Sparhawk coughed slightly as if a little embarrassed. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it all started a few months ago. I happened to hear about a lady who lives not far from here,’ he began, embellishing as he went along. ‘Her father is old and very wealthy, so the lady stands to inherit a sizeable estate. One of my problems has always been the fact that I have some expensive tastes and very little in my purse to support them. It occurred to me that a rich wife might solve that problem.’
‘That makes sense,’ Captain Sorgi said. ‘That’s about the only reason I can think of for getting married at all.’
‘I couldn’t agree more,’ Sparhawk replied. ‘Anyway, I wrote her a letter pretending that we had some mutual friends, and I was a little surprised when she answered my letter with a great deal of warmth. Our letters grew more and more friendly, and she finally invited me to call on her. I went even deeper in debt to my tailor and set out for her father’s house in high spirits and splendid new clothes.’
‘Sounds to me as if everything was going according to plan, Master Cluff,’ Sorgi said. ‘What’s this problem of yours?’
‘I’m just getting to that, Captain. The lady is of middle years and very wealthy. If she were even remotely presentable, someone would have snapped her up years ago, so I didn’t have my hopes too high on that score. I assumed that she was plain – perhaps even homely I had not, however, expected a horror.’ He feigned a shudder ‘Gentlemen, I cannot even describe her to you. No matter how rich she was, it wouldn’t have been worth waking up to that every morning. We spoke together briefly – about the weather, I think – and then I made my apologies and left. She has no brothers, so I wasn’t worried about the possibility of someone looking me up to object to my bad manners. What I didn’t count on, though, was all her cousins. She’s got a whole platoon of them, and they’ve been following me for weeks now’
‘They don’t want to kill you, do they?’ Sorgi asked.
‘No,’ Sparhawk replied in an anguished tone ‘They want to drag me back and force me to marry her.’
The captains all roared with laughter, pounding on the table in glee ‘I think you’ve outsmarted yourself, Master Cluff,’ one of them said, wiping the tears of mirth from his eyes.
Sparhawk nodded glumly ‘You’re probably right,’ he admitted.
‘You should have found some way to get a look at her before you sent the first letter,’ Sorgi grinned.
‘I know that now,’ Sparhawk agreed. ‘Anyhow, I think it’s time I left the country for a while until the cousins stop looking for me. I’ve got a nephew living in Cippria in Rendor who’s been doing fairly well of late. I’m sure I can impose on him until I can get my feet on the ground again. Is it possible that one of you gentlemen might be sailing there soon? I’d like to book passage for myself and a couple of family retainers. I’d go to the main docks in Madel, but I’ve got a strong feeling that the cousins are watching them.’
‘What say you, gentlemen?’ Captain Sorgi said expansively. ‘Shall we help this good fellow out of his predicament?’
‘I’m going to Rendor, right enough,’ one of the others replied, ‘but I’m committed to Jiroch.’
Sorgi thought about it. ‘I was going to Jiroch myself,’ he mused, ‘and then on to Cippria, but I might be able to rearrange my schedule just a bit.’
‘I won’t be able to help,’ a rough-voiced sea captain growled. ‘My ship’s having her bottom scraped. I can give you some advice, though. If these cousins are watching the main wharves in Madel, they’re probably watching these as well. Everybody in town knows about Lycien’s docks here.’ He tugged at one earlobe. ‘I’ve smuggled a few people out of a few places in my time – when the price was right.’ He looked at the captain who was bound for Jiroch. ‘When do you sail, Captain Mabin?’
‘With the noon tide.’
‘And you?’ the helpful captain asked Sorgi.
‘Good. If the cousins are watching the docks here, they may try to hire a ship and follow our bachelor friend. Have him openly board Mabin’s ship. Then, when you’re downriver a ways and out of sight, transfer him to Sorgi’s ship. If the cousins decide to follow, Mabin can lead them off towards Jiroch, and Master Cluff will be safe on his way to Cippria. That’s the way I’d do it.’
‘You’ve got a very ingenious mind, my friend.’ Sorgi laughed. ‘Are you sure that people are the only things you’ve smuggled in the past?’
‘We’ve all avoided customs officers from time to time, haven’t we, Sorgi?’ the rough-voiced captain said. ‘We live at sea. Why should we pay taxes to support the kingdoms of the landsmen? I’d gladly pay taxes to the King of the Ocean, but I can’t seem to find his palace.’
‘Well said, my friend,’ Sorgi applauded.
‘Gentlemen,’ Sparhawk said. ‘I’m eternally in your debt.’
‘Not exactly eternally, Master Cluff,’ Sorgi said. ‘A man who admits to having financial difficulties pays for his passage before he boards. He does on my ship, at least.’
‘Would you accept half here and half when we reach Cippria?’ Sparhawk countered.
‘I’m afraid not, my friend. I like you well enough, but I’m sure you can see my position in the matter.’
Sparhawk sighed. ‘We have horses,’ he added. ‘I suppose you’ll charge extra to carry them as well?’
‘I was afraid of that.’
The loading of Faran, Sephrenia’s palfrey, and Kurik’s stout gelding took place behind a screen of sailcloth Sorgi’s sailors were ostensibly mending. Shortly before noon, Sparhawk and Kurik boarded the ship bound for Jiroch. They moved openly up the gangway, followed by Sephrenia, who carried Flute in her arms.
Captain Mabin greeted them on the quarterdeck. ‘Ah,’ he grinned, ‘here’s our reluctant bridegroom. Why don’t you and your friends walk around the deck until we sail? Give all the cousins plenty of chances to see you.’
‘I’ve had a few second thoughts about this, Captain Mabin,’ Sparhawk said. ‘If the cousins hire a ship and follow – and if they catch up with you – it’s going to be fairly obvious that I’m not on board.’