Dale ran breathlessly down the Street of Travellers towards the docks. His father had told him to read two whole lessons; being the son of a scribe wasn’t the most exciting life in the world. His father, a well-known teacher and scribe named Cavendish, made his living by hiring out to teach youngsters how to read and write. He had left the fourteen year-old in the family library while he went to Dargon Keep to instruct some poor aristocrat’s son. Dale knew his father had meant well, but there were other things to do all afternoon than read some old dry book. Besides, he’d be back in time to read most of his assignment, anyways.
He turned the corner by Sandmond’s, nearly capsizing an emerging sailor (listing five degrees to port), and scanned the dockside for the familiar red and white canopy. Finding it, he plunged back into the crowd and made for a warehouse at the far end of the quays. He pushed through the mob of sailors, soldiers, and merchants, finally coming within sight of his destination, a squeaky old cart, overloaded with three steaming kettles, attended by a tall, smiling man and his little monkey. A sign on the cart read ‘Salamagundi Stew’ in large letters.
The youth slowed and yelled across the crowd, “Hey, Simon!” The tall man saw Dale and waved him over.
“Hey, Dale! What you doing out so early? Did you Papa give you too much to read, eh?” The tall sailor smiled broadly and batted the young man on the shoulder.
“Yeah,” sighed the lad. “How’s Skeebo?” he asked, bringing a sweetmeat forth from his cloak to offer the monk.
“Oh, he’s fine. Business is good, and look at the port! It’s so busy!” He spread his arms to take in all the port area. Dale looked up after giving Skeebo his treat and surveyed the port. The crowds were thicker than ever, and there were several tall ships and galleys tied up along the docks. He knew the Angelique at the far end, and Captain Smith’s Victory Chimes beside it. Right in front of the warehouse was a galley that Dale had never seen before, with a great deal of bustle on deck and a number of strange papery ornaments hanging in the rigging. “What ship is that? Is it from the south?”
“Ah…” began Simon, a glint in his brown eyes. “I checked ‘er out before. She’s called the Singing Mermaid, and she’s been on a long, long voyage. She left Baranur, down south… must’ve been nearly two years ago. Headed west, of all places!” Simon was aglow with the rapture of a bard revealing a tale. “They say this is their first landfall since they left a place called Bichu, across the western ocean. They say they’ve got some sort of western noble who paid them well to bring him here. Wonder what would make a man pay such a high price to leave his home, eh, lad?”
While Dale listened, he dipped himself a bowl of ‘regular’, as Simon called the first of the three varieties of stew he sold. Dale had often heard Simon’s tale of how he had learned the recipe for Salamagundi Stew while he was serving as a cook on a galley many years ago. The stew itself was a sort of fish chowder, heavily seasoned, and the ‘regular’ was fairly good. Dale had never tried either of the other stews – Simon had always steered him away from them with a laugh.
The young man looked up and contemplated the Singing Mermaid. There were a number of large crates sitting on deck, and many strangely-colored paper ornaments hanging from the yardarm. The captain came from below deck and stood talking with a strangely-dressed man who could not have been any taller than Dale himself. He nudged Simon and nodded towards the ship. Simon’s eyes widened. “Yep. Must be that westerner… Let’s go get a good look, eh, lad?” With that Simon slowly hauled his cart closer to the pier where the Singing Mermaid was tied up. Dale watched the foreigner order another man to gather some chests and boxes and make his way down the gangplank, the poor servant, overburdened with the foreigner’s gear, close behind.
The stranger was a young man, though perhaps five or more years older than Dale, but no more than an inch or two taller than the scribe’s son. His clothing was strangely decorated in blue and white shapes that Dale had to think twice about to understand, and his robe hung about his body very oddly. Dale could see that he had a slight limp, and carried a very strange and wicked-looking sword in, of all things, a wooden sheath! Dale saw the stranger stop for a moment and look around, a dark expression on his face, and turn towards Simon. The youth hurried to catch up.
Simon set his cart down and waited for the stranger to approach, carefully inspecting and gently stirring each of the three chowders he had made that morning. He had been lucky to get some spices from the Singing Mermaid’s haul earlier in the day, and he was confident it was an excellent batch. The foreigner walked directly to him and slowly, haltingly said, “Excuse, prease… You offer to sell food?”
Simon nodded and replied “Yes – stew! Three kinds: regular, sweet, and sun-sweet. It’s very good,” he added, lifting the cover from one of the pots to let the foreigner know just what he was about to purchase. Simon certainly knew enough not to upset travelling nobility.
“Ah, very good. I would like the sun-sweet prease…”
Simon nodded and carefully suppressed a chuckle. Sun-sweet was the spiciest of the brews, and he knew of only two people who had ever been able to finish a whole bowl: himself and Guiseppi, the old sailor-cook who had taught Simon how to cook, when he was younger than Dale. He smiled to the stern-faced stranger, dipped a steaming bowl of regular, and offered it to the stranger. No sense making a scene, Simon thought. He had travelled enough in the west to realize that he might have just saved his own life!
