Kris could have used bladecraft. The servants and guards who rushed into their path at the Quloi embassy would have gone flying with just a few shifts of Kris’s sword, clearing the path to Ojo’s door. But those people didn’t deserve to be hurled about, simply because they didn’t understand that this was an emergency—that Kris could not wait; they had to see Ojo now.
So they kept their blade sheathed, and used their body instead. Eeling past secretaries, hip-checking one determined guard out of the way. Someone grabbed Kris’s arm and regretted it a moment later, because learning bladecraft didn’t preclude learning how to break holds, too. And then they were at the door to Ojo’s office, which opened before Kris could touch it, and the familiar bulk of Quloo’s senior warder filled the opening.
Ojo raised one hand. The growing clamor behind Kris died down. “Please go back to your work,” Ojo said to the crowd. “I will speak with Warder Denn privately.”
Kris heard the whispers as the embassy staff dispersed. That charge through the corridors wouldn’t do Rumika’s image any good, Kris knew, but . . . “Is it true?” they asked as Ojo ushered them into the office and shut the door behind them both. “Do you have news about the fleet?”
They weren’t alone in the office. A stocky, middle-aged woman in the round-collared silk robe and close-fitting cap of a Tsukiseni ship captain stood up, glancing first at Kris, then at Ojo, as if asking for permission.
The Quloi warder nodded heavily. “Warder Denn needs to know. Tell them what you told me.”
Kris’s shoulders tensed. News, yes—but not good news. Ojo wouldn’t look like that if it were good news. The fleet was already long overdue.
The Tsukiseni woman spoke crisply, with none of the languid affectation of that island’s aristocrats. “I am Komatsu no Chikafuru of the Tanigawa Maru. My ship recently passed near the Engwehin Rocks, and we saw a large scattering of flotsam—the broken pieces of aerstone hulls.”
The meaning of her words circled like a manak, waiting to strike home. “You mean—but that could have been from any ship.”
“There was too much for a single ship. And when we examined the pieces, they clearly came from several different vessels, judging by the construction of the planking.”
Ojo said quietly, “She reported it to me because the flotsam was in Quloi skyspace. But one of the fragments bore a piece of the ship’s name—ly Mutable.”
The Eternally Mutable. One of the seven Rumikan ships sent to bear the shipment of aerstone to Quloo.
Kris sank blindly into a chair. They barely listened as Ojo thanked the captain and dismissed her, saying he’d be in touch if he had further questions. Kris ought to have interrupted then, asked their own questions—but they couldn’t think of a single one.
With the two of them alone in the office, Ojo simply waited, giving Kris time. But no amount of time would be enough. “How?” they whispered numbly. “How can the ships be . . . gone?”
“We don’t know yet,” Ojo said.
“They can’t have just broken up for no reason.” Kris’s pulse accelerated as they considered the possibilities. “Was there a storm? Or manaks? No, manaks could never take out a fleet that large. A mist-fiend?” Quloo was sinking. Could it possibly have sunk far enough to be vulnerable to the predators of the lowest reaches?
The smack of Ojo’s palm against his desk stopped the rising flood of Kris’s words. Their own voice sounded like a stranger’s to them, tension forcing it high and shrill.
“Kris.” By contrast, Ojo’s tone was soft and gentle. “Calm down. Right now, all we know is that something has gone wrong. Speculating without evidence gets us nowhere. There may have been another ship that passed through before the Tanigawa Maru, or one near enough to have some idea of what might have happened. Rest assured that I’ll share with you everything I learn.”
This was supposed to be a victory. Rumika’s grand entry to the world stage. An alliance with mighty Quloo, and Kris’s own blade sealing the deal. How could the other warder be so serene, in the face of such a disaster? “But the fleet is gone, Ojo. The whole fleet! If any of the ships had survived, we would know by now! What am I supposed to tell Rumika?”
Ojo’s calm facade cracked. “That is your concern, Warder Denn, not mine. I have to explain this to Quloo. If you would like to conduct your own investigation, by all means, be my guest—I want to know what happened as badly as you do.”
Storms. Manaks. Mist-fiends.
Or something else.