"I remember the night we found Ramirez. The fog was so thick we could have been flying in circles without realizing it… The start of our journey towards the North Ocean and the land beyond... I sometimes wonder if it might have been better for us to never have found him at all…"
The Aquila rose upwards, shoving through a lower billowing of clouds as it patrolled through the Mid Ocean. Rivulets of wind and cloud slipped off the sides like so much gathered dust, one which was growing deeper and gloomier as the battleship pressed onwards. The Aquila was the pride of the Armada, an austere and long-served Razorbeak-class that had just been retrofitted for a fresh voyage. Its shimmering hull was touched with silver-moonstone weave, an experimental magickal flourish meant to ward against extreme elements. It was only by chance that the Aquila would meet them so early into her mission. The haze, which had started as mere fog, grew until it was a sickly purple that filled the skies with crackling cold and frightening energy. It was an ill-omen for the journey ahead that seemed to fill the entire crew's heads with thoughts of disaster.
Everyone except Lord-Admiral Gabriel Mendosa. He projected nothing but the calmest confidence. Mendosa had been a sailor in the Armada for his entire life. Reared from an early age to take on the burden of noble command until he attained Admiralty of the First Fleet in his late twenties, chosen personally by Emperor Mateo and charged with directing the nation's exploratory efforts. Those endeavors were put on hold once the war with Nasrad began, where Mendosa's keen mind for military tactics had played an integral part in pushing the enemy out of Valua's airspace.
But when victory seemed all but assured, disaster had struck. Emperor Mateo's flagship was mysteriously destroyed with the sovereign aboard and the country was in dire need of a new acting Lord-Admiral. It was a task that Mendosa accepted with a heavy heart but one he'd excelled at as much as any previous command. What remaining battles needed to be fought were ended swiftly and peace was negotiated. If he could live through Valuan politics and the fires of war, there was no doubt in his mind that he'd live through some fog and cold. Even if this was no mere chill...
Which was why he sat comfortably on the ship's bridge, drinking tea and taking in the situation with steel-eyed focus. The aged Lord-Admiral was a fighter in his own time, but getting on in years at fifty-three. A little softer now. His once full head of hair had resolved into baldness, with only a few scant silver spots remaining about the neckline and side. His face was sharp but also inviting and fatherly such that his men always felt at ease when he walked into the room. There was no sign of worry about his features, but he was treating the situation with care. His crew was as dear to him as a treasure and his daughters were aboard the ship as well. Only one thing could cause such a fog, and he would not let his ship fall victim to such a hunter. Not with so many valued souls aboard.
"Report," he called down to the Aquila's helmsman. From his own spot in the captain's chair, he leaned forward to look out the bridge window. The purple-twinged sky was all that could be seen. "Is there any sign of the creature?"
"None, sir," the helmsman replied. It was a younger man—Rodriguez, perhaps. New to the crew and eager to prove worthy of his assignment "But the phenomenon is consistent with reports of its sighting. Visibility is poor to say the least..."
"What was the name the locals gave it again?" Mendosa asked over his shoulder. He leaned back in his seat and stroked white gloved hands through his grey beard. "Rackham?"
"Rhaknam," a voice replied beside him. Doctor Jaime Ortega ran a chagrined hand through his dark hair. In his time as Mendosa's personal doctor, he'd become as much of a welcome presence on the bridge as any other officer or even the vice-captain. An odd relationship perhaps, but Lord-Admiral Mendosa cared about the character of the men around him far more than their rank or role. "Though, my lord, if I may…"
"Arcwhale hunting advice, Doctor?" the Lord-Admiral chimed teasingly. It was a familiarity that most military men avoided but which Mensoda used expertly to earn the affection of his men. "I didn't know you had a side business.."
Ortega gave his characteristic chuckle, a warm and flittering string of "ha's" that seemed to erupt from the man just as much as any medical advice. "Not quite," he said with mock disappointment. "Rather, I'd like to advise we bring the lookouts in from the fog. Some accounts indicate that too much exposure risks hypothermia or even frostbite..."
The Lord-Admiral gave a nod of consideration before turning to an alabaster-armored soldier to his side. "Call the men in, Vice-Captain," he said solemnly. The man started to move towards the bridge's exit before Mendosa halted him with a raise of his hand. "Alcazar? Also see that someone brings fresh blankets to my daughters' chambers."
"Yes, my lord," the soldier said with a salute. It wasn't glamorous work but the crew knew how their captain worried about his daughters' well-being—Something that compelled Doctor Ortega to clear his throat.
"May I speak freely for a moment, Lord-Admiral?" Ortega asked. He wasn't nervous, but tread carefully nonetheless.
"I know what you're about to ask, Doctor," Mendosa offered with a bemused grin. "It remains my decision that Maria and Piastol travel with me. Valuan politics are a dire affair; I would keep them from it as much as I am able."
"And yet the journey has already offered its first challenge," Ortega noted with a gesture towards the frost-covered viewport. "In the form of a big friggin' whale."
"It was bound to offer some challenges," Mendosa countered with confidence. He looked down at one of the bridge officers. "Not that that I expected a…" "Big friggin' whale either, Doctor. Now,I want our gunners on standby; if this arcwhale is as rumored we need to be cautious. With luck, we may rid the skies of this menace here and now.."
"Hmph! Aye'seen Rhaknam tear'n through plenty 'o Valuan ships..""Captain Drachma? When did you get here?"
"Dun matter, boy. S'clear we have a web needs untanglin'…""You know this arcwhale, sir? We'd never seen its like before.""Aye, Doctor… Aye…"
"I'm more surprised about Maria. That's Mendosa's daughter?""Father… There's… silver in the mist…"
A screeching bellow boomed through the ocean, a deep and mournful wail that echoed through the fog and caused the Aquila to shudder. A massive shadow, nearly as big as the flagship itself, flew overhead. Its colossal form was barely visible, but the crew could see the telltale signs of a purple hide etched with odd markings and marred by untold years of battle. There was no doubt that this was Rhaknam, the arcwhale of legends and bane of oceans. A monstrous beast that slipped through the sky like a reaper, scattering sailors into the depths. It swam forwards, massive tail and flukes slapping gusts of turbulence towards the Aquila. The reliable warship bucked in response.
"Brace!" Mendosa ordered, holding firm to his chair. "Rodriguez! Take us a few ticks lower lest that creature do some actual damage!"
The helmsman pulled a nearby lever and the ship began to list downwards. Rhaknam pressed on ahead of them. Ortega took a few steps towards the viewport and squinted as something in the mist caught his eyes. It was small—next to Rhaknam, the scale was like a gnat unto a full grown man—and yet there was undeniably something else out there in the mist.
"Sir," the doctor intoned seriously. "I think it's chasing something!"
There was a bursting sound that boomed through the sky. One, two, three times like a bizarre form of cannon fire and then a final blast of shimmering light that seemed to blow all of the fog away in a single squall until there was nothing but the starry night sky. Rhaknam streamed ahead of the Aquila in pursuit of a small silver-alloyed craft that resembled an inverted shark's fin. Layers of shimmering armor shingled down its hull and twinkled in the night sky as they pressed onwards through the deep ultramarine pitch. Behind it, a trail of magickal energies followed in its wake. Somehow it was both the source of the fog's dissipation while also seeming hopelessly outmatched by the arcwhale.
"He triggered the Invicta's repulsion drive…""Repulsion drive? Wassat?"
"I'm guessing some type of Silvite tech, Aika.""A magickal pulse that combines blue and silver energies. It's mostly meant for clearing paths through rock rifts. Mine was disabled quickly when I arrived here...""Ain't like such crud'll stop a beast like Rhaknam, lass.""Your friend is right. Ramirez didn't last long against that creature…"
"It looks like a shooting star!" Helmsman Rodriguez shouted before realizing what was happening. "No, that's a ship! My lord, what shall we do?"
Mendosa stood, walking down from his chair and onto the bridge alongside his men. He looked more closely through the bridge's forward viewport at the strange silver craft. It was like nothing he'd seen before and whatever defense mechanism it had triggered wasn't comparable to anything within the Valuan arsenal. Still, the stakes were clear. This small ship and whatever crew was aboard was in clear peril; he would not sit idle while it was in his power to lend aid.
"Increase speed and bring us beside the beast," Mendosa ordered. "I want one flare fired as a warning to the craft ahead of us and then a full broadside on the arcwhale. Let's see if we can't drive it off."
The Lord-Admiral turned to look back at Doctor Ortega. "Prepare your supplies and a few reliable men," he ordered calmly. Each world rolled forward with deliberation and certainty. "Should the other vessel accept, we will give medical aid as required."
"Sir! We're coming up alongside the arcwhale!"
So it was that the Aquila had matched speed to come to beside Rhaknam. It was the pride of Valua against the scourge of the northern skies. The mechanical might of the world's most enduring empire pitted against a warped mockery of nature that was more akin to the monster than anything else. The battleship continued alongside the beast. Outside the viewport, Mendosa and the crew watched as the beast's eye, a murky orb of reddish purple, turned to regard the gleaming ship beside it. The Lord-Admiral gestured towards one of his crewmen and within a few moments a burning crimson signal flare flew into the sky. There was a pause before the small ship fired off a beacon in reply; a wispy silver light that spiraled up until it burst into a flash as the vessel began to make an evasive shift.
Mendosa took a breath and gave the command: "Fire."
Cannon batteries flared to life on the Aquila's port side. Prototype cannons designed by Ivan De Loco, rising star of the Armada's engineering and research division. The finest guns in all the world hammered against Rhaknam, who roared with mixed rage and shock as chunks of flesh and the beast's strange, carapace-like outer skin flaked off in bloody bits. Yet for all the damage, Rhaknam didn't flee immediately. In one final outburst of defiance, the arcwhale exhaled a fuming fog of crackling purple magicks and arcane might that seemed far beyond anything a normal creature could possess. An errant bolt of magick arc from the mist struck the fleeing vessel with a crack. The silver craft began to billow smoke.
"Draw in closer and prepare hooks," Mendosa commanded. "I want that ship secured and a rescue team prepared to receive any survivors." He stood up and walked towards the bridge exit. "Rodriguez, you have the bridge until Vice-Captain Alcazar returns. Ortega, with me. We'll join the recovery team."
They left the bridge at a pace, Ortega rallying what men he could and ordering another to fetch supplies from the medical bay. As they marched purposefully through the halls and towards the direction of the main deck, the tell-tale sounds of clinking metal and whirring winches outside the ship signaled the safe retrieval of the waylaid vessel. The Lord-Admiral and his doctor pressed onwards but as they passed a nearby room, the door opened and a young girl peeked out. It was Piastol, the admiral's eldest daughter… although "eldest" hardly meant much when she was merely eleven years old. Her raven dark hair, which took something of bluish tone that matched her dress, shone under yellow moonstone lights. She looked at the pair with concern.
"Is everything alright, father?" she asked. "There was cannon fire… Was it a battle?"
"Not a battle," Mendosa said with warmth in his voice, reassuring his daughter that all was well. "The moment has passed and I shall tell you more of the matter later. For now, look after Maria. No doubt the commotion has troubled her."
Piastol nodded dutifully. "Yes, father," she said before looking towards Doctor Ortega. "Was someone hurt?"
"That is what we are about to find out," Ortega replied with a smile. "And afterwards, should you or your sister require any aid finding rest, just call for me. But we cannot delay longer."
"Quite so," Mendosa said, leaning to give his daughter a kiss to the forehead before continuing with Ortega towards the exit hatch to the deck. He gave the door's wheel a twist and a push before stepping outside. A light wind blew through the night although the Aquila had come to a rest. To the side of the ship, the strange silver craft was being secured with cranes. Doctor Ortega peered curiously at the hull's armor, which seemed to be made of a metal he'd never beheld. It was a small craft, almost like a skiff, which could only hold perhaps four or five people and only if it was tightly packed.
"Lord-Admiral on the deck!" a soldier called out, and the assorted men and women of the rescue crew snapped to attention.
"At ease and back to work," Mendosa ordered, walking towards a spot on the deck where a congregation of soldiers had gathered. "And someone tell me what we're dealing with! Survivors?"
"Just one, my lord," an armored soldier replied, walking towards his superior and guiding both him and the doctor towards the rescue crew's position. They had gathered around a stretcher where a lone man was resting.
Doctor Ortega took a step forward through the group to see what he was dealing with and nearly gasped to find that the ship's pilot was a young man perhaps no older than eighteen, right on the edge of adulthood. He was unconscious, his soft-featured and very pale face contorted by pain. A trickle of blood ran down from his head where blonde hair that was so light as to be silver haloed the rest of his features. He wore a white outfit of strange, almost shimmering material touched with golden accents, the sleeves partly detached and residing on his lower arms only. His clothes bore strange and foreign designs. Not Nasrean or anything familiar but undeniably compelling to look at. Ortega could see where his exposed skin—the upper regions of his arms, his fingertips, his chest beneath the low-cut opening of his white vest—had gone reddish and waxy. Without any more delay, Ortega started to take his pulse. Low but steady, although his ragged breathing was a problem. A concussion at the very least, and perhaps damage to his body from the beast's magicks unless steps were taken.
"Well, doctor?" Mendosa's voice nearly shook with concern. "What's the assessment?"
"Exposure to the elements, and that damned creature's magicks," Ortega noted with a gesture to the lad. "The fingertips particularly risk damage without him being brought inside and given some treatment. The blood… points to blunt trauma, perhaps a concussion. I need him down in the medical bay and I need it done yesterday..."
Mendosa gestured to the rest of the recovery crew. "You heard the doctor," he started. "Get this man inside as quickly as possible..."
The Lord-Admiral took a moment to lean closer to the stranger on the cot. "I don't know if you can hear me, lad," he said reassuringly. His voice was low, like he was speaking to one of his own children after they'd had a nightmare. "But you're safe now. Everything is going to be alright…"
"You make it sound too good to be true. A reliable crew, a noble Valuan admiral.. What's the catch?""Your father could tell you all 'bout the kantor crap that comes with being in the Armada but… also that's what it felt like at the time. Like an adventure, like the start of something noble. I thought… idiot that I was… that we were going to do some good...""Nothing good can come from an empire. It's why I left. Bad orders from worse people.""Well, not all of us realized things as quickly as you, Victor.""Yet, you and this admiral… You saved Rami. Risked yourself to save a single life. So different from when Valua found me...""He woulda done the same for us, if we'd been in trouble. Ramirez was… a good man back then. Honest, kind… From the moment he first spoke, I knew he was different…"
Ortega did everything he could to keep their new guest in stable condition, but the truth of the matter was there was little to do besides bandaging some wounds and working through a few regimens of magickal healing as the silver-haired man rested. It was odd, but the doctor found that his patient responded much more readily to the latter treatments. Ortega was more likely to set a bone than mutter an incantation but he knew enough green magicks to help ease internal injury. His patient didn't just take to the remedies swiftly; it almost seemed like being in his very presence made channeling a spell easier. Of course, that was complete nonsense but as Jaime regarded the man, he couldn't help but wonder at the strangeness of it all. An unknown craft, markings that no one had been able to identify, and a sort of magickal magnetism that spurred along recovery. None of it made a lick of sense. Not that Ortega cared for the time being; what mattered was that there was a patient in his med bay and that meant cradling a life in his hands.
It had been two hours since the initial rescue and Jaime hadn't left his patient's bedside. There was too much risk leaving him unattended and he wanted to be there to ease the man back to the land of the living. With little work left to do, that left him with more than enough time to simply regard the man.
Jaime found that he couldn't look away. He'd never seen anyone like this young man, and for reasons that he couldn't place felt an urge to protect him beyond his duties as a doctor. The man seemed rare. Like one of the inlaid gems hanging from an more Upper City lady's necklace; wonderful to behold but small and fragile.
No, that didn't seem right. He wasn't fragile; he was… perilous. Intriguing, foreign, beautiful.
Ortega let his mind start to fill with possibilities. Was the man from Valua? If so, it might've been a remote place. But how did that account for the ship; was it some nobleman's vanity project? The speculation felt useless, but he couldn't help himself. It wasn't every day that a strange traveler all but fell out of the sky and into his metaphorical arms. Jaime reached out for a moment, placing the back of his hand against the man's forehead. What little fever he had on arrival was all but gone. He was about to return to his watch when..."Úbi sum..?" a soft and confused voice whispered out. A weak hand reached out to wrap about the doctor's wrist as his patient slowly regained consciousness. "Quid est hoc loco?"
Ortega cautiously removed the man's hand from his wrist, leaning down so that he might be seen better. Whatever language the man was speaking was both familiar and unknown to him.
"Hey, hey. Slow down, compadre," Jaime cautioned. "¿Habla Valua? ¿Me entiendes?"
The man stared back at him before his bold green eyes began to look around the medical bay in confusion. "Ego… Nescio… sum…" His hand shifted to stroke at a silver bracelet on his side. One, twice. It was an oddly ritualistic motion. Ortega took a breath and snapped his fingers trying to get the man to focus.
"Aquí," he half-ordered before continuing. He slipped into the common tongue; if the stranger wasn't Valuan maybe he was from Meridia or one of the frontier outposts. "Look at me and listen, okay? First part should be easy; I'm pretty handsome. Now: do you… understand me? "
It took a moment. The silver-haired man examined Jaime carefully and for a moment, the doctor saw both the innocent fear of someone who was lost and the bestial power of someone who was weighing their actions, and perhaps deciding to fight for their life. Jaime felt worry; for his patient and himself.
"Hey," the doctor cautioned again. "Stay calm. You were in an accident... Understand?"
"I… understand," the man said softly. "Sí, yo hablo, but I… I can't…It's not my..."
"It's alright," Ortega said kindly, placing a hand on the man's shoulder as if that might help him find some semblance of balance in his ongoing confusion. He held up three fingers with his other hand. "Can you tell me how many fingers I'm holding up?"
The man looked tiredly at the fingers. He seemed more exhausted than confused. "Three."