The man took the broth with a short bow, if no smile, and reached within his silken clothing, producing two short sticks with which he began to eat the chunks of fish from the broth. Simon was about to congratulate himself on his tact when he saw Skeebo grab a spoon from the cart and thrust it at the stranger, who slowly lifted his eyes towards the monk, to Dale, and finally to Simon. Simon felt his stomach knot in worry. Suddenly, the strangely-clad foreigner broke out into the oddest laughter Dale had ever witnessed. The stranger took the spoon and gave the monk a small coin in return. He finished the chunks of fish and began noisily sipping the broth with the spoon. Simon knew that the man had probably never used a spoon before setting foot on the Singing Mermaid, though how anyone could go through life without using a spoon was quite beyond him.
Skeebo went back to Simon, looking sheepish as any monkey could. The sailor took the coin from the monk, and an odd look came over his face. The westerner had paid in gold! It was a strange looking coin, but it was probably worth more than Simon had made all year. He was obviously a noble, but he didn’t seem quite that rich…
The stranger had finished his bowl, and seeing Simon’s puzzlement in his face, he asked “The coin… is it not enough?”
Simon, more confused than ever, could not speak for a moment. “It is more than too much!” he suddenly stammered, too astounded to even care that he could live off that small coin for nearly a year. He held the coin out to give it back to the foreigner, who closed the sailor’s hand upon it.
“I am Ittosai Michiya,” he began. “I have left my home in dishonor, and am far from where I would be. I have not been happy in many months. Take the coin – is a smile not worth so much stone?”
With that, he bowed low and, with a gesture for his baggage, left Simon and Dale both rather puzzled.
Simon soon was busy with customers again, and Dale wandered off to look at the ships, including the Singing Mermaid.
Simon had given up. The port was just too busy, and he couldn’t keep up with the customers. His mind kept dwelling on the strange foreigner, and he found himself looking at the small golden coin, somtimes touching it like a worry stone. It was an interesting coin; on one side, an etching of a strangely shaped building surrounded by an even odder-looking garden, on the other side were strange letters that looked like chicken-scratchings. Perhaps he would get it changed and pay rent. Perhaps he would buy Dale something useful and give it to him during the upcoming festival. Then again, maybe he’d just tuck it away in case he might ever need it; it was a very attractive coin…
Simon’s twenty-fifth contemplation of the strange coin was interrupted by a familiar cry. “Hey, Simon!”
“Hey, Dale!” After going off to look at the ships, the youth had wandered up along the coastline. Dale came over to Simon’s cart and chittered at Skeebo as only a child would. “Guess what, Simon?”
“There’s a world outside Dargon?” Simon smiled.
“No, silly,” responded Dale, “I’ve found something while I was walking up the coast.”
“The ocean?” Simon asked, still sarcastically smirking.
In answer, Dale brought forth a small bundle from his tunic. He had wrapped something in a wool cloth, and he unwrapped it very carefully to reveal what looked like a carving that had been covered with sand and seaweed.
“What is it?” Simon was curious.
Dale carefully picked the seaweed away and, with a handful of water from a nearby rain barrel, washed off the stone carefully. What was revealed was a small sculpture of Dargon Keep, crudely done, but made in ivory, the unmistakeable three towers rising above a walled section of town. Simon’s eyes widened, then seemed very far. Then he came back, smiled at Dale, and said, “What a find, lad! I’d hang onto that, if I were you.”
“Yeah. I’m going to keep it in my room. I think it’s really neat!”
“It sure enough is that, lad. Now you run home and do your reading. We’ve had plenty of adventure for this day, eh?”
“Yeah!” Dale said as he carefully wrapped the miniature keep in the cloth. “Well, see you tomorrow, Simon!” He turned and jogged away, innocent of the expression on his older friend’s visage.
Simon Salamagundi felt old, perhaps for the first time in his young life. Seventeen years earlier, he remembered, his mother had apprenticed him to a sculptor, thinking Simon had artistic hands. His father, Seth Salamagundi, had been a sailor, and Simon’s blood came from his father’s line. One afternoon, he had sat by the ocean, trying desperately to live up to others expectations of him, carving a small ivory model of Dargon Keep. It had looked so horrible that he hurled it as far into the sea as he could throw it. He ran home, wrote a note for his mother, and hired himself out to ship’s cook on the Lilith. That was the end of his landboundedness, the last he saw of his mother, and the end of his childhood.
Over the years, the memory of that piece of ivory had meant many things to Simon. When he was young, he had hated it, for it was a symbol of his mother’s attempts to keep him home, and his failure to live up to the expectations of others. During his many years at sea, he had both loved it as a symbol of his freedom and success and hated it still for the failure associated with it. Now he could only look back at the wealth of emotion attached to the object and feel all that he had gone through once more, and cry.