Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 14

Over dinner Topher talks to Captain Quint and all but ignores me, which is just fine. His nose is still swollen and I'm guessing bruised too, but it's hard to tell as his skin is so dark. My jaw has a good purple blue bruise too, which makes me feel a little less bad about the state of Topher's nose. When he came downstairs for dinner and saw the ring in my navel he glared at and swore under his breath.

The captain has lent me a pair of his under shorts that are riding very low because he insisted I stuck my tail over the waist, so I can't even cover the piercing, and every time Topher sees it he shoots me evil glances. The captain also said it was better if I kept it uncovered for the rest of today, and gave me the brown bottle of alcohol and some cotton wool to clean it with.

The food is full of strange spices and most of the vegetables I've never seen before. At one point I eat something that has my mouth burning and I have to down two glasses of water straight off, Topher sniggers and takes a large mouthful of the same dish with no problem.

Once we've finished the captain asks me to go out for a walk with him, leaving a pouting Topher behind.

We leave the house in silence, the only sounds coming from Quint's boots and my bare feet. At home I only wear shoes because walking around the city without them would leave my feet covered in any amount of disgusting things, but here that's not a problem, and I'm hoping I shan't be expected to wear them on the ship either.

It's dark now and the moon has risen, something I noticed out at sea is that there are far more stars here than at home, I don't why this is but it makes the sky look amazing. He leads me down to the beach that I had my fight with Topher on earlier in the day, and we stand on the white sand looking out to sea. It's a warm night, and the breeze coming off the sea feels very good against my almost naked skin.

"I brought you down here because I wanted you to see how the island looks at night." I can hardly tell him I've already seen that. "These islands have belonged to my family for over a century, I was born here as were my sisters and brother, our mother died giving birth to me, she bled to death. I was raised by my eldest sister Fadilla until I was six, when the admiral took me out to sea with him. The Firebrat was his ship then, it was build by my grandfather, and I learnt to sail on her. When he retired from the sea he gave her over to me, much to my brother Tobias' disgust, and I've been her captain for six years now. My crew are the best there is, Zizi may seem like a odd choice for first mate but she's more loyal and hard working than any human I've ever met, and she has nothing to go back to, this is her whole life, as it is with most of those I sail with. There's something about a pirates life that attracts lost souls, weather they know they are or not. I saw it in you straight away, you don't belong in a uniform stoking coal, and I would lay out any money that there's no loving family pining for you back in the city."

I am not a lost soul, and the thing about having no family is just a lucky guess, I hope. "No, I don't have any family." I say though.

"Is there anyone among your old crew you want to say goodbye to before we leave tomorrow?" He surprises me by asking. I consider it, I could see Vio again but it would no doubt be with him there as well, and I don't want Quint to know there's any connection between us.

"I don't really know any of them well, I'd only been on board a few days."

"Good, that makes things easier. You'll start working with Tallis straight away, but you answer only to me, I'll see he knows that also."

He moves closer to me and puts his arm around my shoulders. "I need you to try and get along with Topher, I know he's being a brat at the moment but he will get used to you."

"I'll try." I say. If he keeps ignoring me it'll make things easier.

Quint runs his hand down my back and strokes the base of my tail, his fingers finding their way underneath to the sweet spot, which makes me shiver.

"Tallis told me about that, eventually. He doesn't really approve of me taking a fellow echoback as a pet, but I'm his captain, not the other way around, even if he did serve under my father and knew me when I was a child, as he's fond of reminding me."

"Hmm." I say, distracted by what he is doing. He slips his hand inside my shorts and squeezes my ass, still looking out to sea.

"You're going to make a good sailor."

"Hmm." He's now running a finger along my crack and gently teasing my entrance.

"And a good pet." He says this huskily into my ear.

He then pulls his hand out and gives my ass a slap.

"Let's get back." He says, and I readily agree.

