Episode V: Roast Mallard
“Men! Women! Friends,” Diego called, feet apart and hands high, “Shipmates, your officers and I have made a very troubling discovery. It’s only right that you be told what our ‘captain’ has led us to, the deadly position into which our so-called master as maneuvered us.”
The crew’s chattering died down at his words. They were listening; this announcement had been a long time in coming. The purser met the eyes of as many as possible as he continued his address.
“Some of you may have guessed that when last we traveled north from South Landing, the captain took on a small load of snapsand,” Diego balled his hands, “He made no effort to inform myself, the purser of this ship,” he stuck a thumb toward his chest. “More diabolical…” the purser began walking to port, “he did not inform the arc’sun of this black market, bootleg snapsand on the ship!” he shot a finger toward Theron, standing quietly near the port bulwark.
The crew exchanged glances, some surprised, others angry. Before the murmurs overwhelmed him, Diego reversed his stride, “Many of us suspected he might have done this, true, but our proof did not come until Dalda.”
“While some us fought for our lives in the gutters to rescue our fallen comrade,” Diego held a hand toward Hikmat, and then the other toward Lacy, “He was busy playing cards in a private room, selling his soul to a pair of steely-eyed criminals!”
A few boos answered Diego, Lacy and Hikmat were jostled by slaps on the back.
“Who are these criminals, you may ask,” Diego straightened, holding up a finger and scanning their faces, reveling in the growing anger he saw there, “Well, your officers put that very question to the captain when we barged into his backroom deal. We were given a shove toward the door instead of answers. We did not give up!” he began walking to port again, again balling his hands.
“We learned that these men are associates of none other than Sparky Astergaul!” he stopped to face them amidships, pointing to the sky. A wave a recognition swept through the older crewmen, the juniors looked at one another and whispered.
“That’s right, my comrades,” Diego answered their confusion, “the notoriously cruel snapsand trafficker Sparky Astergaul of South Landing. That is when we knew the true depths of our captain’s rot,” Diego let his hands fall to his sides, “Or so we thought.”
“You recall that night, before we set off from Dalda, the captain rewarded us with good rum?” the crew nodded here and there, “Yet another cold, calculated act of betrayal! Criminal contraband was loaded onto our ship whilst we were blind with the very drink he so conveniently provided,” Diego put a hand over his heart and made a fist.
“It wasn’t until later that we would learn the contents of this new cargo,” Diego stabbed a finger towards the sterncastle, turning to face the crew directly, “When we pressed him, that weasel would not tell his own officers! He claimed he did not know!” murmurs rolled through the crew. Diego even saw Ailred and Cynric, so far as stone-faced as dwarves, twitched their lips in disgust.
“Your bo’sun and I, along with the arc’sun and the men on watch the night of our discovery, went to see for ourselves,” the crew didn’t give him quite the applause he was expecting but they were still hanging on his words.
“To our relief, t’was not snapsand we discovered but plates, and sculptures, innocent cargo you might say, as we did ourselves. Thankfully, we have an arc’sun,” Diego held a hand out to Theron, still standing with arms folded. The arcswain felt his shoulders tense as thirty men and women turned their eyes to him, “Master Vossman! Tell us what you saw!” Theron swallowed, ice gripping his heart.
“Ahh! Yes, the cargo revealed a multitude of arcane emanations consistent with the schools of enchantment and necromancy-”
“Necromancy, shipmates!” Diego cut off the arcswain while he still had an alert audience, “This new contraband was not a danger to us directly, but no less discomforting. No less wrong!”
“Then, my friends, we found something worse,” Diego stopped his pacing and stood solemnly, “we found corpses.” Murmurs erupted.
“In’a cargo?” Codder barked, “not ten feet from my supplies! Ye bastard long-steps left a feggin’ rottin’ arse corpse stewin’ twixt my godsdamned meat and tipple? I feggin’-
“What’s more, we found animals in a cursed sleep! And in one of those crates of darkness, and I dare say I nearly jumped into the black when we found her, was the southlander girl.”
“That girl was in the cargo?” Jean-Marco shouted.
“It’s true! We know not how she survived so long in that box, but as Master Vossman said, there was dark magic afoot.”
“That is not-“ Theron started.
“We went to the captain,” Diego continued loudly, drowning out gasps and shouts, “to tell him what was aboard his own ship. You can guess his response,” Diego huffed, turning to walk the other way.
“Why not go t’the watch straigh’ into Grainger’s?” Ailred grumbled, a flurry of ‘ayes’ supported him.
