“Is it safe?” I asked as Baen looked dubiously down at the logs holding the ship precariously balanced above the mud, then at the narrow gangplank.
“Half a dozen people live on this ship, including several charr and norn. They’ve done so for months.” Coalpaw said without so much as slowing, crossing the gangplank with practised comfort. “If it was going to fall, it would have done so a long time ago.”
I let Baen and Grapple go first, making some pretence of adjusting my pack so that she could look back to give me eyes for my own crossing from the deck. Even more than Halleston before him, it was important to keep Coalpaw from realising I was technically blind and even more so to keep the fact that I was a mesmer hidden. This charr was our enemy and I wasn’t about to give him any advantage in a potential fight.
I had never fought a charr before, not really. I had sparred against them during training, so I understood the basics of how to deal with their kind, but I had to admit Coalpaw’s sheer bulk was intimidating. If I had to fight him face-to-face I wondered if my rapier or indeed even my pistol would be enough to put him down before he was on me. Better to take him by surprise if it came to that. A bullet to the back of the head would be my preferred way of dealing with him. Either that or Baen with her longbow at a hundred metres.
I noticed Baen was watching him closely, possibly thinking the same as I, as he led us down a set of steps and into the ship’s darkened belly. Lanterns flickered with an inconstant light, casting warped shadows across the dusty, empty interior. Here and there I could see a sleeping roll or a pack on the floor, tucked into a corner or behind the few scattered crates. This ship had not sailed in a long time and now apparently functioned only as a squalid home for whatever miscreants Coalpaw’s supposed expert called her companions.
I doubted, as Baen did, that whoever Coalpaw was leading us to was very high up in the underworld. It was too much to hope for us to find our quarry this soon, especially given how secretive they had been so far. This operation, both of us understood, could take months of infiltration as we slowly climbed the ranks of infamy within this shadowy world of cutthroats and thieves. It would take time for those who ruled here to notice us, and longer for them to trust us. Thus far, however, everything was going according to plan.
But Coalpaw was the key. He had been given a ship by The Misericorde and that was not something handed out idly. Even if he didn’t know the identity of his benefactor he was at least a lot closer than we to the name. Every step was one step closer.
“Captain, these are the art dealers I was telling you about.” Coalpaw rumbled, pulling a clattering bead curtain aside and gesturing for Baen and I to precede him into the surprisingly well-lit room. A dozen candles tinged the air with light blue smoke, illuminating shelves filled with books and what appeared to be as random a collection of trinkets and jewelery as I had ever seen.
“Darrus, how many times must I tell you not to call me that? You’re as much a captain as I am. More, in fact.” The speaker rose from behind her neatly organised desk, giving us both a dazzling smile. “Your ship actually floats.”
She was, in a word, beautiful. Her skin was the pale colour of cream, paler than even mine and yet somehow not sickly looking. Perfectly groomed hair framed her elegantly proportioned face like sculpted black porcelain, as Baen looked her up and down I felt a sharp twinge of jealousy. It reminiscent of the girlish spark I’d often felt around Cymea in our younger days of childish games and foolish dreams.
Captain Aurcattio’s choice of clothing, however, was considerably less flattering in that it was not what I would have dressed her in if I’d had any say of it. A dark grey and black leather coat that tapered out past her knees in the back but oddly ended just above them in the front. Buttons of some dull, silvery material that must once have been far more lustrous kept the outfit tightly closed till just above her breasts, where her raised collar cast shadows over what appeared to be a simple laced-up tunic of dark linen and a black scarf around her pale throat. Certainly nothing graceful, more in line with that of the pirate she was rather than anything feminine, though as I considered it I realised it scarcely distracted from her figure. Rather, it seemed to pique one’s curiousity even more, leaving the onlooker musing to exactly what she might look like without such concealing clothing. No doubt she, like Cymea, enjoyed her fair share of attention, and I resisted the urge to grimace.
“Sorry, captain.” Coalpaw gave a small laugh. “Old habits.”
“Whatever am I to do with you?” The woman sighed, her lightly accented voice more cultured than I had expected given her career. She turned to us. “You must be Kaede, and that’d make you Baen.” She extended her hand, a brazen gesture I instinctively responded to, shaking it before I really thought it through. “My name is Tatianna Aurcattio. Welcome aboard The Covenant. We’re running a little dry here at the moment, but a ship is still a home, whether it’s asea or stuck in the mud.” She gave a short laugh at her own joke, then dropped herself into her seat, leaning back and planting her boots on a nearby chair. “Please, please, sit. Wine?”
“We don’t have any wine, captain.” Coalpaw said. “Remember how we’re completely broke?”
“Please, Darrus. I’m not a captain, and I’m sure we’ve still got a bottle or two hidden around here somewhere.” She looked up at him, eyes sparkling. “I’m sure you can find one.” Coalpaw stared at her for a long moment, then turned wordlessly away and vanished back through the bead curtain.
