Lane spent his stay at the Waiting House seated by the window, watching the sea. Even when the sun shone harsh over the port, singeing his eyes as it sparkled off the waves, he studied the docks below. The seabirds sang off key, swooping up and back over parked vessels. Ships arrived from out of Skystead, Borgild, Nafe—and even Thergor's mountains to the north—with bright sails and waving banners. Dockhands unloaded cargo. Merchants paid for it and carted it away.
Inside the inn, drunk guests caroused with whores while they awaited audience with Ruby Trade's proprietors. Waiting House guests were merchants and investors, shipsellers and commissioners, competitors and hopeful partners of Middlesea's farthest-reaching company. Some of them had been in residence for months. The longer he stayed, the more it seemed to Lane that the inn was just a place devised for troublesome inquirers to booze and fuck until they forgot why they had come.
But his own petition would never be forgotten.
Each morning dawned the same. He took his coffee black and left the coconut cream biscuits brought with it to grow stale upon the windowsill. At midday, a serving woman came to change his bandages. She sealed the shutters and drew the curtains against daylight, to save his shadowskin the agony of exposure. His burns, suffered in The Hidden Pearl's bombardment, stung and ached even in the darkness, but he set his jaw against the pain as she disrobed him. While she unraveled his wrappings, he shut his eyes and thought of sweeter days, when he and Scragg and all the rest sailed west for Faoigren. On those quests, they rode uncharted rivers through the Feywoods, seeking out the rarest and most valuable of trophies for a discerning clientele. In those years, he was just a sailor, not the leader of a dozen broken men, not the captain of a sunken ship, not the overseer of a catastrophic venture.
Failure was easier to bear then.
The human woman tended his wounds in silence, and Lane lost himself in memory. Whether it was out of respect or disdain she held her tongue, he found himself grateful for their understanding. In the wake of pleasantries, his musings wandered far from loss, far from the burns to his chest.
The green grew dense across Middlesea. In Garnetport, and on the islands to its east, palms stood straight and and proud like soldiers in the sand. Even when the fronds of verdant ferns spread out like peacock plumes, the forest floor left room for travelers to tread. In western forests, moss was a cruel carpet, creeping constantly, suffocating anything that dared lay still. Nettles lurked in the underbrush, biding their time, waiting to strike. Island vines were flowered ropes that maidens wove into their hair and wore as belts around their waists. On Faoigren, they sunk their thorns like fangs into the trees, and strangled them, and sucked the life from them until their trunks turned black and brittle. And through the brambles and the fog, the fey called.
Each season, the old crew returned from these haunted forests with a storeroom full of pelts and herbs and strange exotic creatures. Garnetport's paeons, barons and baronesses paid handsomely for such cargo, and with this decadence came not only riches, but renown. Before long, wealthy persons came in droves with propositions and commissions. These were as dangerous as they were lucrative and, often, old Captain Cringer would not take them—but where demand and ambition bloomed, supply soon followed. That was the rule of trade. So Lane unfurled his own sails.
A rapping on the doorframe woke the captain from his reverie. His yellow eyes sprung open, and their glow washed over the carpet. Scragg stood on the threshold, with the hallway light behind him. “Pardon, cap'n,” he began. “News from outta the Ruby Manse.” Lane grunted his acknowledgment, and the old sailor stepped inside. The door creaked on its hinges. Scragg left it just ajar enough that a sliver gave the serving woman light in which to work. “Could come back later, if it suits yeh better.” The captain read discomfort on his second's face. No matter the years they spent in service to the same sail, no matter how many times the old sailor had seen him unshrouded by night, the sight of Lane's bare flesh, black mist rising from it in swirls, still unnerved him.
The lorelei scoffed. “No,” he answered, gesturing to the threadbare chair behind his desk. “We have already waited too long. Sit, and tell me.”
