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Exalted Fanfic: Against all Winds and Tides

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  • Exalted Fanfic: Against all Winds and Tides

    It's been suggested to me that people might be more interested in this if I post it a chapter at a time. I hope it's ok for me to start a second thread to do this, without counting as spamming (if this does constitute spam please forgive me and delete as appropriate).

    That aside, here begins the tale of our intrepid heroes: Chapter One

    When the boy returned with the sake cups, he found his spot on the tea house’s small table taken and an armed guard stepping forward to bar his path. He eyed the man with the greying hair and his wrinkled hand on the hilt of his sword and planned his strikes. Three should do it, but for only two more, he could draw out the fool's demise with a crushed throat.
    "Guinar," the smiling man kneeling at the table interrupted the boy's delightful musings, "it appears we have a customer."
    His captain stroked the thin blue goatee surrounding his smile of white and one single orichalcum tooth. The boy nodded and bowed to the man on his cushion. The scarlet robed figure raised an eyebrow and inclined his hairless head a mere fraction of a degree.
    "Who is the girl?" his hoarse voice growled.
    Guinar's hand twitched and would have drawn the knife hidden in his left sleeve had his captain not spoken.
    "The boy," he corrected, "is Tya Guinar, my helmsman and a sailor of excellent expertise."
    "A Tya?" the customer's gaze swept over him once more, lingering on the tattoos on his cheek, before returning to the captain. "Very good. Your ship is in good standing with the storm mothers then, Captain Covari?"
    "I wouldn't say good," the captain's grin grew wide but lost none of its sincerity, "but we have not had an altercation with them in many years. It is said they have been restless of late, however."
    "Everyone is restless," the bald man nodded. "If the Empress doesn't soon return, there may well be chaos."
    "Every throne will find an ass to warm it before too long," Covari shrugged. "But I would recommend watching from a safe distance. That's why you are here, isn't it?"
    The bald man's eyes narrowed. "Who told you?"
    Covari caught Guinar's eyes with his. "No one told me, but you are not the first to attempt to hire us for a...spontaneous vacation trip."
    "But we will pay the best," the bald man assured him. "My mistress's safety is of the utmost importance."
    "Then why hire a stranger," Guinar blurted out. "If she's caught up in this, she's house. And that means house ships, house legions, house money."
    "Watch your tongue gi...boy!" the man snapped.
    "You should watch yours when speaking to my crew," Covari's smiled remained frozen but his gentle words struck harder than his opposite's angry shout. "You will answer his question. Why us, when a realm ship should be much safer."
    At first there was no response. Then the man leaned forward, clearly expecting the captain to mimic the movement, and only speaking when it was clear that wasn't happening.
    "My lady has not received the blessing of the dragon, yet. She will not receive priority in any evacuation, nor will she have protection from the storm mothers on account of her blood."
    "If she's no exalt, why is she of any concern to anyone?" Guinar once again spoke up, delighting in the annoyed frown he received.
    "That is not your concern! She needs a ship off the Blessed Isle and she will pay handsomely for such safe passage."
    "And we will delight in accepting such payment for such a simple task," Covari agreed before Guinar could interrupt again. "Where will she wish to travel to?"
    The bald man placed a sizable bag on the table. It clinked with the promise of coin. "Fill your ship's stores to the fullest, this should be more than ample silver for the task. She will embark tonight and inform you of your destination once you have left port. Once she arrives, there will be three talents of jade awaiting you."
    Covari eyed the bag for a moment and then slowly picked it up with a nimble hand. "It is agreed. We will see her to her destination safely."
    The bald man wasted no time springing to his feet and, bodyguard in tow, leaving the tea house.
    Finally, Guinar could reclaim his seat cushion and place the sake cups on the table. "Tell me you didn't just..."
    "I merely agreed," Covari smiled. "We are not bound. Though carrying a young girl to safety sounds like an honourable enough task."
    "She must think highly of her looks if she's that afraid of the storm mothers," Guinar chuckled and emptied the cup in one go. The biting taste shook him fully awake.
    Covari lifted his cup but didn't drink yet. "Realm women, they all think their beauty is the envy of the gods." He sipped. "It is true though, the storm mothers have been furious of late. The Deep One has been granted many a bounty by their rage."
    "As he said, everyone is restless at the moment. Which is all the more reason not to get involved in realm politics, especially for us."
    "The pay is good, though. And as I said, what's wrong with keeping a young woman safe?"
    "Safe from who?" Guinar glanced around. "If the other houses are after her..."
    "They won't catch us, no one ever does, Guinar," Covari grinned and finally skolled his own cup.
    No, no one ever did, the boy smiled to himself. That was a tried and tested truth.

    The loading was done by nightfall, though the mumbling of the crew did not cease till some time after.
    "Where are going, captain?"
    "Why is the whole hold full of food?"
    "What are we shipping?"
    The men stood crowded beneath the aft castle, shouting their questions up at the captain lounging on the railing above them, his head resting on one hand propped up by the elbow.
    He waited patiently for the grumbling to die down again.
    "We are taking on a passenger," he finally said and sat upright, letting his feet dangle. "She is paying quite well, but her destination is on a need to know basis."
    "And who decides who needs to know?" the ever tall and broadly built Bahltin shot back with crossed arms.
    "I do, handsome," Covari dropped down and stepped to the big man, placing a hand on his arm. "And you know I would never take my ship, let alone my crew, anywhere I do not deem safe."
    "Hah," another sailor, grey in hair and bent by age, laughed. "You'd feed us'all to the Deep One to save ya b'loved Nymph."
    "You wound me, Vectis," Covari made an exaggerated frown. "You have my word that I will keep all of you as safe as any man can."
    "How can you make that promise if you don't know where we're going?" Bahltin asked.
    "Just cut the chase, captain," Guinar shouted out. "You know exactly what they want to hear."
    "True," the captain hung his head. "I merely hoped at least some of you would find a more noble soul in your heart. Very well, this is why we're going." He untied the bag from his belt, the one the bald robed man had given him earlier in the tea house, and spilled its remaining contents on the deck. "We're going to be filthy stinking rich!"
    As one, the men jumped and piled up in a heap over the coins, each trying to snatch up as many as they could. Covari watched the struggling mess of limbs and bodies, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
    "Stay out of it, captain," Guinar held him back with a hand on his shoulder. "You wouldn't want to be indecent when our guest arrives."
    "You're no fun, you know that?" Covari turned away and let out a long deep breath. "Very well, no public indecency until...well, hello my Lady."
    A woman, clad in scarlet robes, face hidden in the hood, stood atop the ramp onto the ship.
    Guinar stepped into her path. "It is customary to request permission before setting foot aboard a vessel!"
    "Step aside, child," the woman waved her hand and Guinar found himself following the gesture without thinking. "I am here to speak with Captain Covari of the Nymph of a Thousand Shores."
    "And you have found both me and my ship," the captain crossed his arms. "I would ask that you refrain from using charm magic on any of my crew from now on, though."
    She inclined her head. "I know not what you mean, but I will attempt to be courteous. Meanwhile, we must set sail at once."
    Covari shook his head. "The winds stand against departure. Also, I would know your name before I permit you aboard my vessel."
    "The winds will not be an issue," she gestured upwards. "I have seen to that."
    Covari's smile turned neutral as he watched the pennant atop his vessel's main mast turn direction, unlike any other pennant or flag within sight in the port.
    "Very well," he nodded. "Men, step to it! I want to be at sea within the hour!"
    Reluctantly, the brawl for the coins broke up and the crew set to work.
    "I still do not know your name, though."
    "I am Kyleeka," the woman said and finally pulled back her hood. Her features were as smooth and elegant as those of his ship, though he'd never admit to thinking so out loud. Her red, flowing hair and piercing green eyes sent his heart pumping harder.
    "Well met, I am Captain Covari, as you know," he offered an elaborate bow. "And of which house do you hail? Which ships should we avoid?"
    "I am of no house," she insisted. "And we will avoid all ships. Set a course south west for now. And have someone show me to my cabin."
    "Cabin?" Guinar laughed. "We have no such luxuries. You'll have to make do with a curtain around your hammock."
    "Don't be so rude, Tya Guinar" Covari scolded him. "Our honoured guest will enjoy my cabin and I will rest with the crew."
    "That is acceptable," the woman nodded. Covari called a crewman over and had him guide their guest away before following Guinar up to the rudder.
    "Will you stop drooling," he laughed. "You'll never impress her that way."
    "I wasn't drooling!" Guinar hissed. "But have you seen her? We'll have every storm mother in this direction after us."
    "They can be jealous all they like; they can't hurt a red haired woman. We both know that."
    "They can still hurt our ship! And what's with you giving up your cabin?"
    "It seemed the polite thing to do," Covari's smile was bright as day even in the night. "I mean if you are serious about making a move, you two will want some privacy."
    "I told you I wasn't drooling!"
    His laughter did nothing to arrest Guinar's seething. "But more importantly, I think she should stay out of sight as much as possible. Not everyone on this ship has your self-control. And we still don't know who she is fleeing from."
    They watched the crew work to set the sails and cast off.
    "You don't suppose she's..."
    "She's what?" Covari asked.
    "The red hair, the green eyes. Is she the Empress?" Guinar asked. "She is missing. And that woman is too old to not have exalted yet."
    "Not everyone exalts young, Guinar," he whispered back. "But no, I don't think that's who she is."
    "How do you know? Have you seen her? We all know noble portraits are fudged for vanity."
    "Did that woman look like she needed to fudge her portraits?" the captain pointed out. "No, she's not the empress. But she's also not mortal. She changed the wind."
    "Or had it changed for her."
    "Possible," he admitted. "But the way she got you to shut up, she must have been using essence. No other way."
    "What's that supposed to mean?"
    "And she arrived without escort, when even her messenger needed one."
    "He was carrying a lot of money. Maybe she just didn't trust him."
    "She trusted him enough to book passage."
    "So who is she then?" Guinar sighed. "If you know everything better than me, just tell me."
    Covari smiled and patter his hand on the rudder. "Course south west for now, as she ordered. I'll see you in the morning."
    "You don't know either, do you?"
    He smiled and climbed down the ladder.
    He didn't. How could he?
    Alone in the aft castle now, Guinar focused his thoughts on steering. It wasn't long before they left the Port of Eagle's Launch, the lights of the city growing smaller behind them as the Nymph glided over the dark waters in the starlight.
    Wait, there was another light. He looked around till he found the source. Bright yellow lantern light was shining up through cracks in the deck from beneath him, brighter than any lantern he thought the captain kept in his cabin.
    He knew the course out of Eagle’s Launch. It was a calm night, with perfect wind. Even the tide seemed to be with them despite what it should be. The crew knew what it was doing and wouldn't need much supervision.
    Making sure no one saw, Guinar sat on the rear railing, next to the rudder. He hooked one leg around it and let himself hang backwards down the aft of the ship. As he'd hoped it just brought his face in line with one of the windows into the cabin.
    Kyleeka had dispensed with her hooded robe and now sat at the captain's desk in a figure hugging dress of the smoothest silk Guinar had ever seen. And what a figure it was!
    He could barely stop feasting his eyes on her legs, visible through the slit in her dress, to notice the ancient looking tome she pulled out of her travelling bag.
    She struggled to open it, the book snapping shut several times before she slammed it down on the table and got it to behave. Then, tracing the lines on the page with her fingers she sat up straight and began taking deep breaths. Guinar nearly lost his grip on the railing when her chest rose and her breasts pushed outwards under the thin fabric covering them.
    Then her caste mark lit up.
    There was a splash and suddenly there was dark water all around him.

    Captain Covari's smile, illuminated by torchlight, was waiting when Guinar finished climbing up the rope. He dragged himself over the railing and flopped into a sitting position.
    "Sorry, captain," he managed to mumble.
    "Sorry?" Covari raised an eyebrow. "Did you deliberately fall overboard?"
    Guinar looked around the arrayed crew. "No, of course not."
    "Then 'sorry' isn't really an explanation. What happened?"
    "I..." he had to swallow when he saw the anathema woman, now covered in robes and hood again, join the crowd of spectators. “I must have slipped. Seagull shit maybe."
    The woman's eyes and forehead were hidden, but even so he felt a chill from her glare.
    "Who was in charge of scrubbing the deck?" Covari barked. "Who missed that spot of bird shit?"
    "No, I didn't mean..." Guinar coughed, but Covari had already decided on a culprit.
    "Scrub it again, twice. Now!" the captain barked. "And you, Tya Guinar, get some rest."
    And with that the crowd broke up, leaving only Guinar and the woman to tower over him a few yards away.
    He slowly stood and held her gaze. Did she know he knew? Would she try to kill him to keep her secret? Had he made too much of a fool of himself to have a chance with her?
    "You were peeking into my window," she said. If it hadn't been true, her declaration would have nearly made him confess anyway.
    "It's not your window," was the best reply he could come up with.
    She stepped closer. "You saw, didn't you?"
    "Yes," again the confession came before the thought. She really must have been using essence. "You have very beautiful legs."
    "Legs?" she stumbled over the word and pulled her robe tighter. "Is that what you saw? Is that why you were spying on me?"
    He clenched his jaws shut to give himself time to think this time. More time to lie. "Yes. I'm sorry for peeking." He looked down at his feet.
    "You should be!" her voice swept over his face like a cold wind. "Next time, I will not permit the ship to fish you out."
    "Like you could stop the captain!" Guinar's face snapped back up. "He will not abandon any of his crew, and if you think your pretty smile can sway him you're mistaken."
    "Then if you violate my privacy again," she lowered her voice to a whisper, "I will have to make sure there is no one left to save." The goose bumps he felt rising on his back were not all due to the threat. "Eyes up here, by the gods!"
    She turned in a huff and strode back towards the captain's cabin. Guinar silently cursed himself on his way back to the rudder.
    Captain Covari was clearly not surprised to see him.
    "I told you to get some rest," he said. "You'll catch a cold drenched like that."
    "I need to talk to you, captain," Guinar whispered, "in private."
    "You fell overboard spying on her, didn't you?"
    "Yes, but that's not-"
    "These urges you feel," Covari continued unabated. "They won't go away. You're becoming an adult and you need to find a healthy way to express yourself."
    "Captain, I really need to-"
    "I know. But honestly, I think she's a bit old for you."
    "No! I mean, that's not what I mean!"
    "How much did the Tya teach about sex, anyway?"
    "Covari!" Guinar grabbed the captain by the arm and pulled him closer to whisper. "She's an anathema!"
    That finally silenced the unwelcome talk.
    "Are you sure?" he whispered back. "And don't say anathema. You know I hate that word."
    "Shining gold mark, centre of the forehead," he confirmed. "She's no dragonblood, and never will be. That's why she needed us to smuggle her out."
    "I see. We both suspected extra trouble. They were paying too well for there not to be."
    "What do we do?"
    "Does she know you know?" the captain carefully studied his face. He shook his head. "Then we continue as normal."
    "We shouldn't try to find out more?" Guinar asked. "Try to find out what she's up to? She had a magical tome and everything!"
    "Tya Guinar," the captain replied quietly. "Would you want to discuss your secret with a stranger? Then let her keep hers."
    "What if she's a danger to the ship?"
    "Then we'll toss her overboard. Until then, we will give her exactly what we'd want in her place. It's the least we can do, solar to solar."

    Guinar had an uneasy rest that night. He woke with a start and tumbled out of the hammock onto the deck. Feeling his cheeks blush he looked around. He was the only one in the hold; all other hammocks had already been hung away.
    "What's the time?" he asked the first sailor he saw when he crawled up the ladder and squinted in the bright sunlight.
    "Well past six bells, lad!" the old man Ruvert grumbled. "And the captain's beaten to quarters! What are ye doing down there?"
    "I...I'm sorry," Guinar mumbled and rushed up the ladder to the aft castle, taking the rudder off Bahltin.
    Captain Covari stood motionless, staring out to sea behind the ship. "Good morning, Tya Guinar."
    "Good morning, captain," he answered. "I'm sorry, I must not have heard-"
    "I ordered for you to be left sleeping," Covari turned to offer a brief smile before staring back out to sea. "But it is good that you woke, I may need you if we are to escape them."
    "Them?" Guinar squinted out to the view behind them. A ship was following, still quite far away. "Realm?"
    "They travel from the Blessed Isle," the captain nodded, "so I should think so. Quite likely our passenger has been noted missing."
    "It looks like they're a quarter day behind us," Guinar noted. "The Nymph should be able to outrun them well enough."
    "No, I'm afraid not. They in fact left port a mere hour ago," the captain patted the spyglass on his belt. "And they have already made up much of our head start. They will reach bow shot sometime this afternoon."
    "How?" Guinar looked up at the sails. They stood perfect, full of wind and free of any flutter. "Nothing can catch the Nymph, least of all so quickly, unless..."
    "Indeed," Covari nodded grimly. "They have the blessing of wind and water spirits, at least two exalts are aboard that vessel."
    "Wyld Hunt?"
    "Possible, if what you saw of our passenger is true. Or maybe the tome you spotted has a very angry previous owner."
    "What if they find out we're..."
    "They may well," Covari sighed but quickly offered a smile again. "We have a passenger to protect, and it is likely we will need to reveal our own powers to dissuade them taking her."
    "And then everyone will know..."
    "Fame at last!" the captain's hand felt warm but heavy on Guinar's shoulder. "Don't worry, we'll get through this."
    "I'm not afraid!" the words again rushed past his thoughts and out his mouth.
    "Good, that makes one of us," the captain whispered.
    The chase was long, with very little change. Whatever sorcery the woman had committed persisted. It didn't matter which way Guinar pushed the tiller, the wind stood behind them shoving them along at a brisk pace.
    Again and again, Covari's smiled threatened to falter as his manoeuvres found no new wind, no advantage to be gained in any other direction. And closer and closer the realm ship approached. Already Guinar could make out the mon on the sail. House Mnemon.
    "That's it," the captain finally declared. "The Nymph won't stand for this coddling! Bring me Lady Kyleeka!"
    Two sailors barged into the cabin beneath and soon returned dragging the robed woman by one arm each.
    "What is the meaning of this!" she shouted and Guinar could feel her outrage infecting him. He couldn't stand to see those rough hands on her slender, delicate arms.
    "I don't know what magics you've conjured to aid our voyage," the captain vaulted onto the railing of the aft castle, towering even further over her, "but I need you to cease it at once!"
    "I paid for that magic," she tried to shake herself loose from her captors, but their grips held firm. "You'd have to speak to the thaumaturge to end it."
    "We are being chased by a Mnemon warship," Covari crossed his arms and somehow his voice changed as though it, too, had changed its stance. "Unless you cease your inept help, it will catch up to us."
    "Inept?" she blurted. "I made sure...I mean I asked for strong winds at our backs, perfect sailing weather!"
    "Then you are clearly no sailor. The Nymph thrives most half on the wind, but what's worse is that you've cut me off from the true wind! How am I to know what our pursuit faces if I am trapped in your benign bubble?"
    "I..." she was blushing now. Guinar had to fight the urge to defend her. He didn't even have anything to say, but she didn't deserve to be shouted at, surely?
    "Drop the spell, and I promise we might yet escape," Covari's voice had softened. Guinar wasn't sure why. "We are doomed otherwise."
    She hung her head and nodded faintly. Her caste mark appeared, glowing more softly then last Guinar had seen it, but still the sailors holding her let go and withdrew.
    Almost immediately, the wind changed direction.
    "Excellent!" Covari clapped his hands and jumped back down onto the aft castle. "Now, Lady Kyleeka, if you'd join me. I'd like to know what talents of yours I can call on to make this escape more memorable."
    "Memorable?" she frowned and climbed up the ladder. Upon seeing Guinar, she drew her robes closed tightly once more.
    "Between the Nymph, my experience and an anathema's powers," Covari grinned, "escape is a given, as long as you follow my lead from now on. The only question left is..."
    The sorceress waited, but the captain didn't continue.
    "The only question," Guinar spoke up with rolling eyes, "is how famous he can become for this feat."

    Freed now of the well-intended but inexpert help of Kyleeka's sorcery, the Nymph was able to keep its lead till nightfall, but the pursuing vessel still enjoyed the aid of its water and air elementals, and clearly had a master at the helm as well.
    And it wasn't like captain Covari wanted to escape.
    In the dying light of the setting sun, the first fire arrows began flying.
    "Make ready the water buckets!" Guinar called out, but the crew was already rushing to douse the few arrows that found their mark.
    "I have knowledge of spells that could freeze all flames aboard," Kyleeka offered. She'd not left the aft castle since morning, nor had her delicate face lost its worried frown since then.
    "Handy," Covari nodded, "but not needed for now. And it might get in the way of our own efforts. Roll out the cannon!" The last he barked to the crew, drawing a few confused looks. The rest continued their tasks and paid the command no heed.
    "You have cannon?" Kyleeka gasped. "I didn't realise I'd hired a warship."
    Along the flanks of the vessel, gun ports opened and golden flame cannon muzzles, each cast to resemble a different bird of prey's beak, were pushed out by no seen hands.
    "We're not a warship as such," Guinar offered to explain as the captain merely grinned. "But it pays to be well protected as an independent trader."
    She ignored him and kept staring at the revealed arsenal. "Is that orichalcum?"
    More and more arrows began thudding into the hull and tearing through the sails.
    "It is, my dear," Covari smiled and took the tiller off Guinar. Turning it he sent the vessel into a tight turn, tighter than the wind should have allowed, and headed for a fog bank that Guinar hadn't noticed till now. "You might want to hold on. Traversing the Nightblade reefs is dangerous and will require abrupt steering at times."
    "The Nightblade reefs?" she asked and looked around for a handhold. Guinar offered his hand, but she ignored it and slung her arm around the railing.
    "A series of reefs owned by a cruel god of misfortune," the boy explained. "He is in love with the Maiden of Endings and his reefs grow sharper and higher when she is visible in the sky."
    "I'm not stupid!" she snapped. "I know what the Nightblade reefs are, but why are we going in there at nightfall in fog, while being pursued? I thought we were trying for a memorable escape, not a moronic death!"
    "Silence, ye of small faith," Covari laughed. "I've sailed these reefs before. Our host knows better than to mess with my ship!" A golden circle within a ring began shining through his purple bandanna.
    "Solar?" she gasped. "You're a solar?"
    "You chose your ship well, my Lady," Guinar laughed. While Kyleeka's dumbfounded stare didn't flatter her, at least her forehead was no longer creased by a frown.
    The arrow storm subsided as the dense fog surrounded them. Kyleeka found herself splashed by water as her side of the ship dipped down in another sharp turn by the captain. Again, Guinar offered his hand and this time she accepted, letting him pull her up to the other side of the deck. Somehow, the ship was still moving even as the wind calmed.
    "Is that the plan then?" she whispered. "Lure them into a reef?"
    "Thankfully," Captain Covari laughed, "it's not going to be that easy. Listen!"
    Both Guinar and Kyleeka turned to look out into the fog behind the Nymph. Apart from the odd arrow still reaching out for them and their own ship gliding through the water, there was nothing.
    "What are we listening for?" Guinar asked.
    "Go, attach an anchor line to the crow's nest!" Covari ordered in lieu of an answer. "And be quick about it!"
    "What?" Kyleeka blurted. "What good is that going to do?"
    "Just hold on," Guinar reassured her and ran off. He didn't know what Covari had in mind either, but he knew not to protest when his captain was being confident. And right now, he looked smug.
    He grabbed the line of their spare anchor and half ran, half climbed up the long mast. With the captain's caste mark glowing, he figured he'd be allowed to use a little essence of his own.
    Crooked Zhim gave a startled yelp when Guinar jumped up into the crow's nest with him.
    "Sorry," he said, "just a quick errand. Captain's orders."
    One quick knot and he called back down. "Anchor tied to nest, all done!"
    "Prepare to drop that anchor to port side!" Covari barked in response. "Now!"
    A few crewmen were already seeing to it, so Guinar hooked a leg around another line and let himself slide, rapidly descending to the aft castle once more.
    "Hold on!" Covari called just as the anchor snagged a reef. When the Nymph sailed on past, she got pulled into a tight turn, and when the line pulled taught, she began tipping over.
    Guinar slipped a hand around Kyleeka's waist and secured himself to the rising railing.
    "Let go of me!" she hissed and tried to struggle free even as the deck beneath her feet tipped near vertical. Guinar pulled her over the edge to sit on the now horizontal side of the ship.
    The mast began to creak.
    "Captain," Guinar pointed at a splinter snapping out of the mast. "She's coming apart!"
    "Nonsense!" Covari laughed. "Standby starboard broadside! Fire on my mark!"
    "Fire at what?" Kyleeka screeched. "The heavens?"
    It was at that moment that the pursuing vessel burst out of the fog and into sight, floating a good two dozen yards above the surface of the water. She had planks extended on each side from which archers released more fire arrows and boarding parties began rappelling down at the Nymph with eager war cries.
    The Nymph's cannon roared, spitting out long flames fuelled by what must have been at least five pounds of firedust each. Several of the boarding soldiers were engulfed in flames and crashed into the Nymph's wooden flank screaming and dying. The final blast even scorched a gouging hole into the hull of the airborne vessel.
    "Cut anchor line!" Covari shouted out, and seconds later the ship snapped back upright, dropping what few of the boarders had landed down into the sea.
    "See?" Guinar smiled. "The captain always has a plan!"
    But the sorceress wasn't listening. Though she held on to Guinar's arm with a firm grip, her eyes were seemingly unaware of his, having turned completely white. Her caste mark was likewise flaring.
    "Lady Kyleeka? Are you alright?"
    She didn't answer directly. Instead she gaped open her mouth and tendrils of her essence energies reached out for the floating ship, reaching it just as it was about to disappear again in the fog.
    With a scream like glass nails scratching a window, spell energies tore into each other and shattered. The enemy ship began to plummet and somewhere in the dark fog, Guinar could hear the crunching thunder of snapping wood and splashing water.
    The Nymph left the broken vessel behind and made its escape.
    "Lady Kyleeka," Covari approached her with smile after handing over the rudder, "am I to understand that you interfered in my naval engagement?"
    "I took out our pursuers," she nodded and brusquely detangled herself from Guinar's hold. "You're welcome."
    "What makes you think I couldn't have sunk them, had that been what I wished?" he shot back, his smile still genial. "I wished them battered, not broken."
    "I wished them dead," she retorted with a glare. "They had been sent to kill me. I have no interest in your reputation, I just want to survive, and for that they needed to sink."
    He held her glare for a long moment, but finally nodded. "I would have preferred you consult me first, but your choice of action is understandable. Now then, I believe we have much to discuss." He gestured towards the cabin.
    "Like how we are both solar?"
    "Both?" Covari waved for Guinar to join them. "Try all three. But also, and potentially more important for your you truly have the jade talents you promised us?"
    Guinar became keenly aware of how not alone they were amongst the crew of the Nymph.
    "We do need to talk," Kyleeka nodded and pulled them both towards the cabin door, "in private."

    Guinar's first instinct was to sit on the captain's bunk, as he usually did when they shared a drink, but Covari gently shoved him on towards one of the small stools, taking the other for himself. Kyleeka instead sat on the bunk, back straight and eyes fixed on her knees.
    "You don't have any jade at all, do you?" the captain's voice was soft and low. He didn't sound at all like he'd just been cheated, Guinar thought.
    "No, that silver my man gave you was the last money I had," she nodded, still not raising her eyes. "And whatever standing I had with my..." she stopped and pressed her lips closed for a moment. "...with my employers is now gone. All I own is in this cabin."
    Covari turned on his stool and fetched a half full bottle from a hiding place under a floor board.
    "A celebration?" Guinar asked. They didn't touch that bottle any other time. "We've been swindled and are now wanted by a major house."
    Two cups followed the bottle, and Covari frowned, looking around for a third one. "That is all true, but you forget the important part."
    "You're famous now?" Guinar raised an eyebrow and scooped a small goblet from a crate near him, placing it near the two cups.
    "That too," the captain smiled. "But no, more importantly, we found and saved a sister."
    He filled all three receptacles and handed the goblet to the sorceress. "Welcome aboard!"
    She took it and regarded him carefully before joining in on the toast.
    "For obvious reasons," Covari continued after slamming his cup down, "my vessel is no place for immaculate dogma. Anyone fleeing those bloodhounds will find sanctuary with me. Guinar can attest to that."
    The boy nodded and tried to give Kyleeka a warm smile. She glanced briefly at him, but quickly returned her gaze to the captain. "So you're not angry that I don't have the jade?"
    "Disappointed, for sure," Covari sighed and eyed his empty cup. No celebration so far had been worth two cups of the Cynis sake. "But in all honesty, I never expected such a ludicrous sum to be paid."
    "You sure had the crew fooled, though," Guinar pointed out. "I'm all for having her join up with us, but the rest? Vectis will scream murder when he finds out we're not getting paid."
    "Join the crew?" Kyleeka blurted.
    "Vectis knows who's in charge," Covari waved the boy off. "We may have to resort to a bit of privateering to mollify him, but hey, we've got a brand new arch nemesis now! Might as well take advantage of it."
    "So what, we're taking sides in the civil war that’s coming?" Guinar frowned. "Go back, sign up with another house and do their bidding?"
    "Go back?"
    "It's not a war yet," Covari shrugged. "We’ll have plenty of time to bail when things get ridiculous. What do you think, Lady Kyleeka? Any ideas which house might pay the most to see Mnemon sails burn?"
    "I'm not going back to the isle!" the woman shook her head, leaving her red locks tussled enough to distract Guinar. "And none of them will pay anything once House Mnemon tells them what I am."
    "Would they?" Covari rubbed his goatee. "Your family resemblance is somewhat notable. Will the Great Mnemon admit to one of her own having spawned an anathema?"
    Kyleeka turned aside and almost raised a hand to cover her face. "You're not the only one to say I look like her, but we're not actually related to my knowledge. It doesn't matter anyway. I'm not staying with you. I have somewhere to be."
    "But-" Guinar's protest was underway before it was formulated. The captain interrupted, sparing him the embarrassment of whatever he’d have blurted.
    "So you did have a destination in mind after all?" he asked. "Very well then, where are we headed?"
    She didn't answer at first. Finally she returned to staring at her knees and only spoke in a mumble. "I don't know. I only saw the place in a dream."
    "A dream? What place?" Guinar was still talking faster than his thoughts. "How can we get you there?"
    "Any safe port will do," she shook her head. "I cannot pay for more. I will continue on my own from there."
    "Describe this place, please," Covari's voice and smile grew soft once more. "Maybe I have heard of it."
    She frowned, but did raise her face again to do so. "I doubt it. It was an island, a floating one, above the ocean. There is a palace in its centre, tall as a mountain and golden as the sun, with a large central dome. Rock statues of soldiers stand guard on every cliff."
    She stood and moved past Guinar to her bag, pushing to get past him in the small cabin. He almost reached out to touch her leg, but withdrew the hand. He didn't need to look to know Covari was shaking his head at him.
    "Here," Kyleeka said and retrieved her ancient tome. "I found references to it in an old history text."
    She placed the book on the map table and forced it open, repeatedly, until it obeyed.
    Guinar leaned in, as much to read as to be closer to her face, but found the letters unfamiliar.
    "Old realm," Covari said. "What does it say?"
    "Sadly not where it is, exactly," she replied. "But the description matches. What I have seen in my dreams was a first age manse, rumoured to hold a great library and lost to the past somewhere in the south-west sea."
    "A manse?" Guinar gasped and tried once again to read the unintelligible letters.
    "Lost to the past?" Covari grinned and tried the same. Kyleeka had to lean back as they nearly slammed their heads together.
    "A manse is a construction to harness the powers of a great natural source of essence," she explained, "usually a temple or fortress, but in the first age all kinds of manses had been designed."
    Guinar knew what a manse was, of course, but anything said in her voice was worth listening to.
    "We will help you find it," Covari announced and opened the bottle again.
    "You will?"
    "We will?"
    "Of course!" the captain said while pouring a second round. "Just imagine being the first to set foot on that isle's shore in a thousand years!"
    "And there will likely be riches for your crew in there," Kyleeka nodded and took the goblet again.
    And it'd mean she'd stay on board! Guinar said nothing as he took his cup, just smiling like a fool when they toasted their young alliance. Thankfully, the captain dragged him out with him afterwards, before words could complete that impression.

    I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!

  • #2
    Chapter two

    The creaking of wood under many footsteps was the first sign that morning had come, before the sun even, and when the sailors launched into their shanties to set to work, Kyleeka had to surrender any further hope of sleep.
    Looking up to ensure the curtains over the windows were still in place before rising up from under the sheets of the bed, she stepped to the small dresser in the corner. She'd found an impressively sized mirror on the inside of its door the morning before, next to what she assumed was the captain's varied array of jackets and pants.
    She ran her fingers over her cheeks, pulled her eyes open and bared her teeth, inspecting herself carefully at each step. Then, with a sigh of relief, she turned away and exchanged her night robes for her dress once more.
    The knock on the door came just as she closed the final hook.
    "Guinar?" she asked with a voice just barely loud enough to travel through the thin wood.
    "It's me," Captain Covari responded instead. "Sorry to disappoint you. I brought breakfast, though?"
    She stepped to the door and opened it. "Sorry, do come in. I've just finished dressing."
    The captain strode in, his step bold and wide somehow despite the quarters being small and low of ceiling. In his hands he held a bowl of rice and a mug of water, which he both quickly placed on the map table.
    "And you look lovely, my lady," he smiled, no, grinned. "Though, if you will permit me my humble opinion, I would suggest you select another look."
    "I didn't exactly get to pack much," Kyleeka crossed her arms. "A pack any larger and I would have given my intentions away. I'm afraid this is the only dress I brought."
    She looked him up and down. "Beside, aren't those the same clothes you wore yesterday?"
    "And slept in," he nodded eagerly, "since my dresser was in here with you. But that's quite alright on a ship. No, I was going to suggest you wear something sturdier and less conspicuous. I'd hate for such a lovely garment to be spoilt or torn when you learn the ropes today."
    "Learn the ropes?"
    "He nodded and waved at the rice bowl. "Why yes, if you're going to be part of our crew, you'll need to learn at least the basics of my ship."
    She sat and tried the rice. It was cold, though she silently chastised herself for expecting otherwise.
    "I thought we'd agreed that I was a passenger," she said and slowly continued eat little bites in between her sentences. "I have paid quite well in silver for this journey."
    "Your silver was welcome," Covari nodded. "But you need more than just transportation. You need shelter, you need friends."
    The rice was also quite salty. "Are you saying I'm not paying you enough for those?" she let her voice chill. "I already promised you a fortune when we reach our destination."
    "No, that's not what I mean," he shook his head and waved his hands in a refuting gesture. "Your secret is safe with us. But if you remain a mysterious passenger, my crew may well refer to you as such in port." He finally sat across from her. "Whereas a friend, they might not mention at all."
    She placed the chopsticks in the bowl, quite sated of the sad rice. "Port? I thought we were headed to this island? I instructed my messenger to tell you to load as many supplies as you could."
    Covari leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head. "That is all true, but we won't get that far without making port. And you still haven't given us an exact location."
    She cast a glance at the pack she kept the book in. He was right on that last part, of course.
    "How often will we make port?" she sighed. "I don't know much about sailing."
    He grinned, and a ray of morning light caught the captain's orichalcum tooth. "That is something we can fix! Pick something from my dresser," he waved his hand at it, "and meet Guinar at the helm. He'll give you some of the basics until lunch."
    He? She turned back from where her gaze had followed his arm. "Guinar is a boy then? He seemed rather high pitched in voice."
    Covari let out a chuckle and stood, preparing to leave. "He would have you know that he is neither boy nor girl, but a man. But no, do not address him as a female. He has sacrificed much to be a Tya."
    "What is a Tya?" Kyleeka tried to think. The term had never featured in any of the texts she'd studied, historical or immaculate. "Is it a house?"
    Covari shrugged and opened the door. "I know of them, but how he joined them is his story to tell. I'd even say you have better odds to hear it than I do." He opened the door and stepped out. "Now get going, no lazying about on the Nymph!"
    And with that he was gone.
    "But I'd rather not ask Guinar," she mumbled and glanced at the window he'd spied on her through. A boy maybe, but he was not a man. She opened the dresser again and rifled through the clothes.

    Kyleeka eventually stepped out onto the deck of the Nymph of a Thousand Shores. The sun was already well above the horizon and a steady breeze filled the sails.
    She climbed up the ladder to her left and found herself face to face with the obnoxious Guinar standing at the helm. Already the skinny boy, supposedly, was grinning at her presence, the expression twisting the swirling blue tattoo on the left side of his face.
    "My Lady," the youth bowed. "I wish you a good morning. But, isn't that the captain's shirt?"
    He looked her up and down, lingering long enough to make her cross her arms over her chest.
    "Captain Covari insisted I wear something more appropriate on deck," she said as calmly as she could muster.
    Guinar nodded, but she could see in his eyes that he didn't approve. "But that's his best formal shirt," he pointed out. "Are you sure that's what he meant when he said more appropriate? I mean, it looks great on you!"
    It was the finest shirt she'd found in his dresser, that was true.
    "It was the only silk one I could find," she replied and turned away from him to watch the sailors pull this rope and that. "I tried the others, but they were itchy."
    "Itchy..." his voice trailed off. She could hear him fidget.
    "In any case, the captain also said that you were to instruct me in the basics of seamanship," she sighed. "Apparently I am to join the crew after all."
    Kyleeka felt his hand grab hers, but before she could protest he'd placed it on the ship's tiller and let go of her again.
    "Here," he said, "let's start with getting a feel for steering the Nymph."
    He clearly found her holding the big stick of wood more exciting than her, but she was supposed to learn, so she focused on it as best she could. It was lacquered wood, mostly smooth but in spots peeling with age. She could also feel a groove and traced it with a finger.
    "That came from a pirate's cutlass last year," Guinar explained. "Almost cut my finger off, too!"
    "Is it meant to be pulling so hard to the left?" she asked, finding herself having to hold it firmly against continuous tugging.
    "Portside," Guinar corrected.
    "What port?" she looked around.
    "No, left is called portside on a ship. And the right is starboard."
    She blinked. "Why?"
    He blinked. "I'm not sure. I think it might be secret club lingo of a sort for sailors?"
    "Aren't you a sailor?" she frowned. What was the point of learning from him if he didn't know anything either?
    "I know how to sail a ship," Guinar huffed. "Just not why words mean what they mean. Aren't you the one with the fancy books?"
    "I can assure you, silly words like 'portside' and 'starboard' do not appear anywhere in the Heptagram library!" she huffed right back at him.
    That shut him up, for a moment at least. He looked her up and down again, though this time his eyes didn't linger on her chest.
    "You studied at the Heptagram?" he finally asked. "How long have you been exalted?"
    She bit down her first response. From what the boy'd just said about the groove, it sounded like he might well be her senior, exaltation wise. She'd rather not face that mockery.
    "No, not officially," she finally admitted. "I didn't exalt in time to be accepted as a student. I was assistant librarian, and I taught some of the more basic classes, history and thaumaturgy. The best a mortal scholar can hope to achieve in the realm, I should add."
    "So when did you exalt?" Guinar asked. "Did you show them how powerful you were, then?"
    "No!" came the shout. "Why would I? I actually taught some immaculate texts, I know exactly what would have happened to me if they'd found out what I'd become. No, I had to get out of there immediately."
    "Immediately? So you exalted just before we met you?"
    "No!" Gods, why'd she have to blurt that out? "It took some time to arrange for a fake to cover my book theft, to get to Eagle's Landing and to find a ship."
    "So, like a month, two?" Guinar concluded far too accurately. "Nice! How did it happen? Was it awesome? I bet it was awesome!"
    "I was reading a book," she hissed. The displeased look that briefly hung on the boy's face delighted her, but was immediately replaced by his dumb grin again. "The very book I showed you, actually. Thankfully I was alone in the library at the time."
    "Wow, I guess that means you're really smart, huh?" he laughed. "As smart as you are gorgeous."
    She shoved the tiller at him and let go. Several sailors cried in surprise.
    "And you, let me guess," she tried to burn into his eyes with her glare, "you exalted while spying on some poor woman somewhere?"
    "No!" now it was Guinar's turn to blurt. "I never...alright, I did, and I'm sorry. But no, that's not...I exalted when..."
    He was about to say but fell silent when Captain Covari approached.
    "Trouble at the helm?" the goateed man asked and motioned for Guinar to take hold of the tiller again.
    "No captain," Guinar mumbled and looked at his own feet. "No trouble. We were just...going over portside and starboard."
    Covari looked carefully at both of them and stroked his goatee.
    "He was letting me hold the stick," Kyleeka added. "I guess I didn't do it right."
    Why was she defending the brat?
    "The stick is called the tiller," Covari explained and took it from the boy. "Guinar, how about you take a shift in the crow's nest, I'll continue with our new trainee."
    The boy gone, he turned to her. "How about you try again, but hold on this time."
    She took the tiller again.
    "Now, you might find it pulling one way or the other, that's because..."

    The archer took his place on the left of the centre gateway board. The young girl across from him kept her face stoic and unmoving as he withdrew his hand.
    "Your turn," he said. The only other sound was that of the waves lapping against the ship's hull.
    She gave a small nod, the brown skin of her bald head reflecting the sun's light briefly to catch his eye.
    "I know, uncle," she said. But she didn't move her hands. She simply kept staring at the board.
    He waited.
    He waited a little longer.
    "You see," he began, "the archer can now threaten any counter moves you might make to my infantry advancing." He pointed out the gateway pieces as he mentioned them. "It's the classic Kandokin opening."
    "Ah yes, I see. But I believe you made a mistake, uncle," she countered. With a flash of white sleeve, her hand shot out and moved a cavalry piece from her rear forwards. "You forgot to secure your flank with the yeddims first."
    He blinked. He backtracked the move. How had he not seen that?
    Footsteps approached up the stairs to the aft sun deck. A man in Mnemon uniform approached and prostrated himself before the two players.
    "Master Ferik, Lady Himmika," he intoned towards the wooden planks just beneath his face. "Our lookouts have spotted lost sailors in the water. Shall we rescue them?"
    "Yes, yes," Ferik waved at the man. "Proceed at your own discretion and leave us to the game."
    "I think the outcome is now clear, uncle," his niece declared and stood. "I am far more interested in these shipwrecked souls. I heard no storm, and the thought of piracy so close to the isle is disturbing me."
    She stood and brushed her spotless white robes straight before following the crewman down to the main deck.
    "As you wish, Himmika," her uncle sighed. "But please stay behind your bodyguards this time. We know nothing about these men."
    "I can't see with them blocking my way, uncle."
    He sighed and watched the nine year old push past the crowd to the railing.
    The shipwrecked sailors were still quite some distance away, but the Stalwart Monolith made good speed and before long turned into the wind near their goal. Boats were lowered and soon the soaking men and women were helped on board by the Monolith's crew.
    "I see you bear the marks of house Mnemon," Himmika greeted them and approached them before either her bodyguard or her uncle could hold her back. "It is fortunate that we passed this way then. I am Lady Mnemon Himmika, and this our house's ship, the Stalwart Monolith."
    One of the exhausted sailors, a man in long green robes bearing his house's mon bowed to her.
    "I am very grateful for your timely arrival. I am Master Ronngar, in service to house Mnemon aboard the Waveslicer. I mean, I was, until recently."
    "The Waveslicer is lost?" Himmika spoke quietly. "A dark day for our house indeed. How did this happen?"
    "We were in pursuit of a thief," the man gestured south. "She has made off with a precious tome of sorcery from the Heptagram. Mnemon herself ordered the pursuit and capture of this woman immediately. Unfortunately she is either an anathema, or has found one aiding her cause."
    "A stolen tome, and an anathema?" the girl said and leaned to the side to look past the man in the dripping clothes. "And yet I see no exalts amongst your men."
    He followed her gaze but turned back before replying. "We had two, our captain and a sorcerer advisor. We managed to fashion a raft and they commanded an elemental to tow them and some of the wounded to shore. I had assumed your ship had been sent by them to retrieve us."
    Himmika clasped her hands behind her back and strode to the railing again, looking in the direction the man had indicated. "No, but we will aid you even so. Master Ronngar, inform my helmsman of your quarry's last heading, then have your men report for duty assignments. We will give chase together that your orders may be fulfilled."
    "Himmika, my dear," her uncle rushed to her side. "What about the House of Bells? You will miss this semester's enrolment if we detour now."
    "Then I will attend next year, uncle," she turned and fixed him with a glare. "And do not question me again. I am the only exalt aboard this vessel, I will give the orders."
    "The only exalt, indeed," he shot back. "And for barely 3 weeks!"
    "25 days, actually."
    "Even so, you're not ready to face an anathema!"
    She turned and slowly began walking back towards the sun deck "You continue to underestimate me, uncle. I would have thought you'd know better by now. Execute my orders, please."
    Master Ferik turned to seek help from his crew, but they'd already sprung into action.

