KASSI AND DEATH ON THE CIRCLE SEA by Ste Whitehouse 
 

‘The Pipe-world, Ah’kis, is five thousand miles long and just over ten miles in diameter. It was one of a dozen Arks sent out from Earth to populate distant planets, each meant to journey a mere 200 years at one third light speed. But some accident knocked Ark Six from its course and now 10,000 years have passed. Kassi seeks her brother who has been kidnapped by ‘demons’ and now travels north to the end of the world. She is accompanied by Sebastian, a sentient bot of dubious origins with whom she can communicate telepathically. That ability seems to set her apart from the rest of the world’s population.’


The brig was much like any other prison. One side solid oaken planks from which you could feel the waves lap against the hull of the ship, and the other three sides thick bars of steel expertly set into the floor and ceiling. A door of similar bars was set in one side, secured by an inelegant but functional lock. Kassi reckoned fifteen, perhaps twenty seconds and she could have the lock picked. Twenty-five seconds if she was to make no noise. They had taken her best knife, lone sword and armour but missed both sets of lock picks and her second-best knife.

The only problem had been the constant attention of the various crew members. They watched over her and Sebastian all night. The rumble of their stomachs had kept her awake, on and off. Now if they had slept, she could have picked the lock in ten seconds the amount of noise their stomachs made. Obviously, the crew’s cook was rubbish or else the captain annoyed at them for some transgression. 

She stretched her six foot plus length and rolled over on the slim steel frame set into the planks. All things considered it was not the worst jail she’d ever stayed in. Not that she made a habit of staying in jails, Sebastian saw to that; it was just that although she thought of herself on the right side of the line, to many the line was not only fuzzy but downright treacherous, and she often found that her version of right clashed with others. Particularly those who owned jails.

Sebastian groaned, not at all trying to vie for her attention.

Kassi sighed and gave in, asking, “Tell me again how it is that you can be sea sick?”

A low moan emanated from the bot as he lay at her feet, his legs splayed as if in defeat. “My internal sensors are picking up every... swell and tsunami, whilst my visual sensors see nothing but this wall and bars. It sets up a dissonance internally which I feel as...” He groaned as the ship gently crested a small swell beneath them.

“Sea sickness,” Kassi finished for him, trying hard not to smirk, and failing miserably.

“If only I could gaze upon the splendours of the ocean.” He spoilt his soliloquy by adding, “Then my internal sensors would recalibrate with what I see. I would not be suffering.”

Kassi was about to mention the earache she was presently suffering when Sebastian continued.

“What were you thinking of, lass? We had barely left sight of B’Jing and we had been invited to the welcoming party within the stateroom.”

Kassi sat up and replied simply, “The man.”

Sebastian sighed, an odd sound coming from his mouthless face. “I admired the way you initially held up his hand and asked if it belonged to anyone as you had found it unexpectedly on your behind...”

“I said ‘arse’.”

Sebastian ignored her and continued unsteadily. “But then you rolled him over your shoulder, floored him and put a knife to his throat.”

Calmly she said, “It was you who knocked over the Captain in your hurry to my side.”

“I was only trying to protect...”

“I do not need your protection, Sebastian,” Kassi replied coldly.

The bot muttered softly. “It was not you I rushed to protect.” Louder he added, “You threatened to amputate his hand.”

Kassi looked the picture of innocence. 

Sebastian resorted to muttering again. “I was not sure.”

“It’s a shame really. I could’ve sworn I saw Fy there and that chap from the night before.” 

“Well, I can hear the Captain approach. If you say that you are sorry, we may be allowed to wander freely amongst the passengers again.”

“As long as he returns my best knife and broadsword.”

The door into the small brig opened and the Captain did indeed enter. An older man, hair greying at the sides of an oval face, his eyes as blue as the ocean. He nodded to the crewman to go and waited until they were all alone. 

“I... ah... may need your help. My purser was murdered in the night and you two are the only people who could not have committed the crime. I am reliably informed that you can be trusted, generally. And that you are both capable of thinking beyond the sword.”

Kassi waited a second and then asked, “This purser; was it the man who assaulted my arse?”

The Captain blanched and said quickly. “Gods no. No! That was a passenger. The purser is, was, a member of my crew. We have sailed together for many, many years.”

She waited silently.

