Chapter 1: Prologue
It is a fact that the act of piracy is rendered ridiculous by the use of a dragon.
When I first dared to put my stamp on that venerable art, the opening move was a gambler's throw. I remember it well: how the salt air would sing with the tension of bows bending on both sides of a narrowing expanse of gray water, and – ah! the tumult and spray of that scaled neck bursting from the sea just aft of the prey, the crack of a splintered rudder if luck was with us! Hydra's bugle-cry was our call to battle. What followed then was sheer poetry: a flurry of shot and bolts filling the air, the screams and the twanging of bows loosed in wild panic. Ahoy! To the ropes, men! Swing across, swords out, and have to! Be bold but merciful, my lads; we're after loot not corpses!
I was young and rash. A cog capsized in its haste to quit the field, and another fight nearly cost me my dearest treasure. Digging a harpoon's barb from Hydra's jaw after that episode, swearing bloody vengeance, I realized we needed a different tack.
Our next act could only be described as slapstick.
I had the ship repainted and armored fantastically along the forecastle, an impressive array of black spines, scales, horns and party jewels plucked from past hauls. The captain's fancy, my men declared it, amused and clever with their own pun. Everyone knew Captain Faris was a dandy in jeweled boots and gilt-and-enameled pauldrons and a wing-collared great-coat that was practically a frigate all by itself. I needed a showy ship to match.
Here, then, is how we proceeded. Spotting a plump carrack riding low in the beam, we would drift alongside, meek as a dolphin. The other vessel's crew peered at us in dumbfoundment: was it a traveling circus, or some rich man's folly? I betook myself to the great dragon-head prow, set my boot on the 'sprit and my hand on my hip, and drew my rapier with a flourish. That was the signal to raise the pirate flag, for there are some niceties one should not forgo. Having thus informed all parties, I bellowed across the water (I do not shriek like a girl, whatever Bosun may say): "Surrender! We want only your goods, not your lives. You've thirty seconds to heave bows overboard and drop blades on deck, or my dragon will burn your ship to the keel!"
Incredulous merriment rang out. What dragon, they wanted to know, hooting and pointing at the theatrical figurehead. Fruitlessly my opposite number fought to restore order and turn her about. Enter dragon. My heart still leapt when Hydra erupted from the water (safely out of range) and arced straight over their ship in a rainbow of scale and spray, crashing into the waves on the far side. Their ship swayed as she thrashed her fins. Only once had a shrewd captain tested my claim that a sea dragon could breathe fire, and I thanked him for the drill: swords and sailors rust quickly out here. Today's victims were more docile. They cast their arrows into the sea along with their bows, and a few chucked their swords in, too, while the rest dropped steel with a clatter. The imp in me wondered if they would've dropped trousers, too, had I ordered it.
Transfer of goods was orderly and efficient. We left crew and captain tied up on deck, where also we left some of their cutlery for freeing themselves once we were away. Three hours later, my crew was still sorting through the day's takings, enjoying a fine brew meant for the king's tables in Walse, while Hydra cavorted around the hull near enough to rock us. Feeling the wheel humming against my gloves, the wind on my face sending my great-coat flapping and my beads jingling, I thought that life could be no finer.
We can't play this game for long, Hydra reminded me, surfacing in the wake. Soon they'll know us: the dragon ship with a peacock captain strutting about on deck. You should change the hull's color from time to time to throw them off. Or at least alter the rigging.
"What, shall I paint it bright yellow to mimic a chocobo? White, mayhap, with a great red ball dangling off the 'sprit like a fishing float? I'd sooner don petticoats and feign a floating brothel, " I said. "So what if they know us? We can catch them if they run."
I can catch them, you mean. Smug as only a lizard could be, she snaked her great head over the rails and presented her chin for scratching. I reached up to comb the dry scales behind her beard. A few sailors glanced up at the odd sight, but they were well used to it. A deck-hand came up with bucket and towel to wipe up Hydra's drippings. Just be careful. Remember your father's caution.
"I remember." I touched my parents' gift, the pendant hidden under my cravat. Father had warned me of bodies slung from the yard arm, royal navies mustered to quash pirates who overfished the seas.
The ship quivered. I opened my mouth to scold Hydra for leaning her weight on the wales, then realized the cause came above, not below. The wind had slackened. Our sales luffed, belled, gasped for breath and caught again, but only halfway, fluttering on a weak breeze. There was no thunderclap, no boiling seas, no pillar of fire lighting the sky to herald the world's doom — those came later — but that extraordinary hush under a clear blue sky magnified every ship's creak to a portent. Hydra fretted above me, grooming her whiskers.
"Storm brewing?" I said, scanning the cloudless horizon.
Not that kind of storm. Ribbons of fear skittered down my neck over the link. That alarmed me: what could frighten a dragon? She keened her distress against my fingertips, twisted away and dove. A moment later, I felt the ship's shudder as she put her head in the tow-harness and began to swim. Disquieted, I took a firm grip of the wheel with both hands, holding us steady against her lunges. She had my leave to steer.
The second mate had noticed. Approaching the ladder, Bosun gave a sharp salute and looked up at me.
"Change of course, Cap'n?"
"A prospect of pigs in the next one's inventory, Bosun," I said. "She's smelt bacon on the wind."
He gave me a skeptical look. "'Tain't likely we'll run into shipping that way; there's no port southwest but ours."
"Wait and see."
That was the first omen.
The second came at midnight. Under a waxing moon, I found myself walking off sleeplessness after claiming another man's watch. Hydra was still agitated, making straight for our secret haven. Pacing the deck in thought, I was engrossed in composing a speech to mollify the crew for missing our next mark. Gradually I became aware of a blue-white glow seeping through the silk scarf at my throat. Moonbeams? Too much moonshine?
Flicking the scarf aside, I found the source. My pendant! It was the one plain thing I wore, a tarnished, pitted disc like pewter that dully reflected the moon. Not so plain now! Faint lines of a stylized wing-emblem had appeared under its patina, gleaming like molten lace. Hydra's splashing jarred me from contemplation as she pressed me to look up, up! I looked. For an instant I spotted a sinuous dark shape flitting across the moon with a flash that might have been armor. It was gone in an eye-blink, heading north.
"What was it?" I said.
Hiryuu. A wind drake, a prince.
"Oho! Want me to hail him for you?" A touch of arrogance on my part. The unknown drake was too distant to reach, and Hydra was the only dragon I had ever spoken to, besides the S.S. Dragoon, of course.
Hiryuu, she said again, troubled, and submerged.
The third omen came at dawn with a roar of thunder.
