Sails & Sabres

Book III Episode V
First Cuts

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Book 3 Episode III
Measures & Fitting

Book 3 Episode III

Measures & Fitting

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Book I (collected)

Book I: Winds of Change: Episodes I-VI

GoogleDoc of the entire 60K-word/137-page first book of Sails & Sabres.

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Episode VI

Episode VI: Clam Bake

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“Overlord, cleanse the taint of disease from the instruments of your holy endeavor. As rust from a blade, let your will grind away this ill,” Lisette’s voice rose and fell in the cadence off incantation, the elder kent flowing around her tongue like aged wine. From her chest, the Master’s Fist hanging there, she could feel the power of God flow through her fingers into Reva’s humors. First her heart, then outward to her shoulders, above the sailor’s brachial arteries. She drew one hand down over the vena cava, the other up her throat, along the carotid. The last of the spell’s power transferred to her abdomen.
Lisette’s hands moved smoothly, without hesitation. Reva, clammy and exhausted, shivered as the alien sensation of healing magic washed through her like strong rum. Her body was still weak, dehydrated, but color blushed her face in moments. She nodded thanks to the strange passenger, appalled to find herself wondering what it was like to wear dresses so fine.
Lacy and Thad hoisted her litter and jostled Reva back to the foredeck where the other worst cases lay. There had been some argument between Vice and Lady Curtice about where the sick should be arranged, but the old salt had made a good argument for fresh air. The Foredeck had enough shade from the sails to avoid exposure, and they were drawing ever southward into the balmy heat of the southlands, away from the chill autumn winds north of Grainger’s.
“I wouldna ‘spected a fancy gel of yer sorts t’have such ease about a body,” Trahorn observed from his cook stand. The ferneah hadn’t known what to make of Lisette’s request to erect his kit on the poopdeck; even more so when she waved away the meat he’d brought up. This is not a meal, Mr. Codder. Whatever the Lady wants, he supposed, but soup’s a meal. Maybe not this soup, if you could call it that. The smell was awful, and he made sure to stand upwind of the kettle. Wasn’t even a single veg in the pot, just herbs and spices. Some frilly Porter fashion-dish was the best he could figure.
“Knowledge of the human form is not sinful, Mr. Codder. Propriety is in its application,” Lisette replied, washing her hands in the basin her hobgob had set on the wee table the old man carried about.
“I bet there’s a fair clutch of lads lined-up for yer ‘application’ back home, eh?” Trahorn chuckled, an evil grin on his scraggle-bearded face.
“Do not allow vulgarity to outweigh your usefulness, Mr. Codder,” she replied.
“Vulgarity is my usefulness, gel!” the ferneah slapped his knee and laughed himself down the stairs to the quarterdeck. Gaylord was being half-dragged up to the Lady by Manuel. The first mate was leaning against the helm.
“You don’ look so good, Marly-boy,” he slapped Mar on the back.
“I’ll be fine.”
“A hard wind’d blow y’over, mate,” Trahorn prodded, “Ye can’t cure everythin’ with a tipple,” his voice became sing-song, “‘sometimes it takes a nipple ’er twoooo’! Ha Ha Ha!”
“Get back to choppin’ something, you dirty little bastard.”
“Feck off! I’ll chop when choppin’s due,” Codder tossed his braids, “You get up there and get th’lady’s special touch. I ain’t havin’ you laid out, not with ghosts raidin’ the pantry and men disappearin’ ‘round here,” Trahorn punched Mar’s leg.
“Still no idea whose been takin’ rations?”
“Nay, I’ll find ‘em out soonish,” the cook twitched his nose and started toward the sterncastle hatch.
“No one saw Steele on deck, Codder,” Mar grunted, “You’re sure he wasn’t three sheets to the wind that night?”
“He was always too pissy to get right piss-drunk, ye know it,” Trahorn turned to catch the first mate’s eye, and nodded toward the Captain’s cabin, “change ain’t smooth.”
“Well you’ve got that right, at least,” Mar said, under his breath. Not three days after the mutiny and half the crew is down with a fever. Cynric disappeared, not a trace of what happened to him. The dinghy wasn’t touched. The rations were the easiest to explain, someone just getting greedy and bold in the new order.
That was the way of things. You put someone new in charge and everyone has to prod the limits, see how far they can go and what theycan get away with before the new hat stops trying to be nice and lays down the lash. And there would be a lashing for this, Mar was sure of that. You can’t have crew raiding the stores, at least not enough to get noticed.
All of this and Fancy’s only cares are about Astergaul or the Clark boys, or how to handle the authorities. The arcswain wasn’t any help, fucking hiding in his berth half the day and all night. Mar had seen inside Theron’s cabin this morning on his way by, there were parchments up on the bulkhead, diagrams of the bodies from the hold with notes all over them, doodles and illegible scrawls. Arcswains were a strange lot, all of them disturbed in Mar’s experience. At least Theron wasn’t loud.
Gods it was getting hot. He loosened his shirt and took another pull after checking the binnacle. Maybe Codder was right, he felt like death. Curtice bothered him, though. Fancy acted strange around her, and those servants of hers were too…servile. Mar had never heard most of them talk. She hit all the right marks, had the crew following her orders. It reminded him too much of Her, the bitch in red.
“Sir?” someone shook him awake, “Sir? Are you alright?” it was Coy Boy. Mar cleared his throat, wiping his brow.
“Coy…yeah, I’m fine,” he shook the drowsiness from his head, “Just hot.”
“Yes, sir. It’s almost a relief going south isn’t it? There’s so much more color in Ezrepellian,” Coy Boy offered his soft smile before walking off.
*
Hikmat was going over the ship’s ledger for the third time when Diego sauntered into the wardroom, heading toward the liquor cabinet, “Evening, Sir.”
“A good one at that, my dear Darzi. You’re not sick are you?”
“No, Captain I-”
“Great! Have a drink then,” the captain poured two glasses of brandy.
“Captain, you are aware of the problem with-”
“Arc’sun! Where have you been all day?” Diego near-shouted at Theron in the passageway, the captain put a boot up on on the of the chairs.
“Attempting to identify any further connections between the victims in the hold, Captain. I’ve come at it from every angle I can think of, Sir, and I’ve outlined my best estimation,” Theron stepped in, pulling his book from its bag and retrieving a few pages from the back cover. He began laying them out on the chart table.
Mar walked in and sighed. With a forlorn glance at his log book, the first mate collapsed in his usual seat by the window, “Will your new friend by joining us, Captain?”
“Lady Curtice has proven an invaluable resource to this crew, Barrow, and I’ll not have you insulting a noblewoman of her character. Didn’t she rid you of this fever spreading rampant?” Diego challenged. Mar grunted.
“As I was saying, Sir. The victims are mostly oslander, but not all of them. The mixblood southlander and the veltane stand out, for example. The only common thread is that they were all somehow involved in illegal, or at least unsavory, transactions. We’ve named two local figures likely responsible for some deaths, but without further investigation I can’t trace those names back to any common master.”
“So nothing, then?” Diego pounded his fist on the table, “I need to confirm who they belong to, Theron! Dammit all I can’t very well go about disposing of them without knowing who paid their way.”
“Given the commingled transportation of the nerullian artifacts and the bodies, Sir, I would say it’s extremely unlikely that more than one party is involved in this transaction. The Clark brothers, as you and Mr. Darzi have pointed out, don’t seem likely to have the influence or interest in the specific cargo or they wouldn’t have chosen an unknown like Marcello to carry them.”
“That doesn’t really help, now does it,” Diego threw a hand up.
“On the contrary, Sir, it eliminates them. This was an expensive endeavor, and these items are quite valuable.”
“The artifacts alone are worth more than…than one hundred thousand crowns,” Hikmat added, throwing a hand up in either disbelief or frustration.
“Right,” Diego sipped, “So those who shipped them have money, but lack their own ships…”
“Does Astergaul not have his own elaborate trade network?” Hikmat asked.
“Yes and no,” Diego replied, “He rarely uses his own men for contraband, it’s bad for business if anything can be tied back to him. He needs to be able to cut losses if the navy finds his shipments.”
“As it would no doubt be with the objects relating to necromancy,” Lisette added, gliding into the room with Magda.
“M’lady,” Diego half-bowed politely, “I’m glad you could join us.”
“Correct, Lady Curtice. Royal authorities have a tendency to react poorly to anything involving taboo arcana. It could provoke a response from the heironites, which Astergaul would find difficult to counter,”Theron added.
“Still, I find it hard to believe Astergaul would entrust such a horde to one of his sand runners,” Diego argued, pouring another brandy, “M’lady?” he offered. She held her hand up, declining.
“But he didn’t, did he?” Theron held up a finger, “the Clark brothers sold Marcello on the run, and we’ve agreed they likely had no idea what was in the crates or they would’ve been more carefully handled than entrusting them to regular longshoremen.”
“Why is that such a burning question for you, Captain?” Lisette asked, “There can be no definitive answer until the owner presents him or herself in Ezrepellian.”
“Well I’d prefer to tell the watch who to chase instead of ourselves,” Diego replied.
“Why tell the watch anything?” Lisette pressed. She raised an eyebrow at Diego.
“Hmmm,” Diego began to smile. Albersnagle was long-gone, and wouldn’t be telling anyone what happened for fear of his family’s wellbeing, “You make a remarkable point, Lady Curtice. What’s to stop us from selling it all?”
“Smarter just to dump it,” Mar stared out the window.
“One hundred thousand crowns,” Diego replied, ending that debate.
“Cache it,” Hikmat cut in, “it’s very dangerous for us if anyone finds that on our ship, but yes, the less the authorities know the less they can tell their syndicate paymasters.” Lisette tilted her head the slightest degree in appreciation. No one but Magda noticed.
“Settled, then. Mar, find a good place to drop our nest egg south of Ezrepellian, we’ll want to avoid being seen by too many other ships,” Diego tipped back his brandy victoriously. Command was thrilling.
“We will still be seen by someone,” Hikmat’s brow remained dower.
“Arc’sun, we’ll have to rough-up the ship. I trust you can achieve that?” Diego smiled at Theron, standing protectively over his papers.
“Only for a short time, Captain, I would have to be alerted if another ship were close enough to observe us in any detail.”
“I see,” Diego lowered his snifter, “we’ll have to alter the ship for real, then. Barrow, you’re in charge of breaking the ship,” the captain smiled, “You’re the perfect man for the job, I wouldn’t want it done too well.” Diego’s eyes twinkled. Theron smiled and just caught himself short of an open chuckle.
“Captain, why would you want the ship damaged?” Liesette asked, her face alabaster.
“To better convince everyone we’re the victims of piracy, of course,” Diego explained.
“Missing relics and important corpses will invoke suspicion of everyone involved, Captain,” Lisette stated.
“She’s right,” Hikmat added, “They will begin to wonder why they can’t find any pirates responsible for the raid, especially once we sell-off the horde.”
“Well we’ll just have to be particularly convincing. Fortunately, you’ve chosen the best captain for that,” Diego grinned.
“Change the name of the ship,” Lisette stated.
“Hahaha,” Mar began to laugh by the window.
“This thing is not done,” Hikmat said, “The name of a ship is her spirit. You should know how dangerous it is to upset spirits.”
“It won’t be popular with the crew,” Diego acknowledged.
“So convince them,” Lisette raised a brow, “the owners of these relics will be looking for the Esmer Wind.”
“It won’t be as easy as changing her name,” Hikmat argued, “they will know her, know us.”
Lisette turned her eyes to Diego, but didn’t speak.
“Mr. Barrow? How do you recognize a ship?” the Captain asked his first mate.
“How do you recognize a woman?” Mar stared at the sails through the window, there was something more than rum in his voice. Some glimmer of light gasping through the surface like a drowning man. It sank away just as quickly, “Don’t answer that. We’re doing this?”
“I can assure you this vessel is no more spirited than Mr. Darzi’s boots,” Theron smiled.
“Knock off Riggy, drop the fore-top-galant, and paint the outside of the bulwark,” he pulled deeply from his bottle.
“My Lord may have cleansed your affliction, Mr. Barrow, but libation will not improve your condition,” Lisette advised. Mar turned his eyes away from the window long enough to stare her in the eye as he took a longer pull. He missed her hand servant’s eyes watching him. Diego didn’t. He cleared his throat loudly, pushing-off the chair.
“Excellent! Darzi, good man, pass the instructions to the bos’un,” the Captain poured himself another brandy, again offering to Lisette.
“Libation will not improve any our conditions,” her eyes all but clubbed him before Diego shifted his attention to Martha, or Magda. The hand servant was looking respectfully at the floor again, even his hardest willing did not bring her eyes up. He tipped back his snifter, “We’ll need a new name for her…Theron, something not dull, go.”
“Ah, yes…the Stone Lizard?” he replied, his brow knitting in thought now as he curled a finger around his chin, “the Silver Sceptre!” he pointed to the ceiling.
“Ugh, nevermind! Darzi!” Diego took another sip. Hikmat all but huffed in the hatchway.
“The Greedy Wyvern,” he grumbled before continuing out the door.
“Wyvern is good, but greedy? Come on, something inspirational…this is our new future after all,” he spun mid-step, staring directly at Magda, “The Lucky Lady.”
“It’s a ship not a brothel,” Mar shot, “why not the Drunk Nobleman?”
“Droll, you ass,” Deigo plowed ahead. No one saw the corner of Magda’s mouth twitch. The captain stopped his pacing again, silent as a wide, handsome grin spread across his face, “the Wave Farer.”
“Ahh!” Theron smiled, “a play on words!”
“Darzi!” Diego quickstepped to the window, forcing Mar to lean forward as he hung out of it, “Darzi! Repaint the stern! The Esmer Wind is no more, we ride the Wave Farer!”
Luc gave the captain a startled look from the helm. Hikmat threw an irritated hand in the air as he descended to the weather deck. Ailred and Raleigh exchanged troubled looks a few feet away.

An hour later, Diego was standing on the quarterdeck watching men paint the starboard bulwark. The few clouds earlier in the day had cleared and the near-tropical sun was in his eyes as he watched. It prevented him from seeing the anger on Vice’s features as the boatswain approached.
“A word, Cap’n,” he said, “in private.”
“Excellent idea, Bos’un, this sun is ridiculous,” Diego turned, leading Vice into the wardroom. He was taking his first sip of brandy by the time he noticed the grim frown and cross brow shading his boatswain’s normally-lighthearted eyes, “Is there something wrong, Vice? You’re not ill are you?”
“Re-namin’ the ship, boy? Have ye lost yer fuckin’ mind?” Vice growled.
“My good man, there’s no need to be brash,” Diego offered Vice a glass but the boatswain didn’t stop.
“Ye just fuckin’ mutinied, Samson. Ye think ye had a problem on yer hands with the old salts, ye sure as fuck have a problem now. It’s a dark course you’ve set upon here, and fer what?”
“Kevice, your council is as valued as always, but you must see the predicament Marcello left us in,” Diego sipped, “the villains will be looking for the Esmer Wind to land, if she never does, well then, we’re in the clear aren’t we? No one to question us on where our “captain” went, no one demanding their evil contraband. We’ll be free and clear.”
“And tearin’ off Riggy? What’s the point of destroying the figurehead?”
“Necessary to throw off suspicion. There’s no telling how much the Clark brothers know about our ship, if they have a detailed description sent to Astergaul, you and everyone else will be thanking me for such foresight,” Diego took another sip, leaning against the bureau.
“Ye should’ve done this slower, through Darzi and I. You’ve got a boat full of skittish sailors lookin’ o’er their shoulders, prayin’ dawn n’ dusk. Ye can’t go bringin’ ill fortune down on our heads now!” Carols was roaring by the time he finished.
“Mr. Carols! We don’t have a choice! If we want to be free, we must take risks. I’ll address the crew in the morning to explain this. For now, rely on your strengths. They trust you even more than me, they’ll come around. Everything is going to be golden, Vice.”
“Fine,” Vice physically restrained himself, “Ye watch yourself, laddy. Think on things a half-minute. You’ve just seen how bad it can get for an ignorant man,” he turned from the captain and stomped back out onto the quarterdeck, barking at Thad and Lowell unintelligibly. In his wake, Diego blinked toward the hatch, and refilled his glass.


Diego awoke the next morning with the strange sensation of another presence in his
room. The last, unraveling strands of a dream had caused him to sweat, Domonique was trying to finish the letter to his wife. He even sensed the departed captain pacing in contemplation. Diego grumbled, and then shot bolt upright as something clattered out the open window beside his bed. Diego flopped around to get his head out the window, but only caught a shadow slipping over the aft rail, “Fuck!” He rolled from bed and wrapped his coat over his silk bedclothes, “In my own chambers!” he exclaimed, shaking out a cantrip and running his hand through his hair, leaving it perfectly arranged.
“Arc’sun!” Diego shouted, bounding up the stairs. He pushed through the quarterdeck hatch to the outside, expecting a swarm of pirates, “Bos’un!” Mar turned around from the helm nonplussed, but a half-smirk grew as he beheld the great Captain Samson half-dressed and barefoot. Mar was certain he’d seen a glimmer of panic in his eyes.
“Cap’n?” Vice answered, moving toward the quarterdeck.
“There was something in my cabin! Just now, where did it go?” Diego demanded.
“Ain’t no one been t’ yer quarters by my order, sir,” Vice answered, climbing the steps. Theron stumbled into the sunlight from the sterncastle.
“What is it, Captain?” the arcswain asked, looking around.
“There was a creature in my cabin, moments ago. It left through the window and climbed over the aft rail,” Diego was halfway to the poop deck stairs when he finished. His hand reached for his sabre, but found only silk sleepwear, “Damn!’
“Sir, what sort of creature?” Theron asked, hustling after him.
“The sort that haunts dreams, I suspect,” Mar chuckled quietly, taking a nip as he turned back to the helm.
Vice reached the poop deck to find Diego pacing back and forth at the aft rail and Theron standing in still in the middle of the deck. The boatswain glanced up at the gaff rigging, saw nothing, and rested his weight against the rail atop the stairs.
“I want the ship searched top to bottom!” Diego instructed.
“For what? Cap’n is was likely just a rat,” Vice answered, “Ye want the crew riled for nothin’? They’re lookin’ for ghosts, ye don’t need to be feedin’ that fire.”
“It most certain was not a rat, it climbed two decks in seconds!” Diego had steadied his demeanor now.
“Actually, Sir, rat’s can be quite agile climbers, I can tell you they can be a real devil to cat-” Theron started.
“Arc’sun!” Diego chopped him off, “it wasn’t a rat.”
“Yes, sir,” Theron’s smile disappeared, “but I agree with the Bos’un, we don’t know what we’re looking for, and they are on edge, Sir.”
“Fine,” Diego twitched his nose, looking down at his state, “Keep a sharp eye about, at least,” he looked them both in the eye, then retreated to his cabin and locked the door. Vice and Theron stared at one another for a long moment after he’d gone, concern and doubt coloring their faces. Without another word they both returned to their tasks.
“Still glad we voted?” Mar asked, keeping his eyes forward as Vice walked behind him.
“Bitchin’ ain’t helpin’,” Vice snapped back.
*
“This is no good,” Rahman said. Hikmat stood beside him on the edge of the main hold hatch, “We shouldn’t disturb these things, they’re foul.”
“They’ve already been disturbed, fool,” despite that, Hikmat took a deep breath before descending the rope ladder.
“Yes, but not by us!”
“Shut up and get down here,” Hikmat growled.
“What if we get the Arcswain to do it? I don’t want to accidentally anger any of these things,” Rahman persisted. Hikmat paused at the bottom of the ladder, staring at the bulkhead for a moment.
“That’s not the worst idea you’ve ever had, Owl,” Darzi leaned against the ropes, “Let’s try it.”

Three sharp knocks interrupted Theron’s contemplation of the biographical information he’d pieced together with Lady Curtice’s aid, “Yes?” he replied.
“Arcs’un, it’s Hikmat, I wish a word,” the new purser’s voice was muffled by the door.
“Ah. yes, of course,” Theron pushed his boots out of the way and opened the door for the men, “What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
“It is the artifacts, Arcs’un,” Rahman began, “the captain wishes them moved from the hold, but..” he trailed off, looking to Diego.
“You have assured us they are not harmful, but we are not as wise in such things as you. I don’t want us to damage anything, or accidentally activate some enchantment while we move them,” Diego explained.
“Well, I appreciate your concern, enchanted instruments aren’t something to be handled lightly, but I wouldn’t think you could ‘accidentally’ activate any of these artifacts,” Theron soothed, “and I would agree that they could be fragile.”
“There is also the issue of the…ahh..modifications that the captain has ordered for the ship before we arrive in Ezrepellian…” Rahman continued.
“Oh of course, Mr. Nasib,” Theron smiled with recognition, “I could use a break from staring at this wall. A bit of hard work clears the mind, they say. You men get to our little remodeling project.”
“Thank you arcs’un,” Hikmat nodded, “You are a gracious man. We should get to our tasks,” the beninites were biting their lips down the passageway as they headed toward fresh air.

In the orlop, Theron passed a hulk of man, or more likely a skeleton, lugging the statue from the nerullian horde back toward the passenger berths. Seeing no point asking it what it was doing, he hurried toward the hatch. He arrived to the boccoban priestess beginning her ascent of the rope ladder.
“Ah, Lady Curtice, good day to you,” he greeted.
“Master Vossman, hello,” she replied, stepping off the ladder with Jorge’s assistance.
“I wasn’t aware your retinue would be assisting with this relocation, I appreciate your assistance,” he smiled.
“They are not, the statue is of interest to me,” Lisette answered, “you’ve seen its emanations?”
“Yes, I can see why having its aura near your quarters could be…of interest,” Theron replied as she glided past him, Magda and Jorge a respectful pace behind.
“If you’d like to investigate it, we can arrange a suitable time,” Lisette replied.
“Perhaps later, after the ship settles. Good day, Lady Curtice,” he resigned.
“And to you, Master Vossman,” the trio swept out of the orlop after their robust companion, leaving Theron alone in the creaking gloom. He inhaled deeply before descending the ladder and starting on the crates.
Soon he was sweating through his shirt, and while he was uncomfortable having to work around the corpses, he found a steady pace between prying the lids, sliding crates, and stacking the wares within. A little over an hour later he’d gathered enough of the plates and strange tools to know how many crates he’d need in Albersnagle’s vacant cabin.
Blood rushed through his veins, in a healthy, good way for once. Perspiration dripped from every surface in heat that was almost stifling this far south, but he felt refreshed. Theron gathered a few dishes and gingerly tucked them under his arm, using his other hand to climb the short distance to the orlop.
He caught himself humming a tune his grandfather had sung religiously during Tempe’s Trials, a song that his grandfather’s grandfather had likely sung, too. Theron could almost remember the words as he approached Albersnagles door, one down from his own quarters. No one had been in there since the old first mate left, and the tune faded from Theron’s mind at the prospect of taking over what had been such a big man’s home, to store that which he was so opposed to dealing with.
The arcswain shook the thought from his head, sentimentality would get him in trouble yet. With a gentle shove to free the humidity-swollen door, Theron pushed through and set the saucers down on the battered mattress. A hard breeze wafted him from the open porthole and he leaned over the basin to breathe in the sea air.
Huh, Albersnagle must have forgotten some things in the basin. Were these gifts for his daughters? A comb, a few shiny buttons, a handful of coins…perhaps he’d just emptied his pockets and forgotten it. Theron smiled at the thought of Thorsten roaring around the quarterdeck as sailors dragged themselves from dock dives.
As he lifted the lid on the cabin’s footlocker, something lifted the hair on the back of his neck. That something then shifted inside the footlocker and Theron jerked back almost enough to avoid the slashing blade of knife. It drew a red line across his forearm.
“Gah! Help!” he shouted, falling back against the bulkhead as the girl, the southlander girl from the crate, bolted through the open door in the passageway, “What? but,” he yanked a wand from the bolt-case at his side. Dashing out after her, Theron leveled his wand and barked, “Nocturna!”, a flurry of blue stars exploded from the crystal set midway along the shaft. They followed the girl around the edge of the floor as she leapt to the orlop, and he heard a sharp yelp as they slammed into her.

“What in hell is going on, man?” Diego called, striding through the sterncastle hatch sabre-first. He saw the blood on Theron’s arm.
“The girl! Headed for the hold!” he gasped, the pain was incredible from such a superficial wound. Diego cautiously descended, Theron following, wand at the ready. Huu Chanh met them at the bottom of the stairs, in a neutral stance before Lisette’s door.
Mar and Hikmat charged down behind Theron.
“What?” the beninite asked, hand gripping his sheathed blade.
“That damned demon girl!” Diego exclaimed, “Thorsten’s betrayed us!”
“She’s here?” Hikmat blinked.
“I assure you, she is,” Theron held his arm up, wincing, “Though I imagine she only wishes to hide.”
The other passenger cabins opened simultaneously, Lisette’s robed servants sliding out with barely a sound, blades drawn. Without a word they moved into a loose formation around Huu Chanh. Diego was already around the corner, but Theron, Mar, and Hikmat all stopped abruptly as they appeared. Lisette’s door opened, revealing the priestess in a periwinkle blue dress.
As she stepped from the door, Theron realized the servants and Huu Chanh had formed a defensive circle around the exact spot Lisette would step into. Even as his lips parted to comment, Huu Chanh and what Theron knew were the skeletal thralls moved as one, Lisette at the center, down the passageway. None of them had spoken, which he suspected meant arcane communication at play.
“That’s not weird,” Mar muttered to Hikmat. The new purser’s brow raised beneath his keffiyeh, returning the first mate’s concerned glance.
“To me, men! Tear the ship apart if you have to, just find her!” Diego yelled from around the corner. Hikmat turned and bounded back up the stairs and out into the sunlight.
“Well I guess it’s upside down day,” Mar moved by Theron to follow Lisette’s retinue. He had to squeeze against the bulkhead to get around the big one, who was apparently wearing some kind of armor under his robe. Great. The other robed ones and the hobgob were moving methodically through the orlop stores, probing nooks and crannies with their weapons. Diego was in the middle, awash in the purple glow of his lightning bugs. Mar looked for a likely spot and started prodding around with his feet.
A moment later, Hikmat and Rahman appeared at the forecastle hatch, blades glittering.
“Remain there, Mr. Darzi,” Lisette instructed, “Mr. Barrow, Captain, my servants will take the right side.”
“We’ll take the port,” Diego moved in that direction, Mar meandering after him, sabre low but alert. The fireflies spun in and out of shadows before Diego as he advanced along the edge of the main hatch. Mar wove among the coiled lines and casks that filled the orlop. Something tingled at his nape as he looked at the shadow between three casks, but before he could investigate further the shadow burst into motion.
“Watch it!” he shouted, Diego whirled in time to see the girl skittering toward the forehatch.
“Aha! Now we’ve got her!” the captain, seeing the skeletons shift as one toward the girl, held his ground and set his fireflies gliding after her. Hikmat readied himself to block the hellion’s escape. She kept herself moving erratically, darting in random patterns until she was before, no, passing by, the beninite sailor. She pushed off the doorframe on his left, slashing out. Even as her weapon whispered through his tunic, Hikmat’s blade sliced, scratching her knife-arm as the warchild ducked away. His left wrist twisted his hand toward her as she bounded the stairs, the shadowhawk leapt from his palm with a faded screech, zipping around the girl and wrenching the dagger from her too-small hands. She screamed with childlike terror and disappeared around the corner.
“Dammit!” Diego growled, spinning around toward the stern hatch, “I’ll head her off topside!” The hulking figure blocking the stern hatch beside Lisette stood resolute as the captain charged toward him, “Move aside, move aside, man!”
Lisette’s eyes were sharply focused on the far side of the dim orlop, silently directing the family in pursuit of the child. She was impressed by this girl’s resourcefulness and fortitude. It would be a waste if she had to die, children were easier to mold. As useful as her raised servants were, living, thinking adherents were more so, when properly disciplined. Magda, Jorge, and particularly Huu Chanh had proven that time and again. She shifted focus to Nosgalon, commanding him to allow the captain through.

“Good?” Mar asked, sliding past Hikmat as he examined the knife and bleeding gash disturbingly close to the purser’s kidney.
“Aye,” Hikmat nodded stiffly. The officers and Lissette’s servants pressed up the stairs after the southlander, passing confused crewmen rolling haphazardly from their racks, hair and clothes askew.
“Whassit?” Raleigh groaned, squinting a guarded eye around the gloom of the forequarters.
“Stowaway,” Mar huffed, not stopping as he made the turn up the forecastle stairs.
“Hmph,” Raleigh saw the others rush by with weapons drawn, even the arcswain with his fancy little backscratcher. There wasn’t anything he was going to add to that hunting party, so the old salt dipped his mouth in a frown and threw his legs back up on his expertly-packed mattress. He narrowed his eyes again as a gaggle of those hooded altarmen hustled by on feet so light he could barely hear them. The way they moved sent a shiver down his rickety spine.

Topside, Diego burst through the sterncastle hatch, startling Carmello at the helm. He leapt down the stairs to the weatherdeck, blowing by the boatswain near the main mast.
“The hell’s goin on now?” Vice growled, walking after Diego leaving a confused Coy Boy holding the line he’d been working. The Captain came to a halt near the forecastle hatch, holding his hands out to the sides.
“Easy, now, my dear,” Diego said, a dark figure lit upon the bundled sails on the forecastle beyond him. Vice recognized Thorsten’s little charity case.
“I’ll be a sonuvabitch,” Vice shook his head, stopping a few paces behind Diego and holding his hands up to keep the crew silent and still. The girl’s head was darting around like a hummingbird, eyes wild.
“We not hurt little girl,” Diego was saying, he didn’t speak chellachella very often, “not hurt. You are safe,” Vice was surprised how soothing the Captain’s tone was for having just incited murder the other day. The aging selerion almost caught himself transfixed, that boy would have given a younger Kevice Carols a run for his money.
The wild girl was terrified, but she seemed content to stay atop the forecastle for now. Good, it’d be a real bitch getting her out of the rigging.

Below, the robed servants had stopped short of daylight. They swayed gently with the role of the ship, blocking Hikmat and Mar. Lisette’s travelling boots tapped evenly across the deck behind the officers. Huu Chanh insisted on the cumbersome things, and despite their ruggedness Lisette had to admit the punctuation of her passing could be useful. Theron made way for her almost instinctually.
“Mr. Darzi, expose your injury,” she ordered.
“It’s nothing,” He grunted.
“Your nothings are always somethings,” Rahman grumbled in baiha.
“Mr. Darzi, you’ve been stabbed, and you are soiling the ship. Your tunic,” she raised a brow and bored her eyes into his. Hikmat glanced down, his feet were leaving dark outlines on the planks. He pulled the hem of his tunic to his chest, unflinching as the fabric tugged at the gash.
“Overlord, the flesh cleansed in death shall in purity find strength renewed to further the Order Eternal,” she incanted, touching her gloved fingers to the vital meridians in quick succession. The pain in Hikmat’s side disappeared immediately, replaced by cool numbness. He looked up at Lisette’s face to see her eyes fluttering half-closed, her mouth forming words he couldn’t hear. Something cool washed past him like a breeze, but his clothes didn’t ripple or twitch. Rahman cast a glance around them, like a rabbit hearing a hawk’s cry.
Just as quickly as the numbness had come, Hikmat’s entire body began to tingle. The sensation grew immediately to pins and needles, washing over every inch of flesh. He shuddered, gritting his teeth against the waves of not-quite-pain. Lisette was already ascending the stairs, servants parting for her without turning.
“Bac’quel!” Hikmat cursed, “what curse is this?” he strained his head around in circles as the pins and needles faded.
“Your wound,” Rahman poked at the pinkish line, all that remained of the gash. He wiped away the blood to make sure.
“Gah!” Hikmat slapped his hand away, “What the fuck are you…” he realized there wasn’t any pain, looked down, then back up, “Good thing you didn’t piss her off too badly.”
“What the hell was that?” Mar asked, deadpan but with concerned eyes.
“Auric channeling, I think,” Theron answered, “an unorthodox variety.”
“Well nothing about this broad is exactly orthodox, why was it cold?”
“It could be several things, but more likely than not a superficial quality chosen by her order’s high priests,” the arcswain conjectured.
“Yeah,” Mar wasn’t appeased, but he didn’t say anymore. Something was happening on deck and he was curious now.

“See? We are good creatures, not hurt, not bad,” Diego hadn’t stopped speaking. Vice was surprised the girl hadn’t flown up the foremast yet, she seemed to like the high places. Someone was standing in the shadow of the forehatch, but no one the boatswain had seen before. These passengers were sure to be trouble before the end of this. The silhouettes shifted in the doorway, and a pale-blue shape solidified into the Curtice woman, stepping smoothly into the dazzling mid-morning sun.
Even his keen ears had a hard time picking-up her words with the wind blowing them off the front of the ship. Whatever she was doing seemed to work, along with the captain’s gentle monologue. It took a few minutes, but eventually the girl slipped down from the foredeck and accepted the woman’s outstretched hand.
From behind the boatswain, the younger woman in yellow, the servant girl, swept forward and took the girl from Curtice with a loving smile. Memories swept over Vice like a crashing wave, his daughter Caroline looked a lot like this woman, and he almost teared-up thinking of her wrangling his grandchildren on that beach just north of Huttel’s Reef. Sweet gods, they’d been happy. His son-in-law teaching the four year old how to weave rope from dune grass, Caroline chasing after the toddler. His third wife collecting shells with the eldest down the beach, pausing to meet his eyes, the distance making her expression hard to read. Such a picture.
Godsdammit. The boatswain rubbed a thick finger across his nose and cleared his throat as the women and southie child passed him on their way astern. This was his home. He looked up at the rigging, the intricate knots and criss-crossing lines that made no sense to the average man but unfolded like poetry in his eyes. These lines his life followed…
“All’s well, bos’un!” Diego interrupted, puffing about weatherdeck, “My friends, my fellows, we’ve caught our little miscreant once again! It seems Mr. Albersnagle’s pet southie snuck back aboard before we left Graingers. I know this has been a confusing time, but the solutions to our troubles will continue to present themselves. Keep up the good work and we’ll be homeward bound before you know it!”
Kevice Carols shook the last gossamer of reminiscence from his head, cleared his throat and bellowed in his best boatswain’s bellow, “Y’heard the Cap’n! Back t’ work, ye salty piss-stains!”

Below, in Lisette’s cabin, steaming water began to bubble out of the cask’s floor as Lisette finisher her incantation. The pure water swirled as it continued to fill up to within a foot of the rim. Magda was smiling warmly at the little girl, who reeked of filth and was covered with grime. As her mistress stepped back from the cask, sitting down at the writing desk and cracking her current book. Magda tested the temperature of the water with the back of her hand before coaxing the little girl’s rags from her.
Magda put her hand into the water, the girl wary of her every move, but even more wary of Kara’s hooded form blocking the door. Magda spoke soothingly, “Mmmm, clean. It’s so nice to feel clean,” she smiled, lathering the bar of lilac soap on her hands. She held a hand out to the girl, but she just stared at it, tucking her chin into her emaciated chest.
Magda pulled a plush washcloth from her apron, wetting it in the warm water and slowly bringing it to the girl’s face. Very gently, smiling as she talked her way through, Magda was able to clean the filth off. She draped one of her own slips over the girl. Lisettte conjured lunch, and as they finished the meal, recited the Prayer of Tongues.
“Do you like the food?” Lisette asked with a convincing smile. The girl stared at her for a few moments, surprised to understand the pale woman’s words. She nodded dumbly and took another bite of fish.
“My name is Lady Curtice, this is Magda. What shall we call you?” Lisette continued.
“I am Teela,” the girl stuttered in rough chellachella.
“We’re glad to finally meet you, Teela,” Lisette smiled, Magda was sitting on the floor beside the girl, sewing together a dress for Teela from the remains of one of her own. She was smiling, too, with a warmth lacking in the mistress’s expression.
“Where is Gailis?” the girl asked.
“Who is Gailis?” Lisette asked.
“Gailis my friend, where is Gailis?” there was something like fear in the girl’s voice, or panic, cracking through her defensiveness.
“Do you meen the big man?” Lisette put a hand up high, approximating the former first mate’s height. The girl shook her head, holding her hands just a foot or so apart.
“Where is Gailis?” She persisted. Lisette narrowed her eyes, then arched her brows.
“Let’s go look for Gailis,” she said, rising from her seat. Magda set aside her sewing and stood as well, holding a hand out. Teela accepted it this time. The three of them, Huu Chanh not far behind once they left the cabin, ascended the stairs to Albersnagle’s vacant quarters. The door was still ajar. The trio entered, and Teela went straight for the open footlocker. Inside was a collection of buttons, food scraps, nails, and a ragged, grain-sack rabbit missing an eye. She snatched up the rabbit with a yelp.
“Gailis!” she hugged the dirty toy tightly.
Lisette smiled, “Let’s bring him back and fix his eye,” she said. Teela returned the first smile they’d seen from her.

