Authors: L. E. Modesitt
The vendor had only said, in common Tellan, “Wise man. The patrollers don’t like brown.”
“So I’ve heard. Do you know why?”
The gray-haired vendor shook his head and offered a sad smile. “There is much they do not like. That is why my son rows me to the pier each day. That way I can avoid them. They demand coin for no reason.”
“But they don’t come on the piers?”
“Only to chase someone who has done what they think wrong in the city.”
Is that a rule of the local council?
Quaeryt didn’t ask. “Are there any inns that are honest?” He knew nothing of the inns in Nacliano. He’d been in the port only a few times more than ten years ago, and he’d slept in his hammock aboard ship.
The vendor shook his head. “There are but two kinds. There are those who charge too much, and there are those who cheat those who stay.”
“What might be the cheapest of those that charge too much?”
“The Tankard is said not to be too bad. All say to avoid the Silver Bowl.”
As he walked away, Quaeryt counted his duffel and spare clothes as lost—and the history as well, but he still had the leather commission case. It was hardly even damp on the outside, because of the wax coating and oilcloth wrapping.
He made his way off the second pier, where he’d purchased the shirt, using an empty wagon as a partial shield from the pier patrollers, although he was ready to lift a concealment shield at any moment. He moved with the air of a man who knew where he was headed, although he remembered so little of Nacliano that he had no idea. It didn’t matter; he only needed to find a chandlery where he could purchase a few items. The sun was low in the sky and in his eyes when he finally found one on a side lane. The door squeaked as he stepped inside, but the red-haired man standing by a side counter barely looked in his direction as he counted out coppers to a customer.
Quaeryt immediately located a small stained and scuffed canvas bag, but it took him far longer to find a small steel razor in a battered leather case. The blade was worn, but still sharp, but even so, it was likely not to be inexpensive. Still, he did need to replace the one lost with the duffel. Any beard he grew was itchy, and before long his skin began to develop sores.
He also found a pair of drawers, a small square of boot wax, and an equally small square of hard soap.
The chandler watched as Quaeryt carried his items over to the counter. “Three for the bag, two silvers and a half for the razor, two for the wax, one for the soap, seven for the drawers—you ought to have a strop for the razor … ruin it quick otherwise.”
“It’s been a long trip,” said Quaeryt with a wry smile.
“You take this strop.” With a smile, the chandler held up a strop as worn as the razor case. “I’ll call it even for four silvers.”
“How about if you throw in a second square of soap?”
Quaeryt eased out a gold. He hated revealing that, but it was likely safer to do so in the chandler’s shop than in the inn, and he only had two silvers left in his wallet.
“You must have had a rough passage coming south,” offered the chandler, taking the gold and returning six silvers.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” temporized Quaeryt.
“It never is.” The chandler laughed. “Never is. Best of fortune.”
“I just might need that.” Quaeryt paused as he slipped his wallet inside his trousers, mostly behind the heavy and wide belt. “Where’s the best honest fare?”
“The best is the Silver Bowl, but you’ll go through those silvers faster ’n their wine. Good wine, but it ought to be. The Tankard and the Overdeck are solid. Cheapest is the Red Lantern, but you’ll need a gut tougher than bullhide. Tankard’s a block south, Overdeck one north, and the Silver Bowl two west.”
Quaeryt nodded. “Thank you.”
He slowed just as he opened the door to the chandlery, checking the street, but there was no one that close when he stepped outside into the lengthening shadows indicating sunset was not that far off. Keeping an eye out for cutpurses and slam-thieves, Quaeryt turned south at the corner.
The Tankard was a narrow three-story timber and brick building, some three streets back from the harbor, almost directly west from the pier on which the
had tied up, and faced on a small square that held a timeworn statue of Hengyst the Unifier.
Quaeryt looked at the statue.
If he happened to be such a great unifier, why was Lydar still split into five lands after he became the unifier?
He shook his head. That wasn’t a useful question.
Carrying his small bag, he walked into the Tankard and toward a woman who stood behind a narrow upright writing desk. Just above her head, on a narrow railed shelf to her left, were two vases, both about a hand and a half high, each a simple curving shape rising from a circular base into a trumpet-like opening slanted at an angle. One was glazed in shimmering silver, the other in a deep blue.
