Episode VI: Clam Bake
“Overlord, cleanse the taint of disease from the instruments of your holy endeavor. As rust from a blade, let your will grind away this ill,” Lisette’s voice rose and fell in the cadence off incantation, the elder kent flowing around her tongue like aged wine. From her chest, the Master’s Fist hanging there, she could feel the power of God flow through her fingers into Reva’s humors. First her heart, then outward to her shoulders, above the sailor’s brachial arteries. She drew one hand down over the vena cava, the other up her throat, along the carotid. The last of the spell’s power transferred to her abdomen.
Lisette’s hands moved smoothly, without hesitation. Reva, clammy and exhausted, shivered as the alien sensation of healing magic washed through her like strong rum. Her body was still weak, dehydrated, but color blushed her face in moments. She nodded thanks to the strange passenger, appalled to find herself wondering what it was like to wear dresses so fine.
Lacy and Thad hoisted her litter and jostled Reva back to the foredeck where the other worst cases lay. There had been some argument between Vice and Lady Curtice about where the sick should be arranged, but the old salt had made a good argument for fresh air. The Foredeck had enough shade from the sails to avoid exposure, and they were drawing ever southward into the balmy heat of the southlands, away from the chill autumn winds north of Grainger’s.
“I wouldna ‘spected a fancy gel of yer sorts t’have such ease about a body,” Trahorn observed from his cook stand. The ferneah hadn’t known what to make of Lisette’s request to erect his kit on the poopdeck; even more so when she waved away the meat he’d brought up. This is not a meal, Mr. Codder. Whatever the Lady wants, he supposed, but soup’s a meal. Maybe not this soup, if you could call it that. The smell was awful, and he made sure to stand upwind of the kettle. Wasn’t even a single veg in the pot, just herbs and spices. Some frilly Porter fashion-dish was the best he could figure.
“Knowledge of the human form is not sinful, Mr. Codder. Propriety is in its application,” Lisette replied, washing her hands in the basin her hobgob had set on the wee table the old man carried about.
“I bet there’s a fair clutch of lads lined-up for yer ‘application’ back home, eh?” Trahorn chuckled, an evil grin on his scraggle-bearded face.
“Do not allow vulgarity to outweigh your usefulness, Mr. Codder,” she replied.
“Vulgarity is my usefulness, gel!” the ferneah slapped his knee and laughed himself down the stairs to the quarterdeck. Gaylord was being half-dragged up to the Lady by Manuel. The first mate was leaning against the helm.
“You don’ look so good, Marly-boy,” he slapped Mar on the back.
“I’ll be fine.”
“A hard wind’d blow y’over, mate,” Trahorn prodded, “Ye can’t cure everythin’ with a tipple,” his voice became sing-song, “‘sometimes it takes a nipple ’er twoooo’! Ha Ha Ha!”
“Get back to choppin’ something, you dirty little bastard.”
“Feck off! I’ll chop when choppin’s due,” Codder tossed his braids, “You get up there and get th’lady’s special touch. I ain’t havin’ you laid out, not with ghosts raidin’ the pantry and men disappearin’ ‘round here,” Trahorn punched Mar’s leg.
“Still no idea whose been takin’ rations?”
“Nay, I’ll find ‘em out soonish,” the cook twitched his nose and started toward the sterncastle hatch.
“No one saw Steele on deck, Codder,” Mar grunted, “You’re sure he wasn’t three sheets to the wind that night?”
“He was always too pissy to get right piss-drunk, ye know it,” Trahorn turned to catch the first mate’s eye, and nodded toward the Captain’s cabin, “change ain’t smooth.”
“Well you’ve got that right, at least,” Mar said, under his breath. Not three days after the mutiny and half the crew is down with a fever. Cynric disappeared, not a trace of what happened to him. The dinghy wasn’t touched. The rations were the easiest to explain, someone just getting greedy and bold in the new order.
That was the way of things. You put someone new in charge and everyone has to prod the limits, see how far they can go and what theycan get away with before the new hat stops trying to be nice and lays down the lash. And there would be a lashing for this, Mar was sure of that. You can’t have crew raiding the stores, at least not enough to get noticed.
All of this and Fancy’s only cares are about Astergaul or the Clark boys, or how to handle the authorities. The arcswain wasn’t any help, fucking hiding in his berth half the day and all night. Mar had seen inside Theron’s cabin this morning on his way by, there were parchments up on the bulkhead, diagrams of the bodies from the hold with notes all over them, doodles and illegible scrawls. Arcswains were a strange lot, all of them disturbed in Mar’s experience. At least Theron wasn’t loud.
Gods it was getting hot. He loosened his shirt and took another pull after checking the binnacle. Maybe Codder was right, he felt like death. Curtice bothered him, though. Fancy acted strange around her, and those servants of hers were too…servile. Mar had never heard most of them talk. She hit all the right marks, had the crew following her orders. It reminded him too much of Her, the bitch in red.
“Sir?” someone shook him awake, “Sir? Are you alright?” it was Coy Boy. Mar cleared his throat, wiping his brow.
“Coy…yeah, I’m fine,” he shook the drowsiness from his head, “Just hot.”
“Yes, sir. It’s almost a relief going south isn’t it? There’s so much more color in Ezrepellian,” Coy Boy offered his soft smile before walking off.
Hikmat was going over the ship’s ledger for the third time when Diego sauntered into the wardroom, heading toward the liquor cabinet, “Evening, Sir.”
“A good one at that, my dear Darzi. You’re not sick are you?”
“No, Captain I-”
“Great! Have a drink then,” the captain poured two glasses of brandy.
“Captain, you are aware of the problem with-”
“Arc’sun! Where have you been all day?” Diego near-shouted at Theron in the passageway, the captain put a boot up on on the of the chairs.
“Attempting to identify any further connections between the victims in the hold, Captain. I’ve come at it from every angle I can think of, Sir, and I’ve outlined my best estimation,” Theron stepped in, pulling his book from its bag and retrieving a few pages from the back cover. He began laying them out on the chart table.
Mar walked in and sighed. With a forlorn glance at his log book, the first mate collapsed in his usual seat by the window, “Will your new friend by joining us, Captain?”
“Lady Curtice has proven an invaluable resource to this crew, Barrow, and I’ll not have you insulting a noblewoman of her character. Didn’t she rid you of this fever spreading rampant?” Diego challenged. Mar grunted.
“As I was saying, Sir. The victims are mostly oslander, but not all of them. The mixblood southlander and the veltane stand out, for example. The only common thread is that they were all somehow involved in illegal, or at least unsavory, transactions. We’ve named two local figures likely responsible for some deaths, but without further investigation I can’t trace those names back to any common master.”
