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Chapter Fourteen: Loaded Deck

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. The Captain ordered up food and Sorlen joined them for an early dinner. The four of them; Takkris, Killian, Cerrel, and Sorlen ate and talked about the days ahead and they bickered light heartedly about what Takkris should focus on first.

“I think the boy needs to brush up on his blustering and boisterous boasting!” voiced Cerrel, pounding a hammy fist onto the table, rattling the silver, “he’s much too quiet! Much too quiet Killian! He needs to learn how to brag and talk big, people will take a look at him and unless he has a mouth to match those glorious clothes of his, they’ll think he’s just playing it up. No, he needs to learn how to talk the talk and walk the walk, else the whole thing’s just a charade waiting to fall apart.”

Killian gave a kind hearted nod to the old man as he chewed on a piece of roasted chicken. He ate with a fork and knife, just like Cerrel, though Sorlen ate with her hands she ritualistically washed and cleansed them with soap before the meal and was keen not to touch anything but her food or cup. For pirates, or rather corsairs, they were remarkably clean and fastidious. Takkris had once heard that pirate ships were filled with plague, sickness and a general layer of filth that was almost impossible to wash off. But he was remarkably surprised at how clean everything was, to the point that their cleanliness rivaled and sometimes excelled what he had had at his own home back in the capitol.

“The child needs to learn to fight. If’n people wanna push him about, he can show them what’s what. If he talks the talk he’s just going to get a dirty fist in his mouth for the trouble,” Sorlen said, her fingers dug deeply into the half eaten roasted bird’s breast, she turned to Takkris, placing her elbows on the table with a bang, “ye’ve got to know how to fend for yeself! People will test ye day in an’ day out. If ye show them a sign of weakness they’ll pounce like rabid jackals. But if ye learn how to handle yerself and fight proper like, ye’ll be able to rip them mongrels to shreds and they’ll think twice before botherin’ ya again. Talking big’s good if ye got a big mouth like the Captain here,” she flicked her head towards the Captain on her right, “but it won’t do ye a lick of good if ye can’t back it up. Smooth talking and big promises using bigger words ain’t gonna get you nothin’ if in you don’t back up what ye say with action!”

Takkris inhaled his food as they spoke, some citrus glazed chicken breasts with orange juice and some broccoli on the side with a hearty miniature loaf of bread for him to have. It was, from a dietary standpoint a complete and sound meal. It had all the protein a person his age should have as well as whole grains, citrus to stave off scurvy and it was expertly prepared in such a way that Takkris wondered if they took people from the kitchens and shops in the Market District and offered them positions as Corsairs. The food was better than anything he had tasted at home, the spices and touches that were used were foreign but deeply pleasing. He ate while they talked about him, happy just to stay silent while he was the focus of positive attention for once. But what he really wanted to hear was what the Captain would have to say. He wanted his approval and his opinion most of all, even if the Captain had told him that he should choose what he does next Takkris couldn’t help but feel like he wanted to make him proud.

And so it was when Killian began to speak that Takkris paid extra close attention to what he was saying. “The lad has three choices as I see it, he can learn to sail, to sword fight, or to use those pistols he’s got, which are no more than very expensive and well crafted ornaments for now. The boy can choose as he sees fit and I would kindly ask,” he said, brandishing his silver knife to the two crewmembers as a pointing apparatus, “that you two stop filling his head with your personal beliefs. He’s gotta do what he feels is right and if you keep egging him on to one thing or the other he’s going to feel inclined to something he wasn’t initially bent on. Takkris will be his own man, a true Corsair and to be a Corsair means to have complete freedom. If you two keep prattling on about the best ways he should be taking to the life of high sea’s pillaging and fighting, then it’s only going to steer him a direction you want him in, not one of his own choosing. He is the captain of his own ship, not you, not me, let the lad choose and he’ll come out a finer Corsair than we’ve seen since…well, me,” the captain grinned, showing off his pearly white teeth.

The rest of the meal was filled with idle chatter that didn’t really go anywhere. There was talk about what supplies they were beginning to run low on and when they’d pull into port next. And of course who would be going ashore to get what. But any talk of Takkris and his future as a Corsair was avoided. That is until Takkris spoke up.

“I want to learn to handle the sword first, so if somebody comes close to me I can handle them. If they’re far away I can probably aim with my pistol enough to at least scare them off but if they’re close to me they’ve already committed to the belief that they can take me, or at least engage me. I want to make sure that when they do, that’s the last mistake they make and I want anybody else watching to remember what happens when somebody thinks they can have a run at me,” said Takkris with both wrists rested on the table.

“Well done lad, I like the way you think, methodical and to the point. You can’t get much better than that,” said the Captain with a wide grin on his face, “we’ll start bright and early tomorrow morn. For now, just eat and relax, we’ll have plenty to teach you tomorrow, trust me.”

