Nathan made one more look up and down the table, but absolutely no one was willing to meet his gaze.
“Well…” he said softly. “Alright then. I guess there’s no further discussion to be had.”
He lifted the poison pellets off of the table and started to put them into his backpack.
“Uhh…” Samuel Iverson raised a finger. “What do you intend to do with those?”
“Find somewhere else that their purpose will be appreciated,” Nathan replied.
Samuel looked sideways to Doctor Hogue. Nathan, of course, knew exactly what was going through their minds. He had been in this exact situation several times already. On the surface he maintained a calm and nonchalant demeanor, but inside every muscle was tensing.
“We’ll put you up for the night,” Doctor Hogue offered. “I’m sure it’s been an age since you had a nice dinner and a bed.”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Nathan said, fingers fumbling slightly as he closed the zipper, “but I won’t impose any further on you. Really, the sooner I get going the better.”
He stood up, and at the same time so did everyone else. Nathan, unfortunately, wasn’t the closest to the door. There were three people between him and the exit.
“Nathan–” Samuel Iverson said softly.
“No!” Nathan shot back. “You’re supposed to be a civilization! You’re supposed to be better than this! What’s the point of your fancy homes and walls if you’re no better than the nomads?!”
“Nathan, we are not trying to steal from you,” Doctor Hogue said forcefully. “Like we said, we have no use for your pellets and we wouldn’t try to profit from them, either.”
“What do you want, then?” Nathan demanded.
“Well…” Samuel took a step back from the table and came to a tool chest by the wall. He withdrew an everyday hammer and laid it on the table. “If you will kindly destroy those pellets, Nathan, then we’d be happy to let you along your way.”
“I’m sorry, Mister Prewitt,” Doctor Hogue added, “but we just can’t trust you. We think it far more likely that you’ll persist with your original plan just as soon as you leave.”
“Like I said, I’ll head somewhere else with them. I think this is the best place for it, but that’s alright. There’s plenty of other good that can be done elsewhere.”
Doctor Hogue and Samuel Iverson shook their heads. They didn’t believe him…which meant they weren’t fools.
“I’m sorry,” Doctor Hogue repeated, “but you didn’t come this far just to give up because we asked you to. So we’re going to need some assurance.” He tapped the hammer.
Nathan weighed things carefully. He could always just hand over the pellets, pretend to give up like he had with Red Stella…but no, he was sure they wouldn’t fall for that. Stella had been unhinged and ego-centric, but these people were more rational. They wouldn’t buy his façade unless they had to take the pellets away by force. They were going to have to see him hurt.
“And what if I refuse?” Nathan darted his eyes around the room. He unzipped the backpack and took the poison pellets back out, clenching them tightly in his fist.
“We simply can’t take the risk of you endangering us,” Samuel Iverson slowly started moving around the table. Everyone else in the room took a step nearer as well.
“So what if I refuse?” Nathan repeated, taking a step back.
“You said it yourself earlier,” Doctor Hogue picked up a chair and turned its legs towards Nathan like he was taming a wild animal, “we all have to make difficult choices in our line of duty. Leading a people means doing whatever it takes to protect them…no matter how unpleasant it may be.”
“That’s easy to say,” Nathan grinned darkly, “but have you actually had to kill someone who didn’t deserve it?” He retreated another step and his back hit a wall. He pressed his hand along it, feeling for something that he could use. His fingers closed around a stake being used to anchor the zinc walls to the ground.
“There’s no need for it to come to that,” Samuel said as he and the other elders advanced until they were just outside of Nathan’s reach.
“But have you ever done it?” Nathan made the quickest of glances upward, measuring the distance to the roof. He had to be careful to not actually kill anyone, or else there was no telling what they might do to him out of vengeance!
“All of us have had to do things we’d rather not.”
“And that includes me!” Nathan gave a sharp twist with his wrist and the rusted stake snapped off in the dirt. He lunged forward, swinging the weapon high over his head, angling it straight for Samuel Iverson! However he intentionally made his jump too high, thus carrying the weapon into the roof of the building, puncturing a hole in the corrugated metal and wedging itself inside of it.
