Dunn’s ship was set to arrive any day and Tarin had been making a habit of walking down to the docks to check to see who’d arrived that morning and if there was any word. Going close to the sea helped to clear his thoughts and the travelers and sailors that moved around weren’t as likely to know him. It gave him a small measure of obscurity that he found he wanted. There was still a thrill that went thru him when he saw a ship, even the smaller river runners, raise their sails and dance with the wind and tides.
It was late in the day as he wandered around the docks, just enjoying the look and style of the smaller boats moored there. Most were busy with ship board life, loading and unloading cargo and the day to day work to maintain any ship. His thoughts drifted to his own time on the sea. How he almost longed to return to that life. The day to day work was back breaking and endless but he never had to think about what to do next. He even found himself missing the companionship of the crew. He regretted not knowing how to fit better with the men he’d served with, they’d tried to befriend him but he’d always kept them at a distance. After four years they’d come to respect his solitary ways and in that acceptance Tarin had found a sense of belonging. He missed that now, and his thoughts wandered to the possibilities of his life had he continued in the Navy.
“Morris? Tarin Morris?” A voice called out as he walked past.
Tarin turned to the voice carefully, his hand moving to the hilt of his blade. The man that hailed him was standing at the gang plank of a river runner, his hair was grey now and thinning but Tarin remembered his face.
“It’s me, Zas Bumpion, remember?” The man hurried down the plank with long practiced ease.
“Of course,” Tarin smiled warmly. “It’s a fool that forgets his first hire.”
Zas chuckled and offered his hand. “Didn’t expect you to remember, it’s been a long time. How are you?”
“I’m well, how’s life treating you?” Tarin accepted the hand and shook it firmly. He couldn’t recall just what the river runner’s dispute was over but he remembered it gave him a good start as a hired sword. Zas’ father had been in a collar as a young man and he’d raised his children to hold no prejudice against freed slaves.
“Come on board, we’ll share a drink. Unless this is a bad time for you? I know you’re all famous and such now. No one down here believes me when I say I hired you first.” He smiled good naturedly and nodded back to the boat. “What was your cost back than?”
“Two bishops.” Chance encounters and friendly receptions generally made Tarin nervous. The boat could contain an ambush, he wasn’t without enemies. The boat would be a good place for it there were plenty of spots to hide armed men. Ambush was the paranoid explanation, but a trusting swordsman was a short lived one. The most likely explanation was that the man was wondering about his rates today and needed a swordsman’s service again.
“How much is your going rate now?” The sailor asked in qood natured curiosity.
“About forty crowns.”
Zas laughed cheerfully. “I got a grand bargain! Come on lad, come have a drink with an old man.”
His good humor was infectious, Tarin grinned and nodded. “A drink sounds good.”
It never once occurred to Tarin that the man was lonely and merely wanted to talk. The boat was in good repair and Zas was friendly and welcoming. They drank ale and shared stories of storms, fighting and the sea. The conversation was free and easy, the older man not at all shy over Tarin’s past or awed by his current reputation. Finally, the long time sailor nodded knowingly.
“You’re a Spotter, aren’t you?”
Tarin just shook his head. “Spotters are a myth.”
Zas snorted and took a long swallow from his drink. “Says you, but I’ve spent my life on the water. I’ve seen true Spotters, they’re rare but real. I’m surprised the Navy let you out, a Spotter’s worth his weight in gold. A ship with a Spotter on has never been lost, not so long as the Captain listens to what he says anyways.”
“I don’t believe in Spotters, and all ships can be lost.”
“Not if the Captain listens to his Spotter it won’t be. Not surprised a man like you wouldn’t believe.”
Tarin bristled and sat straighter at the implied offense. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Believing requires a suspension of logic, accepting that there are things beyond what you can see. You’re far too logical of a man to do that easily, far too reasonable. If you’d been blessed, you’d have been born to a seafaring family, your pa would have seen you were a Spotter from the time you were little and raised you to trust that skill as surely as you trust that blade you wear. One day, one day you’ll learn to see what you aren’t able to see with your eyes. My nephew was a Spotter, he was a lot like you but his father let me take him out on the water. If I’d been around more I would have seen sooner what he was, but by the time I did he believed in logic.” The sailor’s tone grew bitter and cold.
