Drift blew on his hands to try and warm them up. The junk ship was hovering high up in the atmosphere above Rilantru City and the damp they had gathered over the ocean was starting to crystallise to frost.
There were several other trundling junk ships, their solar sails flexed out in vain as the storm above gathered and blotted out the sun with spongy, grey rainclouds. None of them had been given permission to land in the city yet.
It was a tedious affair getting allocated a docking spot at a metropolis as thriving as this one. Plus it didn’t help that Rilantru was only accessible by air, hemmed in on all sides by yawning chasms leading down to the abyss.
“It’ll be worth it though,” Captain Shin had promised the crew. Rilantru was a good place for them to trade their wares and pick up new workers.
Sure enough, a few hours later Drift could feel firm cobbles beneath his feet and breathed in the air, pungent with food stalls, spice and alcohol barrels being rolled out of the ship’s belly.
“Errand for you,” Captain Shin walked over, his thigh high leather boots creaking with every movement. “Want you and Fletch to go pick up a new recruit from this address – it’s a couple selling off one of their nephews, should be in good health, around seventeen years old. I’m giving the money to you and not Fletch for a reason,” Shin growled. It was no secret the other ship hand liked to flash the cash in gambling parlours in every port they docked.
“Sure thing Cap’n,” Drift nodded, gesturing for Fletch to stop helping with the unloading and come with him instead.
“How much is in there?” Fletch asked excitedly, eyeing the envelope Drift was tucking into his jacket.
“Not much,” Drift replied grimly, “unless the kid’s missing a limb I’m pretty sure the captain’s underpaying.”
“Pssh,” Fletch shrugged, “the poverty in some parts of town here’s so bad people would sell their grandma for a couple of coins.”
Drift laughed as they turned to walk down one of the back alleys. Almost immediately they accosted by a gaggle of women in revealing corsets who fell about giggling when they spotted the two young men.
“Come on darling, I’d do you for free,” one red head winked provocatively at Drift.
“Handsome lads aren’t they?” an older woman cackled, hitching up her skirt and kicking her leg out at them.
“Sure there isn’t any spare cash?” Fletch grinned cheekily as Drift grunted and shook his head, politely declining the women’s offers.
“This is the house,” Drift pointed, after they had walked down a few more streets and ended up outside a crumbling building held together mostly by wrought iron guttering.
Drift knocked heavily on the door to find it swung open by a rakish looking boy with tufted silver hair and large, pale blue eyes.
“I’m not going!” the boy screeched before slamming the door shut in their faces.
“Oh, well alright then,” Fletch snorted.
“God damn it,” Drift grit his teeth before hammering on the door again. This time it was opened by a harassed older looking woman, balancing a baby on either hip. At the sight of Drift’s scowl one of them promptly burst into tears.
“We’re here to acquire,” Drift squinted to read the name on the piece of paper, “Cove?”
“Yes, my nephew,” the women smiled tightly. “You’ve come on behalf of Captain Shin have you?”
“That’s right,” Drift nodded.
“Brilliant,” the woman’s smile grew wider as she eyed the envelope of money in Drift’s hands. “You better come in then, I’m sure he’s just gathering his belongings.”
“Sure,” Fletch smirked as they heard a loud crash and shouting from further down the hallway.
“I’m NOT going!” the silver haired boy, who Drift deduced was Cove, was storming back out of another room pursued by an angry looking man.
“Cove we can’t keep feeding you forever!” the man yelled, going red in the face. “We’ve got enough mouths under this roof what with the new twins.”
“Then I’ll get a job here,” Cove exclaimed, his bright eyes flashing murderously. Drift could see that he was dangerously skinny, his collarbone protruding sharply through pale skin above the collar of a fraying wool sweater.
“There are no bloody jobs here!” the woman squealed, marching down the hallways to saddle her husband with the two babies and leaning over to snatch at Cove’s ear. The boy let out a yelp of pain and struggled to free himself from her vice like pinch.
“I’m kind of glad I never had a family,” Fletch laughed from beside Drift.
“We need to settle this quickly,” Drift huffed, “the captain expects us back and we aren’t staying moored here overnight.”
“Oh, be my guest,” Fletch raised his eyebrows and gestured towards the explosive scene in front of them.
“You’re going and that’s the end of it!” the woman was squawking now as she dragged Cove along the hall, the boy still struggling and wriggling. Cove latched his fingernails onto the wallpaper as they went and tore great long strips of it off.
“It’s this or a brothel!” the woman screamed, shoving her still flailing and swearing nephew straight into Drift’s arms. Drift let out a stunned ‘oof’ as Cove reared his knee up to connect with Drift’s crotch.
“Oh boy that’s gotta sting,” Fletch noted nonchalantly as he leaned back against the wall and folded his arms to get a better view.
“You little shit,” Drift muttered, using his greater size and strength to cage the boy in with his arms like trying to subdue a snapping turtle.
“Get off me!” Cove screeched, managing to twist himself round and jut his sharp hipbones back against Drift’s pelvis.
“Oh yeah,” Fletch shook his head whilst beginning to roll a cigarette. “You are never having kids mate.”
“Fucking help would you?” Drift spat out.
“Well,” Cove’s aunt panted, bending over slightly to gather her breath, “I think I’ve proved he’s healthy, I’ll be taking payment now thank you?”
“Are you sure you shouldn’t be paying us to take it away?” Fletch laughed. “We aren’t bloody pest control lady!”
“He’s a hard worker,” the uncle added cheerfully over the noise of the screaming infants and Cove’s persistent swearing. Drift had no idea how this fragile youth had acquired a vocabulary of expletives more colourful that half the shipmates onboard the junk.
“Let me go you jerk!” Cove yelled, twisting again to gyrate his thigh against Drift’s abdomen and lower.
“Stop…moving,” Drift bit out, clenching his jaw.
“Wriggling little one ain’t he?” Fletch sighed, finally standing forwards, lighting his cigarette and drawing a brown glass bottle out of his coat pocket. “Hey auntie – you got a dishcloth or something?”
Cove’s aunt frowned but passed him a handkerchief, which Fletch promptly doused in a foul smelling yellow liquid. “Hold his face still,” Fletch instructed Drift.
“Why the hell do you carry a bottle of chloroform around with you?” Drift muttered, moving his fingers tightly across Cove’s scalp and holding him in place.
“NO!” Cove screamed, realising what was about to happen. “No, don’t you dare you fuckers!”
Fletch grinned toothily, still biting down on his cigarette as he stuffed the handkerchief across Cove’s face.
Drift felt Cove’s spasms and jerks become weaker until finally his body drooped like a rag doll.
“See? What would you have done without me?” Fletch winked at Drift before grabbing the envelope and chucking it into the grabbing hands of the aunt. “Right, now let’s go before the Cap’n puts us on night watch as punishment for being late.”
“Right,” Drift grunted, hoisting the unconscious body of Cove up and across his shoulder. The younger boy was as light as a feather, it was a marvel he had managed to inflict quite so much pain.
Drift frowned as he struggled awkwardly for a moment with his grip, not sure where he should put his other hand as it hovered awkwardly above Cove’s ass.
“Drift!” Fletch yelled back from the street, it was already growing dark outside. “Get a bloody move on will ya?”
“Coming,” Drift bit back, settling finally for a firm grip around one of the boy’s small thighs.
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