“Mr. Albersnagle wanted to do just that, my friends,” Diego answered, “He wanted nothing more. I convinced him otherwise,” Diego continued, hanging his head, working to hide his smile, “I told him we would hang from the same gallows! I told him Marcello would never go alone to face his just dessert, that he would drag us all with him as willing accomplices. I told him those criminals to whom this evil cargo belonged would hunt us for revealing them!”
“That is why he quit the ship, my friends. His heart could not stand behind such a thing. He took the girl to the Temple of Mercy on Grainger’s. I know not if I will ever forgive myself for that. Telling you all now is the best I can do. He did not want it, Thorsten wanted to protect you all by keeping knowledge of the crime to the officers, just in case.”
“I’ll feggin’ kill the bastard,” Codder growled. Those nearby looked down at him, “I’ll feggin’ kill any man puts a lass in’a box for days! With corpses all ‘round her, oath t’the Mother, I’ll feggin’ kill ‘im!”
“We share your rage, Codder!” Diego began again, “None more than I! If nothing else is true in this world, the innocence of a child is! Marcello is guilty of that sin! Marcello has entangled us in this evil web! He has shown us his stripes and they are not those of a captain! Is that man fit to command, I ask?”
Several loud nay’s followed.
“Is he fit to lead us further down this twisted path?”
“I will not follow him to hell! I will not commit misdeeds in his name! Will you?”
Most of the crew yelled and held fists in the air, Diego was practically floating, “Let us show him!” As Diego drew his saber and pointed it at the sterncastle, men were already running toward the hatch. He rode their wave, following Lacy and Ian through the captain’s cabin door.
“What in the good gods’s is the meaning of this!” Marcello had knocked his chair back standing from his desk, and faltered trying to rest his hand on the seatback.
“We should ask the same, Dominique,” Diego replied, Ian and Lacy not breaking stride to grab the captain’s arms.
“You’ll hang for this, Samson. I swear it before all the gods and devils in this room, you will hang by your wretched, tender –“ Marcello’s tone was disturbingly even.
“Shut it, fuck-up,” Lacy jerked him toward the door.
“Unhand me now and you’ll be pardoned. I know ‘tis this infantile man’s spew that’s taint-“ Marcello tried again
“She said shut,” Ian punched him in the gut, “the fuck,” again, “up.” They hefted the wheezing nobleman out of the room and the crowd followed down the passageway.
Diego’s smile shined in the daylight streaming through the lattice windows. He turned around the room, far more intact than he’d imagined. His eyes caught on a page laying atop the captain’s bureau. The inkpot had been jostled, a splash of ink spattered across the desk. A pen wallowed in a small puddle on the floor.
He stepped closer, seeing the addressee’s name. Diego snapped his head back to the door as Marcello barked another order, inaudible over the pounding of feet on the deck above. He looked back at the letter. Diego bent and pulled open the bottom drawer, finding a stack of old logs. He pulled open the one on the other side of the desk, and an elegantly-enameled lockbox thumped against the back-panel. Diego picked it up, and the unfinished letter, whisking them from the room.
Diego held Marcello’s cutlass above him, “But not his power to harm you! If he speaks to the authorities, any authorities, then our lives are in the hands of a magistrate. No doubt one that will favor his silver-spooned family,” Diego pointed at his prisoner, “So I ask you what should be done with this villain, who so easily wrote-off your lives as the cost of business?”
“Keel haul ‘im!” answered a shout.
“Hang ‘em o’er the yardarm!” barked another.
“Bullshit!” an age-tortured voice bellowed from the mainmast. The crowd turned to see Cynric standing out in front of his clutch of old salts, “He gets the ship’s boat.”
“What,” Diego replied, “You would let him, of all people, sail away?”
“That’s the right thing, by tradition. He gets th’ dinghy n’ two day’s water,” Cynric pointed at Marcello.
“After what he has done? Party to trafficking a child? To trafficking back-alley snapsand without our knowledge? For gods’ sakes, man, he deserves far worse than a cruise to freedom and our rations,” Diego argued.
“Don’t matter what he did,” Cynric stood firm, anger on his face, as if Diego had just spat on him, “Any cap’n is due the courtesy of sailin’ into his fate with dignity. We ain’t animals! We’re sailors.”
“He’s the right,” Vice agreed, frowning.
“Ha!” Diego laughed, “I don’t believe what I’m hearing! He will not consider mercy if he lives,” he stalked around Marcello, still standing erect, “Has he shown us any thread of courtesy in his deceitful machinations? No!”
