The three of them stood just beyond the northern gate of Iascond and watched Raulin, not knowing what to say.  It had to be said, though. “Go ahead,” Anla said to Al.

“What if he snaps at me again? I don’t want to deal with it.  And if he says no…”.

“Stand firm. If you have to pretend to be Mr. Auslen, then try that. He’s under your employment, remember?”

“Okay,” he said reluctantly and approached Raulin, who was leaning against a tree. He cleared his throat and Raulin jumped before opening his eyes. Al expected a “Yes, Wizard?” or some acknowledgement, but got nothing but a deep stare from the man.  Kriskin malor, I am in charge of him.  He has to do what the group says!

He cleared his throat quickly “Ah, Anla says you need to be in Miachin in four days and you’re not exactly healed. We won’t make it with you walking as slowly as you are. So, we bought places on an empty food dray that’s heading to Calaba. We’re staying there until we need to move to Miachin.”

“Fine,” Raulin said.

Al was taken aback for a moment. “You can’t get out of it. We’ve already paid and the man is coming to the gate soon.”

“Hopefully. It would be embarrassing if he took your money and never showed.”

“We approached him! We asked first where he was going and he said ‘Calaba’, then we asked if he was willing to take people north on his cart. I’m not stupid, Raulin. I know you don’t give money to anyone that approaches you without making the necessary inquiries.”

“Okay,” he said tiredly, then closed his eyes again as if to say the discussion was complete.  Al wasn’t sure Raulin wouldn’t try something to get out of it, but he had done his duty by informing the trirec about their plans.  He returned to the rest of the group.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“He hoped we weren’t getting ripped off, but he was okay with it.”

Anla looked at Tel. “That’s an improvement. I expected him to yell at us for spending money and doing something behind his back.”

“Why should it matter?” Al said. “He does everything behind ours.”

“It’s the nature of his job, Al.” She turned when they heard the clopping of horses’ hooves stop nearby. The man and his dray were one of dozens of people who made the trek daily to provide food to Iascond from the northern countryside. With his dragan horses, tall, muscular things with thick necks and creamy fringed cannons, he could pull a dozen large barrels with each trip. His return to Calaba was unweighed and therefore a waste of space in his cart.

Raulin said nothing as he approached. He climbed into the front of the dray, right below the high-set seat, and fell asleep almost immediately. Al and Anla sat across from Telbarisk, who was pleased to be able to stretch his legs out along the flap in the back.

Al had no idea how Raulin managed to stay asleep. The whole cart jostled over every dip and rock in the road. Every so often the driver would trot the horses on a bit of road that was relatively flat, in order to get the speed up a little, but it was mostly slow and bouncy.

The driver was named Naustis and he was more than grateful for the extra income. “Iascond doesn’t have a rail station yet, but when they do I might be out of a job.”

“Could you gather food from farms and bring it in to Calaba?” Al asked, leaning over the edge of the dray.

“There are already people who do that. I take that food and bring it down here.” He looked back and down. “Who knows? Perhaps the station won’t come until I’m retired. I’m getting older and I’ve encouraged my sons to look for jobs in different professions. Maybe it won’t bother me, then.”

Al’s stomach had been rumbling for a solid hour by the time they crested a hill lined with thin cypress trees. The summit overlooked all of Calaba, a town large enough to boast of two market streets, but not enough to justify a baron’s hold. The wharf was extensive, with one of the shopping districts, and even a large temple clinging to a far off sea cliff.

“This is our first time here,” Al said to Naustis. “Can you give us some recommendations?”

He turned in his seat and looked at Al, giving an amused smile. “Calaba is an…interesting town. It all depends on whether you’re looking for quiet or entertainment?”

“What kind of entertainment?” Al asked warily.

“Nothing like that,” Naustis said. “In fact, Calaba prides itself on its low crime and virtuous citizens. They just like to do their greeds and meads in a particular way.”

“’Greeds and meads’?” Al asked.

“It means ‘have fun’ in Dickery, street talk,” Anla said. “At least that’s what they say in Hanala.”

“Indeed, miss,” Naustis said. “And I used that phrase specifically.” When they continued to look up at him, he continued. “There’s pirates there, namely. Calaba spent a good portion of the last century fighting off pirate attacks. When they were eradicated from Gheny’s shores, Calaba was left with an industry that had nothing to do anymore. So, they started holding some mock battles, to keep everyone sharp, just in case the pirates weren’t really gone or there was some other force to watch out for. And over the last hundred years it’s morphed into this vacation spot where people come to get swept up in the events. They still have ‘attacks’ on the town or sea skirmishes. The townsfolk in the wharf section, Cutlass Bay, dress in old Aroukean and Kitstuar fashions and pretend like it’s the olden days.”

He stopped and lost the far away look as he gauged their reactions. “I take it you participate from time to time?” Anladet asked.

He gave a sheepish smile. “Occasionally, yes. It’s a grand time, if you enjoy it and don’t worry about outsiders looking in and mocking you.”

