It was long past dark before the end of Alois’ shift was called. Four hours of hauling lines and dashing back and forth across the deck worked his muscles in ways he’d never felt before. It was a good kind of sore, an aching glow after a day of hard work.
He followed another man into the crew’s eating space, past the sleeping quarters. About half of the off-duty men, fifteen in total, sat at the tables next to the kitchen. They each had a bowl of greyish pea soup, a thick biscuit, and a mug of beer. Wese nudged him and handed him a serving. Early autumn on land was chilly enough in the evenings, but the wind on the open water was icy. Alois took the soup and beer gratefully and gulped down a mouthful.
He gagged and the lining of his mouth puckered at the extreme saltiness of the soup. A couple of crewmen chuckled at his reaction.
‘Made with boiled salt pork.’ Wese pounded on Alois’ back. ‘You won’t get calpease of that quality at your fine manor house, m’lord.’
Alois choked it down. ‘It grows on you, does it?’
‘No, in faith,’ Wese 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. Once his insides were a functional temperature again, Alois struck up an interest in the men he’d be living with for the duration of the job. It wasn’t just men either, now that he was looking. There were a few boys present, and even two women. What a world.
‘So how many of you have that, uhh, Anchor-Tailed Lobster tattoo?’ Alois asked, setting down his empty bowl.
Two-thirds of the people around the table rolled up sleeves and trouser legs, unbottoned their shirts and exposed chests and shoulders. Half a dozen black ink lobsters brandished lightning bolts, spears, and sheafs of wheat at him; some were knotted up in rope, others were dotted with celestial bodies, and Wese’s had a red heart and a very small star between its antennae.
Alois grinned and pulled his own neckline down over his right shoulder. He had a tattoo there as well; four circles symbolising the four barrels of the Ettin Gun. Only Ettineers had that tattoo, though the penalty for bearing one without having earned it was far less severe.
The crew an Alois exchanged war and sailing stories over their beer. Just as Alois’ muscles began to beckon him to find his hammock, the door of the mess banged open. Eaton strode in, his clothes soaked to his skin, followed by heavily muscled Turst and Quartermaster Rheg, who was in charge of the living quarters.
‘It’s time,’ Eaton said, his face grim. Four men leapt to their feet, seized Alois and one of the boys and wrestled them outside onto the rainy deck.
‘Whoah, what’s going on?’ Alois bellowed. ‘I’m not resisting. Unhand me!’
Two other men and one woman were dragged up from belowdecks and joined Alois and the boy at the centre of the deck.
‘In an ancient rite that has been handed down by generations of seamen,’ Sulat’s voice called above the creaking of the ropes, the flapping of the sails, and the patter of rain on the wood. She appeared behind the ship’s wheel, a beaten brass crown pulled down tight over her tricorne hat. She lifted her chin and surveyed them imperiously. ‘I stand before you as Priestess of the Sea, here to prepare you to meet the God and prove yourselves worth 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 anchor.’
Alois stilled and listened hard to her speaking. Despite the theatricality of the ritual, it was a serious thing to bond the crew and test their mettle. But beyond that, it was clear how much it meant to Sulat. She had obviously rehearsed the speech, that wasn’t how she spoke normally. So she had taken her place in this society with passion and commitment. It was an odd dichotomy: Sulat liked things to be predictable and structured and she hated any sort of frippery, yet the veterans and initiates expected this ritual and so the frippery was itself a predictable part of the structure. Perhaps that was how she was able to perform like an actor on a stage.
‘We are an ancient order of seafarers from the earliest inhabitants of 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?’
The lad from the galley stared at Sulat, his eyes wide and full of excitement. The faces of the other assembled also shone with rain and expectation. Alois turned back to Sulat.
‘Aye.’ A cheer rose from the crew as everyone accepted.
‘Crew,’ Sulat shouted, ‘the Sea God will be here soon to test each of you. You must be made presentable to meet him. 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.