“So we gut him like a fish? We’ve a standard to hold, and if we ain’t holdin’ by honor, what kind of men are we?”
“Living ones, for a start!” Diego retorted.
“Free ones,” Hikmat spoke-up, near the steps to the quarterdeck.
“Oh feck the ‘airy lot of you, feggin’ prancy-footed honey-sucklin’,” Codder shoved his way through the crowd, pulling his knife from his belt, “Ye do wha’ the feck justice needs doin’!” he kicked hard at Marcello’s knee. The thin man screamed through his gag, falling to his knees. The ferneah cook’s knife sank half its length into Dominique’s neck.
Curses and shouts erupted from all around him.
“Good gods,” Diego gasped, taking a quick step back.
“You don’t feck with chil’ren,” Codder jerked his knife once, a dark, unbridled rage in his black eyes. Another tug freed his blade, and the cook spun, dripping blood on the deck, eyeing the crewmen nearest him, “Say a word. Say one feggin’ word!” Everyone was silent. The entire crew could hear Marcello moaning, gagging. The crew backed away from him as Trahorn stalked toward the forecastle.
Diego stood over Marcello as he bucked against his bonds, flopping on the deck, blood soaking his chest and down his arm. Sweat glistened on the dying captain’s face, and his wild, white eyes flashed around until they seized on Diego’s.
Frozen there, jaw still agape at the abrupt casualness of the act, the purser stared back into the panicking, desperate eyes of this man he had hated for so long. His gut tightened at the wet, sucking sound of the gagged man trying to breathe with a cut throat. Marcello’s bucking slowed and he fell onto his side, still straining, and Diego still could not move as bubbles gurgled out of the blood gushing from his wound. He could not look away from those eyes, staring up at him, begging for him to help despite everything.
Those were not the eyes of an evil man meeting justice. This was not what it was supposed to be like. This felt wrong. Marcello spasmed and tried to cough through his gag, throat spraying bright crimson blood across Diego’s boots and trousers, but he was frozen there. A longer gurgle followed, and deep, barely audible whine from somewhere deep inside the captain. It was a terrible, pitiful sound like nothing Diego had ever heard, more animal than man, forcing the purser’s mind back to his first hunting expedition, the sound that stag had made as Father thrust his blade into its chest. Diego coughed.
With a final, weak twist of his head and tensing of Marcello’s chest, those panicking eyes began to look through Diego. It was a full second before he realized the eyes were dead, frozen in their state of terror. Everyone remained silent for several moments, shifting uncomfortably as they watched Diego stand motionless.
“Shoulda givin’ him the dingy!” Cynric shouted, stomping to the forecastle. Ailred, Raleigh, and the other old salts followed him. Mar pulled from his bottle and shifted his gaze from the body to the purser, expression blank.
“Not going to say a damn thing, are ye?” Vice drank down his tin cup.
“Samson didn’t say enough?” Mar’s hand rested on the wheel, the other sat on his saber hilt.
“Probably,” Vice looked into his cup. The boy was hiding it well, but a man without cares didn’t rest his hand on his sword, “Ye needn’t worry, Barrow. They like you well enough.”
“Ain’t them that have me worried, Vice,” Mar shifted his weight.
“Hmph,” Vice half-chuckled like an old man, then frowned. Sometimes he felt like an old man, “I think he’s done incitin’ for now.”
“Never trust money,” the navigator, first-mate, he still had to correct himself, grabbed for his rum.
“I donno how long you’ve been carryin’ that anchor around, but sooner ‘n later you’ll have to drop it or accomp’ny it to the bottom.” The first mate remained silent, staring ahead at the horizon. After stretching and cracking his neck, Vice sighed and joined the rest of the crew on the weatherdeck. Most were drunk, singing or bragging. A few, the old salts, Jean-Marco, others with children and wives, were gathered on the foredeck in muted conversation.
“-Caught in Dalda? They’ll not hang us, will they?” Jean-Marco was asking.
“Maybe, maybe not, depends on what we can scrape together for influence,” Cynric replied.
“Bribes, he means,” Ailred clarified, “an’ we’ll have to find a new ensign.”
“Something wrong with Osil’s flag?” Vice asked, leaning against bundled sails.
“We won’t get any sympathy in Dalda or Ez’ flyin’ Oslander colors, Vice. What’s a selerion care about flags, anyhow,” Cynric pointed out Vice’s mixed hertiage with the kard-kent slang for half-elf.
