Thieves' World: Enemies of Fortune

Thieves' World (Volume 3)

Edited by Lynn Abbey

Tor Books

Thieves' World: Enemies of Fortune
Widowmaker
 
 
C. J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher
 
 
 
"Sail ho!" the cry was, and Capt. Jarez Camargen of the Widowmaker climbed to the masthead himself with his best glass, sweeping the dawn sea.
A day and night of treacherous shifts and tricks, and now, with the wind off the starboard quarter, the Widowmaker's best sailing point, there she was, their chase, the Yenized ship Fortunate, sail above the horizon.
"Ho, Cap'n!" came from his lieutenant, below. "No longer quite as Fortunate, eh?"
Camargen grinned, a wicked and wolfish sort of grin. Widowmaker was, to put it in the very best light, a pirate. Her prey had run her every trick in a thick old book, and here they were again, out of the isles and onto the southern coast.
They were a Yenized polacre xebec themselves, the Widowmaker --at least Yenized-built, before they'd taken her in the Isles. Capt. Camargen had liked the look of her: long, low-waisted, a pretty set to her lateen sails fore and aft, her bastard mizzen, which gave her power, and quick, oh, much better in his able hands than in the hands of the fool that had left her largely unmanned and anchored off Keina's Head. Her former captain had been taking on wateron that island when they'd seen black smoke billowing up from the harbor and their sweet xebec standing out to sea under all sail. The Happy Isle, she'd been, under a fool; but Widowmaker she'd become, and she had a nose for treasure--had a sure, keen nose, these days, wizardguided, since they'd met up with old Hada Korgun and his grievance, and used him for a weathervane.
There he was, out under the bowsprit, incorruptible, as good a guide as a pirate's instinct to the whereabouts of the Fortunate. They didn't check him often, but he was there, arm outstretched, glassy eyes open, mouth still stretched wide with his dying curse, and where he pointed, there they sailed.
There was a Yenizedi wizard on board the Fortunate, likely in better shape. And they'd tried the soft approach--used Widowmaker's Yenized-built outlines and her old Yenizedi flag to get close to the Fortunate the first time, but that trick would never work twice. Hada Korgun had laid his curse, burst his heart doing it, and now forget all the old bastard had said about duty to the king of Enlibar and the pardon they'd get if they only got his treasure back. A dead wizard didn't keep promises any better than a live king, and Camargen never had liked that part of the bargain.
The Fortunate carried a number of items along with a scoundrel of a Yenized wizard, a man after Camargen's own heart, who'd stolen this treasure from Hada Korgun by an act of hospitality betrayed ... clever man, who had a very well-known ruby, the Heart of Fire, along with a book of spells and a gold-headed wand.
The Enlibrite, Hada Korgun, had lost his court job over that theft, the ruby being the property of the king of Enlibar. He desperately wanted his king's property back, along with the head of the offender, that being the condition of his reinstatement. He'd approached them in the free port of Anbec, offered them considerable inducement topursue the fugitive--for starters--and claimed the magical ability to track this prize.
All this was useful until they had the ship in sight and Korgun tried some rite or another attempting to link the two ships. He died in the magical backlash--died, or something like it. The crew had lashed him to the mast and kept him there four days, in the hopes he'd come around and blast the ship that now ran them a merry chase. His arm moved. Where that ship went, when it tacked or wore, it tracked, no matter the weather. But he'd begun to have an effect on the crew, just standing there in the way of hands on business, and it seemed less and less likely he'd come to and be himself again.
So they'd lashed him under the bowsprit, down where hands bound for the head could look out and wish him a good day, if they wanted. At night he had a wan kind of bluish glow about him, and for his part, Capt. Camargen would just as soon cut him free for fish bait, being averse to wizardry from the start and convinced by a long shot he didn't need a wizard-compass to run down a bloody great Yenizeder merchantman in the middle of the ocean.
