The captain and crew were up an hour earlier than usual this morn just as the sun’s light began to chase away the stars to the east. An hour after weighing anchor, the Dragonsprit sailed past a sharp, rocky headland. Galdar took watch at Derg’s door while Kate and Gorbi stood at the rail, gazing in wonder as the end of the world sailed past them. Lady Min explained it was the very northern tip of the Amedio jungle.
To Kate it looked as if a line were drawn in the water extending from the headland northwest into Jeklea bay. The water beyond the line to the east was no longer calm and blue but choppy and gray. To Kate’s amazement, she could see no land at all to the east or to the north. The ocean, or the Azure Sea as Lady Min had called it, spread out before her endlessly to the horizon. The sheer magnitude of space and sky and water before her took her breath away.
Kate and Gorbi could plainly see the crew of the Dragonsprit was nervous. The Captain had replaced Tully at the wheel, which always meant something important was about to happen. Arganat stoically observed the change in the sea ahead and the crew scrambled all over the rigging in preparation for something. Something big, Kate thought.
As the ship passed the headland, Captain Arganat shouted in a booming voice, “Helm’s a Lea! And to the fishes with ya if you don’t make it snap!”
A blast of warm wind hit the starboard side of the ship like an avalanche. To Kate is seemed as if the crew moved in a confusing, choreographed dance, hauling sheets through tackle blocks and leaping through the rigging like so many spider monkeys. Ropes, rigging, booms and canvas rotated, spun and soared overhead. The timbers underfoot shuddered and moaned as the sails caught this new wind. The Dragonsprit protested like the creaking bones of an old man rising to his feet after a long sit. The ship keeled so far over to port that Kate’s world tilted precariously. She grabbed frantically for the nearest stanchion while Gorbi held tight to a shank of hempen rope lashed to the rail. His little feet flew into the air and he seemed to be flying on the wind, a look of sheer terror on his gnomish face.
Both of them hung on for dear life.
The deck lifted into the sky and then angled sharply downward, water lapping ferociously at the gunnels. The Dragonsprit cut through the water like a shark’s fin and Kate and Gorbi fought hard to keep their breakfast in their stomachs.
After that, the day passed like a race through Hell. Nothing but open in all directions – horizon to horizon, and still the Dragonsprit plowed through ocean swells and spray. The ship would often hit a swell head-on, lurching upwards and then suddenly dropping down to crash hard on the other side.
Derg came out of his cabin briefly during Gorbi’s watch, the little gnome followed him above deck and held onto his coat tails to keep him from going overboard. The nobleman stumbled to the rails and leaned over, heaving the contents of his stomach overboard in a most unsophisticated manner. Derg tried to stand straight in an effort to regain some sense of his lost dignity, but only manage to wobble uneasily, his face a certain shade of green. He wiped his mouth with a stained handkerchief before shambling back to his cabin with Gorbi in tow.
Sometime in the early afternoon Dogboy shouted from the crow’s nest, “Land Ahoy!”. Soon after, Kate saw a dark line appear on the northern horizon. She watched as the landmass seemed to grow throughout the day, rising out of the sea like a hulking green leviathan.
After some time Tully took over the helm once again and the Captain retired to his cabin. Tonsil and Bilge served a delicious mutton stew on deck. Mugs dipped into fresh kegs of rum and mead were passed around, lifting the spirits of everyone topside.
As night fell and the stars came out in all of their brilliance, the winds let up and the Dragonsprit settled into a quieter run along foreign dark cliffs. Kate took over for Gorbi and she noticed odd smells in the air as she climbed the dark steps down to the stuffiness of the ship’s hold. She paused, just outside the hatch taking in one last glimpse of the magical night sky and the aromas on the warm breeze. She also saw how relaxed the crew seemed to be now they were behind the relative shelter of land once again.
Min dropped from the rigging above, landing next to Kate. “That’s olives you smell. And grapes and sheep, too. I suppose none of these scents would be familiar to you.” Kate shook her head, as these were, indeed, new smells to her. She didn’t find them altogether unpleasant.
