The Pirate’s Scourge
Chapters 1 & 2
Scourge of the Sea
Few things are what we first perceive them to be.
The Lessons of Quen Lau Ush
From the diary of Kevril Longbright –
Every time I look in the mirror I’m reminded that scars are lessons. They are flesh memories that fade but never fully vanish. When I look at my scars, I remember who gave me each one and what I learned. Some lessons are easy, like never turn your back on an angry man with a shovel. Others are subtler. I have yet to forget any of the lessons carved into my flesh, but I long for the day when remembering them is no longer necessary.
“Dragon Mists, my arse.” I pulled my jacket closed against the chill sea fog. “Maybe ice drakes, but not real dragons.”
When cold air spilled down from the mountains to clash against the warm water of the Blood Sea, the result was a fog so thick it’s said you can drown just by taking a deep breath. Sailors call this fog the Dragon Mists because of the legends of dragons living in the coastal cliffs. There may well have been dragons here once long ago, but they’ve all flown away to the Serpent’s Eye, thank Odea.
“Some call this fog the Pirate’s Blanket, you know,” Miko said. My first mate hated sailing through fog as much as I did, but neither of us wanted to admit it, so we told each other tales. “A more appropriate moniker for what we’re about, don’t you think, sir?”
I found a fingernail that hadn’t yet been bitten to the quick and sheared it short with my teeth. A bell tolled two notes from somewhere ahead, and the lookout waved a white flag three times to starboard. Our quarry was out there, anchored safely and alerting other ships to its presence with its bell. A good practice safety-wise, but to pirates like us, it was like a dinner bell. Come and get it.
The patter of bare feet on the deck heralded Tofi, one of the ship’s brats, as he dashed up. “By the mark ten on the lead, sir.” He kept his voice low, for I’d ordered a quiet ship, and scampered off at my nod.
The wind howled a shrieking gust overhead, heeling Scourge over a strake, but while her topgallants were drawn into hard planks and the topsails bellied full, the lower reefed mainsail and forecourse flapped and backfilled. The sheltering cliffs were making the wind fluky, allowing the mists to hang low over the water. From the quarterdeck I could make out Scourge‘s bowsprit and the signals of the lookout there, but the rocks that could rip us to pieces remained a mystery.
“Sailing into a windward, cliff-shrouded cove in fog, Captain?” Miko’s pearly teeth gleamed against her nut-brown skin like a lighthouse on a moonless night. “I hope we’re getting paid enough for this.”
“Could be worse. Could be leeward cliffs.” I grinned to banish my nervousness. It didn’t work.
The roar of the surf set my teeth on edge, waves pounding on reefs that could grind Scourge to kindling if these fluky winds denied her steerage. The distant bell tolled again, our only guidance through the fog.
Sane mariners, like our quarry, drop anchor in any one of the dozens of bays along the coast and ride out these foggy blows in the shelter of the high cliffs, ringing the ship’s bell every quarter glass to warn off others. Those caught unawares by the fog at sea run well offshore under reefed sails, sounding a horn at intervals and praying to Odea for guidance, protection, or salvation. Personally, I’ve never found the sea goddess very forgiving, though that doesn’t stop me from praying to her on occasion.
Then there are those of us who are less than sane, desperate, or seduced by rewards that exceed the risk. Either way, they don’t call it the Pirate’s Blanket for nothing, and I had a job to do.
A job… The notion still stuck in my craw, but I had no choice in the matter. I’d gone into my partnership with Jhavika with eyes open and couldn’t balk now. Just like I couldn’t stop pirating.
An honorable occupation at this point in my life was not an option, and pirate was better than shit-kicking farmer or dirt-side bandit. The former…well, there’s the shit-kicking part, but other factors had driven me off my family farm. The latter usually ends up with said bandit dangling from a tree or gallows. A pirate’s really just a bandit afloat, but nooses are easier to evade at sea. Besides, there’s a living in it, and freedom. I was my own master, or more-so than most men or women could claim to be. Scourge was mine, free and clear; I owed no tithe to lord or master. I did pay Jhavika a fair percentage of my take, of course, because we were partners. She picked the targets and told me where to find them, and I did the pirating. Call me what you will, but I’ll ride anyone’s coattails to wealth, and Jhavika had very long coattails indeed. That woman’s aspirations knew no bounds.
The lookout on the bowsprit madly waved a black flag. He’d spotted a reef or rock ahead, though I could still see nothing.
“Wear ship, Miko.” I looked aloft. The topsails now flagged, only the topgallants drawing. “No wind to tack. This isn’t the place to be stuck in irons, and we aren’t in a hurry…yet.”
“Aye, Capt’n.” She gave a quiet order to bring Scourge off the wind and jibe sails. As the helmsman spun the wheel, she whispered to me, “Not enough wind to blow away a decent fart in here!”
“True enough.” As Scourge came about, I stared hard into the fog off our starboard quarter. My blood chilled as I spied a line of white breakers amid the horizonless steel-gray of sea and sky.
Every eye on the ship watched that line with their hearts in their mouths, rocks barely a ship-length away that would have meant our end if we hadn’t shifted course.
“A biscuit toss is as good as a league, I suppose.” Miko ran a hand over her shaven pate and grinned.
The helmsman chuckled nervously.
I was out of fingernails to chew. “Remind me to give that lookout a bonus.”
Tofi ran up again, panting from his dash. “By the mark five, sir.” He sounded nervous, too.
“That’s fine, Tofi.” It wasn’t fine. Scourge drew three-and-a-half fathoms and there was a four-foot swell running. With this steep shore, I needed quicker soundings. “Tell Wix to run a second lead line.”
“Aye, sir!” Tofi cringed and darted off.
I knew Wix got the message when I heard a snarled curse from forward. My bosun is both the least-popular and most-respected member of my crew for two reasons. Firstly, he’s in charge of maintaining crew discipline, and backs up that authority with the quickest left jab I’ve ever seen. The second reason is that he’s an ill-tempered bastard who loves his work and violence—a trait of his part-ogre heritage—more than strong drink and fornication. His response to laggardly behavior involved the knotted end of a rope, and insubordination triggered that left jab. I sometimes had to curb Wix’s enthusiasm—too many broken noses—but for the most part I let him have free rein.
As Scourge began making way on her new course, close-hauled on the opposite tack and away from the reef, Tofi returned. “By the deep eight, sir, and Master Wix says two leads his pimply arse, and why for fook’s sake are we flyin’ the fookin’ courses if there ain’t no fookin’ wind?”
“Tell him to furl the courses and thank him for his opinion of my seamanship, Tofi.” I grinned at the boy and added, “And tell Master Wix to keep his fookin’ voice down.”
Tofi paled anew. “Aye, sir.”
As he dashed off, another ship’s brat, Boxley, ran up. “Four knots by the log, sir!” She grinned enthusiastically at my nod and darted away.
Recruiting eager young boys and girls for a life on the sea was simple. There were always starving urchins loitering around waterfronts, willing to work for three meals a day and a place to sleep. Boxley had gutted a man who tried to rape her when she was eight and stowed away aboard Scourge to avoid a hangman’s noose. After five years, she was the toughest of my ship’s brats, and every sailor aboard knew it. I wasn’t supposed to know that Miko doted on her, sneaking her extra rations and teaching her to read and write. My bet was I’d have a new midshipman out of the deal, a welcome addition to the worthless gaggle of laggards I had now. I’d just as soon throw the lot of them over the side, but I desperately needed another one or two officers, and training youngsters was safer than hiring strangers, albeit slower and harder on my nerves.
