Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 36

Topher wakes up complaining of, in his words, "the worst fucking headache in history", and only patchy memories of the events of yesterday.

"Sip it slowly." The Captain says to him for the fifth time as he gulps at a glass of water, sat in the middle of Quint's bed with me beside him.

"I'm hungry." He grumbles, as he puts his now empty glass on the bedside table.

"You can have something to eat once you've proved you can keep the water down." Quint says, catching my eye and smiling. Apart from a bit of memory loss Topher's more or less back to normal, or as normal as he ever is.

My side aches more today than it did last night, the captain thinks that I have at least one cracked rib, and I've been told to take it easy until we ship out again. Once he's finished refilling Topher's glass he looks at me. "I've been meaning to ask you, how the hell did you get out of Tobias' house? I assume he had you both locked and chained up."

"Yes, he did...I picked the locks using a bedspring and climbed out of a window." I confess.

"Good gods, where did you learn to do that?"

"Um...I just kind of picked it up in Parnell." I avoid looking him in the eye.

"Exit, what did you do before you joined up with the merchant navy?" He quizzes me.

"I worked in a power station." It's not a lie, just not the whole truth.

"And did you happen to have a sideline in housebreaking? Because I can see that someone who can climb just about anything and get through locked doors could do rather well at that."

I shrug, he can think what he likes.

"Fine, I suppose you have a right to your secrets."

I stare at the window, if he really knew my secrets I doubt he'd be so keen to let the matter drop.

"Why did you go to the Admiral's house?" He asks after a moment.

"Because you weren't here and I thought you might be there, it's closer than the ship, I would have tried there after."

"Makes sense, I was there looking for the pair of you. When it got dark and you still weren't back I was worried, thought maybe you'd got caught in a rip tide or something, but I couldn't see your clothes on the beach so I started to search the island. My father's house was pretty much the last place I tried, you were lucky to find me there."

"Did we go swimming, I can't remember?" Topher suddenly questions.

"No, we never got that far, you decided to grope me and then Tobias and Rufus grabbed us."

"Oh. I want to go swimming today then."

"No." Says Quint. "You're to stay in the house until we ship out tomorrow, that goes for you too." He looks at me. "You're both injured and I don't want either of you running into Tobias or Rufus again so soon."

Crap, I need to get to the town hall to see Vin and Vio, I'm going to have to risk sneaking out tonight, as it is they must be wondering why I didn't go last night.

"Are their any more rules we should know about?" I ask, I don't want to get caught like that again.

"Well, obviously no fooling around in public. Actually the rule is pets aren't allowed physical contact with anyone unless their owner is present, and that includes each other. I can't imagine a single person other than Tobias bothering to uphold it under the circumstances he did, and he clearly only did it to get at me, but it's still a rule and technically you can be punished for breaking it, so hands off each other outdoors."

"Yes Captain." We both say.

"You're not supposed to go anywhere without my consent either, but that's just impractical. I don't need you bothering me every time you want to go down to the beach, so if anyone asks you've got my permission. Are they're any more?" He thinks out loud. "Ah yes, if either you gets pregnant my family has the right to keep and raise the child." He looks at us both in mock seriousness. "Do you understand that?"

"Yes Captain." We chorus, trying not to giggle.

"And of course my rule about not fucking each other still stands, I do expect you to obey that."

The difference between the way he keeps us and Tobias keeps his pets couldn't be greater, and I'm still worried about what he might have done to them in anger.

"Captain, is their anything we can do to help Lottie and Summer?" I ask.

"Who the hell are Lottie and Summer?" He replies, sitting down on the bed next to me.

"Tobias' pets, Alpha and Beta. I spoke to them last night, well I spoke to Summer, she's the blond one, Lottie's kind of...I don't know, Summer said she had "stopped", he treats them really badly, they're terrified of him and they're very young. I thought, maybe, I could break in and set them free."

He sighs and strokes my hair. "That would defiantly be breaking the rules, interfering with someone else's pet is serious, and the punishment would be severe, I wouldn't be able to save you from that one. And even if you did somehow manage it he'd only replace them, then two other girls would find themselves in the same situation."

"Summer told me he'd punish them if I escaped."

"Unfortunately I think she's right." Quint replies.

"If Topher hadn't been so badly hurt I might have stayed."

"And let Rufus lash both of you to the bone today? It's not your fault and there's nothing you can do."

"Can't the Admiral get him to treat them better?"

"We follow the rules laid down by our ancestors generations ago, dating back to before we settled these islands. Even my father can't just go around changing them, and it's clearly set out that what a captain does with his pets, and come to that his wife and children as well, is entirely up to him."

"Well it's a wrong and stupid rule." I protest.

