Arvalo and the Star Mole
To celebrate the release of The Red Dragon Inn 9, we present this story by Geoff Bottone about how the Undercity’s own Star Mole Drinking Hole came into being. Enjoy!
THE DAY OF RED FIRE
A cheer went up from the three ships at the cry from Mister Minnow in the crow’s nest. It had been a long sail through rough seas and bad weather, but Greyport Harbor was at last in sight. Commodore Arvalo strode to the prow of his ship, the Star Swan, and felt his chest swell with pride. The crews of the Swan, the Eastern Sea, and the Rainbow Trout, had outdone themselves getting this latest cargo of foodstuffs and trade goods all the way from Yerandin Bay. Once they had come into port and offloaded the holds onto the docks, he and the rest of the crews would…
“Commodore!” Minnow shouted down, his normally gruff voice tinged with panic. “Something coming in fast! Two ten degrees! Port quarter!”
Arvalo snapped open his spyglass and held it to his eye. At first he saw nothing, just the diminishing wash caused by the wakes of his own ships. Then he saw the great, dark shadow gliding over the water, and directed his glass a few critical degrees skyward.
The shape bore down on them, huge and red. Gouts of coal black smoke erupted from its nostrils. Even at this distance, Arvalo could see its eyes, golden amber, slitted like a cat’s, peering down with unfathomable malice and hatred.
“Dragon!” came the terrified cry from the Trout.
“It can’t be!”
“Stations!” Arvalo roared above the sound of the waves, above the rising panic of his crew. “Helm, hard astarboard! Get us out of its way! Miss Arryn, signal bucket brigades. Give the decks and sails a good soaking! Prepare to–”
What Arvalo said next went unheard, even by him. All other sounds were drowned out by the thunderclap flaps of the dragon’s wings, by the mournful, cavernous roar as it inhaled salt spray and sea air. As its massive body eclipsed the sun, it opened its mouth, washing the deck of the Star Swan with its internal heat. Arvalo struggled to remain standing as he looked into the dragon’s maw, and beheld an inferno more intense than any forge or foundry he had ever encountered.
Cold, salty water slapped Arvalo in the face, jolting him back to his senses. He awoke sputtering on the charred deck, surrounded by his singed and ash-covered crew. Arvalo shook his head, partly to get the water out of his eyes and hair, partly to give him a moment to get his bearings. Then he took Miss Arryn’s calloused hand and levered himself to his feet.
“How are we?”
“Bad,” said Arryn. “The Sea managed to swing well clear of the dragon’s fire, but got swamped as it flew overhead. Mainmast cracked, bailing as fast as they can, but they may not be able to save it.”
“Longboats. As many as can be spared.” said Arvalo as he looked around, taking in the devastation. The air was thick with smoke and shouts. Although he knew it was impossible, it still seemed to him that the surface of the ocean was itself on fire. “Help them keep the Sea afloat. Failing that, rescue as many as you can.”
Miss Arryn barked out his orders and tried to rally the beleaguered survivors aboard the Swan.
“The Trout went up like a candle. Sails, ropes, and all. Got the blaze mostly contained now, but they’re dead in the water. We’re faring a little better here, sir, except our rudder’s jammed. We’re trying to force it back into line, but we’re turning circles until we do.”
“And the crews?”
“Dozens wounded,” said Miss Arryn, on the verge of tears. “Don’t know how many casualties. Thought you were among them, commodore. Glad you’re not.”
“Me, too, and likewise. What about…”
Arvalo raised his spyglass and found its lenses horribly cracked. He stared uselessly at the smoke before craning his neck up to the crow’s nest. There, crisped around the edges and jutting at the sky defiantly with his chin and what remained of his once magnificent dwarven beard, was Mister Minnow.
“Barrelman!” shouted Arvalo, unable to keep the relief from his voice. “What do you see? Where’s the dragon?”
“Must have struck us as a target of opportunity, commodore, and Shalni be praised,” said Mister Minnow, his voice raspy and seared. “A second pass would have finished us for sure.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s…” even at this distance, Minnow’s swallow was audible. “It’s over Greport now, commodore. It fired the harbor. It’s attacking the city.”
“Get our rudder unstuck,” said Arvalo. “Shift as many of the crew as can be spared over to the Trout. They’re to try and get it underway and to help the Sea as much as they can. Then, raise what sails we have left and set a course for Greyport.”
Miss Arryn stared at him. “Commodore. You want us to go toward the dragon?”
