I plotted my next move carefully. I was new to this whole intrigue business, so I didn’t want to blow it. I waited for an opportunity to confront Hali alone, and discovered that she often disappeared. She’d always have a ready excuse, and those that didn’t believe her assumed she was slacking off. Was she up to something more nefarious?
I made my move when I heard she was inventorying in the cargo hold. I went below and saw there weren’t any others nearby. Perfect. She saw me as soon as I entered, and I approached her nonchalantly.
“How goes it?” I asked.
“Nearly done here,” she responded. “Everything lines up with our last …”
I swept my leg behind her foot and pushed her chest, carrying her down hard to the deck. I immediately looked for her hands. Yes, she had a dagger in her left already, tip ready to cut an artery. The stun effect my dirty fighting applied had been instantly negated.
“Very fast reflexes,” I said casually. “For someone with only three levels in small blades.” The buzzing in the back of my head had grown and then clicked when my eyes landed on the necklace that had been knocked loose from her shirt. My observation skill had been trying to tell me I was seeing more than I realized with a little additional sensory input – something I’d picked up with my advancement to level 10. I hadn’t realized what the feeling was because this was the first time it had applied.
This item’s uses are hidden!
You do not have the knowledge to examine this item!
When Hali spoke, it was calmly, like she hadn’t just been manhandled. “Your oath of silence prevents you from discussing this.”
I was shocked. How did she know about my oath? “I don’t have an oath with you!”
“Your oath with captain Michaels includes me and my necklace.”
“No, we never discussed you!”
“It includes the ship’s mission, and that includes me,” she said, like she was explaining things to a child or irrational man. I wasn’t the irrational one here, it wasn’t like I was holding a knife to her! I’d just caught her off guard to get her confession! She was the one with the dagger still posed to strike!
“You’re hiding something,” I said. “Your true nature. What is it? Who are you?”
“I cannot divulge that, and per your Vow you cannot demand it.”
“My Vow was of silence, not anything else!” And was that too much information right there? Admitting I had a Vow of Silence? I didn’t get a prompt saying I’d broken it, so I hoped not.
“We can have the captain clear up this matter in a moment, just let me go and speak to him.”
“I’m not going to let you just walk in on the captain now! I don’t know what you’re planning!”
“No, you don’t know anything!” she huffed. “Then we’re at an impasse, because you won’t let me up and I couldn’t explain killing you. So, what will it be, Domenic?”
I thought about it. I really should have thought more about it earlier, because here I was deliberating while I was laying on top of her. I’d noticed she was a woman before, of course, but I hadn’t noticed if that makes sense. She had been a sailor, and one of that rare class of human sailor that was tough enough to sit on any fellow that dared say she didn’t belong at sea. She wasn’t a woman, women sold themselves in ports or got married and ran off to the countryside.
Then she’d been a dangerous mystery who may also be a mortal threat – that hadn’t been the right perspective to see her feminine attributes. I hadn’t even seen those when she’d tried being coy with me when I was fishing with Redmund. I was noticing them now, though, and Redmund’s questions suddenly popped back in my head. It was all very distracting.
“Um … Domenic?”
I immediately got off her, not because I’d made my decision but because I was embarrassed and caught. I looked around and thanked the stars no one else was in the vicinity. I belatedly offered my hand to Hali but she ignored it, brushing herself off and tucking her necklace back into her shirt. Was that a blush on her face? It was amazing how fast a woman could turn a professional sailor into a flustered horndog, wasn’t it?
“Awkward time for my charisma to show itself.” She said. “Don’t feel bad.”
“You’re going in to see the captain?”
“Take Blake with you.”
She looked at me sideways but nodded. I was certain of Blake’s loyalty to the captain, if he went in with her then she couldn’t spring some deadly trap on Michaels. I followed her to the gun deck and watched as she approached Blake who was supervising some sparring, as he’d taken to doing as often as he thought he could get away with. I have no idea what she said to him, but she got him to agree. They both entered the captains’ cabin. A minute later Blake came out, looked about the deck, and made a beeline towards me.
“What’s all this about? What’s Hali doing and how are the two of you mixed up?”
“Just some conflicting orders, it seems.” I said with a sigh. Hali must’ve been telling the truth. Which means I’d really stepped in it.
