I’m pretty stuck with Van at the moment, so there may be no continuation of this chapter right now. I’ve already skipped ahead to writing chapters six and seven. I keep hoping something will come to me so I can finish this chapter…some kind of conflict. Sigh. But here you go…
The deck was buzzing with life and excitement as the soldiers made ready to put to shore. Everyone seemed to feel the same way as their commander – the sooner they got off the boat, the better. From below the decks, Van heard the telltale rattling of chains. Soon after, some of his more seasoned soldiers brought forth a haggard group of men, all chained together by at the wrists and ankles. The shirtless captives squinted and tried to block the sun from their eyes as they rose from below deck. While their unshaved faces, bare feet, and soiled clothing attested to their week in the bowels of the ship, their upright posture and muscular build hinted that they were no ordinary prisoners.
“What would you like us to do with them, Lieutenant?” asked Marshal Leuke Green, Van’s second in command.
“I’d like for you to tie weights to the chains and throw them in the ocean,” Van replied coldly. “Be done with them once and for all.”
Something akin to fear crossed one or two of the chained men’s faces, but the others gave no sign of weakness.
“However, General Walters has ordered them to be delivered in tact. He seems to think they’ll make a nice bargaining chip.”
He walked up and down the line of prisoners, eyeing each one closely. He needed to choose his next steps wisely.
Van turned his back on the prisoners, looking over the deck and the rising land in the distance. “You are now in Goffan waters and, as such, under the jurisdiction of the Stronghold’s Courts.”
The ship swelled as the beginnings of a rolling wave lifted the boat and set it down quickly. Van’s stomach turned, and he struggled to hold down his lunch. After making sure the bile was back in his stomach where it belonged, he faced the men once again. “You have been placed under the Goffan Guard, awaiting your trial.”
“On what charges?” spat a lankly man whose hair was obviously blonde under all the dirt from the brig. Van had picked him out earlier as one of the group’s leaders. His tanned and well-defined upper arms revealed his tattoos – two black diamonds, one on his right shoulder and one a little further down. The second was much darker than the first, informing Van that the man’s promotion from ensign to marshal had come recently. The shine of the kraken ink still gave the diamond the appearance of being wet when the sun hit it. Everyone else in the group displayed only one diamond or the simple cross where a diamond might one day appear.
Van still had the vestiges of his former life emblazoned on his shoulder – a single black diamond, though it was much faded. He’d attempted to remove it using every old wives’ tale in the book – Doxal flames, a bitter tonic purchased from an unhallowed tribesman in the Spine, a thrice-daily rub with gopher root. Aside from the rash the last had produced, nothing seemed to dull the seemingly indestructible ink. However, he hid the black tattoo under an intricately woven wool tunic that displayed three maroon diamonds along the arms, denoting his status in the Goffan Guard.
Van stood toe to toe with the marshal. He had to admit that, despite the man’s chains, the Neban soldier cut quite an imposing figure.
“What is your name, Marshal?” Van asked without breaking eye contact.
“Marshal Gaven Haft of the Neban Guard.”
“And where are you from, Gaven?”
A flame briefly lit in the soldier’s eyes when Van addressed him by his familiar name, but he doused the blaze with a single blink. “Nebe,” he replied flatly.
Van smiled as the man provided the answer he’d expected. “Yes, of course,” he said, turning to the right and walking causally up the line, gesticulating flippantly. “But before that. What stronghold do you hail from?”
“I belong to no stronghold. I am Neban.”
The standard Neban soldier’s answer.
“Well, Marshal Gaven Haft of the Unified Nebe and not a stronghold, let me introduce myself.” He turned back to face the line of men. “I am Lieutenant Van Ludlow of Goffany. And the lot of you are under my protection until you are safely delivered to Captain Bryce Walters and the Goffan Court on the charges of kidnapping and slavery.”
He heard some of the prisoners suck in air when he announced the indictment, but the marshal merely chuckled haughtily.
“Something funny?” asked Van, looking down his nose at the man.
“You’re in deep shit, Lieutenant.” He spoke Van’s title as if it acid on his tongue.
“You best watch your tone, Marshal, lest I add insubordination to the list of infractions.”
“You’re local militia. The lowest piss-ant private in the Neban Guard outranks the highest captain amongst you. Hell, a callow tithe outranks your captains.”
Van knew Haft was technically correct. The local stronghold militias were established as a supplement to the Neban Guard. Since the Protector couldn’t keep all his hands in all the pies around the realm, he’d consented to local militias and courts – so long as they upheld the Neban laws. And that was precisely what Van and his soldiers were doing. Both slavery and kidnapping were, according to the letter of the law, illegal and tried before the local courts at the Quarter Sessions. A bit more problematic was the legal interpretation that tithing was a form of slavery and kidnapping. Haft was well aware the charges would never hold up in a Neban court, but Van was equally secure in the knowledge that his prisoners weren’t going to a Neban court.
“I’m sure the figurative shit I’m in is nothing compared to the literal shit on your pants, Marshal. Didn’t they teach you the importance of cleanliness in your courses?”
The time below deck had not been kind on the prisoners, and Van almost felt sorry for them based on his own lackluster voyage. Haft couldn’t keep the pale pink from rising in his cheeks, though he continued to stare stonily ahead. Van had him where he wanted him.
“Well, Gaven from Nebe, judging by the lilt in your accent, you’re Vustanian. Raised on pomp and circumstance, no doubt. Mommy and Daddy fed you bedtime stories about chivalry and honor. I’m sure you enlisted as soon as you turned seventeen. Probably on your nameday. Probably got a fancy horse and bag full of coin as a reward. Probably have a sweetheart waiting back home and counting the days til you make Lieutenant. I wonder what Sweet Sally would say if she could see you now, covered in your own excrement.”
Another prisoner coughed in a feeble attempt to cover obvious laughter. Van smiled to himself, now able to pinpoint his true target.
[To be continued, but I don’t know when…]