“Break it up! NOW!” The bellowed order was reinforced by the quiet sound of a pistol being cocked, and the two brawling crewmen halted to look up at their captain.
Lane Fremont of Gregor’s Second Talon sighed with heavy exasperation at the scene before him. A scene that had become all too familiar over the past few weeks. “Both of you, to your posts.” Fremont lowered his weapon, but neither holstered it nor uncocked the hammer. “We’re only two days out. Close enough to fire the engines up and ENSURE there are no more delays. But only if you IDIOTS keep to your posts!”
The men grumbled words that sounded vaguely apologetic, even if their tones never even approached that sentiment, and both stood and walked away from the scene.
“Nicely handled, captain.” Fremont turned a scowl toward the sarcastic congratulations from his first officer.
“That was YOUR job I was just doing, Danst. Where the hell were you? Napping in the rigging again?”
“Making sure none of the other men got any ideas into their heads if you DID end up having to shoot either Gibson or Hans.” The lanky first mate turned as he spoke, revealing a heavy, double-barreled blunderbuss. “It’s only to be expected, honestly, sticking seven men on a boat this small for this long, expecting to be blown off course by a storm any day so that we can drift until we starve or murder each other.”
“His highness gave the orders.” Fremont was a little surprised at how much disgust crept into his own voice as he spoke the words, and he chuckled softly. “Foolish as those orders may have been, what choice did we have but to follow them while in Cheles?”
Danst nodded his agreement and turned to head below deck. “I’ll make sure the engines get brought up without anymore brawling. But, something to think about,” The first mate paused long enough to make eye contact with his captain. “We aren’t in Cheles anymore, sir.”
Fremont’s own eyes widened at those words, and the likely meaning behind them, as he watched Danst head down to the engine room. The lanky officer had a well earned reputation as one who played only the safest of bets. If he was making such recommendations to the captain…
He’s already polled the crew. He knows they’ll support me if I decide we aren’t going back to see how long we’ll last as pawns in a war between the princes.
The captain of the Second Talon strode back to his helm with a deeply contemplative look in his eyes, and a wicked grin on his face.
“Move quickly, boys and girls! We need to keep this bird afloat!” Olna Dahl smiled viciously as she shouted down into the Pelican’s lower decks. “Sam! Why the hell don’t you have a tar bucket yet? Kristina! If you can’t watch the prisoner AND patch leaks than knock the bitch out first!”
Crewmen scrambled frantically about, most cursing with what little breath they could spare, as leak after leak was discovered in the Pelican’s hull.
“Gods dammit, my boat was NOT meant for swimming in the damned ocean.” The grumbling from the captain, standing back at the wheel while he wrestled to steer a skyship up to a wet-dock, drew an irritated glare from the first mate.
“We could have picked a half dozen OTHER destinations, captain. You’re the one who picked the backwater this time.”
“We could have made it to maybe two other destinations.” The captain corrected through gritted teeth as he spun the wheel hard to correct for the unfamiliar force of the tide. “We weren’t exactly fully fueled when we left Cheles.”
“And whose fault was that?”
“The men shooting at us.”
Olna had to bite back a chuckle at the last retort, particularly since she found herself agreeing with it. Instead she shifted the topic slightly. “Don’t see nearly as much water as the last couple times. Looks like all our patching might eventually make this old bird watertight.”
“I deeply hope that I NEVER live to see that day.” Edward straightened the wheel, then grabbed for a tube next to the helm. “FREDERICH! Cut power! We’re set to drift the rest of the way in!” A muffled voice responded from the speaking tube, and the ship’s propellers immediately started to decelerate their spinning.
“Sure you got it right this time, captain?” Olna was smiling again. “Didn’t you have to fire the engines back up during our last three wet landings?”
“Wind is behind us today.” Edward pointedly ignored his first mate’s teasing tone. “Only way we can come up short is if someone turns off the wind.”
The blonde woman glanced up at the few unfurled sails, more than half-expecting them to suddenly go limp from an abrupt lack of breeze, but they all continued to billow forward.
“Chea! Have Jean take over for you down there and get up to the foredeck! Prepare to drop anchor when we reach our mooring point!”
The muscular black woman was practically past the first mate before she finished shouting the order; drawing a brief, appreciative nod from Olna before she poked her head back down again. “DAMMIT SAM! If I can see you on this deck, YOU ARE NOT PATCHING LEAKS! Only the lower decks sit below the waterline you twit!”
Olna sighed loudly as she watched the brown haired crewman scurry out of sight.
“Do you remember what the port fees run here, Olna?” The question from the captain was again asked through gritted teeth as he attempted to sail his ship up to the dock without ramming into it.
“About twice what it should. Jiungli charges the same whether you’re buying, selling, or sightseeing.”
Edward cursed softly from his position. “We might come up a little short.”
Olna strode up onto the deck, disbelief in her eyes as she completely forgot about yelling at the crew over the patches. “How is that POSSIBLE, captain? The princess handed us-…”
“This is Jiungli, Olna. The money changers won’t even give us half the value for straight trade bars that we could get in any other port, and there’s no possible way we could sell anything out of that book for even a tenth of its actual value. Factor in that we’re going to need to take on a LOT of supplies to replenish the stocks that we SHOULD have taken on back in Cheles…”
“I believe I can help with that, captain.” Both captain and first mate whirled in surprise at the sudden presence of the princess on the deck. “As you and your ship are presently in my service, by royal tradition it falls to me to cover such minor expenses as this. You mentioned that we wouldn’t receive fair value for the gold here, but all problems should be resolved if I simply double the amount, yes?”
Edward worked his mouth several times, but no words came out. Until a grating hiss of wood scraping against wood jerked his attention back to his piloting and he began cursing under his breath as he corrected the ship’s final approach.
