A Thousand Glass Flowers cont’d… (6)
‘Fill the goblet, boy, and keep filling it.’ A ironweight mood settled on Finnian – a Castello mood, and vaguely he observed Gio’s head bob in acknowledgement as the young fellow circled the Captain’s table. The calming sea had and the presence of the boy reminding him of his own lack dug like a thorn in his side. The pretentiousness of the Captain’s table, with its flickering candelabra and polished silver rubbed him raw and the meal was on porcelain plates, as if that matters.
‘Captain.’ He lifted his goblet, drained it and slammed the glass on the tablecoth, spatters of the dregs flying up and spreading into the napery in bloody clots. ‘Is there nothing to do on this wretched bucket? No gambling, no women? Even the food’s dull.’ He pinioned his host with his gaze.
The man stared back with unblinking eyes. He had affected the look of an admiral with a lace jabot and a fine navy tailcoat with gold trim. He had placed a wig on his head, a sculpted grey thing that was caught back in a plait as was the fashion of sea-faring officers. No doubt he thought he looked fine, the admirable admiral. Finnian snorted at his own joke and raised a glass at the Captain’s face as the man spoke as if to a child. ‘This is trading ship, Sir Finnian. Passengers are rare. The food suits me and has never been complained about before. As to gambling, I would not tolerate it and women are not allowed on board. As the men say, ducks on the pond… very bad luck. My men live and work to a code and at the very least I expect respect and good behaviour, from passengers as well as crew. Nothing less.’
You patronizing son of a bitch, I’ll give you bad luck. A game. We’ll have a game . . . ‘Well sir,’ Finnian drawled. ‘I wonder how far respect for line, ship and captain really runs when a passenger’s possessions are surreptitiously removed.’
The Raji Ambassador wiped a napkin over a pale, waxy face and adjusted his turban, the silk fringe constantly untucking and dangling in his eyes. Finnian glanced at him as the man refused food, sipped water and looked from one to the other of the dinner companions. He acknowledged Finnian’s accusation with a raised eyebrow. The Captain moved his cutlery sideways with stiff fingers and then lifted his rat’s eyes to meet Finnian’s and Finnian knew the first point was his. Ha. What shall we do now sir, you and I?
‘Would you care to explain?’ The Captain’s tone sparked in the air, firing the need to taunt him further.
‘I had a gold pin.’ Yes, a gold pin. Make it irreplaceable. ‘An expensive gift set with diamonds and emeralds. It seems to have disappeared.’
‘And you accuse my crew?’
‘Dammit, I accuse no one yet. But I had it when I boarded and now I don’t.’ Your move.
The Captain said nothing as he folded his napkin and stood. ‘You will excuse me sir and Your Excellency. Dinner is concluded. I would prefer you to retire to your cabins and bid you goodnight.’
He held the door open. ‘Sir Finnian, your pin. It will be found.’
Finnian inclined his head and strode away whistling, knowing the man’s smug equilibrium was rippling. In his cabin, he finished the carafe of wine that the cabinboy had left and lay on the hammock, swinging with the gentle movement of the boat, at odds with the feelings swirling through him. Currents converged, then separated as he tried to think on one fruitless thread after another. Isolde, you should see what I do, old woman. I mesmer now that you are out of my life. Look, see? A jug of beer appeared on the tiny desk. And watch, you old bitch . . . he waved his hand, somewhere on this ship is a pin, all diamonds and emeralds. He crowed as he wafted his fingers as if conducting some fey orchestra. Another thought took hold. There was something of you in the way I played the game tonight. The thought hovered and from somewhere came a voice . . . like Isolde, Isolde’s boy. He shuddered and looked into the dark corners of his cabin but then the words faded as he drank off another mug. The boy – he was scared in the storm. Gio’s face floated out of the dark. I know scared. The mug dropped to the planks with a muffled thud. It burns a hole in your gut that can never be mended. And it hovers, forever hiding behind you to grab and throttle when you turn round. If I’d had family . . . He moved uncomfortably in the hammock and reached for the jug, swallowing the last drops and it followed the mug to the floor as he fumbled inside his jacket to draw out the parchment. Where are you, Lady? Yours is a face I could love. He lay swinging back and forth as his eyelids drooped.
