Talon couldn’t move.
Well… he could wiggle fingers and toes and shift about but lengths of rope had him pinned to the wall.
Thin lines of amber peered through the cracks of floorboards above, wavering over an empty table with empty chairs, a couple lying on their backs.
Indistinct shapes, barrels he presumed, lined the hold. Spices and herbs, some familiar to Talon wafted under his nose, making him sneeze. A dry, salty smell punctuated what came from the barrels – meat, it must have been, swinging lazily from the ceiling.
The moan of wood struggling against the sea brought along the eventual realisation: he was still on the ship.
Talon struggled against his bonds to no avail, earning rope burn and a burning sensation in his side for his trouble.
He thought of the man-servant who had stabbed him and the green-eyed girl spinning out of the shadows like a spider from a web. The girl who had saved Talon, only to choke him near to death on her ship.
Had she followed him inside the Viscount’s Tower without him being aware? No, surely, she must have come from inside the tower. But given how easily she adopted the pale shade of the Tower’s nooks, Talon did not doubt she would have found it child’s play to hide amongst the villagers of Edge Cliff.
Yet, he would have bet all the gold in the world she had been in the tower all along. Oh, those green eyes could get her anywhere. Talon reckoned she could have swooned Buck Owens into giving up his prize flock of sheep and fooled the oaf into thinking he’d been done a favour. Those eyes could get her anywhere… Perhaps at the arm of a Viscount? A now very dead Viscount, rotting in his stone grave far sooner than he’d imagined. The thought brought some comfort but did little to sate the bloodlust, curdling as it rose from the depths of his stomach. Talon knew a feeling such as this would not be easily dismissed.
A sharp slapping noise, which sounded like the skimming of book pages, cut through the dark.
Someone, no several people, sat at the table in the middle of the hold. Though, Talon could not recall seeing nor hearing anyone enter, let alone the vagrants that now occupied the once empty chairs.
Talon stiffened. Had his thoughts been read?
The voice had an unnatural hiss to it that made Talon’s skin crawl. It couldn’t have possibly belonged to anything human.
‘Is that what the boy thinks of us?’ another snorted. His voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once, filling the room like smoke.
‘Now, now, gents–’ a more cheerful sounding voice began.
‘–and ladies,’ a woman added, her words carried much weight that her voice seemed almost lazy.
‘–and ladies, but of course, of course,’ the cheerful voice added hurriedly.
‘Devil’s blood… what a pushover,’ another voice, so deeply disgruntled Talon almost mistook it for another of the men, intervened. ‘Wanna lick her boot heels while you’re at it, Angus?’
The lazily voiced woman made a soft tsk. ‘Better mine than yours, Cilia,’ she said.
The light trickling down from the floorboards illuminated a patch of the table. A pair of gloved hands shuffled a deck of cards once more before spreading out the contents in a neat arc across the table. Like crabs emerging from fissures, more pairs of gloved hands reached into the light, dragging their hand of cards back into the shadows.
A shape which Talon initially thought to be one of the barrels, upended by the ship’s lurching, rolled towards him. The closer the noise came the more he realised it couldn’t have been one of the ship’s cargo. The barrel didn’t sound as if it were made of wood but rather a coil of ropes dragging itself across the floor, gently scratching against the wood.
Unaware, the card players carried on with their game.
‘Is that a King and Queen of hearts, Angus?’ the smoky voice inquired innocently.
‘Now, now,’ Angus giggled.
The ‘ropes’ blinked a pair of golden eyes at Talon, as it slid over his outstretched legs and wrapped around his waist.
Like a flag flapping in the wind, something hissed in Talon’s ear and… licked him. ‘I don’t ssssssee why we’re bothering with this… peasssssant.’
The ropes began to tighten against his stomach, slowly drawing out every last breath Talon had left to give.
‘Silas,’ the lazy voice drawled.
‘Yes, I’d much rather we weren’t playing for a corpse,’ the smoky voice added. ‘Ignore Silas, child, the snake’s form is merely for show.’
The snake sighed and withdrew its bulk back to the table. Another shadowed form took to one of the chairs.
Who are these people?
‘Who are we?’ Silas hissed.
‘Isn’t that quite the question,’ the lazy voice said.
‘You don’t speak much do you, Talon?’ the smoky voice chuckled.
They know my name, he thought. How much else did they know? Stop thinking you fool! Suppressing his own thoughts was surprisingly difficult. His mind seemed determined to give up every little secret he had. Talon closed his eyes and thought of the green-eyed girl, picturing her olive skin, her fountain of dark brown hair…
‘Ssssshe is not for you,’ Silas proclaimed angrily.
‘Oh, why don’t you slither off back to sleep Silas, you begin to bore me,’ Cilia growled.
‘Very well, I have better things to do than sssssit with the likes of you.’
Talon blinked. A glimmer of light revealed that one of the chairs had toppled soundlessly to whence it had lain before. Its owner had disappeared.
Talon breathed a sigh of relief. At least now, his thoughts could be his own once more. He hoped.
‘Cards, gentlemen… and ladies,’ Angus called.
The gloved hands slid back into the light.
‘I fold,’ the lazy voice said. It was difficult to tell if she sounded disappointed.
‘Likewise,’ Cilia said. A pair of cards were chucked into the middle.
‘Just you and me, Angus,’ the smoky voice announced.
‘Best of luck,’ Angus chirped.
‘I am luck,’ the smoky voice replied.
The cards were flipped over inviting a soft groan and disdainful sighs.
‘I’ll be damned – a King and Queen,’ Cilia said.
‘How did you know?’ Angus asked in a pained voice.
‘Sorry, my friend,’ the smoky voice said.
