Port Mausarr was overwhelming.
The sights. The smells. The energy.
Alex had read that the city was the largest port in the south of the Rhinean Empire. And it showed. Seagulls trumpeted at each other above marketplaces bursting with activity.
Farmers, fishermen and vendors called to travellers throughout the cobblestone streets, all working for an early sale. Tempting scents rising from the many food stalls made Alex’s belly rumble, even though they’d recently had breakfast. Half a dozen languages swarmed around them and he listened to all of them.
Then there were the people.
Alex had seen an elf in Alric once, as well as one of the beastfolk—a pinkish merchant with the head of a pig—but now, they were surrounded by a multitude of peoples, including the oceanic folk—or Selachar as they called themselves—and several races of beastfolk.
Most of the beastfolk around the markets shared the traits of human and pig, but there were also some that were dog-people, cat-people and even hulking minotaurs. Brutus tilted his heads as he sniffed and eyed the dog-people. Theresa had to keep him from chasing after the cat-people.
The Selachar were similar to humans, except for the silver-grey cast to their skin, their eyes which were solid-black, and the gill-slits framing their necks. When one laughed nearby, Alex noticed that their mouths were full of sharp, jagged teeth. Selina quietly asked him if they also lived in the water, but he had no idea. That was something for them to learn about in Generasi’s library.
Or, by talking with people, he guessed.
“So this is what great-grandfather saw most of his life,” Theresa murmured, trying to hold her gaze straight so that they wouldn’t look like gaping bumpkins. Her voice had a dreamy quality to it. “So many things…so many people. So many ports.”
“It’s all sooo cool,” Selina held her brother’s hand, with her eyes shining at the stone architecture. Of particular interest to her was a cathedral they passed in midtown, one dedicated to the four elements. The symbols of fire, water, stone and air chased each other in the stained glass of its largest window. It felt a little strange to him, seeing a temple without Uldar’s hand raised over its front.
Luckily, it didn’t look like Uldar had any presence here.
That meant none of his priests.
“Yeah,” Alex agreed. “It’s pretty cool, isn’t it? And you notice the stares we’re getting? I guess cerberi are as rare in the Rhinean Empire as they are back home.”
When they’d first arrived at the city-gates and before the guards would even consider letting them through, they’d been questioned about Brutus’ temperament. They kept making comments about his size, the fact that he had three large heads, and that he looked dangerous. But for his part, Brutus ignored them, staying by Theresa’s side as two of his heads swivelled every which way, while one would dip to investigate new scents.
“I hear it’s even wilder in Generasi,” Alex continued. “Tamed monsters, wizards everywhere, people that can fly…it’s going to be great. And it’ll have a lot of ways to grow.”
“I can’t wait to see it.” Theresa drew a long breath, her imagination taking over. A thoughtful look crossed her face. “It’s funny. Great-grandfather used to see all of this for most of his life. Then one day he thought, ‘that’s enough’ and left to settle down in quiet Alric.” She chuckled at herself. “And here I am, one of his descendants, who just kept wishing I could get away from there.”
“People are just different, I guess.” Alex shrugged, giving her a long look “...maybe we always want what we don’t have.”
He thought back on Cedric, and how completely ready the young Hero had seemed to go do his duty. It wasn’t just that he was brave or tough, it was that he was ready to jump into his destiny with a smile on his face. His Mark had…chosen-
Alex snickered at his own pun.
-well. He liked Cedric well enough from the short time they’d met, but they were different in a lot of ways. He definitely wouldn’t have been happy about receiving The Mark of the Chosen, but he wondered what would have happened if he had gotten The Mark of the Sage.
It expanded a person’s mana ‘a hundredfold’, if the legends were right about it.
That would have been incredible: having a pool large enough to construct a slew of spell arrays at the same time, and keep a number of magic circuits running without draining reserves. As Alex practiced magic, his mana pool would expand naturally, which would both increase his reserves—allowing him to cast spells more often—and increase the amount of magic circuits he could ‘fit’ inside his pool at once. Eventually he’d have enough room to link magic circuits and cast spells of higher tiers.
But what could he have done with a mana pool a hundred times the size that it was now, with room to grow even more?
