The second deck of the Wandering Sinn had been converted into a lounge/library/writing studio and was used for restaurant seating in the rare event of bad weather.
The fourth deck, closest to the water, was home to a pair of cats who kept the level clean of rats, protecting the supplies and food stored there.
In between the two was the third deck. It had been partitioned into tiny rooms, each barely big enough to enter and lay down on the single bed laid perpendicular to the hull. Portholes, formerly used by cannon, had become windows without glass. A lantern hung under each raised cover for safety’s sake, for the flame would fall outside of the ship if knocked by person or wind.
It was still somewhat dark when Mei woke, the world a drab gray in that short period before the sun rose and bestowed the world with a rainbow of colours.
She groaned and sat up, feeling the hangover in her head and gut. Thankfully, it wasn’t bad. She’d made sure to cut herself off alcohol at a reasonable hour and drunk plenty of water afterwards. A glass bottle of water stood on the shelf next to her, serving as a night table. She gratefully took a swig and wiped her mouth. A whine and movement behind her made her look behind her.
Lia, still as fully clothed as Mei, was squished up against the wall that the bed was attached to. She’d gotten giddy with all the food and alcohol and good times, and quite drunk. Mei had been reluctant to leave her in a room of her own lest some unscrupulous soul find his way into her room while she could not defend herself.
Giving the young woman a few more minutes of sleep, Mei looked out the porthole.
A sailor lazily meandered by, canvas sack over his shoulder, his eyes drooping. He was probably en route to a ship destined to depart this morn, just like Mei hoped to be. He yawned wide, causing Mei to follow suit.
She stared out at the gray morning, the docks just coming to life with fishermen and others. Would they be allowed to board the privateer today? She hoped so.
Standing, she tried to force away the urge to return to the bed and catch another four hours of sleep. They’d gotten off on a bad foot with the captain the previous day. She didn’t know if there was any way of getting past that or any hope of a decent relationship with someone like that. But she was determined to make a good impression.
A flutter in her stomach told her she wasn’t just nauseous from the rum, but nervous as well. She half-smiled at a thought. It felt like the first day of a new job. There was so much uncertainty ahead, new things to learn, new people to work with. And all of it seemed so removed from her old life as a journalist. Clenching her fingers tight until the knuckles whitened, she wondered if she was going to be good at this. Or if this whole idea of escaping prison was a fool’s dream.
The fear and pessimism gripped her for a few minutes. She felt the urge to give up, which would be so much easier. But as the morning brightened, she shook the negativity off.
She would make the most of this. If she ever wanted to get out of this prison world, this was the road she would need to take. She might not be a captain yet, despite having that class, but she had an opportunity to learn and it would be best to make the most of it.
The room had come with a clean rag for washing and a toothbrush made of a wooden handle and horsehair bristles. She cleaned herself up and then grabbed Lia by the hip, shaking her awake and helping her wake up and clean up too. Lia was in much rougher shape and drooled with eyes half-closed as Mei did more of the teeth brushing than she did for herself. But she was young and would recover soon enough. Together, they visited the head.
She left Lia slouched over a table on the deserted top deck. Back on the third deck, she knocked on the door to the twins’ room.
They answered together on the third round of banging.
Stasio wore only a sheet wrapped around his waist. “Morning.”
She smiled. “Morning. Wake up call. We don’t want to miss the ship sailing without us.”
Stasio opened his mouth, then paused to look over his shoulder.
The twins had a double room. That is, a slightly larger space with a double bed they must have shared.
Andon sat up, running a hand through his dark hair and yawning. He gave her a sheepish look. “Sorry, Mei. We talked it over last night. We’re gonna stay with the Sinn.”
Stasio looked apologetic. “Hibernia offered us permanent berths and food if we play here regularly.” He shrugged. “Safer than life at sea. And we’ll get to do what we love for an audience that appreciates us.”
She was taken aback for a moment but recovered quickly. “That’s ok. Good for you! It sounds like a great opportunity.” And she meant it.
“Plus,” Andon playfully added, “there are other benefits.” He waggled his brows.
Another figure sat up in the bed. It was the redhead with the princess attitude, the ship’s first officer. She didn’t even open her eyes, just grabbed a pillow and weakly tossed it at the door. “Go ‘way. No waking up before noon. ’S rude.” She thumped back down onto the bed.
