V.O.C. of the People

Birds and Fishes
Avi speaks with Kharrakh

Avi spent the first night, after the attack, unsure of how to react to the prisoner. He was still alive by the following night, an unusual occurrence, after the prisoners she had previously seen on the ship. By the next morning, her curiosity was beginning to grow. He was a strange being, she recalled what she could remember of him, from the moments she had been the one keeping him prisoner. Black eyes and sharp teeth. He reminded her of the legends of vampires, she had heard of as a child. He was no vampire, however, that she was sure of.

It was not long before she found herself wandering into the brig. The man ordered to guard the prisoner gave her an uncomfortable look, but she paid it no mind. Many of the crew found her odd. It was also possible they were concerned that Philip would be angry if he found her alone with the prisoner. She was not there to speak with him, however. She already knew she did not understand the language he spoke. She moved up to the bars and sat down.

His black eyes were watching her. They had been on her the moment she came into the room. For a long while they sat and stared at each other. She said nothing and he did not look away. Eventually, he moved up to the bars, giving an unthreatening motion to the guard as he straightened up. He lifted a bandaged hand that she recognized as the one she had stabbed. He held it up to the bar and made several sounds that she could not understand. He almost immediately moved back from her and sat down once again. Eyes never once leaving her own.

Avi, instead, broke the gaze to look down at a little pouch she had started to carry around. She had picked it out while collecting clothes she considered to be her smuggling clothing. She reached into and pulled out a half shell. It shimmered in the light of the brig, polished by her own hand. She slowly moved it through the bars and set it down. The guard, once again, was growing anxious.

He looked at the shell, then the guard, and then Avi again before moving to pick up the shell. He lifted it up and moved part of it into his mouth, biting it, as one would to check if a coin was real. He lowered it, looked at Avi, and said another strange word.

She could not help but smile softly as she watched him pocket the shell. She then stood and headed back out of the brig without a word.

An apology, that was what her gift was. She did not have the words to speak her feelings so this was the best way. Avi sat in her cabin once more, thinking over the interaction. When he had showed the hand, which she had wounded, she felt her guilt increase. She knew she had been protecting the crew, but she did not feel good about injuring this creature. She never felt good when she hurt someone. She had killed some of the previous crew, when they had been attacking her, but they had just been following orders. This creature, perhaps, had thought he was protecting his own. Or, he could have just been following orders. She had not killed him, though. She had not intended on killing him when she attacked, she had just wanted to protect the crew. None of the others had been on the ship to do so.

The one she injured was still alive, in the brig. She could not tell if he held a grudge with her for injuring him or not. Though, her apology gift had seemed to go over well with him. She pulled the pouch onto her lap and rummaged through it. Her birds had brought her a bunch of small rocks and shells that she had been polishing. She had added a few of her own findings to this collection, as well. Perhaps, in a few hours she would return and give another gift of good intentions to him. This time she would attempt to speak with him, attempt to understand. They were not too different after all, she was a bird woman while he was more like a fish man.

Avi returned to the brig with no difficulty, she was often left alone to roam the ship, and she did not mind. She approached the cell the fish-man was in and gave him a small smile. She did not know how she would communicate with him. She had listened to Cullen attempt to interrogate him,but the responses were impossible to understand.

He was watching her, much like the last time she had visited, his eyes never looking away from her. She stared back at him, trying to come up with a way to ask her questions. She did not know if he could even understand her.

“My name is Avinnia,” she offered up.

No response.

“Or Avi, if it is easier,” she continued but there was still silence.

She let out a defeated sigh and lowered herself down, rather carelessly, to a sit. I wish he could understand me, she thought. She leaned her brow against the bars of the cell and stared back at him. He seemed to sit up a little straighter, continuing to watch her. There must be some way.

He started to move forward, suddenly, but nonthreatening. Avi sat up to watch him, Little Tip ruffling up his feathers and chirping in her ear.

“Hush, Tip,” she ordered. If I could figure out what to call him at least, she thought as she turned her attention back to the prisoner.

You may call me whatever you wish, though among my brothers, I would be known as Kharrakh Ker-Avinnia.

Avi stood up, startled by the words lingering in her head, in a voice that was not her own. “Did you-” she began to ask. Your name is Kharrakh? You can hear me? He did not answer these questions but he seemed more attentive to her than he had moments earlier.

