A Reversal of Fortunes
The crew of the Maiden's Fancy were a strange and diverse lot, and as days passed, through shine and storm, Mourne and Iorneste got to know them a little better.
Oren sometimes barked out orders, but as the Captain his job was mostly supervisory. He strolled about the ship, smoking a long-stemmed pipe, keeping an eye on the overall operations, but other times was long-absent from the deck. Much of his time was spent reviewing their stores in the cargo hold and muttering to himself, arguing with the navigator, or holing up in the Captain's quarters.
The real moving force aboard the ship was Quints, who served as both first mate, and quartermaster. He was a gruff fellow, standing like a tall bronze statue in worn canvas pants, whose booming voice carried easily from one end of the ship to the other. His only armament was a wicked jakar knife. He never seemed to get cold, and had a resistance to wearing shoes or a shirt. He could leap down from the aftcastle to the maindeck without breaking stride, they discovered, and seemed to be the crew's greatest fear, short of death.
Caliel was a mereling, and her flawless balance and climbing prowess earned her the dominion of the tops. She could climb directly up the mainsail, her claws sinking into the surface, shimmying up to the top in seconds, often perching upon it to stare out into the distance. She also served as the ship's lookout, and spent much of her time either perched in the crow's nest, or climbing around overhead on the rigging with slithering speed.
The elderly Wickers, a stocky grey-haired and weather-beaten man with salt in his veins and a thick, nearly incomprehensible Suran accent served as the ship's navigator and directed their course.
Broch was the boatswain, a seasoned veteran of the seas himself, he still had only a few streaks of grey in his iron black hair and directed the crew as one of their own, encouraging them and joking with them rather than lashing them with his words. He had an excellent baritone singing voice, and none of the crew ever failed to join in when he'd begin any one of hundreds of shanties.
There were a handful of other crewmen, some barely more than children, who moved constantly about the ship, seeming ever busy, responding to the booming voice of Broch, who organized the ship's operation in response to the garbled orders of Wickers with cheerful efficiency. Even so, Oren informed Iorneste and Mourne that they were still short-handed and as such everyone was taking shorter sleep shifts, and working twice as hard.
There were few survivors from Sandridge proper, those who hadn't been incinerated in the blaze, or who had been fortunate to escape to sea. The Brines were fishers, with two children, the eldest a daughter of six named Yrna, the youngest was Rhys, and he was carried everywhere in a swaddling pack by their mother Peska, all of them often voyaging out together on the small single-sailed fishing vessel they'd named "The Brine Maiden", in honor of the Maiden's Fancy.
The fat, rich merchant flanked by his ever-present two mute bodyguards was in fact a merchant-prince of Targarest, the largest city in the Many Kingdoms, his name Comtus Ignus Sarrenford. He'd offered many times to purchase the Maiden's Fancy, but Oren always refused. He spent most of his time in his cabin, asking when they were going to reach civilization.
Selka recovered from her wounds after receiving much intensive medical care from Mourne, and from catching up on sleep. All the same, she was kept mostly confined to her quarters. The crew still remembered her as the one who had killed Captain Sorens, and robbed of the target of their disdain, the crew began making pointed jabs about "Mourne's slattern" when he was not around. Iorneste did not understand the meaning of the word "slattern", but could tell by their context it was not flattering.
Iorneste, true to his word, did not attack her, but neither would he sleep in the same room with her. He ended up sleeping aboard the Brine Maiden, in a covered alcove, drifting alone upon the waves. After fighting a losing battle against hunger for so long, he soon discovered that being unobserved upon a fishing boat afforded him the opportunity to plunder the waters as he saw fit. He would catch fish by night while others were sleeping, gather them up and clean them, and take a cache of raw fish back to the alcove, there to eat the live, wriggling things to his draconic heart's content.
The Brines were startled at first to find a barrel of already-cleaned fish aboard the ship when they came to begin their day's fishing ritual, but Iorneste had been so attentive to the process of fishing, and so willingly helpful to the task of feeding the ship that they soon came to welcome his company aboard the small fishing vessel, ever drifting in the wake of the Maiden's Fancy.
Well-sated on a diet of fresh seafood, Iorneste was able to overcome his lethargy and the danger of his drifting into torpor passed.
They had been five days at sea, and so far things were going better than expected.
They reached the Waystone Isles by evening, drifting at low sail to avoid hauling up on any of the rocks in the shallows, and seeing their first taste of land after the wreckage and bad memories left behind in Sandridge.
