|The Tale of the Ship-Captain
Author: Guede Mazaka
José Mourinho, as his confessor had once delicately put it, tended to inspire strong feelings. In appearance he was rather short even for the Portuguese, but well-formed with rounded shoulders that could effortlessly bear burdens of Biblical weight. Women said he was very goodly to look upon, and men that the Devil could be very fair in the face. He worked tirelessly, contributed generously to the church of his father and his father’s father, and lived well below his means. When he was on land, that was—he spared no expenses on his ships, but he was intelligent about it and so never lacked for men wanting to sign on under him, nor men willing to defend him in the dives and taverns that festered about the docks. And yet there was a sense of some wrongness, like a whisper of heat in the otherwise sound leg of a good horse, that prevented him from finding as much favor as his talents demanded.
“He’s the best shipmaster working the Mediterranean. He’s never lost a cargo,” Deco said through his teeth. His head already ached, which frankly irritated more than it pained him. Years in Venice and he still couldn’t tolerate their grandiose style of bickering.
“He’s a ravening wolf who charges like he’s the goddamn Pope himself, except I don’t think he can guarantee protection for my profits, let alone for my eternal soul. If you want any more of my business you’re going to have to readjust your pricing.” For the fourth time of the day, an angry merchant threw his goblet at the wall. “Gouging Portuguese cunts.”
Deco closed his eyes, then grimaced as he heard the silver crumpling and the wine trickling down the stucco. That did round off the set so he could just send the lot of it in to be remelted and reworked, but he really would rather not have had that extra chore in the first place. “May I remind you that there still are difficulties with Barbary corsairs? And your Doge has only recently patched up things with the Turks so carrying a Venetian cargo still—”
“I won’t pay it. I won’t. Alessandro!” snarled the elder Del Piero.
His son looked up, blinking, from the sheaf of water-stained accounts he held, then scrambled out of his chair as his father swept out the door. He belatedly made to follow, but had to pause again at the threshold as Paulo attempted to slip inside without attracting notice. Instead Paulo’s foot skidded a little in the spilled wine and he barely caught himself against a side-table, wide eyes already begging an apology from Deco and ass hitched up into Alessandro’s contemplative gaze.
Thankfully Del Piero had a little more grace than his father and simply shrugged a shoulder as he looked up at Deco. “The banker’s coming over to dinner tonight, so put us down to see you again tomorrow morning.”
“José should be in by then and can discuss things personally with your father,” Deco sighed. As the other man left, he sat back and picked up his pen to record the outcome of the meeting in the ledgerbook. But the ink ran too quickly out of the tip and made a blot of the first letter, and so he just tossed the damn quill into the wall. All day everyone but him had been throwing things there, so…
Paulo coughed, and when Deco looked up the other man was standing there with the dented goblet and the quill pen in one hand, and a wine-stained rag in the other. Something was making him nervy, his eyes shifting around the room and his hips hitching from side to side. “Is that it for the day?”
“Did Carvalho knife somebody again?” After a moment’s contemplation, Deco resignedly pushed himself up and reached across the desk to take back his pen. He flicked out his penknife and resharpened the tip, then resumed making his notes. There was no point in storming out when all that would do was surround him with more snooty Venetians, so he might as well close up the office properly.
“No. It’s…” But instead of continuing, Paulo went back to the front door. He turned the sign and tidied up the stoop as if it was any other day, and then he mopped up the spilled wine. After dumping the dirty water he’d used for that out the window, he picked up the goblet again and went around the desk to drop it in the crate with the rest.
By then Deco had finished his writing and was halfway through tying together the ledgers he’d need to take to José. He locked up the rest of the papers in the desk, then dropped the string of keys around his neck and tucked it into his shirt. Then he reached out for the second strap he’d need to bind the rest of the books together, only to realize it indeed was that sort of day and he’d just locked it in the desk. He closed his eyes, said a little prayer to the Virgin Mary, and then went through the long process of unlocking the desk and relocking it.
“Carvalho’s waiting over at the Leya with everyone else,” Paulo finally said.
Deco paused in the act of stacking the books. Then he rolled his eyes and pulled the strap around them, then slid its tongue through the buckle and pulled it tight about the ledgers. “José got in early.”
“Actually, he’s been around for three days.” Paulo suddenly raised his voice and spoke a good deal faster. He also made an attempt at one of the book piles, but awkwardly stood off when Deco managed to sweep them into a satchel ahead of him. “But he didn’t want to see anyone till today, and Ricardo didn’t even find out till this morning. Something about getting unrelated business done before he presents this big proposition to us. So anyway, I stopped by on the way and let Maniche know, and now I’m telling you that Mourinho wants—”
“I’m coming,” Deco snarled. He yanked the satchel strap onto his shoulder, then spun around and stared about the room. After a few seconds, he remembered he usually did that in order to do one last check, which he impulsively decided to skip today. If he’d missed something, Maniche would catch it in the morning. “Where did he make port? Chioggia?”
It was a few moments before he realized Paulo wasn’t within earshot. Deco stopped in the hallway, then turned slowly in place. A little bit of light was still coming from the front office, but as he watched it blinked out: Paulo extinguishing the candles, per José’s orders for keeping expenses down. Del Piero could rant all he wanted about the surcharges but the simple fact was that doing business out of Venice wasn’t a moneymaking venture right now. Only two years ago Venice had been excommunicate and her reputation was still recovering in Italy, and on the seas she had the Barbary corsairs, newly encouraged by rumors of another upset in the Egyptian court, with which to contend.
Penny-pinching Italians, Deco sourly thought. And with the extra taxes Venice levied on foreigners on top of all the rest, Del Piero should have been buying masses for their souls because José preferred to cut his own profit margin and keep his long-term business instead of going for the short-term fortune. It did make sense, even if he hadn’t sat down and fully talked it out with Deco before sailing off to leave Deco to work out the implementation.
“Sorry, did you say something?” Paulo came trotting up to Deco’s side, still looking anxious. “I didn’t hear it.”
Deco pulled the bag strap higher up on his shoulder, then pulled at his collar as the key-string tangled with his rosary. Then he gave himself a shake and started off again. “Where has he been? I’ve had somebody on the piers since we got the last message.”
“Chioggia. Ricardo said Mourinho sent a message from there but just docked here,” Paulo replied. He pulled at his doublet and ran a hand through his hair, which did little to sift out all the sawdust that sparkled in it once they’d stepped out into the evening light. Likely he’d still been arranging repairs for Ricardo’s ship when he’d heard. “He said Mourinho was excited about something.”
“Do I need to find a lawyer?” Three days in that marshy, malarial town with the stench of rotting fish in everything—for a normal person just returning to the civilized comforts of Venice would be cause enough for excitement, but then, a normal person probably had made enough stupid errors to deserve ending up in Chioggia in the first place. So what José was doing there for so long was an interesting question. It’d be even more interesting if it’d been planned and not an act of contingency.
Paulo risked a faintly scolding glance at Deco. “I don’t think he’d be excited if he got somebody mad.”
“He would if they were royalty. Or Bartholomeu Dias,” Deco muttered. Then he looked over and caught Paulo swallowing nervously, and swallowed a couple things himself. “Oh, never mind. Where’s the Leya?”
* * *
As Paulo had said, Ricardo was already on José’s flagship and busy excoriating the crew in José’s place as they hurried to unload the cargo. It wasn’t unusual for José to leave that to a subordinate and go on into town to deal with the customs officials, but Deco did think it was odd that said subordinate wasn’t Nuno Valente, seeing as he was acting second-in-command for the Leya. Ricardo had his own ship to see to; he’d beaten his way back from Dalmatia through multiple storms and it’d be a good week, with round-the-clock effort and scrupulous management, before he could go to sea again.
He nodded to Deco, but pulled Paulo aside to discuss something with him. Deco lingered long enough to determine that it was about hull repairs before he went on to the captain’s cabin.
There he found Nuno Valente at the map-table, with some very expensive—in more than monetary terms—maps strewn about his feet and more fluttering through his hands as he frantically searched them. The edge of one slashed his finger and he swore and stuck it into his mouth. He glanced up, then straightened. “Oh, thank God. He’s gone crazy,” Nuno muttered around his finger.
“How crazy?” The books had long since turned into lead weights hanging from Deco’s shoulder and he was glad of the chance to get the bag off his shoulder. After he’d hung it on an open peg, he took out one stack and set it on the corner of the table. Then he reached out to begin tidying up, only to have his hand knocked away. “What?”
“It’s India again.” Nuno pulled his finger out with a popping sound that made Deco flinch; the other man grinned at him, amusement briefly surfacing. Then he wrapped the digit in a rag and with his other hand began pulling off maps by the handful. “He thinks he’s got an argument that will knock Dias right out of the water.”
Deco looked at the ledgerbook in his hands. Then he opened his fingers and let it drop. The book landed on the edge of a couple maps Nuno had been trying to lift and nearly made them rip, but Deco ignored the other man’s cursing and merely bent over to pick up a map from the floor. He started to fold it, but an old bloodstain made one of the creases stiff and forced him to run a thumbnail across it before it’d bend.
“He hasn’t said it in so many words, but why else would he want to go back to Lisbon? After the way they ran him out last time?” Head cocked, Nuno gave Deco a questioning glance over the maps he was shaking out.
He’d been with José long enough to know the answer to that, so Deco didn’t bother giving a confirmation. Instead he tossed the map at Nuno and then stalked back to his hanging satchel. After pulling out the other stack of books, he left it on the table and went back onto the deck.
He was just in time, since a flurry of movement at the dock-side railing announced José’s arrival. Ricardo and Paulo both went over to see, but Deco remained where he was. He looked at the sky, absently noted the gathering clouds on the horizon, and once again wondered why his mother couldn’t have calmed her body for another few hours. Then he would’ve been born on land and likely would’ve been able to settle down with a nice farm, a boringly regular life.
“He’s huge,” said somebody.
Deco closed his eyes and rubbed at the side of his face, then shrugged. His mother hadn’t and so he was here, by God’s grace, and since he was he’d better get to José before the other man locked himself off with compass and maps and astrolabe. He went over to the rail.
José was just seeing a trio of men off—shooing them away, actually, with one foot impatiently on the gangplank. One of them, Materazzi, Deco recognized: he was the leader of a local band of strongarm thugs who hired out to whoever could pay off their bar debts. Normally he’d have been the target of any commenting about height, but the man standing beside him was even taller. If he even was a man yet—Deco squinted to try and make out any dusting of hair on the giant’s chin or cheeks, only to be jostled out of view. He reflexively threw an elbow and was rewarded with Paulo’s muttered apology, but by then the strangers were gone and José was halfway up the gangplank.
When he reached the top, Deco was waiting there, and for that he received a curt nod and a “I want to see everyone in my cabin now” from José. Then, since of course that only applied to the officers, José raised his voice and with a few barks sent the men running back to their duties. He glared at Ricardo, who spread his hands in a feeble gesture of appeasement, and continued on towards the cabins without a perceptible break in stride.
Deco pulled aside a crewmember and from him found out that the very tall boy had come on at Cairo as a passenger along with the third man, whom Deco hadn’t found remarkable enough to mark except that he wasn’t Italian or Portuguese, and Figo, who’d died on board from wounds taken in a dockside brawl. Hence the delay at Chioggia: he’d wanted to be buried on land and José for some reason had obliged him.
Figo dead. The thought gave Deco a moment’s pause, for he’d respected the man’s business acumen if not his attitude, and he certainly hadn’t expected that news. The last time he’d gone on a trip to Egypt, it had seemed like Figo was well-ensconced with the Mameluke lords and could survive any number of—he grabbed another passing crewmember and was questioning him on the particulars of the brawl when Nuno Valente tapped his shoulder.
“I’m coming,” Deco said curtly, before Nuno had a chance. He let the crewman go and followed Nuno into José’s cabin.
Ricardo and Paulo had already joined José at the map-table, and Maniche had sneaked in from somewhere to help José in shoving the table free of the ledgers and the maps Nuno hadn’t gotten rolled up and put away. José looked up when Deco entered and a flash of irritation passed over his face, but then somebody coughed at Deco’s elbow and José transferred his glower to Tiago, just now stumbling down the steps. Deco took the opportunity to slip to the side, behind Nuno and Ricardo but still positioned where he could see what José’s hands were doing.
“Close the door,” José abruptly said. He glanced up at the same time and his gaze went around the room like the searing heat of a red-hot coal waved near the face. So he was excited, really and truly.
It was a moment before Nuno stepped back and knocked the door shut with his heel. Then he squeezed his way back among them, waiting for José’s explanation. Space was tight on a ship anyway, and when José had refitted this one he’d cut the captain’s cabin in half to increase the storage space for trade goods. So now they were crammed almost shoulder to shoulder in the airless, damp space, with only the lantern José had hung above the table for light.
From somewhere in José’s coat he pulled a small bundle, about three hands’ widths tall and two wide, that was bound tightly in rags. He put it down on the table, then carefully picked the knots free instead of cutting them. Deco rolled his eyes at the showiness of the movements and slipped a hand back till he’d found the wall. He eased up to it, then leaned on his hip against it to take some of the weight off his feet, which were beginning to ache.
The strings undone, José pulled away the rags as gently he would have the swaddling from a babe. He didn’t look up once, though they were beginning to cough and shuffle his feet, till his treasure was finally revealed: a book.
“It’s a rutter,” he said sharply, as if he’d heard the thought that had passed through all their minds. Then he lifted his head as his hand tipped open the cover, then flipped rapidly through the pages. They made a strange crackling sound, like dry leaves underfoot, and when Deco craned his head he saw that they were vellum, not paper. Then the sound stopped, and so suddenly that José was the only one who didn’t jump, though his brows did twitch slightly. “It was written by a man who some two thousand years ago, before the time of our Savior Jesus Christ, sailed west to India.”
Nuno stirred. “Around Africa?”
“Well, the pyramids say the ancients could perform some amazing feats, but I don’t think that sailing overland was one of them.” The glint in José’s eyes contradicted the bite in his tone. He glanced at them, then looked back at the rutter. With exquisite delicacy, he unfolded a large sheet that had been bound into its middle, then smoothed it till they all could see the map that had been drawn on it. The top part of it depicted the Mediterranean coast, which they all knew well, but the rest of it…well, it was crude and some of the lines had been done by a very shaky hand, but if it was real, they were looking at an endless goldmine.
“And he didn’t get sucked into the great whirlpool at the end of the world?” Ricardo asked.
José looked at him with half-shut, contemptuous eyes. “He’s a remarkably clear writer, if he was making his notes from the bottom of the sea.” Ricardo ducked his head, embarrassed, but José was already moving on, pulling out the newest map of Africa João II’s cartographers had issues. He traced a finger along part of the Barbary coast, then did the same to the corresponding place on the rutter’s map. “Look at this. As far as I can compare, the older map fits exactly to the latest discoveries. And the rutter itself has usable notations on constellations and the movements of the planets, and coastline landmarks. It runs from the Straits of Gibraltar to India and back.”
“So you think it’s genuine,” Deco said.
The other man glanced at him, the little furrow between his brows that meant Deco had interrupted too soon. But José was nothing if not adept at improvising and to the rest he simply nodded; likely they hadn’t even noticed the glance. “Not only do I think it’s genuine, but I’m willing to risk my reputation on it. I’m shutting up everything and taking this to Lisbon, to the king and his Junta of Mathematicians. You’re free to join me and free to stay behind—in thanks for all the excellent service you’ve provided me with, I’ll be offering you first refusal on my business—”
“I refuse! If you think it’s real then that’s good—” Paulo said, eyes shining.
And that was the start. By then the darkness, the lack of air to feed the mind, and José’s own expert theatrics had worked their nerves to the state of fanaticism. It was something Deco had seen more times than he could count, and for that matter something they’d all seen performed on others, and yet every time they fell for it. Clamoring, reaching from the dark into the circle of light around him, their outstretched hands just begging to be taken up so they could follow in his wake, clinging to his back.
José didn’t smile, but there was a distinct slackening in his shoulders at the reception. He quickly bundled the rutter away and began issuing orders, and so it wasn’t long before he and Deco were alone in the cabin, staring at each other. Though it wasn’t quiet: thumping feet and other things were setting up quite a cacophony overhead.
Deco finally moved, pushing himself off the wall. “I just had four merchants including the Del Pieros in to talk about the next trip to Alexandria. Del Piero’s supposed to come back tomorrow and I told his son you’d be in to see him.”
“I will be. I’ll need the office anyway to deal with the customs on this last lot, and the bankers. You I’ll need here to look at this more closely and start preparing the reports for the Junta,” José said. He pushed the rutter at Deco without looking up, his free hand already pushing at the ledgers, flipping them open.
For a few seconds Deco looked at the little lumpy package, at José’s scarred tanned knuckles wrapped around it. Then he took it and stuck it under his arm. As he went out he pressed the heel of his hand to his temple, but his headache only seemed to grow in intensity.
* * *
The moon that night was only a shade away from being full and shone far too brightly for Deco’s aching eyes, already strained by hours of squinting at the cramped script of the rutter and trying to make sense of its degraded Latin. It had to be a translation, possibly through multiple languages from the original, and the scribe hadn’t been the best at that task. At least the ink was still readably dark.
Someone coughed, and Deco looked over to see a shadowy lump uncoil itself from a pile of rope. A moment later a red-eyed Nuno was heaving himself to his feet, one hand absently pushing the tangled hair out of his face. “Ah, Mourinho back?”
“No, I’m just trying to breathe. The scrivener’s cabin stinks of anise and pepper,” Deco muttered. He sniffled a little, then wiped his nose with the back of his hand, grimacing as that made the joints of his fingers throb with soreness. His back and legs weren’t too much better.
Nuno made his own face. “Sorry. I’ll get somebody to swab it out tomorrow. I got used to it and forgot about that.”
