The ship set sail much faster than Arinna had expected; she’d barely gotten her luggage on and was shown her quarters when a cry of anchors away rang out and the ship lunged out into the open sea. She’d felt a little foolish then, because of course the captain and his crew wouldn’t want to linger here. Daryam had become the hottest war zone, and anyone would be forgiven for wanting to swiftly sail to Werdukand without delay.
The war had taken over in Daryam. Every day there were more reports of skirmishes in the streets, ambushes from all sides. Fire, fighting and death. And just over the sea, the safety of Werdukand waited. It was a strange war; nobody quite knew how it had started. But there were those who believed that the Irvatt family had had something to do with it. Arinna had heard grumblings for months.
Aye, they’ve found themselves locked in a nasty trap, I heard. Got themselves in a lot of debt with a king from some other land, far off. Haven’t been able to pay him back and now they’ve started a bloody war over it. Except it’s not them dying for their own mistakes, it’s us
Arinna had little opinion on this. All she wanted was to leave this place and find what little family she had left in Werdukand. And this ship was the ticket. She’d heard it was leaving promptly as its main purpose was to transport the last vases in all of Ehmrahil to the museum in Werdukand, where it was hoped they would be safe. The vases were famous and ancient treasures made from shining silver and etched with beautiful, intricate patterns. Many had been destroyed in the war, and only five now remained.
Arinna had watched them brought aboard the ship, led by a man who called himself Murad. He fussed over the vases and instructed men here and there, leading them to secret places on board the ship where they would be guarded.
‘Careful now, careful!’ he’d boomed when one man had slipped slightly on his way onto the ship and nearly dropped the vase. ‘These things are priceless! You don’t want to be known as the man who destroyed one of the last of the vases in all of Ehmrahil, do you?’
The vases were beautiful indeed. Large enough that they needed two men to carry them and shiny enough that Arinna thought they would be spotted twinkling in the sunshine from many miles away. Indeed, she had to shield her eyes after gazing at them for a moment.
Murad continued to order the men of the ship around for the next few days as Arinna wandered the vessel and looked hopefully to the horizon, where she imagined how she’d feel upon first sighting the shores of Werdukand.
‘I’m glad I don’t work for him, aren’t you?’ a woman said to Arinna. She was older than her, a blank look on her face. Arinna had seen her come onto the ship with what seemed an army of men who were all carrying various wooden boxes for her. She looked at the woman curiously.
‘I’m sorry, we haven’t met yet,’ the woman said. ‘My name is Elie.’
‘I’m Arinna. You’re the lady with all those boxes?’
Elie glanced over at some that were stacked on the deck and chuckled sadly. ‘Yes. All that’s left of my business. I’m a trader, you see. But the war…’
‘The war has caused you much loss,’ Arinna finished for her.
Elie nodded. ‘These boxes contain all I have left. It’s not much. I hope to start again in Werdukand. I suppose you’ve lost much too?’
‘Yes,’ Arinna agreed. ‘Most of my family.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Elie said, sympathetically. ‘Well, we’ll all have a fresh start at things soon enough, I suppose. Let’s just hope we have a smooth journey there, eh?’
But they wouldn’t. Unbeknownst to most of the voyagers, a deep bubble of catastrophe had begun to expand and was like to burst at any moment. And as though in mocking response to Elie’s words, the trouble started the very next day.
‘What do you mean, missing!?’
Arinna had awoken to Murad’s bellowing one morning. He was shouting at one of his assistants, and most of the rest of the travellers had gathered round to see what the fuss was.
‘It was there last night,’ the assistant, a young scrawny boy surely no older than sixteen was saying. ‘But when we looked this morning it was just… gone!’
Murad grabbed the boy by the shirt and held him close enough so that their faces were almost touching. ‘Well what the bloody hell are you waiting for, boy!? Go and search for it!!’
He released the boy and he scrambled away, seemingly thankful that Murad had let him off with a simple row. The captain had now arrived at the scene to assess the situation, and Murad was giving him an account of the whole story.
‘Dratted boy!’ Murad muttered. ‘Youngest one on our team. Knew we shouldn’t have taken him. He’s gone and lost one of the vases.’
‘Might someone have taken it?’ the captain asked with concern.
‘Impossible!’ Murad said. ‘They’re guarded day and night!’
‘And yet one has gone missing,’ the captain said. ‘If I were you, my friend, I would keep my mind open to any possibility. There are dangerous people out there. Besides the ones we’re at war with. Those vases would catch the eye of rich people who would be happy to pay for stolen goods as valuable as those. It may be that the vase was simply misplaced, but keep your eyes peeled.’
