1. The Turtle and the Wraith

N.B. This is a first draft, which means it’s not professionally edited yet, so please don’t judge me if you find any errors or typos 🙂 

KOYA

Coastguards. They always showed up when you needed them the least. As though Natsu needed anything other than them keeping their noses out of her business.

“About time we turned the engines on, boss,” Pantu suggested, looking from Natsu to the Turtle Ship closing on their own vessel from the island of Jopen in the east. “We can make it to Yoshi before they know it.”

Yoshi Island was already on their route. “Let them come,” said Natsu, trying to appear composed in front of her men. They should never think she was weaker than Botan the Squid, her late husband. “They will find nothing.”

“Natsu.” Pantu stared at her. “This is not going to be a regular inspection. Coastguards do not ambush a ship unless they are looking for something.”

Pantu was the only person on this vessel who had witnessed all Botan’s operations—a seasoned man she shouldn’t take his advice lightly at all. “You know we never reveal the Wraith unless it’s an emergency.”

This is an emergency, Natsu.” Pantu gnashed his teeth, glancing at the dragon head adorning the bow of the Turtle, the iron spikes atop its closed deck making it impossible to raid. “We will be executed in a public square if the coastguards find the strings.”

Selling those enhanced bowstrings to the Mankols on the other side of the Koyan Sea had earned her late husband a fortune. Shame the Emperor banned that kind of trade for the sake of his mages. “Then let’s pray to the Light they won’t find anything.” She peered at Pantu. “You know what to do to keep their visit short enough.”

Her veteran right-hand man nodded and scurried toward the cabin.

Natsu took a deep breath of cool air, allowing the addictive scent of brine to sink deep down in her lungs. The Wraith must remain a myth. Nobody must know what she looks like, she recalled Botan’s words, her oarsmen abiding by the coastguards’ orders to halt. A dangerous game she was playing; she was aware of that, but she didn’t want to risk losing the very asset that put her on top of the underground trading business (The Imperial officers would use the word ‘smuggling’ to label her activity, but why would she care? They would steal what they could from her, and still they would call it taxes).

The Turtle Ship anchored side by side to Natsu’s ship. When four coastguards jumped into the Wraith, she gave Jirou a warning look before her brawny man might commit a deathworthy act. The only thing that rivaled his arms in their thickness was his head. And his black mustache.

Only four soldiers clad in the lamellar armor followed their slender leader who sauntered in his embroidered silk tunic. Apparently, he was confident that his pink cloak would demand Natsu’s crew’s respect. They sent an officer mage, she thought, and strangely enough, she found that flattering somehow. Though the pale cloak he donned implied that he was not powerful enough to deserve the crimson mantle of the Emperor’s mages, an officer mage could singlehandedly slay Natsu’s twenty-three men.   

Natsu looked up at the crow’s nest, signaling to Sogeki-hei to stand down, and at once, he hid his crossbow. Calling for the services of her sharpshooter against coastguards should be a last resort. For now.

The officer mage stood right before Natsu, looking her up and down, his lips curled in disdain. “You seem like the one in charge here. Am I right?”

Being the woman in charge could be a crime to these bastards, but now was the time to evade their handcuffs and get rich, not to make a stand. “How can I be of help, Officer Mage?”

The dubious mage scanned her face. “I need to see your trading permit.”

Natsu turned to Pantu, who had fetched the document she knew the coastguards would ask for first. The officer almost tore the permit when he snatched it from Pantu’s hand, and after a moment of scrutinizing the parchment, he asked, “Which part of Hokydo you come from, you say?”

“Dragon gulf.”

“And your destination is…?”

“The port of Dibal.” Natsu folded her arms, nodding pointedly toward the permit she had paid in Mankol gold to obtain. “I’m an authorized importer of red mercury.” But that didn’t mean it was necessarily the only commodity she imported.

The officer squinted at her. “Why would a merchant from Hokydo be given such a permit? Don’t we have enough merchants in Oyoto?”

“You have an army there, I presume. But are they enough?” She shrugged. “That I can’t answer.”

The officer nodded, a wry smile slipping from his face. “Search the vessel,” he ordered his soldiers.

Natsu kept her face a mask, sensing the doubt in her men’s stares on her as one soldier went into the cabin, the other three inspecting the deck crammed with supplies crates. Doubting her leadership in her first encounter with the coastguards was something that surely irked her, but she might understand. What mattered now was the mood of this blasted mage who ambled on deck, his eyes scanning everybody and everything around him. The bastard wouldn’t leave empty-handed if he sensed her men’s nervousness.

“So, Dibal then,” he began, his hands clasped behind his back. “A big ship for a few boxes of red mercury, don’t you think?”

Regardless of what he was trying to fish, she wouldn’t fall into this trap. “We trade in bulky goods quite often.”

“What bulky goods?”

“Cattle, oil, coal.” She shrugged. “Anything we can buy or sell at a good price.”

The officer grinned, revealing his yellow teeth. “I hear the Mankols treat gold the way we treat rice.”

“The more coin we bring the more taxes we pay,” Natsu hurriedly said. “We are fulfilling our duty toward the Empire.”

“I’m quite certain His Eminence is pleased with you,” the officer said derisively.

A coastguard came to his superior. “The cargo hold is locked,” he announced, glancing at Natsu.

When the mage shot her an inquisitive look, she said, “Let me handle this.” She took one step toward the mage to call to her man standing behind him. “Jirou! The keys!”

For a second, the mage stole a glance behind him. A second that was enough for Natsu to snatch the tunjesten cuffs from her pocket and trap the mage’s wrist in it. “Slaughter them!” she barked.

Jirou, who was certainly waiting for such an order, picked the nearest coastguard, smashed his nose and jaw with a massive punch, then tore his belly open with his dagger. Alarmed, the soldier standing in front of Natsu gripped the pommel of his sheathed sword, but before he might draw it, a bolt pierced through the back of his head, courtesy of Sogeki-hei from his nest.

“Hells and demons! What on earth is this?” the mage yelled, clenching his fingers in a desperate attempt to draw anerjy from his surroundings.

“We could be some simple folks from Hokydo, Officer Mage,” she gloated, her oarsmen finishing off the last two soldiers with the daggers and falchions they had hid under their shirts. “But we know one thing or two about anerjy.”

The uproar on her ship drew the attention of more soldiers from the Turtle Ship. Most of them fell the moment they emerged thanks to Sogeki-hei’s bolts, the rest slain by Jirou and Pantu and the oarsmen.

“You know what Hokydoans are more familiar with, though?” Natsu drew her dagger and pointed it at the helpless mage, the sharp tip almost scratching his neck. “Blades.”

“Please,” the mage whimpered. “I have a child.”

“So do I.” Swiftly, Natsu slit his throat. The gurgling mage was down on his knees, holding his neck with both hands, but nothing could stop this surge of blood.

Pantu and Jirou stood at the edge of the Wraith facing the Turtle, waiting for more coastguards to show up, but all who came shortly after were the unarmed oarsmen of the Turtle, hands up in the air. When Pantu turned to Natsu, she said, “They are welcome to join our crew if they want.”

Pantu wrinkled his forehead in disapproval as he approached her. “Too many mouths to feed, Natsu.”

“We have a bigger prize now.” She nodded her chin toward the Turtle. “I know a Rusakian lord who will pay a fortune for this beauty.”

Pantu’s jaw dropped, his eyes darting from her to the Turtle and back. “You didn’t escape from the coastguards’ ambush because…because…Blast! Why didn’t you tell me this was your plan from the beginning?”

“Because you would think I’m insane.” And maybe she was. Would anyone right in the head ambush the most formidable unit in the Koyan navy?