Min pointed at the dark landmass to starboard. “This is Sybarate Isle. a forgotten piece of rock, really, but it is a mystery to me as to why. We used to stop here quite often and it’s more like a paradise to me." Min looked wistfully out toward the dark land and smiled. "The Sea Princes never really took much notice of it when they ruled these waters, and now the Shar seem to have turned a blind eye to it as well. There’s a small village and a dock. The rest of this rock is just farmland, vineyards and wilderness. We’ll make Sybar harbor by midnight. After that, make sure to get a good rest before tomorrow’s madness.”
“Madness? What kind of madness,” she asked. Min smiled a playful smile and swung back up into the rigging. “Tomorrow we thread the Eye of the Needle, Kate,” was all she said and then she was gone into the maze of canvas and rope above. Kate shrugged and dropped down into the dark hold of the ship to take up station outside Derg’s door.
The ship sailed well past dark. Near midnight Gorbi saw the twinkling lights of a sleepy harbor. Half an hour later, the Dragonsprit nestled into a tiny quiet bay along with a dozen smaller dhows and junks, all tied to a short wooden pier. He saw a small village just beyond the pier. A cobblestone roadway lit by oil lanterns hung from posts wound its way up a very steep hill before being drowned by darkness higher up. Several dozen stucco houses topped by tiled roofs lined either side of the roadway. Many of the houses had open patios, or stoas, lit by colorful lanterns. Guttering candles could be seen in many unshuttered windows.
Fireflies bobbed and darted here and there amidst the shrubbery and trellis gardens flanking the houses. Gorbi could see a few people, as well, gathered in subdued groups on porches or under streetlamps. Even in the muted darkness he could see the people of this village were dressed similar to those of Sasserine with loose fitting white shirts and thin, colorful pantaloons. Bright scarves were tied around necks or wrapped tightly around heads. He could also hear the unmistakable sounds of a boisterous tavern nearby, the clink of glasses and muffled shouts of joy and laughter mixed with the faint sounds of a harp and pipes.
The sternhouse door opened and voices rose up from the bowels of the ship.
“I am going ashore, unless you mean to make me prisoner upon your ship,” Derg was saying followed closely by First Mate Tully. Kate was just behind them. The nobleman was dressed in such foppish and ridiculous clothes Gorbi almost let out a laugh. He had never seen so much lace and embroidery upon a man before, and it even looked as if Derg had powdered his face!
“Gov’nor, this might look like a peaceful town, but these are dangerous times. Dangerous times,” Tully repeated just in case Derg hadn’t heard him the first time. “We haven’t put in at Sybar in several years. Who knows who’s in charge here these days?”
Derg looked completely unmoved and replied dismissively, “Well, I happen to know who is in charge and I will be just fine. Besides, I have several bodyguards to keep me safe.”
Gorbi didn’t like the sound of that. Derg was so nonchalant about assuming Gorbi and his friends would be able to bail him out if trouble found them. Gorbi had his doubts what the three of them could actually do in a scuffle. Gorbi had a few minor illusions at his disposal. he could distract Derg’s enemies for short while, but that might buy them just a few seconds. After that, he was going to be fairly worthless in a fight. Galdar was strong and had a little martial training from the priests and monks at the St. Cuthbert temple, but he had never had to use those skills in any real-life battles. The kid did own a nice shirt of mail, but had stored it away in the ship’s hold after his chastisement by Zokar. Kate would probably fair better than he would in a fight, but Gorbi just couldn’t even imagine his friend in a violent situation – he had never seen her even lose her temper before. The thought of her in a standup fight was ludicrous.
Derg stepped up to the gangplank and snapped his fingers, motioning to Gorbi and Gadar.
“Do not worry, Mister Tully, I am perfectly safe. We shall return before dawn, safe and sound I can assure you,” Derg said. Tully just grimaced and shook his head. “Come along now,” Derg commanded and strutted down the plank to the wooden dock below. Kate, Galdar and a reluctant Gorbi had no choice but to follow.
A single oil lantern placed midway down the pier gave off a gloomy light. The smell of seaweed and fish hung heavily in the air and jet-black waters lapped lazily at the boats moored there. Gorbi picked up the distant bleating of many sheep and goats far off in the darkness.
Gorbi took up the rear of the processional. Kate was out in front while Galdar followed behind her and then Derg. The little group got almost to the end of the dock before a man in loose fitting clothing stepped out from a small wooden house at the end of the pier. He was accompanied by six others carrying pikes.
