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"Master?" Ool asked softly from behind my right shoulder.
"We're close," I said without turning. "An hour, maybe less. Keep alert."
"Aye, sir." My first mate bellowed a quick warning to the crew: "Eyes open, there! Jeffy and Squint, get aloft! Watch for Grayhaven!"
Two dozen voices cheered. I knew how they felt. It had been a long voyage; they had every right to celebrate now that our goal lay at hand. They would have plenty of shore leave once we reached the fair ... if the locals didn't hang us first.
I grinned to myself. Not that they would hang us, for I planned on giving them no cause. Foot braced against the bow's railing, I leaned forward and gazed ahead to where the Avanar River curved gently to the left. My heartbeat quickened when I saw flashes of movement--but it was only eight or ten boys busily jumping off the tree-lined bank, swimming, yelling, and splashing each other. When they spotted us, they began pointing and shouting. Then they scrambled up the riverbank, grabbing pants, shirts, and undergarments from bushes, and fled among the trees.
Ool chuckled. I glanced sideways at him. My first mate was tall, with deeply bronzed skin, a bald head, and piercing blue eyes. As always, he wore the simple yellow robes of a wizard. Mystical symbols had been stitched on the sleeves in silvered thread.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
"They were afraid of us."
"Most people are."
"They saw through our disguises immediately."
"What do you think?" I asked.
"My thoughts do not matter, master." He inclined his head. "Our destinies are linked. It is my job to make sure we succeed here, ifsuccess is at all possible."
"But...?" I prompted.
"I think it is madness, Master, to bait these people. A needless risk."
It was my turn to chuckle. Poor Ool, no sense of romance or adventure.
I said, "You're too practical. You know I do one impossible thing every year. Bards sing of my adventures from the palaces of Zelloque to the dungeons of Pethis. After all, I am the greatest pirate who ever sailed the Seren Sea!"
"If you do say so yourself," he added with wry note.
"Someone has to!"
My gaze swept back over the Pamah Reach, taking in my ship's three tall masts, the unsavory-looking crewmen at work on the deck, and the huge stacks of crates and bales tied down to the deck. With her wide, deep keel, the Pamah Reach had been built for the sea, not rivers, but I had vowed to attend this year's fair at Grayhaven, and I would keep my word ... as always. Grayhaven's lake ran deep enough, and how I got my ship past the shallows and rapids was my own business. What did I care if they called me a fool? If I wrecked my ship, I could always steal another, as I had stolen Pamah, and besides, everyone knew pirates were crazy. And my reputation was at stake.
"Master?" asked my first mate. "Orders?"
"Steady as we go. Prepare to make port."
"Aye, sir." He moved off, setting the men to scrubbing down the decks, trimming the sails, and generally getting things ready for docking. He was a good mate, Ool, the best I had ever had. The fact that he was a wizard helped. I knew I would need his special talents before the fair ended.
The time passed slowly. We passed two more deserted-looking villages; the inhabitants had doubtless gone to the fair already. And then, finally, rounding a last bend in the river, we came into sight of Grayhaven itself.
My heart quickened and my breath caught in my throat. Behind me, I heard startled murmurs of awe from my men. None of us had ever seen anything like the fair before.
It spread over mile after mile of land. The canvas tents and booths, the thousands of stands and displays, and the milling crowds became a dazzling patchwork of colors, reds and blues and golds, pinks and greens and bright yellows. More people than I had ever seen before in any one place surged through the streets and alleys. Everyone who was anyone in these parts came to Grayhaven for its annual month-long fair.
Beyond the fair rose thick stone walls belonging to the city of Grayhaven, with hundreds of white stone towers capped in gold jutting up from inside like so many fingers. The fair proper lay outside of the city, completely circling it.
Ool called more orders, and the sails came down. Slowly we eased forward, nosing in among all the smaller river-craft tied at Grayhaven's numerous docks. To my right and left bobbed the small, single-masted boats of fisher-folk; ahead I saw the flat, empty beds of river barges whose cargoes were already up for sale at the fair's various stands and booths.
We had not arrived unnoticed. People swarmed along the dock, following the Pamah Reach's course. I recognized a half-dozen or so of them: Ophir the Cat, Vern Nuli, Jaster One-eye, others, all former sea-captains whose cargoes I'd ... liberated ... on more than one occasion. Several of them shouted curses at me. Others shook fists or knives. The bright-plumed helms of the Grayhaven guardsmen bobbed up and down above the tumult as the soldiers did their best to preserve order.
"Ease a bit to port," I called.
The mate at the wheel shouted, "Aye, sir!"
