It was the early hours of the morning when we pulled into harbor at Pristav – one of the main ports of my home nation of Antarus. That was for the best, it gave everyone plenty of daylight to square things away before the crew flooded the nearby taverns. Pristav was one of several trade hubs on the circumference of the island nation and it took slow going to make sure we didn’t collide with other ships as we entered it. As soon as we’d moored, the harbormaster climbed the gangplank to speak with the captain and collect the docking fee. I knew Coe had a stash of money hidden aboard the ship, but he never revealed it and I never looked. Coe would pick two of his loyal seamen as bodyguards and go to the bank, get the harbormaster’s fee and then bring the men a small advance on their pay. This was my third expedition with Coe, and I understood his methods.
I didn’t expect him to pick me as one of his two bodyguards.
He called for me to accompany him in a voice that brooked no nonsense. I followed as if I’d expected it. Internally, I was curious. I knew Coe didn’t take Fink because he wanted his second to remain on board when he wasn’t. But weren’t there a handful of guys among his normal crew with higher fighting skills or strength than I? I was impressive for my age, with the way I kept turning around and heading straight back to sea. I still couldn’t compare with most of the men with professions.
I kept my thoughts to myself as I joined Coe and Marsh on the trip to the bank. Interesting how I started thinking of him as ‘Coe’ and not ‘Captain’ as soon as we returned to harbor. That was the life of an itinerant seaman, I guess. I respected the master of the ship I was hired on for, but when it came time to discuss my wages for rehire – I wasn’t going to be looking up at a captain from a position of service.
“Domenic,” Coe said. “What brought you to the Essential?”
“Reputation of fair treatment, hard work and good XP,” I replied.
“Those your criteria for every job you take?”
I shrugged. “No, sir. I’ll put up with some bad treatment for good XP, or even take an easy job if the pay’s worth it.”
“By your stats, you haven’t taken too many easy jobs.”
In truth, I’d only done that once, when I was trying to pay off my mum’s debts quickly before the interest got too bad. “Harder work means improved stats, and I don’t want to lose any of my stats by killing time in the off season.”
That was the thing about inflating your stats. Sailors could make great improvements when they were working. If they got caught in a place with no one hiring or just lazed about, they risked losing their improvements. They didn’t just disappear, you had to be countering them in some way. For instance, anyone who drank enough to get the alcoholic debuff temporarily lost stats until he went clean. But if an alcoholic maintained his state long enough, his temporary losses would start to become permanent.
I’d invested too heavily in constitution to ever risk that. Actually, the gains I’d made in my stats had all been earned through experience, rather than ‘invested in’ by free attribute points gained from leveling. It was easier to earn the first few points of an attribute than the later ones. A toddler earned a point in agility when it learned to walk. I’d spent months climbing ratlines before I’d gotten my 20th point in agility, and I didn’t expect another one any time soon.
“I’ll tell it to you straight, Domenic. You have the makings of a first mate or quartermaster. The fact you’re not a petty officer at least is a shame. I’d like to hire you on as one. Only thing is I don’t know if you’ll be around when I next sail.”
I was surprised at the job offer. I was less surprised by his assessment but hadn’t exactly expected him to tell me himself. “I know you don’t keep your men in port while you’re at home.”
“No, but I know the other jobs they take and the captains they sail with. I know when to expect them back when I start forming my crew. I tried keepin’ tabs on you after you left me the last two times, but you left on one vessel and picked another at the second harbor. If you told me you’ve already made an expedition to the frozen wastes I wouldn’t be surprised!”
The Atlas Ocean was as close to the frozen wastes as I’d been, but he was right. I traveled a lot and I traveled loose.
“Sir,” I said, not wanting to kill my chance of sailing on the Essential again but knowing where my heart was. “I am deeply honored by your offer … but I need to be at sea. I need to be moving about, and I need things to be shaken up every now and then.”
I was sure as soon as I finished speaking that I’d put my foot in it. I was done. ‘Shake things up?’ He’d say. ‘Being towed about by whales that’ll turn and kill you isn’t enough?’
