Four Bells

The ship rode silently through the night. All the lights aboard that could be seen were shuttered, tiny stars of light indistinguishable from the sky. The sails were black, pinpointed with phosphors to avoid casting a shadow. The hull was soft, ragged; the lap of waves against it muffled and silenced. It was a ghost ship, silent, invisible. A smuggler’s ship.

“Four bells,” came the murmur, and it was passed from one black-clad crew to another: four bells, four bells, four bells and all’s well. It ran from stem to stern, down the hatches to the hold, where a lantern flickered in the warm stagnant safety of solid timbers.

“Four bells,” repeated the watcher, and played a card.

“Four bells,” answered her opponent, and laid her own.

There was a pause, as they both looked over at the contents of the hold, counting bundles, watching for movement, for the shifting of the lantern’s reflection on the glass globes. After a moment, they looked back at each other. “All clear,” the watcher murmured.

“Wait.” The opponent’s voice was sharp. She was looking at the table.

“What is it?”

“I played an ace of diamonds.” She hadn’t taken her eyes off the table. “What did you lay?”

“Queen of hearts.” There was a hitch in the watcher’s voice. “What do you see?”

“Double nines.” A beat. “Spades and clubs.”

Silence. Only it wasn’t, not really. There was the wash of waves, but the longer they listened, the more it sounded like the rustle of leather.

“Are you sure they’re nines?” The watcher was whispering now, her eyes fixed on the cargo, her lips moving without sound. Counting.

“Eights.” The opponent whispered too, the sibilant seeming to blend into the wash of waves, like the leather. “How many?”

“Thirty-nine.” An edge of panic in the watcher’s voice. She reached up, steadied the lantern with one hand, settled the other on the hilt of her sword. “I think…you should go. Now.”

The opponent didn’t move.

“Now.” The word was as strident as a whisper could be.

Nothing moved.

The watcher took her eyes off the contraband for a moment, drawing her sword, releasing the lantern and turning to look at her opponent.

The light glittered off of a glass globe, fogged from the inside, its contents indistinct. The opponent’s body, gaunt and grey beneath the globe, rose from the table and shrugged into a nor’wester.

“All’s well.” The words came from a long way off. “Four bells. All’s well.” The globe began to revolve. “All’s well. Four bells all’s well four bells.”

The watcher’s breath came rushing in, then, a single inhalation, a scream that seemed to go on forever as the thing in the globe carefully skirted the table and approached her. It was still talking, still babbling its inane reassurance as it wrapped its hands around her throat.

At eight bells, the new watcher came down the ladder. She picked up the sword from the floor, studied it, sheathed it carefully, counted the contraband: forty-one. She sat down at the table, glanced at the cards. Pair of deuces. Terrible luck. She shuffled.

After a few minutes her opponent joined her at the table. “Deal me in.” She kicked her feet back, stretching. “It’s going to be a long watch.”

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