DargonZine 11, Issue 7

Paula’s Star

Firil 8, 1016


Paula pulled a bare foot from the clinging clay and straw mixture, placed it on the pit’s rim and rubbed a grimy forearm across her brow. Her whole body ached with fatigue, and it was still nearly two bells until dusk. She glanced up to the scaffold above her and saw Reghr watching her as he lounged against the newly-mortared wall. The second stonemason, Deski, troweled mortar on a corner stone a few feet away. They were nearly finished with the repair of the war-damaged warehouse wall. Her head suddenly jerked forward as Bontar, the master stonemason of the crew, cuffed her from behind.

 

“Get that mud mixed, laggard!” he growled. “You get back to work!” he yelled up at Reghr.

 

“Can’t lay stone without mortar,” Reghr said laconically as he chewed on a stem of straw.

 

Paula dodged Bontar’s blow this time as he ordered, “Get some mud up to the scaffold.”

 

She hurriedly scooped some of the straw and clay mixture from the pit and slapped it into the hod, a wooden implement to carry mortar. She added two more quick scoops before shouldering the heavy mortar-laden hod. Her small feet made a loud sucking sound as she pulled them from the mud.

 

Approaching the ladder, she paused as she noticed a pair of men watching from the street nearby. The larger one, a red-bearded giant with face and arms wind-burned to a deep russet brown, lifted a grimy wineskin to his lips and drank deeply. The smaller man, appearing so only because of the girth of his companion, was flamboyantly garbed in a yellow shirt and bright emerald sash. The giant’s leather trousers and sleeveless brown shirt were drab in comparison. From their attire it was plain that the pair were not residents of the city.

 

Realizing that Bontar would soon assault her again if she didn’t keep moving, she placed a small grimy foot on the first rung and pulled herself upward, ascending with the heavy load of mortar. Looking down from the sixth rung, she saw Bontar standing right below her. The perpetual frown that creased his hard features was even more prominent now. The combination of fatigue, the slippery clay still on her bare feet and Bontar staring up at her caused her to slip on the next rung and the heavy hod tilted, precariously dumping a generous gob of mortar with unerring accuracy on the head of the master stonemason below.

 

Bontar bellowed with rage and grabbed her ankle before she could ascend beyond his reach. He yanked hard and with a yelp of surprise she toppled from her perch, the hod somersaulting away. Even as exhausted as her body was, she managed to twist and land on her feet, avoiding serious injury but her momentum hurtled her forward to roll limply at the edge of the muddy pit. Foolishly, her first thought was to wonder if the change in tenor of her voice brought on by her surprise had been noticed by her fellow workers. She was learning how difficult it was to disguise her voice all of the time.

 

“Cephas’ bloody tears, you’ve caused some trouble! You’ll pay for your clumsiness this time,” Bontar snarled and backhanded her across the mouth, sending her sprawling on her back to land near the wall they were working on. Bright flashes streaked in front of her eyes and she tasted the coppery taint of blood from her split lip. Ignoring the pain, she breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t noticed the change in her voice. She was struggling to regain her footing when Bontar’s foot impacted against her shoulder and sent her face-first back into the mud beside the mortar pit. Bontar grabbed the coil of rope lying on the stack of stone blocks near the wall and prepared to flog her.

 

“Hold!” said a soft voice near her. She turned her head to look up at the speaker and saw the red-bearded spectator from the street. She watched Bontar turn in disbelief as the big man spoke again, the command barely above a whisper this time. The yellow-shirted man was nearby as well, his hand carelessly fingering the hilt of a dirk in his sash. His narrow lips curled into a smirk before he said in a voice much deeper than his companion, “My friend doesn’t like to shout, but his words hold the strength of his size, none-the-less. I wouldn’t flog her.”

 

“This’s none of your business, sea-dog,” Bontar said. “Go back to your squirmin’ boat!”

 

“Ye’ll not flog the stripling while I watch,” the giant said, still not raising his voice. “Hestor and me see’d the whole thing and it were plainly an accident.” His companion, still smirking, nodded his head.

 

“The boy’s my laborer and I’ll flog my property if I feel like it,” Bontar said as he raised the rope.

