The sun was shining brightly overhead looming over the city of Babel as the last flitters of winter vanished. Children ran through the streets as the adults talked amongst themselves. Laughter and smiles graced the faces of the townsfolk and the sound of their voices created an uproar. The smell of freshly made bread and of the blooming flowers accompanied by the chatter as merchants yelled out their wares could only begin to describe the events of the Beatitude Festival. A young girl, no older than the age of twelve, hummed a jaunty tune as she walked amongst the crowd. Her dark brown hair and freckled tanned skin made her stand out against the fair folk of Babel. The black cloak that she wore with a symbol, a chained bird in flight with a crown sitting atop of its head, was given a wary eye that she barely noticed for it vanished as quickly as it came. Despite the festivities, the girl wandered out of the town square and into another part of the city.
Most of the homes had been boarded up and a few were left with doors ajar; the trinkets and items inside missing. The cobblestone roads had been worn down from use and the smell of rotting caused her to turn up her nose. But she treaded on, only to pause once a tower came into view. There were far too many floors for her to count and she stood in awe of its magnificence before tightening the cloak’s clasp and hurrying towards the iron gates that barred the tower from the rest of the town and perhaps the world. The browning grass crunched underneath her feet as she hid behind wilted trees and bushes, only peering out to catch a glance at two men who were dressed head to toe in black robes.
Their robes were adorned with several white triangles at the sleeves and hem, and for the most part -- she wouldn’t know who was beneath them. One of the men seemed to notice a movement and lifted his head, a glint of white underneath the hood being her cue to clamp her hands over her mouth. Nothing happened and for a few moments she held her breath in hopes that neither would approach.
“Perhaps it was only a squirrel,” a monotonous voice suggested.
“Highly unlikely,” another replied. “Father would be devastated if such an unsavory creature was present in the vicinity of his Grace.”
With affirmation in their tones, all fell silent and the girl finally breathed a sigh before creeping out of her hiding place to slip past. Her lips quirked upwards into a smirk as she stared at a balcony on the highest floors of the tower. She pressed her hand against the bars and kept her eyes on the balcony all the while.
“Minuo,” she whispered.
Her hand wrapped around the iron bar and she brought the other to rest against the one adjacent to it. Pushing outwards, the bars bent to her will until there was an opening that was large enough for her to fit through. She stepped through and casted a quick glance over her shoulder.
The bars straightened themselves out as if coming to life. They glowed a soft white color, but the shade soon faded and the girl was satisfied. She turned back to the balcony and frowned.
It is going to be difficult to get up there. Thankfully no one comes on this edge of the grounds, if they knew --
The smile that she wore grew and she shook the thought from her mind. All that mattered now was getting there, and if the robed men found out she would just have to deal with it then.
“You are late, Rosaline.”
She nearly leapt six feet into the air and turned to fix the dark-haired boy behind her with wide eyes. Her gaze went from him to the balcony and then back.
“Were you not the one who told me that I was always free to use the door when I pleased?”
The little smile that formed on his face caused the blood to rush to her face. She folded her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes at him. His smile faltered, and he rubbed the back of his neck with a sideways glance. After a bit of silence and squirming on his part, she mustered a smile.
“You should be a bit more careful though, Julius.”
At her chiding tone, Julius’ face flushed pink and he waved away her hand with a little smile.
“Says the girl who breaks into a holy ground almost every other sunrise.”
Rosaline chuckled and elbowed Julius, albeit lightly, considering that the boy was smaller than her. His dark tresses of black hair and bronze skin stood out amongst the fair-skinned townsfolk of Babel and even more so in comparison to the robed men. Julius was smaller than most of the other girls in his year, but it was to be expected considering girls grew faster than boys, a fact that she loved to hold over him.
“We should return to my room,” he urged. “Father has been rather worried over my absence of mind during lessons. I fear that if he discovers the cause, he won’t be happy.”
Julius looked towards the balcony. His eyebrows knitted together and a frown replaced the smile that he wore, the light dimming in his eyes.
“You are always forgetting important promises.”
Rosaline scoffed bringing Julius back to his senses. She gave a grand gesture towards the gate with a raised brow. Following her sight to and fro, Julius bristled at the mere thought and shook his head.
“I-I can’t go out there!”
“But you promised that you would.”
Julius tensed up under her condescending gaze and pressed his lips into a tight line, looking away. Rosaline sighed and undid the clasp so that the black cloak around her shoulders would fall. She wrapped it around Julius’ shoulders and fastened the clasp, bringing the hood over his head.
“Right now, you’re not Julius. You’re just a boy underneath the veil of a hood and I am a girl who so happens to be your only friend. There isn’t anything that can hold you back while you’re wearing this hood.”
From the shadows of the hood, Rosaline could see Julius’ eyes widening as she relayed to him the scenario. Her hands fell away from the cloak only to be grabbed in his own. HIs hands, smaller than hers, were quite warm and reminded her of the sun on her back.
“We’ve stayed in the garden for too long, if your Father finds us now then it’ll all be for nothing.”
Pulling Julius by the hand, she walked back to the gates and spoke minuo. The gates bent for her and she let him go first before following afterwards. Once the gates were bent back to shape, Rosaline casted a quick fleeting glance to the balcony. There was no sign of movement and the robed men didn’t seem to be any the wiser. She turned back to address Julius only to find that he was kneeling by the base of a tree and observing something. Peering over his shoulder, she saw him staring at an ant hill. A few of the little insects were crawling around it and inside of it.
“They are so small,” he whispered.
