“Captain, you really should rest!”
“Rest?” Maria Gloria-Fernandez laughed merrily as she walked up onto the deck. “Why should I rest when there is so much to do?!”
“Because you might seriously injure yourself if you don’t!” The other woman replied exasperatedly as she followed Maria up the steps of the deck to the Captain’s wheel. The woman glanced nervously at the surrounding men who were lugging around sacks and piles of rope and then blushed with embarrassment as the men chuckled at her antics. “Oh, come on, Maria, please!”
Maria closed her eyes and threaded her hands through the open air. She could feel the rays of light from the sun on her fingertips, feel the spray of ocean waves on the nape of her neck. And it felt wonderful. She rested her hands on the wood of the wheel and felt the grooves beneath her palm. Opening a single eye, she side-glanced at the woman. “Have you no faith in me, Conta? After all the years you’ve been at my side?”
“Of course not! I’ll always believe in you, Maria!” Conta insisted before she added in a whisper: “But, Captain, you nearly drowned! It’s a miracle you were not more injured in that explosion. You could have died! And now you are just…”
Conta had always been the type of person who worried too much. When they were younger, Maria had once jumped from a seaside cliff into ocean waters just to experience what it was like. Conta had gone in after her in a wave of alarm and panic. Perhaps her intention was to save Maria if Maria had drowned. In the end, however, it had been Maria who had to drag Conta out from those cold waters and onto the hot sandy beach. As they laid there panting, Maria had laughed so hard that she cried. Still, even then Conta had worried.
The constant worrying had carved early crow’s feet in the corners of Conta’s gray eyes. Sometimes gray hairs would even find their way into her sea-bleached, shaggy brown head.
“You know I’ve always wanted to give drowning a try.” Maria laughed before she paused in thought. “What is your concern this time, Conta…?” Maria queried, tilting her head back to look at her.
Conta averted her gaze. “Well, the things you’ve said you’ve been hearing and seeing… They frighten me, Maria.”
“Hm? Remind me what I’ve said, Conta.”
Conta glanced left and right and waited for one of the men to pass by before she whispered, “About the voices and visions—”
Abruptly, Maria turned and grabbed Conta’s hand causing her to start and flush. “Oh, Conta, that reminds me! Speaking of hearing and seeing things — I have yet to meet our new crew members!” She grinned. “Please do bring them up from the cells!”
Conta opened her mouth but the only thing that came out was a sigh of defeat.
When Maria descended the stairs and arrived onto the main deck a beat later, she came to face a dozen kneeling men and half a dozen standing men. The men who were kneeling appeared to be dressed in uniform. White shirts with orange buttons and clasps. The men who stood were dressed in torn shirts, dirt-stained pants, worn-through boots. Still, those who stood were grinning, smirking, and those who kneeled were grimacing, shaking.
Maria drew the blade that hung at her waist and pointed it squarely at the throat of the kneeling man whose white shirt was decorated with gold and silver medals. His peppered hair and scruff were matted to his face, but his verdigris eyes were wide and intense.
Maria laughed: “I complimented your steel behemoth the other day, yes? Morandi, was it? I said such a thing but there are many ships just like yours, so you mustn’t mourn too long!”
The man burned holes into the wooden floorboards. “Even a wretched pirate like yourself should understand as a fellow captain that every vessel has a soul – even your small, wooden ship here. There will be no other ship like the Corriere d’Oro in existence ever again.” He paused, raising his head to meet her gaze.“You’re the captain of this ship, aren’t you?” He spoke in accented common. Something Maria was glad for. There would be no translators needed, it seemed.
Maria blinked, sheathed her sword, rubbed her chin in her thought. “Yes, I am the captain but I don’t really understand the sentiment.” She turned to the man standing closest to her. He was a wiry young man with very short dusty blonde hair and was dressed in a deep black robe. At his neck hung a pendant. She asked him, “Is this the third or fourth, Simon?”
A sigh of exasperation came from the man, and it was echoed in sentiment by the standing men around him. “This vessel would be Grail de Gloria the Fourth, Captain.”
Maria clapped her hands loudly startling those kneeling before her. She pointed to Morandi and stomped her leather heels. “You see, my friend, this is the fourth time this ship has risen from the depths of the ocean. It has been destroyed three times so far, and it has been resurrected each time with every detail more or less the same.”
“It’s less than more, Captain,” Simon noted.
Maria considered this for a moment and then laughed. “Well, while that may be true, that is not the point.” Taking a step back, she gestured widely – at the endless waves stretching out beyond them, at the sky and the sun erupting above them. “The point is that although your ship was beautiful, it was merely a vessel for your voyage and your adventures. There will always be another. However—” Unsheathing her sword once more, she pointed it at the other captain’s throat. “There is only one person who can live out their adventure in the way that you do! Do you understand what I am saying, my friend?”
The man didn’t seem to.
“What I am saying is that you must live out the rest of your adventure, and you may use this vessel of mine to do it.”
Several sighs of exasperation followed but they were lost to the sound of lapping waves.
“You’re asking me to join your crew?” The former sailor captain guffawed. “After everything you’ve done?”
Maria pulled back. “I really haven’t done much yet though…” She spun her sword in hand and ran her callused fingers along the blade. “Should I do this ‘everything’ if you refuse? I haven’t decided yet.”
“I still have my pride and my loyalty to my men.” The former captain raised his chin.
