Soilboy

 Illustration by Susan Cook

Illustration by Susan Cook

Jayk put down the bowl of spirits and drew his claws along his drooping whiskers, removing the couple of droplets that had spilled.

“That’s the stuff,” he said, nodding to his companion. “And then what?”

“Well,” Hark said, nose twitching, “I told him sea otters don’t go up rivers, see? Or we’d be river otters. Wasn’t ’til later I realised that the Dharmish sign for ‘sea’ and ‘river’ are the same - means ‘water’ to them, big or small.” Hark shook his furry head, several greyish hairs drifting off and floating down to the floor. “Useless. Local dialects, eh?”

“At least you’ve got work right now.”

Hark shrugged. “Eh, it’s a livin’. An’ you seem to be doin’ ok. Not like you’re hurting for coin.”

“You’d be surprised.” Jayk bared his teeth in a grin and prodded the two empty bowls on the table between them. “Another?”

“Aye.”

“Watch my bag, then.”

The giant otter rolled over, got unsteadily to his feet and snagged the strap of the large empty flask off the table with his mouth. He began to weave between the tables, the flask dangling from his mouth. The Warehouse was heaving as usual, otters mingling in the open spaces between the tables with other giant animals, and even a few humans scattered around. The air hummed with conversation, most of it unintelligible.

He elbowed his way to the bar and dropped the flask, and the old human behind the bar looked up from the news-sheet he was reading.

“One more? Let’s see some coin,” he said, stowing the empty below the bar.

“Put it on my tab,” Jayk signed for the barman, speaking it out loud so that those around him could hear.

“You gon’ pay that tab off sometime, hm?”

“Next job.”

“Don’t you lie to me, Jayk Saltclaw, or I’ll cut you off,” the human said. “Might not speak your snuffle, but I know when someone’s taking the piss.” He shook his head and got another bottle of the brew from behind the bar and dangled it in front of Jayk. The otter reached for it, but the man didn’t let go of the strap. “You still in the escort business?”

Jayk narrowed his eyes and nodded. “Why?”

“Pair of folks came in earlier this evening looking for someone to take them north through the Confederacy quiet-like, if you get me. Not through the boarlands.” Jayk tugged at the spirits again, and this time the barman let the bottle go. “They’re sat upstairs. Want me to bring ‘em down?”

The otter shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

He made his way back over to his table and dropped the bottle with a heavy thud, settling himself back down on the threadbare cushions that littered the floor.

“Gonna need this table for a bit,” Jayk said, as Hark poured some of the brown-tinted liquid into the bowls. “Got a client.”

“See? Charmed life, you lead. Soon as the money starts to run out, here comes another job…” Hark picked up one of the bowls and held it out. “Here’s to honest work, I guess.”

Jayk clinked his own bowl against Hark’s and they both drank deeply.

“Right then,” the grey otter said. “I’ll get on my way.” Hark rummaged under the table and pulled out his little woollen cap, flopping it over his blunt head. “Take care.”

“Aye,” Jayk said, already watching the two humans making their way down the wooden stairs at the far end. The upstairs area was humans-only, a comfortable salon in the rafters of the old building, but the lower floor - more than three times as tall - was a mismatched hodgepodge of tall stools and long spaces, of fur pressed against fur. The humans - an older man, a sturdy leather satchel over his shoulder, and a younger woman with long black hair - seemed tiny next to the animals they were forced to squeeze between.

Jayk reached up to the nearby wall and pulled two tall chairs off their hooks, placing them on the other side of the table. They had crossbars arranged like a ladder, and as the humans arrived he indicated the chairs.

The younger one wasted no time at all, scaling the ladder and sliding into the chair, then steadying the other one so the man could clamber up. Father and daughter, maybe. Jayk smirked. Or lovers. The daughter wasn’t dressed for attraction though, as the humans reckoned it, her loose shirt tucked into practical leather trousers.

“Thank you, my dear,” the man said, puffing slightly. Rosy spots danced on his cheeks from the exertion. He straightened his jerkin and shirt collar, then placed his hands on the table. “Good evening, sir.”

Jayk inclined his head. “And to you,” he signed.

“Your name is Jayk, I’m told. My name is Miller, Garf Miller, and this is my daughter, Rose. We’re most lately of Mossthwaite, somewhat to the south of here.” Miller produced a large spotted handkerchief and mopped his brow, though it wasn’t warm in the building. “We find a need to travel north to Rincombe - it’s a little village in Johalland, lovely place - but… moving through Sanglier lands is… problematic, you understand.”

