It had occurred before to Bleeding Wolf that the Riverlands were something of a confused identity, but the point always felt most salient when he found himself aboard a boat. He hated boats. They were wretched, unstable things riding arrogantly upon tangles of opaque current and manifest unreliability. And yet, boats were the only decent way to get about west of the Scrubline, and Bleeding Wolf tolerated them for his debt to the place. Since the war, the Green had been the only purpose he’d really known. He belonged with it, and it, for better or worse, belonged here.
Nonetheless, despite his tenuous misery on the water, he had to admit the journey of the last week had been interesting. He’d bargained for passage up the Lifeline from Captain Lan al’Ver, an eccentric merchant whose aloof manner and patchwork, ersatz aesthetics might have led Bleeding Wolf to seek help elsewhere, if not for the man’s surprisingly widespread reputation for reliability. Indeed, though this was their first meeting face-to-face, Bleeding Wolf had heard the name Lan al’Ver many times, and so far, it seemed the man’s notoriety was well-earned.
Since the trip began, no fewer than twenty passengers had boarded–and since departed–their small, six-person vessel. Lan had asked only a pittance of Bleeding Wolf, provided he would help with portage when they reached their destination, but with each new face that boarded, the captain’s negotiations seemed to take a strange, new turn. In each case, he would offer much more than was asked–he even once fought off a pair of bandits who had chased one hapless passenger into the river–and received more than he requested. By the time they had reached the fork with the Artery, Lan had made himself several times Bleeding Wolf’s fare, the boat was laden with food and goods and an impractical bounty of knickknacks left in gratitude by the erstwhile passengers-in-distress, and, somehow, they had suffered no particular delay for their semi-charitable excursions.
And now, in the final leg of the journey, they had picked up two final traveling companions, each conspicuous in their way amidst the Riverlands’ fluctuating normalcy. The first was a quiet, paranoid man who offered coin for passage and no other information, whose evident desire for anonymity was likely undercut by the strangeness of his garb. Bleeding Wolf recognized it as Khettite, though he’d thought all remnants of Khet had disappeared from the Riverlands by now.
The second somehow managed to be even stranger, despite his complete disinclination toward secrecy. His name was Naples, and where the previous passenger could scarcely be persuaded to open his mouth, Naples seemed quite unable to shut his own. He was traveling to the Crossroads, he explained between bites of an apple, to reunite with his lover, with whom their smoldering romance could not continue in the vicinity of her father, and also for the historic architecture, apparently.
“Did you know the Crossroads is home to the oldest theater in the Riverlands?” he asked, tossing his apple core over the side of the boat. “It’s not used as a theater anymore, of course, but don’t you think something like that ought to be better recorded for posterity?”
Bleeding Wolf very much did not give a shit, but he found Naples just as bizarre as he was offensive. He didn’t like the man’s carefree attitude, and he especially didn’t like his obliviousness to the concept of hunger. Not because it was an insult–rather, these days, people who didn’t go hungry had a reason for their comfort, and the less obvious those reasons, the less they were to be trusted.
For his part, Lan seemed entirely unperturbed by the subject of architecture, throwing in a haughty exhortation that Naples “ought rightly to have laid eyes on the Grand Amphitheater of the World City,” which earned a raised eyebrow from the would-be scholar. Deservedly, Bleeding Wolf thought. No history he had ever encountered mentioned an amphitheater in Kol, and even if it had existed, he doubted Lan had the requisite centuries of age necessary to have seen it.
Still, despite Bleeding Wolf’s guarded suspicion, the thread of conversation–Naples musings on various useless miscellanea met by Lan’s boasts and impossible one-upmanship–persisted for days, abating only as they pulled ashore on the Crossroads’ southern outskirts. Naples and the Khettite disembarked quickly and politely, leaving Bleeding Wolf to help Lan with the boat, as agreed. He admittedly wasn’t sure how the merchant intended to secure the various windfalls he had accumulated along the way, but that certainly wasn’t his concern.
“Do you want it beached here?” he asked, hopping ashore, gripping a line lashed to the vessel’s bow.
“Oh, heavens no,” Lan replied. “We’ll be taking it into town.” As he spoke, he wrenched down a lever near the rudder, lowering four wheels, previously nestled in alcoves in the boat’s hull, into the water. Bleeding Wolf’s eyes widened.