The Freedom set sail with the captured Argoni in tow. Lucia had plans for the naval vessel, but first she had to get it as far away from the island of Carooine as possible. And there was the problem. Whilst Bettie, Kabi, and even Benho had managed to cobble together a patch for one of the Freedom's engines, it was unlikely to last, and the second engine was well beyond their capacity to repair. The captain sighed, put the matter out of her mind for a moment, and concentrated on the task at hand. With Maicee and Lean both in the medical bay, Bettie was giving the rest of the crew an update on all that had happened, including the disarming of the bombs that had been on board. Reaching the end of her report, the first officer stepped back, and Lucia nodded.
“Right. Now, the first thing that is to be understood is that whilst I am still your captain, KabiOnn here will be the commander of this vessel as long as he's aboard. That means you pay him the same heed as you do me.”
“Yes, Captain,” murmured the crew. They had witnessed Kabi's skills and were impressed.
“Excellent,” said Lucia. “I want to get as far from Carooine as we possibly can, so attend to your duties. Bettie, stay here; I wish to speak with you.”
Kabi and Benho also remained seated, and little Niku, pleased to have her makeshift family back for the time being, scampered over the table and sat in the crook of Benho's elbow.
“You need to know more details of the mission,” Lucia told her first officer, once the rest of the crew were out of earshot.
Bettie looked on curiously as Lucia and Kabi explained the situation.
“So, let me get this straight,” she said, after listening for a while. “Princess Ausanne has been kidnapped, this little furry creature is her messenger, and we've got a data disk that contains something that the Supreme Emperor wants to get his hands on.” She raised her eyes to the heavens. “Fantastic,” she added sarcastically.
Kabi smiled. “I'd like to tell you more about the data disk, but I can't.” He shrugged. “You'll have to trust me. It contains something that could bring death and disaster to all of Archeonis.”
“Okay,” Bettie said slowly, obviously not quite buying Kabi's story but having no choice but to do as she was asked.
“Our first priority is to get this data disk back to Britannia,” Lucia said. “But we're taking the long way, for two reasons.”
“The long way?” Bettie asked.
“We'll be travelling through the Lawless Sea.” Lucia glared at her first officer, daring her to challenge this, and when she didn't, continued: “Firstly, because I want to find out if the princess is still being held there. And secondly, because we'll be far less likely to run into the Imperial Navy there. And given that we've currently got one of their vessels under tow, that seems like a good thing.”
Niku was hopping up and down, her tiny claws digging into a grimacing Benho's leg. “Do you think the princess is still alive?” she squeaked excitedly.
“We can only hope,” said Kabi.
Maicee opened his eyes, blinking in the bright lights of the medical bay. His body was still soaked with sweat, the remnant of the nightmare he'd just had. Or had it been a dream? He had no idea.
He'd been walking through a garden, lush and green, when he’d come upon a large pond. By the water, a little girl was playing, happily splashing. Watching over her was a woman, tall and beautiful, with a baby in her arms. He'd opened his mouth to call to her, the word ‘mother’ springing unbidden from his lips. But as he said the word, the air suddenly became freezing cold, ice forming on the hands of the little girl. The child had looked up at him, horror in her eyes as the ice crept along her limbs, freezing her until she fainted.
And then he'd woken up. He rubbed his face with his hands, looking around. He was in the medical bay—that much was clear, though he remembered nothing from before except hitting the floor. He assumed he'd been successful in dismantling the bomb, however, since apparently he had all his arms and legs. And even my fingers, he thought, wiggling them.
Falorni came into the small bunk room, her smile cheerful, happy to see Maicee looking better.
“Couldn't sleep,” said Maicee, not wanting to explain about his dream. “Why don't you come sit with me for a few minutes, talk to me? Maybe it'll help me go back to sleep.”
“Are you saying I'm boring?” Falorni joked, but she perched on the edge of his bunk. “What would you like to talk about then, Doctor?”
Maicee shrugged. “I don't know.” He paused. “How about you tell me how come you're a pirate?”
