Chapter Twenty "Sink or Swim"
After agreeing to become honorary members of Captain Reno's crew, the spritely fox vanished below deck to look for some clothes they could borrow to fit the role. That left Fredrik, Ashe, Serena, and Chi-tai with the other crew members. The white wolf, they assumed was called Peace, kept the capuchin monkey from climbing back up the mast.
"Seeing as my foolish husband and Captain forgot to introduce us all, my name is Peace Reno. The otter's name is Markus Shrine and the capuchin's is Eion Targa. I'm the navigator, Markus is the cook, and Eion is our lookout. May I ask about your names?"
Ashe was the first to speak up, "My name is Ashe Cyndre, and this is my sister, Serena. Captain Reno didn't ask our names, so I doubt he even knows them. We're originally from a province in Azraba, but our home is in Hollowridge."
"As Rowan mentioned before, my name is Chi-tai O'Gutthrey," he started, "My family is based out of the Southern Isles, but we joined up with a band of gypsies to travel the lands."
"That just leaves me then. My full name is Rowan Storm, and I live on a homestead a couple of hours outside of Oak-tree."
"Would you mind me asking what you're looking to find in the north? Most of you still look pretty young to be traveling across such a long distance."
They all exchanged wary glances, but Fredrik didn't want to tell them too much with not much reason to explain their full intentions.
"We're going with Chi-tai to see if we can find his brother. He lives in the north, and we happened to run into each other along the outskirts of Hollowridge. I ran into Ashe and Serena not too long ago, as well, and Ashe asked me to help teach her what I know about being a merchant. My father, Saul, is a merchant that traveled Verona, so I'm following in his footsteps."
Peace tapped a finger to her chin snapping her fingers, "Continue what you were doing, Markus and Eion; while we're waiting on Captain Reno let's get started on your temporary tattoos."
Eion dashed back up the mast while Markus kept a watchful eye on him. Peace led the group of four over to where she originally came from.
"We'll use a bit of thin oil to recreate our crew tattoo, so people don't suspect anything fishy. I'm guessing that once Captain Reno gets your clothes that he'll rush over to register our crew, so prepare yourselves for what's to come."
She patted a short table for them to sit at while she went over to a wall mounted cupboard. They took seats around it while admiring the craftsmanship of the quaint cabin area. The furniture fit the atmosphere of the crew and was sturdy despite looking relatively old.
"Would it be odd for me to ask about a permanent tattoo?" Fredrik asked.
It surprised the others to hear him say that, but it surprised Peace even more. She had never heard of anyone that had been coerced to join a crew temporarily only to ask about something permanent.
"Why in the hell would you want to do something like that, Rowan?"
"It's just kind of a hunch," he replied. "I guess it's just in case I ever need your help again or you need mine, then you'll know it's me right away."
She set a small tray down on the table, and pulled up one of the other chairs, "I guess it wouldn't hurt anything, but are you sure about getting one? It's not something you can easily remove in the future if you change your mind."
"I'm sure. I have a hunch that it won't be the first permanent thing I have on my body. It's a dangerous ordeal traveling across Verona."
"Suit yourself; just let me know where you'll want it, and I'll get started on it, after I give Chi-tai his. I guess it's a permanent welcome to the crew for you then!"
Chi-tai brushed his arm to check if the tattoo had dried before taking the shirt Captain Reno offered him. It was just a simple pale blue tunic compared to his Southern Isles robe and the rough cloth pants weren't as comfortable as his own. The nice part was that he could keep on his own shoes rather than wear a pair of boots, so he couldn't complain too much.
Captain Reno asked where Fredrik was, and he said that he was still getting the tattoo. He set down the extra set of clothes, and made his apologies before dashing down the gangplank to register his crew.
Watching him leave, Chi-tai felt a tremor of excitement dash through his body as he thought about the tournament. He wasn't sure if he and Fredrik would get the chance to face off against each other, but the urge to fight him ate away at his stomach. Chi-tai realized that Fredrik may not have had any connection to the tribe that kept his ancestors as slaves, but it had turned more into a personal desire to show him who was stronger.