But the captain nodded. “That perk was the thing that caught my eye the very first time you sailed with me all those years ago.” He was speaking of my second perk Heart at Sea. I’d gained it when I was barely a teenager. “I’d love to have you, Domenic. But I’m not going to stunt the thing that’s made you such a great sailor.”
I let the silence linger for a few moments before I just had to ask: “So … does this mean you’ll still take me on as a crewman?”
Coe sighed. “Domenic, you’re getting to where I can’t afford to hire you at a basic seaman position. I’ll not turn you down flat, but I’m sure you can find better opportunities.”
“Remember what I was saying about taking a pay cut for hard work and XP?”
That made him laugh. “Then we’ll have to see, won’t we?”
Coe withdrew a sum from the bank and Marsh carried the chest. The captain and I flanked him. With just my rigging knife and a smaller throwing blade hidden on me, I tried to look more imposing than I was. We drew looks of course but ran into no trouble. Coe paid the harbormaster, then had Marsh take the chest to his cabin. There he had the men come in one at a time to receive their advance. When he handed me my silvers, he shook my hand and nodded. I returned the gesture. He’d already said his piece. If I didn’t want to take more responsibility with him, then this would probably be my last voyage with the man. That was a shame.
After drawing lots for the watch, a gaggle of sailors went on to town and the rest of us set to doing our errands – whether it be visiting bathhouses, brothels, or tailors (by agreement, the taverns would waitdea until tonight). My errands started the same way whenever I landed on Antarus: visiting dear mum.
The estate was several miles outside of town, which gave me time to exercise my stamina. I tossed my seabag over my shoulder – its main contents being a change of clothes – and set to running. Go down to 40% stamina and recover. Repeat. You couldn’t move like this on a ship. With my level 13 sea legs, I didn’t suffer anymore from feeling the sea when I stepped onto land, but the earth felt hard and uncomfortable under my feet. My stamina shone through, though, and I made the trip to the estate in less than an hour.
I made my way around through the servants’ entrance. It was the work of a minute to find my mum weeding the greenhouse garden. I slipped in with the intention of watching her for a minute, but her eyes were sharp and she saw as soon as I’d turned the latch.
Shock, relief, was that exasperation too? It had been over a year. Ok, nearly two.
“Dommy …” she said. Then whatever else her feelings were, she wanted a hug. I gave her one, trying to catch up on the hugs a son is supposed to give and bank a few more for the impending separation at the same time. When she pushed me to arm’s length to get a better look at me, there weren’t any of the tears that had threatened to fall at first sight. “You’ve grown! Oh, and look at your stats!”
“I haven’t put on an inch since I was sixteen, mum, but I have been working hard.”
“Oh, hush. If you haven’t grown then I’ve shrunk and you never say that to your mother!”
She was hardly an old lady. In fact she was only 17 years older than I. She preferred the pretension of old age, however. “Hmm, shall I get you a pair of spectacles?”
She turned dour. “Domenic, I don’t need your money! I’ve still got some from the last time!”
“What am I supposed to do with it? Put it in the bank?” I joked. “You don’t use it there.” She’d been telling me she didn’t need me to provide for her my whole life. I’d stopped believing her when I was a boy. My first years at sea had seen the entirety of my pay go to covering her debts. She was in a decent position now – or so I believed – but she would never tell me if she ever got in trouble. I was never here enough to see for myself. Maybe that made me a terrible son. I provided though, right?
“Well, Dom … I can’t wait to catch up with you later! You’ll still be around this evening, right?”
That was odd. I was always the one who told my mum when I had to go again. She never sent me off, and here we had just said hello. I glanced around at the herbs. “Anything I can help you with?”
“Oh, no. Just tending the plants here is all!”
“Mhm. These are new plants, right?” I couldn’t have told you what plants were here the last time I’d visited, but there was fresh potting soil lying about and most the plants were the same.
