Sailors are a superstitious bunch and always have been, prone to seeing the curses of gods and spirits in the smallest of circumstances, every setback considered a form of divine punishment. Thus it was not uncommon to see the men clutching fetishes and idols, small tokens purchased from some one-eyed old peddler or other who had promised that such things would bring the protection of the gods while out at sea. And yet it seemed the crew of the Maiden’s Kiss were growing ever more fanatic in their whispered prayers, rubbing their charms with ever more desperate urgency. Though a sailor himself, Philandros had always dismissed such things as nonsense. His stern pragmatism was, he believed, the root of all his success in his profession and a major reason why he had been selected as captain of this vessel for this important and now failed mission. Yet even he was beginning to wonder if, under the circumstances, the men had the right idea. The spiritual tokens provided a focus for despair, if nothing else.
Philandros stared out at the flat surface of the sea, barely disturbed by the oars the men slipped into its surface to drive the ship slowly, ever so painfully slowly, forward. He licked his fingers and tested the air. No wind. Not a single breeze for almost three days now. The sails hung loose, unused and unuseful. The trading winds prevalent to this region during this part of year were conspicuously, terrifyingly absent, and Philandros tried desperately to convince himself that their sudden departure was a coincidence despite a few chilling suspicions otherwise. He turned and nodded his encouragement to the men, who were already at the point of exhaustion after having worked the oars in shifts for three days in a row. He fought to hide his anxiety from them as he strode through the lines of rowers and went below deck.
A soft crash followed by a curse led him to what he was looking for. Philandros found him in a corner of the forward storage compartment, now mostly empty except for a single barrel of wine and the man slowly drinking it dry. The captain shook his head in distaste. Some men, it seemed, found other, less superstitious focuses for their despair.
“My men are lashed for drinking while at sea,” the captain said sternly.
“To the underworld with your men,” the inebriated man spat at him, “and with you and your rules! The end of the world is coming, how else am I supposed to face it if not with wine?” He hiccuped loudly. “And anyway, I own this boat. I paid for it. I am in charge here and the rules... by Justice’s tits, the damned rules do not apply to me.”
“You set a bad example,” Philandros said, “Have you no dignity?”
“No dignity! No dignity? I, sir, am Eugenios Milekrates, master merchant and the wealthiest man in Peace! I am envoy of the Council of Speakers, representative of their interests to the great empire of the East!” The merchant brandished an imperious pointed finger at Philandros, his face red with wrath.
The captain snorted. “An honor you purchased,” he said, “And I hardly think you can still claim the title of wealthiest citizen, friend. We tossed most of your cargo into the sea in order to save our skins.”
At this Eugenios Milekrates, master merchant and envoy, immediately burst into tears and collapsed into the other man’s arms like babe. “Aaaahh - I am ruined, ruined! Oh, the gods are cruel, uncaring -- and you, you bastard, you are cruelest of all to remind me of my woes and rub salt in my wounds!”
“We’re at sea,” Philandros said, patting the weeping man on the back, “There’s salt everywhere.”
Eugenios groaned loudly and sunk to his knees. “Sweet Lady of Chains, such a disaster! I’ll be torn limb from limb upon our return! I’ll be lucky to get away with the shirt on my back. I’ll be in debt for the rest of my life!”
“I hardly think your debts will much matter,” Philandros replied, “once Peace is conquered and destroyed.”
“By the Maiden, they wouldn’t! They couldn’t!”
“You saw the fleet as well as I. They are preparing for nothing less than a full-scale invasion of the peninsula, and Peace is the most likely place to start. They’ve done it with other, distant lands, and now its our turn.”
Eugenios turned pale at the thought. “But... but... diplomacy... negotiations... we can buy them off, surely!”
“They attacked us on sight, man! I don’t think negotiation is on their agenda. We were lucky to escape at all.”
The merchant’s tears stopped abruptly. “The end of the world indeed, then,” he said somberly, “You know what we have to do, right old friend?”
“Warn the city?”
Eugenios blinked in confusion. “No! Drink wine, of course. Come, join me! One last tribute to the Drunken God before the end. Our home is doomed, my life’s work and fortune destroyed, and us stuck in the middle of sea with not a single gust of wind to send us on our way. If we’re on our way to the bosom of the Lord of Death, dear Philandros, let us not go there sober. Let’s drink!” And with that the merchant dispensed with the pretense of a flask and, wrapping his arms around it as though in an embrace, raised the barrel itself to his lips.
“We’ve almost reached land,” Philandros said.
Eugenios dropped the barrel spat out the wine in his mouth in surprise. “What? Where? Peace already?”
“No. The Hook, an island village. Fishermen, mostly.”
“Great! Sounds like a fun place to watch the Apocalypse,” the merchant droned as he returned to his earnest drinking.
Shaking his head, Philandros sighed and left the man to his misery. Back on the deck, the stagnant, still air provided little relief from the heat of the day, and the captain, though not a particularly religious man, blinked up into the light and whispered a prayer to the Sun, firstborn of Father Light. It seemed as good a time as any to start giving faith a try.
In the distance, a speck on the horizon appeared: the island known as the Hook. A sudden memory struck Philandros, or the memory of a memory. An old rumor heard in passing many years ago. Legends and fairytales. Was this sudden remembering an answer to his prayer? It seemed it was time to give the gods a chance, and he knew just where to start.
He motioned the nearest sailor to his side. “Bring me the musician.”