CHAPTER II : THE LAZARETTE
Religion was the last fire we forgot and the first we sparked up again.
The old man’s words sloshed about between Xaki’s ears, rocked back and forth by wind and hull. She couldn’t help but silently concede that he, once again, was right. His little bywords had an annoying knack of always being apt. Apt even in death, she thought to herself as she looked around at the crew of proselytes mumbling prayers between their palms.
The pointlessness all started with an oarsman, whose hope went grey and cold when the sky did. As soon as the storm bared its teeth the sorrysack threw all hope and constructive recourse overboard. In the dramatic fashion of a man finding religion on the divine wings of fear, the oarsman abandoned his oar and dropped to his knees, surrendering himself over to whatever imaginary higher power was most convincing in the moment. It didn’t matter which, really. They’re all more or less the same when the day goes dark and waters surge from above and below alike.
When the swain saw the oarsman drop his one and only job, he staggered over to the man and bleated, “Hey! You! Stop that!” When, to absolutely no one’s surprise, that half-hearted reproach didn’t work, the swain looked up to the sky and out to the whitecaps and back to the now-oarless-oarsman and, apparently, decided that if war isn’t won with the first bullet, give it up entirely. So it was that soon the oarsman, the swain, and three-quarters of the crew were making up the words to orisons they probably hadn’t used since they were children. It was all some bad, timeworn joke lacking a punchline.
Even so, Xaki chuckled to herself. She watched on as more men abandoned any and all effort to actually survive. This was no laughing matter, surely, and the rush of adrenaline was hardly enough to keep back her very real fear of death. Still, she laughed in spite of it all. She laughed at how truly ridiculous praying looks — grown men dropping to their knees, palms upturned and empty. One hand filled with divine promises, the other brimming with absolute nothing, and both measuring up to the same weight of fuck all. The way they muttered their muddled wonderings — words they were surely taught to say just so, but never think too hard about — made them look like nitwitted turkeybirds, gobbling in the downpour. They were stupid, flightless things in a boat catching rain in leaky cupped hands, and that made her laugh despite the fact that she really, really did not want to die.
The Captainman tried his best to scream the devotees back to their senses but found it no more effective than the swain’s poor attempt. He looked to the passengers.
“We need hands if any uh'yuh are hopin’ to touch dry ground ‘gain!”
The Bargemaster’s milky, sallow face stuck out amongst the mostly dumbfounded crowd. His eyes wide as rain poured in to his slack-jawed mouth, like he was collecting it to save for a dry day.
“Master Cloot!" The Captainman called out, "Might be yuh’d care to save yer skiff, uh?”
The Bargemaster blinked out of his stupor some.
“Well! Best put them hands to work and save the fuggin’ thing then, steada’ lookin’ like a backass dog.”
Seeing that the man still wasn’t about to make any moves himself, Xaki pushed Cloot the Bargemaster starboard, toppling him over. More confused than anything, he looked up at her.
“Tighten those bilges to their bitts.” She spoke down to him.
“I—I don’t know what that means…”
“Keep the ropes tied to the posts, you gaping maw!”
Cloot nodded and plodded on all fours across the deck, falling heavy against the rail as the yawl rose and dipped suddenly. The man clearly had no sense of the way the sea spoke. He had no feel for her lilt and rhythm. He made a clear effort not to look into the seafoam and swell, which leaped up at him over the banister like hungry tongues.
Xaki took some pleasure in the way the squishy Bargemaster’s squishy knees scrunched and squirmed beneath the fatty jiggle of his inherited privilege. The two first met back on the dock in Trace Harbor. She’d hated him before he spoke, and then he spoke and she hated him even more. Granted, back in Trace, the Bargemaster didn’t let his pants-shitting fear of drowning outweigh the fact that the man was an unequivocal cunt. On steady ground, he spoke down his nose to Xaki, as so many small men are wont to do. She could still picture the unctuous smirk stitched up one side of his podgy face. He was exactly the kind of man she avoided doing business with, but with this being storm season — a bad one at that — and the Prae hanging salt runners like summer lanterns, her options were finite. She offered him double the usual cost of passage, for both her and her cohort, Tryck, so long as the Bargemaster kept no record of them being on board. The man responded saying that Tryck was shit out of luck, but he’d be kind enough to grant her unrecorded passage at no extra cost. “You’ll even stay with me in my quarters,” the man said with a wink and a lick of his bright pink lips. Xaki held back the urge to grab him by the tip of his pecker and twist the little node off. In the end, he agreed to let them stay in stowage for triple the price each. Truth told, they could have found a more reasonable deal, but they were out of time. They had a close call the night before when the harbor guards ransacked their hostelry, and she wasn’t about to risk botching the whole job to find a better boat. In the end, Tryck begrudgingly shook Cloot the Bargemaster’s sweaty hand and paid the man. Xaki now watched as those same milksoft fingers fumbled at knots in the rope. She looked to the Captainman, who shook his head knowingly.
