There’s a ship on the horizon.
Off the starboard side, angled towards us as if to intercept our course, the sails fully loose and gaining speed.
I cup a hand over my golden eyes to block the harsh, summer rays of the twin cirathan suns, then zoom in to look at the finer details. It’s a medium-sized, wooden ship, and there’s about a dozen people on the deck. They look happy, in high spirits. Above the crow’s nest, they’re flying the flag of a city-state allied to ours, but I don’t trust it.
We’re just a small trading vessel with half a dozen crew mates and a load of supplies that anyone would love to get their greedy hands on. Being suspicious is common sense.
I hear the footsteps of our mercenary defender, a peldak named Aleks Nowaczyk, as he stumbles across the wooden deck and nearly falls against the banister. “C-captain!” He cries out, his words weak and forced. “Is it pirates, Sir Reed? I’ll bust them up, s-sir..!” His breathing is deliberate and forced, trying in vain to calm himself.
I sigh deeply, the warm, salty sea air filling my lungs, then I turn to him. He’s a tall, pale man with long pointed ears. Two heads taller than me normally, but with how he’s bracing himself against the bannister, our eyes are level. He’s wearing a wide-brimmed hat to protect his skin from our suns, and his face is a sickly green. His eyes are out of focus and his head wobbles from every jostle and crash of a wave against our hull.
I, like everyone else, heard of the near-mythical combat prowess of these peldak aliens. ‘The finest warriors this planet has ever seen’, the rumors say. There’s been an uptick in pirate attacks recently, so I figured he’d be nice to have… but he’s been brought so low by sea sickness, it’s embarrassing.
“No, Aleks, it’s nothing you need to concern yourself with, yet… just make sure to puke over the side if you’re going to.”
“Ha! D-don’t worry, captain… my stomach’s already empty, I got nothing left…” his voice trails off and he pats his stomach, realizing how hungry he is. Poor guy looks miserable, and we’re still weeks out from our destination. I can’t imagine he’ll join us on our next voyage. I can’t imagine paying him to do so.
My attention draws back to the ship. They’re closer now and I don’t like it.
I whistle sharply, grabbing my men’s attention and hurting Aleks’s sensitive ears. “Make sure you have your swords, and turn us southwards. If they change heading towards us, we’ll know what they’re after.”
The crew gives some shouts of acknowledgement and gets to work. Pulling the rudder, adjusting the sails, heading below deck to grab their weapons.
“What if… gyugh…” the sudden turn of the ship makes Aleks’s stomach wretch. “What if they’re lost and just wanna ask for directions?” He gestures to the horizon, “not like there’s any landmarks out here.”
I wouldn’t expect an alien who can’t even stand up straight to understand why that’s a stupid question. With nothing more than the taste of the air, the position of the suns, and the harshness of the wind, there isn’t a sailor alive who couldn’t tell exactly where we are, and precisely how long it’ll be till we’re at the southern coast of the grand sea.
I pat his shoulder, “just head back to your cabin and take a nap. I’ll call you if we need you.”
We hit a large wave and our bow tips up. While my body instinctively adjusts to stay balanced, he clings harder to the bannister and his eyes glaze over. When our bow crashes back down, he nearly loses his grip on the wood frame.
His pale skin nearly turns green, and for a moment I’m worried he’ll keel over. “Y-yeah… I’ll head back…”
Aleks slowly rises to his feet, using the railing to help stand, then stumbles and trips his way to the back wall. He slides along it until he grabs the door handle, then pulls it open before disappearing inside.
Despite the money I paid to hire him having been wasted, I can’t help but feel bad for him.
But never mind. I climb the steps to the raised aft of the ship, then look out.
“They turned as well,” I grumble.
Pirates. That’s all this could mean. There’s no reason to chase after another ship on the sea. If they were lawmen, they’d have flags to signal it. If there was an emergency, there’d be crewmen trying to wave us down and I’d be able to see the distress and panic clear on their faces.
I whistle sharply to alert my crew but don’t avert my eyes from the horizon. “Bobo!”
“Yes, captain?” He yelled from somewhere on the lower deck.
“Toss two barrels of wine overboard! And crate fourteen, while you’re at it. That should get them off our tail.”