“NO!” Nathan pretended to be surprised. Then he was swarmed by all of the elders rushing at once!
“HOLD HIM DOWN!” Samuel shouted. “HOLD HIM DOWN!”
Nathan took a sharp, bracing breath. He wasn’t sure what would happen next. Crowds of angry people were unpredictable. But if he had played his cards right, and if he continued to do so, then he might just get out of here with his life…and with the one item that actually mattered…his backpack.
It wasn’t until later that evening that it truly hit Tharol what he had done. He had assisted in treason. He had improved on the plan that Beesk and Inol had put together. Had shown them the mistakes in it and prevented them from an obvious error. He had pushed them one step closer to sneaking a dangerous outsider into the Great City.
Of course his ultimate objective was to prevent their betrayal and by helping them he had prevented anyone from accidentally taking a fatal dose of poison! His intentions were pure. But it still felt wrong. He just didn’t like being a part of this world. It made him feel tainted by association.
Well, so what if it did taint him? Maybe that was just the sacrifice he bore to do what was right. If someone had to dirty their hands, why not he?
Reis certainly didn’t have any qualms with what Tharol had done.
“So were you guys able to get the poison?”
“Yeah,” Tharol said somberly. “Already in the wine, in fact.”
“Excellent! Where is it?”
“Tucked away in the corner of the cellar.”
“Fine, that’s perfectly fine! So they’ve got everything set up how they want. They must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves!”
“Reis, I helped them. They were likely to make a mistake and get themselves caught but I’ve been making their hairbrained idea an actual possibility! And I’m not at all comfortable with the fact that there’s poison just sitting around in the keep!”
“Why? I already told you, I won’t drink any that night. Just a little sleight of hand and they’ll be none the wiser.”
“That’s taking an unnecessary risk. Also an unnecessary risk for if one of the other boys sneaks into the cellar and chooses the wrong bottle!”
“But you said it was tucked away. I assume the back line and bottom row?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“North or south side?”
“North,” Tharol furrowed his brow, not seeing why this really mattered.
“Yeah, no one’s going to come across it there.”
“Let’s just pour it out in the trough now and put some fresh wine in there. Beesk and Inol probably won’t even notice.”
“No, I want to hold onto it as evidence. I want to be able to show everyone exactly what they were trying to do. And you just let me take care of myself that night. Okay? You’ve told me what to watch out for and now it’s my responsibility to take care of it, not yours.”
Tharol sighed. “Fine.”
With that the two of them left for their afternoon training with Master Palthio. As they arrived at the central courtyard they found it equipped with blocks of wood set in a large circle and wooden staffs littered across the ground.
“How can you be surprised by that?” Janeao asked. “It’s at least once every week!”
“I always hope it’ll be the last day of the week. Master Palthio is less demanding when he knows we’re tired. Anyway, what’s the point of my practicing? I’m the worst and I always will be.”
“Well that’s exactly why you should practice,” Tharol pointed out.
Their conversation was cut short as Master Palthio clapped his hands for the boys to begin their exercises. Each of them picked up a staff and chose a pair of wooden blocks to stand on top of, quavering back and forth until they settled into their sense of balance.
“Now,” Master Palthio began, “let us start with Mora-Long.”
Each of the boys turned to a neighbor and assumed the stance for Mora-Long, which was a slow, powerful form, one of Master Palthio’s favorites for warming them up.
The clatter of colliding staffs rang through the courtyard. There was always one or two boys that lost their balance here at the beginning. They grunted in frustration, got back on their blocks, and Master Palthio told them to begin again. After a few false starts they finally came into rhythm.
Tharol was facing against Janeao and he was having a hard time of it. The measured, powerful stances of Mora-Long were perfectly suited to Janeao’s greater strength. Whenever Tharol blocked one of Janeao’s blows there was so much extra energy that he would have to give a little hop to dispel it, hoping that his feet would be able to feel their way back onto the blocks as he came back down. Better to keep up the attack, then, and make Janeao block instead. Thus Tharol increased his aggression, but Janeao merely scowled and moved to keep pace.