A repetitive snuffling burrowed under the layers of sleep and Finnian opened heavy eyes, holding a hand against his forehead to shield his sight from the overly bright light of an open door. Feet shuffled and finally the sniffs drove him to lift his head and examine the boy who had brought a tray to the cabin. Red swollen eyes filled the youth’s face and the young mouth trembled. As he laid the tray down, his hands shook and a tear dribbled down the pale cheek.
‘GET OUT, BOY.’ The Captain shouted from the door and Gio shot out leaving wet sobs behind. The boy’s grief pierced Finnian’s aching head more than the Captain’s animosity and he groaned.
‘Leave me, sir.’ He rolled on his side away from the Captain, turning his back on his thoughts as well. ‘I wish to wake at my own leisure, not yours.’
‘Get up, you sot. I’ve found your wretched pin and I wish you to observe the punishment.’
Vaguely Finnian remembered the game he had embarked upon the previous evening. ‘You did you say,’ he yawned. Seems I upset your applecart. ‘Well done you, but get on with the punishment yourself, can’t you? I’m in a sore mood so throw the chap in the brig and leave me be.’
‘How dare you.’ The Captain’s fist thumped the planks of the walls. ‘Listen to me, I say. Thievery on a ship is a crime just below murder and is punished to the full extent of maritime law.’
Finnian sighed and rolled back toward the Captain. Have I won the game then? But the face that stared down at him was twisted and knotted and he knew the man was hauling hard on the ropes of self-control. Had Finnian been crew, he guessed by now he would have been lashed to the mast and whipped to a bloody pulp for his disrespect.
A cold wash began to trickle through his veins, a sense that he had unleashed something untoward. Sobriety followed in swift pursuit. He smelled brutal excitement emanating from the Captain and knew in an instant that a heavy price would be paid for the emasculation of the night before. In that fleeting moment he recognized someone of Isolde’s ilk. ‘And what would that punishment be?’ In truth he didn’t want to know. The lash, starvation? His skin crawled.
Finnian’s breath gushed out. There were foetid men in Castello, men his grandmother called ‘fallen angels’ whose stories had clogged Finnian’s past and keelhauling had lost nothing in the telling. ‘But that’s preposterous, damn you, it’s not a murder. It was nothing but a small indiscretion. Put up your toy sword and lead me to fresh air for my headache.’
The Captain’s face flushed puce and his eyes opened wide and bloodshot as Finnian, still dressed in last night’s clothes, levered himself from the bed to push through the cabin-door. Fingers scrabbled at his arm, pulling him back so that the Captain could surge past. ‘THIS IS MY SHIP SIR, AND I SHALL ADMINISTER LAW AS I SEE FIT.’
Chasing on his heels and swiping away the drunken fog, Finnian swallowed bile and guilt. I can admit to being fey, that I played a game and that if he proceeds with the punishment I shall use such glamour that his own life will be forfeit. But as he stepped to the deck to reveal himself, he heard the Captain call, a shouted response drifting back from the yardarm. A sailor plummeted through the air, a trail of ropes looping behind him, the crew unable to hold their cries of horror.
‘NO.’ The cabinboy screamed.
‘Silence!’ The Captain whipped around and a snarl settled over the deck.
Finnian grabbed the Captain’s arm. ‘You’ll kill him.’
‘Maybe, it depends.’ Relish coated the man’s answer, one side of his mouth hooking up.
‘You son of a bitch,’ Finnian began to shout. ‘This is a beamy ship. Long or short ropes, the fellow stands to drown. This is not my wish.’ He wanted to smash his fist through the smug expression in front of him.
