“Righty, wrongy, lefty… Lockey!” Kenny joked to himself the next morning as he locked the door with a long iron key. This key doubled as the ultimate token of trust from Quentin. The horizon to the east - his destination - was just showing the first hints of orange. To the west, a heavy purple still ruled the sky. Kenny's board was well wrapped in a brown cloth, slung over his back as he walked from Quentin’s watering hole and down to the docks. Kenny inhaled the refreshing, salty scent of the crisp sea air.
It was early enough in the morning that the docks were not yet completely sprawling with travelers. Just a few here and there, each unique, each with their own stories.
The location of Quentin’s Quant Tavern in the port-city of Kesser made life convenient for Kenny. Whenever he was in the area he had easy access to all of the major trade ports along the coast of Tandris. Today, however, he wasn’t selling anything, just hitching a ride to the other side of the world. Vega, his current objective, was the largest continent on Selene, nearly doubling Tandris in terms of acreage. Vega was also the harsher of the two huge land masses, housing dense and humid forests along Selene's equator, a nearly uninhabitable desert all along its southern portion, and the frigid and towering Lucos Mountains square in the heart of Vega.
Most certified ferries had never bothered checking travelers' belongings until Tandris' recent coastal legislation was enacted, under the title of the Spade Act. All public transport ships were now required to conduct baggage searches on travelers, and were ordered to report any suspicious anomalies to the Triumvirate. The simplest way around this legislation was granting the ferryman a monetary incentive for his silence.
Kenny paused and stretched, nimbling himself up for the journey ahead. From afar, he scoped out the docks and weighed his options with a practiced eye. Just beyond all of the merchant stands, dozens of sea vessels steadily bobbed in the water. One ship in particular stood out. It was a ship on which Kenny had spent a considerable amount of time.
"Where you headed?" A familiar voice asked from behind.
"Hello, Jillian," he said before turning around to face someone he would have preferred to forget.
Beautiful as ever, Jillian wore her faded brown hair in a big, dreadlocked ponytail, all held up by a light grey bandana. She had a clean white blouse, pressed and tucked into her more rugged brown pants, which were held up by a sturdy leather belt complete with a swashbuckler's curved sabre at her side.
"What could my old cohort possibly be doing down here with such a large parcel slung over his back? Takin' a little vacation, Ken?" Jillian mused. She knew he couldn't possibly be up to any good.
"Actually I was just in town visiting Quentin. He's asked me to deliver this painting to his cousin in Vega," he said, gesturing to his bag. "I don't have much on the docket for the next few months, so here I am."
Jillian looked inquisitively at him. "So you're a courier now? You know, you're a great liar Kenny, but I basically taught you the craft. I've been watching you. I smell paranoia,” she unhurriedly walked up beside Kenny and pointed to the floating vessel that had caught his eye a moment ago. “There's only one ship in those docks that'll help you smuggle anything today."
"Then I'll wait 'til tomorrow. No offense, but sailing with you has trouble written all over it," he told the roguish woman.
"And what makes you say that?" Her posture shifted, insulted by Kenny's claim.
"Well for starters, you're still a pirate. I'm not exactly at a place in my life where I want to be surrounded by marauders on an open sea. I doubt I have enough to pay you guys for the trip, anyway."
"Hey! I'm not just a pirate, I'm a captain. No one's going to touch you or your 'painting' on my ship," she responded defensively.
"You mean Quentin's cousin's painting," he quickly corrected her.
"Right. Quentin's cousin's painting. On Quentin's mother's side, I'm assuming? It must be beautiful. Do you mind if I see it?" She badgered. "C'mon Kenny, just a peek."
"Buyer's eyes only, I'm afraid," Kenny quipped. He thought about the proposal. As much as he wanted to find anyone else to do it, Kenny was running out of time, and this made relative sense. Imperial guards might take note of his presence in Port Kesser if he lingered for too long, and the tavern was beginning to feel claustrophobic.
"Kenny, I already know that whatever it is you're doing here, I'm by far your best option," she said insistently.
"That's funny, I thought the same thing back then, Jill," he replied.
She looked down for a moment before looking up and meeting his eyes. "Suit yourself. Good luck moving anything around with the Spade Act. Great catching up, Ken," Jill turned and stalked off toward the docks.
"Hold up," he said, and briskly caught up with her. "What's the catch? No one does anything for free around here, not even in our case."
She stopped and turned. "Maybe I just want to do a solid for a friend. Favors are still a thing, ya know," she said, regaining her composure quickly. "We have some business in Vega to attend to anyway, so the ride is yours if you want it."
"Relax. Geez, how does a crybaby like you lead a group of criminals, anyway? I'll go, just try to get me there in one piece. You know how I am about trusting new people."
