10449 words (41 minute read)

Chapter 3

The lamplights lining the docks flickered, casting dim light on the long stretches of wooden pathways that lead to the ships that called Merrowport their current home. As Thoster walked along the main pathway, he had his sights on one boat in particular. It was the only one tonight with any sign of life. The rest of them were cold and dark, their owners and crew members tucked into beds at the local inns, spending their gold in Merrowport, keeping the city alive with their offerings. But at the end of the dock, the very last ship showed movement. Light and movement told Thoster that he knew just where he could find Cal. His pace increased, eager to have this over and done with so that he could return home to his family and see about righting their lives. He didn’t want to spend much more of Cal’s gold until he knew he had done the job he was paid to complete.

As he neared the boat, a few of the crew took notice of him and motioned to the others so that they could all get a good look at him from the lower deck. By his count, Thoster could see well over a dozen men and women of varying size and shape. They all looked as though they had seen their share of life’s crueler handouts, giving him nothing of a friendly smile among them.

“You the one Cal hired for tonight’s job?” A short, dark skinned woman with a thick, black braid hanging over her shoulder spoke first. She gave Thoster an appraising stare, as if she could see the value of each inch of his bones, calculating the worth of his flesh, auctioning him off before she even knew his name. Thoster had never seen a look so cold, so unforgiving, but there was nothing malicious in it. She simply knew nothing of him, and therefore saw his worth in the weight in gold he might fetch her.

“Aye, that’d be me. My name is--” He was cut off by the motion of her hand raising in front of her, but it was more than just a gesture. Try as he might, Thoster found that he could not force a single sound from his throat. It was as if his voice had been ripped away. Looking up at the woman, he caught sight of a winding tattoo that wrapped around her wrist.

Sorceress. He had heard of these sorts of magics before, but had never seen them for himself. Merrowport had a few temples where a handful of clerics resided, channeling the magic of their gods, healing the sick and tending to the wounded, but this was another kind of magic entirely.

“We don’t need your name, boy.” She said with a little sneer. “Cal paid for your part in this out of our share of the gold. Said we should think of it as an investment. I say you’re good for nothing more than someone to take the fall if things go wrong.” A few of the crew at her side grumbled their agreement.

Thoster’s eyes scanned each of them, knowing that each of them could likely kill him where he stood without much trouble at all. Concern flashed through his mind. Would he return home to his siblings tonight? He had promised Shaylee that he would, but with each passing second he was less certain of it to be true.

“Vashile, what did I tell you about threatening our associates.” The loud booming voice was familiar to Thoster. The spines of the crew members seemed to stiffen, but it took a moment more for the sorceress to twist her hand to remove her spell that kept Thoster so quiet. He rubbed his throat absently as he watched Calvin Roff step towards the edge of the ship and nod to him.

“I was worried you had changed your mind, Thoster.” He said with a slow smile that did little to put him at ease. The crew around him quickly dispersed, going back to their duties elsewhere on the ship. Thoster shook his head as he looked up at the captain.

“I have more honor than that, friend. I wouldn’t take your money without doing what I promised.” Thoster was nothing if not a man of his word. He lived and worked with less honorable folk, knew many of them as friends, but it didn’t mean that his personal sense of honor was at all tarnished.

“I had hoped that would be the case. I’m glad to see my faith in you wasn’t wasted. Come aboard, then. We have matters of business to discuss. And I’ll need to introduce you to the team you’ll be working with.” Cal gestured for Thoster to come around to the ramp that lead up to the lower deck. He did as he was instructed, coming aboard the ship without hesitation. Whatever this task was, he would see it through. His honor was on the line, and they both knew it now.

His first steps aboard the ship were shaky. The large boat rocked softly with the movement of the water. Even though he had been born and raised in Merrowport, Thoster had never stepped foot on a ship until this very moment. The floorboards of the deck creaked under his feet as he moved towards Cal. The captain smiled wide and held out his arms, gesturing to his ship.

“Well? How do you like my Aramil? She’s a fine vessel. We’ve weathered many storms together. You’ll find no better ship in all of Elysia. I’d wager my life on that.” He beamed like a proud father.

“I’m no expert in ships, but she seems sturdy. And your crew. They seem… protective.” Thoster chose his words carefully, aware that some of the ship’s crew remained close by, close enough to hear him as he spoke so freely with their captain.

“Ah, don’t pay them much mind. They’re protective of only one thing- their gold. And if you do your job well, there will be plenty to share.”

“Been meaning to ask about that, actually. Just what is it I’m to do?” The details of the job were nonexistent at this point. All Cal had told him was that he needed a local man to help his crew complete a task. He knew nothing of the task or what his part would be in it.

“As I said before, I need you to show them the way to the unloading point for our cargo and bring them home before sunrise. It’s as simple as that.” Again, Cal smiled, but this time Thoster couldn’t help but feel a chill creep up his spine. It wasn’t anything in what the man was saying, but rather in what he wasn’t saying.

“And just where am I taking them? What’s this cargo they’re bringing with them?” The questions were out of his mouth before he could think to try to hold them in. Of course he was curious, ,but dealing with men like Calvin Roff was tricky business, and not the sort that Thoster was all that used to.

“I need you to take them to visit the good Lord Treehorn. I trust you know where he lives.” Cal waited for Thoster to nod before he continued. “As for the cargo they’ll have with them, that’s none of your concern. A private business matter, you see. I wouldn’t be able to give much in the way of details to anyone who wasn’t fully part of my crew.” His eyebrow lifted suggestively, as if offering Thoster something without saying it in so many words.