Where are you from? The thought came faster than she realized what was happening.

My home is not the same as this place. We have only called it Mu, he responded in the same manner.

Mu? Not the same as here. She hesitated between questions, processing what she was hearing. He was from another world, perhaps like the world they had passed through in the crossway. Perhaps. She needed to know more.

Why did you leave? Why come here? She looked at him as she thought her questions.

My brothers have long ached to return to Avalon, and take our place as its rightful rulers. The door was finally open; we merely passed through it.

A door, that answered her question about the crossway. They were either from Vandagen or from beyond, like how Christmas Island had a door to Odessa. Either way, he must know more.

We are similar, though I have feathers; do you know anything about what I am?

I know of your kind, yes, and have gazed upon your sisters before, though I am not permitted to speak of them.

Sisters? There were more like her? Somewhere in this world or another. Where did you see them? There was no answer. Please, I have never seen another like me. What are they called? Where do they live? What are they like? But all of her questions fell into the empty silence that he refused to break.

Reluctantly, she returned to the rest of her questions, Do you trust me?

I do not understand the question, was his simple answer.

Do you trust what I say and do? She hoped that would clarify what she meant, unsure of how to explain to him.

My trust is irrelevant. You have asserted your might over me, I am now Ker to your Okraik.

Avi’s face contorted in confusion. You are what to my what? I do not know these words. Can you explain them to me?

You are my battle-master. My blood and my blades are yours to command, until you or I am bested by another again.

This was because she beat him in battle, she realized. He viewed her as his better, no one had ever viewed her like that before. She needed to know more about what this meant.

Would you aid us if I asked?

If you commanded it.

If we offered, would you stay with us?

If you commanded it, he repeated.

Will there be a way I could contact you when we let you go?

In my home, there was a way for an Okraik to speak to their Ker over great distances. I do not know of such a power in this world.

That was important, perhaps this new way of communicating could do it, or perhaps she could find another way. One of her companions might know something. Or someone in one of the cities, perhaps a scholar.

One last question lingered in her mind. This fish-man, this Kharrakh, had said she was his battle-master. That his blood and blades were her’s to command.

As your Okraik, would you fight to protect me?

The Sailor's Hymn
The aria of Mel's beloved.

Alone she sleeps in the shirt of man

with my three wishes clutched in her hand

The first that she be spared the pain

that comes from a dark and laughing rain

when she finds love may it always stay true

this I beg for the second wish I may too

but wish no more

my life you can take

to have her please just one day wake

to have her please just one day wake

Hear this song here.

Guard Duty

The only sounds in the brig were the gentle creaking of the moored ship and the occasional shuffling from the prisoner, but Mel’s head was full of sounds. The pounding of surf, the rushing of deep currents, the calls of seabirds, and sometimes mournful whale songs. Usually he let them wash over him, to revel in the deep vital expanse that was Her, but just now he needed to think. Reluctantly he pushed the sea to the far corners of his mind and focused on the creature in front of him.
It paced on pale feet in its cell, having given up staring at him with its black pupil-less eyes. When it hissed at him its teeth were perfectly sharp, and the hideous wounds on its face were scabbed with jet black blood. What upset Mel the most, though, were the webbed fingers.
He held up his own hands, calloused and salt-stained, but also undeniably webbed to his second knuckle. His toes were completely fused together now too, and the creeping black and gray up his legs could not be explained away with pitch or oil stains. When he looked at the monster before him, Mel could only fear for the worst. He needed advice, but Phillip was indisposed and Cullen was landside. Perhaps Alan would know something. The mechanical man was undoubtedly the best saw-bones Mel had ever met, but Mel also had the suspicion that Alan was able to see things that his flesh and blood counterparts could not. Mel resolved to ask the GAD’s opinion next he saw him.
The sailor settled back against a wooden beam, and folded his arms. The sounds of the sea poured back into his consciousness and Mel allowed himself a fond smile.

Time for a Deal
Farrah and Cullen come to an understanding.

