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It had started as a mist, but it had grown since then. Now it was a thick fog, thick enough that Vardon could not see more than ten feet in any direction. He hated this time of year, especially up here in the mountains. Winter was over, for the most part, but spring had not really arrived yet. The thick fog always resided in the mountain passes during this part of the season. It made his riding cloak heavy with moisture, and his feet were cold in his boots.

Vardon's horse stamped once and snorted, its breath seemingly adding to the fog. The horse did not like the fog either. It was almost unnatural. Everything that Vardon could see, which consisted mainly of his horse and the ground he was standing on, looked as if it was covered in a thin grey film. Vardon did not want to be here. He wanted to be in his nice warm cottage down in the valley. Or better yet, sipping some ale at the inn. Upon further reflection, he was glad he was not at the inn. If his wife ever found out he had been drinking at this early hour, well...

From a great height, Vardon heard the scream of a hawk. A good omen! "Maybe things will be all right this morning," he said to himself. He looked down from where he thought the hawk should be, and his horse whinnied. Vardon grabbed the horse's bridle in one hand and began stroking its head with his other hand. It was then he heard the soft jingling of a horse's tack and harness approaching. Vardon turned around in time to see a mounted figure slowly materialize from the fog. It stopped and the figure dismounted, the sound of armour easily recognizable. As the cloaked figure strode toward Vardon, it threw back its cloak to reveal a longsword. If he decides to attack me, Vardon thought to himself, my belt knife would not help me. Instead the figure stopped a few feet away from Vardon and spoke.

"Who are you, and why are you here?" The voice was a deep bass, which rumbled out from under the figure's hood. His left hand was resting on the hilt of his sword. Vardon noticed the insignia marking the scabbard. This man was a knight. Vardon did not recognize whose emblem was emblazoned along the scabbard. Maybe this knight could explain why I am here. Vardon removed his wet, felt hat from his head before he answered.

"I am called Vardon, my lord. I was told to meet...ah, to meet some friends here. They seem to be a bit late." Vardon's nervous laugh sounded hollow. The knight did not make a sound, but turned to look to either side. He turned back to Vardon.

"Are you alone?" the knight asked quietly. His fingers drummed a beat on his sword hilt. Vardon licked his lips nervously.

"I am, my lord. Just me and my daughter's horse." The knight did nothing for the longest time, then nodded his head gently as if to agree. He took two steps backward and turned his head slightly to call behind him. His eyes never left Vardon.

A second mounted figure emerged from the fog. He rode to where the knight was still standing watching Vardon. The second figure did not dismount.

"My friend Labiarn told me you could be trusted. Can you be?" the mounted man asked in a quiet but firm voice.

Vardon thought quickly. Where had he heard that name before? Labiarn, Labiarn. Of course! Labiarn was the name of the province's Regent. How did Labiarn know him? To Vardon's knowledge they had never met. It must have been his friend Toffer, his town's mayor. He was a good friend of Regent Labiarn. He must have put in a good word for me. But to whom? Vardon asked himself. If Labiarn is this man's friend, he must be of Regent's rank. Or higher! Oh, what have I got myself into this time?

"Yes, my lord. I can be trusted," Vardon replied. Better not to ask what it is I'm to be entrusted with. The next question shocked Vardon, and it showed.

"Where do your loyalties lie?" asked the mounted figure. The knight was still staring at Vardon, fingers drumming on sword hilt.

"Why, I'm a good King's man! Born, lived and hope to die one!" Vardon was so flustered by the question that he forgot to add the 'my lord.' Both men caught the oversight. The mounted man laughed, mostly to himself, while the knight emitted a rumbling growl. Vardon did not know what he had done.

The mounted figure looked down from his mirth to the growling knight. Leaning down from his saddle, he patted the knight's shoulder. Still with a trace of a laugh in his voice, he spoke.

"Do not be angry with him, Raynard. I think we should take it as a true indication of his loyalty." The mounted man returned to his upright position and faced Vardon again. He reached up and removed the hood of his cloak, exposing his face. The one named Raynard did the same. Vardon did not recognize either of them.

"I am Kazar Naimon," the mounted man said.

The eldest prince! Vardon exclaimed to himself. Naimon's hair was short and blonde, his eyes a deep blue. He had a firm jaw, and Vardon would have said he was the spitting image of his father the king, but Vardon had never seen the king either.

"This is Kur Raynard."