“Well of course they are, some insects are of that size. But don’t allow it to fool you. Desert red ants can grow up to the size of a white-tailed mongoose, it is terrifying. The mana in this area isn’t as abundant in comparison to the deserts of Khalid.”
Julius turned to look at her and tilted his head to the side. Rosaline bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. He looked like a child receiving a history lesson and being confused at the simplest of terms.
“Don’t worry, you have all the time in the world to learn about those kinds of things. After all -- you have the great and knowledgable Rosaline D’Angelo to assist you.”
She took his hand in hers and led him through the forest, making sure to steer clear of the main roadway. Once the pair entered the city’s grounds, Julius took a hesitant step forward and looked around at the abandoned buildings.
“Is there no one that lives here anymore?”
Rosaline shook her head.
“Most of the townsfolk relocated towards the innermost part of Babel. Ever since the Tower was constructed, the robed men had been seen as a foreign entity. No one could make them leave so instead they moved farther away.”
Julius looked over his shoulder at the looming silhouette of the Tower that was growing smaller and smaller as the pair continued on their journey to the town square.
“They are called Disciples,” he said.
Rosaline stole a glance at him from over her shoulder. Even if she couldn’t see his face, she could almost make out the frown he was wearing. When she opened her mouth to say something, her words were drowned out by the sound of cheering and merriment. Julius perked up almost immediately and felt as if his chest was vacant of air at the sight of so many people. Men and women dancing in the street, exchanging goods, and clinking together mugs of mead before drinking them quickly. There were children that rushed past Julius, brushing the fabric of the cloak and giving him a backwards glance before continuing on their way. The flowers blooming were of reds and whites and blues, so many colors that Julius couldn’t possibly name them all.
“This is amazing…”
Rosaline smiled at him and gave his sleeve a little tug. The two headed into the crowd and Julius was able to note first hand that there were many different traits amongst the people of Babel. Men and women of different shapes and sizes, but their skin was fair. He had never seen anyone with such a light-tone besides Father who was almost always covered from the shoulders down in his robes. Some of the townsfolk had a pinkish tinge to their skin from exposure to the sun. He wondered briefly how Rosaline wasn’t experiencing the same twinge, though chalking it up to her skin being of a darker shade.
“Y’know, it’s rude to stare at a lady like that.”
Julius stood ramrod straight and Rosaline giggled into the palm of her hand. The two came to a stop in front of a stall and Julius caught the scent of something that caused his stomach to let out a noise. Both children stared at one another before looking down at his stomach.
“I’m guessing that you’re hungry,” she joked.
Rosaline fished around in the pocket of her knickers and pulled out a few crumpled pieces of paper. Once she pulled them free one by one, Julius could see a few coins shining in the palm of her hand. The coins were gold, silver, and bronze. Though the bronze ones varied in size; some long and some short. Rosaline picked through the notes and pulled out a few before turning to the vendor who was staring listlessly into the crowd.
He perked up at the sound of her voice and peered over the counter to get a better look at the pair.
“I’d like one large beef bowl and a medium seaweed stew. Oh, could I also have a peach pie?”
Julius stared in awe as the man perked up immensely and nodded his head. He held out his hand giving Rosaline a price and the girl placed a few notes in his hand along with one of the golden coins. The man weighed it in his hand for a moment before disappearing behind the counter. The sound of sizzling and humming came a few moments later and Rosaline climbed onto one of the stools in front of the stall, patting the other for Julius to sit on.
“What is a beef bowl,” he asked.
Rosaline raised an eyebrow at him as she shoved the rest of the coins and notes into her pocket.
“You’ve never had a beef bowl?”
“No -- Father and the Disciples took to gardening and we would eat what was grown from the Earth. Father said that devouring live animals was akin to corrupting the soul and thus was insufficient for my growth.”
The look on Rosaline’s face wasn’t one that Julius could have read but he could have sworn that he heard her muttering ‘innocent’ and ‘like a babe’.
“You know that everything in this world is made up of mana.”
Julius nodded and stole a glance towards the vendor’s back and he seemed unpetrubted by their conversation.
“Mana is the energy that circulates throughout the entire world and in the hearts of every living and non-living creature. Therefore, when we eat another creature, their mana is used to help us continue our life by chasing away fatigue and hunger. There are some people who prefer to eat plants and beans in comparison to taking the life of another creature, but think of it this way, we eat to survive just as animals do. We’re all part of a circle and each of us are given a specific part. Once our mortal forms are gone, we’ll be one with the world. And the cycle will repeat..”
Julius would have said something if his stomach hadn’t interrupted again. A bowl was sat down in front of him filled to the brim with a light green broth, bits of seaweed floating about in it with carrots and various other vegetables. He glanced to the side at Rosaline who was already chewing on a light-brown square-shaped piece of meat, if he was certain. She chewed for a bit and then swallowed with a light sigh.
“Could I try that?”
Rosaline looked to him and then down to the bowl with curiosity.
“Well, there is a first time for everything,” she said.
Pushing the bowl over to him, Julius picked up a piece of the meat and turned it over on his fork. He gave it a quick sniff albeit too close as some of the juice from the broth touched the tip of his nose. Rosaline laughed at him but otherwise kept quiet as the boy continued his observations. After a few more seconds, he popped it into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. His eyes widened comically and Rosaline sniggered as he continued to chew and swallow, taking more of the beef bits until the bowl was completely empty.
“That was great! Rosaline, that was ama- uh..”
