Ezekiel the Proud
“Uncle Zekie, will oo tell me a stowy?”
Ezekiel’s laughter shook the rafters. With a great deal of relish, he slammed the tankard on the bar and swiveled himself in his bar stool. Ezekiel peered down at the small girl, an amused smile stretching from ear to ear. “So, my little darling wants a story?”
The little girl toed the ground, and then looked up shyly at her uncle, her dark liquid eyes full of hope. She nodded hesitantly, and treated Ezikiel to one of those priceless smiles.
Ezekiel’s chuckling tumbled out of him like a waterfall. Reaching down, he plucked that little girl from the ground and tossed her high into the air, catching her on the way down with his thick, brawny arms. He was awarded with a shower of giggles, which in turn earned the little girl one of her uncle’s giant bear hugs.
Ezekiel raised his voice over the din of the crow. “My little sweetheart here wants a story, so a story she shall have!” At this, he was met with a carousing roar of approval from the tavern’s patrons, and a look of utter adoration from the girl camped out on his lap.
Their enthusiasm wasn’t feigned. For all of his act as the doting uncle, both patron and regular alike knew this man for who he really was.
His name was Ezekiel the Cloud Walker, master storyteller, and the reason I had come to Blue Coral.
When Ezekiel relaxed his embrace, he acknowledged my existence for the first time that night. He looked at me, and for a moment, I saw him for who he really was. It was the eyes, now that I think back on it. Eyes that were, so… so impossibly deep. They were the eyes of a man who had known great happiness and suffered great hardship; a man that had lost everything and loved the innocence of children all the more for it.
He stared at me without reservation, and I felt as if he simply saw right through me. He shook his head, sighed deeply, and then spoke, “You’ve been very patient with me, my lady. The barkeep tells me you’ve been waiting here all day for a chance to hear one of my tales.”
I nodded once. It was a half-truth, and we both knew it. I took the statement for what it was; sensing that now was the time to listen, and not the time to speak.
Ezekiel hesitated. “You know I usually don’t entertain requests for stories anymore. Too many young fools with heads full of adventure and not enough brains to live through them.”
Ezekiel looked to his niece, and then looked at me. Something in his expression softened, and I could tell he had made his decision. “Honestly, I’m a little wary of your motives. But my darling niece has asked me to tell her a story, and I could never say no to her. If you would like to stay and listen, I won’t object.”
I nodded once more, still silent, not wanting to say anything that would change this man’s mind. People the world over had spoken of this man, Ezekiel the Cloud Walker, Keeper of a Thousand Tales. I had been waiting here for weeks, waiting for the chance to hear one of his tales. He had watched me, and I had watched him, and night after night we had tested the other’s resolve. And finally, this night, all my waiting would be worth it.
Ezikiel’s eyes softened, for his niece was staring at him concern, so rarely did she see her uncle as anything but the adoring, doting man that he always was. He smiled at her, and shook the sadness from his eyes. “Now, my darling, I think I will tell you a new story this night. It is a story passed down through my family for generations. It is the tale of my namesake, Ezekiel the Proud, oathbreaker and god curser, hater of the Lime, and captain of the Green Leaf. It is the story of a man, a woman, a ship, a storm, and the promise of a better life…”
“Storm’s comin’, Cap’n.”
Captain Ezekiel Winters leaned over the railing of the crow’s nest, brooding silently and purposely unresponsive. His angry gaze was locked on to the distant, ocean-filled horizon, and the speaker’s statement fell on seemingly deaf ears.
Reuben, first mate aboard the good ship Green Leaf, cleared his throat and spoke again. “Cap’n Winters, there’s a storm headed directly toward us. Should hit us before nightfall.”
After several long, tense moments, Ezekiel tore his eyes from the sea and glanced at the first mate. “Do you take me for a fool Reuben?”
Expression unreadable, Reuben shook his head. “Belay that cap’n, by the goddess herself, you know s’not like that.”
Ezekiel treated the man to a snort of contempt. “Then why do you bother to tell me things any sailor worth his salt would already know?” Ezekiel shook his head and turned his back to the man, intently studying the sky. “That cloud formation. There. After seven years of sailing, even a landsman like me can read the **** clouds enough to spot a storm.”
