The Pirate King by R. A. Salvatore


PRELUDE

 

  Suljack, one of the five high captains ruling Luskan and a former commander of one of the most successful pirate crews ever to terrorize the Sword Coast, was not easily intimidated. An extrovert who typically bellowed before he considered his roar, his voice often rang loudest among the ruling council. Even the Arcane Brotherhood, who many knew to be the true power in the city, were hard-pressed to cow him. He ruled Ship Suljack, and commanded a solid collection of merchants and thugs from Suljack Lodge, in the south central section of Luskan. It was not a showy or grand place, certainly nothing to match the strength of High Captain Taerl's four-spired castle, or High Captain Kurth's mighty tower, but it was well-defended and situated comfortably near the residence of Rethnor, Suljack's closest ally among the captains.

  Still, Suljack found himself on unsteady ground as he walked into the room in Ten Oaks, the palace of Ship Rethnor. The old man Rethnor wasn't there, and wasn't supposed to be. He spoke through what seemed to be the least intimidating man in the room, the youngest of his three sons.

  But Suljack knew that appearances could be deceiving.

  Kensidan, a small man, well-dressed in dull gray and black tones, and well-groomed, with his hair cut short in all the appropriate angles and clips, sat with a leg crossed over one knee in a comfortable chair in the center-back of the plain room. He was sometimes called "The Crow," as he always wore a high-collared black cape, and high black shoes that tied tightly halfway up his calf. He walked with an awkward gait, stiff-legged like a bird. Put that together with his long, hooked nose, and any who saw him would immediately understand the nick-name, even a year ago, before he'd first donned the high-collared cape. Any minor wizard could easily discern that there was magic in that garment, powerful magic, and such items were often reputed to affect changes on their bearer. As with the renowned girdle of dwarvenkind, which gradually imparted the characteristics of a dwarf to its wearer, so too Kensidan's cloak seemed to be acting upon him. His gait grew a bit more awkward, and his nose a bit longer and more hooked.

  His muscles were not taut, and his hands were not calloused. Unlike many of Rethnor's men, Kensidan didn't decorate his dark brown hair. He carried nothing flashy at all on his person. Furthermore, the cushions of the seat made him appear even smaller, but somehow, inexplicably, all of it seemed to work for him.

  Kensidan was the center of the room, with everyone leaning in to hear his every soft-spoken word. And whenever he happened to twitch or shift in his seat, those nearest him inevitably jumped and glanced nervously around.

  Except, of course, for the dwarf who stood behind and to the right of Kensidan's chair. The dwarf's burly arms were crossed over his barrel chest, their flowing lines of corded muscles broken by the black, beaded braids of his thick beard. His weapons stabbed up diagonally behind him, spiked heads dangling at the end of glassteel chains. No one wanted a piece of that one, not even Suljack. Kensidan's "friend," recently imported muscle from the east, had waged a series of fights along the docks that had left any and all opposing him dead or wishing they were.

  "How fares your father?" Suljack asked Kensidan, though he hadn't yet pried his eyes from the dangerous dwarf. He took his seat before and to the side of Kensidan.

  "Rethnor is well," Kensidan answered.

  "For an old man?" Suljack dared remark, and Kensidan merely nodded.

  "There is a rumor that he wishes to retire, or that he already has," Suljack went on.

  Kensidan put his elbows on the arms of his chair, finger-locked his hands together, and rested his chin upon them in a pensive pose.

  "Will he announce you as his replacement?" Suljack pressed.

  The younger man, barely past his mid-twenties, chuckled a bit at that, and Suljack cleared his throat.

  "Would that eventuality displease you?" asked the Crow.

  "You know me better than that," Suljack protested.

  "And what of the other three?"

  Suljack paused to consider that for a moment then shrugged. "It's not unexpected. Welcomed? Perhaps, but with a wary eye turned your way. The high captains live well, and don't wish to upset the balance. "

  "Their ambition falls victim to success, you mean. "

  Again Suljack shrugged and said lightheartedly, "Isn't enough ever enough?"