    Evening, and the accompanying dinner, didn't come soon enough. The rice was warmer this time, barely, and the company more numerous and less appetising.
    "Do none of you know how to use chopsticks?" Kyleeka asked and picked up her set.
    "Know, yes," the big man she'd learned was called Bahltin nodded. "Care, no."
    He shoved more rice into his mouth with his fingers.
    Her own fingers, meanwhile, betrayed Kyleeka and cramped up, making her drop the sticks.
    "Let me get those," Guinar said and picked them up for her. Of course the child had found a seat next to her.
    "I don't need your help," she snapped and flexed her hand. A day’s worth of climbing, holding sticks and pulling ropes had left her skin raw and blistered. "Besides, those have been on the floor now."
    "That floor's prob'ly actully cleaner than the shelf we keep'em in," another, older man grunted. "Mean least we scrub'it evr'y day."
    She eyed her bowl more suspiciously. "I'm not sure I'm hungry after all."
    "Nonsense," Bahltin laughed. "If you don't get some meat on that skinny ass of yours, next strong gale will blow you right overboard!"
    "Watch it!" Guinar had risen. "Don't talk to her like that!"
    "Lookatit," the older man chuckled, "little Guinar's first crush!"
    "I'm not..." the boy's cheeks had turned from angry flush to a different kind of red. "I mean..."
    "Next thing you know, they'll sneak into the crow's nest together, hah!"
    "No! I wouldn't!" he spun from sailor to sailor as they laughed. "I mean not that she's...I mean..."
    "Enough!" Kyleeka snapped. "I'm not sneaking anywhere with any of you. Leave the boy alone!"
    "You heard the lady," Covari's voice cut in. The captain was approaching the group, his own rice bowl already half empty. "Let us instead listen to her regale us with tales of lost islands full of riches!"
    "But..." she almost chocked on her rice. "I...are you sure?"
    "Of course!" he laughed and slapped her on the back, coincidentally dislodging the rice in her throat. "We're all headed there together, let's hear of it!"
    "I...alright," she sighed and began reciting what little she knew. "It's in the far south west There is a manse on it, that's why I need to go there."
    "Souwest?" the older sailor asked. "Issere anyfing outhere?"
    "This island is, yes," she nodded. "I can read you the passage from the book if you'd like."
    But Bahltin shook his head. "Vectis doesn't trust books. Besides, we're already all sitting."
    "I could get the book?" Guinar offered.
    "No, it's alright. So, yes. I believe the island has been untouched since the first age, guarded by the statues that surround its floating shore-"
    "Floating, ya mean it moves?" Vectis frowned. "Howare we s'posed to find a movin'island?"
    "No, it floats in the air."
    "In the air?" Bahltin laughed again. "You're kidding me? Like the island of the Yellow Crane Master?"
    "I...I am not familiar with that person," Kyleeka frowned. "Is he a martial artist?"
    "Dunno," Bahltin shrugged and dumped the last of his rice into his mouth. He continued through his full mouth. "Bud I herrd ve sdorry in a borrd somewere."
    "Yes!" Vectis stomped his foot. "T'was in Smogebay! And ya were barely paying attention, what widda the girl whowas tellin'it."
    "Smoke Bay," Guinar explained. "It's a port somewhat east of An Teng. They produce firedust and tobacco there."
    "But more importantly," Covari added, "they seem to have some folklore pertaining to our interests. What say you we make it one of our stops, Kyleeka?"
    "I suppose it should aid us," she nodded.
    "Good! But for now, continue the story, and spare no shiny details!"
    She obliged and talked for a while longer. The crew was actually more attentive than most of the students she'd had to deal with at the Heptagram.

    I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


    • #3
      Chapter Three

      The morning's first rays burst through the open window and tickled Covari's nose. He turned to look out the east facing window and listened to the sweet song of the birds in the palm trees just outside.
      The silken sheet rustled and the groom lying naked next to him snuggled up against his side.
      "Good morning handsome," the dark skinned man smiled.
      "Good morning."
      They shared a kiss.
      "Don't forget about me," the bride behind him laughed and turned him over to seize her own turn on Covari's lips. He obliged diligently.
      "And now, you two," he laughed and crawled out backwards from between them to begin his hunt for his clothes. "May your union be long and happy!"
      He was halfway into his pants by the time they broke their kiss.
      "Thank you so much for filling in," the groom said. "I can't believe Master Niveery would forget about the ceremony!"
      "I just hope he did forget," the bride sighed, "and that it's not something more sinister!"
      "Fear not," Covari called out from inside the shirt he was struggling into, "I will make sure to check at the temple on my way back, if nothing else to thank him for granting me to opportunity to officiate such a lovely wedding!"
      By the time he pulled on his boots and quietly snuck out the door, they were once again embraced in a kiss, and he felt no need to interrupt.
      Outside he found a servant in a fine, if simply cut suit waiting.
      "The lovely couple is awake, and would love some breakfast soon," he told the young man and then strolled past, whistling.
      The mansion looked expensive, built solely from ebony wood, which he knew didn't grow anywhere near Smoke Bay. Jade and ivory insets and ornamentation lined the walls and corners, and a noticeable smell of tobacco was everywhere. And not the cheap stuff either, Covari noted.
      It might be worth it for Guinar to pay this place a visit if they were staying another night in port.
      The servants in the front hall were still clearing and cleaning after last night's festivities, and the guards he passed closely enough showed clear signs of preferring to be asleep.
      None challenged his presence or barred his exit, not that he expected them to, and soon he found himself at the cliff face in front of the mansion overlooking the bay.
      A lovely morning it was, with the sun's light still casting long shadows between the buildings and ships below him, but the sight of the long, winding path down the rock face still made his feet itch.
      The crunching sound of ox hooves and wagon wheels on gravel sounded behind him. He turned to find the vehicle stopping beside him.
      "I'm headed down into town, if you'd like a ride?" the woman in the worn servant's dress offered.
      "I would love one!" he laughed and jumped into the seat next to her. "I can even show you a shortcut, if you like."
      "A shortcut?" she mumbled and looked at the switchback path with no forks ahead of them. "But there is only one path."
      "Indeed," he admitted and slipped his arm around her waist, "but more than one way to travel it."

      The wagon came to a halt in front of the temple.
      "I told you, a fun ride is always shorter," he laughed and climbed off the wagon.
      "I must admit those stories were amazing," she gave him a smile. "I'd like to hear more, if you're in town for another night?"
      "As tempting as that sounds, I cannot delay my voyages," he bowed. "If I am around, I shall visit the port's tavern tonight, but that depends on my associates."
      She bowed in return and whipped the oxen to move on, leaving the captain standing in front of the domed sandstone building.
      Statues of various pipe smoking spirits and gods lined the small, arched pathway inside, but once in, the tobacco smell that was so inescapable in the city faded into nothing. Even the warmth of the torch Covari'd just passed by stepping into the central chamber turned into a chill as he crossed the threshold.
      Inside, the reason for the obscure wards became clear. Lit only by weakly glowing essence stones set into the ceiling stood the city's greatest treasure, as far as Kyleeka had assured them:
      rows upon rows of tall book and scroll shelves.
      "No no no no," a young man muttered and limped towards Covari. "You are not supposed to be in here! No one is supposed to be in here!"
      "My apologies, master," the captain bowed. "I had not come across any closed doors. I will wait outside, if you could inform Master Niveery that he has a visitor?"
      "What? No. Nonono," the boy shook his head in a lopsided gesture that would only slant his neck further, Covari suspected. "I'm not a master. The Master isn't here. He is getting the book back from the court house!"
      "The court house borrowed a book? Was it an urgent matter?" He wondered if that was the reason the priest had not been able to attend the wedding.
      "No, it was stolen! He he he, needs to make a statement, and to identify the thief!" the boy had switched to nodding vigorously. “A sailor, he said.”
      Guinar, what have you done? "Could you point me the way to the courthouse?" Covari asked with a nonchalant smile. "Maybe I can meet him there and leave you to your studies."

      The gaunt woman had dispensed with the usual hood of the magistrate robes, Covari noted when he was finally led to her desk. It hung over the edge of a bookshelf behind her, a clear concession to the climate.
      "What is it you wish," she muttered and wiped some sweat of her brow. "I am quite busy."
      Covari bowed and glanced at the two books that lay stacked on the low table. Was the bottom one twitching?
      "Honoured magistrate," he began, "I have been informed that one of my crew was arrested. I have come to negotiate the terms of their release."
      "You are Captain Covari, then?" the magistrate turned to a stack of papers and began rummaging. "Yes, your girl is in our cells. I'm afraid a release is out of the question though, her crime carries the death penalty."
      "You'll find that he is not actually a g..." Covari began by reflex, "...did you say death penalty? What are the charges, if I may ask?"
      "Grand theft of holy relics," the magistrate’s voice stated calmly. "The god in question is most irate and insisted on the maximum penalty."
      "Surely a penalty payment could be-"
      "The matter of her punishment is out of my hands. I only adjudicate common law, and these orders come from above."
      Covari looked his feet and took a deep breath. Oh, Guinar...
      "Very well, may I speak with the god who made these charges?" he said. "And may I visit my friend in the cells?"
      The magistrate produced a piece of paper. "Fill out this form, and I shall arrange the second. I can do no more than pass your request for the first item on."
      He took the paper and followed the servant to a small side table with a charcoal stylus. He picked it up, twirled it for a moment, and the filled out the form with practised ease. His name and the ship's, of course, were accurate, everything else as made up as the need to ask it in the first place.
      "Here you go," he handed it in moments later. "Now where is my friend?"
      The servant took the form and motioned for Covari to wait. Only when the magistrate had studied the scroll and placed it inside a drawer did she nod to the servant. The silent boy then returned and gestured for the captain to follow.
      Out the large office they went, and down the hall to a spiral staircase built into the side of the court hall. The winding steps were small and tight, but ended much sooner than Covari expected, reaching a mere single floor underground. The cool dampness of the dark cobblestone corridor was actually rather welcome after the noon heat above.
      His friend sat in the cell furthest from the stairs, two guards flanking the bar door. But it wasn't Guinar.
      "Kyleeka," Covari greeted her, "I hear you ran into some trouble?"
      "Captain!" she was on her feet and grabbing the bars of the door in an instant. "Please, get me out of here! No one will listen to me!"
      "I'm trying to," he tried to soothe her with a smile. "I'll be speaking to the god who demanded your incarceration soon. We'll get this sorted out. But first, what actually happened?"
      "I..." her voice fell. "I may have pried where I wasn't supposed to. I found an ancient book that had been sealed."
      He had to restrain himself from sighing, or shaking his head. "What kind of book? Please, tell me everything from the beginning."
      And so she did.

      The three of them stood in the crowd at the side of the wide main road, watching the dancers and musicians march past.
      "Look, an elephant!" Guinar exclaimed. "Have you ever seen an elephant before, Kyleeka?"
      The boy was excitedly pointing at the large grey beast of burden that carried the young groom to be.
      "No," Kyleeka admitted. "But now I have, and I'm not too impressed." She'd thought they were bigger. This one would barely even have reached the hips of one of the Golem's guarding the Heptagram's main entrance. "Captain, where are you going?"
      Covari had pushed through the crowd and seized one of the dancers in the parade. And now, they both joined together in a sensuous embrace as they were pulled along with the parade. Several other people in the audience likewise joined the dancers, or brought their own partners to dance with.
      Kyleeka pulled her hand back the second Guinar's touched it.
      "No, I'm not dancing with you," she snapped before the question could come.
      "Why not?" he pouted. "It's just a bit of harmless fun."
      "We are not here in Smoke Bay for fun!" she explained, having to raise her voice over some cheering as the bride's tiger pulled coach came into view. "We are here to investigate the stories of the Yellow Crane Master."
      "We can do that tomorrow!" Guinar reached for her hand again.
      She pulled back and turned away. "You go dancing then. I'll see you back at the ship tomorrow."
      He didn't follow her, or at least she couldn't see him doing so in the crowd.
      Good, what now then?
      Her plan had been to ask around taverns and market places to see if anyone knew the old story, but she quickly found that the only thing on everyone's mind was the wedding of the satrap's niece and the mayor's heir, and the resulting inane speculation as to whether their children would exalt and if so to what aspect. Foolish mortal optimism, in other words.
      "Neither of them exalted," she tried to explain the third time she got roped into that conversation in her search. "Their lineage is notable, but once an aspirant fails to exalt, the odds of their offspring doing so decreases significantly further."
      "She might still exalt," the woman in the workers garb shot back. "She's not twenty yet."
      "The age of twenty isn't even that significant," Kyleeka found herself explaining. "There have been documented cases of exaltation occurring after that age, but the drop off in numbers begins well before that. In an imperial study conducted in 569 by Peleps Artigon..."
      The woman's eyes glazed over. "You sound like the priest!" she giggled and took another sip from her already fairly empty cup.
      "Which priest would that be?" Kyleeka's ears pricked up. Was there an educated man in this town after all? "And where can I find him?"
      "Wow, yeah," the woman's paramour laughed. "The greatest party in years, and she wants to bury her nose in a book. You two really belong together!"
      "He's in the temple, probably preparing," she explained and pointed the way.
      "Which temple?" Kyleeka asked. "And preparing for what?"
      "The temple? The big one? Domed sandstone?" the woman giggled. "Foreigners, what'd we need more than one temple for, anyway?"
      " 'Preparing for what?'," the man's voice mocked the sorceress.
      Kyleeka turned and strode away, pulling her coat tighter in a huff.
      They were right in one regard, though: the temple wasn't as difficult to find as she'd first thought, and only moments later, she strode into the library at its centre, noting and appreciating the temperature veil that had been erected to protect the tomes and scrolls.
      "Hello?" she called out. "Is anyone here?" That there had been no guards or servants at the entrance was odd.
      "Hm?" someone responded. "Just a minute!"
      Soon a big bellied old man was waddling out from behind a bookshelf, still trying to tie up the collar of his ceremonial garb. "Oh, my apologies, but the library is closed tonight."
      "Closed?" she frowned. "But the door was wide open?"
      "Was it?" the man shook his head. "Oh dear, I really must have a word with my acolyte over that. He insists that we need 'a breeze' in here. Poor boy."
      He turned away and began to waddle again.
      "Excuse me," Kyleeka called after him. "But I require access to any texts regarding the Yellow Crane Master."
      The man stopped. "I'm quite serious, we are closed. Come back tomorrow and I will gladly help you."
      "You will help me now!" Kyleeka dared to sharpen her words with essence. She had no time to waste if she wanted to stay ahead of her pursuers. "Yellow Crane Master, what do you know about him?"
      "I...ah..." the man looked from his fancy, untied collar to her and back. "...I should really...I'm already running late...I don't know..."
      "Show me the texts!" she commanded again. "Or do you not know what you have or don't have in your own library?"
      The man straightened. "Of course I do, my Lady! Just wait a moment." He disappeared into maze of shelves.

      And the priest did have the promised texts. At least, she assumed he did, for they were written in flame tongue, an older dialect even. She could only make out parts of it, mostly the few phrases that appeared taken verbatim from an old realm original.
      "These," she pointed at one of such passage, "what work are they from? And do you have a copy?"
      He leaned in closer, into the cone of light emanating from the essence glow stone above, and squinted. "I cannot read that passage," he admitted. "I know some old realm, but only the shogunate era lettering. These sections predate it."
      "They what?" she frowned and squinted at the section herself. She could read it just fine, though she did notice the few odd conventions that would have had her teachers back home in a froth whenever she made them. "How do you know how old they are?"
      "Oh, I don't really," he shrugged. "It's just that it looks very much like the lettering on our oldest book. I know that predates the shogunate. It was ordered sealed by an immaculate visitor once."
      "Sealed? But not confiscated?"
      "Oh no," the priest shook his head. "None of these books may be removed from here, even the order acknowledges that decree by our gods. No one wants to upset a spirit in Smoke Bay!"
      He leaned closer and whispered. "They are all fire spirits."
      "Show me this book!" she commanded, and the fat priest waddled away at greater speed than she thought him capable of.
      A tome older than the shogunate, in this dump? It was probably harmless, but then why the order to seal it? Why was it important enough to warrant that, but not dangerous enough to be moved to the vaults of the Heptagram?
      "I thought I'd find you in here!" Guinar's voice came from above, startling her.
      The boy sat crouched on top of one of the lower shelves.
      "I got you something!" he said and jumped down.
      "I may have found something, too!" she gasped and ignored the object he was offering her. "This priest says he has a book from before the shogunate!"
      "...that's old, right?" Guinar frowned. "I don't know my era's well."
      "Yes, it's old. It's quite possibly from the first age!"
      The boy nodded, still holding his hand up with its offering. "How many ages ago is that? When was the second age?"
      "There was no second age," Kyleeka sighed and finally looked down at his hand. "A flower?"
      "Yes," he stepped forwards and put it into her hair before she could get a good look. "I got it specially for you, my love!"
      She closed her eyes and felt herself deflate. "No. I am not your love! Please, stop!"
      "But it is said-"
      "No, it is not said!" she hissed. "I'm saying that I'm not your love. Please find someone else!"
      "But the flower-"
      "Is sweet, yes, but no flower can make me love you, I'm sorry!"
      "I-" his voice faltered.
      She didn't answer.
      He ran.
      She watched him run.
      Well, at least he seemed to have gotten the message.
      "Here it is!" the priest had returned with the book and placed it on the desk.
      Her heart nearly pounded its way out of her chest when she read the title.
      " 'The Yellow Crane Style - The Slayer of Dragons' ," she read out loud.
      "This is..." she couldn't even think.
      "My lady..." the priest had paled and was staring at her in fear.
      "Yes?" she asked, shaking herself away from the book for a second.
      "Thief!" he cried out and ran. "Thief!"

      Covari held up his hand. "Wait a moment. You hadn't stolen any books yet! Why was he calling you a thief?"
      "I didn't steal any book!" Kyleeka insisted and yanked at the cell bars. "I don't know what he was suddenly on about, but I wasn't going to stick around! I grabbed the book and tried to make a run for it, but the guards got to me only a few streets away. They had a water aspect with them, too. Then they dragged me in here."
      "With the book?" he asked.
      She nodded.
      He let out a long sigh.
      "And what are you doing here, Guinar," Covari turned to one of the two guards. "I can't say that uniform suits you."
      The boy grinned sheepishly inside the pot helmet. "I just got here and was figuring out how to quietly take out the other guy over there, when you walked in. I figured you might have a better plan."
      "Take out who now?" the other guard frowned.
      Covari spun backwards and landed his elbow in the man's chest. He gave a loud cough and slumped to his knees, unconscious. Covari gently laid him on his side.
      "I could have done that," Guinar said.
      "You?" Kyleeka hissed. "How'd you find me?"
      "You ran right past me with the book," he replied. "I would have tried to save you from the guards then, but there were too many. So I waited until everyone thought you were safely contained."
      "So you have a way out?" Covari asked and searched the guard for keys.
      Guinar reached his finger into the cast iron lock, and moments later it clicked open.
      "Yes, sort of."
      "Let's go then!" Kyleeka urged.
      "It's..." Guinar was blushing now.

      "The sewers?" the sorceress wasn't happy. She'd thought about taking off her shoes, but the thought of scraping herself on something in this muck was even worse than walking in soaked sacks of shit. Repeatedly bumping her head on the low ceiling didn't improve her mood, either. "Your best plan was the sewers?"
      "I said I'd hoped Covari had come up with a better one. And it's not like I had any sleep to think on it. You were arrested pretty early in the morning."
      "If that stupid priest hadn't suddenly freaked out...eeew, it's moving!"
      "Why did he freak out?" Covari asked. "I mean, you said you didn't try to steal the book until after, so why call you a thief then?"
      "I don't know!" she screamed, her voice echoing in the dark tunnel. "You can go back and ask him!"
      "It wasn't the book," Guinar said. "It was my fault."
      "It was WHAT?"

      With Kyleeka gone in the crowd, Guinar found himself alone amongst strangers. Alone among strangers at a party he didn't feel like celebrating right now.
      Why didn't she want to dance? He'd kept trying to apologise for his behaviour, he'd tried to be nice, to be charming. It always worked for the captain.
      He needed to impress her better. He needed something amazing!
      But what?
      The bride's tiger coach drove by his patch of the crowd, the lovely woman basking happily in the cheers and adulations.
      "Those flowers?" Guinar blurted, noting the small bouquet of crystal clear orchids, a master piece of glass working. "Who made those flowers?" he asked the woman cheering next to him.
      "Oh, they aren't made, silly," she laughed. "They are glass orchids, from Chiaroscuro."
      "No, these ones were grown here, at the mayor's house," another man cut in. "He has a select very few of them in his garden. Takes a dedicated god to make them grow, though."
      "I hear it takes ten years to grow just one!" another woman cut in.
      "My brother works at the estate, he says they had to pluck almost all of them to make that bouquet!"
      "It's worth it, I say. It's said no one has ever refused one offered in love!"
      "So they're magical?" Guinar asked.
      "They need a god to grow, so I'd think so."
      "No, not magical, just very precious."
      "I hear they can't even grow them on the blessed isle, it's too cold."
      "I could get my cousin to get let us take a look at the one that’s left, gorgeous?"
      As the conversation turned into flirting, Guinar left the people alone and strode away. He had a mission.

      Kyleeka's hand grabbed Guinar's shoulder and spun him around.
      "You stole the flower? The flower you put into my hair? That's what the priest was shouting about?"
      The boy nodded meekly.
      "The god was pissed, wasn't he?"
      Another nod.
      "So you're saying that I'M WALKING THROUGH SHIT BECAUSE OF YOU?"
      Guinar didn't say anything.
      "But he's rescuing you now," Covari tried to help. "Or he will be if our shouting doesn't draw the guards down here."
      "THAT-" she stopped when the captain raised his finger. "That doesn't mean we're even! I wouldn't be down here if it hadn't been for him!"
      "Really?" Covari asked. "You wouldn't have tried to take the book?"
      She didn't say anything.
      "Let's keep going," Covari suggested. "The book sounds intriguing, but we need to get the Nymph out of port before we can do anything about it."
      They trudged onwards through the muck.
      The young exalt carefully studied the cover of the twitching book laid on the desk before her, back straight and hands clasped behind her.
      "And you say the person attempting to steal this book was a crew of the Nymph of a Thousand Shores?" the girl asked.
      "Yes, Lady Himmika," the older magistrate nodded. "The captain confirmed it in writing before he came to see her in the cells." The woman offered the exalt a scroll. "He filled out the form."
      Himmika took it, and reached for the book. "In the interest of tracking these thieves, I will require this book."
      "You can't!" the magistrate gasped.
      "My Lady," the mayor next to her spoke. "This book is property of house Peleps. Even the immaculate order agreed that it should remain here."
      "Nevertheless, I require it," Himmika took it in her hands. It immediately ceased twitching.
      "I can't let you take it," the mayor frowned and reached for his daiklave. "It would mean war between Peleps and Mnemon."
      "I am not acting on behalf of house Mnemon," Himmika turned to face him, still holding the book. "This is a Wyld Hunt, and as its leader, I have the right to requisition and conscript anything required to seize my anathema target."
      "Is that so?" the mayor laughed. "I would like my magistrate to confirm the correctness of the papers stating so."
      "I shall fetch them from my ship," the girl agreed and walked towards the exit.
      "Not with the book!" the mayor now drew his blade and stood to loom over the child.
      Himmika spun around with a twirl of her white robe.
      Her essence fuelled kick send him tumbling back, falling over backwards over the magistrate’s desk. He landed on his back and felt himself buried in slowly falling papers. Cold liquid soaked into his shirt where the ink vial had landed.
      His attempts to shoot back to his feet where thwarted when he slipped on paper and ink. By the time he'd managed, the girl was already out the door.
      He moved to pick up the daiklave he'd dropped and strode after her, but by then she'd rejoined her honour guard, any of which could potentially be another exalt.
      Fuming and watching them walk away down the road, he resheated his weapon.
      "Magistrate," he seethed, "prepare a messenger. Peleps needs to hear what Mnemon has done."
      "What about the book?" the old woman asked. "The god's won't be happy."
      "I'll talk them down," he sighed. "Just make sure everyone on the Isle knows Mnemon's crimes."

      I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


      • #4
        Chapter Four

        Captain Covari and Guinar had both chosen to eschew their footwear for scaling the dunes at the beach. Already the boy had reached the bottom on the other side, where sand gave way to palm trees, rocks and dried grass.
        Kyleeka was still struggling to reach the top, repeatedly slipping in the fine sand and falling to her knees. Drawing in sharp, short breaths, she muttered a curse to the god of this dune before raising herself up again. Her shoes were full of sand, scratching, itching.
        The captain stood beside her and waved to the ship anchored in the bay one last time before beginning his descent.
        "We should hurry," he said. "I want to be back in Smoke Bay by nightfall."
        "And how far is that?" she grumbled. They way down the dune was quicker, but still not easy on her ankles. "It's not that late yet."
        "We have at most 3 hours of sunlight, actually," he said and sat down at the bottom to put his shoes back on.
        Kyleeka took the opportunity to try an empty hers. "Are we really that far from the town? Why didn't we land closer?"
        Guinar began to speak, but ended up just swallowing and staying silent. He stared at his own shoes.
        "The further away we leave the ship, the safer," Covari explained instead. "But as I said, we can probably do this ourselves, you don't have to come along if you don't want to."
        She straightened up and crossed her arms. "So what do you two know about taming first age books?"
        "Books need taming?" Guinar finally spoke. It was the first word she'd heard from him since his confession.
        "Not all, but some," she nodded. "It was apparently a common practice to imbue tomes with the ability to resist unwanted readers back in the older ages. Unfortunately, since all such books are very old and all their intended readers are long dead. They are just generally uncooperative these days. All the mortal staff in the Heptagram library had to be specially instructed in how to even carry these books."
        "So you're saying we need you?" Covari asked.
        "And I'm the only one who can read it," she nodded. "Even just the title was in old realm."
        "Well then," Covari put an arm around each of his companions. "It is quite a march, how about we sing a little to pass the time?"
        Neither of them joined him in his rendition of Ten Thousand Stairs up to Pasiap.

        They reached the cliffs on the far side of Smoke Bay by early evening, and Kyleeka claimed the first rounded rock she could find to sit on.
        "The library back home wasn't small," she grunted, "and they used to send me back and forth all over it. But still, my feet have never hurt this bad before."
        Even her legs were cramping. The few hours of sleep she'd had on the ship had not been enough.
        "It's the uneven ground," Guinar explained and pointed down the goat path they'd followed. "We should get you some proper boots before next time."
        "Next time?!?" her eyes widened. "Can't we get some horses instead?"
        The captain, meanwhile, retrieved a small brass cylinder from his pocket, and extended it to just a hand's length before looking through it.
        "Horses won't really fit onto our ship," Guinar shrugged. "Here, let me help you."
        He reached for her feet, but hesitated.
        She let out a sigh. Indulging in his offer of affection was the last thing she wanted to do, but her feet begged her to accept even so. She nodded, and Guinar gently took her feet into his lap, and removed the shoes.
        He'd just started carefully rubbing the soles when the captain folded his metal tube shut again with a snap.
        "Time to get moving," he said and pointed at a ship headed west. "That's a Mnemon warship down there. And hugging the coast like that, it will find my Nymph even in the bay we've hidden it in."
        "We're headed back?" Kyleeka groaned. Guinar'd already stopped massaging her feet again.
        "No time," Covari shook his head. "We can't out walk that ship."
        "We'll need horses from the town," the boy nodded.
        "Correct," the captain padded his shoulder. "And while I arrange for that, you might as well try and see if you can't get the book out of the courthouse."
        "What if they've brought it back to the library again already?" Kyleeka frowned. "The priest said the gods here don't like their books being anywhere else."
        Covari rubbed his goatee. "I saw it last in the courthouse, I think, but you may be right. Try the library, but we need to hurry. You may not get the chance to try both places."
        "Come on," the boy took Kyleeka's hand. "We should run ahead then."
        "I hate you," she mumbled but tried not to slow him down too much as he pulled her along.

        Master Ferik found the girl inside their shared cabin, the forbidden tome lying open before her. The red light of the sunset from the open door joined with the faint glow of the candle, but kept most of the room in darkness. Only the area around Himmika and her white robes was brightly lit enough to read.
        "Himmika," he said, "the captain has received a whispered message from Mnemon herself. She said you refused to heed her?"
        "She doesn't understand the importance of this mission," she replied and turned a page. "Tell the captain to ignore her."
        "I won't, I can't," he said and crossed his arms. "I think you've gone too far, little girl. We are guests on this ship, passengers. We do not command, least of all against direct orders of our head of house!"
        The girl slowly closed the book and stood from her stool, drawing herself to her full height, though she still didn't even reach her uncle's chest that way.
        "Do you know what this book is?" she asked. "Or the one the woman stole from the library?"
        "All I saw is the immaculate seal binding it shut," he shot back. "The seal I no longer see, by the way."
        " 'Yellow Crane Style - The Dragon Slayer'," Himmika slowly read out the title even as she traced it with her finger. "A most disturbing style. From what I have gleaned so far it claims to contain detailed instructions for counter moves to all the immaculate dragon martial arts styles. Do you know what that means, uncle?"
        He frowned and thought his answer through for a moment. "It means we should turn back and keep this book far away from the anathema?"
        "Ideally, yes," she conceded. "But they came straight for Smoke Bay from the Blessed Isle, and once here wasted no time in trying to find this book, I'm told. They knew where it was, despite the Order's best efforts to keep its very existence hidden."
        "So...we bring it back to the realm, right?" he tried again.
        "Uncle, are you not listening? They already have another book, and it clearly told them more than we can allow them to know. We have to keep tracking them and stop them from unearthing anything else."
        "But we have no exalts!" he was shouting now. "And no, you don't count. You haven't even received any exalted combat training!"
        "I can handle myself!" she snapped. "My orders stand, we keep going. If you won't accept my reasons, you'll have to make do with taking my orders!"
        She stood and closed the strap of the old tome. Then she strode straight at Ferik, forcing him aside on her way to the ship's helm.
        "Your parents will have my head for this," he muttered.
        "Ship ahoy!" came a call from the crow’s nest. "Anchored, of the port bow!"

        Guinar peeked over the edge of the roof he and Kyleeka had climbed on. The street below was rapidly emptying in the falling night, most people seeking the comfort of their homes or favourite taverns, few of which were anywhere near the temple.
        But the guard patrols did continue, unfortunately.
        He eyed the distance across the road, to the sandstone dome. He'd made that jump the night before, but it'd been later, with fewer people around. Someone might hear something.
        He chewed on his lips. He couldn't wait, and he couldn't risk trailing dozens of guards after them
        when they rode for the Nymph.
        His eyes fell on a monkey sitting on a broadly built trader's shoulders. The man was pushing a small wooden wheelbarrow with two barrels atop it. Perfect.
        Guinar picked up a pebble and grinned as he took aim.
        The poor animal screeched with the voice of ninety-nine banshees when the pebble struck it on the posterior. More even, it immediately set upon its owner and began pulling his ears and scratching at him. The wheelbarrow tipped over and moments later, they screaming man was rushing after his runaway barrels, several guards in tow shouting at him to stop.
        “Now jump!” he whispered to the sorceress and crouched to fuel his muscles with essence.
        “I can't jump that far!” she hissed back at him.
        “Why didn't you say something before?” he hissed back and watched the resigned guards below shrug and return to their patrols, the distraction already fading.
        “I didn't know what you were planning! And you said to be quiet!”
        He let out another hiss, and then without warning scooped her up in his arms. “Then just hold on!”
        It took a lot more effort to make the jump now, and the landing on the far roof lashed burning pains into his ankles. Kyleeka bit down to mostly suppress a squeal, and as Guinar began tipping backwards on the domed roof, she held on to whatever she could get her hands on.
        So it was with a startled sorceress clinging tightly to him that he fell on his back and started tumbling down the dome. They landed in a heap at the bottom of the temple wall, Guinar on top.
        “Brilliant!” she snapped. “A true master thief!”
        “Shut up,” he whispered and kissed her. Thankfully she didn't remember to resist until the footsteps were upon them.
        “Really, in the temple gardens?” the first guard muttered, a shaggy man with a slanted stance.
        “You didn't hear about the thieves about?” the second, taller and bald, sighed.
        “Thieves?” Guinar asked with a smile. “No, sir. I hadn't heard nothing about thieves.”
        “Is that so?” the second guard asked with a frown.
        “I did!” Kyleeka's voice jumped into the conversation. “My brother told me all about the man with the brown hood that steals his coconuts from the shop every night.” She struggled to her feet, shoving Guinar off her.
        “Coconuts?” the first guard's eyes twitched. “Are you making this up? What are coconuts?”
        “I think they have them in the west?” the other guard shrugged. “They're like, this big and full of cocoa.” He held his hands apart to indicate.
        “Ah,” the first guard nodded. “And which shop did you say sells them here? I've never seen anything that big made of cocoa.”
        “It's...on...” Kyleeka mumbled, “...on the first right just off the market square?”
        “Which one?” the second guard scratched his bald head. “The one by the port or the one by the main road?”
        That's when Guinar, having stepped between and behind them, grabbed their heads and smacked them together with a loud, hollow knocking sound.
        “Coconuts?” he asked. “Coconuts don't grow in the south!”
        “I didn't know that!” she hissed. “There were palm trees, and they grow on palm trees!”
        “Different kinds of palm trees!”
        “I'm not a botanist!” she put her hands on her hips. “And you are never to kiss me again!”
        Guinar held his own hands up, palms out. “I'm sorry. I panicked, and it was a bad idea. Let's just get the book and forget all about this.”
        “Gladly,” she nodded, her voice losing some of the edge.
        Soon the two were sneaking into the temple, avoiding any torches in the long hallway as Guinar guided her.
        "Keep the doors locked! Is that so hard to understand?" they heard the priest shout.
        "Butbut master," another voice stammered, "all the dust in here-"
        "All the dust is what we'll have left to eat if the gods decree that we are unfit to serve them!" There was a slam. "We let one of the books get stolen! It's gone, lost! We can't just let anyone walk in here anymore! Lock the doors, I command it!"
        "Butbut I've heard thats the thief was captured?" the other voice replied. "We put the book back and all is goodgood, no?"
        "The guards did get the book from the thief, but some big shot from the realm confiscated it," the first voice had lost some of its harshness. "We're not getting it back. Now, please, close and lock the doors. We swore we'd guard the town's history. Let's not fail our oaths again tonight."
        "Yes, as you cocommand."
        A set of shuffling footsteps approached Guinar and Kyleeka's hiding spot. With nothing left to do here, he turned and headed back towards the entrance, motioning her to follow.
        “A big shot from the realm?” she sighed. “That must be whoever was on that Mnemon warship.”
        “Possibly,” Guinar nodded, “if they departed with it. They could also still be in town, studying the book somewhere before they hand it back?”
        “No, you heard the priest,” she shook her head. “They said they're not getting it back. That suggests the book has already left town.”
        Guinar looked up at the slowly twinkling first stars of the night. They had the time to check out the courthouse, probably. But if the book was on the ship, that would just be a waste of time.
        “Let's get back to the captain then,” he shrugged. “And let's hope he found us good horses this late at night.”

        Kyleeka counted the horses again.
        “That's two horses,” she pointed at the animals Captain Covari was holding by their leashes. “And they don't appear to have saddles.”
        “You are quite correct,” Covari smiled. “Unfortunately, the mayor's coach only had two horses pulling it. We will have to make do, and get going soon, before he discovers how easily his guards were sweet talked.”
        “I thought you said you were going to find a horse trader?” Kyleeka raised an eyebrow and swung onto one of the mounts.
        “No, I said I would obtain horses,” Covari laughed and mounted the other horse. “I don't think I could have bought any at this hour if I'd tried. I take it you know how to ride?”
        “I had to run the odd errand on horseback back at the Heptagram,” she nodded. “My masters weren't always patient and the supply stores far.”
        Guinar looked back and forth between the two of them.
        “You'll have to ride with her, Guinar,” Covari motioned. “You two weigh the least, I would think.”
        “I don't know how to ride,” the boy shifted as he confessed.
        “All you'll have to do is hold on,” Covari sighed. “Now hurry, my Nymph is in danger!”
        And with that he reared his horse and galloped off.
        Guinar's eyes tried to avoid meeting Kyleeka's, even as he turned to look at her. “So...”
        “Yes, get on and hold on,” she sighed. “Just keep your mouth shut.”
        He nodded and leapt onto the horse in one, elegant motion. Then he almost tumbled over the other side, before she caught him by the arm.
        Thankfully she didn't rear the horse, and simply sent it into a gallop.
        Still, he had to wrap his arms firmly around her waist, and couldn't help but feel the warmth of her body.
        “I'm sorry about the flower,” he whispered.
        “What?” she called. “I can't hear you.”
        The plodding of the hooves on the soft ground drowned out even most of her shout.
        “I said I'm sorry about the flower!” Guinar called back.
        Her groan was unheard, but visible. She tensed in his grasp. “I said no talking!”
        “I just-” he stopped when she tensed further.
        They spent the next hour or so in silence, racing after Covari.

        The crescent moon had risen well into the night sky by the time they reached the bay. Two ships now lay anchored. The Nymph, sleek and beautiful as Covari remembered it, and another ship, larger, broader, with the thick hull and tell-tale rigging of a warship, lay further out in the bay, blocking all hope of escape.
        They three solar dismounted and let their horses run off, before crawling up the dune to take a look at the beach.
        “We didn't leave a boat there,” Guinar whispered, eyeing the small wooden vessel that sat abandoned on the beach. “The crew took it back on board!”
        “It's an obvious trap, then?” Kyleeka asked.
        But Covari shook his head. “It feels more like an invitation.”
        “You're not going to take it, are you?” Kyleeka's head spun to look at him. “They obviously have soldiers on both ships, and they'll be watching the boat.”
        “Of course,” he smiled. “But my crew won't have told them how many of us left. If I take the boat, that means you two can swim up quietly, and find out how many of the crew they're holding hostage on their own ship.”
        “You'll be the distraction?” Guinar nodded. “I can work with that. I'll get everyone free.”
        “Don't do anything drastic, until you've scouted both ships,” Covari said and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. “And whatever you do, keep Kyleeka safe.”
        “I can't swim,” she said.
        The other two turned to look at her.
        “You can't swim?” Guinar gasped.
        “You should have said,” Covari studied her. “You can't really be part of a ship's crew without knowing how to swim.”
        “Some of the crews I've worked with-” Guinar began.
        “You can't be part of my ship's crew without knowing how to swim,” the captain corrected himself.
        “Alright, I'll learn how to swim. But we don't have time now, do we?”
        “That is true. Right, Guinar, you'll need to go it alone. She will have to come with me in the boat.”
        “What if it was just me in the boat,” she offered, “and you two swim?”
        “No,” Covari stood and brushed the sand of his pants. “This is an invitation captain to captain, it would be rude of me to refuse. Come now.” He walked towards the boat. “And don't look back at Guinar, don't let them know he's here.”
        The boy waited for the boat to get underway and then crawled forward in the shadows of the palm trees.

        The oars stroked through the water with clumsy splashes, the odd drop landing on Kyleeka's arms. She frowned at Covari and his rowing technique, but didn't speak. The boat moved only slowly through the low, moonlit waves and it was quite some time before they came alongside the Nymph of a Thousand Shores.
        A rope ladder was waiting for them, and Bahltin's strong hand was the one to help Kyleeka over the railing. The faces around her were familiar enough, but armed guards stood guarding the aft castle and far railing, each wearing a uniform marked as House Mnemon.
        Covari approached the nearest Mnemon sailor. “Welcome aboard my ship. It is customary to ask for permission before coming aboard.”
        Two guards on the aft deck above him shifted to let a child in white robes through.
        “We did ask,” she spoke with her hands clasped behind her back, “and first mate Bahltin was most happy to accommodate us. You must be Captain Covari, then?
        “I see,” the captain nodded and glanced over at his crew mates before looking up at the girl. “And yes, I am he. To whom am I speaking, and what can I do for you?”
        “My name is Mnemon Himmika,” the girl fixed her eyes on him. “And rest assured that I have no hostile intentions. I merely wish a word with the anathema you are hiding amongst your crew.”
        “Anathema?” he laughed. “There is no such bogeyman amongst my friends. If that is what you came for, I must disappoint you.”
        “Your games do not amuse me,” she lowered her voice, though it was still unmistakeably that of a child. “I know this is the vessel that destroyed the Waveslicer with orichalcum flame cannon.”
        “Ori-what?” Covari shrugged and spread out his arms. “I assure you there are no flame cannon aboard this ship, you may search it at your leisure!”
        “We have,” she smiled. “I know not where you've hidden them, but it is undoubtedly anathema magic. I know that, because I did find the stolen book that Waveslicer was sent to retrieve in your quarters.”
        Kyleeka felt a pearl of sweat trickle down the side of her head.
        “That book must have been left behind by our passenger,” Covari shrugged. “She debarked back in Smoke Bay, if you're looking for her.”
        “Captain Covari, do not play games with me,” the girl snapped. “For the last time, I offer you and your crew your freedom, in exchange for nothing more than a friendly chat with the anathema.”
        “You're saying we are your prisoners, then?” Covari's voice was the one to lower now.
        “I have no interest in your ship or your crew. I will even safely return those who are guests on my own ship, if you just introduce me to your patron.”
        “Why do you wish to speak with her?” Kyleeka interrupted. “What is so important about this anathema?”
        The captain cast her a quick glance, too short to read, but the girl was now fully focused on her.
        “A woman then? That narrows it down considerably,” the Mnemon girl smiled. “Shall we two move to a more private venue? I think you and I have much to discuss about your choice of literature.”
        “She's not the anathema,” Covari stepped in front of Kyleeka. “Whoever she, or he, is, we're not giving them up.”
        “Then it is your friend who's currently swimming to sneak aboard my ship?” the girl asked. “I did notice you dragging your heels getting the boat here.”
        Covari slumped his shoulders. “No, it is me. I am the anathema. You want to talk to me. Just let my crew go first.”
        “Very well, accompany me to my ship, and I will give the order personally.”
        The girl withdrew one hand from behind her back and signalled her guards to follow her to the far railing.
        Covari turned to Kyleeka. “You two be safe, and tell him I'll be fine.” Then he followed the Mnemon girl.
        She watched him go, watched the crew watch him go. What was she supposed to do now?

