Kessa Medani looked to the horizon, saw the shadow overhead. Wings spread to blot out the sun as it drew closer, scales of gold and blue. The dragon’s speed slowed as it approached. Wisps of clouds were torn apart in its path, but there was no sense of hurry in its motions.
“A dragon is always on time,” she said. “Its own.”
The crew of the ship surprised her with their calm. Their focus on their work and tasks persisted, even as the dragon loomed overhead.
The creature shifted out of its form in mid-air, mid-descent. By the time it landed on the deck of the ship, it was a human woman with blonde hair and fingernails painted blue. The dragon’s human form was sculpted to the most minute detail, with precise curves and cultivated feminine touches. The only flaw was a pair of glasses that gave a scholarly impression that clashed with the confident seductress the rest of the constructed form had.
Kessa stopped herself from bowing, the realization dawning on her she’d been away from home for too long. She curtsied instead.
“Your form is worse than when you left, Kessa.”
“It is nice to see you again as well, Lady Perfecta,” she replied. “Fifteen years is a long time to not observe the formal courtesies of Damarand.”
“After a decade passed, I began to consider that you might not be returning.”
“Yet here I am. I must admit, I honestly didn’t think what you asked me to attempt was even possible.”
“You underestimate the quality of education Xabri Academy provides.” The dragon glanced around the ship. “I assume your objective was a success?”
“Yes and no.”
“You are contradicting yourself again, Kessa.”
“You asked me to find a way to break the Capian monopoly on trade with the Sea of Mists, while making sure Xabri Academy got a cut for its own coffers. I did that, but not quite in the way you said I should.”
“The Sea of Mists is much larger than the three nations that the Capians are aware of, and I found trading partners outside their sphere of reach. In fact…” Kessa smirked and gestured around the ship. “The patron of this ship we’re on is very interested in making arrangements directly with the Academy, but not necessarily of a trade nature.”
The Valerni girl turned to one of the nearby crew. A young man, wiry but with a look of intensity to his eyes. There was an exchange of words that the dragon didn’t recognize, followed by a slight inclination of the head. The young man left.
“The master of the vessel has arranged for a gift to be presented to Xabri Academy’s administration,” she said. She made a small gesture towards where the young man went. “Kozue is fetching it now.”
“I confess to some small modicum of curiosity on what you found in your travels.”
“You want to compress fifteen years into a single sitting?” Kessa paused, and let out an exaggerated sigh. “I forget. For you, fifteen years is a single sitting. I’ve been away too long.”
Few sailors outside of Capia – greedy, opportunistic, backstabbing Capia, Kessa’s mind insisted – dared the Sea of Mists. The mists that gave it its name sapped and dulled all magic, and that left many ships without means of reliable navigation. Even the proud Senan pirate fleets seemed less than willing to risk a journey. At least, until Kessa mentioned Perfecta’s name. The ruling families of Sena had not forgotten the lessons Essa Tidesong and her endeavors taught them, it seemed.
Perfecta’s plan was anything but. Send Kessa to the Sea of Mists. Find a way to break the Capian trade monopoly. Find a way back. Reap profits from the new naval trade, paying dues to Xabri Academy along the way. Dragons, Kessa decided, had a way of making the complicated simple.
The first part had been simpler than she thought. Arrangements were made with the crew of a Mistling ship. There was a Mistling student brought to Xabri, and Kessa was allowed to board on the journey back. She looked around and saw no other Valerni. No one else from Damarand.
“Captain, how long is this journey?” she asked. Her speech was accented, but she felt her mastery of the Qiang tongue improve each day.
“As long as it is,” was the answer.
Kessa faked a smile. She wasn’t sure if they obfuscated things or if they genuinely had no way of knowing. She didn’t like either possibility.
“What instructions were given to you concerning my departure?”
“The great and noble one instructed us to allow you to depart when we make port in Wan Qiang. From there, you are on your own, Medani.”
“Wan Qiang? Is that the term for the Sea of Mists in your tongue?”
