Coalpaw was alone when we found him at the end of what a miserable little waif had told us was the ‘Old Woman‘s Road’, though why it was called that we hadn’t bothered to ask. The charr was apparently impatient, because the moment we came into view he waved at us to hurry and began walking away, clearly expecting us to catch up.
Baen and I broke into a light jog, and I was relieved that I had mostly recovered from my injury the previous evening. I still occasionally felt a spike of pain in my head, brilliant lights hurt my eyes and there was a sizable bump beneath my hair, but I had barely bled and the morning of rest had done wonders.
“There’s trouble.” Coalpaw rumbled when we had caught up with him. “The captain’s trying to sort it now, but this is exactly the sort of thing we wanted to avoid.”
“What kind of trouble?” I asked, slowing to a brisk walk to keep up with the charr’s long strides.
“What do you actually know about The Misericorde?”
“Rumours, mostly. Something about an empire of debt.” I said nonchalantly. “Didn’t give them much stock.”
“You’d best start giving them stock.” He said. “Everyone owes someone something, whether it’s money or favours. The Misericorde’s sitting at the top of that pile, or the centre of that web or whatever you want to call it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean a lot of people owe him something, directly or indirectly.”
“I get that part.” I grumbled. “But who is he?”
“I don’t know.” Coalpaw shrugged. “Nobody knows, that’s part of the problem. Sometimes I wonder if he even exists at all.”
“How is that even possible?” I hid my interrogation behind feigned incredulity. “How can nobody know who he is if you all owe him money?”
“Letters arrive or business associates of his appear, offering loans or to transfer debts.” He answered. “When questioned, it turns out those very associates are making an appearance because they owe it someone who owes it to someone. They’re often threatened with blackmail, and there’s been plenty of evidence that the Mis can follow through with his threats. It’s a circle of debt, and we’re all just spinning in it.” He nodded his head towards the cave entrance that now loomed ahead of us like an open mouth, complete with tooth-like stalactites. “That’s the Undermarket, where we’re going, and more and more of people in there are getting caught in that web. It’s upset some people, as you might expect, some more powerful that others.”
“And how’s that pertain to us? We’re just trying to make a little money.”
“So are we, which is why Captain Aurcattio wanted to keep this as quiet as possible.” He explained. “As long as the deal stays small, we can control things. But if the wrong people hear about it, which inevitably happens with larger deals, they’ll want to use it as a weapon in this debt war.” He fell silent for a moment, but spoke again before I could. “Honestly? I think she wanted to keep you two from getting pulled into this mess.”
“Ask her.” He said with a note finality and quickly changed the subject. “Like I was saying, we wanted to keep the deal small and barter on our terms, but without The Covenant and the stores we had there, you two have become a lot more important.”
“We sell your bauble and we get to eat.” He said flatly.
“’Oh’ is right.” He shook his head. “Thing is, we’ve a couple of people who don’t like us too much in the Undermarket, including a rather powerful person, and he’s the one giving us trouble.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting from a place called the Undermarket, but I had braced myself for teeming crowds of pirates and other lowlifes. Something like a giant bar fight waiting to happen, except with knives and guns rather than fists and bottles. Instead, I found myself looking out over an enormous, partially flooded cavern as Baen’s eyes adjusted to the torch lit darkness where packs of people congregated in small clumps on small islands of rock that rose above what must have been tidal pools. The islands were connected by makeshift bridges built from boards of somewhat rotten looking wood and at the end of each one stood a pole with a crude banner hanging limply from it, each sporting the sigil of whatever band of criminals called the island theirs. The entire place stank of seawater, rot, and roasting meat. I crinkled my nose and swallowed hard.
“This way.” Coalpaw said, apparently unphased by the stench. “This is delicate, so do as I say, understand?”
“What’s delicate?” I asked. “You haven’t actually explained anything.”
“I will, just let me give you the ground rules first. We’re essentially here to look like the captain’s backup. This is a show of force, and we have to look like we’ve got some, so try and look a little dangerous.” He said, and I nodded, noting Baen’s eyes roving back and forth, scanning for exits and potential threats. “Up ahead. The horned skull banner? That’s where we’re going.”
