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This is a long chapter - nearly 4000 words. I thank you for reading!
Harbordown By Night
“Good evening, Dunbar.”
“You’ve come for the bounty, I assume.”
“I have,” Dunbar said.
“Just a moment; it’s in the back. Watch the front, will you?” Titus Jerrold, Harbordown’s exchequer, left him alone in the front office. Dunbar drifted to the only wall that interested him. A dozen hand-copied posters hung there, the gallery of felons whom the city most wished to have in custody. A dozen hard faces drawn in ink glared down as Dunbar perused their crimes. Two-Dagger Hamish’s poster was gone, along with his list of crimes. The face of a church-thief was nailed in its place. Dunbar memorized the face, name, and list of crimes. Before Mr. Jerrold returned, he was waiting at the exchequer’s desk.
“I’ll need you to sign,” Mr. Jerrold said.
“Of course.” Dunbar signed his name in florid script on the receipt offered him and pushed it back across the desk.
“Ten silver sails,” Jerrold told him, placing a fist-sized sack in his hand. “I’ve broken it into shields and pennies, as you prefer.” As usual, Dunbar weighed it in his hand and slipped it inside his shirt.
“Is there still no word on Jaan Craymore or Den Tuller?” Dunbar pointed to the oldest posters.
“No,” the exchequer told him, folding the receipt neatly. “We’ve heard nothing from Tuller; he’s simply vanished. We believe Craymore took ship and left months ago. He has family in Northport, we’re told.”
“Another one gone to sea.”
“It’s the simplest way to avoid capture.”
“It’s cowardly,” Dunbar stated.
“Yes,” Mr. Jerrold said, “but not too many wish to remain here and be nabbed by the Watch or be caught up by the city’s finest bounty hunter.”
“I’m not yet the finest. Burrell the Bold still holds that honor.”
“He has retired, Dunbar.”
“Until I – or someone else – surpasses his number of retrievals, he’s the best.”
“Have it your way. Will you be attending the hanging?”
“The trial hasn’t been held yet.”
“What’s your point?”
* * *“Are ye ready?” asked the man dressed in red and black.
The woman dressed as he was looked up and nodded. She pulled on her boots and stood up, flipping hair out of her eyes.
“I’m ready.” She spoke a language not often heard in Harbordown.
“Speak Talberan,” the man said. “Ye know I can’t understand ye.”
“Ready,” she said.
“Good. I’ve got our place picked out. It’ll do.” He turned and saw her blades lying on the bed, near where they had just been.
“Don’t faerget yer swaerds.”
“Knives,” she said in perfect Talberan, sliding the blades into their sheaths.
“Knives then,” Jaan Craymore said. “Let’s get moving. That lamplighter’s not going to kill himself.”
* * *Malcolm sighed. He leaned back in the huge copper bath, arms behind his head, and closed his eyes. Steam clouded around him and embedded sea salt started to loosen from his skin. The only thing he missed about land while he was at sea was being able to get properly clean. The two pints of water he was allotted per day for ablutions simply didn’t cut it.
With his eyes still closed, he reached out toward a small table holding a tray, a glass, and a bottle. He fumbled a moment, found the glass, and slid it away. He wrapped his hand around the neck of the bottle and drank deeply. He sighed again and set the bottle back on the tray. Fine, he thought, two things. There were two things he missed when he was at sea.
He inhaled the aroma of the bath oils, the scents of jasmine and lavender. With the scalding water seeping into his muscles, he relaxed further. Content, he slipped into sleep. When he jerked awake, a sharp blade rested against his throat. He looked into the eyes of the woman holding it.
“Good evening, Mr. McMarsen,” she said.
Malcolm pulled away from the razor and turned to look at her. She was young, with blond hair and bright green eyes. He knew she’d never be called beautiful, but he suspected she’d often been called pretty. She was nude but for the comb in her hair and the razor in her hand.
Three things – three things he missed about land when he was at sea.
