The Fifth Path (15/30)

The First Draft of the Autobiography of Baal Uras, Soon to be 28th King of the True Land

Running Title: The False Land: How Not to Die

Composed Simanu 12th In the 59th Year of Baal Shamas

Chapter 13: Pirates

A short time after we departed from the port of Xexan, land of the phoenix and the assassin, and the inscrutable monetary system, we were captured by pirates. Gentle reader, I am afraid that the events that I am about to describe may horrify some of you. That I am writing this story of course means that the ending is at least a little happy, but the events along the path are anything but that. I describe this to you again, because it is the truth, not because I truly wish it to be told. There are dark things in the false world and in the last month, I have seen more than a few. If you do not wish to see that darkness, to not see the terrible things people are capable of doing to people, then please, skip past this chapter, move on to the next chapter, which I do hope will be much brighter and more cheerful. I don’t thing anything could be worse certainly. With that said, I begin.

It was on the second day of the voyage that we spotted the pirates following us. We had the en-jin as a way of outracing them, but it was still not completely fixed, so our outlander captain did his best to keep us away from the pirates, while also working to fix the en-jin so that it might be used to flee before they caught us. We tried to help a little, with my Protector scrambling up the sails to change things and watch out for the pirates, while my Scholar looked at charts and books of tides that he had bought in Xexan, hoping to find us an escape route, or a way to hide from our pursuers if the en-jin could not be fixed. He seemed to only remember that he had bought the book after a while however, as he took the time to write in his journal in that secret code of his before beginning the sea chart exploration. As for my self, well, I was useless. I tried to stay out of everyone’s way, and did my best to help when I could, fetching tools and turning the steering wheel when asked to. Time passed and the pirate ship got closer. It was much larger than our own little ship, outfitted with a whole row of the cannons I had heard my Scholar talk about when we first left the homeland. Our captain explained, that not only could we not let the ship catch up to us, but we also couldn’t let that side of the ship with the cannons get within any range of us, or we would be sunk.

In my education, I had occasionally seen a pirate, but only on the execution block. Most pirates that troubled the shores of the true land were killed out at sea by our brave admirals, but some were sufficiently dreadful that they were brought back to the capital to be killed, just so that all of the Baals might be sure that they were truly dead. So I had seen pirates, but never in the wild. I had never really considered them a threat, more like a pest for those unlucky few that lived on the coast, or made their living on the sea. Truly my empathy has expanded in the days since I thought those terrible naive thoughts. In the end they caught up.

This is not to say that anyone on our side truly failed. At the last moment, just before it seemed that all hope was lost, our captain finally fixed the en-jin, and we began roaring away, our speed now much more than the massive vessel which chased us. But only a moment later, we heard something like a storm starting behind it, and saw the massive ship too accelerate. It had had its own en-jin, but simply waited to use it until it needed to. My Scholar’s research found a small section of sea that had a low bottom, that our small vessel might move over, but which would stick fast the large vessel. We fled towards that place, hoping to scuttle our pursuers, and make our escape. We passed over the shoal and saw the great ship follow, feeling a surge of hope as it began to slow. But then the sound of its en-jin increased, roaring like nothing I had heard since the fist of Bel. And it moved over the shoal, simply pushed itself over the sandbar, unconcerned with the fact that it was mostly above the water. It caught up and a dozen pirates could be seen on the edge of the boat, hooks with ropes in hand. They tossed the ropes, and we tried to cut them, and we did a few, but some began to swing down instead of crawling, and then we were fighting and not just cutting ropes. Then there were a dozen abourd the ship against us four, and though I knew my Protector would go down fighting and would likely take a half dozen down with her, I shouted for surrender. We raised our arms, and the pirates took our weapons, and the pirates carried us back to their ship.

