Chapter 1: Rebirth

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Kind and gentle and loving and true

Be the giving goddess of the waters blue.

Yet no crueler mistress can there be

Then the malevolent goddess of the cold, black sea.

 

She always felt the sea freeing, like a second home. Sort of. Perhaps not a home, since the sea could be deadly, the sea gods vengeful, spiteful, hateful. She didn’t fear the creatures hidden in the depths. She didn’t fear the waves or the storms. She didn’t fear the gods that ruled it. They were merely unpredictable. Men weren’t. She had learned to fear those who sailed the oceans, the ones who thought the sea their domain and not the gods’. Men like Skamsen. She despised him for his air of self-importance and self-righteousness. His lofty eyes had glared at her with utter disdain. He had wanted to kill her. She saw that in his eyes. He didn’t have the courage to. He believed his superior moral code had stayed his hand. She knew better. She’d told him so, and still he looked at her with nary an emotion in his eyes. Thinking of him sickened her and brought bile to her throat. She may have drowned on it if the salt water under which she was submerged didn’t kill her first.

The gods may act cruelly at times. It was expected. They had no real love or hatred for humans or any other creatures of the world. Sometimes a storm was just a storm. And sometimes fathers just happened to get stuck in one at sea and drown. Her father hadn’t offended anyone and always paid homage to the gods. He’d taught her to dive for clams and oysters and other creatures inhabiting the seabed.

After he was lost at sea, she tried to keep up the trade. The gods had different plans. A child at the time, she couldn’t defend her catch; anything she found, the fishermen – some of them young boys – stole them from her.

Her mother whipped her for bringing home an empty basket.

To appease her mother, she tried once to dive at night. Even on a night of a full moon, its silvery sheen couldn’t penetrate to the sea floor. Then, as now, the moon lit the surface of the ocean, telling her how far upward she’d need to swim to breathe in the free air.

None had tried stopping her from intentionally falling off the schooner. Once in the ocean, she let her scarlet dress saturate with the sea water and drag her below. Never once did she consider letting it drag her to the depths to sleep with the creatures in the fathoms beneath. She still had too much to do. Too much life to live.

Though fairly certain the moon’s reflection couldn’t penetrate the black waters, she remained several fathoms below the surface, making certain none could see her escape. She tore the clasps at the back of her dress, ripping others not budging, and pulled off the dress and white shift, letting the tattered fabrics sink. The ship’s shadow had already passed by a considerable margin by the time she was free of encumbrance.

Upon first splashing into the sea, the frigid water sent a shock through her system. Having swum in colder waters, she relaxed, letting the cool water would slow her blood, preventing it from racing through her veins and taking with it valuable air needed to survive.

Using smooth, practiced, and powerful strokes, she swam beneath the surface on a line perpendicular to the ship’s, crossing beneath the path the ship had taken. If any on the ship continued to search for her, they’d be looking off the starboard side, not to port. Ignoring the pain in her chest, she swam further than was needed. Like a mermaid of the western seas of whom her father had told her tales, she eeled with ease through the calm waters beneath the turbulent surface.

Confident none would see her now, she aimed for the surface, heading toward the shimmering moonlight at a slow pace. Once close, her face poked out of  the water enough so her lips could drink in the air. She submerged again for nearly a minute before daring to break the surface again. This time, she kept her head out and took deep breaths. The schooner’s sails could just be seen by the light of the moon. None aboard could see her. She’d been left alone. To die.

She wasn’t dead yet.

Instead of wasting energy to try and swim to one of the shores miles away, she floated and allowed the sea to take her to where it willed.

The waves played with her, sending her small frame up and down. Each time she descended a crest, it became more difficult to keep her head above the water. She grew tired of the play. The sea didn’t.

Hours later, the moon had dipped below the horizon. The sun’s glow to the east announced dawn’s approach. Keeping afloat alone had drained much out of her If no ship passed by soon, her muscles would seize up. She thirsted like at no other time in her life. Hunger pangs increased to the point of causing pain.

How easy it would have been to fall sleep. Each time her mouth and nose slipped beneath the surface, she jolted awake.

Not yet, she said in answer to the sea’s call. Not yet.

