A jaunty tune echoed off the buildings surrounding the dark, nearly deserted street that led to the Port of Dreams. At this time of night, only the unwary walked outside, and only the truly foolish walked alone.
And yet, that was exactly the case for the moonlit man whose shadow stretched down the rough road. His clothes were a festive riot of color and fabric, from the knee-high leather boots to his maroon velvet pants under a broad leather belt around his waist. His sleeveless red-and gold jerkin had broad leather pauldrons on his shoulders, and was worn over a cream linen shirt with leather bracers encircling both wrists. Atop his head perched a broad-brimmed navy-blue hat with a panoply of white and gold feathers. The haft of a dagger stuck out from his belt, but truth be told, it looked more like a decoration than a true weapon.
The only item that seemed out of place in his riotous outfit was his brown leather satchel. Battered and shapeless, the small bag was a collection of scraps held together by carefully sewn and resewn stitches. Every so often, his free hand reached up to pat the strap it hung from, as if to ensure it was still there.
As he strolled along, seemingly without a care in the world, whistling an off-key rendition of “The Captain and the Mountain,” hungry eyes peered at him from the deeper shadows. Hands would close around rag-wrapped knife handles or rough wooden clubs, but then the would-be assailants would get a closer look at the man, and either stayed right where they were until he passed by, or melted back into the shadows and disappeared. Each time it happened, the blue-hatted man took notice, but his stride didn’t change, nor did he cease whistling that infernal song.
* * *
“D’you think he saw us?” Sianna whispered, pulling her shawl more tightly around herself, as if that would help her evade detection.
“Don’t think so,” Tyrell, the sergeant at her side, replied. “We’re back far enough in the shadows to avoid notice, but these street runners have a funny way of seeing what they shouldn’t. Only time will tell if he drops a copper on us.”
Both Sianna and the sergeant of the Order—along with the half-dozen guards that were crowded into the narrow alley with them—hoped the brightly dressed man hadn’t spotted them.
“Nought to do now but wait and see,” he continued. “But it looks like he’s going exactly where you said he would.”
Sianna repressed a shiver as she watched the blue-hatted man head toward their target. All of this was a far cry from the small village where she had grown up. She wouldn’t even be in the floating city of Adriel now if the village hadn’t demanded that someone go and try to get justice for what was going on near her hometown. She had been chosen in part due to her age—these people wouldn’t suspect an old woman of trying to stop their plans.
Squaring her shoulders, she stared at the man as he approached the guards. “The man in the hat is the key to their operation here. You bring him in, you’ll have the link to his operation in your city.”
“The nobles appreciate your coming forward to let them know about what’s going on,” the sergeant said. “And if Captain Tarose is involved in what you say, and you’re willing to testify about his activities, then we should be able to do some good here tonight.”
Sianna nodded, even as a strange feeling coalesced in the pit of her stomach…the feeling that, somehow, she had seen that man in the blue hat before.
* * *
The blue-hatted man was on the ninth verse when he reached his destination. Easily three stories tall and twice as long, the richly-appointed airship filled the entire dock it had been assigned to. Indeed, it looked a bit out of place amid the lesser ships scattered among the slips in the run-down port. Colourful lanterns mounted on the polished railings illuminated the spotless deck. Music, conversation, and raucous laughter wafted out from a large open hatch in the centre.
The ship’s gangplank was guarded by two burly men with crossed arms. They watched the whistling man approach, following him all the way from the street and onto the dock, until he trilled the last note of the song at the exact moment he stopped in front of the pair of ship guards.
One of the men frowned. “Worst rendition of ‘Captain and the Mountain’ I ever heard.”
The newcomer appeared unphased by the comment, merely regarding both men with pale-blue eyes. “Then be glad that it was not performed for you, but for me.”
The other guard shot a sideways glare at his music-loving partner, then addressed the newcomer. “What’s your business here?”
“Good, straight to the point.” The smaller man tipped the brim of his hat. “I am here to see Captain Tarose.”
“And who are you?” the first guard asked with a frown.
The second guard’s brows shot up so fast, they would have flown off his face if not attached. “You don’t recognize the Broker of Secrets? This is the man who knows all about what’s happening in Adriel, from the highest halls of power down to the lowest alley in Gelspar.”
“Have you worked with me before?” the blue-hatted man asked the second guard. “Surely I would have remembered such an ardent fan. But at the moment, my name is of less significance. Whom I represent, however, is quite significant. A gentleman even the likes of you two has probably heard of—Baron Kendrick Maddox.”
Although they tried not to react, the guards’ body language revealed that yes indeed, they had heard of Baron Maddox. Now the second guard frowned. “We received no word that any representative would be showing up tonight.”
