Episode Four - Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
"What are you, a complete and total idiot?" Riordan was not happy with me. I noticed, but declined to point out, that at the very least he was agitated enough to have stopped shivering. "You drag me to some shitty little fish bar, leave me to the sexual advances of nasty old dock scrapers all damn night while you play patty cake with some big busted bar maid and then tell me we're leaving in two hours to follow her 'west'? Allow me to explain this slowly to you. That's not how this works."
I waited until he was done, then took a slightly longer than usual step to give me a bit of lead on him and swiveled to put my fist completely through the wood of a warehouse door. The wood splintered under the impact of my fist, about two inches from his nose. Ahead of us and mostly out of hearing range, Gray Sam and Minerva turned to peer quizzically at me. I removed my fist from the door, ignoring the splinters and bloody scrapes. "Danny want see how strong I am," I shouted up to them in a good "half orc grunt" dialect. Gray Sam shook his head and took Minerva gently by the arm to continue escorting her. "Or," I said in a lower voice for Riordan's benefit alone, "was I mistaken about the meaning of that raft of shit I just listened to you spew at me?"
"Um," Riordan licked his lips and glanced back at the hole in the wooden door.
"Now that you are quite through… are you quite through?" I paused. When he gave a rather nervous nod, I continued. "Now that you are through, let me clarify several points for you. First and foremost, if I ever, ever hear you speak of Minerva that way again, I will shove your ankles up your ass and pound your head down into your rib cage. Clear on that?" He nodded. "Thank you. Two: you play mancala with drunken sailors, what happens to you is your own business and none of mine. Three: sorry if you had some other plan going, but you seemed to have missed out on one crucial fact. You weren't invited. I said I'm going out of town. Scuze me if I don't see how that poses a problem for you. I take my half and head out. You take yours and do whatever the hell you want, with as many mancala shells as will fit."
He was quiet for a while as we walked after Sam and Minerva, picking our way through the slush and semi-frozen street garbage. "Why do you play dumb so often, Osgun?"
"'Cause people don't like havin' their faces pounded in by a smartass."
Riordan gave me a sideways look, but held his tongue. The sleet was starting to soak down the back of my collar and trickle through the hair on my back when the little thief started talking again, as if nothing had happened. "West is good. Waymeet is about two weeks away, but as big as Bloodport. We can change most of the coins there in several places and be gone before anyone notices that much hitting the streets. From there, we could go anywhere we wanted. Buy an island. No, the Inner Sea is full of crooks. We wouldn't last a month…"
"So now it's a good idea."
"No," Riordan held up one finger, "No, it is not a good idea. But I can make it work."
"Okay, genius, next question. Why would I let you come with me?"
As soon as I saw his face fall, I regretted saying it. I don't know why it should bother me that his little feelings were hurt, but if I could have unspoken those words I would have. Maybe I had heard variations of those words too often myself.
"Well," he rallied quickly. "Face it. You, traveling with a pretty girl? People aren't gonna like it. And what are they going to say about her?"
I frowned. That was the part of this I didn't like. She should have relatives to escort her or something. To people's way of thinking, a good looking woman didn't travel without chaperones and guardians unless anything worth losing was already long gone and the rest was free for taking. "I'm not gonna travel with her. I'm gonna be traveling with whatever caravan she hooks up with."
"Whatever. How much better would it look for her if she had me along as her husband? Brother," he amended quickly before the glower could fully form on my face. "And you as our family bodyguard. It's credible and, no offense, you're just going to take a lot less shit if you're going around as somebody's hireling. Less grief for you, less grief for the lady."