“Where’s he now?” Sailors had been calling him a Spotter from almost the moment he’d set off to sea. Tarin hadn’t really believed it than and he still didn’t. He didn’t hold special skills or knowledge, he simply processed information differently from the men around him. Being a slave had taught him to always be alert, always watching and studying and that alone explained why he knew the weather, he simply must pay more attention than the average man. That didn’t mean if given the opportunity he wouldn’t like to meet someone else called a Spotter, maybe than he could better learn what the difference was and prove finally it wasn’t anything supernatural.
Zas sighed. “Dead, a few years ago. The wind pulled off a shingle and it smashed his head in. Damndest thing too, boy almost seemed to expect it to happen. I sort of lost my taste from running the river after the lad died. I was going to let him take over in a few years but, well, that won’t happen now.”
It hadn’t missed Tarin’s notice that the ship seemed hollow and unused. The line and rope were coiled too neatly, the ship a touch too tidy for one in between trips. “What will you do now?”
“I don’t know, the boat, she’s a lady, you know? You don’t blindly turn away from a lady you love. My brother’s offered to let me buy a part of the building his shop’s in, I’d be close to family but I’ve this lady here. She counts on me to look after her, I couldn’t just sell her.” He smiled weakly and knew instantly that the too handsome swordsman truly did understand, after all he was a Spotter.
The idea came quickly. “You would sell her, if you found the right buyer?”
“Aye, but she’d have to be loved by her new man. I just don’t have the energy or the heart for it anymore.” Zas narrowed his eyes. “You thinking about shoving off out to sea? She’s not made for the open water.”
“I know but she’s a beauty of a river runner. I want you to sell her to me.”
“What for? You don’t have an interest in the river.”
“No, but my Uncle does. Look, he was in the Navy, he knows ships and is a hard worker.” Tarin found himself quickly explaining. “He’s proud, he’d never accept a ship I bought. So I want you to hire him on as a hand, a partner, show him the river. After a few runs, when you are convinced he can handle the sand bars and currents and equally convinced he’ll love your lady as you do, sell him the boat. Let him make payments to you, don’t worry, I’ll pay you outright. When he makes payments to you, deposit them into a holding account minus a percentage for your efforts. For all my uncle will know, you’re financing his buying you out. How’s that sound to you?”
Zas thought about it for a moment. “If I don’t think he’ll take care of her?”
“Than you pay him his share of the run and drop him on shore, no hard feelings.”
“You’ve a deal, Mr. Morris, you’ve a deal.”
Dunn hiked his pack higher on his shoulders and entered the yard to Tarin’s building. There had been a message waiting for him from Tarin that when his ship had finished docking he should send word. Tarin would than send a carriage down to fetch him, but Dunn hadn’t. The weather was delightful in its spring softness and warm sunshine and being back at sea had made him feel born anew. He’d walked the streets to Tarin’s building on light feet and wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted him in the yard.
There were no less than six young men hauling boxes and crates from a cart out front. They called cheerfully to each other and laughed. One man sat on part of the old garden wall and played on his violin, the music rolling and joyful, setting a pace for the work of the others. Each were dressed in the simple, poor style of students, the few pieces of furniture Dunn saw were second or third hand, shabby and plain. It was the care given to the easels, boxes with paint splatters, instrument cases, and canvases that gave them away as struggling artists.
That didn’t surprise Dunn, fourth year art students and recent graduates often moved down to the better neighborhoods of the lower city. It lent them an air of danger, a sense of rebellion and wildness plus, the rent was cheaper. What did surprise him was seeing them hauling their supplies and belongings up the Grenk’s stairway. Mrs. Farntell sat at her window watching and listening to the life and music with obvious glee.
She called out to Dunn and waved, obviously wishing him to join her near her window. He smiled and called out a greeting but kept moving. He’d traveled too long to not find Tarin right off. He’d make a point of visiting the elderly lady soon. The noise and life from the side of the building carried to the back and Dunn climbed the steps with a shake of his head and a grin that was infectious from the group of young men.
Tarin’s porch windows were cracked open, a spring breeze blowing inside. Dunn peered in and saw the young man, he was running forms, the weighted practice blade in his hands. Dunn was struck again at the swordsman’s skill, his grace and more, at how thin he looked, how hollow.
“Hello.” He called out and Tarin instantly stopped his practice.