The blue-hatted man waved a languid hand through the humid air. “Who can predict a baron’s desire from one moment to the next? All I know is that my benefactor received news that your employer was visiting the city, and bade me stop by for a bit of a chat.”
“If you have a message or something like that, you can simply leave it here,” the first guard said. “We’ll make sure he gets it.”
A thin smile appeared on the small man’s lips. “I’m afraid that the matter I am here to discuss with CaptainTarose is a mite more…complicated than can be explained on parchment. And much like his, my time is valuable, so if you will let me pass, I will take care of what I have come to take care of and be on my way. After all, I would hate to report back to the Baron that I was unable to execute my task due to some overzealous guards.”
“You do realize that that is our job, to make sure no one gets on the ship that isn’t supposed to be on the ship,” the second guard said. “Come on, I’ll take you up and see what the door guard has to say about this.”
The blue-hatted man lifted his booted foot to step on the gangplank when the first guard spoke again. “What’s in the bag?”
The small man paused a moment, and this time his reply carried a touch less good humour. “Nothing that needs concern you, my friend. Your good captain made a particular purchase that I was also tasked with delivering—into his hands alone.”
“Standard rules, anyone carrying a box or bag or anything onto the ship gets searched. Might be carrying a weapon in it.” Ignoring his partner’s puzzled look, the first guard stepped forward and reached for the leather strap with his right hand.
The blue-hatted man intercepted the guard’s hand. Curling his fingers around the larger man’s thumb, he pressed the first phalanx hard toward the palm, making the guard gasp in pain and grope for the sword at his waist with his left hand.
“Ah-ah,” the man said, squeezing even harder, and forcing the man to bend at the waist. “If you draw that sword, I will break this thumb, and then I will be forced to break your other thumb so you don’t try to revenge yourself upon me. As you can see, my weapon, such as it is, is secure at my belt. I have no doubt that if I were to attempt any sort of injury to your lord, the—” he cleared his throat, “—alert and well-trained guards he has at his command would dispose of me in a trice. So, let us agree on this outcome: you expressed a desire to examine my bag, I agreed to let you, you did so, found nothing out of the ordinary, and bade me continue up into the ship. Does that sound reasonable?”
All the while he talked, the blue-hatted man steadily increased the pressure on the guard’s thumb until he had dropped to his knees, his face red with the effort not to cry out in pain. He managed to look over his shoulder at his partner who just stared at him and shook his head.
“Yes…by the bright Azure, yes…just let go!” he managed to gasp out.
The small man released the guard’s hand, which he clutched to his chest as he glared upward. Stepping around him, the small man started up the gangplank. As he did, an errant gust of wind swirled up and snatched his hat off his head. It flew off into the dark, evading even his quick attempt to catch it.
“Damn…I liked that one,” he said with a shrug. Casting one last backward glance at the dock below and the street above, he joined the second guard, who escorted him to the hatchway and down into the ship itself.
* * *
When the small man looked back at the street, Sianna got a good look at his face for the first time. And what she saw made her gasp in surprise.
“What?” the sergeant asked. “What is it?”
The girl slipped out of the hot tavern kitchen, trailing after the lean, dark-haired boy as he passed through the village square. The common area was aswirl with citizens gathered to shop, gossip, drink, and eat. Skyship Day was a celebration for everyone, a time for people to come together and set aside their worries and concerns, at least for a few hours.
Ducking behind a food stall, she watched as his gaze rose to the airship casting its streamlined shadow over half the marketplace. Tethered to the tall dock tower, it bobbed gently on the breeze, a marvel of engineering and technology. Like every time he saw it, it took his breath away.
He glanced back at the family tavern, and she saw him battle about his decision for a moment. If he was going to do this, he couldn’t say a word to them. Couldn’t tell them anything…
His first step toward the ship was like walking through molasses, but his second one was quicker, and soon he was striding toward the gantry where the ship was moored. Aiming for the wooden stairway that would lift him to the airship, the boy cast a furtive glance around before placing a foot on the first step. One more, and he would be fully committed—
“You’re really gonna do it, ain’cha?” she asked.
Her voice startled the boy, but not so much that he boy yelped or jumped. He slowly turned to her, his expression a mixture of sadness and anticipation.
“I—I hav’ta, Sianna.” His cobalt gaze flicked around the small market at the centre of the small village. “I can’t just stay here… not when there’s so much more out there to see…”
“I know.” She looked down at the ground for a moment, and that action, more than her words, shook the boy to his core. “I think—I think Da will understand… he might even envy you, though he’d never admit it… but ya know this’ll break Ma’s heart.”