The lazy voice sniffed loudly. ‘Silas was right, the boy is worthless.’
Another blink and the second chair had fallen on its back.
‘Enjoy your prize,’ Cilia said.
Angus left alongside her without comment.
Only one chair remained filled.
‘Who are ye’ people?’ Talon demanded.
“Ye’” the smoky voice mimicked him. Boots padded across the hold towards him. The light from the floorboards caught the top of his hood and the upturned line of the man’s mouth. Talon suspected that placid smile rarely left his lips. ‘You do amuse me Talon but you’re going to have work on that diction of yours after Ducard’s court.’
Ducard? As in King Ducard of Clovaine? Talon thought. Ducard – the man who had conquered Borne and placed Viscount du Puis in charge of Edge Cliff, the man responsible for murdering his family.
Talon licked the roof of his mouth thoughtfully. He fancied he could already taste the iron tang of blood. The blood to come.
‘Oh? Didn’t you know?’ the smoky voice feigned surprise. ‘Ahhh Cleo, choke first, inform your charge later. I do admire her style.’
Cleo. The green-eyed girl?
‘Dear me! So much to learn! Forgive me, I know your village must have had limited opportunities.’
The man slipped something into Talon’s hand and closed his fingers gently around it. ‘Keep an eye out for me, Talon Carth. There is much for you to do.’
The man patted his closed fist and Talon felt his chin collapse against his chest.
The white of the man’s teeth swirled away in a cloud of smoke and Talon felt the lull of sleep snatch him away.
In the distance, someone called him.
‘HEY! Farmboy! Wake up!’
Someone pinched the skin around his wound and Talon yelled out as if he’d been kicked in the ribs.
‘Devil’s eye!’ Talon spat.
Rays of amber shone past the now ajar door at the end of the hold, forming a path of light towards Talon. The table and chairs in the middle sat unoccupied. Cards, abandoned mid-game, had been left scattered across the table-top.
A dream, Talon thought with some relief, just a stupid dream.
‘You’re up, farmboy! I thought I was going to have get a bucket of seawater.’
A pair of vivid green eyes blurred into view.
The girl who had saved his life, who now held him prisoner, stood over him. She looked almost angelic with the light of the rising sun streaming around her, turning the edges of her brunette hair gold.
She had abandoned the grey cloak for a bodice held up at her shoulders, which left her toned stomach and arms exposed. A strange looking half dress, half skirt fell above her knees in front and down to her bare feet in the back.
The knife she held in her hand gave him pause at first, until he recognised what it was.
Uncle Jack’s hiding knife.
Talon looked down at the bandages wrapped around his bare waist. A plume of blood had dried at the side where the hiding knife had formerly rested.
‘I can’t promise you won’t scar but you’ll live, farmboy,’ the girl said, as she began unfastening the ropes. ‘I wouldn’t–’
As soon as his binds had slipped, Talon jumped to his feet. The pain in his side suddenly flared and he had to put an arm against the hold’s wall to remain upright.
Taking in sharp breaths, Talon slowly released himself from the wall, keeping himself as upright as possible, and took a step forward. It hurt less but it still hurt.
‘And where are you planning on going?’ hand on hip, the girl raised an eyebrow at him.
Where was he going? He was on a ship in the middle of the narrow seas, most likely too far away to safely swim back and certainly not in his current state.
Talon stopped walking and patted his bare shoulders. His stomach dropped.
‘Where’s my cloak?’ Talon rounded on the girl.
‘Somewhere safe,’ she replied calmly, ‘by chance, how did you come across such a thing?’
Talon shook his head, ‘where is it?’
‘Tell me how you found it and I’ll tell you where I put it.’ The girl’s eyes never left him while the knife spun recklessly in her hand, somehow never catching the flesh.
Talon narrowed his eyes at the girl. He suspected that she had played this game so often before it had become natural to her. Information for information. He wondered how valuable his piece was to her.
‘Why did ye’ kill the Viscount?’ Talon demanded. He was mine! Talon wanted to scream at her but he had bit down his tongue.
‘Who says I did?’ the girl didn’t even blink. She was a good liar.
‘Ye’ gonna tell me the manservant did it?’ Talon said.
‘No, I’m telling you I didn’t,’ the knife didn’t even alter tempo. She was a very good liar. ‘What were you doing in the Viscount’s Tower?’
Talon felt a lump rising against his throat. He was not sure he could lie half as well as the girl. Her green eyes looked expectantly. The fierceness of her stare should have blinded him then and there.
‘It was my mother’s,’ Talon blurted out suddenly, immediately feeling angry with himself.
The girl didn’t even take time to ponder his answer or what it meant for herself. The knife’s handle snapped against her palm and she flipped it over in her hand for Talon to take.
What had that information been worth to her?
‘The cloak has been stored in your quarters, farmboy. I wouldn’t take it out, for now.’
Had his answer not mattered to her? Or was she keeping her cards close to her chest?
‘Come on farmboy, I think it’s time for you to meet the crew.’
The girl disappeared into the sunlight outside.
Talon shrugged. No harm in playing along, for now.
He went down to one knee, wincing as he did, and tucked the hiding knife back inside his boot. Something slipped from Talon’s other hand and made a soft clack against the hold’s floor. It looked like a piece of paper, trimmed in red, which had been folded four times.
He picked it up and rubbed it between his fingers. It had a waxed feel to it, like a playing card.
Talon’s palms began to sweat.
It was just a dream. Just a dream. Just a dream.
He flattened the card out in his hand.
A pale face with sinister eyes smiled at him with gleaming, white teeth. The Joker.
Keep an eye out for me, Talon Carth. There is much for you to do.
Talon followed the green-eyed girl into the sunlight, shuddering despite the warmth.
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