"Let me tell you girls a story. A story about true love…"
Aika felt herself mentally tuning out as Clara launched into another tale of bawdy romance. Evidently, the pirate captain had very little to do today, so she'd spent much of it regaling Fina and Aika with these stories of hers.
Unfortunately, they all seemed to be similar in their details. Clara meets a handsome sailor, falls for him, then realizes she's actually still in love with Gilder and resumes chasing him. It wasn't that Aika didn't have any gratitude for the woman - Clara had discovered Aika and Fina unconscious in their lifeboat and taken care of them on her ship. But these kinds of stories always bored Aika to tears.
She'd grown up looking for adventure, not boys. She wanted treasure, not love. So to see a more experienced pirate - a captain, even - rambling endlessly about such lovey-dovey affairs left her feeling more than a little sour.
"...And so I set out once more in pursuit of my one and only, my one true love, Gilder. Because, and the moral of this story is here, girls - nobody can replace the one." Clara concluded her story with a bow of her head and a knowing smile.
Fina clasped her hands together before her and smiled back at the captain. "How romantic!"
"Yes. Very romantic," Aika said with considerably less enthusiasm, though she did manage to put on a smile. How very surprising that she would go off after Gilder yet again after the last five or six times.
"Thank you, thank you. You know," Clara said, tapping a finger to her dainty chin in thought, "it occurs to me that I've spent all this time telling you stories, but haven't given either of you a chance to tell some of your own. Have either of you had any romantic escapades you'd like to share?" The woman's grin suddenly grew very catlike.
"Oh…" Fina said quietly. "I'm afraid I don't have much to offer. I've been out on my own for only a very short time now…"
Clara's smile turned a few shades more sympathetic as she reached out to gently pat Fina on one knee. "That's quite alright, dear. I'm sure you'll have opportunities, sooner or later." That smile turned on Aika a moment later, however, full of excitement and intrigue. "But what about you, Aika? You seem like the more rugged, adventurous sort. Surely you've got some interesting stories to tell?"
Aika carefully suppressed the urge to squirm under that gaze. "Not… really…."
The pink-clad air pirate set her chin in both her hands as she leaned forward, giving Aika a feline smile. "Now, now, that doesn't sound like a 'no'."
A weary sigh echoed through the tiny cabin as Aika relented. "Fine. I guess I can talk a bit about when I used to have a crush on Vyse."
Fina was suddenly staring at her, wide-eyed. "You have a crush on Vyse?"
Aika gave the girl a flat look. "Used to. I've moved past it."
"Oh," Fina nodded slightly, looking concerned.
Clara didn't seem overly perturbed by Aika's mood. "Well, go on then, let's hear it!"
The redhead scratched awkwardly at the back of her head as she nodded. "I was… I think twelve or thirteen at the time? Vyse and I grew up together, so we were always really close. Around that time, I guess I got it into my head that I was supposed to end up with him. We were the best of friends, and besides, he was the only boy around my age."
"So what happened?" Fina looked surprisingly interested in the story as she clasped her hands close to her chest with her head tilted to one side.
Aika kicked idly at the floorboards of the cabin as she stared at her feet. "I, uh, I kissed him. He didn't really… get it."
"Well, that's a problem that's easily solved!" Clara said with a reassuring smile that Aika didn't bother to look up at.
The redhead shook her head seriously. "No, it's more than that. I don't think I quite 'got it' either."
Clara leaned down to try to get a look at her face. "How do you mean?"
Aika shrugged her shoulders as she allowed herself to glance up at the woman once more, meeting her eyes. "I don't know. I didn't really… feel anything. It felt kinda like I'd forced myself to do it." She steepled her fingers before her as she braced her elbows against her lap. "I think I must have imagined the entire crush, really."
The captain's look had grown contemplative, her golden eyes narrowed and unfocused as she considered distant thoughts.
"Miss Clara?" Fina asked, somewhat worried.
Clara blinked once before seeming to come back to the conversation. "Oh, sorry. I was just wondering what to make of Aika's story."
"I still wonder, too, sometimes." Aika said with a faint smile. "But it doesn't keep me up at night. I've had plenty of fun hunting for treasure and new destinations with Vyse."
Clara raised a chastising finger towards Aika. "Now, now, everyone's path to love may be different, but yours is still out there!" She gave the younger girl a bright smile. "Gold and jewels may sparkle, but true love is the greatest treasure."
Aika wasn't entirely convinced of that, but she nodded all the same. "If you say so, cap'n Clara."
The door to the cabin swung open, and a teenaged girl in a striped shirt and red shorts snapped off a salute as she stepped inside. "Captain Clara, we're approaching Nasrad!"
Clara inclined her head in the girl's direction as she gave her a grateful smile. "Oh, thank you, Belle. I'll be right up to help out." Belle grinned delightedly at the captain. She almost tripped as she turned to shut the door behind her on her way out, leaving Aika and Fina to stare in mild amazement at where she'd been standing. "The girl's still learning the ropes. I think she'll be a great pirate one day, though," Clara said as she stood up from the loveseat where she'd been reclining. "You two can come up to the deck if you like. Nasrad seems like a good place for a pair like you to get started on your search."
"Thank you, miss Clara," Fina said, bowing her head.
"Don't mention it! And, Aika…" Clara said, stopping as she opened the door.
Aika blinked once as she turned her attention to the captain. "Yes?"
"I wouldn't worry about your romantic troubles," Clara said. "Love will find you someday, just as surely as you'll find your friend." With that, she departed, letting the door shut behind her.
Aika watched the Primrose drift away into the distance as she stood on one of the large docks just outside the city of Nasrad, a rather dainty-looking pouch weighing in her hand. "That was the nicest stalker I ever met." She mused.
Fina gave her a bemused smile. "I do not pretend to understand her goals. But I am grateful for the help she gave us."
Aika offered her friend a faint smile before turning around to face the massive city walls before them. "Yeah… I don't want to imagine where we'd have ended up otherwise." She said with a shiver. "Let's just focus on finding Vyse, and, barring that, a place to stay."
The young silvite's brow furrowed as they set off walking towards the large entranceway at the top of a set of steps nearby. "Do you suppose Vyse will be here?" Her voice carried a tinge of worry.
A grimace crossed Aika's features, both from fatigue and concern as they mounted the many steps leading up to the city's entrance. "I don't know. I hope he is. If not, we might have to get a ship before we can start searching for him."
"But… what if he's…"
Aika turned her head to give Fina a chastising look. "He's not. Vyse isn't the type to go out like that. I know he's safe and sound out there, somewhere." She set her free hand on Fina's shoulder as they reached the top of the steps, breathing a little heavily. "We'll find him, Fina. I promise we will."