A knuckle slipped into Deco’s mouth and he tasted something gritty and bitter. He immediately pulled his hand away and spat over the rail. Then he looked at his hand and saw that it was covered in inky smears—he touched his chin, then his nose with the same results. “Fuck.”
“Good thing he isn’t back yet,” Nuno yawned, gazing out at the piers. “He’s be furious we aren’t farther along.”
Deco pulled his sleeve over his hand and scrubbed at his face. He felt at it again, then went over to a barrel of rainwater and wet his sleeve in it. Then he rubbed at his nose and jaw till the skin started to sting with raw heat.
“Why do I do this?” Deco muttered. He stared down at his reflection in the barrel, watching it ripple under his breath. A faint shadow still slashed down from just below his left ear across his throat, and when he twisted his head the shadow moved with him, so it wasn’t the light. He shoved the heel of his hand over the spot and promptly hooked a hangnail into his skin; it tore away before he could stop his hand and he swore, turning on his heel and trying to rub the scratch and suck on his thumb at the same time.
Nuno swung into view, half-hunched forward. He started to say something, but then he jerked up and looked off to the right, and it was Deco’s turn to wear the perplexed expression.
Then he heard it. He looked sharply at Nuno, who pointed at a stack of crates waiting on the deck aft of them. The other man silently gazed about over the ship, nodding his head at the sentries on watch. Deco nodded as well and then Nuno signaled that particular man to move so the crates were flanked. Then Nuno grabbed a marlinspike and cat-footed across to where the rigging was pegged to the rail. The ropes creaked as he sprang up into it—unavoidable, but he climbed so quickly that that didn’t matter too much.
He was almost over the pile when one of the top crates suddenly fell over and a lean form burst out from behind it. It was instantly tackled to the ground by the sentry, and the flurry of flailing limbs and cursing that followed drew the other watchmen towards the commotion, plus began to wake the various crewmembers sleeping on-deck. And, Deco noted from the corner of his eye, on neighboring ships. The one on the right was Carvalho’s, but the one on the left was Venetian, and if Deco had to deal with one more officious Italian—he stalked across and intercepted the sentry’s fist just before it would’ve struck the sneezer’s jaw. “Get him up. Don’t beat him to a pulp before we see his face.”
Behind him Nuno dropped lightly back onto the deck. He padded around a bit before coming up on Deco’s right with a lantern, holding it high so its light fell square on the stowaway.
As much a boy as that giant had been; this one was tall too, but in a more natural mold. Broad shoulders but not much muscle on him yet, very darkly tanned, and behind the trickle of blood coming from his nose an extraordinarily offended look, as if they were the ones trespassing.
“Who are you?” Nuno asked, trying Italian first.
Deco doubted that the boy came from anywhere in Italy, but he held his tongue and waited for an answer. Predictably enough, one didn’t come and the sentry on the boy’s right cuffed him roughly on the head for it. Nuno repeated the question in Spanish—the boy’s eyebrows rapidly rose and fell—and then in Portuguese.
“I wasn’t stealing anything,” the boy finally replied. In Portuguese, and definitely from somewhere in Portugal, but with an accent whose origins Deco couldn’t quite pin down. “I just wanted somewhere to sleep.”
His lie was more transparent than the tissue-thin linen Egypt exported. More to the point, he looked faintly familiar to Deco, but like his accent, the memory refused to be put into place. Frowning, Deco waved for Nuno to hold the lantern a little higher so he could search the boy for any identifying marks.
“What’s going on?” barked José’s voice.
Everyone but Deco turned, and that included the boy who could’ve had a very good chance at pulling free if he hadn’t also been distracted. He clearly knew who Mourinho was: his eyes widened and a sliver of gleaming pink slid over his lip.
“We caught a stowaway, sir,” Nuno said.
José grunted and handed off his satchel to Paulo, who hurried off to the cabins. The boy’s eyes followed Paulo’s back, but returned to José once the other man was standing in front of him. To do that José needed Deco to move a couple inches to the right, and after his elbow had jostled Deco, Deco did move the required distance.
A nod from José had the sentries letting go of the boy and standing off a bit; the first thing the boy did was squeeze his nose between forefinger and thumb, forcing out the last of the blood before he wiped it messily away with his hand. “I’m not a stowaway,” he said lowly. “I was going to see you in the morning.”
“Me?” José arched his eyebrows, signaling more surprise than Deco thought he really felt. “Why would you need to see me? You don’t look like someone who buys goods from the East, or who sends them there.”
“Because you’re José Mourinho, the man who would’ve been leading the African fleet if you’d had better backing at court,” the boy replied. He spoke grandly enough, his eyes moving about to watch for everyone’s reactions, but there was a shallowness to his confidence that made his words ring hollow. He didn’t completely understand what he was saying—more likely repeating rumors, even if he did give them a new verve. “I’m Cristiano. Cristiano Ronaldo, and I’m from—”
“I hope you’re from Lisbon and have diplomatic papers somewhere in those rags, because otherwise I don’t have the time for this nonsense.” None of that had gone past José’s notice, and he didn’t like the way Cristiano was playing to the onlookers either. His eyes narrowed and his lower lip folded up as if he were, solely by the strength of his will, holding back a torrent of sarcasm that was of Biblical proportions.
He jerked his hand at Nuno, then turned and started to walk away as the other man moved forward. Cristiano blinked in shock, then swore and lunged at José. The sentries were slow, so Deco stepped in with his shoulder leading.
The impact was a little more jarring than he’d expected and he let out a hiss, but then Nuno was there and hauling Cristiano back. Though the boy ignored him and yelled at José’s back, “I’m not from Lisbon, and fine, I’m not a diplomat! But I served on a ship that carried a man who says you can go west to get to Asia, and we took him to see the king—”
José’s head went up. Then he pivoted on his heel and came marching back, right up to Cristiano’s face. The boy didn’t flinch, though José put up his hand and pulled Cristiano’s head down rather roughly so their eyes were level. “What was this man’s name? Was he a Genoese?”
“I…Colón. Cristóbal Colón. He sent letters to relatives in Genoa, but I don’t know where he’s from.” It obviously cost Cristiano a good deal to admit to that lack of knowledge. “But he’s not Portuguese, and the king’s still giving him an audience.”
He didn’t know it, but that was a better way of holding José’s attention than trying to build lie upon lie. Picking apart deceptions amused José; the unknown fascinated him.
After another moment, José let go of Cristiano’s hair. He motioned for Nuno to stand back as well, and then he took the boy’s arm, in as friendly a manner as he would a customs officer who needed charming. By the time they reached the trapdoor to the lower decks, their heads were bent together in conversation and José was beginning to make descriptive gestures with his hands.
Something tapped Deco’s elbow, and he and Nuno both turned to see Paulo standing there. Nuno looked further past the other man, then snarled out his exasperation and pushed by them to harangue the crew to go back to work, they weren’t paid to be curious, damn their eyes.
Paulo glanced over his shoulder, then looked back at Deco. “So what was that all about?”
“I’ll tell you later.” Deco shoved Paulo out of the way and walked towards the trapdoor. The breeze brought back to him Paulo’s muttered opinion of that, but when he turned the other man was heading for the gangplank, probably intending to curl up somewhere on Ricardo’s ship and get what rest he could. Lucky bastard.
Long before Deco reached José’s cabin, he heard their voices: Cristiano’s deep tones occasionally cracking with the animation of youth, José’s more gravelly whisper. With all the creaking of rope and groaning of wood, Deco couldn’t quite make out the words, but nevertheless he made the point of pushing open the door, which had been slightly ajar. He waited till José’s irritated gaze went to him and began to turn into comprehension before he pulled the door all the way shut.
Deco stood there with his hand on the loop of rope that served as a handle, nose full of the tarry damp salt-smell of the sea. His feet and back ached but they’d already adjusted to the rocking of the water without him noticing till now, and even the lingering headache was familiar. But the hall was not, and he looked about it for several seconds with a sour taste in his mouth before settling in with his ear pressed against the door. His usual position on land, since José had asked him to take over those operations, but back then it’d only been supposed to be a temporary assignment.
Bastard, he thought again. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose to make the throbbing of his head decrease, and listened harder so he didn’t miss a word.
* * *
Later that night Nuno came by and Deco swallowed a few more choice but pointless words at how unsurprised he seemed by what Deco was doing. Instead he listened to Nuno’s relation of the alterations in the night-watches and then told the other man he could go and have the scrivener’s cabin, since Deco wouldn’t be using it any time soon.
Deco continued to sit and listen till José suddenly cleared his throat very pointedly; when the shuffling footsteps turned into the sound of an opening door, Deco was already down the hall checking the ceilings for places where the caulking between the planks had fallen out.
He heard the door to the other cabin open, and then Nuno’s sleepy voice challenging the intruder. Cristiano answered and Nuno replied in a considerably more hostile tone. For some reason that seemed to surprise Cristiano, and he was still trying to argue with Nuno when Deco stepped into José’s cabin. He shut the door on Nuno’s pointed snore and Cristiano’s exasperated cry.
“I’m keeping him aboard this ship,” José said. He was at the map-table, sitting on a stool with his knees braced against the bottom of the table. In one hand he held his magnetic compass and with the other he was trying to draw an arc with the drafting compass.
Deco considered the other stool hanging on the wall, but instead of taking it down he crossed the room and flopped onto the bunk. The scratching of the drafting compass’ pencil briefly ceased, but was replaced so quickly by the sound of a quill-tip against paper that he doubted José had even looked up. “His story hangs together too well. How did he get here so quickly, if Cristoforo Colombo’s already at court?”
“You like the Italian version of that boaster’s name better?” José exhaled, almost whistling. “Is it possible?”
“It—” The first impulse Deco had was to call this Cristiano a poor liar and a poorer actor, but he knew he’d only sound upset and José would just send him out. Or worse, send him out and then come back the next night having proved or disproved Cristiano’s story himself, and with not a word about the extra effort needed, which Deco could’ve saved him the trouble of doing. “Well, Colombo’s lived in Portugal since he married his wife, but I suppose he keeps in contact with his relations in Genoa. There’s a ship just came in today that stopped there, the Sabina. It’s chartered out of Rome, which is why the Venetians didn’t burn it on sight.”
The quill clinked as José dropped it back into the inkwell. He blew at the lines he’d just written, then pushed that paper out of the way and pulled something heavier towards him. A book, thumping softly against the table as he opened it. “So he could have made it, if he was very lucky and very clever.”
“You think he is?” Deco muttered, turning over. He pressed his face into the blankets, then twisted about till he could tug off his boots without having to get up. After letting those drop, he sprawled back on the bunk. The mattress smelled a little musty and he idly thought that José probably should slit the cover and check the straw stuffing for mold and rot. “I think he’s dead weight and shouldn’t leave Venice. Goddamn brat ever comes in while I’m sleeping and tries to kick me updecks and I’ll toss him over myself.”
A huffing, amused sound came from José’s direction. He probably hadn’t told Cristiano he could bed down in one of the two cabins onboard, but he hadn’t gotten up to correct the boy either, though he had to have heard the arguing. “Did you get a chance to look at the rutter yet?”
Deco lifted his head and squinted at the other man. When he saw José wasn’t even looking at him but instead was intently reading the ledgers, he had to wonder if whether jumping overboard might not be conducive to his own fortunes. But in the end his flesh felt like it’d been stoned with chunks of granite, and so he just put his head back down.
“I’ve had six and a half hours with it, by the church bells.” After a moment, Deco pushed himself up and over to lie facing the wall. He half-closed his eyes. “It looks like we could sail by it, all right? But I don’t know whether it really describes a true route around Africa. You didn’t mention that we’ve got it, did you?”
José got off the stool, his bootheels thudding softly against the worn planks as he moved about. He changed the positions of the lanterns so the shadow Deco threw on the wall disappeared. “Why would I do that?”
Deco mouthed his first reply to the wall as José walked towards the bunk. Then he stuck his hand beneath himself, under his shirt, and tugged till he’d gotten the rutter free from where he’d bound it about his middle. He held it up without turning and José took it, only to force Deco into nearly sitting as he stashed it beneath the mattress. “So what did you tell him?”
“We’re hurrying to Lisbon to defend my honor as a cartographer and a shipmaster to the king. Some of the evidence Cristiano says Colón will be using is exactly the same as I used when I presented my case to be included in the African fleet, only that Genoese idiot is perverting it for his ridiculous theory,” José said. Enough genuine frustration crept into his voice for Deco to conclude that Cristiano’s story, however much of it was actual truth, had been effective enough at pricking José’s pride. No doubt they’d be working on running Colón out of town as much as they’d be pushing their navigational advantages. “Deco?”
To which Deco didn’t immediately answer, and curiously enough, José let him lie there in silence. Nor did the other man go back to his work-table, but instead continued to stand there, close enough for Deco to hear his steady, slow breathing.
Eventually Deco rolled onto his back and looked up at the other man. His hair fell into his eyes and he pushed it away with his hand, then continued raking his fingers back till his arm was over his head. “What?”
“You didn’t put Del Piero’s appointment tomorrow in the book,” José said. As a statement and not an accusation, but in his mouth simple statements could charge more than a bill of inquiry from the local justice.
For a moment, Deco merely stared up at him. He watched the wrinkles in José’s brow deepen to true furrows and the irritation spread from the man’s eyes to the rest of his face. And then he blew out his breath and turned over, closing his eyes. “Because he didn’t say when he was coming. I assume he or his son will be sending a messenger, like he usually does. Maniche was supposed to open the office tomorrow, so—”
“I already spoke to him. I’ll be down there first, since I need him in town buying supplies.” José’s feet treaded their way back to the table. Then came the scraping of the stool against the floor, and the crinkling of turning pages, and it wasn’t long before José was once again preoccupied with business.
Not that he ever wasn’t, Deco thought, and morosely tackled the job of falling asleep.
* * *
“By the grace of God and surely that of the Virgin Mary as well, since she’s the one takes pity on our poor toiling selves,” Nuno pronounced. “We’re leaving in four hours.”
Paulo spared a moment from ticking off items on his list to roll his eyes, but when both Ricardo and Nuno turned to look at him, he was perched on a crate and hunched over the sheets of paper, the very picture of dutiful concentration. Ricardo frowned, which amused Deco since as Paulo’s captain the man should’ve noticed that streak of wry humor by now, then caught Tiago’s attention with a wave and went over to talk to him.
Nuno gazed thoughtfully at that pair, rubbing at the side of his face. “Eh, Paulo, you talk to Maniche yet?”
“About last-minute supplying for three ships at the same time? Well, he buys it and I figure out how to pack it,” Paulo replied. His cluelessness was done well enough for Deco take another look at him. He’d been constantly at sea for a while, and under Carvalho to boot, and the next time they had a moment Deco made a note to see just what that had done to the sweet, shy clerk José had taken on as a favor to Paulo’s father.
“No, about sailing under Tiago. He doesn’t think he’s going with me or Ricardo, does he? There’s no room.” Scratching the back of his neck, Nuno pivoted about till he could look down at Deco. “I kicked that uppity kid out of your cabin, so you don’t have to nap on those crates.”
The ‘kid’ in question was currently hanging off some of the rigging on the Leya’s dockward side. His hand was over his eyes so it was difficult to tell, but he seemed to be watching them. “It’s not my cabin.”
Nuno’s brows went up, but Deco pulled himself into a sitting position before he could start asking questions. He reached out and got Nuno by the elbow, jerked him over a few feet, and then laid back down on his stomach in an effort to stretch his cramped back muscles. “Why are you so worried about Maniche? He knows where he’s going, and what he’s going as.”
In that spot, Nuno conveniently served to block the high morning sun from shining directly in Deco’s eyes. And he realized it after a moment, but he simply grinned and took a half-hearted swipe at Deco’s head before settling into the new position. “Why aren’t you worried? You’re old enough to remember what he used to be like, before he got the fear of Mourinho in him.”
“The important word there being ‘before,’” Deco muttered. A splintery crate edge dug at his thigh, sending needles of wood through the baggy trousers he wore, and he finally gave up on getting a rest and got to his feet. His back twinged but it wasn’t any worse or any better than before, so that wasn’t any great matter. “José cares so much about this that he’ll drop anybody who gets troublesome without thinking twice about it. Tiago’s still a little weepy and Maniche can be a blockhead, but they both know that.”
He wasn’t quite to the gangplank before he thought he heard whispering behind him. Deco waited till he was a couple yards up before he looked over his shoulder, and then he saw Paulo making a note while Nuno was facing the ship, hands cupped around his mouth as he told one of the men on the mainmast exactly what he thought of his work. But near the top of the gangplank Deco looked again, and this time he did catch Nuno and Paulo’s heads bent together, and Nuno’s hand flicking in his direction.
Maybe Nuno didn’t like mentioning it, but Deco was old enough to also remember what he’d been like before José had given him a few kicks in the backside and a ship. One of the hundreds of common seamen haunting the world’s docksides, turning up every morning in hopes that some short-handed, desperate captain would pay them enough to get them out of town ahead of their debts. And anyway, he’d just done a run to Alexandria with José onboard, so he should damn well have a feeling for why Deco wasn’t being terribly pleasant to people right now.
Deco stifled a yawn in his hand, then rubbed at his eyes as he beat down the anger. He still was working like mad on the rutter, and in a matter of hours he’d be stuck out at sea with only Nuno between him and José, so the sensible thing was to not antagonize Nuno.
“Hey.” This time Cristiano spoke loudly enough for a few heads to turn their way. He dropped lightly onto the deck, a coil of hemp rope around his right arm.
“You ever address me again without putting a ‘sir’ on the end of it and I’ll show you what that can do to your back,” Deco finally snapped, nodding to the rope.