“So nothing, then?” Diego pounded his fist on the table, “I need to confirm who they belong to, Theron! Dammit all I can’t very well go about disposing of them without knowing who paid their way.”
“Given the commingled transportation of the nerullian artifacts and the bodies, Sir, I would say it’s extremely unlikely that more than one party is involved in this transaction. The Clark brothers, as you and Mr. Darzi have pointed out, don’t seem likely to have the influence or interest in the specific cargo or they wouldn’t have chosen an unknown like Marcello to carry them.”
“That doesn’t really help, now does it,” Diego threw a hand up.
“On the contrary, Sir, it eliminates them. This was an expensive endeavor, and these items are quite valuable.”
“The artifacts alone are worth more than…than one hundred thousand crowns,” Hikmat added, throwing a hand up in either disbelief or frustration.
“Right,” Diego sipped, “So those who shipped them have money, but lack their own ships…”
“Does Astergaul not have his own elaborate trade network?” Hikmat asked.
“Yes and no,” Diego replied, “He rarely uses his own men for contraband, it’s bad for business if anything can be tied back to him. He needs to be able to cut losses if the navy finds his shipments.”
“As it would no doubt be with the objects relating to necromancy,” Lisette added, gliding into the room with Magda.
“M’lady,” Diego half-bowed politely, “I’m glad you could join us.”
“Correct, Lady Curtice. Royal authorities have a tendency to react poorly to anything involving taboo arcana. It could provoke a response from the heironites, which Astergaul would find difficult to counter,”Theron added.
“Still, I find it hard to believe Astergaul would entrust such a horde to one of his sand runners,” Diego argued, pouring another brandy, “M’lady?” he offered. She held her hand up, declining.
“But he didn’t, did he?” Theron held up a finger, “the Clark brothers sold Marcello on the run, and we’ve agreed they likely had no idea what was in the crates or they would’ve been more carefully handled than entrusting them to regular longshoremen.”
“Why is that such a burning question for you, Captain?” Lisette asked, “There can be no definitive answer until the owner presents him or herself in Ezrepellian.”
“Well I’d prefer to tell the watch who to chase instead of ourselves,” Diego replied.
“Why tell the watch anything?” Lisette pressed. She raised an eyebrow at Diego.
“Hmmm,” Diego began to smile. Albersnagle was long-gone, and wouldn’t be telling anyone what happened for fear of his family’s wellbeing, “You make a remarkable point, Lady Curtice. What’s to stop us from selling it all?”
“Smarter just to dump it,” Mar stared out the window.
“One hundred thousand crowns,” Diego replied, ending that debate.
“Cache it,” Hikmat cut in, “it’s very dangerous for us if anyone finds that on our ship, but yes, the less the authorities know the less they can tell their syndicate paymasters.” Lisette tilted her head the slightest degree in appreciation. No one but Magda noticed.
“Settled, then. Mar, find a good place to drop our nest egg south of Ezrepellian, we’ll want to avoid being seen by too many other ships,” Diego tipped back his brandy victoriously. Command was thrilling.
“We will still be seen by someone,” Hikmat’s brow remained dower.
“Arc’sun, we’ll have to rough-up the ship. I trust you can achieve that?” Diego smiled at Theron, standing protectively over his papers.
“Only for a short time, Captain, I would have to be alerted if another ship were close enough to observe us in any detail.”
“I see,” Diego lowered his snifter, “we’ll have to alter the ship for real, then. Barrow, you’re in charge of breaking the ship,” the captain smiled, “You’re the perfect man for the job, I wouldn’t want it done too well.” Diego’s eyes twinkled. Theron smiled and just caught himself short of an open chuckle.
“Captain, why would you want the ship damaged?” Liesette asked, her face alabaster.
“To better convince everyone we’re the victims of piracy, of course,” Diego explained.
“Missing relics and important corpses will invoke suspicion of everyone involved, Captain,” Lisette stated.
“She’s right,” Hikmat added, “They will begin to wonder why they can’t find any pirates responsible for the raid, especially once we sell-off the horde.”
“Well we’ll just have to be particularly convincing. Fortunately, you’ve chosen the best captain for that,” Diego grinned.
“Change the name of the ship,” Lisette stated.
“Hahaha,” Mar began to laugh by the window.
“This thing is not done,” Hikmat said, “The name of a ship is her spirit. You should know how dangerous it is to upset spirits.”
“It won’t be popular with the crew,” Diego acknowledged.
“So convince them,” Lisette raised a brow, “the owners of these relics will be looking for the Esmer Wind.”
“It won’t be as easy as changing her name,” Hikmat argued, “they will know her, know us.”
Lisette turned her eyes to Diego, but didn’t speak.
“Mr. Barrow? How do you recognize a ship?” the Captain asked his first mate.
“How do you recognize a woman?” Mar stared at the sails through the window, there was something more than rum in his voice. Some glimmer of light gasping through the surface like a drowning man. It sank away just as quickly, “Don’t answer that. We’re doing this?”
“I can assure you this vessel is no more spirited than Mr. Darzi’s boots,” Theron smiled.
“Knock off Riggy, drop the fore-top-galant, and paint the outside of the bulwark,” he pulled deeply from his bottle.
“My Lord may have cleansed your affliction, Mr. Barrow, but libation will not improve your condition,” Lisette advised. Mar turned his eyes away from the window long enough to stare her in the eye as he took a longer pull. He missed her hand servant’s eyes watching him. Diego didn’t. He cleared his throat loudly, pushing-off the chair.
“Excellent! Darzi, good man, pass the instructions to the bos’un,” the Captain poured himself another brandy, again offering to Lisette.
“Libation will not improve any our conditions,” her eyes all but clubbed him before Diego shifted his attention to Martha, or Magda. The hand servant was looking respectfully at the floor again, even his hardest willing did not bring her eyes up. He tipped back his snifter, “We’ll need a new name for her…Theron, something not dull, go.”
“Ah, yes…the Stone Lizard?” he replied, his brow knitting in thought now as he curled a finger around his chin, “the Silver Sceptre!” he pointed to the ceiling.
“Ugh, nevermind! Darzi!” Diego took another sip. Hikmat all but huffed in the hatchway.
“The Greedy Wyvern,” he grumbled before continuing out the door.
“Wyvern is good, but greedy? Come on, something inspirational…this is our new future after all,” he spun mid-step, staring directly at Magda, “The Lucky Lady.”
“It’s a ship not a brothel,” Mar shot, “why not the Drunk Nobleman?”