Falorni gave him a sad smile. “It's not always a nice story, but I'll try.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes to remember.
“My home town was a small sea port on the coast of Americani,” she began. “When I was thirteen, the town was sacked by pirates. My parents were killed, and I was captured.”
Already Maicee was regretting asking the question. He hadn't wanted to cause the girl any pain. But he sat and listened quietly.
“I was sold to a brothel. A couple of years later, Lucia raided the brothel, and I was freed. But I didn't have anywhere to go. The captain refused to let me join her, saying I was too young. So instead she sent me to a nursing academy, where I learned my skills. Once I graduated, I came back and asked to join her again. This time she agreed, since she was in need of a medic at the time. And ... well, that's pretty much it, really.”
Opening her eyes, she saw Maicee looking at her with pity.
“It was the past,” she told him gently. “I'd like to forget it, but it's not possible. So instead I accept it and look towards the future. With the grace of the Gods, life will be better.”
Maicee swallowed. And here he'd been sulking because he'd given up a position in Carooine's hospital. His life hadn't always been easy, but it had been a hell of a lot easier than Falorni's had been.
“And what about you?” Falorni asked, changing the tone and smiling. “How come you gave up a cosy position in Carooine to come travel with pirates?”
He laughed. “It sounds a little crazy, I'll admit.” He hesitated, trying to put his reasoning into words that explained what he was doing without giving away too much information. “I am seeking my roots and a forgotten past,” he said finally.
“That can be a good thing,” Falorni said. “At least you have a family to return to.”
Maicee closed his eyes, feeling weariness overcome him. “I'm not so sure about that,” he murmured, drifting into sleep and trying not to remember his nightmare.
Falorni stroked his arm. The skin was so smooth. And then she shook her head. The doctor was once more asleep. Getting up, she quietly left him to his dreams.
Lucia nodded in satisfaction. That was one problem taken care of. Lean had awoken in the medical bay and insisted on speaking with the captain. But it was only after Benho had agreed that the woman was fit enough, as long as she didn't overwork herself, that Lucia had listened to what the engineer had to say.
“I'm the only one here who can fix those engines,” she said. “And it's the only way that I can try and make amends. You have my word, Captain, that I shall do whatever necessary to see you on your way.”
Lucia eyed the engineer speculatively for a moment. It was true that she owed the girl's father a lot and was willing to let Lean live. And Lean seemed to have accepted that, though the ship was already underway, she was not going to be travelling far with them. Finally, she nodded.
“You may go to the engine room.”
But she was no fool. There was a reason she was captain of one of the most successful pirate vessels in Archeonis, after all. She was willing to trust the girl, but only so far. When she returned to the bridge, she sent her first officer to keep a close eye on Lean.
And it was Bettie who heard the girl's quiet sobs as her oily hands fumbled to fix the engines. For a brief moment, the first officer felt a stab of pity. Then she remembered all that had happened. She fingered the trigger on her bolt blaster. She couldn't help but think that the captain had made a mistake trusting Lean again, and she hoped that the girl would do something stupid enough that would allow her to pull her weapon and shoot her. Then there'd be no problems anymore.
The small boat carrying Lean and a collection of supplies was already disappearing into the distance. No one watched. No one had the heart to. The engineer would survive—it was only a few hours to the closest land, and she had food, plus a handful of credits that had been owed to her. Lucia hoped she'd go on to a successful life but knew that, more likely than not, she'd end up a gambler or a whore, like all unwanted women did.
“Status update!” barked Bettie.
The ship's defence and navigation officers had installed a remote-access control system onto the Argoni, meaning that the ship was no longer under tow and could move under its own power. Everyone had gathered on the bridge, ostensibly to witness the Argoni moving under her own steam, but mostly because a cloud of heaviness had hung over the Freedom since Lean's departure, and they were huddling together for human comfort.
The access control system working, Lucia quickly briefed her crew, and finally the Freedom was ready to move at her full cruising speed. The captain gave the order, and the ship's engines began rumbling under her feet.
