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The Adventures of Solaire, Part VII: An Affair of Apples

The Incredible Yet Accurate Adventures of the Dread Pirate Captain Solaire Ravenheart,

Otherwise known as

The Adventures of Solaire


Part VII

An Affair of Apples


If you ever had a moment where you did something wrong and felt stupid, or insisted on a fact only to be proven absolutely, positively incorrect, you only need to look to the small isle of Broi Shaine to feel better about yourself. Over the course of their existence within the lands of the Zygian Federation, the island has done such embarrassing things as insist that a rooster and a chicken are completely different species of animals, set fire to their crop fields in the belief that their own scarecrows were the scouts of an incoming army, and have fought no less than five separate civil wars over the pronunciation of their own name. Normally at this point, I would pause to give the target of my mockery a compliment and follow it up with a witty metaphor, thereby making my teasing appear to have been made in good-spirited jest and saving myself from insulting a potential reader, but as the literate population of Broi Shaine must be smaller than the number of breadcrumbs left behind by a hungry dog, I feel safe not doing so.


However, the island did manage to produce the strange gem that was the scientist-philosopher Daske Tamm, and while he was the cause of several moments of embarrassment (he was very insistent on the whole “rooster-chicken” thing), he was also the source of one of my favorite fables ever.


One day, the story goes, Daske was walking down the streets of his village when his neighbor, Dul Winslow, came out and asked for his help. A large rock was situated in the middle of the field he was planning to plow. Daske came around and looked at the boulder, told his neighbor that he’d be back, and, after twenty minutes, reappeared carrying large armfuls of small white crystals, foul smelling yellow rocks, and charcoal. He then proceeded to careful grind, measure, and combine the ingredients together before pouring the mixture all around one side of the rock.


Then he lit it with a torch.


A loud BOOM sounded and the area exploded in a shower of dirt, blasting away a good portion of the field as the rock lifted into the air and smashed into Dul’s dividing fence. In fact, the force of the blast was so great Daske himself was thrown through the door of Dul’s house. But when the air had cleared, sure enough, the rock had rolled off of the field.


“What in the blazes was that about?” Dul asked in a fury. “If I had asked Smitty, he’d have just helped me roll the thing away!”


“Ah, but you didn’t ask Smitty,” Daske said, face black with soot and sitting in the broken pile of Dul’s former furniture, “you asked me.”


Perhaps if Weiss had heard the story of Daske’s solution, he would have thought twice before asking for Solaire’s help with such matters as the affair of apples. I, for one, am glad he did not. If he did, I would be forced to write about far less entertaining things.


***


“Gentlemen and ladies,” Wiess’ voice boomed from the series of interconnected tubes that amplified his words and allowed him to speak to the entire ship at once, “I do once again apologize for ze delay. Resht assured zat ve vill set sail once all ze damages from ze boiler explosion hafe been repaired. In ze meantime, please enjoy our games wis ze complimentary chips we hafe handed out as reparation for ze delay.”


Solaire looked up from the crew’s quarters that was currently serving as his new home: a small hallway lined on each side with cots from floor to ceiling. He shook his head from his bottom bunk and went back to cleaning his guns. “Boiler explosion. A whole day of fighting constructs and a glorious escape, and he explains it away as a boiler explosion.”


“Weiss is right to be cautious,” Tomo interjected, laying in the bunk across from Solaire, armor removed. “Dinas is an evil kingdom. Its citizens are without honor. Anyone hearing of his efforts would assuredly try to steal his prize if only because it is valuable to him.”


“Yeah?” Solaire asked. “Well if you’re so anti-Dinas, where the hell are you from?”


“The Kellian Empire,” Tomo answered matter-of-factly.


Skyler popped his head out from the bunk above. “The same one we’re at war with?”


Tomo nodded.


Skyler’s eyebrows furrowed. “How the blazes did you end up here then?”


Tomo’s face went just the slightest shade of red. “Like many of Weiss’ crew, I found myself owing him more money than I could hope to repay. He offered to forgive the debt in exchange for years of service.”


“A Kellian samurai, owing money to Weiss.” Skyler turned his head to yell up. “Hey Willaby, you hearing this?”


A loud snore issued from the bunk above.


“Lazy bastard,” Solaire muttered. “He’s slept for almost twelve hours at this point.”


Tomo looked over to Solaire. “Do not judge him for that. A magic user must expend both their spirit and soul, their life force and personality, to cast magics like that. For Willaby to perform the feats he did inside of the Clockwork Temple must have drained him immensely, especially as an untrained practitioner.”


Skyler’s head turned around again, visibly worried. “Life force? He’ll get that back, right?”


“Yes, the same way you or I would. Eating, relaxing…” another loud snore, followed by the sound of shifting and contented sighing, interrupted Tomo’s explanation. “...and sleeping, of course.”


Solaire finished polishing the barrel of his gun and held it up to the light. “Well, magic or no, if he doesn’t stop snoring soon, I’m liable to start contemplating…”


“MURDER!”


“Yes, exactly.” He took out another gun to begin cleaning, then stopped and snapped his head up. “Wait, what?”


One of the white-garbed crew members ran down the hallways, boots clanking on the metal floor and yelling all the way. “Murder! Crew member! Jenkins, dead! A murder! A murderer!”


“You see?” Tomo said. “An evil kingdom.”


“About time something finally happened on this ship,” Solaire grumbled, getting to his feet and heading in the direction the crewman ran from. “Skyler, wake the sorcerer up! Something entertaining happened!”