The bell rang again, clear and pure, now off our port beam.
“She’s sitting in Weatherly Cove.” I reviewed the chart in my mind’s eye. I knew these waters like I knew the chips in my teeth. The bay we were edging into sported three coves, each separated by a rocky outcrop and shoal. The westernmost, Weatherly Cove, had a tricky entrance bracketed by hard bars, difficult to negotiate with these contrary winds and impossible to do in haste, which our final approach would require. “Bugger!”
“Boats?” Miko asked, one brow cocked.
Sometimes I think she reads my mind.
“Yes.” Attacking a merchant ship from boats was chancy, but not as chancy as blundering into Weatherly Cove in fog and fluky wind like a blind man looking for quicksand. “One more tack and we’ll anchor in six fathoms. Quietly, mind you! Then lower three boats. Tell Wix to handpick the boarders.”
Miko grinned. “You just made his day.”
Wix loved nothing more than a brisk boarding action, probably because it gave him the opportunity to hurt people. “Make sure he knows we aren’t out for blood on this one.”
Her grin turned to stone. “I’ll tell him personally.” Miko hurried off the quarterdeck, leaving me alone with my anxiety.
Out for blood… I’d seen too many boarding actions where blood was all we got for our trouble.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll kill if provoked, or if there’s money at stake, but slaughtering innocent sailors only buys trouble. While it’s true that dead men tell no tales—unless a necromancer is involved—I learned long ago that it was preferable to be wanted for piracy than hunted as a murderer. The Scourge‘s former captain never learned that lesson. His penchant for wholesale slaughter precipitated his own death, and nearly mine. Captain Kohl and his first mate lost their lives in a trap. The rest of us were lucky to escape. I fingered the scars I’d earned that day, determined not to make that mistake.
Tofi and another brat fed me continuous soundings, running between the foredeck and the quarterdeck as fast as the leadsmen could throw their leads and pull them in. I kept an eye on the forward lookout and ordered course changes when he waved his flag. We brought Scourge around once again, avoiding a craggy black rock jutting out of the sea to windward
“By the deep six!” Tofi reported, his breath coming short. “Black sand and shell, sir!”
“Helm to windward and slack sheets. Relay forward to lower the anchor, Tofi.”
“Aye, sir!” He dashed off.
Scourge came upwind, sails luffed and were furled, and we lowered our best bower into the sea like a babe being nestled into its crib. The crew knew this drill well; every command passed in a whisper, sails furled without flapping, and lines and blocks ran smoothly with no squeaks or clatter. Boats were lowered into the sea without so much as a bump or bang of an oar on a gunnel.
My tension eased a trifle. For some reason, running my ship onto rocks in a fog caused me more anxiety than the pending boarding action. I don’t know why. Maybe I value my ship more than my skin.
My bosun climbed the steps to the quarterdeck and pressed one scarred knuckle to his thick brow. Miko followed, looking as anxious as I felt.
“All secure, Capt’n.” Wix grinned—a horrific sight, considering he had only three teeth in his head, not counting the two prominent tusks jutting from his lantern jaw—and nodded to the sailors lined up along the ship’s waist, their cutlasses, boarding axes, and pikes at the ready. “Picked you out some right dandies.”
“They all know my preferences on this operation, Master Wix?”
“They know, sir.” He curled his lip, cracked his walnut knuckles, and spat over the rail, clearly displeased by my order.
“Good.” I turned to my first mate. “Miko, would you please appoint one of our fine young midshipmen to command Scourge while we attend to a little mayhem?”
Many pirates don’t bother with a midshipmen’s berth, but advance capable seamen directly to officer rank when necessary. I prefer to train my future officers personally. A few years wearing a jacket, giving orders, and learning the finer points of mathematics and navigation before becoming full-fledged officers works far better than after. It not only allows me to train them properly, but gives me time to weed out those who can’t make the grade.
“Nothing would make me happier, sir.” Miko turned to the four pimple-faced mids sulking around the helm. “Mister Geit, you’ll command Scourge in our absence.”
“Aye, sir!” Geit, a gangly redhead of eighteen years with a nasty disposition, grinned at his peers, suddenly his subordinates.
“And if I hear of any nonsense upon our return…” Miko let that hang.
“No nonsense. Aye, sir.” Geit snapped a salute, still grinning malevolently. Though he tended to hate everyone indiscriminately, he was particularly cruel to his fellow mids. He’d recently ordered one of them to shinny up to the topgallant and fly his pants from the pennant halyard for no reason other than spite. Unfortunately, he was also senior and the best navigator among them.
“Let’s go.” I led the way down to the middle deck, Miko and Wix at my heels. “We’ll each take a boat. Hand signals only once we’re away.”
“Bout fookin’ time,” Wix muttered. “All this prancin’ about like a flock of concubines on a fookin’ ballroom floor…”
I knew Wix was just working himself up for the fight. When my bosun was truly upset he went scary quiet and all the Gods of Darkness wouldn’t cross him.
Hemp, my steward, slouched up with a disapproving scowl, holding out my old patched jacket. “Be careful, sir!”
His concern didn’t fool me; Hemp cared more about keeping my clothes free of gashes, bloodstains, and holes than he did about my tender skin. I relented, doffing the good jacket and donning the worn, then allowed him to sling a baldric over my shoulder and affix my worn but serviceable cutlass—he was probably afraid I’d nick one of my finer blades.
Finally ready, I strode to the main hatch cover, surveyed the weaponry arrayed there, and chose a pair of boarding axes to tuck through my belt. Miko had already armed herself with a boarding pike, cutlass, and her two wakizashi for close work. Wix rarely used anything but his daggers in a fight. They had heavy bronze guards with inch-long spikes that he preferred to punch with instead of using the blade. I’d seen him punch through chainmail with them.
We boarded the boats and shoved off, quiet and efficient, a dozen seasoned pirates in each. Surely more than enough for a merchant, I thought. Our target was the merchant junk Yellow Blossom, owned by Lord Fa-Chen of Haven. Yellow Blossom sported a complement of no more than two dozen, I’d been told, and they’d be sailors, not fighters. Surprise should give us an even greater advantage.
Oars dipped and pulled with barely a ripple and, thanks to canvas-padded oarlocks, no sound could be heard over the roar of the nearby surf. Our prey’s bell tolled again, this time closer, though its direction was still hard to discern in the fog.
I squinted into the mists and whispered, “Two points to port.”
A black cliff coalesced out of the fog, the merchantman’s high transom. She was as pretty a junk as ever I’d seen—sea-worthy, spacious, and well cared for, with gilt scrollwork in the likeness of yellow roses entwining her stern gallery windows. A damned shame.
We eased forward. A sharp-eyed lookout could cost lives at this point, but we’d gotten lucky coming up on her stern; the high sterncastle hid us from the crow’s nest. Above us loomed two rows of stern gallery windows. The higher, narrower windows were dark, but light glowed from the lower great cabin.
