Episode IV – Rum Souffle
“What do we do first, brother, eat or drink?” Rahman asked, spinning around to walk backwards along the dock. Hikmat cast a serious glance at him before returning his attention to where he was walking. He didn’t answer.
“You don’t have enough gray hair for that look,” Rahman continued, “I think what you really need is a good lay, but the only one around here that we could get that drunk is Aysa!” he used their nickname for Lacy. Aysa was the villain of an old story who drank the blood of her enemies from a chalice that allowed her to control their bodies. Lacy Duran made that kind of impression.
“You know what happens if we go through with this,” Hikmat said.
“A hangover and illegitimate children?” Rahman shrugged.
“Quit fucking around, you know what I mean. It’s crossing a line,” Hikmat flashed his old friend another dark look. Being forgotten about and laying low was one thing, raising your head up to do something like this was something else entirely.
“We’re dead to them, brother,” Rahman turned around and adopted a more somber posture, “even if anyone does still remember us, they won’t risk getting involved so far out. If they still cared at all they’d have contacted us.” They didn’t speak any more until the cluster of sailors was approaching the main square. Romilly’s stood prominently facing the docks, but only a small number of the crew headed for it.
“You two coming to the Point?” Tristan asked.
“Maybe later,” Hikmat answered, cutting-off Rahman’s response.
“Your loss,” Tristan lowered his voice to a whisper, “we’ve still got a bottle of the captain’s rum,” the red-headed man grinned hugely and split-off toward Woodham’s for a small hog.
Traditionally a cluster of the crew gathered at a point nicknamed Pig Pitch on the far side of the island and roasted a hog, or as much of one as they could afford, on the last southbound trip of the season. They’d tell stories and eat their fill, being sure to leave a good cut of meat to throw into the surf, an offering to Mother Ocean to “give her something to eat other than men’s souls” on their return journey. Vice would almost certainly be there, and more than a couple of the island’s resident strumpets.
Attendance wasn’t required, there would be an equal measure of the crew spreading out around the sparsely-vegetated island in ones, twos, or threes. There were a couple of freshwater pools scattered around good for bathing if you couldn’t afford a warm bath at Romilly’s.
The beninites were among the minority going directly to the inn. There was something about a tiny town of seafarers that made it almost uncomfortable for men and women to fully enjoy themselves in the only tavern. It may have had something to do with the officers and town brass being near at hand.
Rahman led the way through Romilly’s wide open double doors, the sounds of a three piece band and a woman singing met them before they even reached it. Hikmat was assaulted by the familiar milieu of liquor, smoke, sweat, and the faint odor of various excretions unique to a true frontier dive. It was still late afternoon, and light streamed through the leeward windows. It wouldn’t be long until Raguel closed the shutters on this side to keep the harsh sunset at bay.
“It’s always so dark in here,” Rahman complained, but his words rang hollow with grin in his eyes. Raguel was a broad-shouldered man, a growing belly pushed against his belt but somehow only added to the impression of strength. He greeted the incoming patrons with a hearty bellow.
“Ho Esmer Wind!” his voice was almost as deep as Albersnagle’s, though lacking that bell tone. Years of liquor and smoke were evident, and together with long, unruly hair streaked in gray, a salt-and-pepper mane of a beard, his impeccable waistcoat and breeches represented everything Grainger’s Rest was: the farthest-flung territory of the wealthiest nation in Henal. If Port of Isles was the beating heart of maritime trade, Grainger’s Rest was its patchwork soul.
“Ho Romilly’s!” Ailred returned the hail; probably a long running joke become tradition, it was general practice to refer to the inn and tavern as if it were a ship. Someone had even donated a lacquered helm-wheel that hung from the wall behind the bar. Hundreds of bits and pieces from hundreds of ships hung from the walls and ceilings, others stood on shelves or in corners. You could chart the history of sailing from here.
The proprietor made his way through his sea of tables, only two-thirds full, weighted toward the stage at the end of his latest addition built of old hull planks, boreholes and a few long-dried barnacles etching the walls. Raguel grasped Ailred’s hand.
Half an hour later Rahman and Hikmat were on their second pints, eating fresh bread, exotic citrus fruit, and chicken spiced with something that watered their eyes. It was delicious. A cluster of sailors from the Gallifont were starting up a game of darts in the parlor wing, making a steady rhythm of cheers and groans.
“Rahman,” Hikmat sucked on the last bone of his meal.
“Mmm?” the smaller man gulped from his tankard.
“Want to make some money?” he nodded his head toward the dart throwers.
“You want to pick pockets here?” there were unspoken rules about Grainger’s Rest, everyone was from the same family here. Stealing and brawls were less acceptable.
“We won’t take anything they don’t give us. How’s your aim?” Hikmat grinned.
They left their empty plates and carried the tankards over to the table near the dart board. A tall man, probably just into his thirties, raised an eyebrow as the beninites approached.
“Ho mystics! Come to read us our fortunes?” he laughed.
“We don’t pray to the Weyrune,” Hikmat smiled, “but I’d see losing a lot coin in your future.”
“Oh ho!” the sailor looked around to his friends, chuckling, “a challenger emerges! And what be his name?”
“Ha!” he wheeled, a little too quickly for a sober man, “he’s already drunk! Alright, Drunk Matt,” he gestured to the board, “Next game is you and I, best of three bos’un’s wife, queen’s rules.”
“Perfect,” Hikmat slapped down a third of what the purser had just handed him. The men at the table cheered and ordered more rum.
Diego glanced over at the commotion from his seat a few tables away, he and everyone else at the table snapped their eyes back to their opponents’ cards and piles of coin, looking for signs of cheating. The purser glanced at his hand, it was absolute crap: two hens, a hex, and a pair of horses. He glanced back up at the Gallifont’s first mate, a green-eyed devil nearing fifty. Diego had marked him as the main threat in this group, despite a very vocal, wiry-haired carpenter from the Bessy Mae who’d won the last couple of hands.
“Raise a half-skel,” the carpenter slid his ante to the middle.
“Call,” green-eyes slid his forward.
“Raise,” Diego added another half-skelling to the ante, making sure green-eyes and the carpenter saw his flashing smirk before he pretended to put his game-face back on. The bluff was working, he could see the carpenter wavering.
“Bah, ye bastards,” wire-hair dropped his hand, folding out. Diego raised an eyebrow at green-eyes, now keeping his face completely blank.
“You’re not as good as you think,” First Gallifont sneered, calling Diego’s bluff and tossing his ante on the pile. Diego just nodded, keeping his face blank. He smoothly called without a word.
“Let’s see what you’ve got then,” Green-eyes laid down three knights, which definitively beat Diego’s double-beasts. Green-eyes smiled and scooped his winnings to his side, just where the purser wanted him. By the end of the night, Diego was sure, he’d have half that man’s pay stack.
It was a pleasant distraction. The singer wasn’t great, but then again nothing was this far from civilization. Marcello had yet to turn-up at the inn, despite myriad social protocols requiring it. Probably waiting for Duke. The Mayor of Grainger’s Rest wouldn’t likely be here until after dinner, sharing drinks and stories with the captains and senior officers in a smaller addition off the back that served as the islands only officers’ club endearingly called the Club Deck.
Diego played another few hands, winning just enough to keep him in the game until he went for green-eye’s throat. The singer was taking a break, sailors on all sides just enjoying her presence. None dared make a move in the open, everyone knew who her husband was, but there was more than one rumor of more private encounters. The three piece had become four with a piper joining in. The crowd hid the dancers from view, but he could feel their clomping in the floorboards.
One of the serving girls was paying a little more attention to the purser as the game went on. He started exchanging glances with her, brushing her ‘by accident’ when she delivered more drinks. There was nothing wrong with playing more than one game at once, after all.
A cheer and the loud thumping of tankards on tables interrupted his thoughts. He and the other card players glanced over to the dart throwers again. Given the chant of Drunk Matt now rising, along with shouts for rum, Diego could guess what was happening. He spotted Darzi and Nasib among the group. Good for them.
“Deal, fancy-pants,” one of the Gallifont’s officers, Grimbly or Grant or something, was getting antsy.
“Don’t be in such a hurry,” Diego passed out the thin, wooden cards.
A musical duel was unfolding on the other side of the dining hall. The piper finished a complicated performance, the small crowd clapping and taunting. The fiddler had just started answering the challenge when Marcello walked through the door. Diego continued to deal as his eyes followed the captain past the stomping audience. He glanced down at his hand, decent. Marcello walked past the roost of grey pelicans drinking at the bar, not slowing his pace in the slightest as he passed Lynch and Cynric, the latter paused his conversation to glare at the captain.