Skyler hoisted himself up a bunk, grabbed Willaby’s arm, and shook him. “Hey! Wake up!”


Willaby mumbled something and rolled over.


“Someone’s been killed!”


He turned back towards the sound of Skyler’s voice, eyes open and hopeful. “Was it Solaire?”


“No.”


He flopped back into his pillow. “Figures.”


“C’mon, we’re probably going to have to clear our names or something.”


“Alright, alright.” Willaby hoisted himself out of bed and onto the thin ladder, climbing down and joining Solaire and the small crowd forming at the end of the hall.


There, on the ground, face down in a pool of his own vomit, was a glassy-eyed crewman, face twisted in an expression of shock and disgust. Standing over him was the massive form of Austin, growling at the approaching people. “Stay back! No one gets close to the body until Weiss gets to look at it.”


“Lemme just go through his pockets!” someone shouted. “He still owes me fifty gold from cards!”


Austin pointed a massive finger at the voice. “Touch him and that’ll be the last thing you do with that hand.”


“Excuse me. Out of ze vay. Mofe!” The short red clothed form of Weiss pushed his way through the crowd, accompanied by Winthrop on one side and one of the large clockwork guards that normally stayed on top deck on the other. “Ashtin! Vhat in ze blue blazes happened here?”


“Not sure sir,” the large man replied. “Tellany ran down this hall screaming like the ghost of Damned Jeb. I came back to see what he was screaming about and found… this.”


“The crewmen report that he was yelling about murder, sir” Winthrop added.


“He’s right to.” Weiss lifted the man’s face out of the vomit pool with the end of his cane. “Poison. A nashty one at zat.” He let the face flop back over and turned to the crowd. “Right! Who do I need to punish for zis?”


All eyes in the room turned to Solaire.


“You’ve got to be kidding me” Solaire said.


“You threatened to kill everyone in the canteen!” an unseen voice shouted out.


“Yes, with bullets! If I wanted him dead, I would have just shot him.” He turned to Weiss. “Poison is just too much work.”


“And vhat assurance do I hafe zat you did not do zis?” Weiss demanded.


Solaire threw his arms apart. “Do I look like the kind of guy who would use poison?”


“You would if you did not want to be caught,” Tomo said, appearing next to Solaire.


Solaire gave an annoyed shake of his head. “You think I care about that, Weiss?”


“You have good reason to care, given that Weiss has direct control on whether you live or die,” Tomo continued.


Solaire spun over to Tomo, teeth gritted. “Really?”


Tomo shrugged. “I am beholden to Wiess, not to you.”


Weiss cleared his throat. “Regardless, in all ze years I hafe run zis schip, I hafe not had an incident like zis until you came aboard. So,” he said, stepping closer until he was only inches away from Solaire’s face, “unlike eferyone else here, I consider you guilty until profen innocent. Which means zat if we can’t find proof of anyone else doink it…”


“I get it, I get it,” Solaire grumbled.


“Vonderful.” Weiss began walking back towards the entrance he came in from. “Danta! Clean zis mess up. Ashtin! Get the crew back in order; jusht because somebody’s dead doesn’t mean I expect work to shtop! Vinthrop, interrogate the crew. I’ll be on ze top deck, superfisink repairs.”


At the mention of Winthrop, Solaire’s head shot up. He broke into a sprint. “Weiss! Weiss!”


Weiss sighed. “Vhat is it, Solaire?”


“Seeing as how you oh so graciously made me care about this, I figured I’d offer to help Winthrop with the questioning.”


Weiss raised an eyebrow. “And vhy vould he need help?”


“Because,” Solaire lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “look at him. He’s got all the menace of a paper kite. No one’s going to feel threatened enough by him to feel like they have to tell the truth. But with me…” Solaire cocked the hammer of the Ivory River.


Weiss looked unimpressed. “He’s handled such matters before.”


“Yes, but this is no drunken shore leave incident or illegal gambling game. This is a murder. You said it yourself, nothing like this has happened before, and it’s going to take something more than the threat of docked pay by Mr. Dried-Out-Jellyfish over there to get people to sing.”


Weiss’ face scrunched up in thought for a moment. “Alright. Fine. Jusht remember that you’re clock is tickink, Solaire.”


Solaire gave a tight-lipped smile and ran over to talk to Winthrop.


Skyler, meanwhile, continued staring at the body.


“Crazy, isn’t it?” Willaby said. “I wonder if we’ll ever find out who…”


“I think I know,” Skyler interrupted.


Willaby stared at him in shock.


Skyler lowered his voice to a whisper. “One week ago, right before Solaire got here, I saw Floyd talking to Elmer. He was asking Elmer for access to ‘the good stuff’. Said he had a problem he couldn’t solve otherwise.”


“And what does that have to do with murdering Jenkins?” Willaby asked.


“Floyd asked Jenkin’s sister to marry him two years ago. She turned him down, and a month ago, I saw Jenkins and Floyd getting into it pretty bad. Jenkins said something about ‘leaving her alone’ and ‘letting her live her life’, so…”


“...you think Floyd was obsessed with Jenkin’s sister and stalking her, and he killed Jenkins in order to keep him out of the way.” Willaby finished.


Skyler nodded. “If that’s the case, there’s no way Winthrop is going to uncover this on his own. I don’t expect it, but I could certainly use your help with this.”


