BETWEEN THREE ROGUES
By Eric 'Erico' Lawson
Fifty-Five: Pax Galcianis
There wasn't a soul in Mid-Ocean who didn't remember where they were the day that the world changed. Depending on where you were, it began with either a shudder in the air that made small islands tremble or a rumble that roared through the skies. The sky rifts that separated the Silver Sea from Mid-Ocean, Mid-Ocean from the Southern Ocean, North Ocean from Mid-Ocean all just...collapsed. And to the south, at the heart of the Silver Ocean with the pale gleaming orb of the Silver Moon hanging above it, a land that nobody had ever seen rose up from the dark of the abyss, an entire continent.
Out of nothing, a continent simply was.
From somewhere on that land, a great piercing light beam snapped out and flew north, past all the little islands that dotted Mid-Ocean, past Sailor's Isle, past the crossroads, upwards and above Valua, parting the clouds as it went. Then, minutes later…
The great power of Valua wasn't. Or rather, Valua wasn't. It had been wholly and utterly destroyed by a moonstone rain that hadn't been seen in thousands of years, and only the sailors and merchants who'd been either on their way there or leaving on ships of their own it had lived to tell the tale.
Valua's power however, in the form of the ships of the Armada remained, as did the Empire.
It merely changed hands.
370 Days After the (First) Grand Fortress Escape
7 Days Since The Fall of Valua
Word had come in from frantic merchant vessels docking at Sailor's Island for weeks that the Valuans were up to something in the Silver Sea. Not that anyone knew what for, but it was hard to hide the presence of so many ships gathering in that one small corner of the world. Congregating, really. Then the gossip had increased, stories of infighting within the Admiralty. The 2nd Fleet was missing. The 1st Fleet was being hunted down and destroyed. The Sailor's Guild guildmaster learned of Gregorio's death before the ships bringing the news fueled the rumor mill, and there was the discrepancy. The Blue Rogues said Lord Admiral Galcian had killed him. Valua claimed the Blue Rogues had.
Close to two weeks later, Prince Enrique of Valua left the company of Vyse and the Blue Rogues to sail for home, and the news was reported that Vyse had killed Admiral De Loco in ship to ship combat. Only a few short days later…
Valua was gone. Gone, the terrified whispers echoed through the harbor and the shops and especially Polly's tavern. Her daughter Anne kept things going in the woman's absence but couldn't change the somber air that lingered around all the patrons.
Then things became even darker. The Armada was moving outwards from that continent that appeared from thin air in the Silver Sea, and the gossip was that they were asserting control over all of the small islands and principalities in Mid-Ocean. Even the ones who'd struggled to remain independent before. Many began to fear that Sailor's Isle, the gem of free trade in Mid-Ocean, was next. Nonsense, the wait-and-see crowd scoffed. Sailor's Isle had always been independent. It had been founded on its place as an autonomous trade zone that had done business with Valua and Nasr and all the lands around it for centuries. Even when Valua shifted from a kingdom to an empire, they allowed Sailor's Isle to maintain its autonomous status with two concessions; the posting of the Valuan bounty board and a thirty percent cut of docking fees for Valuan military vessels. Life went on then, the wait-and-seers said, and life would go on now. They snorted at the fearful people who wondered if it would be better to cower and hide, to flee Sailor's Isle and strike out for somewhere forgotten. They guffawed at those who thought their home port, long free and proud, was next on the Armada's chopping block. Nasrad had been a thorn in Valua's side for 20 years since the end of the war. What had happened in Valua must have been a natural disaster, or something akin to the mythical Rains of Destruction. Nobody could command such horrific power. Sailor's Isle was too small and too neutral to bear the brunt of the Armada's ire anyways, even were it the case that Valua's ruin was somehow tied to the rise of the strange land to the south.
Now, a full fleet of seven heavily armed and armored military ships of the Armada including three of the new type that eerily resembled the famed Delphinus in hull design, blockaded the once busy harbor of Sailor's Isle. Transports full of heavily armed and armored shock troopers boarded every ship docked at port and carried out warrantless searches. The town found itself under a warped form of martial law as the people were gathered and corralled into the town's central pavilion. They had been gathered to bear witness and listen to the announcement of the Armada's selected representative.
Announcements, as it turned out to be.
"A new power has risen from the ashes of the old. Henceforth, all lands once belonging to the Valuan Empire are hereby declared the sovereign territory of the Eternal Empire. In addition, all unaffiliated territories within the Silver Sea and the span of Mid-Ocean are annexed into the Eternal Empire, including Sailor's Isle." That caused a roar of protests, but the speaker kept on droning away as he read from his unrolled parchment. "All territories under the protection and sovereignty of the Eternal Empire and Lord Galcian are required to pay a bi-annual levy, to be determined. All civilian and merchant ships traveling within the borders of the Eternal Empire will pay annual licensing fees equivalent to that paid under the Valuan Empire's Foreign Merchants Tariff. All shipping traffic will be subject to search and seizure, and should goods not listed on their official shipping manifests be found aboard, ships and their crews shall be confiscated for the crimes of black marketeering and piracy."
"Like hell!" One scowling fisherman snapped in the middle of the crowd. "We were barely scraping by before, we're not paying your blood taxes!" His sentiment was echoed by a few others, but the trooper reading from his document only spared a second's pause and a look in the man's direction as he kept on.
"Be it also made known that as of the time of this announcement, anyone caught actively in the service of, or providing aid to that rebellious faction of air pirates known as the Blue Rogues shall be considered air pirates themselves under the laws of the sea, and shall be summarily dealt with." Everyone fell to stunned silence at that piece of news, which showed just how much sharper the teeth of the new Empire was aiming to be. Air pirates in general were hunted down by the powers everywhere, but Blue Rogues had forever fallen in that vague gray area between honest merchant and rogue of the skies. Throughout Mid-Ocean, Dyne's legacy had remained a foundation for resistance to the Valuan Empire, by those stubborn and hardscrabble outliers who refused to bend the knee. In the past year, the rapid and astonishing exploits of his son Vyse had been nothing short of a beacon of hope, especially after the fall of Nasrad. Most looked the other way. On Sailor's Isle, the Blue Rogues had done business openly with the merchants and traders, and Anna's mother Polly had left with Vyse and found her long-lost husband inside of the Dark Rift on the captain's voyages.
That familiarity and bond with the various Blue Rogues was now a dire liability. To deal with them would be a sentence as heavy as engaging in piracy itself under this new power.
"There is one last part of this announcement to be read, a message from Lord Galcian himself." The speaker said in a grim voice. "Those with Power rule over the weak, this has always been the way of the world. Through the Power of Soltis, the new homeland of the Eternal Empire, you have the protection and the calm that comes with the Pax Galcianis. We now live in era of tranquility and an end to war and all conflicts. There shall be one power that shall rule over all of Arcadia, and those who submit to it shall live lives of quiet and prosperity. But heed well the fate of Valua; those who resist shall be erased from the face of the world."
The speaker rolled the scroll back up and nodded to the gathered crowd. "We shall now begin the process of assigning your first biannual levy, taken as an aggregate payment commensurate with the holdings and income of every worker and merchant on the island. Please proceed to the Sailor's Guild for the census."
There was still dissatisfaction, but fear had taken hold as the dominant emotion over the inhabitants of Sailor's Isle. Terrified of what their fate might be if Galcian and his minions thought their home worthy of the same obliteration that the Armada had given to its own homeland, many shuffled along defeated towards the waiting census takers and tax agents.
There were several who had done business with Vyse and the Blue Rogues routinely though. They found themselves worrying over the fate of their friends. Keeve the weaponsmith and Otto from the airship parts and supply store grimaced and looked over to Anna, the ashen-faced daughter of a family reunited only by the grace of a Blue Rogue's charity and zeal.
"What are we going to do?" Otto asked her, nervously tipping his sunglasses down to look at her without the tint of his spectacles.
"What can we do?" Anna shrugged wearily, hoping that her mother and father still lived. "We keep our heads down. And we pay up."
Doc's Medical Ship
"You can't do this! I was discharged!" The physician affectionately known over all of Mid-Ocean as 'Doc' protested, his face growing red. Like everyone else in his route, he was all too aware of what had happened to Valua by now. When a small Valuan patrol boat had pulled up alongside, he'd thought nothing of it. His services were available to all and he'd treated Valuans before with no trouble. Perhaps they were survivors.
