“I am with my head in the dirt,” said Knell, chin in her hand, blinking against the sunlight.
Blades shook her head. Repeated the statement; “I am accessing the roots now,” she said, clicking her tongue and throat. Knell let her head hit the desk.
“It doesn’t work if you don’t try, Captain.” Blades said, unreadable behind her blindfold.
Stumpy looked at her and repeated Blades, perfectly.
“Can’t we teach him Trades’ or something?” Knell said, jerking her thumb at Stumpy at her right. “He already speaks Creak.”
“Practice is good for him, and your mind is too narrow.” Blades said.
“Indeed so,” Percy agreed, his voice echoing strangely from the tiny shower cubicle at the edge of her cabin. Cerro lay on the bed, glancing up from his book with a hint of a smile.
“I’m outnumbered,” Knell said, throwing up her hands, head still on the table.
“Better play along then,” Cerro murmured.
“I’d rather go down fighting the odds,” Knell said, pointing her finger at Cerro like a gun. His smile faded; Knell felt cold as he returned to his book, in silence.
“Why would I access roots anyway?” Knell said, and Stumpy put his hands to his earholes at her pronunciation.
Blades shrugged. “Crantiré magic allows them to share knowledge through the roots of the Wood. Living memory.”
“It’s decidedly more complex than that.” Said Percy, twisting a nut. “But I suppose close enough for someone who will never experience it.”
“Have you?” Knell asked.
“No. I’ve never even been to the Wood. But I have asked questions and read journals. Could a mammal access the minds of the forest? Perhaps, but the underlying biological mechanisms are designed for Crantiré, else the Elementals would have tapped in years ago and the whole place might have burned.”
“That was all gibberish, Percy.”
The rat smirked. “Back to your lesson, then.”
Knell put her head in her hands. “I am going to take a break, actually. Only way to keep awake.”
Blades nodded. “This is typical of initiates who lack discipline.”
“I woke up after dark, Blades. If I sleep now I’ll do it again. “ Knell said, wearily.
“Or you could nap, and get up.”
“You say that, but I don’t think you know how seductive a proper bed is.”
Blades’ nigh-omnipresent grin faded. “I know.”
Knell frowned. Stepping on everyone’s toes today.
“I’m taking a break.”
Knell shrugged off her jacket, and rolled up her sleeves, ignoring the cold as she stretched and flexed. Daffyd was silently and methodically wrapping his hands in cloth strips, eyes on his task. Knell linked her fingers, reaching over her head and bending back. The Awakened Wood squatted on the horizon, nothing but empty blue sky and green field ‘tween here and there. To the north, a Spire was visibly swarming with ships in the shadow of it’s tamed storm. To the south, further away, was another, less active. Twelve Spires ringed the Circle, each ruled by a family of Stormlords. Knell worked to keep her fist from clenching as she wrapped her hand. Staring at that Spire – Allbright, she thought.
“Bastards,” she muttered.
“The Stormlords, Captain?” Daffyd asked, glancing up. He was nude but for the wraps, his short, coarse fur twitching in the breeze.
“The very same, Daffyd.”
“I have heard this before.”
“You have. Bastards. They don’t call it slavery, but they practice it. Thinking they’re high and mighty because they can do Magic. Taxing ships that fly past them, as if they had any hand in it.”
“It makes them mighty,” Daffyd said, placidly. “This is inarguable.”
“It gives them no right to rule, Daffyd.”
He shrugged. “Do we have the right to piracy, Captain?”
Knell frowned. “We’ve never had a real choice, Daffyd.”
“We could not become privateers sooner?”
Knell fell silent. We have no choice was usually enough for other pirates. Piracy was freedom.
“My hands are tied, Daffyd.” She said, evading the question. “However it seems, I’m pretty sure that monk is going to kill me if I return to piracy, and she won’t fuck off as long as she thinks I’m an agent of her prophecy.”
Daffyd grunted, noncommittally.
