The sea was on fire as the sun rose out of it, burning bright with hues of red and orange. A crewman wiped sweat out of his eyes and grumbled about the hard work of the rigging, while others busied themselves carrying crates and rolling barrels up the gang plank and onto the main deck. It was going to be a warm day. The cross-beams were being hoisted up the masts. The dingy canvas sails burned umber in the brightening sky, still furled and creaking in the morning wind. Two figures in leathers, one in a long coat and one in a cloak, walked up the gang plank to the main deck, sidestepping a few shirtless crewmen. One wore a hood, the other an oversized travel hat, flapping slightly in the wind.
“Good to see you again, mate. And looking right and proper this time, too. It’s like you’ve traveled before!” Big Johnny walked up to the pair, sticking his pipe back into his teeth, Rone quickly stepped away and extended a hand. Johnny reached past and slapped Rone hard on the back, causing Rone to cough.
“If you’re not dressed for the road, you’ve got no business on it.” Rone said, smiling from under his brown hood. He moved to the rail and looked out to sea.
“There’s no roads where we’re going, lad.” Johnny leaned back against the carved rail and spat into the sea. “All the same I’m glad you two aren’t wearing the getup from the other day. Bright colors have a way of making men like mine antsy; attracting eyes where none should shine, if ya ken.” He narrowed his eyes.
“Brown is bright in a sea of color, captain.”
“That it is.” When the captain turned around the wind coming off the land in the early sun blew the smoke from his pipe into his eyes, momentarily making him squint. He pulled his black hat lower. “You’ll be happy to know we’ll be leaving within the next quarter hour, just as soon as we’re done packing the fresh stores. Good strong wind off the mainland should push us out to the northern current, and we should be in the trade winds by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Speed isn’t too much of a worry for us. Well,” Rone corrected himself, “I’d like to leave on time, but the length of the journey doesn’t concern me all that much.”
“It concerns me. I’m a merchant. I have ah…” The captain paused a moment and closed one eye, “deadlines to keep.” Rone handed him a bag that jingled. Big Johnny immediately pocketed it.
A sailor, who Rone recognized as Pierce from the day before, walked up to him and handed over a leather bound book peeled open. “Everything seems in order. We’ll be pulling up the fruit barrels shortly, and I took the liberty of acquiring several fresh barrels of water as well more dry stock.”
Without turning his head from the papers he screamed, “Quarter hour me boys! When that sun hits the deck I expect to be gone. Let’s hope the full hold makes up for your empty pockets. Better hope none of you got the rot, because I don’t pay sailors to sit sick in the cabin with fire piss!”
Some of the crew cheered and laughed, but most seemed to not even notice the captain’s remark. A pack of six men stood idly by, talking to each other.
“Is venereal disease a problem with your crew?” Rone asked, laughing.
“It’s a problem with every crew. Can’t tell the boys how they should put their precious assets, even if some of them are a bit…rotten.” He grinned down at Rone. “Thank the twelve I haven’t had sick sailors spread it in the crew.” He laughed.
“I don’t remember anyone telling me about all this when I was on a ship’s crew.” Rone leaned over the rail with the captain.
“You’re a man of the sail then? No, wait, you were a company marine. You have the look of a fighter.”
“I wasn’t a good one. Conscription has a way of taking the professional passion out of you.”
“Who was it? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“South Sea Trading Company.”
“Not even a proper warship. I’m sorry, mate.”
“I’m alive. They aren’t. That’s enough for me.”
The captain frowned and looked about him at the still men on deck. “Why are you standing around?! Pull up them barrels; the wind ain’t waiting for lazy booters!” The crew stood motionless; those that had been working now stopped as well to see the commotion.
“It’s been a good eight years Johnny.” Danny, the thin and gaunt young man from docks the day previous, now wearing a loose fitting peasant shirt, stepped forward from a small idle crowd of men. In his hand was a pistol, aimed at Johnny. Johnny stood calmly, pursing his lips and rocking on his heels.