        Guinar's lungs were burning a few minutes into the dive, by the time he passed underneath the Nymph above him, he conceded he might have underestimated the distance. Still he fuelled his muscles with essence and pushed forward through the dark waters. The captain was counting on him!
        When he did break the surface to breathe, he found he was almost at the realm warship. Just one more quick dive and his hand touched the heavy, treated wood, and the tall sides of the vessel loomed above him.
        He reached into his pocket and slipped on the rings he kept in it. The jewels were cheap fakes, and obvious ones at that, but he hadn't stolen them for their value. Turning the stones to face inwards, he used the makeshift climbing gloves to scale the smooth wood. He allowed himself a smile as the rings left ugly scratch marks in the lacquered wood.
        Finally, his eyes pulled high enough to observe the deck. There were sailors, of course, one even stood oblivious just a few feet to Guinar's side watching the Nymph. There were also soldiers, clad in padded cloth and guarding several men sitting in a group. He recognised Vectis leading a game of dice, but the group was far too small to contain all of the Nymph's crew.
        Craning his neck, Guinar turned to look back at the coast and their own ship. A crowd stood on deck, and he could hear words carried softly on the wind, too softly to make out, however.
        He took a quiet but deep breath, and climbed along the edge of the ship, hanging from his fingers the whole way, until he reached the prisoners.
        “Psst,” he called out. “It's me!”
        One of the Hilken brothers spotted him, the brighter one, fortunately. The thin, tall man stretched with a yawn and slid closer to the railing. “Guinar?”
        “Don't let them hear us,” he shushed the man. “Is everyone alright? Where are the rest of you?”
        “Of the crew? They're still on the Nymph. They only took a few of us over, and some scary looking book.”
        “Kyleeka's book is here? Where?” She'd never let him hear the end of it if they lost that book, too.
        “I don't know,” the man shrugged, but pointed to the aft castle.
        Captain's cabin, most likely, Guinar sighed.
        “Tell the others to get ready to climb down into the water and swim for the Nymph,” he told the man. “I'll arrange for a distraction. If you stay quiet, you should make it.”
        And with that he traced the route he'd come back to where he'd climbed on, ignoring the growing pain in his fingers. Fortunately, he reached the lookout again before his strength gave out, and he managed to slowly crawl aboard, hiding behind a large roll of rope, drawing upon the essence around him to stifle all sound and dim the light.
        The lookout yawned loudly, freezing Guinar in his tracks, but made no indication that he'd spotted him, not even when Guinar began to slowly tie a knot around the man's ankle.
        “You really suck at your job, you know?” Guinar couldn't help but point out to the surprised man when he stood and pulled loose a knot next to him.
        “How did y---argh!” came the reply as the poor sailor was turned upside down and yanked up into the rigging by the rope around his foot.
        “You there!” one of the guards around the prisoners shouted. “Stop right there!”
        “I'd rather stop over there!” Guinar laughed back and balanced up the bowsprit of the ship. As he'd hoped, the deck crew and guards came for him. Only one guard remained but the other, bigger Hilken brother had unscrewed Vectis' peg leg and knocked the distracted man out even as the first of his friends began their climb down.
        “Actually, I don't feel like stopping at all!” Guinar increased the volume of his shouts as the first guard was following him up the bowsprit. “I feel like dancing, don't you?”
        And with that he ran up the line to the top of the first mast, drawing everyone's eyes up while his friends climbed down.
        “Seize that girl!” an older man in an officer's uniform shouted.
        “Who are you calling girl, you blind geezer!” Guinar yelled back and slapped the tattoo on his left check in demonstration. He'd get them for that.

        The boat had just about begun to row when the shouting started, Covari wedged in between guards at the prow and rowing sailors behind him. The girl sat next to him, her hands now hidden in their opposite sleeves.
        “Trouble aboard your ship?” he asked the girl.
        “It appears so,” she frowned and motioned for the rowers to increase speed. “I suppose you lied to me then. Your anathema was the one who swam aboard. My men would have seized him otherwise.”
        “I did lie to you, and for that I apologise,” Covari nodded and stood, stretching his arms. “But I am the anathema you're looking for. Your crew is just no match for mine.”
        “They surrendered easily enough,” she started but then reached for the sideboard. “What are you doing?”
        Covari had begun shifting his weight side to side, already bringing the boat to a sway.
        “I’m simply affecting my escape, no hard feelings,” he smiled and jumped from one side of the boat to the other. “It's just that I prefer not to be executed by some immaculate child.”
        “I'm no ch-” she blurted, but Covari'd already jumped back to the other side. With a sudden lurch that shouldn't have happened, the boat capsized and dumped its many passengers into the dark waters.
        “It was a pleasure making your acquaintance though, Lady Himmika,” Covari laughed as he swam away. “I hope your parents won't be too harsh on you, you never stood a chance!'
        “No, wait!” she screamed in between spitting out sea water. “You don't understand! I need to talk to you!”
        But Covari swam on, reaching for the line his crew had thrown down for him. It took them only moments before he was back on board.
        “The rest of the crew?” he asked Bahltin.
        “Already swimming for us,” the man pointed. “We're throwing more lines to collect them.”
        “And the guards our would be captor left?” Covari asked, but needn't have.
        The four Mnemon men lay in a heap, wrapped in hemp rope that seemed to move and twist like snakes.
        “Nicely done,” he said to Kyleeka, who stood with her hands outstretched, caste mark glowing. “I haven't heard of that spell before.”
        One of the rope ends hissed and snapped. It really was a snake. Covari blinked. No, it was a rope. Was it?
        “Very nice.”
        “I can hold them for a while, but you'll need to secure them if you want me to cast any other spell,” she nodded.
        “Some wind would be nice,” Covari agreed. “Just make it half wind this time, not from the back.”
        He then reached in and fetched the trapped guard's scimitars. “And you lot are most welcome to jump over board while we're still near the coast.”
        As soon as Kyleeka released them, they obeyed.
        “And cut the anchor lines,” the captain shouted, finally heading for the tiller. “We are leaving as soon as we have all our men!”

        The young boy was laughing, dancing from boom to boom and running up ropes as the Mnemon sailors struggled to keep up. Each time they thought they'd cornered him, he escaped to a new spot on another mast. Even those daring souls that tried to swing after him on ropes of their own failed to come within in arm's reach.
        And then Guinar saw the Nymph's sails unroll and fill with wind immediately. It was time to leave, almost.
        “Thank you, gentlemen, you've been wonderful sports!” he laughed and jumped to slam a sailor swimming at him off the rope he was holding, gripping it himself to let it carry him far out beyond the stern of the warship. There he loosened his grip, letting himself slide down the line just as it reached its peak, coming swinging back in much lower, just low enough to smash through the windows of the captain's cabin. There were some books he needed to get before he could leave!
        The window's held firm, flattening Guinar's nose and cheeks against it before he bounced off and splashed into the waters below.

        Ferik watched as the Nymph of a Thousand Shores opened its gunports and rolled out its golden weaponry. He had only archers to oppose her.
        “Hold your fire!” he called to the men who were already knocking their fire arrows. “No one's been seriously hurt yet, let us leave it at that if they're willing to.”
        He watched the girl his men had been chasing swim towards the Nymph. She'd failed to get through the adamant window pane, so the books would still be safe.
        “Master?” one of the archers frowned. “Should we really let the anathema get away?”
        “Yes,” Ferik nodded. “I don't know what game my niece is playing at, but I'm not getting killed for it. Send her to my quarters when she's back aboard.”
        He glanced at the group of guards still splashing towards them, the white robed child amongst them.
        “Should we send out boats to fetch them?” the sailor asked. “We could retrieve them more quickly.”
        Ferik thought it over for a long moment. “Yes, the men didn't deserve this, after all.”
        And then he returned to his cabin, and practised his scowling in the mirror. Somehow he had to get through to that child.

        I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


        • #5
          Chapter Five

          When Himmika finally stepped into his cabin, she did so with her usual confidence, despite the wet dripping robes.
          “You took your time, niece,” Ferik said and turned to face her.
          “I had to make sure the books were still safe in my quarters, uncle,” she replied. “Why did you not post watches to look out for swimmers as I instructed?”
          “I did,” he snapped. “In fact, I did everything exactly as you asked! I ordered all firedust weapons stowed, the magazine guarded, the prisoners kept comfortable on deck and I called back the archers when the anathema's men didn't fire their cannon at us. And all of it for nothing, because you guessed wrong as to who the anathema was!”
          “No!” she drew herself up to her full four feet. “It must be the captain! He is the one who came to break out the woman from the prison, and he admitted as much to me himself!”
          “Then what about the monkey girl who planted her face on my window?” he pointed at the faint smudge on the adamant pane. “Who is she?”
          The little girl lowered her face and sighed. “He has already assembled some of his circle, it seems. There are two anathema. That I did not foresee.”
          “Two anathema?” his jaw dropped. “Then we're done here! One was bad enough, but not even for your mother's sake will I risk my crew again facing two of those demons! We're headed back for the realm.”
          “No uncle,” her head shot up. “That's why I wanted to negotiate rather than fight, I can still do that! We have both the books they're after, we can lure them back to the table!”
          “We have no exalts on board!” Ferik insisted. “None who know how to deal with anathema. Unless you can find me an immaculate circle before sunrise, we're going home.”
          The girl's robes seemed a brighter white all of a sudden.
          “You will listen to me, uncle,” she spoke, her voice not just sounding in his ears but also his very mind. “You have no idea what's at stake!”

          A group of sailors had gathered in front of the door, watching the white light emitting from around it's edges fading. Shortly after it was gone, just as they were turning away with shrugs, the door opened and Master Ferik stepped out, his step faltering.
          “Men,” he croaked with hasty breath, “change course west. We...we are going after the anathema.”
          “Master?” one of his officers approached him. “Are you sure that's wise?”
          Ferik shoved his shaking hand into his coat pocket. “We have no choice.”

          Sleep was impossible aboard the Nymph, despite how long Kyleeka'd been awake. The singing and drumming on whatever soundful wood could be found saw to that.
          So she gave up and returned to deck, to glumly watch the celebrations.
          Covari appeared at her side with a cup of cheap sake, almost instantaneously.
          “Someone looks a little too glum to be at one of my parties,” he chided. “I won't have it.”
          “Then turn the ship around and help me get the book back,” she shot back, but did take the sake cup.
          “I wish I could,” he sipped his own cup, “but truth is we got lucky. They didn't seem to have counted on more than one exalt, next time they might not keep their gun ports closed.”
          “Then why didn't you fire at them? If they're that dangerous?”
          “We still had people in the water,” he explained. “We'd have won if we'd escalated, for sure, but we'd have lost good men, including Guinar.”
          Kyleeka tensed. “He's neither a man nor all that good, it would seem. If it wasn't for him we'd have two first age tomes, not none.”
          “He tried to retrieve them for you, you know?”
          “And he has nothing but a bruised cheek to show for it,” she grumbled.
          “He got my men out, and he tried to get the books for you. He's no man yet, but he is good, where it counts at least.”
          “I'll just have to take your word for it,” she took a big gulp of the sake. “So without either book to guide us, what do we do now?”
          “For now, we continue celebrating our escape,” Covari matched her gulp with one from his own cup. “And we'll think of answers once the hangover clears out.”
          She was about to speak when he turned away and seized the first sailor in his path for a dance under the stars. “Nevermind.”
          “Nevermind what?” the last voice she wanted to hear came from behind her.
          “Guinar, leave me alone, please,” she sighed.
          The boy's face fell a little, but he appeared to have braced for that response.
          “I'm sorry! I tried to get your books back!” he pleaded. “We can still get them back, the captain will figure out a plan!”
          “The captain has given up on the books,” she hissed and gestured at the dancing men. “He won't turn the ship around.”
          “What?” Guinar blurted and stared. The moon was visible in his wide eyes. “I know the captain, he doesn't back down from challenges!”
          “Well, this dragonblooded brat seems to have him scared.”
          “No! Let me talk to him,” he said, shaking his head. “I swear to you, I will bring you your books back, Lady Kyleeka!”
          Her heart sank in her chest. “No, not if it's just going to be another stupid romantic gesture. You're're not...” she waved her hands at him.
          “I know I've been a fool, but please, at least give a man a chance to atone for his misdeeds!”
          “You're not a man, you're-” Kyleeka's voice stopped when they both noticed Guinar'd reached for his knife, his hand now trembling.
          “You're just-” she tried but the boy ran off. “Wait, I didn't mean...”
          He didn't wait. He reached the rope ladder and rapidly climbed up the mast. She didn't dare follow, least of all because she didn't like the thought of falling.

          Covari's head eventually popped over the wicker side of the crow's nest. Guinar acknowledged his presence with a grunt but stayed curled up inside the small space.
          “Kyleeka told me what happened,” the captain's voice was quiet and soft on the wind. “That you almost drew a knife on her.”
          “I didn't mean nothing,” the boy sighed. “It was just...she said I wasn't a man.”
          “Yes, she told me that, too, Guinar. I don't think she meant-”
          “She's right, you know? I'm not a man. Not even a boy. Just a girl playing dress up.”
          Covari tilted his head. “What are you talking about? You have the Tya tattoos. I never liked your people's methods, but you've earned every right to call yourself a man if you want to!”
          A forced laugh was his answer.
          “So you know what the Tya demand?” Guinar finally raised his head to look at him. “The poison ritual? The tattoo? What they do to debase themselves just to earn the storm mothers' tolerance?”
          “ 'They'?” Covari raised an eyebrow. “Not 'we'? What are you saying?”
          “I was supposed to drink the cup, poison and ruin my body. Just so I could keep working aboard ships. Because my stupid breasts started growing, because I couldn't hide my true nature anymore. Because some stupid gods can't handle a bit a jealousy! I wasn't even ever that pretty!”
          “You're not a Tya?” Covari asked. “Why didn't you tell me?”
          “This fake tattoo wasn't cheap,” Guinar slapped his cheek. “And no, I'm not a Tya. I ran away the night before the ritual. I got myself inked with a fake, and found the first ship that'd have me and didn't know the Tya well. I just kept on pretending.”
          Covari nodded slowly. “I'm not sure you have been pretending.”
          “What do you mean?”
          “The way you reach for your knife every time someone calls you a girl,” Covari raised a cautioning hand when the boy’s arm twitched, “that's not just fear for your secret. You really are a boy.”
          “But it's a lie.”
          “Not to you, and not to me,” Covari shook his head. “And not to Kyleeka either, though you should explain it to her.”
          “She called me-”
          “She was calling you a boy!” the captain sighed. “She was saying you're too young for her! And she's right. You have a fair bit to learn yet, starting with never drawing knives on anyone of my crew, no matter what they say!”
          “Yes, captain.”
          “Good, now come down from here. You need rest and our next lookout needs the space in there.”
          He led the way back down to the deck, just as the sun rose in the far east.
          “Is that a sail?” Guinar asked and pointed to the shape following them.
          “It is,” Covari nodded. “It seems the little brat is hoping for another round.”
          “I'll raise the alarm,” Guinar was almost off already when the captain's hand grabbed his arm.
          “No, just tell Bahltin to keep the distance steady for a while,” Covari yawned. “I need a nap before we turn to engage.”

          The sailor tried his best to hold the map steady for Himmika to study. Each gust of wind and slap of wave against the hull shifted the Stalwart Monolith in its pursuit, making his task that much harder. But at least it wasn't as dangerous as the work on the main deck below them, where jugs, barrels and hot pots were handled with utmost care.
          Himmika stood near motionless before him, only her eyes moving as they darted across the map.
          Ferik meanwhile kept his eye on the vessel up ahead, the Nymph of something he'd been told.
          “I don't understand,” he finally grunted. “There is no spot as favourable a spot for him to turn and fight as that fjord system we passed hours ago for days of travel. Where is he running to?”
          “There is nothing in the charts, either,” Himmika agreed. “He must know something we do not.”
          “He'll probably try to lose us during the night,” Ferik proposed.
          “No, he's not afraid to face us. If he was, he'd never have sunk the Waveslicer,” the girl pointed out. “And we still have his books. The only reason he hasn't made his escape yet, is because he wants them back. Just look at how her sails stand.”
          “Half wind,” he observed. “Even though she should have back wind. Elementals?”
          “Sorcery, more likely,” Himmika shook her head. “It'd match the Waveslicer crew's reports. With magic like that he could likely escape even an airship. No, he is waiting for something, anything to give him the advantage before he strikes.”
          She motioned to the sailor with the map, and he rolled it back up, finally freeing a hand to steady himself on the railing.
          “Mnemon has send another wind whispered message,” Ferik said with an unsteady voice. “I...I didn't answer, as you instructed.”
          “Good,” the girl fixed him with a stare.
          “You don't think she'll...take exception?”
          “She will,” Himmika agreed. “But between the mess her mother's disappearance left and our head start, she won't be able to interfere in time.”
          “I also can't imagine Peleps making it easy on her, after your stunt in Smoke Bay,” he sighed.
          Ahead of them, still a few miles away, the Nymph began to turn northwards.
          “He's turning,” Ferik stated the obvious. “We'll catch him soon now. Man the cannon!”
          “Belay that,” Himmika barked. “I can't talk to him if he's dead.”
          “Nor if we're dead!” her uncle pointed out.
          “He can't sink us,” she smiled. “Not while we have his books.”
          Ferik gestured to where the crew was still working on mixing the substances below.
          “With that much oil, fire dust and hot tar on deck, we might just sink ourselves.”
          “The master at arms assured me he knew the recipe,” Himmika shrugged.
          Her uncle frowned as the men poured black dust and sticky oil into a vat of tar.

          The shift as the ship rolled to lean the other side woke Kyleeka, mostly by dint of causing her to slide down slope of her mattress and bump her head into the headboard.
          She stood and looked out the window. She hadn't undressed, and so not closed the curtain's either. The pursuing vessel was no longer visible, the distant coast came into view.
          Stifling a yawn, she slipped her shoes back on and stumbled out onto the deck.
          The crew was bustling about, pulling ropes here, climbing masts there, and most of all shouting.
          A quick spin around revealed no one who wasn't busy, so she joined the nearest group of two in pulling what looked like the main sheet, if she remembered her lessons right.
          “Kyleeka,” Guinar landed on the deck next to her, having dropped from gods knew how high in the mast. “You should go see the captain, I'll take your post here.”
          “Right,” she nodded and let him take her spot. Her hands were already rough from the hemp, even after barely any strain. “Oh, and about what I said...”
          “We'll talk about it after the battle,” Guinar tried to smile, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. “Right now the captain is probably going to need some of your spells.”
          “Yes, my spells,” she nodded and headed for the ladder up to the tiller. She found the captain standing on top the rear railing, gripping the broad handhold with the toes of his bare feet and twirling a spyglass in his hand.
          “Good morning, my Lady!” he chuckled and stretched his arms. “Nothing like a good night's rest.”
          “It's evening, sir,” she pointed out. “You've been sleeping all day.”
          “No, not all day!” he hopped down and took the tiller off Bahltin. “I've also been thinking, about the little immaculate girl who's chasing us.”
          “I don't think she's immaculate, actually,” Kyleeka pointed out. “Her robes were the right style, but she was too young, and had none of the tattoos they like to wear. Besides, an immaculate monk wouldn't try to talk to you, not without many, many chains.”
          “Interesting,” Covari tilted his head and watched her. “You have experience with the order?”
          “Some,” she nodded. “They'd send some of their students to the Heptagram for sorcery studies, and some masters to teach the faith. I even taught the introductory history of it myself. Trust me, no monk would trust an anathema the way that girl did with you.”
          “So this isn't a Wyld Hunt, then?” he slowly stroked his beard.
          “Not an official one, I think. Think about it, where was her backup? She was the only exalt we saw, and we only really know that because she is clearly no normal child. I think this is house Mnemon trying to get its books back, and to silence me.”
          “No, that's not all,” Covari held up a finger. “She already has the books, and she showed no sign of recognising you. Something else is afoot.” He turned and raised his spyglass. “By the way, could you drop the wind spell, please? I prefer to fight on even ground.”
          She nodded and did as he asked. “What else can I do?”
          “Just stay close,” he said. “I may need you to remake that spell.”
          She sighed. “That's all?” she asked, to which he nodded. “Of course, captain.”
          She crossed her arms and stood aside, watching the crew work on around her.
          Slowly the ships began closing, the Nymph racing to get higher on the wind than its larger pursuer.
          Kyleeka found she had to step out of the way several times as manoeuvres brought the booms around, and the sailors needed to move ever new places.
          But finally, the captain seemed to have done it, the Nymph now gliding quickly past her foe and into her aft.
          “Captain, what's that on the water, there?” Kyleeka asked and pointed at a patch of darkness in which the slowly setting sun was not reflected.
          Covari's eyes widened even as an archer from the realm ship ignited the fireslick.
          “Hard to....,” Covari froze and fell silent as towering flames rose up from the water directly in their path.

          Himmika watched with a faint smile as the enemy vessel headed straight for the inferno of her making. “Make sure to reward the master at arms,” she said. “And turn to port, prepare to come alongside.”
          She allowed herself a smug smile, watching the other ship. The Nymph now only had two choices: turn into the wind, and come to a stop, or turn directly into the Stalwart Monolith, a collision her ship and it's ironwood reinforced hull would survive far better. And she'd seen Covari, he would not throw away his ship or his crew.
          “Boarding parties, ready!” her uncle called out.
          “No, no boarding,” she held up her hand, “just hook them.”
          “Ready hooks, but do not board!” he corrected.
          She watched and fidgeted. This time this Covari would let her speak.

          The fires licked up all the way into the skies, and Covari began twisting the tiller.
          “Captain!” Kyleeka's voice shouted in his ear, stopping him. “Keep the course steady!”
          “What?” he turned to face her, mouth hanging open. “I can't take my baby through that!”
          “We'll be fine!” the sorceress shouted and began drawing glowing glyphs into the air.
          He frowned, but held the course. “Whatever you're doing, it better be good!”
          And then the spell formed: a whirlwind of chilling air rushed outwards from around her, instantly sending Covari's fingers shaking and his teeth chittering. Soon the tiny winter storm surrounded the entire ship and froze the water beneath them.
          Gliding now on solid ice, extinguishing any flames that came near into white snow dust, the Nymph passed right through the fireslick barrier. Then they began to slow, the sails now hanging lose in the eye of the magical tempest.
          “Kyleeka, we need-”
          “On it,” she said and reached out to shatter the spell again, immediately. The Nymph picked up speed again, sails once more full in the wind.
          “Nicely done, Kyleeka,” Covari laughed. “Flame cannon! Aim for the rudder and fire!”

          Ferik and several sailors leaned over the back of the Stalwart Monolith to assess the damage.
          “We're dead in the water,” one of the men shouted, pointing at the scorched and broken pieces that hung from the hinges that had once held their rudder.
          “Nonsense,” on older sailor replied. “We can still turn with just the sails!”
          “Himmika,” Ferik sighed. “I don't think we can get out of this one.”
          “She is the sorceress,” the girl said, ignoring him. “They are not two, but three anathema!”
          “Listen, stay behind me,” he told the girl. “I'll protect you for as long as I can.”
          “That won't be necessary, uncle,” she smiled, “but I appreciate the gesture. Strike the colours, let them come alongside. And have someone fetch my books.”
          “We are surrendering?”
          “I'll give them what they want, in exchange for your safety.”

          At long last, the Nymph came to a halt next to their foe. The cannon were ready, what bows they had were knocked and every free hand held a blade or baton.
          “What is the meaning of this?” Covari called across to the enemy vessel and pointed with his blade at where a plank had been extended. The little girl stood at its end, holding a book in each hand.
          “I congratulate you on your victory,” she called back. “And I would like to discuss terms of our surrender.”
          “Those books would be a good start!” Guinar shouted from his spot in the rigging, forcing a smile on Covari's face.
          “My friend speaks true,” he nodded. “Those books, and every bit of jade you have on your ship!”
          “You may have the books, and myself,” the girl called back. “You will take nothing else, and leave my ship and my crew behind as they are. If you do not accept those terms, I will drop the books.” She extended her arms out.
          “No!” that was Kyleeka's voice.
          “We don't deal in slaves!” Covari's voice hissed loudly. “Nor do we murder children. You will be as safe as your crew, provided you give us what we want!”
          “I am not a child,” the young girl screamed, “nor will I be your slave! I merely wish to have that talk you agreed to last time we spoke.”
          Covari walked along on top of the Nymph's railing, until he was a mere arm's reach from the girl. “So that you can keep us distracted until reinforcements show up?” he laughed. “I think not. Forget the jade, but throw me the books, now.”
          “You will want to take me along,” the girl insisted, still holding the priceless tomes over the salt water below.
          “I don't need a hostage,” he said. “What kind of monster do you think I am, anyway?”
          She let out a sigh, and with a flash, a golden sunburst lit up on her forehead.
          “The same kind I am,” she said. “Please, let me come with you.”
          Covari's cutlass slipped from his grip and with a soft splash of water, was lost to the depths.

          I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


          • #6
            Chapter Six

            The captain's cabin was cramped with four of them in there. Guinar and Covari had claimed the stools near the small table, leaving Kyleeka and the dark skinned little girl to sit on the bed.
            Two books and four cups sat on the table.
            Covari had tried to pour sake, but hesitated with a look at Himmika, and then closed the bottle again.
            “Why were you attacking us, again,” he asked, “if all you wanted was to talk?”
            The girl sat with her back straight as a mast, hands hidden in opposite sleeves. “I didn't attack until you ran. And even then, I made no attempt to harm you or your crew.”
            “You took them captive,” Guinar pointed out.
            “I needed some assurance you'd hear me out, and not attack me even after doing so,” she shot back. “Just because we're all anathema doesn't mean you're not criminals.”
            “I don't like that word,” Covari muttered.
            “Criminals?” she raised an eyebrow. “Very well, outlaws then? Scoundrels?”
            “We are criminals, but we are not anathema,” the captain crossed his arms. “We are solar. And we are not monsters or whatever else the immaculate dogma says.”
            “Mad, usurpers, tyrants, demons, creatures of darkness...” Kyleeka began to list.
            “None of that!”
            “And how do you know that?” Himmika asked. “All I've been able to learn so far is that one of our kind created a martial arts style specifically to defeat dragonbloods. That sounds like usurpation to me.”
            “Then why would you chase us all this way?” Guinar countered. “If we're so bad, why leave your own ship to come with us?”
            The girl let out a long sigh. “Because it's either this or attend the School of Bells. Mother dear figured out I exalted, though thankfully she just assumed I was an earth aspect rather than have anyone check me over, bless her simple mind. So off she went to arrange to have me sent to the realm.” She looked down at her dangling feet for a moment. “I wouldn't have lasted long at the school, I should think.”
            “The mark on your forehead wasn't a giveaway?” Guinar tilted his head.
            “I managed to hide that!” the girl huffed. “I'm not stupid!”
            “And then you commandeered your ship to follow us?” Covari asked.
            “Yes,” she nodded. “I decided I would be safer with others like me than alone.”
            Kyleeka nodded as well. “She's right about that. I didn't just leave the Blessed Isle to go find...that place.” Her voice stopped and dropped off at the end.
            “You mean the manse that the book speaks of?” Himmika asked. “Why do you seek it?”
            “Before we get into any of that,” Kyleeka held up her hand, “I think we should discuss where you're going.”
            “I'm not staying with you?” the girl asked.
            “She's not staying with us?” both Covari and Guinar blurted.
            Kyleeka blinked. “I suppose she is, then. But what about house Mnemon? They're already after me and the book I took. Won't they get even more furious if we take her with us? And her ship's crew might even tell them where we went when they eventually limp back to a realm port.”
            “They'll be in enough trouble themselves, I suspect, for losing two books and an exalt to us,” Covari shrugged. “No, she'll stay for as long as she wants, assuming she behaves. We're certainly not dumping her in the sea or on any island.”
            “I didn't mean that!” Kyleeka protested. Then she raised her knees to her chin and hugged her legs to her. “So she's staying, and coming with us to my manse?”
            “It's your manse?” the girl asked. “You mean from a previous life, or have you been there?”
            Kyleeka nodded. “The former.”
            Himmika continued. “Then we must have known each other, for I too find the drawings in the book very familiar. Do you know where it is?”
            “No,” Guinar spoke up and patted one of the tomes on the table. It began twitching when he touched it. “We were hoping to find more in the other book, about when someone named the Yellow Crane Master visited it.”
            Himmika's eyes lit up. “That's me! Or, I think that was me. The book, it feels like I wrote it, but I don't remember it.”
            “Then you can tell us where the manse is?” Kyleeka's head rose up.
            But the girl shook her head. “Maybe my book has more clues, but all I've seen in it so far are martial arts instructions.”
            “Then you two have more study to do,” Covari nodded. “Also, I hope you won't mind sharing quarters, but it's the only cabin we have. It's the only privacy we can offer you ladies.“
            Kyleeka looked the girl over and nodded.
            Himmika, though, frowned. “Two of us? What about Guinar? Did I get the name right?”
            The boy tensed, but made no move for his knife, possibly because the wall blocked his elbow from pushing back.
            “Guinar,” Covari explained hastily, “is a boy, not a girl. I know it's confusing, just accept it for now, please.”
            Slowly the girl nodded. “Lady Kyleeka, shall we begin our studies then, or wait for morning?”
            “Morning,” the captain answered instead of her. “Daylight is easier to come by than lamp oil.”
            And with that he stood and pushed for the door, more or less forcing Guinar to precede him outside in the cramped space.
            As the door closed behind them, Guinar turned to look at the captain and whispered. “What do you think of her?”
            “Young, but smart, in some ways at least,” he shrugged. “But mostly young.”
            “I mean, is she dangerous? Will she betray us to house Mnemon?”
            “Guinar,” Covari clapped his hand on the boy's back, “why didn't you ask me about those worries in regards to Kyleeka? Is she somehow too attractive to betray us?”
            “She paid us for passage rather than fight us for it,” Guinar pointed out, though his cheeks were flushing in the moonlight now.
            “That is true,” the man nodded, “but it doesn't matter. She's one of us. We look out for each other.”
            Guinar mumbled under his breath and nodded.
            “And just to be clear,” Covari was the one whispering now, “there'll be no spying on the cabin. It was creepy enough with just Kyleeka, I won't accept distrust of the girl as an excuse for you to peek in again now. We give her a chance, the same chance I gave you.”
            Guinar nodded more vigorously.
            “Good, now catch some sleep. It was an eventful day, if not a long one.”

            By the time Kyleeka put her hand to her mouth to stifle the yawn in her first waking moment of the day, the girl had already dressed and claimed one of the books and chairs.
            “Good morning, Lady Kyleeka,” the child nodded to her and carefully turned an aged page.
            “Good morning, Lady Mnemon,” she replied and then frowned. “Is it still Mnemon?”
            “Technically, I suppose. At least until the disownment is made formal.” The girl's voice remained perfectly steady as she spoke. “But we might as well get used to me simply being Himmika now. Or maybe I should take a new name. Did you, change your name I mean?”
            “No,” Kyleeka shook her head and studied her own face in the mirror. Still hers. “Though I should expect my expulsion from house Mnemon to be sealed and done by now.”
            “Mnemon?” Himmika turned to face her. “So we are cousins, then?”
            “I doubt it,” she replied and sorted through Covari's clothes for something to wear again. She should have made some purchases in Smoke Bay. “I was bought as a lost egg when I was...three? Maybe four. I don't remember who my parents were, but I'm guessing they are enjoying their riches somewhere, now.”
            “You don't know where they are?”
            “No,” she motioned for the girl to face away, which she did. “All I remember is a long flight on an airship. And then being raised in the Heptagram.” She slipped out of her robes and into the coarse suede pants.
            “You were raised in the Heptagram?” Himmika gasped and turned around despite herself. “At age four? And I thought I exalted young! Everyone is treating me like a child.” She quickly turned away again at Kyleeka's glare.
            “No, I didn't exalt until,” she let out a low sigh, ”very recently. I would say I'd like to have seen Mnemon's face when she heard I'm an anathema, but the truth is she stopped showing any interest in me years ago. The book is more valuable to her than I turned out to be.”
            “You met her, though?” Himmika was visibly restraining herself from turning around. “My grandfather said he'd fought alongside her once, what was she like?”
            “Cold,” even the thought brought a shiver to Kyleeka. She quickly buttoned up the shirt and hugged her arms to herself. “She dropped by the Heptagram, usually a few times a year. She would question and interrogate me, on my studies, my understanding of the realm politics, and on my immaculate history. And then she'd probe me with charms and spells.” She shuddered. “But one day, she stopped seeing me. I wasn't even twenty yet, but that's the day the house stopped feeding and grooming me to be anything. Instead, they employed me as an assistant teacher and librarian. She'd given up on me.”
            “I'm sorry to hear that,” the girl fell silent for a moment. “She doesn't sound like my grandfather described her.”
            “He is an exalt, yes? That would explain it.”
            “He was,” Himmika's gaze fell. “He died in a battle against desert raiders.”
            Now it was Kyleeka's turn. “I'm sorry to hear that. You were close?”
            “He taught me Gateway, actually,” she nodded. “I hated it. I hated losing. But when they told he was dead, when I understood I'd never play against him again...”
            She looked up at Kyleeka. “He was always so happy when we played. He smiled. All that's gone now. I was just sitting at the board we used for hours, alone.”
            Kyleeka put her hand on the girl's shoulder.
            “That's when I understood. He didn't smile because he was winning. He smiled because he saw what I could become. And so I decided I'd never stop making him happy and proud. I'd learn Gateway, I'd learn command, and I'd be the best general the realm had ever seen! And that's when the room was suddenly nothing but bright white light.”
            “And no one saw?”
            “It was the middle of the night,” Himmika forced a chuckle. “Not many were awake in our estate, but those who were saw something. Not my caste mark, though. I was thankfully able to hide that. Well, from my family and household anyway.”
            She turned back to her book and thumped it closed. “And now I messed up everything. Proud of an anathema? Pah, he's probably building a ghost army to hunt me down himself.”
            “They won't find us,” Kyleeka tried to soothe the girl. “Covari can keep us safe.”
            “Yes,” Himmika wiped her eyes and shifted away from Kyleeka. “He seems a useful ally. He will find me useful as well, I expect. What is your role here, sorcery?”
            She wanted to answer, but no clear word reached her mouth. “I'm not sure,” she said finally. “Guinar has the hots for me, but Covari...he says I'm part of the crew, but I haven't done anything really other than cast spells.”
            “A valuable contribution,” the girl nodded. “Grandfather always spoke highly of his sorcerous friends.”
            “I guess,” she shrugged. “I'm still getting the hang of it. I didn't get much chance to study after my exaltation. And it made little sense before.”
            “You didn't exalt at the Heptagram, did you?”
            She nodded. “Deep archives, history and genealogy. Other than students actively practising genealogy I was usually alone there. A good place to study the book I'd taken from the warded vault.”
            “Practice genealogy? Like for a test?”
            “Erm...something like that. Anyway, so I was reading the book, or trying to, anyway and then...”
            Himmika's eyes fell on Kyleeka's tome, lying next to hers. “You stole it before you exalted? Why?”
            She shrugged. “I don't know. I was fetching something for one of the teachers, when this book fell off the shelves along with it. I'm not really sure why I felt drawn to it, but I exalted when I realised I'd written it in a past life. Or rather, my exaltation had.”
            The girl blinked. “Why, isn't that the same thing?”
            “It's complicated,” Kyleeka said and took a deep breath. “So, unlike dragon blooded exaltations, which are new blessings to each new exalt, there is a set number of solar exalted. Each exaltation chooses a new host after the previous one died.”
            “Host? Are you saying we are possessed?” the girl's deep brown skin somehow managed to pale. “That some anathema spirit tore me away from my family?”
            “I don't know! Maybe?” she risked a glance at the mirror. “I don't really understand what happened to us, either. It's what the immaculate texts say.”
            “I've heard those bed time stories, yes,” Himmika stood and slipped her hands into opposite sleeves. “Let us find the captain, he seems experienced in these matters.”

            Captain Covari poured the last bits of rice in the bowel right into his mouth, before getting up from where he sat on the railing.
            “So this kid,” Bahltin said, standing at the tiller, “is she getting a share, too?”
            “We are all getting shares, my friend,” Covari smiled. “And they will be huge shares, too.”
            “How do you know? We ain’t seen any jade yet.”
            He was about to answer, when he heard someone climb up the ladder.
            “Captain Covari,” Himmika asked as she stood, “can we discuss our exaltations for a moment?”
            Kyleeka followed her up.
            “Trust me, Bahltin,” Covari gave the man another smile and then turned towards the girl. “I don't know much about it, but sure. What's on your mind?”
            The two glanced at each other before the older one spoke. “Are we still...ourselves? I mean, everything changed when we exalted as anathema, and we have these vague memories driving us to steal books and search for places we've never even heard of before.”
            “Anathema? Sky-whale dung!” Covari spat. “The only reason anything changed in your lives is because that immaculate propaganda has you outcasts now.” He stepped to the tiller and took it off Bahltin. “Do you know what happened to me when I exalted? Nothing!”
            “Nothing?” Kyleeka raised an eyebrow.
            “I mean, sure, I was suddenly a lot better at what I did, but no demon took my mind, I didn't start conquering any nations or try to overthrow any realm houses. I was me, just more me.”
            “You weren't persecuted?”
            “I'm not exactly the most innocent man in creation,” Covari laughed. “ Of course there are plenty of law men who'd want me behind bars. Me being a solar just means the stakes of the game went up.”
            “It wasn't exactly that easy for me,” Himmika pointed out.
            “As I said, that’s because of the immaculate dogma,” Covari insisted. “But I promise, you're safe on my ship. We all look out for....”
            He tilted his head up and sniffed. “Does anyone else smell rotten fish?”
            “Whale beast to starboard!” Guinar's voice came down from the crow's nest. “She's coming up!”
            Everyone stepped to the indicated railing.
            With the loud groan of metal and escaping gas, the beast burst through the surface of the water near vertically, and splashed down forwards. The paddle wheels bolted to the side of the huge whale carcass began to turn and the makeshift vessel, covered in iron plates and glass bubbles, approached the Nymph. The beast's mouth opened and a pack of clawstrider riders burst from it, using the glass spheres strapped to their mount's feet to run on the water.
            “What is that thing?” Kyleeka asked and covered her face to ward off the stench.
            “That is the Devourer, the ship of an old friend of mine and one of the most feared pirates in the west,” Covari replied.
            “But we're not in the west!” Himmika frowned.
            “A friend you say,” Kyleeka observed the approaching beast riders. “Are you sure?”
            “Well, an acquaintance,” the captain corrected. “He was there when I exalted during a card game, actually.” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Let's welcome him aboard!”
            Himmika frowned and looked up at the captain. “Is that wise?”
            “We either meet him here, or on his own ship,” Covari shrugged. “And trust me, it doesn't smell any better on the inside.”

            The whale carcass ship had come to a stop some distance off and a small launch was now docking at the side of the Nymph. The crew stood assembled around the ladder, the four exalts amongst them.
            “I'm just saying we could have outrun them,” Himmika grumbled. “They don't really look like friends.”
            “Nonsense,” Covari waved her off. “That would have been rude!”
            Two men in black pants and white shirts, their belts festooned with knives and flame pieces, came aboard first, before their leader followed.
            “Covari, you thrice damned scourge of the seas!” the short, rotund man with a long, tripronged moustache and goatee combination shouted. “So nice of you to bring me my ship back!”
            “Vartorris, you abominable monstrosity!” the captain of the Nymph replied and approached the other man for a hug. “But for the last time, I won the Nymph fair and square!”
            He came up short when Vartorris drew an ornate flame piece and held him at bay.
            “You stole her from me!” he said and pulled back the hammer.
            “Only because you wouldn't honour the bet,” Covari shot back and reached for his scabbard, finding it empty. “You could have folded.”
            “You used your anathema magic!” the fat man poked the centre of his forehead. “You made me think you were bluffing!”
            “I was bluffing!” Covari's voice rose. “All I had was a pair of fools. I wasn't expecting you to be bluffing even worse!”
            A grin formed on the other man's face and the flame piece was lowered. “Aye, it was a good game. Should we hit your bunk for old times’ sake while your crew prepares to abandon ship? I'll be merciful and let you keep the row boats.”
            “You're robbing me?” Covari pouted. “That's low from an old friend. But I'm afraid I can't let you take my ship.”
            “Can't let me?” Vartorris laughed. “It's either that or I'll have my Devourer gobble it up!”
            “I'd like to see you try,” Himmika stepped forward and glared at the pirate. “The sooner we rid the world of that disgusting thing the better.”
            “Oh my, don't tell me she's one of yours, Covari?” Vartorris chided. “Never thought you for a family man, but she does have your spirit.” His gaze settled on the child's collar and then moved on to Kyleeka. “House Mnemon?”
            And with one motion he was on his knee. “I apologise Ladies Mnemon, I had no idea Covari worked for you!”
            Kyleeka frowned and tried to turn to hide her face. Himmika held her steady by the arm.
            “It's not a matter we like to advertise,” Covari answered. “In fact, I didn't think we'd run into you so far south. What brings you to these waters?”
            “Well,” Vartorris stammered, eyes still fixed on Kyleeka, “we were planning to do our best to honour the agreement, but you didn't warn us Tepet had the whole legion moving!”
            “Then you clearly saw and heard a few things we should discuss in private,” Covari smiled, and the turned to look back at Kyleeka. “I would like to spend that offered quality time first, if the Ladies Mnemon will allow it?”
            Kyleeka didn't respond immediately, but then blurted her answer after a pause. “Ah, yes, if you deem it necessary. But...I want no delays in our journey.”
            “Of course not,” Covari replied with a slight bow and began dragging Vartorris to the cabin.
            The crowd broke up and everyone began milling.
            “What is the captain doing in there?” Himmika whispered to Kyleeka.
            “Hopefully getting a few more answers,” Guinar saved her from having to answer. “And I think we should get you a robe with no house Mon, Himmika.”
            “Agreed,” she nodded, “as fortunate as being recognised appears to have been in this case.”
            “For all the good it will do,” Kyleeka sighed, “with me looking so much like my adoptive house head.”
            “For now you better take to the aft castle,” Guinar nodded at the ladder. “Make yourself look like you're in charge.”
            “I don't know how to command a ship!”
            “Just cross your arms and scowl a lot,” Himmika suggested. “It's not like we'll be going anywhere until the captain and his friend are done talking.”
            Kyleeka tried her best.
            “I feel like a teacher at the Heptagram,” she muttered quietly to Guinar beside her. “They were very good at generic disapproval, especially of me.”
            “You were a bit of a trouble maker?” he chided with a grin.
            “No, actually,” she shook her head. “Just not an exalt. Most of them thought teaching me was a waste of time.”
            “Teachers are teachers,” Himmika offered. “They act sterner than they are.”
            “No, they outright told me I didn't belong there,” Kyleeka insisted. “And I suppose they were quite right in the end.”
            She looked over the rotting whale carcass vessel. “Please tell me Covari isn't a slow lover. I can't stand this stench!”
            “I wouldn't know,” Guinar shrugged. “The thing looks damaged, though. Or hurt, or whatever you call it. Many of those metal patches weren't there last time I saw it.”
            “You'd think with the amount of necromantic thaumaturgy required to keep this thing from rotting apart, he could afford a proper ship instead,” she grumbled.
            “He doesn't pay his necromancer,” Guinar sighed. “Deranged man, not even sane enough to realise he's being held a slave inside that thing.”
            “Despicable,” Himmika declared.
            None disagreed. With their noses revolting, they settled in to wait.

            Finally, in the early evening hours, the dead monstrosity once more sank below the sea, taking its stench with it.
            “You are going to change the sheets in the cabin, right?” Kyleeka said to the waving Covari.
            “Of course,” he nodded. “But first, did you know that the Roseblack has apparently mobilised her entire legion? ”
            “The who?” she looked confused.
            “Isn't she that realm commander, from....what's the island called?” Guinar tapped his head to remember.
            “Tepet Ejava,” Himmika confirmed. “In command of Vermillon legion.”
            “And she is taking that legion to the Blessed Isle,” Covari continued. “Whatever is happening, it's going to get nasty soon.”
            “House Tepet is making a play?” Kyleeka's mouth hung wide open. “I don't believe it. They are a mere remnant!”
            “Or so some thought,” Covari shrugged. “Point is, Vartorris has been hired covertly by house Mnemon as a privateer. This civil war is going to happen on the sea, as well as the Isle.”
            “And we won't be as lucky impersonating the right house by chance again,” Guinar nodded.
            “We need to know more about who's on what side,” Himmika proclaimed. “We need to know who to avoid and who to disguise ourselves as.”
            “All good ideas,” Covari agreed. “And I suggest we make land soon, and try to pick up some more news and rumours.”
            “Red Dust Bay?” Guinar asked.
            “No, we need to go a bit higher profile than that for up to date info,” Covari shook his head. “Set course for the Dragon's Jaw.”
            “Isn't an Imperial Legion stationed there?” Himmika asked. “If we run into the Wyld Hunt there...”
            “If we don't, it's the best place to find out what's going on on the Isle,” Covari shrugged. “Besides, I haven't been there since I exalted. Should be exciting!”