“Well, these men certainly aren’t the nicest of people,” Willaby admitted, “but as a baker, I personally believe that no one deserves to live in fear of their own food. Count me in.”


Skyler clasped a hand onto Willaby’s back. “Great. First thing’s first, though. We need to talk to Elmer.”


***


“So Mr. Elmer,” Winthrop began, seated across the table from another crew member, “would you mind telling me what you were doing this morning?”


Solaire took a second to glance around the room they were situated in as he stood in the corner. It was a small place, barely large enough to house the three of them and the table, and large pipes intruded into the room at odd angles. He managed to catch his reflection in the mirror and, with the tiniest bit of shock, he realized that this was the same room where he had met Weiss after his little gambling experiment.


The disheveled and ruddy man grunted. “I was sleeping.”


Winthrop raised an eyebrow. “Sleeping?”


“Yeah, sleeping. It was ten in the morning on my day off.”


“So what were you doing last night?”


“Sleeping.”


Winthrop sighed. “What was the last thing you were doing before you fell asleep?”


Elmer thought for a moment. “I was helping Adeski trash the rubble on the top deck.”


“For how long?”


“Um… ‘til third shift bell, I think.”


Winthrop began to write something down into the journal, and Solaire leaned over. This was the actual reason he had volunteered: to learn how Weiss’ right hand man recorded and stored information. From the way he continuously referenced it, it seemed like the little human vulture had everything stored in that little notebook of his, and if that was the case, it might have the next lead to a certain sold-off slave girl. So, with an intense interest, the likes of which he hadn’t felt since first boarding the Emperor a while ago, Solaire read the letters written down:


“Des (H IV)- sleep, sleep, clearing -b.3 (?)-; in. 195r- see 10-52.”


Solaire’s mind gave an internal scream of frustration. Winthrop was writing all this down in an extreme form of shorthand. He supposed it made sense; Weiss didn’t seem to read Winthrop’s notes, so all Winthrop needed to do was write them down in a way that made sense to him. But that complicated Soliare’s life by several degrees.


Winthrop put his pen down and looked up. “Thank you Mr. Elmer. You are free to leave.”


Solaire saw the man’s shoulders suddenly lower, as if relieved of an invisible weight.


“Hold up.”


Both men turned to look at him as Solaire eyed the crew mate. “There’s something you’re not telling us. What is it?”


Elmer’s eyes shifted away from Solaire then back. “I… I don’t know what you’re talking about.”


Solaire rolled his eyes and pulled out the massive Ivory River and aimed it at the man.


Elmer’s eyes went wide, then returned to normal as his mouth twisted into a smirk. “You wouldn’t. Not with Winthrop here.”


“Want to test that theory?” Solaire asked as he cocked the hammer back.


Elmer held still for a moment, then he broke down. “Fine! Alright! I took a second lime! I know I wasn’t supposed to and we’re running out now that we’re stuck anchored here, but the cook handed me another one by accident and I didn’t want to say anything and it was just so juicy…”


Solaire and Winthrop looked at each other with a sense of being underwhelmed before Winthrop turned back to the sobbing man. “Three gold. Then you’re free to go.”


Elmer’s head hung low as he handed the coins over and exited the room.


Solaire uncocked the gun before returning it to his shoulder holster. “Thanks for not being an idiot and telling me I’m not allowed to shoot him.”


“I’m not a stupid man, Solaire,” Winthrop said dryly, “and I felt that it was safe to assume that you are not, either.”


Solaire nodded, and as he did, he caught the writing in the notebook again. Well, he thought, there has to be a system to it. Given enough time…


“How many more men do we have to interview?” Solaire asked.


Winthrop flipped to a different page. “3,429.”


Solaire groaned. Time, it seemed, would be the least of his worries.


***


Five short minutes later, Skyler and Willay were following Elmer through the halls, stopping every so often to duck behind corners as the man paused and turned around. They had continued this dance for nearly three levels and now that the man was nearing the bottom cargo hold, they rushed over to hide behind two large crates and watch what was about to transpire.


Elmer, once more scanning the area to make sure that no one was watching, knocked loudly on a humongous crate, easily four times larger than its nearby counterparts. Once he did, a door shaped panel slid away and light poured from out of it. A different crewman, one neither recognized, stuck his head out, nodded, and motioned Elmer inside before sliding the panel shut once more.


“What is that?” Willaby whispered.


“It must be a place they have to sell contraband,” Skyler said, “but why nobody’s ever told me about it…”


The floorboards creaked and the loud noise of someone clearing their throat sounded out behind the two men. Turning around, they saw the massive form of Austin.


“Oh, um, er… hi, Austin,” Willaby managed to squeak out weakly.


“You boys out here enjoying a little snack?” the shark-tooth man accused.


Skyler turned back around to the crates. Large letters reading “APPLES” were stenciled into the sides.


“What, has someone been stealing food?” Skyler questioned.


Austin crossed his arms and didn’t say anything,


Skyler gave the man a grin. “Well, don’t worry. It’s not us.”


“Oh?” Austin replied. “Then what were you doing here?”


“Well, we were just…” Willaby began.


“Leaving. We were just leaving.” Skyler interrupted, taking the stout man’s arm and dragging him along as Austin watched them go.


“Hey! Let go of me!” Willaby protested, wrestling out of his grip. “Why did you do that?”


