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Hoist the Colors

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Wilbur woke to the sound of imperial boots hitting the deck above him. There was the tell-tale sound of synchronized marching and the shouted commands of the captain as the soldiers boarded the ship. It took him a moment to rouse from his sleep-addled state but once he registered the muted voices and the familiar marching, Wilbur was jumping out of his makeshift hammock and throwing his rounded glasses onto his face. 


With his heart in his stomach, Wilbur collected himself and slowly crept out of the crew’s quarters and down the hall to the staircase that led to the upper deck. Doing his best to keep himself hidden, he quietly crept up the stairs and peeked out to see what was taking place on the main deck.  


From his low vantage point, Wilbur couldn’t see much and wouldn’t be able to unless he gave himself away by going up the staircase entirely. He could see the ship’s captain and crew on one side of the ship.  The captain stood in the front, his old wooden peg leg being his defining feature. The captain stood across from an imperial commander holding out a scroll.


“Captain, you do understand that we are under orders to board any outgoing ships and search for anything illegal. To prohibit our search is to go against the King himself. You wouldn’t want to be doing that now, would you? Only pirates would so clearly oppose the King and everyone knows how that story would end.” The commanding officer drawled the threat as if he had said it many times before.  


“Commander, I can assure you that you will find nothing worth your time,” the captain makes eye contact with Wilbur, retaining a stony expression as he turns to face the imperial commander and his crew. “If you need to search the ship then do what you must.”


Wilbur didn’t stay to hear the commander’s response and instead he scrambled back down the stairs as quietly as he could. He inwardly berated himself for expecting a ship carrying illegal drugs to be willing to cover for him and his little brother in the face of the law. It’s an eat or be eaten world and it seemed that Wilbur found protection in the arms of another predator, putting not only himself but also Tommy in danger. 


Finding his way back to the quarters, he glanced around the area. He quickly spotted what he was looking for, a smaller hammock housing a boy sleeping despite the loud noise from the main deck. Having been assigned lookout the previous night, Wilbur wasn’t surprised that the boy wasn’t waking. Wilbur rushed over as quietly as possible, ignoring the sound boots moving across the upper deck.


“Tommy,” Wilbur whispered, shaking the younger teen. There was a mumbled response as Tommy shifted in his sleep, subconsciously pushing Wilbur’s hands away. “Tommy! Wake up!” Wilbur’s whisper grew urgent, glancing behind himself and to the staircase that leads to the upper deck hearing the loud steps the imperial officers take as they scour the upper deck. It would only be a matter of time before they made their way downstairs and found themselves face to face with a criminal whose bounty has only increased and said criminal’s younger brother.    


“Wha- Wil,” Tommy’s groggy, half-awake response came. He shifted slowly in his hammock so that he was sitting up before adjusting the red bandana around his neck and rubbing at his eyes. Wilbur put his hands on Tommy’s shoulders and began to usher him out of the hammock and over behind the stack of rum barrels shushing Tommy’s questions.


“We need to hide,” Wilbur pushed Tommy gently in front of him, doing his best to make sure he was covered from sight by the barrels before he stepped back to stack another barrel, blocking Tommy in. Tommy, coming to full awareness much slower than Wilbur had, looked at Wilbur questioningly as he started to throw random objects over to try and hide Tommy.


Pulling another crew mate’s shirt off his head, Tommy questioned Wilbur, “Wilbur what are you doing?” Wilbur finally paused in his actions of digging through the other’s stuff and Tommy took in his alarmed expression. He could see how antsy Wilbur was feeling through the way his hands were shaking and how he kept glancing over to the staircase that took them to the main deck. It looked like Wilbur was trying to remain calm despite the obvious panic he’s projecting to Tommy. Wilbur didn’t stay still for long and is quickly by Tommy’s side, the only thing between them is the empty barrel Wilbur had placed there himself. 


“Officers are searching the ship. You need to stay hidden so they don’t find you and take you back to the Esempi. We both know that the captain is more than willing to sell us out to keep his supply safe. It’s only a matter of time before the guards start poking around and he points them in our direction.” Wilbur began to reach at his neck, pulling a golden chain connected to a heart gem out of his shirt, deaf to Tommy’s protests.  


“Wilbur, I swear- if you’re about to do what I think you’re going to do-” Tommy’s statement fell to deaf ears as Wilbur took off his necklace and went to lay it around Tommy’s neck. Tommy stared in shock as Wilbur fixed the necklace around his neck so it was hidden under his shirt and his bandana. “Wil- no that’s your necklace. You’ve never taken it off before. What are you doing?”


“Tommy, you have to swear to me that no matter what happens you won’t let anyone take this. You need to protect it no matter what.” Wilbur put both hands on Tommy’s shoulders and made direct eye contact with him. “If I get taken by imperial soldiers you need to stay quiet and hide okay? I think my presence alone will be enough to distract them from you.”


