Captain George and his second, a short woman with brown hair and traits matching her strict attitude, get past the dozen warriors guarding me and the cabin to enter. Idali and I clean my equipment off the table to make space for the platter of salted codfish slices they brought.
We eat in relative silence as the two of them exchange opinions winds and trajectories while Idali doesn’t seem in the mood to chat, which is a good thing considering there isn’t much to discuss without revealing who I am to the other two.
I’m nervous enough about having shown my face to Idali and shared some of my past from before I met Leomi. I didn’t want to tell Aisha that I can see, well sense, through her illusion construct before figuring out what she’s doing here so I had to find someone else for help.
I can only blame myself, and my lies, for that sad fact. I throw a glance out the window as I force myself to chew a large slice of cod because I need the food. Definitely not a fan of sea stuff, ugh.
On starboard, the ship’s right, are dozens of Rykz rafts. Warriors and a few workers are using crude paddles to keep up with the galley, that isn’t even going at half of its maximum speed. Celyz said that Fenyz would send a thousand with me because that’s all they can carry on the rafts they had available close at sea.
More warriors wouldn’t help anyway, it’s going to be difficult enough to be discreet with this many and we only have enough supplies in the cargo hold for a week, that’ll suffice as long as Fenyz is on time.
“Dame Vil, are you certain you want to change course? It will take quite a while to discharge everything with the rowboats.” The second says, concerned.
“It’s a small precaution to ensure that we remain unseen until we assess the area.” I reply. “Don’t worry, I will take good care of the sailors who want to leave until I deem it safe enough, for them and for us.”
“Thank you.” The second nods.
Once we finish our meal, Captain George and his second step out. Idali returns to taking care of her spear, not that the weapon seems to need it but I can understand that the task would put her at ease.
I grab my hammer and spend the afternoon training with it, polishing my stances and lions strikes. I don’t burn more than a single person’s worth of flow energy from my reserves, just to be safe.
Night starts falling so I stop exercising and step outside to catch one last glance at Izla Meria. I cross the upper deck and lean against the stern’s guardrail, sailors wave at me as I pass with mixed expressions. The tale of my violent actions spread out through the city like wildfire and opinions on me are as divided as ever. I did what I had to do.
The island is fading behind the horizon, seemingly sinking under the calm sea. I pass the next few minutes contemplating the fact that I’m leaving home for the first time in my life. Yet, I’m not worried because, while I don’t completely trust Leomi, I know her ideals.
Idali walks out of the cabin, wearing her hard leather armor’s jacket to combat the cold. In her left hand is a small polished flask which no doubt contains alcohol, in the other is a plate containing more sliced cod. Ugh, sea fish.
“You feeling better?” I ask quietly.
“Kind of?” Idali shrugs. “I can probably find work as a mercenary if all else fails.”
“Now’s probably not a good time to become a soldier, Idali.” I comment.
“Well, I already have the gear.” She says, tapping her jacket. “And silver but not enough to start from scratch. It isn’t cheap to buy all the tools necessary to start a new profession.”
“I know.” I groan. There is a reason why the rich stay rich, you need money to get anywhere. It takes an entire lifetime for a peasant family to accumulate the money necessary to apprentice a single child. “I wish you luck.” I tell her.
“Same with your screwed up thing you’ve got going with Lady Countess Lance.” Idali chuckles, taking a gulp from the flask.
“Is that rum?” I ask.
“Whiskey.” She replies, holding it out.
“No thanks, bit strong for me.” I sigh.
“Good, it’s not cheap.” She giggles.
I take a slice of salted cod off of her plate and monotonously chew on it. Mother and Father didn’t raise me to be difficult about my food. I hope brother is doing well up there in the Hetlan duchy, at least he’s very far away from the war.
Behind us, on the deck, sailors are setting down wool covers and settling down. A quick glance tells me that only a third of them are, the rest must be on night shift. Aisha is resting, her illusion construct is impressively still active. She must have more access flow than normal.