Alois paused. The horizontal rain and whipping wind on deck plastered his clothes to his body and he did not fancy baring his skin to it. But no one else hesitated, so he rushed to catch up. Soon, all of the men but one were naked to the waist, wearing only their linen thigh-length drawers in a variety of patterns and colours. The lone woman shivered in her drawers, corset, and chemise.
Alois smiled. His wife, Johanne, who was instrumental in establishing the new fashion, would be appalled.
‘And you, Ielmo?’ Sulat taunted the one man who’d kept his striped breeches on. ‘Are you too modest to bathe with your fellows?’
‘No, ma’am,’ Ielmo said. ‘I han’t owt on underneath. And there’s ladies present.’
A chuckle circled the applicants and Sulat waved a hand. ‘Fair enough. You’re exempt. Now men, Eaton and Turst are bringing out the bath. You’re all to have a good wash and come back here when you’re done.’
Eaton and Turst carried out a long trough full of thick white foam. One by one, the men and the woman were led to the tub, made to roll around in the soap paste and climb out again. Eaton 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 Alois’ skin and in his nose and he slipped and stumbled back to the tub.
Sulat by now had taken up a place in a chair in front of the wheel and was pulling off her boots. Perhaps the deck is easier to navigate barefoot.
‘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,’ Sulat grinned. ‘But you need something a bit stronger.’
A cry rose from the crowd as Wese 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. [Describe smell and emotions]The boy beside Alois retched and vomited. Wese stepped in time to avoid the mess. The surrounding men howled with laughter.
‘That’s much better,’ Sulat said, rising from her seat and striding down the line. In contrast to them, she was perfectly steady on her bare feet as though she was born to walk on the pitching deck of a ship. ‘Why don’t you go and see if he’s coming yet. First one back gets a second supper.’ She flung an arm at the lookout post at the top of the mainmast.
Alois’ eyes bugged and his head swam to consider it. It was so hing, the platform looked like a gnat whizzing about in the black sky.
‘You can’t be serious,’ he gaped at her as his fellows dashed to the rope ladders.
‘You’re falling behind, my lord,’ she grinned. [Does something out of shock and goes to climb]
He slid to the rigging and began to climb. It was nearly as bad as the beanstalk, though possibly worse. The beanstalk swayed, but not this much, and the stalks together held Alois secure. And at least it had grown out of solid land. The ropes were just that: lengths of hemp cord swinging with the motion of a violently rolling ship on an angry sea.
And the weather will be worse than this very soon and I may find myself on this ladder then. His stomach twisted as he steadied his foot on the rope. The layer of soap didn’t help, and his hands and boots slipped as he climbed.
The young boy was ahead of Alois, his face a green mask of determination.
‘Strength, boy. You must persevere,’ Alois shouted in what he hoped was an encouraging tone. ‘If it were easy, everyone would do it, eh?’
‘It’s not the ship, m’lord,’ the boy said, swallowing hard. ‘It’s this shit on me face.’
‘Well, pretend it’s a balm, some magic potion to give you strength.’
The boy nodded and pressed ahead, soon climbing higher than the other men. Alois was the last to the lookout, where everyone stopped for a quick breath of clean air away from their tormetors, and shared a grimace of anguish. Alois’ heart beat so fast he thought it would explode, but he was resolved to keep face. He gulped air and leaned on his knees a moment more before slinging a foot back into the ladder.
If those were the opening salvos, what horrors do we have left to endure?
The woman, Gaity, was patted on the back and handed a bowl of some streaming substance. At first her eyes widened in glee, then she threw the bowl away and retched. An eyeball rolled out from under the bowl and across the deck as the Lobsters hooted and jeered.
‘As for the rest of you,’ Sulat sat and held out a slender brown foot. ‘Take a knee and pay your respects.’ The four men in front of Sulat lined up to kiss her foot.
‘Not to worry, boy,’ Alois whispered. ‘Your dear captain has so many shoes she doesn’t wear any one pair long enough to cultivate a healthy stink.’
