The wind whipped through the sky. It blew up from the north. The sun was shining, and the sound of engines and propellers whined.
Fina stood up in the crow's nest in the newly christened Rhea. The mast which held up the platform she and Cupil resided in swayed a little bit, but she was used to it since before. No airsickness for her. More and more she understood Vyse's feelings for this new ship. It was a real ship made of living organic material, not like the Delphinus, though it had its charm too, she would never forget that.
They had departed early this morning. Although they hadn't slept much, Fina and her friends were still fit for sailing. Past experiences had made them though, even by Air Pirate standards. The naming ceremony had been brief but profound. Anticipation and eagerness had been on the top. Shouts and hoorays hit the roof when Rhea's name was spoken for the first time.
Each and every one of Crescent Isle's air pirates had boarded the ship for their positions, except for Tairon and a few selected men. He had, as per plans, taken away in the Dove, which for the moment was named the Shinai. They did, however, let him have a head start.
Fina could see them through the binoculars, but only briefly. Thus, the Shinai was distant enough so that neither he nor anyone else could spot the Rhea.
"It's a good ship, isn't it, Cupil?"
Her silvery pet chirped in reply.
"No, it's not as fast. But we have room for many more here."
A knock on the hatchet interrupted their conversation. Fina bent down and opened it. It was Paco.
"Vyse sent me to change," he said.
Fina thanked him, and after he was up, she climbed down herself.
She crossed the deck with Cupil in tow and headed into the superstructure. She took the stairs up and soon stood at the bridge.
Vyse stood at the helm, hands clasping the steering wheel. Aika stood at the starboard panels, just like on the Delphinus. Hans and Nicole stood by the port side.
The captain threw a quick glance over his shoulder. Most of it had worn off, but Fina could see the traces of eager and joy at sailing a new ship, just like the first times on the Delphinus. It felt good to see him this happy.
"Seen any ships?" he asked.
"None at all. At least not anyone coming for us."
"Good. Now we're soon approaching Nasrean airspace, he should make it by now. It's time for us to go back. Until then, Fina, the helm is yours."
Fina flinched at his words. It was certainly not a small thing she had been entrusted with. But if he wanted her to, she sure could. It wasn't the first time she would be sailing a ship of this magnitude. A couple of rounds on the Delphinus had taught her a whole lot.
The Silvite walked up to the steering wheel. Vyse let go, and Fina grabbed it with an upper hand-grip with the left hand, and underhand on the right. With a quick spin to the left, the Rhea turned portside, and soon it had the bow to the north.
"She's swifter than the Delphinus, that's for sure," Fina said.
"Like a dream," Vyse said. "Just take it easy with her."
"We're out in the wild frontier, and we have clear skies all the way to Crescent Isle. I should do fine."
"Yeah, but you never know. I mean, everybody runs into something sometime."
"Are you insinuating anything!?" Aika snapped from her panels.
"That's some impressive words… coming from you. Why would I?"
It wouldn't be nice to Aika to say it out loud, but Fina knew all about it, not so strange since she had been there. That was the day when she had learnt what totalling a ship might mean. In this case, Aika had hit two at once.
"No, that's pretty obvious. What else but total awesomeness can ya expect from me?"
"Well, there was the last time…"
"When we sailed to Nasrad? Yeah, and it ended up with us bringing along Esteban. Ain't I good or what?"
"He didn't know you were playing helms… woman that day."
"Genius. Well, then it must've been our pretty faces that did it, right Fina?"
"I wholeheartedly agree," Fina said, clenching her teeth to not burst out into a giggle, which would hamper her steering.
"Fina: be that so it may. Aika: next time you talk to me, shut up."
The bickering rolled on the inside. Outside, the winds were blowing, and the clouds rolling. It was a peaceful setting.
Then it was disturbed by some noises from the tube.
"This is Paco, up at the lookout. There's something away at starboard."
"Ships or thin air?"
"A ship. It looks like they're Black Pirates!"
Those two words made a chill and grim atmosphere settle on the bridge, but only for an instant. Quickly it was changed to decisiveness. This was nothing new. After all, they were Blue Rogues.