Jayk nodded and pulled his large bag out from under the table. Using two claws, he delicately slid a worn roll of paper from out of the side pocket and unrolled it onto the table, revealing a map of Meria. He pinned two of the corners with the empty drinking bowls, and the man’s daughter held another corner in place, her tiny hands delicately resting on the parchment. Jayk breathed in deeply; soap and clean water, too often strangers in The Warehouse, and something that could even be perfume floated around her in a cloud. Not like the man - he smelled of sweat and paper.

“Ah, thank you, Rose,” Miller said. “Now then. We’re here in Coff’s Cove, and I need to be in Johalland come full moon - that’s a week from now.”

“So charter a boat,” Jayk signed.

Miller squinted as the otter’s claws flashed, then nodded. “A boat, yes. I could, of course, but…” He dropped his voice. “Honestly, I fear pirates. Slavers.” He clutched his satchel close to him and nodded vigorously, causing the sparse hair on his head to fall over his forehead. Sweeping it back, he tapped the map. “I’d rather go overland, you understand. And, er… it’s of import to me that we perhaps avoid Aldwater altogether.”

Jayk nodded slowly. “No-one wants to pay Sanglier taxes.”

“Quite. Yes, well. The chap at the bar suggested that you had certain… skills that would be of invaluable use.”

Jayk’s eyes darted to the barman. A coin in the right paw is worth two in the purse. “I’ve had my run-ins with slavers, aye. Ship was overrun, only just got away, but I know the signs to watch for. Common ambush points, that sort of thing. They don’t come onto land much anyway - they’re sea-otters, after all.” The otter combed his claws through his chest hair, thinking. “How much baggage?”

“A wagon with a donkey, my daughter, me. The wagon’s almost empty - just a tent, some food, that sort of thing.”

Jayk eyed the man’s satchel, no bigger than his front paw, then shrugged. “Three days.”

“Yes, yes, good. And the, ah, cost?”

Jayk named a figure that was ridiculously high and carefully held his expression as the man accepted it without question.

“Father,” Rose said suddenly. Her voice was delicate, cutting through nearby conversations. “That’s rather a lot, don’t you think? After all, it’s not as though we have lots of expensive things. We don’t need a guard.” She smiled. “Just a guide.”

“Ah…” The man looked from the young woman to the otter, then mopped his brow with the handkerchief again.

Rose smiled at Jayk. “How about fifteen vials?”

“Twenty five.”

“Twenty.”

The otter nodded.

“Obviously we don’t have that amount here with us, but Father has it at home, isn’t that right?”

“Y-yes,” Miller sputtered. “Of course. I have a small chest of yellowdust. I’m sure that would be sufficient?”

“That it would be.” Jayk reached across with one paw, completely enveloping the man’s tiny arm as they gingerly shook. “We leave at dawn. Meet me north of town, just beyond the last house.”

He watched Miller ungracefully climb off the high chair and leave, his daughter looking back more than a few times with wide eyes, and drained the last of the bottle into his bowl.

As soon as the door closed behind Miller, Jayk reached into his satchel and pulled out a small piece of wood. With quick, sure movements, he scratched a few notes onto it, then stowed it away again. “Should have asked for more,” he said to the empty chairs, and drained the spirits from his bowl.

 

The sky and sea were the same shade of grey as Jayk waited, leaning in the lea of a sandbank. The sharp tang of the salt air pulled at his heart as he watched the gulls circling through the sky, waiting for the morning catch to come in.

He heard them long before they arrived, the wheels of the wagon grinding a steady trail through the gritty road of the port town, marred only by the steady hoofbeats of the donkey. He rolled over and got back to his feet to greet Miller and his daughter.

“Sorry if you’ve had to wait a moment for us,” Miller said, leaning down from the wagon’s seat. “Harriet here gave us a little trouble.” He reached down and patted the donkey’s neck affectionately.

Jayk stared at the donkey’s dull, unintelligent eyes. It was old and thin, too beaten-down by life to be even a little worried about the giant otter. He shook his head and slung his pack off the ground up onto his back, threading his front legs through the straps.

“Whatever. Let’s go.”

Without waiting to see if they acknowledged, he turned to the north and set off.

The sun burned off the clouds and mist as it rose, revealing a blue sky scudded with small clouds, and the road quickly petered out, turning into gently-sloping hills. Their sight of the sea came and went as they worked their way around the huge bay, the tide well and truly out revealing sand that seemed to go on for miles. Striking north into the grasslands, they came at last to the banks of a small river in early afternoon.

