The area north of the commercial gate was mostly industrial. The buildings were squat, with bomb-proof stone walls and heavy iron doors secured with multiple padlocks. Any of them would be a cinch to rob, Matilda thought.
Even the back streets here were wide enough for two laden wagons to pass side-by-side. As she walked down the street towards the waterfront, a haversack over one shoulder, she considered how she’d do it. She’d need a crew to move the goods. Cargo wagons. A lock pick. She’d need to either pay off or incapacitate the on-duty guards that patrolled this quarter. She’d need to find someone to buy the stolen goods. They’d probably want a steep discount since Krim was small, and everyone would quickly know that they were selling stuff from the warehouse heist. The merchant would probably lose their legitimate suppliers once word got out. Maybe she’d ship the goods out of Krim, instead. Up north, they were so short of all the basic necessities that they’d happily pay full price, no questions asked. But then she’d need to organize a caravan for the two-week trip — well, at least two weeks, depending on how far they were going to go. The labor costs would start piling up quickly.
And for what? A few wagon-loads of crockery, fabric, building supplies, and durable metal goods? Precious metals didn’t get import-export licenses so they wouldn’t be in these warehouses. And anything particularly valuable would be in the vaults underneath Krim’s Central Bank.
Now that she thought about it, robbing the warehouse district wasn’t worth the effort. The bank, on the other hand… Maybe if she turned away from her life of legitimate crime-solving, robbing the bank could be an interesting challenge. Many had tried. A few had succeeded, and their names have lived on in Krim history. Bank robbers like… Matilda couldn’t remember their names off-hand, but they were probably famous to somebody.
She was almost down to the waterfront when a shadow appeared briefly from behind a building and waved to her. Matilda turned towards it. In the alley between two warehouses, Wanda the Weasel leaned against a wall, a haversack similar to Matilda’s on the ground by her feet.
“You’re in time,” Wanda said. “They’re not here yet.”
“People don’t usually go and become pirates because they’re punctual,” said Matilda. “So, how are things?”
“Boring,” said Wanda. “Working the night shift in the warehouse district pays fine, but it’s a little monotonous.”
“But you get good exercise.”
“Yeah, I’ve gone through four pairs of boots working here,” said Wanda. “My thighs are now made of steel. I could probably break a man’s neck with them.”
“So, is it true that the pirates have a secret warehouse full of booty out here?”
“Secret warehouse, yes,” said Wanda. “They paid me extra to keep an eye on it. But not full of booty.”
“So what do they keep in it, then?”
“Sails. Ropes. Barrels of tar. Dried beans. Stuff like that.”
“Well, that’s disappointing.”
“I know, right?”
“So where do they keep the good stuff? Do they bury it under a palm tree somewhere?”
“They keep it in the bank.”
“Nope. The best stuff is in the Bank of Krim, in safe deposit boxes down in the vaults. And they keep their spending money at the bank in Port Royal.”
“That’s where we’re going, right?”
“You sure about the guns?”
“Not sure, sure,” said Wanda. “But what I heard is, if you want firearms, you go to Port Royal. And not just one-off, custom-made pieces, either. They’ve got them in bulk.”
“Do you think they’re bringing them through the commercial gate somehow?” Matilda asked.
“Not that I can tell, and I’ve been working here, on and off, for a few months now,” said Wanda. “I think the source is somewhere outside of Krim City.”
“But there aren’t any gates outside of Krim City,” said Matilda. “Do you think someone’s managed to build a munitions factory?”
Wanda shrugged. “Who knows? Oh, and I also heard that there are some fancy newcomers on Port Royal. Dressed up like royalty.”
“Those could be our kidnap victims,” said Matilda. “Have you been to Port Royal before?”
“No, this is my first time,” said Wanda. “But I hear that if you’re in the mood to gamble away ill-gotten gains, or spend them on alcohol and wenches, that’s the place to go.”
“You can do that in Krim City,” said Matilda.
“Apparently, it’s more fun in Port Royal. Plus, it’s more civilized. Oh, here we go.” Wanda nodded at the far end of the alley, which ended at the seawall. “Our ride is here.”
Both of them picked up their rucksacks and walked towards the water.
A long rowboat was approaching the shore, half-full of tired-looking men and women.
“There’s a ladder here we can climb down,” said Wanda, looking back at Matilda. “Oh, hey, Taft. Marston.”
Matilda looked back and saw two men approaching them. “Are you joining up to be pirates, too?” she asked them.
“I don’t want to be in town right now,” said Taft.
“Why, you own someone money?” Matilda asked.
“Worse than that,” said Taft. “Bannister’s back in town, and his war isn’t going well.”
“I ran into his press gang earlier,” said Marston. “They’re very insistent.”
“I guess the war up north isn’t going well for him,” said Taft.
“I wouldn’t go near the mercenary guild right now,” said Maston. “That’s where I saw them last.”
The rowboat below pulled up the sea wall and a tired pirate tied it to the ladder.
“What’s happening at the mercenary guild?” one of the other pirates on the boat asked.
“The Armforge Guild is recruiting,” said Taft.
“Press ganging, more like it,” said Marston.
“They’re very insistent. The pay’s good, but I’d rather not be Bannister’s cannon-fodder, thank you very much,” said Taft.
