It’s a slave who finds the dead body in the hold of the ship, and normally he would be blamed for it, but the body is stiffened, whole swathes transmuted to stone. There’s no doubt that the beast chained below is responsible. Nevertheless, Captain vex Ilian decrees that the slave—a second-voyager called Adkins—be punished. After all, it was his job to feed and mind the creature overnight. However the sailor got in, the fault lies with Adkins. Only ten lashes, though. Captain Hewitt vex Ilian is a stern captain and master, but he considers himself fair.
The captain tells Corwinn as much the evening following the whipping. He sits in his bedclothes, poring over a map of the Spiraling Sea, charting their perilous course back home to Vaalex. Vex Ilian’s home, at least. More than the corporate kingdom Captain vex Ilian hails from, this ship is Corwinn’s home. Corwinn can’t really remember where he came from. His memories of the Southern Wastes comprise little more than vague impressions of cold, the bite of wind on his cheeks, brilliant sunlight sparkling off an endless expanse of snow and ice.
“I don’t do this to punish the boy, you know,” the captain says without looking up. “It’s to impart a lesson. Now the boy will know precisely how important his job is.” He taps the side of his nose and holds out his left hand, palm down. Corwinn knows this signal well. He retrieves a pinch of snuff from the captain’s ornately etched mother-of-pearl box and places the ground tobacco into the divot formed by his master’s hand.
Captain vex Ilian inhales the snuff, and only then does he look up at Corwinn. “The fact that one of my sailors perished isn’t enough, you see. Your people, we call you Icemen, and you probably think it simply because of your blue skin, the snow-white hair. In truth, you are a cold people, Corwinn. From cold lands, possessing cold hearts. You understand? Sorrow over a fellow shipmate’s death will not motivate that boy to do better next time. Some only appreciate the lash.”
Sometimes when the captain asks Corwinn a question, he expects an answer, other times he ponders aloud simply to hear his own voice. Corwinn has belonged to Captain vex Ilian since he was a boy. Nearly twenty years he has served as the captain’s steward and personal aide on the good ship Thaw-Heart. And still, Corwinn has never learned to distinguish between the two types of questions.
“Corwinn?” the captain prods. The first kind then. “Do you understand?”
“Good. Because I need you to do something for me. You will need to speak with this slave boy, this Adkins. With him and the other slaves, the sailors, Doctor Fli. You shall investigate for me, Corwinn. The responsibility for Sailor Linnal’s death lies with the slave boy, but the question still remains: what was Linnal doing in the hold with the beast in the first place?”
Shalebeest were creatures of legend. None of the crew, slaves or freemen both, believed Captain vex Ilian would actually find one, let alone capture it.
As the captain’s steward, Corwinn remained onboard the ship while the captain and a team of freemen and slaves penetrated into the twisted pine forests along the coast of an unnamed island in the Spiraling Sea, hunting a creature whose very look was said to kill a man, hardening the victim’s heart and lungs and innards to stone.
Tales of the battle to yoke the creature had already taken on their own air of legend. Panicked by the approaching hunters, the beast bellowed, lifted its head despite the ponderous curved horns weighing it down. One by one, it cast its gaze upon the men, and one by one those men turned to stone from the inside out and fell silent to the dirt. Even when more men attacked, flanking its thickly muscled body, it kicked out with hindlegs, its hooves gouging stomachs and thighs. But the men cast ropes about it, stabbed its leathery haunches and shoulders with sharpened sticks, and eventually the shalebeest’s head drooped under the weight of its horns and its eyes stared at the dirt once more, its energy spent, its body worn into submission. Nine slaves and three free crewmen perished, all of them frozen by the shalebeest. Stiffened bodies followed behind the chained and hooded shalebeest on two small wagons. The crewmen lay side by side, the slaves stacked like cordwood. Corwinn watched the returning crew trudge up the gangplank, their exhaustion mingling with excitement. No one could be sure to what use the shalebeest would be put upon delivery to the executive-king of Vaalex. Perhaps it would become the centerpiece of his menagerie, or else its calcifying gaze might bring it into service as executioner, dispatching enemies both from rival corporate kingdoms or collectivist agitators within Vaalex. Whatever the result, delivering a beast formerly considered no more than myth would draw glory to king and corporation. Glory that would reflect onto Captain vex Ilian. The captain beamed as he boarded the ship. He did not dismiss Corwinn to his own quarters that night.
