“Over there,” I said. “Two points left.” Baen dutifully turned her eyes, and I felt her pat me on the back as she caught sight of the hulking charr that sat at the corner table in the crowed mess that was the White Jaem‘s common room.
We’d had no difficultly finding the tavern, as it turned out it was not far from The Gilded Anchor. After a brief rest and a light repast we’d set off to begin the next phase of our mission, the meat of the project. I’d prepared myself this time, so the eyes of the score of patrons we found inside The White Jaem and the mostly empty evening docks we’d passed through to get there had been easily manageable. Like our inn, the Jaem was set practically overlooking the docks, though the clientèle seemed even less reputable than at the Anchor.
We waded and pushed our way through the mass of mongrel seamen and rank dock hands, and once even swerved to avoid what would have been a slap on my buttocks and to kick the drunk’s chair out from under him. Nursing a small smile, I had left him sprawled on the floor and was ignoring the raucous laughter of his brutish companions when I realised Baen had stopped.
“You’ve business here, bookah?” She looked down at the white-haired asura who barred our passage to Coalpaw’s table, noting the overly-large looking rifle slung casually across the diminutive creature’s back and the brace of pistols at her waist. “If not, move on, the two of you are taking up far too much space and we’ve a limited amount of it here.”
“We’re here to talk to Coalpaw,” Baen said, arching an eyebrow. “We’ve something he might be interested in. So yeah, it’s business.”
“Looking to sell, eh?” The asura crossed her arms across her tiny chest, eyeing both of us the same way I imagined a wolf would eye a pair of cornered rabbits. “Well, show me what you’ve got and we’ll talk about it.”
“We’ll talk to Coalpaw,” I said, curling my lip a little. “Not to the help.” The large eyes narrowed dangerously, but a bark from behind cut off whatever she was going to say.
“Fotti, stop it,” Coalpaw rumbled. “I’m here to talk to people, so if you’re going to get in the way of everyone who wants to talk, I’m not doing my job, now am I?”
“Fine.” Fotti grunted, stepping aside and waving us on. “But if a single thought of a less than positive nature crosses through either of your minds I will empty your craniums and redecorate the walls and ceilings of this establishment with the limited contents thereof.”
“Wordy little thing,” I muttered to Baen, and she snickered in agreement as we stepped past Fotti.
Coalpaw was as described: as he studied us both up and down I found myself surprised by how dwarfed I felt in his presence. I had met charr before, even sparred against them during training, but Coalpaw exuded a sort of physicality I had never encountered before. Even sitting down, he seemed too large for the space around him. His grey fur, rife with scars, shifted over hard, corded muscles that seemed to ripple with every breath like a barely contained animal, and I wondered at the sheer brutal strength that lay coiled like a serpent in that feline body. His clothes, simple cloth and leathers as you’d find on the somewhat more reputable variety of sailor hardly seemed to distract from the obvious brutality of his physique, much less advertise him as the ship’s captain he apparently was.
For all his obvious potential for inhuman levels of violence, I was surprised to find his eyes were easily readable. The expression I read there through both Baen and Fotti’s eyes was one of calm patience, and it was so at odds with the rest of his appearance that I was momentarily taken aback, unsure of how to approach this conversation. As a beast to be treated cautiously, like a partially tamed bear? Or the reasonable individual I had come to do business with as his eyes suggested?
“I am Darrus Coalpaw, Captain of The Winterbird,” he said, his voice a low rumble that had no difficulty cutting through the the din of the common room. “Who are you and what can I do for you?”
“This is Baen. I’m Kaede,” I said, brazenly sitting down across from him. I dipped my accent into something a little less sophisticated than my normal manner of speaking, borrowing from the way I had heard the lowborn workers on my family’s vineyards exchange what passed for conversation among their kind. “We’re from out of town, heard you’re the one to talk to if we want to sell some antiques.”