I thought I knew what he meant when he suggested we head home, but I was wrong. Or at least I was wrong when I thought he meant doing it with me, because much to my frustration he's taken Topher off to bed with him and left me in the other bedroom alone.

Vio's right, I am a slut. I should be glad that my captor Isn't trying to have sex with me, but I'm just annoyed he's not.

I must have fallen asleep, because Topher coming in wakes me up, and he smells like sex which makes things worse. I can't get back to sleep after that and I lie awake watching the night change to dawn through the slits in the shutters.

Before it's fully light there's a knock at the door and the maid sticks her head round and tells us it's time to get up. Topher sits up and winces, putting his hand straight to his nose.

"How is it?" I ask.

"Painful." Is his grumpy reply.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to really hurt you."

"But you did, you broke my nose."

"Zizi said it wasn't broken." I point out.

"Well it feels broken." He rolls out of bed and looks through a draw for something to wear. All I've got is the captain's underwear so I pull it back on, and once he's selected a pair of trousers and a shirt he turns to look at me.

"Did it hurt when he put the ring the ring in you?" He asks, pointing at my stomach.

"Not really, it just pinched a bit."

"I bled everywhere, then blacked out." He says this as if he's proud of it, and I'm not sure what to reply, so I don't.

After a breakfast of eggs and bread we leave for the ship. Both the captain and Topher have duffel bags, but all I have is the cleaning stuff for my piercing, a toothbrush and some wash things the captain gave me and my boots, which I carry over my shoulder with the laces tied together.

As we walk past the town hall I think of Vio still inside the gaol, I wonder if she ever got any smokes, she's most likely killed someone by now if not. Then it suddenly hits me, I'm not going back to Parnell any time soon, and for the first time in my life I experience homesickness. The feeling is so strong I stop dead in my tracks, my flat, the Costas, Vin, Vio, Caddy, the office, Ry, even Kezlo, my whole life, all thousands of miles away and I don't know if I'll ever see any of it again. The other two notice I've fallen behind and turn to look at me.

"What's wrong?" Quint asks.

"I want to go home." I whisper.

"This is your home." He says gently. "You'll get used to it."

Topher watches me closely to see what I'm going to do next. I look at the town hall, Vio will get me back, they wouldn't just leave me here, I'm sure they wouldn't. Perhaps if it was only up to Zale I'd never see Parnell again, but Vin takes responsibility for me, Vio said so and I have to trust she's right. I take a deep breath and try to push my feelings down.

"Yes." I say, although I don't really know what I'm saying yes to, and start walking again.

On the ship a package is waiting for me in the cabin. Four pairs of trousers, two black, one deep blue and one wine red, all with tail holes at the back. There's also a selection of shirts in different colours, some short sleeved and some long sleeved and a smart deep blue jacket as well. The captain sees me looking at it.

"I told Magda I thought blue was a good colour on you, it matches your hair and brings out your eyes."

I'm not sure my eyes need bringing out, but I do suit blue, he's right, although I'm just grateful to have some clothes and quickly dress.

The cabin is just as messy as it was before and the captain tells Topher that while I'm getting a tour of the ship he's to clean up and make space for me.

The Firebrat is much smaller than the coal freighter was, but every inch of space is used for something. The captain has two rooms to himself, a bedroom with a sort of tiny bathroom in a cupboard, and a study. On a table a lot of confusing looking maps are are laid out and weighted down with strangely shaped brass things covered with lines and numbers.

"I'll teach you all this someday." Quint points to the table. "But you need to learn the basics first."

Back on deck I'm introduced to some of the crew members, the two visks that aren't Zizi are called Xanathi and Vakker. Xanathi is also female and is being trained by Zizi, who seems very protective of her. Vakker is the one with the missing eye, and he does little more than grunt at me.

I meet Clyde, the cook, a dark skinned stocky man with no hair and lots of gold earrings. When he smiles he reveals a mouth full of gold teeth as well. Two older men with white hair and beards turn out to be brothers named Artie and Badger, they look very much the same except Badger's covered with inky blue tattoos. When my tour reaches the pointy end of the ship Tallis suddenly drops down from above.

