Clear sky, warm sun, and dry air. Was there a place with better weather than Mankola at this time of the year?
Natsu had another reason to prefer Mankola over Rusakia—the only two Goranian kingdoms she had ever set foot in. Aside from Rusakia’s dreadful winter, the Mankols didn’t loathe the Koyans—not as much as the other Goranian factions did, to say the least. “We are distant cousins after all,” a Mankol merchant had told her once, referring to the old, unpopular myth of the Mongrels; the descendants of the Goranian invaders who had wedded the few Koyan survivors of the Second Crossing.
Natsu disembarked the Wraith with Pantu and Jirou, leaving Sogeki-hei with the rest of the crew to secure her precious ship docked at the port of Dibal. In Natsu’s reception was a balding man who escorted her and her small retinue to the tavern near the entrance of the bustling port. The balding man, who probably didn’t know a single Koyan word, didn’t speak to his guests—something that didn’t bother Natsu at all. “Thank you,” she said in a thick Goranian accent to the mute man who pushed the door of the tavern open for her. The only response she got in return was a hollow look.
Silence fell over the place when Natsu and her men stepped inside. The tavern customers stared at them, and then they turned to the table in the center, particularly at the man wearing the dark woolen deel robe, his beard pointed, his mustache black and long. Bilguun was his name, and he was Natsu’s biggest distributor in Dibal. Even if you hadn’t met him before, you would easily tell that he was the man in charge here.
Bilguun clapped, and at once, everybody rose to their feet, leaving their unfinished plates and mazers on the tables. In a minute, the tavern was evacuated. Having no need for his protection at the moment, Natsu motioned for Jirou to wait for her outside.
With a wide smile and open arms, Bilguun greeted Natsu and Pantu, inviting them to join his table. “Bring my guests your finest mutton,” the Mankol ordered the tavern keeper, the only one who had stayed despite the clap.
“Generous as always, Bilguun,” Natsu spoke in the Goranian tongue she was still learning from Pantu.
Bilguun gave a throaty laugh. “You are improving!” He turned to the busy tavern keeper. “A new pitcher and two clean mazers here!”
While the tavern keeper was attending to Bilguun’s demands, Pantu began in fluent Goranian, “We heard some news coming from Inabol.”
Bilguun guffawed, wagging his finger at Pantu. “You and your eyes! How did the news fly so fast from the far west to the far east?” He gulped down the last of his ale. “Well, the news is true, if that’s what you’re asking about.”
Pantu waited until the tavern keeper was gone after placing the two mazers and the pitcher on the table. “A seer from Koya?” he asked in a low voice, leaning his arm on the table.
“And that’s not even the best part.” Bilguun took the responsibility of filling Natsu’s and Pantu’s mazers with ale. “He did a demonstration in front of the rulers of the six Goranians kingdoms; the Demon in the Cage.” When he noticed the clueless expression on his guests’ faces, he chuckled. “What were you told, then? He brought a possessed lady and shot her with a thousand arrows, but the evil creature possessing her body revived her every time she died.”
Pantu’s spies had informed him about the seer’s warning, but his demonstration? This was news to him, and consequently to Natsu.
“What does this have to do with the Last Day?” she asked the Mankol merchant.
“You sure you are Koyan?” Bilguun sneered.
“We are from Hokydo,” she scoffed, exchanging a quick look with Pantu. “We never cared about the plots they weave in the capital.” Because they never cared about us.
“Fair enough.” Bilguun laughed while pouring from the new pitcher into his mazer. “That possessed lady was supposed to be a demonstration of how your soldiers would look like in battle; an army of undead men.” He took one big gulp from his drink, then wiped his mouth and beard with the back of his hand. “Except that your seer showed the Goranians how to kill a possessed soldier.”
Pantu furrowed his brow. “Our soldiers will be possessed? They will let the demons—”
“We don’t say their name here,” Bilguun interrupted, glaring at Pantu. “And yes, they will let those cursed beings occupy your soldiers.” The Mankol’s face relaxed a little. “The thing is that your soldiers won’t be Koyans, my friend. Another faction will play that role.”
Natsu wasn’t sure about her deputy’s opinion, but she found the whole conversation amusing somehow. “So,” she said to Bilguun, “you tell me that my people are planning to invade your lands with an army of immortals, and that doesn’t bother you?”
