On the Shore of the Unquiet Sea
by Michael F. Flynn
On the Shore of the Unquiet Sea
by Michael F. Flynn
"It’s a long and dusty road,
It’s a hot and a heavy load.
-- Tom Paxton
A squawk in the street
Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand wound his way through the narrow lanes of New Cuffy between houses that soared three stories into the very sky. It seemed to him that the buildings were poised to topple and bury him beneath splinters and beams and tiles. Here, a furrier laid out his green hides for curing. There, a silversmith tapped on bridle bits and jewelry. Cocks crowed. Shutters slammed back on windows; and night-soil plummeted onto unwary passers-by. From the Clock Tower the call went out for the morning prayers.
Before entering Harborside, Teodorq paused to enjoy the vista – and assess the threat level.
The Unquiet Sea rippled out to a horizon that blurred imperceptibly into sky. It was enough to make a lesser man dizzy. Beyond that horizon, the greenies said, lay their homeland – past treacherous currents, sudden and violent storms, and a mid-ocean reef that until recently had frustrated all but the most intrepid navigators.
Against this backdrop, fishermen newly docked from the night’s labors hawked their wares on the breakwater walls. Gulls shrieked overhead, demanding their portion. Ships’ bells clanged the watch in harbor.
The morning bustle was in full career and the boardwalk offered a motley mix of peoples speaking a grab-bag of tongues. The greenies, with their strange neck frills spread to catch the morning sun, were the dregs of their folk – laborers, ruffians, pickpockets, thieves – but they could strut about Harborside because the pale-faced coastalmen gave them those they could look down upon.
The coastal fishermen had been broken by the greenies three generations before and reduced to beggary and drunkenness. But the lean and hungry men of the Great Woods had been subdued more recently and walked the harbor with sullen faces. They had at least kept their pride.
There were in addition short, wide swampmen from the southern paiutes, decked in vests of stiff gator hide and necklaces of small animal skulls; and golden ironmen from those Houses that had bent the knee, foolishly convinced that their nominal alliances with the greens made them equal partners. Teo had even glimpsed another prairieman like himself, though from a distance. He had worn the feathered bonnet of a Ptarmigan. Teo was a Scorpion, and Ptarms rode different trails.
So far as Teo knew, the only hillman who had wandered this far east was his own boon companion, Sammi o’ th’ Eagles. Which was just as well, for two such men might be hard to take.
It was a diverse and oft-times volatile mixture, and one prone to periodic outbursts of grievance, real and imagined. The human wreckage in Harborside had lost their tribes or, like the greenies, had never had them; so no one stood between them and their rulers. Hence, their only safety lay in obscurity, and no place offered more of that useful commodity than the Harborside Mews.
Teo took himself to the kiosk of Fatharu pitmaster, with its tantalizing odors of cue.
“How goes it by you, Fatharu pitmaster?” Teo asked in careful xhavla.
The man handed him a skewer lined with tasty chunks of meat. “Just scrumptious, Teodorq body… What are ye today? Bodyguard or debt collector?”
Teo shrugged. “Spent last night guard a villa up the hill. But who say what molt in new-hatched day?” He was still not entirely at home in the language spoken by the greenies, which was unlike the other languages he had picked up in his travels, but he had mastered enough over the past few months to get by in the Harborside.
Fatharu grunted and corrected a few points of grammar. He nodded toward one of the ships that had tied up at the wharf. “Big hat arriving,” he said.
Teo finished his bob in a few bites and returned the skewer. He had never seen canoes as large as these vargos, with their ropes and blankets. A sailor in Bunny’s Tavern had tried to explain it to him, but Teo had always learned better with his hands than with his ears, and a few weeks working with the longshoremen had taught him the ropes.
“Man come on the big vargo, must be Big Hat, I think,” Teo acknowledged.
The pitmaster shrugged. “Not always. Sometimes ships bring convicts, like me Paw, or men down on their luck and looking for a new chance. Sometimes men just looking to get away – from the law, from their wives, from the south end of a northbound plow-mule. Some even looking for adventure. If they’re lucky, they don’t find it. Big Hats…” He pointed again to the ship, “they too fat and happy to dare the Unquiet Sea.” The pitmaster nudged Teo, “There! That be him.”
The gangplank had rolled out from the ship and the longshoremen made it fast to the pier. A short fellow dressed in a knee-length red and gold brocade jacket and wearing an oversized, broad-brimmed hat with feather plume stepped daintily upon it. He carried a gold-headed walking stick. Several younger men as finely dressed clustered about him and another with the ink-stained fingers of a secretarial assistant followed a few paces behind. Sailors and tchaxehts lined the ship’s rail to watch, nudging one another and laughing behind their hands. Tchaxehts were soldiers who rode the vargos to protect them against pirates.