Jayk wasted no time in gesturing Miller and Rose off the wagon and unhitching the donkey. Then he picked the wagon up bodily, heaving himself onto his back legs so as to balance it above him, and started walking. The river water wasn’t deep, only halfway up his legs, and he was across before the humans had even started to wade.

He watched as Miller hung back, noting with interest that Rose simply charged into the icy water, tugging the donkey’s reins behind her, and he nodded as she came to stand next to him. It was several minutes before the blustering Miller, holding his precious satchel ridiculously high above the water, could make the crossing.

“Goodness,” he said, panting as he collapsed on the ground next to Rose. “Are there many of those rivers to cross?”

“Three more,” Jayk signed, baring his teeth in a grin. “All of them bigger than that one.”

They made good progress after that, finally stopping for the night at a small cabin that bordered the forest. The next river was close enough that they could hear it splashing nearby.

Miller climbed out of the wagon, wincing as his muscles protested. “Are we allowed to stay here? What’s this hut?”

“It sees a lot of use. Hunters use it. Poachers. Loggers.” Jayk pointed to Miller. “Travellers wishing to avoid the towns on the coast.”

“Oh, that is a shame,” Miller said. “I hear that Wintersea has quite spectacular snow-crab.”

Rose rolled her eyes, but smiled at her father. “Why don’t you settle Harriet and I’ll start getting a bit of firewood together,” she said, then looked at Jayk. “I assume we can get warm, at least?”

“There’s wood round the back,” he replied. “Use that.”

The humans sat on tree-stumps and ate a meal of salted fish and bread brought from Coff’s Cove, Jayk settling for swigs from a bottle he’d permanently borrowed from The Warehouse the previous night.

Rose threw her scraps in the fire and moved to sit next to the otter. She shivered, pulling a shawl around her shoulders. “What is that you’re drinking?”

“It’s something otters brew,” he signed. “There’s no proper word for it in your language. We call it Tchack.” He made the last sound with his mouth, clacking his teeth together and flicking his tongue.

“Otters make it for other otters?”

“What’s so odd about that? Humans make things for humans all the time.”

“Can I… try some?”

Miller stirred, tearing his gaze away from the fire. “Rose, no. It’s not ladylike.” The man yawned. “Time to turn in, though. A long day of travelling today, and another tomorrow, no doubt.”

“I’ll be there in a moment,” Rose said. “I just have to… see to the call of nature.” She got up and began to move into the woodland.

“Oh! Yes. Well.” He got up, far too suddenly, and stood awkwardly. “Don’t go far!” He stood awkwardly for a moment more, then sighed. “Well, I suppose I’ll see you inside then,” he said to the empty air, and went into the cabin.

Rose was back at the fire the moment the first snore cut the night air. She sat back down next to Jayk, and he passed Rose the jug without a word. She sniffed at it, then took a swig.

“It’s strong,” she said, passing it back. “There’s something… nutty about it? Like ale, but so much stronger.”

“You’re not like your father,” he signed, and she laughed softly.

“Don’t be too hard on him. He’s very good at what he does. He’s a businessman. He doesn’t have much of an idea of the hands-on aspects of the businesses he manages, but he’s shrewd in his own way. He knows where every copper is, every grain of yellowdust, everything. He’s just a little… out of sorts at the moment.”

Jayk took a contemplative swig and passed the jar back. “You’re travelling from Mossthwaite? And back home to Johalland. You had a wagon with goods in it, but now you only have the little pouch your father’s guarding. It’s clearly irreplaceable - he’s overprotective of it, and you’ve hired me. And it’s clearly valuable, or you wouldn’t worry about paying the cost of moving two people through Sanglier lands. You’ve traded much for whatever is in that pouch. So it’s papers. Business papers… a deed? A mine, perhaps, or something similar?”

Rose passed the jug back, somewhat lighter now, and smirked. “Hmm, not bad. My turn now.” She turned on the stump to examine him more closely. “You came under recommendation that you had experience with avoiding slavers and pirates, but I see you’ve got a few scars, and a nick out of one ear. That could just be from a hard life at sea, but there’s also quite a big clump of fur completely white on your back leg. That’s scarring - where you’d put a shackle on something. You were captured and escaped, and not without some damage. But now you’re on land, even though you’re a sea-otter. I thought that sea-otters looked down on those that chose to live on land?”

Jayk stared into the fire as she spoke, long enough that she fidgeted uncomfortably.

