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The terrain was generally flat and rocky on their trek east, and the weather warmed significantly as the days past. Camon, Achara, and Jorn rode for the better part of a week to the east before seeing even the first sign of Imperial presence. The first place they came to was an outpost situated high on a cliff overlooking a long bend in the river. At the river level were a series of docks with boats and barges moored. The outpost itself was a palisade formed from tree trucks with an outer wall and inner keep and a watchtower that Camon saw from some distance away before ever seeing the outpost as they drew closer. Once they were right upon the fortress, they began to see numerous other outbuildings. There was a sizable presence of Gypsies at the outpost bringing cattle to trade for things they needed for their encampments.

Camon stopped about half a mile upstream from the outpost and eyed it carefully, “We could probably get passage on one of those barges. I imagine that they take cattle back downstream to Rahttaay for trade.”

No one said anything for a moment, then Achara spoke, “This place is giving off some bad sensations. It doesn’t feel safe.”

“If we can get passage quickly, then we won’t linger,” Camon replied.

“It’s not the traders or anything obvious that bothers me,” she remarked.

“Then what is it?” Camon said.

“It’s similar to the presence that tracked us out of Rahtclang,” she explained. “I can’t say for certain that it’s the same, but it feels the same.”

“No one would want to make a mess that would draw Imperial attention here,” Camon said. “But let’s stay vigilant in any case.”

They rode up the hill towards the outpost and turned onto a trail that led up to its gates. They first passed through a series of shacks and other buildings occupied by vendors selling all sorts of wares from knives to fabric. The Gypsies were there trading cattle as well. The riders rode through the gate and into an open courtyard that was surrounded by different buildings. They could hear the pinging of a blacksmith’s hammer and smoke rising from his shop. Two Imperial soldiers guarded the central building. “If we’re to find passage, I imagine that building is the place to start,” Camon said.

Camon dismounted Appon, and Achara and Jorn followed. They tied their horses to a hitching post and went into the building, nodding at the guards as they passed. The guards didn’t flinch, and they entered into a room with a high ceiling with exposed rafters. The second story had a balcony that went all the way around and overlooked the main floor. The room had several tables and chairs and at one end was a bar.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had any ale,” Camon noted.

“I’m up for one,” Achara said. Camon went to the bar and ordered three mugs of ale and brought them back to a table where the three travelers started drinking them. Achara smiled after the first sip and then drank more. Camon then went back to the bar and asked where they might speak to one of the barge or boat captains, and the bartender directed him towards a door. Camon went back to his companions and finished his ale and then got up and went through the door. Out of the door was a balcony that overlooked the river with stairs leading down to the docks below. The three walked down the stairs to the docks and found three men sitting on small barrels around a larger one playing a game with cards. As Camon approached, they all turned their hands down on the large barrel and stared at him.

“How did two snowbirds and a desert rat show up on my docks?” One of the men said. He was large and dusky with blonde hair and wore dirty clothes.

“We’re looking for passage to Rahttaay. I was told you could help.” Camon said.

“This doesn’t look like a passenger terminal, does it?” the man said.

“Not looking for comfort, just passage,” Camon said.

“Well, if that’s the case, I might can help,” the man said. “Problem is, I need hands to man a barge east. If you don’t mind getting dirty, you get your passage and a little pay to go with it.”

“Can you transport horses too?” Camon asked.

“Horses. Cattle. Makes no difference. How many you got?” he asked.

“Just three,” Camon said.

“That’s all then? They ride for free if you help.”

Camon looked at Achara and Jorn, who looked back at Camon listlessly with a shrug, “Looks like you have a crew then. How soon can we disembark?”

“Tomorrow in the morning. We’ll get a few more heads of cattle today. We’ll load them, and your horses and Srang here will get you going,” he said, pointing to one of the other men at the table.

Camon came over and introduced himself, “I’m Camon. This is Achara and Jorn.”

“A motley crew,” Srang commented. “Ya’ll know anything about cattle?”

“Jorn worked on caravans back west. Achara is good with animals of all kinds. I was raised on a farm,” Camon remarked.

“Sounds good enough to me,” Srang said. “Bring your horses to the docks near sunset, and we’ll get them loaded.”

“Thanks,” Jorn said. The company of three walked away and back towards the stairs to the outpost.

“Cattle herding. I guess I can add that to my long list of useful skills,” Achara remarked.

“I’m not sure what this job will entail, but if it means we can get to Rhattaay sooner, I’m all for it,” Camon said.

“Being cooped up on a barge with cattle isn’t my idea of a fun trip,” Jorn said. “But I’m sick of riding. At least this will give us something to do other than stare at an endless sea of grass.”

“Indeed. Any movement from the threats you were picking up?” Camon asked Achara.

“None, but they are still here,” she replied.