            I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


            • #7
              Chapter Seven

              The sun was high in the noon sky, and had it not been for Kyleeka's spell the Nymph would have floundered in the calm winds. As it was, the deck was slightly slanted, adding extra difficulty to striking the poses Himmika had shown Guinar in her book.
              “Lift your left arm,” the girl admonished him, achieving her own pose with apparent ease. “Concentrate on your essence!”
              Guinar bit down a harsh response and instead took a deep breath, lifting his arm as instructed. The sun burnt on sweaty skin, and while the undershirt left his muscular arms free for the watching Kyleeka to see, Guinar didn't quite feel as comfortable about the tightness of his shirt.
              She'd said she didn't view him as girl, but even so-
              Himmika's strike came in the form of a kick to his shins. The nine year old was fast, and he had to tear his eyes away from the sorceress, but even so he managed to twist out of the way just in time.
              That's when Himmika's flat palm struck him in the kidney and he stumbled.
              “You're not doing it right!” she complained. “This strike is meant to break an earth stylist's mountain stance, not trip a distracted fool!”
              “Well, I'm not an earth stylist!” Guinar shot back. “And I don't want to be from what I can see. Too slow, too stuck in place.”
              “Fine, pick a style, just stop looking away at Kyleeka,” the little girl sighed and struck her base pose again.
              “I wasn't looking at-”
              Himmika somersaulted forward and would have caught Guinar in the guts with both feet had he not leapt into a roll forward and underneath her.
              “Don't attack while I'm talk-”
              The girl cartwheeled back towards him and slammed her foot down on his own. It hurt slightly, owing to them both being barefoot. “Ouch!” he pulled the foot out from under hers. He tried to.
              On the second, more forceful attempt, he succeeded and pulled her into too wide a stance of her own.
              She let out a grunt and signalled for a pause. “That should have kept you in place,” she grumbled, “It should have broken a water stylist’s flow form.”
              “It might have, if you didn't weigh half as much as me,” Guinar offered and reached down to rub the red spot on his foot.
              “Weight isn't the issue,” she snapped. “I'm not aligning my energy flow right!”
              “It'll come to you,” Kyleeka stepped closer and offered the girl her open tome back. “If these moves are anything like spells, you won't learn them in one day.”
              “It's three days, and I have precise instructions!” Himmika jabbed the instructional drawings on the open page.
              “It'll come to you,” Kyleeka repeated. “How about you let poor Guinar have a break and run through the described warm up forms again?”
              Himmika clasped her hands together and bowed. “Yes, sifu.”
              Then she stepped away and did as instructed, while Kyleeka pulled Guinar aside.
              “She didn't hurt you too badly, did she?”
              He was about the deny all pain, but the way her hand felt on his arm jumbled his words.
              “Yes, I mean no. I mean, only a little. I'm glad to help is what I'm saying.”
              “And she appreciates it,” the sorceress smiled. “But since neither of us are martial arts instructors, I'm not sure how far she is going to get this way.”
              “I'll do what I can,” Guinar promised before he could close his mouth. “I mean, just that...weren't you meant to look for clues as to the island's location in those books?”
              Kyleeka looked at her feet. “Yes, we were.”
              “Not going well?”
              “She's a kid,” Kyleeka sighed. “Reading all day wasn't doing her any favours. She needed some fresh air and exercise.” She gave a little smile. “And so did I.”
              “Well, I'm glad for the company,” he laughed, and then hesitated. “I mean both your company, as friends. That's all!” he blurted.
              She withdrew her hand from his arm. “I erm, appreciate that.”
              Malfeas! What was he supposed to say now? Think, Guinar, think!
              The silence stretched into minutes as they both stared off to the sea.
              “Dragon's Jaw in sight!” came the shout from the crow's nest.
              Ahead of the ship, the sprawling city came into view behind the cliff shielding it to the north.
              “Make ready to land,” Covari called from the aft castle. “And clear the deck, I want no issues with the harbour master!”
              “He means us,” Himmika said to Kyleeka. “We should hide the books.”
              Together the two returned to the cabin, leaving Guinar to curse himself under his breath.

              With the exchange of a few clinking coins, it was done: The 'Thousand Smile Sylph' was docked, declared as free of contraband and left with its crew free to debark into the bustling port town.
              Brackish brown water from the river mixed with the blue and green of the crystal clear bay where river galleys traded their loads with sturdier ocean going sail ships. And besides that, rising up on both sides of the bank and connected by several pagoda roofed bridges that hung a hundred feet high over the water, the city reached upwards to the top of the cliffs.
              “That's a lot of smoke,” Kyleeka observed as she watched the thousands of chimneys fume.
              “And it'll get worse during meal time,” Himmika agreed, fidgeting with her new makeshift robe. “Back home, the city's smoke would block out the view of the Imperial Mountain from our estate during meal times.”
              A clap of hands brought everyone's attention to where Covari now stood on the railing of the aft castle above them.
              “I'd just like to remind everyone that we'll just be making a short stop here in Dragon's Jaw,” he spoke. “Let's keep our ears and eyes open, mind our words, stay sharp, and be back by the morning. If we're staying another day, we can return to our pleasures then.”
              “Where are we going, exactly?” Bahltin called up to him. “No offence, but didn't the Lady promise to pay us for passage?”
              “I like, mean, she's nice, that she's staying and all,” Hilken the taller added, “but didn't she like mentioned jade or something?”
              “That she did,” Covari nodded but held up his hand, “but it awaits us at our destination, which I'd prefer not to shout for everyone to hear.” He gestured at the port around them.
              “It bedder be alod of zhade,” Vectis muttered. “Affer whad we bin thru.”
              “And it will be!” Covari placed a hand over his heart. “You know I would never lie to you!”
              “Yer would if id’d madya famous!”
              “I'm hurt you would say that!” Covari's face fell and he jumped down to the deck. “If you truly believe that my word isn't good for you, if you truly do not believe in this journey...”
              “Don't go!” Kyleeka spoke up. “The place we are is full of riches and we will all be rich!” She put her shaking hands behind her back and imitated Himmika's stance. “Please, listen to the man who was willing to go peacefully with his enemies to save you.”
              “Not that I really was an enemy,” Himmika pointed out.
              “And he has done so on more than one occasion,” Guinar joined, “we all owe him our life at least once!”
              “If you truly want out,” Covari lowered his voice and stepped up to Vectis and took the old sailor's hand, “then all I ask is that you do not report us to anyone for the bounty until after we leave port.”
              “Bloddy brad,” the old man grinned. “I Haven'd lefdya yet, havaye? Bud zeriously, dere bedder be zhade!”
              “There will be jade,” Covari nodded and clapped the wrinkled hand.
              And with that, the crew hastily debarked, the feet hammering the wooden pier and their coins clinking eagerly in their hands.
              “Do we have any idea if there is any jade on this island?” Himmika whispered as the four of them were left alone.
              “None whatsoever,” the captain shrugged. “But it seems a reasonable guess.”
              “Guess?” she gasped. “All we have is a guess?”
              “All most people ever have is a guess, my dear,” he laughed. “But now, Kyleeka and I shall be visiting my old contacts. Guinar, I need you to...creatively resupply the ship. And Himmika...”
              “Well, they won't let you in where we're going, so I guess you're going to need to stick with Guinar, if that's alright?”
              “Why wouldn't they let me in?”
              “Because you still look like a child,” Guinar explained. “We know you're not, but we'll raise more attention than we can afford if we explain that to everyone.”
              “Very well then, I will accompany master Guinar,” she nodded. “What kind of arts supplies do we need?”
              “He didn't mean arts supplies,” Guinar laughed and led the girl down the gang plank, “he meant regular supplies, acquired...creatively.”
              “Ah, I see,” she sighed, then lowered her voice to a whisper. “I'm sorry, grandpa.”

              The narrow alley between a warehouse and what appeared to be a rundown temple that Covari led Kyleeka into was dark, from both smoke and the height of the buildings around it. Empty barrels and broken boxes littered the sides, and from the smell she assumed it served as a public outhouse as well.
              “What are we doing in here?” she asked.
              “It's been a while,” he replied and looked around, “but there should be a door here somewhere, ah yes!”
              He skipped down a short set of stairs, deftly avoiding a few broken bottles, and knocked on the sturdy wooden door.
              It opened a mere inch, and from the inside a voice grunted at them. “What do you want?”
              Kyleeka could see nothing in the darkness beyond.
              “Ah, what was the password, what was the password,” Covari sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “Oh, wait! There was no password!”
              He pulled a coin pouch from his belt and jingled it. “We want to spend.”
              The only reply was another grunt and the door opening fully, the room behind it still hidden in darkness.
              The captain took her hand and together they stepped through.
              And as soon as she passed the threshold, the music hit her ears and bright colours filled her vision. Two stages filled with dances took up two of the room's five sides, both featuring dancers and musicians alike in critical undress. A third wall held a single door, through which waitresses kept carrying trays. The rest of the room was taken up by tables and booths.
              None of the patron's turned to acknowledge them, but a woman in a kimono approached them with a hurried hobble, the garment somehow both restricting her movements and barely covering her legs.
              “Welcome you are, here in the House of the Two Maidens,” she bowed to Covari. “Would you and your companion like a room?”
              “No, but thank you,” he smiled and bowed back to her. “My name is Covari, and I was wondering if an old friend of mine still peddles her trade here?” He reached out to brush the young woman's cheek with his fingers, and ended up holding a coin just before her eyes.
              She smiled and took the coin. “I will be seeing to ask immediately.”
              As she hobbled away, Kyleeka stood closer to Covari. “Your contact is a prostitute?”
              “No,” he shook his head. “Or maybe? If so, I don't know. This place caters to more than one kind of desire.”
              They waited for a moment, and soon the waitress returned, smiling and bowing again. Covari offered her another coin, and she immediately turned, beckoning them to follow.
              The booth they approached was hidden by a heavy velvet curtain.
              “You will be seeing your friend inside,” the woman smiled and left them.
              Covari was the first through, and when Kyleeka followed and the curtain fell close behind her again, the music dropped in volume, and as she turned to looked the curtain again in surprise, she found it clear as glass from this side.
              “Covari, you've changed a bit,” a pale skinned figure already at the table greeted them. Her grey dreadlocks hid the details of her face. “Thought you'd be smarter than to show up now.”
              “Glad to see you remember me then, Oracle of the Golden Lens,” the captain laughed back and sat.
              “I didn't,” the woman grunted and began laying out tarot cards. “But you've certainly been on the minds of a few patrons recently.”
              Kyleeka took a seat next to Covari. “You can read minds?”
              “Sure can, sweetie,” a yellow grin appeared beneath the dreads. “It's easy, and I have to, most of the time, ‘cause the fools are too drunk to tell me what they want to hear.”
              “She can't really,” Covari laughed and took one of the tarot cards, glancing at it before putting it back.
              “Can too! Not my fault half the assholes in this world wear their mind outside their heads.”
              “And her name,” Covari explained as he withdrew a small bottle of brown-golden liquid and placed it on the table, “refers to her drinking habit.”
              “You just come here to insult me then?” the Oracle hissed. “Or am I supposed to impress your new girlfriend with tales of your grand future?”
              “Actually, we'd like to know more about our present. Specifically, what's happening with the great houses.” He picked up another card.
              The Oracle gathered her cards, plucking the one Covari held from his hand. “Is that all? Shit, I don't need my act for that. It's all exploding, man. The Roseblack's launched her invasion, Mnemon, Ragara and Cathak are recalling everyone who'll listen to the Imperial City, and V'neef and Nellens are fortifying their Threshold sanctuaries. And everyone's hiring mercenaries, if you're looking for work.”
              “What about Cynis and Iselsi?” Kyleeka asked.
              “I don't know you, girl, and you haven't paid yet,” the Oracle said and grabbed the bottle Covari had put down.
              “More importantly,” Covari said, “what is House Mnemon doing in this region, and what enemies do they have here?”
              The tarot cards got laid out again. “Now, I foresee a hefty price for that answer in your future.”
              The music briefly rose in volume again as the curtain opened to admit a young man in nothing but tight, golden pants.
              “Congratulations!” he cheered. “You are our ten thousandth customer!”
              Before anyone could stop him, he'd climbed onto the table.
              “What are you doing?” Kyleeka leaned back to avoid him.
              “And who are you?” Covari added.
              “I'm your complimentary table dance, free of charge on this, your lucky day!” the man smiled and began gyrating his hips in tune to the faint music.
              “We are kind of in the middle of something here,” Kyleeka complained.
              “Maybe some other...” Covari began but then the tight pants came down. “Actually, I think it would be rude do decline.”
              “For real?” Kyleeka hissed. “I mean he', yeah, but really? This doesn't strike you as suspicious?”
              “Absolutely,” Covari laughed. “Say my man, who are you hiding from?”
              “I'm just here to make your day!”
              Kyleeka had to avert her gaze as the dancer approached Covari. Why couldn't she have stayed on the ship, with the books? Wait a moment...
              “Those two, over there,” she pointed at the one way curtain, indicating a man and a woman near the door. “Immaculate monks.”
              “Immaculate? In a place like this?” the dancer giggled. “Only if you pay extra and bring the costume!”
              “I agree they don't look like monks,” Covari frowned and studied the two.
              Both wore sailor's pants and mismatched, patched shirts, the man even had his arm around her waist. “Though that embrace is fake. Are you sure, Kyleeka?”
              “You see that tattoo on the back of her hand?” she pointed. “It's a warding tattoo, out of fashion these days, but a few centuries ago immaculate sorcerers would often place them upon their friends to protect them against shattered spells.”
              “Hey, I told you nothing!” the Oracle hissed. “If they come in here, I'm leaving them for you to brush off!”
              “They won't come in here,” Covari raised a hand and spoke softly. “That's why you took refuge in here, isn't it?” He looked up at the dancer's face.
              “I just don't want any trouble,” the younger man shrugged. “I'll make it worth your while if you don't rat me out?”
              “With what?” the Oracle asked. “I’ve seen you around. You don't make enough money to afford my silence!”
              “Then put it on my tab,” Covari said. “Name's captain Covari, and my ship is always hiring.” He held up his hand.
              “A ship?” the dancer asked. “I've never worked on a ship before, but I'll try! My name's Shadeless Joy.” He took the captain's hand and shook, firmly and vigorously.
              “And your real name?” Covari kept the shake going.
              “Don't ask me to remember that!” Joy sighed. “That was...a dozen names or so ago! Why don't you pick a new name for me, to go with my new job?”
              “That's not how names work,” Kyleeka couldn't help but mutter.
              “Ten Names Joy it is,” Covari decided. “Now then, all we have to do now is get out of here past these two monks who are undoubtedly going to try and wait you out.”
              “You don't even want to know why I'm avoiding them?”
              “I do!” Kyleeka said.
              “I already know,” Covari shook his head. “And you're better off not saying it in front of her.” He pointed at the Oracle.
              “Thanks, asshole,” she grunted, and Covari sat straighter after a thump sounded under the table. “But I can figure it out, too. And that's why I said, I'm not part of this shit!”
              “That's alright, I've got this,” he motioned for Kyleeka to let him out of the booth. “You stay put. Kyleeka, you and our new friend are going to leave as soon as you see the signal. Pretend you're in love. I'll make sure they won't be looking at anyone.”
              With a deep breath, Covari stepped through the curtain. The two monks in disguise immediately stood straighter, but relaxed again after they looked him up and down.
              “Fucking anathema,” the Oracle muttered and raised Covari's bottle to her lips.

              The look they gave Covari was just the invitation he needed. He strutted towards the pretending couple, snatching two glasses from the tray of a passing waitress. Too bad the drinks didn't match, but that wasn't really an issue.
              “Hello there, handsome,” he smiled and offered the glass to the male monk in disguise. “I saw you checking me out.” He turned around in a slow spin for the man. “Like what you see?”
              “No,” came the realm accented reply. “We're here on our own.” He gave his companion a squeeze around the waist. “Please excuse us.”
              “Oh, that's alright,” Covari ignored the request. “Your wife can watch us!”
              “She's not my wife!” came the snapped reply. “I mean, no. Please leave us alone.”
              “Not your wife?” He placed a hand on the monk's shoulder. “Then are you lucky to have met me!” Behind his back he made a motioning signal towards the booth. “I am a ship's captain, and thus allowed to officiate weddings. Why, I just performed one in that booth over there!”
              Both of them turned as directed just as Kyleeka and Ten Names Joy stepped out from behind the curtains in an embrace, his face hidden against her neck. “Don't they look happy?”
              “I wish them many children,” the woman now spoke, carrying the same realm accent, “but we are not here to get married. Please, we are waiting for a friend.”
              Covari let his mouth fall open into a shocked expression. “And you say I am not your friend? Why, such,” he turned to the man, “ you are married to a shrew. And that is my expert opinion!”
              “She's not a...” he blurted and let go of her to loom over Covari. “You better get lost!”
              “Ignore him,” she said softly and tried to hold his arm.
              “Protective, affecting affection but reflexively denying a deeper relationship,” the captain laughed. “I must ask then, how long have you been in love with her but been unable to express yourself?”
              “I'm not...shut up!”
              “He's messing with you, don't listen,” she still spoke softly, but she carefully withdrew her hand from his arm. “He's just trying to rile you up.”
              “Yeah, he is,” the monk nodded. “I wonder if he knows anything about the anathema.” He lifted his hand and pushed against Covari's chest with it, shoving him into the wall. His companion used a single, brief glare to scare off the approaching bouncer.
              “You're not an anathema, are you?” the monk asked and peered into Covari's eyes.
              Behind him, the captain could see his two friends slip out the door.
              “Me? Well, back in my wilder days my boyfriend used to say I'm a creature of darkness in bed, but I'm not sure I want to get back to that kind of play. Can't we just do it the good old fashioned romantic way?”
              “He's stalling you,” the female monk said. “The anathema must be nearby.”
              She approached the booth Covari had come out of. It's curtains flung open and the Oracle stumbled out, gesticulating.
              “I am not an anathema! You keep those tyrannical hands off me, sweetie, or I'm gonna scratch so hard I can promise there ain't gonna be no eyesight in your future!”
              “She really isn't an anathema,” Covari called out. “I checked for caste marks everywhere on her body!”
              The music stopped.
              “Caste marks,” the male monk repeated and studied Covari's face. “You know what caste marks are.”
              “So you're an expert on anathema?” the female monk asked and stepped back towards him.
              Oops. “No?” Covari tried.
              “Take him in,” the woman decided. “If it's not him, he might know something about where to find him.”
              “I would love to assist you,” Covari's words came quicker now as he reached for his scabbard, only to find it empty again, “but you see, I am a ship's captain and I'm expected back to set sail very soon. My company will dock my pay if I miss another day, and you know how the Guild can be, did I mention I'm employed by the Guild? I'm afraid I can't possibly-”
              A heavy fist slam into his chin ended the stream of excuses.

              Across the street, Kyleeka still had her arm around Joy as they watched the bound Covari get carried away by the monks, slumped over the man's shoulder as though he weighed nothing.
              “He's stronger than he looks,” Joy remarked. “I'm so very sorry for all this! If I turn myself in, I'm sure they'll let him go.”
              He made to move, but Kyleeka held him back. “Don't be silly. If they took him, they suspect or know something. And that means he won't get out of this legally.”
              “But I'm the anathema!” Joy hissed. “That's why they're after me!”
              She pulled him closer and hissed in a whisper. “Watch where you say that word! We're in enough trouble already, we don't need more. Covari has friends, if we find them, we can get him out in time, together.”
              “This is the immaculate order!” Joy hissed back. “I don't know how much you know about them, but I've had to work hard for months just to stay ahead of them. Hence my many names.”
              “I know more than enough about them, trust me,” she sighed. “I know that if they took him alive, they'll interrogate him with certain techniques that take a while to set up. We have a few hours to get him out.”
              “Hours? That's not a lot.”
              “No, it isn't,” she agreed and dragged him towards the docks.

              The warehouse rose up like a tall, black mouthed beast before Himmika. Well, a squat, sessile beast, with dock workers bustling in and out of its lazy, open mouth. It wasn't really a beast at all, she told herself. And it's not like her part of the mission was all that dangerous.
              Taking a deep breath, she strode forward, only belatedly adding less calm skip to her step. She strolled straight past the stacked boxes and barrels, the guards with the Ragaran uniforms, the Realm Legion banner pole and even the one worker who tried to call to her.
              By the time a guard, the worker and one more of his friends had caught up to her, she had reached her target.
              “I want to see my daddy!” she wailed at the woman in the scribe's robes who stood with her back to her. “Where is my daddy!”
              The woman turned and regarded Himmika, obviously not finding any note related to her on her ledger, yet consulting it anyway before replying.
              “Who are you?” she barked. “Children are not allowed in the warehouse!”
              “I'm not in a warehouse,” Himmika pointed out. “And I'm here to see my daddy!”
              “Your father will go home after his shift and not before!” the accountant shook her head. “Now go home!”
              “I want my daddy!” Himmika screamed at the top of her voice. Guinar owed her for this. “I want daddy to come home now!”
              “Does anyone know who this child is?” the woman asked.
              “I am Ragara Himmika!” she stomped her foot. “And I am not a child!”
              “Ragara...” the woman's face faltered. “Oh...of course. I apologise, my Lady.” She bowed. “I just need to finish my inspection and I will personally bring you to your father.”
              “Now! Now now now!” Himmika stepped forward and began pulling the woman's arm, as strongly as she dared.
              The scribe sighed and handed her ledger to a dock worker. “You, girl, finish the inspection of lot nineteen and return the paperwork to my office.”
              “Yes, ma'am,” Guinar said and took the ledger.

              Pretending to check the seals on the barrels, Guinar waited for the scribe to guide Himmika sufficiently far away. Then he pulled his own pen and vial from his pouch and squatted down between two of the barrels.
              Flipping past inventories, intake acceptance records and restock requests, he found what he was looking for: the delivery schedule, and its many entries were written in many different handwritings, too.
              Quietly humming to himself, he added a new entry dated for today and then blew the ink dry.

              The officer in question was playing cards with himself in the office of the warehouse, a small room nestled into the corner and only reachable by stairs. A dirty window in the ceiling admitted some light, and most of the scrolls stored in the shelf along the wall were rolled up crookedly.
              “Captain Ragara,” the scribe bowed as soon as she closed the door behind Himmika. “There has been an incident.”
              “Get some more workers to clean it up,” the dark skinned officer in the grimy uniform waved lazily at them. “And then fire them for being so clumsy in the first place.”
              “It's not that kind of incident,” the woman tried again. “You have...there is a girl here, with a certain claim.”
              That made the captain look up. “Who is the mother?” he asked slowly.
              “You know mum!” Himmika yelled. “Why won't you come home?”
              The officer buried his face in his hands. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, scribe. I will take care of it.”
              “Yes, sir,” she nodded and left the room, slowly closing the door behind her again.
              Himmika was now alone with the man. Guinar had told her she'd be fine. Just play it by ear, he'd said. But none of this made sense to her. Why would he ask who her mother is? Why wouldn't he know she wasn't his child?
              “Listen, I've told your mother I can't see her anymore. And she should have told you not to come here!” he said.
              “She doesn't want you home, I do!” she pouted. Play it by ear. Just buy Guinar time. No wait, the scribe had already left and was certainly returning to her work already. Should she leave then, too? “I want you to come home now!”
              “Look, I can't leave just yet,” he sighed and looked at his desk, which was empty apart from the cards. “I have...things I need to do first.”
              “How long?” she asked.
              “Soon,” he smiled. “You go on ahead, and take this.” He took a quill, inked it and wrote a scribble on one of the cards. He gave it to her with a bit of jade. “Give this to your mother. It says I'll be there soon. But keep it hidden.”
              Himmika slowly nodded and walked out of the office. She read the scribble, of course, and found he'd lied.
              'I didn't know. Take this, and please keep it quiet.'
              What did any of this mean?
              Himmika was still wondering when she left the warehouse and met Guinar at the agreed upon place.
              “It's an adult thing,” is all he would say. “Nice job on the jade, though! You're a natural at this.”
              “A natural at what exactly?”
              “How about for now we get some sweets and watch some realm soldiers deliver free supplies to our ship?” he answered instead.
              “Fine,” she grumbled. “But next time I'm not doing anything for you until you explain it properly.”

              Water splashed over Covari and yanked him out of his dream.
              “Watch it!” he mumbled and tried to look around. “My shirt's expensive!”
              The room was empty, save for himself and the two monks. The woman held the bucket. Light shone in through some of the wall panels, no actual windows were present, nor any visible doors.
              “Who are you?” The male monk snarled and balled his fists.
              “I'm Covari, captain of the Nymph of a Thousand Shores, smuggler, privateer and independent entrepreneur, pleased to make you acquaintance,” Covari smiled at the man and tried to offer his hand. A rattle of chains and a firm tug kept both arms behind his back.
              “You're a smuggler?” the man frowned. “So you admit to being a criminal?”
              “No, you misunderstand,” he smiled, but there was no sunlight to catch with his orichalcum tooth. “None of what I move is illegal, merely...embarrassing. Sometimes confidential. What safer way to move a valuable heirloom than in complete secrecy?”
              “Do you smuggle anathema?” the woman now spoke, crossing her arms.
              “I don't really deal in prisoners, but I suppose I can make an exception since you obviously don't intend to take no for an answer,” he sighed with greater force than necessary. “Who do you need moved and where to?”
              “This is not a job interview,” she hissed. “What do you know about anathema?”
              “Not all that much,” he shrugged. “I was never one to pay attention in school. There is far more to learn out there, in the world, you know? New shores to explore, new ports to visit...”
              “You knew the term caste marks,” the male monk snapped. “Stop playing games.”
              “My teacher must have mentioned it at some point, probably.”
              A first slammed into Covari's gut.
              “Isn't spanking the usual punishment for inattentiveness in school?” he croaked as he tried to regain his breath.
              “Why were you bothering us in the House of the Two Maidens?” he yelled into Covari's face, covering it in spittle.
              “Where is the anathema?” the woman added.
              Guinar, he thought, please hurry! He wasn't looking forward to the bruises he'd collect before this was over.

              The boy and the girl were walking back towards the Nymph, honey glazed roasted nuts on sticks in their hands.
              “These are good!” Himmika laughed.
              “It's a tengese specialty,” Guinar explained. “When I first had one...uh oh.”
              He stopped in his tracks. At the pier ahead of them, another ship had now docked, opposite the Nymph with its fake name plate. Most of its crew had just debarked and was walking towards them, chatting, laughing.
              “Interesting,” Himmika observed, “they all have the same tattoo as you.”
              Guinar grabbed her arm and pulled her behind a stack of crates, out of sight of the large group of Tya walking past.
              “Hey, I almost dropped one!” the girl protested and steadied her grip on her candy.
              “Sorry, I just...really don't want to meet any Tya right now,” Guinar whispered and watched the group walk past and dissolve, heading into various directions.
              “Who are the Tya?” Himmika asked. “And are they gone now?”
              “The Tya are the only way women allowed to sail ships in the west,” he explained. “The Storm Mothers sink any ship with a woman on board who hasn't joined the Tya and adopted the life of a man.”
              “Why would they do that?” Himmika asked and stuck the next honey nut into her mouth. “Are the Tya paying them off?”
              “The storm mothers ugly, jealous bitches. They kill any woman they can get their hands on just because they're not as ugly as them.”
              “Any women, or just the ones who aren't ugly?”
              “I don't know?” he shrugged and waved the all clear. “They're gone, we can get aboard now.”
              “So how come you have a Tya tattoo?” Himmika asked and followed. “I thought you were a boy?”
              “I am,” Guinar nodded firmly and checked none of the Tya were doubling back. “But I don't look like one. The Tya ritual, it makes women into not women anymore. Then the Storm Mothers leave them alone.”
              “So you were a girl, but you did the ritual and now you're a boy,” Himmika nodded. “That's not so complicated.”
              “No, it's not quite that simple,” he began. Or was it? Well, for others maybe. “I-”
              “Hello there,” a sailor stood at the gangplank of the Tya ship and waved at them. “I don't think we've met. Are you here to join the crew?”
              Guinar came to a hard stop. If the Tya hadn't spoken, he'd have barrelled over him, oblivious to his presence!
              “We are actually part of the Sylph's crew,” Himmika replied and gestured to their own gangplank.
              “Another Tya ship? Wow, I didn't think I'd see any this far south!” the blonde Tya gasped and stared at the Sylph. “She is very beautiful!”
              Guinar found himself nodding as he studied the sailor, from the simple shoes up the tight pants and form fitting bodice all the way to the golden, wavy hair. “Yes, she is.”
              “It is not a Tya ship,” Himmika contradicted him, “Guinar here is the only one of your kind aboard.”
              “Guinar, is it?” the sailor smiled and offered his hand for a shake, “I'm Imbella, nice to meet you two.”
              “Nice to meet you, too,” he took the hand and shook it. Himmika didn't get a turn to do so.
              “Quite a handshake there,” Imbella laughed and finally freed his hand again. “How long have you been with the Tya? You look pretty young.”
              “I was last year...”
              “Nice, this is my first trip, actually,” he laughed. “And I'm stuck guarding the ship for now. But when I get off later, you could show me around maybe, as a veteran? I'll buy you a drink.”
              “Yeah,” Guinar smiled, “yeah I'd like that. Just come by our ship when you're ready.”
              His feet began walking away, but it was a minute before his mind followed and Guinar realised he was standing on the deck of the Sylph again. He spun to see if he'd imagined that, but no. The blonde Tya was still there, now sitting on a barrel next to his ship.
              “Are you back yet?” Himmika tugged at his sleeve. “You seemed out of it for a moment.”
              “Yes, I'm back,” he nodded. “Sorry.”
              “Why are you meeting that one, if I may ask,” she said. “She said she's on her first trip. She won't know anything about the Realm tensions, and you said you didn't want to meet any Tya right now.”
              Not any Tya, but this Tya?
              “It's 'he', not 'she',” he sighed. “And it's...complicated.”
              “Is it really, or do you just not want to explain it to me again?”
              “What?” he blinked. “No, I...I think I like him, alright?”
              “She...he seems nice, yes,” Himmika shrugged. “As you wish then. But what do I do in the meantime? They won't let me into any drinking establishments, I imagine.”
              “You could-”
              Kyleeka came rushing down the pier, someone in nothing but short golden pants following her closely.
              “You could help Kyleeka with whatever has her so worried,” Guinar concluded.

              The cabin was once again crowded, with Kyleeka and Himmika sitting on the bed and Guinar and the tall man with the blonde hair and nothing but golden pants taking the chairs.
              “Who took the captain?” Guinar began. “What happened?”
              “Two immaculate monks dragged him off, I don't know where to,” Kyleeka explained after catching her breath. “He was distracting them so we could get away.”
              “You didn't check where they were taking Covari?” Guinar grumbled and tried to digest the news. “And who is this, anyway?”
              “This is Shadeless Joy,” Kyleeka sighed. “He's a stripper and an anathema. The captain risked his freedom to help him escape those immaculate monks.”
              “My name is now Ten Names Joy,” the man corrected her, “and I'm not a stripper anymore. I'll be a sailor, soon.”
              “Covari offered him a job,” Kyleeka explained.
              “Well, then you're not going to be a sailor until you help us get him back,” Guinar glared.
              “Of course! I will do everything in my power to repay such kind generosity,” Joy spoke with a booming voice and a hand over his heart. “Unfortunately, I also don't know where they are.”
              “But you can help me find them,” Guinar pointed out. “You were a stripper? That must mean you know where the watch and military do their stuff here in Dragon's Jaw.”
              “Immaculate monks take vows of celibacy,” Kyleeka shook her head. “They don't hire strippers.”
              “What's a stripper?” Himmika frowned.
              “There are the city dungeons, two of the legion bases have holding cells, I believe, and a few courthouses have some, too,” Joy counted on his fingers. “I can take you to any one of them, if you have something with a hood I can wear? I can get you in, too, but that'll be loud.”
              “How will we get him out?” Kyleeka asked.
              “How will you find out he's in there?” Himmika butted in. “If you take me I can tell you which buildings have had their guard reinforced, which they'd do if they intend to hold an anathema prisoner.”
              “I think we're all going,” Guinar nodded. “We might even need some sorcery to get us out of trouble.”
              “So let's find Joy some clothes and get going.”
              “Sorcery?” Joy asked. “And we're taking the child?”
              “I’m an anathema, too,” Himmika nodded. “Also, I'm not a child.”
              The shirtless man nodded slowly. “Good to know. Let's go!”

              “-the box with the jade rods to the Lady of the shrine on calibration day. And that's when she said: 'it's not the length of the wait that matters!' “ Covari finished his story and burst out laughing as the memory came to him fully. “ 'Length of the wait'!”
              Both monks stared at him blankly.
              “....I guess you had to be there. Oh come on,” he sighed. “You asked me what I smuggle.”
              “We asked you what you knew about anathema,” the woman hissed.
              “Wait, how did you outrun the river demon in a rowboat?” the man frowned.
              “Because we threw the adamant pig at it! I told you that!”
              “Enough!” the woman snapped and motioned for the man to punch Covari in the guts again.

              The group stood around the little girl as she assessed the area in front of the court house with a disdainful frown.
              “No, not enough security for an exalted prisoner,” she declared at last to her three companions.
              “We could go in and ask?” Joy suggested. He was still shirtless, under the cloak and hood they'd found for him, but at least he was wearing proper pants now. “They might at least have records of where all their prisoners are.”
              “And say what?” Himmika shot back. “That we'd like to see their suspected anathema, just for the fun of it?”
              “Guinar could sneak in?” Kyleeka suggested.
              “No point,” the boy shook his head. “If they took him today, nothing about him will be filed until at least tomorrow. Paper moves slowly in this town.”
              Himmika narrowed her eyes and looked at him. “So when will the supplies arrive?”
              “Oh, cargo moves fast,” Guinar said. “But it's because of the slow paperwork that we'll be long gone by the time they miss the supplies.”
              “So what do we do now?” Joy asked. “I only have two more ideas as to where he might be.”
              “Closest first,” Guinar motioned for the blonde man to take the lead.

              Covari coughed and tried to ignore the bruises. “Something tells me you might not be finding my tales all that amusing. Maybe I should stop telling them?”
              “Curious,” the female monk said and regarded him with unmoving eyes while her colleague continued his beatings. “Most mere mortals would be unconscious after this much of my partner's attentions.”
              “Partner?” Covari coughed. “Oh! So you are already married? My apologies! I shouldn't have implied you were not, then.”
              She raised her hand and signalled for another punch, and the other monk pulled back his fist to oblige.
              Before he could bring home the attack though, there was a knock. One of the wall panels slide aside, finally revealing an opening in the uniform walls.
              “Masters Lipeng, Junik?” a younger man asked. “There is...a strippogram at the door for...our guest she says.”
              “A what?”
              “A what?”

              Himmika and Ten Names Joy watched from the end of the alley, both hiding their faces under hoods and leaning against a loaded cart.
              “How do you know this is the place again?” Joy asked as they watched the hooded figure approach the back door of the narrow three story house crammed in between a warehouse and a tea parlour. “Why would they keep prisoners here?”
              “The tattoos,” the girl explained. “Kyleeka recognised the tattoos of the guards when we were walking past.”
              “But none of the guards are near that house,” he shot back. “They are everywhere around here but there.”
              “Precisely,” she nodded. “But they can all see it. That's what they're guarding!”
              “Isn't that dangerous for Kyleeka then?”
              The hooded figure knocked on the door. Himmika spotted at least three of the guards reaching for hidden weapons.
              “Yes, but Guinar said she'll be fine if she sticks to the lines. She just needs to buy a few moments distraction.”
              “I should be there, doing that,” Joy said. “I got him into this trouble.”
              “If they’ve been chasing you, they might know your face.”
              The hooded figure talked with the man who opened the door. Shortly after, she hesitantly stepped inside.
              “Why is she going inside?” Joy asked and stood straighter.
              “Careful,” Himmika hissed. “We're outnumbered.”
              “She wasn't meant to go inside! She was just the distraction!” he moaned. “We have to help her!”
              “I know!” She looked around the alley. Maybe. “If I take the chocks off, can you turn this cart around?”

              The man guided Kyleeka into a dark room, furnished only with kneeling cushions and a sparring mat. A bowl with a set of chopsticks sat on the mat.
              “So where is the lucky guest?” she asked and toyed with the knot that held her coat closed.
              “How did you know we have a guest?” the man frowned and paced around her. Why had he asked her in?
              “You didn't order me?” she asked. More footsteps creaked on the narrow flight of stairs. “I think I have the wrong place then.”
              “No,” a woman's voice spoke and one of the monks from the House of Two Maidens approached her. “I think this is where you intended to be.”
              “Really? I think I made a mistake...”
              “Yes, you have,” the woman snapped, “unless you truly have a message to deliver. Let's hear it.”
              “It's not for you!”
              Another two men came down the stairs and filed into the room, leaving her surrounded on all four sides.
              “I said, lets' hear it,” the woman spoke very slowly now.
              They should have brushed her off, Kyleeka thought, should have sent her away! Guinar was in so much trouble! Stupid plan!
              Slowly, she opened her coat and let it fall off.
              She tried to dance. She tried to sing. She tried to make up a message to sing. She wasn't in the slightest dressed like a strippogram, still wearing the clothes Covari had lent her.
              “She's an imposter,” the woman concluded. “Seize her.”

              Covari whistled to himself, alone on the room now both his captors had left to investigate the strange caller. The chains jingled lightly as he tried to probe the key hole of the lock with his fingernail. Guinar always made it look so easy.
              Was that wall moving? He stopped whistling.
              Slowly the panel tipped over inwards and then fell. Covari only just managed to catch it with his foot before it could crash to the floor with who knows how much noise.
              “Hello Guinar,” he said to the head sticking in through the window now visible in the thin wood wall behind the panel.
              “Hello captain,” the boy grinned and quietly rolled into the room.
              “A strippogram?” Covari laughed. “I see you're making good use of Joy already.”
              “No, they might know his face,” Guinar slipped a lock pick in and moments later, the chains fell. “Kyleeka is doing the distracting, but we won't have much time.”
              Covari blinked and stared at the boy. “Kyleeka is the strippogram? You are in a lot of trouble, my friend.”
              “She should be safely back with the others by now,” Guinar shrugged. “Immaculate monks won't accept strippers, they'll just tell her to leave.”
              “Let me go!” came a shout from below.
              Their eyes met.
              “You're in trouble,” the captain repeated. “Let's go rescue her so I can apologise,” Guinar agreed.

              “Let me go!” Kyleeka screamed again and kicked out as the male monk grabbed her around the shoulders from behind and lifted her up. Her first kick grazed the woman's arm, but before she could try again, the female monk had seized her by the ankles. The other two men grabbed her arms and she was held completely.
              “Yes,” the woman nodded. “This is the woman from the House of the Two Maidens. I never forget a face.”
              “Watch out!” came a shout from the outside. As everyone turned to watch, a cart filled with barrels burst through the front door and the thin walls around it. All five people were flung against the far wall and collapsed into a bruised, grunting heap together.
              “Anathema!” another shout came, and then a thud and a grunt.
              “Nice throw,” Himmika's voice followed. “Quickly now!”
              Kyleeka had just managed to distangle herself and stand up when Guinar and Covari burst in from up the stairs. Moments later, Himmika came in through the hole in the wall.
              “Impressive,” the captain nodded and pointed at the wagon.
              “Improvised,” Himmika shrugged and waved them on.
              Kyleeka stopped to kick the woman who had identified her in the guts, and so was the last one out to join the brawl between her friends and six more men, armed with knives. She was just about to attempt to cast a spell, when Joy picked up one of the fallen barrels and threw it at three of their assailants at once. They stumbled back and into the remainder of the building's wall. A crumbling noise began.
              “Run!” Guinar called and grabbed Kyleeka's arm. “It's gonna collapse!”
              Joy scooped Himmika into his arms, before Covari had a chance to, and together they ran for the alley entrance. The dust cloud of the collapsing house swallowed them.

              Slowly, Guinar stumbled into the open again, moments later. The others were already present, everyone caked in a layer of dust and rubble specks.
              “Is everyone alright?” he coughed.
              Himmika nodded and Joy gave his thumbs up, already brushing the dust off himself. Covari studied the alley behind them. “I take it that was meant to go over a bit more low key?”
              “Yeah, sorry about that,” Guinar shrugged, glad the dust hid his red cheeks.
              “Operation Scarlet Enchantress didn't go as planned,” Joy pointed out. “They did ask her inside. You said they wouldn't.”
              “No more plans from you, ever!” Kyleeka hissed. “They never work!”
              Joy shrugged and shook, creating a tiny dust cloud behind him. “We should have just charged right in to begin with, I think, since we ended up doing it anyway.”
              “We'll have more time for all of this later,” Covari spoke up. “But if I'm not mistaken, I can hear digging noises down there. Let's move.”

              I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


              • #8
                Chapter Eight

                The five of them stood near the pile of empty crates and broken bottles at the edge of the docks, watching the bustling workers in the last light of the day.
                “Why are realm soldiers crawling all over my ship?” Covari asked, fists twitching.
                “They're delivering free supplies,” Himmika explained. “Guinar set it up.”
                “I thought we'd be back in time to do the loading ourselves,” the boy nodded.
                “And that we'd not be wanted fugitives?” Kyleeka guessed.
                “That, too.”
                “I don't see what the problem is,” Ten Names Joy shrugged. “It's your ship, isn't it? And those guys aren't Wyld Hunt. Why don't we just walk on board?”
                “Because the Wyld Hunt will come looking,” Covari explained. “We'll have to wait until they're done loading either way, and we'll be safer hiding away from the ship until we can actually get it moving again.”
                “Which won't be tomorrow until all the crew is back,” Guinar added.
                “Not soon enough,” Covari sighed. “Guinar, you and I should be able to round them up beforehand. The rest of you, just stay out of sight for a few hours.”
                They watched the two of them leave.
                “Any idea where we should hide?” Kyleeka asked and pulled her hood tighter.
                Joy shook his head. “My old haunts will be the first place they look.”
                “Guinar showed me a fun place, earlier,” Himmika offered. “They cover their nuts in honey there! It's great!” She licked her lips.
                Joy's eye grew large and white.
                “Honey nuts?” Kyleeka asked. “Sounds good, I do feel a bit peckish after all that running.”
                Joy's mouth opened and closed silently a few times.
                “Candy it is!” Himmika grinned and turned to lead the way.
                Ten Names Joy exhaled audibly. “Candy, yes of course! That does sound good, actually.”

