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A stiff east wind was blowing, bearing the scent of salt and decay from the beaches beyond the city wall. Such a breeze was chilly and uncomfortable, but it could bring ships into port quickly, cutting travel time, and that might mean happy merchants looking for laborers to unload their cargo. Captains and owners pleased by a quick passage tended to pay well, so Emmis of Shiphaven ambled up New Canal Street with an eye on the sea, watching for any inbound vessel, rather than following his usual morning routine of a stroll up Twixt Street to Shiphaven Market. If that unseasonable wind dropped, leaving ships becalmed in the bay, any hope of being overpaid by cheerful merchants would drop with it.
The richest cargoes were usually landed at either the Spice Wharves or the Tea Wharves, across the canal in Spicetown, but the Spicetown dockworkers had their own little bands and brotherhoods, and Emmis was not particularly welcome. In fact, Emmis was not welcome there at all--not since Azradelle's wedding. The Shipping Docks and Long Wharf here in Shiphaven were more informal, though, if only because the work wasn't as steady. Nobody in Shiphaven would mind an extra pair of hands.
Emmis had made his living as an extra pair of hands for some time now. It wasn't a career with impressive prospects, but he got by.
He reached the mouth of the canal and walked out on the seawall, peering out through the tangle of masts and yards at the Spicetown docks, trying to see whether any ships were out beyond the docks, running before that lovely wind. He shaded his eyes and gradually swiveled his head to the left, toward open water.
There! A ship with red and gold sails, hauledover on the port tack, with a long multicolored banner streaming from the mizzen, was swooping across the bay. She looked to be southern-rigged, which meant she was from somewhere beyond the river-mouth at Londa in the Small Kingdoms, and she was clearly heading toward Shiphaven. Her helmsman seemed to be steering for either Pier Two or Pier Three.
Emmis turned west along the seawall to Pier One, where he cut over to the street; he kept a careful eye out to sea, watching the ship's approach.
It was headed for Pier Two, he decided. Even with the strong wind, then, he didn't need to hurry; he would be there before the ship came in. He slowed his pace.
The ship was starting to reduce sail now, slowing for her final approach. Emmis watched with mild interest, observing how well the crew handled their duties--their performance might provide some indication of how he might get the most money from them for the least work.
They did well enough; the mainsail was furled quickly, without any corners flapping free. The jibsails came down smoothly, then the topsails, until only the topgallants were still drawing.
When the vessel finally neared the dock, out past the elbow in Pier Two, Emmis was seated comfortably on a bollard, waiting. Rather to his surprise, no one else had appeared yet on Pier Two; presumably the other Shiphaven laborers had all either already found work elsewhere, or had decided to stay inside out of the wind today.
Emmis stood as the ship came gliding slowly in and raised a hand, indicating his availability. A crewman stood in the bow holding a line; seeing Emmis' signal, he nodded and began swinging the rope, building momentum. When he flung it, Emmis was ready and waiting; he grabbed the painter and threw a loop around the bollard he had been sitting on, securing it with a neat clove hitch.
Then he jogged toward the stern, where another crewman was readying another line.
A few moments later the ship was secured alongside the dock, sails furled and gangplank out. Emmis waited by the plank. He knew better than to board any ship without explicit permission from its master, and as yet he had not spotted this vessel's captain. The man at the wheel wore the same faded white blouse and blue kilt as any other sailor, without so much as a hat to set him apart. Emmis assumed he was merely the helmsman.
There was no sign of a pilot, which might be why the ship was here rather than across the canal in Spicetown; the Newmarket sandbars could make getting to the eastern wharves tricky. The more experienced foreign navigators often made the approach themselves, rather than paying a pilot's fee, but no one from this ship looked very experienced. Judging by the visible excitement among the crew of this vessel, Emmis doubted most of them had ever been in Ethshar of the Spices before.