“No. It is the name of our country,” he corrected. “That which you call the Sea of Mists to us is called Akai. Wan Qiang is merely one nation within it, much like your Valerno is one nation within Damarand.”
She had never considered that the Sea of Mists was more than one monolithic culture. An error she was pleased came to light before she even set foot on the mainland. “I see.”
He frowned. “No foreigner, you do not.”
She pushed aside how the word foreigner was spoken like an insult.
“Any dragon from the Sea of Mists could have told you that,” the prefect of imperious demeanor pointed out as the tea was served. “We do make it a point to study our own history, and some of us have ancestors that come from Akai. A few are old enough to have lived there before the Mists.”
Kessa hid behind the tea to resist the urge to pick up her sword and shatter it against Perfecta’s smug, perfect face. The sword was a work of beauty, the design backed by centuries of history. It was too good, too much of a work of art to lose in a fit of incredulous temper.
“Then why did they never tell the Capians they had it wrong?”
“No Capian ever asked.” A sip. Her face was one of formal judgment. “This is excellent tea, and with such a rich, frothing green color.”
“It’s a Rai blend,” the human answered. “I think they use it to keep mystics awake in the middle of long sessions of meditation.”
“Now that is a name I have not heard in centuries.” Another sip. “Do get back to your report, then.”
“Of course, Lady Perfecta.”
Wan Qiang was not where she needed to be, Kessa told herself.
Wan Qiang was vast. It was rich. She saw reams upon reams of silk sold as if it were common fabric. Even the poorest Qiang she saw had a pair of sturdy silk clothing. Gold seemed to flow from the merchants and lords to the traders from Capia. Silver was the preferred currency for most everyday transactions, though. The riches were not what she considered the problem, one year into her mission. Her problem was the Qiang people.
She tolerated the way their language sounded like it was perpetually arguing with someone. She adapted to the lack of punctuation in their written texts or the way they wrote top to bottom instead of left to right. Kessa even allowed their cultural posturing and ideas of being better than any foreign barbarians to slide. Yet, what she saw as their greatest virtue was what sealed her decision. The Qiang would not betray an agreement unless betrayed first. The Capians secured a monopoly on trade from them, and nothing Kessa could do or say would undo that. She had to leave.
She sat in her small apartment and closed the window overlooking the busiest part of the local market. Most of the shopkeepers closed for the early evening, but a few still hawked their wares. Taverns opened. Tea shops and restaurants tried to sell what was left of their stock for the day. The window barely drowned out the sound, but it helped.
She stared at the map, a local one that cost her almost a week’s silver. Not far from it was a set of documents from the Capian trade embassy, stolen and copied in exact detail. That one cost her a month’s pay, and hardly a day passed when the Senan mercenary didn’t think it was worth the cost.
Two other lands were known to the Capian embassy. One was Naga Kuo and the other Shi Xi. Both locals and the Capians kept referencing the first as the ‘serpent kingdom’. The second had limited trade with the Capians, and the documents suggested that a monopoly failed to take root. With no way to make the Qiang budge, she decided to try her luck with their rivals.
The problem was passage. No Capian would take her there, and the Qiang refused to sail into Xian waters. At least, she assumed, not without a great deal of gold to push the sails.
“We could try to go deeper inland, I suppose.”
“Or,” Lucca noted as he pointed to an island on the map, “you could try and do something that won’t require a trek through snake-worshiping jungle and likely get everyone involved killed.”
She turned to him and the cup of tea he had ready. “Have I ever told you I find you indispensable, Lucca?”
“Once every day, Captain Medani. Twice when it rains.”
“I tell you often enough, then.” She smiled and took a sip. “Atryssian tea?”
“It fell off some lackadaisical merchant’s cart.” The older gent smiled, and that was enough confirmation of what really happened. “Have you given the idea consideration?”
“I am as we speak. I must admit, it is a greater risk. The Qiang have not been forthcoming with navigational charts, and the Capians don’t have any for where you are suggesting.”
“Yet where would we be if we didn’t take risks?” She put the tea down and noted the name on the map. “We’ll have to figure out how we can get there first, of course. I imagine the Qiang won’t be eager to just tell us how to get to a potential rival.”
