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Chapter One

Jost was not a patient man by nature. Unfortunately, a man in his position learned to acquire such skills whether he appreciated the finer points of them or not. They were a necessary part of the job, and he was nothing if not good at his job.

“Please. Please, no. I’ve told you everything I know,” the man pleaded with Jost. “There’s nothing else. I swear it.”

Jost sighed. The man was lying. Why did they always try to lie? He wasn’t even being discrete about it. That was the real insult. If you were going to lie, at least try not to be obvious about it. Otherwise things were just too boring.

“Captain, we’ve located the cargo, and the men are transferring it to our ship now,” Jost’s first mate, Darren, said as he stepped onto the deck from the hold below. His eyes were dispassionate as he eyed the poor sap pinned to the deck courtesy of Jost’s sword through his shoulder.

“And the package?”

Darren shook his head. “No sign of it.”

Jost leaned his weight into the sword. Just a little bit. He didn’t want to accidently kill his victim before he could answer all of Jost’s questions.

“You just had to do this the hard way,” Jost told the man.

He gave the sword a small quarter twist to the right. Jost wanted to make sure the man understood just how serious he took his questioning.

“I don’t where it is. It was never on my ship.”

“Now see, I know you’re lying,” Jost said. He ripped the sword out of the captain’s shoulder and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, taking the time to clean off his blade before sliding it into the scabbard attached to his belt. “I know this because my men watched you take it out of its nice little hidey hole in Takkan. Furthermore, they watched you carry it onto your ship and then set sail.”

The captain shook his head, one hand clapped to his shoulder as he tried to stem the blood seeping out of him. His eyes rolled in panicked desperation showing the white around them. “You’re mistaken. It wasn’t me. We didn’t set sail from Takkan. We’re out of Arbon.”

“Oh?” Jost raised one eyebrow at the captain. He gestured for Darren to give him what he was holding. “Because my first mate found these in your quarters.”

Darren handed several blood lemons to Jost. They were a sunny yellow and had red thorns around the skin. Jost took one carefully and pulled out his knife to cut the blood lemon in half, exposing the light pink flesh inside. He raised the fruit to his mouth and took a bite.

“Tart but sweet and perfectly ripe. I can see why you picked a few of these up at your last port. They make a nice change from the boring meals on ship. Funny thing is I know that this fruit is only in season right now in Takkan. Arbon doesn’t’ export these so the only place you could have come by something this luxurious would be Takkan.”

The other captain’s breath came in fast pants. He’d been caught and he knew it.

Jost gave him a friendly smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Would you like to tell me again how you didn’t come from Takkan?”

The captain didn’t answer, just stared at Jost with fear in his eyes.

“We could gather his crew. Make him watch as we kill them,” Darren said. He had a sour expression on his face as he watched the captain. Darren disliked weakness. He didn’t understand it and abhorred when he was forced to confront it in others.

Jost, for his part, had no more respect for it than Darren, but he at least understood it. How to take advantage of it, and how to turn it to his benefit.

“No, he’ll just watch them die while praying that we’ll spare him by some miraculous turn of events.” He studied the captain with an assessing eye. The man looked like the type to sacrifice others in the pursuit of his own survival.

“What do you suggest we do?”

“In situations such as these, it’s best to make things personal. Provide incentive to see things our way. Maybe jog his memory for him.”

Danny, a senior member of Jost’s crew, stepped up behind them carrying several sticks of the blooming flower that Jost had asked for. Blooming flower was a type of explosive. This particular one was in the shape of small sticks no bigger than Jost’s forefinger and wrapped on one end in green paper. The other end was red and looked very like the petals on a flower, hence the name. The explosion it could create wasn’t very big; it was more for pinpoint accuracy.

“I’ve got what you asked for, Captain,” Danny said. He was a large man, taller than Jost and packed with muscles. Shaggy black hair and a thick beard hid much of his features from others and gave him a fierce look that struck fear into the hearts of his enemies. He was a brutal fighter and used his natural strength to bludgeon his way to victory.

