Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 19

The screams from the amputation can be heard throughout the whole ship. I'm in one of the lower parts of the rigging when it starts, but the noise sends me further up until the wind drowns it out. It seems to have got even colder up here and the clouds have thickened, I think Tallis may be right about a storm coming.

It's starting to get dark and I'm exhausted, I find a spar to sit on, wrap my tail around it, lean back against the mast and close my eyes. Before long I start to doze and am woken with a start by Tallis shouting at me.

"Are you trying to kill yourself? We don't need any more casualties on the ship today."

I open my eyes and look at him. "I wasn't going to fall off." I protest.

"How do you propose to stop yourself when you're fast asleep? If you need to sleep go to your cabin, you should have gone off watch an hour ago as it is."

"So should you." I point out

"And I'm about to, enough of the others are now rested and able to take over."

We climb down and I gratefully go and collapse in bed, there's no sign of Topher, although he has lit the lamp so he can't have been gone long. Even though I feel as tired as I ever have in my life I find it hard to sleep deeply. I dream of Xanathi covered in blood, who somehow becomes me covered in blood with my tail chopped off, and I keep waking with my heart thumping in my chest and a film of sweat over my body.

I don't notice Topher coming back in, but I wake from yet another bad dream and see him on the bed opposite me, lying still staring at the ceiling.

The movement of the ship feels to be much greater than normal, the lantern swings back and forth making wild shadows on the walls and loose items are sliding about on the floor. I sit up and rub my face, noticing how the texture of my hands has changed in the few days I've been working on the ship.

"Xanathi died." He says quietly. Although it was clear that there was almost no hope for her, hearing that her life has ended is still shocking. I lean back against the cabin wall and watch the constantly changing shadows.

"If this gets worse we'll need to put that out, lanterns are a fire risk in a storm." Topher says, seeing me looking at it.

"Is this normal, the ship moving like this?" I ask.

"This is nothing, we were in a storm a couple of months ago where the whole ship was being lifted up by waves then dropping off the crest almost straight down, it's called pitching. I thought we were all going to die that night, but the captain got us through it."

I don't like the sound of that at all.

"A few years ago Captain Tobias lost a ship to a storm, but he lived, worse luck."

"Is he really that bad?"

"Yes, he hates Captain Quint because the Admiral likes him better and gave him The Firebrat, he doesn't even pretend to be polite, he calls me a faggot and the captain a pervert, and he smells. He's a cunt."

To try and change the subject I ask him what the Admiral is like, before he can answer the ship lurches sideways and I'm thrown my bed onto the floor.

"Shit!" I exclaim from among the stuff that's escaped from under the beds.

"That's called rolling." Topher says watching me untangle myself and get back up. "If it goes on for long enough everyone ends up puking."

"It sounds lovely." I mutter, brushing dust off my tail and getting back into bed.

The ship gives out a loud creak, and it sounds like it could fall apart at any moment, I comment on this to Topher.

"No." He says airily. "It just does that in bad weather."

I'm not reassured.

The ship rolls again, this time I hold on but Topher ends up hitting the wall beside his bed.

"Ouch, fuck." He complains, cupping his nose. "It only just got better from when you broke it."

"I didn't break it." I sigh. "Let me look." He takes his hand away. "It's not even bleeding."

"Well it hurts." He says, carefully touching it. "You do realise it set crooked don't you?"

"It wasn't broken, and it looks exactly the same as it did before." It really does and I'm glad, some people suit things like broken noses but with Topher's pretty features it would look wrong.

For the next hour we lie awake in the dark as Topher has put the oil lantern out. As we hold onto our beds, the ship's movements become more extreme and the creaking grows louder. Suddenly the door opens and Tallis comes in, he's soaking wet, water drips off him and pools at his bare feet.

"Drumeri, I need you aloft now!"