Her eyebrow was quirked and she had one elbow resting on the table, her cheek pressed against her open palm. He looked from her to the empty beef bowl and then to his bowl of seaweed stew which was left untouched. Rubbing the back of his neck with an apologetic smile, he pushed the bowl of seaweed stew to her which she took with a small smirk. The two talked over their little lunch, enjoying the festivities from the comfort of their seats at the stall. After eating the peach pie, Rosaline leapt down from her seat and patted her stomach with a sigh.
“Uhm, Rosaline. I have a question.”
Julius clambered down after waving goodbye to the vendor who looked a bit sullen to see them go. He couldn’t help but notice that the man had slitted pupils, pointy ears and his skin had a coppery-twinge. His hair was drawn back underneath the cap that he wore but there was something about him that gave Julius the idea that the heat from the stall wasn’t just from cooking.
“Did he look different to you? That man?”
Rosaline glanced over her shoulder before looking back to him with a shrug.
“He’s a flame imp. How else would he have been able to make our food so quickly?”
“But in the books, flame imps are much smaller and look like animals.”
He had never heard Rosaline burst out into laughter with a snort before. But here she was, laughing at him in the glow of the sun. Despite the ringing sound of her laughter there was something dark behind it. Something mocking as if she was laughing at the very idea of imps looking any differently than what they had seen.
“Of course you’d think that Julius,” she said darkly. “Those books were written by humans afterall. It wouldn’t be unlike them to make up their own perception. To kids like us who’ve never seen them before, we’d only think that what our elders told us is true. It’s so funny. How adults would lie just to keep children in fear.”
Julius frowned. His mind wandered back to thinking about Father. The man’s larger hands covering his own as the pair would read together in the confines of the library. He would ask Father questions then, questions about the beings in the storybooks, and he could remember the way that the man frowned. Perhaps it was a crime to be curious and to want to know more than what he already did.
Our history is written between the pages of these books, Julius.
Be content and knowledgable, my child.
For with these teachings from the Ancients, we are reborn with the capability to combat evil.
“But what is the evil,” he asked himself aloud.
The sound of cracking whips and the neighing of horses broke through the crowd’s merriment and stopped both children in their tracks. The crowd was parting and several of the spectators looked on in awe while others muttered to themselves and kept their distance. Julius noticed a few other children were clambering on top of stacked crates and trying to push past to get a peek at what was happening. Rosaline grabbed his wrist and pulled him through the thinning crowds, pointedly looking ahead. Through the small cracks between persons, Julius could barely see what was happening. It wasn’t until a few of the persons moved aside that he saw.
Beings who looked more man than wolf were on the prowl, connected to a chariot by silvery strands that were wrapped around their throats. There was a man dressing in white robes, his golden hair glimmering in the morning sun and eyes scanning the crowds. He wore a circlet that was embezzled with jewels of whitish-gold, and had many rings on his fingers. The people looked at him in awe as he passed by, unwilling to spare another glance to them. The chariot that he rode in seemed to be floating and was guided by the wolf-like men who took to sniffing the streets. One of them looked pointedly towards the shop that Julius and Rosaline had frequented. Julius could feel his stomach turning and he looked forward, allowing Rosaline to pull him even faster if it meant getting away from the scene.
The pair slipped into one of the alley-ways and Rosaline peeked around the corner before motioning for him to follow her. Under the shadows of the buildings, Julius felt as if he wa walking amongst the dark. That man in the chariot shone so brightly, it was as though the sun had only come to greet him. He was poised and reminded Julius of the paintings of a seraph in his books; a heavenly being that was seen but untouchable by man.
“Have to get you out -- didn’t expect him to come -- need a way to the shipyard..”
Julius frowned and gripped Rosaline’s hand.
“What’s going on?”
She looked back at him and from the look in her eyes, it seemed as if she had seen death. Rosaline led him under a few bridges which were deserted due to the commotion in the square. Heading through a tunnel and over a bridge that overlooked a few of the biggest fish that Julius had ever seen, he could have sworn that he saw one of them wink at him. His heart fluttered as he took in the sights and sounds around them. He could feel Rosaline’s grip on his hand tighten as she turned another sharp corner.
Why did that man spook her so much? Rosaline isn’t very scared of anything. So why is sh--
A new smell abruptly cut off Julius’ train of thought as he clamped a hand over his nose. His eyes widened, taking in the sight of several large vessels that reminded him of the hulls belonging to ships in his books. They were hulking masses that towered over him, linked to the earth by metal chains which glowed with a dark green hue. There were people working on the ships, calling out orders to one another and carrying large shipments of goods onto and off of the ships. He could smell blood and recoiled away from the sight, wanting to take a step away. The smell was coming from the chains which rattled every so often but would not budge an inch.
“Rosaline, we should get out of here. This doesn’t look very safe.”
But she didn’t pay him any attention and despite Julius’ worried tone, she pulled him even further into the shipyard. Some of the sailors and various other workers turned and looked at the odd pair. Julius knew that none of them could see him but he casted a wary glance towards Rosaline. Her dark brown hair, freckled olive skin, and carmine red dress would have made her stick out against these people who were haggard and dirtied from a day’s work. Julius knew that even he stood out, the cloak around his shoulders sporting a symbol in gold threading.
Though Rosaline didn’t seem petrubted by any of it and instead was searching the crowd aimlessly passing by ship after ship. The closer that the pair got to the chains, the stronger the smell had become, and Julius felt as if he was going to be sick. It wasn’t until they came to a ship whose hull was painted shades of red fading into black, did she stop. She squined her eyes, examining the ramp that led from the dock to the ship’s deck. A man was headed down the ramp, patting his mouth as he yawned.
