Camon, Achara, and Jorn left the university and walked to the inn. On the way back, Achara stopped at some shops to look around and purchase some clothes to replace the ones that she had virtually worn out with the money she had earned on the passage to Rahttaay. Jorn likewise went and purchased some new clothing, as all he had was what was given to him by Camon and the monks at the library. Camon waited for them patiently as they came out. The spring afternoon was warm, but not stuffy as he knew summers could be in this part of the world. He appreciated the fragrances of the flowers that the breeze wafted his way and the echoes of birds and insects awakening after the winter the travelers had spent crossing the Empire to the west.
Achara and Jorn returned with their things, and Camon stood and joined them as they walked back through the town to the inn.
“It’s a non-stop adventure with you, isn’t it?” Jorn said.
“If you’re referring to what lies before us, then I suppose so,” Camon replied. “I don’t do it for adventure, I promise.”
“Being back at the university with his nose stuck in a book is more his style,” Achara noted.
“She’s right,” Camon added.
“Then why aren’t you a teacher or professor or whatever Prawadi is?” Jorn asked.
“Because of what I am doing now,” he said.
“More of that self-sacrifice for the greater good nonsense?”
“It’s more nuanced than martyrdom,” Achara said.
“Now’s not the time to talk about it,” Camon interjected. “We should be focused on where we are going, assuming that either of you doesn’t want to back out.”
“I’m in,” Achara replied immediately.
“You seem concerned,” Jorn said. “Is there something you need to tell us about it?”
Camon adjusted in his clothes a little bit, “It’s not what I know, rather it is what I don’t know about it that bothers me. If the legend is true and everything that happened there really did, that place is not somewhere I want to be within 100 miles in any direction.”
“Why is that?” Achara asked.
“Magic of that magnitude, when used in the way described in the legend has a way to distort the very fabric of reality. It invites all kinds of things that get twisted and mutated. What comes after that can be any number or perversions of what is natural. That’s what I fear.”
“Unrefined magic,” Achara said.
“Exactly. At times, I realize desperation will push one to an extreme, like me, on the ledge or with Ratana’s corruption. Even so, those pale in comparison. I’d say that so far, I’ve been lucky.”
“What kind of unnatural things might we encounter?” Jorn asked.
“As I said, I don’t know. Undead are common. Demons aren’t unheard of. Mirages, snares, enchantments, corruptions of all sort…the list goes on.”
Achara scowled at the description. Camon noticed, “Are you having second thoughts?”
“If it were up to me, I would. But I think you’re going to need me on this one,” she said.
“I would hate to put you in this, but you’re right,” Camon grumbled. “Your skills will be invaluable. And the fact that we have to escort Ghing isn’t going to make things easier, but his knowledge might prove useful.”
“That frail boy looks like he’s never seen a hard day’s work,” Jorn said. “I bet he doesn’t make it past the first week.”
“So, you’re in then?”
“You’re going to need someone who knows his way around a fight if things get rough. I might not be as good as I once was, but I think I can help, especially if it’s Imperial pay.”
“Money seems to be your only motivation for doing anything,” Achara said.
“Yep,” Jorn said. “Not afraid to say it.”
“Let’s get back to the inn,” Camon said. “We’d better not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
They walked down the avenues in the warm afternoon breeze back to the inn. Upon arriving, they each went to relax in their way. Achara went up to her room for a nap. Camon stayed outside and read a book, while Jorn found a tree and took a nap under it. Near dinner time, they all gathered in the inn’s dining room at a long table covered with a white tablecloth with a dozen chairs, five on each side, and two at the ends. The table was set with polished silverware and fine china with a blue pattern.
They stood in the dining room when servants came in that helped them to their seats, and placed the napkins at each place in their laps. Jorn was visibly uneasy with the setting’s elegance, not sure what to do with all of the different utensils, plates, and crystal. Thirak came down from upstairs a few moments later and seated herself at the head of the table, and she greeted the guests. She then rang a bell on the table, and two servants came out and presented the guests with starters.
Thirak picked up the starter and ate. “What brings you so far south this time, Camon?” she asked.
“As I said, I needed to reconnect with a colleague at the university,” he explained. “She was there, fortunately. So we should be out of your hair in a day or two.”
“If I’ve didn’t know you better, I would accept that answer,” she said. “There’s always a reason for your reasons.”
“You’ve got him pegged,” Achara commented.
“Camon?” She gasped. “He’s predictable, if anything. If you’ve known him for more than a couple of weeks, then you’ve probably had him all figured out then, don’t you?”
Achara smiled, “Well, in some ways. But he still surprises us every now and then.”
“So, what’s your story?” Thirak asked Achara. “What sort of errand does Camon have you along for the ride on?”
Achara looked at Camon, then back at Thirak, “I’m his student.”
“Camon doesn’t have students,” Thirak said. “And he’s a lousy teacher.”
Camon chuckled, “She is my protégé of a sort. ‘Student’ might be a bit strong, but it’s fitting.”
“And what’s your story? What bar did he drag you out of?” she asked Jorn.
“I’m not his protégé, that’s for sure. I’m his muscle,” Jorn replied.
“Muscle?” she said, scanning him up and down. “Camon must be short on money.”
Camon laughed again along with Achara, but Jorn was not amused.