Jaime was about to throw up another combination but he paused as he felt something that he couldn't explain; a sensation, like a hand reaching out that brushed his heart and mind. A nervous flutter, a lightning zap. Clearly the night's events were causing him some anxiety as well. "Now let's just…"
"It was going to be five," the man said with a staring chuckle. "Five fingers next…"
"How did you…?" Jaime did a double take. No, it was just a lucky guess and nothing else. He stood up and walked to a nearby table where a cup of water was waiting. He brought it back to the man, helping him to sit up a bit straighter and handing him the cup. "Here. You must be exhausted…"
"Is… everyone else okay?" the man asked with child-like sincerity before taking a sip.
"We're fine," Ortega offered. Had this stranger really wondered about the safety of everyone on the Aquila? It was noble, and given his current state also a little silly. "You, on the other hand... took quite the beatdown. Your ship was damaged too, but we recovered it."
"I need to…" the man moved as if he was going to stand but Ortega moved over to keep him from wandering off. "The... Elders... They…"
"You need to stay put," Jaime said forcefully, his voice growing serious as he commanded his patient to remain still. "You knocked your head during the incident and probably have a concussion. You seem like a decent fella so the last thing I want you to do is pass out vomiting all over my med bay." He grinned at the man and nodded downward. "Besides, I just got new boots.."
The stranger managed something of a chuckle, rough and airy. "You are a healer, then?"
Jaime nodded. "My name is Jaime Ortega," he explained. "I'm the doctor here. You're on a ship called the Aquila. What about you? Can you remember your name?"
"Rami…" the man managed before wincing in pain. "My name is Rami..."
"Ramirez?" the doctor finished, trying to help the clearly concussed man complete his thought. "Is that your name?"
"Ramirez…" the man repeated the name curiously, pausing to think about the matter with a great deal more seriousness than Jaime imagined. Like he was weighing a decision. He repeated the name again, trying it on like a fresh tunic. "Ramirez…. Yes, that's my name…"
Jaime stood up, resting his hands on his hips and looking at Ramirez. "Well, it's good to meet you, Ramirez," he said warmly. "Congratulations on making it back to the land of the living."
"Congratulations on not killing me, doctor," Ramirez replied with a wry smile. "Still… I... This is very confusing... I was sailing… I could smell the air and feel the wind, and then the cold…"
"Don't try to force yourself to recall anything too quickly," Jaime cautioned. "Memory loss and confusion are common after an injury like yours. Take it slow… Maybe just try small? Are you from Valua?"
"Valua?" Ramirez repeated as if the word meant next to nothing to him at all. "No, I…" There was another oddly strategic pause. "I... live under the Silver Moon, but I can't…"
"So at what point do you realize that he's screwing with you?""Aika, just let him tell the story.""She's not wrong, I think. Doctor, you couldn't have known it but you were giving Rami the perfect way to omit a great deal of truths from you.""I'll be sure to send a letter to my younger self to warn him. Yes, I'm aware now that Ramirez was… taking advantage of my words. But for everything that happened back then, and the trouble this led to... I can't find myself to be angry. Not with him..."Jaime raised a hand to dismiss Ramirez' words, walking over to look closer at the man's green eyes. They were dilated, but within reason for anyone who had just woken up in an unfamiliar med bay. The doctor regarded them closely for a moment; his eyes were almost too perfect. Like the handcrafted work on one of Maria's dolls, with nary a flaw in sight. He ignored the observation before moving away, having noticed that Ramirez was tensing up nervously at his proximity.
"Like I said, friend: worry about it later," he assured Ramirez warmly before taking a seat at his bedside again. "We can sort all this chaos out soon enough. What matters most is that you're alright."
"What does it matter to you?" Ramirez's question was sharp and judgemental, as if he didn't have a high opinion of the doctor in spite of everything else. There was an inherent distrust that extended beyond anything that Jaime could understand. "I'm no one, and you've gone far beyond your responsibilities in tending to me…"
Jaime sighed. "You're not no one," he said. Ramirez's face softened with shame. "You're my patient. So long as you are in this room and on that bed, you are the most important person in the world. To me."
Ramirez scoffed, looking away from the other man. "Those words are too well-practiced," he sniped.
"But true," Jaime replied with equal force. "I'm a doctor. If you want to complain that I'm fussing over you, that's fine, but it's literally my job."
A fatherly chuckle slipped from the med bay's entrance as Lord-Admiral Mendosa regarded the pair. He was leaning casually against the door frame as if he'd just happened to stumble by the goings on instead of making his way down there on purpose. He nodded in the doctor's direction.
"There are two things in the world I would not want to risk," the Lord Admiral offered to Ramirez, speaking to the lad as if they'd been friends for ages. "The Empress' displeasure and the good doctor's annoyance."
He stepped into the room, yellow moonstone light basking down on a fine, midnight blue coat. As if to immediately put Ramirez at ease, he removed the coat. It left the Lord-Admiral in a white vest and dark blue shirt, guarded and noble in rearing but somewhat more casual. He looked at the strange silver-haired man in the bed before him and hummed in thought.
"The men have a bet going," he said with some amusement. "As to your story. Some insist that you are a wayward noble on a pleasure cruise, at least one has suggested you were testing some type of prototype weapon for the Nasreans, and more than a few believe you're some type of ghost that we've taken aboard. Either way, the whispers are that I should toss you overboard to be safe."
Ramirez shifted nervously. "I'm… none of those things," he said meekly.
Mendosa nodded. "I thought not," he offered. "Which leaves you as something of a conundrum that needs unraveling… Doubly so if you're to remain on my ship."
"Your ship?" Ramirez repeated the words as if he hardly understood the notion of ownership. "Are you some type of… king?"
The old man blinked before chortling with laughter. "Do you not recognize a Valuan vessel when you're on one, boy?" he asked carefully. "No, no. I'm not a king. I'm an Admiral in Her Majesty's Armada. My name is Gabriel Mendosa. Perhaps you know of me?"
Ramirez stared at the Lord-Admiral blankly. "Should I?"
"I am the Lord-Admiral of the Armada," Mendosa said, voice oscillating in a mixture of graciousness and some wounded pride. "I command the men on this ship, and throughout the Empire..."
"The Empire," Ramirez repeated. There was a touch of confusion. Valuan somehow seemed unknown to him, as if one of the biggest nations in the world had never been a presence in his mind until that moment even though he'd spoken its mother tongue.. "I see…"
Mendosa looked towards Doctor Ortega. "Is this man… alright?"
Jaime tilted his hand back and forth. "He's not dead," the doctor joked before turning more serious. "But there seems to have been some blunt force trauma. It's affecting his memory…"
"My name is Ramirez…" the silver-haired man said with a small bow of his head. "I was…. traveling on a… pilgrimage but then that creature…"
The Lord-Admiral raised an eyebrow. "What sort of pilgrimage takes a lone man out into the middle of the skies like that? Where were you heading?"
"West," Ramirez replied earnestly, ducking around the rest of the question. "To the land under the Green Moon."
Jaime and Mendosa exchanged immediate glances, and it seemed as if the yellow moonstone lights flickered if only for a moment. The mood didn't exactly darken, but it had shifted. Without a word, Mendosa walked to grab a chair and place it at Ramirez's bedside. He rubbed his face and sat down beside the young man, leaning forward with caution.
"And... how do you know there are lands beneath the Green Moon?" Mendosa asked kindly. "Why, except for the most ardent of explorers, many feel that the skies to the west are unreachable. You were truly going to sail off for lands unknown by your lonesome? That must be some pilgrimage…"
Ramirez looked at the two Valuans with worry. "Have I said something wrong?"
Ortega waved a hand. "No," he offered, eager to diffuse any worry the young man might have. "But most people don't hop into a skiff or… whatever that ship of yours is… and sail towards the edge of the map."
The silver-hair man managed to shift from worry to a cocky smirk with all too much ease. "I'm not most people," he said self-assuredly, sitting up taller before pausing. Like he was sorting things out. Placing facts together. "It's… a custom where I'm from. To see as many moons as possible."
"Where you're from..?" Mendosa asked leadingly. "Is your name not Valuan?"
"Some place under the Silver Moon," Ortega offered. "Which means…"
"That's a Meridian ship?" the Lord-Admiral finished with surprise. It was clear that he didn't quite believe the implication. "Because if you were to ask any of our engineers, they'd be fast to say it's beyond even their knowledge. Is there something you can tell me, Ramirez? About your… pilgrimage?"
The young man hesitated. "It's all… hazy," he admitted after a time. Jaime did not say it, but he worried that something else was going on. Clearly, the Lord-Admiral did as well, but the older man did not push. He merely listened. "All I remember is that I had decided to head west…"
Mendosa sighed, standing up and pacing about the room. "Adventurous," he eventually granted. "But you might have considered something more sensible. That said, you are in luck: the Aquila sails west as we speak. And seeing as you won't be leaving for the time being…"
Ramirez sat up taller. "Am I… a prisoner, then?" His voice was once again touched with that darkness, that part that seemed to assume the worst of Mendosa and the doctor.
"Not at all," the Lord-Admiral replied quickly. "Unless you prefer I toss you in a cell? I suppose that could be arranged, but it would be a shame considering we do have spare quarters…"
"Then what do you mean?" Ramirez asked cautiously.
"First, that you need to rest your ass," Orgeta interjected. "You're not fit for traveling down the hall, let alone through the skies."
Mendosa pointed at the doctor to stress the point before speaking up again. "That, and your ship is in a state of disrepair," the Lord-Admiral explained. "To say nothing of whatever… mixed memories you have. For the time being, you remain on this ship."
Ramirez hesitated. "... And if my ship is repaired, I will be free to leave?" he asked.
"We will deal with that situation as it arises," Mendosa answered. A deft side-step. "But do I intend to force you to stay here? No. That said…" Dark eyes fell upon the man.
"I am not an idiot," he told Ramirez seriously. "In spite of what my daughter might tell me when she feels fit to fuss. In time, I do hope you might recall your memories and when that time comes, I should hope you see the wisdom in sharing those recollections with me."
Ramirez said nothing, sizing up the man before him as if he was taking the measure of a beast. Was he being threatened? The young man's tense body language certainly placed him on the defensive end of the situation.
The Lord-Admiral walked to the exit door and looked at Doctor Ortega. "Tend to our guest,' he said. "And please do help him in the days to come. Perhaps he will be more comfortable with a good companion, yes?" A thinly-veiled way of telling the doctor to essentially spy on Ramirez for the time being.
With that, he was off, leaving the doctor and his charge in the med bay. Ortega rubbed the back of his neck nervously. "So… welcome aboard, Ramirez!"
Ramirez managed a chuckle, smiling at the doctor. "Your Lord-Admiral does not trust me yet," he said. "But I assure you, I don't mean any of you harm. As soon as my ship is repaired, I'll be on my way."
"If that's what you want to do," Ortega said with a shrug. "But I'm of the same mind as the Lord-Admiral. It would be a shame, I think, for this opportunity to slip us all by."
"You need safe travel west," the doctor said. "And if that ship of yours is an indication, there's things we could learn from you. As you feel better and your mind clears, I hope you'll choose to stay with us."
Ramirez smirked. "Perhaps so," he said hopefully. "If anything else, I doubt I'll mind your companionship over the next few days."
Jaime chuckled. "Oh? Such high praise!"
"Well, it's like you said before," Ramirez replied with his own soft trickle of laughter. "You are pretty handsome..."
"Mendosa didn't know what he was dealing with, but he knew something was up..."
"If you recall, son, I felt the same way when we took in Fina. It sounds like Ramirez was only somewhat better at hiding his nature than she was.""I'm surprised he shared anything at all. Our mission was always meant to be a secret, but I suppose he must have felt indebted to you, Doctor. For saving his life...""Right… A debt. Still, for the first few days, he was largely obsessed with getting his ship repaired and leaving us all behind...
From medbay to the lowermost hangar, Ramirez had traded one haunt for another. His first few days were spent recuperating from his injury, which he insisted wasn't as bad as Jaime made it out to be, and sharing what little details of his pilgrimage that he could. His plan had been to cut directly west towards the lands under the Green Moon. The doctor had explained such a task would be all but impossible for a ship like Ramirez's; not even the Aquila would dare press through the windy South Ocean. Instead, they would eventually curve through the North Ocean and then down towards the Green Continent.
Ramirez said that would take too long, although whenever Ortega pushed him on what the cause for being hasty was, the strange man would demur. He feigned ignorance, claiming only that it felt important to complete his journey as quickly as possible. So it was they'd found themselves in the lower hangar again as the silver-haired man examined his recovered ship. Jaime watched at a distance, unsure what help, if any, he could offer in matters of ship repair. Particularly on such a strange craft.
"You've been at this two days straight now," the doctor groaned at Ramirez. "Isn't there anything I can do to help you with this? If you're in that much of a hurry, another pair of hands couldn't hurt."
"Given some of what we're dealing with," Ramirez started, gesturing towards his shimmering silver craft. "You actually could. This ship…. its engine is very particular and unless you know what you're dealing with, it can be dangerous."
"Our engineers didn't even know where to start," the doctor said, reaching into his pocket and producing a cigarette. Keeping a distance, he pulled out a small red moonstone. "Said it wasn't like anything they'd seen before.."
Ramirez raised his hand at the doctor. "I wouldn't do that," he said cautiously.
"Look, I know it's bad for me," Jaime said reflexively. "But I'm down to one or two smokes a week, so I think I'll be fine..,"
"What?" Ramirez asked, turning away from his ship. "No, no. I mean that the red magicks might interfere with what I'm about to try. Assuming the moonwave oscillator is even responding…"
Jaime paused before shrugging in defeat and putting the moonstone away. He kept the cigarette and let it hang idly from his lips. "The moonstone what?"
"Oscillator," Ramirez said with a chuckle. "It's like… Well, I've seen enough of your engines to see how they work. The Aquila takes the magicks from moonstones and uses all their potential energy to power the engines. It's… sloppy but it works." He gestured vaguely around the hangar as if to suggest that, yeah, it was mostly okay but not overly impressive.
"Sloppy?" the doctor asked with a patriotic rise to his voice. "Armada's tech is the most advanced in the world."
"And I just called it sloppy," Ramirez repeated confidently. "What are you gonna do about it, Doctor?"
Jaime chuckled. "Shrug and take your word for it," he said with a smirk. "I'm a doctor, not an engineer. But do pray tell me, oh Meridian bumpkin, what's so sloppy about the Aquila's engines?"
"It's wasteful," Ramirez said seriously before pointing at his ship, gesture reflecting in the craft's gleaming hull armor. "You churn through moonstones but my ship? Takes one; a single highly refined silver moon quartz. The oscillator tunes the stone's waves—think of it like the magicks underneath the magicks—until they vibrate at the right frequency and…"
The doctor blinked. "And… what?"
"And it flies!" Ramirez said happily. It was clear he had a great affection for his craft and the technology behind it. "Or, well, it's technically riding on the moonstone's energy waves. Self-sustaining. Clean."
Ortega shrugged, letting the cigarette fall from his lips as it to stress his lack of understanding before he chuckled. "So you know all this fancy stuff," he started with amusement. "These marvelous moonstone facts and feats of wonder… but you can't remember the name of your home island when I ask you?"
Ramirez shifted guiltily, turning his attention back to his ship. He moved to the strange vessel's backside, having pilfered a crowbar from a nearby workstation, and jabbed the claw into one of the silver armor sheets. "You said it yourself," he offered, pulling at the armor but failing to dislodge it. "It's gonna be awhile before everything comes back. Until then I can just… Just…"
The young man was having a bit of trouble with the plating, it seemed. Jaime couldn't help but grin, Both at Ramirez's enthusiasm but also at the struggle. He was a well-muscled young man, but he clearly hadn't spent much time away from whatever mysterious Silver Moon-shaded island he lived on. Ortega was a little older and a little more well-built—even as a ship's chief physician you had to put in your share of work. He walked over towards where Ramirez was and slipped behind him, placing his own grip on the crowbar. Ramirez paused in place, turning to look at him. He was clearly surprised to be receiving help.
"Hola estúpido," Ortega said with a smirk. "You're smart but really did get kicked around. You're not gonna be flying at full steam yet. So… on three, we do this together…"
Ramirez scoffed, jostling the doctor away. For a moment, Jaime thought he saw a subtle flicker of reddish silver power move through the man's body, almost in the same way that magicked troops did when emboldened by an energizing increm spell. Ramirez gave one solid pull and a sheet of silver armor fell to the hangar's deck.
"Three," the silver-haired man said with a cocky grin. "Or were you going to help too?"
Jaime whistled, taking a step back and clapping playfully. "Alright, I'll admit that I'm impressed," he said. "But as a doctor, it's still my professional opinion that you need to lighten up and accept a bit of help from time to time.'
"You mean I should let some engineer peek at my ship?" Ramirez said, focusing on the wrong point. He frowned at the thought of someone poking at his vessel.
"No," Ortega explained. "I mean that you should let me help you. You're not alone here, Ramirez, and the last thing I want is the Lord-Admiral reprimanding me because you've worked yourself to death."
"Are you really that worried about me?" Ramirez asked with bashfulness, even as he started to peek within the ship's mechanisms and gear. "I'm fine, Doctor..."
The doctor placed nervous hands in his coat. "S'my job to worry..."
"That's appreciated," Ramirez said, fishing about within the silver ship's innards before continuing. "But I'm more worried about… this…"
The young man returned and placed a huge silver moonstone cylinder on the deck, all rough edges shaved off into a mirror's sheen. It was the largest of any sort that Jaime had ever seen, resplendent in argent beauty and fine cut. The quality was beyond anything that even the finest Valuan crystal-smiths could have managed and for a moment, Jaime felt himself completely shocked. Both because of the sheer artistry on display and the way that the crystal somehow managed to complement Ramirez. It was a strange thing, the silver stone giving off a faint glow that flickered and played on the other man's pale features. It was like this new friend was embossed in magickal light. He found himself staring, and Ramirez was staring back.
"Is something wrong?" Ramirez asked, looking chagrined. "I guess you don't really have anything like this around here, do you…"
Jaime smiled appreciatively. His eyes didn't move from the other man. "No, we really don't…"
Ramirez spared the doctor a curious smile before kneeling down beside the crystal. "Hmmm… This is going to be a problem…"
Ortega sauntered over and knelt beside Ramirez and looked at the astounding silver crystal. To his eyes, it was perfect. "Something wrong with it?"