"Hold watch on them," Vyse said, then flipped on the main-tube. "Battle stations everybody. No immediate danger just yet. Fina, take us to them."
Fina turned the wheel to the right, and Rhea turned along. Far ahead, a dark ship was seen. It was well out of shooting range. Good, they thus had time to prepare for their first battle.
"I think I can see the name," Paco said. "Re… Red fur… Red Fury. Hey, I recognize it!"
"Sure thing," Nicole said. "That's one of the crimson ships that chased us from Nasrad. But we left that one in the wind."
"They took their time, but they're finally here," Vyse said. "Let's see what this lady can do."
"Not to mention, fill up our treasure chamber," Aika said.
Ship battles were not new for Fina. She just hadn't taken the helm during such times. Should she leave the wheel to Vyse? After all, he was the best one. But this was a golden opportunity to get some experience. Vyse probably thought of that too, like that time when they had been marooned.
"Rift the sails for attack," Vyse said in the tube.
Down at the deck, people were rushing to the masts to rift some of the sails. It would decrease their speed a little, but also increase their manoeuvrability. Right now they had a good northwest wind, while their target sailed on a strict northbound course.
"Excellent. Prepare the cannons. Make sure you have knipples handy."
Khazim and his men were posted on the upper deck. The rest of them, including Esteban, were downstairs. There they at least had some hull for protection from flying projectiles.
The distance between the two ships had been narrowed. Now they could see it clearly. They recognized the flag at once, being the same as the one they had scuttled before. It was a stylish skull, scythe and a red circle. On the deck, they could see the crew donning their cannons. Then Red Fury rocked a bit, and a torpedo rushed out in the sky.
"Hold the course, Fina," Vyse said. "Straight forward."
"But it's going to hit us!" Fina said, her instincts screaming for her to turn as the torpedo got closer. "We have to evade it!"
"That's what they think we'll do!" Vyse said harshly. "Just focus on holding the course."
"Hope you know what you're doing," Aika said, crouching slightly as she prepared for the impact.
High above, the whining of the torpedo was heard. It grew in sound, and then it quieted as it flew past them down the skies.
"Excellent. Now, turn portside, we'll give them a broad salvo. Starboard cannons; be ready!"
Fina turned the wheel. The Rhea's bow almost touched against the Red Fury's stern. Fina turned a bit more, as the Red Fury sailed on. Five meters distance… Ten…
And then, it all broke loose from both sides. Cannons thundered, salvos were given, grey smoke burst out from dozens of cannons. But the Red Fury's crew had apparently counted on that torpedo; their cannons didn't fire much at all in comparison to the Rhea. So far it looked good.
"Starboard, reload. Portside, be ready! Fina, let them pass, then try to get up to their star."
"Affirmative," Fina said.
The Red Fury passed by, but turned a sharp portside, taking them on a western course. A foolish move at first, but the winds had turned. They were blowing to the west. This head start might let them get away.
Instantly, and without being ordered or permitted to, Fina brought the Rhea around to the starboard side.
"We can give them a full blow with the left side," she said quickly.
"Good idea," Vyse said. "Portside, fire!"
Several explosions were heard along the side. The crew aimed well, almost all projectiles hit their target, which swaggered a bit. Fina turned the steering wheel as much as she could, getting the Rhea around to follow them.
"After them! Aika, get up to a higher level. I want a clear shot at their sails."
The Red Fury seemed to have settled for a disgraceful escape, though they fired several shots from their stern. Just as the Rhea was on the border to catch up, a white cloud of smoke began to fill her deck.
"Not this again," Vyse groaned. "Khazim have better get it away somehow."
"How 'bout our old silver-duster?" Aika suggested.
Too focused to give a reply, Fina stood quietly. As far as she was concerned, the smoke did no harm at all. She had a perfect sight in all directions. No Black Pirates would get away from them, not on her watch.
"Get us up a few notches, in case they want to try it again."