“I understand.” Thoster said simply, wondering if it was really just his knowledge of the city that had given Cal reason to hire him for this task. He tried not to think about it too much. This was just a job, like any other odd little task here or there that he picked up to earn a bit of extra coin. This just ended up being a substantial amount of gold, and the promise of more to come if he could do the job well and agree to more.

“Good man.” Cal clapped a hand to Thoster’s shoulder and guided him around towards a set of stairs and took them below deck.

The stench was what he noticed first, so strong he swore he could taste it. Doing his best to ignore the strong odor of unwashed bodies, waterlogged wood, and fish, Thoster let his eyes sweep the room. There were about six tables that lined the far left wall, four stools at each. Lanterns were placed at the center of each table, filling the room with warm, low light. To the right, an open door allowed Thoster a glimpse into the kitchen, where three men moved about, prepping for tomorrow’s meals. Cal lead Thoster to the third table, where four of the crew sat, talking quietly amongst themselves. The familiar dark braid of the sorceress caught his eye as they approached.

“Thoster, let me introduce you to the team you’ll be guiding. You’re already familiar with our Vashile. She is a master of the arcane arts, but not quite a master of her temper.” Cal’s voice was something like a teasing father as he gave the scowling woman a wink. “As for the others, this is Jackson, Tyrek, and Linn.” Thoster gave them each a nod, noting the way Jackson’s dark eyes scanned Thoster for weapons, while the dwarf, Tyrek did nothing but twist his hand on the handle of the hammer at his side. The third man, Linn was the only one of the group to stand up and hold out a hand for Thoster to shake.

“Don’t mind them, mate.” The red haired man jerked his head to indicate the rest of the team. “They’re not nearly as mean as they want you to think. Well- except for her.” He gave Vashile a grin before he took his seat again.

“I’ll do my best.” Thoster said with a nod, giving them all another glance. “So long as I still have my voice and my wits about me.” He raised his eyebrows as he looked down at the sorceress who only scoffed in response.

“You will all play nice, and anyone who doesn’t will have me to answer to.” Cal spoke up, his voice suddenly firmer, leaving no room for discussion. The four members of the crew glanced nervously at each other, coming to their own silent agreement that they didn’t want to make waves.

“Aye, aye, sir.” Vashile said with a nod, the four of them standing in unison. As they moved to leave, Linn hung back and gestured for Thoster to follow along. Cal gave him a single nod before he turned to head back the way they came.

Thoster followed the four crew members further into the ship, down a narrow hallway to some of the sleeping quarters. No one spoke a word until they were all tucked away and the door closed behind them.

“So what do you know about this Treehorn fellow we’re meeting?” Linn crossed his arms over his chest, nudging Thoster with his elbow. The others looked at him, expectantly. Instead of answering right away, Thoster let them hang there, let them wait for him. This was what he was truly good at, building up the anticipation for a story.

“The Treehorns are said to be one of the oldest families in Merrowport. Richer than kings, with influence reaching far past Elysia’s borders. They hold no official status, but if any laws could stop them if they truly wanted something, I would sooner die where I stand.” He placed a hand over his heart, to emphasize the point. “The lord of their house for the last forty years is a man by the name of Richard. Happily married with three grown sons to succeed him.”

“Something actually helpful, would be nice.” The dwarf grunted from across the room. Vashile at his side gave a low chuckle in agreement. Thoster simply shrugged the comments off and cleared his throat so that he could continue his story. Honestly, they were more impatient than his younger siblings.

“The Treehorns own more property in Merrowport than any other noble family. Sprawling estates, shops, even run down taverns. Nothing is beneath them, and it’s honestly made them more powerful than the gods because of it. Nothing happens in this town without their knowing. Which makes me wonder just what it is that we’re bringing them.”

“Then you’ll keep wondering.” Vashile spat the words out, as if his request was the most ridiculous one she had ever heard. Thoster could tell that this woman had no interest in cooperating with him, despite her agreement with her captain just moments earlier.

“You know, my best chance at being able to help you lot is to actually know what I’m getting myself into.” Thoster crossed his arms over his chest, content to wait as long as he needed to. The two of them stood in stubborn silence for several long moments before Linn let out a sigh and moved between the two of them.

“It’s a magical artifact. Treehorn commissioned us to track it down and bring it to him. But only the captain spoke with him, so none of us even know what he looks like, let alone where he lives.” Linn spoke calmly, carefully, and there was a visible shift in the way the rest of the group held themselves, relaxing their postures slightly, letting go of the anger and unease they held tight within them.

Thoster had seen that sort of thing before, another kind of magic, Silvertongued, they called it. It was rare, though, so rare that Thoster had thought it was nothing more than a story told by old merchants who were swindled out of a few extra coin. But there was no denying the way he felt content just from listening to Linn speak, the way his words rocked him like a lullaby.

“Is it dangerous?” Thoster asked, comforted by the man’s speech, but not daft enough to be completely put at ease when there was still so much he didn’t know.

“We found the blasted thing on an island that has no name, abandoned and buried, locked away in an arcane cage deep below the surface. I have no idea what it does, but I would say that no one goes to that much trouble to hide a thing if it isn’t dangerous.” There was a shift from the others, nerves that they hadn’t shown until now. These people feared the very thing they had been given to deliver. Thoster observed them in silence for a moment.