“Ah, Danny,” Johnny said. “Put that pistol away. Your mum would squint a lemon if she were to see you trying to mutinee.”
“This is serious, Johnny,” Danny said. “I’ve stood by while you’ve led this crew into pointless danger for the last time. I’m doing what my father should have, and taking over controlling share of this enterprise.”
Johnny turned to Rone. “Sorry you didn’t get to know Danny here as the ever loyal and righteous first mate, making this betrayal all the more biting. Suffice to say,” he turned back, looked Danny right in the eye, and said sarcastically, “I’m shocked.”
“You should know better than to transport fugitives.”
Johnny laughed aloud. “An old conscript, is that what this is about? Or are you just sore that you have to sleep with the crew for a few more nights?”
“Try a royal kidnaper.” A booming voice said. Above them on the high wheel deck, a tall and menacing man with a short black beard and long black hair stepped forward. In his hand was a full hilt broadsword, and the other held pistol. Rone immediately took in the sharp officer’s jacket and pants of green and blue, and recognized him as the man from the street the previous day.
“Wish I could say it was good to see you again, Vindrel,” Rone said.
“Every time I think it might be good to see you again, I only find you to have fallen further, Rone.” The man up top said, his face expressionless.
“I’ve never cared what you thought of me,” Rone called back.
“Royal kidnaping?” Johnny said to himself. The big man for the first time looked genuinely shocked, even scared. Footsteps thundered on the planks as Pikemen and musketeers dressed in a uniform of bright green trousers and blue shirts below shining breastplates moved onto the boat from some hiding place in the docks. A few barrels fell from the plank into the water as the crew stepped back to let them pass.
“Perhaps you have not heard, Lady Charlotte,” Vindrel began, sounding as cordial as he could while shouting over the sea and wind. “But the Lord King of the Isle, Eric Grasslund the twenty-third, has died, and Sarthius Catannel, your husband, the Count of Cataling, is set to succeed the throne.” For a set of seconds that seemed to drag out, only the wind, whipping through the yet to be tied sails, could be heard. “Turn the girl loose and I’ll make sure you avoid the torture chamber.” Vindrel pulled back the hammer on his pistol. His thick black beard obscured the features of his face, but beneath his hat his eyes shone out as a green-amber.
“A quick death then? I could just as easily have that right here.” Rone looked up at Vindrel.
“Don’t count on it,” Vindrel said. “And it’s better than you deserve.”
“Why don’t you just give me half your commission? That’s a better bargain.”
“You could have had your own commission,” Vindrel said, “But once again you are too proud to do anything on account of me.”
“Well, without me you’d have no job to do out here, so I’d say I’m entitled to at least twenty percent.”
“There’s no bargaining your way out of this one. I have you, and the lady, whether you cooperate or not.” Vindrel then called out louder, “My lady, please stop cowering behind this vagabond and come to safety. Your husband, the rightful king, is most worried for your safety.”
One of the halberdiers on the deck walked toward the trio. He extended his hand. There was a flash of movement, then he drew back a bloody stump, which he stared at in silence for a few moments before falling to his knees. As he kneeled on the deck he looked under the travelling hat to see a pair of green eyes and a close-trimmed blonde beard that Johnny had missed and that none of the crew had thought twice about. Blood dripped from the dagger in front of him.
Before he could react to the bloody spectacle of the shrieking soldier, Vindrel grunted at a sharp pain in the bottom of his ribs. In surprise, he pulled the trigger of his pistol. Smoke swirled as he shot, but he missed Rone wide, hitting the railing and sending wooden shards and splinters into the face of a nearby mutineer.
Moments later Farthow’s hat was off, and he was running through the deck hands that encircled them, slashing wildly with a broadsword and stabbing with his dagger, leaving arcs of blood where he had stood moments before. Rone at the same time leapt forward, batting aside the ends of pikes with his backsword and slashing with his long dagger at wrists and necks. He put down two of soldiers in front of him with his backsword, who swung their long battle pikes uselessly in the close quarters, before drawing his pistol and leveling it at Vindrel. Rone held the shot, watching the black-bearded man slowly slide down the wooden rail and collapse on the upper deck near the wheel.
