Van (van_writing) wrote,

The Coffee War - chapter eighteen

Chapter eighteen:

Even with the newly converted steam engine, it took over four months to get from the southern bay of Feor to the northern coast of Arisle. They were all anxious as they drew closer, well aware that their fate largely depended on whether the first ship that spotted them was Feorean or Korvalstieniav. They made a wide berth around the southern half of the island, passing Dunica completely without seeing the state of the fleet there.

When they came in view of land again, Paramis had them run up both the Feorean and Arislean flags that Mila had sewn for them during the trip. She doubted they’d have an easy time landing, but the large quantity of supplies they had in their cargo hold would hopefully buy them a port in a way that money and politics couldn’t.

She kept the engine running on low even as they used wind power to bring her in; if it looked like the ship approaching them had intent to overtake them and assume command of the ship, Paramis was prepared to flee and run, even if it meant going as far northeast as Nan to do so.

They were only in site of land for an hour before a ship came to intercept them. It was flying Feorean flags, though Paramis did not have her crew stand down from the guns in case it was a Korvalstieniav crew impersonating a Feorean ship. When the ship was closer, she was able to use her spyglass to ensure that the faces on board were all the soft brown of Feoreans, and let herself relax—though only slightly.

When they were within range, one of the officers on the Feorean ship held up a light and began to flash it at them. Knowing he understood such signals, Paramis glanced to Life, but he shrugged. “Maybe they’re using an Arislean code?”

Paramis grimaced. “Why would a Feorean ship use Arislean code to another Feorean ship?”

Life shrugged. “All I can say is what they’re signaling means nothing to me.”

“Me either.” Paramis pulled at one of her dreadlocks, brow knitting.

Denny’s eyes widened. “Will they fire upon us if we don’t answer back?”

“Hopefully not.” Life picked up the white flag Paramis had brought for this purpose and waved it over his head. “This should at least keep them from firing on us immediately.”

Denny dubiously eyed the flag. “How reassuring.”

Through her spyglass, Paramis said, “They’re looking at us through their own spyglass. Denny, do your best not to look Korvalstieniav.”

In response, Denny smiled and waved enthusiastically at the distant ship. “How’s that?”

Paramis chuckled. “Whatever you’re doing is making them laugh.”

One of the men on the Feorean ship picked up a large cone and spoke to them through it. “Feorean ship Phoenix, please state your purpose here! We will provide what assistance we may, but we do not have port or harbor to give you supplies or shelter.”

Paramis didn’t have a cone to answer with, so she put Cannon by the side of the ship and, hand cupped to his mouth, let him bellow over answers for her. “We have urgent business on Arisle and have come to trade you supplies to negotiate a docking.”

The other ship was quiet for a while, and, by squinting, Life could see the men coming together on the deck to discuss the situation. Eventually they broke apart and the same man raised the cone back to his mouth. “We are coming about. Do not move your ship!”

In a matter of minutes, the military steamer had moved alongside the Phoenix’s port side. Knowing the negotiation would work best if it was between the Feoreans, Life stood back from Paramis, but watched closely. It was unlikely, but he didn’t think the military were above boarding the ship and claiming it—and its cargo—for themselves without giving them anything in return.

Paramis knew her trade well, and after gesturing a few times toward Denny, she had the Feorean men making sympathetic faces.

They were not asking for much in exchange for their gracious supplies, of which Paramis gave them a tour. They just wanted to dock and disembark; to have their ship left alone until they returned to it. Within an hour, the Feorean military had agreed and were escorting the Phoenix into the north harbor.

The harbor itself was largely empty, the ships that usually docked there out on patrol. It was clearly not well maintained, and the boards on the dock creaked loudly as they disembarked. Life had never been to this part of Pamel’s Cove, but he knew that the city had been affluent before the war and would not have let its harbor fall into such disrepair in other times.

Feoreans stared at them as they made their way onto mainland. Very few of them were Arislean, though some women in provocative dress hopefully bared their thighs at them. The fact that all but four of Paramis’ crew were women did not deter them at all.

They had travelled only a short distance down the largely empty and desolate streets before Paramis reined them in. “We don’t all need to go find Denny’s sister.” She looked at Life. “Do you want to take Cannon with you?”

