Chapter 6: The Choice
“Traitors to the Concord will be executed without reprieve or consideration.”
-The Duty Code
Stephan went back into the rec room.
Quintilla was at the table, except she had changed into a pair of roomy, black slacks and an oversized, white t-shirt. She also wore her hair down—tight, black curls tumbling over her shoulders. Dark rings under her eyes betrayed that she had missed some sleep.
“She likes you,” Quintilla said and sipped at a cup of tea. She shook her head. “Sorry. I overheard.”
Stephan sat opposite her with a sheepish smile. “I hope not. It’s better if she doesn’t get attached.”
Quintilla had a newspaper under her cup. There was a stack of them next to the table, as well, issued by various nations in different languages, dating back several weeks.
Stephan found a couple issues of the Northmark Shield and started flipping through them. He had a lot to catch up on.
“What happened to your hair?” he asked absently while flipping through the pages.
Quintilla reached a hand to her hair and frowned at it. “My hair?”
Stephan looked up. “Yeah, it’s… different.”
“But I…” Quintilla paused. “Ah. I’m Taira Wenezian.”
Stephan frowned. “What…?”
Stephan leaned back and allowed himself a chuckle on his own expense. “Oh, you’re Quintilla’s twin! I’m so sorry. You look quite similar. I just didn’t see you on the ship before.”
“I prefer quiet,” Taira said. She sipped her tea.
Stephan made to stand. “I can leave, if you…”
Taira shook her head. “It’s okay. Your voice is calming.”
Now that he looked at her more closely, he noticed certain differences about Taira compared to Quintilla. Her hands were more delicate, her facial features more tired, her body less athletic and more womanly.
Most prominent, however, was a pink, puckered scar drawn horizontally across her slender neck.
Stephan settled in once more. He wondered idly what such a placid thing could have done to earn a scar like that.
He continued his reading. Hostilities in Zarr had increased. Minister of Glory Bron Silvers was rumored to be replaced by some newcomer called Whittler. The largest common bardoch ever recorded had been brought down by one Ellian Garrow.
Then his eyes caught something different.
‘Diplomatic mission to Elandra is hijacked by Ashlandic outlaws. Ten confirmed casualties. No survivors.’
A short description of the event followed, ending in a list of names. His name was among them.
Stephan clenched his jaw tight. He checked the front of the paper. It had been issued almost two weeks ago, days after the slavers had attempted to contact the Ministry of Glory for a ransom.
He checked the other Northmark Shield copies, frantically flipping through them, but there were no other mentions of the event.
This was confirmation of what he had already suspected. The Ministry of Glory had left him to rot, pretended as though he was already dead. They couldn’t be asked to lift one finger in his service, to pay the ransom or stage a rescue or even inform his family and friends that he was indeed still alive.
Stephan was once more overcome with hot, boiling rage.
He slammed his fist on the table for release.
“Damn it!” he growled between clenched teeth.
Taira jerked in her chair and threw up her hands. She let out a frightened yelp.
A black, inky nothing shot out of her fingertips and grew into a hungry, formless blob. It enveloped Stephan before he could move. Distorted images flashed in black-and-white as if lit up by lightning strikes. A horrible, fluttering sensation wrenched his stomach, and he hurled.
His vomit formed into infinite fractal patterns, a shape defying explanation fanning out before him.
Then, he felt the air on his skin and gravity tugging on him.
He was falling, flipping end over end.
He saw sun, sky, ocean, over and over.
What the fuck is going on?
Stephan’s mind was still trying to process what had happened seconds ago when he hit the water. It slammed against him like concrete, robbed the air from his lungs, and pulled him under.
He swallowed briny seawater, coughed, and took in even more.
His body moved on reflex, kicking and paddling as he tried for the surface. Sunlight played through the water in hazy pillars. The air above beckoned him with heavenly shine.
Stephan breached the surface. He spat water, hacked, and sucked in a sharp breath.
He looked up and saw landing platforms not far off, only a few dozen meters. He spotted the unmistakably clunky form of the Tits Up sitting on one of them.
I was over there, Stephan thought as he struggled to catch his breath. Now I’m over here. It looked like she cast a spell on me. I didn’t hear any words, but that had to have been magic.
Could it be…?
Something sharp sunk into his left leg, tugged at him, and pulled him under.
He was dragged into the clear waters. He kept himself from gasping, struggled to hold his breath.
Stephan saw a sleek, grey shape with its arrowhead teeth sunk into him, beady eyes on the sides of its wide head.
It was longer than him by half, and clearly interested in eating him alive.
The shark thrashed him from side to side and shredded his flesh. He screwed his eyes shut and set his jaw as the pain made him woozy. He was on the edge of passing out.
He kicked with his free leg, found hard cartilage, and suddenly the barbed vice yielded, letting him free.
