The return to the colony happened without incident.
After capturing Boeotia’s merchant ships and staffing them with helots, the pirate fleet had grown from five ships to twenty; though the new crews lacked experience. The Travians filled the captured vessels with their plunder, and then set Boeotia ablaze. One could see the smoke for miles.
The message had been sent, and Mithridates would be pleased.
Thanks to Kairos’ wind mastery, the fleet had escaped Orthian waters before the authorities could mobilize, and now sailed on the open sea under the radiant sun. All in all, the entire raid had been a rousing success, and Kairos let Cassandra direct the fleet while he focused on another matter.
Planning his new colony.
“I believe this spot would be the optimal location to build a city, sir.” Thales expanded a scroll before Kairos’ eyes, having drawn a rough sketch of Histria’s shores. The spot was located right between the crescent-shaped bay where the Cetus kept its trophies, and a small river. “If we dig canals, we could create an artificial delta to supply fields with fresh water, and allow small ships to move inland.”
“We will need to explore the rest of the island,” Rhadamanthe said. “But we cannot build piers elsewhere than on this shore. Otherwise, cliffs make landfall dangerous.”
“It’s also an advantageous defensive position,” Kairos noted.
“Indeed, we could use the cliff overseeing the bay to build projectile weapons,” Thales said, sketching on the map. “They could shoot sea monsters and enemy ships.”
The captain smiled. “I don’t remember seeing [Urban Planner] among your Specializations, Thales.”
“I am an engineer, first and foremost,” the automaton replied with pride. Clearly, he enjoyed this creative process far more than adventuring. “Imagining a town is no different than designing a ship. Each part must improve the whole.”
“However, you must realize my [Monster Lure] Skill will attract monsters?” Kairos pointed out. “Any idea how to deal with this?”
“Besides a thick wall, I thought to outfit the city with defensive traps,” Thales explained. “Otherwise, we could dig lairs allowing domesticated monsters to live inside the city, without bothering the inhabitants. Creatures like your hydra friend.”
Now, that was a radical idea. Some Travian cities had griffin rookeries, and Kairos heard that Thessala had a pegasi stable. But a hydra living inside a city? That was completely unheard of. “What’s your reasoning?”
“Unintelligent monsters are no different than animals. They flee the presence of apex predators. If a powerful enough creature lives in the city and you can keep it peaceful, sir, then few monsters will dare approach the settlement.”
“I suppose the design will depend on what creatures we find on the island?” Rhadamanthe asked, causing Thales to nod in confirmation. “The Cetus might have ruled the waters, but stronger beasts probably dominate the land.”
“We will need to explore the island as soon as possible,” Kairos said. “The resources and dangers we find will dictate our colony’s growth.”
“I will adapt my plan as needed,” Thales said with a nod. “But I believe this is the best path, considering your unique circumstances.”
“Good, because you’re in charge of city-planning now,” Kairos promoted Thales on the spot. “Try to imagine the best capital city you can.”
“Capital city, Kairos?” Rhadamanthe asked, dubious.
“Yes. Our resources may be limited for now, but they will grow in time. Mark my word, Histria will get bigger with time, like a child grows into an adult; from a village, to a town, to a true city.”
Thales couldn’t hide his excitement; as Kairos suspected, likening building the city to creating life had renewed his enthusiasm. “I shall see it done, sir,” he said, before anxiously fidgeting in place. “If I may be so bold, do I have your authorization to try… unorthodox ideas?”
“Certainly, but I ask that you consult me first,” Kairos asked. Thales might be a genius, but his brilliant ideas often lacked practicality. The [Hero] glimpsed at Nessus climbing out of the cargo hold and stepping onto the deck. “If you will excuse me.”
Thales nodded, and quickly started pitching ideas to Rhadamanthe. The wise minotaur would probably keep him grounded, much to Kairos’ appreciation.
“So?” the captain asked, as he approached Nessus. “How are our guests?”
“That queen is more lion than human,” the satyr said, with a hint of respect. “Had to chain her and the little prince to stop her from throwing stuff at us. Andromache is watching over them.”
“You didn’t harm them, I hope,” Kairos asked with a frown. “They’re precious hostages. Though we won’t afford these two any freedom, I want them treated well.”
“I was more worried about them harming us,“ Nessus joked. “Still, she’s easy on the eye. I wouldn’t mind sharpening my spear on her walls.”
Kairos looked at the satyr with undisguised disgust. Sometimes, he forgot Nessus started as a bandit leader before they found him. Did he only think with his ‘little spear’? “We’re not animals.”
