“Tell me, ferryman.” Voshki listened to the soothing sound of an oar cycling in and out of the canal’s waters. “Did you never think to fortify your raft? We’re headed into the heart of an ongoing siege. This is not one of your romantic tours through the waterways of Tu’shik.”
Voshki craned her head and took in the sight of the simple and unadorned raft beneath her feet.
It was large enough to ferry the Black Bane Kindred’s entire unit and their supplies without so much as even a slight submergence from the additional weight. She stamped onto the precisely hewn lumber that made up the floating platform. Such a raft could have easily undergone additional fortification in the form of reinforced palisades.
Hunkered behind the bulwark of the Black Bane sellswords, the ferryman offered Voshki an uncaring smile. He cycled his oar once more and the raft continued its steady drift from one side of the canal to the other.
“Should have hired an engineer instead of a simple ferryman.” The ferryman chortled. “Cease your fretting and let the placid waters soothe your impatience. You need not fear the perils of the night aboard this raft, my daughter.”
Voshki gazed skyward toward a crescent moon anchored amidst a starlit horizon. She lowered her amber-gold eyes back toward the canal’s waters, now cloaked in darkness. Gentle rays of moonlight cast the resplendent harbors on the outskirts of Tu’shik in a stark silhouette. She considered the infernos ablaze behind Tu’shik’s conquered walls some leagues beyond the harbors.
“Sirius the Solar God would say otherwise, ferryman.” Voshki shrugged. “Your City of Wonders seems to have invoked his wrath. The night’s perils have never been so numerous. Are you not afraid?”
“Terrified.” The ferryman quipped. “Yet I find myself on these open waters for the same reason you hired me. Once I receive my due, I shall feel much safer once -like yourself and your kin- I purchase a ship to the farthest corners of the west. Somewhere that is at peace, like the coasts of the Black Shore.”
Voshki pitched her head back and rattled with laughter. She paid no heed to the several curious glances cast in her direction. “I hear the coasts of the Black Shore are wracked with storms and littered with ship graveyards. You would do better to find peace at the bottom of this canal than there, my friend.”
“Stories for children.” The ferryman clucked his tongue. “Great trade fleets from the western hemisphere often venture into those seas to trade with the kingdoms there.”
“That would only confirm my theories.” Voshki sobered and shook her head. “All of those ship graveyards remain in that sea because of all the pirate fleets constantly warring against those trade fleets.”
“Voshki.” Anoush approached gingerly within earshot of the conversation. “Forgive me for interrupting…”
“Think nothing of it, Anoush.” Voshki stepped away from the ferryman and clapped a leather gauntlet on Anoush’s shoulder. “How near have we come to making our beach head?”
“Imminent.” Anoush answered, her voice hushed. “We’re quickly approaching the first sentry checkpoints. I’ve studied the lighthouses in the harbors for a handful of hours now. There has been no activity from them, not even simple patrols. Something seems amiss, Voshki.”
“Ferryman.” Voshki craned her head in the elder man’s direction. “No matter what happens from this point onward, keep rowing if you value your meager life.” She gestured for Anoush to follow and forged a path to the front of the raft. “Black Bane, make room! Step aside, I said!”
Faris, another of Voshki’s Second-in-Commands, greeted her with the gritty steel of his voice the moment she shoved and pushed her way to the fore of the raft.
“Firstborn Voshki.” Faris sighed into the chill breeze besetting the raft. The scarred, but devilishly handsome sellsword pointed across the placid waters of the canal. “The Grand City of Canals would have proven a striking sight right about this hour were it not collapsing into ruin.
“Still.” Faris gestured toward the great peak at the heart of the city. Voshki followed his gaze toward the maze of endless lights that cast the entire Garden District aglow. Even the Hanging Gardens that wreathed Tu’shik’s inner walls bathed in the golden light. “The Garden Quarter glimmers in the light like a city of gold and alabaster onto itself. Wouldn’t you agree, commander?”
Voshki studied the districts of the Qar nobility. She looked to Faris and smiled wolfishly. “Never thought an age of strife and terror would make a romantic out of anyone. Yet I understand why anyone would cling to sights of beauty in a time when they become rare luxuries…”
Her voice took on a grave aspect after she trailed off briefly. “This is not the hour for appreciating the beauty of wonders, however, Faris. This is the hour that we risk all of our lives for the grand prize.
