The Monster-in-Chief (92/141)

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The jolly boat did take her to a vessel moored in the harbor: a sloop, to be exact, a two-masted vessel that would be swift in proper trim, and was at present nearly abandoned. Wisteria guessed most of its crew had shore leave for Ascension. She wondered if the sloop’s captain was involved in this plot, or if it was some ploy of the officer left in command. A couple of men were doing maintenance tasks and an officer was on watch, but unless they had at least a score of men hidden below decks, the sloop did not have enough manpower to weigh anchor, never mind sail.

They used a bosun’s chair, a kind of rope sling, to maneuver Wisteria up from the jolly boat and into the sloop, which rankled her. She wanted to tell them that she was perfectly capable of climbing the ladder up the side herself, even if the bay waters were a trifle choppy. Not with her hands tied, granted. She kept quiet; better that they underestimate her.

One man had joined the first three when they’d first gotten into the jolly boat. Two of her escort broke off now that they were on the sloop, leaving only Red and Crit to take her belowdecks. Crit handed her down the hatch like a sack of potatoes; Red was apologetic about receiving her. The smell of the ship was worse than usual belowdecks, not just the stench of unwashed men that she associated with seagoing voyages but almost a charnel or sewage smell. She held her handkerchief to her nose to cover it.

Then Red opened a cabin door and the stench doubled. “Whoof,” Red said, wrinkling his own nose. It was the captain’s dining cabin, furnished with several carved wooden chairs, a matching table, a built-in folding desk, a sea chest, and a heating stove. It reeked of human waste, vomit, smoke, and burned flesh. A single man was in the cabin, legs and feet bare, in an ill-fitting overcoat. He was slumped and bound to a chair facing away from them. Gagged, too, judging by the cord knotted at the back of his head. His hair hung in long bedraggled damp clumps.

Wisteria took an involuntary step towards him, half-hoping and half-afraid. “Lord Nikola?” The figure jerked at the sound of her voice, head turning to look over his shoulder. Even in profile, she could hardly recognize him: the elegant lines of his face spoiled by purpling bruises, streaked by dirt, salt, sweat, corners of his mouth raw from the gag. She ran to him, retaining just enough presence of mind to blow twice on the whistle under her handkerchief. I found him, you can rescue us any moment now. “Saints, what did they do to you?” She raised her bound hands to the back of his head, trying to unknot the gag with hands made clumsier by the need to keep a grip on whistle and handkerchief. Lord Nikola shook his head, jerking to indicate the door, giving her a look she wished desperately she knew how to read. The grunt he made around the gag was unintelligible.

“None of that.” Crit grabbed her by one shoulder and yanked her away from him.

“Why is he gagged? Who are you afraid will hear him in the middle of Gracehaven Harbor?” Wisteria demanded, her eyes scanning over the rest of Lord Nikola. “Why are his feet – Abandoned World, his hands, what have you done to his hands?” She couldn’t process what she was seeing: fingers oozing, red and raw and hideously wrong. “What did you do to him?” She tore her eyes away from Lord Nikola to stare at his abductors.

“Savior,” Red said.

“Nothin’ he didn’t deserve, m sure.” Crit yanked her back stumbling a few paces. Lord Nikola gave an incoherent growl around the gag.

“Wha’d he torture im for?” Red asked.

“Shut it.”

“You’re monsters.” Wisteria straightened despite her captor’s grip. “You’re not men, you’re beasts wearing human flesh. I thought you were just greedy – greed I can understand – but this isn’t greed, it’s pure evil. What could Lord Nikola possibly have done to deserve this?” Crit interrupted her by grabbing her face, but she was too angry to be frightened any more and finished with, “What could any man?”

“Pride.” A new man was standing in the doorway. “Good work, men. Dismissed, Red. Crit.” He beckoned.

Red acknowledged with a “Cap’n” and hurried out. Crit stared at Wisteria for a moment and then let her go to move to his captain.

“So you’re the monster-in-chief here.” Wisteria gave the new figure a good look: a man of above average height and average build, wide-brimmed hat and a scarf to hide his face. His hair was short, curly, brown. He ought to have horns, or a black aura, or something. Maybe the cruelty is in his expression and I just can’t see it. “What does ‘pride’ have to do with anything? What do you want from us?”

The captain said something low to Crit that Wisteria didn’t catch. Crit glanced at her. “Which I should gag her too? She’s gotten chatty.”    

The monster-in-chief regarded her. “No. I want him to hear her scream.” Another snarl from Lord Nikola, a thump as he rocked in the chair he was tied to, and then a muffled whimper. Crit nodded and left the room, closing the door.

I will not be frightened of this bullying beast. “Was torturing a bound man too difficult for you?” Wisteria asked. “Did you ask your men to find you someone smaller and more helpless to abuse? Are you going to graduate to infants next?”