“Oi, old man! Get’cha bag of bones down here, will ya?!”
Julius could have frozen in place as his eyes flickered from her to the man. Rosaline released Julius’ hand to fold her arms over her chest. The man said nothing for a moment and leisurely made his way down the ramp. Once he stood before the two, Julius immediately felt a wave of regret for allowing Rosaline to drag him away from the Tower. The man was much taller than the both of them combined, his scarlet red hair was tied back in a messy pony-tail, his grin and gleaming emerald eyes reminded Julius of a predator preparing to eat. He wore an earring that looked like a beast’s fang and was dressed in a long-sleeved buttoned shirt with slacks and an open vest. His boots looked worn from use but were coated with a red substance on the bottom that caused Julius’ stomach to turn.
“Well, what do I owe the pleasure of ya lil’miss Prim?”
Rosaline rolled her eyes and puffed out her chest, trying to stand as tall as she could.
“I came to make due on our deal, Mister Donovan Black. You do remember it, do you not?”
“Aye, ‘ow could I forget? Did me a great service, ya did. So. What’ll it be, little prim?”
Rosaline pushed Julius forward and he stumbled a bit before looking back at her once he caught his footing. She motioned for him to look forward and found himself looking directly in the eyes of Donovan Black. Donovan had knelt down to look the boy in the eyes and Julius hoped that he could have shrunk into the confines of the hood as to hide away from the man’s inquiring eyes.
“I want you to take him aboard with you. His name is Julius, and he should do a great service to the Red Duchess.”
Red Duchess? Aboard?
“Tha’ sounds like a tough order to complete, missy. Wouldn’ his parents be lookin’ for ‘em?”
“No, but he’s sheltered and its not fair for him to be kept behind closed doors at all times. I was hoping that you would show him the world outside of Minai.”
Donovan pursed his lips together and let out a low hum. Julius looked between the two, caught inbetween what was happening and the raving storm in his mind.
“Well lad, what d’you think?”
Julius looked to the man who stared at him intently waiting for his answer and then back to his first friend who held an expression in her eyes that he couldn’t decipher. His heart was beating loudly in his chest and he wondered if he looked hard enough at the horizon, could he see the Tower.
What would Father think?
What would he do without me being there for him?
“Well, it seems as if the two of you have some talkin’ and wonderin’ to do. We’ll be departin’ in ten, missy. Make your decision and say your farewells then.”
With that, Donovan rose and went back to board the ship. The only sound that Julius could make out being the thumping of his boots and the beating of his own heart. He pulled back the hood and looked Rosaline in the eye; his hazel brown eyes meeting hers which had never seemed as dark as they had been today.
“Is this why you wanted me to leave the Tower? To bring me here, to meet him?”
“...You don’t deserve to be locked in that Tower forever. I thought it over so many times. How to tell you, how to make you see that there is so much more to the world than just what you’ve read and what they’re telling you. That you’re free to see it for yourself.”
Julius frowned and took a few steps forwards so that he was staring eye to eye with his friend. She was a bit taller than him but it wasn’t by much. He would catch up. He always did. Rosaline was always one step ahead of him, always moving at a pace that he couldn’t match. But he would always catch up to her and even if he didn’t, she never left him behind.
“So what is this? I get on this ship and never see you again. You’re my first friend.”
She looked down to her feet and it was quiet between them for a moment. Reaching out to touch the cloak around his shoulders, she held the fabric tightly in her hand.
“Never lose this. Okay?”
“As long as you have it, as long as you have this part of me -- we’ll see each other again. And when we do, you better give it back to me.”
She lifted her head to look at him and there were glimmers of tears in the corners of her eyes. Her hand was trembling and it wasn’t until he actually looked at her, did he notice that there were a few in his own as well.
“...I promise,” he whispered and hoped that his voice wouldn’t crack.
She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in the crook of his neck. Squeezing with all of her might and leaving him breathless as slight jabs of pain shot up his spine. But Julius couldn’t tell her to let go and instead wrapped his arms around her and squeezed back. The sound of a whistle being blown and a call for above ended the embrace and Julius stepped out of her hug. He hesitantly smiled at Rosaline who wiped away a few tears threatening to fall and punched him lightly on the arm.
“...This is my choice, right,” He asked. “ What you’re giving me now?”
Rosaline stepped away from him with her arms behind her back and gently smiled.
“...Father will be furious.”
“He can’t stop you now.”
Julius brought his hand up to touch the cloak and smiled warmly. He took a step away from her and then another before turning away and making his trek up the ramp. Once or twice, he looked back at her as she became smaller and smaller. Once his feet made contact with the deck of the ship, and he glanced back to look at her again -- she was gone. Donovan yawned and beat his fist against his chest before taking notice of the small boy who was staring aimlessly over the edge for any sign of his friend. His eyebrows knitted together and he sighed before coming over to clasp a hand on Julius’ shoulder.
“So, Julius, do you have a last name?”
He shook his head.
“Any family, relatives?”
He hesitated but shook his head again.
“...All I had was Rosaline.”
Donovan raised an eyebrow and leaned against the ship’s railing. The look in Julius’ eyes was distant and misty as if he was remembering something. The older man nodded his head and glanced off to the wayside, the silhouette of the Tower in the distance.
“What about your Father?”
Julius hesitated and turned to look up at Donovan. The man peered back at the younger boy from the corner of his eye. For a moment, Julius wanted to say something but instead he looked away and then to his hands.