“Oh, no,” Derg muttered in a breathy voice. He had froze mid-step and Gorbi nearly ran into the man’s lacey leotards.
Peering around Derg’s gold-embroidered coattails, Gorbi could see the man walking toward them was sporting an odd ring of blonde spiky hair, while the top of his head appeared totally bald. He wore brilliantly colored red robes tied with a black sash and he carried a long pole that Gorbi guessed wasn’t a walking aid. The six others were Amedian tribesmen dressed in traditional white loincloths and long black cloaks lined with a deep red fringe and tied at the neck. Their long black hair was held in a bun and decorated with several colorful feathers. Each held a wicked looking macuahuitls in their hands.
“Good evening, supplicant.” the man said with an oily cheerfulness in his voice, “I trust your journey was fair.” The man waited for an answer with the oily smile frozen on his face. But, Derg didn’t answer.
The moments of silence seemed to drag on to eternity. Just as things were moving from awkward to creepy, Gorbi saw a woman appear from behind the tribesmen. She drew two small objects from her pocket and then squished them together while shouting something that sounded to Gorbi like, “Shezrahath!”
The tribesman and the monk spun around, weapons ready, but the woman only smiled back at them. “Brother Renn, these are the visitors I was telling you about the other day. I can escort them to the Andropos estate. That way you can get back to protecting our harbor.”
Brother Renn shook his head, looking blankly at the woman. Then he nodded, “As you will, Sister.” The mink and the tribesmen pushed past her and walked to the house on the end of the pier.
The woman appeared to be a young human, perhaps in her early twenties, with very tan, olive skin. Her long, straight dark hair hung loose to her waist and shimmered in the sapphire moonlight. Her feet were sandaled. she wore white, puffy pantaloons that gathered just below her calves, a short blouse and a colorful vest that revealed her bare midriff, exposing a fit physique.
“Hello, Derg,” she said with a sardonic grin.
Derg cleared his throat, “Uh, hello Pareesh, its nice…”
But the woman cut him off with a finger to her lips and motioned for them to follow. She turned and led them up the cobbled street through the middle of the village. Pareesh smiled but did not speak.
The road was extraordinarily steep and it felt to Gorbi as if he were walking straight up the cliff. He noticed the houses on either side of the street were cut into terraced level plots, but the road just shot straight up the incline as if it were made for mountain goats. He began to work up quite a sweat as he pumped his little legs in an effort to keep up with the taller people. Galdar was huffing and puffing as he climbed the hill, too, and Gorbi grinned. “All that time at the altar has not been good for Dar,” he thouht.
Gorbi could hear people talking and the clink of dinner dishes, laughter and music emanating from the houses and porches to either side. The smell of roast mutton and vegetables and other things sweet set the gnome’s stomach to growling.
A dark church appeared to his right. Gorbi saw a wooden sign hanging above the doors depicted a spouting whale. He shook his head as he didn’t recognize the symbol at all and couldn’t even guess as to what religion was practiced here.
Just beyond the church was a lively and well-lit tavern. The sign above the door showed a horse’s tail, but letters in the Common tongue spelled out, “The Mare’s Head”. Three drunken men stumbled out of following a lovely young lass in colorful skirts. All four of them laughed and giggled in drunken abandon before spinning off into the darkness to do whatever the locals did here after hours. Gorbi felt no small sense of desire to just ditch his duties and check out the local wildlife at the Mare’s Head, but he remembered his friends, Kate and Galdar, and decided against it.
About fifty yards further up the hill, off to the left, Gorbi spied a massive walled manor house. Tiki torches were placed along its walls and lamplight flooded the grounds both inside and out. Windows and railed porches decorated the exterior – a building designed to entertain guests more so than for defense of any kind.
“Pareesh, I thank you for saving my neck back there, but some day that trick will no longer work,” Derg said to their escort.
Pareesh only grinned with wickedly white teeth and gave Derg a flirtatious look, “Then I will worry about it some day,” was all she said in reply.
When finally they reached the end of the lane, Pareesh led them to the left and through the gates of the manor house. Gorbi saw the grounds were tastefully decorated with ornate palms and marble statuary. Pareesh stopped and bid them farewell.