 

The red-bearded man strode determinedly over to Bontar and grabbed Bontar’s wrist, smashing it painfully against the pile of stones. Shock and pain loosened Bontar’s grip and before he could regain it, he felt the rope snatched from his grasp. The coarse fibers of the hemp inflicted painful rope burns across his fingers. He felt pain again, but this time from his cheek as the red-bearded man whipped the coil of rope across his face.

 

Fury raged in Bontar’s eyes as his gaze darted about, searching for a weapon to use on his assailant. Noticing a stout wooden pole leaning against the wall near the ladder, he ducked away and snatched it before the rope could flog him again.

 

“Cephas help me, I’ll kill you for that!” he yelled as he brandished the club between them.

 

“Ye place a lot of faith in yer deity,” the red-bearded man said. “Mayhap ye ought to place a little in yer legs to move yer rump before ol’ Lars makes ye eat that twig ye picked up.”

 

Bontar swung the club furiously, aiming at Lars’ head, but the red-bearded man ducked under the swing and stepped inside the stonemason’s reach, grabbing the club before Bontar could react. Bontar gripped his pole tightly. The giant wouldn’t snatch this weapon from him as easily as the rope! He soon learned the error of this action.

 

Lars, however, turned his side to the stonemason and using Bontar’s grip on the pole for leverage, easily threw the burly man over his shoulder into the mortar pit. Bontar barely had time to spit out a mouthful of clay before a large, booted foot smashed against his cheek and sent him face-first into the mixture of clay and straw filling the mixing pit. Lars calmly placed the same foot on the back of Bontar’s neck and used his considerable weight to push the foreman’s face deeper into the sticky clay.

 

On the scaffold above, the two masons had a birds-eye view of the fight. When Bontar’s struggles against Lars’ foot became feebler, they started for the ladder.

 

“I’d remain spectators, lads,” Hestor, the red-beard’s companion said, “Unless you’d like a taste of my steel.” They saw he was now holding the shining dirk in his slim hand.

 

“But he’s killing Bontar,” Deski protested.

 

“The bully deserves it for trying to flog the boy,” Hestor shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, casually cleaning his fingernails with the dirk.

 

Paula scrambled to her feet and grabbed Lars’ muscular forearm, trying to drag him from his stance over Bontar. “You can’t kill him!” she cried hysterically.

 

“Yer friend?” the giant asked, looking down at her but still not moving his foot from Bontar’s neck.

 

“No, but you still can’t kill him! I won’t let you!” she said defiantly as she tried again to pull Lars away.

 

Lars shrugged her hold away, removing his foot from the stonemason’s neck and stepping out of the mud of the mortar pit. He grabbed a handful of Bontar’s hair and pulled him from the pit. Dragging him as easily as a jackal might drag a rabbit, Lars pulled him to the wooden buckets filled with water and stuffed his head in one. He swished the stonemason’s head around inside and then drew it out, shaking the water and mud from it and upsetting the bucket, spilling the water that remained. He held the man for a moment and was rewarded with a bubbling gasp as Bontar tried to draw a breath through mud-caked orifices. Lars ducked the stonemason’s head into another bucket and repeated the procedure washing more of the mud away. Satisfied that the man was able to breathe now, Lars relaxed his grip and let him fall to the ground. He turne d his back on Bontar and walked toward Hestor. Paula glanced back and forth from Bontar to Lars, still in shock from the sudden violence.

 

Lars stopped and turned toward her. “Ye going to be all right, boy?” he asked.

 

Paula nodded, unable to speak now that the conflict was over. Bontar groaned and drew a few wheezing breaths as he struggled to get up.

 

“You better be gone before he wakes up, boy,” Reghr advised. “He’ll blame you for the beating.”

 

“But … but I need the job,” Paula answered.

 

“When Bontar finishes with you, you’ll not be able to work anyway,” Deski observed.

 

Lars stepped to Paula’s side. “Best ye go with us then, lad,” he said as he placed a strong arm around her shoulders and steered her toward the street. Behind them Bontar managed to sit up, still struggling to get his breath and alternating between coughing and cursing.

 

Paula hung her head and allowed Lars to lead her away from the construction site. A few blocks away, she stopped and turned to her rescuers. “Thank you for helping me, but it wasn’t necessary; Bontar wouldn’t have flogged me much.”

 

“One stroke’s too much when it’s not deserved,” Lars said. “I’ve flogged men meself when it was called for and I’d do it again. But I’d nae do it, even on a captain’s word, if the man be innocent.”

