The boards of the dock creaked under their feet as they found a place to stop and talk, sheltered from view by stacks of crates. Such a secluded place without witnesses other than the occasional sailors who were not likely to even be near a guard would not have been Seben's choice, but she understood also that a man like Masaharta could have them killed in broad daylight at the center of town without fear of repercussions. The stories painted him as a forked-tongued devil with fangs aplenty, but also as a man who could charm a dragon into parting with its precious hoard.
Vassa's hand touched her back between her shoulder blades and stayed, offering silent reassurance. At least, that was what it appeared. The reality was that Vassa was readying herself for a far-step if things soured. It had been a long time since she'd had cause to bring another along, but she was confident in her ability to give them an ample head start even if Seben found the experience incredibly jarring.
Seben eyed the nobleman cautiously, unsettled by the way his smile shone in the flickering torchlight as a stark contrast to his dark skin. He seemed perfectly pleasant, but the stories of him said one could never tell the difference between a smile and bared teeth. Hopefully Vassa's damned perception would work on him as easily as it had on her. "There must have been a reason for you to assist, milord," she said, willing her voice to be calm and collected. The words came out more confident than she'd feared they would be, but there was still a subtle tremor.
"Indeed," Masaharta said with a chuckle. "Though judging by your unease, my reputation must precede me."
"You would be hard pressed to find anyone in Ethilir who hasn't heard a whisper of you," Seben said cautiously. She glanced over at Vassa to see if her companion was familiar with the reputation, but was instantly reminded that she couldn't see the masked woman's expression. Her posture gave no cue, perfectly still and calm. Perhaps that was sign enough that Vassa didn't know anything about him.
"True enough," the nobleman said, leaning back against a stack of heavy crates. His guards moved away, to protect the approach along the dock. He studied the pair of them, smoothing a hand along his square-cut beard. "Still, let us have proper introductions. I am Masaharta Osei, Lord of Ashpeta, Keeper of the Seal." He flashed Seben a broader smile. "Though I have other, less flattering names."
"Well met, Lord Osei," Vassa said with an inclination of her head.
Seben envied how poised the masked woman sounded. She steeled her own nerves and tried to summon up the same level of calm. The hand on her back was at least helpful there, a reminder that Vassa was still present. "Thank you for your intervention, milord."
He chuckled. "I do appreciate your gratitude. It speaks of good manners," he said pleasantly. "Now, I must tip my hand here and say that I know a little of you, Seben Femi. You are correct, I had a reason to intervene: your father and I were acquainted, when he lived, and his last wish was that I seek you out."
Despite every attempt to not react, Seben stared at him like he'd sprouted a second head. She didn't have words to address the thousand and one questions that immediately charged forward. "You knew him?" she asked after a second of processing. "How?"
"I know many," Masaharta said with amusement. "Surely to be acquainted with a soldier in the Kingsguard is not such a stretch for a man like myself."
Seben took a deep breath. "And why would a noble honor the last wish of a simple soldier?" she asked.
Vassa's lips tugged into a smile, though the expression was invisible behind her mask. There was a hint of the inquiring mind she had suspected the apprentice fire-speaker possessed even in the face of danger. The appearance of it now was timely. This matter was quickly becoming far more dangerous than even Vassa had expected. The masked woman understood the man smiling at them better than Seben did with all her knowledge of Ethilir.
They were not so different.
Masaharta didn't seem offended by the question. He tucked his thumbs again behind his sash, looking very much comfortable leaned back against the crates. "He was a good man. I respect his life and his memory. The loss of you was a regret he carried with him to his grave and I owe him enough of a debt that I will see you safe." He turned his gaze to the masked woman. "Now, you have me at a disadvantage, I'm afraid. I am well known in Ethilir and you are not known at all, stranger."
"I am merely a traveler, Lord Osei," Vassa said with a bow of her head. She was being far more deferential than Seben had expected. "You may call me Vassa, should it please you." Under the shadow of her hood, her keen eyes watched him intently. It was only there for a split second, but a crease formed between his brows before smoothing again.