Iorneste stood on deck watching the shallows for rocks while the bustling whirlwind of activity aboard the ship proceeded with such selfsame regularity that it faded into the background.
"Ho to stachboord, two daygreens!" shouted Wickers, even though the crewman manning the helm was standing next to him on the aftcastle. The crewman stuck a finger in the ear closest to the old Suran and waggled it while gently turning the wheel to the right.
Caliel, perched catlike atop the crow's nest, her nocturnal eyes piercing through night of the waning moon, her tail swishing from side to side. "'De waystonesss arrrrre occupied!" she trilled, voice purring from her furred throat.
"Occupied?" shouted Oren, and cursed. "Who is there?"
"Two shipssss, both galleonssss. Fifffty men, at leassst. They've already ssssseen usss."
As they angled the ship, bringing the moon into their direction of passage, they could see two very large ships silhouetted against it, dwarfing their caravel, anchored offshore, with a handful of smaller boats beached upon the shoreline of the largest of the Waystone isles.
"Can you read their device?" Oren called up to her.
Caliel leapt from the top of the crow's nest, catching one of the trailing lines for the mainsail, letting her momentum carry her around the mast, curving back around towards the aftcastle. Before it could wrap its way around the mast again, she released her hold and landed on all fours at the top of the stairs of the aftcastle.
"A fffield of black with a ssssircle of white," she said, as she stood from her crouch. "In the sssenter isss crosssed ssswordsss, with flowerssss for the hilt."
Oren groaned. "Esturian Navy."
Wickers shook his head. "In these wartars? This is nowt thar teepicahl route."
"Be that as it may, here they are. Let's just hope they aren't a press gang. They've seen us, and continuing on will take us right past the lead galleon. If she's got cannons ready, she might fire on us just for spite. Might as well announce ourselves."
Iorneste had heard enough, and ran down to Mourne's quarters. He didn't knock, simply opened the door and found a curious sight that almost made him forget the reason for his visit.
Mourne was there. Selka was there. And they were laughing.
When they heard the door open, both turned suddenly and stared. Whatever spell there was had been broken. Mourne sighed, Selka scowled and looked away.
"I..." began Iorneste, trying to decide whether the urgency of the situation or his curiosity was more important.
"What is it, Iorn?" asked Mourne, standing up from the bed and motioning him to join them inside.
Iorneste wrestled with his feelings. He could not imagine any situation that could lead to Mourne laughing with her. She looked, if anything, more dangerous. Her health had returned, the strength of her body was apparent and she did not seem intimidated by him in the slightest. There was a challenge in her grey eyes, an insolence, that brought back his anger. He remembered the words of the crewmen, "Mourne's slattern". He wished he knew what it meant.
Mourne stepped closer to Iorneste, still standing in the doorway, his voice softer but moving so that he could break the stare between dragon and dragonrider. "What is it?" he asked again.
"We've reached land," began Iorneste, voice clipped. "The Waystone Isles."
"We know. We heard them shouting--" began Selka.
"I wasn't talking to you," Iorneste snapped.
"Apologies, friend Mourne. But what could possibly have possessed you to share sleeping quarters with this...this...sl—"
Mourne interrupted, anger straining his voice. "Is that all, Iorn?" His face was beginning to redden a most alarming shade.
"No. There are other ships here already. They are flying the colors of the Esturian Navy," his accusing glare at Selka caught her indrawn breath, the flare of hope in her eyes. Caught it, and let her know that he saw it.
"Mourne," she began, rising to her feet as well. "I can deal with this."
"I can only imagine," Iorneste said, "How you would deal with this. Forgive me if I do not trust you to make a decision in anyone's best interests but your own."
"No, Mourne. This is why I came to you first. They are going to be hailing them. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what to do."
Mourne nodded, hearing the shouts of the men on deck above, feeling the ship drifting more slowly in the water, and hearing the sound of the anchor being lowered. "Give her armor and weapons back, Iorn," Mourne advised, raising a hand to forestall Iorneste's inevitable objection. "That's an order."
The sound of Iorneste's teeth grinding was very loud in the enclosed space. "Yes, Mourne."
Mourne felt a pang when he realized Iorneste had left out the customary 'friend' from his address, but there was nothing to be done for that now.
"Until I tell you otherwise, you two stay here," Mourne said, and fled from the room, with one last look of warning at Iorneste.