Vardon glanced back to the knight. His hair was a dark brown with wisps of white in it. It matched his full beard perfectly. "We have a matter of extreme importance on our hands, and we need your help." The tone of Naimon's voice had become serious. Vardon looked back to the prince. Naimon seemed to be waiting for some response from Vardon.

"Um ... Oh! Of course I will help, your highness! I will do anything you ask, your highness. Only..." Vardon's sentence trailed off. Naimon looked from Vardon down to Raynard, who was tapping his sword hilt even more vehemently. Raynard’s gaze never wavered, and Vardon thought that the knight’s eyes must have put a whole right through him by that time. Naimon looked back to Vardon.

"Yes, Master Vardon? You have something more to say?" The sudden edge to Prince Naimon's voice only made the fog feel colder.

"Begging your pardon, your highness, and meaning no disrespect, of course, but ... I am just a farmer. What kind of help could I possibly give you?" Vardon asked, trying to sound as humble as possible. He was holding his felt hat in both hands now, and unconsciously squeezing all the moisture out with his nervousness.

Naimon sighed. "I see it may be necessary to reveal more to you than I had planned." With that remark, Raynard's gaze left Vardon. The knight looked up to Naimon with surprise.

"But my kazar," Raynard started to say. Naimon cut him off with a shake of his head.

"There is nothing to worry about, Raynard. This man is loyal, and many more like him will know before this matter is settled. It cannot be kept secret for much longer, in any case. Not if we wish more support for our side. It will only be a short while before everyone must be told. I cannot think that telling this man, now, will change what is to come. And if it does, I hope it will be good news for us." Naimon gave Vardon a sidelong look. "Besides," Naimon still spoke to Raynard, a smile playing across his face, "if he proves to be a liar, and hence a traitor, I am sure you could find something entertaining to have done to him." Raynard harrumphed and returned his penetrating gaze to Vardon, no emotion on his face but grim determination. Vardon wondered if Raynard was ever happy.

"Master Vardon, what I tell you now is only known to a handful of people. You must promise secrecy, and re-pledge your loyalty to the Kazrim, for it will be...indirectly, his business in which you will be involved," the prince said. The kazar's horse snorted and took a fidgety step to one side.

"On my life, and in the name of the Kazrim, I do so swear," Vardon said emphatically. This sounded like it was getting worse and worse all the time. He had to find a way out of this, whatever it was.

Naimon sniffed and straightened in the saddle. "Very well. Master Vardon, I have reason to believe that there is a plot to assassinate my father, the Kazrim." Naimon's voice was serious and never wavered. "My sources have revealed to me that there are some nobles in my father's court who are working with the Filaldori," Naimon spit at the ground, "to kill my father, and to put their king on the Kazrim's throne in his place. Of this, I dare not tell you more. For your own safety as well as the safety of others involved.

"You are to be sent on a mission." Vardon shifted his feet nervously, impatient to leave the rendezvous. This was definitely not in his plans for his life. Naimon reached under his cloak and brought out a sealed parchment. He handed it to Raynard, who took it without ever looking up. The knight walked the parchment to Vardon while Prince Naimon continued. "You are to take this letter to our ambassador in the country of Koridan. A Kol Pana, I believe. The letter is for his eyes only, so you will neither read it yourself, nor let others read it. Guard it with your life. You are to set sail for Koridan today, so you had better find yourself a ship. After delivering the letter to the Kol, you shall return to your home and resume your farming as if nothing ever happened. You will not speak of anything you did to anyone, including your family. You will not speak of this meeting to anyone, either. In fact, it never happened. Do you understand all that I have told you?"

Vardon looked down from Naimon to the parchment in the outstretched hand of the knight. Vardon looked at the parchment as if it was a viper. It was too late to back out now. He cautiously reached out and gently took the letter. The royal seal holding the document shut was plainly visible. Raynard walked backward to return to his place beside the prince's horse. Vardon stared at the paper in his hand. In my hand. What do I do now? Vardon asked himself. What can I do?

Vardon looked back up at the prince. "Yes, Kazar Naimon. I understand." Suddenly a thought hit him. "But if I may, your highness?"

"Yes. What is it?" Naimon asked.

"What will my family think while I am gone? What should I tell them when they ask?" Naimon seemed to be lost in thought for a moment.

"I will have someone talk to them while you are away. Your family will not be told where or why, but they will be told not to ask." Naimon pulled his reins tight. Raynard grabbed the reins of his own horse and mounted in one swift motion. As they were turning to leave, Vardon gathered up his courage.