The captains of the Gallifont and Besse Mae were already in the Club Deck, Diego had spied a bottle of brandy and meals heading that way from the kitchen, with a box of pipeweed too expensive to offer just any officers. The bastard hadn’t even bothered to take off his hat until the arch separating the rest of the tavern.
“That boy could dance a dragon from his trove with that knurly-bob,” Grimbly/Grant tapped his pipe on the table, joining the applause and tankard-thumping from the crowd for the fiddler. The piper blasted a trill, the fiddler answered, a man and woman had taken the dance floor and assumed sides in the battle. They hopped and twisted against each other as the musicians dueled. Was that Lacy?
Green-eyes caught Diego’s eye and grinned at his hand. Diego twitched an eyebrow at him, glancing at his own hand again. Once he’d looked down, his quarry sniffed and took a drink. That was the tell, the third act of this game had just begun. A few sips and a song later, Diego laid out his royal line, edging out over Green-eyes’s double nobles. The purser’s purse had just grown substantially.
“Lucky bastard,” Green-eyes shifted in his seat, “I’ve got to piss.”
“Best take care,” the toilet pit was through a door on the other side of the dart-players. Someone was parading around a dart with a cherry impaled upon it, and someone else was flinging more around, red juice everywhere, “I’d hate to see such a wonderful shirt stained.”
As soon as the first-mate was out of sight, the Gallifont’s cook set his cup down atop some of Green-eyes’s coins and slid it closer to his own pile. No one besides Diego seemed to notice, so the cook’s only rebuke was a quick wink.
“Drunk Matt! Drunk Matt! Drunk Matt! Oooooohhhhh!” Rahman cheered along with the circle of men. The self-appointed referee, Rahman couldn’t remember his name, held a cherry aloft on the dart Hikmat had just tossed. With an exaggerated showman’s stance he turned it about for all to see as another tankard was put in Darzi’s hand. Everyone drank deeply, someone threw another cherry and before he realized it, Rahman was engaged in a cherry-throwing war.
Hikmat caught his friend square in the forehead with one, “How’s that Wise Owl!” he slurred in Baiha.
“You’re fucking Owl!” Rahman returned fire.
“I am Sunhawk!” Hikmat cawed in drunken triumph, returning to Kent as he mounted a chair flapping his arms, “I am War Bird! I demand tribute of wine and virgins!”
“We ain’t got any of those here!” someone shouted.
“Then rum and loose women will do!” Hikmat pointed at the no one in particular and leapt from the chair.
“More rum!” Rahman called to the barmaid, she was drinking half as much as the sailors were and expertly alternating whose side of the table to bend over as she poured it out. A commotion near the front of the tavern registered somewhere in Rahman’s awareness. He looked over to see people turning to shout greetings at a tall, fit man of around fifty sailing through the music crowd, expensive velvet cloak flowing behind his waving and hand-shaking arms. It was a hero’s welcome if ever he’d seen one.
Someone rang a bell behind the bar, yelling “Grainger’s Rest arriving!”
“Duke Hartwin!” one of the drunken dart-throwers shouted, saluting with a tankard. Next to him, Rahman caught Hikmat’s expression. There was a familiar gleam in his glassy eyes. Rahman shook his head No!
Yes! Hikmat nodded, watching the Mayor of Grainger’s Rest like a predator. Before Rahman could reach him, Darzi had slipped away from their tables towards the growing crowd near the bar. Shit, Rahman twisted around two men wrestling for the nearly empty jar of cherries. He stumbled past a chair in pursuit of his friend.
“Hikmat!” he hissed, far too quietly to be heard over the raucous tavern. Someone started singing the second verse of Captain Legend and the entire crowd seemed to have joined by the second line. Clapping and stomping and a distant pipe and fiddle shook the edges of Rahman’s vision as he tried to find Hikmat among the patrons.
Mayor Hartwin breezed by, gray hair impeccable, the finely polished hilt of his sabre gleaming even in the dull light of the tavern. When had they lit the lanterns? Was it dark already? An apparition materialized from the crowd wearing Hikmat’s grin.
“What have you done!” Rahman demanded. Hikmat didn’t say a word, but he let a gold pocketwatch, elegantly engraved with a noble crest, dangle just visibly from his sleeve. He withdrew it quickly once Rahman’s eyes popped wide, “You fool!” Hikmat burst out laughing. Inexplicably, Rahman did, too. “We’re going to the mast for this!”
“Then we must drink enough not to feel the lash!” Darzi disappeared again, in the direction of the bar.
“Don’t take this personally, good man,” Diego smiled, laying down a beautiful full court, “but you’ve just been trussed like a prize goose!” he chuckled good naturedly as he savored collecting the pot. Green-eyes stared in astonishment at the cards. In four hands, Diego had won back everything he’d lost and a little extra. The first-mate had been the source of nearly all those winnings, and his stack was much diminished from the start of the evening, “and sadly, my friends, I must now take my leave. A more pleasurable group of men I’ve rarely had the fortune to gamble with.”
Groans and complaints half-heartedly answered him from the table, and a pout from the barmaid, but there was, very unfortunately, more pressing business to attend. Not without a second look back, Diego rose and stepped from the tavern into the cooling breeze of the advancing twilight.
The sky was relatively clear, and the island was weather-worn stone for the most part. Navigating it on foot was easy, so Diego declined to purchase a torch. He could see flames sparking in several directions, distant torches and campfires. He plotted his course from memory, he’d been around this island dozens of times in the last few years. He made a point to stop and share a drink with each of the clumps of his crew that he came across (with the notable exception of anyone closely entwined with a partner).
He’d anticipated spending more time at the hog roast, but after thirty minutes or so he found himself pulled away by the night sky. The stars out here were always so much brighter, somehow more vast in their multitude than anywhere on the mainland. He’d asked a few educated men why, even a priest once, but none of them had a satisfactory answer. He’d come to the conclusion that it was the lack of anything above you, and ocean stretching to the horizon in every direction. A stone slab floating in the center of the multiverse.
There was something special about this visit to the island. Things were on the knife-edge of change, his fortunes were about to turn, the forces of those same sparkling heavens had practically guaranteed it. As Diego wandered beneath the ocean of stars, he felt nothing but boundless opportunity. It was a beautiful feeling, one he hadn’t felt in a long time, not since this yolk of betrayal had fallen on his shoulders.
Shadow’s swirled with reflected lantern light and laughing faces. Hikmat laughed uproariously, danced like White Jackal until he fell against a wall. He couldn’t remember how many times he’d rolled on the ground now, or what street he was on. The stars overhead spun, the night time laughed and he laughed with it. He danced with his own shadow. Time ceased to exist. A man’s face screamed for help, Hikmat laughed at the jester’s play. Something spun him around and around and he had to keep spinning or the sky would fall down. Then it did.
Pain came first. Thundering, hammering pain in his temples. Hikmat dared not open his eyes. At least he was floating. No, just laying on something soft. So wonderfully soft. He lay there for a long time, or no time, he couldn’t tell. The darkness was necessary. A scuffling from somewhere penetrated the thunder in his skull, and then light cut his brain in half. A door swung open and daylight streamed in. The pain was like a screech clawing at his mind. No, there was an actual screech. A woman, terrified. He groaned and rolled off the softness onto the cool ground. Footsteps pounded away.
He slowly opened one eye, adjusting to the light. A chicken stared back at him from the doorway of…was this a laundry? Yes, he’d been laying on a pile of clothes. The chicken advanced, clucking curiously. Hikmat rolled again, groaning. He sat up, the chicken indifferent to his lamentations. He raised a hand to his face, and realized it was sticky. He blinked heavily, squinting both eyes at his too-large hands. They were covered in blood. The clouds of his mind began to part. Blood. It was on his arms. His shirt was soaked in it.
The rigger patted himself, looking for the injury. He felt his head, nothing. It wasn’t his blood. The woman’s shriek. Shit.
Moments later, he was stumbling down the alley in a pair of dirty trousers and a white shirt from the laundry pile. Gods the sun hurt. He thought he was going to vomit every fifth step, but he staggered away from the laundry as quickly as he could manage. Finally, the docks appeared. He made it the gangplank somehow. He eyed the plank dubiously, it looked so narrow.
