Lawrence Watt-Evans

The Vondish Ambassador

Chapter One

A stiff east wind was blowing, bearing the scent of salt and decay from the beaches beyond the city wall. Such a breeze was chilly and uncomfortable, but it could bring ships into port quickly, cutting travel time, and that might mean happy merchants looking for laborers to unload their cargo. Captains and owners pleased by a quick passage tended to pay well, so Emmis of Shiphaven trotted up New Canal Street with an eye on the sea, watching for any inbound vessel, rather than following his usual morning routine of a stroll up Twixt Street to Shiphaven Market. If that unseasonable wind dropped, leaving ships becalmed in the bay, any hope of being overpaid by cheerful merchants would drop with it.

The richest cargoes were usually landed at either the Spice Wharves or the Tea Wharves, across the canal in Spicetown, but the Spicetown dockworkers had their own little bands and brotherhoods, and Emmis was not particularly welcome there. The Shipping Docks and Long Wharf in Shiphaven were more informal, if only because the work wasn’t as steady; nobody there would mind an extra pair of hands.

He reached the mouth of the canal and walked out on the seawall, peering out through the tangle of masts and yards at the Spicetown docks, trying to see whether any ships were running before that lovely wind. He shaded his eyes and gradually swiveled his head to the left.

There! A ship with red and gold sails, hauled over on the port tack, a long multicolored banner streaming from the mizzen. She looked to be southern-rigged, which meant she was from somewhere beyond the river-mouth at Londa in the Small Kingdoms, and she was clearly heading toward Shiphaven, from the look of it steering for either Pier Two or Pier Three.

Emmis turned and trotted west along the seawall to Pier One, where he cut over to the street; he kept a careful eye out to sea, watching the ship’s approach.

Pier Two, he decided. Even with the strong wind, then, he didn’t need to hurry; he would be there before the ship came in. He slowed his pace to an easy amble.

The ship was starting to reduce sail now, slowing for her final approach. Emmis watched with mild interest, seeing how well the crew handled their duties — that might tell him something about how he might get the most money from them for the least work.

They did well enough; the mainsail was furled quickly enough, without any corners flapping free. The jibsails came down smoothly, then the topsails, until only the topgallants were still drawing.

When the vessel finally neared the dock, out past the elbow in Pier Two, Emmis was seated comfortably on a bollard, waiting. Rather to his surprise, no one else had appeared on Pier Two; presumably the other Shiphaven laborers had all either already found work elsewhere, or decided to stay inside, out of the wind.

Emmis stood as the ship came gliding slowly in, and raised a hand. A crewman stood in the bow holding a line; seeing Emmis’s signal, he nodded and began swinging the rope, building momentum. When he flung it Emmis was ready and waiting; he grabbed the painter and threw a loop around the bollard he had been sitting on, securing it with a neat half-hitch.

Then he trotted toward the stern, where another crewman was readying another line.

A few moments later the ship was secured alongside the dock, sails furled and gangplank out. Emmis waited by the plank — he knew better than to board any ship without explicit permission from its master, and as yet he had not spotted this vessel’s captain. The man at the wheel wore the same faded white blouse and blue kilt as any other sailor, without so much as a hat to set him apart, and Emmis assumed he was merely the helmsman.

There was no sign of a pilot, which might be why the ship was here rather than across the canal in Spicetown; the Newmarket sandbars could make getting to the eastern wharves tricky. The more experienced foreign navigators often made the approach themselves, rather than paying a pilot’s fee, but no one here looked very experienced. Judging by the visible excitement among the crew of this vessel, Emmis doubted most of them had ever been in Ethshar of the Spices before.

Then a hat appeared amidships, rising above the coaming of the main hatch — a large black hat trimmed with a red satin band and a magnificent plume. It was followed by the head wearing it, and the rest of its owner, climbing up the ladder from the deck below.

Emmis watched with great interest as this figure emerged.

He was rather short, with dark hair and a brown complexion; his beard appeared to have been trimmed recently, but had clearly not taken to the idea and bristled unevenly. He wore a red velvet coat trimmed with gold braid, black piping, and gold buttons, and below the coat were fine black breeches. Coat and breeches both had the look of new and unfamiliar garb.

His boots, when they finally appeared, were well-made and, unlike the rest of his attire, well-worn.

Several of the sailors — not all, but probably a majority — bowed to this person as he stepped over the coaming onto the deck. Emmis did not go that far, but he straightened up respectfully.

The man in the red coat waved a brief acknowledgment of the bows, then stamped toward the gangplank.

As he approached Emmis continued to eye him with interest. The foreigner was at least forty, perhaps over fifty, though his hair showed only the faintest hints of gray. He had the slightly saggy look of a man who had once been fat but had lost weight, not from healthy exercise but because he wasn’t eating well. The fancy clothes fit him well, and had obviously been tailored for him recently, but he didn’t look entirely comfortable in them.

He paused at the gangplank and looked along the pier, from the seaward end to the warehouses on East Wharf Street. He took note of the sailors who had secured the lines, of the handful of other workers finally making their way out from shore, and of Emmis, standing there ready.

“Who are you?” he demanded, speaking Ethsharitic with a slight accent.

Emmis did bow now. “Emmis of Shiphaven, at your service,” he said.

The foreigner marched across the gangplank and stepped off onto the pier, then turned to face Emmis.

“Do you mean that, or are you being polite?” He had an odd way of drawing out certain consonants; Emmis did not think he had ever heard this particular accent before.

Emmis blinked. “My services are indeed available,” he said. “For a reasonable charge.”

The foreigner cocked his head to one side. “We will decide later on what is reasonable, but you’re hired.”

Emmis smiled. “To do what, my lord?”

The stranger did not smile back. “Don’t call me that,” he snapped. “I’m not a lord.”

Emmis wiped his own smile away. “My apologies, sir. I saw them bow.”

The foreigner waved that away. “Apology accepted.” He turned and shouted, “Fetch my baggage!”

Two of the sailors hastened to obey.

“Come on,” the foreigner said, beckoning for Emmis to follow him toward shore.

Emmis did not move. “Sir?”

The foreigner stopped and turned. “Yes?”

“You have not yet told me what my duties are to be, nor my pay. I can’t consider myself employed until I know more.”

The foreigner nodded. “A reasonable...” He seemed to grope for the right word without finding it. “A reasonable thing,” he said at last. “Od’na ya Semmat?”

Emmis blinked. “What?”

“You don’t speak Semmat?”

“I never heard of Semmat.”

He nodded. “Trader’s Tongue? Ksinallionese? Ophkaritic? Thanorian?”

“I’ve heard of Trader’s Tongue, and maybe know a few words,” Emmis said warily. “If you’re looking for a

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