The Tower: Chapter One - At the Sign of the Silver Eel
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Torches hiss and sputter in the damp mist that envelopes Water-Rat Road. No sea breeze tonight. Only the stench of brine and dead fish from the nearby docks.
Greasy light oozes onto the damp pavement from a doorway, casting puddles of smoky yellow through a tattered leather curtain. The sound of voices from inside, the clatter of mugs on a table, a thin tuneless piping. Looking up, the passer-by strains his eyes through the gloom to make out the sign: a grey coiled shape that in sunlight might gleam silver.
This would be the Silver Eel then.
One by one they gather in the tavern, shouldering their way through the grimy curtain. Ten pairs of eyes look up, consider each briefly in turn, and look away to other matters. The piping comes from a dark corner where a couple of thugs, whose hulking stature and dark features bear the similarities of kinship, are coaxing a private show from one of the tavern dancers. A rattle of dice comes from another corner followed now again by a sudden shout or a gush of harsh laughter.
Buying ale or wine, scraps of tough meat and hunks of mouldy bread, they find seats and watch the door. First the youth Sittius, later Anteus and Sarrencius, finally at midnight the gladiator Tamas.
And then they wait.
"What's the hour?" growls Anteus, unfastening his cloak and tossing it to the floor, careless of where it falls.
"After midnight," murmurs the gladiator. "Think you that he'll come?"
The dark-haired youth shrugs his shoulders. "Tis said he's a man of his word, if that comforts you." He grins. "Are you stayed for elsewhere? A lovers' tryst perhaps?"
"I say we're fools to wait," grumbles the veteran.
Sarrencius turns his attention away from the tavern dancer to look at his companions, absently scratching his nose. "My arse is almost through my britches," he says ruefully. "Your sandals are worn to the quick, Anteus. His cloak is in tatters. We've reached the end of the line. We need what Veredan has to offer, and he knows it..."
"Such confidence, gentlemen, is warming to the heart."
It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh. The wisps of hair that escape from beneath the hood of his robe are milk-white. His eyes gleam redly in the torch light, beneath the shadow of his cowl, defying any attempt to tell his age, but the irony in his voice betrays something of his years. Tall is he, this merchant prince, and yet taller still is the black who stands silent guard at his shoulder.
Sittius swallows hard and glances around at the group. Sarrencius is the first to speak. "M'Lord I understand you need employees," he says, eyeing the bodyguard carefully.
Veredan lowers his long frame into a chair, and bows his head for a moment, as if pausing for thought, stippling his fingers in front of his still-hooded face. Then he speaks in a low voice:-
"Last month one of my vessels was driven to the south by a violent storm. The crew feared for their lives, not least because of the pirate-infested waters in which they sailed. When the gale slackened, they found themselves off the coast of Kush. The captain prepared to beat a hasty retreat to the north. As he did so the lookout noticed something gleaming on the cliffs, high above the distant shoreline."
"Intrigued in spite of his concerns my captain drew his vessel closer to take a better look. He saw an old purple tower, part ruined, hidden beneath an almost impenetrable jungle. From the description he gave me when the vessel at last made port in Messantia, I believe it dates back to the time when Stygia was the ruler of those lands..."
Veredan's voice has been growing fainter, and at last trails away into silence. He motions weakly with his hand, and the Kushite leans forward and presses a wine cup into his grasp. He drains it quickly, and lets it fall with a clatter onto the floor.
"Forgive me," he murmurs. "My...ah, condition... requires certain medication." Visibly he collects himself, sits a little straighter in the chair. "Where were we? Ah yes. The tower. By my captain's account it is protected from the sea by nearly unscalable cliffs, and from behind by a mountain range covered with nearly impenetrable jungle. I believe it has lain undisturbed for centuries. I believe it contains lore of considerable interest to a... scholar... such as myself. I believe that I could make it worth your while to retrieve that lore..."
"My Lord, if I might ask a question or two?" A young woman steps from the shadows into the pool of light around the table, blonde braids tumbling over one shoulder as she tilts her head on one side, looking at the hooded figure. Pausing for his assent she continues, "Nearly impenetrable jungle and nearly unscalable cliffs. A challenge for even the best perhaps? Or do you consider those comments to be the exaggerations of a sailor reluctant to explore the land before him?"
Sarrencius coughs, murmuring something to the newcomer that only she hears. She looks down at her feet as Sittius nods and takes up her theme. "Aye, woman. Your concerns are sound. I for one have little skill in cliff scaling." He looks around at the other sell-swords. "My strength lies in my steel. I will be of little use if what you seek is a mountaineer."
Veredan inclines his head in a bow towards the newcomer. "My Lady. I did not know you were with us. But often the unbidden guest proves to be the best company. Please join us." Then his voice hardens as he addresses the gathering as a whole: "Nearly unscalable, I said. Nearly impenetrable. A way can be found for those with courage and determination."
"Although I am neither a sailor nor a mountaineer, that purple tower intrigues me," says Tamas calmly, refusing to be baited. "Lord Veredan, do you know anything about the people who reared that tower, or for what purpose it was used? And what is it that you seek within the tower?"
The merchant shrugs. "I do not know anything, gladiator. But I can guess much. I would hazard that the tower was once the home of an outcast. Who built it? Who can say. What do I seek? Neither more nor less than knowledge."
Anteus leans forward: "Three questions then: How large an expedition do you intend to send? Who will be in command? And what are you offering in payment should we accept?"
Sittius nods his head again, still refusing to meet Veredan's gaze. "Anteus' question of payment is a good one. I would know my reward before committing myself to your task."
Veredan sighs. "You are direct, all of you," he mutters. "And it is as well, for the hour grows late." He pauses for a moment to collect himself, and then goes on. "These are my terms: to each of you, man or woman, with the stomach for this venture I offer a retainer of one gold piece a day. This to voyage south to the tower with me and plunder its secrets, then to return here to Messantia. If we find aught of value, each of you will receive a one-twentieth share. My vessel the Marlin is moored nearby. Her crew readies for sea even as we speak. Be at the quayside at first light, and the Quartermaster will welcome you aboard. If you desire weapons that cannot be found in the vessel's armoury he will have them brought aboard."
Veredan surges to his feet. "This for your time tonight. Think of it as an advance on your wages." He tosses a leather pouch onto the table that lands with a clink of coins. "We sail on the noon tide."
He turns with a swirl of his cloak, and is gone, taking the Kushite with him.