Fina smiled, though she didn't look very convinced. "Okay. We'll find him."
Satisfied, Aika turned and led them through a long hallway into the main square of the city. The square was split in half by an artificial river that flowed all the way down from the palace at the far end of the city, culminating in a fountain that spouted upwards about a dozen feet in front of the two.
All around were shops and buildings, lining the edge of the square and practically forming a wall, only broken occasionally by alleyways and staircases. It was as if someone had transplanted the busiest part of Sailor's island and stretched it out to be twice as large - and this was only the entrance square. "I've, uh, never been to Nasrad before." Aika admitted.
Fina's eyes were sparkling as she took it all in. "How long must it have taken them to build this?" She said excitedly, rushing forward to the fountain before letting out a giggling squeak of surprise as a few stray droplets struck her face. "This is real water!" She said, amazed.
Aika chuckled at the girl's enthusiasm, following her close to the fountain. "Well, of course it's real water. What else would it be?"
The silvite turned to her with a thoughtful expression on her face, evidently having calmed herself down a little. "Well, the lands of the red moon are all desert. I had assumed it would be a hologram of some sort."
The redhead scrunched her face up in confusion. "What's a hologram?"
Fina blinked. "It's… it's hard to explain."
Aika gave her a long, searching look before shrugging and glancing back over her shoulder. "It looks like there's an inn over there. We might be able to stay there for the moment." She held out the hand that carried Clara's purse, offering it. "Could you see about getting us a room while I give the area a quick sweep for information? I'll meet you back at the inn as soon as I'm done."
Fina accepted the purse with both hands, glancing between it and Aika with slightly wide eyes. "I… I will do my best!" She said, nodding firmly.
That brought an amused smile to Aika's face. "It's just an inn room, Fina. Relax."
A faint blush was spreading over the silvite's cheeks as she looked away and nodded again. "I'll see you when you're done." She said, before hurrying past Aika in the direction of the inn.
Aika watched her go. I hope the poor girl doesn't die of fright trying to handle that on her own, she mused a little sadly, before stepping past the fountain and starting down the long concourse that seemed to lead up to the Nasultan's palace. This seemed to be where anyone visiting Nasrad would end up first; it made sense that if Vyse had been to the city, someone around here would've seen him.
She passed by a couple of lovebirds, embracing tightly and whispering sweet nothings to each other in the shadow of the fountain. She glowered at them a bit as she went by, resisting the urge to ask them about Vyse just for the opportunity to interrupt them. A few snippets of her talk with Clara popped into her head. True love is the greatest treasure. Aika snorted to herself as she imagined all the things she'd be able to buy with true love, giving the pair a wide berth.
She was about halfway through the square, scanning the shop-fronts for a sailor's guild, when she caught someone waving to her out of the corner of her eye. She turned to find a figure sitting cross-legged on an elaborate-looking rug near one of the walls that separated two buildings. They were veiled all in dark, sparkling fabrics from head to toe, making them look like something between an ancient mystic and a crafts project gone wrong.
As she drew near, however, she could see a face hidden behind the figure's veil and turban, and the voice that came from them was decidedly female - and heavily affected. Aika could surmise that they were pitching their voice to sound lower than it actually was. "You look lost, traveler. Might I offer to show you the way?" the stranger said, a gleam in her eye behind her veil.
Aika suppressed a smirk as she slowly sat down just across from the stranger, crossing her legs in a mirror of their pose. "A fortune teller?"
The stranger nodded, clasping their hands together in front of them and bowing their head. "That I am. The great Narya the Wise, at your service!"
The redhead did the best she could to keep her expression neutral and serious as she heard that name. "'The Wise', huh? Okay. How can you help me?" she asked.
Narya the Wise produced a deck of cards from a voluminous sleeve before beginning to shuffle them with delicate hands. "First, you must tell me what brings you to this great city of Nasrad. What adventures have you been on?"
Aika deflated a little. "I was searching for something in Valua with my friend Vyse, but our ship was shot down. We barely escaped in the lifeboats as those got shot down, too. I'm looking for Vyse right now."
The fortune teller's hands slowed their shuffling before coming to a stop, and Aika could see the woman's eyes fall to gaze at the rug beneath them. "I see. That is truly unfortunate." She commiserated, her voice briefly losing its deep tone. She caught herself quickly, however, returning to her feigned contralto and nodding her understanding. "But! Narya the Wise sees all. Perhaps I will be able to help you find your friend."
"I'd like that." Aika said with a faint smile.
She thought she could see a smile in the woman's eyes behind her veil. Narya the Wise set her deck down on the floor between them before drawing a spread of three cards from the top and slowly flipping them over. "The red moon, the servant, and the two of ships…" She read off, looking thoughtful as she lifted a hand to her veiled face.
Aika stared at the cards, not quite able to piece together their meaning. "So, What's in store for me?"
Her voice seemed to snap the fortune teller out of her intent focus, and for a moment Narya the Wise seemed more flustered young woman than all-knowing sage. "Ah! Uhm." She waved her hands before her once before closing her eyes. "It would appear that your friend is not in Nasrad at this time. However, the red moon still shines upon him. If you were to find a ship of your own, I think it likely for you to cross paths with him again in due time."
Aika arched an eyebrow. "I see. Anything else?" It was a remarkably succinct fortune. It didn't tell her much that she didn't already know, but having her chosen course affirmed felt nice.
The fortune teller nodded, before pointing off to her left. "There's a tavern over that way that's currently hiring. You might be able to find work as a waitress, if you're lacking in gold."
The redhead blinked, then snorted in half-hearted amusement. "Did your cards tell you that, too?"
The veiled woman's eyes sparkled. "No. That one was me."
Aika chuckled. "It's much appreciated. What do I owe you for your help?"
The fortune teller quickly shook her head. "Nothing! I couldn't possibly think of charging one in your position."
Aika rolled her eyes, before reaching into the pocket of her shorts to pull out a card of her own - the dolphin. She offered it to the woman with a smile. "Do you at least want your card back, Nari?"
Eyes went wide behind the woman's veil, and she flinched back slightly, her voice going inexplicably higher again. "I… I… who is this 'Nari'? I know nobody with that name. Please keep your card. I'm sure whoever gave it to you would want you to hold on to it."
The young pirate nodded her understanding, pocketing the card again before sitting back with a contemplative look on her face. "I like the act. You could stand to work on the voice, though."