“You are not coming in?” Derg asked, but the young woman just smiled and shook her head. “Will I see you again, Pareesh?” he asked, the faint traces of his famous whine sneaking back into his voice.
“Perhaps,” was all the young woman said before spinning on her heels and disappearing through the gate and into the night beyond.
Derg straightened the many collars of his fancy clothes and then strode up to the front doors of the manor. He knocked and the doors were opened by an elderly man in fine, black and white clothing. The man merely nodded. “Master Moental. It is good to see you, again. We were not expecting you,” the butler said with an ancient voice.
“Robert. Please forgive me for appearing at such a late hour and unannounced as I am. It is just that I have a matter of importance . . .
“Nonsense,” the gravely old man said, “Lord Andropos is just sitting down for a late supper. I’ll have Tess put on for …” Robert stopped for a moment and began silently counting, “ . . four then?”
Derg looked back at Gorbi, Kate and Galdar. He scowled. “Oh no. One is just fine, Robert. These are just my servants.”
Robert paused for a long and steady stare. Then his gaze rose up to meet Derg’s. One of the old man’s fuzzy grey eyebrows raised in a questioning arch.
Derg put on a big, smarmy smile and opened his arms wide as if to embrace the ancient butler. “What am I thinking, Robert. Of course a setting for four will be just fine,” Derg grumbled. He walked past Robert as if he owned the place and led the party into a beautiful, spacious and sparsely, but elegantly, decorated manor house.
Tall windows and open patios let in the cool evening air to swirl about the place. Small statuary, elegant paintings and tapestries were placed artfully in the entry hall and greeting room. Potted plants and shrubs and decorative rugs and carpets were tastefully placed here and there.
Another elderly man dressed in fine robes entered the greeting hall from another room. His sparse hair was grey and expertly coifed. Gorbi could see his sandals were richly embroidered and covered well-tanned feet. The man suddenly smiled wide at the sight of Derg and embraced him heartily.
“Derg, young man! It is a blessing to see you on such a fine evening,” the lord of the manor said with a gusto in his voice that belied his age. “I was ready to take supper all alone but now I see I don’t have to. Please, introduce me to your guests!”
Derg turned and, somewhat sheepishly introduced Master Galdar a magistrate in the Dawn Council and Master Gorbachev, envoy of the wee-folk from the wilds of the Southren’ Amedio. The old man nodded and bowed to Galdar and Gorbi in turn. Then Derg instroduced the Lady Kate of House Ludon, a minor estate in Sasserine and “it’s no wonder you have not heard of it, small house that it is.”
“So, did I overhear you say these were your servants?” the old man inquired.
Derg looked a little ashamed and quickly tried to recover, “Uh…wards, sire. Handed over to me by my liege earlier this very autumn. They are quite harmless, I assure you. We can speak candidly if you like.”
The old man looked over at Derg’s three “wards” and smiled grandfatherly at each of them. “It is good to have young ones like yourselves back in the old manor. We get few visitors these days and none of them have seen less than two score birthdays, I am afraid.”
“Oh, how rude of me,” the old man continued, “My name is Linus Andropos and I am the governor of this little town. Come now, Tess is setting out our dinner as we speak and I’d sooner face one hundred rabid bullywugs than weather the wrath of Tess after letting one of her fantastic dinners get cold.”
Linus led them to the dining room and Gorbi wondered what Derg was really up to. Derg and this Linus person seemed to know each other really well, and yet Derg felt the need to lie to the man. First he tried to pass them off as servants in front of Robert, the butler. And then he told Linus that they were his wards, given to him by some “liege lord”. Linus seemed to know who Derg was talking about, so that person, whoever it is, must be real. But, why not just tell Linus the truth, that they were his bodyguards? Unless, Derg didn’t want the man to know he was in danger.
The dining room was cozy. A twenty-foot long marble table surrounded by high-backed cushioned chairs dominated the room and several candelabras hung from the high, teak-raftered ceiling. Arched open windows let in the night air which helped to waft the aroma of the magnificent dinner into Gorbi’s waiting nostrils. Ahhh! Gorbi could not remember ever eating such a magnificent feast. Racks of lamb with caper sauce, spiced cherry chutney, roasted vegetables, wild rice and baked sweet cakes were passed around amid small talk between Robert and Linus and multiple glasses of the sweetest brandy Gorbi had had ever tasted.
