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Once There Were Dragons – Chapter 23 – OUTSIDE THE COCK & BULL

 

C

 

          ordas reached the landward end of the pier just as the cluster of characters she was trying to catch stepped onto the gangplank of the Pearly Whites. She stopped for a moment to catch her breath and gather her thoughts. 

          She had not considered how to approach them yet. She had simply fled the Warden’s palace, holding her freshly branded hand close to her body. Maybe she should just wait until the ship was getting ready to sail. Then she could sneak aboard, snatch their key, jump overboard and swim back to Messiana.

          But what did the key look like? Which of them kept it? She didn’t have long to plan since Wronald had dictated that they leave today.

          Aboard the Pearly Whites Erath’no’bin strode to the captain’s cabin and knocked.

          “Enter,” called Captain Raven. Erath opened the door and stepped inside, closing the door behind her.

          “Good evening, Captain,” the princess greeted Jahnet Raven, captain of the Pearly Whites.

          “I hope it to be,” Jahnet smiled. She was brushing her long black hair while looking at herself in a small hand mirror. “I’m looking forward to prime rib at Furanko’s, Styrexian Juju whiskey and a good looking man, or two, that doesn’t crew for me.”

          Erath frowned at hearing this. It wasn’t going to be as easy as she had hoped to get the captain to alter her plans. But Wronald had mandated they leave tonight. The trip to Bishal would be two or three days on the road, but only one by sea. So she forged ahead with her request.

          “Wouldn’t a beautiful night at sea, counting some extra gold, be pleasant enough, as well? It turns out we need to leave Messiana tonight. I would gladly give you more gold than you planned on spending in Furanko’s if we could sail on the Pearly Whites instead of heading inland.”

          Jahnet laughed. She put her mirror back on her desk. “We just spent four weeks at sea, basically. We made two ports of call during that time, to unload, take on new cargo and re-provision. One of those was Yalu, to deliver leather and metal. The Yalun are dwarven people.” She glanced at a cat-o-nine-tails that hung from a hook on her wall. “They work their own kind of magic, crafting the finest armor, weapons and other items from those materials. But they are not the type to engage in physical activity with other races unless it involves drinking or fighting.” She offered Erath a smirk and a raised eyebrow. “And it is not drinking or fighting I have in mind for my pleasure tonight.”

          “The other port was Grand Key. Before my loadmaster, Shurl Strongarm, could even set foot on the dock an emissary from Queen Arissma came aboard to announce the Queen. A coach pulled up within minutes and the Queen herself came aboard. She wanted to tell me personally that she hoped to have us sailing for Messiana the next morning. We were carrying a full load of silks and sandalwood, pottery and parchment, arms and armor and more. It took most of the night to unload. We took on a light load for Messiana, but that left no time for shore leave.”

          Sensing that an appeal to Captain Raven’s greed was failing, Erath took a different approach. “So you’re telling me that you can’t control your baser urges,” she sneered, “so lust trumps gold, and honor? We must take a longer route to Bishal so you can go carousing?”

          The beautiful Janet became suddenly Captain Raven. Her face darkened, eyes hard as flint flashed at Erath. Jaws clenched, fists pressed down on the desk, Captain Jahnet Raven leaned forward and thrust her chin out.

          “My healthy, normal, instincts,” each word delivered like a hammer blow, “are always under my control.” She took a deep breath and directed her tension outward. “Apparently your baser urges, or those of your friends, have gotten you thrown out of Messiana. I don’t see how that smudges my honor.” Standing straight relaxed a little, taking another steadying breath and unclenching her fists.

          “Besides, it would take a small army to go round up my crew by now. I have left only enough women aboard to keep the ship from being stolen, or to raise the alarm if she starts to sink.”

          Erath blushed. “I apologize, Captain Raven.” She bowed her head briefly, then looked back at the captain. “I was out of line.” Her eyes misted, and worry wrinkled her mouth into a thin line. “We’ll collect our belongings and leave your ship.”

          “If you find a way to stay,” Jahnet came around the desk and laid a comforting hand on Erath’s shoulder, “you’re welcome to sail with us in the morning.” Erath put her own hand on the captain’s shoulder. 

          “I don’t think we shall, but thank you.” She couldn’t bring herself to smile, knowing they would need to head to Bishal by land. She turned to leave. The captain walked out behind her.

          “Late morning,” Jahnet amended, as Erath started below. “Very late morning.” There was a spring in the captain’s step as she walked toward the gangplank. Erath’s feet were leaden as they trod down the ladder. Arnor went down behind her.

          “We can’t wait until the morning to leave,” Toering called after her in a worried tone.

          Cordas waited, but Erath’no’bin and friends were still aboard the ship. It appeared to Cordas that they were going to ignore Wronald’s mandate that they leave Messiana tonight. She decided to board the Pearly Whites herself and seek passage. Then, at sea, she would try to get Erath to accept her offer of friendship. As she started down the pier towards the gangplank of the Pearly Whites a raven-haired woman wearing a scarlet shirt with deep neck showing off her ample cleavage strode by, head high and confident. Cordas suspected the woman would find a raw kind of “entertainment” in Messiana, and hoped she was able to handle it. Captain Raven was hoping to have a very raw evening and looked forward to it.