She saw a light. At first, she thought she dreamed it, having been dropping in and out of consciousness. She forced her vision to focus on the yellow light just above the surface. It was real. It was approaching.

A slight tinge of anxiety washed across her. It soon vanished. The ship approaching was not the schooner that had left her for dead. She tried to wave but found her arms too weary to make more than a small splash. She tried to yell. Only a low rasping escaped, her throat too dry to form words.

Someone onboard the vessel saw her. The ship heaved to as it took in sail. She thought she could see a boat being lowered. As the men rowing neared, her eyes closed. She slipped beneath the surface. Powerful arms dragged her from the sea, plopping her on the boats hull. She leaned against boat’s ribs, knees clutched to her chest, and thanked whatever gods had heard her prayers. She must’ve whispered aloud. One of the oarsmen told her not to be thankful just yet, mentioning something about preferring death. She whispered, or thought she whispered why. A growl from another man shut up the oarsman.

As she was being hauled up to the ship’s deck, someone called for a blanket. Once aboard, she dropped to the deck, he legs unable to hold her upright. A course wool fabric smelling of must and damp fell about her shoulders, calming her shivering body.

“What is it, Captain?” said a woman, her voice light and airy, as she emerged from the topside cabin that sat at the ship’s aft beneath the helmsman. Still dressed in a thin white nightgown, the neckline plunging deep down her chest, she stepped lightly toward the soaking wet girl, ignoring the men’s leering and lecherous looks. As she approached, she yawned and stretched, fluffing her dark brown curls that hung past her breasts.

The captain looked from the woman to the girl he’d just had dragged from the sea. “Mistress, it’s a girl,” he said. “She was naked and alone.”

“My. That’s quite remarkable. Alone? Way out here?”

“Shall we put her below or toss her back to the sea?”

The woman stared down at the girl huddling for warm beneath the blanket. “She’s not a girl, Captain,” said his Mistress. “She’s a young woman.”

The young woman shot furtive looks at the crew. Now aboard the ship with a bit of warmth, her senses began to return, especially her sense of foreboding. If she gathered her last bit of strength, she might be able to dive back into the sea. She would most assuredly die.

Instead, she decided to weather the storm. After all, the gods created the storms. Men dwelt within them. And to dwell within this one, she’d have to play the part.

“I can’t see her,” said the Mistress. “Stand her up.”

The captain reached down to grab the young woman but stopped when she spoke.

“Don’t touch me,” rasped the young woman, her throat still dry. “I’ll stand on my own.”

The captain’s lips curled into a grin as he nodded.

With great effort, the young woman stood, taking deep breaths as she did so, unsure if her unsteadiness due to her weakened body or the rocking of the ship.

“Remove the blanket, Captain,” said the mistress.

Before the captain could do so, the young woman let the blanket drop to the deck. The men standing around snickered and stared, drinking in every bit of her.

The mistress circled the young woman, eyeing her from head to toe as well, though her motives different than theirs. She completed her inspection and stood near the captain.

“She’s a little thin, as if she hasn’t eaten much in days,” said the captain. “Other than that, she looks healthy.”

“Yes. And she has a healthy pair of breasts,” said the mistress, palming one of them, as if testing its weight. The young woman didn’t flinch at her touch, keeping her eyes on the mistress’s face. “In fact,” continued the mistress, “I think she has the most perfect set of breasts I have ever seen.”

“I agree,” said the captain, adding, “next to yours, of course, my mistress,” after she shot him a dark look.

The mistress ran her fingers through the ends of the young woman’s red and still-wet hair. “Hmm,” said the mistress, “this color is striking. Is it real?”

The mistress answered her own question as she and the captain both glanced down toward the young woman’s lower abdomen. They looked at each other and chuckled.

“It’s real,” said the mistress. “I see no reason to change it.”

“So we’re keeping her?” said the captain.

“For now,” said the mistress, turning to leave. “As long as her price proves greater than the cost to feed her.”

The young woman spoke, her voice still raspy. “I know how to work.”

The mistress turned back, her eyebrows raised. “Really? It’s a pity you’re not a virgin.”

