Lori was starving. Literally. It had been days since she’d had anything to eat, and if it weren’t for the constant pockets of thunderstorms that they sailed through she wouldn’t have had anything to drink, either. She was weak all of the time and spent most of it lying on the deck in a miserable, frigid heap, trying to keep an eye out for land or another ship. When it rained she collected her water and then staggered back down below to wait out the weather. She had thought about jumping over the side countless times, but she knew her luck would run out almost instantly. There was no way she could survive the cold of the water, or the distance it would take to find anything.
Despernot had been nothing but sweetness. He apologized daily for having nothing for her and had tried to be entertaining. She was beginning to suspect, however, that while he seemed to grow relentlessly fonder, his mind was growing weaker. He had always been full of tales; a thousand stories and poems that were too fantastic to be true lurked on his tongue and at the corners of his lips. But lately they had come few and far between. He spent more time wandering the ship alone or lying half senseless on the deck watching the stars. Sometimes he tangled himself in the rigging to hang there as the ship drifted along, or disappeared to visit his dead muse.
Once, in a fit of loneliness and hunger, Lori had gone looking for him. She had caught him lying on the blood-soaked bed with that ruined, broken thing, braiding its hair and kissing its neck tenderly. She had left him to it, but the image would take some time to wash from her eyes.
Tonight it was storming again. She had gathered her water and was heading below when a shout from Despernot stopped her.
“Do you hear it?!” he cried. “It’s music!”
She squinted through the rain and wind and found him clinging like a bat to the rigging again, swaying to and fro in the thrall of the elements with pure, mad joy. His hair was wild, his clothes in shambles. He was glorious in his madness. Whether it was her malnutritioned mind or simply the ship finally driving her insane, Lori could almost find him beautiful. Almost.
“I’m sure it is,” she muttered under her breath, shaking her head to clear it. The ship was rocking and creaking under the power of the storm. She went below, back to her selected, miserable room. She settled herself on the floor and shivered, trying to ignore the impatient pain in her gut. Her thoughts shifted across the oceans and all the untold space between them, to her aunt and cousins. Every bit of her regretted leaving. Every bit of her wished she hadn’t been so stupid, so obsessed and idiotic as to think she had a chance of finding the painted man or making any sort of difference at all. Now she had lost Foxe, she was losing her life….
The ship gave a great lurch and dipped violently sideways, throwing her into the wreckage of chairs strewn across the room. She hissed in pain as their broken bits splintered into her skin. Thunder crashed outside; the spray of the waves was an echo to its colossal boom. The ship rocked a second time, in the opposite direction, and Lori scrambled to brace herself against a wall to keep from sliding as the impact of the storm shook the fragile room.
Until now, the only intact piece of furniture—the wardrobe—had stood stoically stationary in the face of nature’s bold attacks. It was bolted to the wall and wasn’t going anywhere. Lori had even considered wedging herself between it and the neighboring corner for safety. But while it escaped the fate of tumbling about like broken chairs or unsecured humans…its contents were another matter.
The two thick doors unlocked themselves in all the jostling and sprang suddenly open. There was a thud, and then another thud, and Lori found herself staring down in alarm at the gaping faces of two bald-headed sailors clutched close together in a heap of dead, bloated flesh.
All seemed to grow still, though she was dimly aware that the ship still rocked and the storm still raged as before. Time around her had frozen. In the void, she edged towards the wardrobe and raised herself up to look inside.
Death-glazed eyes stared back at her. There were at least six men, each as horrible and gawking as the two who had fallen out. They were hanging like coats from the wardrobe’s rail, held up by crude wires run through the napes of their necks and fastened with hooks. They were so tightly packed together that the rocking of the ship made them all jolt and sway as one.
Something ticked across Lori’s brain. Some inner gear shifted and began to turn. Against all sense, she bent closer, looking the men up and down. Their mutilated bodies were covered in rotting wounds, their faces stricken and pale. That was where it was, she realized. That was where the warning tick in her mind had come from. Their faces were broken.
Just like Despernot’s unfortunate muse, their cheekbones and noses had been smashed to bits. A few of the larger sailors had had their eyes poked out, just like Foxe. One of the bodies had his head caved in. He was wearing a captain’s uniform.