 

“Not even for Ebon?” Hestor said, the smirk on his lips again.

 

Lars turned quickly and confronted the smaller man. “Not for Captain Ebon either, ye little bilge-rat,” he said and cuffed Hestor on the shoulder, nearly sending him colliding with the wall of the building beside them. Hestor chuckled, not seeming to take offense.

 

Paula spoke hesitantly, “I think I’d better go now.”

 

Her tremulous voice drew Lars attention from his companion. “What will ye do then?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Ye said you needed the mud-mixer’s job. Will ye be trying to go back to work for the masons?”

 

“I guess so,” she replied. “I don’t know of anywhere else I can earn money and I’ve got to eat.”

 

“I do not think that would be wise,” Lars said. “Ye do look like you need a good meal,” he observed reaching over and nudging her side with a large hand. Paula yelped and slapped his hand away.

 

“I like a lad with spirit.” He said and slapped her across the back, nearly knocking the breath out of her. “Come, we’ll get some food in ye at yonder tavern.” He gestured toward Grey Talka’s. “But first I need to wash some of this mud off.” He walked over to a rain barrel near the entrance to an alley. He ducked his head in first and shook it fiercely, scattering water drops everywhere. Then he washed the mud from his arms. Apparently finished, he turned to Hestor and Paula and said, “Yer turn, laddie. Give me your shirt.”

 

“My what?” Paula exclaimed, stopping short of his reach.

 

“Yer shirt. Ye’ve got mud all over the back. I’ll wash it for you while you clean up.”

 

“No!”

 

“What? Ye ungrateful whelp! I offered to buy you supper but I’ll not take you in Grey Talka’s with ye looking like a muddy pup.”

 

“You can brush off the back if you want to,” Paula offered. “I’m not going to walk around Dargon City with wet clothes. They’ll think I … I fell in the river.” She stayed out of Lars’ reach.

 

“All right,” Lars said, satisfied with the compromise. “They’ll not be looking tae closely at us anyway as long as we got a poppy like Hestor with us.” Hestor shrugged and grinned when Paula looked at him.

 

By the time Paula had washed her face and hands and Lars had brushed her shirt clean to his satisfaction, the sky had turned from a deep blue to a dark violet. With only the sparse light from the widely scattered street lamps to dim their glow, the stars were peeking out of the darkness.

 

“Look at that!” Paula exclaimed as she pointed to the bright, unusual light westward high over the rooftops toward the sea. It was a brilliant, shining globe with a long shimmering tail following it.

 

“That infernal light again! `Tis the portent of some evil god’s doing!” Hestor grumbled.

 

“It is only a star with a tail,” Lars said. “If it’s some evil god’s doing then `tis poorly created.”

 

“You’re a fool to blaspheme against the gods, Lars,” said Hestor.

 

“The only gods that I worship are those of the winds and sea. I doubt that any of those lay claim to that foolish bauble shining there,” Lars scoffed.

 

“You two have seen it before?” Paula asked, still staring at the strange light.

 

“Aye, it gleamed over Dargon City as we sailed north last evening. Caused a bit of a stir with superstitious folk like Hestor here,” Lars said. “Come, I’m getting hungry.”

 

“Maybe it is a bad omen,” Paula said. “I’ve lost my job and I’ve only a Bit to my name. I can’t even go to bed tonight.”

 

“Why not?” Hestor asked, unable to see what the strange apparition had to do with that.

 

“Because I sleep in the straw pile we use to make the mortar. I can’t go back there to sleep now because Bontar might find me.”

 

“Aye, I see now,” Lars said. “But first we eat, then we find sleeping arrangements for you, laddie.”

 

“What do you mean?” Paula asked apprehensively.

 

“Mayhap I know a place where you can sleep tonight.”

 

“You’re not planning what I’m thinking you are, are you?” Hestor said.

 

“Why not?” Lars grinned. “The lad can climb and he’s agile as a spider, ye seen it yerself.”

 

Paula was confused. “What are you two talking about?” she asked.

 

“He’s planning to take you on the Sanctuary,” Hestor grumbled.

 

“What’s the Sanctuary?”

 

“Our ship. Captain Ebon’s ship,” he added.

 

“I’ve never been on a ship before,” Paula said.

 

“You’ll not be going on the Sanctuary either if it be up to me,” Hestor said defiantly. “I like my skin attached to my back.”