“I’m sorry,” she said eventually. “That perhaps came out wrong. I didn’t mean to suggest you were-“

“It’s fine,” he said. “You’re right. I’m a soilboy.” The word felt ugly on his paws. He sighed and sat back, placing the jar on the floor so as to more easily sign. “I had a captain once, was first-mate on an ottership. Many years we plied the waves, and our hold was always full. Then… we fell to pirates. Our captain, he was the first to lose everything.” He brought his back leg closer to the fire, the white fur stark against the brown of his body. “This is where they chained me, shackled me. Otterboats have an opening at their base. No oars - those are for humans. Otters are chained and expected to paddle to spur the ship on.”

Jayk ran one claw through the white hair, revealing the scars below. “I used a sharp rock to cut at my leg to get the chain off, escaped out the bottom of the ship. Swore never to go back to the sea.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rose whispered. “I had no idea.”

“We were good friends, Captain Firk and me. Shame it ended the way it did.” He fell silent, and after a while he shook himself. “Time to sleep. Your father wasn’t wrong - a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

The young woman nodded, got up, and laid her hand on his back, just for a moment.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and went into the cabin.

Jayk stared into the dying glow of the fire, the sensation of her touch a ruffled spot on his fur.

“Don’t thank me yet,” he murmured, and downed the rest of the jug. “Harder roads ahead yet by far.”

 

The following day dawned grey and filled with drizzle, and there was little chat as they pushed on north. Jayk was careful to avoid eye-contact with Rose, but she kept her eyes firmly focussed on the route ahead. Past the tempting glow of Wintersea, they crossed a small stream and continued to skirt Gyb territory, until at last they arrived at a cliff. Gulls wheeled in the steadily-clearing sky above. Rays of light pierced the clouds and speared the smooth waters below as Jayk pointed out features of the land.

“The cliffs pinch together here, protecting the mouth of the Folly River,” he said, pointing to the broad waterway that swept inland. “It separates the northern Sanglier lands from the southern Gyb duchy. See that cliff there on the other side, just above where the bay widens?” He nodded to the cliff, only half a mile away. “That’s Sanglier lands right there.”

Miller grimaced. “How are we going to avoid it?”

Jayk signed back, stood up on his back legs. “There had always been plans for a bridge across here at the narrowest point, but that all went overboard when the Sanglier annexed Aldwater. So we’re going to spend the rest of today getting down around this cliff, and then in the morning, when the tide is at its lowest, we’re simply going to walk across to the other side. This bay doesn’t empty - too much water for that - but it does go down as low as three feet, and that’ll be enough to get us across.”

He led them north-west, along the line of the cliff, until they came to a winding path that fell steeply down into the bay. Rose began to unhitch the donkey and walk her down the path, leaving Jayk and Miller with the wagon.

The man gave a sickly smile as they considered the large wooden cart and the improbable path down the cliff. “Front or back?”

Jayk shook his head and picked the wagon up again, holding it over his head. Miller coughed to cover his relief. “I’ll just, er, make sure the path’s clear, that you won’t trip or anything, hmm?” He set off down the cliff.

The descent took two hours with several rest breaks. More than once, Jayk found his front legs trembling with the effort of holding the cart up, and had to bring it back down, but even then he could do no more than lean it somewhere and prevent it rolling down the cliff. On one such break, he sat down with his back to the wagon and ran his claws through his fur. They came away wet with sweat despite the cold day, the claws leaving rivulets through his fur.

Rose staggered up the pathway and came to sit next to him. “Almost at the bottom,” she said. “About another fifty feet. Probably only one more go.”

Jayk nodded, opening one eye to look at her.

“I staked Harriet at the bottom - there’s a little sheltered area there. Maybe we could stop for the day there?”

He shook his head, wearily raising his claws. “There’s a cave, about half a mile to the west along the coast. We’re stopping there for the night.”

“Are you sure? You look exhausted,” Rose said.

We need to stop there, Jayk thought, paws flicking. “I am, but the cave is more defensible.”

Rose frowned, then nodded. “I’m glad we’ve got you, Jayk. You seem like you’ve got our best interests at heart, and we’re really lucky you know the area so well.”

The otter looked down, then closed his eyes without answering. After a moment, he felt Rose gently lay her head against his side as she took a moment’s rest.

He opened his eyes a sliver, looking down at the top of her head, and sighed.

“Time to go,” he signed, and moved enough to make her slide away from him. Before she could respond, he summoned his strength and hauled the wagon up for the final time.