The document in his shaking hand spoke of mandatory re-enlistment and the soldiers who had boarded were all armed and armored. The officer leading them didn't seem particularly apologetic about the matter. Why would he be? They were the advance agents of Lord Admiral Galcian and the deluded fool's Eternal Empire set on carrying out a policy of impressment.
Press gangs. That was what it had come to.
The giant yellow bird that young Maria was so partial to hissed at the soldiers, who shifted a little and kept their hands on their weapons as the little girl cowered and trembled behind it. The officer gave the creature a sour look before turning back to Doc.
"Under Admiral Mendosa, you were a capable ship's physician. You're wasted in conditions like these, flying around on a houseboat and providing slapdash medical care to the dregs who sail through the skies." The lieutenant, if the epaulet embellishments were still the same from when Doc had been in the service, gave him a nod. "Admiral Ramirez remembers you from your time working together under Mendosa, and…" He paused when Maria whimpered a little louder at the mention of the admiral's name, blinking curiously at the young girl for a bit before shaking his head and continuing on. "You have been personally requested to serve under him and Lord Galcian."
"I refuse." Doc said tightly, crumpling the 'invitation' in his hand. "I'm an adopted father these days with a busy practice and patients who rely on me."
"Accommodations will be made for your...family." The lieutenant said, eyeing the large bird again as it let out an angry squawk and fluffed out its feathers. "Although you'll have to leave that thing behind."
"No!" Maria shouted, finding a little courage in spite of her fear. "You're not taking away my Piccolo! And you're not taking away Uncle Doc!"
The lieutenant sighed and shook his head. "I'm afraid you don't have a say in the matter, little girl. And neither does he." He made a gesture and the firearms held by the troopers behind him came up, making Maria cry out and run for Doc, burying her face in the side of his leg.
"I was hoping that we could do this the easy way." The lieutenant said grimly. Doc turned his body slightly to shield Maria from the end of those dangerous weapons. "I should have known that you'd been out in the wind too long to follow proper military discipline."
"I left that behind with the uniform." Doc growled out. "I'm just a simple man trying to make his way in the world, and leave it better than I found it." The giant bird let out another angry screech and flapped its wings out, hopping forward a step in a threatening display.
One of the troopers got scared and shot at it. The thunderclap of the gunpowder discharge and the soft lead bullet flying through the air combined with a shriek of pain from the Hamachou, who fell to the foredeck and curled in on itself while Maria screamed.
Doc felt more than he saw the silver flash emerge from the main hatch that led inside of the houseboat's upper structure. Any chance of the Valuans surviving this ill-fated meeting, he knew, was over and done with. All he could do now was try to make sure that poor Piccolo was the only one of his houseboat's extended family that got injured now, and he spun and dove for Maria. Covering her tiny body with his own, he put his hands over the girl's ears. "Close your eyes, honey. Close them!" He shouted. To her credit, Maria did just that, and Doc kept her from hearing anything else that followed.
But he heard it all himself, and watched in a mix of horror and grim satisfaction as Piastol Mendosa tore into the Valuan brute squad like the assassin she had tried to walk away from being.
The Angel of Death had been cold and calculating, a dyed-in-the-wool killer with a single blue streak in her silver hair. Piastol had lost the blue hair dye and softened up quite a great deal in the weeks since Vyse and Aika had saved her life and given her back her sister, but the edge of her hadn't dulled. If anything, it was sharper now than he'd seen it back when she fought Vyse and lost for the fourth time, and she wasn't even using the scythe her persona had been famous for. She'd started out with a Moons-damned meat cleaver taken from the kitchen, but after burying it through the helmet and into the skull of her first kill, she'd taken the man's sword and then started cutting a truly bloody swath through the rest. They'd tried to shoot her. They'd even tried to electrocute her with their yellow magic, but she was in the middle of their line and far too used to close quarters combat, and they ended up nearly hitting each other more than her. She'd dodged their magic and their weapons and then smashed them all down with a blue magic spell that filled the air with howling wind and floodwater. As soon as they'd been knocked off their feet, they hadn't stood a chance.
The lieutenant was the last one to live, surviving a full eighteen seconds after she'd started. Piastol finished him off by spearing him through with the bayonet of a rifle, lifting the man clean off the deck as he gasped for air that wouldn't come. Punctured lung, most definitely. His hands fumbled for the end of the weapon keeping him suspended in the air, and his green eyes were wide in realization.
"The...Angel of Death?" The man croaked out. Piastol's eyes narrowed to squints and she pulled the trigger on the weapon, the impact of the bullet lifting him up a few inches. She dropped the weapon and the now dead officer onto the foredeck and looked around one last time for threats. Only when it was clear that there wasn't a living Armada trooper left did the wild look in her eyes fade.
"Piastol." Doc said her name as she blinked, then repeated it. "Your sister. I need you to take care of your sister while I look at Piccolo."
"I...yes. Yes." The silver-haired girl said, shaking herself free of her bloodlust. Leaving the bodies behind, she came over and picked up Maria, all but fleeing the deck to get her sister inside before the younger girl could see anything. Doc heard Piastol's voice carry out of the houseboat's interior soon after. "Maria? It's over. They can't hurt anyone now. I'm safe. You're safe, so is Doc."
"But what about Mr. Piccolo?"
Doc was already next to the giant Hamachou, who was now taller than he was. The thing let out a pitiable warble and rolled its head around to look at him with its beady black eyes. "Take it easy, big fella. It's just me." The creature focused on him and made a puzzled noise, and Doc smiled. "Yeah. Doc, remember? The one who fed you Moonfish until you ate all the ones we could find around here? I need to take a look at you, see just how badly you're hurt."
The bird uncurled enough for Doc to see where the bullet had hit. Not anywhere on its torso which was surprising, given the size. It had clipped the side of its left covert, missing the bones but tearing out feathers and some of the membrane. "Good, not serious. I'll bet it hurts though. Give me a second, okay Piccolo?" He wondered how much the bird could understand of what they said, because it made another soft chirping like it was agreeing with him.
Doc hadn't been an officer in the Armada in close to 8 years but he hadn't forgotten standard operating procedure. At least one member of the press gang that Valua had sent after them should be carrying a reserve healing kit or something like it. The third body he checked did have a Sacri crystal tucked in their pocket, and he wasted no time in cracking it open and shoving it at the towering bird. The minor injury repaired itself in seconds, and Piccolo stood up and shook itself out.
"There. All better." He said, giving the bird a smile. Piccolo chirped glumly as it unfolded its wings, noting the damage the spell couldn't fix. "Well, not much I can do about those feathers. But they should grow back." Doc glanced around at the bodies again, shook his head, and went inside of the houseboat to check on the two sisters. Piccolo followed as much as he was able, crowding the open doorway and blocking out nearly the entire view of the deck. The bird lingering on the threshold made little Maria brighten back up and squirm out of Piastol's arms, racing to hug her pet.
Doc went over to Piastol and knelt down next to the young woman, who was shivering slightly and was beginning to get a glazed look in her eye. Remorse, he suspected. "Hey." He reached out and touched her shoulder, and she startled a little before looking at him. "You didn't do anything wrong."
"Really?" She mused darkly. "Because from where I'm sitting, I just murdered half a dozen soldiers of the Valuan Armada."
"They're Armada, but they aren't Valuan." Doc reminded her. The distinction hurt, but it was necessary. "They're part of this Eternal Empire now. And they're working for the bastards responsible for destroying our homeland." That eased some of her tension, but not all of it, and Doc squeezed her shoulder, fixing his eyes on hers.
"Hey." He said, getting her attention. "Listen to me. You did nothing wrong. You protected your sister. You protected me. If you hadn't done anything I'd be on that boat of theirs being dragged off. That's what family does, Piastol. They look out for each other."
"We're...family?" Piastol got out, shaken and surprised at the word.
Doc stared back at her and felt something that had been dancing around in his heart finally settle. Maria had been a part of his life for years now, he'd been in her life since she could form memories. Piastol was a part of his life too, the good and the bad.
And what was family, but people that you faced the good times and the bad with? Wasn't Maria his daughter now, in name and deed in place of blood?
Wasn't Piastol the same now, too?
He pulled Piastol into his arms and hugged her tightly, feeling how she went utterly rigid before allowing herself to relax.
"Yes." He whispered. "I'm proud of the woman you are now, Piastol."
"A murderer?" She mumbled into his shoulder, sniffing a bit.
"A protector." He corrected her, and she accepted it. There was an awkward patting of backs for a bit before he finally let go and she separated, red in the face and looking away, listening in as Maria chattered away at the enormous bird that was her pet and Doc's mascot.