But the captain of that vessel was a right seaman, no question. They'd used all their tricks on each other, setting out decoys at night, muffling up their wizard-compass with sailcloth and dousing all lights to creep closer on a following breeze. They'd gotten the most of every wind that would serve, crept through a maze of islands and chartless reefs, turned tricks of light and weather, and all he'd done had kept the bastard from any civilized port, at least. Run as he would, every time he came close to land, he'd gotten between and chased him out to sea.
They'd be rich. The law of the Brotherhood was share and share alike, and they'd be rich when they ran that beggar down.
So the crew put up with misery, put up with a chase that dragged into days and weeks, into calms and blows andheat and frozen, deadly rigging. The deep calms had set them in sight of one another, the weed growing thick on both their bottoms, until they both sailed like slugs, and no time for either of them to heave down and scrape clean. The chase took on a nightmare slowness at times, every scrap of sail aloft and the log running slower, slower, while they blazed away at one another with Yenized Fire, and flung glass bombs, trying to set sails or pitch-soaked wood ablaze. Crew were scarred with burns, to a man.
Then they reached latitudes where storms grew deadly icicles in the maintop, that plunged to deck and dented the planks, where men took horrible falls, and thus far survived them. "'Cause he's dead, we ain't," was the common wisdom, and the crew didn't want to look at their wizard--all frozen up with icicles, one report said, but still moving--but they had acquired a superstitious belief that old Korgun was their luck as well as their compass.
A sensible captain might have called it enough. Widowmaker's situation had gotten desperate, running them low on provisions and on water, the bitter latitudes wearing the already thin sails and rigging to a perilous state. At times they thought they'd have lost their quarry, and Captain Camargen began to think of ordering the Widowmaker to some wooded shore, some foreign port where they might forget the foolishness and get it out of their blood.
But there was that damned wizard-compass up under the bow, their figurehead. And just when they thought they'd lost her, there was the thrice-damned Fortunate. At times a glass showed her clearly, let them see that cursed Yenizedi wizard walking around, talking to the crew, sometimes just lingering back by the stern and watching them, just watching, silver hair streaming in the wind--a live wizard, to their dead one.
"We can find other prey," Capt. Camargen had said. Even he had a conscience, and when water itself ran short, when they could take no time to send boats ashore: "We'redown to a ton of water," he told the assembled crew, "and even the hardtack is running slim."
"We ain't et all the rats, yet," the crew shouted back. "We're goin' on, Cap'n!"
The log itself had gone strange. What Capt. Camargen thought he'd written turned out written differently when he checked his course. His charts showed frayed and lost lettering just where it might have been most useful.
But now they were closer than they had been in weeks. The Fortunate was hull-up, and lagging, the wind deserting her sails as she bore close to a shore where the charts warned of reefs and shoals, another of her tricks, but not one she could play to great advantage: The Widowmaker could skin through channels where the Fortunate risked her bottom, and a xebec's sails gave her much more maneuverability in the tricks of wind.
Around a headland, skimming close, close to shore, and now there seemed to be a spot on the lens. Capt. Camargen closed the glass, polished the lens with his cuff, and tried again.
Not a spot, after all. A spot of bluish haze, the sort of color that ought to belong on the horizon, but that had set down on the sea, right near that coast, and the sea beyond it all wrinkled with wind.
Camargen snapped the glass shut and glared, not needing a glass now to see that situation, the dog.
They had the wind off their starboard quarter, carrying them along at a good rate, no danger of a lee shore while this wind blew, but that riffling of the blue water out there was a white squall of the sort infamous in the southern sea, a brutal shift in the wind, in this case bearing right toward the coast, and the Fortunate sailing right along that coast. The Fortunate had that squall in their sights, too. Had it in their sights, bloody hell! That blackguard wizard might have stirred it up as a favor to the captain.
Hammer and anvil, the coast for the anvil and the squallfor the hammer, and them a good long ways behind. The Fortunate was meaning to skin through, pass by that deadly rocky headland before the squall came sweeping down on that coast, and leave them in her wake. It intended the squall to cut them off, to force them to veer out to sea and sail wide of the weather.
They were both short of water and short of rations, damn them, and if the Widowmaker had to turn out to sea, she had as well turn around and go back to the Isles, her prey escaped, all this long chase for nothing.
