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A byproduct of my time sailing normally was I got the hang of utilizing both the wind and my magical propulsion. My speed was nearly doubled when I caught a good breeze that way! I closed in on Tulisang in the early afternoon.

Seagulls cried out their welcome to me as they flew on the breeze and vied with sky-eels for scraps. The surf pounded roughly against the breakwaters and roared in indignation that its power was being checked. The coastal breeze made its own roar in my ears as it whipped its way inland after winding itself up over the open waters. The sun looked down on us sailors and laughed as it sent pulses of tropical heat to make us sweat. The sea had mercy on me and cooled me with sprays of saltwater as I crested each wave.

It was glorious.

I joined other small craft making their way about and we exchanged casual salutes as we avoided the larger fishing boats, and all of us steered clear of the heavily armed Barque coming in. It felt odd to be waving at other sailors, as if they should somehow know that I wasn’t like the rest of them anymore. They were naturally oblivious. None of them bothered to analyze me if they got close enough, and even then my new ability should hide my cursed nature. Probably. I really hoped so.

I did get a few strange looks, and worried at first that they’d picked up on the cursed nature of my dinghy. It wasn’t anything so serious, they were just judging its appearance. I had pulled it off the bottom of the ocean, after all.

It made me second-guess my intention of sailing straight in. Would someone be able to pick up more details with a closer examination? What would happen if a curious child climbed aboard while I was gone? Would they become part of my cursed crew?

Better not to risk it. I sailed past the harbor and found a dilapidated dock. I stowed the sail and climbed the dock to be greeted by my ‘land timer’. It was counting down extremely slow, and as I examined it I received an explanation.

While not technically on land, you are cut off from the sea and pushing the limitations of your curse.

Ability Uproot active: allotted time has been affected.

So I could push the limitations of my curse and stretch out my timer. Judging by how quickly my timer was falling, I could probably milk another 3-4 hours out if I stayed in a gray area.

I walked to the shore, dodging rotten planks in the dock. As I walked, I willed my dinghy to submerge. It did, and I smiled as I realized I could control that much of its mobility even when I wasn’t aboard. If anybody was watching, they’d probably think I was a crazy man, smiling as my craft sunk behind me. The moment my foot left the dock, my land timer started counting down normally.

I walked through town looking for a merchant shop. I only had a handful of silver and copper coins I’d looted from the adventurer. Apparently he hadn’t been one to carry his wealth with him, despite the inherent protection against thievery his spatial bag had given him. That or he’d been dirt poor. The contents of his bag made me think that he was a specialized member of a larger team – probably not the leader, without much coin. An internal bit of avarice that every person has was telling me all about the potential to find his teammates on that wreck and loot their bags too … I squashed the idea. I’d been right to get out of there when I had the chance, and anyone else on that ill-fated wreck had no doubt been lost to the waves long ago.

I thought I remembered there being a shop at the main crossroads, but instead of a merchant I found a tavern. It was named Donovan’s Reef, it was a new, three-story construction painted white and looked like it could house half the town. I quickly decided that the merchant could wait.

There were a few people sitting in the tavern talking quietly, but as spacious as the front room was the place looked incredibly empty. There was a kitchen boy going around pulling chairs from atop tables and arranging them on the freshly mopped floor. Another was polishing the mirrors around glow-stone holders so there’d be better lighting after dark.

“What can I help you with, pilgrim?” A loud voice asked from behind the bar. The bartender was a big man, about six and a half feet tall with broad shoulders. He wore a khaki shirt half-open in the heat with the sleeve’s half rolled and a white towel over his shoulder whilst he polished a stein with another one. He lacked an innkeeper’s paunch, and honestly I thought he’d fit better in the middle of a brawl than behind the bar.

I felt awkward in my ill-fitting scavenged clothes and sword, but the barkeep didn’t throw me out for my appearance. I had no hope of pretending to be a local or even familiar with this place, so I played tourist. “I just got in and couldn’t help but notice the place. It’s impressive! I don’t remember it being here a few years back.”

“Buildings that were here got burned down last year. I bought up the property and had this place built.” The bartender spoke amiably while he pulled another glass out and started removing any spots. “It’s downright amazing what a team of skilled construction professions can build in a few months!”

“You’re Donovan, then?”

“I am. Owner, proprietor, innkeeper and barkeep. I don’t do the cooking though. That’s one title too many. So what can I do you for? My cook is out and I won’t be serving anything until this evening. Booze I can get you.”

