Muttering curses under his breath, Marco trudged up the boardwalk with his backpack in tow. He was short on time and completely lost in the labyrinth that was Denrico’s seaport.
The merciless heat didn’t help either. His messenger’s uniform was crisply ironed this morning. If he wrung the sweat out of his shirt now he could irrigate a small farm for a day.
He cupped his eyes and scanned the pier ahead. Enormous trade galleons packed the crowded harbor. Never had Marco seen, much less set foot on, an oceangoing vessel. Today he had seen enough ships for a lifetime.
He slung his backpack across his opposite shoulder. The parcel inside was heavy. To make matters worse, it would be weeks before he could rid himself of its bulk. The parcel was addressed to Queen Catherine Saint-Saenz Lucinda of Avignary, and that was on the other side of the world.
A shout from nearby snagged his attention.
“Hey there, lad!”
Marco turned his head to look. An old crewman sauntered down the gangplank of a nearby ship. He was particularly ugly. Here was a man who looked like he threw rocks at beehives when he was a boy, except that the rocks were attached to a short stick, and the stick was still in his hand when the rocks hit the hives. His cleft chin extended beyond the arch of his nose, giving him a horrific underbite. He balanced a reed on his lips. When his jaws met to chew its stem, he looked as though he could sniff his chin.
The sailor planted himself in the center of the boardwalk, arms over his head as though signaling someone distant. “Hey!”
Marco held his breath as he approached. The sailor reeked of sweat. He hadn’t gone a step past when his backpack snagged, knocking him off balance.
“Whoa!” Marco yelled, whirling to face the old man.
The sailor’s eyebrows arched, resembling a pair of caterpillars on a twig. “Whoa yourself.”
Marco took a step forward. The old man put out his hand to stop him.
“Out of my way,” Marco said.
“That presumes you know where your way is.”
Marco stiffened at this affront. “You’d better have a good reason for obstructing Lord Amadis Eric’s mail.”
“Yup.” The sailor gnawed his reed.
"You don’t know where you’re headed.”
“You don’t either.”
"Don’t I?” The old man grinned a checkerboard pattern of missing teeth. Those teeth that remained were stained from years of neglect.
Marco tucked the backpack into his armpit. “What do you want?”
The sailor turned up his hands, palms out. “Meant no offense, lad. Old Turbo here only wants to help you. You look lost.”
“I am,” Marco admitted despite himself. He would never make his delivery if he did not first find his ship.
“Right, right.” The sailor touched his forehead and shut his eyes, pantomiming a diviner receiving a vision. “The sea spirits are calling. They tell me... They tell me you’re headed to Avignary.”
Marco crossed his arms. “Lucky guess.”
“Turbo doesn’t guess, lad.”
"So answer me this: where are the ships headed for Avignary?”
Turbo gnawed his reed. “That answer’s hidden in an old tale of the sea.” He cleared his throat. “The ship you seek flies a pennant blue as the sky on a summer day, red like the blood in your countrymen’s veins, and gold like, a... eh... Sorry, lad. I never was too good at rhyming sea tales. Rhythmic pentameter’ll be the death me, if I knew what that was.”
“What does this have anything to do with my getting to Avignary?” asked Marco.
“Rules of the sea, my boy. An old salt like me has to answer every nautical question by spinning a tale of the sea on the fly. And they don’t have to be true.” Turbo heldup an index finger to make his point. “But they have to rhyme. That’s the important part.”
"You’re senile,” Marco said.
“Aye, there’s a touch of madness in this here skull, methinks. Old injury. Musket ball to the noggin. But I tell you no lies. Avignarian ships fly blue, red, and gold pennants.” He pointed across the pier. “Head back the way you came to the branch and go two over.”
“Thank you,” Marco said before trudging away in a hurry.
He slowed his pace to look at the ships more closely. These had square windows carved into their sides, some ships having one, others two rows running along their middles. He stopped in place, stunned, when he noticed that the ship before him cut away. The rear quarter of the ship’s side had been shorn off.
