“Are your eyes naturally that color?”
“Wow, that’s not normal, you know?”
“Captain… that’s not very polite.”
They were sitting in the dining hall that was, for once, absolutely silent. It hadn’t been this quiet since they had to perform maintenance on the dining hall after it had been flooded following a particularly bad storm. Maria had enjoyed using the flooded room as a swimming pool, but she had a hard time convincing her crew to do the same. She had swum through the darkness of the hall all by herself, listening to the floating tables clack against one another in the water. In that moment, she had wondered if it was possible for anything to be silent like that again.
And now she was experiencing such silence.
The dining room was crowded. Filled to the brim. All the tables but one were filled, and the crowd spilled out of the dining area into the hall beyond. Not one of them spoke, and not one tried to hide their stares.
The object of everyone’s attention was sitting right across from Maria. Despite having on only the ill-fitting clothes that Conta had provided, the golden woman glistened like royalty.
At Maria’s right sat Conta, as always. And behind Conta stood Simon. For some reason, both had sighed at Maria’s words.
“It’s all right.” The golden woman smiled. “It’s only natural to be awed by something you don’t see every day.” Her gaze swept the tables surrounding her.
“You’re definitely something interesting!” Maria agreed. She tried to get a better view of the woman, tilting her head to examine her from all angles. “I definitely like you. I want to know more about you.” She clasped one of the woman’s hands in her own as she rose from her seat and leaned in close. “My dear, tell me about yourself!”
The woman tensed.
“Captain…” Conta sighed before turning to the golden woman: “What’s your name?”
The woman turned to Conta and stared at her long and hard. Her gaze trailed down Conta’s cheek to the nape of her neck. She smiled. “You may call me Oros.”
“That’s a Leonian word,” Simon interjected gently from where he stood behind Conta. “May I ask if that’s where you’re from?”
Oros lifted her head and studied Simon carefully. She then chuckled under her breath. “I can tell that you’re a Leonian by the way you speak.” She pulled herself away from Maria, folding her hands in front of her.
Maria couldn’t help but marvel at the elegance.
“I have to admit I’m surprised that a member of the Leonian Monastery is here,” Oros continued. “To be so far away from home and duty…”
“Oh! You’re Leonian?! That’s amazing! They say a Leonian can always tell whenever another Leonian is in the room,” Maria exclaimed, shooting up from her chair and slamming her hands on the table. “Say, I want to ask something, my lovely Leonian. I’ve been searching for someone from Leo–”
“Captain,” Simon interjected with a smile. “Shouldn’t we try and understand what happened to our guest first before you get to that?”
Maria glanced over her shoulder at him before she hummed. “Ah, that’s right. I am actually pretty curious about that.” She turned to Oros again. “How exactly did you end up in that box?”
Oros glanced away, gaze sweeping toward the crowd that had gathered at the door. “I’m wondering about that fact myself.” She folded her hands beneath her chin and eyed the group gathered by the doorway. “I recognize some of the men who were in charge of my transportation on your ship.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“They are a part of my crew now, you see.” Maria did not turn her head away from the woman. “And you could be too, yes?”
Oros smiled thinly.
Maria held her gaze before an abrupt and loud yawn escaped from her mouth. Oros frowned, Simon looked away, and Conta flushed.
“Well, I’m getting tired so…” Maria rose to a stand. “I will take a rest, and you can explore the ship, yes? My crew can be very entertaining also, so you’ll feel at home!”
She gave both Conta and Simon a tight squeeze on the shoulder before heading toward the door. As she left the premises of the table, she heard her crew members who had been silently listening from the sidelines burst into chatter. Some remained where they were seated, while others rushed over to Oros’s side.
As she exited the hall, she was stopped by a hand on the shoulder. Morandi. He was surrounded by former members of his crew.
“My apologies, Captain, but are you really going to let her roam around your ship?”
Maria tilted her head curiously. “Why…? Are you afraid that she’ll take her revenge?”
“Well, don’t worry.,” Maria chuckled, heartily patting him on the shoulder. “You are part of my crew, so I will protect you now.”
* * *
When Maria arrived in her quarters, she threw herself onto her hammock and closed her eyes. It did not take her long to fall asleep. It never did.
She enjoyed dreaming. It wasn’t unlike being awake. She could wander around and do as she pleased as usual, but with a bit more flair. When she’d discussed her dreams with Conta one day, Conta had suggested that perhaps Maria’s dreams were lucid. But Maria didn’t quite understand it.