It was a small island, perhaps twenty metres across, that rose a little higher than its immediate neighbours and considerably more crowded. Norn, charr, asura and human, drinking, eating, or playing at dice. A few were tending to weaponry, and yet others seemed to be in deep discussion, exchanging coins and haggling over no-doubt ill-gotten goods. At the highest point, flush up against the cavern wall was what could only be described as the pirate’s version of a throne; a solid wooden chair with dull metal filigree worked into the back and arms, which made the man who sat in it no doubt some excuse for a king.
“That’s Captain Mishael Levaunt.” Coalpaw said as we drew slowly closer. “He’s one of the most dangerous men in here, so watch yourself.” Baen studied the man, and even at this distance had to agree with Coalpaw’s assessment.
Levaunt was tanned human, perhaps in his forties, with hair that had faded from jet black to a dark graphite grey. A hard but handsome face held a small, mocking smile, below a small, well groomed goatee and dark eyes sparkled with a vicious, calculating intelligence. He wore fine clothing, grey breeches and an expensive looking doublet over a white shirt with half the drawstrings at the collar undone. It seemed more suited for a high born lothario than a pirate captain. The open shirt gave me an easy view of the dangerously muscled chest, shoulders and arms, however, and that only increased my concern. This man was in peak condition, and the by the clearly well-worn sword and pistol on his belt I doubted he was anything less than a formidable fighter. One didn’t become a crime lord with nothing but charm after all.
Tatianna stood in front of him, Fotti and two other sailors – a charr and a human – directly behind her. Her expression was hard, angry, and I could tell she was embroiled in some argument with Levaunt. The captain of The Covenant looked tired, worn out, and I wondered if either she or Coalpaw had slept since the last time I saw them. The law was primarily pursuing her, after all, and with the safety of her crew at stake it was likely she’d spent the evening awake and busy.
“Levaunt has been buying up anyone and everything he can.” Coalpaw explained, his voice pulling me back to the task at hand. “Turns out he bought up most of the contacts and fences we’d be using to sell your bauble, and to make matters worse he’s never really liked us.”
“Something like that.” He said as we reached the ramshackle board that bridged the gap between us and Levaunt’s island. “From here on, keep quiet. Let me do the talking.”
Both of us nodded, and I noted Baen took the time to study the strange, horned skull that Levaunt had apparently adopted as his sigil. Emblazoned in dirty white on ash grey, it seemed halfway between an antelope or goat’s skull and that of a man’s. Odd, for a man whose business took place on the seas.
“Darrus Coalpaw.” A human said, stepping forward with a faint smile on his face. “It’s been a long time. Oh, I’m sorry, it’s Captain Darrus Coalpaw these days, isn’t it?”
“Still First Mate Sahir Kincarron, I assume?” Coalpaw growled. “Get out of the way. I’m not here for you.”
“Not until you tell me who these two are.”
“Baen and Kaede.” He rumbled. “They’re with me and Captain Aurcattio. Now get out of the way.” Sahir shrugged, giving both Baen and I a hard, calculated stare as we pushed past him. “That’s Mishael’s second in command.” Coalpaw whispered to me. “Careful around him. He’s a killer.”
At a glance, Sahir was very different from his master. Where Mishael was broad shouldered, Sahir had a more slender build, somewhat disguised beneath the long duster coat he wore, but I could tell from the muscles in his neck that he was far from puny. He moved easily, gracefully, the way I had seen the assassins the Order of Whispers counted among its members moved. His skin was a shade of dark olive, lighter than Baen but darker than I, like what I imagined burnt honey might look like. Hair so black it seemed almost blue in the firelight was surprisingly well kept in a long mane, matching equally dark eyes and the same confident smile as his master.
“…can’t just expect me to ignore what’s owed me.” Levaunt was saying as Coalpaw bulled his way to stand behind Tatianna, Baen and I following in his wake. I focused, trying not to be distracted by the sudden crowd around us and the array of eyes at my disposal, but not before I noted Tatianna reaching back and brushing her hand past Coalpaw’s claw, acknowledging his presence. I wondered how those two had met and how the obvious camaraderie between them had formed.
“I’m not asking you to ignore it.” Tatianna said. “I’m not asking anything.” Her tone was hard, cold. “I’m here to do business, and if you want your money then getting out of my way is how you’re going to get it. You’re the one making this difficult, Levaunt, not I. I’m happy to pay you back, but you’re stopping me from doing just that and then saying it’s my fault.”