Maybe it was because he referred to her as a lady. More likely because what he said made sense, especially for Minerva. Traveling with a brother and a bodyguard would be perfect. No need to ask what Riordan was going to get out of it; gulls in the same flock tend to know what the other gulls in the rest of the flock are doing, even if they aren't personal acquaintances. The docks of Bloodport are a little broader in scope than that, but over the years I'd heard enough about Riordan Seawolf to know that he was so good at escaping because he was a cream puff when cornered. More than once I had heard of him getting the living hell beat out of him. He was fast, but there are two types of people on the docks: the kind that unloads ships all day long, and the kind that gets the shit beat out of them by the other kind. It's all about the muscle. "Just don't get uppity," I said by way of cementing our partnership, then did my best to ignore him the rest of the way to Minerva's. I had about talked my throat raw for the day.
A couple of times I had been into the city itself, away from the docks. It was an amazing place, with streets that were often dry and entire blocks that smelled of good things, like breads and perfumes and cooking. In some places, the people all wore new clothing and smelled like flowers, and only the beggars had scars or were missing fingers or eyes. In contrast with that, every row of buildings on the docks is a dump, but the place we took Minerva to wasn't as bad as many of the dumps around here. Below was a seamstress's shop, specializing in things like canvas pants and rain slickers; just the things for your typical crusty old bachelor fishermen. The windows were shuttered, but the door opened when Minerva knocked. A fat looking fishwife came out to embrace Gray Sam and give him a kiss on the cheek. Riordan and I hung back a ways, waiting. Minerva headed inside, leaving the two old folk to reminisce or flirt, who could tell, but before she went in, she caught my eye. I gave her a nod. I'd be back in a matter of hours.
Gray Sam spent a few more moments with his ladyfriend, then gave the expanse of her bottom a pat that made her squeal and headed our way. "Thank ye, gentlemen. Did she ever tell you what was troubling her, Osgun?"
I made a face to indicate no. "'Girl stuff' all she say."
"Hmm," Gray Sam nodded. "Much the same as what she told me. 'Vapors' and 'female foolishness'."
"Ah, she's probably got herself with child to some slick talking merchant captain. Happens all the time," Riordan said tastelessly.
"Aye, happen all the time it does," Gray Sam nodded while I gave Riordan a "half-orc smash" glare, "but the Widow Shorey keeps an eye on the girls who board with her, and she said you never can tell what the next few weeks will bring, but as of now, definitely not."
"Oh, you asked?"
"She's of an age for love. Tis within reason."
"Seemed like the Widow Shorey is still of an age for love," Riordan smiled suggestively at the old man.
Gray Sam frowned at the little man for a moment, then looked hard at me. "This is your friend, Osgun?" I gave him a look like he had just asked me if I wanted to set my own dick on fire. Hardly! "Then would you mind givin' the boy a gentle reminder why he should keep a civil tongue in his head?"
In answer, I flung my arm wide in a casual backhand that sent Riordan sprawling on his ass in half-frozen street slush. Would I mind? Like the question needed asking.
"Hmp." Gray Sam gave a little smile and a satisfied nod. "Well, I thank ye again for the escort, but if you young men will excuse me, I have a mind to stop by the baker and order a few meat pies for special at the Hand tonight. Go and get some sleep, why don't you?" He gave a short wave, then stuck his hands deep in his pockets for warmth again as he shuffled off down the way.
Riordan had himself mostly picked up, trying to slick some of the worst of the street residue off his backside. As if he hadn't been soaked through before. "What, you do everything the old man says?"
"You don't have a woman, do you."
"I've had a lot of women in my day!" he snapped defensively. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"But you ain't ever kept one."
"Who's looking for a wife and brats?"
"All I'm saying is you make every woman you talk about sound cheap. It's not nice."
"Nice? What the… okay, so a good looking girl like your bar maid is crying her eyes out and won't tell anyone why, I say maybe she's pregnant, you about break my jaw because it's not 'nice'?? Even the old man asked the widow if that was her problem!"
"Yeah, but he asked nice. And even if it was a possibility about Minerva, that doesn't explain why you had to go and say what you did about the widow. What purpose did that serve?"
"Gods of wind and horse shit!" Riordan swore. "What are you, now, protector of all things 'nice'?"