“Bugger!” If we climbed the ornate transom, whoever was inside might see us and raise an alarm. I motioned Miko and Wix to port and starboard. They could make their ascent up the quarter galleries to the poop deck, then fight their way forward with height as an advantage. I decided to take the fight right to the captain’s cabin. If we took the captain prisoner, the conflict would end without undue killing. Or so I hoped.
I tapped a sailor on the shoulder and pointed up the transom. He nodded, grinned, and started climbing, nimble as a monkey and quiet as a mouse, a coil of knotted rope over his shoulder. At the lit windows he paused and peered over the sill, then looked down and made a suggestive gesture. Evidently, Captain Tan was entertaining.
Perfect… A distracted captain would be easier to capture. I motioned for the sailor to continue up and secure the line. When the knotted rope fell down into eager hands, I took it and climbed to the lower stern gallery windows.
Within, glistening flesh moved in rhythmic enthusiasm, grunts and moans audible through the stern glass. No better way to pass the time while waiting for weather, they say. Deciding on the direct approach, I gripped the line hard, kicked out from the transom, and swung back toward the window boots first.
Odea help me, but I love this part of my job.
Glass shattered, and I managed not to cut myself too badly or bash my head on the sill. I rolled to my feet and drew my cutlass, but the captain was quicker than I’d guessed. She vaulted from the bed fully naked, dagger in hand.
“Captain Tan.” I saluted with my cutlass as pirates scrambled into the cabin through the windows to back up my swashbuckling ploy. One of them whistled long and low, and I had to admit that the captain cut a dashing figure in naught but her skin and a bared stiletto. “Pardon our intrusion. I can see you’re busy with…” I glanced at the young man lying shocked on the bed—Impressive—and couldn’t help myself. “…with weighty matters, but I must insist you drop the knife and put some clothes on.”
Captain Tan glanced at the knife, then at her lover’s flagging ardor—the dagger’s blade was shorter by half—then glared at me. “Who the hell are you?”
“Captain Kevril Longbright of the Scourge at your service.” I bowed with a flourish. “Now, the dagger if you please, Captain.”
Her eyes widened a trifle in recognition, and the dagger fell from her grip. Snatching up a blue jacket, she flung it on, then reached for trousers. Her paramour hadn’t moved, apparently too scared to even reach for a blanket.
She glared at him and snapped, “Oh, stop gaping and get dressed, Maurice!”
“Maurice?” He didn’t look like a Maurice. To me, a Maurice is pale, portly, and pompous. This fellow sported a lithe chest, muscular legs, and an abdomen as flat as a table, with skin the hue of burnished teak. Islander blood mixed with Chen or Toki, I guessed, likely a pleasure slave or trollop, considering his good looks and magnificent proportions. The captain apparently like them young; Maurice looked to be in his late teens at most.
Sounds of scuffles could be heard from above and forward, then one cry, a scream, and a clash of arms.
“If we hurry, Captain, we can avoid unnecessary bloodshed.” I gestured to the door.
“Gods-damned pirate!” she spat, fastening her trousers and slamming her feet into boots.
Her lover managed to draw up the blanket and fumble from the bed. Macie Moll, one of my more competent boarders, stepped forward to steady poor Maurice, a lascivious grin on her face.
“Is he a slave or a guest?” I asked the captain as she struggled with the second boot. The young man didn’t bear a slave’s mark, but some slavers didn’t tattoo their stock.
“Why does it matter?” She glared at me.
“If he’s a slave, I’ll be taking him as plunder. If he’s your guest, he’ll go with you.” That, of course, meant she’d claim him as her guest. It didn’t really matter; I didn’t need any slaves and knew he’d be a distraction, gifted as he was. Rumors spread quickly aboard a ship, and Scourge was no exception.
“Maurice is Lord Malchi’s son. He’s been assigned as my midshipman for training in seamanship.”
My pirates chuckled, and I raised an eyebrow. “And I can see he’s progressing well.” I wasn’t worried about retribution from Lord Malchi. A score of rich merchants in Haven styled themselves as lords, a fancy designation but lacking any authority. Crime lords was a more apt title. I worked with one, in fact. I waved at the door. “Shall we, Captain?”
Tan glared again and strode for the door.
“Macie, see that the lordling is properly dressed, but no liberties are to be taken. Understand?”
“Aye, sir.” She looked crestfallen. “C’mere, Maurice! Grab your drawers and put that spar away!”
Captain Tan opened the door to find herself facing my bosun. He filled the portal like a nightmare in the flesh, the spikes of his dagger guards dripping blood. She stumbled back a step. I couldn’t blame her; Wix can be startling.
“Wix? Any trouble?” There was blood on his shirt.
“No, sir.” He tore his eyes from the gap in the captain’s jacket and swallowed. “A few scuffles is all. One dumb fook tried to poke me with a sword. He won’t be eatin’ solid food for a span, but he’ll live.”
“Good. Bring everyone together on the middeck and search the ship for anyone hiding.”
“Aye, sir.” He hurried off, casting the captain one more glance.
“Shall we join your crew, Captain?” I nudged her between the shoulder blades with the tip of my cutlass.
“You’re poking a sleeping dragon here, Captain Longbright.” She started forward. “There’ll be repercussions for this.”
“These are repercussions, Captain Tan.” In addition to directing me to richly laden ships for our mutual profit, Jhavika occasionally tasked me with discouraging her competition: a threat here, some mayhem there. This was one of those assignments. I’d intended to give the message when the whole crew was assembled, but now would do just as well. “The dragon’s awake, and its fire is stoked.”
The captain glared over her shoulder. “What in the Nine Hells are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about your master, Lord Fa-Chen.” I gave her a wolf’s grin. “This is in retaliation for his meddling in business that isn’t his. Jhavika Keshmir is paying him back, Captain. We’ll be putting you off in boats so you can deliver the message personally.”
“Keshmir’s nothing but a pir—” Biting off the word, she whirled around and slammed open the door to the middeck.
“Lady Keshmir was a pirate once, Captain, and takes no offense at the moniker, but she’s moved up in the world since going ashore. She’s now a…business woman.” I prodded her toward the crowd of nervous sailors surrounded by heavily armed pirates. Only a couple of the sailors were injured; one sported a deep stab wound to the shoulder, and another—obviously the man whose jaw had been destroyed by Wix—wore a bloody cloth wrapped beneath his chin and knotted atop his head. “Have a care with that tongue of yours. I’ll put you ashore in the condition I found you if you keep wagging it heedlessly.”
The captain joined her crew and kept her mouth shut. A wise woman.
Miko caught my eye, her usual gleeful smile after a relatively bloodless operation conspicuously absent. That meant a problem. As the last of the stragglers were herded together, I motioned her aside.
“Cargo’s crap. Nothing but baled hemp and coarse-wove muslin.” She made a face. “This shows up in Haven, it won’t be worth the spit it takes to shine a boot.”
“Damn Jhavika to…” I let that drop. Jhavika had promised me a rich cargo, but cursing her now wouldn’t do me any good.
I glared at the captain and crew, then up at the rigging, spars, fittings, and cordage, and made some calculations. It would take time, but we weren’t in a hurry; the north winds would howl for another day at least. Jhavika might be satisfied with mere vengeance, but I needed profit. I made a decision and turned back to Miko.
“Fuck the cargo. Take a launch back to Scourge and bring her in slow and careful. We raft up, strip this ship for every scrap of canvas, bronze, block, and line.”