He slapped his hand to nape of his neck, and turned around. It felt like someone had dragged a long-nailed hand down it. There wasn't anyone there, but the sensation sent his heart racing.
"Something wrong, Chi-tai?"
Ashe had walked out of the cabin, and saw the panicked look in his eyes. Serena was still inside with Fredrik and Peace, but she decided to look around the ship a bit.
"It's nothing to worry about. It just felt like someone touched the back of my neck," he replied.
"Think we're on a ghost ship?"
They both looked towards the sound of a frightened voice. Eion dropped to the deck with what looked to be some piece of wood attached to a necklace. Markus slapped a hand to his face as he held the totem outwards as if to ward off something.
"There are no ghosts aboard this ship, Eion! If there were any ghosts on any ships, then they'd be over on Dan's ship. You can rest easy."
Eion tucked the necklace back under his shirt, and wiped a hand across his brow, "Don't joke about ghosts aboard a ship, mate. It's terrible bad luck to even mention ghosts."
"Sorry about that; I'll try to watch what I say in the future. I'm not accustomed to life on a boat anyway."
He gave him a quick nod before picking up another coil of rope and dashing up the mast. Markus left him to his own devices and disappeared into the cabin where the others were just now emerging.
Fredrik rubbed his shoulders to alleviate the stiffness of sitting in the wooden chair. He squinted as the light hit his face while Serena raised a hand to her brow to alleviate some of the impact. Peace was using a tattered rag to wipe some of the residual ink off of her hands before seeking a barrel of water marked for cleaning.
"How did it turn out?" Ashe asked.
He pulled down the corner of his shirt to reveal a dark navy imitation of a lotus flower with a circle inside the base. The details were kept simple so that they could sign on crew members quickly without wasting too much time on minor formalities.
"It didn't hurt as much as I expected. Then again, I'm not sure what I did expect."
The process was a little different than the conventional ones that he knew of. Peace explained that the ink would seep into his follicles slowly staining his fur a slightly lighter hue than what is seen on his skin. It would eventually fade to be close to his main fur's color, but it would take quite a bit of time for that to happen.
Before they could further their conversation, Captain Reno tripped up the last segment of the gangplank. He was out of breath, but had a smile plastered across his face.
"What are you doing standing there?" he asked breathlessly, "The tournament is about to start! Eion! Markus! Gather what you need, and let's go!"
It took a moment for things to click, and they all dashed down the way he arrived. Eion made sure to not twist an ankle on the landing while Markus tossed a stained apron onto the back of a chair. At least the venue wasn't far from their ship.
They arrived with a few minutes to spare. It turned out they were having to make some last minute arrangements in the tournament. With the inclusion of Captain Reno's five-man crew it pushed their numbers up to the point where they decided to have the tournament start with a big team qualifier, followed by a test of strength, and finish out with a branch system of sixteen primary rounds.
Fredrik was glad to find that they were all on the same team for the start of things; it would only be a matter of time, though, before they squared off against one another. He didn't anticipate things to get too rough, but it didn't rule out the need to use some of his Trojeimian Art techniques.
Chi-tai stretched out his arms and legs in preparation while the nervousness fluttered in his chest. As he looked around, he began to notice that more and more people had swords strapped to their sides along with daggers and clubs.
"Hey Markus, there are a lot of…people…" he trailed off as Markus drew two dirks from the back of his belt.
He gave them deft twirl before using the tip of one to push the brim of his hat up a bit. Markus shot him a devilish grin before he inspected the blade of his weapon.
"It's been a longstanding tradition in Torta to allow the use of weapons. Anything goes except for firearms. Didn't Captain Reno mention that to you?"
"He failed to mention that," Chi-tai turned to Fredrik whispered, "What should we do now considering we're up against people with weapons?"
Fredrik let out a deep breath, "Focus on the third step of Trojeimian Arts. Only go to the fourth if you absolutely feel the need to; otherwise, it will be best just to focus on reinforcing your body with your aura."
