In Pirate's Prophecy, Captain Torius Vin has given up the pirate life in order to bring freedom to others. Along with his loyal crew and Celeste, the ship's snake-bodied navigator and Torius's one true love, the captain of the Stargazer uses a lifetime of piratical tricks to capture slave galleys and set the prisoners free. But when the crew's old friend and secret agent Vreva Jhafe uncovers rumors of a terrifying new magical weapon in devil-ruled Cheliax—one capable of wiping the abolitionist nation of Andoran off the map—will even their combined forces be enough to stop a navy backed by Hell itself?
Chapter 3: Prophecy and Deception
Water as dark as a devil's soul slipped past Stargazer's hull. The hiss of foam, creak of wood, and occasional flap of canvas would have been soothing to Celeste if not for the low scudding clouds that blocked the moon and stars. She felt stifled, as if a blanket of ignorance had been pulled over her head. Even the steady, familiar scuff of Torius's boots as he paced the quarterdeck couldn't assuage her frazzled nerves.
Without the stars, I'm blind.
They were following their usual indirect route to Almas, first sailing southeast toward Osirion to avoid any encounter with the Chelish navy, but had yet to make their turn northeast toward their true destination. Unfortunately, with the continuous low overcast, Celeste had been unable to accurately fix their position for several days. She only knew that they were approaching the Garund coast. Dead reckoning put them somewhere north of the Alamein Peninsula, but without the stars, her estimate could easily be off by fifty miles. Even if they missed the peninsula itself, such an error could put them on the unforgiving rocks of the Coast of Graves.
Who names places like that? She stared southward and saw nothing but blackness. Where was the light at Djedefar? Could the monks have let it go dark for some reason? Celeste tried to keep her tail from twitching. Generations of mariners had used the light of the tower for navigation—not because it was a designated lighthouse, but because monks faithful to Irori kept the Stepped Tower lit for their own inscrutable reasons. Had she missed some significant date or convergence of the stars that would signify a darkening of the beacon? Not seeing the stars for two days was bad enough. Approaching an unseen shore only made her more nervous.
Torius paused behind her, so close she could taste his intimately familiar scent on her sensitive tongue. The brush of his hand along her smooth scales eased her anxiety a little.
"Don't worry, love. The mercury in the weatherglass has been rising since sunset. The stars will show themselves soon." The confidence in Torius's voice might have been affected, but it was welcome."
"Right now I'm more worried about rocks than stars. I hate approaching a shore in the dark with no solid navigational fix."
"It's quiet enough to hear surf from a mile off, and we can tack in a heartbeat if we spot the shore. I just want to get a solid position fix so we can set a proper course."
"I know." Without the stars, a sighting of shoreside landmarks was the only sure way to know where they were. "It concerns me that we haven't seen the light of the Stepped Tower. If there's fog on the coast—"
"There!" Torius pointed low on the eastern horizon. "A break in the clouds."
Celeste caught sight of a single star glimmering to the east through the overcast for a moment before it vanished. More gaps in the clouds gave tantalizing glimpses of the heavens, but were too fleeting to distinguish constellations or identify individual stars. Celeste glanced at the rack of hour and minute glasses she used to keep time, and quickly calculated where the planets would be in the sky. Those she could identify even without constellations, but none of them shone through the overcast yet.
Bretheda, Verces, Castrovel ...where are you, my dears?
Celeste floated up her silver sextant in preparation. All she needed was a clear sighting on two of the three planets, and she would have their position.
"There!" She caught sight of Bretheda and raised her sextant to take a sighting.
A glint of red light on the instrument's polished silver caught her eye. At first she thought it was a reflection of the lamp from the binnacle compass, but the helm was behind her, blocked by her body. Lowering the sextant, she stared into the darkness, scanning the invisible horizon from windward to leeward. Nothing. What the... Then she looked up. A faint glow pulsed red through the thick, low clouds directly in front of the ship. Even as she opened her mouth to cry out a warning, the color shifted to purple, and Celeste knew exactly what it was.
"Torius! The Hor-Aha light!"
At the same moment, the lookout shouted down, "Light off the port bow! Up in the clouds!"
The Hor-Aha tower loomed out of the heavy mist not four ship-lengths ahead. Deadly stonework soared hundreds of feet high, a line of white surf frothing about the razor-sharp rocks at its base.
"Wear ship!" Torius thundered. "Sheet in the main! Man the braces!"
"Helm's hard astarboard!" Windy Kate called out as she hauled the big wheel over.
The crew responded like a well-oiled machine. Feet pounded down the deck, and callused hands pulled frantically on lines. Surf rumbled over black rocks a stone's throw off the port side. The deck leveled briefly as Stargazer turned downwind, then the heavy mainsail boom swept overhead with a lurch, and the deck heeled sharply to port as they rounded to the north. The rack of finely calibrated sand glasses and the small leather bag with Celeste's instruments started to slide toward the edge of the deck. She snatched the bag up with magic, and slithered to block the heavier rack of sand glasses with her coils.
As the brigantine steadied on her new course, slipping easily through the sea once again, Celeste watched Hor-Aha's lurid red shift to deep purple, then vanish into the mists in the ship's wake. The ancient lighthouse had once served as a navigational aid and warning for pending storms to Osirian ships, but the light had gone dark ages ago. Only recently had the light renewed, though it now only showed red and purple, the chromatic code for violent gales. Rumors about haunts and curses abounded, and the weather and currents around the spire were unnatural and unpredictable.
"Well, that was close." Torius plucked the rack of sand glasses from Celeste's coils and put it down on the upwind side of the quarterdeck. Nervous laughter sounded around the middeck as the crew settled from the near catastrophe.
"Too close." She put her bag of instruments down beside the rack, and glared down at the chart she'd pinned to the deck. "We're forty miles east of where I had us plotted. There must have been a countercurrent off the Alamein Peninsula that pulled us off course."
"Don't fret about it. I told you we could turn in a heartbeat." Torius caressed her scales and smiled.
Celeste fought to still her pounding heart as she looked to the east. More stars winked in the sky along the horizon as the overcast broke up. "Of course, now I can get sightings, since I no longer need them." She snatched a pencil out of her bag and marked an X on the chart right next to the symbol representing the ancient lighthouse.
"Gozreh's luck." Torius brushed her cheek with the back of his knuckles. "Good eye spotting the light."
"Thank you." Celeste smiled and leaned into the caress. Between her lover's touch and the stars now twinkling overhead, her stress slowly ebbed away. She drew a deep, calming breath and gazed skyward.