“There may be people trapped on the harbor in need of rescue,” he said. “If there are, we’re going to rescue them, if we can. Hop to it, Miss Arryn.”
He could see the terror rising on her face, but she shouted out the commands in spite of it.
They sailed along what remained of Greyport Harbor, finding very little left standing apart from the city’s ancient lighthouse. The ships at harbor were ruined hulks, most of them still aflame and burned down to the water line.
“Help! Help! Over here!”
The desperate cries galvanized Arvalo. He gave the order to bring in the Star Swan through the gauntlet of incinerated ships to a narrow section of the docks that had somehow been untouched by flames. Two dozen people, and not much more, stood huddled together, their backs against the inferno. They were an odd cross section of the population of the city, including dockworkers, merchants, watch members, mages, priests, and even one person clad in the ruined robes of a city councilor.
Arvalo and his skeleton crew transferred the survivors over to the Swan, bringing the last one aboard just as that last strip of unburned dock began to catch. He surveyed the harbor with his spyglass and ordered his crew to stand fast.
“Begging your pardon, commodore,” shouted down Mister Minnow, “but those hulks are drifting with the tide. If they box us in–”
“I know, Mister Minnow,” said Arvalo, snapping his spyglass closed. He turned to the soot-blackened knot of survivors. “Is anyone else coming?”
He was answered with exhausted sobs, and with numerous shakes of heads. The city councilor coughed, mopped her face with her sleeve, and said, “I don’t think so. Most people we passed were running for the gates. There might have been another group behind us, but I don’t know what happened to them.”
Arvalo scanned the flames, and cursed under his breath.
“Let’s get out of here.”
The wave of relief that swept over his crew and the survivors was palpable, but it did little to buoy Arvalo’s spirits. He had saved a few, yes, but not nearly enough.
As the Star Swan pulled away from the harbor and set sail down the coast, in search of a temporary port, Arvalo had his signallers relay orders back to the Sea and Trout. They soon found a sheltered cove with a large cave mouth at the back. Not ideal, but certainly the best option, considering.
Arvalo’s flagging morale soon ticked slightly upward when the Eastern Sea and the Rainbow Trout came limping into the cove sometime later. The Trout was still up to its gills in seawater, and most of the Sea’s masts looked like matchsticks. Their crews had made do, lashing the two ships together and sharing what sailcloth remained between the two until both could get underway.
Ragged cheers went up from all decks as the three boats rejoined one another in the cove. Unconsciously, all the beleaguered sailors turned to him, looking for guidance. He knew what they wanted him to say. He could not only see it on their faces, but he could feel it in his own heart as well. They all wanted to quit this place and go back home, where the air was sweet, the sea was calm, and where there hadn’t been any sign or thought of dragons in centuries.
“It’s been a hard day,” he said, his voice carrying across the still waters of the cove, “and it’s not over yet, I’m afraid. We’ll tend to the injured as best as we can aboard ship. The rest of you, take the longboats and start moving our provisions over to that cave. We can rest once we’ve got that sorted out, and we’ll be in a much better place to know what repairs we’ll need.”
The crews glumly obeyed.
Three days later, the sky above Greyport was still black with smoke, so thick that almost no sunshine reached the cove. Arvalo and crews kept on working despite this, tying soaked rags over their mouths to keep from breathing in bad air. The survivors that had recovered sufficiently also pitched in to help. Between them, they brought all of the supplies and cargo into the cave, rigged up a charred sail over the opening, and set up their cots.
Arvalo had kept himself busy giving orders, checking up on those crew and survivors too injured to work, and checking his ships’ cargoes against the manifests. Everything had survived, somehow, even if some of the goods from the Sea were badly waterlogged and needed drying out.
Arvalo took off his reading glasses and turned to face Minnow. The young dwarven sailor had tried to even out his singed beard with a knife, to reasonable effect.
“Go ahead, Mister Minnow.”
“Me and some of the lads went exploring around the back of the cave. Found out there’s a concealed entrance back there.”
“A concealed entrance? To where?”
Mister Minnow shrugged. “Can’t quite say for certain, sir, only just poked our heads in to check. Seems like there’s tunnels back there, though, going back under the mountains. I’m thinking they might have been worked by dwarves.”
As Arvalo pondered this, Miss Arryn came up.