The captain hung his hat and scarf on coat hooks. He had an ordinary face, long with a pointed chin, neither handsome nor ugly. He strode to her side and struck her across the face with the back of his hand. Wisteria should not have been surprised; the monster had made his intentions clear enough. But she was anyway, staggering at the impact. Having her hands tied made it harder to keep her balance, and she stumbled to one knee. Lord Nikola grunted, his chair thumping and creaking as he shifted in it. Wisteria thought she heard something crack. Did he injure himself? Break the chair? The captain glanced to his male prisoner, a smile on his face.

Wisteria realized she had never hated anyone before. Some teachers she’d disliked and one fellow student she could not abide, but no one she had hated, not like she hated this nameless villain, this demon-enfleshed man who could torture a man and smile. I need a weapon so I can kill you. She sniffled, lifting her handkerchief and blowing into it and the whistle again, twice. Then she wiped at her streaming eyes, regretting now that this horrid monster might think she was weeping because of him, and said, “Are you impressed with yourself, sirrah?” He returned his attention to her, frowning now. He seized her arm and tried to pull her up; she went limp, refusing to help. “Such a big strong man. Look at what you can do once someone else captures and ties a woman up for you.” She raised her voice. “Did you make sure my hands were tied first because you feared I might beat you otherwise? Do your men know what you’re doing here?”

“Get up,” he told her.

She remained limp on the floor, her arm stretching uncomfortably and tugging at her bound wrists as he pulled on it, legs sprawling as he dragged her higher with a grunt. Wisteria raised her voice again to say, “Do your men know you intend to kill us? Do they know you have no intention of collecting a ransom or paying them?”

“Don’t be stupid, woman.” He dragged her limp body towards the table.

She sneezed, then took a deep breath and boomed out, “You let us see your face.” It never occurred to Wisteria to shout to make a point, but when she’d been living shipboard she’d learned from her brothers how to project, how to make her voice loud enough to be heard from stem to stern. She was projecting now: she wanted the whole sloop to hear this. “Your men were careful never to let me identify them, but you do not care. You plan to throw a fortune away to sate your petty taste for cruelty.”

“It’s not petty! Do you think I want to do this? This is all his fault!” The captain dropped her limp body in one of the chairs, pointing at Lord Nikola although his attention was on Wisteria. “He could end it any time he wanted! If he’d just cured my mother when I petitioned none of this would have happened!”

Wisteria glanced to Lord Nikola. He was watching them, one arm shifting rhythmically while they were shouting. The joint where the arm of the chair met the frame had been pulled loose, and he was working his wrist forward to get the ropes through the gap. What is he trying to do? Is he in any shape to try anything? She looked back to their captor, and answered as loudly, “You’re insane. If Lord Nikola could cure your mother, he would have. No Blessing can—”

He struck her across the face again. “Don’t talk about my mother!”

Ow. She heard another cracking, creaking noise from Lord Nikola’s direction, and did not look to him. “No Blessing can cure every illness,” she finished anyway. “You know that, don’t you?”

“He can! He’s the best! He just—” A noise by the door stopped the captain, and he broke off to go to it. Wisteria glanced at Lord Nikola. He was looking over his shoulder to watch their captor as he pushed his arm forward to force the rope through the break in the chair between frame and arm, his features contorted with pain. Wisteria had no idea what he might accomplish with one hand free: she felt useless with her hands just tied to each other and both legs free. Wisteria blew her nose and the whistle again, even though by now she was sure no one could hear, no one was coming. I should have brought a knife. Oh, they would have taken it when they searched me anyway. There was an array of tools on the table: no knife, but a small rusty hammer. She turned her profile to the door to take it, then shifted away from chair and table towards the desk, holding the hammer awkwardly at the side away from the captain and the door. She could try to hit him before he turned, but sneaking up on her brothers had not worked when she was a child and she doubted she was much better at it now. Perhaps when he’s more distracted… Her goal at the moment was just to make it harder for him to watch her and Lord Nikola at once.

Crit was steering a woman through the door the captain had opened. The new woman was middle-aged and looked drugged or sleepwalking. Crit asked, “Which that ain’t true is it, cap’n? But why ain’t you wearin’ no scarf?”

“Don’t question me. Dismissed.” The captain took the sleepwalking woman by the arms to direct her, much more gently than he’d manhandled Wisteria. Crit took a step backwards through the door but did not turn around.

Wisteria put the hammer on the desk behind her. “He’s throwing away a fortune, Crit,” she called out at the top of her lungs. “Your fortune. Is that what you want, to have risked life and liberty for no gain?”

“Be silent!” the captain roared at her. “I know what I’m about and this is my vessel!” He could yell even louder than she; it was almost a physical blow.

At that moment, the sloop rocked abruptly, as if it had struck something or been hit by a steep wave. The sleepwalking woman lost her balance and fell to the floor. Wisteria leaned against the desk to maintain her own footing. A voice from the deck above cried, “Boarders!”

The captain cursed. “Go! Repel them!” he yelled at Crit. The man gave a seaman’s salute and obeyed.

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