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Fiction, Fantasy, Serial Novel
by: J. Dennis McKay
Two light barquentines and a thousand crowns. Not bad for a morning's work, though Yllek felt he could have gotten more. The money was more than enough to crew both vessels, but Yllek knew he'd have to increase the pot if he was going to be able to fill the ships with worthwhile cargo. He had time for that. The other two houses were putting up the ships, and Domi was putting forth the money. The ships wouldn't be turned over until after the inquiry, which wasn't for another week, and they were likely to be the worst ships in the Gandolfo and Antilly fleets, in need of serious overhauls. It would be a challenge to put together competent, trustworthy crews as well, but this was a city that lived and died by the sail, and the crews were there. Yllek estimated that it would be two months before his first ship set out. If he took some risks, he should be able to double his money in that time, and he had enough of a reputation as a trader to be able to find backers, if it came to that. He also still had nearly four hundred crowns of his own money, but he was loath to risk that. With four hundred gold crowns a man could live modestly well for a years, and Yllek liked to live better than modestly.
Most important of all, Yllek felt a new sense of freedom. He was still confined to the compound, but he could at least roam the hallways now. As if to reinforce this, he stepped out onto the balcony to enjoy a breath of air in the cool afternoon. It was still early spring, and some days still held the last of the winter chill. In two months, the spring storms will have passed and the prime shipping season would be underway. The timing was excellent, and as he took a lungful of the clean, salty air, Yllek sensed the return of the old luck that had eluded him these past five years. Looking out into the garden, he spied Papa Domi and Gianni strolling casually together under the sun, and he was nearly overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for the wily old patron. Whatever Papa's ulterior motives, he had done very well by Yllek, and he would not soon forget.
A rap at the door interrupted his thoughts. "It's open," he called from the balcony, then returned to the room to greet his guest, leaving the double doors open to air out the room. He smiled, seeing Ahrich walk in bearing a small package under his left arm. "Good to see you back so soon, Ahrich. I hope I haven't caused you to neglect your duties."
"Not at all sir," Ahrich smiled, closing the door behind him. "In fact, Gianni asked me to inform you that Papa Domi has asked him to return to his regular duties. For the time being, my duty is to serve at your leisure, if it please you sir."
"On what, sir?" Ahrich asked, puzzled.
"Are you any good at cards?"
Ahrich became flushed. "Umm, Gianni warned me against it sir." He shifted on his feet. "He claims you cheat."
Yllek laughed at this response. "So does he. He's just upset that I'm better at it than him."
Ahrich cocked his head to one side, "That may be, sir, but if it's all the same to you, I come by my pay hard enough as it is."
Yllek smiled, "Then we'll play for beads or some such. It'll help to pass the time. And if you pay attention, I'll teach you enough to be able to beat Gianni in a week."
Ahrich smiled, "Then it would be time well spent, sir."
Yllek clapped his hands together. "Excellent. It's settled then. Now, if you'll have a seat, let's take a look at what Brant has sent us."
Gianni and Domi strolled the garden in the aftermath of the informal summit. Gianni hadn't seen Domi in such fine spirits in years, and commented on it to his patron.
"Yes," Domi admitted. "Yllek's brash has always invigorated me. He's a remarkable young man, you know. He was only twenty four when he left the city, you realize. If it wasn't for that disaster, just imagine what he would have accomplished by now."
"Some say he's been blessed more by luck than talent, Papa."
"Perhaps. But one should never bet against a lucky man, Gianni."
"Or one who's fingers are as nimble with a deck of cards as his."
Domi chuckled, "There, even you have to admit that there's some talent involved."
"I said some say he has more luck than talent," Gianni clarified. "For my part, I know him too well for that. He is equally blessed by talent and luck, and has both in measure greater than any man I have ever met," he turned and looked pointedly at his patron, "Papa."
"You risk insulting me Gianni," Domi's face grew mock stern.
"Not at all, Papa. He may have raw talent, but you've had time to refine your skills far beyond his abilities. Whereas he was orphaned at an early age, and had to learn his lessons the hard way, you were raised in privilege, your natural abilities nurtured along every step of the way. House Domi has been a power for generations, and you the benefactor of its accumulated knowledge. Raw talent can only take one so far."
"Perhaps it is time we began his formal education, then?" Domi wondered aloud.
Gianni stopped dead in his tracks. "Surely you jest, Papa. The man is dangerous enough as it is."
"As an enemy or a wildcard, I would agree. But don't forget, he has always made every effort to repay the favors this house has bestowed upon him. Even a house as strong as ours can never have too many allies."
The package that Ahrich laid out on the table consisted of what appeared to be a roll of red velvet held bound by a black silk cord in it's center. Leaning forward in his chair, Yllek rubbed his hands together in anticipation, as anxious as a thirteen year old about to open his Naming Day gift.
"I had almost lost hope of ever seeing this, Ahrich," Yllek began to explain. "In a way, it's the only enduring benefit I have from trading with the Dubani. One of their merchants carried one of these. I memorized the design as best I could and described it to Brant. He promised to make me one at no charge, so long as he had free use of the design afterward."