“Wilbur no! No, you’re not going to get arrested, come on and hide with me!” Tommy grabbed at Wilbur’s arms and tried to pull him forwards into the makeshift hiding place but Wilbur shook his head. Tommy became more desperate in his attempts to pull Wilbur forward, coming close to begging. “Wilbur please, you know that you’ll be hanged if you get caught. There’s no mercy for pirates no matter what, especially for you!” Wilbur’s grip on Tommy’s shoulders tightened before he pulled the younger forward and embraced him in a quick hug.


“Tommy, this doesn’t end without one of us getting caught. The captain is going to give up the both of us to save himself from his cargo getting discovered. I need you to be safe Tommy, so you’re going to hide and not get caught no matter what happens okay?  You can keep my necklace safe for me alright?” Tommy shook his head weakly despite Wilbur’s pleading look. “You’re going to hide and then you’re going to get to L’Manburg and wait for me there okay? I promise you that I won’t leave you alone for long. I’ll meet you in L’Manburg. Tommy please,” Wilbur’s voice became frantic.  


“Wilbur,” Tommy tried once more. There was a growing pressure in his eyes, tears forming, and all he wanted to do was grab his older brother and hold him tightly. He wanted to go back to when they were younger where Wilbur would softly sing Tommy to sleep and tell him stories of pirates and treasures. Tommy wanted to go back years ago and to before Wilbur had gotten a bounty put on his head and before they were forced to run. At the sound of footsteps coming closer, Wilbur’s grip on Tommy’s shoulders tightened.  


“I promise I won’t be gone for long. I’ll find you in L’Manburg and we can get away from all this. No more running, no more bounties, and no more acts. Tommy, please trust me.” At Tommy’s resigned nod a wave of relief hit Wilbur.


“You have to swear,” Tommy demanded in a broken whisper. “Swear it by the Sea, Wilbur. Swear that you’ll find me no matter what.” Wilbur pulled Tommy forward until their foreheads were against each other. He could feel the slight tremble coming from Tommy as the fifteen-year-old grasped at Wilbur’s arms. Wilbur knew that this situation was not good for Tommy’s abandonment issues and that if he had to make a near unbreakable promise to ease his younger brother’s worries then he would.  


“I swear to you Tommy by the Sea that we sail upon that I will find a way back to you and that we will be together and safe in L’Manburg.” Wilbur pulled Tommy forward in one more quick hug before he pulled back and let go of Tommy, and began to organize the junk he had thrown to hide the boy. 


To Wilbur, being caught and taken to the hangman’s noose was always a possibility. But Tommy, Tommy was just a kid. Tommy was Wilbur’s brother who he had sworn to protect. So long as Tommy made it to L’Manburg, he would be okay. The teen could make a life for himself. He had the skills to work as a blacksmith or the charisma to earn an apprenticeship. In the worst-case scenario, Tommy could always go back to scamming people out of their gold or stealing it from them. Either way, Tommy would be safe in L’Manburg whether Wilbur gets there or not and that’s all that matters.


By the time two imperial soldiers make their way into the crew’s quarters, Tommy is hidden from sight and Wilbur is poorly hidden in the corner on the opposite side of the room. If he looks hard enough, Wilbur can see Tommy watching from the gap between two barrels. Wilbur fights the urge to tell Tommy that he needs to keep himself out of sight. He holds his breath as the soldiers approach his corner despite knowing that he is bound to be caught. Without warning, Wilbur is shoved unceremoniously from his spot and onto the wooden floor.


“Now who are you?” One of the soldiers says, grabbing Wilbur’s forearms and roughly pulling him up from the ground. Despite knowing this would happen the panic in Wilbur’s chest only grows now that he knows officially that he’s going to be separated from Tommy. When the officer comes face to face with Wilbur there’s a hum of confusion. “A stowaway?” The other officer turns from where he was inspecting one of the crew’s belongings and faces a glaring Wilbur.  


“What’s your name?” The other officer’s question went ignored as Wilbur chose to continue glaring instead of giving a response. The officer scowled but continued, “whoever you are, you look familiar.” Wilbur didn’t respond, but he knew that they had probably seen one of the countless ‘Wanted’ posters covered with his name and face. Considering they were imperial soldiers, they probably had the posters on their ship in case they ran into criminals across the seas. Wilbur was very sure that at least one soldier of their crew would be able to recognize him. “We’ll take him above deck, the commander will want to see this.” 


Wilbur didn’t fight the iron grip on his forearms as he was guided to the staircase leading to the main deck and away from Tommy. When they finally made their way up the staircase Wilbur is greeted with the sight of the smuggler ship’s crew, the imperial commander, and some stray soldiers searching the main deck. Wilbur didn’t try to hold back a glare at the smuggler ship’s captain, cursing him to the Locker in his mind. The captain seemed unapologetic and ignored Wilbur in favor of taking on a facade of confusion at his appearance. The commander, however, looked intrigued at Wilbur’s appearance.


“Wilbur Soot,” The commander stepped forward with a grin that Wilbur knew held no kind sentiments. “Thief, scammer, pirate. You have quite the resume don’t you.”


“A lot of good it seems to do for me,” Wilbur kept a confident air about him though he felt anything but. His stomach was currently eating itself from the inside out and he had to focus on keeping his hands from trembling. The commander turned his attention from Wilbur to the captain of the smuggler ship, losing his smile and taking on a threatening persona.


