“You’re sure?” I asked Malmur. “I mean, if no one comes back alive, how do you know there are people there?”
“Pleasure boats,” said Malmur. “Tomb raiders used to go there in search of treasure. And people would hire out boats to watch. Far enough out so as to not get sprayed with blood.”
“So, there’s a company that sails out there?” One round-trip ticket, please.
“Not anymore,” said Malmur. “Everyone gave up. It wasn’t worth it. No one to watch, no reason to charter a boat.”
This was upsetting news. The idea people would rent a boat for the day just to watch a bunch of Lara Crofts get hacked to pieces was, of course, perfectly understandable. But my timing was way off. This would have been the perfect way to visit the island, but I’d missed my ride.
“Isn’t there anyone left who used to sail there?” Maybe I could hire a private charter with some salty old sea captain who drank too much, but was actually quite a good sailor and whose nemesis was a giant squid.
“No,” said Malmur. “And no sane person would take you out there, no matter how much you offer them.”
“What about an insane person?” I asked him.
He tilted his head from side to side. “Well, the only group that might be interested in taking such an ill-advised contract is Smuggler’s Guild.”
“The name’s a bit of a giveaway, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” said Malmur.
“Smugglers aren’t supposed to let anyone know what they’re up to, are they? Hard to do if the crime’s right there on the company masthead.”
Malmur looked at me with an expression I’d come to know so very well. Almost an old friend. “That’s the name of the guild leader. Royn Smuggler.”
“Oh. What kind of guild is it?”
“Transport of goods by sea,” said Malmur. “Seafarer’s Union, to give them their official title.
“So… he’s not an actual smuggler?” I felt the lines were being blurred.
“He’s fully licensed,” said the tax collector. There was something a little snooty about his tone, like he didn’t appreciate me calling into question the integrity of their business practices. This from the head of the Corruption and Backhanders Guild.
“But you think he might rent one of his boats out?”
“It’s hard to say with that boy,” said Malmur. “Law unto himself. If he thinks the commission’s amusing enough, he might.”
“Can you introduce me to him?” I also needed a small loan, but I was fairly confident I could get that out of Malmur just so he could be shot of me.
“Better you ask Damicar. The two practically grew up together. Inseparable as children.”
“Inseparable because I couldn’t get away from him,” mumbled Damicar.
That seemed a bit odd. “He’s the same age as you?” I asked Damicar, who had been listening while eating (of course).
Damicar heaved his shoulders up and down. “I suppose.” Not exactly an enthusiastic recollection of old times. “He’s only guild leader because his dad died.”
Was he jealous? His dad had died too, but all he’d been left was a whiney note he was never going to get to read.
“Is that how it works?” I asked. “Father to son, like the monarchy?”
“No, of course not,” said Malmur. “His father’s death left the position vacant. Royn had to compete against other applicants, the same as anyone. And he won.”
“Only by default,” said Damicar, “because all the other applicants died.”
“Yes,” said Malmur, “very unfortunate.”
Call me unnecessarily suspicious, but I had the feeling Mr Smuggler wasn’t someone you wanted watching your back.
“But you know him well enough to get me a meeting, right?”
Damicar sighed. “Yes. It’ll have to be tomorrow, though. He’s a hard person to find at night.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, but tomorrow would be fine. I was knackered as it was. I needed to find a decent bed for the night, although my last sleeping spot was a sarcophagus, so a park bench would be an upgrade.
“You can stay with me tonight,” said Malmur, which was nice of him. He probably planned to smother me in my sleep. “If the Golden God is truly your patron, then it is only right I offer his representative my hospitality.” Someone offering me a bed for the night. It was like a Christmas miracle. “You can share the room over the stables.”
You couldn’t get more Christ-like. My life was a fucking parable.
Grayson seemed fine with the agreement I’d reached with Malmur, and didn’t press charges. The street was cleaner than it had ever been, and Damicar’s place didn’t really look that much worse. It had been a run down pile of shit to start with, so a couple of walls and a new roof would be a vast improvement.