“I forgot,” Bettie said, pulling something out of her pocket whilst the others attended to their duties. “Professor Lock-Tmy had a letter for you.”
She handed over the slim envelope, and Maicee and Benho made a move to see what was written, sure that the letter must be about them. Falorni put out a hand to stop them.
“Lock-Tmy is the captain's grandfather,” she whispered to them in warning.
Maicee raised his eyebrows and looked at Benho. Seriously? The more they learnt about Lucia, the more interesting she became.
“Small world,” Benho whispered.
“I guess so,” said Maicee.
Lucia ripped the seal off the envelope and quickly scanned the letter's contents. Then she smiled, folded the paper, returned it to its envelope, and slid it into her belt pocket.
“Set coordinates for Britannia by way of the Lawless Sea,” she ordered.
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
The ship gradually began to turn, leaving a sweeping curve of wake behind it. To starboard, the Argoni mimicked the Freedom's movements.
“My grandfather told me to take good care of both of you,” said Lucia, coming over to Maicee and Benho. She was well aware of all that had just happened; her eyes and ears missed nothing that occurred on her bridge.
But Maicee was too busy looking out at the horizon, where just out of sight Carooine Island lay. He wondered if he'd ever see it again.
The sun burned down onto the decks of the Freedom, its heat relentless and stinging. It had been a full day since the vessel had finally left the waters of Carooine, and now they were on the edges of the Lawless Sea. Lucia stared out at the deep blue waters, the colour brighter and more beautiful than any other hue she'd ever seen. She nodded. Here was as good a place as any.
The few soldiers who had remained on the Argoni had been locked into the ship's safety chambers below decks. Now Lucia allowed her crew to free the men and set them out in the lifeboats of the Argoni. The ship itself she needed; it was part of her plan. The men, however, she could do without. They were naval men, and they'd probably make it. She wasn't cruel—she had given them supplies. But on the Lawless Sea, there were no guarantees. Bounty hunters, pirates, mercenaries, all plied their trade out here, and it was survival of the fittest. Still, she'd have been a fool to release the soldiers any closer to land. The last thing she needed was an alert put out for the Freedom and Argoni travelling together. No, that would ruin everything.
Once the lifeboats were bobbing gently in the waves, Lucia waved her hand. The engines of the Freedom powered up, and both cruisers began to pull away, leaving behind them a string of curses and swearing from the abandoned soldiers. The captain shrugged. There was little room for compassion in piracy, though she tried to be fair. It was all part of the game.
Grinning at Kabi, who was rolling his eyes at Maicee's attempt to perform some kind of acrobatic trick, Lucia scanned her hand and went back to her bridge. There were plans to put into action.
For his part, Kabi was trying very hard to teach Maicee the art of unarmed combat. With Benho ensconced in his cabin with the beautiful Sa-li, Maicee was at a loose end on board the Freedom, and, Kabi thought, he could use a little training. It might—no, almost definitely would—come in handy. Unarmed combat really didn't seem to be the young doctor's forte, though, as Falorni's giggles only proved. The young nurse was basking on the side of the deck and watching Maicee's somewhat comical attempts at defensive manoeuvres.
“Here,” said Kabi. “Try this.”
He demonstrated a simple defensive move that twisted his body to avoid what could have been a fatal strike to the liver. Maicee watched and tried to emulate the movement but only ended up in a hysterical heap on the salt-stained deck.
“Focus,” Kabi said, striding over to pull his young charge up by the scruff of his neck. “Look, I know that you're well-versed in the use of a bolt blaster, but a blaster has limited ammunition. And there may be times when you simply don't have a weapon at all. By learning basic martial arts, your body will become your weapon. Do you understand?”
Maicee yawned. “I understand,” he said, getting into position for the next attack.
He was tired. So tired he could barely see straight. Since that first nightmare, the dreams had continued to haunt him, coming even when he tried to nap. He hadn't had a full night's sleep in what felt like forever. Plus, physical training just wasn't his thing. He'd never been trained like this before, and the morning's practice bouts had already left his muscles screaming and his body aching. But he continued, not sure why he was continuing, but simply doing as Kabi asked of him.