The morning after the captain tasks him with ferreting out the culprit behind Linnal’s murder, Corwinn finds Adkins swabbing the deck. Blood from his lashing stains the wood. No amount of scrubbing will fully remove it, but Adkins scours on hands and knees, as methodically as if he were controlled by strings.
Corwinn stands back, watching the boy. He can’t be older than twelve, though it’s always tricky to guess a slave’s exact age when they are taken as young as Adkins. Corwinn doesn’t know how old he is himself, though he estimates somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. Old enough to be Adkins’s elder brother.
He clears his throat, and the boy glances up at him for but a moment before he resumes cleaning.
“Adkins,” Corwinn says, attempting to imbue his voice with steely authority. Attempting to mimic Captain vex Ilian.
“What?” The boy’s eyes remain cast down at the pink suds.
“I wish to speak with you. Stand up.”
“You can’t command me.” But the boy stands and glares at Corwinn. “What do you want?”
“Simply to talk,” Corwinn says. “There’s been a terrible tragedy. Are you okay?”
Adkins snorts. “Just ask your questions, puppet man.”
“You think we can’t all see the captain’s hand up your ass? Don’t dance around your questions. I have work to do.” He bends to resume swabbing, but Corwinn grasps Adkins by the elbow, yanks him back upward. He’s used to petty insubordinations by deckhand slaves jealous of his station, but this sort of open hostility unnerves him. He endeavors to hide it, steels his voice. Corwinn knows how to play a role.
“Who killed Sailor Linnal?”
“The shalebeest killed him.”
“The shalebeest was the weapon. I’m searching for the one who wielded it. No one would go belowdecks to the shalebeest cage of his own accord. Someone lured Linnal there.”
“Yes,” Adkins says sourly. “Who’d imagine a man might desire privacy?”
It’s then that Corwinn notices. So blinded by his task that he didn’t recognize the evidence directly in front of him. A streak of deep blue, almost purple, stretching from below Adkins’s right ear to the hollow of his throat. Darker than the natural pale blue of their people’s skin, a pigment that makes bruises all-too-easy to conceal.
Corwinn’s voice softens. “Did Sailor Linnal hurt you, Adkins?”
“They all hurt us.”
“You know what I mean.” Corwinn looks him in the eye. “Did Linnal… take liberties to which he wasn’t entitled?”
Adkins bursts into laughter. Mirthless dry heaves of it. “Really? Man, you’re as cold as home.”
“You don’t remember home,” Corwinn snaps.
“Maybe,” Adkins says, “but I haven’t forgotten as much as you.”
“Talk to me, Adkins. If you help me, I can help you.”
“Linnal is dead,” Adkins says. “I’m already helped.”
And though Adkins surely doesn’t intend to aid Corwinn, those are the words that spark the next part of his plan. The part that will hurt.
“Abundantly clever,” Captain vex Ilian chortles. “Nigh on ingenious, boy.” He claps Corwinn on the shoulder. “You are a credit to your race. You, more than any Iceman I’ve known, drive my faith that your kind can be lifted up to the ranks of civilized men.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Corwinn says. He knows the captain thinks more highly of him than the other slaves, but even so his heart swells whenever he hears it confirmed.
“Nevertheless,” the captain continues, hardly pausing to acknowledge the gratitude, “it is a grim task you’ve set.”
