Here she was, hiding in the shadows, yet again.
She didn’t have tunnels this time to protect her, nor did she have spy holes to listen and watch with. And so, Shadow was crouched in the bushes after twilight, watching the soldiers teeming above board the ships, as well as those cascading down onto the gangplank. And all of them common-clothed.
Larcy was right. Shadow couldn’t take passage to the Coastals from Port Stanton.
Shadow had finally arrived in Port Stanton late last night and slept in a wagon. She had never smelled the ocean before – salty a little, but fresh, with the waves crashing every few seconds upon the shore…. She could grow very accustomed to that. A small cabin on the ocean somewhere in the Coastals….
Shadow woke to the sound of birds crying overhead. Gulls, and wind in her face. She heard the roaring of the ocean in the distance and could not suppress a spark of excitement.
Shadow wasn’t really sure how to procure passage on a ship, so she’d walked about the streets a bit, letting the wind blow her hair around her face. Her dress finally stopped flapping about her when she stepped into the tavern closest to the docks. The Laughing Pelican. Bells tingled above the door as it closed.
“We’re not open for business yet,” called a woman. A tan-faced woman with her hair pinned up hauled a basket of linens before her. She eyed Shadow from head to toe.
“What you need, lass?”
Shadow thought of a lot of answers to that question but asked, “I was just wanting to know – how to book passage on one of the ships in the harbor. I want to go to – S’hendalow.” Shadow didn’t want to be too specific in case someone asked.
The innkeeper studied Shadow’s face and nodded a little. “Well, I hate to tell you this, lass, but there’s no passage on ships headed out of Port Stanton. Not no more, anyways. ’Less you want out for the day on a fishing berth.”
Shadow’s face fell. “But – why not?”
“Lass, why are you so keen on takin’ a ship to the Coastals when you could walk? Easier – cheaper, to walk.”
Shadow glanced away.
“All right, all right. You got your own business, I don’t pry. But I’ll tell you this, my young friend, Port Stanton is closed for pleasure travels. They don’t say it like that, but we towners know it.”
“What about the next port? How far away is it?” asked Shadow. Maybe she would just follow the water line to the next port, then.
“Hey, Larcy – who’s that you’re talkin’ to?”
Larcy glanced over her shoulder quickly, then pulled Shadow over to the bar. She motioned Shadow to kneel down.
“No one, just someone headed out the door. You know I talk to myself,” Larcy called. “I’m headed back upstairs with these fresh linens, right? You’ll have the pub.”
“Yes, yes, go on, then, woman.”
Larcy waited for a minute, then beckoned Shadow to follow her silently. “Come on, then,” she whispered as she directed her up the tavern stairs.
“Inside here, this is my own room –” and she opened the door of a well-kept, cozy room. Shadow snuck in. “What’s your name, lass?”
“Mitzie,” Shadow said. She was amazed at how quickly the lies came now.
Larcy’s gray eyes narrowed just slightly, but she said, “Well, Mitzie, my name is Larcy. I been the innkeeper here with my cousin here nearly my whole life and before that, our parents. And we’ve seen a lotta strange stuff, but what’s goin’ on now beats all. And Mitzie, you need to hear me when I tell you, you don’t want to be here tonight.”
Shadow’s eyes grew round. “What? Why not?”
Larcy sighed. “Where you comin’ from, that you don’t know this?”
Shadow glanced away again.
“Mm-hm. That’s what I thought. Well, whatever you’re runnin’ from, you’re runnin’ the wrong way, lass. This here is what we’ve been calling Port Soldier lately. Just amongst our own personal selves, those we trust, that is. We got soldiers from somewhere West comin’ here to Port Stanton and goin’ –” Larcy shrugged and shook her head. “We don’t know where. But they’re not dressed in uniform, and every week, a new ship drops off more of them. And they stay here, and you know, we appreciate the coin, sure, but – something about them stinks worse than bad fish on a beach.
“And my young friend, they should be docking about two hours from now. Which means that you – you cannot be down there, nor anywhere on these streets. Not ’specially near those docks.
“There’s two things soldiers want when they get onto land from a long voyage. Regular food is number two.” Larcy looked Shadow up and down and gave her a sour expression. “Hate to tell it to you so.”
Shadow rolled her eyes, disgusted. This was horrible – all of it, horrible. She’d spent nearly three weeks traveling, her shoes had holes in them, she was exhausted, only to finally get to Port Stanton and find it overrun with soldiers who, if they saw her, would –
She glared at Larcy.
“I’m so sorry, lass. They’ll be here for two days before they move on. You cannot be seen, you understand that?”
Shadow heaved an enormous sigh. She had hoped to be aboard a ship this afternoon. “How far is the next port from here?” she asked tiredly.
Larcy told her, “Ferrisport? I’d avoid it like the plague if I was you.”
Then she stood back and looked Shadow up and down, really studied her. “How long you been walkin’?”
Shadow eyed her. She really wanted to tell this woman, for she seemed kind and concerned, but even the nicest of people would believe the worst of rumors and turn you in for a coin or two.
“Well, I don’t know for sure, and I can see you’ll not tell me. But those shoes aren’t goin’ anywhere much longer. I know where I can get you a pair from someone who owes me a favor. And that dress needs serious washin’. As, little lass, do you, and I don’t mean that roughly.
“My Karly, she lived here with me once, she left this frock behind,” – she gestured to a calico dress left in a small closet – “but she’s had her babies now, and she’ll never fit into this frock again. You wear this and I’ll launder your dress that you’re wearin’.
“Now. That’s a tub of clean water that I was planning on usin’ myself, but – seein’ as how you need it far more than me – you help yourself and I’ll get more water later. Here now, here’s a clean shift.
“And you – you stay up here. You stay up here for today, and definitely do not come down tonight, whatever you do – these men, they ain’t nice men, Mitzie. Now. That bed – you get some sleep. And there’s water there on the bedside table, you drink all of it you need. I’ll bring up somethin’ to eat later. Just pretend like you’re not up here. I’ll be back around,” said Larcy.
Shadow’s mind was spinning – it’d been so long since someone had been randomly kind to her that she was speechless. But soldiers moving north – she wished she could send a bird somehow to King Reaghann. If the people here didn’t like these men, and thought there was something wrong about it all, and the port was completely closed down, King Reaghann should know. He would do something about it.
And then Shadow stepped into the tub of water. She pulled her knees up to her chin and watched the dirt float away from her skin. She was by no means as dirty as Prince Rilstrom had been, but she certainly felt it. Ah… to be clean again….
And to sleep on a bed…again…