By Avon Van Hassel
Sulat leaned back in her chair, crossed her boots on top of the grimy table. She sipped her bitter beer as a ship with tall masts and billowing white sails pulled into the harbour. Men scurried back and forth on the deck like ants, barking orders she was too far away to hear. The scent of the sea washed over her on a fresh, brisk breeze, and a tingle climbed her spine. She gripped her pewter mug with her long, dark brown hands to keep from shaking.
Soon. She ached to climb the gangplank, to shift her balance on the bobbing swells, to rub blisters into her palms with thick coarse ropes. Patience, old girl.
Just a few berths down the docks, a crew of carpenters hammered away at a weathered old wooden frame. That was her ship, Adept, a three masted Ildecoke Courser that was her gift from the king.
Half a year previous, she and her partner, Alois, had accidentally discovered and subverted a plot that could have ruined the royal family and brought Viehland to its knees. Alois had asked, as his reward, for a title so that he could marry the woman he loved. Sulat, who had been pursuing total freedom her whole life, sought liberty on the high seas. It was an unconventional request, she knew, for a woman with no experience, who had, in fact, never been on the ocean, to want a ship and a crew. But if she could have asked for wings, she would have. The sea had called to her all her life, and she wanted to answer.
So here she sat, watching the ships, her insides quivering, sipping a beer like it was any normal afternoon.
Not quite normal. Notable by its absence was Alois’ nearly constant stream of talking about anything and everything that crossed his mind: a pretty girl in the tavern might remind him of his forbidden love, which would get him brooding about the war, which would spark some memory of an adventure he and Sulat had shared. Then he’d likely get distracted by something happening in the tavern, and go off in a completely different direction, without noticing that Sulat had offered little more than one or two comments or a non-committal noise in her throat to encourage his monologue.
Where he was most useful was in dealing with people. She was usually the one who came up with the plans and he dealt with clients. It used to annoy her that people would rather deal with him than her, but she had to admit that now, finally on her own to do as she pleased, she didn’t know how to go about it.
What would you do, if you were here?
Her imagination failed her. When she needed it most, her memory of how he’d coax a job out of a stranger clung resolutely to the deepest recesses of her mind. She was completely alone this time, relying solely on her own charm, her own qualities. It had to work.
She compressed her nerves into steely determination. Perhaps it was the beer turning her apprehension to boldness, but whatever it was, it wanted her to act. She set her cup down, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and stood.
She wobbled a little and steadied herself on the table. Probably the beer, then.
Sulat put a hand to her left hip, feeling for the comforting weight of her sword pommel, but she found only the rough linen of her breeches. Shit, that’s right. No ship’s boy would have an ornate rapier, let alone the exquisite and exotic blunderbuss she usually kept strapped to her right thigh. She’d have to get by with the dagger she tucked inside the tight wrappings that flattened her breasts beneath her black shirt. That was new, too. She generally preferred a white shirt and tight dun breeches. But the wrappings would show through a white shirt, and she needed baggy trousers to hide her feminine hips. Everything felt wrong.
It’s only temporary. She adjusted the waistband of her breeches. I’ll be too busy to notice, soon enough.
A paunchy balding man in a tidy, modest suit and hat strode into the tavern, a hefty leather bag in his hand. He had come from the ship Martinette, which was down the deck a way. The ship looked to be a…
Sulat sifted through the beer-blurred pages of her memory, reaching back to the research she had done in the capital’s library. The protruding nose carved like a robust young woman holding a tankard, the row of square wooden flaps below the deck, and the sheer size suggested that it was a galleon. Sails hung from two main masts with two significantly smaller ones behind.
Four-masted galleon, well-dressed officer, Vurdence name. Merchant ship, probably from—and bound for—Vurdia. Perfect.
The man dragged a table to the centre of the floor and kicked away all but one chair that had been with it. He sat and beckoned the barmaid to him.
‘If anyone comes in asking for a ship, I’m still hiring,’ he said in the throaty accent of Vurdia. Sulat’s heart leapt and she forced her face to remain impassive. She cleared her throat and stepped up.
‘I’m looking for a ship.’ She deepened her voice slightly.
He tugged his jacket tighter around himself and picked up a battered quill and pot of ink. ‘What’s your name, boy?’
‘Jerom.’ Sulat chose the name of her favourite of the boys she had known at the convent. He’d been told that his father was a sailor, and his fantasy of joining the navy had fed Sulat’s own dreams of escape and freedom.
The man eyed Sulat up and down, beady blue eyes quizzical. ‘How old are you, Jerom?’
Sulat adjusted her shoulders back to stand more like Alois did. ‘Sixteen, sir.’ In truth, she was twenty-one, but she had delicate features and shaving off a few years might explain away the pitch of her voice.
‘How long have you been sailing?’
This, Sulat answered honestly. ‘This will be my first time.’
‘What drew you to it?’
‘I need the money and I want to get out of this shithole. I hear Vurdia is better for people like me.’
Vurdia, while an ancient rival of Viehland, had abolished slavery over a century earlier, and though they surreptitiously funded the slave trade in recent decades, they had a much higher reputation for tolerance at home than any other country on the continent of Triothlon.
The man set the quill down. ‘You want to be a passenger, then.’
‘I don’t have the money. I’m not afraid of hard work.’ Sulat widened her stance and gripped her hands behind her back.
The man cocked his head to the side. ‘It’s dangerous. You could die.’
‘There’s risk in every line of work.’
The man laughed. ‘You’ve a stout heart, lad. How strong is your back?’ The man eyed Sulat’s slender arms.
‘I’m quick and I can fit into tight places. And I learn fast,’ she added.
The man scribbled something on the paper. His handwriting was too messy to read upside down. ‘Good. If you’re sure, we’ll try you out. You’ll get two sils a week. Yearly, that’s—’
‘A hundred and four,’ Sulat supplied. The man paused his writing and looked at her.
‘You know your sums?’
Shit. ‘I’m a quick learner.’
‘Well, keep that keen mind sharp, and you could earn yourself a promotion.’ The man stood and tapped Sulat’s shoulder with the feather of the quill. ‘But you’ll start off as a swabbie. Go aboard and ask for Otto.’
Sulat swung her leather pack onto her back, the lightness of it unfamiliar and awkward. Most of what she owned was now stored at Parry House, in the room Alois had given her. Though her magic items and wilderness gear would have made her feel more secure in an unfamiliar place, it could also be a liability, and she couldn’t risk it being stolen.
No weapons, no magic, no Alois. Just me.
She squared her shoulders and stepped up the gangplank. Men were standing around chatting and taking their ease. They wore fashions from all over the world, their features and accents reflecting their various origins. That’s a good start.
‘Otto?’ she barked at the man closest, a Viehlishman in a brown waistcoat, with a long doleful face and course black curls.
‘Eaton,’ he said, putting a hand to his chest. ‘Otto’s over there.’ He pointed at a massive man prodding a cannon with his toe. The man had a strange sort of lobster with a split tail tattooed on his left forearm.
Sulat stepped straight up to the man and cleared her throat loudly. ‘I was told to report to you. I’m Jerom.’ She held out a hand.
‘With the other seamen, then, and await orders,’ Otto said. Sulat nodded and strode back to the long-faced man. He nodded politely and Sulat gave a nod and half a smile to cover her wincing at the pinch of the bandages.
A woman stomped up the gangplank and onto the deck. She was a bit shorter than Sulat, stocky, and middle-aged, with short greying hair, and thick-fingered hands. She was dressed like an officer in tight grey breeches and a dark green jacket with two rows of brass buttons. Her eyes snapped to Sulat.
‘Otto, I’m taking this one,’ she said, waving a hand at Sulat.
‘You what?’ he asked, indignantly.
‘I need a new boy,’ the woman said.
‘So, go hire one. I need swabbies.’
‘This one’s too weedy to be much use to you.’
Sulat recoiled. Weedy? Who are these two to argue over me like a piece of furniture?
The other men were looking at her. Another green-clad officer stepped up to the commotion.
‘Oi, Pers. I need this one for a new boy,’ the woman said.
‘Fine. Enough, Otto.’ Pers put up a hand to quell Otto’s protests. ‘Bernard’s not done hiring yet.’
‘Come, boy,’ the woman beckoned to Sulat as she and the officer moved away. Sulat paused for a moment, indignation slowing her feet, but decided not to cause more of a scene.
We’re gonna get a couple of things straight immediately, that’s for sure.
The woman opened the door under the stairs that led up to the steering wheel and led Sulat inside. She dropped into a chair and pointed at a dressing screen at the back of the cabin.
‘Unbind your breasts, girl. You’ll ruin your back and lungs. What’s your name?’
Sulat stood straighter. ‘My name is Jerom.’
The woman packed tobacco into her pipe with a thumb. ‘So I heard when you signed up with Bernard. You one of those girls who feels like a boy inside? Or are you another poor misinformed heifer who thinks you need to pretend to be a man on a ship to avoid getting raped?’ She lit the leaves in the bowl. ‘I can help you wrap your bandages better, if it’s the former. But if it’s the latter, you needn’t bother at all.’
She was obviously not going to be fooled. Sulat rolled her shoulders back. ‘It’s not superstition that women are safer dressed as men.’ I know, I’ve done it for years.
