Interludes of the Heart
by Dana DeVries

   The door to the captain's cabin slowly creaked open and Annie Rush slipped inside with the last light of the day. The cabin was comfortable and held mementos of the captain's many adventures, dimly visible in the dusky cabin. A Castillian ambassador's sombrero and a Montaigne puzzle sword rested upon an end table, a map stand held dozens of charts from across Theah, an ornamental dagger pinned a lace handkerchief to the wall. While snoring slightly, Jeremiah Berek himself slumped in an oak chair before his desk. His clothing was rumpled and he held a letter crumpled in his hand. Annie shook her head slightly and stared down at him with a look of longing. She reached down, gently stroked his cheek and then brushed a lock of his hair away from his eyes. Then she reached out and gently shook his shoulder. With a jerk, Jeremiah sat upright and stared about him. "Sorry, sir. You asked to be informed when the Explorers had stopped."

   "Yes. Thanks, Annie."

   The woman peered intently into Berek's face. "Are you alright? You haven't slept well in a week, ever since you ran into the Explorers."

   "I'm fine. I just find myself with a conflict of interest." At her puzzled look, he elaborated. "I'm trailing behind an Explorer ship with the sole purpose of stealing what they find before they know what they've got. But now I'm hoping they don't find it so I won't have to take it from her."

   "Her?" Annie's voice held a touch of heat, but Berek didn't notice.

   "Cosette. I've met women like her before. Strong, confident, beautiful. But they never affected me this way." Berek stood and stared out the bay windows at the rear of the cabin. Outside the gray waves were tipped with the brilliant red of the setting sun. "She was sure of herself, but didn't mind when I acted first." Berek turned and saw the grim expression on Annie's face. He reached out and raised her chin until their eyes met.

   Annie grimaced. "I really wish you would talk of me that way."

   A smile played across his lips and Berek's tone was light. "Who said I don't?"

   Her voice was clear and angry. "Don't play game with me, Berek. You don't talk about anyone the way you talk about her. And you've only seen her for a few minutes."

   The smile faded. "I'm sorry, Annie."

   Annie smiled ruefully. "It's alright. You can't change your heart anymore than I can." She straightened up and crisply stated, "The Explorers stopped an hour again, sir. We should be in sight of them within another hour."

   Berek did his best to stare into her eyes, though he found his gaze dropping lower. "Alright. How far past the barrier are we?"

   She thought for a moment and replied, "Almost sixteen leagues and we haven't spotted any land yet, sir."

   Berek nodded and found himself staring straight into her bosom before jerking his gaze back up. "Well, the Explorers didn't stop for tea, let's go in under cover of darkness. They may have found the fountain already."

   Annie made a show of saluting properly. "Aye, aye, sir." Then she turned and left the cabin quietly, leaving Berek to his thoughts as the waves faded into darkness.

   As dusk spread across the island, a leaping bonfire lit up the shoreline and Explorers slowly fanned out. Some gathered firewood while others kept their hands near weapons, ready to act. The centre of the island was invisible behind a screen of trees that were neither oak nor pine. These trees were tall and slender without branches beneath their upper reaches where broad jagged leaves and enormous round objects popped out of the trunk like a snake leaping from its den. Beneath the trees by the light of a lantern, two scholars examined a rock outcropping that thrust up fifteen feet into the air. The rock showed a figure reclining upon a stone, but time and the elements had weathered the figure until no details could be seen. Several men disappeared into the deepening shadows beside the statue. The bonfire roared on either side of two longboats pulled up on shore. Jacob Faust stood beside the fire and slowly scanned the edge of the trees for any sign of trouble.

   Further out , the Discovery slowly rocked in the waves of the surf. Two lookouts stood in the crow's nest. One scanning the island and the other keeping an eye on the waves. The second lookout nodded, pointed out to sea and spoke briefly to the man behind him. Seconds later, the second lookout leapt for a line and lowered himself to the deck. Captain Cosette stood in the prow of the boat staring at the shore party, intent for any sign of trouble, then returned her attention to the dagger in her hand.

   "It's a nice piece, Sean." The dagger's blade was eight inches of Eisen steel and sharpened enough to hold a edge without chipping. The handle was curved and polished bone and held a single walnut-sized topaz. Within the gem a gleam seemed to hide. "This bone isn't from any animal I've ever seen, but it appears similar to those we've found buried in the sewers of Montaigne. As for this glow..." The Explorer tilted the blade and the gleam strengthened. When she pointed the blade to the west, parallel to the ground, the gem glowed brightly through the dusky gloom. "You said that it's not directly west?"

