The sun was setting as Cydric Araesto arrived in the coastal town of Sharks’ Cove. He rode through the gates and onto the main street, seeking a place to rest after his journey up from Magnus, the Crown City of Baranur. After a short while, he decided to stop at a place called “The Hawk & Dragon Inn”, as it looked a bit more respectable than the other taverns he had passed.
Cydric snorted at the thought that anything in this rat- bag of a town could be respectable; all manner of thieves, smugglers, murderers and whores infested Sharks’ Cove, so he had heard. Some even said the local guard were afraid to venture onto the streets at night.
Cydric entered the common room of the Inn and sat down at a corner table. An odd feeling came over him; it seemed like he had done this before. And indeed, he had. His thoughts traveled back several months and several hundred leagues, to the northern town of Dargon. He had come into a tavern just like this one, met a girl who took him to a Sage, who took him on a strange adventure into a realm beyond dreams. But that time, he had been searching for an answer; this time, he just wanted to get away.
At the bar, a group of revelers sang and drank, led by a young girl strumming skillfully on a mandolin. Her voice was light and pleasing, yet Cydric didn’t think she was a bard.
He called a serving girl over and ordered a drink. When it arrived, he took a sip and stared into the brown liquid, remembering the whole Dargon episode as if it had happened yesterday.
It had all started with a strange, recurring vision, which always ended with the name “Corambis the Sage” and a map showing the location of Dargon. He told no one about it, since it wouldn’t do for the son of King Haralan’s Royal Treasurer to be thought insane. After a few months, though, he decided to follow up on the vision. He left the castle in the middle of the night, leaving only a letter to his fiancee Lysanda, King Haralan’s niece.
He arrived in Dargon and met Corambis, who also had been having visions. It turned out that their visions were being sent to them by an Elder, trapped in another realm of existence, who needed Cydric and the Sage to free him. They entered the realm through a portal opened by the Elder, but when they found him they discovered that he was really a sorcerer called Nephros, who needed them as part of a ritual to free a powerful demon from the Nether Realms. But with the help of Corambis’ patron goddess they managed to escape, battling giant lizards and crystal skeletons along the way.
Cydric smiled and took another sip. It had been a rather exciting experience, even though they could have been killed on several occasions. Then his expression sobered as he remembered what had happened after they returned to their own realm.
A royal messenger had arrived at the house of Corambis, where Cydric had been staying, and informed the young noble that Lysanda was expecting a child, and had been for three months. Cydric had no choice but to return to the capital and marry her immediately to avoid a scandal. Unfortunately, rumors of Lysanda’s pre-marital pregnancy began circulating, and were confirmed when the child was born only six months later. The High Church of Magnus was extremely shocked, but the Master Priest made no official comment after being taken aside by the King himself. Still, the public knew, and soon it got so that Cydric and Lysanda couldn’t even go into town without people giving them looks and quietly whispering about “heathen fornication”. This put a strain on their marriage, and a month later they had a fight which ended with Lysanda taking the baby and moving back in with her parents. She then petitioned the Church for a dissolution of the marriage, and when it was granted she and her parents moved far away from the capital. Cydric fell into disfavor around the court, so a month after Lysanda left he decided to leave as well, much to the relief of the courtiers and to the sorrow of his parents and friends.
The sound of cheering interrupted Cydric’s thoughts. The girl at the bar bowed with a flourish, her song apparently over. Cydric returned to his drink. “Sharks’ Cove,” he silently mused. “Not the best place in the world to end up in.” He shook his head. “But at least no one knows me here. Time to make a new start. Hopefully I won’t make such a mess of my life this time around.”
“Hello there,” a voice at his elbow said. Cydric looked up and saw the mandolin girl standing next to him. “The tavern’s full tonight, isn’t it? Hardly any place to sit. Would you mind if I sat with you? I noticed you came in here alone. But if you’re meeting someone I can just go somewhere else, but if you’re not, I’d like to join you, if I may. Well?”
“Uh, be my guest,” said Cydric, after taking a moment to decipher what she had said.
“Many thanks.” The girl carefully placed her instrument on a chair and plopped her slender figure onto the table, dangling her legs over the edge. She was dressed explorer- style: billowy white shirt, maroon velvet vest, cotton breeches, and deerskin knee boots. Her tawny-auburn hair, short and curly, was quite unlike the long, braided style currently in fashion among the young ladies of the kingdom. Cydric guessed that she was just a bit younger than him, perhaps no more than 19 or 20.
