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Blake relayed my request to the captain and returned a few minutes later. “The captain will see you.” I nodded and stepped around him when he caught my arm. “Mind yourself now,” he said warningly. “Don’t do something stupid because you got your dander up.” I nodded and he released me. I tried to mentally shift my facial expressions to something more ‘solemnly serious’ than ‘storm clouds’.

I knocked at the captain’s door and was invited in. On a ship this size, the captain could have his quarters decked out like a mansion. Some captains carried all their wealth on their ship in these cabins. Captain Michaels’ cabin was finely decorated, but somewhat sparse – more austere than flamboyant.

Captain Michaels was much like his first mate, Mr. Donaldson. He had the air of a gentleman uprooted from court and placed in command of a ship. Unlike Mr. Donaldson, he didn’t have his stats on display. I didn’t even try to peek past, knowing I didn’t have the analyze skill to pull it off and not certain that a man in his position didn’t possess some trinket that alerted him to such attempts.

I had seen the captain about the decks and even exchanged a word or two with him in the line of duty but hadn’t conversed with him. He was an older man with a full head of hair, though its steel gray was rapidly becoming white. He was always immaculately shaven and his clothes neat. I suspected that he could have worn my no-frills clothes – still wet with seawater – before royalty and managed an air of command. He sat behind a compact wooden desk with leaves that could fold out to accommodate his navigational charts.

“Mr. Blake tells me you wish to speak with me … about a matter unrelated to our recent tragedy.”

“Not unrelated, cap’n.” I said. “Just that it wouldn’t change anything now.”

He nodded. “Speak your piece.”

“I want to be made a petty officer.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Is that so? And you found this sudden conviction in the sea?”

“Yes sir,” I replied. “Or rather I found it when I realized that avoiding my responsibility may have cost John his life.”

He leaned back in his chair. “Did Blake tell you when he recruited you that we wanted you on as a petty officer? Because after receiving his report of your encounter, I can assure you that I had no intention of offering you a position of authority on my vessel.”

I was stunned. “Sir?” I asked. What did he mean by that? He was the first captain in a while to tell me they didn’t want me doing more.

“As a matter of fact, I almost had you removed from the ship on the first day. There were too many things about you that I didn’t care for. How do you know Ms. Marston?” he asked me.

If I was caught off guard for his last point, this question had me completely flat footed. “I … Her family employs my mother as a servant.”

“She told me much the same thing … only she was much less believable when she told me.”

“I … you didn’t want me aboard because my family worked for your guests?”

He studied me closely for a solid minute. I wasn’t sure if he was just thinking or using some sort of ability on me. Finally, he sighed. “What do you know of our voyage, Mr. Domenic?”

“We’re sailing to Andros to deliver merchant goods.”

“I may not be certain of your role in all this, but I can spot a lie like that in my sleep. Tell me what you really know.”

I gulped. I hadn’t realized the captain had wanted me off his ship within the first day. Was I going to get in trouble for my deductions? I’d certainly get in trouble for holding anything back. The memory of being stranded at sea was still fresh in my mind.

“Whatever is in the lower hold is secret enough that you’re willing to compromise ships’ operations to keep us sailors from knowing what it is. I truly haven’t a clue what it is besides that it’s heavy – because of how we’re sitting in the water – and that it hasn’t made any noise or smell that can be detected from the other compartments.” He waved for me to continue, and I licked my lips. “You hired on a new, mismatched crew and rushed it, so whatever is down there really is important. You also don’t trust the crew, badly enough that you put soldiers in the place of sailors to try and keep an eye on them. We’re not sailing to Andros, but we’re sailing somewhere nearby and since we haven’t made a course correction yet, you don’t want the crew to know you’ve changed our destination until you can’t hide it.” I took a deep breath and thought of one more thing. “And you had to give Andros as our destination back on Antarus because again, it’s super-secret and word can’t afford to get out.”

There had to be some ability he was flexing or a trinket he was using that made me want to talk and share everything I knew. I mean, I would probably have told him all that stuff anyway, but I would have found a more delicate way of saying it, wouldn’t I?

