Camon woke the next morning to the sight of the sun peering through a dense fog that had rolled in off of the river. The sun appeared more like a bright white blur against the otherwise solid gray that shrouded everything. All he could see was the dock and the row of buildings that lined the boardwalk, but beyond that was just the pea soup fog.
He was covered with a tarp someone had placed on him after he had fallen asleep. He unfurled the tarp and stood up and stretched his legs and arms. He still ached, but at least he was not tired anymore. He paced about a bit, loosening his arms and legs, and he twisted side to side to loosen his back and neck that were a little stiff from sleeping propped up against a hard building all night. Even so, it felt good to be up and about.
Camon saw no one on the docks. Everything was still and deserted. He began to think that perhaps he was dead, and this was the afterlife that was still, ethereal, and lonely. His thoughts were quickly laid to rest when he heard several familiar voices coming his way through the fog. Katima, Jorn, Pasdee, and a few other outpost inhabitants were carrying on in a cheerful conversation. They saw Camon and greeted him, “Good morning.”
“It is morning, then?” Camon said. “Seems much later. I slept like the dead and was beginning to think that I was so.”
“Don’t be so glum,” Pasdee said. “The weather might feel that way, but give it a few hours, and the fog will burn off. It will be a bright day for sure.”
“Fantastic,” Camon commented sarcastically. “Where’s Achara?”
“Still asleep,” Katima said. “You fell asleep out here. Nobody wanted to wake a bear.”
“I’m a bear now?” Camon said. “I guess I can be pretty grumpy at times. Where can I get something to eat?”
“Provisions in your pack oughtta have somethin’,” Katima said.
“Better than nothing,” Camon said. He let the more lively group go about their business and went and found where he had dropped his pack the night before. He rummaged through it and found some cheese, dried fruit, and a crust of bread. It was not much, but it was enough to satisfy him. He drank the last of the water from his waterskin.
He spent the early part of the morning assessing the damage done to the docks and buildings in detail. He noticed that where the north end of the docks used to be, a small crater had been formed from the black powder explosion. He examined what was left of Katima’s tavern and poked around on the ground, looking for anything that they might have missed in the cleanup process the night before. He only found some scraps of iron and rusty weapons that he figured had been down there for some time. He left them there and climbed back up to the portion of the dock that remained.
By midmorning, the fog was gone, and a gentle breeze was blowing off the river that helped keep the outpost dry. Camon continuously scanned the river for Thawbai and his crew, but they never appeared. Camon figured that they probably had abandoned the quest, traveling back upstream. Camon did not feel too bad because they had not given them much of an advance. The loss was on them.
Camon went to work on the vessel that had brought the mages and their henchmen downstream, cataloging the supplies on board and making a list of things they would need. He rigged up a holding cell from the cabin under the forecastle and reinforced the door. He did not intend to let the prisoners even out of their bonds, but he made the adjustments to be safe. He discarded the clothes that he found in the rear cabin and cleaned it out. He did not find anything of note that he had not seen the night before.
After working on the vessel, Camon went back to the docks to one of the shopkeepers and bought the needed supplies from his list and then loaded them aboard the vessel in crates that he kept on the deck. After the cargo was loaded, he found Ghing and Jorn, who were all talking on the docks with the residents, including Rohng and Katima. “I hate to interrupt the party, but it looks like we’ll be leaving soon.”
“Even at midday?” Ghing said.
“As good a time as any,” Camon said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us anyways.”
“Isn’t that the truth?” Jorn commented.
“Get your things. Store them in the rear cabin,” Camon ordered. Ghing and Jorn nodded to the locals and went after their things to put them on the ship.
“Have any of you seen Achara this morning?” Camon asked. “I haven’t seen her at all.”
“Down at the boardin’ house, I think,” Katima said. “Stayed there last night.”
“Thanks,” Camon said. He left the locals and went to the boarding house, a small building with three rooms. One was a shared room, and the other two were bunkrooms. Camon entered the common room and didn’t see Achara, but then peered into one of the bunkrooms and saw her sitting on a bed reading a book. She glanced up at Camon then went back to the book.