Ahead I saw an empty berth on the inside of the third-most pier, where thick oak pilings had been sunk deep into the lake's clay bed. Seizing the end of the mooring rope coiled beside me, I waited. Thirty feet, twenty...
"Drop anchor!" Ool shouted.
I heard a splash as the anchor dropped, and the squeak of rigging as sails were lowered.
"I'll see you hang, pirate!" Ophir the Cat shouted.
I just smiled coldly. I had special plans for him.
A red-faced man in blue robes called, "Hanging's too good for him--death by torture!"
The guardsmen drew their swords and pushed the people back thirty feet--a safe-area for me and my ship. The last time I'd seen such a mob had been in Zelloque, when the Prince Neb of Coran had come to visit. He had been possessed by a demon at the time, it later turned out, and he had tried to murder the Great Lord of Zelloque, Narmon Ri himself. There had been riots in the street and the Coranian Embassy had been burned to the ground.
The dock crept closer; I felt the Pamah Reach beginning to slow. A boy of perhaps eight slipped through the line of guardsmen and ran to the edge of the dock. I tossed him the mooring rope, which he looped around the end of a piling, cinching it tight as my ship eased closer.
With a shudder, the anchor caught and eased the ship to a halt a half foot from the dock. I couldn't have asked for a better arrival. While the crew began to stow the sails away and see to a hundred-odd shipboard tasks, I stepped calmly onto the dock. Ool, my tall, dark-skinned first mate, bellowed orders with a cheerfulness I'd always found disconcerting, considering I had found him half-dead in the hold of a slave ship.
I gave the boy a silver coin and off he ran. Watching him go, I felt a bit nostalgic. Once I, too, had worked the docks in my native city of Zorvoon. It had been one of the happiest times of my life, when I'd had no cares in the world and known nothing of pain or loss.
"That's him!" the red-faced man shouted again. "That's Fel Blackmane, the pirate! Grab him!"
The crowd surged forward, but the guardsmen kept their swords up and the people in place by sheer force. They lashed out with their fists, and soon the men drew back nursing bloodied noses and blackened eyes.
A captain of the guards pushed his way through to the safe-area and shouted for silence. He was a large, heavily built man dressed all in brown, from his leggings to his steel and leather helmet. With his thick black beard and bushy black eyebrows, he looked like someone I wouldn't want to meet in a fair fight. I made a pretense of smoothing my yellow silk shirt and black silk pants that puffed out from ankle to waist, then ran my fingers through my dark beard, setting the jewels clipped there jingling and flashing in the sunlight.
"Are you Fel Blackmane, the pirate?" he demanded. His eyes narrowed as he studied me with obvious disdain.
"No, good sir," I said. "I'm Fel Blackmane, the trader. And you?"
Slow-thinking lout. I'd have no trouble getting in, I knew then. I almost felt a twinge of disappointment. Almost.
"I'm Galvan Blickling, Captain of Grayhaven's Guardsmen."
"Ah, sir, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance!" I clapped him on the back as if we were old friends. You could talk your way out of almost any minor dispute by making friends with the local guards ... and if that didn't work, gold often did. "I've studied the laws of Grayhaven, and under them I'm entitled to protection against needless harassment from thieves and cutthroats such as those assembled here." I waved to take in the crowd assembled on the dock. "I wish merely to attend your fair. I've come to set up a small booth and sell various items I've taken on during my last voyage."
"He's lying!" Ophir shouted. "He robbed me and my ship of twenty thousand in silks and spice six years ago! I demand justice!"
"Jealous competitor," I murmured so only Blickling could hear.
Blickling shrugged my hand from his shoulder. "Let me see your fair pass," he snapped.
I took a small silver medallion from around my neck and held it up for him to examine. It carried the emblem of Grayhaven Fair, a complex sword-and-snake pattern inscribed with certain mystical wizard-marks that were supposed to be impossible to counterfeit. I'd found a wizard who could copy them anyway (it always amazes me what gold can buy), and I knew my medallion would pass any test Blickling could come up with.
I could see Blickling weighing all the evidence in his mind. I could tell that, despite my pass, he wanted some excuse to arrest me, to throw me to those who called for my blood.
"The guards at the foot of the Avanar River didn't have any objections to my entering the fair," I quickly pointed out. As if I'd given them a chance to object. All barges had to be inspected before sailing into the harbor, and the blockades made it impossible for anyone to pass unnoticed. Any boat on the water, that is...
"I must ask the Fair Council," Blickling said reluctantly. "Wait aboard your ship."
I bowed my most impressive and sincere bow. "As you wish, good sir. I trust the matter will soon be taken care of." With that, I turned and boarded the Pamah Reach again. I went straight to my cabin without looking back.
Inside, I began to laugh.