Early one morning, in a garden adjoining the Neserpix Branthirel Sisterhood compound on the Darian, appeared a tall woman in a linen work shirt, mariner's trousers and a black planter's hat. An iron shovel glinted in her callused hands. Lifting her eyes to the sky and murmuring her morning prayers, the woman began to dig about the even rows of blooming potato plants.
In her powerful but clumsy grip, the shovel sliced through the dry earth, pulverizing mounds of dirt and young tubers alike. After doing several rows, the woman decided that she had earned a brief respite and leaned against the wooden fence covered with streaming honeysuckle. By old habit, she reached into her pocket for a pipe, only to remember that she snapped it in twain a week ago, after scattering her tobacco and opium and giving a solemn oath not to fall to worldly temptations. She smirked bitterly.
"Now now, Pele," she muttered to herself. "You are still far from salvation if your first thought in the morning is to reach for Menxruk's vile weed."
She hardened herself against the full body ache, the hollow screaming in her synapses begging for relief. "Dammit all." If she could only have some meat and ale, she'd have an easier time of it. The shovel slammed into the ground. No. Drugs, alcohol and the flesh of animals were sinful. "I'm better off," she lied to herself. "I'm better off. Ah, here comes elder Vanexia."
The ample Vanexia walked out her cabin, a sky-blue ribbon streaming from her planter's hat. Her features brightened and she approached, folding her hands in a gesture of humility.
"Rejoice and triumph!" she said. "The morning light greets your godly labors, Sister Pelagea. For it is said, in the sweat of thy brow, shalt thou find redemption."
"The soil's too rocky," murmured Pelagea 'Pele' Deme. "I woke up early and thought I'd get a bit of work done, like you said. Clear my head."
"And fortify your spirit." Vanexia came closer, laying a warm hand on Deme's elbow. "Did you sleep well, sister? Has anything troubled your rest?"
Vanexia studied the novice's face, its perpetual frown characteristic of all experienced mariners, the dark melancholy eyes, stubborn lips, beak-like nose and sunken cheeks, hollowed from years of constant intoxication. The novice sighed, set down the shovel and plopped down on a mound of dirt.
"What's to say…" She looked away into the distance. "I'm still deep in it. Couldn't sleep at first, for a devilish need to smoke, you know how when you can't smoke, there's so much bloody spit in your mouth... Then I finally nodded off and dreamt that Tregs fell asleep at the wheel, near Barrameda's Strait, where all the reefs are. I remember thinking I should have hanged him for it but I only cracked him one on the skull. But that son of a bitch…"
"Sister Pelagea," Vanexa drew out with maternal disapproval.
"I also saw the Impenitentia," Deme whispered. "Said farewell to her once more. I know that my salvation is more important than any run, legal or otherwise... I just..." She trailed off and blinked back a tear.
Vanexa came around behind her, putting her hands on her shoulders.
"Sister. I understand how hard it is for you to let go. But you must try harder to free yourself from such harmful fantasies. Look around you." Butterflies flitted about the honeysuckle and wild roses. Small birds chased one another under the placid blue dome of the sky. The rhythm of shovels drifted in from further down the complex.
"Here, you will find peace and will finally shed your burden," the elder sister continued, squeezing Deme's shoulders slightly. "Here, you are among people who truly care about you. Your Impenitentia was a nest of addiction, greed, restlessness, corruption. Wouldn't it be better to sell it and use the proceeds to help yourself and others in need?"
Deme sniffed and nodded.
"Yes," she said at length. "You're right. I was being foolish."
"We all make mistakes," said Vanexa. "May Menxvan's grace grant you strength. I must see to the others - I'll check back with you in a few hours. Remember - I'm here if you need to talk."
After completing her unwitting destruction of the potatoes in the garden, Captain Deme retreated to her tiny cabin - an empty room with a simple wooden bed, same as several dozen other cabins in the Sisterhood complex. A rail-thin girl brought her meal: bland turnip stew, a piece of bread and a glass of milk. Pele choked it down, trying not to think of the excellent steaks she used to feast on while in port, and opened her holy book.
Just then, she detected a flicker of someone's familiar face in the window.
"Hell and death! Who's there?" she cried, stalking over to the window and yanking it open.
Two crouched in the nettles underneath, raising mournful eyes at their former captain: Phoebe the mate and Bastien the able seaman, holding a suspicious bundle in his hand.
"What is this?" Pele barked. "On your feet! Now!"
Both leapt up, doffing their hats.
"Phoebe," Pele said in a low voice. "Did you not read my letter?"
"I did, captain."
