“I’m—I’m so sorry!” Emma stammered. “It’s—we thought this boat was—”
“Many have tried to steal from Sharon!” the man thundered. “Now their skulls make homes for sea creatures!”
“I swear we weren’t trying to—”
“We’ll just be going,” squeaked Addison, backing away, “so sorry to bother you, milord.”
“SILENCE!” the boatman roared, stepping onto the creaking dock with one enormous stride. “Anyone who comes for my boat must PAY THE PRICE!”
I was completely terrified, and when Emma shouted “RUN!” I was already turning to go. We’d only gotten a few paces, though, when my foot crashed through a rotting board and I pitched face-first onto the dock. I tried to scramble up but my leg was thigh deep in the hole. I was stuck, and by the time Emma and Addison circled back to help me, it was too late. The boatman was upon us, looming overhead and laughing, his cavernous guffaws booming around us. It might have been a trick of the darkness, but I could’ve sworn I saw a rat tumble from the hood of his cloak, and another slip from his sleeve as he slowly raised his arm toward us.
“Get away from us, you maniac!” Emma shouted, clapping her hands to light a flame. Though the light she made did nothing to chase away the dark inside the boatman’s hood—I suspected not even the sun could do that—it showed us what he held in his outstretched hand, which wasn’t a knife, nor any weapon. It was a piece of paper, pinched between his thumb and a long, white forefinger.
He was offering it to me, bending low so I could reach it.
“Please,” he said calmly. “Read it.”
I hesitated. “What is it?”
“The price. And some other information regarding my services.”
Quaking with fear, I reached up and took the paper. We all leaned in to read by the light of Emma’s flame.
I looked up at the giant boatman. “So this is you?” I said uncertainly. “You’re … Sharon?”
“In the flesh,” he replied, his voice an oily slither that made my neck hairs stand on end.
“Good bird, man, you scared us half to death!” said Addison. “Was all that bluster and cackling really necessary?”
“My apologies. I was napping and you startled me.”
“We startled you?”
“For a moment I thought you really were trying to steal my boat,” he chuckled.
“Ha-ha!” Emma said, forcing a laugh. “No, we were just … making sure it was moored properly.”
Sharon turned to examine the skiff, which was simply roped to one of the wooden pylons.
“And how do you find it?” he asked, the dull white crescent of a grin spreading beneath his hood.
“Totally … ship-shape,” I said, finally jimmying my leg free from the hole. “Really good, um, mooring.”
“Couldn’t have tied a better knot myself,” said Emma, helping me to my feet.
“By the way,” said Addison. “The ones who did try … are they really all …?” He glanced at the dark water and swallowed audibly.
“Never mind that,” the boatman said. “Now you’ve woken me, and I am at your service. What can I do for you?”
“We need to hire your boat,” Emma said firmly. “By ourselves.”
“I can’t allow that,” Sharon said. “I always captain the boat.”
“Ah, too bad then!” Addison said, turning eagerly to leave.
Emma caught him by the collar. “Wait!” she hissed. “We’re not done here.” She smiled pleasantly at the boatman. “So, we happen to know that a lot of peculiars come through this …”
She looked around, searching for the right word.
“… place. Is that because there’s a loop entrance nearby?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Sharon said flatly.
“Okay, yes, of course you can’t just admit it. I completely understand. But you’re in safe company with us. Obviously, we’re—”
I elbowed her. “Emma, don’t!”
“Why not? He’s already seen the dog talk and me make fire. If we can’t speak honestly …”
“But we don’t know if he is,” I said.
“Of course he is,” she said, then turned to Sharon. “You are, aren’t you?”
The boatman stared at us impassively.
“He is, isn’t he?” Emma asked Addison. “Can’t you smell it on him?”
“No, not clearly.”
“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter, so long as he’s not a wight.” She gave Sharon a beady-eyed glare. “You’re not, are you?”
“I am a businessman,” he said evenly.
“Who’s well accustomed to meeting talking dogs and girls who make fire with their hands,” said Addison.
“In my line of work, one meets a wide variety of people.”
“I’ll cut to the chase,” I said, shaking water off one foot, then the other. “We’re looking for some friends of ours. We think they might’ve come this way within the last hour or so. Mostly kids, some adults. One was invisible, one could float …”
“They’d be hard to miss,” Emma said. “They were being held at gunpoint by a gang of wights.”
Sharon crossed his arms into a wide, black X. “As I said, all manner of people hire my boat, and each relies on my absolute discretion. I won’t discuss my clientele.”