                By the time Covari returned to the pier, Vectis in tow, the moon had risen and peace and quiet had fallen over the port. Well, peace, apart from the shouted, drunken insults and brawls here and there, and the quiet in between the inebriated singing and the odd screams and grunts of busy couples.
                It was a truly calm night, by Dragon's Jaw standards.
                A large group of people milled about in the shadow of the warehouse: Covari's crew.
                “Guinar,” he called to his old friend when he found him talking to Joy and Himmika, “I can't help but notice that this is the wrong pier.”
                “It's not the wrong pier captain,” the boy grumbled.
                “No, you don't understand,” Covari smiled. “It must be the wrong pier, because I don't see my ship anywhere!”
                “It's not here,” Himmika agreed. “It was gone when we got back from getting candy.”
                “Candy?” Covari kept smiling. “You went to get candy while my ship was being stolen?”
                “You told us to get out of sight!” the girl shot back and Joy's hand on Covari's shoulder kept him from snapping back in return.
                The captain took a deep breath.
                “Why didn't we leave a guard, anyway?” Kyleeka joined the group.
                “The ship's spirit was meant to disobey all but the true owner. It wasn't supposed to move for anyone but me!” Covari had to work to keep his voice level. Who knew how they were mistreating his beloved right now?
                Guinar slapped his forehead. “Of course! That's why it smelled like rotten fish when we got back!”
                “You don't mean...” Himmika's eyes narrowed and she reached to pinch her nose.
                “What?” Ten Names Joy asked. “It's a dock, it always smells like bad fish, doesn't it?”
                “Not this badly,” Guinar shook his head. “And Vartorris is the only man alive who'd believe in his ownership of the Nymph enough to fool her spirit.”
                “We have to get after her,” Covari looked back at the docks, “before he replaces her sails with rotten shark bladders or something equally ghastly.”
                He began striding down the pier. “Follow me, men, we have a ship to claim!”
                “Yes, but the Nymph is gone, how are we....” Joy was the first to rush after Covari. “No!”
                The captain had stepped onto the gangplank of the other vessel, the one that lay opposite the empty waters the Nymph had sat in.
                Two Tya stood to bar his path, hands on their hilts. “Who goes there?”
                “Good evening,” Covari reached out and placed a hand on one of their shoulders each, turning them with him as he passed between them, “I have a lucrative offer for the two of you. Grab them!”
                Bahltin and the taller of the Hilken brothers slung their arms around the two Tya and lifted them up.
                “Find some rope!” Covari barked. “And get this ship ready to sail!”
                “Thief!” one of the Tya screamed. “May the Storm Mothers tear your face off!”
                “Captain!” Guinar stepped up. “We can't just steal their ship!”
                “Of course we can,” he waved the boy off. “We just did.”
                “Captain,” Joy joined Guinar. “I don't think we should do this. We'd be no better than this Vortiss guy.”
                “Vartorris,” Kyleeka corrected, “and as much as I want our books back, too, I don't like this.”
                “And you, Himmika?” Covari turned to the final exalt among them. “What do you think?”
                “We have sufficient enemies already,” the girl spoke and studied the vessel she stood on. “Would it not be prudent to steal a ship from one of them, rather than needlessly increase the number of our foes?”
                “We've got no time!” Covari shouted. “And it's not like I want to keep this thing. Those two can sail it back here after we get the Nymph back.” He pointed at the prisoners being tied up.
                “I don't know about this, Covari...” Guinar kept glancing back at the Tya.
                “Do you promise?” Joy crossed his arms. “Do you promise they will get the ship back after?”
                Covari rubbed sweat of his forehead. Then he let out a grunt and approached one of the two prisoners. “What's our name?”
                “Imbella,” the bound Tya hissed and spat at him. “And I'll make you pay for this.”
                “Imbella,” he repeated and place his hand on her shoulder. She tried to shrug him off until his caste mark lit. “I am Captain Covari. I swear by the unconquered son that I will return your ship to you after I have reclaimed my own, and that no harm will come to you at my hands or those of my crew.”
                “And promise that you'll pay them for use of the ship,” Joy added.
                Covari let out another sigh. “And I promise I will recompense you for this inconvenience.”
                The Tya spat at him again. “That doesn't make this right.”
                “Lock them in the captain's cabin,” Covari called. “And why aren't we moving yet!”
                He climbed the ladder to the aft castle to seize the tiller. “Kyleeka, we're going to need perfect wind, if you could, please?”
                She nodded and followed him.
                Joy grumbled. “I don't like being mean.”
                “Everyone is mean to someone,” Himmika shrugged. She also offered him her last honey nut. “We can't be nice to everyone.”
                “You keep it,” he sighed. “I should help pull ropes and stuff.”
                And he went to join the crew.

                Guinar had joined Bahltin and the Hilken brothers in securing the prisoners in the cabin, a larger room than Covari had on the Nymph, though just as cramped, due to the larger bed and table. It was a lot neater, though.
                The knots of the ropes around the Tyas' wrists were strong, but he undid them to loosen the bonds just a little.
                “I'm sorry, Imbella,” he mumbled.
                “Don't be sorry, stop them!” he hissed at him. “You're one of us!”
                “I'm also one of them,” he sighed. “Please, when the captain makes a promise, he keeps it. This is not a bad thing!”
                Imbella tried to pull his wrists apart, snapping the ropes taught. “Not bad? I'm a prisoner on my own ship!”
                “You won't be hurt!”
                “You will, when I get out!”
                “I'm sorry!”
                “You'll be more sorry then, too!”
                He spat at him.
                “Guinar, come on,” Bahltin pulled him away. “We have work to do.” They left the cabin, the door closing on the glare the Tya sent Guinar's way.

                The ship left port under the perfect winds of Kyleeka's spell. The Nymph's sails could still be seen, lit up by the moon in the distance.
                “How long till we catch them?” Kyleeka asked.
                “Hard to say,” Covari shrugged. “I don't know this ship yet, nor how long they had as a head start. But it shouldn't be more than day.”
                Himmika climbed up the ladder to join them as well. “Captain, these prisoners...”
                “They'll be safe,” he assured her. “And we're only taking them along so someone can take the ship back here when we're done.”
                “I understand that!” she huffed. “No, I mean you shouldn't let Guinar stand watch. He spoke to one of them earlier, and I think he bewitched him somehow.”
                “Bewitched him?” Kyleeka frowned. “You mean he's a sorcerer? A thaumaturge?”
                “I don't know,” the girl shrugged. “Guinar was telling me that he doesn't want to talk to other Tyas, but then that one smiled at him for a bit and he immediately agreed to meet with him later.”
                The captain and the sorceress glanced at each other.
                “Thank you for the warning, Himmika,” Covari nodded. “I'll make sure to have a word with Guinar about that later. And you're right, we shouldn't let him near the prisoner for now.”
                “So he is a sorcerer?” the girl asked. “How dangerous is he?”
                “It's not quite sorcery,” Kyleeka said slowly. “It's complicated.”
                “Ah yes, everything is complicated, isn't it?” Himmika crossed her arms and glared out onto the ocean. “One of these days you are going to explain it to me! How am I supposed to assess risks if I don't understand you people!”
                “Yes,” Covari nodded. “After we get our ship back I will explain. I promise.”
                She turned to him. “Caste mark promise?”
                He hung his head, before lifting his chin again to respond. “Yes,” he said and lit his caste mark. “I swear I will explain to you what makes adults so dumb some times. At least, I will try. It may not make much sense.”
                “I'm not an idiot!”
                “No, but Guinar is, right now,” Kyleeka spoke up, “in a manner of speaking.”
                “For now, get some sleep,” Covari said. “I may need your help tomorrow if we're going to corner the Nymph.”
                She nodded and climbed back down the ladder.
                “You, too, Kyleeka. Go to sleep.”
                “And you?” she asked.
                “I wouldn't be able to if I tried,” Covari sighed and stared at the moonlit sails in the far distance.

                The clasp of General Ragara Kohin's cloak didn't sit right, poking his skin rather than sitting over his shirt. He had to keep adjusting his pants as well, and his feet protested the haphazard way he'd slipped into his boots.
                “What is the meaning of this?” he barked as he strode into his office. “Why could this not wait until morning?”
                Two guests awaited him, immaculate monks in dirty robes, as well as his nephew Herakkis, looking no less dishevelled in his captain's uniform than he felt.
                “We are sister Junik and brother Lipeng of the Wyld Hunt. We require a vessel,” the female monk spoke. “An anathema has escaped the city by ship and we need to pursue them immediately.”
                “Interesting,” the general snorted and knelt at his low desk. “I was not aware the Wyld Hunt had any operations going in the Dragon's Jaw, let alone an anathema hunt. Why was I not informed?”
                “You were under suspicion,” the male monk spoke now. His compatriot shot him an angry glare before adding to the accusation.
                “Not you, specifically,” she sighed. “But we have observed a number of your officers frequenting the anathema's hideout.”
                “If you knew were his hideout was,” his nephew shot back, “why didn't you seize him immediately?”
                “We suspected it to be his hideout,” she explained. “And as soon as we confirmed it, we did attempt to seize him, but only secured one of his allies, which he then rescued before we could complete the interrogation.”
                “So what do you hope to accomplish with a ship that you couldn't in your base of operations?” the general frowned. “I'm not in the habit of throwing my assets at foes we have no plan to defeat.”
                “Additional exalts would be welcome,” the woman nodded. “But only those you can trust. We do know someone in your legion supplied their ship before it left in the dead of the night.”
                The general frowned and glanced at his nephew. “Get me a complete inventory, now.”
                “All our scribes are asleep,” the captain began but his voice withered under his uncle's glare. “Immediately, yes sir.” He fled the room.
                “About our ship?” the male monk insisted.
                “First, tell me about this anathema,” Kohin held the man's gaze. “I must decide what kind of ship best suits you.”
                The two monks exchanged glances, then the woman spoke. “We are looking for a blasphemer. We have tracked him from the deep desert, undermining Realm authority in a number of communities. Here, he has made contact with a Captain Covari, who we imprisoned and tried to question when the rescue occurred.”
                “I don't suppose that was the house collapse near the port warehouses I heard about?”
                “It was, actually,” she nodded. “We then tried to track down the ship name the captain had given us, and succeeded, even though he had docked under a fake name. But when we got there, the ship was already gone. Talking to the Tya on the ship in the next berth, we learned of the legion supplies they had been loaded with.”
                “Covari?” the general frowned and searched through his papers. “Not Covari of the Nymph of a Thousand Shores, is it? By the last reports, he harbours at least two anathema on his ship already, and is wanted himself for theft from the Heptagram.” He found the letter. “The note came in this morning by whispered wind.”
                He handed them the scroll.
                “By the gods,” the woman gasped. “At least three anathema, and he's probably one himself.”
                “He already defeated two house warships,” Kohin continued. “And we do not have ships that powerful here to give you.”
                The door slammed open and his nephew came running in. Before he could ask the younger man to explain his rudeness, he had leaned down to whisper in the general's ear.
                “The supplies they took came from lot thirty-seven.”
                His heart stopped. “All of it?” he whispered back. A nod.
                “Very well, I shall prepare my fastest messenger airship for your use,” the general once more spoke openly. “She is not powerful, but with luck you can overtake them and lay an ambush where next they land. She won't be ready to leave before morning, though. I suggest you finish your preparations and seek the Swift Deliverance in the main barracks by first light.”
                “You are most kind,” the female monk said and they both bowed before withdrawing.
                “Uncle, the swift deliverance is still undergoing repair work,” his nephew pointed out when they'd left. “She can't catch anything until they replace the left wing.”
                “Which I must have forgotten because of the late hour,” he hissed quietly. “But do you want the Wyld Hunt to find out what we've been stashing in those barrels? They already accused us of working with the anathema. No, get my command ship ready to sail within the hour. You have to get there first, and make sure no one finds out!”
                “Yes, sir,” his nephew said and ran off again.
                Kohin stood and stepped to the record shelves. From behind the legion's sanitary needs status reports, he pulled a bottle and took a long swig. And while his nephew saw to that, he'd have to make some inquiries as to how these anathema had learned about lot thirty-seven.

                When Kyleeka returned to Covari's side in the morning's rising sun, the sail ahead of them was nowhere to be seen.
                “Where did they go?” she asked.
                Covari pointed to the south-west, almost right off to their ship's port.
                “Why aren't we following them anymore?” she frowned. “Do you need me to change the wind?”
                He shook his head. “Hage-Tanyu's scales,” he grumbled.
                She waited for a moment, but he just kept glaring at the distant sail.
                “I don't know what Hage-Tanyu is, let alone its scales.”
                He blinked and shook his head. “Sorry, of course. A massive earth dragon sleeps under the seabed there. His breath matches the tides, so the reefs and sandbanks, his scales, are always the same depth.”
                “Doesn't that make it nice and easy to navigate?” she asked. “Why are we going around them, then?”
                “With precise maps and if you know how deep your keel runs, yes,” he sighed. “My maps are on the Nymph, and I from what I can tell, this lady runs about three fathom's deep, but I can't be sure.”
                “And the Nymph runs shallower?” Kyleeka guessed, now also staring at the distant sail.
                He nodded. “With her hold empty, I could run the Hage-Tanyu scales in under two fathoms. And Vartorris knows her almost as well as I do.”
                “What,” she began slowly, “if we could do a no-fathom run?”
                He blinked again. “What do you mean?”
                “The spell that first warship used to rise above the water,” Kyleeka explained. “I've been looking into that. I figured we might need it to land on a floating island. And I think it's similar to the magics that make the island fly, as well.”
                “You can make my ship fly?” Covari was still blinking.
                “It'd be dangerous,” she warned him. “I mean, you saw what a bit of countermagic can do.”
                “But you could make my Nymph fly?”
                “I think so,” she nodded. “I wanted to study the book a bit more before I tried, but I think I can.”
                “You can make my Nymph fly!” Covari's laugh sounded across the deck.
                Before she knew what was happening, his arm was around her and she felt herself being tipped over. Covari's beard stubble was rough on her cheeks, but his lips tasted sweet on hers.
                Her heart pounded in her chest, she wasn't sure if it was anger or...what?
                She opened her mouth and closed her eyes.
                But he broke the kiss and put her back on her feet. “Do it! Get us airborne, but warn me before we get into range for his necromancer to use countermagic.”
                She nodded and took deep breaths. No, it wasn't anger, or was it?
                Now wasn't the time. She raised her hands and became to shape the essence in the air around her, adding her own. Her caste mark lit up and soon, mists of water rose to engulf the ship.
                “Will we have to sail through fog?” Covari asked. “Or could you leave Guinar in the crow's nest to poke out of the cloud?”
                “The mist will be momentary,” she announced and guided the ship upwards into the cloud. After a minute, she flung her arms aside, in a repelling gesture and the mist around them parted.
                Covari stepped to the railing and looked down.
                “We're flying!” he laughed. “We're sailing on a cloud!”
                He was about to embrace Kyleeka again, but she warned him off with an open hand.
                “I have to maintain the cloud, unless we want to risk it fading away underneath us,” she spoke, eyes fixed towards the ship's bow. “I'm not sure how long I can keep this up. Just...let me concentrate.”
                “Aye, mam!” he nodded and twisted the tiller to the side. “You heard our Lady! All hands, prepare to turn! We are going to beat every record for the Hage-Tanyu's scales!”
                The crew below them rushed to pull lines and turn the sails, cheering.
                They were cheering for her.
                The cloud wobbled a bit, but she quickly regained control. They were cheering for her!

                Himmika felt like she was flying. Below in the distance, she could see the water race by, broken now and then by sharp rocks and the tips of reefs. Ten Name Joy's hands were firmly on her hips as he held her out over the prow of the ship.
                “Stretch out your arms,” Ten Names Joy called to her and began to wave her about in the wind. “Fly like a bird!”
                She did and she couldn't help but laugh. She really did feel like a bird. “Weeee!” she screamed into the wind. “I AM THE YELLOW CRANE!”
                “You're the what?” Joy called.
                “The yellow crane,” she called back. “It's a bird, I think. My previous incarnation created a martial arts style named after it.”
                Joy pulled her back on the ship. “You are the Yellow Crane Master?”
                Himmika was about to pout, but his question confused her. “How do you know that name?”
                “The Unconquered Sun told me to find you,” the blonde man replied. ”He wants us to visit some island together.”
                “The Unconquered Sun? You mean like the god? He spoke to you?”
                Joy nodded. “When I exalted, I had a vision. He told me to leave my tribe, and find you.”
                “Tribe?” the girl frowned and looked him up and down. “You don't really look like any of the tribesmen I've ever seen.”
                “I get that a lot,” he nodded. “My mother was a scholar studying our language. When she left, my father demanded to keep me. I don't think she minded much, but then again, I was three at the time. I don't really remember her all that well.”
                “Your mother just left you?” Himmika asked, her voice now quiet.
                “I'm sure she had her reasons,” Joy shrugged. “I had father, and plenty of aunts who'd look after me. They raised me to be a priest to the Great Mirage, our desert god. He'd guide us to hidden oases and lure our enemies away from us.”
                “You were a tribal shaman? How did you end up Dragon's Jaw then?”
                The tall man laughed and smiled “One day, when our god's deceptions failed to hide use from raiders, I stood in their path, telling them that the Great Mirage wouldn't let them hurt us. They said they'd bribed him with a sand cloak, a scout's cloak woven from sand itself and perfect for hiding. They told us we had no god protecting us anymore.”
                “Coward,” Himmika clenched her jaw and balled her fists. “Traitor.”
                Joy nodded. “So then I said that it didn't matter if we didn't have any god's protection, I would stop them myself if I had to. And I raised my prayer staff and drew a line in the sand.”
                “Just you? How many raiders were there?”
                “Dozens,” Joy laughed. “But that didn't matter either. I was standing between my friends, my family, and these raiders. It was right to stand against them. And that's when the Unconquered Sun appeared to me.”
                “You exalted protecting your family?” the girl looked up into his eyes. She hid her hands in opposite sleeves, though he could see the fabric shaking slightly.
                “Yes, the sun told me that I would bring a great peace to the world, but that I needed to find my old friend first, the Yellow Crane Master.”
                “We were friends?” she frowned.
                “I think so,” he nodded. “If not, I want to be.” He held out his hand.
                Hers felt small in his, but they shook even so. “Friends,” she said with quivering voice.
                “What happened with the raiders?” she asked then.
                “Oh yes, that was weird,” Joy chuckled. “So I was standing there, still drawing the line in the sand, caste mark shining brighter than the sun. That's when my hair turned golden, as well. It used to be black. And they tell me my muscles swelled as well, but I don't know about that. I've always been a bit strong.”
                “So they ran in fear?” the girl asked.
                “No! They fell to their knees and begged to be spared! So I told them that if the god's are so fickle, our tribes should join and protect themselves. Their chief and our elders agreed and negotiated for a few days, and then their chief and our elder's youngest son married, and our tribes became one. And with their warriors and our scouts to find the hidden paths, they now fear no enemies.”
                “But you still had to leave?”
                “Well, yes. I had to find you, and that island. I took whatever work I could find, juggler, actor, clown, dancer...moving on closer to the coast whenever I earned enough, or those immaculate monks started showing up.”
                “Did...I mean, will you ever go back, to your father?”
                “I hope so,” he shrugged. “There is so much to tell him about what I've seen!”
                “That would be nice,” Himmika nodded. “I hope you see him again soon.”
                He put his hand on her shoulder. “I'm sorry, I take it you can't? See your father, I mean.”
                “I'm from a realm family,” she nodded. “The immaculate order will hurt them enough as it is. If they were to actually have me in their home...”
                “You're afraid they would tell on you?” he asked. “Or that they'd be hurt for not telling?”
                She looked down at her feet. “Yes.”
                “You could write them?” he suggested. “If they're realm, they can read, right? And by the time a letter would get to them, we'd have moved on.”
                She looked up at him. “Yes, I could do that. I will. Thank you.” She hugged the side of his leg.
                “Not a problem,” he patted her head. “Want to go flying a bit more?”
                She nodded, but before he could pick her up, a shout came from behind them.
                “The prisoners are loose!”

                It was the brighter Hilken brother who'd spotted the two Tya climbing along the outside of the ship. Covari handed the tiller to Kyleeka and walked over to look, just as Guinar slid down the rope from the crow's nest.
                “Hello there,” Covari called down to the two escapees, “as you may have noticed, we're a little too high up for you to swim to shore. And now that you've been discovered, you may as well climb back up.”
                They both glared up at him, but their knuckles showed white from their desperate grips.
                “Please, Imbella,” Guinar spoke up, “No one needs to get hurt!”
                “Then what do you call getting whipped for letting our ship get stolen?” the Tya shouted back up at them.
                Guinar looked to Covari, then back at her. And back to Covari. “We can't let that happen!”
                “I've never heard of a Tya captain to whip one of the crew for anything short of open disobedience,” Covari shook his head. “But even so, my oath stands. Please don't break it by falling to your deaths.”
                “Just come back up, please!” Guinar pleaded again.
                Imbella finally nodded, and slowly the two climbed up, where the Hilken brothers began to tie them up again. “Do we have to be tied up?”
                “Captain?” Guinar added. “It's not like they have anywhere to go.”
                “They clearly thought they did,” the captain shook his head. “They must have seen we were on a cloud before they climbed out the window. Tie them up, and there will be a guard in the room this time.”
                “Fine, but let me do that,” Guinar pleaded. “I can at least be kind to them.”
                “No, I need our eyes in the crow's nest,” Covari refused. “Himmika and Joy can watch them.”
                The two had just joined them and the blonde man nodded and guided the prisoners back into the cabin.
                Guinar watched until the door closed behind them.
                “Whatever,” he muttered and turned to climb up the mast again.
                “It's not that I don't trust you, Guinar,” Covari held him by the shoulder. “I really do need your eyes-”
                “I said, whatever,” the boy grunted louder and shook himself loose. “Just go back to Kyleeka.”
                “Leave me alone!”
                And with that, Guinar was up the mast before Covari could say another word.
                “What was...” he mumbled and then his gaze fell on Kyleeka at the helm, trying her best to hold the wooden tiller steady, and then he remembered. “Oh, right.” Guinar must have seen them.
                He rubbed his tired eyes and returned to take the helm. There were a lot of issues he'd need to address. But first, he had to reclaim his ship.
                He yawned. And then he would need a nap.

                Ten Names Joy studied the gateway board on the cabin's map table carefully.
                “How do the horsies move again?” he asked.
                Neither player acknowledged him, so he just leaned back against the wall behind the bed, careful not to disturb the Tya sitting next to him.
                Himmika made her move, once more drawing a gasp from her opponent.
                “Who did you say taught you?” the Tya named Imbella asked.
                “My grandfather,” Himmika answered. “Your move.”
                The Tya's only response was to tip the Empress. “I concede. Can we play cards instead?”
                “What are you, anyway?” the other Tya asked. “I've never seen a child speak and play gateway like you do.”
                “I'm neither a thing, nor a child,” Himmika hissed and began to reset the board. “My name is Mnemon Himmika.”
                “Mnemon?” Imbella's mouth fell open. “You are noble? Then why are you stealing our ship?”
                “Our captain has certain...priorities,” the young girl sighed. “Believe me, I'd have preferred you knew as little about me as possible, maybe not even have met me.”
                “I'm glad I met you,” Joy added. “I mean, not this way. I'm sorry we stole your ship, is what I mean. But you're getting it back!”
                “When?” the Tya next to him asked.
                “Soon?” he shrugged his shoulders. “I don't know.”
                “The Tya won't forget this,” Himmika's opponent pointed out. “You've made a powerful enemy.”
                “In the west, yes,” the girl agreed. “But we are not headed there.”
                “At the very least you can tell Guinar she's not one of us anymore,” Imbella said and tried to cross her arms. The bound wrists made it impossible. “No Tya betrays another. I'll make sure her name is cursed!”
                “I thought Guinar was a boy,” Joy frowned. “That's what he told me.”
                “It's complicated, apparently,” Himmika sighed and shoved the board aside. “Or so he says, but he won't explain why. Just like he won't tell me why he likes Imbella's smile so much.”
                “He likes my smile?” Imbella frowned, but then a weird half grin formed on his blushing face. “Really?”
                Himmika slammed the deck of cards on the table. “Now, how does this game work?”
                “It's easy,” Joy began, “first you...actually let's not play for money. Or for clothes...right, so basically everyone gets seven cards. And then...”

                The sun was headed back down to the horizon, when Kyleeka looked over the side of the flying ship.
                “Are we past the Hage-Tanyu Scales yet?” she asked. “I don't want to get too much closer to them with this spell.”
                Covari nodded. “We cleared it about half an hour ago. Take us down then, though I don't know that he has anyone but that mad necromancer on his whale ship. Could he destroy your spell?”
                “Difficult to say,” Kyleeka tilted her head as she answered. “The Heptagram teaches that necromancy can do nothing to sorcery, and vice versa. But then again, I doubt they know much about celestial levels of sorcery, or necromancy beyond the basic level.”
                Slowly the ship tipped forwards as the cloud began to descend.
                “I for one am glad to have you on our side,” Covari smiled and steadied his grip on the tiller. “Thanks to you, we should have our ship back before nightfall!”
                Kyleeka grinned and brushed a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. “Thank you.”
                “Right, now everyone hold on!” Covari called out. “We're about to hit water again!”
                When they were a mere few feet up, Kyleeka made a scissoring motion with her hands, cutting the spell's essences in half. She'd misjudged, though, and the ship fell the last half foot, sending her stumbling when they set down, waves splashing high on either side.
                She almost fell, but Covari caught her in one arm. “Got you!”
                “Thanks, again,” she smiled and was about to snuggle closer into his half embrace, when he pulled her upright and set her down, before hastily stepping back and taking the tiller again.
                She frowned and looked down at herself. What had she done wrong?
                “Sorry for the rough landing,” she tried.
                “Not at all!” he smiled. “That was an amazing spell you did, and we're all safe and sound. This couldn't have...wait, do you smell something?”
                The water splashed again and the jaws of the whale corpse snapped shut on the ship, lifting the vessel back up and out of the water.

                I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


                • #9
                  Chapter Nine

                  The dead whale vessel flopped on its belly, still holding the Tya vessel in its jaws, bringing it to rest sideways. Between the sudden upwards shift of the deck, the splashed water raining back down on them and the fact that down was no longer where it used to be, the crew began tumbling off the ship.
                  Kyleeka flopped into the water belly first, and immediately began splashing to right herself. Her clothes quickly soaked and threatened to pull her down, however. She tried to call for help, but only swallowed salty seawater.
                  Then there was something slinging around her, pulling her. She struggled, tried to free herself. She tore at the seizing limb with her nails, and bit down on the clothed arm.
                  Wait? Clothed arm?
                  “Kyleeka,” Covari shouted as they broke the surface, “it's me, just relax!”
                  “Covari!” she gasped and clutched his arm to her chest. “I can't swim!”
                  “I know, I know,” he sighed. “Just calm down, I've got you!”
                  She nodded and held even tighter to his arm. He had her. He wouldn't let go.
                  Around them more and more of the crew surfaced to tread water, slowly gathering around their captain.
                  “Guinar?” Covari called. “Bahltin? Vectis?”
                  “I here!” big Bahltin called. “And I've got Vectis. What do we do?”
                  “Find out if anyone's missing,” Covari called back. Then he looked to the water walking clawstriders that began to surround them. “And then I think we'll need to surrender.”

                  Himmika grunted and tried to shove Ten Names Joy off herself.
                  “Sorry, sorry!” the big man stammered and rolled off her, only to roll back when he found himself almost landing on Imbella. “I'm so sorry, I...what happened?”
                  “We're sideways!” one of the Tya groaned and tried to stand on the cabin wall. His feet splashed in the water running in through the broken window. “Something tipped the ship over!”
                  “Why aren't we righting ourselves?” the other Tya asked. “Has the keel snapped off?”
                  “And what is that smell?” Joy wrinkled his nose and finally stood, before helping Himmika up.
                  “That must be the dead whale,” the little girl brushed her robe straight. “The other vessel of the pirate we're pursuing.”
                  “Dead whale?” Imbella asked and produced a small dagger from his cleavage. “As in Vartorris the Disgusting? We've been chasing the Vartorris?” He quickly cut his wrists free of the bonds and then freed the other Tya.
                  “Yes,” Himmika glared. “You're not supposed to have a weapon.”
                  “No one searched me,” Imbella shrugged. “Not even after I escaped the first time.”
                  Himmika turned her glare on Joy.
                  “It's rude to touch a lady there,” he raised his hands. “Man, I mean man. Anyone. Sorry.”
                  The door cracked and broken open, and the snarling head of a claw strider poked in through the opening.
                  “Come on out!” its rider called. “Prisoners, or food, your choice!”
                  “I'd like some food!” Joy answered. Then he shrugged at the stares of the others. “He might have been offering...”

                  When the ship'd begun tipping over, Guinar hadn't waited around and jumped off, trying to clear the hull and rigging. He dove into the water with a small, smooth splash and swam for some distance before he felt safe to surface.
                  It was as he feared. The dead whale lay on its belly, holding the Tya ship sideways in its jaws, though not crushing the hull. Vartorris must be trying to build himself a little fleet, he thought. He dove back under when the clawstriders started pouring from the corners of the huge beast's mouth. They'd take most of the crew prisoner, or worse. He had what?
                  He stopped mid swim. He had his knife, which wouldn't do much against one clawstrider, let alone a dozen. Not in time to save anyone if a fight started now.
                  No, he had to hope Vartorris was in the mood for prisoners and help later.
                  He resumed swimming, towards the bloated belly of the dead whale.

                  Covari hadn't lied, Kyleeka decided. The inside of the beast did smell even worse than the outside.
                  In addition to the stench of dead meat and the dubious incense some pirates carried after a haggard man in a black gown and with two eye patches, there was the rotting wood and rusting metal of the platforms and scaffolding that kept the giant carcass's shape.
                  The clawstrider next to her snapped when she slowed to study the patterns the man in the gown made with his fingers in the air, and she quickly sped up again to stay with Covari at the head of the group.
                  One by one they were brought to a wooden door and shoved through into a large spherical glass chamber, half inside the whale, half out, grown into the thing's flank.
                  “At least the glass seems to keep most of the smell out,” Ten Names Joy smiled and looked around.
                  “Only for now,” Himmika grunted. “I don't see any sanitary implements in this glass ball.”
                  “Surely-” Kyleeka began, but Covari interrupted her.
                  “No, she's right. Vartorris isn't one to treat his prisoners well.”
                  Kyleeka's stomach lurched.
                  “Speaking of the monster,” Himmika looked around, “I didn't see him with the capture party, nor after.”
                  “He's probably on my Nymph, still,” Covari sighed. “Don't worry, he'll drop by to gloat soon.”
                  “Please tell me you're not going to sleep with him again?” Kyleeka groaned.
                  Covari sighed. “I doubt it'd help.”
                  “In the meantime,” Joy gestured around, “we should make sure no one is hurt too badly.”
                  “And take stock of any weapons or tools anyone managed to hide,” Himmika agreed with a look towards the two Tya.
                  All four exalts nodded and turned to make the rounds.

                  Guinar was both glad that he rarely cut his fingernails and regretted it at the same time, as he climbed up the back of the dead whale, digging his digits into the hideous black flesh. When he reached the top, he stayed on his belly and crawled forwards, barnacles scraping on his shirt and skin, until he reached the first of the glass domes.
                  Slowly he peaked over the edge.
                  The chains were unmistakeable, he'd found the prisoners. Only, he didn't recognise anyone.
                  He tapped the glass, trying to get their attention, and gave a few quick hand signals.
                  From the confused looks, he concluded he wasn't being understood. And since no one brought him to Covari's attention, he had to conclude that the captain wasn't in here.
                  He looked up and along the whale's back, maybe they were in one of the other glass spheres?
                  Up ahead, he saw the whale releasing the Tya ship from its jaws, the weight of its keel bringing it back upright almost immediately. And through the now damaged rigging, he could see two more sets of sails approaching fast, the Nymph and another merchant ship.
                  How many men did Vartorris have these days, anyway?

                  The search turned up no major injuries, and five hidden knives amongst the lot of them, two of them with the Tya. Their number was one short, though.
                  “Where is Guinar?” Ten Names Joy asked. “I haven't been able to find him anywhere.”
                  “He didn't drown, did he?” Himmika asked.
                  “No, he's not the type to drown,” Covari laughed. “No one can swim and dive quite like he can.”
                  “But where would he swim to?” Joy frowned. “The coast is miles away!”
                  “Not a problem for him, I tell you,” Covari put his hand on the taller man's shoulder. “When I first met him, he'd just swum further than that. He'd jumped ship when...” his voice trailed off as his eyes fell on the two Tya with them. “...come to think of it, I never really asked why he jumped ship. Anyway, he swam all the way back to shore and found the Nymph anchored there.”
                  “You never asked why he jumped ship?” Tya Imbella blurted out. “And you hired him on anyway?”
                  “It was obvious that he and I had a lot in common,” Covari shrugged. “The very clearly changed his life. I decided I'd give him a chance.”
                  “And now he's left you, too,” the Tya growled.
                  The hatch into their sphere sounded with a knock, and Covari was the first to reach it and greet their visitor. Rather than the whole wooden hatch, only the small porthole built into it swung open and revealed the grinning face of Vartorris.
                  “Covari, you slimy piece of worthless flotsam,” the short man spat, obviously standing on tip toes to reach the porthole.
                  “Vartorris, you abominable thief with no honour,” Covari shot back. “You took my ship!”
                  “My! Ship!” the other captain laughed. “Now both in truth and in deed. That was a neat trick chasing me with a flying ship, though. You'll have to teach that to me.”
                  “Only if you give me the Nymph back,” Covari crossed his arms, “and you let my crew go.”
                  “My Nymph stays with me,” Vartorris' eyes narrowed, but then he grinned. “But your men are free to go in the next port. The women, well, if they are really house Mnemon, I'm sure there'll be a finder's fee. I hear someone in the realm's really missing them already!”
                  “You don't want to cross me,” Covari let his voice drop deeper, “or them. It will end badly for you!”
                  “It doesn't have to,” Ten Names Joy spoke up. “End badly, I mean. The solution seems rather simple, doesn't it?”
                  “Solution?” Covari asked.
                  “Simple?” Vartorris frowned. “Who is that idiot? We can't both have the Nymph.”
                  “You could if you two married,” Joy gestured at both of them.
                  “What?” Kyleeka blurted. “No!”
                  The two Tya laughed, as did Vectis. “You doo are made foreech odder.”
                  “Kyleeka, you said it yourself, they sleep together,” Joy pointed out. “And they both want the same ship, so why not share it, as a couple?”
                  Covari looked at Joy, then at Vartorris. “I've heard worse ideas.”
                  “How do I know you're not just going to run out on me with my ship?” Vartorris shook his head.
                  Covari shrugged and gave his most sincere smile. “I'd promise I won't.”
                  The pirate captain gave a mere grunt and then closed the porthole.
                  “Is that a no?” Joy asked.
                  “If he meant no, he'd have said no,” Covari shook his head. “He's thinking it over. It interesting idea, to say the least.”
                  “You're not going through with this, are you?” Kyleeka had her hands on her hips now. “I don't want to be on the same ship as that stench of his.”
                  “He might not smell so bad if he just stops living on this monstrosity,” Himmika pointed out.
                  “Also,” Covari added, “as his husband I might just get him to not turn you over to house Mnemon. I mean, he's clearly heard at least some of the news on you two.”
                  Kyleeka's only reply was a mild grumble.
                  “I could perform the ceremony,” Joy beamed. “I used to be a shaman. Well, a shaman in training.”
                  “Or we could fight our way out,” Himmika offered. “I got a good look at the layout of this place on the way in, and now that we're not treading water surrounded by aquatic cavalry, we have a shot.”
                  “Let's just wait and see what he says first,” Covari smiled.
                  They all settled down to sit in what little space in the sphere was level enough to do so.
                  “Guinar isn't really gone, is he?” Himmika asked.
                  “He may have left,” Covari admitted, “but if so, only to get help. He won't abandon his friends.”
                  “He betrayed his own people just fine,” Imbella grunted, drawing a snapped reply from Covari.
                  “He will be back.”

                  The Devourer, the world was in unrest. It always was after a great feat. The blind Allmaker could hear the dead flesh call out to him, drawing him to the wounds that had opened under the strain.
                  “More incense!” the Allmaker demanded. “The world is straining!”
                  Up ahead he could hear the void pour in from the beyond.
                  “Do we have to?” the less raspy sounding servant spoke back to him. “This stuff smells like shit!”
                  “It is shit,” the other one replied. “And good luck getting him to work without it.”
                  “Silence!” the Allmaker cried and raised his hands. Slowly, he let dark essence seep from his hands and ran them over the wall of flesh. He felt it knit under his touch, but the crack was growing even so. “What is the matter?” he demanded. “It will not mend!”
                  “Ah great,” raspy servant said. “We're gonna have to bolt metal over this one, too.”
                  “Why do we bother with the dead whale anyway? Why not just make a ship out of metal?”
                  There was a smacking noise.
                  “Metal doesn't swim!” raspy said. “And we only have a necromancer, not a metal-o-mancer.”
                  Swimming? What were they talking about, the Allmaker wondered. He pressed his cheek to the soft, rotting wall and listened to his creation cry out. Something was very wrong.
                  A slick, wet noise grew louder and louder, until he heard the flesh split as something cut it open.
                  “A voidman?” he gasped.
                  “A what?” less raspy asked.
                  Then there was a loud flop as something heavy hit the floor right in front of the Allmaker. “What just happened?” he demanded. Something had fallen, but there was only a single cut in his precious flesh. Nothing should have fallen.
                  “Who the hell are you?” raspy shouted, and then there was a thunk. Then another flop as something fell.
                  “Intru-” less raspy tried to shout, followed quickly by stifled scream and gagging noises. Then less raspy stopped making any noises.
                  “Who are you?” the Allmaker let his voice boom and echo off his flesh creation's walls. He drew his essence forth and gathered it, ready to strike at this defiler.
                  A punch into his chest sent him sprawling forward, wheezing.
                  A woman's voice, no, a girl, spoke quietly into his ear.
                  “Where are the prisoners, the recent ones!”
                  His outraged scream faltered in his still pained chest. By the time he had his voice back, the cold touch of steel lay across his throat. “We are all prisoners inside my world beast!”
                  “Oh for the love of...” she hissed and the Allmaker felt the steel pusher harder against his skin. “Which of the glass spheres has most recently been filled with people?
                  “The Seventh Dome of Sightless Gaze holds the youngest lost,” he spoke, as loudly as he dared with a blade to him. “They will not be long to sanity, trapped with nothing to behold but Nothing!”
                  “The seventh...which direction is that?”
                  The Allmaker raised his arm and pointed.
                  “Thanks,” the girl said. “Oh, and I'll need your robes and that thing.”
                  There was a tugging on his head and then brightness assailed the Allmaker.
                  “My eyes!”
                  Vicious, tricksy colours sought to confuse him, lie to him. He clamped his hands over his eyes. “Darkness, I have not forsaken thee!”
                  “Will you be quiet?” the girl hissed.
                  Something thumped the back of the Allmaker's head and then darkness claimed him fully.

                  This time, the whole of the wooden door to their prison swung open. Covari stood at the front of the assembled group again as two brawny pirates with striped shirts stepped in, one carrying a pair of fancy looking suits in his arms, the other held a long boat hook, which he used to shoo the crew behind Covari back.
                  Following them, Vartorris stepped into the glass sphere, hands resting on weapons on his belt.
                  “Alright, you pitiful excuse for a leprous ship monkey,” the rotund pirate captain spat, “I don't really like the thought of killing you, and it's the only way I'd get you to stop chasing my ship.”
                  “My ship, you walking cesspool of gutter trash,” Covari snapped.
                  “Sure, sure. If you will swear true your wedding vows, so will I,” Vartorris gestured at the suits his bodyguard was carrying. “All that is ours, will be ours together.”
                  “What about my crew?” Covari asked.
                  “They'll be our crew, of course,” Vartorris laughed. “And I find myself with a new ship to fill, as well. We can discuss the particulars of who will work on which ship after the ceremony, though.”
                  Covari blinked at the offered suits. “Now? Shouldn't we hold the ceremony on the ship we both love so dearly? Also, I would like to take a bath before I ruin your lovely clothes.”
                  The shorter man mumbled to himself for a moment. “Don't worry, dear. We will get married, and then we can share a bath, all proper decent like. Come now.”
                  He waved for Covari to follow, but held his hand in a warding gesture when Ten Names Joy moved towards the door as well. “No thanks, I've got my own priest. You lot just wait here for now.”
                  “I can't bring my friends to my wedding?” Covari pouted.
                  “No, now move it!”
                  “What if I refuse, then?”
                  Vartorris shrugged. “Then you're back to forcing me to kill you and sell your crew as slaves.”
                  “I'd like to see you try!” Himmika's voice boomed and echoed in the chamber.
                  “Don't worry, little one,” Vartorris smiled. “I'll sell you back to your House safe and sound, unless another house offers more.”
                  “That won't be necessary,” Covari smiled and gestured behind his back for Himmika to stand down. “Will it, dear?”
                  He took Vartorris' arm and they both exited the sphere, followed shortly by the guards.
                  The door fell shut again.
                  “Why wouldn't he fight?” Himmika crossed her arms. “It was only three of them. And with their captain hostage, we could have forced an armistice.”
                  “He doesn't want to risk any of us getting hurt,” Kyleeka sighed.
                  “It goes beyond that,” Joy shook his head. “You heard Vartorris: Covari will never give up on the Nymph. And neither will Vartorris. Unless one kills the other, they will keep fighting, and sooner or later someone they care about will get hurt.”
                  “So they're marrying just to avoid killing each other?” Himmika frowned.
                  “It's how it works in the realm,” Kyleeka's voice didn't match her smile. “Didn't your parents teach you that? Marriage is to advance your house fortunes and nothing else!”
                  “Obviously,” the girl sighed. “But since without a mother in this marriage there will be no children, such an alliance is short sighted and ultimately useless. Without an heir, fighting over the Nymph will inevitably resume.”
                  Joy blinked. “You know where children come from, but you don't know what sex is?”
                  “No,” she met his stare. “Sex has something to do with motherhood, then?”
                  The door unlocked again before anyone could answer the nine year old. It swung open only a little, though, just enough to admit a hunched figure in black robes and a double eye patch over its eyes.
                  The prisoners recoiled from the stench as the figure closed the door behind itself.
                  “It's me, Guinar,” the boy said and flipped both eye patches up. “I'm sorry it took me so long, but I can barely see with only these tiny holes in the patches.”
                  “Guinar!” Kyleeka rushed to his side. “They took Covari! We have to free him before he makes a huge mistake!”
                  “I don't think marriage is a mistake,” Joy muttered. “But it would be nice getting out of here.”
                  “Have you counted the guards?” Himmika asked. “How far are we from the armoury? Or the boats?”
                  “I haven't found the armoury yet,” Guinar sighed. “Nor the boats. There were twelve guards that I remember, not counting the two I had to knock out to get this disguise. Where did they take Covari? And...wait, marriage?”
                  “Joy put it into their heads that if they marry they can own the Nymph together,” Kyleeka glared at the blonde man. “They're headed for the Nymph to hold the ceremony there. We have to stop them!”
                  Guinar gave her a long look. “Yeah, and we will. But first we have to find a way to get all of you and the other prisoners out of here.”
                  “Other prisoners?”
                  “Yeah, there was another sphere full of them, just down that-”
                  He began to point when the entire whale beast shook. Guinar stepped to the door to open it again and listen.
                  “Breach near the aft fin!”
                  “Where is the necromancer?”
                  “Tar, we need tar!”
                  Guinar pulled his head back into the sphere. “Upside, we have a distraction. Downside, I think our deadline just moved closer.”