Sulat grinned at Alois and wiggled her toes.
‘Go on then, my lord.’
‘You’re enjoying this too much.’ He kissed her foot and joined the others in the line.
‘It’s tradition, I have nothing to do with it,’ Sulat said, then raised her voice to the candidates. ‘Still not here? Perhaps you all are still not worthy. Perhaps you have secrets you need to deal with first. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of it and learn a little about each other. Eaton, the truth potion!’
Eaton reappeared with a tankard. It passed down the line, leaving wincing, shudder frowns in its wake. When it reached Alois he recoiled. There was gin as well as molasses, garlic, and strong coffee. He steeled his resolved and took a deep swig, thick slime of raw egg oozing down his throat with the tang of salt. He shook his head hard as the questioning began.
‘Ielmo, what is your crime?’
‘I-I got drunk once and stole a goat, Cap’n.’ The middle-aged seaman launched into a story of debauchery and skullduggery that would have made Alois proud in his less respectable days.’
‘Very well, you are charged with thieving,’ Sulat said, stomping a foot on the deck.
Ielmo 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.’
‘Lord Brynglas. My my. What dark secret should you confess to these men assembled? What, of your many sins, would you have open to the light and knowledge of us all?’
She had asked Ielmo about his illegitimate children and his greatest shame. He and Alois were no different in that regard, except that Ielmo had two children fathered by a whore. Johanne was no whore by trade, but society was nevertheless cruel to a woman who bore a child out of wedlock. Rosabel. Alois was ashamed of what he and Johanne had done, as Sulat well knew, but he could not regret the existence of hos sweet Rosabel.
But Sulat had a vindictive streak and this would be the perfect opportunity to punish him for everything he’d ever done to her. None of the other men had hesitated to answer the question when it was posed to them. Would she ask the same, and would he be able to answer it?
‘I’ve done many things I wish I hadn’t,’ he laughed. ‘It may take the potion a moment to find the worst one.’
‘Perhaps it had something to do with being ill-prepared and imposing a burden upon your partner.’ Sulat supplied. Alois’ eyes locked on hers. When had his poor planning resulted in Johanne being a burden on Sulat?
Then it clicked. It wasn’t Johanne at all. Sulat was diverting him to her greatest irritation with him. The bloodworm.
‘Ahh yes. There was a day, long ago when I plunged into a brackish pool looking for some mythical magic item or other. Little did I know that the pool had bloodworms.’ A frisson of sympathetic anguished gasps circled them men. Alois nodded. ‘Yeah, not my finest moment. One of the little bastards climbed up my ass and latched on and…my poor long-suffering partner was kind enough to remove it for me.’ There came an explosion of laughter. Bloodworms were notoriously slippery and squishy and the only way to get a hold of them was with one’s bare fingers.
Sulat grimaced at the memory and XXX patted her on the back. She bowed in her seat and waved Alois away. He flashed her an appreciative smile as he rose from his seat.
‘Well, now that we’ve seen your darks sides, some of us have seen darker sides than others,’ a bark of laughter rose from the crowd. ‘You must be punished. And after that, you shall face your final challenge, death itself.’
Wese beckoned a couple of men in who between them held a massive vat. They tipped the contents onto the deck and out poured a collection of rotting 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. The boy threw up again and Alois put a hand on his back. They rushed as one to the shrouds and wriggled in.
‘It’s nice to have a lie down,’ Alois muttered and Gaity laughed softly next to him.
Blind to what was happening around him except for a vast expanse of black sky and a spider web of rope, Alois only heard the footsteps before he was doused in ice cold saltwater. He sat up, sputtering and squeezing the sea from his nose and eyebrows. Something small and smooth was pressed into his hand. When he opened his eyes, he was holding a small copper cup full of brown liquid. He pulled it hesitatntly to his nose. Brandy?
‘Congratulations, men,’ Sulat called,rising to her feet with her arms outstretched. ‘You have faced the challenges of the Sea God 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!’