“He ain’t a man of Her, no doubtin’ it.” The Captainman tugged at a stubborn halyard. Xaki joined him and yanked, lowering a sail that was caught by a bad wind. “Thank my eyes somebud knows ‘bout farin’.”
Xaki nodded, “Will this delay our docking in Hill Harbor by much?”
“Hill Harbor?” The Captainman shook his head and laughed, “We ain’t making it to Hill straight, darlin’. Not after this.”
“Why not? It’s just a bit of rain!”
“A bit of rain she says! Might be you got bigger balls ‘an I have!” The Captainman laughed, loud as the swells crashing against the hull, “A bit of rain, sure, but with waves of hammerfall! No, I given my orders to byway to Gartyrport, so’s we can look over what’s damaged.”
“Aye. That a problem?”
Yes. It was very much a problem. Salt runners weren’t exactly welcome in the gallows town of Gartyrport, least of all Xaki. She’d made one too many enemies there that would happily see her dance the air should they ever cross paths again. Don’t you stop running now, the old man cawed again from the back of her mind, not til you’re ready for the sleep that don’t end. She pushed the voice back to where it’s quiet but never gone, and regarded the Captainman again, looking for an eloquent word, but coming up bunk, “Fuck!”
There was no going back to Gartyrport, especially not with the lockbox. It simply wasn't an option. She ran across the deck, her heels hardly touching the steps as she scuttled down the companionway and into the belly of the hull. She scampered past terrified passengers curled into fetal balls and stowaways dry-heaving the emptiness up out of starved bellies until she finally reached the storage room. As she unfastened the door latch, the corner of her eye caught a ragged figure in a cordovan linen cloak standing tense but still amongst the chaos of fearful unfortunates being thrown about the belly of the boat. Without a second look, she noted that the man never took his eyes off of her.
Xaki entered to the unnatural quiet of voiceless vomiting. The mute had the look of furious clamor — his eyes watered, his face red and varicose — but there was no sound aside from the wet splatter and airy gasps. Tryck looked up at her woefully.
“You too? Shame on shame, Tryck. And here, I thought you a seafarer.” Xaki said, closing the door of the storage room turned cabin. “You oughta go join them out there.”
Tryck retched again in the corner.
“We need to come up with a new plan, and quick.”
He furrowed his brow, why?
“The storm has us headed to Gartyport.”
He mimed being lynched.
“I know that. You think I don’t know that? That’s why I said we need a new plan.”
He gave her a look he wore far too often, as far as Xaki was concerned.
“Don’t give me that look. I’m sick of that look. This is not my fault.”
The look continued.
“We were out of time, so I made the most sensible call! What would you have us do, be late and risk the payload? Besides, I don’t exactly remember you coming up with any better routes.”
He looked and blinked and looked some more.
“Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, you’re absolutely right! I seem to have forgotten that I was traveling with Tryck Tongueless, the great negotiator! I should have just stood back and let you and your nonsensical hand motions find us passage on some stormproof skiff, eh? You could have confused them into giving us the captains quarters!”
Tryck shook his head and waved her off.
“No, you’re being ridiculous.” Xaki drummed her fingers on the wooden wall as she thought. “We could nick a lifeboat…” She glanced to Tryck, reading his reaction. “Yes, I know there’s no way a lifeboat could handle this storm. You think I don’t know that? I'm just... thinking aloud. You should try it sometime." She winked at the mute, who flicked his finger at her. "Hell, let's commandeer the whole fucking skiff, then? Most the crew’s given up as it is.”
Tryck guffawed voicelessly.
“You come up with an idea then!” Just then the ship lurched, sending them sprawling portside. Xaki rose and snatched her pack. “I guess we’ll just have to improvise.” Tryck shrugged and nodded his agreement.
