Chapter 11:

Lost at Sea

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess

“This is denigrating,” I said. “I’m a citizen of this country. I should be above this.”

Of all the places to ride, why did the guard have to make us ride in the cage?

“Do you want to row?” said the guard who had spent the last ten minutes wheezing for breath.

I sat down and watched the Infamy grow in between the bars, minute by minute.

Just beyond I could see the quarantine ship, a faint boat carrying nurses drifting out to carry supplies. They must have docked from across the western ocean, waiting to bring in visitors for the festival. They didn’t need to sit in a cage, I thought bitterly.

The Infamy had once been the premier warship of the Empire, back when we were the Holy Empire, a great massive creature that had fingers across the continent in every country, bringing back people and spices across great oceans and plains to feed the creature that was the silted harbor it lived in now.

We weren’t the Empire anymore. We were just one country, and it was just one ship, with no sails and rotting masts, poking into the sky like the remnants of an ancient wildfire. The hull was wide and seemed almost clownishly mis-sized for the harbor, as if it was only meant to be on the open ocean. It had been re-painted with the name Infamy, the old paint and the new both flaking.

I didn’t look down into the water as we rowed up. Once you were put on the Infamy, you only left one way. A burial at sea.

“This mead had better be worth it,” said the first guard, as he threw up ropes to haul us in. I had spent most of my life on land. As such, I thought I made a very noble cry of alarm when the boat began rocking and we were pulled in.

The other guard gave me a nasty scowl. “No need to begin screaming,” he said. “You’re held in, remember? Not like you can fall out.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about!” I said.

I held my tongue after that, though. Instead of focusing on the way the boat felt unsteady under my feet as I climbed the rope ladder thrown down for us, I tried to put my mind towards the problem.

How did one solve a mystery?

I had only solved one mystery in my life. The case of the missing frying pan. I had first investigated the crime scene- my empty kitchen, which had given me no evidence- before making up my list of suspects. Duran had been surprisingly adamant about his innocence, claiming he had been spending all of his time in the front room of the inn listening to the bard. His father had obviously been eliminated, due to being passed out in a drunken haze. The guests at the inn at the time had all claimed their innocence.

I had finally found my culprit when circling the inn in an angry haze. I had found a flattened part of ground, and finally tracked it to the outer part of the trees, where the stray dog was chewing on the handle. The remnants of a bone had revealed it had dragged it out of the kitchen, meat in the pan and all.

I pulled myself up on deck on the Infamy, groaning with the effort and already feeling a bit seasick, and decided the mystery this time probably wasn’t going to be as easy. For one, there were no dogs to blame it on.

“Right,” I said. “Where’s my…sweetling.”

There were more guards on deck. They were wearing some combination of a naval uniform and the guard uniform worn in the city. It looked dreadfully uncomfortable. They were also all sweating buckets, even though it was a cool morning for summer in the city. With the breeze going off the water, and the sun low, I could almost convince myself I was somewhere nice instead of in the heart of the Capitol.

The dark-haired guard in front of me mopped at his forehead again. “About that,” he said.

“We’re not here to make trouble,” said Apis.

“Not much trouble,” added Duran. “We’re just here to help.”

“I’m here to see my son,” I finished, stepping in front of both of them. “I’m going to make trouble for everyone if I can’t.” I glanced towards the mead. “Also, I’ll want the mead back.”

“Please,” said the guard hastily. He held up his hands like a shield. “Let’s not move quickly. Allow us to tell you the full story.”

I continued forward. Mostly the movement was because I didn’t like standing that closely to the edge of the ship, where I was too aware of the steep drop towards the ocean, but I liked how the guard looked nervous about it. He stepped back, avoiding my eyes.

“Maybe it’s better if you see the cell." He scratched at his neck. “That is- well- follow me."

He straightened his belt, where a club sat, and turned around. The rest of the guards, milling around on deck, said nothing. I saw no prisoners.

“Do you not let the prisoners out to see any fresh air?” I asked.

“They’re on lock-down. After…”

He didn’t continue. I felt Apis and Duran stepping closer to me as we entered the ship. The guard picked up a lantern from the outside of the ship and his trembling hand had to try three separate times to light a match before it lit. He finally took the lantern off the hook and pulled the door open.

The door revealed a staircase, clearly built after the Infamy was taken into harbor based on the lack of rot. It was wide enough for two people and spiraled down. The ship had three floors. We passed the first one, where men were groaning in pain and calling out towards us.

On the second, he stepped into an archway. We passed several more barred cells. Most held four to five men, all chained to different parts of the floor with great hooks that looked like they were meant for a butchery. One of them bared his teeth at me. Another lay on the floor, limp and sweating. A pair of prisoners were at the end of their chains, trying to get at each other and yelling vague insults.

It was all muted, like we’d descended underwater even though I knew we still floated over the ocean’s surface. Everything was hotter and more humid. I could feel sweat beading up at the small of my back, where the multiple layers of my clothing seemed a horrible idea suddenly.

Apis had gone silent, his face uncharacteristically solemn. His shoulders were straight, but he continued to make eye contact with every prisoner we passed, nodding to them as if he was actually a solicitor. Duran was crowding close to me, the clanking of the sword the only sound next to the clattering of his boots.

The guard trod on, ignoring the way the prisoners called out insults and begged for scraps. He focused only forwards, on the narrow path between the cells. He headed directly towards the end of the ship.

There was one cell at the bow of the ship, with both hulls for walls and larger than the rest. The door was locked, but it was empty. All of the hooks lay unused. I could see old scrapes across the floor, as if some great animal had been locked inside. I glanced over spots of dark stains and hoped they weren’t blood.

I thought again of the age of letterboys. They started at nine. The eldest were fourteen, maybe fifteen. Duran’s age.

I glanced towards him. He was pale, twitching towards me. For once, he wasn’t grabbing towards the sword, even as one of the men in the cells called out that he could put it to good use. How could they have possibly put those boys in this place?

“Well?” there was something else in the cell, now that my eyes adjusted. A single gray lump. It looked like cloth. “Where’s my son?”

“You have to understand,” said the guard. “We check on the prisoners every hour.”

“Not like it did much good!” called a prisoner. There was laughter.

“Shut it!” he called. He slammed his club against the bars, but there was even further laughter, echoing in the wooden hull. I could hear it going up and up, through the other floors. It was only once it finally died down, a single laugh echoing from somewhere below, that he continued. “We found it like this half an hour ago,” he said.

Before I asked, he was reaching for his belt and unlocking the door to the cell. With a click, it swung open. I stepped inside without waiting for permission.

In the center of the cell sat a set of clothing, nearly folded. A gray cloak, the perfect color of the sky as it fell into dusk. A soft pair of pants, the same dusk-color, and a dark shirt. A dark cap with a short brim to finish it off, with a pigeon feather set in the brim.

I knelt down and pressed a hand along the hem of the cloak. Burn-marks covered it. It smelled of smoke.

“We had twelve of them in here,” said the warden. “That’s the only set of clothes left behind.”