All her life, she’d dared to challenge the wrath of storm and sea. She was born aboard a ship. She had her first taste of murder on the high seas. Her father told her she was born in a storm unlike anything he’d ever seen, and nothing would be powerful enough to make her know fear.
Her father, she decided, lied to her. She didn’t hold it against him. He was a simple man. He could not have begun to guess at what stared at her in judgment.
She stared back at the myriad figures in front of her. Most of them had higher seats, and she’d have resented being looked down on if she wasn’t afraid of the consequences. Each of them were professors or part of the administration, but she hadn’t had the time to know all of them by name or appearance. She only knew they were not to be trifled with.
A well-dressed man with a wig that looked like rolls of white bread. He barely seemed to acknowledge her presence.
A short, rotund blob of a man with a slice of bread in one hand, and an assortment of rings in the other. Two wicks of fire trailed his every move as he took his seat.
An elderly gent in blue, dressed for weather much colder than anything that was naturally-occurring on the island. She saw him once before, and she decided never to attend that class again.
A lady surrounded by cold mist. Fragments of ice formed in the air with every word she spoke.
She knew Professor Blackspear by reputation. He sat furthest from her, clad in nothing but black, with a hood over his features.
Only one of them was on the same floor level as her. A woman with all-too-perfect everything except for the ugly glasses. Perfecta Magnifica, the Prefect of Admissions. She thought the name pompous. And fitting.
The dragon in human form behind her stepped forward. He was unarmed, but Essa felt vulnerable anyway. “Have you anything to say for yourself?”
The first time Essa Tidesong was honest since she set foot on the Furnace happened when she uttered the words, “I didn’t think I’d get this far?”
“Administrator Haveran, provide a summation of the breaches of the Academy regulations attributed to the accused,” Perfecta asked, speaking Valerni rather than Isay. The intonation was a flawless mimicry of the Senan accent Essa herself had. “For the benefit of all present.”
The only human in the room didn’t think to listen to the summary. She had a clear recollection of how it all happened.
“That’s her.” Blig pointed his meaty fist.
Essa took a look. Luxury ship, but one built to evade pursuers. She guessed it had defenders aboard, but nothing serious. Not much cargo, she guessed from the size. The wind was on its side, and the waves were calmer than they’d been in days. The Red Wench had seen slim choices and Essa was not going to let her first command of a ship end without some booty.
She would not be the first Tidesong in two centuries to return to port a failure.
She looked around at the crew and could taste it in the air. Hunger. Frustration.
“Lower the sails, Blig. We’re going with an arcane approach. Cavi and Nacha best earn their share of the plunder, or there won’t be any at all.”
“Captain, are you sure?”
“Never question me again, Blig. Or I’ll throw you to the sharks.”
He paused, nodded. He understood.
“We don’t want it spooked before we get close enough.” Her eyes were fixed on the prize. She would not return home empty-handed. “Tell the crew to prepare. We’re boarding soon as we can.”
She knew her trial captaincy of the Red Wench would change her life. Essa Tidesong just didn’t realize in what way.
Essa remembered her family, her home.
Three families ruled Sena, the southernmost of the Valerni city-states. The Filligree family involved themselves in the trade of opium, but dabbled in contraband of other varieties. The Sczar family was focused on war, with its extensive army of mercenary companies, but were ultimately loyal to Sena. Last was the Fiorgi family, the admirals that ruled the city’s infamous fleet of pirate ships.
Rametti Tidesong was the fourth in a family that had served the Fiorgi as loyal captains and quartermasters. Her father had taught her how to use a sword, how to survive aboard a ship. No one had been more skeptical of Essa’s plan, which didn’t surprise her.
Her eldest brother, Minari, had been disowned. She still felt shocked that he not only left Sena, but chose to go against the Tidesong traditions. The idea of a Tidesong as an enforcer of the law baffled her.
Her other brother, Cesare, had been a successful captain in his own right. An injury kept him land-bound for a time, but he was determined to return to the sea as soon as he was well enough to walk again.