“Don’t the Qiang consider every Akai nation a rival?”
“Which explains why they’re so helpful.”
The dangers were many. Qiang patrols took them for pirates or smugglers. Capian ships eager to maintain their monopoly were easily avoided, but costly when they couldn’t. The shark-hawks that picked off her crew and left torn shreds of flesh behind were another matter entirely. Three years. Six ships. A little under two hundred crew. By the time the Widow’s Wail reached within sight of a Rai port, most of what Kessa had was lost. Of the six ships, only the fastest was still above the water. Of the crew, only a dozen were left besides her. The Senan looked at what little was left of her crew, the hardiest group of survivors, and remembered their stories.
She knew Tomas left Atryssia of his own volition. Something about an overbearing mother. He wasn’t much of a sailor, but he could cook better than anyone she’d ever met.
She also knew Ico was exiled from Siluthia, but never spoke of the cause. He was quiet, but good at keeping track of supplies.
Ionia and her sister Laedia were both from some minor duchy called Valen. One was a good shot with a bow, and the other had a knack for languages. Kessa had a suspicion of what drove the twins into the Sea of Mists. She didn’t like the idea of being right about her guess.
Volio and his sons, Hector and Eldad, were good in a fight. Eldad was worse for wear after as shark-hawk tore off his left arm, but he was still a decent shot with the right. None of them ever talked about their past, but she recognized a thick Sybil accent when she heard one. The trio were the losers of a war of assassins, she suspected.
Amelia Wrien was from Olvinnis. She rarely spoke of why she left, but she clearly had great pride in her origins.
Violet and her husband Severus didn’t talk much, but the wife was a skilled navigator without the aid of magic. The husband had a knack for deciphering the complex etiquette of the local cultures. Severus came from ‘a land with no spoons’ and Violet was a Siluthian exile, as far as Kessa knew. The two only ever spoke Isay, even when alone.
Gaaz Gulghan, an elderly Tirani, proved an adept replacement for Lucca. Despite the man’s age, he was bulky and hardy in ways that put the younger men aboard to shame. Not much of a sailor, but his grasp of the supplies and how to stretch them were invaluable.
Last was Vitto, a Senan exile. She barely knew anything about him, other than that Lucca owed him a favor. With Lucca dead, Kessa wasn’t sure if Vitto was worth keeping around. He had a good swordhand and kept busy by cleaning every corner of the ship when he had nothing else to do, but something about him left her disturbed.
It was not the healthiest crew in the world, but they survived the seas. They made it through the dangers of the waters around Akai. She wondered whether or not they were enough to survive whatever the land of Raikoku had in store.
Perfecta motioned for Kessa to pause. “Have you any documentation on the political and geographical situation in Akai?”
“Some.” The human bit her lip. “But I can’t vouch for much of it. Most of the lands in Akai are hard to reach by sea, and the only inland route I could find involved a trek through hostile, snake-worshiping jungle.”
“And the historical texts of the Qiang are self-serving, I imagine.”
“It’s a safe guess. The Xian and Rai seem less so, but geography means that they’re focused inward, rather than comprehensive.”
“If only there was a dragon there. The long memory could be useful in piecing together a better view of what happened.”
Kessa nodded, silently noting how invaluable such a thing would be. Then she smirked. For the first time, she knew what it felt to have a better view of a situation than Perfecta did.
“This country is dangerously close to collapse,” Gaaz said as he sat down on a tree stump. Not far was the charred husk of the Widow’s Wail.
“That is an entirely too accurate summation of what we know.” Kessa bit her lip, reconsidered the options.
“We have no way to leave,” the Tirani added.
“I am aware.”
“We have lost Severus and Vitto,” the elderly barbarian added, “and Violet may be on the verge of going mad with grief.”
She let out a burdensome sigh. “Again, I am aware.” She poked the small rabbit roasting over the fire and decided it wasn’t ready yet. “And don’t even mention how Eldad is dead and Hector is missing, which means his father is also unavailable.”
“I think the twins are considering leaving on their own.”