He imagined standing on some battlefield, raining down hundreds of glowing forceballs onto a horde of silence-spiders like a meteor shower. Or blasting apart the hive-queen. Despite himself, the fantasy brought a smile to his face. Maybe that scenario wouldn’t have been so bad: helping Cedric and the other Heroes by using the tools he knew how to use; putting down The Ravener for another hundred years, and then going off to Generasi with experience, a colossal mana pool and the most amazing practice.
Then again, maybe none of that glory would have happened. Maybe he would have died in some dungeon.
He sighed, looking over the peaceful folk surrounding them in Mausarr, completely separated from the plight—or as the legends called it—’pride’ of Thameland. How many people here yearned for more ‘adventure’? How many from home would have sold their left arm for this peace?
He brought himself back to reality. There was no use pining for things that hadn’t happened. He had gotten The Mark of the Fool, and learned of what was likely a deadly secret. His eyes hardened. Besides, if something was wrong with the legends, then he’d rather have The Mark of the Fool. Better to be a Fool who could figure out what was wrong and be ready for it, than a Sage who was completely blind.
He studied the people of Mausarr closer, noting once more how peaceful they were: oblivious to the threat of The Ravener.
A thought occurred to him.
He only remembered ever hearing of Thameland’s Heroes battling their ancient enemy. Had it never gone to other lands? Some tales spoke of Heroes whose origins were from far off places, but they were all Thameish when marked. The people fled to other lands while the enemy was being fought at home…but had the monsters never once escaped the priests’ encirclement that Cedric had spoken of?
What of other realms? Were there other things like The Ravener that they had to face?
His list of things to investigate once they reached Generasi was growing.
“Brother, look!” Selina pointed ahead.
He pulled himself from his thoughts, realizing that they had come to another hill. Past the bustling city—split by the River Austrus—were docks and shipyards, where dozens of high masted vessels drifted in and out of port on the Prinean’s gentle waters.
Once they reached one of those ships and departed, they’d soon be at the city of wizards.
“Passengers! Passengers to Generasi!” a huge Selachar man called, revealing sharp teeth every time he shouted. A massive scar ran from his forehead, over the bump on his short nose, and ended just above the lip.
His words were followed in a stream of accented Rhinean—too quickly for Alex to begin to understand, even using The Mark. He was only able to pick out the words “full”, “morning” and “drinks”. The giant of a man looked around and made a strange clicking noise with the side of his jaw. He eyed the crowd, but received no takers.
“What about that one?” Alex nodded toward the giant. “What’s he saying?”
The group had bought an early lunch of skewered fish balls seasoned with sea salt and shallots. It took some negotiating to get the seller to take Thameish coins, but Theresa had finally reached a sort of agreement while Alex watched closely, listening to the language.
The food had been worth it: the fish balls were delicious, and Selina tore through about six of them and showed no signs of stopping. Brutus was slobbering all over them too, which definitely meant he liked them, and—though the meal was saltier than Alric’s cuisine—Alex and Theresa couldn’t get enough.
Now the huntress peered at the sailor—probably the captain judging by his fine, but patched clothes—while translating some of the Rhinean words. “Cargo’s full…and something about passengers. They’re leaving tomorrow morning. Meals…can’t understand the rest.”
“Finally, one that’s leaving soon.” Alex relaxed. For much of the morning they’d combed the docks, but most of the ships that were taking on passengers either weren’t bound for Generasi, or weren’t leaving for at least a week.
The sailor grinned widely as he saw the group approach, and said something in Rhinean. Theresa started to reply. “Passage…we want…ummm.”
While she paused to think, the sharp-toothed man’s grin widened.
“Are you all Thameish?” he asked in the common tongue.
Theresa startled. “Uh, yes.”
“I thought that was the accent,” he said proudly. “Looking for passage? Well we’re still taking passengers, but cargo’s full, if you have cargo. Departing in the morning: meals are on me, but drinks—if you take to drink—are on you!”
“No drinks, just passage.” Theresa said. “How much?”
The man’s jet-black eyes ran over them appraisingly. “Ten Thameish silvers each. Five for the child. Twenty-five to board your big three-headed friend.” Those eyes lingered on Brutus. “Is he house trained?”
All three of Brutus’ faces managed to look offended.
“Since he was a pup,” Theresa said quickly. There was a note of defensiveness in her voice, and she reached out and patted him.
“Good, better that way. I do half upfront and half when we get safely to port. Fair deal?”