As they ascended, the smoke-grenade had been tossed overboard. Khazim's men did their best to brush away the last rests of the smoke while Khazim himself stood in the bow and manned the forward cannon. For a good cannoner, length wasn't a big issue. Different height, however, presented several difficulties. Hopefully, he could try to knock out the engine.
"We're almost there. Fina, line up their port side. We'll blast their sails to rags."
"Aye. Just take us down a little."
Aika pulled her gauges, and soon the whole bridge felt a sinking feeling in their respective stomachs. Just next to them sailed the worn and tarnished Red Fury. It would be a perfect shot…
Then the Black Pirates unleashed a huge barrage. The Rhea almost lopsided to the port side by the projectiles' combined force. Shouts of surprise filled the bridge. Fina clang on to the steering wheel as hard as she could, while doing her best to not turn it. Vyse had stumbled away to the left, avoiding falling by grabbing on to the hearing-tube. As they swung back, he gave the order to empty the starboard cannons at them, and then reload with knipples.
The whole air was filled by the cannon balls and then the chained cannonballs flew. Sailcloth was ripped wide open with gaping holes. The ship slowed down and would soon stop.
Fina exhaled in relief. They had done it. Brief, but intense, and the damages had been a minimum.
"Seems like they're tired playing," Vyse said. "Esteban, get up here. The rest of you, load the cannons with grapeshot, just in case. As for you, Fina;" Vyse delivered a firm pat on her shoulder. "Good work."
"Yeah, that was great!" Aika consented.
"Thank you," Fina said.
Her heart slowed down to the normal level, as proudness welled up in her like a rising sun. Steering a ship in battle was no small task indeed. Yet for this battle, all she had done was following Vyse's orders. Even if she had to react quickly and precisely, she didn't need to think up a strategy on her own. On the other hand, he hadn't coddled with her and detailed her actions. He had spoken to her like an equal, a fellow Air Pirate. He knew she could do it well and without delay or hesitation.
Fina followed Vyse and Aika out from the bridge, while the others remained. When they had closed the door behind them, Vyse looked at Fina with a certain glance. He squinted his eyes and smiled a not so friendly smile.
"What is it?" she asked,
"It's just that I heard you say something strange back there," he said. "Is it just me, or did you actually say 'left-side'?"
Fina felt her cheeks heat which caused Vyse and Aika to grin at her. Born and raised among ships as he was he couldn't possibly have missed that. Perhaps an easy mistake, but such faults were normally reserved for so-called land crabs.
"I… may have done so. I just got overexcited."
"Nuh-uh," Aika said. "That's my excuse, you go make up your own! Nah, we all make slip-ups every now and then. Vyse, don't look at me like that, you creep me out. Fine, I make just one itty bitty mistake and it has to be nagged on forever!"
"Well, maybe not that long. Don't take it too hard, Fina. Still, I hope we don't have to go through this… again."
During their little talk, Esteban ran up from the lower deck. Breathing a bit heavy, clenching his fist, he had a look of both relief and eager but still no sign of taking it easy just yet. He even had his crossbow armed. Ready for everything.
"You got enough room in your pockets?" Aika asked eagerly.
"If there's anything left after you, then yes," Esteban said.
Together the quartet went out on the bridge. Khazim and his men joined up with them. The Red Fury lay just next to them. The sails were ragged, and the hulls were riddled with gaping holes. A few Black Pirates stood on the deck, waiting for whatever to come. It wasn't very like Black Pirates to surrender without a fight, but the sight of the Rhea's lower cannons pointing straight in their faces had made them settle for an exception.
The situation was good, Vyse concluded. It seemed they would sail away from here with their cargo filled with treasures, all without a fight. It was well-known that Vyse was one of the toughest duelists in Arcadia, but it was no reason to needlessly fling about. Fighting was the last resort, even though he happened to be an Air Pirate.
"Hello there," Vyse said. "We just wanted to free you from your gold and valuables. Will you be so kind as to bring it out for us?"
The Black Pirates eyes went from both the hated enemy up there, and the muzzle of all the cannons loaded with devil-knew-what. A tall man with a black headcloth gave a quick order, and soon his seadogs left for any treasures. He walked up towards the Rhea, looked over his shoulder to ensure that he was alone.