 

Paula was so amazed at his statement that she stopped in her tracks. “You’d be flogged for taking me on your ship?” she asked.

 

“Lars be First Mate but Captain Ebon runs the ship with a firm hand,” Hestor said.

 

“What’s a First Mate?” Paula asked.

 

“The first officer on a ship,” Hestor explained. “Answerable only to the Captain.”

 

“Then what are you?”

 

“I’m the Bo’sun,” he answered proudly, his chest swelling a bit.

 

“What’s a Bo’sun?”

 

“The man who’s in charge of the deck o’ the vessel. Seein’ to the rigging chores, makin’ sure the crew does their jobs.”

 

“But your Captain wouldn’t want you to take me on the ship?”

 

“Ebon Bloodhawk’s a fine lady and a good captain but she brooks no foolishness aboard the Sanctuary. Lars sometimes forgets that she’d likely flog him as quickly as any other man in the crew if he provokes her.”

 

Paula’s eyes opened wide, “I thought you called her a lady!”

 

“Aye, and if you meet her, you’d best do the same!”

 

Lars continued a few more steps before he realized they weren’t following. “Come, laddie. Don’t listen tae Hestor. We’ll get some stew and an ale, then we’ll talk about what we’ll do with you.”

 

Paula looked at Hestor but he shrugged indifferently and followed Lars to the door of Grey Talka’s tavern.

 

***

 

The tavern was busy but Lars found a place in the corner, or rather he suggested that the previous occupant vacate the table. The man scowled but did not protest, at least not within earshot of Lars.

 

“Three stews and three ales,” Lars ordered when the barmaid approached.

 

“Ale?” Paula asked, forgetting to deepen her voice in her anticipation.

 

“Of course!” Lars said with a grin, apparently not noticing her slip. “Even a wee laddie needs a tankard with his supper.” Neither noticed Hestor’s eyebrows raise slightly at the sound of her voice. Chuckles were heard from the occupants of the next table, but all laughter ceased when they saw the stern look in Lars’ eyes.

 

When the food came, Paula tried to practice restraint but soon she was shoveling the stew into her mouth as fast as she could chew and swallow it. The tankard of ale disappeared in a couple of menes and Lars had the barmaid refill it.

 

“Blood and skulls, laddie, when did you eat last?” he finally asked when she paused over the nearly empty bowl.

 

“Two days ago … unless you count the apple I … found.” She burped loudly, almost forgetting to cover her mouth. Lars grinned, “No wonder ye’re famished. What is yer name, laddie? I can’t call you laddie all the time.”

 

“It’s … I go by Jamie.”

 

“Jamie, eh?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Where are your parents, Jamie?” he asked.

 

“My da’s dead, killed by a tree he was cutting. My ma’s went and married again.” She tried hard to make her voice sound more masculine.

 

“So ye run off? Why?”

 

“My step-da … hurts me… Hits me,” she added quickly.

 

“So you go to work for a mason who tries to flog ye?”

 

“Bontar was the only one who’d hire me,” she said quickly, using the first excuse she could think of without having to explain the real reason for her disguise. “I’d been in Dargon for a few days and I had to steal food because I was hungry.” At least that was the truth. “Bontar didn’t try to flog me until today and that was because I was tired and I got clumsy.” She didn’t trust Lars enough yet to tell him that others might be looking for a runaway girl.

 

“How old are you, Jamie?”

 

“Fourteen,” she answered.

 

“Ah. Well, we’ll get ye another bowl of stew and then we’ll take you tae see Ebon.”

 

Across the table Hestor shook his head slowly, watching her intently. Finally he shrugged his shoulders and raised his flagon of ale, draining it quickly. He belched loudly and ordered another when the barmaid looked his way.

 

***

 

When they left Grey Talka’s, the sky had turned to a deep midnight blue. The stars were shining bright and the strange light was just above the horizon to the west now.

 

“I don’t really believe it’s a bad omen,” Paula said looking at it. “It’s too pretty.”

 

“Lars might believe it after he takes you to Captain Ebon,” Hestor said.

 

“Maybe I’d better find somewhere else to sleep,” she said, looking at Lars. “I don’t want you to get into trouble. Here’s my Bit. I know it won’t pay for what I ate but it’s all I have.”

 

“Keep your Bit,” Lars said. “If you don’t go with us, what will you eat tomorrow?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ll find something.”

