Swells of dark waves lapped against the wax-sealed sides of the Swallow as it made berth in the Felltaen harbor. A steady breeze rippled down the white sails, granting it one final nudge as the anchor dropped and the crew scrambled to unload the precious cargo. Captain Ceri had been at the helm of the Swallow for nearly twenty years, and in all that time she had learned not to take any chances when it came to transporting the steward’s precious Kestel spice. While the steward demanded it, and paid handsomely for it, his interests in protecting it only went so far as the Kestel itself. Protecting the crew from thieves and scalpers was entirely the captain’s jurisdiction.
Ceri grasped the handle of a burning lantern and squinted to peer through the darkness. She held the lantern up as high as she dared, not keen on drawing any undue attention towards her ship while they were still unloading. The steward’s retinue was approaching already, and a hard lump formed in her throat that she forced herself to swallow down. She could only pray that she had not kept them waiting. Despite all her years of service, she did not doubt that the steward’s sorcerer would toss her over the deck for any infraction. That man made every hair on the back of her neck stand up.
The sorcerer approached, leading a group of men clothed entirely in black with the exception of a wide stripe of silver running down the center of their cloaks and the steward’s insignia stamped onto the leather breastplates. They moved like shadows in perfect unison, mimicking the sorcerer’s gait as if they were led by some enchantment to follow his exact steps, and no more.
The sorcerer, for his part, was cloaked in red—the same shade as a poppy flower with no need for obscurity. From the shadow of his hood, the light of Ceri’s lantern caught a glimpse of yellow eyes like a jungle panther. The reflected back the light, appearing almost white, and she lowered her lantern so quickly that it hit the ship’s rail with a ‘thump’.
The sorcerer held up a hand to the first mate, flashing the steward’s seal ring. They exchanged a few words, which Ceri did not hear, and the sorcerer reached into his cloak. Ceri’s fear formed a ball of ice in the center of her chest as she watched money trade hands. The sorcerer withdrew a heavy leather purse from the folds his cloak and held it out to the first mate. The first mate extended his hand and bowed his head, no doubt muttering the proper obsequious words whilst scraping a little lower than usual. The sorcerer stood there, motionless throughout the ritual, until the first mate finally accepted the purse and backed away slowly while remaining bent at the waist.
The sorcerer lingered for a few moments while the steward’s men checked the cargo. They dipped their fingers into the spice jars and rustled around to make sure that there was nothing filled with stones or grain to give them more weight. Once they seemed satisfied, the sorcerer turned, and the entire steward’s retinue melted back into the night-covered city.
Captain Ceri breathed a sigh of relief.
Kestel was the sole reason for so much despair. Even the shining shores of Edelgrund were not immune to its effects.
Those who could not hear the water were often none-the-wiser. To them it all seemed the same. As long as the sun still glinted off the rippling surface and as long as the water still rolled in with the push and pull of all three moons, many were willing to turn their heads. The coastal dwarves, even, who pulled gems from the walls of grottos did not care to listen to the ocean’s plea. There were times when Inola felt that she, herself, was the only one who was left listening.
For those who knew what they were listening for, the ocean was deathly still. Churning waves and blowing ship horns were not enough to cover the grim silence that settled once one pushed their head underwater and opened their ears. He ocean had become a veritable graveyard, now that the dolphins had been driven away.
Men, a vicious race of over-indulgence and driven by purely selfish motivations, had been the ones who started hunting dolphins for their livers. At first, they took no more than a few at a time. The elves who lived by the water, Inola’s people, were distressed by the poaching and did what they could to protect the sea-dwelling creatures they had come to love. The dolphins were too friendly, too trusting, and they had been living in peace with the shore-dwellers since the New World began. They did not fear the humans as they should, and by the time they seemed to understand the dangers (despite all the warnings from Inola’s people), it was too late. More and more began to die until they were being netted and slaughtered in droves. Their livers were harvested to be squeezed and ground down into the main component used to make the Kestel spice.
Kestel went by many names. It was called “Silver” by the aristocracy and “Nettle” by those too poor to even get their hands on a pure pinch. An ounce of the stuff was worth its weight in gold. Men could buy acres of property for much, much less. Even the aristocrats did not have access to its purest form. For the poor, it was cut through with cheaper ingredients—flour, sometimes, or charcoal powder depending. As long as there were enough granules for them to get to their kick, that was all they needed. Only the steward ingested it unaltered. It was all the rage in court to carry it around in little silver tins with painted tops that the aristocrats would tap on before pinching up enough to snort.
Furs, acreage, lumber, silk, perfumes—all the bustling trades of the Old World had come to a grinding halt with the fall of civilization. There were so many who had hoped that new opportunities would come rising out of the dust of the old. Some fools still dreamt of a world where those who inhabited it maintained peaceful relationships with one another, but that was not the case now—not for Elu.
Spice was the only currency. It was the only thing anyone ever wanted. The entire New World was obsessed with it. It did not matter that the dolphins were dying and had been driven so far from the shores that the ocean was silent. It did not matter that the world was suffering because snorting Kestel drove you mad. There were elves living close to Felltaen who had become so hooked on ‘Nettle’ that they could think of nothing else. They lived and breathed for it, even as lesions broke out across their skin and made them fall deathly ill.
The steward of Felltaen did not care about an of it. The coastal dwarves and the woodland elves, both of whom the human civilization treated as less than dirt, were so eager to make a decent living that the did not care about what a plague Kestel was, or how it infected everything it touched.
Inola had not been around to see the Old World fall. It had all occurred before her time. But she had heard tales of what the had then called Arentse, and it sounded like a better world than the one they were living in now. At least then, there had been something to live for other than the consumption of a powder.
The steward believed that it made him immortal. He believed that ingesting spice would keep him young and grant him life everlasting. Inola did not know how true that was, and she did not care. She could not see the appeal in living forever when the world was falling down around you and your own court was too busy scratching boils on their skin to enjoy the beautiful things surrounding them.
And once all the dolphins had died, what would come then? What would the steward hunt to extinction next, in the pursuit of the unattainable?
There was no answer that sounded right, or good enough for Inola. She balled up a thin blanket and shoved it into her bag along with a wineskin and some kelka, unleavened Elvish bread made with olives and wrapped in grape leaves.
If the steward was not going to stop, she would have to make him stop. That meant going to Felltaen and putting an end to it all herself. And if that also meant going so far as to cut off the steward’s head and kicking it out a window, she would do it. She was not afraid.
She should have been, was what her brother told her. She did not have enough fear, and that was her greatest weakness.
And perhaps he was right. But she could not bring herself to sit in her home and do nothing while the ocean fell silent.
It was dark outside when she pulled up the latch that kept the small, round wooden doors of her window in place. The rest of her family was not yet asleep, otherwise she would have gone through the front door. As it stood, she folded up a note and stuffed it underneath her pillow before climbing onto the bed so that she could reach the sill. Her brother, her grandmother, and both her uncles were all downstairs. Her uncles would be filling their long reed smoking pipes and talking about mundane things such as the upcoming storm season and how it might affect the fishing. The strings of her brother’s mandolin carried soft, mournful music up through the floorboards, and Inola paused to listen to it for just a little bit longer.
She knew that she shouldn’t linger, but it was tempting to fly back downstairs and throw her arms around her brother’s neck one last time. She did not do it, only because she had to cling to the idea that she would see him again—or everything she was trying to accomplish would be for nothing.
After a moment’s more hesitation, Inola slipped through her window and dropped down to the soft earth on the other side. She swung her bag around her shoulder and pulled the strap across her chest before disappearing off the side of the main road that fed into Felltaen.
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