“That would…” Olna swallowed hard and blinked a couple of times. I cannot believe I am doing this. “That would be too much, your highness. Two additional bars will be more than sufficient to cover the deficit.”
“It’s really no trouble.”
Edward kept his focus on his task until he saw Chea dropping the anchors, then turned a questioning look to his first mate.
“We couldn’t abuse your highness’ generosity like that. And you only have a finite amount of trade bars with you. We should at least conserve them until we reach a port where we will receive a better value for the trade.”
“Ah, very wise thinking. Thank you, Ms Dahl. I will collect the two additional bars and… where should I deliver them?”
“Olna will accompany you to your quarters to collect them, your highness, and then take them down to the ship’s safe where they can be stored safely until we get a money changer out here.”
“Ah, very good. I will await you in my quarters, Ms Dahl.” The princess offered a half curtsy before departing.
Both captain and first mate waited until they were certain the dark-haired royal was out of sight, then Olna slumped to the deck with a groan. “I cannot believe I turned down that much extra money.”
“You did the right thing, Olna.” Edward tried to offer a reassuring smile, but he also looked a little pained over the loss of so much extra windfall. “Besides, you really were right.”
“We’ll get a lot more out of the princess’s gold if we wait until we’ve reached proper civilization again before spending it.”
“Kristina, Santos! Down here now!” Chea’s cheerful shout resulted in the requested crewmen arriving almost immediately in the Pelican’s cargo hold. “Here’s your shopping list. You two are going to be in charge of restocking our foodstuffs. The larders are almost bare, and I’m sure everyone is tired of dried out crap at every meal. Take your time, find some GOOD prices. Captain says we’re paid up for four days, so take the full time if you need it.” The cargo mistress leaned in close to the pair before continuing. “And make damned sure that you accomplish SOMETHING before heading to the bars. Gods know we all want to, but there’s work to be done first.”
Both Kristina and Santos nodded earnestly in response, and Chea smiled again. It’s great working with agreeable people. “Sam! Gil! Antony!” The other three crewmen had apparently expected to be called next as they were already on their way to the hold when Chea shouted. She spotted a somewhat confused looking Jean in the back of the group.
“Jean! It’s your lucky day! You’re escorting the princess for the duration of our stay. Do. Not. Let. ANYTHING. Happen. To. Her.” Chea smiled widely as she enunciated each word, though there was nothing happy about her expression. Jean attempted a reply, failed to control his sudden stammering, and simply nodded instead before bolting off in search of his charge.
“You three are with me.” Chea turned her attention back to the other three crewmen. “We get the fun job!”
“Testing the alcohol content of the local taverns?” Gil’s tone was so earnest, and pathetically hopeful, that it drew deep laughter from all around.
“We’ll save that for later, Gil.” Chea chuckled again at the seemingly genuine look of depression that descended over the man’s features, but he shook it off in less than a second with a smirk. “We get to negotiate with the locals in this backwater over the price and quality of fuel. We know they HAVE good coal, because we’ve bought it here before. But we also know that they will try to sell us the worst shit they have if they think they can get away with it. Grab your masks, it’s gonna be a busy day!”
All three crewmen groaned in unison, but none of them delayed in heading to their quarters to get the requested gear. Chea smiled in satisfaction, then strolled over to where their prisoner was still secured to the floor.
“Finally here then? Almost time to let me out?” Jannis spit the words out, though she kept the amount of venom in her voice carefully tempered so as not to actually enrage the giant woman looming over her.
“You heard as well as everyone else, I expect. Four more days.” Chea dropped to one knee and leaned in abruptly, causing the redhead to flinch away. “Now, I’m going to tell you something. If you are completely honest with me right now, I will make sure you get actual fresh food for the next four days, and I will personally clean out that damned chamberpot every time you use it so you don’t have to put up with the smell. Lie to me, and you’ll spend four days on bread and water lying in your own stink.”
Jannis met the large woman’s eyes warily, but nodded her understanding.
“How long would it take you to slip these chains if we left you alone down here?”
The prisoner flinched again at the question, mostly to try and hide her surprise over the larger woman’s perceptiveness. “What makes you think I can slip any of them?”
“We aren’t jailers, girl. And you’ve been testing those chains since day one any time you thought your watcher was distracted.”
Jannis blew out a long breath as she considered her options, then shrugged. “Don’t know about getting out completely. I can definitely get four of these chains off, two of them are practically decorative really, and from there… I’d have to see what that left. Maybe ten minutes to get out, maybe closer to an hour.”
Chea continued to stare at her for a few more minutes, then stood and strode out of the cargo hold. Jannis simply stared in shock, wondering if this was the large woman’s way of setting her free. That expression shifted back to resignation as she saw Chea return, dragging a greasy haired youth along with her.
“Here you are, Del. This is Jannis, if you haven’t been introduced. You just take this here,” Chea produced an almost comically oversized pistol, until she handed the weapon to Del and the prisoner realized it was actually a slightly cut down blunderbuss that only LOOKED like a pistol when held by the massive cargo mistress. “And if she tries to worm her way out of the chains, you shoot her in the legs. Then go and fetch the captain.”
“I’m not going to try to escape!” The redhead tried to sound as meek as possible. “You just told me it’s only four days until you let me go anyways, and you promised to give me real food for the rest of that. Why would I risk my life now?”
Chea shrugged, and glanced at Del to make sure he had a handle on things. The youth responded by carefully checking over the weapon, ensuring it was loaded, and checking the pull of the hammer a few times. Seeing things well in hand, the large woman strode from the cargo hold again, turning to call back over her shoulder as she went.
“It’s nothing personal, really. But we’d just rather not bet on you doing the smart thing. I mean, knowing what we do about you, can you really blame us?”