Recently, however, her dreams were different. But not in a bad way. And she could always tell when her dreams were going to be different. Like now. It was happening. She could feel it. Pinpricks at the very recesses of her mind.
Flashes of people she vaguely recognized and their unfolding lives greeted her.
Spirits. They had to be. Ghosts, maybe. How fun to be able to watch them. She wished she could speak to them, but oftentimes they didn’t hear her.
In this dream, she encountered the boy she had saved the other night. Then she encountered the red-haired woman who she decided to follow around for a while. There was the other woman too—the one who wouldn’t meet her eyes. And then there was the stiff, blonde-haired man. The soldier. This man, she followed closely.
He was quite interesting, although Maria thought he could do it with a little more smiling. Like the woman who would not meet Maria’s eyes, there seemed to be uncertainty in the way he handled himself. Although his voice was firm, his eyes were… well, it was paradoxical.
She wondered if she would be able to ask him about it. So after he had a rather boring conversation using a radio, she followed him further to a small cabin.
Speaking her thoughts out loud to him, she reached for his shoulder, stepped forward, and—
—stepped onto the wooden flooring of the cabin.
The feeling was similar to jumping into the sea from the starboard bow on a hot, humid summer day. A bone-chilling splash surging through every toe, finger, muscle in a singular instant. Almost like before with that boy whom she’d rescued.
Maria stumbled forward as she caught her breath, then spun around to face the soldier. But he wasn’t there. There was only a wooden door creaking to a close. She pressed it shut and then came to a realization.
Her hands were gloved. Black leather. Wearing them felt strange. She flexed her fingers and felt the material rub the skin between her fingers. Almost uncomfortable.
But they looked absolutely beautiful! The craftsmanship!
Maria held up her hands to the light to better examine them and came to another startling realization. Her hands were larger than she remembered. These hands were not her own. And as she inspected further, she began to have the suspicion that her feet were not her own either. And definitely not her hair which fell into her eyes.
She felt something prick her skin. Someone was looking at her. She glanced up and looked around. A couple crates there, a makeshift desk there, a lamp hanging from the ceiling. Nothing really interesting. Everything was gray, drab, brown. Colorless. Even the men standing, staring in the corner of the room seemed colorless—
There were six people sitting behind her on a set of beds pressed alongside the wall. They were gaunt-looking—the kind of people one’d probably find on the floor of a bar at the crack of dawn. At least, that was what they looked like. They were caked in so much dirt they almost all looked identical. If she lined them up in a row, the only way she’d probably be able to tell the difference between them would be by looking them in the eyes or maybe measuring their height. Their matching uniforms looked nice though. She bet they’d sell for a lot on the market.
As she inspected them further, she realized that they all looked vaguely familiar but she couldn’t put names to their faces. Then again, she couldn’t name some of her crew members. She’d encountered so many people over the years that it was impossible to keep track of names at this point.
“Besides, there are a lot more things to do than spending time memorizing names, right?” Asking this, she approached the group and pointed to the man nearest to her. “Don’t you think?”
The addressed man stood a head shorter than her and had a bandaged head. There was a small scar on his lower lip and a bruise surrounding one of his slate gray eyes. He remained silent and instead shifted his gaze over to someone sitting on the bed across from him. Maria followed that gaze over to a woman who sat staring at her.
The woman had a fancier uniform than the others, and it was decorated with beautiful medals. Her thin and wispy hair was tied into a tight bun.
“Is there something you need, Lieutenant Waltz?” the woman asked in Common.
Waltz. A familiar word. A dance. No, a name? Yes! That was it. The man-spirit she had been observing up until now—that was his name! Werner Waltz. How pleasant-sounding.
Maria stared down at her gloved hand. The puzzle pieces fitted loosely together in her mind. Somehow, she had ended up here as Werner Waltz. A dream within a dream. Maybe? At least it was an interesting one.
Well, she might as well have some fun.
Maria crouched down so she was at eye-level with the woman and stared at her.
The woman did not budge from where she sat and did not break eye contact. But she did stiffen. “Lieutenant Waltz?”
Maria hummed. “You look really familiar. Do I know you?” She smiled pleasantly. “What’s your name? I want to know.”
“I don’t know what you’re trying to get at, Lieutenant Waltz.”
Maria pulled back and rose to a stand. “I’m trying to get at your name.” For a brief moment, she wondered if she should tell them she was not Werner Waltz but brushed the thought aside. It was too much of a hassle.
“If you’re not joking, Lieutenant,” the woman spoke slowly, “I suggest you get checked out by one of your medical Conductors. Your behavior is unusual.”