"What do we do now?" Piastol asked him, when she'd stopped blushing so brightly.
Doc stood up with a sigh and held out a hand to help her up as well. With the grace of a blade dancer, she came back up on her feet, her calm mask of focus restored. "Well, we can't stay around here." He declared, as miserable as it was to admit. "It kills me to leave my usual route and leave my patients wondering where I've gone off to, but I'll be damned if I let myself get press-ganged into service for this Eternal Empire." He looked to Piastol. "And my houseboat's...memorable." He admitted with a wince.
"Yeah, well. So was my schooner." Piastol grunted. "It's why I sold it off. At a loss."
"Don't feel too bad, the money's come in handy for making repairs." Doc smiled. "Do you think we should try for Nasrad? The gossip from some of my patients was that a lot of Blue Rogues do business there, and the Nasrian Remnant Fleet supposedly likes to patrol the area."
"We might manage for a while that way, but…" Piastol made a face, considering. "No. If my guess is right, the Eternal Empire's going to make a play for Nasrad and the rest of Nasr as soon as they're done mopping up any interference here in Mid-Ocean."
"So where can we go then?" Doc asked her, hoping that she had a plan.
To his relief, it seemed she did. Her face went through a series of thoughtful contortions before she came to a decision.
"I spent a lot of time west of Sailor's Isle when I was...before." She said, correcting herself as Maria glanced back at her curiously. Piastol bit her lip and kept talking. "It gave me a heck of a view some days. I could make out the North Ocean well enough, but there was also...There were a few sizable landmasses southeast squeezed in between some sky rifts along the western side of the Silver Sea. Unsettled. It may not have much in the way of civilization or creature comforts, but…"
"But if the Armada's set on looking for me, then that's probably our best bet."
"I don't imagine they'd be too happy to see me either." Piastol pointed out dryly.
"Big sis?" Maria trudged over to them. "Is everything okay?"
Piastol breathed in slowly. "Everything's going to be just fine, Maria. The bad men went away, they won't be hurting Piccolo or Uncle Doc any more. But I think you could help cheer him up a little."
"I can?" Maria got a determined look on her face. "I can! What can I do?"
Piastol laughed softly and ruffled her sister's blond tresses. "Do you think you can go down to the galley and make him his favorite sandwich?"
"Sure! Mister Piccolo, wait up here for a bit, okay?" Maria dashed by the adults and headed for the kitchen, and Doc smiled.
"Way to distract her."
"Distracting her is your job." Piastol pointed out, moving for the doorway. "I have some bodies to dispose of and a deck to clean off. I'd recommend we take their ship with us. Some of the armor as well. It may help us get past any patrols we run into."
Doc shook his head. Piastol was very much her father's daughter. Reasonable, sensible. Strategic in matters of crisis.
But far less corrupt, even if she thought herself a monster still at times. She needn't have worried. Doc knew what real monsters looked like. Ramirez had become one.
Piastol was just a woman trying to put her life back together so she could be the big sister that Maria Mendosa needed. Doc would be damned if he let Piastol face that challenge alone.
As much as Rupee loved working in his mother's carpet and rug weaving shop, he was still a boy, and she understood that. His trips out into town to see what was available from the markets were not a daily occurrence but everyone from his father's old band of air pirates still made it a point to keep an eye on him. 'Uncle' Barta kept them in line, and it was his influence that kept the number of 'carpet haulers' as they referred to themselves now to a manageable number of two bodyguards per trip.
Maramba had definitely seen a bit of a boom in shipping since Nasrad was sacked by the Armada. It was busier here than Rupee had ever seen it before and plenty of people were purchasing rugs from the shop. Even the blue and gold diamond weave patterned ones modeled after the first tapestry he'd given to Captain Vyse. Especially that one. As word spread of the famous Blue Rogues' exploits and the existence of a land beyond the Dark Rift, people had begun flocking to places frequented by the man who'd stood up to Valua over and over again. There'd been changes in Maramba as well. The fortuneteller Kalifa had left with Vyse during his stopover on their way to Esperanza. A couple of months later, the old woman Fatima who ran a kabal skewer shop had up and disappeared as well, and the story was that her long-estranged daughter had swept in, cooked up a storm with the old woman, and then dragged her off to parts unknown.
But for all the commerce and shipping being done, nobody felt particularly safe these days. After all, Valua was gone. The Grand Fortress was nothing but a massive crater. What was left of the Valuan Armada had reformed under a new power out of the Silver Sea, or so the merchant's gossip went.
There were even stories of a continent that rose up out of the abyss. Come to think of it, there were a great many stories, and Rupee wasn't sure which to believe.
He knew better than to discount them all. Somewhere in all the wild speculations was the truth, and it was a fearful truth if the looks on the merchants in the harbor were anything to go by.
"Master Rupee." One of Barta's men got his attention, and Rupee looked up to the brawny ex-air pirate. "Young master, we really should be moving on. It wouldn't do to attract too many stares."
"Yes...yes." Rupee examined the ships in the harbor one last time, counting them and finding fewer there than had been docked the week before, then turned and marched towards the Sailor's Guild branch office.
The guildmaster called out his name as they went inside, the little bell hit by the door letting out a gentle chime.
"Hello." Rupee greeted the man back. "We were expecting a shipment of cloth from Mid-Ocean today. Has it come in yet?"
"Aah, let me just check, young sir." The guildmaster said. He went over to the enormous logbook kept by the harbormaster and flipped to the most recent entries. "Hmm...shipping manifests. Gunpowder, three pallets of cannonballs, sundries, two crates of whiskey, fourteen barrels of ale...No cloth." He looked up apologetically. "It hasn't come in."
Rupee sighed. "Darn. Maybe they just hit some bad weather?"
"Unfortunately, it's more likely that they found trouble of a different sort." The guildmaster said. "Right now, everything in Mid-Ocean is...it's a mess. There's been rumors for a few days about the Armada reforming under new leadership, but we have a name for it now. They're calling it the Eternal Empire, and that Valuan admiral Galcian is in charge of it." The guildmaster looked around inside of the building for a little while, sizing up the shipwright's merchant at his own counter and the customers over there making a purchase of repair kits before he motioned for Rupee to come closer.
The boy did so, feeling uneasy. What did the man have to tell him that he didn't want anyone else overhearing?
"I don't suppose you've heard from our friend in blue lately?" The guildmaster asked softly.
Rupee shook his head. "Not since I sold him that rug, and gave him my dad's old hat."
The guildmaster blinked rapidly. "Wait. A hat? A black hat?" Rupee nodded. "A tricorn black hat? With red and blue lace ribbon sewn into the brim?" Even more confused, Rupee nodded again. The guildmaster swore. "Rupee, he's taken to wearing that hat all the time. Only it's got a silver ribbon in it now as well, the last I heard from my contacts in Nasrad."
Rupee smiled. "I'm glad. My dad swore by it when he was an air pirate, but I didn't want to take up the family business. At least it's doing some good with Vyse."
"Right. Sorry. I got off topic there, but that was a surprise." The guildmaster took a deep breath to steady himself. "Listen. The ship's captains who came in this morning and last night...they were talking about how none of them wanted to fly back into Mid-Ocean again. Black marketeers, blockade runners, not even the legitimate merchants. They all said it wasn't safe to go there anymore. They're saying that Mid-Ocean's probably going to fall under the total control of this Eternal Empire in a month or two."
"Nobody can control that much territory. Not even Valua managed it." Rupee's bodyguard Marush argued. Rupee looked behind him to the older man who was scowling, and tended to agree with him.
The guildmaster shook his head. "I think this new Empire might just manage it. My cousin at the Sailor's Isle branch is holding down the fort and trying to be optimistic, but I can read between the lines. Trouble's coming for them, even if they don't think it is."
Rupee shivered at the idea. Sailor's Isle, the bastion of free and independent trade in Mid-Ocean? The jewel that not even Valua had controlled? "Why did you ask me about Mr. Vyse, anyways?"
"I was hoping you might know how to send him a message." The guildmaster admitted.
"Ahm. No." Rupee shook his head. "I don't know how to reach him. Honestly, you'd have better luck trying to get a hold of him and his people out in Nasrad. I think he goes there more."
"And Sailor's Isle, just as much. But that option's probably off the table." The guildmaster agreed.
"What would you even ask him?" Rupee wondered.
The guildmaster shrugged. "Save us?" He said, half in jest. Rupee expected the joke. He hoped it was meant as a joke, anyways.