“Where is it?”
Tryck pointed to a crate filled with burlap bags of grain. Xaki dug through, pulled out the darksteel lockbox and stashed it in her rucksack. She ran her thumb across three fastened locks, each made to fit a different key. “We’ll keep it on us, just to be safe.”
The ship lurched again and Xaki stumbled back and spun and sat on one of the wooden boxes. It was graceful for something accidental, so she sat in it for a moment to think. She looked at Tryck, his pale face like sweating wax, and sighed. “It smells just awful in here.”
As if on cue, Tryck heaved again. She rose and steadied her feet, then crossed to the door, unbolting it.
“You done, then?”
Tryck wiped his mouth and gave her a thumbs-up.
Xaki opened the door and was met by eyes the color of a full moon after a wildfire. The gaunt face that spoke from under the cordovan linen hood was jagged as a skull. In his hand, he clutched a Prae issued falchion. The man drew a breath as if to speak, but Xaki was in no mood for a conversation, so, instead, she head-butted him in the face.
The rocking skiff made it hard to bottleneck the men at the doorway. As Xaki drew her cutlass, the floor plunged and she stumbled back, making room for her foe to enter. From the gaunt man's insignia and the burning in his eyes, she could tell he was a privateer with something to prove. Good. She'd dealt with his sort before. However, as the privateer slipped in to the lazarette, her confidence waned. He was followed by two more foot soldiers, lightly armored and armed with straight-edged short swords.
The privateer leaped for Tryck before he could draw his weapon, but the mute was able to evade the strike and grab the man’s arm. As they grappled, Xaki swung at one of the other two. He parried, but she read him immediately: slow and nervous. She winked and flicked her cutlass high again. This time using the parry to propel a second strike. Her sword rebounded and she slashed low, dragging the blade across one of the foot soldier’s shins. As the man dropped, she kicked up and the bridge of his nose met the toe of her boot halfway with a wet crunch. She moved to help Tryck, but was blocked by the other footman. This one knew what he was doing, more so than the first, but his skills were honed on land. As their swords vaulted and surged in the violent dance, the footman grounded himself and lowered his gravity — a helpful tactic so long as your floor is solid. The floor of a ship, however, is seldom solid. When gravity shifted and threw him off balance, Xaki saw her doorway to kill open. She raised her cutlass, but the room heaved heavy again all five found themselves sprawled out across the floorboards.
Xaki locked eyes with Tryck and the two shared a thought. In a storm like this, any fight was too much of a gamble, especially in a small space where the numbers went against you. Their best chance was getting out of the cramped storage room.
Xaki grabbed her rucksack and stood, but as she did, she felt a bright, screaming pain along her back. When she turned, the footman leered down, her blood still laced his blade's edge. Before he could raise the short sword again, though, Tryck palmed his face from behind, pulled his head back, and drove a dagger up, beneath his jaw. In a single motion, he withdrew the knife and threw the gasping man into the privateer, who was charging at him. Xaki got up, doing her best to ignore the warm wet of her back, and bounded out of the room. She urged Tryck to follow, but his leg was caught by the bloodied hand of the gimp-shinned, smashed-nose foot soldier.
Xaki winced as the steel burrowed into the mute’s stomach.
Tryck was the hardest person she’d ever had to abandon. It was almost a point of pride for Xaki, her ability to detach — she knew when to fight and when to run and that the key factor was far from altruism. It was a harsh morality, but it was the only reason she’d lived as long as she had. Ever since the age of twelve, she’d kept her company at arm's length. She built friendships and acquaintances around the understanding that survival is restraint, and sacrifice in the name of solidarity was useless and dumb. She always slept alone and she never fell in love. There’d been plenty of lusts, but never love. Love was too sticky, too spellbinding. Love turned people into fools and left them somewhere between drunk and dead. This ethos was the closest thing Xaki had to a religion, and she lived by it devoutly. Tryck knew this because he was the same way. Sure, he’d just saved her life not ten seconds earlier, but that was more for the lockbox than it was for her, wasn’t it? The payout is what makes the survival worth it. Tryck Tongueless was selfish in all the right ways, just like she was. That might have been why she struggled so much to move her feet as the mute collapsed and struggled to breathe.