“Easy, easy,” Master Palthio said as the din of Tharol and Janeao’s crossing staffs doubled the cadence of every other duel. “This is a warm-up, boys, not a competition.”
Janeao slowed, then grinned and let out a powerful, wild swing. Tharol didn’t even try to catch it, he ducked downward, barely in time. Then he popped back up, flicked his wrist forward, and brought his own staff right beside Janeao’s face. He did not strike him, but he hoped the message to calm down would come across.
“Swap sides,” Master Palthio instructed as he continued pacing around the boys’ circle.
Tharol turned to his other side and faced Inol.
“Feto stance,” Master Palthio ordered.
Feto was a tricky form, particularly when one was limited on balance. You spent half the time on a single foot, moving your staff through long, looping arcs. Paradoxically, though, it was also the best form when on poor footing…if you were a master at it. Then your constantly shifting balance spilled into the momentum of each swing, causing you to bound and cavort like a mad top, whirling out crushing blows with every leap.
Tharol paused for a moment before crossing staffs. As an overall fighter Inol was on the same level as Tharol. They each had their preferred forms, though, and Feto was definitely one of Inol’s. So Tharol decided to wait and see how Inol would approach.
Inol smiled as he understood Tharol’s hesitation, then swung his staff down to his side and leaped high into the sky. Tharol’s eyes went wide, bracing himself for the blow that would follow. He would have to catch it on the end of his stick and let its force spin him through a complete circle.
Inol reached his apex and came rushing downward, staff spinning wildly. Tharol tried to predict where the blow was coming from, thrust his own staff out to meet it, and began to spin his body to catch the excess momentum.
But at the very last second Inol pulled his staff back, drove its end deep into the dirt behind, and used it as a prop to help steady himself as he landed back on the wooden blocks. Tharol, meanwhile, thrown off by the complete absence of a blow, lost his balance and tumbled to the ground.
Tharol rose back to his feet and gave Inol an approving nod. It had been an excellent feint.
Tharol dusted off his tunic and returned back to his fighting stance, but Inol wasn’t ready to spar again. He was staring off to the side where Reis and Golu were dueling. In fact all of the boys were slowly pausing their own scuffles to see the match between the order’s two grandmasters.
Each of the boys were leaping and spinning at a breakneck pace, staffs colliding like thunder, then whirling a full 360 degrees to crash on the other side. They moved in staccato, each attempting to break cadence and catch the other off guard. It was impossible to state which of them was attacking and which was defending, rather it seemed each was doing both at the same time.
“How did they get that good?” Tharol wondered aloud. “They’ve only had the same training as the rest of us.”
“I don’t think either of them would have managed it alone,” Inol responded. “They each needed the other to push them.”
Perhaps the best evidence of what Inol said was in how well the two understood the other’s style. By now they were spinning so quickly that they spent half the time with their backs to each other, not even seeing the blows careening at them, but still able to land every block, knowing by sheer familiarity where the other boy was sure to strike.
“I think of late Reis has been edging ahead of Golu,” Beesk said from the other side of Inol.
“You’re crazy,” Inol countered. “Golu’s form is clearly better.”
“Yes, but Reis has stopped trying to beat him on form. He’s going to win because he’s more willing to sacrifice.”
No sooner had Beesk said the words than they proved perfectly true. For Golu had just made a round, swinging attack aimed at Reis’s side. Reis swung his own staff as if to meet it, but at the last moment turned his wrist so that the two weapons missed each other by a mere fraction of an inch.
Everyone watched in shock as Golu’s staff, unhindered, closed the gap to Reis’s body. Reis didn’t seem to regard it at all, though. He kept moving with the momentum of his last swing, twisting his body until he faced away from Golu. Golu’s staff made contact and broke across Reis’s unguarded back! All of the boys flinched and Reis gave a loud grunt of pain, but he did not lose his focus. He was now three-quarters of the way through his turn, staff whistling through its murderous arc. Golu’s own weapon was in splinters, and even if it wasn’t he would never be able to get it around to block Reis’s staff in time. Golu tried to dodge, but was still caught full on the shoulder and sent flying through the air to the ground.