Skyler lowered his voice to a whisper. “We need to be careful. If Austin’s been sitting here, then he saw Elmer go in there. He knows what that is. Which means…”


“He’s in on it, too.” Willaby’s face went pale. “So what do we do?”


“We get in there, we convince them to tell us who’s been buying poison and we confront that person,” Skyler explained. “But we have to be careful. We don’t know who’s just been buying extra food and who’s a killer in there. From now on, the only people we can trust to help us are you, me, and Solaire.”


Willaby scoffed. “Please. I’m sure he’s drunk or gambling right now, the little never-stressed bastard.”


***


Solaire had never been more stressed out at any point in his life than at this moment, right now.


Even on his best days, he had never been one for just sitting around and waiting. It was partly why his career as aristocracy was so fraught with anarchy and brawls: Solaire got bored easily. So sitting here, listening to crew member after crew member recall their actions as Winthrop’s questions droned on and on, was quite easily the worst thing he’d ever have to endure. In fact, part of him was wondering if he didn’t just die in the Clockwork Temple without realizing it and this was actually hell.


A small voice reminded him that the whole point of this was to observe how Winthrop recorded information, so he dragged his mind out of the fog it was in and willed himself to tune back into the conversation at hand.


“...and at that point, I was getting pretty tired, so I said ‘goodnight’ and left.”


“And what time was that, Mr. Geskin?” Winthrop asked.


The tan. dark-haired man behind the table squinted his eyes upwards in concentration. “Well, there was no clock around, so I don’t know for sure. But if I had to guess, I’d say one, maybe two in the morning.”


“Alright.” Winthrop scribbled some notes down, then turned to Solaire. “Well, if Mr. Ravenheart has nothing to ask…”


Solaire looked up. “Hm? No, he’s good.”


“Right then. You’re free to leave, Mr. Geskin. As are you, Mr. Ravenheart. He was our last one.”


“Wonderful.” Solaire stood up and stretched. As he did, Winthrop left the room and Geskin walked up to him.


Solaire stared at the man. “What?”


He gave an awkward shrug. “Well, I just wanted to let you know that I think it’s pretty shitty how Weiss and some of the others are treating you.”


“Well, I don’t keep a list of that stuff. If I did, I’d be forced to spend most of my money on paper and ink.”


Geskin laughed, and the sound was punctuated by the rumble of Solaire’s stomach. “Oh man, have you not eaten yet?”


“Been interrogating all day,” Solaire admitted.


“Well here,” Geskin said, fishing a red and yellow apple out of his pocket. “I was saving it for myself, but I think you might need it more than I do.”


Solaire looked at the apple, then at the man. “Well, thanks.” He nodded at the man.


Geskin smiled and stepped into the hallway. “No problem. See you around Solaire.”


Solaire turned and began walking in the opposite direction, towards the top deck. After that torture session, he needed some sweet, salt-filled air.


And a chance to think. Winthrop’s notebook had been less than enlightening. The man seemed to switch over to a different form of shorthand each time he wrote something down, and everytime Solaire began to feel like he was beginning to get a grip on the code, Winthrop would write something down that threw everything he thought he understood out the window. Was he some kind of eccentric genius? Or maybe illiterate, and was just pretending to know what those letters meant?


Or perhaps he did it on purpose. After all, Tomo did say that if people knew what Weiss was after, they’d try to steal it for themselves. Presumably he came to that conclusion from personal experience while working for Weiss. If that was the case, then Winthrop’s method would ensure that all the information inside would stay safe if his notebook was ever liberated from his person.


Which was annoying, because that’s exactly what Solaire had planned to do.


There was one piece of information he’d gleaned, though: Winthrop had another record system somewhere. Everytime the conversation would turn to refer to something else, Winthrop would jot the note “see x”. If it was about the crew schedule, it was “see 8-22.” If it was about repairs, it was “see 15-5.” And if it was about Solaire smashing a gigantic metal gear ball into the ship and extensively damaging the top deck in the process, it was “see 10-52.”


The numbers had to be a reference to a larger codex of information, one with more detailed notes. If only he could find it, look through it, then maybe he could find the name of the person Weiss sold River to…


A cold breeze returned Solaire to his surroundings. He had made it to the top of the deck. It seemed mostly repaired, and the few crew men working about were cleaning up scraps of working supplies and starting to repaint and sand, attempting to make the new pieces look as natural as possible. Solaire watched them move to and fro, took out his apple, opened his mouth to take a bite…


...and stopped.


He pulled the fruit away and looked at it. It was fresh and pristine, giving off a dull but appetizing glow in the moonlight.


That… didn’t seem right. They’d been parked off shore for several days and their food supplies had started to run low. Solaire knew this because the white slop they’d been eating had started to taste stale, (how someone makes soup taste stale, I honestly have no idea, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Emperor, it’s that culinary miracles never cease there). More importantly, the sailor’s daily limes were being rationed. That truly signaled desperation, because removing citrus from a crew member’s daily meal meant that the captain was flirting with scurvy. And scurvy was a terrifying prospect for any man at sea, on par with shipwrecks and sea monsters.


Someone giving away a fresh piece of food like this, especially such a rare luxury for a sailor as an apple, seemed too good to be true. The kind of too good that makes a man ingest poison without thinking about it.


Solaire tossed and caught the apple a few times, testing its weight. Any secrets the fruit might have held refused to be divined with this method.