          As Cordas reached the bottom of the gangplank from the pier, Toering reached it from the ship.

          “You!” he spat, literally, droplets of spittle flecking his mouth. He reached for Cordas’ throat. She took a step back, raising her hands. The fresh, raw brand of a target blistered on the palm of her left hand.

          “Please! Take me with you!” she pleaded. Toering grabbed her left hand, rather than her neck. She whimpered in pain. Not all of it was acting.

          “What’s this?” he demanded, scowling at the freshly burned skin.

          “It’s the brand of a target,” Cordas sniffled. “Targets in Styrexia are used to provide practice for assassins in training, and those who want to keep their skills fresh.”

          “You’re a target now? Are you still an assassin?” Cordas hung her head and motioned no. She bit her lip as he held her hand gripped tightly in his.

          “Wronald doesn’t take losing well,” she responded meekly, looking at Toering again. Her eyes were red and damp enough to reflect the light of the dying sun. “When one of his subjects loses, he feels it is his loss, as well.” Cordas made the word subjects sound more like slaves with her verbal underscoring and scorn.

          Toering threw her hand away from his.

          “Good. It is my prayer that you die a thousand deaths at the hands of his subjects.” He made the word subjects sound much the way Cordas had. “I wanted to kill you myself,” he continued, taking the last step off the gangplank and onto the dock as Arnor walked behind him. “But it seems justice has been served, without the need for me to dirty my sword.”

          Cordas’ eyes were steel-hard and cold, so she looked down at the pier once again. With effort, she made herself relax and assume a vulnerable air. She dropped to her knees.

          “I’m so sorry,” she gazed up at him, eyes watery. “About your parents.” Toering’s eyes, shadowed with pain, hardened as he stared at Cordas. “It wasn’t me that killed them anyway. You must believe me.” The rest of the group gathered on the pier, surrounding Cordas’ kneeling figure. Toering, fists on hips, stared at the pathetic figure before him.

          “You match the description I was given.” Jaws tight, he stared into her eyes, trying to read her soul. She looked frightened enough that he wanted to believe her. And she bore the mark of a target. But he was not ready to let go of his hatred. And he certainly wasn’t going to trust her. “And there was a large C carved in their chests. Your initial.”

          Cordas forced a laugh, trying to make it sound timid. “You think we’re trained to leave a calling card? As assassins? Or to be seen, if we wish not to be? Trust me, rarely do we seek an audience when on a mission!” His eyes, unyielding, met hers. 

          “I didn’t kill your parents. But I know who did.” Silent, he continued to stare hard at her. “It was Darkassian. I’m sure of it. He loves to make his victims suffer, often carving something into their bodies while they still live.” She noticed Toering’s fists tighten more and his arms tense at his sides. His face, still hard and accusing, kept its grip on his anger. “Darkassian hates me,” Cordas continued to plead. “Until today Wronald paid more attention to me than to Darkassian. He must have carved the C there to make it look like I killed them.” She stood then, Toering’s eyes following her all the way up.

          “Or to look like another did it. I’m not the only one of Wronald’s subject’s whose name begins with the letter C.” Suddenly aware of her tendency to drift back into her natural belligerence she turned to Erath and allowed her eyes to water once more.

          “Please, your Royal Highness. If I stay here in Styrexia I shall be hunted and killed.” She took a small step towards Erath to embrace her. Arnor stepped between them and stood there. No words, no threatening gestures, no move towards a weapon. He just stood, an immovable wall between Cordas and Erath. That made Cordas shiver slightly. And shivering helped her story. Erath laid a hand on Arnor’s arm, and he moved aside.

          “The Pearly Whites is not leaving port tonight.” Cordas had noticed they had their packs with them, not as if they were headed into town for an evening of fun but looking ready for travel. “We need a way to get to Bishal overland. And as you well know, your Warden has mandated that we must be out of Messiana before midnight. Can you help us?”

          Cordas went to her knees again, in front of Erath this time. “I know a way,” she clasped her hands lightly in front of her, careful not to press too hard against the fresh brand. “But you must take me with you. Please! Wronald is no longer my Warden. He is my enemy.”

          Erath looked over at Toering. He shook his head no. Bolder shrugged his shoulders. Wagg nodded yes. Commander Phast offered a negative shake of the head. Arnor just looked at her, as if to say he would follow her wishes, whatever they may be. Erath stared down at Cordas. The assassin looked up at the princess, tears glistening in her eyes.

          “Show us where to get horses, and guide us to a path from here to Bishal. Then we will see if we can make room for you.” Cordas bent her head to hide a small smile.

          “As you wish, your majesty.” Cordas stood. “Thank you,” she added, extending her hands towards Erath in a gesture of gratitude. Arnor bristled and started to raise his hand to intercept her. Erath took a small step backward. Cordas sighed and dropped her hands to her sides. “This way. I know a reputable stable where we can get horses.”