He glanced back at Grainger’s Rest, bustling with morning activity. The sun was above the horizon, but not by a lot. It was before nine, he guessed. He looked at the Esmer Wind’s bulwark again, and swallowed his vertigo. Step by step, he made it up the gangplank and half-fell onto the deck.
Mar was on the quarterdeck, splitting old lines again. He raised an eyebrow at Darzi clad in oslander clothes. The beninite was in no condition to answer questions, by the look of things, so he returned his attention to the knife work. Darzi shambled his way to the forecastle and disappeared below deck.
Shortly after collapsing on his rack, Rahman hung his own bleary head over the side of the rack above Hikmat.
“What are you wearing?” he mumbled. Hikmat answered with a long groan, “Are you bleeding?” Rahman noticed Hikmat’s bloody arms extending from his sleeves. The smaller man was off his rack in something approaching quick time, shaking Hikmat to consciousness, “What happened!”
“I got very drunk, I will live,” Hikmat groaned into his pillow sack “Maybe.”
”You are covered in blood, wearing strange clothes!”
“It is not mine,” Hikmat answered.
“What in the nine hells did you do?”
“Too much, too much everything, go away, you fuck, I can’t think right now!” Hikmat half-heartedly thrashed an arm at Rahman.
“Fucking shut the fuck up, you sandy-ass fucks!” Manuel moaned from the next set of racks. Rahman ignored him, leaving to find the boatswain.
Mar raised his brow again as the other beninite stumbled across the deck. He shouted for the boatswain, and Kevice turned with a grunt from his conversation with Cynric against the starboard bulwark. Mar couldn’t quite make out what they were talking about, but he watched Vice wave dismissively and follow Rahman back to the forecastle. The navigator hummed and dropped another handful of strings into his bucket.
“Give the lad a tot,” Vice grouched in the forecastle. Rahman rustled about for a bottle of anything, finally finding a mostly-empty jug of rum, “Drink it down, Darzi.” Hikmat grimaced, not opening his eyes, “attaboy.” Vice tipped the jub up again, encouraging another pull. They waited a few moments for Hikmat to finish swallowing, “Water, too,” Vice instructed. Rahman left towards the scuttlebutt. Vice watched over the beninite in silence until Nasib returned with a cup. The boatswain retrieved a vial from his pocket, filled with a dark powder. Uncorking it, he tapped a small amount of the powder into the cup of water.
“Drink,” Vice pushed the cup into Darzi’s hand.
“Never again,” Hikmat groaned.
“Drink,” the boatswain insisted. Hikmat relented and coughed down the potion.
“Aggh…what is this poison?” he coughed again, rolling over. Almost immediately, however, the beninite improved. After a minute or so, he sat up to rub his eyes. Rahman grabbed his hands before he could touch his face.
“Ne’shalan,” he muttered, seeing the blood and dirt.
“What do you remember, Darzi, start to finish. You boys were at Romilley’s last night,” Vice started.
“We drank a lot of rum, and beer,” Rahman helped, “Around midnight was the last time I saw you.”
“The bar woman?” Darzi squinted one eye, trying to remember. Rahman grinned and gave a nod, “After you left, I went out with some of the others. I don’t remember who. I don’t remember what else happened, until I woke-up in the laundry.”
“Did anybody see you?” Rahman asked.
“The washerwoman, I think. She screamed,” Hikmat collapsed on the rack again.
“This is not good,” Rahman said quietly.
“You don’t have anything else knockin’ around up here,” Vice tapped his temple, “Think, boy. Where’s the blood from? A fight? A chicken?”
“I do not know,” Hikmat growled, a flash of a man yelling hit him, “There was a man.”
“Who?” Vice asked.
“I do not know him, he grabbed my tunic,” Hikmat grabbed the front of his stolen shirt, acting out the foggy memory, “I think he needed help, he left, I think,” he ground his palm into his eye, “I don’t know.”
“Where were you?” Rahman asked.
“Outside, a street or alley, maybe,” Darzi looked at his hands again, then looked down at his sheathed blade. The other two men followed his gaze. There was some blood on the pommel. Darzi looked-up at them both.
“Let’s have a look, then,” Vice sighed. Hikmat swallowed, so did Rahman. He slid his sword free, half expecting to find it stained crimson. The steel was clean.
“Well, thank the gods for that,” Vice said, “you better get yourself cleaned-up.”
“And perhaps stay in the rack until we leave,” Rahman added. Some of the crew were already preparing the ship, helping Woodham’s porters load supplies.
“Probably fer the best,” Vice agreed, re-corking his vial of powder.
Vice found Diego on the quarterdeck, checking-off as crewman reported for duty. Albersnagle had always been loathe to relinquish the duty, no matter that the first mate rarely stood at the brow of most ships. It felt strange to assume his role here, but it felt right being the face of the ship.
“You see Darzi when he came on?” Vice asked.
“No, he must have returned while I was breaking my fast,” Diego replied, checking off Hikmat’s name, “Where is he?”
“Sleeping it off,” Vice said, “we’ve got a problem.”
“A poor place for such a discussion, bo’sun. But I agree, the climate for our little plan doesn’t feel quite right at the moment. Not to worry, my good man, in time they’ll come around.”
“Not that,” Vice lowered his voice, “Darzi may have killed a man, or at least held him dying.”
“What are you talking about?” Diego stared at him.
“Come have a look if ye don’t believe me. He don’t remember a thing, too much rum.”
Diego glanced about the deck quickly, then back up the docks. He took a breath, “Hayes! Take over,” he held his list out to Carmello as he walked back toward the gangplank to retrieve another sack. Vice lead the way back to the bunks, they arrived to find Hikmat half-done scrubbing his arms with a wet rag.
“I am uninjured,” Darzi headed-off the anticipated question.
“Good for you,” Deigo snapped, “It doesn’t appear the other fellow is. Of all the times to get yourself entangled in…you choose now!”
“I did not choose any entanglements, Purser. I didn’t even choose to get that drunk,” Hikmat challenged.
“Well I saw no one forcing rum down your throat at Romilley’s last night,” Diego replied. He took a breath, “Worry not, friends. We’ll be leaving in a couple of short hours, and this will be behind us. Did anyone see you?”
“I don’t even remember where I was, how would I know if anyone saw me? The washerwoman is the only one for certain.”
“What washerwoman?” Diego’s stomach lurched for the second time.
“The one who screamed and woke me in the laundry,” Darzi replied.
“Just…just stay below deck until we leave,” Diego ordered, turning to leave.
No more than a half-hour later Diego spotted the the Dock Steward walking down the dock with a familiar face in tow, Captain Tilki. Tilki was a reasonable man as far as constables went, but he was still the law here, and as a result immediately suspect in the Book of Samson.
The purser waited for them to reach the foot of the gangplank before greeting them.
“Good morning, Mr. Dwyer! Doing well I hope?” Diego held his arm wide in greeting as the men climbed. Tilki’s expression was expectedly dour, but the Steward’s serious face quickly smiled at Diego’s greeting. The man was nothing if not amiable, particularly toward anyone civilized.
“Good morning to you as well, Mr. Samson. I am doing quite well,” Dwyer extended his hand in greeting and Diego accepted it.
“Captain Tilki, did one of my sailors fail to pay their tab?” Diego asked with a gleam in his eye.
“I’m afraid my task is far heavier than that, Mr. Samson,” Tilki usually possessed a grave bearing, but his tired face was haunted by something. Unusual, but Diego allowed him to continue without interruption, “You have beninites on your crew. I’ll need to speak with them.”
“Well I don’t believe they’ve reported back to duty, Captain. What is this about?”
“I’d rather discuss that with the Master of the ship, is the Captain aboard?” Tilki continued.
“I’m afraid he’s indisposed, I have command in his absence, I assure you he’ll be informed as soon as possible,” Diego’s expression became more serious.
“I’m afraid there’s been a,” Tilki lowered his voice, “a murder. In the night.”
“Dear Gods above,” Diego sniffed, “deplorable! Was it one of my men?”
“No, no. He was one of ours,” Tilki held an assuring hand up, “However, I have witnesses stating they saw a beninite man covered in blood hiding in a local business early this morning. Reliable men have also seen beninites on your crew. I must speak with them, Mr. Samson, on behalf the court.”
“Well that is most dreadful news, Captain, I’m sure my men had nothing to do with such savagery, but I can assure you of our full cooperation with your investigation. Unfortunately, as I said not all of my crew have reported back aboard for duty. Their liberty is not officially over for another hour, and we all know how lax sailors can be mid-voyage, eh?” Diego smiled at both men. Dwyer chuckled. Tilki blinked.