Jillian's emerald eyes lit up with a genuine light. "You're up in the crow's nest, like old times! Let's go see Lady Helena and her crew!" she said, socking him in his shoulder before turning and trotting down the cobblestone road to the masterfully crafted oaken docks of Port Kesser.
Kenny took her sincere excitement as a good sign. It meant she probably wasn't planning on killing him.
Lady Helena was not exactly the priciest or fastest ship in the docks, but you'd think the wood they made it out of came from another planet. It was stolen from an unfortunate merchant in a Vega waterway seven years ago by Kenny and Jillian's former leader, Captain Zon. Back then, Jill and Kenny were just fresh-faced bilge rats under her command. The ship heist ranked high on the list of the most exhilarating things that Kenny had ever done in his life. He had then spent four years on this very ship, before parting ways with the group of pirates and mastering sleight of hand as a thief in Tandris. But now, walking up to the beautiful, bobbing ship, Kenny began to feel excitement about the coming voyage.
As the two approached the ship, Jillian stopped Kenny. "There's one condition before we continue. My crew doesn't need to know your business or what you've got on you, but I have to inspect every grain of sand that enters and exits my ship. Once we get on board we are going straight to my cabin and you're going to show me what you're lugging around."
"I like the sound of that," Kenny smirked. He just couldn't help himself.
"I see your pirate's charm is still fully intact. I'd hold off on comments like that around Dutch though," she warned.
"Who is Dutch?" he asked, somewhat disappointedly.
"A lot can change in three years, Kenny. I wouldn't go as far as using the term 'significant other'... Let's just say I try to keep the crew morale up, and in turn he keeps my morale up."
"I'm sorry, I'm not following," he said, wearing an expression made of stone.
Jill stared at him, not amused in the slightest. "Shut up," she said as she turned toward the Lady Helena, already exhausted from trying to maintain a conversation with Kenny.
As they walked up the wooden ramp toward the vessel, a couple of crewmates gathered to greet the newcomer. A large man, at least a foot and half taller than Kenny, stood shirtless with a bulging belly, a stern and chiseled face, and heap of muscles. The beast of a man wore ragged brown pants, black boots, and thick leather worker's gloves. He approached Kenny readily.
"Kenny, this is Dutch. He does a lot of the heavy lifting and maintenance around the ship," Jillian said, introducing the two as cordially as she could manage.
"You new?" Dutch asked in a deep, gruff voice.
"Nah, I just used to keep your captain's morale up," Kenny sarcastically answered. They tensely stared at each other, yet there wasn't hate or even anger in either of their eyes.
A goofy smile sprouted on Dutch's face. "Let's be friends!" He exclaimed while pulling Kenny in for a bear hug. "If you make Captain Jill happy then you make me happy!"
Dutch's phrasing was a few notes off, but Kenny quickly realized that this behemoth of a man was on the simple side. Still mashed in the large pirate's bulging pectoral muscles, he flashed a questioning look at Jill.
Jillian ignored it. "Guys, this is Kenny, one of my old crewmates. He knows this ship better than most of you combined so let's show him some respect huh? Dutch, be a dear and let everyone know to get to their posts and prime the Lady. Vega awaits."
"Yes ma'am!" Dutch boomed. "Bye Kenny!" He waved, oblivious to what should have been a very awkward moment, before circling the ship and relaying the captain's orders.
"Ken, follow me. You can meet the rest later," she said, swiftly wading through the small cluster of pirates. As they walked along the deck, Kenny noticed passing glances and glares from some of the crew members that he hadn't met yet. Apparently he wasn't the only one wary of new people.
Jillian swung the door to her cabin wide open and with an extended hand, gestured for Kenny to enter. As Kenny walked in he found a plush leather lounge chair to sink into.
"So... Dutch is nice," Kenny said as he kicked his feet up on Jillian's navigation table and placed his hands behind his head.
"Yeah well I've found it's best if I do most of the thinking around here," she said with a shrug.
"Still, I wouldn't have pegged you to go after the young-and-dumb type," he said to his former lover.
"And I'd have never pegged you as a land-crawler. I thought we'd be drifting the open seas forever but you left. You left Captain Zon, the Lady Helena, and me. What were three helpless maidens to do without the brave Kenny Rothman?" she asked sarcastically.
"Clearly you turned out okay," he said.
"Yeah, well Zon didn't," she reminded him. The air went quiet. "Sorry Ken, there I go bringing up the ol' Cap'. She missed you when you decided to leave, you know. But we all understood. Do... do you know how she died?" Jillian asked while cracking out a bottle of bourbon from under her desk.
Kenny leaned back and stared somberly at the cabin ceiling for a moment. "I heard. The Imperial Triumvirate held a public execution in the capital's town square. It was an event to mark the downfall of all of the coastal pirates. The 'stories' that I heard described her as fierce, hateful... savage. A monster in human form. Guess that's partly true. Turned in by none other than her first mate, Victor Spade. Now there's a true monster. And then the slick bastard somehow snaked his way onto the Thiadrod city council mere months after Zon's beheading. A real bureaucrat he is."
