THE MERCHANT OF DREAMS
Mal leant over the ship’s rail, scanning the shore for any sign of a wreck. The mistral had swept the sky bare, leaving the coast etched in hard lines by the cold clear light of a January morn.
“There,” he said at last, pointing to a dark shape on the beach.
Coby joined him at the rail. “Are you sure it’s the skrayling carrack, sir? Those timbers could belong to any ship.”
“You still don’t believe me.”
“I—‘ Her head drooped, expression hidden by the hood of her cloak. “It’s been more than a year, sir. I thought…I thought all that was over.”
It’ll never be over, he wanted to tell her. Not whilst I have this thing inside me.
The ship tacked westwards, closer to the white sands. A rocky headland loomed to their left, the prevailing winds threatening to dash them onto its rocks as it had the ship they sought. Ahead, the northernmost tip of Corsica rose in low hills seared to colourlessness by the mistral. As they drew nearer, pieces of flotsam dashed themselves against the bow, as if clamouring to board a sound vessel. A scrap of dull red sailcloth tangled in rigging confirmed Mal’s suspicion. This was the skrayling ship from his dream.
“I don’t see any bodies,” Coby said after a while.
“No, thank the Lord.” He made the sign of the cross, then turned to their captain and addressed him in French. “Set us ashore here.”
“Is that wise?” the Moor replied in the same language, his native accent heavy. “Just the two of you?”
“Would you rather come with us, and be mistaken for a corsair raiding party?”
Captain Youssef shrugged, and waved to two of his men to lower the jolly-boat. Mal glanced at his companion. Dressed in masculine attire, she easily passed for a boy of fifteen or so, and a hard life had given her a toughness beyond that of most young women. Still, he worried every time he took her into peril.
As if guessing his thoughts, she grinned at him and patted the knife at her belt.
“If any are left alive, we’ll find them,” she said. “Ambassador Kiiren would never forgive us if we did not.”
* * *
They poked amongst the wreckage on the beach, but found no one either dead or alive, nor any sign of the ship’s cargo.
“You think the islanders already picked it clean?” Coby asked, straightening up and brushing sand from her breeches.
“They’ve had a good couple of days,” Mal replied. “I doubt this is the first vessel to fetch up here, nor will it be the last.”
“No footprints besides our own.”
Mal shrugged. “Erased by the mistral’s dying breath, perhaps.”
They found a narrow track leading up from the beach and followed it over the ridge. A village, little more than a hamlet, lay in a sheltered hollow of the hills, surrounded by the chestnut trees for which the island was famous. No smoke rose from its chimneys, no cry of children or bark of dogs disturbed the morning air. Coby glanced at Mal but said nothing. He drew his rapier and continued down the track, eyes scanning the buildings for any sign of life.
As they came closer they realised the houses were falling into ruin, their silvery thatch half gone, interiors standing open to the sky. Doors hung askew on their hinges or lay on the threshold in splinters.
“Corsairs?” Coby whispered.
“Long gone, by the looks of it.” Mal sheathed his sword. “We should search the houses. If there are survivors of the wreck, they could have taken shelter here.”
It did not take long to search the entire hamlet, but they found no sign of the skraylings, only half a human skeleton well-gnawed by dogs. An old man or woman, judging by the shrunken, toothless jaw. Mal pointed out the blade-marks on the ribs.
“They take the able-bodied villagers for slaves,” he said, “and kill everyone else.”
Coby stared at the pathetic remains, hand on her throat where, Mal knew, a small wooden cross hung on a cord. He wondered if she was remembering other deaths, of those far closer to her than this unknown Corsican. After a moment she looked up and him and nodded, her eyes bright with tears.
They followed the track out of the other side of the village until they came to a fork. One branch wound southwards through a chestnut wood carpeted in golden leaves, the other led back northeast, towards the coast.
“Where now, sir?” Coby asked.