"After days of clouds, it's no wonder you're tense... " Torius pulled her close. "I'll leave you to enjoy the stars. We're headed for open sea, so I won't need a fix for the rest of my watch."
"Very well, my captain." Grogul wouldn't come up for the morning watch for an hour, so Celeste tucked her instruments back into her case.
Raising her face to the sky, she took in the beauty of the emerging stars. As the blanket of clouds swept to leeward, the heavens unfolded like a mound of glittering treasure. Overhead marched the constellations of the Cosmic Caravan, the planets scattered among them like brilliant escorts. For a little while, she tried to put aside her worries and just enjoy the view.
Spies... Never had Celeste thought that they would one day be trafficking secrets in a covert war for freedom. She remembered when freedom meant sailing the sea in search of plunder, taking fat merchant ships, stealing their illicit or smuggled cargo, and selling the ill-gotten prizes in Katapesh's dark markets. Now freedom meant fighting to free others, sailing the same circuitous route from Almas to Ostenso month after month, living in a ship full of lies. Glancing at the crew toiling about the deck, she wondered if any shared her misgivings. Torius's choice to get involved in Andoran's covert war against slavery had very nearly destroyed them all, but not a single member of the crew had abandoned ship.
They'll never abandon their captain, and neither would I, but... is this the only life for us?
Panged by guilt, Celeste gazed up at the stars. She often sought guidance in the heavens, seeking answers among the paths of the planets among the constellations. She had faith in the cosmos. It wasn't capricious or vindictive, and didn't take sides in right and wrong, good and evil. Its message might not always be easy to interpret, but the stars never lied. Tonight, Bretheda—the Cradle—shone from within the Stargazer, Celeste's birth sign, which had no immediate significance, and Castrovel approached the Lantern Bearer, which was Torius's. Celeste smiled. She'd never really noticed an increase in her lover's libido when the planet of lust and fertility crossed his sign.
Perhaps I'll start taking data.
The only other planet in the sky, Verces, glimmered between the constellations of the Stranger and the Follower. Interesting... Verces, the Line, signified choice. Between a stranger and a follower? How might that apply to us? The answer was there, if only she could discern it. If I could just see it clearly in the stars, hear it in the song of the heavens.
The celestial chorus sang through her soul...
Celeste blinked. To the east, the sky glowed with the light of dawn. Hours had passed since Torius had left her to her musing. She'd lost herself among the stars yet again, oblivious to the bustle of sailors around her, undisturbed even by the changing of the watch. Damn it... Celeste felt as if a piece of her life had been stolen away, angry at her lapse, but also frightened at her loss of control.
"Where away, and what type of sails?" Grogul's bellow to the masthead lookout rattled Celeste's eardrums.
"Southeast," came Lacy Jane's answer. "Lateen rig. Two masts, but it's too dark to tell the color. She's hull down. Could be a felucca or a galley."
A felucca meant a merchant or fisherman. A galley could be a slaver.
Celeste opened her case and lifted out her telescope with a flick of magic. It was a far finer instrument than any other aboard. "Grogul." She floated the telescope to him. "Do you want to send this up to Lacy?"
"Sure, if you promise not to bite me if it goes overboard." He knew she cherished the instrument, and obviously appreciated the offer.
Celeste knew he was joking, but smiled to show her fangs. "I promise. I haven't bitten anyone in days!"
"Thanks." Grogul turned to his bosun's mate. "Kalli, run this up to Lacy."
"Aye!" Kalli the gillman tucked the telescope through her belt and climbed up the ratlines, her webbed hands and feet sure on the ropes.
In moments, Lacy Jane called down, "Galley! Yellow sails! She's turning north!"
"They're turning to follow us."
"Seems that way." Grogul's predatory grin spoke volumes. He shouted orders to the crew. "Maintain course, but slack the sheets to slow us down a bit. Someone wake the captain."
Celeste looked to the sky, but the light of dawn had already dimmed the stars. She would get no more guidance from there, but she remembered her earlier observations. Verces between the Stranger and the Follower. A choice... As usual, the signs could be interpreted numerous ways. If the ship they'd spotted was the follower, who was the stranger? Or perhaps the choice wasn't between a follower and a stranger, but between fleeing or fighting the stranger who followed them? If they chose to fight, they risked more than the ship and their lives, for they carried Vreva's coded logbook, a repository of secrets invaluable to the Andoren cause. They could never let slavers get their hands on that book.
Torius and Thillion hurried up to the quarterdeck. Snick followed, rubbing her eyes, her sea-green hair sticking up at all angles. She dyed it blue for her disguise in Ostenso, but insisted on washing it clean every time they left port, just like she insisted upon changing the identity of the ship from Sea Serpent to Stargazer.
"Looks like an Okeno slaver, sir," Grogul reported. "Still hull down, but they've turned to follow. I slacked sheets to slow us, and in this light wind, they'll catch up quickly. We should get a better look soon."
"Couldn't you have waited until after breakfast to bellow like a bull elephant?" Snick glared up at the bosun and tried to smooth her hair.
"Sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep. I know you need it." Grogul grinned down at her, showing his tusks.
The gnome made a face. "You should get some, too."
"We could lure them in and take them, Captain." Thillion squinted to the south, his elven eyes sharper than theirs by far. "Unless she turns out to be as big as the Bloody Scourge, of course."
Celeste could only agree. That ship had very nearly been the death of them all.
"We may have to let this one pass." Torius squinted at the sea and sky, obviously gauging the variables that might affect their chances. From his frown, he was also undoubtedly thinking about Vreva's logbook. He turned to Celeste and cocked an eyebrow. "Unless you have some insight from the stars?"
"I don't... " Celeste paused and considered the choice that faced them. Should we fight and risk Vreva's book?
"Yes." The answer came out of Celeste's mouth before she knew what she was saying. She had no idea where the overwhelming feeling of promise had come from, but it couldn't be denied. The song of the heavens sang it loud in her soul, a familiar rightness, just as when she'd considered facing Lothera Cothos.
Everyone looked at her in surprise.
"You do have some guidance from the stars?" Thillion sounded dubious.
Torius had learned to respect her astrological prophecies, but knew better than to ask for specific information. Long experience had taught him that her predictions were fraught with uncertainty, often only becoming clear in retrospect. The rest of the crew still often saw her prophecies as more troublesome than accurate. But this time, she was certain.
"Yes, I have. The choice is clear. We should take them."
