Sitting on the edge of his bed, Sloan looked up as someone banged on the door. He stood to make certain his trousers were buttoned. Grabbing a shirt from the bedpost, he shimmied into it as he shuffled out of the bedroom, through the kitchen, and down the front hall.
"I’m coming!” he yelled, as the pounding began again. He stopped at the front door. The noise continued a moment and stopped.
“Mister Sloan, you have a message.” He knew the heavy Murnochi accent – the authoritarian voice of his landlady, Dorna Grabzhinko, whom he lovingly thought of as the Avatar of the Beast God. He unbarred, unlatched, unlocked, and opened the door. He cast a glance downward. Four and a half feet of Beast God stared up at him.
“This just came,” she said. “Very important, the boy said.”
Sloan glanced at the slip of paper she clutched. Doubtless the boy had brought it with him. Like most Downers, Mrs. Grabzhinko could neither read nor write.
“I seem to recall you told me you would have money for me last week.”
“Yes, I believe I did.”
“You do have money for me, Mister Sloan?”
“Not as such; not in the sense of coin that is, no.”
“But why? You work so hard.”
“Yes, I do, but unfortunately, profits have been a bit low this quarter.”
“Mr. Sloan, I remember when you moved in. You wanted the rooms with the big kitchen and the pantry.” She looked at him through rheumy eyes. “You told me then you would pay me every month. You were never late, you said.”
“I don’t recall saying that. It’s possible that I lied.”
“I don’t want to make you leave, Mr. Sloan.”
“I don’t think I’d like that either.”
“You’ll have my money next week?”
“Good.” She handed the smudged, crumpled message to him. He peeled it open and read it. He looked back down at her.
“Is the boy wearing a blue scarf?”
“Is he waiting outside?”
“Send him in.”
Mrs. Grabzhinko left and Sloan stepped back out of his doorway. As he did, a long, soft feminine hand brushed against his neck.
“Something interesting?” A throaty voice asked him.
"It looks like I’ll be going out tonight,” Sloan told his wife.
* * *
Melbourn rolled over and groaned. His jaw hurt, his feet hurt, his back hurt, and his knees hurt. He threw the thin blanket away from him and rolled out of bed. His knees popped as he stood. His knees almost always hurt; it was one of the perks of the profession. He rubbed his jaw and scratched, looking down briefly at his nude form. He inhaled a bucketful of air and felt the power in his chest. He was in excellent health and always had been – other than the knees, of course.
He crossed to the window and threw open the shutters. The windows were glassless, as were most windows in his part of the city. Sunlight poured through the opening, following closely by a cool breeze. He looked first at the sun burning in the glossy blue sky, then at the street below, with its bustle of morning business.
“That must be a glorious show for the neighbors,” a woman’s voice purred to him from the bed. Melbourn turned to look at her.
“My neighbors have had the opportunity to gaze upon this every morning as long as I’ve lived here.” He smiled and walked back to the bed.
The woman rolled onto her back, and pushed herself up on her elbows. She was Astaran, and as such, her skin was the color of chocolate and her hair the color of night. When he had shoved the blanket away, he had unwittingly pushed it off her as well. Her hips, revealed by his casual movement, were her best feature, he though; wide and womanly. He sat next to her and ran his hand across her belly. After a moment, he moved it to play across one of her breasts.
“How long have you lived here?” she asked, through half-lidded eyes.
“In this room or in Harbordown?”
“How long have you been in town?”
“You don’t look that old.”
“I’m older than I look. How old are you?”
“Shouldn’t you have asked me that before you brought me up here?”
“Piffle. ‘Twas you that seduced me.”
She smiled. “I could only hold out so long.”
“It was five days, woman. I’m not that strong a man.”
“You’re stronger than you look – particularly for such an old man.”
“For that you shan’t have thirds.”
“Fourths,” she corrected. “At least it was for me.”
“I’m nineteen.” She smiled at him. “Is that too old?”