“An ale and a water. Both cold, if you can.”

Donovan gave a lopsided grin and returned with two mugs that had a coating of frost on them. “I invested in a number of commodities to compete with the other taverns ‘round here. Enjoy.”

I sipped the water and found it was cold enough to make my teeth ache. When I’d asked for it cold, I’d expected something from the cellar that counted as ‘not warm’. My eyebrows rose and my surprise was the reaction Donovan seemed to be waiting for. He laughed.

“Blood of my fathers!” I swore. “How do you keep things on ice around the clock like that?”

“A dwarf good with runes who owed me a favor.”

“And I imagine you’re doing just fine against the competition?”

“Another tavern closed its doors a fortnight ago, and good riddance.” Donovan said with a predatory smile. “That leaves three other taverns in town, and there’s enough custom for us all to get along now. What ship did you say you came in on?”

I lifted the ale to my lips. “A ship of no name,” I said. I’d expected this question and prepared my response. When sailors said something like that, they were telling you they were involved in underhanded or risky dealings. It would brand me as a certain kind of sailor, but city officials were the only ones who wouldn’t accept that as an answer.

So imagine my surprise when Donovan leaned over the bar and said quietly, “Kid, there’s not a blasted thing that goes on in this town that I don’t know about. Add to that I’ve raised myself to a pretty high analyze skill over my time, and I can tell you’re hiding something beyond what I can figure. I don’t like it.”

I was both terrified that he knew something was off with me and relieved that he hadn’t seen straight through me. My mind spun furiously as I tried to come up with a lie. “Just some trouble I’m trying to get away from,” I muttered.

Donovan grilled me for another few seconds before he backed off. “You looking to catch the first ship out of here?”

“Actually, I was hoping to lay low for a while. Do some jobs to earn some coin while I figure where to go next.” That wasn’t exactly true. I needed to figure out my next step, but I wasn’t looking to scrounge up coins when I needed to find out how I was going to get my cursed ship and a crew willing to serve me. I could never earn enough as a laborer to finance the typical cost if the trade, but cursed ships weren’t reliant on a bank, now were they?

Donovan shrugged. “They always need more hands further inland. Being a farmer isn’t glorious, but they pay well. They haven’t been able to afford enough slaves to run the place. They keep having them go missing.”

“Slaves?” I asked, curious.

Donovan nodded. “Aye, Andros’s boy king has been sucking up to the Human Empire to the east. He legalized a new form of slavery over a year ago, called chattel slavery. Instead of the nexum slavery; with an indentured period or an amount of debt to work off, the slaves are owned for life. No say in their treatment or the jobs they do. It upset a lot of people, but the king promised all sorts of things about how it will stimulate the economy and slaves’ own value as an investment will protect them … enough people bought it, and now they’re buying people.”

The thought of owning a person for their whole life, of buying, selling and trading them … it struck me the wrong way. But how different could it be from a criminal serving a life sentence of labor?

“At least it’s not me.” I said, taking another swing of my ale. Judging by the way Donovan looked at me, he was one of those people that hadn’t agreed with the change in the law. “I’m not looking to go further inland,” I said quickly, trying to change the subject. “I’ve got a perk that makes it hard to be away from the sea.”

“Heart at Sea? Yeah, I’ve seen it before. It’s up to you; you can always scrape by as a dock worker. If you want something that pays a little better, but carries more risk and effort, there’s Smitty’s Salvage that operates out of here. You probably have the stats for it.”

“Thanks,” I said, genuinely reflecting on the idea. A salvage company might give me the locations of different ships and an excuse to check them out. It was worth looking into.

“Lee!” Donovan called to a younger man with spectacles and a clipboard. “The broken door by the ring, we get that taken care of …?”

The bartender left me to see to his other business. I finished off my ale and my water, savoring both. It had been days since I’d drunk anything, and while I might not have been dehydrated, I still needed that!

I left the mugs on the bar with the coins to cover it and made my way back outside. After a bit of exploring, I found a merchant shop and made my way inside. The shopkeeper took one look at me and put his guard up.

“We don’t do loans or credit!” he snapped.

“Actually, I was hoping to sell!” I said with what I hoped was a winning smile. I shifted my bag around so he could identify it as an adventurers bag. Instantly his whole demeanor changed, though he didn’t exactly pander to me.

“Alright, what have you got?”

“I’m looking to sell a few potions first, then I wonder if you can’t help me with an outfit.”

