The Orphans of Raspay, page 1part #7 of Penric and Desdemona (Chronological) Series
Table of Contents
The Orphans of Raspay
About the Author
Books by Lois McMaster Bujold
A Penric & Desdemona novella
in the World of the Five Gods
Lois McMaster Bujold
Copyright (c) 2019 by Lois McMaster Bujold
Cover art and design by Ron Miller
Map by Ron Miller, Carol Collins, Karen Hunt, and Lois Bujold
THE ORPHANS OF RASPAY
The sickening crunch threw Penric out of his coffin-sized bunk and onto the deck of his scarcely larger cabin, and from deep sleep into frantically confused consciousness in the same moment. Blackness all around him; he called up his dark-sight from his demon Desdemona without thought, though there was nothing new to see in this narrow space. Everything that could move had been tied down in the last day, as the ship had pitched and rolled its way through an unexpected tempest that had blown them, well, he hoped the crew knew where, because he certainly did not.
The horrible motions and the groaning of the ship’s timbers had tamed, which explained how he’d finally fallen asleep despite his nausea and alarm. It did not explain the shouts and cries coming from outside, in a more terrified tenor than the workmanlike bellows of the crew manhandling the ship through the storm. Had they run onto rocks?
Des, what’s happening out there?
Her reply was terse. Pirates.
In the middle of the night? …How could two ships even find each other in such murk?
It’s morning, she replied. Apart from that, unhappy chance, I expect.
Pirates were a known hazard all along the coasts and islands, but more to the north than the south where Pen’s ship should have been, just a day or two out from Vilnoc and home. Curse it, he wanted to be there. Not dealing with this.
He was a Temple sorcerer, possessing the most potent chaos demon he knew of. Long before he’d stepped aboard this modest cargo carrier in Trigonie, he had imagined any number of clever magical defenses against such evil attacks, subtle enough not to reveal his nature and calling to the men on either vessel. He now realized that he had always pictured pirates happening on a bright afternoon, in quiet seas, with a good long time to see the villains coming.
Sorcerers, and the chaos demons that gave them their powers, were considered bad luck on a ship, and many captains would not take them aboard at all. Mild-mannered Temple scholar or no, Penric thus routinely traveled incognito when he was forced to take a sea passage. Pirates, he expected, would give even shorter shrift to the hazard of him: roughly the distance from the thwart to the heaving water.
Oh, yes, agreed Des grimly. Who, with her two centuries of experiences, knew the risks firsthand. Pen fought against the panicked memories flooding his mind from one of her unluckier prior possessors. He had plenty of current panic on his plate to attend to.
Because mixed among the voices crying in Adriac and Cedonian out there, he heard shouts in Roknari. Pen rubbed his sleep-numbed face and scrambled up, listening harder.
No seamen loved sorcerers, but the Roknari heretics, who abjured the fifth god Whom Penric served as a seminary-trained divine, considered all who worshipped Him an abomination, to be either forcibly converted to their foursquare faith, or inventively executed. Not that Pen worshipped his god exactly; their relationship was more complicated than that. Pirates, Pen tried to encourage himself, were unlikely to be passionate about the fine points of theology. On the other hand, they were a superstitious lot. If there was anything more likely than his sorcery to result in him being summarily tossed overboard, with or without torture first—
Attempted torture, Des put in with a snarl.
—it was certainly Pen’s calling as a divine of the white god. Both of which would be revealed by his possessions: the garb of his Order, his Temple braids, the letters and documents he carried, all packed away tight in a sealed chest stuffed under his bunk. Plus the three ancient scrolls he’d picked up in Trigonie, which he hadn’t even had a chance to read through yet, let alone translate, of which pirates were unlikely to recognize the value at all. He shuddered.
Turning, he knocked open the tiny port at the back of his cabin in the stern of the ship, admitting a leaden illumination. He didn’t think his shoulders would squeeze through, nor had he the least desire to anticipate their assailants’ murderous actions by throwing himself overboard, but, holding his wooden case up to the aperture, he thought it just might fit. Still he hesitated.