That or a long, thankless search in every cove and inlet on this impoverished, treeless coast, for a ship taking on water.
Crew had seen it too--exhausted crew that had been hauling up glass bombs and fitting the cables to the catapult. Some tried to point to the situation.
"Carly!" Camargen yelled for the bosun. "All aloft. Mizzen royal, storm trysails! Gunners, shift everything forward!"
Carly stared at him half a heartbeat, the whole intention implicit in those orders. The pipe shrilled. There was a moment's awful hesitation, old hands knowing full well what the game was: It was in their eyes. But then they howled with one voice, "Camargen or the devil!" and top hands swarmed aloft to spread all the canvas she had, while gunners worked like devils to shift their light catapults to the forecastle to back up the bowchasers.
Camargen dived down to the xebec's little cabin for another look at his charts. The shore was notorious for its hidden reefs. In sight of the shoreline, he had his landmark in the headland itself, and he set everything in memory well as he could, because they might sail on their wind right across the teeth of that squall, much faster than the Fortunate on this point of sailing, and they were going to have to run up the Fortunate's backside and come under fire from that towering deck in order to clear that space of coast before the squall swept them onto the reefs. The crewsaw their prize; they cheered the choice they saw. They knew they could overhaul that bastard. If they could withstand the fire she could throw long enough and not sink her, they could board and take her.
The crew was mad with desire, seeing gold for every man jack of them; and now he might have caught the contagion himself ... hell, if he'd fall off now and let that Yenizedi dog skin past, laughing at them. Wizard or no wizard aboard that ship, they had old Korgun up there for a charm, and they were going to take that Yenizeder bastard this time.
He ran up on deck, already feeling the difference in the ship's motion with the new sails abroad, and hoping their weather-worn canvas held ... that was the devil in it, because if something carried away, they might not have the speed to make it past that squall. Fool, something said to him, reminding him there was still escape. Fool, no treasure is worth it. But there was no hesitation in the crew at all, who worked like madmen. Catapults brought to the forecastle were bowsed up to the fine, fair view of a square-rigged ship coming closer and closer, as the Widowmaker's full spread of canvas hurled her along the fine line between that squall and hidden rocks.
Thought I didn't have the charts, did you? he asked his enemy. Thought we'd not have the nerve? The Widowmaker ripped along, rigging singing, the whole deck humming. Old Korgun was getting a soaking up there, the bow wave sending up continuous spray, so that the gunners had to canvas their catapults' cables and shield their slowmatches from the wet.
Closer and closer, with the white squall a haze on their larboard bow, and the Fortunate towering up ahead of them. No need for the glass now. A blind man could see the tall stern of their enemy, could see one head and another take a look at them over the taffrail--could see activity back there and know that they were preparing their own rain of fire and missiles, and their deck so high they didn'thave to worry about the spray. A silver-haired man leaned on the rail up there--Yenizedi, no question, and their wizard. Wind caught that hair and spread it like a banner.
"Off covers!" Camargen shouted at his gunners. "Fire at will!"
Canvas came off. Bombs were heaved up and settled into their padded slots, their fuses set alight, and thump-thump-thump! the catapults cut loose, two at once and the others close after, the glass bombs flying. One smacked against their enemy's stern-post, one fell in the sea, and others hit near the rail. Silver-hair vanished for a moment and reappeared.
The gunners worked like fiends, angling up for maximum loft, winching back, no longer in unison. It was a race, and the first went off, then two and three so close they made one thump, sailing up and over the enemy's rail, spreading fire. The fourth hit the rail itself, right where Silver-hair was standing. The heavy bomb splintered the rail and spattered fire.
Silver-hair's robe caught. He made a futile gesture to put it out, turned in a sheet of fire, and in a gust of wind, lost his footing and fell, his black robes and pale hair a downward trail, a small flutter of fire amid the dark cloak.
"Ha!" the gunners crowed.
"Get that bugger!" Camargen roared to midships, and junior officers and spare gunners rushed to the rail to seize up two of the xebec's long oars from their stowage. They ran them out, while the gunners kept lobbing bombs at their target, and now bombs came back, belated fire from a towering great merchantman. Bombs burst on the deck and made puddles of fire that spread in the watery sheet of spray as crew ran to dowse them and wash them overboard.