"How many times have you read it?"
"Eleven times, to myself and ten times aloud to the crew. Some lads from the Sea Serpent came over to listen."
"Did you understand it?"
Pele sighed. "How much bloody clearer can I make it for you?"
"It's just that..."
"Did I not explain that I am sick of waking up hung over every morning? Did I not explain that I'm sick of dreading the afterlife? Did I not fucking explain that I'm done babysitting the lot of you degenerates as you drag me straight into hell's gate?"
"We just thought…"
"You thought!" she cried. "By Menxvan, you 'thought.' What the hell is in that bundle, Bastien?"
"I uh… brought some things..." Bastien shifted nervously. "Some cold grog, a pipe, with some excellent tobacco…"
"I see you're still committed to ruining me," Pele sighed. "But I'd sooner shove that bundle down your gob, traitor."
"But why, captain? What's gotten into you?"
"I'll tell you what's gotten into me!" Pele raised her voice. "Faith! Humility! Things you bastards will never understand. During my last binge, I was this close to dying if you even care."
Phoebe's eyes grew wide. "Captain, I didn't…"
"Aye! You didn't! I was fading in and out, feeling the heat of hellfire and the stench of sulfur drawing near." She shut her eyes. The memory of her every transgression being read to her in shifts by everyone she'd ever wronged was still vivid in her mind. "I met a holy woman who set me on the righteous path and I'll be damned if I'll let you heathens drag me from it. The Impenitentia will be sold and you can sail on whatever fucking crate you wish. I'm done. Captain Pelagea Deme is done."
Phoebe sighed and lowered her gaze. Bastien clutched the bundle to his chest, fingers turning white from the pressure.
"What's the situation onboard?" said Deme, after an awkward silence.
"Everyone's drunk for sheer grief," Phoebe said. "I tried to keep the peace but they won't listen. Maestro de Zetarrosa came by to offer you a valuable run but had to leave, swearing to high heaven. Benth occupies your cabin, says you're naught but a chicken."
"I'm a chicken? I'm a fucking chicken?! Then what is he? If I'm a chicken, he's the chickenshit stuck to my heel. He wishes he could be the shit stuck to my fucking heel! Get out of here, both of you." She clenched her fists and gritted her teeth as an image of the graceful boat bobbed before her mind's eye. She took a few deep breaths before her voice grew steady.
"Clean up your mess. Then take her to the dry dock for pre-sale inspection. Tell Benth that I, Sister Pelagea, forgive him. That is my final order. And remember that booze, that smoking is a straight shot to the pit. Mend your ways, my children. And farewell."
"Well, captain, if that is your wish, fine, to fuck with everything," Phoebe said, looking flabbergasted. "Let's go, Bast. Don't forget to thank her."
"For what?" said Bastien.
"For abandoning us," said Phoebe. "After I served her faithfully for six years. But no, it's nothing, thanks a lot. Let's go."
The pair walked away without turning. As soon as they disappeared, a radiant Sister Vanexia appeared in the door of the cabin.
"I heard everything, sister," she said, beaming with encouragement. "A greater victory, you could not have achieved this day. Now I believe you are sincerely committed to your salvation."
"Yes, I will sell the Impenitentia," Deme said. "It's causing me nothing but problems."
"Be strong," said Vanexa. "It gets easier, trust me."
"Eighteen knots when sailing by the wind," Deme sighed.
Vanexa departed as Deme remained standing by the window.
"And four hundred tonnes," she whispered.
The two sailors sat on a hill, overlooking Torrothresh Landing, the sparkling Darian curving away into the distance. They killed the grog first, passing the iron flask back and forth until they extinguished it. Then they packed the tobacco. Bastien emitted an endless stream of muttered swears against the Sisterhood, while Phoebe picked through the split ends of her ponytail, looking deep in thought.
"Aye, Bast, the dark days have come," she said at length.
"...to fucking hell," Bastien concluded some earlier thought. "Like we'd even care otherwise. But she was a damn good captain and not just for a woman."
"Steady as she goes, Bast," Phoebe warned.
"Nah, shite, you know what I mean, I always say it straight. But she was a good captain, by the gods. A bit heavy handed on the discipline, sure, but didn't force us to do no busywork."
"Not like on the Lucretia or the Sarmapirel, where you always have to bloody pick at something," Phoebe agreed.
"Fresh tack, fresh meat in the hold."
"More organized n' an admiral, even while high."
"Fair, timely payment."
"Won't dismiss a sick hand neither."
"And now, with the crew surpluses, no one else will even sign me as an able seaman anymore. I'll be lucky if I don't have to work as ship's boy."
