Authors: John; Norman
Late One Night, in a Tavern in Brundisium
And he spoke.
“I sailed on the great ship,” he said. “Yea, the ship of Tersites.”
“It was lost at sea,” said a man.
“It sailed over the edge of the world,” said another.
“Listen,” he said. “And I will tell you a story.”
“For paga,” laughed a Merchant.
“We have heard such stories,” said a fellow.
“You are a liar,” scoffed the taverner.
“A thousand ships come and go, in the great harbor of Brundisium,” said a fellow. “There are a thousand stories.”
“But not of the ship of Tersites,” he said.
“No,” said a fellow, “not of the ship of Tersites.”
“There is no such ship,” said a man. “Tersites was mad, fled from Port Kar.”
“I hear ‘banished’,” said another.
“The ship was never built,” said a man.
“It was built,” averred the fellow.
“No,” said a man.
“In the northern forests,” he said.
“Absurd,” laughed a man.
“And debouched onto Thassa from the Alexandra,” he said.
“Have you seen it?” asked a man.
“I berthed upon her,” he said.
“Liar,” said the taverner.
“What happened?” asked a man.
“That is my story,” said the man.
It was a small tavern,
The Sea Sleen
, only yards from the water, declining by a steep slope to the southern piers. It was late. Tharlarion-oil lamps hung on their slender chains, three to a lamp, adjusted variously, table to table, from the low, beamed ceiling. Most had been extinguished, as tables were vacated. The few lamps remaining alit put out little light, the wicks shortened to conserve fuel. There were no musicians. The dancing sand was empty. Given the nature and paucity of its custom,
The Sea Sleen
could afford to hire musicians only at the height of the season. It was now the second month in autumn, called in Brundisium the month of Lykourgos. The harbor was not now much trafficked. Mostly coasting. Until the arrival of the stranger, it had been muchly quiet. One might have heard the clink of a goblet now and then, the scraping of a wooden trencher on a low table, sometimes the crack of a kaissa piece being struck down on a board in an aggressive move. Outside, away from the portal, down the slope a bit, if one listened, one could hear the water lapping against the pilings, where the vast glory of looming Thassa, in the darkness, deigned to touch the small works of men.
The Sea Sleen
was not one of the higher, larger taverns in the great port of Brundisium, such as that of the Diamond Collar, the Joys of Turia, the Dina, the tavern of Chang, that of Hendow, or such. Her patronage was mostly that of ruffians, mariners between voyages, their coins now mostly spent, left in the higher taverns, drifters, wanderers, peddlers, exiles, some mercenaries, willing to unsheathe their blades for a bit of silver, or a fight. The stranger sat cross-legged at one of the small tables. Several were gathered about him. One could not see his face well in the half-darkness, but the reddish outline marked his place. Most of those about him were muchly in darkness. Some held cups of paga. The trenchers had been gathered in, and the kaissa boards had been folded and put away, the red and yellow pieces in two shallow drawers, fixed in the board, one on each side, one for each color. This is not an unusual arrangement in taverns. Commonly, however, kaissa boards are simple, straight boards, and the pieces are kept separately, in boxes or sacks. Members of the Caste of Players are recognized by their red-and-yellow-checked robes, the worn board slung over their shoulder, the sack of pieces at their waist. Depending on the Player, they will give you a game for as little as a tarsk-bit, as much as a golden tarn disk of Ar. It was said that Centius of Cos had once played in Brundisium.
“If you have a story to tell, for a drink,” said the taverner, “why not tell it toward the upper city, against the outer walls, in a landward tavern, say, the Diamond Collar?”
The stranger was silent. Then he said, “I want paga.”
“I will tell you,” said the taverner. “You were ejected elsewhere, thrown into the streets, and stumbled downward, bewildered, blindly, mad, knowing nothing else, stumbling from door to door, until you would reach the piers.”
“And then Thassa, dark, cold Thassa,” said a man.
“Paga,” said the stranger.
“Do you beg?” inquired the taverner.
“No,” said the stranger, and the taverner, alarmed, sensing danger, stepped a bit back, but recovered himself, almost immediately.
The stranger was a large, spare man, with roughened hands, perhaps hardened from the oar, or from hauling on lines. He was clad in little more than rags. He did have a dirty mariner’s cap. I did not think it unlikely he had indeed ventured upon Thassa. Those hands, I did not doubt, might close about a man’s throat, might break a man’s neck.
“I will pay,” said the man.
“You have coins?” inquired the taverner.
“No,” said the man.
“Extinguish the lamps,” said the taverner to his man, who stood behind him.
The other tables were empty now, as their occupants had left, or had gathered with us, about the stranger’s low table.
The only lamp remaining lit then, of the hanging lamps, was the one in which we could see the outline of the stranger’s face. A bowl lamp did glow at the serving table, near the kitchen gate, near the paga vat, near the goblets.
