Pearl City, it must be emphasized, was a port town. This is not the same as merely being a coastal village, most of which have locally caught seafood as the basis for their economy. For a port town, the backbone is locally caught seafood and everything else. Or more to the point, the premium prices you can charge when you're the one moving everything else to everywhere else and back.
The adjective of choice for describing the harbor district of a prosperous port town is "bustling," but this is true only the same sense that the bottom of the harbor itself is "a bit humid." That is to say, it typically goes way beyond bustling to a state that is not easily summed up in a single word. "Chaotic" won't do because successful commerce is actually highly organized, even if it looks otherwise to an outside observer. "Frantic" and its near cousin "frenetic" both imply a greater level of desperation than is typically the case with people going about their everyday business.
Eh, what the hell. The harbor district was bustling. Carts steadily rattled over the cobblestones, transporting goods to and from the docks. Merchants argued with town officials over tariffs, with their business partners over the apportioning of profit, with ship captains and insurers over losses, and with their unexpectedly turning up spouses over spending habits and their work schedules. Street vendors armed with megaphones and impenetrable jargon hawked everything from midday snacks and good-luck charms to semi-legal dice games and an evening's worth of companionship with an attractive member of the gender of the good customer's choice.
And that was the streets that were still a layer or two removed from the coast itself. Anywhere within sight of the great ships, the crowd was packed nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, all the way up to the wharfs. Strong-backed stevedores loaded and unloaded crates and barrels, their motion so constant and rhythm so consistent that it could put someone to sleep if it weren't so brain-meltingly noisy around the place.
Moving at a crawl's pace through the throng, the party watched an incoming ship tie off, its crew whoop with triumph and disembark to spend their meager pocket change. They would get paid for the voyage once the cargo had been properly valued and sold. Meanwhile, the ship's clerk approached the crowd, holding up four fingers, a silver piece pinched between two of them. The tumult increased tenfold as every idle dockworker within view clamored to be hired. The clerk selected four brawny people apparently at random and led them back to the vessel. A town functionary with a ledger sidled up and began asking the clerk questions and assessing the according fees.
"Looks good to me," said Kendram. "Shall we go ask if they accept passengers?"
"Not that one," said Yarwon. "It only just got in; it will be a day or two at least before it sails again. We need to leave today. Every day we stay in town is another chance for that guy to come after us."
"Not to mention," Wendes put in, "we don't even know if it's going to the warm seas. There must be a city office around here somewhere, with records and timetables. They'll know who takes passengers and is heading that way today."
"I'm on it!" said Cinadel. He dipped his hand into his sleeve and produced a feather, which he twirled in his fingers. An instant later, he was flying over the teeming street, looking for a likely person to ask about the location of the office in question.
"Oh, that's not conspicuous or anything," said Wendes, although the noise of the surprised crowd completely drowned him out. "Why did I teach him that spell?"
But disruptive or not, it had the desired effect—Cinadel soon spotted another of the ledger-wielding officials and swooped down to ask directions. The woman was barely fazed. It wasn't quite an everyday occurrence to have a spellcaster simply fly over the mass of people, but it was nothing she hadn't seen before. And his question was pure routine—she gave a canned answer and went back to her business, barely looking at him.
It took a while for the party to shoulder their way through the flood of people, but by and by, they made it to the deceptively small front that proclaimed itself the entrance to the Pearl City Central Shipping Office. Deceptive, because although the front itself was narrow, the office owned the entirety of the building and rented out a shallow, subdivided strip of it to either side of the lobby to such small businesses as could afford their sky-high rates.
The rest of the space, the footprint of the Central Shipping Office itself, was mostly to store the paperwork. It went back over two hundred years.
The clerks in the place didn't look outstandingly busy—they were bent over their files rather than rushing around—but it was still several minutes before anyone acknowledged the group, and that only came about because Wendes loudly cleared his throat a few times. Even then, the clerk in question acted like their simple questions constituted a nigh-unthinkable interruption of his day. Through cajolery, persistence, and Faldinn shoving the guy up against a bookcase hard enough to knock a few file folders to the floor, they learned the following:
1. The clerk's superficial pain receptors worked just fine.
2. Captain Pisna was due to set sail for the warm seas trade route that very evening, and he accepted passengers.
3. The clerk worshiped the Father of Civilization and had a near-pathological fear of barbarian warriors.
4. He wasn't crazy about snakes either. Ravens and lynxes were okay.
5. The other clerks were not the type to get involved.
6. Captain Pisna's ship, the Golden Horizon, was docked at Berth 14.
"Good enough for me!" said Wendes.