“Neither am I; I was just suggesting putting on the good ol’ Nessus charm. Few can brag about cuckolding a king, my captain.”
“And how do you think her husband will react, my shortsighted friend?” Kairos asked with a snort. “It will be difficult enough to negotiate with Lysander as it is. Insulting his honor will only make him a deadlier enemy.”
“Yes, but think of the prestige. Unless you want to keep her for yourself? You did capture her.” Even when the [Hero] ignored his terrible suggestion, Nessus kept pestering Kairos. “If you want to make it ‘legitimate’, you could take her as a concubine. I heard some Travians did that.”
“And that kind of behavior is exactly why neighboring nations despise us.” Come to think of it, Kairos should think of enforcing regulations on reaving in his colony. Outlawing forced concubinage would be a start. “I am not touching that madwoman. Her looks and birth are her only assets, and her culture embodies everything I stand against.”
“Ah, but madwomen are the best lay!”
“I've had enough of this conversation,” the captain declared angrily. “No one will touch Timaea until we’ve ransomed her back.”
“Fine, fine,” Nessus replied with a sigh. “Though maybe it is wise to leave her be. She is a member of the House of Atreus after all.”
“It’s been bothering me too,” Kairos admitted. “Their family name is Atreides. Does this mean that they descend from Atreus of Sparta?”
“A cursed line, rife with betrayal, cruelty, and horrors,” Nessus agreed with a nod. Started by the infamous Tantalus, who fed his son to the gods in the midst of a twisted banquet, the House of Atreus was synonymous with atrocious behavior. “Orestes lifted their curse, and his descendants founded Orthia after the Anthropomachia. Still, the apple never falls far from the tree.”
Perhaps. Still, few families could trace their ancestry back to before the Anthropomachia. Orthia pretended to descend from the ancient city of Sparta, but the [Hero] had mistaken this boast for mere propaganda.
“Kairos, Kairos!” The captain raised his eyes, as Rook made circles in the skies. “Ten ships near the island! Big ships!”
What? Did the Orthian send a fleet already? “Which flag do they bear?” Kairos asked his partner.
“Wolf flag! Silver wolf!”
“What is it, Kairos?” Cassandra joined her captain, upon noticing his unease. “Trouble?”
“Ten Lycean ships are waiting for us near the colony.”
“The Lycean Republic? What are they doing in these waters?”
Kairos had a good idea, and moved to the ship’s front to get a better view.
The Lycean ships quickly came into view as the Travian fleet approached their new island, and dread filled the captain’s heart. Nine were triremes, but the admiral ship was a quinquireme; an enormous warship far larger than the Foresight and armed to the teeth. A small tower stood on the deck behind the mast, to give spearmen the advantage of height, and the captain had his own tent raised at the back. Soldiers in steel armor wore Galea helmets, gladius swords, and sharp spears.
A war fleet.
Most frighteningly, someone was crucified atop the quinquireme’s mast, hands nailed to a plank. A familiar face turned pale, and a once-strong body drained of life by starvation, blood loss, and exhaustion.
“It’s Serras,” Cass said, covering her mouth in horror.
Well, Kairos did warn him. Thankfully for the foolish raider, it seemed the gods had granted him death's sweet release, rather than draw out his torment.
“It doesn’t look like they want to attack us,” the captain noted with a frown, as the Lycean ships did not engage the Foresight. While larger, the Travian fleet was inexperienced and not ready for battle. A naval confrontation would be disastrous.
“They’re sending a message,” Rhadamanthe said, as colored lights appeared above the Lycean fleet. Clearly they had spellcasters with them. “They want to invite you onboard, Kairos. Alone.”
“It could be a trap,” Cass said, immediately suspicious. “They could gang up on you and try to steal your [Legend].”
Perhaps. But Kairos was dubious. If they truly wanted to kill him, their fleet would have launched a surprise attack rather than give them an advance warning. “Ask them why I must go alone?” the captain ordered Rhadamanthe.
Both fleets exchanged signals, and the minotaur translated the Lycean answer. “‘Only Lycean citizens are allowed on a warship.’”
Kairos chuckled. “I see,” he said, before turning to Rhadamanthe, “tell them I accept their invitation. Warn our fleet to wait until I am done.”
“You’re sure of yourself?” Cass asked, her eyes fixated on Serras. “I don’t want to see you join him.”
“Lycean citizens are granted legal protection on the Republic’s ships,” Kairos replied, his [Lycean Education] Skill speaking through his voice. “By identifying me as one, they granted me diplomatic immunity.”
