In pursuit of ghosts

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Roldan Stryke missed the ice runs. That simple escort duty, travelling back and forth between Treydolain and Lagnin, ensuring that the deliveries went as planned and didn't run into any trouble; dealing with it if they did. That had been his life for a good few years and it had made him soft and long for the real road of dirt and blood - but now, he longed to return to that glacial simplicity.

Hefting a large, string-tied sack on his shoulder, feeling its odd assortment of items digging into his back, he stomped up the gangplank and onto the deck of the Zephyr. She was a small, twin-ballooned skiff that was designed primarily for mail delivery: fast, fuel efficient and able to dock at even the smallest of ports. He'd spent enough time aboard airships to know that she was a very different creature to the lumbering cargo vessels he'd accompanied to the south-west glaciers, with their insulated bellies of ice.

The circumstances were different but he was glad nonetheless to be leaving Treydolain. It had been only a few days since the aborted festival but the city already felt like it had caught an infection. Where once there had seemed to be a unity of spirit, however slim, between even the poorest and most privileged inhabitants, now there was only distrust and anticipation of more troubles. Getting back into the air would give him a chance to clear his head and think more rationally about what had been happening.

Stryke couldn't help but wish he'd never encountered Tranton Seldon at the foot of that glacier. If only the ice gatherers had chosen to carve out their blocks fifty feet in another direction, and had never discovered the broken outsider. Perhaps Stryke had brought the infection to the city.

The Zephyr creaked against its bonds, eager to be on its way. It was a wooden construction, unfussy in its design and with a streamlined, determined prow upon which was carved a leaping woman with a drawn bow. A man, younger that seemed reasonable for a captain of a ship, approached from below decks, smiling and stretching out his hand.

"I'm Calen," he said, grinning confidently. "I'm your captain. I'll get you wherever you need to go, faster than you think."

Stryke shook the hand and smiled in return. "Roldan Stryke," he said. "Thanks for having me aboard, captain."

Calen frowned quizzically, as if finding Stryke's politeness faintly ridiculous, then shrugged and pointed at the trapdoor leading below via a flight of a stairs. "That'll take you to your cabin as well as the mess. That's about all there is to know. We run a skeleton crew, as there's not much ship to cover."

"I'll stay out of your way."

"Your companion's down there already. Can't miss her."

Stryke exhaled sharply through his nose. "Right," he said, then shifted the cloth sack to his other shoulder and descended out of the sun. The interior of the ship was painted a burnished red, like the colour of the water downstream of a fishery. It reminded Stryke abruptly of his childhood, before he banished the memory.

At the long table running down the centre of the mess stood Pienya Martoc, flattening down the corners of large maps with any weighted objects she could find. She didn't look up or acknowledge his arrival.

A handful of doors led off from the mess hall, presumably to the ship's cabins. Estimating from the size of the hull he'd seen as he'd approached, none of them would be particularly spacious. The walls of the mess were lined with pencil sketches: a forest from the air, a quarry somewhere, the Treydolain mesas, the hills of the east and the lakes of the north-west.

"Where are we headed?" Stryke asked, deciding to initiate conversation despite Martoc's typical ambivalence to his presence.

"North," she responded. "We'll check settlements, watch out for sightings."

"Why north? They could have gone anywhere. They could still be in the city."

"My source is convinced they've left the city."

Stryke lowered his sack gently to the floor. "Is this the same source who was convinced they were hiding out with one of the merchant caravans?"

"Just because we didn't find them doesn't mean they weren't there," Martoc snapped. "Fenris Silt knows everything about our methods. Tracking him is not going to be easy."

Stryke leaned against the table, facing away from it to gaze out of the small porthole windows. "We don't even know if he's with the princess. Their disappearance might not be connected."

Martoc looked up at him for the first time. "Is that what you think?"

Chewing on his lower lip, Stryke sighed. "Probably not," he conceded. "But this feels like another flail in the dark."

"At least we're doing something."

Making a noncommittal sound, Stryke hefted his gear and investigated the cabin doors. He kicked one open and leaned in. It was empty, save for a bed and a washbasin. Pushing the door closed behind him with the heel of his foot, he untied the bag and emptied it onto the bed with a clatter. He hadn't known what he'd needed, so had tried to account for all eventualities. Crossbow, with alternate bolts designed for piercing armour and distance; his King's Eyes light armour, as well as a selection of lower profile outfits; a separate box containing his collection of healing herbs, bandages and stitches; a small bottle of wine, which he would savour and make last the entire mission; two replacement boots, including a studded pair for more inconsiderate terrain; a range of smaller knives and daggers with which he could equip his belt; a notebook and pencil.

Glad as he was to be vacating the capital, it did nothing to abate his concern for the king. Through the cabin's porthole the palace was framed perfectly, standing proudly against the Lagonian sky and looking as if nothing were wrong. His departure would leave the king with one fewer ally, but his accompanying Martoc had been ordered by the queen and no counter-order had arrived from King Guijus.

Stryke knew his priority was finding the princess. He wanted to find Fenris Silt, not to throw him into a cell but to ask him what had happened; what had changed. The Fenris who Stryke had grown old with would never abandon his post or betray the king or Princess Kirya. There had to be more at play than anyone knew, but Stryke had never been one for political machinations. He operated best when given a clear target.

And then there was Tranton Seldon, of whom nobody was speaking. Stryke held a certain guilt that of all the missing persons, Seldon was the one he most wanted to find, despite that not being part of his assignment. The arrival of Seldon felt like it had started this unwinding of the valley, and Stryke suspected that locating him could also serve to mend some of those broken bonds.

There was a shout from above, pulling Stryke away from his thoughts. He chose a couple of small daggers and slipped them into his belt, then touched a hand briefly to the short sword which was strapped to his back. The ship lurched beneath his feet, and out of the porthole he saw the mesa dock drift gently away, then slip out of sight as the ship's propellers engaged and pushed them into the open air.

Even despite the circumstances, Roldan Stryke couldn't suppress an excited smile. Back on the road again. 

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