Author: Paul aka Darth Pacula
Tara was a vacant, if disturbingly pliable, dead weight on the end of Willow's hand as she gingerly led the blonde towards the exit, moving slowly, as if Tara were a frightened animal. Xander followed close in her wake, cutlass out and ready to guard Willow's retreat.
He made an indelicate sound in the back of his throat. "Err ... Will? I thought this plan of yours called for running? Because I don't fancy our chances of outrunning anyone at this pace."
Scowling, Willow shot a dirty look at her first mate that told him, in no uncertain terms, to hold his tongue. That done, she led Tara out into the tavern's common room, and instantly felt the weight of more than a score of eyes fall upon them. The loud background chatter of a typical, crowded tavern trickled away into an awkward silence.
The hairs rose on the back of Willow's neck. Such establishments as the one in which they stood tended to attract a certain kind of clientèle; the kind that preyed ruthlessly on weakness. And in Tara, in her vacant stare, in her subservient posture, they were scenting the type of weakness they loved best. The bare steel in Willow's hand would give them pause, for most of these predators were cowards at heart, but an advantage in numbers could potentially give them a dose of courage.
Xander's arrival was announced by an oath as he too fell under the crowd's gaze, and the tip of his cutlass came back up in response. Inching closer, Willow hissed at Xander to not do anything stupid. If antagonized, the crowd could become a mob, and overwhelm them by sheer numbers alone.
Mind racing, Willow knew that she had to disarm the situation before a catalyst took place, a single spark that would ignite a firestorm of violence. She had an idea, though the thought alone soured her stomach. But she needed a free hand to implement it, and her head wouldn't let her abandon her weapon, while her heart wouldn't let her release Tara's hand.
"Xander," she urgently hissed out of the corner of her mouth, "Throw the loot."
"What?" he gaped, blinking.
"The coin!" Willow insisted. "Throw it into the crowd!"
Xander chanced a glance down at Willow's hat, clasped to his chest, and the small fortune in gold and silver it contained. He winced. "But ..."
With a sad little moan, Xander did as he was ordered, swinging the hat in such a fashion that coins filled the air like glittering rain. The reaction was instantaneous, as the crowd's baser lusts were subsumed by greed, and they fell upon the offered bounty with a great shout. Fights were already breaking out as Willow called out, "With my compliments, lads!"
"Bleedin' hells, Cap'n," muttered Mockery as he backed out of the room, knife still snug against Rren's throat. "Are ye tryin' ta start a riot?"
"Better they riot over a handful of coins than our corpses, Mocker," Willow pointed out, peering past her second mate and his hostage. Rren's thugs were no longer against the wall, but were clustered in the middle of the room, eying them with unfocused malice. She knew what they had to be thinking; their continued employment was unlikely if they let their employer be kidnapped.
Mocker's grey eyes darted back to Willow, seeking orders, asking a silent question. He was asking permission to cut Rren's throat. Willow was tempted to give Mocker his head, but she made it a rule to not kill if she didn't have to, even if, as in this case, they richly deserved such a fate. Mocker had never shared her scruples, but seemed content to be constrained by them.
Willow shook her head curtly, and nodded towards the room where Rren's bravos were mustering their courage. Rolling his eyes, Mocker nodded in wry acknowledgement. In a quick jerk of movement, Mocker hooked one heel around the front of Rren's leg and shoved. As his hostage staggered forwards, Mocker rapped the pommel of his dagger sharply against Rren's skull, rendering him senseless. With an unfriendly kick to the seat of the pants, Mocker aided Rren's forward momentum until he pitched straight into his own startled men. They all went down in a pile.
Darting forward, Mocker slammed the door shut, dropping the latch and jamming it shut by ramming his dagger into the door jamb above it. As he backed away, the door shook beneath an impact, and someone swore loudly from the other side.
Noticing Mocker sadly eyeing his abandoned dagger, Willow shook her head with a snort. "I'll buy you another one," she insisted. "Lets get out of here."