“How many times do I have to tell you to call me Malcolm?”
“As many times as I’ve had to tell you that we run a respectable place, Mr. McMarsen,” she said. “Now are you going to let me shave you?”
Malcolm made himself comfortable as Raeline lathered his face and used the bright blade to scrape it smooth. He sat still until she finished. When she grabbed soap and sponge and started washing his back and shoulders, he sighed in her direction.
“That’s my favorite part,” he said.
“Whenever you touch me…that’s my favorite part.”
“No, no. You can encourage me all you want,” Malcolm said.
She laughed until a rap at the door spoiled the moment.
“Enter!” Malcolm roared.
A short, balding man entered the room. He was dressed conservatively, yet squarely within fashion.
“Mr. Trowbridge. It’s good to know your bathhouse’s service hasn’t suffered while I was at sea.”
The proprietor bowed. “Thank you, Mr. McMarsen. The man from Lamaster’s has arrived with some samples.”
“Excellent. Send him in, please.”
Trowbridge bowed again and left, shutting the door behind him.
“Want to help me pick out some new clothes, Raeline?”
“Don’t I always, Malcolm?”
“Yes, you do.” He paused. “Did you call me Malcolm?”
“Do it again.”
“Not now. Maybe later tonight I will.”
Malcolm raised an eyebrow and smiled.
* * *The sign over the shop read “Danerel’s Keys & Locks.” Melbourn threw open the door and let the hinges squeak, as he knew they would do. The man behind the high desk didn’t glance in his direction; he continued chatting with the customer in front of him. Melbourn crossed his arms and leaned against the doorjamb. It was useless to attempt to be stealthy here; one simply couldn’t sneak up on Danerel.
Danerel Snowmantle had been one of the city’s most successful thieves. He’d never been caught, never even been seriously considered a criminal. He retired at age thirty and went into business as a fence. Now he bought items from other thieves, rarely asking questions, but often taking notes. Melbourn knew that he remained retired, but only from thieving. He still dabbled occasionally in piracy, kidnapping, and smuggling. The man had rooms all over Harbordown and on Castigan Island. He had a home in Port Wehry that Melbourn knew of and owned a portion of Tattenrall Station, a cattle ranch on the north end of the big island. Melbourn was certain that Danerel had more even more homes, more businesses, and more secrets. Only a terrible fence would let anyone know all the dirt – even if they claimed to be friends.
Melbourn unfolded his arms and stepped away from the door – business at the desk was done. He nodded to the customer as she passed, and waited for her to leave. As the door closed, he crossed to the desk and dropped the scroll case on it.
“You’re late,” Danerel said.
“I’ve been busy – and so were you.”
“Bah. Selling Goodwife Horrocks a new set of keys isn’t busy. Would you like her house number and a spare key?”
“No. You’d probably send me to the home of a watch commander.”
“For anyone who’d steal from a goodwife? You’re right. I’d also send you there for making me work past dusk. There’s a lot of bad folk out there. What do you have?”
“This.” Melbourn uncapped the case and let the contents slide free.
“If this deiscape isn’t a Pevello, I’m a dwarf.”
Melbourn let Danerel pull the multi-colored canvas toward him. The fence removed the protective cloth and spread it out. He glanced over the painting and began to scan its borders. He turned the painting ninety degrees, then another ninety degrees.
Melbourn watched Danerel’s face as the fence looked over the painting. Danerel wasn’t a handsome man, not by any definition of the word. His skin was pale and pasty; his hair three different shades of orange. None of the sharp features appeared to be exactly where they were supposed to be. He often smiled broadly. When he wished it, it was a pleasant smile, but too often his smile shifted into a corpse-like rictus grin. For just a moment, the rictus grin appeared. He looked up at Melbourn; it shifted back to a smile.
“You’re right. He’s hidden his mark up here in the red.”
“What do you think?” Melbourn asked.
“It’s possible I have someone who might want to add this to their collection.”