Camargen dodged between two such and saw the wretch hauled in, half drowned and snagged between crossed oars.
Silver-hair it was, but not the old wizard, not wearing any great ruby, but a young man, a drowned duck of ayoung man who coughed up water and had to be hauled up to his feet, streaming water.
"He's not the one," Camargen said as the thump of catapults went on and an enemy missile exploded off the mainmast. "Search him for valuables and pitch the bastard in the hold."
"Fool!" the drowned man cried. "You're caught, we're all caught, we're all gone mad! Turn back! Turn back now or we're cursed, all of us are cursed!"
The hands had their superstitions. "Wot curse?" one asked, shaking him.
"There is no curse," Camargen said, grabbing the wretch by the front of his icy shirt to shut him up.
"Curse there is," Silver-hair said, teeth chattering, lips turned blue. "We've been years at this, years, now, and we're both caught in it. Cut Korgun free and fall back or we'll all be caught, forever. It's not a natural storm! We've all run mad, and there's no end to this chase!"
"Cap'n!" the lookout cried. "Cap'n!"
The merchantman ahead of them half vanished in a blinding gust of windswept spray. From a mile away the squall swelled up between one breath and the next and drove down on them in a blinding mist.
There was no time for fools. The gale rushed on them. "Helm!" Camargen shouted, seeing that the helmsman was struggling. "Hargen, Cali, to the helm!" A solid wash of spray broke over them, and he struggled aft, to make his orders heard. Their chase was aborted. They were, with the merchantman, fighting to get through, if they had gained enough headroom around that point of the coast "Shorten sail!" he yelled, under a wash of water. Sea and sky began to mix, and the air was a steady roar as he turned.
Their prisoner had escaped. Silver-hair was hand-overhanding his way forward, toward the catapults and their glass bombs.
"Damn it to hell!" Camargen ran to stop him before he got to fire that would float and burn. "Stop him!" ButSilver-hair had dodged past the gunners, struggling to secure their pieces and their fire-globes, ran the length of the forecastle and clambered up onto the bowsprit as Camargen gave chase. Metal flashed in Silver-hair's right hand as he clasped the bowsprit with both legs and his left arm, cloak let fly to the storm, shirt soaked, hair streaming cometlike against the storm.
"Damn you!" Camargen pushed past the startled gunners and seized a hold on the bowsprit himself, saw Silver-hair forge farther and farther out, toward the end of the bowsprit, where the mainstay held, the stay of not only the mainmast, but all the masts, Silver-hair with this shining metal in hand, and no good intention.
Bent on killing them all, on killing the whole ship. If that stay went, they were dead men, all.
Water, fresh and salt, mingled in the air. Camargen swarmed outward on the bowsprit, got hold of Silver-hair's leg and hauled, and Silver-hair half lost his hold, turning with his back to the gale and his free hand lifted, holding not a knife, but a wizard's wand.
"The hell you do!" Camargen shouted against the wind, and hauled with all his strength, for life itself.
A violent gust hit them. The Fortunate completely vanished behind a great mountain of water, and the Widowmaker nosed down, her bowsprit aimed at the trough. He seized a fistful of trouser-leg and hauled with all his strength, to get his hands on Silver-hair himself.
Silver-hair slipped further, and grabbed him. "You don't understand," Silver-hair shouted at him. "Let me get us through!"
He had a grip on Silver-hair's belt now, hauled him against the bowsprit only to get his hand on his throat, and as he did, Silver-hair slipped, dragging them both over, dragging them right down where rope and chains held waterlogged old Korgun. With a crack like a catapult, the bowsprit shook.
Canvas had ripped, a tattered streamer of the lateenforesail blowing over their heads, trailing its sheets. Then, sickening shock, the great cable of the mainstay parted a strand, and another, unwinding before their eyes.