"Um, your highness?" Vardon looked back down at the parchment that felt like fire in his hands. "May I ask one last question?"

"Yes?" Naimon stopped his horse and turned in the saddle.

Vardon pulled himself together to ask the one question that had been poking at the back of his head ever since he first received the summons to the secret meeting. "Why me?"

"Because," Naimon started, "you are just a farmer. Nobody will take notice of your travels. If I had sent an official envoy, the traitors would surely suspect that someone was on to them. Now go. And be careful. Be very careful." With that he turned and the two men rode back into the eerie fog from which they came. Vardon stared at the fog for a while, and then carefully put the parchment inside his wool coat. He replaced his felt hat on his now damp head and mounted his horse. He was mumbling to himself as he rode off into the fog in the other direction.

The mountain pass remained quiet and empty except for the fog for a few minutes. Then a lone, cloaked figure, leading a horse cautiously, entered the pass from the mountainside. It stopped in the middle and looked both ways, checking to make sure both parties had gone. Then it pulled its horse closer, mounted, and rode off into the fog as well. It left following the unwilling messenger, down the mountain and into the valley.

* * *

The wispy clouds had turned a beautiful orange-red colour as they reflected the rays of the setting suns. As the visible face of the first sun passed out of view below the horizon, and the second sun seemed to set the tops of the rolling waves on fire, Brenn fondly thought of home.

He thought of the green of the hills surrounding his home, and of the way the sunlight danced through his window in the mornings. He thought of his stoic father, and he tried to remember his long dead mother. He thought of his teasing brothers, and of his flighty sisters. He thought of how much he missed them, each and every one, and Brenn wished that he had left on better terms. But he had to leave. There was no reason to put it off. It would have only made things more difficult.

Brenn stood up straight, swaying slightly from side to side as the ship pitched and reeled. He would have to harass the first mate about the rough ride. Brenn could recall his friend promising that the voyage would be 'smooth sailing,' this being Brenn's first cruise. He had stopped being seasick yesterday morning. Nonetheless, he sometimes envied Lorken for his way of life. Living on a ship, being able to cruise the oceans and sail to points unknown. The salty taste left in your mouth from the frigid sea wind. The freedom. That was the thing that Brenn's life could not have. At least, until now.

A clap of thunder rumbled faintly to the northwest just as Brenn heard someone coming up behind him.

"Looks to be a fairly big storm." Lorken spoke, gazing out across the swells to where darker, heavier clouds were gathering in the distance.

"Will she catch us?" Brenn asked, turning to his friend. Lorken chewed on his lower lip.

"Hard to say," he said, looking at Brenn for the first time. "She's moving with pretty good speed. But the capt'n has us on course for the Shrunken Isles. We should be there soon enough, and safe from the storm."

Brenn had heard of the Shrunken Isles, mostly from traders and the crews of the larger merchant vessels. He could remember when he was a boy, his Uncle Eram taking him to taverns to hear the stories of sea monsters and the Zayin Pirates, buried treasure and mutinies. Most ships undertaking a voyage of the Apenic Sea used the Shrunken Isles to restock their foodstuffs and fresh-water barrels, or for shore leave. The latter was frowned upon by most ship's captains, and looked forward to by most crews. It was no accident that the majority of the Isles' population was female. Many a new sailor entered into manhood on his first sea voyage. A lot of bastard children lived on the Shrunken Isles. The boys growing up to become sailors, and sometimes even joining the Brotherhood of Piracy, and the girls usually following in their mothers' footsteps.

"How much longer until we reach the Isles?" Brenn asked as he followed Lorken off the aftcastle. The crew was beginning to unfurl some of the smaller sails used to catch that extra amount of wind so often needed to increase a ship's speed. Sometimes it was because of storms, sometimes pirates. Lorken began shouting orders to sailors Brenn could not see, high in the riggings. Between the shouts, Lorken spoke over his shoulder.

"I don't know. An hour. Maybe two. This may take awhile. You might want to go below and find something to do."

