Mainland, Karpaven – Beggarman’s Warren, The Waterfront District
At the peak of midnight, while the waxen moon hovered above the streets of Karpaven, a two-horse carriage rolled out of the city’s labyrinthine alleyways and entered Beggarman’s Warren. It charted a straight course past centuries-old dockside warehouses with broken walls and crumbling roofs, then rolled on towards the pier at the farthest edge of the quiet district. The rattling wheels raised as much racket as the horses’ pounding hooves did, sounds loud enough to draw the attentions of the Warren’s ever-hungry denizens.
From his comfortable seat inside the carriage, Davek Averneus smiled. He knew his grand entrance would entice the beggars out of hiding. For who could resist the sight of something so luxurious in this cesspit? Light from the carriage’s four lanterns danced on its polished wooden body, revealing the heraldic silver falcons mounted on its sides. The ornamental carvings on the carriage’s doors were painted gold to match their gilt handles. Its black exterior made everything stand out, even the scarlet velvet cushions visible through the same window Davek was now using to gaze out into the streets.
He felt the weight of the beggars’ stares, could imagine the look on their feral faces as they lurked in the darkness of the decrepit buildings, dying to see where the carriage would stop.
The cobbled road gave way to the planks of the pier. The sound of the waves thrashing against the pier’s barnacle-encrusted stilts and the jangle of wheels on the uneven surface did little to lift the Warren’s eerie stillness. The coachman, visible through the front window, hunched until his shoulders were almost up to his ears. He snapped and cursed at his horses at every turn, and at every turn he would sweep his gaze around the quiet streets, one hand darting to the weapon strapped to his belt.
Davek rapped his knuckles on the roof of the carriage then. Given his cue, the coachman pulled the horses to a halt. The agitated beasts reared their heads as they stopped, blowing plumes of wet breaths into the night air.
Davek stepped out with catlike grace. Light shone on his finely tailored green coat, his brown hair pulled back in a braid and studded with a jewelled feather in the style of Karpaven’s aristocracy. Precious gems of various sizes glittered on his clothes as he positioned himself by the carriage door, deliberately letting the glow of the light fall on his jewels.
Somewhere in the shadows the beggars approached the carriage with renewed hunger.
It was impossible to see beyond the pool of light cast by the carriage’s lamps, but Davek swept his gaze over the district with the confidence of someone who could see in the dark, someone who knew exactly what he was doing. He cleared his throat, then slid the front of his coat aside to reveal a pair of flintlocks and a long, black scabbard.
The beggars stopped dead in their tracks. Davek heard their frustrated hisses.
“It ain’t safe out here, sir,” the coachman said, one hand curled around his flintlock.
“The beggars out here won’t try anything as long as you keep your weapons visible,” Davek said. “Trust me. They’re desperate, but far from stupid.”
The orange gleam from the lanterns exposed the deep crease between the coachman’s brows. But he nodded nonetheless. “If you say so, sir.”
Besides, the real danger were the enemies that had arrived at the Warren just then. Davek glanced over his shoulder. The path which led back to the alleyway was shrouded in darkness, but even from this great distance he saw the silhouette of several riders on horseback. If he concentrated hard enough he would hear those horses breathing, and the murmurs of the enemies that were sent to kill him.
“Wait here until I return,” he said to his driver, his mild, affable tone contradicted by the intensity of his green eyes. “Do not for whatever reason move from that spot until I say so, or our deal is off, savvy?”
The driver gave another hesitant nod. His horses danced and fidgeted in their traces, troubled by the very same instinct which kept Davek alert of things others would have missed.
The salty air was moist with the promise of rain and reeked of things that turned the stomach. More subtle and less offensive was the scent of tobacco smoke. Davek strode towards a decaying old shack at the edge of the abandoned pier. Within moments he spotted the company waiting there, nigh-invisible amongst the shadows and darkness.
“This is a bloody fine location for a rendezvous, Averneus,” a voice hailed him. “Too high and mighty to come to my office now, are you?”
Someone lit a lantern then. Light spilled over the planks and revealed half a dozen men. Five were garbed in leather armour and armed to the teeth, looking every bit like the bravos they were hired to be. Davek’s eyes were on the sixth man, the one among them who seemed incapable of killing anyone – a plump, older fellow with a lopsided moustache and a left arm which ended in a scarred stump at the elbow.
“Gapho.” Davek extended his hand towards the old man. “Glad you could come. Let’s make this quick, shall we? I’m like a sitting duck out here dressed like this.”