Crack! again, and something had given way. The whole mainstay parted, the mainmast pulled violently aside, and death was taking them apart, trailing canvas. Cables and canvas frayed and parted as if sudden rot had taken them. Camargen had Silver-hair by the throat now, and vengeance was all he had, vengeance for his crew, for the Widowmaker herself, for all the long sorry chase and the end of it in a watery grave. Old Korgun looked on, blue-lit in lightning and spray, and Camargen kept his grip, kept it while the timbers parted in a series of sickening cracks and lost-soul groans, and the whole fabric of the ship came undone. They went under together, tangled in each other, and while he drowned, he kept strangling the one who'd done it to them, in hatred more precious than his last-held breath.
 
"Where did you get this?" Bezul held the necklace in front of Kadithe's face and Bezul's sharp gaze raked him up and down.
Kadithe Mur ducked his head and mumbled: "I made it."
The little bell rang over the Changer's door and Bezul's strong fingers grabbed his arm, pulling him into a little room just inside the shop's warrens, closing the door behind them.
"Sit!" Bezul hissed and Kadithe hunched on the edge of the wooden chair facing the small, cluttered desk. Bezul threw himself down in the desk-side chair and laid the necklace, gently as if it were a butterfly wing, on the table between them. "You tell me and you tell me straight, boy, is that stolen?"
"No."
"I don't deal in that sort of thing. You know I don't."
"I tell you, I didn't steal it!"
Bezul's wife, Chersey, cracked the door and asked, was everything all right.
"Fine, my dear," Bezul answered quietly, and Kadithe scowled at the floor.
She nodded, once, and disappeared from the door, her point made.
"All right, boy, start talking, and fast. You say you made it. Out of what?"
He shrugged, resentment rising. "Stuff. Shite lying in the gutter, under the scrap from th' fires. Lotsa bits left lyin' 'round iff'n ya opens yer eyes."
Hell, half and more of Bezul's stock out in that warehouse he called a store came from the same source, just better stuff, gang-scavenged.
"Who taught you?"
His eyes dropped. He'd been a fool to come here, or rather should have stuck with the odd repair job Bezul had for him. The new bits and bobs, his work, only raised questions he dared not answer. Secrecy, more, anonymity, Grandfather had always said, was their only safety.
"Just ... give it back," he said sullenly and reached for the piece, only to find Bezul's square-fingered hand covering it.
"Not so fast." Nothing could hide from those keen eyes. They bore past pretense and saw:
"Kadithe. Kadithe ... Mur?"
He jumped. He'd never given the name. Never. But Bezul nodded slowly.
"Mur. Aye, you have the look of his boy." He sat back, taking the necklace with him, and said, almost to himself: "I thought the line had died out."
"Just ... give it to me."
"Grandson?"
He set his jaw.
"Where is he, boy?"
Counting the necklace lost, he darted for the door, only to run headlong into Bezul's wife.
"Here, now." She caught his arms, and gentle but firm, made him lift his head. She tsked softly and wrapped a kind arm around his shoulders.
Kind. So why did he still feel like a prisoner?
"What's going on, Bezul?" she asked, over his averted head.
"The boy here wanted to trade this for a shirt and a blanket. Take a look. Tell me what you think."
She made him look up again. "Promise me you won't run?"
He swore, his voice breaking, and threw himself back in the chair. She picked the necklace up; lamplight caught the moonstone ring on her finger, making it glow with life. A beautiful stone ... with a setting that failed to do it justice. All urge to escape faded in the face of that beautiful stone, how he'd set it, given half a--
Chersey exclaimed softly, then moved over to the lamp, and all thought of the ring vanished. If he hadn't been terrified, the look on her face would have made him happier than he'd been in ... a very long time.
"Beautiful. So very delicate. I haven't seen work like this since ..." Her voice trailed off and her eyes lifted to meet her husband's. Then she turned to Kadithe, lifted his face with a finger beneath his chin, then brushed his hair back from his eyes to study him the same way she'd studied the necklace. "Where is he, child? We heard his shop was ruined, burned to the ground, that he died."
He said nothing, only wished desperately that he could leave.
