Go to Cape Claudia. Ask for Half-Way Harper.
That was Gilder's advice, or at least some of it. After escaping the Grand Fortress for a second time—blowing a hole through the Grand Gate with a high powered energy cannon to be more precise—Vyse had found himself not just the most renowned pirate in the known world but also the captain of his own ship. He could hardly believe when Prince Enrique had flashed his curious smile and turned over the Delphinus to him but the reality was settling in. Perhaps it was after returning to his home at Pirate's Isle and seeing the look on his father's face. Perhaps it was after Luke and Mabel all but begged to join his crew until he relented. Perhaps it was after one of the many moments Aika offered him a winking salute and called him 'captain.' Whatever the case, he'd found himself slowly sliding into the role history had thrust upon him.
Gilder had done a shocking amount of legwork ahead of their arrival back to Crescent Isle. Brabham and Izmael had been eagerly waiting, sent at Gilder's behest to help turn Vyse's former "home" into some type of respectable base of operations. That was well and good but a ship like the Delphinus was built for hundreds of sailors and while it was nice that he was already building a crew, Vyse knew he wasn't going to cut it with a dog, two raiders, one snot-nosed deck swab, and a couple of enthusiastic geezers. He needed gunners, a helmsman, a cook, and more. It was clear that his next goal, the Blue Moon Crystal, rested to the far east but he also knew that if he was going to make it through the Dark Rift blocking the way, he needed true and proper Blue Rogues. They didn't just need to be good at what they did; they needed to be ready and able to embark on the most daring of adventures. Gilder's parting letter had mentioned some options; Harper was next on the list.
Cape Claudia rested to the far north on a curling finger of land that jutted from the eastern edge of the Valuan continent. While it was mostly known as a racing and gambling town, Vyse had grown up knowing it as the place that his father earned the name "Blue Storm'' by sinking three Black Pirate ships. To hear the tale told, they'd never had a chance. His father had sailed circles around them and then some, peppering them with cannon blasts until there was nothing but smoke and awe left upon the wind. Vyse had dismissed the story as little more than a tall tale that'd grown bigger over the years; it had the marks of playful pirate braggartry after all. After so many unbelievable accomplishments of his own, he was willing to accept it as true now.
It seemed a risk bringing the Delphinus so close to the mainland but the skies remained impeccably clear as they made port. Confusion had given way to relief as the crew disembarked; the town's inhabitants were clearly expecting a Valuan raid. Instead, they'd been greeted by a sheepish eighteen year old pirate captain and his curious collection of cohorts and cutthroats. Aika and Fina had ventured off with the prince to see about what supplies could be purchased during their time in port. That left him to see about his potential recruit.
Cape Claudia was something of a paradox. The port's topside had been bustling and clean enough that you could almost call it respectable even if there was a fair share of obvious pirates slinking about. Rows of gambling houses, expensive stores with exotic imports, and well-maintained hotels catered to the wealthiest of guests; the movers and shakers who bet big on races or bought the most interesting of wares. Not so gaudy as to drive away the everyday traveler but it was clear that certain venues were more exclusive than their counterparts. A few stood taller than others and featured large balconies for viewing the races. It might've been a facade for their own benefit—the legitimate and lush leisure town full of shops and exciting ship races—or it could have been the truth of it all. It seemed to be a mix of the two since any ventures further into the town and downwards to the less prominent commercial ports revealed plenty of dingy haunts and esoteric specialty shops. If you could bet on anything in the upper port, you could barter for anything down below.
Vyse found that asking about "Half-Way Harper'' had driven him into the darker alleys of the lower port where dusty streets and alleys were packed with leaky-roofed homes and tiny shops that you'd be lucky to fit one or two people in. However, for all the potential dangers that came from side-alleys and shadowed corners, Cape Claudia's lower port featured neither the intense energy of Sailor's Island or the abject despair of Valua's horrid Lower City. Even the most downtrodden of people seemed if not entirely honest then at least content. He slinked and slipped through narrow streets—stopping more than a few times to press against the side of a building or step into a connecting pathway as workers hauled crates from up from the ports or a vendor dragged their cart along—until he found what he was looking for: a small hole-in-the-wall tavern called the Wasted Wastrel. He tromped inside, boots falling on creaky floorboards, and descended down a tight spiral of stairs until he found himself in a deceptively large room with an equally surprising number of tables and booths.
Vyse surveyed the scene. A man at a side table rifled a deck of cards, dealt three to the wooden tabletop and explained to a few onlookers that he'd give ten gold pieces to anyone who could find where he'd hidden the queen. Red-faced men and women with matching tattoos of a sly cormorant with a cutlass in its beak laughed brashly and caroused at one of the larger tables. Clearly another crew back from a successful job, either legitimate or criminal. Two men with greying hair, perhaps long-time regulars, chatted at the bar behind which a stout man with a curled mustache poured out fresh loqua into their cups. The blood red drink trickled down from his flagon and splashed into their waiting glasses.
The young rogue grinned. It was as good a tavern as he'd seen, if a bit less welcoming than Polly's. He ambled to the bar, leaning forward and flagging down the tender with a vague wave of his hand.
"I'm looking for Half-Way Harper," he explained. The bartender gave him a glance up and down, eyes resting on his face for an extra moment, before leaning to the side and spitting to the floor. He looked over Vyse's shoulder and called out to the other end of the bar.
"Lamb! Got a wolf here for ya!"
There was a moment's pause before the reply came. Vyse glanced at the bartender curiously.
"Blue or Black?" A woman's voice, a soft alto, called back. Straight-forward and businesslike. Not tired or bored but clearly focused on something else.
Vyse chuckled. They were figuring out what kind of pirate he was. Either Harper had certain business standards or at least wanted some passing idea of what she was dealing with.
"Blue,' Vyse called back. There was another pause and the shuffling sound of paper.
"Come on back," the voice replied. Still businesslike but with a slight hint of amusement.
Vyse turned and walked through a collection of tables until he found a small booth on the other side of the bar. A flickering yellow moonstone lamp cast muted light down on a table covered with papers, a high stack of books, and a hodgepodge of empty tea cups. A small woman, perhaps no more than a year older than him sat at one end of the table. She was scribbling notes into a fraying leather journal and didn't even look up when he sat across from her. Vyse tilted his head to examine her more carefully.
She was a slight woman but certainly not of the same stripe as Fina or Aika; it was clear that she wasn't much of a fighter or sailor by a glance at her pale features. There was no energy about her that suggested she did anything other than preoccupy herself with her books and documents. Hazel eyes, framed by slender glasses, peeked up from under a swish of dirty blonde hair whose bangs flipped to one side. The rest was cut short and tight. She wore a ruddy blue jacket with a cold white blouse beneath it, along with a matching skirt and black leggings slipped into high boots with perhaps too many buckles. It was as straightforward an appearance as Vyse could imagine save for one flourish: a bright turquoise scarf pulled about her neck.
"Letters are one hundred gold per transcription," she started. Her alto voice proceeded with an odd cockiness for someone so bookish. Vyse recognized the telltale touches of Gilder's bravado in her tone. It was a borrowed thing that didn't entirely suit her.
"Anything involving Valua is four hundred minimum since the extra patrols are causing all sorts of headaches," she continued. "Forgeries are double now too; price varies depending on the document... If it's a manifest check, we can discuss something based on the hours."
She stopped her work, placing a feathered quill to the side before reaching out to grab a nearby glass of steaming hot tea that she blew at a few times before taking a sip and smiling contentedly. The sip seemed to send her to a far off place, wiping away any stress for a brief but blissful moment. She opened her eyes, returned to reality and finally fixed her gaze upon Vyse.
"Now that's out of the way," she started. "What needs doing?"
Vyse smirked with amusement. She was remarkably honest about her willingness to break the law. He liked it. Between the cloak and dagger with the bartender and her unassuming demeanor, this was shaping up to be an amusing trip.
"Wolf? Blue or Black?"
The woman shrugged. "You figured it out," she said simply. "I gotta say: you certainly look the part. Way too clean cut to be a Black Pirate, and you don't smell like five day old sky sardis either. We woulda been able to tell."
"You work with many Blue Rogues?"
"I work with a lot of folks," she said without much explanation before offering Vyse a hand. "Harper Lamb, scrivener and historian of all things unremarkable."
Vyse took the hand and gave it a firm, snappy shake. "Vyse Dyne," he introduced. "Blue Rogue, troublemaker and friend of Gilder Ryskamp."
Harper removed her glasses, setting them down on the table quite deliberately before rubbing her eyes. She raised a finger.
"We'll do this one step at a time," she said craftily, shifting into a more businesslike cadence. "You know Gil?"
"He saved my life and then some," Vyse said seriously. "Came here on his advice."
That seemed to stir something in Harper although it was hard to tell what, even as her soft features curled into a wistful smile. Pride? Amusement? The expression came and went quickly before the scribe was back to her more serious self. Curt and focused on the matter at hand.
"Another charity project," she muttered before pointing at Vyse. "Dyne as in 'Blue Storm' and all that?"
Vyse spread his hands out wordlessly as if to say "you caught me."
Harper chuckled as she started to put it all together. She gave a nod of approval. "That means you're that fella that's been giving Valua a run for their gold," she said with a hint of awe. "Twice escaping the Grand Fortress, smashing up the Coliseum…"
"Only on the more exciting days," Vyse explained with a teasing flourish. "Sometimes it's also battling their admirals or accidentally 'kidnapping' the prince. That sort of thing."
"I'll be damned," Harper intoned. "What's a fella like you need with a gal like me? You need a forgery or something?"
Vyse glanced at the scattered papers on the table. "Is that what you do? Forge documents?"
"I am… a wordsmith," Harper said playfully. She ran an idle hand through her hair. "I do anything and everything involving the written word. Don't know your letters but need something written down? You come see me. Need a contract reviewed? I'll give it a glance. Want someone to run an inventory check on your last haul? I'm your gal."
"Wordsmith," Vyse repeated with equal amusement. "And how do you know Gilder?"
Harper shrugged. "How does any gal know Gilder?"
Vyse made an incredulous face that elicited another smirk from the scribe. She paused a moment to take one more sip of her tea. Vyse could smell the small touches of cinnamon and vanilla—sweet flourishes to an otherwise black tea.
"I'm kidding," she said, bringing the cup back down to the table. "I know Gil from years ago. One of the best racers that the Cape ever saw before he went full pirate."
Harper fished about on the desk before handing a worn notebook to Vyse. He flipped it open to find a list of dates with numbered names next to them. "What's this?"
"The results of every race that's been run since I was abandoned here," the bookworm explained. "Seven years worth of racing history. Give it a flip to some of the earlier pages."
Vyse let the first comment pass for a moment before flipping through the front half of the book. Each page bore the records of dozens of races, written in immaculate cursive script. There were a variety of names, but he eventually came to a stretch of time where two racers were showing up over and over again. Sometimes, they were simply the leaders of a larger pack. In other moments, they were racing one-on-one. Vyse traced a finger down the page and noted each time they appeared. It was always in the same order and there were so very many races.
He raised an eyebrow and continued to flip through the book. "That's Gilder at the top," he noted. "But who's this other person? McClintock?"
"Clara McClintock," Harper said plainly. "I gotta imagine you've run into her by now."
Vyse laughed. "That I have," he said with an extra touch of playfulness. Wherever Gilder was, Clara was sure to follow. Apparently that had been the case for longer than he realized. "They were racing each other back then?"
"This is where the big chase started," Harper said with a gesture out towards the bar. She leaned forward conspiratorially and brushed her mess of blonde hair to the side once again. "Gil finished a race and just… didn't stop. Clara's been after him ever since. That was five years ago."
Vyse couldn't help but shake his head at the theatricality of it all. A freedom loving pirate chased in one final pursuit by his former rival. The thought passed quickly however as he started to piece together everything else Harper was saying. His gaze darkened some as he moved to a more concerning topic.
"What was that part about being abandoned?"
There was a pause as Harper leaned back and took a drawn out sip of her tea. Her glance lingered on the table. A free hand took up the nearby quill and began to spin it about nervously in her fingers. "Ah, right. That…"
"I was an apprentice at the Sailor's Island Gazette," she explained. "Came here with a partner to cover some of the races. He made a bad bet and scampered off. Left me with the bill."
"How old were you?" Vyse's voice brimmed with concern. Any injustice was intolerable to him no matter how many years had passed. If that was seven years ago...
"I'd just turned thirteen," Harper answered quietly. It was clearly a sore spot, though—judging by how the scribe's suddenly tired features shifted back to focus on Vyse—she'd apparently made some peace with the matter. There was another sip of tea before she spoke again, a gesture that was becoming more and more of a punctuation to her words than anything else.
"Worked odd jobs to earn back the gold," she continued. "Refused to take any charity, y'know? I could write but more importantly I also knew how to keep my mouth shut. One thing led to another and now I'm here. Debt-free but with plenty of folks still asking me to handle odds and ends."
Vyse bristled. "Why didn't you hop a ship back home right away?"
Harper gave a genuinely hearty laugh. An amused bark that snapped through the room.
"You're right," she conceded with mock surprise. Her voice lifting upwards in teasing shock. "I shoulda chartered a ship rápidamente with all that gold I didn't have. Not all of us become heroes by the age of… how old are you? Only a bit younger than me, I reckon.."
"Turned eighteen about one week back," Vyse said sheepishly. "The day I escaped the Grand Fortress for the second time..."
The scribe bit her lip, looking at the rogue before her with a mixture of chagrin and amazement. He'd started to see that glance ever since his first escape from Valua. It was the look of someone who didn't just see a simple pirate sitting before them. Harper was looking at him but it was clear she was also looking at another version of him; the version gossiped about in taverns and guild halls throughout Meridia and beyond. Vyse shifted in his seat; ever since the escape nearly everyone looked at him differently. He'd done his best to rise to their expectations even as he started to understand that everyone's expectations grew more and more grand with each passing day. Everyone except Aika and Fina's. They didn't expect him to be anything other than himself.
"Well, Vyse," Harper said with powerful "big sister" energy. "Some of us do boring things when we turn eighteen. Like working as a waitress for a while or helping folks dodge Valuan export taxes."
Vyse chuckled before turning serious. "Fair enough," he offered. "But why are you still here?"
"Stay anywhere long enough and you become a fixture," Harper offered as an explanation. "The roots snake deeper every day. Not that I didn't get into some trouble from time to time..."
Harper reached out to take the journal from Vyse's hands, flipping through until she hit a dog-eared page. A curious smile came to her face before she offered the tome back to him. He glanced down at the page and scanned through a few listings until his eyes fell upon an entry circled off from the rest. A race from six years ago with only three participants.
3. Lamb (did not finish)
Vyse looked back to the woman, whose own focus had turned to a loose piece of paper that she quickly stuffed back into a larger stack. "You were a racer?" he asked incredulously.
"I sailed in a race," the scribe corrected. "That doesn't make me a racer."
Harper sighed. "Well, if you insist on knowing," she started. Her memory was shifting back to that foolhardy day. "I mostly made an idiot of myself…"
The Wasted Wastrel was packed to the brim, seats filled and booths teeming with chattering guests talking about the upcoming race. It wasn't all too different than many of the other times that Gilder and Clara faced off on the track, but that didn't matter. No one raced faster or with more style than Gilder Ryskamp and no one else but Clara McClintock was able to come close to beating him. Debates rang out throughout the bar; some folks furiously defending Gilder's prowess while others insisted that, no, this time would actually be the time that he tasted defeat. Betting slips and bags of gold changed hands with reckless abandon. In fact, the only thing that was running faster than the bookie's quills was the flow of loqua. It was another night on Cape Claudia, another chance to talk big and bet bigger. All the better for anyone running a bar; excited customers meant perpetually running taps and tipped flagons.
Especially if you were the favorite watering hole of the two hottest racers in town..
Harper had settled in another night of running drinks to tables and keeping track of the storeroom's rapidly-dwindling stock. It had only been two years since she'd been left on the cape but she'd settled in easily enough. A chance meeting with Gilder on that fateful day had led to employment at the Wastrel under the owner's careful watch. She was given a room on the second floor but emphatically refused any donation of gold, stubbornly insisting that she could handle things herself. The owner, Morris, took an easy liking to her and she'd quickly found herself caught between the dual roles of waitress and accountant. It had been much to Gilder's bewilderment. "I could just take you back home," he was ever keen to remind her. Harper always replied with a shake of her head. What use was Sailor's Island to her now? Was she supposed to strut into the Gazette's offices and let bygones be bygones? Things weren't so bad here on Cape Claudia, right?
A whistle pierced through the air. Harper turned to glance at the bar. Morris flicked a finger to the stairs. Harper paused only long enough to catch a glance at the incoming customer. A brash red coat and accompanying finery: well-trimmed slacks, immaculately polished, and a silk vest visible under the coat. Slick hair and a perpetually confident smirk. Tall but relatively stocky, with a cocky bounce to each step worthy of Daccat himself. Gilder Ryskamp, the most accomplished racer in Cape Claudia's history, ambled into the bar. As if the mere act of thinking about him had plucked him from the skies and dropped him down into the bar.
"Sorry I'm late folks," he called out with a boisterous baritone. The entire Wastrel quieted as everyone waited on his words. "A fine young lady had heard rumors I was the "fastest pirate in the port" and I simply had to show her that I could take it nice and slow with the right company!"
Raucous laughter rang through the bar, the bawdy comment entirely on brand. There were two things in the world that Gilder loved: winning and women. He pursued each with reckless abandon. Each day meant a new race to win, a new gamble to take, and a fresh partner to bed. He'd arrived at Cape Claudia talking like he was the best around and had quickly proved it within only a few years' time. The rogue gave the crowd a wave before pushing through to his usual booth in the back. Harper was less amused, rolling her eyes as she placed fresh mugs of beer upon a nearby table. A gold coin scraped across the table as a tip that she quickly hid in her apron before sliding through the crowd back towards the bar. The effort was mostly successful save for a loose elbow that jabbed into her side on the return trip. By now she was more than used to making her way through a crowd and even more used to being ignored.
Morris leaned forward on the bar as she returned, stroking his mustache for a moment before looking at the girl sympathetically. Harper bristled at his glace; Morris was a good man but she hated how much the old man seemed to fret after her.
"How's the room, Lamb? All accounted for?"
Harper nodded, taking a moment to wipe some sweat from her brow. "Three loqua barrels left," she said curtly. "Enough to get through the night, but we're gonna be dry come tomorrow afternoon at this rate."
Morris produced a cloth and began to wipe down a portion of the bar. "It'll have to do," he muttered. "Scuttlebutt is that the Seagull was slowed down by some Valuans. Might come a day late."
"Gonna water the loqua down? I thought we weren't that kind of place."
The bartender shook his head. "Beer's half off for the night now," he said with a grin. "We've more than enough of that. Should keep some paws off the loqua."
Morris held a hand up for a moment, looking across the bar for a moment to the back booth where Gilder was already setting up court. The red-coated racer was flanked by admirers and fans.
"Ryskamp!" the bartender's voice cut through the room. "What'll it be?"
"The usual!" Gilder's reply caused the bartender to groan with frustration for a moment but Morris didn't take more than a few seconds to pour Gilder's preferred poison into a tall mug.
Harper sighed with equal annoyance. "You think he'd get something different…"
"I'll allow it," Morris said. "Just having his ass in a seat drives up sales. Now, hurry this to him. Alright, Lamb?"
The scruffy sod handed the fresh-filled mug to Harper, who darted off into the crowd. She made haste, lifting the hem of her dress slightly so as not to trip and made a much more successful path through the bustling room that she had previously. She darted and weaved through the crowd like a yacht racing around the cape. Stopping at Gilder's booth, she placed his mug before him with an unceremonious clank.
"One frothy mug of water for the gentleman," she said dramatically. "Your patronage is appreciated, Gil."
Gilder leaned back, laughing heartily before taking the mug up and taking a dramatic swig of his drink. He topped the gesture off with a contented sigh.
"Thank you, dear," he said genuinely before gesturing to a space in the booth. "Why don't you join me for a spell?"
Harper rolled her eyes. "Some of us work for a living," she said dryly. "Drinks don't run themselves, y'know."
The pirate rolled his eyes in return. "You are way too young to be this jaded," he said with both annoyance and sympathy. "C'mon! Rest your feet for a bit!"
The teenager made a showing of her most dire annoyance, biting her lip and looking up towards the ceiling as if the very sight of Gilder Ryskamp would cause her head to explode like a cannon-shot cutter. With a great deal of continued annoyance, she scooted into the booth—a drawn out process composed of multiple pouting pushes and hops—and sat down opposite the scoundrel.
"There," she huffed, crossing her arm with a frustrated snap. "Happy?"
"Quite," Gilder replied before turning to call over to the bar. "Morris! Lamb's taking a break!"
"Five minutes and not a second more," Morris barked over the crowd. "Beer's flowing fast and I need hands on deck!"
"Old coot," Harper grumbled to herself. The beer wasn't so important that she needed to be running around every waking second. If Morris had a single flaw it was that he wanted to please everyone, but even Harper was old enough to realize that you couldn't make every filthy drunk on the cape happy. As long as there wasn't a brawl, you were doing pretty well.
Gilder's associates and tagalong fans were staring at her, all of their eyes fixed on the strange waitress that he'd invited to a quick rest and friendly chat. She could feel their stares and hear their stupid thoughts: Who is this kid and why does he care? The young woman looked down at the table as best to avoid their glances. Gilder's eyes darted about and he dismissed his entourage with a wave of his fingers
"Gotta talk to the little lamb," he said plainly. That was enough for the gathered crowd, who backed off immediately at the star racer's word.
Harper pouted like a spoiled brat. "I'm not little…"
Gilder groaned. "Don't be like that," he said plaintively. "You know we're all just trying to make sure you're alright."
"I can take care of myself," she replied quickly. "I don't need looking after."
"You've been here for two whole years," Gilder said, leaning forward seriously. The shift in tone caught Harper's attention; it was a far cry from his usual bravado. "No one's come looking for you. Without Morris you'd be out on the street, kid. You know that. Unless.."
Harper gave a sigh, flopping her head to the table. "Please don't say it.."
"It's four easy words, Lamb," Gilder insisted. "Four words and you're on a leisure cruise back home. Hell, I'll sleep in a bunk and you can ride in the captain's cabin."
"Gross," Harper intoned seriously. "I'm not going near that bed, Gil."
"That's not the point," Gilder replied with an exasperated sigh. He lifted up four fingers. "You remember, right? Four little tiny words…"
"Cut it out."
"I'm not saying it."
The rogue spread his hands wide. "That's all it takes," he said. "Hey, Gilder. Take me with you. Say the word and your life on Cape Claudia is nothing more but some memories."
Harper sat up straight, pointing a sharp finger at the older man. "Stop acting like you care," she said coldly. "You try and act so cool all the time and it's super annoying. Maybe I like it here! Or maybe I don't need your help! Maybe I finally have my own plan."