“You think we’ll find sympathy in South Landing under any colors?” Manuel cut in.
“It will matter in Dalda,” Ailred stated.
“Assuming we get that far,” Jean-Marco was fiddling with a line, nervous.
“No one in Ez’ll give a damn about it, unless we give ‘em a reason to,” Vice sniffed, “you think we’re the first mutineers to sail in there? What matters is keepin’ it quiet amongst ourselves, ‘specially when we round the Daggers again.”
“Word of mutiny outflies the wind,” Cynric gave Vice a hard look, “You aughta know that.”
“You tryin’ to say somethin’?” Vice challenged.
“Only that man with a wife in every port should know something about
rumors and dodging consequences,” Cynric had never been a Kevice Carols fan.
“You gods damned son of a bitch,” Vice took a step off the sails faster than
anyone expected, and was nose to nose with Cynric by the time the aging kard was on his feet.
“So you will stand for something, bos’un?” Cynric growled.
“Keep yer tongue, laddy,” Vice locked eyes with Steele.
“Or what, bos’un? You’ll kill me, too? Or will you just have your rabid halfling do it?”
“I ain’t gonna kill you, Steele, but I still got time to beat yer ass twice before dinner you keep jawjackin, by rights I aughta put you to the fuckin’ mast,” Vice squinted.
“Well I appreciate the mercy, bos’un, when did we go back to obeyin’ tradition?”
“This is still my fucking ship,” Vice put a finger to Cynric’s chest, “I’ve kept her flying the last five years, and I’ll keep her flying same as always. Cap’n’s dead, aye, it was shit business and it was gonna be shit anyway it cut. It’s fuckin’ done now. Ye hear me, boys,” Vice kept his eyes locked with Cynric, “It’s fucking done. Jean-Marco, Manuel, you’re supposed be on fuckin’ watch. Ailred, Raleigh clear the gods damned weather deck before we lose a pup over the side. Steele, if you’re done cluckin’ like my third wife, find the driest motherfucker over there and check the holds.”
After a brief moment of shock, a chorus of Aye, Bos’un’s answered him. Cynric held his gaze, working his jaw back and forth, fists balled. The others moved slowly, keeping on eye on the two sun-baked veteran sailors. It was another few moments before Vice’s blazing blue’s won the contest. “Aye, bos’un,” Cynric said slowly, un-balling his fists. He spat over the side as he stepped around Kevice toward the forecastle stairs.
“Pardon, m’lady,” Vice kept his voice lower than normal, “but can I ask why yer attendin’ this meetin’?”
“One asks permission before one acts, Mr. Carols,” Lady Curtice began, “My complicity in this coups requires full knowledge of your plans, and I’ve seen a lack of discipline in your collective efforts. That will change.”
“Ah, I see, thank you, m’lady,” Vice nodded.
“Lady Curtice carries significant influence, her addition to our meeting will be nothing but a benefit, I can assure you,” Diego smiled, leaning over his knee, boot propped on his chair beside the chart table.
“There is a problem,” Hikmat interjected, “One of the crates has been broken into.”
“When did that happen?” Diego’s relaxed expression tensed.
“Sometime between leaving port and today’s…action,” Hikmat answered, “Roch found it.”
“Which crate? Did one of the corpses rise?” Diego was speaking quickly.
“Don’t look like it,” Vice answered, “corner was clawed through from the outside.”
“ ‘clawed through’, Bos’un?” Theron asked, “not pried?”
“It looks like an animal did this,” Hikmat affirmed, “Though what kind of animal would do that I do not know.”
“Well was anything missing?” Diego threw his arms up.
“We think,” Hikmat looked at Vice, “the dagger, the ring, and a dish.”
“An animal took the dagger?” Theron raised an eyebrow.
“Something took the dagger, I ain’t puttin’ money on it bein’ any animal,” Vice replied.
“Well good gods above, we’ll have to search the ship, starting with the crew bunks,” Diego shook his head, stepping to the wardroom bureau.
“No one outside this room even knew what was in the crates,” Mar rolled his eyes, “and none of them look like a fucking badger to me.”
“Language, Mr. Barrow,” Lisette interjected, “Cursing is slovenly and ill suited to your station.”
“M’lady,” Mar cocked his head, “this is a fucking ship, full of motherfucking sailors. Godsdamned cursing is all we fucking understand.”
“Barrow,” Diego scolded, “this is no time to make enemies. You can civilize yourself in the presence of a Lady or I’ll cut-off your rum.”
