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Seren broke off a nibble of dried beef, forcing herself to put down the rest and chew twenty times before taking another bite. This was her last piece, even though she’d been careful, but there wasn’t much to do in the little shell and she hadn’t realized how dire her supply was until she’d been standing in the kitchen, mouth watering as she held the last piece of jerky.

“At least I have water,” she said, glancing over at the sink. Her clothes had been washed, she’d taken a towel bath, and there had always been more than enough to drink. Maybe the water came from the clouds? It had only rained a little though, not even halfway enough for what she’d used. Two days of drifting and she still didn’t know where it was stored. Well… she had an idea that she wasn’t going to check.

“I’m not drifting, I’m sailing,” she reminded herself firmly. Never mind that she didn’t have a map, and there was no compass to be found in the shellship. Drifting meant she didn’t know where she was going, but she knew full well where she wasn’t heading; not back. That was good enough for directions.

“Oi!”

Was that... Seren jumped to her feet, her head whirling. There was someone else in the air with her! Was it her dad? Had he already found her?

“Oooooooiiii!”

It wasn’t her dad or father shouting. The voice was too cheerful, full of boisterous fun and energy.

“Oi!” There was a pause. “Permission to board?”

Seren shut her eyes and drew in a deep breath. Just because the yeller wasn’t family didn’t mean her parents hadn’t sent them.

“No!” She screamed back, hoping to be loud enough. “No permission!”

Her breath rattled in the silent room. If they were looking for her, then they’d probably board anyhow. The latch wouldn’t hold against an assault, and once the door went, then would she.

“Right-o! Off off!”

The voice... was listening? She’d expected them to come stomping in, ignoring her wishes to drag her back home. Seren raced to the door and yanked it open. A bigger ship, a much bigger ship, was to the left of the propeller. It was made of metal and wood, and at this point she could see several faces watching her, along with a thatched roof covering a red-painted cabin at the end of the ship.

“Wow…”

“Captain!”

A waving motion drew her gaze to a person standing in the middle. They were moving from place to place like the others around them, and yet they were more solid. Planted. Except for the brightly colored tail waving in the wind.

“Captain’s parley?”

She wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but they didn’t seem like bad people.

“Where?” she called out, cupping her hands over her mouth. The being with the tail held up a paw, strode to the far side of their deck, and ran, pushing off of the railing and jumping into the air. Seren didn’t scream—by the time the thought had crossed her mind, they had already landed heavily on her deck, one hand touching the shell floor.

“We can parley here, Captain. If you don’t mind.” They stood up to bow, sweeping low in a graceful movement, and Seren’s eyes drank in the strangest person she’d ever seen before. The shirt they had on was half made of clothing, two belts looping to the back, crossing high at the rib area. Since the left was open it exposed black fur, except for the belts, and the right was a full sleeve covering that ended with a triangular opening. Short pants comprised another belt riding low on their hips and three rectangular pockets deep enough to fit at least one book in each. Their ears, the right one notched twice, were a bright autumn red that blended with their hair, which was bound in a messy braid. Perched on top was a beaten leather hat with a single snowy feather on the side. Their tail, mostly red fur with thin bands of white and black, swished from side to side.

Seren held up a finger, but lowered it in the face of enthusiasm.

“I’ve never seen such a charming ship in the sky!” They said loudly, catching her hand and pumping it up and down. “As for the parley, I confess, it’s just a way that I can get a closer look! I’ve been sailing the skies for years and this type of ship? Unique. One of a kind. Truly brings illustration to the whole ‘skies are the ocean’ thing us pirates are always going for.”

“Um…”

“I’m Captain Juji of the Autumn Sky faction. We fly our flag on three ships, and over as many countries as we wish.”

Faction? She stuck out a hand and hesitated. Maybe they weren’t looking for her right now, but she couldn’t take the chance.

“Serri. Ah, Captain Serri, I guess?” She felt her face heat as they gave her a questioning look. “I’m the only one on the ship, so I feel I’d be the captain of no one.”

“You sail by yourself?” Their gaze went up and down, and for once she found herself wishing that she had access to her father’s closet. On the island, clothes hadn’t been a big deal, but this was exactly the situation her letter pal Bina meant when she wrote about dressing to make an impression. If Seren was a painting, then right now she looked as if an apprentice had hastily brushed her onto canvas. Captain Juji, on the other hand, looked as if a master had lavished ten years of attention on them. Their clothing was not fancy, but it was made of fine material, and the several mended areas were done deliberately. Red flowers bloomed along his arm while golden clouds rose up his pants. And everything looked comfortable.

“Captain Serri?”

She pulled her thoughts back and looked them in their rose-colored eyes.

“Shall we sit?”