Ramirez pointed at the crystal where the smallest of cracks could be seen, a small serpent's slither down the center of the quartz. "It's that," he said, inviting Jaime to lean closer. "That crack must have been formed when the beast attacked. All the magickal pressure probably caused a cascading effect.."
The doctor reached out to place a hand on the crystal. It was cool like snow and sent a strange shiver through his body. For a moment, the world around him seemed more alive. He sensed, if only for a second, a bright and wonderful glow. He blinked as he returned to reality. "But it still has power..."
"With the wrong kind of pressure?" Ramirez said knowingly. "That marvelous piece of the Silver Moon will shatter entirely. In theory, I could power the ship up right now but it's a risk I'm… not comfortable with."
"What's the solution?" Jaime asked seriously. "Is there any way to mend the crystal?"
Ramirez nodded. "Yes, but it's… complex," he said with some hesitation. "I'd need free access to more than a few supplies. Particularly your arcanist's stores. And it would take time…"
"Months," Ramirez answered. "Unless I really want to risk flying with an unstable oscillator core..."
Jaime looked at Ramirez, thinking something over. "I don't doubt the Lord-Admiral would be willing to allow you the materials you need," he said genuinely. Mendosa was cautious, but the doctor believed his words when he said he wouldn't hold Ramirez against his will. "But by the time that crystal is fixed, we'll be underneath the Green Moon anyway…"
Ramirez shrugged. "I guess you're all stuck with me for a while yet," he said playfully.
The doctor clapped a hand on the other man's shoulder. "To my ears, friend, that doesn't sound too bad. Not too bad at all..."
"So at first he really was stranded… But I don't understand why Rami is still with the Valuans.""It's complicated, miss. As time went on, I think the Aquila felt like a home. After all, we all know the truth now: he was not who he said he was. He was… alone and unsure; in over his head.""Is it different from how you've ended up with us?""Maybe not, Aika. But this isn't Valua.""When you're away from the mainland, away from the Upper City, and away from the work the empire is doing? You forget what it's actually like. It can feel... good, even. Sometimes, you even manage some real fun times."
Ramirez gulped nervously as he and Jaime walked down the hall towards the officer's lounge. His face was screwed-up with nervousness. It had been two months now, working to earn his continued keep on the Aquila while continuing his efforts on the Moon Quartz. Jaime had been right; Mendosa offered Ramirez access to the arcanist stores and whatever he needed to restore his ship… but he also enacted something in exchange. Ramirez could work on his vessel and, should it be properly repaired, he was given leave to depart at any time. However, the Lord-Admiral laid one condition on the table: that the young man share what knowledge he could about the ship's unique systems with some of the Aquila's engineers. Ramirez hesitated at first, but eventually relented once Mendosa explained it would make for safer ships and cleaner skies provided that De Loco and the research division could eventually turn Ramirez's exhaustive notes into a reality. It was a fair exchange, Jaime thought, given that the young man had shelter, food, and the general freedom to move about the ship.
It had also been more than enough to earn the Lord-Admiral's trust and good grace. Which was why the pair of them were currently sauntering towards the officer's lounge to enjoy a night of cards and recreation. Mendosa did his best to hide it, but he enjoyed gambling and throwing his money about; fraternizing with the enlisted men was out of the question, but a few friendly games among the officers? Perhaps it wouldn't be allowed by the most serious Admirals like the First Fleet's Admiral Galcian—whose ruthless demand for perfection required his men focus entirely on their tasks—or the overly moral Second Fleet's Admiral Gregorio… but Mendosa saw no need to cut out recreation from lengthy voyages. It would be some time yet before they reached the Green Continent. Which left time for a card game or two.
Jaime punched Ramirez lightly on the shoulder. "Look lively," he said with a grin. "It's a real honor to be invited to something like this."
Ramirez sighed. "I don't know these games," he said, sounding very much like a child. "What if I embarrass myself? The last thing I want is for the Lord-Admiral to think me a fool."
"After all you've done?" the doctor countered with a chuckle. "The knowledge you've offered and the good company you've provided? There's not a soul on this ship that thinks poorly of you, least of all the Lord-Admiral."
"But these games…"
"I gave you a cheat sheet, right? Jaime said plainly. "Use that if you need to."
"I tossed it out," Ramirez replied. "I memorized all the combinations that can win, but… it's still nothing like any game I've played before."
"If you've memorized it, you'll be fine after a few hands," Jaime said confidently. "Except…"
"Except what?" Ramirez looked at his friend with concern.
"Well, you kinda suck at lying," the doctor said. He placed an arm around the other man and drew him in close. "But after a while you'll start to get the hang of that, too."
"I don't want to become a liar," Ramirez said with genuine concern. "That's... bad!"
"Yes, because you've been so forthcoming with all the details of your little pilgrimage and this village of yours," Jaime said knowingly. "Oh, wait… You still haven't peeped a word about it."
"I still have trouble remembering," Ramirez said shyly. His eyes darted to the side, like the act of looking at Jaime would cause him to let a secret slip. "The injury and all that…"
"Right…" The doctor was not convinced anymore. Whatever the case, it hardly mattered. Tonight was for cards and drinks and laughter, so when they reached the door to the officer's lounge, Jaime threw it open with abandon and entered along with his friend.
It was a fine room with lush red carpeting and a stocked bar to the side brimming with spirits and aged loqua bottles. There were enough tables for officers to carouse and spend their time in relative privacy from the other men. Largely that meant nobles keeping from the lower-class rabble of enlisted soldiers. Jaime was no nobleman, but he'd distinguished himself through enough service to multiple admirals to earn his place in this room. Tonight, it was nearly empty and left only to a few key participants. Lord-Admiral Mendosa already sat at the center table, a glass of blood red loqua before him and a loose deck of cards in his hand that he was idly cutting and riffling. Vice-Captain Alcazar sat to his side, swirling his own glass of loqua for a moment before taking a sip. He was getting on in years but not enough to match Mendosa; there was only the slightest hint of grey to his hair, but it did mean that the card match tonight was something of a generational battle. Two of the old guard against a pair of upstarts eager to show themselves worthy of their place at the table. Or at least that was how Jaime saw it.
Ramirez stepped in and marveled at it all. His guest chambers were fine and certainly comfortable, but this was clearly a cut above anything he'd enjoyed. As the silver-haired man took it all in, Mendosa placed the card deck on the table and clapped his hands once.
"¡Excelente! It looks like we're ready to start," he said. "I've been looking forward to this; it's not often we get a new challenger in here. Although, are you sure you understand the game?"
Ramirez nodded. "Jaime…" He paused. "Doctor Ortega explained it to me."
"I'll grab us some drinks," the doctor said, gesturing for Ramirez to sit down as he walked to the bar to grab fresh loqua. The silver-haired man did so.
"Is this wise?" Vice-Captain Alcazar asked his commander. "With no disrespect meant to our guest, he's… an outsider. The men might get the wrong idea."
"I do understand it's rather the honor to be joining in this game," Ramirez said, no ill-will held in his voice towards the Vice-Captain. Mendosa waved a dismissive hand.
"Your guidance has increased engine efficiency considerably," the Lord-Admiral said. "With the added speed, we'll find ourselves rendezvousing with Lord Galcian in the new world in renewed time. I figured I should honor your help by… defeating you at the card table."
"You think you'll best me?" Ramirez said with a smile. "Perhaps you'll find I'm a quick learner."
At this, Jaime returned with two glasses of loqua and sat beside Ramirez. He slid one of the glasses to his friend. "Am I missing banter?" he asked. "I would hate to miss the banter. Or even…."
"Real stakes?" Mendosa said with a raised eyebrow. He could see where the doctor was going. "I suppose we might do that. Say, one hundred gold to the winner?"
Alcazar shrugged. "It would make things interesting," he agreed. "Though we best keep it within this room, my lord."
Ramirez took a sip of his loqua, which elicited a strange scrunching to his face that Jaime couldn't help but smile at.
"Not a drinker, are we?" Alcazar asked nonplussed. "Thought you were a sailor."
"I've never had… What is this again? Loqua?"
Mendosa stroked his chin, looking at the silver-haired man quizzically. "You're jesting, surely," he said with surprise. "Not even a single glass?"
Ramirez took another sip and seemed to appreciate the taste a little more. "We have nothing like this," he said without much more explanation. "This is… made of a fruit, then? It's so bitter!"
Jaime clapped his friend on the shoulder once more and Ramirez fought to keep his glass from spilling. "It's booze," he said as if that explained everything. "What you're tasting is alcohol."
The Vice-Captain scoffed, looking at Ramirez like he was a stray dog. "Let's limit him to one or two glasses," he said. "Lest you have to nurse the lad in the morning. Now, Ramirez, what about the stakes?"
"You mean the… gold?" the young man asked. "I don't understand it. Why would I want gold?"
The room grew quiet as everyone stared at Ramirez. The silver-haired man demurred a bit, sinking into his chair as if it would swallow him up and hide him from the judgemental eyes burning into him. Mendosa gave an amused chuckle. "Most people use it to buy things, lad."
"I don't… understand."
Jaime kept a steady hand on his friend's shoulder. "You were out traveling without.. gold or.. I mean, it's commerce. You.. have bought something before, right? Tell me you've at least done that."
"Uh, no," Ramirez said nervously. "We just… I mean, I've studied the records, and I know what commerce is but… I thought… Do you all truly put so much stock in a shiny metal? I thought that stopped ages ago."
Mendosa marveled at the man before him. He didn't know cards. He'd never drank loqua. He somehow thought that gold was a thing of the past. "Every conversation with you leads to more questions than answers," he said with surprisingly good cheer. "Perhaps one day you might explain how it is that someone like yourself can even… exist."
Ramirez sighed. "I'm sorry. Things are different where I'm from. It's… very remote," he offered.
Alcazar rubbed his face. "Looks like no stakes tonight," he offered. "I'll just… deal us all in."
"Lower City Hold 'em?" Jaime said, finally withdrawing his hand from Ramirez' shoulder. "It's what Ramirez seemed to grasp the most, if I can speak on his behalf."
Mendosa nodded. "It'll do," he said, making it clear that he was allowing it. "Though it galls me to think that some Lower City rabble somehow figured out such a fine variation of the game. Or so they would say back home..."
At this Alcazar started sliding cards around the table. One, two. One, two. They moved with the slightest swishing sound. He then placed three cards up.
Jack of Moons, King of Anchors, Seven of Anchors. Jaime looked at his own cards: the Seven of Swords and the Two of Swords. He had a pair of sevens at the very least. A fair enough start.
Ramirez looked at Mendosa curiously. "Rabble? I won't pretend to understand Valua well, sir, although the Doctor's explained some things to me now but… that seems a harsh thing to say. If the game is good, does it matter who invented it?"
The Lord-Admiral nodded. "It does," he said coolly, looking at the cards that he was dealt. He gave the slightest smirk. "Not all men are equal, Ramirez. Even if that may be mostly counterbalanced by hard work. The doctor's rise to his station is an example of this "
"It wasn't easy," Jaime offered quietly. He moved back in his seat in an attempt to escape the topic and let it pass. Just smile and nod, right? Ramirez, however, seemed troubled.
"I am surprised to hear you say that," he told Mendosa. Jaime tensed, but the Lord-Admiral nodded as if to consider the admonishment. "People are people, are they not?"
"Yes," Mendosa agreed. "And no. You're right in the sense that someone's ability matters most of all. It is part of what makes the Armada great; with work, anyone can become a fine sailor. But are some men inherently... stronger or more intelligent? Perhaps. Most Valuans would tell you yes. Resoundingly."
The bets went around the table. Ramirez increased aggressively, leaving the Vice-Captain to fold but Jaime and Mendosa to match the bet. The doctor could see that Ramirez was letting his emotions get the better of him but said nothing as the rest of the cards came.
The Five of Moons. The Nine of Anchors. Nothing good enough for Jaime to feel confident raising his bet.
"What of me, then?" Ramirez asked the Lord-Admiral pointedly. "I am not Valuan, yet by your own admission I've improved the function of your ship. A Valuan ship."
"You are the type of person that proves the most stubborn nobles wrong," Mendosa said seriously. It was clear that he had a growing affection for Ramirez. "Capable, intelligent, curious."
"Don't mistake me, Ramirez," he continued. "The most disappointing thing about this variation of cards coming from the Lower City is that plenty of foolish men back home will rob themselves of enjoying a perfectly fine game."
Alcazar gestured to the table. "Showdown, gentlemen."
Ramirez flipped his cards: the Seven and Ace of Moons. "I believe that means I have a pair, and that other one is the highest of the cards," he said with a smile. "That's rather good I gather."
"It is," Mendosa said. "But being "rather good" is not enough if you want to win."
The Lord-Admiral flipped his cards: the Queen of Anchors and the Ten of Hearts. He gestured to the rest of the cards. "I appear to have a straight," he said. "You let your desire to best me in that hand blind you to what was on the table."
Jaime chuckled. "Having good cards is nice," he started. "But it's also a game of trickery and reading the other person. Knowing if they're bluffing about having a strong position… or, as our Lord-Admiral just did… seeing when you can lead someone on in order to win."
"He was goading you," Alcazar added. "Just a little."
Mendosa smirked confidently. "You are not a subtle man, Ramirez," he offered. "So I will be forward with you in turn. I care what is in a man's mind and heart more than the blood in his veins. But…"
Ramirez paused. "But… what?"
"Take, for instance, these people we've received reports of in the new world," the Lord-Admiral. "Lord Galcian says they are simple people with an odd culture and a war-like disposition. Barely functional ships and prayers to strange gods. Birds and golden men. Superstitious sorts."
He gestured about the resplendent room they were all in. "Perhaps they might offer some lessons, but our might speaks for itself, yes? We are superior people, in a way."
"I'm at least hoping the new world and its people could offer new medicines," Jaime offered. "There's promise in the unexplored and unsettled."
"You sound a little bit like the Elders," Ramirez said mysteriously to Mendosa; his face held a dark hint of disapproval. "Those back at my village did not… have a high opinion of outsiders. Yet, in my travels you've all proven your kindness. Giving me aid and treating me well... A sign that they were wrong in their assessment."
Mendosa nodded. "A duty we take on gladly," he said. "Now! Another hand of cards! And remember, you must read the other people at the table."
"Read," Ramirez repeated with an interesting smile. "Yes, I suppose I could do that…"
"He was unstoppable after that... Hardly lost a single hand. Hell, it didn't even bother us more than it was damn amusing to watch the tables turn so hard.""He was reading your minds most likely. Cheating. Rami never liked losing games.""Wait, wait, wait. Silvites can do that?! Have you… been reading our minds?!""No, Aika. Well, uh… actually, I saw your intent back on the train in Valua, but that's it. My people have... A sense for emotions and energies that is different from other peoples. The way I feel the world isn't quite the same as you do.""Cheating, eh? Little bastard always was a bundle of contradictions. So kind, but… I never would have expected him to cheat. Even if he could be brutal and pragmatic in other ways.""What?""I remember the first time we finally saw him fight. I wish I could forget it..."
The bird was dead. Jaime had wondered if the long journey would bring unique hardships for Mendosa's children but this wasn't exactly what he had in mind. He'd been tending to an injured gunnery sergeant in the medical bay—nothing major, the man had just slipped on deck—when both Piastol and Ramirez walked in. The young man looked somewhat chagrined as he led the girl by the hand. To hear his friend tell it, he'd been wandering the halls when something seemed amiss. It had been only moments later when the Lord-Admiral's daughter left her chambers with teary eyes and stumbled headlong into Ramirez. Her pet dove Sofía had taken a turn for the worse; Jaime didn't know if it was the climate or something else but whatever the case it seemed that the bird had been struggling for a time.
"She needs a doctor," Piastol told Ramirez. "She's… so sick, and I don't…She's sleeping and needs help..."
Ramirez did his best to assure the young lady that her pet was going to be fine before guiding her down to the medical bay to fetch Doctor Ortega. He tried to explain that he wasn't really a doctor for animals, something which Piastol huffily insisted she was aware of but she was desperate for anyone who could help Sofía. The bird was a gift from their deceased mother, a lovely and sweet piece of Valua that delighted her and her little sister Maria. So after tending to his patient, the trio had returned to the sisters' private chambers where Maria sat on the floor, both aware that something was wrong but still young enough that perhaps she didn't entirely understand the circumstances. She was playing with a porcelain doll in a fine purple dress and peered up curiously as the doctor made his way over to Sofía's cage.
And that was when he realized that the bird was dead. The soft, white bird sat in a stiff slumber and Jaime found himself caught between a rock and the Lord-Admiral's daughter. The last thing he wanted to do was upset the poor girl, but there was quite literally nothing he could do. Not that there had been anything in the first place, but at least with the possibility of the bird breathing, he might pretend to do some good.
The bird was dead. There was nothing to be done, so he finally turned towards Piastol and gave her the most sympathetic smile he could muster before gesturing to the bed where the pair of them sat down. Maria bouncily played with her doll in the meantime, and Ramirez remained by the cage.
"Piastol," the doctor began. "How long was Sofía sick?"
The young girl sniffed a little. "She stopped singing a while ago," she admitted sadly. It was clear that she was starting to realize the situation too. "But I would whistle and she'd whistle a little back. I thought it was helping..."
Jaime nodded. "It was a kind thing you were doing," he said softly. "I try to make people feel better when they're sick too. Maybe next time I'll whistle a bit. But, listen..."
The young woman gave a mournful sigh. "She's dead, isn't she?" the girl asked. "I thought maybe you'd be able to help, but it's like… It's like with mom. Doctors couldn't help, either."
Maria looked up at her sister from her spot at the floor. "Sofi got tired?"
Piastol stood up and scooped her little sister up. Maria gave a bit of a giggle before the older sister returned to the bed beside Jaime. "She got really tired," Piastol said sweetly. "So she's gonna nap for a long time now. And she's so tired that Doctor Ortega's gonna take her to a nice place where she'll rest up."
Maria kicked her legs a little. "No! Sofi stays here! Sofi stays here!"
Jaime reached out and gave the girl's blonde hair a little ruffle. "I know you love Sofi," he started. "But she's gotta go away for a while."
"No! Sofi stays here!"