“I suppose I could kill her, first.”
Daffyd shrugged, and fell into a fighting stance.
Knell followed suit, keeping her footwork loose, and grinned.
“I’ll beat you this time.”
The Orc immediately stepped forward and punched her in the face.
Knell returned to her cabin with a black eye just as a greasy Percy was leaving.
“Shower’s good to go, Captain,” he said, and limped away with his tools jangling in their bag. Knell called out a thanks, stepped into a room which mercifully did not contain Blades or Stumpy, and stripped as she crossed the room.
She ached from sparring, and the hot water soothed her muscles even as it made her skin prickle. Cerro would have something to say about that, she thought. She’d always assumed his fascination with pleasure and pain was part of his job. His job, Knell thought. But he’s here with me, now. Just me.
A little part of her wondered if he’d charge her, once he was back in Towerpeak.
Surely not. She thought. He loved her. The charge was because she knew she was using up his time, and the Madam might punish him for it. She knew she’d reprimanded crew for wasting her time with personal frivolities.
“Are you out there, Cerro?”
“Don’t want a shower?”
She couldn’t hear anything else, over the hum of the pump. She smiled, feeling him slip into the cubicle behind her.
“Wait, what’s the belt for?”
He tapped pipe crossing the top of the tiny room, sliding the door shut, smiling knowingly.
Daffyd dealt, one light on in the galley to illuminate Knell, Wainwright, Rikker, and an obviously uncomfortable Fisk. Knell checked her hand, peered over the top of her cards at the faces of her fellow players. Wainwright was smiling. Probably a bluff. Rikker’s face was blank, but he was scratching the scar on his cheek. Thinking it over. Knell decided he hadn’t made up his mind, which meant his hand could go either way. Fisk’s discomfort was as good as a poker face, but Knell fancied she could be intimidated into folding. Wouldn’t want to upset the captain by winning.
“Raise,” Knell said, tossing some pebbles onto the pile in the middle of the table.
Wainwright, still smiling, folded. Rikker, after further thought, matched her. So did Fisk. Knell kept her frown off her face.
Bluff. Has to be.
Smugly, Knell showed her hand. Rikker grunted, tossed his hand down. Fisk inhaled, set hers down and stared at a point on the wall opposite.
“Pot goes to Fisk,” said Daffyd, shoving the pebbles across the table towards her. Knell waved her hand, dismissively. “I’m tired.” She said.
Wainwright yawned widely. “Bored now,” he said, and twisted around in his chair, feet on the table. In seconds, he was asleep; effortlessly comfortable.
Knell stood and stretched, as Fisk chewed her lip and stared at the pile of pebbles. Daffyd went to a cupboard and came back with a bottle of liquor, which he set down in front of Fisk.
“No money,” he says. “Just this prize.”
Knell slumped into her chair and leaned back. “At least a shot, Fisk. Drink up.”
“I’m not sure, I don’t really-” Fisk began.
“Rejecting crew traditions, Fisk?” Knell smirked.
“Can’t win graciously?” Rikker said, smirking along with Knell.
Wainwright opened one yellow eye. “No satisfaction in beating us?”
Fisk set her jaw.
“It’s my prize. I’ll share it with you, instead.”
Wainwright sat up and swiped the bottle while Rikker went for glasses. Four of them.
Daffyd excused himself, packing up the cards.
Knell collapsed into bed beside Cerro, who was reading by the light of the bedside lamp.
He stroked her hair, idly. “Drinks with the crew?” He said, softly.
“Mhmm,” she mumbled, face on the pillow.
“I didn’t think you were that close.”
“Fuckin’… fight and bleed at someone’s side. That’s friendship.” She said, and burped.
“Of a sort, I’m sure.”
“Trust ‘em with my life.”
“I’m sure of that, too.”
“You just have all the answers.”
“It only seems that way because I ask a lot of questions.”
“Are you gonna fuck me or not?”
“You’re drunk, Knell. Go to sleep.”