His back legs ached to the bone when they arrived at the bottom, and Jayk gratefully sank onto all fours as Miller reattached the donkey to the harness. The sand underfoot was hard-packed and the wagon’s wheels made only a shallow impression as they set off westwards, the sea on one side and the cliff soaring above them on the other.

A flicker of movement on the horizon caught Jayk’s eye, and he narrowed his eyes.

“What’s that?”

He looked down and realised belatedly that Rose had seen him look. She had one hand up, shading her eyes from the golden glow of the setting sun.

“A ship,” he signed. “Way out. Lots of traders around here, lots of ships coming and going.”

“Could it be pirates?” Her voice was steady, only a slight hesitation betraying her fear.

“Perhaps. Go into the cave, we’ll be safe enough in there.”

He watched her go, then slipped a claw into his satchel, carefully retrieving the carved piece of wood. He placed it on a broad rock, carved side up, then followed her in.

The cave turned out to penetrate deep into the cliff, and there was a small stone-ringed firepit towards the back, surrounded by a couple of crates. Miller looked around as Jayk opened one of the crates and drew out some wood. “This isn’t the first time you’ve used this, I take it?”

Jayk shook his head and threw the wood down onto the firepit. “No,” he signed, sitting down with a grateful sigh. “It’s a useful place, this one. Many uses.”

As Miller busied himself setting up the camp for the night, Rose wandered over and sat opposite Jayk. She frowned. “I… I hope it’s not an imposition, but… can you fight?”

He cocked his head at her and bared his teeth and pinkish claws.

She shook her head. “Yes, but… if we are attacked by pirates, can you fight them off?”

Jayk nodded. “There’s a way otters fight that’s designed to work against people on two legs,” he said. “We have flexible bodies and we’re faster on four legs - here, look, I’ll show you.”

Every muscle protested as he got up, but the earnest look in Rose’s eyes spurred him on. He balanced a rock the size of her head on top of another, firmly buried in the sand, and backed off a short way. On all-fours, he charged along the cave’s length. The cool sand felt good under his paws, and his heart soared as he heard her gasp. At the last moment, he slammed his front paws into the sand, pivoting on them and bringing his back legs and tail around at an incredible speed. He barely felt the rock as his flank struck it, sending it flying into the cave wall. The rock splintered, pieces of it flying off at all angles, as he bounced back down to an attack position, claws raised.

Something twinged in his back, and he flinched under the pain as it spasmed over his body, but then he looked at Rose. Wide-eyed, she had one hand to her mouth in admiration. Carefully, he came back over to her and sat down.

“That was amazing,” she thrilled. “I can just see you now, on the deck of a ship, fighting off boarders and flinging them overboard…”

“Now, darling, let the poor otter rest,” Miller said, looking up from where he had a kettle on the boil over the fire. “He’s worked incredibly hard today, more than earned his keep.”

Rose stood and gave a half-bow to Jayk. “Yes! I’m sorry, you deserve your rest without me pestering you. I’ll give you some peace and quiet.”

Jayk allowed his eyes to drift closed as they bustled around, the fire warming the cave to comfortable levels, and before he could help himself he drifted off to sleep.

 

His eyes snapped open to the silvery glow of night, the fire long since out. He stood up, making as little noise as possible, and moved to the front of the cave.

“Jayk…”

The otter froze as Rose sleepily sat up. She had been next to him, he realised, asleep almost propped up against him.

“I was thinking about what you told me last night, and all the work you did today… You did more than we could ever expect from a guide, even from a guard.” Her words were full of sleep, and as he looked back he could see her fighting to remain awake.

“He uplifted you, didn’t he? Your captain. The one you lost. You shouldn’t feel guilty, shouldn’t feel like you can’t ever go to sea again. I think you’d be good on a ship again. You’re a good person, Jayk.”

He hunched his back as her words descended into a mumble, and quietly slipped out the front of the cave.

The night was crisp, the moon hanging in the frosty sky, and he straightened up as he moved away from the mouth of the cave, down towards where the small waves broke against the shore. He heard movement behind him, but didn’t turn, instead looking at the large ship moored half a mile offshore.

“Alright,” he said, not looking back. “They’re in the cave.”

“Aw, ain’t that cute,” a hoarse voice said behind him. “She thinks you’d be good at sea.”

“You heard?” Jayk turned to see four otters stood on their back legs, three of them holding long lengths of chain. The fourth grinned as he spoke again, revealing teeth sharpened to a point.

“‘Course I heard, Jayk m’boy. Gotta be quiet ‘fore these sharp ears o’mine miss you. Gotta be a good, quiet soilboy.”