Jill topped off two small glasses with the smooth dark liquor. “Zon's actions, foul as they may have been, paled in comparison to the Triumvirate's. How many slaves do they employ to this day, just to maintain their pretty towns and streets? Partly why I'm fond of the ocean, I suppose.” Jillian let out a long, desperate sign. "If I could just get within a hundred yards of Spade..." she handed Kenny a glass. "Here's to Zon and her legacy, eh?"
"Cheers," Kenny replied as the two of them gulped the classic Jillian-sized doubleshots of bourbon.
"Well let's get back to it, shall we? What exactly are you carrying to Vega?" Jill said pertinently.
Kenny reached to the side of his seat and grabbed his pack. He carefully placed the large item on Jillian's desk and removed the brown cloth that covered it, revealing the technological marvel.
Jillian looked it all over. The rubber and plasteel footstraps. The unusual silver metal plating on all sides. The wires and thin pipes underneath. The cobalt-filled glass vial on the side. "What the hell have you stolen?" She asked with her jade eyes wide in wonder.
"It was in a Triumvirate caravan. No clue where it was headed,” he told her.
"I'm more interested in who made it," Jillian took a moment to process it all. "Just so you know, if anyone else was asking, I'd turn them away in a second. But I know you tend to tread lightly, so I'm going to let you come. The rules are as follows: do not talk about or show this to anyone on my ship; do not start any beef with any of my crew members; do not touch anything on my ship aside from your daily rations and the ropes that lead up to that crow's nest, got it?" Jillian had a piercing look in her eyes.
“Got it, boss,” Kenny nodded.
Thud thud thud. Three knocks came from the door.
"Sorry to interrupt, Cap'! We are all ready out here when you are!" A muffled young female voice called from outside the cabin.
"Ah, Kenny, come meet my first mate!" Jill popped up out of her seat and opened the door. A young lady with a thin face stood there. She had pale skin, contrasted with black hair in a short single ponytail. The young woman donned black studded leather pants that appeared to be of quality craftsmanship, with a black button down shirt to complete the look. She also wore two small hatchets sheathed to the back of her thick black leather belt.
Kenny grabbed his glass and got up from the chair he was beginning to sink into. "Hi there. I'm Kenny."
"Hello, name's Witt!" She said, jutting one hand out with the other respectfully behind her back. "I've heard you'll be joining us and let me just say that I'm honored to meet you!" Her smile was huge and welcoming. "Dutch has been telling everyone about a 'cool guy' in Jill's cabin," she laughed. "Just had to come see for myself. I hope you live up to your reputation."
"That's quite a bit of pressure, I don't think I can handle it, Ms. Witt. I was honestly planning on just hiding up in the crow's nest for most of the trip."
"Well, that's where we'll need you anyway. I'm sure Captain Jill told you about our last guy up there," Witt replied.
"Umm," he turned and looked towards Jill. "No, actually, she hasn't gotten there yet."
"Not much to tell," Jill chimed in. "The Lady Helena soon forgets those with unsure feet. It's a far fall, as you are well aware, Kenny."
"Ouch," he said, considering a number of equally painful scenarios in his head.
"Yep, she can be unforgiving if you don't give her respect," Witt said as she ran her hand along one of the ship's strong handrails. "I've been subbing in the position the last couple of weeks, but it seems the Cap' prefers to stick you up there. Just let me know if you need me to show you the ropes," the young outlaw playfully jabbed at Kenny, fully aware of his extensive former work aboard the Lady.
"I could use the company. I may get lonely up there, after all," he quipped back, adding an entirely unsubtle wink.
Witt smiled at him quickly before turning to Jillian.
"Settle down you jackrabbits," Jillian said, though in truth this kind of talk was nothing unexpected from either of them.
"Sorry, ma'am," Witt cleared her throat. "Your orders?"
Jillian walked out of her cabin doorway and up to the railing. Staring into the vast ocean expanse to the east, drawing crisp morning air into her lungs, she mentally prepared herself for the expedition. This was something that Zon was always adamant about, and imprinted onto all of her crewmembers, Jillian perhaps more than anyone. Before the ship starts moving, everyone aboard must make peace with the reality of the coming voyage. No one on Jill's ship ever expected a picnic, only infestation, sea sickness, and possibly combat. On top of it all, adventure was an absolute certainty.
“Anchors up, mates!” Jillian's voice echoed across the docks and was met with uproarious excitement from the couple dozen pirates under her command.
The sails were out, and the trek had begun. Kenny took a solid grip of the ship's thick rope. Peering up to the crow's nest, he saw the swirling magenta and salmon clouds above. The hair on his forearms stood up as the ship climbed over the first of many, many waves.
© 2017 Jesse Pennington