Jervik stared at Pazel for a moment. Then he glided over and hit him squarely on the cheek.
"Brilliant reply, Jervik," said Pazel, standing his ground despite the fire along one side of his face.
Jervik raised a corner of his shirt. Tucked into his breeches was a skippers knife with a fine, well-worn leather grip.
"Want another sort of reply, do you?"
His face was inches from Pazels own. His lips were stained red by low-grade sapwort; his eyes had a yellow tinge.
"I want my knife back," said Pazel.
"Liar!" spat Jervik. "The knifes mine!"
"That knife was my fathers. Youre a thief, and you dont dare use it."
Jervik hit him again, harder. "Put up your fists, Muketch," he said.
Pazel did not raise his fists. Snickering, Jervik and the others went about their duties, leaving Pazel blinking with pain and rage.
By the Sailing Code that governed all ships, Captain Nestef would have no choice but to dismiss a tarboy caught fighting. Jervik could risk it: he was a citizen of Arqual, this great empire sprawling over a third of the known world, and could always sign with another ship. More to the point, he wore a brass ring engraved with his Citizenship Number as recorded in the Imperial Boys Registry. Such rings cost a months wages, but they were worth it. Without the ring, any boy caught wandering in a seaside town could be taken for a bond-breaker or a foreigner. Few tarboys could afford the brass ring; most carried paper certificates, and these were easily lost or stolen.
Pazel, however, was a bonded servant and a foreigner - even worse, a member of a conquered race. If his papers read Dismissed for Fighting, no other ship would have him. He would be cut adrift, waiting to be snatched up like a coin from the street, claimed as the finders property for the rest of his days.
Jervik knew this well, and seemed determined to goad Pazel into a fight. He called the younger boy Muketch after the mud crabs of Ormael, the home Pazel had not seen in five years. Ormael was once a great fortress-city, built on high cliffs over a blue and perfect harbor. A place of music and balconies and the smell of ripened plums, whose name meant "Womb of Morning" - but that city no longer existed. And it seemed to Pazel that nearly everyone would have preferred him to vanish along with it. His very presence on an Arquali ship was a slight disgrace, like a soup stain on the captains dress coat. After Jerviks burst of inspiration, the other boys and even some of the sailors called him Muketch. But the word also conveyed a sort of wary respect: sailors thought a charm lay on those green crabs that swarmed in the Ormael marshes, and took pains not to step on them lest bad luck follow.
Superstition had not stopped Jervik and his gang from striking or tripping Pazel behind the captains back, however. And in the last week it had grown worse: they came at him in twos and threes, in lightless corners belowdecks, and with a viciousness he had never faced before. They may really kill me (how could you think that and keep working, eating, breathing?). They may try tonight. Jervik may drive them to it.
Pazel had won the last round: Jervik was indeed afraid to stab him in front of witnesses. But in the dark it was another matter: in the dark things were done in a frenzy, and later explained away.
Fortunately, Jervik was a fool. He had a nasty sort of cunning, but his delight in abusing others made him careless. It was surely just a matter of time before Nestef dismissed him. Until then the trick was to avoid getting cornered. That was one reason Pazel had risked climbing aloft. The other was to see the Chathrand.
For tonight he would finally see her - the Chathrand, mightiest ship in all the world, with a mainmast so huge that three sailors could scarce link arms around it, and stern lamps tall as men, and square sails larger than the Queens Park in Etherhorde. She was being made ready for the open sea, some great trading voyage beyond the reach of Empire. Perhaps she would sail to Noonfirth, where men were black; or the Outer Isles that faced the Ruling Sea; or the Crownless Lands, wounded by war. Strangely, no one could tell him. But she was almost ready.
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