“Well,” he eventually said, weighing his options carefully before he continued. “We had best get moving. Cal says he wants you all back before sunrise. We’re burning moonlight.”

Linn cracked a lopsided smile and gave Thoster a quick nod of appreciation. Vashile turned in a huff to open a trunk at the foot of her nearby bed. The hinges groaned as she lifted the heavy lid, rooting around for a moment before emerging with a small black pouch, barely bigger than the coin purse that Cal had given Thoster as payment for this job.

“It’s in there?” Thoster said, disbelieving. He was expecting something massive, for all the fuss Linn had said had been gone to just to hide the thing.

“Only a fool would underestimate magic.” Vashile hissed, her eyes narrowing before her lips curved into a sadistic smirk. “Or perhaps you need another demonstration.” Before Thoster could think to say a word, Tyrek let out an exasperated sigh.

“Toy with ‘im later, Vash. I want to get this over with.” The dwarf hoisted his large hammer onto his shoulder and took it upon himself to stride out of the room, back down the narrow hallway, and back above deck. Linn and Jackson followed suit, leaving Thoster there, standing with jaw clenched as he watched Vashile step towards him until they were nearly nose to nose.

“Hear me now, boy: You are expendable. The captain may like you, but I won’t hesitate to give your life for one of my friends.” It was only when she was this close that Thoster could see just how brilliant and green her eyes were, how the fierceness in them was not something quite as cold as he had assumed to start. She was protective of the people she cared about, and Thoster understood that better than any greed.

“I have no intention of dying tonight. Nor do I intend to see any of you left behind. We’ll get your trinket to the Treehorn estate and have you back with time to spare.” He spoke with confidence and compassion, now seeing just what motivated her actions. Living on a ship like this, he imagined that these people became like your family. There wasn’t a sliver of doubt in his heart that he would sooner cut down a stranger than see any harm come to his siblings.

Vashile didn’t say a word, just kept her eyes locked on his for the span of several long moments, as if assessing if she thought he was being honest with her. Without so much as confirmation that she even heard him, she let out a hard exhale and stormed out of the room, leaving him standing there, feeling like the wind had been yanked from his lungs.

Back above deck, the group gathered, talking quietly to themselves as Thoster emerged from the staircase. They glanced at him, not saying a word to him before murmuring softly once more. After a moment more of deliberation, Jackson, a large brute of a man, stepped over and handed Thoster a cutlass.

“Hope you know how to use this, mate.” He said, his deep voice like a rolling thunder that shook deep in Thoster’s chest. Thoster took the blade with careful hands, looking it over before he bothered to speak.

“Can’t say I have much experience, but here’s to hoping I won’t gain any tonight, hm?” He laughed, but the sound came out more nervous than he intended. He had gotten in a few play fights with Berwyn over the years, thrown a punch or two in a tavern when the drink flowed too freely, but Thoster had never been forced to fight for his life. He certainly didn’t want to start tonight.

Jackson chuckled, reaching out his large hands to shift Thoster’s grip on the hilt of the blade, closing his fingers around the handle, and giving a nod.

“Just like that. Anyone gets to close and you bury that blade as deep as you can. She’s sharper than hell, so do your best not to lose any of your own fingers in the process. Manage that, and you’ll be a fighter before you know it.” Thoster just blinked, finding a laugh bubbling out of him before he could stop it.

“I don’t know about that, friend. But I thank you for the lesson. Like I said, I hope I have no reason to use it.” Thoster gave the man a small smile, knowing that it was a sign of good will to give him a blade for the task. Still, if there was a fight, he would be better off standing back behind those much more capable, which as it happened, was all four of them.

“If you’re nearly done playing with your sword, you can get to work.” Vashile called out, a touch of the venom gone from her voice. “You were hired to show us the way, or have you forgotten?” She arched her eyebrow, challenging him to try to speak so that she could steal his voice again. Thoster managed not to take the bait, but instead simply nodded and made his way back to the dock.

Solid ground was a godsend. He didn’t know just how much he had truly missed it until his feet reached the solid wood structure of the dock, rooted by posts deep into the ground. Letting out a long breath of relief, the others laughed at the reaction, knowing all too well just what caused the reaction.

“Don’t worry, mate.” Linn said, clapping a hand to Thoster’s shoulder. “You get used to the gentle rock of the sea after a time. It starts to feel like your mother’s own arms, holding you tight.” He gave Thoster a wink, patting his shoulder fondly before they all moved towards the main road back into town.

Walking through the streets of Merrowport, Thoster could almost forget that this was a job .Instead, it felt as though he was simply taking a stroll with some new friends, enjoying the night air and the quiet. When they were about halfway between the docks and the Treehorn estate, Thoster began to whistle a tune, nothing that any of them would know, of course. No, he hardly knew it himself. He made it up as he went, but that was always his way.

“Must you make that incessant noise?” Vashile grumbled from behind him. Thoster glanced over his shoulder at her and grinned, shrugging his shoulders in slight apology.

“Afraid I must. It helps me think.”

“I wasn’t aware the captain was paying you to think. I thought he was paying you to walk. Quietly.”

“He might have, but that would just prove he doesn’t know me well. And the good captain doesn’t seem the sort of misjudge someone quite that much. I’d wager he knows just how much whistling I would want to do. But I can stop, if you’d prefer.” His eyes twinkled with mischief.