“Possible, might, and maybe are the most powerful words.” Danerel favored Melbourn with his smile again. “What’s this?” he asked, pointing to the charcoal drawing.
“Just a little something I picked up.”
“Hm. Noble features. Is that the Barrendon chin I see?”
Melbourn shrugged. “Maybe.”
“I can’t move charcoal drawings.”
“Maybe not, but you could return it for a tidy reward.”
“I might at that. But I’d have to use a middleman. That cuts into the reward money, you know.”
“Your pain…it touches me,” Melbourn said. “How much for both?”
Numbers clicked, shifted, and aligned themselves behind Danerel’s eyes. Melbourn waited a few seconds for the fence to answer.
Danerel named a sum.
“What? I thought you were my friend!” Melbourn yelped. “But you treat me like a mark.” He named a second, much higher sum.
“You’d break me?” Danerel responded happily. “I have children to feed.”
“You have no children,” Melboun said, shaking his head.
“Not fair. It’s likely there are quite a few ugly little red-hair bastards in the city.” He named a third sum.
Melbourn grabbed at his heart, named a fourth sum, and the game went on.
* * *“Good evening,” Sloan said, as he sat.
“Who are you?” Lord Cleitus Barrendon asked from across the table.
“Why ask? You know I won’t answer,” Sloan told him, waving to a waiter. “You’ll be paying for dinner, of course.”
They sat opposite each other in the center of the Blue Knight, Harbordown’s most exclusive restaurant. A single white candle flickered between them. Around them, members of the city’s Quality ate their dinners, unaware of the conversation that might possibly affect their futures. Sloan smiled. Rarely had he taken such a risk.
“Bring me the most expensive dinner on the menu,” Sloan told the attentive waiter. “Bring us two, unless it’s snails or worms or any of that. In which case, give us the most expensive dinner that ever grazed, flew, or swam. I’d also like a bottle of expensive wine. Select the color to go with dinner. Don’t forget the amenities: bread, butter, soup, salad, dessert, all that. Oh, and a nice vegetable – preferably something leafy. Lord Barrendon will be paying.”
“Of course.” The waiter turned to face the lord, who nodded and waved him away.
“I want the books. I want all the books,” Barrendon said. “I also want my pipe and the drawing of my great-great-grandmother.” He glared.
“I don’t know anything about the drawing, but you may have the pipe. As for the books…I’m going to keep three. You will get one returned.”
“I want all of them.”
“The priests say it’s a good thing for the soul to want.”
“I need those books to do my business.”
“Oh no, my lord, you need one to do business. You have chosen to use four. No one needs four ledgers. This is my proposal.”
“Don’t mistake the soft wording for the soft option. If you prefer, I’ll use the firm, and accurate wording. This is what will happen. I will return the one ledger, the one that gives a complete and accurate total of all Barrendon properties, assets, and holdings. I will keep the other three books.”
“For how long?”
“You have no idea what you’re playing at,” Barrendon snarled.
“Don’t I? The city selects its Nine next month.”
Barrendon’s eyes widened. “You wouldn’t.”
“I have. I seem to recall that you may be patriarch of one of the nine most powerful families, but you are far from the most powerful. The Barrendons fall seventh, I believe.”
“Keep your voice down,” Barrendon hissed. “And it’s sixth.”
“Ah, well. Congratulations. Of course, without the one true ledger, the total value of the family’s holdings will appear to be much, much less – enough to ensure that you will fall to fifteenth or sixteenth at best, and therefore you will no longer be in power. It seems to me that the Beltaynes or the Slandos are both in position to claim your spot. How long between selections?”
“Ten years,” Barrendon answered darkly.
“If you do what I ask, I will return that one ledger, and you get to continue to prove to the selection agents why you should remain one of the city’s rulers. It shouldn’t be too difficult; it looks like you’ve done very well this year. I will keep the other books. Judging by them, I’d guess that you’re not a major contributor to the city at tax time.”