All of the heifers and Lobsters together raised their copper cups and drank to each other.
By noon the next day, the winds had begun to pick up and Able Seaman Darib’s deep umber arms bulged as he strained to steer the ship. The water churned under Meltythia and she swayed violently, plunging forward toward the stormclouds.
Alois swore loudly and pitched forward, slammed hard into the rail, and held tight to keep from slipping on the slick deck.
‘Brace yourself, my lord!’ Turst shouted over the din of the storm. ‘Perhaps it be best is you go down below!’
‘I’m a Lobster, same as you. I want to help!’ Alois shouted back, pushing hair off his forehead.
‘Then go down below and help them tie everything up. Stow the guns and secure the crates.’
Alois glared at Turst. He’s just trying to get rid of me!
‘That’s an order, sailor!’ Turst bellowed and Alois snapped into training in the army. Turst was, after all, the Bosun and Alois had only been at sea a couple of days, let alone earned even the title of able seaman. He gave a perfunctory salute and wove to the stairs that led down to the tween deck.
[Lanterns are still lit. Shod men make balance checks]
Men dashed back and forth as Wese shouted orders from atop a stack of crates in the centre.
‘Tom, Garrad, that gun is not secure! Odele and Dantin, you’re no use to me up here. Get yourselves below and tuck in.’ The young boy from the Rite and a woman in a striped dress hurried past Alois to the second set of stairs leading down. ‘Able seamen topside, we need all strong hands.’
‘Orders, sir!’ Alois called above the clamouring feet and shifting gun carriages. The whipping wind wasn’t such a problem down here, but the noises thundered off the walls and seemed more exaggerated.
‘Help Mr Filip on the starboard guns, my lord!’ Wese pointed to a broad young blond man straining against an iron canon in the gloom. ‘When you’ve finished that, head down below. We can use your muscle on the pumps.’
Alois made his way to the young man’s side and held the cannon firm against the pitching hull while Filip looped a thick rope around the round knob at the back of the cannon. After securing the five cannons on that side, the two men sped to the nose of the ship to tie down the two slightly smaller cannons there. Their counterparts on the other side of the ship took care of the two a the back. Satisfied with the situation on the tween deck, Alois dutifully retreated downstairs. The young Lobster, Dantin, was already red in the face and sweating, his thin arm trembling as he tried to operate the water pump. The thing look like the kind that that some of the nicer villages on land had, with a spout and a thin brass handle.
‘I’ll take over, lad,’ Alois said, moving the boy over. Dantin retreated gratefully, puffing out his cheeks and mopping his brow. A tanned and woman named Vesine relieved Ielmo, who stepped back, ruefully rubbing his forearm. Alois and Vesine pumped as hard as they could for as long as they could, sucking water from the ankle-deep lake they stood in, forcing it outside into the ocean.
‘Have you got tea or spices in those crates?’ Alois nodded at the boxes being shoved around and tied down with ropes and nets, trying to distract himself from the ache in his shoulder. ‘They won’t be good for much, sitting in sea water for weeks.’
‘The bottom layer is empty,’ Gaity shouted. ‘We can’t carry much cargo as it is. Better to lose space than product.’
‘That makes sense.’ And I’ll be Sulat makes up for it in her own way. She never met a space she couldn’t tweak to make more efficient.
Sulat threw her candlesticks in their drawers, slung a cord across her bookshelf, and locked all of the cupboard doors. The last thing they needed was glass and books like bricks flying around on top of everything else. Once everything that could be tied down was, she hauled herself outside into the wind.
‘Batten down the hatches!’ Eaton called. The order would seal the cargo doors, and seal everyone belowdecks down there until the storm passed. It effectively waterproofed the lowerdecks and kept the waves from filling the hull and dragging the ship down. It would be up to the bilgerats to keep the water that seeped in between the planks from filling too much.
She cast her eyes around at all the able seamen scurrying up the ratlines and lashing down the sails. No Alois. Her chest eased a little. He must be below. Eaton wouldn’t allow a heifer on deck in the Squalls. She had to trust her crew.