“Teela,” Lisette asked, back in her cabin as Magda sewed a new button to the decrepit toy’s face, “Tell me where you’re from.”
“Home,” the girl replied, attention focused on Gailis.
“Where is home?” Teela’s eyes darkened with suspicion, “We are traveling to the southern jungles, Teela, we may pass close enough to return you to your family.”
“No family,” the girl was coiling like a viper, “all gone.”
“Explain,” Lisette’s dark eyes flicked over Teela’s expression, searching.
“Horse monsters,” she growled the words, barely intelligible. The cleric narrowed her left eye, horse monsters…
“Horsemen?” She asked, “Kard men came to your home?” the bloom of rage on Teela’s face answered the question, “They killed your tribe?” again the scowl answered. From readings and discussions with Huu Chanh, she knew hate between southlanders and kards ran generations deep, slaughters happened on both sides, “How many survived?”
The girl hugged herself protectively, casting her scowl at Lisette’s feet.
“You were captured, then. Taken away?” Lisette concluded. Teela’s scowl didn’t budge, “but you fought.” At that, Teela leapt to her feet.
“I fought hard! I killed many! Blood all over!” She screeched, Magda was startled by the outburst, a muffled Mistress? announced Huu Chanh’s concern.
“All is well,” Lisette answered, “ All is well,” She raised her brow considering whether Teela’s embellishments just might be an accurate retelling, “They took you away?”
“To the monster village,” Tella sat back down, “They wrapped me up, put me in a dark place with their monster-pups.”
“Other children?” an orphanage, likely, probably run by the hideous Gelnoran clergy. No wonder the child had been scared. Southlanders were bred to fear horses, the bearers of their enemy. Even Huu Chanh was leary around the beasts and he’d now spent years fighting far more dangerous foes. Putting Teela in a place that worships the Holy Horseman, the peasants probably never considered the ingenious torture they’d invented.
“I kill many there, too!” Teela mimed slashing and stabbing, no doubt she’d been a handful for the clerics.
“What did they do next?”
“They talk in horse-speak, tell me of their ancestors, say my ancestors are not real. Their ancestors don’t even have faces! They say not to fight, not to take things, but I didn’t listen,” the southlander girl’s face split in a satisfied grin that wouldn’t have been out of place in an assassin’s guild.
“You stayed?” Lisette found this odd given the girl’s obvious cunning. Teela kept her disturbing grin as she shook her head.
“I cut the hairy man,” she drew a line across her face, “I get away and run free!”
“Where did you go?” Lisette was making notes now, Magda was careful not to look up from her sewing but there was deepening crinkle in her brow, “How long were you in the monster village?”
“I couldn’t see trees, but I was hungry. I took yucky horse-monster food, I hunted at night, but there was nothing but dogs and rats. Hard to catch. I hid in the daytime, nobody could find me,” she puffed out her tiny chest with pride.
“I’m certain,” Lisette nodded, “How did you find yourself in the box?”
“The green man, he put tagi fruit out every night. One night he left the door open, so I went inside, quiet quiet,” Teela hunkered down as if sneaking, “but it was a trap! I cut him and cut him but he didn’t die. Then he poked me and I went to sleep, he was a scorpion-man!”
“What did he look like, Teela, the green man?” Lisette asked as she wrote.
“Long, skinny, he had a sharp nose,” she answered thoughtfully.
“Why do you call him the green man?”
“He was always wrapped in green,” Teela tugged at the little dress she was wearing, “He was scarier when the scorpion came out in him.”
“Did you see who put you in the box? Did the green man speak to anyone?” Lisette asked.
“I woke-up in the stinky hole, with scratchy grass. I scratched and kicked but it was like inside of a tree,” Teela recounted, “Then another hairy man opened the hole, and I can breathe!” She held her hands-up in victory.
“That is when the big man here helped you?” Lisette asked, the girl nodded at first, then scowled again.
“He wasn’t my friend either, Gailis is my only friend,” she looked longingly at the rabbit, and Magda was almost finished anyway. The handservant offered the toy to the girl, and she swept it up like a long lost sister.
“He wasn’t your friend? What did the big man do?” Lisette was curious again, she hadn’t taken him as one to stomach punishing a child let alone harming one.
“He sold me to another monster village!” Teela’s eyes were starting to wet, the wound was still fresh. She hugged Gailis, “The moon-man, he told me his ancestors were stronger, that he would help me be like him! I don’t want to be like moon-men and horse-monsters! I want to be like mama and papa!” She was starting to crack now, and Lisette angled her chin just enough to grant Magda permission.
The handservant leaned forwards and gently touched Teela’s arm as the girl started to shake, “He tried to drown me! I cut him, too! I cut him I cut him I cut! I CUT!” she slashed wildly at the air with her imaginary knife as the tears began to fall. Magda laid her hand on the girl’s shoulder, and Teela instinctively crawled into her embrace and let go the chained emotion.
Lisette placed the end of her pen over her lips, her foot tapping. Thorsten thought himself a soldier and a father, he was not the type to sell even a southlander girl. He was more likely to give her to..of course. The dead priest, the gruesome murder that fool of a guardsmen had been investigating. There was no beninite involved at all, the girl had killed a youthful priest too exuberant to aid a child and too inexperienced to take precautions against her violent upbringing. She noted the revelation in the journal. It hadn’t been a particularly successful interview, she needed more information about this “green man.”
The sun was sinking low outside the porthole.
“You are safe now, child,” Lisette assured as Magda stroked the girl’s now-silky hair, “We will protect you and feed you, and teach you to survive even in monster villages.” The girl didn’t respond, but Lisette knew she understood, the Prayer of Tongues ensured it.
Lisette continued to make notes on the conversation as Teela cried herself to exhaustion and fell asleep in Magda’s arms. She eased up from the floor, “Shall I place her in the family’s cabin, Mistress?”
“Better she feel secure,” Lisette replied, “The former first-mate’s cabin.” Magda nodded and turned toward the door. Lisette nudged Kara from her seat, the skeleton turned and opened the door to allow the pair through. Huu Chanh stepped aside in the hallway, dark eyes following the tear-stained girl as Magda glided up the stairs.
“What is to be done with her,” the hobgoblin asked softly, it wasn’t at one Lisette often heard from her battle-hardened deacon.
“Well she can’t remain aboard,” Lisette replied, “Her size could prove an advantage over the family,” she tugged the strap of her journal closed.
“She is strong,” He replied, still looking up the stairs. The deacon had heard the entire exchange, and chellachella was his second tongue.
“She is feral,” Lisette responded.
“So was I.”
The mistress swiveled to look him in the eye, what she saw surprised her. Something almost protective, “What are you suggesting, Huu Chanh?”
“She is young, she can be shaped,” he answered, “honed into a weapon of our Lord.”
“She’s already killed at least one priest who tried to do convert her, possibly a second. Do you think it wise to try a third time?”
“When I was wild, it was not the Overlord who saved me. It was discipline. Faith in our mission came later,” Huu Chanh answered, “We’re already going to Ezrepellian.”
“Mother Jasminka,” Lisette tapped her pen on her lip again.
“She has trained many like me, she can handle the girl, one way or the other,” Huu Chanh stood rigidly, but she saw what he was feeling. Teela was resourceful, unafraid of combat, she had not balked at killing, and had eluded discovery here for nearly a week, after surviving days without food or water in the hold. The Overlord’s work would call for those talents in the years to come, if they could be controlled.
“We will speak to her about the child when we meet,” Lisette agreed.
“Thank you, Mistress,” Huu Chanh bowed his head, closing the door. Lisette continued to stare at it, tapping her foot until she caught herself doing it. She twitched her nose in disappointment, how often had she been struck for that habit? Magda returned a few minutes later and began preparing the bed. The young woman knew better than to hum, but there was a troublesome energy. Lisette exhaled at the porthole, what was she to do with all of these sentimental subordinates?


Another day closer to South Landing. Vice wrapped his hand around the forestay as he inspected the rigging. Wouldn’t be long before the day’s watch spotted the mainland. The boatswain watched the crew from the corners of his vision. They were tense. A few days of relief and carousing after the Captain died, after the captain was murdered, was now replaced with fear bordering on panic. Port, even as seedy a one as South Landing, meant facing reality.
He’d already had to break-up three fights in the last couple of days, but nothing as serious as his stare-down with Cynric. Poor Godsdamned Cynric, no one spoke openly about it, but everyone knew the veteran sailor was dead. Rumors were crawling through deckboards. For his part, the boatswain had his money on the hob-gob. He’d never met a hob-gob that didn’t find joy in murder, it was something in their blood, even pet ones. All that remained to figure out was whether he dumped the poor bastard over on his own or at the instruction of Baroness Bitch. Gods above she was as cold as his second mother-in-law.
The Boy was taking it hard, Vice glanced at him on his way passed the helm. The bottle at his side was half-empty, and the day was barely half gone. The sooner they got off this damned ship the better, Vice had watched enough good men die by inches.
“Hoooo!” Hayes bellowed from the high-top, holding an arm out to port, “Sails off the starboard bow!”
“Sails off the starboard bow, aye!” Mar shouted back. Vice waited a breath for the first mate to act.
“Not even a gander, lad?” the boatswain shook his head as he climbed half-way up the main shroud and squinted southerly. Flecks of white beamed back at him on the horizon, she was a big girl, three masts. It was too far to make out her colors, but no navy ships would be this far south of the Daggers.
“Coy Boy, inform the Cap’n, three masts sailing north off the starboard bow,” he barked, dropping off the shroud. Coy obeyed immediately. The boatswain’s nose twitched. Moments later Diego burst out of the hatch with a confident smile.
“Nice eye-work, Watch!” he shouted as he stepped to the bulwark, spyglass in hand. He scanned the horizon and focused on the sails. Walking over to Mar, collapsing the spyglass, he chuckled and slapped the the first mate’s shoulder, “Excellent piloting, Barrow, we got behind them. Much too far to name us even if they saw us! Carry on!” That was the last the crew saw of him until the evening meal. They sighted land about an hour after that, the crew cheered at first, then returned to uneasy quietude.

“It’s simple misdirection, Barrow,” the captain set three cups down on the wardroom chart table, moving them about in the classic street game.
“If they catch you, we’re all dead,” Mar picked-up the center cup and filled it with rum, “Why take the risk?”
“Dammit all, man, fortune favors the bold! Darzi, explain it to him,” Diego threw his hands in the air.
“It isn’t a bad plan, we must know our enemy. It is easy to see what you want to see,” the purser said.
“And who’re we leaving to be eaten by the jungle?”
“Lady Curtice and the beninites, She was more than agreeable to the idea,” Diego sipped his brandy, “and she’s got a hobgoblin! They’ll be fine.”
“Assumin’ you get to South Landing free n’ clear, how are ye planin’ on sellin’ the goods without the villains hearin’ of it?” Vice asked from the corner.
“Mr. Carols, I am, among so many things, a master at the art of disguise,” Diego twirled his hand, “I want them to hear of it, and they’ll never follow the threads back to us.”
“Yeah, he’s got a powder-case and everything,” Mar cut in.
“Kit, Barrow,” Diego sipped, “a cosmetic kit, precisely for this situation.”
“You were planning on this situation?” Hikmat frowned.
“Well, it’s precisely for many different particular situations,” Diego flashed his smile.
“Oh, think about it, Darzi, what would a man like Diego Hercule Samson need a face-painting bag for? We don’t judge aboard the Wave Farer,” the first mate mocked.
“Well I’d offer a few suggestions for you Barrow, but there’s no amount of artistry that could salvage that disaster,” Diego chuckled, gesturing at the first mate’s face.
“Stow-it,” Vice warned, “We’re talkin’ lives here. Do you even know where to start sellin’,’” he swallowed, “Such things?”
“Vice, I respect your great stores of experience in the ports of Henal, but you must trust that I’m privy to a social pool above your reach for no other reason than the fortune of birth. I can ply these silvered waters of Ezrepellian as you ply the black waters of this very sea,” Diego leveled a serious gaze deep into the boatswain’s burning sapphires until he got the slightest of nods.
“And the rumormongering? This will also be your doing?” Hikmat was getting concerned again by the captain’s ambition.
“The best way to spread a rumor is by ripples, not waves, Mr. Darzi. I merely have to toss a few crumbs and let the frenzy happen,” Diego made a sprinkling gesture with his free hand.
“How long will we be waiting?” Hikmat continued to frown, this plan seemed somehow riskier than the last one. He didn’t know the first thing about the jungle, and he didn’t trust this priestess or her followers one bit.
“Not more than a couple of days, Mr. Darzi, think of it as a holiday! A return to the wilds, no more being cramped into the belly of a ship or rundown alleys,” the captain urged.
“I grew up in rundown alleys, ignorant bastard,” he grumbled in baiha. He didn’t see Vice’s eye twinkle behind him.
“We make landfall in the morning, I order rest and relaxation all around. Fatigue will help nothing,” Diego stretched, “all dismissed!” The captain was the first out the door, patting shoulders as he passed.
“If I were any more relaxed I’d be dead,” Mar took a pull.
“I believe you,” Hikmat answered, rising to leave.
“Lads aren’t going to like the diversion,” Vice mumbled, “best tell ‘em straight.”
“You were awfully quiet, arc’sun,” Mar kept his eye on the rising moon.
“It seems I have little to add,” Theron hadn’t spoken since they’d begun.
“It seems you’ll be Officer of the Deck most of the next few days, you ready?”
“Hmmm,” the arcswain put a finger to his lips.
“You’ll do fine, they run themselves in port,” Mar jostled his chair standing-up, “It’s a beautiful night, arc’sun. Might as well obey the captain’s orders.”

Theron followed Mar out onto the deck and up the stairs to the poop deck. The stars were brilliant and huge, unfamiliar constellations rose above them this far south. Mar offered the bottle, and he took it. Rum was always his father’s reward, a few sips at the end of a good haul, on Theron’s birthday or holidays. As he put the bottle to his lips, he wondered what they were doing right now.
He could see his father repairing a net in his rocking chair as Mother patched that old cloak that was probably more patch than original canvas by now. Theron took another sip, wincing as the liquor burned down his throat. Mar flopped onto the deck, propping his head on one hand. Theron passed the bottle back to him. They stared at the clear sky for a long time. The arcswain wanted to know what the first mate was contemplating, why he drank, but had no intention of sharing his own thoughts.
They shared what remained of the rum in that agreed-upon silence of men raised to guard emotion, and in that drunken silence they found a kind of mutual understanding, as if the stars had spoken for them. With Mar’s first snores, the warmth of inebriation swept through Theron and turned the edges of his mouth up into a contented smile. What would we learn, he thought, if we could hear the singing of stars?

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Episode V

Episode V: Roast Mallard

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“Men! Women! Friends,” Diego called, feet apart and hands high, “Shipmates, your officers and I have made a very troubling discovery. It’s only right that you be told what our ‘captain’ has led us to, the deadly position into which our so-called master as maneuvered us.”
The crew’s chattering died down at his words. They were listening; this announcement had been a long time in coming. The purser met the eyes of as many as possible as he continued his address.
“Some of you may have guessed that when last we traveled north from South Landing, the captain took on a small load of snapsand,” Diego balled his hands, “He made no effort to inform myself, the purser of this ship,” he stuck a thumb toward his chest. “More diabolical…” the purser began walking to port, “he did not inform the arc’sun of this black market, bootleg snapsand on the ship!” he shot a finger toward Theron, standing quietly near the port bulwark.
The crew exchanged glances, some surprised, others angry. Before the murmurs overwhelmed him, Diego reversed his stride, “Many of us suspected he might have done this, true, but our proof did not come until Dalda.”
“While some us fought for our lives in the gutters to rescue our fallen comrade,” Diego held a hand toward Hikmat, and then the other toward Lacy, “He was busy playing cards in a private room, selling his soul to a pair of steely-eyed criminals!”
A few boos answered Diego, Lacy and Hikmat were jostled by slaps on the back.
“Who are these criminals, you may ask,” Diego straightened, holding up a finger and scanning their faces, reveling in the growing anger he saw there, “Well, your officers put that very question to the captain when we barged into his backroom deal. We were given a shove toward the door instead of answers. We did not give up!” he began walking to port again, again balling his hands.
“We learned that these men are associates of none other than Sparky Astergaul!” he stopped to face them amidships, pointing to the sky. A wave a recognition swept through the older crewmen, the juniors looked at one another and whispered.
“That’s right, my comrades,” Diego answered their confusion, “the notoriously cruel snapsand trafficker Sparky Astergaul of South Landing. That is when we knew the true depths of our captain’s rot,” Diego let his hands fall to his sides, “Or so we thought.”
“You recall that night, before we set off from Dalda, the captain rewarded us with good rum?” the crew nodded here and there, “Yet another cold, calculated act of betrayal! Criminal contraband was loaded onto our ship whilst we were blind with the very drink he so conveniently provided,” Diego put a hand over his heart and made a fist.
“It wasn’t until later that we would learn the contents of this new cargo,” Diego stabbed a finger towards the sterncastle, turning to face the crew directly, “When we pressed him, that weasel would not tell his own officers! He claimed he did not know!” murmurs rolled through the crew. Diego even saw Ailred and Cynric, so far as stone-faced as dwarves, twitched their lips in disgust.
“Your bo’sun and I, along with the arc’sun and the men on watch the night of our discovery, went to see for ourselves,” the crew didn’t give him quite the applause he was expecting but they were still hanging on his words.
“To our relief, t’was not snapsand we discovered but plates, and sculptures, innocent cargo you might say, as we did ourselves. Thankfully, we have an arc’sun,” Diego held a hand out to Theron, still standing with arms folded. The arcswain felt his shoulders tense as thirty men and women turned their eyes to him, “Master Vossman! Tell us what you saw!” Theron swallowed, ice gripping his heart.
“Ahh! Yes, the cargo revealed a multitude of arcane emanations consistent with the schools of enchantment and necromancy-”
“Necromancy, shipmates!” Diego cut off the arcswain while he still had an alert audience, “This new contraband was not a danger to us directly, but no less discomforting. No less wrong!”
“Then, my friends, we found something worse,” Diego stopped his pacing and stood solemnly, “we found corpses.” Murmurs erupted.
“In’a cargo?” Codder barked, “not ten feet from my supplies! Ye bastard long-steps left a feggin’ rottin’ arse corpse stewin’ twixt my godsdamned meat and tipple? I feggin’-
“What’s more, we found animals in a cursed sleep! And in one of those crates of darkness, and I dare say I nearly jumped into the black when we found her, was the southlander girl.”
“That girl was in the cargo?” Jean-Marco shouted.
“It’s true! We know not how she survived so long in that box, but as Master Vossman said, there was dark magic afoot.”
“That is not-“ Theron started.
“We went to the captain,” Diego continued loudly, drowning out gasps and shouts, “to tell him what was aboard his own ship. You can guess his response,” Diego huffed, turning to walk the other way.
“Why not go t’the watch straigh’ into Grainger’s?” Ailred grumbled, a flurry of ‘ayes’ supported him.
“Mr. Albersnagle wanted to do just that, my friends,” Diego answered, “He wanted nothing more. I convinced him otherwise,” Diego continued, hanging his head, working to hide his smile, “I told him we would hang from the same gallows! I told him Marcello would never go alone to face his just dessert, that he would drag us all with him as willing accomplices. I told him those criminals to whom this evil cargo belonged would hunt us for revealing them!”
“That is why he quit the ship, my friends. His heart could not stand behind such a thing. He took the girl to the Temple of Mercy on Grainger’s. I know not if I will ever forgive myself for that. Telling you all now is the best I can do. He did not want it, Thorsten wanted to protect you all by keeping knowledge of the crime to the officers, just in case.”
“I’ll feggin’ kill the bastard,” Codder growled. Those nearby looked down at him, “I’ll feggin’ kill any man puts a lass in’a box for days! With corpses all ‘round her, oath t’the Mother, I’ll feggin’ kill ‘im!”
“We share your rage, Codder!” Diego began again, “None more than I! If nothing else is true in this world, the innocence of a child is! Marcello is guilty of that sin! Marcello has entangled us in this evil web! He has shown us his stripes and they are not those of a captain! Is that man fit to command, I ask?”
Several loud nay’s followed.
“Is he fit to lead us further down this twisted path?”
More nays.
“I will not follow him to hell! I will not commit misdeeds in his name! Will you?”
Most of the crew yelled and held fists in the air, Diego was practically floating, “Let us show him!” As Diego drew his saber and pointed it at the sterncastle, men were already running toward the hatch. He rode their wave, following Lacy and Ian through the captain’s cabin door.
“What in the good gods’s is the meaning of this!” Marcello had knocked his chair back standing from his desk, and faltered trying to rest his hand on the seatback.
“We should ask the same, Dominique,” Diego replied, Ian and Lacy not breaking stride to grab the captain’s arms.
“You’ll hang for this, Samson. I swear it before all the gods and devils in this room, you will hang by your wretched, tender –“ Marcello’s tone was disturbingly even.
“Shut it, fuck-up,” Lacy jerked him toward the door.
“Unhand me now and you’ll be pardoned. I know ‘tis this infantile man’s spew that’s taint-“ Marcello tried again
“She said shut,” Ian punched him in the gut, “the fuck,” again, “up.” They hefted the wheezing nobleman out of the room and the crowd followed down the passageway.
Diego’s smile shined in the daylight streaming through the lattice windows. He turned around the room, far more intact than he’d imagined. His eyes caught on a page laying atop the captain’s bureau. The inkpot had been jostled, a splash of ink spattered across the desk. A pen wallowed in a small puddle on the floor.
He stepped closer, seeing the addressee’s name. Diego snapped his head back to the door as Marcello barked another order, inaudible over the pounding of feet on the deck above. He looked back at the letter. Diego bent and pulled open the bottom drawer, finding a stack of old logs. He pulled open the one on the other side of the desk, and an elegantly-enameled lockbox thumped against the back-panel. Diego picked it up, and the unfinished letter, whisking them from the room.

“Bos’un Carols! You have more sense than this,” Marcello argued, not begging, voice as steady as ever. “If I’d any sense, boy, I’d ne’er have signed on this ship,” Vice replied quietly, standing against the sterncastle with crossed arms. “This is why Albersnagle left, isn’t it,” Marcello addressed Mar, who stared back from the helm with numb eyes and retrieved the bottle from its net. “I trusted you, Barrow. I know you’ve a more level he-“ “Shut it!” Ian punched him the gut again. The arcswain, still standing against the bulwark, turned to hold it in both hands. “Gag th’ bastard’s foulin’ goffer,” Codder barked, tossing a line. By the time Diego strode from the sterncastle, Dominique was tied hands and feet with his kerchief secured in his mouth. The purser stepped around to face Marcello, both men standing tall, with impeccable posture. Diego’s teeth flashed, reflected in the captain’s furious, terrified eyes as he saw the hunger in his adversary’s face. The face of a cat toying with a mouse. “You fool,” Diego whispered before turning to the noisy crew, “Shipmates!” he called, loud enough to quiet the din, “Dominique Marcello stands before you, stripped of his title,” he deftly tossed Dominique’s hat into the crowd, “stripped of his abused authority.” He undid the straps of the captain’s scabbard. Behind them, Lady Curtice emerged from the sterncastle, breeze rustling the pale yellow dress wrapping her unflappable frame. Jorge held her white parasol steady against the wind, shading her and Magda as they stood quietly beside the hatch.

Diego held Marcello’s cutlass above him, “But not his power to harm you! If he speaks to the authorities, any authorities, then our lives are in the hands of a magistrate. No doubt one that will favor his silver-spooned family,” Diego pointed at his prisoner, “So I ask you what should be done with this villain, who so easily wrote-off your lives as the cost of business?”
“Keel haul ‘im!” answered a shout.
“Hang ‘em o’er the yardarm!” barked another.
“Bullshit!” an age-tortured voice bellowed from the mainmast. The crowd turned to see Cynric standing out in front of his clutch of old salts, “He gets the ship’s boat.”
“What,” Diego replied, “You would let him, of all people, sail away?”
“That’s the right thing, by tradition. He gets th’ dinghy n’ two day’s water,” Cynric pointed at Marcello.
“After what he has done? Party to trafficking a child? To trafficking back-alley snapsand without our knowledge? For gods’ sakes, man, he deserves far worse than a cruise to freedom and our rations,” Diego argued.
“Don’t matter what he did,” Cynric stood firm, anger on his face, as if Diego had just spat on him, “Any cap’n is due the courtesy of sailin’ into his fate with dignity. We ain’t animals! We’re sailors.”
“He’s the right,” Vice agreed, frowning.
“Ha!” Diego laughed, “I don’t believe what I’m hearing! He will not consider mercy if he lives,” he stalked around Marcello, still standing erect, “Has he shown us any thread of courtesy in his deceitful machinations? No!”
“So we gut him like a fish? We’ve a standard to hold, and if we ain’t holdin’ by honor, what kind of men are we?”
“Living ones, for a start!” Diego retorted.
“Free ones,” Hikmat spoke-up, near the steps to the quarterdeck.
“Oh feck the ‘airy lot of you, feggin’ prancy-footed honey-sucklin’,” Codder shoved his way through the crowd, pulling his knife from his belt, “Ye do wha’ the feck justice needs doin’!” he kicked hard at Marcello’s knee. The thin man screamed through his gag, falling to his knees. The ferneah cook’s knife sank half its length into Dominique’s neck.
Curses and shouts erupted from all around him.
“Good gods,” Diego gasped, taking a quick step back.
“You don’t feck with chil’ren,” Codder jerked his knife once, a dark, unbridled rage in his black eyes. Another tug freed his blade, and the cook spun, dripping blood on the deck, eyeing the crewmen nearest him, “Say a word. Say one feggin’ word!” Everyone was silent. The entire crew could hear Marcello moaning, gagging. The crew backed away from him as Trahorn stalked toward the forecastle.
Diego stood over Marcello as he bucked against his bonds, flopping on the deck, blood soaking his chest and down his arm. Sweat glistened on the dying captain’s face, and his wild, white eyes flashed around until they seized on Diego’s.
Frozen there, jaw still agape at the abrupt casualness of the act, the purser stared back into the panicking, desperate eyes of this man he had hated for so long. His gut tightened at the wet, sucking sound of the gagged man trying to breathe with a cut throat. Marcello’s bucking slowed and he fell onto his side, still straining, and Diego still could not move as bubbles gurgled out of the blood gushing from his wound. He could not look away from those eyes, staring up at him, begging for him to help despite everything.
Those were not the eyes of an evil man meeting justice. This was not what it was supposed to be like. This felt wrong. Marcello spasmed and tried to cough through his gag, throat spraying bright crimson blood across Diego’s boots and trousers, but he was frozen there. A longer gurgle followed, and deep, barely audible whine from somewhere deep inside the captain. It was a terrible, pitiful sound like nothing Diego had ever heard, more animal than man, forcing the purser’s mind back to his first hunting expedition, the sound that stag had made as Father thrust his blade into its chest. Diego coughed.
With a final, weak twist of his head and tensing of Marcello’s chest, those panicking eyes began to look through Diego. It was a full second before he realized the eyes were dead, frozen in their state of terror. Everyone remained silent for several moments, shifting uncomfortably as they watched Diego stand motionless.
“Shoulda givin’ him the dingy!” Cynric shouted, stomping to the forecastle. Ailred, Raleigh, and the other old salts followed him. Mar pulled from his bottle and shifted his gaze from the body to the purser, expression blank.

Against the bulwark, Theron kept his eyes on the horizon. He didn’t have to look to know what lay behind him. This was not what was supposed to happen. This is not what I left the enclave for. How does this further my understanding of fate? What fucking insight has this man’s cold-blooded murder granted? Have the mysteries of time and the multiverse unraveled at all? Logically, Theron knew the captain would have died the same had he never set foot aboard the Esmer Wind. Or would he? It was the arcswain’s clairaudience spell that had allowed them to hear his dealings. His identification of the cargo’s magical properties had stoked the flames of this mutiny, despite his attempts to calm their hysterics. No. Marcello knew he was playing a dangerous game. If not here, then sometime soon he would have met an untimely death, if not by the hands of this crew, than by those of Sparky Astergaul or these Clark brothers. At least this way the crew was safer. He had helped ensure no one was put in danger by the artifacts. He had fulfilled his duty as a studied mage-ascendant. Theron took a deep breath and turned to look at the crowd, he paused at seeing Lady Curtice in attendance. With a thoughtful pace he approached the Boccaban priestess, “Lady Curtice, I’m sorry you were disturbed by this scene.” “I was advised of its coming, and am satisfied by the result. He could not have been allowed to go free,” Lisette remarked. “I…Your experience with death is a hazard of your calling, I suppose,” Theron’s tone was academic. “Hardly a hazard, Master Vossman,” Lisette stated, “It is closure, an end to problems and a rebirth of potential. We are granted new purpose in death, wouldn’t you agree?” Theron thought of her robed assistants at first, but as he began to respond, he thought of the outer planes. “I see your point,” Theron nodded, “the limitations of our material bodies can be a burden. Yet I still fear death, knowing as I do that the soul of a man survives beyond it. I am still driven to stay in this mortal plane.” They watched Diego and the crew remove the captain’s articles. His boots, belt, and cloak; Diego bent and removed his rings. “You do not fear death, Master Vossman,” Lisette replied. “I do not fear the afterlife, though concern for my ultimate destination murmurs at the back of my mind, but I do fear death,” Theron said, “I fear what just occurred here.” “You fear dying,” Lisette corrected, “and the indignity it brings. The defeat it represents. For them,” she gazed across the uncomfortable, milling crew, “it’s a fear of the Unknown which lies beyond this existence. For us, for those with undeniable knowledge of what lies beyond the veil, dying is but a painful, brief interruption on an infinite journey. A jarring change of ships, you could say. The time we spend here is only preparation for a much greater destiny.” “Are all of your sect so far-thinking?” Theron asked, finding himself reaffirmed by her words. “Our faith is one of facts, Master Vossman,” Lisette stated, “Of irrefutable order and patterns in the multiverse. Neither fear nor awe can stand in the face of knowledge.” “Mmmm,” Theron agreed, nodding gently. After a few moments, “Perhaps we have no need for fear, but am I the only one with, shall we say, grave concern for the fact that we now have an aimless drunkard in charge of our ship?” He leveled his gaze at Mar, adjusting the helm with one hand as he took another pull with the other. “Then we shall have to find him a course, Master Vossman,” Lisette replied, gesturing for her servants to move below. “Good day, Mother Curtice,” Theron replied. “Lady Curtice will do. Oh, and suggest to Mr. Samson that the deceased’s wealth would do the most good distributed amongst the crew. Good day, Master Vossman,” she corrected, stepping through door held by Jorge. “Of course,” Theron nodded. After a few more minutes watching Vice and some others wrap the captain’s undignified corpse in canvas, weighted by scrap chain, the arcswain approached Diego. “What now, Mr. Samson?” he asked. “Hmm?” Deigo turned slowly from his thoughts. “What is our course?” Theron repeated. “The same as we spoke of, arc’sun,” he responded, “Though a meeting should be held tonight, just the officers,” Diego’s gaze drifted to the wrapped corpse as Vice quietly recited the Sailor’s Prayer of Commitment. They both watched as Dominique Marcello was tipped into the deep blue forever, his body barely cooled, blood still red on the deck. “Lady Curtice suggested his material belongings be distributed among the crew,” Theron relayed. “The Lady doth speak wisdom,” Diego smiled, “What better way to forge our new identity?” “Shipmates! Friends! The false king hath fallen! Let us share his hoard,” he held an arm invitingly toward the sterncastle. A half-hearted cheer replied, “We are free men! And we shall be justly rewarded!” he held his fists up in triumph. The cheers grew more spirited, “To the captain’s liquor!” Louder cheers, and a march to Marcello’s cabin followed. Within an hour, the place had been stripped nearly bare, save for his logs and books, and a pair of portraits, one of his parents and one of his wife. The crew was enjoying his private stash of cognac on the weather deck. Diego surveyed the barren room, feeling more and more triumphant the farther his adversary’s body drifted. He took a deep breath of salty air and sighed. Lightly drawing a hand along the books still in their shelf, Diego walked toward the bureau. He traced the framed portrait of Marcello’s young wife, then lifted her from the mounting. He took it and that of the parents back to his cabin and placed them in his footlocker next to the man’s personal strongbox. Using the key recovered from Marcello’s pocket, Diego opened the box, and set the man’s wedding band and the letter atop what gold Dominique had left.

“Not going to say a damn thing, are ye?” Vice drank down his tin cup.
“Samson didn’t say enough?” Mar’s hand rested on the wheel, the other sat on his saber hilt.
“Probably,” Vice looked into his cup. The boy was hiding it well, but a man without cares didn’t rest his hand on his sword, “Ye needn’t worry, Barrow. They like you well enough.”
“Ain’t them that have me worried, Vice,” Mar shifted his weight.
“Hmph,” Vice half-chuckled like an old man, then frowned. Sometimes he felt like an old man, “I think he’s done incitin’ for now.”
“Never trust money,” the navigator, first-mate, he still had to correct himself, grabbed for his rum.
“I donno how long you’ve been carryin’ that anchor around, but sooner ‘n later you’ll have to drop it or accomp’ny it to the bottom.” The first mate remained silent, staring ahead at the horizon. After stretching and cracking his neck, Vice sighed and joined the rest of the crew on the weatherdeck. Most were drunk, singing or bragging. A few, the old salts, Jean-Marco, others with children and wives, were gathered on the foredeck in muted conversation.
“-Caught in Dalda? They’ll not hang us, will they?” Jean-Marco was asking.
“Maybe, maybe not, depends on what we can scrape together for influence,” Cynric replied.
“Bribes, he means,” Ailred clarified, “an’ we’ll have to find a new ensign.”
“Something wrong with Osil’s flag?” Vice asked, leaning against bundled sails.
“We won’t get any sympathy in Dalda or Ez’ flyin’ Oslander colors, Vice. What’s a selerion care about flags, anyhow,” Cynric pointed out Vice’s mixed hertiage with the kard-kent slang for half-elf.
“You think we’ll find sympathy in South Landing under any colors?” Manuel cut in.
“It will matter in Dalda,” Ailred stated.
“Assuming we get that far,” Jean-Marco was fiddling with a line, nervous.
“No one in Ez’ll give a damn about it, unless we give ‘em a reason to,” Vice sniffed, “you think we’re the first mutineers to sail in there? What matters is keepin’ it quiet amongst ourselves, ‘specially when we round the Daggers again.”
“Word of mutiny outflies the wind,” Cynric gave Vice a hard look, “You aughta know that.”
“You tryin’ to say somethin’?” Vice challenged.
“Only that man with a wife in every port should know something about
rumors and dodging consequences,” Cynric had never been a Kevice Carols fan.
“You gods damned son of a bitch,” Vice took a step off the sails faster than
anyone expected, and was nose to nose with Cynric by the time the aging kard was on his feet.
“So you will stand for something, bos’un?” Cynric growled.
“Keep yer tongue, laddy,” Vice locked eyes with Steele.
“Or what, bos’un? You’ll kill me, too? Or will you just have your rabid halfling do it?”
“I ain’t gonna kill you, Steele, but I still got time to beat yer ass twice before dinner you keep jawjackin, by rights I aughta put you to the fuckin’ mast,” Vice squinted.
“Well I appreciate the mercy, bos’un, when did we go back to obeyin’ tradition?”
“This is still my fucking ship,” Vice put a finger to Cynric’s chest, “I’ve kept her flying the last five years, and I’ll keep her flying same as always. Cap’n’s dead, aye, it was shit business and it was gonna be shit anyway it cut. It’s fuckin’ done now. Ye hear me, boys,” Vice kept his eyes locked with Cynric, “It’s fucking done. Jean-Marco, Manuel, you’re supposed be on fuckin’ watch. Ailred, Raleigh clear the gods damned weather deck before we lose a pup over the side. Steele, if you’re done cluckin’ like my third wife, find the driest motherfucker over there and check the holds.”
After a brief moment of shock, a chorus of Aye, Bos’un’s answered him. Cynric held his gaze, working his jaw back and forth, fists balled. The others moved slowly, keeping on eye on the two sun-baked veteran sailors. It was another few moments before Vice’s blazing blue’s won the contest. “Aye, bos’un,” Cynric said slowly, un-balling his fists. He spat over the side as he stepped around Kevice toward the forecastle stairs.