If things were bad enough that all their hopes for freedom came down to a Blue Rogue…
Aika knelt in front of the three gravestones that marked the final resting places of Sahira Daccat and his two wives, Yasmina and Kikue. With her head bowed and her red hair hanging behind her in an uncharacteristic single braid, she kissed her fingertips and pressed them to the worn etching on Yasmina's headstone.
"We remember." She whispered. The greatest pirate and his Scorpion and his Salamander. To know that they had lived together, loved each other, found happiness together had been a blessing from the Moons. To know that what she and Fina and Vyse had was not unique? Reassuring. "You are remembered, and you are treasured. Thank you, for allowing us refuge here in your home."
Aika wondered what had become of their children. Obviously, there had been descendants. Daccat's tomb hadn't made itself, and someone had helped with the tombstone engravings. The island's location had been protected and then forgotten, kept safe by secrecy and the space of time. Rupee Larso hadn't ended up with Daccat's famous captain's hat by mere chance, and having met Yafutomans in abundance now, she recalled the young boy's features, distinct among the sun-kissed Nasrians. Had the boy Vyse had talked into following his dream been one of Kikue's great-great-great grandchildren?
The dead could offer no words beyond what had been written in stone, but Aika found herself wishing that they could.
Would you be proud of your descendants? Would you be proud of us?
Wiping a tear from her eye, Aika stood back up and gave the freshly cleaned and gardened graves a solemn nod. She and Vyse and Fina were not those three legendary figures. To the world at large, they were merely Captain Vyse of the Blue Rogues and his crew of cast-offs. Only to each other were they the Pirate, the Princess, and the Valkyrie.
What they were, who they were, would have to be enough.
Aika turned around and walked back into the village which had quickly begun to look less like ruins with some work. The buildings had been hastily erected, rush jobs with the timbers that had escaped the fires in Crescent Island's belowground storage. It was a far cry from the amenities that they'd had in their home, but it was unknown to Galcian, far off the beaten path in the outskirts of the Frontier Lands, and it was temperate. They had roofs over their heads, the Delphinus was hidden from view, and everyone had a chance to breathe, to grieve, and to put themselves back together again.
She needed to get back to the Delphinus and help Lapen and Hans finish up with the engine maintenance, but there were a half dozen other projects going on around Daccat's village that were just as important to the crew, and perhaps more distracting. If this was going to be their new home then they were intent on making the most of it.
A cluster of Esperanzans were busy in what had taken shape as their new tavern and eatery. It was larger than the one they'd had on Crescent Island, but it had to be; the Tomb aside, there were no underground structures present. At least here they had the benefit of cover, thanks to the canopy made by all the leafy treetops that lingered about. Vyse had been careful to keep that intact, making the crew focus their logging efforts well clear of the part of the island they inhabited. Polly shouted out a greeting to her while Robinson and the others hauled rough wooden furniture inside of the Ixa'takan styled longhouse, and Aika smiled and waved back.
Near the middle of the village, Princess Moegi was right in the thick of the construction efforts. She was dressed in plainer clothes than the floppy-sleeved dresses that her father and ladies-in-waiting would have likely preferred, but the simpler garments were much better for the kind of work they were doing. The princess raised her chin up and smiled at Aika as she drew near.
"Aika. Are you well?"
"Mm. Good as I can be, I think." She answered. "Do you need any help with anything?"
"No, right now I think we've got as much help as we need. But I was supposed to pass a message on to you if I saw you."
Her heart picked up a little faster and Aika began to put together possibilities. "Vyse?"
"No. It was Fina." Moegi said with a shake of her head. "Vyse is with my Enrique on the Delphinus, or that was where Enrique told me he'd be when he left for work this morning. Fina wanted you to stop by Dr. Ilchymis's healing hut if you had the time."
"For her, I'll make the time." Aika promised, not entirely relaxing. She hated that even now, she was too keyed up to entirely relax. Of the three of them, though, she was the most put together, and she knew that.
"Hm. Yes. We make time for the ones we love, don't we?" Moegi thought aloud.
"...How is Enrique doing?" Aika asked, turning the topic back on the Yafutoman royal. Moegi's smile thinned a little then.
"He...is coping." Moegi replied. "He still feels guilty for what happened to Valua, but he knows he did all he could. His hatred is not turned inward. It is pointed at Galcian and Ramirez." Moegi hadn't been the only Blue Rogue who breathed easier once Enrique was returned to them. The Esperanzans had celebrated in earnest and Vyse had fairly squeezed the man to death, gaining back his friend and a trusted strategist all at once. But there were shadows in his eyes as well, just as deep as in Vyse's and Fina's.
And Aika's own, she acknowledged.
"Yeah. Those two bastards have a lot coming for them." Aika growled out. She gave Moegi a nod. "Things are rough now, but they'll get better. We still have each other. We still have the Delphinus."
"Yes." Moegi agreed sadly. "But do we have a chance?" Aika managed a smile and a wink, and walked away.
She couldn't bring herself to lie to one of her dearest friends.
The Healing Hut
Despite the fact that it was the domain of Ilchymis, the shelter set aside for the tending of wounds and injuries was absent the pharmacist and healer. Fina was present, though, laid out on one of the cots in her Blue Rogue regalia looking for all the world like she was asleep with her hands laid flat over her heart. Aika could tell she wasn't, though. She knew what Fina looked like when she was in the embrace of the night, and she wasn't nearly relaxed enough for that.
The redhead got two steps towards her when a voice rusty from disuse stopped her. "You should let her finish her meditation, daughter of the Red Moon."
"Kalifa?" Aika exclaimed, going over to the Maramban fortuneteller's bedside. She'd still been unconscious, comatose as Fina put it, when Aika had last looked on her yesterday. Kalifa looked exhausted now and made no move to get out from underneath her bedsheet, or even lift her head too terribly far from her pillow. Her glasses were lying on the small table next to the cot, and without them the woman seemed so much more approachable. But smaller, also. Diminished. "You're finally awake! But...how long?"
The Maramban woman offered a slight shrug. "Last night. For a bit. Then, in and out."
Aika recalled the report Ilchymis had given them on their return, of how Kalifa had collapsed with an incredibly high fever, screaming her head off in wild hallucinations and saying the same phrase over and over again.
Your heart must bleed silver.
What had made her shiver and left her feeling uneasy as they kept vigil over the comatose woman was that, if his timestamp in his medical logbook was accurate, her collapse had been during the space of time they'd been in the Sanctum aboard the Silver Shrine. During the time where Fina had been dead, and Aika had struggled so terribly to revive her.
"Will you recover?" Aika asked her, feeling how dry her mouth had become. Kalifa hummed in reply. "How did you...you just collapsed, and started burning up. Ilchymis couldn't find a cause."
"He treats the body. Not the mind, or the spirit." Kalifa said. The Maramban folded her hands over her stomach and looked at Aika with eyes that were...dull. They'd been so sharp when Kalifa spoke to her before they set out for the Silver Shrine. Sharp even as they were bloodshot and broken, like she'd seen too much. Now, her eyes seemed to see nothing, and Aika panicked.
"Oh, Moons. Please don't tell me you're blind." She blurted out. Kalifa blinked, and offered a more honest smile.
"Kalifa is not blind, Aika. She sees." The smile faded. "But I do not See."
There was that erratic thumping of her heart again, and Aika swallowed hard. "You're not just a fortune teller...are you?" Kalifa blinked again, waiting. "Can you see the future?"
Kalifa closed her eyes and lifted a hand up, weakly gesturing to her large glasses on the side table. Aika reached for them and examined them, frowning when she brought them up to her eyes. They didn't distort her vision, like she'd seen other eyeglasses do. They did nothing to alter her perception at all, no more than a window pane did. "These...these aren't corrective lenses."
"No. They are not." Kalifa confirmed. "People fear the unknown. Sometimes, it is better to hide the truth in a more...comfortable lie." Aika swallowed again as Kalifa opened her eyes and focused on her. "Do you know what Kalifa saw when you and your lovers first came to me? Potential. A thing unrealized, but which could shine so bright. When you came again, after you escaped Valua, Kalifa saw how you had become more. She saw a glimpse of what more you could be, what you could inspire others to be. The Moons commanded me to help you. To go with you. And so Mistress Kalifa went."
