Raster stood over Gwennet and shook his head in disgust. "You could at least act like you want to do this."
Donning a meek smile, Gwennet, apprentice footpad to Raster, said, "Sorry, boss." She was lying flat upon her back. A guard lay atop her, where Raster had delivered him to slumber land with a well-placed little sack of lead pellets. She grunted as she levered the deadweight off of herself, he was still breathing, for which she was glad. Had he been dead, she would have pushed the body off with more speed, no doubt, but then Gwennet would have run until she found open water.
Raster was leaning on a nearby wall as she stood. "Look, girl, you're too damn skinny to be a whore, and too nice to kill people for money." He smoothed his oiled black hair with one hand. "I don't know if this will work out, you know?"
The young girl's eyes brimmed with tears. "Please, Raster, give me another chance," she pleaded, "I'll do better." She touched his forearm with her slender hand.
The old thief snorted. "You said that yesterday, Gwen. I just don't think you've got what it takes to be a second-storey man." He looked at her levelly, fixing her gray eyes with his own blue eyes. "Why don't you find a nice, hard-working lad and settle down? You know, have a few babies, and live a long, healthy, safe life?"
The tears began to fall, and Raster felt his heart twist, as if in a vice. He had raised Gwennet, or Gwen, as he called her, since her mom died from a crazy who had hired her for one night's tumble. He had avenged her mother, stabbing the freak in an alley three nights later. It had not made the little girl's life any easier, but at least Raster could look her in the eye afterward.
Raster had provided for her well enough; she had always eaten at least one meal a day, and had a roof that only leaked a little over her head at night. She was a bright girl, he knew that by the fact that she had managed to stay alive in the Swarm, the worst part of Vilders. Gwen was quick, too. He had seen that several times when colleagues of his, who had a penchant for younger flesh, had failed to catch her. So far as Raster knew, she was a virgin.
He knew she had taken a couple of suitors. Other than catching one of them in her room one night with her mouth on his pole, he'd not seen anything to show she was otherwise active. He approved of that; an unwanted pregnancy would doom her quick. She could not even opt for the nice, hard-working lad escape.
The memory of chasing that young suitor friend of hers out of the house and down a few streets of the Swarm brought back pleasant memories of Gwen. How she had smiled at his bad jokes and how she covered him when he came home and passed out, even taking off his boots in those instances. She was a good girl.
"Perhaps it's my own fault, Gwen," said Raster. "I shouldn't have pushed you into this trade. You're too blasted nice."
"What am I to do then?" asked the young woman whom he loved like his own get. Not that he would ever have any of his own, not since that brawl where his eggs got smashed by a drunken Coghlander. His stick still worked, but he was as sterile as a healer's privy.
He put his long, slender arm over her narrow shoulders. "I'm serious about finding a good young man. You're pretty enough, if a touch on the skinny side. Some young apprentice smith or tanner or maybe jeweler would be happy to take you home to meet his momma."
She giggled at him. "Yeah, I can see it now: 'Hello mother, this is my new fiancee from the Swarm, Gwennet'." Gwen made a sour face and wiped her tear-streaked cheeks.
"Now dearie, you don't have to go and tell them you're from there," said Raster, waving in the direction of their home, even as they started making their way toward it.
They were crossing a street several blocks away when a guardsman of the watch walked up to them, swinging his baton by its thong. "You two, what're you up to at this hour?" he asked, his expression already accusing, convicting, and sentencing them.
Without the slightest pause or hesitancy, Gwennet turned to him, her voice slurred and her eyes unfocused. "Well, constable, I've just had a good fucking from my good man here, and we're going to go home and he's going to fuck me a bit more." She grabbed Raster's groin. "He's hung like a damn mule, and I can't get enough of his great, whopping cock."
The guard chuckled. "I see," he said, looking at the two of them. "Be careful, miss, else someone else may take a liking to you."
She turned up her lips in a brilliant smile. "Like I'd be bothered by that, either, especially a big, stud of a man in uniform," she slurred. Then to be sure he would not try to take her up on that offer she burped and covered her mouth. She turned away and fell into the corner of a nearby house, heaving her shoulders and making extremely disgusting sounds.
The guard patted Raster's shoulder, "Hope she don't hurl on you in bed, friend," said the guard, chuckling, and then moving on down the street.
"Good work, lass," said Raster when the guard had turned a corner a ways off.
Gwen stood from the corner and smiled at him. "See? I am a good thief."
They started toward their home again. "That crotch grab was a good touch," said Raster. "Surprised even me with that."
She giggled at him. "You getting stiff surprised me, old man, I thought you said your days of that were past."
He shrugged. "If someone plays with my piece like that, it's liable to rise up to see what's about, you know? And don't get no ideas, you're still a skinny little waif."
"I know," said Gwen, "I can't even interest an old pervert." Her face turned down toward the drizzle-slicked cobbles.