“And have Wix post someone trustworthy at the captain’s door. I’ll go through Tan’s things myself.”
“I’m on it!” She still didn’t look happy, but that was the best I could do.
As Miko relayed my orders, picked her crew, and set off in one of the boats, I turned to the ship’s captain. “Captain Tan, I’ll put you and your crew ashore with your boats and whatever provisions you wish to take with you.”
“How magnanimous of you.” The mists carried more warmth than her voice.
“Or I could strip you all naked and throw you in the sea.” I pointed my cutlass between her eyes and grinned. “Your choice.”
The muscles of her jaw bunched and relaxed several times. I could do worse than I’d threatened, and she knew it. “I’ll choose the former option.”
“Good. This isn’t about you, Captain. It’s about your lord and his recent actions. Our intent is to hurt him, not you. We’ll take everything valuable from this ship and burn her to the waterline. Please let Lord Fa-Chen know why this happened when you next see him.”
She smiled tightly. “I’ll be sure to give him your name.”
The implied threat stoked my temper. “And, considering the piss-poor excuse for cargo you’re carrying, if Maurice here…” I pointed to the shivering young man who had recently been warming her bed, “…truly is Lord Malchi’s son, perhaps I’ll take him to ransom.”
Maurice’s eyes widened and his mouth opened.
“He’s not,” Tan said before the young man could answer for himself. “He’s not a slave either. Just a hired trollop to keep me company.”
“I surmised as much.” Too bad; a fat ransom would have compensated for the lack of cargo. “Don’t worry; I won’t take your toy from you.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Her chin rose an inch and I could see that her estimation of me rose with it. She knew I could have taken him anyway. There were slavers in Haven who didn’t ask questions. “I’ve heard of you, but you’re not what I expected.”
“None of us are what other people expect we are, Captain.” I sheathed my cutlass and nodded toward the ship’s boats. “Master Wix, put them in the boats with provisions and water. Canvas and cordage, too. There’s enough driftwood on the beach to rig shelters. When the weather clears, they can coast-hop for Haven.”
The crew moved with a will, and Yellow Blossom‘s four boats were in the water and loaded within minutes. We shoved them off with a cheer, good wishes, and a few cat-calls. As they pulled away, Macie Moll pleaded with poor Maurice to take up the life of a pirate and share her hammock.
“Master Wix! Put someone on the bell so Miko can find us in this soup, then take this ship apart!”
As Wix shouted orders and my boarders fell to plundering, I went aft. Amid the shouts, clatters, crashes, and laughter of pirates doing what they did best, I meticulously inspected the captain’s cabin. Tan had a nice set of silver plate, some jewelry, dresses, a fine set of navigational instruments, and a pair of matched daggers with ruby-pommeled hilts. Worth a tidy bit, but not enough to make up for the lack of cargo. I laid it out in piles and started rummaging through the hanging lockers and drawers. There had to be more.
I reached back into the dark beneath a shelf and felt a stab of pain. Shit! With visions of traps and poisoned needles in my head, I jerked back. The end of my finger was bleeding, but it felt like any other mundane cut, not stinging with poison. I sucked my lacerated finger and felt again more carefully, then dragged out an old strongbox with metal reinforcing, one corner bent and sharp. This is more like it. It was locked, but the pommel of my cutlass knocked the padlock free. I opened it to find rows of newly minted Toki imperial crowns. Thank Odea. Perhaps Tan had been sent to buy more valuable cargo in Hyto for the return trip. We’d do okay on this take after all, it seemed.
As I closed the strongbox and fitted the bent lock back together, movement outside the stern gallery windows caught my eye, Scourge emerging from the fog. Miko brought her alongside with the skill of a ballroom dancer gliding into a promenade, with barely a bump as the ships were rafted together. I went back to my work. There came a knock on the door as I was perusing the captain’s small library, mostly poetry, none of which I cared for, though they might sell for a few pennies to a lord with high aspirations and bad taste.
Hemp entered, scowled at the hodgepodge piles of finery, and sighed. “More junk for me to cart around like a pack mule, I see, sir.” He threw down a roll of canvas and light line to bale it all up.
“Only as far as Haven,” I said. “Be careful with the silver and the dresses. Put the strongbox in my quarters. If you pick the lock, I’ll know.” Of course, it wasn’t locked anymore, and I didn’t really need to threaten him anyway. Hemp was good with locks, but he knew better than to steal from his captain.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir!” He looked indignant and picked up one of the dresses, holding up the fine silk kimono as if it might look good on him.
“Not your color, Hemp.” I endured a glare with good humor.
“Just wonderin’ how women dress in such things.” He started packing it all up.
“Don’t wonder, Hemp, just thank the Gods of Light that they do.” I slipped the two jeweled daggers into my boots and strode from the cabin, confident that Hemp would do his job well.
I leapt down onto Scourge‘s lower deck. Miko was busy directing the stowage of loot, everything from tools to canvas to spars and provisions. My greasy-haired purser, Quibly, stood nearby, peering over the spectacles perched on his hawk nose and logging every parcel in his ledger. I smiled at my first mate, but she didn’t smile back.
“Cheer up, Miko. I found a strongbox that will tip the scales in our favor quite nicely.”
“Oh?” Her dark brows rose. “How nicely?”
“Well, we can’t retire, but we won’t starve either.”
“Wonderful.” She turned back to her task.
“Oh, and if you’re interested, the captain had some nice dresses.”
She looked at me like I’d told her she might like to light her pants on fire. “You know I don’t—”
I held up a hand. “I know, but I also know a young lady in Haven who might appreciate a present.”
Miko gaped as I grinned. She obviously didn’t know that I knew she was seeing someone, and the look on her face was worth the price of fifty fine dresses.
“I…um…thank you, Captain.”
I waved her off and headed for my cabin. “Pick one out for her and give her a kiss for me.”
“I will, sir.”
“Send word when we’re done.” I stopped at the sterncastle door and looked back at Yellow Blossom, a pang in my heart. It was a shame to destroy such a fine ship, but orders were orders. Though we could move illicit cargo easily enough, a ship is impossible to sell anywhere along the Blood Sea without prompting a slurry of pointed questions. “Then breach a cask of oil in her hold and torch it.”
“Aye, sir!” Miko saluted, her eyes shadowed with the same regret.
I went to my cabin and doffed my slashed jacket. Shards of glass fell from the pockets and cuffs as I shook it out and hung it up. Hemp would curse me for not shaking it out the stern gallery windows, but I didn’t care. Striding to my sideboard, I poured a lead-crystal tumbler half full of fine malt whiskey. A sip of the fiery liquor eased the unexpected lump in my throat.
Getting sentimental about a gods-be-damned merchant ship, Kevril? I sighed, set down the glass, and went to my quarter gallery to wash up. The mirror hanging there showed me the same middle-aged face I saw every morning. The tiny cut on my forehead from today’s encounter paled next to the three parallel scars that slashed from my ear to chin, souvenirs given to me by my current business associate. Lessons carved into my flesh… That fight had made me captain, but the scars reminded me not to underestimate people.
I washed the cut with water from my basin, then dabbed it with a towel soaked in wood alcohol. My shirt had a tear in the shoulder, but no wound beneath. I took it off and draped it over a chair by my chart table, donned a fresh one, recovered my drink, and went to stand by the stern gallery windows.
