The boat surged along with the wave, pouring down the side and landing in a splash at the bottom, only to be sucked up the next wave and repeat the process.
Up. Down. splash! Surge. Side to side, rock, up, down, surge, Splash. And again.
I was below deck trying to eat my dinner of dried beef… or maybe it was pork. As implied, it wasn’t going very well.
I tore off a bit of tough meat and swallowed, my mug of half stale water following immediately behind to help wash it down.
The water went down my shirt.
I slammed the mug on the table and shoved the disgusting meal away from me. I had had it. This luxury cruise was no longer fun.
I stared and picked at the grooves and chips in the table, bored, frustrated… lonely.
I hadn’t talked to much of anybody since we had boarded the ship around a week ago. I didn’t want to. I didn’t know how to, so I avoided everybody, and they avoided me.
I set my elbows on the table and let my head slump into my hands… How did it get like this? I mean, I know how, but how? And why? Why was I even here? This entire endeavor was stupid. What in Imaria had possessed me to think that Macai would forgive me, and not only that, but give me a second- or a sixth- chance?
I slumped further into my hands.
Hope had made me believe in the impossible, and pushed me on in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t impossible after all. But it was.
I had known this was a bad idea from the start. In all honesty I probably wouldn’t even be here if Chase hadn’t knocked me out of that tree. I would’ve turned back, I should've turned back. It would’ve been better for everyone...well, for Macai at least.
I slammed my fist into the table. Why did that idiot have to knock me out of that blasted tree!
The few sailors occupying the general vicinity glanced up at my outburst.
I glared at them, “What?” I demanded.
Most of them turned away.
I exhaled, turning back to the chipped table and my pathetic dinner.
Why was I here?
I stared at my half empty plate and mug. They had offered me food, real food, but I had declined. I said I'd be fine. I lied. It seems all I ever do is lie.
But I've been doing better! A voice in my head called out.
I inwardly scoffed at myself. Better, as if. Sure I wasn't lying as much, but that was only due to the fact that I simply wasn't telling people anything. Instead of lying about it I just didn't mention it, which, I was finding, was just as bad.
I shifted in my chair and allowed my gaze to wander across the table before bringing them back to my plate.
“You alright, mate?”
I glanced up at the middle aged sailor standing over me. I put on a smile. “Of course! Why do you ask?”
The sailor shrugged, “Yah seemed troubled, throwing your food across the table like that.” he chuckled.
I chuckled along with him. “Oh, that, I suppose I did cause quite a ruckus. I’m just a bit frustrated is all, nothing to worry yourself with.” I answered, imitating his speech. I was hoping he would take the nonverbal hint to go away.
“Aye, been there.” he pulled a chair around, laying his coat on it, and sitting on it backwards. He let out a small groan, as he made himself comfortable. “It’s a lass, ain’t it?” he asked.
My eyes flickered to him in surprise.
He nearly exploded with his deep bellied laugh. “Don’t look so surprised, boy! I’ve had my share of run-ins with women!”
I shook my head to recalibrate my thoughts. “Yes, but… how did you know?”
He began nodding his head gravely, as if he knew the deepest secrets of the world, then pointed his finger at me. “There’s a look, see, you can’t miss it.”
I raised my eyebrow, “A look?” I asked.
“Aye, always a look.”
“And I had it?”
“Aye, could’ve spotted it a mile away.”
“Hmmph.” I let my gaze fall to the table.
“Aye, so who’s the lass?” he asked, sipping from a mug that I swear was nowhere in sight a minute ago. Shaking his head, he said: “Silly question, only two ladies aboard, so I ‘spose there's only two options. Is it the blue haired gal with the stick that you were arguin’ with when yah boarded?”
My gaze cut to him, “How do you know about that?”
He let out another eruption of laughter. “It’s a ship, mate, not a continent! Here, everybody knows ev'rything. So it is her then?”
I shook my head, annoyed. “No, it’s not her.”
“Ah, the red-headed lass then? She seems like a spunky one, aye?”
I sighed, nodding my head. “Aye, she's spunky alright. Stubborn as well.”
“All redheads are stubborn, they can't help it.”
“She's part dragon too,”
“Well if that ain't the worst combo of them all! No wonder you're frustrated, she must be near impossible.”
