A pounding at the door jolted Jost out of sleep. A naked woman lay sprawled on her stomach next to him, her hair a golden tangle down her back.
“Get the door, handsome,” she grumbled as she snuggled deeper into her pillows.
The person at the door pounded on it again.
Jost threw the covers back and padded over to the door, not bothering with clothes despite being just as bare assed as the woman. Whoever was disturbing him before dawn could deal with him as he was without complaint.
Jost’s body was lean and hard from the rigors of life at sea. Scars decorated his arms and a few spots along his ribs and back. It was a hard life, one that required strength and determination, and had molded his form into something that meant he rarely lacked for company.
He yanked open the door just as that annoying individual started pounding on it again.
Two men stood outside. Neither blinked at Jost’s state of undress. They were not men that Jost recognized. Definitely not one of his crew, who were the only ones who should have been able to track him down. Their clothes would fit in all but the poorest or richest of neighborhoods. They were either criminals or spies. He’d be willing to bet they weren’t on the criminal side of things either. They lacked a certain air about them.
Jost knew what was coming before the first one spoke.
“My lord, your benefactor has a new task for you,” the shorter one said.
Jost sighed. Of course he did. Jost had been in port all of one night, just long enough to deliver the package and find a soft woman to keep him company. He’d hoped to spend a few weeks getting to know all the nooks and crannies of her body before setting out to sea again. Did that matter to his benefactor? No.
Jost raised his hand and made a give me motion. The man who had spoken handed over a small envelope with the sigil of the Aurelian Empire stamped in wax on the back. The sigil was a dragon wrapped around a large stone.
He shut the door in the men’s faces before they could say anything else. He had no further need for them. Everything he needed was in this letter. The men were just the messengers. Unimportant and unnecessary after the message had been delivered.
The woman he’d spent last night with lifted her head from the pillow, her hair rumpled, and turned her face towards him. She didn’t bother to open her eyes.
“Who was at the door?” her voice throaty and raspy from sleep.
“No one important. Go back to bed.”
There was a mumble of agreement before the woman tucked her head back into the pillow and the soft sounds of sleep reached Jost.
He walked to the only desk in the room and lit the candle. He tilted the paper to the dim light to read what it said.
After finishing, he ripped it into several pieces and then dropped all but one into the basket next to the desk. The last he held over the flame before dropping it too into the basket. He watched until the papers had stopped burning before taking a paper from inside the desk and lighting it too on fire. He then dropped the paper into the basket, setting the rest to burning again.
Only when everything had been reduced to a fine ash did he find his clothes and dress. He let himself out of the room, not stopping to say good bye to the woman or even sparring her a glance.
His first stop on his way back to the ship was to a room three down from his. He knocked softly on the door, waiting until Darren answered. Darren’s dark brown hair stuck up on the sides as he stared sleepily at Jost.
“Recall the crew. We leave at dawn,” Jost said.
The look of sleep faded quickly from Darren’s face. He didn’t ask where they were going. He knew better. That information wouldn’t be shared until they were underway and had to plot a course.
Darren gave Jost a crisp nod and shut the door. Jost’s first mate was a man of few words. He only spoke when absolutely necessary and ran the crew with a ruthless efficiency. He’d get them recalled and have the ship underway in half the time it would take most men. Anybody who didn’t make it back in time would be left behind.
* * *
“Months out here and it’s like trying to grab onto ghosts,” Danny said, staring at the horizon.
Jost grunted and dropped the spyglass from his eye. The ocean was a deep turbulent grey so dark it was nearly black. It had been a hard four months since setting sail on the mission their benefactor gave them. Months full of harsh conditions fueled by frustration and an increasing sense of unease in the crew.
The sea of the north wasn’t a forgiving place. One miscalculation could send the ship and all its crew to a watery grave. If the ship went down, it would be impossible to survive long in this water. Less than thirty minutes in the frigid temperatures and a person would be hypothermic. Not long after that and they’d be dead.
Above water wasn’t much better. It was cold to begin with and when the wind blew it felt like it cut through a man with a thousand needles. Sharp and fierce enough to steal the breath from the lungs.
Thanks to the dryness up here, Jost’s hands were chapped raw and his skin dry. No amount of grease or fat rubbed into them could protect them. His lips were cracked. He was one of the lucky ones too. Some of the crew’s hands and faces were in even worse shape.
All the crew had to show for their work was a couple sightings of their quarry in the far distance. Before they could close on them, their prey disappeared into the fog and ice that shrouded the Northern Sea. It was like hunting a mirage, there and gone the next minute.
They’d been all through these waters and nothing.
“How are the men?” Jost asked, as Darren joined the two men on the forecastle deck.
“Cold, hungry and wishing we’d head back to warmer seas.”
“Can’t say that I blame them.” Danny rubbed his hands together and blew on them. “Morale seems to get worse with every day we’re out here and nothing to show for it.”
Darren’s sour expression said he agreed. “They’re starting to get antsy. Guy by the name of Roger seems determined to start something. Don’t think he knows what yet.”
And antsy men were trouble. They thought they could get away with things they couldn’t. If they got restless enough, they might start thinking Jost’s position would suit them. This Roger might decide he had what it took to lead. He would be sadly mistaken but by then it would be too late.
