When the guest awoke to the stripes of sunshine on his pillow, he rolled to face the wall and slept another hour. No one would tell him when to get up, after all. That much, at least, had not changed.
His window had mellowed and his chamber had dimmed when he sat up and swung his feet to the floor. His boots lay tossed in the corner where he threw them, still stained by dried, cracked mud. Would a servant ever come to clean them? While the wait staff were quick to gather dirty plates, they had not once come in to make the bed, draw him a bath, or take his sweat-logged and gorestained armor, now stacked in a reeking pile against the wall, to be buffed and polished. They had only taken his sword, with a fawning show of fear, after he had gotten into a drunken lather and cut a hand from one of Prynyx’s minions.
When he rose in a blistering rage, they fled, the better to receive his litany of complaints from the other side of the door, which was sprayed with spittle on his side and hastily locked on the other.
While they gifted him with literaure for his extensive leisure time, it was in Klyrnish at first, until he seleccted a precious handwritten volume with such yellowed pages that it surely was written centuries ago, painstakingly ripped out and shredded each page, then piled the fragments on a dirtied plate.
After that, they had provided Vanoori literature. While he had perused the most popular volumes of myth, philosophy, and history, Leonidas was not well-read, and he was so bored and constrained in his tower suite that he soon bent over the harder books on his table, and reclined with the fables on the divan or his bed.
Leonidas grasped the bars of his window and peered out over the ocean rolling in to the gray cragged beach. One, two, three fishing boats; a wyvern soaring over the foamy waters toward Vanoor; hundreds of bathers wading in the surf. While Leonidas had such little empathy that he could not even muster envy for the swimmers, his body ached from being pent-up in his cell.
Not that the penthouse accomodations weren’t lavish; the circular suite was ninety feet across, and furnished with a dinette set, a bookshelf for his growing library, and a four poster bed and sumptuous divan, both strewn with sealskin and furs.
Though his cell was massive, the tower was so tall that it swayed like a sapling in the storms rushing up the coast, and even if he could sleep in those thunderous gales, the lighthouse beacon on the roof released such a glare that the sea’s blinding reflection flooded his windows.
Between the storms and the soirees, Leonidas had many sleepless nights. For as a visiting dignitary, Leonidas’s attendance was required at every feast and dance, and even a few cozier shindigs hosted by Lord Chemeryn, who in the Emperor’s absence ruled Klyrn from the Summer Palace. No less than five guards would enter his cell, force him into such effete dinner fashions that he felt his muscles soften under the embroidered doubled quilting, bracelet him in gilded manacles, and then escort him to the ballroom, where they bowed to him and the other dinner guests as if they had just taken his order.
When the wait staff brought his plate, he would demand more food, exhausting his memory of all the fancy dishes he had ever consumed or even heard of, for his daily meals were nutritious, well-made, and even tasty, but several shades of deliciousness away from his accustomed delicacies.
Leonidas rarely spare a second thought for anyone but himself or those he wished to kill, but the humbled lord could not help thinking of Lancurc at these parties. While he never thought of his chef when eating the coarser meals in his cell, the dainty foods served at the parties paled in comparison to his magnificent meals. Although the Klyrnish liked to dim their gas lamps to a dark yellow, Leonidas could see that the fancy foods lacked color; placed inches from his nose, the plates lacked impact; even their pleasant aroma lacked the bite of real temptation. It was the difference between a stuffed tiger and a real one. But it was when he tasted the underwhelming palette of these pretentious entrees that he pined for Lancurc the most.
As gifted as any psychopathic murderer at reading between the lines, Leonidas gathered from the other guests’ tepid and circumlocutory conversation that the Emperor was so tamed by his pretensions to refinement that he would never allow a prisoner to be a trophy at social events, and he had Chemeryn to thank for these tedious nights away from the comforts of isolation.
Denied freedom, Leonidas was happy left to his own devices, of which there were many, for Leonidas’s mind was studded with the gravestones of happy murders and sheathed well-sharpened schemes that only wanted liberty to enact. Not only were the days short, but as he counted the suns flitting past his window, he felt like he was counting sheep and sleeping his life away.
