The Calm, Shattered
Ponitius grunted as he locked the wheel in place, heading southwest. He stretched, his moans almost tawdry, rising with each pop and crack of his back.
“I’m getting too old to pull these all-nighters,” he said, followed up with a yawn. He cut it off with a chuckle, nudging Olivier’s arm. “Sorry, lad. Looks like your two-hour break is u-”
“Breakfast’s ready,” Durnst called up through the grate.
“On second thought, I am feeling more peckish than tired at the moment. How about you? Want to join an old man and his fish for some chow?”
“... I heard that.”
Olivier tried to nod, but his neck was stiff, locked, looking down at that compass. Ponitius shook his shoulder, harder, finally jostling his neck and head free. He blinked, looking around, and saw that the pale ship was now in the light. Water hissed by, rising, creating waves on both sides the Falchion’s edge, slicing through the deep, dark waters, casting it in such colors as it caught the light, glistening through each drop. Somehow, though, the deck never got wet, as if the water was forced away from the metal sides.
Ponitius gave Olivier a nudge, breaking the seal the deck had with his boots, and, with one, lumbering, heavy step after another, goaded him down to the deck. Squall was coming down the stairs from the bow, heading for the galley as well, and Olivier found his feet locking in place again, waiting for her to descend, to be completely out of sight before continuing. He still didn’t know why he felt such a degree of anxiety with her. A touch was expected. She was about to hand his rear to him for the rest of the day, but to have this much... why? What was it that was bugging him? Did he see her name before? When?
“Come on,” Ponitius said, pushing harder on his back. “If you don’t hurry, I’ll leave you up here. That’s a crime in of itself, a sin that the Earth Mothers will surely make me pay for. Durnst specializes in breakfast, after all, so... j- there you go.”
Olivier almost tripped on the first step, but caught his footing on the second. He was a bit surprised at how... pliable the wood was. How it seemed to make his feet bounce off as quick as they landed. In fact, though it was only three, it felt as if he went down a small cliff, giving more than enough head room in the galley. There was a good bit of open room, with slots for four oars though no benches to be seen, made up for with stools piled on both sides of the stairs leading up and right beside the passage to the back of the ship. He looked to the left, between the stairs, and saw that the front was completely open, set up for multiple cots, nailed into place. Nets were hammered along the hull, holding oars, axes, spears, extra lanterns, boxes, and even bottles, all still, not making a single noise even as the water outside rose into a roar.
“Looks like the wind picked up,” Ponitius said, chuckling as he pressed the boy towards the hall. “I really should have gave you a tour during those two hours, eh? But I guess simply gawking as we go is enough... Uh, in case you missed them, there’s barrels of fresh water upstairs, under the green tarp by the bow. ‘Desalination station’, Zephyrians call it. Myself? A right pain in the ass. Hope you don’t mind a communal ladle.”
He continued to chuckle, no longer showing any pleasantries as he practically shoved if not carried Olivier down the hall. They passed two cargo rooms, filled with more cobwebs than stock, but the main attraction, what Ponitius had been so patient to show, was the galley kitchen and dining “hall”. Though the table was little more than a crate with a bit of red fabric over it, it was the kitchen and its larder that stole the show. Like Ponitius’s and his kitchen back at home, he had one of those Zephyrian ice boxes against the port wall, with a rack hammered on top to hold plates and glasses while pots and pans jingled off its brass hooks. To its left was a sink, little more than a barrel cut in two and a pipe shoved through to the sea, gushing a bit into the lacquered, sealed timber, while off to the right, along the flat of the back, was a cast iron oven. Its pipe, instead of being molded into the wood, was held in place by clasps, four in all, their teeth centered. It continued through to the captain’s quarters, where it most likely continued all the way out to fresh air... at least, that’s what Olivier hoped. Don’t want smoked captain, do we?
He chuckled, and Ponitius groaned, pushing him down onto a stool. There were four around the crate, Squall to his left, leaning back against the wall as she ate on the “feast’ laid out for them –which Ponitius was not pleased with. He stomped around the box, plopping onto the stool on that side, and picked up the wooden fork that waited before him, set beside a wooden plate, loaded with...
“Fruit, Durnst. Really?” Ponitius grumbled, and pierced one of the slices of yellow fruit on the plate, adding such vibrancy to the blues, reds, and greens scattered in orderly chaos. “Fruit? What about your famous omelets? Pancakes? By Astra, what about your crunch chicken! I boasted to the boy about your world-famous breakfast selection, and you give us fruit!”
“It’s been a long night,” Durnst said, sitting as well, his plate prepared. He sunk his cleaver into the wooden box, once more on the tip, and picked up a piece of mango, popping it into his mouth. “I thought something light on the belly would be for the best. Until we get our sea legs.”
