Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 17

At first I think it's Topher finding a new way to annoy me, and I hit out at the hand shaking my shoulder. "Wake up drumeri, you're due on watch." A voice by my ear says, and I immediately regret hitting Tallis.

"Sorry." I say opening my eyes, I look up to see the patch of sky outside the small porthole is still black.

"You've got ten minutes, go and see Clyde, get some breakfast then meet me at the ratlines by the aft mast."

Gods, which one is the aft mast?

When he's gone I quickly find my clothes and start to pull them on, Topher rolls over and looks at me with half closed eyes.

"You work me up." He mumbles crossly.

"No, Tallis woke you up waking me up." I point out.

"Fucking monkeys." He says pulling the blankets over his head.

"At least we work, not like certain moody spoilt brats."

I'm either getting used to him or it's too early in the morning to care, because I'm more amused than annoyed, perhaps knowing more about him makes it easier not to be offended.

I'm chewing on a slice of bread and jam when I find Tallis at the bottom of the ratlines. "When you're on first watch you should get up in time to have a proper breakfast, it's a long haul to lunch."

I am about to protest I didn't know I was suppose to be on first watch, or even what time it started, but he disappears rapidly up the rigging and I have no choice to do anything but follow him.

I spend another exhausting few hours following him around. There seem to be no end of ropes that need pulling, tying, cutting or splicing. We end up both hanging upside-down side by side by our tales doing something he insists is called "cuntsplicing". As we finish up the sun has finally risen, and he peers at my neck and tuts at me.

"I see the captain got his hands on you." He says disapprovingly.

I shrug the best I can upside-down.

He tuts again, shakes his head then speaks. "All right drumeri, we're done." He then uncurls his tail and drops down onto the yard below, catching it with his hands and flipping himself into a sitting position. I do the same and join him, shaking my head to try and get rid of the pounding feeling that being upside-down for so long has caused.

"You're not about to black out on me are you?" He asks, seeing me do this.

"Nah, I'm fine." I say.

"When I was a child we used to play a game that involved hanging upside-down as long as you could, last one left was the winner. We stopped after a cousin of mine fainted, fell out of the tree, broke his neck and died."

I look at him appalled.

"Point being, if you start to feel dizzy, always right yourself."

I think I could have worked that one out myself.

"Did you grow up with other echobacks?" I ask, trying to picture a tree full of children hanging by their tails.

"I was born in the Rhea basin forest, I didn't even see a human until I was about your age."

"Are there no humans in the forest?"

"There are now, once they discovered that a particular tree sap could be made into rubber there was no stopping them. After that they realised the ancient trees made for good strong timbers, and if they dug down there was metal ore in the ground. The deep forest is still mostly just us, but every year the humans get further and further in."

"It's kind of the same for me, but the other way around, you're the first other echoback I've ever met."

"How can that be?" He asks, so I explain my childhood to him.

"No wonder you don't speak our language, I thought you must have lazy parents who didn't bother to teach you."

"No, no parents at all. I don't really know much about echobacks except I am one."

"Well drumeri, for a start echoback is a human word, do you know why they call us that?"

"No." I say, although I've always wondered.

"The story goes that many, many years ago, when the first humans made it far enough into the forest to see us they tried to shout out to us among the trees, and everything they said was echoed back to them. That's why."

"So what do we call ourselves?" I ask.

"There's no one word, you're named for your family, your tribe, your region."

Which means I don't have a name in the echoback language.

A whistle comes suddenly from below, and Tallis is off, swinging across the spars and rigging with me behind him.

"Slight change of course." He explains when we've finished and things are quiet again.

"Where are we going?" I realise I don't actually know.

"Up towards a small island called Maston, it's owner owes our paymasters a considerable debt. As far as I know we are to recover the money owed or take the life of the debtor."

"Is that the sort of thing pirates normally do, I thought pirates robbed boats at sea?" I ask.

"These days we do what the cartel pays us to do, and nothing more. Sometimes it's true pirating, other times they use us more like hired muscle or a delivery service. This life is not what it was when I was young." He grumbles.

So they are in the pocket of the cartel! I have to remember that's what I was sent out here to discover.

Another whistle sounds and he's off again, with me leaping along in his wake.

I'm sitting on a coil of rope in the shade of a sail eating a plate of Clyde's coconut goat curry. It tastes very good, although I'm so hungry right now I could happily eat an orphanage mystery meat pie, complete with gristle. I discovered from the cook that the fried bananas aren't actually bananas at all but something called plantains that look like large bananas but are not sweet. He warned me not to eat them raw because they taste foul that way. He also gave me a handful of candied nuts for after, I like Clyde. I watch the goings on of the crew as I finish up the plate, I'm starting to understand how their actions fit together to keep the ship moving, and what at first seemed like chaos to me is becoming a pattern.

