The Art of Haggling (Part 1)

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Five hundred kilometers from the harrowing Strait of Gibraltar, between the sultry coast of Morocco and the familiar shores of Spain, deep in the turquoise green waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Captain Pierce announced they were a day from their destination.

The trip took them a great deal further North than Charles anticipated, several days longer thanks to the trickier navigation requirements between the two continents, though the young scientist barely noted the extended voyage. Time passed rather quickly, in part due to the escalation in his day to day tasks thanks to the reclusive Ingrid. Since the mere mention of their new mission, a day out of the African port of call, the young lady spent more and more time hidden away in her quarters. When she did emerge, deep circles pooled beneath her eyes, her skin pulled taut and ghostly white with each passing day. The others were obviously worried about her, attempting to coax her into partaking in a meal every chance they got. Charles did what he could, putting the mismatched set of skills he procured between extended impoverished bachelorhood and habitation with an ancient spinster. He knew he was not a culinary savant, but he knew how to make the most of few ingredients and the value of spices. He made a decent hash even the inconsolable Ingrid deigned to nibble on, which is why he found himself outside her quarters that evening, carrying a small plate.

Truth was, he was hoping to finally steal a moment alone with the lady who'd aided in his recent rescue. Between being squeezed to death by a greedy snake woman seeking to secure his loins and the barter and bash rescue by the Captain, he rather forgot it was Ingrid who'd brought her to the Mami Wata's cave. Perhaps he could also inquire how she'd arrived bone dry, but one step at a time. Raising a hand to knock, he stalled, catching the unmistakable sound of muffled sobs through the brass door. Charles closed his eyes, leaning his forehead against the cool metal while he called himself nine different kinds of fool.

"Ingrid?" He called softly, counting when the sobs paused. He was nearly to twenty, certain she wouldn't respond when the door cracked open. One liquid brown eye peered out at him, stained with tears. "I brought you some food." He'd already wedged his foot in the door before she could close it. "Is there anything I can do?"

She sniffed, squinting at his invasive shoe before letting her door swing open with a sigh. Snatching the plate of hash from his hands, she crawled onto her bed, tentatively nibbling at it as Charles peered into her quarters with no small amount of curiosity. Each crew member's box of a room was an extension of their personality, from the katana and lyre hanging on Yan's wall, to the assortment of pistols and dried flowers in the Captain's chambers. Even Blind Brand decorated his modest space with several pieces of intricate scrimshaw he'd carved himself. Ingrid's room with utterly bare. There was not even a book present to keep her mind occupied. How could she stay here, hour after hour, in this ghastly cell?

"Why do you even want to help?" The young woman muttered around her fingers.

Charles gestured to the end of her bed, taking a seat after her uncertain nod. "You look like you need someone to talk to. I'm here to listen."

She scowled at him, tucking her legs tighter against her body. "You don't know me."

He shrugged. "And you don't know me from Adam, but you helped save me from a monster. You didn't have to, but you did."

To his surprise, she stiffened, no, flinched at the comment. A tear dripped down the side of her nose. "You really don't know anything Mr. Darwin. Please, go."

Charles scrubbed his chin, trying to regain his footing in the conversation. "Look, I understand you have secrets, everyone on this ship carries a few, and you're right. I don't know you, which makes me the perfect ear for your troubles."

Ingrid frowned at the now empty plate, pulling at the fraying hem of her shirt. After a moment she scrubbed her puffy eyes. "I know what's waiting for us in these waters, Mr. Darwin, and I dread our meeting."

Charles sat up straight, remembering her eerie predictions when they entered the snake woman's waters. "What is it?"

"Not a what, a who," Ingrid whispered. "Someone with a knack for acquiring what you value most right out from under your nose. Tell me, how good are you at making a deal?"

He blinked at her. "I don't follow, Ms. Ingrid. Is this person a peddler of some sort?"

"You could say that, though she doesn't deal in ordinary merchandise. Her wares are more abstract, and they always come at a steep price."

Before Charles could ask her any more questions, Yan rapped on the open door, his brow creased with worry.

"Sorry, you two, but there's a bad storm brewing topside. Keto says we need to dive deeper, below the churning," his eyes slid over the wan Ingrid, settling on Charles. "She could use some help at the helm."

Ingrid shrank in her skin. Charles rose with an apologetic pat on her knee before he ran to join the Captain, trying to erase the haunted look in those dark brown eyes. 

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