Takkris continued eating, watching the small cadre of Corsairs he had come to know. He wondered just how difficult their instruction would be. Takkris was always a perfect student skilled and attentive he could memorize long sequences and odd dates and events without trying. He often felt his mind was like a sponge, soaking up everything it came into contact with. Most of his knowledge he had difficulty remembering where it came from, but he knew its validity was intact and sound. He would take to whatever sort of training or study they could provide and he knew he would surpass expectation. Study and learning were Takkris’ primary avenues in his young life and so he had a wealth of experience, for once there was something he could excel without feeling thrust into a new and dangerous world.

They finished their dinner and bid their goodbyes. Takkris opened the trap door off to the side of the room and scaled down the ladder, the more he moved the less stiff he felt and after a rather long day of small but constant movements he was feeling part way back to his old self. The lights in his room were already lit, the tiny flames dancing and flickering and the large aft wall of windows showed the stormy sky outside. The moon barely peeked out from its thick wooly blanket of dark clouds. The rain pelted noisily against the window panes and just as the Captain had said, the sound of the pouring rain echoed all around him. Takkris personally found it to be very soothing and relaxing, and it was with great relish that he found his bed to be both large and comfortable. It had a high headboard fashioned out of a darker shade of wood than most of the wood on the ship. The blankets were blue and sea foam white and when he slipped inside he didn’t even notice or was bothered by the burden of his three pistols, dagger and sword. Not to mention he full outfit that he was still wearing. He took off the hat and placed it on a hook on the side of the wall that the bed was up against and nodded off to a deep sleep filled with fanciful dreams of ship battles on the high seas.

The Captain’s voice startled Takkris awake. “I know they’re new, but lad you’re going to maim yourself if you sleep with your weapons like that. It isn’t very natural or becoming,” he said, before reaching in and tugging him up by his arm, “come on now lad. Up and at ‘em, you’ve got training today and we’re starting bright and early. Gather your wits boy and follow me. But don’t take too long, I’m not one to fancy waiting around.”

Takkris staggered to his feet and snatched his hat, placing it lopsidedly onto his head. He sluggishly shambled towards the ladder, chasing the ephemeral shadow of the Captain all the way up and to the outer decks where the sun blinded him with an overabundance of light. He had never been out on the ocean before, and his first time out in broad daylight caught him by surprise. He hadn’t expected the sheer magnitude of the brightness. It was staggering and his eyes still burned from the first exposure. The world slowly formed from washed out shapes and he saw the Captain, Sorlen, Cerrel and several crew members gathered on the deck. Takkris rubbed his eyes gingerly and blinked hard as if somehow that would provide him with greater clarity and focus. It didn’t.

“Before you can learn to use a blade you must learn to use your body. Without proper use and knowledge of how to move and utilize your body, a blade is nothing more than a weight with a sharp edge. It has no meaning and your ability to handle it is completely derived from how well you can handle your own body. If you are unable to do that, then you can’t ever hope to handle a sword. So first thing’s first, we’re going to teach you how to defend yourself without any weapons. But for the sake of making this more challenging, I’m going to ask that you keep your weapons on you. Their weight and movements as you move will be key for you to understand in what ways you can and in what ways you cannot move. As you will be constantly in their company – such as sleeping apparently – they will become part of you, and though it will be harder to learn you will benefit from it in the end,” the Captain said, loud enough for more than just Takkris to hear.

The Captain smiled at him and walked over, patting him on the shoulder and gripping it supportively. He turned away and motioned for Sorlen to step into the wide ring that had formed around Takkris.

“I will be yer sparring partner for today. I want you to come at me, hit me with all you have and hold nothing back. Let us see what you have boy,” she said with a grin.

Takkris didn’t particularly approve of hitting a woman. He was all for gender equality, but he still didn’t like the idea of hitting such a pretty woman, especially one that was so nice to him. As if sensing this, Sorlen stalked forward within reach and smacked him so hard that bright blooms of light popped all over his vision. He staggered to the side, nearly falling to the floor. He looked back up at her and she was waiting, impatiently for him. She had no sense of apology and no sense that she was only doing it because she had to. Nor did she appear smug for her actions either. That smack was enough for Takkris though. She had been the instigator, and she had hit him, so he felt completely justified in striking back. That was, no doubt, what Sorlen was going for the entire time. Even if Takkris hadn’t realized it yet.