Previous guests were unequal to the accomodations. Though the posh cell was plushly furnished with velour and fur, gouges in the granite walls marked many escape attempts. Once he knew every grain, groove, and crevice, he realized that every previous tenant arrived at the same method: that of the wooden utensils served with the fair to middling entrees. Not only were there jagged splinters in pores scraped between the cement binding the stones, but now and again a fork was missing a tine.
As the books kept coming, and the staff never asked for any back, Leonidas’s infamy was soon inflamed by the quotes and allusions sprinkled in his conversation, until, despite the disgrace of his manacles, he arrived at a raging, red-hot popularity. The lords laughed graciously when he got the better of them in repartee--mainly from being an unflinching interrupter that jabbed at their rotund sentences and obese paragraphs until they deflated--and the ladies cozied to him and forgot this dangerous traitor served up the Vanoori capitol.
Already intoxicated by wine, brandy, and the fumes of a soporific hookah, to judge from her breath, Lady Intawaia swooned as he recited Cloudmore’s dream from The High Earth and the Quaking Sky:
...lightning flexed, clouds flared with caged light,
and the earth witch howled with eyes lit
like gods’ tears, cackling in a mouth full of graves...
“Though that means nothing, my blood stirs and my toes tap.” If the aged Klyrnish lady stoked any admiration in Leonidas at all, it was that she was also a rude bounder, if cut from a shabbier cloth.
“I am happy it suits you, Lady Intawaia.”
“Though my heart is inflamed by your chained might, and my spirit sings at the thought of Vanoor in captivity, it is the music which captures me. What is that tune?”
Lutes strumming, a harp’s thrum, a tambourine’s shake, and the sonorous beckon of the Klyrnish horn--a uniquely convoluted instrument to equal the circumlocutions of Klyrnish conversation with its teeming fluency of notes--had risen during Leonidas’s recitation.
“I do not know it, my lady.”
“As no one dances, it must be new. I do so like being the first in everything. Rise, Lord Andercruik.” When she batted her darkened eyelids, the sweep of her makeup brought to mind actual bats.
Leonidas kept his face a polished stone mask while his loins shrank, for Lady Intawaia was twice his age and, though well-preserved, reminded him not of faded youth but yellowed mummies. “My lady, should you not think of the precedent—your peers may think you woo for peace; failing that, they will presume the scandal of a common wooing...”
“As if you were anything but common, my lord.”
“You are kind to call me lord with my lands in question and my men-at-arms dead. Then there is the basest objection,” said Leonidas, jingling his manacles, “that of these irons.”
“Unchain him.” Lady Intawaia’s nostrils flared, her chin raised, and her shoulders stiffened like the hood of a cobra as she gestured imperiously at Andercruik’s guards, who looked at each other sheepishly, shrugged, and timorously wagged their heads like windblown paper lanterns.
Though afraid to be bitten by the cobra rattling high in the rigid coils of Klyrn’s social structure, the guards shook their heads even more firmly as rage lit her eyes, and one hastily said, “we are forbidden to remove his chains unless he is confined.”
“Then lock the doors and windows,” demanded Lady Intawaia. “He can be confined in this room, yes? My pleasure must be second to none.” She raised her eyebrows as she gazed at the gathering crowd, many of whom were Klyrnish noblewomen whose faces were etched with not only carnal admiration for the muscled and handsome Leonidas, but haughty disapproval of Lady Intawaia, as if laying the groundwork for the envy that would follow on her wish.
Though the guards shook their heads, muttered, and lingered, their lieutenant’s mustache quivered, and he closed his eyes as if he squeezed out his reluctant nod. When he murmured to his fellows, they passed through the dining hall, clearing silverware as they went.
The hushed nobles’ eyes flickered with the candles as Leonidas lent Lady Intawaia the ease of youth with his graceful steps, a ceramic poise in which irrepressible sneers coiled, rattling the well-formed crone’s expertly painted and dyed veneeer and threatening to shatter his genial but supercilious mask.
“You are a lovely dancer, Lord Andercruik.”
“Call me neither lord nor Andercruik, for though my father and his were lords, without my ancestral fief and servants, I shame my family name and am only Leonidas.