“Oh, yes. Mr. Marston is trying a new alchemy potion.”
“What for?” I quizzed.
“His … gout.”
She sighed. “It gives him some terrible debuffs and hurts him terribly.”
“I see. And I shouldn’t be seen around here because he’s in a bad mood?”
Tears welled fresh in her eyes. “I never could beat around the bush with you. You’ve gotten more observant than ever, haven’t you? Has seeing all those foreign lands raised your analyze skill?”
I cupped her face in my hands. “Are you safe here?”
“From Mr. Marston? Of course! They’ll never like me but they treat me fine in private.”
My mother’s life was a rather sad one, as complicated as only normal people can make things. She ran off from home as a dreamy young girl with a beau who turned out to be less than honorable and found herself on the port streets being pimped out. One of her clients was a young member of the Marston family. He’d taken a genuine interest in her, caused a scandal, and died – leaving my mother at the mercy of his family. The Marston family was powerful here. They got a judge and lawyer together for a sentencing. Among the punishments was a monetary fine and ‘repatriation of the image of the Marston’s House.’
That last bit amounted to indentured servitude. I’d looked into getting her out of it, but she had forbidden me from doing so. Turns out the security of continued service was something she wanted. I couldn’t imagine being locked into something like that. In that – and most other regards, honestly – we weren’t alike. I had no idea if I was more like my father. My father was either the dead Marston or a deadbeat sailor. Mum couldn’t or wouldn’t say definitively (the Marston’s made her swear an affidavit that I wasn’t the bastard of their son) and I had little inclination to find the man.
My mother’s past was probably why I never felt right visiting the brothels with other sailors. Besides the disease risk, I couldn’t help but look at the girls and wonder if they had been scammed off a farm somewhere too. For every “empowered” woman making her own rules and leading men along on a string, there were a dozen others being victimized.
My mum had been a victim all her life.
“And are you at risk from anyone else?”
“No, silly boy! Anyway, what would you …”
“Mum,” I said. “What are you hiding from me?”
She paled. “What do … I’m not hiding anything!”
“Mum, I know you well. You’re letting me see your skills and attributes but none of your other stats. I’m your son. I’ve seen the rest, so why hide?”
Now she did cry as she slapped my chest. “You just won’t let me tell you in my own time, will you?”
“I’m a terrible son, I know.”
“Don’t say that!”
“What are you hiding?”
She wiped at her tears but was going through an emotional wringer. “I’m seeing someone.”
I let that sink in, then waited for her to explain. She didn’t. My thoughts went to dark places of her once again becoming the victim of other’s desires. “Who is he?” I demanded.
“Now Domenic, don’t you demand answers from me! You don’t get to just walk in and out of my life whenever it pleases you and make your judgements …”
“Any man who abuses you had better pray for the seas’ intervention of me. I may not be the best son but I do care about you.”
“He’s not abusing me!” she spat. “I love him!” I was surprised, but she read far too much into my expression. “Yes, it so happens that I am lovable, or at least close enough for someone to try! I know I ruined myself early on in life and it’s selfish, but he actually makes me feel … he makes me feel …”
I embraced her and laughed, cutting her off. “You’re the only one who doesn’t think you’re a saint!”
“I’m no saint …”
“I’m happy for you, mum! I’ve always hoped you’d be happy! And if this guy can do it for you, that’s great! What’s his name?”
She shot me a warning look. “I don’t want you showing up at his door and laying down the law on how he ought to be treating me …”
“Don’t I at least get to hear his profession?”
“He’s a cooper, widowed for a few years. Now I don’t need you to check in on him and see how much he makes, either!”
I smiled. “Of course not, mum!” If I knew his profession, I’d find him if I ever had to. However, while I wouldn’t trust my mother’s judgement on a great many things, I wasn’t going to try an hinder her attempts at finding happiness. “But … that still doesn’t explain why you’re hiding your stats.”
She blushed. “I … think I may be pregnant.”