Donovan sighed and pulled Julius away from the side of the ship with a quick twirl. The boy was off balance as he fell against Donovan and glanced up at the older man in curiosity. Donovan grinned down at him with a wink and after a grand sweep of his arm towards the sky, he said.
“Well then, welcom’ to the world. Oi! Hoist the ship, we’re headed out!”
An affirmative yell from elsewhere on the ship caught Julius’ attention and he didn’t have a moment to register where it had come from before the ground shook underneath his feet. The smell of blood had begun to fade from his nose and the sound of a chain rattling echoed. The ship didn’t sail across the water, he realized. It was rising high into the sky and sailing amongst the clouds.
Seven years had passed since that day, and Julius had grown from boy into man. The menial labor on the Red Duchess wasn’t one that he could simply sherk off on someone else. Even then, there was something about contributing and feeling the soreness in his muscles after a day’s work that left him satisfied. He enjoyed crowding around the wooden table in the kitchen underneath the deck and talking about what had happened during the day. Donovan would be drunk off a wine from Bezel, Cody would be trying to goad him into an arm wrestle, and Krista would try to keep the two of them from killing each other. Julius could visit Doug and talk about the latest inventions that he would create, and bring Aesop his dinner in the crow’s nest. Hamish wouldn’t be against sitting with him and enjoying a drink while cleaning the weapons in the armory for the thousandth time. Sometimes, if he was lucky, he could catch Danai and the two would spar on the deck.
All of the happy moments over the past seven years crossed his mind and brought a smile to his face. The dark night sky was glistening with stars as the Red Duchess sailed through the clouds. Julius tried to remain quiet as he walked the path from his room to the ladder that led to the deck. Climbing up, he opened the hatch and felt the cool winds rush to greet him. The sails billowed from the amount of wind and if he squinted, he could have sworn that Aesop’s feet were propped up on the edge of the crow’s nest. A little smile formed on his face and he closed the hatch behind him before walking to the side of the boat as to peer over the edge.
Through the little gaps in the clouds, he could see ocean waves gently moving with the moon’s command. The salty smell felt like home to him and came with a bittersweet twinge. Folding his arms and leaning against them as he gazed over the edge of the ship, he wondered how far away were they. Julius had been away from home for so long that it seemed as if the country of Minai was simply a dream. He fit so well with the crew of the Red Duchess and in their own way, each member bonded with him. If he was a fool, there was no way that he had a life before this one. The twelve years before Donovan Black came into his life would have been a mystery that he wouldn’t be itching to find out.
But he couldn’t forget her no matter how hard he tried. Her glossy auburn hair and glowing smile, freckled skin and confident tone of voice was a constant thought.
What does she look like now? Did she cut her hair or let it to grow?
What color would her eyes be? Is she even stronger?
Does she miss me?
Julius bristled and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. He had allowed his mind to wandered to those kinds of thoughts without even knowing it. But there was something about Rosaline’s eyes that made him want to rush back to her whenever the thought crossed his mind. Her eyes were always the darkest of browns, almost black to him, but she insisted that they were merely dark brown. Though when she looked at him on that day, her eyes were like two black pearls, and he felt as if he would lose himself staring into them.
If she asked me, would I have stayed?
If she held onto me just a bit longer, would I have the strength to turn back?
Would she let me turn back?
A fist landed in between Julius’ shoulder blades interrupting his thoughts and he glanced behind him. With her pale blonde hair drawn back in a ponytail, fair freckled skin, pale blue eyes and a chiding smile on her face stood Krista. She looked even more tired, despite it being the dead of night, and slumped against the side of the boat after he turned back to face forward.
“Cody is a blanket stealer,” she whined. “Everytime I wake up, she’s covered up in all the blankets and wrapped up so tight that she looks like a scarab beetle.”
Julius quirked a brow although he was thankful for the change in conversation.
“Why not have her sleep in her own room,” he asked.
For a moment, it looked like Krista blanched at the idea but she quickly recovered and shrugged with a little smirk.
“Scarabs are good luck, ya know. At least that’s what the Magan believe.”
Julius took that as his cue to drop the conversation and instead returned to thinking. Krista glanced at him from the corner of her eye before nudging him a bit.
“What’s eating you?”
Julius ran his hand against the back of his neck and glanced to the wayside hoping to find something of interest to look at. Everyone had known that he came from Minai but no one asked him how or why he was with them. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t dead weight and contributed to earn his share, or because Donovan didn’t seem concerned. Everything seemed to go over Julius’ head. Rosaline’s deal with Donovan, and his immediate acceptance into the crew just because Donovan didn’t seem perturbed by his presence.
“I’ve been having these weird dreams lately,” he admitted before he could stop himself. “Dreams about the past, of Rosaline and I wonder if I’m missing something.”
Krista quirked her head to the side and thought over his words for a minute before leaning back with her hands grasping the railing.
“Well, what do you think you’re missing?”
Julius shut his eyes and tried to remember. He could see Rosaline’s face, her hand reaching out to shake his own when they first met. He remembered being confused by her way of speech and wanting to follow every time she vanished over the edge of his balcony. And he remembered the dreams that he had, where her voice could no longer be heard. Krista waited for a moment to see if Julius would respond but he seemed lost in the annals of time.
“You’re not the same person that you were a few years ago. You changed, and maybe you’re just remembering things that you’ve forgotten or are wanting to forget. But is that so bad? Memories come and go, but the feelings will always stay and even if you forget -- your heart never will.”