Takkris made a few short, quick steps and struck out with a one, two punch like he had heard about in stories. He brought to bear all of the strength and fire he could, but Sorlen just gently stepped out of the way like Takkris was hardly an inconvenience. No matter where he swung or how aggressive he became Sorlen sidestepped, avoided and altogether lazily dodged every attack he could throw at her. As inexperienced as he was, this meant mostly punches. She was therefore caught off guard when Takkris leapt on her like a vicious animal and tried to take her down. But even then it was a simple effort to remove him from her person and hold him out by the collar of his jacket. It took a very long time for Takkris to cool off and stop trying, even though it was obvious they had intended for him to only try for a short while and then judge his progress based on that. But there was something that none of them had counted on, a deep burning desire to fight, something about him wanted out and it felt a form of release whenever he became violent.

Sorlen seemed to be growing slightly annoyed with how long this was dragging on. Despite scoring no hits aside from a single, rather unsuccessful latch, Takkris was still going stroke like a small rabid animal. Sorlen wasn’t having any trouble stepping out of any of his chaotic attacks, but that didn’t seem to make much different. Takkris wasn’t tiring out like he should have and Sorlen exchanged a confused, slightly worried look with the Captain. It was during that moment that Takkris felt something rise up within him, a swell mounting and threatening to break free. He felt it like a wave cresting and in the fraction that her attention was diverted, he thrust out his left hand, the mark glowing brightly and a stream of water lashed out and crossed Sorlen’s body. It was more like a tendril the way it swished and moved, striking her down with the force of a mighty wave crashing against a small child. It cast her, soddenly to the deck and then it was over. The feeling left him and Takkris felt more drained than he had during the entire performance of a spastic child.

Sorlen laid there for a moment, the wind knocked out of her but mostly from pure surprise. She pushed herself up, but the Captain grabbed hold of her arm and helped her to her feet. She looked wide eyed at the both of them and then strode toward Takkris with her jaw set. She looked angrier than he had seen her and she clearly wasn’t happy about being hit like that. Takkris turned his head away and winced, bracing himself for the hit. She wrapped her arms around him and hefted him up into the air and squeezed him tightly against herself giving him a strong kiss on the forehead. Takkris opened one eye at her nonplussed. He had no idea what exactly was going on, he was expecting a beating or some sort of reprimand but not a hug and a kiss. Sorlen’s face beamed with pride and something else, some emotion that looked curiously like reverence. She gently set him down and stepped back.

“Incredible, simply incredible lad,” said the Captain, “I had no idea you were so, so…advanced! There’s a sort of scrappiness in you that is fit for none other than the king of Corsairs. I saw it with my own eyes but I can hardly believe you actually used water to attack her. I knew what you were doing as you were doing it, but I could not believe it. It was years before I recognized what sort of power I had and then some long nights and days before I could even hope to harness it. And here you are, barely a few days hence and you’re already wielding your gift like a novice.”

The Captain placed a hand to his mouth, smiling widely. He couldn’t seem to keep it off his face, as much as he tried. He paced about in thought, moving his hands around in a flourish. It was definitely a fortuitous turn of events, one that even the great Captain Killian Montaiq couldn’t foresee. Surprising him and beating his expectations was easier than Takkris had imagined, and it filled him with a sense of burgeoning pride. He searched himself for that feeling of impending pressure, of a swell rising up out at sea. He reviewed the moments before and after to try and single out what had exactly happened. He couldn’t help but smile as he did so. Takkris found it, with an excellent memory and knowledge of what he had done, even if it had been involuntary for the most part, he retraced the actions that brought about the swirl of water that turned into a long whip like rope, or tendril and deconstructed it in his mind. When he felt he had it in hand, he held out his left hand and forced himself to lash his hand forward. A small, much smaller than before, stream of water swirled like a vortex around his forearm and hand, and it formed two separate streams of water that lashed out like a whip, spraying everybody in a wide fan in front of him. Takkris felt slightly woozy after that, like he had pushed himself a bit too hard, but he forced his knees to lock and stay steadied.

The Captain stared in disbelief. “Again, do it again lad. Show me you’ve got it,” he said in a hurried, awed tone.

Takkris focused and two wispy thin streams of water encircled his wrist and forearm. They joined together and then whipped outwards but only managed half the length of before. It didn’t even get to whip properly before it fell apart in a watery mess on the deck. But he had done as the Captain requested and he bloomed with pride. Takkris felt the ebbing before his body reacted to it. It felt like a siphon was pulling away his energy, everything that he was and had was being drained away and he couldn’t stop it, much less voice it. His knees buckled and they crashed to the deck but the pain felt far away and foreign, like it was happening to a different person. Killian rushed to his side and caught him before he careened face first into the deck boards. The world went black and Takkris fell into a void of darkness and water.