“Virgins are for bastards,” said the young woman. “They pay once. No repeat customers.”

“And you know how to keep them coming back?”

“Yes. And I can learn.”

The mistress laughed. “What more do you need to learn? Smile coyly, lie on your back, and spread your legs.”

“I want to learn to do what you do, mistress.”

“Like an apprentice? I don’t think so. You’d sooner slit my throat than assist anyone other than yourself.” The mistress seemed to reconsider, returning to face Scarlet. “However,” said the mistress, “since you are not a child, I shall give you a choice. Return to the sea...or serve me. Perhaps the gods will smile on you and send another vessel your way.”

Motioning for the crew to step back, the men parted, leaving a clear path for Scarlet back to the salty waters.

Scarlet turned toward the freedom the sea tempted to give. Rest. Eternal sleep. Taking a deep breath, Scarlet turned her back to the beckoning voices.

“I do not fear the gods, mistress. I belong to you. I’ll earn my keep. If you wish to have no further use for me, throw me back into the waters from whence you plucked me. Death comes for everyone. It seemed the gods spared me for the moment by sending you to me...or I to you.”

“Do you have a name?” said the mistress.

“I am Scarlet.”

“Hmm,” said the mistress, cocking her head to the side. “That will suffice, I suppose. Mysterious. Sensuous. But wild and unchained, a wild horse is a terrible thing. It must be broken before becoming useful.”

“No woman is ever broken. Their will is simply taken from them.”

“Perhaps. And what is your will? If you don’t fear the gods, why not rest your fate with them?”

“I mean to kill someone.

“You have no reason to believe this but holding hatred in your heart will turn you into an ugly woman. And once you’re ugly, what use will you have?”

“Only the gods know.”

“Indeed. Remember this, Scarlet, when things are dark and you’re wishing murder on everyone, you desired to stay here.”

“I shall remember. I ask a favor. I ask that none of your crew touches me. I must remain as chaste as possible for the customer. I am not for the crew.”

The mistress approached Scarlet.

“I am not one of the crew,” said the mistress. Using a fingernail, she traced a line from Scarlet’s cheekbone down to her nipple. “What if I desire the pleasure?”

“My mistress, I belong to you.”

The mistress laughed. Not a gay laugh. Not a mirthful one. A knowing laugh. “Scarlet, Scarlet, Scarlet. Unfortunately, I do not derive pleasure from young women, especially ones like yourself. You will play the part I design for you. You will pleasure whomever I assign to you. And you are wrong: everyone can be broken.”

The mistress spun toward her cabin. “Captain, clean her up then chain her with the others.”

Before Scarlet could dwell on her choice, the captain clobbered the back of her head. She was unconscious before she hit the deck.

She roused when a large wave slapped against the hull. It took her a moment to orient herself. A dull pain from the back of her head reminded her why she’d lost consciousness. The stench of piss, excrement, and vomit filled her nostrils. She shut her eyes to fight the nausea. She couldn’t close her nose shut, her wrists chained to the wooden walls.

When she finally gained control of her dry heaves, she tried to sit up but couldn’t, the small movement causing her entire skull to ache. She lay still again for several minutes battling the vomit rising in her throat. Confident she could control her gut, she scanned the room lit by a single lantern near the door, her neck too sore to move more than her eyes. About fifteen other girls lay on cots similar to hers or swung in hammocks. Their state of dress varied, though all wore more than Scarlet. The only thing she wore were her iron fetters. None of the other girls seemed to be chained. Neither did the girls glance in her direction. Perhaps they’d already taken their chance to ogle the new addition to their group. Or perhaps they were all in a drug-addled state and didn’t care. Or maybe they simply didn’t care.

The door creaked open. Scarlet turned slowly to see who entered. The slight movement made her dizzy, her head throb. She felt like passing out. She couldn’t. She should’ve.

The captain strolled into the room to stand at the foot of her cot, a horrid grin darkening his scarred and mangle face as leered down at her.

“Well, the fisherman’s daughter lives. We weren’t sure you’d make it. The last few days have had us all nervous,” he said, then cackled as he began undoing his belt. “I guessed today, and that makes me the winner.”

