They could see the distant mountainous Skandivian coast from the bow of the carrack. One more day in the sea, and they would be disembarking at the port of Kalensi. Nardine hadn’t been to the capital of Skandivia before, and surely, neither did the Murasen princess standing by her side.
“I have always wanted to ask you: What do you think of Mother’s plan?” Nardine asked.
“You think my opinion matters now?” Leila scoffed softly.
“Your opinion matters, and you know that.” That was no compliment from Nardine. Actually, Leila’s reaction worried her. Mother should have involved her earlier. “Now tell me: What did we miss?”
“Given our current situation, this is the best plan anybody can come up with,” said Leila. “However, I’m afraid it’s too ambitious. We don’t have the numbers to build the large army she was talking about.”
Nardine grinned. “You forget the thirty-five thousand soldiers we have on our mainland.”
That didn’t reassure Leila, it was plain. “Are you certain that we can rejoin them? That they still answer to your mother?”
That took Nardine aback. “Why wouldn’t they?”
“You remember how yesterday’s meeting went? Your mother struggled to persuade her vassals to fight,” said Leila. “Imagine her doing that with the other lords.”
The Murasen princess was referring to the lords who had revolted against Nardine’s mother. “The other lords are under the command of Lord Yavier now. The loyalty of that man is unquestionable.”
“Maybe he is loyal.” Leila shrugged. “But he is also outnumbered.”
He is only five thousand men short to match them, Nardine thought. “He is capable enough to keep them under his thumb.” She was reassuring herself, not only Leila.
“You know your men better than I do.” Leila nodded, gazing at the calm sea. “Hopefully, the Rusakians will come to reason and cooperate with us.”
The Rusakians cooperation? That was not something they should get their hopes up about. “If they don’t, then we will deal with them accordingly,” Nardine promised. “We are used to beating them in battle anyway.”
Leila turned to Nardine. “The last thing we need before facing the demons is a battle that exhausts our already outnumbered forces.”
Nardine couldn’t help chuckling. “I thought you were a brilliant herbalist and chemist, not a military expert.”
Leila gave her a faint smile. “I don’t need to be a military expert like you to understand the numbers.”
“A military expert like me?” Nardine scoffed. “If only Mother heard you.”
Leila stared at her silently before she was back to contemplating the Northern Sea. “You and your mother seem to be on good terms.”
“She believes in you, Nardine,” Leila replied, her eyes fixed on the blue horizon ahead. “That’s something I never had with my family.”
Mother believes in me? Nardine was delighted to hear that, even when she was certain it was not true. But who knew? Leila had surely said that for a reason. “What makes you think that she believes in me?” Nardine asked, curious.
“She had entrusted you with her plan before sharing it with her vassals,” Leila said. “You shouldn’t overlook something like that.”
Honestly, Nardine was still astonished by her mother’s gesture until this very moment. In a sudden turn of events, the woman who didn’t allow anybody to enter her room, even her own daughter, decided to invite both her heiress and the High Advisor to discuss their next move. “Her plan was one of the rare subjects we didn’t argue about.”
Leila smiled at her. “You must admit that you are not the meekest daughter in the world.”
Nardine tittered, and then she remembered him. “Father never needed to argue with me. Inspiring me was his way.”
Leila sighed as she gazed again at the sea. “You were luckier than you thought. My father never got the chance to ‘inspire’ me. Always preoccupied with the Kingdom’s duties. But you know what? I never doubted his love to me. He would do whatever it took to protect me and my brother.”
Nardine would say the same about her mother. Except that she didn’t have a true brother as Leila did.
I was not luckier. I am.
“You see that?” Leila asked, pointing to the numerous frames in the distance. Boats.
In one minute, Nardine and Leila were not the only ones standing at the bow of the carrack. The sight of the approaching boats had drawn an edgy crowd that blabbed about pirates. And while the Crown Princess of Bermania was thinking how she could quell her people—if she should in the first place—the clamoring throng made way for their queen to advance to see for herself.
“Blue banners. The sigil of the Skandivian Bull,” Her Grace muttered. “That’s the fleet of King Thorbjorm.”
For more than half a century, Bermania had never been at open war with Skandivia. But Thorbjorm in particular was allied to the Bermanians’ bitterest enemies; the Icemen. Nardine’s mother had hinted before at Thorbjorm’s disgraceful ‘friendship’ with Halin, the Rusakian queen.
“Does that mean we don’t need to arm ourselves?” Nardine asked her mother in anticipation.
