Chasing Treasure: Part Nine
Sam came to slowly, dragging himself into a foggy, pain filled consciousness. His head throbbed, a dull ache radiating out from the base of his skull. His arms hurt when he tried to move them, aching from being tied too tightly behind his back for too long. His wrists chafed from the coarse ropes.
"What?" he moaned, groggy and disorientated. "What happened?"
"You're sure this is the smart one?" someone mocked in a familiar voice. Sam struggled to place it, but his head felt like someone had stuffed it full of cotton wool. He couldn't think.
"It's a relative term," a second voice replied, and that one Sam could place. Niettah.
His eyes shot open as the memories came back in a rush. Niettah had betrayed him. He hadn't even seen it coming - one moment he'd been working on the maps, had been caught up in the problem and about to solve it, and the next...
The next moment, Niettah had used the blunt handle of his own dagger to knock him out. She hadn't even apologised, hadn't seemed at all guilty about it. Just a cool, calm professionalism.
The blurred shapes around him came into sharp focus. Either side of him were two pets he assumed were members of the enemy pirate crew. One of them, he recognised - it took a second to place her, but she was the rude lupe that had knocked him over back in the port. She smirked at him when she noticed his recognition, a smile that held far too many teeth to be anything but threatening.
The other he didn't recognise. A lenny, tall and spindly but with iron bracers wrapped around the feathers on each wing. His beak was scratched and a livid scar ran from the corner of his eyebrow down almost to his neck. Sam shuddered. He considered himself an adequate swordsman, but he didn't rate his chances of fighting his way out of this mess.
There were two others in the gloomy cave. Niettah stood off to one side, her expression closed and aloof. She tilted her head towards Sam as one might towards a vaguely interesting petpetpet in the dirt. He set his jaw and looked past her, determined not to give her the pleasure of seeing how much her betrayal hurt. His gaze fell instead on the last pet, an elegantly dressed gelert with a ridiculous feathered hat and a sharp coat that sat firmly on the gaudy side of the fence. Where those rubies in the buttons? And gold filigree on the hems? He scoffed at the wasteful opulence.
"Not to your taste?" the gelert rumbled in a cultured baritone. He had to be Rochefort; no other pirate that Sam knew of had such an over the top sense of fashion. "My apologies, how remiss of me. Antoinette, darling, would you sort our guest out?"
Antoinette? Who on earth was - oh. Antoinette, Niettah, yeah, Sam could see the connection there. He fought the urge to bare his teeth at her as she approached; only the lupe and the lenny either side of him made him watch himself.
She reached for the rope tying his hands together and cut it with one swift movement of her dagger. Sam shook the feeling back into his hands as best he could, hiding a wince at the strain in his arms. Rochefort smiled indulgently at him, as though waiting for something.
"What, you wanted a thanks?" Sam snapped. The lupe punched him in the ribs, a lightning fast blow that sent him sprawling on the floor.
"Manners, whelp," she snarled at him.
Rochefort sighed, sending her a disappointed look. "Kay, my dear," he chided in a long suffering tone. "The poor lad's had a confusing day. And we have been awfully rude. Allow me to introduce myself." He took his hat off in a practised flourish that sent his sparkly coat flaring out behind him. "I am the Comte Rochefort de la Mer, the captain of the Gallant Steed and heir to the title of the White Horn."
"Enchanted, I'm sure," Sam snarked. Rochefort continued as though he hadn't spoken.
"The charming xweetok to my left is the lovely Lady Antoinette as I'm sure you know, and may I also present to you the delightful Katharine and the unfairly handsome Ulric the Fourth."
The fourth? Seriously? Who actually called themselves "Ulric the Fourth" and expected people not to laugh in their face? Sam reminded himself of the knuckledusters and scars and amended his thought. Ulric the Fourth could call himself Princess Sparklefeathers and he doubted many people would have the guts to disagree.
"Call me Katharine and I will end you," the lupe informed him lightly. Ulric grunted, which Sam took to mean 'call me anything at all and I will worse than end you', which, hey, he appreciated the warning at least.
"Noted," he said dryly. His ribs smarted from her punch; he didn't doubt she would.
"Excellent!" Rochefort beamed. "Now, Sammy -"
"No. Big no."
"We're all introduced and we're all friends, so may I be the first to officially welcome you to the crew?"
Sam stared at him. He looked between the other three, waiting for one of them to laugh in his face and reveal the joke, but none of them did. Ulric was bored, Kay looked murderous (though Sam suspected that was her default expression) and Niettah was just blank. He focused back on Rochefort's smiling, open features.
"You're mad," he breathed out. Kay hefted her fist again - claws out this time, oh good - but Rochefort held up a paw to stop her. "You actually think I'm going to join you?"
"Come now, Sammy," Rochefort said reproachfully. If he wore glasses, Sam would expect him to be peering over them.
"Sammy, you're a smart lad. Your little pirate operation was all very fine and well, but it was hardly paying well now, was it? No riches, no treasure. By all accounts, this horde was it for you, wasn't it? The big payoff that would make everything worth it?"