  "No," Kensidan answered simply, with blunt and brutal honesty, and once again Suljack found himself on shifting sands.

  Suljack glanced around at the many attendants then dismissed his own. Kensidan did likewise - except for his dwarf bodyguard. Suljack looked past the seated man sourly.

  "Speak freely," Kensidan said.

  Suljack nodded toward the dwarf.

  "He's deaf," Kensidan explained.

  "Can't hear a thing," the dwarf confirmed.

  Suljack shook his head. What he meant to say needed saying, he told himself, and so he started, "You are serious about going after the brotherhood?"

  Kensidan sat expressionless, emotionless.

  "There are more than a hundred wizards who call the Hosttower home," Suljack announced.

  No response, not a whit.

  "Many of them archmages. "

  "You presume that they speak and act with a singular mind," said Kensidan finally.

  "Arklem Greeth holds them fast. "

  "No one holds a wizard fast," Kensidan replied. "Theirs is the most selfish and self-serving of professions. "

  "Some say that Greeth has cheated death itself. "

  "Death is a patient opponent. "

  Suljack blew out a frustrated sigh. "He consorts with devils!" he blurted. "Greeth is not to be taken lightly. "

  "I take no one lightly," Kensidan assured him, a clear edge to his words.

  Suljack sighed again and managed to calm himself. "I'm wary of them, is all," he explained more quietly. "Even the people of Luskan know it now, that we five high captains, your father among us, are puppets to the master Arklem Greeth. I've been so long under his thumb I've forgotten the feel of wind breaking over the prow of my own ship. Might be that it's time to take back the wheel. "

  "Past time. And all we need is for Arklem Greeth to continue to feel secure in his superiority. He weaves too many threads, and only a few need unravel to unwind his tapestry of power. "

  Suljack shook his head, clearly less than confident.

  "Thrice Lucky is secured?" Kensidan asked.

  "Maimun sailed this morning, yes. Is he to meet with Lord Brambleberry of Waterdeep?"

  "He knows what he is to do," Kensidan replied.

  Suljack scowled, understanding that to mean that Suljack need not know. Secrecy was power, he understood, though he was far too emotional a thug to ever keep a secret for long.

  It hit Suljack then, and he looked at Kensidan with even more respect, if that was possible. Secrecy was the weight of the man, the pull that had everyone constantly leaning toward him. Kensidan had many pieces in play, and no one saw more than a few of them.

  That was Kensidan's strength. Everyone around him stood on shifting sand, while he was rooted in bedrock.

  "So it's Deudermont, you say?" Suljack asked, determined to at least begin weaving the young man's threads into some sensible pattern. He shook his head at the irony of that possibility.

  "Sea Sprite's captain is a true hero of the people," Kensidan replied. "Perhaps the only hero for the people of Luskan, who have no one to speak for them in the halls of power. "

  Suljack smirked at the insult, reminding himself that if it were a barb aimed at him then logic aimed it at Kensidan's own father as well.

  "Deudermont is unbending in principle, and therein lies our opportunity," Kensidan explained. "He is no friend of the brotherhood, surely. "

  "The best war
is a proxy war, I suppose," said Suljack.

  "No," Kensidan corrected, "the best war is a proxy war when no one knows the true power behind it. "

  Suljack chuckled at that, and wasn't about to disagree. His laughter remained tempered, however, by the reality that was Kensidan the Crow. His partner, his ally. . . a man he dared not trust.

  A man from whom he could not, could never, escape.

  * * * * *

  "Suljack knows enough, but not too much?" Rethnor asked when Kensidan joined him a short while later.

  Kensidan spent a few moments studying his father before nodding his assent. How old Rethnor looked these days, with his pallid skin sagging below his eyes and down his cheeks, leaving great flopping jowls. He had thinned considerably in the last year or so, and his skin, so leathery from years at sea, had little resilience left. He walked stiff-legged and bolt upright, for his back had locked securely in place. And when he talked, he sounded as if he had his mouth stuffed with fabric, his voice muffled and weak.