“So enough about the City of the Sun. Point out the sentry checkpoints!”
“Your command is my oath!” Faris answered. He shifted the point of his finger to indicate three lighthouses, each built upon the precipice of lonesome piers isolated from their respective harbor. “West, east, and north is where each of them guard entrance into the harbor respectively. There are many more scattered along the canals, but none of the rest are important to us. These three sentry posts are what stands between us and a successful beachhead.”
Voshki swept her hawk-eyes over the sentry posts and noted the garrison barracks each lighthouse stood vigil over. “Anoush mentioned there was no activity witnessed from any of these sentry posts? You could not spot even a guard or sentry?
“No chance in the infernal realms has the Sun-Caller King’s forces abandoned the maritime district entirely. If the Republic knew of such weakness, they would have passed through the Dam’s Gate and ended this siege several moons ago.”
“There is a saying among Tu’shik’s proud nobility.” Anoush chimed in as she made to join them at the fore of the raft. “Children of the Sun never turn their backs to a worthy foe, nor do they kneel in submission. Children of the Sun never shirk from the light of truth, nor the threat of death.”
“You’re saying that they await us in ambush. For surrendering the maritime district is to the Children of the Sun the same as turning your back to your enemy.” Faris pondered upon that truth briefly before replying. “A wise saying to live by in times of anarchy. A shame that only the Qar seem to know it. For most of this city has taken flight to more peaceful shores. Tu’shik may have had a chance if they had all stayed and fought.”
The raft continued its course until it passed under the shadow of the sentry checkpoints stationed both east and west of the harbor. Voshki continued to survey her surroundings alongside her Seconds even as she executed a silent command for the Black Bane to raise and interlock their shields in an impregnable wall.
“Can you blame them, Faris?” Voshki knelt on one knee as she continued to listen and watch the harbor for any signs of hostile movement. “To endure a siege is to live every waking hour in uncertainty and terror. The paralyzing fear of never knowing when the walls of your home are breached and the warriors sworn to defend it, slaughtered. Not until it is far too late.
“It is a dreadful terror of the mind as well as the heart. The death and dire fates of your loved ones are a constant burden on the mind. The repressed thought of taking your own life before a hated enemy steals it from you…”
Faris and Anoush knelt beside her.
Faris shook his head. “No, I would never blame any man or woman who would avoid such a fate for their families and themselves… We would all be of the same mind on the matter in fact. Once the grand prize is ours, we shall be following in their wake soon.
“Still, it is a great shame that everything has culminated to this.”
Anoush interrupted their argument with an urgent whisper. “Voshki! On the eastern pier, three dozen paces from the lighthouse!”
Voshki shifted to gaze in the direction of Anoush’s coordinates. She felt her heart skip a beat the moment her eyes clarified a lone figure from the dark that cloaked him. Alone stood a Tu’shik warrior dressed in robes of crimson cushioned beneath his chainmail and that of cream draped over his pristine armor.
He held a moderate buckler tight across his chest in one hand and kept the other snaked around the hilt of a sheathed scimitar. The warrior bore no helm on his shoulders. Voshki looked past the wild and lustrous hair that covered much of the warrior’s face and found the core of his hazel eyes boring straight into her own.
The Child of the Sun made no sudden movements. He did not let out any sharp rebuke or war cry. He did not even let loose a whistle to warn his comrades. He merely stood anchored to his spot on the pier until the raft finally began to pass him by.
The warrior’s gaze never wavered from Voshki’s even as he broke into a deliberate pace to keep stride with the raft.
Faris let loose an irritable growl. “Should I give the command to strike down this brazen cur, Firstborn?”
“No.” Voshki shook her head, her gaze still trained on the lone warrior stalking them. “Whoever commands him sent him out here so that we would see him. They could have answered us with a hail of arrows. His master must desire an exchange of words between him and I.”
Anoush shot Voshki a skeptical look. “Are you certain they aren’t simply tightening the noose around our necks?”
“We’ve already entered the serpent’s den, Anoush.” Voshki answered. “Our best chance of survival is to sing to the cobra now… music may yet soothe it.”
Faris chuckled aloud. “And if it deigns to spit acid in our eyes?”
“We shall strike first.” Voshki made no sudden movements before the warrior staring her down.
“Let us meet our illustrious enemies and see who is better prepared to weather a fight.”