Voyage of the (Air)spacemen! Part 2

*** Link to part 1 here***

Zeph woke up in an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar bed, naked, under luxurious and warm quilt covers. Her mind felt woozy, her body somewhat numb and cold, her limbs tingling as if touch was just returning to them. A female unit she didn't know looked at her wide eyed from the bedside and then passed her a glass of some unknown liquid. Shakily, Zeph accepted, trying not to spill it. She smelled the liquid, sipped it, ready to spit it out at the first sign... It was just a glass of cold water. She sipped some more, not trusting in her body not to choke if she took the water more quickly.

"Be right back. Careful. Try not to move too much." the unit said quietly then got out of the room, locking the door after closing it. There was something wrong with that girl, but Zeph couldn't quite put her finger on it. Nevertheless, unit's leaving left her some time to look around and try to remember. The room was nicely furnished but quite small. She wasn't a part of Altenstein any more, that was for sure, but she didn't belong to Charlescom either. That meant that she was a prisoner but... whose?
Zeph tried to remember the battle and her capture and... They were there, the three of them, with some bats, full service paid, Peuge and Clio and her, wearing Altenstein's colors and ready for anything enemy could throw at them. Dwagons? Easy. Gwiffons and megallos? Super easy. Everything else wasn't even worth their consideration, except for other archons and Charlie wouldn't do that? Right?! Then it came, some sort of flying Arkin' ship and it had shockamancy guns, just like ships do, and it could maneuver and fly like a megallo and their shockamancy didn't work right on it... and... and... Zeph's head started to ache. They did their best, they really did. But neither of them had Foolamancy special and only Peuge had leadership and Clio was the only one able to lead dance fighting but there was no time to start it... and they both just... croaked. It wasn't even a contest. Two shockamancy salvoes was all it took.

Zeph's vision started to blur as her eyes filled with tears. No Charlie. No sisters. No friends, and that hurt more, because you can't choose your sisters but you can choose your friends. They both croaked and then they, the enemy, they... shot some sort of net at her and... captured her? The moment the net was over her, there was darkness and Zeph couldn't remember anything after that, no matter how much she tried. She heard the door unlocking, swiftly lowered the glass on the nearby table and covered herself better. The female unit that gave her water entered first, followed by an oddly familiar caster she couldn't quite recognise. There was something much... wronger with the caster than with the unit.

"You're awake. Thank Titans." the caster said, without greeting. "Random, fetch her some clothes. You know which ones. Hurry, she'll be cold."
"Yes, my lady." the one, Random replied and left the room again. So, royal side. Hmmm...

The word clothes jiggled Zeph's memory. That's what was odd with Random. She is wearing...

"...Archon uniform only wrong colour." the unknown caster finished her thoughts. Or did she speak?

"No, you didn't speak." the caster said, sitting by her bedside and giving her another glass of water. "But your lips moved as you thought. Another effect of the poison that nearly croaked you, although of the poison diluted by antidote. It will wear off next turn. Good thing we caught you in time."

Zeph remained silent, thinking frantically...

"Sip your water, it will help hide your thoughts." caster said. She had a kind smile, which probably made her more dangerous. Zeph quickly obeyed her, still thinking...

"While Random is away, I'll give you some info, you might think that I am lying but I'll appreciate if you don't interrupt me. Ok?" the caster said.

"My lady, Charlescom offers a reward for return of captured archons. It currently sits at " Zeph started. Caster waved her into silence, annoyed.
"...over 9000 schmuckers. Yes, I know. Do try to concentrate. This is important." the caster interrupted her. "Do we have a deal?"

Zeph nodded.

"Good. My name is Julia Avernes. Former Dollamancer of Helloar, now working for Albatross. You're prisoner of Albatross. Helloar has a florist, Rosabella Briar. That florist is very good with poisons. Altenstein has good trade relations with Helloar and one of the products they buy from them is Briar's poison. Different types of poison, in different quantities. Got all that?" Julia asked her. Zeph nodded. Dish. Albatross. Oh... Dish.

"Ok. Anyway, Altenstein paid Charlie for your full service. You basically turned to Altenstein. You didn't have to wear different uniforms or Altenstein livery except for certain scarves around your neck and hand ribbons around left wrist." the caster continued. She took one of those scarves from her pocket and shown it to her. "They each have barbarian-made changemancy small item, 'AM-puley', on them, filled with Briar's poison. See? That tiny thing that looks like part of pattern but is doubly sewn? If any unit is captured with the scarf or ribbon on, the moment it stops being Altenstein unit and becomes prisoner, the am-puley activates, injecting your body with poison. And what a devious poison it is."

"What does it do?" Zeph said, half-remembering some old briefing about Rosabella Briar. They have all wondered about double-sewn pattern anyway, so it made sense it was used for something.

"Gets you unconscious and croaks you in 15 minutes, Zephyr." Julia said. "Unless somebody uses healomancy and gives you antidote."

"How do you know my name? And what else do you know about me? And, more importantly, how?" Zeph said, suddenly very angry. Her body still felt weak and numb, though.

"Glad you asked." the dollamancer said, smiling. "The purpose of the poison is to protect the side's secrets. It could croak you in three minutes, but three minutes is a long time, you could tattle all sorts of things during those minutes, so it makes you unconscious for a whole turn first. But, the poison for making unit unconscious interferes with the main poison and extends the time from 3 minutes to 15. Our changemancer devised antidote in collaboration with some Healomancers. We sent them clothes via hat, they sent us healomancy scrolls and antidote. Good trade but I digress..."

The caster suddenly gently touched her forehead, with her whole hand but without permission and moved it back just as quickly.
"Good, you're not burning up in fever any more. The purpose of the poison is to keep secrets, the way to see if antidote works and the proper dose is reached is to ask questions. 'Are Charlescom uniforms blue? Are you female?' that sort of questions. Once answers start coming true, the patient is in the clear. Which is good for us too." Julia smiled.

"You are Zephyr Ford, level 5, archon of B++ class. Codename Zap, thinkname Zeph. You have dollamancy, shockamancy and thinkamancy abilities. You were worried that you're not getting enough missions, that you're not good and beautiful enough. The fact Altenstein paid for full service for you and your two sisters Peuge and Clio had you overjoyed at first, before you started to doubt. You didn't enjoy sexual encounters commander Brannigan ordered you into before he got bored of you and sent you to fight and croak here. You sometimes feel like you're the lowliest archon in Charlescom, and the worst one and... all sorts bad things. You shouldn't." Julia finished.

