The boat pulled itself merrily along, leaving the city Mr. Selus called Austiopoli and crawling out along the canal through a warm flat grassland. A gentle breeze alleviated the worst of the heat, and a few of the younger soldiers cooled off by splashing each other with water from the channel.
We spent three days and nights on the chain boat, talking and playing cards and word games, eating wafers of thin crisp bread and bowls of fish stew Mr. Selus produced from spirits-know-where, heated on a small charcoal stove that sat across from the levers on the opposite side of the chain-climbing contraption. I won a week’s wage off of Oskar playing a dice game he said he’d learned from one of the knights, then lost it to Ran in a contest of riddles the next day. At night, we slept propped up against the side wall of the boat, or curled up next to the pile of bundles in the back. Despite the relatively cramped conditions, it was probably the most comfortable I’d been since leaving Cantlay Town.
I had a couple of brief conversations with Mr. Selus and the boys that crewed the boat, about Euphentis and our destination in Etrenium and the canal we traveled along. Mr Selus was surprised and delighted to hear a Tillish soldier speaking Euphenti and welcomed the questions, saying that “a curious mind is a gift from the Fates, as they say.” Unfortunately, his knowledge of his home didn’t extend to much beyond the operation of the boat, not even to how long ago the canals might have been built or who had laid the chain.
A part of me wanted to pressing the man further, to see what else he might know, but I kept the interactions brief. It felt strange, having a conversation with my countrymen watching in a tongue they couldn’t understand. I got odd looks from a few of the older soldiers, including a thoughtful-looking Sir Hagan; Oskar seemed to carefully ignore me whenever I wasn’t speaking to him directly, regardless of language. Ran seemed to think it was a great trick, and spent the entire afternoon of the third day asking me the Euphenti words for anything he could think of.
The next morning, I woke to see the great city of Etrenium spread out across the western horizon, a broad band of white gleaming in the light of the rising sun. The city was as flat as Austiopoli had been hilly, with only a few large buildings rising up above the roof line of the rest of the city, but Etrenium managed to impress me with its size alone. As we approached, the city seemed to fill almost the entire horizon, stretching for miles across the lowlands.
And, as we got closer, I could see the encampment of the Concord Army. Standing a little apart from the city, the encampment seemed to be almost a city itself, a massive thicket of low tents and campfire smoke. At the center of the encampment, I could see some sort of building, a pavilion of white marble columns towering over the tents.
The narrow channel widened out into a broad, shallow round lake just before we reached the city, and the wheels at the side of the boat stopped turning as the chain lead it out of the main current. With a yank on a lever and a low, lurching thud, Mr. Selus disconnected the boat from the chain, and the boys poled the boat over to the shore, the other boats close behind.
Sir Hagan was standing and yelling orders the moment the boats touched the marble blocks that lined the shore of the artificial lake. We quickly made land, formed lines and started moving our belongings ashore. As we tossed our bundles from man to man, I overheard Sir Hagan speaking to Mr. Selus in Euphenti. “Your service is most appreciated, friend. We’re certainly not the most profitable cargo you could have brought upriver; I hope the Concord has paid you well for your service.”
Selus grinned. “They have, friend, the best possible payment.” He pointed to one of the older boys, who was holding the rope that kept the second boat close to the shore. “My son is to be made a full Euphentine citizen! He’ll get to stay in the city, learn philosophy, and as a family we’ll be allowed to own our own boats and keep all our profits for ourselves.” He griped Sir Hagan’s hand, and drew him into a strong hug. I could see tears in the boat captain’s eyes. “Truly, I thank the Fates you and your men arrived when you did.”
Mr. Selus began to cry in earnest as Sir Hagan held him, awkwardly. Half the men in our line stopped working for a moment to stare at the spectacle, though a glare from Sir Hagan over Mr. Selus’ shoulder got us moving again.
Oskar caught my eye, and motioned to the pair as he tossed me a bag. “I, uh… I don’t suppose you overheard what happened there?”
I nodded. “Nothing bad. I’ll tell you about it later?”
He paused for a moment, and then nodded back. “Sure. Thanks.”
With all of our belongings unloaded and shouldered, we formed up into a narrow column and made way toward the Concord Army encampment. We’d brought no horses or camp followers, so each man carried his own belongings, weapons, and armor with him. Even those among the knights who’d had squires had been forced to leave them behind, and now most struggled to carry their blades, lances, and the weight of their bundled armor. Sir Hagan alone seemed immune to the problem, partially because he seemed accustomed to shouldering his own burdens and partially because he’d handed off the most awkward portions of his equipment to his broken lance, Bat, who now seemed to bristle with spears and lances like a grumpy porcupine.
Halfway to our destination, a runner from the encampment reached us and fell in between Sir Hagan and Sir Lloyd the quartermaster. They had a brief conversation, and then the runner ran off back toward the camp and Sir Hagan called Bat forward to march along side him, the three men talking to each other the rest of the distance to the encampment.
When we reached the edge of the city of tents, Sir Hagan called the column to a halt and turned to address us. “Your tents will be here shortly. Until they arrive, start laying out the camp. Those of you who trained with me, show the others how I prefer it done.” He held up a hand. “Sir Bliss, I need a word with you before you set up.” He turned his head, and looked straight at me. “Mason, the same.”
Sir Hagan lowered his hand. “That’s it. Get to work.”
Oskar nudged me with an elbow. “What’s that about?”
I looked at him. “I don’t know.”
Ran frowned. “Did you do something? Is it something we should know about?”
“No!” I said, though I remembered Sir Hagan looking at me thoughtfully as I talked to Mr. Selus on the boat. “I don’t think so.”
“Well,” Ran said, “you’d probably better not keep him waiting, whether he’s mad at you or not. Oskar and I will start setting up, we’ll be here when you get back.”
“If you come back.” Oskar said, fake-ominously. I looked at him, frowning, and he looked down at his feet. “Sorry. Kellan’s sense of humor rubbing off on me, I guess. I’ve never been as good at it as he is.” He looked back up at me. “Ran’s right, though. You should get going.”
I swallowed. “Yeah.” I took a breath to steel myself, and then walked toward the edge of the camp, where Sir Hagan had already planted his standard.