“You still should have wowed our honorary guests.”
“Really, he did,” Squall said, picking up a red berry next. It was almost a strawberry in shape, but only after its serrated sides were sheared off, leaving the succulent red flesh to be enjoyed. “It’s been ages since I had fruit, especially a medley. What about you, O... well, that answered that, didn’t it?”
She laughed, as well as Durnst, but Olivier wasn’t paying them any mind. He had the plate raised to his face, devouring every succulent, sinfully sweet morsel he could. He never had fruit before, thought he was no stranger to it. He saw the Terrahn kids eat it all the time, but, every time he tried to take a piece, he would be punished. “Fruits of the land should only be enjoyed by those of the land,” a Divine prosecutor told him, lashing his back. Lady Naomei gave them such a fuss for it, but even she would not allow him fruit.
He put the plate down, blue seeping into his vision, having experienced a taste of paradise and now it was gone... Olivier held the plate towards Durnst, feeling a touch guilty for what he was about to ask.
“Please, sir,” he said, barely more than a whisper. “I want some more.”
“But of course,” Durnst said, smirking at Ponitius as he stood and lumbered by him, opening the ice chest. He pulled out a wooden bowl, dumping more of the cut fruit onto the plate, and put the now-empty container in the sink before he returned to Olivier. “You should slow down a touch, lad. There’s plenty more.”
“Looks like he’s been starved his whole life,” Ponitius said, as if mulling it over... He nodded, and pointed his fork at Olivier. “Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself? It’s not every day we meet one such as yourself.”
“Oh. Uh, me?” Olivier said, putting down his plate. Durnst handed him a kerchief, and he wiped his face of the fruit’s juice, a touch begrudgingly. Now there would be nothing to hide the warmth rising in his cheeks. “I’m... I’m nobod-”
Ponitius scoffed, dismissing such an accusation with his fork.
“You’re not nobody, and you never will be nobody. Not when you look like that. Tell us about you, how you came to be.”
“W... well... my mother was an acolyte for the Divine Mothers-”
“An affirmed member from the looks of it. They’re supposed to be chaste, after all.”
“A-a...and my f-father was-is... was a merchant of Carapai.”
“Which is it, lad? Was or is?”
“I... I don’t know... I left home so long ago.”
“Which one? Terra or Shell City?”
“Y... yes, actually... I lived with my mother until I was eleven, then departed from my father’s a couple years back.”
“Just how old are you? Always had a hard time telling the fishy society people’s ages, though I thought it would be easier with you. Being half Terrahn and all.”
“I’m... Nineteen? I think?”
“Ah! Still a young’un.”
“From how malnourished he looks, I thought he was only twelve,” Durnst said, shaking his head. A growl slowly rose from his throat, and he gnashed a touch too hard on his next piece of fruit. “Did your mother not care for you? How could she let you suffer like t-”
“Don’t talk about my mother!” Olivier boomed, bolting to his feet. He slammed his hands on the crate, making his plate bounce, spilling some of its juices onto the table, but nobody paid it mind. Not at that moment, seeing the fire and black ooze in his eyes... He blinked, shook his head, and turned to the door. “I’m sorry... Excuse me.”
He started off as a sprint, but slowly to a crawl as he made it to the steps. Each one was a hike in its own right, climbing his way back into the light, into the salty spray of the sea and the caress of the sun in the sky, cold on his heated face. His chest ached, head cursing, chewing him out for what he had done and why he had done it... He climbed the stairs to the bow, and lumbered over to the railing at the very front, looking out upon the blue horizon. Clouds gathered off the west, heavy, gray sentinels, seeming to laze ever closer, but it was the storm in his mind that troubled him most.
What am I going to do? He thought, sighing, shuddering a little. I shouldn’t have done that. He was only trying to be kind... Isn’t everybody? Red flashed across his eyes again, the railing groaning under his shaking hands. Pity the freak. Pity the monster. Give them food. Appease them. Assume and spurn; this is no different than being the attraction at my father’s store... I never should have l-
Somebody touched his shoulder; he spun, heart racing, but his eyes had no yellow to be had, instead flooding with red... dissipating, seeing it was Squall.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, and looked down at his arms, hugging himself.
“It’s alright,” she said, smiling at him. “We all have a past. We just don’t know what triggers it until we test... Anyways, I did promise you that I would teach you, so let’s get started.”
“R-really? Right now?”
“Why not? You have plenty of pent up aggression that’s just been tapped. What better time to start honing it?”
“B... but what about Ponitius? Durnst... he doesn’t hate me, does he?”