Falorni hid a small, pitying smile as she saw Maicee get thrown to the deck again. The man winced in pain, rubbing his shoulder as he got up, cursing the sun-bleached planks of the Freedom's deck. Taking a deep, focussing breath, he studied Kabi's movements, trying to figure out how he should attack the man next. But it was in vain. None of his attacks thus far had come even close to touching Kabi's robe, let alone any part of his body. He groaned as once more he was thrown to the deck.
“Kabi, is this really necessary?” he asked as he got up for the millionth time. “I mean, it's kind of painful, and, well, I'm not going to be a soldier or anything, am I?”
Kabi looked at the boy. He was sweating, his body marked with painful welts where he'd hit the deck again and again. Kabi didn't like doing this, but he knew with absolute certainty that it was necessary.
“Pain is the best teacher that there is,” he said calmly. “Learn from it, and you will suffer less in the long run.” He moved his body into a defensive posture again, adding almost as an afterthought: “And believe it or not, war will come looking for you, though you don't want to participate in it. Therefore, you must be as prepared as possible. Come at me again.”
Maicee gritted his teeth and bent his body, moving his centre of gravity lower. There was so much that he didn't understand. Not the least of which was what the hell had happened in his mind the night he'd disarmed that bomb. But as always, Kabi wouldn't answer his questions. He just recommended patience and fed Maicee the information he needed drop by drop. Shaking the sweat out of his eyes, Maicee added the fact that war would come looking for him to the long list of other things that he didn't understand and was supposed to trust Kabi on. Thinking of this made him angry, and his assault on Kabi was ferocious, though ill thought out. His powerful punch was easily evaded by the older man and resulted in Maicee’s again tumbling to the floor.
“No, no,” Kabi said, his shadow blocking the sun from Maicee's eyes. “Do not rely on brute force. Use a little innovation.”
Maicee's eyes narrowed, but he got up from the deck. Use your brain, he told himself. Your body might not be strong, but your brain is. He watched Kabi, waiting for an opening, but saw none. Then you'll need to create your own opening, he schooled himself. Circling around to Kabi's left, the older man not even bothering to turn to face him, Maicee raised his hand as though to chop, and Kabi twirled and lifted his arm to block the shot. But that was just the bait. Grinning inside himself, Maicee twisted and redirected his hand, extending his leg at the same time to sweep around and knock Kabi off his feet.
“Not bad,” said Kabi, staring down at Maicee, who was lying on the deck again, head spinning and not entirely sure what had gone wrong. “You are thinking in the right direction. But, if you'd allow me to give you a little advice, perhaps you should refrain from signalling your every movement with your facial expression unless you know your enemy to be blind.”
What does that even mean? Maicee thought to himself, struggling to get up on his hands and knees.
“Why don't you fight back?” Benho yelled from across the deck.
He'd just come out for a breath of fresh air and had seen his friend get knocked to the deck. He'd pinpointed the problem immediately. Maicee had a horrible tendency to look in the direction that he planned on hitting or kicking, which gave the game away to his opponent.
“Why don't you come over here and give it a try?” Maicee retorted, his head still swimming. “It's not as easy as it looks, you know?”
“Not a bad idea,” said Benho, sauntering over. “If you don't mind, Kabi? I've missed my workouts and could use a little exercise.”
“Thought you'd be getting enough exercise below decks with Sa-li,” commented Maicee, dragging himself up and shakily walking to where Falorni sat.
“I don't mind at all, Ben,” Kabi said. “Let's see what you've got.”
As his friend removed his cloak and shirt, Maicee could see that his back was rippling with muscles.
“You have trained your body well,” Kabi said approvingly.
Benho shrugged, both proud of his physique and slightly embarrassed by the compliment. “Survival is important,” he said. “Especially for an orphan like me.” And he gave an easy smile.