Jayk flinched at the vehemence in the word, then shrugged. “I see you’re still sporting those ridiculous boots. What d’you think you are, human?”

“Don’t matter - ‘least I’m not a soilboy, Jaykie-Jaykieboy.” The booted otter gestured to the others, and they turned and went into the cave, Jayk trailing behind.

Even before he got inside, Jayk heard a shriek from Rose, heard Miller’s spluttering. The otters had them on their feet and were tightening shackles around their wrists.

“Jayk! Jayk! Help,” Rose begged, and the booted otter laughed.

“Jayk, Jayk,” he mocked. “What story didya tell them this time? Was it the small human child taken by the waves that lost you your place on the crew and forced you to be a land-otter, or was it the iceberg sinking the ship?”

Miller’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Jayk, what is he saying? We had an agreement!”

“Translate for me, Jayk, there’s a good boy. Ain’t gonna soil my claws with their signs. No soilboy here.” The otter bared his teeth at the prisoners and stamped his booted feet. “My name is Captain Firk,” he said forelimbs grabbing the chains out of the hands of one of his crew. He drew Rose and Miller closer, sneering at them. “And you’re mine now.”

“What is the meaning of this,” Miller spluttered, but Rose shook her head.

“Jayk, how could you? When you said your captain was lost to slavery… We trusted you, and you’ve sold us out.”

“That’s right, little girl,” Firk said. “Jaykie-boy here’s one of my crew.”

“I’m not one of your crew,” Jayk growled.

“You might as well be! Now then. Where’s the loot?”

Jayk walked around to the fire, avoiding Rose’s furious glare, and scooped the leather pouch from around Miller’s neck. “It’s this,” he said, tossing it to Firk.

“What in th’blue deep is this,” Firk said, tearing it open. “Full of paper. Where’s me gold, Jayk, where’s me diamonds?” Firk reached into the wide top of his boot and pulled out the piece of carved wood that Jayk had left outside, throwing it down onto the sand. “Your note said thiss’un was taking valuables.”

“Unhand that,” Miller shouted. “It’s of no use to you anyway!”

Quick as a flash, Firk was on top of Miller, grabbing at his shoulders, growling in his face. “What is it, old man?”

Miller looked at Jayk, who sullenly signed the translation. “It’s… it’s a deed to a farm,” Miller said. “Down in Tchudeka. I’m in the property business, and that farm has rather promising soil - unusual yields, they tell me.”

“A farm? A farm, is it?” Suddenly, Firk shoved Miller away and let out a hoarse laugh. “Honest toil? We’ll see about that! Get ‘em outside, boys!”

He turned and marched outside, the others following as they pulled Miller and Rose along. The young woman struggled, yanking on the chains, until one of the otter crew picked her up and carried her out in his front paws.

“Gar, this one’s a fighter,” the otter scowled. “She’m trying to bite me!”

“There’ll be plenty of work to burn that off,” Firk called back. “Ain’t that right, Jaykie-boy?”

His laughter echoed through the cave, unmistakeable to humans and otters alike, and Jayk hung his head as they moved out to the shoreline.

Miller pulled at his chains. “What are you doing with us, you monsters?”

“Yer to be workin’ in my coral mines,” Firk growled.

“We’ll drown! We can’t stay below the surface,” Rose said from the ground where the otter had thrown her. “Please!”

Two of the otter crew went over to the longboat that the otters had brought with them from the ship and flipped it over. They prodded the humans together and lowered the boat over their heads.

Jayk stuck his head under the boat, into the darkness and fear-smell beneath, and pulled out a small object from his pouch. It was a thin cylinder of glass, and when he tapped it twice on the boat’s wood it began to glow with a sickly yellow light.

“Please,” Miller hissed, as Jayk came close. “Let Rose go. They can take me, but let my daughter go! In the name of all that is holy-“

“I can’t,” Jayk signed. “I’m sorry.”

The otter crew and Firk posted themselves alongside the boat and began to walk it into the sea. Rose shrieked as the water lapped over her feet and legs, but as the otters bore the boat under the water, exerting incredible strength to keep it down, the two humans had to use every ounce of concentration to stay in the boat’s captured air bubble.

Jayk let the coolness of the water soothe him. His fur slicked back to his body, he arced through the water and down towards the sea floor.

Slowly, the party descended, the otters arranged like pallbearers to the coffin of the longboat. From beneath it, Miller and Rose’s legs kicked as they tried to keep their heads in the bubble. The glow of the dustlight Jayk had left them was the only glimmer in the depths, and as he swam back up to them he squinted against its brightness.