His interest piqued, Ahrich watched intently as Yllek undid the cord. Unrolling the velvet, Yllek revealed a ten inch long cherry oak cylinder elaborately inlaid with silver. An inch and a half in diameter, it flared out to two inches of solid silver at one end, with a quarter inch hole in the other.
"It's a sealing stamp," Ahrich commented, now somewhat less than impressed.
Indeed, the flared out silver end was engraved with Yllek's personal sigil at the bottom. Smiling without comment, Yllek picked up and unfolded a small piece of parchment that had fallen out along with the stamp. Yllek briefly examined the parchment, then, turned it facedown on the table. He picked up the stamp, turning it over in his hands, giving the object a closer examination.
"An ornamental stamp," Yllek explained, "quite commonly carried holstered in a belt loop by merchants, advocates, and anyone else commonly called upon to put their seal to a document."
"Fascinating," the youth commented dryly.
Yllek smiled again and pointed the narrow end toward Ahrich. Carefully positioning his thumb and forfinger near the stamp end, he pressed firmly and was rewarded with as quiet 'click' followed by several louder clicks as the stamp seemed to spring to life. Ahrich nearly overturned his chair as he sprang back in surprise. Then his face broke into the broadest grin Yllek had ever seen.
A curved metal arm, attached to a fine steel cable swung out from either side of the rod, forming an arch at the narrow end. From the bottom, a narrow handle and trigger swung down near the stamp end. Two panels flipped open from the top, revealing a groove down the center that led to the hole in the front of the cylinder, the foremost inch of which remained intact. Each panel held a pair of narrow, three inch long quarrels held in place by spring clips.
Yllek's grin was broad enough to match Ahrich's. "A compact, concealed, hand held crossbow."
"Ha-hah!" It was Ahrich's turn to clap his hands together. "I absolutely must have one."
"I'll talk to Brant and see what I can do," Yllek replied. Yllek pulled on a bar that had flipped up near the front, drawing back the cable and cocking the weapon. Plucking a quarrel from it's holder, he loaded the crossbow, pointed it at the door and pulled the trigger. He was rewarded by a 'snap...THOCK' as the quarrel embedded itself fully an inch into the heavy oak. "Impressive."
"Very," Ahrich agreed, obviously awed by the craftsmanship and potency of the weapon.
"I'll make you a bargain, Ahrich." Ahrich responded by raising an eyebrow questioningly. "I'll arrange for Brant to make you one, on condition that this is to be kept secret. You must tell absolutely no one about this."
It took Ahrich only a second to consider. "Agreed," he stuck out a hand to shake on the deal. "I'll get you the pattern of my personal seal by the morning."
"You already have your own seal?" It was Yllek's turn to be surprised.
"Of course. I never planned on remaining a house guard forever."
Yllek smiled. He was truly beginning to like this young lad. Again he got the sense that fickle fate was once more turning in his favor.
Gianni remained in the garden for some time after Domi had returned inside, contemplating the events of the still young day. So, Yllek was to be tutored in the finer aspects of trade, courtesy of House Domi. Although somewhat surprising, Gianni didn't honestly begrudge him the honor. Gianni himself had been well schooled growing up in the house, although he took pains to conceal the level of his education. While well liked, most people thought him somewhat oafish and militaristic. That, too, was fine as far as Gianni was concerned. He had to admit to himself that while he had gained some considerable skill over the years, he didn't have the natural flair and talent of either Yllek or Domi, and being underestimated Gianni counted as one of his chief assets.
Half a decade Yllek's senior, Gianni knew he hadn't fooled Domi one whit. He also strongly suspected he was next in line to head the household, there being no one else of Domi blood to equal him. It was an honor Gianni could just as soon do without. He truly enjoyed his military role as head of the house guard. It was more suited to his talents and temperament, and provided more than enough challenge and stimulation. But Gianni was bound by duty and blood, and if the call came, he would accept it with as much grace as he could muster. If only Valencio, the only other member of the family Gianni considered skilled enough to head the house, if only he had not chosen to waste his life on women and strong drink. Perhaps the man would one day reform his ways, providing Papa with a viable alternative, but Gianni suspected his cousin had immersed himself in drink in order to evade the responsibility.
Gianni shook his head. It was pointless to consider. With luck, Papa, the wisest head the family had reared in generations, with luck and careful attention to his health, the old man would last another dozen years or more, enough time for one of the younger members of the family to show enough promise for the task. This then, Gianni decided, would be the focus of his energies. To see to it that Papa was kept in good health, and that no harm befell the man until some member of the family proved himself up to the task of taking over his duties.
Gianni instantly realized that this pledge entailed another burden. He had seen how devastated the dear old man had been when Yllek had been forced to flee the city five years ago. The bond between the two went deep. Papa had been good friends with Yllek's father, head of the much smaller House Navillus, wiped out twenty years ago in one of the innumerable family wars that was the scourge of this city. The old man had felt responsible for not being able to protect the weaker House, even though House Domi had faced considerable peril of it's own at the time. Gianni knew instinctively that it would be the death of the old man if he saw the last vestige of that family perish while he still held any power to prevent it. Gianni's burden was thus twofold. To protect his patron, and to steer Yllek clear of the disasters to which the man was prone to attract.
~End Chapter 4~