Nik lost track of time as well as distance while the cart rolled along. His captors spoke little aside from directions like “Stop” or “Wait” or “Left here” from Knife-man. Uncomfortable and frightened, Nik alternated between uselessly rehashing every mistake that had led to him to this predicament – not waking Meredith to take him back, letting Anthser have the night off, not telling the footman to find a coach-for-hire for him, not taking the glass coach back to Anverlee Manor – and speculating just as uselessly about where he was going and what these men wanted of him. Whenever he heard the sounds of a carriage or other voices, he considered making a commotion to draw attention to his plight. The sting of the cut on his cheek and Knife-man’s threat deterred him. Miserable coward.
After an unknown interval, he heard the susurration of waves in the near distance. We’re by the harbor? The clatter of cart wheels over stone changed to the quieter but less even rhythm of crossing wooden planking. They’re taking me out of Newlant? Savior, what if they’re not planning to ransom me at all? Maybe they mean to sell me to some foreign king as his pet mind-healer. Saints, no, I can’t let them take me out of the country. I have to get away. The sack over his head wasn’t tied in place; by pressing his cheek against the bottom of the cart and wriggling, he worked free of it. He shifted position, trying to minimize the noise as he got into a posture where he’d be able to rise quickly. His mind recited a litany of terror: This won’t work, I’ll get myself killed, I can’t stand fast enough, they outnumber me, these curst dress shoes are not meant for running, how far can I get with my hands tied, oh Savior I don’t want to die.
But above all was a mortal certainty that if his captors took him from Newlant, he’d never see anyone he loved again. I have to try.
The cart rolled to a stop. He heard one of his captors call out a hallo. A new voice answered from some distance. “Any trouble with the job?”
“Nope, all clear.” Footsteps moved away from the cart.
Now. Nikola surged upwards, staggering as he threw off the tarp. Even without the sack, he might as well have been blind: no light on the dock save the directed beam of a shuttered lantern, which swung towards him as the holder yelped. “Hey!”
Nikola jumped the side of the cart, landed awkwardly, and ran in what he hoped was the direction they’d come and not, say, off the pier and into the water. The sound of feet behind him spurred him to greater speed despite his bound hands. One captor cursed as he made a lunge for Nik and missed, but Nik’s triumph was short-lived as another man tackled him to the dock. He struck the wooden planking face-first with a cry muffled by the gag, unable to use his hands to break his fall. Knife-man yanked Nik’s head back by his ponytail, bodyweight pinning him to the dock. “Bad move, yer highness. Shame. Been doing so well. C’mon.” Knife-man stood and hauled Nik upward by his hair; Nik scrambled to get his feet under him, teeth gritted around the gag and whimpering.
Nik complied as Knife-man steered him to the boat, but made another attempt to escape as they lowered him into it, kicking and writhing in their arms as a man in the boat grabbed his legs. Taken off guard, his captors dropped him into the water. The weight of his Ascension finery dragged him down; Nik kicked frantically for the surface. He was almost grateful when strong hands from the boat seized his collar and shoulders and hauled him into it. Saltwater stung his cut cheek.
“Feisty, is he?” the newcomer remarked.
“Must be you, Brick. Was sweet as a lamb ’til ’e heard your voice.” Knife-man kicked Nik into a prone position on the floor of the rowboat. “Just row, will ya?”
Three of his captors manned oars on the boat and rowed. Knife-man watched Nik for the first few strokes, then aimed an impersonal kick at the small of his back. “Jus’ makin’ it harder on yerself, yer highness. Gonna stay put this time?” Nik nodded, face screwed up against the pain, half-drowned and hopeless.
Knife-man manned an oar then. In the dark still night, they rowed for the distant pinpricks of lantern-light from a ship moored out in the bay.
Before they were a quarter of the way there, Nik was shivering violently and blue with cold, only the gag keeping his teeth from chattering. His captors had a brief argument over his state, which Knife-man ended with: “Need ’im alive. Which there ain’t no point to havin’ taken ’im if ’e up and dies of exposure. Get ’im out of those clothes and give ’im your coat, Red.”