“Commodore, we’ve finished checking over the ships. If we cannibalized the Sea for parts, we might be able to fix up the Trout and the Swan enough to get home. It’d mean tight quarters, and we’d likely have to leave the cargo behind, but we could do it.”
Arvalo watched Mister Minnow’s face turn rosy with excitement. It was the happiest he had seen his lookout in days. He tapped his folded reading glasses against his chin, considering.
“All right. Mister Minnow. I want you to lead a detail into those tunnels. Scout them out. See how far they go. If anyone or anything is living back there, I want to know before they pay us a surprise visit. Also, if you spot any place that’s more comfortable and better defensible than this cave, let me know.
“In the meanwhile, Miss Arryn, take any of the crews who have just come back on duty down to the ships. Let’s see what we can do to get those vessels seaworthy. There’s no one here to sell to, anyway, and it’s high time we got these people home.”
Arvalo felt the hard knot in his stomach, which had plagued him since the dragon attack, gradually begin to loosen. Mister Minnow had found them a large chamber some distance into the tunnel complex, which proved to be dryer, easier to keep warm, and much more defensible than the cavern by the cove. Most of the crew and survivors had recovered from their injuries and had joined the work details. Those details, meanwhile, were gladly working double shifts making ship repairs. They wanted to go home as badly as Arvalo did, and seeing the obvious progress to the ships and their living conditions quickly raised their moods.
Arvalo sat at the table that served as his temporary desk, chewed and chewed on the hardtack that he hoped would eventually agree with his stomach, and cast an eye around the chamber. It was a large cube, unadorned but for an odd carving on the wall that depicted a strange sea creature decorated with hoops that looked like bone and metal. Mister Minnow insisted that this carving proved the chamber was of dwarven make. Arvalo was not convinced, but didn’t want to crush Mister Minnow’s enthusiasm by saying so.
“Commodore,” came a gruff voice from the chamber door. Arvalo looked over and, as if summoned up from his thoughts, saw Mister Minnow striding purposefully between the neat ranks of cots, a look of concern on his face. Miss Arryn came in behind him.
“Everything all right, Mister Minnow?”
“No, sir. Me and the lads were exploring up that big tunnel we found and…well…turns out there’s other people down here.”
Arvalo nodded. He had expected this. The abandoned buildings and old fire pits his crews had discovered throughout the tunnels were a good sign that someone had, at the very least, once lived down here. He was fairly certain that, with the coming of the dragon, quite a few refugees would have fled down here from the city above.
“They followed the scout group back here,” said Miss Arryn. “They aren’t armed, and they didn’t come past the tunnel junction after us, but they also didn’t seem like they were going to welcome us to the neighborhood with a regifted bottle of brandy and an old fruitcake, either.”
“What do they want?” asked Arvalo. “Did they say?”
“They said they had heard there were new people in the Undercity,” said Arryn.
“Undercity?” Arvalo interjected. He wondered if the term was an ironic one, or if it referred to the number of people living down here. If it was the latter, there was a very real concern that Arvalo, his crew, and the survivors were in trouble.
“Yep,” said Mister Minnow. “They said they wouldn’t take kindly to us stealing from the locals, as there’s never enough to go around, especially not after the dragon attack. We told them we had our own supplies, and that we would just be keeping to ourselves, but then they got this look in their eyes.”
Miss Arryn screwed her face up into a pop-eyed expression of naked, hungry avarice, by way of demonstration.
“I see.” Arvalo tapped his chin. “And the welcoming committee, as you call it. They’re still there.”
“Yeah, got some of the lads chatting with them, trying to suss them out.”
“All right. Go back out there, and tell them to send in representatives to talk to me. We’ll get this sorted.”
They both looked skeptical, but she was too well trained in the chain of command to refuse. “Aye, aye commodore.”
He set his reading glasses on his nose and skimmed the documents on the table in front of him. For food they had enough, at least for now, especially if they were able to fish in the cove. The rest of his cargo consisted of durable goods for the Greyport markets. Of these, he had more than enough…
The next few days went by in a bit of a blur. What had once been the storehouse and bunkhouse for Arvalo’s shipwrecked crew had swiftly transformed into the hub of an unusual little community. Once the dwellers in the Undercity realized that he and his crews were friendly, kept mostly to themselves, and were willing to share, they not only seemed to accept them, but they were also happy to pay them little visits.
Quite frequently, in fact.