Mal searched the ground for a short way along each road, though he was not hopeful. The earth was too dry and hard to take prints. He was about to give up when a dull gleam caught his eye: a bead about the size of a pea, made of dark grey metal. Hardly daring to trust his luck, he drew his dagger and touched it to the bead. When he lifted the blade away, the little sphere clung to it like a burr.
“Lodestone,” he said with a smile. “The skraylings came this way, and left us a clue.”
He gathered up all the beads he could find, and they set off down the coastal path. The skraylings had come this way, or been brought, though whether alive or dead he could not tell.
They followed the coast south for about a mile, then turned east along the edge of the low cliffs. A chill northerly breeze, no more than a faint memory of the mistral, tugged at their cloaks and ruffled their hair. They had still not seen a living creature apart from the ever-present gulls.
“Youssef told me the citadel of Calvi lies not far from here,” Mal said. “If the skraylings were taken by the islanders, my money is on Calvi. The Genoese would pay handsomely for intelligence of the New World.”
“You think Youssef will wait for us?”
“Until noon tomorrow, at least. So he swore.” He looked at her sidelong. “You do not trust him?”
“No more than I trust any man in our line of work.”
Mal grinned. “Very wise. But he has not failed us so far. I think he has earned such trust as we can spare.”
His hand closed around the beads in his pocket. They were already starting to take on some warmth from his flesh, and there was something comfortingly familiar about the way they clung together as he rolled them over one another. Perhaps it was only an echo of a memory, of playing with his mother’s rosary as a child. Though her beads were of amber, not cold steel.
“There,” he said a few moments later. “The citadel of Calvi.”
The broad promontory stretched northeastwards away from them, covered in more of the bare-branched chestnut trees. At its farthest point it rose to a hill encased in walls of pale stone, rising sheer and impregnable from the cliffs. Within, tall red-roofed buildings clustered about a domed church. It made the Tower of London look like a child’s toy.
“If they are in there,” Coby said, “how in the name of all that’s holy do we get them out?”
Above the open gates of the citadel was carved a motto: Civitas Calvis Semper Fidelis. Faithful to whom? Mal wondered. Their Genoese overlords, or their own self-interest?
A lone guard, slouching in the meagre warmth of the noonday sun, detached himself from the wall as they approached and looked them up and down. He was a good six inches shorter than Mal, with greasy black hair and a gap between his front teeth.
“Who are you?” he asked, “and what is your business in Calvi?”
Mal hesitated. His Italian was a little rusty, and the man’s accent was not easy to understand.
“Our ship is damaged,” he said, pointing back northwards. “We need to buy nails and rope for repairs.” Just enough truth to give his story verisimilitude, that was the trick of it.
“You are English,” the guard said, his eyes narrowing.
“I was born in England,” Mal replied, “but I have family in Provence. We were sailing to Marseille—“
“Not a good time of year to be sailing anywhere.”
“My father is dying,” Mal said with a shrug. In truth his father was some years dead.
“There is a chandlery down by the quay,” the guard said, gesturing over his shoulder.
“Thank you. But perhaps first I may light a candle for my father’s soul, and give thanks for our own safe landing. There is a church in the citadel?”
“The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist,” the guard said, drawing himself up to his full height. “Go to the top of the hill; you cannot miss it.”
Mal thanked him again, and they went through the gate. A steep cobbled street wound upwards, turning into a broad flight of steps that led past the ochre-and-white stucco façade of the little cathedral.
“Now what?” Coby asked in a whisper.
Passers-by were eyeing them suspiciously. Mal might pass easily enough for a local, apart from his height, but Coby’s blond hair and pale skin made her stand out in any crowd south of Antwerp.
“We do as we said, and go inside,” Mal replied.
Coby gasped as they stepped through the cathedral doors. Perhaps the plain exterior of the cathedral had led her to expect a similarly austere interior. Instead, the light of hundreds of votive candles gleamed on the pale curves of alabaster carvings and reflected off the gilding of a hundred statues and icons of saints. The elegantly vaulted ceiling overhead was punctuated by oval panels painted with scenes from scripture, as fine as any work Mal had seen in Italy. An enormous crucifix, taller than himself, stood on the altar.
