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'Those Cawn merchants were fools to have turned us down!' Wu assured Dancer from across their table in a waterfront dive in Malaz City.
'You,' Dancer corrected. 'They turned you down.'
Wu waved a hand airily to dismiss the point. 'Well, that still leaves them the fools in my little scenario.' He sipped his glass of watered wine. 'As to chasing us out of town ... an obvious overreaction.'
Dancer leaned back, one brow arched. 'You threatened to curse them all to eternal torment.'
Wu appeared surprised. 'Did I? I quite forget – I've threatened to curse so many.' He lowered his voice conspiratorially, 'In any case, Malaz here suits our purpose even better. It is fortunate. The Twins favour our plans.'
Dancer sighed as he poked at his plate of boiled pork and barley; he'd quite lost his appetite recently. 'It was the first boat out we could jump.'
Wu opened his hands as if vindicated. 'Exactly! Oponn himself may as well have invited us aboard.'
Dancer clenched the edge of the table of sun-bleached slats and released it only after forcing himself to relax. It's all right, he assured himself. It's only a setback. There are bound to be setbacks. 'Plans,' he said. 'You mentioned plans.'
Wu shovelled up his plate of onions and beans, then spoke with lowered voice once more. 'Easier to control a small city and confined island such as this. An excellent first step.'
'First step to what?'
Wu opened his hands wide, his expression one of disbelief. 'Why ... everything, of course.'
Dancer's answering scorn was interrupted by the slamming of a stoneware tankard to their table in the most curt manner possible. The servitor, a young woman whose skin showed the unique bluish hue of the Napans, stalked off without a backward glance. Dancer thought her the least gracious help he'd ever encountered.
In point of fact, she was the fourth Napan he'd seen in this rundown waterfront dive. Two were obvious hired muscle hanging about the entrance, while the third was a tall lad he'd glimpsed in the kitchens – another bouncer held in reserve. The nightly fights in this rathole must be ferocious.
'... and for this we need a base of operations,' Wu was saying. Dancer blinked, refocusing on him.
'I'm sorry? For what?'
Wu looked hurt and affronted. 'Why, our grand plan, of course!'
Dancer looked away, scanning the sturdy semi-subterranean common room more thoroughly. 'Oh, that. Right. Our try anything plan.' Stone walls; one main entrance strongly defended; slim windows; a single narrow back entrance. And he'd seen numerous windows on the second floor – good for covering fire. Quite the fortress.
Wu drummed his fingers on the tabletop, his expression sour. 'You don't seem to be taking this in quite the right spirit. If I may tell you my news ...?' Still eyeing his surroundings, Dancer murmured, 'Be my guest.' He noted that the bouncers at the door were far from the typical over-sized beer-bloated souses that usually slouched at the doors of these low-class alehouses. They were obvious veterans, scarred and hardened, their narrowed gazes scanning the room and the street outside.
This was not your typical sailors' drinking establishment. In fact, everything about it shouted 'front'. And everyone in Quon Tali knew Malaz Island was nothing more than a pirates' nest; he wondered if he was looking at one of their bases.
Wu, he saw, was watching him, looking quite vexed.
'Do you wish me to continue?'
'Certainly.' Dancer motioned to the Napan server who was now leaning against the wall next to the kitchen's entrance, examining her nails. The woman made a disgusted face and sauntered over.
'What is it?' she demanded.
He motioned to his plate. 'This food is atrocious.'
'Atrocious. Really. A plate of boiled pork. How atrocious could that be?'
Dancer invited her to take the plate away. 'Well, your cook managed it.'
The woman scooped up the plate and stalked to the kitchen entrance. 'Hey, Urko! There's a fellow out here taking issue with your cooking.'
A great basso voice thundered from the kitchens. 'Whaaat!'
