A Sense of Commitment
Archadia lost a small fortune in that last battle: millions worth of nethicite, one Judge Magister, one prototype airship, one prototype skystone engineered for invisibility, never recovered.
A day later, a Bhujerban sweep arrowed in to the Maenad's floating wreckage, and pulled me from the water. The Bhujerbans insisted I had been found draped securely over a large section of one of the screens, as if deliberately posed.
I was held by the Bhujerban sweep for exactly three days, which was how long the blockade lasted. Then, political winds changed direction.
The Archadian cohort accepted Bhujerba's claims that their mines had no further magicite to offer Archadia, and withdrew their forces.
The withdrawal seemed an exchange for Bhujerba's willingness to support Archadia's version of events surrounding the kingdom of Dalmasca's unequivocal surrender. Bhujerba's voice on Archadia's side did much to quiet queries at the Holy Mount—as to how Nabudis had been so thoroughly destroyed. The idea that Archadia could manufact nethicite, independent from mines and resource, like as not terrified the Holy Mount.
The Rozarrian Empire was again left without a righteous leg to stand on, should they try to attack Archadia.
Despite the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the ambitious and unwise Balfonheim Liaison, Balfonheim itself survived, independent and autonomous.
Some battles are won by degrees, however incremental. We won this day simply through virtue of still being alive.
Margrace remained in Balfonheim long enough to reward me. Medals, freedom, and the salary I was due to draw. 'A brilliant strategy,' he complimented me, when I'd told him about the nethicite, the switch of ships, the circumstances surrounding the loss of our brave and stalwart crew.
Then he tried to talk me back into Rozarria's welcoming fold. Margrace had never let his little birds go so easily. Since last we met, something had changed in me.
I assured Margrace I had no desire to return to Rozarria's rather restrictive bosom, and commenced trying to lead my own life, as it should have been before, as a true citizen of Balfonheim's wild, selfish, wonderful freedoms.
The months passed.
Sitting one brilliantly gilded afternoon at the Whitecap's scarred tables, I overheard a conversation from the table just beyond my shoulder. The voices held an ingrained familiarity, stirring loose memories of that final battle; one never forgot a shout from a battlefield.
I turned, slowly, sipping my cider. Discreet enquiries had already determined that our Bangaa cohort had also survived our fatal fall, being collected and imprisoned by a passing Archadian Fighter that had somehow missed my own unconscious form—but I had not expected to hear these voices again.
'—an odd circumstance, our meeting here,' Rikken said.
'Tis a funny old world all around,' Raz said, agreeably.
Rikken nodded at the third man at their table. 'Further proof, in fact: my last charter was with a Cruiser scouting beyond the greater purvamas. We'd heaved to on a likely island to deposit a fair bit of loot, as yon skypirates are want to do, waiting for the market price in serpentine skins to go up to a feasible trade rate—'
'Our captain was a fortune teller,' Raz added, 'predicting a soon to be shortage of the product.'
Their companion rumbled, with an amused savvy: 'Your captain had just obliterated the supply of the skins, and was waiting for the price to rise?'
'You ken how skypirates play the market,' Raz said, grinning around his fangs.
'To get to this purvama, we take the most secretive route you can imagine.' Rikken flexed his fingers around his mug, warming to his tale. 'Taking every chance we can to ensure that there's no one following us through the tangled maze. There and back we go, and back again to collect the skins. Only to find the whole supply's currently in the process of being raided!'
'Alas,' Raz said. 'We were dramatically outnumbered.'
Their companion looked into his frothy mug. 'You had a crew of five, you say?'
'Eight,' Rikken said. 'But the majority were green, mind, apart from me.'
'What numbers were against you?'
Raz replied, purring with humour, 'There were two of them.'
Their companion twigged to the undercurrent. '—But what a pair, am I correct?'
'You ken, the lean, cocky type,' Raz said, approvingly. 'Too tall. The bloke was a lanky tosser, too.'
'The thing is,' Rikken said, solemn, 'their airship was unusual enough to draw the attention, a little damaged, some recent repairs and nasty welds clear along the starboard hold...'
'Dual-winged, I suppose?'
'Rather noticeable, that,' Rikken said.
'Even our captain swore he saw the airship disappear,' Raz added. 'Right there, from under his eyes.'
'With his full stock of serpentine skins, too.' Rikken snorted with the nonchalance of a mercenary paid for his presence, not by percentage.
Decided, I stood up, closed the brief distance between us, and hooked my stool under me. Nodded, at a surprised Rikken and Raz, then met Zecht's knowing, glittering gaze and smiled broadly.
'I hadn't expected to see you lot survive.' I scratched my chin. 'Particularly you. Particularly here.'
'Tis a habit,' Zecht said, dryly, 'and there is much to be said for what Balfonheim can offer a recovering survivor. I recall conversations between us along those lines.'
Lacking an array of cups before him, I could nevertheless smell his intent. Drowning his memories would not work for a man like our ex-Magister, the glint in his eye too knowing, too sharp, the pained humour still there as lifeboat through the grief.
He shook his head, slow and careful. 'A new start, I should think. Where the sea breeze blows clear of Empire's coils, and a man can chance thinking for himself.'
'May I join you?'
'Certainly. I was about to suggest,' Zecht gestured at our two startled tablemates, 'that we raise a toast to a pair of absent friends.'
'I'd be delighted.'
He held out his hand, large and calloused. He smiled, a warm expression that, for all his grief, was not ill-practiced. 'Reddas. A pleasure to make your formal acquaintance.'
Without hesitation, I took his hand and shook it. 'Elza.'
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