Of course, he could just be paranoid. Perhaps Geskin was a really nice guy and actually did feel bad about Solaire’s plight. And on a casino ship with hundreds of passengers, there were a million and one perfectly innocent ways for an apple this pristine to end up in a crewman’s hands.


Well, there was an easy way to find out…


“Hey!” Solaire called out to two nearby men standing guard near one of the exposed smokestacks, “you guys hungry?”


The two turned to each other, then back to Solaire. “Why?”


“Somebody gave me this. Wondered if you wanted it.” He tossed the apple over to one of the guards, who caught it and inspected it.


“Seriously?” he asked in disbelief. “What, don’t you want it?”


Solaire shook his head. “Think I got a bad portion of slop. Stomach’s been upset all day.”


“But still…”


Solaire held up a hand. “Please. I’m sure you guys have been working all day.”


The second one, who had been silent up to this point, looked over at his companion. “Well, we have been working all day…”


“Haven’t had time for lunch, much less dinner.” The first one took out a knife and started cutting pieces off. “Well thanks mate! That’s really nice of you.”


“Yeah, real nice.” The second one chimed in. “Guess we misjudged you, Solaire. You’re not such a bad guy after all.”


Solaire smiled and headed back towards the staircase. “Well, enjoy. I’m sure you earned it.”


“Such a nice bloke,” was the last thing he heard as he made his way back to the crew quarters.


***


“Explain to me what we’re doing again,” Willaby asked.


Skyler leaned against the wall of the second deck. It was here that most of the gambling games had been moved after the top deck had been closed, and the massive room was packed with guests, wait staff, slot machines, and card games. The noise here was positively thunderous and the two men were forced to yell at each other.


“Well,” Skyler began, “I talked to Gaston, and Gaston talked to Chillathy, and Chillathy talked to Smessen, and Smessen said that if we want a private meeting in that mysterious crate, we should talk to Kallows. Now Kallows is a regular in the weekly secret poker games the crew have, and they bet with Weiss’ chips, so...” Skyler nodded, as if all had been explained.


Willaby blinked. “Er…”


Skyler rolled his eyes. “We’re stealing chips.”


“Oh! Right.” Willaby took a moment to look around the room. “So… who’s going to steal them?”


Skyler cracked his knuckles. “Well, I can do it. Unless you’ve got some kind of spell you want to try…”


“I have gotten better at magic.” Willaby took out his rod, twirled it a bit, and began to hum. As he did, a green glow began to form in front of him, slowly taking the shape of a hand.


Willaby gasped. “Is that…?” He moved his fingers into a fist, then a ‘v’, then a thumbs up. As he did, the hand mimicked his movements. “It is! A mage hand! I read about these in the ‘Adventures of Archmage Duko’ books! Never thought I could…”


The hand suddenly stopped and gave Willaby the middle finger.


He frowned. “I didn’t tell it to do that.”


The hand zipped off towards an elegantly dressed woman, grabbed her hat off, and began to scrunch it hard enough to shred pieces off.


“Hey!” the woman exclaimed. The room grew quieter as she and a good number of the people around her looked at the hand, then to Willaby, rod still outstretched. “What the hell are you doing?”


“Um…” Willaby flustered. His eyes moved back over to the hand and, as if he had just noticed the object in the room for the first time, he let out a gasp of surprise and pointed at it. “There it is! Grab it!”


One of the men lurched up with a slightly tipsy sway and attempted to tackle it. Instead, he fell face-first into the poker table at as the hand flew away.


“What on earth…” a different lady muttered in astonishment.


“It’s a magical experiment gone amuck!” Willaby yelled as he began to chase after it. “It’s out of control! Help me contain it before it causes more damage!”


With such a crisis on their hands, the aristocracy rose to the occasion and showcased the unique traits that their upbringing had instilled into them. Several of the men rose with the sense of purpose one can only obtain through that unique combination of pride, testosterone, and alcohol and began to run after it as well, flinging themselves at the hand. Each attempt only caused more chaos as they missed and crashed into craps tables, roulette wheels, and slot machines, the hand darting just out of reach every single time. The women, unsure of what else to do, engaged in acts of general hysteria, some screaming, some running, and some over-achievers even managing to faint.


The whole room was in complete panic.


“Nice job Willaby,” Skyler chuckled as he began to collect the chips scattered on the floor. “Guess you’ve got some tricks hidden up your sleeve after all.”


***


If you were worried about the possibility that such a ruckus would disturb Solaire’s sleep, dear reader, then I assure you that your fears are unfounded. Solaire slept like a babe through the night, and continued to do so until Austin awoke him by jabbing a gigantic finger into his chest.


Solaire groaned and opened his eyes to see the shark-tooth man grinning down at him. “Morning sunshine” Austin rumbled.


He doesn’t have a slave plate, a dim part of Solaire’s mind noticed.


This train of thought was soon interrupted by Austin grabbing Solaire’s head and shoulders in one massive hand and effortlessly dragging him out of bed, up the stairs, and onto the top deck as the noble struggled uselessly to escape the grapple. Austin only let go once they had traveled into a crowd of crew members, where he flung him at the feet of Weiss.


“Hello Solaire,” the man said sweetly. “Vould you mind explainink vhat zis is?”


Solaire looked up to see the dead forms of the two men he had been talking to last night, apple pieces scattered around the bodies and foam coming from their mouths.


“Looks like two dead guys,” Solaire said.


“Mmm, yes. And ze crew hafe told me zat you gafe zem ze apple zat poisoned zem. Is zis true?”


