Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Chapter Twenty-four: Indomitable(Part One)



Kui hurried into the wizard's camp at the edge of Rosa, frowning at the surprising amount of activity this late in the night. He evaded one man who was rushing to and fro with a load of bags.

"Who are you, and can I help you?" a young woman asked him as he wandered his way deeper in. Kui decided then and there that he didn't like her, even if he wasn't sure why.

"I'm looking for a Belthor," he said. "Son of Morse?"

"Oh. He's in that tent, over there." The lady pointed. "Might want to come back later, though, stranger. Master Kulkas has called everyone together for the ceremony."

"Ceremony?" Kui blinked, but then the lady was gone, practically skipping through the chaos with a smug little grin on her face. Okay, this was either a very cheerful lady by nature who was nice as could be, or she was someone who needed a chair to the face at high velocity.

"Belthor?" he asked, approaching the tent and looking for something to knock on. He saw nothing solid for a long moment - and then a head appeared through the flap.

"Oh, Mister Ku'uaki-"

"It's Kui," Kui said. "I need to talk to you."

"Will it be quick?" Belthor asked.

"No," Kui replied, as he pushed past the boy into his tent. He glanced around at a surprisingly orderly living space for a fifteen-year-old. "You seem awfully organized."

"I'm packed," Belthor replied, voice moody. "Master Kulkas announced Vivian as his pick this evening. They're getting ready to start the official ceremony now."

"How long?"

"Ten minutes?" the boy guessed. "I'm supposed to stand there and sing Vivian's praises and wish her good fortune and all of that. She's earned it. She got the Garredins' patronage, after all. I didn't get anyone's."

"The glass," Kui said. "Tell me you figured it out."

"What?" Belthor blinked. "Oh, yes. I managed to figure out a way to show it to Master Kulkas without him getting suspicious. He said he knew a ritual to...sort of reset it. So I asked him to." The boy pulled out the shard. "I was going to drop it off tomorrow morning once all this shook out and I needed to beg for a job from Princess Estelle again." He paused. "Is this about her?"

"I think she's in trouble," Kui said. He extended his hand. "Tell me how to work this thing."

"It's, uh," Belthor said. "Well, Master Kulkas let me choose the activation word, and I kind of chose...um..."

"What?" Kui asked.

"Spellweaver," Belthor finally muttered. "Princess Estelle told me to own it, so..."

"And then?" Kui asked.

"Tell it who or what you want to see," Belthor supplied. Kui breathed in.

"Spellweaver," he said, feeling stupid but at a loss for other options, "show me Estelle Marona."

The glass rippled, like it was water. A moment later, it changed...to a view of Estelle's own room, while she talked with what looked like her mother.

"Oh, gods," Kui whispered. "I'm such an idiot. She came home since I left." He wished he could hear what was being said.

"Is that all?" Belthor asked. "I think they're calling me-"

Kui's breath caught as he saw Andromeda produce a gun and shoot Estelle, twice. He couldn't move as he watched her fall to her knees, clutching at her mother's dress...

"We have to go," he told Belthor. "She's in danger."

"But they're calling me-"

"Look at that!" Kui ordered. He practically shoved the glass in front of the boy's face. "She's been shot. She's dying. I haven't a clue if we'll get there in time as it is - the only one who can save her, Belthor, is you."

The young man hesitated. He glanced out the tent at the sound of trumpets and drums, then back to Estelle, lying in her own blood while her mother plucked something off the bed.

"Oh, forget it," Belthor finally said. He handed the glass back to Kui. "I lost the competition anyway. And I'll be a cold, dead corpse before I praise that smug witch to her face."

***

Estelle crawled for the door. She was weak, so weak...her thoughts were disjointed and...and muggy, that's what they were. They didn't make any sense.

She clutched cold, wet sand between her fingers. Her hands stretched out and she caught rocks slick with spray from the wild seas. Estelle dragged herself hand over hand across the beach out of the surf, her face a split mask of concentration. She clutched at her ribs, fighting panic and pain with patience and will...

She reached up and grabbed for the door handle. It was locked, and the mechanism was too intricate for her shaking, nerveless fingers to work. Her strength failed and Estelle collapsed on the carpet, coughing up more blood.