Reis had won.
“How did you know he would do that?” Tharol looked past Inol to Beesk.
“He did something very similar during the last competition. You probably missed it while you were holding your broken foot. It was how he won. He’s been taking all the standard forms and modifying them with intentional mistakes to lure his opponent in.”
“And since when did you become such an expert on fighting?” Inol raised an eyebrow at Beesk.
“Just because I can’t move properly through a fight doesn’t mean I can’t read one!”
“What’s everyone standing around for,” Master Palthio rounded on the students, only just now noticing that they had become as engrossed in Reis and Golu’s battle as he had been. “Get back to practice!”
The boys scrambled back into position and proceeded with their fights. Tharol’s mind was only half on his duel with Inol, though. He kept replaying that last maneuver Reis had used in his head, unable to believe what he had seen.
He had always known that Reis was willing to take a risk to win, he had witnessed that in the competition where Reis used himself as bait while his teammates overwhelmed Janeao at the tower, but this was something else. It was a wonder he hadn’t had his ribs broken taking that blow full on from Golu! But crazy as it had seemed, it had worked.
Tharol got a good parry in and Inol was sent revolving off his block. He smiled in satisfaction, then used the moment’s respite to look over at Golu and Reis. Reis was lifting his staff high overhead to deliver a powerful blow, arms coiling like springs, shirt bunching up behind him.
And it was bunching up in a very distinctive square shape. A distinctive, unusually well-defined square.
Tharol frowned and a thought occurred to him, one that he couldn’t shake. He dwelled on it all through the rest of practice and also while they changed back to fresh clothes before dinner.
One-by-one the boys left in their new tunics. Reis was the last to leave their dormitories, but he ran to catch up with Avro and Bovik on their way to the main hall. Behind them Tharol emerged from the shadows and dodged back into the now-vacant dormitories.
He made his way directly to Reis’s cot and rapidly searched it. He lifted the pillow, prodded across the mattress, looked between the boards…every nook and cranny he could find. Nothing.
He turned to leave, disappointed. But just as he made his way towards the exit he saw it! Hanging over the barracks door was one of the antiques of their order: an old breastplate that had belonged to an ancient warrior. It was an old-fashioned piece, a small square with wiry ropes attached at each corner for fastening in the back.
Or, if you had no one to help you put it on, fasten the ropes in the front with the breastplate covering the back.
Tharol lifted himself up to look at the breastplate more closely. It was a relic of actual battles, and as such was extremely battered. Among all the centuries-old dings and cracks there was one dent across them all that must have been made more recently. It was just the right width for Golu’s staff.
Now to be perfectly frank, the idea of a mole who gradually learns that his handler is a traitor isn’t entirely original. It has most famously been played out in films like Internal Affairs and The Departed. But while the theme is not entirely new, I do strive to make the implementation of it be original. Just as how West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet but is also an extremely fresh take on that idea. And if I do say so myself, I believe this story also stands apart.
But being original is difficult and prone to running into corners. In fact I had written this final act once before, then scrapped the whole thing because it wasn’t coming together the way I wanted.
I’ve enjoyed pulling back the curtain on my process in the past, and I’ve decided to do it again here. Come back on Monday where I’ll share a little more about what originally went down in this part of the story and why I decided to change it. In the meantime have a wonderful weekend!
“What?!” Captain Molley shot out of his sleep and looked about wildly, trying to make sense of what was going on. His eyes settled on Bartholomew slumped in the bottom of the boat, a small amount of blood pooled under his head. “What have you done?” he cried, and reached down to check Bartholomew’s pulse.
Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek uncomfortably and lowered his oar back into the water. “He was–he was taunting me.”
“So you brained him?!”
“I–I didn’t mean to. It just–I lost my temper.”
“No, you’ve been itching to murder him ever since we brought him aboard. You just waited for me to go to sleep, then killed him because you can’t stand him, didn’t you?”