He started to go by, but Cristiano side-stepped into his way. The boy was bending his head as if someone had broken his spine and in his current mood, Deco wasn’t inclined to give him credit simply for trying.
“Do you have a moment, sir?” Cristiano asked, tone wooden.
Deco looked around, but everyone on the deck was intent on pretending they weren’t listening in, and he didn’t see anyone with whom he’d have a better reason to have a conversation. He could have gone back down on the pier, but then he’d have to put up with Nuno’s gossiping. Sometimes that was funny, but when he started speculating about their fellow officers he invariably ended up hinting about their sleeping arrangements, and at this point, Deco was nearly ready to just offer to get Paulo drunk if Nuno was that desperate for company.
With a sigh, Deco waved them over to the seaward rail. “What is it?”
“Well…it’s…” Uncertainty clearly didn’t come naturally to Cristiano. He shuffled his feet and pulled at the hair at the back of his head, then curled his fingers around his neck and tugged at that as if trying to put his bones back into place. His eyes flicked up and down and he licked his lips a few times.
“You’re wasting my time,” Deco said.
Cristiano snapped his head up, then seemed to remember that glowering at his superior wasn’t a smart idea. He belatedly tried to smooth his face, but only ended it wrinkling it into something rather like a cathedral’s gargoyles. “You’re Mourinho’s best man. He says he trusts your judgment the most, so I was just wondering—”
“He believes in what you told him enough to go to Lisbon, and to take you along. But if you thought you’d get treated like a king or something like that, well, this is a working ship. You’re lucky enough to be getting free passage.” Another yawn was creeping up on Deco and he held his breath for a few seconds to strangle it in his throat. Then he breathed carefully and shallowly, and when the yawn didn’t suddenly resurge, he inhaled more deeply. “What?”
“I’m not afraid to work,” Cristiano said. His head and shoulders twitched, but he didn’t quite take that aggressive step forward that would’ve given Deco the excuse. “I just wanted to know that everyone understands why we need to get to Lisbon. If the king listens to Colón’s stupid idea and puts money in it, or even calls off the African fleet under Dias—”
“Then we’re going to be pouring another generation’s fortunes into the coffers of Islam for their goods. If those even stay open, since lately there’s been rumors of unrest in Cairo and yes, yes, we know. We live on this sea, after all.” Deco ran his fingers through his hair, then looked up at the boy. “We know. And if you’re really that concerned about us, then stop mentioning Dias around here.”
Cristiano frowned. “Why not? Sir.”
If he was a spy for somebody, Deco finally thought, he was an incredibly stupid one. “You can talk about who’s got the king’s ear in Lisbon but you don’t know about…look, less talk, more work. The faster you get that done the faster we get out to sea. And isn’t that what you’re worried about?”
Before Cristiano could answer, Deco turned on his heel and went back down to José’s cabin. He had it all to himself since José was preoccupied with the bribes that’d let them leave port so soon after their arrival, but that wasn’t really true. The map-lockers built into the walls, the custom compartments in the table for holding quills and inkwells safe from the bucking of the waves, the crude faded branding of the Portuguese royal seal in one of the walls…Deco when he sat down to work didn’t do so alone, or unwatched.
* * *
They had a decent wind out of Venice, but a day later it’d degenerated into a flurry of cross-breezes that fought against the current, which was flowing in the direction that they wished to go. José had sniffed the air, looked at the fluffy piles of white clouds in the sky, and concluded that the conditions would soon pass. But he was impatient and so he ordered the Leya to strike out for deeper waters, where the winds might not be so fickle but where storms and pirates lurked. Ricardo’s ship had had to leave port with some repairs still undone so he was to hug the coast and follow them at his own speed, but Tiago was told to keep his nose glued to the Leya’s stern.
And on the Leya herself, Nuno ran himself ragged trying to coax every useful bit of wind he could into the sails. In theory he and Deco were trading off on the berth in the scrivener’s cabin, but in practice he almost never came down. On his breaks Deco lent a hand where he could, but the art of rigging was one area where he freely acknowledged Nuno’s—and José’s, but José came on-deck about as often as Nuno went below—superiority. He did spell Nuno at the helm a few times so the other man could curl up against the forecastle wall and nap, but it never was long before José or Cristiano came to ask Deco to come down.
Cristiano still mostly had no idea about the meaning of the questions he spoke, but he’d gained a little in José’s estimation since they had left port. He slept on the deck or stuffed into whatever cranny he could find in the hold, but he along with Nuno and Deco was allowed to go into José’s cabin and speak with him. He was a little old, and more than a little tall for it, but José apparently had adopted him for a cabin-boy. It was the first time in his memory that Deco could think of José having use for that, and it didn’t sit well with some of the crew either.
“But he called me a—a—” Cristiano sputtered. He jerked at his arm, and when Nuno wouldn’t let go of that, he reared back. His free hand started to rise.
Both Deco and José started a hand towards their knives: José’s in his belt and Deco’s in his boot. But in the end Cristiano managed to restrain himself and settled for a mere glare at the side of Nuno’s head. When José nodded to Nuno, Cristiano pulled his arm free with a look as if he were an infante in line for the throne.
“Nuno?” José said. There was the faintest trace of annoyance in his tone; he wanted to get back to the detail of the rutter that he and Deco had been discussing when they’d been interrupted.
Nuno lifted his head a little, catching it. He rubbed at his mouth and stepped back to lean against the doorway, then flicked his fingers at Cristiano. “Near as I can tell, they both wanted a turn at the waterbutt. Cristiano cut ahead and Ze pointed out his seniority—in pretty nasty terms, he admits—and Cristiano disagreed with that.”
Cristiano had clapped one hand over his arm, to the spot by which Nuno had dragged him. He lifted his chin. “He called me a cocksucking whore.”
“And you’ve never had that happen to you before, with all your experience. In sailing and that,” Deco drawled.
“It wasn’t—” a breath, and then Cristiano continued a fraction more calmly “—it wasn’t just that he called me a whore, sir. Sirs. It’s that he called me…Captain Mourinho, can I tell you the rest in private?”
José stirred slightly. He glanced at the pencil in his hand, watching it spin over his thumb, and then put it down and looked back at Cristiano. “I don’t know who you served under before but to me a well-run ship is like a clock. You need all the gears to work together or it doesn’t work. You can’t say, well, I’m going to wait for this gear to turn or I don’t know if that one is going to break in a moment. If you do that you’ll never be on time.”
Well, for all the time they’d been spending together that clearly was Cristiano’s first encounter with José’s…poetic side. Nuno had long since let his mind wander and was just waiting for orders, and Deco had heard more variations of that one than he could count, but Cristiano simply stared at José. Long and hard and confused.
“Why can’t you tell me in front of the men I trust to keep my ships running?” José said more pointedly.
“It’s insulting to you.” Cristiano squeezed at his arm. He caught his lower lip between his teeth, then pushed it free with his tongue before licking at it. “I wouldn’t mind if it were just insulting me. I get that all the time, since I’m from Madeira. But…”
For a long, judging moment, José watched him. Then he lifted his hand, and it was Deco’s turn to stare.
He kept staring till something pulled sharply at his arm, nearly sending him off the stool. Even then he stared as José pointed Cristiano to sit down across from him, and in the end Nuno had dragged him out of the room before Deco stopped. He barely came to himself in time to catch and turn away the other man’s wrist.
“What—did you just try to—” Deco abruptly ran short of breath. He coughed, then yanked himself away from the other man and stalked down the hall. “For the sake of our long acquaintance, I’m not going to hit you for that.”
“I think I’d be more reassured if you did,” Nuno said. He only needed a couple long strides to put himself back by Deco’s side, but then he came within a hair’s breadth of knocking his head against a beam.
The time it took him to duck would have let Deco get into the other cabin or updeck, and Deco was more than tempted to pursue one of those routes. But José would want Deco back whenever he was done with Cristiano, and anyway Deco’s pride had taken enough damage. He stayed.
Nuno slapped his hand against the beam and leaned over Deco, a healthy dose of confusion mixed into the exasperation on his face. “What’s wrong with you? What was that about?”
“If that whore in the making doesn’t at least get six hours in the rigging,” Deco started. He stopped himself because he sounded too much like a jealous maid whinging at the village well to her friends.
It seemed like the Virgin had finally decided to extend her hand, since Nuno simply flashed his teeth and nodded. Then he leaned his head against his outstretched arm, his amusement turning sober. “You think it’s because it came right after the…other matter came up? He’s already thinking about Lisbon, and you know what that makes him remember, and then this kid comes along and plays right to it? Because I don’t think he’s that pretty.”
Deco had an answer ready, but had to abandon it to raise an eyebrow.
Nuno rolled his entire head; the whites of his eyes were even brighter than his teeth. Then he brought his chin down and looked at Deco again. “I mean for Mourinho. Of course Cristiano’s getting into fights left and right. We’re only a couple days from Venice and the boys’ pricks are already too dry for them, and well, you know what his ass looks like.”
“I make a point of looking at his face and imagining it when José snaps out of this and tells him where to jump,” Deco muttered. A sudden swell tilted the ship and he seized the rail. Then he exhaled slowly and bent down to rest his head along that.
“Well, we can’t all be paragons of chastity like you. By the way, any time you want to share your secret, I’d be very thankful. God, I didn’t get time to go into Alexandria or Venice—even Ricardo was starting to look good before we left.” Sighing, Nuno gazed into the dim hall with an expression that was a strange cross between frustration and wistfulness. But being a practical man, he shrugged off the problem as something he couldn’t tackle now and thankfully interrupted Deco’s mind before it’d fully fleshed out that statement. “It’d help if Cristiano would give a little, you know? Fine, save his ass for Mourinho—careful, there—but just something. But no, even a hint and he’s jumping like he’s been living in a monastery his whole life.”
Deco steadied himself, then turned around and leaned his back against the rail, hooking his arms over it. He kicked at the floor. “He has been on a ship before. That’s not a total lie.”
“That’s what Mourinho said,” Nuno muttered. As Deco turned, he swayed forward so their eyes met. “Listen, the kid really is a disturbance with the rest of the crew. We’re into corsair territory soon and we’re in a hurry too, so we don’t need that.”
“I know, so why are you telling me?” Then Deco reached out and hit Nuno on the arm. “For the love of Our Savior, you’re the damn first mate. Talking to José about that sort of thing is your duty.”
Nuno cocked his head. “I know, and that was why I wanted to run out and buy thirty masses when he told me you were shipping with us.”
“You just did an entire run to Alexandria with him!” Deco said disbelievingly. “And runs to Dalmatia and Cyprus before that!”
“Because you wanted to work the office for a while!” Nuno replied, eyes wide and hand raised. Then he dropped that hand to the rail and tilted closer, expression utterly serious. “Look, it’s not that I’m getting uppity and I want to have my own ship back. As far as I’m concerned, being first mate under him tops commanding a carrack. But—Deco, I start stammering if I say more than about a sentence to him. Everybody but you does.”
Deco unhooked his left arm and threw up his hand, then pressed it against his face as he sank back. He pushed his fingers down his nose before loudly expelling a breath. “My God. Fine, I’ll talk to him about it.”
“Thank you. I swear on my mother, I’ll owe you…” Wood creaked further back in the passage and Nuno raised his head. He went down a step, then swung himself around the stairs. “Well, I’ll owe you. And…Deco? Why did you want to do the office-work, if you don’t mind me asking? Isn’t it the most boring thing on earth?”
“Yes, but I needed a break,” Deco muttered. He watched a sliver of light suddenly slice over the floor of the hall. It widened quickly till it was about the span of a tackle, then narrowed a little and stopped growing. Voices began to drift towards him. “I was a little sick.”
On land he could arrange the office however he pleased, given that José wasn’t in very often. And his bed was his own, and if it was empty then that was his own damn doing and only his own.
He wasn’t lying to Nuno, he thought as he took a seat on the steps to wait. If the other man ever started watching above the waist, he might even figure it out.
A little later Cristiano came out first, looking deeply unhappy about something but going tamely enough along with José, who locked the door first before pushing them down the hall. He gave Cristiano a nudge towards Nuno, pronounced a sentence of half-rations and no wine for a week and three hours in the rigging, hanging exposed to the elements. The other seaman involved in the quarrel was to get the same, and they were to both thank God they hadn’t been stupid enough to go past fists, since that would’ve meant a flogging.
The weather also promised to be fairly mild, so the worse they’d have was a gnawing belly and some bad cramps in the limbs. All in all, José was being merciful this time.
Nuno took Cristiano back up while José began to turn. Then he paused, frowning.
Deco slowly got up and fell into step next to the other man. “That boy doesn’t know what he’s doing with the others. He doesn’t know the way a ship works, even if he can take in a sail faster than anyone else.”
“So I gathered. Somebody should explain how to act to him,” José said, looking at Deco.
“If he’s your cabin-boy shouldn’t you be teaching him?” Deco snapped.
José didn’t answer. They went back into the cabin and pulled out things from where they’d stuffed them before José had let Nuno in, and then they seated themselves around the table, and through all of that neither of them had spoken a word.
“He’s not my cabin-boy. I’ve been talking to him and trying to gain his trust to figure out who sent him,” José finally said. He measured his tones so he sounded very calm, almost nonchalant. “Because he is a messenger, from somebody. I have old friends with the Madeiran colonists, but it wasn’t them.”
As irritated as Deco was, he could see the sense in that. He could also feel, with an instinct developed by years of watching José through all sorts of situations, that that wasn’t everything, but…well, the possibility of a spy onboard was probably more important than anything else right now. “So?”
“So we’ve talked and either he’s very, very good or he was duped into this and doesn’t know any more than he’s told us. I think probably the second, but it doesn’t matter—talking any more to him won’t do it. So I want to keep him on and make him comfortable, and see what happens.” José looked across the table at Deco. He was slouching so he was slightly lower and thus looking up, and the effect was to create a very strong impression of warring pride and need. “I have to be the captain. I’ve already singled him out enough and I can’t do that anymore if he’s going to become one of the crew.”
Deco carefully searched José’s face. Then he put his hands on the table and interlaced his fingers. He turned them inside out before pushing them away from him to stretch out his arms. He stared at his knuckles, watching them whiten and then regain color as he changed the pressure on them.
“I’ll talk to him later,” he sighed.
“Good.” A nod, and then José was straightening up and moving on to the rutter.
* * *
The water ran down the boards to pool briefly when it came up against Deco’s toes, but quickly found a way around his feet. It continued to run till it spilled down an open hatch a few yards away.
Deco scrubbed at his now soaking hair, then pushed his thumb into the left side of his nose and blew hard to get out the stinging salt. He blinked a few times as he walked over to the rail; he made sure to get his hand wrapped in an anchoring line before he looked over the side. In the same moment the ship heaved unexpectedly and his feet slipped out from under him. The rope bit sharply into his palm, but it just about kept Deco from cracking his chin on the railing.
“It’s been getting worse and worse for a while,” said somebody above him. When he looked up, Cristiano’s wind-burned face topped with salt-stiffened hair hovered over him. The boy pulled at the ropes binding his wrists to the climbing net that stretched upwards towards the mainmast. “Can I come down now, sir?”
It’d been a bit longer than three hours. That didn’t surprise Deco, and in fact he was tempted to just let the hour round out. But he’d more or less given his word to José, and so he gritted his teeth and hopped up into the rigging. Once he’d cut Cristiano loose, he promptly climbed back down and braced himself against the rail again, studying the sky.
“Storm?” Cristiano followed him down at a considerably slower pace, with plentiful grimacing and hesitant rotation of sore joints. The moment he touched the deck he dropped into a sitting position with his back to the side and one knee forcibly hauled up to his chest. His upper lip was curled so Deco could see how hard he was clenching his teeth, but the boy nevertheless relentlessly pushed and kneaded at his leg muscles.
If the weather was fair, hanging in the ropes by itself wasn’t too harsh, but afterward was brutal. Sun scorched the skin, saltwater dried it out and made it feel like badly cured leather, and the stretched-out position combined with the lack of movement guaranteed horrific cramps for the next few days. And if one was disliked by one’s shipmates, a few nasty surprises were also likely, to which the greenish-white and brown smelly streaks in Cristiano’s hair testified. The best thing to do was what Cristiano was doing now, in order to cut the recovery time, but few had the mental strength to bother right after they’d come down.
“It’s not enough to be nice to me and José, you know,” Deco said. He squinted as another large wave crashed over the deck, this one sluicing far enough to raise some swearing among men working at the far side. “Two, three people can’t sail this ship by themselves. And frankly, the ship’s worth more than you ever will be.”
Cristiano gave him a resentful look, but quickly ducked his head when Deco turned to face him. “It’s hard to be nice when people call you—”
“Mother of God, how old are you?” It did look like a storm was brewing, Deco decided. Overhead the only clouds were sparse and like clumps of newly-washed wool, but the horizon had gained a smear of oily dark gray that he didn’t like the looks of. “This is a ship. These are sailors. They work like dogs and get to see a woman maybe three days out of three months, and anyway your mouth and ass would make a lot of girls jealous.”
There was a half-stifled exclamation and a bit of scuffing from Cristiano. Then he breathed in very slowly and deeply, and with a groan he pulled himself up onto his feet by a buntline. “I’m older than I look, and I know what happens out at sea, sir. I just—I’m not the fuck-pig. I’m not going to be that. Sir.”
“Well, you don’t have to be the bitch either. I think between the goat and the sucklings, we’ve got enough animals running around the hold,” Deco muttered. He looked towards the helm, but Nuno wasn’t manning that at the moment. A little more searching finally located him consulting with one of the older sailors on a broken tackle; Deco put two fingers in his mouth and whistled sharply.
Nuno looked up, saw him and held up three fingers while tilting his head questioningly. After another look at the sky, Deco reluctantly nodded and the other man went back to his discussion with a bit more urgency in his hand-gestures.