Hali hardly spent 5 minutes with the captain before she approached me and nodded. “The captain would like a word with you now.”
I couldn’t help but swallow. I entered and saw the captain sitting at his desk, ignoring me. I stood at attention, not daring to take a seat. I noticed that the door to the adjoining room was ajar, but even as I noticed it closed from the other side. The captain glanced up at that, then turned to glare at me.
“Your attempts to safeguard this voyage against interference are noted, but neither needed nor appreciated. Ms. Hali is a member of the crew. You are to treat her as such, giving no indication that anything might be otherwise, including what happened within this last hour. If anyone questions you on it, you are to divert any attention away from the truth. I don’t care if that means you have to say you were boarding a land carrack – no question is to be brought upon Ms. Hali’s identity. Am I perfectly understood?”
“This entire matter falls under the Vow of Silence I have from you. You are to take any word from Ms. Hali as though it was from my own mouth, understood?”
“Get out of here,” he said, returning his attention to his desk. I immediately turned and left; my cheeks flushed. A few people glanced at me, but no one asked.
I spent the rest of the day trying to feel like I hadn’t been an oaf in more ways than one. I failed on each count. Why hadn’t I just gone to one of the officers with my suspicions? Why had I tried to badger the truth out of her? Why did it only click in my mind then that I found her attractive?
I told myself that it was an effect of her necklace, but I knew it was a lie. She’d been wearing that necklace since I first noticed her and it hadn’t made me feel like that. She’d passed it off as her charisma attribute, but that didn’t make me feel better. Charisma might help a person seem more appealing, but it didn’t create feelings of desire. Saying I was the victim of charisma was like patting my hand and saying, ‘don’t worry, your self-control just isn’t a match for a pretty face!’
I don’t doubt people noticed my mood, but everybody had off days and the ones that sought to console me or chat about it were easily rebuffed. I hit my rack that night looking forward to starting the next day fresh. Paper crinkled in my pillow, and I pulled it apart to find a note.
‘Meet me in the galley mess. Be surreptitious about it, please. I don’t need any more rumors.’
I leaned back and suppressed a sigh. Surreptitious about it? I was bunked in a compartment with the majority of ship’s crew, and everyone knew where I slept. I pocketed the note and climbed out of my rack. I debated putting on a charade of stretching or muttering about not being able to sleep but decided against it. With my luck today I’d accidently say, ‘that blasted woman won’t let me sleep.’
The galley mess was above the crew quarters, but I had to traverse half the ship to climb the ladder to the gun deck, then make my way forward again. It was a good spot to meet surreptitiously, I had to admit. The cook was asleep until early hours when he awoke to start cooking breakfast. The watches didn’t patrol here but the one time after dinner clean-up to make sure there wasn’t any fire going.
I looked about the mess but didn’t see her, or anybody. I was puzzled until she dropped out of stealth. There she’d been in ‘plain view’ and my observation ability hadn’t picked her up. She was only supposed to have a level 2 stealth skill, right? Or no, that’s what she showed everybody, but who knows what she really had. Thinking of that made me think of the rest of the day and put me in a sour mood.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Oh, don’t be a grump. I thought you were cute earlier today.”
“Cute?” I repeated. Did she like seeing me come out of the captain’s cabin chastened for trying to expose her? Or was she talking about before that, when my interest in her was made obvious? ‘Cute’ wasn’t exactly the description a man went for, was it?
She was definitely talking about earlier. “Oh come on, I’ve already heard the rumors that I threw myself at you. It’ll be much harder for me to deal with. The least you can do is admit you thought I was pretty!”
“Like a lionfish,” I muttered. She laughed, which meant she understood the reference to the beautiful fish and the fact that its venomous spines could inflict severe pain. She didn’t seem to dislike the allusion. “Calling me out of the crew quarters won’t exactly help rumors like that. Speaking of which, where do you sleep?”
“Now, now,” she teased. “Just because you pinned me once doesn’t mean …”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
“I noticed that too. Where I sleep and how I spend my time is no concern of yours outside of maintaining my illusion.”
“It could be relevant,” I said, warming to the idea of teasing her back. “Crew accountability and all that.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “If it didn’t matter before now, it doesn’t matter at all.” She waited a moment, and I didn’t say anything. “You’re not going to ask about my illusion?”