Sunlight glinted off of a dull metal tube sticking out of a stack of splintered wood. Marco cupped his eyes to peer inside, and realized that the metal was the lip of a cannon cast in black iron.
Marco was so engrossed with the warship that he wasn’t looking where he was going. He walked into the outstretched hands of a man standing in his path.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Marco said out of reflex.
“No harm,” said the man. He brushed the ruffles out of his red suede coat and adjusted his hat. After a beat, he added, “Admonisher caught your eye. It was to be expected. She is a remarkable ship, after all.”
He doffed his hat with a bow. “I am Alexis Mordail, corsair extraordinaire.”
Alexis’s overcoat drew back as he straightened from the bow, giving Marco a glimpse of the ivory-gripped derringer holstered at his waistband.
“Look,” Marco said, “I’m sorry to cut you off, but I’m lost and pressed for time. I’m looking for an Avignarian ship.”
“You’re in the right place,” said Alexis. “All of these are Avignarian.”
“Yes, I know, but I’m looking for one in particular. I’m on business, you see, and I can’t be held up any longer.”
“Ah.” Alexis gave a thoughtful nod. “Forgive me for not recognizing you earlier, sir. We’ve been expecting you.”
“It’s of utmost importance that I... wait, what?” Marco asked. He’d kept speaking over Alexis without listening to what the man said. “You’ve been waiting for me?”
Marco’s shoulders bowed in a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank Kandensa.”
“Here, let me take that for you,” Alexis said, snatching up Marco’s backpack like a dutiful valet. “Follow me, please.”
Alexis led him past the warships, where a much smaller vessel awaited at the end of the pier. “This is Stormwind,” said Alexis as he led Marco up the boarding ramp. “She’s on loan to me for this special assignment.”
“What special assignment?”
Alexis stopped in place halfway up the ramp. “Why, you, sir.” He resumed walking. “She’s by far one of the finest caravels on the open sea,” Alexis went on, absently running the pads of his fingers along the ship’s rail as he stepped aboard. “I’ve a mind to own a vessel just like this – as a pleasure boat, of course – before I get old and relegated to telling rhyming nautical tales to random passersby.”
Marco’s brow knit. Sailors were strange people indeed.
Alexis put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Men poured out from the stairs leading below deck and assembled before him. Each of them stood shoulder to shoulder rigidly at attention, eyes trained at the horizon, arms at their sides, exemplifying the chiseled discipline that comes only through effective leadership.
“Mister Monkeygrip,” Alexis called out.
None of the men standing at attention had spoken. Then, suddenly, a tall youth with spindly limbs shimmied down from the mainmast, leaping between the rigging ropes like an ape. He dropped to the deck and tumbled with the fall, coming to his feet in mid-roll.
“Present and accounted for,” Monkeygrip gibbered. He snapped erect long enough to give a firm salute, then dropped to all fours with a crooked grin.
Alexis shoved the travel bag into Monkeygrip’s arms. “Take the gentleman’s personal effects to his quarters.”
Monkeygrip pressed the backpack to his chest with one arm and scampered through a door at the ship’s rear, jabbering all the way.
Alexis turned to face his crew. “Mister Kerrigan, if you please.”
A bald crewman with a face like creased leather hobbled forward. His tiny eyes were sunken deep behind his craggy brow, looking like two black raisins floating on the surface of a bowl of burnt oatmeal. Grease and sweat stains pocked his shirt, which frayed away at the sleeves, revealing giant bronze forearms. He slumped against a gnarled wooden crutch tucked under his armpit.
“Prepare for departure, Mister Kerrigan,” said Alexis with arms akimbo.
“Aye,” he shouted back. He faced his mates. “You heard the man. Get this barge moving.”
All at once, the crewmen scattered to their respective duties.