‘Well, you’re not the only woman on this ship. Get changed and pour us a drink.’
‘Unless you’d rather clean out the gunwells and privies, and mop blood off the decks,’ Dilys said coolly. ‘But you’re old for a sailor, and too clever to be a swabbie. You’ll be happier here with me. And if you’ve got a head for numbers, you could make a good mate, one day.’
‘Who are you?’ Sulat asked, not moving.
‘I’m Dilys, Second Mate. And we’ll talk more when you’ve done as I’ve asked.’ Dilys jabbed a thumb at the dressing screen.
Sulat wanted to resist on principle, but the bindings did hurt, so she stepped behind the screen and pulled her shirt out of her trousers. She fumbled with the knot in the tight bandages around her chest, then awkwardly unwound the strip of fabric and tossed it over the screen. Her chest filled with air and the pain melted away, leaving a dull ache where the bandages had been.
‘No doubt, you heard that women aren’t allowed on ships,’ Dilys said, as Sulat came around the screen, once her clothes were back on. Sulat nodded and found the cut glass decanters on the bookshelf and poured a couple of fingers of cheap brandy into the small glasses next to it. ‘I don’t know how that rumour spread so far.’ Dilys said, taking the glass Sulat offered her. ‘Women make the best navigators. And all members of the crew are called men, all officers’ aides are called boys, regardless of age or sex. Ships are one of the only places where your sex and your colour don’t matter, so long as you work hard. Even better if you’re strong and you get along with people. You’re not going to be a problem, are you?’
‘Good. We’ve got cargo to shift and a lot of work to do.’
‘You called me “weedy” in front of the other men,’ Sulat said. That won’t happen again, I don’t care who you are.
Dilys eyed Sulat for a moment, then inclined her head. ‘There’s a lot of rough talk on a ship, but you have my apologies. I shall be more respectful in future.’
Sulat pushed down the heat rising in her face. ‘I’ve spent the last three years swearing to never again be a servant.’
‘Is it so bad?’ Dilys asked, gesturing her brandy glass at the one in Sulat’s hand. ‘Everyone on the ship is servant to someone.’
‘Except the captain.’ Sulat said.
‘You think so? He serves La Marchand des Coupevag, the company that owns this vessel. He serves the people of Vurdia and Viehland who demand goods. And he serves each of us. A captain who puts himself above his crew is like to find himself in the water. We all have our place on the hoop.’ She drew a circle in the air, and drew up a sleeve to scratch a tattoo on her arm drawn in greying ink: a lobster with a split tail. Sulat squinted at it.
‘You never seen an Anchor-Tail Lobster before?’ Dilys asked. She motioned for the chair opposite her and Sulat sat stiffly on the edge.
‘Otto has the same tattoo.’
‘Indeed, he does.’
‘Does everyone have one?’
‘Most of them. Then again, most of the bodies that feed the fish under The Squalls have them, too. You only get it for performing feats on the sea. This lightning bolt,’ she ran a thick finger over the jagged white line in the lobster’s claw, ‘means I’ve crossed the Squalls. All the officers have one, as do much of the crew. You don’t get a lobster just for being a sailor. But if you survive, you earn the right to get one.’
Sulat’s stomach clenched with sudden powerful yearning. She scooted back in the chair and leaned forward over her knees. She felt as though she’d never wanted anything as badly as she wanted her own lobster tattoo.
Alois had tattoos, but they never appealed to her. They were like markings on an animal, making someone recognisable, a distinguishing characteristic, something to include on a wanted poster.
This was different. This was achievement, belonging. She’d command respect. She was used to sticking out, judged on sight by her skin. But now part of that identity would be something she’d earned, something that marked her out as brave, skilled, and reliable.
‘All I have to do is survive?’ she asked through dry lips. I can do that, that’s all I’ve ever done.
Dilys barked a laugh. ‘Don’t make it sound so easy. I understand your hunger, believe me. But you have to distinguish yourself. You can’t just walk into a tavern and ask for one. You have to take two other Lobsters with you to vouch for you. And if it’s ever discovered that you have a tattoo you didn’t earn, law of the sea says your crew has the right to remove it. We need to be able to trust each other out here, and these tattoos are the language we use to know who we can trust and who we can’t.
‘Now, let me tell you a story.’ Dilys rolled up the other sleeve, revealing a menagerie of whimsically-drawn animals, and pointed to a twisting, scaly, and mustachioed snake breathing fire. ‘The dragon is from the first time I went to Zukua.’
Sulat was impressed. Zukua was a far-flung continent where few ventured, but they all brought back stories of fantastic animals, strange foods, and tonnes and tonnes of silk and spices. Almost all of the tea in Viehland came from Zukua, originally, but was traded in every port town in Troithlon.
‘This one, the tiger, is from the second time. The bird is for the first ship I served on, Nightingale. She went down in the Squalls. This pig is for Vurdia. That ship, Confiante, was carrying hogs and it was my job to look after them. And you turned your nose up at pouring brandy.’ Dilys tapped a cloud with the puffy cheeks. ‘That’s Meltythia.’
Sulat knew this bit of sailing lore. The winds all had names and personalities: Gundara brought storms from the south, Angunnes brought harmony from the north, and Moin brought riches from the west. But Meltythia…
‘The bad luck wind.’
‘The east wind.’ Dilys nodded. ‘She’s not bad luck, she’s just luck. Sometimes the luck is for someone else. And you know, I shovelled pig shit for a month, I got malaria twice, my ship went down in the Squalls, and I had to swim for my life. Hell, I was born with this ugly face and this fat, shapeless body. Meltythia’s been spitting in my face my whole life, but she won’t let me die. Which I think makes me pretty lucky.’
‘You have an odd way of looking at things.’
‘Things look different when they could all be the last thing you see.’
My struggles have hardly been good luck, Sulat thought. Alois was good, I suppose. Everything else I earned off my own hard work. Am I better off now than I would have been if I’d never been at the convent? The familiar shadows fluttered at the edges of her vision, the waft of sacred rose passed by her nose. She waved it aside. No, that’s not something that can be turned into a positive.
‘So what’s your story? Looking for adventure or running from something?’ Dilys asked, smacking her lips and holding out her empty glass for Sulat to refill.
‘Just looking for work.’ Sulat shrugged, rising to retrieve the decanter.
‘Please,’ Dilys scoffed.
‘You ask more questions than Bernard.’
‘We all see what we expect to see. He expected to see a sixteen-year-old boy, as did Otto. They’d have let you scrub the deck until you passed out because they didn’t know you had your lungs in a vice. I had no expectations, and so now here you sit, a complete blank, waiting to be filled in.’
‘I’m here because I’m always running from something, and it’s always an adventure.’
Dilys grinned as Sulat sat back down with the brandy. ‘Clever girl.’
‘I was supposed to be a farmwife.’ Sulat said at last, taking a deep draught of brandy. It burned all the way down, dissolving the last of the spectres who threatened to reemerge.
‘Would you be happy with that life?’ Dilys asked.
‘I don’t know. I wasn’t the same then as I am now.’
‘What do you want now?’
‘I want to run and never be held back.’
A slow smile spread across Dilys’ thin lips. ‘Then it looks like Meltythia blew you in the right direction. And look, she put you on a ship with me. Pretty lucky.’ She winked and stood, taking Sulat’s glass.
The realisation of that statement hit Sulat in the gut. Dilys was a middle-aged woman who had been sailing most of her life. She knew how to be a woman in a closed world of men. She knew how to sail, how to make friends. There was something trustworthy about her as well, something that made Sulat want to tell her everything. She hadn’t really trusted anyone but Alois in years, and it took months for her to open up to him. Perhaps he had healed her more than she thought.
Perhaps she did have some luck, after all.
‘So you’re going to teach me how to be an officer?’ Sulat asked.
‘I’ll teach you everything I know, because it’s more than one person can do alone. If you think your pride will allow your to work under me.’
‘I’ve had worse jobs,’ Sulat said.
‘Good.’ Dilys grinned and tapped her glass against Sulat’s.
By the end of the day, Martinette had enough crew to depart.
Dilys allowed Sulat to stay on deck as the ship pulled out, as it was her first time on a ship, and Dilys could handle the paperwork on her own for now. A space opened beside the lanky man name Eaton, and Sulat wedged her small frame in. He shuffled a little to the side to give her room.
‘Jerom, is it?’ he asked in a husky voice, holding out a hand.
‘Sulat, actually.’ Sulat shook and they both turned back to face the bustling pier and handful of waving well-wishers.
‘Any of them for you?’ Eaton asked. Sulat shook her head. ‘No, nor me.’
The ship swayed heavily as it broke away and slipped into deeper water.
Underway, now, Sulat thought. No turning back.
In spite of herself, a wide grin split her face, and she had the urge to hide it under her arm, but didn’t want to miss a moment of finally, finally getting out of Viehland. She didn’t know what Vurdia would be like, but it couldn’t be much worse than this place.
The conical, palace-topped island loomed above her, imposing and threatening, but the most peculiar feeling came over her. They were pulling away from land, from stability, from any hope of rescue, should something go wrong.
Sulat had never been comfortable in tight, closed in spaces, since punishments as a child often involved locking her inside the fireplace grate overnight.