Scragg did as commanded. He popped his knuckles as he sank into the faded cushions. “Rotcrate acknowledged your complaint.” Lane stared, the glow of his eyes gleaming off his first mate's scalp. The old man wore a beard to hide his crooked jaw, but his head was shaved and polished, crowned with a fish tattoo. With the captain's gaze shimmering over its scales, that mariner's mark looked almost alive. “They will hear from you. In person.” The serving woman pulled fresh bandages taut, and Lane flinched. “Today.” A hiss passed through the captain's pointed teeth. “Ruby folk gave me a letter for yeh.” From his trouser pocket, the sailor drew a folded note, its seal unbroken. He leaned forward in his seat to pass it over.
Spindly fingers clasped the missive. Lane split its seal, unfolded the parchment, and read:
PURSUIT OF DAMAGES: Cpt. Lane Tafar
For audience with Captain Rotcrate, aforementioned claimant will present himself at the Ruby Trade Mansion's west gate—unarmed, alone—bearing on his person a written list of grievances, a summary of events preceding, and a figure of suggested restitution for review. Claimant will arrive before the sun sinks into the sea on this Thergday, Whit Midyear, 1165, or else relinquish his right to petition Ruby Trade Company and our hosting proprietor.
“Is it good news, captain?” asked Scragg, who could not read.
“Unarmed. Alone,” the lorelei said aloud. Suspicion was no stranger to the tradespeople of Garnetport. His own mistrustful nature had served him well in business dealings on and off the islands. Still, it made his skin steam to wonder why a man so well guarded should fear a lone trader—unless Rotcrate was not afraid at all, but vengeful; unless he knew more than he ought of glitterroot smuggling and The Hidden Pearl's contracts with the island elite.
But that was impossible.
“Smells fishy to yeh?” Scragg lifted his bushy brows.
No one informed has anything to gain in turning his coat, the captain reassured himself. “No,” he answered, grimacing as the woman tightened and tied his bandages. “Thank you. You may go.” She dipped her head, gathered up her cloth and salves, and went. “Close the door behind you.” Lane waited for ironbound oak to choke out the light in the room, and listened as the woman's footsteps carried her down the stairs and out of human earshot. Scragg sucked his cheeks as his eyes adjusted to the shadows. Men shunned the darkness as lorelei shunned the light. “My hearing will be with Rotcrate himself. I hadn't expected that.”
“And that's good, no?” Lane stared his second down. Of all the good men lost in the powder room's explosion, the oldest and most loyal of his sailors had lived to tell the tale, and not all was lost. “He can't ignore you then.”
“Right,” the captain said, tapping rhythms on the windowsill. “It is good. What else did his messengers tell you?”
The old sailor sat quiet for some time before he answered. “They called our loss 'regrettable.'” In the gloom, he looked as wretched as a wraith with sadness stretching taut his weathered face. “And gave condolences for the deaths of our men.”
Lane huffed bitterly. “Eleven good men. With names. Yes, 'regrettable.'” His eyes narrowed to slits. “Did they seem sorry, or only say it.”
“They were messengers, cap'n.” Again, Scragg cracked his knuckles one by one. The corners of his mouth twitched down beneath his mustache. Lane stood, jaw set against the pain of his wounds, and pulled his shirt over his head. “They seemed as messengers seem.”
With a click of his tongue against his teeth, the lorelei limped over to the desk, and bent to rummage in its drawers for quill and ink. “They should ache like we ache,” he hissed as he pulled one open. Scragg scooted back his chair, allowing the captain space to search. “Like our crew's kin will ache when the news reaches them.” Lane's black fist balled upon the desk. “And some will come then, seeking after me for compensation.”
Silence wrapped around them like a fog. Lane withdrew his pen and ink from the drawer, set them atop the desk, and hobbled over to the shelf where his case of contracts, orders, and parchment lay locked. Scragg watched. For some moments, he sat in silence, picking at his nails, until at last he cleared his throat and ventured, “I would speak freely, if yeh'd listen.”