“Alright, that one I don’t know.” Another sigh escaped as she admitted her crew was in direr straits than Raikoku. “Still, if you are trying to pinpoint how much of a disaster this plan was-“
“If you would let me finish, Medani,” the barbarian said with a hint of violence in his tone, “I could get to the positive side.”
“There is a positive side to all this?” Amelia asked. The Olvinnian stopped polishing the blade in her hand, perhaps out of raw disbelief.
Kessa turned to face the Tirani. “We are trying to start trade ties in a country that is so very close to total anarchy, losing our crew with every setback, have no way home, and you claim to have found a positive side?”
“Ico and Tomas have found something of possible interest,” Rakis said. He gestured for the Atryssian cook to come forward. “The news should come from you, little man.”
“Well, Captain…there’s a dragon living on a mountain south of here.”
The long, long years were worth it, Kessa thought in an instant. The look of complete surprise on the ineffable Perfecta Magnifica’s face made all of the hardship and losses worth the reaction.
“You had the same reaction I did.”
“How is that even possible? The Mists forced the Exodus upon them.”
“That’s a story I’m not fit to tell, but I can tell you this much. There is at least one dragon that still calls Akai home.”
Long ago, she came to the theory that dragons chose their names based on two criteria. The first was a sense of poetry, something with a flair for the artistic or flowery. The other was pomposity, something that reiterated the draconic belief of superiority over humans. Outliers existed, such as Professor Breadbane or Professor Ileosa. For the most part, however, pomposity and poetry seemed standard. When Kessa heard the name of the dragon’s dwelling was the Spear of Heaven Dojo, she made an assumption.
“Is it just me, or does this place seem a little open?” Tomas asked.
The Senan looked around. The town had no walls, no protecting features. The area was open ground, without any terrain that might slow down an army. Yet it was far from the reach of the capital Fuudo, the only part of the country that had semblance of stability. The town ought to have been a prime target for bandits or ‘tax collection’ from the surrounding warlords. Yet children played in the streets. The marketplace was loud and lively.
“How is this possible?” Amelia asked. “This place has fewer defenses than a newly-birthed babe.”
“A dragon,” Tomas said, with a hint of insistence. “It is the only reason I can think of. A dragon.”
The Olvinnian clutched her head not a breath later. She’d complained of headaches, of throbbing sounds in her head, not long after finding that piece of uncut jade. It did not get in the way of her ability to fight, as far as Kessa saw. Perhaps even made her better, somehow.
The locals looked at the group strangely. Most got out of their way, muttering and whispering as they did. Some of them looked at the Senan’s crew with wariness, alarm. Children hid behind doors and walls when the shadows of the foreigners drew close. The reception was not unusual, Kessa remembered. The Rai had even less contact with foreigners than the Xian or Qiang did.
What was odd was the young man in the robes and loose, baggy silk pants that stood in their way. She assumed it was a man, buy the clothing was the same androgynous silks all other Rai wore. A mask kept the face from view, stark white porcelain.
“You. Are. Expected.” The masked man said in accented Valerni. He paused at every word, as if taking a half-breath to compose the word in his mind before he spoke it. “You. Come. With. Me. Kes-sa. Me-da-ni.”
“How did-” Tomas stammered. “How does he know-“
Amelia frowned, clutched her head tighter.
“I can speak Rai,” Kessa said in the local tongue. The words rolled from her lips with ease, but nails bit into her palm at the slight accent.
“The Master is aware,” the masked man said. “But the Master insisted that I make an effort to greet you in your foreign tongue.”
“Who sent you, then? Who is this Master? I’m not about to follow some masked stranger in a foreign land.”
“To learn, one must first follow.”
The masked man turned around, walked away, and showed no hint of bothering to make sure he was being followed.
Kessa gestured for Tomas and Amelia to ready their weapons. The pair had their hands ready, and followed their Captain’s lead.
The Senan ran scenarios through her head as the masked youth led them. It was apparent they were expected, but the question was how. Magic was impossible in Akai, not since the Mists appeared. Even for dragons, that great power was gone. To her, that meant a magical explanation for their presence being anticipated was out of the question.