“I did, but only because somebody else gave me that apple and I was worried it was poisoned.” He glanced over to the bodies once more. “Guess I called that one right.”


“How fery confenient for you,” Wiess noted.


Solaire stood to his feet. “Look, I know what this looks like, but I can assure you it’s not me. I know who it is now. It’s Geskin.” He turned to Winthrop. “You remember when Geskin handed me that apple, right?”


Winthrop shook his head.


“Damn it, you weren’t in the room with me, were you?”


Winthrop nodded.


Solaire turned back to Weiss. “Egg on my face. But I knbbGAH!” The sudden sound of buzzing electricity and the smell of ozone filled the air as Solaire felt over and began to writhe in pain for half a minute.


Weiss leaned over to whisper into his ear. “You hafe twenty-four hours to clear your name. If not, zen ze next schock is lethal. Undershtood?”


Solaire spat. “Understood.”


Weiss rose and turned to face the crowd. “Vhat are you lookink at? Back to vork before I shtart handink out whippinks, you lazy bashtards!”


The crowd murmured and broke off into groups. Solaire gritted his teeth as he watched them leave.


“Alright Geskin, where the hell are you?”


***


Willaby and Skyler, meanwhile, were far into the underbelly of the ship, traveling past pipes and through narrow passageways, twisting and turning until the men arrived in a small, dimly lit alcove formed in a gap in the machinery where a group of five men were huddled around a small table, tossing cards, chips, and insults alike into the center as they played cards.


“Evening gentlemen,” Skyler said. “Mind if I join you?”


One of the men at the table, and old and gnarled sailor, narrowed his eyes at Skyler. “And why the hell would you think we would want you, you two time, back-stabbing excuse of a sailor?”


“Probably to get some more charming company than you, you salt-crusted, scurvy-ridden mistake of nature,” Skyler replied in an even tone.


Willaby held his breath as the two men stared at each other through the tense silence.


Suddenly, all five men at the table began to laugh hysterically, receiver of the insults included. Skyler laughed as well, and Willaby managed some nervous chuckles.


“Skyler, you bastard, get over here!” the old man said as the dealer began to shuffle and re-deal cards, adding in an extra hand.


Skyler shouted some miscellaneous greetings around the table, picking up the cards and throwing in chips. “What is this, seven card draw?”


“It’s Bride’s Gamble,” another responded. “Think your game enough for those stakes?”


Skyler laughed. “Willis, I could bleed you dry with go fish!” Another chorus of laughs resounded as the men settled in for a couple hands, Willaby dejectedly leaning on a pipe.


After four or so hands of chips being shuffled around, Skyler turned to the man at his left. “So Kallows, I heard you’ve got a side hustle.”


The man looked a Skyler, taken aback for a second.


“He’s no snitch,” the old sailor said. “This is the man that got caught trying to help that thief escape. What was his name? Solitaire?”


“Solaire,” Skyler corrected. “And I would have done it if the bastard hadn’t gone and left me with a whole brigade of constructs.”


The old sailor shook his head. “You’re too damn trusting, Skyler. And you’ve got more ambition than brain cells.”


“And you smell like fish,” Skyler shot back. He returned to Kallows. “Anyway, these rumors true?”


Kallow shrugged and threw a few more chips in. “Depends. What rumors did you hear?”


“That you’ve got access to a special product. One that helps people with certain problems. Clears away certain obstacles and lets you live your life with a bit less… frustration.”


The men around the table looked at each other. “Really?” Willis asked. “I always thought you were a little too goody-two-shoes for that kind of stuff, Skyler.”


Skyler shrugged. “There’s only so much a man can take, right?” The table around him rumbled with a chorus of agreements and nods.


Kallows grinned. “Sounds like you’ve been hearing the right rumors.”


“So what would it take to take a look at this product?” Skyler asked.


Kallows shrugged. “Depends. Whose it for?”


“Me, and him,” Skuler said, pointing at Willaby. “Looking into taking care of the same problem at once.”


“The same problem?” Kallows asked, doubt in his voice.


Skyler nodded.


“Really?” Kallows leaned over to look at Willaby. “He’s got a problem?”


“Look at him, of course he’s got a problem.”


“Suppose you’re right.” He leaned back in. “I don’t know Skyler, this ain’t how we normally do things…”


Skyler hoisted up a small bag, letting the heavy chips inside jingle.


Willis looked at the bag in shock. “Are those all…”


“Top deck chips,” Skyler confirmed. “Worth twenty gold a piece. This is a rather urgent problem, so I’m willing to be a bit more… generous.”


Kallows swallowed a bit. “Alright, fine. I should be able to talk our… supplier into accepting those terms. For a mark-up in price, of course.”


“Of course.” Skyler put the bag on the ground. “So where does this go down?”


“There’s a giant crate in the bottom cargo deck. Massive, you can’t miss it. Knock on it exactly twice. A panel will slide out, allowing you to go inside.”


Skyler looked at Willaby. “So that’s where these transactions go down?”


Kallows laughed. “Can’t exactly do this on the top deck, now can we?”


“I suppose not,” Skyler said. He gave Willaby one last knowing glance before returning to the cards in his hand.


***


“C’mon you stupid sailor,” Solaire muttered. “Where in the blue blazes are you?”