Reuben, a hopelessly patient man, shook his head again. “S’not like that Cap’n,” He repeated dutifully.
At that, Ezekiel paused and considered his first mate more carefully. “What are you on about, Reuben? What aren’t you telling me?”
Reuben eyed the distant cloud formation nervously. “I knows you don’t believe in such things, but it be a Storm of Reckoning, cap’n. Ocean don’t smell the way it’s spose to. Wind be blowin’ from places it have no right to be blowin’ from. Even the fish be runnin’ scared. It’s a Reckoning alright Cap’n, stake me life on it. I’d never forget one. Last one we had was right before yous came aboard.”
Ezekiel glared at his first mate with his hard, steely eyes. His first mate was about as much a man of the sea as you could possibly imagine. Reuben was born on the deck of a storm tossed ship; he had brine for blood and the ocean for a soul. Hard, Ezekiel was sure that Reuben had never stopped on dry land in his life. That besides, Reuben was a clever man, with a good head on his shoulders, not one likely to take to every sea-spawned legend and sailor’s myth that came out of men’s mouths. And yet…
The doubt was evident on Ezekiel’s face. He turned away again, dismissive of the man’s claims. “Take whatever extra precautions you and the crew deem necessary. Storm of Reckoning or not, it’ll be a big one, and I’ll not lose any of the crew if I can help it. This will be like any other storm as far as I’m concerned.”
Reuben’s frown deepened. “Does that mean…?”
“Very well, Cap’n.” Reuben replied simply, and then slipped onto the ladder then down the mast.
Reuben looked at the approaching storm clouds and smiled.
Lightning clashed and thunder boomed, for the fury of nature had unleashed upon the world a chaotic crescendo of flashing light, buffeting rain, piercing wind, and deafening sound. The great galleon Green Leaf pitched back and forth on the waves like a piece of driftwood, a toy subject to the whims of fate and chance. The rain came down in torrents; the wind tore and strained at the rigging, tearing off chunks of wood and rope with the force of a gale.
And Ezekiel’s laughter shook the heavens. Standing fiercely atop the crow’s nest, Ezekiel stared into the face of that raging storm and challenged it to do its worst. Lightning flashed, and the captain smiled in defiance. Thunder boomed, and he roared back with pride. The wind threatened to snatch him from the crow’s nest and send him spiraling to the sea, but that fierce man would not be budged.
“COME!” Ezekiel howled at the storm. “Are you listening Nysis!? Here stands a man who denies you and your precious Lime! COME! STRIKE ME DOWN! You’ve never seen fit to hold back your fury before! Why start now!? Show me the terrible rage that the gods can muster! Prove me wrong, and tear my soul from this world if you can!”
Reuben looked upwards towards his captain shook his head with disbelief. During times like this, he could see why his captain found it hard to believe in anything. Reuben returned his attention to the deck and resumed barking orders at the crew, who went about their tasks with all the practiced skill of men who had been weathering storms since the day they could walk. For them, the storm, even a storm as fierce as this one, was almost surreal. If their captain, a landsman, could stand on the most dangerous part of the vessel and curse the gods during a Storm of Reckoning, then what could the rest of them possibly have to fear?
Lightning crashed, thunder roared, and the good ship Green Leaf sailed proudly on.
It was the morning following the storm, and the crew was hard at work repairing the damage that had resulted from the weather. The slamming waves had breached the hull, causing the ship to list, and the ships carpenters toiled to repair the hole in the hull while the rest of the sailors bailed out the water that had seeped into the hull. Things were progressing nicely, and despite the delays the storm had caused, the crew was in good spirits.
“CAPTAIN! SHIP SPOTTED OFF THE PORT BOW!”
Reuben leaned over the ship’s railing and eyed the ship in the distant horizon. Several of the crew crowded around him, and a murmur of curiosity soon spread throughout the ship. After a few moments of staring, Reuben turned to his captain. “It looks like they’re missin’ a mast Cap’n Winters. They may’ve been hit by the storm. “
Ezekiel stared impassively at the far away vessel, and then nodded slightly. “Set the course.”