Her mind lingered on the possibility of prophecy next. It wasn’t too far-fetched for her to imagine some aged, ancient draconic sage with centuries of scrolls containing future events written down somewhere. Most of it compiled before the Mists went up. However, that idea made her wonder why her crew’s arrival warranted being written down.
The most mundane possibility were spies. She had not seen any indication that the group were being watched apart from gawkers, but that did not mean no one had kept an eye on them. If that was the case, the dragon in the Dojo had greater reach than the myriad warlords she heard of. Kessa wasn’t sure if that was alarming or business as usual.
All consideration ceased when the masked man stopped in front of a wall. The wall was stone and rock, with gaps between large ones filled in by a number of smaller ones. No mortar used, and she wasn’t sure how they managed to implement a wooden frame and door into it. The characters on the vertical plate to the right were unknown to her; she’d neglected to take up the written Rai language, favoring the spoken tongue.
The doors opened of their own accord, and that made Tomas half-draw his saber. Amelia didn’t seem fazed. As if she’d expected it.
“The Master awaits you within,” the masked man said as he gestured for them to proceed inside. “Simply follow the stone path. Tea has been made available, as well as some light sweets.”
“You still haven’t told me who your master is yet.”
There was no change in his demeanor. Kessa imagined a smirk behind the mask regardless.
“Do I need to surrender my weapons?”
“Weapons?” A chuckle followed. “They hardly qualify as that, and even if they were, you would find them useless before the Master.”
She frowned more. The confidence on the border of arrogance was like a dragon, at least.
“Amelia, stay here,” she said. “Tomas, with me.”
They ventured in. Beyond the door was a cobblestone path, wide enough for two to pass with room to spare. On either side were small rocks and formations of sand, carefully cultivated and lined. Kessa only later learned such things passed as gardens among the Rai. The structure within was all wood and sterile, white paper. Easily ruined or destroyed. Also easily replaced. Every structure she saw in Rai was like that, with only a few exceptions for larger buildings.
Hands she did not see opened the doors. Dutifully, she and Tomas left their shoes behind in a small alcove. It separated the true exterior with the interior of the structure. A small thing, but it was polite.
“I must commend you on your punctuality. I had almost expected you to be late by about a year,” a woman said.
The Senan could not make out any physical features. The woman dressed in simple attire, based on the silhouette. A veil obscured anything more.
“You are Kessa Medani. A Senan. One who has been here for far too long, as far as you are concerned, I believe.” A pause, followed by a slight tilt of the silhouette’s head. “And his name is Tomas Alvarez. He does not like that I know his full name, nor is he fond of the idea that this means I know his full tale.”
Tomas’s hands shook and shuddered. “How-“
“Your secrets remain your own. I will respect your desire to keep silent on the specifics,” the silhouette said. “But I must insist you exit. What must be spoken of here is for myself and Kessa Medani alone.”
“If you think I’m about to let-“
“It is not a request.”
The silhouette made a gesture. Something lifted him into the air and pushed him outside in a single moment. The doors closed shut behind him as he exited. At first, Kessa thought it was elemental magic, but the wind was still and the air didn’t move. Not even the candles were disturbed.
“To assuage your concerns, I assure you I am not reading your thoughts. I am, however, privy to a great deal of information about you.”
“Who are you?”
“What you truly seek an answer to is a different, but similar, query.”
The Senan gripped her weapon tighter, tensed herself. “What are you?”
“A dragon,” came the answer. “The last of my kind here in this part of the world, in fact.”
“How do I know you are what you say you are?”
“A skeptic. I almost forgot what it was like to deal with such.” The woman behind the veil chuckled. “Though you would not have come here to see me if you did not think there was truth to the idea.”
Quick as she could, she drew her sword and moved to attack. Her mind gave the order. She felt her body attempt to obey it, but a force she could not see halted her halfway.
“Should I release you, I wonder? I suppose that depends on whether or not you are willing to sit and discuss things like a civilized being.”
“And you are certain these abilities are not magic?” Perfecta inquired.
