Chapter 1: Offer of Gain

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Ice clinked into the bottom of the yellowed glass, then hissed and cracked as the Ashanaer Whiskey flowed over it. Maeve nodded at Lou, her favorite bartender at the Nimble Eel. She added a few cezri to the cost of the drink to ensure he would send any prospective clients her way.

    She took a sip and glanced around the bar. Its spicy peat scent relaxed her muscles as the liquor peppered her mouth and burned her throat.

    A warm gloom huddled close to the lamplights and candles, lending a golden hue to the grayed timber covering the walls and the ceiling. The aging glass in the windows hung low in the panes, its exterior frosted from the sand and salt in the wind tapping on it over the years.

    She sat in the rear of the bar and pinned her long black hair behind her ears. The wood creaked a lazy sigh as she leaned back. This table suited her purposes well. It was private enough to conduct business, and the light from the nearby wall sconce cast a golden shine on her deep brown skin, almost making her glow. She needed to attract attention, and with any luck, a well-paying client.

    Maeve was one of the few human uhraids in the bar. People of every shape and size sat at the tables. Many of them needed booster seats to reach the tabletops. Some weren’t even people. Spirits who didn’t shun the company of the living mixed with the others. They were all windjammers. Their faces were drawn and haggard. Like her, they struggled to keep their ships on the sea and their crews fed. They didn’t have a patron, nor were they a large guild. So, she spent most of her free time on the lookout for clients. Their vessel didn’t possess the armaments necessary to take on a Daskensian ship on their own. The others shared their stories about their encounters with the invaders. She and Bas did the math. They only needed a couple of cargo runs. They should have the funds to arm the sloop enough to raid the smaller flotillas.

    Ever since the Daskensian blockade of the archipelago, corsairs established their names and fortunes from such raids. Danger always patrolled the sea in the best of times, but adding enemy warships to the mix made earning a living increasingly difficult. 

    As the night stretched on, Maeve overheard the people at the next table discussing the repairs they needed for their ship after running into a Daskensian flotilla. That is why she didn’t take escort missions. Few possessed the wealth to afford such a risk. Even fewer gave up the cezri to pay for it.

    Unlike the others in her crew, she didn’t crave adventure, fame, and glory. She would never express this aloud. None of her compatriots would tolerate such blasphemy in her world. The sea was home, but a secure living and safety eluded them. Those two did not live comfortably together.

    Safety and prosperity eluded them so long as the Daskensians pushed north. She wasn’t a warrior but leaving the archipelago wasn’t an option. What other choice did she have?

    Regulars filled the Nimble Eel, which made the prospects of obtaining a client slim. As she sat at her table, she sipped her Ashanaer Whiskey in a way she hoped gave the impression she had far fewer cares and concerns than what was washing through her mind.

    After Maeve started her second drink, a stranger walked into the bar dressed in the finest Proitanian clothes, a black frock coat composed of such fine fabric it glistened with a golden sheen. He wore a matching vest and trousers, with distinct, military-style, metal-clad boots. His bright yellow shirt made his white skin paler and rosier than it actually was. It was rare to see someone clothed in such finery without a cadre of bodyguards, which showed either his confidence or naïveté. 

    He glanced around the room like a stellar hawk seeking its prey before walking up to her table as if they had an appointment he was late for. Why did he act like he recognized her? She had never met him before and they weren’t the most profitable corsairs on the seas, though they kept their head above water. 

    Maeve glanced up at him from her whiskey, nodded, and returned her gaze to the ice in her cup.

    The stranger chuckled, and said, “my name is Garland Magrath, and I have a job for you.” His velvety voice told her he expected her to recognize either his name or that of his family.

    The wealthy always believed the world revolved around them. They never neglected an opportunity to make that true. He spoke with a Proitanian accent, so he was most likely a merchant or spy for the royal court. Either way, he was an ally against the Daskensians, who posed a threat to his native land’s naval empire.

    Maeve nodded at the seat across from her and waited for him to sit down before she spoke. “What makes you think I’m looking for work?”

    He smiled like a saber cat spotting its prey. “You are Maeve Anne Lambourne, one founder of the Ocean’s Shadow. I am assured you and your crew have the skills necessary to serve me.”

    “Depends on the task,” she said with little emotion. Gambling wasn’t her strong suit. Which of their former clients would have referred him to them without notifying her first?

    “I need you to help me repatriate an artifact stolen by the Mefri and return it to the Nofraan where it belongs.”

    The Mefri were collaborators with the Daskensians, allowing them to set up colonies and strongholds in their territory. The Nofraan populated one of the many islands in the archipelago.

    “What is the artifact?” Maeve asked. 

    Garland glanced at the bar. He raised his hand in a half-hearted attempt to garner their attention, but his heart wasn’t in it. The motion was too rehearsed and perfect. His eyes drooped at the correct moment, and his shoulders wilted just enough. He returned his attention to her and wiped the disappointment from his face. She tracked his mannerisms closer to see if he tried to fool her in other ways. 

