The wherry dropped Mal at the eastern end of the docks, near Custom House. The quays and wharves swarmed with sailors, dockhands and customs officials, as well as the whores and pickpockets who infested every crowd like lice on a beggar. The damp air was thick with the stink of the herring-boats discharging their cargoes at Billingsgate, drowning out the sharp smoky scent of the coal market nearby. Mal ducked instinctively as a crane loaded with wine barrels swung overhead, and collided with an ebony-skinned dockhand. The man grimaced through the sheen of sweat and grime coating his features and swore at Mal in a fluent mixture of English and Arabic. Mal muttered an apology; this was no place to get into a fight.
He wove his way through the crowds and ducked into the first alley he came to, hoping he could find his way back to Thames Street and familiar territory. Refuse squelched underfoot, and the alley was so narrow he had to turn sideways to get past a whore and her customer, though they were pressed tight against the grimy wall.
“I’ll be done in a minute if you want to wait your turn, sir,” she said, winking at him as he squeezed by.
Mal ignored her. He had not yet sunk so low as to resort to a tuppenny upright with a pox-ridden hag in an alley.
His route turned out to be poorly chosen. Instead of leading him northwards to Thames Street, it curved to the south and he soon found himself back at Customs House. By now he was cold and wet and in an ill temper, so when he found his way blocked by another crowd he swore and pushed his way through, determined to reach the street beyond. When he had made his way to the front of the crowd and discovered the cause of the commotion, however, he wished he had turned back to the docks.
A group of perhaps a dozen skraylings stood at the doors of a warehouse. Their leader was arguing with a short, red-faced man, punctuating his Tradetalk with angry gestures towards the red-sailed skrayling ship that stood at anchor nearby.
“What’s going on?” Mal asked the man standing next to him.
“Warehouse changed hands, and now the aliens won’t pay the new fees. Like they don’t have silver coming out their ears, the bastards. They should just pay up and have done with it.”
With a final dismissive gesture, the skrayling merchant beckoned to his countrymen and they headed back to their waiting ship. The crowd stirred, beginning to disperse. Then the skraylings halted. Their path was blocked by a line of dockhands who had assembled unnoticed during the argument. Each man hefted an axe, boat-hook or other heavy tool of their trade. They began to beat their makeshift weapons on their palms.
Mal blinked away the memory of that night nine years ago and looked around desperately for something he could use to create a diversion. A shadow overhead caught his attention. Yes, that would be perfect. He pushed his way back through the crowd towards the crane.
The base of the crane was a large shed-like structure enclosing two ten-foot-high treadwheels, which were connected to the jib by a series of ropes and pulleys. The man operating it had stopped work and leant on the tiller staring at the skraylings, an unpleasant smile on his coarse features. Mal sauntered casually around the side of the crane, where the great treadwheels stood motionless. Two men stood shackled inside each wheel, leaning on the crossbars to take the weight from their blistered feet. They regarded Mal with dull curiosity as he squeezed into the narrow space between the wheel housing and the crane master’s position.
The crane master shifted position. Mal froze, but the man was too intent on seeing over the heads of the crowd to pay attention to any movement behind him. Mal slipped his dagger from its sheath, and knocked the man out with a back-handed blow of the pommel. He glanced around, but all eyes were on the skraylings. Now for that diversion…
He scanned the crane mechanism. The jib moved, he knew, by the master pushing on the tiller whilst the dockhands hauled on ropes attached to the cargo net. He doubted he could move it all by himself. Nor did there appear to be a brake or release handle on the raising and lowering mechanism.
On the quayside, one of the dockhands roared a challenge. Dammit, there was no time for cleverness. He reached up and began sawing at the main cable, as thick as his forearm. Someone screamed, a horrible animal cry. A skrayling? He redoubled his efforts and the rope slowly parted under his blade.
“Oi, what are you up to?”
Mal whirled to see the crane master glaring groggily at him. He shifted his dagger to his left hand and punched him hard in the jaw. The man reeled back, then pulled an axe from his belt. Mal ducked as the heavy blade whistled over his head and slammed into a timber upright, then threw his weight against his opponent before he could retrieve his weapon. The two men fell together on the muddy quayside, knocking the breath from both their bodies.
The crane master twisted and rolled, trying to get on top of Mal and gain the advantage. Though he was the shorter of the two, he had the muscular build of a docker and the brawling experience to match. Colours exploded inside Mal’s skull as his opponent jerked his head up viciously. A moment later he was on his back, the crane master looming over him, fist raised.
With renewed strength born of desperation, Mal worked his left arm free and brought his dagger up under the man’s chin, so that he had to draw his head back or cut his own throat. The man grabbed Mal’s wrist and pushed down, twisting Mal’s hand as he did so. The point of the dagger dipped towards Mal’s left eye. Wrenching his head as far to the right as he could, Mal let go of the dagger and, taking advantage of his opponent’s surprise, continued the roll to his right, slamming the back of the man’s head against the cobbles. The crane master groaned and went limp. Mal snatched up both dagger and axe and got to his feet.
A quick glance towards the quayside revealed a struggling mass of men and skraylings, the latter’s cream-and-brown tunics stained red with blood. Their own or their opponents? Mal ran to the crane and used the axe to sever the main cable in a few rapid strokes.
The net full of crates crashed onto the edge of the quay, scattering fist-sized brown ovoids across the cobbles and down into the river. The dockhands, overwhelmed by the avalanche of potatoes and struggling to keep their balance, dropped their weapons. Mal began to laugh. In moments the crowd had joined in, jeering at the shame-faced dockhands and wounded skraylings alike. The aliens retreated swiftly up the gangplank of their ship, followed by a hail of potatoes. Around the edges of the crowd, a canny few stuffed stray tubers into pockets, exotic treasures to take home and wonder over.
Satisfied that the worst was over, Mal sheathed his dagger and slipped away before the port militia could arrive to question any witnesses. He was pretty sure he had not killed the crane master, but if the man came round and remembered Mal’s face, as he must surely do since it had been only inches from his own… So much for keeping a low profile. In future he would stick to safer pursuits like riding, and try to forget about the skraylings for a week or two.