Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 20

Even Topher helps with getting the ship back in order, the deck is covered debris including quite a few dead fish. Things are broken and out of place, and with a number of the crew still injured from the fight on the island, along with some fresh injuries from the night's storm it's decided that the best thing to do is drop anchor until we are in a fit state to sail again. As Tallis predicted the sky is now clear and the wind is no stronger than the usual constant breeze.

The atmosphere on the ship is strange, it's clear Zizi is trying her best to act normally and resume control as first mate, but she's finding it hard to keep her temper and more than one crew member gets a dressing down from her, so I'm worried when she grabs me and asks me to help her retie some of the lines that have loosened in the storm. With her on deck and me perched about ten foot above we work in silence, I don't want to say anything to annoy her and she doesn't seem to be in a talkative mood. Once we've started the second set she finally speaks.

"Xanathi wasn't much older than you." She says quietly

I don't really know what to reply to this so I carry on with my work.

"I found her sleeping rough in Kipp, she was so thin I could see her bones, and her scales were flaking off. I took her for a hot meal, I couldn't leave her like that, and when she told me her family had thrown her out as she was the wrong colour and therefore no one would marry her and she was a burden on them, I knew I had to do more than just feed her. It was the same for me you see."

She says all this softly, almost to herself, and I have to strain to hear her.

"I've never really understood the whole visk caste thing." I say when she seems to have stopped talking.

"It's complicated, but to put it very simply, the greener you are the "better" you're perceived to be. My family are all green, my mother is what's known as pure emerald, it's the best, most refined colour there is, not a single scale of anything other than shimmering, vibrant green. There were three of us in my clutch, my two siblings were the right colour, I was not. It happens sometimes, no one knows why. I was more or less expected to be a servant to the rest of the family, that's the normal way of things in these situations, but Xanathi's family were too ashamed of her even to do that. They tried to marry her off but weren't willing to offer any dowry, so there were no takers, and in the end they just put her out on the street."

"How can the colour you are matter so much?" I ask, it's always seemed very strange to me.

"You're not visk, you wouldn't understand." She mutters. She's right, I don't understand.

We move further down the ship to carry on working, and it's a while before she speaks again.

"Quint wants to bury her at sea, says we can't keep a body on board until we make it back to Nightport, but she needs to be cremated, it's the visk way. If her body is not burned, her soul can't move on." Zizzi kicks the nearest mast in anger.

"Can't we cremate her on the ship?" I ask.

"For fucks sake, it's made of wood, what do you think? Do you propose we chop her up and toss her into Clyde's cook fire?" She snaps at me, and we work in silence again until the job is done.

I'm trying to untangle a pile of rope that's become wound around itself when I see the captain heading for his cabin. I want to talk to him alone, so I stop and follow him, once he's gone inside I knock on the door.

"Enter." He shouts from inside.

He's sat at the chart table writing something in a large book, when he sees it's me he tells me to sit down.

"How are your injuries?" He asks.

"All right, my shoulder hurts the most, but it's better than it was."

"Good." He smiles at me, and I notice how tired he looks.

"Captain." I begin. "Please don't punish Tallis, he only took me up there to help him."

"Exit, do you want a taste of the cat as well?" He says harshly.

"No." I most certainly don't.

"Then don't ask me that again, and Tallis wouldn't thank you for interceding on his behalf either. It would be shaming for him to have you persuade me to change his punishment to a lesser one."

I think I understand. I push on with my second request. "Zizi is really angry you won't let her take Xanathi's body back home to burn it, she says the soul can't move on if she's buried at sea."

He sighs. "I know, she made her feelings very clear, and I do understand that she feels responsible for Xanathi and wants to give her a proper visk funeral, but it's impractical. The body is in a bad shape already, the storm didn't help and it's starting to stink out the cargo deck. I'm not being held ransom to the visk religion." He rubs his hands over his face.

I have an idea. "Is there somewhere we can stop and let her do it, another island or something?"

Quint looks at me thoughtfully. "Maybe." He stands up and moves his book off the table, I stand too so I can see what he's doing. "We're more or less here." He points to an area on the map. There's a small group of islands here." He finger moves to some dots to the right. "They're just rocks covered in bird shit, but maybe her and Vakker could row over to them with the body and set light to it."

I feel pleased, it's not often I have ideas other people think are any good. He walks to my side of the table and stands behind me, wrapping his arms around me he kisses my temple then bites the top of my ear, and despite my tiredness and aches my body starts to respond and I lean back into him, tilting my head to give him better access.

"When we get home I'm going to take full advantage of you." He says quietly into my ear, following this up by sucking on it's lobe, which makes me shiver.

"I'm quite happy to be taken advantage of now." I murmur.

"Unfortunately I have much less pleasant things things to attend to, now the ship is back to a reasonable condition I need to oversee Tallis' punishment."

"Oh, yes." I say stepping away from him.

"Everyone needs to witness it, and that includes you. No hiding in the cabin, Tallis would expect you to be there."

"Yes Captain." I mutter as I head for the door.

The crew are all gathered on deck as Tallis is led towards the fore mast by Zizi. His shirt has been removed to reveal a torso of knotted muscle, and his hands are bound behind his back.