“Absolutely. They’re something different; something we barely understand in Damarand, if what she said was true.”
“Interesting. Could she have-” The dragon waved the thought aside. “No, best not to speculate. There is no assurance as yet that you encountered one of my kind, rather than someone with the hubris to claim such.”
“May I continue then?”
Kessa stopped, stared at the tea served in front of her. She looked at the color. It was rich and reminded her of grass in the spring. She liked the color. It reminded her of the crest of the city-state she called home, even if she’d never set foot in Sena. She and hers lived in one of the outlying towns under Sena’s influence. The taste perplexed her. It didn’t sit well with her palate, but everyone in Rai had no trouble consuming it with regularity. She took another sip. It was easier than staring at the entity in human skin that sat across her.
“I believe that should be sufficient explanation,” the dragon said. A quick, smooth motion drew a cup to the lips.
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
“Now then, I would like for you to speak of your purpose here.”
“What makes you think I have a purpose here, ancient one?”
“Do not take me for a fool, Kessa Medani.” The tone was flat, neutral. Yet it carried the slightest hint of annoyance. “I am well aware that you have a purpose here. You are no mere curious traveler or wandering exile. If you will not show me the proper respect-“
Kessa felt something around her neck. A force she couldn’t see, only feel. It grew tighter and tighter, and her breathing became challenged. The way her mind interpreted the sensation was like a chokehold, one that had the power to lift her up from her seated position.
“-then I will not show you any respect.” A silent pause followed, and the grip released after. “Now, shall we resume our conversation?”
Kessa fell to the floor with a thud. She nodded between gasps for air. Once she had her breath back and her heart began to pace less, she got back to a seated position.
“I am here to break the trade monopoly and open a new trade partnership with my city-state. On orders from the dragon called Perfecta Magnifica.”
“Ah, yes. The acquisition of wealth. I remember when I once engaged in such an attachment,” the dragon said. There was wistfulness in her tone, but Kessa had no idea if it was practiced or natural. “My distant cousin no doubt asked for a percentage of the gains from this for herself.”
“For the Academy, actually.”
“Academy?” There was a pause. The shadow changed angle, not unlike if a human tilted her head in recollection. “Ah, yes. I admit Sa-bu-ri inspired this Dojo in some small way. My intent is hardly as altruistic as those of my kin who founded Sa-bu-ri, however.”
“The Lady Perfecta wishes to improve her stature among her peers,” the human said. “And the profits from the exotic goods that come from Akai can be a huge boon to the communal treasure hoard.”
“Indeed, if my spies in Qiang are accurate in their reports.”
“You have-” She stopped. “Of course you have spies. You’re a dragon. It comes naturally to your kind to want to know things.”
“Indeed. It is in our nature. Now then, given your intent, I am going to say that you could not find a way to move the Qiang. Their adherence to their bargains is legendary, and also a chain that shackles their movements.”
“Yes. So I ventured here, an island the Capians don’t even acknowledge as existing. I thought I might have better luck.”
“And you find a place that is…chaotic.” The last word was almost spat out, the tone one of disdain and disgust. “Yet, it is also a ripe ground for some trade to occur. The conflict between the warlords is coming, and access to foreign tools may well escalate the inevitable.”
“Inevitable? You want this place plunged into chaos? Into war?”
“Don’t you? War is, as they say, good for business.”
“Yes. But…well, war also makes trade ships targets.” Kessa frowned. She remembered her grandfather’s tales. The short-lived war between Sena and Avernex was military and economic. Merchant ships became rich targets for both sides. “And I think there’s a little more profit to be had if we can sell to the merchants, and not just the lords and generals.”
The dragon took a sip of tea.
“And I don’t think Lady Perfecta would appreciate a war.”
“Neither would I, if it came down to it,” she said. A hint of melancholy was in her tone, her silhouette tilted down as if in lament. “Yet war would be the best way to cut away the rotting parts of Rai society.”
“So you can rise from the ashes and seize power?”
“Hardly. I am ancient, and my view is distant from a human’s. Dragons make for poor monarchs, even as we make magnificent gods.”