“Droll, you ass,” Deigo plowed ahead. No one saw the corner of Magda’s mouth twitch. The captain stopped his pacing again, silent as a wide, handsome grin spread across his face, “the Wave Farer.”
“Ahh!” Theron smiled, “a play on words!”
“Darzi!” Diego quickstepped to the window, forcing Mar to lean forward as he hung out of it, “Darzi! Repaint the stern! The Esmer Wind is no more, we ride the Wave Farer!”
Luc gave the captain a startled look from the helm. Hikmat threw an irritated hand in the air as he descended to the weather deck. Ailred and Raleigh exchanged troubled looks a few feet away.
An hour later, Diego was standing on the quarterdeck watching men paint the starboard bulwark. The few clouds earlier in the day had cleared and the near-tropical sun was in his eyes as he watched. It prevented him from seeing the anger on Vice’s features as the boatswain approached.
“A word, Cap’n,” he said, “in private.”
“Excellent idea, Bos’un, this sun is ridiculous,” Diego turned, leading Vice into the wardroom. He was taking his first sip of brandy by the time he noticed the grim frown and cross brow shading his boatswain’s normally-lighthearted eyes, “Is there something wrong, Vice? You’re not ill are you?”
“Re-namin’ the ship, boy? Have ye lost yer fuckin’ mind?” Vice growled.
“My good man, there’s no need to be brash,” Diego offered Vice a glass but the boatswain didn’t stop.
“Ye just fuckin’ mutinied, Samson. Ye think ye had a problem on yer hands with the old salts, ye sure as fuck have a problem now. It’s a dark course you’ve set upon here, and fer what?”
“Kevice, your council is as valued as always, but you must see the predicament Marcello left us in,” Diego sipped, “the villains will be looking for the Esmer Wind to land, if she never does, well then, we’re in the clear aren’t we? No one to question us on where our “captain” went, no one demanding their evil contraband. We’ll be free and clear.”
“And tearin’ off Riggy? What’s the point of destroying the figurehead?”
“Necessary to throw off suspicion. There’s no telling how much the Clark brothers know about our ship, if they have a detailed description sent to Astergaul, you and everyone else will be thanking me for such foresight,” Diego took another sip, leaning against the bureau.
“Ye should’ve done this slower, through Darzi and I. You’ve got a boat full of skittish sailors lookin’ o’er their shoulders, prayin’ dawn n’ dusk. Ye can’t go bringin’ ill fortune down on our heads now!” Carols was roaring by the time he finished.
“Mr. Carols! We don’t have a choice! If we want to be free, we must take risks. I’ll address the crew in the morning to explain this. For now, rely on your strengths. They trust you even more than me, they’ll come around. Everything is going to be golden, Vice.”
“Fine,” Vice physically restrained himself, “Ye watch yourself, laddy. Think on things a half-minute. You’ve just seen how bad it can get for an ignorant man,” he turned from the captain and stomped back out onto the quarterdeck, barking at Thad and Lowell unintelligibly. In his wake, Diego blinked toward the hatch, and refilled his glass.
Diego awoke the next morning with the strange sensation of another presence in his
room. The last, unraveling strands of a dream had caused him to sweat, Domonique was trying to finish the letter to his wife. He even sensed the departed captain pacing in contemplation. Diego grumbled, and then shot bolt upright as something clattered out the open window beside his bed. Diego flopped around to get his head out the window, but only caught a shadow slipping over the aft rail, “Fuck!” He rolled from bed and wrapped his coat over his silk bedclothes, “In my own chambers!” he exclaimed, shaking out a cantrip and running his hand through his hair, leaving it perfectly arranged.
“Arc’sun!” Diego shouted, bounding up the stairs. He pushed through the quarterdeck hatch to the outside, expecting a swarm of pirates, “Bos’un!” Mar turned around from the helm nonplussed, but a half-smirk grew as he beheld the great Captain Samson half-dressed and barefoot. Mar was certain he’d seen a glimmer of panic in his eyes.
“Cap’n?” Vice answered, moving toward the quarterdeck.
“There was something in my cabin! Just now, where did it go?” Diego demanded.
“Ain’t no one been t’ yer quarters by my order, sir,” Vice answered, climbing the steps. Theron stumbled into the sunlight from the sterncastle.
“What is it, Captain?” the arcswain asked, looking around.
“There was a creature in my cabin, moments ago. It left through the window and climbed over the aft rail,” Diego was halfway to the poop deck stairs when he finished. His hand reached for his sabre, but found only silk sleepwear, “Damn!’
“Sir, what sort of creature?” Theron asked, hustling after him.
“The sort that haunts dreams, I suspect,” Mar chuckled quietly, taking a nip as he turned back to the helm.
Vice reached the poop deck to find Diego pacing back and forth at the aft rail and Theron standing in still in the middle of the deck. The boatswain glanced up at the gaff rigging, saw nothing, and rested his weight against the rail atop the stairs.
“I want the ship searched top to bottom!” Diego instructed.
“For what? Cap’n is was likely just a rat,” Vice answered, “Ye want the crew riled for nothin’? They’re lookin’ for ghosts, ye don’t need to be feedin’ that fire.”
“It most certain was not a rat, it climbed two decks in seconds!” Diego had steadied his demeanor now.
“Actually, Sir, rat’s can be quite agile climbers, I can tell you they can be a real devil to cat-” Theron started.
“Arc’sun!” Diego chopped him off, “it wasn’t a rat.”
“Yes, sir,” Theron’s smile disappeared, “but I agree with the Bos’un, we don’t know what we’re looking for, and they are on edge, Sir.”
“Fine,” Diego twitched his nose, looking down at his state, “Keep a sharp eye about, at least,” he looked them both in the eye, then retreated to his cabin and locked the door. Vice and Theron stared at one another for a long moment after he’d gone, concern and doubt coloring their faces. Without another word they both returned to their tasks.
“Still glad we voted?” Mar asked, keeping his eyes forward as Vice walked behind him.
“Bitchin’ ain’t helpin’,” Vice snapped back.
“This is no good,” Rahman said. Hikmat stood beside him on the edge of the main hold hatch, “We shouldn’t disturb these things, they’re foul.”
“They’ve already been disturbed, fool,” despite that, Hikmat took a deep breath before descending the rope ladder.
“Yes, but not by us!”
“Shut up and get down here,” Hikmat growled.
“What if we get the Arcswain to do it? I don’t want to accidentally anger any of these things,” Rahman persisted. Hikmat paused at the bottom of the ladder, staring at the bulkhead for a moment.