“Pardon, m’lady,” Vice kept his voice lower than normal, “but can I ask why yer attendin’ this meetin’?”
“One asks permission before one acts, Mr. Carols,” Lady Curtice began, “My complicity in this coups requires full knowledge of your plans, and I’ve seen a lack of discipline in your collective efforts. That will change.”
“Ah, I see, thank you, m’lady,” Vice nodded.
“Lady Curtice carries significant influence, her addition to our meeting will be nothing but a benefit, I can assure you,” Diego smiled, leaning over his knee, boot propped on his chair beside the chart table.
“There is a problem,” Hikmat interjected, “One of the crates has been broken into.”
“When did that happen?” Diego’s relaxed expression tensed.
“Sometime between leaving port and today’s…action,” Hikmat answered, “Roch found it.”
“Which crate? Did one of the corpses rise?” Diego was speaking quickly.
“Don’t look like it,” Vice answered, “corner was clawed through from the outside.”
“ ‘clawed through’, Bos’un?” Theron asked, “not pried?”
“It looks like an animal did this,” Hikmat affirmed, “Though what kind of animal would do that I do not know.”
“Well was anything missing?” Diego threw his arms up.
“We think,” Hikmat looked at Vice, “the dagger, the ring, and a dish.”
“An animal took the dagger?” Theron raised an eyebrow.
“Something took the dagger, I ain’t puttin’ money on it bein’ any animal,” Vice replied.
“Well good gods above, we’ll have to search the ship, starting with the crew bunks,” Diego shook his head, stepping to the wardroom bureau.
“No one outside this room even knew what was in the crates,” Mar rolled his eyes, “and none of them look like a fucking badger to me.”
“Language, Mr. Barrow,” Lisette interjected, “Cursing is slovenly and ill suited to your station.”
“M’lady,” Mar cocked his head, “this is a fucking ship, full of motherfucking sailors. Godsdamned cursing is all we fucking understand.”
“Barrow,” Diego scolded, “this is no time to make enemies. You can civilize yourself in the presence of a Lady or I’ll cut-off your rum.”
“By what authority, purser,” Mar shot back, “You’re no captain, and last I checked the first-mate has command in the absence of one.”
“Well done, Mr. Barrow,” Lisette interrupted again, “A curse-free statement bringing us to the most important issue at hand. This organization needs a leader. You must select a captain before anything else is decided.” The others exchanged glances. It was something they hadn’t wanted to address. No one in this room seemed a natural choice.
“Obviously the crew trusts me, and a captain must negotiate the labyrinthine channels of bureaucracy in port,” Diego poured himself a brandy.
“A captain needs to know how to sail a ship, and yer not exactly celebrated in song, Samson,” Mar pointed out.
“You would challenge me for it? You. Marcus Barrow, who has been sober, what would you say, a cumulative fourteen hours on this entire journey?” Diego scoffed, “You’ve all the presence of command this table has.”
“Then let’s take a poll on it, eh?” Mar suggested, “Those in favor of a captain good at whoring and storytelling,” he held his hand out toward Diego. The purser held his brandy glass up, looking around the wardroom. Theron’s hand raised in support, as did Hikmat’s. “Really? Those in favor of a master seaman?” he raised his own hand, and saw Lady Curtice and Vice raise theirs, “Three and three, somehow.”
“We shall need someone to decide the tie, then,” Diego sipped his brandy.
“Someone privy to all the facts at hand, and how things were…handled,” Mar added. The list was short. Everyone looked to Hikmat, who answered with a sigh.
“I will fetch him,” he pushed himself up from the table and left wardroom.
“The crew,” Lisette interupted the silence in his wake, pulling Mar and Diego from their staring contest, “Who are the most respected among them?”
“Depends what yer talkin’,” Vice answered, leaning back on the rear legs of his chair as he stuffed his pipe, “Steele’s a stubborn bastard, people listen to him ‘cause he’s old. Know’s his job well enough.”
“The one who insisted upon letting the former captain live?” she asked.
“That’s him,” Vice drew on the pipe, “After him, maybe Tiller. Most like Jean-Marco. Lacy get’s her way most of the time, I guarantee there’d be more ‘n a few on her side in a fight.”
“Codder’s the cook,” Mar added, no need to say more, though Curtice raised an eyebrow at him, “Cooks always popular on ship, unless he’s terrible. Codder ain’t terrible.”
“Isn’t,” Lisette corrected, “is that all?”
“Aye, most others just have their mates,” Vice affirmed.
“And which of you is in charge of maintaining discipline?” she continued. The men exchanged glances but didn’t answer.
“The former captain spent considerable time in his quarters, did he not? And given today’s events it would not appear discipline was his strength. You operate a ship of some thirty unrestrained barbarians then?”
“That’s a strong term, I should think m’lady. They may not have the fortune of breeding, they may be uncouth, unwashed, and uncivilized, but I would not call them barbaric. Mostly,” Diego cast a sideways glance at Mar.
“Discipline is necessary for prosperity, Mr. Samson,” Lisette would have continued if Hikmat had not returned through the hatch with Rahman. The beninite glanced about the wardroom. He’d only been inside a few times, and there weren’t enough chairs for everyone. He chose a spot on in the corner to stand.
“Rahman, my good man,” Diego pushed off the chair he was leaning on, “Take mine.”
“My thanks, Purser!” Rahman took the chair with a broad smile, slapping the table before him. He turned to Mar, who stared out at Jean-Marco attending the helm, “Quite a day, yes?”
“Rahman, we’ve arrived at a bit of an impasse,” Diego continued, swirling his brandy, “We must, those of us in this room, select a new Captain from amongst ourselves. We thought it only just we include you.”
“Really? Well,” he looked at Hikmat, “I am honored! I accept!” Rahman laughed heartily.
“What?” Vice puffed.
“He didn’t mean they picked you, fool,” Hikmat said quickly in Baiha.
“Ahaha! Only kidding, my friends,” Rahman recovered.
“We’ve put it to a vote, and it’s tied between myself and Mr. Barrow, as it stands,” Diego sipped from his glass, “So it falls to you, Rahman. Who do you feel, in your heart, would lead us to prosperity? Do you trust me? Or our troubled navigator?”
“First Mate,” Mar corrected, turning to Rahman, “You know as well as I do he knows as much about sailing as your left foot.”
Rahman looked about the assembled officers and Ms. Curtice, his smile slowly fading, “Well,” he looked at Hikmat, whose eyes flashed over Deigo so quickly no one else could have noticed, “Purser Samson is skilled at negotiation, yes? If we are to be independent, we will need this. I choose the Purser,” he turned to Mar, “Nothing against you, Mr. Barrow, I would sail with you to the very edge of the world and back again!” Rahman slapped the table again, smiling around the room.
“Excellent choice, Mr. Nasib, I knew I could count on your good sense,” Diego slapped the beninite on the shoulder. Vice puffed silently, and Lisette was utterly unreadable, “On to the next order of business then.”
“If we’re going into South Landing acting the victim, we should mark up the hull, maybe toss a couple of cabins,” Hikmat suggested.
“Good, good. We’ll have to go through the black crates, stow all the secret goods in one of the foot lockers,” Diego continued.
“You mentioned preserved corpses, Mr. Samson, and potentially necromantic artifacts. Arcs’un Vossman, you may accompany me as I investigate them further,” Lisette rose to leave.
“Perhaps we should all accompany you, Lady Curtice,” Diego hooked his arm in the air, “I’m sure your insights would benefit us all.” He watched her face intently, looking for any signs of ill intent.
“Very well,” Lisette turned and left the room, her servant fellow falling into step beside her as she descended the stairs. Theron stood quickly and followed her in silence.
“I’ll pass, thank you,” Vice took a draw from his pipe and walked out into the dusk.
“This could not wait until the daylight?” Hikmat grumbled as he and Rahman followed the arcswain, chattering in baiha and shoving each other in jest.
Diego and Mar remained, the former leaning against the bureau as he finished his brandy, the later had not shifted position against the bulkhead since entering.
“We’re not going to have any problems, are we?” Diego asked, “It was a fair vote.”
“It’s more than a popularity contest, Pretty,” Mar didn’t turn from the window, “Everybody’s lives are in your hands now. You fuck up it’s them on a rope, not just you. Can you fuckin’ understand that?”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Barrow. We’re a fair way far from being pursued by the King’s Army here. They’re grown men and women, they understand the risks, and they can leave if they want to,’ Diego countered, “In the mean time, I aim to make as much coin as possible, for all of us. You can’t doubt I’ll be better than Marcello.”
“I can, and I do,” Mar rose slowly, “Come on, let’s get this over with.” The two of them followed the others down through the orlop to the main hold’s hatch, where Hikmat and Rahman were already hauling the door aside. Mar tossed the rope ladder down, but didn’t use it, hopping down onto the crates.
Hikmat and Rahman stood at the edge of the hold, waiting for Theron and Lisette to go first. Diego leapt from the edge too, landing with a flourish as his blue-violet lightning bugs flew from beneath his cloak. They flew lazily to spin about the nearest of the wrapped, blackwood crates.
“You recall which ones hold our unpaying passengers, yes?” Diego inquired. Theron had of course painstakingly catalogued not only the contents but the arrangement of the artifacts.
“One of the first things Master taught me was that magic relies on patterns that aren’t always readily apparent. You never know which detail will be key to unlocking the mystery,” he explained, opening his spell book to the back cover. Several loose parchments waved their titles at him, loosely attached to the binding in alphabetical order. He plucked his crate notes out and slipped the book back into his knapsack, “I’ll offer Lady Curtice her preference,” he brought the parchment near enough for Lisette to read. The arcswain gently signed an illumination cantrip and touched the buckle of his knapsack, causing it to glow brightly enough to read by.
“Ah,” Lisette whispered a prayer to her Lord and touched a finger first to her temple and then to the keysign on Theron’s parchment, “Your notology is efficient, Master Vossman,” she stated as the dense, illegible shorthand blurred into compact kent in her mind’s eye.
She spent fifteen minutes studying the page in conversation with Theron. Diego barely understood anything they were talking about, Mar and the beninites even less. The captain yawned with notable politeness.
“Your presence is not expressly required, Captain,” Lisette turned from the parchment, gesturing toward the nearest crate, marked as holding the half-orc’s body, “That one first.” Jorge stepped forward to wrangle the heavy box into the open while Lisette watched, “Though I suspect as captain you’ll want to know what lay in your holds.”
Diego cocked his head and squinted in her direction, “We near the end of a long and tiring day, M’lady. These bodies will certainly not go dancing away if we retire for the evening. Your estimation of my curiosity is accurate, I of course have the safety of the ship foremost in mind. Carry on, if you would,” He glanced around the small space, landing on Hikmat and Rahman perched on the edge of hatch, “You two coming down?”
“Not unless expressly required,” Rahman was hushed, “Sir.” Hikmat stood beside him, hand resting on the pommel of his blade.
“Don’t tell me you sandy chaps are afraid of a few dead bodies? Vossman already told us all is safe,” Diego chuckled.
“Caution is not the same as fear,” Hikmat answered, “We can see just fine from here.”
Lisette incanted in elder kent too quiet for Theron to make-out, though strain he did. It was a strange language for a Boccoban priestess to use, the empirical one had been cyterian, most of his disciples prayed in baiha as the nearest linguistic successor to that long-dead language. Perhaps it’s her eastern heritage, he observed as her magesight orison activated, dark irises glowing a rich amber hue.
Her eyes swept up and down the box Jorge was just now freeing from canvas wrappings. With a nod from her, the aging man freed the lid with a pry-bar; it came away with little effort thanks to Hikmat’s earlier intrusion. The half-orc’s body lay in the twisted position the men had left it in earlier, no sign of rot.
Diego raised his lip; a corpse should not look so alive. The agony of death was still written plainly on his face, the color still fresh, the skin full. He wouldn’t be surprised if the half-orc started writhing in pain, hands gripping the crimson gash in his throat.
“The other corpses resemble this one?” Lisette asked, drawing her skirt as she crouched to investigate more closely.
“Yes, M’lady,” Theron stood with hands clasped behind him, “nude, with a mortal laceration at the throat, but otherwise uninjured and notably clean.”
“Uninjured? This arm is fractured,” Lisette pointed out.
“Post-mortem, we were somewhat hasty in securing the contents of the crates after our first investigation,” Theron lowered his head slightly.
“I see,” Lisette’s even tone triggered a wash of heat over Theron’s face and neck. It was an amateur mistake to have to admit to a divine spellcaster, even if she was faithful to the Empirical One. Fortunately the priestess either failed to notice or didn’t acknowledge his embarrassment, no doubt working her way through the emanations from the corpse.
The lady tugged the satin glove from her right hand, Jorge accepting it without prompting, and bent over the half-orc’s muscled chest. In the confines of the hold, the only light Diego’s fireflies, Theron couldn’t make out what she was doing until she stepped back from the body. He raised an eyebrow at the simple character painted in blood on the man’s chest.
“Lord over all, your implement requires knowledge from beyond the veil. Blood has been spilled, the truest confession. Let it speak,” She incanted in perfect kent this time, bloody finger tracing patterns before her as the other hand lay against her chest. Phlemography? Theron had never encountered blood magic, at least not in practice. Certainly he’d read of the brutal shamanism south of Kardam and among orc tribes, but they were savages with superstitious ceremony encasing kernels of true magic. He was glad to see Lady Curtice’s disregard for taboos extend beyond raised servants.
She accepted Jorge’s offered handkerchief as the character on the half-orc’s chest roiled and shifted into stark kent calligraphy. Lisette read it aloud.

Reginald Crowley Mixblood orc tanner Executed thirty days past

“Executed?” Theron puzzled, leaning in around Lisette’s shoulder, “For what crime? And why transport the body so far at such expense?”
“A few hundred kingmarks would be insignificant next to the value of the other cargo,” Lisette pointed out. She handed Jorge’s handkerchief back and replaced her glove. Jorge was ready with her journal when she finished.
“The Lady is right, dear arc’sun,” Diego wedged in, “The men with whom we dance have no shortage of resources at their disposal.”
“And most executions are not ordered by magistrates,” Hikmat offered from the orlop deck.
“Right,” Diego’s eyes flashed without thinking to Lady Curtice, looking for a slip-up. She just might be the executioner. She obviously knew her way with magic, and nasty magic at that. She was ice cold, everything a crime lord could ask for in an assassin.
By gods, if they had a Curtice working as a mage-assassin, the Clark brothers were far more connected than he’d dared imagine; and Lady Curtice was a far greater threat than he’d realized.
“We certainly must assume the killers had a justifiable reason to slay the man,” Diego took a diplomatic approach, swallowing just shallow enough to avoid notice. In truth, no one was paying attention to him other than Hikmat. Lisette finished writing, handing the journal back to Jorge, and knelt again beside the corpse. Diego continued, “You don’t kill a man and spend good coin preserving the corpse for a sea voyage unless he’s done something particularly insulting,” he noticed Lisette incanting again and felt ice in his gut, “More discoveries, M’lady?”
Lisette did not respond, droning-on with her incantation. Apparently this one was more complicated than finger-painting. Diego waltzed away from her back towards the hatch and less distressing company, “What do you make of it, men?”
“Thirty days, another five to reach Ezrepellian, this is a long time to preserve a corpse,” Rahman answered.
“And he was not beaten, or tortured,” Hikmat added, “We’re hauling trophies, Captain, not examples, not spies. I think only a twisted soul wants to see fresh kills so desperately.”
“Astergaul, you mean,” Diego touched a finger to his lip, “I think he would have done more to them, in the way of torture, I mean.” Hikmat glanced at Rahman.
“This cult then, who owns these creepy dishes,” the falconer gestured toward the other crates.
“I don’t think a cult would trust their holy artifacts to a shipping company, particularly a cut-rate one like Marcello’s,” Diego rest his fist on his chin, “Thoughts, Arc’sun?” Theron didn’t respond, focused on the priestess, “Theron, Good man.”
“Hmm?” the arcswain blinked twice, “Yes, Captain?”
“Thoughts?” Diego gestured at the body.
“Well, I…” Theron trailed off, interrupted.
At first Diego thought it was Jorge speaking, but the manservant stood quietly, working his tongue around his teeth as he watched the dancing lights. It was a man’s voice, scratched by smoke, or maybe drink.
“Reginald Crowley, where are you from?” Lisette enunciated forcefully.
“Holffbern,” the scratched voice replied. Diego stepped closer to investigate.
“He’s a trapper?” the captain asked.
“A tanner,” Theron corrected.
“I know he’s a tanner, but he’s from trapper territory, do try to keep up, man.”
“Reginald Crowley, why were you executed?” Lisette asked, ignoring the captain.
“I disobeyed an order,” Diego fought to control his expression as he watched the dead Reginald’s lifeless jaw open and close in time with the words.
“From whom?”
“Zachary Gagnon,” Crowley answered, sounding quite far away despite bodily proximity.
“Well that’s not helpful in the least, does he work for the Clark Brothers? Or Astergaul?” Diego bent over his knee, nearly shouting at the corpse.
“The spell only responds to Lady Curtice, Captain,” Theron offered.
“And is limited. Further investigation will resume after breakfast,” Lisette rose, Jorge following her up the rope ladder, “He may be resituated.”
“Well that was quite a productive evening, men! I’ll see you on the morrow with bright eyes. The future is looking golden, gentlemen,” Diego talked himself up the ladder after Curtice, “Absolute, solid gold.”
Mar sighed and stepped away from the bulkhead, startling Theron.
“Mr. Barrow, I’d forgotten you were here,” Vossman returned his gaze to the body, though it held no answers for his many questions. Mar turned to look at Hikmat and Rahman.
“You helping?” he asked. They both shook their heads, “Fine,” superstitious bastards, “Theron, legs.” The arcswain and first mate packed Mr. Crowley back into his crate and secured it with the rest of the cargo. The beninites stood patiently on the orlop until they were finished, and secured the hatch. None spoke another word before parting for their bunks.
Theron immediately began recording what he’d learned, about the body and Lady Curtice. He had to light a new candle before he was finished.
Lisette recorded a few shorthand notes before retiring. As she wrote, she directed Hu-Chanh to dispose of the militiaman’s body, “And Hu-Chanh. The older seaman with short hair, Cynric Steele. He’s become a problem.”
“I will see to it, Mother,” the hobgoblin nodded.
Mar stepped out of the sterncastle, inhaling deeply. Manuel was at the helm and stood-up straighter when the first mate came into view. A quick glance at the main top caught Reva watching him, the image of alertness.
“Evening, Sir,” Manuel greeted. It wasn’t hard to notice the change in them. Mar nodded back looking over the deck. A few crewmen were gathered at the foredeck, laughing quietly. Vice was checking rigging on the weatherdeck with Roch. Mar turned away from them, taking the stairs up to a blissfully deserted afterdeck. The wind was stronger here, flapping his clothes and hair. It was cold. Clean. He walked to the aft rail and put his weight against it, watching the stars and the moon in the receding east. His shoulders were heavy, his neck sore, he could feel his heart beating hard from everything he’d seen today. A bottle of rum appeared in his hand. After a few pulls the weight loosened, and Mar could breathe again.
Two decks below, Diego poured a heavy glass and collapsed into his chair. His eyes closed as cognac slid around his mouth. It had never tasted so rich. He spun in the chair, opening his eyes to take in the room. The polished wood, shining brass, and finally the blanket of stars outside his wide windows. He felt alive, he felt rich. Diego Hercule Samson was free.

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Episode IV

Episode IV – Rum Souffle

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“What do we do first, brother, eat or drink?” Rahman asked, spinning around to walk backwards along the dock. Hikmat cast a serious glance at him before returning his attention to where he was walking. He didn’t answer.
“You don’t have enough gray hair for that look,” Rahman continued, “I think what you really need is a good lay, but the only one around here that we could get that drunk is Aysa!” he used their nickname for Lacy. Aysa was the villain of an old story who drank the blood of her enemies from a chalice that allowed her to control their bodies. Lacy Duran made that kind of impression.
“You know what happens if we go through with this,” Hikmat said.
“A hangover and illegitimate children?” Rahman shrugged.
“Quit fucking around, you know what I mean. It’s crossing a line,” Hikmat flashed his old friend another dark look. Being forgotten about and laying low was one thing, raising your head up to do something like this was something else entirely.
“We’re dead to them, brother,” Rahman turned around and adopted a more somber posture, “even if anyone does still remember us, they won’t risk getting involved so far out. If they still cared at all they’d have contacted us.” They didn’t speak any more until the cluster of sailors was approaching the main square. Romilly’s stood prominently facing the docks, but only a small number of the crew headed for it.
“You two coming to the Point?” Tristan asked.
“Maybe later,” Hikmat answered, cutting-off Rahman’s response.
“Your loss,” Tristan lowered his voice to a whisper, “we’ve still got a bottle of the captain’s rum,” the red-headed man grinned hugely and split-off toward Woodham’s for a small hog.
Traditionally a cluster of the crew gathered at a point nicknamed Pig Pitch on the far side of the island and roasted a hog, or as much of one as they could afford, on the last southbound trip of the season. They’d tell stories and eat their fill, being sure to leave a good cut of meat to throw into the surf, an offering to Mother Ocean to “give her something to eat other than men’s souls” on their return journey. Vice would almost certainly be there, and more than a couple of the island’s resident strumpets.
Attendance wasn’t required, there would be an equal measure of the crew spreading out around the sparsely-vegetated island in ones, twos, or threes. There were a couple of freshwater pools scattered around good for bathing if you couldn’t afford a warm bath at Romilly’s.
The beninites were among the minority going directly to the inn. There was something about a tiny town of seafarers that made it almost uncomfortable for men and women to fully enjoy themselves in the only tavern. It may have had something to do with the officers and town brass being near at hand.
Rahman led the way through Romilly’s wide open double doors, the sounds of a three piece band and a woman singing met them before they even reached it. Hikmat was assaulted by the familiar milieu of liquor, smoke, sweat, and the faint odor of various excretions unique to a true frontier dive. It was still late afternoon, and light streamed through the leeward windows. It wouldn’t be long until Raguel closed the shutters on this side to keep the harsh sunset at bay.
“It’s always so dark in here,” Rahman complained, but his words rang hollow with grin in his eyes. Raguel was a broad-shouldered man, a growing belly pushed against his belt but somehow only added to the impression of strength. He greeted the incoming patrons with a hearty bellow.
“Ho Esmer Wind!” his voice was almost as deep as Albersnagle’s, though lacking that bell tone. Years of liquor and smoke were evident, and together with long, unruly hair streaked in gray, a salt-and-pepper mane of a beard, his impeccable waistcoat and breeches represented everything Grainger’s Rest was: the farthest-flung territory of the wealthiest nation in Henal. If Port of Isles was the beating heart of maritime trade, Grainger’s Rest was its patchwork soul.
“Ho Romilly’s!” Ailred returned the hail; probably a long running joke become tradition, it was general practice to refer to the inn and tavern as if it were a ship. Someone had even donated a lacquered helm-wheel that hung from the wall behind the bar. Hundreds of bits and pieces from hundreds of ships hung from the walls and ceilings, others stood on shelves or in corners. You could chart the history of sailing from here.
The proprietor made his way through his sea of tables, only two-thirds full, weighted toward the stage at the end of his latest addition built of old hull planks, boreholes and a few long-dried barnacles etching the walls. Raguel grasped Ailred’s hand.

Half an hour later Rahman and Hikmat were on their second pints, eating fresh bread, exotic citrus fruit, and chicken spiced with something that watered their eyes. It was delicious. A cluster of sailors from the Gallifont were starting up a game of darts in the parlor wing, making a steady rhythm of cheers and groans.
“Rahman,” Hikmat sucked on the last bone of his meal.
“Mmm?” the smaller man gulped from his tankard.
“Want to make some money?” he nodded his head toward the dart throwers.
“You want to pick pockets here?” there were unspoken rules about Grainger’s Rest, everyone was from the same family here. Stealing and brawls were less acceptable.
“We won’t take anything they don’t give us. How’s your aim?” Hikmat grinned.
They left their empty plates and carried the tankards over to the table near the dart board. A tall man, probably just into his thirties, raised an eyebrow as the beninites approached.
“Ho mystics! Come to read us our fortunes?” he laughed.
“We don’t pray to the Weyrune,” Hikmat smiled, “but I’d see losing a lot coin in your future.”
“Oh ho!” the sailor looked around to his friends, chuckling, “a challenger emerges! And what be his name?”
“Hikmat,”
“Ha!” he wheeled, a little too quickly for a sober man, “he’s already drunk! Alright, Drunk Matt,” he gestured to the board, “Next game is you and I, best of three bos’un’s wife, queen’s rules.”
“Perfect,” Hikmat slapped down a third of what the purser had just handed him. The men at the table cheered and ordered more rum.

Diego glanced over at the commotion from his seat a few tables away, he and everyone else at the table snapped their eyes back to their opponents’ cards and piles of coin, looking for signs of cheating. The purser glanced at his hand, it was absolute crap: two hens, a hex, and a pair of horses. He glanced back up at the Gallifont’s first mate, a green-eyed devil nearing fifty. Diego had marked him as the main threat in this group, despite a very vocal, wiry-haired carpenter from the Bessy Mae who’d won the last couple of hands.

“Raise a half-skel,” the carpenter slid his ante to the middle.
“Call,” green-eyes slid his forward.
“Raise,” Diego added another half-skelling to the ante, making sure green-eyes and the carpenter saw his flashing smirk before he pretended to put his game-face back on. The bluff was working, he could see the carpenter wavering.
“Bah, ye bastards,” wire-hair dropped his hand, folding out. Diego raised an eyebrow at green-eyes, now keeping his face completely blank.
“You’re not as good as you think,” First Gallifont sneered, calling Diego’s bluff and tossing his ante on the pile. Diego just nodded, keeping his face blank. He smoothly called without a word.
“Let’s see what you’ve got then,” Green-eyes laid down three knights, which definitively beat Diego’s double-beasts. Green-eyes smiled and scooped his winnings to his side, just where the purser wanted him. By the end of the night, Diego was sure, he’d have half that man’s pay stack.
It was a pleasant distraction. The singer wasn’t great, but then again nothing was this far from civilization. Marcello had yet to turn-up at the inn, despite myriad social protocols requiring it. Probably waiting for Duke. The Mayor of Grainger’s Rest wouldn’t likely be here until after dinner, sharing drinks and stories with the captains and senior officers in a smaller addition off the back that served as the islands only officers’ club endearingly called the Club Deck.
Diego played another few hands, winning just enough to keep him in the game until he went for green-eye’s throat. The singer was taking a break, sailors on all sides just enjoying her presence. None dared make a move in the open, everyone knew who her husband was, but there was more than one rumor of more private encounters. The three piece had become four with a piper joining in. The crowd hid the dancers from view, but he could feel their clomping in the floorboards.
One of the serving girls was paying a little more attention to the purser as the game went on. He started exchanging glances with her, brushing her ‘by accident’ when she delivered more drinks. There was nothing wrong with playing more than one game at once, after all.
A cheer and the loud thumping of tankards on tables interrupted his thoughts. He and the other card players glanced over to the dart throwers again. Given the chant of Drunk Matt now rising, along with shouts for rum, Diego could guess what was happening. He spotted Darzi and Nasib among the group. Good for them.
“Deal, fancy-pants,” one of the Gallifont’s officers, Grimbly or Grant or something, was getting antsy.
“Don’t be in such a hurry,” Diego passed out the thin, wooden cards.
A musical duel was unfolding on the other side of the dining hall. The piper finished a complicated performance, the small crowd clapping and taunting. The fiddler had just started answering the challenge when Marcello walked through the door. Diego continued to deal as his eyes followed the captain past the stomping audience. He glanced down at his hand, decent. Marcello walked past the roost of grey pelicans drinking at the bar, not slowing his pace in the slightest as he passed Lynch and Cynric, the latter paused his conversation to glare at the captain.
The captains of the Gallifont and Besse Mae were already in the Club Deck, Diego had spied a bottle of brandy and meals heading that way from the kitchen, with a box of pipeweed too expensive to offer just any officers. The bastard hadn’t even bothered to take off his hat until the arch separating the rest of the tavern.
“That boy could dance a dragon from his trove with that knurly-bob,” Grimbly/Grant tapped his pipe on the table, joining the applause and tankard-thumping from the crowd for the fiddler. The piper blasted a trill, the fiddler answered, a man and woman had taken the dance floor and assumed sides in the battle. They hopped and twisted against each other as the musicians dueled. Was that Lacy?
Green-eyes caught Diego’s eye and grinned at his hand. Diego twitched an eyebrow at him, glancing at his own hand again. Once he’d looked down, his quarry sniffed and took a drink. That was the tell, the third act of this game had just begun. A few sips and a song later, Diego laid out his royal line, edging out over Green-eyes’s double nobles. The purser’s purse had just grown substantially.
“Lucky bastard,” Green-eyes shifted in his seat, “I’ve got to piss.”
“Best take care,” the toilet pit was through a door on the other side of the dart-players. Someone was parading around a dart with a cherry impaled upon it, and someone else was flinging more around, red juice everywhere, “I’d hate to see such a wonderful shirt stained.”
As soon as the first-mate was out of sight, the Gallifont’s cook set his cup down atop some of Green-eyes’s coins and slid it closer to his own pile. No one besides Diego seemed to notice, so the cook’s only rebuke was a quick wink.

“Drunk Matt! Drunk Matt! Drunk Matt! Oooooohhhhh!” Rahman cheered along with the circle of men. The self-appointed referee, Rahman couldn’t remember his name, held a cherry aloft on the dart Hikmat had just tossed. With an exaggerated showman’s stance he turned it about for all to see as another tankard was put in Darzi’s hand. Everyone drank deeply, someone threw another cherry and before he realized it, Rahman was engaged in a cherry-throwing war.
Hikmat caught his friend square in the forehead with one, “How’s that Wise Owl!” he slurred in Baiha.
“You’re fucking Owl!” Rahman returned fire.
“I am Sunhawk!” Hikmat cawed in drunken triumph, returning to Kent as he mounted a chair flapping his arms, “I am War Bird! I demand tribute of wine and virgins!”
“We ain’t got any of those here!” someone shouted.
“Then rum and loose women will do!” Hikmat pointed at the no one in particular and leapt from the chair.
“More rum!” Rahman called to the barmaid, she was drinking half as much as the sailors were and expertly alternating whose side of the table to bend over as she poured it out. A commotion near the front of the tavern registered somewhere in Rahman’s awareness. He looked over to see people turning to shout greetings at a tall, fit man of around fifty sailing through the music crowd, expensive velvet cloak flowing behind his waving and hand-shaking arms. It was a hero’s welcome if ever he’d seen one.
Someone rang a bell behind the bar, yelling “Grainger’s Rest arriving!”
“Duke Hartwin!” one of the drunken dart-throwers shouted, saluting with a tankard. Next to him, Rahman caught Hikmat’s expression. There was a familiar gleam in his glassy eyes. Rahman shook his head No!
Yes! Hikmat nodded, watching the Mayor of Grainger’s Rest like a predator. Before Rahman could reach him, Darzi had slipped away from their tables towards the growing crowd near the bar. Shit, Rahman twisted around two men wrestling for the nearly empty jar of cherries. He stumbled past a chair in pursuit of his friend.
“Hikmat!” he hissed, far too quietly to be heard over the raucous tavern. Someone started singing the second verse of Captain Legend and the entire crowd seemed to have joined by the second line. Clapping and stomping and a distant pipe and fiddle shook the edges of Rahman’s vision as he tried to find Hikmat among the patrons.
Mayor Hartwin breezed by, gray hair impeccable, the finely polished hilt of his sabre gleaming even in the dull light of the tavern. When had they lit the lanterns? Was it dark already? An apparition materialized from the crowd wearing Hikmat’s grin.
“What have you done!” Rahman demanded. Hikmat didn’t say a word, but he let a gold pocketwatch, elegantly engraved with a noble crest, dangle just visibly from his sleeve. He withdrew it quickly once Rahman’s eyes popped wide, “You fool!” Hikmat burst out laughing. Inexplicably, Rahman did, too. “We’re going to the mast for this!”
“Then we must drink enough not to feel the lash!” Darzi disappeared again, in the direction of the bar.

“Don’t take this personally, good man,” Diego smiled, laying down a beautiful full court, “but you’ve just been trussed like a prize goose!” he chuckled good naturedly as he savored collecting the pot. Green-eyes stared in astonishment at the cards. In four hands, Diego had won back everything he’d lost and a little extra. The first-mate had been the source of nearly all those winnings, and his stack was much diminished from the start of the evening, “and sadly, my friends, I must now take my leave. A more pleasurable group of men I’ve rarely had the fortune to gamble with.”
Groans and complaints half-heartedly answered him from the table, and a pout from the barmaid, but there was, very unfortunately, more pressing business to attend. Not without a second look back, Diego rose and stepped from the tavern into the cooling breeze of the advancing twilight.

The sky was relatively clear, and the island was weather-worn stone for the most part. Navigating it on foot was easy, so Diego declined to purchase a torch. He could see flames sparking in several directions, distant torches and campfires. He plotted his course from memory, he’d been around this island dozens of times in the last few years. He made a point to stop and share a drink with each of the clumps of his crew that he came across (with the notable exception of anyone closely entwined with a partner).
He’d anticipated spending more time at the hog roast, but after thirty minutes or so he found himself pulled away by the night sky. The stars out here were always so much brighter, somehow more vast in their multitude than anywhere on the mainland. He’d asked a few educated men why, even a priest once, but none of them had a satisfactory answer. He’d come to the conclusion that it was the lack of anything above you, and ocean stretching to the horizon in every direction. A stone slab floating in the center of the multiverse.
There was something special about this visit to the island. Things were on the knife-edge of change, his fortunes were about to turn, the forces of those same sparkling heavens had practically guaranteed it. As Diego wandered beneath the ocean of stars, he felt nothing but boundless opportunity. It was a beautiful feeling, one he hadn’t felt in a long time, not since this yolk of betrayal had fallen on his shoulders.


Shadow’s swirled with reflected lantern light and laughing faces. Hikmat laughed uproariously, danced like White Jackal until he fell against a wall. He couldn’t remember how many times he’d rolled on the ground now, or what street he was on. The stars overhead spun, the night time laughed and he laughed with it. He danced with his own shadow. Time ceased to exist. A man’s face screamed for help, Hikmat laughed at the jester’s play. Something spun him around and around and he had to keep spinning or the sky would fall down. Then it did.

Pain came first. Thundering, hammering pain in his temples. Hikmat dared not open his eyes. At least he was floating. No, just laying on something soft. So wonderfully soft. He lay there for a long time, or no time, he couldn’t tell. The darkness was necessary. A scuffling from somewhere penetrated the thunder in his skull, and then light cut his brain in half. A door swung open and daylight streamed in. The pain was like a screech clawing at his mind. No, there was an actual screech. A woman, terrified. He groaned and rolled off the softness onto the cool ground. Footsteps pounded away.
He slowly opened one eye, adjusting to the light. A chicken stared back at him from the doorway of…was this a laundry? Yes, he’d been laying on a pile of clothes. The chicken advanced, clucking curiously. Hikmat rolled again, groaning. He sat up, the chicken indifferent to his lamentations. He raised a hand to his face, and realized it was sticky. He blinked heavily, squinting both eyes at his too-large hands. They were covered in blood. The clouds of his mind began to part. Blood. It was on his arms. His shirt was soaked in it.
The rigger patted himself, looking for the injury. He felt his head, nothing. It wasn’t his blood. The woman’s shriek. Shit.

Moments later, he was stumbling down the alley in a pair of dirty trousers and a white shirt from the laundry pile. Gods the sun hurt. He thought he was going to vomit every fifth step, but he staggered away from the laundry as quickly as he could manage. Finally, the docks appeared. He made it the gangplank somehow. He eyed the plank dubiously, it looked so narrow.
He glanced back at Grainger’s Rest, bustling with morning activity. The sun was above the horizon, but not by a lot. It was before nine, he guessed. He looked at the Esmer Wind’s bulwark again, and swallowed his vertigo. Step by step, he made it up the gangplank and half-fell onto the deck.
Mar was on the quarterdeck, splitting old lines again. He raised an eyebrow at Darzi clad in oslander clothes. The beninite was in no condition to answer questions, by the look of things, so he returned his attention to the knife work. Darzi shambled his way to the forecastle and disappeared below deck.
Shortly after collapsing on his rack, Rahman hung his own bleary head over the side of the rack above Hikmat.
“What are you wearing?” he mumbled. Hikmat answered with a long groan, “Are you bleeding?” Rahman noticed Hikmat’s bloody arms extending from his sleeves. The smaller man was off his rack in something approaching quick time, shaking Hikmat to consciousness, “What happened!”
“I got very drunk, I will live,” Hikmat groaned into his pillow sack “Maybe.”
”You are covered in blood, wearing strange clothes!”
“It is not mine,” Hikmat answered.
“What in the nine hells did you do?”
“Too much, too much everything, go away, you fuck, I can’t think right now!” Hikmat half-heartedly thrashed an arm at Rahman.
“Fucking shut the fuck up, you sandy-ass fucks!” Manuel moaned from the next set of racks. Rahman ignored him, leaving to find the boatswain.
Mar raised his brow again as the other beninite stumbled across the deck. He shouted for the boatswain, and Kevice turned with a grunt from his conversation with Cynric against the starboard bulwark. Mar couldn’t quite make out what they were talking about, but he watched Vice wave dismissively and follow Rahman back to the forecastle. The navigator hummed and dropped another handful of strings into his bucket.

“Give the lad a tot,” Vice grouched in the forecastle. Rahman rustled about for a bottle of anything, finally finding a mostly-empty jug of rum, “Drink it down, Darzi.” Hikmat grimaced, not opening his eyes, “attaboy.” Vice tipped the jub up again, encouraging another pull. They waited a few moments for Hikmat to finish swallowing, “Water, too,” Vice instructed. Rahman left towards the scuttlebutt. Vice watched over the beninite in silence until Nasib returned with a cup. The boatswain retrieved a vial from his pocket, filled with a dark powder. Uncorking it, he tapped a small amount of the powder into the cup of water.
“Drink,” Vice pushed the cup into Darzi’s hand.
“Never again,” Hikmat groaned.
“Drink,” the boatswain insisted. Hikmat relented and coughed down the potion.
“Aggh…what is this poison?” he coughed again, rolling over. Almost immediately, however, the beninite improved. After a minute or so, he sat up to rub his eyes. Rahman grabbed his hands before he could touch his face.
“Ne’shalan,” he muttered, seeing the blood and dirt.
“What do you remember, Darzi, start to finish. You boys were at Romilley’s last night,” Vice started.
“We drank a lot of rum, and beer,” Rahman helped, “Around midnight was the last time I saw you.”
“The bar woman?” Darzi squinted one eye, trying to remember. Rahman grinned and gave a nod, “After you left, I went out with some of the others. I don’t remember who. I don’t remember what else happened, until I woke-up in the laundry.”
“Did anybody see you?” Rahman asked.
“The washerwoman, I think. She screamed,” Hikmat collapsed on the rack again.
“This is not good,” Rahman said quietly.
“You don’t have anything else knockin’ around up here,” Vice tapped his temple, “Think, boy. Where’s the blood from? A fight? A chicken?”
“I do not know,” Hikmat growled, a flash of a man yelling hit him, “There was a man.”
“Who?” Vice asked.
“I do not know him, he grabbed my tunic,” Hikmat grabbed the front of his stolen shirt, acting out the foggy memory, “I think he needed help, he left, I think,” he ground his palm into his eye, “I don’t know.”
“Where were you?” Rahman asked.
“Outside, a street or alley, maybe,” Darzi looked at his hands again, then looked down at his sheathed blade. The other two men followed his gaze. There was some blood on the pommel. Darzi looked-up at them both.
“Let’s have a look, then,” Vice sighed. Hikmat swallowed, so did Rahman. He slid his sword free, half expecting to find it stained crimson. The steel was clean.
“Well, thank the gods for that,” Vice said, “you better get yourself cleaned-up.”
“And perhaps stay in the rack until we leave,” Rahman added. Some of the crew were already preparing the ship, helping Woodham’s porters load supplies.
“Probably fer the best,” Vice agreed, re-corking his vial of powder.


Vice found Diego on the quarterdeck, checking-off as crewman reported for duty. Albersnagle had always been loathe to relinquish the duty, no matter that the first mate rarely stood at the brow of most ships. It felt strange to assume his role here, but it felt right being the face of the ship.
“You see Darzi when he came on?” Vice asked.
“No, he must have returned while I was breaking my fast,” Diego replied, checking off Hikmat’s name, “Where is he?”
“Sleeping it off,” Vice said, “we’ve got a problem.”
“A poor place for such a discussion, bo’sun. But I agree, the climate for our little plan doesn’t feel quite right at the moment. Not to worry, my good man, in time they’ll come around.”
“Not that,” Vice lowered his voice, “Darzi may have killed a man, or at least held him dying.”
“What are you talking about?” Diego stared at him.
“Come have a look if ye don’t believe me. He don’t remember a thing, too much rum.”
Diego glanced about the deck quickly, then back up the docks. He took a breath, “Hayes! Take over,” he held his list out to Carmello as he walked back toward the gangplank to retrieve another sack. Vice lead the way back to the bunks, they arrived to find Hikmat half-done scrubbing his arms with a wet rag.
“I am uninjured,” Darzi headed-off the anticipated question.
“Good for you,” Deigo snapped, “It doesn’t appear the other fellow is. Of all the times to get yourself entangled in…you choose now!”
“I did not choose any entanglements, Purser. I didn’t even choose to get that drunk,” Hikmat challenged.
“Well I saw no one forcing rum down your throat at Romilley’s last night,” Diego replied. He took a breath, “Worry not, friends. We’ll be leaving in a couple of short hours, and this will be behind us. Did anyone see you?”
“I don’t even remember where I was, how would I know if anyone saw me? The washerwoman is the only one for certain.”
“What washerwoman?” Diego’s stomach lurched for the second time.
“The one who screamed and woke me in the laundry,” Darzi replied.
“Just…just stay below deck until we leave,” Diego ordered, turning to leave.
*

No more than a half-hour later Diego spotted the the Dock Steward walking down the dock with a familiar face in tow, Captain Tilki. Tilki was a reasonable man as far as constables went, but he was still the law here, and as a result immediately suspect in the Book of Samson.
The purser waited for them to reach the foot of the gangplank before greeting them.
“Good morning, Mr. Dwyer! Doing well I hope?” Diego held his arm wide in greeting as the men climbed. Tilki’s expression was expectedly dour, but the Steward’s serious face quickly smiled at Diego’s greeting. The man was nothing if not amiable, particularly toward anyone civilized.
“Good morning to you as well, Mr. Samson. I am doing quite well,” Dwyer extended his hand in greeting and Diego accepted it.
“Captain Tilki, did one of my sailors fail to pay their tab?” Diego asked with a gleam in his eye.
“I’m afraid my task is far heavier than that, Mr. Samson,” Tilki usually possessed a grave bearing, but his tired face was haunted by something. Unusual, but Diego allowed him to continue without interruption, “You have beninites on your crew. I’ll need to speak with them.”
“Well I don’t believe they’ve reported back to duty, Captain. What is this about?”
“I’d rather discuss that with the Master of the ship, is the Captain aboard?” Tilki continued.
“I’m afraid he’s indisposed, I have command in his absence, I assure you he’ll be informed as soon as possible,” Diego’s expression became more serious.
“I’m afraid there’s been a,” Tilki lowered his voice, “a murder. In the night.”
“Dear Gods above,” Diego sniffed, “deplorable! Was it one of my men?”
“No, no. He was one of ours,” Tilki held an assuring hand up, “However, I have witnesses stating they saw a beninite man covered in blood hiding in a local business early this morning. Reliable men have also seen beninites on your crew. I must speak with them, Mr. Samson, on behalf the court.”
“Well that is most dreadful news, Captain, I’m sure my men had nothing to do with such savagery, but I can assure you of our full cooperation with your investigation. Unfortunately, as I said not all of my crew have reported back aboard for duty. Their liberty is not officially over for another hour, and we all know how lax sailors can be mid-voyage, eh?” Diego smiled at both men. Dwyer chuckled. Tilki blinked.
“Then you won’t be bothered if I inspect the ship, they may have come aboard in the night without your knowledge,” Tilki pressed.
“I find that unlikely, Sir. The portswatch logged those who came aboard during the night, and I assure you they are all as oslander as you and I.”
“Mr. Samson, I have a duty to execute. I must search your vessel, I would appreciate your cooperation,” Tilki began walking toward the sterncastle hatch, “I’ll begin with your cabins. Have you any beninite passengers aboard?”
“No, Captain,” Diego stood his ground, not blocking Tilki’s path but neither accompanying him. Instead, he turned to the dock steward, “Who is the unfortunate soul, Mr. Dwyer?”
“I shouldn’t say, Mr. Samson,” Dwyer replied, then lowered his tone, “but you’ll find out soon enough I’m sure. Poor Ervin. He kept the Peloran shrine, here. A lovely young man, not a full member of the priesthood, but well on his way I should have thought. Had quite a green thumb, too, I’ll surely miss his tomatoes. No one else has ever managed to grow them here, terrible soil, you know.”
“A holy man? There’s only one kind of man who slays a priest, or priestling in this case,” Diego looked out to sea.
“An evil one, of course,” Dwyer replied, “but any murder of this kind is an offense to the righteous gods.”
“But a bloody gift to a dark one, wouldn’t you say?” Diego had just had a stroke of genius.
“You think a cabalist did this?” the steward raised a brow, “I can assure you Mr. Samson, there are no fiend-sworn in this town.”
“Are you so sure?” Samson replied, “The agents of the dark powers are ever more adept at hiding in plain sight, these days, Mr. Dwyer. My pair of beninites are rowdy, but harmless. I cannot imagine either one of them murdering any man in cold blood, let alone a young acolyte of Pelor.”
“As noisome as it sounds, I have to admit you have made your point,” the Dock Steward looked back at the village, “I thought coming here would…Bah. We could only remain paradise for so long before ‘twas infected.” Diego was taken aback by the powerfully bitter man before him.
“I,” he started, “did not mean to upset you, Cullen. Not to worry, though, there is no way that evil can taint Grainger’s Rest for long. Not with the goodly who run her, and you can be certain the Queen will not see another southern jewel lost. You will have all the support you could imagine, Steward, they’ll send a company of Heronite Paladins if they have to.”
“Oh! I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that, they’ll arrest half the town!” Dwyer’s normal light-hearted smile reappeared as quickly as it had fled.
“Ha! If word gets out you’ll have ships trying the Daggers rather than sail out here!” Diego added, laughing with relief.


