"Don't put us downwind of the slave markets, Caliel." Torius scanned Katapesh's busy docks, looking for ships that he might prefer to avoid. The list had become quite long.
The mate sneered. "Squeamish, Captain?"
"It's the smell, that's all." Torius tended to steer clear of the slave markets for other reasons, too, but his crew need not know all the details of their captain's past.
"Smells like half-orc day at Trillia's Bathhouse!" Snick chimed from beside him, her sea-green hair fluttering in the breeze. The crew chuckled and Grogul growled low in his throat.
"All secure below, Snick?"
"Well, of course, sir! All my babies're off to bed." Snick's ‘babies' were the twelve ballistae that Stargazer bore. When in Katapesh, his home port, he ordered the huge crossbows dismantled and hidden in the smuggling niches crafted into the spaces between the ship's decks. The gnome looked indignant at the suggestion that she might be slacking. "We're nothin' but a merchant ship now."
"Except for that ruddy great reptile in his cabin," a crewman muttered.
"Good." Torius ignored the comment. Celeste's magical talents and her value as a navigator and astrologer far outweighed the risks of having her aboard, and every member of the crew knew it.
He scanned the crew and nodded his approval. Though they still bore weapons, they looked little like pirates. Their dark leathers and bandanas had been replaced by loose vests, colorful pantaloons, and varied desert headdresses. As captain, Torius wore a dazzling white kaftan that was subtly enchanted to keep him cool in the blistering heat. Only Grogul still looked menacing, stripped to the waist and showing his impressive array of scars. He'd traded his axe for a pair of long kukris tucked crosswise under his sash at the small of his back.
"Might need a trip to Jexler and Young's, though," the gnome continued. "Those swimmer bolts just don't seem to be quite—"
"First things first, Snick." Torius ruffled her hair, smiling when she grimaced and slapped his hand away. "And the first thing is to conclude our business."
When the ship was docked and all secure, Torius turned to his first mate. "Caliel, deal with the fees and bribes to the dockmaster and see to provisions and repairs. Grogul, you're with me."
The pirate captain crossed the gangplank and headed uptown as if he hadn't a care, for all the world a merchant and his bodyguard out for a stroll. The burlap sack over Grogul's shoulder was nondescript enough to be holding laundry, but inside their prize lay nestled in a padded leather pouch, a fortune for the selling. Torius had long ago learned that the most effective means of stealth is often to appear as if you have nothing to hide at all.
"May Abadar smile on your every endeavor, Master Alchemist." Torius bowed low and backed out of the shop's opulent back room, smiling through the bitter taste of both the dark tea he'd been forced to drink as a matter of custom and the poor deal he'd just struck.
"That took too long," Grogul said with a scowl.
Torius handed over a small bag heavy with gems and nodded to the door, but once outside he grumbled, "And they call me a pirate!"
"Oh, just haggling," he said, then lowered his voice. "We've been paid, Grogul, but not what we were promised. I should have expected it, really, but there's nothing we can do."
"You said we had a contract."
"We did, but that thief caught me broadside. If I threatened to take our business elsewhere, we'd soon have Benrahi Ekhan himself on our tails." He shook his head ruefully, then cocked a wry grin and clapped the burly half-orc on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Grogul. We still made out well, just not as well as I'd wanted." He glanced at the angle of the shadows. "Come on; we've got to hurry to make it to the Immaculate Repository before dusk."
"Bankers..." Grogul muttered, matching his captain's long stride. "Now there's a band of pirates!"
They were met with aplomb at the Repository, and the certificates of appraisal that accompanied the gems were quickly verified, their value deposited in his account with a scribbled number on a leger. Torius withdrew a sum in gold for the crew's shares and all the expenses associated with maintaining Stargazer, and they headed back to the ship. Dusk in Katapesh reminded him of twilight on a tropical reef—the time of day when predators began to hunt—but two well-armed men cognizant of their surroundings had little to fear from common thugs. They arrived at the docks just as the sun's glow faded behind the city's gilded domes, but the welcome they received was more chilling even than the coming desert night.
"Captain!" A crewman named Joss ran up as they crossed the gangplank. "You're free! Where's Mister Caliel?"
"What do you mean, ‘free'? Why wouldn't I be?" The chill slithered down Torius' spine.
"But the slavers, sir! We got word a gang of Duenas took you, the filthy hyenas, and Mister Caliel—"
"Where is Caliel, Joss?" He scanned the worried faces and shivered.
"Mister Caliel took half a dozen men and went to rescue you. This feller said he knew where you was, but that it'd take some doin' to get you back. He, uh..." The man balked, biting his lower lip. "They took yer navigator with 'em."
"Celeste?" The chill clutched his heart like the hand of a lich. Torius gripped Joss's vest, jerking him off his feet. "Where?"
"We don't know, sir! That feller, he just spoke to Mister Caliel. The mate said they'd need yer navigator's help to get you back. She took that potion that makes her human and left with 'em, all cloaked and secret-like. Then Snick followed 'em. Told me somethin' weren't right and she'd find out."
"Damn!" Torius released the man and began to pace Stargazer's deck, his mind awhirl. "And nobody recognized this man? Did Caliel call him by name?"
"Oh, aye! Called him Vemmy. I heard him."
"Vemmy..." The name meant nothing to Torius. He glanced at Grogul, who knew every sneak and informant on the docks, but the boatswain shook his head.
"Never heard of him, but I know someone who might."
"Let's go." Torius turned back to Joss. "Keep the ship secure. Nobody, and I mean nobody, comes aboard. If Caliel or Snick come back, they stay put. Understand?"