Piastol exhaled a shaky breath before managing a smile of her own. "It'll be okay, Maria," she swore. "It's just like Mom. One day, we'll all be together again."
"You shouldn't lie," Ramirez said by the cage. He was leaning up to look at the dove. "At least about that sort of thing."
"Ramirez!" Jaime snapped. "She's a child!"
Piastol hopped her feet and swatted at Ramirez. "Cut it out! Cut it out! Get away from Sofía! You… jerk!"
Maria gasped. "Bad word!" she said with shock. "Don't say it, Pia!"
Ramirez backed away from Piastol, but far from looking at her with a serious adult's gaze or some sort of annoyance at her swatting, he beamed at her and held his hands up. "Just… wait a moment," he said kindly. "Because I think Sofía's going to be okay..."
Jaime stood up. "Ramirez, what are you talking about?This is not time for jo-"
His friend raised a hand and looked at him seriously, "I need you both to trust me for a moment, okay? I promise that everything is going to be okay."
There was something about the way that he said it that made both Jaime and Piastol pause. An earnestness, an inherent empathy and connection that was difficult to explain but undeniably overpowering. Piastol stopped her fussing and Jaime nodded back at his friend. Whatever he had in mind, the doctor had no clue what could be done to help the bird, but he trusted Ramirez. In that moment, he realized that he'd come to trust him as completely as a fellow officer or perhaps even a brother. There was something about Ramirez that compelled Jaime, a magnetism that gave the other man power and control over him. It seemed impossible that Ramirez could help the dove, but Jaime also believed in Ramirez. He dared to believe that the man could do the impossible.
Ramirez carefully opened the bird's cage and took its small body in his hands. He closed his eyes and focused, muttering an incantation under his breath that Jaime could not hear. With no warning, the air around his friend began to swirl as rivulets of silver light charged about his body. The majority coalesced into his hands where the bird lay, a gorgeous argent light that embossed the animal and pulsed like a heartbeat.
The room grew still. All was magickal energy and amazement as the silver light pulsed faster and a smaller warmth began to gather within Sofía. It shone, the light cascading about the room like a sunrise. Jaime watched as it brought a beautiful new glow to his friend's face and felt his heart skip a beat as he looked at Ramirez and saw the impossible. It was gorgeous. He was gorgeous, and Jaime's soul began to swell with such affection and bright astonishment that he didn't know what to do. There was nothing to do but watch as the glow softened around the bird and Ramirez whistled softly at it. Like a sing-song note from a child; perhaps it wasn't any different than the whistling Piastol tried before.
There was a pause, and then movement as the dove fluttered back to life and rested in Ramirez's hand. It eventually alighted on his finger and he extended it towards Piastol. The young girl reached out in wonder and Sofía hopped to her awaiting fingers. It gave a whistle, bright and full of renewed life. Ramirez smiled.
"See?" he said as if nothing miraculous had just occurred. "Little Sofi just needed a little help to wake up again. She was okay after all."
"Sofi's better! Sofi's gonna sing!" Maria clapped her hands happily.
"That's right," Ramirez said proudly. "Everything's going to be okay."
Jaime was dumbstruck. It was hard to find words. Both because of the shocking display of magick he'd just seen and because of the fire burning in his heart as he regarded Ramirez. The moment had been so beautiful, the gesture so kind that he didn't know what to make of it. He was staring, and like any time he stared Ramirez caught him doing so and smiled back. An odd and soft upturn that seemed packed with implications and unspoken things.
Ramirez lifted a finger to his lips and looked around the room. "Let's try to be really secret about this for now," he said warmly. "We don't want anyone bothering Sofi, right?"
As if to mock Ramirez' suggestion, a sudden blast racketed through the skies outside of the Aquila leading to a hissing that culminated in a powerful crack as something struck the ship and sent it rocking back and forth. Sofía panicked and squawked in Pisatol's hand, flapping away and perching atop the bed's canopy. Maria clung to her sister with a yell as yet another explosion burst outside, leading to another uncomfortable pause before the ship rocked again with a thunderous clank against its hull.
Jaime looked at Ramirez in shock. "That was… cannon-fire!"
Another blast, another hiss, and another hit. In the halls, an alarm began to blare loudly. Ramirez closed his eyes for a moment and seemed to feel out the situation before looking at his friend gravely.
"We need to get to the deck," he said with a surety that shook the doctor's soul. As if he knew exactly what was going to happen next. "Quickly!"
Jaime nodded. "That alarm means we're under attack," he noted. "But out here? So far from the mainland? There's only one thing it could be..."
"Pirates," Piastol noted with fear before leaping off her bed and rushing to the corner of the room where a small rapier sat. She began to affix a belt and a scabbard over her dress. "We should get going."
Jaime raised a hand, looking at the child in shock. "What the hell are you doing?"
Maria kicked her feet on the bed. "Bad word!"
Her sister looked at the doctor. "Helping?" she said as if it was obvious. "I've been receiving training in fencing with my father's permission. I shall contribute to any defense of the ship."
"What you will do," Jaime said seriously. "Is stay here, lock the door and look after your sister."
"I will do no su-"
Ramirez placed a hand on the girl's shoulder and she paused. "Please," he said, and Piastol somehow relaxed. "You're very brave, but the doctor's told me about the sort of people that sail in these skies; fighting is dangerous and best left to the soldiers. And us..."
The girl hesitated before stamping her foot. "Fine! Fine! Fine!"
Piastol clearly didn't care to be patronized, but she spared a look to her sister and that seemed to seal her decision. It was enough for Ramirez, who was already running out of the room. Jaime spun about and rushed after his friend. They ran out into the hall where a flurry of figures darted back and forth to their positions. Armored soldiers and half-prepared men rushed to stations. Jaime clapped one of the soldiers to get his attention. The armor-clad soldier stopped for a moment.
"What is it?!" the doctor asked over the whining of the alarm. "What's happening?"
"Pirates!" came the reply. "Under a black flag. Moving in for hooks and a raid. We're going to kick the engines and see if we can't buck them off!"
With that, the soldier darted away and Ramirez also continued running. Jaime had never seen his friend move with such purpose as that moment but there was something inspiring about it as the silver-haired man rushed through the halls and up stairs towards the deck. The doctor was no fighter but he followed regardless, knowing that at the very least he might be able to draw any wounded away from whatever battle awaited above and tend to their wounds. He felt the green moonstone in his pocket and hoped it would be enough; there was not enough time to rush to the medbay and grab his bag if he wanted to. As they ran, the ship gave a rocking motion as the engines flared in an attempt to toss away any hooks. From the clattering sounds above, it seemed of little use. The pair ran and ran until they came to the door to the deck and rushed outside. Neither was prepared for what awaited.
It was chaos and blood. A motley but well-traveled barque hovered above the Aquila with ropes and hooks attached. Jaime could just see a sable flag with a bone-hand insignia clutching at a painted dagger. He had no clue what crew that signified but he didn't care. It meant Black Pirates, who would not rest until all was death and rot and smoke. At least Blue Rogues left survivors; this crew would not. And by the looks of it, they were already making it their sworn duty to leave as many corpses as they could. The doctor watched as his crewmen clashed with a ragged mixture of foul-looking cutthroats, blades crashing and pistols bursting. For every pirate that fell, it seems that two Valuans clattered to the deck in return.
"Doctor! Doctor!" A voice called and brought him back to his senses. It was the Lord-Admiral. Mendosa was locked, blades caught in a cross with a wretched-looking pirate, but he had enough sense to peek at Jaime for the merest of seconds. The Lord-Admiral shoved his enemy away and plunged his sword into the man's gut, twisting to ensure the deed was done. "The wounded! Tend to the wounded!"
Jaime nearly slipped as he felt a fallen soldier's hand pulled at her pant leg, stumbling downwards to focus on his fellow Valuan. He pulled out his green moonstone and began to channel magic; blood poured from a wound to the man's side but slowly the magicks began to mend it. Yet even in his work, a thought pulled at his mind: Ramirez. He'd lost track of his friend in the commotion. As the doctor continued to channel what magicks he could into the wounded man, he craned his head and quickly found Ramirez. But where he had expected, perhaps, to see his friend also helping the wounded, the silver-haired man stood firmly amid the deck with a brilliantly shining silver sword in his hand. It wasn't like anything that he'd seen before, but before he could even ponder where Ramirez had seemingly conjured it from, his friend began to rush into the fray.
Words ill-described the absolute mastery of Ramirez's movements as he slid into the battle and cut down his first opponent—a long-haired pirate occupied in battle with a faltering Valuan private—with a single clean stroke. It was a rising slash that dragged through the man's side and kicked up a gout of blood. Vicious, disciplined, and utterly contemptuous of the enemy. Yet it was also balletic and beautiful, the clear culmination of a lifetime's work of training.
And it didn't stop. From one foe to the next, Ramirez dashed and dived, slipping under swords and evading pistol shots with such an astonishing grace that it felt unreal. It was as if time was slower around Ramirez; the world rippled and gave the silver-haired man extra seconds to adjust to whatever threat was in his way. He rolled under another foe's slash and leapt up in a slash and erupted a spray of blood from his neck. Another shot a pistol and Ramirez, with that strange flickering of otherworldliness that made it seem as if he was both there and not there, evaded it with a little more than the smallest motion to his side. The pirate produced another pistol and fired but Ramirez did the unthinkable and merely cut at the shot, somehow slicing through it and the man with another firm stroke. One by one, men fell and the mood on the deck shifted from chaotic duels and frantic struggles until nearly everyone stood transfixed—either by amazement or fear—as Ramirez reached each pirate and dispatched them with such a minuscule amount of effort that he might as well have been batting leaves in the wind.
One slash, a fresh corpse. The next, a fountain of blood and another soul dispatched. Before anyone could apprehend what had truly happened, the pirates were little more than bodies and bit. Not a single survivor was left to beg for clemency or cry out at the pale devil that had arrived to cast each of them into the foulest depths of Hell. Because that was what Ramirez had become: death. And no one could escape. It was, to all who saw it, the most terrifying display they'd ever seen.
And at the center of it all was Ramirez. His white clothes were pure red, drenched in the blood of fool pirates who invaded the wrong ship. His face, so perfectly kind and friendly, was caked in fresh smears. In passing from one end of the deck to the other, he had completely transformed from the sweet young man who asked curious questions and had little sense of the wider world into a wild beast fresh on the hunt.
He turned to look at Lord-Admiral Mendosa and, somehow, underneath the blood, he smiled that same warm smile he'd flashed countless times. Like a friendly dog eager for approval.
"I believe that is the last of them," he said happily. "Shall we tend to our injured?"
"He was trained to be a warrior. Like I was trained to be a priestess.""Back in Valua, on the train, he moved so fast that I could barely block in time.""Things really changed after that. Mendosa saw Ramirez in a new light. We all did. Before, everyone thought he was just… strange. Then? He was a hero, unstoppable and unlike any of us. The Lord-Admiral saw that and realized Ramirez had the makings of an astounding officer.""What happened?""He made the offer: join the Armada. Serve and, in serving, find purpose. Justice. The Armada could bring peace to the skies, to the world. Especially with men like Ramirez. And after some thought? He accepted."
"But why? Was he giving up on our mission? To find the crystals.""I think maybe he saw a different path to that goal. He had always been eager to impress us. Joining the Armada? It meant serving Mendosa and Ramirez saw something in him. Something deeply important and reassuring that I could only begin to understand."
Ramirez knelt before the Lord-Admiral, head bowed in supplication and face brimming with pride unlike anything Jaime had seen on the young man before. Clad in the fine armor of a Valuan officer, his friend looked entirely unlike he had all those months ago when they'd brought him down into the med bay for treatment. The steel glinted with a bluish finish, the mixed alloys coming together into a resplendent shell of martial surety worthy of an Imperial soldier. Ramirez's left shoulder bore a large pauldron upon which the figure of two golden dragons—the twin Valuan representatives of order and justice—spun about each other and interlinked into a powerful coiled symbol of all things mighty. A brown ribbon with three blue stripes draped on his chest plate, denoting the rank Ramirez was about to receive. Jaime could not help but smile; his curious friend had grown so much in the intervening months and here—as the Aquilia finally drew within a few days of the Green Continent—he had made a lasting commitment to the Armada.
Mendosa unsheathed the saber at his side and held its fine yellow moonstone blade beside Ramirez's shoulder. "By my authority as Lord-Admiral of the Imperial Armada, chief of our nation's armed forces, and lord representative of her Majesty Empress Teodora the First, I hereby extend this offer: kneel as you are and, should you so choose, rise as a soldier of the great Valuan homeland. Will you accept this charge?"
Ramirez bowed his head deeper. "I will."
"And will you swear to uphold the values of order and justice, the laws of our nation, and carry out your duties with the conduct becoming of an officer in Her Majesty's fleet?"
"Do you commit yourself to the mission to bring order and prosperity to all known lands, peace to the skies, and safe rule to all peoples? Do you commit yourself to the expansion of our nation and the prosperity of those that would join in our great union?"
Mendosa moved his blade ceremonially from one of Ramirez' shoulders to the next. "Then as Lord-Admiral of Valua, I give you an order: rise as a proud soldier of Her Majesty."
Ramirez stood. He seemed a foot taller; the perfect model of a Valuan soldier. The yellow moonstone lamps of the Lord-Admiral's audience chamber seemed to brighten as Ramirez stood before his new lord and commander. "I do so gladly," he said, and by the Moons he truly meant it.
"Then by my authority I further endow you with the rank of First-Lieutenant for pre-existing services rendered to this ship and her crew," Mendosa said, sheathing his sword. "But! Let us drop ceremony so that I can speak plainly."
"As you wish, Lord-Admiral," Ramirez said, smiling at Mendosa. The Lord-Admiral looked at the young man before him and Jaime saw flickers of pride and satisfaction sweep through the older man's face.
"You came onto this ship as a stranger," Mendosa started. "But with each passing day, you proved yourself a friend to all aboard. You've shared valuable knowledge that will serve the Armada well, and in the most dire times you risked your life and faced our enemies. Your conduct had been an example that everyone can admire, and if I may say so: I am very proud of how far you've come in such a short time."
At the side of the room, Vice-Captain Alcazar smiled at his new crewmate. "It is an honor," he said genuinely. "Your skills will be of great aid, and while I'm sure some of the men may grouse about the... unconventionall nature of your incorporation into the crew, none would ever doubt your skill."
Ramirez chuckled. "You both flatter me," he said happily. "I've only ever followed the example of those around me." He gestured to Jaime. "For instance, the doctor's kindness and hospitality."
Jaime walked over and gave Ramirez a friendly shove on his pauldron. "Don't blame me for your good behavior," he joked. "But if you wanna keep thanking me for patching you up that day we reeled you in, that's fine."
Mendosa regarded the two fondly, gesturing between them. "You're both some of the finest young men I've ever known," he said warmly. "Pillars of our values. I am…" The Lord-Admiral hesitated.
"What is it?" Jaime asked. It was rare for the Lord-Admiral to lose his word. It took a moment but Mendosa stepped forward and placed a hand on each of them.
"Everyone on this ship is important to me," he said seriously before glancing between them both. "But, if I may be so bold, even in this short journey to the new world… I have come to see you as dearly as my own daughters. You are good men, and I am glad you are here with us."
Ramirez stood nearly speechless, stammering to find words. "My lord, I've only done as I...
Alcazar hazarded a step toward the Lord-Admiral. "Not to interrupt," he said, absolutely interrupting, "But we must plan for the arrival in Ixa'taka, my lord. If we are on schedule, then Admiral Galcian's messenger is mere hours out."
Mendosa took a step back from the younger men. "Of course, of course," he intoned before shrugging dramatically at the men. "The Lord-Admiral's work is never done. Now, go. Enjoy a day's rest, as once we arrive under the Green Moon there will be much work to do."
The Lord-Admiral and Vice-Captain departed the chamber, leaving Ramirez and Jaime. The doctor eyed his friend up and down, making a show of it as if to make it clear he was very impressed. Which he was, but it was also fun to tease a little bit.
"So," he said leadingly. "How does it feel, First-Lieutenant?"
Ramirez chuckled, shifting a bit in his armor and thinking a moment before answering. "Good," he said. "I can't say this is anything I expected to happen when I left on my journey, but it feels nice."
Jaime raised an eyebrow. "On your pilgrimage, you mean? Is that something you've just... given up on now? The Lord-Admiral swayed you that much, did he?"
"It's not quite like that," Ramirez said carefully. "I think… this is also the best way for me to see the world, and what rests under the Moons." The silver-haired man hesitated, almost as if he wanted to say something else but left it at that.
"Certainly a bit safer than sailing by your lonesome," Jaime offered. "And for what it's worth, I feel as the Lord-Admiral does. You are… a good man, Ramirez and I'm..."
"Well, you know," Jaime started a bit sheepishly. "You've become as good a friend as I could ask. And I, uh… well,it's not much, but I wanted to celebrate today so I got you a gift. Or, well… I had a thing and I wanted to give it to you. S'not much but I hope you'll like it."
"A gift?" Ramirez said with surprise before demurring a bit. "Jaime, your friendship and company has been more than enough. When I first left my home, my Elders warned me. They said… people out in the skies couldn't be trusted. That it was a world of… deceitful people. Savage and violent."
"They really thought that?" Jaime asked. "S'a bit harsh..."
"They were wrong," Ramirez said firmly. "You made me realize that. The way you care for other people, the way you pour yourself into helping them. And then there was the Lord-Admiral… He didn't need to take me in but he did and I thought, you know… if the world has people like you and him in it.."
"It's not so bad?" Jaime finished.
"That's right," Ramirez said. "Because it's not. So here I am. Ready to serve, and maybe just..."
"Maybe what?" Jaime asked. The tables were turning back and forth between them. Each leaving things unsaid.
"It's nothing," Ramirez replied. "What was this gift?"
Jaime blinked. "Oh, right!" He had already forgotten. "It's something my father gave me when I first entered into the service, and since you're doing the same thing I figured you might like it. Bit of a lucky charm. Keep you safe and all that. Not that you need it much…"
He reached into the pocket of his coat and extended his hand. Sat within it was a finely detailed silver statue of an eagle, one that might match the proud design on the Aquila's flag. It balanced perfectly in Jaime's palm, wings perpetually spread as if it were soaring. Proud and free. He extended his hand towards Ramirez.