“No. I would venture to say that it’s too young.”
“I’m not too young.”
“I daresay I agree with you. But I was living in town a year before you were born.” He pulled away his hand. “I’m nearly two hundred years old.”
She rolled to her side and rested her hand on his chest.
“Where did you live before this?”
“I lived in Tassen for many years.”
“Did you? Did you come to Astar when you were there?”
“Yes. I sailed to your lovely island and spent several months there, fifty-some years ago. That’s when I discovered the joys of women with brown skin.”
“Who did you meet?” She asked him, coyly.
“I’d rather not say. I’d prefer not to know if you’re my granddaughter.”
She pulled her hand away from his chest for a moment and then touched it again.
“You have scars.”
“What are these?” She pointed to one of several cross-shaped scars, all about an inch from point to point.
“Oh. They must hurt.”
“What about this long one?” She traced a line along his belly.
“Slash from a sword. I got that in Tassen.”
“Why did you leave there?”
“I had to.”
“Oh. What about this one?”
“I don’t remember. It’s been there as long as I can recall. I think it’s a knife wound.”
“You don’t remember?”
“No. What you never hear about sidhe is that we begin to lose memories after one hundred years or so. The unimportant ones, that is. The more important they are to us, the more likely we remember them. But after some time, they will all fade.”
“Have you forgotten things?”
“Yes. I can’t remember what my home looked like.”
“Do you remember your parents?”
“My father was tall and handsome. My mother was beautiful, like all mothers.”
“Do you have any other family?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Were you born in Tassen?”
He thought a moment. “I can’t remember.”
* * *
Dunbar Stormglow held his blade at arm’s length. He stared down the length of the steel, focused on a lush green elm twenty yards away. Above him, seagulls circled and cried out. Six hundred feet below him, surf pounded into a rocky granite cliff. He was in the Garden, one of the highest districts of the city. Here, structures were restricted; none had been built in decades. Thick green grass covered the Garden and bushes grew in clumps and lines. Trees grew in orderly fashion in some places, wild and free in others. In the wilder area of the Garden, near the cliff, Dunbar felt the most comfortable.
He stood on the grass alone, away from the white gravel paths. Below him, the grassy slope fell away about twenty feet to the bluff, and then dropped to the cold harbor waters. He focused on the point of the blade. He stood still as the sun moved through the sky. With no warning, he exploded into a flurry of movement.
He spun his battered broadsword, tossing it from hand to hand, spinning it up and around his back. He threw it up into the air, caught it with his left hand, and tossed it back up. Dancing in circles as he moved, his long body whipped around with every turn. He thrust at invisible foes, dodged invisible enemies, and parried invisible blows. Broadsword whirring through the air, he took the head from an invisible demon and hurled the blade into the air. Without watching, he snatched it as it fell, dropped to his knees, and plunged it into the ground.
His bare chest rose and fell as he stood to catch his breath. His arms, torso, and shoulders shone with sweat, and his hair was wet and dripping. He pulled a long dagger – one to replace the one last at the Dark Wife – and began to spin it around his hand. He turned as he spun the blade to watch a messenger approach; he had heard him several moments previously. When the messenger arrived, Dunbar tossed the blade up and over his head.
“Good morning, Tully,” he said as the boy staggered to a stop.
“Oi, Dunbar, got a message.”
The dagger plunged into the ground behind him with a shunk.
“Malcolm’s ship was spotted coming into the harbor this morning. It was held up, but he’ll be docking sometime today.”
“Thank you. Who sent the message?”
“Giorg. He thought you guys might want to be there tonight. How long has he been gone?”
“Months. What about the others?”
“They’re both coming.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Tully.” Dunbar reached into his belt and tossed him a copper penny. Tully snatched the coin from the air with the same amount of skill that Dunbar had caught his sword, and turned away. He was running before he completed the circle, and had vanished within seconds.
Dunbar turned around. The dagger had landed less than a handspan away from the sword. He smiled and retrieved his weapons.