She lay in the sand as waves thundered around her on all sides. The waters would rise, soon. If she didn't have the strength to go on, she could lie here and let herself be swept out to sea again...let herself drown.

What did she have to live for, anyway?

"Help," she whispered into the crack below the door, so low no one would hear her if she were lying at their feet. Up came one of her hands, and feebly she beat on the wood, as if that would make some difference in the world. "Please, help me."

There was no one to help her. Estelle rolled on her back in the sand, coughing up seawater and mud, wiping at her face with the back of her hand.

"Callan," she whispered in her memory. Was it memory? What was real, and what was her fantasy?

Everything that had happened since she'd been cast away on the island was a fantasy. That was the only explanation. She was dehydrated, demoralized, dispirited...she was lying on the hot beach, malnourished and suffering from heatstroke. Jason wasn't real. Vaneer wasn't real. There was no Guiding Light, she'd never returned home...

None of it was real. The only thing that was real...was the looming angel of death over her head...

The door opened. The door to what? The other side? Estelle blinked, trying to bring herself to reality - whatever that was.

"Can you hear me?" someone asked. Estelle frowned.

"Kui?" she whispered. Her hand twitched as she tried to raise it, and very faintly, she felt someone holding onto it.

"I'm here," the Islander said, voice faint. "Stay with me. Estelle, stay with me."

"I can't," she whispered. Someone else was ripping her shirt open, and Estelle couldn't care less. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

Something mattered. Someone. She had to remember...it was...

Luna!

Estelle jerked, convulsively, as that one name shattered all her delirium. Luna.

"Luna," she gasped aloud, making out the fuzzy outline of Kui's face, and someone else...someone... "Bel?"

"It's okay," Belthor said, his voice tinny. "It's okay. Breathe. Close your eyes."

"I..."

"Close them." He sounded firmer than he ever had before. Estelle took a breath and her lids slid closed. Darkness enveloped her world, and she grunted as Belthor put his fingers on the first of her bullet wounds.

"Nerien!"

Her vision turned white, even with her eyes closed. She felt Kui squeeze her hand, and the world seemed to tilt this way and that...Belthor's fingers moved upward to her chest, and he touched her second wound.

"Nerien!"

More white. More disorientation. Estelle whirled and spun in circles, unsure of what was happening or why, distracted by everything...

"Nerien!" What Belthor was casting on now, she didn't know, nor did she care. More white, and Estelle endured...

It was over. She lay on the carpet, gasping for breath, and to her amazement, she found she could move her arm. Estelle swallowed, and though her mouth and throat tasted like blood, no more came up.

"Estelle!" Kui wrapped his arms around her. "You're-"

"I'm alive." She hugged him back for a moment. Then... "Help me up."

"You should rest," Belthor urged. "I recommend sleep and-"

She turned to meet his eyes. She blinked once.

"That's not going to happen," she finally said.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Chapter Twenty-three: Survive(Part Two)



Midnight burst out onto the Rosaline Star's deck, bow in one hand, arrow in the other. She turned left and right, but apart from the screaming Whisper chained up in the hold below, she was alone. Midnight took a moment to slam the hatch to the hold closed, and the Whisper's protests abruptly became inaudible. Hopefully Vaneer and Jason wouldn't execute her or torture her or both for what had just happened, but even if they did, it wasn't Midnight's lookout.

She hadn't put her helmet on, just her armor. She basked in the feeling of the chilly night wind on her face, billowing off the harbor with just a touch of sea spray in it. She drank in the smell of salt.

"Luna," she whispered after a moment. "Luna, Luna." She glanced around. "I have to..."

The file, though - and MacTavish! Midnight swore. There was too much. Too many things she had to...

"Camilla!" a voice shouted, and Midnight froze. She spun around to see two figures approaching up the gangplank, each one in White Hand uniforms. "Camilla, how's the-"

They recognized her. She should have put her helmet on. Midnight dove to the side as both men raised crossbows, and bolts soared through the air where she'd been. Out came her bow and she fired, taking one in the shoulder with a snapshot. Both White Hand discarded their crossbows in lieu of reloading, and on they charged, drawing swords-

Midnight parried with her bow, once, twice. She ducked under a strike and flipped her enemy past her, then went head to head with the second one for a moment. One end of her bow took the man in the face, and he nearly spun all the way around. Midnight jumped, legs coming up as she whirled in the air, and her spinning kick sent her foe flying almost ten feet into the foremast. He slumped in ruin.