She looked around at the hundreds of men crammed together on this confined space, a wooden cage floating on top of open water, everything that usually triggered an episode. She was more trapped than she’d ever been, yet somehow she didn’t feel the fear rising, didn’t smell even a whiff of sacred rose.
Perhaps it was because she’d chosen to walk into this life, or because it was moving away from Viehland, or because she was given an actual purpose, a useful job to do, she didn’t know.
All of a sudden, she felt as happy as Alois had described being on his wedding day. This wasn’t her ship, but for the first time in her life, here on this floating cage, far from land, surrounded by people, she felt free.
The women’s crew quarters were on the cargo deck beside the bigger men’s berths. A mousy haired girl greeted Sulat as she pulled the privacy screen aside.
‘You’re new, aren’t you?’ she asked, pushing her spectacles higher up her nose.
‘Sulat.’ She was getting tired of small talk, now.
‘Ashryn,’ the other girl said, nodding. ‘They said Dilys’ new boy would be down here with us. This is your bunk.’ She pointed to a hammock nearby with a pillow and a neatly folded woollen blanket. ‘It takes some getting used to, but you’ll get the hang of it.’
Sulat nodded and climbed in. It was awkward, swinging wildly beneath her, shifting with every move she made, but she did manage to get into a fairly comfortable v-shaped position. The pillow was hard and the blanket was very coarse, but at least there were no twigs and stones poking into her back.
Get the hang of it. She could practically hear Alois’ goofy laugh, and smiled in spite of herself. A hard lump rose in her throat and she coughed angrily. She’d spent nights alone before, even when they’d been partners, but somehow this felt different. Here, finally, in the dark, she couldn’t run any more from her feelings. She was surrounded by women, some snoring, some whispering, and even more men going about their business outside the women’s berth, yet somehow she felt more alone than she had all day. There was nothing to do, no one to talk to, to distract her from her thoughts.
Alois was home with his family, and she was speeding away, surrounded by strangers. No one to watch her back, no one to hold her hands if the walls closed in too quickly. She hugged her shoulders and tried to roll onto her side, flailing and floundering like a cat in a sack.
She still didn’t feel the panic she expected from her first time on a ship. All she felt was something she never expected to feel: lonely.
You like being alone. You prefer it. You are better on your own.
Yet she could still see his sideways grin, hear his gravelly slow voice, smell his jacket; a mix of leather, woodsmoke, gunpowder, and sweat. She loved him, it was true, but she was so eager to do things her way, to finally not be held back by his emotions and impetuosity. She never expected she would miss him.
You’ll be fine in the morning. You’ll be too busy to think about it.
She hugged herself tighter and focused on the texture of her shirt, the swaying of the ship, and the whispers around her, before finally drifting off.
When her first afternoon shift onboard Martinette ended, Sulat fetched Dilys a cup of tea and a sweet roll from the kitchen, then retired to her own berth to relax and wait for the dinner bell. Four hours of pouring over charts and ledgers had left her eyes sore and her shoulders aching in ways they never had before.
Is this what academics mean when they say they’ve done a lot of work? Reading never seemed strenuous before.
It was well past sundown when the bell rang again, signalling the end of shift and dinner hour for most of the crew.
‘Plate for Dilys,’ Sulat said to Guillaume, the cook. The beefy man slid a small cylindrical pie with a ruffled crust onto the plate, along with a thick slice of buttered bread, a mound of mashed peas, and a sticky dark brown cake studded with dry fruit. Sulat took the plate, crossed the deck, and knocked on the door between the stern castle stairs.
Fermin’s cabin boy opened the door and bowed Sulat in. Dilys and the other officers were arranged around a long polished dark wood table, with the captain at the head, under the dark windows. Captain Gidie Fermin was a tall, slender man with an olive complexion, hooked nose, dark brown eyes, and a noble air. He wore a silvery wig and an elegant deep green suit.
Candles flickered in tall candelabras around the chamber, their light glittering on fine porcelain, silverware, and cut glass. Other officers’ mates tended to their masters and bowed out, not being privileged to the conversations held in the chamber.
Sulat set the plate in front of Dilys. ‘Anything else?’ she asked with as much politeness as she could muster.
‘Glass of port, if you would,’ Dilys said, handing her a glass. ‘Then you may go have your supper.’
Sulat poured the drink, then bowed out, glad that task was over. She appreciated all the she was learning at Dilys’ elbow, but the serving was something she’d never get used to.
The crew’s mess was a different setting, altogether. Here, the men and women sat in clusters on bench-seat tables wherever they could find room. It was raucous and noisy, and smelled of grease and beer and unwashed bodies. Sulat had a taste for the finer things, but these were her people.
Guillaume ladled a thick grey-green soup into a cracked ceramic bowl and handed it to Sulat with a pewter tankard full of beer and a hard white biscuit. Sulat turned to survey the crowd to find an opening. The man she’d met on deck caught her eye and waved her over. She sat and took a deep drink of her beer.
‘So, you’re Dilys’ new cabin boy?’ asked a weatherbeaten man with grey hair and several missing teeth.
‘Yeah.’ Sulat settled herself and bit into the hard, bland biscuit.
‘You got snapped up pretty quick. Sure you don’t want to join us able bodied seamen?
‘Might do. What’s involved?’
‘We do anything that needs doing. Raising sail, turning the capstan.’
‘Oh, the easy stuff.’
‘Yeah, exactly. Mind you, it’s not as intense as sorting books and washing sheets. And listening to Dilys talk all day.’ The men grinned at each other.
Sulat almost laughed. ‘I’m used to talkers.’
She took a spoonful of her soup and gagged as the lining of her mouth puckered at the extreme saltiness. A couple of crewmen chuckled at her reaction.
‘Made with boiled salt pork.’ The toothless man patted Sulat on the back. ‘You won’t get calpease of that quality at any fine restaurant in the capital, you won’t.’
‘Thank the souls for that.’ Sulat choked it down. ‘It grows on you, does it?’
‘No, in faith,’ he said. A couple other men shook their heads, as well. ‘You’ll start to crave oatmeal soon. And don’t be tempted to drink all your beer at once, you only get so much of it ‘afore we reach the next port.’
Once the initial shock was over, the rest of the soup was almost palatable, if for no other reason than it was hot.
‘So what’s your name?’ the same man asked.
‘Wese.’ The man held his hand out and Sulat noted that two fingers ended at the first knuckle. The other men introduced themselves as Russ, Enol, and Heike.
‘I take it this is your first time?’ Wese said. He had a fatherly air to him, being obviously one of the most experienced men on the ship, and a good twenty years older than Sulat, at least.
‘That obvious?’ she asked.
‘Little bit. Well, if you’re looking for excitement, you’ll find it here.’
‘I hear we’re going through the Squalls. Are they as bad as I’ve heard?’
Russ’ hand balled into a fist around his iron knife. ‘As bad as they say. I’ve crossed them eight times now, and they never get better.’
‘Why not go around?’
‘Sometimes we do, but it takes an extra week each way.’ Wese shrugged. ‘Best to get it over with. It’s not like there aren’t storms at sea at other times, it’s just something you have to get used to and be smart.’
‘Tell her your story, Wese,’ the man called Enol said.
‘Aww, I been sailin’ since I was a nipper,’ Wese said cagily. ‘My parents died and I had nowhere to go. I was perfect size for a powder monkey, then a rigger. Then I earned my classification, and here I am, making regular voyages to Vurdia on Martinette.’ He smiled to himself and took another swig.
‘He’s being modest,’ Enol said, leaning forward.
‘You know how he got his star?’ Heike, asked, plucking at the fabric of Wese’s shirt. Wese rolled his eyes and pulled the neck down to show the lobster drawn in feathery faded ink with a tiny star under the split tail. ‘He was bosun in his youth. Ship went down in the Squalls. Captain was killed but one of the boats was all right. He got as many men as he could into the boat, made some rafts from the wreckage, tied them to the boat, and rowed them out of the storm. Made it to Cavendy and got some help. He weren’t never officially captain, but the crew insisted he get the star. That’s why it’s smaller’n normal.’
‘I feel better knowing we got him with us,’ Eaton said.
Meltythia brought him to me.
‘I’m only a seaman,’ Wese said quietly. ‘I did what any man would do in my place. I’m not meant to be a captain. I’ve sailed with Fermin a dozen times, and he’s a captain who knows how to keep a ship right.’
‘To the captain,’ Russ said, raising his mug. ‘May the sea god smile on us, if there is one.’
‘To the captain,’ the others echoed, including Sulat, and drank from their mugs.
‘Let’s see where we are, shall we?’ Dilys asked around noon the next day, bouncing on the balls of her feet, standing watch behind the helmsman at the wheel. She handed Sulat a wooden box closed with a brass latch. ‘Mate, what be our latitude?’
Sulat opened the box and lifted the sextant. She held the spyglass up to her eye and squinted into the sun until two bright spots appeared in the half-mirrored lens. She tilted the wedge around the perpendicular metal arm until the sun in the mirrored half of the lens sat on the horizon visible through the clear half.
She lowered the instrument, blinking through the turquoise streaks in her vision at the hatch-marks on the round bottom, and made a note.
‘Time is…’ Dilys peeked at the brass watch on the table and up at the sky. ‘Noon exactly, eight days after the equinox.’
