Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 15

By the time my watch with Tallis is finished I'm exhausted. My hands are blistered from the ropes, all my muscles ache and my skin feels burned from the sun and wind.

"Not too bad drumeri." He says to me as we descend. "You need to toughen up, but you show promise."

I'll never complain about making tea for Vio again, this is proper hard work. I limp back to the cabin needing to lie down, not caring about anything else. Topher has actually tided up, it seems mostly by by stuffing everything under the beds, but it's good enough and I collapse onto mine, ignoring him lying reading on the other one.

"Your feet are really dirty." He says to me after a couple of minutes.

"So what." I groan, in no mood for him.

"Just saying. You should wear shoes."

"You can't climb in shoes, not properly."

He goes silent and I find myself drifting off to sleep, until he starts again.

"You kind of look a bit red."

"I'm sunburned." I say in frustration.

"I don't get sunburned." He states.

"Well of course you don't, you're practically jet black."

"I'm blue!" He protests confusingly.

I give up trying to sleep and sit up. "What? You're not blue, no one's blue. Not even visks come in blue."

"I am Surosian, and Surosians are blue."

"I don't fucking care what colour you think you are, will you shut up, I need some rest." I lie back down again.

Once again I'm almost asleep when he speaks again. "Are you hungry?"

"Argh!" I reach under the bed and throw the first thing I grab at him, fortunately it's a pair of balled up socks.

"I only asked if you were hungry." he sulks. "I was going to offer to get you some food."

"Why, so you can poison it?"

"The captain wants me to be nicer to you, so I'm trying to be nicer." He shrugs.

I'm not sure a trying to be nice Topher is any easier to deal with than a grumpy one.

"Well." He tries again. "Do you want some food or what?"

"If it will get you shut up, then yes."

He leaves the cabin and I look at my sunburn, I have a very clear line on my upper arms where my shirt sleeves stop. My skin's not that light but I have a real look of red about me. He returns all too quickly with a plate of food and a bottle of wine. The smell coming from the plate makes me realise that I am actually hungry.

"It's salt fish stew." He says handing it to me. I take it from him and he rummages around under his bed until he finds two mismatched wine glasses. He pours some into both of them and passes one to me.

"What was it like working with Tallis?" He asks.

I'm too intent on eating to answer him straight away, but after a few mouthfuls I mange it. "Tiring, but sort of interesting. There's a lot to learn."

"If I tried to climb up there I'd fall out and die." He proclaims.

"You probably wouldn't." I say chewing.

"I am just not designed for manual labour." He's quite small and skinny so he may have a point, but I'm shorter than him, and not that much more muscular, which I point out.

"Yes, but you're a mon...an echoback, your body is meant to climb things."

"Well, what are you designed for?" I ask.

"Ruling, having servants, holding parties, that sort of thing."

Is he being serious?

"I don't really see how you can do any of those things at the moment." I can't keep a touch of sarcasm out of my voice, but he doesn't seem to notice. While I scrape up the last of my food he sighs loudly.

"No, this is not the life I was born to."

Curiosity overcomes me. "How did you end up in this life? The others tell me you're royalty."

"Yes." He smiles. "I am, I'm second cousin to King Didrik the third of Surosa."

He's clearly very proud of this.

"Don't your family mind that you're here?"

"No, I don't think they care."

"Not even your parents?" I enquire.

"My parents are dead." He takes long drink of wine and pours himself another glass.

"I'm sorry." I say.

"No you're not, it's your fucking country's fault."

"I am sorry." I persist. "I never knew my parents, but I imagine it must be hard to lose them."

"My father killed himself."

"Oh." I really don't know what to say to this, I assumed he died fighting the war.

"He took his rifle, went off into the land behind our mansion and blew his brains out."

"Why?" I blurt out, and Topher looks at me sideways.

"When we discovered that your country was mining ore on the Quillians, and therefore taking what was rightfully ours, we politely asked you to leave, when you refused we had no choice but to evict your workers by force."

"The Boswell's belong to the Twin Islands, they always have, you invaded." I protest.

"They are thirty miles off the Surosian coast, they are many thousands of miles from you, how can that be? Anyway, I am telling you why my father killed himself, so shut up."

Feeling guilty I do.

"Our army was not large, and it was quickly realised we would need more men, as your country sent the whole of your army out there. The call went out for each town and village to raise up it's own militia, and my father, as the local earl, led the men of our town. He put all our family's money into it on the promise that it would be repaid and more once we had routed you and set up our own mines. My father bought uniforms and weapons for our towns men, and they sailed to war on their fishing boats, I come from a coastal town. Almost every one of them was slaughtered. Your navy turned their guns on unarmed boats and sank them. Those that survived were shot when they reached the shore. My father only lived because he was travelling with some other nobles in a ship a little way behind and they were able to turn back before the carnage. Back home the townsfolk turned on him, they had not only lost their fathers, husbands and sons but also their livelihoods with the boats gone. They attacked our home and demanded money to replace what had gone, but we had none left. My father went to the king to beg for help, but we were hardly the only family this had happened to, and all the country's funds were tied up in the war so he came away empty handed. That was when he took the cowards way out. My younger sister found him with his brains splattered across a tree."

"What happened next?" I ask in a whisper.