He swept an arm to encompass the cave's contents. Sam kept a wary eye on Kay and Ulric but darted his gaze over the cave. He had to stop himself from doing a double take; it was filled with... With everything. Treasure. Knick knacks, paintings, jewels. And between everything, overflowing every chest and tumbling between every marble statue, was a sea of gold.
"The amassed treasure of no less than thirteen successive bearers of the White Horn," Rochefort proclaimed. "It is my inheritance and my birthright as the fourteenth. I must thank you for such diligence in piecing the map together for me; it would have been a tiresome waste of resources to pick them all up myself."
"Go jump off a cliff," was Sam's less than eloquent response to that. This time, when Kay swiped out with her claws, Rochefort didn't stop her. Sam winced at the thin lines of pain on his cheek and the feel of blood dripping down his chin, but he didn't regret his words.
"Sammy, please," Rochefort sighed. "You are being tiresome. Would it be so bad to join my crew?"
"Somehow I don't think your crew like me so much."
Kay grinned. "Right in one, fish-boy."
Rochefort waved him off. "It's how Katharine shows love, pay no mind to her. But very well; let me propose a trade. I will grant you one chest of gold - or emeralds, if you prefer? They would suit you marvellously - and safe passage to... wherever it is you come from. A generous offer, no?"
One chest of gold, given how overflowing the cave itself was? Sure. Generous. "What do you want in return?"
For a second, Rochefort dropped his affected manners. The stare he favoured Sam with was steady and assessing. It was like being stripped bare, like an invasion of some sort. Sam stuck his chin forwards and fought the urge to squirm under the full weight of it.
Then, as quickly as it had come, the intensity was gone and Rochefort was back to his usual foppish self. Sam shivered at the change. He was sick of people not being who they seemed to be. After this, he vowed, he'd never trust anyone again. Except Bannok. Forget reasonable suspicion - he was going for full blown paranoia.
If he got out of this. And somehow found Bannok, wherever he'd managed to wind up. He considered asking, but on the off chance that his brother had avoided detection so far he didn't want to draw attention to him.
"What do I want?" Rochefort said, pretending to consider the question. "Why, I'm a simple gelert, Sammy."
"Still not Sammy."
"It wouldn't even cost you anything. All I want is that tune you've got in your head." He smiled again, encouraging Sam to share with him in his good mood. "That's all. You can just hum it if you want."
"The tune?" Sam asked, thrown. At any moment he had several tunes in his head, some more annoying than others. Kumbayah was a recurring favorite, but he doubted it would suit Rochefort’s taste.
"Yes, the tune." Rochefort stood to one side and swept his hand out in an expansive gesture at one of the piles of gold. At the top was a marble plinth, and sitting on top of that, a grand horn. It was a french horn, curved into a circle stretching three feet across - far larger than it should be. The gleaming metal was a polished white gold that shone even in the dim half-light of the cave. "The tune encoded in the map pieces, the tune that will activate the White Horn," Rochefort explained. He favoured Sam with a raised eyebrow as he turned back to face him. "Do keep up, Sammy."
The question 'what will you do with it' was on the top of Sam's tongue, but he didn't ask. Paranoia, he reminded himself. Assume he'll lie. Assume that he'll use it for something too awful to contemplate.
"I didn't manage to work it out," he said, injecting just the right amount of thwarted greed into his voice. "The notes, sure, but they're meaningless without knowing what key it's written in."
"Lie," Niettah said calmly.
Sam bristled. "It's not," he denied. "Major key, minor key - what if it's completely transposed? It makes a massive difference."
She didn't even blink or nod. It was like she was carved from stone, she was that unfazed. "A difference that you worked out."
"I have to agree with Antoinette here, Sammy," Rochefort said with a slight frown. "She wouldn't have brought you in if the puzzle wasn't solved." He gestured to Ulric, little more than a tilt of his head, and Sam found himself held in a choke hold with a sword against his throat. "Perhaps you could try again?"
The new found paranoia warred with the old, deep-seated need for self preservation. He could give a false code. How bad could it be? He flicked his eyes over to Niettah, standing impassively behind Rochefort's right shoulder.
Very bad. If Niettah called him on the lie - and the paranoia insisted that she would - then it could be worse than bad.
So, if he gave the truth? Would Rochefort honour his promise and let Sam go? Let Bannok go?
Unlikely. The decoded tune was the only valuable thing Sam had. Though he'd never met Rochefort or his crew before personally, the Comte's reputation preceded him. He was not known for being merciful.
Which left the third option. Staying silent. Or at least, staying silent long enough to formulate and enact an escape plan, or long enough that if he did give a false answer Niettah wouldn't see through it straight away.
Staying silent it was. He raised his chin and locked eyes with Rochefort, daring him to do his worst. He squashed the panicked thought that he might have misjudged his own value here. If Rochefort didn't care about the tune, the secret to unlocking the White Horn's power - if Sam had gambled that wrong then everything would fall apart, but he didn't think he had.
He hoped, at least.
To be continued…