“Then you won’t be bothered if I inspect the ship, they may have come aboard in the night without your knowledge,” Tilki pressed.
“I find that unlikely, Sir. The portswatch logged those who came aboard during the night, and I assure you they are all as oslander as you and I.”
“Mr. Samson, I have a duty to execute. I must search your vessel, I would appreciate your cooperation,” Tilki began walking toward the sterncastle hatch, “I’ll begin with your cabins. Have you any beninite passengers aboard?”
“No, Captain,” Diego stood his ground, not blocking Tilki’s path but neither accompanying him. Instead, he turned to the dock steward, “Who is the unfortunate soul, Mr. Dwyer?”
“I shouldn’t say, Mr. Samson,” Dwyer replied, then lowered his tone, “but you’ll find out soon enough I’m sure. Poor Ervin. He kept the Peloran shrine, here. A lovely young man, not a full member of the priesthood, but well on his way I should have thought. Had quite a green thumb, too, I’ll surely miss his tomatoes. No one else has ever managed to grow them here, terrible soil, you know.”
“A holy man? There’s only one kind of man who slays a priest, or priestling in this case,” Diego looked out to sea.
“An evil one, of course,” Dwyer replied, “but any murder of this kind is an offense to the righteous gods.”
“But a bloody gift to a dark one, wouldn’t you say?” Diego had just had a stroke of genius.
“You think a cabalist did this?” the steward raised a brow, “I can assure you Mr. Samson, there are no fiend-sworn in this town.”
“Are you so sure?” Samson replied, “The agents of the dark powers are ever more adept at hiding in plain sight, these days, Mr. Dwyer. My pair of beninites are rowdy, but harmless. I cannot imagine either one of them murdering any man in cold blood, let alone a young acolyte of Pelor.”
“As noisome as it sounds, I have to admit you have made your point,” the Dock Steward looked back at the village, “I thought coming here would…Bah. We could only remain paradise for so long before ‘twas infected.” Diego was taken aback by the powerfully bitter man before him.
“I,” he started, “did not mean to upset you, Cullen. Not to worry, though, there is no way that evil can taint Grainger’s Rest for long. Not with the goodly who run her, and you can be certain the Queen will not see another southern jewel lost. You will have all the support you could imagine, Steward, they’ll send a company of Heronite Paladins if they have to.”
“Oh! I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that, they’ll arrest half the town!” Dwyer’s normal light-hearted smile reappeared as quickly as it had fled.
“Ha! If word gets out you’ll have ships trying the Daggers rather than sail out here!” Diego added, laughing with relief.
The stink of ocean pervaded everything. This was the absolute lowest point in Lisette Curtice’s career. The tiny window barely admitted any breeze, there was no room to work properly, everything had to be rotated out of the luggage. How could a nobleman of any standing tolerate these conditions?
“Getting this smell out of the linens will take weeks,” Magda grimaced nearby.
“Hardship in service to the Overlord will be justly rewarded so long as we are strong, Magda,” Lisette recited, turning a page.
“Yes, Mistress,” she answered. At least the savages had left them alone for the most part. They’d scarcely been disturbed during the trip, and then only by Mr. Samson. That man was entirely too bold, but any refinement was a welcome relief to the crudeness of nearly every one they had dealt with in the last several months. He even made the effort to smell pleasant.
“Release,” Magda commanded Cora, who released her graps on the dress they had been mending. The robed servant dropped her bony hands to her sides without a sound as Magda folded the dress in linen and placed it in the trunk near the “bed”.
Boots on the stairway outside drew the handmaiden’s attention. The crew scuttled about barefoot most of the time, and both the captain and purser carried themselves more gently. A loud banging caused Magda to start even as she looked at the door.
“Captain of the Guard,” the man on the other side announced. Magda smoothed her skirts and looked to the Mistress for instruction. Lisette marked her page with a quill and rose from the single chair, nodding to Magda. The handmaiden went to the door and opened it only a few inches, enough to see the guard captain, but not enough for him to see the room.
“Yes, Captain,” she asked. He was taller than her, but not by much.
“Good morning, Miss, Is there anyone else in your cabin?” he asked, trying to peak around her.
“My mistress, sir, Lisette Curtice, of Port of Isles.”
“No one else?” he asked again, suspicion in his eyes.
“Captain, why are you here?” Lisette asked from behind the door.
“I’m searching for a beninite man, a potentially dangerous one, melady.”
“What is your name?” Lisette continued.
“Fernando Tilki, melady,” he answered, jaw tightening. Magda smiled inwardly.
“Captain Fernando Tilki, I am insulted by your assumption that a man shares my quarters. I find it equally insulting that you question my handservant’s truthfulness,” Lisette ire was evident but not harsh.
“I mean no disrespect, melady,” the captains shoulders drew back as the man’s chest inflated. Magda was working hard to maintain a neutral face, “but this man is quite dangerous. My duty to the Court demands I inspect the room. You may take all the time you required for propriety.
Lisette’s lip twitched as she nodded to Magda. She opened the door completely, revealing Lisette and Cora standing beside the table.
“As you can see, no men. Beninite or otherwise,” Lisette leveled a gaze able to melt steel at the curly-haired captain.
“Melady?” Huu-Chanh’s rumbling voice asked from the hallway. Tilki’s hand fell to his sword pommel as he turned to meet a well-dressed hobgoblin.
“Captain Tilki was just leaving, Huu-Chanh,” Lisette answered.
“The robed man will reveal his face,” Tilki’s hand did not leave the pommel, and he held Huu-Chanh’s black gaze until the end of his statement, looking back into the cabin.
“Very well,” Lisette sighed, “This was all entirely avoidable, Captain,” she turned to Cora, “Pull back your hood.”
She complied without pause, using both skeletal hands to reveal her fleshless scalp and the bits of sinew that still clung to her jaw and empty eye sockets. Tilki’s mouth parted as took a sharp breath, staring at the browned cartilage of Cora’s nose. her lips long gone, Cora’s white teeth stood bright against the stained bones of her skull and neck, an eternal smile. Lisette softly chanted.
“Abomin-“ Tilki started to scream, half-drawing his sword before he stumbled forward against the wall. Magda lightly stepped back toward the Mistress as Huu-Chanh brought his flail around for another strike.
“Chains of obedience,” Lisette finished, reaching her hand toward Tilki and closing it into a fist across the room. His voice caught in his chest, arm frozen mid-draw, off-hand pressed against the wall as he tried to push away from Huu-Chanh. Magda stepped back toward her Mistress, watching the captain’s muscles twitching under the skin as he struggled in vain against invisible chains coiled around his limbs. He gurgled something in an attempt to scream through a locked jaw.
“Put him in the trunk,” Lisette instructed as Huu-Chanh’s flail landed a second time, and the captain’s terrified eyes went blank. Magda enlisted Cora’s aid in emptying the clothes from the trunk next to the bed. Lisette took her seat and found her page.
Huu-Chanh stepped in and was closing the door as another figure swept down the stairs.
“Lady Curtice?” Theron called, reaching the bottom of the stairs just as the door slammed shut. He pushed into the room, his wand of missiles in hand, “By the Seven, what happened?” he saw a man he didn’t recognize leaning against the wall, bleeding severely from the temple. Then he saw a real surprise, an animated skeleton doing laundry.
The bleeding man wasn’t moving, his position awkward, as if, “A holding enchantment? What is happening?” Theron asked, looking from one hard face to another.
“Close the door, Mr. Vossman,” Lisette instructed, her tone was incongruously relaxed. Theron complied without a thought, Magda and the skeleton continued unpacking the trunk.
“You’re a cleric,” he concluded, recalling instantly the other robed servants, they way the moved, “that is a divine holding spell, and that is not your only raised thrall,” he looked with interest as Cora fluidly stacked the contents handed her by Magda on the bed.
“Quite astute, arc’sun,” Lisette answered, “We are servants of Boccob.”
“The Emperical?” Vossman replied, distracted by the revelation, “Who is this?” he snapped back to reality.
“A predictably misguided captain of the guard,” Lisette answered, “he reacted poorly to my servant. I will not be hauled out as a criminal for making use of available resources. You are not so small-minded as think necromancy is “evil”, are you Mr. Vossman?” her gaze revealed nothing to Theron, which was itself intimidating.
“Of course not,” he replied, watching Huu-Chanh catch the captain as the bonds of the holding spell released. The hobgoblin set he man down next to the trunk. The captain was completely limp, “magic itself is largely devoid of morality, the ethics are in the using of it. Do you really think this a wise course of action, me lady? Surely the authorities will come looking for him here.”