Raster sighed. "Gwen, that's not what I meant. Had I not raised you, I'd probably be laying my stick to you right now, if you'd have me." His surprisingly honest eyes turned to her. "It'd be like pounding my own daughter."
She giggled, and then turned a sidelong glance at him. "I know a few girls who've bedded their own dads. Or, at least, their own dads bedded them."
Raster grunted. "Yeah, and those men deserve a dagger between their ribs if it gets found out." He took her hand and kissed her knuckles. "I'll never touch you like that, I'll cut the damn thing off first. You're too precious to me as a daughter to be my woman."
The smile she gave him made his heart swell with pride. When she smiled like that, all teeth and generous lips, she was lovely, and it honored him to have raised a woman who could make her face so lovely with a simple smile.
They were entering the Swarm now, and both began watching warily about them. Interestingly, those who have the least to steal are often the first picked off in the Swarm, like Raster and Gwen.
However, Raster had enough local reputation that most folk left him be, and by association, Gwennet.
They were passing the House of the Blue Door, a brothel. One of the girls who worked there hung her head out and called to Gwennet. "Gwen, when are you going to come work here, dearie? I've made two marks tonight, already."
Raster turned to the whore and said, "And how many men have shoved their pricks into you for those two big marks?"
The whore, a girl named Amerisa, grinned at him. "Only seven, unless you're wanting to pay for a ride?"
Gwennet bowed up, which was singularly unimpressive given her rather minuscule bustline, and said, "If he wants a piece of tail. I'll give him my virgin hole before I let him pay some whore a plug tenthmark for a tumble. He has to but ask me."
Amerisa laughed at her. "And do you wonder why he's not taken you to bed yet?" she said. "All these years with you right there in the same little shack, and he's yet to poke you even once?"
The younger woman clenched her fists, making her knuckles glow in the flickering lamplight of the street.
The whore was having fun now. "You're so damn ugly, even though you'd give him a tight, unused cunt to poke, he'd rather pay me a quarter mark to let me mouth him." She flipped her long brown hair teasingly. "Ask him, he knows." Amerisa turned and went back into the brothel.
Gwennet was crying again. "Is that true?" she asked through her tears. "You've paid her, knowing you could have me?"
"Dammit, Gwen, I've explained that, just five minutes ago," said Raster. "I only don't touch you because it's not natural to want your own daughter."
Her eyes grew cold. "Probably helps a bit that I'm uglier than a homemade bar of soap."
Raster had this fight with her before. "What, you want me to fuck you?" he asked. "Right, then, hike your skirt and grab your ankles."
Gwennet grinned broadly and turned her backside toward him, beginning to lift her skirt.
"Stop that dammit," he said, "I can't even scare you anymore." He grabbed her elbow and dragged her, still giggling at him, down the street, mumbling as he went.
Gwennet was alone in the little house come morning. He had probably gone off to fence his loot from last night, a couple of silver candleholders and three balanced throwing blades.
She looked through the pantry and found only a half a loaf of bread and a wheel of cheese so moldy she had to cut almost a third of it away to eat it. Washing that down with cheap wine, as if anyone with half a brain would drink water in the Swarm, she got ready to face the day.
Today would be low tide, and she might be able to find some salvage in the mud flats of the bay. She would have to compete with other scroungers, but she might get lucky today and find something worth a half mark. Usually, eight hours of slogging in the mud only netted one mud, but she was pretty lucky so far.
She grabbed her long-tined rake and headed to the flats. No sooner had she begun to scrape on the surface, and a few inches down, when a young man approached her. He was Tomasio, one of the boys from the Swarm.
"Well, Gwennet, fancy finding you here," said Tomasio, grinning.
Gwen turned a hard eye to him. "Come, now, Tomasio, does this look at all like a place to try to romance a girl? Even as fancy as you talk and all, I really just can't get into the mood."
Tomasio shrugged. "I just have to follow my heart."
The young woman leaned upon her rake, resting a moment. She looked at her bare legs below where she had tied her skirt at her thigh, and at the mud, which covered her to her knees. Her shoes were tied about her neck. One did not leave anything sitting about in the Swarm that they expected to see again. The mud was cold and squished between her toes. "More likely, following your hard on."
The youth, he really was quite handsome, grew somewhat perturbed-looking. "You shouldn't be so picky, girl. It's likely to be the last offer you get from a man with all his teeth or even fingers."
Several other nearby muckrakers looked at them, some of the lads smiling at the little drama. Gwennet grinned at him. "Any man I would have only has to have his tongue, not his teeth, and needs but one finger to take care of my needs. I've spoken to other girls regarding your finger there, little man, and unless they're lying grossly, either tongue or finger would please me more."
