Chapter Thirty-Nine: Into the Outer Realms
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Chapter Thirty-Nine: Into the Outer Realms

Being outnumbered three to one was a serious disadvantage for us. But not having three high-level magic users and several more adepts was a serious disadvantage for them. Oh, and a Master of the Fang School.

I'd never seen Dhyr in mortal combat but, if I thought my own gradually-improving skills were impressive, they were only impressive relative to beginners and those of modest talent. Dhyr was clearly neither. They preferred to fight unarmed except for their claws, picking up whatever nearby weapons were available and using them in clever and injurious ways before leaving them by the wayside. As I looked over the deck for a spot where I might call down lightning or push a group of enemies back, I spotted Dhyr leap up a staircase, throwing a sword mid-leap to skewer the pirate atop the stairs, kick him over, and then use his tumbling body to slide across the deck, leap over a railing, and land atop another opponent, using the man's own sword to gut him. Later, Dhyr would tell me with some regret that they'd 'only' managed to defeat a dozen of the pirates. Meanwhile, I didn't do much - as we waded into the pirates' battle lines, it was hard to find anywhere that there were pirates but not us. After my first few magical salvos, I think I managed four pirates on my own.

When the pirates came at me one at a time, I'd simply side-step them and use propuls to toss them into the sea. And the ones with the audacity to climb back aboard to join the fight got tossed over with a few extra holes in them. Normally, I'd prefer my rifle to close combat, but all of our rifles were busy sinking to the bottom of the Shimmering Sea while we fought with swords, axes, an cutlasses… and magic. That lightning bolt was one of Calivar's to judge from its color, a precision strike that incinerated one opponent and left another two spasming on the deck.

The pirates had outnumbered us three to one, but we soon had them leaping into the sea or throwing themselves to the deck, pleading for their lives. We'd killed thirty of their number and injured most of the rest, and they'd only managed to take out five of ours, though Captain Wilvis later told me that we lost at least six more between the bombardment and the sinking of the ship. We whooped and cheered on the deck while the prisoners were led belowdecks.

"Prince Velda will have my head," Wilvis moaned. "Wyrmstooth was one of our best ships, and I've just lost her…"

"And in return, you'll sail into port with one of the enemy's armored ships? I think he'll forgive you," I said.

"You think so, your highness?"

I did think so - Velda was a pragmatist, as much so as any fae royal I'd ever met (and we're a pragmatic bunch). Even if Velda was a far crueler man than his hopeful, idealistic demeanor suggested, I very much doubted he'd turn his nose at getting a larger, better-armed ship that his kingdom could base future designs upon. But first we'd have to get the ship back to him, and I wasn't about to abort our mission just to get the ship to Prince Velda. And, besides, it now fitted nicely into our plans…

The first thing I did was to try to get my spellsword back, but it was at the bottom of the sea now. I'd managed to march down to the bottom of the coast back in Hibernal, but this water was a lot deeper. Not bottom-of-the-ocean deep, since we were reasonably close to the archipelago, but probably a few hundred feet. Plus, it was night and we needed to get out of the area before anybody shoreside noticed that only one ship was left and she wasn't sailing back to port.

Gaelin, apparently, drew the short straw and had to calm me down. "We have to let it go…"

I scowled at him. My lips trembled, and I could feel myself about to go through the motions of wrenching his emotions, of belaying the order and forcing the ship to circle about again as I peered into the blue-glowing sea and pined for my sword. I could if I'd wanted to. I could have the ship circle all night. Something that I'd picked up, possibly from my mother, or maybe just from simple observation, was how to manipulate people (especially men) with an expression, a turn of phrase, a tone of voice. Part of me resented it despite its obvious utility… especially so because I could get others to agree to courses of action that I knew to be damn foolish.

"Have the captain mark the spot," I said.

Gaelin furrowed his brow. His hand took mine, warm and gentle… damnit, he was manipulating me, too! I almost laughed, but I was too upset. "He's already marked it," he said.

"Have him mark it again. Have him mark it carefully and make sure to get a copy of the coordinates."

"I will," he said softly. I didn't outrank him, of course, but I was the one who'd just lost a priceless, immensely powerful artifact, and so everybody was on eggshells around me. But I knew we had to leave.