Definitely as pompous as a dragon. She took another sip of tea. “I came here hoping you, as a dragon, might be able to help me.”
“I can. But first, I require you to do a few tasks I see little reason to handle with my own personal attention,” the dragon answered, her tone relaxed and dismissive. “I imagine you will require your crew for some.”
One of the twins flashed a wicked grin when her arrow pierced one of the thugs in the eye. It was all the warning the caravan received before Gaaz, screaming death and carrying an ax, rushed out at them. Kessa, Tomas, and the other twin followed in his wake. It was best to let the Tirani deathscreamer wade into the fray first.
As Kessa thrust her blade into the throat of one of the guards, she thought back to her meeting. The dragon Himiko had outlined certain conditions that the Senan and her team had to orchestrate. In exchange, the ancient one would aid in the goal of establishing trade routes.
Gaaz cleaved one of the peasant guards in two, screaming as he moved on.
Himiko had promised her aid. Yet, as Kessa barked orders for the gap Gaaz made to be widened, she wondered what form the aid would take. The question consumed her.
She deflected a blow almost too late.
“Something the matter, Medani?” Amelia asked as she thrust her sword into the back of the man’s head. “You seem distracted.”
“I just realized I have no idea how that dragon intends to help with what we’re trying to do here,” she admitted. She dodged a spear thrust, but made no move to close the distance. “I gather she has influence, but this place is on the brink of war. What could we possibly gain from her?”
The discussion was kept from growing by the sound of more battle. Their attack, brazen as it was, drew the attention of some of the better-trained in the group. Amelia almost balked at the sight of Gaaz being pushed back by the two smaller armored figures he fought.
Kessa nodded, and Amelia moved ahead to support the elderly Tirani. Then she ran towards the twins, who had slowly become surrounded. She cut down two peasant soldiers in her way, carving an opening to allow them to retreat.
“We’re outnumbered!” Ionia shouted. She’d run out of arrows and drew her paired knives to defend herself.
Laedia blocked an attack from a man in armor. He had better gear than the others. An officer, the former pirate assumed.
The sound of crashing and a battle cry caught her attention. She watched as Amelia charged right into the thick of the fray. With every motion, she seemed to toss bodies into the air through force and charged right into the heart of a formation that had begun to take root. Archers scattered. But the Olvinnian was stalled by the officers, the sword forcing her charge to halt.
“Fall back!” Gaaz shouted. Even the impressive charge wasn’t enough.
He hadn’t done anything other than dodge, yet bodies of wounded men lay at his feet or in range of him. Archers fired at him, and he swatted them aside. One he caught and threw back in a single, smooth motion.
“We didn’t have enough time to plan this!” Kessa shouted, a confession of her error. “If you’re going to do anything other than observe, now would be a good time!”
The masked figure chuckled. “Very well.”
What happened next Gaaz described as a thing of terrifying beauty.
The Rai had the same tendency as the Qiang to favor the use of poetic or flowery epitaphs and titles, Kessa thought as she bowed. The man on the dais before her was called the ‘Monkey King’ by his peers and enemies alike. He was given it by the ‘Prince of Hell,’ his late master. The armies, assets, and retainers of the late ‘Prince’ had passed on mostly to this Hashiba Gojo. One look at his facial hair did remind her of one of the native monkeys, and she deemed the moniker accurate. The Monkey King’s battle standard, a monkey carrying a clay gourd, was proof that he thought the same.
“So, it was you who delayed the traitor’s retinue?” a young woman asked. She stood at the left of the Monkey King, the side reserved for those who had political functions.
“I did,” the masked youth said. “But the foreigners helped.”
“Hardly an impressive feat,” a man in elaborate blue and white armor to the right of the Monkey King said. “The retinue was battered from battle, and barely any of the traitor Hidemitsu’s elite guard remained. Had we found them first, it would have been-“
“But you did not find them first, did you general?” asked the masked one as stood back up. The guards tensed, and the assorted ministers let anger flare on their faces at the faux pas. “I could not have done it without them stumbling upon the traitor, but in the end, we served Lord Hashiba.”