Shouts and cries from the pillaging wafted in as I stared out at the mists and sipped from my tumbler, wondering why I didn’t feel better about the day’s work. Not a single pirate had been killed and we’d make a profit, albeit a small one after ship’s expenses. My thoughts were interrupted when the door to my cabin opened and Hemp entered with the strongbox. Putting it down, he muttered at the glass shards scattered across the cabin sole, but he could read my mood. He swept it up without a word, and left, taking my jacket and shirt to mend.
Why? I wondered again, sipping my whiskey. Wix had vented a bit of his bottomless temper, and Miko had a dress for her lady ashore. I had had the pleasure of a daring bit of swashbuckling, receiving only a cut on the forehead for my stupidity. And the crew was in high spirits. They’d be telling tales of Captain Tan’s interrupted tryst for weeks, not to mention the heroic proportions of her paramour, Maurice.
So why do I feel like shit?
I finished my whiskey and stared out into the fog. Empty…so empty…like looking into the soul of a dragon, they say. I felt like that inside. Sometimes it seemed there was no end to it, mission after mission, all to feed Jhavika’s appetite for riches and power. Lately, Scourge had been at sea far more than she’d been ashore. My crew needed some time to unwind, spend their money, and remember why we were pirates. So did their captain.
Maybe that’s why I feel lost. I fingered the scars on my face. Jhavika was riding Scourge like a rented mule, climbing to the top of the pile of lords and criminals who ostensibly ruled Haven on the strength of our backs. She wanted to be queen one day, she’d said, and queens needed navies. She’d promised that I would rule Snomish Bay with a score of ships, taking tithe from every merchant who came and went.
A tax collector, I realized with a snort of disgust. She’ll make a tax collector out of me.
There was no doubt that we were both profiting by our partnership, but maybe it was time for a change. Maybe it was time to end it. I went to my sideboard and poured myself another whiskey, resolving to demand some time ashore for the captain and crew of Scourge. It couldn’t come soon enough.
Is it better to bend like the willow or stand firm like the oak? The answer lies not in adherence to a philosophy, but in knowing how hard the wind will blow.
The Lessons of Quen Lau Ush
From the diary of Kevril Longbright –
I remember thinking that the day I won the fight with Jhavika was the day I became my own master, beholden to no one, free at last. Some days I wonder who really won that fight. Other days, I wonder if either of us did. Each of us is a slave, after all, I to my ship and she to her avarice. I wonder, truly, what freedom is, what it would feel like, and if it would make me happy. Is it possible to be a slave to one’s own freedom?
“They’re like gods-damned sharks with blood in the water.” Miko curled a lip in distaste at the flock of merchants descending on the Haven quay as the first bales of our ill-gotten cargo were offloaded.
“That they are, but they bleed gold when you harpoon them.”
She barked a laugh. “Where’s my harpoon?”
Haven is like no other city in the world. A long-abandoned gnomish stronghold—and yes, some git of a sailor saying “it looks gnomish” is how Snomish Bay got its name—resettled by warlords, refugees, pirates, criminals, and bandits. My kind of folks.
The city touts itself as the freest place of business in the Blood Sea, if not the entire world, a city state with no central government, no taxes, and few, if any, laws. Delve below that façade, however, and the seedy truth is revealed. The self-styled Council of Lords serves as a de facto government dealing with city-wide issues, but only when problems threatened their own livelihoods. There are no “taxes” per se, so funding for these projects derives from tithes, tolls, dues, and exorbitant rents. And laws? Well, each man, woman, and child is the law unto themselves. Want to kill someone? Go ahead; there is no city guard to bring you to justice. But be aware that the next knife might be thrust into your own back.
As such, Haven is the best port on the sea for any pirate.
Our potential customers poked and prodded the arrayed bundles skeptically, sneering and commenting that we must have looted a sunken wreck. Considering we’d stripped Yellow Blossom of everything but her hull and masts, they were pretty much right, except for the sunken part.
“Just be thankful Quibly does the haggling.”
My purser strode back and forth with his thumbs in his belt, ignoring the pre-haggling banter. The haggling wouldn’t begin until the crew finished unloading. That was when Quibly’s skills would shine. The man’s tongue fenced with a mastery unmatched by the most seductive courtesan in Haven. By the end of the day, the evidence of our piracy would be gone, transformed into gold as if by an alchemist’s magic. Quibly had already assessed the value of our haul, and I’d paid the crew from the strongbox of coin. Throughout the ship, all conversation focused on how to spend it.
“I thank the Gods of Light every day for that, sir.” Miko sighed and abruptly changed the subject. “Are you going to see her?”
The question took me by the lee, but I knew who Miko meant. We’d already agreed that the crew needed a break. Of course, it fell to me to apprise Jhavika of the situation.
“Yes, as soon as I scrub a week at sea off my salty hide and put on some decent clothes.” I brushed at my salt-stained jacket. “Jhavika’s particular about her guests these days.”
“I think she’d make an exception considering what you’re bringing her.”
“You’d think,” I agreed. I’d mulled over a potential break in that partnership during our voyage home, but didn’t like the alternative. Too much work was better than not enough, and pirating was easier when I had someone handing me juicy targets.
A carriage arrived on the quay, like a fat rat crawling from a hole in the wall of warehouses. The conveyance disgorged three more plump merchants adorned in rich robes and glinting rings, and protected by a squad of beefy bodyguards. Shoes that rarely touched earth scuffed along the flagstones of the quay as they perused our goods. I had no interest in watching the spectacle.
“I need to get ready to go.”
As I turned away, Miko asked, “What about shore leave?”
I paused, tempted to tell her to set the crew loose in shifts, but I didn’t know what Jhavika would say yet. Why should I care what she says? They’y crew. My gut twisted abruptly, easing as I relinquished the thought. Don’t burn any bridges yet, Kevril. “Take on fresh provisions and water, and serve out grog when the off-loading’s done, but no leave until I get back.”
Turning to go below, I spied half a dozen sailors with sour faces. They’d apparently heard the exchange and were displeased with my answer. Striding toward my cabin, I wondered if I’d have a mutiny on my hands if leave was denied.
In my cabin, I found Hemp laying out clothes on my bunk: gold-trimmed red velvet jacket, ivory shirt with ruffled collar and sleeves, black pants and boots, all freshly cleaned. Not my very best, but a far sight better than I’d intended to wear. He’d even laid out the daggers I’d claimed from our recent prize, the gems in the hilts matching the jacket nicely, along with my dress cutlass.
“What’s all this?”
Hemp wiped a nonexistent smudge from the sword’s scabbard. “Jhavika appreciates somethin’ easy on the eyes as much as the next woman. After all, it takes bait to hook a shark, don’t it, sir? Might get the answer you want if you ask right.”
“So, the whole crew knows I’m going to ask her for some respite, do they?” I doffed my jacket and muttered an oath beneath my breath. There were few secrets aboard a pirate ship.
“Well, we was hopin’, sir.” Hemp poured steaming water from a pitcher into a basin. “Let me just give you a proper shave and a trim, then you wash off the salt and get gussied up. You’ll feel like a new man!”
