I gripped the rope in my left hand, staring up at the mast. I could feel the rough fiber tugging in the breeze and my stomach quivered in kind. I had only dared the climb once before, but had been so useless no one bothered to ask me again. But I felt a kind of challenge in that failure, and every once in a while considered trying again.
“Oy, get out the way there, Robin, lad! At least help if your hands are idle!”
I winced. I hated being called “lad,” just as I had once hated being addressed as “lass” or “lady.” Robin wasn’t even my real name. The crewman started calling me that after they heard me singing quietly to myself one muggy night. The name didn’t bother me so much as the fact the false identity I had laboured over in order to secure a position on this vessel was now useless.
I turned and began helping load the new stores. Winston and Rawley always asked why I never wanted to go ashore at every new port, but I preferred the relative safety of the ship. I knew the crew there, and there was a significantly higher chance of being spotted in the busy cities we visited. I knew I was already taking a risk being on the ship in the first place, but by now the men recognized me, and didn’t think to look any closer.
The ship was called the Chrysanthemum, a word I wouldn’t be able to spell if my life depended on it. I could barely pronounce it. Most men just called her Mum, which was a kind of a joke of itself. But the captain was a strange man with an affinity for flowers. Although he kept the ship in good order and the men well-paid, we all were curious where he found the extra coin to buy bouquets at every port.
I had been in his quarter’s only once, and the sweet and heady scent of both fresh and wilted blooms made me feel sick. I imagined that room to be like the wild jungles filled with ferocious animals and secretive peoples the crew had seen, or claimed they had. But the flowers found their way around the whole of the ship. The men would plait them into one another’s hair, teasing and flirting, but most of the blossoms ended up hanging in bunches to dry in the galley where I worked. I couldn’t imagine the use for them, although I admit at times I enjoyed watching the dry petals drift lazily down around our heads, the cook and I.
The cook was a large, silent man named Lukas. Whether he didn’t speak because he chose not to, or because the rumors were true that his tongue had been cut out, I didn’t mind the silence. I took refuge in the dark galley, scaling fish and softening hardtack, and felt a comfortable and completely unfounded sense of companionship with the giant culinarian.
I was reminded of my current responsibility as the sun flashed against the silver buckle of a bag being hauled aboard. I raised my hand to shield my eyes and noticed one of the passengers staring directly at me.
She was not tall, but held herself very erect. Her large nose had an attractive arch. Her auburn hair could be seen spilling from her bonnet, and her dress was a handsome dark green that seemed to compliment her rather broad shoulders. She was standing at the top of the ramp, watching me with an intense curiosity that for some reason made me blush. I turned away, eager to finish the load and get back belowdecks, but it seemed as though I could feel the woman’s gaze upon my back.
A rough nudge made me lose my balance, and I gripped the bag I carried more tightly.
“Looks like this lot’s a might easier on the eyes than the last one, eh, Rob?”
Percy sneered and tried to trip me, but I steadied myself around his outstretched foot.
“They’re not here for you to gawk at, Percy,” I mumbled, and he laughed.
“What else for, then? It’s not like they’re going to be any help.”
He put on his most wicked smile and crossed his arms. “A bit like you, wouldn’t you say?”
I ignored him and pushed my way past, and for once he didn’t follow. He was a weevil in the flour of the crew, he and Scratch, the one man who tolerated him. I wasn’t quite sure why he was kept on, as the crew didn’t seem to have much love for him either. I had heard once that he was a distant relation to the captain, and that it was only this association that kept him aboard. He certainly didn’t seem like he would find a place on another crew. But this crew, the mean of the Mum, they were good men, from what I understood of my limited experience in life. And, while I could not say what compelled it, they seemed to have developed a fondness for me, and I for them. It was the only thing keeping me alive, and I did not dare disrupt it.
**To be continued**