While I processed that little tidbit, I couldn’t help a sly grin. “You know ‘pregnancy’ doesn’t show up on your stats, right?”
Her jaw dropped, and I laughed out loud. “What do you mean?” she hissed. “Can’t people tell?”
“Mum,” I explained. “You’re adorable. I’m sure there’s a thousand and one ways someone can tell you’re pregnant, but to get anything off a stat sheet they’d have to analyze the baby. There’s not one person in town with an analyze level like that who’ll care.”
She blushed harder, flustered at giving herself away. I marveled at how ignorant people could be of the world. Even if people didn’t learn as they were growing, weren’t things intuitive by the time someone reached the age of my mother? Guess not.
“You’re not jealous?” she asked.
“Jealous? I’m not a toddler who’s going to whine about you splitting your attention. I’m happy if you’re happy!”
My mum grabbed my head and brought it down to kiss my forehead. “Bless you, my boy! What did I ever do to get you?”
“Well,” I said. “It usually starts with a man asking a woman if he can buy her a drink …”
She laughed and slapped my chest again, playfully this time. “Don’t bring sailor’s talk around here!”
“Of course not!” I protested. “It’s Cooper’s talk now, isn’t it? Is it true what they say about Cooper’s barrels being the same size as …”
“Domenic Seaborn, cut it out!”
I let it drop with a chuckle. Domenic was the only name I had. When my mum got her dander up and wanted a name with a bit more punch to it, she’d call me Sea-born. If I ever had reason to take a last name, that’d be it.
“Did you really want me to meet you tonight?” I asked dutifully.
“No, I’m sure you just got back. I’m just glad to see you. Make sure you tell me if there’s ever a girl in your life!”
As I turned to leave, she caught my hand. “Wait, could you … could you give me your blessing?”
“Huh?” I said stupidly. Blessing? Like a father would give for his daughter to marry?
“I know it’s stupid, I don’t know why I said it. I just, I want to know …”
I didn’t need a high intelligence stat to know this was something that mattered to her and I’d be callous to deny her just because it wasn’t my role. I took her head and kissed her forehead just as she’d done to me. “Be safe and happy.”
You have bestowed: Blessing of the Son!
We both blinked in surprise. “What’s it …”
“I have no idea what it does,” I said. When you couldn’t identify the effects, either it was beyond your skill or the results weren’t quantifiable. It might turn out to be a simple morale boost with crazy criteria. Maybe it negated a different effect. Who knew? My mum got what she needed to hear, and it was validated by the world.
I didn’t linger. That is, I didn’t stay and chat longer with my mum. I did turn off the road and circle back to spy on the house. If my mum had told me everything, I was happy for her. It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d hidden things from me though. So I heard Old Marston yelling, but he was yelling at everyone. I saw Mrs. Marston talking with my mum equitably, as she would when they weren’t in public. There weren’t any troubles between her and the other servants or family. Satisfied, I made my way back to the road and dropped out of stealth.
I was headed to the tailor when I ran into trouble. More accurately, trouble nearly ran over me. A crowd that was something between a mob and a gang was chasing someone out of an alley into the street. I made brief eye contact with Cook before he was past me and the crowd around me. Being “swept up” in a crowd is a real thing. I was a hundred yards along by the time it put me down. I tugged on the arm of one of the people at the back – a hanger-on who wanted to see what happened but didn’t want to get too involved.
“They’ve found a Tarish mercenary in town! They’ll give him what for, all right!”
“Tarish mercenary?” I asked, but the man wasn’t paying me any more attention. Like reasoning with a mob worked anyway.
I ducked down a different street and ran to head off the crowd. It was moving in fits and spurts. When I got in its path again I realized that there were a few people really hounding Cook and picking a fight with him, the rest surged with the force and anonymity of a crowd. Cook was trying to run but couldn’t seem to lose or outpace his pursuit.
I glanced at my clothing. Could I pull off a bluff?