“Of course it’s what I would prefer.” Vashile rolled her eyes as she spoke. True to his word, the whistling stopped. A few quiet seconds passed as the group continued to walk. Then, a quiet noise reached out into the empty night, the same tune as before, but instead of whistling, Thoster had begun to hum. Standing at his side, Linn chuckled quietly, shaking his head.

“She won’t hesitate to kill you, you know.” A friendly warning, perhaps, but no less true. Thoster knew that he was pressing his luck with how far he pushed Vashile’s patience, but he had always been the type to see just how far his boundaries could go.

“She doesn’t scare me. I grew up with far more threatening women than the likes of her. No one knows anger like a Chatwyn woman. May the gods look down and keep the rest of us safe from their wrath.” He joked right back with Linn, but didn’t return to his humming, seemingly heeding the warning. Behind the both of them, Vashile glared at the back of Thoster’s head, as if she might bore a hole through it with her gaze.

The group walked in silence, moving through the empty streets of Merrowport’s finer residential district. Up ahead, a massive structure towered over the rest of the buildings. Thoster gestured to it.

“Treehorn owns that one, but he doesn’t live there. All the people who work for him live there with their families. I’m betting that’s where he had his meeting with Cal, which is why you need me to show you where he really lives.” Thoster waved for them to turn down a narrow alley with him, leading away from the more elegant home to something much more modest, set back from the main road.

“Here?” Vashile said, looking less than convinced that they were truly at their destination. “The most powerful man in the city lives… here.”

“Aye, but that’s just the point isn’t it? You’d never think to look for him here. Lets the man have his peace when he wants it.” Thoster grinned. Honestly, he thought it was brilliant. Those who knew who to ask could find Richard Treehorn when they needed him, but anyone else would pass right by this house without a second glance. Thoster only knew because Berwyn had told him. You had to know someone who knew something in order to make it in this town. That was always the way.

Still looking less than certain, Vashile kept a hand over the pouch tied to her belt. She gestured to Jackson to knock on the door. The large man stepped forward and raised his fist, knocking three times. The heavy echo of his massive fist against the thick wood of the door filled the air around them. At first, there was no answer, not a stir from inside the home. Thoster held his breath, wondering just what would happen if the good Lord Treehorn wasn’t home.

Thankfully, a moment later, candlelight flickered in the window, and there was the distinct sound of footsteps moving towards the door. Slowly, the door opened, revealing a thin man with a pale face and hair as black as night. His features were long and pointed, leaving his face a series of sharp angles. He was taller than most, but standing next to Jackson’s large frame, it was hard to imagine him as such.

“Lord Treehorn, I presume?” Thoster said, stepping up beside Jackson. He had never met the lord before, but that didn’t stop him from knowing just where to find him and how to get his task completed. Vashile and Linn glanced to one another at this revelation, eyebrows lifting. They had assumed that this local knew the lord quite well.

“Ah, you must be the ones Captain Roff was due to send. Yes, yes- do come in.” The man ushered them in, holding the door open for the group of them and closing it firmly behind him, latching it shut before he turned to face them. “Do you have it?”

Thoster turned to Vashile, who was already untying the pouch from her belt, holding it in the palm of her hand. Lord Treehorn’s eyes lit up as he reached for it, pulling the mouth of the bag wide open and reaching his hand deep inside.

Thoster’s eyes widened as he watched the man’s arm disappear up to his elbow, much deeper than the bag itself. Slowly, Lord Treehorn pulled out a staff with an ornate, jeweled design at the top. Thoster only caught a glimpse of it from his spot across the room, but he could have sworn the two red jewels reminded him of the demonic eyes of the goddess Inara. Treehorn examined it carefully before tucking it safely away in the bag once more. He seemed nearly giddy about it, pulling the drawstrings of the bag tight.

“Tell your captain that our debt is paid in full.” He nodded eagerly before moving back for the door. “And if he ever needs a friend in Merrowport, he has one in me.” Vashile nodded, giving a slight bow from the waist before she made her way to the door, signaling for the rest of the group to follow her. Thoster trailed along behind the others, pausing at the door and giving Richard Treehorn a closer look.

“I’m curious. Just what is it? The artifact.” He was likely pushing his luck, but such was his way.

“Something I’ve spent my whole life searching for.” Treehorn replied, his eyes meeting Thoster’s, still dancing with glee at his acquisition. “Something I would have given up everything for.”

It wasn’t much of an answer, but Thoster could tell he wasn’t going to get much more from the man, and rather than risk angering Lord Treehorn and Cal’s crew all in one foul swoop, he just gave the man a nod of his head and joined the others out on the street.

“Well, back the way we came, then.” Thoster said with a tight smile, the unease in his gut only intensifying now that the job was nearly done. All he needed to do was bring the crew back before sunrise, so why was it that he felt as though he had committed some grievous sin here tonight.

The group walked in silence, not a word of congratulations among them. Thoster wondered if maybe they had felt the same thing he did back in Lord Treehorn’s home, the same unease at the task they had completed. He didn’t dare ask, though, afraid to admit that he had an opinion on it at all. He could ask Berwyn what he knew about the staff later. His friend had a way of knowing all sorts of things that people shouldn’t.