Monkeygrip skittered out from the rear of the ship and let out the sails. Three enormous men wrestled with a hoist to draw up the anchor. Kerrigan took his post on the bridge, overseeing the activity on deck with the tiniest motions of his even tinier eyes. In the midst of the uproar, Marco turned in place to watch as the men around him worked with mechanical precision. It was extraordinary.
Alexis squeezed Marco’s arm gently, catching his attention.
“Please sir, follow me,” he said, sweeping his other hand out before him. They cut through the commotion on the deck, headed for the stateroom at the ship’s rear. Alexis was first to reach the door and he held it open for Marco.
“I trust you will be comfortable,” Alexis said.
The quarters were sumptuously furnished. A fine writing desk stained glossy black sat at the end of the room, accompanied by a plush chair tucked under it. A globe of the world cast in bronze stood within arm’s reach of the desk. In the opposite corner, a wardrobe sat on brass lion’s paws. A massive four-post bed occupied half of the room. Just by the look of it, Marco presumed that he could lie down at the bed’s center and stretch out, and yet still not reach its corners.
“This is magnificent,” said Marco as he stepped inside.
“I’m pleased you think so. These are my quarters. I’m rather particular about my furnishings, you see.”
Marco blinked. “So where will you be staying?”
“I must oversee the repairs to Admonisher. Kerrigan will serve as acting captain in my absence.” He pinched the brim of his hat between his thumb and forefinger and tipped it down briefly. “Safe journey, sir.”
“Goodbye,” said Marco as Alexis left.
Marco rounded the desk and sat in the chair. The globe beckoned for his attention, just asking to be spun dizzily.
Monkeygrip had left his backpack on the desktop. Marco undid the buckles and peered inside it to make sure nothing had been removed. Tasked with such important business as he was, he could not be too careful. The parcel was still inside and padlocked. The letter strapped to it bore an unbroken wax seal. Neither showed signs of tampering.
He looked up with a start as Kerrigan appeared at the doorframe.
“We’ll be leaving shortly, sir,” Kerrigan said. “Captain Mordail asked me to tell you.” He glanced over his shoulder and back again, his eyes merely a dull glimmer beneath the shelf that was his forehead. “Also, there’s someone here to see you, sir. I’ll be leaving you to your business.”
A dragon. Never before had he seen one in person. If it was scaled, walked on two legs, and talked, then it was a dragon by Marco’s reckoning. That, or an exceptionally well-trained iguana.
Smallish in height, the dragon seemed smaller still with a giant like Kerrigan beside him. He had the look of a human bureaucrat, dressed in a black straight tie and crisp white shirt tucked neatly into his pinstripe slacks. Navy blue scales covered his body, from the tips of the frilly crest atop his head to his clawed feet. His tail ended in a broad spade that hovered above the floor but never touched it.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” the dragon said with a bow.
A pair of enormous folded wings jutted out from where his shirt had been tailored to accommodate them. “I am Kuril Krenarin,” the dragon went on, “of Emperor Rao Ordan’s Bureau of Foreign Affairs. On behalf of our country, we are most pleased to have you as our guest.”
There was no mirth in Kuril’s words. He smiled out of cordiality alone. Marco fought hard not to wince as there were many pointy teeth in that mouth.
“I trust you have your letter, sir?” said Kuril.
“Oh,” Marco sputtered, prying his eyes from the dragon’s fangs. “Yes, of course.”
He reached into his bag and handed Kuril the envelope.
Kuril glanced down at it but did not take it. Instead, he waggled his talons in a render unto me flourish.
“Your letter of introduction, please?” Kuril insisted.
“I didn’t think I’d need one,” Marco said.
“Well, perhaps a person such as yourself needs no introduction. But a letter of introduction would be helpful to identify you, sir.”
Marco’s brow furrowed. “Why is everyone calling me ‘sir’ all of a sudden?”
“Shall I call you something else, sir? Lordship, perhaps? Ambassador?”
“Do you prefer that one?”
Marco swallowed hard. “Why would I?”
Kuril’s eyes narrowed. “Well, sir, that is who you are, isn’t it?”
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