It roused me from a bundle of nets where I had bedded down, unwilling to go below with Hydra in such a state. A spike of warning jarred me awake. I opened my eyes to see a long red streak, a diabolo cast from some celestial slingshot, ripping across the sky straight north to south. Men were shouting, falling to the deck and covering their heads as I jumped to my feet. The white-hot fireball cast off burning sparks as it progressed through the upper air in eerie silence like a shark cutting the water. At length it sank over the horizon. The crew gave more cries of wonder and terror as a fireball billowed up and spread outwards in a plumed column of smoke rising to the very clouds.
Pandemonium was breaking out. I was inclined to join those making a run on the rum barrel, but it was my job to bluster and laugh at mere lights in the sky.
"What are you seal pups whimpering about? It wasn't aimed at us," I said. "Or if it was, we're not home."
"Home!" Bosun said. "The Queen o' Karnak's gone and sent a fireball to our hideout!"
"That she didn't. Get a hold of yourself, man. Think. Whoever shot that flaming arrow could have put all the fires of Karnak in a pipe and smoked 'em." Besides, although I was too discreet to note it, the Queen had fond memories of a pirate captain who had landed in her dungeons after a misunderstanding with the portmaster. I could not believe that she had come to rue that dalliance— why, she'd probably yet to miss the jewels I'd nicked! No, whatever that fiery missile was, it came from above.
Hydra's sensible notion was to keep well out to sea until the conflagration burned itself out. However, some of my crew were anxious for their women and children. Cowardice was not one of my flaws, and to refuse their petition would invite mutiny. So I coaxed and soothed and held Hydra to her course.
By such innocent choices we chain our course to fortune's whirlpool. So I bound my fate to that of the princess, at the cost of ship, dragon, and everything else I held dear.
Chapter 2: Parley
We returned to a port in disarray, but our womenfolk and children were safe and hale, if shaken. They had sought shelter in the caves just in time. The meteor's fall had jostled the cove like a cask, sending harbor-waves crashing into the wharfs and docks. There was light damage, a few skiffs sunk, but no lives lost. It took a week and many hands to clear the flotsam and set the harbor to rights. We were resting a day before setting out when something even more momentous fell into my life: all five foot three of her.
I had just returned from filling potion-bottles from our magic spring when Hydra alerted me to intruders. I grabbed six men and raced back to the Dragoon. I expected to find nothing more than one of the younger lads having a bit of fun. Instead I found three strangers: a tall youth in riding leathers with his hand on my wheel, if you please; a shaggy old coot in armor even more ancient than he was; and a winsome waif in a gossamer gown that was more likely to distract foes with bared leg than turn a sword-point. I ordered my men to surround and disarm them. How the thieves had thought to pilot the ship without nautical knowledge nor wind I cannot imagine.
Pirates have an appreciation for fair things, so I greeted the maiden with a bow and a light kiss across the knuckles before inquiring whether it was brass or mere stupidity that had prompted their misguided attempt at piracy.
She blushed but did not cringe. "Allow me to apologize, Captain, for our unlawful attempt on your vessel. My name is Princess Lenna of Tycoon—"
The explosions of disbelief from her companions gave me a moment to collect myself.
"—and perhaps you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I fear my father is in danger, and I go to aid him. I beg you for passage."
"Your father, eh?" the old one said. "Well, I guess that's as good a reason as any."
"Why didn't you tell us, Lenna?" said the other, interested but not overawed.
"The princess?" I said, lounging against the wheel. "Now here's a prize. She'll command a fine ransom, won't she, boys?" My men's guffaws redoubled when I ruffled one of her strawberry blond ringlets. "A pity we're so hard up for cash. I should like a cabin boy."
There were a few wolfish whistles at that. Lenna batted my hand away, wrinkling her nose. The lad in chocobo leathers advanced upon me with his fists. Did he think the rapier at my hip was just for show? "You leave your hands off her, you treacherous, filthy, leering, piratey...pirate!"
I rolled my eyes. "What did the old man call you just now? Butz?"
"Please," said Lenna, "You will be compensated for your trouble. I formally petition that you convey us to the Wind Shrine before the winds fail altogether. Your own livelihood is at stake, Captain, for if we do not succeed, you will have no means to sail."
"Is that so?" I said, grinning down at her. A gleam caught my eye and drew my gaze lower, prompting a snort from the codger. He mistook my aim. Shining between a fine pair of pullets was a necklace twin to my own, minus the wear and tear. Even in sunlight, the blue-white tracery of a dragon's wing gleamed faintly on the metal disc.
Hydra! She's wearing my necklace!
Smugness filtered back through the link. Aren't you moving a little fast?
Batten it, you big gossip. That's not what I meant.
Gossip? I won't tell a soul. Except the girl, perhaps?
"Tie them up," I said, exasperated. "We'll see if the other two are worth a ransom somewhere."
My men bundled our newest trophies down to the brig, with a few leers towards Lenna. Brave girl! Braver than a pirate captain, if she only knew it. Thank the four winds she had bodyguards. I trusted my men, but still, they were pirates.
The ransom, now. I wondered, in retrospect, if holding the princess hostage would bring more grief than loot. My father had always warned against provoking Tycoon. That king of theirs was capable, and might not take kindly to a man who kidnapped his only daughter. Why pay ransom when you could hang the lot? Even with him gone, his underlings might have more access to soldiers than the royal coffers, and anyway they'd be anxious to atone for having mislaid their charge. On the whole, it might be best to divest the princess and her escort of valuables and send them on their way.
And what of that pendant of hers? I drew mine out to ponder it. The surface was only dull metal now, making me doubt what I had seen, had I not seen hers do the same. Mother had called it a good luck charm, but I had always thought it just a bit of plunder, the sort of bauble one gives youngsters before they learn to sort diamonds from glass. Had mine been stolen from a Tycoon vessel, and might that account for Father's caution concerning regal tonnage? I suppose I could ask the princess if any member of her household had ever been waylaid by pirates before.
Something Hydra had said earlier struck me. "Hydra? What did you mean you'd tell the girl? Did she speak to you?"
Of course not. Hydra sounded muzzy. I had a vague impression of her great bulk coiled loosely around the hull like a cockatrice guarding its egg, rocking gently on the ocean's swell. She didn't see me. But she reminds me of you.
"Ha." I shucked off my greatcoat and laid it across the foot of the bed, with my rapier over it. "I'll credit her for pluck, but she needs a fair bit of schooling to qualify as a pirate princess."
Gratified by Hydra's assessment, I decided to postpone the ransom— for now— and humor Lenna's petition. Mayhap we could gain a reward instead of a ransom, and the favor of Tycoon for keeping her safe. A fat chest of gold at the other end of the venture, perhaps? There, a course plotted between shoals. Satisfied, I bolted the door, snuffed lights and slept soundly.
The men were confounded on the morrow when I ordered the captives freed, but my crew were good lads and hopped to it. I had some sport with our guests over our departure.