“She… they’ll still have both of you…” The boy fell silent as he struggled to try to make her understand the feelings he’d always had inside, the yearning to escape this ordinary, workaday life and find something, anything better. The years of listening to the airship sailors’ stories had only intensified this desire, fueling his passion to see what lay outside their small village, to explore the wild yonder far far away?
“Of course they will,” she replied.
“But…” The boy tensed, ready to break away. “You’re gonna try’n stop me—”
“That’d be as useful as tryin’ ta catch a handful a wind.” She shook her head, her long brown braid slashing the air. “No, ya stupe…I came to say good-bye.”
She stared at him for a long moment, then frowned. “Ya really are leavin’ without anythin’ to yer name, aint’cha?” She shrugged off her small leather satchel and held it out to him. “Take this…then at least you have something to put all your nothing into.”
Fierce love swelled within the boy, and he ran back to his sister and grabbed the bag, then hugged her hard. “Ya always knew me better’n anyone, sis,” he whispered into her hair.
“If yer goin’, best go on ’fore they start lookin’ for ya,” she said through a trembling smile. “I love ya, ya crazy fool.”
“Love ya more.” For a moment, the look of love in her eyes almost made him waver, but then he straightened up and returned her gaze, blinking his suddenly-watering eyes. “Promise me—promise me ya’ll tell ’em when the time is right?”
His sister nodded. “’Course I will.” She grinned and nodded at the staircase. “Now get, afore they start comin’ back.”
With a last glance at her over his shoulder, the boy scampered up the stairs and disappeared into the hull of the airship.
“Farewell, brother…” she whispered before turning to go find the rest of her family.
“It’s…nothing,” Sianna said. “I just thought I saw someone I knew for a moment.”
“Well, you’d best get ready,” Sergeant Tyrell said. “When we move, we’ll move fast.” He turned to his second-in-command. “Ensign Wholk, go and let the second squad know that we’ll be moving out in a few minutes.”
The young man saluted and slipped into the darkness to update the other team of guards.
“Hey, look. There’s something going on out there.” Sianna pointed at the airship, where crewmen had appeared on deck and were making preparations to cast off.
“They’re about to leave,” he said, tensing. “If we’re going to move on them, we have to go now.”
“Wait…we haven’t seen any of those people I mentioned yet,” Sianna said as she reached for his arm.
“So? You pointed out the blue-hatted man and said he was involved. You said this was the ship that’s been harassing your village, right?” the sergeant replied. “You are willing to testify to that fact, right?”
“Well, yes…at least, I’m pretty sure this was the ship that landed last spring…” Sianna said with a frown.
“Look, old woman,” Sergeant Tyrell said, trying to remain calm. “We’re all out here on your say-so that the captain of that ship is involved in some kind of plot against the Council. But you have to be sure about it, otherwise the Order—and the Council—won’t respond well to a false arrest charge. Now, take a good look and tell me—is that the ship that’s been menacing your village, or isn’t it?”
Sianna stared at the huge airship as the crewmen began casting off the mooring lines. “I… I don’t know.” Even as she said that, the ship lifted away from the dock and began rising into the air, turning to head over the city.
The sergeant sighed and rose from his crouch, knees cracking in the stillness. “Well, if it was them or wasn’t them, it’s too late now. They’re gone—and best chance to catch them is going with ’em.” He turned back to Sianna. “For your sake…and the sake of your village…I hope you were right.”
He ordered the unit to move out, leaving Sianna to stare at the rapidly shrinking airship in the sky, much like she had done in a small village all those years ago.
She hadn’t been lying about any of it. That airship was doing something strange close to their village, delivering people and cargo to a nearby location. When it stopped coming by their village, Sianna knew something wasn’t right. She had tried investigating what they were doing, but soon realized she was in over her head.
She hadn’t been lying about the man in the blue hat, either. She had seen him, from a distance, around the site where the airship crew was doing whatever it was they were doing. Something that seemed to involve a good deal of machinery…and hearth crystals.
That last fact was what had brought her to Adriel, to try and get help. That was why she had been in this dark alley with the Order guard, watching the man in the blue hat, to have him arrested during his meeting with the captain.
Or she had been—until she had gotten a good look at his face.
Blinking back tears, she squinted at the receding vessel, imagining that if she looked hard enough, she’d see him standing at the rail, the man her younger brother had grown into in the intervening years…still holding that small leather bag she had given him back in the village square.
Farewell again, my brother, she thought. Farewell, Rath…
* * *
This week’s Archive story–Crossed Paths–was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.