Maria brightened, hands on hips. “You’re quite the honorable soldier, my friend, telling such a thing to someone who I think is your enemy.” She took a step backward, fell back onto one of the crates, and then crossed her legs. “But honestly, I’m not interested in things like that. So, tell me your name.” She pointed to the others. “And your name and your name and your name and your name and—well—you get the point.”
The woman stared back at her. Her frown seemed a bit uncertain now, and she eyed the doorway.
“I’m… Captain Dunya Kramar.”
“A captain, huh?” Maria laughed at the irony. “You and me should get along then, yes?”
Dunya’s frown became even more uncertain.
“'Captain Dunya Kramar’.” Maria absentmindedly reached into her pocket. It was a strange and sudden impulse, but she followed through with it anyways and pulled out a silver pocket watch. “Dunya Kramar…”
It was a simple-looking pocket watch, but upon closer inspection, she could make out a faint design carved into it. She pointed to the person in the next bed. He was the one she had approached first. He remained silent for a moment before Dunya tapped his foot roughly.
“I am Nikita Kovak. Sergeant. I told you. Or do Capricornians really have such short memory.”
“That’s quite a thick accent you’ve got there, Nikita,” she said, flipping the pocket watch between her fingertips.
“I could say the same for you.”
Maria stared at him. He squirmed under her gaze. Why was everyone so uptight and uncomfortable in this dream within a dream?
“I admit it’s not my first language,” Maria said. “But I’m going to learn them all eventually. That reminds me, where are you all from? That really is a strange accent.”
The six stared.
She stared back. And then she noticed it. Him.
“Lieutenant Waltz—” Dunya began.
“You.” Maria pointed to a man kneeling beside one of the bedposts, almost hidden. While she had been speaking, the man had been tending to one of the other men occupying the farthest bed.
The addressed man stiffened halfway through what appeared to be a bandage change and met her gaze.
“You look different from the others,” she said.
And he did. He had wonderful dark curls, olive skin, and amber eyes. He stuck out like a sore thumb.
“What did you say your name was?”
The man exchanged a look with the captain. “I… didn’t tell you my name.”
“He’s a combat medic,” Dunya provided. “The Treaty states that combat medics—”
Maria held up her hand and turned to the captain. “I don’t know about this treaty thing, and I don’t really care about it. Rules are a pain, right?” She approached the combat medic quickly, ignoring how the man he was tending to tensed at her presence. She smiled and repeated, “Your name.”
The man told her his name. And although his voice shook, his eyes were clear. Gaze steady.
And what a lovely name. But…
“I see…” Maria hummed walking backward to her previous spot. She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “Well, how do I put this…” She peeked at the six and pressed her hands to her lips. “I really don’t like how this story is ending…”
“Story?” the combat medic murmured.
“But, that’s how stories go, so I’ll change it.”
“Yes, that’s it!” She began to spin the pocket watch by the chain. “The more I think about this, the less it feels like a dream within a dream. And if that’s the case, that means it’s something absolutely extraordinary.” The faster she spun it, the faster she spoke: “This is an extraordinary thing that’s so extraordinary I don’t believe it’s even fair to call it extraordinary because it’s beyond that!” She tossed the watch up in the air, pointed to Dunya with one hand, and caught the pocket watch with the other. “Do you understand?”
“I don’t believe I follow.”
“Well,” Maria said, tossing the pocket watch up and down. “It’s not so much about following and understanding, actually, as it is about experiencing. If you don’t experience it, there is no way that you can truly understand it and follow it, right?”
“He talk in circles…” muttered Nikita. “He’s… cuckoo.”
“Now, there are some circles that can lead you somewhere.” Maria caught the pocket watch mid-air and threw it at the combat medic who fumbled but caught it. “Like the one that led you to me.”
The combat medic startled and looked up. “You know me…?”
“I guess we’ll see.” Maria laughed. She turned back to Dunya and pointed at her. “You, are you what they call a partisan?”
Dunya frowned. “Like I said, Lieutenant, those flyers had nothing to do with m—”
“Execute the partisan,” Maria parroted, trying her best to mimic the gravelly voice she’d heard over the radio. “That’s what he said!”
Immediately, all the soldiers besides the captain were standing. Or tried to. Two of them ended up fumbling and catching themselves on the edges of their bed, and the others fared no better.
“Is that what your superiors told you to do?” Dunya asked calmly.
Maria threw her head back and laughed loud and clear. It was just too ridiculous—that very question. Absolutely ridiculous—no, hilarious!