“What potions?” he asked. I pulled out a philter of water breathing from the bag as saw his eyes widen in surprise. While I didn’t technically have the trade skill, I didn’t need it to smell out a deal here. I should have priced how much they were going for here before I’d tried selling them. “I’ll give you five gold for that one.” He said.

In my head, I was stunned. Back in Pristav they’d been selling for 3 gold for two doses. These potions had the same number of doses but the shopkeeper was offering me a much higher price out of hand. I still gave him a look like I knew he was low-balling me.

“Six and a half,” he said. “And I won’t be here haggling all day!”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said. It was true, he had high level in trade while I didn’t have the bonuses from the accredited skill. If I haggled with him too long I was liable to be paying him to take my potions. “But would you go to 7 gold?”

He looked at the potion and nodded. It was a small enough concession overall that he went for it. “Yeah, I’ll do that.”

“Wonderful!” I said, reaching into my bag and pulling out the other three. “I have these as well. Though, I’ll let them go at six and a half if you help me with the outfit I’m looking for.”

He looked at me like I’d betrayed him and sighed. “What kind of outfit?”

I described what I was looking for, and he popped in several questions about bonus stats, durability, style, pocket space, bandoliers, weapons, etc. When we were done, he took a few minutes to sort through his stock and pile things together. I quickly realized that there was no way all this was going to be included in the discount I’d offered.

Sure enough, when I asked him how he figured it he smiled and said, “The outfit and four gold per potion.”

Now it was my turn to look betrayed. I made a show of looking over the outfit but didn’t try to undersell it. He’d done well getting me things I’d wanted. We both knew it. I looked into my bag and adopted a more thoughtful expression. I wasn’t willing to sell any of the trap materials, and I didn’t know if the other potions would sell as well. Most of them I wasn’t willing to give up, anyway. I normally depended on a crew for things like a medical chest.

He didn’t know what I had, though. I’d surprised him with the philters of water breathing, I was sure he was antsy to see what else I had.

“Five gold per potion, like your original offer.” I said. “That brings the cost of the outfit to eight gold in savings for you, which I think is fair.”

“Four and a half,” he countered. I shook my head, and after some hand-wringing he acceded.

You have learned the skill Trade! Increased bargaining power, people are more likely to accept your demands.

Now that I saw the effects of the trade skill, I didn’t doubt that the shopkeeper could sell the potions for over 10 gold. There was no way non-trader me could have pulled something resembling a fair deal away from someone who had the propensity to magically influence the dealing. Still, I’d gotten a far better price than I’d expected. The world had also recognized that I’d learned trading as a skill. Just being able to haggle didn’t mean you got the skill, as my years of negotiating sailing contracts and coppers to street vendors indicated. Was this transaction involving gold what finally pushed me over the threshold? Or was the fact that I was now a captain influencing whether the world gave me the official skill?

“What else you have for me?” the shopkeeper asked.

A bit annoyed at the idea I’d been had, I pulled out all the clothes from my bag and dumped them on the floor. “Can I get some average clothes in exchange for these?”

The rest of my trading hadn’t gone so well. The shopkeeper hadn’t been impressed with the clothes I’d offered to trade him. That was because they were junk, and junk sized for a Chortin, no less. Still, he’d given me two sets of pants and shirts with decent durability for the whole thing. I imagined he had someone he could sell it to who’d be able to use the things for something, but I got what I wanted out of it – clothes that didn’t have a hole in the pants for a tail!

That transaction had soured our relationship a bit and I hadn’t sold any of my other potions to him. I’d bought a worn bedroll and blanket from him and he’d been polite enough to given me details across town to the other stops I needed to make. The weaponsmith was a quick stop, if a bit spendy. I picked up eight throwing knives that fit my new bandolier and three daggers: one for my right hip, one for the small of my back, and one for the sheathe in my boot. The days of me being without a weapon were over!

Then I stopped by the tailors. I hesitated outside the door. Less than three hours had elapsed from my timer, but my feet were burning and I felt the sea pulling at me. I resisted it for now. I needed to take care of business, and I couldn’t do that in my dinghy.

The tailor shop felt much smaller than it was, since it had an odd layout and cloth and clothing everywhere. Bright colored bolts leaned against the wall mixed with browns and khaki. Stacks of leather of various thickness and type piled to the ceiling. I could walk into a shop and not give battleaxes a second glance, but this place made me defensive.