"Gotcha!" shouted the other one, his sword coming down mere inches from Midnight's nose. She lurched backward, then spun into a hook that sent her enemy staggering. She clutched her bow-

She cried out as he drove a knife into her thigh. It punched through her armor with some difficulty, and she felt the sense of violation as he abandoned the knife and left it sticking in her. She stumbled a step to the side, but it was only pain.

Only pain. The White Hand's smile faltered as her eyes snapped up to his.

An instant later, with six cracked bones, he soared over the rail and into the harbor below, unable to scream as he clutched his broken larynx.

Midnight clutched the hilt of the knife in her leg. She spent a moment going back and forth on the wisdom of ripping it out and flinging it away very dramatically, but the blood flow didn't seem arterial.

"Leave it in," she whispered to herself. "If you can. Take it out if it gets in the way."

Destination. She needed to go somewhere she could look at the wound, assess its seriousness, and get moving again.

"Home," she muttered. "Kui can fetch Belthor if needed. I can secure the file and warn MacTavish while I'm at it."

There. A plan. She had a plan. Midnight inhaled sharply, testing her leg. Even with the knife sticking out of it, it would bear her weight...even if it hurt. Even if it was stiff.

"It doesn't matter," she muttered to herself. "It's pain. It's only pain." She drew a grapple arrow from her quiver. "Home."

She swung off into the darkness an instant later.

***

Midnight clambered over the rail onto her balcony, setting her bow against the wall as she entered her room. She dropped to a seat on her bed, grabbed her nightdress, and leaned down to stick a hand underneath where she sat.

"Oh, thank the gods," she said as she pulled the Plan Thirteen file from where she'd left it. She dropped it by her side. "Kui? Kui!"

He wasn't here. Midnight swore. She'd have to go looking for him. There was simply too much for her to do - she had to give him the file and send him to warn MacTavish, and then she could go to Belthor and get healed...and then Luna...

"Luna," she whispered. "I'm coming."

She took the hilt of the knife and breathed for a moment. Before she did anything, she plucked the chocolate basket Luna had given her from her bedside table, and put the handle between her teeth.

"Ah!" Midnight grunted as she ripped the knife out. Immediately, she popped her armor open - not just her leg, all of it. She drank in the air on her body as she examined the incision. Against all the odds...it was a flesh wound.

"No artery damage," she whispered to herself happily. "Bind it and be on your way." She took her nightdress and ripped it in half, then repeated the process a few times. In moments, she had a long white strip of fabric, and she wrapped it around her thigh, bundling more material on the wound.

"There," she muttered, testing the leg. "That'll-"

Knock knock.

"Kui?" Midnight asked. She stood. "Kui, if that's you-"

"Estelle, you're awake?" That...was her mother. She sounded very surprised. "I was just..."

Okay, her mother. Her mother could warn MacTavish. "Come in, come in," Estelle said. She slid her armor down out of sight. "Have you seen Kui-"

"He left a little while ago," Andromeda said, entering. She held a purse in one hand, and Estelle frowned.

"Are you going somewhere?"

"I have an errand," Andromeda said. "Luna and I. We're off to see one of the Lords...oh, she's probably waiting for me at the carriage already, I just wanted to see if you were awake-"

"Mother," Estelle said, blinking. "Mother, Luna's not waiting at the carriage, and you don't have business with her tonight."

Andromeda blinked. "Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to lie." She seemed to deflate. "It's just hard since your father died-"

Oh. "Oh!" Estelle raised her hands. "That's fine, that's fine." She forced herself back on track. "I need to tell you something. It's important."

"Me too," Andromeda said. Midnight shook her head.

"No, listen to me. Someone's going to kill John MacTavish. They're going to try and spark a war between the Clans and Nurem."

Andromeda blinked as Midnight passed on the information. That was the thing: her mother had always been very hard for her to read. Blinked was about the only reaction Midnight could see.

"Of course," Andromeda said as Midnight finished. "I'll go to him, I will. This...how did you get involved in this?"