Zeph was shocked and sipped some more water.

"You're beautiful and powerful archon, Zephyr. Quick reflexes and your quick thinking, those are the only reason you survived the battle. You started to remove the scarf before the net hit you. The AM-puley injected the dose into your hand instead of your neck or you would have croaked sooner than 15 minutes. The only reason I made archon uniform for Random is because she adores you and other archons. She is just a courtier from Faranco, she heard about all sorts of archon achievements and wants to provide useful services to Albatross like archons do to every side they serve, but she can never be the one, she can never become an archon and that is a bit sad."

'Maybe it is', Zeph thought, still hiding her mouth with water. 'But why should I care? A courtier from a podunk town, her dreams and feelings are of no importance to me.' But she had to wonder. Faranco was one of Charlie's "safe houses", a small harbour town which had a permanent contract to provide archons with provisions and quarter them between the missions. It did not matter to which side the town currently belonged, Charlie would always contact the current ruler and make the same contract. It allowed him longer and more effective reach and service reception.
Peuge's own triad had spent maybe a dozen turns in total in it; the furnishings were not much, but the whole town was friendly, the food was good, the beach was nice and it all provided a welcome respite from missions. (*** Tools, see here: http://www.erfworld.com/blog/view/45130/pinup-3-by-xin  *** ) . She never gave courtiers a second thought. So, what if there was at least one courtier admiring archons? What about it?

The unit in question, Random, chose that moment to return with the clothes.The nightie was the first thing Zeph noticed, a dainty thing that looked see through and not warm at all. It was hatred at first sight. Seeing other few items was comforting: her Charlescom uniform, seemingly unchanged; her skirt, her shirt, her shoes, everything looked in mint condition. But it was the third set of items that she eyed hungrily and that reaction surprised her greatly. The underwear, some sort of long undershirt and panties and what appeared to be thick socks; it wasn't hers, but the combination looked even more comfortable than clothes provided by Charlie and that thought was quite a surprise.

"Random will help you get dressed." the caster, Julia, said. "Not the uniform for now and you'll see why in a couple hours, but underwear and nightie. You might be prisoner, but we will take a good care of you."

"Why?" Zeph asked her. She wasn't sure where that question came from.

"Because we don't want to croak you and I hate dungeons and the work done in them with all my heart." the caster said, her smile souring. The look in her eyes when she said it... Zeph was going to remember it a long time. 'Maybe that's a point of weakness I could exploit.' she thought. "There's also a question of your upkeep. Unless you turn to Albatross very soon, we can't keep you that long. And we're on quite time critical mission and it is a secret one. We could use your skills, but if you don't turn, we'll have to get rid of you. Trading you back to Charlescom is out of question, because it would reveal our location."

Well, that was worrying. Zeph didn't know what to think about it.

"It will take you three turns to completely recover from poison. So, I'll ask you three times to turn. Here's the first one: will you turn to Albatross?" Julia asked her, but it was obvious that she wasn't expecting a positive answer.

Still naked, weak and numbed, still feeling rather faint and in complete power of her captors, Zeph shook her head.

"No." Zeph said.

"Pity." Julia replied. "This is first mate's cabin. My cabin. You can stay here until you fully recover and Random will make sure that you do. Then we'll have to let you off the ship. Prisoners don't get flying special, you know, you'll just have to hope you survive the fall then swim to the shore. But the chances will be in your favour that you'll survive the fall, fully recovered as you will be, and then chains will disappear and you will be able to use juice and fly as an escaped prisoner. You'll have to rest in sea hexes, though, but that should not be a problem. I don't advise you follow us."

"What? You're going to just... throw me overboard, chained?" Zeph asked.

"Unless we think of something smarter. Or you turn. But don't worry. That's three turns away. We'll probably think of something." Julia told her, looking somewhat embarrassed. "I'm pretty sure we will think of something by then. Practically certain." Random rolled her eyes and gave a deep sigh. Julia gave a small cough.

"I have some work to do, some juice to spend. Random, take good care of our guest. I'll come back to check on her tomorrow."  the caster said.

"See you." Random replied then waited until Dollamancer was out before turning to Zeph.

"Hi, I'm Random Nomen, my friends call me Dent. I'm going to take care of you. What's your name?" she asked her.

"You already know that." Zeph replied to her, impolitely. She was sick of courtesy.

"Actually, I don't. Lady Avernes didn't let me be present during your depoisonation and subsequent questioning." Random replied, slightly hurt. Zeph felt a strange little pang of guilt.

"It's Zephyr. Zephyr Ford." she replied quickly. Zeph didn't know why she continued... "My friends called me Zeph." 'Until you croaked them both' she didn't add, but she as might as well could have.

"Zephyr is a nice name. Reminds me of far away hexes and sea breeze." Random replied, with a small smile. "Is it alright if I call you Zephyr or would you prefer Dame Ford?"
Zephyr actually winced on the second one.
"Zephyr it is then." Random added quickly, with a blush. "Didn't mean to offend you."
"No offense taken." Zephyr replied icily.

"I'm supposed to help you get dressed then give you some food. Would you like to do that now?" Random said politely, after unpleasant silence.

"Yes, please." Zeph replied, though she didn't actually see any reason for politeness. But Random was polite and there was no reason for her not to be, at least until the time came that she could stab Random in the back and escape. But time wasn't now, because her limbs were still tingly and numb.

"Let's do this then. Don't worry, don't be embarrassed, I have seen you naked before. You were unconscious and feverish, though, so you probably don't remember." Random said as she took a pair of panties and moved the blanket. She was firm and gentle at the same time as she helped her put on the underwear; Zeph was never in the situation like this before, to be dressed by someone else while half-incapacitated, her limbs refusing to obey her, but Random gave off an impression of quiet professionalism during it and it was sort of ok.