“No only about it.” When he clutched her vehemently, some feared it a prelude to strangulation, while others saw in it lionish petting worthy of his name, and less a token of endearment than a cat playing with its already eviscerated dinner. Nonetheless, Lady Intawaia not only leaned into the cruel embrace, she managed to undress him with her eyes in those close quarters, a glance that took all of him in in one possessive clench, then subsided into a swelled smile and a throaty chuckle. “My Leonidas is a gentleman no matter the soil under his shoes.”
Repelled by the flattering grease in her laugh, Leonidas fought an impulse to flick away her smug smile like the crawling caterpillar it was. “While I’m partial to your pretty lie, my aristocratic pet, I was a gentleman only in name, and never gentle.”
“You talk too much. I thought you were Vanoori! Will you not let yourself be admired?” When she caressed his muscled arms, worked her fingers in the grooves of his triceps, then allowed her hands to wander brazenly down the ruffled lace of his coat until her fingers dallied at the base of his spine, goosepimples swarmed his back and shoulders, and he melted not from ecstacy but nausea.
“Lady Intawaia,” Leonidas mustered a smile.
“Yes, my dear?”
“You flatter me...”
“Never.” She giggled like a girl. “You’re a marvel of manhood, Leonidas.”
“And you are a wonder from the golden age of womanhood. When I look in your face, I feel myself to be before the treasures of antiquity.”
Lady Intawaia’s haughty smile mellowed considerably at this ambiguous compliment, but she forced her grin to broaden, clung closer, then whispered, “short of taking you to my estate, the guards will do whatever I bid, Leonidas. Shall we withdraw, and see where our feet take us?”
“Though I leave this hall in chains, you know where they’re pulled. You think to be my guest tonight, my lady. Am I the apple of your eye?”
Lady Intawaia blushed.
Leonidas reached for a wine glass, still brimming with a deep red, slugged it back, then snapped it on the edge of the table. “Here’s the stem.” When the sheared stem of the broken wine glass plucked Lady Intawaia’s eye, the guards surged forward to grapple Leonidas, then dragged him through mobbing nobles, some laughing hysterically as they thronged Leonidas, others screaming as they rattled the locked doors, and more covering their eyes and mouths as if they hoped to block the gory sight from a violent overflow.
Though he was dragged through the hall, the guards treated him with more care than usual, not letting his feet or shins scrape the corners. When a sweet red wine of three years’ vintage rolled in behind his food tray, he had some satisfaction in draining the bottle and awaking late in a cloudy stupor.
When Leonidas’s stretch was no longer relieved by recreation, he became his own entertainment, for with the stones shrouded in red curtain, Leonidas felt less in a lavish cell than on a colorful stage, with the curtain its scrim and the roar of the surf his audience. Which is not to say that reality didn’t trickle in, as cold dew clung to the gritty wall between the satiny swaths—when rain wasn’t seeping in during coastal gales.
During one of these squalls, a puff of spray burst over Leonidas as he reclined drowsy on the bed, and when he searched the ceiling, he found the hidden cranny which oozed an effluvium of stone dust and rain.
While he thought of widening the fissure with a spoon after meals while he waited for them to take his dirty tableware, this would only give him a few minutes a day at best, and being uncertain if his captors snooped through spyholes, he decided he must simply wait them out. They must have some purpose in squirreling him away; sooner or later, they would give him his opportunity and he would escape without the ignominy of effort.
Leonidas’s father often said, “best be cunning if you can’t be clever.” Though this constant refrain so eroded his self-love that he began murdering the help to get his father’s attention, his father cackled that he’d driven his servants to cutthroat competition, and took it as a point of pride, as a compliment to his tyrranical authority.
On receiving another gift, this time a bag of sweet-smelling coffee grounds with the faintest hint of cherries and almonds, he savored its scent for a few minutes, then tossed the bag on his bookshelf. While he had a small coal stove and teakettle, he deemed himself too great to brew coffee even if he knew how.