"Thank you!" Kendram chirped, tossing off a faux-salute as they trooped out of the office.
Now they just had to push their way through the crowd in order to get to Berth 14 before sunset.
The Golden Horizon was a large ship. It was not golden, though some of its trim was. Its timbers were stained a warm red-brown and showed no sign whatsoever of cracking or splitting. Its sails were nearly spotless off-white, every tear well mended and patched with seams straight enough for a king's robes. The figurehead, a triton depicted blowing his conch shell, boasted fresh paint. The crew of the magnificent vessel was hard at work making final preparations for launch.
Therefore, the party members were instantly suspicious. It's an adventurer thing.
It's like this: The enigmatic gods behind all happenings in the universe—hereinafter the Deities of Mystery, or DM for short—love to build up adventurers' expectations and then pull the rug out from under them. So the better things seem to be going for them, the worse they expect them to get all of a sudden.
There being a cargo ship heading exactly where they needed to go, exactly on the day that they were looking...that was the sort of thing that had them expecting the actual boat to be a pitiful, stained, leaky hodgepodge barely staying afloat. But the Golden Horizon was in perfect shape. Ship-shape, even. (And now you know where that expression comes from.) By the Law of Balance, that meant there had to be a doozy of a downside to booking passage with Captain Pisna.
Superstition? Maybe. But you know what else is superstition? Triskaidekaphobia. That's a fairly common one, but it can't actually change the ordinality of numbers.
"Are we sure this is the right berth?" said Yarwon. "This looks too good to be true."
"Berth 14, there's the sign," said Wendes. "Where's the captain?"
"That guy's dressed like a ship captain," said Kendram, pointing across the street to a fellow in conversation with a woman who may or may not have been plying the world's oldest trade. He was indeed wearing the standard-issue maroon velvet coat trimmed in gold braid and broad-brimmed hat adorned with feathers. One feather was particularly eye-catching; not only did it shimmer with green and purple iridescence where it caught the afternoon sun, but it forked toward the end.
"Should we go ask him now or should we wait?" said Yarwon. "I'd hate for the lady to lose a sale."
Wendes rolled his eyes and began heading toward the man. "Pardon me!" he called. "Are you Captain Pisna?"
The gentleman turned. "I am."
"My compatriots and I wish to take passage on your ship. We have...business in the area of the warm seas."
"Ah. Business," said Captain Pisna. He addressed the woman. "I apologize, my dear, but business must come before pleasure. Alas." She shrugged and strolled off, presumably in search of Mr. Right, or at least Mr. Right-This-Minute. The captain turned back to Wendes.
"So then. How many are you?"
"Five," said Wendes. The others were approaching.
"Are any of you sailors?"
"No...but most of us are spellcasters."
"I can speak to the spirits of wind and water and maintain favorable conditions for the ship," said Yarwon.
"And I can pep up your crew and keep them working at their best," said Kendram.
Pisna definitely looked interested. "Talents like that could shave some time off the trip..."
"Our point exactly," said Wendes.
"Any good combat spells? We get pirates on this route."
By way of reply, Wendes flung his hand skyward and cast a fireball nearly straight up. It exploded over the harbor. Someone apparently mistook it for a fireworks display and dutifully responded: "Oooooooooh!"
Pisna blinked. "Well. I can't argue with that. I don't have any extra hammocks, so you'll have to make your own sleeping arrangements in the hold. If that doesn't bother you, welcome aboard! Ship's over there. I'll be back in time to cast off."
"Does he seem a little...casual, for a ship captain?" said Wendes.
"Maybe that's a good thing," said Kendram. "Law of Balance, remember? If he were really on the ball, it would just be one more reason for things to fall apart on us later."