Cassandra didn’t like it, but obeyed the order all the same. The Foresight slowly approached the Quinquireme, under the watchful eye of the soldiers aboard. Eventually, the ships were linked by a long plank; an armored soldier with a lion's fur atop the helmet stood on the other side, observing the Travian with a cold expression.
“Kairos Marius Remus?” he asked, Kairos nodding in response. “Judge Sertorius would like to have a word with you. You may keep your spear with you.”
With one last glance to his allies, the pirate captain climbed on the Lycean quinquireme. The envoy quickly led him to the tent at the ship’s back, underneath which a dinner table and chairs had been set. A familiar, dignified man waited on the other side.
“Remus.” The judge Julius Flavius Sertorius greeted Kairos like an old friend. “I see your raid on Boeotia went well.”
“News travels fast.” The pirate captain frowned. “Far too fast.”
“I have my ways, both mundane and magical. But please, sit. My gourmet Apicius prepared this meal just for us.”
And so Kairos sat at the table, ignoring Serras’ corpse a few meters away. If anything, Sertorius’ eerie indifference was by far his most frightening personality trait.
The meal was worthy of a king; baked, honey-smeared nightingales stuffed with a prune. The bird had been cooked in a sauce of aromatic herbs, grape juice, and rose petals. An elderly slave quickly served him a goblet of wine, to complete the scenery.
“Where’s the rest of Serras’ crew?” Kairos asked Sertorius, as he smelled the wine. It didn’t seem poisoned.
“I had them crucified along the Lycean coast, though unlike their foolish captain, I had their throats slit as a mercy first.” The Lycean Judge said that with the same tone as someone discussing the weather. “I did not lie though; I paid the ransom.”
“Did you get it back?” Kairos asked, as he started partaking in the meal. As he tasted a leg, he realized this was the best thing he had ever eaten in his life. Such a perfect combination of flavors, from ingredients he never tasted.
“Yes, of course,” Sertorius replied with a chuckle, as he ate a wing. “They did not take my threats seriously; they were still debating how to split the money when our fleet fell upon them. The battle was painfully short.”
The judge appraised the pirate captain carefully, as if seizing him for the kill. “Are we good, Remus?”
“I warned them,” Kairos replied with a shrug. He chased Serras and his followers from his crew specifically to avoid this kind of mess.
“Excellent. I would be loath to foster a grudge.” The judge relaxed a bit, but everything in his demeanor reminded Kairos of a shark. The beast could leave a swimmer alone, but the threat of violence was never too far away. “My men told me you planted your hydra flag on the island.”
“Do you know of it?” Kairos asked with a frown.
“No, not until we followed your trail. Powerful magic shields this island from divinations, even those cast by [Hero]-ranked magicians. Do you intend to turn it into a naval base?”
“I would wish you luck, but we both know you will prevail. I am impressed you took a city of Boeotia’s size with such a small fleet. What do you intend to do with Timaea and her son?”
It couldn’t be spies, for none could send information so swiftly. Sertorius had to use magical divination; he did mention a [Hero], though he wasn’t one himself... “Use them as hostages against retaliations.”
“I doubt it will help with Lysander, since he would rather kill his family than live with the humiliation, but Queen Euthenia might be tempted to negotiate their release.” Sertorius returned to his meal, eating with deliberate slowness. “She cannot afford to leave her nephew in enemy hands.”
Lysander’s reaction didn’t surprise Kairos, but he didn’t consider the other members of his family either. “You seem well-informed about the Orthian royal family.”
“I am,” he confirmed, shedding some light on the situation. “The next person in the order of succession after Prince Critias, is Lysander’s brother Antipater. He is a proponent of an alliance with Mithridates of Pergamon against the city-state of Thessala, while Euthenia wants to maintain Orthia's neutrality. Mithridates is an outspoken critic of the Lycean Republic, so we observe the region with great interest.”
“I see,” the pirate captain replied. Suddenly, the puzzle's pieces fell into place. Mithridates wanted Prince Critias and his father out of the way, so he could place an ally in power. “You fear that Pergamon may gain hegemony over the region.”
“Lyce fears nothing and no one,” Sertorius replied with nationalistic pride. “But if Pergamon manages to form an alliance with Orthia, both powers could credibly conquer Thassala. In which case, Mithridates will dominate the Thessalan League for years to come; and if he successfully unites the region under his banner, it will be very difficult to unseat him.”
And most importantly, a united Thessalan League could maintain its independence from other foreign powers. Perhaps Kairos could exploit the situation.