Two more weeks passed, during which Leonidas practiced swordplay with the leg of his antique chair. Knowing the expense of furnishing his manor with vintage trappings, this fragment was doubtless the most expensive weapon he ever wielded. While neither the right weight nor the right balance, and it even swished the air wrong, it cut a diversion-sized hole from the crawling days.
The third gift smelled of eggs, garlic, butter, and brie. Though it was lukewarm when he peeled back its covering cloth, the scent overwhelmed him with thoughts of his table, his polished and painted plates, and the person who most made his castle home. If he was such a phillistine as not to know this dish by its aroma, he could never forget the knife secreted in layers of cheese. He had watched that universal knife filet a thousand steaks, mince two thousand onions and garlic bulbs, pare hundreds of apples and pears, and chop a salad or two. Palm sweat and the juices of meats and fruits had rendered the long-used oaken handle immune to the heat and oils of the cheese pie. Like the man itself, this knife was now a deathless symbol of kitchen craft. That he sacrificed even his favorite cooking knife took a man already humble in everything and made him perfect. For lack of proof, Leonidas could never give his father’s poisoner a just reward, but in holding this token of esteem he felt that he had always known the face of his benefactor. Staring and inhaling the savory scent, a new feeling seized Leonidas, that this man was the only thing Leonidas did not deserve.
“Oh worthy slave!” Leonidas wept holding the broken quiche.
“Come now, cousin, you’re a notch higher than slave.” The voice was oily not from any thought of flattering Leonidas, but as an ocean of geniality on which to float his massive condescension. Less sardonic than draconic, his false heart was at home in the undeniable power that flowed from magic.
“Falling for the help?” Ilmar continued. “That takes me back. I may never forget the melodramatic poses in which you contorted the corpses. You thought you were getting back at your father, when you simply couldn’t stand being scorned.”
“Of the two of us, cousin, I never had any taste for grandstanding.” In truth, while Leonidas inherited aristocratic pretensions, his contempt for his father’s refinement fed into various crude conduct; scorning delicate bites and dainty sips, Leonidas slurped and chomped like a peasant, and even in front of his decadent cousin, couldn’t help growling ravenously as he relished the quiche.
Ilmar rolled his eyes. “It can’t be that good. You were always the stunted one, and not just physically and theatrically, but in all matters of taste. Why do you think father loved me best?”
Leonidas snarled, “you, his son? Natural children aren’t born from pity, Ilmar.”
While Ilmar only smiled, his lips drew bowstring tight. “I thought you might have questions.”
“You’d only brag,” said Leonidas, “though I’m the one that put out an eye to close a dance.”
“That stunt precipitated this meeting,” said Ilmar. “This is my fourth visit to Klyrn since you took up residence.”
“Why did you come, Ilmar? The Klyrnish hate you. I hate you. If I had the sorcery, we would have conspired against you. Though you might be entertained, you’re never really wanted.”
“Despite everything, Leonidas, you are the only family I have left. While Lord Chemeryn assures me there will be no consequences other than additional privation, and this intermission in your social life, he won’t keep Lady Intawaia and her influential family at bay. Also, the Emperor may not be so tolerant, and expect tit for tat...or, more to the point, eye for eye.”
“You’re worried about me!” Leonidas’s laugh roared. “After your treachery, you pompous sissy!”
Ilmar gritted his teeth. “It’s for the sake of my own status in Klyrn. Were you to sink into deeper disregard, Lady Intawaia would never invite me to tea.”
“Of course. Not only are you eligible, but with you among her coterie for a night,
her social capital would accrue interest.”
“Eat that before it gets cold, Leonidas. Don’t mind me--just stuff it in.”
“I’ve lost my appetite. Why did you come? Why now?” Leonidas looked mournfully upon Lancurc’s succulent handiwork.
“Aren’t you curious of the how?”
“Not in the slightest. It’s a trick, obviously.”
When Ilmar mimed sitting, crossing his legs in midair despite nothing under him, Leonidas rolled his eyes.
“Lord Chemeryn said you weren’t to be disturbed. If I had insisted, he might have relented, then expect me to owe him a debt.”