When her laughter finally subsided, Maria wiped a tear from her eye and met the tense woman’s gaze head-on. “I really like you. You’re funny, you know? Anyways, I have no superiors. The only person I follow is myself.”
Dunya’s expression did not change, but she said, “Really? I thought Capricornians were all about rank-and-file. Order through homogeneity—honorably, like you all say, of course. And I’ve heard rumors about you, Lieutenant. They call you Cold Eye. Because you follow through with an order no matter what.”
“Rumors?” Maria parroted in thought. “About Capricornians? Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that.” She ignored the perplexed looks she received and tapped her chin. “Speaking of rumors, have you heard the rumor about the Golden Beast?”
“No. I haven’t,” Dunya drew slowly. “You said that you only follow yourself, and now you’re saying all this. So are you not planning on executing me in cold blood? If not that then what will happen to me? Your superiors will punish you if you do that, won’t they?”
“I could let you go.”
There was a long stretch of silence.
“You would let me go? Just like that? Ignoring your orders?” Dunya’s eyes narrowed. “What are you playing at?”
“I’m not playing at anything,” Maria replied with a shrug as she came to a stand in front of the captain. She absentmindedly twirled her hair and was pleasantly surprised at how smooth and silky it was. “If I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. Does there really need to be anything else to it?”
“Why? Why me?”
Maria thought on it for a moment. “Well, I like your eyes. They’re strong.” She extended her hand out to Dunya and then beamed. “I’m strong too. You see, mercy is something only the strong can have. Do you understand?”
Dunya shook her head.
“Well, that’s okay. Let’s go, yes?”
Dunya staggered a bit as she moved forward, wincing as she pressed her free hand against her leg. “You’re serious about this.”
“Well, of course, I am. I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t.”
“Then my men—”
Maria glanced back at the others. “No, not them.”
Dunya’s eyes widened and then narrowed. “I’m not leaving without my men.”
“Captain…” one of them murmured.
Maria peered back at them and then at Dunya. “Why?”
“What do you mean ‘why’—”
Maria reached out and gestured directly into the woman’s eyes again. “I don’t really understand you. You want to leave. I can see it in your eyes. You are afraid of dying. But still, you are holding yourself back from what you really want to do.” She dropped her hand to her waist. “I really don’t understand.”
“Come on, Lieutenant. Are you telling me you wouldn’t do the same for your men?”
“Oh, I would definitely fight to free my crew if I were in your shoes, and I would free them, definitely.” She hummed. “But you are injured, and you are up against me. You have no hope of winning. Besides, if you try to fight, then this entire thing would be pointless, yes?”
“Is that how you think of this, Lieutenant?”
Maria cocked her head, ruffled her hair, and then sighed. “Hm, I can’t really speak for him, but it’s not like I don’t want to help them and it’s not like I really want to either.” She stared at her gloved hands and flexed them. “It is more like a gut feeling, you know? That I shouldn’t. It’s not that I can’t. It’s because I won’t. I trust my gut—myself. That’s the only absolute in this world, yes?”
“It’s okay, Captain. Your life in danger. Not ours,” one of the captives said.
Maria perked up in surprise, meeting eyes with the soldier who had spoken. Then, she smiled as she addressed Dunya: “Do you see that look in Tika’s eyes?”
“Is it?” Maria squinted at the soldier. “Are you sure?”
“Wha—Yes! I give you when you ask for it!”
“Oh,” Maria chuckled, “well, I’ve never been good with names—”
“Then why you ask—”
“Anyways,” Maria reached out and held Dunya Kramer’s hand in her own, “shall we go, fellow captain?”
* * *
Maria yawned and stretched out her arms. Sunlight from the window just above her head spilled into the dark room, and she caught the rays with her hand. Her ungloved, dark hands. Familiar hands. Her hands. She flexed them in the light.
“Oh, it looks like I’m back.”
Back on her hammock, back on the ship, back on the edges of the open waters. She studied her favorite treasures that were hung on the pole opposite her before swinging off the bed and heading out the doors.
As she combed through the halls, something tickled the back of her mind. She wasn’t quite sure what it was, but something was amiss. It was quiet. Way too quiet. A deep silence had fallen over that ship. Perhaps all of her crew had taken to Oros again?
She peered into the dining hall and sure enough she found a cluster of them still gathered around the table where Oros sat. The golden woman was speaking to them. But Maria was not interested in that at the moment. Maria bypassed the dining hall and climbed up onto the deck of the ship. The sun hung high in the sky and the wonderful breeze whistled its way through the sails. There were only a handful of people on deck. Not as many as usual.
Odd. The only crewmembers she had seen had been in the dining hall and here on the deck. Where were the others?
