Aboard Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters
“Hm? Mutiny? Why would I be concerned about something like that?”
Maria was not only addressing Simon and Conta who were currently present with her in her quarters but also Werner, Olive, and Cadence who were mentally present.
“Capitana,” Conta began, “the men… they saw you—”
“—lose in your duel if I’m gettin’ the details correct,” Cadence finished.
“I didn’t lose,” Maria replied with a laugh.
Simon exchanged a glance with Conta, while Cadence tried to exchange a look with Werner.
“Right, right, ya didn’t lose.” Cadence nodded with a grin. “But some people probably don’t see it that way. And y’know how it is in these types of professions—once the big top dog looks like it’s feelin’ a little under the weather, all the other ones pounce.”
“I’m not feeling under the weather though,” Maria replied.
Conta and Simon’s confused expressions deepened.
“Right, right, there’s nothin’ ya can’t do,” Cadence agreed, “but that doesn’t change the fact that Oros lady is—”
“—conversing closely with some of the other men,” Simon said. “When I spoke with Morandi and his men earlier, they said she was saying strange things. Not to mention, Pierre…”
“Let them say strange things then.” Maria chuckled. “Everyone says I say strange things all of the time! It’s not fun being by myself, no? And we’ll take Pierre out of his cell and get him off this ship when we get to land.”
“But Capitana,” Simon pressed, “the things she’s saying. She’s convincing some of them to leave and—”
“If they want to leave, they can leave,” Maria said with a shrug.
“Capitana.” Simon smiled tiredly. “Do you recall the first thing you said to me when you found me?”
“Hm… ‘I like your priest outfit’?”
Simon chuckled and shook his head. “No, you said to me, ‘I like your eyes. I’ve decided! From now on, you are mine. Do you understand what that means? You cannot leave my side, and in turn I will protect you.’”
“Did I say those things?” Maria cocked her head with a slight frown before she brightened again. “Well, if I did, it was a spur of the moment thing.”
“It may have been that for you,” Simon said gently. “But for others, hearing things like that can be very troubling for the heart and the ego. Some view it as a chain. People don’t like being chained down, Maria.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Maria said, tousling her hair. “But I do understand not wanting to be chained down.”
“What about the others? The missing ones?” Conta pressed. “Simon and I’ve searched the entire ship top to bottom and we can’t find them. Morandi says he hasn’t been able to find some members of his crew either.”
“Oh… they are still missing?” Maria pulled off her shirt in thought. “Well then…”
Both Werner and Simon flushed before looking away while Cadence and Conta looked on unperturbed.
Olive was facing the wall and shaking his head. “Get me out of here.”
“Those disappearances…” Maria grabbed the towel hanging from her chair and wrapped it around her body. “I will look into that.”
* * *
The bath was a new installment on the ship. Six months ago, they had picked up a group stranded in the middle of a sea torm. They were members of a passenger ship bound from one of the outer countries to Gemini and were clinging desperately to the wreckage of their capsized ship. A day after getting those passengers on board, the Gloria Grail was throttled by the same storm, which had been pushed backward by wind currents.
They braved the storm and it was certainly exhilarating—though no one else seemed to think so—and made it to Geminian ports on a ship that sported five holes in its hull.
The passengers who were apparently from rich families offered to restore the ship. Although Simon had pressed to decline, Maria had said “why not?” Emmanuel, one of the passengers, happened to be an engineer hoping to learn about the conductors of the countries of Signum on his travels. He offered to design them a new ship, but Maria had cheerfully refused. Instead, Maria offered him a spot on her ship so he could see Signum in full. As she later found out, he hadn’t seemed to understand that Maria’s ship was what people considered a ‘pirate’ ship and had accepted the offer out of ignorance. He adapted well, however, and had managed to convince Maria to let him install a bathhouse on board.
And here it was.
Emmanuel was amazingly talented—Maria was sure to tell him that.
The bathing room was more like a sauna than anything else, equipped with a large hot bath and five shower stalls. The bath was Maria’s favorite as it reminded her of the hot springs of Sagittarius.
Maria sank into the waters and let out a sigh of relief. She stretched out her legs and stuck one out to lather it with a bar of soap that had been set to the side. She was halfway through this motion when she noticed she wasn’t alone.
Although Cadence and Olive had seemed to have lessened their synchronization with her, Werner remained. He stood, hands clasped behind him, with his back to her near the showers.
“Oh, if it isn’t the soldier! If you were going to stay here, why did you not just say so?”
The soldier flushed, cleared his throat, and stared at the door. “It is not my intention to intrude on your privacy.”
Maria chuckled. “What are you talking about? You are not intruding.” She gestured to the water. “You should join me! The water is perfect! How do you say it in Capricornian?”
“Oh, so the same way—”
“Anyway, join me!”
“I’m not actually present so that would be physically impossible,” Werner supplied. “Besides, that would be inappropriate.”
Werner turned slightly, caught himself, and said, “That should be obvious.”
Maria stared at him before swimming closer to the edge of the tub and studied his back. “Hm?” Maria squinted, trying to peer into his surroundings. “Where are you—”
“I would prefer it if you didn’t pry,” Werner said curtly. “I took the precaution of secluding myself when this synchronization first occurred, but I do not want a repeat of the Aquarian captain.”
Maria rested her chin on the edge of the tub. “Are you still mad about that?”
“Lingering on it does nothing,” Werner replied, back still turned. “That doesn’t mean I will not keep it in mind and allow it to happen again.”
Maria thrummed her fingers before she smiled. “I see. Your crew must think you’re pretty—how do they say it—‘cool’, yes?”