"I won't get any other occasion than this. On behalf of all of us… thank you."
That was the last things they would expect a Black Pirate to say, especially since they were about to take custody of their collected booty.
"Come again?" Aika asked.
"Don't be so confused now," Vyse said quickly. "He's just glad we took out their employees, the syndicate, aren't you?"
"That's right. But it was supposed to be a secret."
"Ah, I got my ears and eyes in every harbour," Vyse lied. Just let them think he was an omnipresent Blue Rogue, he didn't mind. "We just didn't have anything else at hand."
"It's categorized under pleasure," Fina said.
"Before bed-time," Aika filled in.
Esteban didn't say anything. He stood there, coldly glaring the man on the deck. He'd just never liked Black Pirates, or any piracy, except for the Blue Rogues who struggled for a good cause and only took from those who had more than they needed.
"We're our own masters now. See this as a payment, and keep your distance from us."
"Whaddaya mean!? You were the ones who started to fire!"
"Because you attacked us. In the future, we'll not seek battle with you, if you stay off our turf. Just let us do our bidding alone."
Those Black Pirates sure could be bold. Plundering innocent merchants poor enough to not afford any escort and call that bidding.
"We'll leave you alone alright," Vyse said. "After you've shelved your pirate ways."
"Forget that. Besides, that would be pretty bad for you if we all sailed ashore for good. We plunder and you take. We're like a cycle, you and us. Except that you are not needed."
"To hell with your so-called cycle!" Esteban snapped.
The Black Pirate lazily gazed his way. His grin said clearly what he thought of Esteban right then.
"So you can talk. Where did you get air from?"
Actually, Vyse thought, what he said there did actually have some truth to it. Now when Valua had resigned as the world's oppressor, scourge and bullyboy, targets had diminished severally for the Blue Rogues. For now, it was mostly, if not only, Black Pirates who presented the income. Did that mean they were dependent on Black Pirates to continue harassing innocent ships and people? What did that make them, then?
"Maybe we are," Vyse said. "But even if all Black Pirates would surrender at this instant, whoever said we need a reason to sail?"
Now there begun some commotion on the deck. The door to the ship's interior stood wide open, and the crew carried out one fully-loaded chest after the other. The lids were turned up, and gold and gems shimmered in the sunlight.
"Now that's what I call a great first tour," Aika said with eyes as bright as the coins.
"Sure thing," Vyse said. "That will keep us floating for a good while. That, Fina, is a metaphor."
"Can't it be both?" Fina replied.
That actually made sense. But before Vyse had a chance to answer, he noticed a movement up at the Red Fury's mast. Someone stood up at the crow's nest.
"Now I'll finally get you!"
At first, Vyse discarded the man as a madman. You just didn't fight when a broadside of cannons was pointing at you. But then he saw what the man was wavering with…
Hardly had Vyse screamed "Dodge!" before the shot burst off. Dimly, he felt something pass by him, and then he heard a quick "snap" followed by a "swish", and the man up at the mast fell over.
Vyse saw how Esteban at once had reloaded, and with a grim face, he covered in every angle down on the ship. Aika was shouting his name, and Fina…
Vyse saw Fina fall down on the deck. Shock and despair hit him like the bullet that had hit Fina. And then, everything was drowned in the sound of cracking thunder when half a dozen cannons spewed out grape-shot.
"We have to get her inside!" Aika shouted. "Fina, can you walk!?"
Now first Vyse saw that, even though Fina's face was a mask of gruesome pain, she clutched herself around the left arm. Blood trickled through her fingers.
A deep wave of relief showered over Vyse, but only ever so briefly. Fina had been shot!
"Aika, you take her in! We'll stay behind and keep you covered!"
And, Vyse thought grimly as he readied his cutlasses, if anyone one showed up to make a fuss, he wouldn't answer for any consequences!
The Rhea's first journey had been short but stained in much blood.
