The Good Whale
This chapter comes from a dark epic fantasy novel called The Dark Brother.
Alysta walked into The Pretty Palace and looked around. The tavern was full of dirty, sweaty people seeking a bit of merriment in these dark times. A wood flute was plowing its way through some sort of melody, signaling the end to another day’s work. And a start to her own.
Her skintight leather drew more than a few sets of eyes as she crossed to the bar.
“Well, well. Looks like you’re still alive after all,” the innkeeper said. He was a fat, bald, repulsive little man.
“Disappointed?” she replied.
“Not at all. Would be a waste.” He eyed her top to bottom.
“Uh huh. What have you got for me?”
“All business then? Pity.” He nodded toward a door leading to a back room, and she followed.
She dealt with his type often. It was one of the many less than pleasant things her work required of her. This one reminded her of a pig. Somehow even his massive ears were sweating. She shut the door behind them and they sat at a small table. The pig’s desk, she realized. This dingy little room must be what he used for an office.
He poured them each a wooden cup of something and handed her one. She set it down without drinking.
“Wasn’t easy, you know,” he said. “People are asking questions.”
“I trust you didn’t know the answers,” she said.
He just shrugged. “The price of my forgetfulness is going to go up.”
Alysta sighed. Sometimes she felt like she was the only one in the city whose first concern wasn’t money.
“You’ll get paid. Do you have something for me or don’t you?”
“How’d a pretty little thing like you get mixed up in all of this, anyway?”
A flash of her father’s face, telling her to run. Flames. Her mother’s lifeless eyes, still full of terror.
“That’s my concern, isn’t it?”
He shrugged again, and reached into a dirty leather sack. He took out two scroll cases, popped their tops, and unfurled their contents.
“This is the cargo manifest. The ship is called the Good Whale. It came in three hours ago.”
She took the document and held it up to the torchlight.
“Twenty!” She’d never handled so many before.
“I keep telling you, you’re getting in over your head here, sweetheart.”
She spared him an annoyed look, but her mind was racing. What would she do with them all? The pig held up the other document.
“This will get you past the harbor guard,” he said.
She reached for it, but he pulled it back.
“Not so fast, sweetheart. Money first.”
She sighed and pulled out a small purse. Its contents clinked as it hit the table. The pig studied it a moment.
“You know, it doesn’t have to cost you so much.”
She looked at him carefully. “I’m listening.”
“Wouldn’t take more than five minutes. Less even. I’d be gentle…” He trailed off and gave her a nasty grin. His eyes dropped lower.
She nearly vomited. She tried to stay calm, to remind herself that dealing with men like this was necessary, and that dressing as she did provided a strategic advantage. It was difficult.
“What do you think, sweetheart?” His arm was moving under the table.
She stood. “Well, I think I’m leaving tonight with those documents. And you can either take the money, or I’ll leave you with this.” She slipped a small knife from her sleeve and stuck it into the table in front of her. “That’s what I think.”
His lecherous smile faded. “Fine, fine. All business. No need to get fussy.” He laid the second document on the table and took a swig of his cheap wine. “Good luck. It’d be a waste if you got that fine little ass of yours killed.”
She collected the papers and her knife and left without a word.
The smell of the sea filled her nostrils as she approached the docks district. Trade by sea was the lifeblood of the city of Anteius. The Oath Council negotiated contracts for the city’s food, spices, cloth, metals, and so on. And with the drought, even most of their drinking water came in by ship. There was a lot of work to be had in the shipping business, and a lot of money to be made. It had made her father a rich man. She pushed the thought of him away.
She hurried through the shadows. It was interesting, how comfortable she’d become with this. The streets at night were where she felt safest now. She was fast, and her dark, supple leather made no sound. If anyone did manage to spot her, they’d still have to catch her. A difficult task by anyone’s estimation.
One of the district’s harbors rose up before her out of the darkness. It was gated and well-guarded. After all, practically everything of value entered the city on one of these ships, and there were many ambitious thieves in Anteius. She was one of them, she realized. That made her smile a bit.
She approached one of the guards and tried to look as confident as possible.
“Oy, what’s this now?”
“I have business in the harbor tonight, I’m afraid.”
“What? What’s a lass like you doing out here alone this time o’ night? It’s damn dangerous these days,” the guard said. He had a white beard and a kind face. “Excuse my language,” he added.
She pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to him. A minute or two passed while he read, and she started feeling her nerves. Finally, he handed it back to her.
“Agent of the Council. Well, that’s interesting. You know, I had a daughter looked like you. Except for the strange getup your wearing. She wore dresses.”