“They were insulting the captain too, with what they were saying. If they don’t have respect for him, then that’s a bad thing, isn’t it?” Cristiano pressed. He squeezed his wrists while slowly rotating them.
Deco briefly shut his eyes and rubbed at his temples. “If they were saying you’re an idiot for trying to get into his bed, then that’s not an insult except to you, because you are.”
“I’m not—I just admire him!” But even as his passionate defense was putting the sparks into his eyes, Cristiano was giving away his discomfort with the little stiff twitches of his shoulders. “I…on Madeira and along the coasts they still remember him. He’d go out when nobody else would and the supplies he brought saved more than one town. And it didn’t seem like he did it just so people would be grateful to him.”
“No, he did it because some drunken idiot noble’s son told him there was no possible way he could do it,” Deco said under his breath. It didn’t look as if Cristiano had made out the words, and the sour grin Deco put on probably helped with confusing the boy. “Well, that’s nice, but too bad even their gratitude couldn’t keep us in Portugal.”
Cristiano blinked. Then he frowned and started to say something, but the sound of Nuno approaching made him glance away. Some strange kind of urgency drew a frustrated hiss from him; he looked back at Deco, then ducked and began to back away. “I just want to help, sir.”
“So figure out how to help the people who’re already helping. You don’t have to take their pricks up your ass, but stop thinking you’re going to kick them all away and haul José back into the king’s graces yourself. There’s a lot of people who gave up more than you can guess to keep him going out of Venice, and you should respect that,” Deco told him. Then, as Nuno got too close, he sent Cristiano off on a petty errand.
After a moment’s hesitation, Cristiano went. Nuno half-turned to watch the boy go before favoring Deco with a curious look. “Ah, so that all straightened out?”
“Why don’t you stop looking at his ass and start making yourself somebody he can go see when he’s got a problem? That’s your damn job.” Deco would’ve gone on, but he was interrupted by another high wave coming over the rail, and by the time he’d regained his balance on the slippery planks, he’d also remembered the weather. He pulled at his nose, then dropped his hand and looked up at Nuno. “A storm’s coming up right in our path.”
“I know, I’ve been watching it,” Nuno said. He didn’t seem to have taken any offense to Deco’s outburst, though his eyes had darkened a little at first. He shrugged his right shoulder. “But I think it’ll be blowing our way. Tiago just signaled that he wants to try and swing clear of it, or at least not try anything crazy, but I’m thinking Mourinho will say…”
He stopped at Deco’s raised eyebrows. Then Deco pointed behind him and Nuno pivoted on one heel to see José emerging onto the deck. The moment he spotted them, José came over. “I smell a storm coming,” he said. “It’ll be in our favor, and if we can get before it we might be able to cut a few days off our time. Have you heard from Tiago?”
Nuno’s head twitched, very faintly, towards Deco, who was having a bit of difficulty in resisting the urge to glance over himself. Then he nodded and repeated what he’d just told Deco, only so Tiago sounded slightly less frightened.
Deco left while José was signaling Tiago with his orders. He went down below to secure all the papers and books, and then did the same to anything else remotely likely to break. And then he flopped down in José’s bunk. He didn’t brace himself since he was counting on falling out to wake him up when he was needed.
* * *
The storm was typically Mediterranean: brutal, with rain that felt like nails being pounded through the flesh, and sudden both at the beginning and the end. One moment they were fighting simply to steal some air for breathing from the gale winds, and the next they were drying out under a blistering sun. It didn’t last quite long enough to give them the acceleration that José wanted, but the winds it stirred up still sped them along nicely so he couldn’t complain too much. Besides, night-time and bad weather weren’t something even he liked to have in combination.
Deco grudgingly admitted that the maneuver had worked as he threw up a stomachful of seawater. The taste was a little better than the Adriatic waters they’d recently left, but it still…he coughed a few times, then stuck a finger into his mouth and scratched the back of his throat till the last of it came up. Someone handed him a ladleful of barrel-water with which to rinse out his mouth and with its trace of vinegary wine to keep it potable, it wasn’t much to his liking either. But at least it didn’t make him feel like he was drowning.
“Thanks,” he said, and looked up.
Cristiano had already turned away and was passing the ladle on to a surprised crewman, but he glanced over his shoulder then. He still had to be feeling the effects of his punishment, not to mention the frenetic effort it’d taken to pull off José’s idea, but he seemed to be bearing up well enough.
He and Deco’s eyes met, and then somebody up on the mast cried out. Deco spun around, scanning the horizon—the dark streak across it now was gray-green and didn’t change as he watched it, so it was land. They’d drifted near some Greek island, and somehow Deco doubted that those two rapidly growing specks in the distance were going to care that they were carrying passes—real and forged—for half-a-dozen countries including the Ottomans.
“Pirates?” Cristiano asked. He sounded more curious than anything else.
Rather than waste time answering, Deco spat a last time over the edge and then ran up to the helm where Nuno and José were. José was leaning over the far side and squinting at the dots while Nuno had just finished telling one of the men to break open the armory. Then he turned on Deco; a long wet strip of hair fell in his face that he knocked away with his hand. “Damn it, Tiago couldn’t keep up. How far off did you think he was blown?”
“Don’t count on him,” Deco said.
That attracted José’s attention. His shoulders stiffened, and then he turned around and stalked past them with a face like one of those carvings of the Devil in churches, furious and snarling as a soul was snatched away from him. He made the minutest nod towards Nuno as he went by, but Nuno hesitated till Deco hit his arm.
“That means I’m steering,” Deco said to him.
Nuno blinked, shook himself, and then looked at Deco with a mixture of annoyance and wariness. “Do I have time to make my peace with God?”
“If you don’t move away from the wheel, I promise you won’t.” Deco put a hand to one of the beveled spokes, then slid it across the rim so he could take the wheel in two hands as Nuno moved aside. “I hate fighting at sea.”
“Well, don’t take it out on us,” Nuno snorted. He leaned over to see how far José had gotten. Apparently José didn’t want him right away, since he then took a moment to rewrap the strip of leather that held his hair out of his face. “You want me to bring you up a crossbow too, or just the sword?”
“How many hands do I have?” The specks were now close enough to be seen as the fast, low-lying galleys they were, and when Deco narrowed his eyes against the sun he could faintly make out some details of their armament as well.
Nuno finally went down to the main deck, flapping a hand by way of farewell. “Sword it is. Hey, yell first if you’re going to ram somebody this time, all right?”
Deco ignored him, and also ignored the ensuing flurry of activity as weapons were distributed, positions were assigned. The damage from the storm was cleaned up as much as possible, given the lack of time. They’d all with the exception of Cristiano been through this sort of action too many times to greet it with anything but a quick prayer to the Virgin Mary and to St. Nicholas and a setting of the shoulders against the gory, splinter-spewing, fiery mess that was about to start.
And even Cristiano, Deco idly noticed, was going about his business in a fairly calm way. He did linger too long near the side to watch the approaching ships, but he handled the crossbow he’d been issued with confidence if not great skill, and he didn’t hesitate to climb up into the rigging with it when told to.
Nuno came back to drop off a sword and offer some armor, of which Deco reluctantly took a thick leather doublet with some chainmail over it and some wristguards. He refused the helmet and for a moment it seemed as if Nuno was going to argue the point, but then José called everyone together for the customary speech and Nuno had to leave.
Deco kept only half an ear on what José was saying, noting the tone of the men’s murmurs and when and how often they shouted. He was more interested in the pirates’ ships, since now they were nearly close enough to have to worry about longbows, should there be any rogue Englishmen aboard. They were quite small and their sail and rigging was too simple to be of much use except by the coast, but their low draft meant they could carry a formidable number of cannon without worrying about being top-heavy. The number of active oars also said that together the two ships had the Leya far outnumbered.
José ended his speech to a loud if not wildly enthusiastic cry from the crew. None of them wanted the fight, apparently, but they were damned if they were going to lose it. They’d won battles with more mutinous men than that, so that was something Deco didn’t need to worry about.
The two pirate galleys had now split and were trying to get the Leya between them for a good broadside, but so far Deco had managed to keep her turned more or less bow-wards to them, presenting the smallest possible target. But the closer they got, the more difficult it became to maintain that, and eventually he’d have to make a decision. They couldn’t attack both at once, and even with their greater size they’d have to attack in order to get away.
He was scanning the ships for weaknesses and still doing the calculations in his mind when something thudded down quite near him. Deco blinked and looked up, and then he almost let go of the wheel when he saw what was going on.
Cristiano cursed and spat into his bleeding hand, then wiped it off as he put his shoulder beneath the heavy catapult arm. “One, two—up!”
Together he and another crew-member lifted it up at a tilt, then held it as steadily as they could while José helped the end into the slotted sliding rail now clamped the deck—the first thump Deco had heard. Another trio of men squeezed behind them, their catapult arm knocking into the wheel so Deco had to hastily correct for that, and began setting that one up next to them. More men wearing thick leather gloves were hauling barrels up to the deck, and from them the wind carried a distinctive chilly stinging smell with an oily base.
“They’re galleys! Are you crazy?” Deco couldn’t help snapping. “We still have the whole Mediterranean to go through!”
José threw a warning look over his shoulder because the outburst was so public, but continued with what he was doing. He checked to see that all the catapults were being properly assembled before coming over. “We have almost no armor on the stern and forecastle because it was too heavy and we needed the speed. But the wind isn’t with us right now, so we have to fight.”
“But—that?” Even as Deco said it, he knew he’d already lost the argument.
So did José, who didn’t bother to reply as he walked behind Deco. His hand did come briefly down on Deco’s shoulder, but when Deco shrugged it off José didn’t look back. Instead he rattled back down to the main deck, barking out orders and side-stepping the weak scatter of bolts that was now coming from the nearer galley.
“What is it?” Cristiano asked, stepping in where José had been. He had his hand over his nose and mouth as he watched the men break open the barrels with axes and then haul out sticky blackish lumps, each about the size of a man’s head and smelling foul enough to make Deco’s head spin. “That’s…not just tar, is it?”
Deco looked at him, then leaned forward to hang his arm over the wheel. The spokes of it pressed into either side of his face, and—he spotted the gleam just in time and jumped back a moment before the bolt would have fallen on his foot. The distance was still too great for it to have had much power behind it, but at sea any wound, large or small, was dangerous. “No, it’s Greek fire.”
The blood drained from Cristiano’s face. Constantinople was a wreck these days, but the old stories still circulated. “What?”
“As near as Mourinho can get to it, anyway,” Nuno said, leaping up the stairs. “This kind you just need to drop flour or earth on it to put it out, but there’s not a lot of that out here, so watch where you go when we rush those bastards. Speaking of that, are you coming?”
He was speaking to Cristiano, who swiftly shook off his shock and grinned with pure hungry anticipation. The intensity of it visibly took Nuno a little aback, but he held out his hand to Cristiano readily enough to help him down the steps. Then he went as well, and Deco was left with the catapulters to keep him company.
One of the galleys had a broken mizzen-mast and other signs that it’d been in a hard fight recently, and in the end Deco opted for that one first. He called out to the men up in the lines as he spun the ship about; fortunately their first target showed a tendency to drift towards the wind and so the sails snapped ferociously as the wind filled them, speeding them towards the galley.
But not so quickly that they avoided the cannons of the second galley. The moment the Leya’s stern was presented to them they roared, and in an instant the air was filled with black smoke and the stench of burning wood and gunpowder. Splinters flew past Deco and he instinctively ducked, only to feel something slicing across the side of his head, just above his right ear. He felt a warm dripping spring up from the spot, but couldn’t spare the hand to check and instead just breathed a thanks that he hadn’t been struck in a more disabling spot, though he’d felt quite a few bits of wood pattering his back.
The Leya shuddered, but still handled fine so it seemed as if the galley to their stern had missed most of its shots. Deco could make out a few of the cries from that ship now—those in charge were speaking in Turkish, not Greek, and he heard someone screaming at the gunners to reload more quickly.
Before them the first galley was too hampered to turn swiftly enough and the few cannon José hadn’t stripped from the Leya all found their targets. The whole middle of the ship seemed to go up in a fountain of flying wood, and one especially lucky or keen-sighted gunner had managed to hit the main-mast so it now listed dangerously to the side. Then it tilted further, and then it toppled completely over so a fresh spate of moaning screams rose from the galley.
But it was a galley, not a caravel, and so that wouldn’t fully immobilize it. Deco kept the Leya aimed straight at the other ship, and then at the last possible moment, he swung her about so the catapults had a good view.
José cried out the order to fire a heartbeat before Deco did, but by then the crew-members manning them, all veterans with more burn-scars than hair, had already loaded the catapults and set fire to the balls. The smell instantly swamped the air around Deco and he had to yank up his shirt over his nose in order to not faint. Then he flinched down so he banged his head against the wheel when the cables of the catapults all twanged at once, the noise ringing in his ears for minutes afterward.
The timbre of the screaming from the galley before them took on an entirely different note, one of utter uncomprehending fear. The fire that the balls set raced across the ship’s decks and up the lines in the blink of an eye, and when water was thrown on it, it merely hissed angrily and splattered all the larger and farther.
Then they were close enough for men to swing over and drop into the galley. Deco saw Nuno landing cat-like on the bow and then fighting his way towards the middle; he didn’t see Cristiano but he didn’t wait to either. As soon as he thought enough men had gotten over, he swung the Leya about so they could deal with the second galley, which by then had managed to unload its cannons twice more at them. The aim of their gunners hadn’t improved by much, but the number of guns that the galley carried and the short distance between the ships meant that enough hit the Leya, and once the cannonball was ripping through wood it didn’t really matter whether it’d gone where its gunner had meant it to.
Because of the Leya’s greater bulk, the other galley hadn’t had the chance to make out what had happened to its fellow. It had seen the flames and heard the shouting, but to that it merely tried to turn and rake its cannonfire over the Leya’s bow. The angle was acute but José had spent years developing the custom fittings for the catapults: a minute to swing them around, a few seconds to winch up the tension so the ammunition would fly farther, and then Deco shouted to fire.
His voice was lost in the gigantic thundering of gunfire, but he could watch the fiery balls arcing through the sky and then dropping, like the wrath of God, into the other galley. It wasn’t long after that when the cannons ceased pounding and the catapulters had abandoned their stations in order to man the ship while the others secured the galleys.
Deco’s head was still bleeding and when he looked himself over, he found a number of bruises and scrapes he hadn’t remembered getting. But nothing serious, and he knew that even his hearing, which now was as if someone had thrown a thick sheet of wool over his head, would eventually return to normal. He sneezed, then grimaced at the smell that filled his nose. Then he slung his arm over the wheel and used it to drag himself up, and he took a good look all around himself. Something to the east caught his eye and he started, taking a hard second look at it, before he tiredly snorted. Tiago had finally shown up.
* * *
“I had a feeling you’d gotten swept this way, and then when I saw the smoke column I knew I was right,” Tiago was saying to José. He hastened over a pair of sprawling corpses in his effort to keep up with the other man as José inspected their prizes. They both grimaced as their boots stirred up flour-drenched ashes and raised a stench.
José paused to examine a barrel the men had just hauled up from the hold. He plunged his hand into the broken top, then pulled out olives dripping in oil. After waving the men to continue what they were doing, he shook off the excess oil and popped an olive into his mouth. The pit he spit out a second later so it rang against a metal stud. “If you’d hauled in your sail when I did, you wouldn’t have fallen away in the first place. These rats have better cannon than any pirate I’ve seen before.”
Tiago’s face crumpled. He made an effort to hold his shoulders straight, but in a moment he was going to start whimpering and Deco’s headache was already painful enough.
“And the officers were Turks,” Deco said. He slipped in between Tiago and José, and pretended not to see Tiago’s grateful look as he fled to go direct the salvage operation. Then there wasn’t anyone within earshot, but even so, Deco dropped his voice to a hiss. “You got that rutter from Figo, and he from somebody in the Saracen court. If they were willing to try and kill him on the docks…”
“But the Turks and the Saracens are at war again. Besides, these two weren’t lying in wait for us. The one hurried ahead of the other, and they were never together in their attack.” A call came from the stern and José lifted his head, then started purposefully towards it. “This one shouldn’t even have been fighting, with the damage it already had. No, they’d come for something else and were leaving when we ran across them, and it meant so much that they’d turn and try to attack us to leave no witnesses. So…”
The commotion was coming from a group of men who’d been preoccupied with making sure that no one was hiding belowdecks. They were all knotted around one of the trapdoors and talking excitedly; the one in charge rushed forward to explain what was the matter to José, but the man was so worked up that José had to shake him by the shoulders to try and calm him down.
While waiting for that, Deco gazed about the galley and attempted to reassess what had been broken before the battle and what had been done afterward. It was true that the ship would have to be abandoned as soon as they’d taken what they could from it: it’d need a long spell in drydock to get it seaworthy again, and even then it’d be a little…Deco frowned, glancing upwards as something moved at the corner of his vision.
He looked into Cristiano’s face. The boy was hanging in the rigging again, with plenty of blood and black powder smears over him but apparently unhurt. He held one of the long curved Turkish swords in his hand and he’d been using it to help cut loose a wounded man of theirs, but he’d stopped to watch what was happening below. When he noticed that Deco was watching, he started so badly that his salvage partner exclaimed and swung out to make sure Cristiano didn’t fall.
“Mary, Mother of God,” José abruptly said.
José swore like that so rarely that Deco immediately spun around. The throng of men had grown so he had to push a bit to get back to José’s side. He got there just as they pulled someone from the trapdoor, and that someone straightened up so Deco could see their face.
For a few moments they simply looked at each other. Then Dom Nuno Gomes, Count of Porto and scion of the House of Braganza, wiped at the blood on his face, careful to avoid the bruises and the fresh-looking crust of dried blood over his temple. His fingers were bent out of shape and beneath the filth and gore, his face was drained of nearly all its blood so his deep-set eyes looked almost skeleton-like.
