“Land! Heave to, lads!”
Caroline Eversole woke to the same rigorous male shouting she’d gotten used to during her four months aboard the Yawning Sea-Beast. From her quarters, the steely water sloshed against the ship’s sturdy metal hull and the room’s singular porthole. The oil lantern that hung from the ceiling, turned low for the night, swayed back and forth, yanking shadows along the wood-paneled walls. The hook it clung to creaked with each gyration.
Caroline sat up in her narrow bed and unhooked the canvas gate that kept her from rolling onto the floor with the motion of the ship. She set both bare feet on the floor before standing, a lesson she learned early. The first few days at sea had left her disoriented; she’d quickly understood what the sailors meant by ‘sea legs.’ Now walking through the shifting ship came as second nature.
She finger-combed her blonde hair from its braid and let the mess hang about her shoulders. The pipes that ran through the floor rattled and hissed. In the bowels of the ship, the steam room chugged and gurgled, feeding the engine, powering the ship through the water.
Her father, Captain Harald Eversole, commanded the merchant ship. He had invited his wife and daughter to celebrate Caroline’s twenty-fifth birthday on the shores of the exotic Barious Islands while he spent the trading season in the northern archipelago. He haggled; they drank from coconuts and sunbathed on the white sands.
Caroline’s small bedroom connected onto the luxurious and spacious Captain’s quarters, where her parents slept, and where her mother currently sat for her morning tea. She wore her favorite dress, the blue with black lace bodice, and had done her copper hair up as best she could with the utilities available. She, like her daughter, had given up make-up on the moving ship. Thicker lashes were not worth losing an eye.
“Good morning, Mother.” Caroline joined her mother at the table and folded her legs underneath her.
The brass tea carafe hung, like its matching cups and fixings, on a swiveling stand. The base moved free of the ship, held up by two hooks firmly attached to the tabletop. Caroline reached for the carafe and poured herself a steaming cup. A good helping of honey came next.
Caroline sipped the warm tea, and said, “I hear we’re about to make land.”
“Yes, finally,” said her mother. “Your father informed me about an hour ago.”
“I didn’t hear him.”
“You were sleeping.”
“That’s not stopped him before. I think he’s proud of his authoritative voice,” Caroline said with a small laugh.
“He always uses it here.”
Her mother laughed, a practiced lady’s chime. “Well, if you were in charge of a ship full of… sailors, you’d need to use your outdoor voice too.”
Caroline took a long sip of tea. She’d added a little too much honey.
“I suspect we’ve got less than an hour until we’re back on solid ground,” her mother said.
“That’s good to hear.” Caroline would miss the ship, but she wouldn’t. She looked forward to sleeping in a proper bed again, not to mention eating proper food.
Her mother asked, “Are you going to change?”
Unlike her mother, Caroline had given into the sea-lifestyle clothing, forgoing the frilly gowns and corsets for the lightweight linen shirts and short pants, which had been perfect for walking on the beach.
Caroline sat up, back and neck poised, spine straight; she held the teacup out with her little finger extended. “You don’t like my new look?”
Her mother frowned. “You look like a boy.”
Caroline laughed and returned to her slouched posture. “I suppose that won’t help me find a husband.”
Her mother lightly laughed, saying, “Not one that you’d want.”
Both women laughed. It had been five months since their departure from their seaside home of Larkin, two months getting to the islands, one month on the beaches, and two months on the return. Despite the occasional mood swing or disagreement, Caroline had enjoyed the time spent with her mother.
The heavy wooden door to the cabin opened and Captain Eversole entered. He wore his nice red coat with the Eversole family crest over the right breast. While at sea, he dressed like the crew, dirty shirts and sea-sprayed air, but he dressed like a captain for strangers. Behind him a few steps marched Bruce Hamilton, his first mate. Bruce was a handsome, broad-shouldered young man who took the days under the sun well. Bruce kept his dark hair tied behind his head in a thick bundle of sailor’s tangles.
“Morning dears,” Captain Eversole said in his ship-shouting voice that could reach any part of the ship from any other part of the ship. “We’re nearing Larkin’s shores. Less than ten minutes to port.”
“I can’t wait,” said Mrs. Eversole. She pointed a finger across the table. “Caroline, be ready before we land. I don’t want to wait on this ship any longer than I have to.”
“Of course,” Caroline said with a courteous nod.
Captain Eversole sat at his wooden desk, hand-carved by the best wood smith in Larkin, and gathered his cluttered charts, maps, and ledgers. He hummed a tune under his breath, one that Caroline recognized; the crew sang almost every night. Her mother disapproved of the songs’ unlawful, often lusty, contents, and forbade Caroline from joining or listening, but the ship was large enough that someone somewhere was always singing.
Caroline finished her tea while watching her father, then set the cup down on the moving tray. She stood; Bruce stood much closer to her chair than she’d expected. They stood within arm’s reach of each other, but neither moved. His brown eyes looked her over, just as they had done on countless other occasions.
Caroline set her hands on her hips. “Mother doesn’t like my new style. I thought about starting the next trend on Larkin.”
Bruce smiled, and the tattoo that snaked from his chest to his chin stretched like a fish swimming through shallow water. He said in his buttery voice, “Next thing you know, boys will wear dresses.”
