* * *
“What do you mean we’re running out of food?”
“I think someone’s hoarding it.”
Ekon’s jovial smile faded and he turned to face Leal. “You believe it is me?”
Leal shook his head. “No, friend, you have admitted to a life of debauchery, but I think you stealing wine would be…” Leal paused, picking his words with care. “Unfruitful,” he finished.
Ekon smiled and clasped Leal by the shoulder. Ekon had missed the comradery he had. He was glad he was no longer ‘Ekon the Builder,’ and simply ‘Ekon.’ “I’m glad my waking dream led me to you and your daughter. I know she’ll do great things.”
Leal frowned. “What do you know of Nichelle’s future?” Leal stepped towards the man who helped save his family. “Or of her past?”
“Past? Future?” Ekon examined his fingernails. “These are but abstracts. Abstracts birthed by man to explain the wilting of flowers; the spoiling of food.” He wiped his hand on his tunic. “We barely understand the world around us.”
“Then tell me, Ekon, tell me of the world around us.”
Instead of answering, Ekon beckoned Leal to follow him below deck. Over his shoulder, Ekon called out, “I’ve kept a secret from you and Nichelle.”
Leal stopped, his hand reaching to the scabbard on his belt.
Ekon shook his head. “It’s not that kind of secret, Leal. I promise, you’ll want to see what I have hidden away in my space.”
Ekon continued down the corridor and Leal was forced to hurry to catch up. They nodded to everyone they passed in the corridors. Some with a smile, others with a hearty handshake. Some even yet, a word or two of thanks or encouragement. When they arrived at Ekon’s berth, he walked to the head of the bed. Ekon reached under the straw mattress and an audible click sounded out.
Leal stepped back as Ekon’s bed dropped and a hidden compartment was revealed. He reached in a retrieved something wrapped in cloth.
“This was given to me by a priestess of Kanoni.”
Leal wore a mask of skepticism. Many had claimed to have located the resting place of Kanoni – most were attempting to sell something. Ekon unwrapped the package slowly, carefully peeling pack each fold. Each layer, revealed a glow from within. With each layer, the glow intensified until finally, Leal was unable to look at Ekon’s hand directly.
Ekon continued. “I’ve been resolute in keeping this from those unworthy.”
Through fingers covering his eyes, Leal squinted and saw a gear. His eyes teared and the gear was blurry, but it appeared to be the most magnificent workmanship Leal’s overtaxed eyes had ever seen.
“Hold out your hand,” commanded Ekon.
Leal did as he was told and Ekon placed the gear in Leal’s outstretched hand. It was small, Leal’s palm swallowed the delicate gear, but he felt a presence much larger than the gear.
Leal felt warmth radiate from the gear and he felt the ability to look beyond the brilliance shining from it. As he squinted to bring the gear into focus, he noticed a stain of blood. Covering more than half the gear.
“Is this?” he tried to speak, but he forced himself to focus on the gear. He discerned ropes and pulleys. Gears within gears. Empty space occupied by… “Is this,” he tried to ask again.
“You hold a piece of the clockwork wings Kanoni herself wore. The blood staining the brass is from Kanoni.”
Leal jerked his hand away, attempting to drop the intricate brass, but it clung to his hand, defying gravity itself. “What is this?”
“We need to find Nichelle.”
* * *
The view from behind the wooden barrel only allowed Nichelle to see one of the two figures bent over a wooden crate. Nichelle gripped the edge of another crate and as quietly as she could, pulled a slat loose. She felt the heft and weight of the slat. She had suspected someone was stealing food, and had been investigating for the last few weeks. She followed a figure to a storeroom and was about to confront the thief, but she waited to see who the thief’s accomplice was.
“Here you are, Mi’Lord,” said the thief.
A hand reached out from beneath a cloak. The thief held out a loaf of bread. Nichelle recognized the bread from the food stores, but the hand that reached out for the bread stopped her cold. Each finger was adorned with rings and rare gems. The ring on the pinky finger could only be from the magistrate.