“Watch them carefully,” Falorni whispered to Maicee, handing him a towel on which to wipe down his sweat-stained body. “You will learn much from watching.”
“You're trained in combat too?” Maicee asked, surprised.
Falorni rolled her eyes. “Of course. I'm a crew member on a pirate ship, remember?”
Chastened and feeling foolish, Maicee rubbed his face dry, then sat down on the deck to watch the two men fight. First they circled each other, each gauging the other for weak points, movements that might give away an injury or offer an opening later in the fight. Then, in a flash, Benho sprang forward, his arm extending, his fist aimed directly at Kabi's abdomen. Kabi performed the same twisting movement that he'd demonstrated earlier to Maicee and avoided the fist, though it scraped his skin a little.
The older man offered an uppercut that should have hit Benho square on the jaw, but the younger man's delicate footwork allowed him to avoid contact. Benho then spun, giving a wide, sweeping kick that Kabi blocked with his forearm. Maicee stared in wonder at their fluid movements. It was almost as though they were dancing in the hot sunshine, the deck of the Freedom their ballroom, time standing still as they engaged each other in battle.
Soon Benho's face was dripping with sweat, and his breath was coming in laboured gasps. Kabi smiled. The fight would be over soon, and it would be his. He feinted a swift kick, which Benho took to be real and avoided, but realising his mistake, the younger man dropped back into a defensive posture. Instantly Kabi disappeared from sight, and before Benho realised what was happening, the man was standing behind him, a hand to his throat. Struggling, Benho opened his mouth, but Kabi's hand on his windpipe meant that he couldn't utter a word.
“You are a good fighter,” Kabi observed, letting Benho go, so that he could drop to the ground, gasping. “But your style is too aggressive. It is draining your energy too quickly. Remember that you may be fighting an unknown opponent and should keep a reserve of energy just in case. Otherwise it could be your last fight.”
Benho nodded, still in awe of Kabi's speed and strength and still in need of more air.
“Maicee, you can learn from this,” Kabi said. “Often a good way to fight a strong but inexperienced opponent is to allow him to use up his energy and wait for an opportunity to strike.”
“Though you'll need to survive the initial onslaught first,” whispered Falorni with a chuckle.
“Ben, I want you to attend these unarmed combat sessions with Maicee. You should learn more defensive techniques, rather than being forever on the attack.”
Finally able to take a full breath, Benho nodded. “It will be my pleasure,” he said. Fire burned in his eyes, though he was still smiling. “And I assure you, Kabi, that one day I will defeat you.”
Kabi bowed his head in acknowledgement and then laughed. “I shall look forward to that day very much,” he said.
Lucia looked out over the bridge. It’d been two days since they had released the Argoni's soldiers, and still nothing. It was like sailing in a graveyard. But there was something out here, something dangerous. She shivered a little; she could sense it.
“Captain, radar signal.”
“What is it?” She snapped to attention.
“Something big, but it's not moving. From the looks of it, it could be a dreadnought.”
“Power back engines on both ships,” she said. “We'll be waiting at our current position for a while.” And with that, she turned and left the bridge.
She found Kabi drilling the boys in combat techniques, as he always seemed to be doing these days. Benho and Maicee looked bruised and tired.
“What is it?” the older man asked distractedly.
“We've picked up a signal. Most likely a dreadnought,” said Lucia.
The two of them shared a glance, and then both began to smile.
“Let's talk about this plan of yours,” said Kabi, putting a hand on Lucia's shoulder and steering her away, out of earshot of the boys.
Lord Hansola sat in his cabin, a small blue-green flame burning on the tip of his index finger. Gently he blew a breath over it, watching it flicker and dance. In his mind, a small boy was watching him, grinning at the hypnotic flame.
“Don't you burn, my little Benny-boy, darling,” a sweet, feminine voice called out to him in his reverie.
The boy was staring hard at the flame, his chubby fingers reaching out to try and grasp the shining, flickering temptation. But as soon as his hand began to close around the flame, it extinguished. Hansola was rewarded with a deep chuckle that came straight from the boy's belly, and it melted his heart.