Farrah almost lost momentum, pausing in the hall outside of Cullen’s berth. She remembered how often he had disrespected her, how violent and unpredictable he could be. What help could he possibly be??
But of course, she also remembered the sound of a hard metal key in her cabin door. The smell of burning ash on the wind where her people should have lived. She had no other choice.
“Ah, what brings the lil’ miss ta mah door?” Cullen was, unsurprisingly, drinking a foul-smelling spirit. Farrah swallowed back her desperation, and met his skepticism with poise.
“I need your help.”
Cullen could not have forced more derision into his chuckle. “Tha’s a laugh. Wha could ya possibly need fra me?”
With a deep breath, Farrah managed some dignified honesty. “Captain Phillips has, of late, found my lineage to be…problematic. As such, he has threatened to confine me to my quarters next time we make port. That is…unacceptable to me.”
Cullen dropped his glass to the boards with a clack. “And what,” over pronouncing his consonants, most likely in anger, “can I do for ye?”
Farrah smiled. Negotiation had always been easy for her. “Perhaps, when we make port, you could gain possession of the Captain’s keys. Of course, I respect his rule on the ship, his ship. I do not wish to inspire mutiny. But I must be allowed my freedom.” If nothing else, Farrah could bet freedom was a cause the burly Irishman and her shared.
Cullen frowned, rather than immediately rising to her bait. “Lass, what sort o business would ye have in port?”
Pleading now, Farrah said “I have a contact, a friend at the University. He is no danger to us or the ship, but I MUST speak with him.” She tried to read the eyes before her. Was he hesitating because he would rather keep her confined? Or because he somehow had honor enough to disdain her underhanded proposal?? “If you are not willing to aid me, say now. I will only ask that you give me time before speaking with Captain Phillips.”
The red-faced man finally sighed. “Look, if Ah’m ta help ye, ther’ll be three conditions.” Farrah would probably never know what changed his mind. A woman in need? The plight of her people? A chance for petty mischief? It didn’t matter.
“One, ye’ll never leave mah side girlie.” Farrah nodded. She had assumed she wouldn’t just achieve total freedom without paying a bit of blood.
“Two, ye’ll ditch tha fancy togs. Ah’ll have some bettah clothes fer ya.” Farrah didn’t say anything yet…but doubted this sot had any clue of what was appropriate for a woman of Cairo to wear. She would talk with Cullen later, but was happy to leave the Al-Azar name on the ship. It suited her plan.
“Three,” and Cullen stuck his fat finger inches from Farrah’s nose, “and ye cahnt tell a soul abou’ this one. Ye will get me a al-Amarna blue lotus blossum. Press it inside this book o verse. An ask NO QUESTIONS.” Farrah hesitated, then grinned.
“Deal!” Farrah offered Cullen a firm handshake. He took it with a grimace. “Ah’m ta regret this.”
Such was the agreement between Farrah and the last man she would have thought to ask for assistance. She couldn’t say she felt fine. Until she found and punished the ones responsible for Alexandria she would not sleep easy. But at least she could do SOMETHING.


I am writing to warn the other captains making port in Liverpool not to take aboard nor employ a man by the name of Johnathan Boughman. The man is a danger to himself and others-