Johnny did not waste the moment of confusion. He drew his cutlass and put it to work against two musketeers, who fired even as their blood splashed on the deck, before Johnny was knocked down by a pikeman’s knee strike. Muskets exploded all over the deck, filling the air with black smoke, but Rone and Farthow were already hacking their way through the soldiers on either side, and those who still held their muskets were afraid to fire on their comrades, instead trying to put to use side arms. Sailors who had held back from the mutiny, apparently not privy to Danny’s plan, now busied themselves with the soldiers and the men surrounding Danny, fighting with blade or grappling as opportunity allowed. Some fought with what was handy – a stick here or a knife there, but already cutlasses were being pulled from below decks put to use.
Johnny flinched at the shots and rolled on the ground, trying desperately to avoid the thrusts and slashes of the pikeman above him. He hit his head on the railing after rolling away from a near miss and found himself swooning. When a soldier finally readied himself for a killing blow, pulling his great spear far back past his shoulders, Johnny picked his knees up, reached into his pants, and fired a hidden pistol. The pikeman’s breast plate sparked and then began pouring blood from a blackened circle under his ribs.
Within but a few minutes, though it felt far longer to those in the fight, the struggle on deck began to turn into a route as mutineers and soldiers, filled with fear and unable to regroup, began to jump off the ship or back down the gangplank. Musketeers, now freed of the burden of friendly fire, unleashed a half-hearted and half-aimed volley up to the ship, striking a single mutineer by chance but otherwise only pummeling the wood of the ship. Rone rushed up after the volley and kicked at the gang plank. It wobbled and flexed, but did not drop. A pikeman rushed up to stab and him and Rone turned aside, then fired his pistol at the man. The shot hit the man high on the thigh, sending him limping backwards minus his pike.
Farthow began throwing things at the retreating soldiers: small barrels, bottles, rocks, and chunks of wood – whatever was immediately handy. He knocked over one of the fruit barrels and Rone jumped over to help him push it down the gang plank. It bounced and bounded down, cracking the timber of the plank and knocking two stubborn pikemen into the bay. Three musketeers, who had failed to see the route behind them, stopped and looked quickly at one another, their guns spent, then rushed away from the ship as Farthow continued throwing refuse.
Rone turned to look for Big Johnny. The captain stood holding a pistol to Danny, who in turn had a sword trained on him. The surrounding men had stopped to watch, and Rone could not tell who was loyal and who was a mutineer.
“You know why I had to do it,” Danny said. His eyes were hot with anger.
“Aye, just business and all that. I don’t think that’ll keep you out of hell though.” The captain looked to his left at the dock. “Still time to step off, my boy.”
Danny shot forward with his left foot, his sword extending at what would have been a potent thrust, had the sword been a rapier and not a cutlass. Johnny, despite his size, stepped backward just as quickly, and the blow fell short. The hammer of Johnny’s pistol snapped forward. The flint sparked and the pan flashed, but the gun failed to fire. Johnny held his arms out in a wide pose. “I guess you got me after all, Danny boy. Tell that pretty mum of yours I went out smiling.” Danny drew back to strike the captain, and in turn Johnny, moving swiftly, drew a knife from the small of his back and rushed.
He stopped short as a fountain of blood erupted out of Danny’s neck, blinding Johnny and causing him to stumble. The first mate’s muscles went lax and he crumpled to the deck, his sword clanking against the hard oak as he reached for his neck, red death oozing between his fingers. He struggled for a few seconds, breath catching, eyes looking out to nothing, then he ceased to move. A few yards away, Rone and Farthow flinched. Farthow sheathed his blades, turned, and bowed toward the shore.