"And what about me? No one will bloody sign me at all, just 'cause I don't have a cock betwixt my legs. I'll be stuck on shore, filing fucking paperwork."
"Ah, fuck it."
They passed the pipe back and forth until it was finished. Phoebe tapped it out and blew into the top to get rid of the ash. The particles flew up, slowly tumbling on the breeze, into the distance. A look of clarity settled on the mate's features.
"I've been thinking, Bast," she said. "This ain't like her at all. We have to do something. She just needs some emotional support and she sure don't need it from these sectarians. They just want her to sell the boat and claim the money. Hell, we can help her with her habit better n' any of them, I say."
"What can we do? She's a stubborn bitch when she sets her mind to something."
"To be true, I don't know what we can do. But I think I know whom we can ask. Let's go see Ix the Scrounger."
"That old fish? What makes you think…"
"He's been everywhere, knows everything. Captain used to tell me she knew him once when she was pressed aboard the Skatafocia. If anyone can tell us what lever to use, it's him. Why they say he even served once…" Phoebe looked around superstitiously. "On the Pallcast…"
"No way." Bastien shivered. The image of the ghost ship welled up in his memory, ragged sails covered in hoarfrost.
"He has the tattoo," Phoebe whispered.
They both shut up for a minute until Phoebe broke the silence.
"Look," she said. "Let's just go see him, what's the harm?"
"You mean besides him dragging us into the realm of undeath?"
"What realm? Smugglers see him on a weekly basis. Just pop in for a question is all." She did not elaborate that she was too scared to go alone.
Bast thought for a few seconds before nodding.
"True enough..." he said at last. "Maybe he can do something before the Impenitentia gets sold. I bloody love that boat."
"Me too." She got to her feet. "Shall we, then?"
"Aye, let's go, matey."
And they started down a hill humming off key but in unison:
There were two lofty ships from Pentland came,
Blow high, blow low, and so sailed we;
One was the Valgardi, and the other Dragon's Flame,
Cruising down along the coast of the Mwayambi.
Ix the Scrounger, as he was known by everyone from the lowliest beggar to the wealthiest shipwrights, lived at the end of the abandoned part of the harbor, known as The Graveyard of Ships. This stretch of coastline, acted as something of a landfill for scrap sailboats, barges and bits of larger vessels, deposited on the pebbles by the powerful currents sweeping along the shore.
The graveyard stretched for miles. Wind whistled among the broken hulls, full of plaintive creaks of disrepair. Masts and bowsprits stuck out from the water offshore, covered in barnacles as they slowly rotted away. Ix had chosen this place for his post-retirement job as scavenger. He prowled the harbor, fishing scraps of cargo from the bottom, sorting and selling it to anyone willing. He also acted as something of an oracle, predicting the weather and seeking out stolen merchandise. Smugglers worshipped him: Ix knew every secret corner for discreet pickup and dropoff. Yet despite all these streams of income, he was poor as a church mouse.
Twilight quenched the hot afternoon and the smoldering sun was burying itself into the hills when Bastien's and Phoebe's boots began to crunch among the pebbles. The deep silence of the past surrounded them. Among the planks and hulls, they occasionally saw worn plates with names like Reliable; Kraken's Mate; Hurricane; Ember Swathe; and Conqueror. Passages between the half-rotten hulls almost resembled streets without walls, only strange sharp angles, casting formless shadows on the beach.
"Should be there," Phoebe said, pointing to the back half of a ship sitting thirty yards offshore, embedded vertically in the bottom. The aftmost cabin windows faced heavenward as a kind of skylight. Water splashed around the wreck and only a series of slippery stones formed into a path leading to a makeshift door in the hull made it clear that someone lived there.
The sailors walked across the stones, almost falling in a few times before they made it to the doorway. Bastien knocked but there was no response. Phoebe lingered, then gingerly pushed it open and they stepped inside.
The scrounger's home had only one room. The wooden floor went around the walls as a kind of catwalk, with a big square gap in the middle, exposing the open seawater underneath. Piles of junk, including anchors, bottles, scraps of canvas, ammunition, shoes and bones of various terrestrial and aquatic creatures laid in piles along the perimeter. A solemn church-like twilight filled the interior.
Bastien began to say something about how no one was home and they should come back later when the water beneath them splashed up. A pair of clammy yellow hands grabbed the edge of the catwalk and Ixion the Scrounger rose from the depths.