I keep my face clean because it’s easier than keeping a beard in trim, and I don’t like the way my beard looks with three streaks of gray running through it. Call me vain, but I think a ship’s captain shouldn’t look like a vagabond. Generally, I shave myself, but Hemp did a better job, and his notion had some merit. He’d be insufferable if I told him so, however.
“Since arguing with you will only buy me grief, I might as well give in.”
“Too right you are, sir.” He grinned and stropped my razor, nodding to the stool beside the basin. “Have a seat.”
I stripped off my shirt and sat down, allowing my steward to shave the whiskers off my face. If mutiny was afoot, he could have ended the affair right then, but Hemp had been shaving me for years and I wasn’t worried.
Nerves of steel, right?
Actually, Hemp cared more about his reputation as my steward than the complaints of any whining foremast jacks and janes. If he cut my throat, he’d never be a steward ever again. Hell of a note when the only thing keeping me alive is the reputation of a man who thinks the height of culture is a brothel with clean sheets.
When my face was whisker free—and my throat still uncut—I endured a swipe with a towel soaked in wood alcohol and managed not to scream.
He’d just finished trimming my hair when there was a knock at the door, and Hemp hollered, “‘Bout damned time!” Four sailors entered carrying buckets of steaming water. Hemp pointed to the quarter gallery and gave me a grin. “Now for a good scrub!”
That, at least, was one task he’d never suggested I needed help with.
For a sailor, a hot bath is a luxury like no other. Fresh water is always at a premium aboard ship and rarely used for other than cleansing a wound, diluting grog, or drinking when there is no grog on hand. But we were at the quay and would be taking on fresh water anyway, so I luxuriated.
By the murky hue of the water sluicing out the scuttle, I had needed the attention. Funny how you don’t notice the salt-crusted filth on your skin until it’s washed off. When I was done, I felt as fresh as a new-born babe. I toweled dry and dressed in the finery Hemp had laid out, buckled the thick leather money belt containing Jhavika’s share around my waist, tucked my shirt over it, and looked in the mirror one last time.
I fingered the scars that marred my face, Jhavika’s handiwork.
After the untimely deaths of Captain Kohl and his first mate, she and I, as the two senior officers, had had a disagreement over who should be Scourge’s next captain. Already injured and exhausted from escaping the trap, we fell to a quick exchange of blows, then circled each other warily. During the second flurry, I knocked her sword from her grasp. Thinking I’d won, I lowered my cutlass. That was when she taught me the lesson, snatching up Captain Kohl’s cat-o’-nine-tails and slashing out. Three of the barbed lashes tore through the flesh of my face even as my cutlass slashed across her stomach. Both clutching our injuries, we might have continued to the death, but Jhavika called a truce.
“Give me a share of Kohl’s fortune,” she’d bargained. “I’ll take my stake ashore and you keep the ship.”
Best deal I ever made. After she’d carved out a name for herself, she’d offered me a few jobs, then a full-time partnership. We’d both profited handsomely. Hopefully, she’d see the wisdom in granting some down time to continue that partnership.
Shaking off the memories, I stepped back to consider the whole view in the mirror. I’d never pass for one of Jhavika’s fancy lord friends, but I looked respectable. Hemp might be a whore-mongering scallywag, but he has good taste in clothes and is deft with a razor and scissors.
Damn it! I’m going to have to either thank him or increase his pay. With a choice akin to death or dishonor, I opted for the easy way out.
He was through the door before the echo died. “Sir?”
“Good suggestion. I do feel better.” I shot my cuffs and glared as he opened his mouth to comment. “One word and I cut out your tongue and feed it to Wix.”
He closed his mouth, but couldn’t keep from smiling.
As I strode past him, he glanced down at my glossy footwear and sighed. “Just try to keep those boots clean, sir. Took me hours to get the bloodstains out.”
“No guarantees on that count.” I was going to see Jhavika, after all, and blood was one of her favorite pastimes.
On deck, I ignored the low whistles from my crew at my attire and hailed Miko. “I’m heading up. How’s the trading going?”
“Nearly done.” She waved at the sparse remainder of crates and barrels on the quay, the rest having vanished as if by magic, levitating up the cargo lifts lining the warehouses to be stuffed away and shipped out or sold to merchant captains to refit their vessels.
“If I’m not back in a couple hours, come looking.” I strode down the gangplank and across the quay.
“Keep your boots clean, sir!”
“Always,” I replied with a wave. Unlike my steward’s comment, Miko’s had less to do with preserving my footwear than my life. The streets of Haven were some of the poorest, filthiest, most dangerous places I’d ever seen. No one walked the streets if they didn’t have to, not unless they had a death wish.
I had no intention of walking those streets today. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.
The former gnomish stronghold was carved right into the rocky shore of Snomish Bay, sheltered on the landward side by an impenetrable mountain range, with seaward access guarded by fortified headlands. From the sea, the city is beautiful; sturdy stone buildings cling to slopes that angle steeply up to sheer cliff faces, and the torrent of White Rock Falls cascading from the mountains, bathing the heights in mist. Get closer, and you see the tangled network of bridges and catwalks connecting the buildings like the blood vessels of a vast beast. Some residents of Haven spend their entire lives without ever touching solid ground.
A stevedore manning one of the cargo lifts opened the gate and waved me aboard. The gnomish contraptions made me nervous, but they were the only way into the city without slogging through the filth-mired streets, which would risk both my life and the wrath of my steward. I handed him two pennies for the ride, and the lift elevated me above the festering underbelly of Haven.
As we rose, we passed the gaping portals of each successive level, giving me glimpses inside. The lowest two floors were actual warehouses, stuffed to the gills with all manner of goods and guarded night and day by grim mercenaries. The next levels housed myriad unsavory inns, flesh houses, and taverns common to most waterfronts. I bypassed more upmarket accommodations and eateries above those, but my destination was yet higher. When the lift jerked to a stop at roof level, I stepped off into a light breeze that wafted beneath taut canvas awnings sheltering shops, cafés, and opium dens. Hawkers cried out the virtues of their wares—colorful cloth and beadwork, silver trinkets and charms, scantily clad slaves of all varieties, spices, soaps, and an endless assortment of food and intoxicants—while pickpockets targeted the intoxicated, distracted, and unwary.
Jhavika’s estate was about a mile away as the crow flies, but much farther with the circuitous route I’d be taking. Though wealthy, she wasn’t yet a member of the Council of Lords, so she still lived within the city proper and not in one of the exclusive keeps perched upon the cliffs.
After traversing the rooftop without incident, I paused with some trepidation before starting across the first bridge. Strange how I’m entirely comfortable a hundred feet up the rigging of my ship, but Haven’s lofty neighborhoods unnerve me. Perhaps it’s because nobody tries to push me out of Scourge’s crow’s nest. Gnomish stonemasons evidently didn’t believe in guardrails, and a preferred method of assassination in Haven was a careful nudge over the side. I’m well known as Jhavika’s business partner, and one of her competitors might try to foil her by eliminating me. I kept a hand on my sword and stayed as far from the edge as possible.
My third traverse was a cable bridge that swayed under my feet. I found the motion oddly comforting, more like a ship than land, and the span sported wrist-thick lines I could grab if someone tried to pitch me over.
