The smell of salt stained the air. That was the first thing I noticed as I weaved my way through the chaos of the Ilaecian harbour. The odour did not only come from the sea, but from the walk, the talk, the movement, and the very breath of every man marked by it. It was the same mark I would be wearing hours from now.
There, at the farthest part of the docks, I saw the ship that would become my home soon. 'Twas the biggest one and the most foreboding of them all. It demanded a spectator's full attention and respect. Strangely enough, it evoked excitement in me sending a peculiar ripple down my spine. Stranger still, I felt a sense of belonging to it even from afar.
I could see its name, Triton, painted freshly and elegantly on the side of the massive but old battle ship. This was one of the peculiar things in this ship: it wasn't named after a woman. It was named after the son of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon. I suppose I should've been paying heed, but I didn't know it then, the ways of the sea.
His proud scars were evident, worn like a nobleman would his finest robes. The crew it carried was no doubt swollen with pride with its colourful history. They had evidently adorned it with new sails, fresh stays and new boards, yet remained meticulous over its monuments. Canons could be seen poking out of the ship, no doubt still perfectly able. Though wars were long over, everything a battleship should have, it had.
I climbed up the ship, contemplating on whether to go through with this or not. It's this or I walk to where I want to go. I knew hesitation was a luxury I couldn't afford. However, when my feet landed on the deck, my decision was roughly made for me whether or not hesitation was an option. Someone grabbed my shirt and pulled me forward.
"Here 'e is, sir! Last 'un in." the rough sailor yelled, dragging me up in front of him.
Amidst the ropes, wood, barrels, and other sailors, came out a…cleaner….looking man. He was taller than me by a head. His frame was small, yet through his open shirt and loose sleeves I could see the hints of his strong, tanned muscles. Even then, it was palpable that they were concentrated with power. Short, dark hair adorned his head. His face wasn't chiselled to perfection, like statues carved out only to wear one expression. It would've been gentle, but due to the sun that shone on his vibrant eyes, he scowled down at me. His dark eyes were lit with amusement and stern discipline. He could not have been any more appropriate for the vessel. He demanded what it demanded and possibly even more. Though he was probably only three years my senior, I was guessing that this was the Captain.
My hand reached up to scratch my head in nervousness, almost making my cap topple off my head. I stopped it in time and patted it securely into place once again. The Captain cocked an eyebrow at me and I grin sheepishly, looking down.
"Well…?" he drawled.
"Sir, urm Moira—rad, sir," I hadn't been here a minute and I've committed two mistakes already, I thought as I tried to change my voice.
I was Moira.
Now, I'm Moirad.
No, not much of a difference, but it would work.
"Moirarad or Rad, which one is it?" Without looking at him, I knew he was beginning to get impatient.
"Moirad, sir," I said with more conviction. I gathered enough courage to look him in the eyes.
"What can you do then, boy?"
"Cook, clean, whatever ye want me ter do, sir, I'll do it as best as I can, sir." I swore inwardly as I nearly corrected him. Feeling like a right idiot, I probably should just proclaim my identity to save myself the trouble of berating myself.
"Ah, well then, off to the galley you go then, boy! The cook will be in charge of you," he commanded and stalked off, leaving me standing there lost.
I stumbled down the companionway to the kitchens with an aching body. It had taken me thirty minutes to locate the galley, earning myself a few bruises from the overfriendly crew. (Hopefully, my sensitivity wouldn't attract undesired attention. Everything was hard enough the way it was. I didn't need anything else to bring me down.) There I found a thin, sweat-covered cook busy standing over the stove, preparing a humongous cauldron of stew before we got underway.
"Dinner's not fer a few hours, ye scurvy dogs!" he shouted gruffly, not bothering to look up at who had come in.
"Came to 'elp with 'em cookin', sir," I shouted as he started clanging around. My eyes fluttered, trying to rid of the scented steam that had impaired my vision.
"Yea? 'Hu sent ye 'ere?" he called back just as loudly.
