“Port, land ho!”
Captain Reinvo stuffed the charts back into the navigation cabinet and made sure it was locked before he moved to look. There was a fresh breeze blowing through the bridge with both doors open, but it wasn’t enough to hide the stench of his sweat. Rubbing his eyes, he glared out into the burning bright daylight.
They’d been drifting for fifteen days since reaching the engine room. Running the engines was useless with only one driveshaft working and no rudder. The Vibrius could only move forward or backward in a narrow half-degree turn to starboard, and that was towards the edge of the world. He’d considered detaching the rudder and letting it drop into the ocean, but there was nothing to replace it with, and he wasn’t sure the keel would be enough to keep the ship straight. Worse, straight was also towards the edge of the world.
The gearing had been damaged, making it impossible to reverse the one working propeller. A few crewmen had made it their hobby to sit and stare at the gears, discussing how to fix them without tools. So far no feasible ideas had come forth.
They’d taken what measures they could. The crew was on minimal rations, and no one was allowed to work themselves into exhaustion again. The only thing that worked so far was keeping everything tidy. It didn’t use a lot of energy and kept a semblance of normalcy bolstering the crews’ morale.
Lieutenant Metallo was half propped up at the rear of the bridge, his head leaning against his navigational chart cabinet, a soft snoring sound coming from him. The ocean breeze did little to alleviate the repressive heat. The crew had set up lounging locations in what shade they could find. Below deck, the heat reached levels that rivaled the best steam baths back in the capital city. Out of the shade, the sun baked any that dared to move.
“Land ho!” The call burst into the room again. This time, it was taken up by more voices.
Off to the port side of the ship, a tall black mountain rose out of the sea. A ribbon of bright green encircled the foot of the mountain like an emerald necklace. Two smaller bright green islands flanked the larger central island.
“You’re a beautiful sight,” Reinvo said to the mountain. He thought about the climbing gear he had in his cabin. He wasn’t sure if it was in usable shape. Still, that tall black peak made his hands twitch with the desire to climb it and see what it wanted to show him.
“Natives. To arms!” someone called.
“No,” Captain Reinvo said. But, it only came out a whisper, his throat as dry as a dusty road.
He shuffled out of the bridge to stand on the narrow strip of deck just forward of the bridge windows. He swallowed, getting his throat working. “Stand down. Arm yourselves, but don’t attack. They may be friendly.”
Returning to the bridge, he pulled his pistol belt from its locker. Climbing down, he moved across the tilting deck to where the crew had already brought out a rope ladder. He nodded and helped them secure it, letting it roll out and dangle from the starboard side closest to the water.
He’d never seen boats like the three coming out. Two were enormous canoes with a pair of bowed poles that connected to a second float runner. The large central boat was made of two even larger canoes connected by thicker poles with a tight woven mat stretched between the boats, making a solid central floor that was as large as two cargo lorries. All three boats were rowed by strong-backed barely dressed men.
In the center of the larger boat platform sat an ornately carved dark wooden chair occupied by an impressive figure of a man who wore a brightly colored skirt, a type of bead wrap on both ankles, and a vertical fan of blue feathers behind his head.
The native chief, also, had uncountable golden rings, earrings, and brightly colored beads braided into his long black hair. Four men stood in a half-circle behind the chief, feet wide, all dressed about the same.
The natives circled the boat, stopping to touch the hull in places. Finally, through gestures, Reinvo managed to invite them up.
Standing well back, he ordered his men to keep pistols and rifles down.
The chief climbed up but did not step onto the deck. Instead, he stayed on the top rung of the rope ladder.
“Minwanna, mortussi un oya hauni,” he said slowly like someone talking to a child.
“We will not harm you. Can you help us?” Reinvo said slowly, stepping forward. He kept his pistol in its holster, holding his hands out palms up, like some of the southern tribes he’d visited did in greeting.
The chief looked him over, and his eyes examined the gold and colored decorations on Reinvo’s uniform.
After inspecting the rest of the visible crew, he shouted something incomprehensible to the others on his boat. Another native climbed up the ladder behind the chief and handed him a bright red ball.
With slow, deliberate steps and watching everyone carefully, the chief stepped over the gunnel. Holding the red ball before him, he slowly drew an obsidian blade with a bone handle.
Ardlee stepped up next to the captain and started drawing his pistol. Reinvo held up a hand to stop him. “Wait,” he commanded.
The chief eyed Ardlee and stared at the commander’s hand or perhaps the pistol he was gripping. Using the knife, he cut the red ball in half; bright green juices squirted out and stained the decking. Slipping the obsidian blade back into its sheath, the leader held one-half of the fruit out to Reinvo.
“Heelp. In pace oy-r well-ome,” he said deliberately then gently shook the extended hand holding the fruit half.
“That sounded like Ventalian. How can he know our language?” Ardlee asked.
