It was the strangest thing, sitting on the cold stone floor in front of one of the dark cells, my eyes fixed on a Haian’s face through the bars.
“I was as fresh faced as any new graduate, setting off on my service, to Tor Ench, actually. The ship was taken by pirates. Horoken himself, wielding that mythical sword of his.” He paused a long moment, eyes staring off into time.
“He was pleased to have acquired a Haian, even one trained for Tor Ench. He said most nationalities bled the same.” Merchoser looked down then. “I can tell you that the rumors about Horoken and his sons… no they were not double manheight tall. Their teeth were not filed, nor were they made of steel. They had skin like anyone else, not scales, or hide, nor was it made of stone.
“Horoken’s heart wasn’t stone. I listened to it beat often enough before he vanished and left his pirate kingdom to his sons. But the rumours that were true…the ones about them being cannibals, were correct. Everyone on the ship who was not ransomed for a high enough price… they ate.”
I stared at him. What must it have been like, a Haian, to be forced into close proximity to their worst nightmare? It was true? Horoken would have eaten children? I wanted to throw up.
“So I healed them and their victims. I cared for their wives, the aitza they’d captured and claimed as wives and their children. For nineteen years. After the old one vanished into the sea… leaving that sword of his broken on the sand… the sons pirated less and less and mostly stayed home, letting the sea give them the occasional treat. They became mostly wreckers. And I sat in my clinic, when they left me alone… and drank myself into a stupor more often than not.”
“It was a response to pain, Merchoser,” Kaninden interjected. “Even self inflicted alcohol poisoning is useful occasionally.”
They were all listening. They would have known this, before, but it was all new to me. “They all trained… the oldest five ruled the roost with the old man gone, Mettkias was the eldest and when a storm wracked the sea, they all took their runs along the shore to mark out the wreckage that would wash in over the reef that had eaten the ship, and to gather up the survivors and bring them back to the manor house.” He paused and got up slowly, to get some water. “It’s good that I move,” he said. “There’s no bubbling under the bandages so my lung isn’t truly punctured. And motion helps the recovery if there is no infection.”
I nodded and waited, on tenterhooks… it sounded like there was a shipwreck in the story. “And one day Nuninibas, the second oldest, brought in a number of survivors for me to heal. Like good husbandmen, they wanted their livestock in good shape before the slaughter.” He brought his water back to the bars and sat down again. “The shipwreck survivors had the usual abrasions, contusions, strains and cuts one gets in such an accident, except for one fellow who had more healed scars and flog-marks than he should have survived as well. He had this awful scar on his face, across his right cheek. You already know, it was Chivinga.”
“The month-captain stood close by, speaking for him. She told me he was an escaped slave from Arko tortured to muteness. She didn’t mention his name to me then. I was already longing for the bottle I had hidden in my cabinet and when she went off to talk to the others I’d already healed I went for it. I figured the mute man wouldn’t be able to say anything about my drinking. And I usually wasn’t allowed to speak by the Horoken’s anyway.”
“I had no idea what I was about to unleash,” he said, an odd mix of horror-stricken and glad on his face. He sipped from his water glass, almost reflexively. “I had a swig or two and looked into my patient’s intense and above all quiet eyes, and dared speak. ‘You poor, poor men and women… You have no idea, no idea at all who your amiable hosts are and what your fates are going to be.’
“That’s what I said to him, thinking that in his muteness, I was safe.” He sipped again as if his water were the wine he’d drunk then."'Those young men? They’re Horoken’s sons and they will devour you all, you all.' I said to him."
His words had taken on a drunken cadence. “'Nineteen years in this deathly place, my lad and I’ve seen people just like you go down to the knives. I’m so sorry.' That's what I told him then, the longest I'd spoken in moons." He put his water cup down with a click and I was startled to not smell alcohol. Merchoser was so far into the memory, his voice was slurred. I could almost feel the other Haians listening. Was him telling me this helping him, somehow? I held my tongue and listened, terrified for Chevenga, though I knew he was alive and free and healed.
“Next thing I knew is this silent man had me—quite gently given what I’d just told him—by both wrists and is nose to nose with me. I blinked at him and he softly said ‘What did you just say? What did you just tell me, Haian?' He just began speaking. Just like that. He’d gotten the bottle away from me and had me by the wrists so fast I felt like I blinked and our positions just changed.”
“I couldn’t speak again immediately. I was so frightened and startled by his transformation. And he waited for me. Waited for me to take a breath. ‘I… ummm… said this is all for form because they’re the sons of Horoken, and inside a moon, before the supply ship comes, you’ll all be dead.’ I managed to whisper that.”
He was very quiet but spoke clearly. 'Did they lie about the supply ship twice a moon?'”
“'No,'” I told him, starting to shake in his grip. I shouldn’t have done this, I thought. This time the Horokens would kill me.
"'Are there any weapons in the house?' he asked me and I had to tell him only those in the weapons locker. Mettkias had the key. And I told him that too and about the broken old ships, the rotten remnants left of Horoken’s fleet in the ship barn.”
“He got it all out of me before I broke down completely and started shaking so hard I couldn’t get the words out past rattling teeth. I was terrified because I’d just told him. They’d punish me if they found out their victims knew and might fight back. I started weeping and this man who I’d thought was a helpless torture victim gathered me into his arms and told me all I had to do was be quiet.”
Merchoser’s face reflected a longing I didn’t understand at first, but when he spoke again I thought I could. “I scrambled to try and get my bottle back and he held me away from it. 'You don’t need that, Merchoser. You can do it. Would it be out of character for you to be too drunk to talk? Pretend.’
I shook my head and he said. ‘However you do it, for all our lives, Merchoser, don’t let on. Hold your silence as if you were stumble-tongue drunk.’ I had another bottle stashed away and I had a little more to drink after he left. All I had to do was be quiet and trust him. And hope.”
“It happened in the diningroom. I sat, mostly with my eyes closed, pushing the food around on my plate. I opened my eyes when Chivinga started it. He was armed… I didn’t see the fight. I saw the first blood fly and hid under the table with my hands over my ears and my eyes clamped shut tight. I didn’t want to see any more. I’d seen too much in my years with the Horokens."
"I don’t know if he killed them all himself or if the sailors helped him, but he got a wound, similar to this…” he jerked a thumb at the bandage on his chest. “And I healed him of it. It got infected and nearly killed him.” His hand settled on the bandage under his robe, on his own torso, a connection to Chevenga, in a way. He sat silent on the stone across from me for a long moment.
“He killed them? And set you free?” I looked at the frayed edge of my night robe where my fists were knotted. He nodded at me.
“Thank you for telling me. Thank you for healing him.” I spoke to the whole corridor. “I know you can’t all hear me… and I know you’d do it just because you’re healers, Haians… but thank you.”
Merchoser, looking tired, but in a strange way also satisfied, nodded at me. “You’re welcome, Minis. You’re right. Because we are Haians, and we would heal anyone who needed.” From him, that truly meant something. “I need to lie down again.”
“Oh, please do.” I offered him my hand to help him up, through the bars. He looked at me and my hand and took it, slowly. His fingers were cold. “I’ll keep doing what I can. You all hang on. I’m sure your Spirit of Life is with you.”
I had to run back to give Misahis one last hug, the bars pressed harsh between us, before I hammered on the door to be let out.