Vayla wore a map of her vows on her skin. The pain of carving it felt as natural to her as breathing. As she dragged her seax over her forearm, the harsh white light from the mark she was creating speared through the shadows of her cabin. She flexed her hand and embraced the power of the Ather in her blood humming through her and closed her eyes to enjoy the rush of warmth and power she possessed at her fingertips. When she opened them, the light was receding into the twisted, inky faith rune and the only light that remained came from the candle flickering on her nightstand.
The map was complete.
Balance throbbed the skin above her right elbow, while strength was etched on her inner right bicep. Hidden beneath her creamy shirt, faith swirled under her collar bone and knowledge snaked up the right side of her neck. The map’s heart was made up of an intricate pattern of lines pulsing on her forehead, which created her permanent rune for honour. She was the only Maiden who had been able to master carving a rune permanently, so she’d made sure to place it somewhere nobody would forget this. The memory of the agony she’d endured to carve it still made her shudder and she brushed the thought away as she rose from her creaky bed in the corner of the cabin. She unhooked her Maiden jacket and shrugged it on, brushing her hands over its soft navy velvet, embroided with elegant gold thread. Her whip waited for her on the dresser and she tucked it onto her belt, taking a moment to revel in the rising sensation of nerves and excitement coiling inside her she got before every voyage. The night felt pregnant with potential and she didn’t intend to waste it. After sheathing the beautifully marked blade of her seax in her baldric, she strode from her cabin and over the rigid floorboards towards the deck.
Briny air caressed her as she bounded up the steps in featherlight strides. It bristled her cloud of golden hair and pinched her cheeks as flocks of waves hissed against the bow of the Voyager. Splashes of its salted kisses lapped onto the decking and spattered her boots as she joined Darya in the shadow of the bloated main sail. The day was withering as it bled into a fiery kiss on the horizon. The night was their domain and when Vayla felt most alive. Darya was pressing the cross she’d carved on her right cheek and her eyes pinched as Vayla came to a stop next to her.
“Stealth causing you problems again?” Vayla asked, trying to mask the smirk poking at her lips. She trusted her talent for light-footedness enough not to need the rune Darya had carved for herself over the past few voyages.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” she croaked.
Darya had almost drowned during a training exercise on the Calypso Isle and her vocal cords had never fully recovered. They had been nine when it had happened and Visha had starved Darya for three days for her weakness. They never spoke about it, but Vayla knew Darya still feared the sea’s depths and always carved the buoyancy rune on her calf before any voyage.
“You missed the briefing,” Darya went on, keeping her golden flecked eyes on the burnt horizon.
“Well, that’s because I can always trust you to summarise it for me.”
Darya narrowed her eyes, turning so her muddy-brown braid flicked onto her shoulder. “Visha notices.”
The mast creaked as Vayla swung around it and offered Darya a mischievous smile.
“She’s not going to discipline her favourite Maiden.”
“Your arrogance is going to be the death of you Vayla.”
“As long as it’s for the Cause.” Vayla continued to hang her weight from the mast as a gust of wind fluttered their velvet jackets. “She favours you too.”
Despite being eighteen, they were the highest performing Maidens on the Voyager. Both were able to bear more runes than the other Maidens, who could scarcely carve more than one for a voyage. Darya was able to carry six like Vayla, but no permanent ones.
The fierce brunette was the closest person Vayla had to family. Their talents meant they were both outcast by the other girls during their training on the Calypso Isle. Admittedly, it hadn’t helped that Vayla had also acted like a feral animal when she’d first met the other initiates. Darya had been the opposite and not uttered a word for years. After Visha’s three-day starvation punishment, Vayla had braved bringing Darya some food and she’d chosen to break her silence to thank her. Since then, they’d found themselves learning to cling to each other for support in a world that was waiting for them to fail.
“We are voyaging a Langardian ship,” Darya announced. The mention of the zealots from the mainland made Vayla’s lip curl. Maidens had no desires to get involved in the mainland politics, but Vayla couldn’t help resenting Langard. They believed only the Divine should have access to magic and any other Ethera or magical creature should be chained and controlled.