“What you need?” a spectacled gnome asked, popping out from an adjacent room. I was a bit surprised because she was the first non-human I’d seen in town.

“Well, most important would be this,” I showed her my adventurer’s spatial bag. While the merchant had been excited when I’d showed him this, the tailor became apprehensive.

“Must show proof of ownership first!”

After I’d taken a moment to understand what she’d said through an unidentifiable accent, I asked her how I was supposed to do that.

“Three things, from the bag!” she said, pointing. “Tell me what they are, then remove them. They must be in order!”

A little confused, I told her the pieces of the outfit I’d be removing and did so. She visibly relaxed and came to take the bag from my hands.

“Oh, dear! Oh, dear! You have … you have not been treating this well!”

“Is it something you can fix up?”

“Yes!” she said emphatically. “But working on magic bags difficult. It costs you.”

“How much?”

“Five gold to raise to 100 durability. Eight to raise to 120.”

My eyebrows raised. “Wow. Why the difference in price?”

“Improving durability means simple fixes. Complete repair takes much more effort to fix last points.”

So the last twenty points of durability would cost me three gold, while the first 85 points would cost me five gold. After my stop at the weaponsmiths I had just over 17 gold. I wanted to go with the cheaper option out of habit, but I could afford the extra durability and I didn’t want to risk losing what I had in the bag.

“I’ll go with the full repair. Also, could you adjust these clothes to fit me?” I showed her the first outfit I’d gotten at the merchants. The outfit I was wearing now and my spare were plain, simple clothes in a billowy style. It gave great freedom of movement and meant there was no need for tailoring. My primary outfit, though, would have to be adjusted.

The gnome looked at the clothes and said she could fix them, then whirled around me with a measuring tape. She had me stand by a stool that she climbed onto the measure my shoulders, chest, neck and arms. While she measured, I had to ask, “Why have me pull out those items from the bag?”

“You steal bag, you not reach inside. You high pickpocket skill, you get random item. Only owner know what they get and can repeat!”

That … made a lot of sense. Surprising, given the difficulty I had understanding her. I’d never heard of someone stealing from an adventurer’s bag, but I’d heard that killing the owner didn’t open up the bag to you. If it had, adventurers would be rightfully frightened to flaunt them.

“You come back tomorrow noon!” she said as she finished.

“Tomorrow at noon?” I verified.

“Yes, tomorrow noon! Shoo!”

“Wait, I didn’t quite catch your name …”

“Mama Jo, shoo!”

“Maja … I’m sorry …”

“Shoo!” she said, and I fled.

I walked about the harbor to get an idea of the ships that had come in. Most were obviously pirate vessels, but smaller operations than Lawless Jack had going. I passed by the heavily armed Barque that I’d avoided at the harbor mouth earlier, the Undine. Its crew were abuzz on its deck, hauling off cargo and stowing their artillery. While it was a notable example of firepower, the only ships that didn’t have some kind of armament were the ones with obviously worthless cargo, like the barges. It was probably a requirement for docking in this town.

Most importantly, no sign of the Raven. Not that I really expected her in the harbor, she’d most likely be getting repairs elsewhere, but her sister ship the Gull could have indicated her presence.

I felt like I’d be running into Jack again, but not now. When I had a ship and crew of my own, we’d talk once more.

I was trying to think of an excuse to inconspicuously get back in the water when I saw a diver climb onto a dock from the water with a broken crab pot. He sat and began mending it while I cursed myself for an idiot. I’d been so paranoid about people questioning my activities and hidden status that I’d forgotten that confidence was the key. I didn’t question what the crab fisherman was doing, now did I?

I found an unoccupied dock and stripped to my smallclothes, stashing them and my daggers out of sight. I wasn’t really worried about anyone stealing them, as they were hardly worth the risk of the crime. My sword and belt I wasn’t willing to leave behind, so I strapped them back on. The +2 I got to Constitution from my belt disappeared when I took it off, but when I put it pack on my health pool was still full, not needing to replenish the extra 20 points that had briefly disappeared. If I left it off for too long, those extra (inaccessible) points would disappear and I’d have to regenerate my health pool normally again.

Feeling awkward wearing a sword while doing this I reminded myself that confidence was the key and stepped off the dock.