Lenna came hurrying up to me amidst the bustle of casting off ropes and weighing anchor. To thank me, I supposed, but all she said was, "How are we to sail in this wind?"
Smart lass; she had noticed the reefed sails. "Curious one, aren't you?" I raised my voice, more for her sake than the dragon's. "Hydra, come up and greet our bonny princess! It's time she met our first mate."
Bartz was jogging up to us in belated haste to play bodyguard. I had a clear view of his goggle-eyed gape when Hydra surfaced off the bow and trumpeted skywards. She always put on a brave show.
It was Lenna's reaction I wanted to observe. She clapped her hand over her mouth, stifling a small scream, but her eyes were shining after the first shock. Unconsciously she drifted to the bulwark, eagerly stretching her fingers towards the river of scales streaking upwards just beyond reach. I could see the charm-necklace dangling, glittering as it twirled, but its face was unmarked now like mine.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" I said, leaning past her to cup Lenna's hand and draw her back. She was liable to lose the skin off her fingertips doing that without gloves. Bartz made an exasperated sound. Releasing her, I left the pair standing there watching the dragon leap in the sun. Truly, Hydra's scales sparkled like a thousand emeralds and sapphires in the early morning light. Picking up my mood, the dragon shook herself joyously like a dog, spattering them before plunging back down to take up the tow-harness. I grinned and hastened aft and took up my post at the wheel. A light side-to-side wiggle let Hydra know we were ready, and she set to with a heave.
Once we had cleared the harbor and were running on the open sea, I handed off the wheel to my second mate and came forward to check on our guests. They were making a late meal in the forecastle talking over their travels. I slowed my pace to hear something of meteors and the old man's memory problems— what, had he survived getting hit on the head with that sky-rock? – before they noticed my eavesdropping.
"What?" Bartz said. He made a show of letting his hand hover near a knife in his boot. I would have to speak to my sailors about double-checking for concealed weapons.
"Thought I'd apologize for the shower. Hydra's a playful soul." I directed the comment towards Lenna, who was nibbling a biscuit with elbows propped on the horns of the dragon-head prow. It jutted out like half a crow's nest, serving as a lookout post for those who dared stand on the planks bolted to the bowsprit, or my pulpit for our piratical performances. The princess stood there fearlessly in her dainty heeled sandals, leaning out to glimpse Hydra plowing the sea below. Her pale blue gown and gold fringed sash streamed behind her, mostly dried already from the wind of our passage.
She started. I could see the gooseflesh on her bare arms. "Captain?"
"You're like to catch a chill, standing up here in your nightie. Come down to the hold; I'll loan you some gear." I gestured back towards the hatch. "I've got garb for lads that should fit you."
"I'm not cold," she said softly, and turned her eyes back towards the horizon.
I rolled my eyes. "Yes you are, and you're not dressed for adventure, neither. Come on, love. You festoon the rail most fetchingly, but you're distracting the crew."
"And the captain, I'd wager," the old coot said.
She blushed at that. "Oh, well—"
"I'm coming too," Bartz announced, hopping to his feet.
"Suit yourself," I said, "but you'll wait outside like a proper gent, same as me. My lady?" I offered my hand. She had good sea-legs, but it would be lubber's luck if she pitched over the railing balancing on those quills.
We went below, with Bartz amiably nipping at my heels. "I didn't know pirates collected etchings. Or is it stamps?"
We ambled through the dark-panelled passage smelling of lamp oil and tar, my steps sure while my guest adjusted their eyes to the ship's lanterns. There was a moment's trepidation at my cabin door: on my part more than Lenna's, truth be told. Had I hid away all tell-tales? Banishing doubts, I flung open the door and stepped aside. "In there, if you please, my lady. Closet's starboard, and you'll find a few things to fit. Remember we're liable to meet monsters if there's any trouble at the tower."
"I know." She had a bodkin, I recalled. I would be interested to discover if Tycoon made sure its princesses knew how to defend themselves. After the door had shut behind her with a clack, latch thrown, I turned back to Bartz.
"So, you're her champion, and I take it you've saved her from a few scrapes already," I said, lowering my voice. "Can she fight at all? Aught other skills? There's beasties around the Wind Shrine that could trample her flat."
"Champion? Hardly. I'm just tagging along." He relaxed a little. "Sure, Lenna can fight. Don't underestimate her."
"I'm the last to do such a thing, believe me. But if we're to run into any trouble, I want to know my allies' mettle."
"In that case, give us back our weapons, and we'll show you." He eyed my rapier meaningfully.
I nodded. "When we reach our destination. I'd rather not give our bonny princess another chance at commandeering my ship."
He chuckled. "That pet dragon of yours would stop us."
"I don't underestimate anyone," I said with a bow. "Speaking of which, who's the old dog?"
"Oh, Galuf?" He shook his head. "Met him on the road. No idea. Wildman of the woods, I guess, some kind of hermit. Lost his memory. Must've fallen and hit his head during the quakes that meteor set off."
"Hm." Galuf's armor was weathered and battle-scarred, but the beaten leather spoke of a custom job and fine workmanship. He had been somebody important once.
"He's good enough for two in a fight," Bartz said, "Fuzzy memory or no. Fought off four goblins bare-handed when he was still groggy from the knock. Probably a retired mercenary."
"In whose army?" I laughed. "Doesn't seem the type to take orders, and that's not Tycoon's livery or Karnak's. Ah, well, I'll learn the cut of your jib soon enough. I can spare only ten days for your princess' errand, mind; I've got a boat to catch in a fortnight."
He groaned. "Pirates."
"At your service."
The door opened tentatively. We turned and drew ourselves straight like boys found too near the apple-barrel. Lenna had chosen sensible leathers, rust-red hunting gear that Karnak had given me for a falconry outing. The princess and I were of a size, I observed, despite my greater height.
"That's better," I said. "Later, we'll find you some pins to practice sparring."
"Thank you, Captain." She gave me a troubled look, one that nagged me all the way up into the sunshine. Had I left some never-you-mind out in the open for her to find? Preoccupied, I returned to the wheel to relieve Bosun. Bartz headed forward to brief Galuf, but Lenna lagged behind. Stealing close, she murmured with mild reproach, "What happened to your last 'cabin-boy'? She's not on the boat now, is she?"
Ah, so that was it. "My lips are sealed," I said, eyes twinkling, "But I assure you, princess, she fares very well. I trained her to look after herself, and she's making her way in the world."
"I see." The princess pursed her lips, then fixed her eyes on the horizon with pinched, sad determination. "Train me."
