Mary H. Herbert

Clandestine circle

Chapter One

The ship sailed into Sanction Harbor on the morning tide, her sails billowing in the hot breath of the coming summer day. She was a three-masted merchantman, wide-hulled and shallow-drafted, flying the flag of Palanthas, and from a distance, there seemed nothing wrong.

The pilot, at his station at the mouth of the harbor, signaled the ship to lower her sail and wait for his approach, but the vessel glided serenely onward, totally ignoring his order. The pilot grumbled an oath and reached for his farseeing glass. He’d get the name of the ship and report her captain to the harbormaster for that insubordination. But when he trained the glass on the decks of the strange ship, his mouth fell open and his weathered skin lightened several shades.

“Cabel!” he yelled to his assistant. “Signal the harbormaster. We’ve got a runaway!”

The young man named Cabel hurried up the ladder of a high wooden tower that overlooked the teeming harbor.

From a wooden box that held a number of signal flags, he drew one made of red and yellow fabric, one so seldom used it was still creased and brightly colored. Quickly he ran it up the signal pole.

His master came puffing up the ladder to join him, and together they stared across the water toward the distant tower near the piers where the harbormaster’s apprentices received and acknowledged messages. Almost immediately a matching red and yellow flag bloomed on the far tower and a horn signaled a warning to all ships in the harbor.

“What’s wrong with that ship, sir?” Cabel asked breathlessly. “I’ve never had to run up that flag before.”

The pilot grimaced. He was an old, experienced seaman, but the ‘runaway’ or ‘ship out of control’ was a flag he had rarely seen either. “There’s no one on deck I could see,” he said gruffly. “No one at all.”

Cabel’s eyebrows rose. “A ghost ship?”

The pilot stifled a shiver at the mention of a ghost. Like many seamen, he was superstitious and firmly believed in omens and portents. “Can’t say who’s sailing her, but she’s real enough,” he replied. “Maybe the ship lost its anchor or slipped its cable. Maybe they’re all belowdecks dead-drunk.”

“With their sails out?” Cabel asked, his tone dubious.

The pilot grunted a noncommittal response. He raised the glass to his eye again to watch the strange ship cruise blindly into the bustling harbor. “A ghost ship is a bad omen, boy,” he muttered. “A bad omen. So don’t go talking about it again.”

The red and yellow flag on the harbormaster’s tower was visible to everyone in the harbor, but not everyone knew what it meant. The horn signal, though, blared from one end of the busy docks to the other, and those who heard the warning blasts paused at their work and glanced anxiously at the sky or out toward the harbor entrance.

Sanction was a city constantly alert to danger, and her citizens rarely took warnings complacently. But there were no dragons in the sky winging in to attack, no fleet of black ships at the harbor’s mouth lining up to fire a barrage. There was only one lone vessel sailing silently toward the docks. Only those who recognized the danger flag craned to get a glimpse of the runaway and, if possible, get out of its way.

Pushed by the morning wind, the ship cruised by a cluster of small fishing boats, two pleasure craft, and a large war galleon being outfitted for the city’s harbor defenses. An ore freighter, already under sail, eased out of her way. The crew of one galley floating at anchor managed to haul on the anchor chain and pull the stern of their boat out of harm’s way. They stared openmouthed as the lifeless ship slipped by their own with inches to spare.

As the Palanthian ship slid closer to the docks, the breeze in her sails dropped and the canvas sheets collapsed to slap against their masts like limp laundry. The merchantman’s course slowed but became erratic as it approached the crowded docks.

All around, heads turned to watch the ship, and those close to her held their breaths. The first impact came with a loud thud and a splintering, grinding noise as the ship side-swiped another large merchantman. She began to slow, then a gust of wind caught her sails in its clasp and sent her rushing forward directly toward the long southern pier and an Abanasian trading vessel tied alongside to unload its cargo of cattle and sheep.

The crew of the trader, Whydah, gaped at the ship bearing down on them and scattered wildly just as the runaway rammed into the broad midsection of the trader, with a crash of splintering wood. The ship’s bell clanged crazily. The impact jarred both vessels and raised a cacophony of bellows from the terrified livestock.

“Look out!” someone yelled just as the bowsprit and the foremast of the runaway crashed to the decks, bringing down yards of canvas and a tangle of ropes and shattered spars.

“Great galloping sea dragons!” roared the Abanasian captain. “What in the name of Chaos do they think they’re doing? Come on, you lot, get over there and teach them some manners.”

His crew climbed swiftly to their feet, grabbed the nearest truncheon or cutlass, and swarmed over the debris of mast and sail onto the offending merchantman. Once on board, they paused and stared around at the lifeless deck in surprise. It was hard to vent anger on people who weren’t to be found. Slowly they spread out to investigate.

The first mate made his way cautiously toward the upper aft deck and the ship’s wheel. Something large lay in the shadow at the base of the big wheel, something that didn’t look right. A bundle of laundry or bedding perhaps.

“Sir!” called one of his sailors from near a large hatch that led down to the crew’s quarters. “Over here!”

The first mate hesitated, then switched around to see what the man had found. He hadn’t gone more than five paces before the stench hit him. He clapped a hand over his nose and mouth and fought the desire to gag. His sailor looked green. Pale as the sheets, the two men lifted the hatch and peered downward.

The first mate glimpsed a row of supine bodies, all hideously dead, before he knocked the sailor’s hand away and slammed the hatch shut. The sounds of retching behind him told him his own man had succumbed to the stench of rot and death, and he had to swallow hard to stifle the nausea in his gut. He wiped his streaming forehead. By the gods, it was hot.

“What about the rest of them?” he shouted.

“There are bodies over here,” replied another sailor from the doorway into the galley and captain’s quarters. “The officers and the cabin boy!”

“And here!”

“Over here, too,” other voices responded from other parts of the ship.

“Rolfe,” bellowed the captain to his first mate. “What’s going on over there? Where is the crew?”

Rolfe scratched the back of his balding head as he looked around at the wrecked merchantman. “They seem to be dead, Captain.”

There was a stunned pause, then, “All of them?”

“So far, sir.”

“I think there’s one still alive up here,” shouted one of the sailors. He waved from the aft deck and bent over the pile of clothes Rolfe had noticed earlier by the wheel. The first mate hurried up the ladder to the deck to see for himself.

A man lay by the ship’s wheel where he had collapsed, perhaps after a last desperate effort to steer his ship to safety. His skin was a ghastly yellow, like ancient vellum pulled tight over the bones of his long frame. Livid blotches of red and purple, like bruising, mottled his face, neck, and arms. Dried blood caked his nostrils and ears, and more blood oozed from his mouth and the corners of his sunken eyes. Bloody vomit stained his clothes.

It seemed impossible that this wreck of a man could still be alive, but Rolfe and his companion leaned closer and saw the faint flutter of the man’s chest. Their eyes lifted and met with a mutual look of fear.

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