When he awoke the Captain was sitting beside his bedside talking with Sorlen who was sitting opposite him. They looked very similar to doting parents worried about their child. And for a moment Takkris barely opened his eyes, just enough that he’d still look to be sleeping, but enough that he could take in the scene. He wanted to burn it into his memory forever. Etch it into the deepest stone and hold onto it for an eternity. This was his family and he wanted to remember them this way. He couldn’t have his mother and father back, and even if he could it was always only his mother that was there by his side when he was hurt or when he needed her. His father was always gone, on business or some other matter that he couldn’t care less about. He was hardly ever there for his son and the time he did choose to interact with him, was when he sold his only child into slavery. He would never call the man father, which was fortunately made easier because he never acted like a father. Killian wasn’t a replacement for a father, but he was an excellent role model that he could aspire to and learn from. And that is precisely what Takkris intended to do.

He opened his eyes completely and looked between the two of them. “What happened?” he asked, though he had a very good idea of what it was. Whatever gift that Mhor’dynn had given him was using something his body wasn’t familiar with. Similar to the stamina in his muscles but without the burning warning of failure and with much more severe side effects for overuse. Takkris was wary to call it a sort of sorcery, but he couldn’t think of any other way to describe it. He had conjured water out of thin air and into a weapon for him to use as he saw fit. There wasn’t anything more magical than that.

“You passed out, I dare say I shouldn’t have pushed you so hard. I wasn’t aware how hard it would be on you. I forgot completely about how draining it can be the first few times and I’m sorry lad. It was just so phenomenal that I wanted to see if you could conjure it at will. And you did! Twice!” answered the Captain.

Sorlen looked at him with sweet, gentle sky blue eyes. “Ye are full of surprises little one. I expected ye might be different before ye were marked, but now. There just ain’t no denying it. Ye’re going to give the Captain here a run for his whiskers once ye train up a bit. I’d bet on it!” she said.

Takkris chuckled and tried to sit up. He felt weak but his muscles still worked just fine, they didn’t burn nor were they more sore than he had expected they would be after such a brutal and lengthy bout of training. Though he had to admit to himself that he hadn’t believed he would be able to go as long as he did, but that fire inside him kept pushing him on and on. He didn’t want to hurt Sorlen, but he wanted to be able to feel like he was something more than a mere toy she was playing with. She didn’t even have to deflect any of his blows, her avoidance of every single one of his attacks seemed so easy and lazy that it only made him more determined. Now he was partially paying the price for that arrogance but he couldn’t help feel a slight amount of approval over his growth. He wouldn’t have been able to keep up such a fiery pace for more than a minute or two if he was still back home in the capitol. He was weak and he never really played outside, which made him seem frail.

His mind was sharp but that didn’t help when everybody around him was bigger, faster and stronger than he was. Takkris had tried running through his house before, at least when he was sure he wouldn’t get yelled at for it, and the very act of going up a few flights of stairs and to the library – the one he was allowed in, not his father’s private library in the Lily Wing – tired him out to the point he could barely catch his breath. But now he was able to fight against a much stronger, much more skilled opponent and though he proved no threat to her whatsoever, he was able to keep it up for far longer than anybody – himself included – could have thought he was capable of.

Takkris looked over at the both of them. “When do I resume my training?” he asked brightly, undeterred by the events of the day.

The Captain couldn’t help but laugh as he stroked his forehead thoughtfully. “You gave us a bit of a scare there lad, but I like your enthusiasm. It’s an excellent trait that should be fostered, so tomorrow we’ll continue your next lesson. We’ll continually give you lessons, filling in whenever and wherever we can as much as possible to get you up to snuff. After all, can’t have my first mate being unable to handle himself in battle can I?” he asked with a laugh that told Takkris he didn’t need to answer.

Sorlen gave the Captain a somewhat sour look, but she smiled brighter at Takkris, not quite in a motherly way, closer to an older protective sister. The thought of which made Takkris squirm uncomfortably due to her exceeding beauty and her scantily clad choice of clothing. He looked over at Killian. “Will I be able to help you when you head to the Netel Company’s private island?” Takkris asked.

The Captain exchanged a look of concern with Sorlen before answering, “About that bit of business lad. We decided it would be best to leave the large scale attacks to the wayside for now, at least until everything’s in order. We’re in need of quite a few supplies and I would rather spend excess manpower and time on you and your future than sacking an island that is practically a fortress. A fortress made of gold, but a fortress nonetheless. To take down their private island we’d need a lot more power than we have. We can and are however looking for the man who was the leader of your caravan, Amman. He’ll turn up sooner or later, either washing ashore as a corpse or demoted to some hellish task that was hardly above a slave. After he lost you I’m sure he was blamed for everything that could have gone wrong in a ten league radius around Fresin. But don’t you worry Takkris, we’ll find him and when we do it will be you who gets to decide his fate and you alone.

“If by then you’re able to fight and join us in our raids then all the better I say. I know it sounds like a typical malarkey but, Corsair’s honor mate I’m telling the truth. With your skills and the powers you harbor we’ll be a lot better off if we focus on making you better rather than chasing after those that wronged you. I still intend on going after them, full and well, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. But we need to focus on what’s important right now and that’s you. When we run into Amman you’ll be able to gut him yourself and you’ll know the color of vengeance lad.”

