Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 27

"Fucking asshole!" The cabin door slams open, Topher comes in and kicks it closed behind him.

"Wha?" I question, as he just woke me up.

"Fucking Jasper." He says, throwing himself down on his bed.

"What's he done now?" I ask, yawning and sitting up.

"In front of half the crew he called my mother a whore and said I was a whore too. They all laughed."

"Erm." I run my hands through my hair, noting that I could do with a haircut. "Isn't that pretty much true?"

"Fuck off!" He snaps, then adds. "Maybe it is, but it's not a joke."

"No I suppose it isn't, can't you just ignore him? If you don't react he won't find tormenting you nearly as much fun." Even as I say this I know it's pointless, it's most certainly not in is nature to brush off insults.

"You think I should stand there and let him say anything he wants about me? I'm not a fucking doormat!" He all but shouts.

"Well I don't know what to suggest, I'm going to go and get something to eat, you coming?"

"I am never going out there again!" He dramatically states.

"Don't be so stupid, you'll starve to death, I won't bring you food, and if you start going in the cabin instead of using the head I'll make sure you end up wearing it."

"Huh!" He grunts, and rolls over to face the wall.

"They could do with some new blood in the families up there, it's getting to the point where everyone is everyone else's cousin."

We are up in the rigging and Tallis is back talking about his friends daughter, and I've given up trying to explain to him that no matter how nice she is I'm not going to be interested in dating, let alone marrying her.

"Can echobacks and humans have babies together?" I ask, as much as anything else to change the subject.

"Good gods no! What a horrible idea, poor child would be neither one thing or the other, no, that is not possible."

"Do they ever marry?"

"Sometimes, although it's not something that's looked on favourably."

I wonder if he means from the echoback or human side?

"My family would have disowned me if I had taken up with a human girl, hell, when I was young it was frowned on to even find your own mate. Your relatives found you a husband or wife, often someone who would help cement relations with another tribe. Things are different now, but that's still the way it's done in the deep forest, for those who remain there."

A whistle comes from below and we move off to help adjust one of the sails, when we're done we perch on a spar and I ask Tallis if he's married.

"I was, a long time ago." he says, sighing.

"Is your wife dead?"

"I suppose by now she most likely is, maybe my children too. I went to sea at twenty one, many of us did, it was a good way of making money. Ships value our kind to work aloft. After ten years away with only the occasional trip home my mother announced that she had found me a bride and it was time for me to settle down. Her name was Leda, I can't say I was in love with her, but marriages weren't so much about love in those days as raising families and being part of the tribe, and over time I came to care for her. We had children, first a son, then two daughters, but I grew bored. I missed the sea so I went back to sailing, coming back to the forest once or twice a year until one day I came home and the village was no longer there. The slavers had been by two months previously and taken all the villagers, leaving nothing but three corpses behind. By the time I got there the animals had picked them clean and they were just bones, maybe one was Leda, I'll never know. I tried to find where they had been taken, but it was impossible. I've never been back to the forest since then, that was when I joined up with Admiral Blaise. Whenever I see a tailless one I wonder if they could be my son or daughter, I like to think maybe one of them survived, but slaves lives are often short ones."

"I'm so sorry." I say feeling horribly saddened by his story.

"Don't be drumeri, it happened a long time ago, I nearly married again ten, twelve, years back, but common sense got the better of me. I'm a sailor and the sea's my wife, no woman should have to put up that."

"You should find a wife who's a sailor as well." I suggest.

"Women can't sail, they're not built for it, besides it's unlucky to have them on the ship. And they distract the crew."

I would love to hear him explain this to Vio, not that they're ever going to meet, but I think she may be tempted to throw him overboard if she heard him say that.

"What about Zizi?" I point out.

"Visk are different, I can't tell male from female, if she didn't tell you she was female you wouldn't know. Besides she's hardly a distraction to the crew."

"All right, I know the Admiral kept girl pets on The Firebrat, what about those?"

"Pets are classed as livestock...oh...sorry, you're a sailor though, defiantly not livestock." He backtracks. "Prince Topher though, not so sure about him."

I laugh, I wonder if Topher knows he's on par with cows and sheep?

The sun is setting over the sea, I'm full of Clyde's fish stew and bread and am sat listening to Artie playing his fiddle by the aft mast. His brother is keeping time with a pair of spoons and the two of them sound as good as anything I've ever heard, although maybe it's just because it's been a long time since I last went to the theatre or heard a dance band play. I think about Parnell and what I miss from home, Vio mostly, chocolate biscuits definitely, Vin too. I miss my flat, although I suppose Mr Costa has evicted me by now, I only gave him two weeks rent and I've been gone almost a month. I miss the city itself as well. I've lived there all my life and it feels like a part of me, but every day that passes I get more used to this life. I enjoy working on the ship, and I'm good at it too, I don't think I've ever been good at anything before, except climbing, and that's just like saying that humans are good at walking. I like Quint, and I like that Quint likes me, and yes, I even like Topher, although he's still just about the most irritating, moody brat I've ever met.

My train of thought is suddenly interrupted by a large amount of shouting coming from the other end of the ship. Artie stops playing and everyone who's not occupied with sailing drifts up to investigate. The commotion seems to be coming from around the area around the wheel, and when I get there I'm met by the sight Jasper holding Topher in a headlock, shouting about being poisoned, and Zizi trying to get the ship back under control from where Jasper appears to have deserted the wheel. On the deck by her feet a plate of fish stew has been dropped, the plate is still in one piece, but the food is liberally spread around, and she is standing in the worst of it.