“Hold!” I yelled in my loudest voice. That was loud enough to get attention, but by the looks they were giving me I could tell that a gamble on being an authority figure would lose. Instead I pointed around the corner. “The militia is coming!”
The word ‘militia’ spread through the crowd and several them dropped away like they’d been caught in the neighbor’s henhouse. Not all, though. One of the men surrounding Cook said, “tell them to hurry up!”
So, they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. That was interesting. The cogs in my brain tried to churn out a plan of making this bluff work. To delay, I pretended to beckon towards someone out of sight down the street. Then trotted toward the men in a loose cordon around Cook. What next? What next?
I thrust my elbow into the nose of the man on my right, then pivoted and swung my foot between the legs of the man on my left. “Scram!” I yelled at Cook. To his credit, he didn’t hesitate or try to stick with me.
After he’d sprinted through the gap I’d made, I closed with the next bully in line. I couldn’t catch him in a sucker punch. We traded a few blows and some minor HP when the collective shock began to wear off and the numbers of the crowd turned against me. They were all low-level citizens, businessmen, and ruffians. I didn’t see a single person above level 9 among them. Enough numbers negated a level difference, though, and I was only on equal footing to start with. I took that as my cue to skedaddle.
I bolted towards the wall of the building hemming us in, pushed off it, grabbed a handhold and began scaling the two-story structure. Shouts of outrage followed me, but none of them had practiced in the rigging at sea to have a level 11 climbing skill like mine. I was up and moving along the rooftops before they thought to run around the building.
Losing them after that was easy enough. As a rule, crowds don’t chase over rooftops. If any of them recognized me later I’d be in trouble, but you couldn’t go through life having friends without sharing some of their enemies.
Speaking of that devil, Cook found me before my stamina had finished regenerating. I guess those hawk eyes didn’t have any trouble following me across the rooftops. I nodded to him, still embarrassed about forgetting his name.
“Thanks for getting me out of that spot.” He said with the distinct vocal flanging effect of his race. “It was a bit of a jam.”
He was at 80% health. Factoring in what he’d probably regened, the crowd had gotten their licks in. He also had 32/150 mana. I had no idea he could use magic.
“No sweat, I figured I owed you. Why were they after you, anyway?”
“Apparently Nilfheim hired some Tarish mercenaries to cause trouble with trade caravans around Antarus.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Apparently Nilfheim also finally declared war on Antarus.”
I groaned. War might make some people dream of joining a Navy and make their way to captain, but not me. Not any other sailor who’d seen death either. The XP of war was only good because people were constantly dying.
“Aww, great. And they decided to lynch you because you were walking down the street?”
“No, I was inquiring after open cooking positions. I guess they thought I’d poison the food, or something.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “They missed out on a gold mine. We all know what you can do with sea rations. I’d like to see what you could do with a stocked pantry!”
“That would be nice,” he admitted with a grin.
“So where you off to now, Cook? Need an escort?”
“Please, call me Gerald. I can’t be called Cook until I secure another position.”
I was too relieved about being reminded of his name to inquire about his attitude towards being called ‘Cook’. “Alright Gerald. They might recognize us together, but then they might lynch you on the spot. Want some company?”
“No, thank you. I’ll return to the ship. I’m sure the captain can make some inquiries, find out if there’s a place I can work here safely.”
“I’m sure he’ll want to keep you intact. If you don’t mind my asking, what spells were you using?”
He grinned, displaying all his teeth. “Grease. It’s an AoE spell that caused them to slip.”
I chuckled. “Just don’t ever use that in your recipes, okay?”
He turned towards the docks. “If I do, it’ll improve it!”
After my misadventure with Cook, I scanned each street before I entered it. Just because I’d lost the same HP as I would in a wrestling match didn’t mean round 2 would go so well. Besides, my finger was swelling again. It had just gotten to where I considered it healed and I ran into someone that needed punching. Just my luck.
Not having a long errand list, I decided to make my way to a healer, first. A broken finger might be a silly thing to spend silver on but hauling line with one was painful and I was tired of it.