“I can pay,” said the stranger.
“With what?” inquired the taverner.
“I will tell you a story,” said the stranger. His eyes had a wild, feral look.
“We are closing,” said the taverner. Then, looking to his man, he gestured toward the stranger. “Eject him,” he said.
“Where will he go? What will he do?” asked a fellow, a Scribe from his robes, of shoddy, faded blue.
“Thassa,” said a man, I think a mercenary. “Dark, cold Thassa.”
“Perhaps,” said a man.
“No,” said the stranger. “No.”
“Come along, fellow,” said the taverner’s man. “There is garbage outside, in the sewer troughs.” He put his hand on the stranger’s arm.
“Do not touch me,” said the stranger, quietly, politely, rising unsteadily to his feet. His voice was courteous, almost gentlemanly. But the taverner’s man did not mistake the tone of that voice, and removed his hand from the stranger’s arm.
“It is time to go,” said the taverner’s man, gently.
“I will leave,” said the stranger.
“I would hear his story,” said a man.
“I will buy him paga,” said another.
“No,” said the stranger.
I had not realized how large he was until he stood.
“We are closing,” called the taverner, suddenly, loudly, impatiently, for two figures, cloaked, hooded, stood at the portal, now within. They had entered silently. None of us had noticed them, lest it was the stranger.
I think he had noticed.
“So,” said the stranger to the two newcomers. “You have found me.”
Neither of the newcomers spoke, for their kind is efficient. They do quietly, and swiftly, what they have come to do. In such situations speaking is unnecessary, and sometimes dangerous, as it costs time. A moment of indulgence, of clever vanity, can cost one one’s life. There are caste codes pertaining to such matters.
This was not a typical hunt, I gathered, in which the tunic is worn openly, the sign emblazoned publicly upon the brow, the prey helpless, cornered, as vulnerable as a vulo.
The cloaks parted and two crossbows, together, the quarrels set, were smoothly, swiftly raised.
At the same moment, the stranger bent down, seized up the small table, and flung it upward, and two quarrels splintered halfway through the wood. The stranger’s hands disappeared within his sleeves, and each hand emerged, a dagger in hand. The newcomers cast down the bows and, together, reached within their robes to unsheathe blades, the common
, but the cloaks, hitherto so convenient in concealing their caste, their intent, their weapons, cost them an unencumbered draw, and the stranger was at them, table flung aside, daggers like striking osts, moving twice, and the newcomers half fell, half stumbled, outside the tavern, into the darkness, the street outside, probably neither realizing for a moment that they had been killed.
“Did you see?” asked the taverner’s man. “They wore the dagger.”
“Yes,” said a fellow.
That had been obvious only when the hoods had been disarranged in the stranger’s attack. When hunting, it is common for members of the black caste, the Caste of Assassins, to paint a black dagger on their forehead.
We waited within the tavern, and, in a few Ehn, the stranger returned.
He jerked the quarrels from the small table and cast them to the side. He then righted the small table and resumed his place, sitting cross-legged, behind it.
“They were Assassins,” said the taverner, shuddering.
“What did you do with them?” asked a man.
“Thassa accepted them, as she would not accept me,” said the man.
“Bolt the door,” said the taverner, uneasily.
“Who are you,” asked a man, “that those of the black caste would come secretly, silently, upon you?”
The stranger was silent.
He replaced the two daggers in the sleeve sheaths of his tunic.
“What is your story?” asked a man.
“It has to do with the ship of Tersites,” he said.
The taverner turned to his man. “Bring bread, and meat, suls, and tur-pah, and fruit, for our guest.”
“And paga,” said the stranger.
“And paga!” said the taverner, admiringly.
We were patient, while the stranger fed, voraciously, as might have a starving sleen. When he had emptied his trencher twice, the taverner’s man set a goblet of paga before him.
“Is this how you serve paga?” inquired the stranger. He now seemed a different man, one ruddy with vigor and power.
The taverner gestured to his man, and the man hurried away, going behind the serving table, passing through the gate to the kitchen. Shortly thereafter, we heard the bright flash of bells.
The girl was quite beautiful, but that is not unusual in a tavern, even one of cheap, reduced custom, in such a district of the port, so near the waterfront, yards from the southern piers, such as
The Sea Sleen
. Musicians are expensive, but girls are cheap. In a paga tavern one may rely on the quality of the girls, more so, I fear, than on the quality of the food, or paga. They are, of course, taken from the block with the satisfaction of customers in mind.
She knelt, appropriately.
With the back of her right hand she rubbed her eyes, removing a residue of sleep. Clearly she was uneasy, and did not understand the meaning of her summons, this late, the tavern muchly empty, the group gathered about the small table, the stranger, in rags and mariner’s cap, before whom she knelt.
Under his gaze she widened her knees further.
She noticed the table.