I jump out of bed and pull my clothes on as fast as I can. On deck rain is hammering down from the black sky and the sea is spraying over the side of the ship until it's impossible to tell if the water is coming from up or down. The wind is so strong that it makes simply walking difficult, the crew are struggling to keep the ship under control, slipping around on the soaking deck and fighting to stay upright. There is very little light, only two lanterns are still lit, and between the constant stream of water and the darkness even I'm finding it hard to see. I try to keep sight of Tallis among the chaos as he begins to ascend the ratlines with a coil of rope looped around his body. We move much slower than normal, being as cautious as the human crew normally are up here. I can't hear a thing over the wind and it's all I can do to keep up with him, he stops at about forty foot, and points upwards to where one of the yards is swinging freely.

"The running ropes split, we need to replace it before more damage is done." He shouts into my ear.

The static lines are covered in tar to make them waterproof, but this also means when they get wet they become slick and more than once I find myself slipping as I make my way toward the loose yard.

"We need to get the split line out first." Tallis shouts as he pulls the coil of rope from around his body and secures it to the mast. I inch my way carefully over to the broken rope that's whipping around in the darkness overhead, holding on the best I can in the driving wind and rain. When the ship suddenly pitches forward I'm thrown off balance, I just manage to grab a line as I fall, and I feel my shoulder jar painfully as I come to a stop.

"Drumeri!" Tallis shouts as he sees me drop. I climb back up with my shoulder feeling as if it's on fire, all I can do is ignore it and carry on. This time I make it over to the split rope, catch hold of it and work it out from the pulley block. I try to coil it up neatly as I go, but the soaking hemp is heavy and awkward to handle, especially with my shoulder throbbing, and find myself dropping it, and it gets caught by the wind and somehow becomes completely wrapped around my legs and tail until I'm tied to the yard and can't move.

"Help!" I shout at Tallis, who edges himself over to me and pulls a folding knife out of his pocket. He saws through the rope in several places, unfortunately at one point his hand slips with the movement of the ship and he slices into my tail, and I can see blood oozing out, although it's instantly washed away by the rain.

"Sorry." He apologises loudly over the wind.

Once he's freed me he goes to fetch the new coil of rope. "I'd better do this." He yells looking at my tail. The storm seems to be easing off a bit by now, the rain is not quite so heavy and The Firebrat's movements feel less extreme, the sky is also starting to lighten, it must be nearly dawn. I watch as he pulls himself onto the yard and works the new rope through the block, clinging onto the moving pole with his tail and legs. Once he's succeeded he drops back down, brining the slack with him.

"We just need to get this to the deck without it becoming snagged or tangled now." He says.

We both descend, threading the rope around the rest of the rigging to make sure it can run free. About half way down we are feeding the lines through a gap, me above and Tallis below, when the ship rolls causing him to loose his footing this time, and fall. Unfortunately for me he keeps hold of the line as he drops, it pulls out of my hands, but my arm becomes trapped between it and a spar, and by the time he's caught hold of something to break his fall I have a long rope burn across the inside of my arm.

I catch up to him again to check he's all right. "I'm fine drumeri, you seem to be getting the worse of it tonight." He says looking at my arm.

"This morning now." I point to the rapidly lightening sky.

"Yes, true. I think the storm has almost blown itself out, by midday it should be clear and calm."

On deck he passes the end of the rope to another member of the crew who thanks him and takes it off to secure it. I walk towards the front of the ship with the thought of finding somewhere to sit down to examine my injuries, and I find myself faced with the strange sight of Zizi untying the captain from the mast closest to the wheel, I look at Tallis questioningly.

"In a bad storm it's near impossible to stay standing upright at the wheel, but someone needs to be on it all the same. Normally the captain or the first mate ties on like that, of course it does mean that if the ship goes down they are a guaranteed goner. When Tobias lost a ship a few years back there were questions asked because both him and Rufus, his first mate, came back alive. It seems they tied on another crew member." His tone of voice lets me know what he thinks about that.