"There, that's better. Feeding time now." Random said, after Zeph felt warm again, then opened a chest Zeph didn't give a second thought before. Zeph was expecting dungeon rations, watery gruel or something like that, but what she got was chicken soup on a serving tray, roasted leg of the same bird, mashed potatoes and some cooked peas. It was slightly better than rations Zeph got while she was Charlescom unit, and that miffed her. Little courtier had to feed her, because her fingers weren't listening to her either.
'What is wrong with me, why won't my limbs work?' Zeph thought between mouthfuls.
"Don't worry, Zephyr." Random chatted with her as the food disappeared, acting oblivious, though she could probably read her lips. "You eat this then I'll let you rest. Everything will be alright, you're in the clear now, you won't croak from poison. Next turn, the sensation in your limbs will return, but you will still need help walking. The turn after that, you'll be alright."

"Then you'll throw me overboard, right?" Zeph asked her, cold as winter morning.

"It won't come to that, Zephyr. You'll turn before it comes to that, right? You won't let it come to that." Random said and her voice sounded almost pleading.

"No, I won't turn. Just trade me back to Charlescom." Zeph replied and her voice sounded annoyed, despite her best efforts.

"Can't do that. Don't have authority to do that. It will endanger our mission." Random replied and she sounded sad, as if she actually wanted to do just that but her Duty forbid her. Hmmm....

"Which is?" Zeph asked coyly.

"Don't know. They never told me." Random said. The food was gone now and Random was gathering dishes. "I'm just a courtier, I was not present during the war council. But they promoted me to Lady Julia's lady-in-waiting, our version of female lackey, right before the mission, so I had to go with her. I serve her food, wash and mend her clothing so she won't have to use juice, clean her quarters. Keep her company, that sort of thing. Despite that, she never told me anything about the mission. So can't tell you that. I can tell you other things though."

"For example?" Zeph asked.

"That you... well, you should be prepared. In a couple hours something bad will happen to your body, an effect of poison, so you should rest now." Random said. "And Julia is a nice person, much better than Uli, no matter what the others say."

"Uli?" Zeph was confused.

"Uli Severnaya, Albatross previous dollamancer." Random replied. "Julia... is special. Does the name Dick Tallman ring a bell?"

'It does', Zeph thought, then covered her mouth. Uli Severnaya rang a bell too. Dick was Helloar's dittomancer, Uli enemy caster that he croaked, but not before making an imperfect dupe of her, dupe that didn't decay, or so sister whispers claimed. Zeph had Uli's face in file in her memory and realised the truth a moment later. No wonder she looked so wrong.

"Julia is..." Zeph started but Random interrupted.

"Yes, she is." Random said, somewhat sharply. "And I am her lady-in-waiting. Now waiting on you. So, what more do you need to know?"

"How does this thing fly? How did it resist shockamancy?" Zeph said.

"Special element and special material to contain it solves flight." Random said. "Shockamancy resistance comes from thirty changemancy-made shock absorbers hidden just beneath the surface. You never had much chance, but it was too dangerous to try to capture you all, you might have revealed our position and we didn't have enough healomancy scrolls to heal all three of you. Even if we did, your upkeep would have ruined us or so we thought. I tried to make them capture all three instead of croaking you, but I'm just a courtier. My voice doesn't count in council, I just serve drinks. They took it in their consideration, but no one voted for it."

Zeph stared at formerly sweet little court lady. The way Random said it was both bubbly and yet cold and professional, subdued. She was making small talk of her sisters' croaking. It felt so wrong! They didn't deserve it! And the worst part was that it could all have been different, if only someone listened to a courtier that admired archons and served drinks! And captured all three and not just her. Instead, they croaked her friends.

"I'm sorry for upsetting you." Random said and she sounded genuinely sad. "Do you... need a hug or something?" This time she sounded worried and uncertain.

"I... I need some time to be alone. Please." Zeph said and her voice actually shook. Stupid voice, always getting her in trouble. It wasn't professional and it betrayed her at the most inopportune times, earning her multiple chicken coop assignments and worse.

"Ok Zephyr. I'll check on you in a couple of hours." Random said, then left her to her thoughts. She closed and locked the door behind.

Zeph waited for a little while. Once she was fairly certain nobody could see or hear her, she let herself go, releasing all of her pent up emotions. Bad signamancy happened to units that slept during their side's turn, but Zeph still unprofessionally cried herself to sleep.

***
The dream was old yet vivid as the first time she had dreamt it. It was just getting to the good part when...
Somebody was shaking her awake. When Zeph wouldn't budge, that somebody removed the covers and picked her up in a hug. She smelled good, that somebody.

"Wake up. Please wake up. Hurry. Please wake up Zephyr." Zeph heard her say quietly, while she rocked her. Some good smelling girl was insistent.

"I'm awake." Zeph replied, groggily. She opened her eyes and somebody, Random, let her go.

"We must hurry. Time is almost up. You can't stay in those clothes for much longer. Or in that bed. Hurry, help me undress you. Then lie down on the floor. We have to be quick." Random said and she sounded pretty urgent.

"Ok." Zeph said, although it was all so weird, the request, the tone, the setup, everything. She helped Random get her completely naked then was helped down to the cold cabin floor.

"Now we wait."  Random said, a sigh of relief. "I'm sorry, but its an effect of poison. Or the antidote. Or both. I don't know, but it's nasty and painful and we were almost too late but you looked so sweet as you slept, I didn't want to wake you."

"What's nasty? What effect? Why was this needed? I don't unde--- owwwwwww!" Zeph started, when sudden sharp pain in her stomach interrupted her. It hurt so much she couldn't breathe in after the initial howl and could only roll on the floor. She was stabbed with a sword once and it didn't hurt nearly that much. Her vision went red around the edges, darkening, while tiny motes of light danced in front of her eyes.

"Breathe in. It will pass. Breathe in, it will be easier, just breathe in. And let go when you feel the need, don't try to be proud. Breathe in..." she could hear Random as if from far away and at that moment Zeph fervently wished that prisoners could take orders from their captors because she couldn't obey this simple suggestion, no matter how much she tried, the pain was that overwhelming.

After an eternity of trying, Zeph finally breathed in and the cutting pain in her guts practically halved. Then they started to shiver and rumble and at this point the second part of Random's advice started to make sense. Zeph let go and what got out of her wasn't normal crap but mostly foul smelling brown water with few chunks in. The world was swaying around her, even with the eyes closed but the pain was slowly disappearing with every burst of the liquid and chunks.

It seemed to go on for a long time and Zeph felt completely exhausted by the time the process was finally over. Random moved her slightly away from the carnage and washed her whole with soap and few buckets of water, then dressed her in the same clothes she had removed what seemed to be eternity ago. She put her back in bed then started to clean the floor.