Tallis is off watch now and a couple of the human crew members are aloft to take his place. They move slowly up the ratlines compared to us and I remember Captain Hyde from the freighter saying something to me about echobacks making good sailors, I understand what he meant now. I eat the nuts quickly, and when I'm done I look up to see the captain crossing the deck toward me. It's the first time I've seen him since we had sex yesterday, and I find myself trying not to grin at him. He's wearing a cream coloured linen shirt that suits his skin tone, his hair is bound back in it's usual black ribbon and if anything he looks better than ever.

He comes over sits beside me and discreetly tucks his arm around me. "How does your skin feel today?" He asks, and I assume he means the sunburn, not the trail of bites he's left across my neck, shoulders and chest.

"It was feeling better, but being aloft all morning made it worse again. I'm going to put some more of your green jelly on it, but I wanted to eat first."

He laughs. "It's called aloe, if you need any more, just ask."

"I still have plenty left, perhaps you could help me put it on again?" I ask hopefully.

He looks at me with an amused expression. "That is very tempting." He slides his hand under my shirt and strokes my back. "But I can't just disappear for the whole afternoon, Zizi would undoubtedly come looking for me, and she has no idea about privacy, or when a person doesn't want to be disturbed, and I'd most likely make you late for your next watch."

"That's four hours away." I point out.

"Yes." He grins at me. "I want next time to be more than just a quick tumble, I'm going to take my time with you, but not until we are back home."


"Have you seen Topher today?" He asks, changing the subject.

"He swore at me early this morning after Tallis woke us both up, but not since then. Why?"

"He's sulking because I had you rather then him yesterday, I don't think he's left the cabin all morning, would you take him some food?"

"I do know he's not happy about that, he made his feelings very clear last night. Do I have to? He's only going to be rude to me again."

"Yes, you do. He's skinny enough as it is, without missing meals."

"Maybe he should work on the ship to give him an appetite?" I suggest.

The captain sighs and shakes his head. "Don't think I haven't tried."

Quint stands up, beckons for me to follow him and leads me into one of the entrance ways to below decks. He pushes me against the wall kisses me hard, puts his hand behind my back to stroke my tail, and somehow my leg ends up wrapped around his thigh.

His hand moves to my tail's underside and I groan into the kiss, then pull away. "Please don't do that unless you're going to go further." I say.

"Sorry, knowing how much you like to be touched there makes it irresistible."

He kisses me again, softly this time, then looks down. "I'm going now before I end up with you in my bed and damn the consequences. Don't forget to take some lunch to Topher."

With that he heads out of the doorway across the deck. I stand there for a while, and focus my mind on trying to remember how to tie a bowline knot until my erection goes away and I can leave without embarrassment.

I take my plate back to the galley and ask Clyde for another helping. Unlike the freighter the galley here is just a kitchen, you eat your food in your quarters, or on deck, or wherever you can find to sit.

The bald man grins at me showing a mouthful of gold. "That good was it? I gave you a big helping last time."

"It was good, but this ones not for me, the captain wants me to take some to Topher."

"What's wrong with him now, legs not working is it?" He complains.

I don't really want to get into why he's sulking in the cabin so I just give Clyde a "who knows" shrug.

"There you go son." He says passing me the curry. "Just make sure that the lazy little bugger brings the plate back."

"Will do." I say as I head off.

In the cabin Topher is lying on his front reading, when I open the door he looks round."What do you want?" He asks none too politely.

"The captain asked me to bring you some food." I say holding the plate out.

"Don't want it." He goes back to his book.

I put it on the floor by his head and sit down on my bunk. "Makes no difference to me, he just told me to bring it to you, not force you to eat it. Whatever you do Clyde wants the plate back though."

He peers over the side at it. "Is it coconut goat curry?" He asks.

"Yep." I swear I can hear his stomach rumble. He sits up, grabs the plate and begins to eat, I try to hide my smile.

"You could have brought some wine as well." He says between mouthfuls.

"Sorry, your highness." I say, and he glares at me.

"You look dirty and sunburned again, and your feet are disgusting." He points out, chewing.

"I could do with a bath." I admit. "All I've managed to do recently is wash in cold water."

"You'll not get one until we get back to land, so until then I'm stuck with a filthy bunkmate."

I nearly point out that it's easy to stay clean when you just lie about all day, but he seems to have stopped sulking and I don't want to set him off again.

I yawn and lie back on the bed, stretching my arms above my head. My shirt rides up and he looks at my piercing.

"You really are here to stay aren't you?" He says quietly.

I don't know how to reply to this, by now Vio will be on her way back to Parnell to deliver the news that I've been kidnapped, and the mission was never completed. What happens next is up to Vin and Zale. I stare at the ceiling and think, home feels very distant and I wonder if I'll ever see it again.

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