Des, impatiently, ran a line of hot disorder around under the lid, sealing it more firmly. It’s more likely to float than we are. Get rid of it.
Thuds like sledgehammer blows against his locked door made him flinch and shove it through. Lord god Bastard, Fifth and White, if ever you loved me, let this find me again somehow. More prayer than spell, surely. Too much noise to hear a splash, though the cries out on the ship were dying away.
Who had won? was a question answered by the brutish banging. As the door burst inward he turned and fell to his knees, something between supplication, surrender, and the thought that if the pirate came in swinging, his aim would be too high.
Pen blinked in the dingy gray light framing the hammerer’s broad shoulders, and reminded himself that he could see out better than the man could see in. Confirmed at once when the pirate said, in a voice of surprise, “A woman?”
For once, Penric did not rush to correct this annoying misapprehension, though Des muttered, Being female’s not as much help as you’d think. Electrum hair shining in a mussed queue, blue eyes, fine features, a lean build that might at a glance be mistaken for slender; the error had been made before. His pale coloration, common in the mountainous cantons where he’d been born, was rare here in the lands of Cedonia, Adria, and the Carpagamon islands surrounding this sea. In any case, the man did not at once try to bash in his blond head.
Which allowed Pen time to fling up his convincingly ink-stained hands and cry in common Adriac, “I’m a scribe!” The Don’t hurt me, I’m valuable! And harmless! was implied, if the fellow wasn’t too drunk on violence to care.
If he was, Pen readied a disabling attack on his nerves, regretting, not for the first time, the theological, no, divine proscription upon using Des’s magic to kill. Directly. Not that it would help much even if Pen could slay them all, because then what? He was lost on the sea in a ship no single man, even a trained sailor, could manage by himself. If only he could stay alive until they reached some shore, although preferably not in the Roknar Archipelago, it would be a different tale.
…What a strange moment he had come to that he was wishing for slavers.
The hammer man grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him through the cabin door and out onto the still-rolling deck, though waves were no longer washing up on it. As his knees scraped the boards, Pen was glad he’d worn tunic and trousers to bed, though he was sorry his feet were bare. The gloom of his cabin gave way to a steely dawn, the ashy lid of the clouds, directionless, matched by the slate of the sea. A second fellow leaned around his comrade to stare at their catch.
“No, it’s a man,” the door-breaker corrected himself, in a tone of disappointment. Pen kept his beseeching hands raised, hoping this discovery wouldn’t just result in the hammer swinging around for a blow. “Of a sort.”
“Father’s balls and Mother’s tits,” the second man swore, rudely. In Adriac, they were both speaking an island dialect of Adriac, so where had those Roknari shouts come from? Penric’s own ship’s crew had mostly spoken Cedonian, and he wasn’t hearing them
Twenty years, Pen thought irritably. It didn’t take much of a stretch to manage an authentic quaver: “Spare my hands!” Along with eyesight, hands were a scribe’s main tool and value. He wasn’t going to even suggest his eyes.
“Hah. Behave, or we’ll cut ‘em off,” the hammer man threatened, fulfilling Pen’s assessment. He bent and undid Pen’s belt, shoved the belt-knife sheath into his own trouser band, and efficiently used the leather strap to hitch Pen’s wrists painfully behind his back. Pen barely mourned the loss of the knife, slim and sharp more for mending quills than sticking into people. Stripped naked, he’d still be the least disarmed man on this vessel.
Vessels, he emended, finally getting a chance to look around.
