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Viper
Author: Bex Hogan

 

For Kara and Odette.

We match, don’t we?

 

 

I don’t need to dissect the bird to know how it died. I watched it fly straight into the mast moments ago, its limp body falling to the deck, its fragmented skull rattling beneath my fingers as I picked it up. But its death isn’t what interests me. I want to know how it lived.

At the first incision blood trickles down the black feathers on to my fingers. It’s still warm. I wipe it away. Not because I’m squeamish, but because I want to see beyond, to the tiny organs hidden behind delicate bones. My previous attempts at this have taught me that my touch has to be gentle. One slip and the fragile body collapses in on itself, keeping its secrets buried within.

The knock on my door is unexpected and makes me jump. Cursing the unwanted interruption, I wrap the bird in a cloth and hide it in the nearby chest, not caring that the blood might seep out on to my belongings. Being discovered would be far worse.

Wiping my hands clean, I open the door as little as possible, in case I’ve overlooked any incriminating evidence, but it’s just one of the crew, and his reluctance to be here is obvious.

‘Captain wants to see you,’ he says.

‘Thank you,’ I reply, and he hurries away.

Having learned a long time ago not to keep the Captain waiting, I give my clothes a cursory glance for stains, pause briefly to wash away the remaining traces of blood from under my nails, and make my way through the ship to his quarters.

Some of the crew greet me as I pass; a few don’t acknowledge me at all, but it doesn’t bother me. Respect has to be earned among Snakes, and I have done nothing to gain theirs yet.

Three of them are huddled together, whispering. They turn their backs to me as I pass, excluding me from the conversation, but their voices carry.

‘I heard there are still Mages in the West that can melt the flesh from your bones with a single word.’

My own skin prickles at the mere mention of magic. Real or not, I think I’d rather be on my way to see a Mage than the Captain right now, however cruel the stories say they were.

Outside the Captain’s cabin, someone is waiting for me. Bronn, the most lethal man on board, stands guard. His sleeves are rolled up and I try very hard not to look at his deeply tanned arms; they’re strong and deadly, but I also know how gentle they can be. They once made me feel safe. Now they exist only to protect his captain and to carry out his loathsome orders. I swallow back the bitterness that is quick to rise.

When he hears me approaching, Bronn turns and nods in a barely perceptible greeting. ‘He’s expecting you,’ he says, and opens the door, gesturing for me to enter.

The room is designed to intimidate captured foes, and I hate almost everything about it, especially the grotesque display of body parts exhibited in jars on a shelf. The smell of death lingers in the air, which, I suppose, is the intention.

Sitting at his table – surrounded by treasures and trophies that speak of his dominance over the Eastern Isles, his sea vulture Talon looming alert on a perch behind him – is the Captain.

My father.

He is not alone. Standing beside him is his first mate and oldest friend, Cleeve, whom I’m supposed to address as Uncle, but struggle to, because he’s a bloodthirsty lecher and I detest him.

In front of the desk two members of the crew flank a woman who is in shackles and has been badly beaten. I recognise her as one of our newer recruits, although her name momentarily escapes me.

Bronn moves silently across the room to stand on the other side of my father. Sensing I’m not going to like what’s about to happen, I dig deep to keep my voice steady as I speak. ‘You wanted to see me?’

My father’s solitary eye meets mine, a messy scar where the other should be. His heavily lined face reveals no emotion. ‘Marianne, thank you for joining us.’ He says it in a way that suggests I’ve been keeping them waiting, despite my prompt attendance. Typical. ‘I want your judgement on a matter that has arisen concerning a member of our crew.’

He beckons to the men, and the shackled Snake is roughly shoved towards me, so I cannot help but smell fear mingled with her sweat and blood.

‘This scum,’ my father continues, ‘was caught stealing water from the barrel.’

My heart sinks. Stealing from the rations is a grave offence, and I don’t like to think of the punishments this poor woman has already received. Anders, that’s her name. I feel relieved to have remembered.

‘What do you suggest we do with this thief?’ The question is so heavily loaded that the room begins to spin.

Aware all eyes are fixed on me, waiting for my response, ready to judge any sign of weakness, I take a deep breath. My eyes meet the accused’s and I see the desperation in them, the hope I might be lenient. I cannot pardon her, that much is clear. It occurs to me that perhaps a thief should lose a limb befitting the crime – her hand maybe, or her tongue? I almost laugh out loud – the notion of me commanding such a thing is ludicrous. But this is no laughing matter.

‘Her crime is serious,’ I say, hoping my voice sounds as authoritative as I intend it to, ‘and cannot be excused.’ I face my father and glimpse a flicker of triumph in his eye. ‘Throw her in the brig, then leave her behind on the next sandbar we pass. Let her see how thirsty she is then.’

The spark of satisfaction seeps away from my father’s face at the delivery of my sentence. I have failed. This isn’t what my father wanted to hear. I glance across at Bronn, hoping to see something suggesting comprehension, admiration, respect. But his face is set like stone as always, revealing nothing, and anger simmers painfully inside me. Like I care what he thinks anyway.

Anders seems to sense her fate has been sealed and she begins to plead with my father, begging for forgiveness until one of her captors silences her with a harsh blow across the cheek.

Father turns to Cleeve. ‘Do it.’

A cruel grin flashes across Cleeve’s face as he steps out from behind the table. In no more than three steps he has reached the prisoner and slit her throat. Talon flaps his wings, though whether out of protest or approval it’s impossible to tell. Such a quick decision – such brutality – makes me sick, but I force myself to watch. After all, that is why I am here. Death was always going to be Anders’ sentence; it was just that my father hoped I would give the order. He knows this is not the first time I have witnessed the light diminish in someone’s eyes as life drains away – he has made me watch countless times – but he believes forcing me to endure what he deems necessary will change me. What he does not comprehend is I do not wish to change.

‘Clean this mess up.’

My father’s men instantly respond, dragging the corpse from the room. It leaves a blood trail behind it as if the body is trying to send out one final message for help. It will be ignored, erased.

When only the two of us remain in his cabin my father turns to me, and I expect to feel the full force of his anger. Instead he says nothing, which is decidedly more sinister. I wish the others hadn’t left. When he eventually does speak, his voice is dangerously soft. ‘You knew what I wanted you to do.’

‘I did.’ No point in denying it.

‘Then why, Marianne? Why do you continue to resist?’

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