Mal genuflected, dropped a handful of sou into the collection box for the ransoming of Christian slaves and lit a candle, placing it before a statue of Michael, his own patron saint. Coby remained near the door, looking uncomfortable in the opulent and, no doubt in her eyes, all-too-Papist surroundings. Mal turned back to the alabaster saint and murmured a prayer. For her soul, and his own, and most of all that of the brother lost to him.
A chill of unease ran over him as he thought of Sandy. Touching his finger to his forehead in a hurried gesture, he returned to the cathedral door.
“Let’s get out of here,” he told Coby.
“What’s wrong, sir?”
“I don’t know. Something…” He shook his head to dispel the uncomfortable feeling. “Let’s go down to the harbour. We might be able to pick up some gossip at the chandler’s.”
A long flight of stone steps led down from the citadel to the quayside, where housewives haggled with fishermen over baskets of the morning’s catch. Flocks of gulls screamed overhead; their more cunning fellows sidled around the stalls, yellow eyes fixed on the fishermen’s baskets. Mal looked around for the chandlery, but his eye was caught instead by a squat stone watchtower at the end of the quay, connected to the citadel above by a length of wall that ran up at a sharp angle. No entrance was visible from this side, nor any windows, and yet the islanders were giving the building a wide berth.
Mal looked out to sea, shading his eyes as if looking for a ship, and drummed his fingers thrice on his dagger hilt. Coby halted at the signal and waited expectantly.
“There,” he said, glancing sidelong towards the tower.
She nodded, following his gaze discreetly.
“The skraylings?” she whispered.
“I’m sure of it.” He could not say how, but he was as certain as if someone had just told him. “Where better to lock up a score or two of unexpected prisoners?”
Youssef’s ship, the Hayreddin, was a sleek galleass of the sort popular with both Turks and Christians. As well as its three triangular sails, it had two dozen oars on each side, the better to manoeuvre in battle—or sneak into a harbour against the wind. However it was too large to go unnoticed on a moonlit night, so they dropped anchor and went the rest of the way in the ship’s jolly-boat.
Though they rowed as slowly and carefully as possible, the splashing of the oars sounded over-loud in the night air. Their course was not easy, hugging the foot of the citadel’s hill as close as possible so that anyone on the walls above would have to look over and down to see them, instead of out across the water. The darkness that concealed them came at a price, however; it also concealed the rocks near the shore, and one of Youssef’s keenest-eyed men was obliged to crouch in the bow, raising a hand now and then to steer them away from destruction. On several occasions Mal thought they were about to be dashed against the rocky shore, but the sailors’ skilled rowing thrust them back out to sea. He wondered how often they had done this kind of work before. Best to be grateful they had, and not ask questions.
The harbour was not unguarded, of course. Torches burned in cressets at intervals along the waterfront, and a sentry paced back and forth. Not, Mal noted, too close to the little tower. His conviction that the skraylings were held within deepened.
Their little craft slipped from one fishing boat’s shadow to the next and into an empty berth not too far from the nearest end of the sentry’s course. Mal scrambled ashore, signalling for the rest of them to stay put. He waited until the sentry had turned to walk away, then slipped silently across the quay and hid in the alley between two warehouses. Long moments passed, punctuated only by the sentry’s receding footsteps and the occasional hawk-and-spit. Then the feet turned and began to approach. Mal edged closer to the alley mouth and drew his dagger hilt.
As the sentry drew level, Mal stepped out behind him, clamped his left hand over the man’s mouth and slammed the dagger up under his ribs towards his heart. The sentry writhed in his grasp, stubble grating against Mal’s palm, then sagged to the ground. Mal wiped his blade on the man’s clothing, sheathed it and hurried back to the waiting boat.
