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Cinis could feel himself bobbing downriver for several minutes before a crowbar jammed itself under his crate’s lid, the nails screeching as they were pried from their holes, and sunlight pouring through the widening seams. Fingers appeared next, and Cinis helped push upward as the top gave way with a final groan, and Libus’ face appeared.
“Looks like our cargo made it,” he said. “Is everything still intact, boy?”
“Doesn’t feel like it,” grumbled Cinis, untangling himself and standing up. A purpling bruise had formed on his elbow, and his right foot was asleep, almost causing him to fall out of the crate instead of stepping over the lip.
Across from him, Jessica’s crate remained closed. Libus gazed over at it, crowbar in hand.
“A little help?” called Jessica from within, rapping her knuckles against the inside of the lid. “You know I can see you through the cracks in the wood.”
“I’m fully aware,” said Libus, tapping his crowbar against his palm. “But do you really need help?”
“That’s no way to treat a lady, Libus,” Jessica chided, her voice flustered. “Quite ungentlemanly.”
“Shall we forget the past few hours and all of the unladylike actions that have occurred as well?”
“Considering neither of you had the means to alleviate my distress then, I’d say that I was justified in performing those actions.”
“Maybe I don’t have means to alleviate your distress now either.”
“You have a crowbar—” started Jessica, but then there was a splash beside the raft, and Libus raised his now-empty hands.
Jessica cursed as Cinis’ eyebrows raised. He stared at the spot where the crowbar had landed in the river, wondering if he would have to retrieve it.
“Now that,” said Libus, “was certainly unladylike. Go on, show us what you can do. I’m most curious, especially after you managed to escape the ordeal in the palace gardens. I promise I won’t tell. Plus this is likely your first hour without vrael in the past few weeks. I bet you’re just itching for exercise.”
There was a huff, and then silence. Libus was intently watching the box, and Cinis followed his gaze. The wood began to twitch.
The top of the crate began to swell, planks cracking as shoots poured out of knots in the wood, forming roots that writhed and curled under the crack in the lid. Around them the wood turned brown as the roots thickened and strained, lifting the top away and dropping it with a thud onto the raft.
The crate had still smelled fresh when Cinis had entered his, the wood nearly green and just recently pieced together. But not so fresh that it might spontaneously sprout fresh life, and he stood, mouth wide open, as Jessica rose, dusted herself off, and unfolded a map she had carried with her.
“After all that’s happened over the last few days, that’s what surprises you?” she scoffed, and she took a deep breath, expanding her lungs to their full capacity as her pupils shrank. Libus had been right—stepping away from the vrael was like stepping out of the crate itself. The air was fresh.
“Thought so,” said Libus. “Not a chance that you could have escaped without some form of intervention. I may be from Querkus, but I’m not dimwitted. I know someone is gifted when I see them.”
Jessica scowled, the raft rocked, and she steadied herself against a heap of crates as the breeze caught her chestnut hair, streaming it out behind her in long, waving arcs while she took in her surroundings, nudging the newly alive crate overboard.
They were floating downriver, toward the sea, their pace slightly above walking speed. Their raft was small, in length the size of three grown men, but every exposed bit of flooring was crammed with baskets, crates, and barrels filled to the brim with goods waiting to be sold. Underneath, the water lazily guided them forward, occasionally bumping the lashed logs against heavily forested riverbanks and rocky outcroppings that defiantly rose out of the water’s reach.
Jessica called Libus and Cinis over, pointing at a dot on her map. “We’ll want to stop in Anarchen, that’s the next town along the river. At the rate we’re going, it should take three, four hours?” She shot a questioning look at Libus.
“Five. The river slows down here.” He traced out a small stretch with his finger. “But we won’t be stopping in Anarchen anyway. Rafts keep moving down to Granttan, about three times that distance, where they unload. We need to keep moving south. Anyone stopping in Anarchen for too long would look suspicious: It’s too small for any merchant to justify stopping there.”
“We can’t do that. We’re trying to move north. Any further south could set us back days.”
“News would have reached Anarchen by now. Stopping there is the predictable move, and again, it’s suspicious. Either keep moving south or risk getting caught,” said Libus.
Jessica frowned, a large crease crossing her face. “Fine. Granttan it is. But then we’ll have to move around Anarchen on our path back north. We can’t risk going through, and that’s going to add a few days on the road at best.”
“All the main roads lead through Anarchen. Moving around it will take longer than a week, and we’ll have to use caution, as leaving the roads can be treacherous,” interjected Cinis.
“I thought you said you’d never left Querkus,” said Jessica, raising an eyebrow.
“I haven’t, not for long at least. But much of the tavern’s spirit selection travels through Anarchen, and several of the merchants have tried skirting around it, through the surrounding forests, to avoid paying the toll. And most of those that try either don’t make it or lose their property in the process. It’s why, for such a small town, Anarchen can charge such high taxes.”
Jessica sighed. Moving down to Granttan then finding a path around Anarchen would be a setback, though she felt little doubt in her ability to outmaneuver merchant carts in the forests. Every day that Cinis was missing would be another day that Rorcul would suspect that Cinis had escaped the city. Making all haste was crucial, and she had left her money in Corpia, along with her credentials, which might have helped to accelerate them should they come across a friend of Cesaro. Without his support or funding, reaching Cardinia quickly was nearly impossible.
She frowned and continued to study the map. Allesail, where Alina lived, was not that far from Granttan—only a few days walk off the main roads. Maybe there she could get horses, even a loan if her sister was willing. But she knew Alina likely would not approve, let alone aid in her adventure. Worse, she’d pester Jessica about going to the extravagant wedding and finding her a suitor.
Then Jessica smiled, her eyes tracing a path on the parchment.
“Granttan it is!” she announced, poking the map.
Of course, she thought, the wedding.
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