"It's not much," Jaime said sheepishly. "But it felt fitting to mark the occasion somehow. You know well enough now how dangerous the skies are. So if that little thing can protect you some? It'd bring me some peace of mind."
Ramirez reached out and held the small statue in his hand, looking at it oddly. "I don't know if I've ever really gotten a gift," he said. "Not quite like this at least. I had a friend at home and we'd make things for each other but this is…"
He smiled at the other man. "It's lovely," he said genuinely. "I'll keep right by my side."
Jaime grinned back. "Glad you like it, he managed before nodding to the door. "Now c'mon. There's a bottle of loqua somewhere with our names on it."
"You really cared for him.""I did.""Yet he's so different now… What happened? What made Rami change?""A betrayal. Something that shook the two of us. We thought our journey towards the west would lead to something worthwhile. New knowledge, new peoples. But that's not what Valua was interested in. We were there for one thing: the land. Moonstones and ore. Resources.""That surprised you? It's Valua; all they know how to do is take.""Maybe, Vyse. But neither Ramirez nor myself realized what that really meant..."
First Admiral Galcian had been a busy man. Sent ahead of the Lord-Admiral to set up forward operations, he'd not only assembled numerous outposts in the months the First Fleet had been under the Green Moon but completely beaten back most of the native Ixa'takan people into the center of the continent. What had once been a burgeoning nation of villages and settlements had fallen easily against the First Fleet's might.
To hear it told, while the fighting had not been overly difficult for the First Fleet it had been brutal for the native Ixa'takans. Lord Galcian had earned a stern reputation during the Valua-Nasr War as a tactician of utmost efficiency, and he'd levied that intellect as well as the fleet's superior fire power to completely level the villages of anyone who dared to oppose his expansion. The Aquila had arrived into what was functionally the aftermath of a war without any sense of actual "war". Bombardment campaigns, night raids, and overwhelming force had led to a conflict so one-sided that calling it a "conflict" was being charitable. The Valuan Empire boasted of two great callings: justice and order. It seemed that Lord Galcian only cared to create the latter.
Jaime didn't know what to make of it. The Green Continent itself was beautiful, but the journey had taken a turn he'd never anticipated. When he'd taken his post with Lord-Admiral Mendosa, it was partly because he wanted to move away from Valua and see the unknown. He imagined first contacts with new people and exchanges that would better the world. Yes, perhaps there would be danger and conflict but in the end there would be new relationships forged, new land brought into the empire, and a brighter future for everyone. But each new tour into the Ixa'takan continent seemed tailor made to disprove his hopes.
It had been two words that hurt him the most, however. Two words that signaled the end of everything. They had all gathered for a further briefing from Lord Galcian. The admiral had spent more than a few days outlining each of his campaigns and the territories they'd gathered. It was over dinner that the words came, and they stung so much that he felt like he'd been slapped…
"Well done," Lord-Admiral Mendosa said, taking a sip of loqua and nodding approvingly at Lord Galcian from his end of the table. "With the initial work done, we might move on to other matters."
Glacian smirked at the other end of the table. His sharp face was a monument to power itself, as if the pure Valuan ideal had been chiseled out of one of the continent's rocky peaks. He returned the Lord-Admiral's nod.
"It was easy work," he said coolly. "There's a particularly rich mountain in the area that we've begun to mine. Plenty of ore and stones. Within a month's time, the shipyard will be producing at full capacity and with the skies secure from the Ixa'takan raiders, moonstone shipments will proceed accordingly.
Mendosa paused, looking at Galcian curiously. "That's ahead of schedule," he noted with surprise. "How have you achieved so much in so short a time?"
"The majority of our labor force is now composed of natives," Galcian said dismissively before sipping his glass of loqua. "Dissidents, warriors who dared attack our ships. Death seemed a waste, after all, when they might make themselves useful."
Jaime narrowed his eyes at Galcian, working to process what the admiral had just said. "You're saying that the mines are…. What? Being worked by prisoners of war? Forced labor?"
Galcian looked at the doctor with about as much regard as he might give a stray huskra. "Spare the dramatics, Doctor," he said. "The mainland is facing an energy crisis, and this land is prime for the taking. Who else was going to do the work? You?"
The doctor didn't know what to say. He simply glared at Galcian.
It was at this that Ramirez finally broke a silence he'd been holding for most of the meal. It was clear by the furrows on his face that he was also struggling to understand the situation entirely. For the last few days, throughout their tour of the continent, he'd been far from his usual self. Galcian's admittance seemed to breath a fresh fervor in him, even if it was dulled by confusion.
"I'm trying to make sure I understand, my lord," he said cautiously. "You're admitting to using slaves to mine moonstones and ore." He grew more frantic as he tossed his words at Galcian. "Held against their will?!"
Galcian shrugged. "If you wish to use that word."
"That's beyond barbaric!" Ramirez yelled back. "That sort of practice was eventually outlawed in the Old World, even. There's no justification for it!"
"I was sent here to provide for our home nation," Galcian explained without a change in demeanor. "Unless…" He looked back towards the head of the table. "Lord-Admiral, who is this man again and where did he come from?"
Mendosa finished a bite of steak, which had been seasoned with spices taken from the Ixa'takan mainland. He brought a napkin to his face and wiped. He sighed before continuing.
"This is my First-Lieutenant. Ramirez," he said with a gesture to his subordinate. "You must excuse his forward behavior. He is from Meridia and is relatively new to the Armada. We encountered him traveling in the Mid Ocean all by himself and rescued him from peril. "
"Where in Meridia are you from?" Galcian said with a darkly curious look at Ramirez.
"I… cannot recall," he said cautiously. "Only a few of our customs and other ways..."
Jaime raised a hand to interject. "There was some memory loss due to the trauma he endured amid our rescue attempt," he explained, trying to help his friend. "But he's long since proven himself a perfect officer."
Galcian glanced at Mendosa. "This is the man responsible for those engine upgrades I've heard reports about?"
"The very same," Mendosa answered. "And he's as skilled a swordsman as he is intelligent. You must forgive him for the breach of etiquette. For what it is worth, I share his surprise. It is a rather… drastic solution to the labor problem, Admiral."
"Drastic, my lord?" Ramirez repeated. He looked at Mendosa as if he'd never seen the man before. "It is deeply immoral! You cannot condone it surely!"
Mendosa paused, casting his gaze between Ramirez and Galcian. On one end, a bright and reliable sailor with so much potential and love of life. On the other, a dark but undeniably effective soldier of the Empire. In some ways, both were of equal value. Those making decisions needed to steel themselves against sentiment and do what was best for their nation. Those carrying out the orders needed good hearts to guide themselves… and sometimes to guide the decision-makers on track. Jaime could see the calculus play out on Mendosa's face. It was a pull between two different extremes that, while not overly obvious to the observer, was clear to the doctor. He'd known the Lord-Admiral long enough to see the subtleties. Eventually, Mendosa shook his head.
"I am a father," he eventually said to his subordinate. "I've done my best to safeguard my daughters from the harsher realities of the world. Because, Ramirez, there are harsh realities. However, because I am a father… my heart aches deeply at this news."
He turned an impassive stare at Galcian, who returned it with his characteristic smirk. "I would like to inspect these mines at the earlier convenience, Admiral," he half-commanded. "While we must see to our duties in this land, it is imperative we not lose ourselves. If the conditions are dire, I will need to raise them with the Empress herself."
Galcian nodded. "Of course," he said darkly. "I will arrange a tour with haste. I'm sure that it will ease your worries, Lord-Admiral."
There was something unspoken passing between the two. Jaime could just see the hints of it before it disappeared and Mendosa turned back to Ramirez. "Let me handle this," he said with a fatherly touch.
The young man softened, sighing with relief. "Yes, my lord," he said. "Thank you."
"Then," Mendosa said, standing up. "Let us adjourn for the evening. I still need to go over some maps of the mainland with the Vice-Captain. Galcian, let's see about that tour. As early as tomorrow."
The rest of those at the table stood as the Lord-Admiral stepped away from his chair. Galcian seemed to consider the arrangement. "I see no reason why it cannot be done," he said coolly. "If that is what you wish."
"It is," the Lord-Admiral said before walking towards the door out of the dining room and leaving. Ramirez immediately made his way around the table to glare at Galcian.
"How could even think such practices would be acceptable?" he snarled at the taller man. "It's despicable! Debases everything we do! To even consider it, you'd need to have a… a black heart!"
Jaime quickly made his way over and tried to pull his friend away from Galcian. Ramirez was nearly in the man's face. "Ramirez," he said firmly. "That's enough. You can't talk to an admiral like that."
Ramirez quickly shook his friend's hand off. "Stay out of this," he rebuked with such fervor that the doctor was stunned in place. "It was bad enough learning how this land was… subjugated, but this is too much. I hope you're prepared to make changes, Admiral. Because I know Mendosa won't let it stand as is."
Galcian looked at Ramirez with deep disdain and a hint of disappointment. Like he was appraising a ship whose engine was under performing. "Mendosa?" he uttered. "Fool…"
"What did you say?!" Ramirez snapped. For a moment, it looked like he might attack the Admiral. A deep, bestial fuming contorted his face. "How dare you speak ill of the Lord-Admiral! I won't stand here and allow you to mock him!"
Galcian didn't move. No part of him seemed worried about Ramirez. Feralisks don't worry about what huskra pups barked about after all. "I wasn't calling him a fool," he corrected. "I meant you, boy. If you think a single word the Lord-Admiral uttered in that room tonight was genuine then you are a fool. Don't give anyone so much blind trust. Ever."
Ramirez paused. "What.. are you talking about? Who should I trust if not the Lord-Admiral? You!?"
"No one," Galcian said with a disarming honesty. Stern but with purpose; like a teacher taking a firm hand with a student. "People cannot be trusted. Eventually, they will disappoint you. They will always betray your trust within enough time. People are fickle, emotional, and contradictory. There is only one certain thing in this world…"
"What?" Ramirez almost sounded interested in the answer.
"Power," Galcian replied. "Once you have it, power will never betray you. It fits itself perfectly to your desires like water in a glass. If your thirst is not quenched, you can simply acquire more. I search and conquer these lands in the pursuit of power. If strength can be found here, I will make it mine."
"At any cost," Ramirez spat back. If it was meant to be an insult, Galcian didn't mind.
"One day, you'll understand," he told Ramirez darkly. "One day, your disappointment will be so complete that even if you don't want to see it, the lesson will be obvious."
He looked the man up and down. This time, he seemed interested. "On that day," he said. "I will be waiting for you…"
"Galcian tried that power speech on me when I was getting tortured in Valua. Arrogant bastard's been playing the game for a long time… Jaime, you make it sound like the kid was swayed.""I think a seed was certainly planted. Ramirez slowly grew more skeptical of the Lord-Admiral and started looking into his affairs. I was still… foolish. I thought things could change.""You know the homeland, Jaime. Folks will say they love you as they snake a dagger across your throat. What woke you both up?""We saw the mines… and how Mendosa had done nothing but make them worse."
The Valuans had renamed it "Moonstone Mountain" and there was no end to the bodies. Be it the string of workers chained to each other and forced to march deeper and deeper into the mountain depths, or the ditches packed with the sick and dead, the mines were brimming with native Ixa'takans. It was sweat and blood of a misery roiling with machine efficiency, churning out as many carcasses as raw resources. It turned out that the price of one raw moonstone from the Green Continent was anywhere from two to five workers' lives. Either from cave-ins or sickness or the raw brutality of their Valuan "hosts".
Jaime could scarcely comprehend it. If anything else, the raw rate of worker deaths would have meant a gradually slowing production pace. At least that's what his rational mind said; this wasn't sustainable, so even as a venture for resources it seemed horrendous. Of course, that was not what pained him. He was a doctor; he had learned how to stitch soldiers back together and beat back disease in the hope of saving lives. He had studied rudimentary magicks with the goal of bringing healing and respite to others. And he had foolishly joined in Mendosa's journey to the west with the equally held hopes of beating back new diseases as well as conquering old ones. He dared to imagine himself as the frontier doctors establishing communications with new peoples and gaining their knowledge so that it could be integrated into a better understanding of how to save lives. The journey to the Green Continent, the lands under the healing moon, had always been brimming with the promise of a better tomorrow.
He'd been wrong. So horribly and terribly wrong. Whatever good intentions he had, all he was and all he'd ever been was a cog in the machine of empire and conquest. An agent of expansion, consumption, and colonization. His idealism had blinded him to the truth: to serve Valuan was to harm the world, and he'd taken a vow to do no harm. No matter what he did now, that oath was broken. Galcian had cracked the spine of Ixa'taka and, against all hope, Lord-Admiral Mendosa had done nothing to remedy the injury in the weeks onward from his promise to tend to the situation.
Ramirez walked by his side and took in all in with a similar shock and anguish. His friend, skilled warrior and kind-hearted adventurer, was surely contending with the same hard truth that he was. They were serving the wrong master. There was no coming back from this. There was no moral way to continue wearing a Valuan uniform so long as it stood for slavery and death. Jaime spared a glance at his friend and saw him looking around with such heartache that all he wanted to do was pull Ramirez into an embrace, and to lie. Tell him there must have been some mistake. Tell him that this wouldn't be allowed to continue. But he knew those would be lies. The gears of empire would grind and spin, pummeling mountains to dust and spitting out corpses all the while.
It had been something of a miracle they were able to tour the facilities at all. Both Mendosa and Galcian had kept them strictly limited to essential personnel, but through some force of persuasion that Jaime didn't want to guess at—forgery, bribes, threats of death—Ramirez had managed to secure access to the compound without the Lord-Admiral's direct approval. It was a good thing in the end, but that didn't stop it from hurting. And as he watched his friend, Jaime froze in place as some sort of deeper force pressured at him until his comrade began to cry silent tears. As if he was feeling every stroke of the lash or the fading lives of the emaciated. For a moment, Jaime worried that he might actually vomit.
"I don't…. understand," Ramirez said with a tortured croak of his voice. Around the pair, men and women behind bars—caged and torn from their families—reached out towards them. "How is this possible? The Lord-Admiral said he would fix it…"
Somewhere in the distance, a lash cracked and a yell rang out. Ramirez gasped and doubled over, his face turning white with pain. "I can't! Jaime!"
He began to stagger, but the doctor rushed forward to catch his friend in his arms and hold him up. "Breathe," he advised, still not entirely sure what was happening. It wasn't a mere panic attack; there was something deeper at play. "I know. It's not supposed to be anything like this. I can't believe any of it."
Ramirez's eyes darted around until he saw something that seemed to jolt him like an electres spell. Still holding his friend on his feet, Jaime turned to see it as well. For a second, he didn't believe it because it seemed too egregious to be true. Huddled in one of the cells, mixed among the workers, were children. It wasn't just dissident or rebels being taken; the mines were being worked by anyone the Valuans could abduct.
"Moons… He can't know about this," Jaime insisted. He shook his head as if that was enough to make it all go away. "There's no way the Lord-Admiral knows about this and allows it."
At that, Ramirez pushed away from his friend and walked to the edge of the prisoner's cage, kneeling down and looking at them all with care. To Jaime's surprise, he started to talk to them in their native language. It obviously surprised the Ixa'takans as well, who looked at each other with shock. Eventually, one of them came forward—a man so thin that he was mostly skin and bones—and began to converse with Ramirez. Jaime looked around for any patrolling guards, but for the moment, everything seemed clear. He couldn't understand the man's words or anything Ramirez said in reply nor did he have any sense of how his friend was able to speak with the workers in their own language, but with each passing moment it was clear that the story was only getting worse. Ramirez's face darkened as word by word, his idealism was chipped away. The armor he'd wrapped himself in, the fundamental decency that he'd embodied, was crumbling.
Eventually, he thanked the man and focused on the group. With a swirl of green and silver light, he guided magicks towards them that, while unable to save them, would at least keep them alive longer and give them a chance of lasting. It was far more advanced than anything he'd seen Ramirez cast before, but there was little time for questions about that particular matter. Not when others were more pressing.
"What did he say?" the doctor asked quietly. "What's going on?"
Ramirez sighed and sounded multiple years older. "He says that since the 'Grand One's" arrival, their hours have gotten longer... And that the excess stones have been carried away by strange men answering only to him. Which means…"
"Mendosa's working them even harder than Galcian was," Jaime finished in disbelief. "And, what? Keeping the extra stones for himself? Embezzlement and stealing?"
"I think so," Ramirez said, breath shaking with anger. "Jaime, he lied to us. He said he would fix this and all he did was make it worse!"
The doctor took a breath to steady himself. "What do we do?"
"Something," Ramirez said desperately. "Anything. We… confront him, and if we must we tell the Empress. The two of us can't stop this alone, but maybe we can take sense to him or make him see..."
Jaime doubted it was possible, but he nodded all the same. "Okay. When that time comes, we'll do it together. I'll be right at your side. I promise..."
"It was all coming to a head. The lies were too much for either of us. The Aquila started the journey back to Valua. Faster than last time. Me and Ramirez? We prepared to hold Mendosa to his word. We still held on to some hope that he would listen to us. For Ramirez? It was something bigger than one man…
I knew he was different, but I never pried or pushed. Not when the technology he shared was beyond anything we knew, not in that moment where he breathed life back into Sofía. He wasn't Meridian. That much was clear, and so on that night… before we confronted the Lord-Admiral... We shared one last moment of peace and he told me everything…"
The dark Mid Ocean skies held a peculiar vanilla glint to it as the Aquila passed into a curious path somewhere between Meridia and Valua. To the north, telltale gloom and golden light teased of the Valuan mainland and the Yellow Moon's glow. To the south, the faded argent hues of the Silver Moon lit in the ship's wake. A curious phenomenon that many scientists claimed shouldn't be possible at all but the world nevertheless seemed content to grace its people with. Those odd moments between moons, where the air was thick with magick and mystery.
Jaime took it all in, leaning on the deck's railing and letting the smoke from a fresh cigarette list off into the sky. Sure, he was a doctor and told everyone else to keep away from the habit, but tonight wasn't a normal night. Tonight, they'd settle things with Mendosa.