The storm was the worst one Stedman had ever encountered. It had started with a bruised sky and the wind and hail had begun with scarcely any additional warning. The captain had weathered hurricanes in port before, but never in open ocean. He stood in the center of the deck screaming orders to his men as the sails were lowered and everyone tied themselves to safety lines. The deck shuddered and groaned beneath Stedman as his ship struggled onward for what seemed like ages. Suddenly the ship tilted horribly as the largest swell Stedman had ever seen nearly capsized them. Then-
Stedman had not seen John vanish over the railings, didn’t know if his line to the mast had snapped or if he’d simply never latched himself on. The storm howled and battered the ship as Stedman half-slipped half-ran to the railing,
“JOHN! JOHN!” he screamed, immediately seeing the fair-haired man off the port bough. The first rescue line fell short, but the second nearly hit the floundering sailor. John was clearly struggling to keep his head above water, but made no effort to catch the rope. His lips were moving though any words were lost in the salty gale.
“JOHN! ….DAMMIT, MEL!” Stedman screamed as the life-line was yanked away from John by a swell. He lost sight of the man for a moment under the same wave, but when John resurfaced their eyes met. John looked sad, resigned.
Stedman cursed and unlatched his own line. With a new life-line in hand he gripped the railing and steadied a foot on it. Ignoring Quiggley’s screams of protest and shoving away the grasping hands Stedman jumped.
The first wave nearly slammed him against the ship, but the second carried him closer to his crew-man. John’s back was to him as he grasped the sailor by the shoulder and jerked him close. Stedman could hear the other man’s voice now, and was horrified by the pleading he heard,
“You have me now, let them go. Why are you so angry? You have me now, isn’t that what you wanted?” As the rope to the ship went taught and began to pull them back John began to struggle against the vice-like grip his captain had on him. Holding onto the man with a grim determination born of rage and fear, Stedman caught a brief glimpse of John’s face. John’s eyes were pupil-less and glowed with a yellow-green light. The same color as lightning striking the ocean.
Another pull from the rope and they cleared the waves. Then Stedman felt the deck beneath his shaking legs. The ocean roared as sailors piled onto John, fighting to subdue him. Waves that should have broken against the ship instead seemed to climb up her wooden sides. Seeking, grasping. There was a horrible explosion of sound as the railing was ripped away and the splintered remains were consumed by the rearing water. It loomed above them, struggling sailors, exhausted captain, and John with his damned glowing eyes.
It was Quiggley who saved them- taking the life-boat oar to the back of John’s head. The unnatural wave crumpled with him, breaking over the deck of the ship and sliding broken back into the ocean. Unnatural calm settled over the ship as the storm dissipated, the sea’s frenzy becoming sullen. A voice rang out issuing orders, and Stedman was surprised to realize it was his own. John was bound and taken to the brig and repairs were to begin as soon as the crew was all accounted for. The men seemed comforted by these tasks, but Stedman realized that he was still shaking. Once Quiggley had everything in hand the captain retired to his cabin. The contents of his desk were horribly jumbled, but he managed to find a pen and paper. Hand trembling, Stedman began to write…

Nighttime, Nightmares
Captain Stedman stepped into the cool night air, glad to be away from the cloying heat and smell of grog below. He generally kept a cask set aside for when morale needed improving, but always excused himself from the festivities before they became too boisterous. Quiggley and his braying abomination of a trumpet were generally enough to entertain the men.

As his eyes adjusted to the starlight he saw the increasingly familiar sight of John Boughman at the starboard railing looking out to sea. Stedman still insisted on using the crew’s proper names, but could see why John had inherited the nickname “Melancholy” from the other sailors. With the exception of a few widows, Stedman had never seen a person so perpetually forlorn and distracted. In the beginning he’d chalked it up to missing family or some boyhood trauma (God knew he understood that) but John had disabused him of the notion when Stedman suggested he take some shore leave to go visit. “I send them money. It’s enough.” John had said with a shrug.
Stedman admitted himself glad that no lasting damage seemed to remain from John’s poor upbringing. The last five years had transformed the lad from a runt to a towering young man. There were still days when John seemed unsure what to do with his huge frame, but Stedman had seen enough cabin boys mature to know he’d grow into his body eventually. He cleared his throat as he stepped across the deck,
“Good evening Mister Boughman. Enjoying the stars?”
“Mmm.” John said noncommittally, barely looking away.
There was silence for a long while, and then,
“Captain do you ever…”
More silence.
“Ever…? Ever what, John?”
John squirmed; suddenly awkward,
“I mean…are you ever afraid. Of the sea.”
“I think every sailor is sometimes, John.” Captain Stedman replied, “Why do you ask? The voyage has been unseasonably calm so far.”
“Oh, I know. The sea seems happy right now. It’s just that I…I have this feeling in my gut that I will die out there someday.” John gestured at the lapping waves unhappily.
“That’s not too unusual, I suppose. Ships do get lost from time to time.” Stedman admitted, “A man might worry that the worst could happen while out at sea.”
John continued to look wretchedly uncomfortable, enough that Stedman was growing concerned,
“Spit it out, lad. What’s worrying you?”
“I’ve seen it, in my dreams. I’m in the ocean and I don’t want to leave her. But the waters are rough and I can’t keep my head above the waves. She’s…killing me. Holding me tight, crushing me, drowning me. But I don’t want to leave her. I’m at peace when I should be terrified.”
Stedman blinked, unsure how to respond to this admission.
“It…it sounds as though the crew have been filling your head with stories of sirens and magick…don’t worry about it John. I’ve never lost a man overboard and I have no plans to start with you. If these dreams keep bothering you, then maybe its time you worked a land-side job for a spell?”
John nodded but didn’t meet the captain’s eyes. Stedman was about to try a different tack when there was a resounding Blat! from below decks and a string of curses in strong Scottish. Like as not a sailor had splashed a mug of grog into the bell of Quiggley’s horn and the festivities had come abruptly to a close. As men began to make their way above-deck Stedman excused himself to his cabin. He spent another hour with his charts and some good brandy, eventually deciding not to worry about John’s nightmares anymore. Years later he wished he had.