By the time I reached Jhavika’s walled estate, I was nerve-wracked and slightly footsore. Hemp must have overdone the cleaning of my boots; they were stiff, and I was unused to walking so far. Scourge‘s quarterdeck is only thirty feet by thirty feet and, though I do tend to pace, I don’t put in more than about a mile a day.
Unlike most of the bridges, the span to Jhavika’s estate is private and protected by a locked gatehouse. I pulled the rope and a bell chimed. The door opened without so much as a “Who goes there?” It didn’t surprise me; Jhavika had spies all over the city and undoubtedly knew when we arrived and maybe even when I left the ship to meet with her. My spirits sagged as the door opened to reveal one of my least favorite people in all of Haven.
“Captain Longbright!” Ty-lee’s teeth gleamed ivory and gold, his smile far brighter than my arrival warranted. It made me want to mine his mouth for the precious metal with a pair of pliers. Jhavika’s steward pressed his palms together and bowed, his topknot wobbling, then gestured me through the door. “You’re looking lordly today!”
“And you’re looking exactly the same as always, Ty-lee.” I stepped through and nodded to the guards dressed in Jhavika’s livery. “Your mistress is expecting me, I gather.”
“Of course.” He closed the door and ushered me onto the cable bridge before him. The narrow span lurched with a motion not unlike the pitching of a small skiff. “She’s looking forward to your visit.”
“I’ll bet she is.” How not? The two hundred Toki imperials around my waist had her name on them.
“I trust your voyage was successful?” Ty-lee’s smile remained undaunted by my sarcasm.
“I’ll discuss my successes with Jhavika, if you don’t mind.” I’d be damned to the Abyss before I’d discuss my business with a servant.
His smile wavered, then steadied. “Of course, Captain.”
A light rain began to fall, one of the splash-and-dash showers Haven is known for. I quickened my pace, which made the bridge swing and the cables squeak. Ty-lee maintained his position at my side, smile intact, constantly glancing at me. Perhaps that was why I didn’t like the man; he always seemed to be staring at me. I tried to ignore him.
The bridge led to a vestibule nestled into the fourth floor of Jhavika’s estate, a high-walled stone keep. The entire city was stone, of course, typical gnomish construction, solid as the mountains themselves, but not fit for anyone over four feet tall. Most buildings had been converted by knocking two floors into one and enlarging the doors or gates. Few actual gnomes still lived in Haven, and those that did kept to themselves. I asked one once why Haven had been abandoned by its original residents, and he just stared at me like it wasn’t my business. Maybe it isn’t.
My point is, though some renovations are shoddy—obvious seams, slap-dash plaster to disguise imperfections, negligent cracks—Jhavika’s home was flawless. Not the finest estate in the city by far, but it was both impressive and impregnable. I had to admit that she’d done remarkably well for herself in the short span of years since she moved ashore. To me, it seemed as splendid an estate as any lord could wish for, but Jhavika wanted more. No matter how much she got, she always wanted more.
Ty-lee opened the door and gestured with a short bow. “After you, Captain.”
I stepped into the entry chamber. Columns of rose marble cunningly hewn in the likenesses of comely men and women soothed my eyes. Elvish tile smoother then my freshly shaven face brushed the soles of my boots. Silk tapestries, curtained alcoves, porcelain vases filled to overflowing with aromatic blooms in a riot of color and fragrance…an oasis of beauty and peace. It was almost enough to make me forget the cesspool of Haven just outside the door. Almost…
“This way, Captain,” Ty-lee waved me down one of the three branching hallways.
As we walked, I wondered if I might one day retire from pirating and move ashore. If I could afford a place like this, it wouldn’t be torture, certainly.
We walked down a sweeping stair and a long hallway, stopping before a pair of ornate double doors, blazing white with gilded filigree and gleaming fixtures. Ty-lee opened them without knocking and waved me into the morning room. Floor-to-ceiling windows and glass-paned doors admitted the feeble morning sunlight that struggled through scudding clouds. The doors led onto a wide patio of white marble that overlooked Jhavika’s cherished gardens. Today the doors were closed and a merry fire burned in the grating of a cavernous fireplace, giving the room a cozy feel. Artwork and furnishings that would have bought me a new ship if I sold them on the open market graced the walls, tables, and even the floor—a rug of fine Fornician silk that I always hesitated to walk upon.
Jhavika stood with several people near the windows, dressed for business in kidskin breeches, boots, and a blousy shirt of rose-hued silk. As always, her looks disconcerted me—her dark eyes and olive skin suggest Morrgrey heritage, but her honey-gold hair and brows streaked with even lighter highlights were more typical of northern climes—not unattractive, but incongruous. Though rich women paid good money to have their hair dyed a similar shade, I knew that Jhavika’s was natural. One slender hand rested idly on the cat-o’-nine-tails at her hip.
Doesn’t she ever put that damned thing down? Of its own volition, my hand raised to my face and rubbed my scars.
Jhavika kept the lash as a remembrance of her days at sea, or so she’d told me, though she seemed to have adopted it as a symbol of her authority. She often joked that she had two scourges to enforce her will; I was the other one.
I recognized the finely dressed man she was speaking to, a slave merchant I’d done business with. The other five were slaves. Jhavika looked to be augmenting her household staff.
“Ah, Kevril!” Jhavika smiled at me. “I’ll be right with you. Just some domestic business.”
“Of course.” I turned half away as if to appreciate the view of the gardens, irritated that she obviously knew I was coming, but was making me wait while she conducted such mundane household affairs.
“Ty-lee, bring us some refreshment.” She dismissed the butler as easily as she had dismissed me and returned to her business.
I stood with my hands clenched behind my back, facing the rainy gardens but watching Jhavika out of the corner of my eye. She rarely did anything without a purpose and this smacked of a power play. I rocked from my heels to my toes—the phantom motion of the ship lingering beneath my boots—and girded my temper.
“So, Lady Keshmir,” the slave merchant continued, “observe the quality of the merchandise I bring you: exquisite stature, perfectly proportioned, fair of face and form without the slightest mark to mar their beauty. The very finest.”
She’s no lady, I thought with an inward smirk. Jhavika might style herself as an up-and-coming power in the Haven hierarchy, but she’d never pass as a fine lady. There would always be a bit of the pirate in her that could never be scrubbed away.
Examining the slaves with a sidelong glance, I had to admit that they were quite fine. Three men and two women, tall and straight, clean-complexioned and well-proportioned. These weren’t common house slaves or laborers. I wondered what Jhavika wanted with them.
“As a matter of fact, I can’t see, Master Heldech.” Jhavika paced before the slaves, eying them from head to foot, one hand poised at her chin. “Disrobe them.”
“Of course, milady.” Heldech ordered the slaves to strip, and they complied without hesitation. Their eyes were cast down, and one fair young man blushed furiously, but they knew better than to protest. “They are well trained, as you can see, and without flaw.”
“Can they dance?” Jhavika walked slowly around the five as clothing piled at their feet.
“With the grace of doves in flight, milady.” Heldech was laying it on a little thick.
I looked more closely at the poor unfortunates. Two, a man and woman, were dusky skinned and so similar that they might have been siblings. The other three were pale: one red-headed man with barely any body hair, the other man and woman fair-haired. They all bore tattoos denoting the reasons for their slavery: the two fair-haired were criminals, the redhead was a debtor, and the two dusky ones had been convicted of sacrilege. If Jhavika wanted dancers, she was planning to use them for entertainment for herself or her lordly friends. I didn’t care—it wasn’t my business—but it didn’t surprise me. Like the expensive rug beneath my boots, appearances were important to her. Only the best would do.