“In any case, if I were you, I would expect to fight an Orthian fleet led by Lysander very soon,” Sertorius declared, as both men finished their meal and slaves arrived to take the plates away. “One far larger than yours.”
“Thank you, but I suppose you didn’t come all the way here to warn me,” Kairos said, as he sampled the wine. “And if you haven’t attacked my fleet, I suppose it has something to do with my mother.”
“Indeed,” the judge confirmed with a nod. “Aurelia is such a charming, intelligent woman. A shame she was born with Lycaon’s curse. She would make the ideal matron. Everything she does is for her house, and for you.”
Kairos looked at the lawman in the eyes. “It’s about her exile?”
“Unfortunately for your mother, I cannot repeal her exile. The anti-werewolf laws cannot be undone for the moment.” Sertorius presented him with a scroll written in Lycean, which Kairos quickly identified as a court decision; the one that banished the Marius family from Lyce. “However, you are no [Werewolf], but a [Wolfblood]; and our motherland has many of them. Although your status is a bit dubious considering your paternal parentage...”
“I am a [Hero], and valuable.”
“Yes. The Republic is nothing if not pragmatic. I can have the Bestial Proscription against the Marius line undone. Though your mother will remain a persona non grata, you will become the leader of House Marius, and obtain a Lycean citizenship; your family’s confiscated properties will be returned to you. You will be able to hold property in Lyce, vote, stand for office, and benefit from the Republic’s protection. All harbors under our control will be open.”
“A generous offer, but nothing is ever free,” Kairos said. “What will it cost me?”
Sertorius answered with a shark-like smile. “I assume your mother taught you about the concept of Lycean patronage?”
Yes, she did. “It is a relationship between two Lycean of different standings,” Kairos repeated his mother’s lessons. “A patron of great prestige and influence takes another under their wing in exchange for loyalty.”
“I prize myself in recognizing future talents, and I believe you will do great things, Remus,” said Sertorius, as he drank a little wine. “We can help each other.”
“In exchange for your support, the Marius line will become a client of the Flavius family?”
“Yes. Besides what my political patronage can bring you, my wife is the daughter of the [Hero] Dispater, the richest man in Lyce; and he is always on the lookout for opportunities. He could supply your colony with funds and resources.”
It was tempting. Mere access to Lycean ports would be invaluable to prepare raids on rival countries, for trade, or to sell raiding bounties; and Kairos could always use more patrons to fund his activities. “This is a generous offer,” said the captain, “but as a would-be pirate lord, I cannot be subordinate to anyone.”
“You will be an ally, not a subordinate,” Sertorius reassured him. “You can carve out a pirate kingdom and rule the sea as you see fit, nor will you install a Lycean garrison on Travian soil. What I ask, is that you show my family loyalty in all matters that affect Lycean politics. Your role and obligations as the head of House Marius will be separate from those of Kairos, the Travian warlord.”
“One will affect the other,” Kairos pointed out. “If you ask for my help in a violent dispute, it is Travian swords that will slay your enemies.”
“Of course, as an ally of Lyce, you will fight for the Republic alongside the auxiliary forces; and if I ever end up captured by your countrymen again, I expect you to free or ransom me back.” Sertorius joined his hands. “But the same goes for us. If you need help, my family will provide it, and we will not interfere in your private affairs. What I want is a powerful [Hero] to call an ally.”
“That is not all,” Kairos said sharply. “Why is your family interested in me? It’s not just my [Legend] or my mother’s charm.”
“You have raided Thessalan shores.” The spellcaster smirked as he took another round of wine. “What have you seen?”
“Division, and weakness.”
“Exactly. And this weakness opens opportunities. I have designs for Thessala, and you will have an important role in fulfilling them.”
“Ah, I understand.” It all became clear. “You want an ally among the Travian people, one who could help against a common enemy. You’re looking for a pirate lord whom you can call a friend... and the other [Hero] in Travia is not one of them.”
“Queen Teuta raids the Republic’s ships, and if she continues we will have to deal with her permanently.” Kairos didn’t need a picture to imagine what Sertorius meant by that. “I foresee that with your recent success, you will gain more prestige in your homeland. Enough to raise a fleet, and equal Teuta’s influence. You are right, Lyce wants a Travian warlord it can work with... and I have the feeling you will be that person.”
“Must I sign a contract, or say an oath?”
“Yes, but I was considering a more binding agreement to go along with it,” Sertorius said, before closing the trap. “You are unwed, from what I heard.”
Kairos should have expected it. “My mother told you?”