“You and I are to retrieve a sealed document from the captain’s safe,” Darya continued, raising an eyebrow as Vayla let out a low groan. “Disappointed?”
“No.” Vayla couldn’t disguise her sulky tone. She hated stealth voyages. Her muscles ached to feel some action.
Darya shook her head. “It’s all for the Cause.”
“I know, I know.” Vayla bristled her shoulders as she stopped hanging her weight from the mast and settled her eyes on the horizon. The Cause was what Maidens fought and died for. It was their duty to fight for freedom and to banish greed on the Titan Sea. At fifteen she’d pledged her life to it, vowing to never again step foot on land. She would honour that vow until the day she died.
Darkness cloaked them as Darya and Vayla rowed across Titan’s black waters and the water slapping the oars Darya was pulling filled their silence. The moon’s silver light seeped through the veil of mist that enveloped the Titan Sea and illuminated the stiff limbs of the Langardian ship.
“It seems they want to be inconspicuous for once,” Vayla noted as she assessed its size. It was suspiciously small for a boat from the navy renowned for its formidable vessels.
The ship’s shadow blotted their view as Vayla quickly carved buoyancy runes on the souls of her boots and Darya anchored their boat, before doing the same. They stepped onto the water and Darya released a tight breath when she didn’t sink. Vayla was already a step ahead of her, prowling across the sloshes of waves towards the bow of the ship. The volatile water pushed against her weight as her buoyancy runes kept her afloat and she felt it soaking through the leather of her boots, sending a shiver through her as it pinched her skin.
She clawed her fingers expertly into the grooves of the bow’s wood and pulled herself up, feeling her strength and balance runes pulsing with life. Darya clambered up behind her and grunted as her foot slipped on a damp patch. They froze, listening for sounds of the soldiers above them. Nothing. Vayla shot her a warning look from above and Darya scowled, before they finished scaling the bow. The next moment was always the one which sent the largest rush of adrenaline scorching through Vayla. She trusted in her faith rune, and when it didn’t pulse with any kind of warning she hauled herself over the wooden railing and onto the boat’s deck. It was clear and she beckoned to Darya, before stepping into the shadows and scoping their surroundings. They were stood on the quarter deck, the main sail whipping in the wind above them. Narrowing her eyes, Vayla caught sight of two men at the front of the boat as their crimson Langard uniforms seeped through the inky darkness. One had his head buried in his neck and shoulders slumped forward, asleep. The other was crossing his arms and glaring at the horizon, puffing smoke from a pipe into the crisp air. Men. Vayla rolled her eyes. They never know how to respect their duties.
Vayla and Darya were whispers in the wind as they slipped down the steps towards the captain’s cabin. Vayla made swift work of the open rune on its doorhandle and smirked as the lock clicked. Inside, the room was filled with the sound of the captain’s crusty snores and Vayla’s faced pinched in distain at the sight of the lump of his form under the sheets. Shards of moonlight splintered through a set of arched windows and illuminated the cabin enough for Vayla to step over to the safe on the desk. Darya remained in the doorway, her hand resting on the hilt of her cutlass.
Paper was strewn across the desk, covered in Langardian script Vayla didn’t understand. She recognised one name amongst the rabble of elegant letters, Josiah, and her eyebrows raised. So this ship was carrying out business for the Langard King. It made her fingers carve her blade impatiently over the door of the safe. The lock clicked open, then she rummaged around the pouches of gold. When her fingers felt dry parchment, she pulled out a letter closed with a seal she didn’t recognise. Her fingers hesitated over the pouches of coin but she gritted her teeth. That was not the purpose of the Voyage. Letting out a breath, she pushed the safe’s door shut then hurried across the floorboards towards the door as Darya held it open for her.