“What’s that?” the other captain asked. Fear made his voice high and tinny.

He tried to scoot away, leaving a small trail of blood in his wake. There was only so far he could go as he was hemmed in on one side by the ship’s mast and the other by a pile of rope, something Jost would have never let his crew get away with on his ship. It was sloppy to leave the ropes out and unorganized like that. It spoke of laziness. Perhaps that’s why the captain’s ship had been so easy to capture.

Jost plucked one of the flowers out of Danny’s hand and held it up. “This?” He fiddled with it, flipping it up in the air and then catching it. “It’s about to become your new best friend.”

Jost jerked his chin at Danny and Darren. They strode forward and yanked the man away from where he was trying to burrow under the rigging. They dragged him out kicking and screaming. The rest of the man’s crew looked on, a few seemed embarrassed over how much fuss he was making.

They should be. Such a disgraceful display from the person in charge. Jost clucked his tongue at the man and shook his head. He was embarrassed for him.

Those in Jost’s crew gathered on deck and jeered. They were savages and loved Jost’s brutal ways of getting information. Some men just needed a little more convincing to give up their secrets.

A few men from Jost’s crew helped Danny and Darren tie the captain spread eagle on the deck. They grasped one arm and yanked it away from his body before tying it flat to the deck.

Jost knelt beside the captain as he whimpered and fought, waiting until the man finally wore himself out.

“I’ll ask one more time. Where is the item you took from Takkan?”

The captain’s breathing was heavy and labored. His eyes darted from Jost and then around the deck. He looked at his captain’s cabin and then away. He didn’t look in that direction again.

He might not have meant to give away his secrets, but to one such as Jost, who had spent a lifetime learning peoples tells to determine when they were lying, the captain might as well have screamed it at the top of his lungs.

“No? You don’t want to tell me?” Jost asked with an easy smile. His brown eyes sharp in a face that he’d been told by many a lady had a certain irresistible roguish charm. The captain didn’t look moved by that charm.

Jost stabbed the base of the flower, a metal point, into the captain’s palm. The captain flailed as much as the ropes would allow him, trying to throw the flower off. The flower didn’t budge.

“I love these things,” Jost said, flicking one of the red petals. It was smooth and hard against his finger. “Have you ever used one?”

The captain’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he made an inarticulate sound. He might have been pleading for his life or asking for a cup of tea. Jost couldn’t really understand much of the garbled nonsense.

“No? Well, you’re in for a treat. This explosive is different than most. It is very precise. The blast isn’t big, which is why I can use it on you and not worry about putting my men at risk, but it gets the job done. Just a few of these flowers placed in strategic spots can take down a building.” Jost flicked a petal again. “All I have to do is crush these petals and then in thirty seconds, longer if I only crush a few, your hand goes boom.”

The man moaned.

Jost laughed and patted him on the chest, making sure to hit the wound he’d left earlier.

“What do you say, boys? Think he’ll keep any of his fingers?”

Danny gave a sinister grin. The man could be a bloodthirsty beast when he wanted to be. “Last one lost his whole hand and most of his arm.”

“Five taros that he only loses two fingers,” Riply said, coming to stand by Danny. As lean as Danny was muscular, Riply had shoulder length blondish hair tied back from his face.

“You’re on,” Danny told him.

After that, Jost’s crew shouted out their bets while the captured crew looked increasingly sick.

“Shall we find out which of my men is going home with heavier pockets?” Jost asked his victim. The captain shook his head in a frantic motion, his eyes pleading and tears and snot streaming down the sides of his face. It was truly pathetic.

Jost leaned forward. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep going, taking pieces of you one at a time until you tell me what I want to know.”

“I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what you want to know. Just don’t take my hands.” The man was blubbering by now.

“Where is the package you took from Takkan?”

“My quarters. There’s a hidden panel on the side of my desk. If you open the second drawer then turn the nob two times to the left and one time to the right, it should open.”

