The cavernous room was lit dimly by a fireplace in the corner and scattered candles in wall sconces. The air was smoky, the darkness around the sturdy oak table comforting in its anonymity. Thirteen heavy, high-backed chairs surrounded the table, and on one of them sat a young and handsome man, robed in scarlet and hooded. He read through the report that he was holding in eerie silence, the other men watching, barely daring to breathe. The young man looked up when he was finished, his eyes roaming around the table. Five other men were present. All similarly robed and hooded, though in black rather than red. Looking at their shadowed faces, he remained expressionless. He'd known each and every one of these men since birth. They were, after all, his children, though each had been born to him by a different woman. He enjoyed the agony of their anticipation and let the silence extend for a few more painful moments before nodding.
“I am pleased with the progress,” he said finally. “You have done well, Camuse.”
“Thank you, Supreme Emperor,” said the cracked and elderly voice of Camuse.
He stood and bowed to his ruler and father. His health had been failing in recent years, and he knew that he wouldn't be serving the Emperor for much longer.
The Emperor knew the same but made no mention of it nor gave Camuse special treatment. It would be a shame to get rid of the man—he had been a loyal servant. The Emperor sighed softly to himself. Maybe he should grant Camuse the same immortality as he himself had. But then, what good would it do to make an old and frail man immortal?
“I shall look forward to completion of this project by the end of the month,” was all he said.
His back was aching on the hard chair.
“If there is nothing further, you may all be dismissed,” he said, hoping that the meeting was now over.
“Sire, I have received an important report, if I may have permission to take the floor?” The man seated to the left of Camuse stood and bowed to his Emperor.
“What is it now, Kameru?” the Emperor asked impatiently. Lord Kameru seemed to take great pain in annoying him at every meeting, and he had little time for the man's interfering and pompous manner. He was, however, an excellent Magi, and that could not be discounted.
“My agent has informed me that Lord Hansola has acted out of his jurisdiction,” reported Kameru.
The Emperor could almost see the delighted, malicious grin that Kameru was smiling under his dark hood. He leaned forward, putting his chin on his hand.
“And what has he done this time?” the Emperor asked. This was not the first time that Kameru had tried to indict Hansola. There was some enmity between the two men, though the Emperor couldn't really be bothered to find out exactly why.
“He has captured Princess Ausanne, Ambassador of Britannia. An act of treason, sire.”
The Emperor raised an eyebrow. “Treason? What does capturing a princess have to do with betraying me? If I understand correctly, Lord Hansola captured Ausanne in the Lawless Sea, where we have no jurisdiction against him.”
Kameru coughed. “I believe that he was trying to incite rebellion against Great China and therefore the Supreme Emperor in Britannia by capturing their princess and ambassador.” He paused for a moment. “We should recall him immediately and strip him of his power!”
“Lord Kameru,” said the Emperor, trying to remain calm. “Lord Hansola is a Magi Lord just as you yourself are, and therefore he has the authority to detain anyone he suspects to be a threat to the empire. Unless you have some form of solid evidence to back up your claims, then I wish to hear no more of this matter.”
“Then I shall see what I can do in that respect,” Kameru said mulishly, sitting down.
“Very well. Now, if there is no more business, I suggest we retire.”
The Emperor waited for no answer, pushing his chair back from the table and marching towards the exit. Two guards opened the double doors and saluted. The five men at the table had barely reached their feet to pay their respects when the door banged closed behind their ruler.
“The Emperor trusts Hansola too much,” grumbled Kameru, taking his seat again.
“All will think you jealous of Hansola's success,” said the oldest of the men at the table. “You will need irrefutable evidence if you want to bring him down. Something he cannot deny.”
“Perhaps you can help me, Lord Yealosi. Together we can find a way to defeat this wily old fox,” said Kameru, hopefully.
Yealosi waved a hand, dismissive. “I'm too old for this infighting. Hansola can have my place at the table if he wants.”
Kameru sat back in his seat and brooded. There was nothing more that he wanted than to see the proud Hansola fall. One by one, the other men left the chamber, and Kameru remained alone with his thoughts.
