Back outside, in the warm, salty air, the pirate ship is closing in and nearly on us.
“Just stay neutral everyone, I’ll handle the talking.” I take a deep breath to steady myself, then bring out my most confident smile.
The pirate ship approaches on the starboard side. A ship nearly the same size as ours, but built for speed instead of cargo transport. Its dozen crewmen cheer for their victory as they get close, whistling and slapping the flat side of their swords against the side of their ship.
“Hoi, there!” One cirathan screams as he salutes. He has a sword on each hip, a wide rim hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, and a shirt unbuttoned and showing off half his chest. He’s leaning against the side of the railing and glancing to each of the men of my ship, before his eyes fall on me. “I take it you’re the captain of this fine vessel?”
Around him, his crew tosses over metal hooks connected to ropes. They pull the ropes, and the hooks slide and scrape along the wood, until they get caught on the bannisters.
“Indeed I am,” I give a slight bow to show some respect. “My name is Reed, I come from Vinindri.” Using the ropes, his crew pulls our ship closer until the wooden hull clangs against his. I’m jostled off balance only slightly, I can’t imagine how Aleks reacted to it.
“Well met, Reed! I come from Carpai, captain Sind, pleased to make your acquaintance.” He has a charming smile that hides his intent well. If I didn’t know the context, I could never imagine he’s trying to steal all our cargo.
With the hulls of our ships pressed together, his crew ties the ropes around metal fasteners screwed tight onto the central mast of his ship. Huge ropes now hang taut across half the deck of his ship, but it won’t be an issue so long as they jump over here to attack us.
“So,” I lean forward on the railing, my arms crossed and looking straight into his eyes. My sight doesn’t waver, and he’s only about four feet from me. “What can I do ya for, friend? Need repairs on your ship? Have you run out of food? We have spare supplies, if you need it.” Classic opening negotiation move. Invite your attacker in and frame the conversation as you wish. He’s not our enemy, we’re not fighting, I’ll give him a bit of what we have, but he can’t take advantage of our kindness.
Since he’s the captain of a ship, he’s no doubt a skilled negotiator and can talk his way out of it, but it’s a good start, nevertheless.
“Actually no, we’re here to help you!” He glances backwards on the sea, “that wine you threw overboard? It’s the darndest thing, it has Carpaisan mold on the inside. Terrible sort, very deadly if you didn’t grow up in the forests near our home, and it spreads fast. Out of respect for you and your crew, we’d like to come aboard and inspect your cargo. We’ll get rid of the infected boxes and barrels for you, and you can be on your way before you know it.
A fantastic lie, I have no idea how much if that is true.
The part of the mold being deadly is assuredly false, though based on his face, and the motions of his crew, every word is believable. Was there mold in the wine barrel? Did the wood come from Carpai? Carpai is a known exporter of strong, hardy wood, and there are many types of non-toxic mold purposefully added to their containers for flavor, or to absorb moisture. If I say either of those things are a lie, and he proves them to be true, he’d have proven his expertise on the subject and he’d be free to rummage through my ship and steal whatever he wants.
I frown slightly, signaling clear displeasure that he picks up on, then return my face to normal. “Sir, I appreciate the concern, but we’re not amateurs. I know everything that goes on aboard my ship, and we have counter measures for it all.”
If I act like he’s insulted my capabilities as a captain, I have a legitimate excuse to rudely brush him off and tell him to get lost. Furthermore, the vague statement ‘I know everything and have countermeasures’, blocks him off from pretending to help me in the future. We don’t need help, how dare he insinuate it further? If he tries to continue down the ‘there’s deadly mold, you need our help’ route, then, according to cirathan social conventions, I can tell him to leave us alone. Even a pirate like him will obey.
“Oh?” Sind looks forward with an eyebrow raised. I notice a slight uptick on the side of his mouth, I don’t think he intended to show me that. “So you know everything that goes on on this ship… and yet you purposefully threw overboard a barrel of toxic-mold infested wine?” There’s a certain harshness to his voice, he’s trying to play it off like he’s mad we tried to kill him and his crew. Though, I see his face is clearly expressing joy that he caught me.
Crap… I messed up!
What a stupid mistake, I can’t believe I made it…
How do I talk my way out of such a blunder? There are a load of reasons why one could carry infected ‘poisoned’ wine (not that the wine is actually poisoned, this is all a false pretense anyway), but how do I justify throwing it overboard? Throwing poisoned wine to pirates is a taboo, due to how that would affect the nature of mutual trust on the grand sea. We mixed up barrels? No, that would not only imply I don’t know everything which goes on on my ship, but it would mean our negligence could have accidentally killed them.