The twins grinned and, in tanden, made thrusting motions.
Mei laughed, then slapped her hand over her mouth to cover the noise. Giving Stasio a quick hug, she bid them the best of luck. “We’ll see you both when we get back to port. Take care of yourselves, ok?”
Stasio nodded, then looked at her uncertainly. “Crew once?”
She smiled and punched him in the shoulder. “Crew always.”
He sheepishly nodded and returned to bed, closing the door with a wave.
She found Cheeto in very rough shape. It took him forever to answer the door. When he did, his face green, it was only to sprint past her to the stairs, no doubt headed for the nearest toilet.
Juan and Armand were both already awake and ready to go. They followed her up to the top deck where they had to wake Lia from where she had already dozed off. Cheeto eventually joined them, looking disastrous.
“Here.” Armand handed him a bottle of water. “Drink. Try to pull yourself together.”
The young man sipped and then looked about, going to the rail to spit. Then he took a swallow but looked like it was taking an effort to keep it down. He moaned. “Marla just kept asking me I wanted more drinks.”
“You could learn to say no to a woman,” Juan teased.
Cheeto barked a rueful laugh. “Did you see how cute she is? I’m not that strong. Or that good with girls, Señor Hollywood.”
With Cheeto looking like a teenager after a binge and Lia leaning on her shoulder with her eyes closed, Mei knew this wasn’t the impression she hoped to make as a whole on their new crew members. “Come on, guys. Big day. Ship’s waiting for us. Let’s do our best.”
The short walk to the Dutchman didn’t take long but it was enough for Lia to wake up some and for Cheeto to try to pull himself together.
They passed friendly fishermen making for their boats and joined sailors making for the same ship they were. Despite attempts to strike up conversation with the sailors, they remained aloof, giving one-word responses that soon ended any attempted dialogue.
A contingent of white-and-orange marines stood on the pier next to the Dutchman. Walking up the gangplank, they saw that the Dutchman’s captain was already in a foul mood. He stood on deck next to several more marines, hands clasped behind his wide back, watching people come aboard and get to work while the first officer and another man actually gave commands. The second man was short and stocky, with thick arms and a bald head that had an angel tattooed on the top.
Mei strode up and gave the captain a slight bow. “Good morning, Captain. Reporting for duty.”
He sneered at her and then looked away, deliberately ignoring her. Then he blatantly spit, narrowly missing her feet.
The first officer motioned for them to leave the captain and join him. He spoke lowly, warily watching the captain out of the corner of his eye until the later strode further away towards the bow. The FO was all business, very professional. “Welcome aboard. I’m First Officer Beekhof. Do any of you have previous sailing experience? Have you crewed before?”
They shook their heads.
Mei opened her mouth to reply but was cut off with a raised hand.
“I understand. That’s fine. You’ll learn on the job. Many do. First, a warning. I don’t know what you’ve heard about ships or privateers like this one. You might have heard that we are licences pirates and mistakenly believe that this ship works the way a pirate vessel might, or other privateers. For example, pirates often elect their captain and quartermaster, they even have a say in how the ship is run when they’re not at sea.
“Let me be very, very clear. This ship does not operate that way. At all. If anything, we are much more like a navy ship. Here, the captain is a law unto only himself. Think of him as a stern god. He cannot and will not be questioned in any way, about anything. You do not have a vote or a voice. His power is absolute at all times.” He eyed them each in turn.
Mei felt a little uneasy at the man’s warning. But everyone nodded.
He nodded once in return. “We sail under a letter of marque issued by the Dutch Empire. A portion of prizes and loot taken will go to the Empire. All of you, if you survive, will be allocated portions as well. As we are not a naval vessel, you will not earn a daily wage. If we capture French ships, and return home successfully, you’ll be paid. If we encounter nothing but empty seas, you will not receive a thing. If any of you have a problem with that, leave now.”
They glanced about but nobody left. They’d expected that arrangement.
The FO looked at the men. “We are perpetually shorthanded so the lot of you will be standard sailors. You hold no rank. You will follow the orders of the captain above all, always. In port, the quartermaster is in charge. You can see him supervising there now.” He pointed at the bald man, who was speaking to other sailors coming aboard and directing the loading of a few last-minute items. “At sea, as the first officer, I am second in command. However, you’ll mostly be following the orders of the second officer, who will oversee your training. My advice: learn very quickly.” He pointed to a blond man in an officer’s uniform by the mast. “Second Mate Vos. Go.” He waved them away.