The tired smile that Krista wore turned into one of fondness. He remembered them from the times where he would mess up and she’d be there to ruffle his hair and give a few words of encouragement. Although he had grown much taller than her since then, she never seemed to stop doing it.
“But you should get back to bed,” she called over her shoulder. “We have that shipment to deliver to Aradia tomorrow!”
A tired yawn escaped Aesop as he stretched the muscles in his back feeling a few of his joints pop. With an eased sigh, he slumped back against the pillow underneath his head hoping for a few more minutes rest. The subtle breeze and kiss of the sun rays made it the perfect morning for doing nothing. A dark shadow soon loomed over him and he cracked his eyes into slits upon seeing a familiar pair of blue eyes staring down at him.
He sat up hurriedly and pouted as she laughed heartily. Krista propped herself up on the edge of the crow’s nest with her legs swinging over. Her expression was an innocent one but the mirth in her eyes spoke of something devious.
“Can’t a man get any sleep around here,” Aesop whined.
“Of course, but you’re not a man and no one told you to sleep up here.”
Before he could summon a response, she had already leapt down and a rush of wind followed her. Aesop grumbled to himself as he rubbed a few feathers out of his hair and made his descent to join the others on the deck. The rest of the Red Duchess’ crew was slowly coming to life albeit grumpily. Krista was the only one in high spirits, as usual, and he didn’t miss Donovan grumbling as he tried to lean against the mast for a few more winks.
“C’mon old man, you can rest when you’re in the ground.”
Aesop ducked under a lazily thrown punch and danced away with a little grin. He stuck his hands into the pockets of his breeches and hummed a little tune. The sun was high in the sky, and the blue that surrounded the Red Duchess was absolutely stunning. There were little clouds and thankfully less birds, it would be agony trying to keep them away while working. A few heavy footfalls came and the creak of the hatch as Julius made his way onto the deck. He was dressed in a black tunic, beige trousers that were tied with a leather brown belt, and black leathered boots. His hair was drawn back into a topknot and the scruffy beard that he had grown over the years was trimmed down to stubble.
“Woah, woah. When did we let another grown man on board?”
Julius glanced over at Aesop, and there was amusement in his hazel eyes even if his tone held exasperation.
“For the last time, Aesop, it’s me. Just because I got a little older doesn’t mean anything.”
Cody chuckled and wrapped an arm around Julius’ neck. Even though he had grown taller, she would always have been taller than him. With a bicep that was bigger than his head and a wolfish grin on her face, Cody had to be one of the most formidable people that Julius had ever met. She was a foot taller than him, standing at seven feet, and had snow white hair. Her tanned skin was striped with a streak of red across her arms and a few on her shoulders and hands along with most parts of visible skin. The streaks even seemed to be moving, now that he had a closer look. Something was inside of them that was constantly moving and turning like the crackling flames of a fire.
“Our little Juju is growin’ up, Aesop. Don’t get jealous now.”
Aesop pouted and folded his arms behind his head.
“Aw c’mon, Cody. You can’t honestly think that this guy is the same Judie that came all those years ago.”
Through their banter, Julius’ attempts to redeem himself fell silent. Even he had to admit that his progress from back then had shown in his physique. No longer scrawny and weak, his body had taken to the menial labor that came with being a courier for the Red Duchess. The roundness to his face had lessened over the years, giving way to sharp angles and a square jaw. His hair had grown thicker and longer to the point where he had to pull it up or back as to keep it from interfering with his work.
I wonder what Rosaline would say if she saw me now.
Surely, she’d find some way to tease him even now. Slipping from out of Cody’s grasp once her grip lessened due to the bantering turning into an argument over height and strength, Julius slipped away to help steady Donovan who was asleep at the mast. The red-haired man groaned as he felt someone lifting one of his arms to help him stand to his feet. He was barely aware that his face was sliding against the mast just a second ago, batting away the person at his side. Julius chuckled, a deep and rich sound, one that Donovan had grown to know rather well. Opening one of his eyes blearily, he sighed.
“Not you,” he mumbled. “Why couldn’t a pretty maiden wake me up instead?”
Julius raised one eyebrow with a hint of amusement and shrugged his shoulders as he pulled the man into a standing position.
“As long as you don’t kiss me,” he joked. “We’re fine.”
Donovan recoiled and bit back laughter as he straightened his back, popping the joints that had stiffened from his impromptu nap. Krista high-fived Hamish and came over with a little bounce in her step.
“All is according to plan, Don,” she chirped. “The stock had been well taken care of and accounted for. Though, I’m not going to say the same for the storage unit. It smells like a fisherman’s market in there.”
Her nose scrunched up at the mere thought of it and Donovan laughed. Julius took that as his cue to slip away and head to the railing where Danai was standing. The dark-haired girl was incredibly quiet and seemed to vanish even in plain sight. Under the light of the sun, her chocolate brown skin seemed to glow and her eyes were trained on something that he couldn’t see. Her curly black hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she was armed with her spear.
The ocean is still beneath us and it is a beautiful day, he thought. There shouldn’t be any need to be armed.
Though with a quick glance over his shoulder, he noticed that Donovan’s hand was resting on the hilt of his flintlock pistol. Krista had gauze wrapped around her knuckles and Cody seemed much livelier than she normally was in the morning. Aesop’s daggers were secured on his belt and Hamish was sharpening the edge of his axe. Even Julius was carrying his gladius on his hip, not even sparing a glance when he grabbed it before heading up to the deck.