“Why my coat?” a thickset man whined.
“On account of I said so. Shut yer yap or ’e gets yer trousers too.” Knife-man cut Nik’s bonds. “Ya hop outta this boat, yer majesty, and I’m gonna let ya drown this time, got it?” Nik nodded. He knew how to swim, but suspected the cold would kill him before he could make it to shore and shelter, even if his captors didn’t grab him again. He needed no encouragement to strip out of his icy soaked clothing and hunker inside Red’s coat. Knife-man re-tied his hands, in front this time, and put the sack over his head again.
When they reached the ship, they used a sling of canvas and rope to raise Nik into it. Brick said, “As I’ll tell the captain”, and two sets of footsteps departed. The remaining three led a shivering Nik across the deck and handed him below through a hatch. After a dozen paces and a turning, Knife-man pushed Nik into a cushioned wooden chair and tied his feet to the chair legs.
Nik hadn’t heard the sounds of anyone else aboard so far. Shouldn’t there be more? Could the rest be asleep? He knew little of ships, but had a vague idea that a vessel large enough to have multiple decks required a sizable crew, with sailors up at all hours. Perhaps not when moored? Perhaps they were on holiday for Ascension, like so much of Newlant.
“Can I’s have my coat back?” Red asked.
“No. Set a fire.” Knife-man said.
Nik’s mouth was dry and his throat ached from choking on seawater earlier. He tried to moisten his tongue, wishing they’d take off the cursed gag even more than he wanted to drink. He tried to muster some outrage to combat the sick sense of fear that made him tremble almost as much as the cold. He was still wet under the coat, his long ponytail dripping cold saltwater down his back. Though warmer than the frigid winter night outside, the cabin was still chilly. Nik turned his head and started to lift his bound hands.
Knife-man snapped, “And what do ya think yer doin’, yer majesty?”
Nik rolled his eyes beneath the hood. Ungag me and I’ll tell you, cretin. Moving slowly to show he planned no surprises, Nik brought his tied hands to the back of his neck.
“Hoy! Don’t ya be tryin’ ta get that hood off, boy. What’re ya thinkin’? Answer me!” Knife-man’s voice moved closer. Nik cringed, spreading his fingers in the most placating gesture he could manage.
“’E’s gagged, Crit. ’E can’t answer,” Red commented, mercifully.
“…I knew that. D’ya think I’m stupid? What’s the matter with ya? Get that fire goin’!”
With the man no longer yelling at him, Nik clawed the ribbon from his hair with numb fingers, leaving the hood in place but separating strands of hair so it’d eventually dry and be less cold.
Red finished lighting the stove. Footsteps sounded outside the cabin door and Nik’s captors rose. At the opening of the door, the bully-boys murmured, “Cap’n” in respectful tones.
“This is him?” a new voice asked, dubious.
“Which as it is, sir. As there was a mishap what ended with him sopping, we shifted ’im outta ’is fancy clothes. But got ’im coming out of that big fancy house o’ his. Caught ’im all alone, sir, so’s we didn’t need the catsbane neither.”
Catsbane? Nik hadn’t heard of that before.
“Mph. Good enough. Dismissed.” Feet shuffled out the door, but the captain must have signaled for Knife-man-Crit to lag behind, because a moment later he muttered, “Bring her up, Crit.” Crit assented and left.
The new man pulled the hood off of Nik. A single lantern and the faint glow from the stove illuminated a cabin furnished as combination dining room and study. The captain was better-dressed than his men, clothing unpatched and a warm ivywool frockcoat left open in the growing warmth of the cabin. He had curly brown hair and a narrow face with a pointed chin, looking young to be in charge of a ship. The man’s mouth twisted in a grimace of a smile. “Hello again, Lord Nikola. Want that gag off?”
Again? Nikola nodded, trying to place the man’s face.
“All right. I didn’t want to do it this way, you know. Tried doing it your way, but you wouldn’t oblige.” The man slid the blade of a knife under the gag to cut it off, and Nik winced involuntarily. His captor steadied Nik’s head with a hand on his hair. Savior! Nik reflexively reached for his god as he saw the man’s mind:
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