{Kassi love.} Sebastian sent telepathically.

“Oh alright. Of course we would be delighted to help.” Even with her back to him she could sense the bot practically roll his eyes.

“Good. Good.” The Captain unlocked their cell and stepped back, partially afraid of what may happen. He had been told true enough that both the girl and the robot were generally harmless, but still he wanted to be careful.

As they stepped into the corridor the Captain said, “This man vouchsafed you.”

Johan Issyac leant against the bulkhead, a smirk on his face.

The Captain nodded curtly. “Captain.”

Johan smiled back. “Captain.”

{See? I told you I had seen the man.} Kassi ‘said’ to Sebastian.

Issyac looked at the pair with a puzzled smile before saying, “I am glad that you suffered no harm from your fall... Madam.”  

Then he turned to the ship captain and said, “I’m sure that my presence will not be necessary. From what I have read on these two they’ll have the mystery solved before lunch.” He strode off with a swagger which Kassi appreciated.

The Captain ushered them into a small cabin a few minutes later. A man lay half off the sole bunk, his face looking now forever towards the ceiling, mouth ajar slightly. Numerous tears and cuts could be seen in his nightclothes, edged with blood.

The Captain waited at the door. “We found him like this early this morning. I and my crew are the only ones to have access to the crew quarters.” He looked down at the man in sorrow. “Such a waste. To leave us like this. Captain Issyac assures me that he has the highest regard for your abilities. So... I would appreciate a swift end to this.” He turned and left. 

“Damn!” Kassi exclaimed.

“I know. A dreadful death and we are expected to find the killer amongst the crew?”

“No. I meant that I wanted to ask for my weapons back.”

“Your best knife is going to help you solve this?”

“No, but I might run into that bastard from last night.”

“And then we would be investigating two murders,” Sebastian said flatly, shaking his head sadly. “Come on. Let’s start this before you fillet someone.”

“Ohhhh, a fish joke. Points!” She started to search the cabin whilst Sebastian studied the body.

“Hmmm. His tongue and inside cheeks are rather black which could indicate a poison. I may have to do an autopsy.”

“That sounds better than a frenzied knife attack. Too little blood. Unless he was neither killed here nor in those clothes,” Kassi said, as she sat at the purser’s desk and rummaged through the drawers.

“I agree. The wounds were definitely inflicted post mortem.”

She sighed. “Well, he was neat. I mean, look at this book. Forty odd pages of figures, all neat and tidy.”

“He was a purser, that’s what they do,” Sebastian replied.

Kassi flicked through the pages. “Everything appears to add up. Income and outgoings. Ah.”

“What?”

“A second set of clothing. Not his size.”

“They shared cabins, I would think.” Sebastian stopped and looked around. “This has more of a ‘homely’ feel to it. It’s lived in by two people.”

“And one bunk! Is attraction to the same sex illegal on the seas?” Kassi asked. “I mean pirates are always so macho and arrrrgh me hearties!”

“For a start we’re talking about merchants here, and on a ship, there is no likelihood of hiding such a thing for long.”

“Maybe they did and someone just found out?”

“And maybe he had taken a new lover, upsetting the old lover, or said old lover wanted to exchange him for a newer model but lacked the skills to actually ask and went full Hannibal on him.”

Kassi looked about the cabin slightly confused. “I see no evidence of elephants!”

Sebastian rolled his eye sensors again.

“Let us gather as much information as we can before jumping to conclusions, shall we?”

Kassi shrugged. “Okay. Hmm. Application letter to be a purser. Hmmm?”

Sebastian asked. “Yes?”

“What ship are we on?”

“The Santa Maria Del Costa.”

She held up the letter. “This looks new and it’s for a job on the Golden Backleg.”

“Let us have a chat with the Captain, shall we?”

The Captain was found in the aft of the ship, which Kassi insisted sounded like the ass of the ship and then giggled.

“A word, sir,” Sebastian asked to cover his companion’s laughter. “You told us that we were chosen because we spent the night in the brig.”

“Well, that means you could hardly have done this, could you?”

“We may be league with a crew member who allowed us to leave our cell and commit this murder.”

Kassi waited. It did seem to her that Sebastian was slowly but deliberately digging them into a hole. but she was still enjoying the whole aft/ass thing to worry too much. Sebastian mostly knew what he was doing.

