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(Author's Note: I am aware that this section is a little shorter than normal. I apologize for that. The next part is a medium-long conversation between Ashenbach and his guests, it's 7 a. m. here, and I need some sleep. I also apologize if there is a bit of a lag (probably about five days, at least) between this section and the next. I'll make sure to have something nice and long written up by the next time I post. -BG)

They left the watch house and walked up Mountain Street, which was mostly houses. Tabby nodded to several people as they passed by, and waved once or twice to folk across the street.


"Tabby," Merrick said. "What's your last name?"


"Machall, sir."


"Hmm. Not old Manderian, is it?"


"No, sir. I'm a transplant. Second generation."


"Where did your family come from? Thalia?"


"No sir, but not far from. Ardmoor."


"Ah, yes. The island of fog. Remember any of it?"


"A bit, still, sir. T'was a damp place most of the year. The fog, she hung low over the hilltops, so that you could see only a part, most days. My mother used to tell stories of the land beyond the clouds. Giants and men with bird wings, and all other manner of strangeness. We'll turn left here, if it pleases you."


They turned onto Deerborne Street.


"It sounds like a beautiful place, Tabby."


"Oh, it was. All mountains and rain. That's what I remember of childhood. Mountains and rain, and the ocean on rocks. Not so much like the city- and a fine place the city is, too- but days like this can bring it back to the mind."


Merrick nodded. "Tell me, Tabby. Who is the power now, in Manderia? In your mind?"


Tabby considered this. They passed an open-air fruit stand with a display of fresh grapes.


Finally, he said: "For trade and the like, Merchant's Guild holds a pretty close hand. A few back-alley merchants do a trade in black market goods, and mostly nobody takes notice, if 't isn't anything harmful. Thieves and Assassins control the black stuff. They do trade in stolen goods, poison, and killing, as suits them. Do you plan to go against that, too, sir?"


"To be honest," said Merrick. "I don't know."


"Fair enough." Tabby rubbed at his beard, and went on. "Prostitution was heavy- still is, but since the Council made it legal, isn't half the trouble for the...employees...as once was. Information- now, that's tricky. There are spies and counter-spies seated all over the high-borns and the upper city. Information pays well, and there's those as are willing to pay. We have some names, a few ideas, but most of it is still hidden. There's been rumors, though."


"Hmm? What kind of rumors?"


"A few friends- informers- of ours say someone new has come onto the line. Ashenbach, the name I heard is. No one knows what all the fuss is about, but odds are, we get the short end of it." They stopped on the corner of Deerbourne and Kell. Tabby scratched behind the back of his neck, and turned to Merrick. "Look. I think it's best you know. I came by this information because...I mean, it came to me by-"


"You were offered quiet-money. It's nothing to be ashamed of, Sergeant. I'm not going to report you. If it buys you milk and bread for the week, good for you."


"Thank you, sir. There's many wouldn't understand, even if they were under a thumb themselves."


Merrick raised an eyebrow. "I'm not, and I don't care if other people are. Most watchmen, money or no, are still doing their job, right?"


"Yes, sir."


"Then it's no business of mine. Now which way would you like to go here?"


"Forward a bit further, sir. The road curves around past the wall here."


They started down Deerbourne again.


After a moment, Tabby said: "Question, sir, if you're willing?"


"Of course."


"I've an ear for accents. Have to, down in the Neighbourhood, with forty different dialects on any street. I've been talking to you for a bit, now, and still I don't recognize your accent, sir."


"Well, what does it sound like?"


"I can't rightly say. I hear a bit of northland in there- you clip your words sometimes, I think. There's a goodly dose of Manderia in it, of course. Then tones of something else entirely- Koun Valley? Mixed with Freeport cadences- dock workers here talk like that, sometimes, especially if they come from Freeport originally. Sometimes so fast and rushed together, can't hardly understand it. I fancy I even heard something of my island in there, somewhere, especially when I spoke of it back there. Have you travelled so much and so often, sir? Or am I badly mistaken?"


"I've travelled quite a bit, yes. Even saw the Khardath some time back. Have you heard of it?"


"The frozen wastes in the north? You travelled there?"


"Aye. Many moons ago."


"Is it true, what the stories say? Are there really men tall as a house who walk around in nothing but furs?"


Merrick laughed. "Big men- and women!- yes, though none quite that big that I saw. The giants of the north are long gone, probably have been since the days of your father and mother. But yes, the folk there are quite large, and they walk about in furs. In fact, their women are as big as their men, and they participate in contests of strength in the open air by day, and drink strong, hot drinks in their houses by night..."


They walked on.


------
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.


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by Beckett Grey





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