[CHAPTER FIVE]: A Madman’s Mission
Despernot ran up and down the deck, his bloodied face alight with exuberance in the fog. He called the names of imaginary stars and pointed Lori to them, never the wiser that she only played along to the tune of his delusion. She wanted to ask about Foxe; the longer she went without any sign of him, the greater her fear that he had been swept overboard, or worse. But to ask for Despernot’s help would be to reveal that there was another living human on his ship. She wasn’t yet sure if she could trust him not to kill them both.
“You see there?” Despernot cried, flinging his arm out to the night sky again. “It’s the mid-point of the constellation Osiris. If we were alive, that might be a terrible omen.”
“I am alive,” Lori reminded him.
“Then you’re looking for death.”
The words of madmen have a sickly weight, and the earnestness in Despernot’s piercing eyes as he spoke was—somehow—not very comforting. Lori shook her head and stamped her feet in the cold, but a small voice whispered in her head: who are you to say he lies?
“How did you find death, then?” she asked, eager to turn the subject a bit. “What happened to this ship? To the crew?”
He leaned over the railing, resting his chin on his arms and sighing down to the waters. “Oh, that. That wasn’t my fault.” A far-away smile crept onto his face, and Lori began to think that he had lapsed into some sort of fevered daydream. He remained like that for several minutes together, and so she took the opportunity to cast an anxious eye around the deck in search of Foxe.
“It is a rather singular story, though,” Despernot said suddenly. “We were in Egypt, she and I. This ship was meant to be our way home, back to queen and country. But the crew had other purposes for their voyage. They were ivory traders, you see, and we were their unknowing ruse—innocent passengers to mask their operation. I’m very glad none of their souls linger on this ship; I would never be able to punish them satisfactorily for the way they used us. If not for them, she and I would be full of life and love, somewhere in the rich countryside of home.”
“I’ve been in your cargo hold,” said Lori. “There isn’t any ivory. Just a bunch of mummies and a weird silver box.”
Despernot turned away from the railing, a dark scowl marring the smooth lines of his youthful face. “Let me tell it how I like.”
“O…kay. Sure. Go ahead.”
He softened. “We’d hardly boarded for our journey home when a man grabbed my sleeve. He was strange…his skin was frost-bitten, even in the warmth of Egypt. His hair was full of ice and wooden beads, and he wore a cloak of white owl’s feathers. ‘Don’t go,’ he warned me. ‘Don’t stay another moment on this ship. Their crimes have cursed this voyage.’
“You can imagine how I took this news, of course. He was superstitious, not worth my time or consideration whilst faced with the eager prospect of home. He hurled portents of doom at our backs as we left him behind, but once the shore was gone we thought of him no more.”
Despernot looked straight at her. “For several days, all was well. The sea was calm and the wind manageable. But in the middle of that first week, the taste of bitter disaster pierced our tongues. The captain grew ill without cause; a raging fever swarmed his blood and drove him half mad before he breathed his last. The crew made an effort to give him as ceremonious a burial-at-sea as possible, but in truth…he was shunted over the side of his own ship faster than a bad thought for fear of some phantom plague.
“Next went the cook. We found him down below, sucking dry the carcasses of rats. He was confined for a while, but soon he frothed at the mouth and died. Overboard for him, too. My poor muse…she was grown so frightened by all this…it unbalanced her to distraction. She would walk in her sleep and talk strangely in the grips of night-terrors that went unremembered the next day.”
He paused and leaned his head to one side like a curious puppy. “I sometimes think she was the only anchor for my sanity during that time. How could I have room for a brain-fever when my every thought worried constantly for her?”
Lori only nodded. She wasn’t sure if she felt sorry for him or not; she was miserable and cold, frightened for Foxe, and not believing half of what he said.
“At any rate,” he went on quietly, “the rest of the crew went in much the same fashion as the captain and the cook. The first-mate drank himself to death—quite a sensible way to die, really. I have a theory he never went mad, you know. But the rest of them…there’s no doubt. One killed another and kept him for purposes we shan’t mention, until he was discovered and shot himself through the eye. Yet another drew endless circles on the walls of his cabin in chalk before strangling himself with a fishing line, while another…” his voice trembled suddenly, “…another had his eye on my poor muse.”
Despernot held out his blood-covered hands to Lori in such a sorrowful way that she was almost tempted to believe him. “I don’t mean to say that you have to go mad to find her beautiful. Oh, no, no…she stirs your heart even under the most wonderful clarity of thought. But he could not keep his passions in check when struck with such a forceful combination as her beauty and his madness.
“He grew jealous, very jealous, of her adoration for me. She was terrified of him, and I did all I could to protect her, but one night it came to it. He overpowered me. Murdered her before my eyes in a jealous rage. He might was well have cut open my heart.”
“What happened to him?” Lori asked.
“I found a way to kill him,” Despernot replied with a slight shrug. “And then I was alone until it came my time to die. I walked a long road in the mist. I looked for her in the crowd of shapes and shadows that departed on every side, but she wasn’t there. The road was long, but I refused to leave it without her. I reached the last lamppost and found a white bridge and a river of ink…and now I am here, back where I belong.”