[Reflex and balance checks]
‘Strike t’gallan!’ Eaton called, and the seamen hopped to take in the high level of sails. ‘Secure that mainbrace, Miss Kimwora!’
Sulat’s fingers drummed on the rail as she fought to keep her face impassive. She couldn’t let them see how nervous she was. They must have been as frightened, but the captain had to remain calm. Lobsters clearly visible under wet shirts, or poking over necklines seemed to wave at her from every direction, trying to comfort her. These men and women know what they’re doing, they’re all licensed. All of the liabilities are below. We’ll be fine.
Still, she couldn’t stop her eye wandering. Which one of you will not be here at the other end.
She shook her head to scare away the thought. That doesn’t help. Trust them.
The toll must be paid.
Sulat scowled and turned to Darib, but his face was stony still and focused.
‘How goes it?’ she shouted at Ashryn, shivering beside the helmsman, clutching the map to her chest.
The young woman pushed her rain-spattered spectacles up the bridge of her nose. ‘We seem to have hit a storm, Captain.’
‘Get belowdeck before it’s too late. You’re not needed up here.’ The course was set, there was little the navigator could do until they were in calmer waters again.
Ashryn shook her head, her jaw clenched, her skin slightly green. ‘It’s my chart that brought us this way. I’m not a coward.’
The topsails were coming up now, the surer sailors aloft hanging over the yardarms, pulling the lines tight and tying them off. Sulat’s stomach pitched as the ship heaved. One of the men up there slipped, but snagged a footrope. He climbed back up and made his way slowly to the top platform and inched down to the deck. His legs shook as he wobbled off to his next duty.
The clouds gathered overhead, blocking out the sun and plunging the ship and her crew into leaden turmoil. The seas churned and frothed, slamming into the side of the ship.
Darib’s face shook. His muscles looked ready to explode. But he held fast to the wheel.
‘Let go sea anchor!’ Eaton shouted. The conical sack of sail cloth tumbled overboard. A wave crested the rail, throwing the crew on deck from their feet.
I should be down there with them. Sulat took a step toward the quarterdeck stairs. Don’t be a fool. You’re a captain and a lobster, but you’d never pass the able seaman exam. Everyone is safer with you where you are.
Alois desperately wanted to sneak to the tween deck and open a gun port. Despite the peril, it would be amazing to see a thunderstorm on the open water, the sheer power of the skies unleashed on the equally powerful ocean.
[Damage to ship]
His arms wouldn’t push the pump handle anymore. He was easily the strongest man belowdecks, but even he could only go so long. Wese ordered him onto the tween deck where a number of other worn-out people were huddled together to rest and keep each other’s spirits. They would take turns pumping and resting to keep the ship afloat and distract themselves from the uncertainty. He was halfway up the stairs when a great swell hit the ship. For a moment, he was airborne, and registered only that he was falling before his senses kicked in. He thrashed out, but landed hard on a stack of barrels. The barrels shifted and broke lose of their stays and he went tumbling to the wet floor of the lower deck along with a week’s worth of salt pork. A cry rose up around him as people jumped out of the way of the barrels tossed here and there in the belly of the thrashing ship.
Alois climbed to his feet, clutching his shoulder. He’d landed badly but he didn’t have the luxury of tending to it. He had to get the barrels stowed before they did damage to ship and crew. Not to mention the ruining of quite a lot of food.
Wese shouted orders but Alois didn’t hear him. He and the stronger men and women heaved the barrels back into place and pulled the rope netting tight over them again, tying, double- and triple-knotting the ropes to hold them down.
His shoulder was screaming now, the pain shooting through him like a white hot blade. He groaned and climbed up the stairs on all fours, clutching the boards with trembling hands, the skin of his fingers wrinkling from all the water.
Alois threw himself down beside a circle of people huddled together for warmth and comfort. A few other people were laid out between cannons, apparently trying to sleep.