Oh, crap. Way to blab too much, Harper!
She brought her hands to her face with a quick slap and buried herself in them. The last thing she wanted to do was mention that to Gilder. There was no way that he was going to let that comment go unremarked upon. He was too nosey and all too committed to the charity project called "Harper Lamb" to leave things well enough alone. Harper rubbed her eyes before speaking up.
"Please ignore that," she insisted. "It was supposed to be a surprise."
Gilder chuckled as if he'd just won a high hand of poker, mouth spitting into a completely insufferable grin. There was no turning back now; the gambler was hooked on her every word.
"Pray, continue," he said, twirling his hand like a stage magician signaling his assistant. "I want to hear all about this astounding plan of yours."
Harper looked off into the crowd in an attempt to seem indifferent to his teasing and to make sure that no one else was listening in. Coast clear, she leaned back in her seat and summoned all the forced bravado that she could, trying and failing to mirror Gilder's easy confidence.
"I… bought a boat," she said. She tried as hard as she could to sound self-assured. "By this time tomorrow, I'll be drowning in gold."
Gilder all but spit out the water he was drinking. "You did what?!"
"I bought a boat?"
To her surprise, the rogue turned even more serious than before. "What happened to saving money and paying off old debts?" he asked with brotherly concern. "What are you gonna do? Sail off into the night? Hell, Harper, just ask me if you want a lift!"
"I'm not sailing back "home" or whatever you think," she said with a huff before sitting up taller. "I don't want to go home! I'm gonna win tomorrow's race because that's what I want!"
There was a pause. Harper hated pauses. They meant someone was judging her and the last thing she wanted right now was Gilder "I Just Slept With Two Random Women" Ryskamp getting all high and mighty on her because she'd finally decided to do something assertive for once in her life. She squirmed in her seat, hands shifting down to tug nervously at her skirt.
And just when she thought it couldn't get any worse, Gilder started laughing. Not a quiet chuckle or slightly amused scoff. It was a deep and booming laughter that cut through the din of drunken conversations and turned nearly every head in their direction. Harper could feel her face burning red; why wouldn't he stop laughing? It just kept going on and on until Gilder was wiping tears from his eyes. Was it so absurd that she wanted to race? Finally, Gilder caught his breath. He exhaled and beamed at Harper like a proud sibling.
"Good for you," he said warmly. 'That's great!"
Harper blinked. Once and then twice. Was she hearing him correctly?
"Weren't you just mad at me for buying that friggin' boat?" she asked cautiously. "And now you're changing your tune and trying to act all cool? C'mon, stop teasing me…"
Gilder shook his head emphatically. "I'm not teasing you, kid," he said. "I'm damn near as serious with you as I'll ever be. I'm happy as a huskra right now."
Harper wasn't buying it. "No lecture? No big speech?"
"None," the rogue replied. He was still beaming, his white smile all but sparkling in the yellow lamplight. "But now I gotta know: what'd ya get?"
"Old Rickets was looking to get rid of his sloop," Harper said with a shrug. "Two fine sails and a half-working moonstone engine. Was gonna spruce it up some tonight and hit the track tomorrow."
"The only race tomorrow is between me and Clara," Gilder mused.
"The only race tomorrow is between you and Clara and me," Harper corrected.
"Kid, an old sloop isn't gonna match the Claudia," Gilder boasted. He ran a gloved hand through his hair, slicking it back some. "Clara's no slouch either. You can't toss any old ship into a race and expect to take home the winnings."
"Don't tell me what I can or can't do," Harper huffed back angrily. "When I'm at the helm, that sloop's gonna make some damn moves. You'll see, Gil."
"I'm not gonna stop you from trying," Gilder said earnestly. If Harper wanted to run a race, he was more than happy to oblige. "But I'm not gonna take it easy on ya either. You'll be running in my wake, and who knows how those cape winds will behave. You sure about this?"
Harper rolled her eyes. "Of course I'm sure," she said. "I can handle a one engine sloop just fine. And there's a payout for anyone that crosses the finish line plus whatever I could make off bets."
"Who else knows about this?" Gilder leaned forward conspiratorially. "Because I can't imagine that Morris is keen on letting his lovely assistant go off to the races."
"Who else knows about what?" A new voice, playful and cloyingly sweet.
Both Gilder and Harper turned to see the ever saccharine smile of Clara McClintock gleaming at them. Harper's stomach dropped as she beheld Clara in all her bright splendor. Cape Claudia's second-best racer has settled for a lovely (and frankly oversaturated) lavender dress, skirt plump with petticoats and sleeves trimmed with lace. Her wonderfully maintained locks of chestnut brown hair were styled into a pull-through braid that left not a single hair out of place.
Harper liked Clara but always felt a little uneasy about her; not because of her fawning pursuit of Gilder's heart but because she was pretty in a way that Harper didn't know how to be. It probably took hours of work to achieve such an immaculate style but Clara made it seem as easy as breathing. Meanwhile, Harper considered it a good day if she could untangle even one of the many knots in her hair.
The teenager demurred for a moment, looking away nervously. "It's nothing," she insisted with a wave of her hand. It was like she was trying to shoo away a stray huskra. "Stop snooping!"
Clara scooted into the booth and sat beside Harper, scooping the younger woman into an affectionate hug. "I certainly will not!" she said before looking at Gilder. "As for you, mister! You run off with yet another girl in your arms?! How dare you!"
Gilder sighed. "Clara, we had one night," he said exhaustedly. "A good night, and while I like you insofar as I like anyone with spunk… I'm not gonna chain myself down to anything. Not you and not even the Cape."
The older woman gave a fussy pout. "Why do you always try to act so aloof, Gilly? Afraid you might actually like it if you kicked up your boots and went steady?"
"Hell no," Gilder said with a chuckle. "Afraid it will be stifling and entirely too dull? Yes!"
Clara leaned over and stage-whispered to Harper. "He's no fun," she said. "And the joke'll be on him once I finally win one of our races and steal his heart in the process."
Gilder snapped back to his cocky old self. "Speaking of races…"
"Don't," Harper begged miserably. "Can we just not?"
It was a useless display. Gilder spread his arms as if presenting the hottest damn racer in town. Except it wasn't the hottest racer in town; it was Harper Lamb, the little gal who could. The teenager buried her face in her hand.
"My lovely Clara," Gilder started with a voice sweet as honey. "The dear little lamb here has requisitioned a ship and intends to race with us tomorrow."
Clara gave an outright squee and pulled Harper into an even tighter embrace. "Oh, dearie we all knew you had it in you," she said with a sugar-encrusted heaping of pride. "Even if you don't win, I'm so glad that you're starting!"
Harper wiggled herself away from Clara's cuddling and groaned more than she ever had before. "I am going to win! That's the whole point! I'm gonna line up at the starting line and leave you all behind in a cloud of red moonstone smoke!"
"Oho! That's some mighty fine boasting, Lamb!" Gilder grinned wide, standing up and walking out from the booth towards the crowd. "I think everyone deserves to know about this exciting development, don't you?"
Harper stood up and actually leapt over the table to quickly reach the other side. "Gil? Gil! Stop!"
It was way too late for that. To assuage some of her nerves, Clara had sidled up to Harper and placed a reassuring hand on the young woman's shoulder. They watched as Gilder wrangled the crowd's attention until every single patron in the Wastrel was offering him their rapt attention.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a sudden entry into tomorrow's race!" he started with a carnival barker's flair. "A racer of novice skill but a terrifyingly large amount of heart. Piloting a rickety old sloop and giving it her all in the hope of finally leaving you bastards behind!"
The tavern roared with laughter at Gilder's self deprecating remark although one voice was quick to assure the rogue that "If you're here, we're here too!" Many other voices agreed. This was Gilder's town and that's what mattered. Still, the older man continued with his pitch.
"You've seen her carrying trays of loqua and putting up with your lousy tipping etiquette! You've watched with amazement as she sits, does… some kind of ancient magick and balances Morris' overflowing ledger! But now she's got a ship of her own and mind to make some moves! Ladies and gentleman… friends…. The third racer on the track tomorrow will be our very own Harper Lamb!"
Gilder reached out and tugged her forward before the crowd and immediately all Harper wished was for a bolt of lighting to strike her and put an end to this misery. Curious mutters snaked through the crowd, carrying voices of doubt and the surreptitious musing of bookies and bet takers.
"Do you have anything to say for yourself, Lamb?" Gilder asked with a foppish bow before her.
"Give her a second!" Clara was fluttered about the young waitress, shielding her from the crowd and feverishly applying what makeup she could to Harper's features. A smacking powder puff and a few quick applications of who the hell knows what had transformed the homely barmaid into something a little more dashing. A little more like Clara. At least she could look the part of a well-off racer, right? With a final puff of makeup, Clara stepped aside and left Harper right in the open for every prying eye to see. Small, a little bit rosier in the cheeks, and completely unsure of what to do.
She might have run away with embarrassment or else said nothing at all but Harper felt something lit within her. It was a fire that said she was so close to achieving her goal; her dream of repaying her debts was almost over. All it would take was a little bit of showmanship and the bets could come rolling in.
"Listen up you grimey goats and slippery sardines!" She stood up tall and looked around the crowd. "I'm Harper 'friggin' Lamb and I got a boat of my own and damn dream in my heart! And the last person I'm gonna let keep me from taking first place is Gilder Ryskamp! Tomorrow I'm heading out there and even if I don't have the biggest ship, I'm gonna plot a course that leaves him and Clara McClintock suckin' on smoke as I hit the finish line!"
Harper moved towards the booth and stood on the table. "Any questions!?"
There was a pause. Not a great sign. Many of the patrons looked like they'd been slapped in the face or just witnessed some real debauchery. Then, in an explosion of chatter and even some laughter the room erupted with loud speculation on what would happen.
"You ain't finishing a race," a grey-haired barfly with a large gaptooth called out cruelly. "You're no sailor! I says two hundred gold that you don't even cross the finish line!"
Another voice upped the ante on that prediction. A grimey card shark at one of the poker tables called back. "Three hundred that she doesn't even make it halfway around the track!"
Then the bets were off. "Six hundred says she reaches the finish line," one voice called.
"I'll take a bet that says she wins! Twenty gold on Harper!"
The young woman watched in amazement as any and all possible outcomes were bet upon. Would she live or die? How far would she get? All the way? Half way? Would her hastily purchased boat even start or would it stall out right away? If there was a potential outcome, folks were betting on it. Few seemed to have confidence in Harper's ability to win save the bums and gamblers eager to chase the most unlikely odds for that ever so rare one in a million bet that changed their lives forever.
Then it really sank in. They were talking about her; betting over what she was doing. They were excited about Harper Lamb. Invested in her misadventure in a way that she could not have imagined. Maybe not everyone believed in her, but Gilder and Clara seemed to think that she could make a good showing of it. Her heart swelled with excitement. This was it. This was going to be her moment, and no matter what anyone else thought she knew that tomorrow would be the day that she made history, kicked everyone's ass, and changed her fortunes forever.
Gilder pulled her aside, leaning down slightly so he could ask Harper a question. "This dirty little sloop have a name yet?"
Harper grinned wide and watched as the crowd continued to chatter about her sudden entry into the race. She felt a stirring in her heart; a wonderful and dangerous warmth that she'd not felt in all her time on Cape Claudia. A small feeling, but even one drop of it was enough to convince her that everything was going to work out after all.
"Yeah, I got a name…"
"It's Gilder Ryskamp and the Claudia in the lead, followed by Clara McClintock and the Lovely Larkspur! Last and definitely least, far behind the main event is Harper Lamb in the Little Hope!"
Harper could barely hear the announcer's voice echoing out from the upper port as she pressed onwards through the sky. Old Rickets' worn down sloop, now refurbished into the Little Hope, wasn't the most impressive ship but thus far she was holding steady enough. While the Claudia and Larkspur had bolted from the starting line with a gust of blue moonstone engine pulses, the Little Hope had taken time to reach a proper pace. Two sails billowed into life as the wind blew off Cape Claudia and drove her small sloop onward.
Harper had scurried from sail to sail and then down to the minute moonstone engine where she deposited a scant few red moonstones to kick the tired thing into overdrive. The result was an ever-increasing pace that left the young woman grinning wide. She was behind right now but with fair winds and some proper care, there wasn't a doubt in her mind that the Hope could eventually make her way up towards where Gilder and Clara were duking it out for first place.
"Slow and steady," Harper said under her breath. "Tack into the wind on the next turn. You got this. You got this.."
Harper's focus drifted from her task as she felt a fresh gust toss her dirty blonde hair about. She laughed, both at the exciting stakes of her situation and simply because she was alone and wanted to laugh where no one would ever hear it. The cape wind was cool and crisp, washing over her until she all but forgot the deck beneath her feet or the wheel in her hand. She felt like a bird or streaming sky sardis. Uninhibited, unmoored. Anything but herself. Moving forward and faster through the sky. She turned to glance at the port and it looked so small .
Was that really where she was stuck? Was she really wasting her time working nights at a dirty bar and making amends for a bad bet that she hadn't even made? It was so tiny and the world was so big. The sky, touched with the slowly setting sun's burnt oranges, invited her to explore anything and everything beyond her modest port-town "home."
Tears stung Harper's eyes as the moment impressed itself upon her. If she wanted, she could turn her sails and stream off into the sunset. Wild and untamed and free. On to adventures she couldn't even imagine. With just one small spin of her wrists. Suddenly, the young woman was once again aware of the ship's wheel. It felt so light. Just one… little… turn… and..
Harper didn't turn the wheel and sail off into the sunset. Instead, she shook her head and came back to reality. She'd come out here to win and prove that she was just as good as Gilder or anyone else. All those bastards who bet against her would regret it. There was no way she was walking back into the Wastrel as a loser. She was going to strut in with her head held high. No longer everyone's little lamb but a woman to be reckoned with. A winner.
The Claudia streamed forward in the distance, tall black sails standing proud in the wind, and the Larkspur gave close chase. The narrow-frame clipper, Clara at the helm, couldn't have been more than a ship's length behind. It was as close a race as the gamblers could ask for. Harper scurried from the helm and back towards the engine, leaning down to pick up a handful of red moonstones from a rusty bucket and chucking them into the furnace. The Little Hope gave a sputtering kick and blasted forward with renewed purpose. Her fellow racers' ships started to grow larger and larger. Harper rushed to take hold of the helm and cut the wheel starboard. The sloop sliced into the wind and began to pick up speed. She didn't know if it would be enough to completely catch up to Gilder and Clara but so long as she was careful, she would certainly get close enough to warrant attention.
They were rushing down the cape side and there was plenty of space for her to gain ground before all three of them would need to slow pace to safely cut through Daccat's Defile. It was the most difficult part of the track: a narrow pass through two high mountain walls and a small speckling of rock reefs and island fragments. If you were ahead of the pack entering the pass, you had a fair chance of taking the second half of the race. Of course, you could always chicken out and go around the rock walls if you wanted to play it safe, but any racer worth their salt cut a path through the Defile. It was faster and—perhaps more importantly—the more flashy option.
"Almost there," Harper muttered. The young woman took a few breaths, hands clinging to the ship's wheel as she watched the Claudia dart into the gorge ahead of her. "Show them what you're made of!"
By this point, the Little Hope had slipped into the Larkspur's wake. Clara's vessel took a deliberate turn into the canyon, following Gilder easily. The Little Hope pressed along as well but whereas Gilder and Clara had clearly cut their engines heading into the pass, Harper kept her own running at full speed. This was her chance. While they were gliding through the pass, she'd blaze onwards like a falling moonstone and take the lead. She cut the wheel and lurched into the canyon.
Almost immediately, it became clear why Gilder and Clara had cut their engines. Daccat's Defile wasn't merely a tight walled canyon; it was brimming with floating rock shards, rippling rock riffs, and ship debris. Navigating it meant cutting through junk and stone and danger unlike anything Harper had imagined. The Little Hope streaked inwards and Harper spun the wheel about mere seconds before she might've collided with a stray land-spit. The sloop's side scraped against the rock but the hull did not slam. Harper held even tighter as the ship pressed on, the engine too gorged on moonstones to slow down. All three ships pressed on through speckled stone and around aging wreckage. But where the experienced racers did so with grace, Harper could only manage frantic swerving. The ship rocked and kicked as it dragged against the busted hulls of foolish sailors and roared as rock rifts clattered against the keel.
Damn it! Not now! Not here!
The Little Hope's engine gave a belch and the ship jerked forward. Harper was losing control. Ahead of her, Gilder easily exited the canyon and it was only a moment before Clara did as well. It wasn't so far until Harper could do likewise but the ship was hardly responding to her touch, smacking into rocks and lurching ahead without her willing it. As the canyon exit approached, a terrible snap! rang out as the Little Hope 's mainsails slammed against a rock floating higher in the air. Harper dived to the side as the masts buckled and snapped entirely, slamming to the deck. The sloop spun about as it reached the canyon mouth, running aground into a cliffside and coming to a stop with a furious smash. The stop tossed Harper about the deck until she felt her head smack! against a loose plank.
A burst of pain crackled through her skull like a firecracker. The world grew dark for a while. Ten seconds? Ten minutes? By the time Harper had stood back up, it was far too late. The Little Hope had shipwrecked itself right at the canyon's mouth.
"No! No!" The young woman screamed in anger as she stumbled brokenly about the deck and furiously attempted to move the fallen mast aside. Maybe if the deck was clear and free of any wreckage that could weigh it down, the engine would be able to lift what was left.
"I'm not losing here! I'm not!" Harper heaved at the mast with all her might, but it was a lot of wood and she was a very small teenage girl; it wasn't budging. "This was supposed to be the start! The start of something better! "
She was crying. When had she started crying? She didn't remember. It was honestly hard to keep focused on anything. The world was… well, it wasn't exactly spinning but it wasn't staying still. Her legs weren't working so well and just as she walked towards the ship's bow to look out to the rest of the track, her knees buckled and then gave way entirely. Harper grasped the railing to avoid falling and looked out to see the rest of the race. Up ahead, the Claudia had turned around entirely and was sailing back in her direction.
By the Moons, she was tired. Try as she might, she couldn't keep her eyes open and each passing second was one where her body started to feel heavier and heavier. Harper's grip on the railing let go and she tumbled to the ground like a stringless puppet. She closed her eyes and the world suddenly grew quiet. There was nothing except her exhaustion and the pain in her head and a growing sense that she was leaving anything else behind. She didn't mind it and almost allowed herself to drift off entirely before she felt herself getting lifted up into someone's arms. If only she could explain…
"I can.. do.. it," she muttered quietly. Her breaths turned ragged; she was starting to wheeze. "I don't need anyone to…. I can.. win.."
"I know,' Gilder replied in the darkness. "But not today.. Now, let's get you somewhere safe, Lamb..
Harper tried to speak but found her lips were too heavy, and finally drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
Harper drifted in a sea of black for longer than she could comprehend. Or was it shorter than she could comprehend? In the half-waking world between sleep and life, it was difficult to know what was real. She recalled worried voices and the sudden softness of her bed and then… nothing. For a long while there was nothing but blackness and peace. And then the faint smell of vanilla listed to her nostrils. Vanilla and the soothing smell of hot tea. If she focused, she could perceive the steaming cup right by her bedside. As she did that, the world began to return to her. She had crashed, she remembered, and hell or high water it was time to wake up.
It was a small thing, easier said than done. Opening her eyes brought immediate pain into her skull as beams of yellow moonstone lamplight cast upon her, and her attempts to sit up were stymied by the absolute soreness of her body. Like if one of those Nasrean dhabu had kicked her in the chest. Her head was pounding, her body ached. It was easy to say "well, that's better than being dead" but there was enough pain that Harper wouldn't have said no to oblivion either.
"Careful," a deep voice warned. "Doc Warner says you got a concussion and that you probably cracked a rib too."
Harper ignored the voice and was rewarded with a sizzle of pain in her side that caused her to sharply suck in another breath before finally exhaling. She rubbed her eyes and looked toward a nearby chair. Gilder was seated there, leaned forward and watching Harper carefully. His features were a very monument to worry but he managed a smile regardless.
"Hey, kiddo," he offered. "Welcome back to the land of the living. It's not the best place, very often smells like piss, and there's far too many Valuan ships in the sky but it does have decent tea." He nodded to the cup at her bedside.
Harper slowly sat taller and reached out to take the cup. She sipped, letting the medley of vanilla and cinnamon dance upon her tongue for a moment before swallowing. She managed a smile of her own; there were few better things in life than tea and apparently few better teas than the one you drank right after nearly dying.
Still, the wind drained quickly from Harper's sales. "I couldn't finish the race," she said as if it was proof positive that she was a terrible person. "I tried and.. and…" Tears swelled at her eyes but she took a breath and held them back, wiping her eyes upon her arm.
"You're not the first or last person to run afoul of Daccat's Defile," Gilder said sympathetically. "I know it's hard right now but… you did alright, kid. Maybe coulda tried not to crash but you still did a damn sight more than plenty of those old barflies betting on the race have ever done.."
"It don't friggin' matter!" Harper winced as pain shot through her side. Gilder leaned forward but she waved him off. "It.. doesn't matter because I didn't finish. No coin, no nothing. Just a lot of pain and more debt."
Gilder sighed, staring Harper down. "Four words, kid. Say them right now and we're off once you're better."
Harper said nothing for a long time. She was angry and doing her best to let the anger pass lest she say something stupid to her friend. Eventually, she shook her head.
"No," she said quietly. "Not like this. Not until I earn it."
"Earn what, you stupid little brat?" Gilder snapped back. "A spot in my crew? My respect? Lamb, you've done more than enough. Let it go. There's nothing to prove to anyone. Not me, not Clara.."
"To myself!" Harper yelled. Her voice cracked harshly as all her frustration boiled to the surface. "I'm not leaving here until I can prove I'm more than little lamb Harper the marooned moron! I'm not heading back to Sailor's Island as a nobody; I'm gonna be someone! A racer! A pirate! Something better than whatever the hell I am now!"
Gilder raised a hand. "Breathe," he coached. "Just take a moment and breathe."
"Screw off," Harper said. She wasn't listening to anything Gilder was going to say. She'd been holding this in too long.
"You don't know what it's like to be... left by someone. And you have no idea what it's like to have to figure all this stupid shit out without family or anything else. You've never had anything taken from you. You're Gilder! You're everyone's best friend. You haven't ever lost.."
A crack rang through the room. Harper felt her head snap back, all the words scattered from her mouth. The teenager sat in silence for a moment. It wasn't until she felt the burning in her cheek that Harper realized that Gilder had slapped her. She looked at him with wide eyes, completely taken aback.
The older man looked at her with a gaze unlike anything she'd seen before. "Listen here, Lamb," he started seriously. "You have no clue what I've lost or what I've had to rise above."
Harper nodded. "I didn't… I mean…"
"Have you been dealt some bad cards? Sure," Gilder noted sympathetically. "But you have people here that worry about you. Me and Clara and Morris. Hell, everyone's worried about you right now. We were worried you wouldn't make it at all.."
