Home Sweet Gulfside
“Finally home,” Jake says, glancing around the Gulfside District docks, inhaling deep and smelling the familiar air. Lungs full, he turns back towards the docked ship and sighs. “And we’ve lost Hamfrd.”
Jake stands on solid ground, together with Elaine and Mathos, looking towards the Sun Vanguard, watching for Hamfrd to emerge. The stream of passengers exiting the vessel down the gangplank has virtually dried up and still no sign of the big man.
“You know, I’ve seen this sort of thing before,” says Mathos.
“What sort of thing is that?” asks Jake.
“Well,” the mage explains, “you might not know this about me, but I’m no stranger to competition, and arm wrestling in particular.” As Jake raises an eyebrow dubiously, Mathos continues: “Yes, believe or not, Jake, I’m familiar with a physical sport. There’s a huge arm wrestling tournament held every year at the joint Boxwell-Arthollos family reunion. The Boxwells dominate, in case you were wondering.”
“Anyway, I’ve seen this kind of behavior before. Winning can do ugly things to people, Jake. Ugly things. Pride, arrogance. It can change you. I saw it with my own eyes. So many past family champions just became completely different people after their successes. I’m talking total transformation into real prima-donna types.”
“Wait, hold up,” says Jake, glancing over at Elaine and sharing a grin. “Go back to you and arm wrestling. Are you any good?”
Mathos tips a hand back and forth in the air. “I’m decent.”
* * *
THE ARTHOLLOS-BOXWELL FAMILY REUNION ARM WRESTLING TOURNAMENT, FIFTEEN YEARS AGO
A huge crowd gathers around the table for the championship match, hooting and hollering, everyone crying out support for their preferred competitor. The two combatants lock hands, and the referee stands beside them, ready to start the match. The spectators grow quiet, holding their breath for the start of the epic battle.
Meanwhile, at another table well away from that one, seventeen year old Mathos Arthollos strains and groans as his arm slowly heads towards the table. Gritting his teeth, Mathos gives it everything he has left, and a second later his arm is flat on the table.
“Yes!” his opponent rises, throwing his hands victoriously into the air. “Beat you, Cousin Mathos!”
“Gloating doesn’t become you, Ernold,” Mathos tells the ten year old boy, shaking his sore arm and wincing.
“Ha, ha! I win, you lose. Loser!” Smirking, the boy sticks out his tongue and makes a crude raspberry noise. He slaps five with a few of his friends.
Still laughing, he and his crew walk off, some of the younger trailing Boxwell cousins eagerly patting the big boy on the back.
* * *
BACK ON THE DOCKS OF GULFSIDE, PRESENT
“Okay, fine. I never won a match. The point is, success changes people, Jake. Winning changes people. Face it. We may have lost the Hamfrd we know for good. Also, Ernold Boxwell is a bigger jerk than ever now that he’s in his twenties. And I mean that literally,” says Mathos. “He’s a huge muscled freak and family reunions are genuinely frightening affairs.”
“Come on,” Elaine says, laughing lightly. “We don’t even know the result of the match. Hamfrd may not have won. And even if he did, do you really think Hamfrd would become a different person just like that?”
“I’m just telling you what I know from personal experience, Elaine,” says the mage. “Take it or leave it.”
* * *
After striking off on her own, Scarlet ducks into a dockside tavern she’s vaguely familiar with by name called The Toothless Grin. There, she throws back several shots of visckr, the northern spirit she favors, while standing at the bar. Ham is actually the one that introduced her to the drink, she recalls, slamming back another and then upending the cup roughly onto the surface of the bar.
“Hey, careful,” the barkeep growls. He’s a thick-torsoed fellow wearing a stained apron that curves with his belly. A wild brown mustache and equally thick eyebrows form a frown on his fat face.
“Careful yourself,” she growls back. Pushes the cup across the bar. “Another.”
* * *
“Ham!” Jake raises a hand as the big man approaches. “I thought we’d lost you.”
Gulls wheel overhead in the morning air as men and women load and unload countless crates and barrels and other cargo, wheeling stacked piles back and forth from the many docked vessels, including the Sun Vanguard.
The big man stands before the swordarm, swaying slightly.
