The Price of Wine
by Dana DeVries

   Peering through the dregs at the bottom of his glass, Captain Al Kassir's cabin was bathed in a bloody glow. With a sigh, the captain swallowed the last drops of wine, stood and swept the empty wine bottles and his glass into a sack. He glanced around the cabin, looking for something. The room only held his bunk, spartan desk and two chairs. With a sudden snap of his fingers, he opened one of the lower desk drawers and pulled out the holy writings of the Second Prophet. He dumped that into the sack and quickly knotted it. Striding out of his cabin, he paused only long enough to pitch the sack overboard where the heavy book dragged it into the depths.

   Everything on deck looked ready. The pounding beat of the drums came from below along with the normal smells and sounds of the filthy slaves rowing. Another slave was being whipped at the post, but he would be returned to his oar shortly while a select few others tended the cannons under the watchful eye of his gunners. A crewman dropped from the rigging above him and bowed. At his impatient wave, the crewman reported. "Sighted them ahead, sir. We're going to be close to the last, if I judge their numbers correctly. The Strange Skies has already put the signal up to have all captains and first mates report in." Al Kassir nodded and the lookout scampered back up the short mast. Another wave of the captain's hand summoned Wazi, his first mate.

   "Yes, captain?"

   "Have the pilot put us near the northern edge of the fleet. You and I will go in aboard a longboat. If there's trouble, I'd prefer to not have to push the Sweet Water out through the other ships."

   "Yes, sir." The first mate leaned in close and whispered. "Are you alright, sir? You seem on edge."

   "Just nervous. I wish we knew if he was here."

   "We'll know soon enough."

   "Too true." The next hour passed slowly. Positioning the Sweet Water and last minute instructions to his crew filled the minutes but, between the ticks of the clock, doubt filled Al Kassir's mind. It had been easy to assume that Kheired-Din was dead and plan a rebellion, but now he felt cold and alone. Most of all, he wanted a drink. A dry Bernoulli to cut the taste of fear from his mouth.

   In the longboat, he and Wazi exchanged glances and he immediately felt better. They were in this together, along with Hirsh and the others. The slaves grunted beneath the lash as Muzaf called out the chant and twisted the whip handle in his palm. The slaves required far more beating than usual as they moved in fearful awe of the fleet gathered around them. Scores of ships ranging in size from small couriers to galleons. And in the center of it all floated the flagship, the Strange Skies. Al Kassir slowly surveyed the fleet. All of those ships packed with the slaves gathered from all across Theah, all guarded by hundreds of officers who ensured complete obedience, all of it created and guided by one man. Kheired-Din. For a moment, he hoped that the Corsair leader lived. While he yearned for his freedom, the thought of life without the holy man filled his atheistic heart with fear. He shook himself and stared straight ahead as the looming bulk of the Strange Skies grew before him. It was an enormous galleon looking curiously dismembered without any oars reaching into the water.

   Waves slapped against the longboat and recoiled towards the Corsairs ships on every side. Al Kassir didn't say a word until they pulled alongside the flagship. Turning to Muzaf, he croaked out, "Head back to the Sweet Water and wait for orders." The crewman nodded.

   Al Kassir clambered up the rope ladder hanging from the Strange Skies' side followed by Wazi carrying the Sweet Water's log upon his back. The Strange Skies was an enormous ship but she was full now. Al Kassir recognized many of the other Corsairs captain and loyal crew from all over the fleet. All gathered here. He nodded to his allies and grinned at those who wanted him dead. One glance at the crowd's eagerness was enough to answer his question. It was good to know where he stood again. The doors leading down to the slaves hold were thrown open and Corsairs meandered in and out of it. Heading down into the hold, he saw that the slaves had scrubbed and cleaned the blood and piss from the decks. The oars and benches had been removed and long tables filled the room. A huge map covered one wall showing the Forbidden Sea and La Bocca. More captains thronged this room and in the center stood the confirmation of Al Kassir's question. Tall enough that his bald head brushed the ceiling and dressed only in a pair of cotton pants stood the most powerful man in the Mirror. Kheried Din. His stance was casual, but his personality dominated the entire room. With a glance, Al Kassir acknowledged what his allies already knew. No rebellion would occur.

   Then Kheired-Din was before him and gestured towards another door. Ice formed along Al Kassir's spine as the others parted before him and he passed through the door into a small crew quarters. All of the furniture had been removed from here as well. The only thing remaining was a set of manacles hanging in the center of the room. He turned and found himself face to face with a pair of beautiful imperious eyes set in a cold face. Shala motioned him back towards the manacles. Behind her, Kheried Din and Wazi entered the room. But Al Kassir couldn't take his gaze from Shala's eyes. He felt his arms raised and the manacles clasp onto each of his wrists without twitching. Even when she brought the lash handle carved into a likeness of a Prophet's Cross to his lips, he did not move a muscle. The memory of a slave faced with a viper came to mind. The slave had stared at it for long moments before it bit him. Al Kassir didn't even blink until Shala moved around behind him. By then the ice in his spine had moved up and taken a hold of his brain. He stood staring in fear as Khereid-Din approached him.

   "Al Kassir. I am disappointed. Appalled. Not that you would doubt in our holy mission. I know that not all of our men, not even all of our captains feel the call of God as I do. I use the flawed as well as the sanctified in pursuit of the divine. I do not blame you for your unrighteousness.

   "I am not even upset that you and the others conspired against the Corsairs. I know that when I am gone, the Corsairs will fall apart as those who are flawed break apart and only the sanctified will remain. I understand that of men like you. Especially since you had already decided to only follow your plan if I was dead. You are loyal to your fear of me, if not to my holy mission. That is why you still live.

   "But I cannot forgive this." Khered-din reached back and Wazi slipped a bottle out of the sack and placed it in his hand. It was a wine bottle, a Falisci '08. One of the best and rarest vintages of Vodacce wine. Al Kassir knew of only three bottles still in existence and one of those was in his collection. Had been in his collection. Al Kassir almost shrieked as Shala silently drew a knife along the seams of his shirt. It fell off of him with a whisper as Kheired-Din continued.

   "The blood of the vine has no place amongst us. I made that clear to you when you served on board this very ship. Apparently you did not remember your lesson. So now Shala will remind you." Kheired-Din handed the bottle past Al Kassir to the woman behind him. The sound of smashing glass was enough to bring tears to his face. "And when you have remembered your place, then I have a mission for you and that floating collection of glass temptation you call a ship."

   As Kheired-Din stepped back, Al Kassir felt soft fingertips trail down his back. The sensation felt delicious against his icy cold skin. But seconds later, he felt lines of pain follow as Shala dragged the jagged shards of the wine bottle across his flesh. Still Al Kassir didn't say a word until she began dribbling the wine into the cuts. The wine slashed cuts of fire into his soul and he screamed out. Only then did he feel the sharp kiss of Shala's lash. His scream continued on for hours.