We were beaten up a bit, then stuffed into a cell deep within the ship. The smell of the place was worse than anything I had experienced before, and I soon realized why, when I felt something sticky and wet fall down upon me, and I realized that the wet of the ground was not seawater. It seemed that the pipes that took the waste of the ship and dumped it into the sea passed over this room. And they leaked. I looked for something, anything to clean myself, but I found nothing but my clothes, so I tore off my shirt, used it to wash my body, then hurled it away from me, curling up in a corner that seemed free from filth. There we waited. We tried to talk, but there was a guard, and each time we spoke, made a noise, or moved too fast, the great fat woman poked us with a long stick, yelling something at us in something that almost sounded like Xexan, but not quite. So we waited in silence, together with the smell.

After a time, we were dragged out of the cell, unceremoniously stripped of our clothes, washed off with buckets of water and painful sponges, then our hands were clamped in irons, and we were all dragged up several flights, still naked, barely able to climb the ladders because of the chains binding our arms. We were stopped before a well made door that seemed much cleaner than anything else in the ship. One of the pirates stopped at that moment, and started shouting at us in different languages, finally hitting on Hashim as one that at least most of us could understand. The rough looking man, notable for his incredibly huge and lumpy nose, and what looked like a bite taken out of his shoulder by some great beast, told us we would be meeting the captains and that if we wanted to live through it, we might try being polite. He said it in a slightly less mannered fashion. Then we were shoved through the door, all of us wet as drowned rats, naked, and clamped in irons. Not perhaps the best side of someone.

The captains were a unique couple. It was a man and a woman, who called each other sister and brother, but quite obviously were not. The man was close to seven feet tall, with skin paler than any I had seen before, and shocking red hair. The woman was less than five, with skin black as pitch, and hair to match. They wore brightly colored clothes, obviously tailored especially for them, in a fashion I did not recognize but knew was, at least in these parts, the height of style. Each had a hat bigger than any I had seen more, with feathers to match, bright blue and gold in color. Had I not seen the twin phoenixes of Xexan they would have been the most beautiful feathers I had ever seen in my life. I knew that this was my chance to save us. I was the talker, that was my skill. I was good at reading people and faces and finding what people wanted. I opened my mouth, but before I could so much as utter a sound, both of the captains had turned all the attention to our own pale captain. They shouted something in a language I did not understand, but had heard before. Our captain responded. They spoke again, and he spit on the ground in front of them in response. Then the woman pulled out something like a cannon, but much smaller, lit something on fire, and a moment later our captain had blossomed red, lying in a pool of his blood on the ground. Then, while our companion lay screaming, bleeding to death on the ground next to us, they turned back their attention to us, and spoke. Perhaps, gentle reader, you can understand, if not truly forgive, my sudden lack of voice in that moment.

The captains were fine spoken. The man spoke in a friendly way, with many apologies and seeming sympathy, which extended to his face and eyes not at all. The woman interjected with more threatening messages, suggesting consequences and punishments. It was an impressive performance to say the least. For a few moments during that moment, I managed to think about what they were saying, and not about my dying friend. It was my Scholar who seemed to have kept his head somehow in this situation, despite being the closest to our, soon to be late, captain in both emotions, and physical space. He answered the captains questions politely and quickly, explaining exactly what they asked for, without expanding at all. He told the truth when their would be a way for them to confirm, and he lied otherwise, seeing no reason to tell these people anything that might be useful to them. Still, with my autobiography draft and my Protector’s diary being aboard the recently captured ship, there was little that could not be confirmed should they choose to double check, so largely the truth was told. I began to regret not coming up with a secret code like my Scholar. The talk did not last very long. Mostly they appeared to want to see their newly captured guests, shoot our captain, and figure out who we were and what we carried. Once they had the info, we were returned to the filth filled rooms bellow, and again we waited.

In time we were given food, but it was so filled with maggots and flies that I could not even try eating it. Neither of my companions seemed able to either, though they both at least gave it a bite before setting it aside in disgust. Time passed and we tried to sleep. My Protector, already feeling terrible from the movement of the ocean, with the smell compounding it, was soon retching onto the already vile floor. It was difficult to sleep as the sound continued, even after her belly emptied, her body kept trying to make her, and she made the dry rasping that results from that. It was, not my most pleasant night. Half way through my generally failed attempt at sleep, my Scholar moved slowly over next to me, and shook me.