                  The familiar railing felt good in Covari's hands as he climbed onto his ship's deck from the boat. A dozen pirates of varying build but all with grim faces and their hands on sheathed weapons awaited him, and Vartorris following him up the rope ladder.
                  “I hope you haven't mistreated my poor girl,” Covari said and studied the rigging carefully.
                  Vartorris' bodyguards followed them, and the one with the suits shoved the smaller garment into Covari's hands. “Get dressed.”
                  “What, out here?”
                  “You can use the cabin, if you've suddenly become squeamish,” Vartorris laughed. “We checked all the hidden compartments, there are no weapons left.”
                  “Weapons, bah,” Covari shrugged, but then stopped short. “What about my collection of-”
                  “We took all your booze, too. Sorry,” Vartorris slapped him on the back.
                  “You're not sorry.”
                  “No,” the shorter man laughed. “But we might still have some left for a celebration later. Now get moving!”
                  Covari was shoved through the door, but closed it before any guards could follow him in. A quick look around showed nothing seriously amiss, though he hadn't been in here much recently. Unbuttoning his shirt, he went to check the hidden compartments. It was true, they'd emptied them all. No weapons, no bottles, and he couldn't find the ladies' books either.
                  He glared at the door while unbuckling his belt. Vartorris'd better not have thrown them overboard. He let out a sigh and slipped into the suit.

                  Himmika's flying kick only sent the pirate stumbling a little, but his third hazy step back found the edge of the walkway and he toppled over, landing on what was left of the great whale beast's tongue.
                  “Watch out!” Ten Names Joy's voice came from behind her and she spun around to fling the sleeve of her robe to wrap the incoming dagger up and pull it from the lanky pirate's arm.
                  She quickly tossed it to her big friend, and then launched into another spin kick that landed on her now fleeing assailant's ass, shoving him over and rolling down the rusty metal ramp.
                  “Thanks,” she called back and turned to help Joy, but found that aid unneeded. The blonde solar stood tall, solid golden caste mark aglow, with three more pirates held under his left arm by their necks.
                  He stepped to the edge of the walkway and looked down, to where the pirate Himmika had shoved over was clumsily trying to rise on the sickly soft ground. Then Joy flung the three captives he held down as well.
                  “They are pirates,” Himmika pointed out. “You are allowed to hurt them.”
                  “But I don't want to ruin the wedding!”
                  The girl let out a groan and turned to the rest of the crew following them. “Vectis, take half the men and get as many boats as you can ready. Guinar, you and the rest grab what weapons you can and hold off any reinforcements. I want three on that walkway, three over there, and the rest at the big door over there!”
                  “What should we do?” the taller Tya asked.
                  “Take over for me,” Guinar said. “I need to go back for the other prisoners.”
                  “Back into that?” Himmika pointed at where water was now freely swelling up through the lower door into the rear of the whale's interior. “This thing is going down, and if you go back inside, you'll go down with it!”
                  “I'll go with him!” Joy shouted. “Let's go save them.”
                  “No!” Kyleeka held him back. “I need you here. You need to throw me across to the Nymph.”
                  “I have to stop the wedding!” she said and grabbed him by the shirt. “Please, the boats are too slow!”
                  “Why would we want to stop the wedding?”
                  “I don't have time for this,” Guinar sighed and sprang into a sprint before anyone could stop him.
                  “Im...Imbella? Take his place,” Himmika commanded and the golden sunburst on her forehead lit up. “And the rest of you better stay where I bloody tell you to stay!”
                  Joy blinked at her. “So do I throw Kyleeka or not?”
                  “Yes, throw her. Covari needs to hear we're free, if nothing else so he doesn't think we're drowning,” the girl nodded. Then she rushed off to join a scuffle at one of the doors.
                  “Are you sure about this?” Joy asked Kyleeka as he picked her up and carried her along the row of whale teeth to the edge of the beast's mouth.
                  “Vartorris is an evil man,” the sorceress nodded. “You heard it, he has more prisoners, and he wanted to sell us to the Wyld Hunt! Covari deserves someone better!”
                  The blonde man grunted. “Covari stole a ship, too. But fine. Himmika said I should, so I'll do it. Hold on.”

                  With one last look at himself in the mirror, Covari decided he was ready. The suit fit, although he really would have liked a bath first, and the thought of...
                  No, Vartorris would just have to make do with an unfaithful husband. Not that the slime ball of a man would be any different.
                  Pushing the door open with a grand motion, he stepped outside, ready to face his groom.
                  No one was paying him any heed, instead standing by the railing, looking out.
                  “What's the matter?” he asked and joined Vartorris.
                  “Something's wrong with my ship,” the other captain grumbled.
                  The whale beast was lying deeper in the water now, boats rowing from its mouth, the tail no longer visible under water.
                  “It looks like she's sinking,” Covari frowned. “You have to save my friends!”
                  “For all I know your friends did this!” Vartorris snapped back. “Until I know they didn't, the wedding is off!”
                  The short man snapped his fingers and Covari heard steel clear many scabbards around him. He slowly held up his hands. “Please, save them, and I will swear to be your loyal husband now and forev...” Something was flying towards them from one of the boats. “Kyleeka?”
                  “I object!” the sorceress screamed and slammed into Covari, sending both of them tumbling. Only the far railing stopped their roll, and left him lying beneath the red haired woman.
                  “Kyleeka?” he gasped.
                  “Don't do it! Don't marry him!”
                  “He wasn't going to,” Vartorris now held a flame piece their way. “Since you're out of the cell, I doubt you're innocent in what's going on. The wedding is off.” He pulled back the hammer. “Any last words?”
                  Kyleeka nodded and began shouting in what sounded like old realm.
                  Vartorris scratched his temple with the muzzle of his weapon. “Huh?”
                  Then Kyleeka's half sun caste mark flared up and she thrust her hand out at the pirates around them. Pirates screamed as rope came alive and ensnared them. A flame piece went off, the fiery blast blinding Covari, and then the sound of metal falling on wood and frustrated grumbling.
                  There was no pain, and when he opened his eyes again, he found Vartorris' crew hanging tied by their ankles from the rigging.
                  “That was amazing!” he laughed and hugged the woman still lying on top of him. She didn't react. “Kyleeka?”
                  There was a scorch mark in the back of her shirt.

                  The two eye patches didn't allow Guinar to see much at all, but he concluded that debilitation of his senses was worth it when the third group of panicking pirates waved him past.
                  “Allmaker, quickly! There is a leak near the aft ventral fins!”
                  “Fools, what did you do to my vessel now?” Guinar tried to bark as deeply as he could. He had to draw on his essence to sell the illusion, making sure the cloth fell just right to hide his bust and that the high pitch of his voice was lost in the rushing water. His earlier extended swim had left him nearly exhausted, though, as did his efforts to conceal his caste mark.
                  He rushed on past the pirates, which thankfully was exactly what they wanted anyway.
                  “Forgive us, and please, save us!”
                  “All hail the Allmaker!”
                  But at last he'd reached his goal. The lock on the door was no obstacle to his dagger, and it swung open with a creak.
                  “I'm here to rescue you!” he shouted to the worried inhabitants of the prison sphere. “Quickly, just...”
                  A ripping sound tore through the air, and the water began to rise, very quickly. A wave flooded down the fleshy corridor towards Guinar.
                  “...quickly just stay where you are!” he finished and slammed the door back shut on the prisoners just as the wave hit him.
                  He strained hard, bolstering his grip on the door handle with more essence, no longer bothering to hide his ring caste mark. He had to do something!
                  The dagger!
                  He brought the blade to the edge of the door, where the dead flesh met the wood, and began to cut. Slowly, he had to go slowly! It'd be for naught if he flooded the sphere.

                  Himmika was the first on the deck of the Nymph, having received a boost from Ten Names Joy. Striking her ready pose, one arm forward, the other back and curled upwards, she studied the scene.
                  “The deck is secure!” she called down. “Prepare search teams to clear belows!”
                  All the pirates were hanging tied from the rigging, their weapons lying on the deck beneath them. “Nice work, you two,” she commented to Covari, who sat across on the other side, cradling Kyleeka.
                  “She's hurt,” the captain cried out. “Badly! Vectis, get Vectis here!”
                  The old sailor and Joy were soon at his side and began to examine the wound on Kyleeka's back.
                  “Nasdy,” Vectis said with a grim smile. “Bud nod leefal. Need to gedder do bed, and glean de wound.”
                  “The shoulder blade stopped most of it,” Joy agreed. “She may not be able to move the arm again anytime soon, or ever, but she'll live.”
                  “Get her into the cabin,” Covari nodded. “And do everything you can, everything!”
                  “Captain,” Himmika spoke quietly but with an edge. “There is another matter. Guinar is still on the sinking whale.”
                  “What?” Covari was on his feet and at the railing immediately. “Why'd you leave him behind?”
                  “I did no such thing,” the girl glared. “He ran off. He said there were other prisoners.”
                  “I need three rowers!” Covari barked and jumped down into the boat, sending it rocking.
                  Then a sick, wet sound marked the overdue end of the whale. The beast ripped in half, and both ends quickly disappeared beneath the waves.
                  The surface had almost calmed down again, when a glass sphere bobbed up into sight. A figure clung to the door built into the bubble's top, waving a dagger at them.
                  “Is that the necromancer?” Covari frowned.
                  Himmika let out a sigh and smiled. “No, Guinar had to dress up as him.” She turned her head and let her voice rise to a firm bark again. “Where are those rowers Covari called for! Now!”

                  I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


                  • #10
                    Chapter Ten

                    Guinar sat on the railing next of the Nymph's forecastle, dangling his feet over the edge. No sail was set, no men climbed the rigging. He wasn't needed anywhere.
                    And yet, he resented Imbella's intrusion when the Tya climbed up the ladder to join him.
                    “I thought you couldn't wait to leave,” Guinar mumbled to him when he stood beside him.
                    “I can't,” he agreed. “But your captain did promise us compensation for our trouble, and trouble we got.”
                    He nodded to where the other two ships drifted in the wind a short distance away, the Tya vessel they had commandeered, now battered and its mast broken halfway up its length, and the cargo sloop Vartorris had seized from the other lot of prisoners.
                    “The captain of the crew you freed was kind enough to offer to tow us,” Imbella continued. “We're just waiting for the money now and their healer to finish with your friend.”
                    Guinar shoved his hands in his pockets and turned them out. What few coins he produced, he handed to the Tya. “That's all I've got. And I'm sorry we did what we did.”
                    Imbella stared at the money for a while. “Shame we couldn't just have shared that drink in Dragon's Jaw.”
                    Guinar shrugged.
                    “Is that all?” Imbella asked and crossed his arms. “The child told me you were interested in me, and yet I get the impression now that you just want me gone.”
                    “Isn't that feeling mutual?” Guinar shrugged again. “Don't tell me you've forgiven me.”
                    “Of course not! But you did save a lot of people you didn't even know,” Imbella said and leaned on the railing next to Guinar. “I don't think you belong on a pirate ship.”
                    “A pirate ship isn't exactly what we are,” he mumbled.
                    “You're Tya,” Imbella's voice softened. “You could come with us. No one'd need to know you were with these people.”
                    He could go, he thought. It might even make things easier for everyone on the ship. He glared over his shoulder to the aft castle, imagining the cabin beneath. Covari was surely longing to comfort the wounded sorceress right now.
                    “It'd be a lie,” he said. “I'm not Tya.”
                    Imbella blinked. “But...the tattoo...”
                    “A fake. Not a cheap one, either,” Guinar shook his head. “I ran, never took the poison.”
                    Silence fell over them.
                    Imbella fidgeted.
                    Guinar waited.
                    “I'm not going to tell anyone,” Imbella finally said. “Your secret is safe.”
                    “Why?” Guinar frowned. “Do you want more money?”
                    “Because you saved us, and the other crew! And because I think the tattoo suits you.”
                    He placed his hand on Guinar's leg.
                    “I thought you hadn't forgiven me?”
                    “I haven't,” Imbella nodded. “But I might, some day. Until then, if you don't have any money to pay us, how about you show me a good time, instead?”
                    “Wh...huh?” Guinar's mouth fell open. “I...”
                    His eyes fell on the Tya's breasts, clearly present under the shirt. No, it wasn't a good idea...
                    But Covari'd do it. Joy would do it. If Himmika understood, she'd recommend it.
                    Imbella's hand was caressing his thigh now.
                    He nodded, and so Imbella took him by the hand and led him to where the row boat was stored upside down.

                    The captain was pacing across the deck just before the cabin door. Ten Names Joy and the healer from the merchant sloop had been inside with Kyleeka for over an hour now.
                    “What's taking so long?” he snarled and turned direction again.
                    “It is a serious wound,” Himmika reminded him. “And this is no hospital.”
                    “I know!” Covari snapped. “But still, they've been at long?”
                    “Not yet long enough,” the girl shrugged. “In the meantime, we have some more important matters to discuss.”
                    “More important matters? Kyleeka was almost killed trying to save me!”
                    “She is alive and will remain so,” the girl slowed her speech and added volume to each word. “But what do we do with Vartorris and his crew?”
                    “Throw them overboard,” Covari shrugged. “I don't care.”
                    “An effective solution,” the girl nodded. “But may I propose another? As renowned pirates, there is sure to be a bounty on their heads. And we did promise the Tya compensation for the use of their ship.”
                    Covari stopped and stared at the girl. “You want them to take the pirates into Dragon's Jaw? What if they break free?”
                    “Then they will be trapped on the damaged Tya vessel,” Himmika countered, “with everyone else on the merchant sloop.”
                    “It's still a risk.”
                    “Yes, but it would fulfil your promise to the Tya, soften their ire towards us, and it would make Joy happy if we didn't execute the prisoners.”
                    “That means a lot to you, doesn't it?” Covari finally smiled again. “That Joy isn't mad at you?”
                    “He wouldn't be mad at me,” the girl huffed. “But there is little reason in antagonising him.”
                    “Alright, let everyone know of the change in plans,” he agreed.
                    “Send one of your men to do that,” the girl shook her head. “You have another promise to keep. What is the matter with all these 'complicated' things?” she pointed towards the bow. “For example, why are Guinar and that Tya holding hands now?”
                    “They are?” he turned and spotted the two adolescents climb under the row boat together. He took Himmika by the shoulder and quickly turned her around. “Yes, I supposed you need to learn a few things.”
                    He led her to sit on the railing and tried to gather his thoughts. “So, men and women are different in a few very important ways...”

                    Although she wanted nothing more than to roll face up, Kyleeka believed the healer when he told her she shouldn't lie on her back for a while. Speaking felt undignified, though, with half her face pressed into the cushion.
                    “How long?”
                    “Until you get to your next port,” the white haired, wiry man said. “You need to rest on land, and an exalted healer if you can afford it. Natural healing alone won't bring the feeling in your arm back.”
                    “It might not,” Ten Name's Joy agreed. “But she might surprise us yet, also.”
                    “I suppose,” the older man said. “Look, just let he rest as best she can and get her into a bed on land. Soon. There isn't any more I can do.”
                    “We will, and thank you!” Joy stood as well as the healer made to leave.
                    “Thank you!” Kyleeka called after him even as the door closed again. “But we don't really need to get me to land,” she continued to Joy after.
                    “But he said-”
                    “He doesn't know I'm an exalt,” Kyleeka tried to laugh, but gave up after the first pained hiss. “I'd have bled out if I wasn't. I should be healing fully on my own just fine, just so long as we keep the wound clean and bandaged.”
                    “I don't think you'd have bled out,” Joy shook his head. “The wound was all scorched. No blood.”
                    Kyleeka didn't respond at first.
                    “Could you not tell me anything more about the wound, please?” she asked finally. “I think it hurts less if I don't know.”
                    “I'm not sure that's true,” the blonde man scratched his head. “But alright, I won't. I will get Covari though, he's been worried sick about you.”
                    “Yes!” she almost tried to sit up against all common sense. “Please, do tell him to come in here.”
                    Joy smiled and nodded, before heading for the door.

                    This wasn't really how Guinar'd imagined it. His hands were shaking, his whole body was shaking. He was fumbling, with his clothes, with Imbella's, with her softness. She was so soft. No, he was. Imbella was Tya, like him. No, not like him. Guinar wasn't Tya.
                    He was so sweet. He liked the way Imbella sighed. He tried to sigh the same way.
                    Imbella didn't fumble. Not in the slightest.
                    “Shh, quiet now,” the Tya whispered into Guinar's ear. “Everyone will hear. You sound as though this was your first time.”
                    Stomping footsteps approached, and they both fell quiet.
                    Himmika's head leaned down to look through the gap between the boat and the deck.
                    “I am not a whore's daughter, and I don't want your filthy jade!” the girl shouted and threw something at Guinar.
                    Whatever it was, it hurt when it hit his forehead. By the time he picked up the jade bit, the girl had already stomped off again.
                    “That,” Imbella asked and stopped touching him, “sounds like something you'd better explain to me.” He pointed at the Jade bit in Guinar's hand. “And I thought you said you didn't have any money?”
                    Guinar silently cursed the little girl with every mean thought he could muster, and then began to confess how they'd obtained their supplies.

                    Covari took the chair closer to Kyleeka's face, and gave her a warm smile.
                    “It's good to see you awake again,” he said. “I was worried I wouldn't get to thank you for saving me.”
                    She smiled back at him. “Vartorris wasn't the right one for you. I had to do something.”
                    “Actually, I meant saving my life from that flame piece shot,” he laughed. “No one's ever risked that much for me.”
                    “No one's ever risked anything for me,” she shot back, ”until I met you.” She reached for his hand, but could only reach his knee. He stiffened when she placed her hand there.
                    “That is very saddening to hear,” he looked her hand. “But I should apologise indiscretion earlier today.”
                    “You mean the kiss?” she smiled and caressed him. “Please, don't apologise.”
                    He sighed. “I fear I must. As foolish as it is to neglect a lovely young woman such as you, I cannot...I cannot.”
                    Kyleeka's eyes narrowed. “Is it because I'm a woman?”
                    “No, it is not because of you at all,” he rubbed his forehead. “It's because of Guinar. I know he is too young for you, but he is not too young to be jealous. And his Tya conquest won't distract him for long, I suspect.”
                    Her hand stopped moving.
                    “It's not fair,” Covari agreed with the silence. “But let's be honest. I would have been a terrible husband to Vartorris, and I'm not much better at being a boyfriend, either.”
                    “I...” Kyleeka began. Her hand withdrew.
                    “I'm sorry,” he said, barely audible.
                    “No, I was foolish,” she tried to shrug. It obviously hurt. “I should...I shouldn't have...”
                    She let out a sigh. “I should get some sleep.”
                    Covari reached for her hand, but she pulled back from his.
                    “Just, let me get some sleep.”
                    He nodded and left her cabin.
                    Why'd everyone have to make everything so complicated?
                    “It's time to get back on this treasure hunt,” he said to the men milling nearby.
                    “Captain,” one of the men asked, “is it true we're paying the Tya for the damages? That's not coming out of our shares, is it?”
                    Why did absolutely everyone have to make absolutely everything so complicated!
                    “We're rich!” came a shout from below decks.

                    The Hilken brothers stood crouched in the cargo hold when Covari jumped down the ladder, the shorter one busily smacking the taller one over the head.
                    “Why'd you have to shout that?” he wailed. “We could have kept it...oh, captain! Look at what we found!”
                    The wiry man gestured at the crate that lay cracked open next to them. Covari stepped up to it and took one of the rice packages out. Many more footsteps sounded behind him on the creaking wood.
                    “What's going on?” Ten Names Joy blurted. “Did someone win at dice?”
                    Covari took another rice pack out of the crate, and then another. More and more golden metal came into view as he continued to remove the rice packed tightly to hide it.
                    “Guinar?” he shouted. “Where did you say these supplies came from?”
                    “Guinar isn't here yet,” Himmika spoke as she pushed through the gathering crowd. “He and I stole them from the Ragara military warehouse in Dragon's Jaw.”
                    “You didn't accidentally steal officer's field equipment instead of food, did you?” Covari said and pulled the daiklave from its hiding place. Its curved blade gleamed with the golden light of the sun, except where letters sat engraved in its blade.
                    “What's going on?” Guinar finally joined them, still buttoning his shirt. The Tya following on his heels was now carrying his bodice rolled up in his hand.
                    Covari twirled the heavy blade a few times. “As the Hilkens said,” he smiled. “We're rich.”

                    More of the crates and barrels turned out to have contained hidden riches, but not all of them. One by one, the golden items were laid out on deck for counting. And at last, the total came in. Three hundred ancient coins, a set of bracers, a woman's breastplate, the curved daiklave Covari had found first, an amulet with an empty jewel socket, a pair of shapely boots with cavalry heels, four rolled up portraits of the same woman in various locations, six bottles of glittering, sweet smelling liquid, and a white cloak with a golden clasp in the shape of a wasp.
                    “What is all this stuff?” Joy wondered.
                    “Is that gold?” Joy frowned and took a coin to bite on it.
                    “No,” Covari shook his head. “I bet it's orichalcum. I smuggled some of it once, for another realm house. It's the metal of the solar, of us. These were artefacts once wielded by the likes of us in the first age.”
                    “But why were they in our rice?” Joy asked. “Wouldn't the soldiers who found it want to claim a finders reward?”
                    “Not if the house they work for wanted these things for themselves,” Guinar explained. “There are a lot of taxes and regulations on jade, let alone anything magical that isn't jade.”
                    “And in the coming confrontation,” Himmika nodded now, “a secret stash of artefact gear might just push the balance.”
                    “But it's orichalcum,” Joy pointed out. “Isn't that like, evil, in the eyes of the Immaculate order?”
                    “Not evil,” Covari replied, “but possibly suspicious. Likely another reason why house Ragara was hiding them.”
                    “Then they're coming after us,” Himmika's eyes snapped up. “We need to get moving.”
                    “Agreed,” Covari said. “Tya Imbella, I doubt these coins will do you much good in Dragon's Jaw-”
                    “We'll take them anyway,” the Tya laughed. “We can always sell them in another port.”
                    “Can we keep one?” Joy frowned. “I'm sure Kyleeka would like to study one.”
                    “Fine,” Imbella nodded and shook Joy's hand before Covari could protest. “We'll take all but one coin.”
                    “You're never negotiating for us again, Joy!” the captain sighed. Then he turned to the Tya. “Gather them up and get going. The sooner the better for all of us. And don't forget the prisoners.”
                    “Agreed!” he bent over to collect them, Guinar stepped forward to help.
                    “And what do we do with the rest,” Himmika asked.
                    “We keep it, learn how to use it,” Joy suggested. “I'm sure Kyleeka wouldn't mind the breastplate. It looks about her size, and should stop the next flame piece.”
                    “I think she should have a look at all of this,” Himmika nodded. “Most of it bears old realm markings.”
                    “Alright,” Covari clapped his hands. “You and Joy do that. Guinar, get our guests to their boats. Everyone else, get ready to set sail!”

                    Guinar had just swung his leg over the railing when Imbella stopped on the rope ladder, blocking him from following down.
                    “What are you doing?” he asked Guinar.
                    “I'm coming with you,” he frowned. “You said I shouldn't be on a pirate ship.”
                    “Oh...” came the only answer.
                    “Oh what?”
                    Imbella let out a long, slow sigh. “When I said that...I thought you were one of us.”
                    “But you said you'd keep my secret!”
                    “And I will!” he assured Guinar. “ means you don't belong with us, either.”
                    “ and I...” his eyes wandered to the row boat they'd hidden beneath.
                    Imbella climbed back up enough to squeeze his hand.
                    “It was nice, very sweet,” he smiled. “But it doesn't make you one of us.”
                    Guinar's knees felt ready to buckle. “But...what do I do then?”
                    “I don't know. But I hope you'll be safe. Goodbye.” He squeezed his hand one last time and then climbed down the ladder.
                    He watched him and the healer row the boat away, the last of the prisoners in the back.
                    Suddenly, Covari's hand lay on his shoulder.
                    “Wha-” he belatedly spun around.
                    “It's alright, Guinar,” the captain said. “I think we should talk.”
                    The boy struggled out from the hold. “No, I don't want to talk.”
                    “Guinar, please,” Covari stepped back, but not far. “Please, I need to apologise.”
                    The boy blinked. “What for?”
                    “For kissing Kyleeka. It shouldn't have happened.”
                    Guinar shoved Covari back even further. “Just leave me alone. I don't care what you two do.”
                    “Of course you do. You're crushing on her.”
                    “And she doesn't care!” Guinar shouted. “And why should she? I'm a fake, and I suck at love.”
                    “You're not a fake!” Covari also raised his voice. “You are my friend, the truest one I've ever had. I care.”
                    “You don't understand,” Guinar turned away and began to shake. “I'm not your friend. I just tried to leave.” He stared after the row boat, which had now reached the merchant sloop.
                    Covari followed his gaze. “I thought as much. He didn't want you along though, did he?”
                    Guinar shook his head. “I guess I was too clumsy. Maybe I hurt him?”
                    “Guinar!” Covari pulled him around to face him, or at least not the distant Tya. “He left because he never meant to stay with you.”
                    “How do you know that?”
                    “It's what I do!” he sighed. “I have fun with people, then we go our separate ways. He wanted some fun with you, and given what we put him through, that must mean he really thinks you're hot stuff.”
                    Guinar blushed and tried to look away.
                    “I'm serious Guinar,” Covari tried again to hold the boy by the shoulder. “All in all, this was a good day for you, if you’d just focus on that.”
                    “I don't know...”
                    “Sleep on it,” Covari advised. “After your amazing rescue work, you've earned it. And if you ever want to talk, about anything that happened, find me?” He squeezed Guinar's shoulder.
                    The boy nodded. “I just wish Himmika hadn't interrupted us.” “She did what?”

                    Kyleeka grumbled a reply when the knock came, only to see the blonde man and the girl enter.
                    “Hey,” she greeted them, half into the pillow, “what's all that stuff?”
                    “The supplies we stole in Dragon's Jaw had this hidden inside,” Ten Names Joy beamed. “It's all shiny!”
                    “And it has old realm markings that captain wants you to have a look at,” Himmika added.
                    “I think the breast plate would fit you,” Joy held up the armour. “It should keep you from getting hurt again.”
                    She smiled at the big man. It did look about her size. It also looked like she'd make Guinar's eyes pop out of his skull, if she'd walk past him in the form fitting piece. “Thank you.”
                    “Have you checked on the books yet?” Himmika asked and looked up, then put a hand to her mouth. “I'm sorry, I...forgot.”
                    “You do it,” said the bedridden sorceress.
                    The girl nodded and stepped to the dresser and climbed up on top of it. From there she reached up and peeled the brown cloth nailed to the ceiling back until she could pull the first book out, passing it to Joy.
                    “Nice hiding spot,” Joy said and took it, before handing Kyleeka the coin.
                    “Guinar helped us set it up when we came into Dragon's Jaw,” Himmika nodded. “They didn't fit into any of the other compartments. Good thing, too. Vartorris would almost certainly have found them in there, from what Covari said.”
                    “The Fire Hornet,” Kyleeka said. “The profile on the coin, it says it was the Fire Hornet.”
                    “Who was that?” Joy frowned.
                    “Probably the solar this stuff belonged to,” Himmika replied and climbed back down with the second tome. “The cloak has a wasp clasp.”
                    “She had coins with her own face on it?” Kyleeka chuckled. It hurt. “Reminds me of quite a few...all the people at the Heptagram. They’d all have loved that.”
                    “Any idea what this says?” Joy held up the daiklave for Kyleeka to read.
                    “ 'Traitor' “ she translated. “Why would it say that?”
                    “I don't know,” Joy shrugged and placed the blade back on the table. “How are you doing?”
                    “Tired, annoyed, in pain.”
                    “About that...” Himmika nodded. “I won't need to sleep tonight, but I doubt we will share the bed any time soon, with that injury. Where will I be sleeping?”
                    “I can get you a hammock in here,” Joy stood. “Have you ever slept in one? It's fun!”
                    “No,” she admitted. “I'm looking forward to it.”
                    He beamed and left, returning shortly to help her set it up.
                    By the time she climbed inside, Kyleeka had already fallen asleep.
                    She even slept through the first thump in the night.
                    “This is less fun than promised,” Himmika groaned and got off the floor. She climbed into the hammock to sleep once more.
                    And then, Kyleeka slept through many more thumps.

                    Two fighters circled each other on the main deck of the Nymph of a Thousand Shores in the late morning sun. The first kick caught Joy right above the knee, and the tall man stumbled.
                    “Ouch,” Ten Names Joy yelped. “I thought we were only practising?”
                    “We are practising,” Himmika shot back. “Now get back into your stance.”
                    “Fine, but please go easy,” he pleaded and tried to mimic the pose in the book once more. “I haven't really done anything like this before.”
                    The young girl raised her eyebrows. “I've seen you fight.”
                    “Fight, yes,” he nodded and glanced back down at the book to get his hand positions right. “But's so formal...”
                    Covari walked up to them and took Joy's hand in his, launching them into a pirouette together.
                    “Just think of it as a dance! Only, with more kicking.” He released the blonde man again.
                    “A dance? I can do that,” he nodded and studied the pictures in the book again. “I know how to dance.”
                    “How is the training going?” Covari turned to Himmika. “I take it Guinar is still a bit grumpy?”
                    “I suspect so, he hasn't come down from the crow's nest since yesterday.”
                    Covari's head snapped up. “Wait, he's up there? And you two are out here? You're telling me Kyleeka is all alone in the cabin?”
                    “She was still asleep when I left,” the girl protested. “And I do need to continue my practice with someone!”
                    “I suppose so,” the captain sighed and left the two to it. Joy seemed to be getting into the spirit of it, too, throwing out cautious kicks of his own.
                    Covari turned his back to them and reached the cabin door with a few quick steps. After a short knock, she called for him to enter.
                    “Captain,” she braved a smile. “I'm sorry, but I don't think I'm up to sorcery yet.”
                    “I'm not here about sorcery,” he smiled and took one of the seats. “I just wanted to see how you're going. Is there anything I can get you?”
                    “Thank you, but I'm fine,” she shrugged. A wince followed, but not as strong of one as Covari'd feared. “The night's rest helped, I should be able to get up again tomorrow.”
                    “Tomorrow is a long way away when you're alone,” he reached for the book on the table. “I thought maybe-”
                    “I appreciate the thought,” she smiled, but only with her mouth this time, “but you needn't worry about me. You have a ship to run.”
                    “And I have a good crew who can spare me for a few hours,” he shot back. “Now, should I read out some of the book to you or not?”
                    She let out a long sigh and then fell quiet for a moment.
                    “I don't need your pity,” she finally said. “I've been rejected before. It was a mortal’s lot at the Heptagram.”
                    “Then there are indeed fools in this world besides me,” Covari let his face fall. “But no, I'm not offering this out of pity. I...I don't want you to be alone like this. It's not right.”
                    She looked him in the eye, and then nodded. “It was getting boring. Very well, we can talk for a while. But I'm not sure you reading the book out to me is going to help if you don't speak Old Realm.”
                    “I do speak Old Realm,” he said.
                    Kyleeka blinked. “But before...” she fell silent. “I guess you never said, but you let me think you didn't read it. Why?”
                    “I'm a bit rusty,” he shrugged. “But also, I like keeping some surprises. I speak most languages, actually. But no more secrets between us from now on. Shall I read?”
                    She nodded and he began.

                    The mast shook a little as someone climbed up the rope ladder to Guinar's hiding spot. It wasn't the captain's smile though, that popped up over the side but that of Ten Names Joy.
                    “Hello there,” the blonde man beamed. “Himmika tells me you're hiding?”
                    “I'm not hiding,” Guinar lied. “I just need some time to think.”
                    “No problem,” Joy nodded. “What about?”
                    “Where I really...” he hesitated and looked the other man in the eye. “Actually, it's kind of private.”
                    Joy shook his head. “That's no good. Back in my tribe, our head priest always told me to share with others what I was thinking. It's always best to think together with friends.”
                    “You didn't meditate in quiet?” Guinar's brow creased. “I thought that's what priests did to think.”
                    “Oh, the others did, yes,” Joy laughed. “I'm not sure why the head priest didn't tell them to share more. Anyway, I'm here to help.”
                    “I don't need any help.”
                    “So you're coming down to practice with Himmika again?”
                    “No, not until she apologises,” Guinar huffed.
                    “Alright, I'll tell her to come up here and do that,” Joy nodded and was about to climb down again.
                    “No, wait. She doesn't really need to apologise,” the boy sighed. “It's not really her fault.”
                    “Then why are you hiding?”
                    “It's complicated.”
                    “Then you do need help!” Joy declared and crossed his arms over the edge of the basket to rest his chin. “Start from the beginning.”
                    Guinar tried. He tried to form his feelings into words. Tell them to the smiling man with the shining eyes. He tried to name the feelings twisting around in his guts.
                    “You know what,” Guinar finally said. “I'll just let Himmika kick me around for a bit instead.” It would be easier.

                    I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


                    • #11
                      Chapter Eleven

                      It was a few days later that Kyleeka finally stepped out into the light of the rising sun again. She wanted nothing more than to stretch her arms at last, except possibly to finally change her clothes, but the injury still protested harshly whenever she tried to raise the limb.
                      “Where are we?” she yawned and looked around. None of the sails were set, few of the sailors were at work. At the very close shore, she could see a collection of huts around a larger house atop a low but steep cliff. Closer by on the deck, she saw Covari stand with the other exalts, as well as Vectis and Bahltin around a small crate.
                      “No, we're not selling any of the artefacts,” Covari agreed. “Any attempt to contact a buyer wealthy enough is going to get back to the Wyld Hunt at this point. We'll just have to hope we can get enough for the first age wine.”
                      “I'm not sure there is enough money in this village for a wine that good,” Bahltin grumbled with crossed arms. “We're going to make a big loss. Good morning, m'lady.” That last he nodded to Kyleeka as she stepped up.
                      “Kyleeka,” Covari gave her a smile. “Good to see you up and about. We were just about to row to shore and engage the services of a healer for you.”
                      “Which would be much easier if blondy hadn't overpaid those Tya,” Bahltin continued.
                      “We owed them!” Ten Names Joy insisted.
                      “But not that much,” Himmika shot back. “But either way, it's done.”
                      “We have the one coin we gave Kyleeka,” Covari pointed out then turned to her, “unless you think there is more to be learned from it?”
                      “I don't know,” she said. “But I'm not sure who'd want it, given that it's orichalcum.”
                      “The wine will have to do,” Covari nodded. “We'll sell half. That should be enough for supplies and a healer.”
                      “Wha' aboat tha paintin's?” Vectis asked. “Wha'd they bee worths?”
                      “A lot as well,” Guinar replied. “But only to art collectors. Wine almost anyone appreciates.”
                      “I'm getting better,” Kyleeka said carefully. “We don't really need a healer.”
                      “Of course we do,” the captain said to her great relief. “And that's final. Now, are you feeling up to a small trip, or should we bring the healer aboard?”
                      “A trip sounds wonderful!”
                      To spare her the need to climb, they let her sit in the boat as it was lowered over the side into the water. Guinar, the captain and the Hilken brothers joined them. The latter two then rowed them to shore.
                      Kyleeka was about to ask how they were meant to get up the two man-heights off cliff when they rounded a corner of the rock and headed towards a small dock carved into its side from where a set of stairs led up to the village.
                      “You've been here before?” she asked.
                      “Once, yes, before I became captain myself,” Covari nodded. “We needed to make landfall due to a bad run of scurvy on our ship, and met a most helpful spirit running the orchards here.”
                      The docked to the side of the small fishing boat taking up almost the entirety of the small dock and made their way up the stairs, the captain offering to steady her.
                      “Guinar, you take the two brothers and see about our financial needs,” Covari said and handed the boy two of the wine bottles, keeping one. “And do it honestly. You'll find the people here very generous, if memory serves.”
                      “Sure thing, captain,” the boy said with only a hint of a glare and walked off, the two sailors in tow.
                      “What annoyed him?” Kyleeka asked when Covari began guiding her towards the large central house with a gentle hold on her arm. “Was he looking forward to stealing something that much?”
                      Covari let out a long sigh. “No, he's just not happy about how close we have become.”
                      “But we haven't,” she protested and looked back over her shoulder. Guinar was just entering what appeared to be a store of some kind. “You said we couldn't because of him.”
                      “He's...very confused right now,” the captain released her arm to step to the door of the house. Slowly he knocked.
                      And they waited.
                      It was a while before the door slid aside and an old woman in a servant's robe scowled at them.
                      “Yes?” she said and looked both of them up and down.
                      “We come seeking the Great Planter,” Covari bowed.
                      The old woman's scowl remained. “You're not from around here,” she observed. “Why should he provide you with his services.”
                      “Our need for his help is great, madam,” Covari insisted. “And we can offer much in return.” held up the bottle of the golden liquid.
                      A smile crept into the wrinkled features and she waved the two visitors to follow. “I takes an
                      honest man to admit that,” she giggled. “But the Great Planter appreciates honesty.”
                      Leaving their shoes at the entrance, Kyleeka and Covari followed the servant through the house, walking past potted plants, crystal trees and finally into a sand garden where a thin, wood skinned god was raking the fine grain.
                      “Your Bountifulness,” the old woman began. “We have a young couple here who seek your blessing. They offer wine in exchange for the gift of fertility.”
                      “Fertility?” Kyleeka's mouth fell open. “Covari, I thought you said this was a healing spirit!”
                      “I heal many things,” the Great Planter laughed, “but I can see your need. The injury screams for
                      easement. And what is this?” He shouldered she shouldered his rake and approached Covari's bottle. “I haven't seen such a vintage in centuries!”
                      He handed the rake to the servant and waved them to a circle of kneeling cushions. “Please, could you get us some glasses. Such a fine drink must be shared!”
                      And so they did, smiles at the exquisite taste on all three faces.
                      “Now, I suspect I should not ask where you acquired such a wonderful beverage?” the god finally laughed. “I don't want the Imperial tax collectors to visit me any more than I suspect you do.”
                      “Indeed,” Covari nodded. “Alas, I must also admit that the find was small in size. An associate is selling the other bottles for supplies in this village as we speak.”
                      “I shall ensure to acquire them from the shopkeeps then,” came the laughing response. “But for now, please, shall I see about your injury?”
                      Covari nodded and stood to leave. When he was gone, Kyleeka opened her shirt and freed the aching shoulder, making sure to cover herself best she could and to keep her back to the god.
                      “Anything you can do would be greatly appreciated,” she looked at him over her shoulder. “The pain has been quite annoying.”
                      “Of course,” the good said and placed a wooden hand on the sore spot. Though it hurt, initially, a soothing warmth soon seeped from the hand into her skin. “But tell me, is he your mate? I cannot tell.”
                      “No,” Kyleeka rolled her eyes. “The only love in his heart is his ship. Maybe his crew as well, but not me.”
                      “But you wish you were in his heart?” the god's touch grow warmer even as his question sent her twitching.
                      “No,” she said. “Yes. No. I don't know.”
                      “No rush,” the god chuckled. “You have time. Exaltation is a wonderful thing.”
                      “In my experience, exalted friends are always the first to move on and leave you behind... “ she grunted. “Wait, you can tell I'm exalted?” her voice became quiet and slow.
                      “Oh yes, you wouldn't have healed nearly this well already if you weren't. There, you should be able to move again now.”
                      She stood and began to slowly rotate her arm. “It still hurts,” she observed. “But it's better.”
                      “As it should be,” the Great Planter said. “It will heal much quicker now, but the pain must not be removed, lest the lesson is forgotten.”
                      “What lesson?” she turned to stare at him.
                      “I don't know,” he shrugged. “There is usually a lesson behind every injury. If there's not in your case, don't worry about it. In any case, you should be healed and free of pain in the next day or two.”
                      She slowly put her shirt back on. He politely looked away. “Thank you,” she said.
                      “Thank you! I haven't had wine so sweet since...” he tilted his head. “I'm not sure actually.”
                      He escorted her to the door where Covari awaited them.
                      “Now,” the god said, “take care of your body and soul. And let me know if you two ever do need a fertility blessing!”
                      She turned away to hide the blush. “I...we'll keep that in mind.”
                      They exchanged quick bows and then left.
                      The Great Planter was about to close his front door again when a young girl with a tattooed face walked up to him. She held out a jade bit in the palm of her hand.
                      “I'm told you're a healing spirit?” she asked.

                      Covari and Kyleeka found the Hilken brothers at work loading the boat. A few sizable young men from the village were helping them.
                      “Looks like we'll need to make more than one trip?” Kyleeka studied the bags to be loaded into the small boat.
                      “Possibly,” Covari agreed. “I'm curious where Guinar is, though.”
                      The boy was nowhere to be seen. But there was no rush, either.
                      Covari and Kyleeka took the boat on the first run back to the ship, though her poor rowing skills saw them off course a few times.
                      Once back on board, Ten Names Joy's happy hug barely even hurt, but she quickly excused herself. It was time to finally get a fresh set of clothes.
                      Covari's wardrobe held quite a few more shirts and pants for her to choose from, but none of them appealed to her. Instead, her eye fell on the golden breastplate still lying on the table. She held it up, and smiled. There was no need to hide while on board anymore.
                      When she left the cabin, it was in the dress she had worn when coming aboard, now enhanced by the golden armour accentuating her waist and breasts. Several of the sailors noticed immediately, and Bahltin almost dropped the box of fruits he was carrying when she walked past him to where Covari and Himmika observed the loading.
                      “Captain,” she smiled.
                      “My lady,” he smiled back. “I see you are feeling better.”
                      “Much,” she nodded.
                      “That's a very nice dress,” Himmika said. “You are keeping the armour then?”
                      “Joy did offer it to me,” Kyleeka nodded. “But if you want it...”
                      “No, no. It suits you,” the girl nodded.
                      “Are you sure you want to wear that in front of Guinar, though?” Covari asked and pointed to the incoming rowboat. “Because I think that's him in the boat.”
                      The young boy was indeed aboard the boat, rowing alongside the taller Hilken brother. And as soon as he climbed on board, his jaw did drop upon laying eyes on Kyleeka.
                      So did hers though, when she noticed, as did Covari's.
                      “Your tattoos,” Himmika was the first to speak, “they're gone.”
                      “Yes...” the boy had trouble drawing his eyes away from the golden armour. “I, asked the Great Planter to heal my skin, have it removed.”
                      “Why?” Covari asked.
                      “Does that mean you're a girl again?” Himmika frowned. “Because I was just starting to figure all your adult nonsense out.”
                      “No!” Guinar shook his head. “I'm still me. I'm still a b...a man. I'm a man now. I'm not a Tya, and I won't pretend that I am anymore.”
                      Covari raised his hand slowly and stroked his beard. Finally he nodded and patted Guinar on the shoulder. “I like it. Though it does make you look even younger...”
                      A frown appeared on Guinar's face, but then he shrugged. “I can work with that.”
                      “Good,” Covari laughed gave Guinar's shoulder a final slap. “Because those supplies aren't going to stow themselves!”

                      The clouds above the sea parted and the sleek, conical hull of the Swift Deliverance burst free on its hurried way westwards, propelled by the beats of wood and fabric wings, almost dragging the lift balloon along behind it.
                      Inside, brother Lipeng sat crouched in their small cabin, taking up almost all the floor space, and
                      did his best to seek inner peace. The loud drums continued their regular beat, keeping the beastman slaves manning the wings' turn handles working in unison.
                      After almost a week, his teeth had started grinding along with the rhythm.
                      “How much longer until we reach Aestgart?” he asked.
                      His companion, meditating on the narrow bunk they took turns sleeping in, responded only after a long, deep breath.
                      “You have asked that question many times, brother,” sister Junik explained. “These efforts will not hasten our travel.”
                      “Won't slow it, either,” he shot back. “I just want to take those drum sticks and shove them up some anathema's a-”
                      “Your breath is as the mountain breeze,” Junik interrupted him. “Calm and steady as the rock itself.”
                      “I can remember the initiation rhymes myself!” he snarled. “I don't need your help!”
                      “It is the storm that ruins the harvest,” Junik continued unabated. “But balance will bring the peace.”
                      Lipeng opened his mouth for another shout, but swallowed it. “It is the storm that ruins the harvest,” he repeated with forced calm. “Forgive me, sister.”
                      “The pilot last informed me that we would make landfall sometime tomorrow,” she nodded when he had calmed. “And I will make sure we will not be assigned to another galley.”
                      No more drums? He smiled at the thought.
                      “And you are sure Aestgart is where they are headed?” he asked. “What if they head north instead? Or turn back?”
                      “I told you,” she sighed, “I am not sure. We act on orders the wind carried from the cloister itself. They are sure that's where these anathema are headed.”
                      “And ours is to obey,” he sighed even longer.
                      “Yes,” her eyes narrowed as she regarded him. “It is.”
                      He nodded. Once, and only late. “My breath is as the mountain breeze...”