"No, but just because there isn't much nice out there, don't mean you gotta kill it when you see it."
"No, no," he muttered. "Save that kind of treatment for me."
"You don't like what happens when you say that kind of stuff? Don't say that kind of stuff."
Riordan shot a dirty look up at me. "Listen, oh High Priest of Social Niceties, before you loosen any more of my teeth with your zeal, if you must know I was trying to get the old man to leave. Which I did. You can thank me any time you like."
"Why?" I really was at a loss on that one. Not that I didn't think the little thief was lying.
"Because we've got less than two hours to get some traveling cash and supplies, that's why. Did you stop to think how we were going to do that?"
"Nah." I gave him a complacent smile. Smiling always accentuated my tusks. "I knew you had to have a fence. Figured you could handle that part."
Grumbling, Riordan shot me a nasty look. "Great. You know how pleased he's going to be to hear from me this time of morning?"
"When he figures out his commission, he probably won't mind much."
As it turned out, I was right. Riordan hustled me through the waking streets into a little mercantile section, where little remained of the docks but the smell of fish guts still flavoring the air and sea gull crap under every convenient perch. Once there, he pounded on the back door of a pawnshop until a panel slid aside to reveal a baleful bloodshot eye above a bag of wrinkles.
"Arvan, you will thank me for this, I promise."
"That don't look like a horny underage slave hooker," the eye refuted, darting at me briefly.
"It's even better, Arvan. If it's not, you'll never have to do business with me again."
"So whaddaya want?"
"Let me in and I'll tell you."
"Tell me and I'll let you in."
"Arvan, I'm hurt!"
"Danny, you'll never live to be my age if you open the door in the middle of the night for no-gooders with giant apes with them. Now I got a crossbow this side of the door that says you don't make with a good story real fast, you'll get a gutful of bolt, because what it looks like to me is you brought somebody to finish me off while you ransack my shop." I stopped snickering when Riordan turned and gave me a glare.
Checking to make sure no one else in the alley was listening, Riordan stepped up close to the door. "Okay, Arvan. You've wounded my heart, but you've always been a mentor to me, so I'll just take this as a lesson in survival. Listen," he lowered his voice. "I made the best cut any guildsman this side of the city gates has ever made. I'll need to show you what I got, because obviously you're too clever by half to take my word for it."
"Tell your pet war elephant to keep his hands where I can see 'em." I obliged without even a prompt from Riordan. Couldn't help myself; I was beginning to like this old guy.
Wordlessly, Riordan reached into a very personal region of his pants and came out with a coin. Hopeful Arvan the Fence knew what it was worth, because it was doubtful otherwise he was going to take it. Hell, I wouldn't have.
"Is that what I think it is?"
"I shit you not, Arvan."
"Where did you get that, Danny?"
"Off some meat in a bar. He was spending like he had it to burn, and drunk off his arse. He was covered in women. I pushed in to get a drink, took a chance and got the score of my life instead."
"All right. Tell your fish gut golem there to stand across the alley where I can see him. Then you can come in. That kind of coin is not going to go unnoticed, Seawolf. I'll have to ask for a cut of twenty-five percent."
"I'm not bartering, Danny, I'm telling you. Now tell him to move."
I started to shuffle reluctantly when Riordan gave me the nod, but I leveled a pointing finger at the eye in the door slot. "Okay, but he better come out of there with his half, or I'm coming in."
The snicker from the other side of the door and Riordan's sidelong glance did nothing to improve my mood as I walked the few steps across the narrow alleyway. I could feel my face burning a little in embarrassment. Okay, so maybe it wouldn't be half. I didn't know percentages - that kind of number wizardry was for thieves and bookies.