Reuben nodded and turned to the crew, “You heard the Cap’n, hop to it!”
Ezikiel’s eyes never left the ship.
“Dead or dyin’ cap’n. Even before the Reckonin’. Starvation by the look of its. The storm didn’t even have the good manners to finish most of ‘em off.”
Ezekiel stood on the floating wreck that was the remains of the Red Spirit. He crouched over the spot where the main mast had been ripped from the deck, surveying the extent of the damage. With a sad sigh he rose to his feet and eyed the bodies littering the deck. “Get the ship surgeon,” he ordered tartly, “Haul aboard anyone he says will live through the night. I want you leading the team to scavenge the vessel for supplies. I want you to inventory everything useful you find. Anything goes missing, I want to hear about it.”
Before Reuben could reply, Ezekiel felt a sharp pull on his leg. He spun, only to see one of the surviving crewmen looking up at him. It was a boy, barely out of manhood. And he was dying. “The hold.” The man gasped, clearly near his end. “Women. Children. Innocents. Flovoa. Destroyed. Please.” A tear fell down his cheek.
Ezekiel looked meaningfully to Reuben, who was already bolting towards the ladder leading below deck. Ezekiel bent down to examine the young man’s condition. His eyes full of cautious sympathy, he eased the young man’s grip from his leg. “Peace little brother. If there’s anyone alive down there, they’re safe now. We’ll take any survivors onto our ship, I promise.”
The young man hesitated a moment, then smiled with relief. With a smile of content, he murmured his gratitude and closed his eyes.
Ezekiel stayed by the young man’s side until the breath left his body.
“CAPTAIN! DOWN BELOW! You have to see this…”
“Who’s in charge here!?”
Reuben glanced up from his inventory, at the shrill, fiery eyed woman who was now inches away from his face. He took a step back. “That’d be the cap’n, little miss. I’m afraid he’s busy at the moment-”
“Where is he!?” The woman demanded.
“His cabin, but-“
“Good.” With a huff, she spun on her heel and marched straight towards the captain’s cabin. Without bothering to knock, she swung open the door to the sight of Ezekiel poring over a desk full of sea charts. Ezekiel glanced upwards almost immediately; anger in his eyes and ready to chew out whoever had disturbed him. To desecrate the sanctity of the captain’s cabin without knocking was unheard of.
“Blankets!” She demanded.
Ezekiel blinked, the initial shock and outrage he had felt rapidly morphing into confusion. “Blankets?” He echoed.
“Blankets,” She huffed. “Your men took all our blankets from the ship. The children are cold.”
“And Miss, you would be…?”
“Sister,” she clarified. “Sister Adelle. Priestess of Nysis.”
Ezekiel snorted at that, “Sister then. As you can plainly see, I have no blankets here.”
“Then where are they?”
“Did you try the quartermaster, perhaps?”
Ezekiel waited for her to continue, and then replied when she didn’t. “Perhaps you should try there?”
“Fine.” She returned. And, with a whirl of skirts, she was gone.
Ezekiel stared on blankly.
“What be the plan, Cap’n?” Rueben asked, leaning slightly against the wall in the captain’s cabin.
Ezekiel sighed exasperatedly, his voiced full of irritation. “I don’t know. Flovoa is gone. The last of our great floating cities has been washed beneath the waves. All that’s left of our race are living aboard galleons like this one or in hiding, scattered on the mainland. I can’t think of a place…”
Ezekiel froze then, and Reuben started, for the first mate saw something he had never seen in his captain’s eyes: pain. It lasted only an instant; and just as quickly all had returned to normal. The captain snatched up a pen and worriedly returned to his charts, sketching out a heading with broad strokes of his pen.
Reuben shifted uncomfortably, “You have an idea then?”
Ezekiel glanced up at Reuben, silently considering. “Aye,” he replied, returning to his maps. “That I do. It’ll only work if you trust me though. Do you trust me?”
Reuben straightened, and it occurred to him that it was probably the first time the captain has asked anyone something like that. He hesitated, not because he didn’t trust the man sitting before him, but because he wondered what course of action would require such trust.