“That’s not the worst idea you’ve ever had, Owl,” Darzi leaned against the ropes, “Let’s try it.”
Three sharp knocks interrupted Theron’s contemplation of the biographical information he’d pieced together with Lady Curtice’s aid, “Yes?” he replied.
“Arcs’un, it’s Hikmat, I wish a word,” the new purser’s voice was muffled by the door.
“Ah. yes, of course,” Theron pushed his boots out of the way and opened the door for the men, “What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
“It is the artifacts, Arcs’un,” Rahman began, “the captain wishes them moved from the hold, but..” he trailed off, looking to Diego.
“You have assured us they are not harmful, but we are not as wise in such things as you. I don’t want us to damage anything, or accidentally activate some enchantment while we move them,” Diego explained.
“Well, I appreciate your concern, enchanted instruments aren’t something to be handled lightly, but I wouldn’t think you could ‘accidentally’ activate any of these artifacts,” Theron soothed, “and I would agree that they could be fragile.”
“There is also the issue of the…ahh..modifications that the captain has ordered for the ship before we arrive in Ezrepellian…” Rahman continued.
“Oh of course, Mr. Nasib,” Theron smiled with recognition, “I could use a break from staring at this wall. A bit of hard work clears the mind, they say. You men get to our little remodeling project.”
“Thank you arcs’un,” Hikmat nodded, “You are a gracious man. We should get to our tasks,” the beninites were biting their lips down the passageway as they headed toward fresh air.
In the orlop, Theron passed a hulk of man, or more likely a skeleton, lugging the statue from the nerullian horde back toward the passenger berths. Seeing no point asking it what it was doing, he hurried toward the hatch. He arrived to the boccoban priestess beginning her ascent of the rope ladder.
“Ah, Lady Curtice, good day to you,” he greeted.
“Master Vossman, hello,” she replied, stepping off the ladder with Jorge’s assistance.
“I wasn’t aware your retinue would be assisting with this relocation, I appreciate your assistance,” he smiled.
“They are not, the statue is of interest to me,” Lisette answered, “you’ve seen its emanations?”
“Yes, I can see why having its aura near your quarters could be…of interest,” Theron replied as she glided past him, Magda and Jorge a respectful pace behind.
“If you’d like to investigate it, we can arrange a suitable time,” Lisette replied.
“Perhaps later, after the ship settles. Good day, Lady Curtice,” he resigned.
“And to you, Master Vossman,” the trio swept out of the orlop after their robust companion, leaving Theron alone in the creaking gloom. He inhaled deeply before descending the ladder and starting on the crates.
Soon he was sweating through his shirt, and while he was uncomfortable having to work around the corpses, he found a steady pace between prying the lids, sliding crates, and stacking the wares within. A little over an hour later he’d gathered enough of the plates and strange tools to know how many crates he’d need in Albersnagle’s vacant cabin.
Blood rushed through his veins, in a healthy, good way for once. Perspiration dripped from every surface in heat that was almost stifling this far south, but he felt refreshed. Theron gathered a few dishes and gingerly tucked them under his arm, using his other hand to climb the short distance to the orlop.
He caught himself humming a tune his grandfather had sung religiously during Tempe’s Trials, a song that his grandfather’s grandfather had likely sung, too. Theron could almost remember the words as he approached Albersnagles door, one down from his own quarters. No one had been in there since the old first mate left, and the tune faded from Theron’s mind at the prospect of taking over what had been such a big man’s home, to store that which he was so opposed to dealing with.
The arcswain shook the thought from his head, sentimentality would get him in trouble yet. With a gentle shove to free the humidity-swollen door, Theron pushed through and set the saucers down on the battered mattress. A hard breeze wafted him from the open porthole and he leaned over the basin to breathe in the sea air.
Huh, Albersnagle must have forgotten some things in the basin. Were these gifts for his daughters? A comb, a few shiny buttons, a handful of coins…perhaps he’d just emptied his pockets and forgotten it. Theron smiled at the thought of Thorsten roaring around the quarterdeck as sailors dragged themselves from dock dives.
As he lifted the lid on the cabin’s footlocker, something lifted the hair on the back of his neck. That something then shifted inside the footlocker and Theron jerked back almost enough to avoid the slashing blade of knife. It drew a red line across his forearm.
“Gah! Help!” he shouted, falling back against the bulkhead as the girl, the southlander girl from the crate, bolted through the open door in the passageway, “What? but,” he yanked a wand from the bolt-case at his side. Dashing out after her, Theron leveled his wand and barked, “Nocturna!”, a flurry of blue stars exploded from the crystal set midway along the shaft. They followed the girl around the edge of the floor as she leapt to the orlop, and he heard a sharp yelp as they slammed into her.
“What in hell is going on, man?” Diego called, striding through the sterncastle hatch sabre-first. He saw the blood on Theron’s arm.
“The girl! Headed for the hold!” he gasped, the pain was incredible from such a superficial wound. Diego cautiously descended, Theron following, wand at the ready. Huu Chanh met them at the bottom of the stairs, in a neutral stance before Lisette’s door.
Mar and Hikmat charged down behind Theron.
“What?” the beninite asked, hand gripping his sheathed blade.
“That damned demon girl!” Diego exclaimed, “Thorsten’s betrayed us!”
“She’s here?” Hikmat blinked.
“I assure you, she is,” Theron held his arm up, wincing, “Though I imagine she only wishes to hide.”
The other passenger cabins opened simultaneously, Lisette’s robed servants sliding out with barely a sound, blades drawn. Without a word they moved into a loose formation around Huu Chanh. Diego was already around the corner, but Theron, Mar, and Hikmat all stopped abruptly as they appeared. Lisette’s door opened, revealing the priestess in a periwinkle blue dress.
As she stepped from the door, Theron realized the servants and Huu Chanh had formed a defensive circle around the exact spot Lisette would step into. Even as his lips parted to comment, Huu Chanh and what Theron knew were the skeletal thralls moved as one, Lisette at the center, down the passageway. None of them had spoken, which he suspected meant arcane communication at play.
“That’s not weird,” Mar muttered to Hikmat. The new purser’s brow raised beneath his keffiyeh, returning the first mate’s concerned glance.
“To me, men! Tear the ship apart if you have to, just find her!” Diego yelled from around the corner. Hikmat turned and bounded back up the stairs and out into the sunlight.
“Well I guess it’s upside down day,” Mar moved by Theron to follow Lisette’s retinue. He had to squeeze against the bulkhead to get around the big one, who was apparently wearing some kind of armor under his robe. Great. The other robed ones and the hobgob were moving methodically through the orlop stores, probing nooks and crannies with their weapons. Diego was in the middle, awash in the purple glow of his lightning bugs. Mar looked for a likely spot and started prodding around with his feet.