"Palaemon? What 'e think o' me? Eh? Incapable?" I assumed from that that Palaemon was the Captain's name. I stood there, helpless and disoriented, until he barked at me again. "Whatcha waitin' fer, lad? Git over 'ere an' 'elp if that's what yer suppose ter do!"
"Yes, sir," I answered, stepping up to take the onions from him.
"An' quit that sir-ing. I ain't no Master Sir. 'Names Har, lad, and I ain' wantin' to say lad all times!"
"Moirad, si—Har," I said, correcting myself.
"Ain't hard, see?" Har looked over the steaming stew at me, grinning.
It was five hours ago since we got underway, and two hours ago that I had helped serve the crew. It was only that long ago since I saw what I hoped to be the last of Ilaec. Now, I was a-waiting on the deck to be called on by the Captain. He and his guest had set aside dinner for a little more than two and a half hour. Har had retreated to his hammock in sheer impatience, leaving me to wait on and serve them if they decided to eat. I didn't mind; I wouldn't have slept anyways. The thought of having finally escaped was too much of an elation to celebrate in the confines of a hammock.
There were no stars out tonight, but the breeze blew gently on my face like a lover's sweet caress. I shivered in delight until I heard the bell go off from under my feet where I was standing overtop the galley. They'd finally decided to call, I thought as I went back in. For a minute, I heated the food on the stove and put it on the double tray that Har had fashioned. I then climbed the stairs to the Captain's quarters.
Har had explained to me that since this was once a spacious battle ship, the Captain's cabin had evolved to his quarters instead. There was a sitting area, a small dining area, a study and his bedroom. Though no one was there, I set the food on the dining area. I then made my way to the study, hearing heated voices emanating from it. Even from the other side of the door, I could sense the tense atmosphere.
"They want us to turn back, Palaemon. They're convinced that she has stolen into the harbour and fled through the vessels." An unfamiliar voice I hadn't heard before on the ship said. Worry and exasperation laced through his voice.
Immediately, after grasping the topic of conversation, I had to stop myself from taking a sharp intake of breath. Deep inside me, intuition was telling me to run. The only problem was that there was nowhere to run to.
"You think she would have boarded here? It's a damn cargo ship, Nereus! Stop this paranoia. No woman, let alone her, could endure on a ship like this. She surely must have had as much sense as that!"
At this typical male response, a little current of relief flooded through me.
"I don't know, Laemon. I'm not her by any chance, am I? But if you disobey orders—"
'Tell them we're too far off the coast to return. The price is too high for us to postpone the deadlines! Make an excuse! Tell them we're having officials examine us at the next harbour. Send them back the messenger tomorrow noon, but tell them we—I am not going to turn around." The Captain was fierce and determined; I had no doubt his so called 'friend' could not refuse.
I could have kissed him, but a lad kissing another was as queer as Hera and Zeus getting along for more than a minute.
"Palaemon—" Nereus started, sighing, but I used the chance to knock, unable to stand hearing anymore.
"Yes?" I heard the Captain speak.
"Dinner, sirs," I squeaked through the door, not knowing how to address them both at once.
The Captain opened the door before I could fully hide my slight shaking. Thank the heavens that neither of them paid heed.
Nereus was a man dressed formally, his tidy, dirty blond hair tied back primly at the nape of his neck. His face was red from arguing. He was wiping his face with a silk handkerchief, still seemingly upset. He was thick bodied, just as tall as the Captain yet not as handsome.
"Moirad, ah. Sorry to have kept you waiting for us to dine for so long. You may go if you wish." The Captain addressed me. When he said my name, Nereus, whose profile had been the only thing visible, whipped to face me. His piercing blue eyes tried to penetrate mine, but I looked down like any servant should.
"Rats'll come on after if I dun clean up, sir. 'Sides Har'll keelhaul me, sir." I mumbled, not meeting either of their gazes.
I told myself I was only acting like a servant should, that I was not petrified of them.
Palaemon laughed and said something about liking to see Har try and keelhaul anything other than a sack of cotton. Try as I might, I couldn't deny myself the soothing sound of his laugh. Nereus looked sulky as he narrowed his eyes at me.