"I'm sorry,' Harper said quietly. "I just… wanted to be something other than.. Me."
"You're fifteen," Gilder said exasperatedly. "What you are right now isn't who you're gonna be forever. You have time, kiddo. To become whatever the hell you want. Pirate, racer, or anything else. This isn't all you'll ever have!"
Harper sighed, running both of her hands through her hair and pulling the blankets up around herself for a moment in a childish attempt to feel safe and assured. "I know…"
Gilder nodded. "Good," he said. "Because not a single one of us is gonna sit back and say that you haven't been trying. Everyone sees it. You don't have anything left back home? Whatever! You got stuff right here on Cape Claudia. Doubly so after having the balls to hit the track.."
Harper laughed. "Couldn't finish," she said. "Made it only half way…"
"Half way…" Gilder held the words on his tongue for a moment. "More than enough for plenty of folks to collect on some juicy bets," he added teasingly. "For once, you're the talk of the town."
The young woman sighed. "So what now?"
"Well, I bet the doctor would tell you to rest," Gilder said conspiratorially. "But what if we went to go see your adoring public?"
Harper smiled weakly, already turning to stumble out of her bed. She kept the blanket around her. "Go on ahead," she told Gilder. "I'll freshen up as I'm able and then meet you downstairs in the bar."
The rogue grinned in reply. "Don't leave folks waiting," he said with a dramatic bow. "Lest they go another night without the presence of the bold if somewhat bullhead gal who wrecked her ship naught but half way through her first race."
Gilder offered yet another bow before exiting the room. Harper exhaled. Her body ached still but at least she was up and moving, with people in her life that were worried for her well being. She dropped the blanket, standing in the middle of her room in nothing more than her skirts and chemise—the doctor had almost certainly removed her jacket to examine her ribs—and took a moment to enjoy the solitude. Not for long but enough that she was able to wander from her bedside to her tiny bookshelf and finally appreciate the fact that she was, in fact, not dead. She quickly changed into a pair of simple slacks and her trusty jacket ensemble before leaving the room and walking down the stairs. After a while of living over a bar, you didn't even notice when it was busy or not. Each step downwards brought more sounds and chattering. The same drunken boasts and gambling as before but she could have sworn that she could hear her name being whispered from time to time.
Step by step, downwards and downwards until she walked into the Wastrel proper, doing what she could to hide her face from curious glances. She saw Morris down by the bar, the old man's face instantly lighting up; a far cry from the fatherly fury she'd expected. Other patrons looked at her differently too. Some were sneering and sniggering, others nodded to her who would have never nodded before. She was content to leave it at that until Gilder, standing at the bottom of the stairs, gestured up towards her and started to speak.
"Ladies and bastards! Fresh from the grave and working off a mighty fine few injuries, I introduce our beloved barmaid and bookworm Harper Lamb! Another fool who fell afoul of the fiendish follies of Daccat's Defile! But unlike many, she has lived to tell the tale! The patron saint of bad ideas who still made it half-way to victory!"
Harper froze in place on the stairwell. She didn't say anything, and could do little more than stare like a Black Pirate caught robbing the pantry. To her surprise, the bars' patrons began to clap for her. A few gave out cheers. "Earned me a pretty gold or two!" "Happy yer kickin' kid!" "I told them that ye wouldn't die!"
She was a snot-nosed teenage brat, too disaffected for her own good and too smart for nearly every damn pirate she ever met but it didn't matter. For the first time in ages she felt like she had a home. Because what else could home be but the place where people believed in you?
Gilder continued his dramatic introduction with an improvisational flourish, one that would define who she was on the Cape for years to come. "That's right folks," he said. "Give it up for Half-Way Harper!"
The muted-warm taste of tea brought Harper out of her memories, her story ending without any more elaborations. She didn't look at Vyse for some time, wondering if he would ask follow up questions—Did she just go back to working at the bar after? Did Gilder give her one last chance to sail off before he finally took the Claudia far over the finish line and off to the horizon? Harper's gaze remained fixed on the table before her. She spotted a spare manifest, a half-written letter from a sailor to his mother back home, and some scrawled note about shifting Valuan patrol routes. If Vyse had questions, it hardly mattered. This was her reality now and it had been for some time; a woman too tired for her age whiling away time with papers and inks.
The silence was killing her though, so she quickly broke it. "One race," the woman said plainly. "One chance to really change course and instead all I have to show for it is a nickname."
For his part Vyse looked at her with sympathy before talking again. He was still smiling—perhaps something about the story resonated with him—but to Harper's irritation, he was looking at her with that same brotherly look that Gilder used to spare.
"You're lucky to be alive," he said seriously even as something resembling approval warmed his tone. "It could have gone a lot worse."
Harper scoffed. "You literally escaped Valuan by blowin' the Great Gate open," she said dryly. "I dunno if I need to hear the phrase "lucky to be alive" coming from you, Vyse."
The rogue paused, considering the matter with a few nods to his head. "I suppose you've got me there," he said. "But lemme ask: why not race again?"
Harper looked at Vyse as if he'd grown an extra head. "Did you not hear my story? I crashed my ship and completely ate my own foot in the process. I'm not a sailor. Which is fine; part of life is about understanding who you're not. Me? I'm not some… Blue Rogue or whatever."
"You could be."
Vyse's reply was so simple; there was no affect or patronizing to his voice. He wasn't trying to cheer her up or bolster her confidence with kind words. He was telling her what he thought was the truth. No doubt in his voice. He wasn't offering her a ride home or extending charity to a wayward soul. He wasn't giving her some big brotherly ticket back to Sailor's Island or a small hint about a quieter, safer job away from the Cape. Gilder's offers were always given with what she felt was an unspoken subtext: that she didn't belong in a place like Cape Claudia. That she wasn't tough enough. That she should go back to whatever "normal" life she had before. He'd never said it out of anything other than concern for a friend but that very concern had led Harper to stubbornly turn down Gilder's help. She didn't want anyone's charity, especially back then.
In the end, Gilder had sailed off into the sunset. Then Clara left too. Harper couldn't help but think to those moments; the moments where she could have done something and stubbornly dug in. Vyse's words echoed in her mind. So plain, so straightforward. Vyse had a pure and honest belief that if she wanted, she could easily be a Blue Rogue. She'd missed so many chances before now, and now there was another before her. Just four little words...
Harper rubbed her eyes, trying to anchor herself back to reality. "What?"
"You could be a Blue Rogue," he said. "You scuffed it in one race but if I had to call quits after every time I lost a spar or got roughed up during a raid, I'd have quit this life ages ago. It was one setback. That's it. You get up and move on to the next thing."
"You wouldn't understand…" Maybe if she ignored the yearning in her heart it would pass.
Vyse scratched his nose for a moment, leaning in close. "You think I can't tell you're afraid? I can," he said bluntly. "Sitting here surrounded by books and spitting me that line about becoming a "fixture." You're no more stuck here now than you were back then, Lamb."
The words cut deep, so Harper settled for sass instead of tackling the problem head on. She reached out and flicked a stack of precariously tall papers. "These clients certainly are expecting me to be here," she said. A deflection. She didn't want to acknowledge Vyse's deeper points.
"So what?" The young man immediately countered. How was it that he could sound both like a child and the wisest man in Arcadia? "They can get by without you holding their hands."
Harper sighed, leaning back in her seat and shaking her head for a moment. "Do you need something, Vyse? I'm swamped with work right now."
"Just you, Harper."
Her gaze snapped back to Vyse, heart pounding with a vigor she'd not felt in ages. "..You're not asking for a forgery, are you?"
Vyse chuckled, shaking his head. He looked like he was waiting. But for what?
"Nope, that's not what I'm asking," he said. He had an energy unlike anything Harper had ever encountered; like this simple bit of conversational cat and mouse was exciting to him as a ship battle. "I'm putting together a crew, you see. And you seem like you might be a good fit."
Harper froze. It was hard to really understand what Vyse was saying. She was no one. A book clerk, a glorified postal worker. Hell, she wasn't even a certified accountant. She was just a kid who got caught on one spit of land and did what she could to get by. Vyse needed raiders and fighters, helmsman and buccaneers, engineers and cartographers.
"I can't fight," Harper started plaintively. "I can hardly sail. It's random "luck" that I even made it out of Meridia. What the heck do you need someone like me for? Aren't you on some big crusade to fight the empire? What am I supposed to do? Help you do your taxes?"
"Keep records," Vyse said kindly. "I need someone who can manage correspondence, track our supplies. But I need someone who can just… write it all down. Our journey, the things we see. Because I'm sick of tall-tales already, Harper."
Harper looked at Vyse and watched as all the artifice melted away. The grand pirate she was looking at before was just a man and one who, like any other man, seemed in over his head. Young, unsure, and already weighed down by expectation. She thought she'd been talking to Vyse Dyne, the future King of Rogues. Turns out that he was just… Vyse.
"You want actual records,' she realized. "Not some copper novel takes but proper notes and documentation. About what you did…"
"And why I did it," Vyse added. "Because it's not about glory or anything else; we're doing what's right because it's right. Everything else? The fun and excitement? The sights and sounds? That's the bonus. And damned if there's not already been plenty of things that need documenting."
Harper raised an eyebrow. "All your heroic deeds?"
"All the people we've met," Vyse said seriously. "Their cultures and customs. I'm not asking you to become some tagalong biographer. I need someone keeping track of what we see because that's one way for us to respect it. Understand?"
Never in all her life, much of which had been spent around pirates, gamblers, and would-be explorers had Harper heard such an earnest answer. She had no doubt that Vyse craved action and adventure—he had the look of someone who couldn't stay put for ten minutes—but most folks sailing the sky wanted to make everything about themselves. Their business, their gold, their crew, their freedom. Which was fine and made sense; the world was harsh and there was nothing wrong with wanting your own slice of the clouds. Less common? Someone who gave a damn. Someone who was just as excited to learn about and honor culture instead of planting their flag in the ground and claiming they "discovered" something of their own.
He could have said anything. Instead, Vyse said the perfect thing, and it lit Harper's heart ablaze with possibilities. "So I'd be an office assistant and some type of historian all at once?"
The thought was tantalizing. She'd already traced enough history here on Cape Claudia but it was mostly race results and manifests. Getting to see the world? Documenting new places and peoples, not like some stuffy Valuan conqueror would but as someone eager to learn and embrace whatever wonderful thing she found? That sounded very good.
Vyse nodded. "If you want," he said. "But you gotta decide right here and now since each passing second is one where Valua could pull ahead of us.."
"Pull ahead of you… with what?"
"The search for ancient crystals that summon Old World monsters powerful enough to bring about the end of the world as we know it."
Harper said nothing because, really, how was anyone meant to respond to that? She reached over to grab her tea cup and slowly lift it to her lips and sip. It hardly mattered that the tea had long since gone cold over the course of their conversation. It was an attempt to latch on to anything normal about the conversation. Lukewarm flicks of bitter black tea played on her tongue, the bite softened by the remaining dregs of vanilla and cinnamon within the liquid. She kept her eyes fixed on Vyse, who did little more than watch her carefully in turn.
Eventually, she placed her cup down and sighed. "Listen…"
"I get it," Vyse said with a wave of his hands. "It's a lot to ask and you seem plenty fine sticking with your work here. I shouldn't have said anything.." He stood up slowly and jerked a thumb towards the door. "But you can't just h-"
"Wait!" Harper interjected. Vyse paused, looking at her with surprise. Clearly he'd expected to make some type of inspiring speech or impassioned pitch about seeing the world and fighting evil.
"I'll… do it," Harper said even as her voice began to shake nervously;. She did her best to hide the beating of her heart and her quivering hands. "If that's what you're asking, I'll do it."
She was tired of this place. Tired of convincing herself that she needed to live and die on Cape Claudia. Tired of lamenting the girl she once was. Tired of blurry days and long nights. Tired of being alone. Tired of being nobody. Tired of not being the person she knew she could be; the person that Gilder must have seen all those years ago when he took her stranded ass to see Morris and get a roof over her head. Tired of missing out.
This might be her last chance to do something, anything other than waste away at the far edge of nowhere. So she wasn't going to be stubborn. If that meant sailing with Vyse, she'd do it. Harper Lamb couldn't save the world. Hell, she could hardly save herself. But she could help make sure the guy who was going to save the world had moonstones in the tank, food in the pantry, and writing that told the truth of his deeds.
The Blue Rogue grinned. "You're sure?"
"Yeah," Harper replied with a smile of her own. "Take me with you."
The Delphinus was unlike anything Harper could have imagined. She'd pictured sailing off with the Captain on a relatively normal galleon but she'd emerged to the port to see the gleaming pride of Valua before her. Massive forward cannon batteries and the telltale signs of torpedo bays boasted of a ship that wasn't just gorgeous to look at but dangerous to tangle with. That contrast was important. The Delphinus truly was beautiful, a shining beacon in the battle against Valua oppression. Just the sight of it ignited a fresh fire in Harper's heart. She really was setting off on an adventure, and while the scale of it was starting to impress itself upon her—she was meant to help manage the day to day tasks of quite possibly the largest battleship in the world now—it also brought a smile to her face. Vyse was everything he seemed to be and then some.
The boarding process was a blur unto itself, a flurry of introductions and directions that Harper internalized but also could hardly keep track off. Had she shaken hands with the Prince of Valua? She'd shaken someone's hand and muttered a hello but had that really been Enrique Luis Alonso Mateo Vázquez? A red-haired woman had clapped her on the shoulder so hard that she nearly tumbled over; all Harper could do was nervously wave back as Vyse guided her down toward the crew quarters. They walked down a hall and scooted to the side as a small huskra darted by, chased by a small young boy with ruddy hair. What the hell was happening?
She had expected a bunk but as they clanked and marched through the tight hallways, Vyse opened the door to a modestly-sized room that wasn't too far from the captain's quarters.
"This is you," Vyse said with a gracious sweep of his arm. She stepped in, spinning around to look at it. It wasn't much but was actually larger than the tiny room she'd held above the Wastrel for the last seven years.
"Are you serious?" her voice rippled with delight as she looked at her captain. "Shouldn't this go to someone else? Someone important?"
Vyse shrugged, pointing around the space. "Figure a small bed there," he said as he gestured to one corner. "Bookshelves to the side and a desk in the center. It's gonna be as much an office as your quarters so it seemed to make sense putting you here."
Harper took a breath. It all felt like some strange dream. "An office," she said. "Working by lamplight or sitting down with folks to handle whatever business is at hand.."
"That's right," Vyse said. "You'll end up working with Aika plenty; she's acting as quartermaster and also helping with engineering. Gotta imagine she'll have a lot of requests and I fully expect you to assist with whatever she asks. Understood?"
Harper stood a bit taller. "Yes, sir," she said seriously. "Captain."
"No, sir," Harper offered. "Unless there was anything you particularly needed?"
Vyse leaned against one of the cold steel walls and nodded. "I maintain journals of my own," he explained. "Sketches and some air current charts. Spare thoughts as well. Once you're all settled in, I'd like you to review them."
That was a surprise. Harper looked at Vyse cautiously, unsure if he was serious or if this was some sort of test. Was she supposed to agree? They hardly knew each other and he was trusting her with that much already. "Captain, I… Are you sure?"
The young man nodded. "I want you up to speed on everything," he said. " As time goes on, we'll compare our voyage notes."
"But, I mean… Sir, it's your journal," she fruitlessly tried to explain. "A private space.."
Vyse grinned. "Yeah, and if you tell a soul what's inside there, I'll toss you off the deck myself," he said half-seriously before walking over and offering her his hand. "Deal?"
The scribe took Vyse's hand and shook it; far more firmly than anything she managed back during their initial meeting in the Wastrel . "Deal."
Their hands parted and Vyse sauntered towards the door. "Good," he said chipperly. "Now, your first assignment as a member of my crew is to take whatever you need from out in the port and get it back here before we leave."
"Before we leave?" Harper repeated. "How much time is that?"
"Three hours," Vyse said with a chuckle. "So you might want to hurry!"
Eyes wide, Harper rushed out of her room and clambered through the Delphinus' halls until she was on the deck. Scampering down the gankplank, she bolted into the port and slipped through familiar pathways down to the Wastrel. It was, as much as she would consider it, a red alert. Three hours to move her life from one stodgy room above an even stodgier bar into her own personal quarters on the finest ship that Valua's engineers had ever produced. Thankfully, years of working on people's personal finances and scrawling out their letters meant that even if she didn't really have anyone left in Cape Claudia that she really considered a friend, there were plenty of drunken bastards and wayward scoundrels who owed her a favor. With Morris' help, Harper assembled a motley crew of fisherman and questionable persons to start lugging her belongings from the lower port and up towards the Delphinus.
It wasn't like she had much stuff anyway; Harper wasn't the sentimental sort. Her bedroom was mostly a bed, a dresser for her clothes, a small writing desk, and a modest bookshelf with tomes ranging from old Meridian history and Valuan magick theory to biographies of Daccat and more up-to-date primers on the ever-shifting nature of Nasr's politics. Those were the things she cared about more than anything else. Her books were her lifeblood, so when some shaky handed "volunteer" dropped her vanity mirror—perhaps her one real item worth any value—she didn't really mind it much. After all, she was hardly pretty by anyone's standard to begin with; what did it matter to her if the mirror broke so long as she had all her books and reference materials?
Vyse had given her three hours. With the help of her impromptu workforce, she'd assembled passable living quarters in a little over two. It wasn't much: bed, desk, a shelf. One crate of clothes and assorted knick knacks, another brimming with books. Still, it felt like a good start and Harper was content to spend her time organizing her bookshelf. Alphabetically, by author's last name. It steadied her mind. Each book placed was another worry lifted from her shoulders. Old debts, bungled romances, embarrassing failures. Those would be left behind on the cape; there was only the future and whatever surprises came her way.
She'd nearly finished the first section of her shelf with a quiet voice called out by the entrance to her room.
"Um, hello," a woman greeted softly. Light like the wind itself. "I think you dropped this book out in the hallway."
Harper took a moment to admire the shelf, not yet turning to regard her new guest. "You can place it on the desk," she said simply. "I'm still organizing everything and.."
She turned around and immediately lost her words. A slight woman in a pearl white dress unlike anything Harper had ever seen walked softly into the room and placed the lost tome on her desk. Her heart skipped a beat as she regarded the woman. Soft features and hair even more blonde than her own, almost to the point of being silver. Kind green eyes and a strange tattoo on her forehead that didn't align with any script that Harper had seen before.
But it wasn't the curious nature of the woman's clothes or her strange markings that caught Harper's attention. It was the woman's overwhelming grace and beauty that left her unsure of what to say. For Harper, it was like looking into a mirror that showed everything she couldn't be. Where Harper's hair was untamed, this woman's was silken and perfect. Where her own face often settled into a tired frown, the blonde woman was smiling warmly as if that was her natural state. And where Harper dressed plainly—hardly able to pull off even the most basic of dresses—this strange woman looked like an honest-to-Moons princess, so beautiful that it almost hurt to see.
"And what?" the woman asked sincerely. Moons, it made Harper's pulse skip a beat to know that this woman was paying attention to her. Her! Half-Way Harper Lamb!
"And I…" Harper was working to find her voice. It took a moment but she pressed onwards, voice shaking nervously for reasons she didn't entirely understand. Was this woman merely inspiring to behold or was this something else…?
"I'll be at it for a while yet," managed to say modestly. "S'not much of an office, I'm afraid. I only just got here.."
The woman wandered around the room for a moment, examining it with a shy and soft gaze. "It's the start of something," she assessed. "So it doesn't need to be perfect right away, right?"
Harper blinked. "No," she agreed. "I suppose not when you put it like that.."
The blonde woman looked at her and Harper once again felt utterly vulnerable. "You're the writer that Vyse met in town?" she asked happily. "He was very excited that you said yes to his offer you know; said it would be very good to have proper records for the journey. I agree."
Harper moved away from the bookshelf and cautiously extended a hand toward the woman. "Harper Lamb," she introduced. "It's…"
Lovely? Overwhelming? Confusing?
"... nice to meet you, Miss..?"
The woman didn't take her hand but instead bowed formally. Color came to Harper's face as the woman rose up and smiled at her. "Fina," she said. "Thank you very much.."
The scribe blinked. "For what? I haven't done anything?"
Fina shook her head. "You have," she insisted. "You didn't need to come along or agree to help with this quest but you did. So I am thanking you. For your assistance."
"It's nothing," Harper said with a nervous wave of her hands. "Vyse was pretty persuasive and I'd had enough of doing nothing important with my life, so here I am… on this ship… where we are apparently off to find magick rocks and stop giant monsters…"
"The Moon Crystals," Fina intoned seriously. Her light voice, so pleasant and wonderful—soaring sweetly like a lark and inviting as an old friend—took on a more worrisome tone. "It's been a difficult journey so far, and the pathway to the east will be even more perilous.."
Harper sighed, walking to her desk and taking a seat. Fina stood in place for a moment before Harper realized she was waiting for permission to sit as well. Permission! From her! The scribe immediately leapt up and walked around the desk and pulled out the other chair for Fina to sit in. The woman bowed again before sitting down. Harper quickly rounded the desk again and returned to her own chair. She looked at Fina for a moment, noting the woman's nerves.
"You sound worried," she said carefully. "You got this far though, right?"
"We have," Fina said with a soft smile. "But passing through the Dark Rift will not be easy.. Few things could cause a gravitic anomaly that great…"
"An anomaly of what now?"
Fina giggled. "Sorry," she said, and Harper understood immediately she meant it. That she felt sorry for creating even the smallest of confusions. "I sometimes forget that this world hasn't quite come to understand such things."
It drew Harper's attention, the inner journalist in her which had been squashed for years suddenly coming out as she grabbed a spare piece of paper and loose pencil. She looked at Fina curiously. Odd markings and clothes, strange words.
"Where are you from, exactly?"
"Did Vyse not tell you?" she asked before taking a breath and turning somewhat more serious. "I am.. a descendant of the Silver Civilization. A Silvite. Sent here on a mission to collect the Moon Crystals. When I first arrived, I was attacked by the Armada. Vyse and Aika saved me.."
The last part was said with such deep affection that it caused Harper's heart to twinge slightly. She pushed it aside. The revelation was offered so plainly, but the scribe nevertheless found herself overwhelmed. The pencil fell from her hand and rolled along her desk.
"You're… a Silvite?" she asked, standing up and walking to the bookshelf and returning to place a dusty history book on the table. She flipped through to an appendix on ancient civilizations. "A Silvite. Like… Old World dweller? Along with the Ardites or Glacians?"
Fina's face took on some embarrassed color. "Yes.. but also no. I'm not from then but my ancestors were."
"But… where did you come from?"
"Above," Fina said simply. For a moment, Harper's mind filled with all manner of allusions. Angels, birds. Anything and everything. "My people live… high up from all of you."