Maria sighed and ran her fingers through her short curls. “Everyone from your land speaks of loyalties but such things are like treaties aren’t they? They change with the tides of time. If you want to hold anything to yourself, it should be a promise. And I’m sure there is an unspoken promise between you and your men to protect each other, yes? It just seems to go that way when you are together for so long. So now, Morandi, is loyalty worth a broken promise?”
Morandi did a double-take. “What…?”
“Is it really a good idea to put all of your eggs into a basket even though the basket may be smashed into a yolky pulp in one go?” Maria pressed. She whipped her head back and addressed Conta who stood behind her. “Is that how that saying goes?”
Before Conta could respond, Morandi spat, “We do have our pride, pirate. You may not know of it, but every person of the respectable sort has it and treasures it.”
“A respectable sort, you say!” Maria fell into a crouch in front of him. “As convincing as your uniforms are, I do have my doubts.”
Morandi opened his mouth to retort but Maria broke out into a grin that silenced him.
“I may not be familiar with these parts, but I recognize a ship that falls into the custody of the Foxman brothers when I see it,” she mused.
Morandi narrowed his eyes. “If you’re aware of the Foxmans, then you are aware of the gravity of your actions.”
“Oh,” Maria chuckled, “I’m very aware of who they are! Carl still doesn’t want to join my crew despite the countless times that I’ve asked him. I think he has a problem with authority, but that’s all right! I am sure he will come around eventually!”
Morandi and the other men kneeling stared.
“You know Mr. Carl… ” Morandi trailed off and shook himself out of his stupor. “Our ship is carrying important cargo that must be taken out of Geminian waters as soon as possible. This is a matter of great importance. A personal associate of the Romano Family gave us this shipping task.”
“Is that so?” Maria studied him, hand on a chin, before she grinned again. “Okay, I believe you, my dear.”
For some reason, Morandi appeared baffled. “But you just said…”
Maria popped back up to her feet, sheathed her blade. “You will show me your cargo and explain to me the items you’ve been tasked to carry.” She turned back to Conta. “You’ve taken their items down to the cargo bay, yes?
“Well then,” Maria drew, extending her hand out to the former captain, “shall we?”
The lower levels of the ship were lit only by the candles carried by the crew members who had accompanied Maria on her journey down to the cargo bay. She hopped down a set of wooden stairs at the front of their group while four of her crewmen including Conta creaked slowly behind her. Sandwiched in-between them were three of the sailors including Morandi.
“You…” One of the sailors who had introduced himself as Piet muttered. “You don’t have a conductor in your ship?”
“Ah, yes, your country loves those things, don’t they?” Maria threw back a laugh that echoed eerily through the halls. “I hope to learn how to use one someday!”
“You’ll need to go to Ophiuchus to get a State Conducting License to be able to really do anything,” one of her crew members said. “And you need to study before that. It ain’t that easy, y’know — becoming a Conductor.”
Maria merely laughed at this.
“Trust me, I’ve tried convincing her,” another crew member whispered to the sailor. “Says a conductor for the ship takes too much time to set up.”
“There are many more fun things to spend time on.” Maria waved him off with a light-hearted shrug. “Besides, I can always steal a ship with a built-in conductor if you really want it.”
“Once you see what we were shipping,” Morandi interjected as he took a step forward, “you will let us go, won’t you? With our goods.”
Maria met his eyes with a smile.
They reached the cargo bay a minute later, and Conta led them to a corner occupied by a mysterious mound covered by a blue, leather tarp. Conta reached for the tarp’s edge and began to pull it away with difficulty. Maria then stepped forward and jerked it off with a swing of her hand.
The tarp went fluttering onto the ground.
Revealed to them in its place in the dimly lit darkness were crates. Crates upon piles of crates. Her crewmembers whistled and hollered before excitedly surging forward. They tore into the boxes without hesitation and dug into their contents eagerly.
Maria watched them with amusement. Her amusement increased tenfold when the crew pulled out from the crates with disappointed expressions. In their hands were what appeared to be regular, everyday objects. Some silver rings. A bladeless hilt of a sword. A pistol without a cartridge. Other items that seemed to be missing parts.
“They’re just conductors,” one of her men complained. “Just like the parts we deliver but put together.”
“Parts you deliver…?” Morandi frowned before he shook his head. “Like I’ve said. I’ve been given a task by a personal associate of the Romano Family to—”
Maria did not wait for him to finish and instead walked past both her men and Morandi’s men. She stopped short in front of a low and long crate that was hidden behind the others. It had been painted in black — so black that it was almost lost in the darkness. She sank to a crouch beside it and wrapped her fingers around the lid. A quick tug. It barely budged.
“W-What are you doing?”
“Wait, don’t open that one—”
With one final tug, Maria yanked off the lid and sent it flying in the air. No one paid attention to where the thing landed, however. All eyes were glued to what glittered within it.
Golden coins. An uncountable number of Geminian Cens. Jewels. Diamonds. Silver, glittering chains. There even looked to be some other currency coins scattered within. The crate was filled to the brim with these things and threatened to overflow.
The items reflected back the light from the flickering torches they held and painted flecks of gold and watercolor-washes of silver onto their faces.
But Maria did not move forward to pick up any of these treasures nor did any of her men.
Because residing on top of all of these treasures was a sleeping woman with cuffed arms and golden hair.