"Whatever," said Yarwon. "Let's go meet the crew. We're going to be with them for a while."
"Having said that, I actually need a break," Norway opined.
"I have been throwing a lot at you," Åland agreed. "Shall we take...let's say twenty?"
The idea was met with general approval. Like factory workers at the sound of a lunch bell, they pushed their character sheets aside in near unison, cracked new beers, and got up from the table to stretch their legs, hit the bathroom, and other traditional game-break activities.
Finland, feeling his moment of glory for the session had already passed, and therefore not caring much if he was a little late getting back, headed out to the front porch for some air.
The evening was chilly, and the streetlights hadn't come on yet. As Finland opened the door, something big rustled in Sweden's garden hedges. Operating on instinct so deeply ingrained that it was practically reflex, he drew his knife and brandished it at the source of the sound. In the next instant, a human figure burst out of the bushes and fled away from the house.
Something—some instinctive caution—prevented Finland from giving chase. No features were visible in the poor light, but the silhouette showed that the culprit either had a really strangely shaped head...or was wearing a tall fur hat.
Finland staggered back a few steps, trading his knife for his bottle of homemade hooch. He took a big pull, preferring the searing fire of the liquor over the leaden lumps of his one real phobia. The sensation of his stomach lining dissolving gave him something else to think about for a moment or two—long enough for that first spike of wrenching panic to subside.
Fact #1: Russia had been spying on the game again.
Fact #2: "Spying" might be too strong a word, given that the curtains were drawn. (Glancing at them himself, Finland could see some shadowy movement inside the house, but zero details.) So there was that.
Fact #3: The current session had not included any incriminating content. No direct mentions of "Susari," etc.
Conclusion: They probably weren't immediately doomed.
Finland wondered if he should tell the others anyway. Either they wouldn't take him seriously, in which case he might as well not bother...or they would, in which case they would suddenly start asking him questions and otherwise getting in his face. That, to his way of thinking, was worse. He would almost prefer to face Russia.
Okay, not really.
In any case, he decided it wasn't worth letting them know Russia had been snooping around again. But he didn't feel secure out on the porch, so he went back inside to wait out the rest of the break in Sister Sweden's bedroom. She wasn't home—she and the other Scandinavian Sisters were having a girls' night out—but that didn't affect his walk-in privileges.
(Given that he had such privileges, you'd think he'd smile more.)
By nightfall, the party was at sea. But fortunately only in the literal sense. They were already settling into their specialized assistant roles—especially Yarwon, whose summoning spells provided the good stout wind that was currently giving the Golden Horizon an early start on its voyage. The torches of Pearl City were rapidly fading into the distance.
Wendes too was already proving his usefulness by enchanting the lantern in Captain Pisna's quarters with a continual flame spell so that it would glow forever without oil. For the time being, he was borrowing it for his own use, studying his spellbook below decks, but he had promised to do the same to every lantern on the ship over the next several days.
Kendram had not yet had his moment to shine. It had suddenly occurred to him that the sea air would wreak havoc on the body and strings of his lute. After a brief scramble to find something to protect his precious instrument, one of the sailors pointed him at the pot of wax they used for sealing barrels, and he found an out-of-the way corner and began methodically rubbing pinches of it into the wood.
Faldinn turned in early for the night, spreading his bedroll in a corner of the hold. He had been oddly quiet since casting off. There was nothing remotely odd, in itself, about him being quiet, but whereas his silence was ordinarily simply the result of him not talking, in this case he was positively projecting an unignorable silence. It was a relief to everyone when he hit the sack, because he was sort of creeping them out.
Cinadel, so far, was treading the fine line between "eager assistant" and "total nuisance." His elven nimbleness would have been a great help to the crew had he had the foggiest idea what he was doing. He dutifully learned how to tie complex knots and then tied them in the wrong places, that sort of thing. But he won back some respect about two hours into the trip, when one sailor slipped in the rigging and wound up dangling by one foot, and it was Cinadel, leaping like the forest-born creature that he was, who reached her first and reeled her back to a secure position.
In short, things were off to a promising start.
They could practically hear the Deities of Mystery cackling behind the scenes...
To Be Continued...