‘No. It is mine.’
The crew on high tightened the slack, pulling from the port side. The sailor would be dragged under the belly of the ship to scrape against barnacles that if old and large would cleave him open, leaving festering and septic wounds that would kill. Finnian acted with instinct, mesmering the rope so it would break and the sailor might swim to the surface away from danger.
‘Sir, the rope’s slack! Aint no one on the end!’
Finnian let go his breath as the deck crew began to hustle amongst themselves.
‘Enough, stand to attention. You up there, watch for him in the water.’
The crew cast terrified looks amongst themselves and the cabinboy crushed his head deep into a sailor’s belly, sobbing as though his heart would break and Finnian saw a wretched boy in another time but one that was alone and had no comfort from the pillow of a belly and encircling arms. The breeze soughed through the stays, the sheets and sails flapping as the boat lollopped, bow into the wind. Each minute, each second spelled death. The initial buzz of urgency began to die as surely as the sailor’s life dwindled. Ice packed every blood vessel as Finnian tried not to think of what he had precipitated and hoping against hope he had saved the fellow’s life. It was a game, I never intended for this. I know what pain is . . .
‘THERE.’ A voice shouted from the starboard yardarm and the deck crew broke ranks and ran for the sides. A figure floated on his back, a faint sanguine stain drifting around him, his hand clutched over his belly, one arm drifting to the side.
‘Get him aboard.’ The Captain’s eyes searched over the top of the crowded deck for Finnian as a boat was lowered. The two men exchanged looks – triumph in one and distaste in the other.
The Captain leaned over the rail as the men hauled, Finnian pushing in as the limp body was cradled over the side of the vessel like a clump of bloody rags. The crew laid him out and Finnian knelt down. Once again he was Isolde’s boy, filled with self-loathing and wondering how it was that terrible things came to pass. The weight of his guilt crushed him to the planks.
‘Sir,’ the man whispered, staring straight at him, his voice anguished. ‘I didn’t . . . the boy . . . help me.’ His eyes pleaded, pain-riddled and filled with tears as his hands held his tattered shirt over his stomach, his fingers shiny with gore. The blood pooled and ran under Finnian’s knees as he eased the fingers away and gasped. Drawn and quartered. He recalled Gio’s words from the day before. The fellow’s innards strained out of a fatal gash, white and grey like bleached sea-ropes. His chest rose and fell rapidly, his thoughts unmistakable – the knowledge that he was going to die in unimaginable pain and in front of his friends for a crime of which he was innocent.
With little thought and desperate speed, Finnian mesmered a fatal bind. The death mesmer – an indiscernable stroke from an imperceptable blade. In the awful quietness of the deck, three sounds rang clear and unmitigated – the man’s shallow breath, the boy’s weeping and the shiver of an invisible sword being drawn.
As the crew glanced around, nervously searching for a swordsman, the sailor arched his body and screamed. Finnian saw a hundred fingers make the sign of the horns, for the intangible and unanswerable had just happened before their eyes.
‘He’s dead,’ he closed the wide eyes and stood to tower over the Captain. ‘And you shall pay.’ Aine forgive me, it was a game . . .
‘That was the law of the sea,’ the Captain answered. ‘Put him in a shroud and give him a burial.’ Meeting no eyes, he brushed past the crew to retire to his cabin.
Finnian groaned, a rising crescendo of anger. He wanted to rip the man’s heart out and lay it pumping on the deck – surely a paltry organ in that mean body. He hurried aft and leaned over the rail as if the air were cleaner and could purify. But swimming back and forth in the water and waggling blade sharp fingers was the merrow. In an instant Finnian realized the dead man had been the victim of the barbaric sea-wight. He slumped to the deck and hung his head, his hands bloodstained and damp.
‘You alright, sir?’ The huge crewman who had held the cabin boy, trying to shield him from the terrible events on the deck, stood over him.