The city-state of Devastapol lay at the bottom of a great, deep bay, like a notch cut into the coastline by a giant blade. The deep waters and protection offered by the blunk, knob-like peninsula made it a most favorable anchorage, and for the city that had grown up there, the sea was its lifeblood.
Devastapol was predominantly a trading city, linking sea-routes to the meandering trade roads riddling the mainland. All manner of trade goods found their way into and out of Devastapol, for to the decadent Princes of the city-state no vice was anathema. Slaves and narcotics alike could be found in the great markets, alongside more everyday items. Forbidden scrolls, written in human blood upon the flayed skin of virgin women, were as easy to obtain as a sack of turnips, if far more expensive.
Its citizens were a diverse lot, as the city was an ethnic melting pot, with people from every point of the compass calling Devastapol. Pale-skinned Northmen haggled with ebony merchants from the far south. Hard-eyed oriental swordsmen from the near mythical empire of Lo Pan sat alongside tanned warf rats from the islands of the Endless Sea, both lusting after doe eyed, dusky skinned dancing girls from the desert cities of the Caliphs. A thousand longstanding feuds, and a thousand more religions could be found upon her narrow, twisting streets.
The haranguing sermons of more virtuous nations named the city as an irredeemable den of vice, where depravity known to man could be found openly on every street, but as with so many things, this was an exageration. While it was true that any vice, no matter how twisted or obscure, could likely be sated within Devastapol's walls, there was still a great seething mass of ordinary people who dwelled there, living their lives and raising their families in exactly the same fashion as they would in any other city.
Geographically, the city was built in great rings, sweeping up a gentle slope from the vast harbor. The first ring was dedicated to serving the harbor itself, made up of warehouses, taverns and flophouses for the countless sailors that made landfall each day.
The next rings were those of the poorest citizens, the quality of both houses and inhabitants increasing the further one marched up the hill, until you reached the marble palaces of the rich and powerful atop the summit.
Beyond that were a staggered series of walls protecting the city from any marauding armies that approached by land. Inbetween each of these walls, shanty towns had sprung up to accommodate the swell of the poor and desperate. Once, Devastapol's Princes had instigated regular purges, burning out these shanty towns for fear they would breed disease, or weaken their defences. But as the generations passed, this tactic had fallen from favor until the slums were left to rot in their own filth.
Fortunately for Willow and her companions, the tavern they were fleeing wasn't located here, or their flight to the harbor might have taken hours. As it was, by the time they drew near the waterfront, Tara was limping badly.
Willow hadn't noticed when they had fled the tavern, but Tara had been wearing only a pair of flimsy slippers, decidedly unsuited to traversing the poorly lit, noisome back alleys through which their route had taken them. But while Willow might not have noticed what Tara was wearing on her feet, she definitely noticed when the blonde began to leave bloody footprints in her wake.
However, Tara made no complaint, and they couldn't afford to slow down; Mockery's makeshift lock wouldn't hold for long, and one problem with being the captain of a ship was that you tended to be easy to find. The only concession Willow could make was to slightly slow their pace.
They smelled the docks long before they came into sight, a fetid stench that assaulted your nostrils like a slap in the face. The clean, salty tang of the sea was faintly detectable beneath rotting fish and the normal stench of an overcrowed city. It was an intimately familiar scent to Willow; the smell of the harbor at Northport punctuated every memory she had of her childhood.
In the end, the docks came up with surprising speed out of the murky gloom, wooden piers jutting out into the harbor like the ribs of some vast seaborne leviathan, beached upon the shore. Oil lanterns and open torches, guttering in the sea breeze, were scattered about, shedding pools of golden light that did little to dispell the darkness. But it was far from deserted.
Willow led them on a weaving path between palleted piles of crated goods, dodging around boisterous mobs of drunken sailors on shore leave. Troubadours, bards and acrobats plied their trade on street corners, or in one of the countless taverns spilling torchlight and noise in equal amounts into the street. Streetworkers walked the streets, slipping off into shadowy alleys with hungry looking sailors, while half-clad whores called out to passers-by from the windows and balconies of bordellos and bawdy houses. Pickpockets and cutpurses alike were also doing a roaring trade.