"And ran a betting pool about our relationship status, even though you knew the whole time." Aika said flatly. That got a brief smile from the woman. "You were never making things up, were you?" Kalifa kept on smiling, and Aika let the feeling of heaviness pass over her with a wry chuckle. "You called them hunches. Nudges. You were hedging your answers. You know more than you're telling us. Stand and face it, and it will break the spine. Learn to dance in the wind. Anyone else would think you were spouting off cryptic advice. I thought you were. But you were warning us about Gregorio at Esperanza...maybe even Bluheim." Her mouth got dry so very fast, and she licked her lips. "You knew. Before Ramirez attacked, you moved your stuff into the mountain. And when we left…"
She'd known. She'd known what was going to happen.
"I looked too far." Kalifa whispered, looking far older and far more tired than she had only three minutes ago. "There is a cost to my gift. There...there was a cost." Aika sat down next to her bed, staring at the woman and seeing her as if for the first time. "But Mistress Kalifa had to pay it. She...I had to see. I had to warn you." She reached a hand up and towards Aika, her arm trembling from the effort. Her palm came to rest on Aika's bosom, pressed to the strong heartbeat that thundered still. "Did your heart bleed silver, daughter of the red moon?"
Aika thought back to what Fina had said after being revived. You're bleeding. She recalled the strange shimmer of light when she checked her nosebleed. A silvery light around the blood on her fingertips.
She put her hand over Kalifa's, feeling the coldness of the woman's hand leech from the warmth of her body. "It did." Aika confessed, a solemn whisper. "And…" She closed her eyes for a moment. "...Fina found a Truth to hold onto." That Aika and Vyse loved her, that she was not just a woman to them, but a friend, a confidant, someone whose smile they lived to see. Kalifa hummed again, content. "But are you sure? Are you sure you can't make any other predictions? Because I could use a little advice right about now."
"I am sorry." Kalifa apologized. "I am just a simple woman now. The Gift, it has left me. I used the last of it and I see nothing beyond the now."
"I'm sorry." Aika said guiltily. "I'm sorry that you had to lose your Sight to help us."
"I am not." Kalifa shook her head. "It was well worth it. The Moons no longer speak through me, but I may find I enjoy the quiet."
"You're still one of us, you know. Sight or no, you're still a Blue Rogue." Aika vowed. "There will always be a place for you with us."
Kalifa smiled and withdrew her hand, sinking deeper into the cot. The exertion of their talk seemed to have caught up with her at last, and her eyes started to flutter shut. "I know. You leave no one behind, is this not so?" Aika nodded. "I cannot tell you what you want to hear, Aika, and for that, I mourn. But I can tell you this. There is nothing you cannot do...if you face it together." Kalifa's eyes closed, and her breathing slowed and grew deeper. She slipped away from Aika, lost to slumber once more.
Aika leaned over the cot and kissed the woman's forehead, lingering for a while after. Then she rose and went over to Fina.
The Silvite was still meditating, but started to come to after Aika gave her a much less chaste kiss than the one to the forehead Kalifa had received only seconds before. Aika pulled back and watched with a smile as Fina's eyes moved underneath her eyelids, slowly coming back to herself. The Silvite inhaled a long pull of air and released it as she opened her eyes, already smiling even before she saw Aika.
"I knew it was you." Fina said with a satisfied hum.
"Oh, did you now? How's that?"
"You kiss me harder than Vyse does." Fina answered, which made Aika blush a bit. Fina just laughed and sat up. "And nobody else would dare."
"They'd better not." Aika harrumphed. "What were you doing?"
Fina rubbed a hand over her chest, and Aika could swear there was a gleam of silver light that streamed through her midriff-baring shirt and vest for a moment. "Elder Prime's shard of the Silver Moon Crystal is...I never knew I had a piece of it in me. Before. Now that his is transplanted in its place, I can't mistake the feel of it. It's like a second heartbeat that never quite synchronizes."
Aika bit her lip. "Does it hurt?"
"No." Fina shook her head. "But I can tell that it wasn't mine. We're getting along better now, at least. Now that I've communed with it some."
"Does it have feelings? A mind of its own?"
"No, not...not quite." Fina hedged. "It's hard to explain. Suffice it to say, it doesn't hurt, it won't give me any problems, and it doesn't mind its new home. I think it prefers belonging to someone who can use magic."
She got up from the bed and slipped into Aika's arms readily, needily. "It doesn't mean that I'm still not fucking mad about why I need it."
"You're here." Aika promised her, hugging her close as Fina burrowed her face into her shoulder. "They don't get to tell you who you are. What you can be. Nobody can but you, remember?"
"I know." This time, Fina actually sounded like she believed it, which did Aika's heart a world of good. Fina let go of Aika and pulled back to a more respectable spacing for close conversation. "I wasn't meditating entirely on Elder Prime's shard, either. I was meditating on mine."
"The one you don't have anymore?" Aika knew she was making a face, but she had a right to feel confused. Fina nodded.
"I don't have it anymore. It still exists." She clarified.
"Wait. Ramirez took it. He used it to wake up Zelos, along with all the other Moon Crystals."
"And when Zelos unleashed the Rains of Destruction, do you remember what happened?" Fina went on.
"Yes. Valua was destroyed." Aika said flatly. "I think I yelled a lot."
"You did." Fina tapped her chest. "But do you happen to remember what I did?"
Aika thought about it. "You...You got a funny look on your face. I thought maybe you were sick, because you collapsed right after. And then you screamed."
"I didn't understand it then. I didn't know what I was feeling. I was feeling my shard of the Silver Moon Crystal. I felt it being used when Zelos used that cursed ability to make the Moons unleash their wrath. It felt wrong, and it sickened me."
Aika went pale. "You...When Zelos, you...you felt that?" Fina gave a slow nod. "Oh, Moons."
"Yeah." Fina dragged the word out. "It took me a couple of days to figure it out. And it's taken me a few days longer to reach out to it now. But I can. I can sense it inside of Zelos, powering the Gigas and keeping it unlocked along with all the other Moon Crystals. Right now, it isn't doing anything. If I had to guess, Ramirez and Galcian are keeping it on standby. Just waiting."
Aika's mind pieced together what that meant. "You think you'll be able to tell if they use it again."
Fina shook her head. "I think I'll be able to do more than that." Aika blinked, puzzled, and Fina's smile was positively predatory afterwards. "It may not be embedded in my heart anymore, but it's still my Moon Crystal Shard. I'm pretty sure I'd have to be close to it, less than a Lunaleague, but I could stop it. Not from doing anything else, but enough to keep it from using the Rains. The lock that the Elders put on Zelos means it needs all the Moon Crystals working together to use that ability. Disrupting one's enough to keep that trick offline."
Aika stared at Fina in amazement. Her Princess had spent hours, days figuring this out on her own. "How can you still function, after everything that's happened?"
"I either stayed busy, or I'd lose my mind screaming." Fina admitted. She looked past Aika to smile at the sleeping form of Kalifa. "Then I remembered what Kalifa told me. About holding fast to my Truths when all the lies in my life fell apart."
She was so strong. Aika kissed her again, held her close after. "I love you."
Fina laughed and nuzzled her neck. "That is one of the Truths that holds me together." They stood there and cuddled in the quiet of the healing hut for a while longer, at least until the door creaked open and Aika opened one eye to see Dr. Ilchymis standing there and watching them with his mouth hanging open and a thermos of coffee tipping in his slack hand and pouring out by his side.
"Hm." Fina sighed. "I suppose I'd best get back to work." She regretfully pulled herself out of Aika's arms and gave her a peck on the cheek that lingered, if the choking noise Ilchymis made was any indication. "And as for you, please go check and make sure Vyse is doing all right. As on-edge as he and Enrique have been they're probably either at each other's throats or planning something stupid right about now, and we can't afford either. Give our lover a punch and a kiss, would you?"
Aika laughed at the casual way Fina both praised and admonished Vyse, with total disregard to doing it front of Ilchymis after being caught in a snog and snuggle with her best friend. She just didn't seem to care if her 'Uncle Ilchymis' knew about them or not. Maybe Fina was the wisest of them after all. Screw it. If the world was ending, Aika wasn't about to go hiding in coat lockers either.
"Later, babe." She said, cupping Fina's cheek with a hand for a moment. Fina took Aika's hand and kissed her palm in reply, then gently shoved her towards the door. Aika gave Ilchymis another look as she passed by him, admiring the gobsmacked look on his face, and offered the man a knowing grin and a wink as she closed the door behind her.
She lingered outside of the healing hut and listened in as Ilchymis's raised voice carried outside and the muted tones of Fina's much calmer one didn't.