Stephan opened his eyes as his natural buoyancy had him slowly ascending towards the surface. The water ran red with his blood. He spotted the shark some dozen meters off, rapidly swimming away from him.
Looks like I scared it off, Stephan thought triumphantly. Getting a better look at it, he thought it might be a bull shark, based on its stocky body and broad nose.
The shark made a sharp turn and came back towards him, its body swaying back and forth in an almost hypnotic rhythm. As it drew closer, it bared its giant maw, teeth still stained with fading trails of his blood.
The shark went for his head. Stephan raised his left arm to block. The jaws clamped down on his forearm, sheared through skin and muscle.
What little air was left in his lungs escaped him, but he quickly pressed his lips shut to avoid taking in any water.
The shark shook him up until he could hardly tell up from down, until his left arm was just as useless as the leg.
No one will save you, he thought. No one is going to come for you. No one cares.
Then he found his resolve, his will to live, and he looked the shark in its beady, black eyes.
You have to save yourself this time.
With his right hand, he reached into his back pocket, no easy task while being thrashed like a ragdoll. His fingers fumbled around and eventually found the knife Quintilla had given him.
He drew it, flicked the sheath loose, and bared his teeth in a grimace that was a mix of fear, pain, and rage.
With all the strength he could muster, he drove the knife into the side of the shark’s head. Even though his movements were slowed by the water, the blade pierced the shark’s eye, drawing a small cloud of blood.
The shark recoiled and let go of him, knife still buried in its head. It spun around, giving him a good knock with its tail in the process, and swam off.
Stephan watched it recede, vision growing blurry, as he ascended once more by lone virtue of his natural buoyancy.
He hit the surface and barely managed to raise his head above the water to draw breath. With his first breath came a wail of agony, both his left arm and left leg a ruined mess of firing nerves.
Keep going, he told himself.
Kicking frantically with his one good leg, he pushed himself forward with his arm. He caught several mouthfuls of water and breathed in hacking fits as he struggled to keep above the water line.
A figure showed on the edge of the Tits Up’s landing platform, dark-skinned and red-shirted, and dove headfirst into the water.
Stephan’s strength failed him. He dipped below the surface, tried to come back up, but found that he was too weak, mouth filling with water.
His consciousness was fading, but he was pleased.
I did it, he thought.
For once, he was in control of his own fate.
And that wasn’t the worst way to end his life.
A pair of strong arms took hold of him, firm hands grabbing handfuls of his shirt.
Everything went cold and black.
Stephan woke to indistinct voices and the chatter of birds.
Wait. I’m awake. Which means…
His eyes flickered open and he looked into the face of a woman, wet braids dripping water on his face.
Quintilla panted as she looked down on him, chest heaving, and her lips curled in a smile.
“You sure get yourself into all sorts of messes, don’t you Mr. Lordling?” she said.
Stephan tried to speak but coughed up a bit of saltwater instead. He leaned to the side to cough and ended up hurling. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Quintilla got up and snapped her fingers. “Taira, med-patches! Quickly now!”
Quintilla’s twin scurried forward, carrying a metal case. She got on her knees next to him and opened it, taking out several cloth-and-copper weave patches, each the size of a palm. He couldn’t see what she was doing, but he felt the patches applied first to his leg, then his arm.
With each application, there was an immediate jolt of quick, stabbing pain, which slowly faded and gave way to a gentle warmth that spread throughout the affected limbs.
“I-It was a mistake,” Taira said sheepishly. She swept some hair behind her ear, looking at the ground, her eyes only occasionally darting up to his face. “You startled me. I’m sorry.”
Stephan took several deep breaths as the pain slowly lessened. His eyelids almost flickered shut, but Quintilla snapped her fingers in front of his face, bringing him back to reality.
“Hey, stay awake!” she said. “You need to stay conscious until the patches have done their job, alright?”
Stephan looked at Taira. She was beautiful. The afternoon sun bounced off her dark skin, gave her a fiery radiance that sapped away some of the tiredness.
“You’re an astromancer,” he said, “aren’t you?”
Her and Quintilla shared a look.
Neither of them said anything, which all but confirmed his suspicion.
“You know that astromancy is the rarest of all arcane arts, don’t you?” he asked. “The Concord would pay a fortune to have you in their employ. The power to manipulate reality itself.”
“Or they would pay a fortune to have her clapped in chains,” Quintilla said bitterly.
Stephan shrugged and winced at the pain in his left arm. “Maybe.”
He paused for a few moments, looking up into the warm, orange sky. He checked his breast pocket and found his glasses still folded into it. “By the way, I made my choice.”
Stephan fixed Quintilla with his gaze and beat his fatigue with a wide grin. “I want to join your crew, Captain Wenezian.”
Quintilla grinned back. “I knew you’d come around.” She crouched on the tips of her toes and reached out her hand.
He took it in a firm handshake.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. Lordling,” she said, and her eyes sparkled with a mischievous glint.