‘I don’t . . .’
‘It’s the Captain,’ the man broke in. ‘Aint nothing you could’ve done to help the situation, sir. But I do tell you, it’s the boy I’m worried about.’ The man’s thick fingers ran back and forth through the stubble on his crown.
‘Yes, sir. You see the fella was his father. Awful thing to watch your father punished in such a terrible way for a crime of which he were innocent. I’m telling you, I aint never seen anyone ripped open like that and I don’t want to again. I’ll never get over it and I doubt the boy will either, he’s speechless with grief. His Pa was a good man. Had nothing but respect from every one of us. Anyhow sir, if you’re right I’ll leave you. I want to say a prayer as we bury him.’ He turned to leave and then, ‘Sir, I want to thank you for your consideration over the fellow as he died. Some folk may have turned away from the sight as there was something of the oddness in it, almost eldritch.’ He wiped a hand over the big, pale face and then smiled, an expression of gratitude that skewered Finnian as surely as if it had been the merrow’s talon.
He drank himself to oblivion for the rest of the voyage, refusing to join the Captain for meals, mesmering his own food and avoiding Gio at all costs. He sunk himself deep in reflection, dredging up all the hurts of his own life and dwelling on the painful and the unbearable as if to scourge himself. He had anticipated freedom as he escaped Isolde’s clutches, not the seering pain of guilt and he ran as far as he could, lifting the wine to his lips again and again until he heard faint shouts and the patter of feet followed by the clatter and rattle of an anchor chain. A tentative knock at the door preceded a muffled voice calling through the timbers.
‘Sir Finnian, it’s Gio. Are you there?’
Aine, not the boy, please, but he pulled the door ajar and looked down on the grim, young face.
‘Sir, we’ve just anchored off Marino, the Captain told me to tell you. A tender will ferry you to the wharf and you can catch a gondola into Veniche.’ He twisted his hands and then turned away.
The thin shoulders and the flopping curls tugged at Finnian. He grabbed the boy and squatted down in front of him. ‘Gio, do you like working on this boat?’
The curls shook as the head waggled from side to side.
‘Would you stay ashore if I pay off your ticket?’
The curls bobbed up and down.
‘What happens now, do all the crew leave?’
‘As soon as the vessel’s unloaded, all the crew are stood down, but the Captain lives on board till the next sailing.’
‘Get your stuff, Gio, and meet me on the decks as soon as you can.’ Finnian’s mind began to work at another gameplan as he squashed a few possessions into a carpetbag. The rest he mesmered away and strode up to the decks to the side of the Captain who held out a hand to his passenger.
‘Well sir, an eventful journey, I’m sure you agree. No hard feelings?’
Finnian ignored the odious hand and poured money onto the deck. ‘That’s for the boy’s ticket. I take him with me.’ He nodded at the cabinboy and they climbed down to the moored longboat without waiting for a reaction. The big sailor hugged Gio as they stepped aboard the tender, looking over the boy’s curls at Finnian as he settled in the stern.
‘Thank you sir, you’ve done a good thing. Gio, be a brave lad now and tell your Ma I have your Pa’s things for her.’
A good thing? If only you knew.
‘Thanks be to Diff Errebi for my safe passage and return to the Light of My Life and to my many children.’ The Raji Ambassador rattled a string of worry beads with one hand whilst adjusting his fringed turban with the other, looking back with obvious distaste at the ship as the tender progressed toward the shore. The boy said nothing, just shrank between Finnian and the transom and Finnian felt grief bleeding through the layers of clothing to soak into his very soul. He had no qualms or conscience about placing a mesmer on the ship.
An eye for an eye. My point, I think, possibly my game after all. At midnight the keel will split quietly and a hole will appear as the planks spring. Water will funnel in as you sleep, Captain, and the ship will fill and eventually will not just wallow in the waters of Veniche but will sink like the proverbial stone.