Chapter 051: A ship of love

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"...and yeah, there's been other girls since you. Mostly one night stands, but while I was on the Seabass there were two that were, well, a bit more than friends with benefits... but I wouldn't say that either of them was a serious girlfriend. One of them died in the same incident that took my eye..."

Rink took a sip of lemon tea from the cup she was holding, sitting on the grass in front of Aniara's grave with her hat and a small bag next to her. She was wearing her pink dress, with a new, purple jacket with silver trimmings hanging over her shoulders, in the same style as her old one—but this one having been made to her size.

"We're leaving today. Everything's ready, and everyone's been so helpful. But no matter where I go, you'll always be with me, in one way or another. I named our new boat after you, you know. I had a lot more songs I wanted to sing to you... I guess I'll have to save them for when I'm out at sea. And, well... I know it's silly, you were already married, and you shouldn't be getting them all at the same time, but... I've got something for you," Rink said and reached into the bag, in order taking out and placing on Aniara's gravestone a small cinnamon-chocolate cake, a branch from the tree adorned with yellow and blue ribbons, and the silver earrings she had been wearing during their reunion at that same tree. She finished her tea, put the cup down on the grave as well, and then stood up. "I love ya, Anni. I always have and I always will. You don't have to worry, we'll take good care of Miss Moa... and in case you were wondering, I still don't like tea!"

Rink walked away from where Aniara had been laid to rest, heading for the docks—where Aniara the ship laid ready to set off on her first journey.

It had been nearly two months since Cassandra reached Gondol. While the extended stay had been entirely unplanned and against some people's wishes, what had resulted from it was far outside anyone's expectations.

James's leg was finally completely healed, Mirise had planned out several potential travel options already, Markus and Charon had—with assistance from Helga and the other doctors at the clinic—stocked up on medical supplies, and Aniara's cargo hold was filled up enough that they could last a month at sea without having to make landfall, if needed. While James and Muse had been given the task of overseeing and making the big decisions on the modifications to the ship, they had all been involved in turning her into their new home. Hans and Tag had done a lot of work, and Gondol's citizens had been more than happy to provide them with food and other supplies.

Rink passed the inn, walking through the town of her birth island for what she presumed was the last time. It was the second time she'd leave it behind, and once again, the underlying reason for the upcoming journey was the loss of the girl she had loved with all her heart. But this time, she'd be leaving on a ship she herself would be the captain of. A ship bearing the name of that same girl. A ship that soon was in full view for her.

The bilge of the ship had been reinforced with steel plates, and the hull had been painted purple with white highlights and detailing. The name Aniara had been painted in elegant white letters on both sides of the ship's prow. The rest of the crew were already aboard, while a lot of Gondol's citizens had come to see them off. Harry was waiting next to the gangway.

"Said one last goodbye, I take it," he said as Rink approached.
"I did. And... left some gifts with her."
"I see," Harry replied with a chuckle. "So, this is it, then."
"I still can't thank you enough."
"Thank me by finding the murderers."
"I'll do my best," Rink said and put a foot on the gangway before pausing, turning back to Harry, and extending her hand. "I swear that I will do everything in my power to make sure she can rest in peace. And that's a promise."
"If there's one thing I trust you to do, it's to never break a promise to her," Harry said as he shook Rink's hand.
"And... one more thing..." Before letting go of Harry's hand, Rink leaned down next to him, whispering something in his ear. "Okay?"
"I... I promise. If it ever comes to that."
"Then... this is it, yeah," Rink said and made her way up to Aniara's main deck, where her six—or seven, counting Miss Moa—crewmembers were awaiting her. Allen pulled up the gangway behind her, before joining the others by the main mast. "I feel like I should say something inspiring."
"You don't have to say anything at all," Muse replied with a smile. "We're already on board. Figuratively and literally."
"Heh. Well, then... let's not drag this out with any boring speeches. Raise the sails! Weigh the anchor! Set a course for Avasine!"
"Yes, captain!" six voices replied in unison. James took the helm, with Mirise (being followed by Miss Moa) guiding him. Soon, Aniara had started to make her way away from Gondol, observed by the large crowd at the docks, waving and cheering for them. Rink took one last good look at her birth island before walking up to the bow of the ship and putting her hand down where the figurehead joined the railing.
"At least this time, you're with me when I leave..." Rink said and started humming a melody.