Quickly, Lori withdrew her head from the wardrobe. She staggered a few paces back before falling to her knees and retching air and water. When it was done she lay down, her heart pounding worse than her head as she went over the tale Despernot had told her, what seemed ages ago. They had come back from Egypt, the man with the ice in his hair had cursed their voyage, the captain had gone mad and…been buried at sea. Obviously, that had been a lie. He had lied. He had claimed to have only murdered one man—the one who, in madness, had gone after the red-haired angel that slept eternally a few rooms down the corridor. But he had lied, and Lori found that she had always known.
Fear hardened her heart. She forced herself to her feet, up the corridor and out onto the deck, ignoring the countless times she was rocked into a wall or slipped on a patch of water. She burst out into the storm and cried for Despernot, shouting his name over the wind. She pulled her way along the railing to where he clung, laughing like a demented child. He grinned when he saw her and shouted something she couldn’t hear.
“What?” she yelled.
“I said…catch me!” He let go of the ropes and plummeted like a stone towards the deck. Lori screamed and had no time to move; he struck her painfully in the chest and bore them both to the ground. Her breath was gone, or she would have continued screaming. He lay on top of her for a moment, laughing, tears in his blue eyes. “You’re horrible at this,” he reproached. “See if I trust you again.”
“That…hurt,” she managed. “Get…the hell….off!”
He sat up and offered her a hand, which she did not take. “I’m sorry, Foxe,” he said, and it sounded almost as if he meant it. “I know you’re sick….”
“It’s Lori,” she wheezed. “And I’m dying, not sick. And you…! You lied to me.”
Despernot drew back, baffled. “Lied to you? I would never lie to you. We’re friends.”
“There are men. Their faces are broken. Their bodies are hanging on hooks.” Another thought occurred to her and she glared worse than before. “There are chains, in the cargo-hold. Who were they for?”
A frantic battle was playing itself out across Despernot’s face. His eyes darted here and there, guilt swimming nearer and nearer to the surface until finally it broke free in a malicious, twitching sneer.
“Me,” he said in a voice unlike his own. It was prideful and harsh and sent pinpricks of cold down Lori’s aching back. “They’re my chains.” Gone was the naïve, tragic madman with his tales and poems and impossible stars. The image shattered and glitched out of existence, giving way to a new creature—a vicious, untamed monster that had prophesied Lori’s death since the first day they met. Sailing towards Osiris’ constellation, indeed….
“There was no curse, was there,” she said. “You’re working for Peter Grey, aren’t you? You’re connected to him somehow, and-”
“I hate him,” Despernot said, his voice dripping in cold calm. “You don’t know anything at all.”
“I know you killed your supposed muse!” Lori shot back. She was nearly his height, and she got as close to him as she dared. “You murdered her yourself.”
She expected him to grab her, or shout some more, or…anything but shrink away. As quickly as it had been abandoned, some of the old Despernot returned. He squirmed beneath her gaze and said in a choked voice,
“I didn’t mean to.”
Lori took his moment of weakness to force her brain to process more of their surroundings. They were near the railing, or near enough. Also within reach were the ropes, which she could climb to get away if she had to, but he would probably outpace her there. There was really only one choice to make if she wanted to have any chance of surviving this ship.
“…it’s okay,” she said, forcing her tone to change. “I know you didn’t.” It was a gamble, but it had the desired effect: Despernot looked at her like a reprimanded dog hoping for forgiveness. She fancied he had ceased to blink altogether, so rapt was his desire and attention. He licked his thin lips and momentarily looked as if he might reach out to embrace her. Thankfully, he did not.
“Come here,” she said. The storm was dying, the waves simmering beneath them with retreating whispers as she moved to the wooden railing, her hands trembling. She could easily pretend it was the cold, and hopefully that was also what he would think. He joined her, lifting his face into the dwindling showers. “Tell me what stars you see,” she said.
Despernot grinned and shielded his eyes with his hand to squint beyond the fleeing rain clouds. His soaked tangle of dark hair was bleeding down his face. “There are many tonight,” he replied. “A thousand fire-bugs swarming over that constellation there. Do you see it? It has the most curious story you’ve ever heard.”
He pointed, but Lori was no longer listening. She took a few paces back and crept behind him as he began his tale. Then, summoning every bit of strength she could, she rushed forward and struck him from behind. There wasn’t even a second for him to cry out; he broke through the railing and fell down into the dark waters. Waves closed over him, and he was lost from view in the rippling wake of his lonely ship.
(Thanks for reading! TCOS will return Thursday evening! In the meantime, follow and like us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @companyofsouls.)