Cheeto started to raise his hand. At the FO’s frown, he lowered it. The three males departed to report to the second mate.
Beekhof continued. He studied Lia. “Does she speak English?”
“A little,” Mei answered quickly. “And I’m teaching her. Every day. She’s a quick learner.”
“Fine. Well, for various reasons, it would be best if we kept her out of sight. I do not think it would be productive to have a filly running about half-naked on deck providing temptation for the crew or irritating the captain. Nor does she strike me as strong enough for typical duties. We’ll assign her to the galley then.”
“Great. She can handle that,” Mei assured him. An urge to say something rose and she almost bit it back, then plowed on. “Lia is dear to me. Obviously, she might be a little vulnerable for now. She’s not going to come to any harm secluded in the galley, is she? I hope the ship’s cook is a good man. Or at least a wise one?”
The FO turned his gaze on her, his eyes flat. “I should also mention that there is zero tolerance for fighting or violence of any kind on this ship. Anyone caught fighting will be severely punished.”
“Of course. I think that’s a great rule. I just care about my companions and fellow crew. I wouldn’t want to see anyone getting abused and feel the need to protect them. I’d like to hope that we’re all professionals here but sailors do have a reputation, you know?”
“You are both females insisting on joining a crew of males of a certain type. Perhaps you’d like to reconsider the wisdom of this and disembark?”
She met his eyes, her voice and gaze steady. “I can hold my own. So can she. And we’ll carry our weight as crew, I promise you that. Is there any valid reason why we shouldn’t be entitled to the same protections as the rest of the crew?”
He pressed his lips together. Then he crossed his arms, thinking. “I will have a word with Cook. I’ll also discretely spread word amongst the crew that any offence against the females on board will likely anger the governor, who personally insisted you be allowed to join this ship. That should keep a few of them in line.” He grew sterner. “But don’t be fools. You’re going to sea with a bunch of dangerous men and will spend weeks away from port. Many of the crew are proven criminals, much like yourselves, some murderers and rapists. You want my advice? Leave this ship. Now. Being here is idiotic. If you insist on staying despite the very real risks, learn to watch your back. And find ways to deal with issues very quietly on your own, as the captain will not be backing you up.”
“Even if someone breaks the rule against violence?”
“I told you the captain of this ship is as good as a god at all times. A man like that, who wants—and is used to—such power, was forced against his will to take the two of you aboard despite very heated objections. He may or may not punish wrongdoers but do not, for one second, think you are under his protection. Watch yourselves and keep your heads down. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Mei wasn’t really surprised by any of this. A hostile workplace was something to be expected after their first encounter with the captain. She knew that she and Lia would have to have each other’s backs. Hopefully, Armand, Juan and even Cheeto would support them and each other as well.
He uncrossed his arms and tapped his fingers on his waist. “What to do with you? You’re athletic, obviously. But enough to climb rigging all day and haul sails up three decks? I have my doubts.”
She grew defensive. “I’ll pull my weight.”
“Hmm. You sound educated, yes? What did you do before being locked up?”
“I was a journalist. I’m from Asia. My government falsely arrested me for advocating democracy. They wanted to shut me up. I didn’t actually commit any crimes.”
“Is that so?” He didn’t look like he really believed her. He’d probably heard such things before. “Well, we are short a navigator. The quartermaster has been handling that for the past while. If you took over navigation, it would reduce his workload.”
“Indeed. Navigation means figuring out where we are on the ocean and setting our course. Plotting our way to various ports and through difficult areas of the sea where there are known shoals and sandbanks and rocks. You’ll take over the navigational instruments, clocks, and charts. You understand how Skills work here?”
“I have some, yes.”
“You can learn navigation Skills. You have to actually learn how to do it all manually first and master it. But after you do, the system will let you do it faster and without the instruments on your own. The higher your real skill, the more accurate your system Skills.”
“I understand.” She could gain more Skills. That might be really useful.
“The quartermaster will have to teach you as he hands those duties over to you. You can assist with his work as well, as need be. I’ll put you directly under him, for now.”