"Captain!" Lacy Jane called down from the foretop. "She's hull up! One deck of oars, and she's pulling hard! They're coming after us!"
Torius turned to Celeste. The slaver wasn't so large that Stargazer couldn't take her, but there was still doubt in his eyes. "You're sure?"
"I'm sure, my captain." Celeste reared up, more sure of this than she had been about anything lately. "We should take that ship. Trust me!"
Torius grinned. "I was hoping you'd say that." He turned to his officers. "We take them! Thillion, I like your idea of luring them in. Let's make like we're a merchant fleeing in panic. Grogul, something aloft is going to break. Nothing catastrophic, just enough to foul the rigging and kill our speed. You'll command the main boarding party amidships."
"Aye, sir!" The half-orc hefted his axe and thumbed the razor edge.
"Snick, put the Sea Serpent placards back on, and load your babies with the usual tricks. We'll take them by surprise."
"Surprises are my specialty, Captain!" The gnome scurried off to tend her ballistae. Stargazer would look like a benign merchant until the cunningly disguised firing ports opened and the tips of six of Snick's specialized ballista warheads nosed out.
"Thillion, you and your archers will rake their deck from our forecastle as they come alongside, then board and continue the barrage from their own foredeck."
"Celeste, you, Windy, and the bosun's mates will board aft with me. Once we've cleared their quarterdeck, I want you to rake their middeck with your spells."
"It'll be my pleasure." Celeste's heart raced in anticipation of the battle. Having suffered in chains herself, there were few things in life she enjoyed more than blasting slavers with destructive magic.
"Good! Windy, start steering wild. Grogul, tell the crew to handle the sheets and braces like lubbers. Thillion, pick your archers and stand ready. Remember, we're merchants until the trap is sprung!"
Canvas and tangled cordage flapped in the wind, and sailors scurried around the deck in apparent panic. The slaver was closing fast, near enough now that Torius could read the placard on her bow. The Golden Chain bore a figurehead of a woman bound in gilded manacles and a collar.
"Keep coming, you bastard." Torius lowered his glass and turned to shout panicked orders to his crew. They had to play this right. If the slaver got a whiff of the trap, they would rake Stargazer with arrows and ballista bolts from afar. But Torius had learned how to play on slavers' greed by appearing vulnerable. To traffickers in flesh, sailors were potential merchandise, not to be damaged unless they resisted. Few merchantmen could offer much of a fight. Most would choose slavery over death.
Torius knew better. He'd die before he became a slave again.
"Yaw to starboard, Windy. We're panicked, remember."
"Shakin' in my boots, sir." She grinned at him and hauled the wheel to starboard, her strong right hand working in concert with the hook-and-pike combination that had replaced her left. A slaver had taken that hand some months ago. Already, Windy had filed five notches in the pike for the slavers she'd killed as payback.
"Sea Serpent! Heave to and nobody dies!" The bellowed command from the bow of the Golden Chain brought a cold smile to Torius's lips.
Glancing over his shoulder, Torius assessed their foe. Slavers armed with nets, grapples, and cutlasses crowded the galley's middeck, ready to board. On the forecastle, a ballista crew stood ready beside their engine, but the adjacent catapult wasn't even loaded. There were no archers. There were, however, more slavers than Torius had counted on. He hoped he hadn't underestimated this foe.
"Kalli, ready the colors. I want to scare yesterday's breakfast right out of those bastards!" The instant the slavers saw Andoran's flag, they'd know they were in for a fight, and Stargazer had a deadly reputation in Okeno. "Dukkol, pass the word down to Celeste. Two minutes."
The two bosun's mates hurried to comply, the gillman clipping the flags to the mainmast halyard, and the one-eyed dwarf thumping down the stairs to where Celeste hid inside the sterncastle door. Moments later, the dwarf returned, and Torius heard the rasp of scales on the deck beside him.
"Ready, my captain." Celeste's disembodied voice sounded like music to his ears.
"Good. You know your target."
"Anyone who looks like they're about to cast a spell."
"Right." Recently the Okeno slavers had begun contracting powerful wizards to protect their ships. Torius winced as he recalled the Gray Corsair Gold Wing, sunk by a blast of magic before their eyes. That was another reason he chose to lure their prey in for the kill. Up close, a caster was an easier target. With any luck, Celeste could neutralize the threat before they had a chance to blast Stargazer to kindling.
Torius glanced over his shoulder again, trying to look scared as he gauged the angles and distances between the two ships. He muttered a prayer to Gozreh that Celeste's guidance on this battle would prove true. They were taking a serious risk in this venture. He'd probably catch hell from Marshal Trellis for putting Vreva's logbook at risk, but they did have to maintain their reputation as privateers. That meant actually taking on a slaver now and then. Besides, Torius never tired of killing slavers and freeing slaves. The looks on their faces—the horror of the slavers and the amazement of the slaves—when they realized what was happening made him feel more alive than just about anything else in the world.
"Yaw to port, Windy! Keep them guessing."
"Aye, sir!" Stargazer slewed to port. The slaver shifted course accordingly.
"Sea Serpent! Heave to, or we'll fire on you!" The crack of a ballista backed their threat, but the warning shot flew harmlessly overhead, a holed sail the only damage.
"Don't shoot! We surrender!" Torius dashed to the taffrail, waving his arms in a panic. "Let fly sheets! Helm to windward!"
Stargazer turned to starboard and Golden Chain back-paddled her starboard sweeps to come alongside. Torius scanned the galley's deck, noting the satisfied smiles and laughter among the slavers. That's right, just keep laughing... The two ships closed to barely ten yards.
"I have the caster, Torius." Celeste's voice came from right beside him.
Arcane words flowed, harsh and garbled to the captain's ear. Celeste materialized as lightning lashed out toward Golden Chain's quarterdeck. The bolt struck a robed woman there, blasting her to the deck in a flutter of smoldering cloaks.
"Stargazer!" Torius drew his sword and thrust it high, the familiar rush of adrenaline surging through his veins.
Two flags flew up the mainmast, the golden eagle of Andoran on a blue-and-gray shield, and directly beneath it, Stargazer's own long black-and-silver pennant bearing a serpentine silhouette of a naga with flowing white hair. Thillion's archers leapt up from hiding to rake the galley's forecastle with a deadly volley. The crew of the enemy ballista fell, riddled with arrows. Stargazer's deck shuddered beneath Torius's feet as six ballistae cracked in perfect unison. The bolts cleared the galley's rail by mere inches, and the triggering tethers came taut, detonating the ceramic warheads. Blue-white liquid splashed forth onto the astonished slavers, encasing them in freezing alchemical ice. Grogul and his boarders boiled up from the main hatchway, heaving grapples to pull the two ships closer.