Sulat tucked the sextant back into its wooden box and opened the thick leatherbound ledger. She ran a long finger down the table of neatly written numbers to find the date. She scribbled down the equation in her unlearned scrawl.
‘Fifty degrees and fifty-five minutes, by my reckoning.’
She straightened and tossed down the graphite stick. Dilys slid a scrap of paper across the table. On it was neatly written, 50.55.
‘You’re a natural.’ She grinned.
Captain Fermin had been standing behind the navigator, watching the crew with an imperious gaze. He strode over to the second mate and Sulat.
‘How is she doing?’ he asked, picking up Sulat’s notes. Her skin prickled at the way he looked at her, appraising her like an item in a shop. ‘That’s not bad,’ he said at last, handing it back. ‘Where did you learn your numbers? You don’t have the penmanship of one who had a tutor.’
‘I’m good with money,’ Sulat said, choosing her words carefully. Saving it, hiding it, taking it from others.
‘Perhaps you’ll be my purser one day, if I ever have need of another.’ He gave her what was surely meant as a kindly smile, but with the sun in his face and his general highborn Vurdence manner, it just came off as a sneer. Luckily he strode off then to check on other shipboard activities.
‘Well, my girl, I’m afraid I must warn you of something coming up,’ Dilys said quietly, once Fermin was out of earshot.
‘I’m not worried about the Squalls.’
‘You should be, first of all. The minute you stop worrying, you start to relax. And the next minute, you’ll be dead. But this is going to happen before that—the crossing ceremony.’
‘It’s a ritual we all go through the first time we cross the Squalls. It’s barbaric and humiliating, but the purpose is to bond the crew together and prove you can work as part of a team.’
Sulat sneered. Bonding. Groups. Grand.
Her partnership with Alois was successful mostly because he was relentlessly forgiving, and because she could put all of her trust and faith into one person.
‘What’s involved?’ she asked.
‘I can’t tell you much.’ Dilys winked. ‘It has to be unpredictable because it tests your ability to think on your feet.’
Sulat groaned internally.
‘And the ceremony itself can be dangerous. People have died. So you’ll have to be surefooted and quick. I shouldn’t even really be warning you about it, but you’re my boy and I have to arrange it. And well, you seem the sort who doesn’t like surprises.’
That’s an understatement. Sulat rubbed the fabric of her shirt between her fingers.
‘What should I wear?’ she asked, half in jest.
Dilys gave her a slow, apologetic smile. ‘It won’t matter.’
Just as Sulat’s shoulders began to beckon her to find her hammock, the door of the mess banged open. Third Mate Alexander strode in, his clothes soaked to his skin, followed by heavily muscled Jodoc and Quartermaster Otto.
‘It’s time,’ Alexander said, his face grim. Four men leapt to their feet, seized Sulat, Eaton, and one of the boys, and wrestled them outside onto the rainy deck.
‘Get off me!’ Sulat bellowed. ‘What the hell’s going on?’
The scent of sacred roses wafted up from the floorboards as she struggled with her captors. No, not right now, not right now.
‘Good girls do as they’re told,’ one of the men said with Domina’s voice, his lips moving out of time with the words.
Focus on the rain, Sulat. You’re on a ship.
Two more men and another woman were dragged up from belowdecks and joined Sulat and the boy at the centre of the deck.
‘This is an ancient rite that has been handed down by generations of seamen,’ Captain Fermin’s accented voice called above the creaking of the ropes, the flapping of the sails, and the patter of rain on the wood. He appeared behind the ship’s wheel, a beaten brass crown pulled down tight over his magnificently plumed tricorne hat.
Oh souls, what is this? Sulat shivered violently as the captain lifted his chin and surveyed them imperiously. ‘I stand before you as Priest of the Sea, here to prepare you to meet the Goddess and prove yourselves worthy to sail on these seas. You men are now to be tested on your loyalty, your strength, and your obedience. You will perform these tasks immediately and without complaint, and if we survive the Crossing, you will have earned your Lobster.’
Sulat stilled and listened hard to him.
‘Many of you are ruled by the king who lives on Ildecoke Island. Ildecoke means “Island of Shells,” and the first men used to make themselves armour from the shells like the crabs and oysters do. Since then, our fellowship and doggedness is our armour, but we still wear the shell proudly. Do you accept the challenge?’
‘Aye.’ A cheer rose from the crew as everyone accepted.
‘Aye,’ Sulat added, a beat behind everyone else, as the shock of her manhandling faded and the cold settled into her bones.
‘Crew,’ Fermin shouted, ‘the Sea Goddess will be here soon to test each of you. You must be made presentable to meet her. So go on, strip down. You’re going to have a bath.’ The spectators began a rhythmic chant, which was more like grunting than anything else.
Sulat paused. Her dignity begged her to find a way out of this humiliation, but she met Dilys’ eyes and remembered her words. It would be humiliating and Sulat’s clothes wouldn’t matter. She had been warned. This was what she had to do to command respect for the rest of her career.
The horizontal rain and whipping wind on deck plastered her clothes to her body and she did not fancy baring her skin to it. But no one else hesitated, so she rushed to catch up. Soon, all of the men but one were naked to the waist, wearing only their linen thigh-length drawers. The lone woman besides Sulat shivered in her drawers, corset, and chemise.
Sulat, dressed as a man as she preferred, kept her black shirt, but did peel off her baggy tan breeches, thankful that the chill had encouraged her to actually wear linen drawers that morning.
‘And you, Agwar?’ Fermin taunted the one man who’d kept his striped breeches on. ‘Are you too modest to bathe with your fellows?’
‘No, cap’n,’ Agwar said in a fluid, lyrical accent. ‘I han’t owt on underneath. And there’s ladies present.’
A chuckle circled the applicants and Fermin waved a hand. ‘Fair enough. You’re exempt. Now men, Dilys and Alexander are bringing out the bath. You’re all to have a good wash and come back here when you’re done.’
Dilys and Alexander carried out a long trough full of thick white foam. One by one, the applicants rolled around in the soap paste and climbed out again. Otto then ordered them to run a lap around the deck while the other Lobsters slapped them with rags soaked in sour water. The acrid tang lingered on Sulat’s skin and in her nose as she slipped and stumbled back to the tub.
Fermin by now had taken up a place in a chair in front of the wheel, and pulled off his boots.
‘Oh look at the state of you lot. You all managed to miss your faces!’ Everyone laughed and one man scraped soap from his arm and hastily smeared it over his cheeks. ‘Nice try,’ Fermin grinned. ‘But you need something a bit stronger.’
A cry rose from the crowd as Boatswain Bernard stumped forward with a pail full of a noxious smelling black paste. He went down the line, dipping a fat paint brush into the substance and smearing it across the men’s faces. Dread twisted Sulat’s stomach as the smell of tar, rot, and vinegar came closer. The boy beside Sulat retched and vomited. Bernard stepped in time to avoid the mess while the surrounding men howled with laughter.
‘That’s much better,’ Fermin said, rising from his seat and striding down the line. In contrast to them, he was perfectly steady on his bare feet as though he was born to walk on the pitching deck of a ship. ‘Why don’t you go and see if the Goddess is coming yet. First one back gets a second supper.’ He flung an arm at the lookout post at the top of the mainmast.
It was so high, the platform looked like a gnat whizzing about in the black sky. Sulat narrowed her eyes and sprinted to the rope ladder, reaching it ahead of everyone else.
Finally, something I’m made for.
It was nothing compared to the beanstalk. The beanstalk had been smooth and sweaty, and swayed wildly; and while the ship was moving, the rigging was a uniform grid of rough hemp, tacked tight.
Sulat threw herself against the ladder and climbed as quickly as she could, leaving everyone else in a scrum behind her. At the top of the platform, she steadied herself and looked down. The deck was far below her, the crew and officers recognisable only by the colour of their clothes. She panted for a moment, gulping icy air, tinged with the flavour of whatever was on her face, But now was no time for delicacy. She wiped as much of the black shit off as she could, pushed her soaking hair out of her face, and dug back into the ladder.
The other contestants shouted at her as she passed, but she was deaf to it over the screaming wind and the hoots of the Lobster crew members.
She snapped her fingers for the prize she was promised and a powder boy rushed forward with a bowl of steaming liquid. Sulat raised it to her face, and an eyeball rolled to stare at her.
‘Should have guessed.’ She tossed the bowl to the deck amid hearty jeers and laughter.
This isn’t so bad, all things considered.
‘Still not here? Perhaps you all are still unworthy. Perhaps you have secrets you need to deal with first. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of it. Dilys, the truth potion!’
Dilys reappeared with a tankard. It passed down the line, leaving wincing and shuddering in its wake. When it reached Sulat, she recoiled. It smelled like gin as well as molasses, garlic, strong coffee and the tang of salt. She steeled her resolved and took a deep swig. She shook her head hard at the thick slime of raw egg oozing down her throat.
‘Dell, what is your crime?’ Fermin called.
‘I-I got drunk once and stole a goat, Cap’n.’ The middle-aged seaman launched into a story of debauchery and skulduggery that would have made Alois proud.
‘Very well, you are charged with thieving.’ Fermin stomped a foot on the deck.
