Before the coronation...
“Crack the barrel, crack the barrel
split the vein, sip the grain
crack the barrel, me darlin’.”
Morning on the Za offered stillborn waves and thickening fog, the crackle from the deep rooted magic drifting along a deceptive surface. The Bloody Harlot had navigated a full day off the trade route into mapped waters designated fatal; the sickness had no mercy deep in the Za’s belly. Yet these amobia patches of the untouched sea were favored by pirates, mindful of the strict schedules in safe water; they made the perfect blinds when tracking merchant craft. The ship’s captain dropped anchor twelve hours ago and already three of his skeleton crew were tied to the masts, dangerous in their addled stupor and feared more than fire on a sailing vessel. Auereliano, standing at the wheel with razor blade eyes, cut his attention from the slow movement of awakening waves to his first officer, Po’nu, finishing the knots securing the newest infected crewman.
“Crack the barrel, lick the rail
fuck you, I’m still fit to sail.
Crack the barrel, me darlin’”
“Shut up already, Loomus,” Auere muttered to himself, fighting a yawn that made his eyes water and letting his double vision settle into a pounding headache. The Za, as practiced as he was, had little effect on his senses but pressed gravities against his shoulders; its whispers were lost on him so it bombarded him with its distaste. Loomus had taken midnight watch, a veteran of almost fifty voyages and now, after six hours of being on deck, convinced he was a bard from the Tvah Uzian straights. Toothless and mad, he took a breath to move onto the next verse until Po’nu rabbit punched him in the jaw. Loomus sagged against his ropes as the first officer stepped up beside the wheel, eyeing his captain warily. Auereliano kept his gaze fixed, feeling the morning gusts like lover’s hands at his back.
“Don’t say it,” Auereliano muttered.
“I think this is a mistake,” Po’un sang, his voice a baritone melody. He was native of Rynth’s southern islands, the Stars; hair braided at the crown of his head, skin the color of raw honey and eyes cinnamon hued. His people were cantors, they only communicated in song and while this annoying trait often caused frustration, Auereliano could ask for no more ruthless, intelligent and blood thirsty a right hand man. Between that and the fresh brewed coffee, Auereliano rarely disagreed with Po’un. Today was a glaring exception.
“I told you not to say it.” Auereliano gave the order to beat to quarters and the ship exploded with activity. Men flew up the rigging, sails letting loose with a fleshy snap when the gusts grew greedy and the ship began to surge forward, pointed at the crest of the rising sun. “We’ve been out for months now and the hold is full to bursting, this last one...”
“Yes,” Po’un interrupted, his voice a whispered lullabye, “you said that three ships ago. We’ve sent back four vessels to port and scuttled three more. As it is, we have only days of food left...” Auereliano adjusted his sword unconsciously, his frame tightening, posture like an ancient oak. Po’un knew he was pushing the point, yet he carried the concerns of many of the men. The captain was sailing for a different purpose.
“I promised.” Auereliano said flatly, “and this promise cannot be broken. The last ship’s manifest said there would be a hundred fae aboard, to be sold. We free them, kill the crew, sink the ship and make for home.” It was the final word, a weighed anchor that crowded any room for argument. “See to the men and then wake Semara.”
The ship groaned at the rise and fall of their first morning wave and the crew cried out joyfully, knowing the renewed speed meant one thing. They were hunting.
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The waters look like any other, blue at early morning, crystal clear at the falling sun and near black at night. But the Za Straights flow like Kaia's heartblood, and those that dare travel their ebb find that the water has a life of its own. And if you are not watchful, the madness of the sea's hallucinations may just replace your reality.