He paused as the waiter set a basket of trifles in front of them. Sipping from his water glass, he watched Barrendon struggling to remain calm. Only when the waiter was away, did he continue.
“It seems you pay taxes on only about twenty percent of your holdings. The sun has risen over House Barrendon, and it’s time you paid your dues.”
“What do you want of me?”
“Besides multiplying your taxes by five, I have only one demand, and it’s a simple one. Your son, Donol, has gotten a common girl with child. He marries her. Your problem ends.”
“You jest,” Barrendon said after a moment.
“I do not,” Sloan responded, somewhat taken aback.
“That’s the fifth commoner he’s done this to. I’ve simply paid them off every other time.”
“That won’t be good enough,” Sloan said. “He marries her.”
“And then I get back my ledger?”
“You have it correct.”
“When do I get it?”
“After I’ve enjoyed your generosity at the wedding, which you will pay for.”
“I want proof that I’ll get it back.”
Sloan shook his head. “No. You may choose to believe me, or not. But if it’s convincing you need, let me say this: I dislike all of you. I could care less which families rule Harbordown. What I get from this is seeing that the right thing is done for a young woman.”
“What about the drawing?”
“I know nothing about it,” Sloan said, irked by the change of direction. “I wasn’t in your home.”
“Clearly you hired that man that was.”
Barrendon glared at him without speaking as the waiter opened a bottle of red wine and poured a glass. The lord lifted to his lips and drank the contents in one swallow.
“Pour a third glass,” Sloan told the waiter.
“Pour a third glass. My wife will soon be joining us.”
“Yes, sir,” the waiter said. “Shall I change the menu?”
“No. Lord Barrendon will soon be leaving.”
The waiter filled Sloan’s glass, refilled Barrendon’s, and hurried off to fetch a third.
“You’ll not survive this, you know.”
“Oh, I will,” Sloan said. “By the time you get your one ledger back, I’ll have it so covered in spells and rituals that every time you even think of doing something vicious to me, a page will disintegrate. You have my word on that.”
“Ridiculous. You’ll not be able to find a sorcerer to do that.”
“You would be right, were I not the sorcerer. Her name is Ananda Aristei. Learn it, my lord. She is to be your daughter-in-law.”
Barrendon stood. “Ananda. Yes, I believe I remember that name. Donol called her Nanda. As in, ‘that whore, Nanda.’”
Sloan was quiet for a moment.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said, “I’m keeping your pipe.”
“Piss on the pipe. I have others.”
“Pay the bill, my lord. I’ll not have you upset my meal further.”
“This is not over.”
“I don’t expect it is – not until the wedding.”
When Barrendon had left the room, Sloan reached into his pocket and drew out the stolen pipe. He held it in his hand as the waiter cleared away Barrendon’s glass and poured a new one. After he left, Sloan raised the pipe to admire the craftsmanship. Satisfied that it had been worth stealing, he turned it in his fingers and held it by the stem.
It shattered when he slammed it into the edge of the table.
* * *Dunbar tossed the bag Mr. Jerrold had given him onto his desk and unbuckled his sword belt. Only when his belt and blade were hung on the correct pegs on the wall and his boots drying on their rack did he take the seat behind the desk. He pulled an inkwell toward him. Dabbing a quill pen into it, he wrote directly on the bag: “Two-Dagger Hamish,” then “10S.” He replaced the pen and walked over to a small chest. Unlocking it, he lifted the lid out of the way and placed the bag inside, on top of a pile that nearly filled the chest. He smiled and closed the lid.
* * *
Tzal staggered and stumbled, falling down the last two stairs. He smashed his knees on the hard-packed dirt and fell forward. Unable to get his hands up in time, his chest and face slammed into the ground. Desperate to get his breath back, his heart throbbing, Tzal lay unmoving for several minutes. His joints burned, his fingers had cramped, and bands of pain had wrapped around his head. He breathed raggedly, doing his best to ignore the pain, trying to focus on something far more troubling.
