Saturday, 26 April 2014

Trader with the broken-hearted

Phlebitis, lost and lonely sailor, spat overboard and cursed until he started repeating himself.  The sailors, his crew, sidled as way as fast as they could without attracting his attention and busied themselves with any job they could find.  Where possible they skittered up into the rigging, moving like the strange, bloated insects of the Jade coast as they caught ropes and hauled themselves into a mariner’s maze.  Those unlucky enough to have to remain on the open deck studiously swabbed it, their own feet, and anything that looked as though it might polish up with a few years’ effort.  When Phlebitis was done cursing he looked around him, his bad mood worsening as he realised that there was no-one to justifiably shout at.  He stamped off to his cabin, kicking three buckets of scummy seawater over as he did so, noting from the corner of his eye that the mistreated sailors rushed to the side to hoist more water with an unhealthy enthusiasm.
His cabin smelled of seaweed and boiled frogs, the legacy of too long plying his trade on the Northern Sea.  His desk was as he left it, covered with charts and maps, and the dividers were still standing where he’d plunged them, rageful and shaking, into the wooden planking that the desk was made from.  The wood hadn’t split, he noticed, and he supposed he ought to be grateful for that.  He ignored the desk for now, and opened a tiny wooden cabinet bolted to the wall of the cabinet at head height, a little way away from his bunk.  Inside was a bottle of rum, the good stuff, not the stuff in casks that the cook mixed with burned sugar and served of an evening, carefully supported in a wooden half-column to make sure that it could spill or shatter during bad weather.  He released the catch on the half-column and swung it open to free the bottle, noticing with little worsening of his mood that the level was below a quarter now.  He splashed two fingers’ worth into a dirty glass and sipped it.
The rum slipped down, smooth and sweet, high notes like the comforting arms of a familiar whore in the Unreal City.  Less seasoned drinkers would have coughed and spluttered, the back of their throats burning, but Phlebitis had been drinking for as long as he’d been sailing and had drunk much worse than this.
He put the bottle back and then hunched over the desk, staring at the map.  The hold was full of Sandibrack spices for trading with the Khanate of Rosia, which had all been fine until this morning when he’d idly cross-checked his map with an older one bought from an antiquarian in the Unreal City and discovered that the Khanate of Rosia was also known, in some circles, as the lands of the Broken-hearted.  Staring at the map didn’t change anything though: the Khanate was still in the same location on the coast, and he was less than half a day from it, and he still had a hold full of spices to sell.  Spices that though more fragrant than boiled frogs were still cheap on any of his usual trade routes.
“Land ahoy!” came the cry from outside, and Phlebitis slammed his glass down on the desk next to the dividers, unable to believe that they were already in sight of the cursed place.  Leaving the drink behind, he hurried outside to make the lookout’s life a misery.
His telescope confirmed what the lookout had called though, the first misty humps of land were just visible on the horizon, and the sky was clear and lucid as a waking dream.  There was no chance that the lookout was mistaken.
“Rowers!” came the call next, and Phlebitis had to adjust the telescope to focus on the boats.  They were longboats, a long way out from sure but being handled well through the only-slightly choppy waters.
“They’re mad, Cap’n,” said the sailor nearest him, barely peering up from what he was doing, his eyes checking Phlebitis’s face for anger.  There was plenty there.
“Not mad,” he said.  “Broken-hearted.  They’ve nothing left to live for, so they feel that they’ve nothing left to lose.  They’ll try and pirate us just for sake of bringing interest into their miserable little lives.”
“That can’t be right,” said the sailor shaking his head.  Little flecks of black spit flew from his lips; the juice from chewing tobacco.
“Clean that up,” said Phlebitis savagely, appreciating the vent for his anger, even though it was tiny.  “And first mate!  Get some more sail up.  We’re going to want all the speed we can get.”
“What are you going to do, Cap’n?”  The sailor was polishing hard, but seemingly uncowed by Phlebitis’s words.
“Cut their boats up with them still in them,” said Phlebitis.  There was a collective murmur around the ship as the crew disapproved.  “Don’t give me that.  There’s fighting fair and then there’s being a bloody idiot, and there’s seven boats out there with a bunch of moony dimwits in that think that giving their life for a… a cause is the noble and wonderful thing to do.  We’re taking out as many as we can without a fight, and then you can slaughter the rest.”  There was a slight lightening of the mood at the suggestion of slaughter, but the first mate still demurred.  Phlebitis snatched a mop from a nearby sailor and swung it at his head.
“Get the sail up!  I want to hear the crunch of those boats before I see people climbing up the sides.  If your all so bloody humanitarian all of a sudden then we’ll go back and pick everyone up, and you can cut their wretched throats on the deck.  Which you’ll then all clean again!”
As the crew hurried to carry out his orders at last Phlebitis returned to his cabin, remembering his drink.  He had an idea that whoever the Khan of Rosia was he must be as fed up with his miserable subjects as everyone else, and there was a chance that being able to announce that he’d reduced their number on the way in might just get him a better trading position.  As the ship bore down on the nearest longboat, and the screams of the broken-hearted lifted in unison, he allowed himself a grim smile and sipped his rum.

No comments: