There were many reasons people turned to piracy.
Poverty was the most common one. Of course, if you couldn’t find a job that paid enough to feed yourself, stealing from others was the most obvious solution. Others were rejected by society for who they were or how they chose to live and rejected society in return. And some sought to escape from horrible people, at home or their work. Yet others had already been charged with crimes – sometimes rightfully so while others were falsely accused – and wanted to run from the conviction. Unless you were one of the very few who sought glory and fun through adventure and freedom, you became a pirate because you didn’t see any other choice. It was, after all, illegal, dangerous and morally wrong.
Onoda Sakamichi didn’t fit any of those descriptions, and he would never even consider joining a pirate crew. They were far, far too scary. And he was no good with violence of any kind, so they probably wouldn’t want him in their crews anyway.
Instead, he was planning on working on a trade ship. Mis mother had recently passed away and he couldn’t keep their little shop running on his own, but he had enough money from selling the house to last him a bit until he found a ship that was willing to take him in the next port town. Especially if he walked.
It took a few days to get from his hometown to Ironhaven on foot, but it was much cheaper than getting a horse or a bicycle. There was no train line either, not surprising considering how small Onoda’s hometown was and that there was a ring of mountains surrounding Ironhaven. Trains probably weren’t worth the investment and difficulty that came with getting them through the mountains when you could simply sell the iron you dug out of the mountains by ship. Air transport was even more laughable considering the weight of iron.
Onoda genuinely didn’t mind climbing the mountains, though. It was exhausting, yes, but he was all by himself, the weather was nice, and he could occupy himself by singing songs his mother had taught him and envisioning his bright future. He’d get himself a well-paying job, travel the world – or at least the surrounding area – while he was at it, and make friends with the rest of the crew. And all of that by himself! His mother would be proud of him! He’d show her there was no reason to worry about him, so she could rest in peace.
Except he’d never been that lucky. He noticed the first mishap when he was close to the peak of the mountain that was easiest to cross and was used as the main access route to Ironhaven. He’d just meant to take a short break, sit down for a few minutes and drink some water. But apparently his water bottle hadn’t been closed properly, so now it was empty, and instead his food and clothes were entirely soaked.
He sank to the ground in defeat. His throat was aching, but he didn’t have any other choice but to push through until he made it into town.
Onoda was just lying on the ground, wallowing in his misery, when he heard a weird creaking sound that quickly came closer and finally stopped right next to him. When he turned to look, he found a young man about his own age – twenty, maybe? – on a bicycle, barefoot for some reason, curiously looking down at him. He smiled when he realized Onoda was looking at him.
“Ah, you’re alive! When I saw you lying there, I thought you were dead!”
Did he look like a corpse? Was he that dried up already? “Um, no! I’m sorry I made you worry! I just realized my water bottle leaked so now I have to get to Ironhaven without anything to drink… But I’m fine, really! I drank something this morning, so it’s not like I’ll actually die of thirst!”
“You can have some of mine!” The guy immediately started rummaging through his backpack and eventually pulled out a bottle that he handed to Onoda. “You know, it’s a policy of mine to never refuse help to anyone who’s stranded! Usually out at sea or up in the air, but in the mountains as well.”
Onoda gratefully took the bottle and gulped down the water inside as fast as he could. “Thank you so much! Does that mean you work on an airship?”
“Yup, one of those really old-fashioned ones that sail both the sea and the sky! I don’t really do anything impressive though, that’s why I’m out here running errands for our first mate…”
“That’s still super cool!”
“You think so? Ah, my name’s Manami Sangaku, by the way.”
“Oh, right!” Onoda finally got off the ground to bow politely as a greeting. “My name is Onoda Sakamichi. I’m going to Ironhaven to find work on a ship too. If possible, I’d like to be an accountant on a trade ship. I’m no good with violence and I don’t know anything about sailing, so that’s about all I have that I could do…”
“Hmmm, too bad, doesn’t sound like our ship would be what you’re looking for… Want to at least go the rest of the way together, Sakamichi? We can walk to the peak and you can ride on the back of my bike on the way down.”
Onoda’s shoulders drooped when Manami ruled out his own ship so easily, it would’ve been nice to already know someone when he set out to sea, but he quickly got over his disappointment. Manami was being so nice to him, he couldn’t help but feel happy and at ease. And it was certainly nice walking with someone and making conversation. Manami was really easy to talk to, which was rare for Onoda.
Sadly, they didn’t have much time for conversation. They got on the bike as soon as they reached the peak, and Manami rode down the mountain at breakneck speed. He laughed and shouted back to Onoda about how nice the wind felt, but Onoda had trouble keeping his breakfast down as he clung to Manami in earnest fear for his life.
They reached the town safely, somehow, but Onoda was shaking all over as he got off the bike. Manami on the other hand seemed completely unbothered and blind to Onoda’s distress. “That was fun, right? It’s been a while since I felt so alive! Want me to show you to an inn? Or the port?”
“A-ah, yeah. I mean, I’m fine! It’d be nice, but you don’t have to if you have places to be…”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m only supposed to be back at 4pm, that’s when my ship leaves.”
“Huh?” Dread settled in Onoda’s stomach. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the old clock his mother gave him. As he suspected, the short hand was already past the four, in fact, it was much closer to the five. “M-Manami… that was almost an hour ago!”
“Oh, was it? Time sure flies when you’re napping in the sun…”
“What if they left without you? Don’t worry about me, just hurry, maybe you’ll still make it!”
“Ahaha, it’s fine. I’m always late, and they never left without me. Besides, I’m suspecting Toudou-san has started giving me the wrong time, telling me I need to be back earlier than is actually necessary so I’m actually back on time. But I should probably still get going, the later I am, the longer his lecture is going to be…”
Manami got back on his bike, and they waved goodbye to each other. Onoda realized only then that he still had Manami’s bottle. “Wait, your bottle…!”
“Don’t worry about it,” Manami yelled back over his shoulder, “just give it back to me if we ever meet again out at sea! It’s a promise so you definitely have to get out there!”
“I will! Wait for me, I’ll definitely find you somehow!”
Once Manami disappeared around a corner, Onoda set out to find a place where he could stay the night. It was probably best to get a good rest and then go to the port in the morning. It was still early spring, and soon it would be dark. Onoda had never been in a city, and he’d never left home on his own, so he wasn’t entirely sure, but it seemed scary to walk around alone at night with all these strangers right there. Maybe some of them would be thieves, or drunk. Better stay inside until sunrise.
Thankfully it wasn’t hard finding an inn that looked alright that he could afford. He had dinner there and then called it an early night. Tomorrow was the big day after all, the day that would decide his future. It took a while until his nerves calmed enough to let him fall asleep, but once he did, he slept peacefully and without any dreams.
The next morning, he got up with the sun and only ate a quick breakfast, practically running out of the inn.
Finding the port was no problem. All the main roads led to it, Onoda simply had to follow the flow of people. Finding some ships wasn’t a problem either. There were plenty at port, most of them huge and impossible to overlook.
The problem was that he had no idea how to get a job on one of them. People were running around everywhere, carrying stuff off and onto the ships and bellowing orders at each other. Everyone seemed busy with their respective tasks, and there was nobody that clearly stood out as being in charge. It didn’t help that most of them were really tall and muscular. They could probably snap Onoda in half without even breaking a sweat.
Onoda decided he’d look around a bit first and decide on a ship, then figure out how to get on there. Maybe one that looked nice, or one that seemed to have a particularly nice crew…
He wandered all the way to the edge of the port, where a rather small ship had thrown its anchor a little bit away from the rest. It looked like it had to be repaired quite a few times, but the golden letters forming its name, ‘Sohoku’, glimmered in the morning sun. It had all the necessary assets to take flight too. So it probably wasn’t part of the iron trade… Maybe they imported food or luxury goods instead? There wasn’t much besides the mines in Ironhaven, after all.
There were people buzzing around that ship too, and as he inched closer, Onoda couldn’t help but overhear a conversation two of them were having next to a stack of boxes.
“It’s 26 boxes hotshot, are you blind? Which is more than we’re supposed to have, so it’s all fine!”
“You’re the one who just can’t count! It’s 23 boxes, so they made use of your idiocy and cheated you! I’m not explaining this to the captain, go back and get more!”
“And I’m telling you, it’s 26!”
Onoda counted himself. There were three rows of boxes, with four boxes each, then the same again on top.
“Um, excuse me…” Onoda interrupted their argument.
“Hah?” they both snapped at him simultaneously. Scary…
“I’m pretty sure it’s 24 boxes… I didn’t count though I just did the math in my head since it’s just three times four times two…”
Both of them looked impressed, though only the shorter redhead was super obvious about it. “Wow, you can do that kinda math in your head? That’s impressive, fella! You must be a genius!”
“Um, no…? Not really? I just did it all the time when I was working at a store…”
“Well, 24 is the amount of boxes we were supposed to buy, so we don’t need to go back. Thanks for your help.” The taller of the two, ‘hotshot’, bowed a bit awkwardly to him. “Did you actually need anything from us? If not, we’ll have to get to work to get these on board.”
“W-Well, um, not directly need, I just, um… I was looking for a job? I can’t really sail, but I have experience in accounting, and I can cook and clean too!”
The two looked at each other for a moment and then shrugged. “Well, why not?” the redhead exclaimed. “Gotta ask the captain first, of course, but you’re smart, so he’ll say yes no problem!” He ran off towards the ship and Onoda stumbled after him a little belatedly when he realized he was supposed to follow.
They found the captain in the stockroom, noting down what the crewmembers brought in. “Yo, captain, this guy here said he wants to be our accountant! He’s real smart too!”
The captain raised his eyebrows as he looked at Onoda. “Alright, I’ll talk to him. Naruko, get Teshima to take over for me and then get back to work, you know we can’t stay too long.”
“Aye aye, sir!” Naruko sprinted out of the room and it didn’t take long for a guy with curly hair to show up and take the captain’s notes from him. In the meantime, Onoda took a closer look at the captain. He was younger than Onoda had expected, probably in his early thirties. He didn’t know why, but somehow, he’d expected an old man with a beard. But he still looked intimidating, his shaved head and muscular build only adding to the cold stare he was mustering Onoda with.
Finally, he gestured for Onoda to follow him, and they went to what Onoda assumed was his cabin, where the captain sat down at his desk. Onoda awkwardly remained standing.
“I am Kinjou Shingo, the captain of the Sohoku. And you want to be a part of my crew?”
“Yes! I mean, yes sir! My name is Onoda Sakamichi and I might not know how to sail, but I have experience in accounting, and I can cook and clean as well! Oh, and repair machines, as long as they’re not too complicated. I just… really need a job, and I couldn’t stay home, so…”
Onoda felt like Kinjou’s stare was piercing right through him. What was he looking for? Hopefully it wasn’t physical strength or courage or something, those weren’t Onoda’s strong points.
“There are many ships in this port. You couldn’t have gotten on another one?”
What did that mean? Did he not want him? It wasn’t like he could say ‘I didn’t have the courage to ask anyone’. “No, not really…? It’s, um, complicated, I guess?”
“I see. I won’t ask any further questions, then. If you come with us, we’ll provide you with free food, a place to sleep and a small share of our profits that you can use however you like. In return, you’ll be in charge of managing our stocks, including food. You will also help with cooking and cleaning and anything else if there’s a need for you to do so. We can’t afford any deadweight during bad weather, so you will have to learn how to sail as well. Lastly, this ship isn’t a place to play around. If you’re looking for a grand adventure out at sea, look somewhere else. You will have to work hard, and our life is a dangerous one.”
Onoda gulped. “I-I will do my best! I never thought of this as an adventure or anything.”
“Think it over,” Kinjou told him, then gave him a notepad and a pencil. “Take stock. If your list is the same as Teshima’s, you’re hired. No offense to you, but Naruko’s standards for ‘real smart’ don’t mean much. We don’t have much time until we need to leave, either, so make your decision while you work. That’s all.”
“Yes, sir!” Onoda bowed, then quickly went back to the stockroom. Things had died down a little there, which Onoda was glad about, it made the counting much easier. Not to mention that the chances of someone trying to interact with him were much smaller. He started at the back anyway, with things that had probably already been on board. If he started at the front, the crew would just add things and he had to start over.
He worked quickly and in silence, but careful not to make any mistakes. The captain had seemed pretty serious, after all. But Onoda took that as a good thing. If he was too easy-going, he’d probably be unreliable. All in all, this ship seemed great. Not too huge, so he could properly meet the entire crew. And Naruko had seemed nice. And the ‘hotshot’ guy too. They could be friends! He didn’t see any reason not to take the job. If it turned out too horrible, he could always leave. As it seemed, he was lucky they wanted to take him.
When he was almost done, the curly-haired guy, Teshima, approached him, curiously looking over his shoulder. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, um, taking stock! It’s a test from the captain to see if he hires me! If my list is the same as yours, I pass.”
“So you’re here to join us, huh~ Sounds good to me, we can always use more people with brain and not just brawn. Wanna take a look at my list?”
Onoda blinked at him in surprise. “Eh? But wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of the test?”
Teshima laughed at that. Had he said something funny? “You’re surprisingly honest, I see. That’s good, I guess. Less chances that you’re going to try and keep stuff to yourself instead of properly taking stock. From what I saw on your list, you’re fine without my help anyway. Good luck, I’ll be rooting for you!” And with that, he left.
Surprisingly honest, though? Maybe the reason they didn’t have an accountant was because their last one had been dishonest with them. If so, Onoda counted himself lucky that they both had a space for him and the bar was so low.
He finished soon after and handed his list to Kinjou, who looked it over and gave him an approving nod. “Good job. If you still want to stay, you’re hired.”
“Yes, I’d love to stay and work for you!”
Kinjou looked a bit taken aback by his enthusiasm, but nodded nonetheless. “Then you’re one of us now. We’re about to set sail, do you have any belongings you want to take with you?”
“I only own what I already have with me,” Onoda answered truthfully. It probably made his situation seem worse than it was, because he simply exchanged most everything he owned against money, and money didn’t take up a lot of space, but he didn’t know how to add that without it sounding awkward, so he didn’t.
“Alright, we can leave immediately then. If you realize you don’t have enough or not the right kind of clothes for the journey, borrow some from Naruko, he should be about your size.” He paused for a moment. “On second thought, borrow them from Teshima or Aoyagi instead. They’re more reliable when it comes to washing.”
The door suddenly opened without any prior warning, and a burly man entered. “Kinjou, we’re all done and ready to go. You done too?”
Kinjou nodded, apparently completely unbothered by the lack of formalities. He pointed his thumb at Onoda. “That’s Onoda Sakamichi, he’s with us from now on. For accounting, but he can help you in the kitchen as well. Onoda, that’s Tadokoro Jin, the first mate of this ship and also the cook. We can’t really spare anyone right now, so stand somewhere you don’t bother anyone and observe what the others are doing. We’ll get to you once we’re up in the air and things have calmed down.”
“Nice to meet you, newbie!” Tadokoro clapped him on the back with a little more force than was comfortable, then they all went out on deck.
“Get ready to set sail,” Kinjou bellowed, followed by more specific commands that Onoda only understood half of. Most of them were littered with technical terms he’d never heard. At least he understood ‘Lift the anchor!’ and ‘Start the engines!’, but there was a lot for him to learn.
He tried to do as he was told and observe what everyone was doing, but there was so much going on he was quickly overwhelmed. It was pure chaos erupting in a matter of seconds, yet everyone seemed to know what they were doing, and the sip safely maneuvered out of the haven and onto the open sea, where it started lifting off without a hitch. Onoda had never seen a flying ship, much less been on one, all he could do was stand in awe as the sails caught the wind and carried it up into the air, with support of the engines roaring somewhere beneath him.
It was a pretty shaky affair, and Onoda wondered a little belatedly if he would get seasick – or airsick? – but thankfully, it stabilized once the ship stopped gaining altitude. It still shook a little when a strong gust of wind hit it, but Onoda was somewhat certain he would be fine. Seeing how everyone stopped moving around as much, he dared to move from his position. Nobody was paying attention to him yet, so he went to the stern of the ship and peeked over the rail.
The view took his breath away. Ironhaven was already tiny in the distance, and the ocean spread out seemingly endlessly beneath him. With the wind blowing gently and the sun shining down from above him, he felt like he could get drunk just from standing here and taking it all in.
“Pretty sweet, innit?” Naruko hopped to sit on the rail next to him, a big toothy grin spread across his face.
“Yeah, sure, but isn’t that dangerous? You could fall!”