Scarlet pressed her lips together as his trousers dropped. She didn’t know how much resistance she should give. Her head hurt too much to talk or think about how to thwart his advances. As he straddled her, pushing her knees apart, she resolved to give none. Not yet. She had no strength to fight. Any strength she had she’d need to stay alive...to survive. She hadn’t jumped back into the sea because survival was more important. Too many people needed killing. The captain would be another name to add to the list.

As he forced himself on her, she kept her eyes on him, taking in his features, memorizing all the lines and wrinkles of his face. She’d be escape one day. Then she’d track him down. If it took years, she didn’t want to ever forget his face.

He finished and smirked, waiting expectantly for her to say something. Her eyes narrowed at him, her own lips curling into a devilish grin. But she said nothing.

Once he’d gone, the crew cheered him as he went top side.

No. She couldn’t simply escape. They all had to die, none worse than the other. That would take planning. Not now, though. She rested her head back against the cot, wincing when it touched her wound. She turned her head away from the rest of the girls, not wanting them to see the tear that had escaped to run down her cheek. A slight grunt escaped her lips as she shifted her hips to turn her back to the other girls, her face toward the door.

A soft hand touched her thigh. She jerked to see who’d touched her, nearly passing out, and moaned loudly.

A young girl – not more than twelve – was kneeling beside the cot, a wooden bowl of water and a rag in her hands. Scarlet couldn’t say deny the help had she wanted to. The girl wrung out the rag and began washing and cleaning Scarlet, starting at her legs. She winced as the girl wiped the blood from between her thighs. With a deft and gentle touch, the girl cleaned every bit of flesh she could reach, including the mat of blood that had dried in her hair where the captain had pelted her. The girl placed a fairly clean pillow beneath Scarlet’s head and a thick woolen blanket over her naked body.

In the two years since that night, Scarlet received no more acts of kindness from anyone. She hadn’t wanted the one given to her since it meant she now owed someone. Yet she was grateful for it just the same.

She remained chained the entire the entire time except when unshackled from the wall to be led shackled to the special room topside reserved for the mistress’s clients.

Before the captain, Scarlet had never been taken against her will. She’d been paid every time, even when her mom had first offered her services up in exchange for coin. Her mother had given Scarlet a choice: the streets or the brothel.

Scarlet chose the brothel, thinking the streets too dangerous for a girl of fifteen. There’d be too many unpaying customers as well. Scarlet didn’t quite know where her mother stood when it came to her feelings toward Scarlet. Love. Hate. Or maybe loathing. It hadn’t been clear. One thing had been quite clear, her mother veraciously defended her daughter. She picked the clients, turning away anyone she didn’t deem proper, opting as much as possible for those closer in age to Scarlet.

Her mother employed a tremendous oaf of a man to beat off or thrash any man who didn’t pay or who refused to listen to her mother. She paid him by giving him food, money for ale, and free use of her and her bed.

In a drunken rage, he throttled her, snapping her neck instantly. Like a pet who has accidently harmed its master, he knew he’d done wrong and ran. It took the authorities a day to find him. Another day to try him and find him guilty. He swung by his neck at the local gallows the third day.

The Empress of Andhaera responded quickly and brutally to crimes against women and children.

The institution of harlotry had been outlawed since before Scarlet was born. Brothelry being the oldest business in existence, it hadn’t disappeared. Its operation had only diversified into many smaller bordellos operated out of homes.

Despite the strict laws, somehow the mistress still operated the market of selling the services these girls provided. Scarlet couldn’t understand how this slave vessel could operate freely. The proprietor must have royal protection somehow. Or perhaps she flouted the law by keeping her operations on the boat and sailing from port to port and never stepping foot on land, the clients remaining free of the local jurisdictions.

The mistress’s crew maintained the same freedom from the law, strutting about the ship as though untouchable. None touched Scarlet. Except the captain. It seemed she’d been his prize for all time, not for a single instance. Night after night he came to her. Night after night he partook of his prize. Night after night she hated him more. More than...more than that other man who’s face she couldn’t see in her mind any longer. Only the captain’s face filled her dreams and nightmares. He never tired of her. She never tired of surviving. Maybe he expected her to sob and cry and beg for death. He’d be the one begging for death.