The pirate ship was smaller and slimmer than the cargo coaster, jammed up with its starboard bow grappled to the coaster’s midships. One mast to their two, yet probably faster, given that most of the coaster’s sails were lashed down to deal with the storm, its hull lumbering with a bulk lading of timber and cheap ceramics. Their attacker wasn’t a military oarship, anyway, nor some government-appointed privateer. It had the grubby look of a typical all-trades Carpagamon-islands build, suitable for a bit of fishing, a bit of transport… a bit of opportunistic theft and lucrative kidnapping. Not the sort of arrogant venture that seized valuables from some rich merchanter, then sank the target and its passengers to be done with the trouble. Granted, such ships were much better defended. Pen found himself hoping for more-frugal pirates.
Still-wet blood smeared the damp deck here and there, but no dead bodies. Valueless corpses already stripped and tossed overboard? Up at the bow, the survivors of the crew, which by Des’s headcount and to Pen’s relief seemed to be most of them, were being shoved together and secured by a larger and presumably more vicious group of attackers.
His census was not done. Pen sighed inwardly and thought, Des, Sight.
A couple of fresh ghosts, still bearing the crisp if colorless forms of life and agitated by their deaths, whirled around the deck. Pen could not tell which sides they had been on. He mentally readied a prayer for their succor, though even as he watched one was drawn up and away to the Elsewhere by its god—the Father, Pen judged by a wintry tinge that he almost expected to trail a gust of snow in the damp, warm air. The other spirit seemed more lost.
The Bastard was, among many other things, the god of leftovers, last home to all the souls that no other of the Five would take. Criminals, executioners, orphans, whores, bastards, sorcerers, some artists and musicians, those with odd loves, and, yes, pirates. (On the whole, Pen much preferred to deal with prostitutes, with whom he got along fine.) Theologically, a divine of the Bastard was obliged to care for them all. He didn’t have to like them all, fortunately. Just fulfill his duties to them, if no one else could.
The dead could be sundered from the gods in two—no, three ways. A soul might refuse the union, through fear or hate or despair. Rarely, a soul might be so rank and spoiled from the sins of its life that even the Bastard wouldn’t take it. Or a soul might become mazed in that brief liminal space between life and the life beyond: looking back too hard to look forward, disoriented and confused, or trapped by uncanny events—Penric had untangled a few of those, memorably.
There was nothing especially uncanny about this darting ghost. He seemed to be a bandy-legged youth, late teens or early twenties, wearing the memory of the clothes he’d just died in: a sailor’s trousers and tunic that might have come from either crew. It was disorientation and despair that mired him here, in Pen’s reasonably practiced diagnosis.
Pen was already on his knees, though his hands, tied behind his back, could not sign the tally of the gods. He could tap his fingers to his thumb, and did, mutely naming a deity for each digit. He dared not speak the prayers for the dead aloud, revealing his calling to his captors. But such eulogies were mainly for mourners. Silent speech would do for the gods. And for the dead.
The ghost drew near as he began to unwind the words in his head, his tongue moving behind closed lips. More a warm-up than anything else yet, till he could guess what this snag was. The boy just looked bewildered. Pen switched from Adriac to the Cedonian language and started again. Still no dice. The boy’s attention tightened as it dawned on him that Pen was the only person here who could see him. Though Pen could not hear him; the bodiless mouth pushed no sounds through the air. But its shapings gave Pen the clue he sought.
Pen switched to Roknari. His Roknari accent was a little archaic, Des had informed him, though intelligible to those commanding either the high or the vile versions of the language. Ah. He’s a Roknari Quadrene. Refused by the Father of Winter or the Son of Autumn, the preferred and expected gods, so presumably one of the pirates. What are you? the boy’s wide eyes cried, taking in the peculiar spiritual aura of the blond stranger who held a demon. Which with Des, Pen knew, likely looked fathoms deep.
“If you were going to hold to your foursquare faith,” Pen found himself whispering aloud, “you should have picked a different line of work. Or the other way around. Too late now. The white god invites you—though not for long.”
Pen could feel, though not see, never see, that huge Presence, somewhere on the other side of the air. So could Des, for she retreated within him, muttering, I wish at least you wouldn’t bait Them.