“Sir!” I hear the tapping of footsteps across the wood deck, then the clunk of the door opening and closing behind him.
We cirathans are natural businessmen, we all share a sort of merchant’s temperament, weighing risk versus reward.
Piracy is, of course, illegal. One cannot threaten to kill others if they don’t give up cargo, nor can one actually kill others and steal cargo from their charred and ruined ship. But, if my ship just so happens to lose some cargo on the vast sea, and another ship just so happens to come by and collect it, that’s perfectly fine. There are no pirates in that scenario, just scavengers.
That whole ‘piracy’ business is just so messy. You risk death and dismemberment just for a bit of loot, and even if you’re successful you’ll get a bounty on your head! Scavenging is a much simpler job. Safer, no fighting, and everyone understands what’s going on, ‘cargo accidents’ happen all the time on the grand sea.
But if merchants like ourselves keep getting attacked, and the entirety of our cargo is lost? Then people back on land start getting uppity. They want their goods, so they might fund patrol ships to keep piracy and ‘scavenging’ down to a minimum, which means ports need to raise tariffs to pay for those patrols. High tariffs means less profit. It’s better for everyone if that ship just accepts the cargo and turns away.
Bobo returns with the crate on hand, and Aleks is at his side, with the two large wine barrels under his thick arms. Aleks’s brow is narrow, he’s sweating, and his breathing is hard and labored. It’s taking all his energy and concentration just to do this.
Bobo tosses the crate overboard, as does Aleks, and they make three distinct splashes in the salt water below. Bobo runs up the steps to watch the items float away, while Aleks slinks over and sits down on the third step. The way he sighs, and how his shoulders roll forward, indicates he’s happy and surprised he could do that much. I turn my attention to the water and watch the cargo float out there. They bob up and down, occasionally being submerged by the waves, but they’re made of wood, so they always breach the surface before long. They hardly drift from their spot, in perfect alignment for the pursuing ship to accept.
“What was in that crate, captain?” Bobo asks.
I watch the ‘scavenger’ ship turn to the side and toss out a net to fish out our ‘lost’ cargo.
“I’m not sure. Just some trinkets, I think. Nothing anyone will get too upset over.” People tend to buy in bulk and ship them in small crates, specifically to deal with pirates. Paying for 10 small crates to be shipped and 1 getting lost is much better than paying for 3 large crates and 1 getting stolen. We don’t box the goods up, we just deliver them, so we can’t be sure what’s inside until we open them at the delivery port. It’s to add a bit of random chance to what items get lost, we don’t want the ‘scavengers thinking that we only throw low-quality items overboard, and that there’s better loot to be collected below deck.
Buyers can pay extra for cargo which ‘absolutely cannot be lost at sea’, but most merchants don’t like those. If someone figures out we have something like that, it can be dangerous as pirates won’t accept anything less, and loss of these items can be… particularly damaging to our profits and reputation.
Because I thought we had a ‘big, strong peldak’ to keep us safe from piracy, I accepted quite a few of those delivery requests. They’re in special gold painted crates, located deep in the back of the cargo hold.
I watch the pirates hoist the items up the side of the ship and pull them on deck. With my cirathan eyesight, I see one man, maybe the captain, pull out a crowbar and work on opening a barrel of wine.
Just accept it and leave. I narrow my brow and grip my fingers into the bannister, desperately trying to will them into following my orders. I can’t afford to give you the special crates, that would bankrupt me! I never should have gotten cocky and hired that seasick peldak.
“Haaa…” Aleks takes a deep breath, “I take it those wine barrels were poisoned, eyy? Haha! That’ll show these pirates… not to mess with us!” A few veins on his neck bulge, and he holds his forehead to try and subdue his swelling headache.
“What? No. If it gets out that we merchants are poisoning the items we’re giving to these pirates, they might stop accepting them. This system works on trust and a mutual understanding of the consequences, you can’t go and do reckless things like that.”
Aleks waves his hand dismissively, “mutual trust? You’re on the side of the law though… just… just pay money to root out these pirates wherever they’re hiding.”
I turn fully his way, my hands on my hips. “Do you have any idea how much that would cost? You can’t root out pirates once and be done, it requires constant watch to make sure they don’t come back. Patrols, maintenance, crew fees, just losing a bit of cargo here and there is much cheaper.”