Nowhere in Katapesh is the night darker than beneath the Night Ramp, with its seedy cluster of tents where informants and black marketers ply their trade. Grogul led Torius past clusters of men sitting around small charcoal fires cooking meat of dubious origin on metal skewers to a canvas-shrouded stall near the Obsidian Wall. There, an old woman sat smoking a pesh pipe, her knobby, misshapen feet propped up on a stool.
Grogul didn't bother with formalities or introductions. "Need to find someone, Hound."
"Nice to smell you, too, Grogul. Who's your friend?" She sniffed, then blinked, the lamplight glinting on the haze of her unseeing eyes. "Don't think I know his scent."
"I'm Captain Vin of the Stargazer." Torius stepped forward. "We're looking for a man named Vemmy."
"And what are you willing to pay for this, Captain Vin?" The old woman puffed on her pipe, drawing the acrid smoke deep into her lungs and holding it there before exhaling. She smiled, thin lips pulling back over elongated canines. Her name, it seemed, was apropos.
"Gold or steel," Torius said, a hand on his sword hilt. "Gold if you tell us the truth. Steel if you lie."
"I never lie, Captain. There's no profit in it." She took another puff from her pipe. "Twenty scarabs."
"Ten," he countered.
"Fifteen." He was in no mood to haggle, but if he didn't, he risked being marked as moneyed prey.
"Sixteen, then, if you insist."
"Done." He counted out the coins, but kept them in his palm. "Where do we find Vemmy?"
"Street of the Seven Suns, north of The Block. He works for whoever pays him, and isn't particular."
He handed over the money. "Thank you."
"You already have, Captain." She laughed and jingled the money in her hand before slipping it into a pocket.
"Come on." Torius grabbed Grogul's arm and turned him north.
A quarter of an hour and dozens of twisting streets later, they entered the Street of the Seven Suns. Most of the stalls in the bazaar were closed, but the alehouses and pesh pits were open for business. A few questions and some judiciously applied silver pointed them toward a narrow alley and a dark second story flat.
"Round the back," Torius instructed his boatswain in a whisper. "If he bolts..."
Grogul nodded and vanished around the corner, stealthier than his bulk would suggest possible. Torius gave him a moment to get situated, then climbed the rickety stair, the boards creaking under his weight. There was a click as the door opened, and the glint of starlight on metal. Torius dodged as the crossbow fired, and felt the bolt tug at the sleeve of his robe. He drew his sword and dashed up the stairs before the man could reload.
The door splintered under his onslaught, but he only caught a glimpse of the man's boots vanishing out of a small window. He heard a crash, then a grunt and a scream. He leaned over the sill.
"Got him, sir." The half-orc was bent over a prone form.
Torius ran back down the stairs and around the corner. Grogul bore a cut along his cheekbone, and the tip of his pointed ear was missing, but that was nothing compared with the man he was pulling to his feet. One of the bosun's kukris transfixed the man's shoulder from back to front, six inches of bloody steel sticking out of his filthy robes.
"You okay, Grogul?"
"Bah! Just a scratch."
"You must be Vemmy." Torius peered into the man's pockmarked face. "Not a good night for you."
The man spat an epithet, then screamed again as Grogul whacked the hilt of the kukri. Torius winced.
"Now Vemmy, let me be clear. You tell us where Caliel took my navigator, or you're tomorrow's dinner special at Chargut."
"Don't know where," the man said through clenched teeth. "He just paid me to bring the message and watch his back. Then that blasted gnome came along."
"Snick? Where is she?"
Torius felt the blood drain from his face, and he whacked the kukri himself. Vemmy's scream was gratifying.
"Show us where. Now!"
Grogul arranged Vemmy's cloak to hide the knife and frogmarched the man through the dark streets. In minutes they reached an alley and Vemmy pointed.
"In there. I stashed the corpse behind the bins."
Torius's gorge rose in his throat. The building was an abattoir, and the rats had massed for their nightly feast. He kicked the rats away, and found Snick's body reasonably unchewed; apparently the butcher's offal ranked higher than gnome on the rat culinary scale. He pulled her into the faint starlight, and saw the mark of a garrote around her throat. She was dead, her limbs stiffened and her face fixed in a ghastly expression.
"Grogul, pick her up. We need to—"
Vemmy gasped in shock as the half-orc retrieved his kukri. Grogul hadn't simply pulled the blade out, but twisted it and slashed down through bone and sinew. Blood quickly darkened the man's robes, and he crumpled to the refuse-strewn ground. Grogul wiped the blade on Vemmy's cloak and sheathed it.
"You were sayin', Captain?"
"I was saying, we need to get her to Gozreh's temple."
"Why?" He picked up the gnome's corpse and tucked it under his arm.
"Because, Grogul," Torius said, leading the way into the night, "the dead can talk."
Coming Next Week: A chat with a corpse in Chapter Three of Chris A. Jackson's "Stargazer."
Read more about Torius, Celeste, and the crew of the Stargazer in the new Pathfinder Tales novel Pirate's Honor, available now!
Chris A. Jackson is the author of the Scimitar Seas nautical fantasy series, which has won sequential gold medal awards for fantasy from ForeWord Reviews, as well as Weapon of Flesh, Deathmask, A Soul for Tsing, and the Cornerstones Trilogy. He lives with his wife on a sailboat in the Caribbean. For samples of his work, his blog, and his convention schedule, visit jaxbooks.com.
Illustration by Greg Opalinski