"Celeste, Dukkol, Windy, Kalli, with me!" The helmswoman and bosun's mates drew weapons and ran with him to the rail, but Celeste didn't move. When he glanced back, she just stared at him with a questioning look. "Come on!"
"Que towlre nokta?" Celeste gaped at him wide-eyed.
Torius stared at Celeste, trying to interpret what she'd said. "Celeste! Come on!"
She blinked at him, uncomprehending, and spoke again, but her words came out as a string of gibberish.
What the hell language is she speaking?
The two ships met with a crash. Torius couldn't wait, even for her. He leapt the rail onto the enemy quarterdeck, parrying a pike thrust even before his feet touched the deck. Windy gutted the pikeman as she landed beside him, and parried a cutlass with her hook. Kalli lunged to skewer a slaver officer through the neck with her rapier. Dukkol bellowed a curse as he took a pike in the leg, but his axe clove through his opponent's arms in riposte. More slavers closed in on them, pressing them hard. Torius parried wildly, glimpsing the slaver captain beyond the flashing blades. The officer knelt over the smoldering form of the fallen wizard, a blue glass bottle in one hand. The caster reached up for the bottle with one charred hand.
"The caster's still alive!" The Stargazers were holding their own so far, but if the slaver captain healed the wizard, they'd be in trouble. "Celeste!"
Torius couldn't break through the flashing blades before him, but the answering crackle of lightning was all he'd hoped for. The bolt caught both the wizard and the captain in its fury. The caster was reduced to a smoldering corpse, but the captain rolled to his feet and drew a pair of hooked silvery hand axes from his belt. Ignoring the smoke trailing from his singed jacket, the man charged to the attack.
Torius pressed his opponent hard, slashing through her guard to open a horrible gash in her leg. The woman stumbled, and Windy took the opening to slash her cutlass across the slaver's neck. The helmswoman took a cut to her other arm from her own opponent, but Kalli put her rapier in the slaver's ribs. Dukkol, though limping, guarded their flank as more slavers charged up the steps from the middeck to reinforce their officers.
Torius kicked away the twitching corpse and met the captain's attack, parrying one gleaming axe and dodging the other. The man was quick, however, and Torius missed his next parry. The slaver's blade ripped through the fine mail beneath his shirt, gouging a furrow down his ribs. Pain took his breath away and weakened his knees.
"Gozreh's guts!" Torius was no stranger to injuries, but this felt like he'd been plunged into boiling oil. He managed to evade the other axe and slash at the man's legs, driving him back.
The slaver captain grinned maniacally and flourished his weapons, which glimmered strangely. "You're no match for—"
A beam of searing energy from Celeste caught the man square in the face. The axes clattered to the deck and a horrible scream rose from the slaver captain's blistered lips, his hands clawing at eyes charred to cinders in their sockets.
"Match that, asshole!" Torius silenced the captain's screams with a slash of his sword. Clutching the wound in his side, he clenched his teeth against the excruciating pain and turned to face the enemy charge.
Then Celeste was beside him, her scales shimmering with a starry radiance. At first, Torius thought it was the mesmerizing shimmer she often used to distract an enemy, but the effect was different. Instead of her scales shimmering, it looked as if she wore a luminous cloak of glittering motes. A slaver lunged at her, and Torius thought the cutlass would surely rake her, but the starry nimbus turned the blade before it touched her side. Celeste struck like a viper, sinking her fangs into the slaver's throat. His screams died in a gurgle, and she flung the twitching corpse aside with a twist of her body.
Torius spared a moment to assess the battle. Thillion and his archers had taken the foredeck, and their bows sang a song of death, shots picking off slavers as they struggled against Grogul's boarders. Two Stargazers had turned the enemy ballista around to fire down upon the slavers crowding the middeck. Snick's ballista crews now fired crossbows from the conjoined rails, and Torius spotted the shock of the gnome's green hair as she scrambled toward the enemy forecastle. The surprise of their assault had given them a foothold, but they were still outnumbered. Here on the quarterdeck, slavers poured up two flights of steps to oppose them. Even with Celeste's aid, they were being pressed hard.
"Rally!" he called out in encouragement. "We've got to take the quarterdeck!"
Celeste shouted something unintelligible, but her tone bespoke urgency.
"I can't understand a word you're saying, Celeste!" Had the wizard gotten off a spell to tangle her tongue? Torius swallowed his worry for her and slashed to drive the enemy back. If they could take the quarterdeck, Celeste could rake the middeck with her spells, but not while fighting at close quarters.
A flight of glowing motes shot from the naga to riddle the enemy, and Torius breathed easier. Two dropped their weapons, and were instantly skewered, and Dukkol hacked the legs out from under another. The Stargazers surged forward, and Torius drove his opponent over the forward rail.
They had taken the quarterdeck.
Lightning lashed out from Celeste, arcing the length of the deck to blast a furrow through the enemy force. Arrows streaked from the rear of the slaver ranks in reply. Kalli took a shaft in the shoulder, and Torius felt a burning sting as one creased his thigh, but the one aimed at Celeste glanced off her starry shield.
"Nice spell, Celeste!" He slashed at another slaver trying to regain the quarterdeck, sending her tumbling down the steps. "Dukkol, block the stairs! Don't let them get a foothold! We've got to give Celeste cover!"
Celeste yelled something else, but still he couldn't understand her. Fortunately, she knew her role. Another searing bolt of lightning blasted the enemy force. Grogul and his fighters were pressing the slavers against the far rail now, so reduced were their numbers. Celeste slithered quickly to the port side of the quarterdeck.
"Guard the stairs!" Torius commanded the others. "Nobody gets—" His orders died on his lips as a burly slaver with a hooked falchion leapt down at Celeste from the ratlines. The full force of the man's falling mass backed the two-handed stroke. "Celeste! Look out!"
Celeste turned to Torius, eyes uncomprehending as the blade fell like a guillotine toward the back of her head.
An iron-tipped ballista bolt struck the slaver the instant before the blade would have cloven her skull. The heavy falchion sheared away a lock of the naga's platinum hair, then skittered down her scales. The glancing blow brought her around in a flash of fangs, ready to strike, but the shaft had spitted the slaver through the chest. Her would-be assassin lay twitching on the deck, clutching the wrist-thick bolt and gasping for breath.