Practically all of the Black Pirates had been out on the deck when the Blue Rogues had fired away with all they had. None had survived. Those who happened to be inside hadn't heard the whole story and decided to make a last stand. They hadn't been willing to listen to arguments…
Vyse and his crew thus found themselves with not just a shipload of treasure, ammo and supplies but a ship as well. After some talking, they found a good use for it. The Red Fury was now going on a slow course straight towards Nasrad, with no one aboard, except for a disclosed letter up on the bridge, declaring that this ship and all it contained was a gift for "all people of Nasrad" signed by Vyse. It might be a first step to patch things up between the Blue Rogues and Nasr.
Right now Fina, with Cupil, sat immersed in hot water inside the steamy hot spring on Crescent Isle, wearing nothing except the bandage around her arm. There was only one window, and it faced outwards the sky. If that wasn't enough, the roof stretched out a bit, making it conspicuous and highly dangerous to peek.
Fina leant back and relaxed, even though her mind was constantly thinking over the accident that had befallen her. Just a little more to the right, and it would've hit her straight in the arm. Bone, muscles and sinews would've been torn off, and her arm would've been useless, injured beyond all healing presently known. Her only option would be to get a protes. She shuddered at the thought. Cupil saw it, and silently floated towards her and carefully nudged against her wound. Fina stretched out her hand and patted him, which made him chirp.
But at least she would be alive. Had it been even more… Her inside froze and the skin crawled when she thought about it. Straight in the heart. By now she would've been gone a long time. They would be in the middle of her wake, in which…
Briefly she thought it over but then shook her head to clear out the image. Fina sunk down in the warm water, with only her head above, not caring that the bandage got all wet.
Of course, Fina thought, ultimately it was nothing to argue about. It was one of the most fundamental facts in the world. Death just couldn't be avoided. After all, what would shimmering life be if there was no looming death? Feared as it was, it made life so much purer.
But it wasn't just her. Fina was the last of the Silvites.
It wasn't easy to be the last one of your kind, Fina thought. But on the other hand, in the larger view, what did it mean to be a Silvite? What was it that set her aside from someone else? She knew a whole lot of ancient technology which hadn't been seen in this world for the last thousand years, and the true story of the Rain of Destruction. But wasn't she a regular human? Just like her ancestors had been before they rose to power, during ages long forgotten. Valuans, Ixa'taki, Nasreans, Yafutomans and Silvite alike, they were all Arcadians.
None the less, she had been born and raised as a Silvite. She was the sole carrier of the Silvite Civilization, the legacy of the Elders, and she would make her best for the world they had sacrificed themselves to.
No matter what Fina did, the Silvites of Arcadia were doomed to extinction. Not today, not tomorrow, but one day, she would eventually die, and the Silvite Civilization with her.
Fina looked down, and carefully laid her hand on her belly. In her mind she saw herself, older and more grown up, snuggling a little infant in her arms, and smiled at the thought. What would the elders say? Half-blood? Biologically yes. But they would be Fina's children, and she would love them with no constraint.
She would be the ancestor of all following Silvites, all of them would be of her blood. But if she was the mother of all Silvites to come, who would be the…
Would she have to fine comb the whole world for someone fit and worthy enough? It seemed too much like breeding. But the Silvite blood needed to be as unstained as possible. She would have to put her mind over heart if…
Then again, the heart was an excellent negotiator. Excellent indeed.
A knock on the door returned Fina to the world of the present. She stepped up from the spring, wrapped a towel around herself and walked up to the door.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"It's me," Aika said on the other side. "I just wonder if you're okay."
"I'm fine. I just need to relax a bit." She paused for a moment. "Would you like to come in?"
"Yeah, if you don't mind."
Fina opened the door, and Aika directly put her hands behind her back, as she was holding her own towel, obviously ready for a bath. Fina squeezed her eyes and looked past her redhead friend. Aika looked to the side and whistled an "I'm innocent"-tune, which Fina could help smiling at. Aika did really love the hot spring.
Fina went back and sat down in the warm water. Behind she heard the door being locked and then the rustle of Aika removing her clothes. After that, she sat down at the little stool and, equipped with brush and pail, began to wash herself off before the bath itself.
"Does it still hurt much?"
"Not anymore," Fina replied. "I think it was mostly the shock."