A knock on the cabin door broke his thoughts, and he shook his head in irritation. He intensely disliked being disturbed, and he instantly decided that he would punish whoever was knocking in the most unthinkable way possible if the message he carried wasn't important.
“Come in,” he said, voice like iron.
A young man entered the cabin, saluted, and waited to be spoken to.
“Speak,” said Hansola, impatiently.
“It's the princess, sir. She's creating trouble, asking to see you again and again.”
Hansola waved the soldier away, irritated. “I will be there in a while,” he said.
The princess was getting on his last nerve. She was a chess piece and nothing more, though he needed her if he was going to exact his revenge. But, he told himself, if this continues, then I am going to have her killed as soon as I am done with her.
Blowing out the flame on his finger, he pushed his chair out from the desk and stood. He was still thinking of imaginative ways to kill the young princess when he reached the interrogation room. Idly considering placing small metal hooks inside her skin and then escorting her to the ship's magnetic resonator made him smile as he opened the door.
“Switch off the camera and the microphone,” he ordered, closing the door behind him.
He watched until the small camera in the corner of the room blinked red rather than green, then nodded and turned to face the princess. Ausanne was lying on her bed, robe open in all the right places to make her seem appealing. But he knew that she was simply trying to manipulate him.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I am so very bored,” the young princess pouted.
And, as strange as it may seem, she truly was. The princess was no fool, and once she had found out that helping Hansola, or at least tolerating him, was her only method of survival, she had somewhat buckled down. That did not, however, mean that she wasn't constantly looking for another route to save her from her fate. But there’s only so long that one can be terrified for, she mused. And she was bored. Locked in this cabin with no one to talk to and nothing to do.
“And what do you suggest that I do, little princess?” asked Hansola. “Allow you to wander at will through my ship and create havoc?” He shook his head. “We have had this discussion, and I'm sure you understand that it is in both our interests at the moment that you pretend to be my prisoner, so behave like one. The plan is in place, and I assure you that you shall very soon have your freedom.”
Ausanne sulked even further. “This plan of yours is taking entirely too long. You wouldn't happen to be toying with me, would you?” She eyed the Magi Lord carefully. “No matter what the consequences, if I can't trust you, I shan't be leading you anywhere.”
“I have withheld nothing from you. I have revealed my plan, my hatred, and yet you doubt me,” said Hansola, his voice soft and menacing.
“It could all be a ruse,” began Ausanne.
But before she could finish, his hand was around her throat.
“Listen carefully, little princess,” he hissed, his face so close to hers that she could smell his lunch on his breath. “If I wanted to, I could kill you here and now in a way so painful that you can't even imagine it in your worst nightmares. You are useful; I grant you that. And leading me to the rebel base will help me no end. But, and remember this.” He glared deep into her eyes. “If necessary, I can always find the base myself and destroy it.”
He let her go and stepped back.
“But that is not what I want,” he continued, voice more even now. “I want to join forces with you against the Supreme Emperor, and we will both get what we want. However, make no mistake, Princess, I can and will do this with or without you.”
Ausanne shivered a little, pulling her robe closer around her. It seemed like the temperature in the tiny cabin had dropped as Hansola spoke.
“I understand,” she said quietly. “And you have my apologies.”
He was the enemy of her enemy, she knew, but that still did not make him an ally. She took a deep breath and changed tactics.
“It's just that it's been so long since I was captured, Lord Hansola. Do you not think that maybe I could go on deck for some fresh air? It is so stifling down here.”
Anger glowed once again in Hansola's eyes, and Ausanne regretted her words even as they left her mouth. But he was prevented from answering her by the beep of the com on his wrist. He looked down at the small screen and frowned. Then without a word, he strode out of Ausanne's cabin, leaving her staring open-mouthed at the closed door.
“Now, what,” Hansola mused as he carefully locked the door behind him, “could the Admiral possibly be doing here?”