The chief’s eyes narrowed, and his brows lowered.
“Yes, it did. Careful what you say. If I heard that right, I think it was the ancient greeting of the Star Empresses. Or at least, a reasonable chunk of it.” Reinvo moved closer and slowly reached for the fruit.
The man smiled widely, showing a large set of gleaming white teeth and allowing Reinvo to take the fruit.
Reinvo smelled the strange berry. It had green and orange meat with no discernible seeds. It smelled like a strawberry mixed with a savory spice.
The native took a bite of his half, pulling back and leaving the skin in place. His teeth scooped a sizable chunk of the fruit’s meat out. With a broad grin, he chewed, letting the juices run down his hairless chin.
Reinvo took a smaller bite. Fruit juices sweet as apple rolled over his parched mouth and lubricated his throat. The fruit’s meat was thick and chewy but fell apart after a moment. Even if he hadn’t been starving, it would have tasted fantastic. Having only eaten salty sea biscuits and precious dried fruit slices in the last week, it was a taste worth more than gold.
Behind him, he could feel the crew’s eyes ravenously consuming the fruit in his hand. But he couldn’t bring himself to feel guilty at tasting the delectable fruit. Its juices were a balm on his tongue and throat. The meat of it made it to his stomach causing a sudden almost undeniable urge to devour the remains in his hand. Only his years of forced discipline kept him from insatiably taking another bite.
“Empresses that is amazing.”
“Well-ome,” the leader said, throwing his remaining fruit over the side. Gasps came from the crew at the wasteful squander.
The chief may have been well fed, but Reinvo wasn’t. As the leader apparently didn’t care about the rest, Reinvo wouldn’t stop. He took another bite. Behind the native chief, the other native gasped, as did more of the Vibrius’s crew behind him. Although, he was sure they were for entirely different reasons. And Reinvo’s attention went sharply to the natives.
The lead native frowned and glared at Reinvo.
The two natives got into a quick argument which ended with the chief making a chopping motion cutting the other one off. The chief indicated the fruit and pointed at the ocean. His brows tightened as he slowly mouthed, “For Canishassa. Blessed she walls.”
Reinvo puzzled over it for a moment.
“I think Canishassa is a person,” Ardlee whispered.
The chief glared at Ardlee, reaching for his knife.
Reinvo held up his hand. If he recalled correctly, the Star Empresses’ ancient greeting did offer a shared table. Maybe these natives took it very literally. He did his best to remember the full greeting. “In peace, we come. In humility, we give for your table. In the name of the Empresses, we serve.” As he said the last, he tossed the fruit over the side.
The chief let out a rolling caterwaul throwing his arms wide and making Ardlee and Reinvo jump back. The noise startled the crew so much they didn’t even move. The chief laughed and spoke in his rolling vowel filled language over his shoulder. The other man with him frowned and then climbed down.
Two new men climbed up, each carrying a sack, and stepped boldly over the gunnel. The leader took the bags and held them out to Reinvo saying, “Trade wi oo.”
He let Reinvo take one lumpy bag. It was made from a woven fibrous plant material but felt as strong as a burlap sack. Opening the sack showed that it was full of those red fruits. Reinvo’s mouth watered.
“We should shoot them and take their food,” Chief Oiler Wainli whispered to someone nearby.
The chief and one of the men with him frowned and glared at Wainli their hands moving for their knives. These natives might not be able to speak Ventalian clearly, but the Empresses knew they could understand it.
“Commander, place Wainli under arrest and take his fire arm,” Reinvo ordered.
Ardlee turned to Wainli, drawing his pistol faster than Wainli or the natives could react. “Don’t tempt me, mister. I’ve wanted to throw you over the side for weeks.”
In a few seconds, Ardlee and three crew members had taken Wainli away.
Reinvo considered the natives who watched this without comment hands hovering near the obsidian knives and yet barely moving. They were both strong and probably skilled warriors. Warriors that were still deciding if dealing with the Vibrius was safe. The cargo holds had plenty of trade goods, and they needed food. So he stepped forward free palm out, his other hand gently shaking the sack of fruit. “Trade wi oo,” he said imitating the native’s pronunciations.
The chief laughed and slapped Reinvo’s shoulder hard.
“Heelp oo,” he said pointing to the large island. He hit the deck railing and pointed at the empty masts above them. Then the chief put his hands out to the sides, palms down and tilted ‘til he was parallel to the Vibrius’s listing deck. He then straightened back to true level. “Fis oo raf,” he said finally.
Commander Ardlee had returned in time to see the strange act. “What does that mean?”
Reinvo laughed and held his hand out. “Yes, trade wi oo. Empresses bless us, we might make it home yet.”
Ardlee whispered, “What is going on?”
“I think they can repair the Vibrius.”
“Have you lost your mind?” Ardlee said incredulously.