She chuckled softly, the way Grandfather chuckled when he recalled his time in the palace. "He was always so proud of his bronze-work, his statues. He never appreciated ... Of course, it wasn't stylish. Large, ostentatious, that's what the nabobs wanted. But the jewelry he made was for his daughter-in-law. She was small, delicate." She smiled at him; he shuddered. "A lot like you, child."
He ground his teeth. Delicate wasn't something hewanted to be. Delicate didn't survive what he'd survived these last years. o way. No froggin', shite'n way in hell.
"He says he made it."
"Does he, now?" She took his hands before he kenned her intent, studied them from all angles, touching the calluses, the tiny pricks and cuts the metal left, apologized when she inadvertently pressed a still-raw burn, then smiled and placed the necklace in his hands before releasing him altogether. "He's taught you well." She settled on the edge of the desk. "So, husband, how are we going to help this talented young man?"
"What about the shop?" Bezul asked.
"We're out. Says so on the door. Don't change the subject. He's not, I take it, a member of that annoying guild."
Bezul raised a brow It him; he shook his head. He didn't know what guild she was talking about, but he shite'n sure wasn't a member.
"Thought not. He's far too young. They have all those rules. As if that necklace shouldn't be evidence enough."
"What ... rules?" he whispered, before he could shut his fool mouth. It was a dream she offered, not reality. He'd just wanted to exchange the damned necklace for a blanket.
"You must put in your time with a master--"
"Meaning you have to pay someone who's paying huge sums to the guild for the privilege of being slave labor for at least five years."
Pay for the right to make things? He shook his head. "Impossible." Not even if he had the money.
"There must be some way around it. Look at this, Bezul. He's done his time. How long, child? How long have you worked with Harnet?"
His eyes went funny, his head light. He hadn't heard Grandfather's name in over five years. Had learned not even to think it. Secrecy, Kadithe. It's our only chance.
"S-since I was four ... five .." He couldn't rememberthe first time he'd sat next to his grandfather, high on a stool, a tiny mallet clutched in his hand. "Something like."
"There. You see?"
"And where is he? Harnet's been gone for five years and more. Is he a paying master, boy?"
He shrugged. Shook his head.
"But he's still alive." His wife persisted.
Bile rose in his throat. Fear such he hadn't known for many long years. He began to shake, tried again for the door, and found himself ensnared in her arms.
"Please," he whispered, in the hoarse voice that was all he had left these days, "please, may I just have the blanket. It--" He choked and got the words out, owing these people who spoke fondly of Harnet Mur at least that much. "It's for my grandfather."
She set him back on his chair. "Why didn't you just say so? Pride is a shortcut to hell, child." She picked up a slate and began writing. "Blanket. Shirt. What else?"
"You'll trade then?"
"Wasting time, young man. What else?"
Bezul nodded and slipped out the door, evidently counting the deal closed--or in the hands of a master.
"P-pissing pot?" he whispered, his face hot as ever it could get, and she added it to her list with only a hint of a twitch to her kind mouth. One by slow one, he added those small items they'd done without for so long, waiting for her to stop him, unable to believe the necklace could possibly be worth as much as she was allowing. When he asked, hesitantly, for an iron skillet and she agreed, he began to suspect charity, and closed his mouth, firmly, resenting the position she'd put him in, wondering what her angle must be.
"So," she said, scanning the list. "Fair enough, though if you'd used anything better than agates in it, I'd owe you. Think you can carry all this at once?"
"Safer if I made more than one trip."
Safer was not lost on her. Bezul's shop was in the Shambles, opposite the Maze. Safe was a concept she well understood.
"I'll get Ammen or Jopze to deliver it. Where do you live?"
"I'll come back," he said firmly. No way he was leading these people to home.
Again, that gentle smile that saw through him. "Good enough. I'll get it ready"
As she left, Bezul returned, carrying something in his hand. It was a spool. A spool of fine, copper wire.
"You know what to do with this?" he asked, and Kadithe, unable to take his eyes from that treasure, nodded. "I want you to take it. Make beautiful things. Bring them here to me. I don't want you or that grandfather of yours wanting. Ever. You need something, you come and ask. We'll work it out. Understand?"