He was savvy enough to be evaluating, but not enough to hide his scrutiny completely behind pleasant acceptance at face value. Then again, Vassa's perception of people was quite practiced. He was not certain what to make of her and that was a tidbit of information both useful and dangerous. Much work would have to be done, if she was going to convince him that she was no threat. "Your sense of fashion is most intriguing, Mistress Vassa. That aside, I thank you for your swift action in the streets. Ammeris was a capable killer and to put him down so swiftly is a mark of quite the guardian."
"You spoke as if you knew him," Vassa said, tilting her head slightly.
"He and I have crossed paths before," Masaharta said, lip curling slightly. "Contemptible, really. A murderer slave to his great god, Avarice. The selfishness of people these days." He shook his head. "Ethilir is fortunate to be rid of him."
Vassa's gaze never wavered from his expression, the hand on Seben's back still steady. You are not his master, but you know who was, she reflected as he turned his head to look back at Seben. It would take her time to puzzle out his intentions fully, but she knew for certain that what he had told them was not anything approaching the full truth. Some fraction of it was true, just enough to sell his answers, but not the whole.
She was sorely tempted to just grab Seben and far-step away, but the one thing she did believe was that he had no intention of killing the young woman. There was just enough sincerity there for her to stop from fleeing his presence entirely. If handled deftly enough, his protection could be life-saving for Seben. It would just be very, very precarious until Vassa knew for certain what his real interest was.
"So," Masaharta said as he studied the pair. "A fine mess we are in now. Where were you intending to go?"
"To take passage on a ship," Seben said, glancing over at Vassa. "I desire to go to the Ashen Tower in Sarom and resume my studies."
"A noble goal," Masaharta said. "Though you will find it very difficult with those provincial roots of yours. I would hate to see the daughter of my friend turned away from the gates. Of course, if..."
"You are offering patronage," Vassa said dryly, what was probably meant to be a question coming out as a statement of fact. While that was a definitely sound motive, to gain the assistance of a fire-speaker by any means necessary, again it lacked sufficient substance for Vassa to believe it the only thing he was after. Again, however, she knew discarding the offer out of hand would only get Seben killed.
He shrugged expressively, spreading his hands wide. "I offer my assistance. Seben may chase her dream to become a full fire-speaker and you, Mistress Vassa, may travel wherever you wish."
The masked woman understood the subtle suggestion, that she simply go on her way. "My path takes me to Sarom as well," Vassa said, smoothing fingertips over the fabric covering her lips. "I will accompany Seben until then, unless she has no need for me."
Seben looked over, surprise and gratitude flashing across her face unhidden. "Thank you," she said. "I am sorry that I'm putting you in danger."
Vassa flicked her hand dismissively, as if brushing away the comment. Then she focused on Masaharta. "We aim to catch a ship called the Silvertang. If you intend upon accompanying us, I would suggest you fetch your things."
He grinned. "A smuggler? What interesting circles you move in, my dear. I will remain with you lovely ladies while Paser and Teos fetch our things."
"You're sending your guards away? Is that wise?" Seben asked, taking a half step closer to Vassa at the idea of any protection leaving, even if it wasn't particularly trustworthy.
"We are unlikely to be noticed here. Besides, I have a little skill with a blade myself if it comes to it," Masaharta said, touching the wicked looking cutter tucked through his sash. The curved blade's hilt was sleek, ebon wood with brass finishings, pommel carved into the head of a snarling leopard. It was beautiful and Seben was quite certain that in the hands of the Master of Malice, it could do a great deal of harm to his enemies. "Shall we go find this friend of yours, Mistress Vassa?"
"He is an acquaintance," Vassa corrected calmly before pressing her palm more firmly against Seben's back, urging the young woman to walk ahead of her. She turned her head as Seben passed her, taking the opportunity to whisper without being as noticeable. "Be calm and clear your head. These are dangerous waters, but for the moment, you are not alone."
