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Had it really been fifteen years? James leaned on the railing of the Far Talon and looked across the harbor. The first time he'd seen any city from the sea, he'd been a lad of eighteen and merely a ship's boy. Now he was the First Mate, the position he'd inherited after the former First Mate retired.
“She's a sight, ain't she?” the Captain said, noting James' interest in Qeynos. “Freeport's such a filthy city, even from a distance. Give me Qeynos any day!”
“I grew up in Freeport,” James replied, turning away.
The Far Talon slipped easily into the harbor, its crew skilled at guiding the heavy merchant ship into the queue of ships waiting their turns to dock. While the cargo changed from journey to journey, the crew remained relatively stable. Only the ship's captain changed with any regularity. Most captains were surly, demanding and brusque. The First Mate was the one the crew turned to for advice, and the one who knew the sea.
First Mate James knew the Far Talon as though he had built her himself. He knew every sound she made in any type of weather; how low she should sit in the water when laden with goods; and how she felt racing across an open sea. And, so, when the ship was anchored in Qeynos Harbor, he knew that the insistent nudges rocking her back and forth meant another ship had pulled alongside. Several muffled thuds focused his attention immediately. Someone was boarding the ship.
Before his feet hit the floor, James felt the cold edge of a blade against his throat. “Don't move,” its wielder hissed into his ear. “We're just taking a look at what you've got aboard. First one who tries anything, everyone suffers. Got it?”
“Pirates!” James thought, even though they usually did not board ships anchored in a city's harbor. He peered through the dark, trying to piece together the vague shadows that moved purposefully and methodically as they search through items in the cabin. He knew that pirates would never be so tidy. It was obvious that these miscreants were searching for something specific.
A sharp whistle pierced the air and, as suddenly as they'd arrived, the pirates slipped away, flowing from the darkened hold like an oily black tide and making their way across the lines to their own ship. James and the crew struggled against the invisible fetters binding them until they dissipated, but by then it was too late. Whoever had boarded the Far Talon had disappeared amongst the other dark ships.
“Check the cargo!” The Captain ordered. “Where's the watchman? I want to know how those pirates got aboard my ship!”
After James found the watch, he cussed up a fierce storm from the inside of a sealed barrel. “I don't know, sir. I was on me rounds and next thing I know, I'm wedged up inside a pickle barrel, head first! I ain't never eating no pickles again, sir.”
As day broke, they were no closer to knowing what had happened. None of the cargo was missing; neither were any of the crews' personal items. Who were these pirates? How did they board his ship so easily? Why didn't they taken anything of value? James could still remember the feel of the cold blade balanced against his throat. Whatever the pirates wanted, they wanted it badly enough to threaten the crews' lives.
“Sir!” the voice of the ship's boy broke through James' thoughts. “Sir! They did take something!”
“It's odd, sir,” said the boy, “They took a lamp. That's it, sir. Just one lamp. Fixture's still there, sir, but…no lamp.”
James frowned. What sort of pirates boarded a vessel, bound its crew and slipped away into the night with only a lamp?
I don't take orders from anyone…'cept drink orders,” said Drinna with a wink as she balanced a tray of empty mugs on her shoulder.
The men roared with laughter at what was surely an oft-told joke in the tavern. She noticed that one man in the corner wasn't laughing. Drinna looked over and smiled at him.
“Your first time here, then?” she asked him.
“I haven't been here in years,” James replied, taking a mug from her tray.
He drank deeply, wishing she hadn't called attention to him. How could he overhear anything of interest if he stood out from the crowd? That was the reason he'd come ashore. He wanted to learn whatever he could about the pirates who'd boarded his ship in the middle of the night, then disappeared with a single lamp.
The other men in the room shifted in their chairs and eyed James warily before returning to their mugs. James waited for a few minutes, then addressed them again. “Our ship encountered something interesting not a fortnight past. Pirates.”
“Pirates, pah! We've all seen our share of them sharks.”
