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May 18

A Beating Heart of Stone Part 1

The Captain leaned over the Astral chart laid out on his desk, attempting to determine their new heading. Maria stood opposite him, acting as number checker and, more importantly, monotony interrupter.

“Could you pass me the compass?”

She handed him the instrument, “Why this sudden change of course? I thought we were heading to Lorentio.”

“A message came yesterday,” he said as he drew an arc around a nearby world, “from the Order.”

“As in the Order of Mages?”

He drew another arc. “The same.”

“What do they want from us?” She leaned a hand onto her hip. “You haven’t been selling arcane secrets again have you?”

“No, that was last month’s project.” He and Maria had known each other far too long to take anything the other said too seriously. “They’re excavating a ruin in Eudanin and want us to do a preliminary exploration.”

“Why are they asking us? They have plenty of archeologists.”

“I think I know why.” He said as he measured another distance. “An old friend of mine is one of their field researchers.”

“I keep forgetting you studied at the Order.”

The Captain drew a third circle, then began doing calculations in his head.

“I’m worried about Adrian,” Maria said after a while of watching him work. “He hasn’t been himself lately.”

The Captain watched Maria as she leaned against his desk, concern creasing her face. “You know you’re not his mother, right?”

“I know, I know,” she said with a roll of her head. “But I worry about him. It’s what I do.”

“You don’t need to,” he returned to his calculations, “I know what’s bothering him.”

“Let me guess. Alexia?”

“Yes. Her betrayal hit him harder than he lets on.”

“He really bought that whole Allaina the innocent act didn’t he?”

“And now she’s back, and the world he knew has turned on its head.”

“All because of her,” she said, her eyebrows drawing together.

“Give it time. They need to work this out on their own. Besides,” the Captain recorded their new heading on a piece of paper, “we both know Adrian can’t hold a grudge.”

He heard Maria walk up behind him. “Speaking of Alexia, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about her.”

The Captain knew this was coming. Alexia’s reappearance onboard a week earlier had certainly generated waves among the rest of the crew. He was surprised no one had asked him sooner.

“You want to know why I let her back?”

“Basically.”

“Because,” he rolled up the chart, “we could use more firepower around here.”

“What?” Maria gasped, feigning astonishment. “My magic isn’t good enough for you anymore?”

“You know what I mean,” the Captain said.

“I do. I know we could use her, but that’s not the point. I need to know we can trust her.”

“Would I let her back if we couldn’t?”

“I know you trust her, but I need to know why.”

“Call it a gut feeling.”

Maria seemed stunned. “That’s it? No analysis? No test? Just a feeling. This isn’t like you.”

He shrugged. “There isn’t anything more I can tell you.”

“Fine.” She went to leave, then stopped, “I’ve also been talking with Stark.”

Uh-oh.

“He says you two were spying on Alexia since she arrived.”

“How did you get Stark to tell you that?”

“Oh please, a little rubbing behind the ears and he’d tell me anything.”

The Captain would have to talk to him about that.

“We aren’t spying anymore, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier. I am your second in command after all.”

Rank. She only mentions rank when she’s upset. “I needed as few people to know as possible.”

“I know, but why was it him and not me?”

“Because,” the Captain said, cautiously, “you can’t keep a secret.”

Maria opened her mouth as if to say something, but stopped mid-breath. “Okay, so you have a point. But the next time you’re plotting against someone, tell me first.”

“Deal.”

– –

There are few things more worrying than knowing people are talking about you. One of them is knowing they had a good reason to.

Alexia sat in her familiar corner of the galley, toying with some soup she hadn’t asked the name of. The rest of the crew had been going out of their way to look like they weren’t avoiding her, so she figured she’d save them the trouble and sit by herself.

The past few weeks hadn’t been she’d hoped. After they discovered she’d be joining them the rest of the crew had been . . . nice, but it was clear they didn’t trust her. There was a subtle appraisal in every conversation, a distance they all pretended they weren’t staying from her, a hint of contempt in every smile. No one wanted to be burned again.

If things didn’t improve soon there would be no point in staying.

She was having second thoughts. Alexia hated having second thoughts. When you could make fire dance on your fingertips of set a man ablaze with a gesture, doubts weren’t something you were accustomed to entertaining.

The question is, how can I prove to them I’m not a threat.

If she knew that, she wouldn’t be sitting in a corner.