"Hey, that's bad enough," Aika said and slipped down in front of her. "When standing in front of a gun, a loaded one, no one is cocky. And if you are, you're totally stupid."
Fina nodded. The injury wasn't that bad. That bullet had mostly brazed her skin, so the treatment only consisted of cleaning the wound and bandage it. It was the knowledge that she could've might as well been gone that gnawed on her mind, more than the red scratch on her arm.
"I wonder what they'll think when the Red Fury come along," Fina said.
"Yeah, I'd sure like to see their faces when that big tub comes gliding. But they better be happy with the gold we left them."
"Are you still thinking about it?"
"Gold is treasure. And a treasure is a treasure is a treasure and all that. Yep, it was well-spent and all, but still… You know me."
"I should, by now. But we'll get some more the next round."
Aika looked up at Fina. The Silvite calmly looked back.
"So you haven't got cold feet or something?"
"No. It's not the first time. And I wouldn't feel safe if you were out on your own."
Aika frowned jokingly and splashed a beam of water against the smiling Fina.
"Hey, I don't want to hear that from you. In case you wonder, I still remember QUITE well when you said 'What does that mean?'."
"Which time!? Oh yeah, which one of the five billion times shall I pick?"
"It wasn't that much!"
"Oh yeah, wanna bet on it, if you know what that means? But it matters when it's about money."
Fina splashed back, but not by a whole lot. She already felt much, much better. When feeling down, all one needed was a dear friend to talk it out with. Not to mention having a good hot spring.
Up at the lookout, Esteban stood by himself and gazed out across the skies. He hoped that his turned back would be enough to give the signal "Keep your distance or keep shut!" Right now he only wanted solace. His room would be the best place for that, but he had decided to be out a little more, to show the world that he did actually exist.
Ever since the battle, everybody had asked him about it, and some of them had complimented him on the good shot. Esteban had done his best to just nod along, instead of screaming to them to just shut up. His insides twisted at the memory of that brief skirmish. Again he saw the moment, how the gun had burst, and a bullet flew straight against Fina. He clenched his fist, his nails making new marks on the flesh. And then, he had fired his crossbow, and the second after he was an affirmed killer.
If there was something he regretted, apart from not noticing the threat sooner, it was that he hadn't dipped the arrow in some sort of secret alchemist potion which paralyzed the muscles and boosted the nerves of pain. And then, break his arms and legs in four places each. It wasn't more than that scum deserved!
He shook his head as if to calm himself down and disperse the thoughts. Taking a deep breath, he breathed out in a long sigh. Useless. Why was he standing here getting angry over a dead enemy when he had a living friend who had almost been shot to death? Esteban turned from where he was standing, and after only a few seconds of contemplation, he began to walk. He wasn't good with words, but he knew that consoling wasn't all about that. When Aika had comforted him, it wasn't so much what she had said that made him feel better, but the feeling of having someone who cared. Esteban didn't know if his own shoulders were any good to cry against, though.
Having made it to Fina's room, he knocked carefully on her door.
"Come in," Fina's voice said, a bit muffled.
Esteban opened up. In there sat Fina on her bed, at the moment being held closely and tenderly by Vyse. It seemed like he had got the same idea as Esteban. Fina sat with her head leant on his shoulder, eyes half-closed. Esteban was just about to close the door and leave when they both looked up to the newcomer.
"Hello," Fina said.
"Hi," Esteban replied, not sure whether he should feel awkward or not, they sure didn't. "I just… wondered how you were doing and so."
"Right now I couldn't be better."
"Don't listen to her," Vyse inflicted, still holding her. "She's just exaggerating."
"Gee, ain't that way obvious?"
Esteban turned around and saw Aika standing just some inches away from him, tapping her feet and carrying a plate with a kettle and cookies.
"Move aside, or better yet move inside."
The mercenary-had-been chose to do the latter, and soon all four friends sat gathered in the room, enjoying a tasty treat.
Through it all, Esteban didn't get an opportunity on his own to ask Fina if she was okay or not, except at the end. But as long as she smiled and was happy, and it showed, everything was fine.