I am not scared. Even as I am led out of the Tower, I show no fear.
I am not scared. Even as the noose is tightened around my neck.
I am not scared. Even as my breathing is constrained.
I am scared.
I am not scared. Even as I am led out of the Tower, I show no fear.
I am not scared. Even as the noose is tightened around my neck.
I am not scared. Even as my breathing is constrained.
I am scared.
What am I? Does it matter anymore? Why can I not think clearly? Why do I regret it all? Why do I dwell on thoughts when I know that thoughts hurt me? Why do I care about nothing? Why do I care if I care about nothing? What is wrong with me?
The musings were nothing new. Ever since he arrived in Lithmore, Volpe Varroe could think of naught but his fear of his own mind; he was daily affected by a weakness and insecurity that he could not confront directly, else he would risk destabilizing the last pillar that kept him from complete collapse. Nevertheless, the conflict within him manifested in many ways that he refused to acknowledge; his hatred for the Lady Justiciar borne of a hatred for the presence of Law in a Kingdom he despised; the numerous risks he took in mastering the unholy vice and yet never using it; his finite strokes of luck when pickpocketing nobles and Knights and other lone wolf acts of criminality… His murder of an innocent. All of these things culminated in the youth being unsure of what he was and how he could consider himself a good person, if he considered himself such a thing at all.
An apostate who robs, kills, and embraces deception is by all definitions evil. Is that what you are, Volpe? Are you proud of having accepted that in finding sanctuary with the things you loathe, you have damaged whatever direction you convince yourself to construct and follow every day?
Of course not. He was proud of very little these days. He committed horrible deeds, and he knew it. He could have stopped long ago; perhaps not by confessing his taint, for burning at a pyre would be the last thing to convince him of the Lord’s existence if it were his last moment on Urth. No, it would have been a cowardly, safe resignation from his dark life. He would have retreated back to the sea. Found another crew. Knocked up a nice, thin Tubori lass. Die at sea from scurvy before his child’s third summer. All while knowing that he was running from a past that was very much still present to those who would live with what he did.
Was he an intellectual, to spend so much time thinking? Perhaps in another life he could have studied at the King’s University, although he couldn’t read until he was fifteen. Surely no one with a significant intelligence would remain illiterate for so long. And yet the ability to write down (and subsequently burn), his thoughts had brought him as much clarity in mind as it had clouded. He was beyond his station, thinking. We are not supposed to think like this. We wouldn’t be able to function if we did. And so he ceased to function.
Paralyzed with fear and befuddled by his own attempts to ascend the impossible, he found a cure by acting as though he knew nothing, which he believed was mostly true regardless. His thoughts were less complex and uncomfortable, but this served him well. Feigned ignorance to everything and projected self-doubt cast him in a sympathetic light in most circles, and lashing out angrily (as he did with the Earl Marshal Ironwall and other authorities), prevented him from considering the consequences of his actions, as he very rarely was punished.
He thought of his friend, Audra. He wondered if she was truly his friend, or if he had simply used her like he did all the others. He remembered relishing, and then regretting almost in the same moment, threatening to kill her. He remembered her whimpers, and her tears. He wondered if he had relished hurting someone he believed he cared about. He wondered if he had regretted not doing it in a more private place. Would he have killed her had they not been in the Hall? Perhaps not. They had been alone many times since, and he had not felt the conflict stir up his urge to do what he could.
Because that was what he feared, and what he could not understand. That last pillar, his self-delusion of breaking outside order to maintain his own, could only collapse when he acknowledged that for all his regrets, for all his crimes, and for all of the abhorrent things he had done, he only committed them because he could. No matter what justification he provided his absent conscience, he stole because he could and he killed because he could.
He could not come to terms. The realization was too great. He had to leave the city before he exposed himself for the monster he was. It was only a matter of time.
Volpe Varroe pulled up his fox fur hood and crossed the portcullis out of Darton Gate.
The lad floated slumped over on a piece of driftwood. The small waves lapped at his chin, every so often flowing into his mouth to make him cough. The wreck of the ship was far behind him now, and he had lost sight of the bodies. He wondered how such a conflict of forces could end what was effectively all he had known for the past three years. Taken by the sea, the true Tubori way. The salt had dried his face and sapped all of the energy from his person. It was only enough for the pull of the tide to keep him from lulling off into an eternal sleep. That and the shouts of Hector, the quartermaster, who kept encouraging whatever survivors there still were to keep themselves awake and alert. The lad couldn’t tell the direction of the voice; in addition, he was unsure of how much time had passed. It had been sunset when Captain Downe attempted to drive the storm back with his own power, but now it was pitch black. Not even the moons shined their light on these bleak waters.
“Together boys! We ain’t driftin’ forever! And to Arien if we is to die by drownin’! I swore myself to the sands a long time ago, and she be an even more envious mistress than the sea!”