The stink of ocean pervaded everything. This was the absolute lowest point in Lisette Curtice’s career. The tiny window barely admitted any breeze, there was no room to work properly, everything had to be rotated out of the luggage. How could a nobleman of any standing tolerate these conditions?
“Getting this smell out of the linens will take weeks,” Magda grimaced nearby.
“Hardship in service to the Overlord will be justly rewarded so long as we are strong, Magda,” Lisette recited, turning a page.
“Yes, Mistress,” she answered. At least the savages had left them alone for the most part. They’d scarcely been disturbed during the trip, and then only by Mr. Samson. That man was entirely too bold, but any refinement was a welcome relief to the crudeness of nearly every one they had dealt with in the last several months. He even made the effort to smell pleasant.
“Release,” Magda commanded Cora, who released her graps on the dress they had been mending. The robed servant dropped her bony hands to her sides without a sound as Magda folded the dress in linen and placed it in the trunk near the “bed”.
Boots on the stairway outside drew the handmaiden’s attention. The crew scuttled about barefoot most of the time, and both the captain and purser carried themselves more gently. A loud banging caused Magda to start even as she looked at the door.
“Captain of the Guard,” the man on the other side announced. Magda smoothed her skirts and looked to the Mistress for instruction. Lisette marked her page with a quill and rose from the single chair, nodding to Magda. The handmaiden went to the door and opened it only a few inches, enough to see the guard captain, but not enough for him to see the room.
“Yes, Captain,” she asked. He was taller than her, but not by much.
“Good morning, Miss, Is there anyone else in your cabin?” he asked, trying to peak around her.
“My mistress, sir, Lisette Curtice, of Port of Isles.”
“No one else?” he asked again, suspicion in his eyes.
“Captain, why are you here?” Lisette asked from behind the door.
“I’m searching for a beninite man, a potentially dangerous one, melady.”
“What is your name?” Lisette continued.
“Fernando Tilki, melady,” he answered, jaw tightening. Magda smiled inwardly.
“Captain Fernando Tilki, I am insulted by your assumption that a man shares my quarters. I find it equally insulting that you question my handservant’s truthfulness,” Lisette ire was evident but not harsh.
“I mean no disrespect, melady,” the captains shoulders drew back as the man’s chest inflated. Magda was working hard to maintain a neutral face, “but this man is quite dangerous. My duty to the Court demands I inspect the room. You may take all the time you required for propriety.
Lisette’s lip twitched as she nodded to Magda. She opened the door completely, revealing Lisette and Cora standing beside the table.
“As you can see, no men. Beninite or otherwise,” Lisette leveled a gaze able to melt steel at the curly-haired captain.
“Melady?” Huu-Chanh’s rumbling voice asked from the hallway. Tilki’s hand fell to his sword pommel as he turned to meet a well-dressed hobgoblin.
“Captain Tilki was just leaving, Huu-Chanh,” Lisette answered.
“The robed man will reveal his face,” Tilki’s hand did not leave the pommel, and he held Huu-Chanh’s black gaze until the end of his statement, looking back into the cabin.
“Very well,” Lisette sighed, “This was all entirely avoidable, Captain,” she turned to Cora, “Pull back your hood.”
She complied without pause, using both skeletal hands to reveal her fleshless scalp and the bits of sinew that still clung to her jaw and empty eye sockets. Tilki’s mouth parted as took a sharp breath, staring at the browned cartilage of Cora’s nose. her lips long gone, Cora’s white teeth stood bright against the stained bones of her skull and neck, an eternal smile. Lisette softly chanted.
“Abomin-“ Tilki started to scream, half-drawing his sword before he stumbled forward against the wall. Magda lightly stepped back toward the Mistress as Huu-Chanh brought his flail around for another strike.
“Chains of obedience,” Lisette finished, reaching her hand toward Tilki and closing it into a fist across the room. His voice caught in his chest, arm frozen mid-draw, off-hand pressed against the wall as he tried to push away from Huu-Chanh. Magda stepped back toward her Mistress, watching the captain’s muscles twitching under the skin as he struggled in vain against invisible chains coiled around his limbs. He gurgled something in an attempt to scream through a locked jaw.
“Put him in the trunk,” Lisette instructed as Huu-Chanh’s flail landed a second time, and the captain’s terrified eyes went blank. Magda enlisted Cora’s aid in emptying the clothes from the trunk next to the bed. Lisette took her seat and found her page.
Huu-Chanh stepped in and was closing the door as another figure swept down the stairs.

“Lady Curtice?” Theron called, reaching the bottom of the stairs just as the door slammed shut. He pushed into the room, his wand of missiles in hand, “By the Seven, what happened?” he saw a man he didn’t recognize leaning against the wall, bleeding severely from the temple. Then he saw a real surprise, an animated skeleton doing laundry. The bleeding man wasn’t moving, his position awkward, as if, “A holding enchantment? What is happening?” Theron asked, looking from one hard face to another. “Close the door, Mr. Vossman,” Lisette instructed, her tone was incongruously relaxed. Theron complied without a thought, Magda and the skeleton continued unpacking the trunk. “You’re a cleric,” he concluded, recalling instantly the other robed servants, they way the moved, “that is a divine holding spell, and that is not your only raised thrall,” he looked with interest as Cora fluidly stacked the contents handed her by Magda on the bed. “Quite astute, arc’sun,” Lisette answered, “We are servants of Boccob.” “The Emperical?” Vossman replied, distracted by the revelation, “Who is this?” he snapped back to reality. “A predictably misguided captain of the guard,” Lisette answered, “he reacted poorly to my servant. I will not be hauled out as a criminal for making use of available resources. You are not so small-minded as think necromancy is “evil”, are you Mr. Vossman?” her gaze revealed nothing to Theron, which was itself intimidating. “Of course not,” he replied, watching Huu-Chanh catch the captain as the bonds of the holding spell released. The hobgoblin set he man down next to the trunk. The captain was completely limp, “magic itself is largely devoid of morality, the ethics are in the using of it. Do you really think this a wise course of action, me lady? Surely the authorities will come looking for him here.” Feet on the stairs and in the passageway delayed their conversation, everyone listened as they padded to the captain’s cabin. Muffled voices followed and Theron heard Marcello muttering as he stomped past their door and up the stairs. “Can I trust in your discretion, as a fellow student of the arcane?” Lisette continued, ignoring his question. Huu-Chanh was emptying the captain’s pockets and loosening his clothes. This was obviously not the first time he’d done this. “Of course,” Theron swallowed. Marcello burst from the sterncastle behind Mar. The navigator watched him walk up to Diego and the dock steward. “Why was I not informed that the Captain of the Guard was aboard?” Marcello demanded, managing a civil tone before the steward. “It seemed a routine matter, You were indisposed, so I chose not to disturb you,” Diego answered. Mar could guess where this was headed. “Mr. Dwyer,” Marcello acknowledged the dock steward with a stiff bow before continuing with the purser, “The Captain of the Guard would merit a disturbance, Mr. Samson. Where is he?” “Inspecting the ship, Sir,” Diego replied, leaning back and placing his thumbs in his belt. “Unaccompanied?” Marcello’s eyes shot open in horror, but he quickly wrangled his shock, “Excuse me, Mr. Dwyer,” he nodded again and wheeled about toward the sterncastle hatch again. “Hoho! Quite a twist you’ve put in his rope, eh?” Dwyer smiled a Diego. “He does seem a bit frayed doesn’t he?” the purser laughed as they both watched him cross the quarterdeck. “Mr. Barrow, with me,” Marcello ordered as he passed the helm. “Aye, sir,” Mar replied, falling in behind the captain. He glared at Diego, who only touched the brim of his stupid hat in mock salute. Asshole.

Marcello bustled down the stairs, not seeing the captain of the guard on the officer’s deck. With a huff he rounded the corner down toward the orlop deck, assuming the worst. Mar caught up as he approached the main hold.
“Did you know about this?” Marcello asked.
“I saw him board, sir, thought Samson sent a runner, I was occupied,” he dismissed the accusation.
“This is ridiculous,” they both saw the main hatch hadn’t been opened, “Thank the gods. Have you any idea what that fool could have cost us had Tilki gone down there?”
“I’d say not much, it’s all in crates…” Mar sighed, following along.
Marcello hurried forward toward the bunks.
*
“Inform Purser Samson we must depart as soon as possible,” Lissette looked the arcswain in the eyes. It was obvious he either had no qualms about what had just transpired or hadn’t quite arrived at any moral dilemmas. Likely the latter, she guessed. Best to keep the weak willed working, lest doubt paralyze them.
“Y-yes,” Theron nodded, “That would be the simplest solution for the time being,” he left still thinking through the possibilities having a boccoban priest aboard would bring.

Diego noticed Theron gesturing from the sterncastle hatch. “Mr. Dwyer, excuse me just a moment,” Diego bowed as he walked over to hatch. Just inside the door, he dropped his smile, “What is it, arc’sun, I’m trying to keep him from wandering.” “There’s a captain of the guard below, unconscious, or dead, I’m not entirely sure,” Theron stated, “We should make haste from the port if we’re to avoid any further entanglements.” “What?” Diego’s jaw dropped, “Why the fuck did you do that?” “Not I, Lady Curtice,” Theron corrected. “Lady…our passenger killed Captain Tilki?” Diego’s eyes shot wide-open as he struggled to keep his voice low, “Where’s Marcello?” “I thought he’d be up here, I don’t know,” Theron replied. “Alright. Alright, we’ll get out of this yet. Stay below for now, I’ll keep the steward distracted,” Diego told him as he stepped back outside.

“Do you have any idea why he’s here?” Marcello asked, Barrow still on his heels.
“Something about beninites, it’s serious if he’s searching the ship for them.” They climbed the stairway into the bunks, seeing Rahman, Hikmat, and a couple of others in their racks.
“Why is the Captain of the Guard looking for you two?” Marcello demanded, stopping briefly by Darzi’s bunk. The beninites looked at one another and shrugged. “Typical,” he sniffed and continued up the stairs onto the weather deck. Tilki was nowhere in sight. Mar stopped at the forecastle hatch and looked back down at Hikmat with a raised eye brow as the captain marched up to Dwyer and Diego with as much grace as he could manage in his rage.
“Where is he,” Marcello demanded.
“Where is who, sir,” Diego turned away from the dock steward mid-quip with his most quizzical eyes.
“Do not jest,” Marcello would have been growling were it not for Dwyer smiling next to Diego.
“Captain Tilki? Why he left while you were down below,” Diego gestured toward the dock.
“He did?” Dwyer asked turning to look himself.
“Haha! Yes, Mr. Dwyer, you didn’t see him go?” Diego smiled, “He walked right by you, good man!”
“Hoho! Would you imagine! I must have mistaken him for one of your boys,” Dwyer smiled, glancing around the busy rigging, “You won’t speak widely of it I hope, I wouldn’t want word getting out that anything could slip by the old Dock Steward, eh?” Dwyer’s eyes twinkled, but even in the midst of all this, Diego thought there was something superficial about it.
“Ha! Most assuredly not, sir, I’ve only the highest respect for the station,” he smiled to keep the others guessing at his sincerity. Well, Dwyer at least.
“Then I suppose I must be getting on after him, you’ve much to attend to I’m sure,” Dwyer tipped his hat to the purser and the captain, “Thank you for your cooperation gentlemen.”
“Always a pleasure, Cullen,” Diego smiled. He continued to watch the steward walk down the gangplank, pointedly ignoring Marcello.
“That,” the captain began through a tight jaw, “Was purposeful.”
“I didn’t think you wanted to be disturbed with mere matters of the crew,” Diego replied coolly, still watching the steward go.
“In future,” Marcello’s voice was almost a whisper, “Find me immediately when officials board my ship.”
“I’m an officer, not your errand boy,” Diego’s grin only widened at Marcello’s impotent rage.
“What will you do,” Marcello dripped, “when not even your father can find you a job cutting fat on a whaler?”
“The Sapphire Guard, perhaps?” Diego finally turned to face Marcello, holding his grin, “You’ve neither weight nor balls enough to blacklist me,” he nodded to the rigging, “You’ve barely the weight to blacklist them.”
“You walk a sharp edge, Purser,” the captain almost snarled, “It’s only a matter of time before it cuts you,” his nose twitched before he stalked toward the hatch with painfully proper posture. After he left, Mar came up beside Diego.
“So,” he began quietly, “where’s Tilki really?” Diego blinked a couple of times and inhaled deeply, still savoring his victory.
“Excellent question, Mr. Barrow,” Diego made for the sterncastle hatch himself, “Carry on.” Before he made it, a paler-than-usual arcswain stepped-out onto the quarterdeck.
“Mr. Vossman!” Diego cocked his head, “Everything ship-shape?” He lowered his voice as he approached the hatch with Theron standing in it, “Where is our friend?”
“A trunk, Mr. Samson,” Theron replied, “Our Lady Curtice is far more than she appeared, it seems.”
“Ah ha!” Diego raised his eyebrows, more than she appeared? He continued to chuckle for the crew’s sake, but quit as soon as he was on the stairs down to the passenger births. With a glance down the passageway to ensure the captain’s cabin was shut tight, he rapped on Curtice’s door.
“Who is it?” Lisette’s voice cut through the door, he could hear some kind of shuffling beyond.
“Purser Samson, m’lady. I just spoke with Mr. Vossman,” Diego stated, waiting. After a moment, Magda’s delicious face appeared around the door. With no one else in the passageway, she opened the door more fully to admit the purser. The cabin was woefully cramped. Lisette sat painfully upright in her chair, a book closed in her lap with a thumb marking her page.
The rest of the room was taken by her hooded servant in the corner and the hobgoblin bodyguard stuffing a bloodied and limp Captain Tilki into a sturdy trunk, the carefully-folded contents of which lay neatly on the writing desk and foot of the bed. Her hobgoblin turned a wary eye on the door but returned to his task quickly, satisfied with whatever he didn’t see.
“Well, I’m glad to find you’re not easily intimidated by officers of the Court,” Diego offered half a grin.
“Why would I be intimidated?” Curtice asked.
“Well, you see, not everyone is so,” he flourished a hand at the trunk the hobgoblin was now latching shut, “willing to take matters in their hands.”
“Is there a reason you are here, Purser?” Lisette continued.
“Only ensuring that our guests were not too harshly inconvenienced,” he responded with a smile.
“I was, and am,” Lady Curtice stated, without a smile, “Do not mistake my willingness to do what is needed as excusing this situation. You still expect to depart at midday?”
Good gods above, this woman was something else, “My sincerest apologies, m’lady. I intend to set sail within two hours, you will not be further disturbed,” he bowed out of the room politely.
“Do not make guarantees where there are none, Mr. Samson,” she returned to her yellowed page. As Magda quietly closed and locked the door, Diego exhaled and shook his arms out. Was Curtice angry with him? What had Vossman meant by more than she appears? She seemed more disappointed than anything; why did that bother him so much? Diego climbed the stairs back to the quarterdeck in search of the Arcswain for answers to the questions bouncing around his head. She reminded him of Ms. Carleighal, by far the least entertaining governess of his youth.

“Mr. Vossman,” Diego approached the arcswain tying-off lines to the main mast. The sun was well above the yardarm now, and Diego was starting to sweat; the peloran scriptures called this His purifying glare. Why soaking in your clothes should be considered purifying escaped him.
“Purser Samson,” Theron turned from the mast cleats, brushing aside his flattened hair, “Is all well below?”
“Ha ha, that answer varies on perspective, I would say. Speaking of which, I very much need yours. What exactly did you mean earlier about…”
Diego was interrupted by a series of murmured expletives and I’ll-be-damned musings. The crew was looking at the dock, his first thought was that the Steward was returning with a contingent of militiamen as he snapped his head around.
“I thought he quit the voyage?” Theron’s brow knit in confusion at Albersnagle marching down the dock with his back straighter than a board.
“As did we all, arc’sun,” Diego’s heartbeat slowed considerably, “as did we all.” He left the arcswain by the mast and sauntered down to the gangplank, arriving in time to watch the former first mate bow it with his weight.
“Mr. Albersnagle, what an unexpected pleasure,” Diego offered a welcoming sweep of his arm.
“Is she here?” the bear growled, Diego caught desperation in the man’s eyes like he had never seen.
“Is who here?” Diego asked, “Are you quite alright, Thorsten?”
“The girl, fool! Is she here?” Albersnagle stomped onto the deck.
“The southlander child?” Theron asked, following Diego, “has something happened?” The first mate huffed, catching his breath.
“I took her to the priest, and then…and now…” Albersnagle swept his gaze to the rigging, searching.
“Ahhh,” Diego connected the unexpected visitors, “You brought her to the now-dearly-departed acolyte of Pelor,” the purser glanced at Theron, “I should have guessed the true slayer.”
“She’s a child, purser,” Albersnagle growled, “She’s not come back here?”
“She’s a southlander, Thorsten,” Diego replied, “Did you truly expect a peaceful transition to civilization?”
“No, she hasn’t returned so far as I’ve heard,” Theron answered the former first-mate, before he crushed Diego through the deck, “It seems the town is after a beninite for the murder, no one’s mentioned the girl.”
“A beninite?” Albersnagle’s angry eyebrows curled up in confusion, “why would a beninite kidnap the girl?”
“Kidnap? You don’t think she ran out to the island?” Diego replied, “Why would she return here?”
“Because,” Thorsten seemed to be grasping for a reason.
“Because it’s where you found her? Because it’s “home”,” Diego huffed a chuckle, “I doubt she’d let herself be kidnapped by anyone, even if someone on this island were deranged enough to attempt such a heinous act.”
“Perhaps I can be of assistance, Mr. Albersnagle,” Vossman butted-in again, “My knowledge could provide a fresh perspective. Given Nasib’s and Darzi’s heritage, it seems we’ve a vested interest in discovering the nature of the good parson’s death as much as you.”
“Arc’sun we’re to sail soon, and you want to go wading about in magisterial matters?” he leaned close to the mage, “We have plenty of rather significant problems to solve without getting involved in his hopeless charity case!”
“I’d be in yer debt, arc’sun, the acolyte’s home is near the east side of town. Diego, I know yer about as interested in barnacles as much as in the girl, but as a favor to me, if you catch sight er word of her let me know,” Thorsten met the purser’s eyes before returning down the gangplank.
“I’ll be back before the ship sails, Purser, I just need a look,” Theron promised as he followed the big sailor, straightening his jacket and waistcoat. Diego waved him along with a grimace.
“Madness,” the purser muttered, dabbing a handkerchief against his brow. Coy Boy walked by him with bucket of tar, casting a worried glance at Albersnagle and the arcswain.
“Of for,” Diego sighed, “Coy Boy!”
“Wh-, Yes, sir?” Coy stopped short and looked back at him.
“What’s bothering you, lad?” Diego asked.
“Well,” the junior sailor took a step closer, “It’s just that, ahh, I shouldn’t say as much, but a few of us were talkin’ last night…”
“C’mon, Coy Boy, you can trust me,” Diego put on a soft smile.
“The southie girl, sir. What if she hexed the ship? They’ve got black magic, Ailred fought them, long time ago, saw horrible stuff. If she’s, I heard the first ma-, er, Albersnagle’s lookin’ for her-“
“Easy, lad, easy,” Diego put a reassuring hand on the young man’s shoulder, “I can assure you she put no hex on this ship or any one of us aboard. Why do you think we’ve an arc’sun? He’s kept a wary eye on her ever since we discovered the stowaway in the hold. As for her having gone missing, it’s a worry for that too-big-hearted bear, not us. I even sent along Mr. Vossman to help him search for her, just in case.
“There’s absolutely nothing to worry about going forward, Mr. Robbins,” he patted Coy’s shoulder, “at least nothing more supernatural than the captain’s stupidity,” Diego smiled. The joke got a laugh out of the junior sailor, and he picked-up his bucket.
“Carry on, sailor!” Diego slapped the lad on the back as he turned toward the sterncastle hatch.
“Yes, sir!” Coy replied, with a little less weight in his steps.

**
Thorsten lead their march to the narrow end of a short lane, none of the lanes here were particularly long, close to the north-eastern edge of Grainger’s Rest. Theron’s hair was plastered tightly to his scalp as he labored to keep up with the former first mate.
“There it is,” Thorsten gestured to the second house from the end on the north side of the street. House was a relative term. With building materials largely shipped in from the mainland, buildings here were small compared to the rest of the kingdom. Foundation stones rose to shoulder height and the salvaged wood forming the frame and roof barely rose above Theron’s head. Albernsagle would almost certainly be forced to hunch once they were inside.
The front door must not have had a good lock, as it had been chained shut from outside. Men of charity were given to such generous estimations of honesty among their fellow man. Thorsten tried the door anyway, the chains held it fast.
“Perhaps we could…” Theron was cut-off by Albersnagle’s boot slamming into the door. The kick tore the chain free of its anchors and the door leaned open a few inches, unstable on now-bent hinges, “just act like common burglars,” Theron finished flatly. A clutch of hens chortled away from them, startled from their pecking across the lane.
“No time, arc’sun, you see any sign of the girl?” Albersnagle replied, pushing over the threshold. Theron glanced once down the empty lane, no one but chickens. He followed into the dark shack.
For an acolyte of the Sunlord, there was a surprising lack of natural illumination. Fortunately, the small home was reasonably lit just from the open door. The parson’s main room held his hearth, an abused, stuffed chair, and a small table with three stools, two pulled out. The rest of the room was a vandal’s vision. Books had been tossed about from the shelf in the corner, the tablecloth lay across the rug strewn with broken tableware. A trunk had been overturned, myriad winter trimmings and keepsakes of a young man’s life a jumble on the floor.
The bedchamber door stood open, and without entering the arcswain could see a similar state of disorder within. Thorsten was adding to the chaos already, turning over bits and pieces, looking inside the overturned trunk as if the girl were hiding inside, waiting for him to find her.
“I wonder what they were searching for?” Theron mused.
“What?” Albersnagle didn’t look up from his efforts.
“Whoever ransacked this house, they were looking for something, something small I’d wager, if I were a wagering man,” a glance revealed little of value in the acolyte’s home. That said, the best hiding place was often in plain sight. Theron spun his hands in three circles, vertical, horizontal, diagonal as he and uttered the matching incantation, then touching a thumb to each eye with his fingers on his brow as if to shield them from glare.
His vision adjusted to the glow of several auras, some his own, but more than one separate from him. The mantle held a scrimshaw statuette of a phoenix, often considered a holy creature by certain Peloran traditions. The bird glowed with enchantment, as did something in the pile by the trunk.
Sifting through blankets and sweaters, Theron found the source of the glow. A brown glass flask the size of his fist, sealed with crusty yellow wax.
“What is it? A sign?” Thorsten asked, stepping out of the bedchamber.
“Holy water, I should think,” the arcswain held the flask to the light streaming through the doorway. Whatever was inside seemed to catch and enhance light despite the dark glass, one could almost believe it was a trick of the eyes.
“Nothing, then,” Thorsten slammed a heavy fist into the door frame next to him, raining dust on both their heads, “Damn!”
“I’m sorry, Thorsten. If I had prepared different spells perhaps I could be of more use to you,” the arcswain set the flask on the mantle beside the phoenix.
“Well then we’ll have t’check door-by-door. Someone saw where she went,” Albersnagle’s jaw set and he marched out of the broken door as fast as he had marched in. Theron, eyes still aglow with magesight, was left standing in the wake of dust motes swirling in the sunlight.
The silence here could have been disquieting, but Theron was brought back to the muted libraries of Dorrick. He jammed his tongue against his cheek as he looked around the room again. Was this the sort of life he had yearned for? This parson wasn’t so different from him: younger, learned of a power most men couldn’t contemplate. Obviously bold to have moved to the furthest reach of the kingdom, and by all indications he lived utterly alone. Someone had murdered him in the street, brutally, and not a soul had seen it.
Theron discovered a boiling anger in his belly. He noticed a lone woman’s glove among the debris. What history did that one piece among so many hold? Why was there only one? Who had it belonged to? Would anyone here know? Theron could predict the answer.
This was how they repay such a sacrifice? A man leaves everything to help your pathetic village and yet he bleeds to death cold and alone upon the stony ground? Perhaps it was the fool’s own fault for trusting in divine providence. Pray all you like to an entity like the Sunlord, he’ll never hear you. Not in the way you think. Damned, idiotic fanatics! They told the parson Pelor would protect, Pelor would favor the vessels of his mercy. Pelor is not even its true name! The Sunlord is unfathomable, older than the world by most estimates; it never was and never will be in any way human.
“You put your soul in the hands of an incomprehensible planar entity, one which does not even think by our definition of the term!” Theron found himself lecturing the room, “You poor bastard, it never knew you existed! Your fate is that of a man blind to truth, blind to reason. I will not morn a fool! I won’t!”
He stood there, shoulders hunched in aggression he had not felt in years. The dust did not refute his claims. The phoenix would not satisfy him with dissent. The fire cooled in his belly, and he let the magesight fade from his eyes. With a twitch of disgust, or guilt, or some combination thereof, the arcswain carried himself out into the midday sun after Albersnagle.

He caught-up to the man near the end of the lane, pummeling the door of a squat cottage. “Mr. Albersnagle, I’m certain the authorities already questioned the neighbors thoroughly,” Theron tried calmly, having had a few moments to collect himself. “About the holyman, sure,” Albersnagle replied, “What about he girl? You’ve seen how the crew looked at her, arc’sun. You think anyone on this island will have a better opinion?” “The acolyte did, did he not?” Theron pointed out. “Aye, I thought so,” Albersnagle gave up on the silent cottage and began down the path to the next one. “Than it would stand to reason his flock may not harbor the same resentment as a clutch of superstitious sailors,” Theron argued.

“Look where you are, mage!” Thorsten’s frustration gripped his face, “Everyone is a superstitious sailor, here! It’s no safe harbor for her. It’s up to us to save her.”
“What can you expect to get from townsfolk, then? Would you not be better-off searching the island interior?”
“Somebody saw something, Theron! I know it. She’s got to be in town. There’s nothing out there for her, no trees, no caves, no food. She’s a child, and she’s scared of the night just like any would be. She may even have watched a man get gutted. She didn’t run out t’ the wilds alone.”
“Thorsten, friend, there has to be a more-“ Theron began calmly.
“Are you going to help or not?” the huge man spun around, “You don’t fucking care any more than they do! Go, then! I’ll do it my fucking self, since I’m the only man with enough spine to do the right fucking thing!” Albersnagle roared, hulking over the arcswain. To his credit, Vossman did not flinch at the outburst.
“Think what you will about us, Thorsten, but we are not villains for wanting our destinies to rest in our own hands,” the arcswain answered the real source of the sailor’s rage.
“Go!” Thorsten shouted loud enough to rattle shutters, the arcswain’s ears rang in the aftermath.
“Fate grace you, Mr. Albersnagle,” Theron stared into the raging bear’s eyes briefly before stepping around him and walking toward the docks. Though he didn’t look back, the arcswain heard Thorsten approach the next cottage and bang on the door. Perhaps he heard the former officer’s breath catch once or twice as he was left behind. Theron had to focus on his steps to avoid collapsing as his limbs and belly quivered.


“Bo’sun, raise the Blue Peter,” Diego stood with his hands clasped behind him, posture relaxed and confident.
“Aye, aye,” Carols barked, “Fly the blue peter aloft!” Manuel ran the signal flag up the forestay and secured the line.
“Blue Peter aloft!” he called out.
“Blue Peter aloft, sir!” Carols barked.
“Three bells, Mr. Carols,” Diego recited.
“Three bells, aye!” Vice barked, turning sharply and taking three measured strides to the ships bell. He gripped the clapper’s tail and expertly bounced it against the rim three times, the tones rolling across the deck and along the docks.
“Secure the ship and ready to make way,” Diego finished.
“Aye, aye, sir!” Vice barked a final time before moving off to do exactly that.
Diego smiled, surveying his crew moving deftly about their tasks. He strode along the quarterdeck to the gangplank and set one boot up on the bulwark. The arcswain was the only crewman still ashore. Diego wasn’t quite anxious yet, but he was in the realm of mild concern. A glance at the sun saw it nearing zenith. Curtice would just have to wait, he wasn’t about to leave his arcswain behind, not with all the questions yet to be answered.
She’s more than she appears…What did that mean? Her pet hobgoblin had obviously done the dirty business with Tilki; normally that would have been impressive, but Diego had heard plenty of stories about hobgoblins. Had Tilki recognized her? Was she conning them with a noble daughter act? She’d have to be the best damned actor he’d ever seen.
His stomach all but hit the deck. Was she involved with the secret cargo? Dear gods above! What if she was insurance against exactly what he was planning to do? He felt woozy. Why hadn’t he thought of that before! He pushed off the bulwark and spun around, slamming both hands down on the railing. Now he was anxious. What if he’d just played straight into their hands?
It was a damn good thing he hadn’t spilled more about the cargo. If they found out what he knew about the actual bodies in the bilge…he would likely be one of them before the end of this trip. What if they knew that he knew already? If they thought that he knew that they knew that he knew…he was getting a headache. He needed to talk to the arcswain, before they left.
He loosened his neckerchief, the image of the hobgoblin stuffing the captain of the guard into a box playing over and over in his head as he found his legs taking him to the wardroom. The hobgob wasn’t the only concern, gods above, she had an entire gang with her, a very disciplined gang, whose faces he had yet to see. This was very, very bad indeed.
He opened the purse cubby and reached to the back, finding his bottle of Dodrial Cognac. The silver snifter in his pocket was a terrible indignity, but aboard the ship he’d shattered too many crystal ones. The drink hit his throat and soothed his nerves almost immediately. Three pours later he corked the bottle and locked it safely away feeling much better.

As Diego stepped out onto the quarterdeck again, he was pleasantly surprised to see Theron moving slowly toward the dock. So agonizingly slow.
“Mr. Barrow!” he turned to the navigator, “Are we ready to sail?”
“I’m waiting on you, Brandy,” Mar replied from the helm.
“Then we’re ready,” Diego glanced around, “Lancer! Inform the captain we’re ready to get underway.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Roch finished tying-off the line he was working with and hustled down below.

“Arc’sun Vossman!” Diego smiled down from astride the gangplank as Theron reached its base, “I trust your search was fruitful and useful?” “No, in fact it was quite trying,” Vossman replied, climbing the plank, “No sign of the girl, and I was forced to leave Mr. Albersnagle very upset.” “Well, that’s a shame. He seemed quite attached to the girl, gods’ know why,” Diego stepped aside to let the arcswain aboard, “we’re about to get underway, Mr. Vossman. I would have a word in private before we embark on this next leg of our grand journey.” “Diego, can it wait?” Vossman dabbed his wet brow with a sleeve. “It relates to what you said earlier, regarding appearances, and those surpassing them,” the purser raised an eyebrow. “Ah,” Theron sighed, “Very well.” He followed Diego into the wardroom, relieved at least by the relative cool. The purser deftly pulled a bottle of brandy from the bureau as he produced a pair of glasses. He poured two fingers in each glass and closed the hatch on the way to the chart table. “Now,” Diego managed to wait until Theron had sipped from the glass, but the urgency in his voice was difficult to mask, “what did you see?” “Lady Curtice is a disciple of Boccob,” Theron swirled his drink, “Would you have expected someone of her station to be interested in such a confused religion?” “Disciple of…she’s clergy?” Diego exclaimed. “Isn’t that common among your type?” Theron replied. “Well, yes I suppose there are certain outmoded traditions dictating holy service, but hardly anyone…that’s your great revelation? Ha!” Diego stress left him completely. “Indeed, and one of some training in my estimation. She subdued our visitor with a spell before her brute pummeled him.” “So she’s a nun,” Diego smiled, “No wonder she’s so…rigid.” “There’s more, Mr. Samson,” Theron was brightening-up, whether from the drink or the rare interest of a crewman in the arcane, “That hooded entourage? I suspect every one of them is an animated skeleton.” Diego choked on his last sip of brandy. “Skeletons?” he coughed, eyes wide. “Yes, she was very subtle about it wasn’t she? I never would have suspected they weren’t living men,” Theron took another sip. “There are undead on this ship?” Diego dropped to a harsh whisper. “They’re obviously well controlled, Mr. Samson,” Theron replied, “Or you certainly would have discovered them by now.” “I should have seen this when she first arrived,” Diego spun around to pour another drink, “bodies in the cargo, tableware for an undead cult. It’s definitive then, Mr. Vossman. This “Curtice” is obviously working for the Clark brothers.” “Hmm…that’s a significant assumption, Mr. Samson,” Theron ceased musing. “The writing is on the proverbial wall! Of course they wouldn’t trust Marcello at his word. We, Mr. Vossman, are dead men drinking.” “I highly doubt a cleric of her capacity, and one of Boccob the Empirical no less, would be under the employ of shady of men such as those encountered in Dalda. Particularly if they’re involved in snapsand, the Boccobans were one of the loudest proponents of outlawing the substance. Her entourage is merely an indication that she holds a more enlightened view of necromancy than most.” “More of that? We’re not in Dorrick, if she has a half-dozen undead assassins under her thrall we are in very real trouble. Particularly now that she knows of our plans,” Diego sucked-up half of his glass and swirled it around his mouth before swallowing. “How…Ah,” Theron understood, “You told her already.” “Exactly. We may have to wait until we’re out to sea, perhaps we can play it in our favor. If we can convince the crew Marcello knew who she was, they’ll easily help us dispose of him. You can take Curtice yes?” “Excuse me?” Theron’s brow jumped. “You’re a trained arc’sun, aren’t you? Can you beat her and her minions in, what do you call them, mage duels?” Diego asked, eye’s alight. “I wouldn’t prefer to test it…and wizards do not waste time dueling. Why are you so convinced? She has been nothing but pleasant, and came in very handy this morning,” Theron argued, “I think we need to wait and see, Sir, before doing anything brash. I’m sure she does not care who is in command of this ship any more than she cares who furls the sails.” “Perhaps you’re right,” Diego said, swishing another sip, “Perhaps I could sway her given enough time, or perhaps she’ll tip her hand. Either way, we can’t afford to poke that bear now, can we?” “I wouldn’t recommend that, no,” Theron replied, he took his final sip and stood, “That settled, I have preparations of my own to see to, Purser,” he stepped past Diego, leaning over the chart table in contemplation, to return his glass to the cabinet. “Yes, yes,” Diego waved, taking a deep breath and standing up straight, “Thank you, Vossman, your insight proves invaluable once again,” the Purser swept out of the hatch with a relaxed smile.

Theron retrieved the glass Diego had left on the chart table and placed it next to his. “Only if you listen to it,” the arcswain sighed.


With the sun past its peak, Hikmat was thankful to be out of the bunks. A true autumn wind was putting Grainger’s Rest behind them at a comfortable pace. “As Scorpion said to Jackal, we are over halfway across,” Rahman said from the yardarm above him, quoting the old tales again. “I wish you had not used that story,” Hikmat replied. “I wish our own was not so similar, brother,” Rahman replied, securing a knot, “On the other hand, you are not hanging from your neck.” “Hmm,” Hikmat shuddered. It wasn’t dying that bothered him, astonishingly. What chilled him was dying for another’s crime. He would never be responsible for another man’s deeds again.

When had this resolve taken hold of his heart? He wouldn’t have imagined it a month ago.
“Agus’s left nut, you look fit to kill,” Manuel was working a few arm lengths away, “You didn’t did you?” He glanced around lowering his voice, “Word is that guard captain was lookin’ for you this morning.”
“He was mistaken,” Hikmat stared Manuel in the eye, face half-hidden behind his keffiyeh.
“Never said he wasn’t, haha,” Manuel forced a laugh, “Just that he was lookin’ for sandies,” he looked around for something else to say, caught Rahman’s eye above them and gave a nod, “You boys can get back to yer gibberish, then.”
“The most beautiful tales in history are spoken in baiha,” the falconer frowned at him, “kent is good only for cursing and whores!”
“Fuck yeah it is!” Manuel shot back with a grin as he worked his way outboard along the foot-ropes.