Sometimes, Essa wondered why she didn’t just throw the cache of documents overboard. Or let highborn blond girl keep them. She wanted treasure, not papers. Even the highest writ of the Siluthian Court had no value as far as she and her peers were concerned. There wasn’t a lot of plunder on that ship, but enough for a first attempt. There was no need for her to take the highborn girl at her word that the contents of the cache were of “great value.” The highborn was not prettier than her, that much she knew. As Haveran continued with his formal accounting of the past two weeks, she wondered it again.
“Thank you, Administrator.” Perfecta turned to Essa. “I believe that gives us all a clear idea of what has happened. From one perspective.”
I lasted two weeks, she thought.
“We let you last two weeks,” the one with rolls for a wig said. “Your plan has not escaped our notice, Essa Tidesong.”
She froze. They weren’t supposed to know that.
“Have you any further say, Administrator Haveran?”
“Only that the maximum punishment be administered to this…pretender. We must set an example for those who think so lightly of our rules.”
“Agreed,” Blackspear said. “No doubt the parents of the lady she stole the documentation from would have a few ideas.”
Then, one of the ones she didn’t recognize spoke up. “I like her.” The blue-haired lady’s voice was calm, with an icy mist coming from her lips with every word. “She shows initiative.”
Essa coughed, loud enough that it drew their attention to her in full. None of them balked at the suggestion.
A moment passed. Perfecta broke it. “Professor Ileosa makes a point.”
The human almost choked on her breath. She was sure that this was beyond her ability to imagine. That meant the situation unfolding in front of her was real, no matter how unreal it seemed.
“I’d like to hear about who she is,” Professor Ileosa declared. “Before we make any decisions.”
The dragons turned in her direction.
“Well…” She paused, considered her next move. “You definitely already know this, but my real name is…”
“Essa Tidesong, I forbid you from going through with this plan!”
“This could lead to the biggest haul in Senan history! We’d be rich enough to buy the city!”
“You overestimate your skills and underestimate the dragons, Essa.”
“Oh please, like those big lizards could tell people apart.”
Her father looked at her crossed his arms. “This is insane. Have you even thought this through?”
“Of course I have!” she shouted, indignant as she slammed her mug on the table. “The real Illiana Verash is Valerni, from one of the Capian holdings. So that’s not a problem.”
“She can’t cast spells.”
“And what if she has a patron?”
“The documents say she paid her way in. Didn’t earn her spot.”
“A merchant’s brat. Easy enough to fake.”
“She might know people in the school regardless.”
It was Essa’s turn to scowl. “Why are you so dead set against this?” she asked. Her cheeks were flush from the alcohol, and so were her thoughts.
“Because this plan is insane! Even if you have thought of everything I could, you cannot possibly account for how a dragon thinks, Essa.”
“I could go there, spend a month or two to get the lay of the place, and plan. I won’t ever be at risk of close scrutiny under a dragon!” she shouted. Her fingers twitched as it gripped the trigger of her pistol. “Then I sneak back here and help our crews plan a raid on the most impregnable treasure vault in Damarand!”
“Yes, yes. It sounds so simple. But if it was that simple, Xabri would have been raided of all its treasure ages ago.”
“Planning skills need work,” Ileosa noted. “But her optimism is amusing.”
“Professor Ileosa, perhaps we should keep the commentary for until after the human has completed her tale?”
“Oh, of course Prefect.” A nod. “Continue, human.”
Dragons, Essa decided, were much stranger than she thought.
Xabri Academy was nothing like she thought it would be.
She imagined a place of stone and ash, one that had been carved out of the side of a volcano by sheer force of magic. She pictured towers and entire cities that floated above the waters through their own power. From all of the tales she was told about dragons, she thought a school run by them would be full of strange and dangerous things. What she found was much more mundane than she dared hope for.
This, she thought, would be easier than she first suspected.
Despite her father’s objections, his was not the final word. She moved on with the plan with the blessing of the Fiorgi admiralty. Admiral Bastilliani Fiorgi seemed especially pleased by the idea, she recalled. Admiral Augus, on the other hand, was more wary and washed his hands of the matter.
More share of the booty for the Tidesong family, she thought.
“Admiral Bastilliani Fiorgi, was it?” one of the other professors asked.