“You’ve been avoiding me, haven’t you?” he said. Achara didn’t answer. She continued staring at her book as if Camon was not there. “We’re going to be leaving in about an hour if you want to come. We’re headed back to Rahttaay to return Ghing.” She still said nothing and did not acknowledge Camon. Camon did not press the issue anymore but turned and left her in the bunkroom. He went back to the ship, packed his belongings into the cabin, and then looked for Pasdee.
He found Pasdee in his shop, tending to some of his wares. He sold gear needed for rigging and mending sails and maintaining boats. “We’ll be leaving soon. I’ve come to collect the prisoners to deliver them further north.”
Pasdee glanced up from his work, “Oh yes. Those two. They’re tied up at the south end of the docks.” He reached to a nearby table and removed a letter and handed it to Camon. “Here’s my signed and sealed affidavit. It should get you a small bounty for your troubles.”
“Perhaps. The university has already paid us well. And you’ve all helped us so much in different ways,” Camon said.
“And you, us. I can only hope for the best,” Pasdee said somberly.
Camon turned and went to fetched Jorn and then went to the south end of the docks where the prisoners were. He and Jorn got them up and brought them to the boat, then secured their bonds and locked them in the forecastle cabin. Camon looked at the sky. It was just past noon from his reckoning. He waited another half an hour or so, and Katima, Pasdee, Rohng, and a few other locals came to bid them farewell. There were several firm handshakes and lots of well-wishings before Camon scanned the docks one more time for Achara. The locals backed away, and Camon started loosening the moorings and was just about to pull back the gangplank when he saw Achara coming with her things down the dock towards the boat. She walked through the crowd wordlessly and looked at Camon, then came down the gangplank without a word and tossed her gear on the boat’s deck. Camon looked back at her, then pulled the plank onto the boat and loosened the last mooring.
Camon, Jorn, Achara, and Ghing began to work the boat upstream using poles and oars. The boat was surprisingly easy to maneuver for its length, but progress was slow even with everyone pitching in. They worked to establish a cadence for poling or rowing, depending on the conditions. By midafternoon, Camon rigged a sail that caught the eastern breeze, which helped make the work of going against the current easier. They tried to keep close to the shore where the current was slowest.
They stopped for the night after the sun went down and tied the boat to a tree along the shore, and they took down the sail from the mast. They all rested for the evening, not engaged to talk. The shakedown cruise that afternoon proved that they could move the boat, but it would take some effort to make it back to Rhattaay.
Jorn and Ghing turned in early that night, and Camon and Achara were on the deck. She still had not spoken a word to anyone since she had boarded that afternoon. With her arms crossed, she sat facing the river with her back to the boat, staring out over the water, watching the moonlight dance on the eddies and ripples. The insects chirped, and frogs croaked in the distance, unseen but heard.
Camon came and sat down next to her a few feet to her right and broke the silence, “You’re going to need to talk to us eventually.” She didn’t respond. “I don’t know what’s bothering you, but if you need to talk about something, do. Keeping things to yourself isn’t going to help, you know.” She still did not say anything. “If this is about the reprimand last night on the docks, I need to apologize for that. I’m sorry. I was in the heat of the moment and wanted so bad to talk to him.”
She finally spoke, “Do you still think I was wrong for what I did?”
“I didn’t come over here to debate that. It’s okay to disagree. What’s more important to me is your wellbeing, not being right about something. It’s been stressful for the last few days. It’s been a lot for all of us.”
She continued to stare out across the river, and her lips quivered, and a tear rolled down her cheek. “Yeah. You sound so much like my dad. I wish he were still here.”
“It’s quite natural to miss our parents, especially in times like these.”
“Mom wouldn’t know what to say or do, but she would try. Dad always knew what to do, though. He always did the right thing. I wish I had his confidence.”
“You loved him a lot.”
“Yes, which is why I think hearing a reprimand from you like you said last night hurt. It reminds me of him. You remind me of him.”
“Cherish his memory. It’s things like that that help us get through the tough times. And you’re right. Your dad did know better than most. He was good at what he did, at least that’s what Chak thought. Even so, men like to think they always know what to do. Half the time, we are just like boys: naïve and foolish. But we think that if we project confidence without second-guessing ourselves, everyone will think we have it all figured out. The truth is, much of the time we’re scared and insecure. I’ve always found the confidence to be a cheap substitute for what matters, and I think it is what made your dad a great man.”
“Strength of character. And you do have that.”
“Thanks. But really, I do want to know what you think about what happened.”