The cur has stowed away! She thought, the bile rising in the back of her throat. She was about to leap out and dispatch the thief and the loathsome magistrate, but she felt a burning on her palm. She dropped the slat with a clatter and the thief and the magistrate looked towards her hiding place.
The thief walked to her hiding place. “The sound came from over here, Mi’Lord.”
The thief picked up the slat, but Nichelle had already snuck out of the storeroom.
* * *
Leal closed his hand, hiding the gear.
The two men looked toward the door to Ekon’s berth as a knock sounded out again.
“Enter!” Ekon called out.
The door swung open and an out-of-breath Nichelle jumped through the doorway and closed it behind her.
“Do you have a way to secure this door?” she asked.
Ekon opened his mouth to reply, but when his gaze fell upon a pewter mug, he saw a reflection that silenced him. “Goddess,” he whispered.
Leal and Nichelle rushed to Ekon as he slumped to the floor. Nichelle poised her ear over the prostrate form of Ekon. “He still breathes,” she announced.
“Ow!” cried Nichelle. Leal had put his hand on his daughter’s, forgetting about the gear clinging to his hand.
Leal looked at the gear in his hand, a new smear of blood adorning the intricate mechanism.
* * *
The phrase repeated again and again. When a messenger banged on Ekon’s berth and repeated the phrase, Ekon opened his eyes. He rose silently, picked up the cloth from the deck and used it to retrieve the gear from Leal’s hand. He secreted it away in the void beneath his bed and his hands searched until another audible click. The bed restored itself and no one but the three watching knew of the hiding places existence.
The trio rushed out of Ekon’s berth and up ladders until they were topside. It wasn’t difficult to tell where land was; the denizens of the great ship were crowded to the port, staring off over the ocean. Leal pushed his way through the crowd and when he reached the railing, he could make out the fain outline of land and something gleaming on the horizon.
“Change course. Head for land!” Leal shouted and the order was repeated again and again. He could feel the great ship move beneath his feet. He had never thought of himself on the ocean. Caring for his family was all he needed, but more than a month on the ship had taught him the skills he needed – mostly by trial and error.
The crowd chased after Leal as he ran to the bow of the great ship. They gasped as the ship moved closer to land and a bright light.
* * *
“It’s an arch!” cried out Nichelle.
Murmers of agreement permeated through out the crowd. Indeed, in the distance, shrinking as the sun moved from behind them to overhead, was an arch of gleaming brass. There was much debate, but the consensus was that the arch was the height of ten men, gleaming with reflected light. They marveled at the arch, spanning a canal. A canal they steered towards. Some in attendance with keen eyesight claimed they saw figures beside the arch – perhaps sitting atop a horse waving to the great ship.
Nichelle looked back and saw the thief drop a cloak and leap over the railing. In the water she saw the magistrate swimming towards shore. The thief swam after him.
Good riddance, thought Nichelle as she turned her attention back to the ever-increasing arch. The mid-day wind brought with it the smells of a working village. Nichelle crooked her head and watched a flower float in the breeze – It was a simple white flower that appeared to dance and sway before striking the prow of the boat and falling into the ocean.
* * *
“I see a great ship, Lady Akila, just as you foretold.”
Akila nodded and lowered her hand. It had been outstretched and moving too and fro as if she were touching something. “Themba,” she placed her hand on Themba’s as he excitedly grabbed at his beast’s reins. “Themba, I’m not ready to reveal myself nor my name to the people of the ocean.” She smiled. “Not yet.”
Themba nodded. “I trust in you, Lady Akila.” He released the reins. “I only wish Taj could witness the sights I’ve seen with you these last few years.” Themba looked over his shoulder at the arch. He marveled as it spanned the canal leading to the village he had lived in most of his life. A life he suspected hadn’t happened yet. “The arch alone would silence his wagging tongue.”
“Taj places too much faith in spirituous drink.” Akila kicked Themba’s mule and lead it away from the canal and arch. Over her shoulder, she called out. “See to the captain of the ship and his daughter. They’re important in ways you cannot fathom.”
“Yes, Lady Akila,” Themba replied as Akila and his beast turned to sand and dissipated on the mid-day wind. “We no longer quest for nothing.”
Next: Quest for Nothing