For the first time since he had become a full priest, he was empty; he had drained his soul of every iota of magic; nothing connected him to Semessa’s divine presence. Other priests used to say that they felt naked without their ability to channel Her power, but he felt more violated than anything else. It was as if he had been raped by his own desire to help others. He had gone too far and lost touch with Her.
He tried to move, but his muscles hurt so much he made no progress. He stayed where he was, lying flat on the ground, his feet elevated only by their accidental placement on the bottom stair. Only because it had fallen next to his face did he know that the people of Torval’s Alley had left his bag alone. The people had been more frightened of him than he was of them. He had come into their homes and healed man after woman after child. One couple was sick for reasons other than bad water, and one young man with a knife wound in his side wasn’t bothered by anything as piddling as a fever. Tzal chuckled to himself, and then went into spasms of pain. He smiled, accepted the pain, and laughed out loud.
* * *Craymore stood in a pool of shadow, watching her come back to him. Only the silhouette of her lean warrior form was visible in the light behind her. She’d kept this one a bit more subtle – only extinguishing half a dozen lamps along Black Cat Cut. The boy would be here soon enough to relight them.
She sauntered to him, hands on her knife hilts.
He didn’t ask her to translate; he was fairly certain he knew what she had said. He moved into a doorway, to conceal himself further. She joined him, pressing herself against him.
“It won’t be long,” he said.
He felt, rather than saw her nod.
“Same as last time,” Craymore said. “I’ll grab the boy. You do the work.” He glanced over into her pale, scarred face. “Unless yer going to need the help.”
She parted her lips and smiled, shaking her head.
He glanced at her teeth a moment – teeth that had been filed to sharp points – and smiled back.
* * *Tzal staggered out of Torval’s Alley and back onto Anchorage Street. For about the tenth time in ten minutes, he wished Gitto or Ruben were still around. Gitto left not long after Tzal had begun helping the others; Ruben vanished a few hours later. With no one to assist him, the exhausted priest stopped on the street and looked quite literally up and down Anchorage.
To his left, the street gently declined; to his right, it climbed a steep hill. He glanced back to the left, preferring the idea of not climbing, but he didn’t like the narrow street or the shadows that permeated it, lit only as it was by the flickering oil lamps. To the right, the way seemed a bit safer, a bit brighter. Up near the top of the hill he glimpsed a warm pool of light.
“It’s uphill all the way,” he told himself.
Ten minutes climbing brought him to a roadway plateau. A block or so away, a bright line shone higher and brighter than anything else on the street. He cinched up his bag and followed the cobblestone street toward the light. As he approached, he cocked his head. He appeared to be walking toward a lighthouse. A moment later, his sense of scale twisted when he realized the lighthouse was merely the stone façade of a wooden building sitting at an intersection. He smiled.
The lighthouse façade was white, painted with three red diagonal stripes, rising left to right. Atop the façade was the light – a glass lamp the size of a chest. Warm beams of reflected lamplight lit Anchorage and the intersecting road, Candle Street. He found the door in the base of the lighthouse, painted to match the rest of the façade. A signboard hung out over the door, but from this angle, he couldn’t read it.
A trio of old men sat on a long bench next to the door, sharing a long pipe and a bottle. As Tzal approached, the one holding the rippled glass bottle raised it toward him.
“Ye look like ye need a bit o’ this!” The man spoke and chortled.
“I could use a drink,” Tzal admitted.
“Ye come to the right place, ye did,” the one with the pipe said.
“Do they have rooms for rent?”
“Aye,” said the third, who was angling for either pipe or bottle. “Plenty of ‘em. Fact is, they’s always one or two for let. Ask him for the back room.”
Tzal nodded, thanked the men, and looked up at the signboard. He smiled his approval and entered the Shining Way.
Coming Soon - Chapter Eight - "The Shining Way"