“We must arm ourselves. Those could be pirates who stole Thorbjorm’s boats.” Her mother kept looking at the advancing vessels, which turned out to be more than they seemed in the beginning. “Besides, those are too many boats for someone coming to talk.”
And you are too reserved for someone who might soon be under attack, Nardine would tell her mother.
“You should stay away from deck, Leila,” Nardine warned the Murasen princess. “At least, until we know for sure that those people mean no harm to us.”
Leila didn’t argue. But before she left, Queen Rona asked her, “How is your friend Zahra? Does she feel better now?”
Leila seemed a bit hesitant, but eventually she answered, “Yes.”
“Good,” Nardine’s mother said. “Would you do us a favor and tell her to be ready, just in case? We might need one of her tricks to prevent some bloodshed here.”
Leila nodded and scurried toward the cabins.
“I will talk to the Koyans while you go to your brother,” Her Grace instructed Nardine. “He has proven useful these days.”
He had. Still, that didn’t make her exactly excited about hurrying to her sullen brother and begging for his help. She would rather pick the Koyans’ task. “We don’t need him.”
Her mother stared at her. “You two quarreled, didn’t you?”
“Not exactly,” said Nardine. “We just—”
“Then find him now,” Queen Rona demanded, impatient to wait for Nardine to finish. “Later, you both can reconcile whatever conflict you have. Siblings always quarrel, don’t worry.”
Not in the mood to argue with her mother, Nardine reluctantly headed to the aftercastle, where Halgrim’s cabin was. Hopefully, he is asleep and he spares me the trouble.
But Halgrim shattered Nardine’s hopes when he answered her knocks on his door and opened it. “Yes?” he impassively asked, his tone provoking her. Nardine would have to ignore her mother’s task for the time being.
“You owe me an apology, you know that?”
Halgrim raised his eyebrows. “Oh really? For what?”
Seriously? You want to play dumb now? “For acting like a bastard with me.”
Standing at the doorstep, her half-brother jerked his head backward. “W…What is this about?”
“You do know what this is about.” Nardine jabbed a finger at his chest. “So let me remind you of a few things. First of all, neither I nor even my mother banished you from your homeland; it was your mother who chose that life for you. So please, stop treating me as if I was the cause of your misery. Secondly, you are not the only one who lost a father here. At least, I used to know the man you pretend you grieve for.”
Halgrim took a deep breath. “Anything else?”
Nardine felt that her last part might sound harsh, but she didn’t regret saying it. Not a single, tiny bit. Actually, she was much relieved after getting all those thoughts off her chest. “Yes. Mother wants you to don your armor. She might need your demonic swordplay for some suspicious guests. By the way, I told her we wouldn’t need your help, but she insisted.”
Halgrim took his time to grasp what she said. “Those guests; would they prevent us from reaching Kalensi?”
All she had said about him, and yet he was only concerned about the guests. “They might try.”
Halgrim nodded. “I had better ready myself, then.”
His calmness was surprising, Nardine had to admit. Having nothing more to tell him, she left her half-brother standing at the doorstep of his cabin. A few seconds later, she halted when he called out to her.
“I don’t blame you for my misery,” he said, his eyes meeting hers. “But don’t you dare blame me for my fury. None of you can ever comprehend what I’m going through.”
“I was only trying to save you from your fury, you fool.” Nardine glared at him. “But if you insist on burning with it, then I shall never stop you.”
This time she left him for real and strode toward her cabin. To save time, she summoned a maidservant to help her wear her armor parts. After she was done with the last part, which was the clasps of the breastplate, she sheathed Lionclaw into her scabbard and exited her cabin.
The Black Guards were already donning their dark armors when Nardine went to the deck. Holding their huge Byzont shields, they surrounded the perimeter at the bow of the carrack, leaving a small gap for Queen Rona and her vassals to observe the incoming fleet. Blayd, Payton, and Idwin were there when Nardine joined her mother, all clad in their armors.
Nardine noticed that the carrack was slowing down. “Our vessels are bigger,” she said, glancing at the armada of galleons escorting the royal carrack. “We can just crush them if they stay in our way.” She gestured toward the Skandivian longboats outnumbering the Bermanian fleet three to one.
“These longboats are much faster than our heavy ships,” Payton pointed out. “We crush a dozen, and the rest will easily catch up with us.”
“Besides, they are raising a white flag,” her mother remarked. “Let’s hear them first.”
“And if it’s an ambush?” Nardine asked.
“It will be an ambush for them.” Her mother nodded her chin toward the mages spread out on the deck. Wearing his armor, Halgrim was there as well.