Solaire was storming around the top deck, oblivious to the workmen who gave him a wide berth and accusing stares as he marched past. The ship was massive, yes, but even so, there were only so many places to hide. And Solaire had searched them all. Twice. From the top to the bottom, every nook and cranny had been thoroughly scoured to find the dark-haired man that was burned into Solaire’s memory. But Geskin had been in none of them.


Solaire collapsed onto the ground in defeat, back to a massive smokestack. He threw his head back to look at the pillar reaching into the sky, with a metal ladder set into the side and a large crow’s nest...


Soliare blinked, then scrambled to his feet.


Sure enough, a platform was set into the side of the smokestack. A common feature in any ship, really, designed to be manned by one person on the lookout for approaching pirates, large waves, or any number of undesirables out on the open ocean. How had he not thought of it before?


He gritted his teeth and began to climb.


***


KNOCK KNOCK.


“I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” Willaby began to ramble, fidgeting outside of the massive crate they had been spying on yesterday. “I mean, we’re going into a den of thieves and murderers to accuse a man of…”


A “SHUNK” sounded and a hidden panel on the crate slid out from in front of Willaby and Skyler. A rough looking sailor stood in the entrance way, and he squinted at the two men. “Skyler and Willaby?”


“That’s be us,” Skyler affirmed.


“Kallows told me about your… arrangement,” the man said. “In.”


Willaby sighed as they stepped inside the large box-turned-makeshift-hut. The space they were standing in was empty, save for the wood walls and floor, and it was further divided by a large wall with a door set into it.


The man held out his hand. “What you want is there. But I need payment first. The bag.”


Skyler looked at him in confusion. “But… we’re going to be paying in there, right?”


“Not how this works. You pay me, you get what you need in there, you leave.”


Skyler hesitated.


The man sighed. “Look, you want to do this or not?”


Skyler handed over the bag. The man nodded and opened the door into the space beyond, entirely dark. “Enjoy yourselves.”


Slowly, the two men stepped inside. Once both had entered, the door slammed behind them.


“Skyler? Skyler!” Willaby shouted.


“I’m here, I’m here.” Skyler put his hand out, then stopped. “Is that… a fur couch?”


Willaby stumbled over to the source of the voice. “I… believe it is.”


“Little damp,” Skyler noted.


Willaby sniffed. “This is quite the smell. Lemon, orange, cinnamon? Perfume. And fish.”


“Must be some of the food cargo smell leaking in,” Skyler said. He took a step forward, then stopped. “Another couch. What is this place?”


“Hello boys,” a sweet, high-pitched, and distinctively feminine voice said.


“Er… ma’am?” Willaby asked.


It giggled. “If that’s what you want to call me.”


“What… who….” Willaby stammered.


“Oh come on,” the voice pouted. “Don’t tell me you’re going to back out now. You paid for an evening of enjoyment.”


“I really think we should…” Willaby babbled.


“Come on Willaby,” Sklyer said, “I mean, we did pay for this already.”


“Skyler, Skyler… don’t you think… I mean… the implications…”


“C’mon Willaby,” the femenine voice whined. “Live a little.”


“Yeah, c’mon,” Skyler agreed. “And get your hand off of me. It’s clammy and gross.”


“My hand isn’t on you,” Willaby said.


The room went dead silent.


Willaby muttered some words and a small ball of light appeared, illuminating the area. It was filled with all manner of plush things: couches, beds, fur carpets and more, resembling a den of soft pleasures more than the inside of a crate. Here and there, though, were puddles of water, soaked into the furniture. The largest trail seemed to lead from the back corner, where a large glass container of water sat, over to the couch, towards Skyler…


...and to a mermaid.


It’s now where I should caution my readers to not get their hopes up. The species of homo aquatilium, or Tritons, as they refer to themselves as, are a shy and reclusive group, and their sightings by sailors have been rare. But they have been seen. More importantly, those sightings have been spread through tale and, as the story of Damned Jeb proves, a tiny bit of knowledge will coalesce into a gigantic beast far too fast for the truth to slay it. So for those of you hoping for a description of a beautiful maiden, bereft of clothing to show where her soft skin faded into shimmering scales, you will be disappointed.


The creature standing next to Skyler was bereft of clothing. But that was far more of a curse than a blessing. Her skin was a deep shade of sea green, with fissures of sharp tissue sticking out into rough patches, similar to what you would see on a shark. Her long hair was a dark green bordering on black, tangled together into a wet clump that hung on her like a blanket. Her teeth were stained emerald and the face itself was marred with features better suited for aquatic life: round, fish-like eyes, think whiskers around the face, and deep, gasping girls set into the neck. She reached a soaked hand up, as if to stroke Skyler, and the strong, bony fingers spread apart, showcasing a thin membrane of skin between the digits, slightly translucent and shot through with veins.


Willaby retched.


The mermaid frowned. “What’s wrong?”


Skyler opened and closed his mouth a few times before speaking. “I’m sorry, but I think we’re going to have to leave.” He bolted for the door, slamming into it with enough force to break it off of its hinges, and stumbled into the smaller room, slammed the panel up, and stopped in the cargo hold.


The man standing guard looked at Skyler leave, then watched Willaby make his way out. “What the hell is going on?”


Willaby drew himself up. “You, sir, are disgusting.”


“What the hell is all this?” Austin barked, coming into view.


“And you’re disgusting!” Willaby yelled, pointing his rod at Austin.


Austin took a step back. “What?”


Kallows then appeared in the doorframe, out of breath. “I came as fast as I could. What’s the commotion?”


You… that… you’re gross!”