He held out a massive hand, and Alex noticed that his fingers were webbed. Both he and Theresa shook the offered hand, and he passed the captain two gold coins and five silvers. The man studied them with an expert’s gaze, testing the gold against his teeth.
“Real enough.” He quickly slipped them into one of the pouches on his belt, which didn’t appear very full. “Welcome to The Red Siren, my passengers! I’m Captain Fan-Dor, and I’ll have you in Generasi’s harbour in two days. I’ve got three rules. One: You listen to what I say. Two: Treat my ship like you would your mother’s marriage-pearl. No damaging it. No fooling around. Three: Treat me and my crew with respect. Got it?”
“I’m pretty sure the only people that wouldn’t agree with those rules are massive idiots,” Alex said lightly.
“Hah!” the captain gave a barking laugh. “I like that, boy, but you’d be surprised just how many ‘idiots’ we get. “
“Um,” Selina was looking at the ship’s rigging and sails with utter fascination. “Um, Captain Fan-Dor is…is it okay to ask questions about the ship?”
The captain’s smile turned warmer when he looked down at the small girl, though his sharp teeth still gave him a vicious look. “You like ships, little one?”
“It’s…I’ve never seen anything so big float.” Her eyes traced the sails. “And move with the wind. It’s amazing that you can make it go where you want!”
“...” The captain stared at her for a moment, before digging into his pouch and handing five silvers back to Alex.
“The little one rides for free.” He said seriously.
As they boarded the ship, Alex was nearly vibrating with excitement. The last potential obstacle between them and Generasi was falling away, but more than that: he had never actually been on a ship before. The stories Theresa’s grandfather told drifted back to his mind—No Mark of the Fool needed to call them—bringing images of high adventure and danger by sea.
The ‘high adventure’ part awakened boyish dreams in him, though any adventures could do without the ‘danger by sea’ part. Then he remembered his earlier fantasy about being The Sage and blowing up silence-spiders.
Well, maybe a little bit of danger. He’d likely have to deal with that anyway soon enough.
The crew inspected the ship around them, a little over a dozen sailors in all. Powerfully muscled humans from many lands worked alongside beastfolk that looked similar to frogs—speaking to each other in low, croaking voices—and black-eyed, grey-skinned Selachar. Here were folk that had seen more of the world in a single week than Alex had in all his life.
He had nothing but respect for that.
“Passengers?” A familiar voice said close by.
Alex turned toward it and stopped in surprise.
Rising up from inspecting a long crack in the deck was…Fan-Dor?
Well, not quite, he realized. The new man’s face and build were identical, but he lacked the immense scar that marked the captain’s face.
“Gel-Dor, First Mate,” the large man introduced himself. “Twin hatchling to Captain Fan-Dor. If you’re staying until we depart, passenger cabins are down the stairs-” He jerked a thumb toward the stern. “-and straight forward. Two of the cabins are occupied, but the third on the right’s-”
He paused, giving them an appraising look.
“You know what? Take the third on the right and the one across the hall.”
“Two rooms? What about more passengers?” Theresa gave a glance back to Captain Fan-Dor, who had returned to his calling to potential takers.
People avoided his gaze.
A strange look passed over Gel-Dor’s face. “Yeah…others,” he grunted. “Anyway, take the two rooms. You’ll need the space.”
Theresa and Alex exchanged a look.
Now that he looked around more carefully, he noticed a fair amount of patches in the first mate’s clothes, and the other crew members’ trousers and shirts were threadbare. Alex has just assumed that one just wouldn’t be able to keep clothes in good repair at sea…but now…
He thought back on how light the captain’s coin pouches looked, and started to wonder if they might still be able to get their coins back. Then again, he had let Selina ride for free, and that was decent. Maybe being decent was the reason why they didn’t have much coin. But then why weren’t people boarding with them?
“Oh, and this evening.” Gel-Dor pointed to a space cleared on the deck toward the bow. “We’ll be holding the Ceremony of the Spear-and-Oar Dance to honour Ek-u-Dari, The Ocean Goddess, for safe travel.”
“Spear-and-Oar Dance?” Theresa asked with sudden interest.
He nodded. “One of our people’s sacred dances on land: a cousin of our fighting style. You’re welcome to attend and watch, if you’ve got interest.”
Theresa and Alex exchanged another look, this time in shared excitement.
Possibilities whirled in his mind.
The Mark of the Fool hindered combat, but would it do the same to a dance similar to combat?
He intended to find out.