Dilys moved away and the next person was questioned.
‘You are charged with consorting with women of low repute. Don’t deny it.’
‘-conduct unbefitting a crewmen in His Majesty’s navy.’
‘-questionable fashion choices.’
‘-lying about your age to get a commission on this ship.’ The boy hung his head and stepped back beside Sulat.
What secret would she tell? Lying was an obvious solution. One man already had confessed to thieving, that’d be an easy one. But the men surrounding her were the first options she would have for forming her own crew, when the time came. What harm would it do to tell a tiny truth to build a foundation from which she could gain their trust?
Dilys beckoned to her and she stepped forward.
‘Sulat, what is your crime?’ Captain Fermin asked.
‘I lied to Otto and Bernard to gain employment on this ship. I impersonated a boy and called myself Jerom.’
The crew groaned as one.
‘We know that one.’ Fermin leaned forward.
Sulat felt herself smirking. All right, then.
‘As a child, I was raised in a convent. They treated me badly, so I ran away, but not before I stole all of their locks and left the gate open.’ She left out the part about how she’d killed a man on her way out, or that she’d left her mother there unprotected. She wasn’t ready to make light of those details yet.
The crew hooted with laughter and expressions of shock.
‘You’re a spirited one,’ Fermin said, stroking his chin. ‘But that’s illegal, all the same, so you are charged with endangering sisters of the faith.’
And proud of it, too.
Sulat took her place with the other accused.
‘Well, now that we’ve seen your dark sides, and some of you have darker sides than others.’ A peal of laughter rose from the crowd. ‘You must be punished. And after that, you shall face your final challenge.’ Captain Fermin paused for dramatic effect. ‘Death itself.’
Pers beckoned a couple of men in, who, between them, held a massive vat, followed another crewman who laid out seven bundles of sailcloth. The men with the vat tipped the contents onto the deck and out poured a collection of black vegetables, bits of rotting meat, tar, vinegar, and salt water. Now devoid of any sort of shame, the candidates leapt onto their bellies and wiggled their way through the refuse. They rushed together to the shrouds and wriggled in.
Blind to what was happening around her except for a vast expanse of black sky and a spider web of rope, Sulat only heard the footsteps before she was doused in ice cold saltwater. She sat up, sputtering, and squeezed the sea from her nose and eyebrows. Something small and smooth was pressed into her hand. When she opened her eyes, she was holding a small copper cup full of brown liquid. She put it hesitantly to her nose.
Brandy. Relief washed over her like warm water.
‘Congratulations, men.’ Captain Fermin rose to his feet, arms outstretched. ‘You have faced the challenges of the Sea Goddess and been found to be worthy. As such, you have been baptised by the sea. Come, raise your glasses and drink with us, Lobsters all!’
Everyone on deck raised their copper cups and drank to each other.
By noon the next day, the winds had begun to pick up and Able Seaman Enol’s tan arms bulged as he strained to steer the ship. The water churned under Martinette and she swayed violently, plunging forward toward the storm clouds.
Sulat swore loudly and pitched forward, slammed hard into the rail, and held tight to keep from slipping on the slick deck.
‘Sulat!’ Dilys shouted over the din of the storm. ‘Get in here, now!’
Sulat pushed her hair out of her face and cast her eyes to the men clutching the rigging. ‘I’m a good climber! I can help!’
‘That’s an order, mate.’ Dilys’ arms were stiff at her sides, staring at Sulat.
The ship hit a swell and the whole thing pitched violently to port. Shouts rose up as the crew were slammed against the railing.
A voice shrieked and fingers raked Sulat’s leg. Her first impulse was irritation at being touched but the body that slid past her and over the side was long and thin, flailing wiry arms.
‘Eaton!’ she bellowed, and threw herself after him.
I can’t swim, I can’t swim! the voice in her head screamed, and she braced one leg against the railing. Her hands searched for his, and connected. His fingers gripped hers like a man fighting for his life. She gritted her teeth to keep from crying out, and hauled with all of the strength her body would give her.
‘Help me,’ she groaned as loudly as she could. Strong arms twisted around her middle and dragged her back, even as the sea and Eaton’s weight pulled her forward.
They’re going to rip me in half. She gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut against the pain just as the ship rocked the other way.
The man holding her tumbled backward and she fell on her backside, her knees crumbling under her. Eaton’s body slammed against the hull with a loud groan.
‘Climb up!’ Sulat shouted to him. His eyes met hers and he gripped her tighter, lifting one leg to the wooden ship. His boot slipped and he grunted, but didn’t give up. He tried the other foot and inched up the side. Sulat dragged him as he climbed and when he put one shaking hand to the deck, she rushed forward to hold him under his arms. One good heave between the two of them and Sulat’s saviour had him panting flat on the deck, pushing his wet black hair out of his face.
‘Thanks,’ he croaked putting a hand on Sulat’s shoulder, then raising it to the man behind her, who revealed himself to be Dilys. ‘I owe you both my life.’
‘I don’t think you can split it up that way,’ Sulat said, trying to laugh through the blooming bruise on her ribs and the ache in her elbows.
‘Well, I didn’t mean it like that, obviously.’ Eaton climbed shakily to his feet.
‘Get your arse in my cabin. Now.’ Dilys’ fists were white.
Sulat glared at her, but stomped back to the cabin anyway.
‘I’ve climbed worse than that,’ Sulat hissed, throwing an arm toward the mast as Dilys stormed in behind her. ‘Eaton would be dead now, if I hadn’t been out there.’
‘It could have been you!’ Dilys roared, slamming the door and plunging them into relative quiet. ‘You’re not strong enough to wrestle wet sails in this, even if you could get up there faster than anyone else. And it’s not your job. We all have our roles to play and stay out of the way of others doing theirs. Help me secure these papers.’
Sulat scowled, but strung the thin metal chains across the bookshelves and locked them in place. She and Dilys moved about the cabin, putting books and tools in boxes. She put out the candles in the swinging lanterns and carefully lifted the hot things and set them in their wool-lined boxes. Now, the only light was from a single candle set in a storm lantern and bolted to the middle of the table. Dilys lifted the heavy framed paintings off the wall and slid them into the box under her bed, boxed up her brandy and glasses. Shadows spun wildly, shapes materialising and disappearing, muffled voices buffered against the closed door. The air was stuffy and moist, crackling with unease.
Sulat wanted more than anything to open the door and step outside, get a breath of fresh air, even if it was stormy and wild. She locked the windowpanes. The curtains smelled like sacred rose.
No, not right now. Not right now.
She dropped to the ground and clutched her boots, running her fingers along the tooled patterns. She flicked her palm as hard as she could.
‘What are you doing?’ Domina asked. ‘We’re not done yet.’
Not Domina, Dilys.
The ship pitched and Sulat toppled onto her side and knocked her head hard against the wall. The room spun and twisted, the ship lurching under her. She tried to roll onto her stomach but just pressed harder against the wall until she thought her neck would snap.
Something grabbed her ankles and pulled her away. She tried to kick out, to get her assailant off of her, but couldn’t aim. She rolled onto her back and laid there helpless, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes until the spinning passed.
‘Get up, girl.’ Dilys’ voice was soft but urgent and her hands were rough and hard when she took Sulat’s and hauled her to her knees. She put her shoulder to Sulat’s stomach and hoisted her straight up into the air, carried her a few steps, and rolled her down onto the bed.
‘I’m fine,’ Sulat groaned. Her eyes wouldn’t focus on anything. Anger twisted her stomach as she shoved the officer aside and tried to sit up.
Dilys pushed her back down. ‘You hit your head. You need to be still.’
‘I’ve hit my head before. It’s nothing I can’t handle.’
‘All the more reason to rest. Head injuries compound each other.’ Dilys’ hand was firm on Sulat’s shoulder.
Sulat gave up. This fight could go on forever. She knew now how strong Dilys was, and it would solve nothing. Best to lie still and let Dilys get on with her work. Anyway, her head throbbed awfully and her neck twinged every time she tried to stiffen it.
Must have tweaked a damn nerve.
Dilys, apparently satisfied that Sulat would stay put, got stiffly to her feet and bustled about the cabin, securing the last few pieces. Finally she settled heavily on the bed at Sulat’s feet and pulled a flask from her jacket. She uncorked it and held it to her lips.
‘To the Captain, may he steer us true. And to the Sea Goddess, may she smile upon us.’ She took a deep swig and passed it to Sulat.
‘To the Captain,’ she mimicked, ‘and to the Sea Goddess.’ The combination of strong bitter coffee and cheap brandy burned her throat all the way down, but it cleared her head a little and warmed her belly. She felt a twinge of pity for the poor souls running back and forth, barefoot in the storm.
Footsteps thundered across the deckhead and Dilys fell silent as the feet seemed to be running toward the back of the ship and their cabin.
A voice shouted, ‘Man overboard!’
‘Back to your station, sailor!’ a voice called out on deck.
‘Cast a line!’ another shouted.
Sulat turned to Dilys, the flask still in her hand. Dilys sat very still, her whole body slack, her eyes closed.
‘What do we do?’ Sulat asked.