Skyler reappeared, shoving his way past. “Hang on. Breath, Willaby, breathe. We don’t want you to cast something by accident, right?”


“Right, right.” Willaby began to inhale, then exhale, then stop.


The sound of soft sobbing came from the darkened room.


“Now she’s making me feel bad,” Willaby said. “That’s not fair. You’re the bad guys here.”


Skyler clasped Willaby’s shoulders. “I think… I think we should all have a nap.” He fell over and collapsed on the ground, unconscious. As if on cue, Austin, Kallows, and the other man fell over and began snoring.


Willaby looked at the sleeping crowd stunned before lifting his rod and watching a deep purple gas seep from the end of it.


“Oh,” he said before collapsing as well.


***


Solaire took a moment to just sit there and gasp. He was only a few rungs away from the crow’s nest platform, the place where he could haul himself up and rest. Sweet, sweet rest. The smokestack had to have been 35, 40, maybe 100 feet tall, and the muscles in his arms and legs were screaming in protest from the exertion. If only he could get there...


A tan hand appeared and, as if it had been wished into existence by Solaire’s thoughts, it grabbed Solaire and pulled him the last few feet up, dragging the man onto the landing.


Solaire gasped, looking at the smiling form of Geskin staring down at him. “Thanks.”


“No problem,” Geskin replied. Then he produced a strong garrotte wire and lunged.


Adrenaline kicked in and Solaire rolled over just fast enough to avoid having the wire wrapped around his throat. He continued the roll into a movement that brought him to his feet just in time for Geskin to lunge again. Solaire outstretched his hands and grabbed onto the other man’s arms, forcing the two to engage into an awkward wrestling match, each trying to find a way to immobilize the other’s hands while keeping their own free.


“You just couldn’t eat the apple and die, could you?” Geskin muttered. “You had to complicate things.”


“Sorry, but I don’t die for anything, much less poison,” Solaire responded.


Geskin laughed. “You know, I’m not usually violent man, Solaire…”


“Could have fooled me.”


“...but you forced me to deal with things more directly. I don’t like that.”


“Yes, you’d much rather kill a man like a coward.”


Geskin glared at Solaire. “Jenkins was a cheat. He cost me almost 150 gold at cards. Nobody cheats me and lives.”


Solaire feinted to the left and broke right as Geskin moved left to stop him. He twirled around and attempted to reach inside his sleeve, but was stopped as the other man moved his arm around his head, brining the wire inches away from his throat. Instead, Soliare jolted his hands up to the wire to stop it, pushed out, and dropped, bringing him away from the deadly embrace. Geskin threw himself at the noble, and Solaire was once again forced to grab his hands and continue the awkward dance.


“Why me then?” Solaire asked. “I don’t even know you.”


“You threatened my friend.”


“At the mess hall?”


Geskin nodded.


Solaire managed to shrug as he held the man’s hands out. “Fair enough, I suppose. But you realize that if you kill me, Weiss is going to come looking for you.”


Geskin grinned. “That’s why I’m not going to kill you. I’ll just choke you unconscious, Weiss will fry the killer, and the poisonings will stop.”


Now it was Solaire’s turn to glare. “You’re smart.”


“Thanks.”


“I hate it.” Solaire tried to force the man backwards, but his attempts might as well have never happened.


“And you’re weak,” Geskin retorted. “No amount of guns in your coat holsters will save you now.”


Solaire smiled. “Guess that means you didn’t see the spring loaded boot knife then.” He swung his foot in a wild kick. Geskin gave a panicked gasp, stumbling back from the limb as if it was on fire. Then he stopped.


Solaire’s outstretched boot contained no knife blade.


“Not that smart,” Solaire noted, before activating the spring on the flintlock hidden in his sleeve and firing directly into Geskin’s face.


***


“Ugh, my head,” Skyler moaned, dragging himself onto the top deck. “I need fresh air.”


Willaby stumbled behind, zombie-like, before collapsing on the ground next to a smokestack. “That… was something.”


“Something awful,” Skyler agreed. “I have no idea what the hell you put in that sleep spell, but it feels like every hangover in the world is currently tap-dancing on my skull.”


“I have to concur,” Willaby said, rubbing his temples.


“So we’ve learned nothing,” Skyler complained, sitting down next to Willaby.


“Not necessarily. We’ve learned that the sailors on this ship are disgusting deviants with abominable tastes.”


“Something tells me you haven’t hung out with a lot of sailors,” Skyler said. “In any case, we’re back to square one with this whole poisoner thing.”


Willaby sighed. “We did fail, didn’t we? This murderer, he could be anywhere, doing anything, and nobody knows…”


A loud WHUMP interrupted Willaby’s thoughts as the dead body of Geskin hit the ground right in front of the two men, blood leaking from the bullet wound in his head. His arm fell to the ground and out of the sleeve rolled a small apple and a vial of green liquid.


Skyler and Willaby looked at each other, then looked up.


There, leaning off the side of the crow’s nest, was Solaire, panting. “I found him,” he wheezed. “No need to… thank me, or anything… Holy Sea Foam Mother…” he slipped back onto the platform, collapsing on the crow’s nest floor.


Willaby looked at Skyler. “What time is it?”


Skyler glaned up to the sky. “Looks like it’s about six in the evening.”


“I’m going to bed.”


“Me too,” Skyler said, standing up and leaving the dead body of Geskin on the floor around the gathering crowd of onlookers.

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