“No, I think we’ll be all right on our own.” He stiffened slightly as Denny slipped his hand into Life’s, but the moment soon passed and he squeezed Denny’s fingers.

Kovel stepped forward. “I’ll go with you, if you like.” He grinned crookedly. “Probably remember where it’s located better than you do, anyway.”

“Probably true.” Life glance to Amist, but she seemed content to separate.

Paramis nodded. “All right. We’ll meet back at the ship an hour after sundown. Cannon and I have some snooping around to do. The rest of you can treat this like shore leave, but be careful. Keep a low profile, don’t do anything stupid and remember—there’s a war going on.” She watched the crew disburse and returned her gaze to Life. “Good luck.”

Carelle’s house was situated across town from where they docked, though Life recognized parts of the area where he’d found Kovel living and fishing. There had been few people out then, but there were even fewer out now. The streets leading to Carelle’s house had been in disrepair and now were utterly abandoned.

They reached a thoroughfare and Denny stopped in his tracks as between the buildings he suddenly got a glimpse of the ruined university. “This is like some horrid nightmare.” He clutched tighter to Life’s hand. “Where are all the people? Where’s all the music?”

Kovel shook his head. “It wasn’t this bad when last I left.” He glanced behind them as they passed a building that had had its windows busted out. “Wouldn’t the Feoreans reoccupying the city improve things?”

“They’re still here,” Life quietly said. “They’re just as afraid of the Feoreans as they are of the Korvalstieniavs.” His eyes narrowed, picking out the subtle twitch of a curtain as they passed, and the darkening of a shadow in a shadow. There were people here, but they were hiding. With supplies so low, it was no wonder why. Pamel’s Cove didn’t have enough resources to feed itself; before the war, it had imported food by train from the country. The train hadn’t run for years; the desperation of hungry people had taken its toll.

“How much further is this?” Denny stopped looking from side to side.

“We’re almost there.” Kovel turned down another street and Life only barely recognized it. Weeds poked through cracks between the cobblestones. Not even birds cawed at them as they picked their way along.

The front of Carelle’s house was boarded up. The windows had either been shattered or covered with planks to keep them protected. The paint on the front door that had been decorated with flowers had been stripped away and then splashed with red paint, leaving a scarred wooden face peeking out between red spikes.

Untangling his fingers from Denny’s, Life strode forward and rapped on the front door, praying to all the gods that she was there and alive. Like the first time, no one answered. Life glanced to Kovel.

“It took us, what, four tries last time to get anyone to answer?” Kovel smiled reassuringly at Denny. “They’ll open up eventually.”

Life knocked again, louder this time. “It’s Life! We’ve got Denny with us!”

“Carelle!” Denny called. “Open up if you’re there, please!”

Kovel put his ear to the door. “I think I hear something.”

Life knocked again and a few seconds later heard the heavy grating of wood against wood as a bolt was removed. To his relief, the door opened to reveal Jonna, Carelle’s husband.

Relief was evident in his face as well, as he took in Life and then Denny. “Hurry inside, quick.” He stepped away from the door just long enough for them to file into the dark house, and then shut and bolted the door again behind them. “Denny, we feared for the worst when we found you missing! It’s so good to see you again!”

“I wish I could say the same, Jonna, but in this darkness I can’t see anything. Where is Carelle? Is the rest of my family here?”

“Yes, yes, everyone is safe—well, as safe as one can be in this war-blasted town. Come, follow me.”

Life could barely make Jonna out in the darkness, but caught a glimpse of him waving his arm in the gesture to follow. Eager to get out of the black and the strange dampness that clung to the abandoned front room, Life quickly took up Denny’s hand and followed.

It took longer to get through the house this time, but eventually he saw a patch of light that opened onto the courtyard. They slate grey sky had turned the once-vibrant green courtyard a somewhat more muted shade. Water must be scarcer too, for the greens were not quite as green, nor the flowers quite as bright. But on the bench where once Life had sat with Kovel and Carelle, he saw the woman and her two children.

Carelle was on her feet in a moment. “Denny!” She ran across the courtyard and soon had Denny enveloped in her arms. “Oh, Denny, Denny. I thought we had lost you!” She kissed his cheeks and then the top of his head, all of which he took rather good naturedly. “Look at you, oh, just look at how you’ve changed!” She turned to Life, not releasing Denny. “Thank you! Thank you so much! I can never repay you for saving our Denny!”

