Chapter 26: A Golden Goose
The Queen Regent, Sarissa, led the companions into a back chamber and spoke some words of enchantment. The same bubble-like structure appeared around them as it had when they blew the conch, and when it popped they were standing on the deck of their airship. Marteen greeted them, and they showed him the gold-painted wooden coin given to them by the Queen. The coin was etched with a goose.
“It looks like a gambling chip,” the captain said, scratching his goatee.
“Do you know where it’s used?” Kilian asked.
The man shrugged. “Yartar would be a good place to start. That city has one of the best underground thieves’ guilds. If anyone will recognize the symbol on that chip, it’ll be them.”
They changed course and travelled for three days back to Yartar.
On the way, they filled Flint in on their previous adventures in the town of Yartar. They told him of the son, Harthall, locked in prison despite his innocence, of their clue to the giantslayer sword, and of their flight from the city after a short battle with the corrupt city guard. “That’s why we’ll need to disguise ourselves,” Thia explained to the dwarf. “We’re not exactly ‘welcomed guests’ there.”
“We killed most of the guards,” Evelyn said, “but one got away,” she added bitterly.
“Of the corrupt guards,” Thia clarified.
Roon, having left Beatrice on the ship in their last adventures, let the tressym curl up on his lap as he read his books and finally took the time to examine the fire rune opal he’d found in the oracle’s chamber. After some study, he realized its ability to throw fire. He tucked it away for future use, and spent the rest of the trip reading, and in prayer. He had already known of the existence of gods, but to have one stand in front of you and hand you a weapon—well, that was a whole new proof of faith that one did not get every day.
Their time in Yartar was spent efficiently. After resupplying and finding a room for a few nights in a seedy inn, they searched for a contact to the thieves’ guild and showed the gambling token to a few select people. They left their name with the innkeeper and were told they would hear from a contact soon. In the meantime, they contacted the prison and were told Harthall was still imprisoned. They plotted how to free the innocent man.
“Didn’t you say you tried this last time you were here?” Flint asked uncertainly.
“Well, sort of. Our friend Bran disguised himself as Harthos, Harthall’s father. He walked in and asked him for the giantslayer sword. That’s where Harthall told him Captain Brenner had framed him for murder and kept the sword. Bran got out easily enough, but we had to flee the city before we could return and help Harthall escape. We asked the Lord Protector of Triboar to put in a good word for him and get him a fair trial, but it doesn’t look like much came of that.”
They decided to have Thia disguise herself this time, as Harthall’s sister. Opal transformed into a spider and sat on the elf’s shoulder, and Kilian accompanied them as Thia’s pretend husband.
“Well,” Kilian said breathlessly, holding a stitch in his side, sweat beading off his brow, “that could have gone better.”
“What happened?” Flint asked. He, Evelyn and Roon had stayed well away from the prison, keeping an eye on the building for any sign of trouble. Kilian had appeared in a flash near them with Harthall in tow, then disappeared and reappeared less than a minute later with Thia. Opal scurried outside easily, maintaining her spider form until they were out of public view.
Thia looked cross as Kilian explained. “Thia forgot to leave the giantslayer sword behind. The new captain of the guards recognized the sword. I lied and told her we found it in Mirabar. Luckily, she shrugged it off after some talk about forgery and she let us through to see Harthall. Harthall had the wits to pretend he recognized us. Our initial plan was to walk out of there with everyone disguised, but we couldn’t get rid of our guard, so we had to improvise. Thia had to knock out the man while I transported myself and Harthall out. Then I went back and grabbed Thia. We’ve got to get out of here, though. It won’t take them long to wonder why we haven’t left yet.”
Thia planted the disguise hat on Harthall, and his appearance shimmered and changed. The man looked at them gratefully. “Thank you. Thank you for coming back. I never thought you would. I was sorry to hear about the one I met before, your friend…”
“He died fighting a white dragon,” Roon said solemnly.
“We couldn’t leave an innocent man in jail,” Kilian said, patting him on the shoulder. “Let’s go.”
They hurried off back to the inn, relief hitting them at the top of the stairs to their rooms.
After that, they advised Harthall to stay in their rooms and keep to himself. In the evening, they visited a few gambling establishments and made some bets, looking around for the symbol of the golden goose. On their third night in Yartar, they got word from a member of the thieves’ guild, and she said she would contact them the next day with her findings.
That evening, they gambled again, and this time Kilian took a seat at the table. When the dealer asked him what he bet, he reached into his pocket and slammed the coin onto the table. “I’m not gambling with money, tonight,” he said, revealing the symbol of the golden goose. “I’m gambling with this.”
