“So. That’s the Captain.” Tam drew a short, shaky breath. “What’s left of her, anyway.” She rounded the corner of the staircase, hand trailing absently along the wall. “And now you understand, I guess.”
The problem was, he wasn’t entirely sure he did. And there was really only one way he was going to change that. “What happened to her?”
If Tam was offended by his bluntness, she didn’t show it. “We’re not sure. Even Talan and Ariane between them haven’t worked it all out yet.” She winced, as though she’d accidentally knocked an old scab. “But whatever happened, neither of ’em know how to fix it.”
That hadn’t exactly answered his question. Or rather, it’d answered the question he’d asked, rather than the one he actually wanted to know the answer to. But even if he was going to speak his mind, ‘what’s wrong with her?’ was just plain rude. Instead, he settled for: “She seems like a good person.”
“She is.” There was no hesitation in Tam’s voice. “She’s the best damn captain I’ve ever had, even with everything that’s happened. That’s why we’re on this bloody quest in the first place.”
“Quest?” Nobody had mentioned a quest before. He was starting to feel like he really had ended up in the right place, even if it’d been almost entirely by accident.
Tam thumped the wall with the side of her fist, scowling suddenly. “Augh! Me and my big mouth. I wasn’t even supposed to tell half the others yet, let alone the new hire. But I suppose I’d better spill, since you’re one of us now.” She took a breath, looked around, and lowered her voice. “We’re going after the Heart of Ishara.”
Now that was definitely an adventure. Albeit an impossible one. “But the Heart’s-”
“Not as lost as everyone thinks it is, apparently. And if we can get to it, then-”
“-whatever’s wrong with the Captain, it’ll fix it!” He wasn’t exaggerating. The Heart of Ishara, if all the stories were to be believed, was one of the most powerful magical artifacts in the world – an amulet which could lift any curse, turn back any dark magic, and generally fix what otherwise would stay broken until the end of time.
Which would be amazing and wonderful, if it’d not been lost since time immemorial. There were a half a hundred tales as to what had happened to it, each one contradicting the others and all of them claiming to be the pure and only truth, but the one thing they all agreed on was that the Heart had gone beyond the reach of mortals – maybe, one day, it’d be returned to the world, but for the moment going after it was one of those fool’s errands, like trying to draw down the moon or lasso the sun.
But if what Tam had just hinted was true, then… well, if this was an adventure, impossible things happening should be pretty much par for the course. And what could be more of an adventure than going after one of the greatest treasures that had ever existed?
“You’re not laughing at me.” She sounded suspicious, as though she was waiting for the punchline of some sort of trick he was pulling on her. “I told you we’re going after the Heart of bloody Ishara and you’re not laughing at me. Or calling me an idiot. Or telling me it’s impossible, and I’m being blinded by false hope, which, guess what, I’d already considered fairly hard already given the circumstances.” She stared at him. “You actually believe me, don’t you?”
And what could he say to that, other than the truth? “Yes.”
“Ai selah! If I wasn’t so sure I was awake, I’d be fairly certain I’d dreamt you.” A short, worried pause. “You’re not a dream, are you?”
“I don’t think so. You could try pinching me if you like?”
“What’d that prove? If I dreamt you, you’d feel real, because it’d be my dream.” She took a chunk of flesh on her forearm between thumb and finger and pinched, hard. “Ah! Well, I’m probably not dreaming. Which means you’re probably real.”
“…Good?” He wasn’t sure exactly what else to say at this point – the conversation seemed to have escaped from him somewhat, and he tried desperately to think of a way to get it back onto a path that made any sense. “Where do we go now? Back to the main room?”
“Not yet. We need to go find Talan.”
Tam headed for the back door of the inn, calling back over her shoulder as she went. “Our apothecary. Also herbalist, hedge-witch, doctor, cook, and pain in my arse.” She pushed open the door, heading out into the night. “Don’t worry, they’ll like you. You’re not me.”
Caleb followed her out, blinking as his eyes slowly accustomed to the gloom. There were two wagons stood in the inn courtyard – boxy, high-roofed affairs, like the ones the tinkers and strolling players used – and it was the first of these which Tam was heading towards, moving quickly and quietly over the cobbles.
Halfway across the courtyard she turned, looking back over her shoulder towards him. “Come on. They’re likely busy with the preparations for the Captain’s medicine already, so I’ll get an earful for disturbing them no matter what.” She rolled her eyes. “That or a lecture about the amount I’ve been drinking this season.”
“Why not both?” The voice was light, amused – neither high nor low, but a soft tenor with an oddly accented lilt to it. “Though you should know better than to try and sneak up on me by now, Tam, whether you’re expecting a lecture or no.”
Tam sighed. “Ahoy there, Talan. Do I take my medicine now, or when you’ve seen to the Captain?”
“Neither.” The door at the front of the wagon swung open, and the owner of the voice appeared in the doorway, silhouetted against the warm orange glow of lanternlight spilling from the interior. “Unless you have picked up yet another wound infection, I’ve no desire to dose you at the present time. Even if your swearing is incredibly educational.”
“Thank the sky-”
“However,” Talan went on, raising an admonishing hand, “I do require another service of you.”
“Might have known.” She rolled her eyes again. “Take heed, Caleb. This is how they work. They’ll have you chopping herbs and carrying water in no time, you’ll see.”
“Caleb?” Talan shielded their eyes, peering into the darkness. “That’s not a name I am familiar with.”
“Caleb Brewer. I’m to join you, or so the Captain says.” He sketched a quick, clumsy bow – it wasn’t something he’d ever had much experience with, but in the absence of being able to sir or ma’am the apothecary he needed some way to be polite. Oh, and speaking of the Captain: “She sent us to tell you to go up to her.”
“I know. But thank you, Caleb.” They turned their attention back to Tam. “And yes, another service I need from you. Though you may at least choose how you perform it.”
“That’s something. What do you need me to do? Chop carrots for the stew? Box up another set of dried herbs?” She shuddered in mock fear. “Go through the medicine bottles again?”
“Nothing nearly so terrible. I need you to look after the kitten.”
“Oh no.” But there was laughter bubbling around the edge of her words. “She’s not still awake, is she?”
“I’m afraid so. Awake and chattering, and in the kind of mood where she will have fingers into everything if there is nobody to keep an eye on her.”
“So you want me – us – to sit watch?”
“I do. Either that or you fetch Rethan.”
Even in the gloom, he caught the face Tam pulled at that idea. “When he’s in this kind of mood? I’d rather scale the mainmast in a thunderstorm than start a conversation with him right now, even if it is about her.”
Talan nodded, accepting the reasoning without offering a counterargument. “Then you’ll sit watch until I get back from tending to the Captain?”
“Aye, I think we will.” She turned to Caleb, grinning again. “Come on up. It’s time for you to meet the last of the crew.”
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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