Like Chum to Hungry Gulls

I dwelt in perfect darkness. Time to time, the darkness seemed about to lift, then dimmed back down again. I heard bits and pieces of conversation.

Once, I heard a spidery voice that warmed me. I figured it was Eken, bless his sorry hide, because he said: “God above, Lord of all. My blood, my hands, my heart and soul to heal.”

Another time. “I had such hopes for you.”

When I woke, Eken hovered over me and offered up a gap-toothed grin. “There you are,” he said.

Eken served as ship’s healer and he had taken a shine to me when I first came aboard. I ran errands for him, bought this and that from little shops along the docks in ports where Blessèd stopped to drop off or pick up cargo and to spread the word of God, as interpreted by the Fellowship.

“When you declare your journey,” he said to me, more than once. “Name me your mentor. I’ll teach you true magic. You ought take to it quickly; you’ve got such a thread of white to you.”

I never knew what to think of that.

We all knew he once had been a member of the Old Church’s magi, with such skills as the Church had proclaimed a blessed gift from God. Blessings come and blessings go, though. Ship’s gossip said the day came when Eken asked one too many pointed questions of Old Church policy.

The high priests excommunicated him.

He didn’t lose his talent. Blood holds true magic, not holy vestments, but he lost arcane protection of the Church. Without it, those who continue to practice magic risk their sanity and physical well-being, for they can’t heal themselves.

Eken wouldn’t quit, and so he had become a twisted ruin. His thick white hair, his grizzled beard, hid all but the worst of many scars. He carried a polished ironwood staff to support him, for his right leg was shorter than the left and he walked with a decided limp. His left hand hung at a quarter turn and its little and ring finger were gone. A scarlet patch hid the pit that once cradled his right eye; sacrificed so he could master Second Sight.

“Wasn’t certain you’d be comin’ back,” he said.

“Tuck?” It was all I could manage. I felt as if I’d been torn apart and glued together without care.

“He’s dead,” another voice said.

I squinted past Eken. Mr. Soon, the first mate, stood next to Captain Stern. To look at the two of them, you would swear Soon to be a product of Stern’s loins. He wasn’t, at least that was what he said, but they still had the same blond hair, fair eyes, hawk noses and sharp chins. Large men, the both of them. They all but filled the cabin.

“Couldn’t you have healed him?” I asked Eken.

The old man shook his ruined head. “Gone ‘fore I got there. You almost died yourself.”

“Proper that he died,” Stern said. “No room aboard Blessèd for a posy boy.”

My heart jumped a beat at that. It meant Tuck hadn’t died in the fall. Stern and Soon had let him die, might even have done him in, after Eken probed his mind and gained knowledge of that kiss.

“That still leaves your score to settle,” Soon said, as if we talked about who would stand next watch.

“Tell us true, lad,” Stern said, with more kindness in his voice than I had reason to expect.

Eken laid his hand upon my shoulder, as Stern continued. “The healer will know it if you lie. Did you two have dalliance in your cabin?”

All three watched me, as if hungry gulls and I was nothing but a pile of chum. I tried to shake my head. My neck felt like broken glass.

“No, sir,” I said. “That kiss up on the mast was the first and only time.”

I didn’t say that first time or not, I had enjoyed it; instead I offered up a silent prayer of thanks that Eken couldn’t read my mind.

Next: Eight Bells and a Pyre

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