Malmur led us to his home, escorted by his men. His religious experience — courtesy of yours truly — seemed to have affected him quite profoundly. I assume that was why he didn’t have his men beat the shit out of me as soon as we were out of Grayson’s line of sight.
The house was a grand affair, plenty of bedrooms. I’m sure he could have made room for us inside, but some straw and a couple of dead rats for pillows would be fine. I was exhausted and hungry. Not once had Damicar offered me one of his wild sewer onions, for which I was very grateful.
The stables had four horses in it, and smelled like shit. Literally. Horse manure coming at you from every direction.
The room above, which was accessed by a ladder, had some boxes and a couple of old blankets. Damicar had a tear in his eye as he looked around his childhood home, although I wasn’t sure if that was due to nostalgia or the thunderous dump the horse directly below us was taking.
Bread, cheese and soup was brought up to us. Room service, no less. It was like staying at the Ritz. I assume the Ritz smells like the inside of a horse’s arse. They even gave us cutlery, although I used my own spoon, still hanging around my neck by a chain.
Damicar fell asleep almost immediately after eating. He wasn’t too impressed with dinner, said the soup flavour was insolent. Seemed okay to me. Maybe a little cheeky.
I felt tired all over, but my eyes remained open.
“I thought you said there was no one on the island,” I said.
“There shouldn’t be,” said Wesley, her voice a soft whisper in my ear. “The traps Arthur left should have killed them all.”
“Do you think maybe they work for Arthur?”
“It’s possible.” She didn’t sound like she thought it was very likely. “It’d be nice if he made new friends.”
There was only one way to find out, and that was to go there. I lay there with my spoon tightly gripped in my hand, eventually lulled to sleep by the sound of horses farting.
You know how they say things look better in the morning? Those people have never woken to the sounds of a horse pissing so hard against a wooden wall it rattles.
Damicar, at least, was in a better mood. “If you want to meet Royn, we should go see him now. He always has breakfast at the same place.”
I stumbled down the ladder, splashed some water on my face from a trough, and followed Damicar out of the stables. It was gearing up to be another hot day in Gorgoth and I needed a proper bath. Also new clothes, a better personality and a bigger penis.
There was no sign of Uncle Malmur. I needed to work on him a bit more if I planned to get into his union’s treasury. But first, I had to arrange for a boat and crew.
“One thing you should be careful of,” said Damicar, leading me through the winding alleys, “don’t accept any wagers from Royn. He’s a degenerate gambler. He’s a degenerate everything else, too. And very competitive. He’ll try to get you to bet on anything and everything. And he cheats.”
I had been warned.
Royn Smuggler was not what I expected. I had envisioned a pirate-type, with bangles and scarves and a ridiculous wardrobe. Johnny Depp playing himself, basically.
The man eating breakfast at a table outside a small bistro looked like a young businessman. He was dressed very smartly, with fancy collars and cuffs. I felt like a beggar approaching him.
He looked up and his eyes widened with delight. “Damicar!” He stood up to embrace a stiff Damicar, and a dozen men at various other tables also stood. They were similarly smartly dressed, but it was an incongruous look, like tarantulas wearing bow ties.
Damicar introduced me and I quickly explained what I wanted from him. He sat down again, inviting us to sit with him. I could feel the many, many tarantula eyes watching.
“You really think you can get past the islanders?” He continued eating, taking neat forkfuls of food between words.
“Yes,” I said.
“But you don’t want to split the treasure?”
“I don’t know what’s there. Maybe nothing.”
Royn looked up. “Come, come, you wouldn’t be going if you didn’t have some idea of what’s there. You’re looking for something, are you not?” He had a wide, toothy smile.
“No, I’m not. I’m on a mission from god. The Golden God. If you help us, I’m sure you’ll be blessed.”
“Wonderful,” said Royn, back to his breakfast. “I could always use being a little more blessed. I’ll have to pass, though. We’re already inundated with jobs at the moment, and sending a ship to certain death doesn’t really seem cost-effective, right now. ”
He was mocking me, but that was hardly surprising. I was talking nonsense, clearly. He’d be a lot harder to impress than Malmur. A simple miracle or two wouldn’t cut it with this guy.