"Thank you, Random. Thank you." Zeph said and the amount of gratitude she expressed in her voice surprised her. She realized she actually felt it.

"You're welcome." Random replied, still cleaning. "It won't happen again and you can't be poisoned with the same poison any more. I went through the exact same thing, you know. After the siege of Faranco. Helloar's units fight with poisoned blades, I got cut. I still don't know why they wasted a whole healomancy scroll and a dose of antidote on me. There were more useful units they could have saved, stabbers and others. Why use it on a courtier?"

"I'm glad they did. And it wasn't wasted." Zeph said, with feeling. Then she felt ashamed of herself. Socializing with the enemy, are we in that business now, Zephyr? she scolded herself.

"Drink more water, it will help with the weakness and exhaustion. The poison is out of your system now. You will be able to walk next turn with someone's assistance. The one after that, you won't be incapacitated at all." Random said.

"Can't wait." Zeph answered. "How did you like your life in Faranco?"

"It was alright, I guess." Random said. "I served drinks during feasts, which were rare, sometimes made clothes from whole cloth but not often. I worked in the kitchens most of the time, though. That's how I got the nickname Dent one turn, I dented a wall in the kitchen with a frying pan. And enemy warlord's head, but that's not very important, really."

"Seems like a fun turn that one." Zeph said.

"More fun than the next one. He was from Helloar, you know, and he cut me in the fighting. I spent the next turn incapacitated, like you are now." Random said. Zeph pouted.

"That's no fun at all." Zeph said, and it sounded more honest than she intended.

"I know, right?" Random said. "Anyway, after the battle and the healing part they transferred me to the capital. My duties didn't change much until some turns later, but there were a lot more rumours in the capital, a lot more intrigue. I spent a few turns there, just doing my job, until a few turns ago, there was about to be the 'Grand Reveal Ball' or something like that. I was supposed to serve at the warlords' table, second in honour only to king's own. And to get new clothes just for the occasion! But... it didn't go that way."
"Why? What happened?" Zeph asked, moving into more comfortable position on the bed and taking a long sip of water, to hide her thoughts. She was supposed to gather intelligence for Charlescom at all times, prisoner or not. It was in "da rules", after all.

Rule number 14: Right information at the right time in the right hands is worth a lot of money. Therefore, collecting informations so they'll be in Charlie's hands is always a priority. Corollary: wrong information in the enemy hands is worth even more money. Therefore, spreading misleading information is secondary priority at all times.

As the whispers always said, try to be Jackie, never be Naggie, Zephyr.

"Anyway, I messed up one turn before the ball." Random blushed. "I accidentally spilled some leftover food on Maury, our thinkamancer, when I took her plate after the meal. Not much food on her sleeve, just a little red drop of sauce, but big no-no nevertheless." The courtier shook her head.

"I got a good tongue lashing from Biggie, the side's Obersthofmeisterin, my boss. No new clothes after that, of course, and serving at the warlord table? Forget it, Random. You're not fit to serve crap golems, let alone regular units, Biggie said. So they gave me a different assignment. During the ball, I was to wait on someone lower than crap golems in the court hierarchy as a punishment and the guards too. And I did, but it ended up okay..."
"How so?" Zeph asked, interested despite herself.

"I learned something important that evening. Turns out, when someone is lower in court hierarchy than anyone else, they don't care much about it and they're not bound to follow etiquette rules. So that person asked me and the guards to sit at the table instead of waiting on them. Needless to say, I didn't really do much serving that evening and I got to dance with a cute warlord that was the captain of the guard. So, I had a good time after all, because he was very chivalrous and a good dancer too. Do you know how to dance, Zephyr?"

"Wow." Zeph said. "Of course I know how to dance. Can't do the dance fighting without knowing how to dance and all archons can dance fight. Now, leading a dance fight... that's altogether a different story."

"Why?" Random asked.

"Cause you need either leadership or foolamancy, or both, that's the best option, and you need to be really good at dancing. And the most interesting is when it's dance fighting in the air." Zeph said.

"That sounds exciting. Were you ever in such dance fight?" Random asked. She finished scrubbing the cabin and was now giving Zeph her full attention.

"No. There aren't many humans with flying special and it looks a bit weird when it's just sisters dancing. One has to lead, you know, and that's hard skill to learn. You have to do the opposite than what you would usually do, like in a mirror." Zeph said. "I was supposed to be in a flying dance fight once. Transylvitans can fly and they have really tough and gracious warlords who are able to lead such thing. We were supposed to meet with them but Charlie said no. Transylvito couldn't pay for it in the end."

"Transylvito?" Random asked.

"Yeah, a side close to home. But I said too much already." Zeph said and blushed. Stupid voice, always getting her in trouble.

"No, I think it is very interesting. Is your home far away? I never saw it on any map."  Random said.

"It is. But Faranco was a nice change of scenery." Zeph said and decided to shut up for good.

"I guess. It has good beach hexes. I liked to go there on turns when there wasn't much work to do." Random said.

They talked about Faranco beaches and drinks and cocktails and kebabs and how it all looks from the air, how beautiful, for the next couple of hours or so until the end of the turn. The only weird thing during conversation was the feeling of losing altitude in the middle of it, before the vessel stabilized but Random didn't comment on that and neither did Zeph.

Zeph fell asleep exhausted, waking only once in the middle of the night, after a nightmare. Clio slept in a chair next to her bed in quite an uncomfortable position; in the darkness and weak moonlight, she almost looked like Random.
'I'm still inside a nightmare. This is just a bad dream. It's not real, none of this is real. I'll wake up in Charlescomm next turn.' Zeph thought and took one of her blankets with numb fingers. She covered her sister with it, because that's what archons did. Besides, Clio was a friend, not just a sister, no matter how much like an enemy she looked in the dream.

***

Tomorrow, Zeph woke up alone in the room, with Random nowhere in sight and all blankets accounted for. Her limbs weren't numb and tingly any more and she walked on her own two feet to the bathroom, when Random returned to help her. It was at the start of that turn, after the breakfast, when Dollamancer Julia Avernes returned. She carried two packages in her hands and Zeph's eyes widened in recognition.

"Looking familiar, Zephyr?" Lady Avernes said, in friendly tone. Zeph sat up straighter in bed. "We made a little detour to pick them up, they were right where you said they would be."

