Gavin Guile’s palms bled a warm, thick gray around the slick oar in his hands. He’d thought he had respectable calluses for a man who worked mainly with words, but nothing prepared you for ten hours a day on the oar.
“Strap!” Number Seven said, raising his voice for the foreman. “More bandages for His Holiness.”
That elicited a few pale grins, but the galley slaves didn’t slow. The big calfskin drums were thumping out a cetaceous pulse. It was a pace the experienced men could maintain all day, though with difficulty. Each bench held three men, and two could keep this pace for long enough to allow their oarmate to drink or eat or use the bucket.
Strap came over with a roll of cloth. She motioned for Gavin to present his hands. Strap was the burliest woman Gavin had ever seen, and he had known every female Blackguard for the last twenty years. He pulled his bloody claws off the oars. He couldn’t open or close his fingers, and it wasn’t even noon yet. They would row until dark; five more hours, this time of year. She unrolled the cloth. It seemed crusty.
Gavin supposed there were worse things to worry about than infection. But as she wrapped his hands with efficient motions, albeit without gentleness, he smelled something vibrant, resin overlaid with something like cloves, and heard the tiny shivering splintering of breaking superviolet luxin.
For a moment, the old Gavin was back, his mind reaching for how he could take advantage of their foolishness. It was difficult to draft directly from luxin breaking down, but difficult was nothing for Gavin Guile. He was the Prism; there was nothing he couldn’t–
There was nothing he could do. Not now. Now, he was blind to colors. He couldn’t draft anything. In the threadbare light of the slowly swinging lanterns, the world swam in shades of gray.
Strap finished tying the knots at the back of his hands and growled. Gavin lifted weary arms back to the oar.
“F-f-fights infection,” said one of his oarmates, Number Eight, but some of the men called him Fukkelot. Gavin had no idea why. There was a loose community here with their own slang and inside jokes, and he wasn’t part of it.. “Down here in the belly, infection’ll kill you quick as a kick.”
Superviolet luxin fighting infection? The Chromeria didn’t teach that, but that didn’t make it wrong. There was plenty they didn’t know. But he thought instead about his brother, Dazen, who had slashed his own chest open. How had Dazen not succumbed to infection down in the hell Gavin had made him?
Had the madness that had convinced Gavin there was no way he could let his brother out not been madness at all, but only a fever?
Not that it mattered now. He remembered again the blood and brains blowing out of Dazen’s skull, painting the wall of his cell after Gavin had shot him.
Gavin put his bandaged hands back on the well-worn oar, the grip lacquered with sweat and blood and the oil of many hands.
“Back straight, Six,” Number Eight said. “The lumbago’ll kill ya if you do it all with your back.” Now that many words with no cursing was just a miracle.
Eight had somehow adopted Gavin. Gavin knew it wasn’t pure charity that led the wiry Angari to help him. Gavin was the third man on their oar. The less work Gavin did, the more Seven and Eight would have to do to keep time, and Captain Gunner wasn’t taking it easy on the speed. He wasn’t keen on staying close to the site of The Fall of Ru.
In another week, the Chromeria would have pirate hunters out: privateers given writs to hunt the slave takers who’d swept in upon the wrecks of the invasion fleet, saving men in order to pressgang them. They’d look to ransom those who had relatives with means, but many would doubtless head straight back to the great slave yards of Ilyta, where they could offload their human cargo with impunity. Others would seek out nearer slave markets, where unscrupulous officials would forge the documents saying these slaves were taken legally in far distant ports. Many a slave would lose his tongue so he couldn’t tell the tale.
This is what I led my people to.
Gavin had killed a god, and still lost the battle. When the bane had risen from the depths, it had smashed the Chromeria’s fleet, their hopes thrown overboard like so much jetsam.
If I had been declared promachos, it wouldn’t have happened.
The truth was, Gavin hadn’t been too hard; he’d been too soft. He shouldn’t have only killed his brother; he should have killed his father, too. Even up to the end, if he’d helped Kip stab Andross Guile instead of trying to separate them, Andross would be dead, and Gavin would be secure and in his wife’s arms right now.
“You ever think that you weren’t hard enough?” Gavin asked Seven.
The man rowed three big sweeps before he finally answered. “You know what they call me?”
“Guess I heard someone call you Orholam? Because you’re seat number seven?” As six was the number of man, so was seven Orholam’s number.
“That ain’t why.”
Friendly sort. “Why then?”
“You don’t get answers to your questions because you don’t wait for ’em,” Orholam said.
“I’ve done my share of waiting, old man,” Gavin said.
Two more long sweeps, and Orholam said, “No. To all three. That’s three times no. Some men pay attention when things come in threes.”
Not me. Go to hell, Orholam. And the one you’re named after, too.
Gavin grimaced against the familiar agony of rowing and settled back into the tempo, walking through the two and a half paces that the sweeps covered at his end of the oar. The Bitter Cob had a hundred and fifty rowers, eighty men in this deck and seventy above. Their oars interlaced at big outriggers that minimized the fouling, and openings between decks allowed the sound of drums and shouted orders to pass between the upper and lower galley decks.
But not only sound passed between the upper and lower decks. Gavin had thought his sense of smell was deadened after a few days, but there always seemed some new scent to assail him. The Angari fancied themselves a clean people, and maybe they were–Gavin hadn’t seen any signs of dysentery or sweating sickness among the galley slaves, and each night, buckets made the rounds of the slaves, the first full of soapy water for them to slop on themselves and the second full of clean sea water to rinse. Whatever slopped free, of course, dribbled down on the slaves in the lower hold and, dirtied further, into the bilge. The decks were always slippery, the hold hot and damp, the sweat constant, the portholes providing inadequate ventilation unless the wind was high, the dribbles of liquid from the deck above that dripped onto Gavin’s head and back suspiciously malodorous.
Footsteps pattered down the stairs, the light step of a veteran sailor. Fingers snapped near Gavin, but he didn’t even look over. He was a slave now; he needed to act the part or be beaten for his insolence. But he didn’t need to cower. On the other hand, he did still need to row, and that took all his strength.
Strap took Gavin’s hands off the oar, unlocked the manacles, whistled to Number Two. Numbers One and Two were at the top of the fluid slave hierarchy, allowed to sit up front and rest, running errands without chains on and only required to row when another slave got sick or fainted from exhaustion.
After Strap manacled his hands behind his back, Gavin looked at Captain Gunner, standing at the top of the stairs out of the hold. Gunner was Ilytian, with midnight black skin, a wild curly beard, a fine brocaded doublet worn open over his naked torso, loose sailor’s pants. He had the handsome intensity of madmen and prophets. He talked to himself. He talked to the sea. He admitted no equal on heaven or earth–and in the firing of guns of any size, he was justified in that. Not long ago, Gunner had been jumping off a ship Gavin had just lit on fire and poked full of holes. Gavin had spared Gunner’s life on a whim.
The good you do is what kills you.
“Come on up, little Guile,” Captain Gunner said. “I’m running out of reasons to keep you alive.”