Breaking News at Dawn
A sudden yawn happened upon Tarjen. Now that he could see sun, he had set the wheel and retired to his quarters. He pulled out his chair and was in the middle of writing a letter to Plu while humming a jaunty tune. He expected the sparrow to return soon enough; though Tarjen would prefer to let it rest, he was too excited to send the news to his old friend. He may have been robbed of his chance initially, but now Plu would have his final trip, truly one worth remembering.
It was at this moment the yawn escaped his beak. He had slept rather well the night before; what sort of omen did this mean?
“Captain!” Gale shrilled through the door. Her growls hammered against it as much as her hands, making it creak and groan on its hinges, pulling and warping the frame. “Captain! I demand to speak with you!!!”
She kept clawing and scraping and demanding at the door... Tarjen simply shrugged. He was almost finished with his letter, much more pressing. She’ll realize, hopefully sooner rather than later, that the door wasn’t locked.
His quill’s scratching, and his humming, droned out the screams and rapping well enough. Very little red touched his vision, the blue in them too bright, his heart too light to care about whatever that Itchyoman may want.
At last, the clawing, the screaming stopped, and the handle finally creaked. The door lazed into the room while Gale stood there, looking down at the planks. Her cheeks were beet, her teeth stuck in an odd transition, wanting both to be bared yet slurp away out of respect, and embarrassment, for her captain. Sunlight made her pink scales burn brighter, and seemed to give her the strength to step into the office, closing the door behind. Gently.
Gale lumbered over to the desk, though it was truly a sight to behold. Tarjen finally pulled his attention away from the letter, watching as her legs jerked. How they wanted to bolt, to storm over, but the muscles in them would stifle themselves, wanting her to slow and show reticence and patience, giving her the queerest of strides.
Tarjen fought to keep his laughter under his breath, indulging in her ordeal. How her want to be professional mingled with her desire to show passion, leading to such an awkward show, but it had to come to an end. She managed to reach the edge of the desk, and flung her hands down on it –for her sake, she was fortunate it wasn’t on his letter. It touched the edges, but her claws did not smear the ink.
“Yes?” Tarjen mused, slowly looking up from the letter into her face, and only then let go of his blade. “What seems to be the matter?”
“Captain... I just received word that, once we reach Lam Berel, that your old Skipper, Plu, shall take his spot- my spot- his old position- my position,” Gale said, skipping over her own words. Tears shimmered in her eyes, spilling as she took a deep breath and closed them. The air hung still for a second, her heartbeat clear, frantic yet steadying as she exhaled. She opened her eyes, her teeth reigned in, allowing her lips to tremble. “Is it true? Were... were you going to replace me? Dispose of me?”
“Yes. I was.” Tarjen stated without skipping a single beat. He crossed his “hands” before him, giving her a bored look. She had taken a step back. Her face had paled, the light in her eyes shattered. “Before you let your emotions take full hold, he wanted one final journey as my right-hand man. Which was cut short. Now, thanks to you, he will have it.”
She took another step as he explained, trembling, as if the world was crumbling around her. Her legs couldn’t hold her anymore, collapsing underneath as she uttered the tiniest of squeaks. She sniffled, almost sobbed, but swallowed it back as she continued to look into the captain’s eyes.
“But... but what about me, sir?” Her voice shook so much, her words mingling together, lost in a wave of heartbreak.
“Your time aboard the Kraken was always finite. You knew this. I followed your information, and it ended up being correct. Once we dock, everyone aboard shall be paid, even you, and have the option to leave. They have all done their duties admirably.”
She growled as she stood. Her eyes burned once more. Her claws dug into her chest, both hands locked there, as if keeping what laid beyond it in place –what was left, at least.
“But it’s not over!” She shrieked. “We know where the Scylla is going! Our journey is not over.”
“No, it’s not, but it is for what the crew agreed to initially. They will be given the choice to come along, to go after the Scylla, once we make port.”
“Wait. Does that mean I, also, have the choice? Because I’m staying!”
“That is not necessary. You have done more than enough and were an invaluable asset for this journey. You don’t need to sacrifice any more of your life to this old captain or the vessel. In fact, I can recommend you to a far larger ship. The Leviathan, for instance. They could always use a new snapper, meanwhile you would be stuck with grunt work if you stayed here.”