Unlike the able seaman's prior notion of the Oneidhae Merfolk, this one had no fish-tail but two fully articulated legs with great fins jutting from them that would work equally well on shore and off. His seven-foot hulk towered over them in the gloom as he tossed a rusty harpoon onto the pile. His bulbous eyes stared at them unblinkingly for a moment before he slapped over to the pile and began to pick through it.
"V-van hest," Phoebe said, uncertainly.
"Mhm," said Ixion, without looking at them. He made a liquid hacking sound and projected a piece of viscous slime into the water.
"Help us, Master Ixion," Bastien blurted. "I mean, you know a lot, I hear and they say that you..." He halted, awkwardly, as there was no way to politely recall the dread Pallcast myth. "That you…"
"Full and by," the scrounger grunted.
"Our captain left us," said Phoebe, with desperate confidence, "Left us for those sectarians, the damn Neserpix Branthirel Sisters, may they all rot. Doesn't want to live with us heathens, she says, wants salvation but I know better. They're just using her moment of weakness when all she needs is a kind word now and then. Now there's fighting before the mast, the boys are sauced with cheap hooch, the deck's filthy and she just doesn't care. We had... we knew of no one..."
"Mhm," Ixion repeated, going about his work.
"Please help us, master Ixion," Bastien said.
"You're our only hope," Phoebe picked up.
The old merman paused, thinking. His bulbous eyes swiveled in sunken eye sockets, withered fish lips pursing over a mostly-toothless maw.
"Name," he said.
"Phoebe Greyes, first mate."
"Not you, your prodigal."
"Is the ship hers?"
"She take care of it?"
"Like her own child."
"Tell her." Ixion turned and the visitors looked into his eyes like bottomless depths, gleaming with ancient sparks of amusement. "Tell that bitch-pup that I, Ixion, who knows her for twenty years, said that captain Pele Deme will never in her life dare to cross Barrameda's Strait on her Impenitentia from Caperne to Verdigrain with a full hold. Now piss off."
With that, he turned his attention back to his junk pile. Unsure of whether to laugh or cry, the sailors exited the scrounger's palace, seeing the first evening stars appearing in the sky.
"Let's go get ink and paper," Phoebe said, as they walked back to harbor. "I'll draft the letter myself."
"She'll be pissed," Bastien shook his head.
"What do we care? You leave, you suffer."
The shipmates trudged back to civilization. The harbor slept. Ship lights and stars reflected in the trembling velvet void of the water. Phoebe approached the mailbox at the end of the harbor and sighed, pausing with the letter in her hand.
"You'll hate me for this," she whispered, kissing the envelope. "Maybe even for life. And yet… Pele… don't forget yourself. Don't forget who you are."
Another night fell on the Transdarian. Captain Deme sat brooding in her cabin, trying to get through a passage in a book in front of her: How did I burn then, my God, how did I burn then to wing upwards from my worldly delights to Thee. Saints, she thought, this bloke is laying it on right thick, isn't he? Her thoughts wandered and she pushed away the book.
Even as the withdrawal pains receded, a dozen niggling failures and frustrations ate at her spirit. Her earlier attempt to get a horse to plow a field resulted in the field looking like the surface of the moon. She could barely recall one of Vanexia's earlier lectures on humility.
Her mind kept reliving the argument she had with one of the sisters about the Azaani airship in the harbor. The sister had gushed that airborne vessels were the future of commerce rather than 'old fashioned windmills' that she called common sailboats. Deme dismissed the airship as an overpriced novelty from a land of decadent degenerates. Things got heated until Deme declared that she'd never take the argumentative sister anywhere if she were still captain. The sister, for her part, claimed that she couldn't abide shipboard life anyway and besides, 'menial' jobs like sailing were best left for men.
"So you prefer digging in one patch of dirt all your life? Suits you well, earthworm," Deme spat, before exiting the room, full of wounded pride and guilt at insulting a fellow faithful.
Deciding to take a walk, she stepped into the night, strolling under the moonlit trees past Vanexia's cabin. An idle glance through the window revealed the elder sister hunched over some envelope. Out of idle curiosity, Deme paused under a tree trunk, continuing to look, when she noticed something suspicious - Vanexia seemed to be holding the envelope over some boiling liquid, as if trying to open it without tearing up the seal.
'Huh,' she thought. 'Maybe she's trying to seal it, rather than unseal it.'
Vanexia proved her wrong a moment later, when she dropped the envelope in the liquid and immediately grabbed it out with a curt oath. Deciding perhaps that it would no longer do to pass on the letter in such a state, she tore open the envelope, skimmed across the letter's contents and stuck it on open windowsill to dry while she ran off to fetch some rags.