So she wouldn’t have to report to the captain? Excellent! Mei hoped the quartermaster was a better sort of person. So far, the first officer had been a pleasant surprise. She respected him because found him fair and upfront. “What does the quartermaster do?” she asked.
“The quartermaster is in charge of loading and unloading the ship and all provisions while docked. At sea, they steer the ship and are in charge of giving and receiving signals. The quartermaster leads boarding parties when attacking another ship. I’ll leave it to him to decide how you’ll factor into that.”
Her hand gripped the hilt of the rapier at her waist. “I can fight.”
“Sure you can. I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?” He held his arm out, pointing her towards the quartermaster.
She took a step and stopped. Turning to him, she bowed low. “Thank you. I appreciate your help.”
“Yes, well.” He lowered his voice. “Don’t fuck up. Be careful.”
“Yes, sir.” She smiled at him and then left to join her new mentor. She hadn’t gone three steps, however, when she heard the FO curse under his breath.
She looked back and saw the captain striding directly for her, his movement purposeful, with an undercurrent of anger.
He stopped centimetres away from her. Such was his size and bulk that he was one of the few men able to loom over her. Frowning, he stuck a thick finger in her face. “Keep your ass in line. One mistake and I’ll keelhaul you. Or toss your scrawny ass overboard for the sharks. Preferably outside of an English colony, where you’ll respawn.” His frown morphed into a cruel smile. “I hear they’re looking for you.” He turned away and walked off. “And keep that Carib out of my sight.”
Mei swallowed and tried to slow her heart back down in the wake of the constant threat of violence coming from that man. Wanting to prove her own bravery, she forced herself to speak up. “Yes, sir!”
He kept walking, ignoring her.
This had a raised poopdeck in the stern, under which was the captain’s quarters. The raised bow deck, the forecastle, also had a room beneath it. This turned out to be where the quartermaster made his home and kept his files. After the ship had left the docks and sailed out of Great Bay, he led Mei into the room.
It was a single space with a large, rectangular cabinet with rounded corners in the center, the top at waist height so that you could stand over it and work on the charts tacked to it. The cabinet had four drawers, likely filled with charts or tools. A single bunk jutted out from the wall on each side of the room, below a porthole. Only one bed looked used. A second cabinet against the far wall had three instruments on top: a globe, a compass on a stand, an hourglass, and a triangular sextant in a wooden box with a glass top.
The quartermaster was gruff and to the point, and he spoke with a strong accent. “Name’s Groot. Yes, it means tall in Dutch and I’m short. Ha ha. Laugh if you like; I don’t giff a damn. Cuss you von’t be using my name. On dis ship, you’ll address me as Quartermaster or sir.” He gave her a sideways look, and he had to look up to see her face. “Goot, you’re tall. You can change de oil in see lanterns den. Make yourself useful.”
Three steel-and-glass lanterns hung from the relatively low ceiling, none of them lit right now.
“Of course,” she replied. She could see how it would be challenging for the shorter man to reach them without a stool. Finally, her height was coming in useful. And in a professional capacity. Win! She mentally chuckled.
He looked at the spare bed and harrumphed. “Guess vee can string up a piece of sailcloss or something on a line so you can pull it clos’t when you vant some privacy.”
“Oh. You mean, I should sleep here too?”
His brow creased in annoyance. “Unless you got a problem viss sharing viss me? You sink I am going to do somesing terrible to you in da night?”
She turned a placating smile on him. “Not at all. But I came aboard with another woman. She’s young and vulnerable. A Carib, which might be reason enough for some to attack or abuse her. I would not want to leave her to be alone in crew quarters. There are only a few men here I trust so far. It would be best if we could watch each other’s backs. I appreciate the offer, but I will sleep below decks with her.”
He looked away from her and put his hands on his hips. After a moment, he grumbled on. “Ya. Dis ship is full of scoundrels. Very vell. Vee make a double bunk. Dere is lumber below dat vee can use.”
She and Lia could both share this cabin with him? Her polite smile broke wide into an honest grin. She became effusive. “Really? Thank you! Thank you, so much!” She grabbed one of his hands with both of hers and bowed to him. “That is so kind of you!”
His cheeks tinted a rosy colour and he blustered and battered her arms away. “Enough! It’s nossing. Vee get to work. Dere is no time to vaste.”