He grunted. “It no longer amazes me that people make these conclusions. Domenic, I have decided to extend a measure of trust to you. But I require something of you first.”

Notice: Captain Michaels has demanded your Vow of Silence!

Breaking this Vow may have severe repercussions.

I had never heard of such a vow being accompanied by a prompt. Was it because of the situation as it related to my quest, or was it some ability the captain had? I really wanted to take a peek at his stats!

“I accept,” I said.

“Say you swear to the Vow of Silence I am demanding of you.”

He must have encountered people trying to circumnavigate his oath. “I swear to the Vow of Silence you are demanding of me.”

You have sworn a Vow!

Be sure to comply with the requirements of your Vow, severe repercussions may follow if you break it!

“Very well,” the captain said. “What do you know of the war between Antarus and Nilfheim?”

“I only heard about it the day I was in port, but we’ve been hearing rumors it was coming for years.”

“That much is true. Nilfheim has never accepted the trade deals Antarus imposes or the control our centralized location among the oceans gives us over shipping routes. There has been spear rattling for decades. Only recently did we discover that Nilfheim was doing more than rattling spears – they were preparing for real war. Now we’re caught in an uncomfortable position: Nilfheim’s naval might could possibly fight our own navy to a standstill, we are not the dominant ocean power anymore. If the king of Antarus capitulates to the demands of Nilfheim’s matriarch, we would immediately face demands from every other nation we have trade agreements with. Yet a protracted war leaves shipping lanes under protected, and that will also cripple us with the expected rise in piracy.”

“You need an ally,” I said.

“Precisely. This voyage is to secure that alliance. We hope that by bringing the threat of a fight to the Nilfheim homeland, they will withdraw their casus belli before we lose more than we can afford.”

“Stop the war before it starts.”

“Yes, though it is too late for that the principle still applies. Word has not spread, but engagements have already been fought and ships lost on both sides. Repatriation will have to be paid. My place in all this …” he paused, looking at the ceiling for several moments as he considered how to – or if he should – continue. “I retired from the sea over a decade ago. The king trusts me to carry out this mission, and so I took command of the Wind Runner. Mr. Donaldson is an experienced officer in the Antaran Navy, and a dear friend. I requested he join me as my first officer, though it also pulled him away from his current position at court. Mr. Inigo, my second mate, was pulled from his assignment as first officer aboard the H.M.S. Dauntless. We wanted the highest caliber of individuals to undertake this mission.”

“What changed?” I asked. “Why not pick out a crew from another naval ship?”

“Reassigning a single officer is easy. Reassigning a crew – that is not. We did intend something of the sort, but … circumstances forced us to leave before we were prepared. Mr. Donaldson, Mr. Inigo and I sailed from our safe harbor to Pristav with the assistance of the contingent on board.” My eyes went wide. Sure, it probably hadn’t been that far, but to sail a ship this size with three seamen and a skeleton crew of men who’d likely never held a line before? He had my utmost respect for that feat!

“But why just one ship? Why the secrecy?”

Captain Michaels cocked his head. “I’m not going to answer that. I cannot stop you from making your own speculations but may not share them with others under your Vow.”

“You fear sabotage,” I hypothesized. “Or Antarus really is weaker than they seem.”

“I’m not going to acknowledge either position. Since neither will win you any favors, I recommend you forget them.”

“Yes sir.”

“Now to the matter of your authority …” the captain tapped his bridged knuckles to his lips. “The manner in which Mr. Blake recruited you – his own words were: “the lad’s got a spiteful mean streak in him, but he’s tough and whip crack smart. He impressed me.” I recall his words because it was the first such praise I’d heard from him since I met him. Yet while it impressed him, to me it stank of subterfuge. Then there was your connection to Ms. Marston. I couldn’t imagine how a spy could play such a deep game as that, but the coincidence unsettled me. As I mentioned, I nearly had your name struck from the roster.”

I didn’t ask whether that would have meant being put ashore or executed.