Jost had enough loyalty in the crew that any dissenters would be dealt with effectively and permanently, but he had no desire to sail this ship back home with a skeleton crew.
“Will it be a problem?”
Darren frowned as he considered the question. “Not yet.”
“Keep an eye on them,” Jost told the other two.
They both nodded.
“It might be close to time to rotating out the crew,” Danny said.
Darren grunted in agreement. Every few years Jost released most of the crew, keeping only those who were utterly loyal to him. The ones who knew a bit of his dealings and would follow him into the deepest pits of the abyss. Cycling the crew out every once in a while kept those who might be curious from getting too knowledgeable about his business. It also prevented the necessity of having to kill those who knew too much and became a threat.
The ones he kept would face down the Creators themselves, the greatest evil this world had spawned, if he asked it of them.
Jost looked back at the horizon. It was full of drifting ice bergs and water that was becoming slushy in places. If they pushed much further north or stayed here much longer, they ran the risk of getting stuck, frozen in place until the weather shifted or the sea thawed. The ship didn’t have enough supplies to survive a winter up here.
“Push on for tonight. If the men protest, silence them.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Darren murmured as Jost handed over the eyeglass before heading to his quarters. Neither man protested the order.
The main privileges the captain’s quarters boasted of was the fact that it was dry and provided shelter from the wind. Two luxuries that were in short supply on deck.
He sat at his desk and stared at the rough sea outside of the three small windows in the back of his cabin. Glow lamps illuminated the space. The fist size globes of soft white light were less dangerous than having an open flame on a wooden ship.
Jost’s ship, The Marauder, was a schooner that predated Jost’s tenure as a pirate. Equipped with two masts and a sun engine that worked in tandem with the sails, it was one of the fastest ships on the seas. The sun engine worked to absorb the energy of the sun and transfer it to power the engines. The only ships faster belonged to the Emperor’s personal fleet. No other pirate ship matched it in terms of speed or maneuverability.
His father had designed the ship and when he died, Jost had taken it as his flag ship. He’d modified it a little, made it more suited to his current line of work by adding several cannon ports and a few other features ideal for piracy. His father was in every inch of this ship but the additions carried Jost’s stamp. It gave him a perverse pleasure knowing something created from the legacy of both men was an instrument in avenging his family’s memory.
He was in an odd mood tonight. He hadn’t thought of his father in many years. Perhaps it was this mission and the memories it sparked.
Jost leaned forward and opened the bottom drawer in his desk, pulling out a bottle of scotch and a glass to go with it. He unscrewed the top and poured a finger’s width into the glass, before recapping the bottle and placing it on the desk.
He sipped the scotch, relishing the harsh burn in his throat and the warmth it left in his belly.
This mission had promised to put him in the path of the men he suspected had murdered his family. His father and mother, brother and sister. Instead it seemed he was stuck hunting ghosts. Capturing those men and making them pay in the worst way imaginable had been what drove him for these past two decades. It was why he got out of bed in the morning and made the tough decisions that would have seen his mother disowning him had she been still among the living.
Jost’s face was contemplative as he considered the sea out his window. He took another sip of scotch.
He had been disappointed before when he thought he was close. But this time felt different. Like it might be the last time before the window closed.
He rolled the glass in his hands. He took another sip.
Yes, he’d been here before. There would be other chances. Other quarry to hunt. Because he wouldn’t give up. Not until every last person responsible for the destruction of his family had paid in blood.
He spun the small globe on his desk, watching as it turned. It gave one last rotation. He stopped it and sat forward, lightly tracing their path from the port near Takkan where they’d set sail from. He ran his fingers up far into the north until they rested in the general area of their current location. On the globe, the artist had rendered several ice bergs and small rocky islands.
If he was leading a clandestine operation way beyond the touch of the civilized world, where would he be?
Not freezing his balls off on a choppy northern sea while risking winter storms sinking his ship or getting frozen in place until the ice jams broke up. That’s for sure.
He traced his fingers east and tapped the globe. Hm. The Northern Reaches. No one on that long stretch of land. Not that he knew of.
The winters were harsh there. The summers too. There were many dangerous things that called that place home. Things not seen since the Creators retired from this world.
It would make a good base. A place to operate out of. One that held little chance of discovery since few had any reason to venture so far north. It was also off the normal shipping lanes.
He tossed the rest of the scotch back and stood. He walked to the door and called to one of the men waiting right outside.
“Call the first mate to my quarters,” Jost ordered.
The man leapt to do Jost’s bidding, disappearing across the deck.
Jost didn’t have long to wait until there was a sharp rap on the door.
Darren stepped inside. “You called for me.
“Set a course for the Northern Reaches. The men can spend some of their energy on hunting snow cats. If they catch any that can be traded down south, it’ll quiet any dissent. It might even be a nice way to recoup some of the profit lost on this voyage,” Jost said.
Darren cocked his head, his reserved expression taking in Jost. His thoughts remained locked behind his eyes. “As you wish.”
Jost nodded in dismissal. Darren took it as his sign to leave, closing the door gently behind him.
Yes, there would be other opportunities. Other hunts. No need to rush and get himself killed through useless impatience before his job was done.