“You’re dusty,” she said. “Have you just ridden into town?”
Cydric self-consciously ran a hand through his short brown hair. “Yes, as a matter of fact. I’ve been traveling.”
“You also sound tired. Is that the reason you didn’t applaud my playing?”
Cydric shrugged. “I suppose so.”
“Sorry,” she said, laying her hand on his arm. “I don’t mean to be so forward, especially with a stranger.” She leaned over. “So, what’s your name?”
He introduced himself as Cydric Artovan. “Very pleased, Cydric,” she said, extending her hand. Cydric went to press it against his cheek, in the usual manner of greeting; but after he had done so she gripped his forearm warrior-style. “My name’s Amanda Lynn.”
“A mandolin?” Cydric said.
She laughed. “That’s what everyone says the first time I tell them. Just call me Mandi.”
“Very pleased, Mandi.” Cydric sloshed the drink around in his mug.
“Well, Cydric, now that we’re no longer strangers–at least not _total_ strangers–tell me, what strange force compelled you to visit this town?”
“Just passing through,” Cydric replied.
“Passing through?” She chuckled, then gathered her legs under her. “Most people go out of their way to avoid the Cove.”
“Actually, I may have to stay for a few days. I’m low on money. Would you happen to know if there are any, um, employment opportunities available around here?”
“That depends.” She peered over the edge of the table at Cydric’s lap. “Hmmm, very nice.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your sword and dagger, I meant. How well can you use them?”
“Well enough to defend myself.”
“That’s not quite good enough for a mercenary position. Although….”
“Is your codpiece in working order?”
Cydric grinned uncertainly. “Ah, why would you want to know that?”
Mandi cocked her head and winked at him. “Prostitutes aren’t all women, you know.”
Cydric coughed. “Ah, I’m also able to read and write. Do you know of any children that need tutoring?”
A scruffy-looking man from the next table leaned over and looked at them. “Why sure, son,” he called. “Take my partner here–all ‘is talk’s babble, it is. Thinks you could teaches ‘im to grunt some words, eh son?” He and his companions laughed uproariously.
“Your mother eats flies, dung-breath!” Mandi called back. To Cydric she said, “Ignore those fools.”
“Yeah, you just be sure and show the old son there a good time, pretty missy,” the man replied, leering. He turned back to his table.
“I take it the whole town needs tutoring,” Cydric said in a low voice.
“You’ve got that right,” Mandi replied. “Anyway, have you ever been on a ship before? A friend of mine is looking for additional crewmembers.”
Cydric’s heart quickened. While in Dargon he had met a man, a former ship’s captain turned stew-seller, who told him about his life and experiences at sea. After hearing his stories of action, danger, and romance, Cydric had decided to give the seagoing life a try. His marriage to Lysanda, however, put an end to that ambition; but now, things were different.
“What does your friend do?” Cydric asked. “Is he a merchant, a fisherman?”
“A slave trader,” Mandi replied. She giggled at Cydric’s surprised expression. “No, he’s really a shipping merchant, as you guessed. Are you interested?”
“Well yes, but I’ve never actually been on ship before.”
“Oh, that’s all right. You’d get used to it eventually. But are you really sure you want to join up?”
Cydric was silent for a few moments. “Yes,” he finally said. “Why not? It’ll keep me off the streets for a while.”
“Oh goody,” Mandi said, sliding off the table. “I think he’s over at the Abyssment tonight. Do you want to meet him now, or would you rather get cleaned up first?”
“Give me a few minutes,” Cydric said.
After Cydric had checked his belongings into an upstairs room and washed up, he and Mandi set out on foot into the darkening streets.
“On second thought, maybe we should do this tomorrow. I’ve heard that this town isn’t safe after dark,” Cydric said.
“Oh really, Cydric, this place isn’t as bad as you’ve heard,” Mandi said.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I am.” She leaned close to his ear and whispered, “It’s worse.”
“I hope you’re jesting.”
Mandi laughed and put her hand on Cydric’s shoulder. “Don’t look so worried. The Abyssment’s not far. Besides, my friend’s leaving tomorrow morning, as he only needs a few men to replace the ones he lost overboard on his last run.”
“Storm at sea. Really, don’t worry, they didn’t die of plague or anything. He’s a damn good captain, Thorne is.”