"Hello again drumeri, are you ready to find out where the real work on a ship happens?" he asks.

I'm not sure what he called me, but I look to the captain for permission to go with him.

"Go on Exit, you may as well start your education now, Tallis you're to remember who he belongs to, and don't try to push him too far too fast."

"Yes Captain." He says, and swings himself up overhead, so I jump and follow him into he maze of ropes.

An hour later the ship is moving and my head hurts. Everything looks exactly the same but has a different name and I can hardly remember any of them. The whole thing just seems to be a mass of wood, rope and canvas, but it turns out each piece has a function and is not to be confused with any other.

Tallis and me are sitting on what I think is called a yard about sixty feet off the deck, we both have our tails wrapped around it for safety as up here the wind is surprisingly strong. He is squinting into the distance looking at the gods know what and I take a chance to study him, he's actually a little shorter than me, but broader in the shoulders and chest, and more muscular in general. His skin is a lot darker than mine and his hair hangs half way down his back, it's braided and held in place with a leather thong. I wonder if mine would get that long if I let it grow? His left arm is covered shoulder to wrist with a tattoo that's all one design of lines and dots, picked out in black ink. I try to work out how old he is, he has a few lines around his eyes but not much else to give it away, he must be older than the captain if he knew him as a child, so I would put him at mid forties. He finally notices I'm staring at him and turns to look at me, peering at my jaw.

"How did you get that bruise?" He asks.

"I had a fight with Topher." I confess.

"Ha! I wouldn't have thought little price Topher had it in him. When I was young I was taught there should be nothing kept on a ship that isn't useful or necessary, and he is most decidedly neither. I know the captain likes him but he's hardly the only pretty boy around. If it were up to me I'd leave him behind next time we stop in a foreign port, but I think Quint would have me keel hauled for that. I hope you gave as good as you got?"

"I elbowed him in the nose." I don't add that it was kind of accidental.

"Well done drumeri, what did he do to cause the fight?" I like the was he assumes Topher started it.

"Um...I'm not sure I should tell you."

"Was it something to do with the captain?"


"Then you tell me."

"He called me a...well a stupid monkey."

He looks at me angrily. "You should have split his head open, do you want me to do it?"

"No! The captain told him not to do it again and he also...erm...punished him."

I try to change the subject a little. "You called him prince Topher, and Captain Quint said something the other day about him being royalty, is he really a prince?"

"No, to be a prince he would have to be a direct descendent of the Surosian King Didrik, and he's some kind of cousin I think. He may be an earl or a viscount, something like that."

"How does a member of the Surosian royal family come to be a captain's pet?" I ask.

"More or less the same way you did. The captain just took a liking to him and kidnapped him off a ship we boarded."

"No one cares about me." I hope this isn't really true. "But surely the Surosians would want him back if he's part of their royal family?"

"Ah drumeri, it's not for one person to tell another's tale." I'm sure Zizi said something like that to me. "However I doubt anyone is ever going to come looking for him."

"Is he a lost soul?"

"Huh?" Tallis looks puzzled.

"The captain told me that a pirate's life attracts lost souls."

"Yes, he would put it like that, he's far too in love with the romance of this life, it's not really his fault, it's how the admiral raised him. It's more that a pirate ship is the last place you end up when you've got no where else left to run to."

"What are you running from?" I ask.

He chuckles. "Another day, drumeri."

"What does that mean, you keep calling me it?"

"It's nothing bad, if that's what you're thinking. In this language there are only a few words for the stages of life, boy, youth, man and so on, in our language there are many more. You are a drumeri, not still a child, not even really a youth any more, but not yet a full adult member of the tribe either."

He's interrupted by a series of whistles from below.

"Come on, the wind is changing direction, we've work to do."

He swings across to the next set of ropes with me following close behind.

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