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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Winter Ship: synopsis

Kyran, a king’s son, has been disinherited and exiled to a remote temple. One snowy morning, a messenger arrives to recall him to court, where he is to serve as governor of the king’s other children. Kyran is a seer and a child of the Falcon, but his paranormal abilities do not protect him from court intrigue. He must ultimately set out on a quest to find the Winter Ship and its destination.

Chapter 17: High Prince Jirair

part 1

I keep my money close and my knife ready to my hand. I can’t resist looking back, but already the ship is one among many. I follow the crowd, past bars and shops and other houses where the seafront whores flaunt their wares.

I don’t want to stand out as someone who does not know his way about the city. A drunken sailor looms in my path and seizes me by the arm, breathing beer fumes in my face. ‘Watch out for the press gangs.’

‘Thanks for the warning.’

His grip is strong, and I’m just wondering how to shake him off without causing offence when he loses interest and shambles off up the street. The encounter brings it home to me that I have no friends here. No one would know if I disappeared.

I find a tavern some way away from the shore in a quiet area. Here, the wooden buildings huddle haphazardly together, blotting out the sun and casting welcome shade. The timber is dry and would kindle at one spark.

I’ve covered some distance, wanting to get away from the docks. This tavern has the sign of a falcon, which I take as a good omen. It looks reputable but not too expensive for a stranger who comes to the city with a slender purse.

I ask for beer and a meal. The price consumes a worrying amount of the silver coins. I suspect I’m being cheated but, anxious not to draw attention to myself, make no complaint.

The food, when it comes, is plain but filling, some kind of stew containing vegetables and beans but no meat. It seems that whatever deal I have struck, it includes as much beer as I can drink. The tavern soon fills with a lively crowd, and they draw me in; tonight is the eve of a holiday and everyone is celebrating.

I find myself at the centre of a noisy table: mixed company dressed in finery that is somehow tattered and torn. They are friendly and make much of me. It seems churlish to doubt these cheerful people. They laugh at my jokes and soon I have drunk so much that I lose all sense of caution.

In the end they show me to a sleeping place near the hearth. They say the party will go on all night. My eyelids are heavy. I’m more tired than I think with nights of broken sleep, and I let things drift and know nothing more till I wake to a knife at my throat.

‘Is this the boy?’

I’m dragged to my feet. My purse is gone and my knife, too. I curse my stupidity. My head is ringing, and I can hardly stand. My fellow revellers have taken my cloak, and the bag I carried with the compass in it, which I had thought I could sell.

‘Stand up and let me look at you.’

My arms are pinioned behind me and they rip my tunic. A tall man wearing a cloak with a purple border, dark-haired and perhaps my father’s age nods as if he approves of me. He hands over a purse of coins, which the landlord weighs in his palm. I feel humiliated to see he offers less silver than the captain paid me for my boat.

It isn’t the first time I have worn the collar they place around my neck. The brand on my shoulder excites some comment before I am marched out of the inn. I spit a curse at the landlord: ‘May your fat corpse roast in your own flaming Inn.’ He laughs as my new dominus or master leads me away.

So there it is again: slavery. This master doesn’t look like a bad sort. As for what he might want from me, I know enough about slavery to know it is inevitable. He doesn’t speak to me, and as a slave I know better than to address him without leave. And what could I say anyway? ‘Please, master, let me go’?

* * *

Our way leads through the city, ascending to a finer quarter. Here, the wooden buildings give way to stone. I feel out of place; my clothing is once again torn, and the weight of the collar bears down on me. At first, I resolve to keep my eyes down, but no one know me here, and I have never seen this city.

Doors stand open to courtyards where fountains play. I glimpse shaded pools, and atria open to the sky, statues of gods at the door. As we pass one, I raise my hand to my brow. My master notices and nods in quick approval. There is something familiar about him, but then I think it unlikely I have ever seen him before.

My head is aching from the amount of cheap beer I put away last night. With my eyes red and bloodshot, face unshaven from days at sea, I must be unrecognisable, if there were any here to recognise me.