I descended to the base of the pylons and took stock. I had great visibility with my Vision ability, so the scurrying of the local aquatic life was fascinating. Starfish and crab clung to the pylons while fish ducked through seaweed and algae. Sea snails crept along by mussels and anemones. I thought I caught a glimpse of a drowner out of the corner of my eye, but it was gone when I checked. I’d keep my eyes open, but I didn’t have to worry about running out of air myself.

My land timer had slowed when I’d stepped on the dock and disappeared when I’d touched seawater. By concentrating, I could still tell how much time was on it and how quickly it was regenerating. The burning that had been steadily growing in my feet had disappeared in cool relief. I was home again.

There was quite a lot of debris strewn about, the result of years of activity above. I found a relatively new crab pot that had gotten stuck, then had its contents broken into and eaten. I sat down and began to mend it idly while I thought. Crab pots counted as traps, and activities like this had been what leveled my Traps skill since I was a little boy.

I was relatively safe now. I had procured some gear and enough money to supply me for weeks of laziness if I’d been so inclined. Tulisang wasn’t safe, but its inhabitants didn’t hunt you like monsters did. When I thought about it, I’d had to admit that I’d let the reputation of the place worry me. It wasn’t a hive of scum and villainy that cannibalized itself – though I’d yet to see its night life. So far it had looked like a normal if incredibly well-armed town.

I needed a ship, but that part of the plan was nebulous. I could curse ships and claim them as my own, but I didn’t know the limitations on my power yet. Could I claim any ship? Could I only claim one ship? Could I claim a ship that already had a captain and crew? Did the ship have to be surfaced and in good repair, or could I resurrect a sunken ship? I was hesitant to just start experimenting, since I might get stuck with results I didn’t like. If I swam over to one of the ships docked above me and tried to claim it, would the captain be notified that I’d just tried to do so? That would shoot a big hole in my anonymity. Worse, what if it worked and I suddenly had a cursed ship to my name siting in the middle of a harbor full of pirates?

The idea of going out and exploring sunken ships was a good one. It just might provide me with the opportunity I needed to practice. As a side benefit, I’d have an excuse for the amount of time I’d need to spend in the water. People would probably look at me funny if every day I jumped off a pier like I was coming home from work – confident air or no confident air.

What really rained on my plans was my crew. How was I supposed to convince a crew to join on with a cursed captain doing the will of Davy Jones? Davy Jones augmented his crew with the lost who found their way to his depths. That was great for him, but I didn’t have the keys to the locker of the Deep and couldn’t just sail about the ocean looking for drowning souls willing to bargain for their lives.

How the bloody sea-foam was I supposed to get a crew?

I’d figure that part out later. I had no answers, so there wasn’t much I could do right now. I’d just have to keep my head down and avoid notice until I had an epiphany. No, that wasn’t right. That wouldn’t do at all! I couldn’t count on something like that!

Libraries. Andros’s government controlled and staffed all their libraries. Even if the monarch despised Tulisang, there was probably at least a small government-run library present in town. The chances of it having anything on my profession were nil, but I could probably pick up some magic theory and learn some water and air spells.

I hadn’t done anything with my magic, because I didn’t know how. I’d suddenly found myself with access to two basic magics and a Deeper magic, and I hadn’t even explored the possibilities they offered. I’d need to remedy that.

I was startled when something zoomed towards me from my peripheral vision. I’d just reached for my sword when I felt something ram into my chest and pair of tiny hands grabbed at my throat. I forgot about my sword and grabbed the creature, throwing it away from me. It took off and started circling me, outside of the range that most creatures could see but well within my own vision.

It was a drowner, a fish-like monster about the size of my torso. It looked similar to a tuna fish, except it had humanoid arms and legs. It got its name from its tactic of killing prey by pulling it underwater and keeping it there until it drowned. They didn’t have razor teeth or a bite that could do significant damage, but they did understand how to knock the air from something’s lungs and distract it from the surface. Once their prey was dead, they’d nibble away at it until they hungered for something else. One drowner by itself wasn’t much of a risk, but they usually hunted in packs of dozens. Trying to escape through a swarm like that was a terrifying way to drown and made them hated creatures by sailors.

As I found my own loathing rise up, I realized something: I couldn’t drown. The primary tactic of the drowner was useless against me! The creature had probably thought that I was easy pickings since I had probably spent a couple hours down here by now. It wasn’t intelligent enough to realize that meant I didn’t need air, it assumed I was about to expire.

I drew my sword and matched the drowners’ circling, anchoring myself in “walking mode” … I really needed to come up with another way of explaining the way I treated the sea floor like a landside training yard. Being a rather unintelligent creature, it wasn’t long before it darted at me again.