‘Nothing.’ Dilys shook her head. ‘Nothing we can do. We’d just be in the way if we went out there.’ She sighed heavily, took the flask from Sulat, took another drink, and tucked it back into her jacket. ‘The Squalls take their toll. I’ve never been on a ship that didn’t lose one every time we passed through. I just thank Meltythia that it’s not my turn.’
‘Can they fish them out in this weather?’ Sulat asked.
‘Sometimes. Usually not. They’ll try, though.’
‘When will we know?’
‘When it’s over,’ Dilys said. ‘Morning, like as not.’
Finally, as the blackness outside lightened to slate grey, someone knocked on the door of Dilys’ cabin. Sulat and Dilys stood, shaky and rattled, and joined the crew on the rainsoaked deck. Captain Fermin stood with the rest of the able seamen and officers behind him, a small wooden chest at his feet. His hands were tight behind his back, his shoulders low.
‘Who?’ Dilys asked, as soon as everyone was back topside.
‘Baniani,’ Fermin said, his voice hollow.
A whisper swept the crew. ‘The navigator,’and, ‘how will we get back?’ drifted about.
Fermin waited for the chatter to die down before lifting the chest in his puckered hands.
‘We’ll be having an auction. She didn’t have much, but it’s in good condition and your charity will go to her young brother back home, so that he may have a chance at the future she had planned for him.’
He broke the lock open with an ornate dagger and began pulling out Baniani’s modest possessions. Tear-stained faces and choked voices offered up disproportionate bids, many clearly bidding more than they could afford.
Sulat banged her leg with a fist, dreading when the collection tin would pass to her. She hadn’t known Baniani at all, couldn’t even really place her face, but the longer serving crew members clearly felt her loss deeply. Dilys tossed a handful of silver coins into the pewter tankard and passed it to Sulat.
‘Just put in something. For human kindness, if not out of grief.’
Sulat dug for her coin purse and fished out three silver sils. She had much more than that, but she didn’t need anyone asking where she’d gotten it.
When the last of Baniani’s belongings, a cracked quizzing glass, was sold for a sad three copper crivas, Dilys gave every person a small measure of brandy. They all toasted to the lost navigator, and Fermin said a few words over the rail to the unrepentant sea.
‘Baniani was like so many of us. She heard the call of the sea and longed to be free of the confines she faced on land. She was good at what she did and she found a home here with us. The Squalls are a treacherous patch of sea, as we all know, and she knew it too. It was by her ruling that we passed through this way, to save time and act swiftly for the safety of our kingdom and our brothers on the sea. She was non-essential crew; she could have gone below or remained in the safety of her cabin, but she chose to stand with us, to face the same peril as the rest of us. And for that she was claimed. We should all strive to be as brave and as confident in our jobs as Baniani was.’
With that, they finished their brandy and Bernard began shouting orders. Twenty men were sent to their bunks to rest up after the awful night, and ten unlucky souls were needed to take over from the able seamen who had worked all through the storm. They would get no rest for the next few hours.
‘Let fall!’ Bernard shouted and the crewmen aloft dropped the sails down. The crewmen on deck pulled the lines, hauling up the triangular staysails between the big square sails, while the other men scurried down the rope ladders. Soon, they were underway, speeding away from the stormy grey of the Squalls.
And toward Vurdia.
‘Land ahoy!’ the lookout shouted. Everyone not working on the sails or mast repair dashed to the rail.
Ahead to starboard lay a dense haze on the horizon, a murky beige-green smudge.
We must still be a hell of a ways out, that could be a storm rolling in, or any number of things.
But it had to be the port town of Dunothe, on the northern coast of Vurdia. Sulat could smell it. The wind tousling her hair was sweet somehow, crisp and clean and fresh, a noticeable change from the salt mist which left a coating on the inside of her nose.
Eaton came up beside her and leaned over the rail. ‘You ever been to Vurdia?’
‘No, but I’ve always wanted to.’
‘I’m not so sure.’ Eaton stepped back, bending his body almost in half. ‘I fought in the war. We had some resentment against the Vurdence.’
Sulat smirked. He sounded just like Alois. ‘So why join a Vurdence ship?’
‘Need the money. Anyway, war’s over. Can’t hate a whole country forever. And there were loads of Viehlish crew to talk to.’ He grinned at her. ‘You?’
‘They’re better to Ebian people.’
Eaton nodded and he cleared his throat. ‘Makes sense. You staying here, then?’
Sulat chuckled. ‘No. I have ties to Viehland still.’
‘I’m going to ask you about those mysterious ties one day.’
‘One day, I might tell you.’
Captain Fermin put out an order to drop a rowboat and pull Martinette into port. Sulat watched from the rail as the ship pulled into the berth. The crew, Sulat included, waited anxiously for the order to lower the gangplank.
‘Not so fast.’ Dilys hooked Sulat’s shoulder and pulled her back. ‘There’s work to be done first.’
Sulat nodded and followed the officer back to the cabin.
‘I like to do all the paperwork straight away, as soon as we port. There will be plenty of time for exploring after. We’ll likely be here a month.’
‘A month?’ Sulat’s eyes must have bugged because Dilys laughed.
‘It’s a Vurdence ship, mate. The crew is Vurdence, mostly, and so is the Captain. He’ll want to see his missus, and the rest of us could use a break. Plus, there’s cargo to sell and buy, contracts to sign, and passengers to charter; on and on. Lots to do, and it’s us who’ll be doing it. Us and Pers. Not to mention all the men that will desert, and more crew to hire.’ She shoved a stack of papers at Sulat. ‘Take those to Didier and ask for his logs.’
Sulat scooped up the stack and battled the tide of sailors for the stairs leading belowdecks to find the purser. The big paunchy man was standing outside the livestock pen, counting cattle. The smell was almost overwhelming.
‘Beauties, aren’t they?’ he asked, running a hand over his bald, sweaty head.
Sulat clamped her mouth shut and took shallow breaths, trying to hold it as long as she could.
‘These are for you, from Dilys.’ She shoved the stack at Didier, who took them, tucking his graphite stick behind his ear.
‘I’ve got a ledger for her. And pay for you both.’ He handed Sulat a very tall book bound in red linen, stamped ‘Cargeaux’ in black letters. Sulat touched her forehead, wrangled the book, and followed him against the stream of men to his berth. He handed her two paper envelopes, one considerably larger and heavier than the other, and she left.
‘Ahh good. Oof, that’s pungeant.’ Dilys took the ledger, dropped it heavily on the table, and opened it to a page marked with a thin red ribbon. ‘You can put my pay packet on the table. Do you have any Vurdence, Sulat?’
Sulat shook her head and dropped the bigger of the envelopes on the table. It took all of her resolve not to slip a couple of coins out. But Dilys would notice, and that would be the end of her.
As for Vurdence, Alois had taught her to read and write, but only in Viehlish. He hated the Vurdence, and therefore likely only knew the rude words.
‘You’ll want to learn some,’ Dilys muttered, scouring the page. ‘And some Cavender, as well. Conversational stuff, the names of ship parts, the sorts of things you’ll be transporting, you know. Useful stuff, not necessarily philosophy or anything like that. Oh, and always ask where the embassy is, just in case you get into trouble.’
‘I have been to other countries.’ Sulat smirked. I’m not totally new.
‘But you never picked up the language? You don’t seem the type that could afford a Grand Tour.’ Dilys shot Sulat a sideways glance. ‘I don’t need to know how you were employed before you boarded this ship. Just look after yourself.’
‘I always do.’
Fermin and Pers went ashore first to sort the paperwork required to unload and trade in the port town, followed by a thick stream of sailors cleared for leave, leaving only a dozen or so men to begin unloading once permission was granted.
Eaton extended an arm and Sulat very nearly took it, being in a rare jovial mood. She strode ahead of him onto the gangplank and stomped down onto the jetty. The structure pitched and Sulat weaved so extravagantly that she almost wobbled right off her feet, landing hard against Eaton and throwing her arms around him.
‘You’ve got to walk off your sea legs!’ Dilys’ voice called from the deck of Martinette.
Sulat turned and threw her a vulgar hand gesture. ‘Did you come out of your hole just to watch me fall?’
Dilys put a hand to her chest. ‘It’s a momentous event, watching a Lobster take her first steps on land.’
‘If I’m a Lobster now, can I get my tattoo?’
‘Let’s wait until you get back to Viehland and see if this life is truly for you.’ Dilys nodded condescendingly and stepped away from the rail.
‘Ass,’ Sulat muttered, pushing off Eaton and straightening her clothes.
‘Are you all right to walk?’ he asked, keeping one hand on her elbow.
She yanked away from him. ‘I’ll be fine.’
They walked arm-in-arm, for stability, into the bustling dockyard, where they were immediately set upon by a hoard of Vurdence seagulls: three grubby children, a dishevelled drunk whose gait was even more unsteady than Sulat’s, and a ruddy-cheeked bawd spilling out of her loose-laced stays.
‘Keep your hands in your pockets,’ Sulat growled, pushing past through the crowd. Eaton quickly released her and shoved his fists down the slits in his breeches, scuttling past the bawd with his face sharply averted.
‘What a welcome, eh?’ He ventured one free hand to pat his tangled hair.
‘They welcome our coin, more than anything.’
‘Surely not the little ones.’
‘Especially the little ones. Little hands fit quieter into pockets when you’re not looking.’