Lord Hansola entered the bridge of the Orion, ignoring the saluting officers he passed.
“What is it?” he demanded.
He sat in the heavy captain's chair. “Put the Admiral through,” he ordered.
“Ad...al St...kie sp...k...ng,” said a distorted voice through the bridge's speakers.
Hansola huffed in irritation. “What are you doing here, Stookie? Aren't you supposed to be guarding the borders somewhere?”
The Admiral was no great friend of Hansola's, though neither was he an enemy. He was aware of the Admiral's history, which was why he'd made the sarcastic comment about guarding the borders. But he would, nevertheless, remain cordial as long as both men were on the same side.
“My sh... has problems,” the voice crackled again. “Re...ting assistance ... please allow ... anchor ... next to your vessel ...”
The transmission was terrible, and Hansola was rapidly losing patience at trying to decipher whatever it was that the Admiral wanted. Obviously he needed some help and wanted to tie up to the Orion. Hansola gave a sigh of irritation.
“Fine,” he said to the com.
He turned to his first officer. “Supervise the tie-up, and find out what mission he's on. But no one is to board the Orion, and no one is to speak to anyone on board the Argonis without my express permission.”
“Yes, sir,” said the young officer. After saluting, he left the bridge.
On the bridge of the Freedom, the crew had been waiting with bated breath. When Hansola's word ‘fine’ echoed through the ship's speakers, there was a collective sigh of relief. The bait had been cast, and the fish had bitten. Now all that was left to do was to put a daring plan into action. That shouldn't be a problem, Lucia mused wryly.
“How do we proceed now?” she said, turning to Kabi.
Kabi quickly recounted his plan, keeping instructions simple and brief, and finished with a warning. “We must not underestimate this Lord Hansola. He was the youngest Mageling ever to become a fully fledged Magi Lord. His powers are said to be second only to those of the Supreme Emperor himself. I have planned carefully so that we shall avoid meeting Hansola. But if we should, I want you to leave him to me.”
Benho coughed, and the others turned to him. His face reddened, but he was determined as he said: “I wish to go with the assault team. I wish to re-acquaint myself with Lord Hansola.”
Maicee stared at his friend in disbelief. “You know Hansola?”
Benho's green eyes burned, and his jaw muscles tensed. He had a vow to keep and hadn't expected his opportunity to come so soon. But now that it had, he wasn't going to let it slip through his fingers. Even if that meant revealing a small sliver of his past to those around him.
“Hansola killed my mother,” he said, his voice barely audible.
Maicee was about to speak, but Kabi threatened him with a glare. Now was not the time to discuss Benho's history. He knew little about the boy, but he knew vengeance when he saw it, and also knew that vengeance would not be stopped. If he didn't allow the boy to come with him, then Benho would find a way to face Hansola alone. It would be better all around if he was on the assault team, where Kabi could keep an eye on him.
“It will be dangerous,” Kabi said, looking at Benho.
“I understand,” Benho said, looking Kabi straight in the eye. “But I have waited long for this, and I will not be deterred.”
Maicee shook his head slightly. This was not the Benho he knew. Something had passed between Kabi and Benho, and he didn't know what it was. But he saw that Kabi understood far more than he did, so he was not surprised when his guardian nodded.
“Fine. But you will follow my plans,” he said.
Benho bit his lip but bowed in assent.
“I will lead an assault team on board the Argoni, which will tie up alongside the Orion. A bomb will be placed that will detonate on the Argoni at the given time and will hopefully cause enough confusion to allow us to board the Orion unnoticed. We rescue Princess Ausanne and leave the ship immediately. Understood?”
The others nodded, but Kabi looked again at Benho.
“The one and only priority of this mission is to save the princess,” he restated.
Benho closed his eyes but then nodded in agreement.
“Maicee, Benho, Lucia, and I will go aboard the Argoni. Bettie will remain here as contact person on the Freedom,” Kabi said.
