The boatswain, a large man with scars on his arms and face, walked over to stand in front of René. “Chain him to the mast.”
Their gazes met.
“Don’t look at me, boy.” He backhanded René in the face. “Look down at the deck when I talk to you. You’re some over-fed nobleman’s kid thinkin’ you make the rules. Surprised you ain’t cryin’ for your mama. You got a mama, boy?” he asked and laughed. When René didn’t answer, he hit him again. “I asked you a question, boy. Don’t try my patience, ‘cause I ain’t got none.”
“My mother died when I was born.” René studied the man’s feet to see how he moved. All the while he cataloged everything in his peripheral vision.
“Well, not to worry, you will be seeing her soon.” The boatswain turned to walk away then turned back and hit René again. His bitter laugh floated across the deck. “I just had to do that.”
Though they had chained him in a way that forced him to stand, René had enough slack to turn and see most of the ship. He was aboard an English slave ship. She was an older carrack in design with the raised forecastle. She had seen better days, though. The fact that she was still on the seas suggested either a cutthroat reputation or an experienced captain. Under the wear, the ship was surprisingly clean, her ropes and sails newly repaired and in good order. Second rate though she might be, she was seaworthy. This was a veteran crew, competent in their tasks, and not likely to make mistakes that might allow him to escape. Escape. Even if he could, where would he go in the middle of the ocean?
Do not rush fate. One thing at a time. Do what you can do.
His master’s voice echoed within his head.
He had to pick a fight and hope he survived long enough to create allies. The next time the big boatswain walked by, René laughed. “What are you findin’ so funny, boy?” The man stuck his face within inches of René’s.
The boatswain’s right leg was shorter than his left and René doubted anyone brought that fact to his attention without regret.
“You walk funny.” René called out loud and clear. There was no profit to him if he got beat up and no one knew why.
All work within the sound of René’s voice stopped. Silence reigned. René had guessed right, and now he needed to survive his insight.
The boatswain froze, disbelief written on his face. The disbelief changed to rage. “What did you say?” Spittle flew from his mouth.
Even the captain had turned to watch. René counted on the fact that Gaspard’s agent had given the captain a great deal of money along with explicit instructions that did not include throwing a dead boy overboard. What he could not know was how close to dead the agent considered acceptable.
“I said you walk funny,” René said— louder this time, so there was no mistake in his words.
“Do you know what a cat is, boy?” The veins in the man’s neck pulsed. His eyes were shot red with blood.