The Blue Star
Chapter 17: Charalkis: The Depth and Rise

Public Domain

It would be maybe on the fourth day out (for time had little meaning on that wide blue field) when Rodvard remarked how at the evening meal Captain Betzensteg took more than usual wine, glowering sullenly at his plate while he jabbed a piece of bread into gravies as though they had done him a harm. The last mouthful vanished, he sucked fingers undaintily and without looking up, said; “Set out the fired-wine.”

Rodvard felt a cold sweat of peril. The silver bear leaped from his fingers, and it was his fortune that he caught it before it reached the floor. The captain sat with eyes down, not appearing to notice. Bottle clacked on table; the one-eyed man poured himself a deep draught, and at the sound of the door opening, said; “Stay.”

Rodvard turned. Both the captain’s hands were on the table, gripping the winecup and he was staring into it as though it were a miniature of his beloved. “Come here.”

(Fear: but what could one do or say?) Rodvard glided to his post in serving-position behind the chair. For a long breathless moment no sound but the steady pace of someone on the deck above, muted slap of waves and clatter of ship’s gear. Then the head came up, Rodvard saw how the rich lips were working (and in that single eye read not only the horrible lust he had expected, but that which gave him something akin to pity, a ghastly agony of spirit, a question that read; “Shall I never be free?”) Captain Betzensteg lifted the cup in his two hands and tossed off the contents at a gulp, gagged, gave a growl of “Arrgh!” and, reaching up his left hand, ran it pattingly over Rodvard’s buttocks.

“No,” said the young man under his breath, pulling away. The captain jerked to his feet, violently oversetting his chair, and with distorted face, drove his fist against the table. “Idiot!” he cried. “Do you not know your benefit?” and reaching to his purse, tossed clanking against the bottle a handful of coins. Rodvard shrunk away, and giving a kind of mewing cry as the one-eyed creature leaped, tried for the door. His foot caught something, he took three desperate lunges, gripped the handle as the huge fist caught the side of his head and spilled him through onto the deck, senseless.

II

When next he knew, there was a sour smell of wine, it was dark and dripping sounded. He could not think through the curtain of headache; the scampering was undoubtedly rat, but why? Where was added to why with slowly gathering memory—still on the ship certainly, since the bare boards on which he lay heaved with a slow and even beat.

The right side of his neck was sore, and the opposite soreness was on his head. He thought: ah, for why am I so punished? and heaved himself upon an elbow to find a pannikin of water by his side, which he drank greedily. It was dark, a kind of velvet twilight; yet not so dark that he failed to make out that he lay prisoned in a narrow passage between tall casks that rose on either hand, groaning in their lashings. The quantity of light must mean day was outside, and he had lain a long time. Now he came afoot and wondered whether he should seek the deck, but decided contrary, since someone for some reason had brought him here, and there might be perils abroad. Sleep? Ah, no. He sat down to think out his situation, but could make no sense of any part, therefore abandoned the effort, and with a tinge of regret over his lost books, let his mind run along the line of Iren Dostal’s sweet rhymes until tears reached his eyes.

This could not occupy him forever, either; a profound and trembling ennui came on him, so his fingers made small motions tracing out an imaginary design. A long time; a step sounded, coming down from somewhere and then along among the casks. Krotz. He said:

“You must be careful. Oh, do not make a noise. He would hurt me if he knew I helped you. Here.”

In the gloom something was thrust against Rodvard’s hand which, by the touch, he knew for a dish of congealing food. “What is it?” he asked. “I was struck and lost remembrance.”

“You truly do not know? I thought it was feigned when you failed to speak as he said you were to be thrown overside, and he took the young Kjermanash—.” A shout sounded flatly from above. “Oh, I could hurt him. I must go.” The last words went dim as Krotz disappeared among the tall columns of casks and Rodvard was left to his meditations. The food was a stew of lamb, and it tasted like candle-grease.

Dark had come before the lad did again, with a meal even worse than its foregoer; trembling and unwilling to talk. Rodvard found himself fingering round the great casks from one curve to another, counting the planks in them and thinking whether there might not be some mathematical relation in the figures he counted. A futile thing to do, he told himself, wishing he had Dr. Remigorius’ philosophy, who often spoke of how a man should be complete in himself, since each one lives in a self-built cell of pellucid glass and may touch another only with, not through, that veil. Ah, bah! It is not true (he thought); I have been touched sharply enough by this very Remigorius, but for whom I’d not be in such a coil, with Lalette and Damaris, ideals thrown down, and on a mad voyage to nowhere ... There was something wrong with this, on which he could not put the finger—so now he fell to counting the planks again, or try to make a poem, ending the effort with an inward twitter, as though mice were running under his skin, as he waited, not with patience, for the next arrival of Krotz with his purloined food.

