The breeze that swept around the marina stank of sunbaked fish, with an undertone of copper from their freshly sliced scales. On his way down the central wharf, Jude stepped carefully around precariously stacked crates that towered over his head, and hopped aside to dodge passing fishermen that urgently scurried up and down the docks. From the side of his eye he watched anchored ships and docked dinghies sway on the waterline, while his legs trembled on the sturdy planks that creaked under every bustling step.
As Jude continued down the wharf to the easternmost dock, the weight of his decision began to settle deep in his bones. His steps became slow and heavy, and his breathing laboured when he glanced into the harsh sun rays that glistened off the water’s surface. Though he no longer had much of a life to leave behind, he hesitated when he arrived at the gangplank at the end of the dock.
Staring up at the ship in front of him, Jude nervously tightened his grip around the burlap sack that slung over his shoulder. The old galleon had worn edges and chipped paint markings, but she was easily the finest ship in the marina. When the vagrant squinted up into the clear blue sky, he saw no sign of a flag, but his eyes widened as he watched a rope pull one of the hefty sails loose from its bundle. The stained white fabric flourished from the mast and billowed like a loose handkerchief against the increasing winds. They would be leaving soon.
With no time left to overthink his decision, Jude rushed up to the gangplank and crossed over to the ship. His boots landed with a heavy thud on the freshly swabbed deck, and he immediately threw his hands out to help find his balance when the vessel rocked with the waves.
Right as he found his footing, another crewmate rushed past him with an armful of gear for the journey. Jude’s shoulder was clipped and his attempts to stay upright were thwarted; he toppled onto the deck and landed squarely on his sack of belongings.
Jude groaned as he sat up, hastening to get off the ground so no one would see him, but he’d hardly risen to his hands and knees before a boot gave his shoulder a gentle kick.
The vagrant flipped over to look up at his assailant. His bright brown eyes widened and he swallowed a dry, nervous lump in his throat when he saw a scrawny scribe standing next to an enormous woman, whom Jude could only assume to be the captain. Her stature dwarfed all those around them, and her elaborate layers of garments and trinkets made the surrounding crew members fade into a dreary haze behind her.
Jude scrambled to his feet and scooped up his sack to hold it behind his back, not wanting to diminish her presence with something so drab. He was perhaps one of the tallest men in his town, but once he was standing, even he paled in comparison to the woman’s lean posture and squarely set shoulders. Her long hair, thick with both tangles and curls that twisted in the wind, added to her already impressive height.
Delicate features were sharpened by the severity of her gaze as she studied him. Jude did his best to hold her eye, but his shoulders slouched with relief when she finally turned to the scribe by her side.
“Who’s this one?” she demanded, with a deep voice lilted by a South African accent.
The scribe glanced from her to his paper, then to Jude with wide, impatient eyes.
“Jude,” the vagrant quickly informed him. “Jude Lavigne.”
Anxiety swelled in Jude’s chest as he watched the scribe hover his quill down the length of his page, suddenly fearful that perhaps the recruitment had been a lie. It wouldn’t be so out of character for him to befall such luck, to be standing on the wrong ship in the presence of a terrifying sea captain, after abandoning everything in his life but the sack in his grip.
He shut his eyes to prepare himself for the worst, but they shot back open when he heard the sound of a quill scratching paper. He released a relieved breath when the scribe marked the page, then gave a nod to the woman beside him.
“First venture?” She suddenly turned back to him, her eyes narrowed and her expression unreadable. It was impossible to tell which answer would be the right one, so Jude resorted to honesty.
She hummed thoughtfully and Jude thought he saw a frown pass over her features as she scanned her gaze around the ship. When she turned back to him, her face was blank again.
“Find someone to show you the ropes,” she muttered, waving a dismissive hand towards the rest of the crew.
Jude nervously turned to examine his company. Everyone on deck was bustling around with great urgency, some heaving boxes and crates while others fought with tangled ropes – surely far too busy to babysit a newcomer like himself. They all felt bigger than him in some way too, whether it be their muscles or their fat, and even the shorter ones jumped around with great confidence that made Jude feel tiny amongst them.
He glanced back at the captain and froze when he realised she was turning away, her scribe already long gone. He quickly opened his mouth to speak up, to beg for help, but panicked under her impatient gaze.
It suddenly didn’t feel very smart to let his first impression be so bumbling, after he’d already been caught falling over the deck. So, he lifted his head and tried to smile instead.
“Th-thank you for having me aboard, captain,” he uttered quickly.
That time, the change in her face was clear, and Jude had the horror of watching as her curious stare darkened into a piercing gaze. She turned to glower over him and she scanned him up and down, but eventually relaxed her shoulders when she realised who she was dealing with; that his naivety was not a threat. Jude held his breath the whole time.
“My name is First Mate Strap,” she said, voice quiet but firm. “The captain will be joining us shortly.”
He quickly nodded to show he understood, but the first mate had already turned away to approach the helm.
Jude let his sack crumple to the ground so he could rub his hands over his face. He sighed into his palms then threaded his fingers into his short, thick curls, as he tried to comprehend what on earth he’d signed himself up for.