He fell silent, letting an unspoken challenge linger between them, as if he would dare her to mock or doubt any part of his story.
“I’m…glad you got the chance to kill him,” she said at last. “Especially while you were still alive.”
As the fog rolled in, the hint of a smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “What a funny thing to say, Foxe.”
It was her turn to shrug. “I’ve lost someone, too. The difference is that I haven’t had a chance for revenge yet.”
Despernot leaned forward a bit, the very picture of concern. “Is that really what you want? You’re so young.”
“You don’t look much older than me,” she frowned. “And yeah, I’m sure. The guy I’m after has probably murdered dozens of people aside from…the person I lost.”
The fog now hung thick and impenetrable around them as the ship drifted along in its lonely course. Despernot turned back to look for the stars, even though that was pointless at the moment. Lori watched him for a few minutes to be sure he was occupied, and then she made her way quietly along the damp planks, taking in all she could. The massive sails were limp above her, the wheel stationary. Faint creaks and groans of wood were all there was to disturb the dead silence. She circled the deck twice to be sure that there was nowhere else Foxe could have gone, and then she descended the stairs to the cargo hold.
The sea of muck felt even worse to wade through now that she had spent time freezing on deck. Her teeth were chattering and she was starting to fear for her fingers. She could hardly hold her flashlight. “Foxe!” she hissed desperately. “Where are you?”
Her foot collided with one of the smaller boxes, nearly sending her face-first into the muck. She steadied herself and reached down, fishing it free of a disgusting nest of sludge that once was straw. It was a plain wooden box with a tiny, rusted latch. She set it on one of the mummy boxes and opened it. The hairs on the back of her neck kept warning her of Despernot, but he was never there when she looked.
Inside the box were papers, haphazardly crammed in a manner that might suggest they were not important. But if they weren’t…why keep them? They were waterlogged for the most paper, and a few of them dissolved into a gummy substance in her hands, but some could still be made out. She salvaged the mostly-legible ones and spread them on the mummy box, squinting at the almost negligible ink. It looked like part of a manifest. Clothes were listed, food, silver, and ivory. Lots of it. Fifteen boxes worth, in fact.
“Human ivories, maybe,” she muttered under her breath. She hovered a finger over the page, scanning it in deep concentration. A smuggling operation disguised as ivory trading? Although why in the world anyone would need to smuggle mummies….
A smudged line at the bottom of the manifest caught her attention. She stared at the blotchy signature that swam up from the penmanship of some long-dead hand until the name became clear: Peter Grey. It distracted and puzzled her so that she did not hear the footsteps rushing through the sea of filth until it was too late.
Something heavy struck her down. She went sprawling into the muck and was bathed in darkness. A pair of hands wrapped around her throat and held her under the rank water. She flailed and kicked, aiming her blows upwards, until she finally succeeded in striking her attacker in the back of the kneecap. She pushed herself away and staggered to her feet, gasping for breath. But it wasn’t Despernot she saw in the sparse light that drifted down through the broken deck; it was her godfather.
“Foxe?” she said, fumbling about for her flashlight. “It’s okay, it’s me!”
He clutched the back of his leg in pain, but his eyes bored into her with a mad, hungry rage that was worse than anything she had seen today. “Foxe!” she cried in a wild attempt to shake him out of it, but the horrid expression did not change. He came at her again, but this time she was better prepared. She ducked around the mummy box, fumbled to grab the manifest off its lid, and ran for the stairs. She fell twice, but at last she burst onto the deck and screamed,
“Yes?” He was standing two feet away. She stared at him for a moment—long enough for Foxe to make it up the stairs. He staggered out into the fog and grabbed for her neck again. Lori ducked under his arm and promptly tripped over his foot. She fell, and that same foot planted itself in her back.
She could feel his breath hot against her skin as he knelt over her. He pinned her arms behind her back as if she were just another arrest. He probably would have cuffed her, too, if he’d had any. Instead, he put a hand against the back of her head and whispered gleefully, “Bang!”
“Excuse me,” said Despernot, calm as you please. Lori couldn’t see what was happening, but she imagined Foxe looking up, suddenly realizing they weren’t alone….and then there was an awful noise. His foot left her back in a hurry, and she rolled over to find him stumbling around the deck, clutching at his face. Despernot offered her a hand which she didn’t take. She did, however, take note of his fingers, which were bloody. Which…made sense when Foxe at last lowered his hands from his face.
“Oh, god.” His eyes were puddles of punctured goo. She watched in mute terror as he lurched towards the back of the ship. It took her a moment to realize where he was going. “Foxe!” she screamed. “Don’t!”
Too late. His momentum barreled him into and over the railing. He was gone in an instant, leaving Lori frozen to the spot. “…he did that on purpose,” she said after a moment. It needed to be said, to confirm the insanity of it. “He…threw himself off.”
“Yes,” Despernot sighed. “I told you. This voyage is cursed.”
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