Harper exhaled. "So you're some… Silvite princess fallen from on high, charged with a holy mission to save the world?"
The young woman giggled. Loose but not entirely well practiced; like a side of her that was still under construction. "I'm not a princess," she said. "And I didn't fall either. I had a ship."
"Right," Harper said, leaning back in her chair as she tried to take it all in. Crystals, the Old World, a gleaming ship captained by a dashing young rogue. She paused for a moment before an odd morsel of trivia passed her mind.
"They said in the Old World, folks didn't need moonstones for magick," she mused. "Can you.. cast spells without a stone?"
"I can," Fina said. The sweet woman extended a palm and Harper watched as a glowing flicker of dancing orange flame puffed into existence before fading and resolving into a swirl of icy wind. "For my people, magick runs through our bodies much more easily."
"I'll be damned," Harper intoned. "You're… that 's incredible. I can't do anything like that. Never had enough gold to find a processed moonstone of my own, or the need.."
"All people have a certain degree of magickal energy within their body," Fina explained kindly. "It's the reason why certain souls find affinity with specific kinds of moonstones."
Harper chuckled. "You sayin' that I'm magickal?"
"In a way, yes. Everyone is."
The scribe nodded, letting the words sink in. They felt so kind coming from Fina. She leaned forward on the desk. "Can you… sense it? That magick? That.. affinity?"
Fina nodded. "I'm sensitive to such things," she said. "How I perceive the world is… different from you or even Vyse. Everyone has their own natural color; readable and knowable as any other feature."
Harper demurred. "I have.. a color? How can you be sure?"
Fina hesitated for a moment before reaching out toward Harper's hand; the Silvite paused just long enough to get a nod of approval before she held the scribe's fingers in her palm. Harper was transfixed. Unsure of exactly what was happening and yet every part of her felt electrified. Fina closed her eyes and focused. For a moment nothing happened until Harper felt a tingle at her fingertips and watched as a light flicker of green manifested and the telltale sign of magick droplets floated up from her hand. She watched them, these odd emerald specks, as they rose and then faded into nothing.
Fina let go of her hand. "Green," she said softly. "An affinity for life and healing. With a stone, you might hone that into proper spells."
"How did you…"
Fina smiled. "I did very little more than open the circuits within you," she said, as if she'd done something as mundane as holding a door open for Harper. "The rest was you."
Harper looked at Fina once more and found herself in absolute awe. "That was me ," she repeated in shock. Her? Plain old Harper Lamb? Fina nodded.
"There were small things I sensed too," the woman admitted. "For instance, you were born under the Silver Moon.."
"In Meridia," Harper affirmed. "Green Cliff Isle. Not that I stayed too long; I left the village as soon as I was old enough to really hold a job. You.. can sense that?"
"There's the smallest fragment of Silver magicks within you," Fina explained. "Like with Vyse. When you're born under a moon and bask in its light, it leaves traces. Like an.. Imprint."
Harper nodded, a sly smile coming to her face. "So I could do Silver magicks if I tried?"
"Not at all," Fina said. The reply came perhaps too quickly for Harper's liking. "Few if anyone in the world could do that now, even with a moonstone. And you…"
"What about me?" Worry washed over Harper as she saw Fina's face grow somewhat sad.
"I'm sorry," the Silvite said. "Even with your affinity towards Green magicks and even with a proper moonstone, any magick you attempt will be… modest at best. It doesn't shine brightly within you.."
Harper sighed. "Ah well," she said weakly, trying and failing to hide her own disappointment. "Not everyone can be as special as you, I guess.."
Fina seemed taken aback. Harper froze. It must have sounded like such a stupid thing to say. Hell, Fina seemed the modest sort; Harper had probably insulted her by calling attention to her abilities. Stupid, stupid. She just couldn't stop herself from saying something too forward, could she? Harper brought a hand to her face and rubbed her eyes, trying to press past the moment.
For her part, Fina demurred. "I'm not… special," she insisted. "No more than anyone else. My being able to use magick more easily doesn't make me better than you."
"Forget I said anything," Harper insisted. "I never really grew up around much magick so the fact that you can do what you do? It's…
" ...very impressive."
"I suppose?" Fina mused. "For me, it's just how things have always been."
Harper smiled. "How things have always been," she repeated. "Well, Fina… can I ask a favor?"
The Silvite paused, clearly unsure of what she could possibly help her new crewmate with. Nevertheless, she nodded. "Of course."
Harper gestured around her room and towards the book shelf. "Vyse wants me to keep proper records of the rest of your journey," she said. "Some of that will mean going over old records and talking to the rest of you. But…"
She paused. Vyse wanted her to record other cultures, yes? To respect them? This was as good a chance as any. Knowledge of the Old World from someone with first hand experience would be groundbreaking across multiple fields. Besides, the company would be nice too..
"I wonder if we might find some time to talk about your people," she said. "About you and where you came from. At least when my duties don't require me to focus on other matters. Would you be willing to do that? Not everything, mind you. Just… whatever you'd be willing to share with me."
Fina seemed to think it over and Harper watched as a variety of impulses played over her features. Interest, worry, the smallest flicker of fear, a liberal touch of hesitation and then finally a tilt of the head signaling approval.
"I believe I could do that," she said carefully. "Not everything, like you said, but there are some things I could share. After all this time, it seems only right. Especially if Vyse is asking you to document our circumstances.."
Harper smiled wider than she had in some time. "That settles it," she said happily. "But for now? I should probably sort out the rest of my books."
They stood up, facing each other and Harper once again felt the pain of looking into a mirror whose reflection was not her own. So impossibly not her own. It hurt, but she didn't mind.
Fina gave a parting bow and walked towards the door. Before she could leave, Harper called out one more time. "Fina!"
The young woman turned to look at her with friendly eyes and a curious smile. "Yes?"
"Thank you," Harper managed.
Harper shifted in place, hands moving to fiddle with each other. Hands that Fina had helped make shine with green magicks. Fina seemed to notice the gesture too, eyes lingering on Harper's hands.
"Just… thank you," the scribe managed. "For showing me that part of myself. For your kindness.."
The Silvite smiled. "You're welcome, Harper," she replied before walking out into the hall.
The sun drifted low in the skies of Cape Claudia as the Delphinus departed and pressed on into the Frontier Lands airspace. Harper had first noticed it by the strange whirring noises of the engine starting up but instead of an intense rumbling permeating the ship, she was surprised to find that the Delphinus barely shook at all. Sure, there was the telltale vibration and occasional creaking but it was hardly enough to draw her from organizing the rest of her shelf. For a time after Fina's departure, she'd had her room to herself and was content to organize her workspace into something approaching a respectable place of business. Or at least as respectable as you could find on a stolen Valuan warship run by a ragged group of Blue Rogues.
Blue Rogue. The word caught in the back of her mind like an unwanted thought. That's what she was now, wasn't it? Not just some ship clerk or accountant but an honest-to-Moons pirate galavanting about with the world's most wanted criminal. It hardly seemed to fit her but she resolved to wear it well in time. Vyse had granted her a lot of trust already and Fina…
Well, Fina was another matter entirely and one that Harper wasn't quite ready to unravel entirely. She was a kind woman and possessed a mystical understanding of the world that Harper, with all her love of books and rationality, would never quite achieve. She was also everything Harper wished she could be but had no notion of how to actually embody. Truly feminine and graceful; soft and almost the perfect model of quiet fortitude. It was all Harper could do to not hyperfocus on that lovely moment where, for a brief second, Fina had allowed her to feel magickal as well. She'd deal with all these feelings another time, she reckoned. For the moment, Harper wanted the satisfaction of watching her home drift away until it was a speck on the horizon.
Years ago, in that ill-fated race against Gilder and Clara, she'd dared to dream of turning her ship's wheel and peeling off into the clouds until Cape Claudia was nothing but a memory. Well, it hadn't quite worked out like that, but five years later she was getting her wish. In some strange way, that fleeting dream was now reality. And she wanted to see it with her eyes. Both to smile at the start of a new adventure and to offer one last goodbye to the port that had, against all odds, become her home.
Harper left her quarters and walked through the Delphinus's narrow halls, nervously pushing by a brown-haired pirate and her ruddy red-headed companion on her way towards the deck. The man gave her a nod but the woman did little more than glance at her up and down as if making a judgement call. Harper didn't really feel much like socializing or making introductions; she would rather feel the wind in her hair and see her home one last time before flying off into misadventure. It was somewhat easier said than done; the Delphinus wasn't overly labyrinthine but she was still very new to it and found herself looping around on a few locations more than once before she finally found the door to the deck.
Her reward for opening the sealed door was warm air and a fine breeze worthy of the finest late springtime days. It was that mixture of hot and cold where the lingering sunbeams brought warmth but the air itself was crisp enough to invigorate the body with a fresh burst of energy. A better parting air would have been impossible, and Harper took it as a sign that she was off on a worthy adventure that would hopefully reinvigorate the less nourished parts of her soul. It wasn't that she was a sad person; it was just that after a time there was a ennui that snaked into her heart. Years on Cape Claudia took a toll, especially on someone so young and unprepared. After her botched racing attempt, that had only become even more true.
That said, she couldn't help but smile knowing that part of her life was in the past. Walking carefully on the deck, she leaned on the portside railing and looked at Cape Claudia as it grew smaller and smaller. A poignancy fluttered within her. Her early years, when Gilder and Clara were more present, were important and formative. Morris had become as good to her as a father as well. She was leaving that behind. She was also leaving behind a life in a dead end bar, tending to the ledgers and business of scoundrels, fishermen, and pirates. Traveling with Vyse? Well, that was a more noble thing and if anyone wanted to bitch about Half-Way Harper leaving them in a lurch it made no difference to her. Not now that she was helping a bone fide hero on a mission to save the world.
Harper took a firm look at Cape Claudia and sighed. "Goodbye and good riddance," she offered to the port before flipping a two fingered salute in its direction. "But here's to the better things…"
"Not a fan of your home, are you?" A cool, clipped voice—touched by a little unease—spoke to her side. Harper spun about to find a finely-dressed man no more than a few meters away from her. A sleek white silken vest and lilac ensemble and cravat, white gloves and an astounding poise even as his legs quivered slightly at the Delphinus' motion. His short blonde hair fluttered in the wind but never enough that he didn't seem the picture of gallantry. He looked at Harper with a mixture of amusement and understanding.
"It can be hard," he said nobly, looking her directly in the eye like an equal. "To leave a home that's given you so much but which also caused you pain."
Harper sighed. "I don't know," she admitted truthfully. "It's only "home" because I was abandoned there, and it only became bearable because I was a bookworm in a place where reading was a rare skill. Learned how to look out for myself as much as I might.."
She paused. "Was it home? Maybe.. I'm not sure I know what home even is..."
"I grew up in Valua and that place was many things," the young man mused aloud. "Plenty of that was good and a lot was bad… Try as I might, I could not change it alone..."
He sounded so wounded by his failures, weighed by an outright royal burden that Harper could never know. It took a moment but she realized who she was talking to within moments.
"You're the prince," Harper said with awe and a little bit of anger. "His Highness Enrique Vázquez… et cetera… et cetera..." She looked at him; so impeccably clean and out of place. "I thought Vyse was joking about pilfering you from Valua.."
Enrique chuckled. "I did greet you as you boarded the ship," he noted playfully. "But I think you were so… shall we say 'flabbergasted' by the Delphinus herself that I imagine the greeting didn't make an impression. Are you adjusting well?"
The scribe shrugged. "Today's been a blur," she admitted, leaning deeper upon the port railing. "The most wanted man in the world invites me to his crew as some type of secretary, I'm thrust into the company of both princes and cutthroats, and I met the most… astounding woman.."
Enrique took a step forward and offered a hand to Harper. "Well, let's start over," he said. "I'm Enrique. Just another member of the crew. And I'm pleased to meet you, Miss.."
"Harper," she said, shaking the prince's hand in turn. "Harper Lamb. Scribe, clerk, documentarian, and more."
The prince nodded. "An important task," he offered kindly. "The Delphinus requires all sorts of necessities, as will the crew; It will be good having you around to assist and make sure we're stocked and running. Remind me to apprise you of the financial situation tomorrow."
Enrique hesitated for a moment. "The Delphinus' hold contained a modest amount of gold when we… borrowed it," he explained. "Much will go toward the establishment of Vyse's new base but there's still a fair sum left in the coffers."
Harper scoffed. "Feels like most of the next few days will be all about getting up to speed," she said. "But rest assured, good prince, I'll get us on track. Prepared for this dread journey towards the Blue Moon."
"My relief has grown by magnitudes to hear it," Enrique said politely although the man held enough disease to his features that Harper didn't entirely buy the comment. "While I… do not mind keeping the company of raiders or other such ruffians, I do relish a simple book keeper to help keep all our needs organized."
"Thankless work in some ways," Harper said. "But at least the room I have here is bigger than what I had on the Cape.."
Enrique raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Truly? Were you mistreated?"
Harper laughed, her bark cutting across the deck. "You really don't get out much," she said jokingly. "But, you know… in hindsight, I had it pretty good for an indentured servant. A bed of my own, steady work and even more side-scratch when folks realized I could read."
"I thought…" Enrique seemed taken aback at Harper's situation. "I had no idea that sort of thing could happen so far from the mainland..."
"You're the prince of Valua," Harper said pointedly. "What do you really know about injustice? About spending a night on the streets and only getting by because some stray benefactor took pity? No offense, but you grew up in a palace."
"That's fair," Enrique offered graciously. "I should have… paid more attention. This matter with the Moon Crystals is the final straw. I will not see this world plunged into darkness.."
Harper pushed off from the rail and looked at the prince. "I don't know anything about that stuff," she said cautiously. "I just… I mean, I get it. You wanna think things can get better but they just.. don't. So I guess.. you did something finally. Or maybe Vyse convinced you; I dunno.. But that raises a question: this is a Valuan ship. A flagship, looking at it."
Enrique nodded. "This was made to be my own personal vessel," he noted. "I believe many of the fundamentals learned from constructing the Delphinus are being applied to the latest model Spectres."
"How come you're not captain? It's your ship, right?"
"You've met Vyse," Enrique said plainly, respect and admiration coating each syllable. "I am not the leader that we need right now. He is."
Harper nodded. "He really believes in things," she said. "I've hardly known him yet but the way in which he talks about how this misadventure is… well, winnable? It's inspiring."
"I was more than pleased to offer the Delphinus to him," Enrique confided. "I am finding that there are people who simply are…"
"The things we can't be," Harper said. Her mind lingered on Fina once again.
"I am not… as brash or as confident as he is," the prince explained. Enrique looked at Harper, perhaps seeing the sadness etched on the woman's face, and walked over to lean against the railing beside her. "Shall I tell you a secret, miss?"
Harper laughed. "Miss? You flatter me with such politeness, prince."
The price smirked before fixing his gaze on Cape Claudia. It was all but gone from sight now; a dimly lit collection of buildings surrounded by streaming ships. Smaller than ever before.
"Whatever else can be said for that nation, it is my home and I love it dearly," Enrique began. "Leaving was necessary but not easy, and with each passing league? I'm scared. Because the entire world is before me."
Harper raised an eyebrow. "Of what? Subpar soups and a lack of private tutors?"
Enrique answered the teasing with a harangued roll of his eyes. For a prince, he managed to look almost like an everyday sort of person. "Hardly," he said. "What I fear is the lack of certainty. Life was one thing and then it became another."
"Uncharted skies…" Harper made the comment idly and with no thought to the implications.
"Not so appealing to someone as prone to airsickness as myself…" Enrique commented. His voice shook and he gulped dramatically. The prince's face grew a bit green as the Delphinus shifted in the wind.
Harper gestured over the side of the ship. "If you gotta yak right now, please do it over the side," she said teasingly. "I happen to like this jacket."
Much to her relief, Enrique seemed to settle back into himself. "I will exercise extreme caution," he said gallantly. "I would be a poor crewmate otherwise."
"Is that what you are to us? A crewmate? Not a hostage or lord?"
"I am simply myself," Enrique offered. "And I can only hope that I prove useful."
Harper sighed. "I know that feeling," she said. "I'm supposed to balance our ledgers and document everything but if there's some type of fighting? I dunno what I'm meant to do."
Enrique placed a hand on her shoulder. "We shall deal with each challenge as it comes," he said. "If we lose ourselves in 'what ifs' and hypotheticals, it becomes impossible to focus on the moment."
"The moment," Harper said, eyes resting on the speck that was Cape Claudia. "Which, for me, is a departure.."
"You sound.. troubled," Enrique perceived. "If I can be so bold as to say."
Harper shook her head, pointing towards the far off port. "That was home," she said. "Not by choice, mind you, but it became home. Leaving it behind? It's…"
"I know," Enrique said. "But our mission is just, and we can take solace in that. Because I ask those questions too: Am I good enough? Will this even end well? Have I made a mistake?"
"... Why me?" Harper added. "That's what I ask: why does he think I can be a Blue Rogue?"
Enrique gave a hearty laugh. He looked at Harper with a curious affection, as if he was refreshed by her words. His amusement eventually resolved into a sigh, his gloved hands holding firm to the ship's railing.
"I have asked myself that daily ever since my inauguration into this rag-tag crew," the prince admitted. "I am not officially a Blue Rogue but Vyse acts as if I might be. He insists I act as Vice-Captain on the Delphinus and I have been left wondering… why?"
Harper bit her lip, nodding as she thought about all of it. "I've known him less than a day," she says. "But I can't think of anyone I've met who gives their trust so freely. It's… refreshing."
"Trust was the one luxury I did not have in Valua," Enrique mused. "Save for my uncle, it seemed like everyone else had an agenda. Vyse? There's no disassembling and certainly no lies.."
"Just a lot of faith without much reason," Harper joked, voice twisting upwards. "Sure, come along! We'll just find all these magick rocks and soon the skies will be free."
Enrique hummed. "Yet, there is a beauty to it."
"What do you mean?"
The prince turned about to look at Cape Claudia as well. He pointed his finely gloved finger at it. "What do you see there?" he asked. "You said it was home but that's certainly not all you see."
Harper hesitated, brushing a strand of her hair from her face and looking at the port well and truly grew to the smallest of possible points on the horizon. Her heart felt a mixture of things. Fear and loss. Excitement and relief. That was home but it had been something else too.
"I see a prison," she admitted quietly. "One that I made for myself. I turned down so many offers to leave, and I just… allowed myself to get used to whatever life I squeezed out there."
Enrique nodded. "Valua was a prison too," he said. The admittance caused Harper to look at the older man incredulously. "Of expectations, of injustices too big to fix.. Home can be many things, Harper, and not all them need be good."
Harper scratched her nose. "What's your point?"
"Maybe Vyse is on to something," he said gesturing around the desk. "We have both left our home and now we are here. Unsure and finding our footing. But there is… freedom here on the Delphinus, yes? Is it any wonder Vyse wants to share that with us?"
Harper looked at Enrique for a moment, eying the prince seriously. "And if this does all work out," she started. "What happens with you? With Valua?"
"Something better I hope," Enrique affirmed seriously even as his voice wavered with the telltale signs of doubt. "Where the world need not fear us any longer.."
"Tall order, that."
"Nothing good worth doing is easy," the prince countered firmly. "All we can do is pray to become the people that Vyse believes we can be."
Harper sighed. "For the moment, I'll settle for a night's rest and a fine cup of tea.."
"Tea?" Enrique brightened up immediately. "Moons, I thought I was the only one here that worried about such things. Aika has… not made stocking that particular supply a priority. Though I gather that you'll have some say over our finances and spending…?"
"That's right," Harper said cautiously. "Are you asking for a favor, oh prince?"
Enrique pushed off from the railing and fussed with his vest for a moment, as if to delay his reply. "Moons, no," he insisted coyly. "But if, in the course of reviewing our coffers, you were able to find some coin to spare on some earl grey, I would find that a welcome surprise."
"Perhaps a chamomile too," Harper mused. "But, uh, you know… only if the budget allows."
The prince nodded. "Of course," he said playfully. "Only if the budget allows."
Harper chuckled, leaning firm against the railing and relishing the wind whipping in her hair. "I'll see what I can do," she finally said. "Tomorrow…"
Enrique walked over to the deck hatch door, smiling amused. "Tomorrow," he repeated before offering Harper a polite nod and heading inside.
The sky grew darker and Cape Claudia faded from view. Harper closed her eyes and felt the wind on her face, letting the cool air sweep over her and blow away any remaining doubts she might have had. There was freedom in these skies, and in time she had no doubt that the Delphinus would come to feel like the home she'd been denying herself all these years.
They would leave in a few days time. The lead up to their eastward journey had been spent traveling through known airspace in search of the crew necessary to brave the Dark Rift and, if need be, deal with any pesky Valuans along the way. Harper had quietly documented it all. There was a misadventure when Khazim the Nasrean soldier and his cohorts had attempted to board the Delphinus along with his crew in the mistaken assumption that it was a Valuan vessel. The sudden arrival of the mystic fortune-teller Kalifa, who insisted that her readings of the stars and viewings into crystals had guided her to Vyse; the strange woman boasted of protective spells that would aid in battle as well as a keen sense for treasures that would boost their fortune. Stopping at Sailor's Island netted them the local tavernkeep as their ship's cook and even a helmsman; Harper knew Lawrence vaguely from the times he'd made it to Cape Claudia but she didn't dare approach him to mention it. A wayward trip to the west, blazing a trail through the South Ocean at a pace Harper thought impossible, had led to a sojourn in the lush green lands of Ixa'taka. Perhaps owing to the magickal affinity that Fina spoke of, Harper felt invigorated under the Green Moon and wished there was more time to rest in that gorgeous land; there was little time for that however as their weeks-long recruitment drive reached the end. Negotiating with Centime the Tinker gained permission for his son Hans to join the crew, as well as native Ixa'takans who were eager to repay Valua for the violence against their land.
It had taken time but they really did have a crew. A helmsman, a gunnery crew, a doctor, warriors and lookouts, a deckhand, engineers and a quartermaster, raiders and more. It was still a somewhat motley crew, a mutt of mixed background but that only made it all the more impressive. Wherever Vyse went, from the most bustling ports to the farthest lands, people wanted to join his cause. It felt like they were well and truly ready to press onwards with Fina's quest and the mission to recover the Moon Crystals. Yet, while Harper enjoyed all the fresh company—she particularly found herself intrigued by the Ixa'takan dance-warrior Merida and her astounding performances—there was a sense that she was the odd duck out.
Where many folks found their purpose in battle or in a clanking engine room doing hard work, she still was spending most of her time in her office. Bustling away at papers, writing extensive notes, and coordinating with Aika when needed in order to ensure that their stores were prepared for the lengthy journey to the east. It wasn't that Harper felt useless or unappreciated; she mostly felt a bit mismatched in the presence of so many skilled fighters and sailors. If she were ever to tangle with a Valuan soldier it would all but be her doom.
