Poorly lit. Filthy. Even the signpost at the door – "The Rusty Яake" – spoke volumes about the Storm Isles'… relaxed cultural standards. The only thing missing was the noise, but Corwin had heard that the best pirate pubs cleared out when the crew went out on a raid. No question about it, this was the place.
Corwin pulled the canoe ashore.
As crazy as this seemed, he wasn't going to become the Nexan Republic's foremost author without some first-hand experience of what made the Storm Isles so compelling. Anyone with a typewriter and a fistful of coins could publish a potboiler, but Corwin knew that a kernel of truth was the secret ingredient that could make a good novel great. It's what made Galleon's Gullet fly off the shelves, and put Wraith of the Waters into its record-breaking fourth printing. And just because Maia Malliver had the gall to stow away on a Republic Navy pirate hunter a couple of years back didn't mean he was going to let her corner the market without a fight!
Straightening his doublet (an affordable purchase given the rise of pirate style in the Republic) and feeling for the jade token in his pocket, Corwin walked up to the inn, which remained eerily silent. He gave the front door a tentative push, which was apparently all it needed to tear free from its rusted hinges. The door crashed forward, landing with a sickening crunch.
Corwin wondered if this was how his quest was destined to end – executed by a furious pirate while washing dishes at gunpoint.
But as the dust settled, all Corwin could hear was the soft snoring of a few stragglers, without so much as a barkeep to welcome him. So that's it, then, he thought. No one even sober enough to talk.
"WELCOME TO THE RUSTY RAKE!" a voice boomed.
Corwin spun around, finding himself nose to chest with the largest (and loudest) man he had ever seen.
"I am… I am so sorry. I didn't mean to, uh… I didn't mean to break your door down. Sir."
The pirate backed up, crossing his arms over an array of tattoos so athletically obscene that Corwin might have blushed if he hadn't already gone pale with terror.
After what felt like several hours of staring, the pirate laughed. "HAR! What, that old thing? Ye're a greenhorn if I ever saw one!"
Corwin blinked. "Yes," he said, still unconvinced that he had more than five minutes left to live.
"Don't worry yer little head about it! Kickin' a door down be one o' life's great pleasures – and at the Rusty Rake, there be no better way to whet yer appetite!"
Corwin nodded, making a mental note to include door-kicking in his bestseller. Realizing that his host expected a response, he returned the colossal man's laugh with his best "HAR", which was good enough to get the barkeep back behind the knife-scored bar.
The barkeep began to towel down a pewter flagon with the dirtiest rag Corwin had ever seen. "What's yer poison, swabbie? Hemlock? Arsenic? Powdered stormroot?"
Corwin sat down on a barstool and smiled. "Whiskey, if you've got it."
"Grog it is!" the barkeep roared. A couple of patrons stirred, then fell asleep again.
The barkeep slammed a foaming mug of bluish liquid in front of Corwin, who considered pointing out that grog wasn't supposed to be carbonated, but thought better of it. He closed his eyes and took a sip…
And against all odds, it ranked against the best cocktails he'd ever had. Whatever they lacked in comportment and hygiene, these pirates sure knew how to mix a drink.
Corwin relaxed. This might work out after all. "You know what? This isn't half-bad, Mister…"
"They call me The Gallery, on account of all me–"
Corwin averted his eyes. "Yes, yes, I've seen them. Quite… evocative."
"Ain't they just?" Gallery beamed with pride.
"But you know," Corwin said, "as charming as your establishment is, I didn't come here to simply shoot the breeze. I have questions."
"Aye! There be nothin' sadder than a shy barkeep. What's yer question?"
Corwin narrowed his eyes. "A name. Yuhai."
Gallery nodded sagely, recalling a story he'd told a hundred times. "Ya know, they say that Yuhai ain't even her real name – that some captain out o'the Yaoguai Kingdoms gave it to 'er when she asked after the jade cutlass he carried."
Corwin leaned forward. "But doesn't she carry a jade cutlass?"
"Aye, that she do, and a pistol to match – but I'll be gettin' to that, if ye'll be so kind as to save yer inquiries fer later."
Corwin relaxed. This was what he was waiting for.
"So the Yaoguai sailor – a real nasty number, they says, with scales and fangs and such – asks her all smooth n' sweet, 'To match your eyes, milady?' And she says 'No – to match yer blood!' And with that, she ran the poor bastard through with his own blade. She sails his ship to this very day."
Corwin swallowed. "But… doesn't Yuhai mean 'Jade Sea?'"
"Aye," a raspy feminine voice called out from behind him. "And the sea ran green before the day was done."
Corwin froze. The pirate queen could have been there the entire time for all he knew.
"The Scourge of the Storm Isles don't take well to strange men askin' questions," Yuhai said. "Turn around and face me, landlubber scum. I didn’t stab that captain in the back, and I mean to see yer eyes first as well."
Corwin turned around very slowly. Yuhai had her cutlass to his throat, and her crew – including nearly every pirate in the bar, sober and snarling – stood behind her.
"I'll be takin' that pretty token of yours, if ye don't mind."
"Not at all," Corwin said. "Consider it a gift." He reached into his pocket and handed over the jade, polished and inlaid with gold that shone in the afternoon sun.
She stepped forward, pressing the green blade against Corwin's throat. "Who sent ye? The Republic? The Unbroken? Don't tell me it was that blasted shark-man!"
"No one!" Corwin shouted. "I just want to write – to tell your story! To… to make Maia Malliver yesterday's news." He trailed off into a whisper.
Yuhai lowered her sword, but not the piercing gaze of her uncovered eye. "So ye came, with proper tribute, to me personal waterin' hole? And ye want to tell the world what the true ruler of the Isles can do?"
Corwin shivered. It's now or never, he thought. "Yes."
The pirate queen smiled, and it was far more chilling than her grimace ever was.
"What do ya think, boys? Do any of ya spy a proper pirate in this scurvy scribe?!"
The pirate den shouted "AYE!" in unison. A straggler in the corner shook himself awake, looked at Yuhai, the crew, and Corwin in turn, and burped an "aye" of his own.
Yuhai smiled even wider as she sealed Corwin's fate. "The ayes have it."