“Kakaka, don’t underestimate me! I’ve been on ships my whole life, I’d never make such an amateur mistake. See? My hands are tightly holding on! I’m safe as long as I don’t let go, I can even do stuff like this!” And with that, he let himself fall backwards. Onoda screeched in panic, but Naruko just kept laughing even as his entire upper body was suspended in mid-air and he was only hanging off the rails by his knees and hands.
“Naruko, stop fooling around, you’re not impressing anyone, you’re just being needlessly careless. Onoda, the captain wants to introduce you to everyone. I’m Imaizumi Shunsuke, by the way.” Ah, it was the guy Naruko had been arguing with before! Onoda was glad he introduced himself, he honestly wasn’t sure if he’d already done that and he’d just forgotten. That would’ve been awkward. Honestly, it was probably bound to happen with someone. Names just weren’t his thing.
“And you’re not impressing anyone with your nagging, hotshot!” Despite his words, Naruko pulled himself back up and planted his feet back on the ship. “There, happy?”
Imaizumi rolled his eyes. “Let’s just go.”
The three of them went back to the main deck, where a group of maybe ten people had gathered around Kinjou. Was this the entire crew? The ship was small, but Onoda honestly didn’t know how many people he had to expect. But he recognized Tadokoro and Teshima at least. Other noticeable people included a guy with green hair that stood on Kinjou’s left side and honestly looked rather terrifying, and two girls. Onoda honestly hadn’t expected any, but he also found he didn’t really care. One of them gave him a friendly wave and the other a death glare, so he was more concerned with making a mental note to ask the one with the long brown hair for help if he ever needed it and steering clear of the one with the short, lighter hair. She had a gun on her belt too. Scary. Definitely scary.
Kinjou introduced him to everyone and then everyone to him, solidifying both his assumption that this was the entire crew and his fear that he would never be able to remember all their names without embarrassing himself more than a couple of times. The nice girl was apparently named Kanzaki Miki, but everyone else? As soon as Kinjou stopped talking, Onoda’s brain had already deleted their names.
“It’s, uh, nice to meet you all.” Onoda bowed, feeling everyone’s stares on him. “I hope we can get along well.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, you’ll be one of us in no time at all!” Naruko slung his arm over Onoda’s shoulders and ruffled through his hair. Onoda was relieved to see almost everyone was giving him encouraging smiles. Miki gave him a thumbs-up too. Both the other girl and the green-haired guy still didn’t seem too happy with him joining though. Had he done or said anything that made them dislike him somehow?
“That’s it for now, then,” Kinjou continued, “get back to work, everyone. Makishima, go and give Onoda a tour of the ship and show him where he can put his belongings.”
Um, who was Makishima again…?
“Me?” Oh no. The scary guy was pointing at himself, looking incredibly unhappy with the task he’d been given. Onoda felt his heart sink. Why would the captain give that scary guy even more reason to be annoyed with Onoda? Was he actively trying to make his life on this ship horrible?
“You don’t have anything else to do right now, do you? You should try and get along with the new crewmember.” Kinjou gave him a pointed look.
“Ugh, fine.” Makishima unwillingly trotted over to Onoda. “Follow me then, kid.” Too scared to do anything else, Onoda hurried after him.
They went to a cabin first, where Makishima told Onoda to drop his stuff off. There were already four hammocks hung up in the room, but apparently there were spare ones in a chest in the corner, he could figure out how to add his own later.
Then Makishima showed him the other cabins next, and Onoda couldn’t help but notice that Makishima was the only one who had his own next to Kinjou and Tadokoro. Onoda honestly didn’t remember what Kinjou had said Makishima’s role on the ship was, but if he got the same privileges as the captain and first mate, he was probably important. But he still didn’t seem to like Onoda one bit. They spent most of the tour in awkward silence, only interrupted by curt explanations from Makishima. “This is the kitchen. That’s the machine room. That’s the bathroom.”
When they finished the tour, Onoda shakily raised his hand. “Um, Makishima-san? S-Sir? Is it okay to ask what you do? Like, on the ship? I mean, what’s your job?” He hadn’t mentioned anything in particular, even though Onoda had half-expected him to when they reached a particular place, like ‘That’s the room where we keep the maps and navigation tools I need to keep this ship on the right course’ or something similar.
“Oh, uh…” Makishima scratched his head. “That.” He pointed to a… tent? No, on closer inspection, it was a tarp, draped over what seemed to be a small airplane.