"What if we fight one on one?"
"Then you have my permission to go all out and show me what you've learned."
The tone in Fredrik's voice caught Chi-tai off-guard, but sent a jolt of excitement through his body. He didn't expect such a straightforward answer, and really didn't anticipate him allowing a full show of his power.
The mouse Burt let out a shrill whistle to grab everyone's attentions, "Everyone to yer startin' gates! We're about to start this 'ere tournament, so prepare yerselves!"
As the crowd began to shift, the anticipation soared in both Fredrik and Chi-tai. For Fredrik it was a call back to the way he'd spar with others in Trojeim, and for Chi-tai it was a way for him to vent indirectly at how Fredrik's people could support slavers, and for what he learned had happened during the civil war. They weren't sure what would await them as the tournament progressed, but they both wanted to let out some of the pent up energy they had.
The embarrassment had long since faded from Madeline's cheeks as her and Morgan picked back up where they left off. It wasn't clear what path Fredrik had decided to take, but they couldn't afford to skip a town if there was even the slightest chance that he stopped there. Madeline guessed that he would have just went straight to Torta, but she couldn't argue with the logic behind Morgan's guess.
They had stopped by two towns in the past week with no hints that could have been related to Fredrik. It was beginning to look like he went directly to Torta, but there was one more town to check in before they entered the long stretch to the coastal city.
"I know you weren't in much of a better position than Fredrik," Madeline started, breaking the silence, "but do you remember anything about the day you and Fredrik were relocated?"
"Only bits and pieces, to be honest. I remember the look on his face when I felt the sil'lis arm puncture my back and stomach, but after that it gets blurry. I think I remember when Godric left me in Virgil's care while he tended to Fredrik, but the pain kept me from seeing straight."
She wasn't sure what she was looking to gain from that, but Madeline was trying to get a better sense of what happened to Fredrik other than someone tried to kill him. It was pretty straight forward as an idea, and didn't really make that much of difference. She just felt like it would help her better understand why he wanted answers.
"Since that was the reason why Fredrik was sent to Oak-tree, I wonder why he was told that it was a training mission. He mentioned that he could get some answers from his dad, which is probably a part of why he wanted to go back to Trojeim."
As Madeline kept thinking about the odd circumstance this put everything in, she didn't notice that Morgan stopped walking. The jolt of running into her back snapped her attention back to what was happening.
"Sorry about that, Morgan!"
She turned around to face Madeline with tears brimming the edges of her eyes, "It was mentioned back at the monastery, but would you say that again?"
"I think it's part of the reason why I think Fredrik wants to go back to Trojeim. He wants to clear up some of his memories with answers from his dad," she placed a wary hand on Morgan's shoulder, "Are you okay? Is something wrong?"
She brushed a hand by both eyes, but the tears ran freely down her cheeks, "I just wanted to make sure that was what he said. There's no way for him to ask our father about what happened, though."
Morgan bit her lip as her breath hitched. She couldn't hold back the sob that was burning a hole in her chest to which Madeline pulled her into a tight hug. Something clearly wasn't right, and added to the oddness of this whole ordeal.
"I didn't think Fredrik's memories would be this affected by Alberon's powers! I never expected him to forget about this considering what we went through."
Her sobs echoed through the trees as Madeline guided her to the ground where they could sit.
"Morgan, it's okay! I'm right here, just take deep breaths."
Madeline felt her relax a little as her breathing returned to normal, but Morgan's hold tightened on her blouse.
"I can't believe he'll have to go through this a second time."
"Go through what?"
Morgan coughed a little, and sniffed, "Fredrik can't ask our dad about anything that has happened to him because both him and our mom died nine years ago."
Since the beginning of the tournament's qualifying round, and strength test, the main tournament flew by. Markus was knocked out in the first round with Eion making it to the quarter finals with Captain Reno where they were fortunate enough to avoid confrontation with either Fredrik or Chi-tai.