“I made new friends,” he says, laughing. “Aye, but it’s good to be back on solid land.” He glances around, scans the bustle of activity that is the Gulfside docks. “And back home. Where is everyone else?”
“Tired of waiting,” says Jake, slapping the Northerner on the back pleasantly. Mathos and Elaine, who had been waiting along with the swordarm, have gone on ahead to the guildhall, leaving Jake behind to wait alone for Hamfrd.
Presently the two men begin walking.
The district of Gulfside, as its name implies, sits right on the Sunreach Gulf. It’s one part of a larger sprawling city called Farport, which lies at the end of a finger-like cape of land. The gulf is to the south, while to the north are the open waters of the aptly named, Vast Ocean. The “finger” points to the treacherous strait of water known as the Octopus Narrows, which connects the two bodies of water. The cape is often referred to on maps as the Golden Coast, a name that refers to the incredible amount of treasure that still washes up on the local beaches from the many ancient shipwrecks in the Gulf and especially off the northern coast in the Vast Ocean. It’s a phenomenon that continues to this day. One particular stretch of coast, along the southwestern shore between town and city, is literally called Treasure Beach, locally at least, due to the frequency with which gold coins and other small valuable objects wash up onto the white sand.
“So, did you win this arm wrestling thing or not? Scarlet started to tell us, but she never finished.”
The big man laughs deep, and pauses to relate the tale, gesturing grandly. “It was an epic struggle. The greatest I’ve ever been a part of. The battlefield could not contain our combined might!”
“You mean the table broke during the match. Scarlet mentioned that. But who won?”
“It was a draw!” Hamfrd announces, and bellows a laugh.
“What? A draw? Those are a thing? That seems anti-climactic.”
“Not at all!” laughs the big man. “It was the opposite of that.”
“Wouldn’t the opposite just be climactic? Which, I mean, I feel like a draw by definition is lacking–”
Ignoring him, Hamfrd says, “They made me an honorary crewmember. I’m welcome aboard the Sun Vanguard any time I wish.” He laughs merrily. “And then we drank! And drank some more!”
“I see that,” says Jake, eyeing the swaying, grinning giant. “Come on.” He throws and arm across the big man’s back, pats his shoulder. “Let’s get home.”
So he can tell Elton that we had the crown in our hands, Jake thinks, and then let it slip away. To Harriet Swordsteel and those bastards, the Darkblades.
Together, the two men continue walking.
* * *
Meanwhile, Scarlet, after downing a few more shots and dwelling in increasingly dark thoughts, discovers that she is now fuming, and buzzing, too. She ducks back out onto the cobbled street and hails a passing rickshaw. She hands the driver the last couple of coins from her pockets, and settles back on the cushioned bench.
The busy streets of Gulfside pass by one after the other as the wheels of the rickshaw clatter over the stones, rattling Scarlet in the seat. She sways as the driver takes corners at speed. He takes her farther east along the rising coastline, leaving behind the warehouses and the markets and the crowds of the waterfront. The streets become cleaner, the stones smoother, the buildings more ornate and expensive like the clothes of the people she sees walking along in the shade of their fashionable hats and umbrellas.
She is now in the neighborhood known as Crown Heights, an irony not lost on her as she visualizes stepping from the rickshaw, climbing the stairs to the entrance of the Darkblades’ manse, getting inside — through a window or a skylight if need be — and then finding and punching Harriet Swordsteel in her gloating handsome face.
The breeze brings the smell of the salt water to Scarlet’s nose and the morning sun is warm on her cheeks as she hops down from the rickshaw. She holds a hand angled to her forehead and scans the street.
A man in a neatly tailored grey suit watches her climb down, noting her wild appearance.
Scarlet glares at him hard enough to make the man startle back a step. “What?” she growls. He removes his hat and puts it back on and looks around with concern, and hurries off in the opposite direction.
Whatever, she thinks dismissively, approaching the front gate of the Darkblades’ property. It’s not like the bastards who live here never have sketchy company over to visit. After all, Brune bloody Drago, the so-called Dark Marauder himself, lives here. Not to mention Swordsteel. And that creepy-ass sorcerer, whatever his name is. So what kind of respectable neighborhood does mister tailored-suit back there and all of these other stuffy fools believe they live in with trash like the Darkblades about?