The dealer looked at him and nodded firmly. “Come back at midnight to join the big table,” he said. “For now, we deal in coin.”
They waited around until midnight, then were ushered into a back room. To their surprise, there were no golden goose tokens. Instead, the players dealt in something else.
“Drugs?” Opal squeaked in surprise.
“This isn’t the seedy gambling den we were looking for,” Flint muttered.
“Let’s play it out—cautiously,” Kilian advised. “We may still learn something. Besides, we won’t hear back from the thieves’ guild until tomorrow.”
They awkwardly took their places at various tables. All they had to bet with was Roon’s large bag of powdered ‘unicorn horn’. Roon was cautious. As the players became more intoxicated, he pretended along with them while keeping an eye on his friends. After an hour of betting, he went through the room and watched people, asking a few of the patrons about a golden goose. No one seemed to recognize it, and he felt more and more anxious as the night went on. Whomever aided in the kidnapping of King Hekaton would have been cleverer than a group of rowdy, ill-dressed ne’er-do-well’s.
Eventually, they stumbled out of the raucous room and made their way back to the inn to a sleeping Harthall.
“—told you it wouldn’t come to anything,” Flint murmured as they pushed into their room.
“Well, it was worth a shot,” Kilian snapped back.
Roon lit the oil lantern in the corner of the room and jumped back with a start.
“It’s just me,” the woman from the thieves’ guild whispered, holding up a hand.
“You scared the living pegasus out of me,” Roon hissed.
“I thought you weren’t coming back until tomorrow,” Kilian said, frowning.
She raised an olive-toned chin. “I found something.”
“I’m that good,” she smirked, then took a seat on the wooden chair in the corner of the room. She leaned back casually and crossed her legs. “There’s a hidden den of gambling held on a boat on the river.”
“A boat?” Kilian asked.
“Yes, a boat.”
“How big?” Roon asked curiously.
“Quite large,” she said.
“So, you mean a ship,” Kilian corrected.
The woman rolled her eyes, and the sailor let it go. “It’s known as ‘The Grand Dame’. The ship is owned by Castier Drylum. He also owns half the city. He caters to rich folk, and his games are quite exclusive. One must appear the part if they’re going to enter.” She eyed their travel-worn clothing with disdain.
“When is it?”
“The time changes on a whim, but my informants tell me it is most nights, an hour to sunset. Only someone with an invitation or one of those golden goose coins can enter, and they confiscate all weapons at the door.”
Kilian nodded thoughtfully. “This is very useful.”
She got to her feet and strode toward him smoothly until her body was a few inches from him. She put out a hand expectantly.
“Ah, erm, yes, right,” Kilian muttered, reaching into his coin purse and dropping several gold pieces into her waiting hand.
She closed her fist around the payment, smiled, then tiptoed to the window and climbed out into the darkness.
“Well, that was unnerving,” Flint said, rubbing his eyes. “I suppose we ought to tell the women in the morning.”
Roon nodded. “This is good news.”
The next day, they told Evelyn, Thia and Opal about the ship.
They all went out, leaving Harthall behind, and bought fine clothes for the event. Roon found a colourful silk cloak with golden thread. It needed shortening for his gnomish figure, and he requested several hidden pockets to be sewn into the lining. When they had all found the proper clothing, they returned to the inn and placed their weapons into the bag of holding, which they then tied around Opal’s back. When she took her beast shape, the bag would transform with her and be undetectable. Soon enough, the day grew cooler as the sun drifted toward the horizon, and they made their way to the Dessarin River in their finery.
Soon, they came upon another group of finely dressed people walking along the river. Their voices carried, and Roon caught most of what they said. The group spoke of the Fiddler’s Bluff, a well-known card game in which three players must convince the dealer that their hand is the highest. It involved a great amount of strategy and maths. Roon had played it a handful of times, but most gamblers didn’t bother with the game. It was, as they said, a highborn game.
They followed the group until they saw a long, two decker river boat with dozens of massive wooden oars along its side. The boat was painted white and red with silver finishes and the name painted in bold letters: The Grand Dame. It had many high windows that showed a brightly lit interior, and welcoming music drifted out. As they neared, they heard the clanking of glasses, laughter, and to Roon’s great pleasure, the sound of cards being shuffled and chips being thrown. Opal stepped out of eyesight and transformed into a beetle, then flew into Thia’s hair. Kilian and Thia took the lead as they walked across the dock after the group ahead of them and approached a man in a black waistcoat who was guarding the door. “Invitations,” the man said in an airy accent.
