Chapter 9 Part 2

When I came back up on deck a few hours later, the ship was just coming into the broad mouth of a wide harbor. The color of the water had changed, from the blue and black of the deep sea to a vibrant blue-green, the sandy sea-floor just visible down below the surface.

Ahead of the ship, a wide river flowed lazily into the harbor, flanked on either side by broad, low hills covered almost entirely by buildings of bright white stone. Terrace after terrace of columned walls and red tiled roofs, punctuated occasionally by bright white or shining golden domes, ran across the slopes all the way from the heights far above down to a tall, solid sea-wall that almost bristled with docks and piers where it met the water. Across the river, a massive stone bridge, as high and wide as Shalecliff Bridge and twice as long, connected the two halves of the city, held up by a dozen round stone arches each as wide as the Nostrus Turus and half again as tall.

Everywhere I looked there was activity, making the shining white city seem to shimmer: ships and boats ranging in size from single-man coracles to ships as large as the Turus moved in or out of the docks and in among the footings of the bridge, carts and people appeared to crawl along every terrace crowded the top of the bridge’s span.

I stood at the side of the ship for a good few minutes, gawking at the view. I’d been impressed by Kintinvale during my time in the capitol, but it had been basically Cantlay Town writ larger, with the same stone and wood buildings and the same slow, easy pace. This city was something else entirely. And, from what I could see, at least twice the size of Kintinvale as well.

I felt a thump on the rail, and turned my head. A few paces away from me, Bat had planted both elbows on the wood and was staring up a the city, his eyes wide. After a moment he caught me looking at him, and raised an eyebrow at me. “What?” he said, scowling. “You’re not the only one who’s never been this far away from home, lad.” He looked back out at the city. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

I nodded in agreement. “Do you think the cities in Euphentis are all as beautiful as this, or is Etrenium as impressive to the Euphentine as it is to us?”

Bat chuckled. “Well, considering I’m fair certain Etrenium is still a ways upriver from here, I’d say they have at least two cities this impressive.”

I blinked, surprised. A city this big, and it wasn’t the capitol? How much bigger could Etrenium be than this?

I turned away from the view. “How long a march are we going to have once we get ashore?”

“Based on the maps,” Bat said, “we’d be marching for a week if we went overland, and twice that long if we followed the river. The ‘ambassador’ they sent with the ship keeps talking about having some sort of ‘arrangements’ made for our ‘transport’, something about ‘wheeled boats’.” He shrugged. “Didn’t make much sense to me, but he seemed insistent so I suppose we’ll see.”

The ship coasted into the docks, nestling in between a pair of ships nearly identical to it in size and shape. As sailors jumped down to secure ropes to the dock, Sir Hagan told us to collect our things, and we made quick work of moving our men and equipment off of the ship. There was no chance for a long good-bye with Maricius or the other men of the crew; as we moved out, carrying what equipment we had away from the ship toward the sea-wall, Maricius was working to get the forward sail tied up properly and gave me a quick wave over his shoulder as we marched forward up the dock. I nodded to him as I stepped from the deck onto the gangplank, and that was that.

There wasn’t room to march in formation, so we made our way in roughly single file up along the docks and onto a wide pier that ran beside the sea-wall. Longshoremen carrying crates or baskets of goods dodged around and occasionally through our line, and hawkers shouted to us as we passed, holding up fried pastries or little bundles wrapped in dark leaves. The familiar smells of honey and salt brine mixed in the air with stranger scents, sharp and bright like new wine and sour cherries or complicated, spicy and bitter like dandelion greens.

Even more astonishing than the smells were the people. For the most part, people in Tilaird had looked more or less like I did, and even with his oddly pale complexion Master Vardon hadn’t stood out all that much, or not to my eyes, anyway. Here, though, there were men and women of every conceivable build and description, with skin and hair in every color I could have pictured and some I wouldn’t have thought possible. There, a man with ruddy skin and dark hair who could almost have been a cousin to me. There, a woman taller than me by a head and a half, with a milk-pale complexion and ash gray hair cut shorter than my own. There, a rail-thin man with ink-dark skin and swept-back hair the color of flame, covered in an artful pattern of pale scars and draped with fine silks and more gold and gems than I’d ever seen in a single room, let alone on a single person.

Sir Hagan stopped for a moment to converse with the Concord ambassador and then led us further on, around the curve of the sea-wall and under the first high arch of the bridge. On the other side, the river was no less busy than the harbor, but here the largest ships had been replaced by long, narrow, strange-looking boats, nearly square at each end and with what looked like water wheels from a river mill on each side, partially submerged in the water.

We wound our way down onto the riverside docks, to a place where three of the odd boats were moored side-by-side. They were larger than they had seemed from the pier above, perhaps four paces wide and twenty-five long, and the wheels at the sides were taller than a man standing, twice as tall if they were the same shape below the water as above it. A heavy-set man with light-colored but deeply sun-tanned skin and blond, shaggy hair was sitting out on the dock beside the boats, drinking from a wooden cup. Our ambassador spoke to the man for a moment and then to Sir Hagan.

Sir Hagan turned back to us. “All right, men,” he said, “Mr. Selus here has been contracted by the Concord Army to carry us to Etrenium. Foodstuffs have already been prepared and loaded, so we’ll depart as soon as we’re settled aboard. Equipment in the back of each boat, men in the front.”

As I helped load our things onto one the strange boats, with Ran passing me bundles and chests while I handed them off to Oskar, we mused on the purpose of the wheels. “Do you think they, like, pick us up and roll us across the top of the water, somehow?” Ran asked, looking past us at the middle of the boat. A greased wood spar ran the width of the boat across the narrow middle at just below waist height, running from the wheels through a set of wood and metal brackets to a complicated-looking contraption in the center of the deck, a mass of pegged wooden gears with no function that I could determine.