“Your saving grace was your achievements and abilities. You spend so much time abroad you could have any loyalty, but your skills spoke to dedication to your craft after we verified that you hadn’t falsified them.”

“Falsified them?” I asked with surprised. “That’s a thing?”

“Oh yes, a rare but incredibly useful skill in the right application.” As I stewed over this new feeling of being a child thrust into a world of new information the captain continued. “Then there was the matter of unrest on board. Naturally I was aware of it, yet it seemed you had a hand in quelling it. That could speak to your honor, or it could be positioning yourself into a place of authority within the crew. You certainly achieved that. Even my nephew sings your praises. You taught that boy more in the first day than I’d hoped for him in the first week. Yet I still couldn’t be sure of your motivations.”

I hadn’t realized Redmund was the captain’s nephew but shouldn’t have been surprised. If wealthy people were to pass on their ship to their family, their family had to learn the trade at some point. “I was only trying to teach him the way I’d been taught, Captain.”

“I’m not critiquing your teaching manner or methods. I couldn’t trust you because at every point where it seemed like you did something special, something good, there was a possible ulterior motive. I had my people sound you out, but it’s been difficult moving past my feeling that you are a dangerous man, Mr. Domenic.”

“I swear sir, I don’t mean your ship or its mission any harm!”

“And I’m giving you a chance. You want to be a petty officer, right? Done, I’ll make it so. As I understand it you’ve essentially been doing the work of one anyway. You blame Blake for the crewman’s drowning?”

“No, cap’n.” I said honestly. “Blake was doing the best he knew how.”

“The seaman Downey then?”

“No sir, not him either. Sure he did it, pulled the knot that sent John into the water, but he was only guilty of a lapse of focus.”

“You chalk it up to an incident at sea? The will of fate that bad things must happen?”

“No sir, if I was to assign responsibility then I’d take my share. I could have stopped it earlier. I should have stopped it earlier.”

“Take the advice of a man who’s been in authority his whole life,” the captain said, standing. I quickly stood as well. “There’s a finer line than many realize between accepting responsibility for your mistakes and taking on more guilt than you’re due. Why am I giving you this chance? Why did I even trust you in my cabin? I was rushing out when I saw you jump overboard. The moment your eyes landed on that fellow you went in the drink after him. That was character. And if you think that it was your responsibility, then you’ve got a worse hero complex than a landside adventurer. You are dismissed, petty officer Domenic.”

 

I let Blake know of the change immediately. He seemed to expect it. I didn’t try to remove him from his position, which seemed to surprise him.

“I get that the captain put you lot in your positions, it’s not for me to change it. It’d look bad if I took your position anyway.” I explained. “But by the stars! None of you know what you’re doing! You’ve picked up some of the right jargon and methods, but it’s best for the whole that you leave off orders and supervision.”

“You just said you understand why the captain put us here!” Blake growled. “I’m not changing any of my duties unless the captain says so.”

I waved my hands at him. “No, no, no. I’m not trying to do that. Just … spend as much time as possible on the things you do know. The sparring matches? The training? Have your soldiers supervise that when you can. Delegate other duties to able seamen otherwise, then find somewhere else to be while they carry it out.”

“That sounds a lot like shirking duty.”

“It would be if you knew the job. Consider it? And please don’t counter me on anything?”

“I’ve stayed out of your way when it came to the ship, and I’ll stick with that.” He said. “But don’t push things too far!”

You have advanced to skill level 2 in Leadership. People are more likely to follow your direction; your team receives a 0.5% boost to effectiveness per level.

Level 2 in leadership already? I must be benefiting from how much practice I had before I had the actual skill. That or my talk with Blake mattered more than I’d expected.

At first nothing really changed. I went about my work much as I had been doing, and the officers spread the word that I’d been promoted for my work effort and heroism. We didn’t find John and returned to our southern heading with dejected hearts.