A moment later, Hikmat and Rahman appeared at the forecastle hatch, blades glittering.
“Remain there, Mr. Darzi,” Lisette instructed, “Mr. Barrow, Captain, my servants will take the right side.”
“We’ll take the port,” Diego moved in that direction, Mar meandering after him, sabre low but alert. The fireflies spun in and out of shadows before Diego as he advanced along the edge of the main hatch. Mar wove among the coiled lines and casks that filled the orlop. Something tingled at his nape as he looked at the shadow between three casks, but before he could investigate further the shadow burst into motion.
“Watch it!” he shouted, Diego whirled in time to see the girl skittering toward the forehatch.
“Aha! Now we’ve got her!” the captain, seeing the skeletons shift as one toward the girl, held his ground and set his fireflies gliding after her. Hikmat readied himself to block the hellion’s escape. She kept herself moving erratically, darting in random patterns until she was before, no, passing by, the beninite sailor. She pushed off the doorframe on his left, slashing out. Even as her weapon whispered through his tunic, Hikmat’s blade sliced, scratching her knife-arm as the warchild ducked away. His left wrist twisted his hand toward her as she bounded the stairs, the shadowhawk leapt from his palm with a faded screech, zipping around the girl and wrenching the dagger from her too-small hands. She screamed with childlike terror and disappeared around the corner.
“Dammit!” Diego growled, spinning around toward the stern hatch, “I’ll head her off topside!” The hulking figure blocking the stern hatch beside Lisette stood resolute as the captain charged toward him, “Move aside, move aside, man!”
Lisette’s eyes were sharply focused on the far side of the dim orlop, silently directing the family in pursuit of the child. She was impressed by this girl’s resourcefulness and fortitude. It would be a waste if she had to die, children were easier to mold. As useful as her raised servants were, living, thinking adherents were more so, when properly disciplined. Magda, Jorge, and particularly Huu Chanh had proven that time and again. She shifted focus to Nosgalon, commanding him to allow the captain through.
“Good?” Mar asked, sliding past Hikmat as he examined the knife and bleeding gash disturbingly close to the purser’s kidney.
“Aye,” Hikmat nodded stiffly. The officers and Lissette’s servants pressed up the stairs after the southlander, passing confused crewmen rolling haphazardly from their racks, hair and clothes askew.
“Whassit?” Raleigh groaned, squinting a guarded eye around the gloom of the forequarters.
“Stowaway,” Mar huffed, not stopping as he made the turn up the forecastle stairs.
“Hmph,” Raleigh saw the others rush by with weapons drawn, even the arcswain with his fancy little backscratcher. There wasn’t anything he was going to add to that hunting party, so the old salt dipped his mouth in a frown and threw his legs back up on his expertly-packed mattress. He narrowed his eyes again as a gaggle of those hooded altarmen hustled by on feet so light he could barely hear them. The way they moved sent a shiver down his rickety spine.
Topside, Diego burst through the sterncastle hatch, startling Carmello at the helm. He leapt down the stairs to the weatherdeck, blowing by the boatswain near the main mast.
“The hell’s goin on now?” Vice growled, walking after Diego leaving a confused Coy Boy holding the line he’d been working. The Captain came to a halt near the forecastle hatch, holding his hands out to the sides.
“Easy, now, my dear,” Diego said, a dark figure lit upon the bundled sails on the forecastle beyond him. Vice recognized Thorsten’s little charity case.
“I’ll be a sonuvabitch,” Vice shook his head, stopping a few paces behind Diego and holding his hands up to keep the crew silent and still. The girl’s head was darting around like a hummingbird, eyes wild.
“We not hurt little girl,” Diego was saying, he didn’t speak chellachella very often, “not hurt. You are safe,” Vice was surprised how soothing the Captain’s tone was for having just incited murder the other day. The aging selerion almost caught himself transfixed, that boy would have given a younger Kevice Carols a run for his money.
The wild girl was terrified, but she seemed content to stay atop the forecastle for now. Good, it’d be a real bitch getting her out of the rigging.
Below, the robed servants had stopped short of daylight. They swayed gently with the role of the ship, blocking Hikmat and Mar. Lisette’s travelling boots tapped evenly across the deck behind the officers. Huu Chanh insisted on the cumbersome things, and despite their ruggedness Lisette had to admit the punctuation of her passing could be useful. Theron made way for her almost instinctually.
“Mr. Darzi, expose your injury,” she ordered.
“It’s nothing,” He grunted.
“Your nothings are always somethings,” Rahman grumbled in baiha.
“Mr. Darzi, you’ve been stabbed, and you are soiling the ship. Your tunic,” she raised a brow and bored her eyes into his. Hikmat glanced down, his feet were leaving dark outlines on the planks. He pulled the hem of his tunic to his chest, unflinching as the fabric tugged at the gash.
“Overlord, the flesh cleansed in death shall in purity find strength renewed to further the Order Eternal,” she incanted, touching her gloved fingers to the vital meridians in quick succession. The pain in Hikmat’s side disappeared immediately, replaced by cool numbness. He looked up at Lisette’s face to see her eyes fluttering half-closed, her mouth forming words he couldn’t hear. Something cool washed past him like a breeze, but his clothes didn’t ripple or twitch. Rahman cast a glance around them, like a rabbit hearing a hawk’s cry.
Just as quickly as the numbness had come, Hikmat’s entire body began to tingle. The sensation grew immediately to pins and needles, washing over every inch of flesh. He shuddered, gritting his teeth against the waves of not-quite-pain. Lisette was already ascending the stairs, servants parting for her without turning.
“Bac’quel!” Hikmat cursed, “what curse is this?” he strained his head around in circles as the pins and needles faded.
“Your wound,” Rahman poked at the pinkish line, all that remained of the gash. He wiped away the blood to make sure.
“Gah!” Hikmat slapped his hand away, “What the fuck are you…” he realized there wasn’t any pain, looked down, then back up, “Good thing you didn’t piss her off too badly.”
“What the hell was that?” Mar asked, deadpan but with concerned eyes.
“Auric channeling, I think,” Theron answered, “an unorthodox variety.”
“Well nothing about this broad is exactly orthodox, why was it cold?”
“It could be several things, but more likely than not a superficial quality chosen by her order’s high priests,” the arcswain conjectured.
“Yeah,” Mar wasn’t appeased, but he didn’t say anymore. Something was happening on deck and he was curious now.