Iorneste went to the foot locker at the foot of what had once been his berth, and produced the key to unlock it. Within was Selka's dragonrider armor. He reached under the berth, withdrawing the sword he had secreted there.
"So it was here the whole time," Selka muttered, under her breath.
Iorneste bared his teeth at her. "I was never worried about you finding it. If you had, it would have given me all the excuse I needed."
Selka frowned, "Was Sandridge your home? Why is this so personal for you? How have I wronged you, really?"
"Wasn't Sandridge enough?"
"Enough for some, but this isn't about Sandridge for you. It's about Kulvas. I read that plain enough."
Iorneste said nothing, and with a shrug she went to the chest and pulled out her armor and weapons, laying them on the berth.
"You're going to watch me get dressed?" she asked him archly.
"I wouldn't be so foolish as to turn my back to you," he said, reaching up to stroke the scar on his right cheek.
"Ah," she said, and ran her fingers over the green-scaled armor, armor made from the scales of a once-living dragon.
Mourne reached the top deck in time to see the galleon's boarding party approach, drifting over the torrid waves, inexorably closing the distance to the Maiden's Fancy. The small boat was moving quickly, rowed by a team of men with a single well-dressed gentleman in a navy officer's uniform standing tall at the bow of the vessel.
Ascending the stairs to the aftcastle, Mourne took position beside Oren. "Are you sure this is wise?" he asked, by way of greeting.
Oren did not respond for a moment, watching the approaching boat with pursed lips. "We have no other options. We cannot outrun them, and if we tried they would assume us to be pirates, if we didn't run aground on the shallow rocks. Wickers is a skilled navigator, but even he would have trouble directing our course under such a poor moon as this, under full sail."
Wickers said something, but only Oren could make sense of it. "My point exactly, Wickers," he said.
Mourne chewed his bottom lip, tugging at the hair on his chin. "Is your record clean?"
"Everyone gets a little dirty sometimes, but so far as the Esturian Navy is concerned, it's clean."
"Except that Sorens was a fugitive from Esturian justice."
"Lucky for us he's no longer alive, then. I'm more concerned about our prisoner."
Mourne sighed. "We are in her hands now. I gave her back her armor and weapons."
Oren chuckled. "How the fates and winds reverse our fortunes, eh? That may help our case. Some of the men wanted to toss her overboard, but you decided to care for her and treat her with more dignity than she deserved. It remains to be seen which was the right course of action at this point."
"There was only one right course of action."
"I take your meaning. What is to say she will not tell her Esturian comrades of her mistreatment aboard this ship?"
"Considering the circumstances, and the loss of any vellarien wood in Greatre Esturia for the next several decades, if not forever, I think there is some justification. I doubt she will receive full honors for her actions."
"They may not see it that way. If it was an act of war, then anything goes."
"Mmm," Mourne muttered, and watched as the small boat drew up alongside their vessel. A rope ladder was laid over the side of the vessel, and the man aboard the small boat and two of his associates ascended, finding their way onto the deck.
The small cabin felt hot, and smelled of sweat. Selka stripped down quickly and tossed her dirty clothes into a corner, where she directed Iorneste with a turn of her head, "Burn these. I won't wear them again."
Iorneste folded his powerful arms over his chest. "Your solution to any problem seems to involve fire."
"Oh, point to the dragonslayer."
He bared his teeth at her. "Get to it."
Despite his banked rage, he watched how she armed herself, getting a sense of how the armor was worn for future reference. He found his eyes roving over her naked body, noting the musculature and battle scars that established her life thus far. He reminded himself that this was the form she was stuck with, so she had come upon those muscles and scars the hard way.
"Enjoying the view?" she asked, a red glow suffusing her cheeks while she buckled on the plates of armor.
He was not really sure what he had said that was so troubling compared to his stated desire for her speedy death by drowning, but something in that statement caused her to rise to her feet to face him, air whistling between her teeth, and causing her chest to rise and fall in a distracting manner. Iorneste struggled to make sense of his distraction. What was it, anyway, that was so distracting about her?
It was she who ended up turning her back to him, spinning on one heel and furiously buckling on the remainder of her armor. She pressed the chestplate to her front, and tried to secure it behind her, and then let out several shuddering breaths, halting in her progress.
"Is there a problem?" Iorneste asked, yawning.
"It buckles," she said in a strangled voice, "In the back."
"That's unfortunate," Iorneste said. "Your arms don't appear to reach that far behind you."