* * *
Tzal Rynn climbed up the ship’s gangway and onto the main deck. Overhead, seagulls circled, cawing at each other and at the forest of masts, spars, sails, and shrouds that jutted up from Harbordown’s waterfront. He hitched up a large bag onto his shoulder and strolled across the deck to the port gunwale, where the officers waited. The captain and first mate nodded to him. The others did not.
Tzal returned the nods and leaned against the thick wooden bulwark. He inhaled the salt smell of the harbor and gazed up at the gulls. Leaning back and resting his hips against the starboard rail, he set his bag on the deck next to him. It was bulky, heavy, and misshapen. It had been torn, repaired, sun-bleached, and stained by rain and mud, yet it was his favorite possession, because it was the only one he had that could carry everything else he owned.
He stretched and let the sun wash over him. Broad in the chest and shoulders, and a few inches over six feet, he considered himself well-constructed. As he usually did, he wore blue trousers and a white shirt, stained gray in streaks. He owned a long purple cloak, but preferred not to wear it shipboard, leaving it safe in his bag.
He ran his fingers through his black curly hair and blinked. His bright blue eyes narrowed as he realized that Waverider’s sails were furled. He turned to face the officers.
“Why have we stopped?” he asked.
“We’re waiting for a pilot boat,” the first mate answered. Tzal expected that. So far he was the only one of the officers to have been friendly with him. He suspected it was because he was a non-paying passenger.
“That’s the only way we get into dock,” the first mate said. He joined Tzal at the rail and pointed at the water, some hundreds of yards away. “Look there, to that tower.”
“I see it.”
“On the port side, where the sea meets the stone, what do you see?”
“I don’t know. What am I looking for?”
“The first link of one of the harbor chains. Each link is about three feet long and as thick as a man’s arm.” He put his hand on his bicep.
“I can’t see it,” Tzal said, squinting.
“If the tide’s high, you won’t. That chain reaches from the tower to the shore.” He pointed to the nearest shore, nearly two miles away. “They use it to keep invading ships out.”
“But it’s underwater.”
“Aye, it is. But it’s not more than a few feet down. A ship that tries to cross it gets scuttled. The harbor is crisscrossed with chains; you have to sail around them.”
“So the pilot boat guides us in?”
“I see. How long until the pilot boat arrives?”
“Not long. There’re two ships going in now. One’s a trader, Dragonfish. The other’s been crippled; it looks like a pirate vessel. It’s in tow to the other, so they must have captured it.”
“A trader captured a pirate?”
The first mate grinned. “Appears so. It’s probably McMarsen. He’s the only battle captain I know who hunts pirates from fat-bottomed brigs.”
“How long do you figure before we’ve docked?”
“A few hours. Why are you in such a hurry?”
“I’ve wanted to come here for a long time. Now I have to.”
* * *
Melbourn ran up three short steps and stopped at a door. Hearing soft fiddle music from inside, he listened until the piece was complete before knocking. When he heard footsteps, he stepped back. The door was unbarred, unlatched, and unlocked. Sloan opened the door. Melbourn tapped the leather bag slung over his shoulder.
“You have the book?” Sloan asked.
“Come in, then.” Sloan waved him inside. “How did it go?”
“No trouble at all.”
“Good.” Sloan led him through the kitchen without slowing. Melbourn helped himself to a link of hard sausage, a pot of spicy mustard, and a wedge of smoked cheese. He followed Sloan down a short hallway, pretending not to notice how some floorboards squeaked as he trod on them. At the end of the hall, they passed through a short doorway and into Sloan’s laboratory.