The healer was in the back with another patient when I entered. I could see the operation she was doing. There was a boy who looked like his leg had just been run over by a cart. He lay on a wooden table staring dumbly at the ceiling while the healer had her hands on his leg. A golden nimbus of light surrounded her hands. After a few moments the leg twisted straight with a series of snaps and clicks that made me shiver. The light didn’t leave her hands as she moved them over his knee and thigh, then back down, scanning. She released the magic with a sigh.
“That is all I can do. The bones and muscle are mended but the joint is damaged. You should keep him off the leg until you can see a physicker. He might be able to help more.”
“You’re saying he’ll limp?” Demanded a man – probably the boy’s father.
“If he runs around on it now, he’ll do it damage. He might limp. He might not walk at all. There’s nothing more that my magic can do, you need to find someone with high expertise to get it fixed. Otherwise treatments and practice should do.”
The man hmphed and payed her, drawing a separate pouch filled with gold to cover the fee. She glanced at me and I felt embarrassed at seeing the transaction, so I turned to look over the rest of the shop.
It was small, but you didn’t need much space to store small measures of liquid. There were glass display cases for potions from minor to moderate – all under lock and key. Any stronger potions weren’t on display. Health potions were the staple, followed by mana and stamina potions. The rest were mostly a varied assortment for enhancing base attributes temporarily, but there were a few on display with unique properties. One that caught my eye was a water breathing potion.
Potion of Water Breathing
Allows the user to breathe water. Thirty minutes per dose. Stackable effect.
“Can I help you?” the healer asked me tiredly.
“Yes, can you tell me how many doses are in this water breathing potion?”
She glanced at it. “Three.”
It was too rich for my blood, then. I had a pretty decent underwater time as it was, though, between my stamina, swimming, and lifesaving abilities. I politely declined; she didn’t look surprised. My worn clothes didn’t exactly scream of spare wealth.
“How much do you charge for a healing?”
“Depends on the injury. If you need it now the cost of a mana regen potion will be factored in. I’m all out.” She was probably feeling like her head was stuffed – or so I’d heard it explained to me. I’d never learned any spells.
“I’ll wait, thanks.”
“Is it for you?”
“Yes,” I held up my hand, showing my noticeably swollen finger.
She took a greater interest. “I could probably take care of that now. Let me see it. The exam is free.” I gave her my hand and she turned it every which way. “What did you do to it?”
“Broke it.” I said simply.
The golden light surrounded her hands. Maybe it was psychosomatic, but I felt better just having her hold her magic. “Yes, but how many times?” she muttered. I didn’t think she really expected an answer and I doubted I could supply an accurate one. “Does 4 silvers sound fair?”
I hadn’t known quite what to expect but had been worried after seeing the gold the man had been handing over. “Yes, that’s fine.”
Instantly my bone fixed itself, my hand twitched involuntarily as it did so. The swelling went down considerably but didn’t disappear entirely. It felt better than it had in a long time!
She scanned my hands closer before she released her magic. “I fixed the breaks. There’s nothing I can do about the other damage you have, but if you break them again a healer can restore them better than letting it mend on its own another time.”
“Thanks!” I said. “How much would it cost to add a minor health potion to the bill?”
“50 silvers,” came the immediate response. I wish I had a level or two in Trading. 50 silvers was a sizeable chunk of my advance. All the haggling I’d done around the seas with street vendors and ship quartermasters hadn’t given my that skill. It took more than repetition to acquire skills. Sure, repetition was important, but an understanding of the skill was essential. I never had the knack for finances, but maybe with enough experience I’d final gain the skill.
In the meantime, I’d just have to haggle where I could and pay when the price was fixed. I fished enough silver coins out of my pouch to cover the amount I owed. She pulled out a key ring and opened a locked cabinet and returned with my potion.
Minor Health Potion
Will restore 100 health over 30 seconds.
I thanked her and tucked it into a pouch on my belt. Then I made my way to the last stop.