The sound of their footsteps echoed on the cobblestone streets as they walked along.
“What is this Abyssment place, anyway?” asked Cydric. “It doesn’t sound very wholesome.”
“It’s only the best tavern this side of the Darst Range! My favorite night spot in all of Shark’s Cove.”
“So why don’t you work there, instead of at the Hawk and Dragon?”
“Well, The Abyssment has it’s own musicians, and alas! they don’t need another one right now. But they do let me perform with them once in a while.”
“I don’t see why they won’t hire you permanently. You’re the best mandolin player I’ve ever heard.”
“Oh! Do you really think so? Or are you just flattering me?”
“No, I mean it. Who taught you?”
“My father. Oh, now he really deserves to be called best mandolin. He gave me my name, you know. Said it was a charm to pass his abilities onto me.”
“It seems to have worked,” Cydric said.
Mandi smiled and laughed. “Oh Cydric, you’re the one with charm!”
A short while later they arrived at the establishment know as The Abyssment. The sign above the door spelled out the name in black-trimmed red letters, and the words “Gaius Caligula, Proprietor” appeared beneath.
“Here we are,” said Mandi.
As soon as they entered, Cydric saw that it was unlike any tavern he had ever seen. The tables, booths, and bar were arranged so that there was a clear space in the center of the room where a crowd of people, most of them around Cydric and Mandi’s age, danced to the fast and lively music being played by the trio of musicians near the bar. Glowing spheres set in the rafters sent out rays of rainbow light into the smoky air. The aromas of tobacco, ale, perfume, and food all hit Cydric at once.
Mandi began moving her body to the beat of the music. “Wait for me at the bar,” she said. “I’ll try to find Captain Thorne.” She vanished into the crowd.
Cydric decided that whatever the people in the room were doing, it certainly wasn’t dancing. They were swaying and gyrating their bodies to the driving beat of the drums; he found it hard to tell if anyone had a partner, since none of them were holding hands in the traditional manner.
As he made his way to the bar he passed a table at which a group of young persons were sharing a pipe.
“Excuse me,” Cydric said to the boy who currently held the pipe, “but what sort of tobacco are you using?” The boy looked up with glazed eyes and said, “Beezorg, yo-man, beezorg.” He gave the pipe to the girl across from him, smiled dreamily, then slumped headfirst onto the table.
“Ah. I see. Thank you very much,” Cydric said. He continued on his way, unsure of whether the boy’s statement was an answer to his question or just an incoherent mumble.
“What’ll you have, squire?” asked the bartender as Cydric made for an empty stool.
“A Lederian, please. In a clean mug, if you don’t mind.”
“A clean mug, if I don’t mind?” the bartender echoed. “Well, what if I did mind? What would you do about it?”
“Please, just get me the drink,” Cydric said, trying to sound rugged.
“Very well, squire. But supposing I brought it to you in a really filthy, really disgusting mug? What would you do then?”
Cydric started to reply, then noticed that the people near him were watching the exchange with interest.
“Well, I’d….” Cydric hesitated.
The bartender gave a hearty laugh. “This one’s all right, folks!” he declared. From behind the bar he took a mug, wiped the inside clean with a rag, filled it with the requested drink, then set it before Cydric. “On the house.”
Cydric thanked him. The bartender grinned, then went to tend to another customer.
Looking around the room, Cydric saw that the majority of the young patrons bore little resemblance to the youths that lived in the capital and other civilized areas. Many of the girls wore short skirts that exposed their knees, and had short hair like Mandi’s; most of the boys wore leather jerkins decorated with strange symbols, and some had hair that reached past their shoulders.
The person to Cydric’s right got up and left, and a moment later a thin girl dressed in a black-striped red chemise sat down in the vacant seat. “Are you alone?” she asked.
“Ah, actually, I’m waiting for someone,” Cydric replied. “You?”
“How about a dance?” She pushed back a lock of her straight blonde hair.
A glint of light on the girl’s face caught Cydric’s eye. He looked closer, and saw that she had a small gold ring in the left side of her nose.
“Back off, missy, he’s with me,” Mandi said, approaching them. The blonde girl gave Mandi a disdainful look, tossed her head, then left.
“Did you see that? She had a ring in her nose,” said Cydric.
“Must have been a queenie,” Mandi replied. “Anyway, Thorne’ll be here later. He’s got some other business to take care of.”