   Sean Garloise shook his head. The Avalon sailor smiled. "No. I thought it might and tried to use it for navigation my first few watches. Seemed to work fine first night, but the second it was off by at least ten degrees. It seems to vary by fifteen degrees to either side of true west."

   "Too bad. I'm really not sure. Perhaps its pointing to something in the west? Or maybe back to something in Theah. Keep an eye on it, if it starts to deviate from a generally Western direction, you'll be getting closer to whatever it is and we can go investigate it."

   Cosette handed the weapon back to him and her right hand dropped to the butt of a grappling gun that hung at her belt. "Probably nothing much. But we needed the water so it seemed like a good place to stop. Probably stay here for a day and then put back out." Her hand slowly stroked the gun's butt as she turned back to the island.

   Sean frowned for a moment and then cleared his throat. "Um...Captain. I know its none of my business, but I keep this dagger at my side because it was a gift from a friend whom I respect greatly. Why do you still carry his grappling gun?"

   Cosette dropped her hand to her side and opened her mouth silently for a moment and then licked her lips for a moment.

   Sean stepped closer and said, "He's quite a man, isn't he?"

   "Yes, he is. But he's also the man who turned the natives upon us. He even admitted to being out here looking to rob anyone who finds anything of value. I won't allow anyone to prey upon us and just get away with it. He'll pay for his arrogance."

   Sean nodded and quietly asked, "Are you trying to convince me or yourself?"

   Cosette glared at him for a minute while he looked back calmly. Then she began to chuckle. "I'm not sure. If I succeed in convincing you, let me know, alright?"

   "Aye, captain."

   Cosette nodded with a rueful grin as the second lookouts stepped up to her side and whispered to her for a moment. She gave him a few quiet orders and then stood up. As the lookout climbed back towards the crow's nest, she called out to the crew. "Explorers! We've got a visitor coming. We don't know who they are yet, but let's be ready to give them a warm welcome." The crew grinned grimly and sprang into action. Gunner crews prepared their weapons, the master gunners went below for the special ammunition, cabin boys lit lanterns, the signalman advised the shoreparty, and the riggers adjusted the lines to be ready at a moment's notice. Cosette nodded in satisfaction. Turning towards the darkening south east, she whispered fiercely, "Whoever you, we're ready this time."

   The hours passed swiftly as the men on shore and on the Discovery readied themselves. Just as Cosette prepared to raise anchor and go in search of the mysterious ship that had disappeared with nightfall, a cannon fired and a green explosion lit up the night sky. Immediately afterwards, several lanterns were lit. and Cosette raised a spyglass to peer at the small spark of light beneath the star filled sky. With a puzzled look, she called out to her men. "Stand down, men. It's one of ours. That's Abbotsford." A babble broke out among her men until she called out again. "I don't know what he's doing here either. Just keep the powder dry a little longer. Let's see what's going on." Turning to the starboard gunner she ordered him, "Load up a cannon with the signal powder and fire it off please."

   After that she fell silent while the other Explorer vessel slowly came closer. Minutes later, the starboard gunner fired off his cannon and the shot arched high into the air before bursting in a blaze of blue light. As the light faded, one of the skiffs bumped up against the boat and Jacob Faust quickly climbed the rope ladder. Cosette met him at the deck and quietly asked, "What's so urgent you've abandoned your position, Jacob?"

   "I saw the flash. That was Abbotsford's signal. Do you want us to prepare the mortars on shore to fire on him?"

   Cosette frowned at the hostility in his voice. "Let's see what he wants first. Probably not."

   "Too bad. We'll probably have to share credit with him." Jacob frowned in mock irritation.

   "Credit for what?"

   Faust smiled widely. "One of the shore parties found something. Something large. I think it's a remnants of a building and it looks like its built on the same dimensions as the buildings on Syrne."

   Catching some of his excitement, the captain asked him, "Is this one in better shape?"

   "Worse. It almost looks like it was hit by an earthquake, but the surroundings don't seem damaged. But its still sealed. Of course, whatever happened occurred a very long time ago."

   "Trees and vegetation have grown back?"

   Jacob nodded. "Syrne was where Maggie was found. Maybe she'll notice something that we missed. We'll come ashore as soon as we deal without Abbotsford."