The orphans of raspay, p.4

The Orphans of Raspay, page 4

 part  #7 of  Penric and Desdemona (Chronological) Series


The Orphans of Raspay

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  “Well, yes, that too.”

  Another note. “Huh. You may be able to save your own tail.”

  “I plan to.” Pen bit back tarter remarks. True or not.

  Thankfully, the clerk waved him away before he could tangle himself further, and called up the next prisoners. Pen towed the girls to the freed bench and settled them close.

  “Call me Uncle Penric from here on out,” he whispered to them in Roknari. “I’ve claimed your mother was my half-sister, and that I’ve just found you. It may or may not help keep us together, but it seems the best gamble.”

  “Would slavers care about that?” said Lencia doubtfully.

  Young apparently did not mean ignorant. “No, but they care about ransoms.”

  “Oh.” She pressed her lips together, looking reassured. Seuka stared at him as if he had just performed some amazing magical trick. …Which he could, but Bastard’s tears, not here.

  I like these girls, Des remarked cheerily. Let’s keep them.

  At least as far as Vilnoc. Yes, any search for their elusive papa was best performed from the safety of home, at leisure. Preferably by letter—Pen had friends and colleagues in Lodi he might draw upon—because once he stepped ashore he was determined not to leave his and Nikys’s neat little house again even if dragged by ox-team. He had ways of dropping an ox-team…

  But not an archdivine, Des observed. Or a duke.

  Or a god. Pen sighed concession. Although if the merchant Getaf was found, he might be persuaded to reimburse the curia for the expenditure on his children’s behalf, soothing the comptroller.

  The aged family disposed of, the stout Adriac merchant came up next to speak for his friend and beg clean water and medical care, only to be told he had to wait for their next destination, and the less trouble he gave, the sooner they would be taken there. Pen had to wonder what quality of physicians might be found in this backwater. Pirates and fishermen both were prone to dire injuries, though, so perhaps the local devotees of the Mother’s Order had practice.

  The skinny fellow then proceeded to argue for considerations due to his claimed status as a divine of the Father’s Order, which Pen doubted and the clerk did not care about. It only ended when the captain rolled back in, soot-smudged and irritated. Regrettably, it seemed he and his crew had managed to put out the galley fire. That was all right. Pen could wait.

  The prisoners were all collected again by the pirates and the armed port-shed guards, to be led on a march up into town. The captain was briefly interrupted by a trio of tough-looking, tattooed townswomen demanding to know where their husbands were, evidently among his crew detailed to bring in the prize ships, to whom he gave temporizing excuses that plainly did not please them. Escaping this hazard, he managed to escort his… catch, a revealing term Pen thought, to another large building, this in the more usual whitewashed stucco of the islands. Thick-walled, it was cool and shadowed when they stepped within.

  Pen hadn’t been sure whether to expect a prison or an auction block, but this seemed neither. The front room was spacious and paved with a smooth cement, a set of stairs at one end leading to the upper story. Dormitories, I wager, murmured Des. Other passages led off it to who knew what, though presumably including a kitchen, because some trestle tables were folded against a wall, and a few benches were scattered about. Holding place, then. It seemed underfilled with only Pen’s party. Did it not hold people for long? Although two more ships’ worth of unhappy sailors were yet expected.

  Maybe there was some more secure prison for violent captives. How big was this island? Might there be wild areas where a runaway could conceal himself, or other towns or villages with boats? The sea discouraged Pen, but a trained sailor might view it as more road than moat.

  It appeared the ransom candidates were to be cared-for, after a rudimentary fashion. First, the guards herded them all out to a small closed courtyard, where they were permitted a wash and drink at a wall-spigot that emptied into a trough, draining from there away to a channel under the wall. Their several days crowded in a hold no larger than what Pen had shared with the Corva sisters had broken down any bodily reticence among them, so the men stripped to wash well, sharing around the chunk of coarse soap provided, and the rinse bucket. Pen resignedly bore the covert stares from all alike that he won during this. The chance to scour off the ship-stink was worth it.