On the helm, Mar checked their bearing and looked back up at the horizon through the forest of rigging. He took a nip from one of the fresh bottles he’d bought in port and set it back in the little net he’d woven from junk strands, hanging from the binnacle. Nothing but open sea ahead and land was but a fading shadow off the stern. Weight left his shoulders with every breath of salty air. Two nips later his lips started moving

“Rum tum tum
fill the hold with rum,
turn from the sun,
on the wind do run,
rum tum tum
man the deck guns,
there’s a ship on the hunt,
rum tum tum
pray for your sons,
that’s the Panthera come,
the Panthera’s come for you,
A-rum-tum-tum…”

“Dear gods above and below, are you singing, man,” Diego announced his emergence from the sterncastle, “You’re already boondoggled aren’t you, good navigator? Haha! What’s that tune? I don’t recognize it.”
“You wouldn’t,” Mar’s face darkened again, “It’s for men far worthier than you.”
“Oh, come now, Mr. Barrow, it’s too early in the day for your acerbic demeanor to rear its rear,” Diego put an arm around Mar’s shoulder, sweeping the other in front them both, “We’ve an open ocean of possibilities before us. We’re going to broaden our horizons tomorrow.” When Mar refused to acknowledge him, Diego jostled his shoulder and tapped his ring on the bottle hanging from the binnacle, “Are you with me or shall I spell it out for your drowning mind?”
“Tomorrow it is. Are you done? I have a ship to steer,” Mar answered, brushing-off the purser’s hand like a particularly large spider.
“Try as you might, Mr. Barrow, even you can’t spoil a revolution!” Diego whispered, leaning close.
“You smell like a whore,” Mar twitched his nose, not taking his eyes from the horizon.
“This is DeSambonito, you slovenly bastard, made from a spring on the Algranor slopes with ambsolom’s cup blossoms, five kingers a vial!”
“Fine, you smell like an expensive whore.”
“And you a whore’s chamberpot!” Diego sniffed, “Go back to singing, Mar, it makes you nearly acceptable.”
The purser strutted away towards the weather deck, no doubt on a good will tour. I hate that man, Mar freed his bottle from the net and took a long pull.

A muffled groan escaped the trunk in Lisette’s cabin. She didn’t pause her reading, Westraus was a brilliant philosopher, but he’d lived in the era of elder kent and interpreting his genius occupied considerable attention. A second groan and light thump did not lift her eyes from the page, but did garner a response.
“Huu-Chanh,” she said, just loud enough to be heard through the thin wall separating their cabins. In moments the hobgoblin soldier was in her chamber, flail in hand. A third groan from the trunk made orders unnecessary. He closed the door and drew his dahr-gao. “Do not make a mess,” Lisette said softly, translating a section into her notes, alongside her translation.
“As you wish, Mother,” Huu-Chanh replied. He sheathed the traditional side-knife. Magda, wearing her working apron, handed him an iron from her kit.
“I made enough tea for you and Jorge,” Magda said casually, folding the dress she was mending under a linen wrap to protect it from spatter.
“Thank you, sister,” he replied, unlatching the trunk.

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Episode III

Episode III: Spiced Tea

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Puffs of purple and orange idled far out to sea, a few wooly fingers stretching toward the Daggers in an otherwise-clear sky. Far below a billion shimmering crescents shifted and jostled, reflecting the Sunlord’s waning light. Azizs flexed his wings, riding a swirl of warm ocean air higher and higher. The endless, mesmerizing shimmer both entranced and bewildered him. One object alone served as his landmark, tiny from so far up. Between the branches and great leaves, among the vines, humans lumbered about the pair of huge trees.
Azizs watched them intermittently, seeing their labored breaths, waiting for the small one who carried meat. Lhe, his keeper and partner, was five and half feet above the ground, hanging from vines. Azizs watched him as well. There would be no prey in the Shimmerwater, he knew, but still he searched. This swirl was beginning to die; he banked his wings and soared away from the sun until he felt the crest of another. He dipped to bite the current, riding skyward again.

Rahman finished tightening the luff of the inner jib, sauntering down the bowsprit with a casual confidence bordering on reckless. Dinner would be starting soon, and he had no intention of starting any serious project in the meantime; he glanced skyward and found the speck circling high above him. Reaching into a pocket, the rigger felt around until he found a small canvas-wrapped ball. Azizs drop quickly in altitude, not yet diving, but certainly preparing as the ball left Rahman’s pocket.
With flare (Reva and Thaddeus were watching expectantly) Rahman tossed the ball into the air, holding a corner of the canvas, causing it to unroll from around a hunk of preserved coney. The winds were picking-up today, and the tumbling meat was pushed farther than he’d expected; Rahman had to spin to catch it in his outstretched hand. Azizs was a rocket now, splitting the sky, his body a living arrow. Seconds later he snatched the meat from Rahman’s hand and banked sharply, coming around to alight on his partner’s upheld bracer.
The falcon began to tear at the dry meat, and the onlookers turned back to their duties. Rahman stroked Azizs behind his head. He saw Hikmat come down from the main and approach the purser gesturing subtlely from the sterncastle hatch.
“You feel it, don’t you, Azizs,” the beninite whispered. There was no doubt their path would look much different within the next few days. Rahman wasn’t sure what it would look like, but that mattered little. Preparation was little more than readying for a change, and they had been waiting for a long time.
“Pet yer cock ano’er time, skinny,” Codder bustled out of the forecastle with arms full of parcels, “make ye’self useful and grab-up the cooking gear, an’ find someone to haul over an arm of fags, unless ye plan t’gnaw on some o’ tha’ jerky ye feed that chicken-with-airs.” With a smile Rahman clicked the command for the bird to perch aloft, and Azizs took his meal to a yardarm.
*

Theron was the last to set down his fork in the tense wardroom. He glanced around at the first mate, purser, navigator, Hikmat, and the boatswain gathered around the chart table. Kevice was finishing a story.
“-an by the time I got back to ship I says to Leghner, ‘by gods, we ought to have more women fightin’ the damn southies!’” he smiled wide and dropped a fist on the table. Hikmat smiled and Diego chuckled.
“My thoughts, exactly!” the purser seconded, and noticing Theron signal he was finished, “A worthy meal, eh, Arc’sun.” Albersnagle stood against the bulkhead, a strange expression darkening his face that Theron hadn’t ever seen before. Mar was staring quietly at the sunset off the port bow, a bottle of rum at his side.
“Indeed,” Theron nodded.
“Well, now that we’re all fed,” Diego started, Albersnagle stepping over and closing the shutters to the quarterdeck, “We’ve got several decisions to make.”
“I don’t see what’s left to decide,” the first mate grumbled, “aside from whether we turn ourselves in at Grainger’s or wait until Ezrepellian.”
“Excuse me?” Diego’s jaw practically fell-off, “turn ourselves in? Which fiend has your tongue?”
“For complicity in this disaster!” the first mate countered, “he may have hidden the specifics, but every one of us knew there was something sinister to the law happening here. Our silence brands us accomplice to kidnappin’ a child and Dark Magic!”
“Wrong,” Hikmat interrupted before Deigo could collect himself, “the crew had no idea there was anything so illegal happening, we didn’t even know about,” he hushed himself, “the snapsand. I will not go to an Oslander jail for the officers of this ship.” He planted a finger on the table for emphasis.
“No one’s going to jail,” Diego held his hands up, “Sir, you’re getting ahead of yourself. We certainly cannot be held accountable for the kidnapping of this child, we had no direct knowledge of anything illegal. Secondly, there is no active dark magic being used here. Whatever these distasteful artefacts are haven’t yet been activated , correct, Arc’sun?”
“True. I have found no arcana that would have an effect without someone specifically using the artefacts against another crewman. Even the statue, which I believe makes the area around it unhallowed ground, is dormant at this point,” Theron reported, “The only magic being used here is preserving the corpses and imposing the animals’ hibernation, and, of course, formerly that of the girl,” he grimaced at the bitter taste the words left in his mouth.
“There, you see?” Diego turned to Albersnagle, “No dark magic, at least not anything forbidden by the courts of Kardam or Osil.”
“Well it wouldn’t pass a steward’s snuff,” the first mate assured, “and how can you argue, purser,” he pointed a thick-knuckled finger at Diego, “or I, and a good bet you, too, Arc’sun,” he shifted his finger, “that we were in such blindness as to the nature of our cargo, if not for willful dereliction of our duties. The fine hairs of yer wizardly definitions are well n’ good, but did ye come by yer determinations before or after we left port?”

This cast a silence on the wardroom as they considered Albersnagle’s impassioned words. It was true, from outside, there seemed a thin argument of innocence.

“The true crimes here hang on the Captain’s neck,” Diego declared, “would you deny that, Thorsten?”
“Nay, he’ll live in chains for the remainder of his workin’ days,” Albersnagle growled.
“And do you believe that weasel of a man will go quietly to his just fate?” this narrowed the big man’s eyes, Diego continued, “he will fold himself thrice to have us in those very same chains. Any rope given Marcello he will only use to hang us. If for no other reason than to see us twist with him.”
“If we deliver him to the Cudgel, he’ll do the same whether we listen to Albersnagle or not,” Mar pointed out, drawing from his bottle, “you want him to pay so dearly, lord purser, but no matter how you hang him, you hang us, too.”
“Do I?” Deigo’s expression turned oddly predatory, “stop suckling from the rum-teat and perhaps you’ll see the clear path before us.”
“You want to hang him with your own hands,” Hikmat read the familiar glint in Diego’s eyes. Murder was a mask any man could wear; he’d seen its face many times in his homeland.
“And from the shadows creep your true colors,” Mar’s acidic words dripped so bitterly the room turned as one to ensure it was still their dispassionate navigator speaking.
“Shadows?” Diego flared, “I’m not the one living in a haze,” Mar’s detachment, rightly or not, was commonly attributed to a rum habit, but the navigator didn’t riposte. Diego continued, “Does anyone see another option? A less, colorful, option?” none spoke, “We leave him to Celde and claim pirates accosted us beyond the Daggers. It’s common enough, we can even rough the ship and hide valuables to further the illusion. Justice is served, we are free of his incompetence and any legal ramification. The girl can be explained as a stowaway and delivered as you intend to the care of charitable hands.”
“And the cargo?” Hikmat interrupted their duel,”I do not think you understand the kind of people the captain has entangled us with.”
“What do you know of the Clark brothers?” Theron asked, surprised as the rigger hadn’t been present when they barged into the captain’s card game in Dalda.
“Their names do not matter, they aren’t real anyway,” Hikmat explained, “what is real is they have connections, they are shipping corpses a long way, at very great expense, and they have no qualms packing a girl in with it. This is a syndicate, and they will not check the teeth of an enemy’s camels,” he explained.
“What the hell does that mean?” Albersnagle fumed.
“They will kill whoever opposes them, or fails them in this case, with no care of who knew what or who’s really to blame,” Hikmat said more plainly, the idiom apparently lost in translation.
“It can’t be delivered,” Albersnagle declared.
“It shouldn’t be that difficult to deduce who the recipient is, even if the Captain will not tell us,” Diego argued, “In fact, it seems more likely they’ll approach us.”
“That isn’t what I mean. These things are evil,” Theron inhaled to begin a counterpoint, but Thorsten rolled over him, “spare me the academics, Arc’sun. ‘Tis an evil cargo. The whole lot has to go over to the law, perhaps they can find out who’s wanting such things, or whose murderin’ folks and shippin’ bodies. Whoe’re wants these crates is not going to get them.”
“You play with our lives, Sir,” Hikmat argued.
“I have always been ready to lay down my life for what’s right,” he practically bellowed.
“Well I hardly think that will be necessary,” Diego contested, ”I’m certain the militia commander in Ezrepellian is more than capable of discretion.”
“You misunderstand,” Hikmat stood, leaning over the chart table and looking each of the men in the eyes,”Your world had rules, codes. These are not men of that world. They will kill us, but they will not stop there. You have children, you have brothers and mothers. They will find them, and they will kill them. Perhaps they will wait to do it in front of you, perhaps they will do it after you are dead, to show everyone else what happens. Syndicates have eyes and ears in many places, and very long claws.”
“Mr. Darzi,” Diego turned a disarming smile on the agitated beninite, “I appreciate your worry, but you’re exaggerating this to extremes. How do you know this isn’t a shady deal among nobles? Such things are not uncommon, to preserve reputations among the more eccentric families. The bodies I admit are disturbing, but these are not barbarous desert warlords.”
“They seemed very intent on keeping this secret,” Theron continued, “it would seem such rash violence would draw significant attention to them, would it not?”
“Leave it on the beach,” Kevice finally entered the discussion, “Tell the cudgel-thumpers where it is after a few days, an’ if something goes awry as Darzi thinks we just tell these Clark boys, too.” Several eyes went to Albersnagle, who’d been deflated by Hikmat’s words. If there was anything he would bend for it was his children’s well being and they all knew it.
“It will have to do,” the former first mate surrendered.
“And the Captain?” Diego pressed him, “He’ll turn on us in a heartbeat.” The conflicting emotions raging behind the old sailor’s huge eyebrows played out like a distant thunderstorm.
“I will be in my cabin, with it’s door locked,” he sighed. Standing-up to leave, he added, “my ears ain’t what they used to be.” Albersnagle, shoulders sagged. This was the most defeated anyone in the room had ever seen him. He walked from the wardroom and turned down the passageway to his cabin. Everyone remained silent until they heard his cabin hatch close. Mar took a sip from the bottle still at his side.
“We should wait until after Grainger’s,” he said, “They’ll expect to see the captain when we land.”
“Can’t we bypass it? Take a more direct route?” Theron asked.
“Not enough water,” Mar replied, “and the boys’ll be angry. Angrier,” he corrected.
“After Grainger’s it is,” Diego stood triumphantly, donning his hat, “Good evening, gentlemen.”
“Do not underestimate these men,” Hikmat warned, Theron rising next to him to leave.
“Have faith, my friend,” Diego said, “our future is brighter than it was yesterday,” and with that Diego and Theron strode from the room as well.
The final three sat in silence for a few moments, contemplating all that had been discussed. Finally, Kevice cleared his throat.
“C’mon, Darzi. We’ve still got work to due afore we turn in,” the boatswain slapped his thigh and rose, heading for the hatch.
“Aye, bos’un,” Hikmat pulled himself from his thoughts and followed the older man, leaving Markus staring at the chart table, a bottle of rum his silent sentry in the gathering dark.

The face of Pelor had fallen below the sea nearly an hour ago, his fading light still colored the western horizon. Stars were all that lit the deck now, though, and Hikmat placed his steps carefully, even his quick feet finding it difficult to match pace with the boatswain over a century his senior. “Offer still stands, Darzi,” Vice said quietly as they descended three steps to the weather deck. “Bos’un?” Hikmat raised a dark eyebrow. “The dinghy,” Vice said, years of liquor scratching his low voice, “a fresh boat, that is.” “In Grainger’s Rest?” Hikmat asked. “Maybe, maybe not,” Vice nodded his head side to side, “but off the wind at least,” the boatswain stopped mid-step, so quickly the rigger nearly ran into him, “This ain’t smugglin’ or dodgin’ the watch for nickin’ jewels.” “The magistrate’s noose is least among my concerns,” Hikmat replied. “All the more reason t’get the fuck out sooner n’ later,” Vice turned to face him in the twilight, the stars highlighting his ultramarine eyes, “I’d have thought ye of’all people’d want to get away from this bad magic.”

“Trust me, Vice,” Hikmat sighed, “Rahman and I would be first in your boat if it would make any difference. I was seen in Dalda, in fact I would say I left some lasting memories,” he grinned at the image of the gang leader screaming down the alley clutching his hand. The grin was fleeting, “They may not know my face or my name, but there are not many of my people this far south.”s
“I ain’t lived nearly six score years cause I’m a fool, Darzi,” Vice answered, “some storms you weather, some you haul about and sail like hell away.”
“You cannot escape a syndicate by running,” he answered, “And to fight them as Albersnagle thinks he can, this only damns all you hold dear. Sometimes they forget about you, but more often you must drink tea with lions.”
“How the hell do you know so much about this shit?”
“Sometimes they forget,” Darzi looked the boatswain in the eye, “You have lived long enough to know a man lives many lives before he dies.” The boatswain thought on that for a few moments as neither man spoke. “Even if we choose to run, the trail must be covered well. Do you trust those officers to do that on their own?”
“Well, if ye put it such,” Vice answered after a pause, “it seems I’ve no choice but to learn how the rest of this song goes.”


Diego’s gloved hand rapped crisply three times against the passenger cabin door at the bottom of the stairs. He unnecessarily adjusted his hat and tugged his jacket straight.
“Who is it?” the Lady demanded through the door.
“Purser Samson, m’lady, good morning,” Diego answered pleasantly. A moment later, the door cracked open to reveal the stunning body servant. The purser gave her his best grin, head slightly askance on his good side, profiling the jaw while keeping her squarely in eye contact.
“Good morning, Purser Samson,” she replied.
“Oh it certainly is now,” Diego smiled.
“What is it you need, Purser. Is there a problem?” Lissette demanded from out of view.
“Merely a word with the Lady pertaining to itineraries,” he lied, “May I enter?”
“You most certainly may not,” she answered. Diego made an exaggerated expression of shock and raised both eyebrows at that servant girl, Maggie? Matilda? The normally fool-proof commiseration angle somehow failed him as the girl returned his mocking with a stern, slightly offended gaze. Lissette continued, “If you insist upon a meeting, it will have to be arranged for another time.”
“Of course,” Diego immediately retreated to a gentlemanly disposition, but still addressed the girl. Magda! “Perhaps the Lady would be available for lunch in the wardroom?”
“Very well,” Lissette answered, “noon.”
“Splendid, m’lady,” Diego answered, adding a bit of smolder to his gaze as he was still speaking to Magda, “I very much look forward to it.”
“Good day,” Lissette finished the exchange. Diego touched his hat and bowed slightly as Magda closed the door. Then he twitched an eyebrow and spun smiling on his heel. Diego in the bag-o. One-liners he’d invented at age twelve sprang-up at the strangest times.

It was past breakfast before Rahman realized his falcon was no where to be seen. He climbed a bit higher on the foremast, careful to mark his place inspecting the rigging for frays or binding. He clicked for her to come to him, but he was either irritated with him or out of hearing range. The beninite took a deep breath and exhaled, forcing his surroundings from his mind, focusing on Azizs.
He felt a thrill quicken his heart, and a sense of intense focus fell about him. Azizs was hunting. Rahman inhaled sharply, returning to himself and smiling. That meant they were near Grainger’s Rest. He desperately needed to get off this boat, if only for a day. Tension among the crew was as thick as camel piss. Some said the southlander girl was sick, and the crew was checking themselves religiously for signs of infection. He’d watched Jean-Marco agonizing over a bug bite he was certain meant he was to die on the new moon.
The officers had been hiding the nature of their cargo, and Rahman had not spoken of it. Neither had Hikmat, so far as he knew, but it was only a matter of time before they would have to tell the others. Lamothe had to know something big had happened in the hold two nights ago, but no one had approached either of the beninites with questions, yet. Perhaps they were afraid of what the answers might be. Perhaps the purser’s constant efforts to deflect the crew’s dissatisfaction against the captain were actually working.
Marcello’s loyal crewmen were certainly dwindling, but even whispers of outright mutiny hadn’t yet been arisen. The juniors were least vocal, having no experience beyond the Esmer Wind. They mostly followed the tune set by the more outspoken mid-career seamen, particularly Duran, Hemery, and Hayes. Raleigh, Cynric, and the other old salts were inevitably displeased with the way things were run, regardless of context, so their objections to current issues differed little from their objections over most things.
Rahman shook his head. It was best not to get too involved in such things, he had neither the heart nor the head for them.
“Gods have anything to say today?” Vice barked up as he passed the mast.
“A scoundrel owes them three priests,” he answered wryly, “They wanted me to remind you, for some reason.”
“Never wager with an astral, lads,” Kevice shouted to those around him, “They play a long con!” The exchange drew some chuckles across the deck.

Nearly two hours later, Flynn shouted excitedly from the foretop, “Ho! Land Ho!” He held his arm in a line out towards the horizon. From the weather deck, the faintest hint of a shadowy line could be seen between waves. It was short, but nonetheless cause for celebration. A cheer rose.
“Aye, watch! Land off the starboard bow!” he answered, “Mercer! Inform the Cap’n.”
“Aye, Aye!” the eighteen year old hustled to the sterncastle hatch and pounded down the ladderway, nearly bowling over Diego as he emerged from his cabin, “Pardon, Sir.”
“Excused,” Diego smiled, straightening his jacket. He heard the young man knocking on the captain’s cabin door, along with the words ‘land sighted.’ The purser smiled wider. He felt the ship sway as Mar corrected their course. Carols was barking orders for the riggers, adjusting sails to their new tack. Spirits had just taken a much needed boost, his included.
“Well done, Mr. Barrow,” he said quietly, honestly, “Well done.” He came to a halt standing next to the navigator at the helm. Mar felt no need to answer, and to Diego’s consternation, seemed almost sullen. The purser fought his urge to comment further, instead cheering with the crew and searching for something visible and practical to do that wouldn’t strain him. Truthfully, he’d have prefered to man the helm at the moment, but there was no prying Mar’s barnacle hold on it.

A cloudless sky meant heat, and, though waning, summer still had plenty to bear at midday. The riggers sweated and sought shade wherever possible, aside from the swelter of the bunks. Diego and Mar tried in vain to cool themselves by removing their jackets. None complained, as the vague, blue-gray line on the horizon had grown to an irregular gray mass; they were still too far to make out the town.

The purser sat in the cooler wardroom, breeze through the larger windows helping considerably. The tiny stove in the corner issued a muted pop, the equally compact tea kettle rumbling atop the range just large enough to accommodate it. The purser had lain the ship’s modest tea service out on the chart table, wishing he had something finer than plain white ceramic. Three knocks on the doorframe drew his attention. The lanky fellow, Curtice’s runner, turned into view. “Afternoon, Purser, Sir,” Jorge bowed, “M’lady requests tea be taken in her quarters.” Diego quelled the urge to twitch his mouth in annoyance, straightened his posture and nodded his head, “Of course. I’ll join her presently.” He began collecting the service on a silver tray. “Sir,” Jorge added, “Magda’s set the service, no need to trouble yerself.” He bowed out of the room and descended the stairs to the passenger berths. Oh the games one must play. Really he enjoyed the opportunity for social jousting; there wasn’t anyone aboard to spar with, except Barrow and the man was so dreadfully unrefined it was akin to a fencer wrestling a boar. Diego set the tea kettle aside and pulled the damper closed.

Below, he knocked crisply.
“Good afternoon, Purser. Come in,” Lissette’s voice called as Magda opened the door.
The passenger births were comfortable by ship standards, but still quite cramped. Lissette stood beside the bed in a rich, blue dress trimmed in silver, an elegantly simple choker, also of silver, and her hair pinned-up expertly. A beautifully enameled tea service sat on the desk beside her. Magda retreated to the desk, in order to allow Diego to approach without uncomfortably squeezing by her. The lovely woman smoothly poured two cups of tea. There was no sugar to be found, which Diego correctly marked as the sign of a conservative noble house.
“I thank you for hosting, m’lady,” Diego removed his hat, setting it on the hook behind the door as he closed it.
“It seems jovial above, I take it we are nearing our destination?” Lissette accepted her cup and saucer from Magda.
“A keen observation,” flattery rarely hurt, “Grainger’s Rest has been sighted. We should be docked within the day.”
“Excellent,” Lissette sipped. Magda offered the other cup to the purser.
“Thank you,” he held her eyes just a moment longer than was proper, and tasted the tea. It was superb, with a hint of apples, “This is quite good!”
“Mmm,” Lissette dismissed the compliment with a wave, ignoring the line of the purser’s gaze, “the best that can be managed under the circumstances. Now, Purser Samson, you were quite eager to discuss our itinerary this morning, more so than our imminent arrival at an intermediate port.”
“Yes,” Diego took a sip, “The issue begins after our departure from Grainger’s Rest on the morrow. We will be making way for Ezrepellian, but unforseen developments aboard the ship may delay our arrival.
“Unforseen developments?” Lissette raised a perfect eyebrow in annoyance, “Don’t be coy, Mr. Samson.”
“Very well. Some of us aboard have discovered our captain’s business dealings have been less than forthright, and he has since brought aboard some rather unsavory cargo.” Diego continued, sipping the delicious tea, “It’s more than possible that a,” he paused, “commotion may ensue sometime between Grainger’s Rest and Ezrepellian in which management of the Esmer Wind will change.”
“I see,” Lissette’s curiosity was now engaged, but she didn’t comment further.
“Obviously, the details of such an incident wouldn’t be conducive to our further operations if the wrong sorts learned of them,” Diego sipped, correctly assuming the noblewoman would piece together what he was asking.
“You need me to lie for you,” she replied starkly, “You will of course have an offer to compensate the considerable risk assumed in abetting your ruse?”
“Of course,” Diego barely concealed his shock at her boldness, “I’m prepared to waive the remaining steerage for your company.”
“The entire steerage fee,” Lissette countered, meeting the purser’s eyes with a cool gaze. It struck Diego that Ms. Curtice was no stranger to such negotiations.
“Well, I,” Diego began to protest.
“My silence is critical to your freedom, yes?”
“Yes, M’lady,” Diego finished his tea. Magda accepted the dish and cup as he fished into a pocket. His hand emerged holding the gemstone Lissette had paid with. Lissette held her hand out. Diego didn’t let his eyes leave the gemstone as he set it gently in her palm, and they followed it into her handbag. Once the bag snapped shut, he shook his head slightly.
“Well?” Lissette asked, “What will have happened between Grainger’s Rest and Ezrepelllian, then?”
“Pirates,” Deigo answered simply.
“And this cargo you mentioned? Is it dangerous?” Lissette was not ignorant of the stories surrounding snapsand. She didn’t relish the idea of a continued journey atop a bomb.
“Our arc’sun assures us none of it is active, but even so I find it quite unsettling. There should be no danger to you and your company so long as the cargo hold is avoided.”
“Good,” Lissette nodded, finishing her own tea, “Then I believe we have an agreement. To be crystal clear, I will not intervene on your behalf in this ‘commotion’, and if your efforts fail I shall deny this meeting entirely.”
By gods she minces no words, ”Acceptable terms, M’lady,” Diego smiled graciously, “Thank you.”
“I trust any delay will be minimal?” she asked.
“Of course,” Diego assured, taking the one step backward needed to reach his hat, “We’ll have you in Ezrepellian before you know it.”
“Good day, Mr. Samson,” Lissette nodded. Magda approached as Diego opened the door.
“And to you, Lady Curtice,” he bowed slightly, just enough to show respect but not enough to infer she was superior. Magda smiled politely and closed the door.
That could have gone better. Diego’s shock at Curtice’s ease with such a conversation was overshadowed for the moment by the loss of the gemstone’s comforting weight in his pocket.

“M’lady,” Magda asked, packing the tea service away, “I cannot help but be concerned for your safety. Should I prepare your things to be loaded onto another ship in port?”
“Hu Chan and the family will see us through whatever violence transpires,” Lissette assured her, taking a seat on the bed, “We have been in more dire circumstances than the periphery of small mutiny.”
“Of course,” Magda answered, though she sounded unconvinced. Lissette heard the concern.
“This ‘unsavory’ cargo will have to be inspected further, but at a more suitable time. We must not waste resources or opportunities, Magda. The Overlord has presented us with both.”
“Yes, M’lady,” the younger woman replied politely. Her voice hadn’t eased much, but it would be improper to press the issue. Mistress knew best, after all, and was blessed by the Master, “Would you like the Westraus or Vescario?”
“Vescario,” Lissette answered. Magda retrieved an old book, bound in cracking leather, from the trunk. Lissette accepted it as she shifted to the chair, upon which Magda had already placed a cushion.


“Prepare to Heave To!” Boatswain Carols shouted, “Jibs to the wind! Reef the fo’sls and the main to leeward!” the riggers went quickly to their positions, the juniors mixed in among them here and there, but mostly on the weatherdeck ready to haul the rigging into position. Once all the teams were ready, the boatswain stood by amidships for Mar’s signal at the helm.
A pair of ships rolled gently far ahead of them, securely moored to the first dock of Grainger’s Rest. The second was empty, and Mar was making for the windward side of it. The rocky, sparse island stretched beyond the docks, squat stone-and-timber buildings of the town strewn in-between.
The ship continued to approach the docks, when they were a few thousand yards out, Mar gave the signal.
“Heave to and man the yards!” the boatswain yelled. The crew sprang into action, hauling lines in with practiced coordination. The incredibly complex task of maneuvering over twenty sails into a drive-neutral position took just over three minutes. The Esmer Wind coasted forward on her momentum about five hundred yards before coming to rest at a near stop between the docks of Grainger’s Rest, still about a thousand yards out. Those crew not needed to manipulate the yards to land the ship climbed the foremast and spread out along the top and main yards, standing tall in neat lines. Rare was such a strong feeling of camaraderie as standing together on the footropes as the ship approached safe harbor.
Over the course of the next forty minutes, Mar’s orders maneuvered the ship around and into position next to the dock, bow facing out to sea. The crew descended from the yards as they ship drew close. The navigator ordered the anchor dropped and let the ground-tackle teams exchange messenger lines with dockhands in a small rowboat. The messenger lines were heaved upon by the ground-tackle teams, drawing the ship closer to the dock as the capstan brakeman let the anchor cable feed out. A yard or so from the dock, Jean-Marco, the ground-tackle lead, shouted “Brake!” and Lamothe locked-down the capstan. The messenger lines were tied to the hawsers, and the dockhands pulled the heavy lines down and secured them to the dock cleats. The ground tackle crew secured the hawsers on deck, careful to leave enough slack for the ship to roll with the waves and tide.
Captain Marcello emerged just as the ground-tackle team secured the last line.
“Secure the ship for port!” the boatswain ordered, and the crew busied themselves furling sails and opening hatches to air out the ship.
“Very good, bos’un, Mr. Barrow,” Marcello said flatly, waiting for Jean-Marco and Ian to finish dropping the gangplank. The slightly-overweight dock steward was making his way down the dock as he spoke, clad in a garish green-yellow coat. Marcello’s lip raised visibly. He sighed as his boots descended to the dock.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Dwyer ,” the captain smiled, arms wide in greeting, extending a hand.
“And to you, Captain. A fine landing,” Dwyer shook the offered hand, “How long do you plan to be with us?”
“Just the night…” Marcello and the steward’s conversation trailed off amid the cacophony of seagulls and shouts.

“Off in a hurry as always,” Diego spoke, brushing his hands dry from aiding the teams laying out lines.
“Boys’ll be wantin’ their advances,” Carols answered, “This be the time to tell them the truth before we sail again, give those who want to the chance to leave.”
“And if too many choose that path, bo’sun?” Deigo answered, “We can’t be rid of the cargo without going through to Ezrepellian, do you wish to add a shorthand crew to our troubles? Those that remain will the the more loyal to him, the more problematic.”
“Well why don’t we then?” Carols hissed back, “The whole lot of us leavin’ as one and he’ll be stuck here, too. There’ll still be ships back north we can take, beggin’ or workin’ our way. Even riding out winter here wouldn’t be so bad.”
“It would be tough to find work next season,” Mar remarked.
“Mayhaps for a few of them, but most of us would have no trouble,” Vice replied.
“And Thorsten’s demands? We’ve got to proceed as planned, Vice, or the brothers, and more importantly those they work for, are going to come after us directly, just as Darzi said,” Diego reminded, “It’s the only way.”
Whether that was true or not, Diego needed to keep the boatswain aboard. His leaving along with Albersnagle’s would be too hard a blow to the crew, and might make the difference in the venture to come.
“I’m due my advance,” the boatswain said after a pause, his tone bitter in surrender. His too-blue eyes blazed with frustration he couldn’t release, not here, not without throwing the crew into turmoil and possibly costing them all their lives. Fortunately, Diego left to retrieve the purse from the wardroom, leaving Barrow and Carols in relative solitude on the quarterdeck.
“It’s not the only way,” Barrow said, drawing Kevice’s gaze, “his way, that is.”
“Aye, I know it,” Vice replied, rubbing his nose and cracking his aging neck, “Gods know in my younger years I’d have taken that damn dinghy days ago, if I’d even had the stupidity to stay aboard in Dalda.”
“What made you stay?” Barrow asked, genuinely curious. He had no personal stake in this company, nor most of the men. The boatswain’s reputation was legendary up and down the sapphire coast, and he even had a name in Ezrepellian. Grandpa Vice Carols was perhaps the only man among the crew that could walk away from a contract in the morning and sign on to another crew by dinner.
“Times are changing, son,” Kevice answered, “Ever since I was a boy, there’s been no worrying about a fight you didn’t go lookin’ for, except pirates. A sailor was a free man, by most accounts. You chose your ship, sometimes by the month. We didn’t have all these damn season-long contracts.” The boatswain looked at Barrow with an almost visible ache.
“South Landing was a colony of the crown. A bit wild, yes, but still governed by the laws of the Seven,” the boatswain half-smiled, “I don’t know what I think about what it is now. I don’t know what I think of these troubles between Kardam and the Queen. You know they say the elves aren’t even fighting on the southern front anymore? Centuries they did, maybe longer than that.”
“Does it matter?” Mar asked, “Who’s got trouble with who? Does it matter what South Landing is? The world’s always going to need us, Kevice.”
“And if there’s war? You’re as damn fine a seaman as I’ve sailed with, Barrow, and I’m not the only one to see talent. What happens when the blue-marys decide to start exercising those demon-pipes?” he replied, referring to the call-to-arms played by the royal navy.
“Then they’ll need merchant ships all the more,” Barrow answered.
“They’ll need sailors for warships. For haulin’ their sand, for sculling soldiers up and down the coast. For spreading death.”
“You’re over a hundred and twenty years old, Vice, they’re not going to press you into the navy,” Mar tightened an oilskin cover around the binnacle, not seeing Kevice’s exasperated expression. The boatswain shrugged it away.
“Just remember, boy, every man has got to have his limit,” Vice walked away toward the forecastle, leaving a puzzled navigator leaning against the helm. Crazy old bastard’s getting a touch senile.
The rest of the crew started to assemble near the brow, half-filled sea-bags in hand with horrific-smelling clothes in dire need of a lye boil. Most of the men could benefit from the same, but time would tell if rum would win over bathwater.

Diego emerged with the folding table and purse. He’d spent his afternoon reflecting on the tea conversation with Lady Curtice as he wrapped the wage parcels for the crew. The amount of remaining coin was disturbing, certainly not enough to cover final wages in Ezrepellian. Marcello had to be counting on payment upon arrival. That wasn’t good. Raleigh and Cynric were first in line. He handed them their parcels and ticked-off their names on his ledger. It meant the recipient of the black crates was more than likely going to be watching closely for their arrival, which in turn meant they knew the ship, if only by name. Any businessman worth his salt would likely keep a wary eye on the crew, even after such an easily-swallowed story of piracy. He continued to tick-off names as they received their parcels. Thaddeus Boldman, Ian Chandler, Reva McMillan. Perhaps if they disabled the ship out of the harbor, forcing the authorities to meet them off-shore? Rahman Nasib, Hikmat Darzi, Jean-Marco Hemery. No, no the risk of being spotted by an actual pirate while playing the victim of a pirate attack was too credible a threat outside South Landing, especially this time of year. Lacy Duran, Roch Lancer, Tristran Cochran, Zanf Tamikos. They’d have to find a place to unload the crates before they got too close to South Landing, but then straying beyond the shipping routes held risks. Locals knew the reefs of course, but did Barrow? Savages were another concern. Ailred Tillman, Luc Lamothe, Carmello Hayes. “Thorsten Albersnagle,” Diego was drawn from his distractions as the towering man approached the brow, his bag over one shoulder. At his side, the southlander girl stared-up at Diego. She still looked sickly, despite the bright blue of her eyes. She scanned the deck and dock constantly, twitching at sudden shouts or movement. Diego pushed Albersnagle’s parcel across the table. “My thanks, Purser.” There were a lot of things Diego could have said at that moment. A dozen insults came to mind, another dozen arguments against his chosen course of folly. In fact it was entirely out of his character to settle with, “Take care, Thorsten.” But that is what he said.

There were apparently a lot of things going through the former first mate’s mind as well, given his busy eyebrows, but the aging sailor said nothing. With a nod he pocketed the coin and took his last heavy steps across the quarterdeck and down the gangplank. It was no surprise to the purser that he never looked back.
Diego watched until Thorsten disappeared behind a warehouse. He looked back to his ledger and realized the remaining crew aboard had been standing quietly, having also watched Albersnagle go.
“He was built well and solid,” Diego said, “but he wasn’t built for this kind of life.” After a brief pause, he inhaled deeply and removed the next pay parcel from the chest.
“Manuel Gaignard,” the purser spurred the line of men back into the task at hand.

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Episode II

Episode II: Saltmeat Simmer

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Markus sat with the helm at his back, legs crossed beneath him next to a dry swab pail. He mumbled a half-remembered old shanty, mostly grunting and humming the tune as he worked apart strands of a half-rotten length of rope. Every foot or so he would pause to cut-off the hemp strings into the pail, nearly a third full already. Later he’d soak them in hot pitch to make oakum for jamming between leaky hull boards.

He looked-up when the sterncastle hatch smacked open. Near the end of dinner the captain had returned to the ship and gone directly to his cabin without a word to his officers, aside from First Mate Albersnagle with whom he verified the ship was fit to sail. It had been a couple of hours, and Mar was surprised to see him re-emerge before dawn. Even more surprising was Marcello carrying a crate.

“Cap’n on deck!” Albersnagle shouted, an annoying holdover from his naval career. Mar set aside the rope and pail, but kept his knife handy. Heads turned from about the deck, swabs stopped, and chatter died to a murmur. The captain lugged the crate to the center of the quarterdeck and set it down with obvious effort.

“Sailors! Officers, shipmates,” he addressed them, spreading his arms, “I know this has been a difficult year for us. You’ve all worked hard and suffered greatly, and for this I am grateful. You have followed me through poor weather and fair.”

This is new, Mar thought, waiting for the other dusty shoe to fall.

