Tarbalainn was larger and more crowded than it had looked from high up on the rocks. Lee-Lack had found a hostelry at the outskirts of the town that seemed more or less clean. The signboard was a rudder suspended on rusty chains from a beam jutting out from the front of the inn. Judging by its worn appearance it had once been part of an actual ship. That, or hanging outside the establishment for some fifty years had produced the weather-beaten look.
The landlord of the Drifting Rudder assured Lee-Lack his horse would be safe. He offered the same service in that regard as the Stone.
In Lee-Lack’s room upstairs was a sturdy wooden box with a padlock. Erwick, one of the innkeeper’s sons, explained that, in combination with the lock on the door, it was enough protection to keep clothes and other less expensive possessions relatively safe. However, he advised Lee-Lack to keep his purse and valuable objects on his person at all times, preferably in a non-obvious, concealed place.
“After all, Tarbalainn is a harbor and pirate ships often dock here,” Erwick added.
For a moment Lee-Lack was tempted to outright ask the young man which he should be more wary of, pirates or robbers. Instead, he thanked him and gave him a few sarths.
“Look after my things and there’s a moltar in it for you when I take my leave,” he promised the young man.
“A whole silver piece?”
“Nobody any the wiser?”
“Of course not. A discreet token of my appreciation for your services. Let’s keep this just between you and me.” Lee-Lack winked.
“You can count on me, Sir.” Erwick smiled.
Lee-Lack considered asking the young man where he might find his erstwhile companions, but he was at a loss as to how to call them. Robbers without employ? Pirates on land? And even if he could describe them in a way that would make sense to the innkeeper’s son, would Erwick know? No, all things considered, Lee-Lack decided to spend his first day in the little haven visiting all taverns, inns and ale houses, using his eyes and ears and keeping his mouth shut most of the time.
Lee-Lack started his exploration of Tarbalainn by taking a walk along the quays. He noticed several waterholes he intended to visit later.
Four flat-bottomed cogs were moored on the southern part of the bay, where the houses had made way for what seemed warehouses. A larger caravel lay at some distance from the other vessels, farther down the quay, right across from the town. Although the ship partially blocked them, more warehouses were clearly visible on the landside. The isolated position of the solitary ship and buildings, and the fact they had all been painted black, gave them an air of forbidding aloofness. Since there was nothing else there — no taverns or shops — whoever ventured out that far on the quays needed to have business with the caravel. Almost certainly it had several watchmen who would be on the lookout for people who had no conceivable reason for being there or who showed an unhealthy interest in the vessel. A very clever arrangement, Lee-Lack thought.
The cogs bobbed gently up and down, but the caravel lay rather deep and almost motionless in the calmly rippling water. It added to the ominous air that hung around its mooring place. Lee-Lack deduced the large ship was laden with merchandise, traded or looted.
He decided, for the time being, to keep his distance from mooring places and turned around.
“We can always use strong young men aboard the Cormorant,” a man going in the direction of the ships called out. “I see you carry a sword. If it’s for more than decoration or to impress the lasses—”
“Try me,” Lee-Lack said, drawing his weapon. He had always accepted each and every challenge promptly. It was how he had managed to stay on top.
Judging by his clothing the man who had addressed the robber was an officer, if not the captain, of the caravel. He sported a well-kept short blond beard and a matching mustache. Lee-Lack had to suppress a grin. The facial hair was clearly meant to make the wearer look older than he was.
The man took a step backward but he didn’t seem too worried, let alone afraid.
“Not now, not here, my impetuous friend,” he said. “But I like what I see. You suffer no nonsense and you’re a quick draw. I am Anndry Torchas and I am the quartermaster of the Cormorant.” He pointed out the caravel. “She’s a merchant vessel, and you can readily see how we would need hardy young men who know how to use a sword. We trade along the coast, all the way south to the farthest reaches of Ximerion, as far as Arxmouth and sometimes even farther. Well, we used to anyway, but it seems some unpleasantness is brewing. Even so, we can’t avoid the Ronicerian Isles and the waters there are infested with pirates.”
“Seems a dangerous occupation,” ~Lee-lack said, his eyes never leaving Torchas.
“Aye, dangerous but rewarding,” Anndry said with a charming smile and a twinkle in his eye.
“I have other plans, no offense meant.”
“And none taken,” the quartermaster replied gracefully. “If you change your mind go to the Black Duck and ask for Master Noull Finkey. He’s our first mate.” Flashing his charming smile, he bowed. “And now, please, if you would excuse me. I’m afraid duty calls.”
Before Lee-Lack could reply, Anndry Torchas had turned around and, taking brisk steps, walked away.
Lee-Lack wandered around town.
It was early afternoon and most taverns had several patrons already. Some sat in small groups, drinking from a shared jar of weak beer or watered-down wine. Others were there to eat.
After having visited a few inns and having listened in to several parts of conversations he began to get a fair idea about Tarbalainn and its ever changing population.
He got the distinct impression that even among pirates, robbers, and people down on their luck, Tarbalainn wasn’t all that popular. One man, already drunk though it was still early in the day, called it the last port before Murokthil. Another had called it an oubliette. Once you were lowered down into it, you were forgotten by Gods and men alike.
Lee-Lack agreed. He had even described Tarbalainn in much the same terms to Yllyesh.
Once in a while, he feigned dropping something to the ground, like his handkerchief or a small coin. Retrieving the item slowly gave him the opportunity to look surreptitiously around. He never saw Yllyesh. After a while he stopped. People would start thinking he was clumsy.
“Maybe he just hauled off,” he thought. “Who could blame him?”
It was late in the afternoon and for some reason Lee-Lack had avoided the Black Duck until now. Anndry Torchas had told him to ask for the first mate of the Cormorant if he were ever to change his mind. Not that he was planning to, but even if he were, there would be no need to ask around for Noull Finkey. It was obvious at first sight who and what he was.
The first mate had commandeered a large table in the back right corner of the tavern. A small round window let in some light from behind that shone upon the dozens of glasses, beakers, cups, pitchers, jars, plates, and the jumble of cutlery that filled the tabletop, as well as upon the salt-and-pepper hair of Master Finkey.
The first mate was speaking in a low voice to two young men. Once in a while he flashed a malicious, knowing smile to his young companions.
“He’s probably promising them riches beyond their wildest dreams,” Lee-Lack thought. “And the easy, dashing life of a pirate,” he added as an afterthought. Lee-Lack Scarminckle knew everything about the life of a robber on land, which was neither easy nor glamorous, and he suspected as much of a pirate’s occupation. Thinking about his days and years as a robber filled his mouth with the nostalgic taste of the dust of the Renuvian Plains.
A small door to the left in the back of the room opened and a man entered. He was still adjusting his belt, which made Lee-Lack conclude that the man was returning from relieving himself.
Lee-Lack walked up to him.
“Oldo. Oldo Raldiz. It’s good to see you again.”
“Who are you?” Oldo asked.
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