“Yes. Well, that Issyac fellow insisted on waiting outside in the corridor the moment he discovered you were... eh, in our company. He is captain of the Guard in B’Jing, y’know. On board to capture some perfidious bounder, I should think. Arrived early in the morning, insisting on passage.” 

Sebastian cleared his throat quite unnecessarily. “Yes. Well we have a few other questions. The victim.”

“Anders. Lovely bloke,” the Captain added.

“Yes,” continued Sebastian. “Anders. His bunkmate is…?”

“Derrithk. Another splendid fellow.”

Kassi leant forward. “There is only one bunk. Do the men work alternate shifts?”

“Ah,” the Captain said with a knowing look. “They are lovers.”

“Recent?” Sebastian asked.

“Three years, I believe.” 

“Any trouble between them recently?” Kassi asked.

The Captain turned from one to the other, massaging a kink in his neck as he did so. “No. They seemed as happy as you can be, living and working together.”

“His tongue?” the bot asked. “It looks blackened as though through poisoning.”

“No. Anders was always licking his pen point, to freshen the nib he said. Some days his mouth looked like he had drunk the ink and not written with it.” He laughed self-consciously before saying, “I thought the stab wounds indicated his death.”

The two remained silent, causing the Captain to blush for reasons unknown. He finally broke the silence again by saying, “I have the names of the rest of the crew here, and you can have my study room to speak with them. Is there anything else?”

“Yes,” Kassi said. “Anders had a letter from the Golden Backleg. He was leaving. Did you know?”

“No. Not at all. The Backleg is owned by one of our rivals. And I only just promoted the bastard.” He suddenly stopped and said no more. 

“So his move would be inconvenient at the least?” Sebastian asked.

The Captain merely nodded. 

The bot mulled this over before speaking. “Fine! I’ll need a room myself to examine the body.” 

The Captain led him away. Kassi looked at the list of names and went on the hunt to find them.


Derrithk Statement: ‘Yeah, we were lovers. Almost four years now; ever since I joined the crew on the Santa Maria. We had our arguments, but what couple don’t? I was on the nightshift, the ship doesn’t sail itself at night y’know, and I found Anders when I returned at 0800. I worked all night. Rigging. Checking the cargo. Babysitting you two. He spoke to me only briefly about the Backleg; said he was tired of our cramped quarters and was looking for both of us to start a better life. Yes, I know that only he had applied but he said that it was better I didn’t know until he had the job; it would be a disappointment if he hadn’t. I was going to apply later this month.

Kassi: He was just promoted. Why seek a new job?

I don’t know! I thought we had the perfect life.

Kassi: He was perfect?

No, I wouldn’t say that! He flirted endlessly. Sometimes drove me up the wall; but we were still very much in love. Ask anyone. I had no reason to kill the man. let alone stab him a dozen times.’


Ithann Statement: ‘I’m the cook, cleaner and general dogsbody. Ithann, cook this! Ithann, clean that! They all do this all the day long. Ithann, Ithann, Ithann. An’ Anders was the worst. Just cuz I am pale he thought himself better’n me. Said he had elf blood. (Spits on a rubbish strewn floor. Then he laughs.) I sometime let my thumb nudge into his soup. Y’know? (Holds up thumb which has not seen soap for at least a day.) Or if a sweet potato roll on floor after cooking I give it him. 

Kassi: So you hated him?

Bah. Not enough to kill the man! Enough to stick thumb in soup only. You should speak with Derrithk. He would be more pissed off than me.

Kassi: Why?

Anders have new love. Hally. Little apprentice running around ship with no thought in head. 

Kassi: Anders was sleeping with Hally?

Yes. I saw him often sneak out of Hally’s room when roommate not there. When Derrithk on nights, Anders often slept with Hally. Derrithk ought to have man up. Confront bastard but him too pussy.

Kassi: Derrithk knew?

Of course. We all knew.’


Hally Statement: ‘Yes, we were lovers. I have no idea if... Derrithk knew. Anders could be, indiscreet at times. I’m the ship’s apprentice. I do all the odd jobs until it’s decided which profession I should train in. Anders thought that I was a natural accountant (note to Sebastian; gaunt face, painfully thin with receding hair despite aged only 16; he definitely looks like an accountant!) That’s how we started. He told me that he was leaving Derrithk and would move in with me. Continue my education in all the arts! (blushes.) 

