Friday, 6 April 2012

Abhorrent Practices - Chapter 2.4

Tremayne (Part 4)

Sandrine turned her head and sank her face back into the pillow. She could tell from the muffled sound of water lapping against the side of the ship that the sun must have been up for some hours. It wasn't the gentle, rhythmic lapping caused by tides and currents. The intervals were irregular; erratic; waves caused by the rocking of ships' hulls as dockworkers leapt on and off the vessels moored close by.

As her senses returned, she became aware of a distant hubbub of cries from the dockside: the familiar shouts of traders looking for passage and captains in search of crews; of stevedores and longshoremen exchanging ribald taunts as they loaded and unloaded cargoes. With a groan, she pulled the pillow out from under her and pulled it over her head. Further sleep would be impossible now, but she could afford to lie there for a few more minutes.

There was a soft, hesitant rapping at her cabin door.

"Go away," she moaned miserably.

She heard the door creak open and realised that most of the covers had fallen from the cot, leaving the lower half of her body exposed. Her right leg dangled limply over the side.

"If that's you, Naylor, you can take your eyes off my backside or I'll maroon you on the next uninhabited island we pass."

"Umm ... no. It's m-me," whispered Skrawl apologetically. "And I'm n-not looking. Really."

(A chameleon doing an impersonation of) Skrawl!"Oh please!" scoffed Sandrine, grimacing as she pulled herself up to sit on the edge of the cot. She pulled a blanket around her and looked at the skeletal figure standing half in and half outside the cabin. "You've got four eyes, Skrawl. There's no way you could keep them all from looking, even if you wanted to!"

"But I d-don't want to," protested Skrawl. "I was just ..."

"Relax," said Sandrine curtly. "I won't say anything to Marla. Now, I assume you've disturbed my sleep for a reason?"

For a second or two, Skrawl looked perplexed and Sandrine wondered if, perhaps, he had actually managed to forget the reason he'd come to her cabin. His eyes, each one sheathed in a scaly cone were swivelled upwards, she noticed, fixed on a wooden beam above his head.

"Skrawl!" she snapped. "Focus! Look at me and focus. It's okay, I'm decent now. Look at me, and tell me what you came in for!"

Skrawl allowed one of his conical eyes to turn itself cautiously towards her.

"It's Marla," he said. "She's just got a message ... a m-message from the Abbey. It's a n-new contract. Or something. She said it ... she said it's important."

"I've already got the next contract," Sandrine yawned, running a hand sleepily through her hair. "We need to be in Brael by the weekend." Looking at her hand, she shook her head at the tiny flecks of black dye on her fingers. Damn. She'd rinsed her hair three times after the job at the Grand Marshall's mansion. There shouldn't have been any dye left in her hair. She'd have to tell Marla the new ingredients weren't working.

"N-not Brael," Skrawl corrected her. "This is something else. Something special. Something very, very special. Marla says ..."

"Okay, okay. I get the picture." She hadn't been awake long enough to be able to cope with the excitable preen for long. "Tell Marla we'll have a ship's council as soon as Perrick gets back from the market. Now please leave me, Skrawl. I need to get dressed."

"Good. Very good. Should I ... should I tell Naylor, too? About the ship's council, I mean. Should I ...?"

"Of course," replied Sandrine, exercising as much restraint as she could muster. "We can hardly have a ship's council without the ship's captain. Now, if you don't mind ..." She reached for her shirt and waved it towards the door, motioning for him to leave.

"Yes, yes," Skrawl nodded. "I didn't mean any ... I hope you don't think I was ..."

"Now!" she snapped.

The door slammed abruptly shut and Skrawl was gone. She heard the scratching sound of his four clawed feet scurrying their way across the wooden deck as he scampered off in search of Naylor.

She pulled the shirt over her head and pushed her arms through the wide, billowing sleeves. She yawned again and crossed to the small basin on the far side of her cabin. She filled it with water from the dented pewter jug that stood to one side. Scooping a handful of water with one hand, she splashed it over her face. It was cold and she gasped as it broke refreshingly over her forehead and cheeks. Just what she needed. She ran her hands backwards through her bright, copper coloured hair, pushing it back off her still wet face, and crossed to the large wardrobe that extended along the entire length of one wall.

Opening one of the huge wooden doors, she ran her eyes over the dozen or so pairs of breeches that lay meticulously folded on a shelf near the bottom.

Burt Lancaster doing his famous impression of Naylor!She took a blue pair from the pile. They were worn in places and the button holes were beginning to fray, but she wasn’t planning to go into the town and they’d be more than adequate for a day onboard ship.