She ran her spoon around the bowl’s rim, idly listening to the chatter that surrounded her. There was a strained note to the conversation, a subtle layer of anxiety. No one mentioned her by name. She heard the Captain talking with Gloria nearby. She was scolding him for being late.

He must have known this would happen. He knows his crew, he’d know how they’d react. Why would he let her join the crew if he knew she’d find no place on it?

She glanced up, studying the Captain. Despite the passage of time, she still found the man fascinating. Everything he did seemed orchestrated, yet, effortless.

Gehard approached the Captain, said something in a low voice. They began whispering, turning so Alexia couldn’t hear.

She smiled internally.

Sound was energy just like fire was, and although she didn’t have nearly the same skill with it, the principals were similar enough. She closed her eyes and concentrated on their conversation, on the invisible currents of noise flowing through the air. She focused and reached her Will out to touch the sound, gradually bending it towards her.

“I just want to know why,” Gehard was saying, as if from around a corner. “She’s a liability.”

Of course, she thought, they’re talking about me.

“She’ll be useful. You yourself said we could use more firepower.”

“But how do you know we can trust her?”

Alexia felt her hold slipping, the sound becoming distant. She struggled to hang onto it, but there was something fighting her.

The Captain glanced at her, meeting her stare.

Alexia looked down quickly, but it was too late.

Shortly after she became aware of him standing over her.

“How much did you hear?”

She looked up at him apprehensively, relieved to see amusement rather than anger in the man’s eyes.

“Enough,” Alexia replied.

The Captain sat down opposite her. “Eavesdropping is hardly proper dinner etiquette.”

“I just wanted to know what you were saying.”

“You mean, what we were saying about you.”

Alexia toyed with her soup, noticing that the Captain didn’t have a bowl

“I know they have good reason for it,” she said. “For avoiding me. I’ve put you guys through hell.”

“We’ve been through worse. No one is trying to ostracize you, they just don’t know if you can be trusted. Everyone’s keeping their distance until they know you’re safe.”

Alexia studied the Captain’s face, trying to tell if he was being honest or just consoling her.

“I did what I had to do.”

“I know, but that doesn’t mean they see it that way.”

“How do I make them see?” Alexia asked, trying to keep the urgency out of her voice.

“I can’t help you with that,” the Captain said. “You need to show them that you’re worthy of their trust. Especially Adrian.”

“Why Adrian?”

“You betrayed him the most. He’ll never admit it, but he trusted you. Not even in a naive Adrian way. He really trusted you. And then you tore that trust out and burnt it to a crisp. A wound like that takes a long time to heal.”

“That isn’t helpful.”

“There isn’t anything else I can do. I can’t change the crew’s opinion just because I’m Captain.”

“You sure? That would make it a lot easier.”

“But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.”

Alexia took another spoonful of broth, not sure whether the conversation had made her feel better or worse.

– –

Gloria walked past the Captain on her way to collect dishes. “You’re still here?”

“I’m trying to wait you out,” he said, toying with a spoon.

“You know you’re not gonna win,” she said with a shake of her head. “You were late. Again.”

Gloria gave the Captain a look that mixed motherly concern with indignation. It was an expression he had only ever seen her use successfully and which her features seemed uniquely suited to. Underneath the layer of flour that always covered it her skin was a rich mahogany. Gloria may have looked large, even plump, at first glance, but the Captain knew her appearances were misleading. Gloria possessed near inhuman stamina and strength that rivaled even Gehard’s. She was probably the hardest working person on the ship and they both knew it.

“Then I stay here.” The Captain said, leaning back in his chair.

“Good luck with that.”

“You know,” he said after a time, “I am captain, I could just order you to give me a bowl.”

She lifted a stack of bowls. “You wouldn’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because a ship revolves around its kitchen. You wouldn’t interfere with it, or with me.”

She placed a bowl on the table.

The Captain eyed it suspiciously.

“You’ll need your strength tomorrow,” Gloria said as she began gathering cutlery. “But this is the last time you’re allowed to be late.”

He took a spoonful and let it drift over his tongue. Somehow it was still warm after all this time.

“Aren’t you going to ask me why I let Alexia onboard? Everyone else has.”

“Nope, I’m just the chef.”

Gloria walked past him with a load of dishes.

“Besides,” she said, “I already know.”

She winked as she disappeared into the kitchen.

Next

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