Tomasio's eyes grew wide and he bowed up, standing straight. One of his large hands curled into an equally large fist. "You smart-ass little cunt," he said, his teeth gritting. "I should teach you some damn manners."
Gwen had pushed too hard, and knew it now. Tomasio was popular with the other lads; they would never sell him out, even if he killed her.
Before she could think more of it she was blinking at a lamp hanging over her, swaying hypnotically. A hollow wooden creak sounded from somewhere. She was on a ship, and her jaw and cheek hurt mightily. She raised her hand to her cheek and touched it, then pulled her hand away from the pain, wincing, which also hurt it further.
"Be careful of that, young woman, it is terribly bruised, as is most of you." Come to think of it, she did note that she hurt all over, with her jaw just being the worst of it. Tomasio had worked her over good. To top it off, he had stripped her, apparently, for she felt no clothes on her.
She gingerly lifted her head from the pillow upon which it rested and looked down. She was covered at least, by a white sheet, very white.
Sun poured in through a largish window on one side of the little room and struck the sheet, causing it to gleam. Now that she was looking about, she looked toward where the voice had come, still trying to place the crisply accented Ghantian.
The man's face that regarded her was beautiful. His sharp features were slender and slightly sloped, even his great silver eyes, and then she flicked her gaze to his long, slender, pointed ears. "You, you're an elf," she stammered.
The young man looked down at himself then back toward her with his eyes wide and a broad smile. "So I am. I am grateful that my heritage is cleared up."
She giggled, a function that hurt somewhat, but still was fun to do. "Sorry, I suppose you do know."
The young elf stood up and said. "I am called Gevathen. I am the ship's healer for the Golden Hawk." One foot moved forward and he lowered his upper body gracefully to rest against the outstretched thigh, his hands crossed over his chest.
She looked about herself. "I thought I was aboard a ship. My name is Gwennet."
"A lovely name." Gevathen smiled at her. Her heart throbbed in her chest at his lovely smile, and it forced her to smile in return. Gwen felt her cheeks burning red with the kindly spoken words.
Her face flickered through emotion, and then settled upon concern. "How did I get here?"
"Whoever left you in the mud for dead did not realize you were still going to float from those sacks of air under your arms you had." He lifted the pair of leather sacks that she had meant to fill with goods when she had found them. "A poorly planned murder, if you ask me."
She smiled weakly. "I'm glad of that."
"As am I," he said firmly. "I have never met a human in person before, you are the first I have spoken to." He stroked his silver-white hair, bound in a ponytail. The movement reminded her of Raster.
"One save me," she gasped, trying to sit up. "I have to be getting home, Raster will wonder about me. I've been gone since just after dawn."
The elf moved like quicksilver, pushing her down into the mattress beneath her with a gentle hand. "I do not believe you know the extent of what befell you."
Gwen turned her gray eyes to him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," replied the elven healer, "you have been unconscious for five days, we feared you would die of swelling of the mind."
She touched her head. Several large lumps greeted her fingers. "Still, he'll be worried, I must go home, at the soonest. Not that I'm not grateful for your help."
Gevathen's eyes glittered in the waning light. "Again, I fear you do not know the extent of your situation. I brought you aboard against the wishes of the captain, and he bade me that he would keep his schedule despite you." He shrugged. "We are no longer in the Bay of Vilders."
"No longer in the bay?" asked Gwen. "Then where are we?"
Gevathen smiled at her. "I am no navigator, but I would guess somewhere between Costa Roja and the Crystern Chain."
The young woman blinked a moment, trying to wrap her mind about his words. "Crystern Chain? Isn't that a death trap?"
The elf smirked. "For others, perhaps, but we are aboard one of the finest ships on the seas, and everyone knows to fear trimarans for a reason. We move to resupply one of the Starre Island ships, which has become damaged, with some needed smithed components." He moved to a cabinet and dug out a large clay jar. "Of all their good qualities, our cousins, the Starre Islanders are horrible smiths." He sat the jar on a little table next to her bed. "I need to ointment your bruises, you nearly lost some patches of skin to the damage, and they still need help."
Her fingers gripped the edge of the sheet to her chest. "What?" said Gwennet. "Pull down my sheet? But I'm naked under here."
A look of amusement came to the elf's beautiful, slim features. "Milady Gwennet, I have been tending you for five days. I had my fill of fondling you two days ago, sorry you missed the fun."
She grinned at this quick-tongued elf. "I guess you would have, being as there is little of me to fondle." She released the sheet and let him pull it down to her calves. She lifted her own head and looked down. There were ugly purple and blue bruises over most of her body. "What the hell did he do, charge admission to kick me once I was down?"
"Seems a good guess, in my opinion," said Gevathen, eyeing the bruises. He began lathing large globs of some blue-green ointment onto the larger bruises, and rubbing it in with fingers that were quick, nimble, and gentle. Even when he rubbed over one breast, it felt less erotic than businesslike. "Apparently, you were laying on your back and that is mostly unhurt. I propose that the gentleman who struck you knocked you out completely, then he proceeded to kick you, thinking you were feigning unconsciousness."