"Later, I promise," Midnight said. "There's something else I have to do, though. And I have to go now. I need Kui."

"Estelle-"

"What?" she asked. Andromeda almost seemed to have tears in her eyes.

"You're so much like him," she finally whispered. "I love you, you know that, Starchild?"

"Of course," Midnight said. "Now-"

"Say it, please."

She blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Please, just...say it," Andromeda urged. "Just so I can hear it. In case..."

Midnight felt herself loosen just a little. "I love you too, Mother. And I know you love me. I always have. I've never doubted."

"My baby." Andromeda was definitely crying now. She extended her arms, and Midnight paused her preparations for one quick hug. "I missed you so much. All those years you were gone."

"I'm here now."

"I know. And that's why..." Andromeda inhaled shakily. "All those years...and I hoped you'd never come home."

"What?" Midnight paused. "Wait, you mean-"

"You spent your life tossed around back and forth," Andromeda explained. "Betrothed on my whim, rushing to the altar with a man you'd never met, twice your age...it was horrible for you. I hoped you'd found freedom and peace somewhere out there, and that you were happy, but that you'd never come back. That way, you could be what and who you wanted to be, my love."

"Mother..." Midnight shook herself. "I need to-"

"And...that way..." Andromeda seemed to brace. "That way I..."

"Mother-"

Bang!

Estelle staggered as pain lit up her midsection. She clutched her stomach, and she felt blood pour between her fingertips. Smoke rose for the ceiling, and her mother's arm wrapped around her tighter. Something hard pressed into her chest, a little higher now.

Bang!

Estelle couldn't scream. She just gasped, blood dripping from her mouth. She stumbled backward, her mother's arm still around her, with two bullet holes in her stomach and chest, her blood soaking through her shirt and dripping to the carpet...

"Shh," Andromeda whispered, stroking Estelle's hair. "I'm sorry, Starchild. I'm so, so sorry." Those tears ran down her cheeks still, and Estelle's eyes widened as she saw a purple tint to her mother's.

"Vaneer," she gasped, glancing down at the silver lantern-shaped necklace around Andromeda's neck. Why hadn't she noticed it before? Why hadn't she...

Estelle collapsed on one knee, clutching at her mother's dress. She wasn't strong enough, though, and she fell next on her back, staring at the ceiling worlds away. Her fingers held only the carpet as she grabbed for purchase.

"The will of the Messiah is unstoppable," Andromeda said, and now her voice sounded deeper, harsher - more like Vaneer's. Estelle coughed blood as her mother stepped over her in a rustle of skirts, casually claiming the file on Plan Thirteen from her bed.

"Let her go," Estelle ordered, managing to catch her mother's ankle. "Let her go, Vaneer. Her and Luna."

"He won't," Andromeda said, holding onto her necklace with one white-knuckled finger. "This world is his...and I'm still sorry. I wish you'd gone to school like I wanted." Her tears redoubled. "I never wanted this, Starchild. Never. But his will is eternal. And you are in his way. It was inevitable."

"Help me, please...for Luna..."

"The only way I can save Luna is to let you die," Andromeda said. Her face worked with some kind of unimaginable pain. Her fingers released, and Estelle saw the gem on her necklace glowing purple to match the tint in her irises. "And the choice is no longer mine, love."

She shook Estelle's grip off with the tiniest of motions. She watched her mother sweep to the door, pausing only to light the lamp hanging in the center of the room.

"It seems a shame to let you die in the dark," Andromeda said, as she turned the lock. She glanced back at Estelle once, a hand on the door. "I hope you find peace, Estelle. Tell your father I love you both."

Estelle raised a hand with all the strength she had left. It didn't matter.

The door shut behind Andromeda, and Estelle was alone in the suffocating embrace of the light, staining the carpets red as her heart beat her blood straight out of her body.

She'd lost.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Chapter Twenty-three: Survive(Part One)



Estelle turned her head as Tempest reentered the Rosaline Star's cargo hold. She and a team of White Hand warriors approached the bilge grate, and the Gifted woman shoved the heavy blockage Jason had put in place out of the way with the help of two others. Up went the steel thing.

