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Once Donovan was out of sight, Captain Burdette turned a baleful eye on me again. “He a friend of yours?”

“Only when he’s pouring my drink,” I said casually. True, I wouldn’t have called Donovan a friend, but I really didn’t want to get involved in whatever ire the Captain had for the innkeeper.

Burdette nodded. “I can tell you have the experience, so I’ll not waste much time.” He quickly asked about my relevant expertise, and I responded quickly and honestly. He wasn’t about to throw me into a leadership position, but he satisfied himself that I was an able seaman and wouldn’t create any hang-ups with my late addition.

He needed me – probably the only reason he’d given Donovan the time of day. A ship this size had a typical crew of 50 people. I estimated he had just over 20. Besides the difficult workload that caused, the Consort would have steep efficiency penalties.

When the Wind Runner had taken on an amateur crew, it had taken over a week of orientation before the negative effect of their lack of training disappeared. It had taken even longer for efficiency to reach a positive value, though we’d never attained the perks of a well-trained crew.

The Consort would have it worse. Not having even amateurs meant Burdette was looking at a severe reduction in ship handling. No wonder he was in a bad mood.

Burdette’s knowledge and aptitude impressed me. With scarcely two dozen crew, he had things well in hand and the ship was nearly ready to sail. I noticed as he gestured that he had magical rings on all his fingers – all except the two he was missing on his left hand. I’d never used rings, even when the opportunity presented itself. The Captain’s missing fingers were my reason why. Losing body parts was all too common as it was, I didn’t want a caught ring to strip the flesh off my finger bones.

He pointed out the men I needed to know. “That’s Dogen, my quartermaster,” he gestured to a giant, swarthy man. “Zamari, my first mate,” a man similar to the quartermaster, but with a smaller build and a broken nose that had healed flattened. “And there’s my bosun, Willy.” Willy had a similar build and complexion to me and was directing the activity on the main mast just as well as I could have.

“Now, go tell Zamari I want you on the main topsail. The last shipment will be here any minute, and I want to be off as soon as they’re aboard. Understood?”

“Yes Captain,” I said, immediately executing his orders. Zamari glanced at me, then towards the captain before ordering me aloft. I scampered up quickly and set to working.

Under-crewed or not, we were ready to make sail before the slaves arrived. When I saw them coming, I called down. There was a reason they were behind schedule, there were twice as many soldiers escorting them as there were slaves! I knew the occupying force had a surplus of manpower, but I had no idea they saw the slaves as something worth such protection!

The soldiers ushered the slaves aboard and into the deck below. I didn’t pay much attention to the last bit of business, because I and every other sailor were suddenly busy again, trying to be in multiple places at once. I also had one eye on the harbor, where several boats were spaced in a grid with teams diving down to look for me. They were tightening their net, sure that I was caught. I wanted to be gone before they realized the truth.

Finally we were underway! I felt an impatience even greater than Burdette’s. But there was one more stop the Consort had to make before I was free.

Andros wanted to get the slaves out of the area, but they weren’t going to let just any ship leave. Burdette had to come up to the Athair and allow them to inspect the ship before we could pass.

The minutes it took were tense. A boat transferred an officer from the Athair to the Consort to speak with Burdette, before they both went down below decks. I tried to gauge whether I would make it over the magical blockade if I had to dive into the water from the top of the mast. I could make my escape that way, right?

Such thoughts were my distraction from staring at the Athair. I had the burning desire to scan its decks, looking for someone who might resemble me. I had a spyglass in my bag, I could at least identify the officers …

No! I didn’t want to know! I didn’t want to have anything to do with the man! He’d used and abandoned my mother. He’d forsaken me. I hated him! No, I was completely ambivalent, because he didn’t matter at all.

The words of my last quest hovered in my vision, mocking me. The world itself had declared my ambivalence was a fraud.

My inner turmoil and hasty escape plans had no bearing on what was happening. The officer came back up on deck and his boat rowed him back to the Athair. We got underway again.

I was out of the trap.

My relief was tempered by the sight that greeted us as we left the bay. My stomach knotted at the sight but judging by the hollered oaths and muttering from the rest of the crew, I wasn’t the only one surprised.