I stepped back to let my superiors pass.
I felt Nereus give me another hard glance as he walked by.
I laid in my hammock an hour later thinking.
They had found out I was gone. It had taken them much quicker than I had anticipated, but at least we were on high seas by then.
I don't know why he'd be that fussed to find me.
Having merchant ships turned around?
Does he want to lose money?
Ilaec, as a country, had never been known for prosperity.
I don't understand. I really don't.
Why is he trying this hard to look for me?
I was only just another woman among thousands of others; his choices weren't so limited.
Will this last until we reach our first stop?
That's tomorrow night.
How long will I hold his attention?
Knowing him as long as I have, that would be quite a while. No one liked losing their favourite toy.
In the meantime, I should plan…just in case
With that last thought, I lost myself to sleep.
"Oi! Lad! Moirad!"
Someone was hitting her arm. She groaned and turned away. They shook her this time, getting more aggressive.
"If this the way ye wanna 'elp out, I ain't takin' it. You wake up on yer own 'ere, lad."
She moaned and opened her eyes at last.
"I'm up," she grumbled, swinging herself off her hammock.
"If I hafta wake ye up 'nother time, it's gon' be hot water on ye. Ye hear?" Har barked away, leaving her in a groggy state.
He sure had a lot of strength for such a skinny, old man, Moirad thought as she stumbled back into consciousness.
After washing her face and changing shirts, Har ordered her to serve the Captain his breakfast. She doubted the Captain knew, but he and his guests always had to dine first lest he told them otherwise. She climbed up into the deck and saw that dusk had yet to approach. Grumbling, she set the dining table for her superiors again, knocked on the Captain's door and told him that the food was ready.
Moirad headed next for Master Nereus' also spacious cabin. Heading there, she wondered of what stature this Nereus was of. She had never seen him in the courts before. When she got there however, she was greeted by the cry of an evil looking falcon sitting precariously on the side table beside the door. This must be the messenger. No matter how sinister looking the falcon was, Moirad knew and felt its discomfort. She was not a stranger to the feeling. She was about to release it when the door behind her suddenly opened. Master Nereus stepped out.
"What are you doing?" he asked in suspicion.
"Pardon, Master Nereus, birds are not used to surfaces like so," she stood straight, her left hand clasping her right wrist behind her back, right hand curled into a fist with feet shoulder-width apart and staring straight ahead.
It was the soldier's pose when addressed by a higher status. Nereus' doubts and distrust calmed a little for the lad. Any true Ilaecian male civilian would know it.
Inside her head, Moirad nearly killed herself. She had spoken unbroken language that would surely catch the attention of the already wary Master Nereus. No sailor who could would speak to a status in unbroken lest insinuating an offence. Whether it was Master Nereus' continued occupied look or the Captain's arrival, Moirad did not know what saved her.
"So the sun finally shined on you, eh Nereus? Moirad, sea rock you well," Captain Palaemon entered the hallway, looking as cheerful as always. He acknowledged her with a nod. She bowed and was about to leave when Master Nereus snapped out of his trance and grabbed her arm.
"Sir?" she asked tentatively when he didn't say anything. He opened his mouth then closed it again. He waved Moirad off. She knew then that this Master would be a troublesome obstacle.
Moirad bumped into Alastor, the moody navigator, on the way to the galley. He growled and cursed at her and left her by thumping her in the chest. She winced a little too much for a would-be sailor, but did not say a thing. He left her rubbing her abused anatomy.
Har greeted her with a smile that turned into a frown when she came in trying to hold back tears.
"Oi, laddie. Those mongrls gave ye 'ard time, eh?"
"Sir Navigator bein' too friendly tha's all." She answered as if brushing off an unimportant matter, but he could see through it.
"We be tarrying at Kiesden the night. Stay drunk, laddie, an' forget 'em troubles," Har said, trying to compensate for the maltreatment.
He soon regretted his words when the young help blushed more uncomfortably.
It didn't even come to him to wonder why.