He was a sprawl of a man. In his chair. In his bed. On his feet. On his back. And today he was staring, staring at the wall, through his man servant, nothing in his mind but his dreams, his secret dreams, the dreams that never ever reached his eyes. And the swell of the sea only magnified his reach, his power, his control.
‘And?’ he said, lifted the glass of port to his lips.
‘Nothing,’ the man servant said.
‘You must have found something.’
‘Not what you were looking for.’
The big man rustled his rump into place. ‘What was I looking for? Remind me.’ His lips were red from the port.
‘Gold. Pearls. Moonstones.’
‘Quite right. You couldn’t have missed it.’
‘There was nothing to miss. Nothing to find.’
‘You’re much too eloquent to be a man servant,’ the big man said.
‘I listen well.’
‘Too well, maybe.’
‘Only you can be the judge of that, my lord,’ the servant said, and bowed.
‘Or too much.’
‘I’ll digress if I want to.’
‘You are the master.’
‘You think I should look for the loot myself, don’t you?’
‘You think I haven’t looked hard enough.’
‘You know me too well.’
‘Only as a slave knows his owner,’ the dark servant said.
‘You were cheap.’
‘As you remind me often.’
‘Go look again,’ the man said, shifting on his cushions. ‘I can’t go rummaging through a dying man’s possessions.’
‘Is it only dead men you rob then, sir?’
‘I only ever take what’s mine.’
The servant bowed again, wordlessly this time.
‘And don’t come back until you’ve found what I want,’ the Earl of Lindsey said. He waved his hand. ‘Go.’
‘Very well,’ the servant said and turned to leave.
‘Job,’ Lindsey called after him. ‘I’m serious.’
Job, dark and his real name in his mind, stopped and swivelled on his heel. ‘I am quite aware of that, as always.’
Lindsey waved again, dismissive. ‘Enough.’
Job pushed his way through the gasping door of the quarterdeck, his hands calm on the greasy wood, out onto the soaking deck, rain and fog sluicing along the grain, land now finally out of sight, and the sea swaying in time with the sails and the warren of masts. He shrugged, wiped his face against the weather, strode across the straight-lined decking, lifted the nearest hatch and jumped down into it, ignoring the ladder, bracing himself as he landed, silent-soled, on the grey treads of their guest’s quarters. There, the gloom held at bay by an orchestra of candles, flames floating a distance away from their wicks, or at least that was how they seemed to him, he, hidden away around a short curved corner, watched the mystery guest heave a shallow breath as he moved heavily around the cabin. That’s why everyone knew he was dying, for slight men do not tread weightily when they are well.
‘I know you’re there, Job,’ the man called in an accented whisper. ‘Is he still sending you to find what treasures I have?’
‘Yes,’ Job said, still in darkness.
‘How long have I known you?’
‘And yet I trust you.’
Job raised his arms, spread his hands, and made a low sound of assent.
‘Why?’ the man said.
‘Because we’re both foreigners?’
‘Or both slaves?’
The man shrugged. ‘Look at me.’ He scraped his way across the floor. ‘What do you see?’
‘A rich man.’
‘How deceptive appearances are. … What else?’
‘I don’t know what to say.’
Outside, the wind pushed the boat harder into the oncoming swell, the room rolling and swaying, the table shuddering with the contradictory motions, and yet neither of them sought out anything to hold on to.
‘I am a slave, Job,’ the pale man said, his ribs showing even through his baggy shirt. He walked back to his table, held his cold hands over the candles. ‘To the hunt.’
‘The adventure. The craving to search for what your master thinks I already own; to find, somewhere, riches, gold, jewels, precious things I can mould into my own.’
‘Greed?’ Job stepped into the guttering light. ‘I don’t believe it.’
The man laughed, lowered himself into one of the rickety skeleton chairs, pushed his legs under the table, and shook his head. ‘Not greed, my friend. Addiction, obsession. That’s what I’m in thrall to.’
‘So you have a way to escape if you really want to.’
‘And you haven’t?’
‘His power reaches further than I can run or swim.’ Job nodded at the small window. ‘Look outside. The land has gone now.’
‘I’ll buy you and set you free.’
‘He wouldn’t allow it.’
‘You’re too valuable to him, you mean?’
‘I couldn’t say. Only a master knows the true value of his slaves.’
‘You should call me Francis.’ He ran his hands, palms down, along the table smooth with age and touch and salt. ‘Why do you mean so much to him?’
‘I’m a shadow,’ Job said. ‘No-one sees me.’
‘You spy for him.’
‘And other things.’
‘What makes this different?’
‘You don’t treat me like a slave. You see me.’
‘All men are free in my mind.’
Job bowed his head.
‘Do you want to know a secret?’ Francis said.
‘Don’t I already know them all?’
Francis shook his head, a familiar gesture by now. ‘Oh no. The best is still to come.’
‘And you’ll tell me?’
‘Of course.’ Francis got up, achingly, took too many deep breaths, and put his hand on Job’s shoulder. He waited for the silence to settle, for even the wind to subside, and for the ship to sink into a soundless rythm. ‘The secret, my friend, is that I have none of the things your master wants.’