Captain Reno couldn't believe what he was watching when it came to those two in all of the rounds leading up to this point. Despite being young, and up against people with weapons, they held their own and bested even the largest of foe. What really boggled his mind was how many hits they seemed to shrug off as if they were nothing. It looked like the swords would just glance off of their arms as they were batted away.
It was clear that he somehow hit the jackpot in recruiting temporary members, but the real question was what would happen come the final round. Another point that was made clear was that these two would go head to head unless something happened in the next five minutes. Rather than being confused over what would happen, his main concern was for which one he'd bet on.
"Who are you thinking of backing, Captain?" Eion asked.
He had a small pouch of coins in hand as he tapped a thoughtful finger to his chin, "That is an excellent question. It may be in our best interest to split up and bet on both of them, and share the winnings we get. However, that limits us to at least fifty percent of what we could get if we go half and half."
"I'm putting my coin on Rowan," Peace stated, "He may be a tad younger than Chi-tai, but I think he has the upper hand in the skills I've seen."
"I'm thinking the same," Markus commented.
"That's leaves us to either choose differently or follow through with the fifty-fifty plan."
The tournament overseers were busy cleaning up the fighting ring, and preparing for the final round. I was a hard toss up, but there would only be a few minutes left to make a decision.
"I'll place my wagers on Chi-tai, and cover our bases. Are you thinking of doing the fifty-fifty coverage, Eion?"
"I think I will just to play it safe. It doesn't hurt anything, since we'd all be sharing it the wealth."
Serena and Ashe sat off the side listening to the Sea Lotus' crew discuss the wagers. Serena always thought of gambling as a foolish man's promise, but seeing how thoughtful they were in this type of bet it made her understand the tact some gamblers may have had.
"Who do you think will win, Serena?"
She turned to face her sister, "What?"
"Who do you think will win?" she asked again.
"Oh, I'm not sure, if I'm being honest. I don't know much about either of them, and I don't know how strong they really are."
Ashe swung her legs as she watched Fredrik and Chi-tai getting ready to enter the ring once more. It was a hard decision to make, but she thought Fredrik had more training and experience in this field. She pulled out a small pouch that she kept her personal money in. It was just a few pieces of copper and a silver piece, but it'd get her a decent meal if she needed one.
"I'll be right back, Serena! Hopefully they don't start the fight while I'm gone."
She jumped down from the barrel she was using as a chair, and disappeared into crowd. Serena wasn't sure what her sister had in mind with running off. It must have been something important if she needed to do it prior to watching the final round.
"Attention all of ye lookin' to place a wager! We'll be closin' the system down in a few ticks, so get yer bets in now! The final round is about tah begin!"
The Sea Lotus' crew jumped up from where they were and disappeared into the crowd, as well. They must have lost track of time and forgot to place their bets. Maybe she should have placed a bit of her own money to see if she'd win anything.
"Are you ready, Chi-tai?"
He only gave Fredrik a short nod in reply to his question. Something felt different about Chi-tai but Fredrik wasn't sure what it was that made him feel this way. Perhaps it was just the tension making him jumpy or that he wanted to stay in the mindset of sparring.
"Since it's us two against each other, throw everything you've got at me. I want to see the fruits of your training."
Chi-tai gave him another nod. It didn't seem like he was going to get a verbal answer until after the tournament ended. The overseers gave them both approving nods as they opened up the gates to the fighting ring. Fredrik and Chi-tai walked up the wooden steps to where the crowd erupted in loud cheers.
They both took their respective sides and prepared their minds for the bout. It was still hard for Fredrik to cancel out everyone, but the anxiousness in his stomach outweighed his nervousness.
He let out a deep breath and met Chi-tai's gaze. His breath hitched at the intensity in his eyes as they bore into his own.
"I'm sorry that I kept this hidden up until now, Fredrik, but it is time for you to learn about what happened to my family during the Northern Plains Civil War. I only hope that for my piece of mind that this doesn't end up hurting you too much."
An overseer raised the mediation flag, "Begin!"