“But it will mean fighting the Skandivians on their ground upon disembarking at Kalensi,” said Idwin, obviously not enthusiastic about the idea. No sane person would be eager to fight the fiercest warriors in Gorania toe-to-toe.
Not long after the Bermanian convoy had halted, the Skandivian longboats stopped right in front of them. Only one longboat advanced—the one with the white flag—until it was right next to the royal carrack. The Skandivian warriors on that boat were clad in sleeveless tunics that revealed their muscular arms, war axes strapped to their backs. They threw four grappling hooks at the taffrail and with panthers’ agility, they started climbing the ropes. Idwin turned to his queen, his eyes betraying his concern. “It’s alright, General,” she said, wearing a confident smile. “I’m quite certain we can handle a dozen Skandivians if we don’t like what they say.”
Eight Skandivians made it to the deck of the Bermanian carrack. Black Guards flanked them as they stood in front of their queen and her retinue. “We haven’t met before, Queen Rona.” One of the Skandivians stepped forward, his dark hair braided. Though his black beard made him look older, Nardine judged he was in his late twenties. “I am Sigurdson Thorbjorm, firstborn of His Grace.”
Quite an entrance for the Skandivian Crown Prince. No ornate outfits or gear. Nothing but a solid display of vigor.
“I’m not surprised you don’t remember our first meeting, Prince Sigurdson.” Nardine’s mother grinned. “You were still toothless, then.”
Her Grace knew how to counter, Nardine reflected. But to be honest, the Skandivian Crown Prince didn’t show he was bothered at all. “I must have changed a lot since then.” He smiled. “But what about you, Your Grace? It seems to me that you are not much different from the self-exiled girl who met my father the first time.” His smile grew wider as he added, “When I was still toothless.”
“What did your father send you for?”
“To ask you nicely to turn your ships around.”
“And if I don’t?”
Sigurdson’s smile vanished. “There are no ‘if’s, Queen Rona. You sail away from our shores, we let you live. This is what is going to happen.”
Nardine’s mother pointed her finger at Sigurdson. “Then you don’t have the slightest idea what is going on, young prince. Now listen to me carefully and let me tell you what is going to happen. You will turn your boats around, hurry to your father at his royal palace, and tell him that Queen Rona asks him nicely to take good care of the Bermanian ships that will be docked at the port of Kalensi while she and her men march south to defend their homeland.”
Sigurdson shook his head, his hands on his waist. “No way would His Grace allow a Bermanian army set foot on his lands.”
“His Grace must allow us.” Nardine couldn’t remain silent any longer. “Otherwise, it will be the Army of the Cursed setting foot on his precious lands instead.”
Sigurdson gave Nardine a hard look before he turned to her mother. “The Army of the Cursed; a myth you, Bermanians, had invented until you yourselves believed in it.”
“It is clear that your spies are not doing their work.” Payton curled his lips.
Sigurdson smirked. “Our spies tell us that a horde of Outsiders has invaded Murase, Mankola, and Bermania. And now they are headed to Rusakia.”
“A horde of possessed Outsiders,” Nardine corrected, “led by Koyan mages.”
“We have no reports of sorcery activities or anything demonic,” said Sigurdson without looking at Nardine.
What sort of a spy who might miss the explosion of an entire city? Even if they see it, the fools won’t understand what that explosion is about. “Because your spies are ignorant like you,” Nardine snapped.
“Nardine.” Her mother glowered at her, and then she took a deep breath before she muttered, “This conversation is worse than useless.” She turned to the offended Skandivian Crown Prince. “We thank you for your brief visit, Prince Sigurdson, but personally, I don’t believe you want to make this work. I will sort this out with your father.”
“This is the closet you can get to Kalensi,” Sigurdson curtly said, and then he pointed a finger at Nardine as he kept addressing her mother. “And I’m not leaving without hearing an apology from her.”
Nardine wouldn’t apologize to this bastard. But would her mother force her to do that? Please, Mother, don’t, Nardine thought to herself. Quarreling with her mother in front of that worthless scum was not something she would be glad about.
“An apology for what?” This time, it was Halgrim who came closer to Sigurdson. “For telling the truth?”
The infuriated Skandivian prince glared at Halgrim before he turned to Queen Rona, wagging a firm finger. “You know what it means to insult King Thorbjorm’s emissaries, let alone his son?”
“You said you never heard of something demonic.” Halgrim sped up his words, not giving Her Grace or anybody else the chance to respond to Sigurdson. “What if I show you something?”
“No!” Blade hurried to Halgrim and gripped his arm. “Not here, my prince,” said the brawny commander in a low voice as he leaned toward him.