I sidestepped and swung my sword in a basic form Blake had taught me. Against my underwater opponent, I appeared to have unnatural powers. I suppose I did. I easily lopped off one of the creatures arms just below the shoulder, part of a fin and its foot just above the ankle. It became uncoordinated as it struggled to adjust for the loss of its limbs. I slashed twice more, gouging chunks of flesh and HP. It struggled to coordinate an effective escape with its hampered mobility, something I capitalized on. I stepped forward and swung my sword horizontally. I probably swung much harder than I needed to, given the leverage I could put behind it and the impetus the drowner faced from our liquid environment. I split the drowner in half from its gaping mouth to its tail.

100 XP gained for slaying Drowner

As it was an aggressive, predatory monster I got good XP rewards for the victory. Good XP for most, anyway. I’d been spoiled by getting tens of thousands of XP per kill. But then, I hadn’t been in any real danger either, so the XP was essentially free. Facing a swarm of drowners could turn out differently, as their constant small attacks and scratches would whittle away at anyone’s HP.

I backed away from the gore that was diffusing into the water at the two halves sank. There was an incredible amount of gunk in seawater that was somehow filtered by magic potions and my curse, but I still didn’t like the thought of breathing drowner guts.

I decided that I’d spent enough time meditating below. I’d long since mended the crab pot and refilled my land timer. It was time for my evening appearance.

I crawled onto the pier as the sun was reaching the horizon and let myself dry off before donning my loose clothes. I left the mended crab pot on the dock. I wouldn’t have had any compunction against taking it, as I’d salvaged and fixed it, but I didn’t have my spatial bag with me and I didn’t want to run into someone who claimed to own it.

I made my way back to Donovan’s Reef and was met by a very different sight. The place was packed and the murmur of voices competing to be heard was loud. The glow-stone lanterns were bright and gleaming even as the last rays of sunlight disappeared. The clientele was almost exclusively human, with maybe one in ten being nonhumans, mostly grouped with others.

Donovan himself stood behind the long bar, though he had another man and a woman doing most of the work while he chatted with people who wanted to talk. He’d changed into a white, short-sleeved button-down shirt and had somehow kept it stain free so far. I was mildly curious if he could keep it so all night. He spotted me and gave my new appearance a once over.

“Look at you, pilgrim!” He said with a smile. “So you weren’t hiding some deformity earlier!”

I gave a rueful grin as I sat at the bar. “Oh, I was! It’s only after sunset that I can afford to show myself.”

He laughed politely at my lame attempt at a joke. “You here to open a tab?”

“Sure, though I’m curious what you’ve got back in the kitchen.”

He rattled off a few dishes and I asked for a beer and a sailors pie – a dish filled with crab, vegetables and gravy. He put the order in to the kitchen and moved seamlessly to the next customer who approached. I couldn’t read his stats, but I’d bet he had social skills among his repertoire.

I drank and chatted neutrally with a few people who’d also taken up residence at the bar. Most of the crews and groups claimed tables together. Those who came in alone had a different look about them. I was worried about standing out until I caught one such person analyzing me, then giving me a wide berth. Maybe he thought my stats were a front, like Hali’s. Maybe he thought I must be a tough mongrel to sit so casually at only level 10. What I was most concerned about was what kind of unease he might have gotten from my curse. Donovan hadn’t seen through me earlier, but he’d been able to tell I was hiding something. So long as no one walked in with an analyze score high enough to do me in, I was fine, right?

I started to pay closer attention to the non-human patrons. Overall, they were more subdued and somewhat segregated from the rest. I knew Andros was a human country that gave precedence to its own species, but I hadn’t spent enough time here recently to pick up on any racial prejudices. My suspicions seemed to be confirmed when a swarthy human from one of the crews – at the apparent egging on from his crewmates – approached a mixed group. The nonhumans included chortin, gnomes, elves, and even a dwarf. The human had intruded on their conversation but hadn’t had the chance to spread any slurs or pick a fight when a peanut popped off his head.

He turned, hunting for the source when he saw Donovan crooking a finger at him, beckoning him over. The look on Donovan’s face was like that of a parent who caught a boy filching eggs. The fight in the sailors eyes dimmed as he approached the bar. I was close enough to listen in.

