Dolohov Family/Rescue

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Chapter One: Messengers

Rasputin Dolohov swatted mosquitoes, seated in his judicial palanquin for the trip from Bolkenia to Rueffilo -- his old stomping grounds! He was Grand Justiciar now, though, and Riombaran law had required that he give up his landed title. Still, nothing wrong with a bit of a tour before holding court.

Peering out the bamboo slats, he watched the reconstruction of the southern road, a few ditch-diggers clearing out the old drains, and bricklayers rebuilding the sides of the bridge. Off in the distance, a new silo was going up. The undead had not been kind to the region, not at all, but under Riombara's banner, it would thrive again -- the only problem was people! All the tools were there, plenty of gold, only the occasional hiccup in the food supply. But half the houses that still stood, stood empty.

The palanquin came to an abrupt halt, and Rasputin banged the roof with his fist. "Steady on! What's the matter?"

"Scruffy-looking foreign fellow to see you, sir. Says it's urgent."

"It's always urgent. Give him some money or candy or something and make him go away."

"Says he's got a message for you, sir."

"Bloody hell... All right, put me down."

The bearers moved off the road to a patch of grass, and set the lacquered-bamboo palanquin gently down in it. Rasputin put on his straw hat, grabbed a fan, and climbed out. The tropical sun beat down on him as soon as he did; it was hot and sticky, typical weather for the south of Beluaterra. Rueffilo didn't have the benefit of a sea breeze, either, just the river -- which was breeding ground for mosquitoes.

The judicial guards were detaining what looked to be a scruffy-looking foreign fellow. Too pale to be from Riombara, fancy clothes like from Atamara -- but tattered and stained. He gave Rasputin a toothless sailor's grin and presented a rolled-up piece of paper, as tattered and stained as his clothes. The guards brought it over, and Rasputin unrolled it to find familiar handwriting, a memory from his boyhood far away. He read it silently, twice through.

" `You're the only one I trust', eh? Silver-tongued old bastard. Gotten himself into a hell of a scrape from the sounds of it. You there, where'd this come from?"

"Well west of `ere, it did. Feller named Vassly or somethin."

"Tall fellow, strong as an ox and twice as brave?"

"Eh?" The messenger looked puzzled. "No sir, he's a short bugger, skinny. Wears glasses."

"That's my Uncle Vasily, then, no mistake." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and mumbled to himself as he re-read. "A bit of adventure sounds like just the thing. Reconstruction's all well and good, but I seem to have gotten my gardeners killed, and the job's mostly done. Just a bit of repopulating to do..." Rasputin paused a moment, but shook off that thought, however attractive. "Wouldn't mind showing up that blighter Al, either."

Rasputin snapped his fingers and called over a scribe. "Take down a message for Lord Delvin; I'm going to be taking a leave of absence."

The messenger from the General of Sandalak poked his head into the biggest hospital tent in the Sandalak encampment at Abykal, and immediately regretted it -- a valkyrie of a nurse, clad in a blood-spattered white uniform shrieked at him and drove him away with the fury of a Yayhan rottweiler. Lord Sebastian's livery did not make his messenger a popular person with the healers. He had come straight here from the battlefield outside the walls, and still smelled of whiskey. Sandalak's victory, however, had laid a few TLs out, Lord Alexei Dolohov among them with an arrow in his left arm.

Sebastian's orders had been quite clear, though: find the Golden Griffons, Alexei's battallion, to give them orders, then determine how soon the former Dictator himself would be up and ready. The sooner he accomplished the task, the sooner he could get back to celebrating in some cozy pub in Ibyp.

So he looked around cautiously, then turned his tabard inside-out and crawled under the side of the tent. He snatched a white doctor's tunic and threw it on over his clothes, then picked up a saw and found a nurse.

"Where's Commander Dolohov been put? I think that arm's going to have to come off."

"Right this way, doctor." The messenger followed the nurse to a smaller, more private tent. The nurse slipped inside and called quietly, "Milord, the doctor would like to see you. Milord? Damn it!"

She bolted outside and cupped her hands at her mouth. "We've got a runner!"

The messenger took advantage of her distraction and entered the tent -- a nice little spot with a desk and a comfortable-looking bed. An empty bed. He poked around the various belongings, and was soon rewarded: onto the ground fell a tattered letter. Nobody was around, so he read it.

"Island far to the west... lots of gold... fellow captured by his own ship's crew... 'You're the only one I can trust.' Signed, Your Uncle, Vasily Dolohov." He tucked it into his messenger's pouch and went for his horse. Lords Boswick and Sheldar would not be happy.