Alysta shrugged. “It’s appropriate for this type of business, don’t you think?”
“Aye, I suppose it is. Yeah, she was a real sweet girl.” He looked down.
“What happened to her, if you don’t mind my asking?” Alysta tried to quell her impatience.
“Killed by Orinsett’s damned men. We had a farm a few miles east of Lines. They set fire to us, to our land I mean, and she didn’t make it out o’ the house.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. And she really was.
“Ah well, don’t need to be standing here listening to me. I expect you’ve got something important else you wouldn’t be out here this time o’ night.” He turned to his companion. “Well, go on Henly, open it up for the lady.”
“Aye,” said Henly, and went to work on the latch.
“Thanks Captain,” she said.
The old man’s chest puffed up a bit and he smiled. “Well, it’s just Corporal, my lady.”
Ten minutes later she stood before the Good Whale. True to its name, it was a very large ship. Good. The larger the ship, the easier it was to slip onto unnoticed.
A lantern appeared on the deck, and she ducked behind a nearby stack of wooden crates. As usual, there was at least one crew member up there guarding the ship until it could be unloaded the following morning. A ship this size probably had several onboard.
She crept over to one of the heavy ropes that attached the stern of the ship to the dock. When the lantern disappeared, she started running along the rope. Her momentum ran out as the rope grew steeper, so she dropped gracefully, wrapped her arms and legs around it, and started climbing. It felt good to use her muscles and release some of the tension that had been building in her.
As she neared the top, she saw an open hatch of some kind in the side of the ship, about halfway up from the water. Pushing off from the rope, she fell toward it. She just barely caught the bottom of the opening with one hand and her body slammed into the side of the ship. The impact took her breath away, and she hung by her fingers for a moment, trying to breathe. Her heart pounded against her chest.
Had anyone heard that? She hoped to the gods the answer was no. There was no way to turn back now. Maybe she was in over her head after all. She’d stormed in without a plan, and so far she’d been quite sloppy about it. She considered dropping down into the water but dismissed the idea. The splash would give her away for sure, and she’d probably be caught before she could make it out.
Her air returned slowly, and with it, her resolve. She’d made it out of tougher spots than this before. She would again.
The muscles in her hand burned as she pulled herself up and into the dark hole. It was completely black inside. She reached into a tiny pouch at her waist and pulled out the stone her father had given her a week before he’d died. He’d called it her glowstone. Its soft red light pulsed gently, revealing the walls of a tiny room.
There was no door, just an opening in the far wall. She looked out carefully, but all she saw was row upon row of stacked wooden crates. Good. She’d managed to bypass the upper chambers of the ship, and all of the crewmen. Perhaps improvising wasn’t so bad after all.
Minutes passed as she made her way through the ship’s inner caverns. Finally, she came upon a ladder leading down. They were always kept in the bottom of the ship. Always. Below the crew, below the food, below everything.
She climbed down and knew immediately that she was in the Good Whale’s belly. She’d never learned nautical terms. Was it the hold? The bilge? No matter.
She walked until she found a large door with chains across it, and went to work on the padlock. It was easy for her now. She’d been getting a lot of practice lately. It popped open and she removed the chains. They were heavy, and crashed to the floor loudly. She stopped and held her breath. No sound. Good.
As soon as she opened the door, a familiar pungent smell hit her nostrils, confirming that her prize lay within.
Then from nowhere, a piece of metal came at her face.
Her reflexes saved her. She half jumped, half fell onto her back. Rolling, she popped up into a crouch only to be tackled by a giant of a man. His weight pinned her to the ground, and once again she couldn’t breathe. She flailed in panic, but it did nothing for her. A thick, meaty hand closed around her throat.
“Wait! Lukin! I think she’s alone,” a woman’s voice said. The hand loosened, and after a long moment, the man got off of her.
“Who are you?” he said in a rough voice. In the dim red light, he looked like a demon.
Alysta tried to speak, but coughed instead. More faces appeared over her, looking around cautiously.
“I’m here to help,” she managed to get out.
“You came alone?” the woman’s voice asked.
Alysta nodded. “Yes. We have to hurry.”
Once Alysta’s intent was made clear, they warmed to her immediately. They were standing around her, looking to her for direction. And Alysta was at a loss.
She’d made it in, freed them, and… what next? There were just two men in the group, and while one was enormous, they stood little chance of fighting their way out.
“Alright,” she said. “This way.”
She led them up the ladder and back the way she came in. They tried to move quietly, but she was growing increasingly uneasy. Compared to her silent entry, they sounded like a stampede of wild horses. The hollow sound of the wood flooring didn’t help.
