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Early the next morning before sunrise, they all arose. Camon arranged for Thirak to keep the horses while they were away, and after they packed their things and ate a quick breakfast, they all said goodbye to Thirak and went down to the docks where they had come in. Camon spotted Ghing and Prawadi along with a wagon full of supplies that were being loaded into a riverboat moored to the docks. Camon greeted Prawadi and Ghing, who in turn, greeted Achara and Jorn.

“So, where’s the stuff?” Jorn asked.

“What stuff?” Prawadi replied.

“The gear that Camon said I would like,” Jorn reminded.

“Oh, yes. That,” Prawadi said. She gestured to a short, burly gray-bearded man dressed in heavy trousers to come over. “Show Jorn here what you have for him.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the man answered. He then went back to the wagon and, along with another younger man, brought over a voluminous chest, which they clunked down in front of Jorn and removed a latch. In the chest were all sorts of weapons and armor. “Take your pick,” they said.

Jorn looked into the chest and removed a broadsword, chainmail shirt, bracer set, a set of leather chaps, and a crossbow with a quiver of bolts. He swung the sword a few times in the air, admiring its balance and craftmanship. He then reached in the chest and removed a scabbard and whetstone for sharpening. “This is more like it,” he exclaimed.

“Anything else,” the man growled.

“I think I have what I need,” Jorn said.

The man closed the chest and hauled it back over to the wagon. He, along with his team, finished loading the boat. The boat’s captain came over to the party and stuck out his hand towards Camon, “The name’s Thawbai. You leading this rabble?”

“I’m Camon,” Camon greeted. “This is my assistant Achara, and this is Jorn.”

“Pleased to meet you. My crew is ready to leave at your command,” Thawbai said. Thawbai went back to the boat.

“I hope you’ll find everything is in good order,” Prawadi said. “We’ve used Thawbai on other expeditions. He knows the river well. I think you’ll be in good hands with him.”

“Thank you. I do hope we haven’t caused you any undue danger by coming to you.”

“Camon, if you are right, and I believe you are, any personal danger to me pales in comparison to where you are going or what we are facing. Make haste, and may the Light guide your path.”

Camon nodded and then gestured for Jorn and Achara, who followed him onto the boat. Ghing came a few minutes later with his things. Unlike the day before, he was not dressed in the academic robes, rather something more fitting for travel. They all boarded the boat. Thawbai gave the order, and his crew pushed off the docks and into the current. The boat was a sturdy craft about thirty-five feet in length with a wide beam and a single mast with a sail. The deck was solid with a cabin at the rear of the boat with holds and places for the crew to rest under the deck. The crew of Thawbai and three other mates maneuvered the craft through the busy waterway until they were well past the city and underway in the current. They passed farms and bridges over the river along with many barges and other boats carrying all sorts of loads. The mates on the boat worked the sail in the breeze and the rudder and oars on the side to keep the boat’s bow pointed downstream.

Jorn wasted no time getting out the sword he had chosen from the chest presented to him. He went about sharpening it with a whetstone, and when he wasn’t sharpening it, he made stances on the deck of the boat holding the sword and swinging it around with both hands, only to pause in one stance then go to another form. He also fitted himself with the mail shirt and bracers he had picked out too and got used to their weight and fitting as he wielded the broadsword back and forth. He continued this practice for hours on end.

Achara mostly spent time near the front of the boat, staring downstream and watching the shoreline as they passed forest, farms, and villages. She occasionally went into her mind and tried reaching out to animals and birds, especially to view the river and countryside from above. She enjoyed seeing the vast forest and the ribbon of the river flowing generally east. The sites and sound of the birds were a curious thing for her because the world seemed so different from far above the ground where she was used to. When she wasn’t working on her exercises, she often daydreamed about what it would be like to be a bird and be able to, at will, soar over the countryside and experience the world as they do.

Near sunset, Achara noticed Ghing was keeping to himself. Nobody had really taken the time to talk to him, not even Camon, who was in the cabin reading his books. Achara went over to him as he was sitting on a crate on the deck writing in his journal.

“Getting your thoughts together for your dissertation?” she started.

Ghing was startled, “Oh, hi. Yeah, I got a new journal specifically for this voyage. I’ll have to take good notes if I’m going to get enough material out of this expedition to write a dissertation from it.”

“Have you done anything like this before?” Achara asked.

“I’ve assisted Prawadi on a number of her expeditions. These were usually within the safe borders of the Empire, not to places like we’re going,” he said. He closed his journal and set it down.

“It looks like your protector is eager to test that new sword of his in battle,” Achara mentioned.

“I hope he’s even more eager about protecting me. I’m no fighter.”

“Have you ever trained with any kind of weapon?” Achara asked.

“I prefer to stay away from them. As a rule, I don’t like violence,” Ghing said.

“Then you’d get along well with Camon then. He’s a pacifist if he can afford to be.”

“He seems rather sullen today,” Ghing observed. “The way he looked when he came to the university this morning suggested that he was going to his mother’s funeral. I can’t say that he was exactly friendly with the dean, either.”

“He gets that way sometimes when there’s a lot on his mind,” Achara explained, looking at the cabin’s entrance. “He’s worried about where we are going being too dangerous. But he feels obligated to do so because of what the discoveries there might imply.”

“What is he? Some kind of priest? A cleric? Some sort of noble warrior or knight errant?”

“He’s a little of all of those. What about you? What’s your story?”

“Me? I’m just a student. I’ve been at the university for years now studying under Prawadi. I hope to finish my studies soon and join the faculty.”

“Did you grow up in Rhattaay?” she asked, looking back at him.