She stormed around the desk, and took his hands. Her eyes were dead set on his, locked into their slowly waning pools of blue.
“Then let me do grunt work,” she said, her voice firm. “Let me be your snapper.”
“Considering I’ll be running a skeleton crew-”
“Then let me simply do grunt work. Let me serve you, for that is all I want to do. I want to serve my captain.” She pulled his hands to her chest, holding them there, and sat on the desk before him. He watched, making sure she didn’t sidle onto his letter, while she tittered and sighed. “Besides, Ella won’t return. She said this was her last trip, so you’ll need someone... dedicated to you on-board. I am more than happy to be-”
“Captain!” Ella said as she entered the room. Gale kept her hands clutched on Tarjen’s, but moved to his side as he stood –again, away from the letter. “There’s an Aqua Alliance vessel approaching. They are probably looking to board.”
“An Aqua Alliance vessel? Here?” Tarjen said. All blue flushed out of his eyes, seeing the black masts behind her, looming towards the ship. His ship. He wrenched free from Gale’s grasp and swept passed, standing before the entry. “You two stay in here. I’ll handle this.”
Ella nodded, goaded into the room before Tarjen slammed the door shut behind him, turning to face the long, looming bowspirit of the oncoming vessel. Chains clacked, water splashing up around its four anchors, and a Cephamorian appeared on the prow, its arm seeming to extend over the Kraken. The Cephamorian had a tricorne hat, embellished with an Aqua Alliance pin as well, complemented by the bright red fabric of the hat. It was embroidered with gold, and had a tassel on each of the three points, matching the many, many more hanging off his over-sized coat, just as red. His skin was almost an obsidian, the black shimmering with the sunlight, thriving, pulsing with such colors, as if faceted.
“Hail!” The Cephamorian called down to Tarjen. His voice was light, almost floating away on the air. “Lower your anchors. We have need to board.”
“State who you are and your business here and I m-” Tarjen began, but the ship crunched against the Kraken, his Kraken, locking it in place regardless. Red started to fill his gaze as he started up into that smooth, almost triangular face. That Cephamorian’s eyes were a constant change, never truly one shape. “Give your name, at least, if you are to run against my ship.”
“I am Captain Lehroo, the captain of one of the new galleons of the Aqua Alliance fleet. Look, and behold the Mako!"
“It is very nice. When it is not assaulting my ship, and I would have never guessed, Captain Lehroo, that you were the captain of said vessel. Now state your business.”
“It’s not my business, but the Council’s. There are a few of their Arbiters on-board the grand and lustrous Mako, and they have been assigned by the Council to look for a Cephamorian linked to an arson and murder in the commons. This Cephamorian may also have ties to a supposed criminal underworld in grand Carapai, so they have dispatched three ships to check vessels close to the trade route or making port. One was my beautiful Mako."
“And what makes them think they left on a ship? Why didn’t they escape into Carapai’s underbelly?”
“Supposed underbelly, dear captain... and because we have visual confirmation of the suspect from one of the shopkeepers. They saw her steal a blue cloak, but the poor lass looked so disheveled that they didn’t want to turn her in. Knowing now the true monster she is, however, they want to tack that charge on, as well.”
“So you know it’s a woman. Do you have a name?”
“A neighbor of the resident stated her name was Ella. She had recently come home. From your vessel, if I recall from her statement. From there, all we know is something happened that made her father beg loud enough through pearl walls to be heard before it was lost to... ahem... ‘sickening gurgling’. It seemed she had set the house on fire and left in a hurry after. The neighbors would have spoken up sooner but they were still shaken by the screams.” Lehroo heaved a heavy sigh. “So, we have been at this since last night, going back and forth, back and forth, checking every single vessel... Could you, per chance, save us a little time and tell us if Ella had volunteered her services on your ship again? The Arbiters will be down to retrieve her, then we can both be off.”
“There is no one on this ship by that name,” Roe exclaimed, rushing up the steps.
The door behind Tarjen also opened, and Gale stepped out, shutting it behind.
“It’s true,” she said. “I don’t recall anyone named Ella on this ship.”
“And who may you lasses be?” Lehroo said.
“That one is just a deckhand, but I am the skipper, Gale. Captain Tarjen’s right hand... woman. I come into contact more with the rest of the crew on this vessel, and I can say, with absolute sincerity, that there is no one below named Ella.”
“Really? Is that the case? Captain?”
