A Story of Uncertain Depths
The evening air was thick with the smell of sweat, salt and mead. Over a quarter of the crew had found their way onto the main deck and begun the nightly routines for entertainment, waiting for meals to be served. A handful of fiddlers had begun playing, staying mostly in tune and on the beat tapped under their feet, accompanied with the clapping of hands in the crowd. A few who dared to sing took turns making up words of songs about war-time bravery and fleeting romance. The sun had not yet fallen and the moon had not fully risen. It would only be a silvery waxing crescent meaning the night would yet again be a blanket of inky darkness. The sea wind blew in a spirited manner, sometimes fast and whistling lightly or slow and silently.
Just as the last remnants of fiery orange sunk from the sky, the cooks slowly appeared carrying deep bowls, dozens of large pots of stew and platters of meats. The crew on deck took to their meals, the music, singing and clapping faded into slurps and incoherent conversations. The rest of the crew below deck ate in the mess hall, not designed for the current number of bodies on the ship.
The general took his meals in his cabin, where he also ordered the presence of the new guest. He would take his time to enjoy her company before turning her to the rest of the crew.
Once she had finished her second helping and turned down a third, she was escorted to the general. She had only been told that he wanted to “greet the new guest and see about her accommodations”. She felt uneasy and yet, the fullness and warmth from the food offered feelings of comfort to combat the anxiety. She was brought up to the main deck where she caught sight of a throng of men sloppily eating and drinking, shouting at one another or waving down a servant. The guard beside her knocked against a large ornate door. Jeering and laughter followed from the onlookers on deck as she was ushered inside.
“Come, Polla, have a seat.” The voice of the general cooed, his hand indicating a seat in front of his large desk. “Did you enjoy the meal?”
She nodded, not quite looking him in the eye. “Yes.” She paused, trying to remember what polite words she should say to a general. Nothing came to mind. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry the clothes we have for you may be unfamiliar but you’re comfortable.”
Was he asking, or telling her? She couldn’t be sure and nodded in agreement anyway. She was not comfortable and this strange outfit did not, in her mind, seem like real clothes for anyone. She felt she was wearing a costume, like a street gypsy.
“Auf Dregade, who questioned you earlier, tells me you are a farmer’s daughter. Is that right?”
She nodded, “yes.”
“Do you know who took you from your family?”
Maybe they had bought the story after all, and maybe she could hope to step onto a new land in stolen freedom. “My father owed a lot of money. He, he gambled.” She was determined to repeat the same story, not adding too much nor taking much away. “There were always men coming to our home to threaten him and he would pay up but…” She trailed off, pretending to be saddened or scared of her own made up villains. Could she conjure tears? Maybe it would be too forced. “They came at night. I woke up because my father was yelling and my ma was crying for help. I didn’t know what was happening but I was grabbed and it was dark.” She dared to look him in the eye wearing the most pathetic expression of longing and fear. “I just wanted to get back to my family.”
“Of course. I’m sorry to hear that happened to you.”
She felt relieved, and was about to drop her head to exaggerate her sad demeanor.
“Yet I know, and you know too, that none of that is the truth.” He sliced through her lies as though swiping a spider’s thread. “Who are you and where did you come from?”
She could hear the thumping in her chest. If she waited too long, she couldn’t try to lie again. What would be the point? He wasn’t fooled.
“The truth.” It was a quiet sharp stab into her stalling.
She cursed and looked at his hard eyes, finding no mercy. “I am a runaway from the Casper mines of southern Ernos. I was enslaved there for the last two years and 4 months until I was able to escape. But I won’t go back!” Her hands gripped the arms of the chair. “I won’t! Please don’t turn me in! I can’t go back there! I’d rather die!”
Her outburst did not appear to shock this man but she could tell he knew she wasn’t lying.
He left his seat behind the desk and walked past her over to the mantle above the fire burning across the room. As he opened a glass bottle, he said, “Don’t worry girl, we aren’t sending you back to the mines. You should have told the truth before. No one is going to report an Ernosian runaway.” He carried over two glasses of wine and held one out to her. “Go on, drink.”
She took the glass but only held it, suspecting something. “Why?”
“Reporting illegally obtained labor back to their masters is not what the Guard is for girl. We are dedicated to the safety of our nations, not the politically corrupt undertakings of others.”
She didn’t quite understand every word but understood what he meant. She was safe. She looked at the wine in the glass, and upon another gentle command of the man to “drink”, she drank. She had never tasted wine or anything besides goat milk and water. The strange bitter taste was unpleasant, and her tongue felt pricked yet layered with foam. He poured her another glass. As she drank, he spoke of honorable causes and plagues of war and victims of society, things she hardly understood. After some time, she felt heavy and dizzy. She was led to a small soft bed she had never seen before. Everything is so strange. It looked like a wide and long bench but covered in cushions. She tried to fight her eyes closing but everything felt heavy and difficult. Her eyes gradually refused to open and sleep overtook her.
He watched her fall asleep on the chaise, the flickering fire creating movement of shadows along her figure. As if on impulse he kneeled down to run a thick calloused finger across her face. She hardly stirred. How soft, he breathed. He noticed his hand shook slightly as he picked up locks of her hair to gently pull between fingers. For a moment, Fab Manich reconsidered allowing his crew to prey upon the little creature at rest before him. For a moment, he imagined having her only to himself and keeping her locked away until they returned home.