“Then we’ll need to find a safe place to stay for tonight. In the meantime, let’s get our horses,” they left the building, unhitched the horses, and rode out of the outpost. They passed the afternoon trading with the vendors and refreshing supplies. When evening grew closer, they mounted up again and took a cattle trail down away from the outpost that went around to the river, then onto the docks. There was a line of cattle that Srang and several other men were herding onto a barge about fifty feet in length and thirty feet wide moored to port off one of the docks. Srang waved, “Here’s the crew now.”

Camon, Achara, and Jorn dismounted and, along with the others, helped herd the horses and cattle onto the barge. The barge had been stocked with animal feed and other necessities for the trip East. Srang suggested that they stay on the barge for safety, as the Imperial soldiers patrolled the area at night, and the watchtower kept an eye on it. The barge had a cabin spanning the middle with oars to help direct the boat in deeper water. It also offered a place to sleep. They bedded down in the cabin as the night passed. In the morning, they awoke and were ready to go.

Srang showed up just after sunrise, and the crew greeted him.

“Here’s the deal,” Srang said. “We’ll pole out to the current. Camon and Jorn, I want you on the rear corners. Achara, you’re on the rudder. I’ll be at the bow. Once we’re in the current, the trick is to keep her in the middle of the river and away from rocks, shallows, shoals, and other hazards. This river is generally slow, but a few places can get a little dicey.”

With that, the team took their positions, and Srang gave the command. The dock hands untied the moorings, and the three men began to push the barge away from the dock with long wooden poles. The craft moved slowly but steadily away from the shore. As soon as they got into deeper water, the current picked up. They worked the boat to keep the bow pointed downriver with the oars on the bridge.

Once out on the river, the work of keeping the boat straight was less arduous, and each person took turns at the rudder keeping the boat straight along while the others tended to the animals with feed or cleaning up the constant mess by bailing water from the river into the boat and brushing it to one end, then bailing the collected waste overboard. The job was dirty, but the current carried them along faster than they could have expected to travel by horseback.

As they journeyed east, the plains gave way to woodlands, and then the woodlands gave way to forests. The weather grew steadily warmer, and it was no longer just hints of spring weather. Everything was beginning to come back to life. Flowers were in bloom, birds were in the air, and trees sprouted leaves. Along the way, they stopped at villages and towns along the river to refresh supplies and barter for goods with what they were carrying. Srang handled most of the trading. They picked up some additional cattle in some ports while offloading some in others. Eventually, they began to see farms along the river’s sides and occasionally a bridge for crossing. The bridges were exceptionally challenging to navigate given the craft’s beam, but Srang’s experience made it seem easy.

When they started, they were the only craft on the river, but now they were just one of many crafts of all sizes. Some were small fishing boats, while others were large like the barge carrying farm goods downstream. Others still were passenger craft ferrying people back and forth across the river from towns and villages. On occasion, they saw and Imperial warship or similar craft to show the projection of power further inland away from Rhattaay by the Empire.

After nearly four weeks on the river, Rhattaay came into view. Srang skillfully led the other three into bringing the barge close to the shore, where they glided past several docks until the boat was brought into a slip where it was moored on its starboard side to the dock. The crew extended the gangplank from the barge, and several dock hands worked with the crew to offload the cattle and into a holding pen where Srang would sell them to locals. After the work was complete, he paid Camon, Achara, and Jorn.

“You three have been an exceptional crew,” he commented. “If you ever need work, look me up. I make these runs several times a year from upstream with cattle.”

“It was fun,” Camon commented.

The three accepted the payment for themselves and left Srang at the docks and led their horses into the city. At first glance, Achara was amazed, “You were right. This place is immaculate. The houses and buildings are all just perfect.” She gazed down the broad streets paved with cobblestones covered with oak branches that made each street look like a cathedral with sunlight streaming in through gaps in the branches. The branches were draped with moss that hung almost low enough to touch that gave the impression of chandeliers hanging from the grand ceiling. Homes of all kinds, both large and humble, had gardens in their fronts with fences that lined the broad streets. The homes themselves were generally white, but some were pink, yellow, or some other bright color that added to the town’s ambiance.

The city was bustling with activity with people taking things to the ports to ship or going to the ports to buy. The crew themselves were not out of place even though they felt like it. Traders and sailors of all kinds mingled with the locals to create a carnival-like atmosphere even though it was just another day for most of them.

“This city was one of the few planned cities in the Empire. It was founded as the capital of the Southern Kingdom a few hundred years before the Empire was formed,” Camon said. “The crown jewel of the city was the university, which became the Imperial university and the seat of learning and knowledge for the Empire outside of the Church.”

“You sound a bit snarky there,” Jorn said.

“Well, I can’t say that I love the Empire, but the university doesn’t fall under the scrutiny of the Church, and therefore isn’t subject to the Church’s dogmas. It’s not an academic free-for-all here, but I have found that the folks here are more open to ideas than those you’ll find in the Church.”

“Of all places, though, why come here?” Jorn asked.

“I’m here for the one person in all the world that I think can help us,” Camon said. “She’s an expert in ancient languages, and I need her to translate a map for me that I found back at the library.”

“And where do we start?” Jorn asked.

“At the university,” Camon replied.

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