Key in hand, the captain bowed his head. Long ears twitched as he ground his teeth, and the yellow lamplight of his eyes disappeared behind his drooping lids. He leaned into the shelf, and sighed, “Go on.”
“You'll never make them ache like we ache. How can the bait fish wound the leviathan? The laws protect us. We'll get our due, and swim away, and forget the quarrels of greedy men. But not the names of our dead. Jonah. Tarrin. Kavel. Chorde—”
“Zellen. Torque, Mirabi, Trene, Niranya, Hanley, Jas.” Yellow eyelight shimmered back at Lane off peeling gilded words on spines of books.
The first mate nodded. “And if I wore yer boots, cap'n, I'd save my grief, and turn it into wisdom later.” Scragg rolled his lips together as the captain turned his glowing gaze upon him. “Grief is a sorry fuel for vengeance.”
Lane's stare flickered like a dying candleflame. He sighed and turned back to the bookshelf to unlatch his luggage. “But some men can do just as they please, and the world will move for them, and all the rest of us must suffer.”
“If he did only what pleased him, sah, I doubt he'd grant yeh audience.”
The captain snatched up his parchment, and slammed his case closed somewhat harder than intended. His second said nothing while he hobbled across the room to spread the page between his ink and pen. Lane lingered over the arrangement, hands splayed like thin black spiders on the driftwood desk. He hunched his shoulders, sighed, and shook his head. “Leave me now.”
“Aye, cap'n.” Scragg stood.
“Spend the day as you please.” They edged by one another, and the old sailor nodded his thanks as his captain sank into the threadbare chair. “I've preparations to make.”
As the sun drooped low behind the swaying palms, Captain Lane Tafar presented himself according to his host's instructions: alone, unarmed. The walk from the Waiting House to the Ruby Manse was not a long one, nor was the evening particularly warm, but by the time he arrived before the western gate, blisters had begun to blossom beneath his mantle. His burns itched under their wrappings, and a steady stream of smoke rose from the slit between his hat and shroud. Save for this gap left for his eyes, he was cloaked from head to toe against the daylight—but even covered there was no disguising his heritage. He bore the stares and whispers of passersby with his chin held high. The surface peoples clung to their superstitions against his kind, but he took their fear as reverence, and that made it easier to bear.
A staircase of pink granite sprung up from the street before the captain, and stationed like statues on either side of the gate, two guards stared him down. Between them, gilded bars twisted into an ornate R that gleamed rosy in the sunset. “State your name and business,” one demanded.
“Captain Tafar, to see your master,” Lane announced, withdrawing his invitation from a coat pocket as he climbed the stairs. The guard snatched it from him and surveyed the seal. His mouth moved as he read. The sun beat down upon them as he puzzled out the words. Lane ground his teeth impatiently, steam swirling from his cheeks.
Finally, the watchman called, “He's true. Open for one!”
A voice answered, “Aye!” and chains began to clink as the man beyond the walls worked a crank. The great R split down the center and the gate parted on its track as its cables drew it back. The reading guard thrust Lane's missive into his chest, then turned sidewards to permit him entry. His spear thumped against granite in time with his comrade's, and both sentries watched the captain as he limped by, their eyes dark with contempt. Lane scoffed, tucking his note into his coat.
Before him, a cobbled walkway stretched across the lawn. Giant palms lined the path, reaching for the heavens. Lane could not trace their trunks skyward with his eyes, for the sun was blinding even as it set, but he heard the breeze rustle their fronds high overhead. Peacocks picked about through grass so green it made bright jade seem plain. Statues of lean and lusty lads dotted the yard, laughing, throwing disks, or frozen nude mid-stride. They looked so true to life, like real men turned to stone.
And on the captain trudged, alone.
At long last, as the decadence of his host's garden began to irk him, he came to another staircase. A serving man stood atop it, waiting before the manse's double doors to usher him inside. He ascended, willing himself not to clutch at his ribs, though pain shot through his burns with every step. Wordlessly, the servant held the door ajar. Knockers wrought of gold and shaped like shark-heads watched them as they crossed the threshold. The servant said nothing; the door thudded closed behind them.
