Chapter 8: Ill Winds and Omens
Chief Warrant Officer Egan stood at the base of the Lion’s Maw, on the Imperial docks alongside his men. The torch fires had been lit and the merchant-vessels had been moored farther up the coast for their own protection. Egan looked up at the gaping stone jaws of the lion’s mouth high overhead. Its countenance had been chiseled into the face of the stone cliff by craftsmen working for nearly a hundred years, and it had withstood countless decades of weathering and war. Its snout protruded out, high over the docks. The grand staircase set back a thousand feet from where Egan stood, led into its roaring muzzle and served as the only western entrance into the walled city that sat on the bluffs high above him.
He gazed at the craftsmanship of the stone masonry. The kingdom fails wherever I look, but still, old friend, you remain. Perhaps even past the days of the last king, you will be a testament to what was.
The white stone lion’s head spanned the entire cliffside and crested the top of Gilead’s high wall. Its massive paws were carved from the natural rocks of the harbor and spread out, like a sphinx, nearly 1,500 feet into the bay. Countless wooden piers were bound on either side of them, allowing ships of all sizes to dock. In happier times, merchants had moored their vessels between its two great paws and made their way up the great white stairway. The broad steps, now crumbling, still maintained their sheen when the sun set across their surfaces. The long journey up the staircase was eased by three lengthy terraces, 50 yards wide, the overhangs supported by great alabaster pillars. Each terrace was set higher than the last and was cemented deep within the lion’s jaws and secured in the bedrock. Storefronts, carts, and kiosks lined these landings, but, since the darkness, the structures had all become empty shells of their former glory.
He looked over his troop of royal guards standing ready on the sand to take his orders. Last in line stood his First Officer Salain. The old man had seen more battles than any other soldier in the army of Gilead and his words were respected, though he seldom said what he thought. His most distinguishing mark was a scar across his left eye, something he knew the old officer used to intimidate new recruits.
“See this, you sops!” he’d say as he pointed to his face. “This is what happens to you when you step out of line, neglect your duties, or just piss me off!” Salain would run his blade near the necks of those fresh faces on their first day, and every one of them would quiver in his boots.
Egan held back his smile. He knew his sergeant had gotten the wound from a triste with a scorned lover, but Salain’s story kept the new recruits in line. Egan stood before Salain and saluted. Salain returned the gesture.
“Every fighting man accounted for Chief, awaiting your command,” the old warrior said.
“Good. Have the scouts spotted any approach farther down the coast?” Egan glanced towards the pinpricks of light far past the dark waves.
“None, other than their black envoy. It floats at a distance of roughly half a mile offshore. I’m concerned some of their agents may have snuck into the city by way of Northport. My privateer says otherwise, however.”
Egan raised an eyebrow. “Since when do you hire privateers, Salain? I thought you hated their kind.”
Salain followed his captain’s gaze towards the far docks that rested between the outer edges of the lion’s stone legs, an unkempt sailor in muddied garb made his way to them from the shadows. “Nothing’s changed.”
The torchlight accentuated the young man’s dark eyes and slight scowl. Egan guessed he couldn’t be much older than himself. He raised his hand to the young man.
“Greetings, you must be Salain’s man,” Egan said and smiled.
The man glanced at Egan’s outstretched hand, but didn’t take it. “I’m nobody’s man. My name’s Absalom.” He turned to Salain. “Here’s your report.” He pulled a folded parchment from his pocket and offered it to Salain.
Salain grabbed it from his hands. “Fool! You address the Chief Warrant Officer, the king’s right hand! Show some respect!”
Absalom glanced back at Egan. “Of course, my apologies,” his brow lifted slightly.
Egan lowered his hand. No love lost on this one.
Salain unfolded the parchment and scanned it quickly. “The Northport authorities make no mention of the northern pass. Why?” he asked Absalom.
Absalom sighed. “You hired me to bring you reconnaissance of the sea, not inland. I never asked them. Now about the money . . . .”
“I told you to get comprehensive scouting reports. This is incomplete,” Salain growled at him.