The doors burst open and out shot fully the biggest and scariest-looking Napan of the lot: monstrously wide, with the shoulders of a strangler, yet wearing a dirty leather apron. Dancer readied himself for a confrontation, but instead of facing him the man turned on the server, bellowing, 'I don't need these complaints! I didn't want to be the damned cook anyway. Make Choss the damned cook!'
'He's a better shipbuilder,' the woman calmly returned, leaning against a wall, her arms crossed.
The big fellow raised fists the size of hams to his head. 'Well ... give the job to my brother then, dammit to Hood!'
'He's at sea.'
The gigantic cook sniffed his affront, grumbled, 'Trust him to find a decent job.'
The server pointed back to the kitchens and the huge fellow – Urko, apparently – clenched his thick leather apron in his fists until it creaked. He scowled at the woman then drew a hand down his face, snorting through his nostrils like a bull. 'Well ... I got onion soup. Offer him that.' And he stomped back through the doors.
Dancer could only shake his head at the state of the hired help here. He supposed it was difficult to find quality labour on the island. He motioned to the door. 'Let's try another place.'
Wu gave a strange high laugh, almost nervous, and Dancer cocked an eye at him, suspicious. 'Change of management,' Wu explained, gesturing to encompass the establishment. 'Be patient.'
Whatever. Dancer tried a sip of the beer and found it far too watery. He made a sour face. 'You said that you had news?'
'Ah! Yes ... news.' Wu fluttered his hands on the table, the wrinkled knotted hands of an ancient as the mage was still maintaining his appearance of an old man, but his motions were quick and precise; not those of a doddering oldster. Dancer decided he'd have to coach him on that. 'So,' Wu continued, still brushing his hands across the tabletop, 'yes. News. Well ... while you were out reconnoitring the waterfront, I happened to fall into conversation with the owner of this fine establishment ...'
Seeing that this was going nowhere fast, Dancer forced himself to take another sip of the foul beer. 'Yes? And you killed him for gross incompetence?' This raised a weak laugh that faded into a long drawn out coughing fit. 'Well, actually, no. I found that he was in a feverish hurry to sell ...'
Dancer set down the tankard. Oh, no. Tell me no. 'What,' he began, calmly, 'have you done?' Wu raised his hands. 'As I was saying – we need a base of operations for our plans. This location is ideal. Close to the waterfront, great for smuggling ...'
Dancer pressed his palm to his forehead. Mustn't lose it. 'What,' he began again, through clenched teeth, 'have you done?'
Wu opened his hands wide. 'Our partnership has entered a new phase. We've gone into business together.'
Dancer somehow found himself on his feet, towering over Wu, his hands flat on the table. 'You bought this rat-hole?'
Wu's dark ferret eyes darted left and right. 'So it would seem.'
Through his rage, Dancer sensed a presence close to him and snapped his gaze aside – it was the serving woman. How did she get so close?
But her sullen attention was on Wu, ignoring him. She flicked a piece of dirt from the table. 'You want to see your offices now?'
Wu brightened immediately. 'Why, that would be excellent! Thank you ... ah ...'
'Surly,' the woman supplied, with a tired curl of a lip.
'Ah, yes. Excellent. Thank you ... Surly.'
She motioned to the stairs and Wu bustled off. His walking cane was now in his hand, tapping as he went. Dancer decided that the privacy of an office would be a better place for their discussion, in case he accidentally strangled the wretched fellow, and so he followed, but not before he noted the woman's hands: hardened and calloused. The hands of a servitor? No, not the cracked and reddened skin of washing and scouring. Rather, skin toughened and scarred. Hands like his.
The office stood over the common room and here he found Wu waving a cloud of dust from his face after pushing a heap of papers off a chair. The mage gave a nervous laugh. 'A quick whip-round and it'll be decent in no time.'
Dancer closed the door behind him and pressed his back to it. 'What have you done?'
Wu turned, blinking innocently. 'What? Why, acquired a property at a fantastic price!'
'Did you just spend all our remaining —' He snapped up a hand. 'Wait! I don't want to know. What I do want to know is why.'
