As loose as their plan to hide Blaze upon reaching Radia had been, Senara was glad of it once they reached the border. They crossed into the eastern tip of Radia, which was narrow enough that it only took them two days to reach the coast. From there, they turned west, Blaze swimming as Senara and Eryl walked the highway that ran along the sea. They came to a fishing village on their third day and stopped for supplies. “We should ask if anyone knows about Isola,” Eryl said as they perused the market.
“We need to be careful about how we do it, though,” Senara answered. “We can’t risk drawing too much notice.” She eyed the stalls around them and pointed to one. “There,” she said. “We ask there.” Eryl raised a brow but followed her lead, remaining silent as she approached the stall selling brightly colored fruits. “Good day,” she greeted the boy arranging his goods, putting on her best princess smile. “Look at these! I don’t think I’ve ever seen their like, what are they called?”
The boy beamed up at her. “Those are ananas, miss. You should buy one, they’re delicious!”
“Do they grow here in Radia?” Senara knew full well they didn’t, but she gave the boy a look of wide-eyed curiosity.
He laughed, good-heartedly. “Oh, no, miss, they’re from the Isles. Don’t you know the only fruit Radia can grow are oranges and bitter-bites?”
“Bitter-bites?” Eryl’s brow furrowed.
“There,” the boy pointed to another stall, where small bright yellow and green fruits were piled on display. “You can use the juice to make all sorts of good things, but I wouldn’t go biting into the fruit direct. They’re very sour on their own. Not ananas, though!” He held up one of his fruits. “Sweet and delicious with no extra work!”
Eryl eyed the spiky fruit with suspicion and Senara had to smother a laugh. “How do you eat these?”
“Just lop off the top with a knife, then cut it right up,” the boy encouraged, holding out the fruit. “Would you like one? Only one silver!”
“A whole silver for one piece of fruit?” Eryl let out a low whistle and Senara placed a hand on his harm.
“I’m sure if it comes all the way from the Dusk Isles, it is worth the price,” she said, smiling at the boy. “Perhaps we could try one?”
“If you say so.” He fished out a coin and handed it to the boy, who handed over the fruit in turn.
“Do you trade with the islanders yourself?” Senara asked as Eryl tried to shove the spiky fruit into his sack. “Do they come to the village often? I’ve heard the islanders trade some marvelous and unique items with Radia.”
“No, miss. We’re too far east. They trade in the towns up the coast with the big harbors. Our port isn’t large enough for their ships to dock. My sister lives in Silverfin and she sends us some of what she gets from the islanders every week so the village can have it, too.”
“That’s very kind of her. Silverfin, you say? How far is that from here?”
The boy scrunched up his face in thought. “Well, she sends a boat, you know, so it only takes about a day to reach us. If you’re walking, it’s maybe three or four days west on the highway. There are a few other villages along the way, but you can’t mistake Silverfin. It sits underneath this massive cliff and there’s a ruin at the top!” His eyes were wide and glittered with excitement. “I got to visit last year! My sister wouldn’t let me go up to the ruin because everyone thinks its cursed, but I think that’s just because it’s an old temple of Dusk.”
Senara suppressed her reaction. The Radians were well known for being a very superstitious culture and were fiercely dedicated to the god of the sun. No one on the mainland worshiped the twilight deity, finding their in-betweenness unsettling and considering it bad luck. An abandoned ruin on a cliff might make for an excellent camping spot if they had to wait for Isols to turn up. “That sounds exciting,” she murmured. “We are heading in that direction. We’ll have to stop there and see what Silverfin has to offer.”
“You could probably hire a boat,” the boy suggested, gesturing toward the docks. “Lots of folks in the village have family there, so there’s always someone going back and forth.” He eyed Eryl’s muscled arms. “They might not even charge too much if you help out while you’re aboard.”
“Thank you,” Senara told him. “Sun’s blessings to you.”
“Sun’s blessings!” he called as they moved away from the stall.
“So, you’re thinking we go to Silverfin and find an islander?” Eryl murmured as they finished their shopping.
Senara nodded. “If we can’t find anyone from Isola there, maybe someone else from the Dusk Isles can point us in the right direction.”
“Your face did the thing when he mentioned the ruin.”
“What thing?” She shot him a puzzled look.
He rubbed the back of his neck, buying himself time to explain. “I think it’s a princess thing, maybe? Like you started to react to what was said but then caught yourself and your face goes all,” he waved a hand in the air, trying to catch the right word, “proper.”