"Do you believe him?" Seben asked, fighting the urge to cling to Vassa's sleeve for something solid in the midst of this lunacy.
Vassa shrugged but gave no word in answer, aware that their chance to speak was at an end for now. She picked her way through the docks, subtly keeping herself between Seben and Masaharta. It was less intentional and more habit from a lifetime of serving as a protector...even if that life was ashes around her feet. She cursed herself for it as soon as she realized she was doing it. Loyalty is the one folly always punished, she reminded herself harshly.
She almost pulled her hand away from Seben's back, but stopped herself at the last minute. There was still so much to this situation that could be advantageous, if she could turn things the right way. Masaharta was likely far too skilled at capitalizing on doubt and weakness for her to show any sign of either...until it was useful to give that impression. If she wanted to pursue the knowledge dangling in front of her like a tantalizing fruit, she needed to move with care.
The Silvertang was a long, sleek ship with plenty of sail. It looked light enough to outpace anything else in the water and currently had only a little cargo on its deck. It was still preparing to depart within the hour, however, which Vassa knew meant it had taken on cargo enough to make the journey worthwhile. Its captain stood just behind the figurehead, the carved figure of a mermaid. Inam-ul-Haq was not an imposing creature, even with the benefit of altitude. He was a short, portly man with a finely combed beard, easily visible by lamplight. He wore a tunic that was almost mottled grey and black beneath a deep blue cloak, both designed for stealth if needed. At the sight of an approach along the dock, he straightened up.
The small group of sailors who were making things ready stopped immediately and turned.
"I am looking for Inam-ul-Haq," Vassa said, stepping forward into the lamplight. "I fought alongside his brother, Riyadh, and would speak with him."
Inam-ul-Haq strolled down the gangplank. "You are in strange company to be a friend of his," the smuggler observed, gaze flicking from Seben to Masaharta.
"The world is full of unusual bedfellows," the masked woman said with a shrug.
"And how am I to know that what you say is true?" the smuggler asked, looking her up and down. "Only those with something to hide would mask themselves as you do. Let me see your face."
"That, I'm afraid, is non-negotiable," Vassa said, tone betraying just a hint more coolness than normal. She crooked a finger at the smuggler captain, beckoning him closer. "Riyadh provided a passphrase, should I travel your way, that you might know the nature of our association."
Inam-ul-Haq stopped just short of Vassa with one hand resting on the fishing gaff tucked through his belt. The hook would serve as a weapon just fine if needed. "Let's hear it, then," he said cautiously.
Vassa held up both hands away from her weapons. "The storm and its maiden send their love," she said in Giant just loudly enough for the smuggler would hear. The language was barely known and almost exclusively spoken in the far north, where Riyadh had met his wife. It was also not far from Vassa's homeland, so she had studied the language in her childhood along with many other tongues.
Inam-ul-Haq chuckled and held his hand out to Vassa. "I thank you, stranger. I would hear of the service you performed for them, but perhaps after we set sail."
Vassa clasped his outstretched hand delicately. "We are bound for Sarom, if you have room for passengers."
"How many?" Inam-ul-Haq asked while he shook her hand approvingly, looking past Vassa to Seben and Masaharta. His eyes were calculating. "I have more space than I anticipated, if your companions have the coin for it."
"We will pay you a fair fee for the voyage," the masked woman said as she let go of his hand. "There will be five of us, as I am rather certain our noble guest would like to bring his two guards."
"I can work too," Seben offered from behind Vassa. "My mother's brother is a fisherman. I learned a lot about sail."
"I'm sure I can find ropes for you to tug on," the smuggler said with a grin. He seemed pleased with the arrangement, a gleam in his eyes. "Now, stranger, I would have your name. It is only polite to have introductions before we begin our bargaining. You know my name, of course."
"Vassa," the masked woman said. She gestured to her current accompaniment. "The fire-speaker with me is Seben Femi and I assume Lord Osei requires little introduction."
