Tales of the Ailendar, Volume 6: The Last Voyage of the Starling – Part 1

Captain Cadius trudged up the hedge-lined path winding around the hillside, puffing like a bellows and muttering curses under his breath. He shrugged out of his weather-beaten captain’s coat and slung it over one arm. The Lord of Lukkos’s estate perched on the hill with its many windows glinting from the late afternoon sunshine. To Cadius, they seemed as mocking eyes casting their gaze down upon him, unconcerned for his creaking knees and aching back. Stiffening his jaw, he hauled himself up the last several feet, then turned into a seaborn breeze and let it cool the sweat at his gray hairline. “So, this is what it comes to for us, eh?” he grumbled to the visage of his beloved.

From this height, Cadius saw the ocean stretching beyond the furthest reach of his sight, and a longing ache in his heart overshadowed all his body’s complaints. “So, it does,” he muttered with bitter resignation, before sighing deeply. “But for you, it’s worth it.”

A pair of guards stood at the wrought iron gate surrounding Lord Garnithos’s estate. Cadius pulled his coat on and smoothed down the patched sleeves. “Captain Cadius,” he stated with every ounce of dignity he could muster, “requestin’ a moment of Lord Garnithos’s valuable time.”

One guard nodded and strode to the front door while the other watched Cadius closely, a hand on his cutlass hilt. Though newly-forged and devoid of any rust, it was a match for Cadius’s own blade. His raggedy whiskers couldn’t hide his sneer. What landlocked toy soldier had need for such a weapon? There were no ropes or canvas to saw through here, no rigging or decks around him to scuffle in. Or was it mere tradition now, a token nod to their history even as the country fled at full sail away from it? He shot a resentful glare at the guard, who scowled back and tightened his grip.

At least the young pups still have some fight.

A shadow passed overhead, drawing Cadius’s attention to the sky. A four-masted galleon soared above the rooftops, heading westward, sails snapping like the wings of some massive seabird.

Cadius’s glare deepened. Seabirds and airships had a few things in common, like a tendency to shit on those living beneath them.

The first guard returned in the company of a high-ranking house servant, who greeted Cadius with a bow. “The Lord of Lukkos will see you immediately, my good captain,” he simpered.

Cadius grunted and permitted the man to lead the way, even though he could walk the estate blindfolded. Throughout his life, he’d been in the confidence of three Lords of Lukkos. The interior boasted more opulent furnishings than it had on his last visit, but while the building itself was of higher quality, the layout remained unchanged, no matter how many times it was razed and rebuilt.

Another legacy of Lukkos. Much like me.

Cadius’s aged body protested the climb up the winding staircase, and he had to stop midway to get his breath back. The servant’s patient smile grated on his nerves. “What’re you starin’ at, ye great fop?” he barked. “Out of me way!” Despite the wealth of space on the stairs, he shouldered past the aggravatingly well-kept functionary and stomped the rest of the way up. As unerring as a bow pointed at the northern stars, he marched down the second floor corridor and crossed the threshold of the Lord of Lukkos’s study.

Garnithos rose from behind his heavy desk as Cadius entered. “The mad old Coast Raker himself,” he rumbled, a chuckle coating his tone like foam on waves. “Good to see you, Captain Cadius.”

The use of Cadius’s old moniker nearly halted him in his tracks. A wave of memory broke over him, intensifying the ache but in such a way that it buoyed him. He crossed the intervening space in three strides and gripped Garnithos’s offered hand in greeting. Almost without thinking, he pressed his free arm across his chest, an old gesture between pirates to display a lack of hidden weapons. Garnithos grinned, mirroring the gesture, and the years seemed to fall from his face before Cadius’s eyes. Suddenly, his lord was a pup again, scraggle-bearded with clever, dangerous eyes preparing for his first boarding action.

“Waves take me, but it has been long since we’ve crossed blades, eh, lad?” Cadius blurted out.

“Verbally or physically?” Garnithos asked. “I still bear scars from both.”

Cadius threw back his head with a resounding guffaw before easing himself into a chair in front of Garnithos’s desk. “Didn’t I always say a captain’s two best weapons are his blade and his tongue? And both need to be sharp if’n you want the best use out of ‘em.”

“Three.” Garnithos stepped behind the desk and resumed his seat.

“Eh, what’s that?”

“You said a captain’s three best weapons were his blade, his tongue, and his wits.”

“Oh.” Cadius blinked, scratching vaguely at his whiskers as his memory clouded over alongside his mood. “Right. That was it, wasn’t it? Three best weapons.”

Garnithos waved his hand in the air, as if he could just brush away Cadius’s mistake, and the years came rushing back between them like a tide. “How is the Starling, Cadius?”

That single question wrenched Cadius back to the present. Suddenly, he was the graying, frayed captain of a drydocked ship, sitting before the Lord of Lukkos, about to petition a favor. Begging for charity. He suppressed a shudder at the thought.