You and me
Like it used to be
Just us two
Every place we'll go
Wild and free
Our harmony...

You and me
Out at sea
Is where we are
Going far
The world we'll see
In harmony...

You and me
I can't flee
Once again
From my pain
You're my key
To harmony...

Once the final verse had left Rink's lips, she heard clapping behind her. She turned around to face her crew, who she had already heard had gathered behind her during the song.

"Thank you, thank you. It's been lovely, and I hope you come see me again tomorrow."
"Do we have a choice?" James asked with a chuckle.
"Not really, no," Rink replied. "Since you're all here, I take it we're on course?"
"For now," Mirise said. "At this rate, we should reach Avasine in two to three days."
"Great. We've planned some stuff already, but now that we're on our way... we've still got some things to go through. I want everybody in the war room in fifteen minutes. Mirise, brew some coffee. Markus, fetch a bottle of brandy. James, find those cookies Selma gave us. Everybody else... just be there. I'm gonna go change."
"Yes, captain!"

The 'war room' was what Rink had jokingly taken to calling the cabin that originally had been meant to be Harry and Aniara's bedroom on the ship, and otherwise would have been expected to be the captain's cabin. It was the topmost cabin in the aftcastle of the ship with the mizzenmast running through it, and as Rink had elected to not have a cabin to herself, it had been turned into a combined strategy and navigation room. Since the room was meant to be for planning their journey, Mirise had gotten to make the most decisions about it. There was a big map of West Blue nailed to the starboard wall, with pins and lines marking the locations they had been to and the routes they had traveled. Next to it, underneath the windows that ran along the entire back wall, was a writing desk and a single chair. The room also contained a bookcase with their small collection of books. Mostly maps and navigation books from Mirise, some cookbooks from Rink, a few books about medicine and herbs from Markus and Charon, and some assorted books from James including his journal, all in all barely taking up two shelves. A single basic bed had been put in the corner next to the door for the occasion that somebody needed a private room to sleep in, and the remaining corner of the room was taken up by a round standing table. On the wall next to it there was a cork board, with a picture of Aniara in the middle, flanked by a drawing of a bear and a black ship.

Below the war room was the kitchen and dining room, which naturally also had the mizzenmast running through it. Some of the interior had been done already before they had been given the ship, but Rink had made sure it was as good a kitchen they could have when out at sea. The counters, cupboards, and stove took up the entire left side of the room, with most of the rest of the room being taken up by a rectangular dining table large enough to seat ten people. Half of the back wall of the room was taken up by a large and well-stocked pantry, and next to it a small lounge area with a couch, a low table, and two armchairs, along with a shelf that currently didn't hold more than a chessboard and a deck of cards.

Across the main deck from the kitchen was, the sickbay, as had been chosen by Markus and Charon. It was a fairly simple room, with two beds divided by a screen, each with a small bedside table and medicine cabinet next to them. The room otherwise contained two desks with chairs, as well as some additional storage cabinets for medicine and equipment.

Rink walked down the stairs next to the main decks, reaching the corridor that connected all the rooms belowdecks. At the front was the boys' room, which was quite sparse, simply consisting of two bunk beds and two storage chests along the back wall, a large wardrobe to the left, and a smaller wardrobe to the right.

After that, through the door directly to the left when coming down the stairs, was the workshop and weapon storage. It was mostly Muse's idea, but had been agreed to be a good idea. For the time being, it held little more than two workbenches with some tools, as well as most of the crew's weapons scattered around. From there, another door led to one of the ship's two small toilet rooms—the other one being reached through the bathroom.