Do I say I knew the wine wouldn’t kill them? No, that as an excuse just seems childish. ‘This bad thing could have happened’, ‘b-but I knew it wouldn’t, so it’s okay!’ That excuse won’t work.
A warm wind blows from the north, it ruffles my hair and nearly takes Sind’s wide hat off his head. I realize I’ve almost taken too long for my response. When it comes to a battle between two skilled negotiators, responses have to roll off the tongue, the person who needs to stop and think is the loser.
Are we assassins ordered to throw that ‘poisoned’ barrel overboard? No, there’s no reason to kill them, and we’d be foolish for not checking our target before we threw the poison over.
Are we smugglers trying to ditch our cargo? No, we wouldn’t admit that, and they could use it as blackmail.
What’s the right answer here!?
Finally, I sigh. A deep, exhausted sigh. Sind raises an eyebrow at this odd pivot, and his crew are similarly confused. “That barrel wasn’t meant to go overboard. We thought you were pirates, so I wanted to throw a non-moldy one.”
Sind’s eyes round and he can’t hide his smile in the face of this stunning admission, he seems to have a hard time hiding his thoughts. “I thought you said you were the ‘all-knowing captain’ who had a good handle on everything happening in your ship! Yet you threw over moldy wine? Hmm, maybe you do need our services to clean out your lower deck.”
My plan is a simple tactic used by city-states throughout Ciratha for the last century. “No, I do know everything that goes on with my ship. The problem is I told the peldak to throw it overboard and he isn’t well versed in our ways, so he didn’t know not to throw the poisoned one over.” Blame the peldaks! It always works, nobody can disprove it!
Any cirathan child could run circles around even the greatest peldak diplomat or negotiator, they don’t share our ways or understand our subtleties. The only way they can get things done is by threatening to use that giant military of theirs. ‘Do this or we’ll just invade you and force you to do it,’ is a tactic without many natural counters. This has given the peldaks a reputation as ‘lumbering oafs’, aliens who make a mess of any task not directly related to violence.
Sind recoils slightly, his crew can’t hide their fear. “You… have a peldak?”
“I hired him as a guard against pirates, yes, but I’ve also made him use his strength for a few odd tasks.”
That was a threat. We can both pretend otherwise, but we both know he’s a pirate. The real meaning of my words was ‘if you don’t back off, I’ll send a peldak to kill you all.’ My face is free of deception, as there was no lie. I’ve hired a peldak guard, he threw the wine overboard. While he is currently worthless in a fight, Sind doesn’t seem to be able to notice that. He’s made several mistakes when it comes to his own facial expressions, it seems he isn’t the natural negotiator I had him pegged for.
It takes Sind a moment to get over his shock and fear, but his crew can’t hide their distress. He thinks for a moment, then narrows his brow. “Very well then, if a peldak messes up, I suppose you can’t be blamed for it.”
I nod, “indeed.”
“Bring him out, then.”
“…excuse me?” I raise an eyebrow, genuinely confused.
“Bring him out, I want him to apologize for nearly poisoning my crew.”
I’m screaming on the inside.
What is this idiot doing!? No, I can’t bring him out! I’ll ignore the fact that Aleks is seasick, Sind doesn’t know that. A peldak would never go along with this nonsense! The wine isn’t poisoned, there is no mold, it wasn’t dangerous, a peldak would sooner rip Sind’s throat out than apologize for something he didn’t do!
What’s Sind’s game here? He doesn’t know that peldaks can’t stand the sea. I had never heard that fact, and Sind’s reaction of fear a moment ago proves he didn’t either. So what is he planning? Is he just incompetent?
He seems to believe that I have a peldak in my employ, perhaps he doesn’t know how violent peldaks can be… or maybe he recognizes that I’m in the stronger position, and the better negotiator, so he’s trying to bring in an idiot peldak who’ll say all the wrong things and can’t hide his thoughts. That’s a common strategy. If you’re outmatched, try and get the other side to switch to a less skilled negotiator.
This guy may not know Aleks is worthless in a fight on the seas, but it seems he’s stumbled on the correct answer. What can I say to keep Aleks from coming out here and ruining everything? That I put him in the brig for throwing over poison wine? No, we all know the wine wasn’t toxic. That he’s sleeping? No, I said he threw over the barrel, and that was just a few minutes ago.
