Sailing the Greatsand
A Clean Death: Part One of Twelve
A Clean Death is the fourth in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the first chapter.
This is a fantasy series—not quite grimdark, but dark nevertheless—with complicated and believable characters doing their best to survive in a world simply indifferent to their existence.
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Sailing the Greatsand
Just one more day at sea. Just one more.
It was not that Pepper hated the sea or sea travel, she had loved both ever since she had first set foot on a deck, a year after leaving Fea Little. It was simply that she wanted to get to Youlmouth, finish the job she had started four moons ago, and head home to Eastsea. She knew she would enjoy the return voyage much more. She was tired and, worse, was worried that the feeling she had recently experienced, something new, perplexing and alien to her, was actually boredom.
She needed time away from work, time to think, to look at her present and consider her future. She could afford both the time and the expense and, she knew, this placed her in a position of extreme privilege—and she might as well use that.
This was the last death on a list of five—all powerful players, representing the Bamboo Bear Clan. Each of the others had possessed the grace and decency to stay in Eastsea, apart from Ronne The Sawman—who had inconveniently attempted to flee down the Great South Road. He had not got very far at all, at least not when he had been alive.
The last time Pepper had seen his ugly face, she had been hammering the lid tight on to the hogshead barrel of Ornock port she had chosen for a coffin, wondering whether the deep ruby colour would sink into his skin or not, his eyes wide with surprise, sightlessly staring back as she tapped the nails, using the hilt of the man’s own knife. She would not risk damaging her own. The barrel was part of a cargo destined for The Pit, a long, long, overland caravan.
Pepper still felt it was a shame she would never know the result of her skin-dye experiment. She also regretted the wasted port.
Killing people was a lot easier when they did not run. It became even harder when they took sail.
Rinc the Fourth had a six-day head start and Pepper had kindly donated a further six. Through long, occasionally bitter, experience, she knew it was best not to follow prey too closely. They tended to get spooked and keep running. Instead, it was wisest to let him think he had escaped, let him think she would not follow. This, she had been told, worked for deer as well as it worked for men.
She knew it was likely Rinc would not take a further ship; few captains risked a voyage to or from Youlmouth as the equinoctial gales neared. The storms that spun through The Funnel, gathering strength in the southern Severed Spine Mountains to crash across the Greatsand, were deadly—legendary in their ferocity.
Few seafarers complained about them, however; without the churning of the waters and the scouring of the sand, the vast gulf would rapidly silt up, the combined might of the Red River and the waters of the Youl emptying countless tonnes of ground rock, sand, soil and other detritus into its waters every year. Each winter, this sediment was shifted, redeposited in the vast banks and seemingly endless beaches and dunes to the west, leaving the main channel through the Greatsand empty and clear once more.
It was likely that the Seafolk vessel, the Southspray Maree—her home since she had watched the towers of Eastsea disappear behind her, silhouetted against a reddened evening sky—would be the last to arrive in Youlmouth and, almost certainly, the last to leave. From what Captain Seven had told her, it was unlikely that any other ships had left after Rinc had arrived in port.
This included the Emerald Prize, the vessel Rinc had boarded in Eastsea, which was due to be dry-docked, scraped, patched and refitted before the spring trade season. Pepper’s work was often helped by the fact Guin Shoemaker and Merie had a thorough knowledge of all the major trade vessels to dock in Eastsea and held a part-share in, or owned, several of them.
Pepper knew Captain Seven was technically not a captain, nor was that his real name. The Seafolk had other titles and only ever gave land-dwellers their trade name. She knew Seven meant he was from Seventh Harbour but she knew he would guard his real name jealously, as the sea guards her dead.
The man was a useful gambling partner and, admittedly, a partner of other games too: games with less chance and more pleasure, at least the way she played them. He had been one of Pepper’s earliest contacts when she had arrived in Eastsea, meeting three months after her arrival. They had been friends over all the years since.
On many occasions, Seven had proved his worth, sharing invaluable information as she shared his bed. It helped that he was so damned fine-looking, kept a clean ship, and even cleaner cabin. The Southspray Maree was the fastest vessel Pepper had ever travelled upon and she told herself that the fact his bed was exceptionally comfortable was simply an added bonus.
This was Pepper’s third visit to Youlmouth and she was glad it was not the first; the idea of only having three days to experience a new city made her cringe. It would be tough enough to finish the task at hand in that time, let alone fit in any sightseeing and study. She hoped she would find the time to visit the Black Pyramid, the huge structure that dominated the city, curling and stretching out below its vast facets. The building was fascinating. Officially off-limits to all but the very holiest, an entire industry had evolved around showing visitors the many chambers, carvings, tunnels and sarcophagi within, all after dark. The memory of torchlight flickering across golden statues, refracting in the precious stones and bouncing off lacquered wood, was still vivid.
Pepper’s network in Youlmouth was thin. She had people, but the majority of them were also other people’s people, and who knew how much Rinc would pay to give out false information? It was going to be hard, only two—perhaps three—to truly rely on, and one of those was herself.