She brimmed with unexpected happiness. Though the quartermaster looked like a tough, bull of a man who never smiled, there was kindness in him and she promised herself not to waste that. And she would pay it back in full if she got the chance.
The man was true to his word. He dove right in, explaining every facet of what being a navigator on a sailing ship in the seventeenth century would entail. He showed her charts, explained routes on the globe, and the compass with its thirty-two points and four quadrants.
The chip log, used to measure speed, was a quarter circle of wood attached to a light line on a reel. Knots were tied at intervals, showing the distance the line would be pulled out of the reel every twenty-eight seconds if the ship’s speed was travelling one knot, or one nautical mile, per hour. With a twenty-eight-second hourglass, one could see how fast the ship was travelling by counting how many knots rolled out before the hourglass expired, hence the nautical term ‘knots’ for speed. One could also estimate speed by dropping a chip of wood in the water at the bow and counting how long it took to reach the stern.
Recording speeds was done with a traverse board. This had a line of holes radiating from the center towards each of the thirty-two compass points. Pegs were inserted to show the vessel’s course and speed each half-hour. The navigator would then use these tables together to give an average course over a four-hour watch. This information was added to a logbook along with information about weather, sail changes, and items concerning the crew.
Mei would also be in charge of using a lead line to estimate water depth and the type of sea bottom in shallower areas. This was a lead weight on the end of a marked line. A hole in the bottom of the weight was filled with grease, which would bring up bits of the ocean floor to tell you whether you were on sand, mud, pebbles, seaweed, rock or reef. Hitting sand with the hull might not be so bad, but a reef or rocks could tear the bottom out of the ship.
On a globe, longitude is represented by the north-south lines. In this time period, it was very difficult to tell how far east or west you were. At best, this was estimated using travel logs after departing known points. Latitude, the measurement of how far north or south of the equator you were, was calculated with a special staff that measured the angle of the horizon against the sun at noon, the moon, or the star Polaris.
Luckily, the designers of the prison system had given in to practicality and allowed the existence of the sextant, a tool that had been developed in the early eighteenth century, about fifty years after the current time period.
The sextant, like the staff, measured the angle between the horizon and astronomical bodies to calculate latitude: how far north and south you were. It could also measure the lunar distance between the moon and another celestial body, such as a star or planet, to determine Greenwich Mean Time, and give you longitude: how far east or west you were.
In addition to all this, Quartermaster Groot also gave her rudimentary instructions on the various signals ships used to communicate with each other and with ports and showed her how to steer the ship, something she would likely do as well, as they would sometimes take different watches.
It was a staggering amount of information, all of which had been entirely foreign to her until today. She quickly grew overwhelmed, confused, and then lost.
He scolded her as they experimented with a sextant on the forecastle deck, the wind whipping at her hair and polishing his smooth dome. “Schiet op!” Hurry up!
“Please,” she begged. “Slow down. I need time to learn all of this. You’re going too fast.”
He was stern and unyielding. “Your learning speet is not my problem. Vee’re already at sea and your duties are already upon you.” He lowered his voice. “You’d best learn quick. Or see captain will have your hide. Especially if you make mistakes.”
The captain was currently on the poop deck, near the wheel. Though the length of the ship separated them, he was downwind.
So she, too, lowered her voice. “Tell me about the captain. How much do I have to worry about him? What do I need to know?”
Groot fiddled with the sextant, pretending to adjust the mechanism, but eyed the captain out of the corner of his eye. “Best just keep to yourself.”
“I don’t know a thing about him. I’m just curious. I don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. He’s already got it out for me. Please. Knowledge could be crucial.”
He grumbled. It seemed to be a habit. “He’s not any olt captain. He’s no guart and no criminal eisser. He’s the brodder of the governor of Sint Maartin.”
“His brother?” She was shocked. “Why is he in prison them?”
“He vantet to play captain. Bought his vay into the virtual worlt viss real money and sey gafe him a ship of his own. He’s pissed dey vouldn’t make him a naval captain, just a privateer, so he doesn’t haff any rank. But because he’s de governor’s brodder and dis is his pait adventure, he can do almost anyssing he vants on dis ship. Vhich is vhy you’t better look out. Because he did not like being tolt to take you aboart and he vill take dat out on you, any chance he gets. Now enough chatter. Learn!”
Mei, stunned by the revelation, pushed the news to the back of her mind and focused on the task at hand.