  The old woman washed by halves, everyone politely ignoring the inadequacy of her old husband’s attempt to shield her modesty by interposing his filthy shirt held out as a screen. Pen in turn prevailed upon her to help him with the girls’ much-needed ablutions. Pen grimaced to don his dirty clothes again, but he supposed everyone else’s changes were on their prior ship as well. Would such personal effects be returned when the ship came in, or just be stolen? He didn’t hold out much hope for his own.

  While this was going on, an islander midwife with a green sash around her tunic, cursory salute to the Mother’s Order, appeared with a kit to attend to the cut-up Adriac merchant, whose name was Aloro, and the old couple’s son with the broken forearm. The arm needed to be rebroken and reset, in Pen’s view, but instead received some horsing around that left it scarcely improved and the son fainting. The midwife at least provided him with a sling. She cleaned and bandaged Aloro’s sword cuts, several on his arms and a longer gash across his torso. The little ordeal left the man supine and gasping, clutching his fearful friend Arditi’s sweating hand till the plump pink flesh bunched white. The wounds were red and ugly with infection, healing barely holding its own.

  Don’t mix in, muttered Des, uneasy at Pen’s restive, reflexive evaluations. At least till we’re sure we can afford it. Nevertheless, under the guise of assisting the midwife, Pen did manage to slip the injuries a general boost of uphill magic, his reserve from the chaos planted on the ship not yet leaked away.

  Back in the main room, an islander man and woman appeared and conscripted the few able-bodied, headed by Pen, to set up the trestles and help carry food from the back kitchen: plain but wholesome fare of flat bread, cheese, olives and sardines in oil, dried figs, and heavily watered wine. Pen was amused when the captives begged ‘Learned Pozeni’, in his capacity as a divine of the Father, to bless the meal. This he managed to passably do, which incidentally revealed by the return tally-signs that all those present were Quintarian or chose to appear so—apart from the Jokonan girls, who, adrift on the unfamiliar speech, sat mute and motionless. The food was abundant enough that Pen had no need to exert himself to make sure his ‘nieces’ received their share. So, they were not to be starved into submission.

  Upon inquiry, Pen delivered a tale to their tablemates, in urbane Lodi Adriac, about encountering the sought sisters by wildest chance in the pirate hold, surely a blessing of the white god. This dramatic and unlikely fiction was accepted wide-eyed by the old woman, and with narrower skepticism by the rest. Pen wished he could be as sure the mystical assertion was untrue. In return he was gifted with the unlucky travelers’ own tales, none remarkably different from what he had already construed.

  By the time they cleared the trestles, the relaxation induced by the wash and the meal had Pen swaying on his feet, hoping to be led to those dormitories soon. Both the ease and the hope evaporated abruptly when the pirate captain, whose name Pen had learned was Valbyn, returned, trailed by the port clerk with the sheaf of his pages in hand. Totch with his truncheon tagged along. Two new men, one with an attendant servant, followed them in through the door.

  The shorter, sturdier newcomer had dark hair and eyes. The tunic, trousers, and leather shoes he wore might have belonged to any active merchant around this sea, but the rings on his hands were heavy gold, and his sleeveless coat, its embroidered hem swinging at his knees, was richly dyed in a dark red. The younger man who dogged him, carrying a writing box, had similar height and coloration, if more humble dress. They might or might not be related, but they both looked very Darthacan.

  Pen’s guess was confirmed when the older murm
ured in that tongue, “Watch out for these islanders. The port officials won’t hesitate to collude with the free captains to foist off any rubbish they can’t saddle on their Roknari neighbors.” The younger man nodded earnestly.

  The taller, leaner arrival had skin sun-burnished to a gleaming bronze, possibly enhanced with a touch of oil. His reddish-bronze hair was bound up in a complicated braid around his head, a few artful ringlets allowed to dangle at his temples. A wide-cut sleeveless tunic fell to his ankles, allowing him to sensibly dispense with trousers in this heat. The bleached cloth was caught up at his waist by a belt, studded with colored gleams that might be jewels or glass, supporting a long dagger in a tooled scabbard. Good leather sandals, well broken-in, protected his feet. Like his Darthacan counterpart’s, the garb seemed everyday working dress for an established trader, suggesting neither man felt need here to impress anyone.