José turned to the nearest man. “Get some water. And rags.”
Nuno Gomes felt at his hands, occasionally grimacing. He turned his head towards José but didn’t quite look at him. “I need a doctor.”
“Anyone else?” José asked, tone clipped. “You had to have had a retinue—”
“I did, but the Turks locked them aboard the ship I was taking and then sank it,” Nuno said quietly. He finally lifted his eyes to José’s face and they held no small degree of confusion, but at the same time his look was level and calm. “What are you doing here?”
Instead of answering, José ordered another man to bring Maniche over to the Leya. Then he side-stepped Nuno—who slowly turned to watch, eyebrows up—and dropped down into the hold. His voice came echoing back up as he asked the men still down there about their other findings.
Nuno Gomes closed his eyes and exhaled sharply. “José? José, wait a—”
Deco reached out and got the other man by the elbow, and when Nuno didn’t crumple to the deck in pain, gave that a good yank. He ushered them out of the crowd before Nuno could protest, then snapped his fingers for a crew to man one of the rowboats. “Take the Count over and have Maniche see to him as soon as he gets there,” he ordered one of them.
Another irritated sound from Nuno Gomes. “Deco, would you—”
“You’re welcome,” Deco pointedly said. Then he dropped the man’s arm and spun on his heel. He went back over and greeted José just as the other man was coming back onto the deck. “What do—”
José looked at him, frowning, and then reached up and lightly moved his thumb over the cut on the side of Deco’s head. He made a clicking sound with his tongue at Deco’s flinch. “Go see Maniche for that. Tiago! Come over here, I need to talk to you.”
Deco didn’t move. “Look, would you—”
“Go see Maniche,” José repeated. He stepped towards Tiago and lowered his hand at the same time so his fingertips brushed over Deco’s cheek.
Deco started to close his eyes. Then he inhaled and turned sharply, only to find José already deep in conversation with Tiago. For a moment he stared at the man, and then he hissed beneath his breath and shoved past them, going back to the rail just in time to catch the rowboat before it took off with Nuno Gomes. He ignored the other man’s curious look and took over the tiller so he was facing the galley all the way back to the Leya.
They’d been hauled on-deck before his anger had cooled enough for him to remember, but when he gazed across the water, he didn’t see Cristiano at all. Likely the boy had been sent down to the hold, but…
Maniche sprang over the rail on the other side of the ship, cursing loudly at his bad luck in missing the battle. Then he saw Nuno Gomes and stared, and Deco gave himself a shake and went over before Maniche said anything silly. It’d all been before his time, but maybe Nuno Valente had said a couple things to him and Deco wanted to be sure things didn’t turn out like last time.
* * *
“Fuck…” Nuno Gomes drew out the word through clenched teeth, eyes squeezed shut and the cords in his neck raised against the skin from the strain. Then he breathed out heavily and dropped his head into the mattress, back shuddering.
Deco rolled his eyes and touched the bandage that covered his newly-stitched cut, during which procedure he hadn’t made nearly as much noise. Maniche grinned back till Nuno raised his head, and then he bent back over Nuno’s hand with a solicitous expression. He tested the next finger while various hisses and gritted-teeth curses came from Nuno. “Just another dislocation. Hey, maybe they didn’t break any of them, my lord.”
The other man had put his face back into the mattress, so his groan was well-muffled. But Deco could still detect an element of tooth-gnashing in it and he frowned, shifting in his seat astride Nuno’s waist. They’d had a rare chance to wash down and so they were all about as clean as they ever got, but that hadn’t reconciled him to having to give up the scrivener’s cabin to Nuno, and if the fop bit a hole through the bedding Deco didn’t think they’d all make it to Lisbon alive. “Wait a moment. Maniche, do you have a stick, or…”
“Ah.” From his boot Maniche pulled a spoon with a half a whale carved into its handle. He poked it at Nuno’s cheek, and after a moment, the other man turned his head enough to see.
Nuno Gomes looked at the spoon, then up at Maniche. “I’m going to ruin it.”
“We’ve still got a while to Lisbon, my lord. I’ll make plenty more. Now come on, open up,” Maniche said in a cooing tone.
Deco looked again at him, but Nuno didn’t seem to have noticed anything as he opened his mouth and let Maniche shove the handle between his teeth. Then Maniche arranged his thumbs along Nuno’s finger, braced his elbows against the side of the bunk, and jerked his head at Deco. He started pressing almost immediately so Deco nearly didn’t throw his weight onto Nuno’s arm and shoulder in time. The creaking of wood joined the stifled cursing.
While Maniche was examining the next one, someone knocked at the door. Deco absently asked who it was, and when Cristiano’s voice answered, he started to get up before Maniche scolded him. He tipped an irritated look towards the other man and was turning back to reply to Cristiano when he noticed Nuno had stirred as well. The spit-smeared spoon bounced to the floor.
But no particular expression save mild interest graced Nuno Gomes’ face when Cristiano entered. Cristiano did give the man a quick nod, but by now the news of who Nuno was had gotten about and that could have explained it. “Sir, ah, Maniche, Nuno Valente wants to see you. He says he found another cut he needs you to stitch. It’s not bleeding much, but it’s steady.”
“Oh, for…you know, this time I’m just making him strip and making sure I get all of them. That idiot takes so long for his head to clear after a…oh.” Maniche belatedly glanced at Nuno Gomes.
“Go ahead. I think a break from this would be better for my health, actually,” Nuno shrugged.
It was a little while before Maniche left, as he first put up a protest—mostly out of respect for Nuno’s rank, given the glint in his eye—and then gathered up his surgeon’s kit, but he finally left with Cristiano. Deco pushed the hair back from his forehead, then got off Nuno and sat on the edge of the bunk. He picked up a strip of clean linen, then began to wrap it around the fingers Maniche had done. Even if they were only dislocations, they still needed to be braced for a few days to make sure they didn’t pop back out.
Nuno grunted and pushed himself up on his elbow as best he could, since he couldn’t use his other hand either. “I hadn’t inherited my title yet.”
“So?” Deco said.
“So my father didn’t like José’s style and if I’d gone against him I would’ve been disowned. And it seems that then I would have been busy fighting to get the title and the wealth that comes with it, so I wouldn’t have been able to help anyway,” Nuno muttered. He hissed slowly as Deco manipulated a tender point.
Deco had to pause and convince himself not to continue to pressure that spot. Then he finished wrapping Nuno’s fingers, tucking the free end of the bandage beneath the wrap after he’d knotted it off. “So shouldn’t you be making your excuses to José?”
“It’s not an excuse. It’s an explanation.” Whatever Nuno was waiting for, he didn’t get it. He gingerly turned over onto his back and stared at the ceiling, all melancholic disappointment. “God’s blood, Deco. It just didn’t work back then. The timing wasn’t right. They was still so stuck on Ptolemy’s calculations—”
“And now they’re so liberal as to believe somebody who thinks you can get to Asia by going west?” Deco deliberately asked. “José’s not going to buy that.”
Nuno blinked, then started to roll over without watching his hands. He jarred something and his face whitened as he froze. Then he slowly laid back, breathing out through his mouth. “Well, I can’t say anything else. It’s the truth.”
He wasn’t as surprised to hear that they knew about Colón as he should have been. Perhaps he’d been counting on the swift feet of gossip to slip Colón’s proposal into the open, but as far as Deco knew, Cristiano’s outburst had been the first he’d heard of that, and while José lacked allies who’d promote him in court, that didn’t mean he was entirely without lines of communication.
Deco shrugged noncommittally, then slid down to the end of the bed so he could lean against the wall. In order to do that he had to push Nuno’s feet out of the way; Nuno lifted his eyebrows again but didn’t object, though he was already contorted quite a bit to squeeze his lanky frame into the short bunk. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “The last I heard, you were doing quite well with the Alexandrian trade.”
“What are you doing here?” And he’d been keeping tabs on them? Then Deco rethought that and admitted that that might just be his paranoia—José’s reputation was public and widespread in that area. “Little out of your way, isn’t it?”
Nuno gave him a very level, assessing look. Then the other man pushed back on his left elbow, gingerly holding his half-treated hand high above the mattress. He carefully wriggled and shoved about till he was half-sitting against the wall. Even then he had to bend his knees so they were a hands-breadth and a half above the bunk. “Deco, if this is what you’re like then is José going to be talking to me at all? Even to ask where I’d like to be put ashore?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” Deco snapped.
“That’s just what I was say—” Nuno started, finally goaded into sounding exasperated. But then someone’s footsteps came up to the door and he started, jerking his head towards that.
For a moment actual fear was in his face, but then he seemed to remember where and with whom he was and he calmed. He even had the composure to roll his shoulder at Deco and tip his head, acknowledging the moment of weakness and dismissing it all in the same gesture.
Deco bit down a sharp remark, then let his head fall back against the wall. “Eh, Maniche? Wasn’t that big a cut, then?”
“He’ll be able to walk,” José said, slipping in. He’d taken a moment to scrub off the gore and the filth, and changed his shirt, but he still looked irritated. He never would back down from a fight but he didn’t like them; as far as he was concerned, a battle was the outcome of a failed plan. Better to defeat the enemy before they got out of bed in the morning than just before they took over yours. “Nuno Gomes.”
“José,” Nuno said. Nothing moved but his eyes, which tracked every movement José made as the other man pulled up a low stool, then sat in it. “I’ll have to order new candles for the Oporto Cathedral when I get back, in thanks for the good fortune that sent you my way.”
The muscle just behind the corners of José’s mouth twitched, but that was enough of a reaction for Deco to be able to read the emotions behind it. His gaze settled on Nuno’s face for a while, long enough to even disturb the unflappability of a nobleman accustomed to moving royal circles, before abruptly flicking to Nuno’s right hand. He reached for it only to have Nuno try and curl his fingers away from him.
José didn’t remind the other man that he’d trained as a surgeon before taking to the sea, but instead patiently waited till Nuno finished his low curse and lifted the hand. Then he took it as delicately as a lady would a crystal goblet, and bent so low over it that anyone who walked in then might have mistaken it for an act of homage. But even if Deco hadn’t known better than that, he still had the right angle to see that José had curled his lips in as he’d lowered his head, keeping them as far from Nuno as possible.
“Dislocation in both joints for this one, my lord,” José said, touching the tip of the finger in question. “What were you doing near the Greek coast? I didn’t think our king was about to try diplomacy with the Turks again, and even if he is, I’m not enlightened as to why you’d be his choice.”
“I didn’t intend to be here. My ship was blown off-course by a storm a few days ago. As for the business that took me so far from Portugal, I’m not certain now is the best time to discuss it,” Nuno replied. His voice had cooled and taken on distant, formal overtones, and he’d also began to twist slightly towards facing José. He pushed up the wall so his head was higher than either José’s or Deco.
José raised his head and looked Nuno in the eye. A moment before Nuno’s lips parted, and just as comprehension started to bring a flush of angry incredulity into his cheeks, José pressed down with his thumbs. Nuno’s mouth jerked open and he started forward, but Deco quickly lifted his leg and swung it across the other man’s chest, forcing him back against the wall. Something slapped up against the underside of Deco’s thigh and he glanced down between his knees, then pulled his other leg up onto the bed. Before Nuno could move his other hand from the mattress, Deco had it pinned with his foot, Nuno’s mangled fingers just ahead of his boot-tip.
Nuno had also tried to yank away the hand José held, but José had dealt with that by seizing his wrist. Now he dragged it higher, so he could examine it without bending over as far. “It should be in,” he said, tone flat and emotionless. “Try crooking it, my lord.”
Then he looked up, and Nuno stared back. Disbelief still was in Nuno’s face, but all the blood had drained from it and in the middle of that pain-drawn paleness apprehension was starting to spread shadows from the man’s eyes.
After a moment, Nuno closed his mouth. His finger bent, at first gingerly and then with more confidence. He started to speak, but in the meantime José had picked up a bandage and now he used a loop of it to pull Nuno’s finger straight so the other man hissed, his breast pressing into Deco’s knee. “José…”
“Where did you mean to go?” Once that finger was bound, José dropped the free end of the bandage strip and moved on to the next. He tested it thoroughly, with skill that would have made a sultan’s physician proud, but without any particular care for the half-stifled curses coming from Nuno.
“José, I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t have the wealth or the title, and to be honest, you didn’t help either. You could have been less abrasive when defending your ideas. The Junta of Mathematicians isn’t made up of scholars who--God.” The whites of Nuno’s eyes briefly showed as the next finger was forced back into joint. He breathed hard through his mouth. “There were bishops, titled men there. They didn’t appreciate being called idiot to their face, even if they—goddamn it, José, would you—Jesus Our Savior.”
That was the last of the fingers on that hand, so José took a moment to wrap the bandage till it was in position to cover the thumb. Then he let that hang while he felt at that. “I don’t care about what happened before. It’s been engraved into the tablets of history and it can’t be changed. What I care about is what’s happening now, and what’s going to happen.”
Nuno sucked in air through his teeth and stared at the top of José’s head. Then he looked to Deco, and there was a plea in the way he did it and also a kind of expectation that above anything else touched a nerve in Deco. Why everyone seemed to believe he would intervene—and more importantly, that he could intervene, in any real and lasting way—was a perpetual sore point. If only because it reminded him that he didn’t have that sort of hold on José.
His reply was to grind down on the hand beneath his boot. For the first few moments he did take some pleasure in the look on Nuno’s face, but it was like pouring a bit of cold water into a boiling pot. It wasn’t long before his anger rose again, unappeased and stronger than before, and he had to turn away before he actually struck the other man. Even a flinch was a reminder.
José wrapped the thumb separately, so at the end Nuno’s hand looked as if someone had slipped a very thin fingerless glove, of the kind used in northern Europe, over it. Then, still with a firm grip on Nuno’s wrist, he scooted his stool back a few inches, and nodded to Deco. “Is the other hand like this?”
“Yes,” Deco said. He shifted a little towards the edge of the bunk so he could reach down. When his fingers closed around Nuno’s other wrist, the tendons in it were standing out as stiff as twisted iron strands, but it only took a little effort on his part to make Nuno lift his arm so José could take it. He kept his leg against Nuno’s chest, and when José shifted down the bunk Deco threw his other leg over Nuno’s shins as well.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Nuno finally rasped. “I know how disappointed you were—I can’t imagine how much worse that must be now—but do you really think antagonizing everyone is going to do you any good?”
“You didn’t do much when you were for—” Deco stopped himself, but José tipped a warning look in his direction anyway. He snorted and looked away, focusing on the point of José’s shoulder.
For a few moments, José simply held Nuno’s hands by the wrists. Then he shook his head and dropped the bandaged one so he could start examining the other. “The Turks killed everyone on your ship except you. They’re heathens but they’re not so barbaric that they don’t honor titles, or so stupid as to lightly toss away the ransoms those can bring. And then there’s the way they’d obviously tortured you. They didn’t touch your mouth, so they wanted you to still be able to speak. A child could put these things together, and I’m not a child.”
He put the first finger on the left hand back in its joint while Nuno was still taking in his words, then waited for the other man to recover. Then he began to feel at the next finger, but stopped when Nuno made a noise.
“I was going to Alexandria on a diplomatic mission.” Nuno twisted and got his arm under Deco’s calf, then pushed up against that. When Deco simply shifted to hit the other man’s bandaged hand, Nuno fought down his grimace in an apparent attempt to look harmless. “Look, where can I go right now? It’s your ship and anyway, I haven’t eaten in days and haven’t had much water, either. I don’t think I could walk past that door.”
“Well, you realize what your situation’s like but you still refuse to fully acknowledge. I don’t know what to say to that,” José said. He straightened out another finger, then began to assess the next before the color had returned to Nuno’s face.
Both Deco and Nuno stared at him then; José was unorthodox, but never delusional about his circumstances. If he had been, he might have been a more easily satisfied and thus a happier man.
José looked up, but his face was unreadable even to Deco. “I’m in a hurry. If you don’t tell me anything then I can only think I can’t do anything for you, and then it’s better if I just take care of my own business.”
Nuno gazed steadily back, but the breath he drew was shaky. “So you’d kill me? Since no one here would betray you and no one else could inform on you.”
“I would do whatever was necessary to separate our paths,” José primly said, as if correcting an errant student. “If there’s no reason for them to be bound together then I won’t bother pursuing that—yes? Who is it?”
“Cristiano,” came the muffled response.
José half-turned on the stool, blinking in surprise, but Deco managed to keep his eyes on Nuno’s face. And while the other man’s naked relief at the interruption was perfectly understandable, the continued lack of surprise wasn’t. Not to mention the oddity in the timing of Cristiano’s two visits.
After calling him in, José heard out Cristiano’s relay of some questions Nuno Valente and Tiago had over the disposal of the galleys. His fingers twisted restlessly around Nuno Gomes’ wrist and he tapped one foot impatiently, but he still asked for clarifications on a few points before he finally issued an order. The moment that had passed his lips, he turned back and looked at Nuno Gomes again.
“And bring me a bucket of water when you’re done,” Deco added.
Cristiano glanced at him as if he’d forgotten Deco was even there, but nodded and hurriedly backed out of the room. He hadn’t looked at Nuno Gomes once, which was more unnatural than if he’d taken a couple peeks.
José had glanced at Deco when Deco had spoken, but he didn’t comment on it and let Cristiano go. “So?” he said to Nuno.