While Vayla paused to seal the captain’s door shut, Darya darted up the steps. A rule of stealth voyages was always to leave a place just as you found it. Vayla turned, ready to join Darya by the railing when her faith rune sent a jolt of pain through her. She caught Darya’s wide eyes, her words of warning cut off when two crimson blurs grabbed her friend and dragged her back. A third guard lunged for Vayla and she yanked her whip from her belt, striking him down without batting an eyelash. She leapt over him, bounding up the steps while her eyes darted through the darkness for Darya. Her grunts of protest as she squirmed against the guards’ hold sounded from the other side of the closest mast. Vayla kept to the shadows, gripping the handle of her whip as her muscles tensed for a fight. Anger burned through her at the sight of the guards coiling their fists to pound them into Darya. When she met her friend’s eyes they were swirled with hurricanes of frustration.
“Go!” She mouthed at Vayla.
Her muscles wen taut for a moment. Darya was right. She should leave. She had the letter and the terms of the voyage were to retrieve it without being noticed. It was still possible for her to slip away and all her training screamed at her to leap from the ship. Never hesitate. Visha’s volcanic voice echoed in her head. The Cause is what you fight for above all else. She should leave Darya because the Cause was more important. Her heart stuttered as her fist tightened around her whip. No. She couldn’t bring herself to think in that way. Who did she and Darya have in this world but each other?
Her whip struck out like lighting, snaring the first of one of the guards. She yanked him backwards and he staggered towards her, straight into the dagger she’d unsheathed. Darya gasped, but only took a moment to compose herself before she grabbed the other guard and swung him over her shoulder to slam him against the floor. She picked up her cutlas they’d knocked away from her, then slammed it through his chest. Both girls let out shallow breaths and Darya wiped the blood from her cutlas on the crimson jacket of the guard at her feet. They prepared to take off, both of them looking towards the side of the ship they’d entered on. Then, more soldiers pounded onto the deck and they exchanged a knowing look with each other. Looks like things just got interesting.
Smiles curved their faces as they sprung forward and filled the night with the sounds of suffocated cries and metal slicing through muscle and bone. Darya slashed them down, leaving a crimson trail in her wake, while Vayla brought them down with lashes of her whip, strangling the screams from them. They danced across the deck with nimble grace, used to performing together and watching each other’s backs.
Once the night was silent again and the soldiers lay limp at their feet they tensed ready to slip off the boat. Both froze as the cabin door rattled against its hinges. Darya let out a snort.
“I think your seal rune was a little too good.”
Vayla shrugged, fixing her whip back to her belt and striding over to the railing. They became shadows once more, leaping from the boat and landing on the water without a splash as their buoyancy runes held strong.
Vayla took the oars this time and when they approached the silhouette of the Voyager they let out a breath, both of them revelling in the aftershocks of the fight tremoring through them.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Darya muttered once the ship’s silhouette was swallowed by the Veil.
“Come on, if I’d left you there then I’d actually have to attend Visha’s briefings myself,” Vayla replied and Darya rolled her eyes.
“Right.” She moved her stare to the water sloshing over the oars. Around them, the mist of the Veil grew thicker, making it seem as though they could be miles, rather than meters, away from the Voyager. Vayla could sense Darya thinking about the path she’d almost been forced down. Langards didn’t take kindly to Maidens, and being caught by them would only lead to one outcome. Execution. She could sense the torment warring inside of her at how close she’d come fading away.
“Hey,” Vayla said, dropping the mocking tone of her voice as she held the oars still. “You matter Darya. We all do. You will not be forgotten or left behind.” Darya’s eyes snapped up to meet hers and a rare warmth cracked over her features.
“Thanks,” her voice croaked.
Vayla gave her a short nod, then resumed rowing the short distance towards the Voyager, letting the sensation of their boat floating over the tranquil waves sooth the heat scorching through her from the fight. As much as they bickered, they were sisters. The fidelity rune pulsed below Vayla’s collar bone and spread a warmth through her. Darya and the other Maidens were her family, the Voyager was her home and the Cause was her fulfilment. She closed her eyes, tasting the salty breeze tickling her face and thanked Calypso for her blessings.