Momentary safety isn’t a guarantee, he reminded himself.
Those were the same words that Donovan had told him time and time again as the years went on. Only a fool would believe that they were safe especially among men. And for a moment, a weight settled in Julius’ chest as he gazed out at the horizon towards their destination.
“What are the Islands of Halqu,” he asked.
Danai glanced over at him before focusing her eyes back on her unmentionable target.
“”Utu, Sabitu, Aradia, Tiamat, Nanashe, Gula, Zikia, and Badtibi. Those islands make up the Halqu Isles or the Islands of Halqu. Each has their own individual government along with their own specialties.”
An arm was slung around Julius’ neck bringing him into an embrace that caused the back of his head to hit against a broad chest. Glancing up, he noticed Aesop giving him a toothy grin. His emerald green eyes were glinting with mischief as he shifted a bit closer to Danai. The girl seemed to notice him, and with eyes like black beetles, focused a stare on him so profound that it sent shivers down Julius’ spine. With that, she turned on her heel and made her way towards the others leaving the two boys to let out a sigh of relief.
“I swear, I’ll never get anywhere with Danai. She invented the cold,” Aesop cried.
“Maybe if you were a bit upfront instead of sneaky with your advances, she’d accept them.”
Aesop glanced down at Julius, his eyes somewhat hidden behind the unkempt brown locks of hair. His russet, reddish-brown skin and boyish features made him a formidable foe with most. If Julius had grown into a brawny giant, Aesop had to have been a dashing elf. Though there wasn’t anything elven about him in the slightest despite the slight pointedness to his ears albeit subtle.
“Ah well, once we get to Aradia, I’ll find a cute little number to shower with gifts.”
“And where are you going to get the money for those gifts? Out of your cut of the deal?”
Aesop blanched and rubbed under his nose with a shy little smile. Julius’ eyebrow quirked upwards and before the brunette could say anymore, Krista cried out.
Julius and Aesop clambered to look over the edge of the ship’s deck and marvelled at the sight of a magnificent array of islands. They were various shapes and sizes, but there were eight in total. The ship hovered over one of the islands in the center and Julius had never seen so much green amongst a sea of blue. While the Red Duchess made her descent, the crew began to prepare to unload the cargo. Julius’ heart was pounding in his chest as he helped Hamish gather the rest of the shipment and place it near the exit to where the drawbridge would make itself present. Cody and Aesop worked together to lower the sails while Donovan and Krista went over the last few strategies needed to speak to the trade guilds.
Danai remained motionless and quiet as she sat perched upon the crow’s nest with her eyes trained on the foliage which was becoming closer and closer. The Red Duchess was completely surrounded by trees that stretched endlessly to the sky. A few flittering sylphs and tree nymphs could be seen peering at them from the trees and fluttering underneath the ship. Julius peered over the edge before looking up to see the sky becoming smaller and smaller as a canopy of tree leaves blocked out most of the sunlight. When he looked downwards, there were two people waiting for them at the docking muttering to one another. The ship came to rest and Julius heard a low groaning sound along with a splash of water.
The drawbridge came down and the two newcomers made their ascent to greet the crew. One of them was an elderly woman with her hair pinned up into a bun. She had a rather large snake wrapped around her neck and a bright smile. Her weathered skin looked like brown leather, and her brown eyes were bright. She wore a dark red poncho that came to her knees and was belted around the waist. Her companion was much taller than her and younger, a young woman with glossy black hair and rich brown skin followed behind her in a black poncho. Her eyes were brown, but there was a circle of white around the iris that was visible as the pair drew closer.
“Calpurnia, what do I owe this pleasure?”
Donovan came closer breaking the silence between the two groups. The older woman looked to him and her lips drew upwards into a warm smile. She reached out for his hand and held it between both of her own.
“Donovan,” she sighed. “It has been far too long. The last time that you visited, you promised to stop by for tea.”
The red-haired man sought to think it over and once the memory was found, he laughed nervously. The woman behind Calpurnia folded her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow.
“W-Well, I was rather busy then and I did come back.”
“Seven years later,” the young woman interjected.
Calpurnia chuckled as Donovan tried to come up with a comeback, drawing him into an embrace and holding him tight. Donovan was much taller than her, practically by two heads, but he hugged her nonetheless with a warm smile. Cody and Krista took to helping Hamish with the unloading though without their usual chatter.
“And who is this new face?”
Julius turned his attention from his shipmates to look at the old woman who was now staring him pointedly in the face. The snake around her neck seemed to notice that its’ owner’s attention had shifted and turned to look at Julius as well. In between Calpurnia’s gleaming eyes and the snake’s slitted ones, he could feel beads of sweat on his brow. Perhaps she had found something in his eyes because not a moment later, she drew away and went back to the young woman’s side. Julius let out a sigh of relief and went to help the others as Donovan set to talking to the odd pair. But as he turned his back, he could feel a pair of eyes on his back.
“It isn’t that I’m not happy to see you, Calpurnia, but we have a shipment to bring in and then we’ll be off again.”
Calpurnia hummed softly and looked to the young woman at her side.
“Siofre and I did not come here to exchange mere pleasantries, Donovan. Your guides should have been here not too long ago to ward off the creatures in the forest as to ensure safe passage. But look, they are not.”