Absalom folded his arms, “Well then, we’re at an impasse. I anchored my ship in a soup of fog, three nights ago in that province’s dreary little harbor. The royal guard has seen little of the enemy from what they can see at all. Some of their men have gone missing . . . “ Absalom eyed Egan, “but I’m sure they’re busy watching the pubs, as is the custom with the uniform.” He looked back to Salain. “Now pay me.”
Salain raised his hand to strike him. “Mouthy little cur!”
Egan grabbed Salain’s hand. “Enough! Pay him. It’s clear he’s done his duty.”
Salain grimaced and tore open a pouch at his side. He pulled five gold coins from it and slammed it down into Absalom’s open hand.
“Be off with you! Run to your floating derelict and let the leviathan have you!” Salain snapped.
Absalom eyed Egan again, his sneer melting, “Well then, thank you.” Absalom turned away and hurried up the great stair.
“My apologies, Chief. It was a mistake to hire that impudent halfwit,” Salain said.
Egan patted him on the back. “We must use the tools available to us.”
“Aye.” Salain nodded towards the ship lights in the distance. “How should we proceed?”
“I would that we’d ready our ships to meet them in battle, but the king has ordered otherwise,” Egan studied the distant lights on the water for a moment. “An embassy ship is being made ready. The vizier is accompanying a gift of grain and foodstuffs to their vessels. He goes to negotiate with them. He’s asked for a small detachment of guards to accompany him.”
“Of course, Chief.” Salain nodded curtly and bit his lip.
“Your eyes betray you Salain. Speak your mind,” Egan said.
“Well, sir,” Salain started but was interrupted by the bumbling call of the vizier as he stumbled down the last few steps of the grand staircase behind them, adjusting his frayed curly locks behind his ear and angling his chin up to regain his self-important composure.
“He fears the Amorite response, yes?” the vizier straightened his silk robe around his protruding belly and smiled, “and who could blame him? No, any common man would look at their mighty vessels and be concerned. But fear not. Sharper minds than yours know how to soothe angry men and turn them into friends.”
Egan nodded towards the impish little man. He never liked the corpulent bootlicker. He lacked any real backbone and his loyalties shifted with the wind. Egan wondered how much of Gilead had been sold off because of this ‘great sage’s’ counsel.
The Vizier clapped his hands and nearby peasants pulled two large carts of grain and fruit from the southern beachhead out to the farthest dock and loaded them onto a ship.
“How many of our own people would that feed, I wonder?” Egan asked as he watched them work.
The Vizier laughed, “My boy, this stock comes from the king’s personal cupboards. We must all shoulder the burden of being a reputable host. I guarantee that in three hours’ time our friends will depart from our shores, and I’ll have renewed our accord with them.”
“Friends don’t mob your doorstep in the night,” Salain murmured.
Iskan smirked at Salain and turned to Egan. “You should train your foot soldiers better, lad. They speak out of turn in front of their superiors.”
Egan saw the retort was like a slap across Salain’s face.
“Apologies, Vizier.” Salain’s lips barely twitched.
Egan leaned forward to within an inch of the counselor’s face. “As far as I’m concerned Salain has no superior here. Now get on your ship.”
The vizier swallowed and backed up. “We shall have a discussion with his majesty about rank and respect when I return. Select my retinue and let’s delay no longer!” he brushed past them and boarded the vessel.
“Send me, Chief Warrant Officer,” Salain said.
“Why in the Maker’s name would you want to protect that snake?” Egan asked him.
“Few men have seen the Amorite legion up close and lived, fewer still have presided over negotiations with them. I can be your ears in their presence.” Salain nodded at the advisor who was busy making himself comfortable near the helm of the vessel. “And in his.”
“I would hate to see you lose your life protecting his,” Egan replied.
“Who said anything about protecting him?” Salain smiled. “I’ll use him as a shield if it comes to that.”
They laughed and Salain laid his hand on Egan’s arm. “I’ve seen you grow into a fine young man, Egan, one your father would be proud of. Give me the honor of serving you as I did him.”
Egan nodded reluctantly. “Take care, friend, and be vigilant.”
“Always.” Salain nodded and saluted him before turning towards the ship to board. The vessel soon undocked, lowered its sail, and made for the open sea. Egan watched its outline diminish into the night and wondered if those lights on the water would bring back hope or Hell.