In Cairo
Introducing a New Character from Farrah's past.

Muhazzan Beg worked by the light of one hand dipped tallow candle. The harsh black smoke coiled up to a low ceiling, already heavily stained from numerous past nights of work. The paper and mechanisms spread over his desk, constantly in danger of being swept to the ground by his voluminous sleeves.

Muhazzan was a minor official for the University of Cairo. If he had been born in England he would have been destined to be a bursar or notary. But in Egypt, he wrote endless responses to civil disputes, student proposals, and new trade rulings. Beside his job, Muhazzan Beg loved to build beautiful machines.

Tonight, he was working late into the night penning a letter to a previous student of the University, the notorious Farrah Al-Azar. She had hidden her sex from him for six years while studying machinery beside him. He had quite taken a liking to her quick, indomitable mind. But then she shamed her family and all of her teachers, and of course was quietly taken away. Muhazzan had no doubt that her father had traded her away for political security.

But her mother pined for The troublesome child. The students who had grown close to Farrah were sullen and rebellious at how the University treated her. Even Muhazzan Beg considered leaving off his love of law and crafting to find Farrah and offer what succor he could.

The letter he wrote, and re-wrote every night, would never be sent. Where would he send it? And what would he do if the University found out?

Still, he poured out line after line of apologies, revolutionary philosophy, plans for meeting in future and taking over the Al-Azar trade routes. If she only knew what her family power truly meant in the world…

Holding Hands
On the other hand

Phillip watched as the fine metal instrument dipped into an opening in his arm. He had never really questioned how the arm worked. He knew that it was special, maybe even one-of-a-kind, but he didn’t have a mind for machines or the weird. It kept him moving and kept him alive, and he was plenty happy with that. This view was not shared by the girl sitting before him.

He glanced between his exposed arm and its admirer, though Farrah didn’t seem to notice. She had expressed fascination with the prosthesis when they had first met, and now that she had an opportunity to study, there was no distracting her. Phillip suspected that, were he to detach the arm and leave the room, she may not notice his absence. He flinched as he felt a pressure in his wrist, though it was muted, distant.

She was a remarkable young woman. Her understanding of machines rivaled any he had encountered in his years, and certainly far surpassed his own. She handled the tools gracefully and precisely, touching and prodding the inner workings of his arm. He had surprised himself by allowing her to tinker. If another crisis arose, he couldn’t be sure his arm would be restored in time to handle it. But she had promised to return it to the way she found it, and he suspected that the excitement was over for the night. He sighed. Farrah shivered slightly, and the tool dropped from her hand. “Farrah, did a spark catch you?” He put a hand on her shoulder to steady her.

“No, I must be tired only,” she replied wearily. “The day was long and…complicated.” She breathed deeply, and Phillip couldn’t help but notice the silk robe flex against her chest. He gently attempted to withdraw his arm, but Farrah grabbed his hand in hers, pinning it to the table. She continued her study.

Phillip, meanwhile, studied the young miss Al-Azar. She was attractive to be sure, and had a quick mind, though marriage seemed to be the last thing on it. She was naive and idealistic, but considering he upbringing, that was to be expected. Yet in spite of her upbringing, he found himself trusting her, a courtesy he could not extend to others of her name. As he watched, he noticed her features contort ever-so-slightly. She ripped a panel off his bicep and sent it rolling under the desk. She swore under her breath, and he smiled at the momentary lapse in propriety.

Phillip knelt and retrieved the panel, placing it on the desk. “Wouldn’t want to lose this,” he chuckled. Crouching before her, their fingers still intertwined on the table, Phillip met Farrah’s large dark eyes with his.

An hour later, Phillip lay in his cabin alone. In the dim light and fog of coming sleep, a thought occurred to him. It was likely Farrah would be on the ship for some time, and there was no doubt they would be working closely together. Maybe she could use her talents to return the Songbird to her former glory.