“She is when she's determined to be.” I answered, shifting in my seat to a more comfortable position.
“Aye, gals are already trouble, but add in red hair and a touch of dragon and there's no livin’ with ‘em. I imagine your lass is a blasted nightmare!”
I glanced at him severely, “She’s not that bad,”
“Aye, scared she’s listenin’? Don’t worry, I won’t tell, it’s an old sailors code: what happens in the tavern, stays in the tavern.”
“This isn't a tavern.” I pointed out.
“Ack, same thing. Point is you won’t catch me spillin’ the beans! Now, tell me. The gals a pure terror ain’t she?”
I stared at him, semi perplexed.
“Bet she never lets you get a word in edgewise, it’s her way, or no way! Starts spittin’ fire when she’s angry too, I’d imagine.” he shivered.
I began shaking my head, “It’s not like that, well, sort of, but she doesn’t spit fire-”
“No, she’s not an actual dragon,” I was becoming flustered, and I wasn’t totally sure why. “She just has a bit of dragon blood in her veins, it makes her a bit more tolerate to poisons and- and stuff… why am I telling you this?”
“Dragon blood is dragon blood, strongest stuff out there. How long have yah known her, this… Macai lass?”
I had presumed he was going to start offending Macai again, and had opened my mouth to start up in her defence; the question threw me off. I hesitated, stumbling a bit. “Ahh, na- nine years?”
The sailor laughed, “Yah sure about that?”
I nodded my head. “Yes, nine years.”
“And she’s been trouble all this time?” he asked, taking a swig from his mug.
I started shaking my head again, “No, she’s not trouble, as you put it, she’s just… her-”
“Trouble.” he interrupted.
“No,” I was becoming increasingly frustrated. What was with this guy?
“No need to put a brave face on it,” he grunted, stretching himself out more comfortably. “She’s clearly got you locked in.”
“No. I am not ‘locked in’, I’m here of my own free will. She’s not that bad!”
My mouth moved before I could think, my brain was miles behind at this point.
“As I said, no need to put a brave face on it. Free will, eh? You must be a brave man to stick by her this long, I know I couldn’t do it! Must have red hair in the family line.”
“What do you have against red hair!?” I yelled, so thoroughly confused that I was just about enraged. What on Imaria is this guy blabbing about!
The man continued on as if I hadn’t said anything. “Take some advice, there’s no use hangin’ around a lass that don’t want yah. Even less so if the girl’s a blasted tyrant! It’s best to just leave ‘em, there are always more fish in the sea.”
“She’s not a tyrant!”
“Aye, so you’ve said,”
“And I’m not just going to leave-”
“Now there’s the part I don’t get. I haven’t seen you two exchange one word since yah boarded, haven’t hardly looked at each other neither. You’re clearly unhappy. You’ve been moping about for the past week, eating-” he picked up a piece of dried meat, “whatever this garbage is, and avoiding just about ev’rybody. She clearly isn’t making you happy, so why hang around? Just leave her!”
“I can’t do that,” I exclaimed, clenching my fist in irritation.
“And why not?”
“Because I don’t have a choice!” I yelled, standing up and pounding my fist on the table.
All eyes turned to me.
I sat back down.
“So yah are locked in,”
I set my jaw, “It’s not like that. She’s not the reason I’m stuck here.”
“Sounds to me like she is.”
I growled in frustration, “Well she is, but not like that. You wouldn’t understand.”
The man stared at me expectantly.
I gave a short sigh, “Look, I’ve made some...questionable decisions in the past regarding Macai and I came to make it up to her. Okay?"
We sat in silence.
The sailor eyed me, “So, yah do love her.”
I sat up straight, “What?”
He raised his eyebrow.
“Where would you get an idea like that? I mean, who said anything about- about loving anything?” I continued, “I-I don’t… I can’t… I- I-”
“Do love her,” the man interjected, “And by what I can gather, she loves you as well.”
My heart pounded in my chest as I stared at him in confusion. How had he seen right through the situation? How had he seen through me? How had he found the one part of this whole mess that terrorized me? The part I was afraid to acknowledge because what if it was true? And what if it wasn’t?
A minute passed, and I still couldn’t bring myself to say anything.
