"Aw, Ozzie made a friend," was the first thing out of Riordan's mouth. "Who'da thought there'd be two ugly, sensitive guys on the same boat?"
The cabin was barely wide enough for me to stretch both arms straight out to the side without touching the walls. It wasn't like there would be a lot of room for Riordan to get away if I decided to beat the hell out of him. I considered it. Minerva was already giving him a disapproving glare. Instead, however, I told him, "You know, Danny, you're kind of hurting my feelings. How about you stop so I don't have to pound your head so far down your ribcage we have to feed you through your navel, huh?" He looked at me like he was going to make another smartass remark, then just kind of quieted down.
Later, when Minerva was out stretching her legs, Riordan looked over to where I was dozing on the other bed. "Hey. You awake?"
"Hey, I just wanted to say I'm & well, I shouldn't have joked around so much about Amon."
"Whatever. I was just trying to be funny, and I wasn't."
He sighed a little, then kept speaking, despite my obvious I Am Trying To Sleep signals. "So what was the big deal, anyway? I mean, you got friends."
I cracked an eye to look at him. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that Riordan might have been lonely on the docks. "Well. Yeah, I got friends, but that was the first half orc I ever met personally, and he was a really& great example."
"Great example? Of what?"
"Of what someone like me could be."
"What the hell do you need an example for, Ozzie? You're about as good a guy as they come as it is." Riordan kept his gaze on his boots, polishing furiously. I watched him for a second with kind of a grin. That was the nicest thing Riordan ever said about me. Probably about anyone, for that matter.
"Well, looked like he had a smaller 'package' than yours. Made me feel like more of a man again hanging around with him. I don't stand a chance with the women when you're around, Danny."
He looked up and grinned, then shook his head. "But I'm serious, Ozzie. You don't need an example, or to change anything about yourself. And if someone's making you feel different, you oughta pound 'em a good one, even if that someone is me."
"You got a deal, Dock Dog."
I saw Ahman once or twice more before the remainder of the journey. We talked a little about inconsequential things; the weather, the food, fighting with chain or scimitar. It was one evening while Minerva and I were alone in the cabin, discussing how to get her into the Heights unnoticed that she asked, "What line of work was your new friend in again, Osgun?"
"Could you please introduce us?"
Ahman was delighted to meet the friend I was escorting. "I would bow and kiss the lotus petals of your fingertips," he said quietly at the bow of the boat where we gathered, referring to a fact that she was hiding herself under the robes of a man, "but it seems you are not advertising your beauty."
"Entering the Heights, what woman would?" she countered. "To that end, I must ask you a question. My friend mentioned that you were a rug merchant and that you gained your start in the city in the Zhejaran. I was wondering if you might know of a way I might enter the Heights without being observed by the guards."
"I am shocked." Ahman looked anything but. "Why ever would anyone wish to escape notice of the guards?"
"You will think less of me, but I will tell you. My father arranged a very suitable marriage for me, but my betrothed was an older man and unappealing to me. I took a lover and was found out. My intended husband and his family were most offended. My family was embarrassed and my father and brothers vowed to kill me if they ever laid eyes on me again."
"Doesn't sound like a clever girl would return."
"Love has a way of making fools of even the wisest of women. That is why we are the weaker gender, is it not?"
"Well," Ahman straightened and shook his head. "Alas, I cannot think how anyone might enter the city, not unless they were willing to spend a sizable amount of money."
"What kind of sum?" When he quietly named a price, her eyes grew wide and sorrowful. "How is a woman without the support of her family, abandoned by the man who led her astray, to avoid death? I have only saved up a small amount." She named a lower price. I went to say something and she reached out to squeeze my hand. Hard. They went back and forth for a few moments before agreeing on a price, which I was to deliver to him tomorrow morning.
I ran the coins to him the next morning, in a small pouch. I included some extra to make it closer to what he had been asking. When he glanced in the pouch, he sighed and removed the coins, palming them back to me. "Osgun, my friend, there is much you have to learn."
"Well, I know why she's trying to save money, but I really think that&"
"Osgun, listen to me. In this land, you must never pay asking price. All right? It is almost an insult to do so. It is something you will understand soon. If you really feel that uncomfortable, you can tell me the true reason your friend needs to enter the Heights unnoticed."
I would have rather he kept the coins. "You ask 'why' for everybody you help in?"
"You are right, often it is better not to know. But I wonder that you know what you are getting yourself into."
"Pretty much. I was there when she found out she had to come back."
He looked at me questioningly. "'Pretty much?'"
"She's been straight with me. I'm sure there's stuff she's told me that would mean more to you than to me, but I'm okay with what I know."
"Well, luck to you, my friend."
The part about the plan that neither Riordan or I liked was that Ahman hired us a scrawny little kid to see us up the basket and taught us the word for "rugs" and then we all went three separate ways: Ahman to see about something or other, Minerva to meet and be incorporated with the shipment of rugs heading up the cliff face, and Danny and me to head to the baskets. We would all meet again at Ahman's rug shop. I didn't like the idea of Minerva having to make her way alone through the chaos that extended from the riverside to the base of the great cliffs. Hell, I didn't like Riordan and me having to do the same, but it was different for us. If some big ugly guy dragged Riordan into a back alley and had his way with him, I'd just have a good laugh. But I was considerably less worried about that happening to Riordan than to Minerva; speaking for big ugly guys everywhere, I can assure you that even we have standards.
So anyway, there Danny and I were, following some scrawny kid through the throngs of people. The air was cool and wet, not enough to cut through you, just a good brisk chill that was kind of pleasant. The smell of the sea underneath the foreign perfumes, incenses, and cooking made me a little homesick. We wore the abas we had purchased in Waymeet, with our faces covered, and so didn't attract much attention, but I don't know how much we would have got anyway. Everyone seemed very intent on their own business, arguing back and forth in that fluid western language that made everything sound like poetry. From the gesturing and the emotion they all put into everything, and from the way Minerva and Ahman spoke in normal conversation, I could only assume it must be like an entire nation of bards.
A scrawny little kid led us through the throngs. He was wearing a long, ragged tunic that went just past his knees, and from the dusky skin showing through the occasional hole, he wasn't wearing anything underneath. When we stopped for anything, he shivered. Coming out of snow and freezing weather like we just had, this was nothing, and I was wearing more and warmer clothes than I'd ever been accustomed to, so I gave the little guy my heavy cloak. He tried to refuse at first, but I wouldn't let him give it back. When he put it on, half of it dragged on the ground, but he got a big grin and wrapped himself up in it like it was a quilt. Riordan shook his head like he thought I was stupid, but I noticed that when we paused to buy some food from a passing vendor, he got enough for the kid. Poor little guy had that happy, but predacious, look I remembered from running around on the streets when I was his age. He obviously found a good thing in his two foreign patrons and was on the lookout for more ways to get stuff out of us. I remembered envying a lot of kids who got to stand lookout for thieves or smugglers, or who ran cash for them, or who even got hooked up with a clever guy who was willing to teach them how to pick locks in order to use their size and innocent appearance to his advantage. I assumed things wouldn't be that different here. Gods of luck watch over him in his choices and opportunities.