Brenn nodded and headed for the steps leading down into the hull of the ship. He had no idea what he was going to do for the next few hours. Brenn had to face it. Only three days out of Mynaeca and already he was bored out of his skull. He would never make a good sailor. Not that being a sailor was what he wanted to do with his life. On the contrary, Brenn had never even thought about being a sailor until he left home, and ran into Lorken who was out on an errand for his captain. Brenn and Lorken had some ale in a tavern and when Brenn had mentioned that he had left home for good, Lorken suggested Brenn try his luck somewhere else, where he could get a fresh start. The trouble was Brenn did not know where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do. Now he knew one thing at least. Whatever he did and wherever he did it, it was not going to be done while he was swaying back and forth to the rolling ocean. Dry land was the key. Someplace where you could move around, and you were not confined to wooden walls holding water back.

Brenn strode down the short hall to his cabin door. He would probably take a nap for an hour or two. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately. Brenn figured that with all the sleep he had been getting, he could probably stay awake for the next week and a half, straight. He entered his cabin and closed the door behind him. He untied his cloak and hung it from a peg on the wall. His cabin was big enough to move around in, but it was far from being comfortable. Fairly spartan, the cabin contained a single bunk built into one wall, a small table and chair, a chest for clothing and valuables, and a small lamp sprouting from the wall beside the peg holding Brenn's cloak. He had not bothered to use the chest. All his belongings were still in his pack set in a corner. Brenn's sword and scabbard were still lying across the table where he had left them. There was no need to wear them on the ship. Brenn lied down on the hard, flat wooden bunk. A bunk without a mattress was supposed to be good for your back. Yeah, right.

As Brenn awoke later, he could hear the ship creaking and straining against the gale. He stiffly got up from the bunk and stretched, as best he could in the small space available. He threw on his cloak as he walked back out into the compact hall and up the stairs onto the main deck. As he emerged from below, the first thing that Brenn noticed was the wind. The force was so strong that it nearly knocked him back down below decks. Brenn managed to slide up against the wall beside the doorway. The gusts of wind were still pushing against him, but at least he had some support. The second thing that he noticed was that the ship was no longer pitching or reeling, but slowly moving forward. Brenn leaned over the starboard railing and looked behind the ship. Elara's second sun had almost completely set, and the clouds obscured most of the light. All Brenn could see around the outside of the ship were trees. Tall trees, taller than the ship's mast by far, and at the very least fifty times as wide around. In the little light that was remaining, the trees had a mysterious air about them.

Grabbing at any handhold the ship would offer, Brenn made his way slowly to the forecastle. He managed to climb the steps to the higher level without being blown away by the powerful wind. Along with the wind now came beads of moisture ripping at his unprotected hands and face. This was just the fringe of the storm. Brenn could hardly imagine what the heart of the storm would be like. He would be able to raise his head only slightly before the rain would attempt to pelt against his eyes. But Brenn did raise his head, to see where the ship was.

The first thought to come to Brenn's mind was that wherever they were, it would probably look better if the storm was not trying to tear down the trees. Then Brenn saw their course was taking them between two very close islands. As far as he could see, the only things on the islands besides the rocks were the giant trees, fighting against the wind and rain. If they could get the ship behind the cover of those trees, the wooden giants would provide a natural windbreak. That must be what the captain was trying to do.

Brenn stiffly turned his head and shoulders to try to retain what small protection from the wind he had. Still holding the railing with both hands, Brenn looked towards the aft and saw the captain at the wheel. He had a scowl on his face, and Brenn did not know if the captain was angry with the storm or just trying to keep the rain out of his face as Brenn was. Or maybe both. Brenn looked up into the riggings and saw that the mainsail had been furled. In fact, all the bigger sails had been furled. Only the smaller sails were still out, full to the point of ripping into pieces. Even these had men dangling from the riggings, trying to tie them off too. Brenn suddenly found that he had great respect for these men.

First of all, Brenn would not be caught dead up there. This was because of his fear of heights. He had never seen the world from a third story window, and he tried to stay away from windows even when he was on the second floor. He could remember, when he was young, watching the other children playing. They would climb the trees, hang from the branches and make fun of him because he was scared to climb with them. One time he did climb the tree, just to stop them from teasing him. At first it was not too bad, as long as he was looking up. As soon as he looked down, however, the world decided to play a trick on him and began to spin around. He remembered that his lunch returned to pay him a visit, and that the ground suddenly jumped at him. The healer told Brenn that he should probably stay in bed until the bump on his head went away, and Brenn had agreed with the advice not to climb trees again. As long as sturdy walls and a level surface surrounded him, he was pretty much all right.

The second reason Brenn had respect for the sailors in the riggings had to do with the weather. The wind was blowing harder than ever. The masts were threatening to shatter, and these men were still in the riggings. Most of them had begun to pull the sails in and tie them off.