"I hate you," she hissed between clenched teeth, and began to fumble awkwardly with the buckle.
"What were you and Mourne laughing about?"
"Why do you care?"
"I mostly care why Mourne was laughing. I don't care what you do."
"Buckle my damned armor, and I'll tell you."
"Fine." Iorneste took the strap from her fumbling fingers and cinched it, a bit too tight, and then threaded it into the buckle.
When she turned back around, she was a changed person. The armor seemed to strengthen her, fortify her. It reminded him of the first time he'd seen her, on the beach of Sandridge, atop the drake, and of the pain she had brought to his face with the wicked spurs now reaffixed to her greenscale boots.
"We were sharing war stories, if you must know," she said. "Your friend has had an interesting life."
"War stories are funny?"
"Some are, yes. Look..." she struggled with her words, and took the time to choose them while she buckled on her sword belt. "Sandridge was a mistake. I was there for Sorens. But he resisted, and some of his men fired upon me. The Sandridge militia brought arms to bear against me as well. I was surrounded and vulnerable. I did what I was trained to do. I set an example. I had Kulvas incinerate them. I...I didn't know that the fire would spread like that. We were in a clearing. But the grass went up, and then the buildings nearby, and then the trees..."
Iorneste said nothing, his face unreadable, his emotions uncategorizable, even to himself.
"There was nothing I could do to stop it, once it started. My mission still wasn't complete, and everything was falling apart. I'd have done things differently, had I known...what I know now."
Iorneste almost twisted the knife, and wasn't sure why the next words came out of his mouth, except that they felt true. "I think I understand. So then what was your real mission?"
The sudden knock at the door precluded further discussion.
The naval officer reached the deck, a distinguished white-haired man with a reddened face and unlike virtually anyone else aboard the Maiden's Fancy, was wearing shoes. His uniform was a starched white, with gold epaulettes and a distinguished career of ribbons upon the front of his jacket.
He had a pistol strapped across the front of his jacket, and a saber at his side.
He surveyed the ship and its occupants with professional disdain, walking slowly about the deck. Oren whispered, "Here we go," so that only Mourne could hear it, and then plastered a beaming white smile on his face while walking down the deck to greet him.
"Welcome aboard the Maiden's Fancy! I'm Captain Oren Castlewaith!"
The officer turned and looked Oren up and down. "A Ghanji captain?"
"In my youth I was Ghanji," said Oren, extending his hand to the officer. "Now I'm a citizen of the seas."
"Mmm," said the officer non-committally, but took Oren's hand, and giving it one perfunctory pump. He withdrew it, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping the hand as if he had just touched something distasteful, and then discarded the handkerchief to the wind.
Oren's smile fell. "What can I do for you, Mer...."
"I am Admiral Calartes Euphrane of the Greatre Esturian Navy. You may address me as 'Admiral'."
"Yes...Admiral. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Now what do you want?"
The Admiral raised on eyebrow. "You hailed us, did you not?"
"Common courtesy. But my men and I are tired, thirsty, and were hoping to put ashore for a time at the Waystones to replenish our fresh water stocks and stretch our sea legs a bit."
"Ah," sniffed the Admiral, and began walking towards the aftcastle, eyes scanning up the masts and taking an inventory of the ship's capabilities. "We were hoping you had provisions that could supply us for our journey, or perhaps men you'd be willing to donate to the cause of the Greatre Esturian campaign against the savages of Dolorchi."
Oren watched the Admiral walking over his ship with a fierce expression in his eyes. "Dolorchi is fairly close to Ghanji."
"So it is. Ghanji will fall in time, but the Dolorchis are our first impediment. Now have you any men or provisions for us, or was this a regrettable waste of time?"
Mourne could see Oren was struggling with the needs of diplomacy, and could see that the Admiral was so unconcerned that he never even looked in Oren's direction while addressing him. "We have some fish that we've caught for our journey, you are welcome to take some."
"All," countered the Admiral. "We will need all that you can spare, and then more. To whence are you bound?"
"Some days distant, but perhaps you can survive on meager rations until then. What about the status of your..." he eyed the mereling with thinly-veiled disgust "...men?"
Caliel's fur ruffled, and with a gurgling sound in the back of her throat she scrambled up the mast and scurried away to the crow's nest.
"We are already short-handed, as you can plainly see, lord Admiral."
