of laughter, but Jake could not help but worry. Brom had seen how dangerous Fogwater could be. Margaret put a hand on Jake’s shoulder and leaned over to him.
“He’s going to the governor’s mansion,” she said. “Besides, Brom can handle himself.”
Margaret was right. Brom could handle a walk up the hill. Jake shook the worry and took another gulp.
“Amir, old friend,” Jorn had trouble controlling his volume. “This patch on your eye and the scars on your face, what do you think of them?”
“I like them. They make him look dashing and mysterious,” Margaret chimed in.
“I think it looks like I had a very bad shaving accident,” Amir chuckled.
“You should grow a beard to hide them,” Dogwa interjected in his smooth monotone. “This is how Brutus hides his ugly face.”
The table fell silent for a moment, all eyes on Brutus. He burst into the loudest laughter any had ever heard from him. He threw a piece of bread at the smiling Dogwa and the rest joined the hearty guffaw.
Breathing deeply through his nostrils, Brom savored the salty sea air as if it had been ages since he had been near the coast. He and Anna had ridden on horseback to the windward shore to have a picnic. Of course he was breaking Count Varro’s rule, but this was a special occasion.
“This seems like a decent spot,” he said with a twinkle in his eye and his attempt of a dashing smile. She nodded in her yellow bonnet. Brom dismounted then assisted his lady down with snappy chivalry. He tied the horses to a large piece of driftwood and spread a quilt over a patch of soft seagrass on the border of the sand.
Anna sat gracefully with her legs folded to her side and began unpacking the basket Brom had pulled from his horse. They ate their meal on the fine porcelain Anna’s maid had packed.
“If we had brought the table, we could not call this a picnic with all this fancy wear,” Brom joked.
When their meal was finished and they had repacked the porcelain, they sat on the quilt, leaning their backs to the driftwood. Brom wrapped his left arm around Anna and put his other hand in his vest pocket. They watched the waves roll in as they melted into each other’s arms. Brom felt as though they were made to fit together like that. Two pieces of a much larger puzzle.
Then Brom’s fingertips brushed the band in his pocket and his insides fluttered. His throat felt like it was closing and his ears grew hot. His heart raced. It was not that he forgot what he had planned, but that he was lost in the moment. Too lost to get anxious.
To Brom’s horror, Anna noticed almost immediately.
“What is wrong? You’re shaking.”
He looked directly into her eyes. “Anna, do you love me?” His voice shook.
“Of course I do.” Her brow wrinkled, and she looked at him with her beautiful worried eyes.
“You know I am a soldier. I could be gone tomorrow, either reassigned somewhere else or a casualty on the battlefield. I am a common man. I have no estate, no title other than Knight of Apollo and very little money. Do you understand all this?”
“None of that matters to me, Bromley. I love you for who you are and how you make me feel.”
This is it, he thought. This is that moment. I hope I haven’t made a fool of myself. Brom exhaled loudly and rolled to one knee. He took the simple silver band from his pocket and presented it to her. “Miss Anna Crane, will you be my wife?”
Fumbling through his notes, Uric searched his lab frantically for something. Varro and Salvo walked in and the professor started.
“Ah, gentlemen, pardon the clutter. Please have a seat.” The knights sat at the long table. The lizard creature had been replaced with stacks of books and papers, though some of his body parts lingered floating in preservative-filled jars.
The Count grew impatient as the professor scurried from place to place. “Let us have that theory of yours, Valencia.”
“Right away, my lord.” He sat across from them and parted two book stacks with his arms. He was out of breath yet energetic.
“In alchemy, one cannot create something from nothing.” His voice was jittery like the skittering of a rodent and he spoke wildly with his hands and a crazy look in his eyes. “There must always be original material to transmute into the desired product. In this case, the desired products are chimera.”
“Chimera?” Salvo interrupted.
“Yes. A chimera is a creature made up of several different creatures, such as lizard, fish, and man.” His eyes settled on the beast’s floating head in a nearby jar. “But the fascinating thing about the appearance of these chimera is, the original material is not only their physical bodies but their emotional energy as well.”
“Emotions,” Varro said. “Perhaps, Admiral Kro sent the wrong kind of scientist. Maybe we could use a psychologist to fight these creatures.”
“Just listen,” Uric said forcefully. “This suggests that the theory of transmutation may also apply to emotional and moral energy. For example, the subjects were asked to perform an evil deed or sacrifice something dear to them. By doing so, they have allowed this entity who resides in the well to transmute their moral being before it even begins to change physical tissue.”
“Let us cut to it, shall we? How do we kill it?” Varro followed his question up with a slight lean forward and an intense stare. The professor didn’t want to kill it. Varro could see it in his eyes.
“I was finished,” Uric said nervously. “That is all I have figured out.”
“You will have plenty of time to study the well once it has been neutralized, professor. Find us a way to make the island safe again.”
Uric stood abruptly, knocking his chair back. “I don’t think I will, Count. If one kills a spiritual being, you may cause it to cease its existence altogether. Like dispersing vapor, if you will.”
