Chapter OneTarboy1 Vaqrin (first day of summer) 941Midnight
It began, as every disaster in his life began, with a calm. The harbor and the village slept. The wind that had roared all night lay quelled by the headland; the bosun grew too sleepy to shout. But forty feet up the ratlines, Pazel Pathkendle had never been more awake.
He was freezing, to start with—a rogue wave had struck the bow at dusk, soaking eight boys and washing the ship’s dog into the hold, where it still yipped for rescue—but it wasn’t the cold that worried him. It was the storm cloud. It had leaped the coastal ridge in one bound, on high winds he couldn’t feel. The ship had no reason to fear it, but Pazel did. People were trying to kill him, and the only thing stopping them was the moon, that blessed bonfire moon, etching his shadow like a coal drawing on the deck of the Eniel.
One more mile, he thought. Then it can pour for all I care.
While the calm held, the Eniel ran quiet as a dream: her captain hated needless bellowing, calling it the poor pilot’s surrogate for leadership, and merely gestured to the afterguard when the time came to tack for shore. Glancing up at the mainsails, his eyes fell on Pazel, and for a moment they regarded each other in silence: an old man stiff and wrinkled as a cypress; a boy in tattered shirt and breeches, nut-brown hair in his eyes, clinging barefoot to the tarred and salt-stiffened ropes. A boy suddenly aware that he had no permission to climb aloft.
Pazel made a show of checking the yardarm bolts, and the knots on the closest stays. The captain watched his antics, unmoved. Then, almost invisibly, he shook his head.
Pazel slid to the deck in an instant, furious with himself. You clod, Pathkendle! Lose Nestef’s love and there’s no hope for you!
Captain Nestef was the kindest of the five mariners he had served: the only one who never beat or starved him, or forced him, a boy of fifteen, to drink the black nightmare liquor grebel for the amusement of the crew. If Nestef had ordered him to dive into the sea, Pazel would have obeyed at once. He was a bonded servant and could be traded like a slave.
On the deck, the other servant boys—tarboys, they were called, for the pitch that stained their hands and feet—turned him looks of contempt. They were older and larger, with noses proudly disfigured from brawls of honor in distant ports. The eldest, Jervik, sported a hole in his right ear large enough to pass a finger through. Rumor held that a violent captain had caught him stealing a pudding, and had pinched the ear with tongs heated cherry-red in the galley stove.
The other rumor attached to Jervik was that he had stabbed a boy in the neck after losing at darts. Pazel didn’t know if he believed the tale. But he knew that a gleam came to Jervik’s eyes at the first sign of another’s weakness, and he knew the boy carried a knife.
One of Jervik’s hangers-on gestured at Pazel with his chin. “Thinks his place is on the maintop, this one,” he said, grinning. “Bet you can tell him diff’rint, eh, Jervik?”
“Shut up, Nat, you ain’t clever,” said Jervik, his eyes locked on Pazel.
“What ho, Pazel Pathkendle, he’s defendin’ you,” laughed another. “Ain’t you goin’ to thank him? You better thank him!”
Jervik turned the speaker a cold look. The laughter ceased. “I han’t defended no one,” said the larger boy.
“?’Course you didn’t, Jervik, I just—”
“Somebody worries my mates, I defend them. Defend my good name, too. But there’s no defense for a wee squealin’ Ormali.”
The laughter was general, now: Jervik had given permission.
Then Pazel said, “Your mates and your good name. How about your honor, Jervik, and your word?”
“Them too,” snapped Jervik.
“And wet fire?”
“Diving roosters? Four-legged ducks?”
Jervik stared at Pazel for a moment. Then he glided over and hit him squarely on the cheek.
“Brilliant reply, Jervik,” said Pazel, standing his ground despite the fire along one side of his face.
Jervik raised a corner of his shirt. Tucked into his breeches was a skipper’s knife with a fine, well-worn leather grip.
“Want another sort of reply, do you?”
His face was inches from Pazel’s own. His lips were stained red by low-grade sapwort; his eyes had a yellow tinge.