Bilguun shrugged. “I told you the news that came from Inabol, not what we believe.”
“We?” Natsu echoed quizzically.
“Our Kaan disapproved of that farce in front of every king and queen in Gorania, and we, his people, believe he is right.” The Mankol merchant emptied his mazer with one final gulp and belched in his arm. “It was brilliantly played, I must admit. A breath-taking display of sorcery to support a meticulously detailed story so that all kings and queens sign a treaty that grants a neighboring kingdom one of our territories,” he shook his head, smacking his lips, “we must bow to the mastermind behind such a scheme.”
Natsu’s main distributor in Mankola didn’t believe in the Last Day, and it was all that mattered right now. “Our business is good, then.” She raised her mazer and took a sip from her drink. Yes, it was heavier than the Koyan ale, but she would survive it.
“You should expect some repercussions, though,” said Bilguun, his smile fading. “Most probably, the three Goranian kingdoms that have signed the Treaty of Inabol will start producing the immortals-killing weapon. Guess what its component is; red mercury.”
A growing demand for red mercury in Gorania would increase its price and consequently, hurt Natsu’s margins. “You surely have a way to sell all your red mercury stock,” she scoffed.
“One month later, you will thank me.”
“Even if I want to, I don’t have the coin for this unmissable deal.”
Bilguun raised his thick eyebrows. “You squandered the fortune you have earned from the Turtle job this soon?”
Natsu did her best to conceal her smile. “I’m not sure I know what you are talking about.”
“Really?” Bilguun leaned his arms on the table, his hands clasped together. “So, that man called Qianfan is waging war against you for nothing?”
According to the old agreement between her late husband and his rival, no Mankol merchant should be familiar with Qianfan’s name. “Did you do business with him?” she curtly asked.
“Only after Botan died.” Bilguun gestured with both palms. “At that time, I didn’t know you would take his place.”
Natsu would let that slide for now. “Qianfan’s war; what do you know about it?”
Bilguun let out a deep breath. “That he is recruiting an army to fight you.”
“That’s funny,” she sneered, “because I’m here for the same reason.”
Bilguun jerked his head backward, looking from Natsu to Pantu. “I thought you were here to sell me bowstrings.”
Natsu drank half of her mazer before she put it on the table. “This time, I’m taking my price in mercenaries, not in gold.”
“Mercenaries from here?” Bilguun squinted at Natsu. “To fight in Koya? I thought no Goranian was allowed to set foot on your islands.”
“I’m not allowed to sell you our enhanced bowstrings either,” she countered. “But we do what we have to do.”
Pantu cleared his throat. “There is no need to worry, Master Bilguun. Smuggling people into Hokydo will be less complicated than into Oyoto.”
Bilguun leaned back in his seat, his arms folded across his chest as he smiled crookedly. “Why us? I have always heard about the fearless folks of your island Hokydo. Can’t you find the soldiers you need there?”
“I need more than fearless folks, Bilguun,” Natsu stated. “I need the battle-hardened warriors I have always heard about.”
“Your street fight doesn’t require our cavalry archers. Our warriors will be of more use on open field battles.”
“Whose warriors should I hire then? The Rusakians?”
Bilguun raised his thick eyebrows as he played with his pointed beard. “You are determined to hire mercenaries from outside Koya, aren’t you?”
Natsu folded her arms as she leaned back in her seat, waiting for the Mankol merchant to say more. Because plainly, he had more to offer.
“I might need some time.” The look on Bilguun’s face intrigued her. “How long can you hold up?”
Natsu looked him in the eye. “What do you have for me?”
“The most ferocious footmen the world has ever seen.” Bilguun smiled crookedly. “They don’t call themselves the Sons of Giants for nothing.”
* * *
Even among smugglers, starting a voyage in the dark was a bad omen.
Most of Natsu’s crew showed their indifference about the timing of the return journey to Hokydo, but one person in particular seemed genuinely enthusiastic. Mushi was her name, and steering the Wraith across the Koyan Sea was what she was doing right now.
“The light rose from behind the mountains of Yoshi.” The superstitious, tall lady was telling Natsu about her dream last night. While Natsu was pretending she was interested in listening, she stared at the stars in an attempt to memorize the constellations. Truth be told, it wasn’t as easy as the shrewd helmswoman made it look like.
“You saw the Light Himself?” Natsu asked her, playing along.