“The reason I was going to Alexandria was because the king had received a very disturbing message from Egypt and he wanted to know more about it. I went because I’ve learned some Arabic, and because of my familiarity with navigation.” Nuno carefully cradled his free hand to his chest. He started when Deco pulled his legs off of him, but however curious he found the action, he wasted no time in moving his limbs to more comfortable positions. “More than that I don’t want to discuss right now, and not because I don’t believe it wouldn’t be helpful for you to know. I…don’t mean to insult your ship or its crew, but—”
“I don’t intend to put in at land, unless for quick revictualling purposes, till I get to Lisbon,” José said. He quickly set the last two remaining fingers and the thumb, then began to wrap up that hand. “So if there’s to be a time and setting when you do find it appropriate to tell me, it’ll have to be on the Leya.”
When he was done, he dropped Nuno’s hand and pushed back from the bed in almost the same motion. He got up while turning a little so his back partly shielded him and Deco from the other man, and in that moment he made the merchant’s bargaining gesture for midnight. Then he left without so much as a farewell.
Nuno brought both hands into his lap and leaned his head against the wall. He closed his eyes and breathed slowly and shallowly for a few seconds, and then opened his eyes to look tiredly at Deco. “Would it make a difference if I said I was sorry now?”
“No. He respected you, but he never wanted to be close friends with you anyway.” Deco put his feet down on the ground and used one of them to hook the stool over to where he could reach it. Without getting up, he folded it flat and then twisted it about to hang it on two pegs in the wall next to the bunk. “Though he’s not going to kill you. That was just so you knew that he wouldn’t mind, but he knows other things make it important that he doesn’t. Are you going to tell us?”
Instead of answering, the other man slowly tipped over till he could get an elbow down for support. He awkwardly curled up on his side while avoiding use of his hands as much as possible; the sheet twisted about his legs but slid off his hip so Deco could see a dark bruise barring the pale skin and leading down beneath the folds of rough wool. There were more bruises on Nuno’s back and shoulders, long thin stripes about the width of a whippy cane.
A knock at the door signaled Cristiano’s return. He tried to push the bucket of water through the half-opened door, but in taking it Deco deliberately let the handle slip a bit through his fingers. He cursed and quickly ducked to get his other hand beneath the bucket, and in doing so kicked the door farther open. Then he stood up in time to see the last traces of indignation being wiped off Cristiano’s face.
“Thank you, now go get Maniche,” Deco said.
He shut the door with his foot, then went back over to the bunk. After setting the bucket on its edge, he squatted down.
It was only a minute or so before Nuno groaned and lifted his head. The effort of the conversation with José seemed to have been the last straw, since his eyes were bleary and he made no attempt to hide his exhaustion. “I think I’d honestly rather you stabbed me than act like this. What else do you want?”
“Sit up.” Deco sighed at the way Nuno’s eyes widened. “So you can drink the damn water and I can go back up and do something useful.”
Nuno did lift his head so it was nearly vertical, but otherwise didn’t move. “I can’t.”
Then he dropped his head as if it were made out of lead. For a long moment, Deco looked him over, and then Deco snarled to himself and put the bucket down between his feet. He got up and sat on the edge of the mattress again, pulled Nuno up, and then held the bucket to the man’s lips while he took in great, greedy draughts, slurping without any care to manners or appearance. Though when Deco took the bucket back, Nuno dapped his mouth dry against his bandaged hands instead of wiping it like a commoner would have done.
When Deco looked in it, the bucket was nearly empty. He poured the last of the water onto the back of his neck, then swiped off a bit and rubbed it over his mouth. Then he put a hand on the mattress to get up.
Before he could lift it, Nuno had covered it with his own hand, the linen already damp with sweat against Deco’s skin. “Was it worth it?” he asked. “Leaving with him?”
“I don’t think about the past either. It’s a waste of time,” Deco snapped, jerking his hand away.
“I know you’re not telling the truth when you just repeat his words.” Nuno eased himself towards Deco, still graceful despite his injuries. He reached back with one hand and touched the sheet at his hip, but the cloth only fell away to disclose more bare skin. “When I was asking about apologies I meant to you, too. It was just as much failing you as failing him.”
Deco raised his eyebrows. He tried to keep his mouth stiff, but in spite of himself a little snort escaped him. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. The past is gone. And if you think it isn’t, and all you need to do is provide a little reminder—well, you’re as stupid as you are handsome.”
He drew out the last word, infusing it with as much mockery as possible. And when the shock and hurt spread over Nuno’s face, Deco managed to enjoy it enough to be startled at the sound of someone kicking the door.
But by the time he’d gotten up and opened it, that pleasure had completely evaporated and once again he was mired in a tangle of suspicions, unfulfilled wishes and worries. He also forgot himself enough for Maniche to take a step back from him, eyes wide.
“I’m sorry! Valente is a moron with no feeling in his oxhide skin!” Maniche said.
Deco stared at him. Then he gave himself a shake and pulled Maniche in. “I agree, but I hope you left him in good enough shape to keep running this ship. I’ve got enough to do as it is…Cristiano?”
The dark shape just stepping onto the stairs at the end of the hall paused. Then it ducked back down and moved its head into a stray beam of light so Deco could make out Cristiano’s wary expression. “Sir?”
“Come back here. Maniche could use some help with Dom Nuno Gomes, and you’ve done plenty of running around today. You can sit for a while,” Deco said.
After a moment’s hesitation, Cristiano backed down the stairs and came towards him. Maniche looked at him, then leaned in towards Deco. “Did you get hit on the head and forget to tell me about it, or…”
“Shut up and do it.” Deco stepped out of the doorway so Maniche and Cristiano could get by, then shut the door behind them.
He went updeck long enough to find out what José was doing and watch Tiago sink one of the galleys, then retraced his steps. After pulling Maniche out of the scrivener’s cabin, he leaned against the door, ear pressed to the wood, as he and Maniche discussed Tiago’s behavior so far.
* * *
José peered down at the map he had spread over his knees. He frowned till the corners of his mouth nearly dragged down to his jawline, then pulled the map off his lap to consult the one beneath it. “Deco?”
When Deco tried to straighten out his legs, his right foot rammed into something and his knee accidentally bumped José’s back. He went still, but when all José did was push his lower lip in and out of his mouth, he shoved himself up and reached down to see what had blocked him. “I’m awake.”
“Not that,” José muttered.
The thing Deco had kicked was the small box in which José kept his astrolabe. After Deco had laid back down on the bunk and gotten his feet planted on the far wall, he put it beside him and draped an arm over it. “The men are talking. They want to know why you sent Tiago off to travel separately to Gibraltar, why Nuno Valente doesn’t get to share a cabin when he’s more hurt than me. They don’t think it’s like you, and they’re asking just how crazy have you gotten.”
“He’s got a bed in the galley. It’s closer to the steps so he can get up to the deck faster. And not that either.” Finally José turned around, but it was only to show a flash of irritation. “Is there something actually wrong?”
One answer was on the tip of Deco’s tongue, but in the end he kept it there and merely rolled his eyes. “Alexandria. Some message from Egypt to the king of Portugal. Figo getting mortally wounded on the docks just before he gave you that rutter.”
“The question is, how much information did that message give João and Nuno Gomes?” José mused. He pressed the map smooth across his knee, hissing slightly as the paper crackled. “They didn’t know who had it, or if they did, they didn’t know that it’d changed hands, I think. Figo never cared for the nobility. I didn’t think he cared for our country either, but I admit I was wrong about that.”
“I don’t know about that.” Deco put up his hand to touch the planks that formed the top of the bunk. Most of the wood in José’s cabin had long since been worn smooth as silk, but these alone retained some roughness. As he drew his fingers over them, he even suffered the prick of a splinter. “I think Nuno Gomes might have some connection to Cristiano.”
He pulled himself to the edge, and then when that didn’t give him enough light, he twisted out his legs so he could sit beside José. The splinter was quite large and easy enough to scrape out with his thumbnail; once he’d pulled it out a bead of red, as round as a perfect pearl, instantly sprang up. Deco licked it off, then turned to look at José.
The other man was watching him with hooded eyes, but José looked down at the maps as Deco began to watch him. “How?”
“I don’t know, and I can’t guess why either. But they know each other. I’ve caught a couple things—more with Cristiano than with Nuno Gomes, but that might change with time. Nuno’s more shaken than he looks,” Deco said. He kicked his heels against the floor, then threw himself back onto the mattress. His head narrowly missed hitting the wall. “What if they already know about the rutter? If you say you’ve got it then they’ll just take it from you, king’s order.”
“I don’t have to say I have it, just that I also know about it. And if they try to take it from me, then that’ll be their mistake.” The words came as coolly from José as a mountain spring welling up from the rocks, and that was why Deco looked sharply at him. Anger and passion were telling with the man, as with anyone else, but ice was the sign of a decision taken. And once José had made up his mind, he didn’t often change it. “Then why would Nuno want me back in Lisbon as soon as possible? He didn’t seem that pleased to see me.”
Deco pushed his hands up the sides of his face, feeling his flesh drag under their heels. He didn’t want to think about it—he didn’t want to try and understand what everyone else was thinking, why they were thinking it and what they were going to do about it. His body ached all over from the day’s exertions and his head ached from trying to be somebody else’s head for so long, and all he really wanted to do, he thought, was curl up and go to sleep.
“That was the point of Cristiano’s appearance. He’s meant to get us to return to Portugal. Nuno Gomes was going to Alexandria, and…and the Turks didn’t have him for long, but…” José hummed beneath his breath, tapping his fingers against his lips. Then he rolled his shoulders sharply, as if working out a sudden cramp, and folded up the maps. “No, he couldn’t have meant to try and catch me there. The timing would be wrong. Anyway he talked about a message from Egypt, not specifically Alexandria, so he may have meant to travel inland.”
“He might’ve been going to see Figo. The man was the most prominent Portuguese allowed to live in Cairo,” Deco mumbled.
“We already ruled that out. Figo wouldn’t have sent that message—and you know that. Deco?” José said, voice sharpening. He jostled Deco’s arm. “Deco, are you even paying attention?”
Unfortunately, yes. Whether you loved him or hated him, it was impossible to ignore José when he was talking. For that matter, Deco didn’t have much luck with that even when José was hundreds of miles away. “It was just a suggestion.”
“It was a stupid one. You’re better than that. Is that wound in your head paining you?” Even as he was saying that, José was getting up, walking over to his map-table as if he didn’t even think Deco would have a retort.
Well, if he thought Deco was going to get up, or to at least roll over and call his answers to José’s questions across the room, then he was mistaken. As much as there was that Deco couldn’t help, he still had his limits and today he’d reached one. He pulled his legs up and turned over to face the wall. Then he closed his eyes.
But for all his defiance, Deco didn’t actually expect to fall asleep. He thought José would come back and shake him and force him back into the debate, but the other man didn’t and a deep, dreamless slumber sneaked up on him before he knew it. And José didn’t do a thing to stop it.
* * *
Something nudged at Deco’s shoulder and he lashed out. His hand struck flesh, but a rough coil suddenly tightened around his arm and shoulder, making him recoil almost immediately. He slid from an uneven but solid surface into thin air, then fell, his eyes snapping open as he did.
It was a short fall, about a foot. He landed on someone’s boots and heard them cursing very near his face, and finally looked up into Nuno Valente’s snarl.
“Mary, Mother of God. If you didn’t want anybody to wake you, you could’ve just locked yourself in one of the cabins,” Nuno said. He and Deco were both tangled in the rope on which Deco had been napping, and besides that he had stooped to grab at his shin. When he noticed Deco looking at it, he grimaced and sat down on the floor.
Deco grunted, lifting his arms to try and find out how bad the tangle was. “The cabins are full.”
“José’s been at the helm for the past two hours.” Nuno grabbed a fistful of rope and tugged at it, then dropped most of it when he found that that simply yanked his right leg and Deco’s arm together. He pulled at the loop he’d retained till he came up with an end, then began to patiently unravel them. “He’s asking for you.”
“Tell him to jump overboard,” Deco snapped. He looked at the coils for a moment, then made a fist of his hand, crooked his elbow, and swiftly pulled his arm out of the mess. Then he grabbed the edge of the crate on which the rope had been stored and stood up.
It’d gotten very quiet in Nuno’s direction, and when Deco glanced at him the other man wasn’t moving either. After getting his feet free, Deco hit Nuno with a loop of rope. It took a moment, but finally Nuno stirred. Then he yelped and grabbed at his arm, favoring Deco with an irritated look. “That’s a fucking saber cut there, you moody little cunt. You know, you’ve been a shit since the fight with the pirates. I don’t know what’s wrong with you and him now, but—”
“You know as much as shit does, so shut up.” Deco stepped over Nuno’s left leg, then kicked a stray piece of rope back at the other man when Nuno tried to snatch at him. Ignoring the curses, he stomped down the hall and went up on deck.
José was at the helm, but seemed more occupied with disputing with the way his men were tacking the sails than with keeping the ship on a steady course. When he spotted Deco, he only had one hand on the wheel and the ship moved as if even that hand were being used mostly as support for him. “Deco. This evening the wind will be in our favor and so I want to sail through the night. So—”
“Just send somebody to tell me when I need to be up and I’ll be up,” Deco said irritably. He started to add more, but then changed his mind and turned on his heel. Behind him came a low, quick inhale, but José didn’t call after him.
By the time he got back into the hall, Nuno had left and only a pile of half-heartedly coiled rope remained. Deco started to walk by it, but then stopped and looked at the rope. He lifted his foot to kick at it, but after a moment he put it back down and exhaled till his lungs were burning. Then he breathed in and sat down on the crate.
He’d just picked out one of the rope-ends when the hallway’s dimness darkened a little more. “Deco?” Cristiano hesitantly called. “Sir?”
“Stop calling me that.” After pinning the end beneath his foot, Deco hauled up a good two yards of the rope, only to find that it was too badly knotted and twisted. He sighed again and took the end up, then pulled it in and out of the loops till he’d undone those knots. Then he threw that section of the rope down the hall to get it out of the way while he checked the next portion.
It never hit the floor. When he looked up, Cristiano had it draped over his arms and was beginning to loop it into a neat coil. Once he’d finished, Cristiano edged a little closer and held out his hand for the next loop. He yelped and leaped back a few feet when Deco just shoved all of the rope at him. “I—what did I do? How do I fix it?”
“Oh, like you really care what I think. You got what you wanted—José’s going to Lisbon and so are you, so why do you bother? You’re going to be off the moment we dock, I know,” Deco snarled. He started to push past the boy, but trod on a piece of rope and tripped so heavily all he could do was twist to fall against the wall instead of the floor.
Cristiano reached out, then snatched back his hand. Then he put it out again, but by then Deco had righted himself. He pushed that away, then kicked at the rope for good measure, and then he stalked off down the hall.
When he passed the scrivener’s cabin, the door suddenly opened and Nuno Gomes leaned out. Someone had given him some clothes, but his shirt-tails were hanging nearly to his knees and his collar gaped open past the bottom of his breastbone. “Deco? I thought I—”
“What?” Deco snapped, spinning on his heel. He knew Cristiano was still at the other end of the hallway, and considering its short length the boy should’ve been able to hear every single word, but right now he honestly didn’t care. He didn’t feel like wasting the energy. “What? Thought what? Thought I’d changed my mind? Thought I’d changed somebody else’s?”
Nuno was silent for a moment. He’d been startled at first but then his gaze had gone solemn as it’d rested on Deco.
“Can we talk right now?” he finally said.
Deco began to tell him no, in very explicit terms, but unexpectedly ran out of breath. Then his throat itched suddenly and he had to cough, and when he finally could inhale, he found himself just…tired of it. José didn’t want him for anything important, apparently, and he’d just made certain that the other two people most likely to seek him out weren’t going to for a good long while, and really, where else could he go? Above the deck was José and below it was José, too.
So he shut his mouth and shouldered past Nuno, and then threw himself on the bunk while the other man closed the door. As Nuno did that, he leaned out a little more and his shoulders stiffened, but Deco resolutely refused to think about that. He was taking a break. He didn’t care. Somebody else could, for once in what seemed like a goddamn eternity.
Nuno was moving much more easily now, though the occasional wince still marred his grace as he took a seat besides Deco. He didn’t speak for several minutes after that, choosing instead to pick and tease at the wrappings on his right hand till he’d undone the knots. Then he got the end of the linen strip between his teeth and pulled up as he turned his hand in circles to unravel the bandages.
The action was oddly earthy for him, at least as Deco remembered him, and before Deco could catch it a snort had escaped. One slender eyebrow instantly lifted as Nuno looked at him. “What’s wrong?” he asked, spitting out the strip. He flicked the last loop off and the bandage to the mattress with a twist of the wrist, then began working at the next knot. “If there’s anything you can tell me about that. Are we going to be attacked again, or is the weather—”
“No.” Deco pressed his hands over his face, then lifted them. The skin around his eyes still ached and the muscles in his jaw were sore as well; he felt at them and found them tense and hard as iron.
Of course Nuno didn’t believe him—a child wouldn’t have—but the other man kept his mouth shut. Instead he carefully flexed his freed fingers, trying to see how far they’d curl. It looked as if his hand were stiff from being wrapped for a few days, but it still had all its mobility. “I’ve thought it over and I think it would help all of us if I told you a little more about what I was doing in Alexandria, but I haven’t been able to talk to José—”
“Well, it’s not like I can,” Deco spat out. Then he grimaced and laid down on the bed, not wanting to see Nuno’s expression. “God. Fucking God, just knock on his door the next time you see him go in. Or let a crewman know—wait, never mind. That doesn’t work now.”
The flesh around Deco’s mouth and chin was beginning to throb. After a moment he figured out it was because he was clenching his teeth, but couldn’t will himself into relaxing. Admittedly he wasn’t trying very hard; relaxation didn’t fit his current mood. Neither did lying around, but since he wasn’t allowed to lash out or otherwise deviate from the fucking plan…he was beginning to feel dizzy. He finally breathed and he felt a little better. “Look, Nuno, I don’t control José. I’m not the key to him. I never was. Stop wasting your time courting me and just make your bargains with him.”