The Skandivian prince motioned for his men to return to their longboats. “Our boats are not moving,” he said to the Bermanian queen, wagging his finger one more time. “You have one hour to turn around and disappear from sight.”
Nardine couldn’t help following the Skandivians with her eyes as each one of them held the rope of a grappling hook and slid down back to their longboats. They did it so smoothly as if it was a mere daily activity. Was that the fruit of harsh training, as was the case with the Black Guard? Or was that just inborn strength?
“What were you both thinking?” Her Grace chided Nardine and Halgrim. “Did anybody tell you that I needed your help?”
“He was not going to listen anyway, Your Grace,” Nardine answered back.
“So, you decided it would be convenient to insult him, right?” snapped her mother.
“Maybe I should have apologized to him,” Nardine said indignantly. “You were going to make me do that, weren’t you?” Unfortunately, Halgrim had ruined the moment with his interference.
“Your Grace. Your Highness.” Payton gestured to both Nardine and her mother to stop. “This is not how we should spend our next hour. Right now, we must decide what we are going to do.”
Nardine’s mother shook her head, her hands on her waist. “We don’t have so many options now. Our only chance was to talk to Thorbjorm. But that chance is ruined thanks to our two hotheads.”
Nardine didn’t know about Halgrim, but she wouldn’t allow anybody to treat her as some mindless child. Anybody. Even if it was her mother. “You ruined that chance before any of us interfered,” Nardine bristled.
Her Grace gave Nardine a menacing glare. “What did you say?”
“You emphasized that his father had sent him,” Halgrim answered on Nardine’s behalf. “Starting from that point, the young prince was doing everything he could to show you he was not powerless.”
“This is useless! What is done cannot be undone!” It was one of the rare times that Payton lost his temper. “Now, either we find another port to disembark at, or we declare war on the Skandivians.”
Her Grace urged a solider to fetch her a map as General Idwin said, “If we turn around, then our nearest port will be Ralgens.”
“If we are not allowed to go to Kalensi, then we are surely not welcome at any Skandivian port,” said Blade impassively.
“What about Arsdam?” Idwin wondered. “It is the nearest available port for the time being.”
“Going to Arsdam might bring us too close to the Cursed Army,” Payton stated, his arms crossed.
“Going back is not an option, to begin with,” Queen Rona said, her eyes seeking the soldier she had sent to bring her the map.
“The Neck.” Nardine was not prohibited from sharing her suggestions, was she? “If we enter it where it joins the Endless Sea, we can head to the castle of Neldon from there.” The only missing point in her idea was her ignorance about the docks on the Neck River. Was there a wharf big enough for this titanic carrack?
Payton gave her a nervous smile. “The estuary of the Neck has been blocked for decades, Lady Nardine. A defensive measure to prevent any enemy fleet from invading us.”
Alright, that was just another missing point in her idea. Luckily, her mother was not paying attention as she was busy with the map she had just received from her soldier.
“Isn’t the original plan an option any longer?” Idwin queried. “From Barlus, we can make it to Karun in less than a week of forced march.”
“You are talking about three weeks in the sea to reach Barlus first,” said Blade. “By the time we approach Karun, the Cursed will probably be standing between us and our own fortress.”
“And we won’t be able to catch up with our forces in the mainland,” said Payton.
If they were still alive, the majority of the army was currently headed to Barlus, the entire Bermanian cavalry among them. All of them were unaware of the change in plans. “That leaves us Kalensi as our only destination,” Nardine prompted, waiting for her mother’s military experts to confirm or deny her thoughts.
“Fighting the Skandivians without our cavalry.” Idwin shook his head, his lips pressed together. “That might not end well for us.”
“You forget the mages,” Nardine said hurriedly.
Idwin leaned forward toward Nardine. “We need to save them for the greater battle.”
“We might not need them.” Queen Rona asked Halgrim to help her keep the map spread in front of her as she pointed at the wooded area near the southern borders of Kalensi. “This is where we are going to disembark.”
Nardine didn’t see any port at the point her mother indicated on the map. But after succeeding in demonstrating her ignorance once, Nardine thought she had better keep her lips sealed for now and wait to hear the veterans’ opinions.
“I don’t get it, Your Grace,” Payton said, his eyes betraying his anticipation.
“The Smugglers’ Quay,” Her Grace said, but it was clear the name didn’t ring a bell to anybody, including Halgrim who had spent all his life in Skandivia. “I’m not surprised you never heard of it. Only a self-exiled girl like me would pass by such places.”