Inside, granite floors were polished to perfection. Paintings hung on every wall. Curtains the color of seafoam billowed about the open windows. Smells of coffee, qandi, hash and seagrape wine swept over Lane like waves. He stood dizzily on the runner, drinking it all in, until the servant cleared his throat and started down the hall. The captain followed. Beads in his escort's braids clicked softly against each other as they made their way down halls as wide as cogs, and under archways near as tall as mizzen-masts. They climbed three spiral staircases and walked what felt like leagues before they came to a door engraved with images of human myth. On panels of carved mahogany, the Goddess Rei birthed the seas, and her brother Thergor set the world aflame. While he slept, Sylde crept up from the dirt to spread her trees unchecked throughout the lands of men. Lane's wounds were on fire. The servant rapped his knuckles on the Forest Goddess' fearsome visage and announced, “Your guest, master.”
An answer like a tiger's purr came from within. “Come in.” The door swung open, and the servant stepped aside. Lane shielded his face against harsh torchlight, which glittered off of every gilded surface. The room was radiant, from the feast laid out upon the table to the golden chair at its head—and the man upon it.
Captain Rotcrate sat like a king before a spread of fruits and meats and cheeses fit for no one less than royalty. Young men much like his statues, dark, lean, clean-shaven and nearly nude, attended him, filling his goblet, fawning. One of these sat beside him on a crimson pillow with a collar round his neck. Rotcrate grinned. His chest was bare, as polished as the plates from which he dined, and golden rings adorned his arms. Lane barely heard the door close behind him. Shabby in his faded cloak, old tunics and torn wrappings, he felt himself deflate. He removed his hat. Rotcrate laughed like a seahawk; he was the bait fish indeed. “My guest, you are thinner than I imagined. Ham?” The man jerked his chin toward a platter of wild pig shank, roasted and sliced, then drank deep of his wine.
“No.” Lane set his jaw, struggling greatly to conclude, “But thank you for your hospitality.”
“Suit yourself,” Rotcrate shrugged. “It is delicious.” On cue, one of the boys sliced a morsel from the shank, and fed him with a golden fork. His master slapped his ass by way of thanks, humming his amusement when the boy yelped. Lane looked away. “My guest is shy.”
“Your guest has business to address with you.”
Rotcrate's grin faded, but only enough to conceal his sand-white teeth. He laid his hand atop the collared boy's head, twining his fingers into oiled locks. “So address it and be quick. Grave things are dull. I prefer merriment.”
Only the ache beneath Lane's bandages kept him from leaping onto the table to strangle his host with one of the whore boys' loincloths. “It is difficult to be merry when the crabs are feasting upon half your crew.” He swallowed the bile bubbling in his throat.
“A toast to that.” Rotcrate raised his golden goblet before drinking deep again. A sigh of satisfaction left his lips before he prompted, “So why have you come, then? To invite me to their funerals?” When he smiled, the torches gleamed off his teeth.
Lane shut his eyes. He breathed in deep to steel himself against his anger, then drew the ledger of grievances prepared for this meeting from his coat. As he crossed the room, he pinched the brim of his hat so tightly that his fingers ached. The concubines stared. He passed his list to Rotcrate over the collared boy's head, then stepped back from the 'throne.' “Your people gave instructions to prepare this for your review. It was a fortnight ago you opened cannons upon the White Scarab fleet as they came to port, and sunk my ship in the crossfire.” The lorelei lifted his chin, watching as his host unfolded and perused his document. “Within are the estimated values of my losses.”
Rotcrate scanned the page, then met his guest's yellow gaze—and laughed. “If this is your claim, you are sailing for disappointment, shadowskin.” He waved the ledger back and forth, shaking his head.