“Captain you don’t know how it is!” Julian snapped. “Every day he sits there behind me, and every minute I expect to feel a knife slipping between my ribs. You take your rest and I have no one to watch my back!”
“And so you tried to kill him…” Captain Molley concluded.
Julian blinked at that. “Tried? You mean? He’s–“
“Still alive…for now.”
Captain Molley drew back from Bartholomew and levelled Julian with a terrible stare. He was silent a very long time, and Julian fidgeted a great deal, coming to the cusp of speaking a several times, but backing down each time.
“What am I to do with you, Julian?” Captain Molley finally asked. “What am I to do?”
“I don’t think–“
“No, let me think! If these were normal circumstances I know exactly what I should do. You’d be locked in the brig until we made port and then tried for your crimes. But of course these are not normal circumstances. We have no brig, and no promise of ever making port. No…this is uncharted water we’re in, Julian, and it requires a different sort of law.” And as his mind settled on that thought he pushed back his coat and ran a finger along the knife at his side.
“Captain…no. Don’t do this! I’m for you, Captain! I couldn’t manage with that pirate, but there’s been any rift between you and I.”
“There is, Julian! There most certainly is a rift between us.”
“Only if you make it. I have no quarrel towards you. None!”
“And so you’d say do away with justice, I suppose? Never mind that you just tried to kill your own crew?”
“You were right, Captain, these are different waters, and we have to have different laws. But why not a more tolerable law? A kinder law! Why make it be more cruel? I’ve done wrong, I confess it, but let’s just wash it away and be shipmates.”
“Did you let Bartholomew’s wrongs wash away? Did you show a kinder law to him?” Captain Molley flicked the blade out of its sheath in a single, fluid motion.
“Please, Captain. Please!” Julian was on his knees, hands clasped over his breast, and sobbing.
“You’re not the messenger of a new gospel, Julian! You’re not here to give out grace and mercy! You’re just here to save your own, mean skin, and that’s all you’ve ever been about!”
“Help me, Captain. Oh help me!”
Captain Molley began rising to his feet. He was building up the hate in himself to carry out his wrathful justice. What would he do, he wondered. Kill the man, or only take a finger? But in his rising fervor he forgot his wound, and he carelessly let his weight fall onto the wrong side.
“Unngh!” Captain Molley cried, then collapsed backwards into the boat with a crash!
Julian bounded over Bartholomew’s unconscious body and landed by his leader’s side. The boat rocked precariously, but did not tip over. Captain Molley tried to push the man away, but his strength failed him. His face was pale and heavy beads of sweat wreathed his brow. Julian had the wounded man’s jacket and shirt open in a flash and saw the infected gash there, three inches long and entirely untended.
“Captain you should have treated this!”
“Didn’t–want you to know.”
“I knew, you fool.”
Julian reached out of the boat, cupped some seawater in his hands, then scrubbed it against the wound.
“Ach!” Captain Molley moaned in pain. He looked like he might faint at any moment. “Stop it. It doesn’t matter.”
“It wasn’t that bad of a cut, but you haven’t let it heal. It’s been aggravated with all this rowing and it’s getting infected because you won’t let it close up.”
“No, Captain. You rest. Bartholomew and I can–” Julian came to his senses and stopped before he finished the sentence.
Even amidst his agony Captain Molley couldn’t help but smile at that irony. “You brained your last hope, Julian. Now you need his hope and you’re all alone.” Then he lost consciousness, and Julian was all alone.
Julian blinked nervously.
A few moments later and he cut the Captain’s jacket into strips and bound up his side, then left him to rest in the back. He bound up Bartholomew’s head as well, and laid him out to rest in the middle. Then he sat in the front of the boat, faced backwards, took an oar in each hand, and started to row. It was all to him now, and humbled by his guilt, he was determined to do his duty.
It was a very erratic sort of rowing that he did, though. The man didn’t know how to keep a straight heading. Of course he knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, but he couldn’t tell the difference between ten degrees and twenty, to say nothing of that zigzag pattern Captain had set them on. Had they been slanted a little east of their mark, or a little to the west? Julian couldn’t remember. Did he dare try to straighten out? What if he tried to guess but went even further the wrong way? Of course if Captain did recover, he would want to know how far they had progressed and in which directions, and Julian would not be able to provide that information.