  The two exchanged familiar, measured chin-ducks. “Captain Falun,” said the Darthacan. “Good to see you well,” receiving in return a slightly dry, “Master Marle. I trust your last business prospered.” Both in thickly accented but serviceable trade Adriac, establishing the language of the hour, and the hint that neither was privy to the other’s tongue.

  “Tolerably, tolerably,” said the swarthy Marle. “Yourself?”

  “The sea was kind to us, last voyage.”

  “Always a blessing.” The Darthacan, who had to be Quintarian, politely did not suggest from which god.

  “Aye,” agreed the Quadrene captain, as politely not quibbling.

  Signaling business, not theology, was to be the order of the day. Really, Pen was relieved.

  The house servants brought out two chairs graced with cushions for the important guests. Customers? Totch, waving his truncheon more in gesture than threat, had the captives drag over their benches to the near wall and seat themselves, instructing them to line up in a row and keep their mouths shut, and maybe they’d get some good news.

  Doubt that, murmured Des.

  Mm, thought Pen back. He whispered in Roknari to the intimidated girls, who’d tucked themselves up one on each side of him, “I think one of those men might be here about ransoms. Be quiet and wait, till I find out what’s happening.”

  They both nodded trustingly. Pen concealed his wince at their baseless faith in him.

  The Darthacan and the port clerk put their heads together over the entry papers. The assistant opened his writing box and set up to take notes. Captain Falun, Captain Valbyn following, rose and wandered over to the array of captives.

  Falun sniffed in disapproval at the old couple. He made their middle-aged son unship his swollen, empurpled arm from the sling and hold it out; pressing long, strong fingers down it, at which the man choked back a cry of pain, he frowned at Valbyn and said in Roknari, “You’ve damaged this one beyond my use. That’s never going to heal straight.”

  Valbyn shrugged. “Marle will take the family whole, then.”

  “Marle is welcome to them.” Falun looked over the somewhat younger pair of Adriac merchants with equal doubt. Or feigned doubt, Pen realized, likely the first moves in some delicate dance around prices. “Same problem with this fellow. Looks feverish to me. Would he even last the trip home to Rathnatta?” He touched a palm to Aloro’s forehead; the man jerked back. Pen thought the merchant might be catching a few words of the Roknari, and all of the interplay.

  So the dapper Falun was a Rathnattan, specifically; that semi-independent princedom being either the northernmost large island of the Carpagamon chain or the westernmost of the Archipelago, depending on how the map was divided in any given year.

  “You could likely sweat the fat off of this one,” Valbyn remarked with a nod of his head at the partner Arditi, supporting Aloro as he sagged on the bench.

  “Or he would drop at his oar of an apoplexy.” Both trader and pirate were haggling in a low dialect of Roknari, with the special endings and honorifics left out, fluid and quick. Pen suspected Falun, at least, could rise to court Roknari at need.

  Falun moved on to the skinny Carpagamon. “Really, Valbyn. Can’t you do better?”

  “He says he’s a divine of the Father.”

  “And you believe him?”

  “Doesn’t matter to me. If it’s true, Marle will scrape his ransom out of the Temple somehow.”

  Falun stepped along to the next bench. His gaze skipped approvingly over the girls, then rose to Pen and stopped. “Oh.” He gave the exclamation a musical lilt, amused and inquiring.

  Valbyn suppressed a smirk. “Aye. Claims he’s a scribe in the curia of Orbas.”

  Falun caught up Pen’s hands—Pen, pretending to less command of Roknari than he actually possessed, set his teeth and did not resist—and looked them over. “That, I will believe. Daughter’s blessings, those are beautiful.”

  “Goes with the rest of him, wouldn’t you agree?”

  Falun stared fascinated into Pen’s face. “Where are those eyes from? I’ve never seen the like.”

  “The cantons, he claims. But no family left there. He’s relying on the curia for his ransom.”

  “Seems optimistic.” Falun released his hold and stepped back. For once, he did not offer some price-suppressing disparagement. Pen considered coughing in a consumptive manner, but his mouth was too dry.

  No matter, said Des. We can deal with him later. In so many ways.

  Des’s prior rider Learned Ruchia had been a sometime-spy, Pen was reminded, if a generation ago in another country. Perhaps that was how Des had learned to listen prick-eared and not interrupt a flow of useful information.