“Hey, Skrawl!” She heard Naylor’s cry through the wooden walls of her cabin. If he was shouting it probably meant he was still at the top of the main mast, painting his logum. “What news of her ladyship? Are we expecting to see her any time soon?”

She bristled for a moment. Naylor was far too cavalier for her liking. She looked at the worn, blue breeches in her hand, hesitated for a moment and threw them back on the pile. She really shouldn’t allow him to rile her the way he did. He was a good captain and she needed him. Or rather, she corrected herself, the Order of Charon needed him.

She hesitated for a moment longer and then took a pair of tight, scarlet breeches from the bottom of the pile. Were they too showy for a day onboard ship? It didn’t matter. With the exception of Marla, there was no one onboard who ever noticed what she was wearing. She pulled them on and, as she closed the wardrobe’s heavy wooden door, she turned and glanced at herself in the mirror on the back. They looked good, she thought, bending to fasten the breeches at the knee.

She’d bought them a few weeks earlier from a tailor in Sharrow’s Bluff as a gift to herself. She’d been keeping them for a day when she had something to celebrate and, with the Grand Marshall’s contract completed, she felt she’d earned the right to treat herself.

Crossing to the cabin door, she slipped her feet into a pair of black shoes and pulled a long silver sash from a rack fixed to the wall. She tied the sash about her waist, and opened the cabin door. It was brighter outside than she’d expected and she blinked in the bright afternoon sunlight.

“Ah, there she is! As wild and magnificent as a storm at sea, and twice as deadly!”

The voice came from above. Shielding her eyes against the glare of the sun, she looked up and saw Naylor, hanging upside down from the main mast, a paint brush in one hand, the other thrown wide in a generous gesture of greeting.

“Weren’t you supposed to have that finished yesterday?” she admonished him. To her annoyance, Naylor’s grin seemed to grow even wider.

“A logum can’t be hurried, Princess. It’s …”

“A work of art, I know,” she replied sourly. “You told me before. But hurry it up. We may need to leave earlier than we planned.”

Naylor relaxed the pressure his right foot was applying to the rope coiled about his left leg and allowed himself to slither rapidly down the mast. About six feet from the deck, he halted his descent, reached up to take hold of the rope, and allowed himself to swivel into an upright position. A look of concern flickered briefly across his face.

“Did something go wrong?” he asked. “With the Grand Marshall?” He released his hold on the rope and dropped to the deck.

“No. Harlan was straightforward enough. He was a soldier; old school. He wanted to die by the sword and, if he couldn’t do that in battle, he wanted his death to be by his own hand. It’s an ancient tradition. For someone of his generation, it was a matter of … honour. He believed if he died in bed, taken by some disease, he’d never see his ancestors. His medical staff wouldn’t help him and he was too weak to hold the sword by himself. But I got there in time. I held his hands clasped around the hilt of his sword and applied the necessary pressure to push it past his ribs. He died … content.” There was no emotion in her voice.

Naylor’s face again showed his concern. He’d never understand how she could do the things she did for the Order. He stepped forward and placed a hand on Sandrine’s arm.

“It … must have been hard,” he said softly.

Sandrine stepped backwards, startled, recoiling from Naylor’s touch.

“Nothing of the kind,” she snapped. “He gave the Order a contract. “I fulfilled it. There’s nothing difficult about that. I’ve been doing it for years.”

Naylor withdrew his hand and shook his head. Sandrine had always been a very private person and if she didn’t want to discuss the matter further, he knew better than to press the point.

“So … Skrawl says you’ve summoned a ship’s council for when Perrick gets back,” he said. “Did he tell you what Marla’s mysterious missive is about?”

“A new contract,” she said. “No details, except that it’s something special. Have you recruited all the deckhands we need?”

Naylor nodded towards the dockside and the scores of longshoremen bustling about, moving crates, lifting bundles of raw materials and engaging in salty humour. Tremayne was not a large port compared to others in the region, but its reputation as a centre of the arts ensured a steady stream of traffic.

“I found half a dozen who want to go as far as Brael,” he said. “Of course, if the new contract requires us to go farther …”

Sandrine shook her head.

“No,” she mused, considering Naylor’s suggestion but rejecting it almost instantly. “We’ll follow standard procedure. When we get to Brael, we can recruit a fresh crew for wherever we need to go next.”

“Very good,” acknowledged Naylor. “Is there anything else I can do?”

“Yes,” she said, walking off in the direction of Marla’s cabin. “You can stop calling me Princess.”

(C) David A J Berner, 2012. All rights reserved.