“No.” Mushi chuckled. “I mean like the sunlight.” Holding the helm with one hand, she continued, “But trust me; a mountain in a dream is a good omen.”
Natsu never believed in Mushi’s gibberish, but she hoped the helmswoman was right nonetheless. In the current circumstances, she was in dire need of good tidings.
“You are dozing,” Mushi remarked. “I’m sure your cabin is more comfortable than the mast you are leaning on.”
Only now did Natsu realize she was doing so. “I will stay here to make sure you don’t fall asleep.”
“I have been doing this for decades, Lady Boss,” Mushi scoffed. “And don’t worry anyway. It’s almost dawn now. Sogeki-hei will wake up and join me anytime soon.”
Practically, they were still in the Mankol waters; the hard part of the voyage was yet to come. Natsu had better seize the moment and steal a few hours of sleep before it was too late.
Her cabin was so cold she couldn’t sleep without her coat. She wasn’t even sure she slept in the first place. The only thing she did right was shut her eyes, but the sight of Qianfan’s face roused her, gasping.
The sunlight streaming through the window of her cabin made her realize that she had slept indeed for a few hours. But did she feel better now? Thanks to Mushi’s advice, Natsu was even more fatigued than she had been last night.
It was right after sunrise when Natsu went outside her cabin. The wind was gentle yet colder than yesterday, forcing her to pull her coat about her shoulders as she gazed at the Koyan Sea from the bow of her ship. The mist didn’t curtain the mountainous island of Yoshi on the horizon, which meant that they were now closer to Oyoto, the Koyan capital, than to Dibal. From this moment, she and her crew should be on the alert for coastguards. What gave her some relief was the sight of Sogeki-hei atop the crow’s nest. If all human beings were allowed to be distracted for once—at least—in their lives, Natsu’s sharpshooter never enjoyed such a luxury.
The sun was rising when Pantu joined her on deck. “Did you sleep well?” he asked her.
Natsu had had better nights before. “Would you blame me if I didn’t? We were supposed to return to Hokydo with more men on board.”
Pantu didn’t seem as concerned as she was. Was it because he had just woken up? “The men we have recruited so far are enough, Natsu.”
“I hope so.” The men he was referring to belonged to small gangs all over Hokydo. Yes, they were bold, familiar with this kind of fights, and probably, they would be enough as Pantu hoped. But Natsu was not like her deputy. Leaving this upcoming clash to chance was not an option she would accept. She wouldn’t just fight the fight; she would win it. “Because we don’t have the luxury to wait for the damned Skandivians.” The Sons of Giants, as they called themselves, would need ten days, at least, to receive Bilguun’s messenger. And if they agreed to work for Natsu at once, they might take three weeks to travel to Dibal—they were not as fast riders as the Mankols. And then a few days of sailing across the Koyan Sea to reach Hokydo. “A lot can happen during a month of waiting for their arrival.”
Pantu sighed, holding the taffrail as he stared at the sea. “That’s why I told you that hiring a bunch of Skandivians would be a waste of coin.” He glanced at her over his shoulder. “But when did you ever listen to me?”
Ignoring his rhetorical question, she said, “We will make use of their services either way. If they are not the ones who win a war for us, they shall help us avoid another one.”
The wind became warmer as the Wraith sailed by the eastern rocky coast of Yoshi. At this pace, they would pass by the main island of Oyoto before noon and make it to Jopen by nightfall. Under the cover of darkness, they would turn around that small island to avoid the coastguards, and after that, they could head straight to Hokydo, where Natsu’s real problems awaited her. I barely have one day to figure this out, she thought, hoping she was wrong about doubting Pantu’s judgment on their situation in the upcoming clash with Qianfan. Maybe I am underestimating our…
“Natsu!” Sogeki-hei yelled from his nest. “We are followed!”
Both Natsu and Pantu scurried toward the bow of the ship. It wasn’t easy to see through the mist, but after a minute of squinting, she thought she might have spotted the shadow of a vessel. “Can’t you discern what it could be?” she asked her sharpshooter.
“The mist is not helping,” he replied. Even the incomparable Sogeki-hei was a human being after all.
“Set course to the northwest toward the shore,” she commanded Pantu. “Let’s see if we are still followed.”
Pantu left her hurriedly to see to her order, but before it was put into action, Sogeki-hei bellowed, “TURTLE!”
