Smoke by Moonlight
Chapter 1: The Sea and the Port
Location: The Steamhawke
Timeline: Night before shipping out...
The ship was different at night. It still creaked and rocked with the wind and the pace of the water, back and forth and back and forth. Quieter though, without the riff raff from the docks. It wasn't yet midnight but the November night hung black like a thick sheet over everything, the water beneath stretching out for eternity. Nicholai looked up at the stars and the moon, breathed smoke out through his nose and mouth.
He didn't feel like staying below decks tonight and he had done all he could in the kitchen from the moment he stepped foot into the galley. He'd spent the previous day and a half figuring out where everything was located, organizing it to his liking, making food for any crewmember who happened to stop by. He also cured some meats which had been brought in last minute, found a way of storing products that had the chance to go bad quickly, and even pickled some of the produce to make it last longer. It was work for three days at least and he had gotten it done quickly.
Nicholai leaned against the banister, one leg dangling over the side, smoking a cigarette from a pack he had found on the ground in the crew's quarters. The package was waterlogged but he was pleasantly surprised that the cigarettes still lit. Sucking in smoke, he looked over his shoulder towards the center of the main deck. The crew had grown since he signed on; the captain's announcement at the tavern must have taken well with the local crowd. They loaded up to ship out the next day, heading for locations unknown.
He turned his back as he heard the sound of heels on wood. Everyone wore boots on a ship. From behind, he heard someone ask, "Might I bum one?"
Brem had seen Nicholai briefly about the ship during the previous days and thought he should at least talk to the chef before they left the port, this being as good a chance as any.
Nicholai held out the pack and Brem drew one out. They took the chance to regard one another, two ragged-looking men. Nicholai had not noticed until now that the man wore a patch over his right eye. As always, Nick's left side was hidden in the shadow; he had gotten good at that.
Brem took a small packet of matches out of his pocket and struck one, taking a deep breath of the smoke. It had been a hard few days since he joined the ship; for some reason his underlings didn't like him sleeping in the engine room and this had caused one or two 'mishaps'.
"I'm Brem, chief engineer on this bucket. I hear you're going to be cookin' for us, how do you feel on delivering food from time to time?"
"Do I look like a maid?" He asked evenly. Brem grinned, "I'll take that as a 'no'."
First impressions were carved in stone and they would be traveling together for God knew how long. They should have been introduced in a better light but Nicholai didn't care much for a man who held himself highly and Brem wasn't one to regard himself the way others looked at him.
"You're welcome to come down'a the galley and get your food should you want it," Nick said. "You plan on always sleeping in the engine room?"
That girl, Kanya, she was fond of the engines.
"Well how else am I going to keep them in shape?" Brem replied.
He could sleep in the crew quarters but then he wouldn't have the steady beat of the engines to help him sleep; he also didn't feel like he needed to smell the other members of the crew in such a way as sleeping in the same room. No, he would keep to the engine room.
Before Nicholai could respond another figure lumbered over in the dark. Fern had just come from below decks and her eyes were having trouble adjusting to the dark. Her arms were laden with fishing supplies and a thick blanket, and she nearly ran over Brem as she approached the rail.
"Ach, sorry there! Thank heavens ya has some cigarette light there, or I might've accidentally rammed right into ya! My apologies uh. . . shipmates." Fern squinted in the dark at the faces of the two men, each lit rather ominously by the glow of their cigarettes. Having only made it aboard this morning she hadn't had the chance to meet many members of the crew, though she thought she had seen the one with the eye patch in the engine room when she was taking a quick tour. He'd looked pretty busy, and since the only thing she knew about the engine was how to spell it she kept out of his way.
Realizing she had just interrupted the men's conversation she felt embarrassed for a moment as she set down her gear. It was a short moment, however, and her embarrassment quickly was quickly replaced with anticipation to be at sky again. Despite the fact that she couldn't sleep for her excitement at setting sail, she was in a cheerful mood and happy enough to be around company.
"I'm Mate Farley, Fern Farley. New navigator aboard this mighty fine ship. Hope ya don' mind me joinin' yer lil party out here. Couldn't sleep, and I thought to myself since we was still in the waters I could do a bit o' fishin'! I love fishin', when I can get to it. Keeps me happy as a rabbit in springtime! Either of you wanna join me? I got an' extra pole here."