"Yes, this I can see. The Maiden's Fancy...this was the ship of one Captain Sorens, was it not?"
Mourne felt the sensation of claws gripping him in the pit of his stomach.
"Was," said Oren with a wary smile. "But alas, he is now the dear departed."
"How fortunate for you, then," said the Admiral, turning to face Oren, his expression humorless. "As there was a warrant for his arrest and the confiscation of all of his goods outstanding."
Oren's voice held a bit of steel. "Fortunate indeed, since this is now my ship, and my goods. I should hope there isn't a warrant for me."
"Only one of his goods in particular. I will have my men search the ship. If we find it, you and yours may proceed unmolested."
"And if you don't?"
"Then welcome to the Esturian Navy."
"Do as you must, we wish no trouble with any government. We are a simple trading vessel, with excellent references in waters throughout the Many Kingdoms."
"We would also like to inspect your crew. There are more belowdecks, yes?"
Oren shrugged. "Of course. We're under-served here, so they would be taking some rack time. I'd encourage you not to disturb them too much. They are a good crew, and have been working too hard of late."
"So long as we get what we came for, we will have no further need for you, your ship, or your men."
"I am at your mercy, then."
The Admiral smiled, thin-lipped and bloodless. "Then all is as it should be."
When the knock came on the door, Iorneste was surprised he had not been aware of the footsteps approaching.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Open up in the name of the Esturian Navy!"
Selka began to smile, and her smile alone made Iorneste want to put his fist through the door.
Instead he stepped away from it, and cleared a path for Selka. "Your people are calling."
She moved past him, resting her fingertips on the handle, but before she could turn it his words interrupted her.
"How you proceed from here will write the seven-volume treatise on your character. I will know everything that I need to know about you from these next actions you take."
"Duly noted," she said, and swung open the door. The white-haired man that greeted her on the other side of the door stood sternly at attention, and inclined his head to her with respect.
"Knight-Marshal. It is a surprise seeing you aboard this ship without your dragon."
She smiled. "It is no surprise seeing you aboard this ship with that dour expression on your face," and added. "I'd forgotten how much I'd missed it, Father."
Iorneste whipped his head so suddenly in the gentleman's direction that his neck snapped painfully.
"Have they hurt you?" the officer stared over her shoulder towards Iorneste accusingly.
She paused long enough to make Iorneste uncomfortable. "No, Father. They have afforded me every courtesy. The passenger named Mourne was particularly kind."
She blushed. "That is not what I meant. He gave me the use of his quarters and--"
The admiral's face darkened.
"--and he was a perfect gentleman, father."
"And this one?"
"This one did not stay in the quarters, giving up his berth for me. He slept on the fishing boat, as I understand it."
"An impressive sword he carries. Can he use it?"
"Barely," she said, ignoring Iorneste's growl.
"And where is your dragon? Do not tell me you lost it?"
"In a manner of speaking...Kulvas is dead, father."
The admiral's face went white with shock. "How is that possible?"
"I...I will explain everything later. For now I would like to get back to Earlemont and report to the Grand Marshal."
"In time. There is still the matter of the contraband held by Captain Sorens. I trust it was you who ended his life?"
"Then your mission is half-complete. Let us complete the rest of your mission so that you do not return to Earlemont empty-handed."
Selka nodded. "I believe it will be in the Captain's quarters." She then exited the small room, brushing past the admiral and moving into the hallway belowdecks.
"You," the admiral addressed Iorneste. "You are coming with me."
"I am not accustomed to taking orders hu—er, whoever you are."
The admiral placed his hand upon the hilt of his sword. "Unless you want to doom everyone aboard this ship with your stubbornness, you will follow me to the top deck now and begin addressing me with the respect I deserve."
Iorneste nodded. "Lead the way then, Selka's Father."
"You may address me as Admiral, cur."
"And so I may."
The livid expression on the Admiral's face filled Iorneste with a sense of petty satisfaction.
Iorneste and the admiral reached the top deck together. Mourne walked down the stairs to join him. Before he could address Iorneste, the admiral interrupted. "You are the one called Mourne?"
"It is said that you were most courteous to my daughter, Selka."
Mourne blinked, studying the man's features. "I did my best."
"Although the gentlemanly thing to do would have been to vacate your quarters out of respect for a lady's presence."
"With all due respect, ser," Mourne said, bowing deeply. "Your daughter is quite capable of standing up for herself and had she wanted me to leave, I would have been happy to do so."