He spoke in a soft voice, saying that the guard had left because of the noise, and that we had this chance to talk. He explained that our presumably deceased captain had, based on the short exchange between the three, been a crew member together with these captains, or perhaps they had all been together under another. It would seem that he had betrayed the rest in order to get his own ship. They had given him a chance to rejoin the crew, but he had no interest in that idea, so they shot him, with, what my Scholar called, a matchlock pistol. He said that we had a few things going for us that might make it possible for us to get out of here. My royal blood might get us, or at least me ransomed instead of turned to a slave. His citizenship in Xexan might have some effect. And the general exotic beauty of myself and my Protector might at least save us from a life of hard labor. I believe he was trying to lighten the mood with that last one, but it was really not the right moment. I did what I could to keep morale up, telling him good job, and to keep up on the data collection. I told him that they would likely not know how many languages he could understand and might let something slip thinking he couldn’t understand, so it might be a good idea to hide understanding of most of his languages. He nodded at this, seemingly ready to do just that. Then he slipped away, back to his own filth free corner, and was soon at least looking like he was asleep, something I found quite impressive at the time. It was a feat I apparently managed as well at some point, for I found myself waking up eventually, a bucket of dirty water doing the deed.

That first day afterwords was a painful blur. Mostly there was rowing. Endless pulling and pushing on a piece of wood, chained together with others also chained. We followed a beating drum, pulling then pushing, then pulling again. If we should grow tired then one of the pirates would strike us with a whip, until we found that extra reserve of strength to carry on. Or, as I observed once that first day, till you lost consciousness from the pain and were dragged away to who knows where. We were given only short breaks and few moments to eat food, again nothing but maggot filled bread. Again I declined to eat, but at least I earned the approval of my rowing partner by giving mine to him that day. I spotted my Protector once that day, doing the same work as me. I nodded at her, but she did not respond. I don’t think she saw me. The next day I ate the bread. I threw up. Day after that I saw our outland captain again. Got a chance to go up on the deck for the first time. The sunlight burned my eyes. I was mopping the deck together with others. Happened to look up at one point at the string of hung bodies handing along a section of the sail. Our captain was one of them. Apparently they had hung him after they shot him. The elements had not been kind to his body. Managed to choke down the bread that day. Had been put in a cell different than my companions after first night. It smelled less horrible and I did not have to listen to my Protector throwing up all night. I hated my self for feeling happy about that.

It was not till the fifth day that I learned my rowing mates name. Talking was punishable by beating, and neither of us knew what languages the other spoke, so even in the moments where we could get away with it, we knew not what to say. Each of tried speaking a few things in those moments, but it was not till the fifth day that one worked. Turns out we both spoke at least a little Raltik. Actually turned out the guy was a Raltik. Had not actually met one since the journey started. One or two had visited Bel’s city during my education, to help me with the language and to teach me about their religion. Raltik was always used by my other tutors as a prime example of the corruption and moral decay of the false lands.

For those of you readers that did not grow up in the capital and get a chance to learn about them, the basics are as follows. They only believe in one god, named Raltik. They think that Raltik created all things for the pleasure of thinking beings. As such, they believe that taking pleasure in the things of the world and in each other is the highest calling of each man and woman. But strangely, this only extends to the physical world. They think that emotional love should be reserved for their god alone, and that while you can lust after another, or wish to spend time with them for reasons of increasing pleasure, loving another takes away from your love of Raltik and is thus a sin. I remember this baffled my mind at the time. My Raltik tutor tried to tempt me a little to see the value in his beliefs, but at the time I did not get it at all. Now, having lived a fuller life, I can much more clearly see what might be the draw of such a belief system. In our circumstances at the time, I can surely say that the belief system which motivated him was of little concern to me. He was another prisoner, another stuck in the same dire circumstances as myself, and thus we became fast friends. Or friends in so far as one can be when one is able to sneak only a few dozen sentences in in a day and one of you only kinda knows the language.