Feet on the stairs and in the passageway delayed their conversation, everyone listened as they padded to the captain’s cabin. Muffled voices followed and Theron heard Marcello muttering as he stomped past their door and up the stairs.
“Can I trust in your discretion, as a fellow student of the arcane?” Lisette continued, ignoring his question. Huu-Chanh was emptying the captain’s pockets and loosening his clothes. This was obviously not the first time he’d done this.
“Of course,” Theron swallowed.
Marcello burst from the sterncastle behind Mar. The navigator watched him walk up to Diego and the dock steward.
“Why was I not informed that the Captain of the Guard was aboard?” Marcello demanded, managing a civil tone before the steward.
“It seemed a routine matter, You were indisposed, so I chose not to disturb you,” Diego answered. Mar could guess where this was headed.
“Mr. Dwyer,” Marcello acknowledged the dock steward with a stiff bow before continuing with the purser, “The Captain of the Guard would merit a disturbance, Mr. Samson. Where is he?”
“Inspecting the ship, Sir,” Diego replied, leaning back and placing his thumbs in his belt.
“Unaccompanied?” Marcello’s eyes shot open in horror, but he quickly wrangled his shock, “Excuse me, Mr. Dwyer,” he nodded again and wheeled about toward the sterncastle hatch again.
“Hoho! Quite a twist you’ve put in his rope, eh?” Dwyer smiled a Diego.
“He does seem a bit frayed doesn’t he?” the purser laughed as they both watched him cross the quarterdeck.
“Mr. Barrow, with me,” Marcello ordered as he passed the helm.
“Aye, sir,” Mar replied, falling in behind the captain. He glared at Diego, who only touched the brim of his stupid hat in mock salute. Asshole.
Marcello bustled down the stairs, not seeing the captain of the guard on the officer’s deck. With a huff he rounded the corner down toward the orlop deck, assuming the worst. Mar caught up as he approached the main hold.
“Did you know about this?” Marcello asked.
“I saw him board, sir, thought Samson sent a runner, I was occupied,” he dismissed the accusation.
“This is ridiculous,” they both saw the main hatch hadn’t been opened, “Thank the gods. Have you any idea what that fool could have cost us had Tilki gone down there?”
“I’d say not much, it’s all in crates…” Mar sighed, following along.
Marcello hurried forward toward the bunks.
“Inform Purser Samson we must depart as soon as possible,” Lissette looked the arcswain in the eyes. It was obvious he either had no qualms about what had just transpired or hadn’t quite arrived at any moral dilemmas. Likely the latter, she guessed. Best to keep the weak willed working, lest doubt paralyze them.
“Y-yes,” Theron nodded, “That would be the simplest solution for the time being,” he left still thinking through the possibilities having a boccoban priest aboard would bring.
Diego noticed Theron gesturing from the sterncastle hatch.
“Mr. Dwyer, excuse me just a moment,” Diego bowed as he walked over to hatch. Just inside the door, he dropped his smile, “What is it, arc’sun, I’m trying to keep him from wandering.”
“There’s a captain of the guard below, unconscious, or dead, I’m not entirely sure,” Theron stated, “We should make haste from the port if we’re to avoid any further entanglements.”
“What?” Diego’s jaw dropped, “Why the fuck did you do that?”
“Not I, Lady Curtice,” Theron corrected.
“Lady…our passenger killed Captain Tilki?” Diego’s eyes shot wide-open as he struggled to keep his voice low, “Where’s Marcello?”
“I thought he’d be up here, I don’t know,” Theron replied.
“Alright. Alright, we’ll get out of this yet. Stay below for now, I’ll keep the steward distracted,” Diego told him as he stepped back outside.
“Do you have any idea why he’s here?” Marcello asked, Barrow still on his heels.
“Something about beninites, it’s serious if he’s searching the ship for them.” They climbed the stairway into the bunks, seeing Rahman, Hikmat, and a couple of others in their racks.
“Why is the Captain of the Guard looking for you two?” Marcello demanded, stopping briefly by Darzi’s bunk. The beninites looked at one another and shrugged. “Typical,” he sniffed and continued up the stairs onto the weather deck. Tilki was nowhere in sight. Mar stopped at the forecastle hatch and looked back down at Hikmat with a raised eye brow as the captain marched up to Dwyer and Diego with as much grace as he could manage in his rage.
“Where is he,” Marcello demanded.
“Where is who, sir,” Diego turned away from the dock steward mid-quip with his most quizzical eyes.
“Do not jest,” Marcello would have been growling were it not for Dwyer smiling next to Diego.
“Captain Tilki? Why he left while you were down below,” Diego gestured toward the dock.
“He did?” Dwyer asked turning to look himself.
“Haha! Yes, Mr. Dwyer, you didn’t see him go?” Diego smiled, “He walked right by you, good man!”
“Hoho! Would you imagine! I must have mistaken him for one of your boys,” Dwyer smiled, glancing around the busy rigging, “You won’t speak widely of it I hope, I wouldn’t want word getting out that anything could slip by the old Dock Steward, eh?” Dwyer’s eyes twinkled, but even in the midst of all this, Diego thought there was something superficial about it.
“Ha! Most assuredly not, sir, I’ve only the highest respect for the station,” he smiled to keep the others guessing at his sincerity. Well, Dwyer at least.
“Then I suppose I must be getting on after him, you’ve much to attend to I’m sure,” Dwyer tipped his hat to the purser and the captain, “Thank you for your cooperation gentlemen.”
“Always a pleasure, Cullen,” Diego smiled. He continued to watch the steward walk down the gangplank, pointedly ignoring Marcello.
“That,” the captain began through a tight jaw, “Was purposeful.”
“I didn’t think you wanted to be disturbed with mere matters of the crew,” Diego replied coolly, still watching the steward go.
“In future,” Marcello’s voice was almost a whisper, “Find me immediately when officials board my ship.”
“I’m an officer, not your errand boy,” Diego’s grin only widened at Marcello’s impotent rage.
“What will you do,” Marcello dripped, “when not even your father can find you a job cutting fat on a whaler?”
“The Sapphire Guard, perhaps?” Diego finally turned to face Marcello, holding his grin, “You’ve neither weight nor balls enough to blacklist me,” he nodded to the rigging, “You’ve barely the weight to blacklist them.”
“You walk a sharp edge, Purser,” the captain almost snarled, “It’s only a matter of time before it cuts you,” his nose twitched before he stalked toward the hatch with painfully proper posture. After he left, Mar came up beside Diego.
“So,” he began quietly, “where’s Tilki really?” Diego blinked a couple of times and inhaled deeply, still savoring his victory.
“Excellent question, Mr. Barrow,” Diego made for the sterncastle hatch himself, “Carry on.” Before he made it, a paler-than-usual arcswain stepped-out onto the quarterdeck.
“Mr. Vossman!” Diego cocked his head, “Everything ship-shape?” He lowered his voice as he approached the hatch with Theron standing in it, “Where is our friend?”
“A trunk, Mr. Samson,” Theron replied, “Our Lady Curtice is far more than she appeared, it seems.”
“Ah ha!” Diego raised his eyebrows, more than she appeared? He continued to chuckle for the crew’s sake, but quit as soon as he was on the stairs down to the passenger births. With a glance down the passageway to ensure the captain’s cabin was shut tight, he rapped on Curtice’s door.
“Who is it?” Lisette’s voice cut through the door, he could hear some kind of shuffling beyond.
“Purser Samson, m’lady. I just spoke with Mr. Vossman,” Diego stated, waiting. After a moment, Magda’s delicious face appeared around the door. With no one else in the passageway, she opened the door more fully to admit the purser. The cabin was woefully cramped. Lisette sat painfully upright in her chair, a book closed in her lap with a thumb marking her page.
The rest of the room was taken by her hooded servant in the corner and the hobgoblin bodyguard stuffing a bloodied and limp Captain Tilki into a sturdy trunk, the carefully-folded contents of which lay neatly on the writing desk and foot of the bed. Her hobgoblin turned a wary eye on the door but returned to his task quickly, satisfied with whatever he didn’t see.
“Well, I’m glad to find you’re not easily intimidated by officers of the Court,” Diego offered half a grin.
“Why would I be intimidated?” Curtice asked.
“Well, you see, not everyone is so,” he flourished a hand at the trunk the hobgoblin was now latching shut, “willing to take matters in their hands.”
“Is there a reason you are here, Purser?” Lisette continued.