The lad struggled to keep his eyes open as yet again another wave rocked him. This one was gentle, and didn’t send him sailing off deeper into the darkness beyond. He was reminded of his mother for a moment, and then he stopped himself remembering. If he was to die, let it be in the confines of actuality; memories only served to make him regret and hurt.
“Captain Downe set us off in 336! I been sailin’ for thirty odd years and never did I see a storm like her! Aye, she were a ragin’ bitch she were…”
His hands brushed the sea floor, prompting the lad to look down, incredulous. He very slowly raised his shriveled and wrinkled arm from the water and stared at the sand and kelp that clung to it. He looked forwards but could only see blackness. If there was a shore nearby, it was far from any civilization. He dipped his arm back in and began to paddle, weakly. His toes dragged across shells, and he was confident he must have cut himself on one, but the lad couldn’t bring himself to fret much.
“You feel that boys? You hear the gulls? You smell that? That’s sanctuary! We’ve been watched over, just as I said!”
The lad awoke on his back, bare of all but his own skin, and stared up at a sun that was far too cool for the amount of brightness it produced. He sat up, joints as though they had atrophied in the short time from consciousness to movement. He was on a small, rocky beach, overhanging cliffs casting a large and damp shadow. The wreckage of the ship wasn’t as far off as he had presumed; it was about three klicks off from the shore, and still sinking; the bowsprit was completely straight and vertical, marking the spot as though on a map. Some of the dead crew had washed up, soiled by violent deaths and faces ruined by whatever sealife had gotten to them while they could. The lad found that he could not recognize a single body. He couldn’t mourn for long, however, as he was growing colder by the second. He quickly trudged knee-deep into the water and tore out the longest and widest strips of seaweed that he could find. He covered them with sand and waited for them to dry out while he searched and stripped corpses.
Hours later he had scaled the shore and reached the top of the cliff. Green forests, vast and lush lay before him. Down the middle of an entrance copse, a thin, dirt trail spotted with wet footprints encouraged the lad to begin his journey.
As he began to walk, a final wave washed over the remnants of the wreckage, and carried the ship down to the depths of the sea.
I almost had her. I could have killed her. The venom was ready. Just one prick, and that bitch would have fell.
Apparently they’re looking for me. If it’s true, then they aren’t exactly passionate about it. Even so, it would be a relief if the whole thing could be forgotten about entirely. It drew too much attention. It will take a while for the heat to die down. The squire’s been pestering me about ‘purpose’ and ‘anger’, like any of that means something.
Whatever it was that troubled my studies over the past year has disappeared. It came and went quicker than a swordfish in a net. I had to make sure though.
I’ve met a new friend. A Farin girl from a place called Bastion. I wish I could write more, but already my head hurts.
Captain Downe had requested my presence in his personal quarters. It was a cluttered old room, with sheets of dust coating everything; from the eight-foot map of the Dralth that covered an entire wall, to the collection of antique wine glasses, an oddity of the Captain’s that he insisted everyone respect. Very little light existed within the confines of the quarters, although one lone candle of tallow flickered on a small center table.
He was seated in a corner, smoking coamjar out of a pipe. His eyes glittered in the shadowed canopy provided, and stared right holes into mine. I was nervous. I had served on the ship for two years, and even though many of the crew considered me one of their own, Captain Downe had kept his distance ever since bringing me on. I didn’t know why. I thought I had offended him grievously, for him to have maintained such a wide berth, especially after our initial rapport. Perhaps it wasn’t fair for me to expect so much attention from the man. He had an onerous job. Still, there was a feeling of neglect festering in my bosom as I stepped deeper into the room and addressed him,
There was nowhere to sit, so I stood, head hung low.
“Sit,” he said again, and a long, black finger pointed to the floor, “there’s no mice. They avoid me.”
The mice were the least of my concerns. Why did he want me here? Some resentment began to blossom, and I muttered under my breath an innocuous curse. Perhaps he wouldn’t notice. Perhaps he would mistake it for my minute annoyance at a splinter in the floor.
“You’re upset. I understand. You have reason to be.”
I tried to protest against that notion; tried to plea that it was a shard that I had sat on that earned my tongue’s lash, but he silenced me with the same finger,
“I’ve not treated you well, lad. I brought you on and ignored you, as if you weren’t worth acknowledging. Then I summon you here and force you to sit on a shitty floor,” he took a puff from his pipe, and blew the smoke out so far that it blasted into my face, “It’s not right. And I’m sorry. But you need to understand why I’ve acted the way I have.”
There was a budding anxiety shredding my guts. The taste of bile kissed my tongue, and I could only nod to show that I had heard what was said.