The room, which was once a large bedroom, was littered with desks, tables, bookshelves, stools, rolls of parchments, scrolls of magic, books open and closed, inkwells, candles, lamps, maps, lists, drawings, pots, jars, cups, and one pitcher of cold water. In one corner, the floor was kept clear and clean; a pentacle was carved into the stone floor. On the far wall, Sloan had hung his favorite instrument, his lute. In the nearest corner, Elenaya Sloan leaned against a stool, fiddle and bow in hand. She was tall, light-haired, and stunning. Melbourn had never understood how dull, plain Elias Sloan had ever got her to consent to marriage, but he suspected sorcery was involved.
“Good afternoon, Melbourn. Make yourself at home.” She didn’t have to motion at the kitchen loot to make her point. She put her fiddle under her arm and kissed Sloan on the cheek. Melbourn looked away. Too much of her presence was intoxicating. She smiled at him as she left the room.
Sloan took his seat. Melbourn perched on a stool and pulled the leather bag from his shoulder. He opened it.
“What’s in the scroll case?”
“Just a little something I picked up,” Melbourn answered.
“How many little somethings did you pick up?”
“A few,” he said, handing over the book. “I got you a pipe.”
“Lovely.” Sloan opened the book and began to scan the pages. Melbourn took the black cloth-wrapped pipe from his vest, unwrapped it, and set in on a teetering pile of books. He pulled out his own briar, packed it, and reached for a lit red candle.
“I really wouldn’t, if I were you,” Sloan said without looking up.
“That one is keeping the demon Ghoros from finding us.” He still didn’t look up.
Melbourn glared at him. You could never tell whether to believe him or not. Deciding not to risk it, he reached for a different candle, paused to see if it was being used for any diabolic protection spell, and then lit his match with it. He lit it and took a long draw.
“Very nice,” Sloan finally said, looking up. “We now have Lord Barrendon where we want him.”
“By the short and curlies?”
“Yes. He’ll do whatever I ask.”
“I want an invitation to a wedding. And I’ll get it.”
“Because we have a ledger?”
“No, because we have the ledger,” Sloan answered. “Are you certain this is the correct one?”
“It was better hidden than the others. I checked it against them; it seemed to be the most detailed. But in case I was mistaken…” He pulled three other books from the bag. “I brought them all.”
Sloan took them, flipping through them, and dismissed them.
“No, you were correct. This is the real ledger. Did he see you?”
“Aye,” Melbourn answered. “I waited long enough. I thought he’d never wander up for a private chat. I had time for some drinks, a good smoke, and a read.”
"And, of course, there were the trinkets.”
“He’ll know you waited there for him?”
“I left three bowls of ash in the dish and decanted a bottle of sherry. I even took time to build a fire.”
“Quite. I’ve decided to become a man of leisure.”
“You’re already that. You’re the essence of leisure, the paragon of laziness.” Sloan looked at Melbourn’s face. “Your jaw is swollen.”
“I thought you said it went well.”
“I’ve still got ten fingers, ten toes, and my cock. I call that victory, most days.” Melbourn glanced up at the lute and waved in its direction. “Too bad you weren’t there last night. I could have used you. I could have used your lute, that is.”
“Suffice it to say I amended my escape route through the musicians’ gallery. Now everyone at Barrendon’s Ball knows that someone broke into his home.”
“Everyone in the ballroom. I must say it’s remarkable how effective a simple masque can be.”
“I see. You did well. No, you did very well. I’ll consider the extra ledgers your gift to me.” Sloan went back to reading.
“You do that. Are we now even?”
“Yes, we are.”
“I’ll be on my way.”
“Do that. Leave the mustard and try to refrain from ogling my wife.” Sloan looked down into the ledger again.
Without speaking, Melbourn stood, snatched the mustard and one other item from the desk. Before Sloan even noticed, he slipped down the hall, avoiding the squeaky floorboards as he went. Hand on the doorknob, he looked down at the red candle in his hand. Chuckling, he blew it out and slipped out of the apartment.