Said bathroom was a tad more fancy than one might expect to find on a pirate ship. The main mast ran through it, and nestled next to it was Miss Moa's litter box. One of the corners held a decent-sized bathtub with a sink and mirror next to it, a towel rack at the foot, and next to the door were two laundry baskets.

And lastly, the aftmost and biggest cabin belowdecks had become the girls' room, which included Miss Moa. Three decently-sized single beds lined most of the walls in the room, each with a small nightstand next to it, and the corner at the foot of Mirise's bed was Miss Moa's. Two wardrobes stood at opposite ends of the room, at the foot of Muse's bed was a storage chest, next to the mast was a low round table, and the last piece of furniture was a vanity with a chair.

Rink entered the room, taking off her jacket and putting it on her bed. She opened the larger of the two wardrobes, took out a white button-up shirt and a knee-length dark red skirt, changing from her sundress and putting her jacket back on. She dropped the dress in a laundry basket before heading back up the stairs. The main deck itself was quite empty, apart from some open crates filled with soil, for producing some crops of their own—altough nothing was growing in them yet.

She walked up the stairs and into the war room, with the others already there. Mirise was sitting on the bed with Miss Moa lying next to her, Markus had taken the desk chair, and the others were standing around the table. Rink joined them, poured herself a glass of brandy, and faced her friends.
"Alright... we're finally underway. I just want to reiterate how thankful I am to all of you for still following me in this... and that's something I want to talk about, too."
"About us following you?" James asked.
"Yes. Now, I am your captain... even if I don't know a lot about being one. I reserve the right to give my veto and have the final say about things... but I'm not gonna be the only one with that right in this crew. If you ever disagree with a decision I make, then I'm giving you an order, here and now, that you speak up about it. If all of you disagree with me, then we're not gonna be doing it my way. Got it?"
"Yeah, that's pretty clear," James replied.
"Above all, we're doing this as a team. I trust you to have my back, but only in exchange for me having yours. We might be on this trip now because of my stuff," Rink said and pointed to the board, "but there's no way I could do this on my own. You're all important, and I want you all to get something out of it too. I don't think it'll be a problem, and I really don't want you to start treating me differently... but never hesitate to come with requests. So... here's to us!" Rink raised her glass.
"To us!" the others said in unison, raising their glasses and cups as well.
"To Markus and Charon, for keeping us healthy and alive!"
"We'll do our best," Markus said.
"To Allen, the strongest of us all!"
"Well, I'm not gonna be bored, at least!"
"To Mirise, our unparalleled guide!"
"I've got a map to fill out... and answers to find."
"To Muse, who I trust to keep me in check!"
"I don't think you'll ever make it easy, but I'll try."
"And finally... James."
"Yes?"
"While I do trust you and Muse to keep Aniara patched up, for now... ever since we met in Avasine, I've had a good deal of respect for your drive. Plus, you were the one who got me to go back out to sea to begin with. So, James..."
"...yes?"
"That's why you're going to be my second in command."
"Sorry, what?"
"To James, first mate of Aniara! Cheers!" Rink exclaimed and downed her glass in one go, followed by everybody else except for James finishing their drinks as well. "And I guess there's one more of us... so here's to Miss Moa, the living memento of the girl that I could never forget or stop loving," she said somberly and put her glass upside down on the table.
"Hold on, sorry, I just... don't get it," James stated. "Why me? Why not Muse? You're clearly closest to her?"
"And that's exactly why I won't pick Muse. Having my closest friend also be my second in command... doesn't seem like a good idea," Rink replied. "Plus, you've got more leadership potential than her. No offense."
"None taken," Muse said. "I never was the leader type."
"You've probably even got more potential to be a leader than me," Rink continued as she looked at James. "I wouldn't choose you for the role if I didn't trust that you had it in you."
"...fine," James replied and finished his glass before looking at Rink with a grin. "One day, I'm gonna look back at my life, and I'm pretty sure that the day I met you is what I'll be able to identify as the point where it all started going downhill."
