"We've found them," Caspar announced, almost falling off his wyvern in eagerness to tell her the news. "They're still stopped for resupply on the other side of the island. It's just as we'd hoped!"

"Are we sure it's the pirates we've been hired to target?" Edelgard had enough blood on her hands without wreaking vengeance on unsuspecting merchants.

"The ships are matching the drawings that we were given," Petra replied. "The prow of the greatest of them has the carving of a harpy on the front, and the sides of the ships are colored with blackness just as we were told."

"What are their numbers?"

"There's like a hundred armed men on the shore, and something like double that number of galley slaves," Caspar said, "But I couldn't count them, not without getting close enough that they might have noticed me."

Edelgard drew in a slight breath. Galley slaves. Their employer counted the galley slaves among the "stolen property" that the Black Eagles were to retrieve. These pirates had been sailors three months ago, freemen and slaves in service to a Volantene Triarch. For whatever reason, they had gone pirate, mutinied against their masters, and taken to raiding the coast. The former owner of the ship had offered a generous bounty, and Edelgard had leaped at the chance. Now, though, she questioned if it was worth it. After all, what would she be doing besides returning freed slaves to their masters?

But these were pirates, she reminded herself. Pirates who murdered and tortured all who passed they could find. Rough, evil men, who would take free crews and sell them into slavery. The galley slaves would be no less free for their involvement. She had never balked at the destruction of such rough persons before, why should she now? If she had been commanded to kill all the galley slaves for their complicit support of the pirates, would she have stopped then?

No. She could not, would not stop. She would not accept the meager pay they received as retainers and try to slowly build up wealth by haggling and economy. Wealth meant freedom in Volantis, it meant power, and without power, she would never find a way home, never be able to protect her own from harm. If that meant taking on unsavory work like retrieving a crew of 'stolen' slaves, then she would do it, and do it happily. She had done worse.

"I take it the slaves were left on the ship?" She said.

"Chained to the oars," Petra replied.

"Good. That will make this easier."

She had only brought a tithe of her strength to bear for this battle. A small number of imperial mages and two heavily armored pavise battalions. Thirty souls, less than a third the number of the pirates, but they would be more than enough. Transporting more to this island would have cut into their profits, would have required her to pull personnel from other tasks she had taken on as leader of the Black Eagles.

The sun baked them as they marched, roasting them in their armor. The soldiers did not complain, however. These were men of the empire who had trained in the far south near Enbarr, and they were accustomed to such conditions, much more than some of the other mercenaries that had been pulled to this world with them. Edelgard was glad to have brought these with her.

The trees were thick and packed in close as they came down the hillside, and by the time they saw the pirates they were nearly upon them. The three galleys used by the pirates were at anchor in the tiny cove, while most of the crew had come ashore to gather water and food and wood for repairs. There was no order, no system to their camp, just a mass of boxes and men and drink, as though some great sea-beast had vomited them onto the beach.

The enemy was already in motion to receive them, dropping tools and picking up weapons to form a line on the beach. So they had decided to fight. No doubt they hoped to protect their supplies that they had brought onto the beachhead with them. Their mistake. Flight would have served them better, although, in the end, it would not make any difference. Edelgard would destroy them one way or another.

There was no parlay, no attempt at peace. Pirates only negotiated when they had the upper hand, when they were holding the threat of torture and death over their enemies. But the pirates knew as well as Edelgard did that surrender would only mean death by hanging in the docks of Volantis. They intended to fight to the last man, and Edelgard intended to oblige them.

"Mages!" She cried, and fire arced into the assembling lines of pirates, exploding and burning a dozen of them before the fight even began. The enemy charged and Edelgard's force held their ground, heavy pavise shields forming a wall against the enemy's archers. This was the core of the Imperial war doctrine. Superior artillery to force the enemy to approach, and heavy infantry to weather the enemy assault until the battle was won.

Edelgard met the tip of the enemy's charge personally, her crests setting her body on fire with power as she threw a full-grown man into the dirt with a single push of her shield. Another tried to get close but she took the blow on her armor and cut him in two with a single blow of her ax. These men had hopes, had dreams, but it could not matter. Her dream was stronger, and it would prevail.

A light-skinned brute managed to get a sword under her guard and stagger her backward, but her crests burned hotter and she threw him back with a single kick. The enemy was breaking already, she realized, running for their ship, trampling their allies in the rush to get away from the invincible wall of shields and spears. Her mages loosed their magic again, burning dozens as they ran.

The first of them were getting to the boats, getting to freedom. They could row out to the galleys, row out to the safety of the ships, find somewhere to rebuild.

No.

Caspar swooped down, low and fast, his black wyvern's talons crushing one of the boats in a single strike. Petra came right behind, capsizing another boat with a single contemptuous tail-flick before circling and landing on the deck of one of the ships. The mages loosed their magic for a third and final time, and yet another boat went up in flames.

She would prevail, she promised herself. No matter what difficulty presented itself, she would crush all in her path.

The colors of the market always delighted Dorothea. A riot of yellows and oranges and greens filled the square, coloring booths filled with fruits and cloth and steel. Outside the great black walls of the inner city, Volantis was a place of light and life and filth and Dorothea loved every minute of it. Whatever terrors this world held, Dorothea at least would enjoy the raw sensation and energy of this place...

...However unpleasant the company was.

"This market does not have fish of an acceptable freshness!" Ferdinand cried. "I am most distressed!"

"Surely we can get some other form of meat, Ferdy. I saw cuts of pork a few shops back."

"Pork? For wyverns!" Ferdinand laughed, "No, that particular item is not one on which we will be compromising. I am afraid we must search farther afield."