“In Qeynos Harbor?”
The men stirred uneasily. James drew his chair closer and added, “A neat job of it, not a thing taken but a lamp.”
“I've heard that they ran through the crew of the Far Lancer and threw them overboard for fighting back,” a swarthy barbarian said.
“They don't fight fair,” said Darr, a sailor from a small fishing vessel. “And they don't strike twice, neither. If you been boarded once, your ship'll be safe.”
“They boarded us twice,” said the barbarian, “If I'd been there instead of filling out paperwork ashore, I'd have run them through.”
James sat back and listened to the tales, so similar to his own. Other anchored ships, some in the Qeynos or Freeport harbors and others at sea, were also boarded in the dark as the crew was rooted in place while dark shapes flowed across the vessels.
“Like water and ratonga,” laughed Darr grimly, “Getting in everywhere, they were.”
“Did they take anything?” James asked.
More stories tumbled out, but they were all the same. One ship lost a spar. Another lost some stowed sails. The Far Talon had only ost a lamp.
“Might be they're building another ship,” said the barbarian. This remark set everyone to laughing.
“I tell you one thing,” the barbarian added in a lower voice, “These pirates come from Qeynos. The Coalition of Tradesfolke's been smuggling aboard our vessels for years and now these Qeynosians want a piece of the silver pie. Something new, they found, the Coalition did. It's a poison. They…”
“Closing time, gentlemen,” Drinna said, cutting off the barbarian's remark and gathering the half-empty tankards with finality. “See you all tomorrow.”
James walked slowly down the dark streets, lost in thought. As the sky lightened into day, he wandered up one familiar way and down another, turning over in his mind everything he'd heard about the pirates. They weren't Seafury Buccaneers. They would take items of value, not odd bits and pieces. And they would certainly not have touched the Freeport Militia ships.
Turning a corner, James tripped over a wool-wrapped bundle in the middle of the cobbled street and fell, sprawling beside it. As he pushed himself up from the ground, he saw an arm jutting out from the bundle. James pulled back a fold of the cloth, revealing a familiar face: the barbarian from the tavern.
“Folks is knifed on the street every day, lad,” his former shipmate Seven said.
“That's too much of a coincidence to me, Seven,” James argued.
Seven now worked at a lighthouse in a harbor frequented by various Far Seas ships. The Company was good to its faithful workers and often placed them in secure positions such as this. Sociable and well-liked, Seven seemed to enjoy the solitude, punctuated by visits from various ships. However isolated Seven's lighthouse might be, gossip still found its way to him.
All of them are dead now, except for me,” James continued. “Is that how you'd see me end too?”
“You make too much of it. Strange things happen, sometimes,” Seven said. James looked at him sharply.
“Aye, to others but never to me? I'm not a fool, Seven. Strange thing indeed that everyone who shared a few tales and some ale are all dead within a season, eh?”
Seven paced the room, absently rubbing his thumb across the stumps of his missing fingers. “Lad, don't ask no more questions. You were boarded by pirates, strange ones perhaps, but pirates nonetheless. Don't go making more of it than that.”
“You know what's going on, don't you?” James said. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Is that what you think?” Seven glanced at James. “Nay, lad. I light lamps to show what ships approaching the harbor should avoid; that's my job. Listen to me: I'm marking a place for you to avoid. Forget the pirates and leave the dead in peace.”
“My job is to protect the Far Talon, and that night I couldn't protect her,” he continued. “I want to find those pirates and bring them to justice. Did the men at that tavern die for talking about what happened with me? I've made it my job to find their killer, too.”
“And now you have,” said Drinna as she entered the room, silent as a cat stalking its prey. “Everyone comes to see Seven; he's been one of my best sources of information for years. I told him to take you aboard all those long years ago and behold! You have become quite the man.”
James did not answer.
“Thank you for your years of service,” Drinna said to Seven. “Leave us.”
Seven nodded and backed out the door, stumbling over his own feet as he exited the room.
