Aboard Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters
“Captain, you really should rest!”
“Rest?” Maria Gloria-Fernandez laughed merrily as she walked up onto the deck. “Why should I rest when there is so much to do?!”
“Because you might seriously injure yourself if you don’t!” the woman replied exasperatedly as she followed Maria up the steps to the Captain’s wheel. The woman glanced nervously at the surrounding men lugging around sacks and piles of rope, and then she blushed with embarrassment as the men chuckled at her antics. “Oh, come on, Maria, please!”
Maria closed her eyes and threaded her hands through the open air. She could feel the rays of light from the sun on her fingertips, feel the spray of ocean waves on the nape of her neck. And it felt wonderful. She rested her hands on the wood of the wheel and felt the grooves beneath her palm. “Have you no faith in me, Conta? After all the years you’ve been at my side?”
“Of course not! I’ll always believe in you, Maria!” Conta insisted before she added in a whisper: “But, Captain, you nearly drowned! It’s a miracle you weren’t more injured in that explosion. You could have died! And now you are just…”
Conta had always been the type of person who worried too much. When they were younger, Maria had once jumped from a seaside cliff into the ocean just to experience it. Conta dove in after her in a wave of panic. Perhaps her intention was to save Maria if Maria had drowned. In the end, however, it was Maria who had to drag Conta from those cold waters and onto the hot, sandy beach. As they lay there panting, Maria laughed so hard that she cried. Still, even then Conta had worried.
The constant worrying had carved early crow’s feet in the corners of Conta’s gray eyes. Sometimes gray hairs would even find their way into her shaggy brown head.
“You know I’ve always wanted to give drowning a try,” Maria laughed before she paused in thought. “What is your concern this time, Conta?” Maria queried, tilting her head back to look at her.
Conta averted her gaze. “Well, the things you’ve said you’ve been hearing and seeing… They frighten me, Maria.”
“Hm? Remind me what I’ve said, Conta.”
Conta glanced left and right and waited for one of the men to pass by before she whispered, “About the voices and visions—”
Maria turned and grabbed Conta’s hand, causing her to start and flush. “Oh, Conta, that reminds me! Speaking of hearing and seeing things, I have yet to meet our new crew members!” She grinned. “Please do bring them up from the cells!”
Conta opened her mouth but the only thing that came out was a sigh of defeat.
When Maria descended the stairs and arrived on the main deck, she came to face a dozen grimacing, kneeling men in uniform—white shirts with orange buttons and clasps, topped with sailor’s caps. Half a dozen of her crew stood behind them, smirking and dressed in torn shirts, dirt-stained pants, worn-through boots.
Maria drew the blade that hung at her waist and pointed it at the throat of the kneeling man whose white shirt was decorated with gold and silver medals. His peppered hair and scruff were matted to his face, but his brown eyes were wide and intense.
Maria laughed. “I complimented your steel behemoth the other day, yes? Morandi, was it? I said such a thing but there are many ships just like yours, so you mustn’t mourn too long!”
The man burned holes into the wooden floorboards. “Even someone like yourself should understand as a fellow captain that every vessel has a soul—even your small, wooden ship here. There will be no other ship like the Corriere d’Oro in existence ever again.” He paused, meeting her gaze. “You are the captain of this ship, aren’t you?” He spoke in accented Common. Something Maria was glad for. There would be no translators needed, it seemed.
Maria blinked, sheathed her sword, rubbed her chin in thought. “Yes, I am the captain, but I don’t really understand the sentiment.” She turned to the man standing closest to her. He was a wiry young man with dusty blonde hair, dressed in a deep black robe. At his neck hung a pendant. She asked him, “Is this the third or fourth, Simon?”
A sigh of exasperation came from the man, and it was echoed in sentiment by the standing men around him. “This vessel would be the fourth ship we’ve taken since last month, Captain.”
Maria clapped her hands, startling those kneeling before her. She pointed to Morandi and stomped her leather heels. “You see, my friend, the ship does not matter. Although your ship was beautiful, it was merely a vessel for your voyage and your adventures. There will always be another. However…” Unsheathing her sword once more, she pointed it at the other captain’s throat. “There is only one person who can live out their adventure in the way that you do! Do you understand what I am saying, my friend?”
The man didn’t seem to.
“What I am saying is that you must live out the rest of your adventure, and you may use this vessel of mine to do it.”
Several sighs of exasperation followed but they were lost to the sound of lapping waves.
“You’re asking me to join your crew?” The former sailor captain guffawed. “After everything you’ve done?”
Maria pulled back. “I really haven’t done much yet…” She spun her sword in hand and ran her callused fingers along the blade. “Should I do this ‘everything’ if you refuse? I haven’t decided yet.”
“I still have my loyalty to my men.” The former captain raised his chin.