As the owner of the Ruby Trade Company reread his figures, chuckling now and again, with his collared boy rubbing his feet, Lane stood in shock. He opened his mouth to rage, to clarify, to plead his case, but could not summon a reply for what seemed ages. When at last he found his voice, it took every bit of will within him to keep the fury from it. “You are a sailor yourself, and you know the worth of such things.” His shoulders shook. “Your reckless fire cost me my ship, my cargo and eleven of my men.”
A hum came in answer. Rotcrate squinted, as though seeing his guest for the first time. He took another swallow of wine, then gestured that his goblet should be refilled. As one of the boys uncorked another bottle, he eyed Lane up and down. “I am still trying to puzzle out just who you think you are. It is a bold man who comes to demand anything of me.” The whore-slave poured, and his master balled the ledger in his fist, then tossed it aside. “Particularly while I am basking in bounty, booze, and sweet fat bottoms.” He gave the pouring lad another swat, and a drop of wine spilled onto the table. “Clean that,” Rotcrate sighed, rolling his eyes. The boy bustled off to fetch a rag.
“I am no Scarab,” Lane almost sobbed.
“No,” the trade lord smiled. “You are no one. You are not on my list. You pay no tax to me. And therefore, you do not exist.” He pet the collared boy's head. “If you were taller, handsomer, and not so black, I might mistake you for a little whore of mine.” The pouring boy returned, mopped up the table, and presented Rotcrate his wine. “I am a charitable man,” the human purred into his chalice, “rescuing waifs and wharf-rats from their destitution. But I don't befoul myself with shadows.”
If I knock the wine from his hands, they will imprison me, Lane thought. If I stab him with a carving knife, they will have me hanged. His heartbeat thudded wretchedly against his ribs. Unarmed, alone. His burns seared down his torso. “I am Captain Lane Tafar. You summoned me here. To settle a debt.” Spindly fingers spread over his chest.
“Oh, a captain are you?” Black brows rose in feigned surprise. “I'm a captain too. But,” Rotcrate kicked the crumpled ledger away under the table. “You have no ship—a shame—so what are you a captain of? Idol-worship? Coveting? Your eyes are full of envy. Is it this wealth you want?” He gestured to the room around. “Is that why you cheat? To defy me? To be me?”
“I did not come here to lick your boots.” The lorelei clenched his fist so tightly that shadowsmoke streamed from his glove.
“Also a shame. They could use a proper shining.”
Lane sent the chair beside him clattering to the floor. The collared boy shrank from his fury like a dog. Rotcrate smirked. “You destroyed my ship! Under this island's laws, you must reimburse me!”
“'This island's laws,' which you hold in high regard, yes?” The trade lord leaned back in his chair. “I do remember you now, smuggler. The Copper Baron's Lane Tafar. Lane Tafar of faerie dust and fools. Lane Tafar who does not pay his dues, who turns his contractors to wraiths with mainland drugs, who bleeds those dry who cannot get enough.” He pursed his lips. “But how can I insure this Lane Tafar who spurns my offers of protection?” The world spun around Lane; his knees grew weak, and slowly, he sank to the floor like a ship with a hole in its hull. “Let me tell you something true, 'captain.'” The human savored a sip of his wine before concluding, “There is no law that gold cannot outweigh.”
“You are more treacherous than any of my kind,” Lane told him from the floor. “The barons will hear of this.” His voice quaked. “I will show them your corruption myself if I must.” Shadowsmoke billowed in earnest from the seams of his garb, from the slit in his shroud, from the wrists of his gloves and the ankles of his boots.
And Rotcrate laughed. “Look at you. You are an underdweller, a cretin—and a poor one, too. None of them will side with you.” Like a beast of prey preparing to pounce, he leaned forward on his throne and whispered, “I keep their hearts in my coffers.”
Captain Lane Tafar clung to the toppled chair, shaking, aching, ruined. “Why did you ask me here,” he breathed.
“To laugh at you mostly.” Rotcrate sat back in his chair, scratching his nose. “And to make sure you never forget who owns this island.” He nodded to his pouring boy, and gestured toward the door. “You may go.”