Quaeryt managed not to stare at the pair.
Where did she ever get those?
They had to be Cloisonyt pieces dating back centuries. He forced his eyes to the woman, who wore gray trousers and shirt. Her eyes were gray, and her hair was iron gray. “Yes?”
“I’m looking for a room for several days.”
“Missed a ship, did you?” asked the gray lady.
“That I did.”
“We’ve two rooms free. Second-floor corner with a wide bed, and a third-floor back side, not much more than a bed and a place to sleep. Five coppers for the second floor, and three for the third. No locks, but you can bar the door at night.”
“I’d like to see the third-floor one.”
“Suit yourself. It’s empty. Straight back from the stairs with the number three on the door.” The gray lady pointed down the narrow hall. “Stairs are at the end.”
“Thank you.” Quaeryt nodded.
He walked up a staircase so narrow that his shoulders almost brushed the walls on each side. Every other step creaked, but the risers did not give under his boots. The chamber was more like a garret, with less than a yard between the narrow pallet bed and the wall, not even as large as the fantail locker on the
. The plank door struck the bottom of the bed if opened all the way. There was a wall shelf between the window frame and the wall against which the bed was set, with a pitcher and bowl, both tin, and several pegs for hanging clothes on the opposite wall. The single narrow window was unglazed and had warped shutters.
Quaeryt checked the pallet, then made his way back down to the front hall, where the gray lady looked at him.
“I’ll take it.”
“Every night in advance,” replied the gray lady.
“Two nights for now, and, after I eat, I’d like a tub of clean water to wash some things.”
The old woman squinted. “You smell as you could use some washing yourself. I could have the girls bring up the tub and water for another two coppers—and a bucket for rinse water. Slice of soap be another copper.”
“If that’s the way it is … it’s the way it is.” He handed over a silver.
“Best of the fare tonight is the duck goulash.” She returned a copper.
“Thank you.” He made his way to the public room, where he found a corner table.
The duck goulash with thick noodles wasn’t bad, and it wasn’t too peppery. Quaeryt approved. He’d never liked food spiced so much that he couldn’t taste anything except the spices. Of course, that was how some places disguised bad meat.
Once he’d eaten, and limited himself to a single lager with his meal, he made his way back to the gray lady.
“Have the water up in a bit.”
He nodded and climbed the stairs. His feet were sore, as much for having walked in damp boots for too long as for the distance he had covered. When he reached the small room, he pulled off his boots and waited.
About half a glass later, two wiry girls appeared with a narrow tin tub less than a yard long and little more than half that wide, with a bucket. The tub barely fit between the bed and the wall, and it took the girls three trips with buckets to get enough water into it.
“Thank you.” Quaeryt smiled and gave each girl a copper.
“Much obliged, sir,” the two chorused in thick country Tellan, before leaving him.
After dipping the pitcher in the tub to set aside some of the water for shaving, and a bucket of rinse water, he washed himself, then shaved, before washing and then rinsing all the garments except the green shirt. He spread them across the wall pegs to dry, then eased the tub and buckets out into the narrow hallway, and barred the door.
He was more than ready to sleep while the clothes dried. He’d been attacked and chased by a vengeful patroller for no reason at all, lost his duffel, taken a swim in the harbor, and was spending coin faster than he wanted. The weather to the north was bad. The best ship had already left, and he still had to watch out for angry patrollers. And … he was little more than halfway to Tilbora.
Quaeryt stretched out on the narrow bed and tried not to think about all that.
Quaeryt sat alone in the public room of the Tankard on Mardi morning, finishing off what the serving girl had called a ham-fry—stale bread wrapped around a slice of cheese and a slice of ham and dipped in egg batter, and then fried until it was deep brown. For a breakfast, accompanied by a lager, it was adequate.
“You seen any scholars, swamp lily?” boomed a deep nasal voice from outside the public room.
“And if I had?”
“You’d tell me. If I find you’ve put up one, I’ll close you down.”