“Ah. Yes,” she smiled, “I think you’re right, it’s a ‘princess’ thing. Mother made sure I was trained to hide my true emotions when in public. She told me the mask was necessary to be an effective ruler.” Senara frowned. “Not that she ever meant me to rule anything. But I guess it’s still a habit.”
“That explains a lot,” Eryl’s lips twitched. “I wondered how you could put up with a lot of those–,” he caught himself and shrugged. “So. Was it a good reaction or a bad one?”
“Good, maybe. If the townsfolk really don’t go to the temple, it could make a good hiding place for Blaze if we have to wait out a ship from Isola.”
Eryl nodded. “I think you’re right.”
I’m bored, Blaze’s voice broke into their thoughts. Are you two almost done shopping? I can’t chase the fish because there are too many boats chasing them here.
“It is a fishing village,” Eryl pointed out, then went silent as he sent that thought to Blaze.
Well, it’s boring. Are we going to look for a place to camp for the day? I found a cove that might do, but it’s a bit of a walk for you. I wish you could swim with me. I think it’s faster.
“Eryl,” Senara said, pulling him to one side of the street. “Do you think Blaze could keep up if we did take a boat to Silverfin?”
“They might,” he said, eyebrows rising. “They’re a damn strong swimmer. Blaze,” he said, then fell silent as he put the question to the dragon. “What do you think?” he finished aloud for Senara’s benefit.
I’m willing to try. I won’t be able to leave the water until dark anyway, so even if I fall behind, I can just meet you at this ruin. Oh! A ruined temple on a cliff, that sounds fascinating!
Senara smiled and nodded. I agree, she sent them. Let us find out if there is a ship to take and we’ll be in contact soon.
They reached Silverfin well after dark and were directed to an inn near the port where villagers often stayed. The captain insisted on escorting them there himself, explaining that Silverfin had an evening curfew, and they’d be better off with someone familiar with the guards to vouch for them. He introduced them to the inn’s owner himself before returning to his boat. Blaze, will you be all right on your own for the night? Senara couldn’t keep the worry from her thoughts as Eryl started negotiations with the innkeeper. I don’t know if we’ll be able to back out of staying here tonight without arousing suspicion. Were you able to reach the ruin?
I’m here! Blaze replied, feeling excited. It wasn’t any trouble to scale the cliff, and there are lots of places for me to sleep. A pause, and then, I should be all right for tonight. I don’t think you and Eryl would be able to get up here in the dark anyway. What I can see of the stairs is not reassuring.
All right, then. If you’re sure. It sounds as if you like the temple, at least.
I do! There are dragons carved on everything! Some of them have jewels for eyes!
Really? Senara’s eyebrows rose. I’m surprised those haven’t been picked out by now. The townsfolk really must avoid the place.
The innkeeper, noting Senara’s surprise, turned to her with an apologetic smile. “It’s the last room I have left, miss. I know it’s small, but it should do for the two of you for the evening. If you decide to stay in town longer, I might have better accommodations tomorrow.”
Senara turned to Eryl, blinking in confusion. She hadn’t been following the conversation while she’d been speaking with Blaze. “We don’t need much,” she said, trying to pick up the thread.
“We don’t,” Eryl agreed with a sigh, “but eight silver seems a little high for two cots in the attic store room.”
Less than what I spent for something similar in Sunpeak, Senara thought to herself. But she still winced at the price, recalling just how little of their coin remained. Eight silver a night was a lot in that context.
“With meals!” The innkeeper hurried to add, noticing Senara’s wince. “Baths, too! It really is a fair price, and I’m afraid I can’t really afford to charge any less than that.” A loud crash came from the dining room and she sighed, glancing in that direction. “Unless you’re performers, of course,” she said, turning to them hopefully. “The fisherfolk can be an unruly lot when they’re cooped up on land, you know. Board is free for performers–they save me from having to replace furniture. I had a singer staying here but her sister sent for her and she had to return to her village.”
Senara’s shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry, but–“
“Would you excuse us for a moment,” Eryl asked the innkeeper. He pulled Senara a few steps away, rummaging in his bag. “I was going to wait until your birthday, but now seems like a better time.” He pulled something out of his bag and handed it to Senara.
She gasped as she held up a carved wooden flute. “When did you–?”
“You mentioned a while back about trying to earn our way and I know taverns and inns sometimes pay people to play music for a night. Besides, you said you missed playing. I thought you might like to take it back up.”