The ship we'd captured was the Kraken's Cry, a wide-hulled ship nearly two hundred feet long and heavily retrofitted with a steam-driven propeller and more modern armaments. Among those were a mortar cannon meant for high-angle bombardment and a British field gun meant for use as a cannon. Fortunately for us, the field gun had suffered some sort of mechanical failure when they first tried to fire it at us. Otherwise, we'd have been blown out of the water before I could summon a vast whirlpool, let alone board the Kraken's Cry.

Capturing the ship was a huge boon for us - now we could churn through the waters flying the banner of the King in the South and nobody would think to stop us. The only problem was that anybody familiar with the ship or its crew would know that something was off when none of the new crew were familiar to them. Of course, we had other options: we had dancers on Prince Velda's crew.

"I haven't used my shifting since I was a boy," Captain Wilvis chuckled.

I supposed that made sense. Dancers normally looked like glassy-eyed seraphim attached to gangly and disjointed adult-sized bodies, but they could alter their forms to a pretty significant extent - shape, size, and coloration, though they couldn't actually change their mass. Some of them were a lot better at shape-shifting than others, and the really good ones honed their skills with years of practice. I suppose it would be a lot like flying for a fae: we could all do it, some of us better than others, but it took a lot of practice to build up the endurance, maneuverability, and intuition to be really good at it.

"Well you'd better get to practicing, then," I said. "We've got six dancers and dancer-kin on your crew. That means you need to go to the brig and find the three highest ranking officers and the three next most visible members of the Kraken's crew and practice looking like them. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it should be convincing from thirty feet away… talk to them so you know who among the six will be best at impersonating the voices of whomever you're disguised as…"

"Princess… forgive my impertinence… but I am not a spy."

I shrugged. "Neither am I. Yet here I am, a princess of Alfheim about to sneak my way into the Outer Realms to topple the King in the South. Would it be good for Wyrmsreach if I succeeded?"

"Of course! Princess, I never…"

"You're a captain and I'm a princess, and for now that means we both must be spies because the realm needs us to be. Am I wrong?"

"You are not…"

"I'm not," I agreed. "You told me earlier that we might have two days until we arrived at Garsellast, and that was hours ago… you've got a day and a half to prepare yourself."

The captain took a deep breath and nodded, his little beady dancer eyes never leaving mine. "We won't let you down, my lady."


Two days later, we sailed into Garsellast close to noon. We'd left Wyrmsreach from Fort Starron, one of the small kingdom's several coastal strongholds and one of three that had resisted serious pirate incursion to date. The fort was a small city, far less grand and prosperous than any fae port that didn't belong to a rustic fishing village. Even so, it had all of the hallmarks of a society built up over a few centuries, if not the millennia that fae cities boasted: paved roads, stone buildings, a serviceable basilica, and a formalized bureaucracy to keep the gears of civilization turning. Garsellast had none of those things.

I was a bit surprised by its size - it was, if anything, more populous than Fort Starron. Perhaps that was just because of the massive, messy sprawl of the place. Where Velda's fortress had an imposing seawall a hundred feet high with enchanted stone walls that could survive days of heavy artillery pounding, Garsellast had two small lighthouses and a wooden palisade that looked more for show than actual defense. Its buildings were mostly wood, with occasional mud-spattered plaster, and it was probably far too generous to call the city's urban planning informal. It reminded me of an infantry camp under an indifferent commander, only this was an entire city with tens of thousands of people and no formal sewage system. We could smell the city, reeking like swamp gas, from a few miles out, the fetid plume of its modest river curling out into the nearby bay and fouling everything up.

"Well… that's not pleasant," Meliswe said.

She'd been with me in Autumnal, of course, but we'd mostly stayed in captured estates and, when we didn't, our camp organization had been scrupulous. But Calivar and I shared a glance - we'd been in our respective nations' infantries back in our old life, and the unpleasant foulness of people was nothing new. As we approached the docks, the smell wafting off the water reminded me of being downwind from a hog farm - not a pleasant experience. I showed Meliswe how to fold a kerchief into a face mask, and then Dill pointed out that we could probably use woodsong to make masks that filtered out the smell - and she was right, that did work to an extent.