The rain was pounding against him so hard that he was sure he could feel bruises developing. Brenn risked one more glance at the narrow channel the captain would try to navigate in the dark. He did not envy that man's job, and hoped the captain was as competent as the wind was strong. Brenn slowly made his way back to the stairs.

***

The storm raged on around the group of islands, but within the relative safety of the massive trees it felt like just another rainstorm. The thunder rolled and crashed in time with the waves beating on the surrounding shores. Within the virtually enclosed canopy of the trees the wind could be heard whistling high above, but did not reach in deep enough to rustle the leaves. Within his cabin, Brenn could only hear the wooden hull creaking.

A sharp jarring accompanied the sudden cessation of the forward momentum of the ship. Brenn gathered his gear and headed up on deck. There was a commotion on the decks and in the riggings as deckhands were securing the mooring lines. Brenn slung his pack over his shoulder as he walked along the deck, spinning slowly in order to take in the majesty of his surroundings. Brenn was filled with awe, as he had never seen trees this large before. Indeed, no one who had not been to the Shrunken Isles had ever seen an arbour the likes of this. The smallest trees here still dwarfed the largest and oldest trees Brenn had ever seen in Corahn. He guessed them to be at least a hundred feet tall, and thirty feet or more in diameter. It was a wonder to behold, and they truly did cause the islands they grew on to seem small in comparison.

With the foliage of the giant trees naturally filtering out most of the sunlight, even on a clear day, a permanent night was settled in around them. Sight on the Shrunken Isles was aided by a myriad of torches, oil lamps, and watch-fires, shimmering in the tree villages like stars in the night sky. As the deckhands bustled around him, Brenn made his way towards the gangplank being put into place. It easily stretched from the Sea Cloud's main deck to the dock below. He stood and waited until the sailors had secured it, then tentatively made his way down to the crowding dock. Men were already preparing to roll barrels of fresh water up the gangplank to the ship, and several questionably clothed women were sauntering into the area. Just as he reached the dock, a voice called to him from the ship.

"Brenn, hold there for a moment," called Lorken from the deck. Brenn readjusted his pack on his shoulder as Lorken and the ship's cabin boy, Jolsten, made their way down the gangplank to join him. Jolsten was an orphan that the ship's captain had taken in. At only ten years of age, he already knew more about sailing and ships than Brenn could ever hope to know. His dark blonde hair was tussled, as it usually was, and his pants barely came down to his knees. Brenn noticed, however, that someone on board had made him wear a shirt, which was unusual for the young lad. It remained unlaced at the top, which seemed to fit right in with the boy's barefoot, carefree personality.

"As this is your first time here," Lorken began as he and the boy reached Brenn, "the cap'n suggested that I go with you, to steer you clear of any...trouble." The first mate finished with a smile on his face. Knowing the reputation of the women who lived here, Brenn knew what he was talking about.

"Not to worry," Brenn answered back as the three of them wove their way through the busy wooden dock area onto the land itself. Odd smells and fragrances wafted over them on the cool breeze. The Sea Cloud was only one of several ships moored at the docks, and foot traffic was fairly heavy. The two men and their pre-adolescent tag-along wove their way through the crowds towards the base of the nearest tree, its mammoth roots nearly two stories tall at the point they left the trunk. A wooden ramp, wide enough for two horse-drawn wagons to pass each other, spiralled its way from the ground up into the forest canopy. A waist-high railing ran along the outside of the gently sloping ramp, and built up against the trunk of the tree were huts of various sizes, existing as homes, shops and businesses. The crowds here were lighter, and Jolsten dashed in and out among them.

"Careful, lad," called Lorken. "Don't get too far ahead. You've no idea where we're going."

"Asmelda's, right?" the youngster called back over his shoulder. Brenn looked at his friend.

"The boy knows entirely too much for someone his age," Lorken spoke with a smile. They strolled up the ramp in silence for a while, Brenn taking advantage of the opportunity to absorb as much of his environment as possible. Not only were the Shrunken Isles spectacularly beautiful, but the sights he was seeing seemed miraculous as well.

"I apologize," Lorken began, as they wove their way through the crowds on the ramp, "for not being able to spend as much time with you on the voyage as you'd like."

Brenn smiled. "You don't have to explain, my friend. I understand how much responsibility a direct subordinate has to his leader, and to those under him. Whether it's the first mate of a ship, or..."