"Out." Tempest watched as her two helpers hauled Luna out of the water. Estelle's sister spat bilge water onto the deck, sucking in gasps of air and shivering convulsively in the cold. Someone pulled the manacle off her ankle, and she shakily rose to her feet.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked.

"Shut up," was Tempest's informative reply.

"Let her go," Estelle ordered. "She's useless to you. She doesn't know anything."

"That's hardly the same thing," Tempest observed. "We know what we're doing, Estelle."

"Then why am I still alive?" she asked.

"Because we might have need of you yet," Tempest replied. "I doubt it though."

"Am I going to see her again?" Luna asked. "Or are you going to kill me?"

"Come along, or we will make you," Tempest told her.

"Can I-"

"Come along," Tempest repeated. "Or-"

Luna turned and bolted. Estelle gasped as she appeared over her. In an instant, she was enveloped in her big sister's embrace.

"You'll be okay," Luna said, almost imploringly. "You're not going to die. You're not."

"Neither are you," Estelle said. "Luna-"

Hands seized her sister. Luna cried out and fought as they yanked her away from Estelle. She reached out, and Estelle did too. Their hands met for one moment.

Then the grip was shattered, and Estelle clenched her fists as a White Hand drove the hilt of his sword into Luna's stomach. She fell to her knees, gasping, only to cry out as the man continued his assault with fist and foot. Her blood sprayed the deck.

"Stop it!" Estelle shouted. "Stop it!"

She got a punch to the face for her trouble, but the bombardment against Luna did stop. Estelle lay atop her prison, working her jaw before spitting blood off to the right.

"If you do that again, Luna Marona, we will kill you then and there," Tempest warned. "Your only chance to survive tonight is to cooperate."

"I understand," she gasped from the floor. "I'm sorry. I'm done."

"Luna," Estelle started, but she broke off when Tempest pointed a finger at her.

"No more from you," the woman ordered. "You, gag her." An instant later, Estelle had a nasty, moldy piece of cloth of a sort whose function she preferred not to think about jammed into her mouth. Tempest nodded. "All right, then. Let's move."

Estelle watched the White Hand follow Tempest out of the hold, taking her battered, staggering, bloody sister with them. Her heart pounded like a deranged drumbeat and her skin tingled with cold electricity.

I'm not going to die, she told herself, driving the thought back and forth. Hell no, I'm not going to die.

Because clutched in her fist was one of Luna's hairpins.

***

"Excuse me, young man?"

"Yes, Lady Andromeda?" Kui asked as Estelle's mother caught him - almost literally - in the hallway.

"Have you seen Estelle?" she asked. "I didn't notice her at dinner earlier."

"I have," Kui said. "She's in her room, sleeping. Bad night last night, you see."

"Oh." Andromeda blinked. "Oh, well, in that case, could you tell her when she awakes that I'd love to see her more at meals?"

"Um. Certainly." Kui smiled as amiably as he could. "I'll pass it on."

"Thank you." And then Andromeda was gone. Kui stared after her. His eyes flicked to one of the clocks set against the wall.

Ten-thirty, he told himself. She was supposed to be back two hours ago. An hour to get there, an hour to be there, an hour to get back. Even giving her an extra hour and a half on top of that, she was supposed to be here half an hour ago.

Something had happened. And Kui didn't like not knowing what it was.

"So, the answer's obvious," he told himself. "I need to find out."

That settled that. The Islander turned and started for the gates out of the Marona Palace, teeth set.

***

Camilla was a Whisper. She was proud of that and all, but somehow, it didn't strike her as Whisper duty to babysit a captive. A captive, no less, who was chained to a crate full of anvils and smithy equipment that Jason Slattery himself couldn't move, and that man could bench-press Camilla herself, and her best friend Becky, at the same time. There was no way Miss Marona was going anywhere.

Camilla paced along the deck of the Rosaline Star, watching the constellations overhead. She glanced around.

"Of course I'm the only one left," she muttered. "Of course. Becky's off with Tempest, doing the Messiah's work, and here I am, the only one who has to sit on the ship while the plan is taking shape." She folded her arms. "I should be with Jason, that's where I should be. It'd be fun." She glanced back at the hatch to the cargo hold. "But then there's this."