“So Captain, do tell me why a well-known thief and pirate was found on your ship? Do you regularly offer transport to such characters?” The captain remained calm in the face of the commander.


“I don’t know how this pirate got on our ship commander. I wouldn’t ever allow such a thing! He must’ve stowed away.” Wilbur couldn’t help but internally criticize the captain’s act. Wilbur could put on a better show when he was ten. He would have said this out loud if he wasn’t trying to stay on the captain’s good side. He might have turned him in but he hadn’t given up Tommy yet. The commander doesn’t push the captain for a better answer or explanation though. He’s probably just happy to cash in on the emerald reward that comes with turning Wilbur in. Last he saw it, the reward was just over one thousand emeralds.  


“Take Soot back to the ship, put him in the brig. He can stay there until we arrive at port,” The commander made eye contact with Wilbur, “The admiral has been very eager for your arrest. He will be very pleased to hear the news.” Another imperial soldier stepped in front of Wilbur and takes his wrists, binding them in cuffs before he is pushed forwards to cross onto the imperial ship. 


Before he crossed, Wilbur caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye and he slightly turned to see Tommy watching the events from the staircase, just barely out of sight. Wilbur had to force himself to look away in order not to draw any attention to Tommy. When he saw the commander turning to face that direction he tripped up the officer beside him. The officer fell with an angry exclamation and suddenly all eyes are on them. The other officer guiding Wilbur didn’t seem to take too kindly to Wilbur’s actions and began to push him forward more roughly as if in retaliation. As they crossed over Wilbur can faintly hear the commander asking the captain a few follow-up questions. 


Now that he’s been removed from the ship Wilbur’s anxiety returned with a vengeance. He couldn’t tell if he wanted to throw up or throw himself into the ocean. His stomach was doing a little jig inside his body and his hands were beginning to shake. Wilbur had to count out the seconds it took him to inhale and exhale so he could keep his breathing under control. Wilbur was just given a one-way ticket to the noose that seals nearly every pirate’s fate, and the only thing keeping Tommy from the same fate is a captain who Wilbur has known for two days and had already given up Wilbur to keep himself safe.  


Wilbur’s panic was stalled and his worries were reassured when the rest of the officers started filing onto the imperial ship and the commander followed. The makeshift bridge connecting the two ships was lifted and the smuggler ship continued to sail in the direction it was originally headed. The imperial crew all shuffle around the ship each person going to their stations while the commander approached Wilbur. 


“The admiral will be ecstatic when we bring you in. He put the bounty out for your head years ago and it’s only now that you have been caught,” The commander walked over near the entrance of the captain’s quarters where there was a desk and papers, wanted posters. Wilbur figured that the commander would have to be familiar with the faces of many criminals if he wanted to catch any on the sea. Fishing through the pile of papers Wilbur watched as the commander pulled out a single sheet before holding it up next to Wilbur’s head as if he was comparing the two faces.


The commander turned the paper and Wilbur was finally able to get a look for himself. He hadn’t seen his wanted poster in nearly two years. His likeness on the poster was very similar to the original that was made four years ago but there were some differences. The poster portrayed a younger Wilbur, but there were some key differences to the drawing compared to the real thing as if the artist was attempting to draw guess at how Wilbur would look years later. His nose was longer and his eyes were more spaced out. The poster depicted him with a small amount of facial hair although Wilbur had none. What had grabbed Wilbur’s attention though was the big reward offered under his name of 2,300 emeralds.


“2,300 seems like a bit much don’t you think?” Wilbur began to ramble, finally finding his voice in the face of the man who held his fate in his hands. “There are worse people out there actually. Like in one village I lived in, there was a man who ended up murdering seven people before he ran away. They never found him and I don’t think there was a bounty put on his head.” The commander must have given up on any kind of intimidation tactic he had because instead of entertaining Wilbur with a reply he turned to order another officer.


“Take him to the brig. We will reach the port by midday tomorrow, so he should be fine down there by himself for the trip.” Rough arms grabbed Wilbur once more and this time he felt himself being ushered across the ship and downstairs and through a hall before they finally reached the brig.


The moment Wilbur stepped across the threshold the cell door shut behind him and he found himself turning to face the officer who was pointedly not looking at Wilbur. Wilbur knew he doesn’t look very intimidating, despite his height he barely has any muscle on him. The only thing that Wilbur could assume the officer is intimidated by is the bounty on Wilbur’s head. Only the worst criminals found themselves with a bounty exceeding 1,000 emeralds. The officer locked the door and tucked the key into his pocket before ducking out of the space and Wilbur listened to his steps retreating up the stairs. 


Taking a deep breath, Wilbur turned and positioned himself to lean against the wall before he slid down to sit on the floor. Letting the reality of what just happened sink in, Wilbur pulled his cuffed hands up to cover his face as he tried to keep his composure despite being alone in the room. Tommy would have to wait, Wilbur decided. It wouldn’t be optimal to try and escape during the day while everyone is awake. Suppressing any emotions brought on by recent events Wilbur tried to relax against the ship’s wall and he kept himself calm by distracting himself with escape plans.