“What my men think of me is irrelevant,” Werner said after a stiff pause. “Leadership is about being an example to the people beneath you. You must be able to understand them, but you must not allow your understanding to cloud your judgment. That is how a chain of command works.”
“You do not have to lie to me,” Maria chuckled. “About you thinking that it is irrelevant.”
“But this ‘understanding’ you are talking about… do you think I am lacking in it?” She thought of Conta and Simon and Morandi and Pierre as she asked the question.
This caused Werner to face her. After meeting her eyes, he turned away again and answered curtly, “Yes, I believe you are.”
Maria hummed. “I see. Well, I will become better then. Improve, yes. I can do anything, you know, but some things just require a bit more effort.”
In the distance, she could almost see Olive turn his head.
“You need to place more focus on Oros,” Werner returned. “I agree with Cadence and the members of your crew that she is something that needs to be removed. She challenged your leadership and is spreading dissent among your men.”
“Hm, since everyone is saying it, I guess I should look into it.” Maria frowned a rare frown. “I really don’t like being pushed to do things though.” She brightened a beat after and chuckled. “Hey, is it me, or are you being a little bit friendlier now, Wern?”
“It’s Werner,” Werner corrected. “And recent circumstances have indicated that improving relations would be beneficial.”
“You are talking about Nico, yes?”
“I saw him when I was freeing that Aquarian captain,” she said.
There was a jolt in Werner’s chest which resonated within her own. He really was upset about that then.
“I don’t regret what I did,” Maria said, “but I am sorry about the trouble you are in.”
The door abruptly flew open. And the synchronization she had with Werner weakened to the point where he disappeared from her line of sight and she could no longer hear his thoughts. Which was a bit disappointing.
Maria turned her attention to her party crasher with a slight pout.
Standing at the threshold of the door was Oros in the flesh. And in the nude. All concerns immediately flew from Maria’s mind.
“May I join you?” the woman asked.
Maria beamed. “Yes, of course!”
Oros moved forward with an air of grace, crossing the bathroom as if she was gliding, before sinking into the waters right across from Maria. She plucked the bar of soap out of Maria’s hands.
“You are very good at sword fighting,” Maria said as she watched Oros lather herself.
“Of course, I am,” Oros answered with a smile.
“For someone who is so good at sword fighting, I’m surprised you were caught off guard and locked in that crate.”
Oros’s smile deepened. “I’m surprised someone like you is somewhat capable.”
Maria chuckled. “I am strong, yes.”
There was a stretch of silence.
“Say,” Oros said, “have you ever heard the tale of the Golden Beast?”
“I’ve heard it many times before. It’s a very popular sea-farer’s tale.” Maria hummed. “But I am excited to hear your version of it!”
Oros smiled thinly before she began:
“The Golden Beast is something that suddenly appears on ships. No one knows what it looks like or what it is. Some say it disguises itself as a passenger on the ship. It’s a merciful thing and so as long as it’s treated with utmost respect, it spares the ship. However, if it feels as if it has been wronged in any way, the ship’s fate is sealed.”
“Oh, very ominous!”
“Slowly, one by one, members and passengers of the ship start disappearing. Some say the beast makes them a part of the ship while others say the beast eats them whole. Still, like I’ve said, the Golden Beast is merciful. If the passengers promise to become the beast’s followers and pay the price of their freedom, then they are spared.”
“And if they don’t?”
Oros mimicked picking up a piece of food and dropping it in her mouth.
“That’s interesting. So how does your version end?” Maria pressed.
“Well, no one who has heard the story has lived to tell its ending.” Oros crossed her arms.
“That doesn’t seem very good for you or for me, does it?” Maria laughed.
“No. Just for you,” Oros concluded, rising to a stand.
Maria looked up at her in confusion that was forgotten once she noticed how the light spilling in from the window caught onto Oros’s features. Really, she was radiant. Almost glowing. Gold hair. Gold eyes.
“Hey!” Maria leapt up from the water. “You said your name was Oros, yes? Are you sure it’s that? I have a friend, you see, and he is looking for someone called—”
The door to the bathroom flew open.
Maria turned her head and found a handful of her crew standing there. One crew member in particular stood out to her.
Maria, came a warning voice.
Maria was in front of that man in an instant, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Pierre! Shouldn’t you be in your cell?” She squeezed. He tried to rip her hand away, but she tightened her hold, causing him to yelp. She then looked at the others around him, meeting each of their eyes, and smiled. “What exactly is going on here?”
They remained silent, whatever gusto they’d come in with seeming to have left them.
“What are you doing?”
The men turned their gazes away from Maria and toward Oros.
“Are you really going to show your cowardice to me when I’m standing right here?” came Oros’s rumbling voice.
Pierre’s gaze hardened, and he signaled some of the crew members forward. And step forward they did, dragging in unconscious bodies with them.
Maria stepped back as she registered who the unconscious bodies were. Simon, Morandi, Morandi’s men, Raul the Chef, Emmanuel, and—
—Conta. She looked strange lying there on the floor. It didn’t suit her. She was always bright—Conta.
“I’ve gotten rid of the ones who wouldn’t accept my offer.” Oros’s voice drew nearer until it was echoing just beside Maria’s ear. “Although these ones also rejected me, I couldn’t help but think to offer some mercy. You seem to favor them.”
Something hot and sharp pressed against Maria’s back, causing her to turn her head to the offending object. A sword—no. It was shaped like a sword, but it had properties unlike one. Its edges glimmered a blinding gold, and it hummed strangely. A conductor.
Oros pressed the weapon to Maria’s back. “I am the Golden Beast.”