“Least of all because we haven’t got any money to.” Jonna smiled as warmly as he could.

“Are these my niece and nephew?” Denny pulled away from Carelle, palming the back of his hand across his eyes to compose himself. “I can’t believe how much you’ve grown!”

Both of the children eyed him uncertainly and Life realized they were too young to have remembered him from before he’d been taken away.

Denny recovered from the shock of the children not rushing to him somewhat slower. “Come give your Uncle Den a hug.”

Reluctantly they came up and did as asked.

The boy eyed him curiously. “Hello, Uncle Den. Did you bring us any presents from Korvalstieniav?”

Denny laughed. “No, I’m afraid not.”

“Mikal!” Carelle chided. “Your uncle wasn’t there to sightsee. Apologize.

“It’s all right.” Denny smoothed down his hair, which had begun to fluff with the weather. “Is Grant here, or Mother and Father?”

“No, I’m afraid not. They were still safe in the country last I heard. Hopefully they’re still there.”

“No matter, no matter. So long as you are safe.”

“And you. Oh, Den.” Carelle put her hand to his cheek. “It was so awful not knowing where you were. What happened? I knew that Visnek man was a bad sort. They say he’s back in Arisle now. Jonna had to keep me from going down there myself to confront him.”

Denny cast his eyes down. “It hardly matters now, Carelle. I’m home safe.” He stepped back to take up Life’s hand. “And happy now.”

Carelle smiled, and Life noticed the animosity she had once had toward him was vanished. “Yes,” he said. “I’m only sorry it took so long for me to realize.” He was glad Denny hadn’t answered Carelle more in depth; even he hadn’t pried Denny about what had happened with Visnek. Lifting his chin slightly, he said, “I’m very interested in paying Visnek a visit. You wouldn’t happen to have any information on his current whereabouts, would you?”

“I hear here’s in Dunica,” Jonna said. He reached out and the kids went to him. “Listen, maybe we can talk about this over dinner? We haven’t got much, but what we do have is yours to share.”

Life and Kovel exchanged glances and Life could tell they were both considering the same fact: undoubtedly even after trading with the military to dock, the Phoenix had a better supply of food than Denny’s family did. “That’s very kind of you,” Life said, “but it isn’t hard to see how difficult it must be to come by food here. Anyway, we’re a supply ship and we’ve actually got quite a bit of extra food on our ship. It’s largely Feorean fare, but if you don’t mind trying something new, you’re welcome to come on the ship and dine with us.”

“It’s quite good,” Kovel said. “I’ve been living off the stuff for months now.” He patted his trim middle. “Hasn’t hurt me any.”

Carelle’s eyes had widened slightly at the offering. “Oh, no, we couldn’t.”

“Why not?” Denny stepped away from Life. “I’d love to have you on the ship. It’s probably safer there too. You could spend the night, if you wanted.”

“Is it a pirate ship?” Mikal asked.

Life grinned. “It certainly looks like one.”

“Oh, it’d be too dangerous to cross town with the children.” Carelle looked to Jonna. “Don’t you think it’d be too dangerous?”

“No more dangerous than it is to stay here.” Jonna shrugged. “Besides, if I went with you, and Life and Kovel and Denny here . . . well, who’d attack you with four men at your side?”

“Five!” Mikal said.

Jonna chuckled. “Five.”

“I really think you should,” Denny said. “With Visnek in Dunica and me missing all this time . . . I’m honestly surprised he hasn’t come here already.”

“Hopefully he doesn’t know you’re related.” Life closed his eyes. “But Denny has a point, and I’m going to make another one—if Visnek is in Dunica, I intend to go down and confront him. I’d feel very much better if you and your family were safe on our ship when I do.”

Jonna’s brow furrowed. “What? Why?”

“In case he does retaliate. It may be unlikely, but it’d make me feel better knowing you were safe.”

“We’ve been safe in this house all these years, haven’t we?”

Carelle stepped forward. “We may not stay on the ship, Life, but we’d be very honored if you’d have us for dinner—if you think it’s safe for us to cross the city.”

Jonna nodded. “So long as we go before dark, I don’t see why not.”