It was at this point that Arrina noticed a hooded man standing not far from Murad and the captain. He was watching this scene with great interest. He stood alone and as still as a post, hands in his pockets, eyes fixed on the two men in front of him. When their conversation concluded, he walked away soundlessly.
A few nights later, Arinna was awoken in the night by more shouting. She jumped out of her bed, threw on her coat and shoes and rushed to the deck. There, she found several people arguing, Murad once again among them.
‘What’s happening?’ a lady came to Arinna’s side. She recognised her as Rami, a quiet sort of woman who hadn’t spoken much to the other passangers.
‘I don’t know,’ Arinna said. ‘But if I had to guess, I fear another of the vases may be missing.’
Rami said nothing to this. Instead, she kept her eyes fixed to the wooden deck beneath her feet. In her face, Arinna thought she could see a strange sort of guilt and wondered for a second, until she spotted something altogether more sinister. The hooded man she’d spotted before was among those gathered on the deck. He was standing directly behind another man and Arinna couldn’t be certain, but she thought that she saw his hand wander out and sneakily take a wallet from the man in front’s pocket. She was about to say something to Rami when another voice piped up loudly, drawing everyone’s attention. The captain.
‘Alright everyone, listen up!’ he yelled. Instantly, the gathered crowd went silent. ‘As most of you will know, one of the Ehmrahil vases went missing the other night. Could have been an unfortunate accident, or perhaps it was misplaced. But now another has gone missing.’
‘Stolen, you mean!’ Murad shouted. He looked even angrier than he had before.
‘Aye,’ the captain said, calmly. ‘It looks to be that way, I’m afraid.’
There were murmurs in the crowd. Some in agreement, others in shock.
‘If anyone has anything to say about it,’ the captain continued, raising his voice once more. ‘Come to me or Murad here as soon as you can. We’re about a week away from Werdukand now and I’d rather this voyage goes smoothly from here on. And all of you, keep your eyes open.’
Murad glared at the crowd as they dispersed. He looked as though he was assessing each one of them. Which of them could have stolen the vases? Where in the world could they be keeping such large objects? Perhaps tomorrow would shed light on it, but in the meantime, Arinna took one final glance of the beautifully bright moonlight and a distant shine in the waves some way in the distance before returning to bed.
Arinna had a pleasant conversation with Elie the next morning. The two had formed a bond of sorts during the voyage, had laughed hearily with one another, and had made arrangements to meet once they had both been settled in Werdukand. The conversation had turned rather more sorrowful when Elie described her financial circumstances, however.
‘The war has left me with very little. I used the last of my money to purchase a place on this ship. I had to pay more because of all the space needed for my stock. It seems like a lot but most of it is in bad condition, and will have to be sold at a lower price. Oh, I do hope I can at least get started in Werdukand again.’
Arinna had been about to reassure her as best she can when she spotted something in the distance to the rear of the ship. It made her heart leap.
‘Elie…’ she gasped. ‘Do you see that? Over there?’
She pointed in the direction of the thing which had startled her. A mere dot on the horizon, but she was sure she could make out sails.
‘Where?’ Elie asked, squinting. She seemed to see nothing at first, but then saw what Arinna had hoped was her imagination. ‘A ship! With… black sails?’
And almost as though the ship had heard them, it flickered and vanished into the sky behind it.
A few minutes later, when they approached the captain, he seemed relatively alarmed.
‘You’re sure? Black sails?’
‘Well it was difficult to know for sure with it being so far away,’ Arrina replied. ‘But Elie here thought the same as me. Certainly it looked like a ship.’
‘And the sails were very dark,’ Elie said.
The captain frowned. ‘I see. That’s very troubling.’
Just then, there was a knock at the captain’s door, and Murad appeared after being called in. He’d wanted to know if there had been any update on the whereabouts of the vases.
‘Murad,’ the captain interjected halfway through Murad’s insistence that a formal investigation would have to take place once the ship docked in Werdukand. ‘We may have another troubling situation.’
The captain explained what Arrina and Elie had described seeing, and Murad listened with an expression on his face that was difficult to read. Once the captain finished, Murad snorted.
‘Really, captain,’ Murad said, dismissively. ‘You know there have been no sightings of enemy ships in this part of the ocean. They were cleared out months ago. Werdukand is safe because they haven’t a clue how to get there. It’s hot out there today and these women have no doubt had a case of sea hallucination. Very common, you know.’
‘Is it common for two people to see the exact same thing?’ Elie snapped. ‘Forgive me, but I’ve never heard of such a phenomenon.’
Murad made for the door. ‘If you’ll excuse me, ladies. I have some very important vases to track down.’
‘Yes,’ Elie said. ‘Just make sure you don’t lose any more of them.’
Murad gave Elie a suspicious look before disappearing.