For a good stretch of time, Jaime stood alone on the deck and simply focused on his cigarette. The slightly acrid smell, the surprisingly soothing taste of tobacco and the way it seemed to steady his growing nerves. He knew they were doing the right thing, the decent thing, but a horrible part of his heart couldn't help but consider what it would mean to fail. What discipline would await two soldiers facing down the commander of not just their ship but the whole of the nation's armed forces? Maybe Mendosa would understand or perhaps he would rage. Jaime didn't know what to think anymore. The man who had once been like a second father to him seemed impossibly distant and unknowable. The only constant he had now was Ramirez.
He was a good man. Perhaps, Jaime thought, he was the best man he'd ever known. Curious and bright, intelligent and honest. Everything he did, Ramirez did with all of his heart. It was admirable, and the thing that Jaime loved most about his friend, but it was also that same quality that had allowed him to be so wounded back in Ixa'taka. Sometimes having a big heart just meant it was easier for the world to stab it. Because Galcian's words had held true in some respect; they had been let down and betrayed. The two of them had believed so deeply in Mendosa's decency—Jaime still did to some degree—that the idea he'd condone anything they saw in the mines, let alone profit off it, seemed impossible.
But impossible was just a word, and the hearts of even the finest men were full of shadowed places. The smoke from his cigarette lifted higher, upwards and into the winds. For a moment, Jaime felt envious. If only he could close his eyes, fade into smoke, and escape this nightmare. He thought about it, the fluttering wind, and felt a touch in his mind for the briefest of moments that he could hardly explain.
"Not giving up on me, are you?" Ramirez's voice called quietly from behind him. He joined his friend and also leaned on the railing. "Because I can't do it alone, Jaime. I need you."
"Not giving up," he answered. "Just wondering what might've been or, I guess what could be..."
Ramirez lifted an eyebrow. "What's that mean?"
The doctor looked at his friend seriously, sharing a thought that he'd considered for some time. "We could just leave," he said. Ramirez seemed stunned into silence, eyes widened at Jaime's brazen suggestion.. "If that's what we've been aiding, if that's the Empire we serve… maybe we should just leave. I know folks who've done it."
"Where would we go?" Ramirez asked. Earnest but certainly doubtful of Jaime's suggestion.
Jaime chuckled. "We?" he asked. "Bold of you to assume we're a pair after this. Maybe I plan to ditch your ass."
Ramirez laughed in return though it didn't last. "I know you won't," he said. "I know… a lot of things that are on your mind right now, Jaime."
"I'm a predictable fella," the doctor said, missing Ramirez's point. "I suspect we both feel the same about plenty of things right now. Unsure… afraid…"
The silver-haired man hesitated for a moment before reaching out and taking Jaime's hand in his own, fingers interlinking. "It's not what I mean," he said. "What I mean is that I know why you want to run and I know why you won't actually ditch me."
Jaime paused but didn't remove his hand from Ramirez's own. "I worry what happens if I say it," he replied. "But, uh… yeah we've been through a lot, and there's always been one thing there through it all. You've been a pillar. My pillar."
Ramirez looked at Jaime and smiled sadly. "We can't run though," he said seriously. "It wouldn't be right. We owe it to ourselves and to those people to do the right thing. And if we're lucky, all will be well…"
The doctor scoffed. "You don't really believe that," he said. "Even if you want to believe it. In a future. For yourself. Hell, for us…"
"There's a lot of things I should tell you, Jaime," Ramirez offered, finally withdrawing his hand and walking a bit further from his friend. "I don't know where to start."
Jaime watched Ramirez in the Silver Moon light and the slightest hints of the Yellow Moon's glow. He knew which one of those looked better on his friend and it wasn't the electric jolts of the Valuan moon.
He shrugged. "Maybe now is a good time to tell me who you are," Jaime said knowingly. "Who you really are. Seeing as tonight could be the last chance for that."
Ramirez hesitated before turning to look at Jaime and smiled. He nodded. "Okay," he started nervously. His voice was shaking. "I wanted to tell you anyway; I'm not from Meridia. I'm not from anywhere on your map."
"What's that even mean?" Jaime countered. "Some place hidden or uncharted?"
Ramirez looked up into the sky until he spotted a small light moving through the sky. He seemed to focus quite hard on it. "There," he said. "I lived there. Above all of you. Because… I am a Silvite."
There was a pause as Jaime tried to understand the implication of it all. "That's not funny," he said. "You're not… I mean, you can't be. The Silvites are gone."
No, we're not. We survived, and there is so much you… people… down here don't know.Jaime heard the voice in his mind and stepped back from Ramirez in a mixture of fear and confusion. "You can read our minds? Speak to us without words?" he asked, voice shaking. "You… Have you been able to read my intent through the entire journey?"
Ramirez shook his head. "I've tried not to," he said earnestly. "The mind is a sanctuary, or so we are taught. Else I might've ventured upon the Lord-Admiral's intention earlier." "But…"
His face grew warm with adoration, heavy-lidded and comfortable. "I do know your mind, Jaime. The feelings that flare up; I sense them as keenly as you might feel a roaring fireplace."
The Silvite smiled at his friend. "It's flattering," he said warmly. "That you regard me like that. And I think… I feel that too..."
Jaime looked away from his friend, producing another cigarette to smoke. He felt like his heart was frozen in disbelief; each put off the cigarette was an attempt to come back to reality from the heaven he'd found himself in. Ramirez walked over and lit it with a snap of his fingers and watched as Jaime sucked inwards before exhaling.
"Why are you… telling me all this? Why now?" It was a fair question; if it were any other man being told this information they might be shocked or shaken. They could even tell the wrong people about it.
"Because when I left to come here, my Elders told me it was a world that couldn't be saved," he explained. "Full of savage people and wicked hearts but that's not true. Mendosa's heart can be fixed, and you…" His eyes filled with a desperate need that the doctor couldn't explain. "Jaime, you're the proof I need. The singular fact that put everything they told me to a lie."
He walked forward and drew closer to his friend. "Brave, kind, intelligent," he intoned. "Wonderful. Astounding proof that there are people in this world that are far greater than my Elders could have imagined. Proof that they don't need to resolve themselves to dire plans. This world can be saved! Because it made people like you!"
Jaime breathed out another puff from his cigarette. A glance at his friend revealed a man possessed by burdens and desires that Jaime could hardly comprehend. And his heart was swelling with too much raw emotion to ask the important questions.
"I won't pretend to understand all this, but you're pinning a lot on me, friend. And on Mendosa, too. You know there's a version of tonight that doesn't go well…"
"I know," Ramirez said gravely before his voice began to lift in excitement. "But when I'm with you, I feel like I can do anything. I… care about you, Jaime. Perhaps I even love you, the way that you want."
The doctor couldn't hide his cynicism. He shook his head and scoffed. "Do you love me? Or do you only want to love me? Or do you love what I represent?"
Ramirez hesitated before speaking up even more firmly than ever. "You matter to me," he said as if that was enough. It wasn't, but Jaime let him continue. In case there was more.
"I was… first sent here to find something called the Moon Crystals. Old work relics that have immense power. I thought to do it alone but then I thought that by joining the Armada…"
"So it was just a means to an end?" Jaime asked with a disappointed glance up and down his friend. He was trying to see Ramriez for who he really was but each passing sentence seemed to add a new and unknowable layer to the man. "All of this was a trick? The kindness and friendship and loyalty was just a ruse to get closer to these crystals?"
"No," Ramirez said. "Because I started to believe in Mendosa.. And care more and more about you…"
Jaime sighed and said nothing. It was too much to take in. There were too many questions to ask but instead he let it all pass.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I don't know what happens next," Ramirez said nervously. Quiet and entirely vulnerable. "And I'm very scared but I also think you've more than earned my honestly, Jaime. So I'm telling you as much as I can."
The doctor blew out a little bit of smoke and offered his cigarette to his friend. A tiny bit of solace in the middle of a lot of tension; the end simmered red in the night with the slightest burning. It was a small thing, but it was as best a gesture he could manage as he tried to sort through the spiral of feelings that were overtaking him. He wanted to let everything go, embrace Ramirez, and just fade away with him. It was never meant to reach this point and while Ramirez held some optimism, Jaime was just cynical enough now that he wasn't so sure that anything could be done. The Empire was too big and the Lord-Admiral stood to benefit so much from his plots that even the finest of words seemed impossibly small in the grand scheme of things. No, he thought, it was still better to run and leave it all behind.
"Here," he said, still holding the cigarette to his friend. "To steady yourself before we go talk to him."
Ramirez reached out and took the cigarette, looking at it curiously. It was clear that he didn't quite know what to do with it, so he just imitated Jaime. He lifted it lightly to his lips, letting it hang for a moment before inhaling. It was, one could say, a "heroic" inhalation. Far too deep for anyone who'd never smoked before. His face twisted like he'd eaten a bitter Ixa'takan berry before he gave a powerful cough that blasted a puff of smoke into the night.
"I don't… think this is going to calm me much," he managed through all his choking before handing the cigarette back to Jaime. "Even if I appreciate the gesture..."
Jaime shrugged, taking the cigarette back to his own lips and tasting, perhaps for real or just in his mind, the places where Ramirez's lips had touched it too. The light additions of moisture that hinted at another smoker. He let the sinful stick linger on his lips a bit longer than usual before inhaling and finally releasing some smoke through his nostrils. Satisfied, he flicked the cigarette off the deck and into the night.
"Well, then," he started with surprising focus. "I suppose we tend to this first and then see where life leads us after."
Ramirez smiled. Jaime couldn't have known it was to be the last moment he ever saw his friend's beaming face. Eventually it faded and Ramirez started to walk toward the hatch leading inside. "Keep close," he said fervently. "Together, I'm sure we can fix this."
It didn't take too long to reach the bridge. They knew the Aquila backwards and forwards, having drank, laughed, fought, bled, and rested in its various halls and rooms for little over an entire year. It wasn't just some ship; it was home. Its eagle-emblazoned standard wasn't merely some flag; it was their sigil. And Lord-Admiral Mendosa wasn't merely their commander. No, he had become their father. And while children and soldiers both were often told to do little more than listen to their seniors, it was also the path of any honest sailor or good son to speak truth to the powers that be. To step in and offer their own guidance, rank or other proprietary be damned. For whatever fears and doubts the pair held in their hearts, they stepped confidently onto Aquila's bridge. Because it was their duty to speak up.
The scene was calm. While crewmen worked at their various stations and a few guards held their mandatory positions, the Lord-Admiral laughed happily in his captain's chair as he bounced Maria up and down on his knee. The young girl giggled with happiness. "Home, home!"
Mendoza smiled warmly. "Yes, we'll be home soon, Maria," he said happily. "What if we celebrated with a trip to the sweet shop? You and Piastol both behaved so well during the trip. She told me that you both even kept up with your studies."
Maria nodded. "Some of the books were boring," she said with a bit of a pout. "But I learned numbers now!"
Jaime ventured a step toward the Lord-Admiral, and Ramirez kept at his side. Maria spotted them and waved. "Hi, Mister Doctor! Hi, Mister Magick Man!"
The Lord-Admiral laughed again. "Now, Maria," he started. "His name is Ramirez."
"But he saved Sofi! She's gonna be so happy to be home!"
Mendosa nodded to his daughter, but lifted her off his knee. The girl stepped to the side, giving one more wave to the two men. "I'm certain she will be," he said, before looking at Jaime and Ramirez seriously. "What is this all about, boys? I don't recall sending for you."
Jaime nodded, almost bowing, before he spoke. "You didn't," he said carefully. "But seeing as we're nearing the mainland, the Lieutenant and I wished to have a word with you."
The Lord-Admiral spread his arms gregariously. "Of course," he said. "What's on your minds?"
"You lied to us," Ramirez said bitterly and suddenly the room grew cold. The Lord-Admiral, for his part, stood impassively. So much so that he gave Galcian a run for his gold in that department. "In Ixa'taka, you told Admiral Galcian that you would look at the conditions in the mines."
Mendosa inhaled for a moment. "So I did," he replied. "And saw nothing that needed to be remedied."
Ramirez's eyes went wide. "Nothing that needed to be remedied?!"
Jaime did his best to play the diplomat, but it was clear that everyone in the room was watching them now. It wasn't a conversation; it was a scene. If he wasn't careful with his words, Ramirez's passions could turn things down an even more dire path. So he spoke as calmly as he could manage. Firm but not disrespectful.
"The workers were mistreated by the dozens," Jaime said gravely. "Overexhaustion, malnutrition, dehydration. To say nothing of the injuries the guards levied on them."
Ramirez looked at Mendosa, his eyes full of a deep and pleading pain. "There were children, sir."
"What of it?" the Lord-Admiral said. The self-same man who had just been doting on his daughter. "Valua is in the midst of an energy crisis. We need any and all the moonstones we can get, and the Armada will need to grow in preparation of further expansions."
"Didn't you say you'd talk to the Empress?" Jaime asked. "If the conditions were dire? Sir, they are dire! It can't continue. You'll have as many dead men as moonstones!"
"If you won't say anything," Ramirez said darkly. "We'll be forced to. About all of it. The mines, the conditions… and how you've been taking moonstones for your own use."
That triggered a seismic shift in the Lord-Admiral's demeanor unlike anything Jaime had seen before. He'd seen the old man stern or even watch him discipline men for shoddily performing duties, but he'd never seen Mendosa angry nor had he ever seen the man look threatened. This was both; a sense that one of his hands had been overplayed and a raw anger that Ramirez dared call him on the bet. His eyes narrowed and he glared at the silver-haired man.
"You'd be signing my death warrant, foolish boy," he spat. He pointed sharply at Ramirez. "You think you know the way of the world, but I promise you that the mainland is far harsher than these skies. And all I was doing… and I ever have been doing… is thinking of my daughters' future."
Ramirez stood firm. "You'd sacrifice your dignity and betray your oaths," he started incredulously. "To secure a legacy for your children that was earned through slavery and death? Every bit of gold earned through your plot is tainted. You'd be giving them a legacy of blood."
Mendosa scoffed. "As if you could understand," he said coldly. "What do you know of love? I would die for my children and, yes… I would kill for them. Be it with my own hands or through the churn of a thousand bodies in those mines. Anything to secure their future."
Near Mendosa's side, Maria realized she was being talked about but didn't understand what was going on. "Father…?"
The Lord-Admiral sighed. It was wracked with pain, as if he truly didn't want to do what followed. Still, he held firm and looked around the room towards the guards. "I didn't want to do this," he said painfully before gesturing for the guards to move. "But I won't have you get in the way of my family's future..."
Mendosa nodded to the guards. "Kill them both," he said. "We can toss the bodies overboard after."
Jaime's heart felt like it was gripped by a vise. The air grew cold. Literally. Something about the order had broken the natural state of affairs as the very air on the Aquila bridge seemed to charge with magickal energies. It took a moment before Jaime realized that Ramirez was the cause. He was nearly doubled over with fury. Mendosa's order had broken something essential within his friend. A decent man looked down and when Ramirez brought his gaze up to look at Mendosa, someone else was staring at the Lord-Admiral. An animal, a warrior unlike anything known to this world. This was the man who killed down pirates months ago, except his viciousness had lept tenfold. A monster, a killer. Teary-eyed but so far beyond anyone else in the room. Superior, and deeply dangerous. He gave a horrid yell, like a raging feralisk, which boomed around the room.
"You were supposed to be proof that this world was worth saving!" he cried out. "A decent man! A good man! A light that held steady even in the worst winds!"
The Silvite made a gesture with his hands and somehow, though Jaime couldn't understand it, he watched as the silver bracelet on Ramirez' wrist melted into a strange nothingness before reforming into a blade. The guards all began to close in on their position.
"You know, I should thank you," Ramirez said with a tortured laugh. "For teaching me one final lesson: where there is light…. There is darkness!"
The soldier cut his sword but instead of striking down the Lord-Admiral, he seemed to rend the very fabric of the world before simply stepping into that strange nothingness and disappearing. Everyone in the room stood shocked. They'd never seen any magicks like that. Was it some type of illusory purple magick spell? No, there would have been signs. For a moment, Jaime felt exposed. If one of the guards wanted to rush forward and end his life, they easily could. But the sheer confusion and fear that Ramirez's display created was enough to keep anyone from approaching the doctor.
The first scream was the shortest. Across the room, Ramirez simply stepped through that strange veil between this world and whatever other space he was retreating to and reappeared before one of the armored guards. He slashed ferociously and the man gurgled a pathetic scream before crumpling to the floor where a deep cut to his neck began to gush blood. If Ramirez had cut even a little harder, the head would have been severed completely. Jaime looked at his friend in abject horror; the silver-haired man's eyes were red with tears and fury. He cut between worlds again and disappeared.
The next guard had enough time to fire off a pistol shot, but Ramirez had already batted their rifle upwards. The bullet smacked into the ceiling with a PING! as the Silvite's sword plunged into his stomach, before being pulled upwards with such force as to nearly bisect the man. The wall behind him wasn't just splattered with a few droplets of blood; it was coated in the man's vitals. The soldier fell to his knees but didn't topple over; a corpse left in a strange supplication.
It continued. Another cut, another disappearance. This time, Ramirez appeared above the guard nearest Jaime and fell down on him. His strange sword stabbed down through the man's neck and collarbone with a slam that crumpled him to the floor. The doctor didn't dare think about where the blade must have ended up or how far its length had simply slipped downwards through lung and heart and whatever else was in the way.
So it went. One man had both hands cut off on Ramirez's reappearance before the man lurched up to stab through his neck. Another bore a blunted assault as the Silvite slammed him against the wall and smashed the hilt of his sword into his helmet, again and again and again until there was little more than dented metal and a pulverized skull. Vice-Captain Alcazar fell last, at least out of the rank and file. Ramirez didn't even spare him a single glance as he dove out of a portal and cut across the man's belly, letting the land slowly come to terms with his death as he tumbled to the ground.
Jaime didn't know what to say. He could only watch as Ramirez, drenched in red and having coated the bridge with blood and viscera, slowly walked toward the Lord-Admiral. Mendosa stumbled backwards.