He could have her body. Never her soul. None of the mistress’s clients could take that away.

Night after night Scarlet fell asleep dreaming of how she’d take her revenge. She’d wait and bide her time, seize her opportunity, then kill everyone aboard and burn the ship to the waterline. In the meantime, she’d endure, prepared to wait another two years if necessary.

She didn’t have to.

After another fitful night of sleep, she awoke to the crew dragging another girl below deck, shackling her to the irons near the door. The girl, not much older than twelve, slumped to her knees, a few tears slipping down her ashen cheeks. Her tears were different than every other girl who found herself chained, alone, and cursed for a life far different than the one they’d imagined, a nightmare of a living where most needed to be drugged to a state that kept them between the afterlife and this life. Those girls sobbed out of fear, they called for their mother or father, they yelled for help, and some cried and thrashed in their chains so hard their wrists turned bloody. The crew had to beat them until they were silent, unconscious or dead.

Not this girl. She cried as if sad or disappointed, her stares vacant, her mind elsewhere and not on her impending doomed life. She eased her head back against the wooden panels as if being chained was a part of the life process everyone faced. She couldn’t possibly have been purchased from another provider. Too much vivacity dwelt in her features. Her well-nourished frame alone connoted that she’d been living a happy existence. Being captured for this existence should have depressed and crushed the frail creature. It hadn’t. Perhaps she had no clue as to what was in store for her. Scarlet didn’t believe that possible. The young girl’s eyes contained too much awareness to be naive.

As her head touched against the wood, the young girl scanned the room. As always, none of the other girls paid heed to the newest arrival. Soon the girl’s eyes met Scarlet’s. The girl sighed and looked away.

That brief glance told Scarlet the girl indeed understood her fate but didn’t care. Not in the same way Scarlet hadn’t cared. She’d steeled herself to her new life to keep alive her hatred for the mistress, her crew, and that blasted...that damn...Scarlet couldn’t remember his name. She knew his face. Or thought she did. She couldn’t remember his name. She remembered how much she had hated him.

The young girl appeared to not care because she looked like someone who’d been broken, though not in spirit: heartbroken. At the very least, disappointed. She kept shaking her head and sighing, whispering words Scarlet couldn’t hear.

The girl soon fell asleep. Minutes later, keys rattled outside the door as someone unlocked it. Scarlet jolted, thinking the captain had come to take his due, as he often said. She thought she’d heard him talk of going ashore to find a real whore. Scarlet had been looking forward to a free night. She should’ve guessed otherwise, rest not her destiny.

It wasn’t the captain, however. One of the crew entered, his wicked grin darker due to the single lantern casting crooked shadows across his features. His focus upon entering the room fell solely on the young girl chained to the wall. Scarlet had seen this scene played out countless times. She could do nothing to stop it. Never before had she tried to nor had she wanted to, unwilling to incur needless attention from the crew.

The man knelt near the girl and grabbed her jaw with his thumb and forefinger, twisting her face to examine each side.

“Aren’t ye a purty little thing,” said the man. “A nice tasty little crumpet.”

Scarlet didn’t know what happened. She didn’t understand why. For some reason, Scarlet spoke. “Leave her alone, you pathetic bastard.”

The man turned to Scarlet, the sides of his mouth curled in a sneer. “You wait your turn.”

“You ain’t the captain.”

“Bah. The captain ain’t nearby to guard his prize. Avert your eyes if you don’t want to watch.”

“I’ll call for the mistress. I’m sure she’s saving her for someone special. Not an oaf the likes of you.”

“Mistress said she don’t care none for virgins anymore. They don’t make repeat customers. Ain’t that what you said?”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Scream if ye like. Besides, what’s this girl to ye anyway? Why should you care about another whore like yourself?”

Scarlet couldn’t think of an answer to that. She studied the little girl as the crewman stood to unbuckle his pants. The young girl glared at him, pressing her lips together. Wearing a vicious expression. her eyes twitched as she sneered back at him, causing him to pause.