Captain Downe put the pipe down to rest in his lap. He was still staring at me when he spoke,
“You want a try?” I knew that he was talking about the pipe, so I shook my head. He gave it to me anyway, and nodded his approval when I took my first puff, “I’ll be honest, kiddo, when I first saw you, there was only one thing I was thinking: selling you off to some owner in Pertport. You’re good stock–tall for your age, and strong too. And you’re not a bad looker either, in case the owner was a woman.”
I was too busy coughing out smoke to truly express my reaction of shock and rage, although my reddened eyes probably warded him off from offering more backhanded compliments.
“But you’re a damn good worker. You gained the loyalty and love of every man aboard. Even me, though I haven’t shown it,” Captain Downe took the pipe back, “Want a drink?”
I had grown meek as the anger that had arose within me before slowly cooled to a numb, biting acceptance,
Captain Downe nodded and didn’t say nothing for a while. The schooner was being rocked by the waves, and the crew would have to take up the anchor soon. I was growing a little sick, so I asked to be excused.
“Nah… I still have something to say to you.” Captain Downe had closed his eyes now, and I was free to finally glare at his beautiful face, “You’re living a tough life, kiddo. You’re going to be living a tough life for a long while. You didn’t ask for it, but these things are rarely the fault of the inflicted.”
“I thought that… maybe I was wrong. At first, it looked that way,” his face had tightened until it looked like a statue’s, “You didn’t have the signs. You didn’t show them. But these things take time. For me, it happened when I was young. Because my mother was half-Daravi.”
I wanted to vomit. My nails dug into the fabric of my breeches, into my thighs.
“It’s a curse, what we have, kiddo. If anyone were to find out, we’d be burned.”
I started to shake my head. The overwhelming dread that came when you sighted a rogue wave began to envelop me. I felt myself drowning.
“I ain’t gonna say it. Because it’s best you hold onto that inkling of doubt. It isn’t much, especially since you pretty much know the truth,” Captain Downe took a final puff of his pipe, “But I figured it was the least I could do, especially having dropped it on you like I did. I’m going to be a lot more closer to you from now on. I just wanted you to know that. I want the crew to know that too, because they don’t like how I’ve treated you, so you can call me Benn.”
Still reeling, I blinked up at the sitting man, despair and disdain corrupting my voice. The candlelight flickered out,
“Because I don’t let anyone else do it,” replied Captain Downe, opening up his eyes at last and staring down at me with those piercing browns. I couldn’t look away, “And it’s not like you’ll actually call me Benn. My own mother didn’t call me Benn. How’s that sound? ‘Benn de Downe’?”
Although I was agitated at Captain Downe’s intentional misunderstanding of my question, I felt a sudden impulse, perhaps a wise one, to humor and play along. What had been said was indelible. I now had to adapt,
“W-what’s wrong with it?”
“Benn de Downe. Bend thee down? Come on kiddo, you ain’t that young, nor is anyone else on this ship.”
I shared a forced chuckle, and then asked to be excused again. Captain Downe looked me over for a while, and the nodded his dismissal.
“Yeah. You’re good. Go on then.”
I left Captain Downe’s quarters retching and sweating a fever. On my cot, I stayed, for days until Captain Downe pulled me out and forced me to scrub the lower decks.
The boy couldn’t read. That’s why they turned him away. Literacy within the ranks of the Reeves was an essential imperative that the Lady Justiciar enforced with little mercy; pragmatic to her very core, it seemed. The boy hated her for this, although he had never even seen her. He had heard all the good that she had done for the city, for the Kingdom, but this perceived rejection struck him deeply and rocked him to his very core. He would make Rimilde von Rievirkrintz suffer. He swore it in his own blood.
As he walked down Church Street East, the Cityguard Headquarters growing more and more distant, he drew his knife and examined the dull blade. Captain Downe had given it to him a few years before: a once finely crested hilt of bone lay base to a cold, six inch, iron-infused shark tooth. Captain Downe said it was a rare practice, to mix such drastically different materials, but he would have done anything for the lad. He would have sunk the entire ship if it meant saving the boy’s life. And the boy knew, especially now.
He pricked the fingertip of his pinky, and sucked on the trickle of blood, just for the taste. He wondered if the Lady Justiciar’s would be sweeter.
Captain Downe was a gritty Farin man of about thirty-seven years of age. He’d been sailing the Dralth ever since he was ten though. I remember the first time I saw him on that Septembris morning; his deep brown eyes, slanted at the edges, like a Tubori; the massive seven-foot frame that seemed just as wide as it was high; his waist-length dreadlocks, bleached by the harsh sun. I wouldn’t hasten to say I had an infatuation, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. He moved like an ocelot, effortless and deliberate, but with none of the jitteriness that came from a cat. He was walking down the docks after just getting out of a dinghy. I could see his ship off in the distance. It was just a schooner. I remember thinking that no man of his size could fit on such a small thing.