“Should we fail,” Lucia said, turning to her first officer, “it is up to you to get Niku and her data disk to Britannia. Whatever the cost, you will act under orders. You will make no attempt to come to the aid of the assault team once the Argoni has set sail. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Captain,” said Bettie, her hand trembling slightly as she saluted. “Orders received and understood.”
The battle cruiser Argoni powered down its engines as it neared the massive, hulking shadow of the Orion. The dreadnought was almost twice the size of the cruiser and sailed slowly as she approached. Signal lights from the Orion guided the smaller vessel safely to the leeward side of the ship, until the Argoni was close enough to tie up alongside her sister.
The hatch of the Argoni opened, revealing an officer in the standard Imperial Navy uniform. The first officer of the Orion raised his hand, and in one synchronised movement the Black Knights surrounding him lifted their weapons.
“What is the meaning of this?” asked Maicee, the naval uniform uncomfortable and starting to scratch at his skin.
“I am Major Jansen, first officer of the Supreme Emperor's dreadnought Orion,” said the man, arrogantly. “I am under orders from Lord Hansola that no member of the crew of the Argoni should be allowed to board the Orion. I hope I have made myself clear.”
Crystal clear, thought Maicee to himself, but he forced a small smile onto his face as he saluted. “Loud and clear, sir,” he said.
“Excellent, I'm glad we have an understanding.” Jansen turned to leave but then swung back to add, almost as an afterthought: “My men will kill anyone who emerges from that hatch.” He gave a curt nod and walked away, leaving the Black Knights still pointing their bolt blasters at Maicee.
Maicee went back into the Argoni, cursing Jansen under his breath.
“You did well,” said Kabi, noticing his return and the anger on his face. “You were the only one I could trust to go out there and not lose his temper.”
“Arrogant bastard,” said Maicee.
“As are all Black Knights,” Kabi said with a smile. “It will be their arrogance that will be their downfall.” He patted Maicee's shoulder. “And now, you shall have an interminable wait until nightfall.”
Maicee groaned. Piracy seemed like an awful lot of waiting and not much action. If he'd have known what was coming, he might have been grateful for the few hours of quiet rest.
Maicee didn't know what Kabi had done or how he had done it. All he knew was that the bomb was on board the Argoni and waiting to be detonated. He had a sneaky suspicion that this all had to do with the mental tricks that Kabi had shown him when he was disarming the bomb on board the Freedom, but he said nothing.
Benho was pacing. He was worried, though he said nothing. His moment was going to come this night—he was sure of it. And he wanted to speak to no one. He rebuffed conversation even with Maicee, who, far from being offended, had simply retreated, understanding that Benho needed to be alone with his thoughts. And they were terrible, unspeakable thoughts, ones that he had dwelled on for too long. Tonight, though, tonight he would vanquish them forever.
Nightfall came quickly. The thin slice of moon hung in the sky, trying hard to illuminate the darkness of the sea. The waves were calm, the night silent except for the soft splashing of water on the hull. And still they waited.
It was long after midnight when Kabi nodded. There was an occasional patrol of Black Knights circling the decks of the Orion, but most of the dreadnought’s crew seemed to be sleeping. It was time. He raised a questioning eyebrow at Lucia, who nodded in return. She too agreed that now was the hour. Closing his eyes for a moment to centre himself, Kabi reached down to his chronos and placed his finger on a red icon to the left of the clock face.
A deep explosion echoed through the Argoni, continuing to grumble for a few moments after the initial blast.
“Blowing up the ship that we're currently on seems somewhat counterintuitive,” said Maicee, still waiting as he knew he must.
“A damn sight easier than blowing up the Orion and possibly taking the princess with it,” observed Kabi, reaching for his chronos a second time. “Besides, it's certainly going to be a distraction.”
He pressed the red icon again, and a second explosion rocked through the Argoni's engine room, strong enough this time to damage the hull of the Orion. There was already a flurry of activity on the second ship, with Black Knights running here and there, and now a loud alarm began to ring.
“One more time, then we need to get going,” Kabi said.