He surfaced under the boat, swimming backwards, to see the humans huddled against the far end.

“Why?” Miller leaned forward and slapped at the water, sending droplets at his face and making his chains clink. “Why did you do it? We had a contract!”

“For survival,” Jayk signed back. “The same reason anyone does anything. When the captain took his first slaves - when he crossed that line - he gave us a choice. Live on ship with him, or on land as soilboys. But if we left his crew, we’d have to find our own yellowdust. Can you understand what it’s like, to be completely dependent on something? It’s like drowning, but worse. If I drowned you now, held you under the water, you’d be dead in less than three minutes. But for us… without dust, it can be three weeks or more. Three long weeks of rampancy, insanity, loss of everything we are.”

“We were to pay you in yellowdust-”

“Not enough,” Jayk signed sadly. “Never enough.”

Rose stirred herself, pushing forward towards Jayk. She reached up and touched his cheek, and he flinched away.

“The other side of it is true, too,” she said quietly. “There must have been someone once who loved you enough and cared for you enough to uplift you. To spend the time and the money and the worry that you wouldn’t make it, all so that you could be born as a person. Someone who has their own desires and dreams, who can make decisions on their own. Someone who can love in turn.”

Jayk stared at the human girl, unable to speak, then slid back below the surface leaving barely a ripple.

The darkness ahead yawned open, revealing a cave, and the otters sped into it, drawing the boat alongside. They began to swim upwards once they were inside, and within a minute had broken the surface. Jayk looked around at the makeshift dock, listening to the sounds of metal ringing off rock that echoed throughout the undersea cavern.

Rose let out a shriek as Captain Firk slapped the boat, flipping it over and away from the humans. It crashed to one side, skidding to a stop by the wall. Two otters, their noses crisscrossed with scars, pulled them up and out of the water to stand, dripping, on the bare rock.

“Jayk, translate.” Firk strode in front of the humans, looming. “Welcome to my coral mine. A mine, aye. Twice daily this place is awash, and the coral grows yellow, drags the yellowdust from below the ground an’ out of the water. Y’harvest it, we sell it. Simple as.” Firk bared his teeth. “An’ if we don’t like you’s, better believe we leave you in the caves when the waters come. See how long those pretty little lungs hold out!”

He crossed to a nearby crate and pulled out a small sack that clinked. “Jayk! I guess this be yours,” Firk said, hefting it thoughtfully. With a sneer, he upended it, sending dozens of small vials of yellowdust back into the crate. He tossed the remnants of the sack of vials over to Jayk.

Jayk caught it and opened it. “Ain’t enough,” he said. “There’s not enough in here for a week, never mind the month you promised me.”

“Bring me diamonds, bring me pearls, bring me good strong little girls,” Firk said, his voice taking on a singsong air. “But this old man ain’t worth nothin’. He’ll be done in a month, and there wasn’t the riches I was promised, now, was there?”

“This is less than they offered me to do the job,” Jayk said, looking past Firk to the captive humans. He growled, but Firk took three quick steps and planted his boots squarely in Jayk’s path.

“Oh-ho, no, Jaykie-boy. Thinking maybe of doing somethin’ damnfool, are yeh? Thinkin’ to maybe make a hero of yerself?” He spat on the rocks. “Pullin’ me tail, you are. You ain’t worth the rock we’re stood on.” Firk advanced a step. “Not even worth the salt on yer whiskers, Jaykie-boy. My messenger boy, you are, and don’t forget it. You owe me, for everythin’ you are.” His eyes flicked around the room as he spoke, alighting on each member of his crew. “All of you do.”

“I don’t owe you nothing,” Jayk said. He set his feet, feeling more than seeing the two otters coming in, one from each side. He caught a quick glimpse of Rose, her eyes wide, her hands pressed together, and bared his teeth. He crouched low, then leapt, twisting his body to the left, ignoring the searing lance of pain through his side. He slammed his flank into one otter, pushing his legs out hard to lurch around and sweep the other one off his feet, letting his momentum carry him around.

“Get him,” Firk yelled, but Jayk was already charging the captain. Lower, quicker, faster than Firk could ever be on two legs, Jayk barrelled forward and into Firk, teeth ripping at whatever he could get to. One of Firk’s boots came up, the leather point catching him under the ribs, but Jayk grabbed at him with his claws, hanging on with all his might.