“Then we ought to get going now if you want to eat and get back before dark.” Life smiled hopefully. “You may wish to pack an overnight bag, though, at least for tonight.”

“Perhaps you’re right.” Carelle ran her hand over Mikal’s hair. “All right, give us a moment.”

The trip back across town was much more jovial than the journey over had been. The children laughed and played down the streets as they walked, not having had the chance to run like this in quite some time. Denny was full of stories about both Korvalstieniav and Feor, which he retold in marvelous detail. At one point he and Carelle burst into unison singing, their mellifluous voices echoing down the empty streets. Life saw more faces in windows as they passed.

It was easy to think that this sort of thing was exactly what Pamel’s Cove needed—people not afraid to go out in the streets. Perhaps it was too early for others to follow them out of their houses, but Life hoped it put the idea into their head.

The few people they did pass were members of the Feorean military and he could easily see how these strange foreigners would intimidate the Arisleans. Though he felt no active threat as they walked, he kept their pace quick and was relieved when the Phoenix came back into view.

Paramis and Cannon weren’t back yet, and the ship was largely empty, save for the few women who had stayed behind. They were relieved to see Life returning and he gave them leave for the night, which they eagerly took.

Within a few hours they had managed to prepare something of a feast for Carelle and her family, and with most of the crew gone, they could all sit around the table in comfort.

Paramis and Cannon returned an hour before sunset. The huge Dislander impressed both Mikal and Freya and he took to the kids wonderfully, delighting them by lifting both at once, one in each of his arms. Paramis poured drinks for the adults from her personal stores and before long, the sun had set and Life insisted everyone stay the night. The children were thrilled and insisted on sleeping on the deck under the stars, and Life found himself agreeing to sleep out there with them.

Denny brought him warm koess wine late into the night and ended up curling up beside him.

In the morning, Life, Denny and Kovel escorted Carelle and her family back home. Denny was loath to leave them, and more than once Life tried to insist Denny stay with them while he went down to Dunica. He’d known Denny would refuse, but he had hoped that being reunited with his sister might have trumped returning to Dunica with Life.

Paramis let herself into their cabin as Life was finishing packing a few things to take with him. She leaned against the door and crossed her arms. “I still think you should take Cannon with you.”

Life didn’t look up. “It will be hard enough with just Kovel, Denny and I. As must as I like Cannon, and as useful as he is, he’ll make all of this much more suspicious and complicated. It will be better for us without him. Trust me.”

“I do, but can be reckless.”

“Who me?” Life smiled at her and shook his head. “I’m past that now.” He tightly clinched his bag and swung it over his shoulder. “Your concern is touching, really.”

Paramis smirked. “You’d better not get yourself killed.”

“That’s definitely not part of the plan.”

“And don’t get Kovel killed, either. I may not think he’s exactly right for Amist, but I don’t want to deal with the mess she’d be in if he didn’t come back.”

“No one is going to die. Well, perhaps Visnek.” He reached out and she gave his arm a firm squeeze. “I doubt we’ll be gone more than two weeks.”

“And if you are?”

Life grinned. “Then come rescue us, of course!”

“Of course.” She shook her head. “Good luck.”

Life smiled, more seriously. “We’ll be back soon.”

He picked up Denny’s pack and headed back out onto the deck, where Kovel was already waiting for him.

When they walked to the mainland, they found Denny standing in the dark by himself, looking more than a little forlorn.

Kovel glanced around. “Where are the horses?”

“I couldn’t find any.” Denny twisted his hands together. “The one horse I did find was so thin I just went out and bought some horse feed and gave it to the owner instead.”

Life grimaced. “I suppose that means we’re walking.”

Denny fidgeted a little. “I thought, maybe, we could take a boat down.”

“It’d certainly save us time getting down, but they’d never let us land if we did that.”

“They wouldn’t let us reach a port, no; not a big ship like the Phoenix, anyway. A boat though . . . we could land a boat anywhere, along any stretch of coast. If we sailed out of the cove after sunset, we could probably reach Dunica in a few hours and come ashore a few miles out. They can’t patrol the whole coast.”

Kovel rubbed his chin. “We’ll lose a lot of time if we have to walk it.”

