A journey from Star Tip Peninsula to Hespera normally took thirteen days—eleven days, if the weather was fair, and the currents with you. Under Franz's command, The Sea Giraffe made it in nine.
The trip was so auspicious in character that it was nearly suspicious: calm seas and skies as blue and clear as the skipper's eyes. Obadiah wondered briefly if such good fortune predicated certain misfortune to follow, but promptly discarded such superstitious thinking as a consequence of lingering in the company of drunk men. (And besides - looking back, what was to come was something no amount of supernatural foresight could prepare a person for…)
The Mayor himself came to greet them. Swaddled in an impressive fur-trimmed cape that made Obadiah wonder about its practical function in day-to-day proceedings, the diminutive, snowy-haired man greeted them with all the vigor of a boy just entering into the passionate throes of manhood, making a point to pump each of the crew members' hands. The secret to his energy, he was eager to share, were the very mermaids that the gallant young men were going to pursue the next day: a swig of elixir with every meal (two parts cider, one part honey, a teaspoon of powdered mermaid scales), and it was as though he hadn't aged a day past twenty-two.
"It's a beautiful piece of irony," proclaimed the mayor over the lavish dinner that had been prepared for their arrival, "that the mermaids are such vile creatures when alive; but when dead they create so many benefits for society!" He chuckled. "Isn't it wonderful that we can rid the shores of a pestilence and bring prosperity to the people all at once?"
Obadiah smiled politely over the rim of the glass which had been pressed insistently into his hand. "Yes, it is wonderful that Hespera has been experiencing such fortune as of late - no doubt due to your excellent foresight and leadership."
The Mayor beamed. "Well, it would not have been possible without the aid of Astrina's council—" here the older man bent close in a confidential whisper, "Your father, you know, is a dear friend of mine who helped to establish the mermaid market in the first place." Clamping a gnarled hand over Obadiah's forearm, he smiled broadly. "And of course, with your aid, we can secure the expansion of the market." He drew back, letting out a hearty laugh. "Shall we toast to that?"
Not awaiting a reply, the Mayor rose from his chair, lifting his voice to bellow over the din. "May I have your attention, gentlemen?"
The chattering around the table slowly dwindled as all eyes gradually fixed on the mayor and his raised goblet.
"I'd like to make a toast in honor of Master Reshai and all of you fine young men, whom I have the privilege of a successful hunt tomorrow for Master Reshai and his crew, and to the increased fortunes of Hespera—no, the whole continent of Aithra!"
A chorus of cheers broke out as the men drained their cups in accord.
Obadiah tipped his cup but did not swallow. He had drunk enough that night.
It is dark. The darkness is cold and wet and deep; he cannot feel himself in it. There is no sound—…no, that's not entirely true.
There is a hum. It is more felt than heard: a strange and quivering thrum that stirs first in his bones, then gradually wells up to fill the silence in the shape of a song. He shivers and suddenly he can feel himself - his arms, his legs, fingers, toes; they are there now, given sentience by this life-giving song.
The darkness begins to ebb away—slowly receding into a murkiness that permits only the faintest wash of light. His vision is still obscured, but there is the beginning of sensation. He can feel a movement beyond him.
The song is louder now.
It sways closer—blares almost violently—then fades just as quickly. The uneven tempo of crescendos is dizzying, suspends him in a state of vertigo. There is no up, no down; only a space that he occupies, and the song.
The song begins to possess him. It throbs in his head, pounds in his bloodstream, stokes the beating of his heart (when did he begin to feel that, he wonders)—and suddenly, he realizes, the song belongs to a voice; and the voice belongs to—
"Have you ever listened to opera?"
Franz raised his gaze from where he had been peering over the side of the ship to blink at Obadiah. "Once, I think."
Obadiah joined the blonde at the railing, glancing down at the roiling emerald that lapped hungrily against the hull of the ship. A thick mist had rolled in from the open sea, shrouding the waters around the boat; the waves seemed, with each passing moment, to heave with greater urgency.
Franz cast a sideways glance at his companion when the other failed to elaborate. "Don't tell me, this is when you confess that you've been a fanatical practitioner of opera your entire life and that you want me to listen to you perform?"
Obadiah shook his head with a mysterious smile. A moment of silence passed, punctuated only by faint rumbling in the distance. At the horizon, a large tower of clouds had amassed, blotting out the sun. A storm was almost certain.
"What did you think of it?"
Franz paused to regard the other with a bemused expression before answering. "It was an interesting experience. I don't think it's my sort of thing, though."
Obadiah gave a low sort of hum. Another lapse of silence fell between the two, filled by the sounds of the increasingly turbulent sea and a call from one of the crew members. Obadiah's humming drifted into a tune, lilting amid the rattling of pots from the kitchen.
"What song is that?"
Obadiah looked up, breaking off his humming. A strange sort of expression had settled on his face, as though he had only just discovered himself that he'd been humming it.
"Just something I heard somewhere."
"In an opera?"
Obadiah's lips twisted into a small smile. "No," he began slowly; green eyes flitting up to meet Franz's, as if searching for a sign. "I had a dream."
Franz held the other's gaze, brows raising slightly. "A dream," he repeated.
Obadiah nodded, gaze returning to the restless waters. Far-off, another low grumble of awakening thunder.
"And?" Franz pursued.
"And," Obadiah parroted.
Franz let out a small sigh of exasperation that went unheard as a sharp whistle of wind picked up, sending the sails into furious flapping. Obadiah seemed bent on being particularly difficult today. "And, pray tell, what happened in your dream?"
Obadiah's gaze flickered back to meet Franz's - another searching look. Franz wondered what it was the other was searching for - a question, however, that would have to wait as a shout broke out, accompanied by the frantic pounding of boots against the deck.
Franz turned calmly towards the troop of crew members who had appeared, all looking rather alarmed.
"Captain, the ship—the rocks! Suddenly—" blurted one of the members.
Franz raised a placating hand even as another blast of wind whistled shrilly through the air. "What's the problem?"
"We think it's best if you come see for yourself, Captain!"
Franz frowned. Only a moment ago they'd been a good hour away from the cove; now they were mere moments from crashing headlong into the rocks. How that had come to be could be deliberated over later; now, it was a matter of avoiding shipwreck.
"Drop all the anchors," he ordered as he gripped the ship wheel. The storm had swooped upon them like a vengeful hawk. He squinted through the sudden onslaught of rain that nearly obscured the shadowed formations of cliffs looming dangerously close. At such short notice, it was impossible to completely avoid damage; their best bet was to ground against a rock and wait for the storm to pass.
Turning the wheel deftly, he aimed for a small pocket within the cleft of rocks. At the very least, it would provide some refuge from the battering winds.
The ship lurched violently, letting out a wooden groan as it met the face of the cliff before grinding to an arduous halt. The sound had not been a pleasant one, and he could only hope that the damage sustained had not been too grave…
The song was in the storm.
He could hear it amid the frantic calls of crew members slipping along the deck around him; amid the creaking of the ship as it was rocked by the fevered motions of the ocean; even amid the peal of thunder that crashed like tumbling cymbals. It began with a deep resonating hum below the ship and carried into a high shriek as the wind began to wail like some wretchedly forsaken maiden.
His eyes never left the waters even as a flash of lightning turned the world blinding white for an instant.
He blinked to clear his vision, ignoring someone's call for his attention. He focused instead on the song, straining his ears to make out the faintest traces of a phantom melody.
And then: the gleam of silver. The grip on his harpoon tightened.
The hunt had begun.