Red looked up from where he and Lucas were dragging the last of the backup rope to the lower deck and tried to spot it for himself. Although he’d traveled the seas since he was ten and served on this ship for the same amount of time, only recently had the Sea Dragon ventured farther out than the familiar ports of Mulatia, Land of the Thirteen Kingdoms.
A brisk wind swept his shoulder-length red hair about his face and tickled his beard as it filled their sails to bursting, as if as eager to help them to their destination as they were to get there. Squinting against the sun’s glare on the water, he saw a glimmer in the distance. It wasn’t a gradually rising shimmer, as would be the case with most of the Mulatian ports; this one seemed bigger, taller. The first indication this was nothing like home.
“So, what do you think they’ll be like?” Lucas stood next to him, staring off in the same direction, the side of his hand pressed against his tanned forehead to cut out some of the glare.
“What who will be like?” Red strained to make out more of what lay ahead, wanting to miss nothing on the possibly one-time trip. The Sea Dragon was only here because increasing pirate traffic had almost gotten Captain Murdock’s Lady’s Grace sunk. The Dunlap Trading Company had been desperate to get the salvaged goods to their destination as soon as possible or forfeit their lucrative contract to Wasef. If the gods smiled on them, the Sea Dragon would prove its worth to Dunlap and perhaps share the route with Lady’s Grace in future.
“Why, the women, of course, fool.” Lucas snorted. “Who else?”
Red glanced back at him, women being one of his favorite subjects.
“Don’t rightly know, but it’ll sure be fun to find out.”
“Not if you don’t get back to work, you won’t.” Captain Garrett stared down at them from the upper deck. The smile on his face belied his words, Garrett as excited as any of them about the new port and the opportunities it might open for their futures.
As the second and third mates, Red and Lucas weren’t actually on duty at the moment, not that that ever stopped the captain from expecting them to pitch in when necessary. Red had already done the deck check and helped Lucas make sure everything had been secured in preparation for making landfall.
He bounded up to the upper deck as the captain raised his spyglass for a look ahead.
“Can you make out anything, sir?”
Garrett was silent for several long moments, giving the impression that, indeed, he could. Red knew from long experience the captain would not be hurried, so he kept his gaze glued to the horizon to pick up what little he could on his own.
The glimmer he’d spotted before had spread, slowly giving him a sense of the nearing coastline.
“It is everything they said it would be…”
Red shot a glance at his captain, never having heard awe in the man’s voice before. It only fed his own curiosity as to what they were about to encounter. That the first mate was below, snoring in his hammock, rather than up here trying to catch a preview of what was coming, Red didn’t understand but was grateful for it. It was the only reason he could be up here hoping for a turn on the glass.
Without another word, Garret passed the telescope over to him. Not one to waste the opportunity, Red instantly raised the spyglass to his eye.
A large bay solidified in his enhanced view. White froth warned of unseen coral reefs beneath the waves, yet a section beckoned between two lighthouses rising from the sea. One was made to look like a rising pillar of flame in gold, orange, and yellow; the other a
whirlwind of air in blue, white, and silver.
Beyond them, he glimpsed merchant ships, then red sandstone cliffs that rose on both sides of the mouth of a wide river. In the lower corners of the cliffs, where the river met the sea, two more lighthouses stood, except they were larger than their brothers and on opposite sides, rising in the same brilliant colors.
But even they weren’t what froze the air in his throat and made him stare.
The cliffs stood six hundred lengths, and from the look of it, the city lay nestled inside them, through them. Homes and businesses tunneled and shaped within the solid stone, with five levels of stucco façades in all manner of colors and shapes. There were balconies with iron rod railings, some trailing vines of ivy in the higher levels; and moss covered the walls closer to the base. Wide rope-hung bridges with telltale streamers connected the two sides of the cliffs and the river, dots of pedestrians moving to and fro on them. Strange basket contraptions rose up and down on the cliffs’ sides.
And atop it all on the left, one last lighthouse rose as if reaching for the sky, made of the same sandstone as the cliffs.
“Makes sense now why Murdock was being such a bloody blackguard about us going on this trip instead of him,” the captain murmured. “I’d not give up easily on this myself.”
Red nodded, lowering the glass, finally understanding why some called this port “the Jewel of the Gods.” It’d been worth coming all this way just to see it.
Garrett took back the glass and raised it to his eye again. His eagerness turning into a sharp need, Red decided this was as good a time as any for him to make his move.
“Sir, have you made a decision on who’s to take our papers to the embassy yet?”
Murdock might not have been happy with the fact he’d lost this voyage to them; but when Dunlap asked, he’d still produced for them a quick map on how to find the embassy and the names of a few key people, like the quartermaster’s, and what they might expect on landing. Red brought his voice down to a whisper.
“It’d sure make a nice reward to a fine fellow who covered for his captain when a certain lord inquired about his whereabouts on a particular night a month or two ago.”
Garrett’s trysts with the Lady Rilan were the old man’s only vice; otherwise he was as boring and straight as an oar. Yet this one thing had almost gotten him chained and thrown into a pit to rot. Lord Rilan wasn’t one to do things halfway.
The captain gave him a half-glare then studied him up and down.
“You’ve proven yourselves able this trip, so I suppose I should encourage that. But if you or Lucas get us blacklisted in this port for your usual antics, I’ll have your heads. Understand?”
“Of course, captain.”
Red half-turned and grinned down at his fellow officer and friend. Lucas extended his leg and removed an imaginary hat from his blond head as he gave Garrett a deep bow.
“We shall take your admonitions to heart, my captain.” He then shook his head of tight curls with an innocent, hurt look plastered on his face. “Though why you would ever feel the need to make such a statement, I will never understand.”
The seamen on deck all started laughing at once, winks and jabbing elbows making the rounds.
Garrett groaned, obviously already regretting his decision. It only made Red’s grin grow wider.