Either way, the answer was clear. “Aye captain… I trust ye. With me life.”
Ezekiel’s eyes met Rueben’s, and he nodded once. “Then into the storm we go.”
“Where is that **** man!?”
Reuben groaned audibly, and he turned around to see Sister Adelle stalking him with all the grace of a bull charging down its target. “Can I be of service to ye, sister?” he asked, mustering every polite bone in his body.
“You can tell me where that insufferable, blasphemous captain of yours is hiding.”
Reuben sighed. “The cap’n is not hidin’ from you Sister. He’s in his cabin, same as always.”
“Do you know what he’s done now!?”
“I don’t sister, Sister. What has he done now?”
“He’s forbidden me from holding the morning prayer! The nerve! How am I supposed to ensure the moral integrity of those aboard if I can’t conduct the Rites of Nysis!? The oaf doesn’t even have a proper shrine anywhere on this ship. I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!”
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you, Sister. The Cap’n s’not exactly the most agreeable of men when it comes to that sort of thing.”
Adelle snorted and crossed her arms. “I’d heard rumors of “Oathbreaker Ezekiel,” she spat with malice, and Reuben tensed. “Rumors of the so-called scum who hates the Lime and spits at the ideologies of Nysis, but I figured they were just rumors. I can see now that the rumors were accurate.” She turned on her heel, and started on her way.
Reuben hesitated, and then called after her. “I’m sorry sister, but I can’t let that pass.”
Adelle turned again, eyeing the first mate suspiciously.
“I suppose it’ll sound like I’m makin’ excuses. But for the sake of the captain’s honor, I’ll tell you anyway.”
Adelle faced the first mate squarely, arms crossed, waiting for him to continue.
“I was born on the deck of the Green Leaf. Worked this ship all me life. Seen the world without stepping a single foot off its deck. The ship has had many captains, but they were all men of the sea like meself, men born and bred out here on the ocean. When I was 17, the captain then sold the vessel to Captain Winters. He’s a man of the land you see, not like the rest of us. At first the crew was outraged that they would have to sale under a landsman. And back then, I was inclined to agree with them.”
Reuben paused, and continued his story. “But durin’ the course of our first voyage, we had a change of heart. We saw that Cap’n Winters was a man with callouses in his hands as deep as the ones in our own. That he’d earned the money to buy this ship with the sweat from his back and not from some piddling inheritance. We saw that despite all his bluster and anger, Cap’n Winters was the kind of man who respected another man’s craft. He knew that he didn’t know a ship’s bow from its stern, so he left such things to the men who did until he knew enough to do it himself.”
Reuben straightened, his momentum building, “That first voyage spanned nearly 2 and-a-half years. And when we was through, we had brought back a cargo the likes of which had never been seen. But voyage cost dearly, cost us the lives of 17 good men. And under the bloomin’ charter, the pay that those men would have earned was forfeit back to the company, and none of it would be going to their families.”
Reuben’s nostrils flared. “So the captain, fool that he is, he storms into their offices and threatens to make their lives of living Hard if they don’t rewrite the charter and give thems families their pay. At firsts, they laughs at hims. But Cap’n Winters would’nt take nay for an answer, and make their lives a living Hard he did. So those fat men in their offices, they rewrites their contracts, spitting and hissing all the while, callin’ the Cap’n a “cheat” and a “swindler” and an “oathbreaker.” So the captain, he swells up, looks ‘em dead in the eye, and he tells them ‘Aye, that’d be me alright. Call me Oathbreaker until your tounges fall out of your rotten skulls, but my men’s families will have the pay their loved ones spent their lives earning.’
Reuben spat, angrier then he’d ever been. “So aye, the world calls him Oathbreaker, and a slew of other names besides. I don’t rightly know why the captain don’t hold well with gods, and I don’t rightly care. If the captain told us we were sailin’ off to the kill the gods themselves, then we’d follow him with pride in our hearts and glory in the wind. You’d better remember if you’re gonna go around speaking ill of the cap’n.” With that, he stormed off, mumbling curses under his breath.
And Sister Adelle stared after him, her expression soft and wondering.
End of Part I