“As a token of my gratitude, I present you with this crate and her contents for your refreshment. Take all you like! Enjoy yourselves, and use this evening to bless our last voyage around the Dagger Coast before we return home,” he finished by removing his hat and bowing. While bent, he replaced the hat, reached into the crate, and rose with two bottles of fine rum in each hand and a broad, friendly smile.
The crew hesitated, waiting for the same thing Mar was. Once it became clear Marcello had finished talking, the deck erupted in cheers. Mar leapt to his feet and was retrieving a bottle from the crate by the time the first of the crew reached the quarterdeck steps.
“Sir,” Mar nodded to the captain before retreating from the growing fray. The crew had a friendly scrap for ownership of the bottles, save Thaddeus and the other injured. The first mate was also distant, having emerged from the sterncastle after the captain to scowl his disapproval. Mar understood Albersnagle’s concerns; a staggering drunk crew tonight would be inattentive, and therefore dangerous, in the morning when they got underway.
Rum was rum, however, and this was quality rum at that. Mar pried the stopper free and took a sip, savoring the flavor. Let the first mate worry, he was far better at it than five Mar Barrows. Given the day’s events, it looked like everyone was better at worrying than him. There are worse faults, he took another sip from the bottle. It really was good rum. Maybe they’ll relax for a couple of hours and forget about this mutiny business. He still couldn’t believe the purser had brought it up. Let them both leave, there were already too many money-swaddled noblemen running around the Kallen ocean playing at seamaster. Mar had only ever seen one Master of the Sea; and men like these didn’t compare.
“Rahman!” he heard Hikmat shout from the foredeck, a string of impossible-to-follow baiha followed. It was such a strange language, but it did have a nice sound to it, always moving. The rum was already fuzzing the navigator’s thoughts as he took a fourth pull. Didn’t women speak a different language than men in Benin?
Or was it the same with different, “Rahman!”
The beninite turned, confused, toward the helm, “Yes, sir?”
“What do your women speak?” Mar asked, his expression quite serious.
“Al’tyra’sem’yu’laq’mahdi!” he answered with a smile, then translated, “Truth that is false and lies that are true!” the rigger laughed, continuing back to the foredeck with his newly won, mostly full bottle. Mar smiled, entertained by that answer enough to forget the question. He watched the crew split into smaller clots of men and women, divided by age mostly, but also by style.
Raleigh commanded the Elders. He was the oldest crewman (besides Grandpa Vice, of course) and his practical trapper up-bringing made him a favored problem solver. Ailred, Cynric, and Bennett were only a few years younger, and all three had a propensity to make the younger sailors, even the experienced ones like Carmello and Reva, feel like guppies in a huge pond. They often leaned themselves comfortably at the edge of the action, near enough to grumble corrections but far enough away to avoid showing how much their aged affected them.
The other end of the scale were the gawpers: Thaddeus, Roman, Manfred, and Nicholas Flynn. The four weren’t anything alike, but their mutual status as first-year juniors forced them together in most situations. They had the worst bunks, the worst jobs, and least pay.
Beyond that, Mar didn’t pay close enough attention to the various sub-divisions and dramas of the crew. He was neither particularly invested in personal relationships, nor interested in staying on with this crew much longer. He wasn’t a mutineer, but he certainly knew a sinking ship when he was steering it. A sixth pull from his bottle went down the hatch, that should about do it. It was going to be a long couple of weeks, no sense in taking all of his medicine at once.

Across the deck, Rahman flopped down on a loosely bundled staysail next to Hikmat, taking a deep draw, “aaaahhh, the stars will be dull, but our spirits bright, tonight!”
“Why so many poems?” Hikmat swiped the bottle with a wince, “Next you will grow white feathers and hoot.”
“Gah! If either of us is White Owl, it’s you!” Rahman shot back as Hikmat took his turn.
“Quit that shit!” Lacy snatched the bottle from Hikmat, not wincing nearly as much, “it’s fucking rude.” Many crewmen were bothered when the two beninites spoke their native tongue.
“Hah! Says she who cannot speak three words without one curse,” Rahman pointed a finger at her.
“Least you can fuckin’ understand a curse when I say it,” Lacy took another pull before passing it on to Lowell.
“I don’t think he should be drinking,” Rahman pursed his lips as Lowell pulled deeply from the bottle, “he is still very hurt.”
“Hogshit,” Boastwain Carols barked as he strode toward the forecastle hatch with a bottle in each hand, “As a lay’s the best medicine fer the sailor’s mind, liquor n’ sea air are the best fer his body n’ soul.”
“Here, ‘ere!” Lamothe raised his bottle a few yards away.

A cunning ploy, Marcello, Diego sipped from a wardroom tumbler. Domonique was not so foolish as he thought. If he wanted to quash a rebellion, at least in the immediate future, getting the crew drunk on good rum was an effective strategy. It wouldn’t last, but it made it more dangerous for Diego to make a move now. There was also the gap in the hold to consider. By the way things appeared, most of the crew would be dead drunk before midnight. If he were bringing cargo aboard he didn’t want the lads knowing about, the purser may have done the same thing. He took another sip, the rum was tolerable, but it certainly wasn’t top shelf. He’d need to be alert when this secret shipment arrived anyway.
He was growing more certain of said delivery with every passing minute. He exchanged a glance our two with Albersnagle. Could he be trusted? Sharing their knowledge with Vice had been an easy decision, but the First Mate might be too loyal for his own good. The brute had to know something was afoot, that judgemental gaze was disapproving much more than a drunken crew.

After a few more hours, darkness had fully settled over the Esmer Wind, and the crew was largely unconscious, draped about one another and the deck gear. Only a few heads perked when the sound of slow hoof clops and creaking wood drifted from the quay. Diego picked his jacket from the door peg and softly closed his cabin door. He stood at the end of the passageway, letting the unlit corridor shroud him, watching the captain hustle softly up the ladderway and onto the quarterdeck.
Diego followed, keeping his steps soft for reasons he was unaware of himself. Outside, he saw the captain’s head disappearing over the gunwale as he descended the gangplank. The purser glanced about to see who else was up. Kevice and Barrows were leaned against the starboard gunwale, both watching where the captain had gone. Vice nodded at Diego. The arcswain was reclined beside the main hatch, propped on his elbows now, watching Diego.
The purser strode to the brow, head high, presenting himself as nobly as possible now that the eyes of his fellows were upon him. He struck a casual lean against the gunwale, watching the captain exchange briefly with the apparent leader of a work gang. The gang was probably ten men, now descending from the tailgates of a pair of fully-loaded wagons on the quay. The parcels weren’t terribly large, perhaps five feet by three, wrapped in canvas secured with ropes.
The stevedore, as he assumed the cloaked man to be, finished his short conversation with the captain, and the longshoremen began unloading the wagons. Within a few minutes they were carrying the packages up the gangplank. Given their heft, there couldn’t be any more than four tons on the wagons, probably far less. What in the nine hells?
The captain strode up the gangplank between longshoreman after shaking the stevedore’s hand. To Diego’s chagrin, Domonique simply gave him a stoney passing glance as he crossed the brow and continued through the sterncastle hatch to his cabin. Diego maintained his pose, resisting the urge to berate the imbecile on the spot. A degree of propriety had to maintained in the public eye. The time will come soon enough.

The first longshoreman lowered himself down the rope ladder into the main hold, and the arcswain watched the subtle glow of lamplight color the timbers of the hatch and faces of the longshoremen. These men certainly didn’t look like common criminals, they made no effort to conceal their identities. In fact, he recognized one or two from earlier that day.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Theron said, rising to his feet.
“A beauty at tha’, sir,” the nearest man replied, adjusting his load while he waited his turn. The gang leader was stringing the block and tackle while another assessed the hold. The boatswain and navigator were now stepping from the quarterdeck.
“Helluva time to be doin’ this,” Vice commiserated, “Late wagon?”
“Ho bo’sun,” their leader said, “More n’ likely, can’t say fer sure. Work comes when it comes.”
“Any on’y a fool asks why,” Carols finished the saying. Diego had by this time made his way over to the main hatch.
“Those seem a bit few for so much room,” the purser mused, glancing at the hold.
“Well, they’re heavy ‘nough,” the first longshoreman grunted.
“Anything of concern regarding the parcels?” Diego angled, watching the man’s face like Rahman’s falcon.
“Some of ‘em ain’t well packed, bit of shifting inside, but nothing to upset your passage I should think,” the man replied thoughtfully. The crewmen of the Esmer Wind exchanged worried glances. Snapsand was bad news, but poorly packaged?
“Haha, you boys act like its leafplate in there,” the man chuckled, “bit too heavy for dishes and tea-cups!”
“Yes!” Diego smiled, wouldn’t that be nice, “Well I’ll leave you to your labor, keeping you any later would be criminal,” Diego touched his hat. He nodded to the other crewmen, “Gentlemen.” The purser returned to the wardroom, retrieving his manifests. He’d recorded the extra tonnage from their last cruise in the margins, and wanted to compare it to what he estimated this to be.
Lighting the table lamp with a tindertwig from the bureau, he brought the leather-bound portfolio over to the chart table and laid it out, not bothering to sit. He’d figured they’d taken about a half-ton of snapsand up from Ezrepellian, still a staggering volume, and if this shipment was any indication, about four times that amount was headed south. Was it reagents? It hardly made sense that they would carry snapsand both north and south, unless it was of a different quality. That could certainly be the case, with sealed snapsand from the north, perhaps stolen from a stockpile somewhere, Astergaul’s operations in Ezrepellian would have high-shelf supply for the locals and legitimate goods to display if agents of the king came snooping.
They’d have to be sure it was refined snapsand before he made his move. Most of the crew was still in a stupor, that suits the plan just fine. He’d rather not have any surprise guests when they opened the cargo; the last thing he needed was to lose control of the information. He put the manifests back and extinguished the lamp.

“Well,” Rahman began. The longshoreman had secured the last bale and were tromping down the gangplank. Hikmat, Theron, the boatswain, Mar, and he stood around the orlop hatch staring into the darkness. Rahman held a small lantern that did little more than flicker shadows on the ceiling.
“Perhaps you should wait here,” Hikmat looked to the arcswain.
“Yes, that might be a good idea,” snapsand wasn’t likely to ignite as long as he didn’t cast, but he needn’t take a chance.
“Put that out,” Diego’s voice hissed from behind them. The purser stopped short of calling him a fool. Four tons of snapsand and they’re holding a fucking lamp. All of them glanced at the candle in Rahman’s lantern and then at the hold. Diego incanted a few words, spinning his hands in small circles until whisps of softly glowing light appeared. They congealed into a handful of bluish-purple lightning bugs that lazily buzzed around his outstretched hand.
“Isn’t that just as bad?” Hikmat challenged.
“I would rather risk a cantrip than an open flame, wouldn’t you?” Diego asked the arcswain.
“What evidence I have seen would suggest minor spells are less dangerous,” Theron hesitated, “though I would still recommend a cautious distance.”
“Scratch and fire,” the boatswain growled in frustration, “keep the light up here, I can see fine.” Vice lowered himself gingerly through the hatch, standing on one of the larger parcels loaded that afternoon. He approached the newly arrived packages deliberately, setting to work on the nearest one’s lashings.
Hikmat followed him silently, unsure if he was being driven by curiosity or an unwillingness to let Grandpa Vice take all of the risk. The boatswain unwrapped the canvas, finding woolen scraps underneath that cushioned a wooden crate.
“What?” Vice touched the black-painted crate.
“Why cushion a crate?” Hikmat asked. In his five years aboard the Esmer Wind, he’d never seen a shipping crate cushioned and wrapped, and he’d never seen a fully painted shipping crate. He had to admit, though, that if he were packaging something as volatile as snapsand he might double-up on protective measures.
“Good question,” the boatswain answered, using his knife to wedge open the corner of the crate. After a minute or so, during which the purser and navigator joined them in the hold, the arcswain peering down from the hatch, Vice reached a hand into the crate. Wood shavings rustled as he probed gently, “got something,” he said. They held their breath as he withdrew his hand, unsure what to expect.

What came forth was both relieving and confusing. Instead of a bottle of explosive powder, the boatswain held a statuette. The vaguely-humanoid figure was gaunt and thin, arms outstretched above it to hold a small bowl. The statuette’s face was wide in an exaggerated expression that could have been singing or screaming. The piece was over a foot in height, and appeared to be silver.
“What d’ ye suppose that’s about?” Vice asked, examining the piece.
“I would guess a couple hundred crowns,” Hikmat answered. While disturbing, there was no doubt the object was the work of a skilled artisan, and made of silver to boot. As the group eased closer in the bluish light of Diego’s fireflies, the arcswain’s gasp of surprise caused them to freeze.
“Oh my,” Theron’s voice was barely more than a whisper, but his expression spoke volumes. The group turned to see his eyes emitting a soft, though unsettling, glow. His normally strong jaw was slack with surprise.
“What is it, boy,” Vice asked, extending the sculpture away from himself, “enchantment?”
“Yes,” Theron was still trying to sort through the overlapping emanations, “it and many, many more pieces of our new cargo.”
“Is it dangerous?” Diego asked, barely containing the eagerness in his voice.
“Perhaps,” Theron held a hand out toward Vice, “May I examine it further, Bo’sun?” Carols handed the statuette over immediately, and joined the others in watching Theron turn it over carefully, examining markings and lines. After a few moments, he looked-up.
“It isn’t dangerous to the crew, not directly at least,” Theron concluded.
“What does this mean, not directly?” Rahman asked from above.
“It may have religious significance,” Theron offered, “as a ceremonial object. The bowl is enchanted to prevent, I think, blood from coagulating.” The rest of the assembled men exchanged worrisome glances and a few swallowed as they suddenly noticed how parched their throats had become.
“It prevents blood from what? Speak plain, bac’quel” Hikmat took a step back from the crates. There was dark mysticism about this cargo, he could feel a chill run through his spine that normally warned him of a dagger near his back.
“From clotting up,” Diego said, a brief expression of disappointment flashing through his eyes, “What about the rest?”
“There are a few dozen more magical objects, but I can’t tell more without closer examination. There are both necromantic and mind-altering arcane emanations, more I cannot say for certain.”
“Blood and necromancy? Mind-altering objects?” Diego echoed, that should be enough to turn the tide, “Just what in the nine hells has he gotten us involved in?”
“About time we find out,” Vice pointed the raised hands of the statuette in the direction of Marcello’s cabin.

The band arrived before the captain’s cabin, Diego leading the way, barely waiting five seconds after knocking to barge into the room. Marcello’s voluminous bed and burgundy sofa and armchair framed the room. A commanding hardwood desk stood against the forward bulkhead with a matching chair. The captain stood beside a small table, having just filled a snifter with brandy from his crystal decanter, his jacket hanging near the wardrobe, eh stood with only his waistcoat unbuttoned.
“Purser? What in the Seven are you doing?” he flared, just short of yelling. He retained his poise admirably, for the weasel he was. Diego took two full strides toward his so-called superior, emboldened by the others following him through the open door. The room was crowded.
“We should ask you the same,” the purser said with a dark, deliberate tone, savoring each word.
“I am preparing for bed, as should all of you; we sail in hours.”
“Which is why you inebriate the entire crew?” Diego challenged.
“A well deserved reward. I heard no complaints from them or you,” Marcello set his snifter down and turned to face his officers squarely.
“Yay?” the purser fired, aiming an accusatory finger at the captain, “A reward? Or schemed distraction to avoid unwanted eyes upon illicit cargo?”
“Cargo of a delicate nature,” the captain stood straighter, “Belonging to a client who values discretion above all else. Surely Bo’sun Carols can tell you how discrete five sailors can be, let alone a crew of thirty.”
“So now you don’t trust your own men?” Diego pounced on the opening.
“This display is supposed to garner my trust?” the captain huffed, setting his snifter down.
“Captain,” the boatswain interjected, “We’re only concerned as t’ the risk the cargo stands t’impose on the crew, y’understand, sir. Given the recent carryin’ of open sand, without yer tellin’ even the arc’sun, you can see our worry.”
“You…” Marcello cleared his throat, retrieving his snifter and draining it, “I concede that may have been a poor decision, but you must understand the value these clients place upon privacy,” he saw this argument’s folly, altering tack, “I am not privy to the exact contents of the cargo, but I can assure you it is not snap-sand. We brought it north from Ezrepellian, I will admit, but there is no demand for it there.”
“So you don’t even know what’s in this illicit cargo?” Diego almost laughed.
“Have you not been listening to a fucking word I’ve said?” the captains patience was clearly wearing thin, “Discretion is why were are being compensated so high as to repair our losses in a single crossing of the daggers.”
“Sir, we took the liberty of investigating ourselves, as the bo’sun’s concerns are shared by us all,” Theron said calmly, his voice deep enough to command attention, “There are a rather large number of enchanted items within this cargo. Items of a necromantic nature,” the arcswain held up the statuette they had taken.
“Well,” the captain flashed from infuriated to mildly concerned and back, “Since you have already breached the trust placed with us by our clients, I see no reason why you should not alleviate your concern for monsters under the bed.” Marcello waived them away, “Investigate what you will, but do not harm the cargo, and be sure to replace it exactly as it was. Dismissed,” he all but spat the final word in Diego’s victory-laden face.
Diego was about to speak, but the boatswain cut him off, “Aye,Cap’n.” He grabbed the purser’s arm and pulled him back towards the door. The group filed out into the passageway, Theron and Hikmat leading the way back to the cargo hold.
The boatswain was first among them again, twilight eyes granting him the advantage in the shadowy and cramped hold. Diego stood behind him with Theron, while Hikmat helped Vice pry open the crate. The boatswain’s calloused hands probed the wood shavings and scrap wool used as packing, pausing as they touched cool metal. They explored the rest of the round shape before teasing it back out of the crate.
“Huh,” Kevice grunted, observing the masterfully engraved symbols and motifs encircling the wide, shallow dish. He passed it to the arcswain and returned to his exploration.
“Intriguing,” Theron held the dish delicately, touching it as lightly and close to the edges as possible. Ideally, he’d have a proper examining stand and a set of prisms, but nothing was ideal aboard a ship. That made it interesting.
“What is it,” Diego demanded, directing one of his bluish fireflies nearer the plate for a better look.
“Caution, Purser,” the arcswain waved away the etheral lightbug, “enchanted items of unknown origin should be handled with patience.” He closed his eyes and incanted the necessary phrases, and when he opened them the arcane bonds of the world lay plain before him. Like stepping from a dark room into the noon sun, his eyes reflexively narrowed at first, adjusting to the ambient glow of nearly everything. This glow was the source of many dissertations, there were some who keenly developed this method of observation, studying the miniscule traces of magical energy that either leaked into everything or seeped from it, depending on your theoretical stance.
There was no time for these ancient arguments now, however, and he focused his attention on the steady aura from the plate in his hands. From the relative dispersion of the aura and irregular variances at the center, largely disrupted by unnecessary or unrelated etchings and carving on the surface of the piece, he guessed the binder was divine rather than arcane, though none-the-less a craftsman of skill. It could very well be the work of an impatient or unpracticed arcanists as well, but he doubted it by the care with which the base plate was sculpted.

As his eyes adjusted to the new light, the aura of the dish adopted a pale-blue hue. Conceptually, he knew this to be a trick of the eye, arcane energy was is no way similar to light, but the human mind was ill-equipped for such displays, and codified what the eyes saw the only way it knew how. Everyone’s mind worked differently, his master, for example, did not see colors to differentiate schools of magic, but associated them with odors. What Theron saw as pale-blue, necromancy, the school of manipulating life energy, his master identified by the smell of over-ripe apples.
The arcswain began deconstructing the sigils worked into the intricate carvings around the edge, and within a few moments, referring once to his spellbook for confirmation more than anything else, he had his answer, “the dish is enchanted with a preservation spell, normally used to prevent decay. In this instance, it appears to keep whatever,” he paused, searching unnecessarily for a polite term, “humoral material placed within it from degrading.”

“AhhhGods ‘n fucking devils!” Kevice shouted, jerking back from the crate so quickly the edge Hikmat held scraped open the boatswain’s forearm. He half stumbled, half pushed past the shocked Theron and Diego, “Fuck this. I’m done, I’ll be up in clean air.” Carols continued up out of the hold and toward the forecastle as they exchanged wide-eyed looks with each other and the crate.

“What,” Diego asked, catching his breath, “happened?” Hikmat shrugged, peering through the opening of the crate and listening for movement.
“There’s nothing inside,” Hikmat said, “nothing alive, anyway,” Diego and Theron continued to look at him, “Well I’m not sticking my arm in there.”
“I’m concentrating on your light,” Deigo jostled the fireflies to emphasize his point.
“I can also cast light spells,” the arcswain countered.
“Not while you’re concentrating on your magesight like that,” Diego waved, “Hikmat you must.” Darzi clenched his jaw, unsure if the purser’s arguments held any water, but realizing his lack of understanding made his choice for him. At least he wasn’t going to set-of any traps.
With a quiet sigh, the rigger eased his arm into the crate, cautiously feeling his way through the packing. Diego’s light was all but useless. After a few painstaking moments, his hand landed up on something solid, and fleshy. The skin was cold, and there was only sparse hair on it. He felt along it in either direction after pausing to consider it. A joint, no an elbow, forearm, a hand, “It is a dead man.”
“What?” Diego asked.
“I said it is a dead man,” Hikmat repeated, “Jammed into this crate. It must be what the bo’sun felt.” The crate looked quite small to try fitting a full-grown man inside, “We should open this.”
Diego nodded, the three of them were silent as Hikmat removed the rest of the wrapping and easily pried-off the lid. They’d prepared themselves for the worst, but found the body was not in terrible condition. It was a half-orc man, completely nude, and uninjured aside from a deep, long gash across his throat. The corpse had obviously been cleaned, it being both free of grime and blood. Only a trace of it had oozed and crusted around the wound. The body had been roughly folded in half, breaking bones surely, in order to fit inside the crate.
There was another dish in the crate as well, but they found nothing more. Grimacing, they pulled the corpse free of the crate and lay him out, searching for identifying scarification or tattoos, as half-orcs are want to decorate themselves with. They searched for other injuries, but found none. Likely an assassin or ambush took his life.

“Great Divines,” Diego breathed, “He has us transporting corpses and necromantic artefacts?” he grabbed the remaining plate, examining the symbols for what he thought was there. The motifs, yawning faces, a theme of infinity and apparent celebration of an anti-afterlife, “this is Nerullian.”
“Nerul,” Hikmat stepped back from the crate again, “as in the worshippers of death?”
“Yes, Mr. Darzi, the very same, a very old cult by these ancient kenoran inscriptions. Thought extinct,” who said he never paid attention to his tutors, at least for the interesting bits.
“Most strange,” Theron considered the art styles, the relative age, “but I must agree.”
“Death cults and bodies?” Markus had been quiet, watching from the rear, but this was a shock even for him, “Why would we be hauling a cult’s whole church and their sacrifices around?”
“I don’t know if this is a sacrifice,” Hikmat offered, he’d seen enough dead men in his life to know an assassination when he saw it, “he was killed from behind, in one stroke.”
Diego and the others looked at the body again, and had to admit it didn’t fit with their image of a ritual sacrifice.
“Perhaps we bring proof of demise along with these,” Hikmat paused, not finding the right kent word, “items.”
“The Clark Brothers, doubtlessly false names,” Diego continued the thought, “must be connected with Sparky Astergaul, or some kind of criminal syndicate,” he mused, “you could be correct, Darzi. A man like that wants to see the fruits of his labor.”
“How many more are there?” Barrow asked the arcswain.
“I haven’t prepared the correct spells for ascertaining that,” Theron replied with a frown, “though I doubt he is the only one,” he pointed at the broken half-orc.
“The real question, gentlemen,” Diego turned his back on the body, “is what we do next.”
“Well, I see no direct threat from the items we’ve discovered so far. They are unsavory, but not inherently dangerous,” Theron stated.
“If these Clark brothers are responsible for this,” Hikmat pointed at the body, “they will not be happy if their cargo goes undelivered. I doubt they will see the captain as the only one to blame.”
“It’s our last run,” Mar added, “Once more down and back and we can all find a new ship. I’m not one for getting involved any further with snapsand, or Astergaul.”
“So we sail as planned? Keep this to ourselves?” Diego asked them, they responded with nods.
“We should investigate the rest of the cargo,” Mar said, surprising himself.
“I agree, but the hour is late,” Theron said, they were all feeling the approach of morning.
“Away from port then,” Diego affirmed, “sleep well, men. Tonight has certainly given us much to consider.” The purser turned to climb from the hold.
“Should we not repack this crate?” Hikmat asked, causing Diego to pause.
“Yes, per the captain’s orders,” Theron seconded, reaching to replace the dish in the packing.
“He should go in first,” Hikmat pointed at the half-orc. They all worked to get the body back in the crate, in the end it took the breaking of another bone to fit him. They winced at the sound. The dishes and statuette were placed back and the lines holding the canvas covering in place re-tied.

The next morning found the crew in as bad a condition as Albersnagle had predicted. Most were ill, some incapacitated, and none fully alert. It took twice as long as normal to rig the sails. His officers looked as though they hadn’t slept at all, and there’d been a decent amount of noise from the captain’s cabin well into the night, which made it expected for him not to emerge until nearly nine o’clock.
“Cap’n on the deck!” the first mate announced; no one interrupted their work to responded.
“Are we ready to sail, Mr. Albersnagle?” Marcello asked.
“Nearly so, Cap’n,” he responded sharply, “though we should have been an hour ago.”
“You are an efficient man, Thorsten,” and the captain left it that. He turned back to the wardroom, catching Diego’s burning gaze from across the deck, “Good morning, purser, I trust your evening was satisfactory?” he stated loud enough for several others to hear, including Barrow and Darzi working the main staysails into position.
“Aye, captain,” Diego shot back, also quite louder than necessary, “Quite enlightening,” he narrowed his eyes, “Quite.” The captain chuckled as he entered the sterncastle. Several crew nearby exchanged confused glances, but none looked at the purser. Mar met Hikmat’s raised eyebrow, but they finished their task without a word of last night’s discoveries.

It was less than an hour before the first mate bellowed his command, “Raise the Blue Peter and three bells!”
“Aye, aye,” Jean-Marco’s call at the foredeck came as he ran the blue peter signal flag to the top of the forestay. When it hit the top, he secured the line, “Blue Peter flying aloft!” Three rings from the ship’s bell immediately followed.
“All hands ready to cast-off!” Albersnagle bellowed in response. Men moved to their positions, ready to unfurl sails, haul in the hausers, weigh anchor, and the dozens of other tasks required to take the ship out of the harbor. Dockhands assembled on the quay to throw-off the lines.
Marcello emerged from the wardroom, looking quite striking in his fresh jacket and hat, or at least as striking as his humble frame could accomplish.
“Cap’n on the deck!” Albersnagle bellowed.
“Carry on, Mr. Albersnagle,” Marcello called, taking a commanding position on the quarterdeck.
“All hands ready to cast-off!” called Diego, in the boatswain’s conspicuous absence, a few minutes later.
“All hand ready to cast-off, cap’n!” Albersnagle relayed.
“Cast-off and into blue water,” the captain gave the traditional order.
“Aye, Aye, cap’n! Cast off and take in lines!” Thorsten bellowed to the men at the port side.
“Aye, aye,” they called. The dockhands threw free the heavy mooring lines, when the last was tossed into the sea, Cynric called out, “Lines aweigh!”

“Weigh anchors!” he bellowed, and the acknowledgement rang back as the capstan team groaned against their spars.
“Ho!” Coy Boy yelled to start their cadence. Hikmat shouted the first line of a work song.
“I took me,”
“Ho!” they threw themselves against the spars.
“to me bed,”
‘Ho!” they strained, the capstan began to move.
“she cried,”
“Ho!” the chains clanked against the catshead, and the ship came slowly away from the dock. The call and repeat cadence continued, and with a great strain, resistance on the capstan grew far heavier. They almost skidded backwards, but managed to push through the jolt as they managed with every raising.
“Anchors aweigh!” Robbins bellowed.
“Anchors aweigh, aye!” the First Mate acknowledged, “Set sails and bearing for blue water!”
“Aye, aye!” Mar replied, the men on the upper yards released the sails and they dropped like great curtains to the men below, who secured them to the lower yards. Men on the yardarm lines held fast as the wind caught the sheets and billowed them out. Wood creaked throughout the ship as the push transferred through the masts and decks, and slowly the Esmer Wind began to move forward.
The capstan team continued their chant, raising the anchor clear of the water as the ship gained speed. The hausers were drawn in an laid out to dry along the deck as the yardstays were secured into position. Mar eased the ship away from the dock with practiced expertise, and took it around the buoys marking the harbor’s exit. As they cleared the main harbor markers, the ship let out a cheer.
“Cap’n, the Esmer Wind is underway with all hands,” Albersnagle reported.
“Well done, Mr. Albersnagle,” Marcello took a deep breath of the salty breeze, “Well done.”

The next five days saw uneventful sailing with a decent wind, and the ship made good time. Their weather held fair, and with Codder’s hearty meals, Hikmat, Thaddeus, Lacy, and Lowell began to recover from their injuries. Darzi’s hand was still bandaged, but he was able to use it without a great deal of pain by the second evening. The rigger was still careful to keep it dry and clean, infection was the most dangerous part of a seaman’s injury.

Tensions began to ease away as the crew settled into their seaborne routines. Boatswain Carols reappeared after the second day at sea and refused to speak of where he’d been. Markus relaxed more once they were out of land-sight. The endless horizons of blue-gray water gave him hope, speaking to him of boundless opportunity. The vastness made many men uncomfortably small, reminding them of the utter insignificance of their lives and everything they have ever and will ever live and work for. Not so for the son of the sea, born afloat.
The crew was aware something was going on amongst the officers, more than usual, but they dared not involve themselves in it. Discontent with the captain bubbled at a low level, and it was all but painted on the sails that most of the crew would find other employment next season. Even the die-hards were fed-up.
Diego and the others still had not figured-out how to broach the subject of their dire cargo to the rest of the crew without endangering them and infuriating the captain. Diego himself had no qualms against the latter, but the former was still a grave concern. Marcello, unfortunately, had a point about the ability of sailors to keep a secret, and this particular situation did merit some discretion. He still had no idea who they were really dealing with, and Marcello wasn’t likely to tell him under the current circumstances. For now, he’d have to continue fuelling the murmurs of malcontent, should action against Marcello present itself as the best option. He wouldn’t want he crew siding against him.

On the fifth night, those circumstances changed. They were still nearly two days from Grainger’s Rest. Rahman, Hikmat, and Luc Lamothe were on the dog watch, all of them fighting to stay alert in the wee hours of the night. From his position on the fore-top, Hikmat jolted as he heard a thump from below decks. The crew was sound asleep, and he glanced fore and aft to see that the other two were in their positions on the poop deck and forecastle. Neither Rahman nor Luc made any indication they had heard the thump. Hikmat was absolutely certain it had come from the main hold. He swallowed, dozens of ghost legends and tales of the undead spinning through his mind.
He lowered himself down the foremast and listened at the main hatch for sounds of movement, or groans, or scraping chains. He heard nothing more. Waving at Rahman to follow him, he passed quietly through the forecastle bunks, and into the orlop deck’s utter darkness. Rahman picked-up a lantern and lit it once they were away from the bunks, and looked at Hikmat with concern.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“Something moved, in the hold. I heard a thump,” both of them looked toward the main hatch in the orlop deck that lay a few yards ahead of them. They heard nothing from inside. They padded quietly up, one on either side of the opening, peering over the edge into the shadows. Hikmat thought he heard something, a soft scratching. He jolted his face up to meet Rahman’s. He’d heard it, too.
“Should we get the bo’sun?” his friend asked. Hikmat nodded slowly.
“The arc’sun, too,” he added. Rahman quickly obeyed, hustling up the orlop toward the officers’ quarters. Hikmat withdrew into the shadows, hiding himself among the supplies. Another sound met his ears, chilling his blood as he listened to what could only be muffled sobs. They ceased after a few minutes, leaving only the creaking of the ship.

“What’s the problem?” Carols whispered, causing Hikmat to jump. The boatswain held no lamp, and had managed to sneak within a few feet without Hikmat noticing.
“Something’s down there,” Hikmat whispered throwing his voice and not revealing his location.
“If you want away from this madness, ye can come with me,” Kevice offered.
“What?”
“I’ve the dingy loaded and ready, there’s enough room for a few. Yer a fine sailor,
Darzi, ye’ll be welcome. A couple of the others, too, Raleigh, Nasib,” the boatswain continued.
“Abandon the ship?” Darzi asked, surprised that it didn’t strike him as the first option in a situation like this. A younger Hikmat would have joined the old salt immediately.
“You can’t deny a cloud’s come over the Wind, now we’ve this,” Carols gestured at the hold. Rahman interrupted them, Diego, Theron, and Mar all in tow, bearing a lantern, “Think about it.”

“What’s this about?” Diego asked, irritated at having been woken in the middle of the night.
“Something’s in the hold,” Hikmat said, still in the shadows, “I heard it.” They all froze as the gentle sobbing drifted up again. It continued long enough for them to exchange pale glances.
“Arc’sun,” Kevice started, “You had best be prepared.” Diego angled his way to the edge of the hatch and looked down, bringing forth his lazily drifting fireflies with a few words and flick of his wrist.
“One of the bails has fallen over,” he reported.
“Is it makin’ the sounds?” Kevice shouldered in next to him, cocking his head.
“I don’t think so,” Hikmat emerged, “It’s coming from further back.”
“Lift the hatch,” Diego ordered, and with some hesitance Kevice, Rahman, and Hikmat lifted the grate and moved it aside. The sobbing had stopped by, and with a glance at the rest, unsure whether he was reassuring them or himself, Diego eased into the hold. Hikmat and the others followed him, Barrows bringing up the end and Rahman staying on the orlop deck, ready to run for help.
The bluish light of the purser’s fireflies bathed the fallen crate, the same they had opened and in port. Behind where it had lain, another of the secret crates sat slightly askance from the rest. Not a sound rose above the volume of their heartbeats

They stared at it for a minute, not moving, unsure what to do. Hikmat looked to the arcswain, whose eyes glowed with a detection spell, “nothing has changed since were here last,” he reported, “in terms of the auras. Whatever is here has been here the whole time.” This comforted no one.
“Let’s get this over with,” Diego approached the box, Hikmat joined him. As the beninite gingerly reached and grabbed the crate to pull it out, he almost shot through the overhead into the next deck. A terrible shrieking came from inside the box, muffled by packing and canvas. Everyone blanched, shielding themselves with a hand instinctively.
“What do I do?” Hikmat asked Carols.
“Wait,” was his answer, and wait they did. The arcswain had a wand in his hand, and Diego had a saber in his. Mar’s blade was still sheathed, though his hand was on the hilt.
After a few moments, the screaming stopped, and they were again in silence. Hikmat reached forward and gripped the crate again, this time nothing happened. Everyone’s breathing quickened, despite their best efforts to push down rising fear.
Diego and Hikmat eased the crate out of position enough to get it open, and nothing stirred within it. They undid the ties and peeled back the canvas and blankets padding the same black wood as the first crate. Still nothing.
“Pass down a prybar,” Markus whispered to Rahman, who complied quickly. They handed it up to Hikmat. He positioned it to lift the lid of the crate, and the others approached carefully, ready to attack some monster.
With a nod from Diego, Hikmat heaved on the bar, and the nails popped free, lifting the corner nearest them. Immediately, an ebony black, but undeniably human arm swung out from the crate, slashing with some kind of dagger. It almost struck the purser, and they all jumped back as the screaming began again.
“Gah!” Hikmat released the bar and the crate dropped closed again, the small arm snaking back inside, “Bish’al Nak’ur!”
“Was that a child?” Diego gasped. Hikmat made to open the crate again, this time with the others standing back. As the corner came up, Diego’s fireflies revealed a savage, terrified face in the crate. The dagger slashed about again, but retreated when no targets were near. It was in fact a young girl, seven or eight years old if they had to guess.
“Southlander,” Kevice growled, still trying to settle his nerves “Fetch Albersnagle.”
“Give me the knife little girl,” Diego asked sweetly, smiling as he held out his hand. The girl screeched something and slashed out, “Ah!” he snapped his hand back, “I do not wish to harm a child, but I will!” he growled.
“What did she say?” Hikmat asked.
“She thinks we’re going to eat her,” Diego replied, collecting himself, “No one’s going to eat you,” he promised in chella-chella.
“I won’t be slave!” she screeched.

“What in the Nine Hells is going on?” Albersnagle came thudding down into the hold. He glanced around, eyes landing on the terrified southlander girl, “Put yer weapons away, fer gods’ sakes, yer scarin’ her half-dead.” They looked at him with stunned expressions as the first mate approached the box with his waterskin.
“Here ya go, girlie,” he held it out, and when she didn’t take it, he tossed it into the open crate. She recoiled at first, then snatched it from the straw and wood shavings. The girl sniffed at the mouth of the container, then tasted some of the water. Satisfied, she began sucking it down in gulps.
“Ain’t a one of you have children do ya?” Albersnagle snapped, “someone get Codder, she’ll need something to eat.”
“I’ve got thirty-nine,” Kevice growled back, “ but ain’t none of ‘em animals.”
“She’s not a monster,” the first mate shot back, “She’s a scared girl, an’ she’s been in a box for days. Now put your damn blades away, I says.” They complied, a few of them feeling shamed. Thorsten continued to speak soothingly to the girl, though he didn’t know her language, “Diego, tell her we’re not going to hurt her.”
“You won’t be harmed,” Diego said in the southlander tongue, keeping with the first mate’s soothing tone, “Just give us the knife and we’ll give you food. You like food, right? You must be very hungry.”
The girl looked between the faces outside the crate, suspicion and anger flashing in her blue eyes. They kept speaking softly for the few minutes it took Codder to arrive with an apple and piece of salt-meat.
“What’s this about a child stowin’away in’a cargo’old?” the ferneah’s jabbering preceded his arrival, “All ye tall folk been actin’ might stranger than usual f’yer lot, I should’a thought there was something amiss with’a new cargo was loaded in the night whilst we all drunk our balls into our skulls,” he hopped down into the hold behind the mass of officers, “Well t’appears I’m last invited t’the party as per usual amongst ye bunch o’bastard sons a’skinks. By the hills and hogs!” he saw the girl in the crate, “Tis in fact a southie lass, eh? Well I’ve no frogs nor snakes aboard but this’ll fit yer belly.” He handed the first mate the food he’d brought, but kept his focus on the girl, “How’d she get in’a that crate, ye wonder?”
Albersnagle ignored the stream of babble from the cook, and held the food out toward the girl with one hand, holding is other hand out to accept the knife, “Diego…”
“Food for the dagger, if we wanted to hurt you we would have already. He is ugly, but a good man,” the purser explained softly, “It will be okay.”
The girl crawled forward smelling, watching the first mate. She reached for the food, but Albersnagled pulled back an inch, gesturing with his open hand. The girl hesitated again, then finally relinquished the blade. Thorsten quickly handed it to Theron, and extended an open hand out to her again, along with the food. She took it, bolting the meat as the rest of those present relaxed, audibly sighing.
“How did you find her?” Albersnagle asked quietly.
“I heard something in the hold, she was crying inside that crate,” Hikmat stated, forcing his tone icy as flashes of his own past slammed through his mind. Hot closets, vermin-filled crawl spaces, and silent tears assaulted him. He quickly buried them back under the sands of memory, as any survivor must.
“She was packed in with the rest of the,” Diego paused, it was out of the bag now anyway, “secret cargo we took on.”
“She was packed in’a cargo?” Codder’s nostrils flared with anger, “A southie she may be, but ain’t a child in Henal belongs packed!”
“This dagger,” Theron interrupted, eyes still glowing as he traced the inscriptions on the weapon taken from the child, “is of the same nerullian design as the dishes. It’s been enchanted to corrupt the humors.”
Albersnagle had kept his hands outstretched to the girl as she ate and drank, and now her own young emotions were overcome. She began to cry and sob even as she chewed the last mouthfuls of salt meat. The huge man reached for her and she crawled into his arms as she broke down. He held her tightly, shushing her with the practice of a father of four, stroking her back. In the midst of this, though, he cast a furious gaze about the officers present.
“Did the captain know?” he rumbled darkly, his own sense of righteousness now taking hold.
“He certainly wasn’t eager to ask when accepting the contract from known criminals,” Diego answered, knowing the First Mate had just chosen sides.
“Did. He. Know,” Albersnagle asked again.
“I’m thinkin’ we oughta see the cap’n bout a nightcap,” Codder growled, “if he had inklin’ about packin’ a’child down to sou’landing, I’ll feed him his own balls ina cocktail, I will!” The ferneah leapt from the hold up into the orlop and started toward the rear cabins.

