The home of Nathan Ketch was a magnificent multi-tiered galleon, which like all the residences of the Saltwolves was more of a floating palace than a vessel intended to sail the open waters. True to her master's tastes, the Spartan
radiated a certain severe austerity. It was docked in it's own private bay, with dinghys moored to its sides as well as the dreaded floating cages surrounding its hull and bobbing from weights attached to the bottom of the bay. The only way they could be reached was by the dinghys. Many an onai and corsair had bobbed their lives away in those cages, perishing of thirst and hunger, never able to sit down because of the cunning and tormenting design of the cages. It was here Tala and her crew now approached with their unconscious cargo in the foot of their boat.
Tala flipped the unconscious Onai over onto her back with the toe of her boot. Ketch would pay dearly for this one. The money alone was twice what he was currently offering for other seascum. Besides, Tal's heard rumors that this fox had somehow outwitted the illustrious saltwolf when she last ventured to Elysia.
She would hand Antonia over to Ketch, but only temporarily. If there was anything left of the Onai after Ketch was finished with her...Tala wanted to be the next in line. In truth, she'd have dealt directly with the fox herself, had not Nathan so many eyes on this island.
She, like Nathan, had a score to settle.
It wasn't long before she was in the captain's quarters, her two men tossing the limp Onai down to the boards like a sack of potatoes. She glared down at the pest, and, after making sure they were alone, she quickly riffled through the fox's pockets, snagging the few bags of coins and pocketing them for herself.
"Ye'll be left wi'f noth'n. Jus as I was," she sneered and then straightened back to attention. Seconds later, the door opened and the Lord of the Boards himself strolled in.
Nathan Ketch. The man himself. Scourge of every Onai and Corsair on the Amarathine Ocean.
He hardly looked the part. In his wine red greatcoat and his immaculate white gloves, he looked a very mild mannered man indeed, plainly dressed for all his wealth. His cane tapped against the floorboards as he walked across the room and sat down behind the desk. He carried himself with a certain dignity and he could be called handsome for an older man. Beneath the brim of his tricorner hat though, his eyes were deep in shadow and his expression was oddly calm.
Tala saw a flicker in that shadow as he glanced down at the unconscious onai. " Ms. Reade. My...hath been a while..." he murmured as he shuffled through some papers. His head moved, looking up at Tala. " Yes? "
Tala looked a bit nervous in his presence. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Beg'n yer pardon, Master Ketch, but th'reward promised fer 'er was quite high and promised ta be 'vailable 'pon deliv'ry."
He stared at her and right through her with a deadly sort of thoughtfulness. " So 'twas good Mistress Black Jack..." he murmured. He dug around in his pocket and tossed her a leather bag of gold coin. " Thy reward and a bonus. Good day. " He went back to studying his papers, quite ignoring her.
Tala snapped off a smart salute. "Thankee, Master Ketch. Pl'sure doin' bus'ness with ya." She turned on her heel and was out the door in moments.
No good trying to barter with him for Antonia's hide. Least not at the moment. Not with his loftiness in high gear.
She stomped her way along the boards, fuming as her mind worked to figure out a way for her to achieve her aim. In her haste, she ran into Ketch's cabin boy. Her eyes lit up like christmas.
"Sparrow!" her words almost dripped honey, "walkin' th' deck blind 'gain?" She jerked the young man to his feet.
Spar's eyes grew wide as coppers. Tala had never spoken to him, in all the years she'd been there. And he'd been the more glad for it, seeing that she usually tore people apart when her viper's tongue was loosed.
"T-t-t'was me own fault, m'lady Tala. I-I-I wasna look'n where I was goin'-"
"Dem right, fault be your'n." She snaked an arm around his shoulder and pulled him closer. "Now, lad. I migh' be willin' ta forgive ye if'n we strike a sort o prop'sition."
"Sorta prop'sition?" He glanced askance at her warily, inwardly praying to be away from her as soon as possible. She was staring at him like a hungry cat and he the canary.