How could anyone sleep through this torment. Perhaps they were just stretching their limbs, or lying with their eyes open. Or dead. He didn’t have the strength or energy to check.
‘How many of you have done this crossing before?’ he asked through chattering teeth. Keep them talking. It was a strategy that got him and Sulat through many a tough spot.
One young man raised a shaking hand. ‘It never gets easier,’ he choked. ‘Wese done it dozens o’ times. I don’t rightly know how he’s still alive.’
‘You know how he got his star?’ The young woman, Emly, asked. ‘He was first mate 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, and 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,’ Filip said. He raised a flask and passed it around. ‘The captain’s untested, but she knows how to hire a crew.’
‘To the captain. May the sea god smile on us, if there is one.’ Emly took a sip from the flask and handed it to Alois.
‘To the captain,’ he echoed and took a mouthful. The combination of strong bitter coffee and cheap brandy burned his throat all the way down, but it cleared his head and warmed his belly as he passed it on.
Footsteps thundered across the deckhead and the little group of people looked up in unison and fell silent. All the feet seemed to be running toward the back of the ship.
A voice shouted, ‘Man overboard!’
[Yard arm breaks and swings and knocks Ashryn off]
Sulat stood rooted to the deck, cold to her core. There was nothing she could do. It happened to fast.
The wind shifted, bringing a tall wave crashing into the starboard side. Darib swung the ship hard a starboard to drive them through the wave waves head-on. Sulat was thinking two steps ahead and secured herself. Ashryn was not.
Sulat squeezed her eyes shut from the effort of holding on and when the ship righted itself, the navigator was gone.
Darib let go of the wheel and sprinted to the side of the ship.
‘Back to your station, sailor!’ Sulat shrieked, and he obeyed. They couldn’t lose the rudder, it was all they had.
Eaton had seen Ashryn fall. He raised the alarm and all of the able seamen not hauling lines or tacking sails rushed to the wheeldeck.
‘Cast a line!’ he shouted, and someone threw a whole coil of rope over the side. It was a good throw. It landed within feet of Ashryn’s flailing arms. She managed to splash her way to it, but a great swell lifted her and pulled her away. She struggled and thrashed at the water. One more wave was enough to push Meltythia out of range and when it passed, Ashryn was gone. Sulat dragged herself back and forth across the aft deck, searching. She evn snatched the spyglass from Eaton. Nothing. Not a waving arm. Not a speck of white against the black sea. Not even the glint of glass spectacles on the surface of the water.
‘Captain?’ a voice called. All the able seamen were watching her, braced against the rails. They need guidance. Do we turn around and search for her, which will waste time and perhaps risk more lives or even the whole ship? Or do we leave her to the Squalls and run for calmer seas, just another statistic? One soul per voyage. The choice was clear.
‘Stations!’ she shouted back. A few made gestures of respect to the sea, but they all returned to their places.
Eaton had done all he could to ready the ship for the storm, there were no more sails to take in, no more sea anchors to drop. He made the order for all non-essential crew to retreat to the galley, and for Able Seaman Bak to relieve Darib. The poor man’s arms could take little more, and he’d had a terrible shock.
Sulat herded all of the crew who could come into the galley and followed them in, tucking waxed rope in under the door to keep water out. Rheg rummaged in the cupboard for the big brandy and handed it to Darib as they all packed in together.
Darib clutched it to his chest like a child holding a cherished toy, close to his heart.
‘I killed her,’ he croaked. ‘I should have told her I was bringing her around.’
A chorus of ‘No!’ and ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself,’ and ‘It wasn’t your fault’ rose up around the assembled crewman. He had to have known that was true, of course, but grief must find someone to blame.
Sulat put a hand to his shoulder, trying to mimic what Alois did to comfort people. He turned away and swallowed hard, choking back tears. When he had regained control, he took a deep swig of brandy and held the bottle aloft. ‘To Ashryn.’
‘To Ashryn,’ repeated everyone else.