“Only ensuring that our guests were not too harshly inconvenienced,” he responded with a smile.
“I was, and am,” Lady Curtice stated, without a smile, “Do not mistake my willingness to do what is needed as excusing this situation. You still expect to depart at midday?”
Good gods above, this woman was something else, “My sincerest apologies, m’lady. I intend to set sail within two hours, you will not be further disturbed,” he bowed out of the room politely.
“Do not make guarantees where there are none, Mr. Samson,” she returned to her yellowed page. As Magda quietly closed and locked the door, Diego exhaled and shook his arms out. Was Curtice angry with him? What had Vossman meant by more than she appears? She seemed more disappointed than anything; why did that bother him so much? Diego climbed the stairs back to the quarterdeck in search of the Arcswain for answers to the questions bouncing around his head. She reminded him of Ms. Carleighal, by far the least entertaining governess of his youth.
“Mr. Vossman,” Diego approached the arcswain tying-off lines to the main mast. The sun was well above the yardarm now, and Diego was starting to sweat; the peloran scriptures called this His purifying glare. Why soaking in your clothes should be considered purifying escaped him.
“Purser Samson,” Theron turned from the mast cleats, brushing aside his flattened hair, “Is all well below?”
“Ha ha, that answer varies on perspective, I would say. Speaking of which, I very much need yours. What exactly did you mean earlier about…”
Diego was interrupted by a series of murmured expletives and I’ll-be-damned musings. The crew was looking at the dock, his first thought was that the Steward was returning with a contingent of militiamen as he snapped his head around.
“I thought he quit the voyage?” Theron’s brow knit in confusion at Albersnagle marching down the dock with his back straighter than a board.
“As did we all, arc’sun,” Diego’s heartbeat slowed considerably, “as did we all.” He left the arcswain by the mast and sauntered down to the gangplank, arriving in time to watch the former first mate bow it with his weight.
“Mr. Albersnagle, what an unexpected pleasure,” Diego offered a welcoming sweep of his arm.
“Is she here?” the bear growled, Diego caught desperation in the man’s eyes like he had never seen.
“Is who here?” Diego asked, “Are you quite alright, Thorsten?”
“The girl, fool! Is she here?” Albersnagle stomped onto the deck.
“The southlander child?” Theron asked, following Diego, “has something happened?” The first mate huffed, catching his breath.
“I took her to the priest, and then…and now…” Albersnagle swept his gaze to the rigging, searching.
“Ahhh,” Diego connected the unexpected visitors, “You brought her to the now-dearly-departed acolyte of Pelor,” the purser glanced at Theron, “I should have guessed the true slayer.”
“She’s a child, purser,” Albersnagle growled, “She’s not come back here?”
“She’s a southlander, Thorsten,” Diego replied, “Did you truly expect a peaceful transition to civilization?”
“No, she hasn’t returned so far as I’ve heard,” Theron answered the former first-mate, before he crushed Diego through the deck, “It seems the town is after a beninite for the murder, no one’s mentioned the girl.”
“A beninite?” Albersnagle’s angry eyebrows curled up in confusion, “why would a beninite kidnap the girl?”
“Kidnap? You don’t think she ran out to the island?” Diego replied, “Why would she return here?”
“Because,” Thorsten seemed to be grasping for a reason.
“Because it’s where you found her? Because it’s “home”,” Diego huffed a chuckle, “I doubt she’d let herself be kidnapped by anyone, even if someone on this island were deranged enough to attempt such a heinous act.”
“Perhaps I can be of assistance, Mr. Albersnagle,” Vossman butted-in again, “My knowledge could provide a fresh perspective. Given Nasib’s and Darzi’s heritage, it seems we’ve a vested interest in discovering the nature of the good parson’s death as much as you.”
“Arc’sun we’re to sail soon, and you want to go wading about in magisterial matters?” he leaned close to the mage, “We have plenty of rather significant problems to solve without getting involved in his hopeless charity case!”
“I’d be in yer debt, arc’sun, the acolyte’s home is near the east side of town. Diego, I know yer about as interested in barnacles as much as in the girl, but as a favor to me, if you catch sight er word of her let me know,” Thorsten met the purser’s eyes before returning down the gangplank.
“I’ll be back before the ship sails, Purser, I just need a look,” Theron promised as he followed the big sailor, straightening his jacket and waistcoat. Diego waved him along with a grimace.
“Madness,” the purser muttered, dabbing a handkerchief against his brow. Coy Boy walked by him with bucket of tar, casting a worried glance at Albersnagle and the arcswain.
“Of for,” Diego sighed, “Coy Boy!”
“Wh-, Yes, sir?” Coy stopped short and looked back at him.
“What’s bothering you, lad?” Diego asked.
“Well,” the junior sailor took a step closer, “It’s just that, ahh, I shouldn’t say as much, but a few of us were talkin’ last night…”
“C’mon, Coy Boy, you can trust me,” Diego put on a soft smile.
“The southie girl, sir. What if she hexed the ship? They’ve got black magic, Ailred fought them, long time ago, saw horrible stuff. If she’s, I heard the first ma-, er, Albersnagle’s lookin’ for her-“
“Easy, lad, easy,” Diego put a reassuring hand on the young man’s shoulder, “I can assure you she put no hex on this ship or any one of us aboard. Why do you think we’ve an arc’sun? He’s kept a wary eye on her ever since we discovered the stowaway in the hold. As for her having gone missing, it’s a worry for that too-big-hearted bear, not us. I even sent along Mr. Vossman to help him search for her, just in case.
“There’s absolutely nothing to worry about going forward, Mr. Robbins,” he patted Coy’s shoulder, “at least nothing more supernatural than the captain’s stupidity,” Diego smiled. The joke got a laugh out of the junior sailor, and he picked-up his bucket.
“Carry on, sailor!” Diego slapped the lad on the back as he turned toward the sterncastle hatch.
“Yes, sir!” Coy replied, with a little less weight in his steps.
Thorsten lead their march to the narrow end of a short lane, none of the lanes here were particularly long, close to the north-eastern edge of Grainger’s Rest. Theron’s hair was plastered tightly to his scalp as he labored to keep up with the former first mate.
“There it is,” Thorsten gestured to the second house from the end on the north side of the street. House was a relative term. With building materials largely shipped in from the mainland, buildings here were small compared to the rest of the kingdom. Foundation stones rose to shoulder height and the salvaged wood forming the frame and roof barely rose above Theron’s head. Albernsagle would almost certainly be forced to hunch once they were inside.
The front door must not have had a good lock, as it had been chained shut from outside. Men of charity were given to such generous estimations of honesty among their fellow man. Thorsten tried the door anyway, the chains held it fast.
“Perhaps we could…” Theron was cut-off by Albersnagle’s boot slamming into the door. The kick tore the chain free of its anchors and the door leaned open a few inches, unstable on now-bent hinges, “just act like common burglars,” Theron finished flatly. A clutch of hens chortled away from them, startled from their pecking across the lane.
“No time, arc’sun, you see any sign of the girl?” Albersnagle replied, pushing over the threshold. Theron glanced once down the empty lane, no one but chickens. He followed into the dark shack.
For an acolyte of the Sunlord, there was a surprising lack of natural illumination. Fortunately, the small home was reasonably lit just from the open door. The parson’s main room held his hearth, an abused, stuffed chair, and a small table with three stools, two pulled out. The rest of the room was a vandal’s vision. Books had been tossed about from the shelf in the corner, the tablecloth lay across the rug strewn with broken tableware. A trunk had been overturned, myriad winter trimmings and keepsakes of a young man’s life a jumble on the floor.
The bedchamber door stood open, and without entering the arcswain could see a similar state of disorder within. Thorsten was adding to the chaos already, turning over bits and pieces, looking inside the overturned trunk as if the girl were hiding inside, waiting for him to find her.
“I wonder what they were searching for?” Theron mused.
“What?” Albersnagle didn’t look up from his efforts.
“Whoever ransacked this house, they were looking for something, something small I’d wager, if I were a wagering man,” a glance revealed little of value in the acolyte’s home. That said, the best hiding place was often in plain sight. Theron spun his hands in three circles, vertical, horizontal, diagonal as he and uttered the matching incantation, then touching a thumb to each eye with his fingers on his brow as if to shield them from glare.
His vision adjusted to the glow of several auras, some his own, but more than one separate from him. The mantle held a scrimshaw statuette of a phoenix, often considered a holy creature by certain Peloran traditions. The bird glowed with enchantment, as did something in the pile by the trunk.
