“The Cost of Doing Business”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright September 5th, 2018
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
In the course of his life, if there were one thing Nathanius had learned, it was that bad news inevitably arrived in the middle of the night.
Someone was pounding on the door.
Nathanius sat up quietly and rolled out of bed. He stumbled to his desk and started his lamp.
A voice answered.
“Fest wants to see you. We’ve got a problem.”
Nathanius rubbed his eyes.
“Be with you in a minute.”
He went to his dresser and put on his trousers and a coat. He unlocked the door and opened it. The man outside was one of Fest’s bodyguards.
He had blood on his hands.
Nathanius looked up at his face.
The man shook his head.
“Fest just said to get you.”
Nathanius grumbled and grabbed his boots.
“But you know?”
The man nodded.
They went out. The man led him along the darkened streets towards the wharf. Llay was a small town. Like sand on the dunes, the buildings descended a gentle grade down to the water. The distance wasn’t far. Nathanius could hear the night tide rolling in. The moon was bright in the sky, bathing the sloping alleys in silver light.
They found Fest at the end of the dock, standing beside the Bawdy Gull. A dozen pirates surrounded him in a loose crowd. They were utterly silent. A second ship lay opposite the gull on the other side of the pier. It hadn’t been there during the day.
An imperial cutter. The lights aboard were dark.
Nathanius turned to Fest.
His friend frowned and thumbed over his shoulder at the cutter.
“Better get aboard.”
Nathanius followed him up. The deck was awash with blood. Fest led him down into the hold. There were six bodies piled in the middle of the floor. They wore the uniforms of imperial sailors. Two had been stabbed: one through the back and one through the middle of his chest. The others had been cut across their bellies. Their entrails had spilled; then their throats had been cut.
“They pulled in around midnight. A couple of the boys were on their way back to the ship. One of the soldiers overheard them talking.”
Nathanius scanned the room.
“There aren’t enough of them. This ship is large enough for a dozen more at least.”
“As far as we can tell they’re still out in town, probably checking in with the customs office or visiting the pubs, but you can bet they won’t all be gone long. We need to get these bodies out of here.”
Nathanius blurted out a laugh.
“And what about the blood on the deck? Going to clean that up too?”
He paused to stare, running a hand through his hair.
“We can’t just hide the bodies. What a disaster. Didn’t anyone think to pay them off?”
One of the pirates spoke.
“No chance, boss. We didn’t even know they heard us until they had their swords out. A few of us tried to cool it out but one of them started legging it up the dock. We tried to stop him and that was that. It was all over pretty fast.”
Nathanius growled and paced.
“Was anyone else hurt?”
Fest shook his head.
“None of our people.”
Nathanius turned to the pirates.
“Where’s your captain?”
“Still at the party. We sent for him but we don’t have time to wait. What do we do?”
There was no good answer. Nathanius leaned against a post. The lamps sputtered in the darkened hold. The faces of the pirates hovered like spirits made of smoke. Nathanius stared at the dancing flame and pondered, thoughts running around his head in dizzy circles. He felt the need for a glass of brandy. Or a barrel.
He looked up.
“I’ve got it.”
Fest breathed a sigh of relief.
“Alright. What’s the plan?”
Nathanius pointed at the bodies.
“Get them into their beds.”
He turned to the pirates.
“Do you keep rum on the Gull?”
The one who’d spoken earlier nodded.
“Bring it here and dump it out on the bodies. Put the bottles with them in their bunks. After that, clear out and get to the Gull. Douse the lights and stay below deck.”
Fest raised an eyebrow.
“Shouldn’t they prepare to sail?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“Slipping away now would be too suspicious. People would ask questions. We’re going to make like you slept through the whole thing. You’ll leave in the morning.”
The group hesitated. Nathanius couldn’t tell if they were confused or if it was because he’d asked them to give up their rum.
Fest spoke up.
“You heard the man! Move!”
The pirates ran out, boots and bare feet thumping hard on the hewn wooden steps leading to the deck.
Fest drew in close and whispered.
“What exactly are they sleeping through?”
Nathanius looked around the hold. It was stacked with rope, spare sails, barrels of lamp oil, wood, and hammocks. The flames in the oil lamps glowed, winking.
He turned to Fest.
“There’s going to be a fire.”
The ship went up like a torch. Nathanius watched from an alley across the street. Fest stayed on the Gull with the pirates to make sure none of them said anything stupid when the time came to answer questions. Flames lapped up the cutter’s sails and groped the masts. By the time the alarm was raised it was far too late. The vessel burned to the waterline, a grisly pyre for the unlucky souls aboard whose only crime was to overhear the conversation of a group of drunken pirates.
Still, they would be safe. The fire would destroy any evidence of the fight. With a bit of luck, anyone who came to investigate the incident would find just enough evidence to support the notion that the sailors had immolated their own ship in the muddled throes of their own drunken stupor.
A crowd had grown around the dock. They were mostly people from the town. A line of soldiers was keeping them back from the scene. The crew of the Gull would be forced to answer questions. Hopefully Fest would be able to keep their responses in line. Even if he did, there would still be trouble coming. It wasn’t as though the Sylarean government was ignorant to the fact that smuggling was on the rise along the coast. Someone was bound to come poking around. Nathanius only hoped they could be bought.
He turned away and headed back up the alley, running through the numbers in his head. How much could they offer? How much did they even have on hand? They’d invested quite a bit in the ambergris. It would depend on how moral the investigators were inclined to be.
A small part of him knew that the smart move would be to move on. His father would have told him to move on at a time like this. Sniff the wind. There’s a smell when fortune starts to turn sour.
He couldn’t go back. They were just starting to get on top. To flee would mean starting over, and if he were to be honest with himself, there weren’t many places left to go: across the desert, maybe…or to the mountains. But they lived a rougher life out there. Nathanius flattered himself that he wasn’t meant for that kind of life, desperately scratching sustenance out of the rock and dust and snow.
It was in Fest’s hands now.
For good or ill, it would all be decided in the next few days.
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