“Life is hard, Tatianna.” Levaunt said, leaning back in his seat. His voice was more heavily accented that I had expected, softer, more cultured. It was interesting, I noted, that both of the criminal leaders I had met so far in this city seemed more educated than I would have guessed. “For more than just you and yours, it is hard.”
“Then you should understand that the best solution for everyone is for you to just give me access.”
“It’s not that simple.” Levaunt said, shaking his head with a small smile, as if he were educating a child. “There are rules, rules we all must adhere to. I own the rights to trade with these people, and you, just like everyone else, must pay me if you wish to enjoy their services.”
“Sticking to those same rules are what will have all us begging for scraps if we don’t do something about them.” She snarled. “The game is changing, Levaunt, you know that! I had Fiegrsonn pay me a visit, Fiegrsonn. He broke the rules, and I don’t think he was doing it alone. There are new rules now, and either we evolve with them, or all this?” She gestured with both arms, taking in the entire cavern. “All of this will mean absolutely nothing.”
“Firstly, none of us here tell Fiegrsonn what do, I just tell him what not to do. I don’t know when the last time was that anyone with such influence told him not to investigate you. Secondly, those rules you dismiss so casually are what keep us all from murdering each other. You’ve a flair for the dramatic, my dear Tatianna, but if this change is coming then we must resist it. The old ways are the only way that we can survive.” Levaunt said, calmly stroking his goatee in pensive boredom, apparently unmoved by Tatianna’s vehemence. “Those old rules are what gave you your ship, as I recall it. Such a shame you ended up losing it.” The last came out flippantly, but I could detect the vicious glee hidden behind his words. Tatianna’s hand balled into a fist. “Listen, Tatianna, you know I’ve always liked you. You were a good sailor, a good captain, and you served well. You bought your way out, and I let you go because I respect the rules. And now you’re asking me to break them.”
“Like I said I’m not asking for anything.”
“Hm. Well, we’ll make a deal.” Levaunt smiled, rising out of his seat and coming to stand in front of us. He was easily as tall as I was, and his eyes flickered over us before he turned his gaze down to Tatianna’s face, who was forced to look up to meet it. “You come back to me, permanently, and I’ll not only give you full rights to talk to whoever you want but I’ll get The Covenant back in the water.”
“Absolutely not.” Tatianna looked angrily up at him, and through his eyes I could see her expression was nothing short of loathing. “We both know that’s never happening again.”
“Are you so sure?” Levaunt laughed, turning his back on us and walking back to his throne. “I still have high hopes that you’ll come crawling back to me, my dear, maybe even on your hands and knees.” He watched her closely, and I’d seen men look at women that way before. Tatianna’s face flickered with a myriad of emotion, each one unreadable, then she shook her head and turned her back on him.
“Wait.” Levaunt said, and Tatianna turned back to him as he draped himself back into his chair. “I might let you talk to a few people if you perform a simple task for me.”
“And that is?” Tatianna’s tone was wary.
“Do you remember when I gave you The Covenant?”
“Of course.” Tatianna answered, arching an eyebrow.
“I gave you a gift to go along with it.” Levaunt went on, the same smile playing on his face. “I want it back by tomorrow night.”
“Why?” Her tone was puzzled, and but I couldn’t read anything form Levaunt’s smiling face.
“It was my mother’s.” He said with a shrug. “I had thought that perhaps it would look better on you, but I see now that maybe I was wrong.”
“It’s on The Covenant.” She said, crossing her arms. “Assuming the Lionguard haven’t confiscated it by now.”
“Must I do everything?” Levaunt sighed dramatically. “You ask me to break the rules, I refuse, but your beautiful face convinces me to be merciful. I am merciful and I present you with a compromise, and you complain that I am too hard on you? Life is hard, my dear.”
“I need more time to organise something as complicated as stealing from the Lionguard.” Tatianna insisted. “Give me till next week.”
“Either you bring the pendant back to me tomorrow evening, before midnight, or you don’t do business here.” Levaunt shrugged. “It’s that simple.” Tatianna looked at him for a long moment before shaking her head and turning away again.
“We’re leaving.” She repeated. “Come on, Darrus.”