At his signal, Coby clambered ashore, followed by Youssef and two of his men. The sailors scattered to keep watch, whilst Mal and Coby ran towards the tower. A large arch pierced the connecting wall. Mal paused in its shadow, scanning the shrub-covered slopes between the waterfront and the base of the citadel, but could see nothing moving. He beckoned to Coby and slipped round the far side of the tower.
To his relief there was a double door at ground level on this side, its rusty handles secured with a new steel chain and padlock. Any doubts that they might have the wrong place vanished. Why lock up a watch tower so securely, unless you were afraid of what was inside?
Coby uncovered a small lantern as she neared the door. Handing it to Mal, she rummaged in her satchel and produced a canvas roll. Mal positioned the lantern so that its beam fell on the enormous padlock, and Coby began probing the workings with the largest of her skeleton keys. Mal kept watch as she worked; they were well hidden from view here, but also cut off from their allies if things went wrong.
Coby muttered under her breath and blew on her fingers to warm them. Mal glanced back down at her and she made an apologetic face. Biting her lip, she twisted the key again—and the padlock gave a satisfying click and sprang open. Mal took hold of one end of the chain with his free hand whilst Coby gently unwound the rest from the rough, flaking handles of the tower doors and lowered it noiselessly to the ground. Mal seized the handles, and a shudder of panic swept over him. Drawing a deep breath to calm his nerves, he hauled the doors open.
A rush of warm air swept their faces, an ancient maritime scent of salt and seaweed, laced with a familiar musky scent: skraylings. Mal gestured for Coby to raise the lantern and stepped forward, expecting to see chained captives blinking back at him. He was partly right. At his side, Coby whimpered and clapped a hand to her mouth.
“Dear God in Heaven,” he murmured, making the sign of the cross.
The bodies of about two dozen skraylings lay on the floor of the tower in a pool of dark blood, still roped together. Their wrists and fanged mouths were bloody, as though they had torn open their own veins—or one another’s. He began methodically examining the bodies, in case any of the victims had survived, but they were already beginning to stiffen. This must have happened hours ago. Was that the cause of the unease he had felt, back at the cathedral? The skrayling soul trapped within him, mourning for the snuffing out of its fellows? He shuddered, not liking that line of thought.
At that moment he caught sight of a dark head amongst the white-streaked hair of the other skraylings. Short black hair. Mal’s heart skipped a beat, and he frantically pulled the dead bodies aside until he had uncovered the dark-haired one. With a lump in his throat he turned the skrayling over.
It was not Kiiren. Yes, the face lacked the tattooed lines of skrayling traders, and when Mal lifted the upper lip, the canine teeth had been removed; but this was not the ambassador. Another Outspeaker, then?
He was prevented from following this thread of questions by a scuffle off to his left. Coby’s lantern shattered on the stone floor as she grappled a slight figure who barely came up to her shoulder. More than that, he could not make out in the darkness.
“Kuru tokh nejanaa sjel! Kuru tokh kurut siqirr kith-gan nejanaa sjel, nej nejt adringeth dihaaqoheet-iz aj-an.”
Though Mal could not understand the words, the frightened, pleading tone was unmistakable.
“Hush!” Coby replied. “Friend, no hurt you.”
As Mal’s eyes adjusted to the faint moonlight, he realised she had hold of a young skrayling, probably no older than herself though his hair was already striped with silver like his elders. When he caught sight of Mal, the boy froze and stared.
“In a manner of speaking,” Mal replied with a grimace. Seeing the boy’s confusion, he racked his brains for what little Vinlandic he knew, and inclined his head in greeting. “Kaal-an rrish.”
“Kaal-an rrish, Erishen-tuur,” the boy replied, bowing back. “Nejanaa Ruviq.”
“Ruviq-tuur.” Mal guessed it was the boy’s name.
Ruviq grinned, revealing his eye-teeth, then turned pale beneath his tattoos and glanced back at his dead comrades. Coby said something to him in an undertone and put her arm around his shoulder.