This time the explosion succeeded in creating a large hole in the side of the Orion, one that was easily reachable from the deck of the smaller Argoni. Running out onto the main deck, Kabi quickly bent to one knee and placed his hands over the side of the vessel. Within seconds, a crystallised bridge had formed between the two ships. Beckoning the others and still holding his hands raised, he crossed from the Argoni to the Orion, unnoticed by the Black Knights, who were all still trying to figure out what was going on.
Benho crossed, his heart thudding with excitement, adrenaline pouring through his veins. Lucia unholstered her dagger and motioned for Maicee to cross next. With his hand on his bolt blaster, he did as he was bid, and the beautiful captain followed him.
They emerged in a small cabin, the occupants of which were lying dead on the floor, killed by the blast that had created the unnatural entryway into the ship.
“You have an hour before the entire vessel blows,” Kabi warned them, looking at each in turn. “You know what you have to do.”
Lucia grinned at him. “See you in an hour with the princess,” she said.
“Look after Benho for me,” Kabi told her. “Please.”
“You can depend on me,” she said. And without a further word, she grabbed Benho by the sleeve and pulled him out of the cabin, turning right onto the small corridor that ran below the main deck.
“Follow me closely and don't try to be a hero,” cautioned Kabi as he too pulled Maicee by the sleeve and went out into the corridor, this time turning left.
They ran through smoke-clouded hallways, meeting no one and hearing nothing but the commotion from above decks. They made it down two levels before encountering anything. Once more dropping down a level, they heard the sound of a voice barking orders. Kabi smiled to himself.
“Wait here,” he told Maicee.
Maicee was only too glad to wait. Running through all that smoke had left him with a raw throat and gasping for air. He put a hand to the wall and struggled to regain his breath. Meanwhile, Kabi peeked around a corner and down a long corridor. Seeing three Black Knights, two obviously guarding either side of a door and one yelling at the two guards, he grinned. Bingo. He'd beaten Lucia to it.
Looking further down the corridor, he saw another four Black Knights approaching. A random patrol or maybe a changing of the guard. It didn't matter. Now this, this was a challenge. Thinking quickly, he smiled to himself. Yes, he could get them all, though he'd need both hands to do it. And even better, he thought, I can get all of them without any of them making a sound. A very satisfying challenge.
He closed his eyes for a moment until he found the place of focus in his mind. Once the power was thrumming through him, he opened them again and reached for his dagger. Moving out into the corridor, he lifted his knife by the hilt and threw it, letting it spin lazily through the air until it landed with a thunk in the nape of the soldier who was so rudely barking orders.
All eyes turned to see where the dagger had come from, but Kabi was ready. His hands lifted, his fingers directed just so, he released a bolt of the power. Six small, sharp shards of crystal shot out of his fingers, travelling faster than the eye could see and impaling themselves neatly in between the eyes of each of the remaining six Black Knights.
Not bad, he thought. Not bad at all.
Hearing the thud of falling bodies, Maicee rushed around the corner, almost bumping into Kabi as he did so. But all he found was his uncle, surrounded by fallen soldiers and crystal spikes. His eyes opened in wonder, but he had no time to speak.
“Let's go before reinforcements arrive,” Kabi said.
He made for the door and, as he'd suspected, it was locked. He sighed theatrically and placed his palms just in front of the wooden surface, finding the place of focus easily and letting the power run through him until the once-solid door was a sliding pile of sand at his feet. That was when the screaming started.
“Women,” said Kabi, half irritated, half amused, looking at Maicee.
Through the open doorway, Maicee could see a young woman huddled on a bed and screaming with fear. Not knowing what to do or say, he stood motionless until Kabi pushed past him.
“There's no need to be afraid, Princess Ausanne,” Kabi said. “We're here to save you.”
He raised his hands to show that he was unarmed, though Maicee thought that was a little ironic. From what he'd seen, Kabi's hands were far more dangerous than any weapon he'd ever encountered.
“Come, we don't have much time,” Kabi said, reaching out a hand towards the princess.
It was only as the girl stumbled closer that Maicee saw her properly. She ... she looked almost exactly like the woman in his dream. The woman he’d called ‘mother’. He felt paralysed until the girl smiled at him.