“By what authority, purser,” Mar shot back, “You’re no captain, and last I checked the first-mate has command in the absence of one.”
“Well done, Mr. Barrow,” Lisette interrupted again, “A curse-free statement bringing us to the most important issue at hand. This organization needs a leader. You must select a captain before anything else is decided.” The others exchanged glances. It was something they hadn’t wanted to address. No one in this room seemed a natural choice.
“Obviously the crew trusts me, and a captain must negotiate the labyrinthine channels of bureaucracy in port,” Diego poured himself a brandy.
“A captain needs to know how to sail a ship, and yer not exactly celebrated in song, Samson,” Mar pointed out.
“You would challenge me for it? You. Marcus Barrow, who has been sober, what would you say, a cumulative fourteen hours on this entire journey?” Diego scoffed, “You’ve all the presence of command this table has.”
“Then let’s take a poll on it, eh?” Mar suggested, “Those in favor of a captain good at whoring and storytelling,” he held his hand out toward Diego. The purser held his brandy glass up, looking around the wardroom. Theron’s hand raised in support, as did Hikmat’s. “Really? Those in favor of a master seaman?” he raised his own hand, and saw Lady Curtice and Vice raise theirs, “Three and three, somehow.”
“We shall need someone to decide the tie, then,” Diego sipped his brandy.
“Someone privy to all the facts at hand, and how things were…handled,” Mar added. The list was short. Everyone looked to Hikmat, who answered with a sigh.
“I will fetch him,” he pushed himself up from the table and left wardroom.
“The crew,” Lisette interupted the silence in his wake, pulling Mar and Diego from their staring contest, “Who are the most respected among them?”
“Depends what yer talkin’,” Vice answered, leaning back on the rear legs of his chair as he stuffed his pipe, “Steele’s a stubborn bastard, people listen to him ‘cause he’s old. Know’s his job well enough.”
“The one who insisted upon letting the former captain live?” she asked.
“That’s him,” Vice drew on the pipe, “After him, maybe Tiller. Most like Jean-Marco. Lacy get’s her way most of the time, I guarantee there’d be more ‘n a few on her side in a fight.”
“Codder’s the cook,” Mar added, no need to say more, though Curtice raised an eyebrow at him, “Cooks always popular on ship, unless he’s terrible. Codder ain’t terrible.”
“Isn’t,” Lisette corrected, “is that all?”
“Aye, most others just have their mates,” Vice affirmed.
“And which of you is in charge of maintaining discipline?” she continued. The men exchanged glances but didn’t answer.
“The former captain spent considerable time in his quarters, did he not? And given today’s events it would not appear discipline was his strength. You operate a ship of some thirty unrestrained barbarians then?”
“That’s a strong term, I should think m’lady. They may not have the fortune of breeding, they may be uncouth, unwashed, and uncivilized, but I would not call them barbaric. Mostly,” Diego cast a sideways glance at Mar.
“Discipline is necessary for prosperity, Mr. Samson,” Lisette would have continued if Hikmat had not returned through the hatch with Rahman. The beninite glanced about the wardroom. He’d only been inside a few times, and there weren’t enough chairs for everyone. He chose a spot on in the corner to stand.
“Rahman, my good man,” Diego pushed off the chair he was leaning on, “Take mine.”
“My thanks, Purser!” Rahman took the chair with a broad smile, slapping the table before him. He turned to Mar, who stared out at Jean-Marco attending the helm, “Quite a day, yes?”
“Rahman, we’ve arrived at a bit of an impasse,” Diego continued, swirling his brandy, “We must, those of us in this room, select a new Captain from amongst ourselves. We thought it only just we include you.”
“Really? Well,” he looked at Hikmat, “I am honored! I accept!” Rahman laughed heartily.
“What?” Vice puffed.
“He didn’t mean they picked you, fool,” Hikmat said quickly in Baiha.
“Ahaha! Only kidding, my friends,” Rahman recovered.
“We’ve put it to a vote, and it’s tied between myself and Mr. Barrow, as it stands,” Diego sipped from his glass, “So it falls to you, Rahman. Who do you feel, in your heart, would lead us to prosperity? Do you trust me? Or our troubled navigator?”
“First Mate,” Mar corrected, turning to Rahman, “You know as well as I do he knows as much about sailing as your left foot.”
