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The Sky's Embrace, Chapter 3: Smoke on the Horizon

The breeze caressed his face, and he closed his eyes, briefly enjoying its touch.

“Captain on deck!”

Jamal Baako’s eyes sprung open, his back stiffened, and his expression hardened. He didn’t necessarily scowl per se, but it would not do for a man of his station to openly bask in the breeze. Appearances must be maintained.

The crew busied themselves about their various tasks of securing ropes, scrubbing the deck, and the like. Baako’s practiced eye noted that they went about their actions a little too fervently. More than a few not-so-subtlety glanced in his direction.

He suppressed a smile. Far be it from him to call out his crew for trying to look busy when their Captain was in view. He looked past them at his ship itself, the Maiden’s Arrow. The canvas of the forward and aft sails ballooned outward as every inch of their surfaces caught the wind. From his angle by his cabin’s door, Baako could just glimpse the tips of the wing sails over the ship’s side.

His gaze shifted as it always did to the continental branch to the west. Across the span of empty sky, was the border of the Katanni Empire. Memories, decades gone, haunted his vision as images of violence and wanton destruction flashed before his mind’s eye. Baako briefly wondered, as he so often did before, if he would ever be able to stare across the void and not see the sights of his regrets. Then as he had so often done before, he dismissed the imagery of his misgivings to the side as he attended to matters at hand. They stepped as order, but as always stood on the periphery of his thought. Baako bore their attention, with the strain of workhorse used to the burden of its plow.

He gritted his teeth and glanced up at the Valenthrall flag. Baako’s jaw clenched as he silently recounted his Oath of Allegiance. In response to his silent pledge, his peripheral regrets took several more steps back. Many of his countrymen worshipped the Parent Gods, but few were as faithful to their beliefs as Baako was to his King and country.

He reigned his attention to matters at hand and headed for the port side stairs flanking his cabin door. A few of his sailors stopped mid-task to snap off salutes. He saluted back as he passed them. “Gentlemen.”

He climbed the stairs to the top of the aft-castle that served as his bridge on the ship. From his new vantage, he saw some of the lower deck crew adjusting the lines on the port side, horizontal sail. With a safety line trailed behind him, a sailor had climbed out along the horizontal mast where the triangle-shaped sail had gotten tangled on its end. With knees straddling the beam, the sailor tugged the length of canvas free and unfurled it. Once he heaved it free, the creased folds of the wing sail ballooned outward unrestrained. Baako felt the slight shift in the ship’s momentum beneath his feet. The sailor stood up and turned, and Baako saw it was Ayo.

Ayo noticed Baako watching him and snapped a salute on top of the mast. Baako blinked in surprise, then burst out laughing, and saluted the young man back. Ayo grinned as he walked back across the horizontal mast to the open lower deck of the ship.

Baako turned to the bridge, shaking his head, chuckling. He looked at the other three men that occupied the two stations of the aft castle. His second-in-command Lieutenant Daniel Ekeene was conversing with Alastair Bromont, a squat heavily-muscled man who grasped the handles of the ship’s wheel with massive hands. On Bromont’s thick shoulders, fluttered Spritz, a green-skinned pixie. Her wings flapped lazily and flashed a myriad of colors as she dreamed. Bromont ignored her proximity of his face as he listened to whatever murmured instructions Ekeene gave him. Bromont nudged the Lieutenant and nodded in Baako’s direction.

As Ekeene turned, Bromont called out, “Captain on the Bridge!”

He, Ekeene, and the third young man, Isaac Jolovich, at the back of the bridge saluted. On Bromont’s shoulder, Spritz popped up clearly startled. She took to the air and buzzed around Bromont’s head. Her wings flashed a series of reds and orange.

Baako watched her flight for a moment before he returned their salutes. “As you were, gentlemen.” He looked at Ekeene. “Lieutenant?”

“Captain,” said Ekeene with his typical gravelly tone.

Lt. Ekeene was a stocky man who was half-a-head shorter than Baako. He wore a standard Valenthrall sailor crew uniform, with a simply made officer vest draped over his shoulders. His attire marked his humble origins. Unlike most of the Sailing Guild’s officers Baako had encountered in his long career, Ekeene had risen to officer status through an atypical field commission. Everything he learned about sailing cloudships was won through diligence and hard work. It was an opportunity he would have unlikely achieved in the interior lands of the Valenthrall’s Kingdom based on appearances alone.

Baako’s gaze slid past Ekeene’s distorted features to the young officer’s keen eyes. Most of Ekeene’s face and a good portion of his body looked like melted wax. It was a painful token he was cursed with after surviving a house fire as a lad. What was unusual about his scar was a hand-shaped print across his face where his skin was normal. Baako had never learned why he had such distinctive markings, and Ekeene never offered.

Baako said, “You requested my presence.”

“I did, sir. The lookouts spotted smoke on the horizon.”

“Smoke?” Baako scanned the horizon. He did not notice anything amiss. Admittedly his eyes weren’t what they once were in his prime. “Where?”

Ekeene pointed off ahead of the current trajectory. “Right there, sir. In the middle of that patch of sunlight.”

He handed Baako his spyglass, who raised it to his eye. The scenery jumped into focus. It took only but a moment for Baako to find where his second indicated. A stream of gray smoke rose in what appeared to be clearing several leagues ahead.

Without taking his eye away from the spyglass, Baako commented, “That is quite a bit of smoke. Looks to be at least a few hours old, though.”

Ekeene nodded. “That’s what Spider thought too, sir.”

Baako grunted, “Master Spindell would know better than most.”

He lowered the spyglass, still surveying the general direction, “I don’t believe we’ve had any storms out this way. Even in the off chance, a storm descended from the higher branches before sinking into the western abyss; I don’t think that it would have escaped our lookouts’ attentions.”

“Agreed,” said Ekeene. “Zephoni would have also likely felt something and alerted us.”

Baako pursed his lips and merely grunted.

Baako noted their positioning and calculating their travel time. “It’s pretty close to the King’s road.”

Ekeene’s scarred eyelids shot up. “McStead’s Ranch!”

Baako nodded. “We should consider this smoke might be a sign of some kind of trouble.”

“You think raiders?”

Baako shrugged. “It’s possible. It would have to be a significant force. McStead’s ranch is larger than some townships I’ve known. Could be foul creatures of some sort.” He shook his head. “It could very well be nothing. None the less, we should investigate with due haste.”

“Aye, Captain. I agree,” said Ekeene.

“Besides,” Baako said casually, “it has been a week or so since we drilled the crew in combat maneuvers.”

A slow smile spread across Ekeene’s misshaped face.

“Aye, Captain.”

Baako’s expression was still grim, but there was an unmistakable twinkle in his eye. “Make the preparations, Lieutenant.”


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