Caroline put a hand to her chin and walked around him, examining his muscular frame. She halted in front of him, returned her hands to her hips, and said, “I don’t know. I think you’d do well in yellow. It would go with your skin tone.”
Bruce laughed, a hearty sound. “You’re the expert.”
“That I am.”
His gaze met hers, and they fell into a locked stare. The dark brown of his eyes blended with the pupil, making them appear all black. When Bruce had first spoken to her, his eyes had worried her with their endless darkness, like tunnels without end, but she’d gotten used to them, and to him.
“Bruce, pack these up,” said Captain Eversole, motioning to the rolled maps and charts.
“Caroline, let’s get you dressed before we land.” Her mother took Caroline into her bedroom. She turned up the lantern and shut the door. She huffed at Caroline’s suitcase, still tucked underneath the bed. “Well, at least you’re packed.”
Her father and Bruce murmured on the other side of the door.
Before their trip had begun, both of her parents separately had warned her about the crew.
Deprived, her father called it.
Desperate, her mother said.
Before setting sail, many sailors came straight from the dock’s many brothels. Upon landfall, that would be their first stop.
Her parents needn’t have worried. Caroline had seen the crew. They fell well below her standards for men. Missing teeth, tattoos of naked women, and small vocabularies were just a few of her turnoffs.
Bruce had all of his teeth, except for one he’d lost in a fight, for which he’d gotten a silver replacement. His tattoo was a sea monster he swore he’d seen off the coast of Yut.
On the night before they left the Barious Islands, while the ship gathered supplies for the journey home, the crew had gone out to the brothels and taverns. Bruce hadn’t. He’d joined Caroline on the beach for one last night on the white sands underneath the stars.
“Here, this one will do.” Her mother pulled a red dress from the luggage and fluffed it out. “Put it on.”
Caroline pulled her wrinkled linen shirt over her head. Her mother let out a fearful gasp; Caroline jumped, clutching the shirt.
“You’re not wearing anything under it?” Mrs. Eversole gestured madly to her daughter’s bare chest.
“No,” Caroline said cautiously. She dropped the shirt onto the floor. Her breasts weren’t large enough to cause a problem in the baggy shirt.
“Shameful,” Mrs. Eversole scolded. She tossed the red dress onto the bed and yanked an under-dress from the luggage. She threw it at Caroline.
Caroline lifted the off-white under-dress over her head without complaint and let it fall down her shoulders. The thin material felt much softer than the cheap linen. She let the under-dress fall down her legs before she pulled off her pants. She didn’t want her mother to worry about the lack of underwear there too.
Her mother helped her into the red dress and pulled the strings of the corset tighter than she normally would have. Caroline stood with her hands against the hull’s beam, trying her best not to wince.
After a tedious hair brushing and a touch of make-up, Mrs. Eversole deemed her daughter worthy of the public. While her mother fussed over last-minute luggage, Caroline adjusted the laces of the tight bodice; she preferred to breath.
Dressed and prepped, the two women waited in the Captain’s quarters while the crew wrangled the ship toward Larkin’s harbor. While her mother drank tea, Caroline stood at the porthole. The southern side of Larkin stretched out over the green hills and plains, a pale green-blue line between the steely sea and cloudy sky.
She had pondered the idea of becoming a sailor during their voyage. The adventure of the high seas, the wind in the sails, the thrill of a storm, and the exotic places to visit sounded like a story; the sea was romantic, but Caroline belonged on dry land. She would leave the sea adventures to the born sailors.
The ship came into port, and the porthole’s view became one of the ship docked beside The Yawning Sea-Beast. Two of the crew came for their luggage and for the last time, Caroline stepped out of the Captain’s quarters and onto the main deck.
Caroline felt the change in the air immediately.
Dozens of ships docked at Larkin’s harbor, each in a different stage of departure or arrival. Gulls cawed overhead, flying between the rooftops, the water, and the many masts.
Larkin looked the same; the terraced city rose the hillside. The first tier held the docks and shipping warehouses, like her father’s, and many of the city’s questionable businesses. On a normal day, sailors mulled around, working at the dozens of warehouses and shipping yards that scattered the dock.
However, the murmur felt off. The usual clamor of drunken shouting and laughter was gone. The strange silence chilled the air, and Caroline wanted to return to the cabin.
Bruce and a few other sailors came back up the gangplank. He looked far less than enthused. Troubled, even.
“Did something happen?” Caroline asked.
“There was a raid last night,” he said. “Twenty hanged.”
A disagreeing rumble ran through the crew.
Caroline reached out to the doorframe to hide her unsteadiness. She managed to say, “Twenty? Hanged?”
“A raid?” Mrs. Eversole gasped. She grabbed onto her daughter’s arm.
“King Rednour’s war on piracy,” Captain Eversole said with distaste. “It’s a good thing that storm delayed us. That raid would have been madness trying to unload.”
The crew rumbled again, quieter this time, between each other. Caroline glanced toward the gallows at the other end of the dock. Though blurred by distance, several humanoid shapes hung from the ropes, swaying in the ocean breeze. Her stomach churned and bubbled, not unlike those first days aboard the ship.
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