Not my doing, Des. Death opened a door to the gods as nothing else could—except for saints, Pen supposed, which he certainly was not. The gods in turn were the only force that could destroy chaos demons, once they had anchored themselves in some living being, hence Des’s swallowed fear.
Sometimes, Des, I actually have to do the job I vowed to do. Though not for the Temple.
Yes, yes… she grumbled, but—valiantly, Pen thought—held her powers available to him in the teeth of this divine gale. She had grown worlds better at this in the thirteen years he’d held her. Confident in his protection?
“It will be all right,” Pen told the boy, on exactly no evidence. Pen wasn’t sure if staring fiercely at people until they believed him was a skill of divines or of dissemblers, or if there was a difference. Point was, someone who’d let other people tell him what to think all his young life might need permission to change even at the last gasp. And this one wasn’t going to get more chances now to grow into his gods, was he? “It will be very well. Five gods bless you on your journey.”
Do they? the distraught boy mouthed.
“Yes,” said Pen. “Though only one holds out His hand, I promise His grip is sure, and will not drop you into any imagined hell.”
Into strangeness, yes; Pen had seen hints enough of the strangeness of the world on the other side of reality. One of his seminary masters had argued that it was as impossible to truly grasp as for a child still in the womb to imagine its breathing life beyond the pains of birth. Pen still meditated occasionally and uneasily on that metaphor.
Pen wanted a year to instruct, to counter whatever lies the Quadrene teachers had instilled in the youth that were dividing him from his choosing-if-not-chosen god, but neither of them was going to get it. Yet… whatever Pen had so clumsily said and done, it must have been enough to tilt the necessary moment of assent, since ghost and Presence disappeared abruptly from his Sight.
Pen didn’t even get a holy pat on the head for his pains. This wasn’t saint-work. Pen hadn’t, couldn’t, channel a god; he was otherwise already inhabited. Arguing with a human on the god’s behalf, now, that he might do. He let the visions go with a huff of relief.
The respite was short-lived. He’d taken his attention away from the world of matter for a little too long. Evidently thinking his captive had been gibbering in hysteria, hammer-man slapped Pen’s face, fortunately with his open hand and not his weapon—which in the seeping light turned out to be a rusty old Cedonian army-issue war hammer, Pen noted dizzily—and grabbed him by the scruff of his tunic to drag him along the deck. Pen let himsel
“What have you got yourself there?” another rough voice asked.
“White rabbit.” The grip shook Pen, cruelly amused. “Says he’s a scribe. What d’you want done with him?”
“Could be a prize. Or dinner. Drop him in the small hold with the other virgins.”
“Is that safe?”
A thick hand checked the security of Pen’s looped belt, lifting his arms up in ways they weren’t meant to bend. Pen yelped, wishing he were acting. “What’s he going to do with his hands tied behind his back? We’ll deal with him later.”
Safe for who? Pen wondered as he was hoisted over the rail by his two finders and flung down onto the deck of the other ship. He had a quick, swinging impression of mast and boom, spars and ropes; then a heavy wooden lattice set in the deck was heaved out of the way, and he was chucked into a dark, square hole. Feet first, thankfully.
He plummeted only a little more than his own height, but without his arms for balance he landed crookedly and fell sideways to smack into a bulkhead, then flop to the floor. He lay for a moment catching his breath as the lattice thudded back into place overhead, a black weave set with graying squares. The dark smelled of old timber and tar, fish and rancid oil, spilled stale wine, with a more recent overlay of piss and sour vomit. He’d been in worse oubliettes, though not lately.
More importantly, he wasn’t alone.
…Or less alone than he usually wasn’t. He had only to want his dark-sight, and it was there, stripping away the shadow. Thank you, Des.
Any time. Her curiosity seemed equal to his own; her alarm, now their captors were out of hammer range and the soul-harvesting gods had decamped, less.
Grunting, Pen heaved himself upright and rested one shoulder against the bulkhead. In the corner of the space, as far from him as they could creep—which was only about six feet—two small figures cowered.
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