“I want my knife back,” said Pazel.
“Liar!” spat Jervik. “The knife’s mine!”
“That knife was my father’s. You’re a thief, and you don’t dare use it.”
Jervik hit him again, harder. “Put up your fists, Muketch,” he said.
Pazel did not raise his fists. Snickering, Jervik and the others went about their duties, leaving Pazel blinking with pain and rage.
By the Sailing Code that governed all ships, Captain Nestef would have no choice but to dismiss a tarboy caught fighting. Jervik could risk it: he was a citizen of Arqual, this great empire sprawling over a third of the known world, and could always sign with another ship. More to the point, he wore a brass ring engraved with his Citizenship Number as recorded in the Imperial Boys’ Registry. Such rings cost a month’s wages, but they were worth it. Without the ring, any boy caught wandering in a seaside town could be taken for a bond-breaker or a foreigner. Few tarboys could afford the brass ring; most carried paper certificates, and these were easily lost or stolen.
Pazel, however, was a bonded servant and a foreigner—even worse, a member of a conquered race. If his papers read Dismissed for Fighting, no other ship would have him. He would be cut adrift, waiting to be snatched up like a coin from the street, claimed as the finder’s property for the rest of his days.
Jervik knew this well, and seemed determined to goad Pazel into a fight. He called the younger boy Muketch after the mud crabs of Ormael, the home Pazel had not seen in five years. Ormael was once a great fortress-city, built on high cliffs over a blue and perfect harbor. A place of music and balconies and the smell of ripened plums, whose name meant “Womb of Morning”—but that city no longer existed. And it seemed to Pazel that nearly everyone would have preferred him to vanish along with it. His very presence on an Arquali ship was a slight disgrace, like a soup stain on the captain’s dress coat. After Jervik’s burst of inspiration, the other boys and even some of the sailors called him Muketch. But the word also conveyed a sort of wary respect: sailors thought a charm lay on those green crabs that swarmed in the Ormael marshes, and took pains not to step on them lest bad luck follow.
Superstition had not stopped Jervik and his gang from striking or tripping Pazel behind the captain’s back, however. And in the last week it had grown worse: they came at him in twos and threes, in lightless corners belowdecks, and with a viciousness he had never faced before. They may really kill me (how could you think that and keep working, eating, breathing?). They may try tonight. Jervik may drive them to it.
Pazel had won the last round: Jervik was indeed afraid to stab him in front of witnesses. But in the dark it was another matter: in the dark things were done in a frenzy, and later explained away.
Fortunately, Jervik was a fool. He had a nasty sort of cunning, but his delight in abusing others made him careless. It was surely just a matter of time before Nestef dismissed him. Until then the trick was to avoid getting cornered. That was one reason Pazel had risked climbing aloft. The other was to see the Chathrand.
For tonight he would finally see her—the Chathrand, mightiest ship in all the world, with a mainmast so huge that three sailors could scarce link arms around it, and stern lamps tall as men, and square sails larger than the Queen’s Park in Etherhorde. She was being made ready for the open sea, some great trading voyage beyond the reach of Empire. Perhaps she would sail to Noonfirth, where men were black; or the Outer Isles that faced the Ruling Sea; or the Crownless Lands, wounded by war. Strangely, no one could tell him. But she was almost ready.
Pazel knew, for he had helped in his small way to ready her. Twice in as many nights they had sailed up to Chathrand’s flank, here in the dark bay of Sorrophran. Both had been cloudy, moonless nights, and Pazel in any case had been kept busy in the hold until the moment of arrival. Emerging at last, he had seen only a black, bowed wall, furred with algae and snails and clams like snapped blades, and smelling of pitch and heartwood and the deep sea. Men’s voices floated down from above, and following them, a great boom lowered a platform to the Eniel’s deck. Onto this lift went sacks of rice and barley and hard winter wheat. Then boards, followed by crates of mandarins, barberries, figs, salt cod, salt venison, cokewood, coal; and finally bundled cabbages, potatoes, yams, coils of garlic, wheels of rock-hard cheese. Food in breathtaking quantities: food for six months without landfall. Wherever the Great Ship was bound, she clearly had no wish to depend on local hospitality.
