Katrina’s navigational skills passed the test as the Sky Hawk reached Harpel in a matter of hours. Now they knew how to navigate, the trip was short, quick, and uneventful. Once there though, it took them another hour to thread their way between the thousands of floating asteroids that surrounded Harpel on every side. If not for the brightly colored buoys marking the safe channel, it would have taken much longer.
Gaia floated overhead, blue-green, and beautiful. They traced the western coast from the far south near Midbar, the Great Desert, up to Fleyniria, and the tiny thread-like Nimhes River. Somewhere on that mighty river were the Twin Cities, and home. Gaia’s moon was closer. Pale and silvery, it hung in the void close at hand, taking up a full third of the sky. It was even more beautiful than it was when seen from the ground.
They followed the buoys in, along a winding, circuitous path. Approaching Harpel along any other course was dangerous if not fatal. If a ship wasn’t beaten to pieces by the asteroids, pirates and brigands were still a constant threat despite Harpel being semi-civilized. Wise captains followed the channel marked by the buoys even though it took longer.
They finally broke through the surrounding asteroid field into a large, cleared area of space. Floating in the center was Harpel, a circular asteroid about two leagues in diameter and a quarter of that in thickness. Spread across the ‘top’ surface was a fantastic city with gardens, a small forest, ponds, walking paths, stables, dockyards, and a royal palace. On the ‘bottom’ surface were farms, naval yards, and prisons.
A tiny ship, barely half the size of the diminutive Wanderer, streaked out to intercept them. A single man sat in the pilot’s chair in a canoe-like boat. “Where from and what cargo?” he shouted over to them when he got close enough. He wore a faded uniform that had seen better days.
“The Sky Hawk from Thorginbelt,” Aaren shouted back. “No cargo.”
“No cargo?” A puzzled look crossed the man’s face and he maneuvered in closer. “What’s your business, Sky Hawk?”
“We’re an adventuring company, the Knights of Gaia. We’re on our own business,” Aaren answered.
The man grimaced. “Another one, huh? Alright, Sky Hawk, take dock 65, berth 17,” he said wearily. “All the way at the end.” He gestured over his shoulder then spoke briefly into a crystal ball anchored next to him. He waved as he turned and shot away.
Horace had come up to join Aaren and Mira on the bridge. “Not very impressed by us was he?”
Mira shook her head as she steered the ship ahead. “Pretty much the opposite,” she replied. “I don’t think adventuring groups are very high on his list of people to appreciate.”
She was forced to turn away from the conversation and give her full attention to guiding the ship through the dense traffic surrounding the docks. She and Garrick formed a tight, well-knit unit, turning the ship this way and that to avoid the dozens of ships vying for right-of-way.
Aaren backed away, giving her room to work and contented himself with playing tourist. He and Horace took turns pointing out various sights to each other.
There was plenty to see.
Harpel sloped from a high peak where the palace crouched, to rough, rounded edges. Extending over three hundred cubits out from the edge was a complicated series of docks, wharves, footbridges, and loading ramps. Except for the lack of water, it looked like any busy seaport you might expect to see along the oceans or rivers, he thought. Sailors moved up and down the decks of the ships tied along the docks, loading and unloading, repairing, scrapping hulls, washing the decks, performing the hundred and one other tasks involved in maintaining a working ship. Wagons, piled high with bales and boxes, rattled the wharves thunderously under their wheels and the hooves of their teams. Drivers yelled obscenities at each other, their teams and passers-by in general. Children darted in and out, shrieking and laughing as they played and chased each other, adding to the din and confusion. Animals of every imaginable variety were caged, penned, or tied on the ships and the docks, mooing, cackling, crowing, grunting, and stomping. They contributed volubly to the noise and noisomely to the stench.
Behind the berthed ships and the docks, were the warehouses, shipping guilds, taverns, inns, shops, and hovels common to any port city. The workaday nature of the buildings was readily apparent. Paint was a scarcity, only scantily applied where it existed at all. Weathered boards and crumbling brick were the norm. The streets were narrow, crooked, and crowded. Bustling shoppers and sailors rubbed shoulders with tourists, beggars, whores, and wailing urchins. Now and then a sedan chair or coach swayed through the streets or blocked traffic while the owner descended to browse in one of the many shops.
The crowds in the streets were roughly dressed, armed, and dangerous. From experience in Thorginbelt’s dockside, Aaren knew that on average, at least one of every five people in the crowds were outlaws, brigands, swindlers, or pickpockets. Those types always seemed drawn to the rough and ready atmosphere at the docks where the unwary could lose their life as easily as their purse.
Over the roofs of the low buildings, he caught a glimpse of the rest of the city, its streets and buildings climbing steadily toward the far-distant palace. Because of the long, low hill, the city really was divided into the lower and upper portions. The nobles, like the ones in Taeljurm, probably loved that little touch, he thought with grim amusement. Although, according to Beorn, the nobles on Harpel were only recently some of the more blood-thirsty pirates in the area. Harpel hadn’t been ‘civilized’ very long and most of the current nobility still had living members who had worked their way up through the ranks of one outlaw organization or another. It made for a dangerous and unpredictable city.