Cutting as direct a path through the crowd as she could, Willow ignored a dozen propositions from drunken sailors, and turned down twice that many invitations from flirtacious floozies to sample their wares. Several shifty characters tried to offer her any number of narcotic substances, including a club-footed oaf who didn't take no for an answer until Mockery broke his nose with a swift elbow.
But they eventually reached their destionation; Willow's ship, the Wild Rose. A three masted barque, the Wild Rose was as sleek and slender as her mistress, with a dark-hued hull that cut through the water like a knife, and a painted figurehead of a bare-chested woman with an inviting smile and a saucy wink.
Xander strode aboard, barking orders as Willow traded urgent words with Mockery. "Did you get all the lads aboard?" she asked.
"Aye, Cap'n. A few are the worse for wear, and I had ta box Tagun's ears for him before he'd leave the whore's bed I found him in. Ya should'a seen this lass, Cap'n; she had ta be three times my size. Gods alone know how they could couple without her crushing 'im flat."
Willow snorted in amusement. "Tagun always did like the large ladies, the little weasel. Any other problems?"
"Nothin' out of the ordinary, Cap'n. Had ta break up a brawl or two, and fetch Goonji out of gaol."
Sighing, Willow passed one hand over her face. "Drunk again?" she asked.
"Drunk, and bare-arse naked in a city fountain. Or so I'm told." Mockery lived up to his name and laughed heartily. "Apparently, when the City Guard turned up ta arrest him, he tried ta fight them off with ... with a cucumber."
"Remind me to never let that fool drink again, will you?" Willow turned a professional eye to the hive of activity currently swirling about the deck of her ship, judging that the Wild Rose was close to being ready to weigh anchor. She darted a glance at Tara, standing beside her, head down, still holding Willow's hand in her own.
"Mockery?" she ordered. "See Tara here to my cabin. I've got to get my girl out to sea."
Without even being asked, or raising her lowered head, Tara released Willow's hand, and the redhead strode purposefully up the gangplank. Halfway up, she hesitated, glancing back at the subdued figure still standing on the dock. The light cast by the open flames of torches further down the dock threw Tara into dramatic relief. Her golden hair was a fiery halo, leaving her bowed head wreathed in shadow.
For a moment, a single moment of poetic insight, Willow gleamed that the other woman stood upon a precipice, between a dark past, and a potentially bright future. Then the rattle of the rigging and the flapping of sailcloth tore away her attention, and Willow hurried into the maelstrom of her crew, calling orders.
Being careful to keep her head pointed straight down, Tara carefully and surreptitiously studied the man into whose care she had been released by her new mistress. For all of her adult life, and a fair proportion of her childhood, Tara had possessed little control over her own life. Every aspect of her existence had laid in the hands of the people around her, so Tara had learned long ago how to read even the most insignificant instances of body language.
This sailor, who Tara believed was named Mockery, affected an expression of constant mild amusement, but she detected an undercurrent of tension, and the capacity for sudden and extreme violence lurking just beneath that jovial surface.
Tara had encountered a few such men in her life, and without fail, they had each, every one, been an utter bastard. She just hoped that her new mistress had a tight rein on her attack dog, for Tara had no desire to be savaged. When she had been offered the chance to serve to belong to this new mistress, Tara had taken it with no more hope than that this Willow would prove to be a kinder master than Rren.
But if that gamble turned out to be a mistake, it was too late for Tara to do anything about it now. Not that she ever could do anything about it, for she was a slave, and had been since her father had sold her that one morning so long ago.
With a grunt, Mockery fixed her with a speculative gaze. Unlike most men who knew what she was, he didn't undress Tara with his eyes, which left her cautiously optimistic. Jerking a thumb over his shoulder, Mockery indicated for Tara to follow him up the gangplank, and she obediently did so.