'So that what that loss of altitude was.' Zeph nodded then tried to mentally prepare for another round of interrogation by that caster. The fact that she didn't remember the previous one worried her greatly and made her shiver despite herself. Random looked at her oddly, as if surprised by her reaction.

"You will get them back, don't worry. Two of them, we will keep one as spoils of war. Just need you to answer me a few questions, that is all." Dollamancer said.

"The information you seek is available for a m-modest price. Please allow me to contact Charlescomm and start the negotiations." Zeph said, appalled at how unprofessional she sounded. Dollamancer shook her head.

"Can't do that, and you know it Zephyr. But that's no reason to be worried." Lady Avernes said. She lowered the packages on the nearby  table in front of her. "I have good news for you. We thought of something, so even if you don't turn, we don't have to croak you. But first, questions."

'Please, don't. Don't make me... don't torture me... please, don't make me reveal more secrets, please...' Zeph thought or maybe silently spoke. The glass of water was on the second table by the bed, away from her, so no hiding her thoughts. Dollamancer opened one of the packages and started showing her what it contained. First was net, then some tinned rations, can opener, signaller, poncho.

"The Charlescomm All-Weather Rain-ment Poncho, I presume, Zephyr?" Lady Avernes said, then continued in a sing-song voice. " 'The Charlescomm All-Weather Rain-ment Poncho is the perfect gear for displaying your side‘s livery, even in extreme weather hexes. In addition to making the wearer comfortable and toasty dry, they also mitigate weather-related movement and combat penalties for the unit who‘s sporting them! Limited quantities are available for sale, at very reasonable rates for Dollamancy of this unique combination of value!' I believe you said. Well made item, as befitting Archon-made clothes. Not good enough for me though, so I'll have to make some modifications." She pointed to the second item.

"The Charlescomm Either-net, your dual-purpose, single-solution item for capture AND carriage! Limited quantities also available for sale." she pointed to the third "Charlescomm Tinman Opener, specialized tool made for opening Charlescomm Healthy Field Rations, a meal fitting for a warlord, any time, any where, whether in field or in garrison. And finally, Charlescomm Signalleon, Foolamancy item with replaceable cartridges which come in three colours, yellow, green and red, for all your signalling needs. Saving your units juice for simple messages to be seen all across the battlefield. Cartridges sold separately, extra charges may apply."

"Did I get those right?" She smiled.

"Exactly correct." Zeph said, feeling miserable.

"Good. Now, about those questions." Lady Avernes said with another short smile. "Is Random treating you well? Is there anything else you need?"

"She is treating me very well, my lady." Better than a traitor like me deserves,  Zeph replied, expecting trap to be activated any second now. "I can't complain or find anything lacking."

"Are you two getting along? No murderous thoughts, no many escape ideas or tries? I know its a bit early to ask this, but we're on tight schedule." Lady Avernes continued.

"We're getting along just fine, thank you very much."  A little too well, maybe. Zeph replied, with a blush. What an odd question to ask, with Random right there in the room!

"I am glad to hear that." Lady Avernes said. "Our alternate plan, if you don't turn, depends on this fact. Wanna know why?"

"Yes, please." Zeph said.

"There's something you need to know about this vessel. The way it calculates available move, it is something between ship and... odd flying mount. How it works with ships? Units with Seafaring special give ships full move, there's some averaging and so on. Units without it 'ding' that move, lowering it. This vessel you're in right now, takes both units with Seafaring and Flying special. You need to have either one, really, only Flying is twice as good as Seafaring. And Dollamancy, but that might be because I made it. With me so far?" Lady Avernes said.

"Yes, my lady." Zeph said.

"Good. Anyway, Random is one of the few units on this vessel with none of the required specials. As such, she 'dings' this ship's move considerably. Thanks to that chance meeting with Peuge's triad, we had to go around a bit, to cover our tracks. We will need that extra move if we're to get this mission done as planned. That can be accomplished in only two ways: either you join the crew or Random has to leave. But you refuse to join, so... Alternate plan of getting rid of Random, and you, it is."

Dollamancer opened a map and lowered it on Zeph's blanket covered legs. It had shown three 7-hex islands, quite far away from each other. Sea hexes everywhere around.

"These are Queen Jillian Gunn's islands, Jill Isles for short. Heard about them?" Lady Avernes said.

"Yes. They are far away, in the middle of nowhere. Nothing interesting on them, of no strategic importance." Zeph replied.

"So you heard about them." Lady smiled. "For some reason, every island is made from variable weather hexes. Mostly sunny beach hexes, with a very rainy weather from time to time. Feral units pop in there and accumulate. About once every 90 turns or so, there's enough of them for Albatross forces to go and forage islands for rations which are then sent home by hat. Hexes and hexes of sea around them, closest land is between 15 and 20 turns away, depending on the island and your move. We will be there in two turns. If you choose not to accept our offer, you and Random will be dropped on one of them, we will refill our rations and be on our way."

"Why Random? She didn't do anything wrong!" Zeph blurted out.

"Someone needs to keep an eye on you, prisoner. It was her idea to capture archons in the first place and she messes up ship's move. I'm solving two problems with one trip here."

Zeph thought about it all. No, that wasn't right.

"You didn't tell me. We didn't discuss this!" Random said to Lady Avernes. It simply got out, without thinking, or so it seemed.

"It's for your own good. You're not a fighter. I don't want you to get hurt!" Julia replied, annoyed. "And we don't have time!"

"Still, you should have told me. I never wanted to be burden!" Random said, both annoyed and scared.

"I'm sick of your crap and your lies, Lady Avernes."  Zeph shouted at the caster. She lost control but it was too late to get back to politeness now. "I'm sick of your lies! You told me all sort of dwagon crap just to make me turn.  Charlie wouldn't do that, he wouldn't sell his archons to the side likely to croak them if they get captured! And all this about Move... I am not buying it! I will not turn."

The caster shook her head sadly.

"At this point, I don't care whether you turn or not. I don't care whether you believe us or not. Now we have an alternative that doesn't involve croaking you. If you don't turn, we'll go with it. End of discussion. This talk was only to inform you of our decision and reasons for it. That is all." Lady Avernes said then turned to Random. "Come with me to the captain's quarters. We shall discuss it, just as we should have before informing Zephyr about it. There just wasn't enough time to do so. Let's go."