‘I wonder who it was,’ Filip said. The voices had died down or been drowned out by the sound of the wind and sea.
‘D’you reckon they got them out?’ Emly asked, the whites of her eyes glowing in the halflight of the tween deck. ‘Or…?’
Silence fell again, broken by someone climbing the stairs. A few more people came up from the lower deck to join Alois and his group.
‘Someone went overboard,’ Filip said to the newcomers.
‘Oh shit,’ a couple people said; a couple more hissed in alarm.
‘Did they save them?’ Dantin asked, his face stricken.
‘We don’t know,’ Alois said. His stomach twisted. What if it was Sulat. Would they tell us the captain was dead? Surely they would try to save her. Surley they would come for Wese. Or would they press on? ‘When will we know?’
‘In the morning,’ Wese’s voice said from the stairs.’
Yes, but when is that? There was a sliver of sky visible from one of the gun ports, but it was inky black.
When the last of the weak light died, Wese ordered everyone but two onto the tween deck. Two were needed to keep the pumps going, but everyone else was safer away from the cargo. They took their pump duty in shifts, feeling in the dark for the stairs and the pumps and each other. They couldn’t afford to light lanterns: burning oil in this weather guaranteed a ship fire and the death of them all.
Alois took four shifts, more than anyone else. It was more than he could take and he lied about how much time he actually spent working, but the water never rose above his ankles and no one else could even do that much.
At long last the ship’s rolling eased and a thin line of greyish light broke through the gun ports.
‘Are we getting close?’ Dantin shouted. Wese nodded slowly, his face drawn.
Everyone was anxious to get out of the tween deck, to the sweet clean air, light, and a relieve from the tossing and pitching. And everyone was desperate to find out who had fallen and whether or not they had been saved.
Finally Able Seaman XXX lifted the hatch and Wese led the battered and rattled hands to the deck. Sulat stood there, the rest of the able seamen and officers behind her, a small wooden chest at her feet. Alois had rarely seen her so grim.
‘Who?’ Wese asked, as soon as everyone was back topside.
‘Ashryn,’ Sulat said bluntly.
A whisper swept the crew. ‘The navigator,’ ‘she was so young,’ and ‘how will we get back?’ drifted about.
Sulat waited for the chatter to die down before lifting the chest in her thin hands.
‘So 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 shot at the future she had planned for him.’
She broke the lock open with her dagger and began pulling out Ashryn’s modest posessions. Alois’s stomach squirmed. It was so intimate, as if she were there watching them rifle through her things and bid on them. He hadn’t known her at all, couldn’t remember even seeing her, but by the end of it, he felt like he knew her better than anyone else, except Sulat. He wanted to buy the whole lot, he could afford it, but the other crew would do more to preserve her memory than he could. But he did buy the painted miniature of the brown-haired freckled young boy. Maybe one day he’d find him and offer to help him in some way.
Life at sea suddenly felt much less adventurous and much more treacherous than he’d imagined. It wasn’t quite the rousing adventure he’d planned.
When the last of Ashryn’s belongings, a cracked quizzing glass, was sold for a sad three copper crivas, Eaton gave every person a small measure of brandy. They all toasted to Ashryn, and Sulat said a few words over the rail to the unrepentant sea.
‘Ashryn 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 Ashryn was.’
With that, they finished their brandy and Turst 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 command from the able seamen who had worked all through the storm, and they would get no rest for the next few hours. Alois was selected for work for two hours while the next shift slept.
His muscles screamed and begged for a rest, but Darib’s puffy eyes in an otherwise expressionless face spurred him on. By now, word had gotten around about who was where when Ashryn went overboard. It wasn’t Darib’s fault, of course, and no one blamed him, but no doubt it was easier to keep working than to try to sleep and allow his mind to wander where it pleased. Alois knew that feeling well.
‘Let fall!’ Turst shouted and the crewmen aloft dropped the sails down. Alois and his compatriots 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 an island overrun with pirates.