Lessons started at midday, while we unyoked Hydra for a few hours to let her feed and rest. The princess knew some footwork, and she was downright vicious in close quarters. Someone had taught her how to mortally inconvenience a body standing behind her or trying to hale her away. I was glad she had not tested her training on my crew. But she was timid about striking out; she might let a beast latch onto her leg before she hurt it. Also, she wanted more muscle before she could wield a sword. So I gave her a belaying-pin for a dirk, and we began a game of slice-and-harry around and around the mast. Circling like kites, we feinted and darted, focused on each other's knees and shoulders for the signals I was teaching her. Off-duty sailors soon gathered around to heckle. Lenna's cheeks reddened at some of their suggestions, but she only came after me the fiercer. At last, she struck my wrist under the vambrace hard enough to jar my grip. My pin fell with a clatter. A huzzah rose from the spectators. At last, a smile on that wan face! I tugged my forelock, conceding the touch while celebrating a private victory.
A plank creaked behind me. Pivoting, I came near to punching old Galuf in the nose, thinking it was Bartz creeping up to play a prank.
Galuf stepped back spryly and shook his head. "Useless," said he, "Unless you're trying to turn our princess into a gnat. What good is a dirk against troll-hide or hard scale? Give the girl a staff. Doubles for casting, if she ever learns spell-work."
"I can heal, a little," Lenna gasped, wringing her hand as if the blow had stung her fingers.
"There you are," Galuf said. "If you please, Captain?"
"All right," I grumbled, heading for the harpoon rack, "But why every drill sergeant thinks the lasses should fight with a rod rather than a brand, I'm blowed if I know. Here. This should be long enough." I pulled out a broken spear with no barb and checked it for splinters, then tossed it over. Galuf examined it too, hefting it for balance, then put in into the girl's hands and began adjusting her grip. I retired to the mast again with arms folded, watching them.
Bartz, lounging on a crate, hopped down and walked over to the rack to pick up a long hook used to grapple a dock or enemy ship. "Captain?" he said with an easy grin. "I could use training, too."
"Like as not," I said, joining him and selecting another, "But you're no naif, and I'm not fool enough to take you for one. Ha!"
He dodged my swipe easily, hooking a stay to lift himself up and aim a boot at my gut. Excellent. I much preferred brawling. Fending off the rope to push him aside, I darted away and clattered up to the forecastle to give Galuf and his student space without distractions.
"You're vexed at old Galuf, aren't you?" Bartz asked, sweeping at my calves.
"How's that?" I said, hopping over the grapple and aiming a jab with the butt-end of mine at his codpiece.
"Taking—ack! Lenna off your hands." Bartz moved fast when he needed to.
His hook snarled in my great-coat, just missing the back of my knee. I spun away to let the tails fly for a screen. "What of it?" I said. "Old man's lost his tackle, but he's still got experience. Two score o' years on you and me, at least. Save us having to babysit her when we get there."
"Ah." There was a lull in our speech while we danced a jig, weaving around the forecastle and trading bruises. At length, Bartz herded me right out onto the bowsprit into the dragon-head's cage. I vaulted up onto the snout just as the ship heaved. Bartz stumbled. Kicking off, I added the ship's upward lurch to my own jump. My feet landed less than square on his chest, but he went down under me all the same. Both of us struck the deck hard enough to have the wind kicked out of our chests. Just as well; I was too breathless to give myself away with the wrong sort of laughter. We were still lying there like upturned sea-turtles when I heard light feet on the ladder and a little gasp of "Oh!"
I picked myself up to find Lenna hurrying towards us, Galuf following with a mild scowl.
"I thought you two had fallen overboard!" Lenna said. She knelt by Bartz. "Did the captain hurt you much?"
"Nope. Captain...cheated!" that rascal said, croaking for air but cheerful. "Dragon moved the ship."
I never, Hydra told me.
"She's not hitched up, remember?" I held out an arm. "Here, lad, up with you. You just need sea legs. I reckon I'd be out of my depth fighting from choco-back."
"Thanks." Swaying to his feet, he cocked his head at Lenna and Galuf. "So, how'd it go?"
"She'll toughen up," Galuf allowed.
Lenna stamped. "I hit him. Twice."
"That she did," Galuf said, grinning, "Though the first time would've left her wide open for a blow, and she'd never have landed the second." He yawned. "Oh, I'm that tuckered. Sea air makes a body sleepy."
"She wore you out, old man," Bartz said. "Maybe you need a nap."
"Here." I drew my flask from my coat and passed it over. "Try this. Puts hair on the chest. Not that you need it, old man, but choco-boy here could use the help."
"So says the dandy who's not old enough to shave," Galuf said, but he downed a good swallow and smacked his lips. "That's good. They don't make that stuff in... in..." He wrinkled his forehead. "Dangit."
I snorted. "Merry shipmates you've brought me, princess."
We settled down against the bulwarks to catch our breaths. Bartz picked up the ship-hook and turned it idly in his hands. "So, Captain, why are you helping us, anyhow?" he said. "Helping her?"
"Looks and loot," Galuf said, ticking off his fingers promptly.
"He'd get more loot if he'd held out for ransom," Bartz pointed out. "I guess it's looks."
Lenna blushed again. "That's enough, you two."
"Maybe I buy the princess' story about the Wind Crystal," I retorted. "I can sail all over this puddle with Hydra's help, but there's not much profit in it if everyone else is becalmed."
"There's an honest pirate," Galuf said, handing the flask to Bartz. "The wolf guarding the ewes so he'll have lambs next spring."
Bartz spluttered over the strong drink and passed it hastily onto Lenna, who stared at the leather-wrapped bottle uneasily before taking a very small sip. She was too polite to spit it out, but I saw the wince before she returned it to me. It was nothing like the vintage shipped from Thule to Tycoon for the king's banquets, as I had cause to know.
Lenna looked troubled. "Do you... kill people when you...?"
"Does your father kill when he makes war? I'm a pirate, not a flower-seller," I said. "Not if we can avoid it, though: there's no market for corpses, and wine from a dead man tastes fouller than that stuff." Her shoulders relaxed subtly at my words, and she took another sip. "Most ships will share their cargo with a bit o' persuasion. Hydra helps. We give 'em a good scare, and they're happy to part with some barrels and crates for their lives."
It was Galuf's turn to look indignant. "You've turned a dragon to piracy?"
"So?" I waved a hand. "It's all a game to her! What else would she do with herself, pose on battlements looking important?"
Moat monster, Hydra supplied, popping up behind us with a messy splash over the prow. I laughed out loud.
Galuf shook his head. "'S not proper," he grumbled.
"Says the man who can't remember," I chuckled. "Why, I bet Tycoon uses wind drakes for window washers on all those big towers, and you've just forgotten."
"Hiryuu, my father's dragon—" Lenna looked wistful. "They were raised together, like you and Hydra. He keeps my father safe."
"So how do you know your father's in trouble?"
The princess shrugged helplessly. "I... I don't know. The meteor..."
"But you ran away from Tycoon Castle before the meteor fell," Bartz pointed out.