It was still dark when they returned to the docks. The very edge of the horizon had started to lighten. Sunrise would be upon them within an hour, maybe two, but there was plenty of time to spare, as far as he was concerned. Cal was there to greet them, having an eerily perfect timing that Thoster couldn’t help but find slightly off putting, given the circumstances.

“A job well done, I suspect?” Cal said with a wide grin splitting across his face. He had that same mad look in his eye as Treehorn. Thoster wondered why he had never noticed it before now.

“Aye, captain.” Vashile answered for the group, picking up her pace to move ahead of the rest of them.

“And our local man?” Cal inquired further, nodding to Thoster, as if they could have forgotten just how he didn’t quite belong here.

“He did his job well enough.” Coming from her, it felt like high praise. Thoster’s eyebrows rose significantly, not saying a word, but certainly not expecting such kind words from the woman who had all but threatened to leave him for dead when they left this ship.

“Good. Glad to hear it. Now, I think this is a good enough cause to celebrate a job well done. New friends and old.” His grin was a little wicked, but infectious. Thoster found himself nodding along in agreement. “You’re welcome to join us, Chatwyn. You’ve earned your share of our rum.”

Coming back aboard Cal’s ship, Thoster found his legs a bit steadier this time around. With each press of his foot to the wood of the deck, he imagined himself walking this same spot as the boat sailed on open water. It was a silly thought, of course. Cal didn’t need a man like him for more than local errands, and Thoster couldn’t leave his family without any other means of support. Still, it was nice to let his mind wander, to think of a life that seemed impossible.

This time, as they ventured below deck, the entire ship was like a living thing. Crew members poured from the woodwork, filling the mess hall with chatter and loud cheers as they tipped back heavy mugs of ale and small glasses of rum. The quiet that this same room had provided just hours before was a stark comparison to the lively celebration that it offered now.

While he took in the sights and sounds, Thoster didn’t notice right away that Cal and the others had left his side. It wasn’t until Linn returned with a drink in each hand that Thoster was broken from his dazed spell. Linn thrust one of the mugs of ale at Thoster’s chest, which he took with a light chuckle.

“I thank you, friend.” He said with a quick nod of the head. “I wasn’t expecting quite this much merriment. When I first arrived…”

“We were more than a little nervous about how the drop off would go. A bit hard to trust outsiders, even when they come recommended by our beloved captain. I’m sure you understand.” Linn gave Thoster a quick wink and a smile. As the words washed over him, he found himself already feeling more at ease.

“How is it you do that?” He asked, smiling but still terribly curious.

“What’s that?”

“It’s magic, isn’t it? You’re one of those Silverto--”

His words were cut off by Linn’s hand quickly coming to cover his mouth. He moved close, backing Thoster up to a nearby wall. The action was smooth, almost like a dance. The rest of the crew was oblivious. Leaning in, Linn’s voice dropped low so that no other could hear him.

“Not another word. Finish your drink and meet me in the sleeping quarters. Do not draw attention to yourself or tell anyone where you are going.” He waited only long enough for Thoster to give a rough nod before he turned and disappeared into the crowd.

Standing in stunned silence, Thoster nearly forgot about the drink in his hand, but the man’s words compelled him to raise the mug to his lips, swallowing a large gulp of ale. His eyes swept the group of people, all none the wiser of the strange exchange. As he drank, Thoster walked through the room, nodding to the raised glasses of those who wanted to offer him thanks for his part in their success. His mug was half empty by the time he had reached the back of the long, narrow room. Looking into the cup, he debated just tipping back the last of it in one swallow when a large hand landed on his shoulder, shaking him roughly.

“Little man!” Jackson’s hulking frame filled most of Thoster’s field of vision as he turned to see just who had come to speak to him. “We must drink together!” It was perhaps the most words at once that Thoster had heard from the man.

“I thought that’s what we were doing, friend.” Thoster responded with a laugh. His eyes moved to the exit he had been moving towards. Linn had been clear that no one should know he was headed this way, so he couldn’t exactly give Jackson the slip that easily.

Jackson let out a roar of a laugh, running one hand over his bald head as he wrapped the other arm around Thoster’s shoulders.

“That we are. But I owe you many thanks for your part in our task tonight.”

“I didn’t do much. Not that I don’t appreciate the recognition. I just don’t know if it deserves all this.”

“You’d understand if you knew the captain better. He doesn’t take kindly to failure. Had we not delivered on time… Well, let’s just say there’s good reason to celebrate.” The jovial tone dropped from Jackson’s voice, his gaze lowering into the mouth of his cup.

Observing the intimidating man shrink into himself at the thought of failing Cal, Thoster could only imagine what sort of punishment would have awaited them all if he had been unable to deliver on his promise to get the group to the Treehorn residence in time. It also made him wonder just why that particular time restraint had been placed on the task.

“I’m glad to have helped, in that case. You seem a good lot, all of you.” Turning his gaze up, Thoster offered the larger man a smile, hoping to coax the same out of him. “Let’s have that drink, eh?”

Back in the sleeping quarters, Linn paced the dark room, rubbing his chin as he waited for Thoster to follow him as instructed. He wasn’t sure just what he planned to say, how much he could explain without putting the both of them in danger. One hand reached up beneath the collar of his shirt, fingertips running over the smooth, circular, silver pendent he’d had since childhood. Lost in thought, he didn’t notice when Thoster entered the room, only glancing up when the man cleared his throat.