I pick up my portion of fish and swallow, barely biting them. I then make my way back to the cabin. I unfurl one of the hammocks fixed on the wall and climb inside the small rope net. The mask is unwieldy to sleep with but after turning a few times, I manage to minimize the discomfort.
— — —
The galley’s pitching wakes me up, the sea is slightly more agitated today. George and Idali are sleeping in two other hammocks. I hop out of mine and make my way outside, to the bridge.
The strict second is holding the steering wheel with both hands, she looks tired as she likely spent the night at the helm. Yet, she is taking her role more seriously than her captain was, her eyes are set on the horizon. I follow her gaze but all I can see is a cast expanse of water, the same as every other direction around us.
“I thought the Izla was closer to the mainland than this.” I comment.
“It is rather close but we’re going at a snail’s pace and it’s tricky to imagine what distances represent when you look at a map.” She replies calmly.
“How long?” I ask.
“We should be there by…” She stops, frowning. “Tomorrow afternoon.” She finishes with a groan. “More than twice the time it would take us with a standard shipment.”
I leave her to it, walking back inside the cabin to grab my hammer and then heading to the back of the ship to train. I spend the morning lost in random thoughts, muttering my ‘Once more.’ mantra as I swing the weapon.
No one bothers me, a third of the crew is still sleeping while the rest are rowing and tending to the sails. Apparently, it doesn’t matter what the galley’s speed is, it takes just as much work to regulate its bearing than if it was going a lot faster, possibly more because they have to mind the hundreds of Rykz rafts.
Idali shows up with her spear and more of the damned fish at lunch. The Captain and his second exchange places, he takes the steering wheel while she goes to sleep. Once we’ve eaten, she takes a guarded stance, aiming the blunt part of her weapon at my chest.
“Mind helping me unwind some?” She asks with a light smile.
“Sure, but no flow.” I reply.
“Worried about what Lady Lance told you, Jessica?” Idali questions with a smirk.
“Do not call me that.” I growl.
“I won’t, I won’t, chill.” She says hurriedly.
Her eyes are trained on my hammer, I raised it menacingly without realizing. I lower it and take a deep breath. I’m glad she isn’t planning to get back to the Izla, this woman is a scoundrel.
“Yes, I am concerned. Mostly because she said so at the last moment, when she saw my face.” I explain.
“Ah, you think Countess Lance wouldn’t have told Elizabeth Vil?” She asks.
“I don’t know, Lance is busy and has a lot of responsibilities. I believe that she only just realized something, but if not…” I leave the sentence hanging.
“Then she hid information from you.” Idali finishes.
“I don’t think it’s.” I pause, remembering Lance’s words about wanting to win, the other side of her personality. “It’s not likely that she would take this kind of risk and anger the Rykz, but it remains possible. Part of a plan perhaps.”
A scheme Aisha would be involved in. I smother my nascent fury, there is no basis to think that Lance plotted anything. I deposit my hammer on the deck, set my right arm behind my back, and raise my left hand between me and Idali’s spear. I flex my gloved fingers and signal the former city guard to come at me.
“Cocky, aren’t you?” She jeers.
I stupidly look away from the blunt end of her weapon to respond, which was exactly what Idali was aiming at by provoking me. She doesn’t miss the opening and launches a quick jab at my left thigh. I avoid it with a casual sidestep.
I don’t need my eyes to see things coming anymore. I smirk a little when the woman shows discontent at the failure of her surprise attack. She keeps her cool and follows up by taking small swings at my ankles to disrupt my footwork.
I control my temper and treat the spar for what it is, an opportunity to improve. I take care to evade every attack with no unnecessary movements. I swirl around and over the wooden shaft, indirectly predicting where she’s trying to hit me through the arcs rather than directly observing the spear.
The reason is that I’m trying to get used to fighting this way because, when lion strikes come into play, weapon shapes can blur and become very difficult to detect, especially when dealing with lightning fast swords-women.