“Still the best ship afloat on the water,” he insisted, unable to completely dispel the injured tone from his voice. “Or she will be again, once she’s mended.”

“She’s still up on stilts?” Garnithos asked, sounding surprised. “That squall upended her more than two years ago. Why is she—”

“Because it’s mighty hard for a captain to earn pay what’s without a ship,” Cadius huffed. “You know me, lad. Never much believed in saving for a rainy day. Just didn’t see the sense in it. What good’s swag gonna do you when yer ‘neath the waves? Besides, I always counted on the Starling to bring in more if the coffers were cobwebbin’.” He snorted bitterly. “Bit of irony there, eh? Need money to fix ‘er up so I can go back to makin’ money.”

Garnithos leaned back in his chair and threaded his arms across his chest. “You looking to take out a loan?”

Cadius frowned at him in disapproval. “I’m lookin’ for work, Garnithos. Ain’t no man alive, not even the Lord of Lukkos hisself, is going to put a hand on my purse strings.”

“A sentiment I can understand, Cadius, but you might be forced to swallow those words if you want to get the Starling afloat.” Garnithos fell silent, frowning contemplatively. “Why not just convert her? If you can wring yourself out, I know more than a few shipping companies are looking for experienced captains. The Silver Cloud, the—”

Cadius drove his fist down on one of the chair’s armrests. “Not one more word!” he snarled. “My ship be made for the sea, and nothing else will suit her! I’ll not see her turned into some…” He spluttered angrily as he grappled for the right description. “Some… floating atrocity! That’s a thousand times worse than indebting meself. She’d be better off lightin’ up someone’s hearth than bobbin’ through the air like an o’ergrown pigeon!”

A subtle change came over Garnithos’s expression. His frown deepened and seemed to sink inward. His gaze dropped to his folded arms, not in retreat, but with a sense of resignation. “I didn’t know your… feelings ran so deep, Cadius. I apologize for the suggestion.”

“S’alright,” Cadius muttered, realizing he’d probably just sunk his last chance to resurrect the Starling. For several long moments, the two men sat in silence, not looking at one another. “I ain’t sorry for what I said though. The spirit of Lukkos is wasting away in drydocks like the one imprisoning my ship. We’re made of brine and bone, not clouds and feathers.”

“Why can’t Lukkos rule both futures?” Garnithos asked quietly. “Aren’t our people capable of that?”

Several choice remarks rose to Cadius’s lips, but he pursed them and said nothing.

“You don’t wish to convert the Starling, and I pity any man who tried to force you,” his lord continued. “As her captain and master, that is your right. Very well. Does she still have a crew?”

Cadius flinched. “A skeletal one.” His throat clenched as his gaze misted. “But good lads before the mast, every one. The best I’ve yet known. Loyal to the Starling ‘til their dying breaths, they’ve told me, even through these lean years.”

“Then perhaps we can come to an agreement after all.”

Cadius heard the sound of paper shuffling and turned to see a large parchment sitting on the desk. He couldn’t read the words, but the painted image of a sloop cutting through calm waters dominated the space.

“I’m starting a new venture for our remaining sea fleet,” Garnithos said. “Travel across the ocean has become a novelty among the wealthy of the landed nations. There’s a market for cruises to the southern isles. Real money, Cadius. Imagine it.” He tapped the parchment to punctuate his point. “Your Starling riding the waves again, restored to her full glory, the premiere vessel among a line of ships to come.”

“A seaborne carriage for the same fops we’d have raided less than a decade ago?” Cadius looked up from the poster to stare incredulously at Garnithos. “This is what the legacy of Lukkos’s fleets has been reduced to?”

“Every self-respecting captain has ferried passengers before,” Garnithos argued, his expression turning stormy.

“To fill space for a little profit on the side!” He snatched up the parchment and slapped it with his free hand. “This is a debasement!”

“It’s fleecing puffed-up merchants!”

“It’s false piracy! A sham!” Cadius’s angry fingers crumpled the poster as he leapt to his feet. Garnithos stayed where he was, and for the first time, Cadius saw a deep well of pity swirling beneath the thin sheen of outrage in his lord’s eyes. With a growl, he tore the parchment to shreds and shoved a finger in Garnithos’s face. “You’re just like all the rest. Sold your soul to the fluttering whims of madmen and completely forgotten what it means to be a sea dog!”

Deliberately, Garnithos planted his hands on his desk and rose to his feet. “We’re not mere sailors anymore, Cadius,” he rumbled, his tone coated in iron but fire blazing in his eyes. “If you want a demonstration, draw your blade. Or are you already too far in your cups to see straight?”

Cadius drew a hard, deep breath, glowering at his lord with all his strength, until an ugly sneer curled his upper lip. “You ain’t worthy to cross swords with a real captain, boy. May the Mists claim you.” He turned on his heel and stomped toward the door. At any moment, he expected to feel the bite of steel in his back, but none came as he turned into the corridor.

I ain’t even worth the effort to kill…