“Thank you,” she said. “Whoever you are. But where are we going?”
“Home,” said Maicee, looking at her and not knowing where the answer had come from but knowing that it was true. They were going home.
“They're coming,” said Kabi, breaking into the silent communication that was happening between Ausanne and Maicee. “I'll stop them. Hurry back the way we came and protect the princess.”
Without waiting, and conjuring a long crystal sword out of thin air, Kabi rushed through the doorway and turned right. Maicee took hold of the princess's hand and pulled her along with him, trying desperately to remember which corridors they had turned down and which stairways they had taken.
Ausanne followed closely, her heart fluttering strangely. The touch of this man's hand had an odd effect on her, and she wasn't sure why. Wasn't sure why he seemed so familiar and yet so strange.
Maicee's stomach dropped as he turned the corner, pushed the princess behind him, saw the huge, towering guard, and drew his bolt blaster all at the same time. Without a second of hesitation, he pulled the trigger, but the guard easily avoided the shot. He went to shoot again, but as the guard got closer, the trigger of his blaster jammed. Gods dammit. Throwing the useless weapon at the giant of a guard, he assumed a defensive position. He hated it when Kabi was right. His weapon was useless, and now he only had his combat training to rely on.
Seeing the boy's defensive stance, the guard laughed and drew his sword. He was easily a head and a half taller than the boy, and he probably weighed twice as much as well. This wasn't going to be a fair fight, but he lusted for blood enough that he didn't really care.
Frantically, Maicee calculated what he was about to do. He was definitely at a disadvantage here. He had one shot, and he couldn't afford to waste it. He waited until the absolute last moment, as the guard's sword was already halfway down its swing before he pivoted, turning his body so that the sharp point of his elbow smashed into the unguarded throat of the soldier. A sickening crack sounded, and the guard collapsed instantly, twitching once before surrendering to death.
Maicee gulped back tears. Both from fright and shock, and because he was trained to save lives, not to take them. Then he hurriedly wiped his eyes on his sleeve, not wanting the princess to see him cry.
“Well done,” said a voice from behind.
Kabi's large hand descended on Maicee's shoulder.
“I have a good teacher,” Maicee managed to croak.
“I saw everything,” said Kabi, turning the boy to face him. “You used your advantage, your brain, rather than your strength. Nicely plotted.” With a frown he noticed the tear marks on Maicee's face. “Don't be afraid of your feelings, boy,” he said gently. “Let them out. There is worse than this to come, I can promise you.”
Maicee, not understanding what could be worse but seeing the empathy in Kabi's face, nodded.
“Now, we have a princess to get home, do we not?” Kabi said, wishing desperately that Maicee would never have to taste the bitterness of battle but knowing that he would.
Two motionless bodies lay on the floor by Lucia's feet. Delicately, she stepped over an arm, attempting to activate the time bomb she had just installed. Benho stood slightly behind her, his eyes curiously skittering around, looking for signs, clues, anything. Lucia clicked a lever and stood back.
“There, that's all the bombs we have,” she said. “I hope Kabi had better luck finding the princess than we did.”
She was about tell Benho that it was time they got off the ship when he took off down a corridor. One second he was standing behind her, and the next he was in full flight.
“The bridge has to be down here,” he shouted over his shoulder.
Keeping the profile of the dreadnought in his mind and mentally mapping where he and Lucia had been in the ship, he knew this was the only direction that the bridge could be in. It had taken him a while to work out, but he knew he was right.
“Come back here!” hissed Lucia.
But he was gone. She cursed. There was no way she'd be able to catch up with him; he was far faster and had longer legs. Dammit. This was all she needed right now. A foolish boy putting his personal needs ahead of those of his companions. Didn't he know he could get them all killed?
But Benho was past thinking. Every fibre of his being was cheering him on, pushing him to find the one he'd searched for, the one he'd hated for so long. His mind was clouded with bloodlust, and he knew that this might be the only chance he would get. Somewhere in the back of his head, he heard Lucia's clattering footsteps following him down the long corridor, but he knew that she was far behind. Good. He wasn't going to abandon his personal vendetta for her, no matter how beautiful she was. He glanced left and right as he ran, looking for a door that he knew he would recognise, his feet pounding on the floor. Just let him find him, let him see him, let him kill him. That was all he wanted, all he'd ever asked for. And all the rest could be damned.