“I heard rumors,” said Matilda. “At the King’s Armpit. Didn’t know they were getting that bad.”
“They’ll be at the Armpit next,” said Marston.
“You know what, I think I’ll go back to Port Royal,” said one of the pirates in the boat.
The rest of them whispered among themselves. In the end, only two decided to disembark.
“I’ve got an infected wound,” one of them said. “I’m just heading to the gate, getting a new avatar.”
“Wimp,” said a one-armed man next to him.
The first one pulled up his pant leg to show a wound, swollen purple, with oozing sores.
The one-armed man jerked away with a look of repulsion on his face. “God, that stinks,” he said. “Put that away.”
The pirates who decided to stay readily helped the infected one off the boat. Pushed him, really, to the ladder, where Wanda and Matilda pulled him the rest of the way up and onto land.
Then the other one got out and looked around. “They’re at the mercenary guild right now, right?” he asked.
“They’ll probably be hitting bars and brothels soon,” said Taft, climbing down the ladder.
“I’ll go and change then, too,” said the pirate. “Something a little bit less soldier-ly.”
“There’s a new default farmwife avatar,” said Matilda, as Masden pushed past her down the ladder.
Matilda and Wanda took their turns rowing and a little less than an hour later they were up the coast, around a bend, and saw the pirate ship.
“Is that the Barnacle?” Wanda asked.
“Yup,” said one of the pirates. “Captained by Halley Swale herself.”
If the captain was surprised to see most of her sailors back, she didn’t say anything, but she pulled Taft, Marston, Wanda and Matilda aside and asked them their business.
“Looking for good, honest, pirate work,” said Taft. “If you’ve got room, I’ll sign on. This ship has a good reputation. If not, I’ll try my luck in Port Royal.”
“Can anyone vouch for you?”
One of the pirates stepped forward. “That’s Taft Currington,” he said. “I know him from my days in the mercenary guild. I know him, too.” The pirate nodded at Marston. “Marston Thorne.”
“I’m Wanda the Weasel,” said Wanda. “I’m here with her.” She stepped aside and Matilda stepped forward.
“I know you,” said the captain, narrowing her eyes. “I don’t think I want you on this boat.”
“Why not? I’ll pay for my passage just like anyone.”
“What if she’s working for the authorities?” said one of Swale’s pirates.
“What? For the governor of Port Royal?” asked Captain Swale.
The captain turned around. “What other authorities are there?”
“The Chamber of Commerce,” said a pirate. “They’re kind of an authority. They pay good money, too.”
“And you get a discount with local restaurants,” added another pirate. “Especially during Food Fest.”
“The next Food Fest is coming up in July,” said the first pirate. “I heard the Barley Mow has a new cook. Think they’ll put up a booth? I wouldn’t mind working that protection detail.”
Other pirates clustered around. “Who do you have to know to get that gig?” one asked.
“I can hook you up,” said Matilda.
“Really, they wouldn’t mind hiring pirates?”
Matilda rolled her eyes. “If the Chamber refused to hire former pirates, brigands, and outlaws, it wouldn’t have any workers at all. Plus, you’d be a fool to cause trouble during Food Fest. And yeah, I’ve done work for the Chamber. We’ve all done protection work at one time or another.” She peered at the pirates. “Iron Fists, that’s you, right? Didn’t you used to do caravan security?” She turned to the pirate captain. “And there’s something familiar about you…”
“Right, never mind about that.” The captain looked away. “I know we’ve all got pasts. I know we’ve all been on the wrong side of the law.” She paused. “I mean, the side of the law that’s for the law.”
“Not that there’s much law on Krim,” a pirate grumbled behind her.
“Yeah. Hard to be lawbreakers without laws,” said another.
The captain cleared her throat. “All that aside,” she said. “You, Matilda Scarletstrike, have a bad reputation for not following the rules. And there are rules here on the high seas. You’re not going to fit in.”
“I don’t want to fit in,” said Matilda. “I’m just looking for a ride to Port Royal.”
“Port Royal isn’t for the likes of you either,” said the captain. “They don’t like cutthroats.”
“What? You’re pirates!”
Captain Swale crossed her arms. “We know how to behave. Some of you city-folk don’t think twice about stabbing someone to death. After all, the gate’s right there, in the central plaza. They can come right back.”
“Yeah, they return and then they find you and then they stab you in the back,” said Matilda.
The captain looked Matilda up and down. “I doubt too many people try to stab you in the back.”
“No, not usually,” Matilda admitted.
“If you stab someone in Port Royal — or on a ship — it can be weeks before they can get back again,” said Captain Swale. “And, as pirates, we can’t usually show our faces in Krim City.”
“We have to change our faces,” said a pirate standing behind her.
“And we don’t like to change our faces,” said another.
“Unless it’s for Food Fest,” added the first.
The captain ignored them. “If I let you on this ship, you’ll be stabbing people right and left,” she told Matilda. “That’s not something I can live with. And if I do let you on, and take you to Port Royal, then you’ll stab people there. And the authorities frown on that.” She shook her head. “I might get my docking privileges suspended. And don’t even get me started on the fines.”
“So, what? I’m too violent for you pirates?”
The captain stepped away, then glanced back at Matilda. “Throw her overboard. We’re setting sail.”