“Now, I’m sure I misinterpreted what I saw across my room,” Donovan said quietly. “But it looked like you were about to harass my guests! So I decided I’d warn you all friendly-like I’m the master of this establishment, and my rules cover every sapient under my roof.” Donovan’s smile showed lots of teeth and failed to reach his eyes. “So, will I be needing to apologize to my guests tonight for an uncouth lout too dumb to read the power structure in the room?”

The sailor’s face flushed at the insinuation, but he was either smarter than he looked or respected Donovan’s position enough to take it. “No, sir.”

“What’s your table drinking?” Donovan asked, then sent the sailor back to his friends with another pitcher. He caught me watching. “Your pie’ll be right out.”

I raised my tankard. “I’m not complaining! You’ve got a fine brew to tide a man over!” He looked at me again like he was still trying to find the missing piece to my puzzle.

It wasn’t five minutes later that he brought out my pie himself. He looked like he was about to ask me something when he saw someone over my shoulder.

“Mama Jo!” He yelled happily, raising his arms high in welcome, a broad grin splitting his face. I turned to see the tailor gnome from earlier. She shook her finger at the barkeep.

“Ohhh, big Donovan! You know I no like you to greet me so loud when I come in!”

“Well, you’ll have to stop looking so dang pretty whenever you light up my bar!”

The elderly gnome waved away his flattery when she recognized me. “Ohhh, I see you again so soon!”

“Mama Jo,” I said politely, finally understanding the name.

She turned back to Donovan. “You should have seen the state of his adventure bag! It like he knock off durability point before sleep every night!”

“Adventurer’s bag, huh?” Donovan said, running his eye over me again. He gestured at a table along the wall. “That table’s usually taken by Smitty, that salvager I mentioned earlier. He’s got two of his crew there now. You should speak with them.”

“I think I’ll do that,” I said, carefully picking up my hot pie and tankard. I recognized a dismissal when I was handed one. The question was whether the dismissal was as simple as him clearing the bar for active drinkers or not.

“Mind if I join you?” I asked the divers at the table as I set my pie down before it burned my fingers.

One of them gestured at my seat. “Please …”

I nodded in appreciation and pulled the gravy-coated fork from my pie, licking it clean before gesturing at Donovan with it. “Barkeep told me you work for Smitty. I’m interested in a job, can you tell me about it?”

“About diving in general or Smitty himself?” one of the divers said. “I’m Manny, by the way.”

“Dom,” I supplied. You couldn’t really hide your name in this world without changing it entirely or magic to help you hide it. I wasn’t interested in having people link me to the Domenic I’d been before I’d begun serving Davy Jones – maybe I should have done more to change my name? Introducing myself as ‘Dom’ seemed like an inconspicuous way of distancing myself. There was a chance people would remember me as ‘Dom’ if they heard someone asking about ‘Domenic’. “And I’m more interested in Smitty himself, though I’m curious how big his operation is.”

“Oh, it’s a big operation!” Manny said, brushing a strand of his dark, lanky hair out of his eyes. “I have been working for him for three years now, and the only time he hasn’t had work for me is when the weather keeps us away. He’s got some sort of contract with the government for salvaging their ships at a discount, and he’s exploited it to buy out most other operations up and down the coast. He hears about every job and has the most resources of any outfit!”

“Sounds like you’re really trying to sell it,” I said.

“That’s because I’m a junior partner in the business,” the other man said. “And he’s trying to butter me up. Name’s Sid. I’m actually in charge of the field operations here.”

“Pleased to meet you. I guess there’s no one better to tell me about the business, huh?”

“Nope!” Sid said. He seemed friendly, but he wasn’t much for smiling. “We take jobs to recover valuable cargo, mostly. If the ship owner doesn’t make an effort to have it recovered within a certain time frame, then it becomes free game under Andros law. We’ll take anything we can from those and sell it off. It’s all legal, government-sanctioned work. Smitty also has agreements with the local pirates.”

Manny had tried to sell me on having work, whereas Sid was selling it to me as a good job to avoid making enemies. Legal, government sanctioned work seemed like a big deal here. Getting that kind of work without painting a target on yourself for pirates was notable.

“How’s the operation usually run?”

For the next hour and a half, we talked shop. Sid really was the operations manager, he knew the ins-and-outs of everything! It mostly came down what kind of cargo they were recovering and how deep it was. Most the work they did was in water shallow enough that people with a decent Endurance and Constitution skill could do the work with a diving bell. Deeper operations required a greater investment – either in people with unique skillsets or magical enhancements.