The others scrambled after him, Albersnagle cradling the girl. He brought her to his own quarters, wrapping her stripped body in his blanket and offering her his grown daughter’s ragged stuffed toy, sewn into the shape of a rabbit. When she was young, she would make him take it with him on sea voyages, ‘to keep him safe’. Once she’d grown old enough that she didn’t need him, Scuddy had found a permanent home in his sea bag, and he was grateful now more than ever that he’d held onto it.
On the deck below, Diego was right behind Codder as they reached the captain’s cabin. The ferneah was mumbling to himself in ehelah, a language the purser had a difficult enough time understanding when spoken calmly and clearly. He could only parse a handful of words, but they were all angry. Diego had never seen the halfling so inflamed, and it lent him a unique look into the cook’s past. Trahorn was tight-lipped on the subject, though obviously quite proud of his homeland. Most assumed he’d been on the losing end of some romantic entanglement, and until tonight Diego had been partial to that explanation. Now, though, he wondered if it wasn’t the cook’s temper taken to extremes that had forced him from Eere Dahl and caused him to take the name Codder (which he’d stated on several occasions wasn’t his true surname, explaining that it being ferneah made it practically un-pronounceable by ‘tall folk’).
Further reflection would have to be done later, for now they were pushing once again through the captain’s door in the wee hours of the night.

“By the Divines in their celestial thrones,” the captain groggily half rose from his bed, “It is the midst of night, what in-”
“Did y’know ye filthy weasel!” Codder leapt atop the trunk at the foot of the captain’s bed and pointed an accusatory finger down at him.
“Know what, you insubordinate badger-kin!” the captain responded angrily.
“Did y’know about the fucking gel!” Codder practically screamed.
“What in the hells are you talking about man?” the captain noticed Diego standing tall behind the ferneah, and the other officers filing into the room, a lantern coming in to light the cabin, “Samson,” the captain spat, “I should have guessed you were behind this. You just can’t accept your place, can you?”
“The girl, in your cargo, packed just like the corpses in your cargo, alongside the unholy artefacts of a nerullian cult,” Diego jabbed a gloved finger at the supine captain, “that is what we’re talking about, Oh Captain,” He stepped forward aside Codder.
“A girl?” Marcello was finally coming fully awake, “There was a living girl in the cargo?”
“Which you might have known had you taken a responsible action for once in your devious life,” Diego challenged, “It appears these criminals you now have us employed by deal in the trafficking of children as well as corpses and necromantic relics. What other surprises are we to find in our own hold, eh captain?”
“I can assure you, purser,” Marcello stood, calmly putting on his slippers as he regained his bearing and tried to take charge of the conversation, “I had no knowledge of children or corpses!”
“With all do respect, sir,” Theron asked, “What did you know about our special cargo?”
“Only what was needed to make sure this ship stays in operation and all of your wages are paid!” Marcello stated dryly, “You, purser, above all others should know how precarious a position this ship stands. This shipment will put us back on agreeable terms for the season, and all you can do is seek ways to undermine the best interests of our crew at every turn. Neither you nor I nor anyone on this crew had any idea that a child would be harmed. Who would think such villany could be considered part of a business contract? Would I have known, I certainly would have refused!”
“Oh would you have? The balance of our accounts lies on this precipice of doom solely for your incompetence and childish ineptitude as a mariner, as a businessman, and as a gentleman. Do not pretend to cast as chance your own misteps, or as unavoidable your own atrocious descions, and above all do not frame your self-serving misdeeds as protecting the crew by misleading them, you cockstain of a boy!” Diego’s accusatory finger shook in the few inches separating he and the captain.
“Childish?” Marcello scoffed, eyes wide with anger, but his tone proper, “You, who barges into my quarters well after dark, throws about accusations with absolutely no knowledge of the situation, and must resort to petty name-calling, have the gall to name me immature?”
“Oh, we have-” Diego’s response was cut-off by the first mate’s conspicuous entrance. He bowled past Diego, who had to step aside to avoid being run-down completely as Albersnagle grabbed Marcello by the front of his silk night shirt and lifted him a foot off the deck.
“Albersnagle!” Domonique’s voice squeaked with panic as he kicked his feet impotently.
“What have you done?” Thorsten demanded, his normally roaring voice now a soft growl, like a rumbling bear.
“Unhand me you bastard!” Domonique yelped, fear in his eyes and all propriety gone.
“What have you done, you fool?” the first mate continued, “You’ve involved us in atrocity. Not just yourself, all of us! You have made me party to this crime against humanity!” he was all but overcome with emotion, “I should never have let you go this far!” the huge man shook the captain with each word. There was so deep a pain in his face that it struck the room with fear that he would throw the captain straight through the glass windows into the black waters beyond. Diego willed it silently. He was not alone.
After a tense few moments, in which everyone held their breath save the raggedly breathing first mate and the panicking captain, Albersnagle spoke in an all-too-calm voice, “I fucking resign, as of now!” he slammed the captain down into this bed with enough force to crack the frame.
Albersnagle wheeled and stormed from the room, without a further word or glance to anyone. Marcello was dazed and unmoving, though clearly alive. There was little more to say after the now-former first mate’s words, and slowly the gathered men left the room.

Once in the passageway, Theron turned to the others, “I believe it is time we investigated the rest of this cargo, lest there be any more trapped within it.”
“Agreed,” Hikmat seconded, and that settled the matter. All but Kevice and Codder, who went to help calm Albersnagle, returned to the hold and began unpacking the black crates.

Over the course of the night, they found four more corpses, all murdered in the same fashion as the half-orc, and all nude. Each had been preserved by necromantic magic and had not yet begun to decay. They found several animals, still alive, in a magically-induced hibernation. Among them were dogs, cats, a goat, and two rare gravewatcher ravens. They found a score of the strange saucers they’d found in the first crate, two more statuettes holding basins, and over a dozen strange ritual implements that looked disturbingly like chirurgeons tools. All of the latter were enchanted to preserve flesh or keep blood flowing.
They found a man-sized statue of silver and blued-bronze, the face of which had been replaced by an onyx skull, determined by Theron and Diego to be transmuted into banded, gray and charcoal-hued mineral, granting it a ghostly appearance. Four smaller wooden boxes of ingenious design were also discovered, along with a small silver and cold-iron ring. With all of the crates opened, they had found no more living people, to their collective relief.
“These boxes are quite good, hidden hinges and internal locks,” Hikmat admired the craftsmanship. He brought out a small roll of lock-picks from his sleeve, drawing a raised eyebrow from Theron and grin from Diego.
“Always full of surprises,” the purser chuckled, looking on curiously at what could be hidden further inside strongboxes. Mar and Theron, who was also working to identify the various enchantments, looked on as Hikmat manipulated the inner mechanism of the lockbox. A subtle click drew a sly grin from the beninite, and he set the tools aside. Gingerly, he eased open the lid of the box, and shouted as a spark ignited something dazzlingly bright. The blast of light surprised them all, only Hikmat and Diego successfully averted their eyes in time to avoid being blinded. Theron and Mar blinked their eyes, trying to clear their vision.
“Gah!” Hikmat noticed an acrid smell and saw fine vapor whisps spreading from the box, “toxin fumes!” He quickly wrapped his keffiyeh around his mouth and nose and stepped away from the box. Mar and Diego coughed, backing away as well, scattering dishes and strange implements as they felt the poison take hold in their bodies. Mar felt light headed, Diego almost stumbled and fell as his limbs became awkward and weak, his mind felt cloudy.
“Wha-what is this?” he asked. Theron alone sat unmoved, still blinking away his blindness and apparently unconcerned by the fumes, “Arc’sun back away!”
“No need to worry,” the arcswain tapped a ring on his left hand, “I am protected from noxious fumes, were I not I should have abandoned this crew weeks ago.” His dry humor fell on deaf ears, “It appears you triggered a compound trap, Mr. Darzi. Clever of them.”
“Bish’al,” Hikmat growled, still covering his face.
“I feel,” Mar groaned, “not good.”
“‘not good’? Dear gods, the barbed wit is reduced to ‘not good’, I shall likely die,” Diego growled, “Arc’sun can you do something?”
“Not until I have time to prepare the proper arcana, no. I am sorry,” Theron replied, his vision finally beginning to clear. He peered into the open box, finding a human skull resting on a cushioned interior, “All of this to protect a skull?”
“A skull?” Diego asked, disappointed.
“I’ll open the other one over here,” Hikmat retrieved the other box and took it to the far corner of the hold, wrapping his keffiyeh tightly as he picked the lock and very carefully cracked the lid, using one of his picks to push a sliding strip of metal away from the front edge of the box. As it opened, the mineral ball at the end of the strip did not touch a darker patch on the front edge, he guessed some alchemical reaction arising from such contact generated the flash, and possibly the fume. Either way, it had been avoided, and he tore the stip from the lid, tossing it aside.
This box was full nearly to the top with what appeared at first to be stone chips, but on closer inspection were actually coins of polished stone. There were several shades of the mineral, from fleshy pinkish-gray to deep black, carved so delicately he could hardly believe his eyes. With an surprised expression hidden behind his keffiyeh, Hikmat showed the contents to the arcswain.
“More transmutation, I would argue,” Theron nodded, “none-the-less impressive. Onyx, I believe. A common requisite for nercromantic arcana.”
“I think we’ve covered enough for one night, yes?” Diego groaned, holding his head, “I have need a brandy.”
“Well we certainly can’t leave this out,” Theron gestured at the multitude of open crates.
“I trust you’ll manage, arc’sun,” Mar staggered to the hold, “I need air.”
Hikmat glanced at Theron and Rahman, letting out a sigh as he began placing items back into their respective crates. They had already discussed the need to keep the items packed as they had been found to avoid raising suspicions by their nebulous client. It was nearly dawn by the time the three of them finished repacking everything.

Breakfast was a tense affair. The captain did not emerge, nor did the first mate or the arcswain. The crew was well aware there had been some manner of commotion astern in the night, but none dared ask what it was. Lamonthe had been on watch atop the poop-deck, but couldn’t make out any of the conversations except Albersnagle’s resignation. It was serious blow to the crew, who had respected the life-long sailor considerably, if not particularly admiring his rigidity.
They went to work under Kevice’s direction, largely knowing what needed to be done anyway. The boatswain new this, and let them self-direct for the most part. No official announcements were made, no explanations given. So when Albersnagle finally did appear, the crew looked to him almost as one. Murmurs of confusion rippled about the deck as they saw the girl a pace behind him. She looked almost ashen. The words stowaway, vermin, and sick rose more clearly. It wasn’t hard to discern the crew’s unease, and apparently the southlander girl found it threatening. She scrambled away from Albersnagle and leapt up the main mast with astounding speed, drawing yells and shouts from the crew.

“Girl! Come back down!” Albersnagle shouted. The commotion was enough to wake Hikmat. He emerged from the forecastle to see the crew pointing and yelling at the main mast. Diego, Mar, and Albersnagle were gathered, shouting on the quarterdeck, looking at the same point. The rigger walked around the foremast, almost reaching the quarterdeck steps before he caught sight of the girl all the way at the top of the mast.
“Wow,” was all he said.
“Darzi! You’ve got to get her down before she falls!” Albersnagle pointed when he saw the beninite, who had a reputation as the best (or at least most fearless) of the ship’s climbers.
“Not a chance!” Hikmat shook his head, “Even I don’t got that high, especially not if she fights me.”
“Girl come down!” Albersnagle tried again, elbowing Diego to help, “Come, you know her language, talk her down here!”
“Let her be, she obviously got-up there easily enough. I’m sure she’ll retire when she’s ready to.”
“Talk her down, damn you,” Albersnagle insisted, taking a menacing tone with the purser.
“Fine,” Diego capitulated. Cuppping his hands, he began speaking chella-chella, “Come now, it’s okay, no one means you any harm!” the girl didn’t budge, “It is not safe up there! Come down before you get hurt!”
“It not safe down there!” the girl spat back, “mean ghost people!’
“I promise we are not ghost people. Mr. Bear,” he pointed at Albersnagle, “is real yes? He will protect you.”
“Too many!” she cried, “I stay in tree.”
“Worse than a damned cat,” Diego grumbled, growing frustrated, “You too scared to come down here? Is that it? You’re a little coward afraid of some scrawny northlanders?” he sneered. He could play children’s games if she wanted to. It appeared to have a stong effect. She screamed. Perhaps more effective than he had intended.
“Sweet Divines!” Diego threw his arms up as the girl leapt from the top of the main mast. Everyone gasped, some yelled, as she plummeted over fifty feet directly onto the purser’s head. He nearly fell over with the impact, “Get her off!” She scratched and bit at him as he struggled to push her off his head, “Get her off me!” he wove his fingers together and garbled incantations for the first spell that came to mind. His hands filled with an oily goo and he splattered it across his head and shoulders, causing them to become as slick as a hogfat. The girl’s grip faltered, and he was able to dislodge her with Albersnagle’s help.
The large man held her struggling form against his ample chest, and hurried back below before she could escape again.
“Savage!” Diego shouted after them, bending to retrieve his destroyed hat, “I loved this hat,” he moaned, “absolutely ruined.” He turned about the crew, some of whom were barely concealing their chuckles, “You laugh! That’s no simple child! You all saw it!”
“We saw it all right!” one of them shouted, throwing their voice. Diego felt his face flush, he noticed a burning on his cheek and raised a hand to find it bleeding steadily. Damn!
“Did she look ill to you?” Hikmat asked, approaching the purser.
“I did not have time to check her pallor, Mr. Darzi,” he said impatiently. Then his flushed face drained. He felt the wound. Nerullian artefacts. She looks ill. A savage attack. Five days without water? “Arc’sun!” he yelled, just keeping the fear from his voice, “Arc’sun!”
“Yes?” Theron answered, mounting the stairs from the weatherdeck.
“Could she be…undead?” he asked quietly, using the elven tongue to avoid being overheard. He’d caught the arcswain practicing once.
“You speak illosillion? Why do you ask such a question?” Theron responded, impressed. “She scratched me! Am I diseased? Will I turn?” Diego asked in rapid suggestion.
“A moment,” Theron incanted as he touched each of his limbs in succession, followed by his liver, chest, throat, and finally his temples followed by a sweeping of his fingers toward Diego. He immediately inhaled deeply, as an arcane breeze of information swept over him. He let his mind explore the sensations as the afflictions of the purser’s body were overlain on his own. He found none of the burning knots associated with diseased tissues anywhere, only a slight heat from his liver which was hardly of concern, “You perhaps consume an excessive amount of drink, but are otherwise devoid of any sickness or contagion.”
“Very good, then,” Diego exhaled, visibly relieved. He continued dabbing his cheek with a kerchief as the oil from his spell sublimated into nothingness, leaving him dry aside from the blood, “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he nodded to Hikmat and the arcswain, retiring to his cabin to wash his wounds, lest a more mundane infection develop.

The remainder of the day passed without further incident. Mar assured the officers that they would land at Grainger’s Rest the next day. Which of course demanded the question of what they were going to do. Albersnagle had made it clear he was going to part ways with the crew there, hoping to deliver the child to the care of Pelor’s Temple on the island. He agreed to join them for a meeting after dinner in the wardroom. There was a lot to discuss, not only about the nature of this cargo, and what they were going to do with it, but how they would handle the fallout sure to arise from their treatment of the captain. Diego’s mutinous implications from nearly a week ago were suddenly not sounding so outrageous.

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Episode I

Episode I: Fish Stew

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Bells tolled from the harbor as the last of the Esmer Wind’s cargo was hauled through the main hatch. Seagulls squawked, as they are want to squawk at everything, at the bundle of freight as it passed between the masts they perched on. Longshoremen waiting on the quay grabbed the bundle with their hooks and with a minimum of shouting directed the half-ton parcel onto a waiting wagon. A shadow wove through the block and tackle in a blink. A couple of seagulls wheeled skyward, but many more didn’t. The shadow arced under the yards and followed a trio of gulls as they fled in cacophonous terror.
The shadow seized upon the back of one, materializing as a near-ebony falcon with distinctive white lines curving behind each eye. The hapless skyrat in her grasp struggled for only a moment before she snapped its neck in flight with deft flick of her beak. The raptor lazily wheeled around and lit upon the starboard yardarm to eat. The surviving dozens of seagulls watched witlessly from the false safety of the rigging. A few relocated to a safer vantage in the fish market.
“Good beauty,” a sweaty, nut-skinned man whispered from the shadows of the now-cavernous cargo hold, watching the bird feast through the open hatch.
“Careful,” a man of similar complexion chuckled from deeper in the dank shadows, “She’ll grow too fat to fly in a place such as this.” The second man was all but invisible in the semi-darkness, only the flash of his smile marking his face.
“She could use some fat,” the first man said more seriously, “She is thin after our last crossing, hungry.”
“She’s not alone,” the second man finished coiling a length of rope, hanging it from a short peg on the bulkhead. He pulled an elaborately painted waterskin from the adjacent hook and drew deeply from it, splashing some across his bare, muscular chest. He tossed the waterskin his friend.
“Rahman,” he’d intentionally waited until after throwing it to alert his friend. The first man turned and saw the bag flying through the shadows too late, catching it with his face and a yell. Rahman bent and whipped a block of fardage at his assailant in mock outrage. Hikmat caught it with a wide smile that curled the ends of his black mustache.
“Everythin’ alright down in there?” a drawling, liquor-raked voice called from the hatch.
“Aye, bo’s’un!” Rahman yelled back in kent (though he was reasonably certain Boatswain Carols understood baiha perfectly well) before taking a draw from the waterskin.
“All’s right then, windwalkers, finish with the fardage and get up here,” the boatswain ordered, “wages a-commin’.”
“Aye, bo’s’un,” Hikmat yelled, his voice a bit deeper and his accent less pronounced than Rahman’s. Though their wage was not much, it was still something to look forward to. The pair of beninite men efficiently stacked the remaining fardage against the bulkhead and donned their loose-fitting, black tunics. Hikmat put on his keffiyeh, and was glad for the headscarf when they climbed the rope ladder into the late-summer sun.
The rest of the crew were lining up along the port gunwale, some with small sacks, most with nothing but cheerful faces. They were on the verge of jubilant; joking and jostling one another as they filed toward the purser standing on the quarterdeck. Hikmat and Rahman joined the boisterous collection, their reserved mirth a sharp contrast to the easterners that formed most of the crew.
Even so, these men and few women had become something like family, cousins, if they were home on the Sadizshana. Perhaps they hadn’t always felt the same, but most of them surely did by now. As Musheb used to say, you can only share a tent with strangers so long before you wake with a slit throat or a wife.
“Rahman Nasib, thirty-one skel,” the purser droned, ticking-off his list and pushing a cloth-wrapped double-stack of coins across the collapsable table. The bold-featured noble’s son was a little older than Hikmat, but you’d never know by his attitude. The purser glanced-up with an expression of abject boredom, “Hikmat Darzi, thirty-one skel,” he pushed another cloth-wrapped parcel forward. Hikmat took it without complaint and followed Rahman down the gangplank, “Reva Mcmillan, thirty-one skel,” the voice continued behind him. Hikmat ran his thumb nail along the stacks of coin through the thin linen, ensuring the count was correct before he got too far. The parcel disappeared into his loose tunic.
At the end of the quay, Dalda’s waterfront rising to greet the line of shouting sailors, Hikmat sidled up behind Rahman and tapped his shoulder, snaking his other hand to where he knew his coin would be.
“Ah!” Rahman admonished, spinning quick enough to grab Hikmat’s hand as it retreated with the coin, “Snake!” Their limbs blurred for a few moments before Hikmat held the money victoriously out of reach. Rahman blew a sharp whistle, and a blink shot from the sky, knocking the prize from Hikmat’s hand. Rahman twisted to snatch it from the air, hooting, his companion alighting on a lamp post nearby with a staccato screek that sent the former tenants wheeling in terror.
“Two on one!” Hikmat smiled.
“Snake!” Rahman mock-sneered, “Stealing from a shipmate!”
“I against my brother,” Hikmat straightened, continuing on down the main thoroughfare.
“My brother and I against our cousins,” Rahman continued, falling into step beside him, “My cousins and I against the neighbors.”
“Such is the way of S’had’a’benine,” Hikmat finished the ancient beninite proverb. It had become a kind of good luck ritual between them many years ago.“Come brother,” he turned toward the nearest market square, “Let us supplement our wages.”
*
Back on the ship, the the last of the seamen bounded down the gangplank from Diego’s table. He scanned his list once to see if he’d missed anyone, and found two names unchecked.
1M. Thorsten Albersnagle – 3b/1
Nvg. Markus Barrow – 3b/1
The first was typical of the brutish first mate, Albersnagle thought he was still in the Navy and never bothered to collect his wage until they landed in Port of Isles. Barrow, on the other hand, was just taking his time. Diego folded the collapsible table and tucked it under one arm, with the ship’s purse under the other. The sterncastle of the Esmer Wind rose from the quarterdeck just enough to accommodate the wardroom and officers’ quarters. He edged by the ladderwell to the orlop deck and its half-dozen passenger berths leading to the captain’s cabin.
“Barrow, man, what on earth are you doing?” he asked, stepping sideways into the wardroom. The navigation officer was hunched over the chart table with two great logbooks and a variety of implements scattered about. Diego secured the folded table in a purpose-built nook behind the bureau. It and the ship’s fine hardwood purse matched many of the wardroom’s furnishings.
“Porter,” the younger man’s irritation was blatant, “What do you need?” Diego bristled at being referred to in such a colloquial manner. The term porter was obvious double-entendre, both accurately, if crudely, naming him by his city of birth and his position under the captain. Diego’s pride chafed at being subordinate to anyone, but particularly such an unimaginitive peer as Marcello. He shook his head. He may not have been a merchant’s son, but he could still spot terrible business decisions.
Spending fifty septans on impressive furniture could have uses, certainly a few fineries were needed to maintain some semblance of civilization under the barbaric conditions at sea, but a brief glance at the ledger was all a sane man needed to put-off such extravagance. He locked the discouragingly light purse and its cabinet, avoiding the table rather than approach the salt-stained man with it. Diego was fortunate to have learned his cantrips, without arcana to refresh his garments he’d have succumed ages ago. How men like Barrow and Thorsten managed without, and with only one or two outfits at that, Diego would never understand.
“I’m delivering your wage,” Diego Hercule Samson maintained a gentlemanly tone, “since you couldn’t be bothered to retrieve it. I wish you a speedy recovery from whatever malady has soured your mood at the onset of shore leave,” Diego stated, leaning against the bureau.
“Have you seen the Captain?” Mar asked, not bothering to look up.
“No,” Diego turned and adjusted the wind damage to his hair in the small mirror affixed to the bulkhead, “Does it bother you? I don’t intend to cross paths with him for at minimum twenty-four hours.”
“I would have thought you two shared the same consorts,” Markus dipped his pen and blotted it. He could all but feel Diego’s expression darken, “I need him to approve the logs.”
“Grant me at least some credit, Mister Barrow,” Diego emphasized the younger man’s lack of title whenever they duelled like this, “He pays double , and I’ve paid half-price or less since the age of twelve,” he flashed a doubt-banishing smile at his reflection, then turned it on the navigator.
“May you both die happy men drowned in brandy-splashed tits-for-hire,” Mar stated before blowing the last lines dry, “I believe you were here for a purpose?”
“Ohh my Good Man,” Diego retrieved his finest felt hat from the rack and strode toward the table, “Should we all find death’s bosom so delicious!” He thumped the navigator’s coin parcel on the table, “Buy yourself some spirit, there’s far too much melancholy on this damned rowboat as it is,” the purser swept his hands about, taking in the ship as a whole as he spun toward the hatch, “While you’re at it, buy yourself a hat. A man can’t be taken seriously without a proper topper.”
“Nor can he be taken seriously with one such as yours,” Mar retorted, but the lordling was already clicking his expensive boot heels down the gangplank. Markus blew on the ink once more as he re-corked in the inkpot. The table faced the latticework windows in the forward wall of the wardroom, the shutters opened fully to let the breeze and sunlight in. He sat back in the chair, staring out at the open sea before him. Half a dozen ships caught his eye several miles out, probably oslander ships not willing to pay the exorbitant port tax the horselords had recently imposed on them.
Land made no sense, this one or any other. Men clung to it, scrabbled over it, spilled blood to stand upon it, only to covet another’s. Thousands scheming against thousands, tens of thousands marching back and forth across it carrying steel on their backs or water on their shoulders, only to be trapped by earth in the end. A pitiful, dust-choked way of life.
“Sir,” a young man of around fifteen popped his unruly head of hair through the hatch, “The ship’s empty aside from yourself. I’m assigned first portwatch,” Coy Robbins, dubbed ‘Coy Boy’ by the rest of the crew, hesitated. Mar didn’t move, his gaze still fixed on the horizon, “Um, would you like me on the quarterdeck or aloft, Sir?”
“Wherever you want, Coy Boy,” Mar didn’t look away from his reverie, “I’m neither your master nor governess.”
“Aye, sir,” Coy Boy said, then more softly, “I’ll be aloft, then,” he slunk from the hatchway like a slapped dog. Mar felt a pang in his gut, the tiniest stab of guilt. Once he might have followed and apologized, but he just continued to stare, listening to the breeze rustle the pages of his log.


Arcswain, the title seemed incongruous with the familiar odor and sounds of the fish market Theron’s legs had taken him to. He walked along the stalls gazing at piles of silvery madacota and bright red bone snapper.
“Ho, mas’er! Bes’ catch a’ the day, righ’ here. Sapphire greatfin caught fresh but five hours ago, tas’iest fishstea’ y’ever have, what say ye’ mas’er? Fair price at a squib a’ two-p’und, even bone ‘er fer yeh quick as y’can flash a smile, eh?” the stout-shouldered, thick-bearded fishmonger gave a toothy smile as he held the good-sized fish up for inspection. It was a fine specimen, with a deep-blue color in the fins indicative of great flavor. It was likely the best of his offerings.
The thought crystallized a feeling of displacement in Theron’s heart. He could see in his mind’s eye the fisherman hauling the greatfin up in his net, as Theron’s father might well have done. The man would gape with shock, then whisper thanks to the Blue Mother. Quickly he’d pull in the rest of the catch, hauling about and making for the market as quick as the wind blew. Theron could see the fisherman swaggering with pride, his own son or brother helping him carry the awkwardly spade-shaped creature. Never once would the fisherman consider bringing the prize home to his own family. It was a wealthy man’s meal, buying a month’s bread’n’veg for the fisherman’s family.
Theron was no longer seen as a fisherman’s son. Perhaps his posture, perhaps his grooming, perhaps his dress (though he had taken pains to avoid the ostentation wizards are known for) marked him as a greatfin-eater. Something had surely given the fishmonger the impression that Theron could afford nearly a kingmark for a meal’s meat, and not even on Shrineday.
“A fine specimen,” Theron replied, “but I’m not so flush as that.” He quickly hurried from the market place as the fishmonger implored him to consider the snapper, fresher still than the greatfin. Once out of sight, having turned a few corners, Theron slowed his pace. Going back to sea was supposed to have helped him find himself again. So far he’d only discovered how much things had changed. He was no longer an academic, but nor was he an ordinary mariner.
Even his current task set him apart. The wizard’s destination was not a dock tavern or church, but a curioster’s shop. He followed the odd branded-wood signs favored in Kardam (how one was meant to navigate after dark he had no idea) toward the artisan’s quarter. Asking-in at a few shops, Theron eventually reached the door of Oht Grasshead’s Wondercrafts – No Snapsand Allowed Within! A minor illusion of a grass curtain parted before him as he entered, and a whimsical harp strum sounded through the cramped room. The counter formed an “L” around two sides, behind which the walls were covered floor to ceiling in shelf upon shelf of ceramic jars with elegantly written labels. The third wall was dominated by small bins of thunderstones, racks of glassware, finely carved wand-shafts, scroll tubes, parchment, and powders.
Beneath the counters, glass cases displayed a handful of charged wands, scrolls, and various enchanted items of common consumption. Heatless, magical fire danced in a variety of vibrant colors along the frames of the display cases to illuminate the shop’s prize wares. A wire-haired and wire-bodied kard man of middle-age emerged from the back room wearing a finely-embroidered, burgundy suit with a small, black tool pouch poking from a breast pocket.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the man said with a cultivated accent, “welcome to my humble showroom. Oht Grasshead, at your service,” the well-groomed man provided a curt bow of his head; his thin-lipped mouth neither frowned nor smiled.
“Theron Vosser,” the arcswain introduced himself, “I’m looking for an arcane scroll, specifically one including the basic formula for a fireball evocation, instantaneous blast preferably.”
“Certainly, sir. I have on hand a single such scribing,” the thin man let himself glide towards a display case with deep orange colored faerie fire. His hands gently disabled some manner of ward, in a position blocked from Theron’s view. He wasn’t paying particular attention to that anyway, “This particular formula was written in the style of Mordenkainen.” Grassheed lifted the scroll from a small felt stand and brought it forth for closer inspection, unrolling the rich vellum with practiced grace. Loops and short criss-crosses of the unnamed scrivener’s notology covered the sheet. Some of it was written over itself, forming multiple layers intentionally designed to mislead the uninitiated as well as conserve space.
Theron removed a loop of polished crystal from his pocket, attached by a silver chain to his vest, and incanted as he briefly ran his finger along the rim of each side of the loop, touching his eye with the finger and drawing an imaginary connection from it to one side of the loop. He repeated the process for the keysign in the center of the scroll. Some wizards prided themselves on incorporating artistry and showmanship into every spell, but even they rarely embellished something so common as a reading cantrip. There was no flashing, spark, or rainbow color. The effect of the spell was noticeable only by Theron, who placed the loop in his eye to inspect the caligraphy, “How much, Mister Grassheed?”
“Given both the quality of the scroll heads themselves, and the complexity of even the basic formulation of the evocation, the gentlemanly price would be four-hundred or its equivalent, Master Vosser,” Oht replied politely, but firmly.
“Four-hundred it is, sir,” Theron completed his cursory scan of the scroll, satisfied it was genuine and unadulterated, “I shall return with payment later in the day, if you would be so kind as to set it aside for me,” he returned the loop to its pocket.
“Exquisite, sir,” Oht re-rolled the scroll and again nodded his head curtly, “shall you require a case for travel?”
“Unnecessary, thank you,” Theron replied.
“And when shall I expect your return, Sir?”
“One hour,” Theron replied, turning his attention to a pair of caged sandhopper mice and a rare labyrinthe. He’d only seen one of the latter in his lifetime, and a preserved specimen at that. According to some records, the maze-burrowing crustacean from Benin could reach a size which made it a threat to humanoids, though from his recollection there were no preserved specimens larger than a house-cat.
“Marvelous,” Oht stated, “Please, do let me know if there is any other assistance I can provide,” the shop owner reset whatever wards he had protecting the case, and left Theron alone in the showroom as he brought the scroll to the back room. The promise of furthering his research reinvigorated the arcswain, and with springier steps he hurried back through Dalda’s waterfront districts towards the ship.
*
Rahman was twenty feet away through the busy market square, but Hikmat nevertheless caught his subtle nod and mischievous eye. Just entering the square, their arcswain was bustling through the crowds with the slight bewilderment of a man unaccustomed to them. Were he not a wizard, the arcswain would have been the perfect mark. Hikmat raised an eyebrow, invisible behind his keffiyeh, and shook his head softly. Rahman shrugged, leaning backward just in-time to “accidentally” bump a distracted, largish man crossing behind him. As he turned around, the close observer would have seen a coin purse in his hand.
Hikmat watched him pull a few coins from the purse as he apologized and let the sack fall to the ground at his feet. The handsome beninite mocked surprise as he stepped on the lightened coin purse, notifying the large man of his accident. The man thanked him for his honesty and made his own apologies for the collision. Just like that, the sailors were a few skellings richer, and the fool walked away shaking his head with relief. Hikmat allowed himself a satisfied twitch of his mustache.
Another mark was coming his way now, a thin man trying to wrangle a young boy. Hikmat changed the direction of his meander, making sure Rahman saw his move. Just before Hikmat was about to cross paths with father and son, Rahman whistled for his companion, and the falcon dove from her circle. The sound and sudden appearance of the bird drew the young boys attention immediately, and he shrieked with glee. It was enough to distract the father so he didn’t notice Hikmat intentionally enter his path at the last moment.
Hikmat swore in baiha, but steadied the man with both hands, chattering at him his native tongue first, “A hundred apologies, stranger,” the man stared at him dumfounded.
“Sorry, sah,” the man jerked the startled boy, “Kayse! See now what ye done?”
“Is no trouble, apology, apology,” Hikmat bowed slightly, smiling and exaggerating his accent.
“Apologize to the man, Kayse,” Father ordered. The shy child looked at the dark, strangely dressed stranger and stuttered a soft apology, “That’s betta’,” the father looked back to Hikmat with a parting nod and the duo continued on their way, leaving a dumbly smiling Hikmat nodding behind them. As Hikmat turned away, patting the added weight of the father’s coin pouch under his tunic, the thief noticed a man watching him from a food stall nearby. The piercing coldness of the man’s gaze caught Hikmat’s attention, but not enough to let his own eyes linger. The next time he looked at the food cart, the other man had gone back to his conversation with the vendor.