"Sounds about right!" she replied with a laugh. "So there you have it, everyone! If I'm ever incapacitated, or otherwise unable to fulfill my duties as captain, then James is the one in charge! If both of us are down, well... I'm sure you'll be able to figure it out among yourselves."
"Hopefully it won't come to that," Muse said and looked at the board behind Rink. "So, what's the plan?"
"Given that we know practically nothing..." Rink said and looked at the sparse board as well. "Hopefully we can get some kind of clue in Avasine. Then we'll just... take it from there. All we have right now is a mysterious black boat and a bear zoan, and absolutely no motive behind the attack on Gondol. So, until we get to Avasine, that's really it for now. How long did you say it should take us, Mirise?"
"If the weather allows us to keep a good pace, it should be no more than three days to Avasine," Mirise replied. "I know some people we could ask."
"Plus, we've got the mayor on our side," James added.
"So, until then... let's just make ourselves comfortable. Get used to this... make this ship feel like home. Unless anyone's got something to take up."
"Well, just one..." Allen said.
"What?"
"If we're a pirate crew... shouldn't we have a flag?"
"I'm... still working on it," Rink replied. "And waiting for the right moment to raise it."

~~~~

As expected, Mirise's prediction held true, and Avasine came into view in the early afternoon of the third day after Aniara's departure from Gondol. They were headed for the northern docks, like James and Cassandra had done three months ago.

"Back again, huh," James said as he looked towards the city. The whole crew had gathered at the ship's bow, witnessing their first goal come closer. They were all looking forward to the visit, but Mirise was understandably the most excited.
"When we left, this wasn't how I thought I'd return, but I can't wait to see dad again!"

Avasine seemed to still be the busy place it usually was, with many ships docked around the artificial island. But as Aniara came even closer, they started noticing that many of the ships they could see—a good deal more than half of them, in fact—looked the same. It was a design they recognized, and not one they liked seeing.

"...what's with all these Marine ships?" Muse asked as they reached the docks, coming in next to a jetty.
"There's always Marines here, but..." Mirise replied and looked around. "This is more than usual. I've never seen this many Marine ships here at the same time."
"Hopefully it's just a large unit stopping by," Rink said. "But I guess we should be a little careful..."
"I'll go ask the dock workers about it," James suggested. "Doesn't seem to be a lot of Marine soldiers around here, at least..."
"I'm coming too!" Mirise said.
"Alright," Rink said. "We'll be in the war room."
"We won't be long, I hope," James said as he and Mirise got off the ship, while the others went into the navigation room.
"If there's always Marines here, why did we come here?" Allen asked.
"Avasine's always been kind of a neutral zone... in all the time I was here, I saw Marines and pirates around at the same time a lot. There were some altercations, but the unspoken agreement is that the Marines have no real jurisdiction here. That's why it should be a safe place for us... but like Mirise said, this is an extreme amount of Marine ships at once. During my year here, I never saw more in one place than I could count on one hand."
"Maybe a good thing we didn't raise the flag yet, then. If we can avoid painting a target on ourselves..."
"It's also strangely quieter than usual... Avasine's such a big West Blue hub, so many ships come here, the nightlife is bustling, Avasine is never silent. It's not completely quiet, but... it's weirdly subdued. I don't like it."
"You'd think we'd stop running into trouble everywhere we go," Muse said.
"Would be nice, wouldn't it? Well, let's just hope they come back with good news."

It had only been a few minutes when James opened the door to the room, entering with a distraught expression on his face and something flat in his hands.

"So... anything?" Rink asked, already able to tell from his face that it probably wouldn't be good news.
"Well, we definitely have a problem. And by one, I mean three. And by three, I mean four."
"I'm not following your counting."
"Just... just look. These were on the dock bulletin board," James said as he put three sheets of light brown paper on the table...

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