She thought she could see a hint of a blush on the girl's cheeks beneath her veil. "D-duly noted… Not that that means anything to me, of course…" She said, putting on her deeper voice once more. She seemed to gather her nerves for a moment before leaning closer herself and speaking in a whisper. "But… if you would like to speak again later… perhaps we could meet in the market district? It is busy there, and we are unlikely to be noticed…"
Aika beamed her approval at the girl. "Of course. I'll be staying at the inn just by here, too, if you want to visit." She set a hand over the fortune teller's for a moment. "It was nice seeing you again." She said before pulling away.
She thought she saw the other girl fidget beneath her sparkling garb. "Right! It was nice seeing you too." She said, quickly lowering her head and busying herself with her cards so as not to keep staring.
Aika watched her for a long moment before standing up and heading for the inn with a wave goodbye. She'd kept Fina waiting long enough. She hoped there'd be an inn room waiting for her when she got there…
Enrique's hurried footsteps took him where he could only guess Gregorio would be. He turned down a small side hallway that led him into some of the quieter, out-of-the-way areas of the palace, until eventually he passed through a low archway into the palace's shrine.
It wasn't done in the style of the rest of the palace - no ostentatious displays of wealth or power, just simple brickwork lit by candles and hanging sconces, instead of moon stone lamps. The walls of the room were adorned with portraits of former Valuan monarchs, each with a modest pedestal beneath them for offerings along with a placard identifying them. At the far end of the hall was a shrine to the yellow moon, behind which Enrique knew was a staircase leading down into the royal crypt.
Gregorio stood near the far end of the hall, facing one of the last portraits. Enrique crossed the smooth stonework to stand beside him, peering around the taller man at the object of his attention.
Within the frame was a portrait of a man in his mid-to-late twenties. He had golden hair that fell just barely over his forehead, and his eyes were a piercing blue. He had a neatly-maintained beard and mustache that gave him an air of maturity belying the youthful softness of his face. Beneath it was another pedestal, with a placard naming the man "Mateos I".
Gregorio had his head bowed and his eyes closed. Despite the urgency Enrique felt, he held his tongue until the older man had finished paying his respects. Eventually, Gregorio lifted his head and turned to regard him with steady eyes. "Young prince. I take it you have heard the news."
Enrique nodded jerkily. "Yes, I have. I always told Mother that the way we treated the Ixa'takans was barbaric. And now they've summoned a Gigas…" He shuddered once as he forced his eyes shut over the stinging that threatened to overcome them.
A heavy hand settled upon his shoulder and squeezed, gently. "You are not responsible for the uprising of the Ixa'takans, Enrique. That is a tragedy that was set in motion before your time."
The young prince clenched his fingers into fists as he fought to control his breathing. "It's more than just Ixa'taka, Uncle. It's everything. The armada pursuing the moon crystals, kidnapping silvites, executing pirates… and now I hear mother is planning to start another war?" He lifted his head and stared up at Gregorio with shimmering blue eyes that threatened to overflow at any moment. "Why? Why is this country so determined to destroy itself?"
Gregorio met him stare for stare for a long moment before glancing slowly to the side. Enrique followed his gaze to the portrait he'd been paying his respects to a moment ago. Blue eyes, the same shade as his own, stared sightlessly back at him. "What? Does it have something to do with my father?" Enrique asked. "Did he kindle this spark of… of madness in my mother, in the armada?"
The old admiral sighed wearily as he let his hand leave the prince's shoulder. "I suppose you could say as much. It wasn't his fault, but… his death left the empire reeling at a very bad time." He smiled faintly under his bushy mustache as he glanced at Enrique. "He was very much like you. Always pursued peace. But I think that only galvanized the push for war when he was lost."
Enrique took a step closer to his father's portrait, brushing a fingertip across the pedestal in front of it. "And now he's accumulating dust."
He heard Gregorio's armor creak as the older man shrugged. "Such is the fate of all who pass from this world, young prince."
"There has to be a way to stop this," Enrique said. His eyes were drawn from the dust on his fingertip to the golden signet around his finger. It was engraved with a symbol of Valuan royalty - specifically, his coat of arms as prince. "My mother has gone too far."
Gregorio didn't say anything for several seconds as he seemed to consider his words. "What is your plan?"
The prince took a slow breath before turning around. "Can I count upon your support, Uncle? I may need it."
The older man shifted uncomfortably as he considered his words. "I'm afraid it depends upon the nature of this plan of yours, Enrique. Though my faith in you is unwavering, my loyalty is first to the empire as a whole. I have seen the look in your eyes recently - if your path takes you to places beyond our borders, I cannot pledge myself to follow it. No matter how much I may want to," he said, smiling wistfully.
"Uncle…" Enrique's shoulders sagged.
Gregorio gathered himself before shaking his head. "Please, do not be disheartened. We each have chosen our own paths. I must follow mine, but I trust that yours is borne from similarly good intentions. We may struggle separately, but our aims are as one."
Enrique smiled a brittle smile at the man he'd depended upon for so many years growing up. "My path is going to be very difficult if I am the only one willing to follow it."
"Oftentimes, the path of a just ruler is a lonely one indeed," Gregorio suggested. "But few are more fit to walk it than you." He didn't look happy to be saying it. Eventually, he looked away from Enrique, towards the entrance to the hall. "Will you be leaving Valua, young prince?"
"Am I that transparent to you, Uncle?" Enrique laughed bitterly.
The old admiral's smile was genuine this time. "I have known you since before you grew clever enough to tell your first fib. I would be a poor choice for an uncle if I could not understand you." The warmth in his voice briefly brought life to the stillness of the shrine, but like a flickering candle it soon faded as his expression turned grim. "There may come a day when we meet as adversaries. If that day comes, I hope you will hold to your convictions as strongly as you always do."
Enrique swallowed nervously. He had many reasons not to want to fight Gregorio. Unfortunately, he had still more pressing reasons to risk it. "I'll expect the same of you. Lord Galcian won't be happy if you go easy on me."
"No, he will not," Gregorio said seriously, anger flashing in his eyes for a moment. It disappeared quickly, and his armor groaned as he stepped past Enrique towards the exit. "Speaking of, I'm certain to be missed if I don't return to the Grand Fortress in short order."
Enrique resisted the urge to reach out to the man as he walked away. "Go, then. I'll… continue on this path I've chosen."
Gregorio bowed his head to him with closed eyes in much the same way he had to his father. "Stay safe, young prince. I hope that when next we meet, you will be in good health." With that, he took his leave.
Enrique watched him go before turning back to the portrait of his father. "What would you have told me, if you were still alive today?" He wondered aloud, though no answer came to him but the echo of his own voice. He supposed that was all he had. Again, he glanced at the signet ring upon his finger - and then he reached down and carefully removed it, before setting it upon the pedestal beneath his father's visage. He met the man's painted eyes for a split second before turning and departing the room with much to think of.