‘Soby, but you are paranoid!’ Eaton dodged a sailor with a sack of grain on his shoulder.
‘I’m experienced,’ Sulat corrected him.
‘One day, you’ll tell me how you know so much about pickpocketing, right?’
They passed through the docks smelling of animals, sweat, tar, and all manner of refuse, into the market, where they were met with a different tone of aromas entirely. Garlic was the predominant note, but there was also seafood, smoke, spices, baking bread, tangy cheese, and something far more tantalising.
‘Oranges,’ Sulat moaned, descending upon a crate nearby, mounded high with the bright globes, fairly glowing in the golden light of the early dusk. She reached out for one, but the older woman in the shade behind the crate smacked her hand.
‘No,’ she barked. ‘Amer.’
Sulat paused, shook her head. ‘Amer,’ she repeated, not understanding.
The woman pointed to a crate of redder fruits, then pointed to her mouth. ‘Zongcheen,’ she said, tapping her mouth. ‘Sook.’
‘I have no idea what this woman is saying,’ Sulat said to Eaton.
‘I think she’s saying that these aren’t for eating.’ Eaton pointed at the first crate.
The woman nodded and pointed to the paler oranges. ‘Amer. Pur confichu.’
‘I don’t know what that means,’ Sulat said to the woman, as Eaton picked up a red one.
‘How much for this one?’
The woman tossed six into a bag and held them out gesturing with four stubby fingers.
‘Four what?’ Sulat asked, exasperated.
‘Hell if I know,’ Eaton muttered, digging in his pocket. He held out a handful of Vurdence coins. Sulat recognised them from people she’d robbed, but didn’t know how much they were worth.
The woman picked up a silver coin, rummaged around in her own pocket and placed a couple wedges of silver into Eaton’s open palm, then handed him the bag. He nodded at the woman with a smile.
‘How do you know she charged you fairly?’ Sulat asked.
‘I don’t. But what other choice is there?’ Eaton handed Sulat an orange. They both put the fruits up to their noses and breathed deeply the bright, sharp scent.
‘Souls, I never thought I’d crave oranges. I don’t even really like oranges. Horrible bitter things.’ Sulat ripped the skin back and sank her teeth into the sweet, juicy flesh. ‘I could eat that whole crate,’ she said through a mouth full of pulp and pith.
Eaton wiped juice from his stubbly chin with the sleeve of his dirty shirt. ‘I know what you mean. I’ve never had them before, but they smelled very tempting. I think “sook” means “sweet.” There are sweet and bitter oranges, right? These ones are sweet.’
Sulat shrugged. ‘I reckon we’ll pick up some Vurdence while we’re here. Breaking bulk will take a while and Dilys wants me to learn some so I can do the books.’
‘Wouldn’t hurt.’ Eaton shrugged. ‘Your turn to buy lunch.’
Sulat rolled her eyes at him and wandered in the direction of the oily, smoky smell of roasting meat. A huge barrel-chested man cranked the arm of an iron spit holding a whole pig and two glorious chickens over a blazing orange fire.
‘Du porshon pur canz kiva,’ the man boomed at them, waving a massive tan hand over the animals in front of him.
‘Any guesses?’ Sulat muttered. Eaton shrugged. ‘Do you speak Viehlish?’ Sulat asked slowly.
The man grinned and made a beckoning motion with his thick fingers. Sulat held out a few coins, not enough to tempt him into larceny, but as much as she felt comfortable spending on a meal. He poked at a silver coin, dark eyes boring into hers, and speaking clearly.
‘Un arjent es weet kiva. Du arjent son sez kiva.’ He took two silver coins and replaced them with one tiny copper coin, stamped with a rose. ‘Un kiva.’ Sulat squinted and returned the coins to her pocket as he began carving huge strips of meat off the pig and one of the chickens, slapping them onto slices of dense bread, wrapping them in brown paper, and handing the parcels over.
Sulat and Eaton ripped at the steaming meat as they wandered through the market. Eventually, they found a shady patch against a wall and sat to eat. Eaton set his head back against the wall, closing his eyes.
‘That’ll do,’ he moaned.
‘Do what?’ Sulat asked, picking a stem of garlic-and-wine soaked rosemary out of her teeth.
‘The Vurdence are all right,’ Eaton said, barely above a whisper.
‘Oranges and pork are that good?’
‘What more does a man need?’ He set his meat and bread down, and pulled something out of his coat pocket. One object was a sharp, short-handled knife, and the other an oblong hunk of wood, crudely carved into a human shape. He started whittling away at it, carving definition into the waist, smoothing the back, and digging curls into the hair. ‘It’s my wife,’ he said, holding the figurine out to Sulat.
‘She’s not much to look at,’ Sulat said at the featureless uneven patch of wood framed by curls.
‘You’ll have to use your imagination for now,’ Eaton said, taking it back. I’m told I haven’t got one. ‘Most would call her plain, but to me, she’s perfect.’ Eaton ran a hand over the front of the figurine. ‘Sometimes, it’s like I can feel her.’ His eyes met Sulat’s and she had no idea what the expression meant. ‘It’s like I can feel what she’s feeling.’
Something tingled in the back of Sulat’s mind. Was he simply homesick, or was that an inkling of magic?
Stop it. You’re not in that life anymore.
‘I’m going to make one of my son, next,’ Eaton continued as though Sulat were still listening. ‘Dozens, most like, he’s growing so fast.’
‘Do you make them of everyone?’ Sulat asked, watching his hands as he got back to work.
‘As the mood strikes. I have one of my parents, each, and my brother and sisters. When I’m alone in the house, it feels like the whole family’s there. Like they’re all talking at once, like they do, but quieter. I don’t know how to explain it. When they’re there in person, it’s all a bit too much noise, but these little figurines give the impression of being surrounded by them… I’m talking too much.’
‘No, it’s fine,’ Sulat muttered, her mind racing. ‘Do you ever try to see if your impressions are accurate?’
‘Never thought to. What do you mean?’
‘When your wife is emotional, does the figurine seem that way, too? Or does it stay the same?’ Sulat’s words came out all in a jumble. Why does it matter? Leave the man alone.
I need to know.
‘I suppose it does change. Today she feels happy enough, but when I first left, she felt glum. But it’s probably just because I was sad, and I’m happy today.’ He picked at another piece of meat and grimaced what was probably meant to be a smile.
‘Do you keep a miniature of her?’
Alois always carried a miniature of Johanne, and often set it beside his head when he slept. Hers, of course, had been expensive, done by a professional painter. But sketches were affordable and easy to come by.
‘Miniatures are cheap.’ Eaton shook his head. ‘No soul, and that frozen expression.’ He shuddered. ‘My figures are only wood, but I feel like they have some life in them.’
‘Do you ever know what she’s thinking? Or just feeling?’
‘Mostly feeling, but sometimes I can sort of work out about what. But it’s a’cos I know her so well. Why do you ask?’
‘It’s an unusual talent,’ Sulat said, averting her eyes. Alois could always read her face, like her thoughts were printed across her nose, and Eaton seemed like he would be able to as well.
‘All right, then. Tell me one of those secrets I’ve been trying to wheedle out of you. I’ve talked enough. Why did you join up?’
‘Need the money,’ Sulat said, automatically, picking at a piece of bread.
‘Horseshit.’ Eaton said. ‘You just said that because I did. No one keeps that a secret.’
‘All right, then. For the last three years, I and a friend used to steal magic items and sell them. Last year, we uncovered a plot to kidnap Princess Dahna and steal the crown jewels at the Royal Wedding, and for our services, the king granted us a wish. I asked for a ship. So, now I’m here, learning to sail, and hopefully assemble a crew.’
Eaton stared at her, slack-jawed.
Sulat laughed and ripped open an orange.
‘Horseshit,’ he said again. ‘That…that can’t be true. That’s too– It would be in all the broadsheets.’
‘I suppose not. Soby.’ He took his hat off and fanned himself. ‘If it is true, I’ll join your crew.’
‘Really?’ Sulat hadn’t expected that.
‘I’m not loyal to Fermin, this is my first voyage. Why not throw in my lot with a captain who’s friends with the king?’
‘I’d hardly say, “friends.”’
They strolled arm-in-arm again, deeper into town, through the cobbled streets flanked by thatched half-timber buildings with their shutters thrown wide.
‘I don’t believe a word you said.’ Eaton said eyeing her sideways.
‘You looked like you did.’
‘But I was serious. If it’s true, I’ll sail with you. And if it’s not,’ he nudged her, ‘I’ll drink with ya.’
Sulat laughed out loud. ‘Good, let’s find a tavern. First round’s on you.’
It took a month to unload the cargo into the hands of the merchants, who would double the price before selling it on. Sulat and Dilys alternated days on duty. When one was working at designing rosters and overseeing the unloading, the other would observe. After a week of doing well, Dilys agreed to let Sulat have her days off in port, if she wanted. Sulat spent those days with Eaton, as he had taken a room at a dockside inn.
She didn’t quite trust him enough to share a room with him at night, as she had done with Alois, but it was nice to have somewhere to go when she was tired of being cooped up in Dilys’ cabin.
It was one major obstacle she wasn’t looking forward to overcoming on her own, smaller ship.