“Benn!” I finally tore my eyes away from the Farin captain and looked to one of the plantation owners who had gathered down at the dry end of the docks to commission vessels. The owner was a distant cousin of the Fontaines–Harlan. A fat and red-faced man, Harlan seemed extremely offended at the prospect of having to wait near the sea at the height of noon. A handkerchief dabbed at his forehead, and his toe-curled boots oscillated the task of tapping impatiently.
“Benn!” Harlan shouted again as the Farin captain took his time on docks, “Hurry up! I have urgent business to get to. Damn desert walker. No regard for courtesy…”
The Farin captain bowed once to Harlan, and with a voice that was cool and collected, said,
“Harlan le Fontaine. A pleasure to do see you again-”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted Harlan, and he waved a hand in the air to quickly dispel the courtesies he had insisted were lacking moments earlier, “I presume you managed to secure the route back to Zadossa? I don’t want the shipment mysteriously being robbed by pirates again, if that’s even what happened. How on the Lord’s good Urth do pirates ‘mysteriously’ sneak onto a ship full of strong, Farin men and women, and abscond with two tons of grapes?”
“Well, they have to be very quiet, Master Fontaine.”
A few of the other plantation owners who had accompanied Harlan wore affronted looks, and turned expectantly to their insulted member. Harlan, to his credit, knew exacerbation was the worst possible outcome for the meeting, and only spat at where I lay. I wiped the glob of saliva from my face and uttered an apology before turning over on my side, back showing to the plantation owners, so that Harlan couldn’t see my offense.
“Just make sure it doesn’t happen again, Captain Downe. You have a long history in these waters, and in Penmoor, but these last few years have been especially tumultuous. There are other, native-born captains who we could easily bring our business to.”
“But none of them are as cheap as I am, aye, Master Fontaine?” I couldn’t see Captain Downe’s face at this point, but I assumed it had the smuggest look on it, “Don’t worry. Shipment will be delivered fine. Hurricane season makes cowards out of most pirates.”
I could hear Harlan and the other owners gasp,
“You plan to set sail in the middle of the storm month? Are you mad man? I forbid it!”
“Ain’t any other ships coming in until Novembris, Master Fontaine, and them grapes will spoil before then. Stop picking so early in the year and you might be able to bargain.” Captain Downe’s footsteps resumed, and soon they were accompanied by the rushed scrambling and protests of Harlan and the other owners before they faded off.
I must’ve stayed there on the docks for a while, because when next I heard Captain Downe’s voice, it was as dark as a Daravi and Lunare and Arien were high up. A large hand rocked my shoulder as gently as it could, and then hauled me up as though I weighed nothing,
“You all right, kiddo?”
Captain Downe’s face was beautiful. I don’t know why it was, but it was. Maybe it was because of the way his ebony skin, a few hues lighter than the sky around it, seemed to be a physical manifestation of the night itself. It was smooth, flawless, which was hard to understand since he had been sailing for so long. But maybe that’s why he seemed to beautiful then. I think I spent too much time staring, because his hand shook my shoulder again.
“Y-yes, sir. I’m all right, sir.”
Captain Downe’s eyes were piercing, and I blinked a few times to show that they were too much for me. The two orbs of deep brown didn’t look away,
“What’s your name, kiddo?”
“Volpe Varroe, sir. My Ma and Pa work for Mister Harlan, sir.”
“Harlan ever spit on his slaves as much as he does his servants?”
I grew indignant at that, and puffed out my chest until my ribs showed through the thin, dirty tunic that I wore. I wanted Captain Downe to know that I couldn’t stand for what he had said. I wanted him to know that I could be just as imposing as he was to Harlan,
“I ain’t a servant, sir. Ma and Pa work for Mister Harlan. Not me.”
I reckoned that I looked pretty ridiculous, being so bold to a captain who had me at a disadvantage, with his hand on my frail shoulder, alone on the docks where I could easily fall into the waters below and drown. I wondered how my face looked, all twisted, with the dried remnants of Harlan’s spittle crusted across my cheek.
Still, Captain Downe was patient. He had a way of making you feel as though you just did exactly what he wanted you to, and soon my chest deflated and all I could do was look down at my feet. The captain looked over his shoulder to the manor atop the hill, all lights as Harlan celebrated the departure of a half-Daravi noble bastard and soon to be arrival of his profit for the harvest.
“Say Varroe, how about you come with me? We need a cabin boy, and you seem like you’re itching for something to do.” His hand left my shoulder, and I considered running for it. “Unless you like them spit showers Harlan gives you…”
“Arien take you.” I snapped at the captain, although I was grinning just like he was. I looked up at the manor, where my Ma and Pa were probably serving Harlan and the other plantation owners vanilla cakes and wine. I don’t think I loved them. Not like I loved Captain Downe. “All right. I’ll come.”
He took my hand and began to lead me over to the dinghy. I recall thinking of him as my protector from then on. I remember thinking that he’d never die.