Though he needed a minute – or several – to ground himself, the ship continued bustling around him. It wasn’t long before Jude had to pack his anxieties away and dropped to his knees to scoop up his belongings so he could get out of everyone’s way.
“...Hey! Is that you, Jude?!”
A voice startled him into dropping his sack right as he picked it up, and he spun around to see another crewmate jumping down from the bannister to approach him. The man was short and broadly built, with a glowing tan that peeked out from the open chest of his blouse and the flared cuffs of his sleeves. His bronze shoulder-length hair flickered across his face in the breeze, and it was only when he was close enough for Jude to see his thick brows and curled up smile that his familiarity dawned on him.
“Sebastián?” Jude gasped as a hand was thrust out to help him to his feet.
“Qué susto! You remember me!” Sebastián beamed and heaved Jude upright, gripping his hand even tighter with affection once he was steady on his feet.
Memories of Sebastián’s face flitted through Jude’s mind, remembering his merry smiles and laughs as he eagerly drank whatever Jude brought to him. Perhaps it was embarrassing to admit that he remembered the Spaniard, considering Jude had worked as a barkeep for so many years and the man was just one of many faces he had to serve every night. After all, he and Sebastián never spoke a word beyond greetings and platitudes, but his regular presence at the old tavern was loud and charming enough that the whole place felt empty after he disappeared.
He hadn’t realised how much he’d missed it until that moment, to have that smile beaming up at him on a ship full of strangers.
“Of course,” Jude nodded, frowning as he remembered. “Though, it’s been years… Have you been sailing all this time?”
“On and off,” Sebastián answered, smiling sheepishly. “You know me, working wherever I’ll be had. But I must admit, I’ve taken quite a fancy to this lot,” he added, nodding his head towards the crew that surrounded them.
Jude followed his gesture only for a moment before setting his eyes back on the old regular. His memories were distant and unreliable, but there was a roughness to Sebastián’s face that definitely felt different from the man he once served. There was a new scar across his cheek, and his facial hair had grown into a thick goatee around his mouth. But the salt in the air and the kiss of the sun blessed with him a liveliness that made his smile radiate brighter than Jude could ever remember.
“I…” Jude opened his mouth to speak, interrupting himself with nervous laughter. Sebastián kept smiling at him all the while, unbothered as Jude gently pried his hands out of his grasp. “I have no idea what I’m doing here,” he finally admitted. “Do you think you could…?”
“Need someone to show you what’s what?” Sebastián interrupted, already grinning as he slung his hands into his trousers pockets.
Jude relaxed and nodded, his laugh spilling out more naturally now. “Please. I dread to make a fool of myself, especially in front of…”
He trailed off as he glanced around the deck, but Sebastián already leaned forward with a smirk.
Hearing it spoken aloud made Jude’s pulse quicken, but Sebastián’s cheeky smile was comforting enough to halt his nerves in their tracks.
“Don’t worry, this is a good lot,” Sebastián continued, finally leaning back to give Jude some space. “This will be my third… Or, fourth, venture with them. You’ll be one of the lads in no time.”
He clapped a hand against Jude’s back to turn him towards the lower deck.
“First thing’s first,” he added, ignoring everyone who rushed around them to lead Jude down below, “Let’s get your things set aside, then find a spot on the gun deck before the first mate saddles us with chores.”
Jude tried his best to nod as he listened, but he was immediately distracted by the crowded decor below deck and the twisting pathway to the crew’s quarters. When Sebastián’s words sunk in, he turned to him curiously.
“What’s on the gun deck?” He asked.
Sebastián flashed him a quick, excited look, then tapped his fingers rhythmically against where they lay on Jude’s shoulder. “It’s a perfect spot to watch the horizon as we lift anchor and set sail. You won’t want to miss it.”
He grinned and Jude’s pulse quickened further, excited and nervous about the prospect of hiding out and dodging orders– but more than anything, just happy to have a friend to do it with.
Once they had found their place between two old cannons, it wasn’t long before the shuffling of footsteps on deck turned into hurried shouts as the crew prepared to set sail. Jude’s heart raced as he listened to the overlapping voices, steadying himself when the boat was freed from the dock and began to rock against the waves.
His gaze was turned up at the ceiling as if it would help him better discern the shouts from above deck, but once the sails caught the wind, Sebastián gave his arm an urgent tap and gestured for him to look out the window. They’d positioned themselves at the furthest end of the gun deck, huddled together out of sight, where they could peer out the trapdoor normally meant for the muzzle of a cannon. When Sebastián pried open the trapdoor to reveal the open window, Jude was expecting to see the great expanse of ocean before them, so he could watch the waves lick at the hull of the ship as it cut through them.
Instead he was met with the underbelly of the docks he’d just come from, and the murky waters that ran cold beneath the marina’s shadows. He felt his shoulders slump as he gazed around the barnacle-clad posts, and considered opening his mouth to express his disappointment. However, beside him, Sebastián’s smile remained steady, and Jude couldn’t help but feel he was missing something.