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“Audra Sellin raised you. Do you mean she was…” Crofton’s voice trails off.
“Your mother?” Ari finishes his question, shock evident in her tone.
“No, not my mother, but she gave me a chance to start a new life. She found me stowing away on her ship when I was a child and chose to keep me on. I wasn’t the first stowaway, but she saw something in me that convinced her to let me stay. She was the only one. I was useless when it came to the everyday chores and many in the crew wanted to leave me behind every time we dropped anchor.”
Kostia waves a finger at Maris. “Maris had been a cabin boy then, sold to the pirates to pay off his family’s debts. He was a hard worker and quick learner, a trait the men of the ship found more valuable. We were the youngest of the cabin boys and both came from destroyed families so we grew close. He’d try to help me, sometimes even tried to cover for me, but all the men knew who was the better sailor.”
“They never understood why. Tried to tell me I was wasting my time showing him any kindness,” Maris says. “I chose to make my own choices in who was worth my time.”
“And Audra…Captain Sellin, she refused to abandon me.” Tracing his fingers on a nearby map, Kostia smiles at distant memories. “She taught me how to fight, everything about navigation, how to read words and maps, and the laws of pirates. She took me to meetings between her and other captains and several times when she spoke to the other pirate lords. She had me train with the other officers on the ship, learn everything I could about how to sail, how to read the weather and sea, and what true loyalty meant.”
“She was teaching you to be a leader,” Tal says, a hint of understanding in her voice. Ari understood, too. Her teachers in Kellahn, her true teachers, had always been the ones who knew what it meant to lead, what it meant to fail as a leader and grow stronger. Those who fought alongside her parents during the Blood War, those who made the long, dangerous journey to escape the terrors of the Arena.
Memories soften Kostia’s face and he looks at Maris. “She was teaching me to be a captain. She was a pirate lord, she had many captains who sailed beneath her flag. As she grew older she realized many were already anxious for the day she died, waiting to take her title. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of a clean inheritance. She wanted me to be the new pirate lord of the east. So I became a captain under her flag and Maris became my quartermaster.”
“Quartermaster?” Indra eyes the man with the gauntlets.
“Second in command,” Maris says. “When Captain Sellin gave Kostia his first ship, I refused to stay with her. I knew my place was with him, my purpose was to be at his side. When I left, several others chose to join us with Captain Sellin’s blessing. These gauntlets were a gift from her quartermaster, my mentor.”
“You both seem to have done well for yourselves,” Tal says.
“But if Audra Sellin chose you to be her successor, why are the other pirates fighting?” Ari asks.
“Pirates have laws, but when it comes to choosing pirate lords…the laws are purposefully vague. A living lord can choose their successor, but others may still fight for the title if they feel they’re better suited.”
“Why don’t the other pirate lords stop the fighting?”
“Why would they waste their time getting in the middle of other pirate’s affairs? Speaking of wasting time, enough reminiscing. Make your call to your group. There’re a lot of preparations we still need to deal with.”
Resisting the urge to ask more questions, Ari moves close to Crofton, Tal, Indra, and Kelis. “All right, let’s update everyone.”
Kelis pulls out the white stone and blows on it, a blue light emitting from deep within. Ari notices Kostia and Maris watching closely, their eyes locked on the stone.
“Kamen, it’s Kelis. We found Tal. We need you to connect us to everyone.”
“Got it,” Kamen’s voice says from the stone.
“Interesting,” Kostia says, standing and walking towards Kelis. Ari and Crofton block his path. “I was wondering how you planned to talk to your group from here. Magic users, are you?”
“A number of us,” Ari says. “Do you have a problem with that?”
Smiling, Kostia shakes his head. “No, have a few on board as well. A number of whom joined the crew to escape from Deirak.”
“What about you and him?” Crofton asks. “Either of you magic users?”
Shaking his head, Kostia walks back to the desk. “Nope. We’re both from Deirak and I’m sure you’ve heard how rare magic is there.”
