The final dark ship appeared out of the evening mist, as the last of the twilight faded from the gray of the sky. It floated down from above the close-packed trees, glided down over the low growth of green shrubbery, drifted down over the ivy-coated earthen ramp, coasted down above the bobbing spread of water lilies -- then nosed gently into the rippled surface of the huge lake. Circular rings of waves spread out from its rocking hull and lapped at the shoreline, as the lilies waved their leaves in answer. A waterbird spread its huge wings and skimmed away to other fishing grounds.
...... Torches flared along the wharf, reflected in the water. The slowly moving riding lights of other vessels flickered into colored brightness. Sounds of bustling and hurried voices washed back across the lake.
...... Floating low in the water, the dark ship altered sail and bumped gently into its mooring slip beneath the bright and open windows of the stone watch tower. The twenty-second and last ship had come home.
...... Not waiting for the dockhands to push forward the ramp, Merc gripped a pitch-coated backstay and jumped across the meter-wide gap to the timbers of the mooring. Stumbling slightly on the poorly-fit lengths of wood, he recovered his balance and rapidly marched across the dimly-lit surface. None of the lesser captains tried to attract his attention, and the raggedly-dressed dockmen merely shuffled out of his way.
...... He trotted up the stone ramp, which had been cut out of the native rock of the hillside, and strode through the narrow doorway of the watchtower. Up thirty meters of spiral staircase and into the top floor room, brushing aside the heavy curtain which shielded the doorway, he stopped at the arched window to stare out over the harbor and its moored ships. Right at the edge of the tree-silhouetted horizon, barely visible in the very last of the day's light, a single sailing ship was turning about, tacking against the wind. The thinnest sliver of dark gray backdrop was visible between the bottom of the hull and the tops of the numerous trees.
...... One boot braced against the lip of the window, he waved a clenched fist at the ship in the distance. "Next time, Gonzalis-Hiptmann! One mistake. Just one mistake, and I'll obliterate you."
...... Unconcerned, the faraway ship vanished in the darkness.
...... He gestured with both hands, then turned to lean against the window trim. "Two ships! Two were lost. Crashed into the ground over disguised rock." Moving swiftly, he paced to the end of the room to glare at the hand-scribed map mounted on the wall. "I'll have to do something more about those Underworld people. It's too much."
...... "Good evening to you, also." Igthorus sprinkled fine sand over the fresh ink of a document and carefully set it aside on the corner of the table.
...... Merc turned away from the map to again pace the uneven stone floor. "We saved the Repeller Stones, though. That was what they were after. But we saved them. And now I know where one of their larger settlements is. So this voyage wasn't a total loss."
...... With one heavily callused hand, Igthorus rubbed the side of the Everlast Candle to increase its white brightness. He pulled his robe tighter around himself. "Yes, I had a good evening meal, thank you. It's been an excellent day, and followed by good food and good company."
...... Merc stopped in front of the writing table to glare at the older man. "I couldn't give a perrywinkle's roseblade how you ate or who the company was." He picked up a scrap of paper, glared at it also, and dropped it back on the stack. "That damned pirate, those other SeaLords, and that total fool of an Advisor are enough concerns for me!"
...... "That much is obvious." After straightening the stack of papers, Igthorus leaned back in the leather slung seat, arms folded. "Your reputation is for brusqueness, but I find you boorish. If you don't wish to converse like a reasonable being, my good Lord Mercadoratius, why don't you just go to bed."
...... "Because I don't feel like it." He turned away, his boots ticking on the stone, then turned back. "And now that you mention it, where is the Lady Michelle Tallpinin? It's criminal that the Squadron failed to capture her ship. What is the latest news?"
...... "Now that is the riddle of the age." Igthorus inspected his fingernails. "And no one seems to know the answer, including the Guild of the White Witches. Why don't you just forget her." Carefully picking up the document, he allowed the stained sand to fall back into its container. "She vanished the day she was told of her betrothal to you. And that, Merc, ought to be enough of a hint for any man."
...... "She was given to me by her parents, with the approval of the Guild and of the Advisor. It is part of the alliance agreement which the Council signed." He started to pace once again, hands folded behind his back. "She belongs to me!"
...... Without warning, the desk pen jumped from its holder and began writing upon the blank sheet of paper next to it. Igthorus set aside the document he was holding and absently watched the pen at work. "Considering that she left a note to her father to the effect that she'd prefer to be dead than married to you . . . I do not foresee a happy liaison in the near future." The pen completed its work and dropped sideways at the bottom of the sheet. "This is nothing important," Igthorus advised, taking the paper from the clip and inserting a blank sheet. He picked up the pen and pushed it back into its holder.
...... "What do those damn Witches say?" Merc sat on the edge of the empty hearth to frown at the map on the side wall.
...... "The most honorable Guild of the White Witches acknowledges that Lady Tallpinin is alive and, most likely, well." He pushed his chair back from the table. "However, at this particular moment, they also do not know where she is." He gestured at his desk. "According to this message, just received, they cannot find her either."
...... "They're hiding her," Merc loudly objected, leaving the hearth to go again to the window. After a final look, he snapped loose the leather strap and allowed the curtain to swing into place.
...... "You know too little." Igthorus snorted his amusement, gesturing with a hand held out. "The beautiful Michelle is one of those few Witches who the Guild cannot see by their mystic arts," he answered just as loudly. "As she is their most proficient WindCaller, they too are rather anxious to locate her." He leaned back and sighed. "More anxious than you, in fact. As difficult as you find that to understand."
...... Merc strode back to stare at the map. "She has to be somewhere."
...... Igthorus nodded. "Most likely, she is somewhere beneath the trees. Hiding out in the Underworld. And fighting the Outlaws the same way she chooses to fight everyone else in existence. Most of my sympathy goes to the Outlaws." Looking away, he rubbed an ear. "Not an enviable place to be right now, I might add."
...... Slapping the wall with his open hand, Merc marched across the room. "I have things to do. Have those Repeller Stones fitted in new vessels immediately. I intend to be at sea again in thirty-six hours."
...... "As you wish." Igthorus moved his chair back to his table. "The two repeller crystals will be handed over to the shipwrights immediately." He picked up another document. "After that, we shall see. And please don't rip the door curtain on your way out."
...... Merc's answer was lost in the echoes of the stairwell.
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)