Harper decided to alleviate that flaw in a most characteristic way. The Delphinus still held a fair few empty spaces and a particularly large room in the mid-deck had quickly become an improvised sparring room for many of the crew. Harper had no intention of challenging anyone to a bout but she figured that observing participants and taking notes would be helpful for understanding some of the basics of combat. Dressed comfortably in a linen top and some simple trousers, she marched her way down to the gymnasium with her notebook and entered cautiously. Much to her delight there wasn't simply one spar happening but two. The scribe quickly found a safe space in the room and plopped to the floor cross-legged and fastidiously took notes as the fights raged on.
The first was between the captain and Aika. Both were dressed light and prepared for a workout; tank tops and shorts that allowed for free movement. Vyse brandished two practice swords in his familiar grip; a normal grasp for one and a reverse hold for the other. Aika hadn't even bothered with a training weapon; she held her overly large boomerang before her with two hands as if it were a heavier blade. The pair grinned at each other, a fiercely electrical energy passing between the two before Vyse darted forward to press the attack. One strike and then another and another. Harper took note of his footwork and the ways in which he sometimes tried to bait Aika into a false defense with a quick feint motion. She didn't have any experience fighting but she'd at least watched enough barfights to understand, in a vague sense, the ways in which fighters tried to trick their opponents into making mistakes.
For her part, Aika never fell for it. Each strike was matched with an equal motion—a high slash of her boomerang or a dash back before she would throw it and catch it in hand when Vyse deflected the attack. Never in all her life had Harper seen two people move in more perfect harmony. They were made for each other. Like interlocking pieces of… well, something. For once Harper didn't have the mind for a metaphor. Not for something like this. It was gorgeous to watch, and Harper couldn't help but wonder at the unspoken things passing between her captain and his lifelong friend.
An equally well-balanced fight was happening at the other end of the room. The raiders Luke and Mabel, formerly of Dyne's crew before joining Vyse on the Delphinus, were tossing punches and kicking back and forth. Mabel was a muscular woman who looked nearly chiseled from stone; the model of a pirate raider with a sharp gaze and even snappier movements. Her auburn hair was pulled back and held behind a bandana lest stray hairs obscure her view. As she snapped a kick out toward Luke, the ruddy redhead shifted to one side and countered with an elbow strike that hit Mabel just hard enough to elicit a noise but clearly not with the force of a real strike. Like Vyse and Aika, they moved with an intuitive understanding of each other. Which made sense given how often they tended to follow their sparring sessions with conspicuous trips back to their bunks for further recreation. Harper watched, scribbling her observations all the while. Eventually the fighting stopped on both ends of the room.
"You're getting faster," Aika complimented Vyse, wiping sweat from her brow before sweeping a hand through her fiery hair for good measure. "All this captain work adding some pep to your step?"
"You kept up," Vyse noted happily. "Been chewing on moonberries again?"
Aika hesitated. "No," she very clearly lied. "I'm just naturally talented and incredibly good at what I do. It's not my fault you're predictable."
"We've been trying to beat each other up since we were eight years old," Vyse noted with a wry smile. "Maybe switch it up a bit and you'll get the upper hand?"
"I'll switch you up!" Aika growled, pouncing on her friend and giving him the most ferocious and captain-disrespecting noogie in the history of the world. "How about that?"
"Fine, fine," Vyse said with a laugh. "I yield."
Harper couldn't help but smile as she watched the two of them. So natural with each other, so comfortable and deeply appreciative. She hadn't been on the crew overly long nor did she have much experience with such things but even she could see how much they loved one another. Which made it all the more perplexing that they kept each other at "friends" length. It was a contrast to the other half of the room, where Mabel was sneaking a fresh kiss off Luke's lips.
"That stung," she said, gesturing to her side. "Sneaky, sneaky.."
Luke drew back and grinned. "You like bruises," he said, brushing her hair a little. "Try blocking if you don't wanna deal with that, May."
"Please," Mabel countered with a roll of her eyes. "If you were a Valuan, I woulda made you a corpse in a matter of seconds."
It was a strange thing to see, Harper decided. That intersection between sparring and violence and… well, love. Her crewmates lived for battle and adventure but it was clear to her that the experience was made all the better for them by their companionships. Harper scribbled an idle note about the topic in her journal; it would make good flavor for her own writing down the line.
"Lamb! Didn't expect to see you here!"
Vyse's voice snapped her from her reveries. Harper was suddenly aware that everyone in the room was looking at her. She sat in place for a moment, offering the group a nervous wave.
"Yes, sir," she replied. "I was just… taking some notes."
"Taking notes?" Aika asked, walking over to peek at her journal. Harper very pointedly closed it. "On what? How much I was kicking Vyse's rear?"
"Not quite," the scribe admitted nervously. "I was… taking notes on, uh… fighting."
Mabel gave a loud scoff. "What good'll that do ya?" she asked. "You gonna pull out your little book in the middle of a battle and follow your notes?"
"May," Luke admonished slightly. "At least she's taking an interest. S'good thing for any Blue Rogue to put some thought into. Even the bookworms."
Vyse nodded. "That's true but Mabel still has a point," he said before looking at Harper seriously.
"You heard the Cap'n," Aika half-teased. "Pick your buns up."
Harper quickly hopped onto her feet, dusting her slacks off and looking at the group. "Okay," she said nervously. "I'm guessing this isn't just gonna be a few quick pointers..."
Vyse clapped her on the shoulder and guided the scribe to the middle of the room. "Not quite," he said. "Now, I know you're… a wordsmith but Valuans don't care much. They're gonna see a Blue Rogue and act accordingly so let's see about making sure you're ready."
He snapped his fingers. "Mabel," he ordered. "Up here. You're gonna help give Harper a lesson."
The brunette cracked her knuckles and grinned. "She was livin' too easy anyway," the raider said before standing to face Harper. "Just try not to cry, okay?"
"Play nice," Vyse said carefully. "We're family here; Harper, hold up your hands like you're gonna fight."
The scribe nodded, raising her fist in an approximation of what Luke had done before during his spar with Mabel. High and tight, although not particularly confident.
"Square your shoulders a bit," Luke called from the side. "And plant your feet else a breeze'll blow you on your ass.."
Harper made the adjustments. Vyse took a step back and nodded. "That's alright. Okay, the first thing we'll d-"
Without a single moment of warning, Mabel's fist arced out and cracked Harper in the cheek. The scribe stumbled backwards but somehow didn't fall, blinking rapidly in an attempt to dismiss the sizzling pain in her face. She flopped back to face her crewmate with a look of abject horror. She couldn't even find the words for a "what the hell?" or "what are you doing?" Harper merely stood transfixed, cheek throbbing, and jaw agape.
"First lesson, bookworm," Mabel mocked. "Never let your guard down and be ready for anything."
"Hold up!" Vyse sprinted towards the pair and pulled Mabel aside quickly. "You're out," he said seriously. The weight of his command held firm in his voice as he pointed to the side of the room. Mabel didn't move.
"Now!" he ordered.
"C'mon," Mabel protested. "She needed to learn!"
"Valuable lesson," Vyse offered. "But you're a horrible teacher. Now back off.."
"Fine," Mabel said coldly, stomping over to the side of the room and leaning on the wall. "Just don't blame me if she doesn't toughen up!"
The room was still spinning around as Harper came to her senses. She shook her head and swayed, bringing her hands up again as if to block another attack. "I'm fine, I'm…"
Vyse pointed to Luke. "Practice swords," he ordered. Luke bounded to a rack on the other side of the room and grabbed a wooden sword. At the same time, Vyse looked to Aika. "You can be her partner."
Aika leapt up and stood across from Harper. "Got it," she said before leaning a bit closer towards the scribe. "You alright, Lamb?"
Harper nodded. "Fine," she lied. There was no way she was going to risk looking weak in front of the captain. "I can keep going..."
"Okay," Vyse said cautiously. "Luke, I want you to help fix her stance as we run through positions. Aika, you're gonna move slow and run through the basic forms. Then, you'll pick up speed."
"She'll be a ferocious raider in no time," Aika said happily. "Now, let's see…"
Step by step, Harper was taught the basic positions for fighting with a cutlass. Luke first made sure that she was standing with only her side showing, narrowing her profile and the spaces where she could get hit in a fight. Then Vyse worked through positions alongside Aika. On guard at the center, her first position up top, the left and right shoulders, the lower guards near her legs that could be pulled in to also block her gut. They worked through it slowly.
Up, in, out, down, side, tight. Up, in, out, down, side, tight. Up, in, out, down, side, tight. Up, in, out, down, side, tight.
Aika started to strike out slowly as Harper ran through the positions, her boomerang tapping with the scribe's wooden sword. Clack, clank. One, two. Up, in, out, down, side, tight. Again, but this time moving forward. As she moved, Luke would tap at certain parts of her leg to make sure she was stepping lightly and on pace. Then they moved back; same attacks but moving away.
"Plant your feet with each step," Vyse said. "But not too much; you're retreating so you want just enough to be able to brace against a strike but you're gonna need it light enough to keep moving."
"Think of it like dancing," Aika said as they continued their drill back and forth. "One you know the steps, you can improvise and eventually cut loose."
Harper's mind drifted. She'd never really danced with anyone, and for the moment she could only think of one person she might want to dance with. At that wandering thought, she stumbled backwards but Luke managed to catch her before she hit the ground.
"Careful, newbie. Don't get distracted," he said knowingly. "If you're in a fight, you need to be thinking about what's in front of you."
Vyse held up a hand and everyone stopped. He walked over to Harper. "How's it feel?" he asked with concern. "Got a grasp for those positions?"
The scribe could feel her heart beating nervously but in spite of it all she nodded. "Yeah," she affirmed. "I have that much down."
Mabel scoffed from her spot on the wall. "A real fight won't have a pattern to it," she said. "Least not like this…"
Harper looked at Mabel frustratedly. "I'm sorry, are you gonna help me or be an ass this entire time?"
"Be an ass," Mabel replied without missing a beat.
Vyse held up another hand. "Enough," he said firmly. "But Mabel's not entirely wrong. We can't just have you running the same sequence over and over. Aika? Call it out but keep shifting as you go. See if Harper can keep up."
Aika looked at her kindly. "You all set?" she asked. "It won't be much to start but I'm not gonna hold back much either once we hit a stride."
Harper gripped her practice sword and nodded. "Hell yeah, I'm ready."
"Atta' girl," Aika said with a wink. "On the count of three. One, two.. Go!"
Harper didn't even mind that there wasn't a three. For all of Mabel's impertinence in striking her, the initial lesson was learned: be ready. So when Aika started calling out a random sequence, Harper responded in kind even if it was a little clumsy. Eventually, Luke backed off to give her room until it really was just her and Aika moving back and forth, forward and back. A dance. With the slightest change in Aika's glance, Harper could start to tell when the pace would change. Of course, Aika was being playful. Her features were shifting into smiles and each new sequence was punctuated by laughter that Harper was all too eager to return. The fiery quartermaster was an open book, or at least allowing herself to be easily read in these moments, and if there was one thing Harper was good at, it was reading. Beat by beat and step by step, she followed Aika's lead until each move felt free and natural.
Vyse seemed to approve as well. "Not bad," he said before nodding to Aika. In a flash of motion that Harper could hardly perceive, the rogue ducked and cut her boomerang up. Harper's training sword flew out of her hands and she was left with the point of her opponent's boomerang near her throat.
"Booya," Aika said teasingly. "A real strike and now you're dead. Sorry, Lamb."
"Of course, this is just practice," Vyse said seriously. Aika lowered her weapon. "If you keep at it, you can improve with time but I don't want you pushing yourself either. I didn't bring you on board so you could swing from ropes and rush onto enemy bridges…"
"Yes, sir," Harper said quietly. "It's just that I…"
"No doubts," Vyse ordered. He walked over and clapped a hand on her shoulder. "You did alright just now but I don't want you or anyone else on this ship to feel a need to be anything other than themselves."
Luke spoke up, mirroring Vyse's confidence. "If you ever want to run drills, find me and we'll do a few sequences. Though you might want to find some proper clothes…"
Harper looked down to find that her white linen shirt was dotted with heavy sweat spots. "Right…"
Aika chuckled. "Not used to working out, are ya? Give it time and you might even be able to keep up with me in a real fight."
"I doubt that…"
Mabel groaned. "This is touching and all," she started. "But if I can be so bold as to solve the conundrum of our defenseless librarian with one simple fix?"
The raider pushed off the wall and leaned down to rifle about in a nearby bag—some type of personal supply pack with assorted odd and ends—before pulling out a small revolver pistol. Harper narrowed her eyes at the weapon; guns always made her a little uneasy. Still, it was well-maintained: a steel body and long barrel blended with a small inlay of red moonstone. It reminded her of the guns that Gilder was so fond of brandishing. Mabel walked over and offered it to Harper. The scribe reached out and held it, feeling the weight in her hands.
Vyse blinked. "I suppose that's… one solution to the problem."
Mabel looked at Harper patronizingly. "If a nasty Valuan ever heads your way," she started as if she was talking to a child. "You point that at the bad man and squeeze the trigger. Then the bad man will go bye bye!"
"I know how a gun works," Harper huffed. "Why are you even giving me this?"
"Because, dumbass, you're my crewmate," the raider said seriously. "And I'll be damned if I'll let actual harm come to anyone I'm sailing with."
Harper nodded. "I know I'm not… like all of you," she said. "But what you just said goes both ways… No matter what, I'll look after you all too."
Vyse grinned. "That's what a crew is," he said. "A family. And through the good times and the hard, family always has each other's back…"
Aika chuckled. "Just, uh… be careful with that thing. Okay, Half-Way?"
The scribe sighed. "Well, if I'm lucky I'll never need to use it at all, right?"
The question hung in the air and within her mind; the journey so far had been as light and as exciting as Harper could imagine even if she often spent her days balancing books and drinking tea. But history has a way of testing not only its grandest heroes but their unsung and forgotten accomplices too...
It had taken nearly a full week within the Dark Rift, a physically crushing interaction with what was probably the world's only Black Moonstone, a battle with an oversized anglerfish monster, and an ambush by Tenkou pirates, but the Delphinus had pressed onward into the lands beneath the Blue Moon. Old World walls floated in the sky around a majestic island nation with streaming waterfalls and a bustling city. This was Yafutoma, a land spoken about in whispers by only a few living traders or touched upon in the (Harper had assumed) apocryphal stories of Daccat Silvertear's journeys beneath each known moon. Except it wasn't some mystical land of riches or fake telltale locale. It was real and now Vyse and the rest of the crew had the dire task of being some of the first people—perhaps the first people—from beyond the other side of the Dark Rift to make contact with those living under the Blue Moon in the modern era.
Their reception was, as to be expected, characterized by a great deal of confusion and wariness. Harper didn't blame the Yafutomans in the slightest; a crew of strange people arriving on some massive steel ship unlike anything you'd ever seen before warranted plenty of concern. There were three factors that eased over tensions. The first was that by some miracle, fragments of the Old World's unified tongue lingered in Yafutoma. While they had their own language unlike anything Harper had heard before, there was enough lingering knowledge of what was now known as Meridian or common tongue that conversations could take place. This was made easier by the second factor easing tensions: Fina. The Silvite priestess had a knowledge of Yafutoman language and customs, and whatever was left unclear was clarified by Cupil's strange ability to act as a sort of translator of intention and words. With Fina's aid and Cupil's augmentation, Vyse was able to speak to the Yafutomans as easily as if he were fluent in their mother tongue. Gaps were bridged over and the captain was able to explain the nature of their mission with passion and respect. They were not here to conquer like the Valuans might've been if they'd landed here first; the goal was to respectfully barter for the Moon Crystal in hopes of staving off a disaster which would ruin all nations including Yafutoma.
Thankfully, their pleas landed on receptive ears; the third factor that eased tensions. The great lord of the nation was a wise and even-handed man named Mikado, as eager to learn from his new guests as he was to teach them about the ways of his nation. He readily summoned Vyse and the others to his palace, which left Harper and the rest of the crew to explore the city within reason. It was split into a variety of islands with two larger than the others. The main island, called Tokushima, seemed to be the bulk of the city with colorful stalls and marketplaces, schoolhouses and other homes built in a style that none of them had ever seen before. In some places, alleyways were replaced with shimmering blue streams that the Yaufotomans navigated in strange bucket-like boats. The remaining streets were packed and wherever the crew went, they were the subject of staring. It was hard to tell how much of that was curious onlookers and how much of it was nervous guards keeping an eye on the motley crew of foreigners.
Vyse and the others had ascended upwards towards Mikado's castle on another island called Miyagi. The royal estate floated high in the clouds and it was easy to imagine some lord or nobleman looking down from the palace steps at the criss-crossing commoners down below. Harper spared it a look, letting her mind wander long enough to imagine Fina wandering through immaculate white-stone hallways. Harper would have luxuriated in the daydream if not for a tap on her shoulder.
It was Mabel.
"Bookworm," Mabel started with as much kindness as she could muster. "A few of us are off to find some food. S'best we don't split into too many groups."
"After living off rations and seeing nary a lick of sunlight, a proper meal will do us good," Luke said, appearing at Mabel's side and poking Harper's stomach a bit. "You can't live off tea and candlelight, right?"
"I hear mention of some type of raw fish meal," Merida said behind Harper. The scribe turned and looked at the tall Ixa'takan. She was so used to beholding her in more revealing stage-dance outfits that it was a surprise to see the dark skinned woman in a simple tunic and pants.
"Sushi," Harper stated. "Someone at a stand earlier was offering some to me."
"I will eat many helpings," Merida declared boldly. "These fish will not conquer me."
There was another shifting motion beside Merida as Lawrence, the ragged looking helmsman approached the group. His scarred face held something resembling a grin for once. Given that he was a wolf of a man on the best of days, the odd shift to his features was both uneasy and amusing. "I could stand for some soup," he offered.
"Room for one more?" Hans, the young engineer, bounded towards the group. "Because I just heard about the best place in the entire city. A small little place at the top of the hill run by two sisters! Moons, I wonder if they're cute!"
Luke walked over to the younger man and flicked his nose. "Behave, kiddo," he said cooly. "We're supposed to be all diplomatical even if this is technically shore leave."
Mabel groaned. "When did you become so boring? That's Harper's job!"
Harper managed a chuckle. "As long as they have tea, I'm happy to go anywhere," she said. "You know the way, Hans?"
"Does a Looper know magick?"
"Somehow," Mabel answered. "Even if I don't know how they.. Actually… know how to do that…"
Harper sighed. "Lead on," she said. "We'll ponder the mysterious habits of Loopers once our stomachs are full."
It was little less than a five minute walk through the street and up the hill to a small tavern which rested next to a pool of deep cerulean water. It wasn't a large place by any means but it seemed inviting enough and well built: a stone frame and wooden roof with a large sign bearing script that none of them could read. What was easier to understand was the inviting artwork of some type of fish and another skewered food item—soft looking rounds of what might have been wheat or rice—that were drawn on banners next to the doorway. The group entered and found the inside an utter sight to behold. One end of the tavern held tall shoots of green plants in a sort of garden where streaming water spun a charming little wheel. There were booths to the far ends of the room but also a long but low table in the center that would more than suffice for a handful of pirates to eat and make merry at. To the side, a flat top grill was being tended to by a young woman perhaps a year or two older than Hans. She had sleek black hair and wore a robe of a wonderful azure color with red highlights. It took a moment before she spoke.
"Irasshaimase!" the cook shouted before pausing. She gasped as she looked at her new customers. "Gaijin! Sorry, sorry! I…" She worked to find the common tongue for a moment. "Please, come on in! We are honored to have you!"
"We?" Merida looked around but saw no one. Harper, too, looked for any other workers but couldn't find anyone but the lone cook.
"She's talking about me," a voice called up from above them. Sitting in the rafters was another black haired woman with a long ponytail and a curious smile. "I'm Kirala and that's my sister Urala. She runs the place now that dad's getting older and I mostly lay about."
Merida gazed at the woman curiously. "Silent as a hawk," she noted. "Even I could not sense you there."
Kirala shrugged. "Are you going to stare at me all day?" she started. "Or are you going to order some food?"
Harper gave something of an apologetic bow before looking at Urala. "Sorry if we're intruding," she said cautiously. "Our captain has business with Lord Mikado, so we thought to try your cuisine."
Hans sidled nearer to Urala, a puppy dog's look in his eyes. "I'm sure whatever you make will be perfect," he said kindly. "And maybe we could get to know each other..?"
"I wish to try the raw fish," Merida said boldly.
Harper smiled at Urala. "If possible, we'd like to try everything you have to offer," she said. "Sushi, tea, whatever that other thing was in the picture outside."
Urala seemed overwhelmed, both by Hans' advances and the scale of the order. "Right… well, please take a seat at the table. I suppose you'll need drinks too…"
"Loqua!" Mabel shouted. "We need loqua!"
Urala seemed confused, blinking multiple times at Mabel's outburst. "What is… this… Loqua?"
Mabel dramatically flopped into Luke's waiting arms. He knew well enough when his lover was going to put on a scene. "What do you mean you don't know what loqua is?!"
Urala shifted nervously in place. "I didn't… I don't…"
Harper raised her hands. "A drink… for uh… getting drunk… getting tipsy… You know, she's looking for booze. You have booze?"
"Sake," Kirala called from the rafters. "The gaijin wants to drown herself."
Urala nodded. "Sushi, tea, some sake.. Anything else?"
"Stew," Lawrence growled. "With beef."
"Shabu," both of the sisters said before Urala began to usher them towards their table.
Harper gladly sat beside Lawrence and opened up one of her notebooks, starting to write as Urala tended to their needs. It was a cozy exchange that skirted the lines between a pirate shore party and something more curated. With each new dish, Urala gladly explained what they were eating. Lawrence's stew, the "shabu," was actually a large pot of boiling water with an assortment of meats that he was meant to dip into the pot and cook right at the table. Urala left him a tray of beef and chicken to dip at his heart's content and the mercenary paused only long enough for Urala to explain how to use the strange sticks he'd been given instead of a fork or other utensil. Merida brandished them well, suggesting that if they were sharp enough they might be used as weapons as much as food implements.
Their booze, sake, was apparently made from rice grains and while Mabel made a loud showing of complaining that it wasn't quite as good as loqua, she and Luke were soon downing it like champions while Merida made good on her promise to "conquer" her sushi. The Ixa'takan chatted happily with Kirala, the two exchanging a few odd glances from time to time that brought a smile to Harper's face. Without warning, Lawrence passed her a freshly cooked piece of beef from his pot. The sizzling meat hung at the end of his two stick-like utensils (apparently called "hashi') and hovered right before Harper's mouth. The smell burst into her nostrils; fresh and bright. Lawrence looked at her from under his wild tangle of hair.
"Try it," he said bluntly. It was as kind a gesture as Harper had ever seen from the mercenary.
"Lone Wolf feeding the Lamb?" she asked with a chuckle.
"Don't make me repeat myself," he said. "Eat before I take it back."