They both took a package each and left Zeph alone. She considered escape, to return to Charlie and her sisters and tried to walk to her uniform, just left on the chair nearby. It seemed like a good plan and yet she stumbled after two steps and dropped to the cold floor, skinning her knee and hurting her left hip. So she crawled to it, climbed the chair with difficulty and actually had to sit on the chair to catch her breath.
"Not good, Zephyr." she mumbled to herself. You can't escape in this condition. Whatever they poisoned you with, it won't leave your body until tomorrow, if they can be trusted.

Zeph grit her teeth to prevent herself from screaming in frustration. Then she carefully and extremely slowly went back to bed, not falling down this time. She was still angry at the Albatross forces, the whole lot of them, and imagining the ways she would shock them when Random came back, looking upset and dishevelled. She seemed to have been crying and had just recently washed her face.

"Hi." Random said, trying to smile. "How do you feel now? Better?"

'Piss off! And go croak in a fire.' Zeph started to reply.

"Pissed off. You?" was what came out of her mouth. Wait, what to Hellabad?

"Me too. Angry and sad. They're sending me off the ship with you next turn. Well, throwing me off the ship with you. No time for proper landing." Random said darkly. "I have to accept that. Either that, or they disband me on the spot."

"You can stop trying right now. I won't turn to Albatross." Zeph said. "So cut the act, ok?"

"Pffft, I know. I am not trying to turn you." Random replied, annoyed. Words that came next were said in torrent of upset anger. "Everything is not revolving around you or your turning, Dame Ford. Did I tell you they're throwing me off the ship with you next turn if you don't change sides? No, I did not. I told you they're throwing me off the ship with you next turn. I know you won't turn. I'm fine with that, I know you have your reasons. I understand! And Julia has her reasons. And Captain Partupass and Gabriel have their own reasons. I don't arkin' care about your reasons or their reasons! The fact is, they don't want me on this ship. I'm an arkin' liability all of a sudden! I'm a loose harpoon gun! So they're throwing me off the ship! With you! Next turn!"

She shook her head, tears starting to well up again. "I am only telling you what will happen next turn, nothing more, nothing less. Pfft, their reasons. Julia doesn't want me to get hurt. Well, why did she let me come at all? She could have left me in Nautilae if that was the case?! And Partupass, she says I am not the fighter. I'll just feed exp to enemy boarding party. And Gabriel said I can't be allowed on the shockamancy deck again else I might throw another net and waste it or, worse yet, capture who knows what next time! So, they're throwing us off the ship. And if we both survive the landing, I'm supposed to guard you, like a prisoner, on some island in the middle of arkin' nowhere! Me, a courtier, guarding an archon?! They should better disband me right now, so I don't have to watch your angry face as you shockamancy my head off!"

"Why are you telling me all this, Nomen? Do you really expect me to sympathise?! You're my arkin' guard. Do you mind? I'm the arkin' prisoner here! And I can't even walk! Not properly, anyway. Because you poisoned me!" Zeph shouted back, red hot anger in her stomach.

"No, I don't expect you to sympathise. And we didn't poison you. We wasted a healomancy scroll and a dose of antidote on you, if Partupass and Gabriel are to be believed." Random replied angrily. "I am only telling you all this because I need to vent my anger before I explode and there's no other place on this arkin' ship where I can go to. Because it is full of busy people and I'm ordered to watch over you, and wait over you, and I would mess up with other people's duty if I went anywhere else! And they threatened me with disbanding if I don't do my Duty!"

"Bohooo, cry me a river. It's hard to watch over half-incapacitated archon. It's so hard being a guard. Vent! Vent some more onto the prisoner who can't arkin' leave!" Zeph replied. "You have it so hard! Dish! And who am I supposed to vent to?! I lost my sisters two turns ago. I lost all of my friends, the only friends I ever had! And I was questioned, I revealed Charlie's secrets and I don't even remember how and when and what secrets or even how many of them!  I'm arkin' Naggie! And then your dear Julia came here and fed me lies, in a bid to turn me, and reveal even more secrets! And then they set up all this, good archon, bad archon questioning game, let's turn Zeph and make it fun for the whole crew, why don't we! Our sweet courtier is useless on this ship, costing us move, at least we can use her to gain an archon, she would certainly turn if somebody is nice to her, she is that dumb! Let's feed Zeph some more lies, but package them nicely, make her get along with the useless little minx, she will turn easily then! Well, I won't! I won't forgive you for croaking my sisters and I certainly won't turn to the side who did it! I arkin' cried myself to sleep last turn!"

"Well, sorry for being in a fight! That's what archons do, they fight, they croak and get croaked!" Random shouted back. "At least you can fight. I... I popped as a courtier! Do you think there's a place in City of Heroes for courtiers?! Well, do you? Maybe in the Hall of the Mountain King, serving the deserving for all eternity? I doubt it. Of course I'm useless, I'm supposed to be in the kitchen or mess hall, either cooking or serving better people or making clothes for better people. I have no idea why they even took me with them! And I'm stuck with you! And I'm going to be stuck with you on an island in the middle of nowhere! It is all a cruel joke, a twist of Fate."

"Tell me about it." Zeph said, shaking her head in anger. She touched her cheek to confirm and it was indeed wet; she was tearing up for a while now and she didn't even notice when she started weeping tears of anger. Pathetic, really. "I'm crying from laughter right now. Good job on that joke Fate! Do another one! Do a barrel roll next!" she added bitterly.

"What's a barrel roll? And what is naggie?" Random asked through tears.

"That would be telling." Zeph said in fake calm voice then turned to the other side, towards the wall and away from Random, storm in her heart still raging on. She grinned through tears, a little too wide to be sincere. "Hah! The information you seek is available for a modest price. But you won't allow me to contact Charlescomm and start the negotiations so there's that. Haha! Ha!" she added mockingly. She could almost imagine Random biting her lip in reply but she didn't say anything afterwards despite her anger.

After a couple minutes of angry silence, she could hear Random moving a chair from her bed farther away, closer to the opposite wall, as far away from her as possible in the confined space of the cabin then sitting down. And then there was a different sort of silence, the one Zeph couldn't quite categorize. Pouting silence, maybe? Silence after a fight when you told everything you wanted and you are now thinking about the consequences? Hm... Well, who cares, anyway? She was going to escape tomorrow and so better start making plans today for that.