"The little shit tried to kill me!" Jasper is shouting at Quint, his single eye narrowed in anger and his twisted lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl.

"Did you?" The Captain shoots at Topher, who's struggling against Jasper's hold on him and panting for air.

"No!" He manages in a strained voice.

"Fucking liar! I saw him putting something in my food." Jasper spits.

The Captain looks around and spots me. "Exit, do you know anything about this?"

"Er..." I hesitate and Quint frowns at me in surprise. I'm not sure if I do or not, did Topher buy poison in Kipp?

He shakes his head. "Everyone go and find something else to do, one person on the wheel please. Exit I want to know everything, Zizi, come with us, we need to get to the bottom of this, in private." He glares at the remaining members of the crew who are still enjoying the free show.

"There's no bottom to get to, the shit tried to kill me and that's that. I believe the punishment for that's keel hauling isn't it?" He looks at Quint in challenge.

"All of you to my cabin now, Jasper, let him go before he passes out." The Captain says.

"And give him a chance to try and kill me again? No fucking way, for all I know he's got a knife up his sleeve just waiting to stab me."

"Topher, do you have a knife, or any other weapon on you?"

"No." He rasps, Jasper's arm tight around his neck.

"Then let go of him, whatever is going on here doesn't need an audience."

Jasper loosens his grip on Topher's neck and lets him drop to the deck, gasping for air. Zizi helps him up and we all walk the short distance to Quint's cabin in silence.

I glance at Topher and catch his eye, he looks terrified and mouths the word "help" at me.

Quint closes the cabin door and turns to Topher. "What exactly did you do?" He asks, Topher looks at each of us in turn before he speaks.

"I'll tell you, but not with him here." He points to Jasper.

"What fucking right does he have to dictate terms?" The scarred man protests. "I'm the injured party."

"Jasper, would you go back to the wheel please, I'll speak to you later." The Captain says evenly.

"You are fucking joking, why should he get special treatment?" Jasper spits, looking at Quint. "Oh yes, of course, maybe if I was spreading my legs for you I could get away with murder too."

"I won't ask you again, go and take the wheel." Jasper stares at the captain for a long few seconds and seems about to challenge him, but instead he sneers, turns on his heel and leaves.

Once he's gone Topher begins to speak. "Thank..."

"What did you do?" Quint cuts him off, his voice angry.

"I wasn't trying to kill him, you've got to believe me." Topher pleads.

"He says he caught you putting something in his food, is that true?"

"Yes." He replies very quietly.

"What?" Quint growls.

"Something...something to make him high, but not poison, I wouldn't do that."

I'm not quite convinced he wouldn't.


"Because he's an asshole, he never overlooks an opportunity to taunt me or make me look ridiculous in front of the crew."

"That's true, he does." Zizi adds.

Quint looks at her, then at me. "Does he do that to you as well?" He questions.

"No, but I've seen him doing it to Topher, it's because he's Surosian nobility." I reply.

"That possibly makes sense, but what were you hoping to achieve by getting him high?" He quizzes Topher.

"I wanted him to be punished, when you caught Will high at the wheel you keel hauled him and he died."

Quint brings his hand up to his face and pinches the bridge of his nose.

"That's the most idiotic thing I've ever heard, why didn't you just tell me he was taunting you?"

"I didn't think you'd take me seriously." He mutters.

The Captain sighs. "The reason I had Will keel hauled was because I'd caught him high at the wheel several times before, and he was on a final warning. He knew what he was risking, and I'm pretty sure that was why he died as well, if he had been sober he would have most likely lived." He shakes his head. "You do realise I'm going to have to punish you in front of the crew for this?"

"Please don't keel haul me!" Topher looks at Quint, his eyes so wide I can see white all round.

"No, I'm not going to do that, but I am going to give you the cat, ten lashes should stop the crew thinking I'm giving you any special treatment."

I look at Topher and swallow, I can't imagine how he will be able to cope with ten lashes, unlike Tallis who's well muscled he's small and skinny, there's little flesh on his back and I picture the cat cutting through his skin to his bones.

"Where did you get the drugs from?" Quint suddenly asks.

I know where he got them from, and I know he wasn't suppose to be there. I take a deep breath, not quite believing what I'm about to do.

"I bought them for him, in Kipp, he gave me the money." I say, and out of the corner of my eye I see Topher's head turn to stare at me.

"Did you know what he planned to do?" Quint asks me harshly.

"Erm...yes?" Shit! I should have said no.

"And you let him go through with this stupid plan and didn't think to tell me or try and stop him?"

"Yes." I say miserably.

"Topher, is this true?" He questions.

Topher looks at me, and I plead with him with my eyes to keep the lie up.

"Yes, it is." He says quietly, looking down at the floor.

"Pair of fucking idiots." Quint sighs. "All right, five lashes of the cat each, Zizi, you're witness to this."

"Yes Captain." She says, then after a moment she adds. "Um, Captain, how old are they?"

"Exit's eighteen and Topher's seventeen...oh shit." He closes his eyes and scrubs his hand across his face.

"Exit, your punishment stands as you're an adult. Topher, you'll get five lashes of the boy's pussy."

"Yes Captain." He says, then turns to me. "Sorry." He utters quietly. It's the first time I've ever heard him apologise when not forced to.

"What's the boy's pussy?" I ask, confused.

"It's a smaller softer whip." She explains. "And it's given on the bottom, not the back."

Oh gods, Topher gets an ass spanking while I get beaten with a knotted whip the size of my tail. And I'm completely innocent. Fuck.

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