Kassi: He was leaving everyone. He had a new job on the Golden Backleg.

Yes, well. He told me that I would come automatically as his apprentice. Once he knew that he had the job.

Kassi: He received the acceptance letter over a month ago; did you not know?

(More blushes.) 

You should look at Ithann the cook or Burr. Anders could be... cruel to both of them occasionally. Oh, and Jak, the Captain’s Aide. I didn’t stab him so many times.’


Jak Statement: ‘I help the Captain with the running of the ship; setting rosters, paying wages, settling disputes.

Kassi: Were there many disputes?

About normal for a ship this size. There’s always someone complaining that their cabin mate snores too loudly or is incapable of putting away their socks, or that the cooking is awful.

Kassi: Or the purser bullying someone?

He could be a right bastard if you got on the wrong side of him, I’ll give you that. 

Kassi: To you?

We had an argument; all about our finances. He’d just been promoted to Second Mate, just below me, and he was throwing his weight around, you know? Trying to make a few friends by slipping them more coin but that’s not how we work on the Santa Maria. We keep a tight rein on funds. 

Kassi: And he thought otherwise?

Till I set him straight, aye. Thought as purser he should have more say in the day to day running of the ship when all he had to do was monitor our stock and ensure that we got our dues. Saying that, he was good with numbers and kept us afloat, even during the early days.

Kassi: Early days?

When we were all first together. Been around ten years we’ve sailed the Circle Sea, dodging pirates. Shame he was leaving us after all that time. Taking all that... experience with him.

Kassi: All that experience is lying on the floor of his cabin now.

Well, yeah. But I ain’t got no reason to stab him so many times. Must have been someone real passionate to stick him a dozen times. Or more.

Kassi: His mouth was black.

Oh. Anders was always licking the nib of his pen. (Laughs nervously.) It seemed to me that he drank the ink more than wrote with it. Ha! Ha!’


Granth Statement: ‘I’m the assistant cook. If you think Ithann has it bad, it’s twice as hard for me. Practically invisible, I am. But I’m a quick learner and I’ve been studying navigation and how to read the sky; to smell a storm before it occurs. I was hoping to be made Second Mate; could’ve used the extra coin. But Anders wheedled his way into the Captain’s good books again and I was left out in the dark.

Kassi: He was out of the Captain’s favour?

(Reddens drastically.) I mean it wasn’t anything really. Him getting the position on the Backleg. Wasn’t as if he would really leave. Or so I thought.

Kassi: He’d accepted.

Aye. But we didn’t know any of that. None of us. Even Captain Steffann was in the dark. Only when you found that letter did any of us know. Honest. (Note to Sebastian: I know how you feel about anyone who says ‘honest’; it means the exact opposite.) And anyway (Laughs quite strangely as though trying to be relaxed and jovial.) that would not be enough to kill anyone, eh? I mean, if we went around stabbing people just because they were leaving us, we’d have no one to... ah stab. (Silence.) (More silence.) But if I was looking, and I’m not saying I am, I’d look at Burr or Jak. They both hated his guts; and Froderick had a right to do with Anders when we were at the docks in B’Jing. Thought they would come to blows, I did.’


Burr and Effann Statements: (Basically these two are the heavies with nary a brain cell between them. I have no doubt that there is a string of bodies strewn across the Sea in their wake but these will be disagreements in a pub in B’Jing or in Ty’ko and most likely they will have beaten the man to death. Hands like the blades of shovels and both of them tall and thick set. I frankly could not tell them apart except Burr has beady little brown eyes and Effann has beady little green eyes. My broadsword would look like a slim stiletto in their paws! Doesn’t mean I don’t think that they’re involved, just that it would need to be explained to them step by step. Plus any wound caused by either of them would probably protrude out the back!) ‘We did not stab ’im at all. An’ he drank ink.’