Understand? He understood nothing except that he'd betrayed Grandfather's trust. And yet, as the numbness in his mind eased, somehow ... some god must be smiling on him, because it was just possible that it would all work out for the best.
Still not altogether certain he wasn't dreaming, he gathered up the beautiful wire, stammered something he hoped was thanks, and escaped.
He was home before he remembered the two bundles lying beside the doorway of Bezul's Exchange.
 
The rocky reef had one high point about the size of a ship's boat when the tide was in, one rock a man could sit on that was above the fetch of the waves with a south wind driving. So Camargen sat, sodden down to his boots. A man could freeze, in such a wind, even under the burning late-summer sun.
Flotsam went by from time to time, washing past the reef, and he had snagged a few boards, but nothing yet of a size. Cordage had washed up, a kind of a garland on theseaward side, and it was gray and rotten, as Camargen's clothes were grayed and aged and his sword and dirk were rusted. He was not aged. He was sunburned. His hands, ripped bloody from the reef rocks when he had washed up, were still young hands, and his jaw had only the ordinary stubble of beard.
Sorcerers. Sorcerers, sorcery, and magic flung about, insubstantial and unseeable until it hit a ship and the wood rotted in an instant. He was through with sorcery, had no future use for the whole sorcerous breed--but then, he had no future at all, so far as he could see, alternately freezing and baking on this cursed rock, the outlines of which he knew down to a nicety, low tide and high. Today there was a dead fish floating in the garland of cable, if he wanted to get that desperate for moisture and food. He was not a fastidious man, but he was not yet at his limits. A piece of the Widowmaker or the Fortunate big enough to carry him to shore might yet come along--shore was just hazily visible on the horizon as a line of surf, so close he sometimes thought he might swim it. But where there was shipwreck, there were scavengers and predators, and sharks figured in his hesitation. Being a blue-water sailor bred and born, he was not that good a swimmer, and the fear of sharks and suchlike monsters being . wellengrained, he stayed put.
So he watched planks go by, and snagged another one before it escaped, wood almost gone to punk from rot. While he was off his rock and soaking his feet, he hauled the rotten cordage a little higher on his diminished shore, seeing it as a means to tie the whole together. He would make a raft, if enough bits and pieces bumped up against his little refuge.
Of his crew, or the Fortunate's, no sight nor sign, not unless one counted a scrap of cloth or two.
A barrel went by, a mostly empty beef-barrel, it might be, but too far to reach, damn it all. He watched it go.
Then his eye shifted to another thing, a small boat, ascrap of sail, hazy in the distance, inshore of the reef. He watched it. He took off his coat and waved it like a banner. And that boat tacked and came closer, working up the wind, a long, slow process.
There were fishing villages hereabouts. And that was what he saw, as the boat came closer, a small, single-sailed fishing boat, not even a two-man vessel, clumsy and broad of beam, lumbering this way and that as it came.
He stood waiting, finally, as it nosed gingerly up to his perch, riding cautiously where there was water enough to keep its keel off the rock. An old man managed it.
"Cast me a line!" Camargen said, an order--it was habit, and he tried to mend his ways. He saw he'd startled the old man, who sat with his hand on the tiller and his sail swinging back and forth, slack, and the boat just too far to reach. The old man mumbled something unintelligible in the rush and suck of water, then stood up and flung him the line.
Camargen caught it and pulled, the two of them working the boat closer to the rock until it bumped and he jumped aboard, instinctively finding his footing in a slovenly tangle of rope and net.
The old man said something about a ship, a wreck, he made that much out. And then the old man picked up a pole in a menacing way, and held out his hand palm up.
The hell, Camargen said to himself, and several things occurred to him: one, that this man wanted money, which he had; that the old man had a weapon he might then use, having said money; and third, that this was a perfectly serviceable, if stinking, boat.
He grabbed the threatening pole in one bloodied hand, grabbed it with the other, and wrenched over hard, which carried the startled old man overside.
He strode aft and grabbed the tiller, hauled the rope in, and watched the old man splash toward the boat. He let the wind back the boat off a little, and the old man turned andsplashed toward the rock, where he hauled himself up, dripping, onto the sole safe refuge.