"Sounds like Tomasio," murmured Gwennet. "That bastard."
The young elf moved to the door. "I will return with some broth for you in a moment."
When he did return, he was carrying a bowl of some warm broth, which made her stomach rumble, so subtly spiced as it was. He then produced a bottle and pulled the cork out. "I managed to sneak you a bit of wine, but only one half cup."
After the warm broth and the wine, she was groggy and soon nearing sleep. Her eyes closed, she lay and listened to the gulls outside her window. She heard two elven voices speaking outside the door to her tiny room, the healer and another, sterner voice, but equally beautiful. It was almost as if she were hearing each sing a line of a song, back and forth. A few moments later the healer came back into the room. "That amount of Oil of Forgetful Slumber should keep you resting, my lovely human, until we are well away from Starre Island." She wished to open her eyes to show him that the potion had not worked, but she could not, it worked enough to keep her still, at the least.
Soon after, she slept. When the sun came up again, she heard Gevathen enter her room; she still could not open her eyes. "Still resting? Good," he said, "I really did not wish to do this, but the captain insists." He sighed deeply. "I hope you do not remember what I had to do, I would be heartbroken if you were to be wroth with me." He pulled down her sheet again and she screamed inside for him to stop. But once again, he simply treated her bruises with the ointment, neither lingering too long in any one place, nor moving to anywhere a bruise did not lead him.
With another sigh, he lifted the sheet. "How I long to touch your body with hands other than those of a healer," he murmured. He then lifted her head and gave her a sip of more wine; she felt it numb her throat, but not badly. She was becoming resistant to this particular potion, it seemed. As he walked to the door he said, "But not until you have given me leave."
The door clicked shut and she turned her head, spitting out the wine. She was able to move now. She wondered if, perhaps, the elves were mistaken about the efficacy of the Oil of Forgetful Slumber. In pain, she lifted her body from the bed and sat up. How long had she been asleep earlier? The bruises seemed noticeably less terrible, and she was able to touch them with only mild pain.
She found her clothes, mended, and cleaned, in the cabinet, next to the clay jar. After she donned them, she moved to the door and turned the brass handle. The door opened a crack and she peered out. The corridor before her was long and narrow; her door was about midway down the passage's length. No one moved in the corridor.
Gwennet moved into the hallway and turned left, proceeding down it as quietly as she could. Elves were said to have keener hearing than humans possessed.
A staircase sat to her right, moving upward and downward. Taking the stairs up two at a time, she came to a door. Opening it, she looked out over a flat deck that was long and broad. Standing not five paces from her was an elf, but not like Gevathen. This elf was tall, taller, by far than her, and built as broadly as a man. He had dark skin, the color of dark beer. His long, black hair reached midway down his back, and he had tattoos down one arm and leg, a pattern that repeated and reminded her of a sea serpant. He was speaking with another elf, one of the types she knew, fair skinned with blonde hair.
The taller elf had his back mostly to her, but she could see enough of his face to see large, sloped, silver eyes. She decided that he must be a Starre Island Elf. She almost gasped with the realization. No one she knew ever claimed to have even seen a Starre Island Elf, personally.
The ship was standing still she realized, and looked over the two elves toward the nose of the ship. A small town lay there, looking almost like a single large, sprawling building with many courtyards. Over her head, great sails lay furled, mounted to masts reaching two hundreds of feet into the sky. She peered through the crack up at them and shook her head in awe. She had seen the elven vessels out in the bay, but never up close, they could not dock in Vilders' shallow port. She had not imagined how great they truly were.
Somewhere on the ship, a horn blew, and Gwennet feared she was discovered. However, the elves on the ship began to run about the deck, including the dark-skinned one, who ran for the right side, heading toward where another, similar ship lay moored. Within a minute the ship was moving again, using her clever sails to back up out of the slip they were parked in. She moved from her position behind the door to a large stack of barrels and crates lashed to the deck nearby. She hoped no one had seen her in the furor of activity on the ship.
Elven voices called out from about the deck and in the rigging. She had not thought of the keen-eyed elves in the rigging, but she seemed to have not been noticed. Crawling under a flap of oilcloth, she hid as best she could.
The crew seemed highly agitated, and she soon saw why. As the ship slowly came about, she saw a looming, dark shape. She had heard sailors talk of the vessel looming at the mouth of the elven bay. A warbarge of the Black Theocracy. As vast as the elven ship was, the barge would be larger, she was sure, she heard the smallest of them were four hundreds of feet long. Turning about, she saw the other ship still moored.
Gwennet hoped that they would try to escape the barge, but it seemed quite the opposite, they were moving to engage the heretic's vessel.