Sibron Kha’lak listened to the sounds of the waking port city while he sipped his mug of white lotus tea; the cries of gulls mixed into the cries of eager fish-mongers and wailing infants, while beneath the cries were the many-toned peals of every temple in the city that celebrated a morning ritual, along with the distant chants of the devote, barking dogs, squealing pigs, moaning oxen, the creaking wheels of a thousand push-carts, and a million other sounds that accompanied the city waking from its slumber every morning, like fat, jaded tart idling rousing after a busy evening’s labor by the docks. Beneath the smell of offal, animal excrement, cooking foods, spices, and decaying garbage, he thought could also detect the faint, linger scent of rain – it could be that a storm was coming, and if that were the case its torrential downfalls would do more than wash the garbage and shit off the city’s streets. Even with most of her inhabitants still asleep, Kasai snored.
He slicked back his thin, greying black hair with his right hand, while holding his log book in his left; there were still many things to do before the Sun Crane could slip her moors, catch the morning nor-eastly winds in the Bay of Minkai, and skirt the shore line north for Muliwan, and the lush, grassy steppe of the Hongal horse-lords. A full three-day voyage; two if the winds stayed favorable, or much longer if they got too close to Xidao territory: the fish demons were known for taking vessel that strayed too close to their waters, made the more problematic by the fact that their demon-prince claimed all the waters on the Oerth as their domain.
But Sibron was no novice skiff-captain; twenty-two years as a pirate, smuggler, and privateer had honed his senses well, and now that he’d found less-lucrative, albeit far safer, work transporting merchants and goods, all his experience on the sea still served him well enough to keep him safe on the Muliwan run for some 15 years come this winter. It was chancy, but merchants and travelers found the voyage much safer, and far more predictable, than risking going through by horse or cart through the Forest of Spirits, where the mercurial Kami Lords of the Ikkaku Peninsula either allowed travelers to live, or took them for their own amusement, according to their desires. Sibron was no Xian himself; he was a beak-nosed swarthy Vudrani, from Silundu, a jungle-choked island off the coast of Vudra, from some village whose name he’d long since forgotten. But a lifetime plying the Valashia Sea and the Okayio islands made him very familiar with the Tien Xia and Minkaian folk, and their ways. When a Minkai merchant took risks they did so only in slow, tiny increments, like the head of a thousand-year-old turtle coming out of its shell. Sibron’s schedule was nearly always booked.
Suddenly, a tall bearded, muscle-bound Avistani ran up to him with meat pies in his huge hands; he handed one to Sibron, who took one dripping bite, and then asked with his mouth partially filled with food:
“What did the Port Master say? How does the south-west sky look?”
“Black as Nocticula’s quim”, replied Grote Giant-Struck sourly; the Sun Crane’s First Mate was from Iobaria, where he’d lost an eye, an ear, and part of his face battling a giant. “We’ll need to push off soon if we don’t want Rovagug’s teeth in our ass.” He inserted an entire steaming pie into his yellow-toothed mouth in one bite, quickly chewing and then swallowing, and then wiping the juices on the stiff sleeve of his hides. “Repairs are done”, he continued, sucking juice from his thumb, “ and we got the new rigging and extra canvas stowed.”
“Have they loaded all the water and supplies yet”, the Captain asked?
“Too slow”, the Avistani replied, blowing his nose into his left hand, and then casually tossing the snot into the street. “That Monkey merchant’s got the hold all bolloxed up with his crates and boxes, and they’re knacked trying to work around them. Dumb as cow shite, that lot.”
“Well, just remember, Grote: these Minkai merchants account for most of our customers these days, so let’s not insult them, and get our boys to work with them as best they can.”
“Aye, I’ll get ‘em to work, alright; I just wish it was the old days, when we’d pluck that feathered goose, not ferry ‘em around.”
Sibron missed the old days too, sometimes; but he was older now, nearly 50, and safe, steady work was now his preference.
“Just as long as the goose gives us coin, that’s all that matters. When the crew get done loading make sure I get the updated manifest. There should be no passengers, besides the merchant and the girl; has she boarded yet?” A mysterious blue-eyed Avistani girl booked passage at the last minute with Sibron himself last night as he ate dinner; normally he did not conduct business that way, but the girl seemed honest enough, and her purse held enough coin – but most telling of all was the small gray and red flower, known as Wolf Cup, and called Lo’elhi here, that she had pinned to her sleeve. Among the Minkai, that flower was sacred, and only very specific individuals were allowed to openly display it – to say nothing of a foreigner.
And given the fact that there had just been a fire ceremony in Kasai three days ago, and the departed was a well-known Red Wolf clan Shadow Master, the Captain was certain she was one passenger he dare not refuse.
“Aye, she’s aboard”, Grote replied with a gleam in his remaining eye, “and there’s another plump little chicken I’d like to pluck if I get the chance…”
The Captain laughed heartily.
“I’m sure she’d sooner offer ‘rump rights’ to a malodorous, bow-legged, pock-marked, green-skinned, thick-skulled ice ogre than give a foul-mouthed, inebriated, crooked-back, ass-scratching, half-face son of a whore savage such as you, Grote!”
“Mebbe so”, he returned mirthlessly, “but then back in them old days I’d be takin’ a little piece like that, and not askin’.”
“And you’d likely be getting your throat slit and your balls cut off and stuffed down your throat for all your troubles, fool. Did you not see how she was dressed last night, and the weapons she wore at her side; did you not notice the Wolf Cup blossom on her sleeve? Did it ever occur to you how it is a pretty little Avistani girl like that was allowed to walk the streets of this city, unaccompanied and unmolested, even in the docks? No; maybe I couldn’t be 100% sure about it, but I’d bet my ship’s weight in gold coin that girl is ninjitsu, a shadow warrior, or at the very least a pupil of some Shadow Master. I know she seems small, but so does a Skull Spider, and one bite from them will turn your insides into pudding. I’d stay as far away from her as I could, if I were you, Grote, I certainly will: because even if she somehow couldn’t do the job for herself, someone from her clan seeking vengeance for your actions certainly would, and that’s a fresh hell I would want absolutely no part of."
The muscular Avistani paled visibly, then looked down as his feet.
“I never said I *would*…I mean, if…I’ll just go an’ look after the crew…”
He waved away the stuttering First Mate with his right hand, and then went back to considering how soon he could launch the Sun Crane
before the coming storm either drove them into the fish demon waters, or swallowed them whole.
There were days he mused sourly, when pirating and raiding seemed a whole lot safer after all.