I sit down on a storage locker and realise that I am in quite a lot of pain. My tail is still bleeding and as the rain has become nothing more than a heavy drizzle the blood is no longer washing away, but running down it. The cut is about half way up on the top side, and Tallis peers at it.

"I think that might scar." He says, then takes his sodden shirt off and tears a strip from the bottom and hands it to me. "Tie that around tight, that should it stop soon."

I do as he suggests, the material quickly turns red, but it does seem to slow the bleeding somewhat.

The skin on my left forearm is torn and blistered from the rope burn, I'm prodding gently at it when the captain appears by us, Zizi having taken over the wheel. He looks from Tallis to me, and back again.

"Tallis." He says staring at him with narrowed eyes. "Did you take him aloft in the storm?"

"Yes Captain." He replies evenly.

"And is that why he's covered in blood and rope burns?" He asks quietly.

"We needed to replace a split line, in bad weather things happen. It's nothing that won't heal."

They are both facing one another, Tallis pulled up to his full hight, which is about a foot shorter than the captain.

"You are capable of replacing a split line on your own, even in a storm, I've seen you do it before. You had no reason to take him up there. I thought my orders regarding Exit were very clear, you train him, but he belongs to me. I told you not to push him too fast, would you have taken any other boy who had been on the ship less than a week aloft in those circumstances?"

He's not speaking loudly but there's no mistaking his anger. "Captain, I'm fine." I say to try and calm things down.

"Exit, shut up, this between Tallis and me." Quint says, never dropping his gaze from Tallis face.

"No captain, I wouldn't, not unless he was an echoback." Tallis replies evenly.

"So do you think just because you happen to be the same species as him it gives you liberty to disregard my orders?"

"I did what I thought was right." He says firmly.

"There has been too much blood and life lost on this trip, and you sought to add to it by directly contradicting everything I asked of you. I have had enough of you thinking that my commands don't apply to you. Once the ship is back in order you will report to the fore mast for ten lashes of the cat."

I don't know what the cat is, but it doesn't sound like anything good.

"Yes Captain." Tallis says flatly.

"Captain please..." I begin, but am interrupted by Tallis

"Stop. Don't plead on my behalf, Captain Quint has handed down a punishment, and I will take it."

I want to protest how unfair this all seems but I doubt it would go down well with either of them.

The captain turns to me. "Go away and clean up." He orders, and I leave quickly.

In the cabin Topher is lying on his bed, when he sees me he sits up and stares. "You look dreadful." He says.

"Thank you, is there a towel in here?" He pulls one out from under his bed and hands it to me, I strip off and dry myself, I guess I no longer need to worry about not having had a bath in days.

"What's the cat?" I say as I rub the towel over my hair.

"You're getting the cat?" He asks wide eyed.

"No, not me, Tallis. The captain is angry with him for taking me aloft during the storm."

"It's a kind of really big whip, it's full name is cat 'o' nine-tails because it has nine separate strands, and they are all knotted so it really fucking hurts."

"Have you ever been hit with it?"

"No, but I've seen it done, we all have to watch when someone gets the cat."

"Shit, that sound really horrible." I'm dry now and am looking for another set of clean clothes.

"Yes, it is. But it's a million times better than being keel hauled."

"What's that?" I ask, untying the blooded strip of Tallis shirt from around the cut on my tail before I get dressed.

"Getting dragged under the the ship on a rope."

I stare at him. "But wouldn't that kill you?"

"Not always, although the one time I saw it done the man died, the captain caught him high at the wheel, apparently that's one of the worse things a sailor can do, you could sink the ship that way and the punishment is always severe. Do you want a proper bandage for that?" He indicates my tail. "I've got one somewhere."

"Um, yes please." He's being unusually nice. He passes me the bandage and while I'm wrapping it around the wound he asks what happened to me, so I explain.

"See, that's what you get for being a monkey." He says when I've finished.

"How many times do I have to say this, I AM NOT A MONKEY!"

He just grins at me, and things are back to normal, or as normal as they ever get.

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