  “He claims these Jokonan girls are his nieces,” the pirate captain put in.

  The Corva sisters, who for a change could understand most of what was being said despite the local accents, both nodded tremulously and gripped Pen’s hands as if rescuing them.

  “Seems unlikely,” said Falun. “Weren’t they from two different ships? What does he hope to gain by the tale?”

  “Good question, since as far as I know they first met yesterday at dawn, when we slung him into their hold. Future concubines?”

  “Or present ones, given some men’s tastes. I suppose they’d be grateful.” He eyed Pen in new speculation.

  Later, Pen schooled himself. I will take him apart in ways he cannot even imagine.

  Oh come, said Des. It’s a logical speculation from his point of view. Surely you’ve learned that much about the world by now.

  Bloody-minded demon. Though Des, through some of her less fortunate riders’ earlier lives, not only knew the worst of the world but had experienced a nasty share of it. He chose wisdom and let the point rest.

  The sisters, insulted on Pen’s behalf, were looking mulishly at the Rathnattan trader. Which meant they, too, knew more about the world than was comfortable. He gripped their hands back, silently urging silence.

  A call in trade Adriac of “All right,” from Marle interrupted this. “I’m ready.”

  Falun stepped back, and Marle stepped up and joined him, looking unenthusiastically over the captives. Although he blinked when he came to Pen, and pursed his lips in speculation at the sisters.

  Falun swept a hand down the row, and said to his colleague, or rival, “You can have that lot, for all of me. I’ll take those three.” He tapped a finger toward Pen and the sisters.

  “Not so fast,” said Captain Valbyn. “You’ll need to outbid Master Marle.”

  “What have you calculated for them?” Falun asked, and Marle obligingly extracted the relevant paper from his scribe and showed his arithmetic. Falun frowned. “I’d like a closer look at the blond lad.”

  Valbyn’s lips stretched in a piratical smile. “Very well. Let’s take him into a better light.”

  At truncheon-prod, Pen let himself be marched back out to the little water-court. There, Valbyn shoved him into the full sunlight and made him turn around. Slight gasps from both flesh-merchants made Pen realize the pirate hadn’t been easing his captive’s discomfit
ure by setting the examination in private, but rather, was trying to boost his price.

  “Make him take off his tunic,” said Falun, an order which Valbyn translated. Pen complied. Falun walked around him making muted noises like a man inspecting a horse. A palm to Pen’s jaw did not quite result in a perusal of his teeth. Instead, Falun said in Roknari, “He’s not cut, is he? He’s so smooth!”

  One of Des’s little tricks made shaving as trivial a task as wiping a cloth over his face; maybe he shouldn’t have slipped it past during the recent wash-up…

  Valbyn, switching back to Falun’s tongue, offered, “No, look at his build.”

  Eunuchs emasculated at a very young age did grow differently, though the one cut man Pen knew as a friend, of sorts, had met his fate well after puberty, and was indistinguishable in outline from any other slim, fit assassin of forty. Except, yes, for his beardlessness.

  Falun yanked Pen’s trousers down to briefly check, nearly losing his, well, not life, but perhaps permanent use of that arm. The Rathnattan grinned at Pen’s angry hiss. Stepping back, he let Pen put himself to rights without further molestation.

  “He’s been quite docile, so far,” Valbyn pointed out.

  “Maybe.” Falun’s bright eyes narrowed at Pen. “If not, it wouldn’t be my problem. How many languages do you say he writes?”

  “Adriac, Cedonian, whatever benighted tongue they speak beyond the great mountains where he came from, and he even has a start on Roknari.”


  “I’ve seen him whispering to those Jokonan girls. They seem to understand him.”

  “Quintarian, I suppose.”

  “Must be.”

  Falun smirked at Pen and switched back to trade Adriac. “So you think the demon-god will answer your prayers, Sea-eyes?”

  Sadly, no. I think the demon-god employs me to answer them for Him. Lazy Bastard.

  Des snickered unhelpfully.

  Pen managed a shrug in reply to Falun. Some Quintarians with a deep religious calling might risk martyrdom, proclaiming their faith in the teeth of such mockery. Pen thought if his god wanted him martyred, He could bloody do it without Pen’s help.

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