“What? Can’t take a joke?” Thirak said. Jorn snorted at the remark and turned away. Thirak turned to Camon, “Really, what is your deal?”
“I see you’re not going to rest until I tell you,” Camon replied.
“We’ve known each other a long time,” she said. “You know sooner or later I’ll get it out of you, so why not just skip the charades and tell me?”
“I’m looking for something, a ruin in the southeast that might help me unravel a mystery about some happenings in the North. The professor at the university was able to help me pinpoint it. We’re leaving soon to go find it.”
“And adventure,” Thirak exclaimed. “Sounds exciting. And what kind of mystery requires delving into the past?”
“Showing the past to be true can shape the present,” Camon said.
“And talking in ambiguities will have me asking questions far into the future,” she countered.
“He doesn’t know what he’s looking for,” Jorn said. “The university is sending an expert with us. They have the answers. We’re just the muscle.”
“An escort. How quaint,” Thirak groused. “But I can tell you that might be a cover story for a brute like you, but when it comes to Camon, I can tell you he’s not supplying the muscle. He’s much more involved.”
“I honestly would love to tell you all the details, Thirak,” Camon said. “And maybe someday I will when this is all said and done. But for now, I think it’s best that the fewer people that I tell, the better off we’ll be.”
“A secret mission,” Thirak inferred. “Even better. I’m guessing the university sending the expert is a guise for something greater.”
“You’d be right,” Camon said. “And because you know me so well, I think you can infer a lot, so much so that I don’t really need to tell you all the details.”
Thirak smirked as her eyes twinkled, “I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see if I was right then. I usually am.”
The servants brought in the second and third courses in quick order after the starters, then finally, they brought in a dessert. All the guests felt as if they had eaten a whale. It was the most and best food they had eaten in months, perhaps years. They all thanked Thirak and decided to turn in for the night.
Achara and Jorn awoke after a good night’s rest and went into the dining room for breakfast. They ate in silence, waiting for Camon to come, but he never did.
“Did you see Camon this morning?” Achara finally asked.
“No,” Jorn answered. “I thought he would have told you where he was going if he left.”
“He didn’t tell me anything. Odd that he would just leave like that,” Achara noted. They waited an hour after they ate breakfast for Camon, but he never came. Eventually, Thirak came downstairs, and Achara asked if she had seen him.
“He’s probably out taking care of some business in the city. You know he’s a man of secrets. I imagine he’s up to something more than even what he has told you,” she suggested.
“Yes, I know,” Achara said. Thirak left, and they waited a few more minutes when Camon came into the inn from the front door.
“Where have you been all morning?” Achara implored.
“I went to the university to meet with Professor Prawadi,” Camon said. “She got the commission to form the expedition, and everything is set to go. We will meet Ghing down at the docks in the morning and take a charter to the Great River’s confluence with the South River. It turns south to the delta to an outpost there. We will then have to overland to the ruins from the outpost.”
“So, what’s the pay?” Jorn asked.
“It’s pretty substantial,” Camon informed. “But if you’re doing this for the money, I think you might want to reconsider. Where we’re going will probably make your caravan tours look tame.”
“I doubt it,” Jorn said.
“Why didn’t you take us with you this morning?” Achara asked.
“Because I didn’t want to draw any more attention than necessary. Before we left yesterday, Prawadi had passed me a note telling me to meet her early in the morning before things got busy around the campus and town.”
“She wanted to keep it secret? But why?” Achara asked.
“Have you checked to see if the presence you felt back at the outpost is here?” Camon asked.
“No…” Achara fretted.
“Prawadi sensed yesterday that we had glossed over a lot of details in our story. We never told her about the fact that we were being tracked or any related details. She suspected that there was an unspoken danger.”
“Is she right?” Jorn asked.
“I don’t know,” Camon said. “Achara?”
Achara stilled herself and closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed, and she went flush for a few minutes as Camon and Jorn watched. She inhaled a deep breath and exhaled, then opened her eyes. “Yes, it is here,” she concluded.
“I guess she was right then,” Camon said. “I hope that we did not put her or Ghing in danger as I did with Satda.”
“Ghing has no idea what he’s getting into, does he?” Jorn queried.
“He’s been briefed. And that’s why I made you his protection,” Camon said.
“Me? I can’t be responsible for that!” he objected.
“I negotiated a substantial reward for you personally should Ghing come back as he was. It’s up to you to make that happen,” Camon said.
“That means you’re going to have to give me a sword then,” Jorn said.
“That, and more.”
“The universities quartermaster will meet us at the docks with Ghing with supplies. I think you will like what they have to offer.”
“I hope you’re right,” Jorn said.
“The charter won’t be nearly as exciting as the cattle barge, so you might want to figure out something to do in the meantime. I think the next several weeks will be boring until we get to the outpost in the swamps.”
“What did you get?” Achara asked.
“A few books from Prawadi. Some of them might be useful. I think I will read them along the way,” Camon said.
“If only I had a sword,” Jorn wondered. “And a whetstone. At night when we were sitting around with the caravan keeping watches, we’d sharpen our blades, spar with one another, and drink.
“I’m sure there will be plenty of time for all of that. And ale for drinking.”
“Good,” Jorn said. “Hanging out with you noodle heads is not really much fun.”
“Suit yourself. And since I’ve got the rest of the day to kill, I think I’ll start on my books.”