It was maybe four or five days after I learned his name, which was Jayce, that he let me in on a plot that was being constructed among the slaves. It would seem that a revolution was being planned, or at least an escape, and if I was willing to help, I was invited to reap the potential rewards. Needless to say, I was happy to finally have some hope. Each day I had tried, in those moments when I was not to busy working endlessly, or passing out from exhaustion, to consider a way out of this situation, to return to my destined path, return to my rightful place, and yet I could think of no way at all to do so. I had had one chance to use my skills, as a leader and a talker, and in that moment I had frozen up, had contributed nothing at all. Now I was out of my element, I was in a situation where all of my knowledge of language and ruling and diplomacy served me not at all. I guess the language one did a bit, seeing as it let me talk to my friend. Still, I felt in myself, in that time, that I was completely helpless, that I had lost all autonomy. In that belief, my hope had slowly started to dwindle, to fall away. My belief in my intrinsic worth as a Baal fell away under the endless burden of hard work and the degradation of my condition. So, when I got the chance to try and get free, when I had hope again, I leaped at the chance.

I learned more slowly over the next several days about the specifics of the proposed escape. It was somewhat brilliant and at the same time ridiculously straightforward. The pirates were a cautious bunch. Slaves were chained to their rowing chairs. They were moved from their cells to the chairs and back only in small groups, with more pirates than unchained prisoners always. The only exception to this was during mopping duty, or cleaning duty. But then it was still only small groups, and while their were less actual guards during those times, the deck was covered in pirates that would step in if something happened. As it turned out however, it was not unprecedented for the pirates to take bribes, assuming the prisoners were able to provide something worth bribing with. This was primarily used to take a nap during the day, or find some alone time with an opposite gendered prisoner. The plan was simply to set up a perfect storm of all the possible ways that prisoners might be free, make sure all of the ones that were were in on the plot, and then overwhelm the pirates, unlock as many compatriots as possible and get the hell off this boat.

The plan called for three people to be bribing their way to some alone time, one to rest, and two to act as a couple. Then, their would need to be one person with a great deal of pain tolerance to pretend to be knocked unconscious by the whipping. It would be timed such that the bribe people would be coming back right as the whipped guy was being taken away. As they passed each other, they’d all go for it, try and take the guards by surprise. Usually there were four guards, but if one group was taken up to the deck their would be only three, and with four total prisoners released, they would have the numbers and the surprise. It was a shot. I knew I wasn’t much of a fighter, but I was able to tell them about my Protector, who could be the female in the scenario and would also be a great force in a fight. They were able to set up communication with her for me, and soon she was in on it too. The tricky part was knowing when people were going to be sent up to the deck with enough time left to set up the bribes. But thankfully getting deck duty was something people paid bribes for as well, and the guards would let people who might be able to bribe know when that might be available. Time passed, and I waited, and then it seemed like it would be the next day. But when I arrived the next morning my friend was gone, and so were several others in the conspiracy. Had they escaped without me? Nope. We were all brought up on the deck in small groups to be shown their corpses, hanging near my now mostly skeletal former captain. My moral dropped to basically nothing at that point.

In the days that followed, the worst thing started to happen. I started to get used to it. I started to accept the job and the awful bread and my cell and the smell and my place. I started to accept that as normal. I stopped trying to think of ways out. I started just zoning out. I started just going through the motions, not really living my life at all. If it had not been for a shake up in the schedule, I fear truly where my mental state might have ended up. But that’s not what happened, our ship pulled into a port, and things changed enough that I was able to act.

I heard about it from my new rowing partner a day before it happened. We were about to head into port. There were two positive parts of this. One was that we would not have to row till we left port. And some of us might be sold. And while few really knew what one might do as a slave for another, none could really imagine it could be much worse than this. So in general the moral for the slaves was high. Even the pirates were excited for the chance of port, so the beatings were less common, the mood almost cheerful on the rowing floor. I even heard rumors that they bought new bread from markets so the food might actually be good for a few days after we left. In general I felt much more positive about all of this than I really should have. It shows you just how far I had fallen that the prospect of a few days of bread that was not stale or maggot ridden gave me such joy.