The Undercity was not without its resources and had, as Arvalo recently discovered, been more or less self-sufficient before the dragon’s attack. When Greyport was razed, the population of the Undercity swelled to unmanageable levels, almost overnight, thanks to “the topsiders” fleeing underground to save themselves from the conflagration. There wasn’t nearly enough food or supplies to adequately care for them all.
There still wasn’t, of course, but Arvalo and his sailors helped out the best that they could. After checking and rechecking his math, Arvalo gave away as much food as could be spared and preemptively punched a couple of extra notches in his belt. He also doled out clothing, blankets, and such furniture as he could from his cargo and from ship stores. He was frustrated that he could not give everyone what they needed, but he was able to give them enough to get by.
The people that he helped were unable to pay him in money, but they did repay him in their own way. He had received a mostly accurate map of the tunnels in common use by the Undercitizens. Several farmers came by one day with woven baskets full of mushrooms, grateful that the tools that Arvalo had given them helped them to harvest a bumper crop. One little lass, who must have been no more than ten, personally escorted Miss Arryn to her favorite “fairy grove” for tea. The grove happened to include a freshwater spring, which solved Arvalo’s growing concerns about his sailors’ rapidly depleting supply of drinking water.
He had to admit, there was something much more satisfying about handing a shovel, or a shirt, or a small pillow to someone who needed it than dickering over the prices of sealed crates with some jaded dockside merchant. Every night, he found himself sleeping a little bit better on his uncomfortable cot because of it.
He was sitting at his table, poring over the latest inventory of the stores, when Miss Arryn swept in like a sea storm, a look of triumph on her face.
“Commodore! I’m pleased to report that work has been completed on the Rainbow Trout and the Star Swan! They’re ready to take on cargo and set sail when you give the word, sir!”
He stared at her over the tops of his reading glasses, feeling the knot in his stomach cinch tight and double knot itself. Arvalo considered this reaction with bafflement. Didn’t he want to get back to the open sea? Back home?
Miss Arryn must have noticed his confusion, as well, because she said, “sir?”
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s just…I don’t know how to explain it.”
He was spared from further awkward mumbling by Mister Minnow, who crept into the room, cap in hand. The dwarf’s keen eyes darted around the chamber, as if he were standing on a narrow strip of wood between a bristling wall of swords and a short drop into a churning sea.
“Commodore,” he said, “there’s…two…erm…folks to see you.”
Two individuals dressed in ornate masks and black, velvet robes with gold brocade, seemed to float in behind him. They folded their hands into their roomy sleeves and regarded Arvalo with blank and sinister gazes.
Arvalo straightened in his chair, frowned, and gave a little gesture. Miss Arryn and Mister Minnow stepped around the table to stand at his side–Arryn on his right, Minnow on his left. Out of the corner of his eye, Arvalo caught Mister Minnow’s expression of relief.
“And they are?”
Mister Minnow swallowed. “Didn’t say, sir.”
“Well, now’s their chance.”
The two individuals sidled up to the table. Beneath their masks, their eyes glittered as brightly as coins. Arvalo noted several telltale shapes beneath the thick fabric of their robes, evidence that the duo were armed.
“My associate and I are very pleased to make your acquaintance, Commodore Arvalo,” said the figure on the left, in a low, somewhat gravelly voice.
“Indeed,” said the figure on the right, their voice higher, more conversational, but also somehow more menacing. “We work for a certain business interest in the Undercity that has been watching you for quite some time. We have noticed that you have been making quite a name for yourself down here, commodore. It also seems that the Undercitizens have grown quite fond of you.”
The table at which Arvalo sat was made of heavy oak, and had once been bolted to the floor of his cabin aboard the Star Swan. Its top was balanced on a sturdy central column, which was itself affixed to a ring of iron that had four broad, finely-wrought legs. He leaned back a little bit in his chair, in part to look less threatening, in part to rest both of his feet against the side of the central table leg. He tried to smile a gormless smile, but was unsure that he had pulled it off.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’m happy to be able to help. Speaking of which, the two of you look like you’re doing all right for yourselves, but you’re welcome to whatever food or other supplies you might need. I just ask that you–”
The figure on the left raised a gloved hand. “No no, my associate and I are perfectly well cared for. Thank you.”
“We are actually here,” interjected the figure on the right, “because of the aforementioned organization, which my associate and I represent. This organization is composed of many individuals, all of whom have a deep and abiding interest in the welfare and, how shall we say, economic stability of the Undercity.”
“An organization?” said Arvalo, tensing up the muscles in his legs.