The Athens Incident, Part I

“This isn’t a question of what happened,” Leone said, gently massaging his forehead. “The issue I’m concerned about is why I was the last to know about it.”

“Your holiness, please forgive me, but I brought the incident to your attention as soon as I was made aware of it.” Emilia bowed her head deeply in humility as she spoke, trying desperately to conceal her fear of the Cardinal.

“Then the time for you to improve your connections has come.” Leone stood, circling the table between them. “I will not accept another lapse of this magnitude.”

“Of course, your holiness.”

Cardinal Leone took a moment to drink in the young girl before him as he walked. Her figure was heavily obscured by the heavy vestments she wore, but certain curves were pronounced enough for Leone to make use of them. She had visited him many times in his dreams, but he was yet to actually have her. In time, he thought.

Drawing in a breath, he spoke again. “Go find where these Spaniards are being held. Find their captors, and demand I gain an audience with them.”

Emilia bowed deeply, then shuffled away quickly. Leone knew her to be a fool, but she was pleasant enough on the eyes, and had — on occasion — come through and actually performed with a degree of competence. In truth, he’d been thinking with his crotch when he asked she be assigned to him, but she’d proved to be worth more than just a young toy.

With a sigh, the Cardinal returned to his desk, drawing forth a pen and some paper. If Spain was making a move on Athens, Rome would want to know about it.

“Senator,” a voice floated through the air. “Senator,” the man repeated, “please, your attention is requested.”

Senator Spiros sat up in her bed with a grumpy sigh, struggling to gain her bearings. “What time is it?” She finally asked, after a moment.

“Very early, Senator.” The man spoke again. “Not yet dawn.”

The Senator drew in a breath and stood from her bed to fetch a robe. The messenger flushed red at her nudity and looked away, though Spiros was too groggy to notice his embarrassment. “What is it about?” She asked, after a moment.

“There’s been an incident by the docks.”

“So get the Port Authority. Why are you bothering me?”

“A diplomatic incident, Senator.” Spiros stopped and slowly craned her neck to meet the messenger’s gaze. “Involving Spaniards. Possibly spies.”


“Yes, Senator.”

“We had received express promises that Athens was acting as a neutral state, and now we’re hearing about Spanish soldiers carrying out espionage missions in the harbor?”

“They claim to have been investigating what they believed to be a pirate vessel, sailing under—”

“So the Spanish are policing for Athens now?"

“Who allowed this? The Al-Azars have multiple treaties with Athens forbidding against this exact thing.”

“And what business does Athens have looking to Spain for protection, when the Holy Roman Empire already has more ships in the Mediterranean?”

“Gentlemen, please, I assure you—”

“I have received reports that the ship was discovered by pirates! Rome demands to know what pirates are doing carrying out vigilante missions in Athenian water!”

“Oh, and now we hear about pirates! What’s next, chevaliers at the gates?”

“And what’s this about a submersible vessel?”

“We are currently investi—”

“Russia is confused! Were the pirates in the submersible, or the Spaniards?”

“If I cou—”

“And another thing!”

“Thank you for meeting with me, Inspector. I know your time is valuable, so I’ll try to be brief.” Katina found a corner and turned to face the room. The Inspector General offered only a grumble as he closed the door behind them. Sensing this as her queue, Katina resumed speaking.

“The senate has decided that this incident needs to be defused before it gets worse.”

The Inspector General sighed heavily as he hung up his sash. “Have they, now?” He turned to face Katina. “It’s good they decided that. My plan was to make it all blow up in everyone’s faces.”

Katina sighed. “There’s no need to get petulant. They’re trying to help.”

“I know how to do my job, councilor. I don’t need their help.”

“Maybe not,” Katina admitted. “But they didn’t send me just to lord over you.”

“That would be a first.”

“You’ve been given orders, Inspector.” She produced a sealed envelope from her sleeve. “You’re to strike a deal with the prisoners, and get them out of town.”

“You’re kidding,” the Inspector replied, snatching the letter and tearing it open. “We’re cutting the Spaniards loose?” Katina stood in silence as the Inspector read over his new orders. “Wait,” he continued, after a moment. “We’re cutting the instigators loose?”

“They are clearly just bystanders here, we need to get them out of the way before they make this thing worse.”