"No, my brother is a wrong and stupid man who bends the rules to his own ends."

"Without laws society would collapse, and even if you disagree with a law if you respect the society you live in you abide by it." Topher suddenly says, and we both turn and stare at him in amazement.

"What?" he questions us.

"Exactly how hard did Tobias hit you on the head?" Quint asks in wonder.

Eventually the Captain shoos us back to our own bedroom, and Topher climbs into bed while I get dressed, gently prodding at the large bruise on my ribs before I put my shirt on.

"You can actually see the shape of his boot." Topher observes, watching me. I look at it, he's right.

He pulls the covers up over him and lies down, wincing slightly as his head touches the pillow.

"I'm still hungry and I haven't been sick from the water, can you bring me up some food? Porridge if the maid has cooked any, if not a banana and some bread and jam will do."

"No, get it yourself." I say indignantly.

"I'm injured." He replies.

"So am I."

"You just have cracked ribs, I've got concussion. I could have a relapse and fall down the stairs and die."

"You wanted to go swimming earlier." I remind him.

"Fresh sea air is good for invalids."

"You're no more an invalid than I am."

"Maybe." He concedes. "But my head still fucking hurts."

I look at him lying in the bed, and the image of him curled up unconscious on the bare floor boards in Tobias' house comes back to me, and against my better judgement I go downstairs and get him a bowl of porridge. I get one for myself as well, bring them both up to the bedroom and hand one to him. He scrutinises both bowls for a moment then says. "You've got more." I sigh and swap bowls with him, then sit down on the bed beside him and start to eat.

"If we hadn't got out of there we'd be getting the cat round about now." I say, wondering if he's going to thank me for bringing him breakfast, or saving him.

"Hmm, yes." He swallows a mouthful. "I never want to go through that again."

"You didn't really go through it before if you remember, you just got spanked. Although I think twenty lashes from Rufus would make five from Zizi seem like a spanking in comparison." I shudder thinking about what we've escaped from.

Once I've finished eating I suddenly feel very tired, I yawn and put the bowl down then lie back and start to doze. Unsurprisingly I'm woken by Topher shaking my shoulder.

"Are you going to sleep?" He asks.

"Yes." I say, not pleased at being woken. "I spent most of last night awake watching you to make sure you were still breathing, so excuse me if I'm tired. Not to mention the fact that I rescued your ass from Tobias and brought you breakfast in bed, neither of which you've thanked me for."

"Oh, I was just going to suggest you'd be more comfortable if you took your clothes off and got into the bed properly." He looks at me with big dark eyes.

"Yes, I would." I sit up and pull my things off, then wriggle under the covers to join him. He moves closer to me, wraps his arms around my middle and puts his head on my chest. Unfortunately on the side Rufus kicked me.

"Ow, sorry that hurts." I say moving away from him.

"Let me go on the other side then." He clambers over me and I carefully move to the other side of the bed. He wraps himself around me again and I rest my hand on his hip and start to doze again, just before I'm fully asleep I hear him murmur "thank you" against my chest.

"You're very welcome." I reply.

I sleep deeply until well into the afternoon, I'm not sure if I dreamt it or not but at one point I opened my eyes and saw the captain standing beside the bed looking down at us, but when I blinked he was gone.

I finally wake up to an empty bed and an empty stomach, the porridge being the only thing I've eaten since yesterday lunchtime. Even so I lie in bed for some time thinking, I have to find a way get out tonight and go to the town hall gaol, I feel nervous at the thought, it's not just the fear of being caught, I really don't know how I'm going to feel about speaking to the two of them again after all this time.

It's a cloudy night and the darkness makes it easier to slip among the trees unseen. Having slept for half the day Topher didn't want to go to bed until late, and I couldn't leave until he was asleep so it's well past midnight now. I also have the problem that Quint went out to his father's house sometime in the evening, and still wasn't back when I left, I'm praying to every god I can think of that he doesn't decide to check on us when he returns, I know I'm taking a huge risk but what choice do I have?

I approach the town hall from the back, last time I found a window open on the ground floor, but this time it's locked shut so I have to climb up to the first level and enter through a window up there, hoping that no one is inside. I get in safely and creep back down the stairs, I see no lamps lit and don't hear any voices, but my heart is still pounding by the time I make it back down to the hallway and find the door to the underground gaol. I open it carefully and descend the stone steps, the damp heat and sewer smell suddenly all around me. Once again the whole of the freighter's crew are locked into the three smallish cells, and fortunately for me once again they are unguarded. Most of the men are sleeping but a few look up at me with curiosity as I walk toward them, and I try to see my colleagues in amongst all the others. I spot Vio's white blond hair at the back of the middle cell, she's sitting against the wall with her arms folded over her knees and her head resting on them, next to her I can just make out Vin lying on the floor with his back to me, his sweater balled up under his head as a makeshift pillow.