“Yes,” said the figure on the left. “A quite powerful organization, Commodore Arvalo. You might even call it a guild.”
“This guild, which my associate has recently alluded to, has given us the dispensation to speak to you,” said the figure on the right. “With the power vested in us by this guild, we would like to make you an offer that you–”
Arvalo kicked out with his legs. The table toppled forward, crashing into the midsections of the two robed individuals. They collapsed beneath its weight in a shower of scattered papers and ink droplets. Winded by the table and trapped beneath its heavy weight, the two individuals could do little but gasp, wheeze, and struggle helplessly.
Arvalo stood and leaned against the table, forcing it down even more firmly onto the chests of the duo. Behind him, Miss Arryn and Mister Minnow drew cutlass and dagger, respectively, aiming their points at the expressionless masked faces.
“Wait!” gasped one of the figures, who was going cross eyed looking at the tip of Arryn’s cutlass.
“Do you think I don’t know who you are?” shouted Arvalo.
“I think you must,” said the figure, gesturing with their free hand. “Considering. But you haven’t even heard our pitch yet!”
“You thieving scum. Never working an honest day in your life and stealing the hard work of the folk that do. Not above knifing innocent travelers, poor farmers, or sometimes even one another for just a bit more coin.”
“Well, that was all true, but there’s been some restructuring–” said the figure on the right.
“And now that the city above has been destroyed by tragedy, and the survivors are scraping through the ashes just trying to survive, now you decide to swoop down from your perches like vultures to take what little remains.
“Well, I’m not going to let you do it!” roared Arvalo. “Even if it means I have to go to war with your whole damn guild! These people have lost everything, and I won’t let you hurt them anymore! You’re going to go back to your associates, and you’re going to tell them–”
“Korash’s flaming back hair, Robert,” wheezed the individual on the left. “I told you he’d misunderstand. We shouldn’t have donned the old uniforms. And we should have brought the flip chart.”
“Yes, obviously. Rub it in my face a bit more, why don’t you?” gasped the individual on the right, before pushing the table up off their chest just enough to draw in sufficient air for an apologetic sigh. “What can I say, Avery? Old habits die hard.”
“What?” said Arvalo.
“What?” said Mister Minnow.
“What?” said Miss Arryn, still brandishing her cutlass.
“If you’d help us up,” said Avery, their voice significantly less gravely, “we’d be happy to explain.”
Warily, Arvalo gave a gesture. Miss Arryn visibly sighed as she stowed her cutlass. Once Mister Minnow had sheathed his dagger, the three of them worked together to set the table back on its feet. As the two distinguished representatives of the Greyport Thieves’ Guild got to their feet, they removed their ornate masks, revealing sweaty and blushing faces beneath.
“You see,” said Robert. “The masters of the guild, or should I say the new board of directors, have recently taken a vote–”
“In light of the recent tragedy that has befallen the city above–” said Avery.
“Right, yes. In light of that. And a majority of them have decided that they would like to engage in outreach and community building.”
Arvalo furrowed his brow in suspicion, but let them continue.
“Let me be perfectly transparent in saying that not everyone on the board is for it,” Robert said hurriedly, “but the majority are, and by the new bylaws that were just ratified, we have a duty to our stakeholders to enforce the will of the board.”
“Stakeholders?” said Mister Minnow, quizzically.
“Thieves, I think he means,” said Miss Arryn.
“Yes, well. The guild has a reasonably far reach,” Robert went on, “and is well organized. The board seeks to use its resources to enrich the Undercity. Food. Infrastructure. Government. Housing. Protection.”
Avery waved their hands in a warding gesture. “Now, I know what you’re thinking, commodore, but this isn’t the…er, ‘protection’ we offered before our restructuring. We just want to make sure the people are safe instead of standing idly by while businesses mysteriously catch fire.”
“There are levels of tunnels below this one,” said Robert. “And they’re filled with creatures that are even less upstanding than we are.”
“Though we are trying to become more upstanding by Q2,” said Avery.
“Yes. Which brings us to our offer,” Robert seemed to visibly struggle, before spitting out the words, “Which…we hope…you won’t refuse.”
Avery looked at Robert sympathetically before saying, “Essentially, we’re hoping to leverage your expertise in logistics and distribution, in the hopes of synergizing our operations and maximizing our reach.”
“More plainly?” grumbled Mister Minnow.
“They want us to help them to help the Undercity,” said Arvalo. “I think.”
“Exactly,” said Robert.
