"Close the door!" I hissed.
Aldo complied before shooting me a glare. "Can't believe you just went in. If we get spotted, our gooses are cooked."
"Geese," Mailyn said. "Even I know that."
We scampered away from the door as footsteps thumped through the cramped outer room. I leapt behind a barrel and crouched, cowering as the door's lock clicked open and two heavy pairs of boots thumped into the room followed by the shifting shadows of lantern light. From my vantage point behind the barrel, I couldn't see them as they entered the upper hold and paced toward me. In the ruddy light, I could see the support Mailyn was hiding behind, or at least the corner of the frilly handkerchief she'd nicked from one of the first class cabins. As I watched, the little slip of hankie disappeared behind the support, and not a moment too soon. Wherever Aldo was hiding, I couldn't spot him. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to will myself into the Shadelands as I'd once done, but my thaum wasn't cooperating. I wedged myself as far between the barrel and the bulkhead as I could, eyes peeled as the shadows slowly retreated, the light threatening to wash over my feet.
"I coulda sweared I heard the door click closed," a sailor drawled.
"I can't hear for shit with all the ship's noise," the other said. "Maybe somebody just left?"
The first sailor took two more steps toward me, the shadows shifting, shifting. Something solid thmped against the top of the barrel - the lantern! I flinched but didn't make a sound. "Did we pass anybody, ye idiot?"
The second sailor took a step back toward the door. "Hey, what do I know? Anyhow, ain't nobody in here now. Come on, Tino, shift's up in a quarter hour and I ain't about to get dragged into another trial…"
"You think there might be more stowaways?" His voice had an edge to it. He took a step toward the big metal grate in the middle of the room, forward enough that I could see his leg and hip if I turned as far as I dared. Which meant he could just as easily spot me if he turned toward the barrel.
"Again: I don't know. This's my first trip across the deep, ain't it? For all I know, it's a selkie…"
The first sailor snorted. "Pretty sure those are extinct."
The second sailor took another step toward the door, his fingers fiddling with the latch on the door handle. "Yeah, maybe. Hey, I'm going up for a smoke. You gonna join me or you gonna spend all evening pacing about and looking for bugbears?"
"Pretty sure those are extinct, too…"
"Yeah, fine." He raised his lantern from the barrel and the shadows shifted once more as he paced away from me. I let out a long breath I hadn't realized I was holding. As I did, the sailor's retreating footsteps stopped. He turned on his heel, the dusty grit cracking beneath him, shadows spinning as he brought the lantern to bear. He took a step back toward my barrel. "If there's any spirits in here… you git gone!" Then he snorted and walked away. The door clicked shut.
"Holy hells!" Aldo hissed. I yelped and slugged him - I hadn't seen or heard him approaching at all. "Ow! Avatar's ashes, what was that for?"
"Scaring me, you idiot!"
He scowled at me. "You're the one who almost got us caught in here. They wouldn't have given a hoot if we were just creeping about the below decks."
"They gone yet?" Mailyn whispered from her spot behind the support.
"Yes," Aldo and I said. How hadn't she figured that bit out yet? Obviously, we were alone. The over-hold was completely dark, save for the faint sepia glow in the chattel hold below. It was just enough to make out the grainy details of the room about us, but not enough to see well.
I crept out from behind my barrel, first checking that the door was locked (it was) and then taking in the room. The overhold was substantially smaller than the chattel hold below it - perhaps six meters wide by ten long. The periphery was stocked with barrels sloshing with drinking water and containers that smelled faintly of grain. Hundreds of chains - probably several tons worth of them - dangled from the wall, clinking and hissing as they shifted under the Auspicio's gentle sway. And then there were the several crossbows and dozens of bolts that could be fired down if the prisoners below got too rowdy. As for the middle of the room… the floor was a large metal grate looking down into the cavernous space of the chattel hold.
Only as the fear eased out of me did I realize how badly the room reeked. Wafting up from below was the mixed smell of human waste - human waste of any variety you might imagine, and lots of it. A winch on the ceiling controlled a platform that could be raised or lowered to deliver food and water to the hold without anybody having to enter. My fingers traced their way along the chain as I approached the grating, the iron chains old and slightly-rusty beneath my fingertips. With a final effort of willpower, I forced myself to look down.
"Oh…" I said. "Oh wow."
"That's a lot of people, huh?" Mailyn added.
It was two hundred thirty-two people, to be exact, after the day's latest additions, though most of them weren't visible from our spot. We could see perhaps a third of the prisoners below, sitting listlessly in the dim light. Some were engaged in quiet conversation while others slept, wept, or stared off into nothingness. All of them were chained, arranged in rows of seven by a long chain running by the deck and branching off individually each meter to give each prisoner about three meters of total freedom, at least in theory - some of the younger prisoners had got their chains tangled and didn't seem to be able to get them undone.
"There's…" Aldo's voice choked in his throat. "There's kids down there. Some aren't any older than us."
"There's the two stowaways," Mailyn whispered. She pointed to the pair, the girl huddled up and quietly weeping into the boy's shoulders as he stared vacant into the distance.
I hardly heard either of my friends - I was too occupied coming to terms with what I saw. These were some of the same people I'd seen lined up along the quay, the same people locked in chains and wearing their shabby, unwashed clothes. People with coal-dark hair, brown skin, and hazel or green eyes. People like my family. People like me. As my eyes flitted from person to person, I kept thinking I saw a family member, a relative, a friend… it took a minute to realize that, no, I didn't recognize any of these people, but I saw somebody I knew in all of them. One of the young men resembled my oldest brother, Chansone. A bleary-eyed woman just beginning to show her age resembled my mother. The man with the goatee and a bloody, broken nose resembled Mr. Alunan, whose family always sat near ours in temple. I might not have known these people, but I saw my world in them. I saw a proud people broken for reasons I didn't yet understand…
The reasons, it turns out, are quite simple: the good Duke Orsino was a wastrel and a profligate spender, and the already-distrusted Selenites made a convenient and profitable target. He seized our property and our lives to bankroll his lavish lifestyle. But I digress.