“He can’t be blamed, Ilmar. He doesn’t know you. Tell me if you must.” Leonidas sighed, strolled near his cousin in an indolent, carefree manner, then lunged with the knife, which passed through Ilmar like a penny through water, the point dragging on the curtains to scrape the concealed stones. It was like his hand waded through a rippling pool, though the liquid light comprising Ilmar’s image was dry and opaque. Ilmar burst into bright rays, only to reappear by the fireplace.
“Haven’t you guessed?” said Ilmar. “I’m not really here.” He gestured at the floor, where the flickering fires danced as silhouttes. “No shadow, Leonidas. As you say, if you paid closer attention, or respected magic, our positions might be reversed.”
“Is your position any better than mine? After so long an investment, the mighty wizard backslides to court wizard.”
“I’m no court wizard, Leonidas. I’m a king in my own right.”
“A king without subjects.” He snickered. “Pardon me—without speaking subjects.”
“You go too far, cousin.”
“Show me one citizen of your aerie that isn’t hatched or enthralled.”
Ilmar’s eyes—or rather, the image of his eyes—grew enflamed. “Lord Chemeryn may want to know just how large your library has developed. That was my idea, by the way. Don’t say I never did you any favors.”
Leonidas fumed. “After you leave, I’ll burn them all.”
“I should also mention to his lordship that you’re pocketing the silverware.” The dissolving glimmer of Ilmar’s blue and gold robe tinged the red curtains behind the translucent sorcerer a purplish shade, but like snuffed lamps, his fading eyes impressed their scornful afterimage on Leonidas. He stood stunned for nearly a minute after his cousin vanished before leaping at the door, leaning there heavily, and thumping and pounding until sweat trickled into a coarse beard distorted by more than human snarls, and moans like one mortally wounded, until he slumped to the floor clutching Lancurc’s knife.
The formerly impassive face and unblinking eyes, which had looked on a hundred dead and a thousand lashes of the whip, now narrowed and bulged in a hiss of desperation. When this serpentine complaint was echoed in the stairwell by a solitary malingerer venting his frustrated gripe, and underscored by the creaking tread of boots, Leonidas rolled to a half-crouch.
“What would you have, my lord.” The offhand tone not only indicated a rhetorical question, it signaled an apathy so grey that it surely bloomed in a wasteland of indifference. “Does your mattress need turned, or perhaps the stones of your cell? Do your curtains need dusted...” The unmodulated voice betokened not only sarcasm, but a soul so monotonous that it was devoid of life.
Leonidas barked, “where’s my lunch, lackwit!”
“I silid it under within the hour.”
“You’re delusional from your long habit of talking to yourself.”
“Or to prisoners, which is much the same thing, given these stones incubate anxiety, madness and misbehavior. What did you expect, my lord? Sweet dreams and lunch meat? A holiday at the villa?”
“Why prattle when I’m lunchless?”
The exasperated sigh came. “Perhaps that dog Cabor took it. When I caught him taking mine, I put toad guts...
“Eviscerate the anecdote! Where’s my meal!”
“I’ll bring another. You need only wait, my lord.”
During the interminable wait, Leonidas stared at the knife’s point. Would Ilmar have the audacity to send his image to Chemeryn’s bedchamber, or would he be satisfied to wait, knowing Ilmar was a caged lion--though he now had a good tooth.
When he picked up his soiled boot and pounded the door with its heel, crumbling dirt flecked his face and hands and drizzled to the floor. If his gamble didn’t pay off, his boots were as good as noisemakers. If he never escaped, the next time he wore them might be in a hearse.
Leonidas glanced at the knife. Though intended as a weapon, only a cheese wheel, celery stick, or willing neck would take this humble blade; while its fine edge would cut anything on a board, the old, thin steel would snap in close combat. Like its meek, docile master, it would be laughable if it wasn’t dedicated unto death.
When the returning steps seemed brisker and lighter, Leonidas laughed. For the first time since his arrival, his door wasn’t opened with a commotion of five guards on the other side, the loud, brutish soiree escorts overly excited by the prospect of circumspect tippling and nibbling from their lords’ and ladies’ tables. When the door swung wide on a worried face, knitted brows, cheeks sunken on anxiety, and a chin quavering around chattering and grinding teeth, Leonidas grabbed his servant’s tunic, pulled him close, clapped him into a tight but brief embrace, then shoved him against the doorjamb.
