“Do you know what a cat is, boy?” The veins in the man’s neck pulsed. His eyes were shot red with blood.
“A small animal?” René asked.
There was a laugh from the men standing around the mast. The boatswain’s gaze turned like a snake seeking prey. The laugh died. Only the sea continued to speak. In the presence of death, the men remained silent.
“You, James, bring me the cat. I don’t think this boy has ever seen a real one. Your education has been sadly incomplete, boy. You’ll be thankin’ me for this. I promise you.” The man’s voice was a rough whisper.
“Gob, there’s no need to add harm to the kid. ’Twill find him soon enough,” said James.
“Bring me the damn cat, Bailey.”
James walked over and handed the boatswain the cat-o-nine- tails. He caught René’s eye and shook his head. The cat had nine sinuous thongs of blood-encrusted leather dangling from a well-worn wooden handle.
“This here’s a cat, boy. As you can see, it ain’t no small animal. Now, there is a skill and a talent to usin’ a cat, both of which I am proud to say I have. You see, you need to take care the thongs don’t get all stuck together with blood and skin, which they’re wont to do. If that happens, the cat’ll take yer organs right out, and that’s always a bad thing. So you need to run your fingers between the thongs every couple of strokes, to keep ’em separate. I gotta tell you— as much pride as I take in usin’ the cat, sometimes I lose track. I try to keep count, but before I know it, I plumb forgot to clean the damn thing. I surely hope that don’t happen today.”
“I also have a skill and a talent, and I will kill you with it,” René said in a low voice.
The man hesitated, confusion written across his face. He laughed a quick bark followed by an angry shake of his head.
“Pay attention, boy.” He raised the whip before René’s face, separated the thongs of the cat, and petted it in a sensual way. “Turn him around, and chain him up. You there, strip off his shirt.”
A stroke cracked against René’s back, sending blood and skin flying. “It usually takes me ten or twenty strokes to get warmed up, so don’t get too excited yet.”
You have my attention now.
René centered himself and forced down his awareness of the pain. He counted on his estimation of the captain and Gaspard’s instructions. If he was wrong, he would be too hurt to try anything.
The whip cracked and pain sang along the bloody stripe down his back. René refused to cry out. He needed the respect of these men if he was to survive.
Blood trickled down the back of his legs. Time wavered, and he faded in and out.
The force of the cat drove him into the mast.
“Enough, Boatswain.” The master of the vessel had a stern voice long accustomed to command.
“But Cap’n, I ain’t nearly finished. I was just gettin’ warmed up.” The boatswain’s voice was thick with frustration.
“Part of our bonus is to deliver this boy alive to his fate. I do not intend to lose money to satisfy your pleasure, sir.” The captain was a tall, somber man with sharp eyes. He did not seem like the type of man to brook dissent. He called out to the crew, “Do any of you wish to donate your share to the boatswain’s pride?”
A chorus of denials rang out, along with a few variations on “leave the boy be.” As the men dispersed one of them muttered, “That is one tough kid. Never seen a man take ten without makin’ a sound.”
“Mister Bailey, unchain the boy and see to his wounds. He needs to be alive and aware in order for us to meet our commission.” The captain turned back to his work.
The boatswain stood there seething. His hand twitched. Droplets of blood jumped from the sodden leather to land on the deck. He leaned close enough for René to smell his foul breath. “We have time yet, boy. You and I still have business before the sharks get ya.”
René’s eyes met those of the wielder of the cat. “I have made you a promise, sir, and I always keep my promises.”
The man was mute in response.