Evette and Loretta hoisted their boat up and the girls nodded their thanks as they stepped onto the deck.
“Things didn’t quite go to plan then?” Loretta commented when she noticed the blood splattered on Darya’s face.
“We handled it.” Vayla waved a dismissive hand at them.
“I thought you two were the queens of stealth. Perhaps Visha will pass the honour to someone else,” Evette sneered.
“Well it won’t be you. No shadow rune will hide your elephant feet,’ Vayla snapped back. Evette’s face reddened while Darya tugged Vayla away from them. The other Maidens were just itching to see them fall into Visha’s bad graces as the rest of them had on multiple occasions.
“Dignity.”’ she hissed one of the morals of their code, before Vayla shrugged her off and stepped aside so Darya could be the one to knock on Visha’s door.
“Enter,” the sharp voice of their High Maiden barked.
They stepped across the threshold and Visha’s pearly teeth flashed through the shadows of the cabin as she beckoned them over.
“You obtained the letter?’ She asked as she rose from her chair and held her hand out for it. Vayla slipped it from her jacket while Darya hung back a pace. Visha was a mountainous woman, as her shadow loomed over even Darya, who was the tallest of the other Maidens. Gold beaded braids snaked to Visha’s wide hips and the beads always batted against each other when she whipped her head around. Her dark skin shone under the tendrils of moonlight pouring into the cabin as she tore the letter open. Her smile broadened after her deep, emerald eyes finished scanning the words.
“Excellent,” she muttered.
“There were complications,” Vayla admitted and the force of the captain’s glittering eyes fixed on her.
“Ones you handled I’m sure.”
Vayla bowed her head and Darya’s eyebrows lifted. The last time two Maidens drew blood on a stealth voyage, Visha had them on deck scrubbing duty for a month. Visha laid the letter on her desk, smoothing the brown parchment and using a thick finger to prod at the unfamiliar words.
“This letter contains information that has the potential to bring our Cause a great fortune.” Darya drew closer to stand at Vayla’s side. “It contains details of how we can trace Ramsden Scias’s ring.”
Both girls exchanged a quick, furtive look with each other. Ramsden was one of the five Pirate Lords. Their power was once harnessed through the five actoria rings until King Josiah tricked the rings from them four years ago in a night infamously known as The Night of the Long Song. It gave Langard control of the magic on Titan’s waters and meant four of the Pirate Lords had been marooned on their Isles, unable to act on their avaricious desires.
“We could achieve great things with that ring. Ramsden is the most powerful of all the Pirate Lords,” Visha went on, her lips carved into a crafty smile. “Asenath has assured me if we can obtain it she will use it to trace the other rings.”
“What would we do with them?” Darya’s voice squeaked and Vayla noticed her hand clench at her side at the show of her weakness. Visha’s upper lip curled at the interruption.
“Destroy them of course.” The High Maiden’s smile held no warmth as she stroked her finger down the parchment. “Then we will eradicate the pirate’s greed for good from our waters.”
Vayla’s eyebrows shot up her forehead at the thought. To stifle the pirates’ powers on the Titan Sea would be a great honour. The ultimate triumph.
“I would like to volunteer to go after them,” she blurted at the same time as Darya. Visha chuckled, opening a draw on her desk and pulling out two golden cuffs.
“Unfortunately, this is a voyage only for one,” she started.
“What are they?” Darya asked, nodding at the cuffs.
“These will release one of you from your vow for a time,” she explained. Vayla’s throat tightened at the thought.
“They will allow us to walk on land?” Darya asked and Visha nodded, lowering herself into her seat and pressing her fingers together on the desk.
“Yes, since some of the rings will undoubtedly be kept there. The question is, which of the two of you will earn the honour of this voyage?” The girls straightened, their eyes darting to the side at each other before fixing back on Visha’s beady smile. “We will have Calypso decide in a trial of fate.”