Alfonso's chambers were quiet, save for the occasional distant rolling of thunder outside. His accommodations within the Grand Fortress had always been particularly comfortable, and despite his loss of station, Galcian had apparently not seen fit to consign him to the barracks with the rest of the rank-and-file soldiers.
That suited him just fine. If he was going to suffer through this indignity, he would at least ride it out in comfort. If not for the prospect of eventual imprisonment dangling over him, he might even have said that this was preferable to his normal duties. All of the comforts, none of the expectations.
He was in the process of drifting off when he was alerted by the sound of his chamber door opening. Blinking blearily, he sat up and fumbled for the rapier sitting at the foot of his bed. Nobody was expecting him for at least a few hours, and he certainly didn't recall giving anyone permission to come barging into his chambers. "Who's there? Show yourself!"
Light briefly bloomed from the doorway to his office as it swung open, only to be blotted out by a silhouette moments later. "Uh, it's me? Who else would it be?"
Alfonso squinted at the intruder, tightening his grip on his rapier. "I don't remember asking anyone to come visiting me."
He heard a sigh from the person at the doorway. They crossed the room in three steps to stand at his bedside, and he hissed under his breath as he lifted his rapier to menace them. Only then did he realize that he was holding it upside-down. "Really?" they asked.
Alfonso grunted and dropped the rapier, letting it clatter to the floor. "Who are you?" he asked, staring warily up at the woman-shaped figure that now loomed over his bed.
"Jedin? Remember? It's not even been a week. Are you drunk?" The woman waved a hand in his face.
He swatted her hand away with casual disdain. "I've never been drunk in my life! I've got the constitution of an arcwhale." He continued to eye the intruder with naked suspicion. "Are you sure your name is Jedin? I don't really remember… Oh! That Jedin. What are you doing here?"
Jedin groaned and slapped a hand over her face. "You are drunk. How did you even end up an admiral?"
Alfonso scoffed. "That's easy. Just needed to be a fantastic swordsman… and also to have a rich family." He frowned. "You, uh… you still didn't tell me what you're doing here."
"I'm in charge of your rehabilitation. Galcian said as much at your hearing." She gestured for him to stand up. "Come on. We need to get you training."
"I don't need training," Alfonso protested, though that didn't stop him from rising unsteadily to his feet. He loomed a few inches above Jedin now, and the sudden shift made him momentarily nauseous.
"Are… are you going to-"
"No! I'm fine!" He said, looking away from her and covering his mouth as he gagged. He stumbled, once, then fell back gracelessly onto his bed. "M'... fine…" he mumbled as he rolled onto his side.
"You're clearly not fine," Jedin said with another sigh. She sat down near the end of the bed, arms folded over her chest as she gave him a disappointed frown. "You're not going to shape up if you're drinking yourself into a stupor."
Alfonso didn't look up at her, instead staring sullenly at the wrinkles in his sheets. "Why do you care?"
Jedin rolled her eyes, even if he couldn't see it. "Because if you end up in prison, chances are good I end up there too."
He smiled bitterly. "So you don't care. You're just covering your own ass."
"What do you want me to say, Alfonso?" She sounded exasperated. "You're not exactly impressing me with the standards you hold yourself to."
"I don't need to impress you. I don't need to impress anyone."
Jedin closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The mattress creaked slightly as she shifted to turn in his direction. "Look. I'm not great with people. But you're clearly going through… something. Do you need to talk? Will that get us somewhere?"
Alfonso's eyes briefly tracked up to hers, then just as quickly returned to where they were. He said nothing for a long moment. "I don't know."
"Damn it all. You're impossible."
"Being an admiral is impossible," he countered.
"Then why do it?" she snapped.
"To make my family happy! Why else?" His hand slapped frustratedly at the sheets.
"Then… then, tell me about that!"
Alfonso's brow furrowed in thought at the prospect of sharing something like that. "It's a long story."
Jedin shrugged. "I'm not going anywhere."
Again, for a brief moment, their eyes met. Alfonso broke away first yet again, defeated. "Fine. It all started when I was twelve…"
Piastol felt painfully exposed without her cloak and hood as she walked through the streets of Sailor's Isle, her face in plain view. Of course, covering it wouldn't make much of a difference now that half the island's population knew who she really was. There was little she could do to maintain the level of discretion she'd held before.
Ordinarily, she might have been content to stay hidden away on her ship. But Deathhound was only good company for so long, and she couldn't keep whittling and whiling the hours away forever. She needed someone to talk to.
Without conscious direction, her feet took her to the backside of the Sailor's Guild. Lawrence seemed to be halfway to dozing when she approached him. "Hey," she said, prodding his shoulder.
He jerked slightly, betraying his lack of alertness. His gaze snapped up to her, wide-eyed with the shock of a sudden awakening before he recognized her and calmed down. "Piastol? I can't remember the last time I saw you off your ship."
She fixed him with a bemused stare. "Are you sure? There was that whole business with a giant war machine on the docks. You might have heard about it?"
He rolled his eyes. "I was out on a job. I only got back in time to hear people whispering your title all over town."
"And to send someone to help me…" Piastol said, her voice very quiet. She found herself staring at her feet as she said it. "Thanks for that."
"Yeah, well…" she could tell the topic made Lawrence just as uncomfortable. "I knew I'd just botch it if I tried to go help. Better someone else do it." He shrugged his shoulders, hoping to change the topic quickly. "How's it feel to be the hero of the hour?"
Piastol sighed. "Honestly? Terrifying. So many people gave me looks on the way here."
"Were they bad looks?"
She frowned as she considered that. "No. Some of them smiled at me, even. It's just… I've been apart from everyone else for so long. It feels wrong to be able to show my face." She glanced to her side, in the direction of the small bounty board that hung near one of the city's bridges. On it was a list of criminals wanted by the Valuan empire. "I mean, what if this leads to the empire catching me? I've been near the top of their list for months."
Lawrence scoffed at her. "You really think these people are going to turn you in? You saved their skins. If anything, they're more likely to cover for you."
"I… I guess," Piastol admitted reluctantly. "It just feels strange, that's all."
"Moons above. You're actually anxious at the prospect of being well-liked." The dark-haired mercenary gave her an exasperated groan before pushing off the wall he'd been leaning on and turning to face her. "I'm not going to play therapist sober. Let's get you a drink."
She lifted her head to leer at him skeptically. "On you?"
Lawrence's eyes met hers, very briefly. "Just the once. I think we're both better at talking with a drink in-hand, anyways."
Something like a smile turned up the corners of her lips. "You make a good point."
