"My missus. As was. She's living with her sister, Mabel, now. And between you and me she's beginning to regret it. Ha! Mabel is not the easiest rat to live with. In fact she's a downright impossible rat to live with, if you ask me." Stanley shot a glance at Jenna, wondering whether a few stories about Mabel's shortcomings would go down well and decided against it. Jenna looked tired and preoccupied. "Not long to the Port now," he said assuringly.
"Good," Jenna answered, sounding more confident than she felt. The rapidly lengthening shadows of the sand dunes and the chill breeze coming off the sea had made her realize that she had no chance of reaching Aunt Zelda's cottage before dark. She was going to have to spend the night in the Port, but where? Jenna had heard many stories from Nicko about the Port lowlifethe smugglers and muggers, the pickpockets and cutpurses, the blaggers and baggers, all waiting to pounce on an unwary stranger as soon as night fell. What was she going to do?
"Come on, Thunder," she said. "Let's get there before dark."
"No chance of that," Stanley told her, chirpily. "Got another hour to go at least. If not more."
"Thanks, Stanley," muttered Jenna, glancing anxiously behind her, for she suddenly had the strangest feeling that she was being followed.
Night had fallen by the time Thunder walked along the gravelly town beach and headed up the south slipway on the outer edge of the Port. Thunder's hooves jarred on the stone cobbles after the soft sand, and the noise made Jenna uneasy. The outskirts of the Port were dark and eerily quiet. Tall, dilapidated warehouses lined the narrow streets and towered into the night sky, making the streets feel like deep ravines and reminding Jenna uncomfortably of the Badlands. Most of the buildings were deserted, but, as the sound of Thunder's hooves bounced off their brick walls and echoed in the streets, Jenna caught a glimpse every now and then of a figure, silhouetted in an opening high above the street, looking down at them and watching their noisy progress.
Stanley poked Jenna in the back. "Aargh!" she screamed.
"Hey, take it easy. It's only me."
"Sorry, Stanley. I'm tired. This place is creepy. And I don't know where to stay tonight. I've never stayed here on my own before." It crossed Jenna's mind that she had never stayed anywhere on her own before. Ever.
"Well, why didn't you say? I thought we'd be stopping with the Chief Reeve or some such high and mightiness." Stanley sounded disappointed.
"No," mumbled Jenna.
"I'm sure he'd be only too pleased if he knew a personage s your importance was on his patch, so to speak. I'm sure he'd be honored to"
"No, Stanley," Jenna said firmly. "I don't want anyone to know I'm here. I don't know who I can trust."
"Fair enough," said Stanley. "I can see that Mr. Heap has got you a bit rattled. Don't blame you. He's a nasty character. Well, in that case I suggest Florrie Bundy's place. She runs a very secluded outfit down by the docks, and there are some stables around the back for the horse. I'll take you there, if vou like."
"Oh, thank you, Stanley." Jenna felt as though a weight had been lifted from her. She hadn't realized just how much she had been worrying about where to stay. Now all she wanted to do was to find a room and go to sleep.
"It's not what I'd call smart, mind," Stanley warned her. "You'll have to put up with a bit of honest dirt. Well, quite a lot of dirt, actually. And it's probably not particularly honest, if I know Florrie. But she's a good enough soul."
Jenna was too tired to care anymore. "Just take me there, Stanley," she said.
Stanley guided Jenna through the warren of old warehouses until they reached the bustling dockside in the commercial part of the town. It was here that the tall ships came in after months at sea, laden with exotic herbs and spices, silks and fine woven cloths, gold and silver bullion, emeralds and rubies, and South Sea Island pearls. As Thunder approached the dockside, Jenna could see that a huge ship, with a beautifully carved prow carrying a figurehead of a striking dark-haired woman, was being unloaded. The dockside was lit with burning torches that cast long flickering shadows over the throng of sailors, porters and deckhands who were scurrying like ants going back and forth from their nest, up and down the gangplank, busy unloading the wares from the ship.
Thunder came to a halt at the edge of the busy crowd, unable to push any farther through the throng, and Jenna as forced to wait for the crowd to clear before she could go on. Fascinated by the scene before her, she sat on the horse and watched four sailors as they struggled down the gangplank with a massive golden chest. Close behind them staggered a dockhand carrying an ornate vase almost twice his height, from which Jenna could see a few gold coins spilling each time he took a step. Behind him ran a small boy, picking up the coins and gleefully stuffing them into his pockets.
When the treasures reached dry land, they were carried across the dockside, where they disappeared through the massive open doors of a cavernous, candlelit warehouse. Jenna watched the stream of riches pour into the building, and she noticed an imposing woman in a long blue tunic with the yellow braid of a Chief Customs Officer on her sleeves, standing it the door. The woman was flanked by two clerks sitting at high desks, each with an identical, rapidly lengthening, list in front of them. As every precious object came through, the bearers paused for a moment while the Customs Officer told the clerks what to note down. Occasionally a tall dark man, richly dressed in foreign-looking robes of a heavy deep red silk, interrupted her. The Customs Officer seemed somewhat impatient with the man's interruptions and did not let him stop her flow of instructions to the clerks. Jenna guessed that the man was the ship's owner, disputing the Officer's assessment of his cargo.
Jenna had guessed rightly. At the Port, when a ship was finally unloaded and all was safely stored in the bonded warehouse, one list would be given to the owner of the ship, and Alice Nettles, Chief Customs Officer to the Port, would keep the otherand the key to the warehouseuntil all the duty payable had been agreed between her and the owner. And paid. This could take anywhere from a few minutes to never, depending on how desperate the owner was to get hold of his cargo. And how stubborn he was. There were half a dozen abandoned and rotting bonded warehouses, some of which Jenna had passed that evening, which still contained the disputed cargos of ships that had entered the Port many hundreds of years ago.
The flow of goods from the ship began to slow, and a steward on the dockside started paying off some of the workers. Jenna was beginning to attract a few stares now that the pace had slackened and the workers had time to look about them. From inside the warehouse the tall foreigner standing beside Alice Nettles had, to Alice's relief, taken his eyes off his incoming cargo. He had turned his attention to the small yet striking figure outside: the gold circlet around her dark hair glinting in the torchlight, her bright red tunic with its gold hem shimmering as she sat upright on a black horse, with a rich, dark blue cloak falling from her shoulders. The man muttered something to Alice Nettles.
She looked surprised and nodded, not for one minute taking her attention from a large golden elephant that was being carried past her. The man left her side and moved toward the door.
Jenna, meanwhile, had become aware of the attention she was attracting from the deckhands. She quickly slipped down from Thunder and began to lead the horse through the swarm of workers, guided by Stanley, who was sitting on Thunder's head, searching for gaps in the crowd. "Left a bit. No, no, right a bit. I meant right. Oh, look, there's a gap there. There. You missed it. You'll have to go around now."
"Oh, do be quiet, Stanley," Jenna snapped. She felt suddenly uneasyshe knew she was being followed. All she wanted to do was get through the crush, jump back onto Thunder and ride away.
"I was only trying to help," Stanley muttered.
Jenna ignored Stanley and pushed forward with the horse. "Excuse me ... sorry, can I just get through ... thank you ... excuse me..." She was nearly there; she could see clear space in front of her now. All she had to do was get through this group of sailors who were busy untangling a rope, and then she'd be offso why was Thunder insisting on hanging back now, just when she needed him to go forward? "Come on, Thunder," Jenna said, irritably. "Come on." She felt a sudden tug on the reins and swung around to see what Thunder had caught himself on.