Sifting through blankets and sweaters, Theron found the source of the glow. A brown glass flask the size of his fist, sealed with crusty yellow wax.
“What is it? A sign?” Thorsten asked, stepping out of the bedchamber.
“Holy water, I should think,” the arcswain held the flask to the light streaming through the doorway. Whatever was inside seemed to catch and enhance light despite the dark glass, one could almost believe it was a trick of the eyes.
“Nothing, then,” Thorsten slammed a heavy fist into the door frame next to him, raining dust on both their heads, “Damn!”
“I’m sorry, Thorsten. If I had prepared different spells perhaps I could be of more use to you,” the arcswain set the flask on the mantle beside the phoenix.
“Well then we’ll have t’check door-by-door. Someone saw where she went,” Albersnagle’s jaw set and he marched out of the broken door as fast as he had marched in. Theron, eyes still aglow with magesight, was left standing in the wake of dust motes swirling in the sunlight.
The silence here could have been disquieting, but Theron was brought back to the muted libraries of Dorrick. He jammed his tongue against his cheek as he looked around the room again. Was this the sort of life he had yearned for? This parson wasn’t so different from him: younger, learned of a power most men couldn’t contemplate. Obviously bold to have moved to the furthest reach of the kingdom, and by all indications he lived utterly alone. Someone had murdered him in the street, brutally, and not a soul had seen it.
Theron discovered a boiling anger in his belly. He noticed a lone woman’s glove among the debris. What history did that one piece among so many hold? Why was there only one? Who had it belonged to? Would anyone here know? Theron could predict the answer.
This was how they repay such a sacrifice? A man leaves everything to help your pathetic village and yet he bleeds to death cold and alone upon the stony ground? Perhaps it was the fool’s own fault for trusting in divine providence. Pray all you like to an entity like the Sunlord, he’ll never hear you. Not in the way you think. Damned, idiotic fanatics! They told the parson Pelor would protect, Pelor would favor the vessels of his mercy. Pelor is not even its true name! The Sunlord is unfathomable, older than the world by most estimates; it never was and never will be in any way human.
“You put your soul in the hands of an incomprehensible planar entity, one which does not even think by our definition of the term!” Theron found himself lecturing the room, “You poor bastard, it never knew you existed! Your fate is that of a man blind to truth, blind to reason. I will not morn a fool! I won’t!”
He stood there, shoulders hunched in aggression he had not felt in years. The dust did not refute his claims. The phoenix would not satisfy him with dissent. The fire cooled in his belly, and he let the magesight fade from his eyes. With a twitch of disgust, or guilt, or some combination thereof, the arcswain carried himself out into the midday sun after Albersnagle.
He caught-up to the man near the end of the lane, pummeling the door of a squat cottage.
“Mr. Albersnagle, I’m certain the authorities already questioned the neighbors thoroughly,” Theron tried calmly, having had a few moments to collect himself.
“About the holyman, sure,” Albersnagle replied, “What about he girl? You’ve seen how the crew looked at her, arc’sun. You think anyone on this island will have a better opinion?”
“The acolyte did, did he not?” Theron pointed out.
“Aye, I thought so,” Albersnagle gave up on the silent cottage and began down the path to the next one.
“Than it would stand to reason his flock may not harbor the same resentment as a clutch of superstitious sailors,” Theron argued.
“Look where you are, mage!” Thorsten’s frustration gripped his face, “Everyone is a superstitious sailor, here! It’s no safe harbor for her. It’s up to us to save her.”
“What can you expect to get from townsfolk, then? Would you not be better-off searching the island interior?”
“Somebody saw something, Theron! I know it. She’s got to be in town. There’s nothing out there for her, no trees, no caves, no food. She’s a child, and she’s scared of the night just like any would be. She may even have watched a man get gutted. She didn’t run out t’ the wilds alone.”
“Thorsten, friend, there has to be a more-“ Theron began calmly.
“Are you going to help or not?” the huge man spun around, “You don’t fucking care any more than they do! Go, then! I’ll do it my fucking self, since I’m the only man with enough spine to do the right fucking thing!” Albersnagle roared, hulking over the arcswain. To his credit, Vossman did not flinch at the outburst.
“Think what you will about us, Thorsten, but we are not villains for wanting our destinies to rest in our own hands,” the arcswain answered the real source of the sailor’s rage.
“Go!” Thorsten shouted loud enough to rattle shutters, the arcswain’s ears rang in the aftermath.
“Fate grace you, Mr. Albersnagle,” Theron stared into the raging bear’s eyes briefly before stepping around him and walking toward the docks. Though he didn’t look back, the arcswain heard Thorsten approach the next cottage and bang on the door. Perhaps he heard the former officer’s breath catch once or twice as he was left behind. Theron had to focus on his steps to avoid collapsing as his limbs and belly quivered.
“Bo’sun, raise the Blue Peter,” Diego stood with his hands clasped behind him, posture relaxed and confident.
“Aye, aye,” Carols barked, “Fly the blue peter aloft!” Manuel ran the signal flag up the forestay and secured the line.
“Blue Peter aloft!” he called out.
“Blue Peter aloft, sir!” Carols barked.
“Three bells, Mr. Carols,” Diego recited.
“Three bells, aye!” Vice barked, turning sharply and taking three measured strides to the ships bell. He gripped the clapper’s tail and expertly bounced it against the rim three times, the tones rolling across the deck and along the docks.
“Secure the ship and ready to make way,” Diego finished.
“Aye, aye, sir!” Vice barked a final time before moving off to do exactly that.
Diego smiled, surveying his crew moving deftly about their tasks. He strode along the quarterdeck to the gangplank and set one boot up on the bulwark. The arcswain was the only crewman still ashore. Diego wasn’t quite anxious yet, but he was in the realm of mild concern. A glance at the sun saw it nearing zenith. Curtice would just have to wait, he wasn’t about to leave his arcswain behind, not with all the questions yet to be answered.
She’s more than she appears…What did that mean? Her pet hobgoblin had obviously done the dirty business with Tilki; normally that would have been impressive, but Diego had heard plenty of stories about hobgoblins. Had Tilki recognized her? Was she conning them with a noble daughter act? She’d have to be the best damned actor he’d ever seen.
His stomach all but hit the deck. Was she involved with the secret cargo? Dear gods above! What if she was insurance against exactly what he was planning to do? He felt woozy. Why hadn’t he thought of that before! He pushed off the bulwark and spun around, slamming both hands down on the railing. Now he was anxious. What if he’d just played straight into their hands?
It was a damn good thing he hadn’t spilled more about the cargo. If they found out what he knew about the actual bodies in the bilge…he would likely be one of them before the end of this trip. What if they knew that he knew already? If they thought that he knew that they knew that he knew…he was getting a headache. He needed to talk to the arcswain, before they left.
He loosened his neckerchief, the image of the hobgoblin stuffing the captain of the guard into a box playing over and over in his head as he found his legs taking him to the wardroom. The hobgob wasn’t the only concern, gods above, she had an entire gang with her, a very disciplined gang, whose faces he had yet to see. This was very, very bad indeed.
He opened the purse cubby and reached to the back, finding his bottle of Dodrial Cognac. The silver snifter in his pocket was a terrible indignity, but aboard the ship he’d shattered too many crystal ones. The drink hit his throat and soothed his nerves almost immediately. Three pours later he corked the bottle and locked it safely away feeling much better.
As Diego stepped out onto the quarterdeck again, he was pleasantly surprised to see Theron moving slowly toward the dock. So agonizingly slow.
“Mr. Barrow!” he turned to the navigator, “Are we ready to sail?”
“I’m waiting on you, Brandy,” Mar replied from the helm.
“Then we’re ready,” Diego glanced around, “Lancer! Inform the captain we’re ready to get underway.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Roch finished tying-off the line he was working with and hustled down below.
“Arc’sun Vossman!” Diego smiled down from astride the gangplank as Theron reached its base, “I trust your search was fruitful and useful?”
“No, in fact it was quite trying,” Vossman replied, climbing the plank, “No sign of the girl, and I was forced to leave Mr. Albersnagle very upset.”
“Well, that’s a shame. He seemed quite attached to the girl, gods’ know why,” Diego stepped aside to let the arcswain aboard, “we’re about to get underway, Mr. Vossman. I would have a word in private before we embark on this next leg of our grand journey.”
“Diego, can it wait?” Vossman dabbed his wet brow with a sleeve.