“The one whose ship is the Wicked Witch? Flies a flag of two cutlasses crossed over a bleeding heart?”
“Yes, Professor.” She dared not ponder how the dragon knew that.
“Ah, good. Good.”
The Prefect turned to the dragon. “Shall I finalize the arrangements?”
“Yes.” The professor faced Essa again. “You may continue.”
One week in, and none of the supposedly powerful dragons realized her deception. She kept to herself, as far from any Valerni she could. At no point in time did she think she might be recognized. Her father’s concerns echoed in her mind, though, so she took a precaution. She skipped on some of the more ridiculous classes on the lady’s schedule, like posture or etiquette. It was time better spent exploring the grounds.
Within the first week, she realized a naval assault was a greater challenge than she first thought. The volcanic isles of the Furnace were far from Sena. A full-scale assault would be a massive undertaking and require crossing seas and territories. The chances of an opposing navy taking shots at the fleet was very high.
The isles themselves were sparsely-defended, if one didn’t factor in the dragons. A few cities and settlements, but hardly worth the effort. No, the real prize was the communal trove hidden somewhere on the island itself. An assault had to bypass those, but also account for the odds that those places might provide reinforcements.
Essa had to admit that she did not consider just how many dragons would be on the island. As she walked, she did the numbers in her head.
She estimated that each dragon would require three combat-dedicated ships to fight. Or at least keep busy enough that one faster ship was able to slip past and land. Four ships to every dragon on the island. Five if she wanted to be cautious, and she knew some of the admirals would favor such thinking. Each ship would need a full crew. Gunners, arcane specialists, and any other resources the city-state could provide. Experienced crew, ones that wouldn’t jump ship the moment a dragon breathed fire or dove down. At the same time, the faster ships would need smart raiders, ones that could get in and out quickly.
If her estimates were right, that meant two hundred ships. The bigger ones needed about eight hundred crew, but the smaller ones could get away with less. More room for any loot they could get their hands on. Much of the small islands and client-captains of the admirals would need to join the expedition or be forced to do so.
Essa bit her lip as she realized that killing the students would be a problem. If any of the important ones died, there would be more than dragons for the crews to worry about.
Two hundred ships. Thousands of crew. A journey that would take weeks on the most direct route. A raid on Xabri Academy would be beyond massive, she realized.
Her father’s warnings echoed in her head. “This is bigger than you think it is, Essa.”
“No. Not bigger,” she told herself. “Legendary.”
The sky grew dark, but only for the briefest of moments. A breach caught in Essa’s throat, clogged like she could choke on it. Each time a dragon flew overhead, she felt like she’d been caught. In the shadow of one of those creatures in flight, the pirate turned spy admitted she was in over her head. As soon as the beast passed, bravado pushed out the dread. No harm had come to her, after all. She was careful. Clever.
Not like the Aun fool whose name she couldn’t remember. The last fool to antagonize a dragon, and the price was steep.
“A lack of self-awareness. Not exactly an ideal trait,” a professor noted.
“But with refinement, she could have a keen tactical mind,” said another.
“You do realize she is expecting the assault to be a naval battle,” Haveran noted. “When the island is a natural fortress, with its mountains and terrain. We could strike at her fleet from here without ever being seen.”
“I didn’t think of that,” the pirate admitted.
The one called Ileosa chuckled. Or perhaps it was something else. All that Essa had to go by was the formation of frozen air.
“I wonder how much simpler her plan would have been if she knew to look in the back of the academy charter for a map to the hoard?” one of the other dragons commented.
Essa blinked. She knew it was a trap. She made a note to take the bait later regardless.
Haveran affected an odd gesture. Essa strained her mind to describe it and could only think that it was a draconic equivalent of rolling the eyes, somehow constrained into a human form that lacked most of the necessary anatomical pieces. She saw such things occur more than once, and it was always unsettling to watch each time.
“I believe I have heard enough.” Ileosa straightened herself. “She must not be allowed to get away with this transgression, that much we all agree on. However, it would be a shame to waste her. Xabri Academy has always prided itself on finding those with potential.”
“You believe she has it, Professor?” Perfecta asked.