H.M.S. Emerald

Ship Class: Warship

Captain: Admiral Michaels/Admiral Thurgood

Ship Durability: 322,000/340,000

Ship Level: 12

Sailing towards Tulisang was a warship in a class of its own. There wasn’t a sailor on the inner oceans who hadn’t heard about the Emerald, the jointly built ship between Oorkom and Andros. As we all stared, my mind went through everything I knew about it.

Its length from bow to stern was 590 feet, its beam was 85 feet across. It had a total of six masts, the sailcloth area it could raise was over 18,000 square feet. It needed everything it could harvest from the wind, too. The massive ship had a water displacement of about 15,000 tons! It was a behemoth by nearly any standard, designed to be the end-all in either ship warfare or challenging the most powerful denizens of the ocean. While it actually did very little monster hunting on account of the truly powerful monsters having no issue with ships of any type, it really was the ultimate ship on the seas when it came to wars.

The ship had been powerful from the start, but the best enchanters in two kingdoms had set to reinforcing its durability and strength. It had the highest durability of any ship that had ever plied these waters. It was currently bristling with scorpion ballistae, but also had several full-sized ballistae in addition to the onagers on deck. That was its setup for sinking ships, it had kraken fighting arms stowed below along with other methods of fighting dangerous creatures.

I was awed and strangely honored. This was the ship they sent to deal with me? I warranted this kind of expedition, this huge expenditure? It took a small army to sail such a ship as the Emerald!

The captaincy of the warship didn’t escape my eye, either. Having co-leaders aboard such a ship wasn’t too odd, not when it belonged to two nations. One of the names stuck out to me, though: Admiral Michaels. Was it possible he was the same man who’d captained the Wind Runner? Was it pure coincidence the name was the same?

Thinking of Michaels made me think of Redmund. Irrationally, I thought the man might be coming for an accounting of his nephew’s death.

Captain Burdette began yelling and we all set to our tasks, not quite putting the Emerald out of mind, but forcing it into the back of our minds. The Emerald joined the Athair as they watched their net tighten around an empty trap, and I helped direct the Consort northeast.

I spent the rest of the day working hard above decks. Because below-decks was crowded with people already, I joined most of the crew in sleeping on the main deck that night. In the morning, I woke when an elf nudged me.

I was sleeping lightly, but I wondered if I was still sleeping when I saw his facial features and pointed ears. I shook my head clear, and he was still standing over me.

“Domenic Seaborn?” he asked politely. It was no doubt rhetorical, as my name was on my stats.

I stood and dipped my head. I’d learned from experience that first impressions with elves were the most lasting impression, and always tried to get off on the right foot. “Yes?”

“The captain has tasked me with analyzing your skills and abilities and cross-referencing them with positions we need filled. With your permission?”

I nodded, my esteem for both the captain and this elf rising a notch. The captain was looking to know the skills and capabilities of his crew and capitalize on them – something I highly supported. It was one of the things that had made Coe such a successful whaling captain. This elf could have done his analysis of me while I slept, but he waited until about the time I’d rouse myself and asked permission for decorum’s sake. Normally I’d say ‘analyze the person while they’re sleeping and move on’ but I was a bit more sensitive these days about who was analyzing me.

I analyzed him in return and discovered his name.

Name

Rhistel

Age

43

Race

Elven

Profession

*Edledhron

Level

18

XP

23,520

Health

325

Mana

188

Stamina

375

Strength

29

Agility

32

Dexterity

38

Constitution

26

Endurance

30

Intelligence

15

Wisdom

12

Charisma

14

Luck

15

Skills

Perks

Nature's Empathy

Analyzing other races usually took me a moment of adjustment, because they didn’t have the same racial disposition humans had. For instance, if I’d seen a human with the attribute distribution this elf had, I’d give him a wide berth and expect calamity. After all, there was a 26-point difference between his Wisdom and Endurance! Elves didn’t have the same limitations on attribute distribution, however. They could have a much greater disparity before they suffered imbalance. It made for some intriguing variation and specialization, especially given their long lifespan.

Rhistel made some notes on a clipboard he carried. “You have the trade skill; would you have any objections to assisting me if the situation called for it?”

“May I ask what it is you do?”

“I’m Captain Burdette’s bookkeeper. That encompasses the logistics for the whole ship.”

No wonder this guy was looking for help! My single level in trade probably made me look more appealing than the rest of the crew, but that was just barely. I’d be wasted as this guy’s assistant. Somehow I suspected he knew that and was just making a list of possibilities for the sake of options.