“Eryl,” she said, trying to blink back tears. She hadn’t even realized her birthday was approaching, but now it dawned on her that the solstice was just around the corner. “I don’t know what to say.” She glanced back up, managing a tremulous smile. “Thank you.” Another crash came from the dining room and her eyes slid in that direction. “I haven’t played in so long though.”
“You don’t have to tonight, if you don’t want to,” he said, closing her fingers around the flute. “I just wanted to give you the option.”
She stared down at the flute, thinking. It was plainer than what she was used to, but it was still beautiful, and just looking at it she could already hear the first few notes of her favorite song. “I can try,” she said, looking back up at Eryl.
He grinned and surprised her with a hug. She hugged him back and they turned to the innkeeper, who had been splitting her attention between them and the dining room. “My friend plays the flute. She’s very good. Would that suffice?”
Senara blushed at the compliment. “I’m a little rusty,” she warned. “It’s been a while.”
“It’s bound to be better than nothing,” the innkeeper said, wincing at another crash. She turned a warm smile on Senara. “Play tonight and, no matter what I’ll only charge you half for the room. If the audience enjoys your music, you stay free. Deal?”
Senara took the hand extended to her. “Deal,” she agreed. “Would you like me to start now?”
“Please,” the innkeeper led her to the dining room and pointed to a stage in the far corner. “If you can fill an hour, I’ll bring you some supper after that, and then you’ll play until the crowd thins out.”
“Will you take my things to our room?” Senara asked Eryl, holding out her sack to him.
He nodded. “I’ll be right back down.” This was followed by a grin. “I don’t want to miss the performance.” He squeezed her shoulder and followed the innkeeper back into the hall while Senara made her way to the stage. A few of the patrons noticed her and quieted, their eyes turning to follow. She mounted the stage and surveyed the room, noticing several overturned and broken chairs around the table where a very heated dice game was carrying on. There was a little bit of clear floor in front of the stage and the hearth, but most of the room was filled with tables and stools that lined a wide bar along the back wall. The bartender nodded at her in relief as she lifted the flute to her lips.
Wish I could have had a warm up, but oh well. Here goes nothing.
She began to play, and all of her stress and worry from the past month faded into the back of her mind as she let herself be lost in the music. Her new flute had a softer tone than she was used to, but it sweetened the notes and she let them wash over her as she played her favorite piece. She reveled in the differences even as she adjusted her fingers to account for them. After her first song ended, she was surprised by a smattering of applause and she smiled at the table nearest the stage, who gestured for her to continue. The dice game continued, but the players quieted somewhat, and those with intact seats had retaken them. Eryl slipped into the dining room as she finished her second song, waving to her as he took a seat at the bar. People got up to dance during the third and for the rest of the hour she tried to pick music that would keep them on their feet. Some patrons even tossed coins on the stage as they finished their meals and left for the evening.
“So, what do you think?” Eryl asked, gesturing to the flute as she joined him at the bar for her supper.
“It’s marvelous,” she told him, unable to keep a smile from her face. She reached out and squeezed his hand. “I had truly forgotten how much I enjoyed playing. I hope it sounds all right.”
“Everyone seems to be enjoying it,” Eryl replied, “including Mistress Angela.”
He nodded. “She told me that you’re welcome to keep playing for as long as you like, and we can stay in the attic with supper and baths covered.”
“That’s very generous of her,” Senara said. “I confess, it will be nice to sleep under an actual roof. I don’t like the idea of leaving Blaze on their own, though. But maybe if it’s only for a day or two, and if they don’t mind.”
“What would you say to two weeks?”
Senara tilted her head. “Why two weeks?”
“I asked Mistress Angela about traders from the Isles and she said there’s no one in Silverfin right now, but a whole host of them will be here for Solstice. I bet one of them can tell us how to find the Isols. What do you think?”
She mulled it over, finishing her fish and draining her mug of water. “We’ll need to check with Blaze. That’s a lot longer than I like the idea of sitting still, but if it means we don’t have to go chasing up and down the coast for the information we need…”
“That was my thought as well.”
“Does Mistress Angela need a solid answer from us tonight?”
Eryl shook his head. “She said think it over and let her know sometime tomorrow, then we can talk specific terms. I’m pretty sure that as long as we don’t leave her in the lurch to find a replacement, she’ll be willing to work with us on the schedule.”
“That’s promising.” Senara fingered the coins in her pocket, earned after only an hour of playing. She might be able to earn them even more coin in two weeks, on top of saving them from paying for lodgings. “Let’s talk to Blaze in the morning and decide together.”
“Works for me.”
“All right,” she flashed him a smile and hopped off the stool. “I should get back to playing. See you after.”