“Full of surprises,” Rone said. He took a deep breath and looked to the rooftop where a small shadow stood up and disappeared, a long gun resting on its shoulder. Behind him, the mutineers that remained were holding their hands up, and being forced to a corner of the deck.
“You better get your lass quick, before the guard figures where the commotion’s been. Don’t think they’ll let you get away just because those weren’t Harec’s men,” Johnny said, cleaning the blood off of his face with a dirty cloth.
“She’ll be here shortly,” Rone said as he walked to the upper deck.
When he arrived at the top deck what he saw was a desperate and fading Vindrel, a small pool of sticky blood beneath him. He was shoving a short ramrod into his pistol. Rone nimbly kicked the pistol away, and Vindrel rolled over and looked at him, gasping.
“Looks like you got me.” Vindrel croaked. Rone nodded. “I knew you’d never have the balls to fight me square.”
“Apparently not. Too bad I didn’t get to see if you’d lost a step with your sword.”
“Couldn’t see if you had or not, being laid out up here, but I guess you’ve gained a step or two in tactics.”
“I do what I can.” Rone kneeled beside Vindrel.
“You were always such a bad poker player when we were boys. I thought I had you here too.”
“Every hand is a gamble, Vindy. We both know it.”
“Still, this wouldn’t be where I’d choose to end this game.”
“The game was rigged from the start, I’m afraid.”
“Why did you take the job? If you only knew the risks-” He coughed hard again.
“I know the risks, and it’s something worth playing for, to me.”
“Someone’s gotta be making you a rich man. Who is it? Tell me before I go.”
“I am a rich man. Right now, I’m wealthier than the King of the Isle. I hold his crown, for now.”
“But who are you trading her too, eh? Datalia? Eastern Empire? I don’t want to leave without knowing… it’s silly, I know.”
“You’re a mercenary like me. In the end, we only work for ourselves.”
“I’m a commissioned officer, Rone.” Vindrel coughed.
“All the same.”
“I couldn’t ask you to do me the favor of giving me what I promised you…”
“You mean a swift death?”
“Sorry Vindy, I can’t do that.” Rone rolled Vindrel over and ripped the shirt from his back. Low on his ribs he could see the bullet wound, leaking slowly. Ignoring the painful cries from Vindrel, Rone pushed his two longest fingers in and withdrew a malformed slug. “You are a lucky man today. Your ribs stopped the slug dead.” Rone pulled a wad of cloth from his pocket and shoved it into the open wound. “This will stop the bleeding till a proper surgeon can stitch you up. I’d say you have a better than even chance of living, but of course you know how bad I am at odds. This is going to hurt.”
Rone picked up Vindrel and carried him on his shoulder to the gang plank, dropping him as gently as he could on the dock, which was strangely deserted after the fight. A hooded figure, wrapped in a cloak and tight cloth clothes that revealed a feminine form, was jogging up to the boat with a rifle slung across her back. As she passed the two, Rone looked under her hood to see a strand of copper hair and a pair of bright blue eyes staring back at him. They trembled, reflecting the bright scene around them, and behind their familiar warmth, Rone detected a dissonance that was new and disconcerting. He felt a moment of remorse for a piece of beauty that he knew could no longer be preserved as it was.
“This isn’t much like you, Rone,” Vindrel croaked.
“What isn’t?” Rone said, turning back to look on the wincing man who was trying to push himself back up on his elbows.
“You leaving a loose end. Why?”
“Things change. Or maybe they don’t.” He looked away with a sigh. “I’ve always left loose ends when it comes to you. Don’t die, Vinny. I may never have much to wager on a game of poker with you, but I’ll risk what I have if I see you again.”
“Anchor’s up! Let’s get out of here!” Johnny’s voice called out behind him. Rone could see a group of red and green clad musketeers hurrying across the stone freight way toward the dock.
“Time for me to go,” Rone said. Vindrel looked back up at him, frowning, as if watching something terrible to bear.
“Rone…” he said, trailing off and reaching up to the empty air as Rone trotted up the gang plank. The ship began to move as the plank was hauled up behind him.