Then a hat appeared amidships, emerging from the deck below and rising above the coaming of the main hatch--a large black hat trimmed with a red satin band and a magnificent plume. It was followed by the head wearing it, and then by the rest of its owner.
Emmis watched with great interest as this person emerged.
He was rather short, with dark hair and a brown complexion; his beard appeared to have been trimmed recently, but had clearly not taken to the idea and bristled unevenly. He wore a red velvet coat trimmed with gold braid, black piping, and gold buttons, and below the coat were fine black breeches. The coat and breeches both had the look of new and unfamiliar garb.
His boots, when they finally appeared, were well made and, unlike the rest of his attire, well worn.
Several of the sailors--not all, but probably a majority--bowed to this person as he stepped over the coaming onto the deck. Emmis did not go that far, but he straightened up respectfully.
The man in the red coat waved a brief acknowledgment of the bows, then stamped toward the gangplank.
As the man approached, Emmis continued to eye him with interest. The foreigner was at least forty, perhaps over fifty, though his hair showed only the faintest hints of gray. He had the slightly saggy look of a man who had once been fat but had lost weight, not from healthy exercise but because he wasn't eating well. The fancy clothes fit him well and had obviously been tailored for him recently, but he didn't look entirely comfortable in them.
He paused at the gangplank and looked along the pier, from the seaward end to the warehouses on East Wharf Street. He took note of the sailors who had secured the lines, of the handful of other workers finally making their way out from shore, and of Emmis, standing there ready.
"Who are you?" he demanded, speaking Ethsharitic with a slight accent.
Emmis did bow now. "Emmis of Shiphaven, at your service," he said.
The foreigner marched across the gangplank and stepped off onto the pier, then turned to face Emmis.
"Do you mean that, or are you being polite?" He had an odd way of drawing out certain consonants; Emmis did not think he had ever heard this particular accent before.
Emmis blinked. "My services are indeed available," he said. "For a reasonable charge."
The foreigner cocked his head to one side. "We will decide later on what is reasonable, but you're hired."
Emmis smiled. "To do what, my lord?"
The stranger did not smile back. "Don't call me that," he snapped. "I'm not a lord."
Emmis wiped his own smile away. "My apologies, sir. I saw them bow."
The foreigner waved that away. "Apology accepted." He turned and shouted, "Fetch my baggage!"
Two of the sailors hastened to obey.
"Come on," the foreigner said, beckoning for Emmis to follow him toward shore.
Emmis did not move. "Sir?"
The foreigner stopped and turned. "Yes?"
"You have not yet told me what my duties are to be, nor my pay. I can't consider myself employed until I know more."
The foreigner nodded. "A reasonable..." He seemed to grope for the right word without finding it. "A reasonable thing," he said at last. "Od'na ya Semmat?"
Emmis blinked. That last phrase had been completely unintelligible; he had no idea what language it was, let alone what it meant. "What?"
"You don't speak Semmat?" the foreigner asked.
"I never heard of Semmat."
The foreigner nodded, which set the plume on his hat bobbing. "Trader's Tongue? Ksinallionese? Ophkaritic? Thanorian?"
"I've heard of Trader's Tongue and maybe know a few words," Emmis said warily. "If you're looking for a translator, I might be able to find you one..."
"Ah!" The stranger flung up a hand. "There! You see? You know your duties!"
The little knot of other laborers had reached them; the foreigner waved them past, toward the gangplank, where the sailors welcomed them aboard and began directing them. Brass-bound trunks and leather handbags were starting to appear on the dock, lined up beside the gangplank.
"No, sir," Emmis said emphatically. "I don't know."
The foreigner sighed. "You live here, yes? In Ethshar of the Spices?"
"Yes. I was born here, over near Olive Street." He gestured in the direction of his parents' home. "Now I live behind Canal Square."
"You know the city well?"
"I suppose so, yes." Emmis was not simply being wary in his phrasing; he knew parts of the city very well indeed, but there were plenty of places within the walls where he had never set foot--and never wanted to.