As it turned out, I was among the lucky few that would be brought out of the ship to be given a chance at the slave market. From what I was able to infer, what my Scholar had said all those many nights ago had not been completely untrue. It seems that the appearance of the true people was considered exotic and attractive out here in this land, and it was due to this that I was chosen to be sold, as I might get extra value due to my looks and general youth and lack of deformities. So it was that after we pulled into the port the next day, a process which involved a more complicated than usual drumming routine, I was dragged out of my seat, given my second scrub down since I boarded the ship, put in the first clean clothes I had experienced in what seemed like a lifetime, and marched out into the sunlight. As it turned out, it was actually somewhat late in the day, but for my eyes, used to the dim depths of the pirate ship, it was still quite bright. We were taken to some kind of slave holding cell, which was much less secure than our normal situation. If there was one thing that I hated about myself it was the fact that I noted that fact, but felt absolutely zero motivation to act on it in any way. I suppose perhaps it was well that I didn’t for we heard a piercing scream in the night of one attempted escapee and found her the next day missing a hand, but still that I did not so much as consider escape was a failing I can not truly forgive myself.

In any event, the next day I was brought out to the slave auction. The people were a mixture of all sorts I had seen before. Many looked similar to the Xexan, but there were all sorts, though in general they had a more rough and intimidating look to them than most I had seen. I watched as person after person was inspected, observed, and sold. Then I stepped up to the block. I did not know what system of currency was being used, but the bids were higher than for most of the previous individuals. I was happy that this fact did not make me happy. I am not sure if I could have lived with myself if it had. It came down to something of a bidding war between someone veiled all in grey, and an older looking woman absolutely covered in jewelry. Something about the grey figure seemed familiar, but the woman ended up winning. The way she looked me over when she came up to collect me did not give me good feelings.

Indeed, these feelings were justified a short time later after I had been transferred to her care. My hands were bound together tightly, and my legs given just enough space to shuffle. I was pushed into a carriage by an overweight man that seemed to be combination bodyguard and carriage driver, then the lady came in after me. I shall not sicken you, gentle readers with what happened in that carriage, but suffice to say, I am glad that my first kiss had already been taken at that point. I was relieved when we reached a stopping place, some kind of roadside inn. Less relieved when I was locked in the old woman’s bedroom while she and the guard went to get dinner downstairs. Now at last the impulse to escape came upon me. Somehow the horrid food and the terrible working conditions and the general reduction of my value as a person had been something acceptable to me on some level and I had started to accept them, but the idea of spending the night with this woman was not OK at all. Or at least it was different enough to shake me out of the miasma of acceptance I had fallen into.

As it turned out, the lady had not been particularly careful about trapping me in the room. The windows opened easily with a little prodding, and though we were on the second floor, and my hands and feet were bound, I almost simply leaped out, but I retained enough sense to realize that would be stupid to do right off the bat, though the thought of being free did make it tempting. I had some time, so I decided to see if I could get myself unbound somehow first. Seemed unlikely the leg bindings could be broken, considering they were metal, but my hands were bound with just rope. I searched through the luggage that was left up here when we were dropped off. I found a vaguely sharp piece of jewelry, and took that, figuring I’d cut myself free later because it might take a while. I also found a key, which I could not believe could possibly be the key for my leg bindings. But it was. So those were gone a moment later. I shook my head, kept the sharp jewelry in my hand, and lowered myself out the window, dropping down as quietly as I could. I saw movement in front of me. It was the grey veiled individual who had tried to buy me at the market. I was not in the mood for being owned at that moment, so I charged forward, stabbing out with my sharp broach thing. I struck home, and I heard a familiar sounding curse, lamenting being stabbed again. I gasped. The stranger pulled off their veil to reveal my Scholar, now bleeding from the gut for the second time this journey. He grimaced in response to my apology.

I of course wanted to know everything. How had he escaped? How was he able to be free enough to try and buy me? Why was he dressed like he was? Where were we? But he cut me off. The most important thing he explained, was that our last companion was not yet free. We needed to act now, with no time for anything else. I nodded at this. And so, just like that, or rather, a moment later after my ropes were cut and we bandaged up my Scholar’s midsection, we were off to rescue my Protector, from what I came to understand later, was a pretty terrible fate even by the standards of horrible fates I had been thinking in recently.

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