After several minutes of inhaling the delicious food and drink, Gorbi’s brain began to buzz from the brandy. He was enjoying himself immensely, but then he caught Kate’s eye. She was frowning at him from across the table. He gave her a quizzical look in return, wondering what he could have possibly done now. She intensified the frown, and Gorbi was reminded that they still had a job to do — to protect Derg. Gorbi was suddenly aware that the Governor and Derg had been talking for quite some time now. He shook his head slightly to knock loose the cobwebs and then tried to concentrate on what they were talking about in an attempt to sober up.
The conversation flowed easily back and forth for at least another hour as the old friends caught up on things. From what Gorbi could tell, it seemed the Governor had not been the same since his daughter, Julianna, ran off with some fool by the name of Orlando. It had been several weeks since the two had disappeared, and while no boats had arrived or left the island in that time, the Governor had felt certain they had run off to the mainland to elope. The Governess, Nikia, was beside herself and rarely left her chambers these days. Linus was worried sick, but figured he would give it a few more weeks before he spent money on inquisitors.
Brother Renn and his troops had been fair, if not a little distant and forgetful, these days. The Shar emmisaries had pretty much kept to themselves down at the boat house and rarely toured the town these days, which was perfectly fine with the Governor. It was true, Sybarate Isle had not had many guests in the harbor this past year. Ever since the Fairwind Isle ferry stopped running it had become very quiet. Sybar and the Governor worried there would not be enough traders next year, already the island’s warehouses were becoming full with casks of wine and bales of wool with no one to buy them.
Commodore Galanos, of Fairwind Isle had not been heard from in over two years now and it was almost certain he and his family had been disposed of. It had been even longer since hearing from Commodore Giannini of Jetsom and Commodore Vincetti of Flotsam. In fact, neither Derg nor Linus had heard anything at all from those two islands in over a year.
Things had been quiet, they both agreed.
Fleets of Shar ships, entire armadas had sailed both east and west (mostly west), but only one Shar ship had ever stopped at Sybar, the one that dropped Brother Renn and his troop of goons off on their shores five years ago.
Gorbi only sipped at his brandy and as the evening wore on into the early morning hours. At one point there was a lull in the conversation, only the night birds and insects could be heard outside. Looking out the window the town stretched out to the moonlit sea. Gorbi saw that most of the lanterns and candles in town had been extinguished. The townfolk were slowly finding their way to their beds.
“Have you heard anything more of ‘the situation’?” the Governor asked Derg in a low and serious tone. Derg looked nervously at each of his “wards” sitting around the table before shaking his head.
“Not much,” Derg admitted, “only that the Familia yet lives. It hides and it waits. Things abroad are unraveling fast and there will be a time, soon, when moves will be made. But until the time when we see the sign, we will be patient.” Linus thought about those words for a long moment before smiling and nodding his head in silent agreement.
“Well, the hour is getting late, my dear friend. But, before you go, tell me, what is it that you are involved in now and will it affect the Blades in any way?”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that.” Derg smiled, “It’s just a small side job to make a little coin. And it’s no business of a buccaneer like you to ask who hired me. Even if you say you are retired! The job’s a simple one. I’m meeting Old Catpaws at the Traveler’s Rest and giving him a message. That is all. I won’t tell you how much the job is worth, but I should be collecting a small fortune from my employer when I return Catspaw’s reply.”
Gorbi was so tired as Derg and Linus said their goodbyes, the gnome wondered if he should just curl up in one of the shrubberies for the night. The walk back to the Dragonsprit was treacherous. The night had cooled, leaving a blanket of dew upon the steep cobblestones and making them slick to walk upon. Only two guttering oil lanterns still lit the way so that most of the trip was done in darkness.
Gorbi didn’t see any light or movement from within the boathouse when they finally reached the pier, so Brother Renn and his goons must have turned in for the night, but the little gnome was sure his excellent night vision picked out a dark-haired girl ghosting them down the road as she slipped silently between the houses.