Rahman looked about the assembled officers and Ms. Curtice, his smile slowly fading, “Well,” he looked at Hikmat, whose eyes flashed over Deigo so quickly no one else could have noticed, “Purser Samson is skilled at negotiation, yes? If we are to be independent, we will need this. I choose the Purser,” he turned to Mar, “Nothing against you, Mr. Barrow, I would sail with you to the very edge of the world and back again!” Rahman slapped the table again, smiling around the room.
“Excellent choice, Mr. Nasib, I knew I could count on your good sense,” Diego slapped the beninite on the shoulder. Vice puffed silently, and Lisette was utterly unreadable, “On to the next order of business then.”
“If we’re going into South Landing acting the victim, we should mark up the hull, maybe toss a couple of cabins,” Hikmat suggested.
“Good, good. We’ll have to go through the black crates, stow all the secret goods in one of the foot lockers,” Diego continued.
“You mentioned preserved corpses, Mr. Samson, and potentially necromantic artifacts. Arcs’un Vossman, you may accompany me as I investigate them further,” Lisette rose to leave.
“Perhaps we should all accompany you, Lady Curtice,” Diego hooked his arm in the air, “I’m sure your insights would benefit us all.” He watched her face intently, looking for any signs of ill intent.
“Very well,” Lisette turned and left the room, her servant fellow falling into step beside her as she descended the stairs. Theron stood quickly and followed her in silence.
“I’ll pass, thank you,” Vice took a draw from his pipe and walked out into the dusk.
“This could not wait until the daylight?” Hikmat grumbled as he and Rahman followed the arcswain, chattering in baiha and shoving each other in jest.
Diego and Mar remained, the former leaning against the bureau as he finished his brandy, the later had not shifted position against the bulkhead since entering.
“We’re not going to have any problems, are we?” Diego asked, “It was a fair vote.”
“It’s more than a popularity contest, Pretty,” Mar didn’t turn from the window, “Everybody’s lives are in your hands now. You fuck up it’s them on a rope, not just you. Can you fuckin’ understand that?”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Barrow. We’re a fair way far from being pursued by the King’s Army here. They’re grown men and women, they understand the risks, and they can leave if they want to,’ Diego countered, “In the mean time, I aim to make as much coin as possible, for all of us. You can’t doubt I’ll be better than Marcello.”
“I can, and I do,” Mar rose slowly, “Come on, let’s get this over with.” The two of them followed the others down through the orlop to the main hold’s hatch, where Hikmat and Rahman were already hauling the door aside. Mar tossed the rope ladder down, but didn’t use it, hopping down onto the crates.
Hikmat and Rahman stood at the edge of the hold, waiting for Theron and Lisette to go first. Diego leapt from the edge too, landing with a flourish as his blue-violet lightning bugs flew from beneath his cloak. They flew lazily to spin about the nearest of the wrapped, blackwood crates.
“You recall which ones hold our unpaying passengers, yes?” Diego inquired. Theron had of course painstakingly catalogued not only the contents but the arrangement of the artifacts.
“One of the first things Master taught me was that magic relies on patterns that aren’t always readily apparent. You never know which detail will be key to unlocking the mystery,” he explained, opening his spell book to the back cover. Several loose parchments waved their titles at him, loosely attached to the binding in alphabetical order. He plucked his crate notes out and slipped the book back into his knapsack, “I’ll offer Lady Curtice her preference,” he brought the parchment near enough for Lisette to read. The arcswain gently signed an illumination cantrip and touched the buckle of his knapsack, causing it to glow brightly enough to read by.
“Ah,” Lisette whispered a prayer to her Lord and touched a finger first to her temple and then to the keysign on Theron’s parchment, “Your notology is efficient, Master Vossman,” she stated as the dense, illegible shorthand blurred into compact kent in her mind’s eye.
She spent fifteen minutes studying the page in conversation with Theron. Diego barely understood anything they were talking about, Mar and the beninites even less. The captain yawned with notable politeness.
“Your presence is not expressly required, Captain,” Lisette turned from the parchment, gesturing toward the nearest crate, marked as holding the half-orc’s body, “That one first.” Jorge stepped forward to wrangle the heavy box into the open while Lisette watched, “Though I suspect as captain you’ll want to know what lay in your holds.”
Diego cocked his head and squinted in her direction, “We near the end of a long and tiring day, M’lady. These bodies will certainly not go dancing away if we retire for the evening. Your estimation of my curiosity is accurate, I of course have the safety of the ship foremost in mind. Carry on, if you would,” He glanced around the small space, landing on Hikmat and Rahman perched on the edge of hatch, “You two coming down?”