Though Takkris was somewhat crestfallen at the change of plans, he couldn’t exactly say he disagreed. Going after a fortress of nefarious people just for one boy’s vendetta was notoriously foolish, even for Killian. It would have been much smarter to deny it entirely and focus on improving him, as Takkris was the youngest among them and definitely what he would consider as a weak link amongst the Corsairs. More than anything though, he had a gift of powers that only Killian, the Captain of The Empress had. With those powers Killian had made a name for himself and his ship, and he had said it took him far longer to even realize he had powers, let alone use them properly. That told Takkris that he was already ahead of Killian in terms of comprehension and harnessing whatever gift Mhor’dynn had given him. He only needed to practice more with them and he could unlock the depths of their secrets. With two people who could wield such powers, even as young as he was, The Empress would be that much more capable, and that much stronger.

“I’d like to train my powers too, however that could be done that is. I can’t say I really understand them beyond the bits that I was able to suss out today,” said Takkris.

“I’ll be helping you along with that lad. Never you worry. But taking the chance to practice, couldn’t ever hurt you know. It took me ages to even be able to conjure properly at first. I did it on a whim once and for the next few months I spent every waking hour trying to figure out just how the hell I did the damned thing in the first place! When I finally figured it out, everything started falling into place. It’s a very surreal and yet personal thing, I can help to guide you but your path will no doubt be different than mine. We’re on the same sea lad but in different boats you and I, I can help guide you through the squalls and storms but it’s you who has to do the work. I can only point out where might be best for you to go, but if you don’t ever go there, then it’s all for naught anyhow. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s just about dinner time, why don’t you come up and have some fish?” asked Killian, pressing his palms to his knees and standing upright, “That is, unless you can’t. Are you able to come up the ladder Takkris? Sorlen has no qualms with carrying you if you need.” The Captain quirked a smile at him and headed up the ladder in a few quick bounds.

Sorlen looked at Takkris questioningly. She was waiting for his answer and beginning to move in when Takkris put out a hand to stop her. She immediately obeyed and stepped back slightly, but she watched him like a hawk, making sure he was capable and not simply acting out of bravado. She cared for him, exactly how Takkris wasn’t sure but it was more than just a crewmember. As Takkris shakily got to his legs, Sorlen was there to steady him and help him walk across the room. She was gentle and only aided him as much as he needed it, never too little or too much. Takkris had begun to wonder if perhaps she worshipped Mhor’dynn or something of the sort, which made Killian and Takkris something like gods among men. Not quite like that, she still treated them both like they were creatures of man and not something more, but at the same time she held a reverence and sense of weight placed upon both of their opinions and words. It annoyed him to no end that he couldn’t understand what was going on, and he couldn’t simply ask. The last thing he wanted to do was to offend somebody who was so helpful and kind to him. She had changed so much since she first met him, she was brusque and standoffish though there was a warmth behind her exterior. Yet when she saw the mark and the change in his eyes, she became far more open and closer to him in ways that he couldn’t explain or quantify.

By the time they had gotten to the ladder Takkris was able to walk and move on his own without any assistance from Sorlen, and so he climbed the ladder easily, if a bit slowly. By the time he had sat down for dinner, just the three of them this night, the Captain was already knuckle deep into a monstrous crab shell, steamed a bright, blazing red. Takkris pulled several long, freakish looking leg clusters towards him. Sorlen pointed out the bowl of melted butter in front of his plate and the Captain showed him how to crack open the shell to get the succulent, white meat inside out. Much to his surprise the meat was on the sweet side, more than fish normally was, at least fish prepared in Grachyr. It was different, as was most of the things he was experiencing and Takkris much liked different. Anything that helped him to feel like this was his new home, that there was nothing tying or reminding him of his old life made him feel happier and better.

It was still hard for him to think that just a few days ago he was a runaway slave. Technically he still was, if the slavers were to catch him they’d still consider him a runaway slave. He idly wondered how long the statute of limitations on that sort of thing lasted. After five years would they still consider him their property? Or would they be unable to recognize him and just forget about the boy that must have cost them dearly? He did not have the answers, but he was curious about them all the same. He almost wanted them to find him, to try and take him from his new home. He felt a bursting confidence and pride that he would not be moved one iota from where he was. His new family would never let any harm come to him and he would never let anything harm them. The Corsairs of The Empress were his family, and they would bare their teeth at any threat that came their way. It was that feeling of safety and protection that led Takkris to want the slavers to find him, to come after him and pursue him. He knew it would be to their ruin and he wanted to see the slavers, every last one of them, suffer the pain of The Empress. He wanted to see them broken and wailing in pain, the very thought of it was a pleasing one that he had had many times before. But only now did it seem completely possible.