'Hmmm?' Wu was now inspecting the desk, which was heaped high with garbage and plates of dried crusted food. He poked his walking stick at the mess. 'Why what?'
Dancer sighed, raised his suffering gaze to the ceiling. 'Why did you purchase this place?'
Wu blinked again. 'Ah, well, actually the price was a steal because the fellow thought the Napan employees were conspiring to kill him and take the business. Why he should think that I have no idea ...' Dancer just glared until Wu's brows rose in understanding. 'Ah!' Swinging the walking stick, he brushed aside all the clutter on the desk, sending papers, glassware, tin plates and old candles crashing to the floor. Satisfied, he sat behind the expanse of wine-stained dark wood and gestured to the empty surface. 'There we are. You see? One must sweep aside the old before building anew.'
Dancer crossed his arms. Okay. 'Why here?'
'The moment I set foot on this island I felt it.' Wu raised his hands, brushing his thumbs and forefingers together. 'Shadow. It's close. This place has some sort of affinity.'
Dancer let his arms fall. 'So you say,' and he added, half muttering, 'if only to justify this stupid purchase.' He crossed to the one window. It overlooked a side street of ancient wood and stone buildings, all muted grey and dingy in a thin misting rain. He turned on Wu. 'But we're still only two. What's the plan?'
The lad was undaunted. He raised his hands once again. 'Why, as before. We take over the town.'
Great. As before ... when we failed. Dancer drew breath to tear into the fool but silenced himself as he detected someone on the landing outside the door. A knock sounded. Wu cleared his throat and steepled his fingers across his stomach, arranging his features into a stern frown.
'Ah! Yes? Do come in.'
The door swung inward but no one entered. Intrigued, Dancer leaned forward to peer out. It was the serving woman, Surly. The young Napan was surveying the room before entering and Dancer smiled to himself: More than a mere servitor. For certain.
She took one step in – still not clearing the door – and eyed Wu as if she'd found a particularly annoying mess. 'Do you have staff of your own you'll be bringing in?'
Wu's tiny eyes darted right and left. 'Ah ... no.'
'So, we'll be staying on, then?'
'For the foreseeable future.'
The young woman's expression twisted into even more of a scowl. 'Work's hard to come by on this damned island.'
Wu leaned forward to set his chin on a fist, cocking his head. 'I should think you and your, ah, piratical friends should easily find employment with any one of the crews that sail out of this island.'
The lips curled up into a humourless half-smile. 'Don't know much about the history between Nap and Malaz, do you?'
'You're rivals,' Dancer supplied. Surly gave him a reserved nod. 'You've fought for control of the southern seas for hundreds of years.'
'That's right. They won't have us. And in any case,' and she raised her chin, her gaze suddenly fierce, 'we work for ourselves.'
Pride, Dancer read in her every stern line. Ferocious pride. How did anyone come to such monumental arrogance? And he smiled inwardly. Well ... I should know.
The girl made it clear she considered the interview over by backing away – not turning round, as anyone else might, but sliding one bare foot behind the other and edging her weight backwards. And Dancer smiled again, inwardly. One should not advertise one's training so openly.
Also studying the girl, one brow raised, Wu motioned to him. 'My, ah, partner, Dancer.'
Surly eyed him anew. He watched her gaze move from his face to his hands, to his feet, a knowing amusement similar to his own growing in her dark eyes. 'Partner,' she said. 'I see.'
'So what brought you here, then?' Wu went on.
The amused light disappeared behind high, hard walls. 'Shipwreck in a storm. We are the few of ... the crew who made it to shore.'
What had she been going to say just then, Dancer wondered. My crew, perhaps?
'I see ... well, thank you.' Wu motioned her out.
The scowl returned but she withdrew, pulling the door shut as she left.
Dancer remained poised next to the window. He eyed the door, musing aloud, 'I heard of some sort of dispute among the royal family of Nap not long ago. A civil war. This lot might've backed the losing side. So they can't go back. They're stuck here.'