Inam-ul-Haq stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Fire is dangerous aboard ship and nobles draw attention, both perils in my line of work."
"And they are equally perilous to those who would put a crimp in your business. Seben will give you her word of honor that she could not conjure a djinn aboard ship even if she wanted to and Lord Osei's presence is more likely to deter guards than summon them. We have our reasons to leave quietly and without attention," Vassa said smoothly. She had enough money stored to cover all of them, but she felt responsibility only for herself and Seben.
"So it seems," the smuggler acknowledged.
"I can pay for passage for Seben and I. As for Lord Osei and his guards...he is wealthier than I by far and surely can afford such things." She slipped the purse with her half of the gold from the sale of the horses and dropped it in Inam-ul-Haq's hand. It was in excess of the cost by her estimation, but the grin he gave her when he felt the weight told her it was money well-spent. "For passage, expenses, and no questions."
Inam-ul-Haq bowed his head to the masked woman. "A pleasure doing business with you, my friend."
Masaharta took that as his cue to step forward, a broad smile settling across his face as he looked down at the shorter, unassuming smuggler.
Vassa moved back to let the two men discuss the fee for the noble and his guards, standing beside Seben. "Passage to Sarom," she said lightly. "We will leave within the hour if I know anything about the tide."
"Can we trust a smuggler?" Seben whispered.
"A smuggler from a family that values their word and honor above all other things," Vassa explained. "His entrepreneurial spirit might flaunt the law, but his is a victimless crime. He moves small amounts of high value goods and only the tax collectors feel the sting, and they only barely. Can we trust the man with everything under every circumstance? Not at all. In this, though, we can rely upon him to act as he is accustomed to acting."
Seben looked doubtful as she heard the men laughing. Masaharta clapped the captain on his shoulder, conversing in low, but very cheerful tones. "I'm not sure about this."
"Certainty is not required," Vassa said as she crossed her arms. "Only an appreciation for our relative dearth of options. Would you rather contend with hunters in the city?"
"No," the young woman admitted readily. "You're right. I'm just still…" She hesitated for a moment before continuing, "I feel like I'm drowning."
"You will have time to think on the ship, to reflect," Vassa said. She tilted her head slightly, glancing over at Seben. "We should not speak of what I told you at the inn, not in the company of anyone else. Not until we know more about it and the people we are with."
"That sounds wise," Seben agreed softly. Her eyes were still fixed on Masaharta, brow furrowed. "I don't know what to think. Did he really know my father?"
"You did not," Vassa observed, her realization based largely on the lines on Seben's forehead. "That does make it more difficult to check the veracity of the tale."
"I never met him," Seben said quietly, a trace of bitterness in the words. "I was just a soldier's brat in a brothel, and there are plenty of those around."
"Never 'just'," Vassa said absently, watching Inam-ul-Haq and Masaharta haggle over the price of his passage.
The masked woman didn't look over when she spoke. "Whatever your origins, there is more to you than merely your parentage. You have a fire, Seben, a light. Do not allow bitterness to snuff it out. The world is full of those who would delight in extinguishing your spark and turning you to something that serves their purpose alone."
Seben stared at her companion for a long moment, surprised to hear that from Vassa. "Kind words," she said quietly.
"And a dire warning," Vassa reminded her.
"We have struck a bargain!" Inam-ul-Haq called, waving the two women forward. "It seems you have those who are looking, so go below decks. Lord Osei's guards have until the change of the tide to return to us. If they do not appear, we depart without them."
Vassa placed her hand back between Seben's shoulder-blades, gently guiding the young woman forward onto the gangplank. "I am right behind you," she assured the apprentice fire-speaker. "We can rest below decks. It may not be comfortable, but it will be safe enough for now."
"I'm just glad you got your bath," Seben said, trying to find a smile and a lighthearted comment.
The masked woman laughed as she followed her companion onto the ship. "As am I."