When nothing more could be stacked, the lift would rise as if by magic. Some of the older boys grabbed at the ropes, laughing as they were whisked straight up, fifty feet, sixty, and swung over the distant rail. Returning on the emptied lift, they held bright pennies and sweetmeats, gifts from the unseen crew. Pazel cared nothing for these, but he was mad to see the deck of the Chathrand.
His life was ships, now: in the five years since Arqual swallowed his country, Pazel had spent less than two weeks ashore. The previous night, when the lift rose for the last time, caution had deserted him: he had seized a corner rope. Jervik had pried his fingers loose, sending him crashing back to the deck of the Eniel.
But tonight the little ship bore no cargo, just passengers: three quiet figures in seafarers’ cloaks, on this passage of a single night from Besq to Sorrophran. They kept apart from the crew, and even one another. Now, as the blue gaslights of the Sorrophran Shipworks came into view, these three pressed forward, seemingly as eager as Pazel himself for a glimpse of the legendary ship.
One of the three, to Pazel’s great excitement, was Dr. Ignus Chadfallow. He was a slender man with worried eyes and large, educated hands. An Imperial surgeon and scholar of note, Chadfallow had once saved the Emperor and his Horse Guard from the deadly talking fever by placing men and horses alike on a six-week diet of millet and prunes. He had also, single-handedly, saved Pazel from slavery.
The three passengers had boarded at sunset. Pazel and the other tarboys had shoved and shouldered one another at the rail, competing for the chance to lug footlockers aboard for a penny or two. Spotting Chadfallow, Pazel had leaped, waving, and nearly shouted Ignus! But Chadfallow shot him a dark look, and the greeting died in his throat.
As Nestef welcomed his passengers, Pazel tried in vain to catch the doctor’s eye. When the cook shouted, “Tarry!” he sprang down the ladderway ahead of the other boys, for it was Nestef’s habit to greet new passengers with a mug of blistering spiced tea. But tonight there was more to the offerings: the cook loaded the tea-tray with muskberry biscuits, red ginger candies and lukka seeds to be chewed for warmth. Balancing these delicacies with great care, Pazel returned to the topdeck and walked straight to Chadfallow, his heart thumping in his chest.
“If you please, sir,” he said.
Chadfallow, his eyes on the moonwashed rocks and islets, seemed not to hear. Pazel spoke again, louder, and this time the doctor turned with a start. Pazel smiled uncertainly at his old benefactor. But Chadfallow’s voice was sharp.
“Where’s your breeding? You’ll serve the duchess first. Go on!”
Cheeks burning, Pazel turned away. The doctor’s coldness hurt him more than any blow from Jervik could. Not that it was altogether a surprise: Chadfallow often appeared frightened of being seen with Pazel, and never spoke to him at length. But he was the closest thing to family Pazel had left in the world, and he had not laid eyes on him for two years.
Two years! His hands, blast them, were trembling. He had to swallow hard before he spoke to the duchess. At least, he hoped she was the duchess, a bent and ancient woman three inches shorter than Pazel himself, who stood by the foremast mumbling and worrying the gold rings on her fingers. When Pazel spoke she raised her head and fixed him with her gaze. Her eyes were large and milky blue, and as she stared at him, her dry lips twisted into a smile.
Her crooked hand shot out; a nail scraped his cheek. He had shed tears. The crone put her moistened finger to her lips and grinned all the wider. Then she fell upon the tea service. First she popped the three largest ginger candies into her mouth, and slid a fourth into her pocket. Next she produced an old, scorched pipe from the folds of her cloak. As Pazel watched, aghast, she tapped the half-burned plug of tobacco into the bowl of lukka seeds, stirred with a thumb and then crushed the whole mixture back into her pipe, whispering and squeaking to herself all the while. Her eyes found Pazel’s again.