Lawrence brushed past her, leading her down the street to Polly's tavern. Piastol followed behind him, once again losing herself in her thoughts thinking of the ways her situation had changed over the last few days. She'd known Lawrence long enough, but she'd never really felt "close" to him. At best, they'd been very familiar business partners.
She speculated on what he might now think of her as he pushed one of the large double-doors open for both of them before heading to the bar counter and sitting down. She joined him a moment later, and he rapped a knuckle on the counter, drawing the attention of the buxom woman who ran the place. "Two mugs of mur loqua," He said, before tossing two coins onto the counter.
The woman accepted the coins, giving them a critical look before nodding. "Sure, sure." She stepped over to a cabinet, fishing out a pair of clean-looking mugs before filling them from a tap installed on a large barrel. She set them on the bartop and slid them over to the two of them before turning back to the stovetop to resume working on her more complex orders. "Let me know if you need anything else, hon."
Lawrence didn't acknowledge her further as he hefted his mug and lifted it in Piastol's direction. "To accidental heroism."
Again, Piastol found herself smiling despite her mood as she clinked her mug against his. "To accidental heroism."
The mercenary nodded his approval before taking a long pull of his drink. Piastol did the same. The two of them drank together in silence for a few minutes, letting the liquor work its magic.
Finally, Lawrence turned to her, nonchalant. "So. What's on your mind?"
Piastol took another sip of her loqua, opting to savor its faintly sweet undertones while she considered how to answer him. The mug was most of the way empty now. "Who says I'm thinking anything? Maybe I just wanted a free drink," she hedged.
Lawrence gave her a long-suffering look. "You spend most of a week holed up on your ship, then come to me out of the blue just to say 'thank you' and commiserate about your newfound fame? I don't buy it."
She stared wistfully into the blue liquid filling her mug as she again considered her situation. Not too long ago, she'd been utterly determined to destroy the pirates who'd had a hand in her father's death. She'd had no hesitation at all about killing any pirate, anywhere, really. And then…
"Can you… tell me a bit more about blue rogues?" She asked, voice wavering.
She felt Lawrence's stare burning into her, but she didn't look up. "Uh, sure. They're one of two factions of pirates. The black pirates, you already know. They'll attack anyone they think might have loot. The blue rogues mostly attack black pirates and military ships. I've heard some of them also like to distribute their loot instead of keeping it."
Her brow furrowed in confusion as she finally looked up at him for clarification. "Distribute it?"
"I'm not exactly up-to-date on the matter, so don't take me as an expert, but…" Lawrence punctuated himself with another sip from his drink. "There are several blue rogue villages dotting mid ocean. Most of the people living in those villages are fairly ordinary folk, and usually the families of the pirates involved. So they take riches from the armada and from the black pirates and use it to help their little... communities." He said the word as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.
"I… see…" Piastol murmured as she set her mug back on the counter. She found herself staring at her hands as she settled them in her lap. If she stared long enough, she thought she could see the blood that no doubt stained them. "That doesn't sound very monstrous."
"Not really, no," Lawrence admitted.
"Am I a monster, Lawrence?"
A silence fell between them, and for a while they were simply consumed by the constant low racket that permeated the tavern. "That's a difficult question," he finally said.
"You've hinted at it to me countless times. That I should stop what I was doing and think for a while. But I just kept doing it, and paying you to help me do it." She shuddered. "Am… am I any better than them?"
"I wouldn't go quite that far. Most of your targets have been black pirates, and pretty ruthless ones at that. I don't agree with your penchant for wholesale slaughter, but putting them out of business was definitely the right thing to do," Lawrence said.
"Most of them. Most," Piastol said, echoing Lawrence. "How many fathers have I killed? How many orphans have I created?" Her hands trembled in her lap as her eyes began to burn with wetness. "I… don't..."
"Piastol." Lawrence's mug thudded on the counter, harder than it needed to. It was enough to draw her out of the dark place that had begun to devour her. She slowly lifted her head to look up at him. "Take it from me - You can't change what's past. All you can do is try to get better."
She stared at him for a long moment before closing her eyes and taking several deep, slow breaths. Her eyes didn't burn as much, but the turmoil that raged in her chest didn't abate. "It doesn't feel right." She still felt directionless when her eyes opened again, and she stared at him pleadingly for help. "Where do I go from here?"
Lawrence groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. Piastol absently wondered if emotional matters actually gave him a migraine. The thought made her feel just a little better. "Just… first step, no more pirate-hunting."
"But…" She glanced down at herself. She could pinpoint about half a dozen knives she had hidden away on her person. "Fighting is all I'm good at…"
"Then…" Lawrence sighed. "Okay, be a bounty hunter, then. You already kind of are one, but I don't think I've ever seen you cash in an actual bounty. Capture pirates instead of killing them, and you can get a pretty hefty reward from the sailor's guild for your trouble."
Piastol stared at her hands again. She could still see all the blood she would never be able to wash off - but maybe she could avoid staining them any further. "I can do that." She nodded her head, a brief calm spell overtaking her - but it didn't last long as her features soon darkened once more. "But… there's something else."
"What?" The mercenary squinted at her. "What is it?"
"I still need to avenge my father. The pirate who killed him is still out there, and I swore I'd challenge him and kill him when next I saw him."
"You can't, just…. Let that go? I can't see how this is going to make you feel any better in the long run, Piastol." Lawrence was dragging a hand over his cheek, looking very tired and very much like he wanted to order another drink.
Piastol shook her head vehemently, her blue eyes cold. "I can't let it go. This is what's been keeping me going for the last seven years." Her features softened a little as she gave Lawrence what she hoped was a convincing smile. "I'll get better. I want to get better. But I need to do this first."
"Fine," he said. He grunted as he pushed his now-empty mug aside and stood up. "I should get back to my spot. I might be missing out on customers."
Piastol stopped him, grabbing his hand as he turned to walk past her. He looked down at her with an arched brow and an intense look in his eye. She hurried to assuage it with another smile. "Thank you, Lawrence. I mean it. You're a good friend."
The intensity faded from his face. He didn't quite smile at her, but she thought she saw a brief twinkle in his eyes that wasn't usually there. "Yeah, well, don't go telling people that. I'll lose business."
"Wouldn't want that…" Piastol said with a faint chuckle as she let him go. The doors swung open, then shut behind him, leaving Piastol alone at the bar. She leaned over her nearly-empty mug, staring at the dregs that sloshed against the bottom as she lost herself in thought.
Vyse. That one name dominated her thoughts. The face she associated with it was a strange one. For all the pain he'd inflicted upon her, she couldn't recall even once seeing a cruel expression on him. Either he hid his intentions well, or…
She shook her head to clear away those thoughts before she could even consider them. She'd made a promise to her family and to herself to destroy the one who'd taken them from her. She would not allow herself to be swayed from that path by a few simple words and gestures.