Two nights later, Arrina was woken by a tremendous splash. Her quarters were located at the starboard side of the ship, and her bed was close to a small window. Sitting up, she opened the window and peered out into the ocean, heart slamming against her chest. It surely must have been a case of man overboard – why had nobody given the shout?
She looked down into the black waves below but could see nothing. Why were there no cries for help? Perhaps the person who had fallen had been drunk?
She jumped out of bed, dressed as quickly as she could and raced up stairs to find somebody, anybody that might be able to help. Reaching the deck, she looked around frantically. There. A figure standing at the starboard side, facing out to sea.
They must have spotted the fallen person!
Arinna raced over to the person and cried out to them. They spun around with a jerk, and Arinna recognised them. Rami – the older lady who had been so quiet.
‘Rami!’ Arinna cried. ‘Did you see someone fall over the edge?’
‘Fall? What in the world are you talking about?’
Rami couldn’t keep her eyes on Arinna’s. Arinna ran to the edge of the ship beside Rami and peered once more into the dark waves. Searching, looking desperately for any sign of someone thrashing about in the waves. Nothing.
‘You’re sure you didn’t see anything?’ Arinna asked. When she turned around, Rami was gone.
The next morning, it was reported that another vase had gone missing.
Much commotion ensued in the following days. Murad was more infuriated than ever, and the captain now also seemed to have had enough. Everyone was questioned privately by a designated crewman, and it was decided that nobody would be allowed to leave the ship in Werdukand until it had been thoroughly searched.
But Arinna was sure that no search would have to take place at all. She’d decided she knew what was happening. And on the night before their predicted arrival in Werdukand, she snuck up to the deck, found a hiding place among some of Elie’s boxes, and waited…
There he was. The man she was looking for. He crept silently around the deck, as she thought he would. She joined him. She tiptoed behind him like a cat approaching a mouse. He didn’t go far; only towards some other stacked boxes towards the ship’s bow. He didn’t even care to look around him before opening the box as quietly as he could, pulling off the top and then the sides to reveal a beautiful silver vase. He wrapped his arms as much as he could around the base of it and, trembling, began to lift.
‘Impressive,’ Arinna said aloud.
Murad almost jumped into the sea with fright. He dropped the vase with a clunk and spun around, panicked face staring into Arinna’s.
‘What…’ Murad started. ‘How did you… Where did you come from!?’
‘I know what you’re doing,’ Arinna replied. Murad stared at her, unblinking, apparently not knowing what to say. ‘Those vases are worth a fortune. But when they get to the museum in Werdukand, how much will they really stand out among all the other wonders?’
Murad began to look as though he understood.
‘My guess would be that as expensive as those vases are, they’re not enough to cover your debt. You’re one of the Irvatts, aren’t you?’
Murad took a deep breath. ‘You got me. I…’
‘You’re leading them, aren’t you?’ Arinna interrupted. ‘The enemy. To Werdukand. Leaving a trail of shiny vases for them to follow.’
Murad looked at the floor. ‘Yes.’
‘And you’re giving them more from the museum?’
‘It will stop the war!’ Murad cried out. ‘It will end all the suffering! I have to do this, I have to!’
‘Why don’t you just tell the captain your plan? And then tell those in charge in Werdukand? You could have sent out word to them from Daryam.’
‘Oh, they’re all too proud for that!’ Murad argued. ‘They’d never allow it. The cost of selling them Ehmrahil’s fortunes would be enormous!’
Arinna paused for a moment. Then she looked Murad in the eye.
‘Will they hurt anyone?’
‘No,’ Murad replied sincerely. ‘That’s part of the deal.’
Then Arinna asked, ‘if I help you, and I tell nobody, will you give me a share?’
‘A share?’ Murad spat. ‘What sort of share do you think there will be? I’m only taking enough to pay off the enemy, end the war, clear my family’s debt.’
‘Then we’ll just have to take a few more items from the museum,’ Arinna said. ‘Should be easy enough with two of us instead of just you.’
After a pause, Murad answered, ‘yes. Fine.’
Without hesitation, Arinna helped Murad lift the vase and toss it into the sea.
Three weeks later, Arinna paid a visit to her friend, Elie. She had set up shop in a busy part of the marketplace. All around, people were buzzing with chatter about the theft at the museum, how terrible it was for Werdukand and how they feared that this may put Ehmrahil in a weaker position against their enemy.
It would take time, Arinna knew, for word to spread that the war was over.
Elie was full of smiles. A mysterious deposit of gold had been made with the bank in her name, enough to effortlessly set up business in the busiest area of the city, sell the best stock and earn a good name for herself.
Fortune had smiled upon her, and she was eternally thankful for it.