Natsu couldn’t see the Turtle ship for herself, but she would always believe Sogeki-hei’s eyes and question hers.
“Stay away from the shore!” she demanded as she sprinted toward Mushi, who was about to respond to her former instructions from Pantu. “Keep our course straightforward!”
The tall helmswoman looked from Pantu to her. “I was told you wanted to go—”
“Forget what you were told and do as I say now!” she cut Mushi off, and turned to Pantu. “Tell the men to abandon the oars. We are turning the engines on.”
In a similar situation, her deputy would be the one begging her to unleash the Wraith, but for some reason, he didn’t show any enthusiasm toward her decision. Maybe she had just surprised him?
“Did you hear me, Pantu?” She glowered at her dumbfounded deputy. “I need you to oversee them yourself.”
Pantu gestured with his palm to calm her down. “I’m just trying to figure out your plan to capture the Turtle this time.”
Hells and demons! “We are not capturing any Turtles this time, Pantu!” Actually, the Wraith was the prey today. The Turtle at their heels now hadn’t just come across them during some regular patrol; it had been lurking by the southern coast of Yoshi to ambush them. “Now go, because I feel this is not the only Turtle we are going to encounter today.”
Finally, Pantu realized that his boss did want to flee. While he was urging her crew to hurry downstairs to the engines room below deck, she kept her eyes fixated on the edge of the coast on her left. If the coastguards were serious about ambushing her, they would be lurking at the northeastern gulf as well. A couple of minutes, and we shall know for certain.
But thanks to Sogeki-hei, it didn’t take that long.
Natsu couldn’t see what her sharpshooter was pointing at when he yelled, but she knew better—again—whose eyes to trust. Now she had to deal with the fact that two more Turtle ships were coming from the very gulf Natsu had been worried about. “You heard him?” She turned again to Mushi. “Head northeast! Get us away from them!” And why is Pantu taking too long? Handling coal was laborious, she knew, but that was why she sent all her oarsmen down deck. We are sitting ducks. That damned engine had better work now before…
The last sound Natsu would like to hear startled her. Not the thundering cannonball coming from the Turtle behind her ship; it was the splash of the missile that missed the Wraith’s hull by only a few feet. Blast! The next one will surely hit us. “Change our angle again!” she bellowed at Mushi. A desperate measure for a vessel stuck between three Turtle ships closing on it. Fortunately, the Wraith’s huge rotors started spinning the instant Natsu’s helmswoman steered her vessel to the right. Soon the Wraith would leave its chasers behind, but first, it had to evade the cannonballs while it was still picking up speed, which shouldn’t take too long—hopefully—with all the men down deck feeding the engine with coal.
“Come on. Come on,” Natsu muttered, now able to see the cannons of the two Turtles coming from the left. As the Wraith got faster, the failure of the coastguards’ attempt to intercept it became evident. Still, it was in the range of their cannons. “Head east!” she instructed Mushi. “We need to keep those two behind us!”
“That might allow the Turtle behind us to catch up, Lady Boss,” the helmswoman pointed out.
“Just do it!” Natsu howled, having no time to explain the point of this maneuver. While the Wraith was still in the range of the cannons of the two Turtles coming from the northeastern gulf, Natsu’s priority was to give the coastguards a smaller target to aim at. Striking the stern of a ship should be relatively harder than hitting any part of its entire port. Right after we get outside their range, we shall restore our course to the north before the first Turtle comes…
Three consecutive thundering explosions interrupted her train of thought. The first cannonball was too far to threaten Natsu and her crew—a desperate shot from the single Turtle from the south. The second and the third were from the two Turtles of the northeastern gulf. One cannonball barely missed the rearmost part of the Wraith, which was still turning right. The second crashed into the Wraith’s port, shaking the entire vessel like a leaf in the wind.
“Breach!” one of her crew cried, and from her spot, Natsu could hear the tumult of shouting that broke out downstairs. She could also hear the clamor of the massive rotors of the ship. Miraculously, the engine was still working, but it was only a matter of time before the water flooded the cargo hold and the engine room. If Natsu didn’t order Mushi to turn back to the island of Yoshi at once, the Wraith, her husband’s masterpiece, would end up sinking in the Koyan Sea. But that implied surrendering herself and her crew to the coastguards on a silver platter.