“Yes, I’d be willing to help.”

He gestured to my bag of holding. “Do you carry your own weapons and armor for your fighting skills?”

“I do.”

He nodded. “We won’t have any trouble on this trip, but I’ll put you down as a skirmisher. Would you tell me about your magics?”

Asking about magic was a personal thing, and I had the right to keep it to myself since I wasn’t being taken on as a mage. Rather than be tight lipped, I summarized.

“I have a smattering of combat magic and a healing spell, though it’s restrictive and slow. I also have an air spell that can give some assistance with the wind.”

Rhistel nodded. “Good, good. The captain may take you up on that, we’re rather slow right now. Between your spell and first aid levels, I’d like to have you speak with our surgeon. We can always use another medico, and he’ll have the expertise to gauge your ability.”

I nodded. I didn’t have any reason to protest – sailors were expected to fill multiple roles, and none of my collateral duties sounded onerous.

Before the elf returned to his other duties, I asked him about his own stats to try and get to know him better. “If I may ask, what’s the Edledhron profession?”

I expected most people to be willing – if not eager – to share what it was that they made their profession out of. Instead, I saw Rhistel’s taciturn but pleasant attitude fade into a blank mask. His forest green eyes bored into mine and I knew immediately that I’d somehow insulted him.

“It means ‘exiled’. My profession has been torn from me.”

My jaw dropped a little and I immediately apologized. The elf nodded and walked off. So much for good first impressions.

Captain Burdette did have me come up to the quarterdeck and showcase my gust spell. He was disappointed but not surprised that I couldn’t use it as much as he wanted. I wasn’t a weather mage – at least not yet – and I lacked the mana to boost us continually. I enjoyed seeing my spell fill the sails, though. All of the practicing I’d done with it had been in small boats, I hadn’t appreciated the scale of the wind I conjured. Saying I had control over it was laughable, but it was a powerful spell for the mana price.

Not surprisingly, Rhistel didn’t ask me to help him conduct inventories.

Somehow, I spent the second day entirely above decks as well. The only time I saw the slaves were on the occasions that armed crewmen escorted a few on a lap around the deck. One man who came up was covered in battle scars. When I stared, he hawked spit at my feet before Zamari cuffed him.

I shook my head as he passed. The man was obviously some sort of criminal, and I had no compunction against Andros for sentencing him to a life of labor. Why was Donovan so set against slavery? He acted like it was a disease that was corrupting the nation. To me, it didn’t seem any worse than formalizing a legal system that was already sentencing such people to their lot.

On the morning of the third day, Zamari brought me to the surgeon’s cabin. The surgeon was an interesting looking man named Myota; he had bright red hair, green eyes, and pale freckled skin. I actually analyzed him for the purpose of checking that he wasn’t some breed of fey folk. He was tall but wiry thin, and the cuffs of his pants and shirt came far short of his wrists and ankles. He nodded to me and asked about my medical knowledge, having a good idea already of where I was at based off my first aid skill. We didn’t sit in his office for an interview, however.

“I need to check on the slaves’ health,” he told Zamari.

“Domenic and I will serve as your escort.”

Myota nodded absently and grabbed a large pair of satchels before heading to the slave hold.

“Escorts?” I asked Zamari quietly.

“Myota isn’t strong, and he doesn’t have the stomach for dealing with slaves.” The first mate replied in the same tone. “Captain’s required him to have a pair of escorts when he’s down with the slaves … for his own protection, you see. They’re an ugly, spiteful lot, and they’d cut the hand that feeds them – or heals them.”

I nodded and followed the first mate and the surgeon. I was glad for the warning so I could prepare myself for what to expect.

I utterly failed to prepare myself.

The hold was stuffed full of humanity. I was used to close quarters aboard a ship, but they were really crammed together. The odor of unwashed bodies and chamber pots was greater than it ever ought to be on a respectable vessel. Even as we entered, I saw a man squatting over a pot, no space or privacy at all between him and the men – and women – around him. Chains and shackles were prevalent but lacking in similarity – like they’d all had their bonds made for them by different smiths who weren’t quite sure what the expectation was.

Eyes lifted to see who’d come down. I noticed them flash between Myota and Zamari. They looked at Myota with hope or hunger. Zamari received looks of dread and – from a few – hate.