Once Scarlet is over the fence and crossing the grass towards the manse itself, she begins to feel as though things are actually moving roughly according to her admittedly parchment-thin and mostly spontaneous plan.
She strides up the stairs, in between the stone columns that frame the top step, and approaches the entrance. The front door, it turns out, is unlocked, so she slips inside. Too easy.
At this point, however, things go off-script.
Her presence is noted immediately by Miriam Grundt, the wife of Olliver Grundt, the guildmaster of the Darkblades. Miriam spies Scarlet enter from the front parlor, where the old bird-like woman happens to be tending to several plants arranged there in the sunlight spilling through the front windows.
“You can’t be here,” screeches Lady Grundt, frowning. “What are you doing here?” She calls over her shoulder, “Harriet! Ilsa!” Her voice rises in pitch as Scarlet steps forward. “Ollie! Come quick!”
“I’m not here to hurt you,” Scarlet growls.
“Are you drunk?”
“I’m looking for–”
Scarlet whirls around. Finds an incredulous Harriet Swordsteel pausing in one of the room’s open archways, of which there are — Scarlet counts them now — three ways into this room. The lean swordarm is wearing a simple laced shirt and belted trousers and her feet are bare, as though she’s been lazing around the house, which, Scarlet supposes, considering the early hour, she probably has been. No armor in sight. No weapons, either, save for a dagger strapped casually at her waist, seeming almost an afterthought.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Harriet demands, eyes flashing. “How dare you enter this home uninvited?”
Scarlet crosses the space between them in a flash.
Everything slows down.
She hears other voices and heavy bootsteps hurriedly approaching from multiple directions; Lady Grundt, somewhere behind Scarlet, screeches a very unladylike curse; Harriet Swordsteel takes a step back and the silver crescent moon pendant resting on the bare skin between the bumps of her collarbones momentarily catches the daylight; her right hand moves towards the spot where her swordhilt would ordinarily be, and then changes direction in mid-action, twisting for the dagger she’s actually wearing.
Harriet’s surprised reaction is a split-second too slow.
Her icy blue eyes grow wide, then squeeze shut at the last instant.
Scarlet’s fist connects, flattens the woman’s left cheek, knocks her head around to the side.
Harriet begins to drop.
Everything speeds up again, and Scarlet is standing over the fallen woman, fists clenched tight, growling. Those heavy boots arrive, and thick powerful arms grab Scarlet from behind and wrestle her to the floor.
“That’s quite enough,” a man’s voice bellows in her ear.
“Outrageous!” cries someone else.
Several strong hands, at least three different people, she figures, hold her down.
“She’s mad,” Lady Grundt says, from somewhere in the room.
Scarlet lies on the floor, her right cheek pressed onto the wooden floorboards by someone’s big hand pushing down on her head.
You’re damn right, I’m mad, she thinks ruefully, as someone else’s knee digs painfully into her back.
But what comes out of her mouth is one of the crudest, most vulgar and blasphemous curses that anyone who is there in the room, if they were to think back on it later, can ever recall hearing said by pretty much anybody ever.
* * *
As Jake and Hamfrd arrive at last to stand before the front gate of their guildhall, Highstar House, Elaine comes running from the entrance, down the steps, and hurries up the stone walk towards the pair.
“What is it?” Jake asks, hand dropping automatically to his sword.
“It’s Scarlet,” says the cleric, clutching her medallion. “She’s been thrown in jail.”
“Jail?” says Jake, blinking. “She didn’t kill somebody, did she?” He’s joking, but also, he’s hoping she didn’t actually kill somebody.
“No,” Elaine informs them, “but apparently she broke into Darkblade Manor and assaulted Harriet Swordsteel.”
Hamfrd bursts out laughing.
* * *
“The Lord Mayor is still in there with him,” says Elaine. The ‘him’ to whom she refers is Sir Elton Highstar, the owner of Highstar House, and their guildmaster. “The Lord Mayor brought the news personally.”
Jake makes a face. “The Lord Mayor is here?”
“He’s not happy either,” Elaine says.
“Well, that’s nothing new.” Jake stares at the front entrance, makes a noise of frustration. “I really want to go in there right now and tell the Lord Mayor about the Darkblades and the Sun King’s crown. I mean, if anyone should be arrested and thrown in jail, it’s them.”