With a sigh of relief, Torius traced the bolt's trajectory back to the foredeck, where a grinning gnome leapt with delight at her life-saving shot. He'd have to remember to thank Snick, but the battle wasn't over yet.
"Celeste!" Torius pointed to the deck, since in her current state she seemed incapable of understanding him.
Celeste turned away from the dying slaver and cast her lightning yet again, blasting the tightly pressed slavers and thinning their remaining ranks by half.
The devastation shattered the enemy's waning morale. Some dropped their weapons to plead for mercy, while others, rightly assuming that none would be given, leapt over the side. This proved a poor tactic, however, for the school of sharks that often followed slave galleys had been alerted to a pending meal by the blood running from the ship's scuppers. The water roiled, and shrill screams rose above the din of battle.
The surviving slavers fought grimly on—ravaged by Grogul's boarding party, Thillion's archers, and Celeste's spells—until the last fell in a welter of blood. A cheer rose up from the Stargazers, and Torius thrust his bloody sword to the sky in triumph.
"Grogul, search the ship and free the slaves! Snick, see to the wounded! Thillion, pick a prize crew and take stock of all she's carrying. You'll be taking her into Almas as usual." As the three hurried to follow his orders, he turned to find Celeste coiled over the slaver who had attacked her. She had ended his suffering with a bite to the throat, a kindness Torius doubted the slaver would have returned. Her cloak of starlight had vanished, and her black scales were spattered with blood, but she seemed unhurt. "Celeste! Are you all right?"
She turned to him with a startled look. "I'm... fine." She glanced down at the gash in his side. "You're bleeding."
"I'll live." He winced as he flexed his side. It still hurt abominably, but the crippling pain was gone. The blade had skittered across his ribs like a stick along a picket fence, but the wound wasn't life-threatening. "What happened to you? I couldn't understand a word you said."
"I... don't know. I couldn't understand you, either." She gazed at the charred corpse of the slaver wizard. "Maybe she cursed me."
"Well, it's lapsed, at least." He ran a hand down her truncated hair. "Though it cost you a haircut."
"Yes... I didn't see him." She looked forward. "Snick saved my life."
"Yes. She's certainly got a way with ballistae. That was an amazing shot. I'll have to give her a bonus. But that cloak-of-starlight saved you as well. That's a handy spell." He laughed, but was surprised to see that his mirth wasn't mirrored in her eyes. Instead, she looked rather shaken. "You sure you're okay?"
"Just a little rattled, I think." Celeste smiled weakly. "Close call, you know. But we won."
"That we did." Torius surveyed the deck. "Your prophecy was spot-on!"
The Stargazers were hard at work, and already the deck looked less like a slaughterhouse and more like a ship. Snick and her ballista crews tended the wounded with a satchel full of potions for those close to death and bandages for the rest. At a glance he saw only two dead Stargazers. They'd be in Almas in just a few days, and there was enough in the death fund they all paid into to have them brought back by the priests there. Torius looked over his crew with a surge of pride; taking on such a superior force with only two deaths was an amazing feat.
He cleaned his sword on a dead slaver's shirt and slipped it into its sheath. "Yes, it's a good day to be a pirate."
"Privateer, you mean," Celeste corrected.
"I suppose." He gave her his best piratical grin and laughed. "Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but I must admit there are advantages."
The first of the freed slaves stumbled onto the deck, pale and blinking in the sunlight. That look of delighted astonishment on their faces made all his pain worthwhile.
I still think I should go in with you. Mathias rubbed up against Vreva's leg and lashed his tail. You might need my help.
"Not this time, love." Vreva took a calming breath and peered out the window of the carriage as it turned onto Ostenso's waterfront. She loved Mathias and might have used his help, but having him along would distract her. In the belly of a Chelish flagship, surrounded by a thousand sailors and marines, the last thing she needed was a distraction. "It's just dinner. I'll be in and out in a trice."
Dinner with you is never just dinner. Mathias knew better than to be put off by her assurances. Tell me you're not planning to befuddle his brain with your feminine charms, drug his wine, break into his mind with magic, and steal his every secret right down to his mistress's favorite color.
"Mathias!" She reached down and scratched him behind the ears. "Never all of that on the first date."
Right. He didn't sound convinced.
The truth was, Vreva didn't have much of a plan other than to make her best possible first impression on Admiral Ronnel. She'd done some digging on him, of course, and deemed him a hard man, a brilliant naval tactician, a political hawk, and—thank Calistria—a ladies' man. The only way she could get more information about him and this Kellid witch and her weapon, neither of which they had seen in several days of Mathias spying from the waterfront alleys, was to meet him in person. Unfortunately, her letter of introduction and invitation to a private dinner at the Officers' Club had been answered with regrets and an explanation that his duties would not let him leave his ship—but also with a return invitation to visit him aboard his flagship, Devil's Trident. If she got him alone, and detected none of the magical precautions so common among the powerful and paranoid, she might risk casting a spell on him or drugging his wine. Then, with some careful suggestions, she might attempt to discover what this secret weapon was. Vreva was experienced enough to know that things like this took time. Besides, the admiral wasn't going anywhere soon. Rumor had it that Devil's Trident would be tied to the dock for some time yet awaiting an unknown deadline.
The carriage rumbled to a stop, the iron wheels sounding hollow on the thick wooden planks of the wharf. Vreva smoothed her dress, and then cast a spell on Mathias that made him vanish from sight. Her familiar would skulk about the docks within range of her empathic messages. If something untoward occurred, at least he would know.
Vreva stepped from the carriage and tamped down her trepidation. She'd been in many dangerous places in her career, but never had she stepped aboard such an intimidating ship. This close, the sheer immensity of Devil's Trident made her feel as if she stood before the ramparts of a castle. Looming over lesser ships, the flagship's four towering masts soared so high they seemed to pierce the evening sky. Three rows of ballista ports checkered the hull, more than she'd ever seen on one ship. The gangplank looked more like a drawbridge than a simple ramp, sporting gilded rope handrails and carpeted steps that led up to a wide boarding hatch on the middeck.
Vreva approached with an easy, fluid gait that belied her tension. She had taken great care with her attire for the evening, remembering one of her very first lessons as a courtesan: you have only one chance to make a good first impression. Her gown—deep crimson silk brocade with gold accents—plunged low at both neckline and back, though a shawl clasped at her throat currently hid the full effect.