“I don’t like it.” Life handed Denny’s pack to him. “This isn’t meant to be a suicide mission. Taking a boat down there . . . that’s asking to be caught.”

Kovel shook his head. “As if confronting Visnek isn’t a bit suicidal to begin with? It’s all dangerous.”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t go at all.” Life focused on Denny. “Maybe we should leave well enough alone. Your family is safe and sound.”

“My sister’s family, at least.”

“Your sister’s family, at least. Maybe we should just be grateful for that and not tempt fate.”

Kovel scoffed. “What, just leave Visnek in the hands of the Arisleans and Feoreans? Because we’ve all been doing so well.”

“What makes you think the three of us will do any better?” Life set his pack down. “If trained military officers can’t kill him, why should our attempts be any better?”

Denny lowered his gaze, clutching his sack to his chest. “I know what you’re trying to do.” His voice was very quiet. “I’m not so stupid.”

Life felt a cold thrill shoot through him at the soft-spoken words.

“What?” Kovel glanced between them. “What’re you talking about?”

Denny shook his head but didn’t look up. “He’s going to dissuade me from going. He’s going to suggest it’s too dangerous; that we ought to leave it alone, and he expects me to agree and go to sleep. Then, in the middle of the night, he’ll sneak off—probably in a boat and without me.” He glanced to Kovel. “Maybe even without you.” He finally looked at Life. “I don’t blame you for what Visnek did to me. I don’t want to lose you in a vain attempt to get revenge.”

Life felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. Being read so easily was quite unnerving, but he couldn’t deny the accusation. “Denny . . . someone has to stop him.”

“You said yourself that there’s no reason why we could when trained military can’t.”

Life grimaced again. “They hinder themselves by rules and politics. We don’t have to. I wish we had taken out Tyria Sebelius when we saw her. You cut off the head, the rest will fall!”

Kovel shook his head. “Maybe for a little while, but another Tyria would take her place soon enough.”

“Look,” Denny said. “Do it if you’re going to do it. Tell me you don’t want me to go, but don’t lie to me. I know you hate it, being called a liar. So, don’t. Let me tell your goodbye, incase this stupid desire of yours doesn’t work and you don’t come back.” He shook his head. “You left me in the middle of the night once. I’ll never forgive you if you do it again.”

“Denny . . .”

“I can’t believe you were even considering it!”

“I didn’t think you’d let me go, otherwise.”

“Is that supposed to make it better? Am I supposed to wake up tomorrow morning and find you missing and feel all right knowing that because I would have said no, you just left and did it anyway?” Denny locked his jaw. “Because you know what I’ll do if that happens? I won’t sit here on my hands like I did last time, expecting that being left behind will protect me. It didn’t last time, did it? No, I’ll go after you. I’ll find my own boat and risk it all to follow you. Only you won’t know, and you won’t be able to protect me because of it and maybe it’ll all turn out worse because of it.”

Life scowled. “Denny, wait. Listen to me.”

“No, you listen to me. You knew there weren’t any horses in Pamel’s Cove anymore. You sent me to look for them, alone, so that I’d see it; so that I’d know you weren’t lying. Then it’d be easier to talk me out of going. Convince me all this time I can come and at the last minute decide we shouldn’t go and then sneak away in the night to ‘protect me.’ Well, I’m not having it, Lie! I’m not! I’m not a child. What Visnek did he did to me, not you. When you find him, I want to be there for it, and I want to be there with you because of it. All right? That’s what being with me means. This isn’t Fioryss where you keep your lovers holed away, out of sight.”

“I just don’t want to see you hurt anymore.”

Denny barked a laugh. “A fine way of doing that! You think I wouldn’t be hurt by you sneaking out on me again?” He threw his sack down. “Do you think anything Visnek did to me was half as painful as what it felt like waking up that morning and realizing you’d left? Do you know what it was like, waiting, year after year, for letters that never came? If I didn’t love you so much, I would surely hate you for all the anguish you’ve caused me.” He shook his head, pressing his lips together. “No. I’ll not let it happen again. We go together, tonight, or we don’t go at all. If you leave without me . . . if you sneak off on me . . . well.” He swallowed hard, and Life could see unshed tears in his eyes. “Well, don’t bother returning home. I won’t welcome you.”

Chapter nineteen
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