“I will be blunt,” Sertorius said with a nod. “One of my sisters, Julia, has recently lost her value as a marital prospect in Lyce. I was even considering sending her away to avoid a potential scandal. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“So you will be killing two birds with one stone,” Kairos said. That man sounded as shrewd as he was pragmatic. “What kind of scandal?”
“Nothing that should trouble you,” the judge replied with amusement. “I will let you ponder this offer, but make no mistake. When we meet again, I will expect an answer. And I will not ask again.”
After the free meal, Kairos returned to the Foresight, and the Lycean fleet left without a fight. Though they left quite the impression.
“It’s a good offer,” Cassandra was forced to agree. “But with big strings attached.”
“Yes.” Standing atop a cliff, Kairos watched as the fleet’s ships made landfall on Histria’s crescent-shaped beach. Former helots and raiders both worked together to install tents and wooden palisades under Thales’ supervision. For now, the colony would be little more than a fortified camp, but everything would come in due time. Scouts led by Nessus would map out their surroundings and report in the dead of night.
“If Mithridates truly wants to get rid of Lysander's line, then he will demand the prince’s head,” Cass pointed out. Kairos only shared the meeting’s details with her. “While Lyce will want him alive to keep the region divided.”
“Do you think Mithridates could unite the Thessalan League?” Kairos asked his first mate, since she was familiar with the region.
“If he wins Orthia to his cause, then yes.” Cassandra crossed her arms, considering the situation thoughtfully. “Thessala is supported by the [Demigod] Talos, but the city lost a sizable part of its fleet in an ill-advised campaign two years ago. While Mithridates has been strengthening his army and recruiting supporters, even inside Thessala’s walls.”
“If he wins Orthia and defeats Thessala, he could unite the entire region under his rule,” Kairos said. “He would gain greater power and prestige. Perhaps even ascend to the rank of [Demigod].”
“Considering his autocratic policies, he would probably remove the influence of all foreign powers in the League.” Cass put her hands on her waist. “We could benefit from his ascension. He needs allies now, at this critical juncture. He could reward us handsomely.”
“Or get rid of us, once we’re no longer useful,” Kairos pointed out. “If he wants to form an alliance with Orthia, he can’t risk us divulging his involvement.”
“True,” she conceded. “If we kill Lysander and his son, we’re no longer useful, but liabilities. Gold buys silence for a time, but a slit throat buys it forever. It’s a risk.”
“What would Mithridates do, if I allied with Sertorius?”
“He would kill you,” Cass replied bluntly. “He wouldn’t send a fleet, but he would have our throats slit. Or make us suffer Pelopidas’ fate by hiring a third party.”
“So it’s Pergamon or Lyce. If we ally with one, we alienate the other.”
She responded with a nod. “An alliance with Lyce offers more tangible benefits, but at a cost. Though we no longer war, many Travians never forgot their ancestors escaped slavery in the Republic, Teuta among them. The same pirate queen who sent one of her captains to join our raid. She won’t take a Lyce-friendly pirate lord lightly.”
“While Mithridates offers funds and work, but without heavy restrictions nor the risk of a backlash at home. If he doesn’t decide to get rid of us.”
“If you take Sertorius’ offer, you just won’t marry a Lycean, you’ll marry the Republic,” Cass smiled. “Aurelia would be proud.”
Kairos chuckled, though his match being a persona non grata in her homeland bothered him. Well, he wouldn’t marry her for her person, but… “I need to think wisely about it. We might venture into unknown territories, and we have more pressing matters at hand.”
“We could always start a bidding war with Mithridates,” Cass suggested. “Ransom our hostages to form a more permanent alliance, including insurance against betrayal. Though I agree dealing with Orthia’s immediate retaliations and developing the colony is our priority. Even selling all our loot through my contacts will take an ungodly long amount of time.”
That problem was partly why accessing Lycean ports interested Kairos so much. Usually, raiders either needed to undersell their loot in Travia, since their people couldn’t afford the full price; or go through the few intermediaries willing to buy stolen plunder. Having legitimate access to major ports would allow them to trade their goods at their real value.
“We need funds to funnel into Histria’s development,” Kairos said. “Do you feel up for it, dear treasurer?”
“So I have a title to go along with the job? Maybe it will unlock a new Specialization.” Cass’ smile faltered a bit. “But I’ll admit, I’m more worried about what your new friend said about divinations being blocked on the island. It means that there’s something to hide. Perhaps something dangerous.”
“Or something of value,” Kairos said, seeing the good side first and foremost.
He couldn’t wait to find out.