“I figure I’ve gotten in enough trouble today for asking questions.”
She huffed. “So much for being fun. I’ve missed playful banter. It’s so hard to be a woman sailor – much harder maintaining a false identity as one.” I still didn’t bite. “Ok, you’re a first-class spoilsport.”
“And your boss.”
She laughed. “There isn’t a person on this ship who could override my word if I flexed my authority! That goes for Captain Michaels too. So I’m going to thank him for letting me borrow his authority now and then but when it comes to his policy on ‘loose lips sink ships’ … well, the phrase does seem more ominous now that I’m on a ship, but I’ve missed gossiping too much. I’m going to tell you more about what’s going on than you ever hoped to know.”
“You’re not worried we’ll be overheard? There’s probably a dozen sailors listening at the seams to see if those rumors are true.”
“Do you want to give them something to listen to?” she asked in a husky voice. She laughed at my blush. “I’ve got a spell that protects against eavesdropping. How on earth did someone as wholesome as you become a sailor?”
“My love is doomed to be unrequited,” I said, giving up on trying to make her bashful.
“Oh? You have a darling maid at port who is betrothed to another?”
“My love is the sea, I’ve the perk to prove it. Only the sea doesn’t care if you love it, she spares no one.”
She studied me for a moment. “You’re an interesting fellow, Domenic.”
“The night you approached me,” I said, trying to regain equal footing in the conversation – I knew there wasn’t a hope of controlling it. “When I was teaching Redmund to fish …”
“He adores you, by the way.”
I ignored how she knew what Redmund thought. “You were testing me. The captain said he’d had people sound me out – that was you!”
“Guilty!” she said with a mock curtsy. “Not my finest work … alright it was downright embarrassing as far as subtlety. But it was hard to talk to you as a sailor. It was like you knew me better than I did. I also had no idea what your triggers were. Would you spill the beans for an ordinary crewman, or a husky wench? Trying to play all the angles didn’t work so well.”
“Did I pass?”
“You’re here as a petty officer, aren’t you? Speaking of which, doesn’t it feel demeaning to be called a petty officer? Like you’re almost an officer, except you’re worthless?”
“Did I pass?”
She returned my serious tone. “If I’d told Michaels that I thought you were a traitor, you’d have been swimming with the fishes before the night was out.”
A chill washed through me. I thought of the shark that had gotten Redmund’s fish, and the story I’d given him about Davy Jones. I was a hair from being sent to Jones’ crew and never knew it. It had all hinged on passing a test I didn’t realize was happening.
“You’ll be happy to know you’ve progressed to a neutral reputation with the captain.”
“Progressed to neutral? I started off worse?”
“He didn’t like how you and Blake did business, and he saw Ms. Marston turn white as a sheet when she saw you. What’s that about anyway?”
I sighed and gave the real scoop. “My mother hooked up with one of the Marston lads, but he died before he could make an honest woman of her. They’re terrified of the thought that I’ll try and sully their reputation as a bastard son.”
“You’re part of the Marston family?”
“Hell if I know!” I said. “They made my mum swear I wasn’t, and she never was able to give me a straight answer.”
“Oooh, that’s a juicy little nugget. I’ll have to remember that. But you seriously don’t have any intention of worming into their power? Even siphoning off a bit of hush money?”
“Wouldn’t suit me,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d consider blackmail if it was me they’d wronged, but the way I see it they wronged my mother and she doesn’t want to get away from them.”
“So an emphasis on the moral in morally gray.” She shrugged. “We all have our vices.”
“Since yours is gossip, why don’t you tell me …” she held up a finger, interrupting me. Then motioned for me to continue.
“Sorry, had to refresh the spell.”
“Tell me about your false stats.”
“So he is curious!” she exclaimed. “For a while there I wasn’t even sure you were human!”
“And you’re a nymph,” I accused.
“Beautiful and seductive?”
“Clever, flirty, and utterly unable to stay on track.”
She smirked. She really was enjoying herself. Comparing this Hali to sailor Hali had me impressed at her acting. It had taken me a long while to suspect her, and I doubted anyone else did.
“I’m something of a spy, I’ve been used in Antarus as a means of rooting out deception or planting it as needed. In high society, nearly everyone keeps their stats up and I’ve the skill to make mine impenetrable to all but the most advanced analyzers.”