“Deco. You’re the only person I’ve ever seen him ask for advice on anything,” Nuno said, startled out of his composure. He stared incredulously down. “Anyway, I do respect you as well and if I’m to get back to Lisbon alive and you’re to be let past the harbor again—”
Rolling his eyes, Deco shoved the hair away from his face, then let his arms fall back till his elbows hit the wall. “Why do you still think José might kill you? This is his ship and his men crewing it, yes, but sailors are sailors. He couldn’t do that without somebody talking once we got to port.”
“José? Well, I don’t believe that he’d be so crude as to slaughter me on deck, but I think ‘death of infected injuries’ would be easy enough for him to impress on his men’s minds. I’ve never known him to not have full control of his dominion.” As he talked, Nuno slowly turned over his unwrapped hand. He watched the tips of his fingers curl and uncurl with a wary look on his face, as if he feared that any moment the pain of dislocation might return.
“You haven’t known him lately,” Deco muttered. That rutter was his dominion now, and it’d even gone beyond that—he didn’t even want news of what was going on past the borders. He’d rather sit and go over the rutter for the thousandth time, and simply assume that everything else would be seen to by somebody. “You really want to know the truth? I wish I’d never left Portugal. I miss the Atlantic, I miss Porto. I should’ve done as Jorgé Andrade did and left to start my own shipping company instead of following José out here. Venice and the Mediterranean aren’t worth it.”
At first Nuno didn’t want to believe that either, but as he gazed at Deco he reluctantly gave up that look like someone had smacked him in the back of the head. And then he believed enough to take in the actual meaning of what Deco was saying.
His eyes widened a second before he abruptly turned his head to stare at the far wall. On his knee his hand curled into a fist, then sprang open as he flinched. He glanced down at it as he gingerly spread his fingers, then looked back at Deco. “What are you saying? That you don’t want to work with José anymore?”
“Well, I don’t like it, and since I’m telling you I don’t care who knows. I’d tell him, but I don’t think he’d listen long enough.” Deco started to let his head fall to the side, only to have a sudden stinging pain spread through it. He jerked it back, then touched at the cut above his ear. His fingers didn’t come away damp and red, but it took a good while for the pain to die away. “Why, what does it matter? You sound like you’ve just been told the king’s died.”
Nuno slowly hissed through his teeth and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. He pushed his bandaged hand through his hair a few times, tousling more than ordering the long strands, then ground it against his forehead. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose. “But you’re how he’s managed to do as well as he has. He needs you.”
“He’ll find somebody else. He gets final approval on all hires and he finds half of them anyway, so it’s not like he doesn’t know how to look. He just hasn’t because I’ve conveniently stayed,” Deco muttered. “He figured out how to do without working in Portugal, so he’ll figure out how to do without me.”
“He won’t.” The fingers squeezing Nuno’s nose were turning white at the tips under the pressure. “Deco, he—what’s wrong? What did he do to you? Or not do?”
Deco opened his mouth. Then he closed it, staring at the top of the bunk. He rubbed at his left temple with a thumb. “What does it matter to you? This should make him easier to deal with in the short-term, and you can take advantage of that. You probably need to, since even though he won’t kill you, he’s not going to feel like being generous about your—”
“Because I need both of you for this to work,” Nuno snapped. His fingers inched up till he could twist his wrist and push his thumb into the little dimple between his brows. “I…the message I was talking about before, it came from someone highly-placed at the sultan’s court in Cairo. It was offering us information on how to sail around Africa. A pilot’s rutter. I went to go meet with them and to obtain the rutter.”
“So?” To be honest, Deco didn’t want an answer. Towards that end he made his tone as flat and indifferent as possible.
Unfortunately, no one today seemed to have the slightest interest in what he cared about, instead looking towards their own interests. “So I was intercepted by the Turks and—and it seems as if they were waiting for me. They were asking me questions about it. They don’t have it and they can’t have it. They’ll just sit on it like the Saracens did. So I need to get that rutter before either of them do and for that I need a captain who’ll take risks and improvise well with few resources.”
This time, Deco merely grunted. Nuno was speaking too loudly now to simply ignore him so Deco tried to concentrate on the various other noises around them: the creaking of the beams, the muffled flapping of the sail-canvas above, the dull slap of water against the hull. A strange slow rasping just outside the door, like the slithering of a snake, and the slight scrape of a sole.
“I’ve told you now, so you know what’s at stake. And if you find the rutter then you’ve got a bargaining chip good enough to get you into João’s presence ahead of Colón, ahead of Dias. I’ll help with that—I have the leverage for it now and I swear, on the blood of my fathers, that I won’t back down like I did last time,” Nuno earnestly said. He dropped his hand, then cradled it in his other with the half-curled fingers pointed up, his eyes on his palm. “But first we have to find—”
“Nice practice speech. It’ll probably get his attention.” The next time the rock of the ship was in his favor, Deco sat up and grabbed the top of the bunk. He pulled himself out, twisting to avoid Nuno’s reach for him, and was across the room in two strides.
Deco had been on the Leya through multiple refittings and he knew every trick and catch to her, so it was easy to fling open the door before Cristiano had a chance to flee. Though the boy tried, throwing himself back against the far wall and then spinning about. But he dropped the rope, which had also given him away as its end had dragged over the planks, and it tripped him up so Deco could jerk him into the room by the arm.
He stumbled, then caught himself against the wall. A moment later he’d pivoted about to stare first at Deco and then at Nuno Gomes, who’d risen from the bunk with what appeared to be an expression of genuine shock. “I—wait—sir—Deco—”
“Oh, you were listening. Go on and talk now, because I’m done,” Deco muttered. He didn’t turn to address Cristiano and so he had no idea whether or not the boy had understood him, but it made no difference to him.
Neither did the rather heated argument that broke out behind him, nor the urgent-sounding way Nuno called after him. He didn’t bother listening to any of it, but instead marched back up onto deck and then across that till he’d reached the bow. There the ocean-spray frequently crashed over the prow and the rocking was stronger than anywhere else, but it was as far as he could get from everyone. Deco tied himself to the deck with a rope, then curled up with his arm over his head. He didn’t want to fall asleep again; he simply wanted to drown out anything human and here the loud, monotonous noise of the waves served him well in that pursuit.
* * *
By the time Deco took the helm, well into the evening, things appeared to be calm. The crew-members working alongside him hopped to whatever orders they were given—they were quieter than usual and avoided looking directly at him, but he was still in a seething mood. Seamen had an instinct for that sort of trouble and overall they tended to sensibly steer clear of involving themselves, unlike some people.
José was down below, probably locked in his cabin again, and true to form he sent Nuno Valente to do his talking for him. The other man was a bit grey beneath his tan and had a heavy limp, and he really should have been resting before his turn at the wheel, but instead he dutifully came up beside Deco and pointedly cleared his throat. Deco had to bite his lip to keep from slapping him.
“Whatever’s going on with you, get it fixed before something happens,” Nuno started, voice low and harsh. He reflexively shifted his weight as a gentle swell rolled the ship, then grunted in pain and put his hand to his side. “I mean, what the hell was that with Cristiano and the Count? All of a sudden Nuno Gomes was screaming his head off for Mourinho and wanted Cristiano put in the brig, and Cristiano was trying to convince Mourinho that the Count of goddamn Porto was going to betray us to the—the Turks, the Saracens, everyone and their fucking cousin.”
“Well, they can all—” Then Deco stopped as what Nuno was actually saying began to get through to him. That sort of reaction didn’t make much sense if Cristiano and…Deco irritably shook his head. He wasn’t the only one capable of making sense out of political intrigue and so he didn’t see why he always had to be the one doing it. “I’m tired, all right? José thinks we’re fucking slaves. Except I’m a man, and I’m not putting up with it.”
Nuno put his hand over his face and made a strangling noise into it. Then he looked up, eyelids fluttering, and pulled at his hair. “What are you talking about? You’re not making any sense. Have you gotten sunstroke or something, because Mourinho—God’s death, Deco. You get to call him José. To his face.”
“It’s just a name,” Deco spat out.
“And this is just a ship, and we’re just in the middle of the fucking Mediterranean with no friendly coasts near and a nobleman and a big secret on board.” Exhaling, Nuno let his head loll in a circle before grabbing the post on which the steering wheel was mounted and straightening up. “Fucking great time to be having a private fight, which isn’t really private, actually. You think this isn’t affecting anybody else? You think the crew hasn’t noticed?”
Deco started to reply, but paused. For a long while he stared out at the sea before him, watching the white foam crests of the waves glow eerily beneath the moonlight. Then he breathed in and wrapped his arms around the top spokes of the wheel, and leaned forward so he could rest his chin on top. “José hasn’t. And yes, I tried to tell him, but it’s useless. So I wonder what’s the point.”
Nuno had his hand over his face again, and the parts of his cheeks that showed through his splayed fingers were drawn and haggard. “Because that’s our job. We worry about the things he doesn’t have time to. If you suddenly are having problems with that—well, why now? Why get everyone else involved?”
“I didn’t mean to—my patience just ran out, Nuno. When we left Venice I thought I had more than I did,” Deco muttered. He rubbed over the top of his nose, then raked his hand back through his hair. “I don’t think he’s noticed yet, with all of what’s gone on. Telling him to his face doesn’t seem to work anymore, so I don’t know, maybe I thought—maybe I wasn’t really thinking. I’m not so used to thinking for myself now, thanks to him.”
No answer came from Nuno except a kind of groaning sigh, like that of an ox who’d been expecting to go home after a long day’s work only to be forced to pull at yet another load. He dragged his hand down his face, then grabbed at his throat as if he had something in it. But instead of choking, he stared up at the sky.
“I don’t think you want to understand anyway.” Deco finally pushed himself up off the wheel and squinted for the Pole Star and the navigational constellations. While they’d been talking he’d let the ship drift a bit and now he corrected for that. “So what, does José say we’ve got to stuff Cristiano in somebody’s room for the rest of trip? The crew hasn’t warmed up too much to him so they won’t object, but the brig hasn’t been fixed yet.”
“I don’t know,” Nuno irritably said. He dropped his hand, then lifted it again to try and pull his hair into a loose tail at the back of his head. “Mourinho and Nuno Gomes got to talking and they’ve been in Mourinho’s cabin ever since, and that left me with Cristiano. And I have no idea what’s going on, so I just told him to go sleep in the galley. I thought that’d keep him out of the way till you could figure out what to do with him.”
For a long, long while Deco simply looked out over the ship, over the prow and at the shimmering sea that surrounded them on all sides. It wasn’t quite black but the shadow of color that still imbued it wasn’t blue either; he dimly recollected ‘wine-dark’ from something he’d been made to read for his Latin or maybe Greek lessons. That time as a student in Prince Henry’s court, wide-eyed and excited and innocent as Cristiano, when he and his friends lionized the captains who would tramp off their ships and straight into the classrooms to tell them of strange new lands…it seemed centuries away. In all that rigorous teaching he’d never been told of the petty little problems that ate away the happiness of a day, of the way a passion could rise too high and sour like milk fermenting in the sun.
“There’s no point in pretending he’s just another crew-member. Everyone knows he isn’t,” he finally said. “The galley’s as good as anything else.”
Nuno didn’t answer for a few moments. He suddenly breathed in, but instead of speaking he pressed his hand to his mouth. Then he looked at Deco, still frustrated and uncomprehending, before walking away with a rude flip of the hand.
Deco thought about calling him back. But the fact that he had to think about it—anyway, Nuno had already climbed down to the main deck. So Deco let it be, and went back to watching the stars. They at least changed in ways that man could predict with knowledge and reason.
* * *
A flash of warmth passed over Deco’s shut eyes. Then it came again, and this time it lingered till it’d disrupted his dozing and caused him to crack open an eye to see if he was dreaming or not.
He wasn’t. José stood there on the last step, holding high a lantern that was casting its beam directly in Deco’s face. Once he saw that Deco was awake, he ducked beneath a low crossbeam and came further into the cramped space. They were deep in the hold and the wood here was always damp no matter how fast the pumps were worked, dripping water onto everything. Deco had a piece of canvas, part of a spare sail, to protect him from it but José had nothing and by the time José reached him, strands of hair were sticking wetly to the other man’s forehead.
“My turn to go steer,” Deco said flatly.
He began to get up, but José gestured for him to stop. “No, sit down. I don’t want anybody at the helm who doesn’t know where they’re going.”
After a moment, Deco just laid back down and closed his eyes. He heard the metallic grate of the lantern as it swung in José’s hand and the two snorts, the first irritated and the second angry. And then he threw up his hands and snarled as the canvas was suddenly whipped off of him; a corner of it caught his cheek and left a stinging welt behind. “What? Just say it because I’m not going to guess anymore, damn it!”
“What?” José echoed.
He sounded genuinely confused, and when Deco looked up at him, his expression seemed to support that impression. But that wasn’t a victory of any important. Getting the better of José only meant that Deco understood him that well—which wasn’t a new discovery—and not that José had gained any insights.
Then again, at this point there really shouldn’t be any expectations for him to, and why those still persisted…the rage boiled up and then over, and then Deco swung his legs down and sat up as much as the heavy, exhausted feeling that was rapidly spreading through him would allow. “Oh, what? What is it, then? Cristiano? Nuno Gomes? The Count finally told you what’s on his mind?”
“Yes, but I told him I saw the rutter burned by—” José stopped. He gazed down at Deco, his brows drawing together over his nose, and then he shook his head. “Never mind about all of that, unless it has anything to do with what’s distracting your mind.”
“So it’s that? Well, sorry, but I was too tired to be your stand-in. The storm and then the pirates right afterward wore me out.” Deco pressed his hands over his face and let them run back through his hair and down the back of his head. He breathed in deeply, then yanked at part of his shirt that’d gotten twisted about his waist. “What do you want me to think about? Lisbon? The crew? Fucking India?”
Now José seemed disturbed enough to make a slicing motion with his hand, cutting Deco off. The shadows spun nauseatingly about them as he moved towards Deco and the lantern swung in his hand. “No, not that. I’m asking why you’ve been so difficult lately. Why you’re snapping at everyone and unsettling things.”
“Un—unsettling…” For a few moments, Deco merely stared at him. Then he laughed, and laughed again when the echo of the first came back all thin and warped. “Oh, God have mercy. You want to know…that. You really want to know. Well—”
He kicked his right heel back till it hit the side of the crate on which he’d been lying, then yanked himself to his feet. Deco moved too quickly for the rolling of the ship and arrived at the standing position unbalanced, so he grabbed at the nearest thing. It turned out to be José’s elbow, and so then they were facing each other, so close that even in the dim light Deco could count the number of lashes on José’s right eye.
Instead of that he watched the way that eye changed, the widening and then narrowing of the pupil, the darkening of the iris. The smoothing of the crow’s feet at the corner when José’s brows rose, so the little streaks of pale untanned skin that were normally hidden in those folds were revealed.
“I’ve been with you—I can’t even remember how many years,” Deco said slowly, “And José, you’re brilliant and it’s been amazing to watch your brilliance, but that’s not why I stayed. Because you’re also so infuriating that the Devil probably invents new tortures while watching you and you’re a goddamn tyrant, and you think I’m always going to tell you what you need to know so you don’t have to go through the work of guessing. Well, you should’ve, because then—”
Some noise, muffled but demanding, suddenly intruded on them. The moment’s confusion it caused Deco made him lose his already shaky grip on his thoughts and he just stood there, mouth open, hanging onto José’s arm like an idiot. He told himself to snap out of it, to just finish—do something to end it, but—and José didn’t do anything either. No, the other man merely looked at Deco and his expression almost made Deco think that maybe—
“That’s the warning bell,” José said. He jerked around, but found himself impeded. With only an absent glance back, he pulled his arm free and walked quickly to the steps, then took those two at a time.
Then he was gone, and Deco was in the damp darkness, and God, why did it take him so many years to realize what an idiot he was? Why—for that matter, why José Mourinho? Why not Jorgé Andrade, who’d offered everything if Deco had stayed in Portugal? Why not Nuno Gomes, who was high-born and beautiful and who at least pretended to care?
That damn bell was still ringing, and added to its noise now were the thumping of many feet and the occasional shout. Deco groaned, his hands on top of his head, and then dragged himself to the stairs to go see what was the matter now.
* * *
Normally Deco would’ve run into half-a-dozen crewmembers on the way up to the main deck, but despite the uproar he didn’t encounter anyone till he was on the level with the cabins. Then he heard someone calling out.
The back of his neck suddenly prickled. He recognized the voice and it belonged to a seaman who’d shipped with them before, but nevertheless a chill swept over him. He’d been through too much to ignore that and so he backed into the nearest doorway while fumbling out the keys he wore strung around his neck. They clinked together as he drew them from his shirt and he grimaced, then sacrificed stealth for speed as he jammed one into the lock. The moment the door swung open, he was through it and then shoving it shut.
And for that he was nearly stabbed in the heart. Deco saw the flash of steel and cried out, throwing up his arm and dropping down to the floor. He yanked his own blade from his boot, then whipped about just in time to see Cristiano fall back.
Then a relieved look spread over the boy’s face and he all but tumbled to the ground, his right hand darting out to grab Deco’s foot as pilgrims would a holy relic. “Oh, thank—hurry, lock the door!”
“What—” But Deco twisted about and did as he was told.
And not a moment too soon, since immediately afterward something slammed into the door so hard that he could actually see the wood bend towards him. A few muffled curses followed, as well as a nervous kind of shuffling.
“Deco? Sir?” a crew-member finally called. “Listen, sir, we just want to have a word with you.”