Corwinn waits a moment, confirming the captain expects a response. “I know, Captain, but it is necessary. If I am to flush out the murderer of Sailor Linnal, I must—”
Captain vex Ilian waves a hand. “Of course, of course. I know this, but it unsettles me nonetheless.” He heaves a sigh, places both hands on Corwinn’s shoulders, draws him into an embrace. When he speaks, he whispers the words into Corwinn’s shoulder. The captain is not a particularly tall man. “I don’t know if I can bring myself to harm you, Corwinn.”
But he does.
With blue skin, it’s easy to hide bruises, but the white hair sported by all Icemen makes any dirtiness all too visible.
Every schoolchild knows that Iceman hair isn’t truly white, but clear, only appearing white because it reflects light. But people still call the Icemen frost-hairs and say it grows frozen from their scalps like icicles. Children run their palms against the brittle locks and giggle. Sailors joke that Icemen don’t grow beards because if they did they could never pleasure their women. Untrue of course, all but the fact that the hairs are indeed clear and hollow. Which means that when Corwinn leaves a thin smear of dried blood in his sideburn, he knows it will be instantly noticeable to anyone he sees.
The blood is a lure, and Corwinn casts himself amongst the slaves and sailors, strolling the deck, replenishing stores for the captain’s cabin. Salt spray bites his cuts and scrapes whenever a wave crashes against the prow, drawing winces and hisses. Dangling his pain among the slaves to see who it will hook.
All morning, no one so much as glances at him. Perhaps he plays his part too well. Perhaps his head dips too low, perhaps he blends in too easily with the rest of the slaves. So when the time comes for the midday meal, he waits until everyone—sailor and slave alike—is lined up waiting by the galley window, and he strides, head high, to the very back of the queue even though by rights he could cut in behind the last sailor.
Eyes flick up as he passes, then back down just as quickly. Surely, they notice him now. They see the caked blood, recognize the ghosts of fists around his eyes and on his cheeks.
Nothing. The day passes and no slave speaks to Corwinn, let alone offers to murder the captain for him. It isn’t until much later that night, while he lies abed, staring at the slatted ceiling and letting the pitch and yaw of the ship lull him to sleep that it occurs to him. Why should his injuries make him stand out? Each and every slave on the ship has injuries at least as bad Corwinn’s own.
“They must be worse, Captain,” Corwinn says.
This time the captain doesn’t even hesitate.
Corwinn lies on his right side in the infirmary, his left too tender for any pressure, even that of a cot beneath it. Doctor Fli will not treat the slaves himself, and so his assistant Penhale dabs his wounds with vinegar to prevent infection. Corwinn steels himself, but the sting yanks a hiss from between his teeth.
“I know,” Penhale says softly, “but it’s for the best. A fleeting pain now to prevent a deeper one later.”
Through puffy-lidded eyes, Corwinn watches the man work. His long blue fingers dance across Corwinn’s body, pressing down gauze, wiping away stray flecks of blood. The doctor’s assistant sinks into his work, each gash and bruise seeming as familiar as an old friend. His own face, Corwinn notices, appears unblemished by violence.
“You look untouched by this sort of punishment,” Corwinn ventures.
Penhale turns a cool gaze on him. “I suppose I do,” he says, and returns to work. He doesn’t speak another word until he has finished, when he sits back as if to admire his work. “That will do,” he says. “For now.”
He stands, and Corwinn hears his footsteps thud out of the infirmary. He closes his eyes, thinking he will rest a moment inside before he returns to the hot bright deck to resume his investigation, but almost immediately, new footsteps enter.
Painfully, Corwinn lifts himself onto an elbow and twists his body to look. Adkins stands above him, an emotion in his eyes that Corwinn can’t define. Pity and disgust and wrath commingled like brackish silty water where a river meets the sea.
“Spilled some brandy on his maps? Dropped his snuffbox?” Adkins says. “Or did you just protest that you were too tired last night? Had a headache?”
Corwinn bristles. “You don’t know me, and you don’t know the captain.” He regrets his words immediately. He is supposed to play the victim, should be agreeing with Adkins. Why must he defend himself? Defend the captain? He looks at the floor to avoid showing Adkins the anger in his eyes.