Froderick Statement: ‘I’m ship’s doctor and liaison with the passengers. I help Burr and Effann bring the passengers luggage aboard and into the correct cabins, (Froderick is small enough to be a dwarf—without the pale white skin—and so gaunt that if he turned sideways, I’d lose sight of him; so ‘helping’ Burr and Effann can only mean babysitting them to ensure they don’t get lost from dock to gangplank!) I rotate the guests so that they all have a chance to dine with the Captain during the voyage. Jak and Granth both assist me. Often we travel light on passengers but this voyage we have a full complement, thirty, so I chose who I thought would be the more agreeable guests to join the Captain first. (It may be me but I sensed that he was still upset about how I behaved the previous evening.) Anyway. After the Captain’s party finished abruptly, we cleared the stuff away to be washed the next day, and retired for our own meal. After which we either retired to our cabins or worked through the night. I am fortunate that my work requires me to mostly work during the day, though of course there are occasions when a passenger needs attention late into the night. (Still with the snide remarks. I think we may have caught our killer—only joking Sebastian; honestly.) 

Kassi: You had an altercation with Anders before we left B’Jing.

(A look of surprise.) Well, yes. It was fortunate that I happened to be there. He was stacking some of our cargo incorrectly. Packed wrong and whole shipments can turn rotten or worse, be squashed by the weight above. Anders was... well, he seemed to be deliberately spoiling a batch of cheeses we’re bringing over for the Spike. I berated him over it and he didn’t take it too well. Said that he was going off to tell Steffann, the Captain, about how I was interfering in his business. The gall of the man. Still, you cannot think that I would stab a man thirteen times over such a small thing?

(Silence always works. He grew restless, shifting in his seat.)

Well. I did not go near the man. Nor do I know if he informed the Captain. I am secure enough in my employment. After the cargo was secure and we were on our way I organised the event. Then I retired later than usual, but not too late. I helped those guests of a nervous disposition with tinctures of calm. A compress for a young lady who bruised her arm during the... altercation. We were all asleep a little after midnight. 

Kassi: Except for the night crew.

Except for the night crew.

Kassi: And the murderer.

(Uncomfortable silence.)


They sat together in the purser’s cabin and talked.

“He was definitely poisoned,” Sebastian said. “His tongue did have some traces of ink but most of the blackness was caused by the poison.”

“Is it something hard to procure or make? Can we trace it to one individual?” Kassi asked as she skimmed through the ledger once more.

“That’s the thing. On the one hand it’s fairly easy to find the ingredients. There is a doctor and a chef on board and each would have some of the ingredients in question. The thing that is strange is that to create the poison one needs to heat up the components. I checked Anders’ plate and the food certainly was loaded with the toxin. Normally I would say that his food was prepared separately, but from all indicators the chef prepared one large cauldron of stew for all the crew and each helped themselves. From all indications the whole stew was poisoned.”

“So the chef has to be involved; unless your sensors are playing up. Does that also mean that someone else was the target?”

“My sensors are calibrated to sense the effect of solar radiation on the exterior of an Ark travelling at one third the speed of light. I think it can find a few molecules of poison with little trouble. Besides it is not necessarily the case that the cook was involved. The ingredients could have been added later. To contaminate all the stew a small bag the size of a fist is all that is needed. That could easily be added at any time from the stew’s preparation that afternoon and its cooking. As for the target… Can you clarify that Anders was the one meant to be killed, or is there a more likely target?”

“No one comes to mind and everyone has a reason to dislike him. As you say, everyone could have added the components. All I can clearly say is that none of the passengers could be involved. The stew was already cooking when we boarded, I recall the smell.” Kassi flicked a page over and sighed. “Now if the killer wishes to, he could poison Burr and then the Captain. Anders. Burr. Captain. We could write it up as a story. Call it the ABC Mur...”

Sebastian sent a thick band of static telepathically to still the girl, who looked at him ruefully before muttering. “It was merely a suggestion.”

The machine rolled its sensors and replied, “The Captain is called Steffann. Deferring to his title just for the sake of a book title is...” He could not think of a word to say so instead continued with. “We have a man poisoned and nine people all without alibi, two with means and all with motive. Also the knife wounds only add to the oddity.”

“In what way?”

“My scans show the rough measurements of the knife and I can confidently say that there was only one and that the wounds cannot have been inflicted whilst Anders stood.”

“He was stabbed after the poison to throw people off the scent.”

“Yes. But my scans also indicate that the perpetrator was around four to six foot. Hesitant yet brutal; and both left and right-handed. Which again excludes no one.”

“Including the arse grabber. No matter what you say, I think he’s involved.”

