The Cannibal Priests of New England, part six: Tea and Blood

Martin had only just achieved a precarious sleep when he was awakened by the harsh voice of a bent, pinch-faced man in his nightclothes. He stood in the narrow door and held a lantern at his side, casting his own face into garish shadow. “The captain wants you,” he said. “Sharp-like.”

He pulled himself unhappily out of bed and fetched his trousers from the floor, noting the slow, easy roll of the ship over the waves. He must have fallen asleep during the storm. Perhaps he would make a seaman of himself yet. Still, an unbroken sleep would have done him good.

“Who are you?” he asked brusquely, reaching for his jacket.

“I cook your meals for you, mister, so mind your tone. I also see to the captain’s whims. Which is you now, so be smart about it. Look at you fussing over your clothes like a proper lady. Leave off and do as you’re bid, before his mood turns.”

Captain Beverly’s mood was generous. His quarters were at the aft of the ship, and the windows were open, affording him a salty breeze and a king’s view. The clouds had dispersed, and although there was no moon to light the waves, the stars burned in great, glittering folds. Beverly sat with his back to it, a shadow against the sky. With his thick hair and his unkempt beard he looked like a figure from the Old Testament. The table had been set up between them, with a kettle of hot water and two mugs.

“Did I interrupt your sleep, Pretty?” said the captain.

Martin took the seat opposite. He heard the steward shut the door behind him. “I know this is your ship, and you’re lord of the high seas and all that, but I will thank you to call me by my proper name.”

“Ah. I see your sensibilities are as delicate as your tender little hands.” He leaned forward and pushed the mug closer to him. “Well perhaps some tea will soothe your English heart.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Martin poured the tea into the mug and held it under his nose, breathing it in. He sipped, and found it surprisingly good.

Captain Beverly smiled. “Privileges of the wicked life,” he said.

“I suspect the privileges are many. Including summoning gentlemen from sleep to sit at your table upon a whim. What need do you have of me, Captain?”

“I have need of your context, Mr. Dunwood. I would like to know your business with the Cannibal Priests.”

All the warmth generated by the hot tea was dissipated by the utterance of that phrase. He put the mug back on the table and concentrated carefully on maintaining composure. The captain, damn him, watched him as carefully as he would an opponent in a duel; if that’s what this was, the revelation of his knowledge of Martin’s business had already defeated him. The captain smiled; light glinted from his teeth.

“Mr. Gully has been indiscrete, I see,” Martin managed to say.

“Mr. Gully has the eager tongue of a dockside whore, but I don’t need him to tell me what’s already plain. I told you at port that your business could stay your own, but I’ve had something of an eventful night since that time, and I’m afraid I must now become a trifle more insistent.”

“How do you know of them?” said Martin.

“I do a bit of work for them, Mr. Dunwood. On the side, as it were. I am about their business even now.”

“But … I thought you said you weren’t going to New England.”

“I’m not. Now Mr. Dunwood, I’ll ask you again. And if you avoid my question one more time I shall summon Mr. Thierry into the room, and he will do the asking on my behalf. Do you understand me?”

Martin’s sense of control had evaporated. He was afraid; it was a new and unwelcome emotion. “Yes, Captain, I think I do,” he said quietly.

“What is your business with the Cannibal Priests?”

Martin took a breath to steady himself. “I’m going to barter for a seat at the table.”

Captain Beverly gave a slight shake of the head, scrutinizing him carefully. “This isn’t how it’s done, though. Sneaking north on a renegade ship, for God’s sake, like some plague-addled wharf rat. No. One is invited. One arrives in a gilded carriage. One is provided with servants to open doors and proffer chairs, and to wipe one’s powdered arse. Not like this. Not like you’re doing it.”

“Obviously, I have not been invited.”

“Obviously.” The captain smiled at him. They crested a wave and through the window Martin saw the sea fall away behind the captain’s head to be replaced by the long, open dark of the sky. The cups on the table slid a few inches before settling to a stop. “You’re crashing the party, aren’t you, you scamp. They don’t know you’re coming.”

Martin said nothing. Despite the cool air blowing in through the open window, the room felt close and hot. The pitching of the ship made a tumult in his gut; that, along with the new and very real possibility that this brute might interfere with his plan to see Alice again, made it a struggle not to spew his last meal all over the table between them.

“I can pay you,” he said. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket.

“‘Pay me.’ You’re paying me already. Will you do it twice? What is this new service you wish to compensate me for?”

“You say you work for them. I can pay you not to warn them of my approach.”

The captain sipped from his tea and seemed to consider for a moment. “You’re making certain assumptions. Let me ask you. What are your intentions, once you arrive? I do business with these men. Do you mean to disrupt it?”

“No. I do not threaten that relationship in any way. I’m only looking for someone. I want to bring her back to England with me.”

“I see. It’s a love story, then.”

“If you like.”

“All proper men of the sea enjoy a good love story, Mr. Dunwood. Despite the fact that ours always end in tears.” He leaned back in his chair again, the wood of the chair creaking beneath him. The stars heaved in the sky. Finally, he said, “All right then, Mr. Dunwood. Your story does not entirely set me at ease, but it does rouse my interest. We’ll go on as planned. You may return to your bunk.”

Martin made no move to rise. “And your work for them, Captain? What is its nature?”

Captain Beverly looked at him flatly. “I’ve shown you all the forbearance I intend to for the evening. Remember where you are.”

Martin nodded, and rose to his feet. His hand was on the door when Captain Beverly stopped him.

“A word of caution: it’s not my tongue you need worry about. That little villain you’ve hired to do your dirty work will sell you for a tuppence. You know that, surely?”

Martin stopped. “Fat Gully.”

“That’s the one. Off to bed now, my lovestruck friend. Lets see what tomorrow brings us, shall we?”

Martin retreated to his cramped quarters. He slept fitfully, and he was plagued by dreams of the Farm. He watched a cleaver rise and fall, over and over again, lifting bright red arcs into the air. He saw a stunned human face pressed against the bars of a metal cage. He heard a shriek so piercing that it launched him from sleep, upright in his swinging cot at some unknowable black hour of the night, panting and listening. He listened, but there was only the sound of the waves against the hull, the groan of wood straining against the deep. He closed his eyes again, and if he dreamed further, it was only of the abyss.

(A note on the absence of art: Jeremy Duncan recently took on new employment and as a result his schedule has changed considerably. In the future he’ll provide art when he can. I love what he’s done and I’ll be happy to include more as his time permits. In the meantime, rather than wait, the story will forge ahead.)

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