“See? We are good creatures, not hurt, not bad,” Diego hadn’t stopped speaking. Vice was surprised the girl hadn’t flown up the foremast yet, she seemed to like the high places. Someone was standing in the shadow of the forehatch, but no one the boatswain had seen before. These passengers were sure to be trouble before the end of this. The silhouettes shifted in the doorway, and a pale-blue shape solidified into the Curtice woman, stepping smoothly into the dazzling mid-morning sun.
Even his keen ears had a hard time picking-up her words with the wind blowing them off the front of the ship. Whatever she was doing seemed to work, along with the captain’s gentle monologue. It took a few minutes, but eventually the girl slipped down from the foredeck and accepted the woman’s outstretched hand.
From behind the boatswain, the younger woman in yellow, the servant girl, swept forward and took the girl from Curtice with a loving smile. Memories swept over Vice like a crashing wave, his daughter Caroline looked a lot like this woman, and he almost teared-up thinking of her wrangling his grandchildren on that beach just north of Huttel’s Reef. Sweet gods, they’d been happy. His son-in-law teaching the four year old how to weave rope from dune grass, Caroline chasing after the toddler. His third wife collecting shells with the eldest down the beach, pausing to meet his eyes, the distance making her expression hard to read. Such a picture.
Godsdammit. The boatswain rubbed a thick finger across his nose and cleared his throat as the women and southie child passed him on their way astern. This was his home. He looked up at the rigging, the intricate knots and criss-crossing lines that made no sense to the average man but unfolded like poetry in his eyes. These lines his life followed…
“All’s well, bos’un!” Diego interrupted, puffing about weatherdeck, “My friends, my fellows, we’ve caught our little miscreant once again! It seems Mr. Albersnagle’s pet southie snuck back aboard before we left Graingers. I know this has been a confusing time, but the solutions to our troubles will continue to present themselves. Keep up the good work and we’ll be homeward bound before you know it!”
Kevice Carols shook the last gossamer of reminiscence from his head, cleared his throat and bellowed in his best boatswain’s bellow, “Y’heard the Cap’n! Back t’ work, ye salty piss-stains!”
Below, in Lisette’s cabin, steaming water began to bubble out of the cask’s floor as Lisette finisher her incantation. The pure water swirled as it continued to fill up to within a foot of the rim. Magda was smiling warmly at the little girl, who reeked of filth and was covered with grime. As her mistress stepped back from the cask, sitting down at the writing desk and cracking her current book. Magda tested the temperature of the water with the back of her hand before coaxing the little girl’s rags from her.
Magda put her hand into the water, the girl wary of her every move, but even more wary of Kara’s hooded form blocking the door. Magda spoke soothingly, “Mmmm, clean. It’s so nice to feel clean,” she smiled, lathering the bar of lilac soap on her hands. She held a hand out to the girl, but she just stared at it, tucking her chin into her emaciated chest.
Magda pulled a plush washcloth from her apron, wetting it in the warm water and slowly bringing it to the girl’s face. Very gently, smiling as she talked her way through, Magda was able to clean the filth off. She draped one of her own slips over the girl. Lisettte conjured lunch, and as they finished the meal, recited the Prayer of Tongues.
“Do you like the food?” Lisette asked with a convincing smile. The girl stared at her for a few moments, surprised to understand the pale woman’s words. She nodded dumbly and took another bite of fish.
“My name is Lady Curtice, this is Magda. What shall we call you?” Lisette continued.
“I am Teela,” the girl stuttered in rough chellachella.
“We’re glad to finally meet you, Teela,” Lisette smiled, Magda was sitting on the floor beside the girl, sewing together a dress for Teela from the remains of one of her own. She was smiling, too, with a warmth lacking in the mistress’s expression.
“Where is Gailis?” the girl asked.
“Who is Gailis?” Lisette asked.
“Gailis my friend, where is Gailis?” there was something like fear in the girl’s voice, or panic, cracking through her defensiveness.
“Do you meen the big man?” Lisette put a hand up high, approximating the former first mate’s height. The girl shook her head, holding her hands just a foot or so apart.
“Where is Gailis?” She persisted. Lisette narrowed her eyes, then arched her brows.
“Let’s go look for Gailis,” she said, rising from her seat. Magda set aside her sewing and stood as well, holding a hand out. Teela accepted it this time. The three of them, Huu Chanh not far behind once they left the cabin, ascended the stairs to Albersnagle’s vacant quarters. The door was still ajar. The trio entered, and Teela went straight for the open footlocker. Inside was a collection of buttons, food scraps, nails, and a ragged, grain-sack rabbit missing an eye. She snatched up the rabbit with a yelp.
“Gailis!” she hugged the dirty toy tightly.
Lisette smiled, “Let’s bring him back and fix his eye,” she said. Teela returned the first smile they’d seen from her.
“Teela,” Lisette asked, back in her cabin as Magda sewed a new button to the decrepit toy’s face, “Tell me where you’re from.”
“Home,” the girl replied, attention focused on Gailis.
“Where is home?” Teela’s eyes darkened with suspicion, “We are traveling to the southern jungles, Teela, we may pass close enough to return you to your family.”
“No family,” the girl was coiling like a viper, “all gone.”
“Explain,” Lisette’s dark eyes flicked over Teela’s expression, searching.
“Horse monsters,” she growled the words, barely intelligible. The cleric narrowed her left eye, horse monsters…
“Horsemen?” She asked, “Kard men came to your home?” the bloom of rage on Teela’s face answered the question, “They killed your tribe?” again the scowl answered. From readings and discussions with Huu Chanh, she knew hate between southlanders and kards ran generations deep, slaughters happened on both sides, “How many survived?”
The girl hugged herself protectively, casting her scowl at Lisette’s feet.
“You were captured, then. Taken away?” Lisette concluded. Teela’s scowl didn’t budge, “but you fought.” At that, Teela leapt to her feet.
“I fought hard! I killed many! Blood all over!” She screeched, Magda was startled by the outburst, a muffled Mistress? announced Huu Chanh’s concern.
“All is well,” Lisette answered, “ All is well,” She raised her brow considering whether Teela’s embellishments just might be an accurate retelling, “They took you away?”
“To the monster village,” Tella sat back down, “They wrapped me up, put me in a dark place with their monster-pups.”
“Other children?” an orphanage, likely, probably run by the hideous Gelnoran clergy. No wonder the child had been scared. Southlanders were bred to fear horses, the bearers of their enemy. Even Huu Chanh was leary around the beasts and he’d now spent years fighting far more dangerous foes. Putting Teela in a place that worships the Holy Horseman, the peasants probably never considered the ingenious torture they’d invented.