“Don’t wanna sleep,” she slurred, nuzzling up against his side.
“You need to.”
“Shhh, sleep. I’m here. I’ll hold you.”
She yawned wide. “I love you…”
Maybe he replied. She had already fallen asleep and didn’t hear. Too drunk to remember him saying it.
She liked to believe he replied.
“An hour out from Measle, Captain,” Harrow said, as Knell sipped coffee and squinted in the light.
“Good. Good work, Harrow,” she said, swallowing hard, her throat full of hair.
“You got painkillers?”
“I did. Pars gave me a dirty look to go with ‘em, but I got some.”
“We need a real doctor on board, Captain.”
“I know,” Knell said, resting her forehead on her fingers, elbow braced on the arm of her captain’s chair. “Perhaps we’ll find one here, and if we don’t I’ll request one from the Legion after we sign up.”
“Why’re we evening signing up with the Legion?” Harrow asked, cheery.
“Because until I find a way to get rid of that monk, she’ll interfere with our usual work.”
“Why not sic Wainwright on her?”
Knell shook her head.
“A minute more trying to take Feidhlim down, and I guarantee she would’ve killed me. Paradise, she could’ve killed me anyway. I was lucky.”
“You’re always lucky. Should ask a Magus about that, sometime.”
I think you’re cursed.
Cursed with good luck?
She shook her head. Whose voice had that been?
“Maybe. Anyway; Wainwright’s a better fighter than me, and vicious bastard beside, but I think I’d put money on the monk. You’ve seen Percy in a fight, and he insists he’s lost all divine favour.”
“Not like you to credit zealots, Captain.”
“Giving the gods, or whatever passes for them, some credit, Harrow. Bit bloody silly to pretend there aren’t mysterious forces out there.”
Harrow shrugged. “You can talk to most of them, though. Scions are the closest you get, I reckon.”
“Imperus is the closest you get.” Knell said. “If I was of a mind to worship anything.”
“Don’t get much choice, when it comes to the Dragon-Emperor,” Harrow said. “I’ve heard standing in zher presence forces you to your knees.”
Knell sniggered and then clutched her head as the pain swelled.
“Point is,” she said, creaky-voiced from the pain. “Blades can probably take any one of us, and will take someone down if we gang up on her. So we make nice with the Legion, and see if we can’t quit the contract in a couple of months. Run away with good intel to sell at Moonbend, maybe nick a ship or two if we can.” She rubbed her chin. “And get passage to the Wood so we can dump Stumpy.”
Harrow shrugged. “Might change your mind by then. The crew’s taken a liking to him.”
“Why? He doesn’t speak!”
“He’s learning. Bit like having a dog, I suppose.”
“That’s disgusting,” Knell wrinkled her nose.
Harrow’s brow creased, ever so faintly.
“Next stop in the right port, I might have prejudices wiped.” She said.
“That’s weak, Harrow. Should be able to get over those yourself.”
“Bugger off, Captain. I’ll be a better person; the fact I did it the easy way is smart. Doing it the hard way doesn’t automatically improve the result. If anything, it’s less reliable.”
“But you don’t learn anything, do you?”
“What’s learning anyway?”
“Alright. Now you’re wandering into Cerro-territory. Talk to him about that sometime.”
“You brought it up.”
“Maybe he’s rubbing off on me.”
“Maybe,” Harrow said, drawing the word out.
Knell shook her head, grinning, and regretted it.
“Ow. Fuck it, I’m going to lie down in a dark room for a while. Soft landing, please?”
Harrow checked her instruments. “Hmmmnope. Bumpy ride for the last ten minutes or so, guaranteed. The wind is weird enough I expect we’re going to have trouble in this port too, unless the problem is… southward.”
Knell stood, sighing, and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.
“We live in interesting times, Harrow.”
“Aren’t we lucky, Captain?”
Knell checked her silver pocket watch. Almost lunchtime.
“For now,” she said.