Ethan led us through the dizzying maze of squalid buildings and into a messy business district. The rustic houses were replaced by just as rustic two-floor structures with false fronts, but not false pretenses as their weathered signs advertised booze from all kingdoms and all kinds of plants. I didn’t even recognize some of the source names.
The clientele strode and loitered in the streets, and one look at them told me I wouldn’t want to be out alone, day or night. There were men with peg legs, a few with some unsightly scars across their faces, and all manner of body adornment that shone through the patches in their worn clothes. I tried looking for the tell-tale sign of the gull, but everybody and their dog had a tattoo. I almost felt sorry for the little pug that passed by us, but he strutted his tattoo of a poodle on his side with his head held high.
Ethan stopped our group in front of one of the taller taverns, and a sign that hung over the door advertised its name as The Gull. He turned to us with less humor than before. “This is a rough place. Are you sure you want to come in here?”
Mia scowled at him. “We’re coming in.”
He shrugged. “Just thought I’d warn you.”
Ethan led us inside with Pennae clinging to my arm. The interior was much like a plain bar with round tables and their chairs scattered about. A bar stretched the full length of the back wall, and the decor reminds me of a liquor store after a tornado flew through. The remains of bottles stuck out of the cracks in the walls, and the floor was stained with more than just food.
Our large group caught the attention of more than one patron, and I received an appreciative leer from several of the men. A few looks of jealousy came from the women who hung off their arms. Ethan strode through the maze of furniture and bodies, and we stayed close behind him.
Not close enough, however, as one of the men snatched my hand and yanked me into his lap. He grinned and showed off two rows of teeth that would have made a dentist giddy. His breath wreaked of booze and onions. “How ya doing, honey?”
I pressed my hands against his grimy shirt and pushed my face away from his. “Seasick.”
He blinked at me before he let out a great bellowing laugh. “Seasick! That’s a good one!” He turned to his compatriots at the table. “Isn’t that a good one, fellas?” The fellas agreed, but their hanger-ons didn’t look at all amused.
A shadow loomed over my captor and he looked up to find himself staring into the disapproving eyes of Mia. “Let her go.”
His grin broadened. “Well, well, if it ain’t another pretty catch. Lemme see how you feel-” He reached out for her wrist.
Mia backhanded him so hard his head wrenched to one side and there was a discernible crack. His grip on me weakened, and I scurried out of his grasp to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mia. The room grew quiet and the looks on the faces of the ‘fellas’ was one of horror.
The man straightened his head and slowly rose to his feet. He turned to us, and I watched in horror as his hands lengthened into claws. Bear claws. Black fur sprouted from his cheeks and his eyes took on a hideous yellow tinge.
His voice was deeper and like a growl it came from deep inside his throat. “You bitch. You’ll pay for that.”
He lifted his massive paw to strike her down, but Ethan slipped between them and held up his hands. “Wait a second!”
The bear man paused and snarled at him. “What do you want?”
Ethan jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the two of us. “These two fine ladies happen to be my friends.”
The man scoffed. “What’s that to me?”
Ethan slipped his long sleeve up his arm and showed him the underside. “And I happen to have other friends.”
The bear studied the arm for a moment before his face paled. Even the tips of his fur looked like they turned white. He dropped his arm to his side and took a step back into the table. “I-I didn’t mean anything by it. Honest.”
Ethan drew down his arm and shook his head. “No problem. We’ll just be on our way, and don’t try to start any other messes, will you?”
The man nodded before he plunked himself back down in his chair. The others around the room did the same, but more than one curious look was cast at Ethan. He turned to us with a smile. “Follow a little bit closer.”
He hurried onward, and I picked up Pennae as Mia and I scampered after him. Ethan led us to the far back right corner of the room and through a narrow door set into the wall. The door opened into an equally narrow hallway that stretched deep into the long building.
The moment the door shut behind us Mia grabbed Ethan’s shoulder and spun him around. “What have you gotten yourself into?”
He shrugged. “Nothing.”
She stabbed a finger at his arm. “‘Nothing’ doesn’t get a bear man to sit back down in fear.”
He rolled his eyes and drew his sleeve up reveal a tattoo of a crow. “It’s just this.”
Mia’s jaw hit the floor. “The Crow? Do you know how dangerous that group is?”
I raised my hand. “I don’t.”
Pennae shook her head. “Nor do I.”
Ethan smiled and held up his hands. “Listen, it’s not what it looks like. See?” He pressed his thumb against the tattoo, and a tiny bit of the color smudged. “It’s a fake tattoo. I use it to get out of trouble like that. Scares the heck out of everyone.”
Mia frowned at him. “Even masquerading as one of them could get you killed.”
“Nobody asks any questions about them,” he assured her as he dropped his sleeve and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “But shouldn’t get get moving? If His Highness is really being held by someone they do it back here.”
“How do you know that?” I asked him as we continued on our way.
He glanced over his shoulder at me. “I sketched some of the ladies here a few times. They’re a lonely bunch who like to talk.”
Our footsteps clumped hollow on the ancient wooden floorboards as we followed him down the corridor. A few doors were scattered along the walls here and there, many of different ages and pedigrees. People had carved their initials on the doors and some graffiti crowed about past conquests. I didn’t need three guesses to know what took place behind those doors.
We reached the end of the hall and found ourselves faced with the back door and a staircase. Ethan chose neither. He tapped the toes of one foot against the floor. Three of us leapt back when the lower flight of stairs lifted up and revealed a hidden staircase that led downward. The sharp smell of saltwater stung my nostrils.
Ethan swept his arm toward the opening and grinned. “Welcome, ladies, to the Wharf.”
He guided us down the stairs, and as we reached the bottom the hidden passage closed behind us. Light was provided by torches spaced evenly apart and with just enough glow to cast evil shadows on the rock walls. Far-off laughter and the sounds of chairs scooting along the stone floor echoed down the hall in which we found ourselves.
Ethan hurried us along, and the deeper we traveled the more dank the air became until I was practically breathing water and mold. Pennae cupped her hand over her nose and frowned. “This place is awful.”
Ethan laughed. “Wait until you see the clientele.”
The passage widened into a room about double the size of the saloon over our heads. The same tables and chairs made up the furniture, but the seated men sported seafaring attire like tight pants and open-fronted shirts. Handkerchiefs adorned the heads of many, and flat-heeled boots covered their feet. Their hands were worn by the rope and their faces weathered by the winds of the open seas.
It looked like Talk Like A Pirate Day.
The men scarcely paid us any heed as we meandered through their company. A few lifted their heads, but most kept their attention on their card games and wenches. The women in this quarter were even prettier and finer dressed than those upstairs. Very few of them gave me a look, much less one of envy.
Ethan swept his eyes over the area. “Anybody see who we’re looking for?”
Mia frowned at him. “And if we do, what’s your plan to arrest them?”
He sheepishly grinned and shrugged. “I was kind of hoping you’d have one.”
I scanned the room and my eyes settled on the far left corner. Shadows nearly swallowed a booth, and seated in the darkness was a familiar heavy-set man with long sleeves. He cradled a half-finished mug between his hands.
Here was our prey.