“Just know this,” said the girl, her tone even, strong, “that it will be a fight every time. And if you bring anything toward my face, I’ll bite it off.”

Kicking off his boots, the crewman let his outer trousers fall to the floor and stepped out from them, leaving on his underdrawers lining his body from waist to foot. He chuckled. “I reckon I’m going to enjoy this.”

The young girl slowly raised her foot, bringing the thick-soled boot to touch the man’s knee. He grinned, thinking the girl being coy. Scarlet grinned too, knowing what was going to happen.

Using all her strength, the girl slammed the heel of her boot onto the man’s bare foot. He winced and cursed, hopping on one foot. As he reached to grab her by the throat, she met his hand with her teeth. He yanked his hand away, blood dripping from the webbing between his thumb and finger.

Scarlet’s smile faded. She also knew what the man would do next. The girl had fought bravely, though stupidly, as Scarlet had many years ago. Then it hit her. The girl reminded Scarlet of herself. All the other girls brought in were innocents, snatched from their homes – some of them sold by their parents angry at the gods for blessing them with a female child – or plucked from the streets. Scarlet hadn’t been like them. She’d been like this girl. At least it seemed that way. Innocent didn’t mean weak. Scarlet had thought that though. It’s how she kept from feeling anything toward the other girls who were all much younger than her.

She felt a sudden bit of compassion for the young girl and winced when the man backhanded the frail child across her face. Amazingly, the girl remained conscious, though only just. Her eyes no longer focused. Her head rocked from side to side. Her chin slumped toward her chest.

“Leave her alone,” said Scarlet. “Hitting a little girl. You are a pathetic, dick-less coward.”

“If you want to see it, I’ll show it to ye. Right up close, as close as ye like.”

“Even up close, I still wouldn’t be able to see it. The girl’s got more balls than you do.”

The crewman chuckled. “You’ve always been goody with words. They don’t bother me none. And since you seem to care about this little lass, I’m going to enjoy it even more.”

He turned back to enjoy the lass but never got the chance. Unseen and unheard by Scarlet or the crewman, another man had slipped below deck and into the room. The lantern behind him kept his face cloaked in darkness. The crewman gasped at seeing the dark figure, something about which seemed vaguely familiar to Scarlet. Before the crewman could react further, the dark man thrust a sword into the crewman’s midsection.

Scarlet didn’t know much about killing. She knew about gutting fish and the occasional man, and gutting a man meant a slow death. The dark man seemed capable of killing silently and quickly. The crewman didn’t die quickly. His mouth worked but no sound came out other than a few soft grunts. The dark man twisted the blade, eliciting more groans from the crewman. The dark man ripped the sword out of the man. Blood splattered onto the wooden floorboards. The crewman turned toward Scarlet, as if pleading for her help. She sniffed a laugh, not the least compassionate toward him. He took a single staggering step toward her. She hoped his death would be eternal. It wasn’t. The dark man showed mercy and sliced the crewman’s head clean off. The crewman and his head thudded to the deck.

The dark man knelt and unshackled the young girl, picking her up gently, as if afraid he’d break her. As he turned to leave, the lantern light illuminated his features.

Scarlet remembered. “Skamsen!”

Startled at hearing his name, the dark man spun toward Scarlet.

“The lady in scarlet,” he said. “The gods have smiled on you.”

“The gods have never smiled on me. My own iron will to survive kept me alive, and my hatred for you.”

“Your hatred for me is that strong?” Skamsen scanned the room, reminding Scarlet of her existence for the past two years.

“You damned me to this existence.”

“We all make choices that decide our fate.”

Scarlet laughed derisively. “I think I hate that most. You believe your actions make you favored by the gods. You’re no different than me. Look around you, Skamsen. You got what you came for, but you were going to leave the rest of us behind to suffer continually at the hand of the crew. There’s more than just this one headless bastard on board.”

“They won’t trouble you anymore. The crew are all dead, most of them headless as well.”

“What?” said Scarlet. From the dexterity he’d wielded the sword and his stealth entering below, she believed him capable. How could he have dispatched all of them without raising a single alarm?

“And the mistress of the ship?” said Scarlet.