“How much later?” Cydric asked. “I don’t want to stay too late.”
“Don’t worry, he’ll show up. Come on.”
“Where to now?”
“I thought we might dance a little.”
“You don’t know how? I’ll teach you.” Mandi pulled him onto the floor just as the musicians started another number.
“The King doesn’t dance like this,” Cydric said.
Mandi giggled and bumped him with her hip. “What does he know about dancing? Look, it’s easy. Just do what I do.”
“This looks extremely sinful, Mandi.”
“Why Cydric, that’s why it’s so fun! Come on!” She put her hands in the air and began shaking her shoulders.
Cydric watched her for a few moments, shrugged, then began shaking as well.
After a while, the musicians decided to take a break. As the crowd broke up, Cydric and Mandi quickly occupied the nearest table.
“Whew! Wasn’t that the most fun you’ve ever had in your life?” Mandi asked breathlessly as they collapsed into the chairs.
“I’m exhausted,” Cydric said, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Oh now, you enjoyed it, didn’t you? You’re a natural born dervish dancer if I ever saw one!”
“Is that what it’s called?” Cydric said, grinning faintly. “How appropriate. But–yes, I did rather enjoy it.” He sat up a little and scanned the faces at the bar and the other tables. “Has the captain arrived yet?”
“Relax, Cydric,” Mandi said. “I told you, he’ll be here.”
“If you say so,” Cydric answered.
“Yes, I do.” Mandi felt her stomach, then said, “Why don’t we have something to eat while we’re waiting? I haven’t had a single morsel since midday and I’m positively _starving_. How about you? You’ve been traveling all day, right? You must be completely _famished!_”
“Now that you mention it, I could use a light meal.”
Mandi signalled to a serving boy. She whispered something to him, and he nodded and left.
“What did you say?” asked Cydric.
“I just told him to bring us some specialties of the house,” said Mandi.
The serving boy returned a short time later and placed two wooden bowls before them.
“Right then Cydric, have a taste of this one.” She indicated a bowl that contained several small white objects covered with a brownish gravy.
“What is it?” Cydric said, eyeing the dish suspiciously.
“Try it and find out.” Mandi spooned up a portion and held it out to him.
“Well, all right….” Cydric let her feed him. The white objects were crunchy, but with a soft chewy interior.
“Interesting. There’s a touch of wine in the sauce, but I can’t place anything else. What is it?”
“It’s called ‘kavaliculi’, but it’s better known as snails-in-sauce.”
Cydric made a choking sound. “_What_ in sauce?”
“Snails. Don’t worry, they’re fully cooked.” She dipped her finger into the bowl and licked up a bit of the wine gravy. “Isn’t it delicious?”
Cydric swallowed hard. “Quite a, uh, unique dish,” he said, trying not to think about what he had just eaten.
“Now try this,” said Mandi, pushing the other bowl towards him. Cydric saw that it was full of what appeared to be bits of dried twigs.
“Ladies first,” he said.
“Silly, it’s only a dessert,” she said, scooping up a small amount and stuffing it into her mouth.
“A dessert? Well, why didn’t you say so.” Cydric ate some. The bits were crispy and coated with a sweet substance.
“What do you think?” Mandi asked.
“Hmmm. Very tasty.”
“I knew you’d like it! Do you want to know what these are called?”
“I have a feeling you’d tell me anyway.”
“‘Lyr-filas’, or ‘leaf-wrigglers dipped in honey’.”
Cydric smiled bravely as he felt the last bits slide down his throat. He firmly resolved not to eject the contents of his stomach onto the table–at least not in front of Mandi. “How, ah, delicious,” he said. “I never knew insects could be made to taste so, um, flavorful.”
“They are good, aren’t they? Well, let’s finish the snails first–they’re best eaten while warm.” She handed Cydric a spoon.
“Tell me something, Mandi,” he said as he watched her dip into the bowl, “what do you have for breakfast? Glazed fly larvae on a biscuit?”
“Only during Melrin,” she said, grinning.
Cydric had downed three mugs of water by the time they finished their unusual meal.
“It’s getting late, Mandi. I think I’ll go back to the inn now,” Cydric said.
“Oh, can’t you wait just a few minutes longer? I’m sure he’ll show up.”
“That’s all right. I’ll just look for a job tomorrow. I shouldn’t have any trouble finding unschooled children in this town.”