“My skipper, though she speaks out of turn, is telling the truth,” Tarjen said, grinding his beak a touch. “There is no one below deck named Ella.”
“Is that so? A shame... a real shame.” Lehroo clapped, and six shadows fell from above, landing on the deck. The arbiters righted themselves, the pools of blue their cloaks had made slithering up their silver armor, fitted for four Aceon and two Cephamorian. Their chests were covered in thick, blue velvet, embroidered with the Aqua Alliance crest. Only the eye stalks were visible on the Aceons, while the Cephamorians wore no helmets, their tendrils allowed to flow free down to their shoulders. “Forgive me. I have no real say.”
“We must investigate your ship. Top to bottom,” one of the Cephamorians said. His spiral eyes seemed to join as one, barely kept apart on his narrow head, and bore into Tarjen’s eyes.
Tarjen simply rolled his wrist. “It is no trouble. I have nothing to hide... If you will excuse me, I was in the middle of finishing a letter... Come, skipper, Roe.”
Tarjen waited for the other Itchyoman to climb the steps, Gale already having returned inside his quarters, and he kept it open an inch. She slipped in while he held it over her, wheeling, keeping his back, his coat, to the door, blocking any and all sight until he entered completely. He eased the door shut as best he could, then swept, thundered to his desk.
Gale stood by the door still, frozen in place. She had looked back when entering, looked into Tarjen’s eyes, and the sheer malice and anger in them stole whatever warmth had held in her cheeks. Roe was just as pale, but she managed to make it to the desk at least, sitting beside the Cephamorian that had become the focus of his ire. Ella’s eyes were yellow, cowering underneath his gaze as he sat at his seat. She collapsed into one of the chairs, whimpering softly, wanting to escape into her cloak, but Tarjen held her there with only his gaze, keeping her still.
Breath after breath, beat after heartbeat; time seemed to stretch, distort, yet hasten with the footsteps thundering in the galley under them. Metal scraped, upending tools, smashing crates, adding more and more heat inside that tiny room. Voices could be heard, though they were muffled. However, they could hear them laughing, enjoying what they were doing, which only made the red burn brighter in Tarjen’s eyes.
But... he refused to let it burn a moment longer. He inhaled, deep, deeper than the ones before, and, with a long, slow breath, the fire in his eyes, the darkness that had built and started to turn white, bled away. As he finished, he had to cough, and snorted, creasing his “hands” on the desk.
“In case you couldn’t hear,” Tarjen said. His voice was low, but even. No anger nor vehemence touched his words, but neither did warmth nor kindness, “our visitors hail from the Mako, captained by Captain Lehroo... From his statements, he seems to want that title always said before his name regardless of its redundancy.” He looked down on her, waited for her to say anything, but she simply continued to stare up at him, hugging herself... so he pressed on. “He came bearing a rather bold claim, a dark one. It seems that a Cephamorian by the name of Ella not only maliciously murdered her father in the dead of night, but also razed his house, putting those around his domicile at risk, as well as committed petty theft before stealing away on a departing vessel.”
“Easy, captain,” Roe said. “Surely she d-”
“Silence... Well, Ella?”
Again, she remained silent. Her eyes were wide, locked on him. They did not blink. They did not waver, even as the rest of her shook like a leaf. Her chair rattled, scratching on the planks, squelching as Tarjen leaned over her. His “hands” were firm on the arms of her chairs, pulling it flush against his desk, and she hugged her legs to her middle, trying so hard to compress herself into the tiniest ball she could. Tarjen cleared his throat... and walked around the desk, kneeling before her. He kept his grip as hard as he could on the chair, lest those shuffling, scuffling nuisances below could hear the tiny scratching, and looked up into her eyes.
“I need to know,” he said, voice so low, so quiet. “You need to tell me now if it is true. Or otherwise... I do not care about the details surrounding it. I do not want to know how you specifically did it, if you did it at all... All I need from you, right now, is for you to tell me if those claims are true or not... Do you understand?”
It took her a moment, for the words to truly make it through, for her eyes to mellow even a touch before she nodded. She inhaled sharply, sobbing as it quickly left her. Green overtook the yellow, but it settled as she took another, controlled breath, holding it before copying her dear captain’s exhale. She took another, loosing her limbs from her, allowed to flow down the chair once more before Tarjen, no longer holding it.