Idali soon grows flustered by her repetitive failures to connect, a feeling aggravated by the sailors laughing at her inability to even ruffle my clothes. As the point is to exclusively use my other sense, it frees me to glare at them from behind my mask.
They fall silent, either intimidated or astonished by my ability to keep escaping the spear without even looking at it. Sadly, the demonstration only serves to further destabilize Idali so I use my left hand to catch her weapon in the middle of a thrust. It smacks the inside of my palm, the impact stings but not much.
“That’s insane.” Idali says, squinting her eyes. “Construct?” She asks.
“It’s a small trick.” I shrug and release her spear. “I wouldn’t be able to do this if you mixed lion strikes into your rotation.”
“Still.” She mutters, falling back into her stance.
She attacks and I whirl around it, edging towards the Rykz standing on the deck. She maneuvers intelligently, throwing a wide swing that forces me backward. Pinning me down into a difficult position with the guardrail on my left, a worker behind me, and Idali already preparing to intercept me if I go right towards the mast.
I jump on the Rykz’ lower trunk, laughing at her sour expression. The worker spreads its four pointy legs to support me and help me stabilize. It then raises its flat head, mandibles open to take a deep breath in. Idali keeps a wary eye on the Rykz but it backs down.
Bolstered by the worker’s apathy, she swipes at my feet. I hop over it and land right in front of her, tripping her up with a quick kick to the back the leg she put in front. She drops to one knee and groans.
“Alright, break.” Idali says, catching her breath. I hold my hand out and help her stand. “Isn’t this kind of useless? I don’t think I’m getting any closer to landing a hit.”
“Actually, I’m getting a lot of out of it. I’m pretty green when it comes to footwork and I’ve relied too much on my chain-mail to defend myself.” I tell her, stepping aside.
“Well, I don’t know if I’m much of an opponent.” She makes a small grimace. “The worst I’ve faced are drunk soldiers and they can’t do whatever you’re doing to read my attacks even when sober.”
“Got anything else to do?” I ask.
“Not really.” She sighs and brings her spear around.
We spend the rest of the morning and a good part of the afternoon chasing each other, taking pauses every time one of us lands a blow to avoid exhausting ourselves. As the evening points out, I take a hit to my stomach and we decide to sit in the mast’s shadow to rest.
Idali takes off her shirt, imitating many sailors, and wipes her sweaty brow. I can’t help but throw a glance, noticing with relief that she is wearing a band of cloth around her chest to sustain her breasts.
“That was fun.” She says, handing the shirt out with a smile.
“Thanks.” I reply, accepting it.
As I pat my forehead, I hear Captain George shout at one of the sailors on the sail’s rigging to go higher. The man nimbly takes hold of a knotted rope and climbs up to the very top of the mast.
“Three square sails north!” He calls out.
I don’t hear the Captain’s reaction, but his second rushes out of the cabin like she expects it to fall on her head. She gets to and up the mast, so quickly that I suspect she’s using a strengthening construct without sparing her reserves.
“Cunt kicker! Captain, those galleys are waving Count Odo’s flag.” She shouts.
“How far?” He questions back.
“Damned if I know!” She swears. “Give me ten to figure it out.”
“Shit, that’s bad.” Idali says.
I get to my feet and make my way to the bridge, Idali following along. Captain George is nervously tapping the steering wheel, eyes fixed on the horizon. He turns to me with a difficult expression.
“We don’t have any weapons, only oars.” He awkwardly tells me.
Why is he… oh, right. I’m Elizabeth Vil, he expects me to pick a fight. A small giggle escapes me. He isn’t wrong. I assemble a sight enhancing construct and gaze north. I find three black sails poking over the horizon, barely visible above the water.
“How do you know they’re galleys?” I ask.