Security around the ship was tight, especially since it was docked not at the naval pier, but rather at the main commercial pier of the port. A score of Chelish marines were stationed all along the dock, and another ten in formation at the base of the gangplank, all of them resplendent in black-and-red uniforms. An army couldn't have easily breached the flagship's defenses—but Vreva could. She'd done some careful reconnoitering earlier in the day, looking for magical defenses, wards, traps, and the like. Though she'd found none, her skin crawled with unease. She had no doubt there were spellcasters aboard. For this first incursion, she'd taken great care to leave all of her magical trinkets and lethal poisons behind—nothing that would raise suspicions if discovered.
The marines at the gangplank snapped to rigid attention, but couldn't hide their covert glances at the admiral's guest.
"Madame Korvis." A tall lieutenant bowed stiffly, his face a mask of propriety. "Lieutenant Draell of the Imperial Marines at your service. The admiral's expecting you."
"And he's supplied me with quite a dashing escort." She proffered a silk-gloved hand. "Delighted to meet you, Lieutenant Draell."
He took her hand in a formal fingertip grasp and bowed again, his unsmiling face flushing slightly. "You'll excuse the formality, ma'am. We're under very strict security." He placed her hand on his arm and gestured to the gangway. Four of the marines fell in around them, their faces chiseled from stone.
"Well, I'm honored to receive such royal treatment." She wasn't really. Five soldiers surrounding her meant she couldn't make any haphazard observations en route to the admiral, but that wouldn't stop her from learning as much as she could. "I've never been aboard a flagship before. Perhaps you could point out a few things on the way."
"I'd be happy to, ma'am."
At the boarding hatch, another squad of marines stood around a man in a black jacket with two silver emblems on his lapels, a pair of crossed lightning bolts and a junior officer's insignia. He was young and good-looking, and Vreva knew instantly that he was a spellcaster. Here, it seemed, was the magical security.
"One moment please." The darkly clad caster stepped forward and held up a hand, his fingers bent in a crooked gesture as a whisper of arcane words issued from his mirthless lips. His hand shimmered briefly in the dim light of the deck lanterns.
"Magic?" She cocked an eyebrow at her escort. "You are being very careful, aren't you?"
"Just a precaution, Madame Korvis." Draell's face remained impassive. "I'm sure you understand."
"I understand perfectly." She fixed her features in a facade of mild affront. "Will there be a search of my person, as well?"
Draell looked momentarily horrified. "No, ma'am. We just look for magic."
That's good to know. She sighed as if mildly put out.
"Nothing." The caster nodded respectfully and tipped his tricorne, but remained impassive. "Your pardon, ma'am."
Vreva smiled sweetly at him, then turned back to Draell. "Now, about this wonderful ship, Lieutenant... "
Vreva feigned rapt interest as Draell happily spouted nautical mumbo-jumbo, drowning her in meaningless details about buntlines, cat-harpins, and double-preventer stays. Only once they entered the lofty sterncastle did the deluge of sailor-speak ease to a trickle, and her attention sharpen. She memorized every twist and turn of the corridors in case she had to make a quick escape. Surviving such an escape, however, seemed unlikely with all the sailors and soldiers about. Dour marines stood at many of the doors, and every passage branch. If she had to flee, she'd need to sprout wings and go out a porthole.
Finally, they came to a pair of double doors guarded by two more marines and narcissistically emblazoned with the crest of the Admiral's house. Cheliax's queen had granted Ronnel the title of baronet for his service to the empire, which barely qualified as nobility. At Lieutenant Draell's knock, a white-jacketed steward opened the door and stepped aside.
Draell escorted Vreva inside, and executed a crisp military bow. "Milord Admiral Vaetus Ronnel, Madame Virika Korvis."
A slim man of perhaps fifty years wearing an immaculate dress admiral's uniform turned from the broad expanse of stern gallery windows. "Madame Korvis, how very delightful of you to accept my invitation." Ronnel approached with a smile and a conspicuous brush of the golden epaulets atop his shoulders. "I regret terribly that I couldn't meet with you at your establishment, but the duties of command never end, and my presence is required here." The admiral executed a precise quarter-bow, the proper formality for a noble greeting a guest of lower standing.
Ronnel was surprisingly handsome, which didn't matter in the slightest. What did matter was his obvious arrogance. She could use that to her advantage. From her youth in Egorian, Vreva was all too familiar with the propriety and pomposity of the new nobility. She'd be living in that world still, had she not abandoned her true name, family, and heritage. She also knew enough about Ronnel to be on her guard. The man was skilled, intelligent, and ruthless. He was also an idiot when it came to money. Without a war to supply him with prize money from naval conquests, his lavish habits had resulted in a considerable debt. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he enjoyed female company.
"Milord Admiral." Unclipping her shawl, Vreva handed it off to the steward and curtsied gracefully, giving the admiral a delicate smile and a perfect view of her daring neckline. "It's such a pleasure to finally meet the commander so highly spoken of by his officers. I'm thrilled to be invited aboard such a fabulous ship!"
The last part, at least, was the absolute truth; she was thrilled by this opportunity to spy on a fleet admiral, and the ship was indeed fabulous. The great cabin was nothing short of palatial. Polished brass lamps hung from every beam, bathing the teak-paneled walls in a soft golden glow. The decor was both masculine and military. A large desk stood to the right, emblazoned with yet another coat of arms, a pair of crossed swords displayed on the wall behind it. A table set with burnished silver plates and sparkling crystal stood in front of high, gilt-framed windows that arched along the entire back wall, providing a glorious view of the harbor. White-gloved servants stood behind each chair, ready to attend.
Not exactly intimate. I'll have to get him alone somehow.
"Everything's so lovely and bright." She beamed at Ronnel and placed her hand on his proffered arm. "I expected a military vessel to be stuffy and cramped."
"We keep Devil's Trident in fighting trim," he said, puffing up his chest, "but I also enjoy my comfort. As Admiral of the Ostenso Fleet, I do require accommodations to entertain guests." He dismissed Draell with a wave and gestured toward the table. "A glass of wine before dinner?"
"I'd prefer whiskey, if you have a single malt handy."
"Whiskey?" Ronnel looked at her as if she'd asked him for a cup of freshly drawn blood. "Really?"
"Really, Milord Admiral." Vreva curved her lips in a licentious smile. Her request had caught him off guard, accomplishing exactly what she intended. "A dear friend introduced me to the pleasure of a finely crafted single malt whiskey." Memories of that friend and their ill-fated romance muddled her mind for a moment, but she thrust them aside and focused. "The flavor is so very... smoldering, don't you think?"