"Brought in new pris'ner. Jus' left 'er with th' Saltwolf hisself. Now, bein' paid 'n' all, 've no right busin'ss hang'n' 'round. But, I've special int'rest 'n this 'un. If'n ye could be keepin' eyes 'n' ears open fer what's t'be done with 'er in th' end...Well, I'll be willin' ta make 't worth yer wile."
"S-s-spy on Mas'er Ketch?" The boy looked like she'd just asked him to cut off his own head.
She palmed two gold coins into his hand. Paused for a moment and then added a third. "E'ry'un 'ere be lookin' af'er their own advantage, Spar. Ye should do th' same." The Black Jack saw the war within his soul as he hefted the weight of coin. "Sides, 'm not askin' ye ta do 'nythin' out o' th' ordin'ry. Jus' be lettin' me know how th' fox Onai is bein' disposed of. Nothin' truly underhanded. Jus' pass long what ye'd be hearin'."
"Nothin' underhanded," he repeated. He pocketed the coins. His eyes still looked a bit uncertain.
"If'n ye do as I ask, there'll be two more wh're tha' came fr'm."
That did it. He gave a firm not of his head. The greed'd won him over. Get's them everytime, she thought. A poor man'd sell his own mother if it'd contribute to his luxury.
"Good lad. Be sendin' Scurvy ta th' Nymph when ye have word ta pass 'long. Have 'im bring th's. Tell 'm I dropped it when ye ran inta me on deck."
"Aye, m'lady." He took the small red sash of cloth and tucked it into his shirt.
"Tha' said. Time ta make th's look convincin'" Tala grabbed him by the back of the neck and literally hurled him towards the cabin. Raising her voice, she barked out, "F'lish Scab! Let tha' be a less'n ta ye. Next time ye cross paths w'th me on deck I won't be nearly s'kind."
With that, she turned and was on her way to the Nymph for a well earned drink.
Spar winced as his shins hammered into the deck. He hadn't expected that encounter. But the weight of coin hidden in his clothing more than made up for bruised limbs or ego. Shakily he got to his feet and limped on his way.
He knocked thrice on Master Ketch's door and waited to be given leave to enter. His fingers ran nervously over the trade agreement he'd been given to deliver-along with a few other pieces of parchment from 'unknown' sources.
" Come in, " came Ketch's level voice. The boy entered and stopped. Nathan was kneeling by the onai. He calmly plucked the maskstone from her forehead and Spar saw the illusion of the woman fade like dust in sunlight. Nathan twined his fingers in her hair and jerked her head upwards. He waved something under her nose and Antonia snorted and blinked her eyes groggily.
" Place the documents on the table, lad, " said Nathan Ketch. " And help me drag this animal outside on the deck. She'll need to be tied to the mainmast. Flayer is particular about that..." He smiled a thin smile as Antonia gazed dazedly up at his face and winced. " Good day, Mistress Antonia...I have been waiting for this for a terribly long time... "
Despite her situation, her crazy smile crept across her face. " 'Allo yer ould whoreson..." she muttered. " 'Ow's thy 'earing these days, eh? " Nathan carefully slipped off his gloves, turning a couple of vicious-looking pronged rings on his fingers delicately around so that they were lined up with his palm and gave her a vicious sharp strike across her face, drawing blood. He carefully gagged her and motioned to the lad again.
Despite his best effort not to appear alarmed, Spar winced when the rings cut into Antonia's face. But Ketch hadn't seen his rather small display of cowardice. Praise be to the Gods o'th' Salt! Weakness was not well prized among Nathan's men.
Stepping forward, he grabbed the back legs of the creature and grunted under her none-too-delicate weight. For such a small critter she was surprisingly heavy. Together they carried her out to the mainmast and Sparrow and another man set to stringing her up.
Spar, for his part, was grateful Ketch had muzzled the beast. Wasn't sure he could have stepped near her if those fangs hadn't been quelled.