“You try it, and not even your Namer-damned uncle will save you. And that’s if you have better fortune with the next scholar than you did with the first.”
Abruptly, a crashing sound followed.
“I’m so sorry … swamp lily. Accidents do happen. Just remember that.” A cruel laugh followed the cynical words.
Quaeryt recognized the voice, and the cruelty behind it. He forced himself to finish the ham-fry and the last of the lager—and he left a copper for the serving girl.
When he did leave the public room, he paused for only an instant to glance back toward the writing stand. The gray lady was carefully picking up pieces of blue ceramic, although the silver vase appeared untouched. He concealed a wince and quickly headed toward the stairs. The patroller had destroyed a vase that was worth perhaps a hundred golds to a collector, one of beauty that could never be replaced.
Once in the small third-floor room, he folded those now-dry garments he wasn’t wearing and eased them into the canvas bag, along with the razor, strop, and soap. Then he made his way back down to the main level. The gray lady, the broken vase, and the silver one were nowhere in sight when he left the Tankard.
He walked toward the harbor and the piers with the gait, if limping, of a man who had a destination and a purpose, watching for patrollers, and then picked the third pier, because that was the one without any green uniforms in sight. Unfortunately, there were also no new ships ported there. Using his concealment shield—and transport wagons rolling onto the piers—to get past the patrollers watching the base of the other two piers, he checked the other ships in port, but the three new arrivals were headed south and east.
With no immediate transport in sight, he slipped off the pier, past a pair of patrollers, neither of whom happened to be the nasal-voiced one. In fact, Quaeryt hadn’t encountered the obnoxious and overbearing one since he’d overheard him at the inn.
The incident with the vase bothered Quaeryt, in some ways far more than the attempt by the nasal-voiced patroller to assault Quaeryt. Was that because the patroller was abusing those whom he was charged to protect? Or because he would destroy an ancient object of beauty without a second thought as a means to pursue a personal agenda?
Since there weren’t any ships going in the direction he needed to travel, his next priority was to find a place where he could image some coppers, somewhere that had copper wastes or scraps in an old building or the ground around it. With that preparation, he’d found that imaging coppers was not too difficult. Sometimes he could manage silvers. The one time he’d tried golds, he’d nearly died, and he wasn’t about to try that again.
Once he was well clear of the harborfront and the piers, he turned south, toward where the Acliano River ran northwest from the south side of the harbor, thinking that there might be some locations suitable for his imaging somewhere along the riverfront. Usually, there were some places that handled metals, or at least a ruined building or two. He kept to the streets that were better traveled, and by late morning he was walking northwest along the riverside road. While many of the buildings had seen better days, almost all were still in use, from a factorage dealing in oils to a lumber and timber yard, both with their own small river docks for unloading barges, to a newer stone building where loaders were rolling barrels off a barge.
He walked almost a mille before finally coming to a ruined and roofless structure surrounded by a palisade fence with gaps here and there, if mostly too small for him to slip through. The large square chimneys suggested it had been some sort of metalworking facility, although they were but half the height they once had likely been, and the space between the remaining walls was filled with grasses and weeds, mostly tan and dried from the heat of a long summer. He kept walking, nodding to a teamster guiding a wagon pulled by four dray horses, until he saw a wider gap in the fence.
Just to be on the safe side, he stepped behind a twisted oak in front of the battered palisade fence and raised a concealment screen. Only then did he move toward the gap in the fence. Once through, he surveyed the ruins and the hint of a path toward the nearest chimney.
He took several steps. His trousers brushed the tinder-dry weeds, and they crackled.
“Someone’s coming! Run!” The voice was low, but high-pitched, like a child’s.
He didn’t see whoever had raised the alarm, only the swaying of high grasses and weeds between the tumbled-down foundation walls before him.
Quaeryt stopped and waited, listening, but the children had apparently hurried between the walls and hidden downhill, possibly under the sagging wharf whose end barely protruded over the muddy water of the river. He stepped into another set of shadows beside a section of stone and yellow-brick wall that remained and released the concealment shield. He tried imaging a copper, and one appeared in his hand.