The general only allowed a grudging nod as response.
“Though I do wonder why you did it,” the courtier asked. “You are not Rai, and have no say or stake in its affairs, foreigner. And the Dojo has kept far and distant from political matters.”
“The task was placed upon us by the dragon,” Kessa answered. She kept from making eye contact with the Monkey King. “Her reasons are her own. We thought it wise not to inquire too deeply.”
“A wise choice,” the courtier said. The nod of the head confirmed it, or was just show. Kessa wasn’t sure which. “My Lord, it is best we direct our gratitude to the ancient one. This was her doing, and these foreigners mere objects of her will.”
The Monkey King idly fingered his beard. It was a pointed, thin thing. It almost reminded the Senan of a sword. The silence almost started to draw long when he spoke. “Yes, we should send thanks to the honored elder for her intervention and assistance. However, I think we would be impolite if we ignored the foreigners for their part.”
“So, foreigner. I’m told Kessa is your name. I imagine you want some sort of reward for helping me end the traitor who killed my master?”
The former pirate smiled. Even if the Monkey King did not control all of Rai, he had influence on some of the richer potential trading partners. She made an assumption on Himiko’s intentions, and guessed that the comical man was poised to see more fortune in his future.
“Indeed I do, Lord Hashiba.” She raised her head, careful only to maintain a brief moment of eye contact. Show respect, she told herself, but ensure he sees to as an equal. “And it is one that is of potential gain for the both of us, should you agree to my proposal.”
“A proposal, you say?” He laughed. “Bring sake! I’ll listen.”
“My thanks for the opportunity.”
“And that is how I came upon half of what I’m bringing you today.”
“You brokered a trade deal with this Monkey King?”
“When I finally left, he had control over half of the island through force or diplomatic influence,” Kessa answered. “I managed to seal agreements for trade for the richer provincial warlords, as well as the Monkey King. With a little support, he might even unify Raikoku.”
“And you think you can convince Sena to lend that support?”
“For a price.”
“Clever.” Perfecta took another sip. “You mentioned this is only half. I am curious what the other half would be.”
She pulled out a wooden container. Lacquered and with a fine blue glaze. Kessa presented it with both hands, with a reverence to her movements.
“The other half, Lady Perfecta,” she answered. “The dragon Himiko bid me to bring the contents of that box to you personally.”
The dragon slid a faint, glowing hand over it. After a decade and a half away, Kessa needed a long moment to realize it was magic. She almost forgot what it was like to live in a land with arcane energies. After a pause, a moment of consideration, Perfecta retrieved the scroll within.
She let the time pass as the dragon read the contents. There was no hint of any reaction at first. Then, an eyebrow was raised in a gesture too human and too practiced at the same time. Long years away had left the former pirate unsure of what she saw in the dragon’s eyes.
“My, but this is fascinating.” Perfecta said as she rolled the paper and put it back into the container. “And a proposal that will certainly make waves when presented to the administration at Xabri Academy.”
“I realize it’s probably not as important as I made it seem-“
“Remind me, Kessa. How well do you understand draconic script?”
“I have a bare understanding of it, but you always told me my ability to see the nuances in phrasing and position of the characters is lacking.”
“If you did not have such a debilitating flaw, you would see that what you have brought me is more than a mere letter.” Her tone was pleased and a little smug. “But for your benefit, I will summarize the complexities it contains.”
“My thanks for your graciousness.” Kessa avoided letting the sarcasm drip into her perfectly good cup of tea.
“This is an offer of knowledge. She has cultivated a great deal of power that cannot be taken by the Mists. She is offering tutelage in these secrets, for those who are willing to travel to her land to study at her feet.”
“You don’t sound entirely pleased.”
“The price she asks is high.” The dragon waved a hand. She moved to leave the cabin, but paused at the door. “You have done as I asked. You have not disappointed. Excellent job.”
Perfecta walked out. The ship rocked and swayed violently, presumably caused by the dragon taking flight.
“You’re home, Kessa.” She looked out the window. “So why do I want to turn this ship back?”
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