    “Nothing of real monetary value,” he said, glancing from her face to the table. Sorrow and worry flashed in his eyes to draw her interest. “It is a reliquary, an ark that means a lot to the Nofraan people. I am authorized to offer you 10,000 cezri to fund the expedition and a further 10,000 cezri for the relic.”

    The way he said authorized bothered her. It stood out like a bonfire on a moonless night. It was a strange thing to lie about. She almost missed it when he mentioned the amount of money he would pay to retrieve the ark.

    Before she responded, Garland added, “the relic is in the crypt of the Chapel of Oanh, on the Clarestone Enclave.”

    Maeve rolled her eyes. Oanh was the deity of locked doors. There really was a god for everything, but it made sense to invoke them to protect looted treasure. Perhaps she should build an altar for him on the ship.

    She never raided a monastery before. What if they injured a monk minding their own business? 20,000 cezri was a lot of money, but it wouldn’t make up for an angry deity seeking revenge. 

    As Garland told her how the Nofraans lost their identity after the theft of their sacred ark, she balled up her fists under the table. If gods could be slain, the deity that cursed her homeland would have died long ago, and her life would have taken a strange path. After the volcano on Valris Isle drove them from their homes, it never stopped erupting, creating the burning islands in the southern archipelago. Since the island didn’t grow, some preternatural force caused the destruction.

    After sharing a Mancai Ale with Garland as they discussed the plight of the Nofraans, she agreed to discuss the matter with the crew and expected them to agree to help. Once they reached a consensus, they would set sail in a week.

    Garland handed her a pouch with the first payment and a map. “Prepare to set sail when you have consensus.” He stood up and bowed. “I will bring you everything we have on the crypt and the ark in a couple of days.” He flashed a smile and walked away before she responded.

    Maeve shook her head. She had rarely met such a confident person. The affectations suggested his power was beyond question. She picked up the pouch of coins. Sebastian might not agree to the mission. She sighed. Harley would trust her, but Bas would need more convincing. If she convinced Iron Crane and Jade Crescent, then they would help her convince him. After all, this was the first time they risked the wrath of a deity.

 

After downing a Dire Arrow shot at the bar, Maeve relished the warm sensations rippling through her body as she celebrated landing such a large commission.

    The brisk salt air tingled her skin as she exited the Nimble Eel to head back to the dock. Duskmere was a charming town where cultivators, windjammers, and pirates mixed and mingled. Fights were common, but rarely to the death. She kept her money concealed in a hidden pocket in her waistcoat to keep it out of the hands of thieves.

    The sharp, swept roofs curled against the wind to deflect the storms from tearing into them. The wood, brick, and even the stone were bleached white by the relentless, salty breeze from the sea. On the rare still nights like this night, a dense fog marched off the ocean into town. The ocean forbade them to forget its dominance for a minute or they might presume they controlled their lives that the winds and the waves might take from them at any moment.

    Maeve smiled to herself as she walked past the name gilded on the side of the ship. OSV Buttercup. Through hard work and a pristine reputation, the Mancai extended their charter as a sailing fleet even though they only had one sloop.

    The vessel had seen better and worse days. Maeve rebuilt it from a wreck, marooned on the shore in Cape Lagmourne with Bas and Harley, and claimed the ship as their first salvage. With their salvage warrant, they filed for recognition of their fleet.

    “The Ocean’s Shadow Vessel Buttercup,” she whispered under her breath like a prayer. She loved that a name as silly as Buttercup would one day send fear through her enemies and others who might consider doing her harm. The name fit her and her crew well, a delicate flower backed by weaponry capable of grinding almost any target to dust. With money from this commission, she could supply the cannons that would allow them to become a genuine power in the archipelago.

    With further commissions like this, she could upgrade to an airship so the fleet might live up to its name. “The ocean’s shadow flies above us and guides us with her winds. The ocean’s soul embraces us as we sail until the end.” She whispered the old lullaby with a smile. The memory of her mother’s voice rang in her mind.

    As she came up alongside the ship, she pulled her signal whistle from her inner pocket and played the boarding song.

    The imposing, sharklike silhouette of Jade Crescent peered over the side. The dorsal fin on his neck blocked out the stars behind him. He was a Sadath born with a sharkhound familiar. He stood so tall compared to his familiar Dreamclaw, who wasn’t a large creature. Normally, the Sadath mirrored their familiar’s size as a biped, but she never asked. His imposing stature and strength were a boon to the crew.

    Jade lowered the gangway for her to get aboard and smiled at her as she walked past him. To anyone who didn't know him, his sharp, triangular teeth and broad smile inspired fear. His silvery gold skin and white chin and chest mirrored that of his sharkhound. 

    Her pet Ulaan, Gomruth, ran up to greet her. He resembled a short, stocky red crocodile with an enormous draconic head that made up most of his body. She petted him on the snout, and he ran off into the gloom to continue his patrol of the deck.

    Jade asked her how the night went. 

    Maeve wrinkled her forehead and cocked her head to the side. With a sigh, she helped him pull the gangway back up.

    After securing the rope, she walked away. Through the door under the quarterdeck, she glanced toward her quarters before turning the other way.