 

“Ye keep stealing food, yer going to get thrown in jail or dance on the gallows when they catch you!”

 

“I can’t have you buying food for me again. I don’t have anything to pay you with.”

 

“If Ebon agrees, ye’ll be earning your food.”

 

“What do you mean?” Paula asked, wondering what Lars was suggesting.

 

“I mean joining the crew of the Sanctuary.”

 

“I don’t know anything about boats or the sea,” she protested.

 

“It’s a *ship*, not a boat, for bloody sake,” Hestor said.

 

“All right, ship then. I still don’t know anything about sailing.”

 

“You can learn if you want to,” Lars stated.

 

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave Dargon.”

 

“Then you can go home or starve in the city.”

 

“I can’t go home!” she said emphatically.

 

“It doesn’t look like you have many choices, laddie.”

 

“All right,” Paula agreed sullenly. “Let’s go see your Captain Ebon.”

 

***

 

By the time they had walked to the docks, the bright star had traveled a bit further west in the night sky. Paula wrinkled her nose against the scent of tar and rotten fish as they got closer to the harbor. The reflections of the stars and the bright crescent of a moon joined that of the apparition on the dirty water. A sleek three-masted ship was moored to the long pier far to their right.

 

Even this late at night, the wharves were busy. Rugged laborers and burly dockhands sweated side by side, unloading and stacking various sizes of crates and bales. Strange and exotic smells wafted by on the evening breeze. Scents of spices, liquors and raw cotton mixed with the odors of clams, oysters and other denizens of the sea. Lars and Hestor made their way easily through the chaotic maze of cargo piled on the wharf. Rounding a precariously-stacked pile of wooden beams, they walked along a narrow strip of planking between the lumber and the water of the harbor below.

 

The circuitous path and her fatigue coupled with the two flagons of ale she had drank made her footsteps unsteady. She felt a bit nauseous as she saw the stars reflecting on the dark water rippling against the pilings.

 

“I can’t swim,” she said suddenly.

 

“You can’t what?” Lars boomed.

 

“I can’t swim. I never learned how.”

 

“Sure you can, boy,” he said. “Swimming’s something that comes natural.”

 

“No, I can’t. Real — Eeek!” Intent on following Lars and Hestor, she stumbled over a pile of discarded clam shells near the edge of the wharf. Her feet slid on the slimy planking and with arms flailing frantically, she slipped over the edge and plunged into the dark, dirty water. Rushing to the edge of the wharf, Lars arrived just in time to see her go under.

 

Hestor’s sash and dirk hit the wharf planking and he was pulling his shirt over his head when her head broke the surface and she gasped a quick breath before floundering and going down again. In the fleeting instant before she went under she saw Lars stop Hestor from diving in to save her.

 

“Hold a mene,” Lars said as he knelt at the edge of the wharf and stared down at the dark water. A few moments later, Paula’s head appeared again and with arms paddling wildly she managed to reach one of the pilings and hang on to keep from submerging again.

 

Ignoring the filth and slime of the wharf planking, Lars dropped prone near the piling and extended a long arm down to her. Unable to reach her, he scrambled up quickly and unwound a length of rope from the splintery piling and lowered it down to her. Paula reached up with her free hand and grasped the rope with more strength than she realized she possessed. Straightening, Lars hoisted her from the water with ease and helped her back on the pier.

 

She tried to stand and failed as her shaking legs refused to hold her weight. Coughing and gagging, she sank to her hands and knees, spitting a mouthful of brackish water out on the wharf. Another fit of shaking racked her slender body and the ale and most of her supper followed. Hestor knelt beside her, watching anxiously. When the retching stopped, he handed her his discarded sash to wipe her face. She sat up unsteadily and looked up at him before using it. He nodded, “Go ahead, boy. I’ve another on the ship.”

 

When she had wiped away the vomit and dried her face and hair, she looked up at Lars. “What did you do that for?” she asked bitterly, spitting again to get rid of the foul taste in her mouth.

 

“Pull you from the harbor?” he asked, looking confused.

 

“No, stop Hestor from saving me!” she snapped, pouting.

 

“To see if you could swim,” he said calmly.

 

“I told you I couldn’t. What were you going to do, let me drown?”

 

“Nay, ’tis the way my father taught me to swim.”

 

“You mean he almost let you drown when you fell into the harbor?” she asked, amazed.