“Don’t you want to join a ship’s crew and have adventure and excitement on the high seas?” Mandi asked. “Or would you rather teach some runny-faced urchin how to spell ‘cur’?
“What do you suppose is keeping him, then?”
“I don’t know. Be patient, I’m–”
“–sure he’ll be here,” Cydric finished. “Thank you anyway.” He got up to leave.
“Well–you’re right. I’m sorry I kept you so late. But aren’t you at least going to walk me home?”
“Certainly, if you’d like.”
“I certainly would. We’re going the same way.”
“We are? Oh–you live at the Inn, don’t you?”
Mandi smiled merrily. “It’s where I hang my mandolin!”
Dim yellow light from street lanterns provided pale illumination as Cydric and Mandi stepped out into the cool night air and headed back toward the Hawk & Dragon.
“So, Cydric, what did you think of your first night at the Abyssment?” Mandi asked.
“Well,” he replied, “if suggestive dancing, open drug use, and brazen prostitution becomes socially acceptable, it’ll be the most popular tavern on Makdiar!”
“Does that mean you liked it?”
Cydric chuckled and made no reply. Looking up at the black star-strewn sky, he saw that there was no moon. He remembered an old childhood warning about thieves and nightshades preying on people foolish enough to be out on moonless nights. He’d long since lost his belief in nightshades, but thieves, he knew, were a grim reality. Turning to Mandi he said, “We’d better hurry back.”
“What for?” said Mandi, giving a little skip. “It’s a magnificent night, absolutely beautiful. We should enjoy it.”
“I don’t fancy having my throat slit by a brigand.”
“Oh Cydric, there’s really nothing to worry about. I’ve walked home at night many times and as you can see, I’m still alive.”
“That may change one day.”
As they made their way through the silent streets, Cydric kept glancing at every shadow, down every alley, any place that might hide a potential attacker. Once or twice he thought he heard bootsteps.
“My heart’s on fire for you, hmm hmm hmm hmmmmmm hmmm,” said Mandi.
“Beg your pardon?” Cydric said.
“Oh, that’s just a song I’m composing. Would you like to hear it?”
“Maybe later. We shouldn’t call attention to ourselves.”
“And what’s wrong with a little attention? I want everybody to hear this song. I want everybody to know my name!” She flung her arms wide and twirled in mid-step.
“Mandi, please!” Cydric hissed. “I have the feeling we’re being followed.”
“Really? How many people?”
“Shhhh.” Cydric stopped and listened intently. He heard a faint scuffling, then silence.
“Well?” whispered Mandi.
“I’m not sure. Two, maybe three. They’ve probably been behind us ever since we left the Abyssment.”
“Oh good, an audience. Let me sing for them.”
“It’ll be the last thing you ever do. Come on.” He started walking rapidly, pulling Mandi along.
“You don’t have to act like a warrior for my benefit. I’m perfectly able to take care of myself,” she said.
“Are you any good with a blade?’
“Well, no. But I can outrun anything on two legs.”
“Your own legs?”
“Of course my own legs.”
“And I’m sure they’re very nice legs. Now move them a little faster.”
Their shadowers soon abandoned all attempts at stealth. Cydric looked back down the street and saw two figures silhouetted against the lantern light. The sound of their footfalls echoed through the still night.
“Damn,” muttered Cydric.
“What?” asked Mandi.
“Don’t look behind you, but they’re starting to close in on us.”
Mandi looked anyway. “What do you think we should do? Are they going to hurt us?”
“Well, they’re certainly not going to ask to hear your song! Now, when I say run, run.”
“Okay,” replied Mandi. “Last one back to the Inn is a dead man!”
Literally, thought Cydric. He counted to five, then shouted: “Run, Mandi!”
They shot away down the street. Cydric heard faint laughter over the clatter of bootsteps. Suddenly Mandi screamed.
A dark-skinned man armed with a large curved sword stood in their path. They stopped in their tracks.
Cydric looked back and saw one of their pursuers advancing toward them. The other one was nowhere to be seen.
The man indicated a nearby alley. “In there,” he said in a thickly accented voice. Cydric and Mandi raised their hands and walked to where he pointed. When they came to the wall at the end of the alley the man ordered them to turn around.
“Your money,” he said simply.
As Mandi handed over her purse, Cydric recognized the sword as a shivash, a blade used by the warriors of the Lashkir Desert. He wondered what this particular Lashkirian was doing so far from home.