‘Are you done brooding, Arna?’ Seven asked. Even his voice was attractive, soft but strong, the sea on a calm day, waves gentle but their power always present, just beneath the surface.
‘I’m not brooding, Captain, merely waiting to catch my first glimpse of the Black Pyramid.’
‘It’ll be dark by the time you could see it and you won’t be able to see it then, not with these clouds. Come on, let’s eat.’
Pepper allowed herself to be escorted away from the rail of the sleek ship. She assumed it, like every other tiny part of the vessel, had a special name. The gap in her knowledge suddenly frustrated her. Overhead, the lines hummed and the sails occasionally snapped in the strong wind. The sense of motion was something joyous, the pull and friction of elemental forces powerfully mesmeric.
‘Do you ever get tired of this?’ she asked, gesturing, already knowing the answer.
‘No! Why would I? I was born on the sea and I shall die on the sea. This is life, Arna, not your filthy, choked and choking cities.’
‘I seem to remember you enjoying my filthy Eastsea, or at least some of it.’ She laughed and raised an eyebrow at him.
‘It has its good sides, I suppose,’ he replied, also laughing, ‘Now, come and eat. Your servant,’ he barely disguised the questioning tone, ‘She tells me she is hungry. I suppose days of vomiting will do that to a person.’
‘My servant,’ she stressed the word, ‘Has finally found her sea-legs? I should hope so too. I’ve been worried I’ll have to have to find a new servant for every voyage. And it’s so frustrating, training them to the correct standard.’
As far as the Captain was concerned, Pepper, or Arna, was a merchant who dealt in rare antiquities. It was a useful cover and, like all the best lies, was also partly true. Merie had come up with Pepper’s cover on their long, adventure-filled journey from Fea Little to Eastsea. She was to be her agent in antiquities, perfumes and other rare goods.
As time had passed, Pepper had become better and better at her cover work, until the goods offered by Shoemaker and Family Traders were renowned as some of the best in all the Isthmus, perhaps even across the lands west of the Severed Spine.
This cover gave Pepper an excuse to continue her other work, the family business Uncle Pol had trained her for and raised her within. It also let her travel extensively, to see more of the world, which had always been her biggest dream.
Her mind drifted elsewhere, thinking of all the places she had seen and all the places she still wanted to see.
‘I want to be the first person beyond The Ribbon.’
The captain laughed at her statement, rich, seductive, all-too-lovely.
‘Good luck with that! You know how hard my people have tried to create a trade route Beyond?’ The capitalisation was clear, ‘We have attempted it for countless generations, it is just not possible.’
‘But why? If it is a chain of islands, then why can’t there be a gap, a point through which you can sail?’ She knew the answers already, but it did not hurt to ask once more.
‘There is a point, a gap, where the distance is most narrow, but you know full well why it is called The Maelstrom. That’s the only known place where you can see right through, all the way to the ocean beyond. But there’s no sailing the Maelstrom. It simply isn’t possible.’
‘Why can’t people carry boats overland, go from island to island? Or at least establish trade routes from one side of an island to the other, form a chain across them all?’
Captain Seven opened the snugly-fitted door to the galley below and held it open for her.
‘It has been tried, many times. If the expedition is lucky, it is never heard from again.’
‘What do you mean, if they are lucky? That makes no sense.’ Pepper played along. She had heard this story a thousand times, each telling merely reinforcing her belief that she had to try, one day, somehow.
‘Those who do return tell many tales. If they get partway through the wilderness they can return with tales of terrifying beasts, twisted in hideous ways, savage Talking Races and even humankind—tribes and groups who do not welcome intruders. If they make it further? Then they do not return with their sanity. Something,’ he made the rocking hand gesture she knew meant the sea and blew over his fingers—the sign for begging safety from Mother Water and Father Wind. ‘Something drives them insane. It is not pleasant to see.’
He was silent for a moment, before adding, ‘I can tell you this, though, but you did not hear it from me. There are others Beyond The Ribbon, other Talking Races, and they are also trying to make it to our side, that much I know. Sometimes, debris from strange vessels washes through The Maelstrom and, once in my Grandfather’s time, a ship was sighted before it turned back. It was different, with two hulls somehow attached together, as long as the Southspray Maree, with a tall central mast sporting red sails. My Grandfather made a copy, just a toy, and he became obsessed with it, how it handled the water and wind. He made another, slightly bigger, then another. Next, he made a larger copy, a small boat he could pilot himself and sailed it between Eleventh Harbour and Westsea and back, singlehandedly. Last I heard of him, when I was an apprentice, he had tried to sail it west, between some of the islands of The Ribbon, convinced that somehow this vessel was the one to make it. No one saw him again. Now,’ he opened the door to his cabin, where Pepper saw Hedda, sitting on cushions, beside a mat laden with food. ‘Let us eat, please. I am hungry.’
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