The admiral favored Mourne with another bloodless smile. "She has always had a mind of her own."
Selka came up on deck, clutching something in her hands. Oren took one look at it and started to grumble. Iorneste studied the object in her possession, a small golden chest of ornate construction, covered with multiple sigils. He recognized the sigils, they were Drac runes, and he could sense the wave of magic pulsing from within the box. The box dampened whatever enchanted power filled the inside of the box, but could not hide it completely.
His curiosity nearly overwhelmed him, and he found himself shuffling closer to her, beginning to lean in the direction of the box, but found the back of the Admiral's hand pressing against his chest. It did not actually stop him, but the intent was clear. Hearing Mourne clear his throat, Iorneste took the hint and stepped back.
The two men who had been the admiral's escort aboard the ship emerged from below decks, and whispered some details to the Admiral. Iorneste heard them clearly, but they were simply rattling off an inventory of the ship's stores.
"On behalf of King Gracellus of Greatre Esturia," the Admiral began, "I would like to thank you for your cooperation, Captain. This is my decision on the matter of what to do with you and your crew, so listen well:
"I will be taking the Knight-Marshal back aboard the Cutlass, and I thank you for your treatment of her to this point. I will also be taking the ones called Mourne and Yorn of Summersgard into custody for further questioning."
Iorneste began to reach back for his sword, but Mourne's hand upon Iorneste's bicep and the kiin's furiously shaking head stopped him from completing the action.
"We will also be taking your stores of food, and would encourage you to spend some time upon the Waystone Isles fishing to replenish those stores. This artifact will also be confiscated. Everything else, including your crew, will be left intact, with my blessing."
Oren looked to Mourne, his expression apologetic. "That is reasonable, although I assure you that these two have done nothing worth questioning them about."
"I think killing one of Greatre Esturia's dragons might be worth a question or two, Captain."
Oren said nothing, and Selka looked at her father in shock. Iorneste caught the expression, aware that she had never told him that he had been the one to kill Kulvas...even though he and Mourne both knew he hadn't actually killed the dragon.
Mourne let out a sigh. One of the admiral's men, must have questioned one of the sleeping sailors belowdecks. Isolated as they were, they would not be aware of what they should or should not say. This could be very, very bad.
"We will take our leave now, Captain. Consider yourself fortunate once again that you keep your ship. With so much good fortune for you of late, I would tread carefully from this point forward. So much good fortune has a way of turning on you. But let it not be said that Esturia is without mercy."
Oren offered a stiff bow. "We are honored by your generosity, thank you."
The crew helped offload their provisions onto another boat that rowed towards them, and after Iorneste and Mourne had collected their supplies they joined the admiral and Selka on the small boat, headed back to the Cutlass. Iorneste turned, catching the crew of the Maiden's Fancy watching him, and felt the sadness of the parting fill him. Several of them waved their good-byes, and he waved back at them, wondering if he'd ever see them again.
In the meantime, he consoled himself with his amusement as the crew of the small boat frantically bailed water out of the vessel on their return to the ship, with them unable to determine why the side of the boat Iorneste was standing on was sunk so low in the water.
Mourne and Iorneste were tossed in the brig together. Their weapons were confiscated, along with the rest of their equipment.
The Admiral had treated them courteously, but dismissed them to the custody of subordinates as soon as they were on deck.
Mourne's thoughts turned to the box that Selka had carried off the ship, likely the prime reason that she had been in the Wyldlands at all, and why Sandridge was no more.
"Did you get a look at the box?" Mourne asked Iorneste.
"Yes, somewhat," Iorneste said, testing the strength of the bars.
"Step away from there. I know what you are thinking, and now is not the time."
Iorneste sighed. "We don't even have to stay. We could leave whenever you're ready."
"And be fugitives? Let us see how this plays out. We can make a daring escape later, if it becomes necessary. They have treated us well thus far."
"They have treated us like prisoners."
"And this we are. Where authority is concerned, one man's hero is another man's villain."
"I suppose." Iorneste slumped onto the floor, his weight causing the boards to creak.
"So what do you make of that box?"
"Draconic runes. Very old, I think it's a puzzle box."
Mourne frowned. "Have you seen a puzzle box before?"
"Rrachma had one. It took me over a year to unlock its secrets. These humans will fret and fuss over it, and in the end, will have to give up in disgust."
"Do not be so sure. Humanity is tenacious, and a locked treasure will be something they will bend the entirety of their will to unlocking."