It doesn’t work. “You should be angry,” Adkins says. “Rage will buoy you when the masters try to force you down.”
And there it is. Not damning enough that Corwinn can inform Captain vex Ilian that Adkins was the murderer, but indisputably Corwinn is on the right path. A suspicion cemented when Adkins leans close to Corwinn’s cauliflowered ear and whispers, “Midnight, in the hold by the shalebeest. Come alone.”
He’s gone before Corwinn can thank him.
Minutes before midnight, Corwinn approaches a crate in the hold, still weak from the beating, jellied thighs and calves causing him to walk like a first-voyager acquiring his sea-legs. Past the crate, the shalebeest snuffles and grunts in its cage. Its thick muscular body rattles the bars when it shifts its weight from side to side. There isn’t enough room for it to turn around. Certainly not enough for it to raise its head. One of the ship’s ubiquitous rats darts from one shadow to another, directly under the shalebeest’s gaze. The beast doesn’t react, lets the rat go about its verminous business. It understands what creatures pose a threat and which merely wish to live their lives in peace. An admirable trait.
Though Corwinn lowers himself onto the crate in complete silence, and though the shalebeest cannot lift its eyes to see him, it senses him somehow. It snorts and shifts its head toward him as much as possible, which is not much at all. One great curved horn pings against iron. It tries to pull its head back, but the tip of the horn snags on one of the bars. From deep in the shalebeest’s throat comes a panicked plaintive sound, a quiet squeal that Corwinn recognizes well. In distress, all animals make the same noise.
The shalebeest’s breath quickens. It tugs its head more forcefully, but the horn won’t budge. Just a little twist, a hitch in the right direction, and the animal could free its horn, but it doesn’t understand. Corwinn looks around the hold, as if someone will materialize to help the beast, but all the men are asleep except for the night watchmen, and they are abovedecks, too far to hear. And anyway, their job is to keep the shalebeest locked away, not to look after its comfort. Carefully, Corwinn stands and approaches the shalebeest in its cage.
“Calm, calm,” he coos at it, tentatively reaching out a hand. His fingertips brush the animal’s skin near the base of the horn. Soft grey hair and warm flesh press back, and for a moment the shalebeest stills.
Shushing and murmuring, Corwinn slides his hand along the length of the horn. At its base, it is twice as wide as his palm, curling like a nautilus upward and outward. Beautiful and powerful, but the heavy horns are the animal’s downfall. Its true weapon lies in its eyes, the ability within them to petrify any who would harm it. If only it can muster the strength to lift its head.
Corwinn’s fingers reach the point of the horn, and with the minutest of pushes, he frees the shalebeest from the crossbar. The animal grunts and wrenches its head away, knocking into the bars with a violent clatter that startles Corwinn so much he stumbles backward into the crate where he’d been sitting. From the floor, he watches the animal as they both get their breath under control, until the shalebeest once again stands stock still, eyes cast, as ever, downward.
Someone clearing their throat gets Corwinn’s attention and he leaps to his feet.
“Adkins,” he says to the silhouette that steps into the hold.
But it is not the deckhand who enters. “What do you think it would do if we let it out?” Penhale asks. “Would it realize we aren’t to blame for its captivity? Or would it kill us the same as the others?”
“You?” It is the only word Corwinn can think to say. Soft-spoken, gentle Penhale—a murderer.
“How are you feeling, Corwinn? Are the poultices easing your pain?”
“You,” Corwinn repeats. “You killed Sailor Linnal.”
“I did no such thing. The shalebeest killed him.”
Corwinn scoffs. “While you forced his head under its gaze.”
For a long moment, Penhale merely looks at him. He leans forward, eyes narrowing. He lifts a hand, and Corwinn flinches. “Relax. One of your bandages is slipping.” Deft fingers adjust a strip of cotton gauze on Corwinn’s forehead, lightly press down onto the remains of the adhesive. They linger as Penhale examines the wounds. Corwinn holds perfectly still, as if the slightest motion will splinter the entire ship around them. For a moment, he forgets to breathe. “You should get some more salve. Will you come with me to the infirmary? I can reapply—”
Corwinn grabs Penhale by the wrist and thrusts his hand away. “Will you do away with me too? If I don’t do what you want?”
