Tobias put the scope back in its satin bag. “Let me make the trade.”
“You can’t do that,” I said, grabbing it from him. “Right now, they don’t know where we are, and it has to stay that way.”
Tobias’s eyes softened. “I’m scared for her.”
“Me too. But we cannot help her from here. Now, please, Tobias, let me sleep.”
He gave in, but he clearly wasn’t happy about my decision. I passed the scope to Fink to keep safe, then closed my eyes. If I slept at all, it didn’t feel any longer than a minute or two before Wilta rustled my arm, whispering, “Jaron, look!”
The night had grown dark, but in the shadows I saw the outline of the fishing boat we had seen earlier, now much closer than before. Tobias and Fink had fallen asleep too. If not for Wilta, the boat might have passed us by.
I used my knife to cut the rope connecting us to the Shadow Tide. As the larger ship continued to sail forward, we were slowly left behind, making the next few minutes extremely risky. If the night vigils spotted us and raised an alarm, we were utterly defenseless.
“Do you know who is on the fishing boat?” Wilta asked. “Was this one of your plans too?”
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this boat has been so near the Shadow Tide since we were attacked, but no, I didn’t plan this.” I squinted, hoping to see anyone on the deck, but was unsuccessful. It didn’t matter though. No matter who appeared on the deck, we were getting on that boat.
“What will happen to me now?” Wilta asked.
“You’ll be safe with us.” I checked again to be sure Tobias and Fink were asleep, then in a quieter voice, added, “You know what is coming for us better than anyone else. Answer my friends’ questions, give your advice. But if I ask you to keep something a secret, I must be able to trust that you will do it.”
“Why keep so many secrets? If they’re your friends, they’ll help you.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” I sighed. “The truth is, Wilta, that I can no longer trust Roden, which is a terrible blow for Carthya. And I don’t know what’s happening to Amarinda. I’m worried for my friends who were left behind when our ship was attacked. Fink and Tobias will want to help, but Fink is too young and Tobias can’t manage a sword. I need more time to work out some details before I speak to them.”
She reached for my hand and squeezed it, then we woke Tobias and Fink to help row ourselves toward the fishing boat.
It was an older craft, but large enough for a crew of ten, if they were willing to pack in close together. An open platform at the rear of the boat was for the helmsman, and behind it was a small wardroom, with sleeping quarters likely in the deck below. At the bow of the ship, a single mast carried a white sail, and notably there was no flag identifying this boat’s country of origin.
Fifteen minutes later, our lifeboat intersected with the fishing vessel. Any hopes I’d had to see Mott or Imogen here immediately dissolved. Instead, a man with far more years behind him than ahead, and with less meat on his bones than the average ant, leaned over the railing and looked us up and down.
“You young folks look lost,” he said.
“We’d like to come aboard,” I said. “If we’re welcome.”
He scratched his jaw. “My name’s Westler. And I’ve no more need of a crew. Can you get yourselves to land on your own?”
“No more need?” I squinted. “When did you acquire a crew?”
“It’s not really a crew. Hold on.” The man went to the center of his deck and began to climb down what appeared to be a steep ladder. A minute later, a head popped up through the same opening, and I felt almost as if for the first time in a day, I could breathe again.
With that first breath, I whispered his name. “Mott.”
He climbed onto the deck, though on a night with little available light, he had to bend over the rail to see us better. His eyes gleamed when he recognized us.
In his hands was a grappling hook, which he threw over to us. Tobias caught it and linked our boats, then Mott pulled us close enough together that we could transfer to the fishing boat. I’d rarely been so happy to see someone.
Mott grabbed me when I entered and pulled me into a tight, almost desperate embrace. I gasped and pushed back, becoming aware that I may have taken on more bruises than I had earlier realized.
He helped Wilta from the lifeboat next. “She was a captive of the Prozarians,” I explained, before he could ask. “Wilta has been a friend to us.”
She smiled shyly as she thanked Mott for his help. “For weeks I’ve dreamed of escaping the Prozarians. Jaron finally made it possible. I owe him a great debt now.”
“Fink and I wouldn’t have made it off the ship without your help,” I said. “You owe me nothing.” I looked at Mott. “She needs a warm bunk. And we need to put distance between us and the Shadow Tide.”
Mott looked at Westler, who was back at the helm. “Can you take us twenty degrees farther south?”
Westler smiled at Mott but did nothing. In a quieter voice, Mott said, “He only hears about every other word, but don’t worry. Once you’re settled, I’ll change our course.”