“You can fly a plane? That’s so cool! What do you use it for?” Forgetting his fear for a moment, Onoda ran over to the airplane, examining it excitedly. An old guy in his village had owned a plane, but it had been just as old and rusty as him and long since emptied of its valuable parts. But this one was clearly much newer, and in use. It was perfectly polished too, meaning Makishima took great care of it. Onoda really wanted to see it in action…
“I don’t think it’s that great… It’s not like I fight with it or anything, harvesting lightning is just the cheapest way to get energy for the ship. I know it’s outdated and dangerous and all that but it works so I don’t mind…”
“You harvest lightning?! Amazing! I could never do that, you must be really brave! I’ve always wanted to fly in a plane, but flying right into a storm and catching lightning… I’d definitely be too scared.”
“You really think so? I guess I could take you on a ride sometime, if you want…? There’s a passenger seat. But no protection from the wind, and it’s not all that different from flying on the ship.” Despite his negative words, there was a small smile tugging at Makishima’s lips as he posed the offer, and Onoda couldn’t help but think that he wasn’t all that scary after all as he enthusiastically agreed.
But their little trip had to wait, as Onoda was picked up by Imaizumi to spend the rest of the day learning the basics of sailing from him. How to adjust the sails, how to tie different kinds of knots and what to use them for, what to look out for when it was his turn keeping watch in the bird’s nest… There was so much to learn, and Onoda had trouble wrapping his mind around all of it at once, but he tried his best to keep up.
Afterward, he was sent to the kitchen to assist Tadokoro, and Onoda dutifully noted down how much food they’d used before starting to wash and cut up whatever vegetables Tadokoro put in front of him.
He sat with Imaizumi and Naruko when it was time to eat, but Miki joined them soon after, her eyes sparkling as she asked excitedly about Onoda’s alleged mechanic skills. She didn’t seem all that discouraged when he told her that a ship’s engine was absolutely out of his league and all he could do was repair a simple radio and similar things. Instead, she went on a rant on the miracle that the ship’s engine was and how it worked, either not noticing or not caring that Onoda couldn’t follow.
He found out soon after that he was sharing his cabin with Imaizumi, Naruko, and the Sugimoto brothers. Onoda both forgot their names and assumed their ages the wrong way around, but they forgave him without any problems. “It’s okay! I know your first time on a ship can be confusing and overwhelming. If you ever need help with anything, don’t hesitate to ask me, I’m an experienced sailor!”
For some reason, both Imaizumi and Naruko snickered at that statement. “Come on, experienced sailor, help us set up Onoda’s hammock then so we can all hit the hay! If everything’s going according to plan, we gotta get up at the asscrack of dawn tomorrow, after all!”
Onoda stumbled backwards as Naruko threw the hammock at him, and he got so caught up in setting it up he forgot to ask what exactly this ‘plan’ that Naruko was talking about entailed.
But as Naruko had predicted, they were woken up by harsh knocks on their door before the sun had properly risen. Onoda didn’t recognize the voice of whoever was outside, but he heard “It’s time! Get up and get ready!” again without any further specifications.
He rushed to get dressed with everyone else, but he couldn’t figure out for the life of him what was going on. Naruko kept whooping in excitement, while Sugimoto tried to reassure him and Imaizumi told him he’d be fine if he just didn’t get in the way. Everyone was headed for the bow, so Onoda followed. Everyone standing there already notably carried weapons, and Onoda could make out the shape of another ship on the horizon. Dread settled in his stomach. Were they being attacked? Was that other ship a pirate ship? It looked much bigger than the Sohoku, could they stand a chance? Was there anything he could do to help even if he couldn’t fight?
As they moved closer, Kinjou pulled him aside. “I assume you don’t have any fighting experience?”
“Then stay on our ship and keep track of what we’re bringing over.”
Bringing… over? Onoda was confused, but Kinjou had already turned away, yelling his orders to the rest of the crew.
Onoda’s stomach started churning with the dawn of a horrible, horrible idea.
Just as his crew started shooting their grappling hooks at the other ship and jumping over to fight, he dared to look up. There, proudly flying in the wind, was a Jolly Roger surrounded by a snake, a bear and a spider.
Then, and only then, did he realize that he’d accidentally boarded a pirate ship.