"Perhaps if they had several lifetimes they could do it. Only a Drac would know how to unlock it, and this puzzle box will only allow a single attempt per person. Get it wrong, and you'll never be able to open it again. Someone else will have to attempt it."
Mourne chuckled. "They are going to be so angry when they discover this."
"You don't think they'd be foolish enough to try to force the lock, would they?"
"Why? Another enchantment?"
"In the case of an intellectual riddle, the Drac do not abide cheaters. Force turned to the box will be turned outward. If they were to strike it with a sword, they would find the sword rebounding back towards themselves with equal force."
"You gathered all of this by observing the box in the short trip in the dinghy?"
"It's the High Art, Mourne. There are few secrets as to the nature of an enchantment from a natural practitioner."
"What is inside the box, do you think?"
"I do not know exactly. It is very powerful, whatever it is. Something that was never intended to be in human hands. Its power is so great that the enchantments to mask the power within are barely holding. I catch wisps of intent for the power held within. Control, perhaps. But there's no way to be sure without opening the box."
"Could you open it?"
"Of course," sniffed Iorneste. "I am Drac."
"Yet you are certain that no one on this ship could?"
"I am not convinced that any in the Many Kingdoms could. Even so, wherever we go, we cannot leave without that box. If we were to flee this ship tonight, we could not leave without it. It is safe within that box, but they still have no business holding it."
The jangle of keys in the lock interrupted their conversation, and they heard footsteps and the tinkling of spurs. Both recognized that sound, and when Selka came to stand before the bars of their cell, neither were surprised to see her.
"Selka," greeted Mourne, albeit with little warmth.
"Mourne! I'm sorry you are in here, I tried—"
Iorneste harrumphed. "I suppose you are enjoying this."
"I'm half enjoying this. But Mourne does not deserve to be treated like a prisoner."
"And I do?"
Selka frowned. "No. I have come to terms with your actions, though I may never forgive you for them. There is a great hole in my heart where Kulvas once was, and you are responsible for that. But then..." her voice dropped to a whisper, "...so am I."
"Yet you still got what you came for. You will probably get some sort of favor out of this."
She laughed, but it was a bitter sound. "Some, perhaps. But my days of riding dragons are over."
"There are many more of my sisters who will continue the Dragon Corps, Yorn of Summersgard. Whatever your feelings are about dragonriders, they will not end with me."
Iorneste grew quiet and pensive at this, leaving Mourne to carry on the conversation.
"How long are we to be held, Selka?"
"Until we reach port. My father will not budge on this, and on his ship he is King and Lord Most High."
"And where are we bound?"
"We will detour to the port of Ramilka, in the Duchy of Erytea."
"So we are heading to Greatre Esturia."
"We are, I am to take you two there for further questioning. My father will continue his campaign against the Dolorchi."
"And so we are at the whim of Esturian justice."
"There is no whim," she protested. "Esturian justice is legendary for its fair treatment—"
"Of dragons?" Iorneste interjected.
"No," she snapped. "Of people."
"We will do as we must," Mourne assured her. "I understand you came to explain that this was no fault of yours, our current predicament, and I appreciate, we appreciate that. You did not have to come here to tell us this."
"Thank you. I had one other matter I wanted to discuss with you."
"We are at your disposal."
She looked down at her hands, choosing her words. "As dragon slayers...Yorn informed me that he knew a great deal about dragons."
Mourne's voice was wary. "A fair amount, but there are some things that dragons keep to themselves."
"I was wondering if you know anything about dragon magic, in particular, why it is that no one is able to open Soren's box that came from the Maiden's Fancy."
Mourne shook his head. "I'm afraid that is not the sort of thing we'd be familiar with."
"Pity. I might have been able to get you released sooner if you knew some way of opening it."
"I only know enough to know that you should not try to force the lock. Dragon magic can be unpredictable."
Iorneste kept his expression neutral, but divulging that information felt like a betrayal.
"I will keep that in mind, and pass it along to the others. In the meantime you will be fed, and will certainly be treated better than I was the first few days aboard the Maiden's Fancy."
She stood then, and left them to their fate. As the gate closed and locked behind her and her footsteps disappeared, Iorneste's words rasped in the silence. "When you are ready, Mourne, you need only say the word."
"Ready for what?"
"Ready to make our escape."
by Zaina a.k.a. "Queen Z"
Optional: Deleted scene