The morning after the last of his organizational meetings with Robert and Avery, Arvalo awoke to find that the remaining cargo had been spirited away in the night. His shouts of surprise woke up his crew and the survivors and set them scurrying. About three minutes later, Arvalo had dressed, had acquired a cup of something that could charitably be called coffee, and had interrogated every member of the posted guard.
Of course, no one had seen anything.
Fearing the worst, he sent Miss Arryn out with a cohort of cutlass-wielding sailors to retrieve Robert and Avery from deep within the Undercity. When the guild representatives were brought before him, hogtied, a half day later, they apologized, once again, for their old, bad habits. They also promised to take him on a tour of the Undercity and show him that the cargo had already been equitably distributed as outlined in the minutes of their previous meetings.
That trip–the first of many for Arvalo–proved to be enlightening. He got some much needed perspective on the size of the Undercity and the number of people living in it, and was able to see first-hand how thinly resources had been spread since the influx of refugees from Greyport. As Robert and Avery had promised, Arvalo had the opportunity to see that everything in his cargo had been given out to the grateful Undercitizens, all of whom thanked him profusely.
On the outside, Arvalo met all of this with the propriety and professionalism that was expected from the commodore of a trade fleet. On the inside, he not only wrestled with how much more needed to be done for the people of the Undercity, but also his deep-seated distrust and fear of the members of the Thieves’ Guild. In a private moment, he offered his sincere apologies to Robert and Avery, who were polite enough to accept.
Once he had pushed past his own guilt and shame, Arvalo set to work updating his partial map and taking copious notes in his logbook. As an outsider, there was a great deal about the Undercity that he didn’t know about or understand. If he wanted to continue to help these people–and it turned out that he very much did–Arvalo could not simply swan in, distribute gifts of dubious utility, and swan out again. He needed to live like the people in the Undercity lived, internalize their local customs and traditions, and provide them with what they actually needed.
He knew, as he took notes and asked numerous questions of Robert and Avery, that he would make mistakes, but he also knew he needed to keep trying, regardless.
As they had many times before, Miss Arryn and Mister Minnow stood before his desk–Arryn with an annoyed, yet pleading look on her face, Minnow with an expression that was much more difficult to read.
Arvalo knew what this was going to be about. The Swan, Sea, and Trout had been ready to set sail for a week, and his crew was getting restless.
He did not wish to face the next few minutes, but he knew that he must, and so, with the eerie calm of a man about to receive a sentence of death, Arvalo removed his reading glasses and set them on the desktop in front of him.
“With all due respect,” said Miss Arryn, “we’re not sure why you haven’t given the order to weigh anchor. The sea’s calling to us, commodore. It’s been calling to us for days now. Why aren’t you answering her?”
“It’s because,” Arvalo tapped one thumb on the desk. “I have decided to stay here in the Undercity.”
“You what?!” shouted Miss Arryn, unable to stop herself.
“I know, I know. It doesn’t make sense to you. It doesn’t completely make sense to me, either, if I’m being completely honest. It’s just that, ever since we landed here, I’ve become more and more involved with these people and their lives. They’re good people, solid, hardworking. They’ve been dealt rough hands, living off scraps, maligned and ignored by the topsiders, and then abandoned when the dragon attacked. With a little more effort, they could be self-sufficient, but they need help.”
Miss Arryn had been biting her lip and forcing the tears away from her eyes. When she next spoke, her words poured out like the winds of a sudden sea squall. “These people will always need help. There will always be more work to do. I don’t say that because I’m mad that we’ve helped them, because I’m glad of it and I’ll sleep better because of it. But, commodore, you and we, we have a life already at sea, and our own needs that should be tended to. No one, neither mortal nor god, would think less of you if you were to set sail now.”
He stood up and took a deep breath. For a moment, he wavered, but he knew. Deep down, he knew.
“I think that I would think less of me,” said Arvalo. “As I have said, I don’t know what happened, but this place calls to me more strongly than the sea right now, and so I will stay awhile and help these people until I feel her call again.”
He shook his head. “No buts. You are to take command of the Star Swan. Tell the crew that the time has come, and they are to weigh anchor and cast off.”
“No! Commodore, you can’t! I–”
“Can I stay, too?” blurted out Mister Minnow.
Miss Arryn whirled around, looking for all the world as if she had been stabbed in the back. Arvalo, for his part, merely raised a surprised eyebrow.