He led her through a crowd of roughly dressed crewmen, some of whom viewed her with mild curiousity, and some who looked at her with poorly disguised lust. One man in particular, narrow-faced with dusky skin and a dark widow's peak, extended his tongue and waggled it obscenely at her. Without breaking step, Mockery pivoted a hundred and eighty degrees and slapped the other man hard on the back of the skull.
They exchanged a brief but furious flurry of words that Tara took care not to listen to. Instead, she let her head fall even further, and withdrew in on herself. Besides obedience, one of the first things a slave learned was to be unobtrusive, to be invisible. In the end, the threat of another blow forced the swarthy man to retreat, face sullen, and Mockery led Tara into the main stateroom in the stern superstructure.
The room was plainly, but comfortably appointed. A solid mahogany table and chair were bolted to the floor near the wide bank of windows that looked out the rear of the ship, and a bed lay against one wall, likewise secured to the wall. Hanging from hooks on opposite walls were a pair of shuttered lanterns, lighting the room with a soft yellow glow.
But the most remarkable thing about the room was the books. There were books scattered all over the room, lying in untidy piles upon the desk and bed, even lying upon the floor. Books were a rare possession for anyone outside the nobility, yet this humble ship captain had more than thirty leatherbound tomes, and twice as many scrolls and maps.
"Make yourself comfortable, lass," Mockery brusquely instructed, "But don't break anything, or the Cap'n will have ye heaved over the side." With that directive delivered, he turned on his heel and strolled out, yanking the door shut behind him.
Not long after, the Wild Rose set sail. No sign of pursuit had shown up yet, but Willow hadn't been in the mood to take a risk, so they sailed as soon as the rigging was set. Sails thrumming in the wind, the Wild Rose sailed north towards the mouth of Devastapol's great harbor and the open sea, the pathway lit by the twin lighthouses upon the headlands on either side of the harbor mouth.
Even though there had been no signs of pursuit, Willow ordered the ship's lamps extinguished so that the Wild Rose was running dark beneath a cloudy sky and the faintest gleam of a crescent moon. It was dark and gloomy night, a smuggler's night, and Willow meant to make the most of it. By dawn, she meant for them to be far out to sea, where any pursuer would be hard pressed to find them.
Running without lights could be a risky prospect, for in the gloom another ship could easily sail right into them. To counteract this possibility, Willow ordered a double shift on watch for the night, an order her crew obeyed with a certain measure of good natured grumbling.
Willow herself remained at the helm until they rounded the cape and were well on their way out to sea. Her plan was to head due west until dawn, then turn sharply to the south, heading towards the island of Kes, where they had a cargo of rare spices and several bolts of Celestial silk to deliver. That was their official cargo anyway. The Wild Rose also carried several chests of stolen jewels in a hidden hold which was their proper cargo, a delivery for a crime syndicate based in Devastapol.
It was still several hours before dawn was due before Willow finally let herself be convinced to surrender the helm, and return to her cabin for a few hours of sleep. Even with the envigorating sea air, her eyes were sore and tired, and a deep-seated ache was burrowing into the small of Willow's back. So she wasn't in the best of moods when she entered her cabin.
She found Tara kneeling on the floor, sitting back on her heels, head bowed. The blonde looked as if she'd been holding that exact pose for hours, and just the thought of it made Willow's back ache even more.
Willow hesitated, feeling that she should say something, but uncertain about exactly what to say. In the end, she settled for clearing her throat awkwardly and strode over to her desk, where she busied herself with studying a navigational chart.
What in the Nine Hells do I do with her now? she thought to herself frantically.
"Mistress ...?" asked a soft, subdued voice, and Willow turned. Her jaw dropped.
Tara had risen from her waiting posture, and was standing before her, wrists crossed behind her back, and her generous chest thrust out. She was also stark naked.
"Shall this one pleasure you now, Mistress?" Tara asked.