"You alright, sweetheart?" Piastol looked up to see the woman behind the bar giving her a concerned look.
She gave the woman a humorless smirk. "I will be. Soon."
"If you say so," the woman said, clearly unconvinced.
But Piastol had managed to convince herself, at least for a little while longer. That was all she needed.
The angel of death had one last reckoning ahead of her. She would not squander it.
Gilder grunted as he blinked eyes open from where he'd been reclining against the sofa in his cabin. "Eh? Have we reached Nasrad already?" He reached to the nearby end table to retrieve his narrow spectacles, donning them carefully before looking up at his first mate.
First mate Landan regarded him seriously from behind the dark curtain of his bangs. "No, sir. We've spotted what looks like a smoke signal from a nearby abandoned island."
"Well, what are you doing here, then? Go signal that we've seen them and get ready to pick up whoever's down there. You know how we do things by now," Gilder replied, scoffing.
Landan nodded quickly. "Of course, cap'n. I'll get the men on it right away." With that, he turned on his heel and departed the luxurious cabin, leaving Gilder alone.
Gilder stretched as he got to his feet, letting out a yawn. It had been a good nap, but it seemed that more interesting things were happening in the waking world right now. He adjusted his encompassing red coat as he went to the expansive windows that formed the rear of his cabin, casting his gaze about for the abandoned island in question.
True to Landan's word, a large island loomed not far off the port side, heavily forested. In the long distance, the island's terrain swept upwards into a sharp peak that made the entire landmass look something like a crescent moon. At the nearest point on the isle could be seen a steadily-rising plume of smoke, presumably from a bonfire or smoke signal.
Yes, there was no doubt about it. Someone on that island was waiting to be rescued. He hoped it was someone pretty. It had been a long time since he'd gotten to indulge in a little rescue romance.
To his chagrin, it was not a beautiful woman waiting to be rescued, but a young man named Vyse. Still, despite the disappointment, it wasn't all bad. The kid was apparently a fellow air pirate, just getting his start in the world - and Gilder had always fancied himself a father figure to his men. Why not to Vyse, too?
Of course, that didn't change the things that really interested Gilder at heart. "So, Vyse, tell me more about these ladies you were traveling with. Were you close?" he asked, a sparkle in his eyes behind his spectacles.
Vyse awkwardly shifted his weight where he stood. For some reason, despite Gilder's offer, the kid hadn't bothered to sit down in the nearly half an hour that had passed since he'd been led to the captain's cabin, instead opting to lean on a nearby desk or simply stand up straight. "Well, I've known Aika most of my life. Fina, I haven't known so long, but I felt like we were pretty quickly becoming friends." Despite the carefree tone of the question, Vyse looked more worried than hopeful. "I really hope they're alright."
"I'm sure they're alright, Vyse. Those two don't sound like the type to go out so easily." Gilder replied, wearing the confident grin that his face was quite accustomed to. "Look, why don't you tell me what these friends of yours look like? If I see 'em at some point, I'll send them your way."
Though he didn't look terribly convinced by Gilder's bravado, Vyse did manage to crack a smile. "Alright, sure. They're both a little shorter than me, though not by much. Aika's got orange hair, done up in, uh…" Vyse fumbled for a description for a moment as he waved his hands around in the space to either side of his head. "Big tails. They're like stalks, almost." He sighed. "I don't know how she has the patience to arrange it like that every day. Fina's simpler. Green eyes and blonde hair that falls just a little short of her shoulders. She might be wearing something… unusual, so she'll probably stand out."
Something "unusual"? Several images flashed through Gilder's mind, all of them intriguing. His grin grew larger. "Great! I'll let you know if I spot them. In the meantime, though, don't worry so much! Are you sure you don't want to have a drink while we're on our way?"
Vyse began shaking his head. "No, I-"
Just then, the door to the cabin swung open to admit a harried-looking Landan. "Cap'n, it's an emergency!"
Like that, Gilder was on his feet. "What is it? Black pirates?"
"Worse, cap'n. It's her."
Gilder's face fell as he took in the news. He turned to Vyse. "Well, Vyse, if you're still looking to accompany me to Nasrad, it looks like we'll be taking an alternate route."
"What?" Vyse looked confused. "What's going on? Are we under attack? You don't need to worry about me. I can hold my own in a fight."
"You don't understand, kid," Gilder said, his expression deadly serious as he clapped a hand on Vyse's shoulder. "There are some fights you just can't win." He turned his head to look in Landan's direction. "Head back topside and tell the boys to prep for Operation Clara."
"Aye aye, cap'n!" Landan snapped off a quick salute and departed.
Vyse watched him go, clearly at a loss. "I don't get it. Who's Clara?"
Gilder grimaced as he headed for the door. "I'll explain when there's time. For now, let's just get to the lifeboats."
"She's your stalker?"
Vyse's voice, disbelieving, rang out in the open space of the port of Nasrad. He set his face in his palm as he sighed, exasperated. "I thought you were some big-shot captain. I've seen your name on the bounty boards. What are you doing running from some admirer?"
"Keep your voice down, Vyse," Gilder hissed as they walked past a small group of sailors who were busily giving them the side-eye. "I'll give you a pass because you're young, but one day you'll understand - there are few things scarier than a woman who can't take 'no' for an answer."
Vyse rolled his eyes, but his irritation faded as they entered the central plaza. His attention was suddenly caught by the fountain that greeted them on their way in. "Oh."
Grateful for the potential change of topic, Gilder grinned and nudged Vyse with an elbow. "First time visiting Nasrad?"
"I guess it is. I didn't get out of mid ocean much before this…" Vyse said, trailing off as he drank in the sights and sounds like an overeager huskra puppy.
"You're lucky you met me, then! Nobody knows the delights of Nasrad better than me. The food, the drinks, the vistas, the souvenirs… the dancing girls down at the bazaar…" Gilder drawled, a slightly husky note entering his voice with the last item in his list.
For the first time since they'd met, it seemed like Vyse had managed to momentarily forget about his search for his friends. His gaze went back and forth between Gilder and the buildings and fountains surrounding them, wide-eyed. "You'll show me around?"
"Well, I am going to be stuck here a little longer than I anticipated, what with that Clara business and all." Gilder looked momentarily sullen, but it passed quickly. "Look sharp, kid. Seems like you're already getting attention from the local ladies."
"Eh?" Vyse frowned, but followed Gilder's line of sight to a woman sitting a short ways away from them, clad all in sparkling fabric, save for her eyes. As soon as she caught Vyse looking her way, she looked away. He shrugged and turned back to GIlder. "She probably just thinks I look weird. I'm not exactly dressed for the weather."