“Of course not,” Penhale snaps, and Corwinn thinks this may be the first unguarded emotion the doctor’s assistant has shown. Quick as a cloud passing over the sun, it’s gone, and Penhale has composed himself. “That’s what they do. With me, your life is your own.”
“My life belongs to Captain Hewitt vex Ilian.”
Penhale steps closer to Corwinn now, too close, the toes of their boots nearly touching. Both hands gently cup Corwinn’s face. His sad eyes look deep into Corwinn’s own. “Every man’s life is his own.” He smiles wanly. “But every man will do what he must.”
With that, Penhale leaves the hold. As he reaches the door, he says over his shoulder, “If you’d still like that salve, you know where I sleep.”
Corwinn follows soon after, but he does not go to the infirmary. He slinks into his own bed, indecision twisting his gut. Before he even lays his head on the pillow he knows he will not be able to sleep. All night, he hears Penhale’s words in the creak of the swaying ship, sees Penhale’s eyes in the wood knots above his cot. Feels Penhale’s strong, nimble fingers on his cheeks.
Corwinn is not inexperienced—countless times, Captain vex Ilian has had his way, so much so that Corwinn no longer even notices; it is merely another aspect of his job—but when Penhale touched him, he felt something new, something that wells within him still while he waits for daybreak and begs every god he can think of for guidance. Desire.
The next morning delivers no answers. Corwinn assures the captain that he is making progress. Pleads for one more day. He will flush out the perpetrator.
Captain vex Ilian considers this for so long that Corwinn is certain he has seen through the deception. Maybe he even thinks Corwinn himself complicit. And isn’t he? By not turning in Penhale, is Corwinn condoning the murder? Sanctioning Penhale’s mutinous stance? Is he setting himself up for punishment? Isn’t the captain within his rights to extract vengeance from Penhale and from Corwinn for protecting him?
These thoughts swirl about his head, and Corwinn fears them. These are notions and questions he has spent his life tamping down. One gentle touch, one small kindness—is that really all it takes to throw his life into disarray?
His lips begin to form Penhale’s name, but instead Corwinn says, “I am so close, Captain. Tomorrow. I will know by tomorrow. I swear it.”
Thin lips press together as Captain vex Ilian leans close to Corwinn. His breath on Corwinn’s mangled ear is so warm it stings his raw flesh. “I know you will,” the captain whispers. “Make me proud, Corwinn.”
The rest of the day passes in a blur, and by the time night comes, Corwinn still has no idea what to do.
Corwinn pours the captain’s brandy with a heavy hand that night. He wants the captain to sleep deeply. He wants him to wake late the next morning. He wants as much time as possible to make his decision. He wants the captain to never wake.
One of Corwinn’s benefits to being the captain’s steward is his own room, a tiny space just big enough for a cot, set off of the captain’s own cabin. When the captain’s breathing grows deep and full as a bellows, Corwinn slips from his room. Penhale has his own place to sleep as well, the cot in the infirmary. Corwinn creeps there as silent as possible, evading the moonlight and the night-watchmen on deck.
Penhale sits on the edge of his cot, as if waiting for Corwinn to arrive. “Do you need your bandages changed?” he asks. “If you’d prefer, I can give you a jar of balm. That way you can soothe your injuries yourself.”
“Why did you do it?” Corwinn asks, desperation cracking his voice.
Penhale shakes his head. “I thought you’d seen the light, Corwinn. That you finally recognized your position.”
“I’m the captain’s steward.”
“You’re a slave.”
“I am the favorite of Captain Hewitt vex Ilian, commander of this ship and a great man.” Even as he says the words, Corwinn hears their hollowness, but for that he grasps them all the tighter.