The master halts at the doorway of a fine house and goes in. Servants come to bathe his feet at the door. I am hustled away into the kitchen where the maior domus or chief slave inspects me. He makes some ribald comments and has me sent to the slaves’ bathhouse to make myself decent. ‘Kras, you take him!’

Kras flicks disparaging eyes over me and shows me the way, a bored lordling indulging a whim. He looks no more than twenty, but there is a world-weariness in those delicately painted eyes that hints of long captivity. His tunic of the finest weave would seem to indicate that he is prized. A puer delicatus perhaps, raised as the master’s ‘child’ who is outgrowing his role. Though he must know he hasn’t lost his looks.

Once there, he leaves me alone to get clean which surprises me. There is a clean tunic folded on a stool for me to change into. A girl comes and cuts my hair and shaves me. I guess they will not trust me with a razor or anything sharp, but since I have lived this long, I may as well wait to see what comes next.

Kras returns and shows me a simple room where he says I will sleep. I should be grateful to have my own bed with clean sheets and blankets.

There is a window set high in the wall. If I stand on tiptoe, I can see the sea, and the scent of lemon trees drifts in from the open window. Were it not for the collar around my neck, I could be glad I was here. I know there are many worse places I could be.

Then my fellow slave, though he makes it clear he is my social superior, takes me back to the kitchen where I am fed bread and cheese and offered wine, not that my head is up to it, and I cause laughter by asking for the water jug.

I’m asked where else I have served and where I came from. The other slaves are friendly but curious, and I can tell that any boasts of lost kingdoms are going to get short shrift. I tell them some tale of having stowed away on a ship and being captured. I omit my blatant folly at the tavern.

They assume I’m a runaway slave, which isn’t too far from the truth. When they ask my name I say Kyran. They tell me I must answer to whatever Marius, our master chooses to call me.

‘He has no scars on his back,’ says Kras.

‘I was lucky.’

I didn’t think that he was watching, but a slave owns nothing, not even privacy. When they ask what my skills are, I grow silent.

Reading and writing and languages are likely to lose me my new ‘friends’; I tell them I used to work for a travelling doctor. I helped him with remedies and looked after his harp and his horse.

They draw the obvious conclusion from that: they ask what became of my master. When I tell them he died, I see that again they misunderstand. They think I killed him and stowed away to escape justice or at least escaped to avoid being buried in his tomb.

It’s not the first time my capacity for invention has got me into trouble; I try to make a joke of it, explaining that my master was a storyteller and that I learned the art from him. I see from their blank faces this means little or nothing to them, and they care less.

* * *

It is just past noon, and it seems that little is expected of the slaves until later in the afternoon. The cook, a surprisingly thin woman whose lined face bears the faded traces of a rare beauty, shoos me from her kitchen and, not knowing where else to go, I am about to return to my room when Kras hails me and says he will teach me my duties.

I go with him to his room and what happens between us is fairly predictable, especially as I know now he was watching me while I bathed, but I need all the friends I can get.

Desire solaces my pride. To be wanted is something, at least, and he does have the grace to ask. He is in fact remarkably skilled as well as good-looking. It seems clear where his talents lie, though as a slave he has no say in his fate. I don’t ask him how he serves our master.

I lie naked in his bed with the warm breeze blowing in through the window. He brings me wine laced with honey and bids me drink.

I lift the glass to my lips. It is true glass stained blue with a faint tinge and ringed with gold. My father had nothing so fine, but in this house it is fit for the slaves to use, or so I believe in my naivety. I drink deep of the wine and he takes the glass from me, fearing I will spill it and takes me in a close embrace.

‘Are you always so trusting?’

I yawn and regard him sleepily. ‘Shouldn’t I be?’

He frowns at that, worry knitting his brow. ‘You met me less than two hours ago. You came to my bed when I called you. Now I give you drink; it could be anything. The honey alters the taste. What if I wanted to kill you? What if there was poison in that glass?’

‘Then I am already dead.’ I hand the glass to him, pressing it against his lips until he opens his mouth and takes a cautious swallow and then I close my mouth on his and drink deeply, licking the honey from his lips. ‘There are worse ways to die.’