Jost looked up. His first mate and Danny were already heading for the captain’s quarters. The rest of his crew looked disgruntled. They didn’t like having their fun cut short. A few looked suspicious about why they were wasting time when they’d already secured the cargo.

Jost took note of those faces. It might mean nothing or might become something later on. He made a mental note to tell Darren to keep an eye on those men in future.

Jost hadn’t shared the real reason behind why they’d targeted this ship. To them, they had the cargo, which was the whole point of commandeering this vessel. It was time to get going before one of the Aurelian Empire’s fleets happened by and saw a pirate ship accosting a merchant vessel and tried to intervene. His crew would be perfectly happy if Jost killed the entire merchant vessel’s crew and then sunk the ship to hide the evidence of their crimes.

Jost couldn’t do that, at least not until he’d found what he came for. A package that was of vital importance to the Aurelian Empire. He was an agent of that empire, using the guise of piracy to carry out its agenda. Only a few men from his crew knew the real purpose behind the persona of the pirate captain Jost. If the rest of the crew found out, there would probably be an attempted mutiny. He said attempted because it was unlikely to succeed.

Danny stepped out of the quarters and gave Jost a nod.

“Look at that, you were telling the truth.” Jost patted the man on the cheek. The pat was just this side of a slap.

“You’ll let me go now, right?” the captain seemed hopeful.

Jost stared down at him in thought. “How many people did you kill to get that package?”

The captain’s face froze, whatever expression he saw on Jost’s face had him shaking his head again. Cue the begging.

The captain did not disappoint.

“I want to know how many people you killed.” Jost’s voice was calm, cutting through the pleas. It didn’t give away any of the rage he was feeling. “How many?”

“No, no, no.”

“Answer me or I’m going to do much worse than blow off your hands.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. My men killed them. It wasn’t me. You have to believe me”

Jost looked at the men in question. Most looked confused. There were two who looked angry and terrified at their captain’s words.

“How many?” Jost asked them.

One of them, a man with a flat nose and cauliflower ears from being hit too many times, spat, “Three.”

Jost’s smile was humorless. The man flinched back. “Yes, three.”

He looked back down at the captain. “Those men were my friends. I knew them personally. One of them had two children and a wife.”

“Then they shouldn’t have been working for the Emperor,” the captain hissed, finding his backbone from somewhere. It would have been better for him if it had remained missing. “Do your men know who you are? That you-“

Jost yanked the flower out of the captain’s hand and jammed it in his mouth, crushing all of the petals. He stood and took two steps back, watching with a cold expression as the captain thrashed his head from side to side.

The flower exploded, leaving nothing but a red smear and a few ribbons of meat behind.

“Captain, what’d you go and do that for?” one of Jost’s men complained. “Now we won’t be able to tell which of us won the bet.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Jost said in a light voice. “Danny won the bet. It took off his entire head. It would have taken his arm up to the elbow.”

There were several grumbles that were quelled when Jost turned cold eyes on them. They knew he didn’t allow even the hint of insubordination on his ship.

“What do you want us to do with the rest of them,” Darren asked in a low voice at his side.

Jost’s eyes flicked over the men cowering away from them. Most of them probably had no knowledge of their captain’s treason and no involvement in the theft of the package. That didn’t really matter though, Jost couldn’t afford for even a hint of his involvement as the empire’s privateer to get out. It was dirty business but necessary. These men knew the risks as soon as they signed up for a life at sea. The oceans were dangerous and unforgiving.

“Offer to let them join our ship. Spare the first four and kill the rest. Sink the ship afterwards.” He didn’t need to tell Darren that the two who had been involved in the deaths of his friends weren’t to be spared. Darren understood without needing an order. That’s why he was Jost’s first mate.

“Aye, aye, Captain.” Darren turned to the men and started shouting orders.

Jost made his way back to the ship, turning his back on the others. He needed to contact his handler and tell him the package had been recovered. Then he planned to head for the nearest port and drink away the bad taste this latest mission had left in his mouth.

Shifting Seas

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