“So you’re his favorite slave—so what?” Penhale stands. “Is this truly the life you desire? To cater to some monster? To never make your own decisions? Your own choices?”
Silent for a long time, Corwinn has no answer. Finally, in a voice just more than a breath, he says, “This is who I am.”
“No man is born to be a slave,” Penhale says. He takes one step toward Corwinn. Another. “And no man is born to be a master. We all of us are what we mold ourselves to be.”
“But you killed a man.”
Penhale’s voice is flint, but his eyes are soft. “I saved a man.”
Corwinn shivers, leans closer to Penhale. “I can’t save you,” he says.
Penhale leans into him as well. The sailors call them Icemen, but Corwinn always knew his body was as warm as anyone’s. Now he feels that same warmth radiating from Penhale. Corwinn cries into the man’s neck. Arms enfold him, knuckles run up and down the nubs of his spine.
Without a thought, his hands fly to Penhale’s head, his fingers entwine in his bristly hair and pull the man’s face away from his own. Penhale’s eyes reflect the startlement Corwinn feels. He kisses Penhale fiercely. An instant later, he shoves him away.
“I have to go,” he says. “The captain could wake at any moment. If I’m not there…” He lets the words fall away, backing out the door. Penhale watches him leave with a look on his face that Corwinn, if he lived one hundred years, could never decipher.
The next morning another petrified body is found in the hold.
A good captain’s steward—and Corwinn is exceptionally skilled at his job—wakes before his captain each morning. But the first hint of dawn has yet to crest the horizon when commotion on deck wakes Corwinn and Captain vex Ilian simultaneously.
Corwinn bursts from his room to find the captain exiting the cabin proper, saber and pistol strapped across his underclothes. Wearing his own bedclothes, Corwinn follows an instant behind, stepping out of the cabin and into chaos.
Blue-skinned slaves kneel in a row, encircled by shouting sailors, each with a saber in hand, many with pistols on hips. Spittle flecks from angry lips. Corwinn makes out snatches of accusation from the sailors, denial from the slaves, and realizes another sailor has been found dead by the shalebeest’s cage. First Mate Nin is missing from the crowd. It must be him.
“Silence!” Captain vex Ilian bellows. The entire crew, slave and free alike, obeys. In a chillingly calm voice that Corwinn knows well, the captain announces, “The guilty party will come forward if he wishes to spare his fellows my retribution.”
No one budges.
“Which slave found the body?” the captain demands.
“None, sir,” a sailor answers. Corwinn isn’t surprised. After witnessing the lashing Adkins received for reporting Linnal’s death, why would anyone brave the captain’s ire this time?
Captain vex Ilian approaches the row of kneeling slaves, who stare at the deck. “Look at me,” he commands, and they lift their heads. He strides along the line, gazing into each man’s eyes in turn as if he will read their guilt written there. For a moment, he pauses in front of Adkins. The boy doesn’t blink. The captain steps away.
“Corwinn,” he barks. “Your time is up. Who is it?”
“Must be the doc’s assistant or your boy, Captain,” a sailor says. “The rest has been locked up at night since Linnal.”
Though the captain surely knows that the slaves are often taken from their quarters at night, that sailors will sneak them out or leave the door unlocked so they can have secret assignations, Captain vex Ilian whirls on Corwinn. “Not you, Corwinn. I know it’s not you. So it must be the doctor’s assistant, eh?”
Corwinn’s mouth flops open and shut like an angler-fish pulled from the depths. Throat dry, sweat prickling his brow, he can’t answer. Still unable to decide. A balance: one side holds his work, his lifelong purpose as captain’s steward, the other side holds Penhale. Not even the kiss, that isn’t why he cares about the man, yearns to protect him. In his entire life, Penhale is the first person to show Corwinn tenderness. The first to consider what Corwinn wants. Something shriveled and dormant deep inside Corwinn flutters to life. He prepares to answer, to say that it couldn’t be Penhale, but Captain vex Ilian’s eyes bore into his own. Corwinn doesn’t need to answer. His whole life, he has belonged to the captain—words aren’t necessary for the captain to glean the truth.