                      Just a few miles north, a hundred ships cruised half on the southwards wind, none bearing the flag of a house. Only the icon of a black rose on each one's main sail identified them.
                      Stepping onto the deck of her scout frigate, Captain Mnemon Alina squinted and slotted her monocle into her left eye. Besides her on the command deck of the invisible Joy of the Sparrow's Speed a lieutenant fidgeted.
                      “Okilin,” she said and counted the vessels in the enemy fleet once more, “do you have something to report?”
                      “Our invisibility cloak is holding strong, mam. Also, six more ships have joined the fleet since your last watch,” the young exalt nodded. “I believe all of them line warships.”
                      “Indeed,” Alina nodded. Her count did show more ships. “But it's seven, not six more. Did you conduct this count yourself?”
                      “Aye, I did, mam,” the boy bowed and stared at the deck.
                      “Then set a new course, south-west, at best speed, before reporting for...let's say three lashes. It was only a minor miscount.”
                      “You are very gracious mam',” the lieutenant did not look up. “But may I ask why we are turning away from the enemy? If the Roseblack means to invade...”
                      “This matter will not be decided at sea,” Alina spat out each word. “Our great Mnemon has other plans for the upstart, or so she says.”
                      “Mnemon told you?” the boy's eyes widened. “She is aboard?”
                      “Don't be silly,” the captain rolled her eyes, almost dropping the monocle. “She sent a sorcerous message to me. We are to join a hunt for some anathema west of An Teng, instead.”
                      “A Wyld Hunt, at a time like this?”
                      “You are young and eager to learn,” she plucked the monocle from her eye and turned to stare the young officer down. “But I will not be questioned as though I am a fool! Six lashes.”
                      Okilin paled and uttered no further word. With a slump he stepped away to seek his punishment on the deck below.
                      Maybe six was a bit much, Alina thought, and took off her hat to rub the throbbing sore spot at the back of her head. But he had to learn never to ask such questions, especially not when Mnemon was in a mood such as today.
                      She quickly wiped away the droplet of blood flowing from her nose.

                      The soldier slowly turned the key in the lock, while his comrade stood back, flame piece at the ready. Ragara Herakkis stood still, hands at his side instead. It wouldn't do to show fear before the prisoners. He had an urge to grab the hilt of his daiklave, though.
                      “Vartorris, step out!” the guard with the key shouted into the cramped room that served as the Pride of Unbowed Will's now overcrowded brig.
                      “I told you,” the rotund man stepping out of the cell grunted, “it's Captain Vartorris.”
                      “A captain, without a ship?” Herakkis smiled. “What a disappointment. And here I thought you might be useful.”
                      “I can be,” the pirate smiled, “for the right price.”
                      “I have already paid a fair sum for you to those merchants,” Herakkis waved him to follow. “You better not be asking too much more.”
                      Behind them, the guards locked the brig again.
                      Slowly he led the prisoner on deck and to the railing of the tall warship.
                      “I am told you know this Covari I seek, and his ship.”
                      “MY SHIP!” Vartorris roared and grabbed the railing with whitening knuckles. “You want my help to catch that thief? I'll gladly do it, but in return I want my ship back, and a letter of marque from your house.”
                      “Very well,” Herakkis nodded. “How will we catch them?”
                      “I know every pirate port and every watering hole that fool's ever been to,” Vartorris smiled. “You tell me where he's headed, and you get me that pardon and the letter of marque in writing, and I'll tell you where you can find him.”
                      “You will receive nothing until we find this man and what he has stolen,” Herakkis shot back. “If either he or the goods get away, we won't even bother ferrying you back into port for a trial.”
                      The pirate squinted at him. “And what exactly did he steal?”
                      “That's none of your business.”
                      “Sure it is,” Vartorris laughed. “The more I know, the better I can tell you where he's going.”
                      Herakkis grabbed the shorter man by the back of the neck and shoved, until his grip was the only thing that kept the fat pirate from tumbling overboard.
                      “I said, it's none of your business. Now where is Covari going?”

                      The little girl's kick knocked Guinar's leg aside and deposited him flat on his back in the middle of the deck. “Ouch!”
                      “You weren't paying attention!” Himmika scolded him. “What's this training for if you won't concentrate?”
                      Ten Names Joy rushed to help Guinar up.
                      “Sorry,” the boy mumbled. He tried not to let them, but his eyes wandered again.
                      Joy's gaze followed his to where Kyleeka stood next to Covari at the tiller. The skirt of her dress was billowing in the wind, but she seemed more focused on keeping the pages of the book in her hands from flipping. “I don't think they're done translating the book yet. They'll tell us when they find something.”
                      Himmika landed a punch in Guinar's guts, doubling him over, though more out of surprise.
                      “We're still practising!” she snapped and readied herself for the next kata. “Stop staring at her legs and pay attention to me!”
                      “I wasn't ready!” he protested. “And if you keep sucker punching me I'm just gonna quit.”
                      “How about we take a break?” Joy stepped between them, holding out an open hand to each.
                      “No, it's alright,” Guinar shook his head. “I'm sorry, I'll stay focused.”
                      The blonde man nodded and stepped back. “I do wonder what's in that book, though. She told me it's about the island we're going to. It could be useful.”
                      Himmika launched into a three strike combination. Guinar managed to deflect the first, block the second with an open palm, but could only escape the final blow by stepping outside the ring they'd marked around themselves with rope. “Got me.”
                      “Indeed,” she nodded with a smile and then turned to joy. “I should hope the book will be useful. If it doesn't tell us where this island is, it's little more than historical trivia.”
                      “You don't know where this island is?” his brow creased. “I thought that's where we were going?”
                      “Kyleeka was able to place it in a general area,” Guinar explained, keeping his eye on Himmika's fists. “We were hoping to have more clues once we got there.”
                      “Well, then excuse me for a moment,” Joy said and strode off towards the aft castle's ladder.
                      Guinar was just about to turn his head after him when Himmika kicked. He managed to twist aside, but still caught most of it on his shin. “Ouch!”
                      “Eyes down here,” she grumbled and walk around Guinar, forcing him to turn towards her and the ship's bow.
                      “I was looking at Joy this time,” he grumbled back, “not Kyleeka.”
                      “It doesn't matter,” she shot back. “I need to practise properly, and if you don't watch me, I might end up hurting you badly by accident.”
                      “I'm trying! I'm just not as good as you at this!”
                      “You could be, if you adults weren't all so insane,” Himmika dropped out of her combat stance and stretched her arms. “You told me Kyleeka doesn't want you, you told me you don't want Kyleeka. So why are you still staring at her? And why'd you spend jade on taking your tattoo off if you're still going to be a boy anyway?”
                      “What I do with my jade is my business. If you wanted to keep it, you shouldn't have thrown it at me!” Now it was Guinar who lunged forward with a punch. It connected with the girl's cheek and she fell backwards on her ass. “Hah, who's not ready now?”
                      Himmika rubbed her reddening cheek. “You were meant to be the defender.”
                      “Yeah, well,” Guinar suddenly felt the crew's eyes on him, “sometimes the best defence is a pre-emptive strike.”
                      He offered his hand to help her up, but she refused, rising instead on her own.
                      “True enough,” she said and brushed her robes smooth. “I believe it is time for me to study the next chapter then. I will call you when I have need of sparring partner again.”
                      She turned to pick up her book and strode away, straight past Vectis and his scowling glare at Guinar.
                      “Hey, I only hit her once,” the boy snapped at the old sailor. “She's been bruising me all morning! And she's not really a little girl!”
                      He didn't wait for a reply. He just grabbed the rope ladder and headed back up the mast.

                      And again Kyleeka had to push the pages that the wind had flipped back to continue her reading. “Right, so these are more sailor reports of having seen the island seven hundred years ago...”
                      Covari nodded and interrupted her. “Are you sure you want to do this out here? The wind's not really cooperating.”
                      “The wind is fine,” she shrugged. “I made it, after all. And I've seen enough of the cabin to last me a lifetime, no offence. I want to be out in the sun.” She nodded to their sparring friends down on the deck. “Besides, aren't you worried what Guinar would think if we spend all day alone in there?”
                      “Aren't you worried that he's been staring your legs for hours?” the captain laughed. “I thought you hated that kind of attention.”
                      Her eyes narrowed for a split second, then she shrugged again. “In any case, I doubt these accounts are any more accurate than the previous sections. Who in yu-shan's name lets people sail ships who don't now basic astronomy?”
                      “They knew astronomy alright, at least enough to sail I bet,” Covari said and adjusted the Nymph's tiller a little. “But I'd surprised if they had the letters to write a log with. That's our problem here.”
                      “Useless,” Kyleeka grunted and let the wind blow over more pages. “Wait, what's this?”
                      There was a drawing on the page, a woman bearing an eclipse caste mark on her forehead.
                      “Who is that?” Covari asked and craned his neck to get a better look. “She looks...familiar.”
                      “Look, she has the hornet clasp on her cloak!” Kyleeka pointed. “This must be the Fire Hornet.”
                      “There is an annotation,” Covari observed. “What does it say about her?”
                      Kyleeka pushed the page flat and tried to trace the slanted lines of writing beneath the image.
                      “Captain!” Ten Names Joy's voice cut in. “Captain!”
                      The tall blonde man was climbing up the ladder.
                      “What is it, Joy?”
                      “I know where we're going! I mean, I know where the island is!”
                      “How?” Kyleeka blurted.
                      “I saw it in my vision,” Joy grinned. “The unconquered sun showed me. I would have said sooner, but I never realised you didn't know! I'm so sorry.”
                      “The sun showed you where my island is?” Kyleeka peered straight into Joy's eyes now. “Where?”
                      “ the vision I was on a ship, we were sailing north from,” Joy hesitated. “I don't know. It was a big city with a port raised above the sea. We sailed very quickly, I'm not sure how fast, but in the very far distance ahead I could see the island hiding in the clouds!”
                      “A port above the sea?” the sorceress laughed. “How does that work?”
                      “Aestgart!” Covari snapped his fingers. “It has a lake dug into the top of a cliff and a series of water locks with which ships enter and leave. That must be the port. And directly north you said? How far north?”
                      Joy shrugged. “I don't know. It was about...” he hesitated, “...this long in the vision. And we were going about this fast.” He put his fingers in a little boat shape and moved his hand from right to left. “I think.”
                      “How many days?” Covari asked. “Weeks?”
                      “The sun was standing right next to me on the ship,” Joy said. “So there was no day or night at all.”
                      “Can you show me on the map?” Covari handed the tiller to Kyleeka.
                      “Maybe? I've never used a map before, but I can try.”
                      The captain waved him to follow and headed to the cabin where he got out the map. Joy immediately began studying the northeast An Teng coast.
                      “So we are....”
                      Covari pointed him to the western end of the map.
                      “Oh, I see. Yes, that reads 'Aestgart',” he laughed. “Hm, I don't see any islands north of it...”
                      “It wouldn't be on the map,” Covari sighed. “The man who drew it didn't know about that island.”
                      “Or maybe he did,” Joy pointed out the large ocean on the map. “He didn't draw any clouds, maybe islands in the clouds just didn't interest him.”
                      Clouds, Covari thought and nodded despite himself. “What kind of clouds? Thin, fluffy, white, grey?”
                      “Storm clouds, raining,” Joy replied. “Grey, I think. Light grey.”
                      That might help. “I'll have to check some old logbooks,” he told the blonde man. “Thank you, this might just be
                      the clue we needed.”

                      The little girl dangled her feet over the edge of the crate she was sitting on in the Nymph's cargo hold, her eyes on the pages in her book, but not truly seeing them.
                      “Stupid Guinar,” Himmika muttered to herself and flipped a page for the sake of it. Had she studied this page before? “Stupid adults.”
                      Why couldn't Guinar be more like Joy? He was an adult, but so much more sensible!
                      Footsteps on the ladder to the deck drew her attention.
                      “Kyleeka,” she greeted the sorceress when she stepped off the ladder.
                      “Hello Himmika,” came the reply. “Is the daiklave still in the crate?”
                      Himmika nodded and stood up. “Yes, we put everything but your armour back in there. But I believe Covari wished to claim it to replace his cutlass.”
                      “I know, yes. I just need a quick look,” Kyleeka put down her book and opened the crate and from it pulled the cloth wrap that hid the golden blade. “If my translation is correct, I forged it in one of my past lives.”
                      She grabbed the hilt with both hands and took a fighting stance, holding it for a long moment. Nothing in particular happened.
                      “What are you doing?” Himmika asked her and switched the book she was holding with the one on the deck. “What did you find out?”
                      “I'm trying to attune to the essence in the blade,” Kyleeka whispered and slowly swung the curved weapon in a few practice swing.
                      “Watch-” Himmika began but despite the impressive length of the weapon, Kyleeka's swings did not catch on the low ceiling. “Huh, you're pretty good with that.”
                      “Only in practice, I assure you. But yes, I think it does feel familiar. This used to be mine.”
                      “So you're not letting Covari have it?” Himmika asked. She was now flicking through Kyleeka's book.
                      The sorceress put her blade aside again and turned the correct page for the girl. “Of course he can have it. I don't have much need for it. But here, read this.” She pointed at her scribbled note paper lying on the page.
                      “She's pretty,” the girl said when she saw the drawing beneath, then she read as instructed.

                      The following confession was found inside the ancient history section of the Library of the Blessed Thought in the Lap. As the astute reader will note, the named solars predate the current crisis by a significant time. With the incident so similar to many of the more recent events, I fear this problem has existed for quite some time already. How long have the solar been hiding these events from us? How safe are we really with them holding the power that they do?

                      “This is the confession of Lady Sirinda Summerbreath to the murder of the Fire Hornet,

                      When you find this message, I will be dead, as will my enemy. I cannot prove her ill deeds, but I can also no longer stand by and suffer her fake tears and smug smiles. I know she killed them, all of them. Not by her own hand, maybe, but she caused their deaths nonetheless.
                      My sweet husband, my soul brother and my love, all of them she seduced to follow her on her fool's crusade, and all of them she led to their death while she alone returned with the spoils of her expedition. I told her, I told them. I told everyone that no such expedition into the wyld was advisable, not with the Sword of Creation now complete.
                      She went anyway, and she killed three parts of my soul. For that she will pay tonight. I waited this long to finish the blade I had crafted for her wedding day that will never come, and she will receive it tonight not as a gift, but as my vengeance.
                      I have locked my island manse and sent it away, and only her blood will see it open once more. Never again shall she or anyone who denied my pain be allowed there, my new guardians will see to that. As to the commissioned works and projects left unfinished I say, hah! I am without heart or hope now, you can be without your toys and machines for all I care.
                      She betrayed me, and she will pay, no matter what anyone says. She seduced the magistrate, I am sure of it.
                      Death to the Fire Hornet!

                      Himmika placed the note back in the book. “You think that's the blade this Sirinda mentioned?”
                      “Yes,” Kyleeka nodded. “I'm pretty sure I forged it, and placed this engraving on it.” She rubbed her finger of the word in the side of the blade. 'Traitor'.
                      “And the Fire Hornet? Was she Covari? He has the same caste mark.”
                      The taller woman fell silent and quietly wrapped the blade back up in the cloth.
                      “I don't know,” she said finally. “I'm not sure I should ask him.”
                      “Why not?”
                      “What if he was? What if he'll be angry that I killed him. What if I'll be angry for...whatever she did?”
                      “But these people aren't us,” Himmika closed the book with a thump. “Remember, Covari said so himself.”
                      “Yes...yes, I suppose you're right,” Kyleeka took a deep breath.
                      “One moment...” Himmika placed the book down on top of her own and began digging in the crate. She withdrew the rolled up portraits, and checked two of them until she found the one she wanted, the one where the woman stood armed and armoured before a keep. “Look at this,” she said. “Isn't that the Fire Hornet? And isn't that that daiklave's handle behind her shoulder there?”
                      Kyleeka unwrapped the blade again to compare it to the painting. They matched.
                      “That would mean,” Himmika concluded, “that she wasn't killed that night. Or that this isn't the blade this Sirinda was talking about.”
                      “No, I'm sure it is,” Kyleeka said. “I...just know that's why I engraved it.”
                      “Do you also know how the Fire Hornet survived, then?”
                      Kyleeka shook her head. “Maybe I'll find out if I keep reading.”
                      “Maybe Covari will remember something if you tell him?” Himmika suggested. “He should probably have a closer look at all this stuff again, too.”
                      When the sorceress didn't reply for a while, she turned to leave. “I'll go get him.”
                      Kyleeka didn't stop her.

                      They watched in silence as Covari slowly raised the daiklave in one hand, the other placed on the side of the blade, careful not to raise it too high to hit the cargo hold's roof.
                      Kyleeka and Himmika were watching with held breath, while Ten Names Joy studied the portraits. “She was very pretty,” he said. “Though not as pretty as either of you two, of course.”
                      Both the girl and the sorceress straightening up a little which drew a chuckle from the captain.
                      “I'm sorry, Kyleeka, but I'm not getting anything here,” he said and lowered the weapon. “Are you sure this woman used to be me?”
                      “The caste mark is the same,” Joy offered.
                      “And from what we can tell you are both quite proud people,” Himmika added and held up the single coin they'd retained.
                      “I've never put my face on a coin!”
                      “You would if you could though, wouldn't you?” Kyleeka asked and Covari had nothing but a shrug to reply with.
                      “Maybe you should try on the other things,” Joy said and pulled the rest of the bundles out of the crate. “You may have more of a connection to something else in here.”
                      “The daiklave was the first thing to catch his eye,” Himmika reminded them. “And I don't think Kyleeka's breastplate is going to fit him.”
                      “Or suit him,” the sorceress agreed.
                      “Harsh words!” Covari laughed. “But I do agree it looks better on you. And I can have a look at the rest, but I think we should all get something from this windfall.”
                      “Let me guess, you're keeping the daiklave?” Himmika eyed the weapon with twitching fingers.
                      Covari shoved it through his belt and crossed his arms. “Seeing as you made me lose my cutlass, yes. I need a replacement.”
                      “It wasn't my fault you refused to come quietly the first time we met!”
                      “Maybe you should have opened with the truth instead of holding my crew hostage!”
                      “Erm...guys?” Joy raised his hands. “Aren't we all friends?”
                      Everyone turned to regard the blonde holding golden boots in his hands.
                      “He's right,” Covari nodded. “Himmika, would you prefer to take the daiklave?”
                      “No, you do need a replacement,” the girl placed her hands together and bowed slightly. “And I am more experienced in fighting without a blade.”
                      “I think Joy should take the boots,” Kyleeka laughed.
                      “And wear those golden pants again,” Covari nodded.
                      Joy's reply came with a frown. “But I'm not a stripper anymore. Do sailors wear golden boots and pants?”
                      “We're exalts,” Covari shrugged. “We can wear and be whatever we want.”
                      Joy eyed the boots. Then he sat down to try them on. “But I'm not wearing the pants. I'm finding being a sailor a lot more fun than being a stripper. Or a juggler. Less than being a jester or priest though. About as fun as singing.”
                      He stood and walked around a bit. “Oh my, they're comfy. And cosy warm. Yes, I'm keeping them!”
                      “Then I supposed Himmika gets the cloak, the amulet or the bracers?” Kyleeka laughed. “Should we get Guinar down here for this?”
                      “He won't come down from the crow's nest,” Joy said and pointed up, nearly jamming his finger into the ceiling.
                      “I'll take the bracers,” Himmika declared and slipped her arms into them. They should have been too large, but when they looked again a moment later, they appeared to fit her snugly, and even disappeared without a trace into her sleeves.
                      “Which do you think Guinar would prefer then?” Joy asked and held up the cloak and amulet. “And why does this thing have a hole?” he jiggled the small golden disc.
                      “That's where a hearthstone goes into,” Kyleeka explained. “And since none of us have one, at least for the moment, I think he'll want the cloak. But first, Covari, do you remember anything more now?”
                      “No, I don't remember any of these things,” he shrugged. “I'll bring the cloak to Guinar.” He headed for the ladder, garment in his hand.
                      “Will you help me with the book again, later?” the sorceress asked, but he shook his head.
                      I can't. If what Joy told me is true, I'll need to stay at the helm,” he climbed up. “And you two should be on deck as little as possible, Kyleeka, Himmika.”
                      “Why?” Joy was the first to blurt, by a short margin.
                      “Joy, you asked if there were any storm clouds that never fade,” Covari's face was still and hard. “Well, we're headed to Evergale, a storm mother that has been raging since before the shogunate.”

                      I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


                      • #12
                        Chapter Twelve (Part 1)

                        The gong rang through the long hall. At last, Lipeng and Junik could raise their heads from their bows once more.
                        They watched from where they had stood since their arrival as a short scribe rushed towards them with small, hurried steps.
                        “Thank you for waiting,” she intoned, her voice and face that of a girl despite the old and wrinkled hands she held clasped before her. “The Dragonmaster will see you now.”
                        Without waiting for a reply she turned and shuffled back the way she came. Lipeng shot his companion a glance, but the woman had already begun following the scribe.
                        “What is a Dragonmaster doing all the way out here?” he whispered.
                        “Shh!” Junik's reply was short and sharp.
                        He rolled his eyes and proceeded in silence as they were led to the end of the hall, where stairs rose and an archway led out to a small roofed balcony overlooking the Aestgard port beneath.
                        A wiry man clutching a massive tome in his spindly arms stood with his back to them. The five different coloured belts around his hips left no doubt as to who he was.
                        “Dragonmaster Sunikahm,” Junik spoke softly and bowed again. Lipeng did likewise, silently cursing the pain in his back inside his mind.
                        The man spun around, a smile formed between the many unkempt prongs of his moustache and beard. “Junik! It's so good to see you! You know, your mother still won't let me hear the end of it?”
                        “Grandfather,” the female monk looked back and smiled. “She knows it was my decision to join the order, she should not blame you.”
                        Lipeng held his tongue.
                        “You know,” Sunikahm sighed with a look at the book he was holding, “I wish I could do her a favour and expel you today. But I'll be honest, we don't have the numbers we need to win this one without you.”
                        “I thought you were readying a fleet?” Lipeng spoke up and then looked down to the ship headed for the water locks of the port below the balcony. “Dragonmaster,” he added belatedly.
                        “Fleet? Ha! It is one warship, with mortal soldiers,” the old man waved him off and placed the book on the low tea table. “But blood and steel won't win this day. Not against five anathema. We must bring the fury of the dragons upon them!”
                        “Five?” Junik frowned. “We had not yet confirmed their number. How are you so sure?”
                        “Because the book one of them stole from the Heptagram is known to us. We know where they are headed, and that a full circle of these monsters once called it their home.”
                        “Then you better tell us everything you know about them,” Lipeng glanced at the book. Other than that it was a journal, he couldn't make out the archaic, and to him upside down, Old Realm lettering.
                        The old man grabbed some hair of his moustache, seemingly at random, and pulled it out and straight. “Oh, giving me commands now, are we?” He let out a high pitched giggle. “The truth is, we only know some of their previous lives. And most of that is based on your reports.”
                        He opened the book and turned it around. The page showed a map of the far southwest, only including an island Lipeng wasn't sure should be there.
                        “This is a travel log written by Mnemon herself,” he explained. “Quite some time ago, back when I was still a boy, hehe. You know, I actually made a pass at her once at a gala for-”
                        “Relax, that was before I made my oath of celibacy,” he waved his granddaughter off. “Anyway, she travelled quite far for her sorcery initiation. Or was she already a sorceress for this trip? I can't remember...” he raised his fingers and tried to count out something in silence.
                        “Dragonmaster, is that truly the matter of importance here?” Lipeng dared to let a little edge creep into his voice.
                        “No, of course not! What matters is that she sought out and talked to the Evergale,” Sunikahm nodded. He flipped to the next page. “And she had quite a few things to say about why she's been raging for so long.”
                        “Why do you have this, grandfather?”
                        “Oh, now you want to hear about my conquests?” came more giggling. “No, not really. She never saw me as old enough. Me! Ha. But she did donate a copy of these findings to the Immaculate order. I'm not sure if it was for a favour or out of patriotism. But really, you should read.”

                        ...was quite displeased at my presence, as was expected from her nature. My red hair seemed to placate the Evergale somewhat, but she still insisted that I not cross the line I believe she imagined having drawn into the waves between us.
                        I asked her why she was so furious at nothing, why she would waste her divine rage at empty ocean.

                        She told me none of what I said was true. She was neither raging on her own accord, nor doing so against empty ocean. I of course asked her to clarify what she meant. I expected a principle to be the answer, a statement as to her truth and self as a storm. Something holding great occult significance.
                        She told me a name. Not the name of a god, or a power, or even a spell. She told me the name of a woman now dead for thousands of years.
                        She told me the name of a solar. Sirinda, the Evergale said, was the one who had called her forth and bound her in her own rage and fury. And only once her enemy had bled, would the Evergale be free once more, to sleep and rest at last.
                        Who was Sirinda, I asked, and why would she command this?
                        Spite, was the answer. Spite and pride. And I learned that day, I learned the truth as to why the anathema had to be destroyed. Why they must not be allowed to enter the armoury of the manse hidden inside the Evergale, forever beyond anyone's reach lest their sorcery reaches the power of a solar.
                        I must inform the immaculate order of this upon my return home. I must make sure this manse is never...

                        Lipeng reached to turn the page, but a slap hit the back of his hand.
                        “No touchy,” the Dragonmaster intoned. “Even showing you this breaks the usual procedures. Only grand masters and higher are allowed to know this book exists, let alone read more than a select few pages.”
                        “So there is a manse with super weapons hidden in the storm, and five anathema are headed to claim it,” Junik summarised.
                        “Indeed, and they will kill one of their number to enter it,” Sunikahm nodded and pulled some more on his beard hair. “We must strike before that happens, for once they enter the manse, I fear not even a realm legion can stop them.”
                        Junik bowed again. “When do we leave?”
                        “At once, if you'll help me with my luggage?” the old man grinned. “My back isn't what it used to be. We need to get there before Mnemon does.”
                        “What? Why is she working against us if she gave us this information?” Lipeng had been about to bow, but froze.
                        “Long ago that was, hah! These days, she's even more insolent than you!” the old man pointed at Lipeng. “With the Empress gone, no one house can be trusted to have what's in that manse. At least not until they've proven they can hold the throne.”
                        “But what if it could prevent a civil war?” Lipeng challenged.
                        “I think your hearing may be worse than mine, hah! I said, no one can be trusted with those things. The order must secure and hide them, for the good of all!”
                        Lipeng opened his mouth again, but Junik's fingers dug into his arm in a fierce grip.
                        “Please, grandfather, let me help you with your luggage,” she smiled. “Lipeng can arrange for our quarters on the ship.”
                        And with that, Lipeng found himself being shown back to the door by the scribe. She hadn't been on the balcony, and no one had called her. So how had she known when to reappear and guide him away?
                        Lipeng frowned and studied the half old, half young woman as he followed her.

                        The pillar of spinning clouds miles wide rose from the sea ahead of the Nymph of a Thousand Shores and up into the clouds. Their heading straight towards the centre of the storm caused more and more sailors to turn their eyes towards Covari at the tiller, each gaze silently asking the obvious and frightened question.
                        “Are we really going to sail into that?” Ten Names Joy asked from beside him.
                        “That depends,” the captain's grin was steady as the ship's course, “on whether the Evergale will negotiate with us. But tell me, does it look at all like the cloud in your vision? We are only a few days sail north of Aestgart.”
                        “It doesn't, not quite. It was...smaller?”
                        “But the shape is right?”
                        “I think so,” Joy squinted up into the sky. “I wish we could see it from above. Or maybe Kyleeka would know if this is the place?”
                        “Careful,” Covari put a hand on the blonde man's shoulder. “If our chat with the Evergale doesn't go well, or she spots any women on board, she'll fling us aside, and we might get a look from much higher than is good for my ship. No, they're better off staying in the cabin until we see where we stand with this storm.”
                        “Sail astern!” a shout came from the crow's nest. They both turned to look, with Covari drawing his spyglass.
                        “Realm legion, house Ragara if I'm not mistaken,” he muttered.
                        “That's where Guinar got our supplies!” Joy exclaimed. “You think they want them back?”
                        “They want something back, alright,” Covari nodded.
                        “Sail aport!”
                        Both of them turned to face south.
                        “Another realm warship,” Covari let out a grunt. “House Ledaal sails, but the flag is someone that the immaculate order?”
                        “Oh no! They've found me!” Joy gripped the railing hard. “What do we do?”
                        “Relax, they're both still hours out,” Covari replied. Then he turned around and raised the spyglass to look north.
                        “What are you looking for?” Joy asked.
                        “Just checking whether the maiden of serenity is still mad about that night...”
                        The north seemed empty, with only the distant western isles barely visible.
                        Joy's jaw had dropped. “You know the maiden of serenity?”
                        “It's a saying, Joy. It means I think we’re about to have bad luck..aha!”
                        He'd found it, a cleft in the water surface, steadily breaking the waves on its way towards them as though made by an unseen ship.
                        “A cloaked vessel, which means more realm,” he said and put away the spyglass. “And that means, as usual, the only way out is straight ahead.”
                        He turned to the ship's deck.
                        “Today will be a momentous day, gentlemen!” he called. “It will be the first time in all the ages that a ship passes safely through the Evergale! I want the sails trimmed, I want all hatches buttoned, and I want all women hidden below decks! In fact, everyone who doesn't have a good reason to be up here, get down below!”
                        “But won't Kyleeka's spell give us perfect wind?” Joy asked. “It's been doing that for days now.”
                        “That is a storm mother, Joy,” Covari pointed ahead. “She is going to rip any spell messing in her domain apart.”
                        “Couldn't we-”
                        “Joy, I gave you an order,” Covari said. “You've never been at sea in a storm. Get below decks.”
                        He obeyed.

                        The cabin was close to crowding again. At least Guinar'd scored the bed this time, with the two women, no the girl and the woman in the chairs playing gateway on the map table.
                        “Stupid storm mothers,” he grunted and watched Kyleeka make a move at last. They both took very long to play their turns.
                        “Yes, the gods are capricious,” Himmika nodded. “Grandfather once told me he and his men had to arrest and imprison a god for covering a settlement completely in sand to punish the people for trying to dig irrigation canals. She had to serve ten years in a yasal crystal for that.”
                        “I've seen the yasal collections at the Heptagram,” Kyleeka nodded. “Our first year thaumaturgy instructor would threaten to imprison us in one if we didn't behave. Or exalt.”
                        “We might as well be, stuck in here,” Guinar grumbled and rolled onto his side. “I shouldn't have to hide in here!”
                        “You wouldn't have to with your tattoo,” the sorceress observed. “That's what it was for, yes?”
                        “And you've been hiding a lot lately, up in the crow's nest,” Himmika added while she made her move.
                        “I wasn't hiding!” Guinar snapped, mostly out of reflex. “I was...on lookout.”
                        “I think you made the right call,” Kyleeka intervened, “removing the tattoo that is. That was very brave, and none of us could have known we'd need to sail through the biggest of all the storm mothers.”
                        “ 'Very brave'?” Guinar sat up. “Am I a child now? You treat Himmika with more respect than that!”
                        “I'm sorry, I didn't mean-”
                        The door opened and Ten Name's Joy walked in. “We're doing it,” the blonde man announced. “We're sailing into the storm. Covari thinks we'll lose the realm ships surrounding us in there.”
                        “Realm ships?” Kyleeka paled.
                        “Surrounding us?” Himmika was on her feet.
                        “Yeah, from three directions,” Joy confirmed. “Though, I'm not sure why they wouldn't have a fourth ship on the other side of the storm. Seems logical to me.”
                        “But we're not sailing through the storm,” Guinar pointed out. “Not if we find this island inside.”
                        “But it's not inside!” Joy frowned. “It's above, on the clouds! Didn't I say that part?” He pointed.
                        “Yes, you did. But how...” Himmika's eyes followed the finger. So did Guinar.
                        “Me?” Kyleeka asked and stared at the finger directed at her. “Of course, we have to go up!”

                        The guards dragged Vartorris up to the command deck of the warship. Ragara Herakkis and five more officers, the fanciest of them with a wet sheen to his skin, awaited him there. One of the younger officers handed him a spyglass.
                        “See what our lookout found,” Herakkis said and pointed to the front of the ship. “I thought you said Covari would head to Aestgart.”
                        The rotund pirate turned and lifted the spyglass. “Is that the Evergale?” he asked.
                        “It is, and in front of it, you will find the Nymph of a Thousand Shores.”
                        “No!” Vartorris spun to stare at Herakkis with wide open eyes. “He's not taking my ship into that storm! Get more water elementals! We have to catch him!”
                        “Our elementals have withdrawn,” the fancy officer intoned. “They wished not to risk a storm mother's wrath.”
                        “Didn't you enslave them with your spells?”
                        Herakkis snatched the spyglass from Vartorris' hand and stepped in closer, forcing the short man back into the railing. “We have no need for slaves that serve no purpose. Like you.”
                        “What? No, you need me, I know Covari!”
                        “You said you knew where he was going, and you were wrong,” Herakkis' hand shot forward and closed around Vartorris' throat. “And without our elementals, we'll need to lose some ballast to keep up our speed.”
                        “-----!” Vartorris tried to scream through the choked throat, but not a sound was heard until he fell and splashed into the water below.

                        To the north, the young lieutenant lowered the spyglass and turned to Captain Alina.
                        “Mam, she's entered the Evergale!”
                        Alina frowned and handed the wheel to another lieutenant. “Are you certain? And you are sure it was our quarry?”
                        She had in fact confirmed the ship's identity herself. She shouldn't have asked that last part, she cursed silently. It had matched the description Mnemon had passed on perfectly.
                        She snatched the spyglass from the lieutenant's hands and stared. The quarry had disappeared, but that fog bank in the distance ahead did not match the storm in hue or temperament.
                        “Of course,” she mumbled. “Why go through the storm...”
                        And then she saw it. The Nymph of a Thousand Shores rose up out of the fog, and was carried up by it and further and further up.
                        “Change course,” she commanded. “We need to get around the storm and intercept when they land on the other side.”
                        Her ship for a sorcerer with countermagic!

                        Slowly the ship sailed up and around the Evergale in a rising start of a spiral. The crew cheered and the younger Hilken brother even threw Kyleeka his hat.
                        She blew him a kiss and put the tricorn on, before turning back to the small crowd on the aft castle.
                        “No,” she held up a hand to Covari. “You had your chance at these lips.”
                        “Agreed,” he nodded but still hugged her. “Thank you! You gave my Nymph wings!”
                        “Will we be safe?” Guinar stared down at the distant southern ship. “I mean, we saw what happened when that Mnemon warship tried this trick on us.”
                        “We'll be fine as long as we keep our distance,” Kyleeka nodded. “We should hurry to set down somewhere soon, though.”
                        “The island is above the clouds,” Joy grinned. “You'll see!”
                        “NO!” a cracking thunder of a voice rang across the ship. “YOU WILL NOT PASS!”
                        “Watch out!” Joy shouted and threw himself over Himmika. Not even a second later one of three lightning bolts passed right above them. Another struck Kyleeka in the chest, the last went for Guinar. The boy wasn't hit though, dissolving into a cloud of insects for a moment before reshaping.
                        “What just happened?” he tugged at the new cloak he'd put on.
                        It was all Covari could do to turn the ship and increase the distance to the Evergale.
                        “NO WOMEN! NO MEN EITHER! THAT IS MY TASK!”
                        “Kyleeka!” Covari called, but the sorceress waved him off and sat back up from where she'd fallen. Her breastplate was scorched, but it had held.
                        “Let me out!” Himmika grumbled from beneath Joy, and once he'd complied she walked to the railing and shouted back. “We don't want to pass you through you, you insane bitch! We just want to get to the island!”
                        “Yellow crane? That's not my name anymore. I am Mnemon Himmika!”
                        “But Sirinda is long dead, as is the traitor!” Joy called out.
                        “And why would she lock herself out?” Guinar asked.
                        “How much blood?” Kyleeka asked and glanced at Covari. “How much blood do I need to spill?”
                        “ALL OF IT!”
                        “Kyleeka...?” the captain eyed her back.
                        “There!” Joy shouted and slapped Kyleeka's shoulder, sending her stumbling. “The island!”
                        The ship had risen above the clouds, higher even than the spell had raised the Tya vessel, and now an island resting on the clouds had come into view. It was nearly circular, with a single mountain with a golden palace atop it in the centre around which a town was arrayed.
                        “Look!” Guinar pointed. “The statues from the drawings!”
                        Around the town along the beach dunes, dozens of tall stone statues stood vigil, each clad differently from the others, but all bore weapons or wore armour of some description.
                        “And there, a landing spot!” Himmika tugged at Covari's arm and guided his eyes to the lake at the foot of the mountain.
                        “Kyleeka,” the captain smiled, “let's just keep our altitude until we get close enough. And no bloodletting. I think we'll be fine from here if we just keep our distance from the storm.”
                        She nodded. “I'm home...”

                        Landing the ship in the lake was easier said than done, however.
                        “Kyleeka,” Covari called from the railing. “The ground isn't getting any closer, what's wrong!”
                        “We are sinking,” the sorceress insisted. “As fast as I can safely do so!”
                        “But so is the island!” Joy shouted and pointed. “And the storm is rising up around us!”
                        Already, the grey cloud walls were starting grow above the height of the ship's mast, soon they towered over them.
                        “I advise we abort and try another approach,” Himmika suggested. “I don't want to get hit by lightning, or be tackled by Joy again. No offence.” She rubbed a bruise on her arm.
                        “Agreed!” Covari nodded and grabbed for Kyleeka's shoulder. “Get us out of here!”
                        “No!” came the snarl in response and she brushed his hand off. “I'm not giving up now that we're almost here!”
                        A lightning flashed and struck the top of the mast. The thankfully unoccupied crow's nest exploded into splinters.
                        “Kyleeka, I'm ordering you to take us back up!” Covari again reached for her shoulder, but she stepped back and spread her arms wide.
                        The essence leapt from her fingers and tore into the spell holding the ship aloft. Immediately, they began falling. “I will reclaim my home!”
                        With a sudden crashing splash they landed in the lake. The ugly crack of wood splintering was drowned out only by another lightning strike passing through where they'd just hung in the air. Covari tumbled forwards, landing on Kyleeka and pinning her to the decks. Guinar and Himmika managed to remain standing, the latter not even needing to spread her arms for balance.
                        Ten Names Joy, however, was less lucky, and stumbled over the railing and fell down the far side.
                        “Joy!” Himmika screamed and ran to the railing. “Joy!”
                        Guinar was beside her only a moment later.
                        “Get off me!” Kyleeka kneed the captain and shoved him off.
                        “Hey guys, check it out!” Joy's shout came from below. “The water is strangely soft!”
                        The sorceress and the captain joined the other two at the railing and looked down to where the blonde man sat on the water surface. Slowly he stood, standing on top of the crystal blue water.
                        “I think it's these fancy boots!” he clicked their heels together.
                        Then the hail started pouring down and soon everyone dove for what cover the ship's deck offered.
                        “Kyleeka!” Covari screamed. “See what you've done?”
                        “We'll be fine once we get into the manse!” she screamed back.
                        “Ouch!” Himmika yelped as a walnut sized piece of ice hit her in the shoulder.
                        “If we make it to the manse!” Covari raised his voice even further. “And that's not accounting for what you did to my ship!”
                        “We're still afloat! How bad can it be?”
                        “Only because the lake is probably too shallow for us to sink any further!”
                        A piece of hail slammed into Kyleeka's head. “Nothing to be done about it now,” she grunted. “We have to get to the manse!”
                        “Launch the boat!” Covari gave in, but he kept glaring and a threatening finger pointed at the sorceress.

                        The three immaculate monks stood at the prow of the borrowed Ledaal warship, watching their quarry disappear above the storm clouds.
                        “Most unfortunate,” the elderly Dragonmaster sighed and pulled his moustache hairs into random directions. “If we had been but a little faster...”
                        “Then they would still have escaped us,” Lipeng muttered, “unless our ship can fly as well?”
                        “Have they not taught you the way of the Leaping Spring?” the old man chided. “Or that of the Soaring Feather?”
                        “Of course, master,” Junik interjected, bowing formally. “My colleague was thinking of this warship, which could not have jumped with us.”
                        Lipeng's brow furrowed. That was what he'd meant, but why would she speak for him this way?
                        Dragonmaster Sunikahm grinned and looked the younger male up and down. “Ha! Of course.”
                        What was that meant to mean?
                        “But no,“ Sunikahm continued, “I had something far more effective in mind to counter such a daring manoeuvre. Alas, now we have no choice but to releases the Evergale.”
                        “Release the Evergale?” Junik gasped. “How? I thought you said she was bound by anathema sorcery?”
                        “Indeed little one,” came a strange giggle from the old man, and he pulled a frayed piece of golden, knotted string from his pocket. “But while the solars of the dark age and their blood sorcery rituals are gone, some of their power remains.” He held up the piece of string and dangled it playfully. “The immaculate order has always had the power to visit this island, but not to seal the way up again, after. Not without the vile debasement that was anathema circle sorcery.” He turned to look at the towering storm just a few hundred yards ahead of the ship. “But now we have no choice.”
                        “So you deliberately left a vault full of anathema doomsday weaponry unguarded?” Lipeng blurted and ignored the scathing glance that earned him from Junik. “You didn't think the anathema who sealed this vault could still get inside?”
                        “Lipeng, how dare you-”
                        Her grandfather interrupted Junik. “No, he is right. It was a foolish decision. Had we had more of these captured solar spells,” he dangled the string again, “ha, no. Even then we probably would have balked at the price of power. Nothing good ever comes of anathema magic. But we must stop these ones at all costs...”
                        He leaned forward over the railing and raised his voice to what amounted to a hoarse screech.
                        “Evergale? I hold in my hand the means to break the spell that binds you here!”

                        By the time Ten Names Joy carried the last of the crew to shore and into shelter in the old stone boat house, the tally had come in.
                        “A dozen lacerations, half again that in bruises and I think Bahltin might have a concussion,” Himmika shouted over the noise of hail on the roof, and stood from the patient she'd be examining. “Captain, did you hear me?”
                        Covari stood in the entrance and stared at where more and more pieces of hail tore through the Nymph's sails, now mere tatters flapping the raging storm. His hand gripped the hilt of the daiklave at his hip. At least the ship still appeared to float.
                        “Where is Kyleeka?” he asked.
                        Himmika looked around, the sorceress was nowhere to be seen.
                        “I think she ran further into the village,” Joy offered and was about to step back out of the hall when Himmika held him back.
                        “Don't!” she insisted and pointed at the bloody gash on his head. “You risking yourself to get the stragglers was remarkable, but you're hurt, too!”
                        “But Kyleeka-”
                        “Can die and rot out there for all I care,” Covari said at last.
                        “You don't mean that!” Joy insisted. “I'm sure she'll apologise and help us fix the ship with her magic!”
                        “If we survive,” Guinar grunted. He'd wrapped one of the hail pieces into a cloth and was holding it to the bruise on his head. “She broke our ship, stranded us inside a storm mother, surrounded by realm warships. And then she ran off, without even so much as paying us for getting her here!”
                        A crack of ice on rock sounded above.
                        “We need to get to a stronger building,” Himmika observed and pointed to a boat rack at the side of the hall. “Joy, Hilkens, Hilkens, help me get one of those boats ready to use a turtle shield.”
                        A sudden flash of sunlight shone through the hall's door.
                        “The clouds are fading!” one of the sailors shouted, drawing everyone to stand and look.
                        The blue of the sky grew and grew until the clouds were gone, the hail had already stopped, not even any rain remained.
                        “What happened?” Himmika gasped. “Where did the Evergale, go?”
                        “Maybe she gave up?” Joy suggested.
                        “We have bigger problems,” Guinar pointed at the distant shore of the island. “We're not floating anymore, either. That means the realm ships can land! What do we do, captain?”
                        He looked around for his friend, but Covari was gone.