“It relates to what you said earlier, regarding appearances, and those surpassing them,” the purser raised an eyebrow.
“Ah,” Theron sighed, “Very well.”
He followed Diego into the wardroom, relieved at least by the relative cool. The purser deftly pulled a bottle of brandy from the bureau as he produced a pair of glasses. He poured two fingers in each glass and closed the hatch on the way to the chart table.
“Now,” Diego managed to wait until Theron had sipped from the glass, but the urgency in his voice was difficult to mask, “what did you see?”
“Lady Curtice is a disciple of Boccob,” Theron swirled his drink, “Would you have expected someone of her station to be interested in such a confused religion?”
“Disciple of…she’s clergy?” Diego exclaimed.
“Isn’t that common among your type?” Theron replied.
“Well, yes I suppose there are certain outmoded traditions dictating holy service, but hardly anyone…that’s your great revelation? Ha!” Diego stress left him completely.
“Indeed, and one of some training in my estimation. She subdued our visitor with a spell before her brute pummeled him.”
“So she’s a nun,” Diego smiled, “No wonder she’s so…rigid.”
“There’s more, Mr. Samson,” Theron was brightening-up, whether from the drink or the rare interest of a crewman in the arcane, “That hooded entourage? I suspect every one of them is an animated skeleton.” Diego choked on his last sip of brandy.
“Skeletons?” he coughed, eyes wide.
“Yes, she was very subtle about it wasn’t she? I never would have suspected they weren’t living men,” Theron took another sip.
“There are undead on this ship?” Diego dropped to a harsh whisper.
“They’re obviously well controlled, Mr. Samson,” Theron replied, “Or you certainly would have discovered them by now.”
“I should have seen this when she first arrived,” Diego spun around to pour another drink, “bodies in the cargo, tableware for an undead cult. It’s definitive then, Mr. Vossman. This “Curtice” is obviously working for the Clark brothers.”
“Hmm…that’s a significant assumption, Mr. Samson,” Theron ceased musing.
“The writing is on the proverbial wall! Of course they wouldn’t trust Marcello at his word. We, Mr. Vossman, are dead men drinking.”
“I highly doubt a cleric of her capacity, and one of Boccob the Empirical no less, would be under the employ of shady of men such as those encountered in Dalda. Particularly if they’re involved in snapsand, the Boccobans were one of the loudest proponents of outlawing the substance. Her entourage is merely an indication that she holds a more enlightened view of necromancy than most.”
“More of that? We’re not in Dorrick, if she has a half-dozen undead assassins under her thrall we are in very real trouble. Particularly now that she knows of our plans,” Diego sucked-up half of his glass and swirled it around his mouth before swallowing.
“How…Ah,” Theron understood, “You told her already.”
“Exactly. We may have to wait until we’re out to sea, perhaps we can play it in our favor. If we can convince the crew Marcello knew who she was, they’ll easily help us dispose of him. You can take Curtice yes?”
“Excuse me?” Theron’s brow jumped.
“You’re a trained arc’sun, aren’t you? Can you beat her and her minions in, what do you call them, mage duels?” Diego asked, eye’s alight.
“I wouldn’t prefer to test it…and wizards do not waste time dueling. Why are you so convinced? She has been nothing but pleasant, and came in very handy this morning,” Theron argued, “I think we need to wait and see, Sir, before doing anything brash. I’m sure she does not care who is in command of this ship any more than she cares who furls the sails.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Diego said, swishing another sip, “Perhaps I could sway her given enough time, or perhaps she’ll tip her hand. Either way, we can’t afford to poke that bear now, can we?”
“I wouldn’t recommend that, no,” Theron replied, he took his final sip and stood, “That settled, I have preparations of my own to see to, Purser,” he stepped past Diego, leaning over the chart table in contemplation, to return his glass to the cabinet.
“Yes, yes,” Diego waved, taking a deep breath and standing up straight, “Thank you, Vossman, your insight proves invaluable once again,” the Purser swept out of the hatch with a relaxed smile.
Theron retrieved the glass Diego had left on the chart table and placed it next to his. “Only if you listen to it,” the arcswain sighed.
With the sun past its peak, Hikmat was thankful to be out of the bunks. A true autumn wind was putting Grainger’s Rest behind them at a comfortable pace.
“As Scorpion said to Jackal, we are over halfway across,” Rahman said from the yardarm above him, quoting the old tales again.
“I wish you had not used that story,” Hikmat replied.
“I wish our own was not so similar, brother,” Rahman replied, securing a knot, “On the other hand, you are not hanging from your neck.”
“Hmm,” Hikmat shuddered. It wasn’t dying that bothered him, astonishingly. What chilled him was dying for another’s crime. He would never be responsible for another man’s deeds again.
When had this resolve taken hold of his heart? He wouldn’t have imagined it a month ago.
“Agus’s left nut, you look fit to kill,” Manuel was working a few arm lengths away, “You didn’t did you?” He glanced around lowering his voice, “Word is that guard captain was lookin’ for you this morning.”
“He was mistaken,” Hikmat stared Manuel in the eye, face half-hidden behind his keffiyeh.
“Never said he wasn’t, haha,” Manuel forced a laugh, “Just that he was lookin’ for sandies,” he looked around for something else to say, caught Rahman’s eye above them and gave a nod, “You boys can get back to yer gibberish, then.”
“The most beautiful tales in history are spoken in baiha,” the falconer frowned at him, “kent is good only for cursing and whores!”
“Fuck yeah it is!” Manuel shot back with a grin as he worked his way outboard along the foot-ropes.
On the helm, Mar checked their bearing and looked back up at the horizon through the forest of rigging. He took a nip from one of the fresh bottles he’d bought in port and set it back in the little net he’d woven from junk strands, hanging from the binnacle. Nothing but open sea ahead and land was but a fading shadow off the stern. Weight left his shoulders with every breath of salty air. Two nips later his lips started moving
“Rum tum tum
fill the hold with rum,
turn from the sun,
on the wind do run,
rum tum tum
man the deck guns,
there’s a ship on the hunt,
rum tum tum
pray for your sons,
that’s the Panthera come,
the Panthera’s come for you,
“Dear gods above and below, are you singing, man,” Diego announced his emergence from the sterncastle, “You’re already boondoggled aren’t you, good navigator? Haha! What’s that tune? I don’t recognize it.”
“You wouldn’t,” Mar’s face darkened again, “It’s for men far worthier than you.”
“Oh, come now, Mr. Barrow, it’s too early in the day for your acerbic demeanor to rear its rear,” Diego put an arm around Mar’s shoulder, sweeping the other in front them both, “We’ve an open ocean of possibilities before us. We’re going to broaden our horizons tomorrow.” When Mar refused to acknowledge him, Diego jostled his shoulder and tapped his ring on the bottle hanging from the binnacle, “Are you with me or shall I spell it out for your drowning mind?”
“Tomorrow it is. Are you done? I have a ship to steer,” Mar answered, brushing-off the purser’s hand like a particularly large spider.
“Try as you might, Mr. Barrow, even you can’t spoil a revolution!” Diego whispered, leaning close.
“You smell like a whore,” Mar twitched his nose, not taking his eyes from the horizon.
“This is DeSambonito, you slovenly bastard, made from a spring on the Algranor slopes with ambsolom’s cup blossoms, five kingers a vial!”
“Fine, you smell like an expensive whore.”
“And you a whore’s chamberpot!” Diego sniffed, “Go back to singing, Mar, it makes you nearly acceptable.”
The purser strutted away towards the weather deck, no doubt on a good will tour. I hate that man, Mar freed his bottle from the net and took a long pull.
A muffled groan escaped the trunk in Lisette’s cabin. She didn’t pause her reading, Westraus was a brilliant philosopher, but he’d lived in the era of elder kent and interpreting his genius occupied considerable attention. A second groan and light thump did not lift her eyes from the page, but did garner a response.
“Huu-Chanh,” she said, just loud enough to be heard through the thin wall separating their cabins. In moments the hobgoblin soldier was in her chamber, flail in hand. A third groan from the trunk made orders unnecessary. He closed the door and drew his dahr-gao. “Do not make a mess,” Lisette said softly, translating a section into her notes, alongside her translation.
“As you wish, Mother,” Huu-Chanh replied. He sheathed the traditional side-knife. Magda, wearing her working apron, handed him an iron from her kit.
“I made enough tea for you and Jorge,” Magda said casually, folding the dress she was mending under a linen wrap to protect it from spatter.
“Thank you, sister,” he replied, unlatching the trunk.