“He’s lying!” Cristiano hissed. “They’re throwing a mutiny! Nuno Valente tried to stop them and they dragged him from the wheel, and they’ve got the Count of Porto up there too—”
“And Captain Mourinho!” shouted another crewman. “He says it’s true, that he’s going to take us down the African coastline where you turn black and grow a tail like a monkey, and the sea boils and—”
He was abruptly cut off, as if he’d been struck. A moment later, the first man spoke again. His tone was placating, but carried an undertone of fearful arrogance. “We don’t want to go, sir. We know you’ve been objecting too and the captain hasn’t been listening, and we just want to go home. We don’t want to hurt anybody, but we will if we have to.”
Deco pushed himself off the door and leaned forward to slap his hand over Cristiano’s mouth before the indignant retort flew out of it. Then he shoved himself over the boy and took quick stock of the room’s contents: José’s sword was in the corner, and there should still be plenty of knives around, and—no, the pistol had gotten knocked about in the storm and was broken. Damn. It would’ve been impressive enough by itself, probably. “You can’t go home if you rise up against your rightful captain,” he called back. “Or if you threaten the life of a very important—”
“Well, nobody’s got to know exactly what happened, do they?” Muttering on the other side of the door. Some of them were already letting the situation get to their heads and talking about not needing anyone at all to rule over them. “Deco, we still think you’re a sensible man. We’ll give you some time to think it over, and if you’re with us, then come out and give us the boy, too.”
Cristiano nearly bit Deco’s hand in his eagerness to reply to that, to the point where Deco had to smack him on the side of the head to get him to quiet down. Then Deco crawled off him and started collecting what weapons the cabin possessed, and Cristiano got up to glower at the door. “Those bastards. They—”
“What have you been telling them?” Deco snapped. He shoved his dagger plus three more into his boots, then jerked up his shirt and speared a couple more through his belt. Then he went over to the wall that faced the outside. “Goddamn it, we don’t have time for games now. I know you aren’t here just because you’re such a patriot and admirer of José that you’d—”
“Well, I’m not working for the Count of Porto either, all right? I just recognized him and was surprised he’s here—I’ve seen him in Lisbon.” Cristiano grabbed up the sword and the remaining daggers, then came over to watch Deco feel at the wall. “I was just supposed to get you back to Lisbon as fast as possible. And I haven’t been telling the men anything, and you know, that’s probably why they want to kill me. You put me there with them and tell me to be like them, but they’re always asking what do I know about you and Captain Mourinho, and then get angry when I don’t—”
During the fight against the pirates, a piece of shrapnel had gone through the wall and the hole had been boarded up—annoyingly well considering it had been a temporary job, Deco found when he tried to pry the planks off. He managed to get the first board up about an inch but it stopped there and wouldn’t budge; he put his foot against the wall and yanked again, and then nearly fell backwards as the nails came free.
Cristiano had to stop talking to catch him, which was a godsend. The boy pushed Deco back on his feet, then tackled the next board and had it off in half the time Deco had needed. “I would’ve told you sooner, but I didn’t know if you still hated Dias and then I found out you did—”
“Dias? You’re from Dias?” The shock momentarily wiped everything else from Deco’s mind. But then he heard a pained, hoarse shout from above and he flinched. That’d been Nuno Valente’s voice. Deco almost—but thankfully, a torrent of furious snarling in José’s voice then rang out and he calmed a little. If they were still letting José talk, then there was time.
“He can’t find enough good men to staff the African fleet. He wants Mourinho to come along with him,” Cristiano grunted. He wrenched off the last board, then bounced back on the balls of his feet. A couple splinters fell from his hands and he glanced at them, then gave his palms a quick look-over. “I don’t know why you hate him so much, but he’s really desperate. He’ll apologize and everything, as long as you help him get the fleet going. That ass Colón’s charmed the king so that the departure keeps getting delayed.”
Deco drew a dagger and then cautiously, quickly peered out of the hole they’d made. A high wave instantly soaked him to the shoulders, but not before he’d seen that the way up the side of the Leya was clear enough; José was holding the crew’s attention elsewhere. “We hate him because he stole information from us and João picked his presentation over José’s and so that’s why José isn’t leading the fleet. Wait here.”
“No.” When Deco looked at him, Cristiano shrugged his shoulders and pointedly hefted José’s sword. “Look, I don’t like Dias either. But he was my chance to go meet Mourinho, and to get out of Portugal. I want to travel and see everything. Trust in that if you can’t trust me.”
“You’re going to regret you ever said that in about eight years,” Deco finally muttered. “Fine. Go for the mutiny leader, the moment you can tell who it is, and then stop till I tell you. I’ll get Nuno Valente and José.”
Before Cristiano could reply, Deco had pushed half of himself out the hole. He grabbed a cable that was wrapped about the ship, then pulled himself out and kicked off the bottom of the hole.
He climbed fast and reached the edge of the deck in less than a minute, but one peek over the edge told him he was on the wrong side. Rather than sneak across the ship and chance being spotted too soon, Deco opted for the exhausting sideways crawl around the stern. He heard a soft hiss as Cristiano followed him out, and then nothing, which was impressive considering the sword Cristiano had to manage. But even if the boy could be quiet, that sword was going to slow him down. Deco didn’t bother to wait.
By the time he’d gotten round to the right side, the crew were worked up and starting to talk about things like hangings should they be caught. José was trying to talk over them and impose himself, but they’d gotten too loud and could only hear each other. Their fear was overriding everything else.
Deco warily hauled himself up so he could see over the deck and found himself staring at a man’s back. José was standing before the prone man, swinging a knotted rope, and Nuno Gomes was leaning against a cannon beside him, so…Deco coughed as quietly as he could.
The back stiffened. Then Nuno Valente slowly rolled over, his face a mask of agony and groans issuing from his lips. Several of the crewmen looked at him and Deco had to duck, but if José noticed, he hadn’t let it break the flow of his speech as he tried to reason with the men.
He was still blowing holes in the various pieces of superstition they were raising when Deco lifted his head again. Now Nuno Valente was sprawled out facing him; some pain still twisted his face but he was well enough for his eyes to glint with amusement. “Took you long enough. Were you sulking in a corner again?”
Deco didn’t bother to answer except to slide two daggers over to him. Once they’d disappeared into Nuno’s shirt, Deco inched over so he was behind Nuno Gomes. The Count was silent, but the rigidity of his shoulders and the nervous circles the hand he had on the cannon was drawing said he was following the argument between José and the crew very closely. That discussion had now shifted to blame, with the crew apparently of the opinion that Nuno Gomes had been the one to talk José into Africa, and if he hadn’t come aboard, José would’ve just been going to Portugal to defend his reputation against Colón. Deco had the feeling Cristiano had let a few things slip through his lips, no matter how he protested to the contrary.
“He’s the Count of Porto, but more importantly, he’s my guest on my ship, and I want you to respect that,” José snapped. His impatience and injured pride had gotten the better of him and for a moment he’d forgotten he hadn’t yet earned back his men’s belief.
“It’s only your ship so long as we work it!” someone yelled.
So many assenting cries went up that Deco knew the frenzy was going to peak, and right then the crew wouldn’t be made up of men, or of anything that could reason. He couldn’t wait for Cristiano, so he grabbed the rail and swung over.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Nuno Gomes start to turn towards him, but his momentum was carrying him forward. Deco collided with José’s shoulder and put his foot down on something that moved so he lost his balance, throwing all of his weight onto José. The other man slid sideways, leaving Deco to confront a bright gleam.
And then the dagger punched into his chest. At first all he felt was the impact, a jarring but not painful blow, but then he breathed out and suddenly his torso was on fire. He couldn’t stand, but—Deco lashed out and grabbed at something, at an arm. He got it and as he fell, he slashed with his own dagger. Hot blood instantly splattered in his eyes and mouth, blinding him.
He instinctively tried to twist away from the other man, but he was already weakening and his body wouldn’t do it. Then he landed on the deck, and the force of it plus the blade in him—he gasped and just braced himself for the weight.
Which never came. Instead a hand clamped onto his shoulder and pulled him over, and Deco had the blurry impression of Nuno Gomes looking at him. In the background someone else was gurgling out the last remnants of their life, and there was Cristiano’s voice and José shouting like…like…
…like when they’d left Portugal, and José had stood on the Leya’s stern-rail and told the docks exactly what he thought of the king and of Bartholomeu Dias. Exactly like that.
Well, he survived once, and he’d do it again, Deco thought, and the dizziness meant he couldn’t work up the usual bitterness at that thought. Then he passed out.
* * *
“…moving again. God, you’re a horrible patient even when you’re uncon—Deco! He’s awake, he’s awake!” Maniche’s voice went from annoyed to ecstatic so quickly Deco’s still-cottony head swum.
Deco didn’t try to answer, or to really figure out what was going on with all the noise beside him, but instead concentrated on simply opening his eyes. It took an almost unimaginable effort, but he finally managed it.
Above him was José’s somber face. It unexpectedly twinned as something thudded nearby, then condensed into one again.
The first time Deco tried to say something, the only noise that passed his lips was a sick sort of croak. He swallowed three times before he worked up the saliva, then tried again. “I cannot believe I did that. That has to be the stupidest—”
José touched his cheek. Then the side of his forehead, and then while Deco was staring uncomprehendingly up at him, he bent down and pressed his lips to Deco’s.
For the first second Deco was in shock, but then a nail scratched the cut on the side of his head as José slipped his fingers into Deco’s hair and that sort of thing never happened in fantasies. So it was real, and Deco groaned and opened his mouth in a hurry. He somehow wrenched up his arm and got his hand on José’s shoulder, and José leaned forward a little more.
Then the other man lifted his head. He was frowning. “I know it was stupid. It would’ve been smarter to just tell me.”
“I—you—how can you say that? How can you say that, you blind bastard?” Deco snapped. This time he knew how he got the strength to hold José in place; the anger washed away all the fatigue and pain. “What do you think I’ve been doing all these years? Putting up with you, falling asleep in your cabin…it’s not my fault you’re a damn blockhead sometimes. And what about the mutiny? If you’d listened to me and Nuno Valente about that—”
“I know.” José closed his eyes, then opened them again. His hand stroked through Deco’s hair. It briefly left so he could resettle himself closer to Deco on the mattress, then came back to cup Deco’s jaw. “But I’m not God, I’m not even a mind-reader. Sometimes I don’t know things, sometimes I don’t want to know things because then I’ll be distracted and get stuck in problems. I have to keep pushing ahead if I want to have anything in life, I learned that early. But no, it’s not a perfect way to do things. I can’t do everything at once, Deco. I have to give up one thing to get the other and sometimes I’m thinking so hard about that other thing that I don’t even realize.”
After a moment, Deco put his head down and let out a long sigh. “I know that. I know what you’re like. But I couldn’t just come out and tell you. You needed to…” he put his hand over his face “…I couldn’t tell you, all right? I just thought you’d know, sooner or later.”
“I’m late,” José admitted. Most people wouldn’t call that an apology, but then, possibly no one had ever gotten even that much from him.
The strain of holding his arm up put too much stress on Deco’s chest and he dropped his hand back, letting it fall beside his head. “I can’t believe I waited.”
José glanced at him, brows pulled down, but after a few moments José’s face smoothed out. He reached out and put his free hand down on Deco’s other side, then bent over while lifting Deco’s head. His thumb curved beneath Deco’s jaw, running along it, before sneaking up between their mouths. It dipped into Deco’s mouth as they drew off for breath, then slipped out when José’s mouth came back and traced across Deco’s cheek, leaving behind a streak of warm wetness.
Deco half-closed his eyes and dragged his hand over till he felt José’s arm. He used it to guide his fingers till he could curl their tips in the tiny hairs at the nape of José’s neck, tickling at them as he sucked at José’s tongue, lower lip. Then he pushed his hand over and slung his arm around José’s shoulders as a square palm, firm rough fingers pressed across his belly, his hips. The folds of José’s shirt grazed against his chest and where he’d been stabbed it ached with frequent agonizing twists, but he still arched up into the other man’s hand, letting his nipples peak under the teasing passes of the cloth.
And then José pushed his hand between Deco’s legs and Deco jerked, then gasped in pure pain. White spots were still dancing in his vision when José pulled away both hands.
“If you’d told me this was it you wouldn’t have gotten stabbed,” José muttered. His hands returned, but to feel at Deco’s wounds with the impersonal touch of a surgeon. “I thought you were trying to figure out how to say you wanted to quit once we got to Lisbon.”
“I was thinking about that.” Deco shrugged, then winced again at the stab of pain that went through him. “It was getting too much. If you’d noticed sooner, I would’ve been in a better mood this trip.”
“You…” Rolling his eyes, José shifted so he could reach something on the floor. He came up with a bowl containing some sort of paste, which he then used to dress Deco’s wound. “Well, while you were unconscious we passed Gibraltar. We’ll be in Lisbon in a day or so. So if you want to, you’d better make up your mind.” He glanced at Deco. “I want you for India, but I won’t stand in your way if you want to go.”
Deco gritted his teeth as the bandages were rewrapped around his chest, then eased himself back down. He closed his eyes and rubbed at his nose. “I never actually said I wanted to come on this trip.”
José exhaled loudly in a mixture of exasperation and disappointment. “Look. India is my dream. It always has been, before and after we met. I’ll leave you if I have to in order to go there. But I don’t want to.”
“If I do come, are you going to pretend this here…” Deco gestured between them “…never happened?”
The icy, emotionless look on José’s face cracked, then dropped completely away as he stared at Deco. Then the corner of his mouth lifted, just a little, before he lightly hit the uninjured side of Deco’s head. “I am the captain of this ship. There are certain proprieties that have to be observed, or else you lose order and that’s too dangerous.”
“Most people think we’ve been fucking for years,” Deco baldly said.
“Most people are fools.” José wiped his hands off on a rag, then leaned back against the side of the bunk. He stared out at his cabin. “You’re not, usually, and I’m not. But if you ever think of this as—”
Deco sighed. “José, it’s been a serious disadvantage for me for years and I haven’t even gotten anything but a lot of frustration out of it.”
“And you won’t be getting anything but that for another…” José rocked his head from side to side, his lower lip folding up “…oh, three weeks. The blade was turned away by a rib and struck no organs, but it tore a lot of muscle. And Nuno Valente’s still injured, and damn it, now I have to have Cristiano be his crutch and borrow men from Tiago to sail. And get a whole new crew when we make port, and—”
“At least Nuno Gomes owes you,” Deco said quickly. If he let José run on anymore, he’d start thinking about leaving again and it’d been too long since he’d been in a good mood. He wanted it to last.
José paused, then nodded. “Well, there’s that. Now go to sleep and at least heal up enough so I can take you to court with me.”
He leaned over and his lips brushed Deco’s forehead, stopping the complaint cold on Deco’s lips. Then he left without a backward glance, already thinking on what he needed to do above-deck. But for once Deco didn’t mind, since he was waiting for something that actually existed. José would be back. Sooner.
* * *
“Impressed?” Nuno Valente dryly asked, nudging an open-mouthed Cristiano with his elbow.
Cristiano started to nod, then caught himself and glowered at the other man. He let Nuno stumble down the coach’s steps before he got his hand under the man’s arm, already staring again at the huge, ornately decorated house before them. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care that Nuno was taking some liberties in how he held onto him—well, possibly it was something else, as Maniche moved so Deco briefly glimpsed Cristiano’s hand drifting towards Nuno’s backside.
Interesting. It hadn’t seemed like Cristiano’s admiration of José had diminished any—on the contrary—but he and Nuno had been spending a lot of time together. And though he had many unsuspected virtues, Cristiano did not seem like the type who’d pass up a good thing while waiting for his ideal to become possible.
“As long as you’re in Lisbon, treat it as your own home,” Nuno Gomes said. He managed a stately sweep of his arm before surrendering to the support of his valet, who’d apparently had his face frozen in the horrified look he’d assumed upon seeing his master’s condition. “The king’s already sent a welcome, and people are on the watch for Ricardo Carvalho, and I think Dias will be calling on you in a—Rui! José, this is Rui Costa, who commands my guard. Rui, José Mourinho, captain of the Leya and two other ships.”
“Sir. My lord.” The guardsman made a brief bow, then fell alongside Gomes. Soon he had Nuno by the arm, and as he dragged the Count into a side-hall Deco faintly heard him alternating between scolding Nuno and expressing his guilt at not having been there to help. Nuno’s rather testy reply was that he’d ordered Rui not to come, but he was leaning heavily on the other man by that point.
Then they disappeared and some other lackey led them to their rooms, of which Deco was very glad since traveling in a litter hadn’t been very easy on his chest. He gladly let his body sink into the bed while José busied himself with finding a place to secrete the rutter. “Are we ever going to tell them about that? It doesn’t seem like we’d need to now, in order to get to India.”
“No, I don’t think so.” The sound of splashing water said that José had finished with his task and was now preparing for dinner. “We’ll see if Dias has changed any when we see him. If not, and he’s still the same sort who’d let his crew overwhelm him…”
Deco frowned, then turned his head. “Which we’d know about.”
“Yes, and we know how to get the crew to listen again and keep going. Whereas he’d let his men get more and more scared, and then just do the minimum to accomplish his task before going back.” José shook his hands dry, then came over to the bed. He looked down at Deco with a faintly reproving expression. “And this time, no stabbing.”
“I’d appreciate that a lot,” Deco snorted. It was a miracle he hadn’t gotten an infection in the wound and he wasn’t eager to see if he could achieve a repetition. “So…he can round Africa, but you want India?”
“I want India,” José echoed. He reached out and ran his fingers along the collar of Deco’s shirt, then back up. Then he leaned over, his thumb lying against the line of Deco’s jaw and his fingers lapping Deco’s ear. “You’d be well enough by then.”
He kissed Deco while Deco was still calling him a bastard. Deco hit his shoulder, then grabbed it and pulled hard at it. He could already taste the spices in José’s mouth.
This is why, he thought, and closed his eyes.