The seabed or the executioner’s blade; those were here choices at the moment. Think, Natsu. Think. You cannot die today. You are not allowed to. A five-year-old boy is waiting for you.
Natsu scurried to the stairs, and on her way to the engine room to assess the damage, she realized that the cannonball had breached the hull at the cargo load, which was flooded already. “Stay upstairs, Natsu! We will handle this!” Pantu cried at her, his men blocking the gap with anything they found nearby—most of these things were parts of crates they had destroyed. “Just keep your eyes open on the coastguards! Make sure they don’t catch us!”
Natsu noticed that most of her oarsmen were now at the breached cargo load. “And you keep feeding the engine! Do not let the ship stop for any reason!” she demanded, then she hurried upstairs to the stern. The pursuers were now too far to threaten her with their cannons. For the time being, the real threat was the sea itself.
To her surprise, the Wraith took a sharp turn to the left until it became facing the two Turtles sailing together. “What are you doing?” she blustered, sprinting toward Mushi.
“We won’t make it to Hokydo or even Oyoto!” Mushi said nervously. “Yoshi is the nearest land to us!”
Didn’t her foolish helmswoman take note of the two Turtle ships obstructing their way to the shore of Yoshi Island? “The coastguards will sink us with their cannons!” She gnashed her teeth. “Turn back to the north!”
“Don’t you see? We are sinking already, Natsu! If we are not going to Yoshi, then we must abandon the ship!”
Abandon the Wraith? The masterpiece her brilliant late husband Botan had built? “We can’t do that! We’re nothing without this ship you want us to…”
“Do all you see this?”
Sogeki-hei’s question interrupted her from his spot in the crow’s nest. Looking where he was pointing, Natsu doubted in the beginning that her eyes were playing tricks on her. “Is that…?”
“A whirlpool.” Mushi’s jaw dropped, unintentionally assuring Natsu that her eyes were fine. Because right, she was not looking at a normal whirlpool.
It was the mother of all whirlpools.
Caught in a huge vortex in the sea that had been calm all day, the two Turtle ships coming from the gulf twirled as the maelstrom grew faster. In less than a minute, the two vessels vanished as the gigantic whirlpool sucked them into its core.
“A miracle!” the superstitious helmswoman exclaimed. “My prayers are answered!”
Natsu couldn’t argue. The sea that had just swallowed two ships of the finest unit in the Koyan navy was surprisingly dormant now, as if that monstrous maelstrom had never existed a few seconds ago.
“We need another miracle, then.” Natsu gazed at the remaining Turtle that had been chasing them from the southern coast. Obviously, the miraculous maelstrom didn’t intimidate its crew.
But suddenly, the Turtle sank. No whirlpools this time. The vessel just went down below the sea surface.
“Sogeki-hei?” Natsu called out, but instead of answering her, the sharpshooter strapped his crossbow to his back and climbed down the mast in a hurry. Why was he abandoning his post without her permission?
Sogeki-hei approached Natsu and whispered into her ear, “We need to get as far as possible from here.”
Now he was acting really strange. “Why should we?” She didn’t whisper as he did. “The way to Yoshi is clear now.”
Sogeki-hei signaled her to lower her voice. “The water between us and the island is cursed,” he whispered again.
“Cursed?” exclaimed Mushi, who heard him somehow. Without hesitation, she steered the Wraith again toward the north.
“What is wrong with you both?” Natsu barked, her crew’s erratic behavior enraging her.
“You didn’t see the hands, but I did,” Sogeki-hei snapped. “Monstrous hands, Natsu.”
“What are you talking about?” Natsu asked impatiently.
“The hands that pulled that Turtle to the bottom of the sea.” Sogeki-hei glared at her. “Most probably, they belong to the same creature that created the maelstrom!”
Natsu would belittle what she had just heard if it came from anybody else. But even with her undying faith in Sogeki-hei’s senses, she still needed time to digest what he said.
“The light behind the mountain!” Mushi exclaimed, pointing to the island of Yoshi, where a shimmering fireball floated over the summit of a mountain by the sea. “It was a prophecy from the Light! I knew it was a miracle!”
“I don’t mean to disappoint you,” Natsu said, squinting at the distant figure lifting both arms up, as if holding the ominous fireball without touching it. “But this has nothing to with your prayers and the miracles you believe in.” She turned to Mushi. “Now take us to the island before we join the sunken Turtles.”