“Remember when I talked about being able to judge an action as ethically wrong but justified in doing it?”
“Well, last night, I think that was one of those situations. You heard what they said. Pasdee. Katima. They were all right in their assessments.”
“You think I am justified in what I did?”
“I believe so. And I think everyone agrees with you, even if it’s not the outcome that I would have preferred. Maybe you even did the so-called ‘right’ thing at the moment. Honestly, my head is swimming in emotions right now, too, and I can’t see it objectively. I think my point of that lecture way back when was more about how messy decisions can be.”
Achara relaxed her arms, placing her hands in her lap. “You’re so much more gracious to people than I am. If I were you, I would have a hard time admitting I was wrong.”
“I think so. You put up with me, don’t you? And Jorn. Don’t get me started on that wreck.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself. Isn’t that what you told me to do?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“In any case, I think it’s time to sleep. We’re going to need our strength. I’ll take the watch. You go on to sleep.”
“Hey, thanks for taking the time to talk.”
Achara stood up and went and found a place to lay her head. Along with the rest, she slept well that night and was up and ready to go the next morning. They established a pattern that day that they would follow for the next several weeks as they made their way back up the river to Rhattaay. Each morning started with a good breakfast from the provisions that Camon acquired at the outpost and from the supplies left on board. They poled or rowed up the river and adjusted the riggings for the sail as necessary or not use it at all if the wind was not favorable. They rested for a while at noon, then poled or rowed until sunset, when they would find a place to tie off the boat or drop and anchor while they ate, relaxed, and slept through the evening and night.
They came to the confluence of the Great River and the South River after a week. They did not stop at the lighthouse as they had done on the way down, choosing instead to stay focused on the journey. The South River was not nearly as wide or torrential as the Great River, which gave them some relief from poling or rowing. Even so, the work was still hard. Even Ghing, who was not used to manual labor or travel, showed that he was more than capable.
Another week passed before they came to an outpost on the edge of the river. The boat pulled into the docks not nearly as gracefully as Thawbai and his crew had managed to do when docking. The outpost was set a way off the river banks with a large field between the river and the outpost. Camon disembarked and took the dirt path up to the outpost from the river, which itself was a palisade with an outer wall made from tree trunks and an inner keep made from stone stacked two stories high with a watchtower attached to one end. Camon went into the keep guarded by Imperial soldiers and asked for the constable. One of the guards went and found him and a tall, thin man returned with the guard.
The thin man welcomed, “Greetings. I am Pohm, constable here. How might help you?”
Camon retrieved the letter from Pasdee from his pack at his side and handed it to the man. “I’m transporting prisoners on my boat up from the outpost south of here under the authority of the warden. There was an altercation there, and two men aboard my vessel were put under arrest.”
The constable opened the letter and read it. “Sounds like quite a scuffle there. The letter says here that there were eight in the original party, yet only two survived.”
“Yes, the scuffle was the residents against a boatful of men that were causing trouble. They refused to leave after being asked, and they got belligerent, but the locals were able to overcome them, but not without great costs. They lost part of the docks and a few buildings down there.”
“I’ll dispatch a crew to assist them. In the meantime, I’ll send a squad to retrieve the prisoners.”
“Thank you,” Camon said, and he left Pohm and went back out of the outpost back down the docks to the boat. About ten minutes later, a squad of soldiers came out of the outpost and down to the docks to retrieve them. Camon greeted the commander, and they boarded the boat. Jorn unlatched the hatch to the cabin under the forecastle, and the squad of soldiers retrieved the men who came without resistance. The soldiers replaced the rope bonds Camon had used with metal binders and then led them off the boat onto the docks. The commander gave Camon a small purse of coins, and Camon accepted it. They then escorted the prisoners back up the path to the keep.
“I didn’t know there was money in prison transport,” Jorn said.
“Neither did I. Pasdee said there would be some, but this was more than I was expecting. I’ll divide it among you, Achara, and Ghing.”
“None for yourself?”
“I don’t need it, honestly.”
“Why not? It’s money! Everyone needs money!”
“And I have enough for my needs,” Camon added.
“Fine. More for me!”
Camon divided the coins evenly and gave them to Jorn, Achara, and Ghing. They then unmoored the boat and pushed off again, making their way up the river towards Rahttaay.