“Not unless expressly required,” Rahman was hushed, “Sir.” Hikmat stood beside him, hand resting on the pommel of his blade.
“Don’t tell me you sandy chaps are afraid of a few dead bodies? Vossman already told us all is safe,” Diego chuckled.
“Caution is not the same as fear,” Hikmat answered, “We can see just fine from here.”
Lisette incanted in elder kent too quiet for Theron to make-out, though strain he did. It was a strange language for a Boccoban priestess to use, the empirical one had been cyterian, most of his disciples prayed in baiha as the nearest linguistic successor to that long-dead language. Perhaps it’s her eastern heritage, he observed as her magesight orison activated, dark irises glowing a rich amber hue.
Her eyes swept up and down the box Jorge was just now freeing from canvas wrappings. With a nod from her, the aging man freed the lid with a pry-bar; it came away with little effort thanks to Hikmat’s earlier intrusion. The half-orc’s body lay in the twisted position the men had left it in earlier, no sign of rot.
Diego raised his lip; a corpse should not look so alive. The agony of death was still written plainly on his face, the color still fresh, the skin full. He wouldn’t be surprised if the half-orc started writhing in pain, hands gripping the crimson gash in his throat.
“The other corpses resemble this one?” Lisette asked, drawing her skirt as she crouched to investigate more closely.
“Yes, M’lady,” Theron stood with hands clasped behind him, “nude, with a mortal laceration at the throat, but otherwise uninjured and notably clean.”
“Uninjured? This arm is fractured,” Lisette pointed out.
“Post-mortem, we were somewhat hasty in securing the contents of the crates after our first investigation,” Theron lowered his head slightly.
“I see,” Lisette’s even tone triggered a wash of heat over Theron’s face and neck. It was an amateur mistake to have to admit to a divine spellcaster, even if she was faithful to the Empirical One. Fortunately the priestess either failed to notice or didn’t acknowledge his embarrassment, no doubt working her way through the emanations from the corpse.
The lady tugged the satin glove from her right hand, Jorge accepting it without prompting, and bent over the half-orc’s muscled chest. In the confines of the hold, the only light Diego’s fireflies, Theron couldn’t make out what she was doing until she stepped back from the body. He raised an eyebrow at the simple character painted in blood on the man’s chest.
“Lord over all, your implement requires knowledge from beyond the veil. Blood has been spilled, the truest confession. Let it speak,” She incanted in perfect kent this time, bloody finger tracing patterns before her as the other hand lay against her chest. Phlemography? Theron had never encountered blood magic, at least not in practice. Certainly he’d read of the brutal shamanism south of Kardam and among orc tribes, but they were savages with superstitious ceremony encasing kernels of true magic. He was glad to see Lady Curtice’s disregard for taboos extend beyond raised servants.
She accepted Jorge’s offered handkerchief as the character on the half-orc’s chest roiled and shifted into stark kent calligraphy. Lisette read it aloud.
“Executed?” Theron puzzled, leaning in around Lisette’s shoulder, “For what crime? And why transport the body so far at such expense?”
“A few hundred kingmarks would be insignificant next to the value of the other cargo,” Lisette pointed out. She handed Jorge’s handkerchief back and replaced her glove. Jorge was ready with her journal when she finished.
“The Lady is right, dear arc’sun,” Diego wedged in, “The men with whom we dance have no shortage of resources at their disposal.”
“And most executions are not ordered by magistrates,” Hikmat offered from the orlop deck.
“Right,” Diego’s eyes flashed without thinking to Lady Curtice, looking for a slip-up. She just might be the executioner. She obviously knew her way with magic, and nasty magic at that. She was ice cold, everything a crime lord could ask for in an assassin.
By gods, if they had a Curtice working as a mage-assassin, the Clark brothers were far more connected than he’d dared imagine; and Lady Curtice was a far greater threat than he’d realized.
“We certainly must assume the killers had a justifiable reason to slay the man,” Diego took a diplomatic approach, swallowing just shallow enough to avoid notice. In truth, no one was paying attention to him other than Hikmat. Lisette finished writing, handing the journal back to Jorge, and knelt again beside the corpse. Diego continued, “You don’t kill a man and spend good coin preserving the corpse for a sea voyage unless he’s done something particularly insulting,” he noticed Lisette incanting again and felt ice in his gut, “More discoveries, M’lady?”
Lisette did not respond, droning-on with her incantation. Apparently this one was more complicated than finger-painting. Diego waltzed away from her back towards the hatch and less distressing company, “What do you make of it, men?”