Myota went about his examinations, calling for some people to be brought closer to him. Zamari yelled for the slaves to clear the walkway down the middle, and they shuffled apart and back together to comply. Myota ignored everything else that was going on, focusing only on the patient he was looking at on any given moment.

Zamari nudged me. “We’ll have you take a few shifts down here. Your seamanship skills have just been too useful up top since we got underway. I’ll show you the ropes.”

Zamari showed me around, pointing at one thing and another and explaining the processes for security, releasing slaves for some monitored exercise, feeding them, and guarding while Myota did his rounds. When I commented on how many of them were packed into the hold, the man growled.

“Waste of space, I tell you. We’re already outfitting other transport ships with planked walls – these shelf-like beds. It really lets us economize the space. There’s too much headroom sitting vacant when we do it like this.”

He wanted to pack more people aboard this ship? Other ships were already doing that?

He pointed out a few slaves to watch out for, identifying them as the dangerous ones. Up to that point, I’d been avoiding looking closely at anybody. Now I realized that not everyone in the hold was a human. How? I could understand a few non-humans being guilty of crimes in Andros and sentenced to slave labor, but there were far too many aboard this ship to account for that!

“Hey, Zamari!” a voice called out. “You indoctrinating the new guy? This mean your special rules are in effect?”

My eyes widened as I saw the voice belonged to a race I’d never seen before. They widened further when Zamari casually backhanded the figure.

“Yes, it does.”

“Sheesh, a simple answer would have been fine!”

Name

Sadeo

Age

67

Race

Kitsune

Profession

Artillerist

Level

13

XP

2,032

Health

170

Mana

250

Stamina

210

Strength

35

Agility

24

Dexterity

37

Constitution

17

Endurance

21

Intelligence

25

Wisdom

20

Charisma

30

Luck

31

Skills

Artillery 37

I didn’t read all of the stats I got from the person, I stopped as soon as I had the name of the race to pin on the furry little humanoid. “What’s a kitsune?” I blurted.

Sadeo turned a canine smile on Zamari. “He asked me a direct question! You see that?”

Zamari rolled his eyes. “Listen to the chatterbox if you want, Domenic, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

Sadeo turned to me with a smug expression. He was just under four feet tall and looked like a giant fox had taken to walking on its hind legs. “I take it you are a well-traveled person? Don’t fret, I come from a long way off! My home is to the south – or southwest, if I’m not too turned around. It’s several thousand miles off, so I’ll forgive your gaping.”

I’d schooled my expression with difficulty, but Sadeo sounded like he’d quite enjoyed my surprise rather than be insulted by it.

“Thousands of miles, huh? And I suppose it’s an epic tale and a grand injustice that you wound up here?”

Sadeo shrugged. “Depends on your perspective. My clan was warring with our cousins and we lost, you see. So, I was taken captive as a slave as any self-respecting member of my race would expect. Where my tale gets interesting is when my cousins sold me to some humans. See, you humans don’t seem to grasp the concept of slaves too well, now do you? It’s been six years now since I was sold, and I was sent up the rails before being bought, sold, and gifted many times. Most recently a plantation owner in the delta bought me as a novelty, tried to make me a little butler!” The kitsune shook its head. “I’ll abide by the proper tenets of slavery, but you humans make it mighty difficult! I’m an artillerist! A vaunted war leader! Show me your enemies!”

“No one’s putting you in charge of even a crossbow, doggy!” Zamari said, causing the kitsune’s hackles to rise. “C’mon Domenic. You don’t have time for every sob story these curs can come up with.”

I followed Zamari. I cast a look back at Sadeo, the displaced kitsune, but I followed.

The first mate made a point of pointing out the scarred man who’d spat at me earlier. He didn’t need to say “dangerous”.

The kitsune was unique, but there were other races present. Humans were predominant, but there were chortin, a few gnomes, even a minotaur with its horns sawn off, bundled in heavy chains!

My eyes stopped when I saw another new race looking back at me. My body had the instinctive reaction of recognizing that I was prey when I looked into the cat-pupil eyes of a leonid, but she lowered her eyes first.