Another eye roll from Sebastian shut Kassi up. 

Sebastian continued. “And all of the statements are the work of idiots. They conflict. They lie. They accuse.”

“Which normally would be a good thing but each person just basically pointed the finger at anyone else,” Kassi said. She looked down at the ledger and thought. “Unless…”

“Unless?”

“Unless they were all correct.”

“Then we need to gather everyone together.”

“Why?” Kassi asked.

“It’s a tradition. Shows how clever we are.”

“But if we’re not?”

“It also gives us the opportunity to look directly in their faces and see what upsets them and what doesn’t.”

“Can I stand with a door behind me in case we need a quick exit?”

For a machine his sigh was extremely loud.


They gathered in the large stateroom where the Captain had held his dinner the previous evening. Sebastian, Kassi and the nine suspects along with Captain Issyac. When everyone else was seated, Kassi began.

“The purser Anders was in fact poisoned, although someone went to great lengths to conceal this fact by stabbing his body thirteen times. The poison was administered in his food which means that the killer can only be the chef.” She pointed excitedly at Ithann, who half stood in protest.

“It wasn’t me!” he exclaimed and Kassi suddenly looked hesitant.

“Oh. Then it must be you.” She pointed at Froderick the ship’s doctor, sitting next to the chef.

“No. Don’t be preposterous.”

“Ah ha! Then it must be you.” She pointed at Hally who shook his head vigorously. 

“You? You? You?” Her finger swept the room before finishing back at the chef. They all denied the deed. Kassi looked dejected and slumped against an adjacent wall saying. “Well, I’ve accused everyone now.”

Suddenly she perked up.

“Well then; let’s start again. Anders was poisoned and literally anyone could have slipped the necessary herbs into last night’s stew. You, each and every one of you, had reason to dispose of the man. He was cruel to some; cheated on others and seemed to be leaving the ship for paddocks anew. Which begs a question. If the man is so unwanted why kill him before he actually leaves? Well, he was a brilliant accountant. I mean look at his penmanship.”

Kassi held up the ledger.

“It is ordered and neat. You can see quickly all the ship’s income and outgoings; and, apart from the odd smudge here and mistaken number there, it is good.”

She flipped through the ledger and continued. “Oh. You can’t see any mistakes because there are none. Now my mother kept her hand on the farm’s money, doing a similar job to Anders and she was forever pissed at my father because he forgot to ask for a receipt or exactly how much he had charged someone for grain. Her ledger was a mess of crossed out figures and corrections. And don’t get me started on the occasional miswritten sum. One year she thought briefly that we had lost a thousand silver coin.

“No. This ledger is immaculate. Perfect. Pristine. Because, obviously this is a false ledger. Some of your cargo does not go through customs at B’Jing. Oh, you make a pretty penny from the odd passenger and what cargo you do declare, but your real income comes from smuggling; and how could you smuggle anything unless you were all in on it? So ten men smuggling goods and then one wants to leave. What to do? Obviously there was never any doubt. 

“Anders could have taken your lucrative enterprise to his new vessel, and besides he knew exactly how much and where your profits were kept. Lover or not; companion or not; Second Mate or not; he had to go. Now, under normal circumstances you could have slit his throat, told the passengers any chicken and cow story and be rid of him; but then Captain Issyac of the B’Jing guard made himself known and the shite really hit the rotating wind machine.

“You poisoned the food in desperation and then everyone pretended to eat. I had to endure a night of empty rumbling stomachs as you guarded me. Then, thinking that it might throw the good Captain Issyac off the scent, you all stabbed him with someone’s knife. You barely had time to come up with a plan, let alone discuss amongst yourselves alibis and such. Earlier I accused each of you and... well, each of you is actually guilty.”

All nine looked at one another glumly. No one protested. 

“Now you’ve also left the three of us with a dilemma. There’s a storm building outside and you are the people who know how to get us through it. Do we allow you carry on or arrest you and most likely sink? Captain Issyac?”

The man from B’Jing stood in silence.

She sat down and waited for the outcome, knowing that they would have to allow each one a free reign or else die. It sat uneasily on her conscience but they had no choice. Justice was sometimes murky. She looked out of the porthole. The Circle Sea appeared calm but Kassi could feel the tension in the air as the storm approached.

 



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