  "Enough to throw himself on my sword," Kensidan replied, "but he will not. "

  "You trust him?"

  Kensidan nodded. "He and I want the same thing. We have no desire to serve under the thumb of Arklem Greeth. "

  "As I have, you mean," Rethnor retorted, but Kensidan was shaking his head even as the old man spoke the words.

  "You put in place everything upon which I now build," he said. "Without your long reach, I wouldn't dare move against Greeth. "

  "Suljack appreciates this, as well?"

  "Like a starving man viewing a feast at a distant table. He wants a seat at that table. Neither of us will feast without the other. "

  "You're watching him closely, then. "

  "Yes. "

  Rethnor gave a wheezing laugh.

  "And Suljack is too stupid to betray me in a manner that I couldn't anticipate," Kensidan added, and Rethnor's laugh became a quick scowl.

  "Kurth is the one to watch, not Suljack," said Kensidan.

  Rethnor considered the words for a few moments, then nodded his agreement. High Captain Kurth, out there on Closeguard Island and so close to the Hosttower, was possibly the strongest of the five high captains, and surely the only one who could stand one-to-one against Ship Rethnor. And Kurth was so very clever, whereas, Rethnor had to admit, his friend Suljack often had to be led to the trough with a carrot.

  "Your brother is in Mirabar?" Rethnor asked.

  Kensidan nodded. "Fate has been kind to us. "

  "No," Rethnor corrected. "Arklem Greeth has erred. His Mistresses of the South Tower and North Tower both hold vested interests in his planned infiltration and domination of their homeland, interests that are diametrically opposed. Arklem Greeth is too prideful and cocksure to recognize the insecurity of his position - I doubt he understands Arabeth Raurym's anger. "

  "She is aboard Thrice Lucky, seeking Sea Sprite. "

  "And Lord Brambleberry awaits Deudermont at Waterdeep," Rethnor stated, nodding in approval.

  Kensidan the Crow allowed a rare smile to crease his emotionless facade. He quickly suppressed it, though, reminding himself of the dangers of pride. Surely, Kensidan had much to be proud of. He was a juggler with many balls in the air, seamlessly and surely spinning their orbits. He was two steps ahead of Arklem Greeth in the east, and facilitating unwitting allies in the south. His considerable investments - bags of gold - had been well spent.

  "The Arcane Brotherhood must fail in the east," Rethnor remarked.

  "Maximum pain and exposure," Kensidan agreed.

  "And beware Overwizard Shadowmantle," the old high captain warned, referring to the moon elf, Valindra, Mistress of the North Tower. "She will become incensed if Greeth is set back in his plans for dominion over the Silver Marches, a place she loathes. "

  "And she will blame Overwizard Arabeth Raurym of the South Tower, daughter of Marchion Elastul, for who stands to lose as much as Arabeth by Arklem Greeth's power grab?"

  Rethnor started to talk, but he just looked upon his son, flashed a smile of complete confidence, and nodded. The boy understood it, all of it.

  He had overlooked nothing.

  "The Arcane Brotherhood must fail in the east," he said again, only to savor the words.

  "I will not disappoint you," the Crow promised.

  PART 1

  WEAVING THE TAPESTRY

  A million, million changes - uncountable changes! - every day, every heartbeat of every day. That is the nature of things, of the world, with every decision a crossroad, every drop of rain an instrument both of destruction and creation, every animal hunting and every animal eaten changing the present just a bit.

  On a larger level, it's hardly and rarely noticeable, but those multitude of pieces that comprise every image are not constants, nor, necessarily, are constant in the way we view them.

  My friends and I are not the norm for the folk of Faerun. We have traveled half the world, for me both under and above. Most people will never see the wider world outside of their town, or even the more distant parts of the cities of their births. Theirs is a small and familiar existence, a place of comfort and routine, parochial in their church, selective in their lifelong friends.

  I could not suffer such an existence. Boredom builds like smothering walls, and the tiny changes of everyday existence would never cut large enough windows in those opaque barriers.