‘So have you got a ship already, captain?’ Eaton asked around a mouth full of bread and sweet Vurdence butter.
‘Yes.’ Sulat half-regretted telling him the truth. He disbelieved her in the most hopeful manner. But she would need a crew, and it made sense to have someone who knew her secret in advance.
He leaned in, lowering his voice. ‘Who else are you thinking of hiring? Dilys is too loyal. Wese is itching for promotion. Second mate can’t be that hard.’
‘But does he have the training?’
‘Who cares about training?’ Eaton shrugged. Sulat gestured to herself, indignant. ‘Well, I’m sure it’s a lot of work, and all,’ Eaton said quickly. ‘But getting on with the crew is just as important, eh?’
‘Fine, Wese. Who else?’
‘Ashryn? She was Baniani’s mate. With Baniani gone, may her star shine in the heavens forever, Ashryn will be experienced enough to step in. But I’m sure Fermin will employ another navigator before he promotes a mate. Ashryn might be willing to go with you. That’s two mates and a navigator. You just need…’ He held up a hand to count on his fingers.
‘A bosun, a purser, gunner, quartermaster, carpenter, surgeon, a cook, and an armourer,’ Sulat finished. She’d been thinking almost nonstop about it since she’d discussed the plans with Lord Renir a year ago.
‘A gunner and an armourer?’ Eaton chuckled. ‘How many guns do you even have?’
‘None, at the moment, but I will have twelve,’ Sulat said. ‘And pirates are a thing. We’ll be transporting expensive cargo: tea, spices, fabric, and such.’
‘With what company?’
‘I’m still working on that,’ Sulat answered honestly. ‘But it will be my company, I’ll fly my own colours.’
Eaton raised his cup to her.
The crew loaded the ship and hove to, back to Viehland. In Dunothe, Fermin hired a new navigator, who was constantly drunk and out of sorts. He drew up a haphazard plan before setting sail and with no more time to find a new and more competent navigator, Dilys worked with Ashryn to come up with a new, more conservative route.
They chose to ride the currents along the coasts of Vurdia, skirt the Squalls until they hit the current that ran along the coast of Cavendy, called the Cavendy Drift, that would carry them almost all the way back to Ildecoke Island. It would go smoothly at first, then be quite slow going across open water, then take off quickly and in the end would only add about a week to the journey. And they’d avoid the tiny islands to the west of the Squalls.
‘What a time to be without Baniani,’ Dilys muttered, casting a glare at the new navigator, swaying even as he leaned against the mainmast. ‘I wonder if we toss him over now, the Squalls might not take it as a payment in advance.’ She seemed to instantly regret her fit of unkind humour and spit over the side, rubbing the lobster tattoo on her arm.
‘Dilys,’ Sulat said, steeling herself. This could go very badly. ‘I have a confession.’
Dilys turned and leaned against her table. ‘I’m listening.’
‘I lied to you when I joined up.’
‘Did you?’ Dilys crossed her arms. ‘Are you a boy, after all, then?’
‘No. I joined this crew to get experience sailing a ship because,’ Sulat took a deep breath. ‘I have one.’
Dilys tilted her head back.
‘It’s an Ildecoke Courser,’ Sulat pressed on. ‘Given to me by the king. Don’t ask how.’ She held out a hand when Dilys opened her mouth. ‘I can’t talk about it. But I didn’t want to take her out without any experience at all. Now that we’re heading back, I need a crew. You know my temperament. Will you join me?’
A grin spread across Dilys’ face as she pushed off the table and shoved her hands in her pockets. ‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘I can’t serve under a heifer I myself trained, my pride won’t allow it. And I’m loyal to Captain Fermin. He’s been good to me and I get on well with him. Besides, with Baniani gone and this hayhead likely to desert, he’d never forgive me. But I wish you the best of luck.’ She thrust out a hand.
Sulat took it and shook. ‘Then will you at least come and vouch for my Lobster?’
‘Aye, I’ll do that.’ Dilys grinned.
Dilys, Wese, and a number of Lobsters accompanied a herd of heifers into the tavern, shouting for an inker. A couple of men, heavily tattooed themselves, answered the call, with gappy grins and satchels tucked under their arms. The officers pulled up sleeves, pulled down necklines, and otherwise presented their own lobster tattoos as proof before officially endorsing the new prospects.
Sulat stuffed her hair under her hat and elbowed her way to the front of the scrum, not fancying the prospect of waiting politely and having a shaky hand drawing permanent marks on her skin.
‘Madam.’ A wizened sailor bowed and gestured to an overturned bucket in front of him. She sat and handed him her drawing, pulling her shirt down under her armpits and pinning it in place with her arms.
‘Back of the neck, just black ink.’
‘It’s pretty bony, lass. That’ll hurt,’ the man slurred through missing teeth.
Sulat pulled a tiny vial of laudanum out of her pocket as Wese and Dilys pressed in close by her.
‘Not a problem,’ she said, taking a swig. She winced at the bitterness and leaned forward. Two pairs of hands stretched the skin on the back of her neck taught as the light faded and went out.
She woke slumped on a bench draped over a table with a raging headache and the bitter tang still on her tongue. Her vision swung wildly as she sat up, feeling her shirt slip a little over her chest. She pulled it back up and rubbed the sore spot on the back of her neck.
It was raw like a sunburn covered in a rash and a smear of black ink and blood came away on her fingers.
‘It’s supposed to do that,’ Dilys’ voice said from nearby. Sulat turned her head and waited a moment for her eyes to catch up and focus. Dilys was smiling at her, and handed over a bottle of brandy.
Sulat pulled out the cork, breathed in the sweet, heady aroma, and took a grateful swig.
‘Bet you’re missing those bindings, now,’ Dilys chuckled, taking the bottle back.
‘Not at all,’ Sulat said, wriggling back into the shirt properly. She left the top couple of inches unlaced to keep the neck from slipping into the fresh ink.
‘Put some butter on it when it starts to crack,’ Dilys said, jutting her chin at Sulat’s neck. She smacked Sulat’s arm. ‘Come on, let’s watch the others.’
They stood together, Sulat taking the brandy bottle in her shaking hands, and waded through the crowd of onlookers to watch the new lobsters being tattooed. The man who had tattooed her was working on one of the swabbies now, dipping a bundle of four needles bound together into a cracked ceramic bowl full of a black paste and stabbing it sharply into the man’s skin quickly along the lines drawn in charcoal.
‘What are they using as ink?’ Sulat asked, running a finger over her own mark.
‘Some of them are using lampblack like proper ink,’ Dilys said. ‘But yours smelled of gunpowder. The red is vermillion and the blue is laundry blue.’
Sulat didn’t know what that was, but the pounding in her head dulled her curiosity.
Eaton’s tattoo was huge, taking up much of his arm. He had his leather belt tightly in his teeth and sweat beaded his forehead. He had opted for full colour, the red of the lobster streaked brown with blood and the storm clouds over the lobster’s claw rosy as sunset. When the artist finished, Dilys directed Sulat to pour a measure over the design and give the rest of the bottle to the tattooist. Eaton howled as the alcohol hit his skin and Wese helped him to his feet. The artist saluted them all with his drink, packed up his supplies and moved away to rest his arm.
Sulat had the urge to remain for a while and try to recruit some crew, but Martinette had just arrived. It would be weeks before she was done unloading, and further weeks until she’d be ready to sail again. Sulat had time to come back day after day until she had enough people to start with.
She said her good-byes and weaved her way to the house she’d bought near the docks. It was a modest lodging, two stories high, with the kitchen, maid’s quarters, dining room, and sitting room on the ground floor, and her bedroom and a spare room she used as an office on the first floor. The total sum of her furniture was the same as what was found in any single room at an inn, dispersed over the entire property. It was sparse and utilitarian, but she didn’t intend to stay here much.
‘Tansy!’ she shouted, swinging open the front door.
‘Captain!’ the blonde middle aged woman she employed as her cook and maid-of-all-work, bustled into the hall, wiping her hands on the cloth at her waist. Her cheeks were red and she was out of breath. ‘I expected you back ages ago.’
‘I’ll have my supper upstairs when it’s ready,’ Sulat said, ignoring her talkative maid’s fussing. She needed to start making lists of crew and goods that she’d need. ‘Cheese and bread is fine.’
‘Who is it?’ a male voice called from the kitchen.
‘Ooh.’ Tansy blushed and dashed back to the door. ‘It’s my mistress, she’s home,’ she hissed loudly.
‘And get rid of him. I want my house back,’ Sulat said, hanging her hat on the coat rack.
‘Right you are, Captain. Shoo, you.’ Tansy bustled back into the kitchen and shut the door behind her.
Sulat ascended the stairs to the sound of the back door opening and shutting. On the landing stood a full length mirror and she surveyed herself in it. She fished a small round piece of mirror glass out of her pocket and turned her back to the wall. She held the mirror up until she could see the shape punctured into the back of her neck. It was a little hard to make out. Her dark skin was red, angry, and swollen, but the image was there. A lobster, its tail split in two and pointed on the ends like an anchor, holding a lightning bolt in its claw. She’d go back in a few weeks with her Letter of Marque to get someone to add the star that marked her as a captain, and then she’d be ready to sail.
A grin spread across her face as she ran a finger over the stinging and scabbing mark.