Dorothea merely nodded. It would do no good to argue with him, not on a matter like this. Ferdinand was a scion of the greatest noble house in the empire and was used to having things his own way. Of course, at the moment he was nothing more than a talented, well-equipped mercenary, but that had done little to shake his annoying confidence.

"I know that you hate me," Ferdinand said, surprising her from her reverie with a flash of his smile. "But I had thought you would not object to spending more time in the markets."

Dorothea rolled her eyes. "I was just worried you would drag us out of here before I had a proper chance to browse. I like to shop for more things than provisions and weapons, you know." She smiled and dropped a coin into the hat of a nearby street performer who played a fascinating little flute the likes of which she had never seen before.

"So long as I have your excellent company, Dorothea, I have no objection to such an endeavor."

The sun had risen high in the sky by the time they made it down to the wharves where fresher produce was brought in. Compared with the chaotic sensuality of the markets higher uptown, the wharves were relatively clean and plain.

Except for the people, who were even more varied and colorful than further up in the city. It was too much to take in. Squat, bowlegged men with pointed heads mixed with flat-faced, copper-skinned women and tall pale figures who she knew now to be merchants from the city of Qarth. The wares were less exciting, but at least Ferdinand was able to requisition his fish, and afterward he was more than happy to let her explore.

"Ferdy, what do you make of this shawl? I think it would be most helpful to be able to blend in with the locals, and I think this one is most..." her voice trailed off as she realized Ferdinand was ignoring her. She was not mad at him for that, not really, but she was curious. For all his flaws, he had never lacked in attentiveness toward her.

Now his eyes were fixed on a faraway point, an auction block at the far end of the market… Then Dorothea saw it, the men and women they were bringing up to the block to be sold. They were as diverse and colorful as the rest of the people on the wharf, but it was a little brown-haired boy that caught her eye. She averted her gaze to look back at Ferdinand, and with a shock, she realized that her companion was trembling.

"Not here," she urged, "Not now."

"I am aware," Ferdinand replied hotly, "I am aware of our situation. But this is not something I easily bear. It is not in my nature to stand idly by while..."

"I know."

And she did. She understood. She had something in common with him, with Ferdinand Von Aegir. They had both spent their youth in Enbarr, she as an orphaned street rat, he as the son of the most powerful man in the Empire, but here in another world where nothing was familiar and nearly everyone she talked to was a slave or slaver... Here they might as well be family.

"We cannot do anything, not now. That's why Edelgard is working us so hard, so that we can get money, get influence, to really make a difference."

"I could do something now," Ferdinand's jaw was set. "I have gold. I could go up there, buy out half the auction block. Make them free, and give them a choice to work for the company. Train them to fight, even."

"Oh, Ferdy. You know that won't work. All you'll be doing is giving those slavers some more business and driving up the prices at the auction. If anything you'd encourage more slavers to get into the business because you'll have made it more profitable. Something like that just won't work."

Ferdinand frowned. "I am aware of these concerns, Dorothea, but you fail to see my true intention. Slavers are terrified of their slaves. That is why so many beat their slaves brutally. It is not to make them work harder, after all, a beating will only injure a slave and make them incapable of work. No, they beat them because they fear what would happen if their slaves realized that they can hold weapons as well as any man. A few former slaves who can fight, who can earn wealth for themselves and know how to read and write? That would undercut everything this rotten city is built on."

"My, Ferdy, that sounds almost revolutionary of you."

"It is the duty of nobility to guard the people and watch over them. This… rampant exploitation goes directly after everything I have ever believed."

"I'm no noble, but I agree well enough with that as a goal. Still, it seems impossible to know what to do. Half the time the people doing the beating are other slaves, and the army is mostly slaves too. Whatever possible thing I think to do, it only seems like it will make things worse."

"Even so," said Ferdinand, "I will not stand idle forever."

"How is morale?"

It is a question Edelgard has asked Hubert a thousand times if she has asked him once.

"No defections since you left a week ago," Hubert chuckled. "Nobody seems eager to try their luck on the streets of Volantis."

"You know that is not what I mean."

Hubert sighed and shuffled his paperwork. Dark circles had begun to form under his eyes. Hubert had been stressed and overworked for months before they had come here, and his load had gotten no lighter in the days since. "No serious fights, not while Caspar has been away. But Ferdinand has been getting dangerous. He talks increasingly of expanding our company, of..."

"It might not be the worst idea."

Hubert sneered. "You damn him with faint praise, Lady Edelgard. Perhaps we could come up with a worse idea if we tried, but Ferdinand's notion would nonetheless lead to all of our deaths. Training slaves and arming them would attract the attention of one of the triarchs. This city has not survived this long by tolerating sedition within its midst."

"We cannot continue as we are, however," Edelgard said. "Our group is straining, cracking at the seams, and every merchant in this city is trying to force us into bankruptcy so that they can buy our wyverns from us. We're a profitable venture for now, but that will not last for long."

Hubert smirked, and it was then that she knew she had been had. He had baited her, tricked her into describing their position so hopelessly. He had intentionally set her up to say those things so that she would accept whatever proposal he had in mind.

"Alright, Hubert, tell me what you have in mind."

"A long-term, high-risk contract," Hubert says. "Not in Volantis. Yunkai. To the East. One of the Wise Masters of that fair city reached out to me. They have fears of a conqueror coming from the south, you see, one who has a set of pet dragons. Well, they are called dragons, but from what I gather they are nothing more than fire-breathing wyverns. They have some hopes that we might act as a fitting counter to this 'Mother of Dragons' and her pets, and they are willing to pay handsomely up front."

"That would seem to fix none of our issues except for our monetary ones. Yunkai is by all accounts even worse than Volantis."

"You are correct as always, Lady Edelgard. But there is one thing I have not told you yet," Hubert's smirk widened into his full shark's smile. "The other title of this young conqueror is the 'Breaker of Chains'."