I brought my hand to my face and was surprised when it came away wet. I was crying, and not just a bit. Tears streamed freely, dribbling off my cheeks as I saw the broken, forlorn people in the hold below us. Why had I insisted on seeing them? What did I think this would accomplish? I hated that I felt so powerless…
"Vix?" Aldo nudged my shoulder. "Vix, are you crying?"
"I'm not crying!" I practically shouted at him.
My outburst was loud enough to draw attention to ourselves over the creak of the ship and the groaning of prisoners below. One of them, a young man of fifteen or so, glanced up, his eyes going wide when he spotted us. He whispered to the young woman next to him, who gawped and pointed.
"There's kids up there!"
This immediately precipitated a flurry of activity below, with the several dozen people closest to the grate clinking about in their chains and mumbling to one another while prisoners further back called out to ask what was going on. A few seconds afterward, a barrage of a dozen simultaneous questions made their way to us, utterly incomprehensible to my ears. It was clear enough that they were asking for our help, though.
I responded in Selenic: "Aif ummin'an aeidisa? Nuun ilmudjad aitafa!" (What can we do? We're only kids!)
Somebody called out: "Ayid min nus'ebina!" (One of our people!) Muted cheering ensued despite my having just said that we were only kids. And, of course, I was the only Selenite in a trio with a Gionian and a Wextish kid.
"You have to help us! There must be a key up there! Something!" Somebody shouted.
I was about to reply that we hadn't seen any keys when Mailyn grabbed my shoulder and pulled so hard I nearly collapsed to the floor. She shouted in my ear: "Somebody's coming!"
"Time to get scarce!" Aldo said.
We had absolutely no time to hide as a trio of sailors unlocked the door and tromped into the overhold. "Fuck if I know, but something's getting the Seelies all riled-" the lead sailor stopped mid-sentence, his eyes fixed on Mailyn and me. Aldo had managed to dive between a crate and a barrel, but not cleanly - the barrel sloshed water loudly as he crammed himself in. "And right at the start of my bloody shift," the sailor sighed.
He lunged at me. As I leapt out of the way, my foot got painfully stuck in the metal grating above the chattel hold. I cried out in pain. My hair came loose as I thrashed about, trying to free myself. Behind me, Mailyn shrieked. Or maybe that was Aldo - he could get up in the octaves, too. A pair of brawny arms lifted me bodily into the air and, when a big, grimy palm clamped over my mouth, I gave it a good bite.
"Little bitch!" the sailor roared. Then he tossed me. For a moment, my stomach lurched in weightlessness, and then the deck rose up and gave me a solid thump. I bounced two or three times and then just lay there whimpering. Strong hands grabbed my upper arm and yanked me to my feet. "Try that again and I'm tossin' you overboard!"
The voices in the chattel hold went utterly silent as the three of us were dragged out to face our punishment.
We were brought above decks and hauled around until the sailors could finally find Captain Chirar, accumulating hangers-on like remoras until we had about a dozen sailors and petty officers huddled around us and craning their necks for the captain, who was finally spotted going over his maps on the poop deck. He sat in the sunset, bald pate gleaming, the sea breeze ruffling his unbuttoned jacket as he tapped his pencil to a song that only he could hear. As the thump of boots neared, he looked up and his scowl swept toward us, one eye dark and the other milky-white. He slotted his pencil behind his ear and folded his current map with great deliberation, carefully sliding it into its velveteen pouch before scratching his stubbly cheek with a scar-pitted hand.
"We didn't do nothing!" Aldo shouted. Restrained just to his left, I nodded in vociferous agreement.
"Indeed? What have we here?" the captain asked, his voice clipped and slightly gravelly.
"Trespassers, sir!" one of the sailors said with a salute. "Caught these wastrels in the overhold causin' a ruckus among the indentures. He nudged me with his knee, causing me to stumble forward. "This'n gave me a good bite on the hand, too! Even drew a bit of blood!"
"Hmm… this is very serious business," Chirar said with a frown. "Very serious, indeed. Do you think we should plank them?"
"Please don't plank us!" Mailyn cried. I nodded in vociferous agreement to that, too.
"Or perhaps a warning will suffice…" he looked at his men meaningfully, his gaze sweeping across all dozen of them. "Let's see a show of hands. Who thinks we should plank these three troublemakers? Hmm… one… two… three. Really? And who says we let them off with a very stern warning? Hmm… six… seven… eight. Well, it would seem-"
One of the petty officers cleared his throat. "Pardon my interruption sir…" he pushed his way through the gaggle of seamen and stopped in front of the teary-eyed Mailyn. "O'er supper last night, I recall hearing about a poor woman in first class that lost a heirloom kerchief what belonged to her granny." He bent forward and carefully extracted the frilly kerchief from Mailyn's dress pocket. "I think these little ones might be doin' more than just a casual bit of trespassing."
The captain's eyes went from mirthful to steely very quickly, his thin lips drawing into a sneer as he turned to the three of us. "That does change things, lads. Curiosity I can abide, but outright theft is a bridge too far. Prepare the quarterdeck for a trial. And you three, have these delinquents brought to the prisoner posts and chained to the deck. Off you go!"
"No!" I shouted, but it was far too late to squirm my way out of the situation. Kicking and screaming, I was hauled up above decks and, by the time I got my panic under control, the alarum bell was ringing to assemble the Auspicio's crew and passengers for yet another trial at sea.