Drinna turned to James. “You remember me now, don't you?”
“He told me you were a common barmaid. He said to forget you,” James said. “So I did. Why are you so interested in me now?”
“Seven isn't getting any younger, is he? I needed to have someone who could take his place when the Company saw fit to retire him. Someone whom the others trust. Someone with a sterling reputation. Now I have you.”
“Of course,” Drinna said. “I need someone to be my eyes and ears in distant ports. Your men like you, James. They talk to you. And…” she paused, trailing her fingers lightly across the sheath at her belt. “…you would not like anything unpleasant to happen to our friend Seven.”
“If I say no…?”
“You have no choice,” she replied lightly. “I know many things about many powerful people. The merest hint in the right ear and you will be stripped of your position. You'd lose the Far Talon, your reputation, and eventually, your life.”
“Is this how you got Seven?” James asked bitterly.
Drinna laughed, knowing James would do what she needed. “You grew up rather well; he did a good job. I am not asking you to be a pirate. I just like to keep informed.”
“Who are the pirates?”
“Some folk I know who are good at their job. The items they took weren't random. Every one of them carried a remnant of ancient power, hidden from even the most trusted of the Coalition's spies.”
“You work for the Coalition?”
“I've already told you,” Drinna said with a mocking smile. “I don't take orders from anyone…'cept drink orders.”
“I saw the body with my own eyes. Apparently, we weren't the only ones who wanted her eliminated.”
James nodded. “Apparently not.”
His companion chuckled. “The obvious question is: who else?”
James shrugged his shoulders and poured them each a glass of wine from the heavy decanter at his feet. “I'm tired of asking 'who else' every day. Drinna's dead. I am again the master of my own fate.”
“If she were still alive, lad, things would get ugly.”
“Things are always ugly, Seven. Here's to the dead,” James said, clinking his glass against Seven's. They sat side by side on a weathered bench outside the lighthouse, enjoying the faint salty breeze. A pair of scolding and squabbling seagulls chased each other across the top of the water.
After a moment, James said, “Drinna never realized she was leading us directly to that chain of vermin masquerading as pirates. She honestly thought she made everything happen, didn't she?”
“I told her exactly the sort of boy we'd need on the ship twenty years ago and she found you,” Seven said with a dismissive wave. “That's the only thing she made happen and it wouldn't have gone right if I hadn't told her what to do.”
“What I don't understand is why now? If she thought you were her plant in the Company all these years, why did she wait till now to make a move against Qeynos?”
“Ever seen a spider make a web, lad?” Seven held out his glass for James to refill. “All night long they spin their silk, testing the strength, pulling in the weaker lines and replacing them with new ones. Takes patience. She was spinning a web and thought her day had come.”
James laughed grimly, “Yes, and at dawn's first light something flew into her web and destroyed it.”
“Way I see it,” Seven said, leaning forward and lowering his voice, “they found out the other side's been stepping up their plans. She wasn't ready yet but they forced her hand. She couldn't see any other way but to gather up the fragments from the ancient days to use for the Overlord. Years ago, they scattered the pieces across Norrath on whatever ships they could. Back in the beginning, lad, many's the captain that would take a bit of extra pay to stow something aboard, no questions asked.”
“No wonder the Company shifted Captains so frequently,” said James.
Seven nodded. “Aye, they realized the best way to confound the enemy is to shuffle the pieces. Any Captain they found on the other side's pay was sent to Prexus' hold.”
“But the Company is neutral; all this talk of sides is disturbing.”
“You can't be neutral without being compared to something that's not,” said Seven agreeably. “Most of us came from someplace else, one side or the other. The Company's always done right by me. If they want me to pretend to be on this side or the other, I'll pretend. Whichever side's right, that's the side I'm on.”
“I grew up in Freeport, you know.”
“Aye, but I've never held it against you, lad.”
They sat silently then, sipping their wine and drowsily watching the waves undulate along the stony shore.
-- Source:[Official Website]