At that Harper leaned forward and chomped the meat from his utensils. Warm, richly touched with a small hint of fat, and frankly far better than anything she could grab back on Cape Claudia. Lawrence hummed as he watched Harper tear into the food before he returned to his own silent meal.
It was an astounding display of food honestly. Having overcome the initial shock of her sudden guests and some of the crew's more boisterous demeanors, Urala had proven an astounding cook for someone so young and an even far better hostess as well. Their table was always stocked, their drinks full, and the conversation ever flowing. Between Urala's kind attendance and Kirala's oddly protective observance, the tavern felt as cozy and comfortable as anything you could find back home.
"After this, we must battle," Merida insisted. "I wish to learn more of this land beyond food, and those… Tenkou were poor prey."
"I could show you a few things," Kirala teased the Ixa'taxan boldly from her perch on the rafters. "The Tenkou are formidable in their own way but most lack any proper training.."
"You're a fighter?" Harper seemed a bit skeptical. "You hardly look like it."
"I'm a carpenter and mason," Kirala said plainly. "But the martial arts are well taught here"
Hans leaned over toward Urala. "If she's the fighter, does that mean you're the lover?" he asked clumsily. "I mean… since you're so… Um, you know… You've been such a wonderful host…"
Kirala glared at the young man. "Test your luck with my sister, gaijin, and you'll find out how much of a fighter I really am."
Mabel laughed, cheeks red from her ever-growing sake consumption. 'If he does it that awkwardly again, I'll help you out!"
It was nice. Everyone seemed happy, and that was all that really mattered after the absolute hell that had been the Dark Rift. Hell, she was even willing to tolerate Hans' very obvious fawning over Urala even if Kirala kept a close watch on the pair. For her part, Harper was content to write down every new factoid about her meal and the occasional answered question about Yafutoman culture. The slow phasing out of a rigid caste system that some nobles were still resentful of Mikado for pushing for, the curious existence of some sort of loyal assassins called the tengu that Kirala insisted Harper stop asking about, the story of the ancient bird Aoikaze—presumably the Yafutoman name for the Blue Gigas, and other assorted trivia.
Urala interrupted only to place a small cup in front of her. Harper looked at it and smelled; a warm and sweet tea different than what she'd ever experienced before.
"What's this?" the scribe asked happily. Urala paused nervously.
"Tea," she said meekly. "You asked for some…"
Harper chuckled, removing her glasses and placing them down on the table. "I know it's tea," she said kindly so as not to make the young woman more nervous. "But what is it?"
Urala came to understand her meaning quickly. "Kukicha," she said. "It's a sort of tea made with twigs and stalks. They're left over after we make other teas, and if you steep them the result is quite nice."
Harper leaned forward and blew some steam off the tea before taking a sip. There was a buttery quality to the blend that resolved into something lighter and slightly floral. Beneath it all was a taste that reminded her of cream although there was no milk or anything added to her cup. It slid downwards and warmed her stomach, bringing a wide smile to her face.
"It's… wonderful," she managed to say after a moment. "From the green color I would have expected something more bitter."
Urala smiled in return. "I"ll bring the kettle over."
So it was for what felt like hours that Harper enjoyed tea and the occasional scrap of food from Lawrence, watching as her friends chattered away and new friendships were formed. While she sometimes asked more questions—mostly some native Yafutoman phrases that it would be good to know while they were in port—Harper was happy to drink her tea and scribble away as the sun grew lower in the sky. She felt assured in her confidence that Vyse and the others would handle their business, and sat happily until a sudden clanking at the doorway cut the crew's revelries short. Marching footfalls and the familiar scraping of metallic armor signaled the arrival of something none of them had expected: a squad of Valuan soldiers.
"Friends of yours?" Kirala asked from her perch.
There wasn't even time to wonder how they managed to arrive in Yafutoma before their commander, a soldier in alabaster armor spoke up.
"By order of Admirals Belleza Alegria Aguilar and Vigoro Tellez, you are hereby ordered to remand yourself in Valuan custody for crime of piracy. Surrender peacefully and you will not be harmed."
The Delphinus crew sat in utter confusion at the Valuan's arrival; Mabel taking the moment to swig down the remainder of her sake. Not a word was said until Kirala finally hopped down from her spot on the rafters to face off with the Valuans. Harper could tell her stance was not that of a simple carpenter; this was a sister protecting her family, an ally protecting her friends, and a trained killer prepared to act if needed.
"These people are our valued guests, friends to Lord Mikado," she said proudly. The carpenter stood taller. "You have no authority in this land. Walk back to your masters and leave this place in peace."
"Step aside, savage," the commander replied. The word stirred Merida to her feet. The Ixa'taxan had heard it before and her red eyes flared with anger as it was levied against Kirala.
"Back!" the man ordered, his squad taking a step forward. "All of you stand down and come with us. In the name of Empress Teodo-"
He never finished. Mabel's blue moonstone knife flew across the room and slammed into his throat, eliciting a pathetic gurgling before the commander crumpled to the ground. There was a pause as the moment set in.
"Shouldn't have called her that shit word," Mabel said before bounding over the table to rush at the rest of the Valuans. Luke darted up to immediately follow her, the pair kicking up stew and tea as they leapt off the table and into the awaiting squad where they began to strike hard and true at their foes. Harper could hardly believe any of it, sitting transfixed as Lawrence also rose at her side, unsheathed his red moonstone cutlass and began to stride towards the fray.
"Stay back," he muttered to her quietly before squaring with one of the Valuans and slashing with a ferocity unlike anything she'd seen. Another body fell to the ground and the Valuans, confused and overwhelmed, began to press back. To her side, Hans guided Urala behind the kitchen counter as one of the Valuans rushed towards him.
It was all a blur that she didn't understand. Motions and fear and confusion. Kirala, very obviously not a humble craftswoman afterall, had produced small daggers and had begun to tear into the soldier nearest her. Without so much as a single word, and with a natural grace that reminded Harper of the deep understanding that Vyse and Aika carried in combat, Merida slipped beside the Yafutoman. The raven haired warrior passed one of her daggers to the Ixa'takan and they suddenly twisted and pirouetted in a dance that sent blood spraying and more bodies falling to the ground. Harper couldn't look away, even as she moved to duck behind the table and her heart pounded with fear.
She'd never been this close to a true battle. In her time at Cape Claudia, she'd seen bar fights and brawls and boxing matches but she'd never—not even since joining Vyse's crew—watched pirates unleash their wrath upon the agents of empire.
There was a strange mixture of deliberate motion and chaotic fury to the proceedings. In the most beautiful moments, Mabel would duck low to cut at someone's leg while Luke answered with a powerful grasp of their foe's neck that ended with a bone-snapping crack. In one instance, Kirala and Merida twirled in such unison that Harper felt she was watching a choreographed routine.
Those were the "good" moments. In the more desperate ones, Lawrence would cut off a hand or a Valuan would dart towards Hans' way only for a comical scramble to ensue where the engineer smacked him with a wrench and Urala, terrified, risked hurling a teacup that shattered in a Valuan's face. And in the worst case…
Harper felt the pain before really understanding what it was. A crack to her skull as a steel gauntlet struck at her, turning the world into a white hot haze. Then a grasping around her throat as a Valuan seized her and slammed her against the wall. In the swirl of action, she hadn't even seen him break free from the fray. Harper gasped desperately for air but found nothing as the hand around her throat grew tighter. Soon the white hot world around her was growing darker. The scribe flailed her arm out at her attacker, hand slapping against a steel armet to no avail. Her arms went heavy and dangled until she felt something on her belt; cold steel and the tell-tale smoothness of a red moonstone. Her gun. She fished desperately until she held it in her hand and pulled it upwards. The barrel found a resting place right against her Valuan foe's collarbone.
Bang, bang, bang! Bang! Bang, bang!
Harper pulled the trigger until there was nothing else to fire and felt blood splash on her face. The hand on her throat froze for a moment and then fell away, and both she and the Valuan tumbled to the ground. The sudden influx of air led to harsh wheezing and coughs, the world still coming into focus. By the time she managed to sit up, her face caked in red, the crew stood victorious over the Valuans. She could see Merida wiping some stray blood from Kirala's face, whispering something private and soft. Mabel yanked her dagger from the fallen commander's body, giving Luke a wink. Behind the kitchen counter, Hans fussed over Urala. The poor woman was pale as snow but looked at the young man with a strange new fire in her eyes.
Slowly but surely, Harper rose to her feet. Mabel turned to look at her and, without any words passing between the two, they both nodded. For good or ill, Harper wasn't just some "bookworm" anymore. She was a killer. She braced against the wall and did her best to hold back a sudden urge to vomit. The world began to spin again.
"Breathe," a deep voice told her. It was Lawrence. "In, then hold for three, and exhale. The first is always the hardest…"
She followed his instruction. One large breath in, three seconds held, and then a large exhale. Harper did this a few times until she finally fell back into a steady pace and the world became solid again.
"I'm fine," she said, wandering to the table where her journal was and picking it up. Her glasses lay smashed beside it. "I'm fine… I'm fine…"
"Less of a lamb now," Lawrence said, his voice shifting curiously. Was it sadness? "..It gets easier.."
Harper sighed. She cast a wary gaze towards her shaking hands. "I very much hope not…"
Harper needed to put her quill down; the trembling in her hand had gotten too great to continue writing. She gave a sigh, clenching and unclenching her fist all while leaning back in the chair at her desk. A dim yellow moonstone light cast about her chambers; she stared into it for a moment until the room faded a bit from her gaze.
"You okay?" Vyse's voice drew her back to reality. The captain looked at her with some concern, leaning forward in his chair and resting his elbows on Harper's desk. "You keep… drifting off."
"What? Oh, I'm fine… I'm fine," Harper said with a forced smile. "Could you hand me that list Ryu-Kan gave you? I can budget out some things now that he's joined us so that he'll have a proper forge..."
It had been a little over a week since the Delphinus sailed away from Yafutoma. They had arrived curious foreigners but by the end of it all Vyse hadn't just walked away with the Blue Moon Crystals, he'd foiled a coup d'etat, defeated a sizable portion of the Valuan Third Fleet, and blasted a Gigas out of the sky. Harper looked at her captain furtively for a moment and felt a deep jealousy at his nonchalance. For Vyse Dyne, the journey to Yafutoma had been one more step on the road to becoming a legend and "god killer" was simply another job to put on his resume. Yet here he was in her office, working away at reports and comparing notes on Yafutoman culture as if he'd done little more than sail into port for a few fresh supplies.
"Here," Vyse said after fishing about in his pockets some. "It didn't look like much but whatever he insists on, I want to make sure he has it. His modifications to my blade have been… astounding, really. I'd love for him to be able to assist the rest of the crew."
Harper regarded the paper and looked it over. She didn't really know much about Yafutoman smithing techniques but the list was indeed modest. He was asking for a stone forge and a tent; not even a mention of materials. Harper scratched out the request for the tent; she wasn't going to make an old man rough it if she could help it. She made a mental note to ask Kirala if she'd been willing to craft quarters suitable to the aged Yafutoman.
"Honestly, I think he costs more as a mouth to feed than anything else," the scribe said before smirking at Vyse. "How'd you convince him to come along anyway?"
Vyse shrugged. "Brought him a shard of the Gigas' bone," he said casually. "Promised he could turn it into whatever he pleased, and told him there'd probably be more to come."
"Swords forged from the corpses of dead gods," Harper said with a whistle. "How could any self-respecting smith resist?"
"Part of me worried he would think it sacrilegious," Vyse admitted, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. "Like I was asking him to defile the Gigas."
"I think that stopped being a concern when you blew a hole through the fabled 'Aoikaze' with your big damn laser," Harper noted. She scribbled a few more notes in the margin of her paper. "Besides, he probably considers it an honor to do something other than leave the Gigas a corpse."
"You think so?"
Harper nodded. "Learned a saying while we were in port," she started. "Wake from death and turn to life. It's like… talking about how we revitalize ourselves after rough situations. Maybe you're giving him a chance to do that; create something in the wake of so much destruction.."
"Destruction," Vyse repeated sadly. The captain leaned back and rubbed his face, revealing a degree of vulnerability that gave his subordinate pause. He suddenly looked so old. "I didn't want it to be like that. Everywhere we go, trouble follows and…"
The scribe placed down her paper and looked at Vyse. "Sir?"
"I'm just…." Vyse paused for a moment in search of his words. "Tired, I suppose. We arrived and everything unraveled. It happened in Ixa'taxa; it happened here… Just once I'd like for a Gigas to stay sleeping, y'know?"
"It's not your fault, sir," Harper offered cautiously. "Valua's to blame. If the fleet hadn't shown up…If Belleza hadn't schemed like she did..."
"Maybe," Vyse accepted with a nod. "And yet here I am, feeling responsible anyway…"
Harper shook her head. "Without you, everything would have fallen apart," she said earnestly. "Whatever other troubles came with our arrival, you and Prince Daigou… Enrique… Fina… saved that nation.."
Vyse rubbed his eyes again. "Yeah, well… even when you win, there are still things that are lost," he said with a strange wavering to this voice. "Things that you can never get back."
Harper sighed, standing up and waking over to her bookshelf and shifting around a high stack of books until she found what she was looking for: a tall bottle of well-aged loqua and two small cups. She ambled back to her desk, clanked the assembled goods to the table, and began to pour out a drink for herself and her captain. Muted red liquor drizzled into tin cups; she handed one to Vyse.
"If we're gonna stop working through these notes and start mulling over regrets, we might as well have a drink," she said before sitting back down. She sipped at her loqua, savoring the bitter berry taste before sighing heavily.
Vyse nodded and took a swig of his. Harper had expected him to continue opening up but soon found that he was looking at her instead. "You gonna talk to me about it?"
"About what?" Harper deflected, looking away from Vyse. "There's nothing to talk about."
"Mabel told me about it," Vyse said. His voice turned more serious as he acted the role of the captain. "It sounds like there's something to talk about."
Harper took another gulp of loqua and glared at Vyse. "What? You think that because you're captain you're gonna be able to say a few nice words and make me feel better?"
"No," Vyse said firmly. His voice shifted further until he was sounding more like his father. "Because I can't take it back even if I wanted to. I wasn't there and you paid the price for it… I thought maybe talking would…"
"What? Make me feel better? Make it so I stop seeing that shit every time I close my eyes?"
"Harper," Vyse started cautiously. "You did what you had to. There's nothing to be ashamed of.."
She flailed her cup about, splashing loqua to the floor. "That should make me feel okay about putting a gun to someone's neck and blasting away!? But I guess if the world was fair there wouldn't be pirates or guns or fuckin' Valuans!"
Harper stood and began to pace around the room. "No, I did what I had to," she railed angrily. "And you know what? After so many years of crap? Being abandoned and coming in last and not even feeling for a damn second like the person I know I can be?! It felt good! It felt good to kill that Valuan bastard! I'm GLAD! And I don't…. I don't…."
She stopped. Warm arms pulled her into a firm embrace as Vyse hugged her tight. Her world contracted and she froze in place. "It's okay," Vyse said softly. "It's okay to not be okay…"
The tears would have fallen no matter what Vyse said but even as Harper felt her eyes sting, she also felt relief. In letting her pain go, in letting her captain's words settle in. In giving herself permission to cry for the loss of a part of herself. Vyse had lost that part of himself on some distant ship raid years ago. He'd leapt into battle and left his innocence there along with a fresh corpse. For Harper? The pain was recent and burned like a stone sizzling under the Red Moon.
Eventually, she drew back. "How do you do it?" she asked, moving back to her seat at the desk and flopping into it. "How do you keep going?"
"By reminding myself what it will cost to stop," Vyse answered earnestly, sitting across from her. "What we are doing is right, Harper. Stopping Valua is right. That doesn't mean it's easy but I never thought it would be. I keep going because that's the only proper course.."
The scribe wiped her eyes, taking a few breaths in and out before looking at her captain with a surprisingly sly glance. "Fine words for a biography," she countered quietly. "But do you know what I think, captain?"
Vyse took another sip of his loqua and grinned. "Regale me," he replied. "Why do you think I keep doing this?"
Harper looked down at the table, chuckling a bit before regarding Vyse seriously. "You do it for them," she said plainly. "For Aika. For Fina.."
There was a pause as Vyse swirled the loqua in his cup. Harper could just see it twirl into a messy vortex as the captain delayed his response. For a moment, she worried if she'd crossed a line. It wasn't as if plenty of other folks on the crew weren't equally as close. Luke and Mabel seemed to delight in keeping folks up late at night with their exertions, Merida and Kirala were spending more and more time together, and Polly had—through what could only be described as a miracle—been reunited with her long lost husband, Robinson, as they journeyed through the Dark Rift on the way to Yafutoma. To say nothing of the glances that Prince Enrique stole at Lord Mikado's daughter Moegi. The Delphinus was a place of many affections but none were so obvious or as powerful as the love that the captain and his two companions shared for each other.
"I'm that obvious?" Vyse asked nervously, letting the liquor in his cup swish about even more. "I mean, I know that I… all of us care about each other but we've never said… You know, I don't know what Aika or Fina want and it's just…"
Harper chuckled, although it was touched by jealousy too. A laugh that bordered on a wounded scoff. "We all see it," she told Vyse. "But for the life of me I don't understand why you don't say anything.."
Vyse looked at her, and Harper felt completely exposed. "Why don't you?"
"What?" The scribe blinked, taken entirely aback by the question. "Captain, we're talking about you…"
"C'mon," Vyse started. "I'm not blind, Harper. I see the way you look at Fina; the smile that crosses your face when she enters the room. Why don't you say anything?"
"Are you… angry at me, sir?"
The captain shook his head. "Not at all," he said kindly. "But if you get to wonder why I don't say anything to her or to Aika… I get to wonder about this. You love her, right?"
It was a complicated question that Harper did not know how to answer. She sat in silence for a time, trying to find the right explanation for it. Of course she loved Fina, or at least she thought it was love. Harper honestly didn't really know what love was really meant to feel like but she knew that she found Fina beautiful. Painfully so, in fact. Seeing Fina hurt her because it was so overwhelming to know that anyone could be that perfect. That gorgeous, that talented, that brave, that kind. In seeing Fina, Harper saw the things she wanted to be. In seeing Fina, Harper saw the things she feared she never could be.
The swelling pain in Harper's heart was touched with sweeter things though; a desire to protect Fina and to make sure she was happy no matter what. From the day they first met, Harper knew that her life was changed simply by encountering Fina. She didn't know what course it would lead to but the scribe knew that there were two periods in her life: the one before Fina walked into her office and the one after. If that wasn't love, she didn't know what was.
"I do love her," she finally whispered quietly. "I would… do anything for her. To keep her safe, to make sure this mission is a success. Because she is beautiful to me.."
Vyse smiled. "Me too," he admitted. "Same with Aika. Which leaves us each with the same question for the other: why not say anything?"
Harper sighed. "Because she doesn't love me," the scribe said. A fact and one that caused her more pain to say aloud than she intended. "She loves you. Loves Aika…"
She took a deep sip of her loqua and then poured even more. "So what about you?" she asked. "Why haven't you told them?"
"This mission is…. big," Vyse articulated carefully, opening up to Harper with a candor she'd never seen before. "And what I don't tell people, Harper, because I can't… because I am the captain … is that I'm afraid of what happens if we fail."
"You.. I mean, we won't," Harper insisted. "We'll win. We have to."
"I don't say anything," Vyse told her. "Because I'm afraid that even one spare distraction could cost us in a key moment. That if we… all admitted it to each other, things would change and I'd make some mistake or something... Rush in some battle or make a bad call that gets everyone killed.. I'm afraid of what happens if I make it real and not something unsaid."
"You can't say nothing," Harper insisted.
Vyse crossed his arms and smirked. "I can do whatever I want, Lamb. I'm the captain."
"Not with this," she stressed. "Even with those worries, she deserves you. They both do.."
"Wanna know something that really terrifies me, Harper?" Vyse said cautiously. "That after all this is done? Fina heads back to her people and… that's that. She'll be gone."
"All the more reason not to wait," Harper said seriously. "Remember what I told you when we met? About becoming a fixture? That applies to anything; wait too long and you'll have missed your moment.."
"You must hate me," Vyse said with a chuckle. "Agonizing about this while you also feel what you do."
Harper shrugged. "A little," she teased. "Permission to speak very freely, captain?"
"Feels like we've already been doing that but granted," Vyse said.
"You're damn good at taking risks," she said, voice brimming with admiration. "So take this one too. Because if you sit on your ass much longer, I'm never gonna forgive you for leaving her in the wind.."
Vyse nodded. "Soon," he declared. "Last thing I want is for Half-Way Harper to kick my keister."
Harper raised her glass in a toast. "To 'soon'," she declared. "May you get your act together by then. For all our sakes."
The captain matched her gesture, cup raised high. "Soon," he repeated. "Before it's too late.."
"Soon" was taking longer than expected. Their journey back to base at Crescent Isle in the Frontier Lands was not so difficult as before—they did not go back through the Dark Rift—but it was a long trip owing to a bold choice: continue east. In doing so, Vyse had made history even in something as simple as the act of returning home. For in pressing eastward, although the journey was long, they did indeed end up back where they had started. The world was round; a discovery of such monumental implications for trade and navigation that outlining their trip and comparing notes had left Harper little time to do anything other than tend to ship's business and Vyse no proper chance to make good on his word to speak with Aika and Fina about their relationship. Such was the man's curse, it seemed; he had all the time for the world but no time for himself. Harper did as she could to help with all the documentation that they would offer to the Sailor's Guild and when they finally sorted out that matter, the Delphinus docked at their home base. Which was an astounding thing to step foot on after so much time at sea.
It had been entirely overhauled in their absence. Brabham and Izmael had built a base worthy of Daccat himself. The underground port had been expanded with shops and even an office near the ship where Harper could work to help take inventory and manifest checks. The topside had communal quarters for the crew, a passable tavern for Polly and now Urala to work with, and a smattering of tents and stalls that craftsmen could call their own. They would build an expansion over time but seeing as there were only a few Moon Crystals left to retrieve, it was a formidable staging point for their missions. In the days after their return, Harper spent more of her time in her new office doing the work she had already been doing on the Delphinus, logging away hours with journals—she was starting a secret project of her own; a serialized take on their adventures that would function as something more exciting than logbooks and manifests—and mostly keeping to herself except for the times she would walk up from her dockside haunt and join the crew for dinner. In the event that her work was holding her attention, someone would always run a bit of food down to her. Usually Lawrence, the fierce wolf having made a bit of a habit of looking after the little lamb, but sometimes Urala as well.