Talking to herself wasn't helping. And Jason had pulled her aside before he left and told her that the Messiah only needed Marona in fit condition to talk when he returned. It would be fun to go down there and make Miss Prissy Princess McTraitor squirm and scream, wouldn't it? Better than charting constellations and wishing she was somewhere else.

Camilla descended into the cargo hold before she was really certain what she was going to do to Marona. She had plenty of options. Fire, fire sounded nice. Fire always made people-

"Oh, come on," she whispered as she advanced through the hold. "Did Tempest seriously blow all the lights out?"

That sucked. Camilla went looking for a lamp, pulling out one of her tindertwigs. Amazing things, tindertwigs: the kinds of things dwarves invented were just astounding. Camilla struck one against her thigh armor, and she hummed a sad song to herself as she lit the first lamp she-

"What?" she whispered as she held up the light, looking at the crate Miss Marona had been affixed to. Where once there had been a prisoner, now she just saw a set of chains lying discarded left and-

Wham! Camilla wound up on the floor after that blow, and another came right on its heels, which struck her as unfair. She was already completely disoriented. She didn't need more-

Wham! Wham!

Her thoughts became very disjointed. She could barely think, and the light had gone out in the ambush - and that it was an ambush wasn't in doubt. She almost felt like she was being lifted and set down somewhere...

Click. Click. Click. Were those the chains? Camilla shook herself, but to her growing horror, she found she was fastened down in Marona's place.

Click. Now it was her armor, being opened at the thighs and biceps and chest very efficiently, by someone who clearly knew what she was doing. Camilla's attempt to struggle just earned her a vicious jab to the throat that left her unable to breathe for a moment.

"How did you get out?" she demanded in a hoarse voice when she recovered. No response from the pitch-black hold around her. Camilla swore as she heard someone walking around, knocking things over like they were rooting around for something. "Who helped you?"

Something sprayed over Camilla, something grainy. She coughed and spat, shaking her head as whatever it was got in her eyes. She wished she could rub them.

"The hell was that?" she demanded.

"Gunpowder." The voice was cold, dispassionate. Barely human. "It's coating your arms, your legs...all your skin, really. Your face. It's in your eyes."

"And?" Camilla felt a tingle of sudden fear despite her bravado.

"And..." A hand claimed one of her pouches off her belt. An instant later, flame lit up the hold, and she was confronted by a midnight-haired woman with cold, sadistic brown eyes and a lit tindertwig between her fingers. "And if I throw this on you, it'll burn your skin off, char your eyes, light your hair...and that's the first part. Then the crate you're sitting on catches fire, and it's your back that's burning. You won't die yet, no. That'll happen when, after a few minutes of that, the flames reach the powder stockpile over there and the entire ship explodes. All because of this little flame." The woman leaned forward, putting her free hand on Camilla's throat, with just enough pressure she coughed. "Where. Is. My. Sister?"

"You...won't," Camilla hissed. "Your precious morality caused you to abandon the Light in the first place. You paused your escape from the Garredin house to save one of their worthless nobody guards. You're too soft."

"It's let Luna die or burn your skin off your bones and listen to you shriek so loud you'll wake up the entire city," Marona said reasonably. "Three."

Camilla dropped her head. She swallowed despite the hand on her throat. "A Guiding Light for all mankind-"

"Two."

She inhaled shakily. "You're bluffing."

"One."

Camilla shut her eyes tight. She heard a sigh.

"All right, then." The hand retreated-

"Okay!" Camilla turned her head to the side, for all the good it wouldn't do. "They're taking your sister to the woods. Just past that stupid wizard's camp, right off the main road, where she'll be found quickly. Blame it on the Clan savages."

"Is that all? Where are Jason and Vaneer going?"

"They're going after MacTavish," Camilla found herself saying, while dreading what the Messiah would do to her when he found out about this. "The Clans will blame Nurem."

"Marona, MacTavish," her captor said. "One way or the other, Vaneer gets his war. Where's my armor and gear?"

"Captain's cabin," Camilla hissed. "I've told you all I know, traitor. Are you happy?"

"Certainly." Marona stepped back, and Camilla's breath caught as she lifted the tindertwig. "Catch."

"No, please!" Camilla screamed as the flaming thing landed atop her-

And promptly fizzled out.