    When she walked into the wardroom, the small nephrear, Iron Crane sat at the table shuffling a deck of cards. He resembled a doll carved out of a large, tan squash dressed up in a white shirt and dark gray denim pants, whose face was carved with great care. 

    He glanced up at her with a wry smile. “You look like you’ve had a couple shots. I take it we have a new employer?” 

    Maeve nodded. “Are you casting Oracles or getting ready for a game of Tricky Knights?” 

    “Don’t change the subject. Spill it. What is the job?” 

    Maeve sat across from Iron Crane at the table. 

    “You know she won’t talk until everyone is in here,” Harley said from the door. “Darling Maeve, do you really think Crane even cares about the future?” 

    Harley resembled a member of an enigmatic doom band with her long black hair and black vest and denim jeans. Her pale pallor and the chains were marks of a Shade Duelist. 

    Maeve shook her head. “I was just trying to be—“ 

    “Polite?” Harley raised an eyebrow. “You were trying to fill the air with sound that meant nothing but to distract us from the terminal waiting on Jade to get here.” She laughed and sat down. 

    “That’s me. The person who talks too much and can’t stand the silence.” 

    Neither Maeve nor Harley said another word. Instead, they made subtle faces at each other like children at a solemn observance trying to play without invoking the wrath of their parents. 

    Crane shuffled the cards and hummed a song from his homeland, a bittersweet melody that only added to the atmosphere. 

    After Jade arrived with Dream at his heels and took their seat, Maeve said, “I am going to be blunt. Garland Magrath approached us to raid a monastery in Daskensian territory to retrieve an ark that was stolen from the archipelago.”    

    Crane chortled, “Bas will never agree to a raid on a monastery.” 

    Jade nodded his head. “He might be sympathetic to the cause, but it probably won’t be enough to convince him.”

    Harley laughed. “Maybe if we just say it is a heist, he will agree.”

    “We will not manipulate or trick him,” Maeve said. “He will probably agree just because it is in Daskensian territory.”

Bas managed the legal affairs of the crew and their relationship with the local authorities. He understood the rules better than the rest of them.

    “The ship’s charter is clear,” Harley said. “All jobs have to be agreed on unanimously. If he says no, it is over.”

    “How often has he quashed a job?” Jade asked as he steepled his hands and leaned back in his chair.

    “Especially one with such cultural significance. Did you get a good description of the target?” Crane asked.

    Maeve wobbled her head back and forth on her shoulders. “Maybe. It is an ark, a reliquary that means a lot to the Nofraans. Garland is going to deliver more information to us in a couple of days.”

    “Is it the body of a saint or something else?” Jade asked.

    “He didn’t say,” Maeve said. “I don’t think that would make that much difference. That they keep it at the Chapel of Oanh will matter a lot more.”

    “But he doesn’t have a devotion to Oanh,” Harley said.

    “Yeah,” Jade grunted, “But he will see them as possible innocent bystanders.”

    Crane crossed his arms and puffed out his chest. He smiled so hard his eyes closed into tight slits. He joined the crew only a couple of months prior. Before that, he lived in the landlocked grove of Feyhollow.

    Maeve refused to talk down to him. He hadn’t experienced enough life at the ocean’s mercy. Bas and Maeve grew up together on the Glimmercrest and lived on the sea their entire life.

    “Don’t do anything sneaky or underhanded,” Maeve said flatly, so as not to call him out.

    “Define sneaky.” Harley smirked.

    Jade and Crane laughed.

    Maeve recognized the familiar signs of mischief brewing. Many became sailors to escape the responsibilities and duties of the landlocked alternative. After a few voyages, they returned home disillusioned. Harley grew up on the Glimmercrest. She relied on mischief to ease her boredom.

    “I mean, we are going to be honest with him,” Maeve said, “because all the arguments we can imagine him making are valid, even if we don’t agree.”

    “We don’t want to offend the gods,” Jade said solemnly. “It takes forever to appease them. Oanh is a particular problem for the crooked-handed.” He dramatically raised his arm even with his head and rocked his hand to the left. His round black eyes framed the act with a doom-laden air. “He has been known to, uh, bless the locks on everything we deal with. I would like to not offend him if it were possible.”

    Crane nodded his head. “Fine. I won’t do anything sneaky or underhanded.”

    “Good, we will win on the merit,” Maeve said, concerned about the potential ramifications of offending the god. “Is there any way we could preemptively appease Oanh before we set sail?”

    Jade stroked the thin line of his chin. “I could set up an altar and make offerings to them to unlock the doors that we will encounter. I am not sure if they will back our cause, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”

    Maeve stopped herself from saying *how much is that going to cost?* If they could get a deity on their side, it would be of great value to them. “If you believe it could be of help, then we should do it.”

    “It would help me cultivate my arts,” Jade said.

    With that one sentence, Jade validated the expenditure in the terms of the ship’s charter. They each practiced their own cultivating art, and the Ocean’s Shadow swore to aid them in their practice.

    Maeve listened to them talk about what it would take to add the statues and tokens to the ship’s chapel and wrote out a list of items they would need.

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