"Please… I beg of you…"
"I BELIEVED IN YOU!" Ramirez cried out with such horrible pain in his voice that Jaime thought he might scream himself into a million little pieces. Near Mendosa's side, Maria cowered as the horrible monster before her marched towards her father. "I GAVE YOU EVERYTHING! YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO PROVE THEM WRONG! PROVE THAT THIS WORLD WAS NOT EVERYTHING THEY SAID!"The slightest pause before Ramirez lurched forward and stabbed the Lord-Admiral. Then he did it again and again and again and again. More and more and more. With each new yell of pain, he stabbed. Blood kicked up and sprayed, covering Jaime and Maria in the process.
"ANIMAL! TRAITOR! FILTH! LIAR!"
Whatever was left of Mendosa faded quickly. He reached towards his daughter if only for a moment before his arm grew too heavy and fell. Maria simply stared. A child exposed to such carnage had two responses: wail or break entirely. The young girl had fallen into the latter stat; shocked and confused beyond measure. Jaime rushed to her side, as if that might offer some comfort.
His eyes fixed themselves on Ramirez. He was his friend and yet he also wasn't. The man before him was a creature resembling Ramirez. All he could do was utter the question:
"What have you done?"
It was as if Jaime's words snapped Ramirez back to reality. Like the creature darting around the room and butchering men had simply been some monster wearing the Silvite's face. Yet, it had been him. His dear and sweet friend had contorted himself into something unfathomable. The silver-haired man, doused in blood still, looked down at Mendosa's corpse and began to laugh quietly. A small "ha" that built into a disbelieving string that then grew louder and louder as some unknowable pain grabbed his heart in a vice and squeezed. As if he was only just realizing what happened, Ramirez gave a scream.
As he did, the air on the bridge grew hot this time and Jaime watched as fire began to swirl about his friend. The young man's rage was mixing with his magickal power into a cocktail of flame and heat that kept building as his scream continued. There was no way that it was going to hold. The heat grew and various sundries around the room burst into flames as a result. Flags and standards, bodies and more. And it kept building. It grew and grew and grew until Jaime knew that it wouldn't hold forever.
Ramirez's scream built to a full banshees' wail and all the fire and pain that had been swirling around him exploded outwards. In his final moments, Jaime dived forward to grab Maria and turn himself to block the bursting flames. He felt his back begin to blister and burn before an explosion unlike anything he'd ever known blasted through the bridge and the rest of the ship. Still holding Maria, he was tossed across the bridge and into a nearby console. He managed to see, as the world grew dark, that Maria was still alive although the bridge… no, the blown out mockery that was once the bridge burned and the entire Aquila began to ignite as well.
Then, unable to hold consciousness, Jaime fell into a panicked and inescapable darkness.
"Suppose that's where our part of the tale picks up. Isn't that right, Jaime?""Considering you were the first person I saw after I woke up? Yeah, I'd say so.""Wait, Dad. Doc... Are you saying that rescue from all those years ago was because Ramirez let his magicks go wild? We assumed there was an engine explosion.""Magicks are deeply interwoven with emotions. My people are raised to believe in many virtues: control and temperance are among them. But Rami always had a big heart, so there's part of me that's… not surprised to hear about this now. Even if it hurts to hear to the tale""He thought he'd lost everything. The moment he stabbed Mendosa, the man I… loved was gone.""And by the time we arrived, the ship was already unsalvageable..."
The Albatross was on a regular patrol, sailing easily forward before a backblast of wind rocked the ship and a huge gout of red fire raged into existence ahead of them. The explosion had rocked through the northern edge of Meridia with such ferocity that Dyne wondered if hostilities had somehow kicked off again between Valua and Nasr. It was such a thunderously loud burst of noise and rushing wind that his mind flashed back to the war and the sheer carnage it had brought. He'd seen cities bombarded into crags, battleships ripped apart by experimental cannon blasts, and entire divisions sink to the depths. Whatever just happened in the middle of the skies—he dared to think of them as his skies—held the same undercurrent of violence. Heat and fire and anger. Violence.
Suddenly, the bridge was brimming with life. Vice-Captain Briggs leveled out the rocking galleon as Dyne turned to Landis. The grizzled man stood at a map-covered table, shaking his head in surprise as if it might bring him back to reality. Everyone's eyes were ringing, and they weren't even that close to whatever happened.
"Landis!" Dyne called although the man didn't seem to hear. "Landis! Edward, pull it together and focus!"
The stout man gave one more blink before his gaze found Dyne. "Aye," he said as he regarded the maps, already anticipating his captain's question. He took a moment to spare a look at a compass. "S'a hell of a burst but that came ahead of us. Northwest, I'd say. Maybe cannon fire?"
"Too loud for that," Dyne said before turning back to Briggs. "Turn us towards it. Whatever's happened, we need eyes on. If we're lucky, 's'nothing worse than Valuans blowing themselves up with their own toys."
"I could help, Dad!" an eager voice called out to the side of the bridge. A boy no more than ten years old leaned against a shelf and regarded the Albatross' crew with a smile far too cocky for his age. He shook his head, trying to toss some ruffled brown hair out of his eyes.
"On this ship, Vyse, it's Captain," Dyne corrected seriously. "Get it right or else maybe we'll quit your bridge observation hours and replace them with deck-swabbing."
"You want eyes on, right?" the boy countered, too savvy for his own age. "Lemme find Ben and we'll take a look!"
Dyne sighed before giving his son a defeated nod. "Both of you up the nest," he said, holding up a hand to stop his son before he ran off the bridge. "Vyse? The enthusiasm is good but remember who gives orders on a ship."
"The captain, that's right," Dyne said seriously. "Now head off. I want a report from you and Ben the second you see anything."
Vyse scampered from the bridge. Vice-Captain Briggs glanced over his shoulder at Captain Dyne, smirking but with just enough disapproval that Dyne shrugged back plaintively. "You give him too much leeway, Victor," the Vice-Captain said as he turned the ship's wheel and guided her forward. "If it was anyone else pushing like that, you'd shut it down."
"Boy will learn," Dyne said cautiously. "Maybe running around and seeing each part of the ship will settle him some. 'Sides, that's Ben's problem now for a minute because Vyse was right that we need…"
If there had been any actual need for a lookout or other such scouting ahead before this moment, there wasn't anymore. Landis' adjusted heading and Briggs' swift sailing had brought the commotion's source into focus. No more than maybe a quarter of league on their new course was a ship caught in what looked like Hell itself. A once-glimmering Valuan battleship listed tiredly in the sky, burning hot red fire and billowing smoke as it descended lower and lower to the cloud layer. It was a powerful ship, and judging from the random explosion they'd heard only a few possibilities existed to explain its sudden precarity. A massive moonstone engine backfire, munitions explosion, or maybe the Moons had hated it so much as to smite the ship with magickal might. It hardly mattered. The vessel, which might have been a danger to the Albatross, was nothing more than a burning wreck.
Then something fell off the side. And then another something. Then a few more. Then a lifeboat shot off into the distance. Then another falling object. It took a moment, but Dyne narrowed his eyes as he realized what was happening; they were abandoning ship. It wasn't falling cargo or wreckage he saw; some of the somethings were men who decided it was better to risk the depths of the sky than the burning flames on the ship.
"Captain," a nervous voice came over the speaking horn. Ben, the young but reliable lookout. "It's a ship. There's a ship on fire…"
"We see it," Dyne called back over the horn. "Looks Valuan. Got a better eye on the make?"
"Razorbeak, sir," came the reply. "It's got those old-fashioned rear stabilizers. S'old… which means…"
"Is it flying a flag?" Dyne asked before Ben could finish. "Anything with a sigil or crest?"
"I can see it, Dad!" Vyse's voice chirped back. Dyne wondered if the boy would ever manage to call him captain by his own choice. "Looks like an eagle..."
The atmosphere on the bridge changed as both Briggs and Landis looked at the captain. Dyne's demeanor changed as well; that model and that sigil? They were looking at Mendosa's ship, the flagship of the entire Imperial Armada. The Aquila. For a brief and tantalizing moment, Dyne contemplated letting it burn. Why shouldn't he? The Lord-Admiral stance towards piracy following the war had been aggressive, as had his strikes against any remaining Nasr rebels. Mendosa was reputed to be a man of fair enough character—Second Admiral Gregorio had spoken fondly of him in passing during one of the moments he came to examine the Pyxis—but those policies had left a lot of good men and women hanging by the noose. When Ada and Malik dared venture back Nasrad, it was Mendosa's patrols that had left Aika an orphan.
Dyne could enact justice for their deaths and countless others if he was willing to let the Aquila burn. But he wasn't going to let the Aquila burn; not while he might save a single soul on it. Because for all the joy it would bring him to watch the Valuan's Lord-Admiral burn, Blue Rogues lived by a code. He didn't know who else was on that ship but he'd served in the Armada. If he did nothing but watch, he knew that good men and women would die. So instead, he took a deep breath knowing that his two most trusted men were watching him in this moment and called back over the horn.
"Alright, you two," he started. "I want you to come down from the next and start gathering every damned pirate on this ship for a rescue operation. Don't even give me an "aye, aye." Just get started; time is short."
His gaze turned to Landis. "Below deck, gather the men and arm them," he said calmly. "But tell them to meet me on the deck with hooks. Briggs? Bring us in close but make sure we don't get scorched. I rather like my ship."
The Vice-Captain nodded, already guiding the Albatross onward. Landis shoved off from the navigation table and lumbored towards the ladder leading to the lower decks. There was the ringing of a bell and a rousing among the crew as Landis bellowed and called them into action. Dyne sighed.
"You're certain about this, Victor?" Briggs spoke up; he'd long since the lack of formality with his captain. "We could leave and no one would know. Just let 'em burn and call it a night."
"We'd know," the captain said gravely. "My son would know…"
Dyne leapt out of the captain's chair and gave Briggs a nod as he made his way down the ladder out of the bridge, sliding through the crew as they gathered their supplies. They must have seen the purpose in his eyes because they cleared a path for him out to the deck. As the Albatross drew closer to the Aquila, the deck began to glow with the flickers of the encroaching blaze. Dyne could see his men in the darkness. Timmus, tall and bald-headed with a cutlass on his back. Boris looked at him, face etched with the scars of countless battles. Everyone looked ready to fight. Somewhat out of place were Vyse and Aika; he'd taken the two on board for chance to watch the crew work—his son settling to watch his father on the bridge while Aika spied on the work in the engine room—and now they'd been drawn into something else entirely. He took a breath before addressing the crew.
"Now! Listen up!" he yelled, voice cutting across the deck's wind and the crackling flames that were drawing closer and closer. "I know plenty of you look at that ship and see an easy prize. Plunder fresh from the flagship of the Imperial Armada.."
There were a few chuckles and even a handful of scattered clanking sounds as pirates hit their weapons together in anticipation. Dyne stopped them with a raise of his hand.
"Let me be clear about one thing" he said with the weight of command on his voice. Everyone on the deck grew quiet. "This is not a raid! It is a rescue! Bodies to lifeboats and if they can't make it, we're taking them aboard the Albatross. I don't wanna hear shit about them bein' Valuan; we're not letting people burn."
The captain looked at his crew with as powerful a stare as the Meridian skies had known. "There's a chance some folks might attack you in the confusion," he warned before continuing. One by one, he looked his crew in the eye. Even his son. "But you are to disarm them only and then help them to safety. If I learn about a single killed soldier or someone who just 'happened' to fall overboard, you'll answer to me. And if any of you so much as pilfer a pocket watch off a dead man, I'll keelhaul you myself! Understood?"
"Aye, sir!" the reply boomed and the well-oiled machine that was Dyne's crew whirred into motion. While they were usually raiders and brigands, none of them felt too bad about having to be heroes for a night.
"What about us?" Vyse looked up at his father. Aika stood at his side, fidgeting nervously but undoubtedly eager to help as well.
"Yeah!" she affirmed with her characteristic energy. A hand pointed towards the Aquila. "If folks down there need help, we need to help them too! I don't want to just stay on the Albatross!"
Dyne knelt down and placed a hand on both of their shoulders. He smiled warmly; they were such fundamentally good kids and had all the makings of great Blue Rogues. He was so proud, and he knew that Aika's parents would have been proud too. He looked at them both seriously, as he would any other crewmember who wasn't a child.
"You won't," he said with assurance. "But you're also not going to stray far. Once we hook and draw in right beside the ship, you're gonna hop to the deck and direct anyone that comes you way onto the ship."
Aika frowned somewhat. "Feels crummy helping Valuans."
Dyne shook his head. "They're people too," he said. A simple lesson but an important one. "The nation has caused us pain, the Armada grips the sky tightly but many soldiers? They're folks trying to get by."
"But when there are raids, we do end up killing some of them," Vyse said. "They've killed some of our crew even…"
"The world is messy," Dyne said sadly "No matter what happens tonight there's one rule: be the better person. These people need help, and a Blue Rogue never avoids doing what is right. Makes sense?"
The young pirates-in-training nodded. Dyne stood up and grinned. "Good," he said before turning to the crew. "Let's be about it then! Hooks to draw us in close. Briggs! After that, I want us right beside her ready to take whoever we can!"
It went exactly as the captain ordered. Boarding hooks were tossed over the edge just like any other night of raiding and clipped to the Valuan's sturdy hull. Instead of raising the Albatross to allow the ropes to grow taught for swinging to the other ship, they acted a bit like a fisherman's hook. Though deft helm work and only with the slightest bump, the Albatross came to rest beside the burning Valuan ship. With a swirling point towards the vessel, he ordered his crew to start the rescue operation and watched proudly as Vyse and Aika hopped onto the Aquila and set a modest watch near the Albatross. He ran off into the burning vessel, keeping his eyes open for anyone he could help
It was chaos. He'd never seen a ship burn so brightly. Perhaps it was over-refined moonstones or a bursting engine that caused the damage but he could have sworn that the fire that baked and broiled around the deck held a more raw and almost magickal quality to it. Turning to a side ladder, he started to climb up to the next deck and paused as he stumbled into two Valuan soldiers. They raised their swords but Dyne only raised his hands and offered them a friendly smile.
"He oído tu rezo, y he venido a ayudar," he said with cocky flourish that seemed to disarm the Valuans of their fear. They nodded and Dyne pointed in the direction of his ship. One of them paused.
"¿Que bandera?" he asked nervously. Dyne pointed to the cobalt flag above the Albatross, where his skull-shaped sigil lay.
"Blue," he said before pointing more firmly. "¡Ahora, vosotros vas a trasera del barco! Go, go!"
They turned and clambered down the ladder, rushing back towards the stern of the ship. Dyne pressed onwards through fire and screams until he paused for a moment as something hit his ears: a young girl was crying. He snapped into action, every fatherly being in his body calling out and driving him to climb higher and higher through the ship and up towards its blown out bridge where the cries appeared to be fluttering from; quiet but undeniably there. And there was another sound as well. A man was weeping too, just enough that he could hear but quiet and far more awful than even the child.
Dyne pushed through what remained of the bridge's entry hatch—most of the room had been frankly obliterated in whatever explosion had rocked the ship—and found a scene unlike anything he was expecting. Even on the shattered steel walls, he could see the sheer amount of blood that was coating them. A quick glance around the room showed countless bodies, all cut in ways that were both incredibly clean but terrible to behold. A silver-haired man knelt senselessly in the center of the room, weeping and almost entirely unaware of anything except the body before him. The flicker flames revealed a face that Dyne knew; Lord-Admiral Mendosa. The pair rested in a pool of blood, the young soldier cradling the dead man in his arms. Dyne almost reached out to shake the man to his senses when he heard the other cries, the cries of the young girl, and turned to find a blood-covered blonde child held firm in the arms of a horribly burned man. His back, which had presumably been turned to protect her from the fires and whatever explosive start lit the ship ablaze, was seared and blistered. Dyne couldn't tell if the man was alive or dead. Slowly, he walked towards the pair and gave the girl—it was hard to tell if she even had her senses about her—a smile before moving the wounded man carefully.
When he saw the other man's face, he gasped with surprise. It seemed to be enough to wake him. He watched the scorched man slowly return to reality, trying to get a sense of what was around him.
"What are you doing here?" Jaime managed through pain and fire and ash. "We were… You're…"
Dyne silenced the man with a practiced raise of his hand. "Focus on me and on the moment," he told his friend. Though they'd gone very separate ways, they were once comrades in the second fleet. "What happened?"
Jaime turned to look at the weeping man across the room. "Ramirez," he said. "He… He…"
"He's okay," Dyne replied, not understanding his friend. "Me and my crew are gonna get the injured to safety."
"No," Jaime said weakly. "He killed him. Mendosa and all of this… and this…"
"Father…" the young girl called and Dyne froze. He looked at her, so young and completely shaken by everything that had happened. And then he realized: this was the Lord-Admiral's daughter. His heart skipped a beat; this was more than he planned. And if his men realized that they'd rescued one of Mendosa' daughters, he'd be hard pressed to convince them to abandon plans of ransom.
"Shit," he muttered under his breath. "Jaime, can you stand? Can you get up? I'll bring you all to a lifeboat."
Slowly, and with a cry of extraordinary pain, Jaime detangled himself from the young girl and stood up. He took her in his arms and looked at her sorrowfully. "She has a sister," he explained. "But I don't… I don't know… And there's…"
Dyne could only watch as Jaime walked mournfully over to the weeping soldier, who hardly seemed to acknowledge the doctor's presence. "Ramirez," he said quietly. "We need to go..."
The soldier, Ramirez, didn't move. "He's dead…" he uttered. "He's dead… He's dead… He's dead…"
"I know, Jaime replied tiredly. "It's okay. The Lord-Admiral didn-"
"No," Ramirez said darkly. "He's dead. The man you knew. The Ramirez you knew is gone...I'm…?"
Jaime took a step forward, but Ramirez immediately seethed with another hint of magickal anger. Dyne didn't know what was going but from the reflexive step Jaime took back he knew it was bad.
"DON'T!" Ramirez yelled and Jaime immediately took more steps back. Dyne clapped his former comrade on the shoulder. "STAY AWAY FROM ME!"