Still, that remark she'd made had puzzled him. It seemed so simple and stupid. Not really deserving of such a fierce and fiery reaction. A kick in the teeth, perhaps. But not something worth being 'intentionaly cruel'.
Nathan Ketch casually tore open the back of her shirt and stepped back as the great hulking man known as Flayer stepped up, the bone bits and metal bits jingling from his cat o'nine tails. He pulled back and began laying into her. The crew watched in silence, some of the newer men turned their heads until they were nudged urgently by their comrades when Ketch turned his mild stare towards them. Displays of weakness were not tolerated on this ship. Antonia bit her lip until the blood flowed freely down her chin.
When it was done, Nathan waved his hand. " Throw a shift on her and put her out in the floating cages. " he said and walked back towards his cabin.
The boy known as Sparrow stared with unblinking eyes as the fox Onai was coated in her own blood. He swallowed hard, once, to keep the contents of his lunch in place. Then he picked up his courier parcels, letters and such the Captain wanted delivered over the island, and went on his way.
Later, in the darkness of the Nymph, he stumbled through the common room looking for Tala. A sharp clock to the left side of his skull told him he'd found her.
"Little wretch, what took ye so long?" She snarled in his face, her breath reeking of something much stronger than ale.
"M-m-m sorry, M-m-i-lady," he stammered as his eyes still watered from the blow. "T't'tis done. T'deed. She's been flogged and 's sendin' 'er out ta the cages."
Something horrible glowed within the depths of the Blackjack's eyes. Cold as steel yet bright as the dying embers of a fire on an ebony eve. "Good," she spoke softly as she released the grip on the front of his tunic. Pressing a coin into his hand she shoved away from the table. "Be on yer way, lad. 've business o' me own ta be tendin' to."
In the quiet of night a longboat with a single oarsman rowed out towards the cages. It was customary for a single, solitary guard to check on the occupants and report on their welfare. Bright eyes glazed steadily out from under the hooded cloak. It's previous owner lay in the bottom of the boat, sleeping off the nightshade that was added to his evening brew.
The creak of the oars and the waves lapping against the time worn wood were the only other sounds that could be heard from this distance from the main ship. Any noise she did make would be lost in the crashing of the waves and the howl of the midnight wind.
"H'lo m' fine cockrel," Tala whispered as a thump indicated the boat had reached its destination. "Fancy ta be se'n ya 'gain."
The stripes down Antonia's back throbbed like streaks of white hot lightning. She stood with her forehead resting on the corroded iron bars for it was impossible to sit due to the cunning and cruel design of the cages. Her arms were tied with leather straps to the bars of the cage. Her eyes flickered. Her insane grin quirked the sides of her mouth. She couldn't feel her hands. Her dry lips moved.
"He'shh...got..got th'clue..what starts it...thee knows it, Sam'l...zurry t-tae dissapoint ye...an' he prob'bly th-threw it away ashh...rubb'sh...Saltwolfs be prat'acal like that " she muttered, apparently talking to someone else. She gave a weak sort of chuckle and fell silent again.
Clue. He's got the clue. So...Ketch had something important. No surprise there. But if it was of value...well...it could line her pockets and afford her some extra protection. Perhaps a deal...if all went well...
Sliding her hand into her robes she extracted a single key. It groaned in the lock but the fox Onai made nary a wimper. The cage door opened with a good, hard yank and then Tala was pulling the body into the boat and retying the leather straps. She'd also brought with her an added form of amusement. She smirked and her hooded eyes gleamed as she slid the muzzle over Antionia's snout. "C'n't be 'avin' ye squall 'n get us 'll kill'd."
She rowed the boat ashore, humming the familiar seascags tune, knowing others would be listening or at least find something amiss if it would not be heard along with the familiar creak of the oars. Lifting the Onai onto her back, she tossed the cloak in the bottom of the boat. It wasn't unusual to find Jasp curled up after a mug o' brew in the bottom of the leaky vessel. So no one'd be the worse or wiser. Lifting her own, sodden, cloak from the boat bottom, she wrapped the fox up like a parcel and went jauntily on her way.