"It was flour," Marona said to a very puzzled and relieved Camilla, as she turned and sprinted for the deck.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Chapter Twenty-two: Captive(Part Two)



"Let her go," Estelle ordered.

"Because you asked nicely," Vaneer said agreeably, before shaking his head. "Jason, if you'd be so kind."

Luna cried out as the big man shoved her to her hands and knees. An instant later, he attached a manacle to her ankle, and Estelle gasped when she saw it was attached to a large, heavy-looking cask. 
An instant later, Jason kicked the cask, and it fell down into the water.

"Wait-" Estelle and Luna cried in the same instant, as Tempest picked the captive up and shoved her through the opening into the water. Estelle's heart pounded as she saw Luna's face break the surface.

Down slammed the grate over her. Estelle's sister grabbed at the metal and shoved, but it wouldn't budge after Jason slid another box overtop it. Luna coughed and gasped.

"Where is the file?" Vaneer asked, his voice mild.

"File?" Luna asked, blinking. "Estelle, what are they-"

"Shut up." Jason leaned down and stuck his hand through the grate. Estelle's heart stopped for a moment as he shoved Luna below the bilgewater.

"I...won't tell you," Estelle murmured. Bubbles rose as Jason raised his hand, and Luna's pale face broke the surface, her hair pasted to her cheeks and over her eyes. She clutched the grate tightly, trying to hold herself up.

"Estelle!" she cried, imploringly. Jason's hand came back down and shoved her under. Estelle tore her eyes from her sister to her old flame, and she saw absolutely no emotion in those green eyes. It was all too easy to imagine herself in Luna's place, and Jason giving her exactly the same mercy.

"I will ask a second time," Vaneer said, sounding almost bored. "The file on Plan Thirteen, Estelle. It contains information I require in order to complete my aims. Where is it?"

"I..." Estelle felt tears in her eyes as she watched bubbles breaking the surface. "I..."

Up Luna came again, but this time it was because she was fighting. The water churned as Jason tried to force her back under.

"Estelle!" she screamed, before having to spit bilge water. "Estelle, don't tell him any-" Down she went midword, and Estelle inhaled as she heard thumps from below the water.

"Estelle?" Vaneer inquired.

Tears fell down her cheeks. "I'll tell you! I swear, I'll tell you, just let her out." She looked at Vaneer. "I'm telling the truth...I know you can tell. I'll tell you, just...let her breathe. Don't kill her."

Vaneer nodded. Jason stood, and Luna burst up to the surface again, choking and spitting out water. She gasped for air. "Estelle-"

"My bedroom," Estelle said, almost against her will. "Under my bed. The file on Plan Thirteen, and everything else I've collected about your machinations." She swallowed. "Now let her go."

"That wasn't the deal." Vaneer nodded. "Jason, Tempest, come. We have little time."

"The girls?" Tempest asked. She looked a little pale, but her voice was unwavering.

"Leave them. They aren't going anywhere, and we'll return in a moment." Vaneer turned on his heel, and Tempest nodded and followed him.

"Jason," Estelle whispered. He turned to look at her, and she shook her head, tears scattering this way and that. "You can't believe in this. Help me. Please."

Jason was very still for a long moment. But then he turned, without another word, and followed Vaneer down the hold past kegs of black powder, crates of weapons, and bags of general goods. Estelle watched him leave with a hollow feeling in her chest.

The door slammed shut behind them with finality.

"Who are they?" Luna asked from the bilge. Estelle turned her head to look at her.

"They're...a bunch of crazies," she managed. "I don't...I..."

"You know them," Luna accused. She clutched the grate over her a bit tighter. "What happened?"

"I don't want to-" Estelle sighed. She closed her eyes. "It's not important. We'll just-"

"The hell it's not important," her sister growled, and Estelle paused at the anger in her voice. "Estelle, I think you owe me an explanation now."

Estelle wilted, looking at her sister hanging on for every breath after being tortured in the bilge of a cargo ship laden with explosives and weapons and crewed by a fanatic personality cult dead-set on a bloody war for their own profit, who only tortured her because they needed something from Estelle.

"I..." She swallowed. "They found me on the island, all right? They trained me. As a warrior. They taught me to fight, to plan, to scheme..." she trailed off. "They taught me what I thought was the truth: that Aurora and Ward planned my murder in the first place."