Skamsen sighed. Before he could answer, the young girl regained a little consciousness and spoke. “Father? Am I in trouble?”

Scarlet raised a single brow. “Is she your daughter?”

Skamsen shook his head. “Avinasi. Keep quiet now. We’ll be home soon.”

The young girl opened her eyes and recognized him. Relief washed over her features. “Master...” she said in a whisper before she lost consciousness again.

“Master?” said Scarlet. “Really? Wow. I never would have thought it of you, Skamsen. These men stole your property and you’re taking it back.”

Skamsen threw Avinasi over his shoulder and drew out a knife as he stepped toward Scarlet. “I may have missed a member of the crew, or some of them may be ashore to return at any moment. They could raise the alarm. The ones patrolling this bay – since you’re anchored in the bay in the shadow of the capital city – would bear down on this ship in an instant. This girl is not my slave, but she is my responsibility. That is all you need to know.”

“She thought you had abandoned her, Skamsen. You crushed her.”

“She thought I had left her to become a vengeful killer. With this sword, I planned on killing one man and one man alone. Due to Avinasi’s meddling, I had to abandon killing him to rescue her before she was...before the crew did their thing or before the ship sailed. But I am a vengeful killer. This ship’s usage so enraged me I used this sword to kill every crew member aboard. All but one. You asked about the mistress. I strangled her with my bare hands. She – a woman – was the first person I have ever killed in my life.”

“You must be so proud of yourself. Thank you for sharing.”

Skamsen raised his knife to Scarlet’s throat. She didn’t flinch.

“You once asked me to slit your throat,” said Skamsen.

“I gave you another option.”

“It would be easier for me to slit your throat than to love you.”

Scarlet almost let loose a growl. If she could reach him with her chains and strangle him, she would.

He took the knife and plunged it into the side of the cot. “It’d be easier to kill you than love you because I am not capable of giving it. I am duty-bound to care for this girl. But what about you, lady in scarlet? What are you going to do? You accused me of abandoning these girls. Skamsen dropped the keys into her lap and said, “Would you do any different? There are boats aplenty to hold you all. I was going to burn the ship. Maybe you can take it instead. You could be the new mistress. These girls could be your slaves. Imagine how wealthy you’d be.”

With that, he left.

Before he’d made it up the steps, she’d used the keys to free herself. She grabbed the knife and planned on trying to kill him. She should’ve kept her attention focused on the retreating man she hated with all her heart, mind and spirit.  Or thought she did. When she reached the door, something compelled her to glance down the room toward the girls. What she saw stopped her dead still. Fifteen pairs of eyes stared back at her.

Scarlet remained rooted to the wood, knowing Skamsen would soon be out of reach. Already it may be too late. As she debated, a girl no more than thirteen rose from her cot and approached, her black hair disheveled, gown tattered and nearly slipping off her debile frame. The little girl pulled the knife from Scarlet’s fingers and stooped over the headless man. Eyes narrowed, nose twitching, lips slowly baring her teeth, she snarled. She bent down and stabbed the man in the chest. She pulled out the knife and plunged it in again. Over and over the blade went in and out. It horrified Scarlet more than anything she’d seen in her life. Several other girls came to join the girl, taking turns with the knife. Scarlet didn’t know whether she should stop them or join them. Several of the other girls approached and took the knife. Instead of attacking the crewman below deck, they went topside looking for a particular one or another.

Scarlet followed. Skamsen hadn’t been lying. Heads and their counterparts lay strewn across the deck, the blood puddling on the wood surface. No moon out this night, the yellow glow of the torches lit a gruesome scene. The girls went from one body to the next, stabbing each one several times before moving to another corpse. Silently they did so. Scarlet found that to be the eeriest part of the evening.

The girls soon found the mistress and dragged her from her bed, her dead eyes staring lifeless at the stars above. Taking turns again, they each stabbed her lifeless corpse. Scarlet couldn’t bear to watch them any longer. She grabbed the knife and tossed it into the bay. The girls didn’t protest. Instead they looked to her for guidance, waiting for her to say something.

One of the girls broke the ghostly silence. “I’m hungry.”

“Me too,” said another. “I bet there’s loads to eat.”