“And what about you, Damicar? How are things in the Onion Union? Any closer to perfecting your cheese and onion cake?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Damicar. “And it’s delicious.”
“I’m allergic to onions,” Royn explained to me. “Never been able to keep them down.”
“He isn’t allergic, he’s just a fussy eater. Won’t try anything new. Ask his mother.”
Royn smiled, but not with his eyes.”Oh Damicar, whatever are we going to do with you? Why don’t you come work for me, Damicar, hmm? I have a lovely big kitchen. I could use someone to make my sandwiches. Hold the onion.” He chortled to himself.
There was obvious friction between the two, but nothing very worrying.
“How about this,” I said. “What if we make a bet?”
Damicar gave me a sharp look.
Royn’s ears perked up. “What kind of bet?”
“Something simple, just to show you how blessed we are. What about a foot race? Out here. From one end of the street to the other.” A non-violent contest to get what I wanted. What could be better? Or less likely?
“You against me?” Royn was in good shape. I could tell he had a decent build, even though I still wasn’t gay. I had been trying to keep fit, but it was hard to find the time in between the betrayals and absence of human decency in my life.
“No. Between you and Damicar.”
“What?” said Damicar.
Maybe I should have discussed it with him before tossing his name in the ring. But it was a spur of the moment thing. It had to be something quick and hard to plan for.
Of course, I planned to cheat. But it would be hard to hide this from Royn since the biggest indicator that I was cheating would be winning. Just like in the Olympics.
“Obviously, it won’t be a fair race,” I said. “We have the Golden God on our side. You’ll be able to see that yourself, when Damicar wins, but so it’s not too one-sided, you’re welcome to use whatever method you like to beat him. Cheat all you want.”
If everyone was cheating, then it was a level playing field. Just like in the Olympics.
Royn looked at Damicar, appraising his body. Damicar looked embarrassed.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” said Damicar.
“Have faith,” I said in my best impression of a pompous wanker. I didn’t even have to change my voice.
“If you win,” said Royn, “I lend you a boat and crew. And if I win?”
This was great. He was already putting up his boat, cost-free. Obviously, only because he couldn’t foresee losing, so he’d throw a shit-fit when it came time to pay up, but it was a solid starting point.
“If he loses, you get Damicar as your personal cook. Just pay him the basic wage for a sandwich-maker.”
Royn grinned. Damicar scowled.
“Just down this street?” asked Royn.
“Yep. On foot. Just the two of you. Apart from that, anything goes.” Okay, maybe it wouldn’t be entirely non-violent, but he had to fancy his chances in a one-v-one. By the time he realised he should have killed Damicar at the starting line, it would all be over.
“Alright, I’ll take that bet. Damicar?”
I looked at Damicar. I’d already cost him his home, but he had come away with a potential upgrade. Would he trust me again?
“Alright,” said Damicar. “I’m not very good at running, though.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Just walk. You’ll still win.” My confidence was enough to give Royn a moment’s doubt. But his ego wasn’t going to let that stop him.
The race only took a few minutes to set up. The endpoint was a hitching post at the other end of the street. It was still quite early, and there were only a few people wandering about. Royn’s men cleared the route, which was less than fifty metres. They seemed quite interested in this little diversion, and were making side bets. They all thought Royn would win, it was a matter of by how much.
Royn took off his jacket and handed it to one of his men. He rolled up his sleeves. He had a firm, taut body, as I’d predicted. And yes, I was still heterosexual. I just had no way to prove it.
I took Damicar’s coat and confiscated his onions.
“You’re sure about this?” he said.
“Absolutely. I’m going to stand by the finishing post and when I shout Go! Start running. Physical contact is allowed, remember.”
Damicar looked like he wished I hadn’t reminded him. Royn was grinning like he’d already won.
“I like my bread toasted on one side,” he said.
I walked to the far end of the street. “Just take your time, Damicar.”
Royn was bound to barge into Damicar immediately.
The men lining the route would probably stick out a foot, or throw stuff at Damicar — I’d already seen some of them take food off their tables.
And if they realised they were going to lose, it would be more than food they’d be throwing.
I jumped out of my body. Easiest win of my life.