As the sun started to set Julian realized it was time for his daily meal. He put up his oars and devoured his hard tack and salted meat in a single mouthful, then started to close up the bag. He paused before it was quite put away, though, and greedily eyed Captain Molley’s and Bartholomew’s portions. Would they ever be awake to eat them?
“Not now,” he shook his head. “Just not now. See what happens with them over the next day or two. If things don’t turn out well…there will be food enough then.”
He set the bag down, but he did not close it. And if one of them did die, which would be the better for him? Julian was ashamed that the thought occurred to him, and immediately pushed it from his mind.
Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.
But in all an empty ocean, with nothing else to distract him, it was impossible to keep the questions at bay. What were the pros and cons, then, if either man were to die?
It was difficult to say that either man was more valuable to him than the other. If they ever did make it to the cove and Bartholomew was still alive, then surely the pirate would try to kill him. The pirate’s long-term survival depended on not having Julian and Captain Molley around to turn him over to the authorities, to say nothing of the fact that Julian had just pounded him in the head!
Captain Molley, however, was no friend either. He had hated Julian from the moment they first entered this craft, and would not rest until justice had been served. And given their last conversation, Captain might not still be willing to wait until they made port to turn him over to the authorities for a trial. No, Captain Molley had a personal vendetta against him now, and Julian was very right to be afraid of him.
“I have no friends here. I only have me,” he muttered. He looked about him. Took in all the open, empty sea. “But only me isn’t enough. I can’t make it on my own. I don’t even have the strength to keep rowing like this any longer.”
The food bag was calling to him. He eyed it once more and licked his lips.
“It’s as much to their benefit as mine that I keep up my strength. If they were awake they’d tell me that I should eat. They’d say that I’m their only chance…. What will they know of it anyway? If they wake up and two days’ ration is missing, how would they know that they simply weren’t unconscious for that long.”
He seized the bag and reached inside. “Just one biscuit. No better make it two…. Well, if I’m taking a whole day’s ration of biscuits, it wouldn’t do to leave the meat, now would it?”
For a moment there wasn’t a sound but the crunching of the hardtack, the gnawing of the meet, and the slurp of him licking the crumbs off his fingers. Then the glug of the bottle as he washed his sins down.
“There. Far better. Now I can really work!” So saying he took the oars and began his strokes with greater fervor. He so continued for fifteen minutes, before he realized he had not revitalized himself nearly so far as he thought. He put his hands on his knees and panted, scared that he might pass out.
“It’s just–it’s just too heavy. One man rowing three? And in such a long boat? It just–it just isn’t feasible. And for what? They’re probably dead in a day anyway, and then I’ll have been carrying their weight for nothing!”
He looked over to the two bodies, but then shook his head. “Not now…give them a chance. A day. When they’re doing even worse in a day I can rid them with a clean conscience.”
But they were not dead, nor dying. Shortly before midnight Captain Molley stirred.
“What?” he asked no one in particular. “Who’s there?”
Julian had slumped forward in sleep, which he suddenly started from. “Oh, I’m here, I’m here. It’s Julian.”
“Oh…” Captain said slowly as his mind reclaimed its memories. “We’re…still on the boat?”
“Yes, of course we are.”
“Where are we?”
“Um–I’m not too sure.”
“Which way have we been going?”
“Mostly the same as before.”
“Which way was that?”
“You don’t know?”
“I–I can’t remember it just now. You don’t know?”
“I never knew. I just turned when you told me to turn.”
Captain Molley looked up to the stars, trying to make out the constellations. But his mind was still swimming, his vision was still blurry, and he couldn’t stop his pounding headache.
“I–can’t,” he sighed. “Get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”
And the men went straight back to sleep.
Neither of them were stirred by the sunrise, it was nearly midday when Captain Molley slowly woke. He reached his hand out of the boat and cupped some water to splash on his face. His head still twinged from time to time, but at least he felt more alert now.