“He’s charming, isn’t he? You’ll never find a more dependable friend.” Tatianna said, smiling at us as we sat. “Now, I understand you have some merchandise you’d like to see exchanged for something a little easier to spend, and that your particular wares are in my line of work. So, what do you have?”
“Several items, in fact.” I said, not entirely sure what to make of this woman. “Relics, mostly. Weapons and art, some from before the Guild Wars.” Tatianna arched an eyebrow.
“And where’d you acquire such treasures?”
“We know some people who’ve an interest in establishing some context for trade with some people in Lion’s Arch, your master being one of them.”
“Ah… my ‘master’.” For a moment her beautiful face changed. Her jaw set, her eyes hardened and the smile vanished entirely. The sparkle left her eyes, replaced by something cold and angry. “The Misericorde, as we call him, doesn’t like to share.”
“Neither do we.” I retorted. “Not unless we’re getting paid for it.”
“A wise approach.” Tatianna gave a quick laugh, her expression returning to its cheerful state. “Let’s see it then.” Baen rose, lifted the pouch from around her neck and lay it on the table. She slid it across as Tatianna swung her legs to put her feet back on the floor, leaning eagerly forward.
“Very, very nice.” She said, drawing the glimmering sword hilt into the light. “Definitely Pre-Searing, Ascalonian. House Sinriead, judging by the sigil. Seems authentic, though I’d have to inspect it more closely to be sure. An impressive piece.” She looked up at us with a faint smile, noting what must have been obvious surprise. “There is a reason why I handle the more artistic aspects of this business.” She gestured at the shelves that surrounded us. “The search for beauty is my passion, and I’ve found that history and art have beauty in abundance if you know where to look.”
“Plenty of ugliness in history too.” Baen said.
“True, true, but those are the parts of the book I only read once.” Tatianna conceded with another smile. “But back to the topic at hand.” She looked back down the hilt. “This little trinket, if authentic, is certainly worth our attention and I’m certain I can find buyer without having to involve… well, anyone else. However, if there’s more to come as you say then perhaps a more concrete arrangement should be made.” Her smile slipped a little. “And that’ll involve drawing attention.”
“There is more. A lot more, in fact.” I said, trying to quell my excitement.
“Well then, depending on how soon you could bring items of similar value to my table, I think we can agree on a piece-by-piece assessment based on how easy it will be sell, but with a base division of six parts to you, and four parts to me. My four will include my payment to my benefactor and the necessary bribes and so forth.” Coalpaw reappeared then, bearing not only a dusty green bottle in one paw but a trio of glasses between his claws. “Aha! I told you there’d be at least one kicking around here.”
“Wasn’t easy to find, and you owe Terrai for the bottle.” The charr said, handing the bottle to his captain, who eagerly began working at the cork.
“Please, we’re all in debt here.” She said. “A bottle of wine is hardly anything for me to worry about, especially with these fine ladies here to lighten my burden.”
“If you say so, captain.”
“How many times- oh, nevermind. Sit, Darrus.” Tatianna gestured to a chair. “Just because you don’t drink doesn’t mean you can’t sit and celebrate what’s soon to be a very good talk.” She set the glasses out in front of us, filling each one carefully with a deep red wine, letting us take one for ourselves before settling back into her chair with the last one. She leaned back, studying me in with a small smile, swirling her wine in its glass. “Now, where were we?”
“Six to four seems reasonable, for now.” I made it sound grudging, as if I knew haggling wouldn’t help me here. I watched Tatianna study her wine, then take a large swallow as I spoke, noting there was no hesitation and ruling out poison before trying my own. It was surprisingly good, a rich bouquet and smooth flavours, not what I would have expected from a criminal’s stores. “I think that, for now at least, we can agree to that spread.”
“You always bring me the best people, Darrus.” She patted the charr’s knee as he awkwardly sat on the too-small chair beside her. “Kaede, Baen; I think we have a-”
A shout from the deck cut her off, and I saw something hard and cold flicker across Tatianna’s expression again. Coalpaw was already standing and moving towards the door. Baen’s hand shot out, pulling the sword hilt back into its satchel and looping it around her neck, sharing a quick nod with Tatianna as she did.
First one, then three pairs of eyes came into my range, and I caught the impression of light gleaming on metal. Heavy footsteps and the muffled clink of chain mail preceded the trio of giant shadows as they pushed through the bead curtain and moved into Tatianna’s cabin, shrinking the already crowded space to nothing. The norn loomed over us, each one armoured in dull gold plate mail emblazoned with the head of a lion across their breastplates.
“I hate to barge in like this.” The leader grunted, crossing his arms over his enormous chest and grinning as his single good eye swept across the room. “But I think it might be time to arrest the whole bloody lot of you.” His gaze settled on Tatianna, and a savage smile formed on his face. “And I’m really hoping you try to fight back.”