Humming in thought, she began to climb the stairs to the wheel.
Maria paused and turned her head. A vaguely familiar-looking man stood behind her at the foot of the steps with a smirk.
“You lookin’ for somethin’, Captain?”
“What was your name again?” Maria blinked down at the man with a cock of her head.
The man’s face contorted and twisted.
“That’s a scary expression,” Maria noted. “Wha—”
A sudden change in wind and a high-pitched whine caught her attention. The silver edge of a sharpened blade glinted in the air.
Oh. He was attacking her.
Sparks flew in the air as she unsheathed her blade and brought it up to meet his. She felt his blade rattle against her own as he tried to push back against her. In vain, of course. In one fluid motion, she dragged her sword down his to the hilt and disarmed him with a twist of her arm. His blade hurtled into the air and fell into her free hand awaiting its arrival.
Crisscrossing the blades and bringing them to the man’s throat, Maria studied him. “Oh, I remember you now! I raided your ship a couple months back, yes? Those were good times, no?”
“What is this, my dear Louis?” Maria pressed. “Why did you do something like that?”
“It’s Pierre,” the man snapped.
“To not even recall the name of someone beneath you, have you no pride?”
Maria turned her head.
Standing at the top of the steps was Oros. The woman’s hair caught the sunlight like a flame. She was glowing.
“I’m joking, of course,” Oros chuckled. She pointed to Maria’s blades. “Your swordsmanship is much better than your crew’s. I’m very interested.” She extended a hand. “If you don’t mind, I’m quite bored. Do you mind showing me?”
Whispering began. People had begun to gather around.
But Maria paid them no mind. She stared at Oros and thought. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? She broke into a smile. “You know how to fight too? That’s pretty amazing!” Without skipping a beat, Maria tossed Pierre’s sword up at her.
Oros deftly caught and inspected it.
“That woman is crazy,” someone muttered from behind her. “To be challenging the Captain like that.”
In the blink of an eye, Oros was in front of her. Maria parried the swing of Oros’s blade before flipping backward off the stairs onto the deck. She had barely landed before Oros struck again with lighting fast ferocity.
The crowd parted around them but remained watching.
Maria parried the blow and aimed a kick to the woman’s stomach. Oros blocked the kick with her arm and jabbed at Maria again—this time at her throat. Maria dodged to the side while swinging at Oros’s chest with her own sword. Just as Maria’s blade was about to skirt its destination, Oros brought back her sword to block it and pushed Maria back with a grunt.
“You’re amazing!” Maria exclaimed with a laugh. “Really, you’re good!”
She was the only one laughing. The crew members who had gathered were watching in silent awe. Maria didn’t blame them. A fight with her had never lasted this long before. Which was exciting. But Oros seemed to think otherwise.
“Who are you?” Oros asked, expression unreadable.
“I told you,” Maria chuckled. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez.”
Oros’s gaze darkened. Her grip on her sword tightened.
“Huh? What’s wrong?” Maria asked. “This is just for fun, yes?”
Instead of answering, Oros charged forth again. Maria flipped backward, landing on the railings of the edge of the ship and balancing on the thin beam easily. Oros lunged again, flipping up onto the rails herself and balancing with an air of grace. There was a collective of gasps.
Maria stared and then said pointedly, “That’s not normal, you know?”
Oros smiled thinly in response and charged again.
Parry. Dodge. Jab. Slash. Parry. Dodge. Jab. Slash. Down the railing, they went. Maria felt like they were dancing. Another parry that sent them both stumbling backward.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Maria touched her face and then pulled back her hand. Red.
There was another gasp from the crowd.
Maria looked up and saw a faint line of red on Oros’s sword.
This woman was…
“Amazing,” Maria murmured.
A sharp pain abruptly struck her simultaneously in the shoulder and the stomach. Which was odd because she hadn’t been stabbed. She didn’t think she’d ever been stabbed before. What was this?
Maria was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she did not pay any attention as Oros charged forward again. Maria barely brought her sword up in time to block the blow, and it was done so haphazardly that with a flick, Oros sent Maria’s weapon into the air. And then far out into the sea.
Maria stared after it, feeling a rare frown form on her lips. “That was my favorite.” She turned back to Oros, only to find her sword pointing at her throat. Maria cocked her head in turn, meeting Oros’s eyes.
But then Oros lowered her sword, hopped back down into the deck, and rested the weapon on the wooden floorboards. She turned back to Maria with a vague smile.
“Yes, that was fun.”
It was the first time Maria had ever been disarmed.