“Well, you both know that I’ve been serving here as a liaison to these underfolk, and, like the commodore has said, they kind of grow on you all quickly, like the fungus down here tends to do.” Mister Minnow twisted his cap in his hands. “Heh. That was not terribly kind of me to say, but, at any rate, I also have the feeling that my place is here, for now. I think mostly because of the folk I’ve met down here, and a little because these are the tunnels of my ancestors, and that’s also a powerful draw.”
“You can’t both just stay here!” Miss Arryn flailed her arms. “What will we do without you?”
Arvalo stood. “If Mister Minnow wishes to stay, he can stay. If any of the crew wish to stay, they can. Those who wish to go can and should go. I’ve delayed them from their course for long enough. I won’t delay them further. And, frankly, I don’t think I could have left them in more capable hands. Tell them to ready the ships for departure, Captain Arryn–”
He let out a surprised breath as Miss Arryn threw her arms around him in a fierce hug and wept into his chest. Arvalo smiled down at her, feeling more than a little tearful himself.
“–that’s my last order.”
The chamber that had been the crew’s base camp had stood cavernous and empty for many months. That morning, however, it was filled with life and activity once again. Laborers from the Undercity had arrived a few hours before with tools, lumber, stone, and other salvage, and had gotten right to work taking measurements and roughing out the dimensions of a basement. Arvalo, who had gotten a bit more skilled with construction recently, leaned on his pick and waited for the signal to break ground.
“Ahoy! Commodore!” came a cheery voice.
Arvalo turned to see Mister Minnow striding up, a heavy pick resting on his shoulder.
“Ahoy, yourself, Mister Minnow! Good to see you. How have you been?”
“As ready and raring as a shark that’s caught the scent of blood, commodore,” said Mister Minnow looking around. “Didn’t realize that this latest bit of construction was on your behalf, sir, otherwise I would have hopped to a lot quicker. What’s all this going to be? Another storehouse?”
“No, no, though we should probably have more of those.” Arvalo stretched out his hand, gesturing at the chamber. “I was starting to worry that we’ve been working very, very hard without any real respite. Not that our labors aren’t important, and growing the Undercity isn’t reward enough, but–”
Mister Minnow lifted a bushy brow. “‘Growing the Undercity?’ Commodore, you’ve been spending too much time with those thieves.”
“Maybe I have,” said Arvalo with a laugh. “In any case, I thought it was time that we build something that shows we’re not just surviving, but thriving. A place of refuge that people can use after a long day of work, where they can relax and enjoy themselves.”
“Ah! Excellent idea, sir. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a night’s drinking by a warm fire with some good music. Knowing that’s what I’m working on is going to be very encouraging!” Mister Minnow paused. “Who do you have in mind to run it, sir?”
“Me, I think,” said Arvalo. “I’m learning that I’m better suited to working with people and making sure they have what they need than I am at digging. Mostly, on these jobs, I find that I’m just getting in everyone else’s way. Running this place, I can serve as a go between for the people and the Thieves’ Guild–or whatever rulers the Undercity is going to get eventually. I’ll be able to move things along and make everything work just a little bit better.”
“A fine plan! If you ever need an ale taster, commodore, I’m happy to volunteer.” Mister Minnow shifted his pickaxe to his other shoulder. “By the by, what are you going to call this place?”
“I was thinking the Star Swan. I know my home is here for now, Mister Minnow, but I do sometimes desperately miss the old girl.”
“Aye,” said Minnow, scrunching up his brow in thought. “Not like to get too many swans down here, sir. May I suggest calling it the Star Mole? Plenty of moles digging about in the Undercity, and you get to keep the ‘star’ in the name, besides.”
“I like it, Mister Minnow.”
“Happy to help, commodore.”
Arvalo looked down at his former barrelman and smiled. “Donovan,” he said. “I don’t have any ships to my name anymore.”
Mister Minnow looked up, astonished. Arvalo had never called him by his given name before.
“You can just call me Arvalo.”
“Yes, sir!” said Mister Minnow. “That is…I’ll work on it, Arvalo!”
“Digging teams,” called the foreman. “Make ready!”
Arvalo lifted his pickaxe and prepared for his part of the day’s labor. He was looking forward to it, and to the tavern they would build here.
In the back of his mind, the sea still called to him, faintly. But there was time enough for that later. He was an elf, after all.
Visit Arvalo’s tavern, The Star Mole Drinking Hole, in The Red Dragon Inn 9!