 

“Not exactly, you see he had to throw me in first.” Lars laughed heartily, turned and strode down the wharf toward the nearest pier, not watching to see if she followed.

 

Hestor’s laugh was muffled as he pulled his shirt back on. Then he took his sash when Paula offered it and turned to follow. Brilliantly-dyed fine cloth of that hue was hard to find.

 

Paula watched them leave. For a moment she contemplated running back down the wharf to the city, but when the ocean breeze chilled her in her wet clothing, she decided to follow and trudged dripping after them.

 

Several yards down the pier, a battered plank bridged the gap between it and the three-master anchored there. In the smoky glow of a torch burning nearby, she could read Sanctuary burned into a plank spiked to the ship’s bow. Lars and Hestor strode confidently across the plank bridge as if they walked down a city street. Paula paused a moment, then carefully walked across, the taste of the dirty harbor water still bitter in her mouth. She stepped down on the deck of the ship before she realized another person watched them board.

 

“What’s this you bring on my ship?” It was Ebon and her voice was pleasant enough, but there was an edge to it that brooked no compromise.

 

“The lad’s name is Jamie, Ebon,” Lars answered. “He’ll make a fine rigger.”

 

“You’re bringing another stray pup on the Sanctuary?” the voice was sterner now. “This one looks half drowned already! You fall into the harbor, boy?” she asked.

 

“Yes,” Paula admitted grudgingly.

 

“And where were the two of you when this happened?” Ebon asked Lars and Hestor.

 

“Watching me drown!” Paula interrupted before they could answer. “At least Lars was. Hestor would have helped me if Lars had let him.”

 

“Why would Lars do that?” Ebon turned her attention back to Paula.

 

“He wanted to see if I could swim,” Paula answered sullenly.

 

“Could you then, boy?” Ebon asked.

 

“No, but he pulled me out afterwards,” she explained.

 

Ebon’s stern countenance softened and she smiled. “Come to my cabin, boy, and we’ll talk about this.” She turned to Lars and Hestor. “You two wait on deck and stay out of trouble or your shore leave’ll be over until after we dock at Miass.

 

“Aye, Captain,” came the answer in unison.

 

Ebon led Paula to a stairway leading up to the aft deck. “Up here, boy. Have you ever sailed before?”

 

“No,” Paula answered, looking back apprehensively at Lars and Hestor before following Ebon up the stairs and through the door into a cabin brightly lit with lanterns.

 

“So what makes Lars think there’s a place for you on the Sanctuary?”

 

“I don’t know,” she answered softly, wondering why Hestor seemed so scared of this woman. “I think he feels sorry for me …”

 

“And why would that be?” Ebon pressed.

 

“I was in trouble … or at least he thought I was. A man … My boss was going to flog me with a rope.”

 

“Why would he do that?”

 

“I dropped some of the mortar that I was carrying. It landed on his head. I worked for stonemasons, rebuilding walls damaged in the war.”

 

Ebon’s lips curled into a smile. “I can see how that might make him angry,” she said.

 

“It did.”

 

“What did Lars say your name was, boy?”

 

“Jamie, ma’am,” she answered politely, remembering Hestor’s advice.

 

“Don’t call me ma’am! Call me Captain or Ebon.”

 

“Yes, Captain,” she corrected quickly.

 

“Where are your parents?”

 

“Like I told Lars, my da’s dead, my ma’s married again and my step-da beats me.”

 

“They live in Dargon City?”

 

“No, in the country near Shireton. We had a farm.”

 

“And you think you could be a sailor?”

 

“I don’t know. Lars thinks I can.”

 

“Lars doesn’t think. You’re not the first waif he’s brought to me.”

 

Paula stood quietly, not commenting.

 

“Do you think you could be a sailor?” Ebon asked again.

 

“I don’t know. I guess I’m willing to try. I don’t have anyplace else to go.” She was beginning to feel more at ease. Maybe Ebon wasn’t as bad as she had imagined from the way Hestor had portrayed her.

 

“Life on board a ship is hard. There’s storms and heavy seas. There’s sun so hot it’ll burn you scarlet, rain so cold it’ll freeze you to the bone. If that isn’t enough, there’s Beinison caravels, reefs, pirates and worse. You’ll go weeks without the sight of dry land. Are you sure that’s a place for a girl?”