“I kill many there, too!” Teela mimed slashing and stabbing, no doubt she’d been a handful for the clerics.
“What did they do next?”
“They talk in horse-speak, tell me of their ancestors, say my ancestors are not real. Their ancestors don’t even have faces! They say not to fight, not to take things, but I didn’t listen,” the southlander girl’s face split in a satisfied grin that wouldn’t have been out of place in an assassin’s guild.
“You stayed?” Lisette found this odd given the girl’s obvious cunning. Teela kept her disturbing grin as she shook her head.
“I cut the hairy man,” she drew a line across her face, “I get away and run free!”
“Where did you go?” Lisette was making notes now, Magda was careful not to look up from her sewing but there was deepening crinkle in her brow, “How long were you in the monster village?”
“I couldn’t see trees, but I was hungry. I took yucky horse-monster food, I hunted at night, but there was nothing but dogs and rats. Hard to catch. I hid in the daytime, nobody could find me,” she puffed out her tiny chest with pride.
“I’m certain,” Lisette nodded, “How did you find yourself in the box?”
“The green man, he put tagi fruit out every night. One night he left the door open, so I went inside, quiet quiet,” Teela hunkered down as if sneaking, “but it was a trap! I cut him and cut him but he didn’t die. Then he poked me and I went to sleep, he was a scorpion-man!”
“What did he look like, Teela, the green man?” Lisette asked as she wrote.
“Long, skinny, he had a sharp nose,” she answered thoughtfully.
“Why do you call him the green man?”
“He was always wrapped in green,” Teela tugged at the little dress she was wearing, “He was scarier when the scorpion came out in him.”
“Did you see who put you in the box? Did the green man speak to anyone?” Lisette asked.
“I woke-up in the stinky hole, with scratchy grass. I scratched and kicked but it was like inside of a tree,” Teela recounted, “Then another hairy man opened the hole, and I can breathe!” She held her hands-up in victory.
“That is when the big man here helped you?” Lisette asked, the girl nodded at first, then scowled again.
“He wasn’t my friend either, Gailis is my only friend,” she looked longingly at the rabbit, and Magda was almost finished anyway. The handservant offered the toy to the girl, and she swept it up like a long lost sister.
“He wasn’t your friend? What did the big man do?” Lisette was curious again, she hadn’t taken him as one to stomach punishing a child let alone harming one.
“He sold me to another monster village!” Teela’s eyes were starting to wet, the wound was still fresh. She hugged Gailis, “The moon-man, he told me his ancestors were stronger, that he would help me be like him! I don’t want to be like moon-men and horse-monsters! I want to be like mama and papa!” She was starting to crack now, and Lisette angled her chin just enough to grant Magda permission.
The handservant leaned forwards and gently touched Teela’s arm as the girl started to shake, “He tried to drown me! I cut him, too! I cut him I cut him I cut! I CUT!” she slashed wildly at the air with her imaginary knife as the tears began to fall. Magda laid her hand on the girl’s shoulder, and Teela instinctively crawled into her embrace and let go the chained emotion.
Lisette placed the end of her pen over her lips, her foot tapping. Thorsten thought himself a soldier and a father, he was not the type to sell even a southlander girl. He was more likely to give her to..of course. The dead priest, the gruesome murder that fool of a guardsmen had been investigating. There was no beninite involved at all, the girl had killed a youthful priest too exuberant to aid a child and too inexperienced to take precautions against her violent upbringing. She noted the revelation in the journal. It hadn’t been a particularly successful interview, she needed more information about this “green man.”
The sun was sinking low outside the porthole.
“You are safe now, child,” Lisette assured as Magda stroked the girl’s now-silky hair, “We will protect you and feed you, and teach you to survive even in monster villages.” The girl didn’t respond, but Lisette knew she understood, the Prayer of Tongues ensured it.
Lisette continued to make notes on the conversation as Teela cried herself to exhaustion and fell asleep in Magda’s arms. She eased up from the floor, “Shall I place her in the family’s cabin, Mistress?”
“Better she feel secure,” Lisette replied, “The former first-mate’s cabin.” Magda nodded and turned toward the door. Lisette nudged Kara from her seat, the skeleton turned and opened the door to allow the pair through. Huu Chanh stepped aside in the hallway, dark eyes following the tear-stained girl as Magda glided up the stairs.
“What is to be done with her,” the hobgoblin asked softly, it wasn’t at one Lisette often heard from her battle-hardened deacon.
“Well she can’t remain aboard,” Lisette replied, “Her size could prove an advantage over the family,” she tugged the strap of her journal closed.
“She is strong,” He replied, still looking up the stairs. The deacon had heard the entire exchange, and chellachella was his second tongue.
“She is feral,” Lisette responded.
“So was I.”
The mistress swiveled to look him in the eye, what she saw surprised her. Something almost protective, “What are you suggesting, Huu Chanh?”
“She is young, she can be shaped,” he answered, “honed into a weapon of our Lord.”
“She’s already killed at least one priest who tried to do convert her, possibly a second. Do you think it wise to try a third time?”
“When I was wild, it was not the Overlord who saved me. It was discipline. Faith in our mission came later,” Huu Chanh answered, “We’re already going to Ezrepellian.”
“Mother Jasminka,” Lisette tapped her pen on her lip again.
“She has trained many like me, she can handle the girl, one way or the other,” Huu Chanh stood rigidly, but she saw what he was feeling. Teela was resourceful, unafraid of combat, she had not balked at killing, and had eluded discovery here for nearly a week, after surviving days without food or water in the hold. The Overlord’s work would call for those talents in the years to come, if they could be controlled.
“We will speak to her about the child when we meet,” Lisette agreed.
“Thank you, Mistress,” Huu Chanh bowed his head, closing the door. Lisette continued to stare at it, tapping her foot until she caught herself doing it. She twitched her nose in disappointment, how often had she been struck for that habit? Magda returned a few minutes later and began preparing the bed. The young woman knew better than to hum, but there was a troublesome energy. Lisette exhaled at the porthole, what was she to do with all of these sentimental subordinates?
Another day closer to South Landing. Vice wrapped his hand around the forestay as he inspected the rigging. Wouldn’t be long before the day’s watch spotted the mainland. The boatswain watched the crew from the corners of his vision. They were tense. A few days of relief and carousing after the Captain died, after the captain was murdered, was now replaced with fear bordering on panic. Port, even as seedy a one as South Landing, meant facing reality.