"What?" It wasn't disbelieving, it was simply not understanding. Estelle took a few moments to fill Luna in on the detailed version of her survival and their aunt and uncle's scheme.

"Vaneer's just a psychotic," Estelle said, "but Jason...he was my trainer. He was my friend. He..."

"He was more than a friend, wasn't he?"

Estelle nodded. "I thought he felt the same way."

It was quiet. Estelle studied the bottom of the deck above them, mind cycling over the same thoughts: this is my fault and what am I going to do?

"I went looking for you," Luna finally said. Estelle turned to look at her, and she saw her sister's gray eyes full of remorse in the darkness. "I went to the colonies. Tried to find a ship to take me searching for where you might have wound up. They laughed at me. So I had the idea to ask the local natives for help." She swallowed. "I talked to the local garrison commander. A tough guy, he was. Is. He was a colonel - he's a brigadier now, I think."

"What did he say?" Estelle asked.

"He told me he'd put some people together and we could mount an expedition in a few days," Luna said. "I trusted him. I went to sleep that night thinking I was finally getting somewhere." She shivered, whether from the cold bilge or her memories. "I woke up and saw smoke in the morning. I heard screaming, shouting."

"The Burning."

"Yes." Luna spent a moment in silence. "I hunted the colonel down. I demanded to know what he was doing. He said...he said the natives' land was land we could put to better use than they could, and I wanted information from them to look for you. Two birds, one stone: the colonies expanded into the new land, and there would be captives I could interrogate." She was quiet again for a long moment. "I told him to stop it. I told him to recall his forces so I could try to do damage control. He wouldn't. I ordered him, as the eldest daughter Marona, and he..." She was silent.

"What did he do to you?" Estelle asked, a gnawing horror growing inside her.

"He drew his pistol and asked me if I wanted to be a casualty of the battle," Luna whispered, so low Estelle could barely hear her. "Told me he wasn't intimidated by a palace girl, and my death would be just the right touch on the story he would spin of native aggression, when he sent word home. Asked me what I thought of that. I...I yielded." That one word was full of anguish and self-loathing that Estelle heard loud and clear. "I let him do as he did, and that mollified him into letting me live. He told me if I ever told anyone the truth about what happened, he'd tell them he was following my orders, and his men would back him. He booked me a ship home immediately thereafter, too, to make sure there was circumstantial evidence that would link me to the massacre." She sighed. "Maybe no one would have convicted a princess of anything, but people would have thought of me different. And I just...I wasn't strong enough to take it."

More quiet. Estelle swallowed.

"There was a girl," Luna finally whispered. "She was crying for her parents. Not a street over, I had seen a woman who looked just like her screaming for her child...before some of the soldiers took her and..."

She was crying. Estelle hadn't noticed it until now, so wet were her cheeks already.

"I took the girl and snuck her away with me," Luna finally said. "She's at a boarding school now, down south."

"What's her name?"

"Lulu'aina," Luna said. "I call her Lulu. That's what she calls me, too."

Estelle lay in silence for a long moment. She swallowed. "I'm sorry I got you into this, Luna."

"You shouldn't have told them anything," Luna said. "I deserve to suffer. I deserve to die."

"That's not true," Estelle told her. "Not a word of it."

"We're going to die," Luna muttered.

"No!" Estelle tried to sit up, fighting the chains for a long moment. "That's not true!"

"We are chained in the brig of a ship of homicidal assassins-"

"We're going to be all right, you hear me?" She propped herself as far up as she could, which wasn't far, and gazed at the shape in the water. "Look at me. Look at me."

Luna did, looking like it was against her better judgment. She was afraid, very afraid, and so was Estelle, but she didn't allow any of her own fear to show.

"How are we going to...?" Luna asked in a low voice. She glanced around. "We're trapped, and outnumbered, and-"

"That doesn't matter," Estelle cut her off. "We've got patience, and we've got will. We can do anything with those, Luna. We're not going to die."

Luna sniffed. "Now what?"

Estelle glanced left and right. She didn't see her armor, her bow, her knife, her pistols...anything...

Estelle closed her eyes and breathed, slowly and deeply.

"Now," Midnight said, opening her eyes. "Now, we survive."