Obeying her curiosity, Deme snuck up to the window, reached up and grabbed the letter. Despite her full awareness of the depths of her sin, she held the sheet up to the moonlight. And she beheld Phoebe's awful handwriting, stomach dropping out and breath catching in her throat.
Captain Pele Deme will never dare take her Impenitentia through Barrameda's Strait from Caperne to Verdigrain with a full hold. So said Ix the Scrounger. Everyone's laughing.
The world disappeared. All was erased by the words of the old merman dealing her this most mortal of insults. Anyone else could have said that but him. The others could say what they want. But Ixion, who taught her everything she knew aboard the Skatafocia, into whose eyes she looked with more faith than her own father's, the same Ixion who knew that she had shipwrecked twice, both times being the last soul to descend into a lifeboat, this Ixion, behind her back, made her a laughingstock of the entire harbor.
She clutched the paper in her fist, wandering blindly through the complex. Surely, Barrameda's Strait is very dangerous and not many were willing to brave it just to shave a few days off their journey. But how dare he say she avoided it out of cowardice? Being careful never hurts, but if it came down to it...
"Steady as she goes," muttered Deme, feeling herself aging with grief. "The strait is an S-shaped curve, with a current that changes direction twice, sweeping towards the reefs on the outer bend. To the left is the mountain. So you have to come in east-southeast at an angle of thirty-five degrees, then turn against the current like so, then take north-east when you pass the lighthouse, two spokes to starboard and you're out."
"Of course, I'm dead to everyone now," she continued muttering. "Even Vanexia, that damn'd spy knows how low Captain Deme has been cast." Sighing, she tried to catch herself, to think of what a mortal sin it was to steal this document, fall into temptation, accuse Vanexia of spying…
…yet she could no longer fight against the call of the sea, expressed in Phoebe's clumsy handwriting, reminding her of a choppy swell. Coming to a halt in the moonlit stillness, she took her planter's hat, flung it into the distance and fell to her knees onto the damp earth, whose daughter she was.
"Lord I…" she mumbled. "I can't do this." A teardrop rolled down her face, which she impatiently wiped away. "If it wasn't for Barrameda's Strait…" She groped for words that weren't hollow excuses. The knot in her throat swelled unbearably until a moment of clarity cleft it in twain.
"I accept your judgment, Lord, in this life and the next, and if I am to face the hellfire, I will say that you were fair," she concluded and already feeling lighter, walked, then jogged, then sprinted for the fence. She heaved herself over it and landed on the other side, departing with a firm stride towards the harbor.
A bleary morning rose over the filthy Impenitentia, its dozen sailors moping listlessly about the deck. Phoebe was trying to thread a needle so she could darn her shirt, cursing under her breath as the string kept failing to enter the eye. Benth leaned over the side, chatting up some pretty washerwoman. Bastien played cards with Asprolta, Emmanual and Thrym but kept making errors as his heart didn't seem to be in it.
The gangplank creaked under someone's footfalls. A shadow crept onto the deck, followed by Captain Deme, rumpled, sober and sleep-deprived. She slowly glanced around the deck, grunted and a slight bashful smile flitted about her features before disappearing.
Benth ripcorded away from the side with such haste that the washerwoman's mouth fell open. Benth dropped all the cards, which blew across the deck with the breeze. Phoebe's shaking hand suddenly threaded the needle but she immediately forgot about it. One by one, the sailors lined up in front of their captain. Deme scanned them all to see whether any would dare show her a mocking smile. But they all stood before her as if nothing had happened, blank-faced and ready for action and only at the depths of their eyes one could detect the slight glow of human warmth.
"Phoebe, what do you think of the wind?" the captain asked.
"Excellent wind, captain, South-Southeast and steady. This kind of trade can last for weeks."
"Benth, go to your cabin and fetch me my hat," Deme said. Benth blanched with terror and vanished.
"Weigh the fucking anchor!" Deme yelled, beginning to feel at home. "All you drunkards, wastrels and layabouts! Why is the lifeboat lowered? Raise it immediately! Get the buckets, I better be able to eat off this deck in two hours! Unfurl canvas! The Impenitentia will go to Caperne and return, laden - you hear me, cowards? Laden, to Verdigrain, through Barrameda's Strait!"
As activity exploded around her, her voice grew calm and she strode towards the wheel.
"Teach you to listen to scroungers."
Outside the city of Drache lies a number of cities, towns and provinces of varying size and populace. Most of the people living outside Drache are natives who speak Arangothian and observe the native customs and rituals. Click here for a list Arangoth's locales, and here to view a map.
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