His smile must have slipped onto his actual face because the Captain asked, “What’s got you in such a bright mood First Mate Takkris?”

Takkris started and looked up, choking on his bit of crab and covering his mouth as he violently coughed to try and clear his airway. Sorlen was halfway up out of her seat in a flash before she realized it wasn’t actually anything to worry about. But the look on her face – had Takkris been able to see it – was one of pure fright. After his wheezing had settled down Takkris lowered his hand to speak. “Sorry about that…I was thinking about how I want to be a Corsair. How I want to be part of The Empress and how happy I am to be where I am. That not even a week ago I was in a cage, half starving to death and on my way to a horribly violent and cruel end that nobody, not even the slavers themselves, deserve. And now I’m eating food that most people in Grachyr can’t even get unless they personally know somebody and have plenty of money to spare and certainly nothing as large as this feast before us. I’m being trained by the infamous Captain Killian Montaiq and I’m aboard The Empress with accommodations that would rival the center of the capitol. I’m better dressed than I have been all my life and I finally feel that I have a purpose, a compass for me to guide myself by. I am incredibly lucky and I never expected something like this could happen. I dreamed of this sort of thing, often as of late, some magical and fanciful escape that would never actually be able to come to pass. But they were nothing more than delusions, even now I’m slightly worried that I hurt my head or went fever-blind at some point during the slaver’s trip and I’m just hallucinating all of this. But I know it’s real on some level and I’m eternally grateful to you and everybody aboard The Empress for what you’ve done for me,” he said.

When he was done, Takkris’ eyes weren’t the only ones with tears welling up on them. Sorlen and Killian both looked touched, by his words and honored them immensely by saying nothing else. They smiled at him and on each side of him they gently placed a hand on each shoulder of his in a sign of compassion and solidarity. The small notion made Takkris feel more at home than a hug and kiss by his mother had.

The rest of the meal was eaten mostly in silence but not the sort of awkward, uncomfortable silence that smothered everything around. It was a gentle sort, like the stillness of a beautiful glassy lake or the quiet early morning before the first rays of light touched the sky above. It was comfortable and almost familiar to Takkris, so he ate happily and the only sounds that broke the quiet was the constant rocking and creaking of the ship, and the intermittent cracking of a shell.

It was only towards the end of the meal that the Captain spoke up. “Do you remember when we were talking about perception and how people would judge you before you even spoke or opened your mouth?” he asked idly.

Takkris looked up from his food and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “I do, what of it? I thought you said that learning how to fend for myself was more important than talking properly and boasting like Cerrel suggested?” asked Takkris.

The Captain shook his head. “That’s not what I’m getting at. But you know what I’m referring to so that’s good. I wanted to explain to you about perception and popular misconceptions. It’ll help give you a good idea about what to do and what you could logically expect,” he said, placing down his crab leg and wiping his hands with a clean napkin, “most people look at a person and decide at least ten different things right off without even hearing them speak or knowing anything more about them. They look and assess his worth, his stature in society and how they should act around him or her. It’s something that’s burned into the mind of every human for reasons that I cannot fathom.

“The point is, that they’re going to judge you based on how you look, and so will every pirate or slaver, or naval man you see. This is why we dress the way we do and carry on how we do. Perception is everything, without it what we do would not succeed half as well. The point of being a Corsair is to stack the odds in your favor at every possible chance. That means learning the rules of every game, and trust me when I say this, everything is a game lad. Life itself is a massive game with a ridiculously complex set of rules. But you find those rules and you find the way in which you can bend some, and break others to get the odds in your favor. We stack the deck so to speak, taking out the cards that would be dealt to us unfavorably, and replacing them with cards that will be pulled and given to us, granting us boons and privileges beyond what we should rightfully have.

“We dress this way because people will perceive us in a particular fashion, even if we aren’t cutthroat destitute sailors who attack any and all ships that cross their path, killing everybody on board, we look the part. And if we look the part, most people will treat us like we are dangerous. That treatment benefits us in a number of ways. It’s one of the ways we cheat by taking advantage of a known rule and bending it to our designs. It’s the same way as if I were to figure out in the game of dice how the rules worked. If I found that having sixes always benefited me, then weighting the die so that it would turn up six more than not would be what I would do. When you play a game with a Corsair you’re playing a much more complex and involved game than with any normal person. Corsair’s and pirates alike cheat, it’s part of our reputation and it’s something we love to do besides, it provides us with freedom and an interesting way to get what we want without having to specifically bully or shed blood. When you play cards with one of us, you’re playing your cheating ability against our own and that is a much more difficult game to play than simply following the rules. Because as you cheat, you inadvertently form rules and structures of your own that get broadcast to those around you. When you pick up on those shifts in the wind, you can use them to your own advantage, regardless if you’re playing cards, dice, having a friendly drink or fighting somebody that is a pirate or Corsair, you will be battling against their wit and skill, using the form that you happen to have at that moment as a weapon, not a rule.

