The common room, with sawdust on the floor and a musician softly strumming a twelve-stringed bittern in one of the Sea Folk’s sad songs, was well lighted and quiet. Nieda allowed no commotion in her place, and her nephew, Bili, was big enough to carry a man out with either hand. Sailors, dockworkers, and warehousemen came to the Badger for a drink and maybe a little talk, for a game of stones or darts. The room was half full now; even men who liked quiet had been lured out by carnival. The talk was soft, but Domon caught mentions of the Hunt, and of the false Dragon the Murandians had taken, and of the one the Tairens were chasing through Haddon Mirk. There seemed to be some question whether it would be preferable to see the false Dragon die, or the Tairens.
Domon grimaced. False Dragons! Fortune prick me, there be no place safe these days. But he had no real care for false Dragons, any more than for the Hunt.
The stout proprietress, with her hair rolled at the back of her head, was wiping a mug, keeping a sharp eye on her establishment. She did not stop what she was doing, or even look at him, really, but her left eyelid drooped, and her eyes slanted toward three men at a table in the corner. They were quiet even for the Badger, almost somber, and their bell-shaped velvet caps and dark coats, embroidered across the chest in bars of silver and scarlet and gold, stood out among the plain dress of the other patrons.
Domon sighed and took a table in a corner by himself. Cairhienin, this time. He took a mug of brown ale from a serving girl and drew a long swallow. When he lowered the mug, the three men in striped coats were standing beside his table. He made an unobtrusive gesture, to let Nieda know that he did not need Bili.
“Captain Domon?” They were all three nondescript, but there was an air about the speaker that made Domon take him for their leader. They did not appear to be armed; despite their fine clothes, they looked as if they did not need to be. There were hard eyes in those so very ordinary faces. “Captain Bayle Domon, of the Spray?”
Domon gave a short nod, and the three sat down without waiting for an invitation. The same man did the talking; the other two just watched, hardly blinking. Guards, Domon thought, for all their fine clothes. Who do he be to have a pair of guards to look over him?
“Captain Domon, we have a personage who must be brought from Mayene to Illian.”
“Spray be a river craft,” Domon cut him off. “Her draft be shallow, and she has no the keel for deep water.” It was not exactly true, but close enough for landsmen. At least it be a change from Tear. They be getting smarter.
The man seemed unperturbed at the interruption. “We had heard you were giving up the river trade.”
“Maybe I do, and maybe no. I have no decided.” He had, though. He would not go back upriver, back to the Borderlands, for all the silk shipped in Tairen bottoms. Saldaean furs and ice peppers were not worth it, and it had nothing to do with the false Dragon he had heard of there. But he wondered again how anyone knew. He had not spoken of it to anyone, yet the others had known, too.
“You can coast to Mayene easily enough. Surely, Captain, you would be willing to sail along the shoreline for a thousand gold marks.”
Despite himself, Domon goggled. It was four times the last offer, and that had been enough to make a man’s jaw drop. “Who do you want me to fetch for that? The First of Mayene herself? Has Tear finally forced her all the way out, then?”
“You need no names, Captain.” The man set a large leather pouch on the table, and a sealed parchment. The pouch clinked heavily as he pushed them across the table. The big red wax circle holding the folded parchment shut bore the many-rayed Rising Sun of Cairhien. “Two hundred on account. For a thousand marks, I think you need no names. Give that, seal unbroken, to the Port Captain of Mayene, and he will give you three hundred more, and your passenger. I will hand over the remainder when your passenger is delivered here. So long as you have made no effort to discover that personage’s identity.”
Domon drew a deep breath. Fortune, it be worth the voyage if there be never another penny beyond what be in that sack. And a thousand was more money than he would clear in three years. He suspected that if he probed a little more, there would be other hints, just hints, that the voyage involved hidden dealings between Illian’s Council of Nine and the First of Mayene. The First’s city-state was a province of Tear in all but name, and she would no doubt like Illian’s aid. And there were many in Illian who said it was time for another war, that Tear was taking more than a fair share of the trade on the Sea of Storms. A likely net to snare him, if he had not seen three like it in the past month.
He reached to take the pouch, and the man who had done all the talking caught his wrist. Domon glared at him, but he looked back undisturbed.
“You must sail as soon as possible, Captain.”
“At first light,” Domon growled, and the man nodded and released his hold.
“At first light, then, Captain Domon. Remember, discretion keeps a man alive to spend his money.”
Domon watched the three of them leave, then stared sourly at the pouch and the parchment on the table in front of him. Someone wanted him to go east. Tear or Mayene, it did not matter so long as he went east. He thought he knew who wanted it. And then again, I have no a clue to them. Who could know who was a Darkfriend? But he knew that Darkfriends had been after him since before he left Marabon to come back downriver. Darkfriends and Trollocs. Of that, he was sure. The real question, the one he had not even a glimmer of an answer for, was why?
“Trouble, Bayle?” Nieda asked. “You do look as if you had seen a Trolloc.” She giggled, an improbable sound from a woman her size. Like most people who had never been to the Borderlands, Nieda did not believe in Trollocs. He had tried telling her the truth of it; she enjoyed his stories, and thought they were all lies. She did not believe in snow, either.
“No trouble, Nieda.” He untied the pouch, dug a coin out without looking, and tossed it to her. “Drinks for everyone till that do run out, then I’ll give you another.”
Nieda looked at the coin in surprise. “A Tar Valon mark! Do you be trading with the witches now, Bayle?”
“No,” he said hoarsely. “That I do not!”
She bit the coin, then quickly snugged it away behind her broad belt. “Well, it be gold for that. And I suspect the witches be no so bad as some make them out, anyway. I’d no say so much to many men. I know a money changer who do handle such. You’ll no have to give me another, with as few as be here tonight. More ale for you, Bayle?”
He nodded numbly, though his mug was still almost full, and she trundled off. She was a friend, and would not speak of what she had seen. He sat staring at the leather pouch. Another mug was brought before he could make himself open it enough to look at the coins inside. He stirred them with a callused finger. Gold marks glittered up at him in the lamplight, every one of them bearing the damning Flame of Tar Valon. Hurriedly he tied the bag. Dangerous coins. One or two might pass, but so many would say to most people exactly what Nieda thought. There were Children of the Light in the city, and although there was no law in Illian against dealing with Aes Sedai, he would never make it to a magistrate if the Whitecloaks heard of this. These men had made sure he would not simply take the gold and stay in Illian.
While he was sitting there worrying, Yarin Maeldan, his brooding, stork-like second on Spray, came into the Badger with his brows pulled down to his long nose and stood over the captain’s table. “Carn’s dead, Captain.”
Domon stared at him, frowning. Three others of his men had already been killed, one each time he refused a commission that would take him east. The magistrates had done nothing; the streets were dangerous at nigh
t, they said, and sailors a rough and quarrelsome lot. Magistrates seldom troubled themselves with what happened in the Perfumed Quarter, as long as no respectable citizens were injured.
“But this time I did accept them,” he muttered.
“ ’Tisn’t all, Captain,” Yarin said. “They worked Carn with knives, like they wanted him to tell them something. And some more men tried to sneak aboard Spray not an hour gone. The dock watch ran them off. Third time in ten days, and I never knew wharf rats to be so persistent. They like to let an alarm die down before they try again. And somebody tossed my room at the Silver Dolphin last night. Took some silver, so I’d think it was thieves, but they left that belt buckle of mine, the one set with garnets and moonstones, lying right out in plain sight. What’s going on, Captain? The men are afraid, and I’m a little nervous myself.”