“This is a long way from high society.”
“Tell me about it! There’s also the trouble that sailors must reveal their stats often. My refusal to do so wouldn’t serve to keep me incognito, so I acquired something to help me.” She took off her necklace, but her true stats were indeed firmly hidden and impenetrable. “This thing was hard to come by and difficult to use, but it’s what made me a sailor.”
“I focus on the stats I want it to show and imbue it with a good chunk of my mana. It retains those stats for a few days if I leave it alone, or I could invest more mana in it to make it last longer. The trouble is, if I want to show a level advancement in anything I have to start over from scratch.”
“And you don’t really know those skills.”
“Oh, I picked most of them up. I have to sell my illusion, after all! Just not all of them at the level my necklace shows. Like during that storm where you started suspecting me; I had level 2 swimming, sea legs 4, and climbing 3.” I winced. “Yeah … yeah. I couldn’t keep up, and I was terrified I was going to go over the side like that other poor fellow.”
“John,” I supplied the name.
“Right. Anyway, trying to keep up the illusion during those times is hard.”
“What’s your seamanship level?”
“Thinking of watching out for me and making sure I don’t get into another scrape like that?”
“Something along those lines.”
“Just don’t overdo it, my cover is more important than my safety. It’s level 3. These last few weeks have been great for it, but I haven’t had the benefit of the teaching you gave everyone else.”
I winced again. That put her among the weakest of the crew at least, and we’d been giving her duties like she was in the top 20%. “Does Virgam know your real stats?”
“No, and he won’t.” she said pointedly.
“I’ve gotta ask,” I spread my arms. “Why tell me?”
“You were insightful and stubborn enough to demand an answer, and your face was pretty enough that I acquiesced.”
I didn’t buy it. The captain’s candor in our first meeting made sense; he had my Vow of Silence and giving me more information was a trade for my loyalty. Of course I would be invested when I knew what was at stake! Hali telling me all this … “You could have left it as a matter for my Vow and that would be that. You’ve given me more tonight, more than I knew to ask for. Why?”
She met my eyes. “Captain Michaels has the skills to recognize that you could be a great threat. I have the skills to recognize you could be very, very useful. And,” she hesitated. “I’ve got the feeling I’m going to want you on my side. Nothing I’ve been able to pin on a skill of mine, just a premonition.”
“That’s not at all foreboding.”
“We on a secret mission during a war,” she smiled wanly. “Of course its foreboding.”
“Why is a spy on the ship?”
“To keep an eye on the crew we had to take on unexpectedly.”
“Fishguts,” I said. “You had the soldiers all lined up as petty officers to take on that job.”
“And it took the crew, what? A whole day to see through the façade?”
“The captain also knew about the unrest while it was happening, he can see things like morale, of course, but I bet he can also see when the crew is up to something.”
“He has metrics for the crew, a whole crew of happy people can hide a single person with a loathing reputation. His interface isn’t enough.”
“Why the charade, Hali? Why come as a sailor?”
She considered me for a solid two minutes – a lull like that in any conversation drags on. “There’s more than one answer to that. The one you get to know – every spy needs a backstory. Now I have a whole crew who can vouch for me where we’re going.”
So she wasn’t just a spy on the ship, she was a spy infiltrating a nation. “And where are we going?”
“You don’t believe we’re going to Andros?”
“Blake spoiled that lie before I ever stepped aboard.”
She huffed. “The lout! Of course we’re not going to Andros, now use your imagination and guess!”
“Oorkom,” I replied immediately.
“Bingo! We’re heading to the nation with an active feud against our declared enemy, imagine that!”
“And you’re going to spy on them?”
“We’re going to ally with them, honey. Now that’s enough global politics for one night, it’s past your bedtime and your bedfellows will be missing you.”
“One more question,” I said. I truly didn’t understand why this one mattered so much to me: “Is Hali your real name?”
Of course it wasn’t, it was the name of her throwaway identity she’d discard when she couldn’t get through the right doors as a sailor, then it would be another name she was charming people with. She didn’t say that, though. In fact, I think my question hit her deeply.
“Names are … tools to me. But Hali sits closer to my heart than most.”
I nodded, getting the only answer I could expect out of her. I went to bed and felt sorry for myself since I could never really get to know her.