She'd been writing for about two days straight now, lurking in her office as she penned the story of Vyse, King of the Rogues from the earliest moments as she understood them. It had taken some time but she was finally on the chapter where he and Aika, youthful and headstrong, rushed off to collect a fallen moonstone at Shrine Island. It was in their absence that Dyne and the crew, along with Fina, had been captured. Leading to a rescue that would shock the world and set the trio off on the fool quest that so many others—herself included—had joined in on. Of course, it was a rough draft. More of a skeleton than anything passable, but the writing was putting the reality into perspective. It really was an adventure; they really were making history. And all it had taken for her to write these astounding chapters of pulp excitement was two days in her office with meal deliveries and very little sleep. So it was no wonder that someone finally came to check on her in earnest. If there was a knock at the door, Harper didn't hear it.
"Someday, I'll be the captain of my own ship," Vyse said confidently. "I'll go beyond that sunset, and I'll see what's out there. Hell, maybe we'll all get to go."
Aika sighed contentedly. "You'd have to pry me from your side with a bar before you could sail off on a journey like that by your lonesome," she noted. "I want to see it too. I bet if you could go beyond the sunset, the sky would look even more beautiful.."
Knock! Knock! Harper didn't even look up from her work. "Door's open," she said tiredly.
The door creaked open and soft steps fell upon the stone floor. "If you're busy, I can come back later," a sweet voice said. Harper snapped up from her work to see Fina enter her office. "But you've been working for days now and… well, I thought maybe you needed a break."
Harper rubbed her eyes, looking at her friend as if she was the very savior of Arcadia. Which, in some ways, she was. "It's not been that long, has it?"
"Two full days," Fina informed the scribe. "Is there really so much work to be done?"
"No, but there's time for other things," Harper said. "While we wait for the Delphinus' hull to get reinforced for the journey south, I thought I'd take care of some things.."
"Like what?" Fina asked innocently. Harper shifted nervously in her seat.
"You'd probably think it's silly," she said dismissively. "Just a personal project.. Some writing that won't amount to much, I think.."
"May I see it?"
Harper paused. If anyone else in the world had been asking that question, she'd say no. Not even if Vyse ordered it. Her stupid little story wasn't ready for anyone to look at it, rife as it was with typos and bad adjective choices. Harper's style was not lyrical or fun to read; it was direct and functional. She cared more about what the characters were saying than whatever the hell else was going on. More often than not, it left her wondering if her draft was threadbare and worthless. But it wasn't "anyone" asking; it was Fina. So Harper gathered the papers and stood up, walking over to the Silvite and handing her the first horribly scrawled pages of what she hoped would be a grand story of adventure and swashbuckling that would inspire generations, all of it based on the shockingly true story of a brave Blue Rogue, his plucky friend, and the beautiful girl they rescued on one fateful night.
Fina took the pages and began to read, scanning them over with an impassive expression that left Harper feeling more terrified than she'd ever felt before. The Silvite hummed, flipping through the introductory pages and into the start of the story. Harper walked over to look at the page as well.
….Her silken blonde hair fluttered in the breeze. She'd never felt it before and like anything new, it was both deeply exciting and confusing. The slight woman slipped into a comforting smile, her soft features upturning as she basked in the moment..
Fina looked at Harper, face twisted into surprise before it resolved into a smile so kind that Harper felt her heart lift high. "This is… about me? This is.."
"It's about you and Aika and Vyse… and all of this," Harper said carefully. "I figured that it's one thing to have ship's logs and other records but one day… after we've won… the story should remain. Not just whatever version history wants to tell but a version of our own. I've been writing the logs and journals, so I figured maybe I could write the adventurous version too."
She paused, looking at Fina longingly. "I know that that probably sounds silly and the writing's middling at best but…"
"But you're working too hard," Fina said seriously as she placed the pages on Harper's desk. "So I thought maybe we'd take a break? I brought you something."
Harper raised a confused eyebrow. "I can't think of anything I need at the moment.."
"It's a gift," Fina replied happily. She reached out and dropped something into Harper's hands, which the scribe almost let slip from her grasp. "I processed it myself."
A wonderfully clean-cut green moonstone lay in Harper's hand, giving the faintest of glows as she observed it. It felt cool to the touch, brimming with an innate energy that she both did and did not understand. Harper was no mage and always found that being in the presence of magick tingled somewhat, like how a limb felt when it was starting to fall asleep. Yet the stone in her hand didn't elicit any discomfort or strangeness. Perhaps due to her own natural inclination, it instead felt rejuvenating and comfortable. She felt more awake, more aware, and somehow more connected to the woman before her.
"Fina, this is... " Harper didn't know what to say. The stone was beautiful and its power enticing but it was the sudden flicker of connection that it brought which she valued more than anything else. "It's wonderful. Are you sure I can have this? Luke or someone else would have more cause to need it…"
"Well, I made it for you," Fina said as if that settled the matter. She sounded more like Aika than her usual self in that moment; assured and confident. She'd been traveling Arcadia almost for an entire year now, so it was only natural she'd change some. "It's attuned specifically to your own individual magickal resonance."
"I've never cast a spell in my life," Harper reminded the Silvite. "But somehow… I can picture it more clearly? Like the dream of a dream.."
Fina nodded. "That's the stone reacting with your natural energies," she explained. "In time, your understanding will grow but for now….
"I'll need to practice," Harper nodded. She gripped the moonstone tightly in her hand. "Okay, Fina.. I'm guessing there's no time like the present?"
Fina nodded. "Yes," she said with a bow. "I would like to teach you but we'll need to head topside. This way.."
The pair departed Harper's office by the dock, walking through the clanking clatter of Brabham and Hans' ongoing work to the Delphinus. Her engines were being adjusted with knowledge shared by the Yafutomans and the hull reinforced to bring extra protection for the crews' trip towards the icy lands of the Purple Moon. It was much louder now outside of her office, Harper decided, as various hammers pounded and welding torches blew. She'd seen the numbers on how much the retrofit would cost but Vyse insisted that they spare no expense. They were so close to having all of the Moon Crystals; they'd run lean for a while afterwards but if the end result was completing Fina's mission, it was worth it. That left some downtime before their journey—personal projects, "side quests," and relaxation. As Fina brought Harper outside, the Silvite led her to a small plot of land next to the tavern that Harper had not taken much note of until now. It was a small garden, mostly full of fresh vegetables but a small portion held flowers as well. It was an eclectic mix of corn and gourds, lilacs and lilies. Colorful and bright, a lovely bit of life on what was ostensibly a dangerous pirate outpost run by outlaws.
Harper regarded it with a wry smile; in some ways it reminded her of the gardens back in her home village. Modest but life-giving. "This is… yours?" she asked Fina.
The Silvite shook her head and giggled a little. "Moons, no," she said warmly. "At least not the majority of it. I don't know anything about agriculture or gardening; this is Aika's work. Along with some other helping hands. Polly and Urala appreciate the fresh ingredients."
"Aika did this?" Harper couldn't hide her surprise. Her experiences with Aika were always active. Sparring practice, impromptu drinking contests, the board game night where she got a little too competitive. "It's hard to imagine."
"Is it?" Fina said, affection brimming in her voice. "Aika is… loud but she is also kind and patient, and she knows how to treat things with a tender touch. She cares about all of us and this is just.. another way for her to show that care."
Harper looked at Fina. It was so clear that just as she loved Vyse, the mage also loved her fiery friend. "You admire her," she said cautiously. "That practical touch…"
Fina nodded. "I do," she said emphatically. "Both she and Vyse are quite confident, and have built so much. I… feel undeserving of it at times, for so much of it has been for my sake."
"You're too hard on yourself," Harper said instinctively. "All that's happened… all the good that's come of our journey.. It's because of you and your decision to undertake your mission."
"Yet it would have failed immediately without Vyse… Without Aika.."
"Just… Don't ever feel undeserving, okay?" Harper offered, her voice shaking a bit. She looked at Fina seriously. "Because you're not …We do this… I do what I do because I believe in Vyse, and because I..."
"What?" Fina asked. Harper didn't continue her sentence, instead waving off the words.
"It doesn't matter," she said sadly. "I imagine we're not here to work the field though, are we?"
"Where I grew up, we didn't have a farm," Fina said. "So I imagine I'd do more harm than good if I was to do it like Aika but… like any good Blue Rogue, I'm learning there's ways to cheat."
Harper grinned. "How's that?"
Fina guided her friend over towards the flower bed and gestured. "I water these daily, as I gather you're supposed to," she began. "But I've been infusing them with magicks as well. Green for growth, Silver to help extend their lifespan. However, when I woke up this morning there were two.."
She gestured towards a small pair of daisies at the outer edge of the garden that were starting to bend over tiredly. Their white petals were growing darker. "...That weren't getting enough sun," she noted. "And I thought this would be a good chance for you and me to lend a hand."
Harper kneeled down before the daisies and held a petal in her finger tips. "And I'm supposed to just cast a sacri spell and make everything better?"
Fina knelt beside Harper and waved a hand over one of the daisies. A basking green glow issued from her hand and the flower, which had been drooping ever so slightly, stood taller. The faded whites of its petals grew into a fresh cream color. It was that simple for the Silvite, magick as natural to her as breathing. A casual sacrulen spell—higher level magick that even the finest scholars didn't always manage after lifetimes of study—bringing new energy to the struggling plant.
"Showoff," Harper said with a snort. Fina shrugged confidently.
"I do not mean to seem… boastful," she said cautiously. "I merely want to show you that it can be done. Magicks are an inborn part of my people but you hold that spark of Green energy within you still; with the stone and my help… we can make that other little flower fresh and happy."
"I'd like that," Harper said nervously. "But I don't even know what it means to cast a spell. I.. focus on the target and just extend outward? Direct the energy of the stone towards the flower?"
"Something like that," Fina said. "The difficulty will be not to overthink it. Don't focus too hard. Just do it. Magick is less science than it is emotion. Show the flower care, call upon the energy that can make it possible, and the rest will follow."
Harper hesitated, holding the Green Moonstone before her. "I'm… not sure."
Fina leaned next to her. "Don't worry," she said. "I'll guide you through it. Step by step until you're as skilled as an Ixa'takan priestess or Valuan arcanist. Yes?"
"I can do that," Harper said with forced confidence. "The worst that happens is… nothing, I guess."
"It'll be hard at first," Fina noted. "But remember: Green magick is as much a matter of the heart as anything else. Show care, and it will be transferred to your intended target—For the magick of healing is just empathy made actual. And, you, Harper… have plenty of empathy for others."
"You think so?"
Fina smiled. "I do," she said. "Now focus on the flower; really see the imperfections and then reach out. Help it, as you would help me or another member of the crew."
Gripping her moonstone in one hand, Harper extended the other and placed it over the flower. She thought about whatever injury must be ailing it; lack of sun or water. Perhaps it was just naturally weaker than its peers. Not every flower got a fair chance. Your roots were planted in the wrong spot. You ended up in the wrong place and got stuck. A fixture without the means to help yourself. Shit happened. So Harper imagined the ways she could help it; feeding the flower magickal strength and nourishment, imbuing it with the ability to press onward and grow. As she did, there was a slight glow from her hand and the cool touch of magickal energies.
Heal, heal. Grow… C'mon….
To her surprise and delight, the flower began to grow taller if only for a moment. Harper found the process exhausting, as if she was draining a portion of herself at an excess rate even with the stone. Her breath grew shaky and her vision blurred ever so slightly but she could feel the change happening. It was a spell, the smallest of sacri spells emboldening the daisy and granting it life. And then, she lost it… The magick faded and the flower sagged.
At her side Fina reached out and brushed a hand against her shoulder, trying to steady Harper. "That was good," the blonde woman said. "But you're forcing it and thinking too much about the flower itself; focus on the feeling. Often, it can help to think of something else other than the task at hand."
Harper huffed and puffed. "What do you mean?"
"Green magicks are deeply tied to our emotions. More than any other spells, they ebb and flow based on our own nature," Fina said. She kept her hand on Harper's shoulder. "If I may, my people have… the ability to connect with the thoughts of others. I could perhaps guide you to a clearer state of mind? Once you know what it feels like, you should be able to replicate it."
The scribe hesitated for a moment, her eyes locked on the flower she'd nearly managed to heal. She didn't want to give up, so she nodded.
Fina smiled. "We'll just find a good memory or other calming thought," she said. "Can you try to channel your stone again?"
Harper nodded, focusing until the green glow emanated again and the flower slowly began to perk up. As she did so, she felt something shift in her mind and, to her amazement and worry, realized that it was Fina. She was there; as present in her mind and spirit as she was beside her in the garden. Harper froze.
Keep going. Fina's voice filled her heart. I'm right here. Focus and we'll turn your thoughts away from the present. To something else..
As she channeled her magick, feeling that keen life energy move from her body and into the stone, Harper also started to see images beyond the garden. Old memories that were being sifted about as Fina mentally worked to guide her to the right place. She was five years old and blowing out the candle on a modest cake; her father was giving her a journal as a gift. Her first journal, where she learned to love the sight of words scribbled on pages. It faded until she was sitting under the stars with Gilder on Cape Claudia; she was pointing out all the constellations she knew and the dashing rogue feigned surprise as he "learned" about each new image. She felt the wind in her hair as the Little Hope gained on the Claudia. She saw Vyse's wry grin as he welcomed her to the crew. Each new image brought a sense of calm, and although Harper could not see it, she could tell her spell was growing in power.
Good. We're almost there. There's one more thing here; you hold it tightly and it's the source of so much of your strength. Let's just..
"Wait…" Harper could hardly mutter the words. She felt so at peace, and ever so connected to her friend but in spite of her knowledge of magicks or Silvite abilities, the scribe was possessed of a strong imagination. She saw where this was going before Fina could.
The thing that will clear your mind… The thing that inspires you..
It was as if her friend had wandered through a door in her mind; not against her will but most happily and willingly. It was a shared exploration, a sort of free association deeper and deeper into the things that Harper cared for most. And as the door swung open, they came to the center of it all. The obvious and unspoken thing laid bare for both of them to reckon with.
There was no hidden memory that would give Harper further strength. There was no special moment that would grant her the clarity to breathe life back into the daisy. Because the daisy was already healed; Harper could feel the soft green light of her sacri spell seeping into the flower and pushing it to bloom. There was no need for anything else because she had everything she needed right beside her. Under all her memories and joys, the thing that gave her calm… which was so clear within her mind and so blatant as the two women bonded telepathically…
The door swung open and it was just her. Fina.
Harper, I didn't…
The connection broke and Harper was suddenly aware of her presence in the garden again. The smell of the flowers, the shifting of the dirt beneath her knees, the island breeze. She felt completely calm and yet also entirely exposed. Her deepest secret, her greatest strength, was no longer a secret from Fina. Her love, her admiration; It had been a hidden thing and now it was known to both of them. Harper looked at the daisy; it looked as fresh and healthy as it ever could have been. Her spell had worked, her love had somehow been made manifest and the result was new life—And a growing sense of embarrassment.
"I suppose I should explain," Harper said nervously. She kept her eyes fixed on the flower, not daring to look at Fina. "Now that you've seen that…"
Fina shook her head. "I was reckless," she insisted. "I wanted to help and I moved too fast and did you a grave disrespect in the process. Forgive me."
Harper gave a shaking sigh and looked at Fina. "It's fine," she said nervously. "Probably for the best even that it's no longer unsaid."
"Do you… really think of me like that?" Fina asked the question as if the very idea of anyone liking her was impossible.
It was a modesty that Harper decided leaned too far into self-deprecation. Especially after all her time in the skies with Aika and Vyse, who very clearly and obviously loved her with all their hearts. If Fina had one flaw, it was her inability to allow herself to be loved.
Harper held her gaze on Fina, ever amazed that someone so decent could even exist.
"You are all that I wish I could be," the scribe admitted passionately. "And if you ask me, this very moment, to sail off and fight the entire Armada by myself? I wouldn't hesitate."
"I would never ask…"
"That's not the point," Harper interrupted. "The point is that I would do it. Understand?"
Fina flushed a little and brushed a stray hair from her face. "I don't know what to say," she offered. "I didn't know.."
Harper looked away, focusing on the freshly-healed daisies down in the garden dirt. "There's nothing to say," she replied. "Because you already have people you care about."
"I do care for our friendship," Fina said slowly. Harper felt a piece of her heart break but held her silence as the Silvite continued. "But I cannot… reciprocate this gift you've given me."
"Gift?" Harper scoffed. "What makes it a gift?"
She felt Fina's hand on her shoulder and turned to look at her fellow woman. She was smiling as if nothing was wrong. "Is it not a gift? Knowing you are loved?"
Harper fought to hold back tears. "You're not upset?
"I'm not," Fina said. "However, you are right; there are other people I care about in… that way. Though I haven't found the words for it.."
"You will," Harper insisted, standing up and offering a hand to Fina. She pulled her friend to her feet gently. "And it'll be good and everything you deserve…"
"Harper, I am sorry," Fina said softly. "I thought to help you today and I fear I've caused nothing but pain."
Harper reached out and ruffled Fina's hair for a moment. "It hurts," she admitted. "But it'll be alright." She nodded at the flowers. "After all, you just taught me how to heal, right?"
Fina smiled. "I did, yes," she answered. "... We could practice again soon, if you like."
"I would," Harper replied softly. There was a weight behind those words that she couldn't know if Fina perceived. A way of saying thank you and also apologizing at the same time. She smiled.
"Only so many crystals left," Harper said knowingly. "Can't rightly say any of us know what happens after that so let's just… enjoy what we can, while we're able.."
Fina smiled back. "A few adventures left," she teased. "For your writings."
The scribe chuckled. "We'd best make them exciting," she said before exiting the garden. Her heart ached, but somehow she knew that it would be okay in the end.
Harper had been right about at least one thing: the adventures were exciting. Ancient cities carved out of ice—with countless ancient peoples locked away in magickal stasis, a winding journey beneath the Valuan continent that left another Gigas disposed by the might of the Delphinus' moonstone cannon, the horrible misadventure of delving into the Deep Sky and battling Admiral De Loco. Vyse had led them on plenty of wonderful adventures.
But she'd been wrong about the ending; it wasn't going to be okay. It was going to be bloody.
Their home was burning. What had been a night of feasting and friendship celebrating their successful recovery of the Moon Crystals and the end of Fina's quest had erupted into chaos. Valuan ships, arriving from skies unknown, bombarded their home base with fire and fury. Soldiers and trained assassins raided the island in an attempt to put anyone and everyone to the sword.
One of the first cannon shots had burst down by the mess hall. Harper had quietly taken a moment to step outside in the moments leading up to the explosion. The thought of their journey's end, the notion of Fina's departure to her people, was bittersweet. She had looked up into the sky with just enough forewarning to see the first battleship unload its payload. The explosion slammed down, tossed the scribe into the side of the mess hall, and caused the world to fade around her. She heard noises; steel and pistol fire and screams. It was so distant and she was so tired and all she needed to do was close her eyes and...
"Harper! Harper!" A voice was calling her back to reality and she opened her eyes to return to the present. Crescent Isle was burning; someone had pulled her away from the now engulfed mess hall. Her confused eyes fell on her savior.
"Gil…" She reached out at Gilder as she tried to stand up. He placed a solid hand on her shoulder to stop her from moving too quickly. "What's happening? Wha…"
The rogue, who she'd failed to best all those years ago on Cape Claudia, held up his hand. "How many fingers?" he asked her. "Look! How many fingers?!"
It was hard to tell for a moment but Gilder's hand came into focus until she saw it clearly. "Two," she said calmly. "Two… But it's… it's the Valuans, isn't it?"
As if to answer the question, a blacksteel-clad assassin darted from the flickering shadows with a yellow moonstone blade raised high and ready to strike at Gilder. Harper was about to yell a warning but the red-clad gunslinger simply snapped his pistol over his shoulder and pulled the trigger. There was a burst of smoke, a smack of metal on metal, and a bloody puff as the bullet blasted through the Valuan's helmet and sent him spinning to the floor.
"You know, anyone can buy these costumes on the black market," Gilder joked. "But given the actual training and the giant Spectre -class overhead, yeah, Lamb, I'll say it's the Valuans."
"What do we do? Where are the others?" She gasped. "The crystals! We need to.. We need.."
Gilder looked at her sternly. "You need to hide," he all but ordered. "Stay out of sight until we can drive them off.."
A woman's voice called from a few feet away. "Darling, if we're going to reach the Claudia ," it said. "Now would be the time!"
Harper peered over Gilder's shoulder and saw Clara, pink dress marred by soot and blood, firing her own pistol at another assassin. Her revolver spat fire and the Valuan crumpled to the ground. She looked at Harper before firing at another Valuan and sending them to the grave.
"Are you alright, deary?"
The scribe waved. "Think so…" she offered. "You're heading to the dock? What for? We should have bodies here."
GIlder pointed up at the Valuan cruiser in the skies. "Gonna deal with that," he said plainly. "Now, go and hole up somewhere safe."
Gilder looked at Harper as if she'd gone completely mad. "Harp, this isn't the place for you!"
"No!" She snapped back harshly. The rogue, to her surprise, fell quiet. "I'm not going to let them touch a single one of those crystals and I'm not gonna let them take her away!"
Harper stood up shakily, leaning on Gilder. "I need to make sure that she's safe…"
A moment passed, Gilder looking at Harper with confusion before a sly realization dawned on his face and he grinned. "That's Blue Rogue talk," he said proudly. "So what's your plan?"
"Gimme your guns," she said. Gilder laughed but Harper insisted. "Gimme your damn guns, Gil! Clara'll get you to the ship fine and you two can blow that cruiser to bits. But I'm heading out there and making sure that my captain… that my.. That she 's…"
There was a glint of motion as Gilder flipped his pistols and held them out to Harper. "These're gonna kick a lot more than that little revolver I've seen you target shooting with," he said darkly. "Exhale, squeeze. Plant your feet and don't bend your elbows."
Harper felt the guns' weight in her hands; semi-automatic models with yellow moonstone in the barrels. Fast shooters; rare and hard to find outside Valua. She imagined herself firing a shot. "Got it."
"It'll be loud," Gilder warned her. "And messy."
"Not my first time," she said darkly. In the firelight, Gilder and Clara frowned. It felt like so many days had passed from their teasing nights in the Wastrel . Harper took a breath before glancing between her friends. "So are you two, like…. doing it again?"
Gilder waved a hand and began to run off. "Not your business, kiddo," he said as he ran off towards the port.
Guns in hand, Harper turned to run towards the center of the island square. All was fire and steel and violence. Familiar faces rushed by. Lawrence locked in battle with two assassins, Hans rushing Urala and some of the others down into the docks, Kirala and Merida darting from foe to foe in their most violent dance to date. She began to rush further into the fray, nearly toppling into Luke as he stood over a pair of fresh corpses.
"Where's the captain? Where's Fina?!" she called above the din of battle.
Luke jerked his cutlass from one of his victims. "They were by the beach," he answered before asking his own question. "Where's Mabel? Where's May?"
"I don't know," Harper replied. "Gilder and Clara are heading to his ship to deal with the trouble in the skies but I haven't seen…It's too much..."
As if on cue, Mabel barreled into view. "Luke! Bookworm! We need to back up the captain now! By the waters! There's an admiral!"
