March 4th, 2013

Dark lady

002. Alien

I have written this for the alien square for my card for [community profile] darkfantasybingo.

Fandom: Original work.
Chararcters: Sillan Denevda/Tamin Sorid, Ogar, Manous Gestracht, Abean Habenst
Pairings NA
Prompt:  Alien
Medium: Prose fiction
Word Count: 3,154
Rating: PG 13
Warnings: No standard warnings.

Summary/Preview: The newly renamed Tamin Sorid undertakes her first job in her new life.

So, here I was in Candermole, a foreign city that lay a week’s ocean voyage from my native port of Scalery, and the slave of my father’s adversary, an ostensible business man named Manous Gestracht. I’d been enslaved and shipped out by mischance, or so it seemed, the same night the rest of Scalery’s ruling Council had moved against my maternal grandmother, the Beldam. My family was dead, or imprisoned and facing execution. Either way, there was no hope of rescue for me there.

Fortunately, my new master seemed to think that I would be useful to him and consequently seemed to want to keep me alive, at least until I’d earned him back the money he’d paid for me. To that end he’d dumped my birth name of Silla Denevda and renamed me Tamin Sorid.

My first interview with him had made it clear that there was a lot he wasn’t telling me.

Before I was allowed out of the house again my appearance was changed. We cut my brown hair as short as man’s long finger joint and put a black rinse through it. That made it very different to my former bun or braids but although Berind’s hair had always been this length, that had been flat to the skull while mine stood out and our faces, too, were sufficiently different that my new appearance didn’t scream a connection to my family. My clothes from home were taken away and I was provided with a new wardrobe in a mannish Canderan style of the quality a well-to-do journeyman would wear. They were clothes that could take me anywhere my master chose to send me.

Where he chose to send me at first was out and about to learn the lay of the city. I helped carry the baskets for the cook when she went to the markets then, when we were back from that and I’d had breakfast, Ogar took me out again to learn the streets and alleys. All the time too, I was listening to how people talked. Of all the League’s cities, Canderamole’s dialect is closest to Scalery’s speech but if I opened my mouth without learning how the locals spoke I’d label myself a foreigner with every word.

Everything felt strange, what with the: flat layout, Canderamole being on an island while Scalery ran almost straight up a cliff; bright sunlight; unfamiliar architecture; learning how to speak like a local; and the lack of weight on my head. It was all very disorientating but a tour of the docks with Ogar made me focus.

We’d gone to meet the clipper that was coming in, it didn’t matter where it was from, as Manous Gestracht wanted the newspapers from its last port as soon as possible. It so happened that the ship was flying Scalery colours and as the passengers unloaded I could see that among them was a political ally of the late Beldam, my grandmother. The Councillor seemed to be travelling very light but all his family was with him, as well as some of his bravos, fewer than usual, but then clipper passages don’t come cheap. At first I was concerned that one of them would recognise me but that didn’t stay my main worry for long as the Senator’s party was attacked by men I’d assumed were loiterers hoping for porter’s work. It seemed that someone was having arriving ships watched for ‘persons of interest’ from Scalery and that concentrated my attention on the here and now.

The Councillor’s bravos and his sons were doing well against their reception committee when Ogar dragged me away. He may not have picked me up and carried me but I’m sure he lifted me over a few things and that was how we wound up down the Vsultnoi end of the docks. The Vsultnoi are seafaring nomads who rarely, individually, tie up at a dock. They do come into port for repairs and to purchase new vessels, ships not growing in oysters or clams, as the saying goes. This section of the dock was busy with ships being repaired, workmen and the Vsultnoi themselves but when Ogar put me on my own two feet I felt like I was standing in cold, dead, salty slime.

Not physically or metaphorically, but something that left a trail I could sense had passed this way. Something I’d never met before. Ogar didn’t give me time to investigate but hustled me out of the docks by a street I hadn’t been up before. I did notice that whatever I’d felt had crisscrossed that section of the docks very thoroughly but didn’t seem to have left the waterside area. It hadn’t been up the street we left by and I didn’t feel it anywhere else on the way back to Gestracht’s house.

Gestracht had provided me with the notebooks, writing and drawing implements I’d asked for although he’d seemed uncertain he’d be able to get the reference books I wanted to replace the ones at home. Regardless of the fact that I wanted to sit down and consult Forthringen’s Bestiary of the Dark and couldn’t, I did sit down and write up the sense trails I’d found on the docks. Overall, my impression had been of cold, darkness, slime and death. At home I would have followed the matter up on the docks straight away. Here, my master forbade it.

“We’ve not been hired to look into it,” Gestracht told me firmly, “so you won’t. Ogar will continue to help you learn the city. That is your task at the moment.”