 

“Why not? You’re the Captain and you’re …” Paula suddenly realized she was about to give herself away. “Besides, I’m not a girl anyway.” She made sure her voice didn’t change.

 

“Don’t lie to me!” Ebon shouted and before Paula could stop her, the Captain hooked two fingers in the neck of Paula’s shirt and yanked. The wet fabric tore with a sodden rip and Paula’s budding breasts were revealed for an instant before she could clutch the torn cloth tightly to cover herself again.

 

“Why did you do that?” Paula asked, tears of frustration nearly blinding her as she shrank away from Ebon, suddenly believing everything Hestor had said about the Captain.

 

“If you sail on the Sanctuary, one rule you will always follow,” Ebon said bluntly, her dark hair swirling angrily about her face.

 

“What’s that?” Paula asked, her voice quivering as she blinked the tears away.

 

“*Never* lie to me!” Ebon’s face was stern and hard, her eyes burning with an inner fire.

 

“All right,” Paula agreed, shivering in her wet clothing. She quickly stepped out of Ebon’s reach as the captain went to the bunk across the cabin and pulled a warm blanket from it. She returned to Paula and draped the blanket over her shoulders. “All right then, what’s your real name? I need it for the ship’s log.”

 

“Paula,” Paula answered, “Does that mean I’m hired on the Sanctuary?”

 

“For now,” Ebon answered. “At least until we can find you a place to stay where you’ll be safe. You need to get out of those wet clothes. I’ll find you something of mine that you can wear. It might be a bit large but it’ll have to do.”

 

Paula waited while Ebon dug through a large chest, searching for the right apparel. Menes later, Ebon came back with a deep blue shirt of fine satin and dark brown pants along with a shift to wear beneath. Paula took the stack of clothes and went to the bench near the narrow bed. She set the clothing down except for the shirt which she held up to the light of the lantern.

 

“I can’t take something like this,” she told Ebon. “I’ve never owned something so fine.”

 

It’s yours now,” Ebon said. “It was part of the booty we took off a Beinison galleon. The beldam that owned it had good tastes, but she won’t have any more use for it. Go ahead and change now, then we’ll talk with Lars.” Ebon turned her back and made herself busy with some parchments at the desk giving Paula what privacy the small cabin could afford.

 

“I’m ready,” Paula said a few menes later. Ebon turned and nodded approvingly. The shirt was a bit large, especially through the bodice and Paula had rolled the pants up a couple of turns but she looked much more confident than the water-soaked little waif that Lars and Hestor had brought on board earlier. Ebon took her arm and led her to the door of the cabin.

 

Lars and Hestor looked up as Ebon and Paula exited the Captain’s cabin and walked down the stairs to the main deck. When they approached, Lars stared at Paula, his mouth hanging open in astonishment.

 

“Meet Paula, your new shipmate,” Ebon said.

 

“What? How?” Lars stammered. Hestor lounged against the rail, his lips curled into a knowing smirk, enjoying Lars’ discomfort.

 

Ebon laughed cheerfully. “The next time you bring a stray pup on board, Lars, you might want to be sure of its gender.”

 

“But I never thought …”

 

“You never do,” Ebon said, still smiling. “Now that you know Paula’s a girl, you’ll see that the crew treats her with respect,” she ordered. “But she pulls her weight. She gets treated no better or no worse than the rest of them. Hestor!”

 

Hestor had been sidling away from them. Now he turned back to Ebon. “Yes, Captain?”

 

“Since you brought her on board, you’re responsible for her education. You’ll teach Paula how to work in the rigging. Climb, furl sail and all the rest. Understood?”

 

“Yes, Captain,” he said and frowned at Lars.

 

Lars grinned back at him, having known all along that teaching Paula would be the Boatswain’s job. He suspected that had been one of Hestor’s motives for protesting his bringing her on the Sanctuary in the first place.

 

The quartet walked across the deck and stood by the rail. Across the harbor the brilliant, tailed star was disappearing behind rooftops of the city to the east. Paula looked up at Lars and then on an impulse put her hand on his muscular forearm. “See,” she said, pointing with her other hand, “I told you it was too pretty to be a bad omen.”

 

Lars nodded and clumsily patted her short-clipped hair. “Aye,” he whispered. Ebon stood at his other side. Only Hestor noticed the faint frown wash across her attractive features as she stepped closer to the big man.

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