Lenna shook her head. "I can't explain it. I've felt something awful's on its way, ever since the wind began to fail. It's like a storm building, you know? But father wouldn't let me come with him and Hiryuu."
"A wind drake for the king of Tycoon," Galuf mused. "And a sea dragon for a pirate captain. Are such things common?"
"Of course not," Bartz snickered. "Wow, must be weird going through life without knowing anything."
"At least I have an excuse," Galuf harrumphed, "Unlike some."
"Can you—" Lenna ducked her eyes towards the waves— "Does Hydra talk to you?"
The question caught me off-guard. My crew never asked: I was the lad who had tamed the great sea-beast, and that was enough for them. They seemed to think I wielded some kind of power over the sea, enough to make me captain after old Onis had his sides staved in during a brawl. "We understand each other, I reckon," I said.
"Hm." She wrapped her arms around her shoulders. "My...my father could, too."
"Can," I said heartily. Slapping my knee, I arose. "So. Time for us to be moving on, eh? My lady." I sketched a courtly bow. "Hold ye fast; she's apt to pitch when we start off." Heading aft, I nearly tripped down the ladder as Hydra put her head in the harness and tugged, hard.
Falling for her, Hydra chortled.
Stow it, you big lamprey.
Clear blue skies, the open sea, the crew bustling about on the day's chores with a salute and a "Cap'n" on every lip, the ship skimming above and Hydra below, and the fairest maid in the Inner Sea adorning the forecastle... what could possibly go wrong?
Chapter 3: Fair Sailing
Onward to the Wind Shrine.
Five days to the Wind Shrine, at least: without a carrying wind, I would not risk Hydra's constitution, however much the hanging sails warned me that the princess' tale was no lie. Lenna's frantic need beat on us more than the breezes. Powerless, silent, she never begged nor even asked, but Hydra sensed it and strove. I wondered at that, for as far as I knew, I was still the only one who could speak to the sea-dragon. The wind, was all Hydra would tell me. We go to find the wind. She swam valiantly. She did not like putting her head out of the water, into that stale gray sky.
Meanwhile, Bartz was a godsend, for my sailors were mostly idle and wondering what this errand was all about. He capered, he taught them new tricks with dice; he had them all roaring with stories of chocobo eggs and dung balls. Most of all, he helped with the mending, polishing, mopping and painting, for I had ordered the whole ship turned inside-out to keep idle hands occupied. Every time we paused to give Hydra a rest, I would order a space roped off between the masts for us to practice sword-play.
By the third day, Galuf had taken charge of drills for all four of us. I tolerated his gruff handling with flip insouciance before my crew, but in truth he was a hard taskmaster. I would not have tolerated his instruction else. At times I thought I might kill him before we reached the shrine, but if I did, I first would have to learn how.
"One!" Galuf hollered, tossing an apple at my head. "Four!" I parried up, then down, as Lenna obediently lashed at my ankle with her staff. "Seven!"
"How can he remember all that and not where he comes from?" Bartz groused, blocking my thrust amidships. He and I were using wooden practice-weapons now, weighted like my rapier and his gladius. I had restored their true weapons to them two nights ago, with a few upgrades.
"He's lost his history," I said, rapping Lenna's leg lightly as a reminder. "Not his craft. Mark my words, he's a military man."
"Less words, more focus!" Galuf barked, clouting me with a fishing rod. "One! Seven! Four!"
Tired, Hydra complained. Can we hunt something? I'm hungry.
"Hunt it yourself," I snapped, attention divided. Lenna's peck at my ribs glanced off, but Bartz's down-stroke caught my shin and dropped me hard as a boom. I swore a blistering oath and kicked his shanks out from under him. Lenna backed away, forgetting her follow-through. It amused me that sailor's speech could still daunt her. Abandoning the drill, Bartz and I rolled on the deck, wrestling. The hubbub behind us rose as my men traded wagers. As if their captain would lose!
"Tempers, lads," Galuf said. "Up, and again."
"Target Galuf," I growled, knowing better. Bartz winked, rolled off of me and flung himself at Galuf when I did. Lenna followed our lead. Roaring, Galuf wrenched her staff away from her and laid about himself like a loose beam until all three of us were crumpled at his feet, groaning. I rose first, ignoring the disagreeable throb across my tailbone, and touched my forelock. "You know, you'd be welcome among my crew when we've tied up this venture," I said, retrieving my fallen poker. "I fancy you could help me whip these idlers into shape." I flicked the tip towards some of the sailors who had gathered to gawk. They scattered, catching the glint of my glower. Once they had all scurried off to chores real or invented, I winked at Galuf and rubbed my backside.
He cracked a toothy grin. "Oh, I imagine you keep 'em in fine fettle, Captain. Tycoon and Walse are probably short on wine and salt as it is." Brow furrowing, he stooped abruptly beside Lenna, tilting her head back and manipulating it gently. She was out cold.
My mirth drained away. "Damn you, Galuf, she's just a kid."
"So are you, sonny-boy. You lead, but you don't think." His gnarled hands were tender as he sprinkled a tuft of phoenix down across her temples. I tapped a fingernail against the pommel, waiting tensely until she opened her eyes and gave him a dazed smile.
"Ooo." She brushed her knuckles against her forehead. "Too slow, wasn't I?"
"Nah, I swung wild. Here. You lie quiet a bit." Patting her cheek, he gathered her lightly as a lamb and carried her over to a bale of canvas, making her comfortable. Then he turned to Bartz. That knave had his eyes squeezed shut and played dead when Galuf nudged him. His protruding tongue was less than convincing. Galuf snorted and left him. "So." He turned to me and spread his hands. "You want me, boy? One on one, then. No innocents in the cross-fire."
"Bastard," I said, aching to join my prone comrades. Following him to the far side of the mast, I dipped my sword in salute and braced myself for the gale. Galuf picked up a couple of belaying pins, twirled them like battle axes and came at me hammer-and-tongs.
Soon, I promised Hydra, dancing madly to save my skin while I struggled to find an opening. I'm sorry, old friend. Have a bite and a snooze. We'll cover a few more leagues today, but we'll rest as long as you like at the Wind Shrine.
On the eve of the following day, we dropped anchor in the lee of a green headland from which the tower rose like a crag. If lee one could call it: the sea was quite becalmed. Flat gray waters reflected a looming wall of dark forest marching right down to the shingle. Wisps of white mist clung low, flat as a lens, upon the bay's whaleskin surface. Lenna was eager to put ashore, but Bartz was unexpectedly sensible: he persuaded her that camping with somebody on watch all night for wild beasts was not worth the hour or so we would gain before sunset. "Your father won't thank us if he finds naught but a hairpin lying by a fire-ring," I added. She yielded reluctantly.