Zeph didn't even get to do that for long,  maybe fifteen minutes at most, because the door opened and she could hear the sweep of the dress and steps.
"Oh, what a nice picture! Each one in her own corner of the cabin, giving each other some space, which is at premium on this ship. I see you two are getting along even better now, after our little chat. One could even say you're getting along like a garrison on fire." she heard Julia Avernes say.
'Yeah right. There might be no survivors.' Zeph thought but she was too angry to say anything to her captor.

"Exactly like a garrison on fire. There might be no survivors." She could hear Random reply miserably but with (she could almost see it in her mind's eye) forced smile. What to...?!

"Well, I'm sorry to interrupt your pleasant time together, but I just remembered I forgot to ask Zeph something before. And I did make a promise." Julia added.

Zeph turned to face the caster. "What?!" she said, annoyed at interruption of her thoughts. The caster gave her annoying little grin and Zeph wanted to bash her face in. With a rock. Shockamancy would be too good to use on her.

"Will you turn to Albatross? We have cookies." Julia Avernes asked, her grin widening. Grrrr! Calm. Down. Zephyr! Control your voice!

"No. I will not turn to your crappy side." Zeph replied, throttling her anger with difficulty. "Just trade me to Charlescomm!"

"No. I will not trade you to Charlescomm. That's all I wanted to hear. See you next turn." the caster said then turned to leave.

"My lady..." Random started but Julia waved her into silence.

"You too Random. Next turn." the caster said then left.

There was another long uncomfortable silence. Zeph's and Random's eyes met then they both averted them at the same time. Then more silence. It stretched for minutes and minutes, maybe even hours. At one point Zeph turned away from Random and watched the wall but the silence still weighted heavily on her. Although the quarters didn't look like a dungeon, that's what they were and Random was the only one she could talk to, security risk or not. And now they shouted at each other and neither would apologize so silence ruled supreme. It left her time to plan her escape but she did it for several minutes and every one of her plans went nowhere. She looked a the darn map of the islands. She noticed one interesting thing about it, but that was it. There were too many unknowns, too many variables. So the silence wasn't helpful at all. It sucked, all of it.

"I'm sorry." She could almost hear it, in the back of her mind, almost a whisper. She could say it or Random could and they will talk again. But it was too hard, you can't go back to civility once you burned your bridges by shouting and arguing and hurting someone for popping wrong. She called her useless just for popping as a courtier; that must have stung, badly. She could apologize but it was hard to say the words. Wait a second...

"Wha--?!" Zeph asked, louder. She turned sharply to look at Random.

"I said I'm sorry. For... For everything." Random said, nervously. 'So what? I don't care.' Zeph thought.

"Apology accepted." was what she actually said. "I'm sorry too. For calling you useless and... the rest of it."

"Apology accepted." Random said, with a sigh of relief. "Do you-- Do you need anything? A glass of water, a friendly hug, some food, to use the bathroom? I'm supposed to wait on you."

'Well, if I'm going to escape tomorrow, might as well pretend. It will be easier to stab her in the back next turn.'

"A friendly hug sounds good." Zeph said, getting up in the bed a little. "But I don't have any friends in here."

"Well, would you like one?" Random said and the tone of voice said that it was going against her Duty and a lot of other things.

"Yes please." Zeph replied and Random walked closer and gave her one friendly hug, as offered. 'Just kidding. Stabitty stab!' Zeph wanted to shout then push Random away. Instead, she closed her eyes and hugged Random back and it felt good, soothing just the right places she didn't even know needed to be soothed. 'What to heck, body?! Why you do this to me?' Zeph thought than let go of her thoughts and just enjoyed the feeling.

When they finally broke the hug, another awkward silence came into being.

"I... I might as well tell you what the barrel roll is." Zeph said, breaking it. "It's the joke that got out of Charlescomm already, so it is not much of security leak. Can't tell you what Naggie is. That's classified."

"OK." Random said.

"Anyway, it's internal joke made from internal visual feed." Zeph started. "So, the archons train, right? We have to train for all sorts of situations and roles, so we'll give the best service to our client. And there's this role of operator, that's when an archon watches over battle from safe spot and tells the other archons what to do. Searching for exits, prioritizing targets, sending new orders, that sort of thing. Anyway, it was training exercise and it was being recorded."

Zeph felt uncomfortable sharing it but it was already shared before by someone else so it was ok.

"Ten archons were chasing two. Those ten pretended to be dwagons and megalos, so it was foolamancy as shockamancy bolts and either nets, right? And the two archons were escaping and being guided by an operator. And thing is, there's left barrel roll and right barrel roll. You always have to specify which one when you're an operator. So, the operator is guiding them and it's regular things. 'Go left, left, now low, now dart right...' that sort of thing. And, at one point, archons acting as megalos get near, so the operator says 'Do the barrel roll next, I forgot her name, Dynah? Minna? Never mind, I'll remember later.' Anyway, she says 'Do a barrel roll next' and she does the right one, straight into her sister flying right next to her, knocking them both off the sky and causing them to be captured by either net. And it was funny because it was training exercise, but if it were real mission they would have both croaked or been captured."

"So? I don't get it." Random said.

"So, when archon is telling a story or a joke that falls flat, somebody would say 'Do a barrel roll next.' to end the story and other archons would laugh. It's internal joke." Zeph finished lamely.

"Huh. I think I understand." Random said. "It's a bit like 'Give me the eggs!' joke we used in the kitchens. You would just have to tell those words and everyone would be in stitches."

"Explain. Please." Zeph said. "I mean, fair is fair."

"So, anyway...' Random said "I don't know how to start this. There was supposed to be a feast of sort, it is not important about what, so there was supposed to be the cake, right? Large one for many people, very complicated to make. Biggie hates making them, they usually require more eggs than we are comfortable using and certain rare ingredients, like chocolate or coffee. So Biggie, after hearing about it and that the huge cake needs to be made for next turn, gets in the kitchen immediately and, without saying anything about feast or cake or any other introduction just stands in the middle of the kitchen and yells. 'I require eggs. Give me the eggs!' and we all look at her in confusion and Mellony, she gets the courage and asks 'What eggs?!' and Biggie replies 'ALL OF THEM! NOW!'. So we start scrambling around for eggs and then we stop and start laughing, Biggie included." she finished lamely. "Wow, it is not nearly as funny telling in to someone who wasn't there."

