On Tappitt’s Orders

The morning it began, I woke to the touch of Bosun Brother Tappitt’s leather-bound belaying pin upon my skull. The cabin’s everlight swung wildly on its gimbals, throwing his slick, wet shadow everywhere. Water dripped from his doublet and the hard, cold scent of salt spray hung about him.

“By Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” he said. “Jump out of bed now, lads.”

Tappitt was always polite first time he gave an order.

First time.

We didn’t jump fast enough to suit him. Tappitt rapped upon the rail again.

“Move your simple arses,” he growled. “There’s work to do.”

We moved.

Topside, we found Blessèd Vessel of Our Lord wallowing in a choppy, headstrong sea. Last night’s far-off storm had caught up to us and brought rough waters and a crossing wind.

The Deepwater Witch moaned in stays and rigging. Waves crashed across the rails. The ironwood planks beneath our feet groaned and muttered, as if each was a living thing in its final throes.

Brothers hurried every which way around us, eyes wide and white, struggling against the winds. Tuck and I stood still and silent, taking comfort from each other’s presence.

Tappitt stepped close behind us and leaned in tight. “Up you go, lads,” he shouted. “Reef them topsails ‘til you see the wood.”

“Jesus save us from our wicked, wanton ways,” I whispered, as I peered into the iron skies.

“God’s blood,” Tuck said, too loud.

“Watch your tongue,” Tappitt roared.

“Send the other lads up there, brother,” Tuck yelled back, hurriedly. “The two of us are eldest. Surely that’s counts for something.”

Tappitt’s foul breath fell hot upon our ears. “I’ll say this one more time, old man. Up you go.”

We went.

Blessèd Vessel of Our Lord stretched two hundred feet from jib to main end; a square-topped schooner built near one hundred years ago, not long after the first pilgrims stepped through the crossing point from Earth.

Our ship could carry six thousand yards of canvas rigged on her three masts. Near all of it was up that morning. To survive the storm we had to reduce the spread. That meant someone had to climb the ways, slide along the yardarm lines, pull in the sails one wet handful at a time and lash them into place.

Tappitt had just handed the main-mast topsails, two-hundred feet above the deck, to me and Tuck. In such a storm, that task was near impossible. We still had to try.

“Race you to the yard,” I cried, and swarmed up the ways.

When I reached the yardarm, Tuck was right beside me. His lips and lashes were already thick with salt. The Witch ripped at our hair and clothing in that wicked way she has.

Out at the end of the yard, I couldn’t see the deck below, but I did my job, by touch and rote as much as anything. When I finished, I stepped back to the mast – bare, horn-callused feet riding on the ropes and hands buried in the canvas. Tuck and I arrived together, drunk with our success.

He peered around the mast and grinned. “We’re little gods, Ish,” he cried. “We can do anything!”

When our fingers touched it felt as if I had been struck by lightning. Tuck’s eyes widened; he had felt it, too. He freed a hand, pulled my face to his and kissed me full upon the lips.

And by all that’s holy, I kissed him back.

It rocked my mind and heart and soul. Two men oughtn’t kiss that way, on that the Old Church and the Fellowship agreed. I pressed in with my lips and tongue, though, as if his spit might be an antidote to a poison I had taken.

We held a moment, savoring each other’s taste for the first time in our five years aboard Blessèd. Then we drew apart, still clinging loose to each other as much as to the hemp and canvas.

“I’ve loved you since the first we met,” Tuck crowed.

God heard those sinful words. The loop on which Tuck stood parted with a crack, sharp as the bang of a bullet flying from the barrel of a gun.

His fingers slipped from my rain-slicked hair and his full weight hung one-handed for an instant on a fold of canvas.

“Remember, Ish,” he cried. “Remember that I love you.”

The canvas tore away. I lunged off-balance, grabbed for him and wrapped my fingers about his belt. I wasn’t strong enough. He dropped away, dragging me along, and we fell from the heavens tangled in each other’s arms.

The Witch ripped at my hair and clothing. Lightning cut the darkness and thunder filled the night. I heard the sound, if not the words, of Tappitt’s voice as he grew ever nearer.

Then we slammed into the deck, Tuck pinned beneath me, and the world went away.

Next: Like Chum to Hungry Gulls

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