“They’re obviously thieves, and we have evidence they were planning on smuggling two of the Spaniards out of here. For all we know, they answer to Black Bart!”

“Be that as it may, whatever we would gain from imprisoning them would be inconsequential compared to the potential political ramifications.”

“This is absurd,” the Inspector said, tossing the orders onto his cluttered desk. “Has the Senate lost their mind?”

“You have your orders, Inspector.”

Your Gifts Are Not Your Own

Cullen fell to his knees, shoulders quivering as he started to sob quietly. Phillip stood over him a moment, his eyes not betraying any emotion to the pile of a man before him. The intensity could have frozen the very fluid of time, and an outside observer could have sworn it did. But there was no one else. Just two men, alone in the creaking hall of a ship. Deliberately, Phillip placed one boot in front of the other, and finally exited the hall, leaving only the soft gasps of air coming from the confused and quaking man behind him.

Cullen drew a sharp breath and tried to grasp on to something tangible with his mind. He hated himself. No, he hated Phillip. The captain. Athens. The Spanish. The ship. The VOC. He hated all of it, none of it, everything in between. No. He missed it? He missed something. Freedom. Air. Solitude. Company. Sweat. Tears. Passion. Love. Loss. He shook his head, trying to stop it from spinning with all these competing notions. One reality to focus on…

’My gifts are not my own…’

Cullen clenched his jaws tightly and the joints ached in protest. He had forgotten his purpose. He grabbed a handful of shirt and gruffly wiped off his face, leaving it red and puffy, rising and stumbling towards his quarters. He bumped into walls clumsily several times, not noticing the signals of pain sent up to his brain. How could he forget. As he walked into the crew quarters, he ambled towards his hammock, ducked underneath it, and started rummaging through his sack. It did not take long for him to draw out a small piece of parchment and a beautifully crafted wooden flute.

Cullen sat in his hammock and started at the two before him. It had been since before the island that he had held these in his hands. The paper was worn and wrinkled, and had clearly been wet and dried more than once. Ink had blotted through from these episodes, and long, elegant cursive script had been blurred to unintelligible black streaks. He smoothed out the paper as best he could in his hands, and the words once written upon it from memory.

Lashes will leave their scars. The wind’ll blow and grind dust into the wounds. And the salty tang of the sea may burn. But yer heart can’ be broken by the likes of the world. Ye’ve the strongest soul a woman could dream of. So when the world tries to ail ye, play. Play not for yerself, but for those who cannot. Play from the untainted corners of yer heart, and sooth the souls of others who’ve not the strength to go on. Never forget, love, yer gifts are never your own: they’re for the poor unfortunate lambs who’ve none to call their own. Live by that, my love, and you’ll never lead another day without happiness.”

“I’ll never forget, love.”

Cullen spoke the last words softly, barely above a whisper. A single tear swelled and streaked down his cheek as he laid the letter beside him and drew up the flute. It was a remarkably fine crafted instrument, though had clearly seen years of use. Raised embellishments alluding to the Irish countryside danced about the bottom, while the finger holes themselves were raised to look like stars in the sky above. Slowly, he pressed the mouthpiece to his lips, and began to play. It was a elegant, light tone that danced about the afternoon breezes, and reached all across the ship. It was a lovely tune, evoking emotions of love and splendor and contentedness. And as these emotions filled the air, Cullens felt his spirits ease ever so slightly with every long, melodious note. After several minutes, he let his song come to an easy, satisfied ending, and took a moment to breathe.

“I’ve never seen you play that thing before, it sounded very pretty.” Cullen started at the voice coming from behind him. He had been sitting with his back to the entrance to the crews quarters, so he had not noticed Avinia enter the room. As he turned around, it was to see her sitting on the floor behind him, staring up intently.

“Ay, Avi, it’s not bleedin’ nice to sneak up on people. Damned near pumped me heart outa me chest.” Cullen hastily grabbed for the parchment beside him and tucked it into his waistline, and motioned to put away his flute.

“No, play more. It’s very soothing. I’ve never been able to play an instrument like that one, and they’re so pretty. I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.” Several birds, which were now filling the cabin substantially more each minute, seemed to chirp in her agreement.

Cullen paused, and the words rang through his head. Yer gift is not yer own.

“Well…if you insist.”


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