“What I mean is; if you’re sword fighting any old pirate, you’re not going to be fighting them like you would a fencing match. The rules for engagement are different and constantly shifting just like the sea that rolls beneath the keel of the boat. If you do not cheat, then you are already at a significant disadvantage to the point that you might as well just fall on your own bloody sword and be done with it. We fight to win, and I know I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. If you aren’t winning you’re losing, there is no honor among thieves and there is no pirate’s code, unless that code is to cheat. There is Parley but that’s a completely different and one off thing entirely.”

“What’s Parley?” asked Takkris.

“It’s…well it’s complicated. It’s like a meeting with the Captain. It means the crew can’t kill you until you’ve had a meeting or at least sat down with their Captain. It doesn’t mean that you get to see the Captain fully armed. They can still strip away all your armaments and tie you up, but they can’t hurt or kill you first. It’s probably the only rule most pirates adhere to and it’s a good way to escape danger if you’re deep in it, but I wouldn’t suggest using it too often. More than not it’ll land you in an even bigger pot of water that you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in,” replied Killian, fidgeting with one of the large ruby rings on his finger.

Takkris gave a quiet nod of understanding. He refrained from saying anything more since he didn’t want to, or mean to interrupt the Captain in the first place. Without anything else, the Captain continued his speech from before. “As I was saying, if you aren’t cheating then you aren’t truly playing the game as you should. Any rule that says you have to play fair is playing to the lowest common denominator. Society expects and enforces upon you to play fair so that somebody with less talent and skill can come in and be your equal. I don’t quite see how that’s fair and there are an increasingly large sum of people who agree. Laws are fine for protecting citizens who don’t wish to be extraordinary or anything special, it helps children who are alone and people who need the help, there’s nothing wrong with that.

“What is wrong is when I’m told I cannot do something that I find to be personally freeing, just because it is unfair to another person who wants to compete against me, but doesn’t want to play the same game as I do. Instead they want me to play the game they are best at playing. That is what society would have you learn and adhere to, concepts like chivalry and honor are just tools to lower your ability to those who are beneath you. Chivalry and honor are a way of living, they are who you are, they’re personality traits, not rules that you can never break no matter how gray the area becomes. There is no black and white, the older you get the more you’ll come to understand everything exists in shades of gray. Some darker than others, but none of them are completely right or wrong. The rules of engagement would make you think that if you didn’t specifically proceed by its checklist that you were somehow less of a soldier, less of a man or woman and perhaps adhering to that checklist would give another soldier comfort and solace as they lay there dying because they were too thick to react to the situation at hand.

“But I’m getting off topic here. The basic rule that I’m getting at is we cheat and we steal what isn’t ours. We exist outside the law, but that also means we don’t have the same protections of the law. If you’re branded as a Corsair or a Pirate you are subject to search and seizure as well as being persecuted and pursued if the law sees it fit. However, and thankfully for us and the first rule of perception, most lawmen don’t want anything to do with us. A good way we make sure to keep our reputation up is after we sack a ship, we keep a few of the lowest ranking members alive. The higher officers die always unless there’s a compelling reason, those higher ups know why they’re there and what they’re doing, they had a choice and they chose wrong. It’s the low ranking soldiers that have no choice where they are assigned and they are the ones we try to spare if we can. We certainly won’t go out of our way to make sure they live if they’re doing their best to see that we die. And while I realize that puts us in a bit of a quandary, it’s all a matter of gray shades Takkris, you do well to remember that.

“We send them off in spare boats in three different directions, and they spread the horror story of their trip. We give them some rations and a bit of gold to see them on their way. They have a choice, they can either tell what happened and leave out our kindness, or they can include the kindness and expect a visit from us to retake our gift of their life. To this date nobody has bothered to utter the whole truth of the matter. In this way the tales of our destruction reach multiple borders and the lies and twisted truths spread outward, meet each other and then strengthen, spreading out further with all new details that never existed. In one I was a seven foot tall man with hair of smoke and eyes that burned like coals in a hearth. I swear the imagination on some people, as if red could ever be my color. Now you,” he said, looking at Takkris and nodding over to him, “you wear red better than a damned Interis does. And that’s saying quite a lot, those Interis bastards love to put up a good fight no matter what happens. Right, where was I?”

“Ye were explaining, at some point throughout that mess, why we dress the way we do and how it looks more like an act to somebody from the inside than it would to the outside,” Sorlen chimed in.