Lucia followed as closely as she could, cursing herself for not bringing a tranquiliser dart. But there was little she could do as she saw Benho turn towards a large, metal door and slam into it, bursting it open. All she could do was stand back in the shadows, waiting to see if Benho would need help, if there would be a way to rescue him and get him off the ship before the damn thing blew to pieces.
The metal of the door bruised his shoulder as he banged it open, but his eyes immediately locked on the man standing on the bridge. Tall, elegant, and familiar, he was flanked by two Black Knights who raised their blasters as the boy stepped onto the bridge.
“Stop,” said Hansola, holding up his hands to the guards. “He's mine.”
Hansola was furious. His blood was boiling in his veins, anger throbbing through his fingers. He didn't know what the hell was going on in his ship, but someone was going to pay. And this young stripling seemed like just the ticket. He needed to vent his anger, and this boy would do nicely.
“Hansola!” cried Benho, sliding his dagger out of his belt and jumping forwards in a catlike attack.
The Magi Lord was surprised that the intruder knew his name, and hr delayed unsheathing his sword for a split second. But he managed to heft his weapon just in time to parry the boy's attack.
“Think you can kill a Magi Lord with that puny little thing?” he taunted as Benho withdrew to prepare another attack.
Benho ignored him, coming in again, slashing and jabbing in his own signature combat style.
Hansola parried, but something in the back of his mind was preventing him from launching a full-force attack on this boy. Though he still brandished his sword, a vague familiarity was growing over him. There was something here, something in the way the boy moved, the way he fought. It was, for all the world, like he was playing with a child, a very angry child. And then he knew.
Benho sneered. “I'm glad you remember me. I am here only to avenge my mother.” He sprang into another attack, dagger hand flying so fast it was almost a blur.
Frowning and barely considering his defence, Hansola stepped to one side. “We need to speak. Stop this, Benjamin!”
The boy continued in his frenzied attack, and losing patience, Hansola lifted his sword and slammed the flat of his blade onto Benho's shoulder. The boy collapsed, groaning, onto the floor. Freed from the effort of defending himself, Hansola took a breath before speaking.
“I did not kill your mother willingly, as you well know,” he said, his voice more gentle than any of the Black Knights had ever heard it. “I was forced to.”
“You should have fought for her life!” spat Benho, trying to control his pain enough to stand and failing.
“I could not defy the Supreme Emperor!” Hansola's face was dark and strange.
“We could all have died together if need be,” Benho said. “But instead you chose to be the Emperor's dog.”
Lucia, seeing that her time had come, silently withdrew her dagger. She needed to end this, though she didn't know what was happening. She only knew that this ship was going to blow any minute and she needed to get Benho out. With a flick of her wrist, she threw the knife at Hansola, who, catching the movement in the corner of his eye, twisted to avoid it.
But that movement was enough. Gathering all his remaining strength, Benho forced his arm upwards, thrusting his dagger deep into the heart of Lord Hansola.
“Benjamin ...” said Hansola, slowly sinking to the floor. Blood bubbled from his mouth. “My son ...”
The two Black Knights, who had watched impassively, not believing a child could cut down their leader, stepped forward, blasters raised, fingers on triggers. Hansola shakily lifted a hand and with the utmost effort caused flames to jet from his fingertips, blasting the guards backwards.
“Go, my son,” said Hansola with his dying breath.
Just as Lucia dragged the sobbing Benho across the bridge to the Argoni, the Orion began to blow. The Argoni was barely afloat, but the others had prepared the life capsule, and it was sitting on the deck, ready to receive them. As the small, transparent globe loaded with their little company began to float away, the Orion blazed. There was a huge roar, and slowly, slowly, the great dreadnought started to sink into the waves, dragging the burning Argoni with it.
The first sun began to rise. On the horizon, the Freedom slowly approached the life capsule.