Chapter 2
      Kal considered Rena’s question for a moment then answered.  “If Obrin wasn’t killed when he was captured, there’s a chance he’s still alive, maybe even a good one.  It’s common practice for smugglers to press folk into service on their ships and Obrin is young and healthy enough to make a good deck hand.”
       Rena leaned forward. “I’ve heard plenty of stories about people who were spirited away to the Sea of Clouds and forced to crew some musty ship.  By Veska’s tales, one of dad’s friends disappeared after visiting a shady tavern back home in Sonnice.  Of course, considering the debts he owed, his vanishing act was probably voluntary.  I guess in a port town like Arkebis, that might not always be the case.”
       “True enough,” Kal replied. “You have to understand that smugglers have a short life expectancy.  Careful smugglers play it safe.  The specialize in low reward, low risk cargo, the kind of stuff that gets you fined instead of hung.  Funny thing is, it doesn’t pay much better than normal shipping.  Gara’s always been a bit on the greedy side though.  He’s more willing to take risks on higher profit cargo.  Outfits like his have to travel off regular trade lanes to avoid customs patrols.”
       “But the major trade lanes are the safest passages.  It’s why they’re major.  You’re asking for trouble if you chart your own path.”

       Kal nodded emphatically. “You’re right.  Traveling outside the trade lanes is absolutely dangerous.  You’re bound to lose crew members to rogue storms and hungry creatures.  Ulmanos help you if you get lost.  And if you dabble in piracy like Gara does?  It’s true that most ships would rather surrender their cargo than face a crew of angry pirates, but sooner or later someone is going to fight back.  Bound to lose hands when that happens, doubly so if you run into a pirate hunter.  You’re lucky if you survive that.  By Veska’s tales, piracy is a capital offense here in the Vaustian Cluster, and more than a few magistrates can’t be bothered to learn the difference between smuggling and piracy.  Plenty of smugglers and pirates have wagged their tongues too much in port only to find a noose around their necks.”

       Rena had an eager look on her face.  “I get all that, but could we go back to the part about hungry creatures?  I know that sky monsters are more than just stories sailors use to win free drinks from gullible land folk.  I’ve seen some impressive bones at the museum back in Sonnice, after all, but I thought they were rare.  Did you actually see one?”

       “Oh yes.” Kal involuntarily rubbed an old scar on his leg.  “They’re rare like you said, big predators usually are, and they don’t like to lair anywhere people tend to be, but go out far enough and you’ll find one.”

       Rena pursed her lips. “I must say, I’m a bit jealous.”

       Kal smirked. “It was memorable.”

       “You’ll have to tell me the story sometime.  That said, if smuggling can be as dangerous as you say, why press people like Obrin into service?  Seems an untrained or unwilling sailor is more likely to get you killed than anything.”

       “That’s certainly true, and under normal conditions you’d be right.  Any captain worth his biscuits works hard to keep his ship fully crewed and his hands properly trained.  That’s never easy, but it’s especially tricky for smuggler captains.  Most qualified sailors would rather work on a normal ship and avoid the risks involved with illegal shipping, so it’s already hard for smuggler captains to keep their ships crewed.  It gets even more difficult if the smuggler’s ship earns a reputation as a death trap, which is certainly possible considering the hazards.  It’s amazing how fast word travels in criminal circles.  If a normal merchant ship gets delayed, he has to deal with angry passengers or pays a fine for late delivery.” 

       Rena raised a finger in understanding.  “However, if a smuggler can’t keep the pace, he gets caught by customs patrols, or gets capsized by a rogue storm, or eaten by monsters.  Since you need a full crew to travel quickly, Gara’s best bet is to press Obrin into service.  Even if he turns out to be a lousy sailor, he’s still better than nothing when you consider the alternative.”


       “And if Obrin gets whisked off into the Sea of Clouds, we may never see him again, especially since he might get killed long before we ever catch up with Gara.”

      Kal nodded. “I know most of the smuggler coves in the area.  There won’t be much hope if we don’t get him back today, but I’ll keep looking.”

      Rena tapped her finger against the hilt of her sword, more contemplative than hostile.  “In the end, Obrin could have walked away, but he chose not to.  It wasn’t an easy choice, but it was a choice.” She paused. “I thought you hated diving in to save people from the problems they created themselves.”

       Kal flicked a hand in a dismissive gesture.  “I do, believe me.  If I spent all day digging people out of the graves they’d willingly hopped into, I’d run Arkebis out of shovels.”

       “Then why so committed?”