“Not at all, lad,” Durnst said, climbing up the stairs as well. He leaned on the railing overlooking the deck. “I was simply surprised is all. Didn’t know you could get that kind of bass behind your voice... Pony Boy decided he was going to catch forty winks, so let’s make sure it is a nice and loud practice session, hmm?”
“B... but I don’t even know where to star-”
“I do,” Squall said. “The most basic of the basics, first: drawing your sword.” She stood to the side, and rolled her right hand out, elegantly, extravagantly, putting it on the handle by her side. She wrapped her fingers around it, slowly, letting the fabric be heard huffing with each digit, then pressed down on it, inching the blade out, keeping the pressure the same until about three-fourths of the sword was free. She flicked out the rest, stopping it perfectly before her, its tip aimed at Olivier, before she sheathed it again. “There! Did you catch all that? You try.”
She huffed. “Fine. I guess I’m going to have to say it... grip the blade firmly. Push down on the handle as you draw, then make sure it is pointed at your opponent at the end of it.”
Olivier nodded, and gripped his bl-
She smacked his hand with the flat of hers, drawn so quick.
“What? What did I do wrong?”
“You were already pressing down before all your fingers were wrapped. That leads to a loose grip.”
“O-oh.” He tried again, again, and again, smacked each time and then some. Who knew the simple process of simply gripping the sword would be so important? With each smack, with each attempt, his heart grew ever heavier. It’s pointless... I’ll never get it right.
Her sword remained still as he gripped it, this time all fingers wrapped on its handle, squeezing it. That made him smile a touch, taken away as she smacked him as he started to unsheathe, making it a quarter of the way.
“Why?” He exclaimed.
“You weren’t keeping the weight balanced,” she said.
“But I was... I know I was!”
“Okay? Then keep drawing.” He did... and found it was getting harder to do so. The angling was starting to hurt his arm, his wrist, locked in such an uncomfortable position, unable to add the press- She hit what was bared of the blade, and he let it go, allowed to slide back to the hilt as he winced and rubbed his wrist. “See? That’s why it’s important.”
Squall shook her head. “Don’t say you’re sorry. You’re learning, after all. You have nothing to be sorry for... again.”
Once more, he managed to grip the sword proper, but it was another round of smacks as he tried to find how to balance the weight. He knew better than to argue now, and, in time, managed to unsheathe it-
Only for her to knock it out of his hand.
“Grip wasn’t strong enough,” she said. He nodded, and repeated it again; however, this time, she had a different reason. “Grip too strong.”
“You can have too strong a grip?”
“Yup. You don’t want it too rigid. Good way to break your wrist, and remember: have the blade aimed at your opponent at the end. Always have your blade pointed at your foe. I cannot stress that enough.”
He shook his head. “I... I don’t get it.”
“Why are you teaching me this? Why are you bothering... It’s obvious it’s going to be a hindrance on you. I’m going to take forever to pick up on it, and you’re only going to get annoyed by it. Why go through all the hassle?”
“... Is that how you really think of this?” She sighed, shaking her head. “Not everyone thinks you’re a burden, Olivier.”
“But... but I a-”
“You said your mother was an acolyte, right? You were raised by the Disciples most of your life, weren’t you?”
She grumbled something, looking down a moment, making Olivier tense up a bit, feeling, seeing a bit of fire... settling as she looked at him once more. Her gaze was hard, resolute, boring into him.
“How many times were you called a monster, an abomination... a freak? How many times were you whipped for simply having an opinion, for standing up for yourself? How long were your cowed until you were little more than an icon, a trophy for them to parade around and show that, no matter who- what it may be, anything can make it into the Earth Mother’s holy embrace... and how long before you stand up for yourself? How long before you reclaim what you truly are. You’re a living being, Olivier. You have as much a right to live and be who you are as anybody else –no, even more than everybody else. You are something special, something nobody ever thought possible, and thus they fear you. They fear what you may be capable of. What you are capable of, and it’s about time you showed them. Now, draw. Your. Sword.”
Olivier gulped. His heart had taken a trouncing from her speech, battered and bruised like his ego, his pride for so long... and yet... He gripped his blade, drew it, pointed it at her without taking a single smack. She told him again, faster, ever faster, and he did. Fire roared in his belly, red searing in his eyes not at her but at those that had beaten him down for so long. Even himself.
And so he trained. He didn’t stop training. He accepted the smacks with pleasure. They may still have been on drawing, but he put his full heart into it and, when they did move to simple strikes, he still put everything he was into it, knowing that there would be more. There shall be more of him; he shall no longer be cowed. He shall no longer be a token. He shall be Olivier, his mother’s son.
Thunder boomed as he thought it, as if she was right there, pushing him on, the calm little token she once knew gone for the warrior she wanted him to be.