“Got a flint?”
“No, ma’am,” said Pazel.
“That’s Lady Oggosk to you! Fetch a lamp, then.”
It was difficult to fetch anything while holding the tea-tray. Pazel thought his arms would break, hoisting a brass deck lamp heavy with walrus oil as Lady Oggosk struggled with her pipe. Wafts of burning walrus, tobacco and lukka seeds flooded his nostrils, and the Lady’s breath as she puffed and hiccuped was like a draft from a ginger-scented tomb. At last the pipe lit, and she cackled.
“Don’t cry, my little monkey. He hasn’t forgotten you—oh, not for an instant, no!”
Pazel gaped at her. She could only mean Chadfallow, but what did she know of their connection? Before he could find a way to ask, she turned from him, still chuckling to herself.
The third passenger was a merchant, well groomed and well fed. At first glance, Pazel thought him ill: he had a white scarf wrapped tight about his neck, and one hand rested there as if nursing a sore spot. He cleared his throat with a painful noise—CHHRCK!—nearly making Pazel spill the tea. The man had an appetite, too: four biscuits vanished into his mouth, followed by the next largest ginger candy.
“You’re not very clean,” he said suddenly, looking Pazel up and down. “Whose soap do you use?”
“Whose soap, sir?”
“Is that a difficult question? Who makes the soap you scrub your face with?”
“We’re given potash, sir.”
“You’re a servant.”
“Not for much longer, sir,” said Pazel. “Captain Nestef has extended me his hand of friendship, for which I bless him thrice over. He says I have genuine prospects, with my flair for languages, and—”
“My own prospects are excellent, of course,” the man informed him. “My name is Ket—a name worth remembering, worth jotting down. I am about to make transactions valued at sixty thousand gold cockles. And that is just one trading voyage.”
“How grand for you, sir. I say, sir! Would you be sailing on the Chathrand?”
“You will not see sixty thousand in your lifetime—nor even six. Go now.”
He placed something on the tea-tray and waved Pazel off. Pazel bowed and withdrew, then looked at the object. It was a pale green disc, stamped with the words ket soap.
One of those sixty thousand coins would have suited him better, but he hid the soap in his pocket nonetheless. Then he looked at the tray and his heart sank. He had nothing left for Chadfallow but a small rind of ginger and a broken biscuit.
The doctor ignored these, but pointed at the tea flask. Carefully, Pazel filled a mug. The doctor wrapped his long fingers around it, raised it to his lips and inhaled the steam, as he had told Pazel one should in cold weather, to “vivify the nostrils.” He did not look at the boy, and Pazel did not know whether to stay or leave. At last, very softly, the doctor spoke.
“You’re not ill?”
“No,” said Pazel.
“They’re cured,” said Pazel quickly, very glad they were alone. No one on the Eniel knew about his mind-fits.
“Cured?” said the doctor. “How did you manage that?”
Pazel shrugged. “I bought some medicine in Sorhn. Everyone goes to Sorhn for that kind of thing.”
“Everyone does not live under the influence of magic spells,” said Chadfallow. “And how much did they charge you for this . . . medicine?”
“They took . . . what I had,” admitted Pazel, frowning. “But it was worth every penny. I’d do it again tomorrow.”
Chadfallow sighed. “I dare say you would. Now what about your teeth?”
Pazel looked up, startled by the quick change of focus: his mind-fits were the doctor’s favorite subject. “My teeth are just fine,” he said carefully.
“That’s good. But this tea is not. Taste it.”
Chadfallow passed him the cup, and watched as he drank.
Pazel grimaced. “It’s bitter,” he said.
“More bitter for you than me. Or so you may well imagine.”
“What do you mean by that?” Pazel’s voice rose in confusion. “Why are you all so odd?”
But like the duchess and the soap man, Chadfallow merely turned to face the sea. And all through that night’s crossing he showed no more interest in Pazel than in the common sailors who bustled around him.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V. S. Redick. Copyright © 2009 by Robert V. S. Redick. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.