This is Issue #26 of DeathWatch, the ongoing serial.
Go to the Serials page if you need to start at the beginning, or to find the rest.
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The sudden shock of cold water was disorienting, frightening. Jet was torn from his bittersweet dreams with a cry, struggling to get to his feet, coughing, but as he came up off his knees, there was a heavy rattle, and he found himself thrown back down. Weak and dizzied, he shook his head, and lifted his hands up to put them to his throat, where something held him in an impossible grip. At his neck was a heavy metal collar, a chain from it connected to a huge plate on the floor, only long enough that he could sit or kneel, but not stand. His wrists were chained, his ankles chained. He was bruised from throat to toes, dirty, his clothes (what was left of them) filthy, his hair matted. He spat water, and rubbed at his eyes, still coughing, looking around in confusion.
In front of him stood his captor, one of them, at least, holding an empty, still-dripping bucket. “Wakey-wakey,” she purred.
“What–what’s going on?” he wondered, but his voice was groggy, broken from a lack of use. He looked around, and saw a half-dozen others who looked as he felt, also chained to the floor, dead or dozing, or in shock, perhaps.
“I’ll make it simple. You’re aboard The Storm’s Pride. We’re at ten thousand feet. You’re in the hold, in irons. Whoever, whatever you were before? All that’s over. I picked you up because no one’s going to be missing you. No one’s going to be looking for you. You got abandoned, and as far as anyone else knows, you ran off to pout,” she explains. “When we land, which will be soon, you’ll be sold to a trader who pays good coin for pretty men from the Allied countries. Behave once you’re there, or you’ll get marked as disobedient. If you get marked, you won’t get paid for. If I don’t get money for you, boy, you’ll end up as a powder monkey, at best, or dead on the block for sport.”
“You’ve kidnapped me and now you’re selling me?” Jet wondered, looking baffled.
“Oh, you’re quick, too. Maybe I’ll tell the trader I want more for you, hmm? Lost a lot of you due to pressure sickness. Should recoup my costs somehow.”
“Why would you do this?” Jet asked, kneeling small, wishing he could shrink back against the wall and hide, like the others.
“Like I said — he pays good coin. A few more runs, and I’m out of this game. It’s nothing personal. You just fit the bill, is all.” The woman shrugged and walked off, with her pail, whistling merrily.
Jet watched her go, silent, gawping. When she left, he blinked more water from his eyes and looked around at the other figures in the dimly lit gloom. None of them would meet his eyes, though he could see now they were conscious. “How long have we been down here?” he wondered aloud of the others, but there was no answer. “A day? A few days? Nearly a week?” Still, they said nothing. He turned his efforts to understanding his imprisonment, and began to explore the chain at his throat, the shackles at his wrist and ankles. His everything felt heavy, trembling, as he slid his fingers over the bristly overgrowth at his jaw, trying to figure out how long he’d been mostly unconscious.
“Two weeks,” one of the men, a Kriegsman, judging from his accent, finally answered. “They drugged, fed, and watered those who lived but were unresponsive. You are the last to wake.”
“How many died?” Jet wondered, squinting to look around the hold.
“We assisted in putting at least four, perhaps five dozen over the rails,” the man answered. “They often lose nearly that many, so I am told, due to the pressure sickness. It is good, because they do not pack enough food for more than a dozen extra. The crew told us of voyages where they had too many, and tossed the living over the rails, the weakest. Once they made them fight, survivors got to stay, but too many good men were wounded.”
“Did any of the crew tell you what we’re sold for?” Jet had trouble saying the words aloud; he was to be bought and handled like a thing. The sheer ridiculousness of the notion left him feeling dizzied.
“Oh yes,” the Kriegsman said, baring white teeth in an angry smile. “For sport. They hunt us. The crew told us we are animals to them. That they consider themselves divine beings, and we are merely beasts.”
Jet felt his gorge rise; he closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around himself. Dread settled in, suffocating and cold, as he rested his back against the wall, trying to take in all that he’d just learned.
“What’s your name, boy?” the Kriegsman asked.
“Did you have family to be missing you?”
“I do. But they think I’m at the Academy,” he said, opening his eyes and looking down at his hands. He glanced up at the Kriegsman and said, “What’s your name?”
“Eisen,” the man said.
“Do you have family?”
“A daughter. I expect she will end up on the streets,” the man said. “She is too young to be alone.”
“How did they… get you?”
“My daughter’s mother died of the wasting fever. Three months ago. The night I was taken, I put the girl to bed and visited the tavern downstairs, looking for diversion. Found a pretty lady. Not remembering much after this until waking up.”
“Do you know the stories of any of the others?” Jet found himself hoping against hope that somehow one of them were incredibly important, that their abductors had made a grave error and that at any moment, a law enforcement ship from the Allied governments would come and take over the ship. It was a wild fantasy that was only mildly more ludicrous than the reality he was currently facing.
Eisen gestured to the other four men, saying, “Thief. Murderer. Thief. Thief. Apparently when they do not have a full enough hold, they pay off local gaolers and pick up those scheduled for life imprisonment.”
“Do you know when we’re landing?” Jet wondered, feeling his heart in his throat, his whole body trembling. The last thing he remembered with true clarity was the feel of Kieron’s mouth on his. He touched his fingertips to his lips, opening his eyes to look at Eisen. It was just then that the airship touched down at the dock. Everything shuddered, and the metal of the gondola squealed as it slid against the boards and ropes. Jet gasped and curled up tighter, feeling a chill move through him.
“Now, it seems,” Eisen said, sitting up straighter, looking toward the door.
It was thrown open, and the woman came back in with a ring of keys that she rattled, jingling them loudly like a bell. “Wake up, boys! Time to take your first breath of foreign air, huh?” she crowed. She walked amongst the men and began to unlock them. Eisen, she did first. Then Jet. When she’d gotten to the second one Eisen had identified, the man sprang up and put his chain around her throat, and lifted her right off the ground. She thrashed, making strangled noises of distress, her eyes huge.
Both Eisen and Jet moved for her, without pause, one to grab for her and one to grab for the killer. Eisen snapped the man’s neck, laying him rather gently to the floor, while Jet caught the woman, and stood her back up. He released her quickly, and she stood there, looking at them both, startled.
The woman gestured to the door, rubbing her throat. “Get up to the deck. If you think I’d lose my chance at the amount of coin you represent, you’re too stupid to live long in this place.”
Jet and Eisen made their way up the ladder to the deck, where they were assaulted almost immediately by the scent of burning oils and hot metal. The marketplace beyond the docking slips was overflowing with people. The wind brought them a wealth of spices, starpod and cassia, brassica, as well as alliums and then something dark and sweet beneath, of bitter chocolates and figs. They stood there, staring, even as the other three men were led to the gangplank. The woman came up behind them, then, and let them stare for awhile before she tauntingly said, “Welcome to your new home, lads. Welcome to Ilona.”
“It would be beautiful, but for the irons we’re wearing,” Jet said quietly.
“Well you could’ve let ‘im kill me,” she answered, rubbing her throat again. “You might’ve been able to get out. Get away. Lost in the market place. Free.”
Jet could think of nothing to say to that — it was Eisen who replied, “We are not the beasts they believe us to be.” He paused, looking her up and down, and added lowly, “Not all of us, anyway.”
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