So that was what I did, day and night, following Ogar around the city, listening to him when he told me about the people we saw, memorising the locations of the safe houses for Gestracht’s people and learning who my master’s enemies were in the city. At night, after we’d finished our rooftop perambulations, I slept in an upstairs room of Gestracht’s house that faced the warehouse across the courtyard. Actually we slept in that room, me in the single bed with linen sheets and a single coverlet, with Ogar on a camp bed across the door. Both of us had a ticking mattress but I couldn’t help but think that the arrangement was inconvenient for him. It was a pattern that lasted for five days.

Which is not to say that nothing of interest happened in that time. Councillor-in-exile Gabondefe claimed political asylum. I found five separate haunts in my traipsing around the city with Ogar. A well-known expeditor and middleman was murdered horribly in his home. I started finding those slime-feeling trails away from the harbour. News reached Canderamole that the Doge of Dorsoduro’s new wife had been caught in flagrante delicto with his second son and no-one was sure what that was going to do to their internal politics.

On the sixth day Ogar and I were summoned to Gestracht’s office. He was not alone. His companion, who was seated in a guest chair, was tall with greying hair, dressed prosperously in a fashion that said not just merchant but magnate and looked worried. Gestracht opened proceedings by saying, “These are the employees of whom I told you, Miss Sorid and her associate, Ogar. Tamin, Ogar, this is Gentlesir Abean Habenst and he has a problem for you to work on.” Ogar and I both bowed. “If you could explain the issues to Miss Sorid in your own words please, Gentlesir?”

The Gentlesir turned slightly in his seat to better address Ogar and myself. “I recently made arrangements, through the offices of Pieder Lenst, to retrieve a family heirloom that was lost when my father’s ship sank with all hands some thirty years ago.” He paused and I looked at him in what I hoped was an encouraging fashion. I’d heard the name Pieder Lenst in the past few days, he was the man who’d been murdered horribly in his home. “The item was recovered and returned to me but,” he swallowed nervously, “it’s come to my attention that everyone who’s handled this item since its recovery has died violently by unnatural means. Pieder Lenst, his agent, and the Vsultno who actually retrieved the item from the wreck, are all dead since the item reached Canderamole. I want whoever or whatever it is stopped before it gets to me.” I glanced at my master, Gestracht, and he nodded slightly.

“Do you know how they died, sir?” The more he could tell me, the better off I’d be.

“Compression and drowning,” he shivered, “on dry land. They had to break down Lenst’s chamber door to get in and his bed was completely dry but his lungs were full of water. The authorities seem not to know how it was done but I suspect a supernatural agent.”

Which was why he’d come to me. “Gentlesir, do you have any reason to suspect a supernatural agency, other than the cause of death and location?”

“When I was a boy my maternal grandfather, may his soul rest in peace, used to tell us a story about a ghlan, a haunt formed from a captain who’d died when his ship sank because he refused to dump part of his cargo to save it. In the story the ghlan pursued men who recovered part of his cargo from the wreck and killed them in much the way Lenst died. I thought it was just a story, until now.”

“What happened to the ghlan in your grandfather’s story?” I could hope that the tale told you how to deal with the things, couldn’t I?

Gentlesir Habenst thought for moment. “I believe it caught and killed all its targets, retrieved the recovered cargo and returned to its wreck.”

“Then we need to get you a better ending, don’t we sir?” I smiled gently at him. “I realise that you probably can’t get me into Lenst’s home but might I have the address so that I can look around outside?”

“Of course.” He nodded.

“And the names of his agent and the sailor who died, plus the agent’s address and the name of the Vsultno’s ship.” I might have been pushing it but I saw little point in running around to find out things the client already knew.

I had no idea what Gestracht was charging for my services, but Gentlesir Habenst apparently also saw no point in paying me to ferret out what he already knew and he rattled off the two addresses and the agent’s name. The Vsultno was a different matter. “I don’t believe I was ever given his name,” he explained. “He wasn’t going to stay in Canderamole, the Vsultnoi never do, but I believe he was a ship’s man on the Aldaraiti Mevonoi.”

“Thank you, Gentlesir Habenst. I have no further questions at this stage, although more may arise later. Will it be convenient for me to contact you?” I didn’t want to be too pushy, I was a hireling here, not someone doing a favour for a friend.

“You’re trying to save my life,” then he added with a flash of humour, “so I believe the answer is yes.”

When we were dismissed from the study and left the house, our first two ports of call were the houses of the Lenst and his agent. I didn’t try to enter them or to speak to the surviving residents. I didn’t need to for what I wanted to know. My magic, because I do have magic even though it doesn’t run to spells, lets me sense the supernatural and the undead. I can see the ones normally invisible to men and I feel where any of them had been. I was certain that nothing like that was inside either house now, but something had been into both places and then left again. The thing that left the trail I had first felt down at the docks.

It was time to talk to the Vsultnoi.

The Aldaraiti Mevonoi was still tied up at the dock. We were lucky, they were repainting her eyes so she must have been almost ready to sail. I speak very little Vsult, the Vsultnoi hold it close and don’t let it escape, but I know a little about them although they rarely dock in Scalery. As I’m female, when I walked up to the man on the end of their gangplank I asked to speak to their Ship’s Mother.