Donovan looked from her and then surveyed the expanse around the ship. He could hear the sounds of the wildlife but none of man. Siofre unfolded her arms and reached into a pocket in her poncho, drawing out a thin dagger, the blade being wrapped inside of a cloth. Donovan’s eyes widened as she handed the blade to him and unwrapped it for him. It was shining with crimson red and the hilt was adorned with a symbol that made his blood run cold. All movement on the Red Duchess halted and eyes were drawn to Donovan who stood stock still staring at the blade.
“How many of them was it,” he muttered. “Did no one come to their aid?”
Siofre looked to Calpurnia who gave her a curt nod.
Donovan clenched his fist around the hilt of the dagger and drew in a breath. The symbol of a snake coiled around a post with a fire over its head vanished underneath the veil of the cloth. He handed the dagger back to Siofre who tucked it into her poncho with a passive expression.
“We still need to bring the shipment in, that doesn’t change. We just need to be careful. Even moreso now.”
Hamish came to stand beside Donovan and casted a wary glance towards the two women before returning his gaze to the red-haired man.
“What is the plan?”
“Bring the shipment onto the boat. We can’t take this path into Dagan, so we’ll go around by water. Calpurnia, Siofre, will you be joining us?”
Calpurnia seemed to mull over the thought for a moment but Siofre nodded her head ushering the older woman onto the ship. Julius looked from the pair and back to Krista who was perched ontop of a few crates that Cody was carrying. He chuckled and turned away to go bring a few on himself only to notice that there were eyes on him again. He frowned and looked back over his shoulder, his eyes meeting Calpurnia’s who gave him a quick wave from where she stood with Siofre. Julius returned the wave albeit with an uncomfortable little smile. The snake around her neck was staring at him intently, its tongue flicking out a few times, and he made a quick mental note to not come close to it.
“PFFFFFFFFT,” Aesop tried to hold back his laughter and ultimately failed as he doubled over. “I can’t believe it! Our fearless Captain used to be a bed wetter?!”
Donovan’s eyebrow was twitching as the brunet continued to howl with laughter. Though after a few seconds, Aesop was brought into a headlock and his laughter gave way to muffled cries of release. Danai smirked as she took a few sips of her tea and Julius inched away from the boy’s flailing hands. Calpurnia chuckled with ease and Siofre spared a little smile that vanished as quickly as it came. The crew sat around the deck in a circle and talked, watching as the ship sailed on through the seafoam waters of the Taloc River.
“Hey Donovan, how is the ship even running without someone guiding it?”
“Water nymphs. They’re actually very helpful with a bit of persuasion.”
Krista nudged Julius and caught his attention, leaning over and telling him in a not-so-whisper.
“What he means is, he is bribing poor spirits with seaweed stew.”
The others save for Donovan laughed at the captain’s expense, and a slew of curses were muttered under his breath although he tried to bite back a little smile. Julius tried to keep his attentions on the conversation even as it changed to little things but couldn’t help glancing towards Calpurnia from time to time. The older woman had her gaze stuck on Julius for quite some time and it was making him antsy. Her smile was ever present but it held a hidden intent behind it as though she knew something that he did not. Cody’s whistle brought Julius back to the present and he turned, noticing her and Hamish were peering over the edge of the ship.
“I can’t believe that the fish have grown this big out here,” she yelled. “Oi, Aesop! Go get the poles!”
“You’d best be careful, dearies,” Calpurina called. “They may be fish but their will is much greater than you’d think. The mana surrounding the Islands of Halqu have given our aquatic friends a new sort of power.”
Cody chuckled and weighed the fishing pole in her hand before laying it flat against her shoulder. She casted a haughty smile towards the old woman who motioned for her to try with a wave of her hand. Rearing her arm back, Cody threw the line out to the water and held fast with a gleam in her eyes. No one moved or breathed for a moment until there was a tug, and then a sharper one, and then a pull that nearly rocked the entire ship. Cody’s eyes widened and she did her best to pull backwards as to bring the beast closer to her instead. There was a tug of war; Cody pulling and the beast in the water pulling back.
Julius hurried to his feet as Hamish grabbed hold of the fishing pole and pulled as well. Aesop was behind him and Julius soon followed afterwards, pulling as to keep the ship from capsizing.
“Gods, Cody! Just let it go!” Donovan cried.
Cody bit back a few choice words and continued to pull. The sound of cracking wood brought Julius’ attention down to where her hands were gripping it. The wood was smoldering and smoking, Cody’s hands turning an orangeish-red as she gripped the pole harder.
“There’s no way.. In Ersetu … that I’m gonna let a fish beat me!”
With a ferocious growl, she pulled harder on the pole and nearly sent her shipmates on their back. A mighty creature sprung from the depths of the ocean and for a moment, blocked out the sun as it sailed over the Red Duchess. Its’ orange scales glinted in the sunlight, and it looked much bigger than the golden fish that were sold during festivals. Cody stared with wide eyes even as the pole was ripped from her hands and drug into the watery depths with the fish. There were no words to be said and Calpurina hummed softly while Siofre rung some of the water out of her hair.
“I told you,” the old woman boasted.
The ship soon came to a standstill and the drawbridge came down once again. Calpurnia stood to her feet and with Siofre’s help was guided down the bridge onto a sandy shore. Donovan was the next to follow along with Krista, Danai, Hamish, and Cody. Aesop followed along with Julius though hung back for a moment to whisper to him.
“Hey, you know how that lady showed Donovan somethin’ that spooked him right?”
Julius nodded, and raised an eyebrow as if telling Aesop to continue.
“Well, if whoever our guides were died on the way to us, how did she know that?”
Julius opened his mind to retort but found himself looking at Calpurnia’s back without an answer. How had she known?