In one fluid motion, Captain vex Ilian turns to Penhale, draws his pistol, and shoots the man through the forehead.
Corwinn’s choked sob is drowned by the outcry from the slaves, the answering reprimands from the sailors. The tumult grows, slaves raising their voices above the sailors’. Adkins stands, and a sailor shoves him hard in the chest, knocking him back to the deck.
It is as if the attack is a signal. As one, the rest of the slaves stand and rush the sailors. Sabers swing, and cut down some rebelling slaves, but other slaves grasp sailors’ arms, wrench weapons from their hands, turn the swords and pistols on the sailors.
Captain vex Ilian draws another pistol and fires into the fray. He slips his sword from its sheath and wades into the tangled mass of limbs and steel, Corwinn forgotten behind him.
Blood sprays from gashes in sailor and slave alike. Gunshots crack the air. Anguished cries of pain and anger and hatred all mingle into one unintelligible cacophony. Frozen in place, Corwinn watches the slaves revolt, and realizes that it was not only Penhale who dreamed of rising up. Not only Adkins. Whether either of them was the murderer doesn’t matter. Bubbling under the surface, all this time, has been rebellion. Corwinn was simply blind to it, his vision clouded by Captain Hewitt vex Ilian, his will shriveled by a lifetime spent in servitude. Penhale’s blood, Penhale’s body, washes away all the doubt and fear. What is left behind burns and throbs.
But with his clear vision, Corwinn knows the slaves will lose. Are losing already. Though the battle still rages, Corwinn sees how this tide will turn. Unless he does something about it, they will die as slaves, he and all the rest. But he is just one man, and he does not know how to fight. His contribution will need to be something different. Something desperate and wild, something that will lead to either death or freedom.
He sprints from the deck.
Over the course of his life spent as Captain vex Ilian’s slave, Corwinn has earned the captain’s trust. So much so that he carries with him a thick ring of keys, the ability to open any door on the ship. Because the captain knows Corwinn would never betray him, that he owes his station to nothing more than the captain’s goodwill. After the events of the last few minutes, that goodwill will dissipate whether Corwinn joins the fight or not, and Corwinn’s station will be nothing. Whatever excuses he could make would surely leave him in a position lower than before, if still living at all—Captain vex Ilian saw the hesitation in his eyes, knows he cannot trust his steward any longer. And yet those same eyes doomed Penhale to death. Who can say if the other slaves will ever accept him as one of them? What he does now, he does for himself.
Corwinn unlocks the hold, and approaches the caged shalebeest. As if infected with the madness above, the shalebeest thrashes and rumbles. The bars of the cage shake. Knowing the insanity of his action, Corwinn tries the keys until he finds one that fits the sturdy lock, that clicks into place and unleashes the shackle. Breathing as heavily as the shalebeest, Corwinn removes the lock and steps out of the way.
The shalebeest bursts from its confines, frantic and angry. Its thudding hooves tear divots from the wooden floor as it rushes forward, toward the stairway that leads topside. Corwinn drops to his knees and throws his arms over his face, though he knows this will not protect him from the shalebeest. It does not matter if he can see the shalebeest, only whether it sees him.
But the burly animal ignores him and stampedes up the steps, out onto the deck and into the sun. Into mayhem.
Corwinn follows, reaching the deck just as the skirmishers realize what is happening. They fall away from each other, slave and sailor alike united in one goal: to avoid being turned to stone. The shalebeest barrels left and right, casting its deadly gaze on anyone hapless enough to be caught in front of it. Slaves and sailors collapse, gasping, clutching at their hearts and stomachs. And die.
Corwinn wants to yell at the animal, to make it understand that it is the sailors who should be punished, the slaves spared. The shalebeest wouldn’t listen, even if Corwinn spoke. It doesn’t see slave or sailor, only captors, predators who took it from its home and trapped it in a cage.