"I've never really tried whiskey, but I think my steward might be able to find something you'll like." Dragging his eyes away from hers, the admiral snapped his fingers and his steward hurried off, doubtlessly to delve the flagship's cellars. "You're a woman of eclectic tastes."
"Eclectic?" She shrugged and squeezed his arm. "Not to my thinking. I like my liquor like my men, strong and straight up."
Ronnel gaped at her for a moment, then laughed out loud. "By the stones of Asmodeus himself, you really are something!" He laughed again, fully and without reservation. "Quite refreshing! Quite refreshing indeed after so many simpering shrews. A real woman, not afraid to speak her piece to someone above her station. Quite refreshing!"
"Why, thank you, Admiral." First task accomplished. Vreva had just set her first impression in stone, distinguishing herself from any other woman the admiral might entertain. Squeezing his arm again, she joined in his laughter. "Not every man has the self-assurance to recognize me for what I am, but you've hit the proverbial nail on the head with the first stroke. No doubt one of your officers has told you of me."
"They have not. I swear it on my honor." Ronnel placed his hand over his heart and bowed. "Please, let's forget all this propriety and simply enjoy ourselves. I can't think of a single person with whom I'd rather spend an unabashed evening of frivolity."
"Unabashed frivolity just happens to be one of my favorite pastimes, Admiral." Vreva beamed up at him, enjoying the blush that rose to his cheeks. She had him exactly where she wanted him: mirth up, inhibitions down, and his libido ready to jump out of his pants and prance around the cabin.
The steward arrived with a bottle that looked like it had spent several years rolling around the ship's bilge. The label was barely legible, but when the steward proffered it for inspection, she recognized the crest of a New Stetven distillery in distant Brevoy.
"Ah, you have good taste, Admiral! Let's give it a try."
"Damn the ballistae and full sail ahead! Ha ha!" The admiral snatched up two tumblers from the sideboard and clapped them down on the table. "I do believe I'll join you!"
"Please, allow me to serve your first taste!" Vreva plucked the bottle from the startled steward's hands, expertly cracked the seal, and twisted the stopper free with a resonant pop. She poured a measure into each glass and held one out to Ronnel. "To a night of unabashed frivolity."
He took his glass and glowed at her. "To that, Madame Korvis, I will drink!"
And they did.
The heady flavors of smoky peat and malt exploded in Vreva's senses, but she was prepared for the shock of it. She gasped in a cleansing breath, enjoying the liquid fire that warmed her throat and stomach. The admiral's gasp evolved into a fit of coughing, his face turning an astonishing shade of scarlet before he managed to draw a full breath.
"Rather takes you off guard, doesn't it?" She relieved him of his tumbler before he dropped it.
"Like a summer squall!" He coughed again and tried to smile.
"It's an acquired taste."
"I think I'll stick with wine." Ronnel motioned the steward forward.
"To each his own poison." Vreva strolled around the vast cabin, brushing her fingers lightly over the requisite portrait of Queen Abrogail II, and peering in admiration at the crossed swords mounted on the bulkhead behind Ronnel's broad desk. "This cabin is positively lovely! Would it be possible to get a tour of the rest of the ship?"
"After dinner we can take a turn on deck, but I'm afraid most of the ship's off-limits to visitors." The admiral joined her, sipping a glass of deep-red wine. "This cabin is for formal dinners and meetings, mostly. I sometimes host dinners for the captains of the fleet here, but I generally use it as an office. I have more intimate quarters for entertaining... special friends."
Not too subtle, are we, Admiral? Vreva gave him a sultry smile. "I'd love to see them."
"After dinner, then." He guided her back to the table with a hand at the small of her back as two stewards entered bearing several covered dishes. "I've arranged quite a feast for us. I have one of the finest culinary slaves money can buy, you know."
"Really?" Vreva wondered about people who used slaves as their personal chefs. Didn't they realize how easy it was to poison someone?
Hoping that tonight wasn't the night the enslaved chef decided to rebel, Vreva took the seat a servant held for her. Just as Ronnel took his own seat, however, a knock sounded at the door. When the steward answered, a harried lieutenant burst into the cabin, gasping for breath and dabbing a handkerchief at four parallel scratches etched across his cheek. Vreva recognized him from the Officers' Club—the disgruntled lieutenant.
"Milord Admiral!" The officer saluted stiffly. "I beg your pardon, but there's an emergency, sir."
The admiral flushed crimson, the veins in his neck and face bulging. "Pardon me for a moment, my dear. The drudgeries of command again, I'm afraid."
"I understand perfectly, Admiral." Vreva smiled sweetly and sipped her whiskey as her host thrust himself out of his chair.
Ronnel stalked over to the injured lieutenant and backed him up against the door, his voice harsh and low. "This better be important, Lieutenant Emero, or you'll be scrubbing the bilges for a month!"
"It's that witch again, sir!"
Vreva could just make out the officer's hushed words. She gazed out the window as if entranced by the view, covertly watching the two men's reflections in the glass. She longed to cast a mind-reading or eavesdropping spell, but didn't dare with a servant hovering at her elbow. Even casting a silent spell might be noticed.
"What's she done now?" the admiral demanded.
Emero lowered his voice further, and Vreva strained to hear.
"She's... with that... and that bloody devil hit my... the infirmary... and when I... blood on my... immediately... "
In the window's reflection, Vreva saw the admiral cast her a quick glance, then turn to glare at the poor lieutenant.
"I'm sorry, sir, but she... "
"Oh, fine! Wait here." Ronnel returned to the table and bowed to Vreva. "I'm very sorry, my dear, but I'm afraid I'm being called away."
"Oh, how dreadful!" Vreva put on her best pout and stood. "Can I wait for you here?"
"I don't know when I'll get back, but if you like, please stay and enjoy the meal. I'll be an hour, at least, but could be longer."
"Oh, I could never accept your hospitality without the pleasure of your company, Admiral." Vreva leaned forward to brush his cheek with her own, her voice a sultry whisper. "There's no hurry. An unabashed evening of frivolity must be done properly, you know." She trailed her nails down his taut waistcoat.
"Oh, I agree." Ronnel stepped back and took her hand in his, bending to kiss it. "I'll arrange another dinner, and we'll do it properly. You have my pledge of honor."
"I'll hold you to it, Admiral." Vreva curtsied again.
"Jensen, escort the lady off the ship and hail a carriage." The admiral cast Vreva one more longing glance before stalking out of the cabin, Lieutenant Emero at his heels.