“Good man, Lancurc. I guessed you might make your move.” Leonidas swept the dishes to the floor, grabbed the tablecloth, and tossed inside its folds the almond-scented coffee, Trulin’s Nine Sieges (which he had only half finished), and odds and ends from his drawers and shelves.
Lancurc winced. “Take your time, my lord. He’s in a tun of rye and won’t be discovered until we’re long gone.”
“Better they find him later than long gone, or you’ll be beheaded and I’ll be here.”
“What of your father’s armor?”
“Loath as I am to leave it, we’re not likely to fight our way out, and will surely be overtaken fleeing in full armor. While I might take his mantle, it’s seen better days, and I’ve been using it as a table rag.”
“Forgive my saying so, my lord, but those rags are just as conspicuous.” With a pensive look, Lancurc thrust out a small parcel.
Expecting fine raiment, Leonidas unwrapped the gift with a smile. When it was the white apron of a kitchen scullery, his brows deepened their dark cut, but he couldn’t stop the smile. “As there’s no time, my good man, we’ll discuss this later.”
After Leonidas was accoutered like an unusually grim potato peeler, they descended the stairwell with trepidation until they reached the kitchens, which were still hot and aromatized by the splendor of quiche. Only a few crumbs of rye had spilled from the tun which marked the jailer’s grave.
“I wish we could stop here. I miss your cooking. Or maybe I should make you a bite, eh, Lancurc?” While Leonidas chuckled, it gratified him to see Lancurc’s eyes dart away at the note of menace.
“I regret our haste myself, my lord.”
“Lancurc, while I have many grudges...and some misgivings...I have only one regret”
“What is that, my lord?”
“I didn’t eat the pie!”
Although Leonidas thought he had mastered his sealegs, at the top of the ladder the ship lurched left, and he heaved on the top rung, then wiped his mouth. Though the strength went out of him with that hurl, he clung to the hatch, staggered on deck, jostled and dragged a scrawny sailor under him, then crawled over the man with wet eyes and a liquid belch of “Captain!”
“No sir! I’m not the captain!”
“I’m not captain anywhere, sir.”
By sheer will, Leonidas hauled himself on his feet, then hoisted the gangly man one-handed to dangle over the deck. As his knees shook, Leonidas seemed to sway from a hook himself. “Where. Is. Your. Captain?!”
“Captain’s not on deck, sir.”
“Dog! Get down!” When Leonidas threw him down, through some reservoir of resilience the sailor sprang to his feet.
“Dog it down, sir? There’s not a cloud in sight.”
“You mangy cur, there’s a dead man below decks! Where’s your captain?”
“A dead man? Sir, you’d better speak to the captain.”
The skinny wretch ducked the blow as he scampered to another ladder rising to a cabin running the width of the stern. A boy in sailor’s garb chased each spit of ocean spray and barely let it settle on the cabin windows before wiping the panes to an immaculate polish. Although the skies were bright, the waves slapped the deck and rocked the hull every which way, so that this was the boy’s station in life until storm or still waters.
“Get the captain, Domyn.”
“Ship’s boy answers to the captain, Mittens.”
“Don’t call me Mittens, boy,” scowled the tiny sailor.
“Everyone calls you Mittens,” sneered the boy, until Leonidas dragged him by the shirt to the door, where he thumped the yelping boy hard enough to buckle the wood in the jamb.
“Knock, knock,” called Leonidas. “Wake up!”
When the door flew inward, Domyn toppled on his rear at the feet of a monstrously shaggy, bulgy-eyed, beak-nosed being wrapped in tattered blue feathers, which in its surprise looked less like a person than a mythical bird. When this huge and horrific roc-like magnificence rushed forward, the collision overhwelmed Leonidas not only muscularly—spinning his limbs like a windmill, knocking the air from his lungs, and cracking his spine against the deck—but on a baser phyical level, when the press of its foul stench stirred a fresh spew of puke that jetted over his prostrate body.