"I bet they have wonderful fertilizer here," she added.

She was right about that, too. The land that rose to either side of the city was terraced - some of the terraces featured the adobe and stucco houses of the city's aristocrats, or what amounted to them. Other terraces were lush with greenery, whether that was tropical fruit or little mud paddies for rice cultivation. But, as we sailed in, the dominant feature was the smelly and cramped edifice of Garsellast.

I'd made Captain Wilvis and the dancers on his crew practice their crew impressions, both visually and voice-wise. It was obvious that they weren't spies - the impressions were far from perfect. They wouldn't even be particularly convincing to anybody who knew the crew especially well. We hoped that, since they'd made port in one of the outlying archipelagoes, that meant they'd be relatively unknown in Garsellast and good enough would be fine - and it seemed to be. The harbormaster was happy to see the ship in, take our bribe, and stamp the dozen crates we claimed as cargo with import certificates. For another bribe, he personally showed us to the finest resort in town - which amounted to an oversized warehouse with extra windows and a smattering of tropical flowers planted around the front.

"It might be less than you're used to, seeing as how you've got fae-kin in your group."

We were trying to pass off as half-fae, or perhaps mostly-human with vague fae ancestry. We'd tried dyeing our hair to hide the obvious fae coloration, and that turned out looking obviously fake. Then we'd tried it using magical illusion, which worked well enough for Calivar, Meliswe, and myself, but nobody else had half the magical talent to pull it off, and there were all sorts of annoying technical issues with getting somebody else to magically illusion parts of your body. So only the three expert magic-users in the group had believably human pigmentation, and even so, my facial features were not those of a typical human and Calivar's were even more obvious.

"Just half-fae," Calivar said. "You know how fae are with half-breeds… we thought we'd have a better chance at fair business in this part of the world."

The harbormaster chuckled. "I wouldn't call business in Garsellast fair," he said. "But there's plenty of opportunity if you're willing to get your hands a bit dirty."

Calivar showed him his palms - the calloused hands of a soldier used to hard work. I showed him my palms, too - I liked to keep my fingernails expertly-manicured for princess-ly reasons, but I also had the evidence of hard work worn across my skin, both from our campaign into Autumnal and from hours of strain and sweat in Master Dhyr's dojo. Ours were not the hands of people unused to manual work… and neither were they the hands of sailors or average laborers. They were the hands of people who might not like dirt but who certainly didn't have problems with blood.

"Ah," the harbormaster said with a grin. "In that case, I think you'll fit right in."


About the best thing that could be said about the Fiery Orchid was that the proprietor was happy to take mithrins. He was a dancer named Falvea, silver-haired in the way of dancers over a certain age (though he could probably pigment it however he liked with a little effort) with strange blue eyes that glittered in his little cherubic face. He showed us the facilities - their rooms, a passable-looking sauna, an almost-passable-looking bath, and a central bar and lounge that was almost certainly preferable to whatever passed for a saloon or public house in the city.

The Fiery Orchid was clean and built over a stream and upon a hill, so waste could be pulled away and the smells of lower Garsellast didn't impinge upon them too much - though, when the breeze blew in from the harbor, it was unavoidable. At one whiff, I could tell whether the wind was blowing eastward. As the sun set, Meliswe and I sank ourselves into the bath… which seemed reasonably clean… and were soon joined by a trio of men very interested in our recent arrival. A sauryx, a half-pelagon, and a human, all of them a bit grizzled, all of them apparently sea captains of decent means and questionable morals. The half-pelagon (and, I assumed, half-human) had nictitating eyes, and more than once he dipped below the bath's surface to 'wet his head' but was quite obviously ogling the two of us through the murky water.

"I'd have remembered if you were here before," the sauryx said. His tail kept brushing along Meliswe's side in what he pretended was incidental movement from the trickling current of the bath, but was almost certainly deliberate. If he got much less incidental, I decided I'd slug him in the toothy maw. "I'm Chovho, captain of the Serpent's Kiss…" From his look, he expected we'd heard of the ship.

"I'm waiting for my husband," Meliswe stated. I nodded.

"Oho! And who's that? One of the Sun King's lords?"