After the evening's mess, I took a last circuit of the decks to check on my men's several stations and shoo my guests below. Then I made my way to the figurehead. Assuring myself that no idlers were watching, I stripped off my coat and my rapier and hung them from the ship's horns. I had just sat down to remove my boots when a light tread on the ladder alerted me. I hopped to my feet and stepped into the shadow of the ship's lanterns.
Lenna ghosted up onto the forecastle, clad again in her pale blue frock. I supposed she had taken my words to heart about it being no more than a night-shimmy. "Captain?"
Her downcast eyes gave me a start. Uneasy, I glanced down at my own feet for any unusual tokens. But toes were toes, as far as I could see. "Milady?"
"Please," she said, "Tell Hydra thank you for us."
"Tell her yourself." I beckoned her over to the rail beside me and swept a gloved hand seaward. "There she be."
Lenna approached and leaned out, straining to see the dark shape looped below us in the shallows. Being a gentleman as well as a pirate, I ignored the comely bare sweep of neck and shoulder-blades that presented itself to me, else I might have rested an arm there. "Thank you," she called.
There was a bray like a smashed bagpipe in answer. The ship buzzed with a faint vibration of scales and claws: Hydra had been snuggled against the ship's beak as a pillow. Now she rose up, dripping, black and shaggy against the darkening sky. Yielding my spot to the princess, I watched as Lenna reached out, clicking her tongue coaxingly, until Hydra crooned and leaned in to be scritched.
"There now," I said. "Hydra says you're welcome."
My dragon snuffed happily as the two of us curried her dry scales in tandem. At length I patted the great head and stepped back, feeling an odd sense of déjà vu. "And now ye should be abed, princess. We start early."
Lenna shook her head, still grooming the scratchy hide. "FIrst my kidnapper, now my keeper? I don't believe you're old enough to be my father, Captain."
"Not a bit," I said, seeing her eyes go to the dark silhouette of the tower upon the headland, "But I intend to deliver you safe to your father and collect a reward."
"Ah," she said, a trifle crestfallen. "And then you'll leave?"
"This ain't a ferryboat, love. But I'll see to it you've a way off this miserable rock, before we hoist anchor."
"Thank you." She sighed and pushed away from the rail, collecting herself. "Well, goodnight, Captain."
I jumped up on the rail, bracing myself against the stays, and set a hand on my hip for a flourish and bow. "Goodnight, Princess."
She peered up at me, startled into a smile.
Swinging a leg over Hydra's neck, I drew my knees in tight and took a firm grip of the frilled fan with one hand, waving with the other. The dragon arched and dove. I caught hold with the other hand just as we struck the flat and went under. Arr! Cold! But the water coursing against my skin was a heady draught, reminding me of the flesh I denied all day. Hydra's muscle and scale flexed under my legs. She bobbed up again, gave me a breather, then heaved down and up until the ship's lanterns disappeared into the mist. At last she canted onto her side and spread out in a tangled net of hummocks and fins. I rolled over too, cradled on the loops of her coiled body to watch the stars come out.
"Are you all right, my friend?" I asked, scratching her mane. "I've used you poorly on this voyage, and I haven't thanked you enow."
Tired, she said. But the wind is sick. I smell it. You've come to cut it free.
"Aye, if we can. I hope Lenna's father has some clue how." I chafed my numb arms. Our pirate cove's waters were warmer than this northern bay. "Speaking o' the king, what reward should I demand? You've earned the first portion of any booty on this voyage, darlin'."
Maybe he has pigs? she said, plaintive. Sheep?
"That's it." I slapped her flank. "I'll ask for a whole flock o' sheep, and a dozen fat hogs. If he won't give 'em, I'll steal 'em. How's that sound?"
Good. Then we're even. She snuffled thoughtfully. Lenna smells like you.
I laughed. "By what measure? 'Tain't many girls who'll dare approach you, my friend. Nor lads, for that matter. You're the fierce dragon o' the sea."
Like you, Hydra insisted. Will she stay with us?
"Nah, she's back to Tycoon when this is over, I reckon. And I hope her father doesn't lock her up in a garret forever for daring a breath of fresh air."
Hydra keened softly, picking up something in my tone. Kidnap her?
"Eh? Why?" I smiled. "No profit in it, my friend; all we'd earn is bounty hunters chasing us all over the main. I'll see her to the top of the tower, and that's the end of it. That shipment from Torna's a-waiting."
The four of us beat a path through the forest at first light. Our caution proved well-founded. A colony of bird spiders, the kind that could haul off full-grown chocobos, had taken up residence in the shadows of the trees. We cut through them, swords to webs and staves and axes to the fat bodies that dropped in our midst. Lenna proved less timid about bashing those than comrades in drill-practice, although more squeamish after the fact. Their innards stank.
With that hearty warm-up, we marched up the steps and into the old ruin with its crumbling masonry and jewel-encrusted pillars I had no time to pick. Lenna was shocked to find monsters infesting that holy place. I was not. Tycoon had a handful of sentries posted there, but their job was ceremonial. All the same, they tried their best to be a nuisance. We were barred from entry by a squad of six aged men in ceremonial armor more showy than functional.
"We are the guardians of the Wind Shrine. State your business, strangers, for none but the King of Tycoon may pass herein."
"I am Princess Lenna Charlotte Tycoon," said the princess, stepping forward and lifting the pendant from her bosom, "Daughter of King Alexander—"
"Princess Lenna!" Their spears uncrossed. "Why, your father did not mention you were coming."
"My father?" she said. "He is here?"
My mind reeled. She had flashed the pendant as a token of the royal family. All my father's warnings to avoid Tycoon were suddenly, painfully clear. Some prince must have fallen to the swords of pirates: Lenna's own brother, perhaps. Had my father killed him, or had Captain Onis? And why saddle me with a clear token of blood-guilt?
"Indeed, he arrived three days ago. Come, my lady, partake of our sacred well, refresh yourself and your servants—"
"Three days?" she pressed. "I must see him at once."
"Forgive us, lady," the man said, leading us as the soldiers fell into place around us, eying Galuf's scraggly beard and my own outlandish attire. "He entered the shrine, but he has not come down. Since then, a tide of monsters have penetrated the tower from the forest—"
"Haven't you gone and looked for him?" Bartz said.
"The King ordered us to remain at our posts," the guard said.
"The hell he did!" I bellowed, roused from reverie. "You lily-livered whelps! You've been cowering down here, scared spitless to tackle the monsters yonder, haven't you? Safe as barnacles next to your handy healing well. Let's fill our tankards, lads, and be off! We'll find the king ourselves, you mice!"
"But, princess," the man said, stung. "The danger— your father would say—"
"Captain Faris," Lenna said, drawing herself up to my chin. "These are retainers of Tycoon who have guarded this post all their lives, honorably and faithfully. You have no right to upbraid my people, any more than I should venture to critique your crew's customs." She bowed her head to the graybeard. "My apologies, captain. His sword is even sharper than his tongue. I assure you, I am well-guarded."