General Kepler Dolohov returned to the family home in Chocxal, the messenger following closely, and the message folded and tucked into the belt of his loose tunic. Ignoring the messenger, he sat immediately at his writing desk, pulled out a piece of parchment, and started to write.

Bored, the messenger went to wash up in the large basin by the door, covered to keep sand out. Then he poked around the General's apartment. Nothing fancy -- downright humble compared to the rest of the household, shared with aunts and cousins and the occasional guest. Those large, cavernous rooms were hung with elaborate tapestries with red and gold threads, and the spoils of war: splintered lances, foreign works of art, banners from Lamar, RedSpan, Abington, Norland, Falasan, and the Ash Sea Islands. Kepler's apartment was small, just a few rooms with a simple bed and a clean marble basin. On one wall hung a suit of simple, scarred armor with a large hole. On another wall a Talerium banner was mounted, of a slightly older design, with several tears that had been mended by hand.

Kepler blotted the paper, folded it neatly. He sealed it with yellow wax, and imprinted it with the Dolohov family crest. Thus sealed, he handed it to the messenger. "Return to my father, and give him this."

"Sir, are you not coming with me?"

"I do not know why my father thinks he can come to me, after not so much as a word in ten years, but I have responsibilities here. If you didn't notice, there are Darkans in the backyard, and I am obliged to deal with them before they soil it further."

The messenger boggled. "You're not going to go and rescue your own father?"

"I am not. If I am, as he puts it, the only one he can trust, then he is truly beyond help. Now, if you will excuse me, Thor will have my head if I don't see to these incoming scout reports."

"Wait, sir. I hadn't wanted to show you this, but..." His voice trailed off as he rummaged in his sack, then came up with a small thing, like a large dried apricot.

Kepler took it, and looked it over, fingering the ragged edge. "His left ear, is it?"

"Yes, sir. It was on the floor when I last saw him. He's in a bad way, sir, and regardless of your feelings, he's flesh and blood."

Kepler pursed his lips, eyes intent on the shriveled bit of flesh. He placed it carefully on his desk. "Very well. Go downstairs and fetch my scribe. I will pack."

Chapter Two: Ships

Kepler rode to the docks immediately on his arrival in Metemec. He had come under cloak of night, leaving a brief note of resignation and explanation on the great mahogany table in the Council chamber. They would not be happy -- his aunts and uncles had not been happy, either. He'd taken over a hundred gold from the family treasury, and two good camels.

It took some doing to find a ship headed in the direction he needed, but he eventually found one that was going straight there, a converted warship flying under a well-known flag of convenience. A blockade-runner from the look of it, sleek and fast, with oar ports for close-quarters maneuvering, and shallow-bottomed for river landings. Bronzed tropical sailors, not pale Makar vikings. Almost certainly pirates -- Kepler would be obliged to have them rounded up and executed, but someone else wore the General's mantle now. Instead, he visited a few local shops to pick up some useful odds and ends: a few small arms, and some treats from home -- dried dates and figs, pistachios, the sort of food he used to keep in his saddlebags when off on campaign in the east or the south.

Before boarding, Kepler removed his sandles and shook the sand from them, catching some in his purse, for a bit of luck. He had a quick word with the captain, and was shown to a room below-decks. Small room, he could stretch out his arms and touch any two walls. A porthole with a sort of awning -- the midshipman explained that sailors don't always check for open portholes below before having a piss. Kepler imagined that it also blocked light from his lamp from any potential busybody in a crow's nest. Clean-scrubbed floors, fresh planking in odd places, and plenty of rope near anything that might be lashed down. Definitely a warship, privately owned or not.

"We'll be underway the minute we finish loading supplies," the midshipman explained. "Lumber ain't easy to come by at a desert port, but the Cagils are always good for it in a pinch. Taking on vittles and water and tobacco, too. Maybe mail, if there's any for the trading ports, or the Colonies."

Kepler nodded, watching out the porthole. "Meals are gonged. Captain'll probably want you to dine with him, but the owner's got the final say, and he's not a real social type. If you piss him off, the middies have a mess next door, and you can eat there."

The cabin door opened again, and a short, swarthy man with a permanent scowl entered. Kepler greted the captain with a nod. "Your midshipman has been a great help. Is there something I can do for you?"

"I've got a question or two for you, Mr. ah, I seem to have forgotten your name."


"Ah, yes. Same as our owner."

"Perhaps we're related," Kepler smiled. "Your questions?"