"Damn it, Vyse. You blew it already?" Gilder chortled. "Looks like I've got a lot to teach you. But for the time being," he said, reaching to his belt and offering the kid a small pouch. "Why don't you head to that inn over there and get us a room? I've got some business I need to attend to, and then I'll meet up with you for that tour."
Vyse looked momentarily uncertain as he accepted the pouch, but didn't protest. "Alright. But don't leave me hanging!" he said, before heading for the inn.
Gilder shook his head and smiled as he continued on down the plaza. Damn it all, but that kid reminded him of himself…
The Monoceros shuddered as the howling gales whipped around it, the air pressure fluctuating wildly against the polished steel of the hull. Despite the occasional creak or groan, however, she held admirably well against the fabled storms of the North Dannel Strait.
"The readings look good, admiral," reported one of the engineers near the helm.
The bridge had been deathly quiet until his voice had broken the silence. Ramirez, standing near the rear of the bridge, seemed unsurprised. "Naturally. Signal the other ships and set a course for Nasrad at once."
"Aye, aye, sir," the navigator called. "If we can maintain our current speed and heading, we should reach Nasrad within the hour."
The engineer spoke up again after he'd finished relaying the orders through the console. "What are your orders when we reach the city, admiral? The bulk of the Nasrean fleet is still posted at the South Dannel Strait. The capital will be practically defenseless."
Piastol's eyes flashed unbidden to the forefront of Ramirez's memory, full of hurt and anger. A bitter taste filled his mouth as he swallowed the resultant feelings before they could take hold of him. He gripped the railing in front of him tightly as he grit his teeth.
Lord Galcian had expectations for him - and he knew enough of this world to be certain that none within Nasrad's walls deserved his mercy. But still there was the flicker of doubt that his former student had somehow managed to kindle within him. How he longed to snuff it out.
"We could take the city without bloodshed. But… I want Nasrad burned to the ground. A show of force will bring the rest of the world in line."
Again, silence reigned on the bridge. He could almost feel the nerves of his officers as they took in his orders. "Aye, sir," the engineer finally said, and began relaying the information.
There was no mercy to be found in the Armada's sixth fleet, Ramirez reflected with grim satisfaction. Not even for himself.
Gilder's "business" was going well indeed as he dug into what the menu had referred to as "moonlit desert steak" with aplomb. He didn't care for the fantastical name, but he did know a well-prepared steak when he saw one, and it didn't hurt that the tavern boasted two very lovely serving girls.
"Your loqua," one of them said as she set a mug down on the counter in front of him. Gilder thanked her with a grin as he took a long look at her. Her orange hair was striking in its hue, almost putting the sunset to shame. It was done in a long braid that fell down her back, yet despite that a few stray tresses somehow still managed to fall in her face. She brushed one of them aside as she waited for him to pay, impatience written in her features.
"You're a real charmer, you know? Even if you're not the biggest fan of me," he said with a chuckle as he plucked a few coins from a pouch at his hip and tossed them to her.
"Yeah, I'm sure that's just a fluke," she said, rolling her eyes as she turned to walk away. Gilder watched her go, none too displeased about the opportunity it afforded his eyes. At first, he'd hoped to be served by the other girl - she had blonde hair and green eyes, and the bearing of a princess - but the feisty redhead was still a treat. A distant part of him swore they both seemed familiar, but as he sipped at his loqua, that nagging worry faded away.
A bell jingled somewhere just outside as someone else swept into the tavern. Gilder turned on his stool to check who it was, only to find it was the curiously-dressed woman who'd been staring at Vyse earlier. The sparkling fabrics that covered her from head to toe made it difficult to get a good assessment of her figure, but it didn't stop him from trying. He'd always been proud to be a man who rose to his challenges.
The mysterious girl quickly pulled the redheaded server aside, and the two of them held a whispered conference. More than once, he thought he caught fingers pointing in his direction, though he couldn't watch them too intently lest he be caught staring. Still, this was intriguing. Whatever did these two striking women want with him?
Eventually the redhead approached him again. He slowly turned his head to cast his gaze up to her, giving her a look of practiced ease. "Yes, miss? How can I help you?"
Her expression had changed from one of sour impatience to one of carefully-contained excitement. "You, uh, wouldn't happen to know a sailor named Vyse, would you?"
Gilder's brow furrowed. "Well, yes, I-" All at once, it hit him. A girl with orange hair, and another with blonde. Both around Vyse's age - and maybe with their hair done in different styles. He blinked several times before giving her a broad grin. "By the moons. You wouldn't happen to be named 'Aika', would you?"
Her eyes went wide as she nodded. "So you do know him?"
"That I do. Why, I picked him up off a deserted island not too long ago. Thick as thieves, we are. My name's Gilder." Gilder chuckled and extended a hand to shake.
Aika didn't seem to notice his outstretched hand as she turned to the other waitress. "Fina! Come quick, this guy knows Vyse!"
The blonde serving girl hurried over a moment later, looking somewhere between confused and excited. "He does?"
Just then, the balding man from the kitchen appeared, leaning out over the bar. "What's all this racket?" he asked.
Aika turned to him, practically bouncing in place. "Oh! Sir. I know this is a bit sudden, but Fina and I need to take a break."
"Both of you at once?" the man said, bushy eyebrows knitting together.
"It's urgent!" Aika assured him.
"Ugh, fine!" The man said, throwing up his hands. "But you two better not be gone long."
She nodded her thanks to the man before turning back to Gilder. "So, Nari said Vyse is here with you, in the city. Can you take us to him? Please?" she asked, finally sounding sincere.
"Please?" The blonde girl added, managing to look considerably cuter. Even the woman wearing the sparkling fabrics seemed to be watching him expectantly.
Gilder looked them over once, then twice, before sighing and smiling good-naturedly, raising both hands palms-up in a gesture of surrender. "Alright, alright. You don't need to beg. Come on, I'll take you to him. And I mean, if any of you are feeling particularly grateful after-"
He let out a grunt of pain as Aika stomped on his foot. "Gah! Alright. Let's go."
It was mercifully easy to get the number of Vyse's room at the inn once he explained himself, and Gilder headed for the stairs flanked by Aika, Fina, and, for some reason, the strangely-dressed woman whom he'd heard referred to as "Nari".
Moments later he was knocking on the door to one of the rooms. "Vyse! Are you in there?"