He’d already had to break-up three fights in the last couple of days, but nothing as serious as his stare-down with Cynric. Poor Godsdamned Cynric, no one spoke openly about it, but everyone knew the veteran sailor was dead. Rumors were crawling through deckboards. For his part, the boatswain had his money on the hob-gob. He’d never met a hob-gob that didn’t find joy in murder, it was something in their blood, even pet ones. All that remained to figure out was whether he dumped the poor bastard over on his own or at the instruction of Baroness Bitch. Gods above she was as cold as his second mother-in-law.
The Boy was taking it hard, Vice glanced at him on his way passed the helm. The bottle at his side was half-empty, and the day was barely half gone. The sooner they got off this damned ship the better, Vice had watched enough good men die by inches.
“Hoooo!” Hayes bellowed from the high-top, holding an arm out to port, “Sails off the starboard bow!”
“Sails off the starboard bow, aye!” Mar shouted back. Vice waited a breath for the first mate to act.
“Not even a gander, lad?” the boatswain shook his head as he climbed half-way up the main shroud and squinted southerly. Flecks of white beamed back at him on the horizon, she was a big girl, three masts. It was too far to make out her colors, but no navy ships would be this far south of the Daggers.
“Coy Boy, inform the Cap’n, three masts sailing north off the starboard bow,” he barked, dropping off the shroud. Coy obeyed immediately. The boatswain’s nose twitched. Moments later Diego burst out of the hatch with a confident smile.
“Nice eye-work, Watch!” he shouted as he stepped to the bulwark, spyglass in hand. He scanned the horizon and focused on the sails. Walking over to Mar, collapsing the spyglass, he chuckled and slapped the the first mate’s shoulder, “Excellent piloting, Barrow, we got behind them. Much too far to name us even if they saw us! Carry on!” That was the last the crew saw of him until the evening meal. They sighted land about an hour after that, the crew cheered at first, then returned to uneasy quietude.
“It’s simple misdirection, Barrow,” the captain set three cups down on the wardroom chart table, moving them about in the classic street game.
“If they catch you, we’re all dead,” Mar picked-up the center cup and filled it with rum, “Why take the risk?”
“Dammit all, man, fortune favors the bold! Darzi, explain it to him,” Diego threw his hands in the air.
“It isn’t a bad plan, we must know our enemy. It is easy to see what you want to see,” the purser said.
“And who’re we leaving to be eaten by the jungle?”
“Lady Curtice and the beninites, She was more than agreeable to the idea,” Diego sipped his brandy, “and she’s got a hobgoblin! They’ll be fine.”
“Assumin’ you get to South Landing free n’ clear, how are ye planin’ on sellin’ the goods without the villains hearin’ of it?” Vice asked from the corner.
“Mr. Carols, I am, among so many things, a master at the art of disguise,” Diego twirled his hand, “I want them to hear of it, and they’ll never follow the threads back to us.”
“Yeah, he’s got a powder-case and everything,” Mar cut in.
“Kit, Barrow,” Diego sipped, “a cosmetic kit, precisely for this situation.”
“You were planning on this situation?” Hikmat frowned.
“Well, it’s precisely for many different particular situations,” Diego flashed his smile.
“Oh, think about it, Darzi, what would a man like Diego Hercule Samson need a face-painting bag for? We don’t judge aboard the Wave Farer,” the first mate mocked.
“Well I’d offer a few suggestions for you Barrow, but there’s no amount of artistry that could salvage that disaster,” Diego chuckled, gesturing at the first mate’s face.
“Stow-it,” Vice warned, “We’re talkin’ lives here. Do you even know where to start sellin’,’” he swallowed, “Such things?”
“Vice, I respect your great stores of experience in the ports of Henal, but you must trust that I’m privy to a social pool above your reach for no other reason than the fortune of birth. I can ply these silvered waters of Ezrepellian as you ply the black waters of this very sea,” Diego leveled a serious gaze deep into the boatswain’s burning sapphires until he got the slightest of nods.
“And the rumormongering? This will also be your doing?” Hikmat was getting concerned again by the captain’s ambition.
“The best way to spread a rumor is by ripples, not waves, Mr. Darzi. I merely have to toss a few crumbs and let the frenzy happen,” Diego made a sprinkling gesture with his free hand.
“How long will we be waiting?” Hikmat continued to frown, this plan seemed somehow riskier than the last one. He didn’t know the first thing about the jungle, and he didn’t trust this priestess or her followers one bit.
“Not more than a couple of days, Mr. Darzi, think of it as a holiday! A return to the wilds, no more being cramped into the belly of a ship or rundown alleys,” the captain urged.
“I grew up in rundown alleys, ignorant bastard,” he grumbled in baiha. He didn’t see Vice’s eye twinkle behind him.
“We make landfall in the morning, I order rest and relaxation all around. Fatigue will help nothing,” Diego stretched, “all dismissed!” The captain was the first out the door, patting shoulders as he passed.
“If I were any more relaxed I’d be dead,” Mar took a pull.
“I believe you,” Hikmat answered, rising to leave.
“Lads aren’t going to like the diversion,” Vice mumbled, “best tell ‘em straight.”
“You were awfully quiet, arc’sun,” Mar kept his eye on the rising moon.
“It seems I have little to add,” Theron hadn’t spoken since they’d begun.
“It seems you’ll be Officer of the Deck most of the next few days, you ready?”
“Hmmm,” the arcswain put a finger to his lips.
“You’ll do fine, they run themselves in port,” Mar jostled his chair standing-up, “It’s a beautiful night, arc’sun. Might as well obey the captain’s orders.”
Theron followed Mar out onto the deck and up the stairs to the poop deck. The stars were brilliant and huge, unfamiliar constellations rose above them this far south. Mar offered the bottle, and he took it. Rum was always his father’s reward, a few sips at the end of a good haul, on Theron’s birthday or holidays. As he put the bottle to his lips, he wondered what they were doing right now.
He could see his father repairing a net in his rocking chair as Mother patched that old cloak that was probably more patch than original canvas by now. Theron took another sip, wincing as the liquor burned down his throat. Mar flopped onto the deck, propping his head on one hand. Theron passed the bottle back to him. They stared at the clear sky for a long time. The arcswain wanted to know what the first mate was contemplating, why he drank, but had no intention of sharing his own thoughts.
They shared what remained of the rum in that agreed-upon silence of men raised to guard emotion, and in that drunken silence they found a kind of mutual understanding, as if the stars had spoken for them. With Mar’s first snores, the warmth of inebriation swept through Theron and turned the edges of his mouth up into a contented smile. What would we learn, he thought, if we could hear the singing of stars?