Well, if they take my cargo on this specific voyage… the idea of patrols being cheaper will start to sound like silly, shortsighted complaining on my part.
Aleks turns and looks up at me from his seat on the third step, his eyes washed over, and his face flushed. “Who cares about the cost..?” He tries to pull his ears back in a sign of authority and power, but it doesn’t look right. “These ‘people’ are preying on innocent travelers. It’s the principle of it. They all deserve death for their crimes.”
Having a peldak say that to me on land would be quite convincing indeed. As we’re on the water, however, it comes across as laughable. An empty boast about how he would handle things.
“Ahh, captain?” Bobo tugs my sleeve and gestures to the ship.
I focus my vision and see the crew drinking some of our wine, holding their mugs high and laughing… with the captain hanging off the edge, his sword drawn and pointed our way.
Adrenaline courses through my veins as my brain runs a million miles a second. They’re attacking us anyway. Do they know about the special cargo? Who’d they hear it from? Was there a snitch? Is there a traitor in the crew? Are they attacking while knowing we have a peldak? Do they know he’s seasick and worthless? Can we outrun this ship? We can’t fight, but how strong can we make ourselves appear? A dozen more questions flash through my mind, but I have to focus on one thing at a time.
I run downstairs, jumping over Aleks and landing on the deck with a thud. My whistle alerts the crew, and makes Aleks’s headache worse. “Listen up! I want to outrun that ship. Can we?”
Haji, the helmsman maintaining the steering wheel, glances down from his raised platform. “I, aah, don’t think so, captain. Their ship is naturally quicker than ours, and we’re weighed down with so much cargo. We might hope for finding another ship to help us, but I’m not sure how likely that is.”
“Tsk,” I click my tongue. “We can’t fight, we can’t run, Aleks is useless…”
“H-hey… I’m ri-blufgh…” his stomach wretches and all the air escapes his lungs. He can’t even complete his defense without almost barfing!
“Fine,” I say, “slow the ship down and let them board us! We’ll talk our way out of it.” A grim sense of purpose rushes through the crew, except Aleks. Negotiation is part of cirathan tradition, it’s in our blood. I’ll try to convince these pirates to not steal much, which inherently means a lot of bluffing and outright lies. My crew has to remain stonefaced and stoic, any wayward expression could tip the pirates off and ruin everything.
Haji reaches over and struggles to pull a wooden lever next to the wheel. On the bottom of the ship, a dozen flat platforms extend to catch the water. The ship instantly loses much of its speed, and while we regular crewmen adjust our postures to keep us steady, Aleks falls forward and lands on the ground with a thud.
Slowing down is part of these negotiations. It might not seem like much to outsiders, but it’s an important opening play. Slowing down to let ourselves be caught is very different than trying to run away but failing. It puts us in a stronger position.
I glance to Aleks as he struggles to push himself up. Useless as he might be in a fight, he is still a peldak, and I don’t think they know how sick he is. “Aleks!” I march over and help him up, his pale skin hot to the touch. The man is well and truly a giant, and heavy from so much dense, hard muscle. I’d never believe one of his kind could be beaten by seasickness, if it wasn’t happening right in front of me. “The threat of having a peldak below deck is clearly better than you actually showing yourself. Stay down there and don’t come out, you hear me?”
“C-come on, boss…” his voice is so gravelly and off, “I-I can fiff ‘em!” Does he mean ‘fight them’?
I’m careful to not let his head peek over the railings and be visible to the pirates. We hit a wave and all his body weight seems to shift onto me, my knees nearly buckle under it all. “S-sure you can! Absolutely! But for right now, my plan is to have you be an unseen, unheard threat. An ace in the hole, got it?”
He grumbled, then reached forward to open the wood door, “fine… I got it…” He knew I was just being nice. It’s hard to lie when the other person already knows what you’re doing.
I help Aleks into the cabin and set him in one of the beds. The nearby lantern, the only source of light, tips back and forth from the waves, and the shadows dance from all the activity. It puts into perspective how much the ship is rocking, but I thought this had been a smooth trip so far. Maybe I’m too used to the sea.
With the biggest weakness of my crew safely in bed, I take a deep breath and head out.