Nathalee docked her small sloop at port and told her crew they were welcome to go about the island, only her first mate stayed aboard. She made her way to the Spartan and boarded the immense vessel. As she made her way down to the captain's quarters she bumped into one of Ketch's crew, she brushed him off with little more than a glance and kept on her way. As she reached Ketch's door she rapped upon it twice with her knuckle. She stood idly by waiting for an answer, she knew better than to just open it if Ketch was working on 'Buisness' the repercussion would not be pleasant.
Spar shivered. Why did he always have to be the one to run into the visitors? He'd just returned from downing a few pints at the Nymph and only then had remembered to deliver a last set of papers, these to Master Ketch from one of the swags at the tavern. Sliding them under Ketch's door, so not as to disturb the man, and knowing the pages weren't of a highly valuable nature--he'd peeked at them--he couldn't see waking the good Captain to deal with something so trivial. That and no harm'd come to his hide for just leaving the irrelevant stuff folded and shoved under the doorjam.
Stumbling past Nathalee he shivered...wasn't likely for a good reception if'n she woke Master Ketch...or so was his last thought as he stumbled on to find his bed.
" Enter " said a voice from inside. Nathalee came in to see Nathan Ketch at his desk, shuffling through items with a air of disinterest. His eyes flickered up at her from beneath the brim of his hat and then returned to the papers. " State thy business and be quick about it, " he said laconically.
"I'm Nathalee Merahi, Kendon Merahi's girl, I own kelp bed 4. I'm here on the buisness of'n maintaince fer yer island." she said matter of factly, not intimidated in the least of Ketch's harsh reputation.
Ketch got up, walked over to the door and shut it behind her. He pulled out a chair and gestured to it which while gracious indicated it was done more out of mere formality than anything else. As soon as she had sat down, he moved back to his desk. " Kendon...a familiar name...he is dead now is he not? As for maintenance...care to elaborate, my dear lady? " he remarked.
"Yes 'ir, he died a while back. I was looking through his books and it said you'd be needin' repairs on the bottom of the isle soon. I had my men take a look and your underbed has been eroded pretty badly and fish have been eatin' on it." she said in a buisness manner. She looked around Ketch's quarters, and thought to herself that this definently did not seem like the surroundings in which one of Ketch's reputation would to would settle himself in.
Ketch looked at her, his expression unreadable. He smiled. " Hath not dealt with me before, has thee, my dear young lady? " he remarked.
Nathalee looked at Ketch and spoke "No, my father did the buisness 'til he passed, sir."
Nathan Ketch nodded. He stood up and walked over to her. Resting his elbow on the back of the chair he said softly, " And as his heir, thee should be privy to the unpleasant little secret he carried. " He smiled again. " Thee's onai, my dear. No use in pretending. And needn't ask how Ketch knows...he knows. Thee's of course aware of my policy on Elysia concerning onai, correct? " Suddenly it seemed a lot darker and a lot closer within Nathan's cabin...
"I shant be caring whether you know if I am Onai or not, neither I care about your cages that have killed so many of me brethren' she said with a dark smile upon her face "Put me in'n yer cage, I'll get out, whip my back, I've had much worse, kill me, end my sufferin'."
Nathan chuckled and shook his head. " Bold words, lass, bold words, but I fear thee knows not the depth of 'em. " he remarked. " There's many a grown man that Flayer hath made weep like a child, don't think thyself above pain. And no one's escaped the cages...yet. That my dear lass is beside the point. The point is...I know what thee is and thee knows I know. But perhaps we can reach...a mutual agreement. The same as thy father agreed to. Shall I go on? "
"Aye, I may be young but I know full well the impact of me words, an' I never said I was above pain, just that I have known far worse." she chuckled and thought to herself that he need check his cages before he went about ranting noone had escaped them "Thy go on, I be willin' to make a deal."