"We need to go," he said quietly. "C'mon…"
Matters were growing more dire by the moment. There was another burst of red in the skies above the ship followed by another. Signal flares. Dyne looked up through the broken bridge roof and spotted three approaching Valuan ships. At their head was a sable ship bearing the First Fleet's standard. Galcian.
Dyne tugged at Jaime's frayed jacket. "We can't stay," he said. "My people can't stay. We'll take those who want to come and leave the rest to lifeboats and the Valuans but I can't stay, Jaime."
The doctor risked another step towards Ramirez. The anguished soldier threw his hand out and pushed the other man back with a magickal energy unlike anything Dyne had seen. Jaime stumbled back but somehow found his footing.
Dyne didn't even bother to pretend there was a discussion to be had. If the boy wanted to languish while the ship burned around him, he wasn't gonna fight hide and hair for him. Not when the First Fleet was approaching and his men stood at risk. He all but forced Jaime and the girl out of the room, the doctor calling his friend's name all the while as fire raged and crackled. Outside of the bridge, he finally looked Jaime dead in the eye and spoke with a weight that held as much power as Ramirez's anger. At the front of the ship, an explosion burst out as one of the Aquila's cannon's ignited.
"It's not safe!" he cried out at his friend. "Look at me! Tell me you're heading to a boat and taking the girl, or else come with me! No debates! This ship isn't going to hold much longer."
Jaime was a broken man but nodded regardless. "I'll get to a lifeboat," he said. "And… far away from here. But Maria's sister…"
"We'll find her or the Valuans will," he affirmed. "She could be on the Albatross already for all we know. Find me after all this! But now: go! We're out of time!"
They turned and ran their separate ways. Neither of them wanted to be around when Galcian arrived. Dyne ventured a glance back at Jaime as he ran and saw his friend's face burst into steps with each step away from the bridge. But there was nothing to be done. He needed to reach the Albatross. It was time to leave.
"I've been searching ever since but there's been no sign of Piastol. Not listed among the casualties or anywhere else.""Where's… Pia...?"
"I think we saw her that night.""What do you mean? We've talked about that night more than a few times, son, and… No. You think that was her?""Realizing it now, huh? Yeah, I think she was the one who gave me my scar.""Which was my fault…""Don't think like that, Spitfire. Neither of us could have expected what happened…"Vyse stood at the Aquila's stern, with little more than a hop separating himself from the Albatross. It wasn't exciting work—he and Aika were caught somewhere between guard duty and greeters—but someone needed to do it. He clenched the small parrying dagger in his hand. It had been pilfered in secret during the scuffle to gear up; he'd let a stray hand "borrow" one of Boris' loose daggers that he'd left behind. It wasn't that Vyse was expecting trouble but he was a young boy on his first real bit of pirate action and it made him feel cool and important to hold a weapon. Even if this was a rescue and his dad had given strict orders to offer sanctuary to anyone who needed it.
So far, a few Valuan soldiers and confused looking crew members had made their way to the Albatross. Perhaps they'd missed out on lifeboats or simply had an easier path to the Blue Rogue's vessel but it didn't really matter. All were welcome, from the steel-clad soldiers who would under different circumstances be their foes all the way to the scurrying servants that tearfully rushed off the Aquila towards whatever safety they could find. The details could wait until later; that was his dad's job. Vyse's job, along with Aika, was to flag people down and assure them everything was okay. Once aboard, the remaining crew could do the rest.
"Why are you even carrying that?" Aika asked with a nod to Vyse's dagger. "This is a rescue. Yer gonna scare people, dummy."
"It's a Valuan ship," he said back as if it was obvious. "Maybe there will be mean folks, right? So I'm not gonna let them boss us around. We're Blue Rogues!"
"We're kids," Aika corrected with a surprising amount of self-awareness. "Are you gonna stab someone or whatever? Like, if you needed to?"
"No," Vyse said nervously. "I'd scare them off or distract them until someone could hop over and deal with it."
"I just think it's silly," Aika said, crossing her arms in a huff. "We're trying to help people! They're super scared and that's not gonna help.."
"I won't save you either…" A seething voice, a young and angry voice cut through the cracklings of fire.
The pair turned to look as a figure approached them through the chaos. She was perhaps a year older than them at most but had clearly lived a very different life. She wore a fine dress with some ruffles; a combination of black and white that played mysteriously in the burning flames. Her raven hair, featuring the slightest of blue hues, was tied up and held by a fine silk ribbon. Vyse would have called her pretty if now for the fact that she was brandishing two small throwing daggers in her hand and a sheathed blade at her side. Her face was etched with anger and confusion and pain.
"Pirate scum!" she cried out. "Don't you know whose ship this is? I won't let you get away with this! You won't be taking me away!"
Aika raised her hands in a friendly manner, stepping towards the young woman. "Relax," she soothed cautiously. "We didn't attack your ship. We're pirates, yes, but we're here to help… To get everyone to safety."
Vyse glanced over to Aika. "Hey, uh…"
"Liar!" the sable haired girl cried out. "This is your fault! The only people who attack our ships and cause… these sorts of things are pirates. I've seen it before! And I know how to deal with it!"
Aika ventured another step. "Listen, please… We want to help you…"
Vyse realized what was coming before Aika did. Moons bless his friend, she was ready to extend so much kindness to this strange and angry girl but Vyse was, even in his youth, just on edge enough to realize that something was truly wrong. The girl recoiled, snapping her hand backwards.
"Stay away!" she cried before whipping her hand back and lashing it forward. One of her daggers gleamed in the night as it sailed towards Aika. "Just stay away!"
Vyse had already been running. Aika was his friend, his best friend and someone who he couldn't imagine a day without. She was all but there was no way he was going to let her get hurt. As he reached her, Vyse leapt in front of Aika and pushed her to the side. He felt his face burn as the dagger cut across his face right beneath his left eye. It wasn't a shallow cut either but a rather deep lashing. Blood dribbled down his face as he turned to look at the strange girl and raise his parrying dagger. Aika stumbled back in surprise and fell to the deck.
"She's telling the truth!" Vyse yelled at the Valuan girl. "We don't want to hurt you!"
"As if scum like you could!" the girl replied before drawing the small rapier at her side and rushing forward to stab at Vyse. He brought up the parrying dagger just in time, locking their blades together. There they stood in the burning fire, a young pirate and a young Valuan. Somehow enemies in this moment in spite of all things. Vyse struggled and pushed back against the rapier. His deep brown eyes started into her bright blue ones, flames flickering in both their gazes.
"Back off, lady!" he gasped before shoving her away. There was commotion behind her as Vice-Captain Briggs came running down the deck.
"What's happening here?!" he called, leaping to the deck and regarding the girl. He placed himself in front of Vyse and Aika, a pirate protector looking after the young would-be buccaneers.
In that moment, the girl glared at them all and turned on her heels. As she rushed back in the direction of the flames, Vyse brought a hand to his face and felt the wound she left. He pulled the hand away, looking down at his own blood for a moment before gazing back at the burning ship as the last shadowy hint of his assailant disappeared into the night. Save for the cut on his face, there was no sign that she'd ever been there at all...
Dyne's office was silent for a moment as Vyse's story ended; they'd all been running through the past and each new moment revealed a piece of their lives that was inextricably linked to the Aquila but most importantly to Ramirez. For Jaime, it was the awful possibilities that could never be and the things left unsaid to someone he loved. For Maria, it was the raw trauma of witnessing so much blood and death with her own eyes. For Dyne, it was knowing that if he had been even a bit more selfish that night he could have robbed Galcian of his lapdog. For Vyse and Aika, it meant that their earliest lessons about preparedness and caution were indirectly brought about by Ramirez. For Drachma, it was the strange idea that maybe, just maybe, he might've caught up to Rhaknam that night before the Aquila did and somehow have his quest for revenge alter history in some way. For Fina, everything had become connected but the chief thing was the tragedy of it all. What if he'd gone with Dyne or Jaime? Would she be talking to her friend now? Hardened perhaps but still the same kind boy she always knew?
Aika broke the silence first. She shifted back and forth next to Vyse and sighed. "I'm sorry," she offered to her friend. "I was an idiot that night and you almost got killed for it."
Vyse idly brought a hand down to link with Aika's as a means to reassure her things were okay. He looked at her with a smile. His scar rested above it; a perpetual reminder of that night.
"It's fine," he said comfortably, as if she could do no wrong. "I think the harder thing is knowing that was Piastol. If only she'd listened and came with us…"
Doc sighed, rubbing his eyes like he was rubbing away the afterimages of years passed. "Maria'd have her sister," he said quietly. "You know, I try so hard with her but the only thing that's helped is Piccolo. He's not as pretty as Sofi was but brings a lot out of her."
Maria starred in the distance of the room. "Pia's an angel now…"
"Perhaps so," Doc said, walking over and leaning down to brush some stray hair from Maria's face. "But I'm still holding on to the hope that we can find her."
"Not to be harsh, Jaime," Dyne started. His feet were still kicked up on the office desk but his cigar had long since simmered into nothingness. "But even with the fleet on the way that night, the ship was scuttled entirely. It's a miracle that Ramirez survived even were I to speak honestly."
"It just makes so little sense to me," Fina finally said. Her gaze rested upon the floor as she tried to sort it out. "Even if he joined the Armada thinking it might help our mission, I don't know why he'd stay or work with someone like Galcian. Not after everything he'd seen Valua do…"
"If men were sensible," Dyne started with a dramatic point of his finger. "We wouldn't need women."
Vyse looked at his father and rolled his eyes. "No jokes," he said seriously. "This must be breaking her heart to hear about."
A gruff grunt ruffled in the room. Drachma uncrossed his hulking arms and nodded at Dyne. "Jokin' or not, yer Da's half-right," he said with a tone that shifted darker. "Rob a man 'o hope 'an he'll do all sorts'o things to plug the hole what's in his heart."
"What now? Aika said, detangling her fingers from Vyse's with a surprising haste. "It's all nice and good that we know this now but that guy almost killed us in Valua! No offense but am I supposed to feel bad if he's going after Vyse or, you, Fina? Because if he gets the Moon Crystals, he gives them to Galcian and…. Well, I dunno what happens but it's probably gnarly and bad!"
"Aika…" Vyse chided but Fina actually raised a hand to stop him. He backed off as the young Silvite looked at her friends.
"She's right," Fina said with a rising to her voice. "I love Rami but even the nation's prince agreed that Valua shouldn't get the crystals. Which means that… no matter what, we need to press on."
Vyse rubbed the back of his neck. "Not that we necessarily have a way to get where we want to go now…"
"Beneath the Red Moon," Fina nodded before looking at Dracham. "Sir, you've done so much for us but I was wonde—"
"Fine," the crusty old man's reply came. He didn't sound pleased but he also wasn't objecting. Fina bowed in thanks. For her own part, Aika stomped over to the man and pointed.
"Fine? Fine!" she started on him. "You were gonna leave our rears on Sailor's Island and we had to trick your sorry soul into getting us to Valua and now it's fine?! What's the catch, crusty?"
Drachma huffed, reaching out to literally flick the redhead away with a snap of his metal fingers. She stumbled back. "'Cause I got supplies what need pickin' up in Maramba," he explained. "Fore I continue searching for that damned arcwhale…"
"The one that the Lord-Admiral's flagship couldn't blow up," Aika countered.
"S'been seven years since then 'an I got lots of cannons," Drachma countered. "Now stop being a thankless brat. Ye need to reach the Red Moon's lands 'an I'm sayin' I'll do it. S'fine."
Dyne chuckled at it all, removing his legs from his desk and standing up. He clapped Jaime on the shoulder before looking at Vyse, Aika, and Fina. "There's plenty for us to tend to here," he started, voice aching with pain. "But we'll find what supplies we can spare for your trip. Crystal or two, fresh whetstone for your weapons. That sort of thing."
Doc sighed and also regarded the young would-be heroes. "Don't worry," he said with a grin. "I'll be here to patch up the captain and other folks. That said: don't lose who you are while you're traveling around the world and trying to save it."
Vyse chuckled. He scratched his nose; an idle gesture that made him look like a child up to no good. "Wouldn't dream of it," he said cockily. "No matter what we face, we'll have each other."
"Yeah! We'll handle things now, so all you old folks can sit on your butts, okay?" Aika added with a bright smile. "Give us a week and we'll be back here juggling the crystals all good and done."
Dyne shook his head. "You never worry about anything, do you two?"
"I'm finding it rather… refreshing," Fina said with fond looks at her friends. "Because starting tomorrow, the hard work begins. But together? With them? I know I won't stray from the path like Rami did…"
The Monoceros sliced through the Mid Ocean sky, sliding through clouds and progressing onwards with a fast pace all but unrivaled by any other ship in the Armada. She was a Halcón-class vessel, a one of a kind prototype built from modified Spectre parts and fitted with unique quiet running engines from Admiral De Loco's research division. Not as quiet as a Silvite engine, which was ironic given that so many of the Spectre and Halcón's leaps forwards owed just as much to the knowledge Ramirez shared with R&D as they did any stroke of genius on De Loco's part. But of course Galcian would conspire to ensure that the new First Fleet Admiral's ship had a small touch of his people's knowledge in it. It was a harsh ship, black like Galcian's own Serpent and a hull of sharp angles. The most prominent of which was a large spike like protrusion at the bow of the ship; a sort of ramming horn that was responsible for the vessel's name. The only flourish that showed any personality was a stripe of blood-red paint in the underside. From stem to stern, the Monoceros was a cruel ship fitting a cruel captain.
Ramirez watched the night sky pass as the Monoceros pressed onward, seating in his captain's chair with an impressive slouch. He didn't care for the endless test-flights the Research Division seemed to desire—the only thing that would cause problems was human error in the reproduction of Silvite designs and not any inherent fault with anything he'd educated them in—but they gave him a chance to leave Valua for a handful of hours and for that he was grateful. It was a dreary and sinful place he would rather blast into a crater himself if Lord Galcian would allow it. But, no, his master insisted. They needed the support of the Empress and the nobles for just a little while longer. That would change once they'd recovered the crystals but for now, Ramriez did as his master asked and if that meant tolerating the vicious "people" of Valua, he would do so.
Somewhere in the distance, as the Monoceros continued her patrol, Ramirez could sense Fina. A distant light in the middle of a vast darkness. He could not, for any part of himself, understand why she'd thrown he lot in with pirates but it hardly mattered. So long as she traveled with them, Fina was not his friend or the sweet girl he knew from the Shrine. She was an impediment, an obstacle to Lord Galcian's glorious plan. A plan that would save lives in the end but she had no interest in listening to him in the moment he'd started to explain it. He felt a horrible anger in his chest. The Elders were cruel but he had underestimated them; sending his dear friend to the surface without full knowledge of why she was really here was beyond manipulative. It was sinful. In due time, Moons willing, he would put them to the sword alongside all manipulators here on the surface. There was only one man fit to lead this world: Galcian.
He gave an amused hum to himself that, if anyone on the bridge did notice, went unmentioned by those around him. Would Galcian chide him for his devotion? After all, he was not pinning his heart to power as his master once advised. No, he'd give his heart and soul to Galcian. To a person. A mistake he'd made before but this time Ramirez had no doubt that it was the correct person. The only person he could trust to unite this wretched world and save it with the Elders' wrath. If Galcian wanted to see that as ironic or an abandonment of his sagely advice about power, so be it.
No man was perfect; they would both agree with that. But if Galcian did have a flaw and Ramirez dared to acknowledge it, the issue was that he didn't have an understanding of what bonds like loyalty or love could do. The strength they could give. Could those bonds be broken? Would people betray you? Certainly. But for Ramirez to believe in Galcian necessarily meant clinging to the truth he'd be fighting to believe in since he arrived on the surface: some men were good and worth protecting. A few were even extraordinary. Mendosa had turned out to be a small and petty man? But Galcian? He was everything Ramirez wanted to believe in. No, he needed to believe in him.
"Admiral," his navigator called out from across the bridge. "We've reached the coordinates you ordered."
Ramirez stood from his captains chair. "Very good," he offered, voice a low growl. "I need to inspect something on the deck. Order the men to clear it and the Monoceros to hold for thirty minutes. If so much as a fly disturbs me while I'm out there, I'll have your head for it. Understood?"
"Y... Yessir!" came the terrified reply. Ramirez smirked at the power he held; his crew didn't respect him, they feared him. That was better, he thought, leaving the bridge and making his way through austere corridors until he stepped out onto the deck and felt the night's air toss his silver locks around.
None of them could know it but this was a very special place. The only spot in the sky that held any good memories for him. Of course, it held horrid ones too. Because the Monoceros was not just stopped in any spot. It was a nearly mythical spot where the glow of both the Silver and Yellow Moons could be seen. A curious phenomenon that many scientists claimed shouldn't be possible at all but the world nevertheless seemed content to grace its people with. Yes, this was a place where destiny had been made. Because this was where Lord-Admiral Gabriel Mendosa died and the Aquila burned. Ramirez walked over to the Monocero's railings and leaned, daring to look over the edge and down into the lower sky. Somewhere down beneath the cloud layers was a melted tangle that had once been the pride of the Armada.
"You could still leave," a familiar voice said in his mind. "If this is the Empire you serve… maybe you should just leave. I know folks who've done it.""Shut up," Ramirez uttered bitingly under his breath. "You're not here. You left."
"Then who are you talking to, champ?" the reply came. "Why won't you drop all of this? Your friend is alive. You could go to her. Tell her the truth and toget—"
"SHUT UP!" Ramirez yelled, voice echoing across the deck and out into the skies. "There's nothing else to be done. Lord Galcian's plan will be carried out and I will save this world. For her… For you…"
The voice was gone now. Cast away with his anger. Ramirez took a shaky breath and looked out to the skies where silver and gold mixed magickally. Idly, he reached into his pocket and pulled out something: a small silver eagle figurine. He let it balance on his finger, the beak jabbed into his digit. In the wind and moonlight, it wobbled just enough to look like it was flying. Ramirez exhaled.
The Silvite brought his hand out and over the railing until the eagle was hanging precariously in the night and then, with a turn of his hand… he let the eagle fall. Down, down, down. The smallest glint catching his eye until the darkness below swallowed it.
"Nothing is going to stop me, Jaime," he whispered shakily. "No matter what it takes. This world will be saved…"