The lad was faithful, but always looking over his shoulder; trembling so that it was nearly impossible to get two consecutive words from him, by which it came about that there was no plan for Rodvard’s escape when the word was that Charalkis Head had come in sight. The ship would lie that night in the harbor of Mancherei’s brick-built capital, and what counsel now? Shifting his feet like a dancer, Krotz said he thought Rodvard might easily slip past the deck-guard into the water; but this scheme split on the fact that he lacked the skill of swimming. All was still undecided that night; a sharp sword of apprehension pricked his fitful sleep, nor were matters amended when he was fully roused by hammerings over the doors of his prison.

Kjermanash voices sounded their customary cackle. A shaft of light struck down, so brilliant that Rodvard’s dark-hooded eyes could scarcely bear it, and he shrank back along the cask-alley, hands over face. It was not the best means of hiding; down swung one of the Kjermanash to fix the tackle for lifting out the cargo, gave a whoop and pounced, being presently joined by other sailors. There was much laughter and excited talk in their own language; they patted Rodvard and tweaked the long-grown hair on his face, then urged him up the ladder deckward, with “Key-yip! Kee-yup!” and a sheath-knife that banged him in the crotch from behind as he climbed, blinking.

At the top he stumbled out on a deck where the mate stood, wrinkling eyes against the sun. “Puke-face, by the Service! I thought you had been fish-farts long ago. Ohé, captain! Here’s your cheating mechanician!”

Now Rodvard noticed that Captain Betzensteg was a few paces beyond, talking to a man in a decent grey jacket and a red-peaked hat, but wearing no badge of status. The one-eyed monster turned, and his full lips twisted. “Put him in the lazarette with chains, since he’s so slippery. Well have the trial at sea.”

The single eye looked on Rodvard (and it said one thing only—”Death.”)

The young man staggered; he cried desperately: “I appeal.”

“A captain’s judge on his own ship. I reject your appeal. Take him away.”

Said the man in grey; “A moment, Ser Captain. This is not good law for the dominion of Mancherei, in whose authority you now stand. We have one judge that stands above every mortal protestation, that is, the God of love, whose law was set forward by our Prophet.”

The captain snarled, black and sour; “This is my ship. I order you to leave it.”

The man in the grey jacket had a thin, ascetic face. One eyebrow jagged upward; “This is our port. I order you to leave it without discharging a single item of your cargo.”

“You dare not. Our Queen—”

“Has no rule in Mancherei. That was tried out at the time of the Tritulaccan war. Young ser, what is the ground of your appeal to our law?”

(The Blue Star was cold as cold on Rodvard’s heart, but there seemed a bright shimmer like a haze in the eyes that met his, and not a thought could he make out through it.) He said; “Because the captain of this ship would be both jury and accuser.”

“He lies,” growled Betzensteg. “My underofficer is the accuser, for that this man refused to repair a drop-gear.”

“That is a question of fact, to be decided by a court which can gain nothing from the decision,” said the man in grey, calmly. He swung to Rodvard. “Young man, do you place yourself in the justice of Mancherei, to accept the rule and decision of its authority?”

“Oh, yes,” cried Rodvard (willing to do anything to escape the terror of that baneful optic).

The man in grey produced a small paper scroll and touched Rodvard lightly on the arm. “Then I do declare you under the law of the Prophet of Mancherei; and you, Ser Captain, will interfere at your gravest peril. Young man, take your place in my boat.”

III

Rodvard was motioned to the bow of the craft, from which floated a banner with a device much resembling a dove, but it was in the false heraldry of grey on white, and hard to make out. Spray was salt on his face; as they reached a stone dock a ladder was lowered down, and he would have waited for the grey man, but the latter motioned him imperiously to go up first.

The pierside street hummed with an activity that to Rodvard seemed far more purposeful than that of languid Netznegon, with horses and drays, porters bearing packages, men on horseback or in little two-wheeled caleches, pausing to talk to each other under the striped shadows thrown across the wharfs by a forest of tall masts. Their clothes were different. From a tavern came a sound of song, though it was early in the morning. (It seemed to Rodvard that most of the people were more cheerful than those of his homeland; and he thought it might be that the Prophet’s rule had something to do with it.)

 
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