David Gross: An Opportunity for Profit

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David Gross An Opportunity for Profit
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    An Opportunity for Profit
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David Gross


An Opportunity for Profit

Chapter 1

A Sailor's Life

A sailor's life is ruled by precious few constant joys, thought Sharessa. One of those is the sight of land after a hard voyage. The crew and passengers of the Morning Bird paused to share a silent expectation after the first cry of "Land!" from the lookout perched high in the rigging. All eyes peered hard at the western horizon, the warm sun upon their bare heads. When the first line of shore defined itself against the gray sea, the pregnant sails seemed to tremble with the collective sigh of sailor and mercenary alike.

Then the ship lurched suddenly forward, and all smiles stopped.

Sharessa also knew that a sailor's life is ruled by many fears. Food stores can run out or spoil far from shore. Storms can sweep a vessel from its course. Mutiny and disease can easily insinuate their black fingers through the close-packed ship's crew. All these terrors serve a queen fear, the dreadful monarch of shipboard nightmare.

"We're sinking!" cried the lookout.

The panic was brief but powerful. The crewmen stood paralyzed for a moment, waiting for Captain Turbalt to give their orders. The fat Tharkaran seaman stood staring at the shore, eyes wide in disbelief. It was a wonder he had survived the journey so far. He was made for easy commerce and fretless journeys.

"You three," called Belmer, encircling three crewmen with a gathering finger. "Check the starboard hull. And you three, port." The sailors glanced briefly at their captain, then obeyed the small, hard, olive-skinned man.

"Sharkers, help with the sails," he continued. With economical grace, he walked along the port side of the deck, leaning over to check the outer hull every ten feet or so. The brilliant sun was reflected by a thousand ripples of the Great Sea of the Utter East. Belmer's figure, standing above the mercenaries, was bathed in light. Sharessa stared at him until her eyes watered, and Belmer's silhouette seemed to split into a multitude of dark figures.

The slim, dark-haired pirate worked with Anvil and Brindra, helping the nervous sailors make the most of the modest wind. She hadn't felt an impact, but the sluggish motion of the ship could only mean a hull breach. The Morning Bird lurched again, this time reeling starboard. Surprised, Sharessa stumbled and fell. Her strong hands gripped the rail just in time to keep her aboard, but the sudden motion tipped her halfway over the side. The ship rolled back, and she started to pull herself on deck. She stopped when she saw the outer hull.

Just above the water line, the Morning Bird's timbers were rotting away before Shar's eyes. One board was sundered already, and those that remained stared out with a thousand hollow eyes, pitted and withered. As she watched, she saw the surface of the hull shrink and writhe.

"Look at this!" she called. Anvil and Brindra were at her side at once.

"Nine hells!" cursed Anvil.

"Maybe Belmer didn't kill Redbeard's wizard after all," suggested Sharessa. She suppressed a shudder at the memory of Belmer's sudden stab into the magical eye they had discovered aboard a few days ago.

"Damn his eyes," said Anvil. "I wish Kurthe had killed-"

"Hsst!" warned Brindra. Her eyes flicked behind them. Belmer was coming toward them.

"— killed Redbeard," continued Anvil, with only a brief hesitation. "And his thrice-damned wizard. Whatever's eating this ship, it's sorcery."

Brindra nodded, her eyes still on Belmer as he leaned over the edge to see the damage. When he stood up again, he seemed tiny beside Anvil's massive figure. Sharessa knew that despite his stature, he was the most dangerous man on the ship.

"Sorcery is right, and there's little we can do about that," Belmer said. "We might still make it to shore."

"Back to the sails," said Sharessa, anticipating his order. Belmer nodded at her.

"Have Rings, Belgin, and Ingrar join the men below," he added. "If they can reinforce the remaining timbers…"

"Aye," said Sharessa. He nodded curtly and turned away.

Since Kurthe's death at Belmer's hands, Sharessa had assumed an unspoken position of leadership among the pirates. It was to her that Belmer gave his commands for the Sharkers. Perhaps it was because she was the first to re-declare her obedience after the outlander put Kurthe's dagger into the pirate's own throat. Or maybe it was something else. She remembered that upon first meeting the Sharkers, Belmer had known her nickname, Shadow. That flattered her, but it also made her uncomfortable, especially since the Sharkers knew so little about their new employer. The man was made wholly of secrets.

After relaying Belmer's orders, Sharessa joined Anvil and Brindra at the rigging. No matter how much they distrusted Belmer, he had gotten them away from Redbeard's ship and through the mysterious fog that sped their journey. And the pay was good-more than good-if they survived to collect it.

Across the deck, a handful of frightened sailors tried to follow Captain Turbalt's halting and contradictory commands. Sharessa was amazed that Belmer hadn't killed or at least deposed the craven captain and taken command himself. The Tharkaran had repeatedly proven himself cowardly and incompetent. Sharessa and the other Sharkers ignored him, tacking sail against the wind as best they could. The few sailors who remained calm followed the Sharkers' lead without question. Soon they worked in unison, silent in their determination to reach land before the ship sank.

A desperate hour later, the shore had grown larger but not yet close enough for swimming. Rings stomped up on deck, his craggy dwarven face red with exertion. A dozen electrum loops jingled from his ears, and one thick ring depended from his nose. A stench of hot tar followed him from below decks, as did three choking sailors.

"No good," said Rings. "It's moving faster. The hull's just dissolving before our eyes. Every time we patch a spot, another bursts open."

"If Belmer hadn't burned our deck boats…" began Brindra.

"Then we'd all have died back in Tharkar," snapped Sharessa.

Brindra's hot gaze bore into Sharessa's face. Shar stared coolly back, and after a moment the bigger woman looked away. Sharessa had been as astonished as anyone when Belmer purposefully set fire to the four deck boats during the first attack on the Morning Bird. The ploy had worked, however, and they had escaped that time.

Before Sharessa could think of anything to say to Brindra, Ingrar and Belgin staggered up on deck with the last of the repair crew. Ingrar's young face was red and puffy, his eyes streaming tears from the noxious tar. Belgin coughed into his hand, worse than usual.

"We're in for another swim," grumbled Belgin. Sharessa remembered the stench of burning flesh and the screams of their dying shipmates from the Kissing Shark. Were they cursed? This would be the second ship they'd lost in less than a moon's life.

"Sharkers," called Belmer from his high perch among the ropes. "Take the sails again. Turbalt, have your men form bailing lines."

"That won't work," whined Turbalt. "We'll never make it to…"

"Do as you're told," said Belmer. He looked at Turbalt's feet. The Tharkaran was standing on the dark stain that Kurthe had left, a reminder of the price of disobedience. Turbalt made a frantic little dance to move off the bloody spot.

The crew moved to obey Belmer without awaiting a command from their captain. Turbalt chewed the air and wept, muttering, "My ship

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