"Who?" Luke cried out.
"Ramirez! Galcian's dog! They're trying to get the crystals!"
The sounds of battle grew more clear in that moment; as if simply invoking Ramirez' name made his violence easier to perceive. They could hear the clashing of blades as a battle raged by the waters. There was a yell that couldn't be anyone else's but Aika's before she fell silent. A roar of anger from their captain and the sound of more blades coming to blows. A symphony of rage and righteousness. Then another scream that made Harper's heart sink before igniting an intense fury unlike anything she'd known. It was Fina, and it sounded like every part of her was being twisted and torn.
Without even waiting for Luke or Mabel, Harper bolted towards the direction of the scream. She could hear a dark voice in the night.
"All Silvites are born with a piece of the Silver Crystal within them," the voice intoned. "...It contains our life force. Only through death can the crystal be removed from our bodies."
Harper ran as fast as she could. The scene before her was a dire one. Vyse stood with his swords at the ready, Aika's near-lifeless body sprawled on the ground by him. She could see Ramirez before them, the five moon crystals hovering about him in all their glory. And between them all was Fina; as Harper drew closer Ramirez extended his hand and Fina doubled over in pain as a glowing silver light threatened to burst from her chest. She screamed in anguish and it was the worst thing Harper had ever heard in her life.
"Come, Fina!" Ramirez called out. "Give your life for Lord Galcian! Give your life so that this world might be cleansed!"
"Stop!" Vyse cried out. He rushed forward but a burst of fire energy arced from the Red Moon Crystal to keep him at a distance. "Ramirez!"
Harper saw Fina, nearly doubled over in anguish and with an ever-brightening light threatening to burn through her chest, and the scribe gave herself over entirely to her anger and fears. It was an animal instinct of raw fury. All she knew was that something beautiful was about to die. The woman she cared for most in the entire world was about to die. And if she didn't do something, it would happen within mere seconds.
"You will not!" Harper screamed, running towards the silver-haired admiral. "You will not take her from us you, bastard!"
She raised her guns and fired. Over and over and over again. Her rage rang loudly throughout all of Crescent Isle as Gilder's pistols fired shot after shot… and each bullet was intercepted by the Moon Crystals' power. More were caught in the polarity of the Yellow Moon Crystal's might; a few others were blown aside by forceful wind gusts summoned by the Blue Moon Crystal. It didn't matter to her. All that mattered was keeping Fina alive. She kept firing again and again. To her amazement, a lone bullet slipped through and sliced at Ramirez's shoulder, eliciting a pained grunt as the man staggered and lost concentration from his task. Fina fell to the ground, no longer screaming, and before Harper could even tell if the Silvite was alive, Ramirez turned to look at her, blood dripping from his shoulder and a look of unabashed hatred on his face. He looked like a devil made real.
"You tiny fool!" he yelled. "How dare you get in the way of Lord Galcian's dream!"
The man's hand shot out, his palm aimed at Harper. Energies from the Yellow Moon Crystal jolted down to gather into his hand, crackling with electric might and enervating magicks unlike anything she'd ever seen. Her eyes went wide; there was no escaping this.
"Die," the Valuan commanded.
The electric energy lashed at her faster than any of the bullets she fired, coursing into her body and burning her with such an immediate potency that she couldn't even truly feel the pain. Instead, she simply felt her body… break. Like every bone holding her aloft and every nerve coordinating her muscles simply snapped. Vaguely, she heard Vyse call out her name but at this point even her ears were not really working the way they were meant to. She fell backwards, seeing a flash of fire in the sky that she assumed—with what little sense she had left—meant that Gilder's mission was a success. Her head hit the sand and she saw shadows… Luke perhaps...and Vyse too.. rushing at Ramirez. It was getting hard to breathe, harder still to understand what was around her, and as the world grew darker and colder, all Harper Lamb could do was force one last smile to her lips.
She's safe… She's safe…. She's safe…
The thought repeated in her mind a few more times until the dark claimed her entirely and she fell into the uncaring and unfeeling depths of oblivion.
There wasn't anything there. When the darkness claimed Harper, it was just… darkness. An inky sea of weightless waves where she ebbed and bobbed for what felt like both an eternity and no time at all. There was no grand revelation awaiting her, no reunion with friends or fading into the great skies that so many sailors claimed to see when they nearly died. There was simply nothing but the blackness. Which meant there was no pain either. For a time, that was Harper's new normal and she was content with it. But slowly, with the tiniest cracks in the distance, the blackness began to splinter until there were the telltale traces of sounds and light, color and smells. The most curious of these was the light fragrance of vanilla that snaked out from one of the cracks and seemed to envelop her. It was, by some strangeness, the thing that convinced her that she hadn't died; if she was hearing voices—Clara, Gilder, and some others—and smelling the waking world, then it stood to assume there was a world waiting for her to wake up into. And so eventually, the cracks in the blackness grew wide and she found herself opening her eyes slowly and returning to reality.
She was in a bed, a bit of sunlight drifting from a nearby window. It was hard for her to make sense of everything. She recalled the fire and the fighting, she recalled Fina's screams. She could picture the flash of magickal energy that had nearly killed her. Instinctively, she tried to move and found that her body was hardly cooperating. Her arms were heavy and her legs felt miles away. Slowly, she pushed herself up but found that it was so fatiguing that she flopped back to the bed with a moan. A pain shot through her body and she gasped.
"Hey, hey," a voice cautioned. She turned her head slowly to her side and spied Gilder sitting in a chair by her bedside. "Don't move too fast. Doc Ortega says it's a miracle you're alive at all."
Harper took a few breaths before speaking up again. "Is she okay?"
Gilder hesitated before smiling lightly at Harper's devotion; he leaned back in his chair. "Fina's fine," he said. A wave of relief washed over Harper. "But they got the crystals and… we lost some folks. You've… been out for two days now."
The scribe tried to push herself upwards again but this time Gilder stood and helped her adjust until she was in a seated position on the bed, pillows propping her up. He looked sad in a way that she'd never seen nor entirely understood. "...How bad?"
"Khazim and Luke," Gilder started, a fresh pain striking Harper's heart. "And… the captain is.."
"What?" Harper immediately snapped to attention. "Is he okay? Is he alive?!"
Gilder nodded. "For the moment," he said carefully. "That man.. Ramirez… gutted him good. Fina and that alchemist have been fightin' like hell to bring him back to us. Stable so far, but it's been constant work."
Harper turned to leave her bed but found her legs heavy. Driven by a desire to do anything other than sit in bed, she took her hand and moved her legs one by one without quite realizing what was happening. She started to attempt to shift out of the bed.
"Harper! Wait! Wait!"
She didn't listen and shoved off from the bed with the intent of walking out of the room. Instead, it suddenly felt like there was almost nothing beneath her as she toppled forward. Her feet were on the ground but she felt nothing there and watched as she helplessly fell downwards. Gilder caught her at the last moment, and Harper looked down at the lower half of her body.
"Gil, I can't…" She was trying to understand what was happening. The strange lack where she might've felt her legs. There was only, at best, an odd numbness. Her breathing started to pick up. "Gil, why can't I… I can't feel my legs… Why can't I wa… What's happening? Gil! What's happening! Why can't I walk?! I don't understand.."
The older man lifted her up and guided her carefully back to her bed. She felt helpless, so small and confused. Her heart was pounding and all she could feel was panic. This wasn't real, right? It couldn't be. By the time she was back in place, the door was opening. Clara walked in, fresh tea in her hand, and immediately frowned. She rushed to place the cup down on Harper's bedside table.
"You're awake!" The kind-hearted pirate could not hide her excitement but also immediately moved to sit at Harper's side as the younger woman shook with panic. "Shh…. it's okay, dear."
Gilder cast Clara a glance. "I'm going to find Doc," he said. "Stay with her. She just… tried to get out of bed and…"
Clara nodded as Gilder left the room. She stroked Harper's hair soothingly. "It's alright," she whispered. "You're going to be alright and you're going to get through all of this. We all will…"
"They took the stones and the captain is…." Harper's face was burning with tears as the situation hit her. "My legs aren't… working … I can't…"
Clara pulled her in tight and hugged her. Harper managed to raise her arms and return the gesture. "This isn't the end of this," she assured the younger woman. "The captain will be fine… The island can be rebuilt… and you'll do like you've been doing. Keep growing and moving forward."
"I just…." Harper choked on her words for a moment. "I wanted to be like you and Gil. You were both so… amazing, and I thought I had.. I joined Vyse and we were gonna save the world…"
"Plenty of time left for that," Clara said sweetly. She guided the tea cup into Harper's hands and helped her take a sip. Black, with vanilla and cinnamon. "Blue Rogues don't give up, right?"
Harper managed another sip of tea before waving the cup off. "Nothing I do goes right!" she yelled. "I try to race and I crash my ship! I fall in love but no one loves me! I fight and now…"
"Oh hon," Clara said. "You've done plenty and grown so much. You should be proud. You're so much more than that girl that was left on the cape years ago…"
"I've tried," Harper said, holding Clara. "And now…"
"You've hit some turbulence, but it's not unfixable," a deeper voice called out. Doc Ortega walked into the room with Gilder at his side. "Now, ignoring the...paralysis, how are you feeling? Breathing okay? No issue with your vision?"
Harper shook her head, looking at the kind doctor nervously. "You should be focused on the captain," she said. "I'm… fine."
Doc smiled at the scribe's good-heartedness before rubbing his eyes. "Well, you're not entirely fine," he said. "Besides, the work that's being done to help Vyse is more magickal than medical. Not my area of expertise. Now: how are you feeling?"
"Sore," Harper admitted, taking a breath and steadying herself. "Shooting pain through the parts of my body that I can feel. Doc, I…"
"Got struck by some rather advanced yellow magicks," the doctor finished for her. "A magickal cocktail of electric, scorching, and enervating auras. Your muscles were… burned, lacking a better term, as were many of your nerves. The rest of the spell, as Ilchymis was able to explain it to me, dissipated your innate energies…"
"What's that mean?" Gilder said. "I mean, practically, what's that mean for her?"
"Will I walk again? " Harper asked cautiously. The room grew quiet for a moment.
"It's hard to say.."
"Will I walk again, Doc?"
Doc sighed, leaning against the wall. "In time, you might," he concluded with practiced care. "But the spell has permanently damaged your body. You're always going to be, well… a little weaker from now on."
"I might walk…" Harper repeated. "So there's a chance that I'll never manage it again?"
"Possibly," Doc admitted. "There's some medicines that we'll get you started on. Distillations of paranta and vidal seeds. Some magickal regimes too, which should help you regain some strength. But it'll take time before we can think about getting you walking again.."
"How long are we talking?" Harper asked, letting the reality sink in. "Like… weeks?"
"Given your state," Doc began cautiously. "I'd say half a year of treatment before that work can really start. Your legs are… Well, they're going to need a lot of time to rebuild even with treatment. After that? With some luck and work, you might walk again in a few years."
"A few years…"
"Kirala's making you a chair right now as we speak," Doc said kindly. "You'll be the envy of the entire crew, I reckon."
Harper sighed. "And then what? Valua's… won. It's over..."
Gilder shook his head. "Not yet," he said. "We'll get the crystals back and… Well, hell I haven't thought that far ahead but we will. Vyse'll get better and it'll somehow work out."
"A few setbacks don't mean that we've lost," Clara said warmly. "We'll hit them back right on the nose!"
Doc nodded. "Folks are already starting to work on rebuilding the base," he said. "I imagine they'd really appreciate having a certain someone back and able to check on the books and take inventory of whatever's needed…"
Gilder clapped Harper on the shoulder. "S'work to do," he said with his signature swagger. "And you still got your own role to play. Just maybe leave the gunslinging to me from now on?"
Clara gave Gilder a little slap on the arm. "That's not funny."
In spite of it all, Harper managed to laugh. "You have a deal, Gil," she said. Her cheer was forced but it still felt good nevertheless "Next time there's a rogue Valuan admiral to shoot, I'll let you handle it…"
He smiled back at her. "You did good, kid," he said. "In spite of the fresh trouble… you did good. And you'll manage to get through all this too."
Harper leaned back into her bed and closed her eyes. "Whatever," she said tiredly. "Still feel like shit. But I guess we got hope… and that'll have to do.. Especially once the captain… pulls… through..."
She didn't even hear if there was a response. By the time her head hit the pillow, Harper was already drifting back to sleep. Whatever came next when she woke, all the hard work and struggle, she'd bear it gladly. Because if anything else, this wasn't the end after all.
The end, it turned out, was going to play out on a scale that no one could have imagined. In the time since the captain's recovery and rebuilding Crescent Isle, Galcian secured the final Silver Moon Crystal from an unlikely source: one of the Silvite elders living back at the Great Silver Shrine… which had apparently been orbiting the world like a star for centuries. When Fina and the others traveled there to ask for aid, Galcian and Ramirez had followed. Final crystal in hand, the pair raised an entire continent from the Deep Sky and, from the safety of some ritual chamber they had summoned a torrent of moonstones from the Yellow Moon. Valua, the nation that had held the world by the throat, was flattened by hundreds of falling stones. The Empress had been killed and Galcian installed himself as the nation's new ruler. An emperor who would unite the world and destroy any nation who did not bend the knee.
That might've been the end of history but instead, drawn by Vyse's courage and command, ships from all around the world had gathered at Crescent Isle to prepare for one final, desperate fight against Galcian's Armada as the bastard made preparations to sail from one nation to the next and demand a surrender. Blue and Black Pirates, the remaining dregs of the broken Nasrean Navy, Valuan deserters, Yafutoman forces and Tenkou raiders under the command of Prince Daigo, merchant ships with just enough guns on their hulls. Anyone and everyone possessing a will to fight for freedom had made their way to the Frontier Lands to amass the most absurdly mis-matched and outgunned rebel fleet in the history of bad ideas. Tomorrow, they would sail off to meet Galcian's forces head on and the pages of history would either be marked by their unlikely victory or their tragic defeat. Either way, it would end.
Harper had spent the entire day coordinating supplies but she'd also embarked on another task that she considered to be of the utmost importance: a census of every sailor who would be flying into battle against Galcian. So she had called down clerks and crewmen to her office to take a record of each ship's crew. The names numbered over the thousands. She kept the list in her pocket for the moment; a register of heroes. The world would need to know their names. Either as the brave fools who liberated the skies or those who died bravely for the cause.
Night had fallen, and the air was charged with a tension unlike anything she'd ever felt. While she attempted to sleep, the scribe eventually worked her way out of bed and into her wheelchair, making her way topside and stopping on the path outside of the garden. She didn't really work the soil much anymore, owing to her condition, but she did manage it from time to time. Instead, she was mostly fond of looking at the growing crop. It had all burned when Ramirez attacked their home and stole the crystals, but Aika had put hard work into it again even now. Squash and corn and other vegetables lay there in the moonlight, as did a few flowers. She smiled softly at the sight; that garden was perhaps her favorite place in all the world. The moment she'd connected with Fina and finally been able to share her feelings, accidental a moment as it was, had become a cherished memory. What would become of those plants after tomorrow? Would Aika be alive to tend them? What would become of any of them?
Harper didn't know, and wouldn't think that far ahead save to acknowledge a frustration. If the battle progressed, the crew meant to board Galcian's air fortress, the Hydra, and Harper would not be able to join them. It troubled her greatly and for a moment, she lifted a silent prayer to the moons that somehow she might be healed and able to walk before morning's light, so that she wouldn't need to be left behind when the battle started. Too much was at stake, and even one extra gun might mean the safety of the entire world…
"You shouldn't think like that," a soft voice spoke beside her. Harper looked up to see Fina standing at her side. "And you shouldn't be so eager to run into battle.."
"Reading my mind?" Harper said with a chuckle. "I thought you promised to avoid doing that?"
Fina bowed in apology. "The feeling was so strong," she explained. "That I hardly needed to focus at all. But I am sorry… it's just that I…"
"Can't sleep," Harper finished. "None of us can. Because Vyse is right: tomorrow, we make history. And plenty of us will die even if we win.."
"Maybe even Ramirez…"
Harper nodded. "It must pain you," she said carefully. "Having your friend on the other side of this. I can't imagine it.."
Fina frowned, looking at the garden. "We are paying for sins past," she said painfully. "My people destroyed the world once. I won't let Rami do it again. No matter what it takes…"
"That night, when I tried to stop him," Harper started. "If I had done so…"
She felt Fina's hand on her shoulder. "You were protecting something you loved," the Silvite said carefully. "Which is what I am doing now. This world and it's people… I have come to love it.."
"So you'll fight him, if you must…"
Harper smiled softly. "You won't be alone," she said. "You'll have Vyse… and Aika…"
The Silvite looked at Harper sadly. "You envy them."
"You sensed my thoughts," Harper started. "If I could, I would be right there too," she offered before gesturing to her legs. "But alas…"
"I wouldn't want you there," Fina said cautiously, looking at the scribe with a curious glance. Harper frowned. "I don't think it's the right place for you."
"Why?" Harper nearly snapped. "Because I'd be in the way? A liability?"
Fina shook her head, walking around Harper's chair to look at her face to face. "No," she said plainly. "Because I… have a special task for you. If you're willing to accept it. I've been thinking about this for a while actually..."
Harper felt a pang in her heart, looking at Fina with as much confusion as admiration. "A… task for me? I can't imagine anything I can help with now.."
Fina knelt down, looking at Harper and bringing her hand up to trace the tattoo on her forehead. "I've told you what this means, right?" she asked rhetorically. "In our conversations about my people?"
"The mark of wisdom," Harper said. "Given to priestesses and historians. To those who bear knowledge and witness it. Why?"
The Silvite leaned in. "When I met with my elders," she started. "They talked as if the people here on the surface could not be worthy of continuing on. Ramirez was right; if I had given them the crystals they would have called the Rains of Destruction on the world…"
"I… didn't know that," Harper offered. "Vyse only told me so much.."
Fina nodded. "Which means that Ramirez was right about one thing: they were not the people I thought they were," she says. "Because this world, these people… people like you or Vyse… have a great strength. Courage, fortitude, even your own wisdoms.."
Harper looked at Fina curiously. "What are you saying?"
"I don't know what tomorrow will bring," Fina said. "But of anyone on the crew, you are the historian among us. You've chronicled our journey.. You have been writing your own recollections and more… And so if anyone on this crew also should bear this mark, it should be you.."
"I'm not one of you," Harper replied. "I'm not a Silvite…"
"But you were born under the Silver Moon," Fina noted. "And the task I give you is a simple one: survive and bear witness to what comes next. Whatever happens tomorrow, I want you to live and tell the story…"
The Silvite smiled. "Which is why I ask that you allow me to pass this mark to you as well.."
Harper's eyes went wide. "I… Fina, are you sure? I don't… feel like I deserve this."
"It's just a mark," Fina said with a surprisingly burst of worldly knowledge. "It is what we make of it. I know you don't want to think about it but… even I could fall tomorrow in battle, and so I would feel a great deal of peace knowing that this mark lived on."
"Gonna grab a needle and some ink?" Harper said with a chuckle.
"Not quite," Fina said, leaning in close and bringing her thumb to Harper's forehead. "May I?"
Harper hesitated for a moment but nodded. "Yes."
The scribe felt the smallest tingling of magicks as Fina traced her finger about. A clean circle with a slash into the middle, whose line then carried downward into another rising cut to the left. It was over before Harper could really understand that it had happened.
"There," Fina said. "I grant you the mark of my people. The mark of wisdom. That it might guide your thoughts true in whatever is to come.."
"I will… live up to the example you've offered," Harper said seriously.
"And I charge you with a mission," Fina said. "To live through tomorrow and witness history. To share the story of our journey with others, no matter what conclusion comes in the daylight."
Harper nodded, feeling the bitter sting of tears in her eyes. "I promise," she said, eyes locked on Fina. "Because I…"
"I know," Fina said, reaching out to wipe away a tear from the scribe's eye. "But let's have none of these, yes?"
"Okay," Harper offered, taking a breath. "But you need to promise me something.."
"Win," Harper said, her voice shaking. "Win and come back. Be happy. With Vyse… with Aika.."
Fina beamed at Harper, leaning in to give her a kind hug. "I will," she said sweetly. "There's so many more adventures to come, right? But for now? I… think I need to wander a bit longer."
"Tomorrow will be hard," Harper told her friend. "But we've long learned as a part of this crew that nothing worth doing is easy. I can't… offer you the peace you need, or spare you the worries you are feeling but promise you: it will be okay."
"You sound like Vyse," Fina said kindly before turning to walk further up the path. "Rest well, Harper. And no matter what else: live."
Harper watched as her friend walked into the distance, and she felt her worries fall away. Whatever fire and fury was to come tomorrow would come, and while there would be loss, she felt a renewed assurance that there would be victory and new life. She turned and began to guide her wheelchair back down to her offices, a curious smile on her lips. Harper would watch what was to come, she would witness history… but like the writer of any good story, she knew the ending already. The heroes would win. That's what heroes did after all. Year ago, she thought that all she would be good for was running drinks at a crappy little tavern and balancing the checkbooks of pirates and criminals. She thought to escape that life with a race that ended in disaster. At the time, she thought that was the end of her story.
Then Vyse had walked into the Wastrel, and she discovered the role she had truly been meant to play. It was the role whose mark she now bore on his forehead: witness. She was never meant to be the hot-shot racer or dashing pirate captain. She could never be the beautiful mage on a world-changing mission. But she could watch and write, turning history into written record into stories that would hopefully inspire others. In relaying the story of Vyse and Aika and Fina, in telling the story of what she saw and what happened, she could perhaps share an important truth with whoever might gaze upon her page: heroes were real. They walked among us, and made us better. Their examples and courage gave birth to dreams, and so long as there were dreamers there would always be more heroes and more stories.
Harper guided her chair to her desk, opening a drawer and pulling out familiar pages of paper:
The skies have darkened as Valua's war engines expand outwards. Cannons roar and flags of conquest flutter in the wind. In spite of this, brave adventurers set sail across the vast skies in search of untold treasure. And where there is treasure, there will be Air Pirates.
These adventurous souls answer to no authority but their own hearts and set off into the clouds chasing wealth and glory. The merciless, calling themselves Black Pirates, fly a sable standard and steal indiscriminately from anyone they happen upon.
Those possessed of a more chivalrous soul wave blue flags and seek to pillage from the rich and powerful. They are the Blue Rogues, unlikely champions against Valua's gross expansion. Where tyranny reigns, they do little but laugh and ready their boarding parties.
So it is that a Blue Rogue crew chances upon a Valuan flagship in the dead of night. They seek fame and fortune. What they find will alter the balance of history.
She grinned, looking at the words. Her words and the adventure they heralded. It had started with little more than a chance meeting, and yet three young souls… her friends …her heroes... were about to change the world forever tomorrow. And she would watch and write. Harper Lamb, scrivener, historian, pirate and witness of things both unremarkable and world-changing.