A warm breeze sent clouds scudding across the face of the moon, sending bands of light and darkness across the deck. Brandr sighed as he easily held the wheel to a steady course, unconsciously adjusting to the tendency of the hastily-repaired rudder to pull to port. For a few hours each night, at least, he could feel like a sailor. It was a shame that Harrigan and Plugg had so broken this crew that they found it impossible to see the captain as anything other than a source of terror to be avoided. Perhaps, over time, they could be shaped into a band of comrades-in-arms rather than near-slaves, but for now, the lives of everyone aboard depended on obedience and discipline, so Brandr filled the role of aloof tyrant. He didn’t have to like it.
Glancing down at the compass in the binnacle, Brandr adjusted course a bit easterly. Sailing the Shackles at night was risky, particularly without good lookouts and leadsmen, but according to the charts there were leagues of open sea ahead, and with barely enough sail for steerage the Ruby was unlikely to hit anything too hard. One day, he would be able to run night or day, with the finest charts and expert lookouts. Gahiji had told him that elf-bloods made the best night lookouts, but gnomes (if you could find a reliable one) could also do a fine job, as could the raven-people. Of course, if all tengu were like Corvus Dreadbeak, Brandr would be quite happy to leave them all ashore. That one was a storm boiling on the horizon; during the first few weeks on the Wormwood Brandr had thought that Corvus was a kindred soul, but as time went on, it was becoming increasingly apparent that he was just a feathery Plugg: cruel, petty, and vicious. Out of respect for their shared history, Brandr hoped he wouldn’t be forced to kill the tengu; at the very least, it would be terrible for morale for two officers to fight, and there was always a possibility that Corvus could get in a lucky hit, or that Cromarcky would even throw in with him.
The best way to deal with that storm on the horizon would be to capture another ship and let those two go off to pursue their own dreams. Most likely, Corvus would be dead at his crew’s hands within three months, and Cromarcky would have probably fallen from the rigging and broken her neck right after making some grand speech. Until then, Brandr would continue to work with them, but keep a wary eye out for their likely betrayal.
A flicker of movement drew Brandr’s attention to the mid-deck. He just caught Sandara’s wink as she slipped into his cabin. It seemed that she had finally forgiven him for taking so long to rescue her.
“Mr. Fipps! The helm is yours. Hold the current course, and tell your relief to do the same.” With that, Brandr strode into his cabin, and the gentle arms of Sandara Quinn.
“You know, this bed is ridiculously comfortable.” Sandara stretched luxuriously under the embroidered silk sheet, then nestled herself in the crook of Brandr’s arm. “It is such a shame you keep standing night watches and can’t fully enjoy it.”
Brandr touched a spill to Sandara’s pipe and took a few thoughtful puffs before passing it to his lady-love. “Sandara, are all the pirate ships in the Shackles ruled by madmen and crewed by lickspittles? Up north, the crew of a raiding ship share a bond as fellow warriors, following a captain they trust and respect, but here it seems that sailors see the captain as an enemy to be avoided or killed.”
“Ohh, that’s the way it’s always been. The captain must be strong, or nobody will follow him. Strong men naturally frighten those who are weaker.” Sandara idly blew a few smoke rings to punctuate her musings.
“That seems backwards to me. Look at Scourge, a coward and weakling, who hid behind the captain’s skirts; or Plugg, an incompetent brute who relied on fear rather than skill. Now they rot at the bottom of the sea. My grandfather showed his followers he was strong by seeing them safely through storms, by leading them to victory and filling their pockets with gold. When he was nearly killed by the Devil Kraken of the Screaming Deeps, two of his crew gave their lives as they struggled to cut him free of its dead tentacles, and they sailed night and day to reach the witch who dwells in the heart of the Eye of Abendego to lift the curse the kraken had laid with its dying breath. Can you imagine anyone doing that for Harrigan?” Brandr reached for the pipe, tapping out the dottle and packing a fresh bowl.
Sandara rolled her eyes. “We’re pirates, not heroes. We prowl the sea, capture ships weaker than ours, and flee from the stronger. Oh, it would be nice to follow a captain who was strong and brave, and fair and loyal to his crew, but those days are long past. Do you think you can bring back those days? Are you the one whose name will be cried to the heavens by Besmara herself?”
Brandr heaved himself upright and planted a kiss on her smiling lips. “I think my name will be on the lips of a certain red-haired priestess of the Pirate Queen, at least.”
At the wheel, Fipps sighed as he slouched at the wheel. Whatever else he thought about the captain’s virtues and flaws, he couldn’t deny the man had stamina.