“Ah, good. I was worried you wouldn’t be able to get away for some time.” Linn did his best to keep the nervous tone out of his voice, but there was a touch of a quake there that he couldn’t dismiss entirely.

“Came as quick as I could. Your friends do enjoy their drink, and they aren’t afraid to share.” Thankfully, he was no stranger to a tavern and was far from drunk at this point. Folding his arms over his chest, he gave Linn an appraising look, trying to decide just what to make of this whole thing.

“They don’t know, do they?” He said after a moment. “Makes sense. You aren’t supposed to exist.”

“I won’t for long if you go around telling anyone.” Linn answered grimly. “There’s a reason my kind are just a children’s bedtime story. It was our best chance at survival after the Great War. Those on the losing side were slaughtered for their failure, and those who sided with Elysia were considered a liability for the new kingdom.” He glanced up nervously, eyes darting to the doorway, as if he expected someone to be listening from just outside.

“So it’s true, then.” Hearing the confirmation was still a bit strange for Thoster. He had told his siblings stories of Silvertongues a hundred times over, but he never expected to meet one. He honestly never knew that they had ever been real. It was hard to know just what was real and what was fantasy when it came to his stories sometimes. Even he lost track of the facts from time to time.

“My family are one of the only remaining lines left.” He said with a shake of his head. “One born to each generation. My sisters escaped fate’s grasp, but I was given this curse to bear.”

“Curse?” Thoster said with a perplexed expression. “Linn, you’ve got a gift that people would kill for.” The poor choice of words caused a humorless snort to escape the nervous man.

“And they have. In the old days, ignorant royals had our tongues cut out, cooked, and eaten so that they could absorb our power. When they found themselves no more magical than before, they would execute the mute out of fear that they might somehow grow a new tongue and steal away their wealth and lands.” The man sighed, pushing a hand roughly through his wavy red locks, recalling the history lessons his parents had taught him. “It’s a dangerous magic. Perhaps too dangerous for any one man to wield, but I wasn’t given much of a choice in the matter.”

Thoster was quiet as he took it all in, trying to put himself in Linn’s shoes, being given an ability that was feared to the point that nearly all others who possessed it were long dead. When he was smaller, Thoster had imagined what life might be like if his father had turned out to be a powerful sorcerer, and Thoster his only living heir to a kingdom of magic. It had been a childish fantasy, of course, but he couldn’t imagine how he would handle power like the sort Linn had at the ready.

“I’m sorry, friend.” Thoster said, his tone much more somber than any of their previous conversation. For how little he knew about Linn, Thoster now felt as though they were bound in this terrible secret. “I won’t tell a soul, and I hope that you know if you need to speak to anyone about any of it, I’m happy to listen.” He was terribly curious, truthfully. Now that he knew that Silvertongues were real beings, out there, hidden in the world? Oh, his mind was buzzing with thousands of stories of impossible creatures and abilities. How many of them were truer than any of them knew?

“You’ll understand if I find it difficult to take you up on that right away, I trust.” Linn responded with a grim sort of smile. He nodded, though, rubbing his hand over his chin, still nervous about speaking about this at all.

“Of course.” Thoster’s response was quick and sincere, not looking to pressure the man to say anything before he was ready. “But I have to ask… You used your powers on us earlier, didn’t you? When Vashile and I were butting heads.” Linn’s nod was the only response. “Why would you use your powers if you fear being found out?”

“No one’s ever entertained the idea that my kind could exist long enough to put it all together, honestly. The captain just thinks I have a way with words. Vashile is convinced I’ve got some latent magical ability, but she only sees as far as her own magic, so she assumes it’s like her own. The boys don’t much mind going along with my plans even without any magic involved, so they haven’t bothered to think too much about it.I’ve been working with this crew for the last five years and no one has ever batted an eye at me.” He pauses and fixes Thoster with a curious look. “Until you.”

Thoster let out a small chuckle, not seeing it as any sign of anything odd. As far as he was concerned, he was just at the right place and the right time to put the pieces together.

“Must just be my good luck. Or maybe your bad luck.” He gave a small shrug to pair with a lopsided grin. “But no harm. I won’t say a word, so there’s nothing to be worried about. Truth be told, I rather like knowing that there’s a few things unspoken between you all. I was starting to feel like there was no chance of ever feeling like anything but the odd man out around here.”

“Looking to stick around, then? I thought this was just one job for you?”

“Yeah, well… if Cal wants to keep paying me to lead you all around town, I wouldn’t say no.” The job still rubbed Thoster wrong, but he couldn’t deny that the money was good- too good to turn down if he was offered it again. “No telling if the good captain will want to hire me for anything more, though.”

“Oh, he will.” Linn said with a slow nod, his tone quite certain.

“What makes you say that?”

“He was talking with some of the others before you showed up. He said--” Linn stopped suddenly and shook his head. “Maybe he should tell you himself. I’d hate to ruin the surprise.”

“A cruel lad to lead me up that far just to yank it away so quickly.” Thoster scowled, but there was amusement in his expression. It wasn’t as if he was a stranger to amusing pranks like these. He had a tendency to pull them on his siblings quite frequently. The younger ones could only pout, but Shaylee had given him a fair share of bruises for teasing her just as Linn was teasing him.

“Somehow, i think you’ll survive.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Both men turned to see Vashile standing in the doorway. With her braid now undone, her dark hair flowed over her shoulders like a waterfall. Her slight frame seemed to fill the doorway with the presence alone, and it left Thoster a little speechless as she glanced to Linn, unsure how long she had been there and what she had heard.