"...a prince, to his king and people?" Lorken's question came out amidst laughter. Brenn did not answer, as his attention was apparently drawn away to some baubles and trinkets hanging outside of a small shack built right up against the tree. Lorken waved no to the shopkeeper as he started to drag Brenn away by the elbow. The shopkeeper seemed disappointed to lose a sale, but immediately began working on another sailor who had stopped to admire some necklaces.

"So," Lorken changed the subject as they continued on up the ramp, "would you like to tell me why you chose now to venture off the mainland? I know you had been talking of experiencing a sailor's life, but why now?"

"I, uh...an opportunity came up. I can't say much, but I guess you could call me a diplomatic envoy," said Brenn, slightly uneasily. Lorken caught the unspoken feeling of the moment.

"I see," said the first-mate. "Well, for now, let's have a drink and take our minds off any problems we may have. Asmelda's is around the next bend."

Before they could take another step, however, a dirty, bedraggled figure appeared in front of them, blocking their way. It took a moment for Brenn to realize that it was actually a person. A woman, in fact, though it was hard to see any feminine features. Her clothes looked like nothing more than a soiled sack draped about her body. She had bare arms, legs and feet, and her long dirty hair covered most of her face, and reminded Brenn of a disorganized bird's nest.

She did not speak at first, simply staring into Brenn's eyes as her head tilted first to one side, then the other. She seemed to be trying to stare her way into his soul. Then, remarkably, a clear strong voice that seemed out of place coming from that mess escaped her lips.

"You should follow me. I can tell you much of your future," she whispered loud enough that Lorken and Brenn could hear her, but she spoke only to Brenn.

"Uh, thank you," he stammered, not knowing what to say or think. "But I think I'll pass this time." The frazzled figure stood there a moment longer, then took a step back. Her head tilted to the side again, and she spoke now in a normal voice.

"Suit yourself," she said. "You'll come to see me sooner or later. I have foreseen it." And with that she trundled off into the crowd. Both men watched her go, with bewildered expressions on their faces.

"What was that?" Brenn asked, staring after her.

"The Witch," replied Lorken, also staring after her. "They call her the Witch of the Shrunken Isles. Some say she's just a crazy old woman who runs the apothecary shop. But, then again..." His voice trailed off in an air of uncertainty.

"Then again what?" Brenn asked almost absentmindedly. They were both still staring into the crowd, but quickly regained their composure and continued on the slow ascent up the giant spiral ramp.

"Well, some say she can actually perform magic," Lorken answered.

Brenn looked slightly confused. "Magic? What's that?" he asked. Lorken was silent for a moment, with a small frown on his face.

"It was explained to me like this: magic is a supernatural ability to change or control parts of reality or nature."

Brenn snorted. "That's ridiculous." Lorken stopped in front of a closed doorway which could barely contain the sound of music and laughter behind it.

"I know," he replied. "It sounds incredible. But I have seen it, with my own eyes." He pulled the door open and the sounds and smells from inside washed over them like a tidal wave. They entered the tavern and immediately spotted Jolsten sitting on a high stool at the bar area, sipping from a tankard.

A beautiful older woman, who must have been gorgeous when she was younger, stood beside the boy, leaning on the bar with one elbow. She was dressed more conservatively than most women native to the Shrunken Isles that Brenn had seen, which meant that she was still showing too much bare skin. Her white blouse and purple skirt were all the clothing she was wearing, with the exception of a matching purple ribbon holding her ample black hair back in a pony tail. She spotted Brenn and Lorken enter, smiled, and came to meet them.

"Lorken! Good to see you again. And who is your handsome friend?" the woman asked.

"Asmelda, this is my friend Brenn. And I hope Jolsten didn't talk you in to anything he might regret later," answered the first mate.

"Brenn, welcome to the 'Busty Wench.' My name is Asmelda, and this is my establishment. And don't worry about the boy, Lorken. It's just milk with a little honey. Please, come in and let me find you a table."

She found them a table and brought them some ale, the first round being complimentary. A musician was playing some kind of string instrument on a small stage in the corner, and a couple of patrons were dancing to the lively music. Brenn had wanted to keep a clear head, especially because he had no idea how a hangover would interact with sea-sickness in the morning when the Sea Cloud was scheduled to leave. But a combination of the good music, the spirited atmosphere, and several very good ales took that option away from Brenn.

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