The cripple flicked his half-finished cigarette into the murky water and took Davek’s offered hand. Behind him, his hired bravos settled down and started their own conversation. Neither of them removed their grips from their weapons, or their eyes from the pier. Davek’s inhuman senses stretched over the district, first towards the beggars, who still lurked within the safety of their shadowed nooks, then to his pursuers, who had decided to move carefully towards the pier.
“The hell do I care? You’re the one who chose this god-forsaken spot.” Gapho eyed Davek from head to toe, then grunted. “So, found your long-lost rich uncle, did you now?”
Davek shrugged. “I wanted to look rich for a change. I was told this style is the latest in fashion. In fact, I have a dozen more of these beautiful green coats in the carriage.”
Gapho let out a coarse laugh. “Rich, says you? Rat food, says I. The beggars will tear you up if they get their hands on you.” He craned his neck past Davek’s shoulder towards the carriage and the restless coachman. “No guards, too. Hell, you’ve got balls. It’s either that or you’ve packed that skull of yours full of stupidity. I can’t tell which.”
“You won’t be saying that if you know what I have planned.”
Gapho made an irritated wave with what was left of his left hand. “Don’t. I don’t want to hear it. Now what’s this business you want to discuss?”
Davek grinned. “A war galley is coming here tomorrow, at high tide. It has a belly full of Merashian spices, several barrels of fine wine and oil from Valmir, and a pair of fine high-backed chairs taken from the Northern King’s court, or so I was told. 160 tons of cargo, in total. I thought you might be interested in making a purchase.”
“War galley, eh? Didn’t know you had an eye for ships, lad.”
“I don’t. The opportunity presented itself when I was in Phoenix Bay. But –” He shut his eyes and heaved a long, dramatic sigh. “The whole story will present itself in the taverns soon enough. A ballad perhaps, involving a very gullible, obtuse pirate and a clever, handsome thief.”
Gapho gave a low, appreciative whistle. “So the rumours are true then? Swiped the ship off Cap’n Diam’s hands, did you?”
Davek tapped his nose. To characterise his smile as devilish would be an understatement of monumental proportions. His green eyes glinted with a mischief and brilliance that could have raised a demon’s hackles. “Let the word spread and I’ll throw in a pair of brand new cannons with that ship.”
“God’s justice, you’re downright mad, Davek.” Gapho shook his head, torn between admiration and dread. “Diam has a proven reputation for exacting slow and painful vengeance on his foes. You of all the blighted landlubbers in this city should know that.”
“Why Gapho, I didn’t know you cared.”
“I don’t. But I don’t make my riches by losin’ my business partners to their careless misadventures either, you see? Won’t do me good to have me best bandit dead before his usefulness runs out.”
“Well, Diam hasn’t met his match until now.” Davek sniffed.
“Aye, but I can’t imagine how you did it. You.” Gapho gestured at him. “Alone. Diam has nearly two hundred crewmen with him, from what I heard.”
“Are you certain you wish to hear my story, or was that someone else just now who said, I don’t want to hear it!”
Gapho thought for a moment and shifted from foot to foot. He wrapped his fat, sausage-sized fingers over his stump, as though that gesture would shield it from what was coming. “I ain’t offerin’ you more than fifteen thousand sovereigns,” he said at last.
Davek shrugged. “Fifteen is plenty.”
The spark of greed resettled itself within Gapho’s eyes. He had the decency to feign disappointment. “What, no hagglin’?”
Davek had no time to haggle, not with those armed riders hounding him. He could taste their vile, murderous intention, smelled it like thick ashes in the air.
“I wasn’t stealing for the money.” Davek resisted the urge to look over his shoulder. “Whatever price you offer me will be sufficient.”
“Ah, of course. Rich man like you wouldn’t give a rat’s arse about making a dirty profit.” Gapho snapped his fingers and one of his lackeys handed him a pouch that jingled.
Davek made a face.
“Oh don’t give me that look, boy!” Gapho dangled the pouch in front of him. “You get a quarter of it now, and the rest when the ship arrives and everything is accounted for. I’ll deliver the gold to the counting house in the Artisan’s Quarters under your preferred name, as usual.”
“Ah, someone has a problem with trust, I see.” Davek snatched the pouch before the old man decided to taunt him with it.