Her tongue was sharper, the scamp. Biting back an ill word, I nodded. "Oh, fine. Let's find your father."
Bartz winked at me over the rim of a large copper standing in the corner. He dunked his canteen in the pungent brew, then ambled towards the staircase. "Yo ho ho and a bottle of potion. Shall we?"
Chapter 4: Chosen
Scaling the Tower of Winds.
Halfway up the tower, I began to understand that Lenna was gifted with a particularly maddening form of courage.
We had paused to regroup after an overgrown avian had tried to carry off Galuf. My guess is that it wanted to use his beard to line its nest. He seemed only a little worse for wear, but we needed our mainstay in one piece, so we halted to salve his wounds. That had been Lenna's task up till now. However, Galuf requested I take a turn as nursemaid, lest we fall into the commonplace of treating the only lady in the crew as our token healer. Astonished (and, I may say, pleased) as I was by this novel philosophy, I could hardly object— not openly, at least. Yet I suspect he had simply spotted me divesting jewels from a wall hanging at our last check.
Meanwhile, Bartz was sniffing all over the dusty floor looking for prints or any traces of the king's passage. Lenna stood still to keep from pacing. She had drawn out her pendant for contemplation, and I was just about to chide her as a negligent lookout, when she gave a little cry and darted past Bartz into the next archway. The sound of her footsteps dwindled upwards. Galuf and I emitted dueling oaths and gave chase. In the unlit stairwell, I noted a glow under my neckerchief, much fainter than when Hydra had espied the passing wind-drake a fortnight ago.
This was no wind drake. A pair of greater white serpents coiled around two stout pillars flanking the head of the stair. Framed between them was Lenna, poised on tiptoe with one hand raised to the larboard snake as if inviting a hound to sniff her fingers. Fearless — quite mad, but fearless — she stood her ground, murmuring sweetly as the serpent hissed and began to uncoil itself from the pillar. I drew my rapier to hurl it.
Bartz barreled past me with a warning shout. Galuf and I were lumbering too slowly, he from age and I from unfamiliarity with the shallow pitch of these gods-be-damned stairs. Quick as a windlass, the snake unwound itself and flung two loops around the princess. Galuf bellowed and swung his axe to stopper the jaws gaping over her head. Bartz, eel-quick, moved in with his gladius to jab at belly-scales until Lenna's bonds loosened. I would have charged in to haul her to safety, but the second snake was advancing. "Hold it off!" Galuf barked.
Cursing, I turned to meet it. Only a fool would engage a full-grown serpent alone, but I knew something of dragons. I set my rapier darting against its snout, palate and throat, driving the beast back along the landing. Goading was a dangerous game. The serpent swelled and reared. I sidestepped, offering the swirl of my coat-tails as a decoy. Dust rose up where the head struck the floor. I stabbed, but could not sever. Dodging again, I was keenly aware of the plunge at my left hand: hard marble five fathoms down, where I had grown lazy with the safety hatch of the sea during naval skirmishes. Luckily, this brute lacked the ken to push me over the balustrade.
Fiercely we danced, rapier to fangs, bruising weight to fencer's guile. At last, as I was threading my blade up its gullet, it succeeded in flinging a heavy coil around my torso. I dropped and rolled out of the tightening loop, but found myself pinned against the balustrade as I had feared. The serpent's full mass crashed down upon my head and backside. Stars sparked in my eyes. My career might have taken a poor turn just then, had Lenna not sailed in from somewhere. I swore with relief as she skipped past me with strikes and blows to distract the beast. She bought me time. Still gasping for breath, I sprang up and trebled my attack. My thrusts were wild now, my footwork inexcusable, but we started to make headway. Scales and blood flew. We had almost brought the beast to heel when Galuf and Bartz barged in to help carve it into snake steaks. Exulting, I swept the princess off her feet and deposited her beyond the spreading gore. I may have been giddy from lack of air.
In the next room, Lenna salved our bruises and bites with shaking hands. Draped against a broken pillar, I woozily declaimed a few words of wisdom for her enlightenment. "You should know, lass, if you want to be a dragon's best mate: not all snakes are drakes, and some dragons are merely worms."
She looked up from the puncture-wound she was treating, perturbed. "I see that now," she said.
"For," I added, slipping into a drowsy singsong, "wind-drakes are windbags, airheads and scallywags, while sea serpents are the serpents to be."
"Sounds like the captain took a hard knock," Bartz said, laughing. "I'll keep watch; I don't think he can."
"Just a moment," Lenna said, tying off the binding on Galuf's shank. "Captain Faris, please, hold still."
"As her ladyship commands," I said. I was too sleepy for a proper riposte.
"The captain's stoned, but he's got a point. What put that into your pretty head, Lenna?" Galuf said, more fond than scolding. "If you want a pet dragon, I'm sure your Daddy can buy you an egg to hatch."
"Dragons are not pets," I grumbled.
"No, they aren't," Bartz said. "Lenna, you've got to be less trusting. There's all manner of beasties out here, and most of them would as soon crunch your bones as—"
"Leave off, you two," I said, clarity snapping back into place as Lenna pressed a potion-drenched cloth against my scalp. I leaned against her hand, still stewing as the drowse cleared and left me with a galloping headache. The boy spoke sense, the kind that kept a body's guts inside its skin. Hadn't I said the same? So why did it trouble me to see Lenna's lowered lashes trembling like a few petals of innocence falling away?
I chucked her cheek. "She's a fast learner. Got a few stout blows in, Galuf, did you see?"
Lenna sighed and sat back. "I...I'm sorry. I just thought, if Father had come this way, maybe these dragons had seen him, and would show me some sign."
"Well, actually, they did," said Bartz. "That one the captain challenged— did you notice it had only one eye? The other was just a bloody socket. The wound looked recent. I didn't do that, Faris, did you?"
"Nay," said I. "I was aiming for its gizzard."
Galuf clapped his knee. "There you are. The king's ahead. Let's hurry."
"Three days ahead," she said, biting her lip. "Yes, let's. But first...Captain Faris, are you not hurt? When that thing fell on you—"
I stepped away as she reached for my greatcoat's buckles, although my ribs ached as much as my noggin. "Sprained me pride, that's all." I picked up her staff and offered it to her with a bow. "A body could find himself a laughingstock to his crew, for relying on a wee princess to bail him out of a fix. Try not to make a habit of it, lass."
She brightened a little. "I make no promises, Captain."
"I knew it," I said. "You're half a pirate."
Floor by floor, we scoured that glorified lighthouse and served warning to all trespassers. A brace of goblins gave Lenna more practice, and me enough gil to reckon the venture worthwhile. All the same, by the time we gained the top floor, I had grown to hate every last seam of that accursed tower. It wanted riggings.