"What in blazes was...well, yes, I'm surprised, I thought...What? Both of them? And she...But that's not...no, I guess I don't...Of course I still love you, you silly girl, you're my honorary niece no matter who you…"
Aika's smile widened a little more as she skipped through the village, satisfied that Ilchymis would learn to adapt and accept his distant relation's unusual romantic entanglement in time.
He really was a very good uncle, after all.
The whole crew had rejoiced when they received word from Enrique that he was alive and returned to Crescent Island. If not for the necessity of keeping the Delphinus hidden so it could undergo much needed repairs after the Deep Sky expedition and the battle with De Loco, they would have demanded to fly out to pick him up. As it was, they'd relied on the Redoubt with its much less flag-raising profile to fly out and pick him up, and even then they'd had to draw straws. Nearly all the Esperanzan crewmembers had volunteered. They'd thankfully made room for Moegi and her add-ons, because who was going to tell the prince's beloved that she needed to wait even longer to hold a man they'd all thought dead in her arms again?
The sum of his experiences, when he got around to sharing it with Moegi and the three of them had been entirely awful. He'd needed a shot of rum to even get started. They'd all polished off a bottle of sake in the process of getting through it. They drank a second one after, in spite of their diminished stores, because there'd been so much to unpack between his story and the one that they shared about the events on the Silver Shrine that it was required. The five of them had agreed that nothing about the past few days had been good at all. Well, aside from Vigoro getting killed off, but that was bittersweet as well.
They were all coping with the events of the previous week with varying degrees of success, but Enrique was taking it the worst. Aika had known that something was up when she went aboard the Delphinus and the crew told her that the captain and the prince were not on the bridge, or in engineering or the forward weapons hold, but amidships in the training quarters.
"Damnit, Enrique!" If the pained grunts from the two had made her speed up as soon as she stepped through the hatch, that angry shout from Vyse did the opposite, freezing her in place. "Stop! Stop already!"
"You weren't there!" Enrique screamed back at him, and leaden as her feet felt, Aika tiptoed closer to find them in the open gym, Vyse struggling to keep Enrique pinned while the enraged prince looked ready to throw a punch the moment he had the chance. "My kingdom is nothing but dust and ashes, and even now I don't know how many are still alive! I have to kill him! For myself, for them!"
"And I'm telling you that we can't!" Vyse roared back, shoving the prince's face into the layer of wooden floorboards built up over the ship's metal interior. "He's got a foothold on Soltis, a continent with all the wonders of the Old World at his beck and call! He's got the whole of the Armada that he didn't wipe out tossed up in front of him like a shield, and he's got that damn Gigas to boot. If we go racing in there guns blazing, on our own, then we'll all die. For nothing!"
"Blue Rogues never back down from a greater danger, you bastard!" Enrique strained against Vyse, very nearly bucking him off.
"You lose your temper, and you'll get yourself run through. You taught me that!" Vyse countered. The two breathed heavily for several seconds more, and then Enrique finally gave up, collapsing in a heap.
"Fuck you." The prince mumbled, still making no move to fight back. Vyse managed a weak laugh and let off some of the weight, standing back up when no punch was thrown at him. "Using my own words against me."
"Your words, and Gregorio's." Vyse reminded him. "You taught me never to fight Galcian on his own terms, strength to strength. I tried it anyways at Dangral, and we very nearly lost everything. Expecting the Delphinus to go up against him and the whole of the Armada and their pet Gigas is suicide, and you know it. I know you're hurting, 'rique. I know you're angry. But we've lost so much already, and if we're not smart about this we'll lose everything."
Enrique sniffed and pushed himself into quadruped position, then took Vyse's hand when it was offered to pull himself up.
"So what do we do?" He asked, his voice soft and deep.
"I'm working on it." Vyse promised the prince. "Just give me time. Can you do that?"
Enrique shook his head. "I'm not sure how much time we have to spare. But yes. If…" He paused as he looked up and finally registered Aika's presence. "Oh. Miss Aika, hello. Um, how long have…"
"Long enough." She said flatly, walking over to them. "So. You've taken to fistfights since Ramirez broke Vyse's swords?"
"We were wrestling with some really bad ideas." Vyse answered in deadpan, and Aika snorted in spite of herself.
"Well, I hope you're finished because we still have work to do. Enrique, would you mind heading over to the forward weapons hold? I'm due down in engineering and Fina was going to see about running some maintenance on the Moonstone Cannon, but Khazim mentioned their tally on our shells was off."
"Yes, Miss Aika." Enrique bowed formally. "Captain Vyse, I apologize for my…"
"None of that, Enrique." Vyse waved off the declaration. "It's forgiven. What you're going through, it's...it's incalculable. You're allowed to be pissed off about it." He rubbed at his jaw, and Aika eyed up his split lip. "Just maybe watch the face next time, okay? I need it to kiss my ladies with."
Enrique huffed, cracking a smile in spite of everything. "Which parts of them?"
"Hey!" Aika blushed and smacked him on the arm, and Enrique chuckled as he took the punishment. "Get out of here already, you."
"I'm going, I'm going." Enrique sighed. He scooped up his jacket from its spot on the floor and headed out, leaving Aika and Vyse alone.
Vyse moved so slowly as he went over to reclaim his hat and coat that Aika unconsciously cast a bit of silver magic to examine him. No lacerations, no deep bruises, no head injuries. He was just exhausted, pushed to the ragged edge. Just like Aika felt. Just like Fina was. Just like everyone was.
She skipped over to his side and claimed that black tricorn hat for herself, getting a muted noise of protest from him. "Oh, relax. You don't think we enjoy wearing it every so often?" She teased Vyse, plopping it on her head and breathing for a moment as the spiritual power from 200 years worth of owners connected with her. She thought she heard Vyse's small laugh, even though he hadn't replied. To make up for the loss of his hat, she stood behind him to help him with the buckles on his blue longcoat. The intimacy of the moment had her leaning on his back and her hands hugging around his waist when she was done.
"What was all that about back there?" She asked in a whisper. "I know he's desperate to stop Galcian after what happened to Valua, but he hasn't come at you like that in forever. Not since…"
Vyse brought one of her hands up to his lips and brushed them over her knuckles. "Not since he thought I was cheating on you with Fina. Yeah. He's been pushing at me since yesterday that we need to do something. I think he hit his breaking point right then. I can't fault him for it. Not after everything he's lost. And he is right. We do need to do something." The fatigue she'd felt in him deepened, and she found herself bracing him up. "I'm just not sure what."
They stood there, Aika supporting her captain and her lover until he finally found the strength to stand on his own again and sigh. "Sorry." He apologized, turning his head to look at her out of the side of his eye. "I've been keeping you from your duties. And I'm due up on the bridge. There should be some messages waiting for us from Gilder and Clara, they were puttering around the Valuan side of the North Danel Strait." He pulled away from her and made to leave.
Aika's hand snapped out and grabbed onto his, stopping him.
"You have another stop to make before you get up to the bridge." She insisted.
"I do?" He blinked.
"Yes. You do."
Neither of them spoke another word as they made their way through the corridors of the ship that was their home as much as Windmill Island and Crescent Island had been. The dining hall was empty, the galley devoid of the warm presences of Polly and Robinson and Urala, or anyone else that worked the kitchens with them. In an empty room with the backdrop of the island's dense foliage out the reinforced glass windows and the light from the electric chandelier glowing dimly down on them at half-power, there was no one to witness their talk. No one who Vyse needed to wear the mask of the captain who was filled with boundless confidence.
She set a mug cup of coffee down in front of him at the captain's table, black with one lump of sugar, and sat on the other side of the table. He reached for the handle and thanked her, then took a long and savoring sip, letting the bitter brew work over his tastebuds before swallowing the first mouthful.
"Talk to me." Aika begged him. "Please."
There was a moment where she was sure that he'd clam up, hide everything he was feeling and keep it from view. But in the solitude she'd been so careful to find, in the quiet moment she had cultivated, he gave in. The tension between them popped, and he gripped the tin mug between both hands to keep them from shaking as he spoke.
"Everyone on the crew, they...they keep looking at me as if I hang the Moons." He confessed. That first sentence was like the crucial log holding the dam in place. Everything poured out of him in a flood. "That's how the stories go, right? Vyse the Bold? Vyse the Fearless? How there isn't a thing in the world I'm afraid of, and how everything always turns out in our favor?" The words came bitter and full of guilt. "The captain can't show fear around his crew. He can't be indecisive. I'm the one who has to tell everyone, show everyone that everything's going to turn out all right. Just like I told Enrique when you walked in on us fighting."
