The sun was waning, no more now than a small, gentle crescent overhead. Len Win admired the glinting ripples in the river below the small boat’s hull. “It was so kind of you to make room for me,” she said to the oarsman, smiling.
The oarsman, clearly not used to such attention from a freewoman, blushed. “Shucks, milady, weren’t no trouble.”
“But you’ve saved me from a lot,” said Len. “I was starting to think I'd have to find passage on one of those big Tipra ships.”
“You’ve no love for the big liners neither, aye?”
“Crowded, noisy, expensive.” Len shook her head. And I can't exactly waltz through Immigration.
The oarsman laughed. “You don’t know half it, sister,” he said. “You wouldn't credit them things I saw back when I crewed for Tipra.”
“Try me.” Len leaned forward, letting her eyes betray her curiosity.
“Well now,” the oarsman said, and the way he leaned back against the sacks of grain told her that this was a story he’d told many times before. “Back in Vau Shan you got them highways, aye?”
“Wherever you’ve got highways, you get highwaymen,” said the oarsman knowingly. “And it’s no less true if them highways is made of water.”
“You have river pirates here?”
“Aye. There’s good money to be made off robbing a shipment of alchemicals, or kidnapping freefolk.”
“Does it happen often?” Len asked curiously.
“Damn near ten times a season,” said the oarsman. “They all got their clever little plans, if it’s filling the ship with arsonists or damming up a river. But the damnedest thing I ever seen, well - nah, you wouldn’t believe it.” He grinned.
He had played this game many times, Len could tell, though most likely with drunken comrades in a lowtown tavern. She spoke up with the obvious rebuttal, wounded excitement accenting her plea. “Sure I would! Come on, tell me.”
“Well now. There’s this fella comes on board,” said the oarsman. “Didn’t think nothing strange of him at the start of it all. Boytoy of some freewoman, I reckoned. Didn’t pay him no heed - at least,” he added, lowering his voice, “not ’til the screaming started.”
“The screaming?” Len exclaimed with calculated breathlessness. It wasn't actually a half bad delivery, she thought. The oarsman might have had a promising career in theater if he'd grown up in the old country.
“So the whole ship's rocking,” said the oarsman. “Like some awful beast out of the deeps took hold of us. And do you know - that’s exactly what happened!”
“No!” exclaimed Len.
“Told you you wouldn’t believe me!” the man teased.
“What were these beasts? What did the man have to do with it?”
“I don’t rightly know what manner of beast they was,” said the oarsman, lowering his voice to a near-whisper. “They was big and red and covered in tentacles - bigger than a full-grown man, I tell you! Now we’re all shouting, and this man comes up on deck, and he’s laughing like mad and demanding all our coin. ‘The river beasts answer to me,’ he says, ‘and they will drown you all if I command it!’”
“Menora alive!” said Len. “Was he a madman?”
“A maleficer,” hissed the oarsman. Len gasped, as she could tell was expected of her. “Course, we didn’t know that ’til - well, I’m getting ahead of meself.
“Captain on that ship was the sharpest, meanest woman you ever did meet. Moved like a right devil and talked like one too. Back then none of us was too fond of her - she had a love for whipping slaves as she figured was slacking.”
Len shook her head. “That’s terrible!”
“That coming from a Shan?” said the oarsman, “I’ll be damned. Well, Meraya knows, Cap’n put up with no less of herself than she did of us. Outta her bed bright and early, never behind on her papers, always fit and trim as paladin on parade. And one of the bravest women I ever did know.
“Now, we was all scared - some of us was more superstitious than others, and I ain’t too proud to admit I wondered for a moment if the man was a devil come to ruin us. But then - then Cap’n stepped outta her cabin and she grabbed that man right by the collar. I never seen a woman so furious as Cap’n that day, no ma’am. She roared like a lion. ‘Get off my ship!’ she told him, and then - without hesitatin' one single moment - stabbed the bastard right through the heart.”
“You shoulda seen the look on his face,” chuckled the oarsman. “She heaved him right overboard, and then the water was full of blood and the beasts was nowhere to be seen. Turns out he’d been taking ships for months, stealing every last coin aboard and sinking them with his beasts so nobody would be any the wiser. The Mad Maleficer, we called him.” His voice sank again to a hoarse whisper. “Some say his restless spirit still haunts that river when the stars are right, looking for ships to sink and coin to hoard.”