Kilian held up the golden goose coin with a meaningful look. The sailor had cleaned up nicely. His beard had been groomed and his silver-streaked hair brushed back into a dark ponytail. His iceberg collar brought out the ice-blue of his eyes.
Thia was hooked arm-in-arm with the sailor. The elf’s shining black hair had three thick braids that met at the back of her head and tumbled down into loose curls. She wore an off-white ankle length dress that stood out in stark contrast to her bronze skin. It fitted to her form, and Roon saw the man at the door wasn’t the only one to notice.
Next to Roon stood the straight-backed Evelyn wearing black trousers, a gray buttoned shirt with a black leather belt, and long sleeves covering the scars on her arms. The girl wore boots, giving her a few inches of height, though she was still quite short behind Thia. Evelyn’s white hair had been pulled back into a tight ponytail at the top of her head, and she had shadowed the pale skin above her eyes with dark makeup.
Flint stood behind the rest of them wearing a long, patterned kilt and an emerald green coat. His red beard had been re-braided with silver beads that jangled musically as he walked. His bagpipes, which he had refused to leave behind, were folded up nicely on his back.
The man at the door nodded to Kilian and Thia and gestured for them to enter. The three of them followed, each with nods, and were checked for weapons inside the door. Then, they entered a large dining room with long tables covered by thick red tablecloths. Various games were already being played and they saw piles of the wooden, gold-painted goose chips being tossed in with bets. A group of musicians played in the corner, and a bartender was busy mixing complex drinks behind a counter. The main room had mahogany panelling and intricately patterned wallpaper in a mix of blues and oranges. A large clock stood on one end of the room, sparkling in the bright lantern light. On the other side of the room was a life-sized painting of a human man standing stiffly in a rich-styled robe. He had tousled brown hair and a scraggly beard, and on his shoulder sat a purplish-blue octopus, its many tentacles hooked around him. It was, presumably, the man who owned this boat, and half the city.
“This place is a fire hazard,” Roon murmured, and Flint nodded in awe.
Then, he noticed a woman standing in the corner of the room surveying the guests. She had magpie features and even wore a small hat with gleaming black feathers in it. She was plainly dressed and looked haughty.
“Well,” Kilian said under his breath, glancing back at them, “try to blend in, and get as much information as you can. Remember, we’re here to find out if this Castier Drylum was involved in kidnapping Hekaton.” He looked around at the tables, then added, “so don’t get too distracted.”
Roon pshawed and trotted off to see what games were being played.
An hour passed and still there was no sign of the man in the portrait. Roon walked around the tables watching people, listening in to conversations, and noting where the staff went. There was a guarded wooden-paneled door that he had seen open a couple of times to a winding staircase. Being half the height of most of the guests there, Roon was able to sneak near the guard and wait for a server to come to it. Just as the man opened the door, Roon turned invisible and shot past him. He pressed himself against the wall and watched the server walk down a short hallway behind spiral stairs. It was quiet on this side of the door. He waited a few breaths before following the man. The server entered the first room containing several large casks of ale and boxes of bottled wines and meads. Roon moved past that door and peeked into one that was ajar. It was the helm, and he could hear the captain speaking to several others, but the conversation was mundane. He also passed the kitchens before turning around. He went to the stairs and tiptoed up them. There was another short hallway, and he could hear passionate sounds behind nearly every one of the small doorways, the signs of people coupling. He wondered vaguely how long the couples had been up there, or how they’d escaped his notice at the door.
There were no doorways in this part that led to the rest of the upper part of the ship, and Roon suspected there was a hidden door elsewhere that reach it. With a sigh, he crept back down the stairs and waited, invisibly, to follow the server back out into the crowd.
Another hour passed before Castier Drylum made his appearance. The man sauntered into the room with two guards and gazed at his patrons with a wane smile before his eyes landed on Thia. The man undressed the tall elf woman with his eyes, gave her a slight smile, then turned and took a full glass of wine from the bartender. He began sipping it and moved around the room, greeting people. Just as in the portrait, the purplish octopus clung to the man’s shoulder, not, it seemed, needing any source of water to sustain it.
Eventually, as though by accident, Castier sauntered over to Thia. She left Kilian at the table and stood to greet him with a flirtatious smile. She held out a delicate hand and the man took it, pressing his bristly lips to it.
“How is your luck tonight, my lady?” Castier asked.
Thia smiled seductively and said in a low voice, “I think it just got a bit better.”
Flint, who was standing near Roon, made visible vomiting imitations behind their backs. Roon sniggered and looked away just before Castier caught his eye.