He could obviously tell what was going through my mind. “It’s not sorcery, mate, just simple observation. You young ones wear your feelings right on your faces, can’t help it, I'd imagine.”
I still couldn’t speak; what was I supposed to say? He had seen right though my training, so what was I supposed to do?
He leaned over the table, “Why are you here?”
I was slightly taken aback by the gentle way he repeated the question I had asked myself earlier. It took me a second, but I finally managed to answer. “Be- because I refuse to leave her.”
“Why?” he persisted.
“Because I tried that once and I hated every minute of it.” I answered somewhat bitterly.
“And why do you think that was?”
I could feel my heart rate accelerate. “Be-because she’s… because she’s… Oh, I don’t know!” I exclaimed, thoroughly frustrated. I felt disoriented knowing that nothing I had been taught prepared me for any of this. In fact, it disscouraged it. Somehow even thinking about 'it' felt disloyal, though, disloyal to what?
“Sure yah do! You’re just too afraid to admit it. Yah love the red-headed beauty! Yah love her stubbornness. Yah love her dragon side, to whatever extent that may be. Course, that doesn’t mean you’ll always like it, but the point still stands, yah love it all, because you love her. And yet, I think it’s still more than that.” he paused, eyeing me all the more intently. “Look at me, boy.”
I hesitated slightly, suddenly very aware of what he might see, but I brought up my gaze and held it, like any good soldier would.
He tilted his head slightly, “Why haven’t yah told her?” he asked.
My gaze didn't waver. “Told her what?”
I suddenly felt a shooting pain course up my right arm.
I groaned inwardly. Not this again.
I did my best to ignore it, to pretend I was fine. My expression didn’t change, and I refused to break eye contact. The pain left almost as soon as it had come- as I knew it would- and left my arm completely numb and useless. Still under scrutiny, I took a very careful- and unfortunately shaky- deep breath, knowing that it would be over soon...or so I thought. My arm hadn't fully recovered when my right leg suddenly burst into flaming pain, and this time I couldn’t keep my expression neutral. My face contorted in pain as the flames coursed up and down my leg. This attack lasted longer than the first and at one point I found myself doubled over in pain, as it tried to spread. When the pain finally ceased my right leg was left heavy, and feelingless.
I allowed myself a minute to catch my breath before coming back up to face the man across from me.
He eyed me calmly, “That.” he stated.
I glared at him, still somewhat out of breath. “You knew. How?”
He shrugged, “Me and the men have been watchin’ yah, and we noticed somthin’ very interestin’. Yah see, every once in a while you would just freeze up, and the other day lil’ Jonny caught you practically on the floor with pain, so we naturally assumed somthin’ was up.”
I could still feel my heart beating a million times a minute, but refused to acknowledge the fact in any way, instead I continued to glare at this man who knew way too much about me. “Yes, but… you knew I was about to have one of those attacks.” I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. “How?”
“Aye, the boys and I also noticed a pattern to your ‘attacks’, as you call them.”
“And…” I hesitated, “Do you know why they’re happening?”
He grunted as he adjusted himself slightly, “Nope.”
I relaxed back into my chair.
“But I’ve seen enough dying men in my day to know the look of ‘em.”
My eyes darted up to him. I hesitated before gathering the strength to sit up once more. “You’re not allowed to tell anybody.” I threatened, "Or I swear I'll kill you."
He held up his hands in mock surrender, “Aye, as I said before, no one will hear a peep out of me.”
I slowly relaxed back into my chair, but continued to stay on alert. “So what do you want?”
The sailor looked confused, “Want?”
“Yes want, blast it!” I yelled, standing up as forcefully as I could. “You hold leverage over me, now what do you want!”
He smiled, but, to my surprise, the smile was not full of malice or scorn, it was just… a smile. A genuine smile. Why was he smiling?
He gestured for me to sit back down, “I don’t want anythin'.” he stated.
I eyed him, slowly- gratefully- sinking back into my seat. I could tell by the look in his eyes he was telling the truth, but I didn’t understand it. “Why?” I demanded.
He nodded, “Aye, that is the question, a good one too. ‘Why?’ What is the purpose? Why would I, a man seein’ a fellow man in need, try to help him for no profit at all? What would draw a person to such an action?”
I continued to eye him as he went on his little rant, waiting for him to finally get to his point.