“Which two are the best dancers? I want a matched pair, mind you, a man and a woman.”
That leaves the redhead out, I thought, turning away.
Ty-lee returned with a crystal decanter of auburn tea and limes. He poured a glassful for me. I added a lump of sugar and sipped it with pleasure, the spicy concoction of herbs and bite of lime redolent of warm summer winds and lush green growth. In truth, it tasted like of my homeland. Tira was blessed with the finest farmlands south of the Bitter Sea, graced by the magic of wood sprites, they say. Sometimes I miss it, but most times not.
Heldech expounded on the grace of the slaves, and Jhavika finally chose the dusky pair. After a short bout of haggling, they settled on a price. Jhavika paid the merchant, and he ordered the slaves to don their clothes.
“Not you two,” Jhavika instructed her new purchases, dismissing the others with a flip of her hand. She accepted a glass of tea from Ty-lee. “Stay a moment, Ty-lee. I’ll need you to show our new additions to their quarters.”
“Of course, milady.” He bowed from the waist, palms pressed together, his ivory-gold smile gleaming.
When Heldech had gone, Jhavika plucked the lash from her hip and shook out the thongs. I cringed at the familiar gesture, recalling the sting against my skin. It was a nasty weapon, crafted of the finest leather woven with tiny barbs at the tips of the lashes, made to harm as much as inflict pain.
Flicking the thongs back and forth like a cat might twitch its tail, Jhavika circled her new slaves. “I want to make clear to you that you have nothing to fear from me as long as you do my bidding.”
The two stood as if carved from dark stone. Though the woman remained utterly still, but the muscles of the man’s jaw clenched. He knew what was coming.
“However, if you stray once from performing exactly as I say, this will be your punishment.” With two flicks as deft as a fencer’s thrust and parry, Jhavika lashed the scourge across their bare backsides. The man winced. The woman didn’t even flinch.
Jhavika strode around in front of them and held the scourge before their downcast eyes. “If you stray twice, I will personally flay the flesh off your backs with this and sell you to the vilest brothel I can find. Do you understand?”
“Yes, mistress,” they both said.
“Good. Now take your clothes and go with Ty-lee. Follow his instructions.”
“Yes, mistress.” They snatched up their clothes and hurried out, the stripes from Jhavika’s lash vivid on their flanks.
When the door closed I found Jhavika staring at me. I didn’t care for the look in her eye as she gently swung the scourge. “Do I shock you, Kevril?”
“Shock?” I shrugged as if I didn’t care what she did with her whip or her slaves, which I didn’t…much. “No. Now put that thing away and let’s discuss business.”
Jhavika cocked one pale eyebrow, but hung the lash at her hip before striding to the fireplace and picking up a poker. “You took care of Yellow Blossom for me?”
“Yes. She was right where you said she’d be, but the cargo was trash. Hemp and muslin. The take was barely enough to cover my costs.” I put my glass down and untucked my shirt to unbuckle the money belt. “Here’s your cut.” I put the belt on the table.
“Hmmm, that’s a shame.” She didn’t even look back at me and didn’t sound terribly disappointed.
“It is a shame. My crew won’t be satisfied with their percentages. They’ve been hard at it for months now. We need some time ashore or I’m going to have trouble.”
“Really?” She turned to me, the poker still in her hand. “I don’t recall ever getting a vacation when I served aboard Scourge.”
“I’m not talking about a vacation and you know it. I’m talking about a few days ashore to kick up their heels and spend their money.” I stared down her scowl. “I’m sure you remember shore leave.”
“Yes, I remember shore leave. I also remember months at sea without a decent prize to be had.” She stirred the fire, then racked the poker. “I’m handing you prizes every other week and you’re complaining?”
“We’ve had no time ashore in more than three months, Jhavika. If I don’t give them some soon, I’ll start losing people.”
“I see.” She strolled over to the table while sipping her tea and looked down at the money belt. “Things are going well, Kevril, but I need you to do one more mission for me. After that, you can give your people some time off.”
“There’s always one more mission, Jhavika. Give me a week now, then send us out again.”
“This one is important, Kevril, and it will be lucrative for you.”
“All of your missions are important, and you said Yellow Blossom would be lucrative. It wasn’t.”
“Listen to me!” She fixed hard eyes on me. “Lord Balshi is foremost on the council and he’s opposing my inclusion. His brother-in-law, Aldaur Nightspinner, captains one of his finest merchantmen. The Hymoin left this morning for Mati loaded with spices, silk, and fine wine. Nightspinner takes the usual winter route, using the westerly cape-effect winds off of Sariff Bay to make his southing into the trades. If you leave tonight, you’ll be able to catch him before he’s across the Blood Sea.”
I knew Hymoin. She was a fat prize indeed, but that didn’t solve my problem. “Jhavika, if I leave tonight, I could have a mutiny on my hands by morning.”
“Ha! Ridiculous!” The laugh was forced and her knuckles shone white on the lash at her belt. She was angry.
I didn’t care. “It’s not ridiculous. Line up something else in a week or wait until Hymoin makes her next run.”
“No, Kevril.” Jhavika spoke through a smile that bore no humor at all, her voice tight and low. “You will take Hymoin, you will kill Aldaur Nightspinner, and you will put the ship’s crew into boats with a message to Balshi letting him know that his political machinations cost his sister her husband. Then you’ll take the cargo, pillage the ship for every last penny, and burn her. You will do this as soon as you are able, and you will not argue with me about it!”
I opened my mouth to tell her that I certainly would argue, but then reconsidered. My partnership with Jhavika was lucrative, and if I told her to piss up a rope, it would be over. I’d be looking for my own targets instead of having her hand them to me like treats on a silver platter. The silks and spices that Hymoin carried would bring in a good return and, if we left straightaway, we’d only be out a week or so. It made sense. Killing Balshi’s brother-in-law might be a mistake, but it was Jhavika’s mistake, not mine. Her ascent to the Council of Lords would benefit us both, and she couldn’t do it if I didn’t help her.
“Fine, but Scourge gets some shore time when we get back,” I insisted.
“Of course.” Jhavika smiled genuinely this time and raised her glass. “Here’s to another successful mission.”
“To a quick and successful mission.” I touched my glass to hers, drained it, and put it down. “I’d best get back before I have people jumping ship.” I turned to go.
I stopped with my hand on the door latch. “Yes?”
Jhavika opened her mouth, then closed it and nodded, waving a finger at my attire. “You look quite dashing in red and black. I like it.”
Fat lot of good it did me, I thought, but spurning her compliment would only breed ill will. “Thank you. I should go. Time and tide, you know.”
“Safe voyage, Kevril.”
I left Jhavika with a long stride, for there truly was no time to lose if I was to catch Hymoin. I guess I really shouldn’t have been surprised at the outcome. The meeting had gone like all my meetings with Jhavika go; she’d gotten her way. Crossing the span back into Haven, I glared over my shoulder. How does she always convinced me to do things her way? The question plagued me all the way back to Scourge.
Stay tuned for further information on the release of The Pirate’s Scourge.