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Maria woke before the dawn bells began to ring. She rolled off her cot on the second floor of the red-roofed hostel and heard the lapping water playing off the stilts beneath the foundation. She stretched. The floor groaned beneath her weight. There were others in the room, a bunk of ten, and Maria did not want to wake them.
She gathered up her belongings quietly — backpack, bedding, shoes— and stole out into the hallway. There, she slipped along the creaking corridor to the washroom and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. This was it. The big day. They were finally leaving Sakhet.
When she’d left home to travel halfway around the world, Maria never thought she would end up in a city at the edge of the known world. The Northern Provinces were mostly undiscovered, and Maria had always been something of a drifter. It made the world her home. She liked relying on the kindness of strangers and the natural good of the people around her to make her way.
But this wasn’t about that. This was about giving something back.
She slipped out of the washroom, crept down the stairwell at the end of the hall, looked around. Her hosts, the older man and his wife who ran the hostel, bandied about in the kitchen. The man said something. The wife laughed. Maria smiled to herself as she eased out of the front door and slid it shut.
The sound of water lapping on the poles beneath her feet covered her footsteps as she prowled along the boardwalk, away from the hostel. She stopped about twenty paces from the door and turned north to study the adventure that awaited her. It called to her, even now.
Massive trees topped the high ridges and peaks on the opposite side of the lake, where a line of red-roofed houses stood in the foreground of the unknown wilderness. Sakhet was truly the edge of the world, but that small line of homes stood on the thinnest fringe between civilization and the true unknown.
The door to the hostel opened, and Kylie stepped out onto the boardwalk. The blonde looked as though she’d seen better days, her frazzled hair untamable in the humid air. She fussed with her curls as she approached.
“Morning,” she grumbled when she reached Maria. “How’d you sleep?”
“Like the dead,” Maria said. They’d spent half the day hiking upstream alongside the southern river to reach Sakhet before nightfall, and the trail had been unforgiving. Maria knew she was made of pretty tough stuff, but even she had her limits.
“Me, too,” Kylie said. “Today should be an easier day.”
“Paulino said he’d be up early. Wanted to buy a boat. We’ll use it to paddle north.”
Maria’s face scrunched up with curiosity. “How does that work? We were hiking upstream yesterday. Shouldn’t the river feeding the lake from the north also be running in the same direction?”
“It should be, geologically speaking. But it doesn’t. Paulino thinks the lake is spring-fed, or that the water is coming up from underground and running off through the rivers.”
Maria shrugged. This really wasn’t her forte. “I guess?” she said.
Kylie sniffed. “I’m going back in for breakfast. You want something?”
“Whatever you’re having,” Maria said. She and Kylie didn’t have much in common, but so far they’d proven themselves dietary twins. It was a saving grace for a relationship that never would have survived first contact otherwise.
From across the lake, Maria spotted a boat slicing toward them. It wasn’t unique, a small canoe no different than the others trawling the morning water, with one exception: Maria recognized the man guiding it.
Paulino paddled twice on the left, then again on the right, correcting course as he made his way up along the boardwalk. He seemed in a chipper mood as he pulled out a rope, tethered the canoe to a post, and hauled himself up onto the planks beside Maria.
“We’re ready to go,” he said. “You packed?”
Maria half-turned so that Paulino could see the back resting on her shoulders. “Yep.”
“Then we should get to it.”
Maria raised a brow. “Steve is still sleeping. And I don’t think Kylie will appreciate you pulling her away from breakfast.”
“There’s breakfast?” Paulino looked around. His stomach was a bottomless pit, and they both knew it. “Where?”
“Inside,” Maria said, nodding back toward the hostel.
“Well, hot damn,” he said, sidestepping her. “Let’s get to it. And after that, the adventure of a lifetime. You ready?”
“For breakfast? Sure.”
Turning back toward the hostel, she glanced once more at the unknown north. Fog and mist danced between the high peaks. Somewhere in the distance, a bird cried out among the trees.
Adventure was calling, that much was true.
But breakfast was closer.