GARTEN HAD DIED IN THE night, the ninth so far. Corrie Welling had kept count, added every death to the tally of sins that she would visit upon these bastards.
And those sins were plentiful.
She had been in the fetid, rotting hold of this ship for twenty-seven days, shackled to the wall with just enough freedom of movement to get her hands to her mouth when her captors gave her a cup of water or a bite of moldy biscuit. Water and food was twice a day, and even in this darkened hold, she could tell when the sun was out, filtering through the seams of the hatch above them.
Plus the heat of the daytime had turned ungodly.
The heat, the stench of them all sitting in their own filth, the creep of salty bilge water that was sometimes several inches deep-all of it was too damn much to bear.
The animals who had done this to her and the kids locked in the hold with her, they would pay dearly. Corrie would make sure.
The rest were all kids, and they all had been looking to her. Most of them were around eleven or twelve, some as old as fifteen. Corrie was by far the oldest. By her reckoning, her twentieth birthday passed the same day the ship had made an abrupt swing in direction.
“Southeast to northeast,” Garten had said that day. “We went around the Ihali Cape.”
Garten had been a good kid. Twelve years old, went to the public prepatory in Dentonhill. He had clearly been a good student, since he knew geography and had a good sense of direction this whole time they’d been in the hold.
He had known when the ship made anchorage in Yoleanne, taken on water and supplies, and then presumed they had kept going south along the Acserian coast, naming cities they might have reached the next time supplies were brought on. Agenza, Corren, Torphia, Hamandaghad.
That one he had been certain about, especially when Corrie had told the rest what she could hear when supplies were loaded. Their captors had shouted out to the supply boats in something other than Trade. They were now off the coast of Imachan.
“Imachan is actually a bunch of countries,” Garten had said weakly.
He had gotten sick the day before, unable to keep even water down. Corrie couldn’t get close to him, but Eana, shackled next to him, said he was hot with fever. Fever and vomiting had been how it had started for Relia. And Washle. And Nicelle, Samon, and Tirl. For each of them, once it started, death came fast and hard and cruel. Garten had been no different. Corrie had tried to keep him talking, asked him to tell her more about Imachan, tell her more about the stories he read in school, tell them all about his home and his mother and his family, anything.
But he had died in the night.
One more crime, one more sin, that she would hold these rutting bastards to account for.
“He was your fault, stick,” Penler said. Penler was one of the older ones, a real rutting pisser with too damn smart of a mouth for his own good. “He hadn’t been right since Morger knocked him to punish you.”
“That wasn’t her fault!” Eana said. “None of that is her fault.”
“None of what these bastards do to us is my fault,” Corrie said. “But I am sorry they hurt you to punish me. It’s because they know I can take it if they knock me.”
“So stop pushing them, stick!” Penler said.
“Stop yelling at her,” Eana said. “That’ll make them come again, and they’ll blame her, and they’ll hit one of us.”
“How do we know she’s not in it with them?” Penler said. “It was sticks who grabbed me in the first place. Same for Washle.”
“Same for me,” Corrie said. Of all the parts that hurt the most of this rutting sewage was the fact that she had been betrayed by fellow officers.
She was a sergeant in the Maradaine Constabulary. The Wellings had served for eight generations. Her many-times-great grandfather had helped found the Constabulary and the City Loyalty. Her father had died with his red and green on.
She was still wearing hers. Maybe the bastards who took her wanted to taunt her that much, put her in this hold with her uniform on, so these kids would know she was an officer in the Constabulary. Crush any sense of hope they might have. Show them that no one could save them.
“Listen,” she said quietly. “In a few minutes, Morger will be down here with our rations. None of us are going to give him any blasted trouble this time, give him any reason to stay down here more than he needs to. Not right now.”
“What about Garten?” Treskie asked. He was on Garten’s other side.
“Don’t draw attention to him,” Corrie said. The others all groaned and whined. “Listen to me. Listen!” She knew they didn’t want to hear this. They were as scared as anything, and she couldn’t rutting blame them. They were exhausted, they were sick, they knew they were being shipped to some horrific fate in some place only the saints and sinners knew. The next port might be where they were unloaded, and from there, who even knew what damned atrocity awaited them.
She was a damned officer in the Constabulary, and like her father, like her grandparents, like all three of her brothers and half her cousins, she had taken a damned oath to serve, to stand for the safety and protection of the citizens of Maradaine. The kids in this hold with her, no matter where they were in the world, were still citizens of Maradaine, and she still had her red and green on.
She would fulfill that oath or die trying.
“Listen,” she said calmly. “I know it’s horrible to be there next to him, to have to smell his rotting corpse-“
“No worse than any other smell down here,” Iastanne said.
“But we don’t want it to be Morger taking him out. It’s got to be Hockly, tonight. So hold on.”
She didn’t have the sharp mind of her brother Minox-or his magic, that would rutting come in handy-but she had paid attention, noting everything about the hold they were in. She had figured out everything that could be used as a weapon, memorized where it was. She could find it all in the dark if she had to. She learned the patterns of the ship’s crew. Morger brought them water and food in the mornings, Hockly in the evenings. Hockly, with bad knee and weak shoulder.
“Tonight?” Eana asked. Her raised eyebrow showed she understood what Corrie was driving at. She, more than any of the other kids, had been sharp and clever enough to see what Corrie had been doing all this time, and kept her mouth shut about it. Eana had a whip of a mind, Corrie saw that. Eana knew what the score was, and she clearly trusted Corrie to get it done.
It had taken twenty-seven days, slow and patient work, but Corrie had cracked the wood holding her manacles to the wall. She knew one good yank was all it would take to be free.
But she had to do that at the precise, ripe moment. She had to be ready to take the ship, free these kids, and make all the bastards on the ship pay for their crimes.
That moment was going to be tonight.
Corrie was a damned constable, even here and now, and she was ready to get to work.