The Sun King? I almost sputtered but managed to hold my tongue. Not only did the King in the South have a mad desire to invade the fae realms, he apparently also had serious delusions of grandeur. But he also had far more power than anybody else in the Outer Realms, and even if the city of Garsellast was nominally independent, it was because they'd opened their ports to his armies, their coffers to his treasury, and their daughters' bedchambers to his officers. We were deep in the realm of the 'Sun King'.

"They're mine," Calivar said, and he made a show of returning his hair to its normal coloration as he dipped into the water.

He slid in between Meliswe and me, his body hot against my side, the pungent smell lifting off of his body from our terribly bath-less stretch at sea. I reached for a bar of soap and a cloth and proceeded to rub him clean beneath the water, looking the human in his smoke-gray eyes, daring him to do anything. But Calivar exuded the presence of a fae prince, which was pretty much the same as that of a highly-ranked warlord. And, unlike in the fae realms, in Garsellast a man of significant power could crush pretty much anybody he wanted for whatever reason he liked. It didn't even have to be a good reason. I glanced to Meliswe, who made a little nod - she wanted to leave and so did I. Just stewing in the water with those three men made me feel dirtier by the second, even if the constant flow of water meant it was still reasonably clean. I felt dirty to my soul…

"Who might you be, milord?" the half-pelagon said.

Calivar shrugged. "The man who's going to cut out your beady eyes if you so much as glance at my wife like that again."

When in the Outer Realms, I supposed… I leaned into Calivar and kissed his cheek. "But I'd like to cut them out."

He shook his head. "You're far too fervent, my sweet. You'd kill the man, which would defeat the whole purpose…"

Meliswe glanced to the two of us in shock, but she was a clever woman and recovered quickly enough. "We'd do it slowly…"

Calivar sighed and shook his head, glancing to the sea captains with a hint of resignation, as if saying: do you see what I have to deal with?

"I meant no offense, milord…" the half-pelagon said, quickly finding an excuse to look anywhere but toward Meliswe or myself. "I'm fresh back from three months at sea… you know what that does to a man's sensibilities…"

"If it's anything like three months campaigning through the wilds, then yes, I do. And I prefer to spend my time in civil society with my wives… no matter how uncivil they might be on occasion. Now, my dears, if you think I'm clean enough…"

"Clean enough to get dirty again," I said.

Calivar sighed again and kissed my cheek. "I can never win with these two. Good evening, gentlemen."

As I stepped from the bath, I immediately wrapped myself in a towel, both to protect myself from the greasy feeling of being stared at and to hide the telltale marks on my back that made me for a fae. The little sinews that resonated with magic and formed our wings were reasonably subtle but unmistakable if you knew what to look for. And they were substantially larger on fae or fae-kin than they were on half-fae, as we were pretending to be. I don't think the captains noticed but, if they did, it would probably make them frightened and suspicious in equal measure. Outside of our group, it was highly unlikely that there were three fae in the whole of Garsellast.

Whether or not they'd sussed Meliswe and me out, Calivar had outed himself as part of his gambit to cow the sea captains, and word got back to Falvea, who served as both proprietor and barkeep at the Orchid. After we dressed and sat down for supper, he sidled up to us, wringing his hands and obviously terrified, either of us or of what we might say to him. The three of us were now committed to playing a part, and I was the unsettling wife of the frightening warlord, who doubtless had little patience for angsty barkeeps.

"Well?" I said.

"Milady… milord…" He bowed as somebody might in the court of a fae queen, and for a moment I thought we'd be made. But, no - it was just terror and obeisance. "I… not to pry… but I heard that milord knows of fae magic."

Calivar lowered his glass and stared at the man, the kind of stare you might give to a rancid side of beef rather than a frightened, cherub-faced dancer. Then, noting the man's obvious distress, he softened his expression - this warlord was not without a heart. "I do," he said.

"It's just… it's my daughter, milord. She's been ill - she's not been her old herself since the witch-woman brought her back from the brink of death…"

Calivar furrowed his brow. "I'm not exactly a physician…"

"She keeps saying strange things… drawing… they're artifices, I suppose…" The sketch he set upon our table was quite obviously an aeroplane with its double-wings and big propeller. It was like something I might have sketched, albeit a bit less artful.

"I think we'd better speak with her," I said.

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