Finally, we fetched up against a pair of magnificent double doors that were fair dripping with jewels. A few dripped into my pockets, when I and Bartz set our shoulders and heaved. The doors yielded, grumbling. Galuf stood ready with his axe, Lenna with her stave. Nothing leapt out. Eyes peeled for ambush, we entered a high vaulted chamber well-nigh as black as a ship's hold. Tall slit windows of varying heights let in scant light. Were the winds not throttled, they might have played a piping melody, but now their music was fled. Our very breath seemed a blasphemy. No torches danced in ironwork sconces, nor burned the legendary light of the crystal we had come far to see. There was only an eerie green panel on the back wall that swirled and cast no light beyond its plane. The focal point of the room was a stepped dais ornamented in airy silver filigree. Crowning its platform was— nothing. Nothing at all.
"The crystal!" Lenna hurried forward. Bits of glass tinkled under her feet. Her pace faltered and slowed as she crossed the barren floor. Reaching the dais, she collapsed slowly on the bottom step. "It's gone. We're too late."
"Are we?" I followed, scanning the gloom for hidden shoals. "Your father's not here. That means he departed under his own power. The sooner we find him, the sooner we'll find that crystal, I'll warrant." A note rang out as my boot struck something hard that went spinning across the floor. "Ow!"
Bartz knelt to retrieve it, a jagged chunk of crystal. "Well, there's your problem," he said with a forced chuckle. "And here's another. Think we can glue them back together?"
"Not missing.... broken," Galuf said. "Ah...that's bad." He mopped his forehead. "Why? Why can't I remember?"
"Easy, old man." Seeing little profit in mooning over broken glass, and even less profit if the winds were gone for good, I bent to collect a few shards. The first fragment I touched was like a live coal, scalding my palm right through glove's leather.
A booming voice flared in my mind. Courage, the essence of flame...
"Neptune's beard!" I swore, dropping my prize. The heat remained, a molten tide flooding my veins. My heart pounded. Even my sword seemed bewitched, hot against my hip. Abruptly I was seized by a martial thrill. I sensed secrets coursing through my sinews. There was a presence in that crystalline fragment, some ghost or spirit, a doughty fighter imparting to me the bodily knowledge of parries, sweeps and lunges that I longed to attempt. Of a sudden it dawned on me: these shards were not mere flotsam, but weapons, gifts of fire to a warrior brave enough to seize them! I raised my head to exhort the princess, but she was already absorbed in contemplation of a softly-glowing chip. By its light between her laced fingers, I saw the care and strain melt away from her face. The smile that blossomed there softened my heart as much as magic had ignited it.
A gentle voice, motherly and kind: Compassion, the essence of water...
"Whoa." Bartz was squinting at another pair of shards. "is it normal for the Wind Crystal to talk back, or did the accident make it chatty?" Deaf to fate's clarion, he tossed them in the air and juggled them with jaunty irreverence. "So, what's our course, princess?"
Seeking, the essence of wind...
"I reckon it's trying to guide us," Galuf said. "And there's power still in these shards, so that's something. All we have to do is figure out how to restore 'em."
Hope, the essence of earth...
I had not quite lost my wits to gems nor ghosts. Something loomed the dais above the princess. A shape, no more than a glint of spikes and a patch of denser darkness, sent me reaching for my sword. "Lenna! Get back!"
She scrambled up and away, but a whisper froze her. "Len...na..." The hairs on the back of my neck prickled.
"Father!" she said, turning back.
"'Hang on," Bartz said, interposing himself. "Might be a trap, you know."
We stared till our eyes watered, trying to make out that tall figure in the murk, more sensed than seen. I had a hazy impression of a dragon-spiked helm and armor, a heavy cloak or robes falling to the floor like a fluted column. There was something too familiar in that shrouded shape. I wanted to call out to it, but knew not what or why.
A kingly voice chanted in a hoarse whisper:
"Heed me now, warriors four,
Crystal-bearers, chosen ones.
Imperiled are the essences:
Fire, water, air and stone
Embodied in crystal,
Aegises of our world.
Already one is shattered.
Winds die. Three remain.
Four must guard them.
Save them, Light's Warriors,
From one who seeks doom
To sunder the stones
And return us to darkness
The Void....the Void...the Void..."
The man's shape flickered, began to writhe in the distorting shimmer of a roiling cloud of purple mist.
"Father!" Lenna cried. Bartz restrained her, or she might have rushed straight into the violet miasma. The sinister aura faded, along with the king's shadow. No sign of him remained. But his fading voice reached us from afar:
"Go forth, Warriors of Light.
Defend the blessed stones."
"No!" Lenna struggled against Bartz's hands. "Father, wait."
Every shard upon the floor suddenly pulsed with light, shining like fallen stars. We swayed again, swamped by overpowering currents. Other voices washed over us. The dark chamber was suddenly thick with ghosts, and now we could see them: a puissant knight with bright sword and a dragon-scale shield, an ivory-clad goddess whose hands offered solace, a twisted black figure in a peaked hat and mask whose robes crackled with sorcery, a bent crone in nun's robes whom a typhoon could not budge, an imp-eyed girl tumbling gold pieces and pearls over deft fingers, and a gangly scarecrow of a man in blue robes and a tall pointed hat mumbling something about harpies and unicorns. Clutching our shards, we stood transfixed, passive vessels into which other souls poured. Warriors of Light, fate's servants—
"Phew," Bartz said. "Don't take no for an answer, do they?"
"And since when does a pirate take orders from a king?" I demanded.
Lenna's shoulders bunched. She was rooted, still staring at the place where her father had disappeared.
"Not from a king, maybe, but when Lady Fate comes calling, you do as you're told," Galuf said, sharper than his wont.
Her father. It smote me suddenly: here was I, kith to those who had killed her kin, yet her father had entrusted me with a fool's quest on which I must guard her life. Did he have any idea what he had asked— or whom? I was a pirate, fate's own changeling. I took what I wanted, and I made no promises.
Certainly not to her, this wayward princess who'd run away from home to commandeer a pirate's ship. My ship, if you please! Guileless babe, so soon out of swaddling-cloths that she'd stick her hand in a dragon's maw to ask for directions! Of course, I'd dare as much for booty, for glory, for a ship to call my own. She did it for love. And I wanted to make sure those pretty hands of hers weren't chopped off, gods help me.
"Lenna," I said, ignoring the old nun's ghost chortling in my ear.
"Captain." She bowed her head, words falling soft and quiet without an echo in that breathless hall. "There should be a warp panel on the far side of the chamber that will return us to the ground floor. Come. I believe the Captain's filled his pockets enough that we need not retrace our steps, yes? Follow me."