“My cabin!” screeched the feathered demon, “my door, my bed, my ship’s boy!”
“Sir!” Mittens drew himself into a salute.
“Shake a paw, Mittens, I don’t have all day.”
“Sir, there’s a dead man below deck.”
“You could have killed this one, Mittens. Go get anyone you can find.”
Leonidas’s hand went to his belt, where it grasped at air, then vomitous pants, as if it might have squelched through pants and puke to draw a clean dagger.
“Your business, sir.”
As Leonidas now reeled more from rage than the shock of collision, the Captain repeated himself a third time, bowing his atrocious, putrid roc face to bite off the ‘sir’ with shreds of hot spittle that mingled with Leonidas’s streaked bile.
When the monolithic captain roared “your business, SIR!” for his fourth attempt, Leonidas wondered if he would continue to recur, like an echo or some other natural phenomenon. But when he yanked Leonidas in a one-handed grip that mirrored his own manhandling of Domyn, Leonidas growled back.
“It’s as he said. There’s a dead man below deck.”
“Did you do it?
“What if I did? Would you throw me in the sea?”
“We might. Ware how you answer--we’re not in the business of transporting prisoners, only paid passengers.”
“Are all ogres this caring?”
“You jest, but I’m flattered,” the feathered brute drawled, his smile flaring into a snarl of pleasure. “Though I had a mother like you, you’re a puddle on my deck, and I’m...well, I’m me. There’s not a single man like me. I’d be more insulted if you called me human, as no matter what I was born, it’s a lie now.”
“You’ll have another dead man on your hands if you mean to tell me your story,” groused Leonidas. When the captain relaxed his grip, Leonidas swayed sideways like a shaky crab until he found shaky footing.
“You haven’t earned it,” said the captain. “Tell me how he died nine hours from Klyrn.”
“Don’t you care to know who?”
“I keep my eyes open, Vanoori. No sane man would leave a friend below decks to keep Mittens and Domyn’s company.”
“He was not my friend,” snapped Leonidas. “He was too useful for that, thank the quiet gods.” Leonidas winced at the pious utterance, which escaped his lips unwilled. “Though I loved the work of his hands, and a kitchen was brighter with him in it, he was not my friend.”
“That’s a vengeful look, Vanoori. I know it well. I’m still waiting on the how.”
“Last night, I couldn’t eat the delicious food he cooked on that wobbly furnace you call a stove, but though I woke up more ravenous than nauseous, my seasickness mingled with the smell of coffee and eggs. After I hurled through the porthole, Lancurc said the coffee would at least help my head, but I insisted that my stomach would only turn over again. Lancurc took one drag from his cup and collapsed, foaming from the mouth, and when I shouted in his glazed eyes, I knew he was dead.” As Leonidas finished this story, Mittens returned with twenty sailors.
“That’s a troubling tale, Vanoori. Did he owe you money?”
“Owe me?” shouted Leonidas. “I owed him three months’ back wages.” <
“Ah, that’s the motive then.”
“Motive? I didn’t poison Lancurc.”
“Everyone’s innocent. Especially in the middle of the ocean. I can help you, Vanoori. For a thousand, I’ll ship his corpse to any next of kin you choose.”
“A thousand? You pirate!”
“That’s a hoot from the blackest kettle. I’ll toss in delivery of one lordly fiend,
and though it would be a neater package dead, I’ll see it arrives alive and mostly in one piece.”
“You know me?”
“I know you’re a puking little weasel, Vanoori. Just before sunrise, a messenger bird arrived bearing the tale of an escaped Vanoori turncoat.”
“Why didn’t you turn around?” Leonidas groaned. “If you seized us then, Lancurc would still be alive.”
“The reward was only five hundred, my cargo is worth a hundred times that, and I figured you would double their offer.”
“I can return with the money.”
“Even if you were a man of your word, Vanoori, my time is too valuable. Would you linger anywhere for the promise of a measly thousand? Moreover, the pigeon said you’re a double-dealer likely to twist an oath to any advantage once out of earshot. But you can write to whomever you like, and we’ll send your letter along with the bill.”
“We’re ransoming you, Vanoori.”