                        The thumping on Kyleeka's armour and the ancient tome she'd been holding up to cover her head stopped and the marble stairs she was ascending up the mountain brightened in the sun's light. The clouds where withdrawing.
                        She dared a look at the book, and despaired at the tears and the soggy pages. There'd likely not be much left inside that was readable. She considered tossing it aside, but then proceeded up the side of the mountain still holding it. Covari and the others would likely chase her now, unless...
                        She stopped and tilted her head. No, there was only one way the storm mother could be released, she'd said. Had the captain been injured? Killed? She looked down to the boathouse the crew had been taking shelter in when she'd snuck away.
                        “That's not what I wanted...”
                        Or was it? If the storm mother was free, the palace manse atop the mountain should be open now. She looked up at the golden, wet dome gleaming in the bright sun. There'd be riches in there, riches and power. More than enough to fix the Nymph with, which was all Covari really cared about.
                        She launched into a jog and continued on her way.

                        I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


                        • #13
                          Chapter Twelve (Part 2)

                          The boy came running back from the dune line to the boathouse.
                          “Two of the realm ships are landing troops,” Guinar confirmed after catching his breath. “I can't see the know what I mean.”
                          Himmika slipped her hands into opposite sleeves. “Then we'll need to find somewhere more defensible.” She turned and looked around the village. “Joy, could you lift me up so I can see more of this place?”
                          The blonde man complied without hesitation, and a little squeal escaped Himmika's lips as she found herself launched up.
                          “We could try to pretend we're mortals?” Joy suggested. “If we throw away our artefacts, they might not know we're solar, right?”
                          “Or we could hide?” Guinar added.
                          “They'd know I am,” Himmika shot back. “Also Covari and Kyleeka. And they know we're here with no way off the island. We will have to fight them, and we might as well pick a good fortification to start with. Over there, that looks like a barracks building!”
                          “What about the manse itself?” Joy asked and pointed to the palace on top of the mountain at the centre of the island. “That looks like the same metal Kyleeka's armour is made of, and we've seen how strong that is.”
                          The others followed his gaze.
                          “Too far,” Himmika shook her head. “We have wounded, and we don't know how to get inside. Just because the Evergale is gone doesn't mean the manse opened up.”
                          There was movement on the stairs leading up though, Guinar noticed. Something red and flapping. A flag? He raised his hand to shield his eyes. A dress, and hair! Kyleeka!
                          The crew shuffled past him as Himmika and Joy began guiding them. He should follow them, he decided. With Covari gone, he should look after them. Joy and Himmika would need him in a fight.
                          He ran towards the manse, after the red haired sorceress.

                          To the north of them, the Ragara shore party was exiting their boats.
                          “Were we expecting reinforcements?” Lipeng asked and eyed the troops forming up on the sand beach.
                          “We were,” Sunikahm confirmed, “but from a Mnemon ship, not Ragara. Ha, you suppose the old crone misaddressed her mail?”
                          “Crone?” Junik frowned. “I would be careful calling Mnemon that, grandfather.”
                          “Ha, she's older than me! But nevermind that,” he waved them to turn to the granite statue of a hoplite, standing atop the dune ahead of them, some twelve feet tall. It was one of many lining the dunes as though they were a fortress wall. “I believe, the Evergale was but the first of many guardians.” He took a careful step towards it.
                          Immediately, the stone warrior came to life and thrust its spear towards the Dragonmaster. Lipeng surged forward to pull the old man back, but already Sunikahm had twisted and turned around the thrust as though his body was liquid. With a single, short and straight strike, the old man jabbed at the spear, shattering the top third off the stone weapon.
                          “Remember your training,” he shouted to Lipeng and Junik, “this will be a hard fought victory! Ha!”
                          The stone hoplite was far from defeated and already two more statues joined it. One a naked woman with a fur hood and long axe, the other clad in a heavy suit of plate mail wielding what looked like an obsidian sledgehammer.
                          Screams sounded from the north, but Lipeng refused the urge to look at the mortal soldiers dying at the hands of their own stone enemies. He tried to step next to Lipeng for their practised battle drill, but she'd already fallen into step with her grandfather, leaving him without a guardian at his back.

                          The crew of the Nymph rushed through the village, with Ten Names Joy helping the two who had suffered leg injuries.
                          Himmika was the first to reach the open gate of the low wall surrounding the pagoda roofed stone long house, but just as she was about to step through, the two statues standing just inside the unroofed gate lowered their weapons to bar her passing.
                          “Yellow Crane,” the one of the left spoke without moving its sandstone lips. It depicted a broad shouldered man clad in mail, his weapon a two handed sword. “Sirinda has closed the island in grief for your passing. You should not be here.”
                          The other statue’s features were hidden behind a lion helmet and heavy legionnaire plate, but her voice reminded Himmika of her mother. “Please, seek her out. She will rejoice at your reincarnation.”
                          She could hear the footsteps in the sand of Joy and the crew coming up behind her.
                          “I have indeed met the reincarnation of Sirinda,” she addressed the matronly sounding statue. “And she travelled with me, but for now I and my associates require shelter from our enemies.”
                          “Hello,” Joy waved at the statues. “I'm Ten Names Joy, what are your names?”
                          “Our names?” the legionnaire asked and then pointed her sword at the palace atop the mountain. “Our names are inside.”
                          “We placed them aside to serve our mistress,” the mailed man explained. “When she deems our service complete, we will retake them. Until then, we are but guardians.”
                          “You put aside your names?” Joy gasped. “That doesn't sound right. How long until you get them back?”
                          The two statues looked at each other.
                          “I'm not sure,” the mailed man said. Sand fell off his shoulders when he shrugged. “Our service was for five hundred moons, but we slept for most of the time mistress was away.”
                          “I recall your previous incarnation, Horizon's Fool,” the legionnaire statue said. “Do you recall that visit?”
                          “No,” Joy shook his head. “But from what I've been told that was over a thousand years ago. Does that mean Kyleeka will give you your names back?”
                          Both statues ignored him and turned their heads to the beach far behind them.
                          “The battle goes poorly,” the mailed man said. “Please, take shelter. We shall return.”
                          And in unison, both of the stone guardians strode through the gate past them.
                          “Everyone inside!” Himmika called for the crew.
                          “Should we go help them?” Joy asked and gestured after the statues.
                          “No, we have no weapons, nor any armour to speak off,” the girl shook her head. “Help me close the gate! We must prepare our defences!”

                          The three lieutenants stood around Mnemon Alina in the knee deep sea water just off the beach. Their daiklaves were drawn and ready, though should could see the restless wander of their eyes and the loose grips on their hilts. Their confusion was justified, however.
                          “It is those statues,” she told them and gestured to the two towering monuments. One depicted a robe clad desert raider with a wicked curved blade, the other a gladiator wearing nothing but a full face helmet and sandals, both hands gripped around the haft of a scythe. His anatomical features were captured remarkably well, Alina decided. “They are no doubt enchanted with some anathema magic to attack us if we were to step ashore.”
                          As one, the three focused their wariness on the designated foes.
                          “Should we get the ship's catapult to destroy them?” her eldest lieutenant asked.
                          But the captain shook her head. “No, it would undoubtedly raise further alarms.”
                          “Then what do we do?” the youngest asked. “We can't just stand here.”
                          “Indeed not,” Alina nodded. “I will proceed alone. You will keep the boat ready in case we need to make our escape.”
                          “Yes, mam!” all three said in unison, and she knew they would obey.
                          Slowly, she strode forward, sheathing her own daiklave and spreading her arms out in an open gesture.
                          The naked gladiator was the one to step into her path. His voice sounded far too gravelly for her liking, though.
                          “No one is permitted on this island by order of the mistress. Return to your ship.”
                          “I come with an important message for your mistress,” she called back. She could probably even claim that was a true statement. “I need you to take me to her.”
                          “The mistress isn't here,” the statue replied. “You must turn ba-”
                          It stopped midword and turned around. “She is back. She is back! All hail her return!”
                          “Then take me to her!” Alina let her essence ring as an echo to the words. “You must not keep my message from her!”
                          “What?” the statue said and barely even looked at her. “Yes yes, follow me.”
                          She had to run to keep up with the jog of the stone gladiator.

                          The gate stood before Kyleeka, a single golden disk carved with the mark of the setting sun, a good twenty yards tall. Two statues flanked it, a man in animal skins with a toothed club carved from flint and an ashen grey woman in a courtesan's dress and heavy plate gauntlets.
                          “Sirinda!” the courtesan exclaimed. “You have returned! Our names, we can reclaim our names!”
                          “Name!” the man grunted and raised his club in a triumphant gesture. He said a few more words that sounded vaguely Haslanti.
                          “Yes, your names,” Kyleeka nodded and wished she knew what they meant. “You are free to reclaim them.”
                          The statues both stood back and gestured her towards the golden gate that remained closed.
                          “How do I open the gate?” she asked. “I recall some of my past life, but not all.”
                          “It easy,” the male statue grunted. “You want open. Open. If curse gone.”
                          “And what curse would that be?” she asked. The answer was as expected.
                          “You yourself decreed that none should have your manse until you've slain your enemy,” the courtesan explained.
                          “The Fire Hornet is dead! She has been dead for thousands of years.”
                          “Then gate open!” the male statue grunted. “You slain foe. You open gate.”
                          “Ah,” she said and refused to let her eyes roll. “Well, I wasn't alive then. But from what I know Sirinda intended to slay the Fire Hornet herself.”
                          “She not!”
                          “You are mistaken, lovely one,” the female statue said. “Sirinda did not slay the Fire Hornet, but rather was slain by her.”
                          She closed her eyes. So close, and yet the gate wouldn't open.
                          “Where is the Fire Hornet now?” the female statue asked.
                          “I'm right here,” Covari voices came from behind her. Both statues raised their weapons at him.
                          Kyleeka turned to face him and the daiklave he had pointed at her.
                          “You've killed my Nymph,” he said. “I can't let you get away with that.”
                          “I am sorry about that. But there are riches here for ten thousand more ships!” Kyleeka shot back and spread her arms to encompass the gate. “This disk alone is worth more than a fleet!”
                          “She was my Nymph,” his voice didn't rise. “And I heard what you just said. You mean to kill me.”
                          “No!” she called out, as much a shout of reflex as of truth. It was the truth, right? “But does it matter? You seem ready to kill me.”
                          “Don't tempt me!” he screamed, sending her a half step back. “You are not Sirinda, I am not the Fire Hornet! This has nothing to do with the past!”
                          “Then lower your blade,” she glared at the weapon. “And let us find another way in.”
                          “What? So you can betray me again? Like you betrayed my Nymph?”
                          “Betray you?” Kyleeka laughed. “What was there to betray? You've made it clear that you don't want me!”
                          “Not as a lover, no,” his blade dropped a little. “But I thought the five of us were friends!”
                          “Friends?” she spat. ”If there's one thing I learned about friendship in the Heptagram, it's that it never lasts. You grab what you need, and then you get out. Every year it’s the same game.” She waved him off. “No, I was useful to you, and you to me. And once you have your jade, you'll leave.”
                          “It didn't have to be like this!” Covari insisted. “You could have been one of us!”
                          “Could I? I've seen you with Vartorris, with the oracle, with the Tya. It's not just love, everything is a game to you. And I heard about Guinar trying to leave. We all saw Himmika abandoning her crew because you had something she wanted. Even Joy changes names as often as he changes friends and jobs. People leave. Now it's my turn.”
                          “But like this?” Covari spread his arms. “You broke my ship for a manse you can't even get inside of?”
                          “I'll find a way,” Her eyes narrowed. “Just don't try to stop me.”
                          “You broke the Nymph, almost killed us. I can't trust you,” he said and his blade rose again. “And we both know you're not getting in there while I'm still alive.”
                          She slowly nodded and began shaping a spell. “Then I guess it's a good thing you followed me here, away from all the others.”

                          With a leap, Lipeng whirled through the air, fist trailing smoke and flame, before striking into the guts of the marble statue fighting them. His hand dug in to the wrist and the rock shattered. As he landed back on the beach in a cloud of dust and shards, he saw Junik reach out towards the ballista bolts coming in from their warship. Wisps of clouds clung around them and they accelerated, one even changing course, before slamming into and through two more of the statue warriors. They, too, crumbled.
                          “Good shot,” he gave her a smile, but she wasn’t even looking, instead turning away to guide the next incoming broadside.
                          Those bolts she slammed into three of the statues who had surrounded the small sand storm now hiding her grandfather. Using the whirling sand for cover, the old dragonmaster occasionally lashed out with rock encrusted fists, throwing bright sparks wherever he struck one of their stone opponents.
                          After the bold volley, only two statues remained, so Lipeng rushed and leapt into somersault, reaching out to grab the forearm of one just as it was pulling back for a spear thrust. Swinging on the hold, he let his anima flare as his feet came up and kicked the stone warrior under the chin, blowing off a massive chunk.
                          It tried to roar with only one jaw remaining, but only produced a squeal when Lipeng’s burning hold on its arm melted through and tore the hand off.
                          As he landed Lipeng’s foe was collapsing into death throes, and behind him the old dragonmaster had finished the last remaining foe as well.
                          “I think we’re clear for now,” Lipeng said and turned to check on his allies.
                          The sand flurry around Sunikahm ceased and revealed the old man dusting his robes off.
                          “Well fought, granddaughter,” she nodded to Junik, before turning to Lipeng. “You need to watch yourself better, though. The anathema will not be impressed by your flashy bravado, hah!”
                          “Master Sunikahm,” Junik bowed briefly. “Shall we go to the aid of the Ragara troops or proceed while they are distracting the last few guardians?”
                          They all turned to watch three more stone statues stomp on mortal legionnaires. It appeared they had but one exalt among them, and he wasn’t making a lot of headway in the fight.
                          “Yes, let us,” the dragonmaster nodded and began strolling down the beach. “I know not what they’re doing here, but they don’t look like much of a threat to us, hah! Let us find out how they knew of this place.”
                          Junik fell into a walk beside him while Lipeng pushed ahead with a jog.
                          “Patience, wolf cub,” the old man called to stop him. “Do not be so eager to rush.”
                          “They’re in trouble, master,” he shot back. “If we don’t help them soon, they’ll die!” “And if you help them too soon, you’ll die with them. Observe, size them up. And stop trying to impress my granddaughter.”
                          “I…!” was all he could stammer as they strode past him.

                          The gauntlet of the female statue slapped Covari’s blade aside as it came down towards Kyleeka. Before he could recover, she threw a bundle of rope from her bag at his feet, even as her essence coalesced into a spectral snake around the brown hemp. Immediately the sorcerous creature hissed and struck out at Covari, and only a swift daiklave stroke stopped it from slinging around his leg.
                          Then the rope become two, shorter snakes that now began to encircle him, and the shadow of the other statue’s bone club grew larger around him.
                          “Curse you, you shipwrecking witch!” he snarled and rolled back to avoid the blow of the massive weapon. He was too far now to strike at her again should she cast more sorcery.
                          The rope snakes continued after him, but the stone guardians took position around the sorceress.
                          “Just steal a new one,” she shouted back, drawing a knife. “You’ve done it before!”
                          “This was my Nymph!” Covari leapt over the hissing rope snakes, ducked and rolled between two statues and came up thrusting. The daiklave glanced off the breastplate as Kyleeka twisted aside, and he barely had enough time to dodge her wild swipe with her short blade. He looked down at the gash in the fabric of his shirt just long enough to give her another swipe at him, this one for his throat.
                          Leaning back, Covari avoided the slash, leaving it to only trim a little of his blue goatee. But she’d overextended. He kicked out, knocking her on her back, and raised his blade for a thrust into her face.
                          The statues failed to block him in time, the snakes were too slow. It was a blur of motion from much further away that slammed into him and pulled him down into a tumble that only ceased when he and Guinar rolled into the massive golden gate of the manse.
                          “What in the name of all seven krakens are you doing?” Guinar screamed and sat up on top of Covari, holding his captain down by the shoulders.
                          “Get off me, boy!” he barked. “That’s an order!”
                          “He came to kill me,” Kyleeka hissed and struggled to her feet. “Just like the Fire Hornet killed me before.” She wiped the wet sand of her knife. “I won’t let him, not this time!”
                          “She planned this!” Covari tried to struggle free from under Guinar. “She destroyed the Nymph to provoke me into attacking her. She needs to kill me to get inside! You planned this all along, didn’t you?”
                          Guinar’s slap rang loudly. “What happened to ‘she’s one of us’?”
                          Covari rubbed the bruised cheek as the boy stood and got off him.
                          “What happened to ‘we are not our past lives’?” Guinar turned to Kyleeka.
                          “Lies so that I wouldn’t expect his attack,” she hissed and raised her knife.
                          “If I’d expected your betrayal I would have kicked you off my Nymph the day we met!” Covari stood behind Guinar and collected his daiklave.
                          “Shut up, both of you!” the boy shouted. “We need each other!”
                          “And that from you,” Kyleeka laughed. “Your jealousy is why I couldn’t be with Covari! You don’t want us to all be together either!”
                          “I…” the boy flushed red.
                          “She’s messing with your head, she never meant to stay!” Covari screamed. Then he threw the daiklave at the sorceress.
                          “No!” Guinar spread his arms and stepped into the blade’s path.
                          “Guinar!” Covari gasped. “Don’t-“
                          As the daiklave spun and hit the boy in the chest, he dissolved into a swarm of hornets, buzzing and reforming as soon as the blade had passed through.
                          Guinar cursed his cloak and spun around. Unhindered in its path, it had struck Kyleeka in her chest.
                          “Why?” she stammered quietly.

                          Ragara Herakkis caught the statue’s kick and was flung back. He landed in the wet sand with a thud, coughing up a little blood. The statue loomed over him, arrows from the ship bouncing off it, the ballista bolts missing or at best grazing it. Slowly, it raised its trident, ready for a thrust.
                          He drew a breath and spat as hard as he could.
                          It reeled back and fell over.
                          An immaculate monk stepped into view to help him up. “Are you alright?”
                          “Another excellent shot, my dear,” another, older monk said to the woman in a combat stance beside him. “Now let us finish them.”
                          Together, the two threw themselves into the battle.
                          “Can you stand?” the first monk asked and glanced at the crushed front plate of Herakkis’ armour.
                          He nodded. “Thank you for your help.”
                          A cracking thunder announced one statue down.
                          “I’m sorry about your men,” the monk said with a glance around the crushed bodies in the sand and floating in the water. “They fought bravely.”
                          “Not bravely enough, it seems.”
                          Another crack, then a third, and the only thing left standing of the statues was a single left leg.
                          “I suppose I should get back to my ship,” Herakkis said and held his belly. “I doubt I can fight any further.”
                          “Not so fast,” the female monk said. “You are Ragara Herakkis. Your uncle assured us he had no vessel that could reach us in time save a broken airship. How is it that you stand here in defiance of that claim?”
                          He cursed under his breath. “We did not believe we could catch up,” he replied. “But we felt compelled to attempt so anyway. The air and water dragons blessed our journey, it would appear.”
                          “You don’t look so blessed, hah!” the old monk laughed. “But since you feel that way, I supposed you are fit to fight after all. Follow us.”
                          “But my injuries…” he stammered. “And I should get reinforcements from the ship…”
                          “You have none that are useful,” the old man waved him off, “at least not if their marksmanship was anything to go by. No, you will come with us, or we will report on how your house knew of a classified solar manse.”
                          “A what?”
                          “I don’t think he’ll be of any use,” the younger male monk said. Herakkis wished he remembered their names. “He’s too injured.”
                          “Use or not, he is not to leave the island until we’re done questioning him,” the older man said. “And now, follow us. Both of you!”
                          “I can see the anathema’s ship in the lake up there,” the woman said. “We should check there first.”
                          A hand landed on Herakkis’ shoulder and its owner, the younger man, pushed him after the other two monks.

                          The armoury had yielded little in the way of useful weaponry to the Nymph’s crew, but its stone walls were solid and the doors all had jade bars to secure them.
                          “What about this one?” Ten Names Joy held up another of the long rusted swords. “It’s still in one piece!”
                          Himmika held her hand out for it and when Joy placed the weapon in it, she swung it at the wall. It splintered and shattered even though she barely put any strength into it.
                          “Oh,” the tall man mumbled. “I’ll keep looking then.”
                          “It’s a waste of time,” the girl declared with a look around. “I suspect only artefact weapons could have endured all this time, and I see none here.”
                          A young man from the crew came rushing towards them from the stairwell.
                          “They’re coming! Four exalts, I saw them break the last statues at the beach! I think they saw me.”
                          Himmika nodded. “Understood. Come on joy, we should best be ready at the gates.”
                          “Just a moment,” he said and picked up a few spear tips, their hafts long rotten away.
                          “Just don’t cut yourself with those,” she pointed out. “You’ll get infected.”
                          “I’ll be careful.”
                          They left the armoury building and stepped towards the gate of the wall surrounding it. Without asking, Joy scooped her up and tossed her up towards the battlements just next to the gate, where Himmika landed gracefully on her feet. He then jumped up and grabbed the ledge, pulling himself up just as their visitors turned the corner of the nearby house and came into view.
                          Three wore the robes of immaculate monks, the fourth one…
                          “Captain Ragara,” Himmika called to the officer she recognised. “I apologise for the deception the last time we met, and my mother is most certainly not a whore.”
                          “I see you two have met,” the eldest monk scoffed. “And I also see that you are well spoken for your age, girl.”
                          “She stole supplies from my base,” the captain began, but the monk waved him off.
                          He then continued to address Himmika.
                          “Now then, I would suggest you hand over any and all anathema you harbour. They are not safe company for a child.”
                          “I am not a child!” Himmika snapped.
                          “And there are no anathema here!” Joy added with a disarming smile. “They just left us here, evil scum they are.”
                          The only woman among the four dragonbloods whispered something into the older man’s ear.
                          “My colleague informs me that you are in fact one of the anathema yourself,” he called up to Joy and struck a fighting pose.
                          “And you,” captain Ragara pointed at Himmika, “stand accused of stealing from a realm legion!”
                          “You delivered the supplies to us,” she shot back. And then, with a smug smile, she added. “And we thank you for that, especially for the gracious gift of the first age artefacts you hid inside.”
                          The captains eyes grew wide and the monks all turned to stare at him.
                          “I have no idea what she’s talking about!” he insisted.
                          “Of course you don’t, hah!” the old monk pulled on his beard. “Well, I suppose we could overlook the need for a thorough audit if you bring me the head of that girl.”
                          “The girl?” the other male monk asked. “Why the girl?”
                          “Did you hear how she speaks?” the woman spoke up. “Some demon took over that poor child for sure. It’s best we put her out of her misery.”
                          “We can hear you, you know?” Joy shouted down. “And Himmika is no demon! She’s a very good friend!”
                          “Himmika?” the old man pulled his beard in a different direction. “As in Mnemon Himmika? Oh, such a shame. I had heard the reports of your parent’s arrest. How long had they harboured you before you joined up with the rest of your circle?”
                          She drew the hands out from her sleeves and gripped the balustrade. “What did you do to my parents?”
                          “Your parents?” the old man giggled and moved his hands in a slow kata. “So you were born anathema? Or did they adopt you when you seized the body of their little girl?”
                          “Himmika,” Joy took her by the shoulder. “Don’t let him-“
                          She leapt over the wall and landed on the ground before him, striking her own stance.
                          “WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY PARENTS?”
                          He lunged at her, batting aside the spear tip Joy threw at him and came in a flying kick at the girl’s head.

                          The statues belatedly lumbered into motion, rushing towards Covari to avenge their mistress.
                          “Wait!” she called with a cough and rubbed the armour where the blade had struck and left a bruise beneath. Slowly she picked up the fallen weapon. “Why did you do that, Guinar? He is your friend, not me.”
                          “Because I don’t want either of you dead!” the boy screamed and pulled of his cloak.
                          “I get that you’re crushing on her,” Covari growled, “but you saw what she did to-“
                          “She still looks afloat, captain. We might yet fix the Nymph,” Guinar shot back. “And this isn’t about my crush. You told me we need to stick together. That’s why you took me in, that’s why you took her in, and Himmika and Joy.”
                          “None of the rest of you ever hurt my ship!” he insisted.
                          “I’m sorry,” Kyleeka mumbled. “I…I was wrong.” She stared at Guinar. “You would have died if not for that cloak!”
                          “I didn’t want you to get hurt, Guinar!” Covari’s voice rose. “You weren’t supposed to get in between us!”
                          “You put him there!” Kyleeka said. “You said he’s why we couldn’t be together.”
                          “That’s not what I meant!”
                          “Quiet!” Guinar shouted. “Both of you, shut up and stop being childish!”
                          “Childish?” Kyleeka frowned, but said no more.
                          “She…” Covari started but stopped himself.
                          The boy waited until the silence had settled properly. “I’d rather you two are lovers than enemies. So, if you want me to get out from between you two, you’ll have to promise me that’s what you’ll do.”
                          He looked at each one in turn.
                          “But what I did to the ship…” Kyleeka’s voice was barely heard.
                          “Covari,” Guinar turned to his captain. “You’ve been telling me I need to get over my crushes. Well, so do you. The Nymph was a good ship, might still be a good ship. But if I can learn to move on, so you can you.”
                          Covari let out a long sigh, and then nodded. “You’re going to help me fix her!” he insisted, and Kyleeka nodded in turn. “And what about the gate here, how do we get inside if it demands my death before opening?”
                          Thudding footsteps announced the arrival of more statues coming up the path to the manse entrance.
                          “Mistress,” one of them, a near naked stone gladiator, announced, “we have a visitor for you. Wait, where’d she go?”
                          The two statues looked around their feet. “She was just here!”

                          Himmika had barely enough time to slap the old monk’s kick aside and twist the opposite direction when the woman rushed forwards to join the fight. Both of them danced around her in the light step of the air dragon form, so she widened her stance and tried to remember the proper counter form from her book.
                          “Lipeng, Herakkis, get over here,” the old man hissed and launched into a flurry of punches intended to drive the girl into his companion behind her.
                          Instead, Himmika stretched out her arms, palms open, and grabbed the incoming fists, holding them to break to onslaught. When he came off balance, tried to step into the resistance she offered, she slammed her shoulder forwards and sent him tumbling back.
                          Three kicks slammed into her back, one after the other, and moments later she was rolling along the sand, stopping only when she hit the compound’s wall. The female monk had leapt after her and was now about to slam her foot down on Himmika’s face.
                          Before the final kick connected, however, a large shape came down between them.
                          “Leave my friend alone!” Ten Names Joy shouted and grabbed the monk by the outstretched leg, before spinning briefly to build momentum to toss her away.
                          The third monk moved to help the woman back up, while the elder one rubbed his hip where Himmika’s shoulder had hit him.
                          “An interesting style you’ve got there,” he said. “Breaking a form stance is not done easily. I wonder, did your mother teach you this forbidden style, or should the punishment for that go to someone else in your family?”
                          “LEAVE THEM ALONE!” the girl snapped and would have darted forwards if not for Joy’s hand on her shoulder.
                          “He’s goading you,” he said. “He’s probably making it all up.”
                          “True,” the old man nodded. “But hope is such a sweet thing, hah! If I were to let slip that they’re already dead, what else would be left for me t-“
                          “YOU LIAR!” Himmika tore from Joy’s grasp and rushed forwards, here caste mark glowing and essence flaring, shaping into ephemeral pauldrons and greaves around her limbs.
                          He snatched her wrists before she could hand her strike, however, and lifted her up off the ground, careful to evade her futile kicks.
                          “LET ME DOWN!”
                          “Like you’ve let down your parents?” the old man giggled and began pulling her arms sideways.
                          “Let her go!” Joy was rushing now, but tripped over a well-placed kick by the female monk and landed face first in the wet sand.
                          Himmika twisted and pulled against the monk’s grip on her wrists, screaming as he slowly tore her apart.
                          “Master?” the younger male monk spoke up. “She’s just a girl…”
                          “Quiet, Lipeng!” the woman hissed and kicked Joy as he tried to stand. “She is an abomination. The child died the moment the demon took her.”
                          “But why would a demon worry so much about the child’s parents?”
                          “She’s trying to trick you!” the woman turned to face him. “What is wrong with you?”
                          “Quiet, both of you, hah! Didn’t they teach you not to argue in a fight?” the old man snapped. “And you, little one, any last words you want me to bring to your parents?”
                          Himmika’s pained screams quieted to grunts and she frowned. “I thought you said they were dead?”
                          “Did I already spill that? Hehe, I guess I’m getting senile.”
                          “No…you’re lying!” the girl glared into the old man’s eyes. “Nothing you said about my parents is true!”
                          “You don’t have parents, demon!” He tore at her arms again, but this time Himmika barely even grimaced.
                          She closed her eyes and her caste mark brightened, as did the bracers she wore. Forming out of her golden essence like ghostly copies, she grew two additional arms, each also bearing a set of golden bracers.
                          “What-“ the old man began, then Himmika had grabbed his moustache with both of her new hands and yanked as hard as she could. “AAAAGH!”
                          It was his turn to scream as he let her drop.
                          “Grandpa!” the woman rushed to the old man’s aid.
                          Even with two immaculate monks striking at her from flanking positions, it was now four fists against four fists, at first.
                          She caught one of the old man’s strikes and chopped one of her opposite hands down on his elbow, producing a sickening snap. The monk collapsed and began cradling his arm with wide, twitching eyes.
                          The woman flared her elemental banner, blowing sand all around, but before she could enact her revenge, two strong arms wrapped around her from behind and lifted her up.
                          Joy’s face appeared next to hers, his own solid round caste mark glowing brightly.
                          “How about we all just calm down?” he said and held on to the struggling woman. “We are not demons!”
                          “Lipeng! Do something!” the woman screamed and tried to kick back into Joy’s legs, but each impact seemed as though she was kicking solid steel for all the effect they had.
                          Himmika grabbed the oblivious old man by his thinning, grey hair and yanked him towards the monk that had yet to attack.
                          “No, you stand down or your friends are dead,” she said.
                          “Let them go,” the third monk said and slowly raised his hands. “Let them go and I promise we’ll leave you two alone.”
                          “And our friends!” Joy added. “You’ll leave all of us alone!”
                          “Lipeng!” the woman tried to struggle again. “We can’t let them get into the manse!”
                          “Why, what’s in there?” Joy almost lost his grip.
                          “Horrifying weapons,” the monk named Lipeng said. “A first age arsenal of destruction crafted by a Sirinda Summerbreath. One of your friends is her reincarnation, and she is seeking to reclaim her arsenal to avenge her death.”
                          “No! Kyleeka wouldn’t do that!” Joy insisted.
                          “Joy, will you stop blurting out our names, please?” Himmika hissed. “And you, I swear to you that I will not let any of us hurt any innocents with these weapons. Is that enough?”
                          “You think we’d believe that, hah?” the old monk finally spoke again. “The kinds of weapons in there…we know they were meant to hold off armies of the wyld using death essences! You can’t ever use them in creation without innocents getting hurt!” He sat up again and looked into Himmika’s eyes. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know that. It’s why you’re here!”
                          “No we’re not!” Joy threw the woman he was holding aside. “We have to warn Kyleeka not to open the seal!” And with that he ran off towards the mountain.
                          “After him!” the female monk yelled and set to run, but her comrade held her by the arm. “Let me go, Lipeng!”
                          “Junik, think for one second!” the man snapped at her. “Three of us fought two of them and we lost. What are two of us going to do against four of them?”
                          “Three of us!” she insisted.
                          “Your grandfather is hurt!”
                          “No, Captain Ragara…where is he?” They all turned to look around until they spotted the hurried tracks leading back to the beach.

                          The older female anathema in the golden plate and red dress was the first to ask the statues.
                          “What do you mean? Where did who go?”
                          Mnemon Alina stood perfectly still in the centre of the path, barely even daring to breathe, least she give herself away even under the shroud of her charm. Three anathema were just too much for an open fight, and she still had to find out which of their group the monsters intended to sacrifice.
                          “She was right there!” the statue pointed at the unseen Alina. “She said she had a message for you, my lady!”
                          So the woman was Sirinda reborn? Alina smiled and slowly drew a throwing dagger with each hand.
                          “What was the message?” the man with the blue goatee asked.
                          “She said she had to bring it in person.”
                          “Quiet everyone,” the younger female spoke and raised a hand. “There is someone else here, I can hear a breath.”
                          Alina held her breath and froze out of reflex, but it was too late. The girl was already squinting in her direction.
                          So she sprang into action, letting a gust of wind aid her in running up the leg of the nearest statue, the gladiator. When she reached its hip, she jumped off and slammed into its arm, shoving her essence into the impact and knocking the limb to swing out and slam into its nearest stony companion.
                          “Hey!” that statue yelled and swung a stone club to retaliate.
                          “What are you doing? Stop it!” the new Sirinda shouted, but already the two stone giants where fighting, with the other two rushing to join. Soon it began raining rock crumbs and dust.
                          “There she is!” the girl pinpointed Alina with annoying accuracy and picked up a rock to throw.
                          “I don’t see anything!” Sirinda shouted.
                          “His eyes are better than ours,” the blue goateed man shouted back. “Just trust him and blast your spells where he’s pointing!”
                          A sorceress then, Alina noted. That stood to reason. And the girl was a he?
                          She tucked into a roll, deliberately leaving a more notable track, the leapt up into the air where she let an air current buffet her aside.
                          As all three anathema eye sets turned to follow the path suggested by her track, she landed behind them and tossed a knife at the man’s back.
                          It was a hasty throw, barely scratching his arms, but when he turned to track the missile’s origin, his eyes fell on the sorceress.
                          “What are you doing?”
                          “I didn’t do anything!”
                          “It was the invisible woman!” the girl screamed over them. “She’s trying to pit us against each other again!”
                          “But I thought you said she went that way?” the man responded and pointed away from Alina.
                          “Watch out!” the sorceress screamed and jumped to push both of them aside as one of the stone statues, fell flat where they’d just stood.
                          “Me smash!” one of the other statues shouted and swung its stone club again.

                          “Watch out!”
                          Kyleeka felt herself pass through Guinar’s wasp evasion form with her lunge, but she was able to shove Covari out of the way of the falling statue, and found herself once more lying on top of him.
                          “For yu-shan’s sake!” the fallen statue shouted and struggled to get back up. “I’ve had it with your bad grammar! I know you learned better than that!”
                          A loud crack sounded as the other statue was grievously damaged.
                          “Me think you face butt!” The fighting stone giants continued their struggle. “Thanks for the save,” Covari mumbled underneath Kyleeka. “Guinar!”
                          “I’m fine!” the boy shouted and then coughed as he caught a mouthful of rock dust.
                          “You’re welcome,” Kyleeka laughed and got off the captain. “And no, that knife wasn’t me-“
                          A knife bounced off the back of her breastplate. It had come from Guinar’s direction.
                          “Stop that!” she shouted. “We’re on to you!”
                          She wasn’t sure what reply she’d expected, but it wasn’t the one that came.
                          “Kyleeka!” Ten Names Joy’s voice cut through the dust. “Don’t open the vault! It’s full off-“ The blonde man came running through the dust towards them waving a hand in front of his face to clear his sight. Then he tripped and tumbled into a roll, stopping only at Kyleeka’s feet. “Ouch!” he groaned and clutched his bloodied hands to his belly.

                          The anathema girl fell back into a defensive stance, raising all four of her arms, when her companion ran off, but she needn’t have worried. With the dragonmaster’s arm broken and Junik fawning over him, with their brave Ragara ally probably back on his own ship already, it was just her and Lipeng.
                          And she knew he could take him. That much he saw in her eyes.
                          “I don’t intend to fight a little girl today,” he said, but remained in his own form stance. “But I must ensure that the weapons stored here are never used again.” “If they are as terrible as you say,” the girl shot back, “we won’t. I swear it on my grandfather’s honour.”
                          “We can’t trust an anathema!” Junik screamed and stood. “We have to kill her!”
                          “For a stable creation,” the dragonmaster whispered with a nod, still clutching his arm. “For a just order of things.”
                          “Just?” the girl spat. “Is it just to hurt my parents for something they had no control over? Is it just to kill me simply because I might have committed crimes in my past life?”
                          “She’s a demon! Don’t listen to-“
                          “Enough!” Lipeng snapped. “She bested you and master Sunikahm, and she did so with more honour than either of you!” He turned to the girl and bowed. “If we promise to leave in peace, will you grant us safe passage?”
                          She placed her four palms into pairs, one flesh, and one essence.
                          “I seek only to protect my friends,” she spoke and inclined her head.
                          “No!” Junik shot forwards, hands raised to stab with her fingertips. The girl whirled into motion, but before the two could collide, Lipeng had stepped in and seized his comrade with an arm around her waist and swung her around to absorb the momentum.
                          He slung her over his shoulder and reached down with his other arm to pull the dragonmaster to his feet.

                          “We’ve done all we can here,” he said. “Let’s go.”
                          He took a few steps away and then faltered.
                          “On my grandfather’s honour,” Himmika called after him. “I swear!”
                          Lipeng continued walking, much more easily now.

                          Kyleeka sat down to check on Joy’s wound as Guinar and Covari took guarding positions around them.
                          “Hold still,” she said. “I need to check how bad it is!”
                          “I’m fine, actually,” Joy shrugged but let her pull up his shirt. “I don’t think it’s my blood.”
                          “What do you mean?” Covari called over his shoulder.
                          “I don’t know,” Joy shrugged again. “I was running towards you guys – by the way these boots are amazing! I’m pretty sure I just ran faster than I ever have in my life, and up some steep stairs no less! You should try them!”
                          “Later maybe,” Kyleeka tried to soothe him with a stroke on his shoulder. “We are in a bit of a situation here.”
                          “Really? Why?”
                          “There’s an invisible woman throwing knives at us?”
                          Joy sat up bolt straight. “Where?” He looked around. “That would explain something, though. I could have sworn I ran into someone over there.” He pointed.
                          Guinar slowly followed the gesture and began searching.
                          Kyleeka frowned. There really wasn’t a wound on the blonde man. “You were also calling for me not to open the manse, why?”
                          “Oh, right,” he nodded. “There were some immaculate monks down in the town, and they said the manse is full of horror weapons that use death essence to kill lots of innocents. I wanted to warn you not to open the seal. If that’s what’s in there, it’s better it stays closed.”
                          Guinar gave a shout and picked up a bloody knife from the ground near the edge of the path.
                          “Whoever was here isn’t anymore,” he said. “No footsteps, no breath, no heartbeat. I think she might have gone over the edge.”
                          Covari and Kyleeka helped Joy up to his feet.
                          “So…what do we do now?” the captain asked.
                          “We get back down to Himmika,” Joy decided and pushed both of them into a walk. “She had those immaculate monks handled, but I’m sure she’d appreciate the help. And that you didn’t kill Covari.”
                          He stood and watched as the stone statues still fought in the path, blocking their way.
                          “I said stop it!” Kyleeka barked at them.
                          “She start it!”
                          “That wasn’t me, you idiot!”
                          “I don’t care who started it!” Kyleeka stomped her foot. “You are all going to stop now!”
                          Slowly, each of the giant stone figures obeyed and bowed to her.
                          “Now follow me,” she continued. “We’ll need to find you someone who knows something about masonry. Those cracks look nasty.”
                          The Gladiator statue shrugged but the Courtesan one put a hand on her shoulder to hide her nastiest fissure.
                          All together they headed back down the path.

                          The cursed island faded into the distance behind them as the ship made back for Aestgard. Lipeng couldn’t wait to not be able to see it anymore.
                          “Young master,” the old voice pronounced the ‘s’ with extreme sharpness, “we have a matter to discuss.”
                          Dragonmaster Sunikahm’s arm was a in a sling but otherwise the old man looked none the worse for wear.
                          “I know,” Lipeng sighed.
                          “You’re a disgrace to the order,” Junik growled from behind her grandfather.
                          “No!” the old man laughed. “For that, he’d have to be in the order, hah! What a scandal that would be.”
                          Lipeng nodded. “You’re expelling me.”
                          “We should be so lucky! Hah, no. I suspect your family will arrange for a voluntary departure from our ranks for you, and shove you into some officer’s position. I pity those men, though.”
                          “I’m not a coward,” Lipeng said and turned away to look out to the sea again.
                          “You could have fooled me!” Junik’s hiss sent the skin on his back crawling. But no knife or fist followed it.
                          “I can prove it,” he said and turned to face them again, “if you’re really kicking me out.”
                          She frowned but the dragonmaster simply rolled his eyes. “Too late, cub.”
                          “Yes, it is,” he nodded and seized Junik by the hip. With one twist he’d tipped her over and pressed his lips firmly onto hers.
                          It took her a while to react, and before she could pull her hand back for a slap, he’d stood her back up already.
                          Sunikahm raised a single eyebrow, and idly pulled on his beard. Lipeng waited to take the slap and then bowed one last time to his former colleagues before walking away.

                          The hammering on wood, the sawing of planks and the singing of sea shanties all joined to bring a smile on Covari’s face. The Nymph, though battered, had not been broken, and work was well underway to get her seaworthy again.
                          Kyleeka joined him at the railing of the aft castle, looking out at the village around the lake.
                          “Guinar said he had a few more buildings to check,” she reported, “but he doesn’t think he’ll find any more jade.”
                          “We found some,” Covari shrugged, “enough to make the crew happy.”
                          “Still, I did promise you talents…”
                          “And there are undoubtedly some in the manse,” the captain nodded. “But if Joy is right about what’s in there, it’s not worth the price.”
                          “It was never worth that price,” Kyleeka mumbled. “I…I’m sorry I tried to hurt you. And for what I did to the ship.”
                          “You can work off your debt, I’m sure,” he laughed and put his arm around her shoulders. “My crew can always use a great sorceress. Or a friend. And I’m sorry, too, for what happened up there.”
                          She smiled and together they watched as two of the living statues lifted another repaired boom up into the rigging.
                          “It’ll be some task getting those four off this island,” Covari let out a sigh. “You’re sure you can’t turn them back into people? They’re going to be a pretty heavy load as statues.”
                          “Unfortunately no,” she replied. “Guinar agreed to help me sneak back into the Heptagram, after we check on Himmika’s family, that is. There has to be a way to give them their names back in there somewhere. I…Sirinda did it with sorcery. That means sorcery can undo it.”
                          “The Heptagram? That’ll be dangerous.”
                          “I’ve survived there for almost twenty years,” she laughed. “And this time, I’ll have a friend watching out for me.”
                          “Just a friend?” Covari chided.
                          “He’s too young for me!” she shot back. “And you...let’s just try to be friends as well, much simpler that way.”
                          “Agreed,” he chuckled and patted her on the back. “You better get some rest. Our Nymph should be ready to fly again tomorrow.”

                          The rotund pirate riding on the back of the siakha hadn’t had a drink in days. The little flask he kept hidden in his boot had not lasted long.
                          “Can’t you go any faster?” he slapped his giant shark familiar on its head. The beast wiggled more vigorously, but Vartorris didn’t really notice much difference in the speed in which the waves rushed past.
                          Could he see land ahead? Or was it a dehydration induced hallucination like the flying ship on the cloud above his head?
                          He tried his empty flask once more and then tossed it at the mocking mirage.
                          “I swear on the nineteen reef devils of Hanur Bay, Covari!” he cursed. “I’ll find you and get my Nymph back!”

                          I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!


                          • #14
                            And thus the story comes to a close. I hope you enjoyed it!
                            Any thoughts, comments, suggestions or creative curses are welcome

                            I thank the Devs for the great game of Exalted!