"Aye. Healers. We set sail without a sawbones, and there've been none to be had at our last few ports. If Mapaxal has healers for hire, we'll risk a stop there. Otherwise we'll have to sail without one. I know you're in a hurry, but answer honest -- it could be you who needs the doctor."

"I understand. To the best of my knowledge, there are no healers for hire in Mapaxal. Chocxal, however, usually has a half dozen, and the trip is only a few days from here by camel. However, it would be best to send someone armed: Darkan troops are around, and have been robbing travelers on the roads. I myself came with a mounted guard -- of course, I'm a slightly more attractive target."

"Oh really," asked the captain, "and why's that?"

Kepler gave him a blank look. "I was carrying the gold for my passage, remember?"

The scowl deepened. "Anyway, Chocxal's no good, we're to leave today no matter what. I'll see what the owner turned up when he gets back."

"If he's unsuccessful, I do have some experience with battlefield medicine. That may be of limited use on a ship, but it's surely better than nothing."

"I'll keep it in mind, Mr. Smith." Kepler returned to unpacking his trunk as the captain left.

Rasputin reclined in his chair on the deck of the ship as it sailed out of Irombro's harbor, sipping port from a half-barrel he "liberated" from the basement of the Ducal palace. No soldiers for hire anywhere -- not with farmyards and workshops half-empty, and the Riombaran Army struggling along at less than a quarter its accustomed size and budget. They'd worked miracles with what they had, but that didn't include creating soldiers out of thin air. It also didn't include, he thought with a grimace, replanting vineyards up north fast enough to make a decent vintage.

Ships, now, were plentiful. Lots of people sent ships to Beluaterra looking to make a profit... then discovered there wasn't enough business to be had to cover the trip home again. Rasputin was none too wealthy, but the gold he did have tucked away was more than sufficient to hire this fine-looking sloop, though the provisioning would be a little crude.

He watched as the newly-repaired towers of Irombro sank away, nursing his port to stave off sea sickness. The Cape of Cagamir loomed and fell away before the sun began to dip into the ocean, like a pat of golden butter melting over the water. Torches went up around the ship, and the sailors kept watch. Rasputin beckoned the messenger, who had come up from below-decks, cleaned up and better dressed than at their first meeting.

"What all this, then? Pirates?"

"No sir. If only." The messenger visibly shuddered. "We're passing Eno tonight."

"Eno! Fine city, that! A little too laid-back for my taste, but the architecture is second to none."

"Not so fine these days, sir. Completely infested with undead. The ports are a breeding ground, and I hear tell they attack ships as pass too close, they do. A thousand of them'll swim out, and most of them sink like rocks, but the hundred or so as make it, swarm up over the side and capsize it. They eats the crew alive."

Rasputin nodded and patted the old notched scimitar sheathed at his hip. "Well then, it's a good thing I'm here. This knife of mine makes quick work of those wretched things." He paused. "Just the same, I'd rather make do without the unpleasantness."

"One more thing, sir. Captain wants to know if it's safe to land at Ete, to take on supplies."

"It isn't. If it's a city he needs, Jidington's closest. Twillen should be safe. Both are out of our way, though. I don't think we'll be able to make a stop until that island of yours."

"Scorril, sir."

"That's the one. Now be a good lad and fetch me some bread or something from the galley. My insides are none too happy with all this sloshing about."

The art of shaving onboard a ship at sea is not easily mastered, but is also not significantly more difficult than shaving while riding a camel. Kepler washed his face and splashed on a bit of rum by way of an aftershave -- a trick he'd learned from Sir Ivan down south. The midshipman had told him that the captain did not stand on ceremony at dinner, but it was rarely wise to be the least formal person in the room. With his father's messenger eating belowdecks with the middies, that left few options. He chose regular desert attire -- a white shirt, white pants, jade belt buckle "liberated" in the Ash Sea Islands, and a tan sash with the family crest. Beyond that, simple cleanliness would have to suffice.

Kepler mounted the stairs to the deck and knocked on the cabin door. A sailor in uniform opened it with a bow. Inside, a table had been laid out for four, with bread and wine already on the table. One man was already at the table, a short swarthy fellow covered in scars -- the sergeant of the small band of mixed infantry, fellow travelers. At the far end of the room, the captain sat in close conversation with a dark-haired man wrapped in a cloak, his back to Kepler.

He had just sat at the table with the sergeant when the captain waved him over.

"Mr. Smith, come meet the owner of this fine vessel."

Kepler started to rise, when the other man spoke. "No need; we've met." He turned toward the table and grinned. "Like he told you, captain. Maybe we're related."

Taken aback, it took a while before Kepler could utter a word, and even then just the obvious: "Alexei?"