“Come on, we’d better get back to the ship.” A thought struck him. “Wait. Help me collect the necklaces from all the bodies.”
“Just do it. Quickly.”
It was a grisly task, but Mal’s instincts were correct. After a few moments the boy Ruviq began to help, and they quickly gathered them all into Coby’s satchel.
“I can manage,” Coby said as Mal took the satchel from her and slung it over his shoulder. “It’s not that heavy.”
“It will be if you fall in the sea with it weighing you down. See to the boy.”
He led them back round the tower and signalled to Youssef. The Moor raised a steel-grey eyebrow at the lone skrayling youth but did not ask for an explanation. Mal’s respect for the man’s professionalism increased, and he wondered if he should bring Youssef into his cadre of regular informants. Perhaps later, when this business was dealt with. He helped Ruviq into the jolly-boat and sat beside him; the boy seemed to take comfort from the presence of a familiar face. Mal smiled to himself. Sometimes being mistaken for his twin brother had unexpected benefits.
At that moment a bell tolled somewhere in the citadel, high above them. Rapid footsteps echoed down the long stair leading to the quay, along with shouted Italian. Youssef swore and pushed off as muskets popped and flashed in the dark and bullets whistled overhead. Mal scrambled to help the rowers, whilst Coby pulled the boy down behind the flimsy shelter of the bulwarks. The jolly-boat lurched against the tide, moving agonisingly slowly into the lee of a fishing boat. Soldiers were pouring out onto the quay and boarding the boats. Bleary-eyed fisherman trailed in their wake, swearing at everyone indiscriminately.
As the jolly-boat pulled steadily out of the harbour, the soldiers appeared to be squabbling with the fishermen over who was in charge of putting to sea in pursuit. A few musketeers lined up in the sterns; the rising wind had scattered the clouds and the fleeing rescuers were an easy target. Youssef yelled at his men to row faster as the first fusillade peppered the water around them.
The fishing boats cast off at last, but the wind was in the west and they would have to tack hard to get round to the Hayreddin. Youssef’s men laughed until a lucky shot caught one of their number in the head, sending him sprawling back against the gunwales. Coby pulled Ruviq close, not letting him see the man’s body; she looked as if she was going to throw up herself. The rest of the crew bent to the oars and pulled as if the Devil himself were after them.
They reached the Hayreddin without further casualties, and climbed the rope ladder one by one. Ruviq moved slowly as if in a dream, or a nightmare. Mal beckoned to Coby, and together they took the boy into the small side-cabin in the stern.
Mal could tell she was eager to question the boy, but he stalled her with a gesture. She took the hint and with signs and a little Tradetalk encouraged Ruviq to lie down and rest. When he seemed settled, she followed Mal back out onto deck and they stood at the rail, staring out across the moon-limned waves.
“You needn’t have killed him,” she said. “The harbour watchman.”
And here he was, thinking she was worried about the boy.
“Perhaps not,” he said. “But you well know how chancy a business it is, to knock a man senseless. Too hard, and you may kill him anyway; too soft, and you might as well not bother. Would you rather I had taken that chance, and he had raised the alarm before we could rescue the boy?”
“No, of course not.”
“Tonight could have gone a lot worse,” he said, trying to lighten the mood. “At least this time it wasn’t me that got shot.”
She turned towards him, her face pale in the moonlight. “Don’t remind me. I was sick with worry—“
“I was the one who puked everywhere, as I recall.”
She laughed at that, and shook her head. “How anyone can be seasick on a river…”
“It was Kiiren’s foul potion. Anyone would be sick after drinking that.”
“He patched you up well enough, though.”
They fell silent, lost in shared memories of their first summer together. He put an arm around her shoulder and she leaned into him, though as much, he suspected, for warmth as any other reason. Still, it eased his own heart a little.
“So what do we do with the boy, sir?”
The note of formality in her voice brought him back to the present, and his duty to his masters in England.
“We take him back to Sark,” he said. “And then we try and find out why the skraylings were here in the first place.”
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