“Lieutenant!” Tarin answered with a grin. “Come in, why didn’t you send word? It’s a long walk from the harbor.”
Dunn pulled the door open and entered the darkened room. “It was a pleasant walk and don’t call me that.”
“Yes sir. Have you eaten? There’s plenty left from lunch, Eve makes enough for four.” He pushed his short hair back, still not comfortable with the length, and racked the practice blade.
“Eve from the Pearl?” He dropped his pack and stretched out his shoulders.
“The one, Shelee’s been sending one of her girls down every day to see to it I eat.” Without being asked he put water on for tea and uncovered dishes of food and set them on the table.
“Thank you.” Dunn answered and didn’t make the comment that sprang to mind that maybe Shelee should be sending two women to cook, because the swordsmen looked like he was fading away. He amended that after a second look, Tarin had the appearance of a man recovering from a long illness. “What’s going on out there? It looks like a circus is moving in.”
Tarin snorted. “Might as well be. Mrs. Grenk moved out a few weeks ago, went north to open a shop or something. Somehow Mrs. Farntell got into her head the place was too quiet so she rented the rooms to a group of artists and musicians. I think she likes the idea of eccentric tenets.”
Dunn chuckled at the sour look that came to Tarin’s face. “She can’t well rent to another swordsmen, everyone knows your kind are territorial.”
That made Tarin grin. “Bloodshed in the garden might be a touch too eccentric for her taste. They’ve already started calling her grandma, it’s amusing her to no end. They’re making a horrible racket.”
“I thought you liked music?”
“I do, just not in the flat next to mine. Tell me, how was your journey and how’s Jolie?” He poured the tea and eagerly sat down across from Dunn.
“We had beautiful weather the whole way down, only had rain one day and she took to travel well. Loved the sea, had to tie her down to keep her out of the rigging. She’s a good child.”
“And this school?”
“The Bor’slinich Academy for Young Girls? You’d approve of it. They only have seventy one students, there are five students per teacher, they offer a wide range of classes and have high standards without high pressure. The girls were all tight knit and happy, Jolie’s sharing a room with three others and had already made friends before I left. I set up the money you sent with a third party agent in the form of a trust for Jolie, her tuition and board will be paid automatically for as long as you wish her to stay, additionally she will receive an allowance for expenses. I don’t think she understood yet how generous you were with that, but she will.” The tea was the same expensive brew Tarin preferred and the food was well made and good. Dunn ate hungrily.
“But she’s happy?”
A weight seemed to lift from the swordsman. “Good, very good. Thank you, I can’t ever repay you for what you’ve done for me.”
Dunn waved the debt off. “You’re working a job?”
“Small one, just body guarding for a few nights. Don’t worry, you’ll have the bed, I’ll be up till dawn.”
“Not really, just another fine example of the rich and paranoid. A wealthy merchant is convinced his partner is going to have him killed in his sleep. He’s paid a fortune to have me watch him for the week. Should have charged him more for having to listen to them snore.”
“Doesn’t sound like you think there’ll be an assassin.”
Tarin shrugged and toyed with his tea. “He’s made it clear he hired me, there are plenty in the city who’d still risk coming against me but I’m not sure his partner can afford to pay the higher fee. Two more nights and he heads out to the country for a few months, whatever upset his partner should blow over by the time he’s back. Don’t worry over it.”
“I won’t, you’re good at your job.”
“Speaking of work, I know you asked me not to meddle.”
“Tarin,” Dunn’s voice grew reproachful.
“I didn’t do anything. I ran into my first hire last week. He’s got a river runner and he’s getting old. His father was in a collar so he doesn’t care about a body’s past. He mentioned he was looking for a second hand. Thought you might want to look him up. That’s all.” It was only from spending most of his life as a slave that gave him the skill and control to not show his delight in the plan he’d set up. Shelee had helped him when he was newly free, now Tarin was finally being given a chance to return that favor to someone.
Dunn sat and ate in silence for a moment. He owed the younger man for so much already, much more than he was truly comfortable with. There were limits and lines that pride wouldn’t allow him to cross. The truth of it was he’d do almost anything to be back on the water again, Tarin’s meddling could easily be overlooked. Dunn had little illusion that Tarin had more than just spoken to this river runner, he had no doubt that a job stood waiting for him.
“What’s this man’s name? Maybe I’ll look him up tomorrow.”