“Do they do that?” Anla asked.

“Sometimes. I try not to let it spoil my time.” He looked back forward for a moment, then back at the group. “You have a choice then. Would you like me to take you to a nice hotel inland, where it’s quiet, or down by Cutlass Bay, where it’s exciting?”

Anla looked at Al. Since Raulin didn’t seem like he wanted to be in charge and Telbarisk never cared, it was up to him again. Finally the group had retained the sense of order he preferred.

His choice, however, wouldn’t be considered something based on maturity. He looked at Raulin, who had only stirred when they had spoken to Naustis, and wondered what would bother him the most. Someone who needed a few days of recovery would likely want peace and quiet. “Let’s try Cutlass Bay,” he said.

“Good man,” Naustis said. “I’ll take you as close as I can, but I can’t drive my horses down certain streets.”

His horses’ hooves clopped over the cobblestones of Main Street. Naustis waved to many of the shopkeepers who were tending to outdoor chores or speaking with their neighbors. He turned right down a dirt alley between a barber-surgeon and a boutique and stopped before reaching the next cobbled street.

“This is where we part,” the driver said, climbing down from his seat. “Those blue-gray stones are the beginning of the show area. The inn I’m going to recommend is the The Dusty Lantern. It’s about five blocks north and two blocks east. It stands out because they don’t go fully along with the show; the owners don’t pretend to be defenseless habitaents fearful of invasion nor former pirates taken to a life of lawfulness. It’s a good place to stay if you’re curious, but not excited.”

Naustis helped Anla down from the dray after popping the gate down. Al and the roused Raulin hopped down; Telbarisk barely had to drop in order to touch the street. “Thank you,” Al said. “We’ll be sure to enjoy our stay.”

They watched as he drove away down what was labeled as Palm Way, an accurate name due to the trees that were at the corner of each building. Each was surrounded by a small box of brightly colored flowers, reds, yellows, and fuschias popping out from a feathery bush of deep green.

Al led the way past shops and taverns in the neighborhood that had chipped paint and broken windows. He turned back once or twice, expecting to see Raulin plodding along in repentance, his head hung and his hands dangling in front of him. Though slower than he remembered, Raulin appeared alert, his hands hovering near his knives and his walk no longer the casual swagger he usually used.

The Dusty Lantern was on Seabreeze Lane and was a rice-colored stucco building with an enclosed veranda in the front and split balconies for the rooms. The owner and his wife, who was serving dinner in the small dining area up front, were dressed in the traditional fare of Aroukean coastal people. His tricorne hat differed from the normal style in that its flaps were barely present and his leather vest contained pins that would mark him as a ferrier, not an innkeeper, but he looked like a man who served sailors and navigators instead of tourists. His wife wore her dress off the shoulder, including modesty with a maroon scarf tucked into her bodice. Her voluminous skirts were cinched somewhat with ribbons that twisted in and out between the folds and tied in the back.

Anla mentioned Naustis’s name and the innkeeper beamed before giving them rooms on the fourth floor. “It’s a trip upstairs, but one of the rooms faces the sea and has great views of the show.”

“My wife and I would love that one.  My ledgerer and guard will be happy to take the other,” Al said, making sure Raulin understood that under no circumstances would he be sleeping with Anla.

“Very good, sir. Would you like dinner? My wife has prepared cream seafood stew, seared beef baroise, and peach cobbler.”

“Yes, for four. My ledgerer would like no beef and my guard doesn’t like dessert.”

Surprisingly, Raulin didn’t even cast a glare his way.

“Excellent, then. Here are your keys and here is a booklet about Calaba and the events.”

The rooms weren’t cramped and the bed didn’t creak, so Al proclaimed it the best room he had stayed in so far. He leafed through the book and found it rehashed most of what Naustis had told them, minus the history and details.

“There’s something tonight called the ‘wench auction’. We should see what it is.”

“Sounds like nothing good for me,” Anla said. She looked over at him from the window, and said, “Well, maybe we can stay for a little bit. I’m sure it will be interesting.”

Dinner was fair; the puchent sauce on the seared steak was burned and the crust for the cobbler dry, but it was the first full sit-down meal in a long time for some of them. Tel’s last time grasping utensils a little too small for his hands had been in Bronsto two weeks prior. Even though Raulin was present, Al found there was something enjoyable about the group sharing a meal like that.

Since Telbarisk decided he was also interested in the affair that evening, the four went down to the wharf. Open torches lit the docks, which had sun-bleached yet clean wood over an extensive area of the beach. A large crowd had already gathered to listen to an accordion, fife, and drum band play tunes. Al applauded enthusiastically at the end of each piece.

The music was cut short, in fact mid-song, by a raucous group of men stomping across the cobblestones and up onto the wharf. They brandished their torches and leered at the crowd, which had grown giddy in anticipation. The men circled them and began saucing up the group. One was crudely flirting with some of the women while another assured the men they would be doing them all a favor.