No answer came from Wu and Dancer turned: the lad was leaning back in the captain's-style chair, using his hands to cast shadow-images on the wall. Sensing Dancer's attention he glanced over, blinking. 'Sorry? You were saying something?'
Dancer gritted his teeth. 'Never mind. Let's talk about our plans.'
Wu thumped elbows to the desk and set his chin in his fists, frowning in hard thought. 'Yes. Our plans. No sense tackling one of the corsair captains here – the crew wouldn't follow us. I've never sailed. Mock rules from his Hold, but he probably doesn't care who runs the streets. So, for now, we limit our attention to the shore. The merchants and bosses who control the markets and warehouses.'
Dancer had pursed his lips, considering. 'What do you propose?'
Wu raised his head, smiling. 'Why, our forte, of course. Ambush and hijacking.'
'Awake, awake, Mistress Jay!' Light blossomed and Sail winced, pulling the covers over her eyes. ''Tis late! What are you thinking, lolling about in bed?'
'All the rich ladies in Unta do it, Viv. It's good for the complexion. And it's not Jay. It's Sail.'
A poker rattled in the stone fireplace. 'Well, I'd think it's not good for the complexion. Makes the eyes puffy and all.'
'You know nothing, Viv.'
There came a huff and a sniff. 'Well ... if Mistress Sail says so ...'
Sail took the time to stretch. She arched her back, luxuriating in the soft smooth glide of clean cotton sheets – so unlike the coarse flea-infested rags of her youth. Her hand emerged from the layered covers to encounter the chill morning air of Malaz Island and she flinched, drawing her knees to her chest.
Gods, it was freezing! It was summer and it was freezing! How she hated this damned island. And trust Viv to start the fire late.
She dared poke her head from beneath the heaped quilts, and blinked at the light of mid-morning. 'Is the chamberpot ready?'
Viv, her supposed lady-in-waiting, though having seen a bare twelve summers, turned from where she knelt at the fireplace. She wrinkled her tiny freckled nose. 'Why do you have to use that smelly thing? Just use the privy like everyone else.'
Through clenched teeth Sail said, 'Because that's not what real ladies do.'
Viv rolled her eyes, then returned to rebuilding the fire. 'More work for us,' she grumbled.
'Don't forget who I am.'
'Oh, I ain't forgetting. You're in bed, not me.'
Sail gathered the duvet about herself and dragged it across the icy bare stone floor of the bedroom to the divider behind which lay the ceramic chamberpot. She crouched over it and eased her bladder in an embarrassingly loud hiss.
She wondered what the real ladies in Unta did about that. She shuffled from behind the divider. 'Now dress me.'
Viv sighed and straightened from the stone hearth, brushed errant strands of black hair from her snowy-pale forehead.
Well, Sail reflected, as least they'd progressed past comments like 'Can't you dress yourself?'
'The riding skirts,' she said.
Viv searched through the clothes chest. She grumbled, just loud enough, 'Ain't no horses on Malaz.'
Sail almost despaired. Couldn't this foolish child see what a benefit this was for her? She was learning an art she could market on the mainland. 'They're all the fashion, Viv.'
'What do you mean, where?' She waved impatiently. 'In the cities. Tali and Gris and Unta!'
'Do much riding in these cities, do they?'
Sail clenched her lips tight, hissed, 'Just bring them.'
Viv held out the layered thick skirts and Sail dared stretch an arm out of the duvet to take them. 'And the velvet long-sleeved blouse, and that woven Wickan vest.'
Viv blew hair from her face and returned to the chest. 'It's summer,' she said. 'Why not a sleeveless dress?'
Sail shuddered in her wrap. 'Summer here? What a joke. Bring the heeled shoes too. The black ones.'
Excerpted from "Deadhouse Landing"
Copyright © 2017 Ian Cameron Esslemont.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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