“Thirty days, another five to reach Ezrepellian, this is a long time to preserve a corpse,” Rahman answered.
“And he was not beaten, or tortured,” Hikmat added, “We’re hauling trophies, Captain, not examples, not spies. I think only a twisted soul wants to see fresh kills so desperately.”
“Astergaul, you mean,” Diego touched a finger to his lip, “I think he would have done more to them, in the way of torture, I mean.” Hikmat glanced at Rahman.
“This cult then, who owns these creepy dishes,” the falconer gestured toward the other crates.
“I don’t think a cult would trust their holy artifacts to a shipping company, particularly a cut-rate one like Marcello’s,” Diego rest his fist on his chin, “Thoughts, Arc’sun?” Theron didn’t respond, focused on the priestess, “Theron, Good man.”
“Hmm?” the arcswain blinked twice, “Yes, Captain?”
“Thoughts?” Diego gestured at the body.
“Well, I…” Theron trailed off, interrupted.
At first Diego thought it was Jorge speaking, but the manservant stood quietly, working his tongue around his teeth as he watched the dancing lights. It was a man’s voice, scratched by smoke, or maybe drink.
“Reginald Crowley, where are you from?” Lisette enunciated forcefully.
“Holffbern,” the scratched voice replied. Diego stepped closer to investigate.
“He’s a trapper?” the captain asked.
“A tanner,” Theron corrected.
“I know he’s a tanner, but he’s from trapper territory, do try to keep up, man.”
“Reginald Crowley, why were you executed?” Lisette asked, ignoring the captain.
“I disobeyed an order,” Diego fought to control his expression as he watched the dead Reginald’s lifeless jaw open and close in time with the words.
“Zachary Gagnon,” Crowley answered, sounding quite far away despite bodily proximity.
“Well that’s not helpful in the least, does he work for the Clark Brothers? Or Astergaul?” Diego bent over his knee, nearly shouting at the corpse.
“The spell only responds to Lady Curtice, Captain,” Theron offered.
“And is limited. Further investigation will resume after breakfast,” Lisette rose, Jorge following her up the rope ladder, “He may be resituated.”
“Well that was quite a productive evening, men! I’ll see you on the morrow with bright eyes. The future is looking golden, gentlemen,” Diego talked himself up the ladder after Curtice, “Absolute, solid gold.”
Mar sighed and stepped away from the bulkhead, startling Theron.
“Mr. Barrow, I’d forgotten you were here,” Vossman returned his gaze to the body, though it held no answers for his many questions. Mar turned to look at Hikmat and Rahman.
“You helping?” he asked. They both shook their heads, “Fine,” superstitious bastards, “Theron, legs.” The arcswain and first mate packed Mr. Crowley back into his crate and secured it with the rest of the cargo. The beninites stood patiently on the orlop until they were finished, and secured the hatch. None spoke another word before parting for their bunks.
Theron immediately began recording what he’d learned, about the body and Lady Curtice. He had to light a new candle before he was finished.
Lisette recorded a few shorthand notes before retiring. As she wrote, she directed Hu-Chanh to dispose of the militiaman’s body, “And Hu-Chanh. The older seaman with short hair, Cynric Steele. He’s become a problem.”
“I will see to it, Mother,” the hobgoblin nodded.
Mar stepped out of the sterncastle, inhaling deeply. Manuel was at the helm and stood-up straighter when the first mate came into view. A quick glance at the main top caught Reva watching him, the image of alertness.
“Evening, Sir,” Manuel greeted. It wasn’t hard to notice the change in them. Mar nodded back looking over the deck. A few crewmen were gathered at the foredeck, laughing quietly. Vice was checking rigging on the weatherdeck with Roch. Mar turned away from them, taking the stairs up to a blissfully deserted afterdeck. The wind was stronger here, flapping his clothes and hair. It was cold. Clean. He walked to the aft rail and put his weight against it, watching the stars and the moon in the receding east. His shoulders were heavy, his neck sore, he could feel his heart beating hard from everything he’d seen today. A bottle of rum appeared in his hand. After a few pulls the weight loosened, and Mar could breathe again.
Two decks below, Diego poured a heavy glass and collapsed into his chair. His eyes closed as cognac slid around his mouth. It had never tasted so rich. He spun in the chair, opening his eyes to take in the room. The polished wood, shining brass, and finally the blanket of stars outside his wide windows. He felt alive, he felt rich. Diego Hercule Samson was free.