“Oh come now,” I say, tapping my fingers against the wood banister. “You actually want to talk to one of those aliens? They don’t make for great conversation.”
Sind’s upper lip twitches, he clearly doesn’t want to, but he thinks it’ll help him steal from us. “I want to speak to the man who nearly murdered me and my crew out of incompetence, yes.”
I roll my eyes in genuine displeasure, “how about I just give you some of our cargo as an apology. Three crates, and you be on your way. What do you care about more, money, or some pride?”
“Peldaks have caused me no end of trouble in the past,” a statement which can be said by a lot of people, “seeing one struggle to force out an apology is worth far more than any amount of treasure.”
“Are you sure? 15 crates of cargo.” 15 crates is a very good deal, far more than what these pirates must usually get from a single ship. I’m not sure if they know about all the irreplaceable cargo I have, but I assume they do. My hope is that the knowledge of a peldak in my crew will spook them enough to cut their losses and take the 15.
Instead, Sind narrows his eyebrows, deep in thought, and scratches his chin. But it isn’t a look as though he’s weighing his options, he’s trying to figure something out. One of his crewmen shuffles over and whispers in Sind’s ear. He uses both hands to block my sight of his mouth and jaw, so I have no idea what he says. Sind turns his head to respond, and they go back and forth like that.
I wipe the beads of sweat off my forehead, I don’t know if it’s hot from the sun, or from the negotiations. Thankfully, a cloud rolls over the sky and a long shadow is cast over our ships. I take the opportunity to look back at my crew, and each one nods diligently. They have faith in my ability to pull us through this, and they’ve been keeping stonefaced, unreadable expressions the whole time.
Turning back to Sind and his crew, two more men have come up to discuss. It seems to me like they want to take the 15 crates, while Sind is saying no, they should press on. But why? What does he think he knows? His crew nods, having fallen behind him in his plan, and they return to around the ship while Sind addresses me.
“You seem desperate to not let me meet my would-be murderer. Let me say clearly, no amount of money will dissuade me, I want him to apologize in person.” His eyes are sharp, staring straight into me and looking for any deception.
Does he think I was lying when I said we have a peldak? Did I overplay my hand with the 15 crates and make him suspicious? I am desperate to not let him see Aleks, he saw right through me. Because he called me out like that, I have no choice but to respond. I either admit I’m desperate, which invites the question ‘why’, or I bring him out. Can Aleks pretend to not be sick?
“Very well,” I say, frustration bubbling under my skin. “I’ll go get him, just wait there for now.”
Sind lets out a bright smile, I think he’s picked up on my annoyance.
As I walk to the door, every step is deliberate, the sway of my arms calculated. I don’t show any sign that I’m panicking. Calmly, the door is opened. Carefully, I close it behind me. In a mad dash, I run to the bed and start jostling Aleks.
“Aleks! Get up!”
“Hnngh,” just as sickly looking as before. Sweating, eyes dipping in an out of focus, he took his shirt off to help avoid the heat. “I am… up… captain…” he struggles to roll his head to the side, looking up at me, “you need something?”
I bite my bottom lip as there’s no reason to hide my distress. He’s worthless. Totally worthless. Can’t fight off pirates, and there’s no way he can fake it from a cirathan. That being said, my eyes draw down from his face. His exposed torso is a mess of scars, from sword wounds both deep and shallow, some probably hundreds of years old. His muscles are well defined and haven’t atrophied since we’ve been at sea. Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll focus on how he looks like he can snap our bones like twigs.
“Yeah, Aleks. There’s pirates out there and I need you to look tough and intimidating. Can you do that? I’m negotiating with them still, all you need to do is stand behind me so they can see what a monster you are!”
“P-pirates..? Okay…” Aleks takes a deep breath, then his face tightens. His abs flex to pull himself to a seated position, and even his back muscles are monstrous. After swinging his legs to the side of the bed, he forces all the air out of his lungs to stand tall and proud. His short brown hair brushes against the wood ceiling, and there’s a fierceness in his eyes that fill me with confidence.
As he walks across the cabin unaided, he wobbles back and forth, but it seems to be a result of being unbalanced, not weakness derived from sickness. Now that I think of it, he was able to throw those large barrels of wine overboard. Maybe it’s no exaggeration to say he could still break bones with no issue!