When they reached the chamber full of crates she stopped and turned to them. “I’m going to go up and take a look,” she whispered. “Wait here.”
She could tell from the looks on their faces that they weren’t happy with her plan. Could she trust them to stay put?
“I’ve gone to great lengths to get us this far. Do you trust me?” She looked them in the eyes one at a time until all had given her a nod. A thought occurred. She raised her glowstone above her head, lighting the chamber more fully, and counted them. Twelve. “Aren’t there supposed to be twenty of you?”
For a moment they were silent.
“The rest are still down below,” said the woman from before.
“Dead,” the giant man said.
Of course. She felt like a fool. Briefly, she wondered what it would be like to be locked in a small room for days on end with eight rotting corpses.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
The giant just grunted. “Go,” he said. “We will wait.”
Alysta made her way up through the ship, climbing first one ladder, and then another. She found herself in a narrow hallway littered with bits of rope, netting, and other rubbish. The crew of this ship was not a tidy bunch.
She heard something and froze. It was coming from somewhere down at the other end of the corridor. Laughter.
She crept forward, painfully aware of her inability to hide if someone were to come along. At least they’d be unable to surround her. As she drew closer, she could hear bits and pieces of conversation. Dim lantern light overflowed into the hallway from an open doorway.
It seemed that they were enjoying themselves, which was good news for her. Drunk men were always easier to handle. She stepped lightly over a long piece of scrap metal, not unlike the one that Lukin had almost killed her with minutes earlier.
She stopped, struck suddenly by a bit of inspiration.
Without deliberation she turned, collected the metal, and continued on towards the open cabin. When she neared, she stopped to listen. She leaned just a little farther forward and peered in from the dark.
Silently, she thanked the gods for her good fortune. The room was full of sailors, all drunk, and the volume of their chatter was adjusted accordingly. She could probably go in and pat one of them on the back without them noticing.
She took a deep breath and held it in.
Reaching into the doorway, she grabbed the handle and pulled the door closed. Then she hefted the piece of metal up and through the door handle. It fit nice and snug. She stood there a moment, heart beating like a drum, sweating, listening. The sound was muffled, but the mood of the room seemed unchanged. They hadn’t noticed. A smile bubbled to the surface. It had been so easy.
After taking a moment to bask, she strolled over to yet another ladder and climbed up through an open hatch and onto the deck of the ship. Crouching low, she peered around.
As she’d suspected, there was just one unfortunate soul up on deck, guarding the entire ship. A new crew member, no doubt. She felt like she could take him head on, easy. He didn’t look very big, and no one was likely to hear him raise the alarm. Still, it was best to be cautious… wasn’t it?
She stood and trotted over into the light of his lantern.
He jumped up and cried out. “Hey! You can’t be up here!”
“Please,” Alysta said, distressed. “You have to help me. There’s a man after me.”
It took him a moment, but his caution began to fade. He was young.
“A man? Where?” he asked. “How’d you get up here?”
“I’m not sure, I’ve just been running as fast as I can,” she said breathlessly. “I saw your lantern up here and I thought you could help me.”
“Please!” she wailed.
“Alright, alright,” he said. “Just take it easy. First mate’s aboard down below, he’ll know what to do.”
“Oh thank you, thank you.” She fell forward into him and buried her face in his chest.
He stiffened in surprise, but soon relaxed and let her push her body against his. This might be the closest the boy had ever been to a woman, Alysta thought to herself. Gods damn it, but he smelt awful.
“It’ll be alright, miss,” he was saying.
Indeed it would.
She started to pull away, and when she did she kicked him hard in the knee. Once he was off balance, it was easy for her to yank him toward her and pull him down. He was little more than a boy, but he swore like a veteran sailor as he went sprawling onto his face.
She slammed down on top of him in an instant and wrapped her legs snugly around his neck. He squirmed a bit, and then the panic of not breathing set in. He pounded and clawed at her legs with surprising strength. She’d have some bruises come morning.
Finally, he weakened, and sleep came. She released him and felt for breath. It was there, faintly. She didn’t want to kill the poor boy. She was many things, but not a killer.
And then, standing there upon the deck of the Good Whale, she let herself feel the great surge of emotion that came with such a triumph. With a couple of forged documents and her wits alone, she’d overtaken an entire ship. Not so long ago, she’d been just another girl with a wealthy father. Pampered and bored, destined for nothing of worth.
She’d become so much more. Now, she had power. Strength.
She shook off the moment of reverie and walked back over to the hatch. Her task was not yet complete.
She climbed back down as quickly as she could, and down again, until she reached the crate room where her flock awaited. They looked at her expectantly. She smiled.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
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