Aika knew that saying. It was one of Dyne's lessons about leadership, about projecting strength and confidence to keep the morale of your crew hale and hearty. She knew the second part of it just as well as he did, that no captain could bottle all of that up. That every captain needed someone they could talk to, unload on, share their fears with.
That was what she and Fina were to this man, their husband in all but ceremony. That was what husbands and wives did for each other, they gave support in good times and bad. She sipped at her own coffee, not wanting to stop him when he was finally unburdening himself.
"Half of the things I've come up with were pure desperation plays." He confessed.
"More than half." Aika pointed out, giving him a warm smile. Vyse made a noise and gestured at her in agreement.
"See? More than half!"
"Nobody expects you to have all the answers, Vyse." Aika told him.
"Not for the little things, no." He pointed out. "But for the big things? I've been running through it in my head for days now, Aika." He brought a hand up and dug his nails into his hair. "I've...I don't…"
She reached across the table and removed his other hand from his coffee cup, entwining her fingers with his. "What are you trying to say, Vyse?"
"I don't know what to do." He admitted, squeezing her hand back. His eyes came up to hers. "I don't know how to fix this. A part of me just wants to run and hide, but there's no hiding, not now. Galcian and Ramirez can destroy any place on Arcadia they want. Another part of me wants to do what Enrique was screaming for us to do; just fly straight at them in one blaze of glory. But they've got the entire Armada, and Soltis, and Zelos. We're just one ship." The cracked laugh he let out then was even worse than the one Enrique had made, and she stared when she saw the tears in his eyes.
Tears of frustration. Tears of a man pushed to his absolute limits, who couldn't see a way out of it. The tears of a man who everyone looked to for answers and had none to give. Aika bit her lip, hating to see him laid so low.
"Hey. Vyse. Look at me." She squeezed his hand back. "Look at me." He finally did, lost and cracked clean through. "When the Armada hit Windmill Island and captured Fina and your dad and our crewmates, did we give up then?" He shook his head. "When Drachma abandoned us in Maramba without a ship, did we give up then? Or when we had to abandon ship when Rhaknam and the 6th Fleet were going at it?" Again, he shook his head no. "You didn't give up when we were prisoners in the Grand Fortress, or when Valua sailed into Yafutoma City's harbor and we had to escape from a coup. You didn't give up when we were staring down the barrel of that fucker Vigoro, or Bluheim, and you damn sure didn't give up when Ramirez attacked Crescent Island. None of us did. And sure, maybe it was because you were there and putting on a brave face at the time, but the Code was there too. Blue Rogues never give up without a fight. There's a way to beat these bastards, Vyse. You just haven't seen it yet."
Impassioned as her words were, he wasn't so easily shaken from his fugue. "You're forgetting two things." He replied. "First of all, we're running out of time. Enrique wasn't wrong. If we don't do something soon, then we'll never have the chance again. And second? How many of those things you mentioned did we get through because of someone else? Moegi in the Deep Sky, the Tenkou and Prince Daigo during the coup, Gilder's crew at the Grand Fortress?"
"Then we don't do this on our own." Aika countered, and paused, sitting up a little taller. She remembered the last thing that Kalifa had told her before going back to sleep.
"Aika?" Vyse tilted his head. "You've got a funny look on your face."
"Sorry." She was smirking. For a Seer who could no longer predict the future, Kalifa still found ways to surprise her. "Just thinking about something someone said to me. But, really, Vyse. We aren't in this alone. There are other Blue Rogues." Dyne. Clara, and by extension, Gilder. Centime. Each of who had been waging an ongoing war of skirmishes over the past two decades. "Blue Rogues leave nobody behind. They'll help us."
"If we could communicate with them."
"We can." Aika said, thinking of the Iron Star positioned above Nasrad. Of how Fina had reconfigured it to receive and re-transmit radio messages. "We just need to call them."
Vyse blinked a couple of times and sat up a little straighter. Some of the weariness in his body faded, some of the light in his eyes came back.
He was beginning to hope again, if even a little bit.
"What do we tell them, Aika?" He asked.
Aika took off the black captain's hat and set it off to the side, then took another drink of her coffee.
"I suppose we ought to figure that out." She said, smiling.
371 Days After the (First) Grand Fortress Escape
The two of them had done some of the rough planning in that first hour, but they'd waited until after dinner to finish it. There'd still been the day's work to be done, and moreover, something as important as this message needed to be written with Fina's help. All of this had started with the three of them. It wouldn't have felt right to do this without their blond-haired lover's assistance.
They'd argued over what to say, how much to tell everyone else. And perhaps most importantly, they'd argued over who should speak the message that would be sent around the world to every Blue Rogue who might be listening.
In the end, the choices had been simple to make. Speak the truth, at least what wasn't private. There were a few major points, but Fina had argued it needed to sound natural, that a play by play wouldn't have the same emotional weight and punch they'd need to get the other Blue Rogues on board.
After that argument, Aika and Vyse had agreed that it should be Fina who should speak for them all. The first worldwide radio broadcast in modern history would be given by a Silvite who had forsworn her people's deluded ambitions, a woman who'd come from a world apart from their wars and who understood the threat of Soltis and Zelos better than anyone.
There were only a handful of crew aboard the ship, just Lapen and Hans and their engineers who were down checking over the moonstone reactors for any flaws before they could become critical. They would hear the message over the intercom. The Delphinus was running at idle power, with only the ship's refrigeration, water heaters and other 'standby' systems active, and the rest of its power shunted to the communications systems. The only people on the bridge were the three of them, something Fina had pleaded for and Aika and Vyse had readily agreed to.
The bulk of the Blue Rogues under their command were back on the island, likely huddled around two of their bulky 'portable' radio units hooked up to a yellow moonstone power generator. They would hear it just like the others around the world the message was meant for.
Will it be enough? Aika asked herself, fidgeting with a wrench she'd pulled from her toolbelt. Will the Blue Rogues come? Because Vyse had been right, this time they couldn't fight the Armada alone. Kalifa had hinted at the answer - don't try to. Do it together.
Fina sat at the console with the radio and wireless telegraph gear, a bullet list of points she'd written down stuck to the side of the boxy unit and her hands in her lap.
"Fina?" Vyse said, sitting up in the captain's chair out of habit with his black hat perched on the corner of the headrest. "What's wrong?"
The former Silvite hugged her arms around her bare stomach. "What if I screw this up? This...we can't make a recording. This is going to go out live. Everyone who can listen in is going to hear this. If I make a mistake, if - if I'm not good enough…"
Aika scowled and walked over, kneeling beside her lover. She put her hand on Fina's skirt, just over her knee. "You are good enough. And you won't screw this up."
Vyse stepped down from his chair and stood at Fina's other shoulder, resting his hand on it. He gave their lover a fond look and a nod. "Just speak from your heart, Fina." He told her. "It's never steered us wrong." Fina's eyes shone, and even Aika found herself blinking at that tender assertion. That was Truth. Fina had been the one to help Aika accept that she loved two people with equal passion and fire. Fina had been the one who had helped them settle into their three-way relationship with quiet sureness and boundless faith. She held them together. Now she would try to hold all the Blue Rogues around the world together for one last desperate strike with the fate of all Arcadia hanging in the balance.
"No pressure, then." Fina laughed sadly, and closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, there was no trace of doubt. Just the resolve of a woman who knew what she had to do and could put it off no longer. She unraveled her arms and reached for the jury-rigged intercom microphone tied into the radio, pulling it closer. With her other hand, she flipped the selector to the AM Radio transceiver.
A second later, as the radio hummed with power running through its vacuum tubes, she pressed the transmit button on the microphone's stand. Though she didn't hear it, Aika knew that the intercom down in engineering had turned on as well. Aika and Vyse breathed shallowly, silent witnesses and reassurance both.
Fina, a Blue Rogue vetted and vowed by her two lovers, took in a deep breath, and spoke.
"This message...this message is for all of the Blue Rogues, our allies across Arcadia. My name is Fina. I am a member of the crew under Captain Vyse. A lot has happened in the past week and a half. And you all need to know what happened, because the world has changed in very dramatic ways. Maybe you've seen them. Maybe you've noticed how the sky rifts around Mid-Ocean and the Silver Sea have collapsed. Maybe you felt a terrible shaking eight days ago. Maybe, if you were close enough, you saw a beam of light streaking towards the Yellow Moon in the sky. But you probably didn't understand why.