“Now yours.” The Lashkirian waved his blade threateningly at Cydric.
“Look, just leave us alone and we won’t give you any trouble,” he replied.
The man pressed the point of the shivash against Cydric’s neck. “You will give it now, you blistered son of a jantral!”
“Better do as he says,” said Mandi.
Cydric slowly reached for his belt pouch but found it missing. He patted himself all over, with the same negative result. “Sorry,” he said. “I seem to have lost it all somewhere.”
The desert warrior let loose a string of curses in his native tongue.
“Easy, friend,” said another voice. Cydric saw another man, their initial pursuer, appear at the mouth of the alley.
“He says he has no money,” said the Lashkirian.
“He said that, did he?” the other man replied, coming up to them. He scratched his stubbly brown beard. “What do you think, Scarabin, is he lying?”
“Like a dog-skin rug,” answered the Lashkirian. “Let us kill them both, master Kayne.”
“Well, not before I get to know the girl a little better,” Kayne replied. He moved closer to Mandi, who delivered a solid kick to his shin.
“Ouch! Spunky little wench, isn’t she?” said Kayne as he hobbled back several paces.
“Don’t you try to take advantage of me!” said Mandi.
“Be silent, girl!” Scarabin ordered.
“And don’t _you_ tell me what to do, lizard man!”
The desert warrior growled. Cydric realized that she had delivered a dreadful insult to the Lashkirian.
“I shall cut your throat out!” Scarabin shouted. He lunged at Mandi.
“Temper, temper,” said Kayne, catching Scarabin’s arm. In a flash, Cydric kicked the shivash out of the Lashkirian’s grip, delivered another kick to Kayne’s stomach, then dropped back and drew his own sword. He was about to aim a sharp slash at Kayne’s face when he felt Mandi grab his sword arm.
“Let go, for gods’ sake!” yelled Cydric.
Instantly, Kayne came up and wrested the sword from Cydric’s hand. He shoved the young man against the wall. Cydric drove his knee into Kayne’s groin and shoved back. As Kayne staggered, Scarabin swung at Cydric’s face. He stopped the blow with a left-arm rising block, then punched the Lashkirian in the chest. Scarabin fell back, then leaped forward, catching Cydric’s head in his hands. Cydric felt Scarabin’s thumb jab a spot behind his right ear, then suddenly he felt himself go weak. His knees buckled, then he collapsed to the ground.
“You better not have killed him!” he heard Mandi say. She rolled him over, then sighed with relief as he dazedly shook his head.
“Oh Cydric, you’re all right, aren’t you?” she asked, concern edging her voice.
“Fine, just…fine,” he replied, struggling up to a sitting position. He saw Kayne and Scarabin standing over them. “If you’re going to kill us, why don’t you get it over with!” he said fiercely.
“Relax, Cydric,” Mandi said, smoothing his hair. She turned and glowered at Scarabin. “Did you have to do that to him?”
“My apologies, mistress Mandi. It was done out of instinct.”
“You know these people?” Cydric asked Mandi. “What’s going on here?”
“I suppose it’s time we told you,” said a female voice from the mouth of the alley. Cydric looked up and saw a tall dark-haired woman striding towards them. She was clad in black and silver, and carried a lantern. As she helped him to his feet she said, “I hope they didn’t hurt you, Cydric. I told them to not to be too rough.”
“He’s fine, all right, but what about me? I won’t be able to make love for a month!” Kayne said, rubbing at the place where Cydric had kneed him.
“What do you mean?” Cydric asked the woman. “Who are you? And how do you know my name?”
“One question at a time, please. First let me introduce myself. I’m Brynna Thorne, captain of the trading vessel _Vanguard Voyager_. You’ve already met my crew, I think. Tyrus Kayne, my First Mate, and Scarabin, my best warrior.”
“You’re Captain Thorne? But Mandi said–I mean, I thought you were–”
“Thought I was what?”
“Well, a man.”
“Is that what you told him?” Brynna asked, glancing sharply at Mandi.
The young lady grinned sheepishly. “Well….”
“I can’t wait to hear your explanation for this one,” said Brynna.
“Well, you see, everyone I asked seemed interested in joining the crew. But when I told them about your being a woman, they sort of laughed and left.”
“Well, what else could I do?”