“I did. My father is an officer in the Imperial army.”

“My father was too,” Achara said.

“Was?” Ghing asked.

Achara looked out over the river, “He died many years ago in service. I was young when that happened.”

“I wonder if they knew each other?”

“I doubt it. We lived up near Rahtneua. And his work was not something that put him in contact with many outside of his company.”

“A specialized unit?” he asked, looking at her.

“Yes,” she answered. “They did a lot of intelligence gathering and that sort of thing.”

“Exciting. My father commands and trains troops for battle. Nothing particular specialized, but he’s good at it, and his legionnaires love him.”

“Glad to hear that,” Achara said. “What got you interested in academics, though? So many boys who have fathers in the service want to be like them.”

“I’m a pacifist, and my father is always preparing for war,” Ghing replied. “You can see how that might cause conflict. He sent me off to a boarding school in the city when I was young because he thought I needed the structure and discipline of a soldier. It had the opposite effect, though. I fell in love with books, and given my proximity to the university’s library, I read lots of them. Going to university was only natural after I was old enough. I was already known among the faculty there when I went, and I’ve been there ever since. My father was disappointed at first because I didn’t pursue a military career, but he’s come around. He sees my service to the university as service to the Empire.”

“A loyalist,” Achara said. “My father was too, but I pretty much grew up without him. He had no sons either, so his family name in the Empire died with him. I’ve been on my own for some time now.”

“Sorry to hear that. Camon seems to be a good mentor, though.”

“Camon definitely is,” Achara responded.

“What’s your relationship with him?” Ghing asked.

“He’s a mentor of a sort. A guide, even though he’s not able to teach me much.”

“That doesn’t make sense. How can he be a mentor if he can’t teach you things?” Ghing asked.

“Well, it’s complicated,” Achara said. She drummed the fingers of her left hand on her right.

“You mean that because you’re a seer, you need a mentor or guide that isn’t tied to any official institution to help foster that gift, and Camon fits the bill?”

“How’d you know I was a seer?” Achara asked.

“It wasn’t hard. What you were doing up there at the bow was a dead giveaway if you know what to look for,” Ghing said. “But don’t worry. I’m not of the persuasion that thinks we ought to ban seers from the Empire. If what we’re after is real, we’re going to need more people of your gifting.”

“You’ve read a lot of the lore then, haven’t you?”

Ghing’s eyes lit up, “Oh, yes! That’s a big part of what we study at the university. It helps better understand some of the nuances of what the texts are talking about”

“You should trade notes with Camon then,” Achara suggested. “He’s really into that stuff too. Well, at least he is really into history.”

“If he has studied as priest as he let on, but not practicing, that means he’s some kind of freelance magic user. That would explain your connection to him.”

“He uses magic,” Achara said. “That much is true. But with Camon, there’s more to it than that.”

Ghing looked confused, “I don’t follow.”

“It will reveal itself in time,” Achara said. “He’s many things, like you said.”

“I see. What about Jorn?” Ghing probed.

“He’s a blade for hire,” Achara said.

“He seems odd company for you two,” Ghing observed. “And he doesn’t seem like he’s exactly in his prime either, with that limp he has and all.”

“He’s good in a battle, even with that limp,” Achara said. “He came to us largely by accident. And Camon is a sucker for lost causes.”

“What do you mean, ‘lost causes’?” Ghing asked.

“Jorn,” She replied.

“So, Jorn is a lost cause?” Ghing asked again.

“Basically. Camon doesn’t want to believe that, though, so he keeps him around.” Achara said, watching Jorn whirl the blade on the deck of the ship.

“I see. Well, I hope he finds meaning in what he’s doing on this quest. I’m counting on it.”

“I think we all are, truth be told,” Achara confessed. “As much as I hate to admit it, if Camon is right, we’re going to need his skills.”

“I hope for all our sake that you’re wrong, but in a good way,” Ghing said with a smile.

“Me too,” she said.

Camon came out of the cabin and came over to Ghing and Achara, “It seems you two are getting acquainted.”

“Yes, Ghing is a bookworm like you,” she said.

“I hope that your knowledge will be useful on this journey,” Camon said. “In any case, it’s our job to keep you alive. What do you say that we get something to eat?”

“I’m starving,” Achara said.

With that, the three got up and signaled for Jorn to come over, and he did. They prepared a meal from the provisions loaded onto the boat for themselves and the crew, and everyone ate to their heart’s content.

“Imperial rations are better than the junk they fed us on caravans back west,” Jorn commented.

“Being in the service of the Empire has its perks,” Ghing stated.

“It’s hard to think of this as service to the Empire,” Achara remarked. “But even so, I’ll take it. Why doesn’t the university use soldiers as escorts?”

“It’s political. The university doesn’t like to get entangled with the Imperial army. Using hired swords has been our way for quite some time. The military doesn’t see the university as something beneficial. However, the university provides them with the latest and greatest research, especially in engineering and metallurgy. When they get the new tech, they change their minds… at least for a while.”

Camon then added, “The university has its patrons among the oligarchs and plutarchs in control at this moment, and it’s been that way for years. I think the university will be safe as long as they are in power.”

The crew took turns eating as they continued to steer the boat downstream. They worked even long after the sun went down by the moons’ light that shimmered on the dark water. One of the crew lit a lantern and hung it on the deck above them. It swayed with the breeze and rocking of the boat on the water. Ghing went to his things and got a lute and started to play and sing many familiar folk songs while the others watched, listened, clapped, or even sang along. The light from the lantern and the music made the boat feel cozy against the darkness that surrounded them as they drifted further east away from civilization towards the ruins that once were.

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