“You there,” he rasped out. His dry voice nearly failed him, but it was enough to awaken Julian at the front of the boat, who rubbed the sleep from his eyes and then handed Captain Molley the bottle. “Thank you,” Captain Molley said after his throat had been refreshed.
“How are you feeling?”
“Not so well.” Captain Molley took in his surroundings, noticed the cut-up jacket bound around his side, noticed the similar binding around Bartholomew’s head. Noticed the two oars at Julian’s end of the boat. “You took care of us while we slept.”
Captain Molley looked down guiltily. “I know that I am a proud man, Julian. It would be a lie to pretend otherwise. But I am not so proud that I can’t admit when I have done wrong. I lost myself for a moment there. I still say you did wrong to Bartholomew, but I was intending to do wrong as well. I thank God that He intervened in both of our behalf.”
Julian didn’t know what to say to all that.
“Right…well…best we figure things out now. For the life of me, I don’t remember a single thing that was said last night. What’s our heading?”
“I don’t know, I was just trying to follow the same line we had been going at as best I could.”
“And which way was–“
“I don’t know. I thought you would.”
Captain thought for a minute, blinking quickly as he sought for the memory in his mind. “Well I don’t know. As things are now I’d say we’re a little to the east. Would you say we’ve been going a little east this whole while, and never a little west?”
“How far over would a little west look?”
Captain pointed his right arm down the line of the boat, then raised his left arm to point at an angle to it.
“Can’t say. I might not have kept it straight enough that it didn’t stray a little that way or the other.”
“Or stray a lot?”
Captain Molley sighed.
“I’m not a trained navigator!” Julian’s voice raised slightly. “I’m sorry Captain, but I did what I could. These were only estimates we had in the first place, weren’t they? So we’ll just have to estimate again.”
“Yes, we could, but with a wider zigzag to account for the even greater uncertainty. Much wider. And it takes more time to cover that wider arc, time that we already don’t have!”
“I did what I could!”
“But these are the facts all the same!”
Captain Molley’s head throbbed with his raising temper and he winced sharply. His hand flew to his brow, kneading it, trying to release the tension as he slowly calmed back down. “These are just the facts,” he said softly. Then, after another long pause, “And how long have I been unconscious?”
Julian was glad that Captain Molley’s head was in his hands, so that he couldn’t see how Julian chewed gnawed the inside of his cheek and braced himself for the lie. “It’s been three days.”
“Three days?!” Captain Molley looked up with incredulity, but by now Julian had molded his own face into an expression of complete sincerity.
“Yes,” Julian spoke like one telling of a great burden they have borne all alone. “Three days.”
On Monday I spoke of characters that are sincerely good, characters that are sincerely evil, and characters that only put on a face good, willfully ignoring all the unscrupulous things that they do. In the case of this story Captain Molley is moral and strict and he owns it, Bartholomew is devious and wicked and he owns it, too. But Julian has claimed to be virtuous, while also trying to cheat and abandon his shipmates.
As I explained, the characters that an audience will respect are the ones who are honest about their true nature, and they will tend to dislike those that are two-faced. Julian is the most detestable character in this story, though not because he has done the most detestable things in his life.
With this section I tried to have him retain his petty self-delusions, but also become a more sympathetic character to the audience. Though I don’t intend for my reader to approve of his eating the other men’s food, I at least hope that they’ll appreciate how hard of a situation he is in. They don’t have to condone his behavior to still feel sorry for him.
But, of course, his situation is only getting harder now, and all because of his own deceit. Now that he has done something wrong, he must now tell lies about how long the men have been adrift at sea. And this lie will have unfortunate consequences that he has not accounted for. He is going to be caught between the horrible choice of coming forward with the truth, and being killed by his shipmates for it, or else maintaining the lie to his own destruction.
This idea of a character having painted themselves into a corner is a staple in literature. There is something fascinating about the karmic justice of a person that is impaled on their own sword. Come back on Monday as we explore this concept further, and then again on Thursday as we see how Julian falls into his own conundrum.