* * *
Malcolm McMarsen stood on the deck of Dragonfish and listened to the sounds of the harbor chaos: shouted commands, workers’ grunts and curses, the creaking of wooden booms as they strained under their heavy loads, and the cries of boredom and dismay from the oxen and horses tethered to the wagons that littered the wharf below them. He watched idly for any coming trouble, though he knew he’d find none. He’d posted his marines near the pile of goods waiting to be transferred to Rinnicker’s warehouse. In this case, overkill was the name of the game, and he had about twice the number of men posted to keep away any wharf rats that might amble off with any precious cargo.
He looked toward the bow. The second mate and an assistant were hoisting the ship’s information flags – nation of origin, cargo, and so on. The three square yellow flags along the bottom announced that they wouldn’t be departing any time soon. He glanced over and saw the ship’s master approaching, a combination of worry and happiness on his face.
“My men will see the cargo safely to your warehouse before I release them, captain,” Malcolm said.
“Very good, Mr. McMarsen, thank you.” Rinnicker sighed and smiled. “You should make a good bit of coin from this.” He waved a hand toward the battered Red Wind, which was berthed alongside them. Malcolm knew that was true. Besides his ten percent of the cargo, he would earn fifty percent of the prize – Red Wind’s value.
“This is true, sir, but I have my men to pay.”
“Even so, you should be well set.”
“I hope so. Being shot at generally pays well.”
Rinnicker smiled. “I’ll meet with the prize and salvage boards as soon as I can. She should fetch a nice price. Are you certain you don’t wish to purchase her back?”
“I suppose the gold will be more helpful over the winter than a banged-up ship lying in a frozen harbor.”
“That was fairly well my thought,” Malcolm answered. “If you’ll excuse me, captain, I have places to be, people to see, and a bath to take. A run ashore is exactly what I need.”
“I’ll call upon your agent once arrangements are made. It’s Mr. Sloan on Net Street, is it not?”
Rinnicker extended a hand to Malcolm. They shook.
“I hope you’ll be available when I said next,” Rinnicker said.
“I’ll try to be, captain.” He pointed to the yellow signal flags. “Are you planning another voyage before winter?”
“I doubt it. I prefer the idea of staying put until spring.”
“Frankly, captain, so do I. I could use the quiet,” Malcolm said. He tipped his floppy hat, turned, and left the poop deck. Collecting his gear from one of the ship’s boys on the gangway, he strode off Dragonfish and onto the dock. He passed Luka Jurem, slapped him on the shoulder, and made his way through the crowd of bustling dockworkers until he reached his lieutenant.
“This was a good one, Silas. The men did very well.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You and the men have your advances?”
“Aye, sir, we do.”
“Good. Stay with the goods until Captain Rinnicker releases you at the warehouse.”
“When we hear from the boards, I’ll send word and we’ll divide the shares.”
“That’ll be fine, sir.” He also shook Malcolm’s hand.
“You know where to reach me,” Malcolm said. “But tonight at least, I’ll be at the Shining Way.”
* * *
Tzal Rynn shrugged his bag higher up onto his shoulder as he hurried along the flagstones of Dock Street. The crowd on the thoroughfare pushed him from both sides and behind. He kept one hand on his bag and one hand on his belt. He’d made it from Geshuan to Harbordown with his wallet hidden inside the thick leather belt, and he planned to make sure it finished the trip with him.
It appeared that he’d arrived at the cusp of the day when half the city rushed through the streets to finish their tasks and the other half moved into the streets to begin theirs. Along the left side of the road, dockworkers and teamsters hurried to get as much work done as they could before full dark set in. To his right, watchmen, lamplighters, beggars, barmaids, and nightingales slipped into the bustle of the busy avenue.
He drifted toward the warehouse side of the street. The press of bodies eased and Tzal spied a broad road leading away from the harbor. Crossing the current of travelers, he was expelled into the side road and found its name on the side of a looming warehouse – Abelard Street. He looked down at the once-white stones he trod upon and took a deep, relaxing breath. Cinching up his bag again, he wandered deeper into town.