“We’ll speak about it later,” Brynna said. She turned to Cydric. “Now then, I suppose you’re wondering why I didn’t show up at the Abyssment tonight?”
“The question had crossed my mind.”
“Well, when Mandi told me you wanted to become a member of the crew but hadn’t had any experience on a ship before, my first thought was to dismiss you outright. But she told me that you were desperately poor and in need of employment, so I decided to conduct a little test to see if you were suitable. I had her take you to the Abyssment, where I observed you for the whole night.”
“But how did Mandi contact you? I was with her all the time.”
“Not always,” Mandi said. “Brynna was in the gaming parlor of the Hawk & Dragon. I spoke to her while you were checking your stuff into your room.”
Cydric nodded in understanding, then said to Brynna, “And you were at the Abyssment the whole time?”
“I was indeed. And I must say, I was impressed by the way you handled yourself in the various situations you encountered. For instance, most people would have pulled a knife on that bartender, or simply left. You also seemed open-minded enough to try dervish dancing, even though it’s been officially banned by the Church for ages. And you are one of the few people I’ve seen who hasn’t immediately become sick after trying snails and wrigglers for the first time.
“What this all means, Cydric, is that you seem like you’d be a good addition to our crew. I need people who are level-headed, and not afraid to experience new things. So, if you want to join us, you’re most welcome. The decision is yours.”
“This attack was also part of my test, I gather.”
“Yes, it was. I was looking to see if your combat skills were any good, and from what I saw, yours appear to be above average.”
“Exactly what sort of trading do you do, though? I mean, there’s not much need for a fighting crew unless you travel outside the patrolled sea lanes.”
“That’s quite true,” Brynna replied. “The nature of our trade takes us outside the normal routes, and consequently we run a greater risk of pirate attacks. You see, there’s a great demand nowadays for unusual and exotic goods; we travel to the lesser known places of Makdiar in search of these things. We’ve collected heavenspice from Bichu, fire crystals from Karmitan, orchids from Sanctus Island….”
“Not to mention relics from the temples at Yaltark, and sea-snail shells from the Wild Coast,” added Kayne.
“But understand, Cydric, that shipboard life will sometimes be hard, and there may come times when you’ll wish you’d never signed aboard. And there often may be times where our lives will be in danger–not just from pirates, but from things unknown even to the most worldly wizard. Are you still interested?”
“I’m willing to give it a try. And I’m not worried about death,” answered Cydric.
“Bravely spoken,” Brynna said. “One more thing, though; do you mind the fact that I’m the captain? That is, do you object to taking orders from a woman?”
Cydric paused, then said: “Not when she has a right to give them.”
“Wise answer, Cydric,” remarked Kayne.
“Does this mean you’ve accepted him?” Mandi asked, looking hopefully at Brynna.
“It does indeed. Welcome aboard, Cydric,” she said, extending her hand.
“Oh goody!” exclaimed Mandi, as Cydric smilingly thanked Brynna and gripped forearms with her. Kayne repeated the welcome, and Scarabin bowed politely. Mandi smiled broadly and gave the young man a hug.
“We’ll discuss terms and duties later,” Brynna said. “But right now we should all go back to the Inn before some real thieves show up.”
As the group filed out of the alley, Mandi walked between Kayne and Scarabin. “Great acting, you two!” she said. “Sorry about that ‘lizard man’ thing, Scar. I wasn’t thinking.”
“I am not offended, mistress Mandi. I know your intention was to make the attack seem real to the lad,” the Lashkirian replied.
“But _you_!” she said, whirling on Kayne, “If you ever try anything with me again, acting or not–I’ll personally see to it that you’re _never_ able to make love again.”
“Ouch,” said Kayne, chuckling in amusement.
While the three were thus conversing, Brynna took Cydric aside and whispered, “Since you’ve no previous shipboard experience, your duties will be simple at first. But there’s one thing that I’ll expect you to do, above all else.”
“Keep Mandi out of trouble. My young cousin seems to have developed a talent for it, ever since she stowed away and persuaded me to let her be part of the crew.”
“I’ll do my best, my lady–er, captain.”
“I can tell you right now, though, it won’t be easy.”
“That’s right, it won’t!” Mandi said, popping up between them. She slipped her arm around Cydric. “You and I are going to have such fun.”
“I can hardly wait,” Cydric replied, grinning. Mandi pinched his cheek as they walked off into the night.