Seren nodded, leading the way as she thought about how she’d left the inside. Speeding up allowed her to snatch the jerky from where she’d left it, but she saw their eyes shift from the unmade bed to the pieces of ripped and torn paper scattered about the table.

“I can offer you water. Would you like some?” she asked, deliberately not looking at the mess. They didn’t turn their head away from her.

“Thank you. That would go far in slaking a parched throat.”

She walked over to the kitchen, and with a slight pause, picked up the mug in the sink. A few rinses saw it clean. After filling it with water, she turned around to hand it to them.

“Cozy. I do think that parley would be best over on my ship, though.” They took a sip, then glanced into the mug with surprise. “Refreshing, with a hint of coolness; my compliments to the water elemental who made this.”

Seren nodded, agreeing with the praise. She’d thought about it, in the two days since, and had concluded that there were only two ways onto her island. With her dad in charge of air travel, this ship had to have come from the sea. The previous owner had most likely been a high-ranking water elemental, or someone with connections to a master.

“My ship doesn’t, um, have enough room for us to run over, like you did to get here.”

“Your ship was also lower in the air than mine was, so we’ll need my first mate to get back anyway.” There was a conspiratorial wink. “It’s fine. She loves it when I need her.”

There didn’t seem to be an answer to that statement, so when they finished their drink the two of them left, Seren shutting the door behind her.

“Will my ship be okay without me?” She ducked her head when red eyes fixated on her. “This is my first time to parley on another ship, and I’m worried.”

“A sign of an excellent captain, worry for their ship.” They nodded. “Of course! I have a few threaders in the crew and I’ll ask ‘em to make sure we’re woven together.”

She nodded.

“You seem a little young in years to be taking to the skies alone.” There was no judgment in his tone, only curiosity, but Seren saw the statement as a path strewn with broken glass. If there was a proper answer, she did not know what it was and would quickly be caught in a lie, but it didn’t look as if she had a choice about answering.

“I wanted to explore,” she answered, drawing on the age-old answer of wanderlust. The two of them were on the shell deck now. Nearby was the unmoving propeller.

“Ah, yes. I remember when it hit me; that yearning can make ground-bound life hell.” They grinned at her, then turned to his ship. “Joelle! Jo, I need a rope!”

A woman with long white hair came to the side and leaned over. A thud sounded in front of them, then Captain Juji was bending down to pick up nothing.

“I promise it’s there,” they said, smiling. She grinned back. This was familiar, exactly the same as having to trust her dad when he used his air elemental tricks with her. From as far back as she could remember she’d been climbing, holding, and using invisible objects.

Seren bent down and felt for the rope. It was thick, braided together, and didn’t have a hint of fraying. She tied it around her waist and looped it over her shoulders, then looked up to see Captain Juji giving a satisfied nod.

“Might be young in years, but I can tell you’ve been around a few masters in your time. Joelle! We’re ready!”

She expected them to be pulled into the air, but instead, the ship across from them lowered the level it was sailing at until they were the ones higher in the sky.

“Follow me!” Captain Juji jumped, and Seren followed. Air rushed past her face, and she let out a whoop of excitement as she landed on the lower deck. That was the surprising part. She’d fully expected that it would be jarring, leaving her bones aching from the impact, but was more like landing on a soft pile of blankets or jumping into a pile of leaves.

“That was the quickest parley you’ve ever managed, even when the Iron Rain started shooting on you.” The white-haired woman from before came limping up to them, leaning heavily on an elaborately carved cane. It was made of dark wood, but somehow there were sand-colored figures and words marching along the edges. “...you brought them onto the Crimson Cloud.”

The person’s tone was off and they had a slight look of surprise about them. Seren glanced at the Captain, shifting uneasily on her feet.

“True. Unusual, but the inside of her ship was cozier than I’d thought.” There was a side glance. “I also don’t think she’s going to attack. Ah, that reminds me.” He turned to her. “How do I refer to you?”

Seren coughed.

“Sorry?”

“He, her, xe, ze, fae, or another choice is what he means,” interjected Joelle. “We’ve got a diverse crew, which has taught him to be a bit more polite in new company. A new trick for this ol’ dog.”

“Oh!” Seren’s thoughts clicked into place. “She and her are fine.” Her father’s lessons on manners came back to her. “And what terms may I use for you?”

Captain Juji nodded.

“He and him are fine for me. Joelle accepts both he and she, so you can use whichever comes to your mind. And introductions will be made if you meet others on the ship. Now, come and let’s have a glass of wine, captain to captain!”

He turned around and strode off, leaving Seren behind with Joelle.

“Are you sure you don’t prefer one over the other?”

“Nah. The captain was correct, I’m good with either.” Joelle smiled and inclined her head. “Better hurry before he disappears, though. Our ship’s quite a bit bigger than yours, so it’s easier than you think.”