“It’s... it’s true. All of it,” she said. A fresh shard of yellow stole into her eyes as she lurched a bit forward in the chair. “But please, you must understand-”
“Did you or do you have a part in the drug underworld plaguing Carapai and the ports?” Tarjen interjected, shooting a glance at Gale.
“Did your father?”
“Did he hurt you?”
She paused a moment, averting her gaze. Green pulsed in her eyes, taking away the spark of red that came with the question.
“Yes. Numerous times.”
“Ella,” Roe said, but Tarjen’s focus was on Gale. Her face was beyond pale now, her cheeks greened, holding her middle as if that was the only way to keep standing. He hummed, and stood himself. He held onto the arms of the chair again, simply looking down at her, cowering again. He waited for her to look up, all of them quiet, every sound below magnified in that buzz. Gale finally found the strength to walk over, leaning against the wall beside Tarjen. He hadn’t noticed, but Ella had. Her eyes burned red, seeing the look of... pity plastered upon the Itchyoman’s face, gone as Tarjen knelt again.
And hugged her.
“Thank you. For being honest,” he said, and stood once more. His “Hands” slid from the arms and onto hers, goading her to stand. Roe rose as well, and all three lasses followed him to the door. He eased it open a touch, looking out on the deck, and huffed. “Looks like all the Arbiters have gone below. No idea where Captain Lehroo, the captain of the Mako, went.” He clicked it shut again, and wheeled to Ella. “I wish I could offer you more solace, but we are on borrowed time. We need to get you to the dingy. Gale?”
“S-sir?” Gale blurted, grimacing at her own outburst.
“… I must ask a favor of you.”
“Anything for you, sir.”
“I need you to accompany Ella to the dingy and help her escape.”
“What?” All three exclaimed, bringing red to Tarjen’s gaze.
“Now is not the time to argue. We’ll meet again on the main land. Once I open this door, you two rush to the dingy. Roe, I need your help with stalling the Arbiters and dealing with the Mako’s captain Captain Lehroo.” He nudged the door open again, and sighed. “Fortune is on our side. We never took down the dingy. It’s still hanging off the port side.” He shut it again, and gave Gale and Ella a sharp look. “Do you understand? Once I open this door, rush to that ship. Do not stop. Do not bicker. Do. Not. Fight. Get it into the water, and start heading north. The current should aid you... Well? Am I clear?”
“I should be going-” Roe began.
“You are still recovering. You will not be able to help Ella out on the open sea, and, if the worst should happen... Do you all understand?”
They nodded, and Tarjen threw the door open, strolling out on deck. He looked up at the Mako, expecting to see the man charged to captain it somewhere along the arm that dared to pervade the Kraken’s personal space. Captain Lehroo was not there, nor could he be seen on the railing of either ship.
Tarjen looked back at the captain’s quarters, red flourishing in his eyes. None of them had moved yet. However, they stumbled over themselves at that quick burst of emotion, racing towards the stairs and down to the dingy. Tarjen rolled his eyes, and stomped down the steps, making them quake and thunder into the timbers, covering for the less lithe and agile. He continued to slam his boots into the planks, wincing a little with each one, promising the Kraken he shall give it a right polishing once everything was said and done, but it didn’t take away the pain. He waited for them to climb inside and tapped Roe’s arm, pulling her attention his way again before continuing down into the galley.
The last step was always a touch loose, so he jumped over it, down into the belly of the ship with such thunder, and turned the corner into the crew quarters. The Arbiters were there, at least four of them were, picking through every hammock. Their swords were drawn, not a cutlass nor common saber among them. They were the elite, after all. The best of the best the Council could recruit, so they had red coral broadswords.
Tarjen rolled his eyes seeing them out, sawing against the ropes that made the hammocks. Coral was nothing compared to raw steel, even if it was right effective against flesh. Against cloth, though? Leather? Plate? Perhaps it was a good thing most of the Arbiters never left Caparai, or had to deal with real battle, what flesh they really did cut was already prepared for it.
“Are you four done?” Tarjen said, making them jump. They spun to him, brandishing their blades. “Unless this Cephamorian in question can disguise herself as a bit of string, I doubt you will find her in those.”
“Simply being thorough,” one of the Arbiters said. His skin was red, with a down of soft, gray scales along his tendrils, seeming to shift in the light pouring through the portholes.