Zamari misunderstood my hesitation. “Heh, guess you’re not the only one who likes the type, as that’s what she’s for. Word of advice though, don’t try to use any of the females around her. She can be particular about that, and there’s a fifty/fifty chance she mauls your face.” He chuckled darkly. “In my opinion none of them are worth it. They may have to put on a show for the bigwigs, but they’ll just lie there for our own lowly selves.”

I turned to the first mate slowly. I was trying to process his words, but they were getting caught up in my head. I couldn’t have just heard him say what I thought he had, could I?

Zamari didn’t notice the storm clouds forming in my expression. “C’mon, just a few more you need to be aware of.”

I followed him and looked at the slaves he pointed me to, but I wasn’t looking at them the same way anymore. At first, I’d looked at them and imagined what terrible people they must be to deserve their punishment. Now I looked and wondered who they’d be if they weren’t wearing chains.

Then my breaking point came.

Zamari pulled a boy forward. I could tell that he was a half-elf boy, but that wasn’t what resonated with me. While Zamari warned me of how sneaky and cunning the ‘tree-rat’ could be, I could only see Redmund, the boy I’d failed. No, that wasn’t entirely true. The boy had the calculating intelligence I’d seen in Bing’s eyes. Redmund had been smart but lacked the preternatural cleverness inherent in this half-elf.

That was a passing observation, however. What drew my eye and nearly had me shaking was the iron collar the boy was wearing. It was too small and tight, but what did that matter to the crew of the Consort? The collar also had small shackles fixed to it for the boy’s wrists, so his hands were locked by his face. The impossibility of the position struck me dumb. Shackles were designed to restrain, sure, but this design would make it nearly impossible for the boy to even eat! Forget about using one of the chamber pots without help!

“What crime could he have possibly committed?” I asked quietly.

“He’s taken to pickpocketing when he gets the chance! That’s why these particular shackles are so handy …”

“He was sentenced to a life of slavery for pickpocketing?” I asked.

Zamari looked at me like I had a screw loose. “He’s a slave because his dad sold him into slavery – the man didn’t like his favorite toy spending so much time on him. That’s that, now it’s his station in life. There doesn’t need to be any higher reasoning then that!”

I’m a man who likes to get along with everybody so far as it depends on me. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’d well and truly lost my temper. So as the blood pounded in my veins and red flooded my vision, there was a warning voice in my head telling me that what I was about to do would have repercussions.

I ignored the repercussions. I owed a debt to a boy that I couldn’t repay. The last time I’d been reminded of that debt, I’d distanced myself and never saw him again. I wasn’t going to do that this time. This time would be different! This boy deserved my protection, no matter who he was or what his bloodline happened to be! And I’d rather be burned in the deep than walk away and tolerate this!

A half-step brought me in line with Zamari. He might not have realized what was going through my head, but he’d had his share of fights and knew that look in my eye. He raised his hands to protect his head, prepared to block my strikes and retaliate with punitive force.

I didn’t use my unarmed skills on him. With a quick series of castings, I summoned water and pushed it in a sheet along the deck before sapping the temperature and freezing it solid. Then I pushed my hand forward and triggered my spell air push a scant inch from Zamari’s body.

While my current level of air push wasn’t quite strong enough to knock over a fighter with their feet planted, I was close enough to the first mate to maximize the spell and caught him off guard. I sent him sprawling onto his back and along the ice. He slid along the aisleway he’d ordered clear until he bumped his head on a mast. He was stunned for 7 seconds, but so was every other being in the hold. I just tried to reign myself in and keep myself from going after the downed man.

Zamari shook himself up and struggled to his feet. “Why you mutinous, bleeding heart copper-mouth …!”

He left off as he realized I was pouring mana into summoning water. The fluid clung to my hands and arms while I activated my water whip spell. In my mind, I was restraining myself. The spells I’d chosen weren’t designed to bleed his HP, and I had enough control with water whip that I could handle the first mate without injuring him.

He didn’t see it that way. He saw me as a mutinous crewman – worse, a rogue mage – going so far as to pick a fight with the first mate. To be fair, he wasn’t wrong at all.

He backed away, glaring at me and every slave. He exited the hold and ran above deck.

Myota looked at me and shook his head. “What have you accomplished? How have you helped? He’s gone to tell the captain. Just what do you think is going to happen when Burdette gets down here? Hmm?”

“That depends,” I said coldly, calculating the combat efficiency of every sailor above deck. “On how reasonable we’re all willing to be.”

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