A long, ramshackle dock with a weather-beaten sign proclaiming it dock 65 loomed up. Garrick’s men pulled in most of their sails and the Sky Hawk slowed to a crawl. The boats and ships tied up on this dock were a random collection, spanning the gamete from a gargantuan ship swarming with gnomes to a tiny, one-man skiff, and every conceivable shape and size in-between. Some of them gleamed with new paint and the smell of fresh sawdust, while others sagged and bulged, their hulls covered with scars from old battles and boards popping out of place. The crews were as varied as their ships, Aaren noted. Some looked like merchants on their last legs, others were obviously pirates, and some didn’t fit into any observable category at all. Adventurers like us maybe, he mused, dismissing the gnomish ship as impossible to pigeonhole.
An empty berth, number 17, loomed up off their starboard bow and they swung in, rubber fenders squeaking noisily where the Sky Hawk rubbed against them. Crewmen leaped over the railing to the dock, lines in hand, and tied them off quickly. More lines were thrown to them and the Sky Hawk ground to a halt.
Mira turned off the power and stepped away from the wheel, sighing in relief. “Harpel at last. My job is done,” she told Aaren. “Now it’s your turn again.”
He grinned. “You’re all heart.” He went down to the main deck. “Come on, let’s find the harbormaster and get our fees paid before they try to confiscate the ship or something. This looks like the kind of place where stuff like that happens.”
Able for the first time to really see the harbor rather than just navigate through it, Mira took stock of the atmosphere and the generally dilapidated condition of the buildings. “Great place for a mugging,” she muttered as she followed him. By unspoken agreement, everyone was armed. The crew wore their swords and cutlasses, while the Knights were arrayed in their finest armor and favorite weapons. Aaren swung his new hammer experimentally, delighting in the feel of its weight and balance.
Horace had the same opinion of the city as Mira. “Nice place,” he said sarcastically. “Just the kind of city I’ve been looking for to spend my vacation in.” His sword was loose in its sheath and his helmet was near at hand.
Jon put Garrick in charge of the final details of securing the ship and joined them just as Elric and Katrina came out from the navigator’s cabin. They looked around, looked again, then checked to see their weapons were readily available.
Jon nodded at them. “You feel it too, huh?”
“A blind man couldn’t miss it,” Katrina said curtly.
“They’ve got slavery here,” Aaren added grimly. “I could see from the bridge. I had just enough elevation to see into those pens over there.”
He pointed back toward one of the docks they had passed.
Mira’s face hardened. “Slavery? Beorn said it was illegal.”
“He also warned us some of the nobility were ex-slavers,” Horace reminded her.
“Uh-huh,” Katrina nodded. “Only some of them may not as ‘ex’ as they’d like people to think.” She shivered and hugged herself tightly. “Just thinking about it gives me the creeps.” Elric put a protective arm around her and she gratefully burrowed into his shoulder. Slavery wasn’t unknown on Gaia but Carrzulm was the only place that practiced it openly, yet another reason the jungle Empire was often held in disdain by decent people.
“All of which,” Aaren said, getting their attention, “means we need to be extra careful while we’re here. No splitting up or running off in a dozen different directions, no careless words or slips of the tongue. We don’t carry any money unless we absolutely have to. We keep a low profile and try not to get noticed . . .” he paused for emphasis, “. . . by anybody.”
Horace pantomimed locking his lips and throwing the key away.
Aaren clapped him on the shoulder. “Good man. The rest of you?”
They nodded silently.
“Good. First things first then, let’s find the harbormaster and get our docking fees taken care of, then we’ll head into town and start looking for some information on Blanrus and this brotherhood he’s allied with.” He gave a quick flurry of orders then led them down the gangplank and up the dock.
It turned out to be unnecessary to find the harbormaster, for the simple reason that he found them.
The rules as he explained them were straightforward; pay your docking fee on time and no one would bother you. The fee itself was actually fairly reasonable and once that was taken care of – Garrick could come to the office once a day to pay it – the harbormaster lost all interest in them. He didn’t even bother to ask if they were carrying any contraband.
“Wonderful security,” Jon sneered as they left the harbormaster office. “We coulda been carrying anything at all and he couldn’t have cared less.”
“Beorn said the place was run by ex-pirates,” Horace reminded him.
“But this is ridiculous!” Jon protested. “He didn’t even ask, just for form’s sake!”
Aaren interrupted. “So now we know we have to be more careful than we thought. Let’s just take it from there, okay?”
Jon nodded reluctantly. He was clearly upset at the apparent lack of law enforcement though. The Knights adjusted their weapons and turned to the city.
It was time to begin.