“I believe she does. Not as much as some of our previous luminaries, mind you. But she has potential.”
“Are you saying you would take her in as one of your scholarship students for the year, Professor?”
“I would if permitted. That is, after all, a matter under the discretion of your office,” Ileosa noted. The form of a smirk was unmistakable, dragon in human form or otherwise. “Little sister.”
Perfecta didn’t flinch, but something about her posture felt ruffled and upset by the comment. Maybe she ought to have taken those posture and etiquette classes after all.
Haveran spoke up. “There is still the matter of her punishment. That matter falls on the decision of this conclave.”
“Please don’t eat me.”
The uproar of laughter sounded more like a roar.
“Child, do you have any idea how unappetizing humans are?” asked one of the professors.
Somehow, Essa felt she ought to be offended by the remark.
“No, no one is eating you. That would be pointless,” Perfecta added, her tone soothing. Calculatedly so. “But I suspect by the end, you will wish we had decided to feed you to something.” The Prefect of Admissions turned to address the rest of the dragons. “In the interest of accommodating Professor Ileosa’s request, I cede to her my authority to pass a third of the punishment on the transgressor,” she said with a quick, entirely too human gesture. “Since Inquisitor Haveran has jurisdiction over matters of internal security, it falls to him to provide another third of the punishment.”
“That leaves the final option to one of our senior members. If it please the Sibilant Lightning to pass judgment.”
It was the one with the rolls on his head, the Sibilant Lightning, pointed at her with his fist. “Your household will be recompensing the victim of the theft of those documents, firstly. And you will cover all of the victim’s expenses for her first year here, from transport to any small fees she may incur.”
Essa ran that through her head, did the numbers. It was a lot of raiding, if what she remembered was accurate. Not enough to break the back of the Tidesong family, but certainly required stretching their reach.
Perfecta nodded, and then turned to Haveran. “Your sentence, Inquisitor.”
“Your ship and crew from the transgressing action are to be surrendered to me,” the school inquisitor said. His gaze was steely and cold, without any trace of humanity. “You do not wish to know what will happen to them. Which is precisely why you will witness it personally.”
Perfecta nodded and turned to Ileosa last. “And yours.”
Ileosa smiled. “You will no doubt think what I am about to say is going to be the lightest part of your sentence. You will soon realize that is an error in judgment,” she said. “You will remain in Xabri as one of my chosen, with all of the necessary fees handled or waived.”
“That doesn’t sound s-” Essa felt the words stop in her throat, as if held there by an icy chill. Her fingertips began to turn blue.
“Do not interrupt me.”
Ileosa paused, and then released the magic. Essa felt her breath return to her, and her body grow warmer.
“As I was saying. You will be given the privilege of studying here, under my patronage. But that comes with a cost. Xabri Academy has standards of excellence that its students must meet.”
The dragon paused, focused the icy blue of her gaze at the pirate. She stepped away from her seat and approached the human.
“You will exceed these standards,” the dragon said. “If at any time I feel you have failed to meet them…may your gods have pity on what little I leave of your precious Sena. And may the Senan people have pity on the arrogant little girl who brought my wrath upon them.”
Essa saw it was no idle threat. There was power in those eyes, the likes of which took centuries to accumulate. Ileosa was capable of what she said, and it would be done with alarming ease. Broken and beaten by a single gaze, she knelt. “I understand, Professor.”
“Good.” The doors to the chamber opened. “Ah, Admiral Bastilliani Fiorgi. How pleasant to meet you.”
Perfecta smiled as the Captain was brought to a window that Essa swore was not there before. “Inquisitor Haveran, if you please.”
Without a word, Haveran pushed Bastilliani out the window. His screams on the way down echoed in the chamber as he fell.
The voices of all the dragons sounded as one. “Do not disappoint us.”
In a blink, Essa was teleported out.
Essa sat in her room, recalled the terms of her punishment over and over.
The price was high. And she saw a sword hanging over her head whenever she closed her eyes, with Ileosa’s hand ready to thrust it into her. She would not let the terms break her. The dragons gave her a chance. She would not disappoint them. Essa Tidesong would become the greatest admiral Xabri had ever forged.
“No matter what.”
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