He tasted blood and kept going, barely feeling as Firk’s claws raked bloody ribbons down his back, his legs pushing forward until they slammed up against a rock wall. The shock of the impact, even cushioned by Firk’s gutted torso, sent Jayk reeling away, red smeared across his face, and he took a couple of tottering steps and turned to face the crew otters.

“Free them, or you’re next,” he said thickly, the words coming out in a tumble. The otters looked from Jayk to the body of Firk, then bent to snap the chains off Miller and Rose. “Now get out.”

The otters looked at Firk’s still form, and Jayk growled again. “Go! Your captain is dead. One of you will take his place, I’m sure.”

The otters dived, one after the other, slipping smoothly beneath the waves.

Rose rushed to Jayk’s side. “Jayk, thank you, thank you so much!”

He nodded, some of the gore dripping from his chin. “You were almost right,” he signed. “We live a long time, uplifted. When he was much younger, freshly uplifted, Firk had a dream - an otter ship, crewed with his own. He paid for our uplift… paid for us all, with promises, it turned out. Paying that debt back changed him, though, over the years.” He shook his head. “People change.”

“For the better, sometimes,” Rose whispered.

Jayk rolled over, wincing as the cold, salty rock made contact with his fresh wounds. “Free the others, then swim for the surface. You’ll make it, you swim hard enough. You’ll have to-“

“Jaaaaykk!”

Rose leapt away as Captain Firk, leaning heavily on the rock wall with one hand and holding his stomach closed with the other, growled through teeth dripping blood. He lurched forwards, booted feet ringing arrhythmically on the rocks, eyes promising death.

Jayk bared his stomach, tensing, then grabbed at Firk as the captain leaned down. He rolled over and over, clinging on in desperation as Firk’s teeth bit in again and again, as his claws sank into his arms and chest, rending and tearing.

“No!”

There was a meaty sound, and Firk’s body spasmed as Rose’s shout echoed off the cave walls. Jayk looked up just in time to see her swing an oar down on the back of Firk’s neck again, blood spattering up into her face, and again, until the otter slid slowly off Jayk, still and quiet.

Jayk wriggled free, feeling every scratch, every bite. Dark waves broke at the edge of his vision, and he closed his eyes.

Just a moment’s rest. Just a moment…

 

He awoke in torchlight. Small hands were moving over his body, wrapping him in sailcloth bandages, and he winced as he rolled over onto all fours.

“Sit still,” Rose scolded. “I’m nearly done. Father, pass me that pin.”

Jayk watched as they finished binding his wounds, then sat up on his back legs. “Shouldn’t be helping me,” he signed. “I betrayed you. Betrayed everyone here.”

His ears flicked as he listened, but the sounds of mine work had stopped to be replaced by excited chatter.

Rose’s head was tilted to one side too, listening. “They know that,” she said, pointing to the tunnel that led deeper into the cavern. “And we know that. But now you have a chance, Jayk. A chance for redemption.”

He looked at the human for a long time, at her wide, trusting eyes, and then at Miller. Jayk nodded and began to lumber over to the entrance to the mine.

The tunnel was long, littered with stone and detritus, the water running a foot deep along a channel in the middle of the floor. The remains of coral, glowing a sickly yellow in the dim light, lay scattered in the water. Turning a corner, they came across the first humans almost by accident. Jayk pulled up short as he saw a scrawny form, a man’s body bent almost double, dressed in filthy rags. He was holding a pickaxe across his body as though to ward the otter off, and as Jayk took a step forward the boy held the tool out like a weapon.

“I ‘member you,” he blurted, revealing a mouthful of rotten teeth. “Said you knew a job I could do, gainful employ. I trusted you!” His gaze flicked to Rose, stood next to Jayk. “Run, girl!”

Jayk looked from the enslaved worker to the other faces in the gloom of the tunnel, the other eyes full of hope mingled with fear and distrust. He closed his own eyes, unable to meet their stares.

“You’re free,” Rose said quietly. “We’re here to free you.”

“What… what is this,” the man said. “Some trick?”

In one quick move, Jayk opened his eyes and lurched forward. With a strangled yelp, the man stumbled backwards, pressing himself into the wall, completely forgetting his impromptu weapon. Jayk grabbed his chains and snapped them with a flick of his claws.

“No trick,” he murmured, as the man skittered away. Jayk looked at Rose. She embraced the freed man, but her eyes held Jayk’s gaze, nodding. The otter moved along the line, to the next slave, and the next, their chains held out ready. “No tricks anymore. Just an honest soilboy.”