Well, that was a waste of time! Smiling sweetly despite her disappointment, Vreva accepted her shawl from the steward and wrapped it around her shoulders. She looked wistfully at the dishes on the table. The covers hadn't even been removed, but the tantalizing aromas made her mouth water. Maybe she should have taken Ronnel up on his offer and dined alone, but it would have given the wrong impression. She'd done the right thing. She did, however, finish her whiskey before she followed the steward back through the labyrinthine passages. She caught the faint sound of distant raised voices, and considered what she'd overheard. Devils and witches and blood, oh my...
As her carriage approached, Vreva felt a surge of urgency. Mathias. She sent him a nudge of affirmation, and feigned a misstep as she boarded the hackney. Her marine escort caught her arm, and she pressed against him long enough for Mathias to slip ahead of her, his black fur rendering him virtually invisible in the darkness. Thanking her escort, she stepped up and settled into the carriage.
What the hell happened? Mathias mewed as they jerked into motion.
"The admiral was called away. Something to do with this witch of theirs. There might also be a devil involved, too, though it could have been just a turn of phrase."
Are you kidding me? This is Cheliax! If someone says devil, they're probably talking about a real one!
"Regardless, I think we need a different strategy."
A little feline reconnaissance?
"Exactly." Vreva scratched Mathias under the chin, but he was already purring with excitement. "One more ship's cat should go unnoticed, though getting you aboard might be tricky. They scan everyone who comes aboard for magic."
As long as you don't use a cat-apult, I'm in!
"Oh, my love, that was dreadful." She picked him up and nuzzled the back of his neck. Born an ordinary cat, Mathias had only been speaking since becoming her familiar less than a year ago, and was still learning the finer points of language. Unfortunately, he was also learning how to pun. "Stick to chasing rats."
I'm so unappreciated...
Something brushed through her hair, shattering the song of the heavens into a thousand shards. Celeste whirled and lashed out, fangs extended.
"Celeste!" Torius jerked his hand back. "Gozreh's guts! What's gotten into you?"
"Torius!" She slithered back, her panic receding, though her heart still raced. Then she saw the blood on the back of his hand. "By the stars! Torius, I'm sorry! I didn't... Clean it! Quickly!" If any of her venom got into his bloodstream, his addiction might flare back to life. Lunar naga venom was dangerously habit-forming, and that dependency had nearly destroyed their relationship once before. He'd all but accused her of trying to enslave him, and she'd thought he wanted to be rid of her. The last thing either of them wanted was to go through that again.
"I'm fine. It's just a scratch." He wiped the tiny trickle of blood away and sucked on the wound. "Be more careful, will you?"
"You startled me!" Dread descended on her like a shroud. Once more, she'd lost herself so deeply in the stars that she'd been oblivious to her surroundings. What's happening to me? Maybe I have been cursed...
Celeste didn't know what to think. Her inability to speak or understand a word of Taldane during the battle with the slavers might have been a spell cast by the dying wizard, but she wasn't sure. The shimmering cloak of stars that shielded her from enemy blades and arrows, however, had come from within her. She had felt the magic arise from deep inside her. It hadn't been a spell, at least not in the way she was used to casting spells, but something... internal. The magic might have protected her, but it also scared the hell out of her. And now she had bitten Torius.
"You're sure you're okay? How do you feel?"
"I'm fine." He sucked again at the tiny scratch and spat over the rail. "No venom got in. Believe me, I'd know."
"Thank the stars!" She felt a flood of relief, but still the nagging worry. Cursed... "Don't touch me like that when I'm stargazing. You startled me."
"Well, you can bet your scaly tail I won't do it again!"
"I said I was sorry."
"Forget it. No harm done." Torius reached out to touch her again, but she reared back out of reach. He stopped and stared at her. "What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing. I'm just rattled, I guess." Celeste glanced around the quarterdeck, but nothing seemed amiss. They were still sailing northbound, though the lights of Almas weren't yet visible. In fact, the only lights other than the stars were those of the captured galley following a mile in their wake. "What's going on?"
"Nothing serious. I just need our position. It's almost midnight."
"Of course." She had apparently been lost for hours again, and hadn't even heard the ship's bell tolling the watch change. Cursed... She took quick sightings on Bretheda and Castrovel, and ran through her calculations, grateful for something to occupy her mind for a while. Only after marking the chart and jotting down the time did she realize that Torius was staring at her. "What?"
"Nothing. You just seem jittery." He noted their position on the chart, ordered a minor course change, then returned to her. "You're sure you're all right?"
"I am a little jittery, I guess. I don't know. Perhaps that close call aboard the slave galley unnerved me." She wanted to tell him about the strange spell, that she felt it might be linked to her inability to communicate during the fight, but couldn't force herself to form the words. Celeste glanced about the quarterdeck at the sailors bustling about in their duties. Sailors were notoriously superstitious, so later might be better, when they could talk privately. Or maybe she shouldn't tell him at all. Should I tell him about this?
A curious feeling washed over her. The song of the heavens resounded in her mind, but unlike the feeling of rightness she'd felt when she suddenly knew taking the slave ship was the correct thing to do, she now felt a swirling uncertainty, a morass of good and bad, benefit and detriment, boon and bane. She shook her head at the strange sensation, and thought for a moment she heard musical laughter. She twisted, scanning the deck for the source, so clear and loud, but it wasn't any voice she'd ever heard. Now I'm hearing voices in my head! What the hell's happening to me?
"Celeste!" Torius reached out to her again, and she couldn't shy away. Not from him. His warm hands felt good on her scales. Soothing. Familiar. "What's wrong? You look like you just saw a ghost!"
"I... don't know." That was the truth at least. Hearing voices, strange spells, speaking in tongues... Her mind whirled with potential causes, none of them good. Is this what it feels like to be possessed by a spirit or demon? "I just... feel strange. I can't explain it."
"Just try to relax." He pulled her into a comforting embrace. "We'll be in Almas today, and it'll take at least a couple of days to get the ship straightened out. Snick said we sprung a few joints coming up against that galley, and they'll need to be repaired. We can afford to take a little time for ourselves."
"Time—you mean a few days off?" Maybe that was all she needed.
"Sure. We'll have to meet with our contact, of course, but after that... how about a night on the town? Almas is a big city. There are lots of places you haven't visited yet."
"That would be nice." Celeste smiled and leaned into Torius's warm arms. Almas also undoubtedly had innumerable wizards and clerics who might be able to discern what was wrong with her. Maybe I can even find someone to lift this curse...