We’d all had a few tankards and my delicious sailor’s pie was long gone when a ruckus was raised. One inebriated man was shouting at another, who had no problems about going toe-to-toe. Only thing was, the drunk man was counting on his buddies to back him and didn’t realize the man he was picking a fight with belonged to the much larger crew of the Undine, nearly all of whom were present. I was checking that my escape routes were clear when someone shouted there was a weapon.

“TRY IT!” came the roar that silenced everyone. I looked and saw Donovan standing on the bar, his already tall frame towering over the masses. It appeared that he’d engaged a taunt to grab the attention of every participant. That seemed risky, as everyone in the fighters could have all turned on him. His force of presence wasn’t the only thing he was using to back up his challenge. He held a repeating crossbow in his arms.

Repeating crossbows had a frankly pathetic range and their intricate workings made them incredibly unreliable on a battlefield. In a bar where range wasn’t an issue and the weapon could be oiled and maintained daily … it was probably the deadliest weapon in the room.

“Please try it!” Donovan repeated. He appeared to be aiming at the person who’d first drawn a weapon. I couldn’t see the man, but his reaction appeased the barkeep. “Listen up!” Donovan said. “For those of you who don’t know my rules it’s as simple as this: you have a problem you want to duel out we’ve got the facilities for it here. We’ll allow any kind of duel that you lot agree to, and wagers made get a house cut. But anyone who spills blood in my Reef is subject to my justice!” He made his point with his crossbow. “Clear?” At the sea of unconvincing, halfhearted nods and ‘ayes’ Donovan fixed his gaze on another man in the crowd. “Captains are responsible for actions and expenses of their crew.”

A few heartbeats later the captain of the Undine, who didn’t like the thought of being liable for damages his boys were sure to cause now, raised his voice. “Down your drinks and hit the streets, lads of the Undine!” A number of sailors took the advice literally and swallowed all their booze as quickly as they could. Others stared daggers at people they’d nearly came to blows with.

I heaved a sigh of relief. I wasn’t the lowest level in the room, but I was on the short end of the spectrum and lacked anyone to back me up if I got embroiled in it. Donovan had cleared out a sizable portion of his night’s clientele but had likely avoided the damages that were sure to follow a brawl between crews as tough as these. I decided to hold off making my escape until the streets had cleared from the initial influx of intoxicated, frustrated men.

Before even half the Undine’s crew had reached the door, someone barged in and shouted. Had they done that earlier, they wouldn’t have been loud enough to get everyone’s attention, but the murmur of the crowd was subdued.

“EVERYBODY!” he yelled. Seeing that he indeed had everybody’s attention, he continued. “The prince of Oorkom has officially wed the princess of Antarus and allied themselves against Nilfheim! In response, Nilfheim has announced a non-human alliance between themselves, the sprites of Circe, the Tarish of both Zakera and Desolas, and the orcs and goblins of Bandarn!”

You could have heard a pin drop. There was several moments of silence while everybody absorbed the enormity of the news. Then someone summed it up in a single curse.

“How has the boy king responded?” someone asked.

“Andros’s monarch, king Leopold the fourth,” the messenger said formally. “Has not involved himself in the conflict. The elves haven’t responded either. No word yet on the island jarls, northeastern countries, or countries around the Atlas ocean.”

The antagonism between Antarus and its neighbors had escalated into a trade war with Nilfheim, then an armed conflict and war, then Antarus made a human alliance and touched off a volatile situation. The nonhuman alliance stretched from the west to the northeast around the Median ocean, contesting who really controlled the seas.

If I remembered correctly, Circe was an inland country that didn’t even have any naval interests, yet they’d brought their support to the war. The orcs of Bandarn didn’t have a navy either, but good luck trying to take the fight to them on their land. If other ships started carrying orcs as shock troops … stars, what a scary thought!

And the Tarish. The militant Tarish had been hiring out for mercenary work for years, now they had an avenue to another fight. They had been the ones to hold the line against the last human empire that had tried to encircle the Median ocean. They’d occupied the empty country that was Desolas and turned it into a bulwark that denied the last emperor his territorial dream. They’d turned the land from a colony into a separate country after the war ended, but the two nations had very close ties. Nilfheim’s navy had matched Antarus in an even draw. With the addition of the Tarish war fleets …

Hali had said they’d been trying to end the war before it got out of hand. It seemed like things had just gotten very, very out of hand.

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captaink-19

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