Roaring almost as loud as the shalebeest itself, Captain vex Ilian separates himself from the battle and squares his body toward the animal. His grey bedclothes are stained crimson. Corwinn rushes him, brushing by the shalebeest as he goes, drawing its attention, praying it remembers who freed it. He loses his footing on the blood-slicked deck, and careens headfirst into the captain. They land on their sides, faces inches apart.
“Come to save me, Corwinn?” the captain says.
Bewildered by the question, unsure whether it is a joke or an accusation, Corwinn doesn’t answer. He simply watches as Captain Hewitt vex Ilian’s eyes go wide, as his mouth freezes in a twisted grimace of pain and surprise and fury. As he turns to stone.
Shocked cries ring out around the deck, jubilant ones as well. All mixing with the panicked groans of the shalebeest as it spins in place, searching for a place to run.
Perhaps seeking revenge on the beast that killed their captain, perhaps seeking only to inflict pain on the creature that must have carried aboard this curse of rebellion, the sailors turn their weapons on the shalebeest. They stab at its thick body with their swords, and the shalebeest bucks them away, kicking its hind legs, shattering bones. The slaves see an opening, press in at the backs of the sailors, cut them down while they are preoccupied trying to corral the furious animal. Blood from beast and man washes across the deck. Smells of iron and salt assault Corwinn’s nostrils. From his spot lying on the deck, he watches, his own face as stony as those of the men killed by the shalebeest. He takes no joy in this destruction.
The sailors pivot to their assailants, their former slaves, but too late. They fall to the rebels. The shalebeest wails and grunts, blood pouring from dozens of wounds. Its head falls under the weight of its horns, and it stumbles sideways, smashing through the gunwale and tumbling into the sea.
Calmness follows in its wake, the survivors panting and looking about incredulously. The former slaves because they cannot believe they are free. The sailors for the same reason.
“What do we do now?” someone says, and Corwinn can’t tell if the voice is from a former sailor or former slave. Maybe they are all sailors now.
“Kill them,” Adkins spits, and a grumble of agreement rises.
Corwinn sees the dead bodies sprawled across the deck, the tangled limbs and mangled faces. The captain’s stony body. The hole in Penhale’s brow. “No,” he says, surprised that the men look at him seriously when he speaks. “There’s been enough killing.”
“What then?” Adkins asks. “Enslave them? Take the ship for our own, and force them to do the work?”
“No,” Corwinn repeats. “No slaves. If we turn these men to our slaves, we’ll corrupt our souls as badly as theirs.”
“No killing, no slaving,” Adkins says. “What would you have us do, master?” The word drips condescension.
Corwinn sighs heavily. “I don’t know. Leave them on an island? Drop them on some shore of the Spiraling Sea? Whatever we do, it is a decision we must make together. All of us, equally.” He raises his voice, and thinks it might be the loudest he’s ever spoken in a life of muffled servitude. “No man is born to be a master, and no man is born to be a slave. We can be better than the men who enslaved us. We already are.”
“And can you navigate the Spiraling Sea, cabin boy?” someone calls from the crowd.
“No,” Corwinn answers. “But you can, and I can learn. And in the meantime, I can make sure everyone’s needs are met. That’s what I am good at.”
Muttering among the Icemen. The boat creaks in response, waves beating softly upon the hull. Face down on the deck, Captain vex Ilian still clutches his sword. Penhale lies not far from him, blank eyes fixed on the wide clear sky, surrounded by the bodies of free men. Below them, the shalebeest sinks toward the ocean floor, its heavy horns dragging it down. But for a little while, it held its head up. It is lost forever, far from home, but at least it is no longer caged.
“Where to then?” Adkins asks, already walking toward the wheel.
It takes a long moment for Corwinn to answer. Not because he can’t find the words, but because he can’t quite believe they are true.
“Wherever we want.”
|Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction writer and an editor of all sorts of genres. In addition to Kaleidotrope, his work has been published in various magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and Wastelands: The New Apocalypse. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and two sons. Find him online at timothymudie.com or on Twitter @timothy_mudie.|