They stepped lightly over the dead bodies as they skipped toward the kitchen. Scarlet sat on the steps leading to the helm.

A few minutes later, the girl who’d helped her years ago approached her, wiping the blood from her hands with a rag that she tossed overboard. Not a drop of blood stained the thin and tattered night shift she wore. The girl sighed and cocked her head sideways, her lively brown hair dancing easily in the breeze.

“He’s not here,” she said, sitting beside Scarlet.

There was no need to ask who. Scarlet knew. The dead men’s faces and corpses brought back the memory of the captain. No. She was wrong. She despised Skamsen. She hated the captain. Skamsen had taken away her vengeance. He’d saved the most important one.

“He’s still out there,” said the girl.

“Good,” said Scarlet. “And wherever he’s at, I’ll find him.”

“What now? Should we dump the bodies into the sea and sail away?”

Scarlet had considered this. Neither she or any of the girls knew how to sail or navigate. If they managed to get out of the bay, they’d get lost at sea and starve. Or worse, like every other time she had a boat with precious things, the men of the sea would steal the boat and the girls. Besides, where would they sail to?

They couldn’t stay on the boat either. The captain and the remaining crew would return.

Another girl stood before her and wiped a whisp of black hair from her nose as she held out a turkey leg. “Here, mistress, it’s still warm.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m Scarlet.”

The girl shrugged. “Ok.”

“And thank you,” said Scarlet, taking the leg and eating it. The food renewed her mind. She’d tasted better at the tables of the lord she would’ve married but for the fact that he already had a wife.

Soon, all the girls were back topside, sitting in a semi-circle at Scarlet’s feet, ignoring the blood staining their torn garments. Scarlet stood and ascended the steps to the helm. Far off in the distance, the lights from the houses appeared dim. The ship sat several miles from the shore. It made sense. The farther from shore, the less prying eyes for the mistress to manage. It would be hell to row there. Scarlet wouldn’t be able to do it by herself.

Damned Skamsen, leaving her alone with all these girls.

Scarlet returned down the steps. “Listen, girls, we can’t stay aboard the ship. The captain will soon return. We can’t sail it, and we can’t risk trying to find sailors to sail it for us. We shall have to row to safety. It won’t be easy. It’ll be long. We’ll probably die. Anyone not wishing to come, you’re welcome to stay behind.”

None moved.

“Very well, Scour the ship for anything valuable, especially food and clothing, boots, anything we can use. We don’t have any means to pay for more.”

Without waiting for the order, the girls fanned out to do their tasks.

Once they’d gone, the girl sitting beside her said, “The mistress has loads of gold.”

The girl had been right. Scarlet found chests of gold and jewels, bags of coin and other trinkets of value. Some were open. Others locked. All too heavy to carry. They didn’t have time to take it all bit by bit. Even if they did, the rowboats would be too heavy laden to row. They’d all be capsized into the sea. Scarlet could swim. It was likely none of the others could. As Scarlet debated the options, imaging all the things the gold would afford her the ability to do, the brown-haired girl entered the cabin. As she looked at the gold, she winced as if kicked in the guy, a tear forming in her eye. Scarlet knew why, half-ashamed she hadn’t thought of the reason as well. This king’s ransom had been earned due to the services all those girls and herself had provided. If it wasn’t necessary for their survival, Scarlet would’ve burned it with the ship.

The goods and wares loaded, she took one last look at the mistress, her white shift stained with blood. She was glad Skamsen had killed her with only his hands, a method Scarlet couldn’t have used. She would have loved to see the mistress’s expression as Skamsen squeezed out her life. Her death would have been slow. The mental anguish would have been cruel, like drowning. Scarlet had almost drowned.

Now she had free air to breath again. And a small fortune to boot.

Before lowering down into the boat, she dumped over a barrel of lamp oil down the steps to where she had spent two years of her life and tossed a lantern into the liquid. The flames leaped into action, hungry to devour all that had gone on above and below deck. She ordered the girls to row fast and hard, she herself taking up an oar, two girls on the one opposite her. Before long, fire engulfed the entirety of the ship, burning it down to the waterline.

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