Which the dingy started to lower in front of.
Tarjen stepped before it, and cleared his throat.
“Where’s the rest of my crew?”
“We told them to stay in the dining hall while we searched --after we... heh... checked it first. Speaking of, why is that fish not with the rest?”
“She’s my skipper,” he said before Roe could answer, giving her a hard look before he rolled his “wrist” their way. “I take it you ‘examined’ the larder and storerooms ‘thoroughly’, as well. I am being reimbursed for all broken goods, correct?”
“If we find nothing disingenuous or incriminating,” another Arbiter responded. That one’s skin was a sickening swirl of lime green and puce, turning black as it neared the spiked shell hanging onto its back.
“I can assure you, I am but an honest sailor, a traveler that sometimes privateers. I do not deal in anything illicit, and refuse to even consort with anyone who even murmurs it.”
“Is that so?” Another said, coming up from behind. They were carrying a dirty, burlap sack, hooked on one of its jagged pink tentacles. “Then what is this?”
The Arbiter tossed the sack at Tarjen’s feet. It split open, allowing the pendant-sized spheres of blue to spill out onto the floor. They clacked together, sticking a touch before separating, leaving a mucus on the cloth and boards as they dispersed, freed of their imprisonment.
The Arbiters, all six, closed rank around Tarjen. Their swords were raised, all aimed at his throat.
“Captain Tarjen,” the first Arbiter boomed, “you are under arrest for trafficking illicit goods and aiding in criminal behavior. As the Arbiters, we carry the will of the Council, and so are judge, jury, and, if need be, executioner. Your crimes, and your willingness to lie to us, has sealed your fate, and so, by Their word, you shall be put to death... Do you have any last words?”
Tarjen... simply “smiled”, his eyes filling with blue, and nodded to the portholes across.
“As a matter of fact, I do. While you were busy convicting me, the true perpetrators had stolen away in a dingy and lowered into the water.”
“What?” The pink-hooked Arbiter exclaimed, and broke rank first. The others followed, looking out the portholes, while Tarjen stole into the other room a moment. He returned soon enough, just as the Arbiter cried out. Glass shattered as he thrust his blade through it, waggling it at the dingy on the sea. “Hold it, criminal scum! Stop in the name of the law! By the order of the Council, you two are under arrest for fleeing the scene of a crime most foul! By their will, and word, you two are condemned to be executed, so return at once for your p-”
Because he had been yelling so loud, with such zeal, he had not only covered the huffs and screams of his fellow Arbiters falling around him, but did not see his own fate coming. He was the last to fall, on top of the five other Arbiters. Their eyes were blank, staring up at the ceiling.
Tarjen sighed, and leaned against the spare oar, shaking his head.
“They just don’t make them like they used to,” he said, and heard someone gasp behind. He slowly turned, and found that the Mako’s keeper, Captain Lehroo, had come aboard. His eyes were filled with yellow, touched by red, and he was holding a “finger” up, shaking it at Tarjen.
“Y-you,” he sputtered, flicking his “finger” between Tarjen and the pile of Arbiters.
Before he, too, was knocked out.
Roe dropped her oar, wincing as she held her middle. She leaned against the wall and slid down it, chuckling softly. Ruu peeked in soon enough, and clacked over Captain Lehroo, stopping before Tarjen. The light in his black, stalky eyes shifted between him and the mound of Arbiters, the orb he was creating not needed.
“Ella and Gale are on their way to Lam Berel,” he said. “She is safe... for now.” Ruu’s frills slowed at this, but he continued to craft his sphere, letting it loose. Tarjen chortled, and groaned as he heaved one of the Arbiters onto his shoulder. “Well, you can help me move these fellows to Captain’s Lehroo’s brig. From there... well, you don’t need to get your claws dirty. I’ll bag the Blue Pearls again, put them in the good captain’s quarters, then have Lehroo put in his own dingy. After all, it’s rather embarrassing to be caught smuggling on your own ship, eh?”
Tarjen laughed, and Ruu trilled along, helping him move the bodies. However, a thought lingered on Tarjen’s mind as he put his plan into fruition, growing less complacent with each pearl he picked and placed into a new, hemp sack. It wouldn’t be eased, either, seeing the dingy along the horizon already, its passengers in Natalie’s hands, for it couldn’t have been either of them. After all, someone had been smuggling on his ship, but who?