A matter of conscience
Chapter 7: Going West
Location: On the ship's deck
Timeline: Around noon, next day after "A night to be tipsy"
With all the excitement before arriving in port, as well as everything that had gone down while docked, it was nice to finally have a quiet moment. The Steamhawke may as well be a cruise ship now considering all that they’d left behind. Ivan, like much of the other crew, had begun taking advantage of the relative calm while he had the chance. A quiet moment on this ship had quickly become a novelty.
Much as always Ivan had found a dark spot on deck to rest under. In this case he sat on the deck with his back against a stack of barrel the shadow of which covered him perfectly. Ivan found himself gravitating to darker spots on the ship, partially out of habit but also somewhat just by nature. Perhaps his tainted nature gave him an affinity for shadows, but even he couldn’t say for sure. Regardless, his tendency to remain concealed often made it much more difficult for the crew of the ship to find him than one would expect for such a large an obvious man.
Chago had just finished his shift and he descended from the rigging. He was looking for a place in the shadow to take a sip of grog, and his eyes, tired by the sunlight, hadn't noticed from the first glance that the place he was aiming for had already an occupant. When he noticed, he was too close to back off without a word. An excuse would be the most polite.
"I am sorry, mate. The sunlight of this shift has messed with my eyes, I hadn't seen you," he excused himself, then looking better at the man. Ivan waved his hand. “Don’t... worry about it.” replied swiftly (Or as swiftly as he could). “It wouldn’t... be the first time.”
He knew this man. He was almost sure he did. A mercenary who had been involved in a complicated mission together with him about three years ago. But he didn't remember the professional name the man was called on as a mercenary... and he didn't want to blow his cover if he was here for a mission.
"I am Chago Moreno," he introduced himself loudly, with a smile. "Just hired as a rigger before the ship took off. And I think I might know you from the tavern "The Armoury", we met there three years ago."
He deliberately didn't say the town, only the tavern's name. There might be taverns with this name in any port, but that particular one was a hub for the mercenaries waiting for jobs. The intermediaries of the potential employers knew they could find there anything they needed: a hand with a poisoned stiletto or pistol crossbow, a blade for hire, or even those who did more delicate jobs...
Ivan would have raised an eyebrow if he could, though not because he found the man’s story strange. He could certainly place the man easily enough. Ivan never forgot the work he did. What was unusual was meeting again so unexpectedly. But stranger things had happened before, so the large man wasn’t too taken aback.
“Of course... I remember well... enough.” Ivan started, scooting over as he did. He gestured for Chago to take a seat. May as well reminisce while they had a chance, even if it meant talking about it in vague unspecific terms. “Sorry about... getting out of there... so quick.” Ivan said, referring to his sudden gettaway from the place they’d first met. “But I’d finished... my business... and people tend... not to want... me around too long.” Ivan coughed a bit. Back then many of the other mercenaries in the area had begun taking offense to some tainted taking all their work and doing a better job than they ever could. As much as he’d have liked to have left a little less abruptly it hadn’t really been much of an option. He’d gotten out as soon as his last job had been completed. “Surely... you can understand.” he stated, nodding.
Chago smiled, reminiscing the scene the man alluded to. Sometimes, in such a tavern certain people who had already had a glass too many started being rough about a man who wasn't the usual customer there, but who got a better deal others, less meeting the employer's needs, might have wanted in vain.
"I know the feeling," he nodded. "It has happened to me some times as well."
Was he following a path too? Hopefully not being set up to compete for the same task, this would have been awful from the masked man who had sent him. Especially that Chago had talked with Mei-Xiu and he knew now that he wouldn’t be able to do what it was required from him; by contrary, he would protect her against anyone would want to take her by force back to where she would be killed, as she had told him in horror.
"I am glad to see a familiar face here," Chago said, with a warm smile, not sure how to state what else was on his mind. "Are you for a longer time aboard?"
This might answer a part of what he wanted to know. If he had been hired a few days before, it might mean they were after the same mark. If he had been there for a while, it meant either that he had joined the pirates for good, or that he was as an undercover spy meant to help one of the governments hunting them. But in any circumstance, Chago surely was never his enemy. Two brothers in arms who had eaten, drunk and especially hunted together for a mission might come one against the other some day, but in Chago's twisted code of honour, this was more difficult than for other mercenaries.
Ivan adjusted his sitting position slightly as he surmised the hidden meaning of Chago’s question. The old soldier had a growing hunch that the man was indeed here on a mission, though it could just as easily been a case of nerves. However Ivan had long ago learned to trust his instincts. Not that it mattered much in this case. Chago’s business was his own business and Ivan had no reason to press it. He suspected the reason for asking how long he’d be on board, and figured he’d be honest and put the man’s mind at ease.
“Since... a while before... the ship last... made port.” Ivan answered honestly. “I figure... I’ll stay on... until something better... comes along.”
Chago smiled alleviated. It made sense, and it meant that his suspicion was not true.
"I think I might do the same thing," he confessed equally honest. "It was not how it was initially meant to be, but it is how it ended being. And I don't know where we might talk freer, but from a brother to another, I would want to ask for your advice in a delicate matter. A matter of conscience," he whispered.
Brother? Yes, they were brothers in arms, and if the older mercenary didn't understand him, then who would? Ivan nodded understandingly. Chago wouldn’t be the first to come to Ivan for advice, and likely wouldn’t be the last. The soldier figured that his instinct was right; Chago was surely here on some business. Further, he figured something about his business wasn’t going quite as he had planned it. Ivan gestured again for Chago to take a seat, looking around the empty deck as he did.