“Vash! Didn’t expect to see you far from the card table tonight.” Linn said, his smile returning quickly as he fell back into the part he played for the group of them. Linn cared for the crew, of course, considered them like family, but there was a part of him that they couldn’t know and he had to make sure it stayed that way.

“I noticed that you and our guest were missing, so I decided to find out just where you’d run off to.” With her cup still in hand, Vashile stepped into the room, sizing Thoster up, giving him the impression that she just might pick a fight with him right here and now.

“Miss me?” He said before he could stop himself, his smile coming a bit easier, a bit more smug than before. She was dangerous, but he wasn’t about to cower in fear before her.

“Hardly. I was just making sure you didn’t sneak off with something that didn’t belong to you.”

“Oh, now I’m no thief, lass. Call me anything you’d like, but not that.” Thoster took that part of his honor very seriously. He allowed Berwyn to go about his thieving business because it wasn’t really his place to tell his friend to do anything different with his life, but when it came to his own moral code, he was quite firm on the fact that he would never take something that didn’t rightfully belong to him.

“We’ll see about that.” She said, giving him a long look up and down before she turned to Linn and sniffed. “I think it’s time we got back to the party.” The way she shifted her gaze to each of them, it was clear that she intended for the both of them to follow her.

Linn chuckled and shook his head, clearly amused by the whole exchange. “Aye, we’ve missed enough of the fun. And I think it’s high time we got this boy properly drunk for helping us succeed tonight.” Linn clapped both hands to Thoster’s shoulders and guided him back out of the room, down the narrow hallways to the busy mess hall with the rest of the crew.

Returning home in the harsh light of day was not something Thoster really enjoyed. For one, he was still a bit drunk, which was all the more obvious by his stumbling steps as he made his way slowly down the streets of Merrowport. Singing to himself, he was glad for all the new melodies that his new sailor brethren had taught him, eager to use them for his own purposes. The local taverns would pay quite a bit to keep him singing the new and interesting songs from the high seas.

Nearing his home, Thoster didn’t have the good sense to quiet his song, which meant that it wasn’t long before Shaylee stirred in her bed. Realizing that it was morning, she couldn’t quite understand just what it was that was making so much noise this early. As she blinked and rolled to one side, her brother’s song began to register and she groaned.

He was drunk. She knew him well enough to know that just by the sound alone.

Hurrying out of bed, Shaylee rushed through the house to meet him at the door, covering his mouth with her hand and giving him a harsh look as he continued to sing, the sound muffled against her hand.

“They’re sleeping, you idiot.” She hissed at him. She meant the younger ones. Annabelle and Kip were thankfully nestled in bed still, not quite awake and ready to greet the day. If either of them wanted even a moment of peace this morning, he was going to need to be incredibly stealthy in getting around the house.

Thoster nodded and gently pried her hand away from his mouth, giving her a grin as he mouthed a silent apology. He wasn’t much of a quiet man on a good day, and with rum in his system, he was even less cautious about it. But he knew how important it was to let the children sleep, and to let the pair of them have some time to themselves. He hadn’t slept yet, after all, and if the pair of them woke up this soon, he wouldn’t see a wink of it until nightfall.

Despite her better judgment, curiosity won out and Shaylee couldn’t just go on without knowing about the task that Thoster had been hired for.

“So? How was it?” He was here and seemingly unharmed, so that was a start, to be certain. There were many worse ways that he could have come home. Drunk was honestly the best that she could have imagined.

“Easier than it should have been for the money he paid. We delivered something to Lord Treehorn. Just dropped it off and came back to his ship. That’s all.” He slurred the words a bit, blinking as the harsh sunlight stung at his eyes.

Shaylee blinked as well, but not because of the daylight streaming in, but because she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “All of that gold just to make a delivery? What in all hells did you take him” She meant to keep her voice down, but lost a bit of her control over her volume as her confusion won out.

“A staff of some sort. He seemed very excited to see it.” Thoster just shrugged. That wasn’t his problem or his business. “It was magic, though. Powerful, probably.” He had already started to guess about what the item could have been, what it was used for. He would come up with a million stories about the object without ever seeing it again. His brother and sister would benefit from this more than they could ever know.

“So that’s it? He’s done with you?” Shaylee stepped away from him, folding her arms over her chest. Something about this didn’t sit right with her. It seemed too easy. Nothing came this easy to them. She didn’t trust it.

“Not exactly.” He moved over to one of the chairs at the table, sitting down and wincing as the sound of the chair’s legs on the floor was a bit harsher than he would have liked. Both siblings turned in unison to look at the doorway that lead to Annabelle and Kip’s room. Thankfully, not a peep or a stir seemed to come from the room. Thoster breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t want to start his day with Shaylee spitting mad at him for waking them up too early.

“What do you mean, not exactly?” Shaylee leaned forward to hiss the words at him without needing to raise her voice. Thoster leaned away from the scolding, not sure if he could survive explaining to her.

“He’s offering good money, Shay. Money we need. Money that Matt needs if he wants to clear that debt his father left him.” Thoster didn’t really like the idea of Shaylee knowing just how much he knew about that, but he felt like at this point, it was better for them to just be honest with one another.