Once he reaches the mast his hands are briefly untied and placed either side of the thick wooden pole, then retied with the rope run around the mast, leaving his back uncovered, Zizi also places his braid in front of his shoulder to keep it clear. The position he is now in looks very uncomfortable as he is forced to lean forward and stand with his legs apart to keep his balance.

One of the crew is carrying a large black cloth bag, and once Tallis is secured he passes it to Zizi, she opens it and draws out the cat 'o' nine-tails. When I see it I have to stifle a gasp, it's as long as my tail, and each of its nine strands are knotted a half dozen times to create a cruelly painful looking whip.

"Who has the drinking water?" Zizi asks loudly, and Clyde steps forward with a pitcher and a glass, she nods to acknowledge him.

She then turns to Quint who has changed into a clean white shirt and and black trousers, his hair neatly tied back. Even with the horror of what is about to happen I can't help thinking how good he looks.

"How many Captain Quint?" She asks him.

"Ten lashes First Mate Zizi, thank you."

She turns around to face Tallis' back. "Able Seaman Tallis, you have been handed down ten lashes of the cat, are you ready for me to begin?"

"Yes First Mate." He announces without emotion.

As she draws back her arm I want to turn away, but I see the captain glance at me and shake his head as if reading my mind.

The first strike hits his back hard with a snapping sound, I see him tense but he stays silent.

"One." Zizi says, and I notice blood welling in the stripes the whip has left.

Zizi pulls back her arm again, and this time seems to strike even harder. "Two." She calls out, and I'm aware that some of the crew are muttering to one another around me, and I see blood flowing freely down Tallis back.

Zizi is drawing her arm back for the third time when the captain strides over and grabs her wrist to stop her striking. He leans in and says something too quietly for me to hear into the small indent in the side of her head that I guess is a visks ear. She gives him a long look but eventually says "Understood captain."

"Able Seaman Tallis, would you like some water?" She asks him after a moment.

"No, just get on with it." He replies in a strained voice.

She lashes him again, but this time she doesn't seem to put so much force behind it, and I don't see any extra blood when she pulls the whip back. "Three." She counts.

When she gets to five she stops and offers him water again, and this time he accepts. Clyde pours out a glass, and Tallis turns his head and allows the cook to put it to his lips, once he has taken a deep gulp he turns his head back, and Zizi gives him strikes six and seven.

Now he can't seem to keep silent any more and each lash brings a strangled grunt. On the count of eight his legs give way from underneath him, he ends up kneeling on the deck and I can hear him panting for breath. I desperately want to ask the captain to make this stop and I look at him, he catches my eye, but turns back to watch straight away.

Clyde is giving Tallis another glass of water, once he has finished drinking two of the crew pull him back to his feet and Zizi dishes out the next strike.

"Nine." She calls, Tallis looks as if he's about to collapse again, but he keeps upright somehow. His back is a mass of reddened welts smeared with blood, and I can only imagine the sort of pain he must be in.

When she counts the final lash everyone seems to breath out at once, and I suddenly realise I've been gripping the end of my tail hard enough to leave bruises the whole time.

Zizi is passed what looks like a bucket of seawater and she tips it over his back, which makes him throw back his head and gasp. She then unties his hands and helps him stand upright carefully. For a moment he leans against the mast, then he turns around to face her and to my surprise they shake hands, and he pats her on the arm.

The crew disperse and I step forward to follow Tallis as he walks slowly towards his quarters, but am stopped by a hand on my shoulder.

"Leave him." The captain says. "He'll need some time alone now and won't want you around." I suppose not, but I'm worried about him.

"He'll be fine, it's not the first time he's had the cat, and I doubt it'll be the last either. Although Zizi did go a little hard on him to start with, perhaps with all that's happened I should have done it, but my father taught me it was a first mate's job. He feels that it's not right for the person who hands down the punishment to execute it as well, it stops unnecessary cruelty, although I don't believe my brother thinks that way."

I can't see how what just happened to Tallis was either necessary or not cruel, and as I watch the captain walk away I find myself once again longing for home.

Xanathi's body has been wrapped in a length of sail cloth and tied to the stretcher for the final time. I'm helping to load it into one of the rowing boats, while trying not to gag from the smell. Zizi and Vakker are talking the oars, and Artie is also going with them, a fiddle tucked under one arm and a bottle of brandy in the other hand. A large bundle of fire wood has also been added to the contents of the small boat.

I scramble back onto The Firebrat as they set off in silence for a group of rocks a few hundred yards away. I still haven't seen Tallis since the flogging, he's apparently not expected back on watch until tonight, so I'm also free at the moment. Between the gun battle on the island and the storm there's hardly a member of crew not sporting some kind of injury, and all around me the men are bandaged and bruised. Jay, the one who lost his leg is doing well I'm told, which seems to mean he's not dead and is showing no sign of gangrene.

I watch the rowing boat get closer to the rocks, they seem to be having trouble finding a place where they can land, but after a while I see them tying off and lifting the body out. They disappear from sight but a sudden flash of flame draws everyone's attention. "Bloody waste of good brandy." I hear someone grumble from behind me. The flame dies down as fast as it appears, and is replaced by a column of smoke that is unfortunately blow towards us, bringing with it the smell of burning flesh. "She took then, buggers to burn bodies, even lizard's." A comment comes from my left.

The sound of Artie's fiddle drifts towards us also, he's playing something slow and sad that seems to fit the moment perfectly as the smoke disappears into the sky above us.

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