“It’s pretty... quiet right now...” Ivan whispered. “Take a... seat... and let’s hear... what the problem... is.” There wasn’t much in the way of privacy on a steam ship. The best that could be hoped for was a quiet moment in the shadows, so where they were now would have to do.
It was all right, especially that they were barely whispering and the people seemed to be busy, not too close to them.
"I can't do what I was hired to do. I had been lied. I wouldn't have accepted it and taken the advance if I knew the truth," he answered. "Now I can't go back to Seaport, ever... neither can she. She is in danger there, while I was made to believe I was searching for a kidnapped young lady, maybe a slave of the pirates."
He didn't say who was "she" and he didn't intend to. The ship had enough women aboard who would match the vague description of the situation. But this didn't make his predicament any better. And to the first predicament, last night had added another. Two different, but convergent matters of conscience. He could ask for a fellow mercenary’s advice about a mark and a halted mission. He couldn’t ask Ivan for love advice, though. It was up to him to figure things out with Myira. So, he stuck to the situation with Mei-Xiu:
"I can’t return the money and you know I can't bring her back to a place she doesn't want to be, she is in danger in. So, I guess I am no better than an ordinary thief who had run away with the money. And this is exactly why I told you that I would be here until I find something better. Maybe I lose my trace in the Old West. Or I don't know."
Was he willing to get lost in the West? What about Myira, then? Well, this was really complicated! And would she want him anymore, once she knew the truth?
He was really confused, and he had never been in this situation before. Who knew him - Ivan included - would know that he never killed women and children, so he would understand the problem he was facing. Moreover, he didn;'t know the identity of his employer. Because, in these conditions, if he had known it, then the employer would have received a death for his money - a death which would have meant Mei Xiu would have been safe everywhere from then on.
Ivan listened silently to the Chago’s dilemma with a great deal of understanding. It always happened eventually in this line of work, a job going bad. Sometimes it happened early and sometimes late. Sometimes it ended a person’s career, or even life. But sure as the sunrise, one day a mercenary would have what he thought was a simple job get turned upside down. Employers withholding information or outright lying was surprising common. Often this deception is never revealed, causing many a hireling to perform a duty he may have hesitated to complete had he been privy to all the facts.
And yet the answer, at least to Ivan, was surprisingly simple. He’d been in many a similar situation and in the end they all boiled down to a single thing, and dwelling too much on it would usually get a man nowhere.
“Your employer... lied to you. Even a... mercenary... has morals.” Ivan began. “When you... accepted the job... you agreed because... you believed... the job was right. But knowing the truth... the job has changed. You agreed... to be a liberator... not a kidnapper.” Ivan coughed and continued. “There will be... consequences... for refusing to finish a job... but that’s the risk... of this profession.”
Ivan patted Chago lightly on the back. “In the end... what matters... is that you can... live with your decision... when it’s made.” Ivan wheezed. “Do what... you feel... is right... and go from there.”
He knew that, most likely, there would be consequences, even if he never returned to Seaport. The least one would be getting a bad name for himself, tainting his reputation and, therefore, not being able anymore to work in the field. But had he thought he would always do it? Had he never envisaged that it would come a time to quit, and do something else? Yes, he had, only that he had imagined it to be different.
"Thank you very much, my friend, I will. Yes, even a mercenary has morals, and I will do what I have to do. There is always a risk - this one or merely the one that once I might encounter a better fighter or a dirtier one, to strike first. What fate has in store for me, it is left to be seen. But it seems that I won't be a mercenary any longer. And what bothers me the most in this is the fact that my reputation will suffer. I am sure there will be bad words about me running away with the money. But how to return it and remain alive? And to whom, because this time the employer remained unknown?" Ivan simply shrugged and shook his head in replay. He couldn’t answer these questions either.
Looking in his eyes, he asked his brother in arms:
"How does it feel, quitting and doing something else? I mean... you have gone through this too, and you don't know what is you are waiting and hoping for. Neither do I."
Actually, he had a hope now. If he gave up this profession, he could have a chance at happiness with Myira. Less opportunities to make her a widow before being a bride… But wait a moment, since when such thoughts when they hadn’t discussed yet …anything?
Ivan managed a small chuckle, followed by a wheeze and a cough. “You take it... as you would... anything else.” He said with a nod. “One day... at a time.”
The answer made perfect sense for Chago. He was living one day at a time anyway, knowing that some "tomorrow" could be the last day in his life. And so did most other brothers in arms he had befriended in four years in this trade. Four years, and an acceptable fortune earned in this time. He was the saving kind, unlike others, knowing that a great part of his money would go for paying for his nephews' studies, as he wanted them to start better in life than their father could afford.
He had to admit that he knew being a mercenary was not a profession to last forever. He would have ultimately to change it. If he was doing it now, for a matter of conscience, or later, for getting too old to compete with the others, it mattered less. Or, rather, it might be better it has happened this way. The decision what to do next would come at the appropriate moment. Perhaps after talking to Myira, honestly and directly.
For now, he was a part of "Steamhawke's" crew. It was a starting point. Not one to his liking, not at all - but a better one than the predicament he had found himself into. And it was a place where he found a new love, rekindling his heart after about nine years. It was to be seen if this was meant to last, or a mere illusion.