"Our house was set on fire and my mother, two sisters and I fled. We lived with various relatives, but things were bad all over. So many men had been killed there was hardly anyone left to fish or work the farms and fields and food was scarce. Everywhere the houses of the rich were being looted and we had to run away in the night many times. My little sister was killed in one attack, an old woman hit her around the head with a table leg and broke her skull. She was nine years old."

I want to ask him to stop, but if he lived through this I can listen to it.

"We eventually moved to the city, my elder sister was claimed by a distant relative as a bride, and although he was three times her age she was grateful. He didn't want me or my mother to stay with them however, he just saw us as extra mouths to feed. The two of us lived in one rented room, my mother sold the last of our possessions, then she sold the only thing she had left, herself. The war had been lost by now and things got worse, people blamed the king for what had happened to the country, and droughts had made the food shortages worse. My mother started drinking more and making less money, so I tried to find work. In the city there were still a few places the rich felt safe, and because I spoke the right way I managed to get a job as a waiter in a private gentlemen's club. I hated it, I don't like being told what to do."

That doesn't surprise me.

"I soon discovered that I could make money on the side by doing favours for some of the members."

"Do you mean sex?" I ask.

"Of course, what do you think I mean, that I was running errands?"

"How old were you?"

"Fourteen, fifteen." He shrugs. "After a while one of them offered me a position on his private ship as a cabin steward, well that's what he called it. At first I turned him down because of my mother. She was ill by then, drinking a lot but I think she had something else as well. She was just bones, her skin was grey and her eyes went a horrible yellow, sort of like yours."

I keep quiet, now is not the moment to complain at him.

"Obviously she died in the end, and the job offer was still open so I went, I had nothing left to keep me in the city. About a year ago the ship I worked on was boarded by pirates, and the rest you know."

I just look at him, he seems completely calm, but he pours himself another glass of wine.

"So you see, all the Twin Islands fault." He says after taking a large gulp.

"I didn't know that happened, that Surosa fell apart after the war like that." I say.

"We did not fall apart." He says firmly.

"How old are you now?" I ask to change the subject.

"I just turned seventeen a few weeks back, the captain gave me this." He indicates a silver chain around his neck. A knock at the door stops him from saying anything more and Xanathi's head appears round the door frame.

"Captain Quint wants to see Exit in his cabin." She says.

I stand up to go and look at Topher, he's pouring the last of the wine into his glass and finding his place in his book, seemingly unconcerned by our conversation.

The captain wants to know how my watch with Tallis went. "Fine." I tell him. "I can't remember any of the names for the parts of the ship though."

"Don't worry about it, that takes time. Even Tallis was wet behind the ears once, not that he'd like anyone to think that though." He looks me up and down. "You seem a bit sunburned."

"I am, my skin feels tight." I say rubbing my arms.

"By rights you should be back on watch in another two hours, but as it's your first time I won't send you back today."

"Thank you." I say gratefully.

"I have got something that will help your skin though." He says disappearing into the bedroom. He comes back out with a clear glass bottle full of what looks like green jelly, which he tip some of out onto his hand.

"Take your shirt off." he orders.

The green stuff smells strange, but not unpleasant, and it feels very cool against my skin. He rubs it onto my arms looking at the line where the colour changes.

"You've really gone quite red."

"Yeah." I say, then remember something. "Why does Topher think he's blue?"

He laughs. "Surosian blue you mean?" He puts some of the jelly on my face. "Well they are very dark and in the right sort of light they do look kind of blueish."

He's rubbing the stuff on my chest now. I had my shirt buttoned up and didn't get the sun there, but I'm not complaining.

"But he's not really blue." I persist.

"No, but they've decided they are and that's that. They're odd people Surosians, stubborn, they'd argue night was day. That's why they took losing the war so hard."

He look at my piercing. "Have you cleaned that today?" He asks.

"No, I forgot." I mumble. He sighs and goes back into the bedroom for some alcohol and cotton wool.

"You need to keep it clean or it'll get infected, and infection is not a good thing when we are out at sea." He lectures me while swabbing it.

"Topher told me what happened to his family." I say to try and stop him telling me off.

"It's not a pretty story is it?"

"Is it all true?" I ask.

"Yes. He's a great complainer and exaggerator over small things, but when it comes to the big ones he just shrugs them off."

"My tail got sunburned too." I turn round and show him.

"Ah yes, so it did."

He pours more of the green jelly onto his hands and begins to rub it in. I lift my tail to give him better access and can't help making letting out a small groan when his fingers reach the base.

"You stopped." I grumble when he does just that.

"I've run out of burnt bits." He points out. "You can go back and rest now if you want, send Topher over to see me please."

I turn round and look at him crossly. "Why?" I demand.

"I don't need to explain myself to you." He retorts.

"What's wrong with me?" I question him.

He gives me a puzzled frown. "I don't know what you mean, there's nothing wrong with you apart from a bit of sunburn."

"No." I say in frustration. "Why Topher not me? You keep playing with me, making me think you want more, then bedding him."

"Oh." He now looks amused.

"I mean that's what I'm here for isn't it?"

"I thought you might need a bit of time to get used to everything, I wanted you to be willing, I don't take anyone by force. I was planning to wait until we got back then seduce you properly."

"I see, I'm sorry." I feel a bit embarrassed now.

"Don't be sorry." He says closing the gap between us and cupping my chin. "I'll just have to bring my plans forward a bit."

He leans in and kisses me.

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