His ears were grateful for the decrease in noise, but his nose received no such respite. The fetid odors of the docks began to mingle with a greater variety of odors. He smelled sewage, various types of cooking food, and a mélange of perfumes and scents. Still, it was better than being aboard ship. At least here he didn’t have to smell stale human sweat, mildew, and salt pork farts while below deck.
Soon the fortress-like warehouses, many three and four stories tall, gave way to smaller businesses and rowhouses. Constructed of wood, or sometimes wood and stone, they were narrower and more flimsily built. Small shops appeared. Many were open to the air, with jutting counters and canopies that could be closed and locked. He spied a swaybacked roofline here, a crumbling chimney there, and in one small alley, two buildings that had sagged in enough that their eaves supported each other. He stayed toward the middle of the street, not wishing to find out if Harbordowners gave the courtesy of the “Dunny down!” shout before tossing the contents of the pisspot out the window.
Nearly as many people were hurrying toward Dock Street as were moving away from it. Tzal followed those leaving the docks until he reached an eddy in traffic and realized that Abelard had ended at the back of a warehouse. A pair of women leaned against the building’s stone loading platform, looking at him. He nodded to them; they didn’t respond. He returned to the flow of traffic, which led him around the front of the warehouse. He glanced down at the flat gray stones and realized that Abelard hadn’t ended; it just lurched around the building and went on. Unwilling to be marked as a rube by the locals, he adopted a look of purpose and continued. Only a minute of walking brought him into a neighborhood with no businesses and only rowhouses stacked alongside each other. He eased to a halt. There was no way he was going to be able to find the church without some help.
After a few moments, a door opened and an older man stepped into the street. Wearing clothes that were a bit ratty and frayed at the edges, he bore an open expression on his face. With his speckled brown-and-white beard and his bald head, he would’ve seemed at home in Geshuan. Tzal waved to him. The man nodded then approached.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Tzal said, “but I’m looking for the temple of Semessa. Can you point me to it?”
The older man stopped and scratched at a balding patch in his beard.
“Aye, that’s the Purple Lady, right?” He pointed to a trio of colored scarves that dangled from Tzal’s belt.
“That she is.”
“A moment, please.” The man looked down the street and called to a boy. The boy, carrying a four-foot pole tipped with a glowing flame, came toward them.
“Dorren, can you help this man?”
“Maybe I can,” the lamplighter said, turning to face Tzal.
“I need directions. Can you help me, please?” Tzal asked.
The lamplighter chuckled. “I’m sure ya do. Ya come by boat?”
Tzal nodded slowly, which furthered Dorren’s chuckling.
“Ya’ve got yar bindle there, and yar talking all polite-like,” he said. “It just marks as bein’ new. What ya lookin’ for?”
“The temple of Semessa.”
“Crops? No, magic! Are ya a magician, then?”
“A priest.” Tzal shifted his pack to his left hand and raised his right to show the men a ring. He tapped it with the thumb of the same hand. A large purple stone flashed in its setting.
“Nice,” Dorren said. “It’s a haul, gettin’ to the temple. Go to High Town. Ask for directions there.”
“Is that it?”
“Ya’ve got a few miles to go still. High Town’s at the farthest end of town.” He pointed in the direction of the harbor. “Ya’ve got to circle ‘round-like,” he said, making circles in the air with his free hand.
Tzal laughed. “Thank you.”
The bald man coughed gently and motioned to the boy with his head. Tzal cocked an eyebrow. Suddenly realizing what was expected, he reached under his belt, where he kept a few loose coins, and handed the boy a copper penny. The boy bowed a ‘thank you’ and ran back to his lamps.
“You’ve made a friend,” the bald man said. “Most people would only have given him a bit or two.”
“So I’ve further marked myself as one new to town, then?”
The bald man nodded. “Are you truly a priest?”
"I’m going to presume on you.”
“I have an old friend. His wife is sick. Would you look to her?”
“Then, please, follow me.”
Continue to Chapter Six - "Tzal"