Maria sighed and ran her fingers through her short curls. “Everyone from your land speaks of loyalties but such things are like treaties, aren’t they? They change with the tides of time. If you want to hold anything to yourself, it should be a promise. And I’m sure there is an unspoken promise between you and your men to protect each other, yes? It just seems to go that way when you are together for so long. I think. So now, Morandi, is loyalty worth a broken promise?”
Morandi did a double-take. “What…?”
“Is it really a good idea to put all of your eggs into a basket even though the basket may be smashed into a yolky pulp in one go?” Maria pressed. She whipped her head back and addressed Conta who stood behind her. “Is that how that saying goes?”
Before Conta could respond, Morandi spat, “We do have our pride, pirate. You may not know it, but every respectable person has it and treasures it.”
“A respectable person, you say!” Maria fell into a crouch in front of him. “As convincing as your uniforms are, I do have my doubts.”
Morandi opened his mouth to retort, but Maria broke out into a grin that silenced him.
“I may not be familiar with these parts, but I recognize a ship that falls into the custody of the Foxman brothers when I see it,” she mused.
Morandi narrowed his eyes. “If you’re aware of the Foxmans, then you’re aware of the gravity of your actions.”
“Oh,” Maria chuckled, “I’m very aware of who they are! Carl still doesn’t want to join my crew despite the countless times that I’ve asked him. I think he has a problem with authority, but that’s all right! I am sure he will come around eventually!”
Morandi and the other men kneeling stared.
“You know Mr. Carl?” Morandi trailed off and shook himself out of his stupor. “Our ship is carrying important cargo that must be taken out of Geminian waters as soon as possible. This is important. A member of the Romano Family gave us this shipment personally.”
“Is that so?” Maria studied him, hand on her chin before she grinned again. “Okay, I believe you, my dear.”
For some reason, Morandi appeared baffled. “But you just said…”
Maria popped back up to her feet, sheathed her blade. “You will show me your cargo and explain to me the items you’ve been tasked to carry.” She turned back to Conta. “You’ve taken their items down to the cargo bay, yes?
“Well then,” Maria drew, extending her hand out to the former captain, “shall we?”
* * *
The lower levels of the ship were lit only by the candles carried by Maria’s crew members. Maria hopped down a set of wooden stairs at the front of their group while four of her crewmen, including Conta, creaked slowly behind her. Sandwiched between them were two sailors and Morandi.
“You…” one of the sailors who had introduced himself as Piet muttered. “You don’t have a generator conductor in your ship?”
“Ah, yes, your country loves those things, don’t they?” Maria threw back a laugh. “I hope to learn how to use one someday!”
“You’ll need to go to Ophiuchus to get a State Conducting License to be able to really do anything,” one of her crew members said. “And you need to study before that. It ain’t that easy, y’know—becoming a Conductor. People usually spend years studying, and most don’t usually get it until they turn eighteen.”
Maria laughed at this.
“Trust me, I’ve tried convincing her,” another crew member whispered to the sailor. “Says a generator conductor for the ship takes too much time to set up. I’ve barely managed to convince her to let me install a bathroom.”
“There are many more fun things to spend time on.” Maria waved him off with a light-hearted shrug. “Besides, I can always steal a ship with a built-in generator conductor if you really want it.”
“Once you see what we were shipping,” Morandi interjected as he took a step forward, “you will let us go, won’t you? With our goods. It’s important.”
Maria met his eyes with a smile.
They reached the cargo bay a minute later, and Conta led them to a corner where crates upon piles of crates rested.
Maria stared at the mountain for a moment before she gave a nod.
Her crewmembers whistled and hollered before surging forward. They tore into the boxes without hesitation and dug into their contents.
Maria watched them with amusement. Her amusement increased tenfold when the crew pulled away from the crates with disappointed expressions. In their hands were what appeared to be regular, everyday objects. Some silver rings. A bladeless hilt of a sword. A pistol without a cartridge. Other items that seemed to be missing parts.
“They’re just conductors,” one of her men complained. “Just like the parts we deliver but put together.”
“Parts you deliver…?” Morandi frowned before he shook his head. “Like I’ve said. I’ve been given a task by the Romano Family to—”
Maria did not wait for him to finish and instead walked past both her men and Morandi’s. She stopped in front of a low and long crate hidden behind the others. It had been painted in black—so black that it was almost lost in the darkness. She sank to a crouch beside it and wrapped her fingers around the lid. A quick tug. It barely budged.
“W-What are you doing?”
“Wait, don’t open that one—”
With one final tug, Maria yanked off the lid and sent it flying in the air. No one paid attention to where the thing landed, however. All eyes were glued to what glittered within it.
Golden coins. An uncountable number of Geminian Cens. Jewels. Diamonds. Glittering silver chains. There even looked to be some other currency coins scattered within. The crate was filled to the brim with treasures and threatened to overflow.
The contents reflected the light from the flickering torches and painted flecks of gold and watercolor-washes of silver onto their faces.
But Maria did not move forward to pick up any of these treasures, nor did any of her men.
Because residing on top of all of these treasures was a sleeping woman with cuffed arms and golden hair.