When the fortress was within sight, the pirates passed cheers from the front to the rear. It was more than a castle and a market to them. It was a home, a bastion, a secure refuge where the persecuted exiles could let down their guard and fall into heavy, needed hibernation. When the minstrel heard the excited ruckus she climbed to the top deck, and found most of the crew leaning on the rails, shouting and pointing at their remembered alcoves scattered along the steep face of the mountain. They spoke of the drinks and slaves awaiting them, the extravagant and diverse feasts plundered from the five distant kingdoms, the games and gambling, and the fortunes they would sit on and leak away over the coming winter.
Most of the valuables that once littered the airship were already in the mountain, but the dead men’s extra flyers, and the airship itself would be sold and divided up amongst the crew that brought it here. The merchant and the minstrel had no loot for themselves, nor did they have any possessions worth selling to pay for food and shelter. All they had when they came aboard the ship was their clothes and their selves, and now that was all they had to offer. It left her uneasy, knowing that what little they had left would be taken. She hadn’t told the merchant what she had learnt about what awaited them. He was a man who panicked, and could quickly turn into a shriveling coward, edging ever toward a corner. She had intended to inform him, but then remembered why she was with him.
In the desert she was beloved. Her reputation had grown simply for being an exotic, and bringing exotic stories with her from her exotic home. All her songs she sang were the ones she had learnt as a child, passed down through her family’s lineage, but to the desert dwellers who had never heard of her homelands, they were as mystical and foreign as the fabled city amongst the stars. In the desert, the seats around her strings held growing value. Every second day, more were brought in to the tiny oval room, and every other day, the price for admission doubled. When no more seats could fit, the price tripled, and when the patrons changed from the ragged folk to the silken ones, seats were removed and replaced with cushions and curtains. Over the course of her four-moons stay, the patron of the building changed her cloths to match her guests, and was quick to adapt her refreshments to a more sophisticated appetite. Rashida was kind to her, and rightly grateful. She kept the overenthusiastic audience members out of her private room above, and kept her private room above filled with their gifts. Rashida had told her that she could stay as long as she needed, and that she would always be welcome back. She had said that once, but the minstrel felt that those words wouldn’t hold true anymore.
The day the merchant came, was the same day she left her life behind. She had felt justified in wanting him dead and gone, while they were running through the sandy market streets. She hated the way he panted and begged her to slow after he had been the cause of her exodus. When they got to the snake charmer, she thought of kicking him loose of the rope and escaping on her own, but the love the merchant had with the serpent sorcerer hinted that the sight of the merchant’s falling body would leave no incentive to keep the rope rigid. She wondered why she had stopped the belted bellied man from beating the brains out of the conniving thief. Maybe it was the mutual danger that kept them cohesive. Maybe it was that the debt she felt owed to her couldn’t be repaid by a dead man. Or maybe it was pity.
The days they spent aboard and captive had worn away whatever pity was left. Her mood toward him was eroded by his incessant whining. He moaned about the pain in his leg, and the ache of his belly, and the throb of his head, and the scratch of his throat, and the blisters on his hands, and the ash on his clothes, and the wobble of his crutch, and the chill in the air, and the noise of the wind, and the stench of his rot. He cried about everything he had lost and yet, never acknowledged the loss of others, her especially. When she recollected the depth of his destruction of her life, she would cut him out of her plans. When her temper settled, she would figure out a useful place for him. He was imagined as a tool at her disposal, to be exhausted and rid of, much the same way he had tried to use her for his own profit. Unfortunately he was a rather useless tool. He couldn’t work the propellers, his hands were too sore. He couldn’t scout for the ship, his eyes weren’t that good. He couldn’t cook the food, his taste was too strange. He couldn’t sing or dance, entertain or amuse, and his lazy efforts were insulting. If grieving was needed, and it never was, he would be a champion among the crew instead of the hobbling leech. She wondered if it was some ploy to manifest frustration among the crew. It would be an incredible trick to build up such anger and deflect it away. If he was truly as brilliant as reputation foretold, he would snake from the danger again, but the minstrel believed that the merchant was too worn and wounded for such an extravagant level of trickery.
The merchant wrapped his leg with another strip of cheap cloth, stolen from the pumper’s abandoned cabin curtain. His hands worked quick, a new talent fostered by recent experience. When the last strip of his bulging bandages was secured he reached up to the windowsill and pulled till his eyes got the image he sought. Their destination was stone and wood, stacked and staked in the pocked rock. A thin trail swept back and forth, descending along the face of the mountain and into a level lake of clouds. Where the trail met the walls, a column of people, chained about the waist, chest and neck, marched upwards in lockstep, bearing a stolen harvest from the valley floor. He has suspected forced labor, but the confirming sight of it was more disturbing to his moral state than he expected. He wouldn’t last working on the mountain trail, his leg was still stiff and he was knew he would hobble his way off the slim path and tumble down the steep slope, pulling the rest of the laborers with him. He knew that his survival depended on him proving his mental worth, and he recited the words he would use when he stood alone for auction. He wished for that chance, that moment to showcase, but prepared himself for much worse.
The ship docked against a bricked bridge with smooth perfection. The pirates had tossed the rope claws overboard on their approach, and the steel fingers dragged against the starved and stony soil. Once the ship was anchored, organized scavengers combed through the decks. When one of them opened the door to the merchant’s room, he took one look at the gimped man, and shouted up to his commander in an irritated tone. The merchant heard the slavers heavy steps as he descend the stairs overhead. He could tell it was a fat man, but the whale that stopped outside the door, panting and dripping, was a beast fit for legends. The slaver braced himself with one hand on the wall, and waved the merchant closer with the other. Judging by the size of his waist, the merchant knew that he couldn’t fit through the doorway, even if he heaved in his gut and stepped sideways, and for a moment the merchant thought of staying in the room, out of his greedy reach. His moment of hesitation seemed to be a mistake, because the salver’s face grew irritated, and the hand he had used to beckon the merchant, went behind his back and returned with a thin iron chain, sprinkled red and orange with rust and blood. The slaver let the chain unfurl around his feet, and inclined his head on the mounds of neck. It was the soundless language of bondage. Easily understood and quickly learned. The merchant hustled to his feet, hobbled to a pile of his goods and scooped up the few possessions he had left. He left the ship with the rest of his day’s rations, a few stolen lumps of fuel, a sharpened oaken cane, and a plan.