“-Well I can tell yah part of it’s simply havin’ a conscience, but the other parts a wee bit personal. Yah see,” he leaned further over the table, “I was in your spot not too long ago, a dying man I was, with not much hope of recovery. I had taken a blow to the chest, a mighty big one from one of ‘em ice dragons. Anyway, long story short, when I finally realized I was dyin’, there was only one thing in the world that I wanted,”
“A better doctor?” I guessed sarcastically, rolling my eyes.
He chuckled, “No. My family.”
I droped my eyes.
“-And I think that’s what you want too,”
“I don’t have a family.” I retorted.
“Now we both know that's not true.”
I glanced up at him; up at the more or less ragged man in front of me. I looked at his tangled, semi-greasy, black hair, his frayed clothes, his hairy arms, stubble, and weather worn face. I noticed his callous hands, the strand around his neck, and the tatoo on his right arm. His sun tanned skin and the small scar that cut diagonally just over the left side of his lip. I looked, and I wondered, just wondered, at this man sitting across from me.
“Not much to look at, am I?” he smirked.
I ignored his statement, changing the topic. “You were in the war, weren’t you?”
He nodded, unfazed by my abruptness. “Aye. Bloody thing, that was.”
I stared at the tattoo on his arm, Emma, it read. I switched my gaze to the strand around his neck. “Is your wife still alive?”
He smiled brightly, pulling out the part of the strand that had been hidden by his shirt and revealing a gold ring. “Aye. Yes, thankfully yes. Her and two of my sons.”
I met his gaze, “What about the the third?” I asked, assuming there were only three of them.
The man sighed, glancing down at his mug before answering. “He a- he was killed in the war.”
I dropped my gaze slightly, only to have it land on his ring. I wondered why he didn't wear it where everybody could see it, he clearly wasn't ashamed of it, so why hide it? I supposed he wasn't so much hiding it as he was protecting it. Protecting the physical representation of a promise. 'Protecting' the promise. My hand subconsciously snaked up to finger the scars plastered on my neck. Around, and around. Those were my rings, what was I protecting? What promise was I keeping? I had always worn them so proudly, but today they suddenly felt too exposed. For the first time in my life, I tried to hide them. For the first time I almost felt ashamed of them.
“Look up, boy.” the sailor ordered, “No need to hang yah head.”
Okay, first of all I wasn’t ‘hanging’ my head, and second: “No, you don’t understand. See-”
He cut me off, “I know.”
I glanced at him, perplexed. “But then you must realize that-”
“But then why would you-”
“Because I don’t blame you for the war, boy,” he exclaimed, “or my son's death. It’s not your fault. You were just one of tens of thousands of kids kidnapped and forced to fight for a deranged maniac, you didn’t much have a say in the matter. No, I don’t blame you, boy, I blame him.”
“Yeah, but I- I’m- I was-” I attempted to explain, but the words would hardly come out. Why was this guy so nice?
He held up his hand, “I know.”
I hesitated. He didn't know. He didn’t know that I had been third in command. He didn’t know that I had helped to kidnap those tens of thousands of kids. He didn’t know that I had been given the option to turn back, but chose not to. He didn't know, and I was too cowardly to tell him.
He stood up, “I ought to get back to work, but you just come and find me if yah need to talk again.” he paused as he threw on his coat, “I hope yah didn’t take me too seriously earlier concerning your lass, I was just gauging where yah stood. Didn’t mean a thing.”
I nodded, “Yeah, I figured that out.”
He nodded back, “Aye, you seem to be a smart boy.”
I held back a grimince.
He placed the chair back into its proper position and leaned against it with his hands. “Well, I better get goin’ now, and you should too.”
I raised my eyebrow, “And where am I going?” I asked.
“To the North Pole, of course!” he exclaimed, soaking me with sarcasm. “Now where do yah think?”
I glanced down. He still didn’t understand, Macai didn’t want to see me.
“Mate,” he addressed,
I glanced back up at him.
He looked me straight in the eye, “Quit worrin’. Get up off your bum. And go get your family back.” With that, the sailor nodded his farewell, and headed out into the thick of it.
I sat for a while longer. Staring. Thinking. Picking. Reminiscing. Finally I made up my mind, and stood up. And walked out.