“That’s so frightening!” said Len, shaking her head and sending a shiver down her spine for effect. “I’m so glad your captain was able to save you.”
“Aye,” said the oarsman, nodding somberly. “She had a good heart, even if it was hard to see through all the glares and swearing. We all took well to her in the end.”
“I imagine Clan Tipra was very pleased with her for putting an end to the Mad Maleficer!”
“Ohh, that they were!” The oarsman nodded. “Old lady Perasuenca gave her a ten-sovereign bounty, but you know what the best part was?”
“Our crazy captain done split the whole thing twenty ways with every slave on board,” said the oarsman. “‘It was us that beat him, ladies and gents,’ she said, passin’ out silver like it was full o’ mites.”
Len laughed and shook her head. “What a fascinating woman!”
“She was a hard lady, that’s for sure, but damn noble too,” said the oarsman, nodding. “-Oi, we’re coming up on the docks soon.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll let me help row for the last stretch at least?”
The oarsman shook his head firmly. “Meraya strike me down if I ever let such a fine young lady tire herself with such base labor.
Len let herself blush. “That’s kind of you.”
“Heh, we ain’t all barbarians up north,” said the oarsman, grinning.
“Here,” said Len, untangling a small, ornately-carved wooden coin with a hole in the center pinned around her neck. “At least let me repay you with this.” She passed it to him. “It’s a blessing of my people,” she explained. “Keep it with you and it’ll bring you good fortune.”
It was as cheap as tricks got, but it was an effective one. Play yourself up as mysterious and exotic, and then offer them an anchor, something they'll attach significance to and remember you by. Len had a whole pocket of similar tokens in her suitcase that she'd bought for half a talent from a carver back home. There was little point in courting the favor of one solitary slave, but Len knew once he gotten comfortable in a tavern he'd be showing off the coin to his comrades, telling them all about the strange and beautiful foreigner he had brought to Lemua. And the right kind of reputation is worth more than gold.
“Shucks, milady,” said the oarsman. “That’s right kind of you. Truth be told, I’d pay good coin meself for lively company like you on these lonely nights.”
“Rubbish,” said Len. “Let me pay you something for saving me the trouble of tangling with the ghost of the Mad Maleficer.”
The oarsman laughed. “As you would, milady.” He pocketed the coin. “Though I figure you’d put him to his end right quick,” he added, nodding at her staff.
“You take me for some kind of wizard, then?” said Len mischievously.
“A Shan lady with a staff like that?” said the oarsman, grinning. “City folk might not know what you are but us sailors know better.”
Len clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Drat, you’ve found out my secret,” she said teasingly. Of course, it'd been plain as day what he thought she was from the moment he first opened his mouth on the docks back in Rosamar. But he didn't need to know that.
The sun was gone at last, the bulk of the moon blotting out its light for the night. But where its radiance had faded, new light shone out of the ever-present mists, and the muffled sounds of a bustling port floated out over the water, and soon the little boat’s keel was bumping gently against a dock.
The oarsman clambered out of the boat onto the dock, and wound the boat’s chain around the dockpost. He turned back to the boat and offered Len his hand. “Welcome to Lemua, milady,” he said, bowing theatrically.
Len giggled, and leapt gracefully from the boat, alighting easily on the dock. The oarsman whistled in envy.
“Menora’s ass, but I wish I was so sprightly,” he commented, as he hauled her suitcase from the boat.
“Youth has its advantages,” said Len, taking her luggage and extending the handle. “Again, thank you for bringing me here.”
“’Twas a pleasure, milady,” said the oarsman, blushing.
“I don’t believe I caught your name?”
“The name’s Saniri. Tipra cuen Saniri,” said the oarsman. “But my friends call me Niri.”
“Well, Niri,” said Len, smiling, “I do hope we run into each other in the tavern some night.” She shook his hand. “Farewell and best of luck to you.”
“And to you, Len-kinue,” said Saniri, tipping his hat.
Len Win walked off into the night, tossing a casual smile at the dockhands as they passed. As laid-back as this part of the country was, she had just smuggled herself into a Beladan city without even a hint of trouble, and that was an accomplishment to be proud of.