“With you involved, who wouldn’t?” the old man let out a wheezing laugh. “I’d rather jump butt-naked into shark-infested waters, lad. Your reputation…”
“Is doing exactly what I intend it to do.” He slipped the pouch into his coat, brushed his knuckles against the sharp, flat steel strapped to his arm and waist to make certain that his hidden weapons were still in place. “It’s a pleasure seeing you, Gapho. Tomorrow. High tide. I’ll send someone to settle any loose ends, though I doubt there would be any. Otherwise, you know how to find me.”
To which the old man bowed and smiled, revealing a few missing teeth. “Pleasure doin’ business with you master Averneus.” Then he hesitated, snapped his fingers. “Wait. I almost forgot.” He reached deep into his coat pocket and retrieved a piece of wood carved in the shape of a stylised claw. “Here. Lady told me to give you this.” Gapho pressed the claw onto Davek’s hand.
A sudden, heavy weight settled over Davek’s shoulders. All thoughts of his pursuers and ravenous beggars faded in an instant, tucked away behind an even greater sense of irritation. No. It was more than simple irritation. It was a spark resentment and anger, born from having to answer to someone other than himself.
“Fulkarin’s deep abyss,” he hissed. “What does she want with me?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. Not my business to ask the Lady any questions.”
Davek’s eyes must have reflected the murderous thoughts that brewed in his head, for Gapho suddenly stiffened like a man with a blade pressed to his side.
“Did she say anything?” Davek tried to keep the anger from his voice, failed miserably.
“Last time I pried my nose into another man’s business…well.” The old cripple slid his eyes down to his stump. “I’m not about to make that same mistake twice, if you get my meaning.”
The prospect of meeting her made Davek queasy. The person of authority behind that symbol ruled with an iron grip. A person only the foolish and suicidal would dare to refuse. What galled him more was the fact that Davek knew he had no recourse, no lies or excuses he could call upon to escape this…invitation. Not if he wished to keep his head on his shoulders.
“Strip the ship apart, change her planks or whatever. Give her a new name,” he told Gapho. “Do everything you can to get Diam off your back, and mine. Once he catches wind that his precious war galley was last seen sailing towards Karpaven’s waters, he’ll come looking.”
“I don’t tell you how to do your job, boy. Don’t tell me how to do mine. Besides, I thought you want him to come after you, seein’ as how addicted to danger you are and all.”
Davek tossed the claw in the air, then caught it in one graceful sweep of his hand. “I’ll need all the time I can get, now that this claw has entered the scene. There’s no telling what the Lady wants from me this time.” Davek clapped the old man’s shoulder, which startled him, then headed towards the carriage again.
A beggar was waiting in the shadows near the carriage when Davek returned. He was not surprised. He could smell the vermin long before he came within the glow of the carriage’s lanterns. Light illuminated its matted hair and framed its scrawny, filth-stained person.
The coachman leapt to his feet, pistol pointed at the beggar. That sudden jolt of movement made the horses jerk their heads and dance. They nearly bolted when the coachman shouted, “Stop where you are!”
“Get the horses under control, driver. Don’t mind the vermin,” Davek called out. He strode up to the side of his carriage while his driver recovered the reins, his eyes pinned on the beggar. There were others nearby, waiting to see what would happen. Their desperation washed over him like the unwelcome blast of a toxic wind, made him wrinkle his nose. Was he not as despondent and hungry once, a long time ago?
“What do you want, street-rat?”
Desperation could overweigh even the greatest degree of caution. The beggar, a hunched, frail man who looked to be no older than him, took one step closer.
“Just the usual, milord,” he said. The glint of his black eyes watched Davek’s and the coachman’s every move. The foul concoction of unwashed human odor, alley slime and a medley of other things Davek did not have the stomach to name clung to this man like a second skin. “A nice, fancy villa right next to the Sachani River. Four wives, at least, and enough gold to leave me grinnin’ when I die.”
Davek managed what he assumed was a harmless smile. “Those are grand desires, for a man who has probably never seen more than a handful of silver in his entire lifetime.”
The beggar swallowed, and his gaze darted towards Davek’s weapons. “Then you wouldn’t mind sparin’ a few coins, milord? You seem to have plenty on you.”
The coachman cleared his throat. “Sir…”
Davek silenced the driver with a slight shake of his head. He looked past the shadows, swept his gaze from one beggar to another. They flinched as he met their wary eyes, but stood their ground. They won’t leave. Not until they get something from him – like those warm, green coats he had stashed in his coach. “I have a better idea,” Davek said and turned his sharp regard on the fidgety vermin. “How much do you really want my silver?”