“Ahoy, landlubbers!” the most lavishly dressed of the dozen men said as he clomped up onto the wharf.

“Ahoy, pirates!” the crowd yelled back and applauded.

“I’m Captain Ilzar and it be time for the auction! Bring us all yer wenches and we’ll see if ye can get them back!”

The men swooped in and escorted all the women behind the head pirate. The ones dressed like the innkeeper’s wife giggled and feigned distress when hands were put upon them. Some women tried to hide in the arms of their husbands, but were pried away with insults and large hands. Before Anla knew what was happening, she, too, was jostled to the front to stand behind the captain.

“Yer lovely ladies be mine!” he said to the men. “If ye want them back, ye’ll have to pay for them. And dearly; some of these gorgeous creatures be worth a hefty ransom. Now, we’ll start…”

He was interrupted by a busty, blonde woman in a red skirt and a low-cut black bodice. “Here!” she said, shoving forward. “I go first!”

“Woman, ye wait until I be pickin’ ye!” he roared and the crowd laughed.

“And wait until they’ve spent all their coin on these other dames? No. Thank. You!”

The captain took off his massive tricorne and smoothed his hair back. The woman winked and blew kisses at the men left in the crowd, tickling one older man under the chin and assuring him that he would spend whatever it took to free her. “Woman! I be choosin’ who goes first and I won’t be choosin’ ye!”

She theatrically turned around and stamped her foot. “I say I go first and I go first! Unless, you want me to make this difficult for you…”

The pirate looked to the chuckling crowd and shrugged. “Fine. We’ll be doin’ this by the cutlass and hook.” Louder still he said, “Lords and lads, I have yer lovely ladies behind me. I be sailing to Mouerta Ki in the morning and I be takin’ them all, unless ye be payin’ me what I think they be worth. This lady,” he said with enough sarcasm to make her turn and give him a nasty glare, “will be goin’ first. Any man here willing to give twenty-five gold for the privilege of having her grace your streets once more?”

“Pay us and we might take her!” someone shouted from the back.

The woman turned to the captain and gestured back at the crowd. “Oh, do you think these cheapskates will pay twenty-five gold? They wouldn’t pay a copper! You’re stuck with me!”

The pirate deflated and had one of his men place shackles around her wrists. She was led to the back, behind the other women, and the auction proceeded. The captain chose another woman, the one garbed like the innkeeper’s wife, though far too old for the revealing bodice she wore. She smiled at the captain, her large nose wrinkling in delight. “And this charming lass. What will ye be payin’ for her? I say five silver and not a copper less!”

“Five silver!” a man from the crowd yelled. He hurried forward and placed the coins in one of the pirate’s hands. The crowd cheered as the couple were reunited with a deep kiss.

Anla was moved next to the captain. “Ah, what a gorgeous lass ye are. What be your name?”

“Anladet,” she answered. He asked her to repeat it louder and she heard a few people mutter.

“An Arvonnese lass! Are ye here with anyone -please say no- or are ye here lookin’ for a man?”

A few men whistled before she loudly said, “I’m here with my husband.” Since Al had insisted on the ruse earlier, it was only fair she continue it.

“Where be he?” the captain asked.

“Here!” Al yelled, waving his arms.

“How much to ye love yer lass?”

“A lot?” he said to some chuckling from the crowd.

“Ye don’t sound confident. Perhaps we should test yer love. One hundred gold!”

There was silence for a moment, then Al said, “I don’t have that kind of money!”

The crowd laughed again. “Ah, but for a beautiful lass such as she, one hundred gold be a bargain! Perhaps some other lad be takin’ her instead?”

“Can we pool our money?” someone asked and the crowd dissented, feeling the comment was in bad taste.

“Ah, lad, ye don’t want to besmirch the lady’s honor like that. No takers? Back with ye, lassie!”

The auction continued while Anla stood in the back next to the lady with the red skirt, who didn’t seem worried at all. She tested the manacles, which were metal, but not actually locked.

The whole thing made her nervous. While she understood the pageantry, there was no guarantee that they weren’t actually going to be taken somewhere and sold as slaves. Ghenians said it didn’t happen, but she had heard too many rumors in Hanala to dismiss it. She suspected one or all of her siblings may have met that fate.

At the end of the auction, there were six women that were shackled and led to a rickety, barred wagon. “If ye want yer lasses again, join us across from the Sea Moss Beard over on Crescent Street,” the captain yelled, pointing his sword north. “But, if ye be enjoying yer new-found freedom, join us for a drink in Dublay’s Tavern, right over yonder. The first round is free!”

The crowd cheered and dispersed, most swarming to the tavern. The women were loaded up into the wagon, the seats cushioned with pillows. Anla sat closest to the door and tried to look out to see if she could get her group’s attention. If it was where she thought the captain had pointed to, it was going to be over a mile away and she would have no way of stopping her movement if she got sick.

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