He stares at me, eyes liquid with passion, and I think, You are mine. I raise myself on my elbow and pin him down. ‘Tomorrow, I think, you will come to me.’

‘If we live,’ he says soberly. At first I take it as a ritual invocation but there is intensity in his gaze. ‘Do you know what house this is, Kyran? Why you are here? Why I was sent this afternoon to test you and why it is so important you are unmarked?’

‘So I can be sold for a higher price?’ My tone is light, deliberately. I feel I am a god and that fear belongs to others, not me, not when I have the power to shake this boy, raised as a courtesan, out of his self-possession.

‘Marius won’t sell you, but you’ll earn the price he paid for you. A good return on his investment.’

It is not rouge that brings that flush to his face. I was a fool to think I knew how he served in this household.

I note that he doesn’t wear a collar like me but a silver chain with a small delicately wrought key. He draws me close and unlocks the collar I wear, lifting it from me. I feel lighter without it and I smile. ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’

‘You think you can run?’ He laughs derisively. ‘Take one step outside this room without that collar and you are as good as dead. It is there for your protection. No one will raise a hand against you while you wear it.

‘The slightest graze to your features, any damage, bruising, will be paid for. Unless you are unlucky, in which case the master will sell you for your weight in gold. And whatever your new masters do to you then is their own concern. We are night children. I am a prince of cats. Now do you understand?’

There is something feline about this boy, his beauty and furious grace, but I shake my head, confused. ‘I am sorry. I come from a small kingdom far away at the corner of the world. I have never seen a city like this. You will find me strange and ignorant.’

He ruffles my hair and kisses my throat. ‘I don’t find you ignorant. I’d say you know more than you say. No shame here, among friends.’

That word again. I close my eyes. ‘Let me sleep.’

He pouts a little at that then smoothes away the shadow under my eyes with his fingers so that once again I feel the shiver of desire. ‘You look weary. You should rest.’

I hardly hear him. The day has caught up with me, and I am already gone.

* * *

I wake with a question on my lips and a half-remembered rhyme running through my mind. ‘All cats are grey at night. All cats are grey...’

The room is dark. A window has been left wide open, a drift of cream material wafting out in the breeze. I am shivering a little and grope for my clothes. It is then that I realise the collar is gone and beside me, on the table something glints silver in the dark.

I reach for flint and tinder and light the wick. The lamp in its blue glass shade casts a pale light over the room. There is a moonstone like mine on a silver chain. I am about to reach for it but some belated caution halts me. If I take this, will they call me a thief? I know something of rivalries in great houses. But surely Kras can’t fear me?

I go over to the window and look down: three floors above the street. There is, of course, no handy creeper to descend and the wall is smooth: too far to jump.

I look at the sheets on the bed, but there are people passing down below. I judge the hour to be about seven in the evening, and the idea that no one would notice me climbing down a sheet is crazy.

The door is closed. I turn the handle and it opens. I thought it might be locked. Sconces are lit in the corridor, and there is carpet underfoot, even in this passageway. Mirrors line the wall. It occurs to me that this house is full of candles and mirrors and, to complete the picture, a black cat twines her way sinuously around my ankles. She wears a collar, too, but hers is silver chased with amethysts and she has four white paws. A lucky cat.

I whisper a charm and she turns and mews at me. And then, as cats do, turns her back on me and stalks away, her tail held high in disdain. I follow, and she passes a staircase half-concealed behind a curtain. I pull it aside and scurry down this service stair, my bare feet silent.

I come out on a mezzanine with statues in alcoves and plants: orange trees in silver tubs and light cascading down from glass set in the roof like a panel — a skylight.

The house is much bigger than I thought. I find myself in the gallery. It is a square, lined with ornate doors on all sides. There is a double staircase that leads down to the atrium below, where fountains play, and there is already the sound of guests gathering in the reception chambers.

I do not wish to draw attention to myself. I keep to the shadows, looking for another curtained alcove that conceals the staircase for such as me to use. There must be one for the slaves who service these luxurious rooms. I circle the gallery, halting suddenly when a door opens in front of me, spilling out light at my feet.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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