“Straight to the point. Bold. Bold and potentially foolish,” Coalpaw said. “I’d say it either makes you a very bad actor or a very good business partner to have. I’d like to believe option two, but we can’t be certain of anything, now can we? What kind of antiques are we talking about?”
“I’d prefer it if we could talk about this somewhere a little more private,” I said. “There’re too many people here.”
“And how do I know this is worth my time?”
“I can give you my word,” I said, and Coalpaw gave a wide, toothy grin.
“I don’t know you, ‘Kaede’,” he said. “Means I can’t really take your word as more than air.”
“How about a sample for just the eyes then?” I nodded towards Baen, who lifted the satchel off her shoulder and lay it on the table. Coalpaw eyed it for a moment, then pulled it across to him and flipped it open. One large paw reached inside, and he grunted.
“A broken weapon?” he said, closing the pouch and dropping it casually back on the table. “I’d suggest you take it to a smith, have it smelted down and sell the jewels and metal to some artisan.”
“I’d take your suggestion, but I don’t like throwing away money,” I retorted, hiding my smile. “That thing is old, historic. Think of it as a piece of art.” He recognised it as something of value at least, and all this was the start of the haggling game.
“It didn’t look like much to me.”
“Then you’re not exactly the expert in art or history we were told you were,” I said. “Thought you were the one to talk to. Any expert could tell this could be big.” Coalpaw grunted again, leaning back in his seat and scratching at his jaw. “Look, if you don’t want a shot at this I’m sure we can find a collector who’d be interested.”
“I’m not the expert,” he admitted. “I’m the line to the expert,” he said after a long moment, and I resisted the urge to sigh in relief. “I can take you to her, but if I find that you’ve been wasting our time…” He trailed off meaningfully, nodding towards Fotti, who turned just in time and gave us a tooth-filled smile as she stroked the butts of her pistols. I ignored it, as did Baen – no need to feign terror now.
“It won’t come to that,” I promised. “Your expert will tell you.”
“It had better not,” the charr said. “Meet me at Macha’s Landing, the dry docks, an hour before midnight. I’ll introduce you to my expert then.”
The only ship in the dry dock wasn’t a grand vessel by the standards of a warship. A grand vessel conjured images of a ship like a hammer, proud, strong with soaring masts and a hull lined with cannons, a mighty fist designed to push its way through the waves like a floating city. Powerful, crude, and ultimately ugly.
This ship was more like a knife than a hammer. A sleek, forty-metre long, two-masted brigantine of a dark-stained wood that gleamed in the torchlight. Dark grey sails, barely definable as anything but black in the gloom, were secured above her slender deck and the figurehead at her prow was an exquisitely carved woman wearing a half-mask, holding a lantern in her outstretched hand and her other resting on the pommel of a sword.
There was something beautiful in the ship’s elegance, though it seemed somehow sinister in the dry dock bay, surrounded by darkness on all sides as if suspended on the shadows themselves. Now and again the flickering torches illuminated the heavy beams of wood that rested against the hull, slanting down to vanish into the darkness, bracing the ship in its bay. During those moments the illusion shifted from an ethereal, floating ghost ship to some monstrous insect, legs splayed out on all sides.
“She isn’t too hard on the eyes,” Coalpaw, now wearing a long leather coat, said as he loomed up beside us. “Is she?”
“No, she isn’t,” I said, noting the gleaming name painted in graceful script on the hull. “The Covenant?”
“If you’re curious about the name, you can ask the Captain Aurcattio,” he muttered, heading towards the gangplank. “She’s who we’re going to see.”
“She’s your expert then?”
“That she is,” he confirmed. “I’d prefer not to keep her waiting.”
“And that’s her ship?” Baen arched an eyebrow.
“Our ship, actually,” Coalpaw corrected. “Captain Aurcattio is my captain, The Covenant is my ship.”
“Your captain?” I said. “I’d heard that you were a captain.”
“Technically I suppose I am.” He shrugged. “But before that I’m first mate on The Covenant. Now, are you coming or not? Like I said, I’d prefer not to keep her waiting.”