He heard footsteps, followed by the sound of the lock clicking open before the door swung inwards to reveal Vyse standing on the other side. "Oh, hey Gil-"
"Vyse!" Aika shouted as she dove onto him, very nearly knocking the young man onto the floor as he stumbled backwards with her arms around his shoulders. "You're alive!"
Vyse just barely managed to steady himself short of keeling over, wild-eyed gaze traveling from Gilder to Fina and Nari, and finally to the girl clinging to him before he broke out in a grin that lit up the room. "Aika, Fina…! You're safe!"
Gilder heard sniffling, and looked to his side to see that Fina was wiping a few tears from her cheeks. "I was so worried…" she said as she crossed the doorway to stand next to Vyse, clinging to his arm in a show of restraint that Aika couldn't match. For her part, Aika didn't seem to be concerning herself with the eventual prospect of letting go.
"Did you do all this, Gilder?" Vyse said, his eyes briefly looking watery before he blinked it away, laughing.
"It was Nari! She saw you coming into town with this guy!" Aika explained cheerily.
"My name is Gilder…"
"Oh, that's Narissa under there?" Vyse said, finally seeming to take a second look at the woman still standing next to Gilder. She lifted a hand in a sheepish greeting by way of reply. "Thank you. You have no idea how much this means…"
Gilder was feeling a bit put-out, despite the celebrations. "Well, if you're all quite done hugging it out-"
Just then, the ground rocked beneath their feet.
"What was that?" Fina asked. "Is that normal?"
Before anyone could reply, all other sounds were drowned out by a thunderous "boom" that seemed to come from the plaza outside. The ground shook again, followed by the sounds of several smaller explosions - and screams.
"Wh-what is going on?" Narissa asked, frantic.
"Damnit," Gilder snapped. "Okay, the reunion will have to wait. Whatever it is, we won't find out standing around. Let's get outside."
The group hurried down the stairs and outside to find the streets of Nasrad aflame. Massive trenches had been scored in the face of the plaza by what could only be cannon fire. All of them instinctively covered their ears and hunched over as another explosion sounded from overhead, another cannonball sailing over them from far above to slam into the walls of the palace at the far end of the concourse.
"Nasrad is under attack," Gilder said through the ringing in his ears.
"It has to be the Armada," Vyse growled. "We can't do anything from the ground. Let's get to the docks."
Their footsteps were almost inaudible beneath the crackling of fire and the roar of cannonfire, but nonetheless they carried them down and onto the docks, only to find the myriad ships moored there in various states of collapse as yet more flames licked at their hulls. In the skies above, several iron ships loomed, simultaneously attacking with artillery whilst deploying ground troops that began to move into the city from all sides.
"Damnit," Gilder said. "They hit the docks first."
"To expect anything less would be folly," said a voice from nearby. Everyone turned towards its source as a silhouette emerged from the flames to the north. A man with neat silver hair brandished an equally-silver sword at them with a dispassionate look on his face. "Drop your weapons and surrender, or be destroyed."
Vyse reached for one of his cutlasses. "Like hell we will."
"Wait!" Fina shouted, interposing herself between Vyse and the stranger. Gilder paused with his hand halfway to the pistol hidden in his coat. "Please, trust me - you cannot win against him. He will kill you if you try to fight," she pleaded, casting a nervous glance back over her shoulder at the silver-haired man.
"Fina…" Aika said through gritted teeth.
"Please…" Fina said.
Both of them looked to Vyse, who in that moment looked truly torn. He met Fina's eyes for a long moment before dropping his cutlass, letting it clatter to the floor. "Very well. We surrender."
"A sensible choice." The silver-haired man said, sheathing his blade before making a hand signal. All around them the sounds of boots on tile rang out as Valuan soldiers ringed the group from all sides.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Vyse…" Gilder prayed beneath his breath as the lot of them were taken into custody.
"And then, when I was fifteen, I got into a fight with Rodrigo over this girl named Sofia. I, well… I didn't win. I got beat up pretty badly. My mother was appalled, but my father, well… he wanted to teach me how to fight," Alfonso recounted, reaching for the glass on the nightstand before taking a swig.
"And let me guess - that's where you learned to use the rapier?" Jedin said, holding out a glass of her own from where she sat on the end of the bed.
Alfonso scooped up a bottle from the nightstand and filled her glass before setting it back down and going back to reclining against the pillows he'd stacked up by the headboard. "Eventually. At first he tried to teach me fisticuffs, but I've never really had the build for that kind of thing."
Jedin snorted as she took a sip. "Maybe you would if you'd done a single push-up in your lifetime."
"Look," Alfonso snarled as he fixed her with a heated glare, "It is beneath my station as nobility to engage in such… base activities as physical exercise."
"No wonder you haven't won against that Vyse kid once," she replied, looking more amused than annoyed by his attitude.
Alfonso leaned forward and wagged a finger in her face. "If you'd seen me in a fair fight, a proper duel with swords… you'd be singing a different tune. I'm one of the best swordsmen in Valua."
Jedin rolled her eyes. "So, what happened after the Rodrigo fight?"
"I barely remember," he said, waving a hand dismissively as he fell back onto the pillows. "What does it even matter? We've been at this for hours and all we've gotten is drunker."
"I thought you said you couldn't get drunk?"
Alfonso squinted at her. "Why are you still listening to me, Jedin? There's nothing to be gained from this… this… tripe," he muttered the word as his gaze fell away from her.
The engineer sighed and drained her glass before setting it on the floor beneath the bed. "Because, for better or for worse, I've been tasked with fixing you. And I'm not going to lose my job just because you're too stubborn to see that you need fixing."
The ex-admiral pouted as he avoided meeting her eyes again, instead taking great interest in the decal on his bottle of loqua. "I still fail to see how listening to my life story helps you…"
"Well, I have to start somewhere," Jedin said. "I may as well get to know what makes you tick."
Alfonso giggled. "Tick. That's a funny word. Tick, tick, tick…" the mirth abruptly faded from his face to be replaced with gloom. "What makes me tick?"
"Well… You certainly seem concerned with what people think of you," came the reply from the other end of the bed.
"What if I told you I could get you back in the good graces of the admiralty, and the eyes of the admiring public?" Jedin asked gently.
"I'd call you a liar," Alfonso grumbled.
"Is trying really worse than rotting away in bed with a bottle of loqua?"
There was silence for a minute, then two. Finally, Alfonso's voice came out, tiny and frail. "And you'd help me?"
"Then I'll do it," he said, before pulling one of the pillows down to cover his face. "Now go away," he said, his voice muffled.
Jedin smirked, but got up off the bed as he'd asked. "Sleep it off, chief. Your training starts tomorrow." Alfonso grumbled something indiscernible from behind the pillow as she left.
She'd make an admiral out of this fool, or die trying.