“Everyone’s listening,” Kamen interrupts. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Tal is safe. We found the men who took her and we now have a ship willing to take us to Deirak. But…” Ari eyes Kostia, his smile greets her back. “First, we’re going to help the new Pirate Lord of the East claim his title.”
Playing with the pendant around her throat, Ari stares out the window. The rooms at the Rotten Rotrauk are tight with four single beds taking up much of the space. The only other thing in the room is a table with a lamp…and the window.
The sun is setting, its final rays lighting Marpidium as though it was on fire. Birds flew inland from hunting for fish out at sea, some finding their homes in the city while others fly overhead.
Kostia had been very specific in his instructions when they left his ship. Her entire group were to return to the inn to gather their belongings and await one of Kostia’s men to come for them after the sun set. As insurance, he kept her father’s notebook promising to only return it after the pirate conflict was settled.
Many gathered in Ari’s room after gathering their belongings, a strange nervousness filling the air. Tal and Indra stand by the door, Indra refusing to leave his wife’s side since rescuing her. Kemp and Vesna sit on the bed closest to the window.
“We shouldn’t be getting involved in this pirate war,” Vico says, sitting on the bed against the far wall. He’s sitting at the foot of the bed, leaning forward. His right leg bounces with nervous energy and his hands are clenched tight. “This isn’t our fight.”
“We don’t really have much of a choice, do we? Unless you found another ship willing to take us to Deirak?” Crofton asks from the bed one away from Vico. He’s stretched out on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. He turns his head to look at the other man. “But we know you didn’t.”
“It doesn’t matter what we should or shouldn’t do. The fact remains we need to get to Deirak and no other ship is willing to sail. We’re stuck with the pirates,” Ari says, her hand squeezing the pendant. “And I think we were meant to sail with them.”
“What do you mean?” Tal asks.
Turning to face the group in the room, Ari releases the pendant and crosses her arms. “For one, this pendant. But if we really think about it, what’s the best way to enter a country while being hunted?”
“Sailing on a ship many would actively avoid.” Kemp shakes his head. “But they’re also criminals. Some of those other ships may attack us.”
“Not if everyone’s as afraid of sailing to Deirak as they say.”
A knock on the door silences everyone. Ari nods to Tal and she opens it cautiously. Lorel walks in, a bag swinging in her hand. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything too important, but there’s a couple guys asking for you down at the bar. Guessing you found yourselves a ship, eh?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Got some things for you. They may be helpful if you make it to Deirak.” Lorel holds the bag out to Vico, the closest one to her. “Most of it’s the most recent information we’ve gotten about the wars over there. I have family in Deirak. Their last known location is in there, too. They’ll give you a hand if you need it, as long as you mention my name.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Ari asks.
“I owe that first group a lot for helping me with the inn. You came from the same place, knew them pretty well I’m guessing. This is how I plan to help them. By helping those who don’t need to ask.” Lorel heads out, turning one last time. “Don’t keep those guys waiting too long. Pirates make my patrons a wee bit nervous.”
Tal closes the door behind Lorel and looks to Ari. “We ready?”
The group quickly gathers in the bar, meeting Kostia’s men. They give Lorel one last farewell and head out of the Rotten Rotrauk.
Walking across the bridge connecting Marpidium to the mainland, Ari stares up at the large ship at the city’s center. The sun has finished setting and the sky darkens. The usually lively city is quiet as most of the citizens prepare for their last night of peace before they move into the safety of the ship.
Glancing behind her at the group following, Ari hopes they’ve made the right decision to trust the pirate Kostia. There’s no guarantee they could even really help him in the fight for the pirate lord title.
But there’s no other choice. She’s so close to Deirak she can feel her father’s hand guiding her path. Underneath that, the fear of those chasing them makes the scars on her skin ache.
She made her choice. Now she prays it was the right one.
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