"I've started a raft there," he called to the old man. "Good luck to you."
"Damn you," he thought he made out for a reply, but he'd been, overall, polite. He bowed, and turned the boat before the wind, bringing the sail close, and sailed away, sweet as could be, with a wind off the quarter and a lubberly old boat that could even sing a bit, once the wind got behind her.
There were the fishing villages--not necessarily a good thing, to come sailing into such small places with another man's boat--but there was plenty of coastline to choose from and there was net and line. He'd not starve.
But as the shore came nearer he saw a smudge of smoke, smoke which proved to cover a broad spot on the horizon.
A signal fire, he thought. Was it a smoky signal fire, someone summoning other survivors?
He aimed the little craft for it, and sailed, even kicking up a little spray from the bow as the wind blew inshore. He was wet. He was cold, and the wind grew colder as the boat ran, so that he sank down as much into shelter as he could get, and wrapped a dirty tarpaulin about himself, leaving only his hand on the tiller and his face exposed to the chill.
The smudge came clearer, as the haze above a settlement, but such a settlement. He saw other boats, and kept clear of them; and he saw taller masts, and a huddle of buildings big enough to been seen from a distance through the haze.
It was no village. It was a whole damned town. A city, where no city ought to be.
Anonymity was possible, in such a place of size.
But his charts had been wrong. There was nothing here. There could be nothing.
He sailed closer, no longer quite trusting his senses--his charts, he had greater faith in, but they had provedfalse. He sailed closer and closer, beyond a short breakwater, to a ship-channel and what was a fair-sized deepwater harbor, with quays all brown, weathered board and precious little paint, the town rising, all brown boards, beyond it. He felt far from conspicuous as he nosed his stolen boat up to the side of a long, sparse boardwalk, tied onto a piling beside a boarding ladder, and climbed up onto the level of the town.
People came and went. Chimneys gave out smoke. Nobody's clothes were in much better case, his having lost most of their color. The harbor stank of fish and the dockside was as scurvy a place as Pirate's Rest up in the Isles. It felt, in short, like a homecoming of sorts.
He walked, still sodden, but no longer quite so cold, down the boards and onto the stony walk of solid ground, walked with a sailor's roll to his step, but not the only such hereabouts.
A harbor with room for ships of size, though he saw nothing larger than a channel-runner in port at the moment in this backwater place. The Widowmaker was lost, taking with her the best crew a man could ask, but he was alive, he had gold in his pocket, probably more than adequate for a start in this town, and he could live, gather a small crew about him--and wait for a likely ship to come in. He'd buy new charts, too. Damn the mapmaker.
All around him he heard the fisherman's accent, a handful of words discernible and those few uninformative. He could read signs, spelling as indifferent as any in the Rest. One sign marked an inn, as he took it. It said, THE BROKEN MAST, with a piece of cracked spar above the door.
If a man was looking for fellow seamen, that looked apt enough. Broken Mast it was. He needed a dry place, food, and a bed.
He walked into the mostly deserted inn at this hour, picked the scarred table nearest the fire, and threw himself into a creaking wooden chair.
"Wan drink?" the bartender yelled, and something that sounded like come here. Every man in this damned town talked with marbles in his mouth--a dialect, and a muddy one, like the town itself.
There was, however, a universal shortcut. Camargen felt at his waist for his purse and, among its currency of various climes and kingdoms, extracted a coin of small size ... gold, however. It winked in the general gloom of the place.
"You want this?"
The barkeep drew a big pewter mug and brought it to the table.
"Room," Camargen said, keeping converse to small words, and the barkeep made a try at the coin. "Food," Camargen insisted, retaining it.
They made do with few words, which turned out to involve a small roasted fowl, nondescript greens--welcome, after months at sea--and a bowl of grayish duff, not to mention an upstairs room for an indeterminate number of days, all for the same small coin.
Left to his own devices, Camargen wedged the chair in front of the door, pitched the filthy sheets onto the floor, and slept, rusty sword in hand, for a good number of hours.
Copyright © 2004 by Lynn Abbey and Thieves' World 2000