"Valua is gone. In your oldest legends, there were stories about the Rains of Destruction, a punishment sent by the heavens to punish the Old World for its sins. I am a Silvite, a descendant of the Silver Civilization and the last Priestess of the Silver Shrine. These were the stories I was taught as a girl, the cautionary tale about how the Old World was punished for making monsters to wage terrible war on each other. Monsters called Gigas. I was lied to. The Civilizations of the six Moons did make war on each other, and they did use Gigas to do so. But until just under 10 days ago, I had believed that my people were blameless, for they alone had retreated from that open conflict, living separate and neutral, and thus had been spared. So I had been taught.
"That was a lie. The Rains of Destruction were a punishment, but they were not sent by the heavens. The Rains of Destruction did not stem from a divine source. It was the ultimate attack of a 6th Gigas, a Gigas my ancestors called Zelos. From a continent called Soltis, they had Zelos cause each of the Moons across our world to rain down fire and death, wiping out everyone else. They were so horrified at the power they'd unleashed that they sealed Zelos in the heart of Soltis, and placed a lock on it and their homeland which would require all six of the Moon Crystals to undo. They sent Soltis to the depths of the Silver Sea and buried it in the storms of the Deep Sky. Some of the Silvians stayed on Arcadia, trying to heal the damage their people had caused. The Elders fled to orbit, where they kept vigil over Arcadia as the peoples across the world rebuilt, healed, and moved on. They rewrote their own history. Thousands of years passed, until the world was as you know it. As it might have stayed, if Galcian hadn't reclaimed that terrible power for himself with the help of a Silvite who told him about Soltis, and Zelos, and promised him the strength to control the world. That Silvite's name was Ramirez."
"A week and a half ago, our base at Crescent Island was attacked. The Moon Crystals that Vyse, Aika and myself along with all of our friends had spent a year gathering were taken. Our home was burned down, some of the crew were killed." Fina closed her eyes, her free hand clenching into a shaking fist as she relived that terrible night, and the tragedy that followed on the Silver Shrine not long after. Aika reached for that fist and wrapped her callused fingers around Fina's softer ones. That tiny bit of grounding allowed Fina to breathe again, to keep talking. "We learned the full scope of their plans, and tried to stop it. But we could not. They raised Soltis from its rest in the Silver Sea and woke Zelos. Galcian's first act of terror and tyranny was to strike at Valua, the greatest threat to his ambitions. The rise of Soltis caused the sky rifts to collapse. Now, there are no walls separating Mid-Ocean from the Silver Sea. There's no barrier to the currents of the Southern Ocean, no border between Mid-Ocean and the North Ocean. And Valua is gone, nothing but charred craters. The Grand Fortress, the capital city...ruins. He did all of that to make his point, to 'teach' what he called the wisdom of surrender." The words were as ugly now as they'd been when Aika heard that bastard speak them in Soltis before.
Fina paused to catch her breath, to recenter herself. She stared at the bullet points with a glazed look, her mouth opening and closing silently as if unable to decide where to start next.
Aika squeezed her hand, Vyse lifted her blue headscarf up and kissed her forehead. You're not alone, Aika thought, giving their Princess all the silent support they could. Just say what you have to say.
Fina's breathing was shaky and undoubtedly audible over the radio. She uncurled her fist and gripped Aika's hand back for a moment, then reached up to the sheet of paper with her notes stuck to the radio.
She tore it off, crumpled it in her hand, and threw it off to the side. Aika blinked when she caught on. Fina wasn't going to go off of her notes, she wasn't going to try and stick to what she'd memorized. Fina would speak from her heart.
"Funny thing about Blue Rogues." She started out, mustering a weak smile. "We have this Code we fight by. There's a lot of good things in it, and Vyse has started adding more. But there's a line in there about not rolling over when someone tries to use fear and threats to get their way. Blue Rogues never back down from a greater danger. And Galcian? Ramirez? What they are, what they've done, what they're planning to do, they're the greatest danger this world has ever faced. Maybe you think it doesn't concern you. Maybe you think that it'd be better to capitulate and give in to their demands. Just let them take what they want. But I saw what the Armada and Galcian did to Valua even before they blew it up. So did Prince Enrique, who watched as his country was poisoned and stripped of its resources for the Armada's ambitions, and the rule of law gave way to the rule of power. For 20 years, the Blue Rogues have been fighting a guerilla war against the Valuan Empire. But that's not enough. Not now. Galcian's declared himself Emperor of the Eternal Empire." That new and grandiose title had burned when Aika heard it, courtesy of the intelligence Gilder and Clara had gathered the day before. "They have the power to call down an orbital bombardment on any scrap of land that offends them. If we do nothing, if we bury our heads in the sand and hide, then that's it. They win. The entire world loses. Men like Galcian will never have enough. Their hunger for the world's riches and its ruin is endless. They'll never be satisfied. And in the end, nobody is safe from them. Valua wasn't.
"I send this message not just to warn you, but to ask for your help. I do this not as a Silvite - I was lied to, misled, and now the weapons my people made threaten everything. What I say to you, I say as a Blue Rogue. I have served proudly with Vyse for more than a year now. He and Aika are my closest friends and the people I care about the most in this world. And there is so much I want to give them, share with them. Together, we have seen almost the entire world. I have met so many wonderful people, people I call friends. People I want to protect. Blue Rogues help out those in need. The world needs us now. It needs all of us.
"Our only chance is to move on Galcian and his Armada before they can spread out. We have to strike at them while they are still gathered in Mid-Ocean and around Soltis in the Silver Sea. We have a plan. If we can get close enough to Zelos, we can stop it from using the Rains. But that's the problem. We have to get close enough. For as powerful as it is, the Delphinus is just one ship, and we are just one crew. We can't do this alone. We need you. I...I need you.
"Please. I know I'm asking a lot. I know that if you come, you might not come out of this alive. But Blue Rogues Fly Free. We didn't put up with Valua. We're sure as hell not going to put up with this.
"We can't do this alone, it's going to take all the help we can get. Everyone who bears the colors of the Blue Rogues...Everyone who called us friend and ally. Come. In two weeks exactly, meet us in the Silver Wildlands west of the Silver Sea, in that little crevice of territory that once stood squeezed between two sky rifts. We will be there, waiting. And together, with all the help you can give, we will fly for Soltis and Galcian.
"Some of you will come for vengeance. Some of you will come to honor your word or to honor a debt." Aika thought of Admiral Komullah, who they had given a radio to in spite of his failure to protect the location of Crescent Island from Belleza's spies. "As for Captain Vyse and Aika and myself…" The former Silvite drew in a shaky breath, and her voice was thick when she spoke again. "We will fight for the people we love. For the world we have come to love, for the people and places we haven't seen yet. For the freedom and happiness of every innocent. For our children and their children.
"Please." Fina shut her eyes, and two fat tears rolled down her face. "Please. Help us." Her mouth opened again as if she was going to add something to that, but no more words came. Her trembling fingers lifted off of the microphone's transmit key.
The message had been delivered.
Aika stood and pulled Fina into a tight hug, kissing under her eyelids where the taste of salt was strongest. "I'm so proud of you." She whispered, pressing her forehead to Fina's and looking into her lover's dark blue eyes. Vyse was behind Fina a moment later, hugging the both of them as tightly as he dared.
"Will they come?" Fina begged. "How many do you think will join us at Alpha Base?"
"I don't know." Aika said, wondering that herself. How many had Fina's impassioned call to arms reached? How many Blue Rogues would come? Would Komullah be there with the Remnant Fleet? Would Centime make it with the Iron Clad?
"Who we get will be enough." Vyse said, his strength restored enough to bolster the two of them with determination. "It'll have to be. This is it."
"Us or them." Fina whispered.
"Freedom or death." Aika added soberly.
They unfolded long enough for Aika to kiss Fina, and then Fina was spun around into Vyse's arms to receive one from him as well, with Aika squeezing in behind her.
"Whatever happens...we're together." He promised them, and they lingered on the bridge, gently swaying in a hug none of them wanted to quit. As soon as they left, they and the rest of the crew would be packing up their belongings, everything they would need for the coming fight. They would take the Delphinus and sail for Captain Dyne's Alpha Base, where they would have the facilities and the forges they would need for the last-minute alterations to the Delphinus. Where they would find the supplies and materials to gear up for one last push. A push whose outcome was uncertain.
Let me keep this, Aika prayed to the Moons. Let me keep them.
She had no doubt her two lovers were whispering the same prayer.
To Be Continued In
A World Full Of Rogues (Part 4)