Her feet did move, though, and once she turned she did not look back. Scampering up the flooded steps and out into the rain, Xaki’s mind raced. She somehow knew that this storm was going to either save her or kill her, but she hadn’t yet decided which. The weather seemed to be abating some, but, even so, water flooded the skiff and tore across the deck, knocking away stray ropes and wooden crates and praying men alike. Xaki searched furiously for a place to hide, to wait out both storm and chase, but all options were bunk. In a scene where nothing was anchored, there was no laying low. Whatever she was going to do, she had to do now.
As the deck tilted, Xaki slid over to the side banister, her feet riding the wet plane between her boot soles and the wooden floorboards. She caught herself at the railing and peered down into the swell to see the splintered remains of a lifeboat broken against the shipframe. She spat down a curse onto the crashing, flotsam ghost, and clambered back across deck. The portside lifeboat was completely intact, which was good. It was also over a fifty yards off, upwind, which was not. Her options of survival were looking so dire that even her worst choice wasn’t really a choice at all. Languorously, she caught the snapped rope that once held the now adrift lifeboat in place and felt an affinity for the useless leash. Here they were, both flapping in the wind with nothing at all to hold on to.
“Grab that woman!” The rasp and shrill voice cut through the pouring rain. When she turned to see the gaunt privateer and his bloody-nosed crony emerging from below, Xaki fell to her knees, sodden and resigned. No better than the oarsman. The notion was a pang of shame that shot straight through.
The privateer smiled. “Outlaw and traitor, her!” He screeched, his skin a shoddy blanket over the Dark Harbinger’s face, “And I mean to see her hanged.”
As the two men closed in, she willed herself to stand, but only slipped lower, on to her elbows. This is it, she thought, on a fucking boat, in a fucking storm, by a fucking strawman. Not exactly the end she’d always imagined for herself.
But then, it would seem, one of the gods she didn’t believe in meant to make a case for itself. Despite the calming water, a stray swell tore across the deck, sweeping both soldiers overboard, into the froth and wash. What more, after the divine seawater hand had passed, the first ray of light broke through the clouds. Xaki was awestruck. She sprung to her feet, laughing, and looked over the bannister. She wanted to damn her would-be captors on their way to the seabed, but they’d already departed. The old man once told her that drowning was the worst way to go. Good, she thought, then felt a little bit bad, but not too bad considering the bastards had just publicly announced that they wanted to see her hang.
The thrill of fortunate breath coursed through her and she chuckled gleefully. She was giddy in a way she loathed to be, but she couldn’t help it. She had no right to have gotten out of this, yet here she was, standing free as the storm calmed and the sky brightened. She was absolutely jubilant. Jubilant, until she remembered Tryck. Her joy bled out and her breath was wrung. She had to see if he was alive. She had to apologize for leaving him, even though she knew he’d understand. She had to—
As she turned, she was met by bladepoint. Beyond the steel was Cloot the bargemaster, his pudgy hand holding the ornate stiletto to her throat. His spinelessness, it seemed, had withered with the wind.
“Outlaw and traitor, say?” The sopping wet pudge smiled, “Sounds you’ll serve as quite the catch, little fishy.”
More than anything, Xaki was amused by the craven’s flimsy visage of what he thought a man should be, “Lower your toy, Master Cloot, before I run it through your chins.”
“Pompous!” Cloot was aghast that his gristly man-soul failed to strike utter fear into her feeble woman-heart. “You think you can, eh?!”
“Can and will.” She was all confidence. Was, at least, until the Captainman chimed in.
“No you won’t, miss.” Xaki frowned to see the sea-weathered 'farer step up, arms crossed. “Treason's no charge to shrug by."
"What do you know of it? I'm guilty all because a man shouts it?" Xaki felt her face flush. She was a lot of things, but never considered traitor to be one of them. How can you break loyalty when you never pledged it to begin with?
"Not my charge to say yer guilty, but I ain’t gon’ risk havin a hand in helping a wanted criminal.”
'Cloot was more surprised than anyone to see the sailor backing him. “Why, thank you, Captain.”
“Not doin’ with you. S’matter of right, this.”
“Whatever the matter matters not. Have your men bind this trollop. Keep her held until landfall.” Cloot’s fleshy smile had made a full return between those bright pink lips. “And stay the course to Gartyport.”