“I find no issue with that outcome.” Varro slapped the table and stood to meet Uric’s rather aggressive posture.
The intellectual did not budge. “There will be nothing left for me to study. I must be allowed to further our understanding of such a mysterious being.”
Count Varro leaned over the table to meet Uric’s eyes. Valencia did not blink.
“Knights of Apollo have died. I will not risk further loss while you publish your findings. Find us a way to kill it or you have no further purpose here and we will send you back to tell Admiral Kro why you have failed.”
Several moments passed with nothing but silence.
Amir burst into the room with a drunk grin on his face. “My lord, Brom has something to announce.”
Count Varro straightened and asked Amir to wait outside.
“We are done here,” Varro said to Uric. “Retain your value, or I will send you back.”
The waning moon gave little illumination as Jake made the short trek from the outhouse back to the inn. A warm sliver of light spilled out the back of the tavern and into the dark. He pushed the door open and Brom stood there with Miss Crane by his side.
“Have you realized where the fun is?” Jake said gesturing to the half-drunken knights still drinking and teasing right where Brom left them.
“That is one of the reasons,” Brom said. “Also, we have an announcement.”
Anna squeezed Brom’s arm and smiled brightly. He hasn’t done it, Jake thought. Brom isn’t that stupid. He hardly knows the girl. We could kill this monster tomorrow and be on a ship bound for Mount Bronta the next evening. Then Jake noticed Governor Bradford and his manservant standing against a far wall. Amir, Master Salvo, and Count Varro walked into the tavern from the front. When the couple turned to greet them, a silver band gleamed on Anna’s left hand. Jake gulped.
Brom jumped up on a table and helped Anna to do the same.
Jake moved to his place at the table with the others.
The room had already fallen silent before Amir placed a finger to his lips and called, “Shut up. Everyone hush.”
Brom raised a tankard and with a wide grin announced, “Anna and I are to be married!”
A loud roar filled the room. The sound of tankards clinking and marines clapping was deafening.
“Gods,” Varro said under his breath. “Now he’s done it.”
Jake locked eyes with his commander just for a moment before casting his gaze to the floor. Varro walked to the center of the room, grabbed a mug out of Jorn’s hand, and stood on another table. The room again fell silent.
“Joyous news like this is welcome in times like these. Let us raise our glasses to the happy couple.”
The crowd replied, “Here here!” and they drank.
The Count stepped down to find himself face to face with Governor Bradford. The two shook hands and the governor stood on a chair. The room once again hushed.
The governor held up two fingers. “Give me two days’ time and I will throw the greatest engagement party the colonies have ever seen. The whole island is invited!”
Cheers and raised glasses saluted the governor. It seemed like manufactured joy to Jake. The governor smiled with his lips but not with his eyes. Jake detected jealousy in his expression. Bradford exited quickly followed closely by his manservant.
“Off to plan the party so soon, no doubt,” Jake said quietly with a twinge of sarcasm.
Jake returned his attention to Brom and Anna. There he saw true joy. They really loved each other. The way he held her. The way she stroked his hand. The way they looked at each other. It all seemed so real. It must be, Jake thought.
Beer splashed Jake’s cheek as Margaret thrust a pewter tankard under his nose. Jake took it and drank. He coughed when she slapped his back heartily. The party raged around them and there was no sign it would let up.
After several minutes of drinking, eating, and laughing, Jake already felt the need to get some air. He stepped out back and breathed deeply. He arched his back to look at the stars as he walked without a particular direction. When he lowered his gaze, he noticed a dark figure sitting on a barrel with his back to the inn. Jake approached and recognized the man. William Mayberry, the young sailor of the Albatross. The only sailor of the Albatross.
“May I sit?” Jake asked, gesturing to a crate against the same wall.
Jake thought William shrugged but didn’t know for sure. He sat anyway. For a long time, the two sat in silence, staring up at the stars. The roar of the celebration inside spilled out of every window and door and into the night.
“Have you had enough?” William asked with a head jerk to the inn.
“For now,” Jake responded. “I’m not a marathon partier.”
“I use to be.”
“What changed?” Jake asked. Then he realized it was a stupid question. William didn’t answer. They sat in silence for several more minutes.
“Why would he do that?” William asked.
Jake wasn’t sure who William spoke of at first.
“Why would he do that here? In this place where there is so much evil?”
Then Jake knew he referred to Brom.
“It’s love,” he said. “I believe it’s love. Everyone always says love makes people crazy.”
“This place makes people crazy,” William said.
On the day of the party, Governor Bradford oversaw his slaves making final preparations from his balcony. The entire expanse of his lawn and garden surrendered to decorations, tables, chairs, and even a dance floor.
A shadow fell over Bradford and he knew his rather large manservant had crept up behind him. He spoke without turning. “Is it not time you should be on your way? It is nearly a quarter to noon.”
“I have come to see if his excellency has any final words he would like passed on.”
“No, what I have already told you will work. Now be off. We mustn’t keep him waiting.”