It took a little time to arrange, with a Vsultno stripling running backwards and forwards with messages, but we were eventually escorted to the deck where the ship’s matriarch met us. I bowed and said, “Thank you for seeing me, Ship’s Matriarch.”

“We sail in the hour and I do not have time for landers’ pleasantries. What do you want, land girl?” She overtopped me by a head and her thick plaits were pulled back and dashed with grey.

“I have been hired by a man who wishes not to be killed by a ghlan that is following an item one of your ship’s men retrieved from a wreck for him. I understand that the ship’s man is now dead – the two men who had the item after him certainly are.”

“Does this look to you like a ship a ghlan could broach?” I might have insulted her, she was so angry, so quickly.

“It’s obvious that the thing I’m concerned with hasn’t been aboard this ship,” I replied calmly, “so if the story of his death is true, then your ship’s man must have been killed on the dock. Something has certainly been all over the place down there.”

“You can tell this?” She was looking at me shrewdly, maybe too shrewdly.

“Yes, and I can tell that the thing that’s been on the dock has been into the houses of the other two men who were killed. Then it came out again. I heard that the last man to die drowned in a completely dry bed.” I held her eye.

“You are one of the wise? Why did you not say so?” The tall, fierce woman smiled at me.

“I’ve not heard myself included among the wise before and I know nothing about ghlan. I wasn’t even sure that you would talk to me.” I smiled back.

“So, but you came to talk to me anyway.” Her eyes glinted at me, weighing me up.

“This is a monster from the sea, out of place in this place. Who better to ask about it than sea people? Anything you know about it is more than I know.” I looked her right back.

“We knew there was a ghlan on that reef, it’s been there for centuries, but it shouldn’t have cared about the cargo from a wreck only thirty years old. At sea we didn’t even know it was following us, our protections are sound, but here? The docks and your land cabins don’t have even basic protections. Hlad was caught when he went off the ship, as you suggested. The ghlan is said to hunt by the scent of its treasure.”

“If you give one back its treasure, will it stop hunting?” Gentlesir Habenst wanted to live, after all.

“Sometimes.” She gave me a hard smile. “Pure salt will hurt it, they say. If you can dry out the slime, then it is vulnerable to piercing weapons or so they say.” She looked me up and down. “I have no more time to give to this and I know no more. Good luck in saving this man who is paying you.”

“Thank you for taking the time to speak to me, Ship’s Mother.” I bowed and we left.

“Well, that made me feel totally unnecessary,” commented Ogar as we left the dock.

“Oh, you were essential,” I told him with a smile. “You were my credentials that I was in good standing with a “ship’s company.” Without you along, she would never have seen me.”

He seemed mollified, which was good, and I had told him nothing less than the truth.

It was time to come up with a plan.

Unsurprisingly, Gentlesir Habenst did not want to give up his family heirloom. “Gentlesir,” suggested Ogar, “items under the sea for anytime are often brought up with growths and encrustations on them. Could you perhaps check whether another item has been wedded to your heirloom by this process?”

“That would explain why the creature is apparently acting out of character,” I agreed. I’d done some more research into ghlan after speaking to the Ship’s Mother of the Aldaraiti Mevonoi, mainly in seafarers’ taverns, and nothing I’d heard had contradicted anything she’d said. “If you could check, Gentlesir, that would be a real help.”

We were able to set our trap with the help of a lot of salt, a lot of oil, a safe nocturnal traffic diversion enforced by Gestracht’s heavies, a discoloured and encrusted coin that had been found inside the heirloom and the absence of Gentlesir Habenst. If this went wrong, I didn’t want him right there where the ghlan could grab him. Just in case our information about ghlan was faulty, the trap was set a little beyond where it had roamed the night before.

Waiting in the dark for an unknown monster is never fun. When this one appeared, coming up the hill before moonrise, it glowed in the dark with internal luminescence. It crawled up the cobblestones like a giant slug, but that internal light showed the transformation of the man it had been in true life while the frill around its body proper suggested that in water it would swim with an undulating grace.

The silence disappeared when it hit the line of salt. It couldn’t cross the line without touching the salt and it was determined to get further up the hill towards its treasure or its victim. It screamed every moment any part of its body was on the line, and then it kept screaming, salt must have stuck to its underside. Once it was clear of the salt, the men we had waiting sprayed it with oil and then we set fire to the oil with a flaming arrow. The screaming was a different pitch this time but it still kept moving up hill. Then they started putting arrows into it. Then it crossed the second line of salt.

It died, no it ceased because it was already dead, on top of the coin. I wasn’t sure whether it had been going to take the coin and go back to its lair or continue up the hill in search of Gentlesir Habenst. Now, of course, it didn’t matter. We just had to bury the long dead captain’s skeleton, because all that was left was a dead man’s bones and a silver coin.

I’m still not certain whether strange things in a strange place seem stranger than they normally would.