“Thank you!” Seren waved goodbye as she legged it after Captain Juji. The middle of the ship was the lowest point between two raised sections, and she could feel the stares of the crew as she hurried. Several of them were like him, furred, and there was even one being who had a full coat of blue and yellow feathers.

“I had no idea people looked like that,” she said under her breath. This was something neither of her parents had talked about, for all their lessons in history and the world. Half of her mind took in the brass carvings etched into the pillars and railings while the other half tried to plot out where the man had gone. He was quick, and Jo had spoken truthfully; this ship was a maze. It was only by the feather on his hat that she could find him again.

“The meeting room is this way,” he said, waving her down a dark flight of stairs. “I’ll go first with the lamp, and then you can follow. Savvy?” He didn’t wait for her reply, instead grabbing what looked like a skull and lighting a fire on the inside with a snap.

“You’re a fire elemental.”

He looked back at her and shook his head.

“Not quite, but I understand why you’d think that.” With that remark he was off, heading down the stairs and forcing her to follow. The steps were even, but steep, and they kept going until she estimated that they were about two stories underground. A door appeared in his light, wood gleaming and more than brass glinting. The lantern was hung from a hook on the wall as he removed a set of keys off of his belt. “It’s not the room I’m opening,” he explained, jamming a thick silver one into the keyhole, “It’s the trap that I’m turning off.”

That was something strange. Why did he have a trap attached to the door? Didn’t he trust his crew? And why was he telling her?

“It’s not for the crew,” he whispered, words quiet enough she had to strain to hear. “You’re an unknown element. Still are. If you and your small ship are a trap, then you’ll need me to get our secrets. Leave my crew alone, I’m the only one with the keys to our secrets.”

“I wouldn’t—” She stopped speaking as he held up a paw.

“I think I’ve gauged your character. Or at the very least, you’re not the trap I was worried about.” He ushered her inside. “Which is one thing we should talk about.”

Seren looked around the room, letting out a little sigh at the chance to stretch out. It was at least one and a half times as big as her tabled room, and though she wasn’t claustrophobic, she could feel a little tension bleed out from her shoulders.

“First off, drinks. I can give you water, fruit water, or wine.” Captain Juji stood over a wooden cabinet, one goblet of thinly hammered metal cupped in his paw.

“Wine,” Seren said, moving to stand behind one of the free seats at the table. “Is there a specific place you would like me to sit?”

“Hmm...?” He looked up from where he was cutting the beeswax off from the top of a green wine bottle. “Ah, no. You may choose wherever is comfortable for you.”

There were five chairs in the room, all of them around a circular table. The chair that would leave her back open was an immediate no, and most hosts sat in places that allowed them the best view of the exits. In the end, she chose the chair opposite of the drinks and slightly closer to the door.

“You’re not a water elemental, are you?” It was more of a statement than a question, asked as he placed wine in front of her with a slight ringing sound. She watched as deep purple ripples lessened, then faded away.

“No.”

“Ah. The seat you chose is on the western side, so I’d wondered.” He took the seat she’d assumed he would, the one at the front of the table, then sat back, goblet cupped in his paw. “To the adventures before us!”

She cheered him well, then took a sip. The wine was almost the same as what her father had let her drink. This vintage was saltier, which might have happened in transit, but other than that, the taste was full and crisp. Captain Juji took a long draft of his, then let out a heavy sigh, almost slamming the cup onto the table.

“Now, to business.” He leaned forward and put his hands together. Both of his ears twitched so that they were in her direction. “Where was your port of origin and where is your destination?”

Seren took another sip from her cup, holding it steady in her hands as his questions tumbled about in her mind.

“My port of origin was an unnamed island.” The goblet was set on the table, but she didn’t let it go. The cold metal was working well to keep her grounded. “My destination is a little more nebulous at the moment. I need a place where someone can look over the engine.”

“‘Nebulous.’ That’s a word I don’t hear often in the skies.” He fixed her with a look. “A young woman with manners, keen in mind, healthy in body. Very unlike most I meet. So tell me, Captain Serri. If that’s your name. What’s the truth of you and your situation?”

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About the author

CoffeeQuills

  • Tokyo
  • Dust Warrior

Bio: CoffeeQuills is a transplanted Floridian, living in the Land Rising Sun. They write for 4thewords (an RPG for writers) and in the twists of space and time created by caffeine, they enjoy coming up with stories all along the spec-fic range. Anything goes for this Hufflepunk, so hold tight and pretend it's a plan!

“This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me!”

(Currently back after a long hiatus - apologies to those I owe chapters and mail too. The plan is to update fictions and continue with a once a week schedule.)

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