“Ah right, thank you deary. As Sorlen pointed out so eloquently, you may have noticed that we are remarkably classed and clean despite the way we look. We lack that reek of odor, blood, sweat and excrement that many other ‘real’ pirates do. We look the part but that’s it, and that’s all we need to do. It may look a bit like theatrical nonsense to you, but theatrics are one of the strongest weapons we have in our arsenal. A bit of darkening color around your eyes can make them look dangerous and dastardly in the right atmosphere. If it gives you an edge, you use it. No matter what it is, you use it plain and simple, that’s what it means to be a Corsair,” said Killian with a simple flourish of his hands.

Takkris thought on his words for a moment. They made sense, but at the same time he couldn’t help but comically wonder, that perhaps just a little bit it was an over rationalization on the Captain’s part as to why he wore eyeliner. Takkris of course kept that to himself, he didn’t want to offend his mentor much less bring out the fact that he realized it. And without sounding odd, he thought it really made him look more dark and brooding, despite the fact that it was makeup. Which apparently much of the crew not only used, but was skilled at as well. Sorlen however didn’t seem to ascribe to the same notions, sure she seemed to agree with the cheating and freedom sections, but she didn’t seem to use makeup of any kind and she definitely didn’t seem to care about how people looked at her. But perhaps she was the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. Then again, if he was going by proper Corsair logic, there wasn’t a rule at all and everybody was free to do as they pleased, including Sorlen who refused to use makeup in the same manner as the rest of the crew.

The more he thought about it the more it intrigued him. Freedom was something people thought they had, but none of the people Takkris knew had anything even close to the freedom Killian had just finished explaining. People had freedom constrained within the lines of their society and their nation. Takkris said goodnight to his mentors and descended the ladder to his room, Sorlen watched him warily out of the corner of her eye but he had no trouble doing it by himself and so she stayed put. While he was descending into the dim light of his room he wondered how the Corsair’s could keep order and not devolve into pure anarchy. Killian was obviously in charge of them, but wouldn’t that instill some sort of rule? They could overthrow and mutiny against him, as would be their right to freedom, but then they’d no longer benefit from his guidance and his strength, and where was the brilliance in that? Just because they could do something, didn’t mean that they should.

Takkris crossed to the bed in the farthest corner from the ladder. All the speeches the king of Grachyr had given about the liberties of its people and the freedom they enjoy, the very same freedom that the Interis Empire, Aldmeir Dominion and the Calsin Kingdom were threatening to take away. Even though the freedoms that they actually had paled in comparison to what Takkris had now. And they were being hunted for it. The thought was comical beyond belief, that the rich and powerful were capable of doing things beyond the reproach of the law, and yet when a more common band of people did it to the rich, they were branded terrible things and sought to be punished. Takkris remembered hearing somebody saying that the law protects the rich and serves as their agents of protection, they do little for the common man or woman and serve to keep the rich in power and the poor in their place.

Takkris took off his boots and set them at the edge of his bed on the floor, he took off his hat and coat, hanging them up on the hooks over his bed against the wall. He was about to take off his weapons when a realization hit him. As long as he made sure his weapons were in proper order before going to bed there should be no worry or cause for concern when he was sleeping. He quickly went about checking to make sure the pistols wouldn’t somehow accidentally go off, but with the hammers in their locked and neutral positions as they were, it would take somebody pulling the hammer back and pressing the trigger for it to actually go off. And the only person that could easily do that would be himself, and of course the Captain if he felt like coming down and playing a cruel prank on Takkris. But having the guns hanging up wouldn’t really help him in that situation, in fact it would leave the gun more vulnerable to being taken. And so Takkris resigned to keep the weapons on him at all times, at least as often as he could manage. He pulled the coat off the hook and pulled it back over his shoulders. Its padded heft felt comforting and it helped to keep his two pistols on his right in place. Without the coat they moved around too much for his liking and felt like they’d sooner dig into his ribs before sit right.

Takkris laid himself down on the bed and folded his hands over his stomach, lacing his fingers. He was grateful for a bed but couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed his weapons on him. It wasn’t just the comfort they provided him, it was a deep seated fear that something would happen when he was asleep. Some thing or some person coming for him when nobody else was around to see it or protect against it but if he had his weapons on him, he could use them to fend himself. He was small and weak still, but the weapons helped to bridge that gap and at the very least he could scare the person off or hopefully wake up somebody else aboard The Empress to help him. Takkris’ last thoughts as he slowly drifted off to sleep were of how he might best attack somebody who came upon him during the night when he was sleeping. He could aim a pistol and try to shoot through the coat, but if he was tired he had no idea if he could even aim it, let alone if the coat was resilient enough to withstand such a close shot. The dagger would work best of course as it was small but wide and close enough that he could use it to great effect. He settled on the dagger and inched his hands up to his chest, unlacing them and placing his right hand beneath his left. In the event somebody got the wise idea to come upon him as he slept, he could quickly and easily reach across his chest to his holster and pull out the dagger.

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