“They remind me of the old mill up in the woods, the one Farmer Leward stole the milling stone out of so he could grind his own grain,” Oskar said.

I nodded. “But if the boat moves with the water, the wheels aren’t going to turn, are they? And even if they did, how would that make the boat move?”

Ran shrugged, and tossed me another bedroll.

When we were ready to depart we settled ourselves in the boat, and then the man Sir Hagan had called Mr. Selus barked a series of commands to a group of boys who’d been standing around on the docks. They ranged in age, from maybe a year or two older than Oskar or I to a little younger than Ran, and all shared the man’s light but tanned skin and pale-colored hair. Mr Selus boarded our boat with two of the young men, and the others split into two groups of three and scrambled aboard the other two boats. Mr. Selus told Sir Hagan in Euphentine to keep us away from ‘the moving bits’ once we were underway, and then he repeated the command directly to us in broken and nearly unintelligible Tillish. Ropes were untied and pulled aboard, and then we pulled slowly away from the dock, the two Euphentine boys pushing us off up the wide riverbed with long poles.

Once we were underway, Mr. Selus settled into a low chair bolted to the hull  beside the contraption at the middle of the boat, facing a series of levers that extended out the side of the strange wooden machine. As he pulled one, the wheels began to move, turning slowly as the boys with the poles pushed us slowly out and around the docks. While the axle spar turned with the wheels, the rest of the machine remained still.

As the river began to narrow and curve away around the southern hill, I saw that we were approaching what looked like a straight, narrow channel in the right-hand bank. It was about twenty paces wide, with worked stone embankments on either side. Water flowed out of the channel into the main body of the river, much faster than the surrounding current, past a pair of heavy stone pilings that stuck up out of the water. Mr. Selus’ boys pushed us up the river past the piling on the left and then turned the boat sideways against the river’s current, so that we drifted in between the piling and the narrow channel.

“Catch it!” Mr. Selus shouted back to the boys in Euphenti.

One of them tossed his pole onto the deck onto the tarp-covered pile of gear, picking up another shorter pole with a large metal hook on the end. My eyes followed him as he ran back to the rear end of the boat, and I could see that there was a heavy chain anchored to the stone, running down into the water toward the boat. I couldn’t see exactly what the boy did next, but I saw him swing his hook down into the water, pulling up hard on something, and after a series of clicking and clanking noises he turned to Mr. Selus and raised his fist toward him, the thumb extended upward.

Mr Selus shouted back a phrase of encouragement I couldn’t quite translate, something about a pile of grain, and then began working the levers in front of him. As he pushed and pulled them one after another, I could hear a series of clanks and thuds under the deck of the boat, moving forward from the back side under us to the nose of the boat. I craned my neck toward the bow as the clanking reached the very front of the boat, and I could see a length of the same heavy chain lift up above the waterline, running at a shallow angle from the nose of the boat down into the fast-flowing water.

As another lever was pulled, the boat shifted forward a little, and as I looked back to where Mr. Selus was sitting I could see that the chain had been pulled up in front of him, through a narrow walled-in gap in the boat’s hull that I hadn’t noticed before. With practiced motions, he pushed loops of the chain into gaps among the wooden gears, and with another pull of a lever the gears clamped down on the chain, pegs pushing into the gaps in the chain’s links.

Mr. Selus sat back for a moment and cracked his knuckles, and then gripped the largest lever in front of him with both hands. He turned his head toward Sir Hagan with a smile in his face, and winked, speaking in his heavily-accented Tillish. “This is the good part!” Slowly but firmly, with measured care, he pulled the lever back toward himself.

There was a lurch, and the gears on the contraption began turning, the chain starting to move backward. The water wheels at the sides of the boat, which had started spinning quickly in the fast current of the narrow channel, came almost to a stop in less than a heartbeat, and then began to gradually pick up speed again. The gears of the machine at the middle of the boat started accelerating in step with the wheels, though some of them moved much more slowly, and the boat began to move forward, pulling up more chain from the channel in front of it and dropping it down into the river at the back end. As we pulled away from the stone plinth, the next of our little fleet swung into the channel behind us, and the boys with the poles began repeating the process.

After a few moments, the boat reached what appeared to be its maximum rate of travel, a little faster than a walking pace, and Mr. Selus pulled a small lever next to the large one and then released both of them, sitting back from the controls and wiping his hands on his trousers. He shot Sir Hagan another grin. “Good Euphentine philosophy, yeah?”

Sir Hagan smiled a polite smile back at him and nodded. “I admit,” he said in Euphenti, “I am impressed.”

Bat, sitting across from me, looked out at the stones along the channel’s embankment as they rolled slowly past. “All right, that it’s a neat trick I’ll grant, but it seems like quite a bit of work just to cut an hour off of the day’s travel.”

Oskar rubbed his chin. “Maybe, but the river certainly won’t get tired or need to rest.”

Ran pointed toward the front of the boat. “Looks like there’s a hook for a lantern at each end, too. They’re probably used to going all night.”

Oskar nodded. “Easier just to keep going than to disconnect and reconnect the boat to the chain, I’d bet. And if there are others behind us we might not be able to stop even if we wanted to. Not unless we want to get run into.”

Bat gave Oskar a grim smile. “So we’re on a runaway boat? Much better, thank you.” He looked back over at the embankment. “Well, ‘runaway’ is perhaps overstating it a bit. A walk-away boat, anyway.”

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