  Of my companions, I think Regis could most accept such a life, so long as the food was plentiful and not bland and he was given some manner of contact with the goings-on of the wider world outside. I have often wondered how many hours a halfling might lie on the same spot on the shore of the same lake with the same un-baited line tied to his toe.

  Has Wulfgar moved back to a similar existence? Has he shrunk his world, recoiling from the harder truths of reality? It's possible for him, with his deep emotional scars, but never would it be possible for Catti-brie to go with him to such a life of steadfast routine. Of that I'm most certain. The wanderlust grips her as it grips me, forcing us along the road - even apart along our sepa rate roads, and confident in the love we share and the eventual reunions.

  And Bruenor, as I witness daily, battles the smallness of his existence with growls and grumbles. He is the king of Mithral Hall, with riches untold at his fingertips. His every wish can be granted by a host of subjects loyal to him unto death. He accepts the responsibilities of his lineage, and fits that throne well, but it galls him every day as surely as if he was tied to his kingly seat. He has often found and will often find again excuses to get himself out of the hall on some mission or other, whatever the danger.

  He knows, as Catti-brie and I know, that stasis is boredom and boredom is a wee piece of death itself.

  For we measure our lives by the changes, by the moments of the unusual. Perhaps that manifests itself in the first glimpse of a new city, or the first breath of air on a tall mountain, a swim in a river cold from the melt or a frenzied battle in the shadows of Kelvin's Cairn. The unusual experiences are those that create the memories, and a tenday of memories is more life than a year of routine. I remember my first sail aboard Sea Sprite, for example, as keenly as my first kiss from Catti-brie, and though that journey lasted mere tendays in a life more than three-quarters of the way through a century, the memories of that voyage play out more vividly than some of the years I spent in House Do'Urden, trapped in the routine of a drow boy's repetitive duties.

  It's true that many of the wealthier folk I have known, lords of Waterdeep even, will open their purses wide for a journey to a far off place of respite. Even if a particular journey does not go as anticipated for them, with unpleasant weather or unpleasant company, or foul food or even minor illnesses, to a one, the lords would claim the trip worth the effort and the gold. What they valued most for their trouble and treasure was not the actual journey, but the memory of it that remained behind, the memory of it that they will carry to their graves. Life is in the experiencing, to be s
ure, but it's just as much in the recollection and in the telling!

  Contrastingly, I see in Mithral Hall many dwarves, particularly older folk, who revel in the routine, whose every step mirrors those of the day before. Every meal, every hour of work, every chop with the pick or bang with the hammer follows the pattern ingrained throughout the years. There is a game of delusion at work here, I know, though I wouldn't say it aloud. It's an unspoken and internal logic that drives them ever on in the same place. It's even chanted in an old dwarven song:

  For this I did on yesterday

  And not to Moradin's Hall did I fly

  So's to do it again'll keep me well

  And today I sha'not die.

  The logic is simple and straightforward, and the trap is easily set, for if I did these things the day before and do these same things today, I can reasonably assume that the result will not change.

  And the result is that I will be alive tomorrow to do these things yet again.

  Thus do the mundane and the routine become the - false - assurance of continued life, but I have to wonder, even if the premise were true, even if doing the same thing daily would ensure immortality, would a year of such existence not already be the same as the most troubling possibility of death?

  From my perspective, this ill-fated logic ensures the opposite of that delusional promise! To live a decade in such a state is to ensure the swiftest path to death, for it is to ensure the swiftest passage of the decade, an unremarkable recollection that will flitter by without a pause, the years of mere existence. For in those hours and heartbeats and passing days, there is no variance, no outstanding memory, no first kiss.

  To seek the road and embrace change could well lead to a shorter life in these dangerous times in Faerun. But in those hours, days, years, whatever the measure, I will have lived a longer life by far than the smith who ever taps the same hammer to the same familiar spot on the same familiar metal.

  For life is experience, and longevity is, in the end, measured by memory, and those with a thousand tales to tell have indeed lived longer than any who embrace the mundane.
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