Laced with cold froth, large waves bounced wildly off the rocky shore. Throughout the night, they loomed as sea-ghosts herded by the tempest that whipped over the Gotanian coast. Over the coastal city of Gob, the wet wind chimed with the angry curses of merchants whose ships happened to remain in the waters outside the sheltering harbor. It rained heavily, but that did not stop the patrons of the Lighthouse Inn from filling the city’s busiest tavern up to the rafters. The curvaceous figures of the waitresses wound their way among tables carrying mugs filled with wine and beer and plates heaped with salty seafood. Smoke blurred their vision, but they moved swiftly. Lit by many candles, their white teeth gleamed through the haze and their red lips shone like wild strawberries as they took care of the requests that flowed from half drunken mouths.
“What will we do now?” yelled one tubby man, a fat-necked ship-owner supporting his round head with his hands, ornate with jewelry. “It’s all your fault!”
“I did not send the storm, Tandula,” answered a slim sailor shaking his had in disbelief, his fair eyes squinting toward the merchant. “All patrons were aware of…”
“Shut up!” Shouted Tandula slamming his palms on the table. “Aware of what?”
“Aware of the fact that…”
“Shut up,” said the merchant. “You came long before the storm, I am aware of that. And what did you do then?
“You went around! All the way around and around instead of going straight into the harbor,” said the merchant pointing his short finger at the man, poking at him with every word.
“It was dark and…”
“Dark? What kind of navigator are you?”
“It was dark and I was looking at the wrong light sir,” the sailor’s voice now trembled.
“What other light?” the merchant asked.
“The one that…”
The sailor tried to defend himself once again, and once again his angry lord did not let him finish.
“Only one lighthouse has stood out there for half a century,” said Tandula and leaned back, his face all red with anger. He looked throughout the windows and into the dark where ships were anchored and exuded some sort of a snort mixed with waning yelp. “And who’s going to pay for the goods and ship and… “
“I am sorry sir,” said the sailor softly lowering his eyes.
“Get out of my sight,” the merchant said. “I am done. You are done. You’re fired!”
The sailor stood up but said nothing. He swallowed the resentment he felt, knowing how much influence this wealthy merchant could exercise along the coast. Then he turned without a word and strode out of the inn.
“You must be very tired,” came a deep familiar voice from behind the merchant. A squatty broad-shouldered, well-dressed man approached the table and sat unbidden beside him.
Tandula took short glimpse at him, nodded briefly and turned his had away. The man’s blue gown was ermine-trimmed at the wrists. Two silver buttons shone below his thick, dark, goat-like beard. The gilded leather purse that hung from his belt was a talisman of his and the ship-owner’s shared social standing.
“It’s not his fault, Tandula,” the newcomer said. His voice was calming.
Tandula took a deep breath.
“You own a ship, Demion,” said Tandula.
“I do,” the man said.
“Then, know damn well how I must feel,” said the merchant wiping his small eyes with his bulky fingers.
“Still. Not his fault Tandie.”
“Don’t try to persuade me to hire him back Dem.”
“We may need him. Besides, I have connections here I prefer to keep.”
“I don’t care about your connections here, Dem. Don’t do that.”
“That’s fine. I won’t. I had no intention to argue with you tonight.” Demion raised his hand and called a waitress. As he called her, he quickly eyed his friend again: “I only wanted to speak with you about the general plight of merchants these days, Tandu. There are things you and I need to talk about.”
The waitress came and patron Demion started ordering.
“A good Azmaranian coffee will clear my friend’s head,” he winked at Tandula then turned to the girl: “Make it strong and dark, and as black as your beautiful eyes!”
“Oh, thank you, Patron Demion,” the girl chuckled, her long eyelashes trembling. She hastened toward the kitchen, swinging her dark ponytail over her porcelain white neck.
Soon, with the smell of strong coffee under his rounded nose, and with the deep persuasive voice of Patron Demion quietly but firmly echoing in his ear, Tandula started to listen.
“Not long ago, a new light began to appear a league southwest of the lighthouse.”
“That was no mystery at all,” Tandula grinned. “I remember it well. It was a fishing boat with a lantern on its prow - so obvious.”
“Fishing boat with a lantern on its prow you say?”
“Of course,” said Tandula.
“Then, I have to ask you this: What fishing boat could carry a flame as bright as the one cast by the lighthouse?”
“I’m no expert Dem. And that’s why I hired that sea-dog,” said Tandula and took a sip of his coffee.
“Well, that sea-dog is an expert and even his expert eye was fooled by the strange light. Other ships, captains from all around the world were deceived too, and all of them missed the harbor. As you already appreciate, fixing the damage will be a costly business; not to mention transporting the cargo from those unfortunate knorrs.”
“Finally some facts from you Dem,” said Tandula leaning back into his chair. Just as he opened his mouth to say more, a dwarf who sat at the next table burst into raucous laughter. The dwarf’s companion, a fair-haired man, had just reached the punch line of a joke. Tandula puckered his brows and snarled into his goat beard: “Dirty hole-digger.” Then he leaned toward Demion: “Let me tell you what this mystery is all about. It is nothing but a dirty game to extract more money from people like you and me. Lets forget the whole mystery theory and just hire some good seafarer from Galda.” Tandula leaned back again, holding his belt. “At least, that’s what I’m going to do.”
“A seafarer from Galda is sitting right beside us, pal…” Demion said.
Tandula’s eyes went stiff in earnest.
“The table with the dwarf,” he said. He hunched toward his pal and then talked to him half whispering: “The whole business of the second light is getting worse. Last time, when the freights were being transported from a ship that ran aground, the caravan that was evacuating goods to city storage was attacked by pirates. The dogs anchored behind the shore and attacked us. The prefect’s guard held off the pirates, but the strange light continued to appear.
“I know that Dem. I remember…”
“Let me speak Tandu. Here is what you don’t know.”
Tandula nodded. Demion continued now even quieter. “One night my navigator, a few crewmen and I went closer in a boat. Beside the wreckage of an old galleon, a small shoal could be seen poking out of the quiet sea. All of a sudden, shark-like creatures appeared below the ship, five or six of them, moving around the shoal. Then one of the creatures came out carrying something in its jaws and instantly, a light broke through the surface of the water, brilliant and white. The sea creatures started to swim madly in all directions, diving and surfacing around the one who had cast the light. A crewman stood up to throw a harpoon at it, but something like a long tentacle flashed out from the deep and dragged the man into the water.”
Demion paused. Tandula winked and sniffed - a trace of an interest. “And,” he said. “What was it?”
“I don’t know. Whatever it was, we never went there again.”
“And you suggest sending these two over there to take care of something not even prefect’s guard can handle?” Tandula glanced at the broad shouldered man and the dwarf that were sitting at the nearby table, but he was not cynical any more.
“Yes, my dear partner,” Demion said. “I do suggest that we speak to the man from the coastal tribe of Galda and his fellow dwarf. I called them earlier but wanted you to be involved.”
“Nice. The hole-digger and the caveman,” Tandula quickly nodded towards the two fellows who. At the moment, the two friends were flirting with their waitress, making her burst into laughter. Dwarves are strong creatures with limbs thicker than humans, but this one had exceptionally muscled arms, which he proudly displayed wearing a sleeveless hauberk. At his belt hung a one-handed axe while a bigger two-handed one rested next to his sturdy sandaled feet.
“You’d better quiet down,” Demion said. “The dwarf and the privateer from Galda have already helped this city to get rid of a dangerous criminal. I thought it might be worth asking them to investigate the mysterious light.”