She set her second pole against the rail then went about baiting her hook with some sardines from a grubby little tin. Her blanket was discarded on the deck beside her, forgotten until the cold November air would begin to seep through her patched coat.
"I dunno what you plan to catch," Nick said as he watched her, taking another drag from the half-spent cigarette. He gestured towards the other end of the docks, the marina that was home to the fishing vessels, sparsely lit. "You'd have'ta go further out to get anything worth the work."
Farley was adamant though so Nick just watched her at it, glancing only briefly at Brem. He and the navigator shared a common accent, a first of the crew members he had met. She picked up on it as well, "Ah, an old Southern man! Where's yer sense of camaraderie?"
"Seems to have fled," he muttered darkly.
"How unpleasant," she said, unfazed, sticking a second sardine through the hook with a small squelch. The smell wafted over with the breeze and Brem sniffed disdainfully. "You're the cook, ain't ya? How's about you cook up whatever I catch, and I will catch somethin', you mark my words, sir."
He tossed the whittled butt of the cigarette overboard and swung his leg back over onto the ship, planted two feet firmly onto the deck floor, "Trash and port-sludge doesn't taste good, no matter what sauce you drown it in. That's all you'll find in these waters."
Nicholai had turned his face from the shadow to the light without realizing; the light made the cracks around his eye pucker and shine with shadowy contrast.
Brem had listened to the newcomer chatter on with herself until Nick stood up. "Probably best cook up the bait, it'll taste better than the old boot you'll catch here."
He flicked the cigarette bud over the side of the ship and turned to Nick. Seeing the glow he said, "Well then..." He had seen tainted people before, even worked with them in close proximity, so it didn't bother him much. "Nice meeting you both."
With this he turned from the pair and headed back to the engine room while muttering, "That girl is too chipper for her own good."
As Brem departed Fern waved to him without taking her eyes from her line. A frustrated frown creased her features as she watched a small fish eat Brem's leftover cigarette then swim away into the dark, leaving her sardine and hook untouched. Sighing a little she leaned her pole against the rail and picked up her blanket. It was thick, scratchy wool, but warm, and as she slung it about her shoulders she glanced up at the cook, mouth open to say something--
--and she saw the part of his face that had been hidden in darkness before. She choked on her words, forgotten now, and coughed violently for a few moments. Fern liked to think she had traveled enough to not be surprised by anything. The presence of one of the tainted, however, was certainly enough to catch her off guard. She would never have imagined that Captain Bradley would have allowed one on board. This tainted was going to bring bad luck to the whole crew! What if he went mad on them all one day? What if he poisoned their food? Who knew what a tainted would do to normal humans. . .
All the horrible stories Fern had grown up hearing about the tainted whirled through her mind as she fumbled with her pole. She reeled in her line awkwardly. Her fingers suddenly felt numb.
Fern could feel Nicholai tense up beside her and return his scarred face to the shadow. He inched away from her. Or was she the one moving away?
"I uh. . . I see yer prob'ly right when you say I won't catch anything here tonight. Best if I didn't dawdle me time away um. . ." As she scrambled to grab her things her grubby tin of sardines slipped from her hands and landed by Nicholai's foot. She swore and instinctively bent down to get it, reaching her hand out.
But she stopped short, gasping as she realized how close she was coming to touching him. What if she could catch it?
For a split second she looked into his face. She could no longer see his cracked skin. All she could make out was his normal eye. It was so human. Fear and compassion battled for her heart in that moment.
Fear won in the end. She snatched up her tin, shoved it in her pocket, and shuffled away with her blanket and fishing poles dragging behind her.
He looked after her, his heart pounding, blood boiling. Was he that stupid to forget what it did to other people? Or was he more ignorant to think that they wouldn't be like the others? Anger rose like disgusting vile in his throat and he swallowed it heavily. On the rough planks, a live sardine flopped for dear life. Had he been entertaining higher spirits he would have brushed it off the side with the side of his boot.
As it was, Nicholai squashed the dying fish with the sole of his heavy boot and left.