Garbol hopped into his RV and gunned the engine, peeling off the Klopp Island promontory toward Bodder’s Town, sliding and skidding in the muddy road to beat the phantom ships. Whatever else he did to defend the people, he would have to solve the riddle of dishonor, injustice, and falsehood that drew the phantoms out.
He didn’t know much about Bodder’s Town. It was a member of the ancient Mooten’s League of Merchants, a way for the towns in the island chain to band together and trade with larger islands and continents.
The RV rocked violently around a curve.
When he crested the hill before town, the phantom ships dropped launches in the cove and the sailors piled in. He floored the gas and careened into the center of town. Men pointlessly boarded up windows.
Garbol stopped and climbed out. “You.” He pointed to a sturdy man nailing boards over a storefront. “Where’s the highest point in town?”
“City hall clock tower.”
“Take me. Now.”
The man, named Stenton, led him down the street to an old building undergoing significant renovations, scaffolds from ground to roof. Inside was the same, construction materials everywhere.
“What are you doing to this place?” asked Garbol.
“It’s being fully redone for the new consortium.” Stenton led him up stairs two stories and down a hall.
“What new consortium?”
“The Mooten-Pacific-Basin Pact. We’ve extended our influence and modernized merchant law.”
“And what of the MLM?” asked Garbol.
“Dissolved. No more.” He entered two large double doors at the midsection of the hallway. “Doesn’t matter. Most of the MLM’s external agreements were with people that don’t even exist anymore.”
“You don’t say.” Garbol followed Stenton into a large lecture hall. “What about the few who are left? Will you honor your agreement with them?”
Stenton took him up the side stairs of the tiered seats about halfway up where there was a padlocked access door. “No sense in it. The only people left are the Jargolants. They’re just smugglers these days, and the league only agreed to arbitrate between them and the Pargolains, and they’re long gone.”
“Yeah.” Stenton pulled the hasp off the door, the nails only loosely holding it in place. He opened it and crawled in.
Garbol followed. “They wouldn’t happen to be a seafaring culture?”
“Legendary,” said Stenton. “Big ships, and ruthless.”
A wooden path, insulation on each side, led to a ladder which they climbed. At the top Stenton opened a trap door, and rain poured in. They climbed out onto a narrow platform that went around all sides of the clock tower, a wooden railing surrounding it. Garbol could see the entire town.
The phantom sailors were almost to shore.
“What else have they done, Stenton? We know the Mooten people aren’t honoring the MLM, but how have they lied? What injustice have they incurred?”
“You can’t expect us to honor a pact made by people who don’t exist.”
“Grow up, Stenton. I’m not blaming anyone for that, but phantoms aren’t reasonable, and I have to understand them to defeat them. Now think—How have you misrepresented the Pargolains, and what might they consider an injustice?”
The phantom launches touched shore and the phantom seamen disembarked, lining up on the beach.
“You’d have to talk to the historian. All I know is they put a statue of our first prime delegate in the square, the words, ‘Pacifier of the Sea.’ engraved underneath.”
Garbol attempted a ward between the town and the beach, but it was weak, and probably ineffectual against phantoms. “Wait a minute. You guys weren’t at war were you?”
“No. Not for hundreds of years.”
“So you took credit for the peace that was handed down to you from previous generations.”
Stenton stammered. “I suppose that’s true.”
The phantoms walked right through Garbol’s ward into town.
“There’s the lie. Now all I need is the injustice. Any ideas?”
“Not a clue.”
The phantoms, about sixty of them, lit torches, and Garbol pointed his pool-cue staff at them, dousing each flame as it lit, but they all kept relighting, and it was hard to keep up.
“Listen carefully, Stenton.” Garbol kept dousing, and the phantoms kept lighting. “We’ve figured out the dishonor and lie that’s upset them, but to have any chance against these guys, I’ve got to figure out what injustice they perceive. Go find Bodder’s Town’s delegate and bring him here. I’ll hinder their attack as much as I can.”
Stenton nervously ran his hand through his hair.
“Um. Well, you see, I’m the town’s delegate.”
Garbol looked at him. “Tell me, then. How has the new consortium acted unjustly against the Pargolains. Tell me everything you know.”
“I’ve already told you everything I know.”
“Think, man. Think.”
Stenton opened his mouth, shook his head, and squeaked.
The lit torches gained in number, and the phantoms marched into town.