"Then I hire you!" the foreigner exclaimed. "To know the city for me. To tell me what I need to know and take me where I want to go."
"A guide?" Emmis frowned. "You want to hire me as your guide?"
The foreigner smacked himself on the forehead with the heel of one hand. "Guide! That's the word. I couldn't think it. In Semmat it's almit, in Trader's Tongue it's elfur, and I could not remember the Ethsharitic. Guide, of course. Yes."
Emmis hesitated. He did not particularly like the idea of showing this overdressed barbarian around the city's sights; he would probably want to see the Arena and the Wizards' Quarter, halfway across town, and might be upset that he couldn't meet the overlord face to face. He would perhaps want to poke around parts of the Old City that Emmis did not care to visit. And people from the Small Kingdoms were notoriously stingy, unfamiliar with the prices charged in the big city...
"I will pay a round of silver a day," the foreigner said, interrupting his thoughts. "To start."
"Ten bits," Emmis said automatically. "To start." Apparently this foreigner wasn't stingy, as a daily round of silver was generous to the point of extravagance, but that was no reason not to dicker.
Only after he had responded did Emmis realize that by naming a price he had effectively agreed to take the job and could not back out if his price was met.
"Done!" The foreigner held out a hand.
Emmis grasped it, surprised to be doing so, though the thought of all that silver stifled any regrets. "May I ask your name, sir, and what brings you to Ethshar?"
The foreigner's mouth quirked upward. He turned for a moment and pointed out several other workers. "You, you, you, and you! Bring those bags--my guide here will tell you where. And ... Emmis, you said?"
"Get that one," he said, pointing to a leather traveling case, "and lead the way to a reasonable lodging."
"For one night, or a longer stay?"
"Ah! You ask a reasonable question. Very good. For one or two nights, for now."
As he picked up the leather bag Emmis considered which inn might be willing to give him the best commission without overcharging his new employer too egregiously. He heaved the bag up on his shoulder--it was heavier than it looked--and began walking into the city.
The foreigner fell in beside him. "As for my name and purpose," he said, "I am called Lar Samber's son, and I am..." He cleared his throat, then recited, "...I am, by appointment of the Imperial Council and of the Regent Sterren of Semma, the ambassador plenipotentiary from the Empire of Vond to the court of Azrad VII, overlord of Ethshar of the Spices and Triumvir of the Hegemony of the Three Ethshars."
Emmis almost dropped the bag. "Ambassador?" he said.
"It's the right word, isn't it?" Lar said worriedly. "I practiced saying all that so much..." He shook his head. "I have no knowledge what 'plenipotentiary' means; Sterren didn't think there was any such word in Semmat, but he said it was important. He said 'ambassador' was the Ethsharitic for espovoi, a messenger from one ruler to another."
"That's what it means," Emmis agreed. He glanced back over his unencumbered shoulder to see a line of laborers hauling Lar's other luggage, but no sign of any other retinue. He would have expected an ambassador to have an entourage of aides and underlings, especially an ambassador from an empire. Emmis knew that Vond was a very young empire, having only been formed two or three years ago, and not really very large, but still--one man, unaccompanied?
"Did you bring your family, sir?" he asked.
"Don't have any," Lar replied. "No staff--you can stop looking. I have me, my belongings, and my orders--and enough of the Imperial Treasury to hire you and to pay my expenses for some time. I hope you will forgive me for saying this, but since I have only just met you I think I must say it--the money is well hidden and carefully warded, with the most potent protective spells the Empire's wizards could find, so don't think you might rob me."
"Oh, I wasn't! I assure you, I wasn't!" Emmis said hastily. Then he smiled. For what this man was paying, he deserved the truth. "But I would have soon, so it's just as well you warned me," he said.
Lar smiled back.
"Emmis, my new friend," he said, "I think this is the beginning of a long and wealthy ... no, not that word. A long and profitable relationship!"