The newcomer doffed his hat and shook his head to unfurl his frill to the morning sun. “Hails, New Cuffy,” he said, as was the custom for arrivals. His escort followed his lead in a ragged chorus. New Cuffy, as embodied in the usual dockside riff-raff, made indifferent response, of which “up yours” was the most audible.
“Smell his feet,” said Fatharu, who was no fonder of Big Hats than were the other “greeows” born in New Cuffy.
“Makes heap big smoke,” Teo agreed, puzzling the vendor with a prairie idiom. Teo bade the pitmaster good day, and crossed Harborside to the poulterer’s stall, where he acquired the carcass of a pheasant. Bodyguarding by its nature was oft an overnight occupation, leaving Teo homebound in the morning. But the early morning was also the best time to market, the victuals being fresher, so things had a way of leveling out. He slung his staff over his shoulder to balance the poultry bag. The pheasant was big enough to feed himself and his three partners, but its purchase had wanted its share of his remaining poke. Hired muscle paid well enough, but was not exactly the beaten trail to unending wealth.
As he worked his way through the morning bustle toward his lodgings in the Mews, Teo’s path took him along the boardwalk that ran from the wharves into town, and he noted that the Big Hat and his hangers-on held handkerchiefs to their noses against the noisome odors. Teo grunted. His own western folk had a proverb: if you don’t like the dung, don’t herd the cattle. The greenies did not care for the climate of New Cuffy, which they held as too warm, and they did not like the foods of the region, the kamri, gweeli, sshi, and logs that the coastalmen brought in from the sea, and they did not like the coastal women, who were smelly and the color of something from under a rock. But as much as they disliked the place, they insisted on coming here anyway. Teo wondered why they had not stayed home, where everything was better.
The newcomer was obviously important, but the governor was not here to greet him; nor had he sent an escort and Teo fell to considering that fact.
Among the dockside rabble, he noticed Seven Quail cutpurse, a displaced forestman who made his living among large but inattentive crowds. He stood near the ropewalk watching the Big Hat and fingering the hilt of a knife hidden behind his coat-tail, but he was making no move to harvest the purses of the watching throng. Nearby, a coastalman, Pushaluq mugger, slapped a cosh repeatedly into his palm and looked around in quick furtive glances.
“That can’t be good,” Teodorq muttered to himself. Seven Quail and Pushaluq were nerving themselves up for something. He studied on the crowd some, but saw no one else preparing for an assault. An ironman in the livery of House Moose on the other side of the boardwalk seemed also to have taken note of the brigands and stood akimbo with his arms crossed, awaiting developments.
Teo hoped there were more attackers lurking, since defeating only two such men was a feat hardly worthy of the son of Nagarajan.
Four. Now, four would be songworthy. Perhaps two more robbers lurked on the other side of the boardwalk.
As the Big Hat strode up the boardwalk to Harbor Street, Teodorq stepped into the press, slipping the pole from his bundle. He pushed against the forestman and said, “Seven Quail, you are discovered.” At the same time, he shoved his pole across a bystander’s shoulder hard into Pushaluq’s throat.
The coastalman dropped to his knees, holding his throat and gagging. But Seven Quail turned with a snarl and stabbed Teodorq with his ugly, serrated knife.
Teo, for his part, had held the pheasant like a shield and the knife pierced the bag and sank deep into the body of the bird. Not yet realizing his mistake, Seven Quail twisted the knife, and Teo caught the serrations on the bones and yanked the weapon from the cutpurse’s grip. Suddenly disarmed, Seven Quail turned to run, but Teo reversed the swing on his pole and struck the man on the back of the pate, stunning him.
It was the work of a moment. Teo stepped back to study on the situation.
As he had suspected, two other assassins had lurked on the other side of the street, but he saw that both had been laid low by the walking sticks of the Big Hat’s escort. The Big Hat himself stood unruffled in their midst. He locked eyes with Teo, who saluted him prairie fashion. Then Teo gathered up his torn bag and mangled pheasant, restored his bindlestiff, and with a philosophical shrug continued on his way into the tangle of alleys, stables, boarding houses, chandleries, pawn-shops, and taverns that embraced the harbor.
Bad luck for his bird. He was none too sure he wanted to eat a pheasant into which one of Seven Quail’s knives had sunk. Bad luck, too, for Seven Quails and his accomplices. Attempted assassination was surely a serious offense among the greens and the fact that Seven Quail was a forestman would only increase the penalty. The greens regarded the forestmen with particular rancor: They had fought back.
He wondered who the Big Hat was to warrant four assassins, for Seven Quail and his friends had surely been bought men. No one in the Mews half-world plucked fruit that high up the tree; not on their own tick. Someone had offered money and Seven Quail had been stupid enough to take it. Teo rather hoped the unfortunate cutpurse had at least been paid in advance.
©2014 Michael F. Flynn