Genre: YA fantasy
Title: RAISE THE BLACK
A rough thumb brushed the painful spot on her cheek. “Who bruised her up?”
“Like that when we brought everyone on board,” the skin runner said.
The captain grunted and jerked her face up. Damp fingers pried open her lips and he glanced at her teeth.
She kept her jaw clenched, deftly kept the lock pick under the back of her tongue. She fought the small temptation to kick out, but let him pass. The satisfaction wouldn’t be worth the guaranteed gag and bag on her head. She remembered that lesson from the last job.
The captain spat a wad of chew at her bare feet, his gaze calculating. He seemed disappointed when she didn’t flinch or cry when the glob slid down her leg. Drei knew what he saw – her cut feet, torn pants and stained shirt showing a bony shoulder.
“You tell your men to keep your hands off the merchandise, you hear me?” said the captain. “Shut your mouth and log her down. Sloppy records when we pull into Ceissames will reduce my cut.”
The skin runner scowled, the log book and ink point in his hands. “We didn’t touch her none—”
He cowered when the captain raised a fist in his direction.
“I’m not taking disrespect from the likes of you.” His yell caused a ripple of fresh tears and cowers amongst the row of chained bodies. “This is my ship. You filth should be grateful I let you hide your merchandise in my hold.”
The ship swayed on the water, causing boards to creak as they rubbed against each other. The sound mingled amidst the soft crying. A single oil lamp swayed from the low-hung ceiling, but the scant light was better than the pit where the rest of the human cargo was stashed.
Drei dared to glance out one of the small port holes. Anticipation churned in her stomach. How much time did she have? Two days had passed since she’d stashed herself on the merchant’s ship, lying in wait until the rest of her own crew caught up. It should have only been one day, tops, but a nasty squall had hit the area after entering Faulto Passage. Waiting around for an entire day hadn’t been in her plans.
Her stomach twisted, but not from anticipation this time. She remembered being stuck in the smuggler hold, crammed against bodies stinking of urine and fear while the storm raged outside. But if that was what it took to make money on the job… she’d gone through worse.
“Girl, young. Mark her as sixteen, it’s the best number. Five and a half feet.”
Drei blinked, refocusing her attention on the captain. He’d moved closer, circling slowly.
He continued, “Skinny as a birch rod. But pretty.”
“Earmark her for the brothels?” the runner asked.
“Maybe. Lotus likes the darker-skinned ones on her roster. But that bruise better fade by the time we pull into shore,” the captain growled. “And who chopped her hair off? Nobody wants a girl with hair like a boy.”
If he only knew the real reason why her hair was cut close to her ears. She liked her hair short, trimmed close to her head. Made it easier to clean the blood and mess out of, at the end of the day. The only problem was that it hid nothing. For this to work, playing the mole, she couldn’t let her anger, her contempt show in her face or eyes.
Slaves bartered and shuffled across the Skettion Sea didn’t resemble anything but beaten baggage; no emotions, other than fear, would work.
She forced her lips to quiver, gave a breathy squeak at the rough hands roaming over her hips and chest. It was inside, down in her soul that she raged in the cold places. But like a good little girl, she stood still.
“Well, if any of them don’t want her, she’ll do housework. A firm household can beat the fight out of her—eh!” The captain hauled her hands to eye level and glared. “Damaged goods. Her little finger is clean chopped off.”
She forced her muscles to go limp. The finger and a small portion of flesh from her right hand were missing, a fierce webbing of scars marring her skin. Lighter than her burnt brown coloring, they stood out and drew the eye. She missed her glove at these moments.
He spat again, this time hitting her shoulder.
The runner leaned closer and scrunched his nose. “No good for the brothels, then. No customer wants to pay for that hand to touch him.”
“You’d be surprised,” the captain said, squeezing the bones of Drei’s hand, hard.
He wanted a reaction? She met his leering eyes with a deadened face.
The captain pushed her down with a harsh shove. The iron shackles jerked against her wrists and ankles as she hit the bench. Squeezed between two other slaves, there wasn’t enough room to breathe. The dampness of the wood seeped into her thighs, through the threadbare pants. Her eyes remained downcast, fixed on the slimy floor beneath her toes. Worn down by the feet of hundreds, probably thousands, of others like her, even the runners slipped on the surface in their boots. They caught themselves against the barrels, boxes, and stacks cluttering the sides of the ship.
Greasy hair and fair skin burned from the sun, he threaded the chain through the shackles. His dirty shirt gaped near the waist and the handle of a knife peeked out for a moment. Drei’s fingers twitched in response at the sight of the polished wood. Nice piece. She made a mental note of it, of all the weapons hidden on bodies in the small space.
He locked her in place and moved on. The next captive, a young boy, was yanked to his feet. The process continued, each soul catalogued, priced, and guarded closely. Just like they were the same as the lifeless items crowded between the low ceiling and walls. Then Drei’s group would be forced back down to the dark pit of the bilge and the other human cargo brought up.
She swallowed hard and the pick poked sharply against her tongue. If the attack went off before she had to go back down there, it’d be a blessing.
Smuggler vessels needed to be fast, but with enough space for storing wares of legitimate jobs while hiding the illegal ones below in storage units. Living people sat in the disgusting darkness below the wood under her heels.
She tried her best to avoid inhaling through her nose. The metal screen of the cargo hatch was bolted tight, the crew not bothering to open it even after the storm had passed. Drei glanced at it longingly. The air was stifling in the hull, breezes from the islands unable to weave their way through wood and resin. The lack of circulation made the sweet scent of vomit almost unbearable.
An elbow nudged her side.
She locked gazes with the man on her left. Though disheveled and bruised, his eyes weren’t like the others, glazed over with resignation. The dark orbs had fight in them, same as the cheeky grin.