I spoke with Virgam and he agreed with me: we had everybody keep their stats open. Most people had taken to doing so by now, but this way everybody could see and collaborate. This was also important as we tried to regulate tasks by abilities. There had been enough training by now that everybody had a basic seamanship ability. We further specialized them by people who understood the rigging, conning the helm and inventorying.

We weren’t trying to regulate who could do what, but we’d spent enough time at sea now that things needed to be run more efficiently. We needed shifts and teams who could do things right and do them faster. We needed people on watch who knew what to look for and what to do about it. We got the expected complaints from some that they were being consigned to menial jobs, but we could focus on building their skills after the ship upped its performance.

A few days later Virgam returned from a talk with the captain with a smile. “Captain was examining his ship’s interface and says the negative effect the crew’s training was having on our progress has been pushed into a positive figure. We’re not a well-trained crew yet, but we’re getting there!”

It was a good time of year for sailing, and the waters of the Passive Ocean were aptly named. We had few storms, and only one that truly counted as hazardous. During that one Virgam had everyone who couldn’t swim and who didn’t have a minimum sea legs of 6 go below and stay there. Those with the sea legs but a swim below 10 had to move about with a lifeline. There were grumbles until a wave broke across the deck and knocked people down. The worst of that storm only lasted 10 hours, and the whole thing just under a day.

The curious thing about that storm: Hali was on deck because we needed the man – er, peoplepower. She had the stats for it easily. Nevertheless, she utilized a lifeline and hesitated before climbing the rigging. I noticed and paid more attention to her. She was decidedly more awkward than her skills would suggest. Hadn’t she said she’d been on merchant ships before? Her climbing skill of 10 should have made traversing the rigging a breeze even in this storm, yet she was overly cautious. Virgam noticed and yelled at her, but she scarcely picked up her pace.

Several times when I looked at her that buzzing came back to my mind. I couldn’t figure it out. Then there was the fact that when she slipped, she reflexively hid her stats. Why?

Her reflex made me think of the things that had been nagging me since my conversation with the captain. The first was that I hadn’t seen the ladies in the cabin, they must have been in the adjacent room. Were they hiding from me? The whole crew? What role did they play in the mission? Were they ambassadors to wherever we were going?

Where was our actual destination? If speed mattered so much we wouldn’t be going anywhere too far off our heading to Andros. The captain also hadn’t dispelled the illusion to the crew that we weren’t heading to our expected destination, so it was close enough that we wouldn’t lose much time after admitting to the deception. That meant we’d probably be turning west and sailing to Oorkom – sailing east from Andros would add a lot of time to the trip to navigate around shoals in the area that buffered sea travel between Andros and the east.

Oorkom was also neighbors with Nilfheim. Not only neighbors, but bitter enemies. If Antarus wanted to threaten Nilfheim, an alliance with Oorkom would sure do it! The question would be whether Antarus would be dragged into Oorkom’s attempts to completely subjugate Nilfheim.

I also wondered who the captain had been using to ‘sound me out’. Blake was the obvious answer, but that was too obvious for the captain who was obviously deeply entrenched in political maneuvers and subterfuge. Heck, I was completely innocent of any wrongdoing and he’d nearly thrown me off! Was it Virgam? If it was, I really wouldn’t mind so much. I liked the guy. One of the men I’d trained? I stopped my musing there. It wouldn’t help me to know, and sooner or later I’d find myself casting suspicious glances at Redmund!

After the storm had blown over I found Hali – it was harder than I’d expected given the confines of the ship – and confronted her about her behavior during the storm. She said that she’d eaten something that hadn’t agreed with her and had been nauseous, trying not to throw her guts up. I wasn’t sure whether I doubted her because of my new overly suspicious nature or because I was picking up on a lie. I let it go, because I’d again ascertained that something about her pricked up my observe ability and made my mind buzz.

Why would she lie? If she was lying, why couldn’t she manage the rigging? Her level of 10 clearly indicated …

I stopped cold. A shiver ran through me. The captain had been suspicious of me, suspicious I’d somehow faked my stats. What if he’d missed the right person?

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A note from captaink-19

For reference.  Thanks to Lorcogoth for the map!


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