While Riordan was inside, I tried to get over myself. What did I care if they thought I was stupid? Didn't I put on the "dumb half-orc" act to get people to think just that? Fact of the matter is, I liked putting on the act. People think I'm stupid, but they don't know anything about me. It's a joke I play on them. A way to shut them out like they shut me out. No, it's not all just bitterness. People see me, all big and ugly, they seem to want to think I'm stupid, too. Puts them at ease. It's what they expect. I give them what they want, they cause less trouble for me. I start talking up a storm, they get edgy, start paying way too much attention to me. It's one thing to be dealing with a guy who can put his fist through two inches of wood when you think a three year old can outsmart him. It's another when he seems pretty bright.
Maybe that's the problem. I play dumb all the time, telling myself how smart I am, pretty soon I get to thinking I am smart. When I was a scrawny little kid, there was this bard. He used to give me food. I used to put on stupid wigs and act out parts of his songs. Got big laughs, ugly little kid with the sloping forehead and the little tusks protruding out from his lower jaw, snarling like the big bad monsters in the guy's songs. Better still, dressed up like the beautiful maidens. What a laugh. It lasted until I started to get some size and strength to me, then it wasn't as funny any more. When I acted like the monsters, you could see people starting to think about whether or not I was going to be a problem when I got older. He got me on with a guy who ran a warehouse, got me started in a line of work that has sustained me ever since. He also taught me a wide vocabulary. He tried to teach me to read, but I've never been able to look at words on parchment long enough without my eyes blurring and getting a headache to be very good at it. Still I can read enough to get by. And he told me to go with my strengths: there's nothing wrong with my ability to understand speech. But numbers… numbers have always been the bane of my life. I just can't seem to wrap my mind around them. I count on my fingers. I can't add or subtract to save my life. Better vocabulary than almost anyone on the docks you care to meet, merchant or fisherman, but you throw more than five of anything at me and I start to sweat. More than ten? I'm at a loss. It's damn embarrassing, is what it is. I guess I like to think the only thing I inherited from my father's side is the physical traits, none of the mental limitations people say orcs have. Guess I'm wrong.
Still, there is great consolation in being able to crush people's skulls with your fist, especially when you imagine they're laughing at you. By the time Riordan came out, lugging a damn sight more baggage than he had gone in with, I was pretty much at peace with myself again. People want to poke fun of me because I can't count? Fine. I'll whip out my eleven-incher and knock 'em unconscious with it. At least I think it's eleven inches…
"What's all that crap?" I greeted Riordan, friendly like. He had three knapsacks, three side bags, blankets, assorted waterskins and pouches, and a huge roll that looked like a tent.
"Are we traveling, or what? Here, make yourself useful and carry some of this." He promptly hoisted most of it off onto me. I didn't mind too much. Little guy was awful red in the face. "We'll still need food. And walking shoes. And depending on what our actual plans are, we might need to get a horse or a donkey for your lady friend to ride. I don't want to be carrying her all the way to Waymeet. And you shouldn't either," he shook a finger on me. I hadn't realized that thought had made it to my face. "You gotta have your hands free to use that chain on bandits and beasts and the like."
"Not bad, 'Danny'," I grinned at him, shouldering the tent and the extra bags. He looked kind of surprised at the compliment. What can I say? I was about to leave the city for the first time in my life. And spend weeks at the side of the beautiful Minerva and her wonderful breasts. Be her hero, even. It was enough to make even me a little giddy.
"Right. Well. The way I see it, we should each carry our own half of the take. That way, if something happens to one of us, there's still some on the other. Sound good?"
"Oh, and since this 'go west' horse shit is your idea, the coin I cashed came from your half."
It was my turn to slide him a look. Riordan was staring through the puffs his breath made in the air, ignoring me, likely hoping I'd let that one slide. Well, why not? To be honest, I had no idea how much money we had in our possession, beyond "a lot". No doubt there was enough there to see Minerva to her destination with a remnant still greater than I could drink my way through before I died. "Huh," I grunted with a hint of menace anyway, just to keep him from getting too frisky.Next week: The Bloodport Marketplace - Number One in selection and customer mortality.