          They followed Cordas along the outskirts of the city of Messiana. Toering walked behind her, watching every move she made. Arnor and Erath were right behind him, side by side, speaking quietly with one another. Then came Wagg, with Bolder on one side of his diminutive shape, Commander Phast on the other. Even though the sun had not yet set the sounds of revelry rolled into the street from taverns, inns, and brothels. As they neared the final jetty, and the road curved inland, Bolder fell a few steps behind as he removed his pack to re-distribute the weight. As he bent in the street, rummaging in the pack, a gaggle of drunken sailors spilled into the street from the Cock & Bull, which someone had long ago re-christened the Cock & Ball by adding a few brush strokes to the letter u. Han’Gorr led the bunch of drunken sailors, at least as much as anyone was leading them.

          “Well, well, if it isn’t the half-breed,” Han’Gorr slurred.” Bolder turned as Han’Gorr laughed. Four of Han’Gorr’s friends rushed to grab Bolder’s arms and haul him upright as Han’Gorr pulled out a long knife.

          “I told you this wasn’t over, breed,” Han’Gorr gave Bolder a mirthless grin as he waved the wicked looking knife in front of him. “I think I’ll see if I can make you a half a man where it counts.” He motioned for his pals to lower Bolder’s trousers. When two of the sailors bent forward to grab his legs Bolder jerked his knees up, hanging from the other two ruffians that held his arms. Crunching the two going for his trousers in their chins with his knees and sending them flying he continued the swing of his legs up and backward to complete a flip. That unexpected move pulled his arms free and put him slightly behind the other two. But before he could do anything more he crumpled to the road as one club descended on the top of his head and another clipped him behind the knees. Han’Gorr’s knife passed just over his head, right where his groin had been moments earlier.

          Dazed, Bolder wondered why Han’Gorr screamed and spasmed backward after that pass of the blade. Shaking his head to clear the fuzziness he saw a small blur dart from behind Han’Gorr to a spot behind the sailor on his right. At the same time, he heard a bellowing voice from the doorway of the Cock and Bull yell “Breed!” Four large dockworkers stumbled from the tavern into the road, making ham-handed fists and rushing into the fray. Vision clearing, he stood and roared in defiance. He saw another larger shadow move behind the new arrivals and watched as one of them toppled into the dirt.

          Bolder grabbed two heads and smashed them together. They made a satisfying crunch as they collided and the bodies attached fell limply at his feet. Hearing the hiss of steel clearing a scabbard behind him he turned in time to see Toering deflect an overhead swing of a sword aimed at Wagg as the halfun tumbled between his legs and came up in front of Cordas. Then Wagg went down on all fours as Cordas shoved a longshoreman, causing him to trip over Wagg and fall in front of Han’Gorr’s writhing, screaming body. Then an over-sized fist wearing a set of brass knuckles crunched into Bolder’s nose and he fell backward, taking Toering with him.

          “Where is the City Guard?” He yelled, as Commander Phast leaped over him and tackled another burly man. He clapped a hand to his nose. It came away covered in blood. 

          “This is Messiana,” Erath said from behind and above him. “There is no City Guard.”

          Nearly as quickly as it had begun the brawl was over. Nine bodies lay sprawled in the road. Four of them were out cold and unmoving, four were rubbing various body parts and groaning. Han’Gorr was the only one bleeding, except for Bolder’s nose. And he was making the most noise.

          “Nice work,” Wagg complimented Cordas. “Aw, shut up. You’ll live,” Wagg grumbled at Han’Gorr. “Unless Bolder says otherwise?” The halfun looked to Bolder, hope in his eyes and a dagger in his hand.

          “As far as I’m concerned,” Bolder shook his head from side to side, holding a hand over his nose, “this is over. Leave him be.”

          Wagg laughed. “You should hear yourself, Bolder. You sound like Erath with a cold.” Bolder smiled in spite of his nose and other pains. Erath frowned and opened her mouth to say something. Before she spoke Cordas interrupted.

          “Yes, this is over,” Cordas readily agreed. “Now let’s get to the stables. If we’re going to make any distance before nightfall we need to be on our way.” Toering noted that she was careful to keep a sleeve over her left hand.

          “Thank you, Cordas, for your assistance.” Wagg nodded at her. She grinned at him, then took brisk strides to resume leading the group to the stables.

          “What was that all about?” Toering asked Wagg.

          “Ungh.” Arnor followed Erath. Han’Gorr kicked at one of his friends, trying to wake him up.

          “You may have been too busy to notice,” Wagg looked at Bolder. “But Cordas helped us in that little tussle. You may have suffered more than a broken nose if she hadn’t stepped into the fray.” Then he turned his gaze to Toering. He noted that Toering was looking at Cordas’ retreating back, hand on the hilt of his sword.

          “I’m not saying to trust her,” Wagg added. “But she did help us out. She didn’t have to do that.” The three of them started walking after the assassin/target and the rest of their party, towards the stables.

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