The shadow receded and the butler was gone. Mustn’t keep him waiting, Bradford thought. Not his kind.
Governor Bradford chewed his thumbnail.
Oars dipped silently into the lapping water, driving five longboats to the southern coast of the island. The butler crouched in the dark thicket and watched. Shadowy, hooded figures rowed in the moonless night.
The boats struck land. The men immediately jumped out and carried them into the thicket. They unloaded their muskets, pikes, crossbows, and swords before covering the vessels with underbrush. One of the soldiers lit a strange-looking lantern but no light escaped. The glass had been replaced with iron sheets. In front, there was a door the size of a palm and a lever that operated it.
The soldier took a knee on the beach and faced the lantern out to sea. The light pulsed as he worked the leaver. Two short flashes, two long flashes, and then one more short flash.
Out in the dark, a single flash answered. The men spread out and crouched with a tall, robed man in the center. The butler stood up to meet them on the beach. The shadowy men raised their weapons in his direction. The butler raised his hands to reassure them he was unarmed. The robed man stepped out to meet him. As the tall figure approached, the butler could tell he was an old man. His features sharp and his eyes seemed sunken into his skull, creating dark shadows under them. Walking with his hands tucked into the opposite sleeves of his black robe, the old man nodded a cold greeting.
“Our contact says that he throws an engagement party tonight for one of the nine Knights of Apollo garrisoned in town, monsieur,” the butler said in fluent Spratzian. “The cave will be guarded by half the force, but they will be changed often to allow everyone a turn at the party. He says it will be best to strike at ten o’clock when the last rotation of guards has changed. Perhaps those rotating in will be intoxicated.”
The cloaked man nodded. His troops formed into two columns and began their slow creep through the thick trees. Not a sound was made by footfall or verbal orders. They used hand signals to communicate. Within moments, they had melted into the forest without so much as a twig snapping.
Glancing at his pocket watch, Governor Bradford crossed a leg elegantly over his knee. His wig was powdered, his cheeks blushed, a false mole dotted his chin and he wore his finest ruffled shirt under his sky-blue dinner jacket.
He sat in a chair at the top of a terrace overlooking the garden with a champagne flute in hand. The sights and sounds of the party bubbled below him. Mingling guests in their finest attire, a string sextet playing a soft melody. The black skin of his many house slaves stood out amongst the mixture of white party guests. The slaves served champagne with the utmost elegance even though they were dressed more finely than most of the attendees. The governor would not have his servants looking shabby.
Bradford noticed Anna take Brom’s arm as he led her to the dance floor. She wore a light-yellow gown with white lace gloves and her curly hair in a tight bun. Bradford bit the inside of his cheek.
Brom was in his sharp dress uniform with golden tassels hanging off the square shoulders of his slate gray jacket. Ribbons and a few modest medals decorated his chest, and a white sash draped across his torso bearing the silver eye of Apollo. His polished sword and scabbard hung at his hip. Bradford remembered how dangerous the boy could be with that blade.
The musicians played a waltz and the hardwood floor covering a portion of the lush lawn was soon covered with swirling couples. Jake’s lessons had improved Brom’s waltz greatly although he did not keep his frame as rigid as most dancing instructors would prefer. The master was pleased, however. Jake sat at a table, grinning as he watched the last two days of hard work pay off.
He stood and offered his hand across the table to Margaret, who wore a beautiful gown to everyone’s surprise. She blushed as she took his hand and they joined the dance. Margaret was the only knight out of uniform that evening. The men all wore their dress uniforms except Master Salvo who was required, as a man of the cloth, to remain in his modest robes.
The Count asked a young lady, Miss Black, to dance. She was the local magistrate’s daughter and her face glowed as Varro held his hand out to her. His blond hair was in a simple braid draped over the long black cape on his back. The silver eye of Apollo seemed to glow in its black background.
Miss Black’s eyes twinkled when she looked at Count Varro.
“I’d make that face too if I were dancing with the most eligible bachelor on the island,” Margaret said.
“What about Governor Bradford?” Jake quipped.
Margaret stifled a laugh and stole a glance over her shoulder.
“He looks absolutely miserable,” she said.
Bradford checked the time again. When the song ended, the dancers clapped and bowed with wide smiles. The governor twisted his face. He clinked his glass and stood high on the terrace. The crowd hushed.
“I wish to propose a toast to the happy couple,” he announced. “My lovely ward, Miss Anna Crane, has been in the care of my household for many years now. I have always thought of her as my own daughter, and now I must surrender the privilege of her care to another.” He raised his glass and nodded to Brom with a warm grin. Brom returned the gesture.
“My best wishes go out to both of you. Many hardships come with marriage. Especially a marriage to a soldier, but they are brave. I have faith in them. The gods love them. May the gods continue their kind blessings as you begin your life together.”
The crowd sighed at the thoughtful toast, lifting their glasses high. The governor turned to go into the house and his smile disappeared, replaced by a cold sneer. He dug the watch from his pocket and flipped it open violently. Ten o’clock.