“That won’t help, Jake,” warns Elaine. “Besides, I’m sure it’s already come up.”
“I know,” he says miserably. “But I want to anyway. I want to do something.”
“Easy,” says Hamfrd, putting a big hand on Jake’s shoulder. “The Lord Mayor is no ally. We’ll deal with Swordsteel and the Blades ourselves.”
“Besides, Jake,” says Mathos, “the tomb of the Sun King is well outside the jurisdiction of the authorities of Gulfside. Even if you consider that we were in rightful possession of the crown, which to be fair, despite our nature as adventurers is somewhat up for debate. I mean, legally there’s issues of salvage and discovery to be considered, and chain of ownership and heirs and family lineage and what not. I mean, the crown clearly belongs to somebody, and all I’m saying is that to assume the ‘somebody’ in that equation is necessarily us, while entirely logical, is also quite clearly derived from theories such as possession equals ownership and the philosophy of might makes right, both of which are still wide open to . . .”
The mage trails off when he senses the others are all staring at him.
“What?” he asks. He puts a hand to his face, feels with his fingers around the area of his mouth, his cheeks, both nostrils. “What is it? Have I got something in my nose?” He sniffs. Wipes. “Is it still there?” Angles his face so they can see better, flares his nostrils. “Is it gone?”
“It’s fine,” Elaine assures him, rolling her eyes.
“Oh. Good. Thank you. Where was I?”
“You were finished,” Jake says.
“Was I?” The mage puts a hand to his chin, considering.
They stand together near the cobbled stone street outside Highstar House. A rented carriage is parked on the road, apparently already summoned and waiting to transport them to the Iron Keep. If Scarlet has been thrown in jail, then that’s where she’ll be. Hopefully, they’ll be going there immediately to get her out.
Jake clenches his fists in frustration. This is ridiculous, he thinks, trembling with anger.
Farther along the road, parked well away from the rental, is a second carriage. Ornate and brightly painted, with a team of beautiful white horses at the front, this one clearly belongs to the Lord Mayor. Two men stand beside the carriage, dressed neatly in fine suits. The smaller one is likely the driver; the other, a burly man whose suit screams uniform rather than personal fashion choice, must be one of the Lord Mayor’s bodyguards.
The companions lapse into silence, thoughts drifting to Scarlet, to the crown, to the Lord Mayor inside their home speaking with Sir Elton. Finally, after minutes of standing around waiting and mulling over some of the worst possible outcomes of the present situation, the front door to the guildhall opens and the Lord Mayor appears at the entrance, followed by their guildmaster, Sir Elton Highstar.
Trumpton Sweeney, the Lord Mayor of Gulfside, descends the front steps, shiny heeled shoes clicking on the stone, and strides purposefully up the walk to the open gate. He is dressed in a fine black suit with a white buttoned shirt underneath, and he wears a matching black tophat. The twin tails of his jacket hang almost past his knees. He holds a smooth slim cane, clutching it in front of his body with both hands like a prop, rather than using it as a walking aid.
He passes the companions, letting out a single sharp exhale through his flared nostrils. Clicks his tongue. His beard and mustache are thin and black and oily, same as the hair on his head, which is mostly hidden beneath the tophat. He makes a point of not so much as glancing in the direction of the four companions, as he sniffs and strides past towards his waiting carriage.
The Lord Mayor is assisted up and through the door of the vehicle by the burly man, while the driver climbs onto the bench in front and takes his seat.
“Lord Mayor Sweeney,” says Sir Elton Highstar as he joins his charges on the cobbled stone roadside, “is not a happy man today.” He claps Jake and Hamfrd each on a shoulder, his weathered face splitting into a grin. “But then, when is he?”
Jake grins back in spite of the anger boiling inside him. Elton will make this right, Jake thinks, glancing at his guildmaster fondly.
The older man, formerly an adventurer himself, took Jake in and raised him after Jake’s parents were killed when the swordarm was a boy of twelve. Sir Elton is a strong and powerful man, but age and the many scars from old battles and adventures have taken their inevitable toll on him. His grey hair and grizzled features hint at many tales. Still, Jake has no doubt that the old guildmaster could hold his own if called upon.
“Come,” says Sir Elton, patting the swordarm on the back. “Now, we ride to the Iron Keep. We’ll bring Scarlet home today. I promise.”