They’d spent enough time in this spot, Hikmat decided. He gave Rahman the signal to move on, and they left the square in opposite directions. Taking a wide circle through the winding, disorganized streets and alleys of Dalda, the pair of beninites reunited at the edge of the fish market. After a quick assessment they split-off again, cutting meandering paths through the stalls and thicker crowds. The fishmongers weren’t as loud as the hawkers in the market, but the sounds of chopping blocks and deafening seagulls made for a chaotic swirl perfect for their task. They spent an hour working the crowds here before moving on again.
Following the fish market, they fell into step heading toward the city’s beninite quarter on the north edge of town near the shipyards. A mix of kard mud-brick and stone structures and traditional beninite tents and awnings created a colorful mish-mash of scenery. The familiar odors of his homeland filled Hikmat’s nose and caused his stomach to gurgle. Cooking chevon and pungent spices wafted from various eateries, and the jingle of an old wanderer’s song-tale drew the men like moths.
They stepped inside the tent, soft light from half a dozen lamps was a relief compared to setting sun outside. Cushions littered the floor, a few men lounging in conversation shared platters of meat and flatbread. Hikmat could hear a gaggle of women speaking the feminine dialect of baiha in an adjoining section of the tent. While he’d rarely experienced such formality in his sandmaze childhood, the tent felt like a taste of what home should be; a sweetly-filtered memory of a bitter past.
The host raised a hand in greeting to the men, “Come shelter from the wind and sun, travellers. Eat of our food and drink of our tea. Out tent is yours, for a modest gift and a rich tale,” the speech was well rehearsed, but genuine. Smacking of the tradition yearned for by a man long severed from his roots. This was an inspired businessman indeed.
Rahman and Hikmat ate their fill and drank the first good pot of spiced tea they’d had in over a month. They laughed and shared stories with the other men; a jeweler, a poet, and a man introduced as a financier but whom all suspected of being a syndicate bagman. The men admired Rahman’s falcon, and once night had fallen, they joined the women around a brazier behind the tent and danced into the late night. The host was a skilled musician, it turned out, and the poet provided the narrative for a few dance-tales.
*
Nearer the city center, Diego was engaged in a dance of his own. The Blue Jack was one of the more esteemed officers’ clubs in Dalda, though often the victim of defamation due to its oslander affiliation. Diego liked it, just tarnished enough to inhibit the highest circle of noblemen, but still reputable enough for the husband-hunters to frequent without their brothers or male cousins as escorts.
He’d bathed in perfumed water as soon as possible, and refreshed the color of his outfit with a few simple cantrips. His hair was art, his collar perfectly askance, just enough to draw attention. His sword hilt positioned to draw the eye to his belt. Dining with other officers, minor nobles, and merchants earlier, he’d now taken a prime hunting platform at the bar in the common room. Before coming down, he’d been sure to arrange his room to impress company.
A few flirtatious encounters and gentlemanly fencing with the lesser competition had entertained him for the first half of the night, but for the last hour he’d been exchanging glances and one or two chance touches on the dance floor with a stunning creature seated across the room. Twenty-five at most, golden hair woven with black ribbons matching the embroidery of an emerald dress that made her green eyes absolutely shine. Her motion was sleek, chin confident. The worthiest trophy in the room.
Diego’s gazelle was sharing a table with two other women and a man in his forties, however. He’d ascertained from the servers and a hefty tip to the bartender that her name was Gabriella, and the man at the table was her second-cousin, wed to the woman on her right. The other woman was her younger first-cousin, the family was invested in blah-blah-blah.
His game was aware he’d noticed, but he’d been careful to avoid indicating interest just enough to intrigue her, he hoped. Diego sipped another expensive brandy, making eye contact through the mirror behind the bar. It was working. The crowd had thinned considerably in the last twenty-minutes, with the older set retiring to their rooms or manors over an hour ago. The second-cousin signaled the waiter.
Diego signaled the barman, who poured a flute of the same champagne Gabriella had been drinking all evening, setting it before an open chair two seats down from Diego’s at the nearly empty bar. He gave the purser a subtle wink and drifted to the distant basin to clean his crystal.
Her table rose, collecting furs and cloaks. Diego caught Gabriella passing something to the maitre-d’ as the ensemble left through front door, his gazelle included. Diego massaged a tooth with his tongue and drained his snifter, signalling the barman for another. Perhaps she’d return, feigning to forget whatever she’d handed the maitre-d’, but the tubby man was now approaching the bar.
“Sir,” the maitre-d’ acknowledged Diego, but said nothing more as he placed the half-skel coin next to the champagne flute. There was a faint, red lip shape on the coin. The maitre-d’ retreated to his post.
Damn.
“A worthy effort, Sir,” the barman consoled, refilling Diego’s snifter. He slid the half-skel coin down the bar, since the purser had already paid for the champagne. Men and women continued to slowly drain from the club, but a handful still remained when a pair of dark-haired, comely women took the seats next to Diego. The champagne flute still stood there.
“Awe, Femora, I think mayhaps someone had a falling-out,” said one to the other, gesturing at the flute.
“Actually, I think mayhaps an appointment was missed, Mara,” replied Femora, pouting.
“I’ll wager you a flute of champagne on the matter,” Mara challenged. The pair turned in unison to Diego, sympathetic expressions on their subtly painted faces.
“Settle a bet for us, Sir?” Mara asked.
“Maybe we can raise your spirit,” Femora added.
Two hours later, a drunken and half-satisfied Diego lay betwixt the pair of equally-drunken, cooing consorts. He stared through the window at stars over the ocean as a candle died on the nightstand. If he were in home territory, not forced to move around like a vagabond from port to port…things would be different. Gods bedamn you, Father.
*

Theron munched a fresh apple as the pre-dawn light saw the fishing fleet out of the harbor. He glanced up as he carved intricate patterns into the surface of a smooth rosewood shaft. He’d gone to bed at sundown after spending most of the evening studying the formula presented on the evocation scroll; having risen well before dawn to study the day’s anticipated spell needs and start work on this project. Zanf or Boatswain Carols had to return before he could finish it, he’d need the workbench clamp and the shop was locked.
The intricacy of the design, and the skill required of the toolwork, consumed his attention allowing him to clear his mind and focus his thoughts. He took another bite of apple and set down the wand and knife. As the sun rose over the waves, the wizard filled his lungs with the crisp, ocean air. The ship was nigh empty save for Rodrick dosing-off by the gangplank and Navigator Barrow straddling the foremast main yard, leaning against the heavy timber as he polished and oiled his swords.
That seemed to be the young man’s life. Every time Theron looked at him, Mar was maintaining something; be it weapons, a sextant, the logs, or his own clothing. He seemed to find an everlasting supply of things to do, but none seemed of particular intellectual challenge. The few conversations Theron had managed to get out of Barrow had revealed a surprising intellect for an uneducated man, and the barbed duels of wit volleyed between the purser and the navigator were further proof.
There were more than a few mysteries among the crew of the Esmer Wind, but not many intrigued the wizard like the navigator’s past. The only other crewman at such apparent odds with his position was the ferneah cook, Codder.
As if the halfling knew Theron’s thoughts, the wizard saw the cook walking up the quay leading a string of porters carrying sacks. Codder walked up the gangplank and kicked Rodrick awake as he passed, “Some port watchman ye are, be glad t’was I found ye and not the first mate or you’d find yerself tied t’ the mast and cryin’ like a young lass on ‘er weddin’ night awaitin’ what may come, Says I get yer feet under y’arse so when you doze off y’ kick yerself,” he directed the porters down the ladderway to his storeroom with the sacks. A bustle of activity and racket seemed to accompany Trahorn most places he went, and a flock of seagulls took up residence in the rigging shortly after the porters went below. Thus the morning calm was banished.
Albersnagle arrived at ten along with the stevedore and his longshoremen, precisely two hours before noon, when the crew was due back aboard. He collected his roll and took his post at the brow after checking-off the crew already present. The sailors came in clumps of two to four, and were immediately assigned duties to make the ship ready.
“Fine of you to finally arrive, Samson,” Albersnagle greeted the sunken-eyed purser as he dragged himself up the gangplank, hat pulled low over his eyes, “Is the Cap’n behind you somewhere?” Diego narrowed his eyes at the towering first mate, trying to parse his words at first, then trying to remember if he’d seen Marcello since yesterday morning, and settling on an appropriate response.
“Fuck if I’ll be reprimanded if he isn’t here yet.”
“Hayes has your manifest,” Albersnagle let the issue drop, the purser had a point and there was rarely any good to come of arguing with him, “they’re about half-done loading. Also, there’s a runner over yon wants to talk to you about steerage.”
“Ugh,” Diego wrinkled his face, negotiating steerage sounded like a terrible fucking headache right now. Everything did, actually. He turned around and returned to the quay, swallowing dryly and clearing his throat with a splash from his flask. Hair of the gnoll…
An older man lean of frame approached him and removed his hat respectfully, “Good afternoon, Sir. Are you Master Samson?”
“Diego Hercule Samson, Purser of the Esmer Wind, at your service,” Diego stated with a flourish, “I understand you’re seeking passage on our ship?”
“My Mistress is, Sir. I’m inquiring on her behalf as to rates and accommodation. We’ve a party of eight.”
“Well,” Diego responded, glancing at the position of the sun, “We’ve six cabins, if that suits your mistress’s needs, at a dukemark a mile. She’ll have to make haste, though, we’re to sail in a few hours time,” it was an absolute fallacy, they weren’t sailing until morning, but hopefully that would steer the woman to another ship. At the very least, it gave him a better negotiating position.
“Excellent, Sir. I’ll inform the mistress,” and the man took off at a brisk jog, impressive for his age, really. His mistress must pay rather well, interesting. Diego shrugged and walked back up the gangplank and over to the hold, relieving Hayes. He peered into the hold to check Carmello’s work, good enough. He glanced back down at the quay and the remaining cargo. Hey narrowed his eyes again, and referred back to the manifest. What in the Nine Hells?
“Thorsten,” Diego croaked. He cleared his throat and tried again, striding up to Albersnagle.
“Purser?”
“What is this lunacy,” he put a finger on the manifest and gestured to the freight on the quay.
“What’s the problem?” Thorsten’s patience was not legendary, particularly for Diego.
“That’s about forty tons, wouldn’t you say?” he pointed at the quay.
“Aye, thereabouts.”
“There’s only about thirty tons in the holds. Where’s the rest?”
“What do you mean?” Thorsten demanded, turning to fully face the purser, “Has there been thieving?”
“Not according to this,” Diego dismissively waived the manifest, “It’s the end of the season, every ship headed south is loaded over capacity and we’re twenty tons short?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time,” Thorsten stated, confounded by the purser’s rage.
“No, Navy, it is the first time. In the history of mercantilism there has not been any one so incompetent as to fail to fill a ship to South Landing on the edge of autumn. Why isn’t Marcello here, yet? I thought he said noon,” Diego fumed.
“He did, I thought you’d have known better than I where he’d squander himself,” Albersnagle squared his shoulders, “But you’re right. In fact,” the first mate noticed a gaggle of very hung-over seamen stumbling to the base of the gangplank, “What in the Nine Hells happened to you lot? Orders were noon! It’s nearly one, and you’re hardly fit for duty!”
As if to demonstrate the fact, two of them vomited over the side at the sudden onslaught of sound from Albersnagle, “Where are the rest of you, there’s still three unaccounted for.” The men just wobbled, shrugging or exchanging questioning looks, “Get to work,” he ordered, disgusted.
An hour later, the cargo mostly loaded, an entourage had just started walking down the quay when Thorsten noticed it, “Purser! Duty calls!” he barked towards the main cargo hatch. Diego was down trying to figure out if there was anything he’d missed on the manifest that would explain the strangeness of the situation. Upon hearing Thorsten’s roar, he immediately handed the list off to Carmello again.
Scaling the rope ladder, he caught his first glimpse of what he would come to call “the entourage”. The mistress was lithe and sharply-featured, by no means unattractive, especially in her expensively-tailored cream-satin and blue gown; her dark was styled up, anchored by one of the fine seafolk polished-coral circlets that were all the rage last spring in the Port. Four robed men held an awning above as she descended the main street to the docks.
Flanking her was a very striking younger woman, an almost civilized-looking hobgoblin (of all things), and a massive, shrouded brute hauling a trunk the size of a shipping crate. An old, lanky fellow was also trailing the group, the one he’d spoken to earlier. “Oh my,” it was a large group, he could care less about the old man or the robed servants, his attention was solely on the handmaiden, “Oh my, my.”
He adjusted his hair and hat, quickly dusting-off with a cantrip that blew it out with a snap of his limbs. With a light step, he strode down the gangplank with his most charming smile.
“Welcome, M’lady,” he removed his cap and bowed, “Purser Diego Hercule Samson, at your service. Charmed to meet you,” he rose from the bow, smiling widely and making sure to lock eyes with the handmaiden.
“Lisette Curtice,” the woman in black replied, her expression the definition of composure, “Samson, of Port of Isles?”
“Indeed, and the same Curtices of Manse Mithtril? A true honor to have your consideration of the Esmer Wind,” Diego was actually surprised to encounter an oslander noble of any repute in Kardam. Curtice was a well known name in the upper circles of the Port. How had he never met this handmaiden before?
“Indeed,” Lissette cast an assessing gaze along the length of the ship, “Not particularly grandiose.”
“Perhaps, but few are faster, and fewer still as tightly run. Why, Mister Albersnagle retired after more than twenty-five years in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy,” he gestured to the first mate standing at parade rest on the quarterdeck overseeing preparations. For once the rod up his ass was proving useful.
“We intend to travel to Ezrepelllian,” Lisette continued, “Myself, seven servants, and my luggage. I expect privacy and will provide victuals and water for my servants and self. What will our reduced steerage be?” Lords she was direct.
“Excellent, M’lady,” Diego did some quick calculation, “providing your own rations, I can offer a deeply discounted figure, seven pence per mile, for eight hundred and ten miles, by your number of…eight,” he hesitated at the large man in back, but let it go. It wasn’t costing them any more, “brings us to forty-six septans,” he finished his arithmetic, “rounding down as a courtesy to your family.”
“Suitable,” Lisette accepted, “I will advance half our payment now,” she removed one of the largest gemstones Diego had ever seen in person, and held it before her. Diego’s hand reflexively accepted, “and the rest upon our safe arrival in Ezrepellian. My servants will take care of our luggage. The ship sails this evening?”
“Yes, well,” Diego had to come up with a reason it wasn’t, still recovering from the weight of the gem, “It seems our Captain has encountered another valuable business opportunity, and is meeting with a potential partner as we speak.” He had no idea how accurate that guess would prove,”As a result our time-table may be delayed slightly. Dawn at the latest, M’lady.”
“This is not a good way to begin a relationship, Mr. Samson. It incites rumors of unprofessionalism in some circles,” Lisette maintained a cold calm despite her barbed words, “Our cabins?”
“Of course, M’lady,” Diego held an arm out to the gangplank, ”right his way.” He led the entourage past Albersnagle, who resolutely maintained his position rather than introduce himself. Probably for the best. After seeing that Lisette and her servants were acquainted with the cabins and some basic direction on the boat’s workings, he left her to stow her luggage. It struck Diego how well disciplined her servants were, and he could not help but admire the handmaiden, whose name he’d heard as Magda. He would not forget it. Returning to his post and reclaiming the manifest from Hayes, he kept a hand on the gem
“Darzi! Nasib! Long! You’re on retrieval duty, we’ve got crew missing. It’s two o’clock for godssakes” Thorsten barked, picking a few of the most reliable sailors.
“Aye, Aye,” Raleigh called. Hikmat and Rahman were already descending from the rigging. They retrieved their weapons, just in case, and got the names from Albersnagle before leaving. Thaddeus and Lowell were junior sailors, but Lacy Duran had been around for a few years, and was more than capable of handling herself. It was unusual for her to fail to report.
“Is this punishment for being early?” Rahman asked as they walked along the quay.
“Nope,” Raleigh replied, “for bein’ reli’ble.” He was an older man, almost sixty.
“Let’s start in North Wharf, the seedier the tavern, the more likely they’ll have been there,” Hikmat sighed.
*
“I don’t think you can get much ‘seedier’ than this,” Rahman observed as they followed the last barman’s directions toward a dive called Callahan’s Rest. None of the sailors had ever heard to the place, which either meant it was new or very, very bad. Given the growing stench and thinning foot traffic, Hikmet guessed the latter. He was glad there were three of them.
“Well,” Raleigh glanced down an alley of make-shift awnings, discarded men, and garbage shelters, “S’pose we aught ta check.” The trio warily turned down the alley, coming across a number of sleeping men in various states of inebriation. One had no shirt, turned-out pockets, and a rearranged face that looked vaguely familiar.
“Mercer,” Rahman sighed, he knelt and tried to wake the boy with no success, “Should we try to move him?”
“Got to get ‘im back one way ‘r ‘nother,” Raleigh moved in and splashed Lowell with water from his canteen, eliciting a groan, “He’l ‘live, c’mon,” he groaned pulling the beaten sailor up, draping an arm over his shoulder. Rahman took the other side and they dragged him from the alley.
“I do not think he’ll be up anytime soon. We should get him back,” Rahman said. Raleigh nodded his agreement.
“We still have to find the other two,” Hikmat looked down the next alley, hoping they were nearby.
“There’s the bar, maybe they are still inside, looks like rooms above it,” Rahman said.
“I’ll check, you two get him back to the ship,” Hikmat started towards a solid-looking door with a faded wood-burnt sign above spelling out “Calla n’s R st”. Raleigh grunted and started moving, pulling the hesitant Rahman with him.
Hikmat approached the door. There wasn’t a sound from inside, but a couple of vagrants were sleeping a block away, snoring loudly, and a pair of emaciated dogs were growling over a scrap he couldn’t identify. He knocked hard on the door.
After nearly a minute, he heard shuffling and a small window opened in the center of the door, a haggard woman’s face filling it, “We closed, ass.”
“You have two sailors in there? Younger lad and scrappy woman?” he asked before she slammed the window shut. There was a third dog in the street now, this one only had three legs and the other two were harassing it.
“You pay dey bill,” the woman said, showing her mouth to be utterly devoid of teeth save one apparently cast of silver at wealthier age.
“No, they pay their bill,” Hikmat replied. The three-legged dog came whimpering across the street to shelter next to him. The other two stared at it with drooling maws, but weren’t bold enough to follow. Hikmat stared down at it as the woman disappeared.
He heard another shuffling as she pounded up a rickety staircase. A boy’s face popped into view, “You pay three skellin’,” the dirty child demanded.
“I’ll pay no skelling, and break in there myself,” Hikmat threatened. The boy seemed intimidated.
“Alright, one squib, yer friends’ got no coin and ain’t paid,” the child demanded. The dog whimpered at Hikmat’s feet, and he noticed a couple of more vagrants had taken-up posts, curious about the commotion, no doubt. “One squib! No less!”
“Fine,” Hikmat threw a single silver coin through the small window, which the child caught. He went hollering into the hole. A great yelling and banging of furniture followed a few minutes later from the upper floor. The three-legged dog retreated down the alley, the other two having left completely. Three of the new vagrants looked a little too clean to be street-sleepers, but only a little. The hackles rose on Hikmat’s neck, and he pulled his keffiyeh tight across his face, leaving only his eyes uncovered. He gently felt to make sure his blade was in the right place.
He nearly fell over when the door burst open. Lacy and Thaddeus, both soaking wet, tumbled out into the street, the door slamming and locking right behind them. Hikmat sighed and helped them to their unsteady feet, “We should go.”
“Unnnngghh,” Lacy held her head, “Lowell.”
“We found him, they’re taking him back to the ship. C’mon,” Hikmet was growing impatient. He guided them along the alley-like street. After only a couple blocks, even Lacy knew they were in trouble.
“Who are you,” she croaked, bleary eyed, pointing an accusatory finger at one of he not-bums following them. At that moment, Hikmet saw a bulky, steely-eyed man stride out from the shadows of an alley, flanked by two more. He immediately recognized the man as the one who’d been studying him in the market square the day before, while Rahman and he were working the crowds.
“Ahh,” Hikmat stated.
“I see you recognize me, too,” the man said thickly, “Who you running with?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hikmat dodged, “I’m just a sailor.”
“Oh really? You mean it was some other towel-faced, camel-eater pickin’ pockets in my market?” the man wasn’t buying it, Hikmat now thought of him as Mr. Gray.
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hikmat quietly slipped his grappling hook into Lacy’s hand. She half-grunted in confusion.
“What the fuck?”
“You’ve a couple options here, friend,” the leader continued, “I’m not an unreasonable man, and I’m not inclined towards bloodshed, unlike most your kind. If you want to work my streets, you pay a tithe to me reflecting my expenses. Five bloodmarks, and you three can stumble on. Otherwise I take it out of your hide.”
“We haven’t got that much,” Hikmat stated.
“Well,” the thug eyed Lacy with a raised eyebrow, “I’ll take what you have, and negotiate the rest.”
“Um, what’s happening?” Thaddeus was looking behind them at a pair of thugs cutting-off their escape.
“Over my dead body,” Lacy glared at him, “I’ll rip your shit off!” Lacy threw the grappling hook at the leader, trying to snag a limb and take him down. She missed. The alley exploded in shouting and motion. One the thugs grabbed Lacy in bear hug, the two behind drew blades and slashed at Thaddeus. The leader drew his short sword and slashed a Hikmat, and the other thug on his right, the one with broken nose, tried to grab him, but Hikmat was light on his feet.
“Ahhieeeahh!” Thaddeus screamed, leaping about in a desperate attempt to avoid the knives of his assailants. Lacy screeched, bitting the grappling thug’s hand, but she couldn’t break-free. He just pinned her more completely and started squeezing.
“Bastard,” the leader recoiled as Hikmat drew his own blade and rent the his tunic. The two men’s swords flashed. Mr. Grey was much quicker than he at first appeared, but Hikmat’s fluid fighting style and loose clothing made him difficult to hit.
Hikmat straightened the fingers of his left hand into a point. His foe took the moment to breathe, unfamiliar with this strange combat stance. He recovered quickly and swung his sword-arm to attack. The beninite whispered something and a black dart shot from his opening hand. The leader wheeled, dodging the surprise attack. The dart, however, spread shadowy wings and extended a pair of talons that snatched the man’s unguarded sword from his stunned fingers before he could react.
With a distant, muffled screech the shadow wheeled and dove back into Hikmat’s open hand, bringing the rogue leader’s weapon with it. The daggermen at the rear realized Thaddeus was of little consequence, being both unarmed and nearly incapacitated already. They moved-up, flanking Hikmat, banishing a triumphant grin.
The thief dodged and parried their blades away, but they were wearing him down, he needed to escape their ring of steel. The leader dodged Hikmat’s sword once again, coming around it wielding a dagger he’d pulled from seemingly nowhere. The smaller blade caught the beninite off-guard and gashed the back of his left hand. The stolen sword clattered to the paving stones along with a spattering of bright crimson.
Hikmat dove beneath the dagger’s next jab, somersaulting between a barely-struggling Lacy and the Mr. Gray. As he came to his feet Hikmat spun-up on his heel, leading with his sword. The attack cut under the leader’s dagger, and with nothing but his off-hand between his breast and Hikmat’s blade the rogue raised it to shield himself. The fine steel cut cleanly through bone and sinew, dropping one the man’s fingers into a growing pool of blood with a dire scream of rage and pain. Bloodied, disarmed, and bleeding profusely, the thug leader saw an opening left by Hikmat’s dramatic repositioning, and took it. As he fled down the narrow, twisting alleyway, he screeched in rage, “Gut all of them! Make them suffer!”
His men took it to heart, Lacy finally succumbing to a gut punch and collapsing. Hikmat was a flurry of motion, spinning around the attackers and sweeping his sword in graceful arcs. He sliced deeply into one the attackers, rocking him back on his heels. As the other’s moved to aid that thug, knocking Thaddeus to the ground with a jab to his abdomen, Hikmat capitalized on the opening by lopping of the man’s right hand. He fell, clutching the stump and passing-out from the pain.
The odds had not changed much, it was now worse in fact. With three thugs working to surround him and cut-off his escape, bleeding from his hand, arm, and thigh, Hikmat lashed out again, barely able see as tunnel-vision closed-in.
The largest of the three glanced a heavy blow across Hikmat’s left brow, the brass knuckles tearing skin even through his keffiyeh. Uyal’ani danced in front of him as his head shook of its own accord. He yelled, not a challenge, but a senseless garbled sound like starving street dogs when cornered. His sword whistled inches from a dagger-man’s ear, cutting a line across his shoulder as Hikmat pushed into the assault, using his momentum to propel him through a low spin that twisted under the guards of the other two men, leaving the beninite behind the largest attacker.
Hikmat yanked at one of the dark-painted phials on his bandolier, thumbing the cork free and tilting the viscous, brownish-white substance into his mouth. It was bitter and acidic, burning in his nostrils like kasami root and watering his eyes. Almost as soon as he swallowed, he could feel heat surging through his limbs, the pain from his wounds subsiding slightly.
The thugs glanced at one another, the smallest turned and fled down the alley after his leader. The largest pointed at Hikmat as he backed away, “You’re a fucking marked man, dune walker.” Hikmat responded by spitting blood on the pave stones and smiling wide. The last two men ran around the bend.
Once they were out of sight, he collapsed against the wall. Using it to keep him upright, he staggered to Lacy, still unconscious. He half-fell to his knees, retrieving the other phial from his bandolier. Removing the cork, he tilted her head and poured the same bitter mixture into her mouth. She coughed, sputtering and striking out with fists before she understood what was happening.
“What the hell is that?” she sniffed trying to clear her bloodied nose, her hand shooting to her side at the sharp inhalation, “Ahh!”
“That is probably a broken rib,” Hikmat crawled over to Thaddeus, trying to wake him. The young man didn’t respond, but he was still breathing. A dark stain on his brown shirt was growing from the lower edge of his ribcage, “We need to get out of here.”
“Is he alive?” Lacy asked, working herself up into a kneel, “and what the fuck..am I supposed to do..with a grappling hook… in a street fight?” Her anger was tempered by the pain.
“Yes, and improvise,” Hikmat noticed the emaciated dogs a block down the alley, heads low, staring at him. The street sleepers were slowly moving out into the alley as well, “We really have to get out of here, take this.” Hikmat slid the thug leader’s dropped short sword across the dirty ground toward her. She used it to help herself up to her feet, from where she promptly fell back to a knee.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she grunted, “Get him to the ship, I’ll be alright till you get back.”
“I can’t carry him on my own,” Hikmat put pressure on the Thaddeus’s wound, looking at Lacy, then back at the growing number of eyes watching them from an uncomfortably closing distance. He had to do something he never thought he would do. It was inherently wrong, the act he was about to commit, and his gut almost tried to hold his breath in even as he shouted as loud as he could, “Guards! Help! Call the watch!”
Lacy joined after a moment, though her injury made it difficult to achieve much volume compared to Hikmat. After several tense minutes watching the scavengers glance at one another for reassurance or intimidation, they disappeared back into the shadows when the sound of boots pounding along the pavestones echoed through the alley.
A trio of city watchmen jogged around the corner, pausing as they saw the pile of sailors in the middle of the street. Their leader broke into a run, “What happened?”
“We were attacked,” Hikmat stated dryly.
“By who? Where are they?”
“One is right there, but I doubt he will be sharing his name in this world,” Hikmat gestured toward the man with the severed hand, “They’re leader is missing a finger, but we didn’t sit for tea.”
“Can you walk? We’ll get you to a temple,” the guardsman held out a hand to help Lacy up, his partners helping Hikmat to his feet and lifting Thaddeus to their shoulders, “You’re lucky to be alive, from the looks of it.”
“Lucky is exactly the word… I was going to use,” Lacy groaned.
*

Rahman and Raleigh started-up the gangplank with Lowell in their arms. Mar looked-up from the line he was working on as Albersnagle bellowed from across the quarterdeck, “What happened?”
“We foun’ ‘em in y’alley, plum ‘n plowed,” Raleigh muttered in his nigh indecipherable accent.
“Where’re the others?” the first mate asked, taking Lowell from the two men, “And how’d you lose Darzi?”
“He’s right behind us,” Rahman said, breathing heavily, looking back up the quay, “At least he was.”
“Damnit,” Albersnagle grunted, “Bo’s’un!”
“Aye, sir?” Vice shouted from the foremast top.
“Give me a hand with Mercer,” Albersnagle shouted, “He got his arse broken.”
“Aye, Aye, Gaignard! Take over here,” Carols shouted, descending the rigging with surprising speed for his age. He followed the first mate toward the forecastle hatch. Mar followed them with his gaze until they disappeared inside, then returned his attention to the rigging.
Diego was working on the ledger when a local militiaman came marching down the quay toward the ship. He looked-up at the sudden dying-off of chatter nearby and the movement of a few sailors to places out of sight from the dock. The purser adjusted his hat and coat and approached the brow of the ship.
“Are you in charge, sir? The captain?” the watchman asked.
“The captain no, in charge, yes,” Diego answered without pause, “What can I do for you, guardsman?”
“Well, sir, I’ve a message for the captain of the Esmer Wind,” the mail-capped man stood attentively. After a short pause, it became clear he was waiting for Diego to fetch the captain .
“He’s indisposed at the moment. What is your message, man?” Diego said prompted.
“Well, er,” he paused. My gods, the purser thought. “Some of yer mates have been attacked, they’re in a bad way, laid-up at the temple,” the man stated, pointing toward the city.
“I see,” Diego relaxed, for a moment he was concerned someone was going to be arrested. Negotiating with authorities was something he’d grown experienced at, but it was still debasing, “Take me to them, watchman.”
“Uh, sir? Wouldn’t your captain like to come himself?”
“The captain is indisposed, as stated,” Diego replied impatiently, “At the moment I’m the acting officer in charge, and the crew are just as much my responsibility,” the purser turned toward the navigator, “Mr. Barrow, I’ve matters to attend with the city watch. I shan’t be long.”
“Aye, purser,” Mar nodded, looking from the line he held for Lamothe working aloft. He turned back to his task almost immediately.
“The way,” Diego gestured for the watchman to lead him as the purser descended the gangplank with as much authority as he could project. The watchman still seemed bothered by something, but simply nodded, turning and walking back up the quay with the sailor in tow.
Ten minutes later, Albersnagle emerged from the forecastle with Rahman, moving back toward the quarterdeck, “Samson!”
“Purser! Have you seen Darzi?” the first mate barked again, looking around for Diego, who was supposed to be manning the quarterdeck.
“Where the hell is Purser Samson?” he yelled. Barrow turned from the line he was holding again.
“City watch came for him,” the navigator replied, “Said it wouldn’t take long.” A series of expressions crossed the first mate’s face.
“We need to find the captain,” he said very slowly, and quietly. He took another breath, “We need to find out why Diego’s been arrested, we need to find where in the Nine Hells Darzi disappeared to, and we still have Duran and Boldman to track down,” his volume rose with every sentence, “Bo’sun!”
“Aye, Sir,” Carols appeared from the Sterncastle hatch.
“Take Mr. Barrow and the arc’sun,” Albersnagle’s voice was eerily calm, “We need to clean-up this storm of shit.”
“Aye, aye, Sir,” Carols barked, waving for Mar to come over, “Messer Vossman!”
“Yes?” Theron asked from a few yards away.
“We’ve a task ashore,” the boatswain said, already walking toward the gangplank. Mar and Theron followed, exchanging a concerned glance, but glad to be away from the ship before the First Mate exploded.
*
Diego’s guide led him to a small house-sized building distinguishable as a temple only by the elaborately-carved wooden horsehead over the door. The watchman stepped inside first, calling into the relative darkness of the candle-lit room, “Father?”
“Yes?” an older man, clearly strong in his youth, rose from prayer before an oddly shaped alter at the head of a small chamber of worship.
“I’ve brought an officer from the sailors’ vessel,” he waived for Diego to come in, “Father Avicin, Diego Samson.”
“Welcome, traveler,” the balding, moustachioed man opened his arms, “I believe these belong to you?” he gestured to three blanket-covered people now rousing from their half-sleep on the benches of the smoky room. Incense and herbal smells filled his nostrils, and as the old priest spoke, a shirtless young man clearly no stranger to hard labor emerged from a back room with an earthenware jug and tin cup.
“Purser,” Hikmat raised his bandaged hand, “ran into trouble.”
“A bit more than trouble, son,” the priest corrected. The acolyte poured water into the cup and offered it to Darzi. “These three were at death’s door, Mr. Samson. Were it not for the Horseman’s favor on men like you, I feel the youngest would have bled to death before the guard carried him here.”
“What happened,” Diego looked to Hikmat.
“I found Lacy and Thad in a bar,” he explained, “on the way back to the ship, we were attacked by five men. Three got away,” Hikmat continued, then smiled, “minus a finger and their pride.”
“He gafe me a fucking graffling hook as a weafon if what fucking haffened,” Lacy piped-up from her bench, talking around a swollen lip and downing a cup of water from the acolyte.
“It is all I had,” Hikmat shot back, “it isn’t my fault you had no weapons.”
“Who walks around wif a fucking graffling hook? Were you going fucking rock climbing?”

“I have too much of a headache for this, you are alive,” Hikmat waved a dismissive hand at her, “and Thaddeus will make it.”
The younger man was still asleep on the bench next to Hikmat’s, his dirty shirt removed and half his chest covered in a bandage. Spots of red bled through directly over the worst stab wound.
“Well let’s get you back to the ship,” Diego stated, “we could all use a toddy of good rum, I think.”
“I must object,” Father Avicin interrupted, “They’re in no shape to be moved all that way, and a ship is hardly a sanctuary of convalescence. They have very serious injuries, Mr. Samson.”
“I’m fine,” Hikmat threw-off his blanket, preparing to stand. He was suddenly light headed and put a hand down to steady himself.
“Hmph, hardly,” the cleric protested, “you can barely sit-up let alone sail. I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t ethically allow these men to leave our care. Gelnor will watch over them in this house.”
“As you see fit, Father,” Diego wasn’t going to argue, he had little interest in vital functions or physiology. Heads and hearts were his specialty, “I’ll take my leave, sailors. I need to find the captain.”
With that, the purser shook the priest’s hand and nodded appreciatively to the guardsman as he swept out of the door and stalked down the cobblestones, seeking the higher-class gambling dens he was sure the captain would be wallowing in. This was too far. Diego had to know what Marcello was up to, there was obviously something going on with their unfilled cargo hold, and there was going to be hell to pay if he was drinking and gambling four hours after he’d ordered them all (Diego included) to be back on the ship getting it ready to sail. It was high time this brat got a proper dressing down by a real nobleman, as it obviously hadn’t happened enough in his youth.
In the midsts of his fuming, Diego didn’t hear boatswain Carols’ first hail, but on the second shout of his name, he looked-up to see Carols, Barrow, and Vossman hustling to catch-up to him on the road.
“What are you doing?” Diego asked.
“We could ask the same of you. Glad to see you greased the clink, lad,” Carols winked, “Have you seen Hikmat or the captain?”
“Hikmat and other two seamen are in a Gelnorian temple down that way,” Diego raised his brow at Carols’s comment about jail, but let it slide, “They were apparently attacked by a number of ruffians on their way back to the ship and barely escaped with their hides. They’re being tended to, but won’t be joining us on the ship for at least a day according the priest there.”
“The captain is another issue entirely,” Diego’s tone changed as he continued, “I’m on my way to search for him now. I’m glad you three are here, a united front will have a greater impact on his infantile mind. I would guess we’ll find him in one the more reputable gambling dens, but not one with a membership list. I know of a few, this way,” he gestured for them to follow, but Vice objected.
“Whoa, lad, our boys and girly are bleedin’ in some church?” he protested, “You boys carry-on, find the cap’n and get him back to the ship, I’ll get our sailors back where they belong. Best place for them is on the ship. Luck lead you,” Kevice waved as he started down the road from where Diego had come.
“Fine,” Diego shrugged, “Gentlemen?” the other two fell into step behind the heated purser, out of their element in the matter of tracking a nobleman. After an hour and half of checking higher-class taverns and inns, they arrived at one with a great blue cat painted above the door.
Inside, Diego approached the barman, “has Domonique Marcello been here recently?”
“Who?” the barman responded, going about his rather brisk business.
“He looks like this,” Diego wove his hands around his head, muttering, and wiped them down his face and chest, leaving behind the image of Marcello’s face and upper body instead of the pursers. Theron raised an eyebrow approvingly.
The barman started, first surprise then recognition flashing across his face, he cleared his throat, “er, hmm, No, haven’t seen anyone like that about.” It was a pedestrian lie at best.
“Where is he?” Diego asked, Marcello’s face dissipating like smoke and his own expression returning with a darker cast, almost menacing. The barman nodded toward the wall behind him, casting his eyes up toward the ceiling, but he maintained his story.
“Like I said, messer, not sure who yer referring to, sorry to be of disservice,” he stated.
“Thank you,” Diego said in passing has he marched through the door into the kitchen, nearly bowling over a serving maid coming out. He might have apologized with wink, but he was too focused on his task. Beyond the doorway, a raucous kitchen was flanked by a stairwell to the second floor. The trio marched up the stairs, led by the purser.
As he reached the top, he heard the familiar voice of the captain from inside the room. Pausing to adjust his hat and straighten his jacket, Diego pushed through the door into a modestly decorated room with a velvet-covered table in the center. Around the table sat Captain Marcello and three men whom Diego didn’t recognized. Two were wearing inexpensive gray jackets, and the third a cheap, green shirt five years out of fashion.
“Captain,” Diego started, his temper flaring, but Domonique stood, dropping his cards face down on the table and interrupting before the purser could go further.
“Purser! What a surprise,” he flashed an angry look at Diego and the two other men stepping into the room behind him, the captain turned to others at the table, “Let me introduce some of my officers: Purser Diego Samson, my navigator Markus Barrow, and Master Arc’sun Theron Vossman. Men, these are the Clark brothers, our newest business associates.” The two older men cleared their throats with thin frowns.
“Gentlemen, we’re in the midst of a business meeting, would you kindly enjoy yourselves downstairs until we are finished?” Domonique’s glare was insistent, when he wasn’t facing the table.
“Actually, Captain,” Diego spat the word, “There are several matters that should occupy your immediate attention. Several of the crew have been grievously injured.”
“Unfortunate news, have they been found,” Marcello feigned interest poorly.
“Their wounds are being tended and the bo’sun is bringing them back to the ship,” Theron responded.
“Good, good. Then it appears the situation is under control. What else?”
“We need to discuss the manifest, in private, if you’d prefer,” Diego’s rage was barely contained, burning in his chest.
“Well that hardly seems like an emergent matter, Purser, though I’ve no doubt your concerns are genuine and important,” Domonique flashed a smile at the stone-faced Clark brothers, “We can discuss the matter as soon as our business here is concluded, I promise you.”
“Captain,” Diego all but growled, “the ships is in dire need of a captain. We have a wealthy passeng-”
“Purser,” Marcello interrupted just as strongly, “please contain yourself, you’re passions get the better of you. I will speak to you in earnest, after I have completed this important matter of business. Now please, retire yourself to the ship and assist your shipmates in their time of need.” Diego was quite possibly on the verge of open violence at being treated like an insolent child. How dare this imbecile, this inbred, dun-headed, cretin treat him so insultingly in public. It demanded a response, but before he could do anything further Markus grabbed his shoulder and gently pulled him back toward the door.
Theron cleared his throat, “Captain,” he nodded respectfully, “it is rather urgent,” the arcswain placed his hand on Diego’s other shoulder, easing him out of the room.
“Noted, Mr. Vossman,” the captain said dryly. The three officers descended the stairs slowly. As they did so, the conversation from the room above drifted to their ears.
“Will they be a problem?” an older voice asked, one of the brothers.
“Not at all, gentlemen,” Domonique answered, “I assure you discretion is the hallmark of our operation, they may lack decorum at times, but they can certainly be trusted.”
Diego, Theron, and Mar exchanged glances, and Diego directed them out of the tavern through the kitchen door. Once outside, Diego broke his containment and kicked a pile of rubbish across the alley in frustration, immediately regretting the scuff it left on his boot, “Bastard!”
“Hush,” the arcswain patted the air with his hand. He held a small seahorn shell in his other hand, tapping it variously and moving his fingers around it as he muttered soft words the other two couldn’t quite understand, he closed his eyes and then suddenly whispers began emanating from the seashell.
Diego and Mar leaned in, listening closely to the sound of Domonique’s and the Clark brothers’ tiny voices.
“… concerns, Mr. Marcello.”
“Of course, and I can assure you, as well as Mr Astergaul could attest, that our discretion is proven and our care of cargo quite delicate.” Diego’s eyes widened at the mention of the name.
“Our cargo must arrive perfectly intact. It is important for you to understand what the result would be if any of our property should encounter ‘mishaps’.”
“I promise you, sirs, it shall be cared for better than my own child. Anything less will be exacted from the flesh of my crew,” the captain’s tiny voice soothed. The men in the alley exchanged concerned looks. There was a long pause from the shell, “Do we have an understanding gentlemen?” Another pause, “Excellent! Excellent, here some wine to consummate our relationship, eh?” the sound of pouring liquid gurgled from the shell, “Now. Have you eights?”
Theron waved his hand and placed the shell back into one of many pockets, “Well,” he stated, “It appears we’ve solved the mystery of the missing cargo.”
“This is hog shit,” Diego fumed, “Astergaul is a devil of a man. A snapsand trafficker, if these men are connected to that, it means more open sand.”
“But there’s near twenty tons open in the hold,” Mar interjected, his face twitching a bit.
“That, gentlemen, is quite a concern,” Theron strained.
“We need to get back to the ship and come up with a plan,” Diego said.
“Plan for what,” Mar asked, not getting an answer directly, he continued, “What are you planning to do, Diego?”
“If he’s going to endanger the crew like this, he doesn’t deserve to be our Captain,” Diego scowled.
“Whoa,” Mar held his hands up, “Has your hair grease gone bad? Because it sounds like you’re suggesting a,” he lowered his voice, “Mutiny.”
“Well, perhaps I am,” Diego glanced between them, “have we not a right to defend our own lives?”
“You need to take a breath, pretty boy,” Mar dropped his hands, “you can’t just do something like that. You take that step and you damn yourself, and every idiot you convince to follow you. They execute mutineers, Samson. As in hanging from the yardarm while the seagulls eat your eyes. I’ve seen it happen, more than once.”
“There are thirty men on that ship, you really want to make that decision for all of them? There’s no guarantee they’ll all turn on him, what do we even know? Seedy deals and that we maybe smuggled snapsand on the last run. I say we wait and have a talk with him. If it’s more snapsand, we convince him to say no.”
“Fine,” Diego shot his arms down to his sides, “Let’s at least share what we have with Vice, we’ll need him on our side regardless, and he might be able to talk to Albersnagle.”
The three of them glanced around, as if concerned for spies hiding the garbage. They walked briskly back to the ship without another word.
When they arrived, they found Hikmet and the other wounded laying on the foredeck atop the folded jib and staysails. The ship was set and ready for sea duty at dawn, but the tension among the crew was palpable. The scent of Codder’s stew bubbling on deck was best thing thing any of them had encountered all day, and the meal filled them with warmth and calmed nerves all around.
As they ate, Diego decided they needed an encouraging story, one that might plant seeds for what he was angling towards. He recited the legend of the Dagger Ghost, a pirate captain so relentless he came back from the afterlife as a ghost to reclaim his command, how he was defeated by noble and brave men opposing a criminal to save the world. The evening was still young, and the night was sure to bring further excitement, but for now they could enjoy good food and a beautiful sunset over Kardam’s star city.

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