“That’s not--”

“He’s like a brother to me.” Thoster interjected, cutting her off before she could try to say that it wasn’t his problem to worry about. “He loves you and you’re planning on marrying him, so what am I supposed to do? Let Pava and her gang hunt him down and just say it’s not my problem?” Even if Shaylee wasn’t engaged to the man, Thoster didn’t much like the idea of just letting Matt hang out to dry when he could help clear that debt away.

Shaylee pulled back and glanced to one side, her jaw clenched tight. She didn’t like this, didn’t like her younger brother trying to take care of this for her. She was the one meant to take care of him wasn’t she? That was her job as the eldest.

“Shay…” Standing from his seat, Thoster put both of his hands on her shoulders and tried to catch her gaze. He was still a bit wobbly on his feet, but the whole experience here was more than a little sobering, so he found his footing easily enough. “I want to do this. Think of it like an early wedding present.” He gave her a smile and tried to coax one out of her in return.

Shaylee was quiet, but it was clear that his words had gotten through to her. Her arms dropped to her sides and she looked up at him, shaking her head a little as a small smile lifted the corners of her mouth.

“Another delivery job?” She asked, her voice softer, less angry than it had been just moments before. “Something just as easy, I hope.”

“Ah, I have a feeling it’s going to be a bit more complicated. They asked me to bring someone else in. Berwyn.” He winced as he said the name, knowing that Shaylee didn’t exactly approve of his friend’s lifestyle and choices in the business that he deals with in Merrowport.

“Berwyn?” She said, blinking and shaking her head. “So you’ll be stealing something then? And here I thought maybe they weren’t just dirty pirates.” She scoffed, but kept her anger under better wraps than Thoster expected. He wasn’t sure if he should be excited or scared for that fact.

“I don’t know, exactly. What I’ve found is that this captain likes to keep me in the dark until the job is upon us. But he promises that it will only last a day and that i’ll be able to bring home twice as much gold as I did for the first job.” With that much wealth, Thoster was sure that they could clear Matt’s name and leave plenty left over for them to be comfortable for many, many years to come.

“What good is gold if you end up dead?” She whispered, shaking her head. The protest was weak, though. They needed the gold. As much as she hated what he was doing, she knew that it was quite necessary for their lives.

"Careful..." He warned with a teasing smile on his face. "If you keep talking like that, I may start to think you really care about me." She rewarded his teasing with a light punch to the arm, not fond of his habit of turning everything into a joke. It was their way, though, this banter.

"I’ll be fine.’ He said, this time softer, less amusement in his tone. She worried about him. He couldn’t fault her for that. He was always worried about all of them, so it wasn’t as though he could criticize her for it. Shaylee was the matriarch of their little family just as much as he had become the patriarch by default. He still deferred to her expertise in many matters for that very reason. There was a lot of their mother that he saw in her, especially when she hit him like that.

"You had better be." She said with a small scowl, but it seemed to satisfy her for now. "So when is this new job, then? You’ll need to sleep off the celebration of this last one before you’ll be any good to anyone." He was quite the mess for now, so she wasn’t wrong by any means.

"Not for another day or so. He said he’d send word the morning of the task so that I could come to see him that night." The fact that both jobs were done under the cover of darkness did little to make Thoster or Shaylee feel better about them, but what could be done? He was working for a sea captain who wanted his business executed in secrecy and shadow. Thoster knew that asking for anything more or less than what he was told the job would entail would only result in his removal from the entire operation. He couldn’t risk angering Cal. He was the only one offering them the sort of money that they needed right now.

"Well, you had best be sure to spend plenty of time with your brother and sister in the meantime. I’m sure they’ll be quite cross when you try to sleep the day away. I’ll do my best to keep them out of your room, but you know how they get." Thoster knew all too well just how little privacy he was allotted when his younger siblings got it in their head that he owed them his time. He loved them, truly, but there was something to be said for a little privacy every now and then.

"I’ll give them quite the story after supper. I heard a new one while I was on the ship. About a clan of Silvertongues that survived the Great War and are still living among the people of Elysia today." He wouldn’t use names, of course. Nothing of Linn’s true identity would be called into the story, but he could use it as inspiration to weave a tale that would leave his brother and sister begging for more for days to come.

"Supper is a long way off, but it’ll have to do, I suppose. Hurry now. Get yourself to bed before they awaken or you’ll never be able to make it there." She shooed him, waving her hands and shushing him all in one motion. Thoster obliged, slipping away into his room and gently closing the door behind him

As he slipped off his shoes and climbed into his bed, his body finally allowed the stress of the evening to sink in. It was strange, the way that a celebration of that sort could make every muscle feel tense. He imagined it had a great deal to do with the fact that he was still so uncertain of how he fit in with Cal’s crew. He enjoyed them, or at least those that had bothered to speak to him, but there were many more unfamiliar and unfriendly faces that awaited him when he returned to complete his next task.

As he laid back in bed, Thoster wondered just what his next task would be and just how much gold he might fetch for it. He imagined buying his sister a wedding dress more beautiful than anything she had ever had the chance to wear before. He saw all the toys that he could buy for his siblings, all the books he could stack on Kip’s desk. He could get Annabelle a sword of her own and train her on how to use it. They could have everything they ever wanted, everything they ever needed. They could have the life their mother always wanted for them.

"I hope I can make you proud, mother." Thoster whispered as his eyes closed and sleep began to claim him. "I know this isn’t quite what you imagined for us, but it could be a life better than we ever dreamed."

Next Chapter: Chapter 4