"Vio." I call out softly to her, and more heads turn to look at me but unfortunately not hers. "Vio." I try again, as loudly as I dare, this time she does look up, when she sees me she grins and shakes Vin awake. They make their way way over to me, clambering over the sleeping bodies of the crew. A man is snoring next to the bars, and Vio prods him with her foot until his eyes open, then tells him to shift out of the way. Once he's gone they move to the spot that he occupied and stare at me.

"Fuck, am I glad to see you." Vio says, reaching a hand through the bars to briefly clasp one of mine. "When you didn't show last night we thought the worst." She suddenly notices the bruise on my cheek. "What did the bastards do to you?"

I can think of no simple way to explain to them what happened to me last night, the truth would just make them worry more so I lie. "I got hit by a loose line on the ship, that's all."

"So they've turned you into a sailor." Vin says smiling.

"Yeah, kind of." I reply.

"You look like one." He says scrutinising me. "You've filled out across the arms and shoulders and look darker too. You seemed very at home in the rigging."

I shrug in reply, not wanting to admit how much I like sailing.

"I thought you were being kept as a captain's pet?" Vio puts in.

"Well...yes I am, but I'm being taught to sail as well." They look at each other.

"We got your letter." Vin says after a moment.

"My letter? I didn't send a letter, I sent a wire." It never occurred to me to send a letter.

"We got a letter detailing upcoming freighter raids along with information on The Firebrat, its weaknesses, and the best way to attack it."

"I didn't send that." I say puzzled, I don't want The Firebrat attacked.

"Are you sure?" He asks. "It wasn't signed but we assumed it was from you."

"I'm sure, I wouldn't forget something like that." I frown.

"All right, you didn't send the letter, we'll worry about that mystery later, but you did say in the wire that they are working for the cartel, so do you have any proof?"

"Not on me, actually not at all, but we...they are being paid by the cartel, yes." I admit. "We're shipping out tomorrow, but maybe I could get some and send it to you, next time I'm in Kipp, or somewhere else that has a postal service." I offer.

"Do that." Vin says sharply. "Zale wants an end to this, he's not happy at how long it's all dragging on, or the fact that you're still being paid as an agent. He wanted to declare you dead and take you off the books, I argued against him, but he's not going to put up with it much longer, and we need to get you home."

"I know." I say quietly. "But I doubt I have a home any more, Mr Costa must have evicted me for non payment of rent by now."

"No, he hasn't." Says Vin. "His daughter turned up at the offices a few weeks ago trying to find out what had happened to you, as her father was planning to do just that. She wouldn't go away until someone spoke to her."

"She's a persistent little bugger isn't she?" Vio adds. "She caused no end of trouble in reception."

I can picture Effie doing that.

"The upshot was." Vin continues. "That your rent is being paid out of your account until you come back, or are officially declared dead."

So I still have my flat and my possessions are safe.

"We have the dates for the next few planned freighter raids, hopefully on the next one we will have extra men and weapons, or at least we were planning to based on you providing us with some sort of evidence." Vin looks at me.

"Wouldn't his word do?" Vio asks. "He's been living with the fuckers for long enough to know what's going on."

Vin sighs. "It might have to, try and get something and post it to us if you can though." He doesn't sound happy.

"I will." I say, feeling like I'm betraying absolutely everyone I know, on both sides.

Vin fixes me with his green eyes. "Exit, we want you back, it's not just about trying to wrap this mission up, if it was I'd have sided with Zale and we would have come up with another plan. Violet and I have gone to a lot of trouble to get ourselves both sent out here to check on you, and to try to stick to our original plan, we need you to work with us. This isn't your home, and these people unlawfully kidnapped you, don't forget that."

"I won't sir." I feel sick.

"Good, now you'd better get going before someone notices you're gone, I wouldn't want you to get hit by another loose line." He gives me a small smile and reaches through the bars and touches my cheek where Rufus hit me.

"Goodbye." I say looking at both of them in turn.

"Goodbye monkey boy." Vio takes my hand again and squeezes it.

"Goodbye Exit, we'll see you soon." Vin says, trailing a finger down my cheek.

I turn and go, not daring to look at back then walk up the stairs with a thousand thoughts running through my head, none of then good. Once I reach the top I open the door into the hallway and step out of the oppressive heat and smell of the cellar, just as the front door of the town hall opens. I try to make a decision on which way to run, but it's too late, he's seen me.

"I thought this might be where I'd find you." Capitan Quint says from the doorway.

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