“Square sails means military ships around here. Traders use a more adaptable triangular sail rigging to easily adapt to the winds, they’re slower overall but don’t need to rely on rowers. Caeviel isn’t big on the sea trade so few types of ship navigate the waters and most are old designs.” He explains. “We might be able to outrun them if we ditch our cargo.”
“We’re not leaving the Rykz behind.” I reply, frowning. “If we fail, then we won’t have a chance three against one.”
“Like I said, we don’t have swords.” George insists.
“I get it. You don’t want to fight.” I utter coldly. “Give me options.”
“We could retreat to the center of these creature’s rafts.” He says without much enthusiasm. “At least we won’t get rammed.”
“They’re veering south, they’ll be on us before dawn if we keep going!” The second yells.
The captain doesn’t wait for my input, he spins the steering wheel and redirects our course to the south-east. The sailors are deathly quiet, many of them pale as they go about angling the galley’s barely raised sails to go with the wind.
I catch George hesitating as he watches them, he obviously regrets being here. Still, he restrains himself from telling them to expand the sails which is a good thing because I would’ve had to countermand that order.
“Our only hope, as I see it, is to pierce their sails with those spear-throwers.” He points at the Rykz holding atlatls. “If we’re lucky, we catch the wind and outlast their galley-slave rowers.” He tells me.
“How likely is it that it’ll work?” I ask.
“Not at all.” He scoffs. “There are three galleys, if their captains have any experience, they’ll get into a file and pursue us while changing the leading ship when it gets tired. And I wouldn’t bet on our chances to keep our sails intact, even if we manage to shred theirs.”
“Then fight it is.” I affirm. “How long do we have now?”
“Four hours, more or less.” He replies. “They’ll wait until dawn to attack because it’s easy to make mistakes at night, I’ll stay up and make slight course changes that should buy us a few more hours but, again, it’s only a matter of time before they catch up with us at the speed we’re going.”
I turn to Idali who is slipping her shirt back on, cloth over her eyes. She pulls it down and startles when she finds my mask just a few tens of centimeters away from her face.
“I think you should take one of the two rowboats and try to make it to the coast under the cover of night.” I tell her. “Your message is important for the future of Izla Meria.”
“Aren’t you also?” She counters frowning. “Come with me.”
“They’re not going to just stop pursuing me once they find out I was here.” I reply. “We wouldn’t be able to reach the mainland before they hit the galley or the Rykz, and then they’ll start looking for the Princess in command. No, I have to stay.”
I’m not running from an Odo and I don’t want to abandon my mission along with these thousand Rykz. I vowed that I would see this through no matter the personal cost. I’ll do all I can to cripple their ships first and then try to make it to the coast. With some luck, I’ll find a way to remain hidden in that forest until Celyz arrives.
“I’ll… wait until nightfall before leaving.” Idali tells me with a hard to read expression.
“Good.” I nod and then turning to George. “Relax, Captain, they might not even dare to chase us.”
“I doubt that.” He responds shortly.
“We’ll see.” I say, shrugging. “If this is the trap, it doesn’t impress me. I’ve faced worse odds than these.”
“We’re at sea, Dame Vil. The usual rules don’t apply.” He replies firmly.
“Anything we can do right now?” I question.
“No.” He shakes his head. “We’ll place ourselves in function of the formation they choose to attack.”
“Well then, I’m going to go to sleep. I’m tired and I need to be fresh for tomorrow.” I tell them.
I remain on the bridge until the galley’s second officer confirms her initial assessment of how much time we have. Once she does, I head back to the cabin on my own and move my gear under my hammock before lying in it.
The Captain is being overly pessimistic, there are a thousand Rykz and that Odo only has three galleys. He’s as mortal as his father. I’m probably not feeling as nervous as I should about this…
— — —
Loud approaching steps tear me from my slumber, I blink a few times to try to pierce the darkness until I think of using my other sense. Captain George is facing me with an extinguished flow torch in hand and Idali is standing nearby in her hard leather armor with her spear in hand.