Zeph laughed, sincerely. It came as a surprise.

"I know, right? Do a barrel roll next is the same." She said. "But why 'Give me the eggs!', why not 'All of them!', that sounds more chuckle-worthy."

"Well, it sort of changed in telling." Random said. "It was first used only for eggs. Somebody would come to somebody else and say 'I require eggs! Give me the eggs.' and then get a reply 'How many?' 'ALL OF THEM!' and everyone would laugh. Then it moved to other things, we would say 'All of them!' to every request for item, like parsnips or oranges or something like that. And once it changed to 'You require more eggs... to finish the cake.' or 'You require more vespene cloth... to finish that dress.', that one was weird, I didn't like that change at all. Then at one moment everybody got sick of the joke for a while so we stopped saying it. And then, after a few turns somebody said 'Give me the eggs!' and it started being funny again."

"I see." Zephyr said and smiled. There were internal jokes like that in Charlescomm too. "I have to ask you something, Random." she added, her expression suddenly serious.

"Ask away." Random replied, with a slight nervous smile.

"Was Lady Avernes serious?"  Zeph asked.

"About what?" Random said.

"About the cookies? Do you really have them?"

"Some cookies, with raisins. They are not very good though, a few turns old, almost getting stale." Random said. "Why do you ask?"

"I require cookies. Give me the cookies." Zeph said seriously.

"How many?" Random asked, grinning artfully.

"All of them." Zeph said and Random chuckled, suppressing the smile.

"I'll give them to you, if you do a barrel roll next." Random replied and Zeph burst into laughter. Random couldn't contain it any more and joined her. They laughed together for a little while, then encouraged each others laughter with different words like 'vespene cloth' 'parsnip', 'dart', 'operator', 'megallo' or just funny sounds and faces, until that little while became long while and they both belly-laughed to tears until they couldn't laugh any more. Even chuckling hurt Zeph's stomach now.
We who are about to croak each other next turn, will laugh at anything. passed through Zeph's mind at one point but she throttled the thought. The next one she couldn't put away that easily.

"I need to use the bathroom. *chuckle*. Before I pee myself from laughing." Zeph said to Random, when they paused to catch a breath.

"Ok. I'll help you. Just try not to sneeze." Random said, helping her walk.

"Hahaha. Not helping, Random. Not helpful at all." Zeph said with a smile, then grit her teeth.

After they returned from the trip to the bathroom, things between them were quite a bit more subdued. But there was a something Zeph was very worried about and yet she couldn't ask anyone about it: She was on a barrel-roll-coaster of emotions ever since her capture; was that the effect of poison or were those emotions her natural response to the situation? Did the poison and antidote (or just a poison, in case they lied) affect her mind? And, if she asked Random, would the lady-in-waiting lie?

"A schmucker for your thoughts." Random told her, waking her from the reverie.

"I was thinking..." Nothing. I was thinking nothing special. Come on, say it, you darn Naggie. Have some pride.

"Yes?" Random asked cautiously.

"What was it like while you recovered from this poison? Did you have a laughing fit with someone like I had now?" Zeph said honestly, loathing herself for it. So much for corollary for 14, Zeph. You're a stinkin' failure as Charlie's profesional.


"Well, no." Random said and she didn't sound pleased, at all. "I didn't have anyone to have it with, for a start. They just used a healomancy scroll and gave me the antidote, supposedly questioned me, I don't remember that part, and then left me naked in an empty room for two turns, only giving me some food and water occasionally. Oh, and chief Vaterheim checked on me with some predictamancer on the first turn; the male predictamancer cast one spell on me, nodded to chief then they left, without a word. It was very humiliating, because I was completely naked and lying in my own filth at that point. I mean, I wanted to clean it all up but my limbs wouldn't work properly." Random's face scrunched up in memory. "The next turn was better and I did try to clean myself and my cell up, but I couldn't walk properly and it was hard so I just gave up. But no, no laughing fits, no... change to my emotional state at all. That's not how the poison or antidote work or so they told me. I asked. I had... some very dark thoughts while in the cell. I mean, why waste the scroll one me? I wanted to... end it all. But why... Oh." Random added, her eyes widening in realisation. "You think... thought that I... that we... That I am messing with your emotions to turn you? That... we poisoned you to make you more pliable?"

"Well... yes." Zeph said, slightly embarrassed, though she had nothing to be embarrassed about. "But you wouldn't tell me even if you did just that, right?"

"Well, no. You're correct. I wouldn't have been allowed to tell you if that was the case." Random said honestly. "But they didn't poison you. As far as I know, you had been poisoned with the same thing as I had been and received the same treatment. Your emotions are your own."

"That's... slightly comforting, I guess." Zeph replied, with a weary sigh.

"Yeah, but don't forget who is telling you that. I mean, I am your captor and guard and enemy, after all." Random said, darkly. "I shouldn't be trusted much, right?"
"Yeah, there's that." Zeph replied with sour smile, trying to copy the way Random spoke. "But I can't turn. There are rules.There's Duty. You understand."

"There are rules. I can't set you free because of them, can't let you contact Charlescomm. My Duty forbids me." Random said, with a sigh. They were quiet for a long moment.
"I like you, Zephyr. I'd like you to be my friend. I know we just met last turn, but that's how I feel." Random finally said. She sounded resigned. "But it cannot happen."

"I know." Zephyr replied then added, after a few seconds. "I like you too. Weirdest thing, but I do. Weird. And I'm searching and I can't find why are we getting along so well."

"Like a garrison on fire." Random added quietly.

"Like a garrison on fire." Zeph agreed. "It won't last long and there will be lots of warmth and light and choking smoke while it does... there might be no survivors."

"Too far. You really worked that simile hard. Or is it a metaphor?" Random said, with a grin.

"I think its a simile." Zeph said.

They were silent for a little while. Zeph got an idea.

"Any more rumours you can tell me? The court intrigue is very interesting. It doesn't have to be current." she said to Random.

"Well, I can only tell you old rumours, which are not a 'security risk' . But I don't know from where to start, there are so many!" Random replied with a smile.
"I'll try with the juiciest one. According to Oreana, Maelis Oakendark, one of our warlords, wets the bed." Random said. "But it makes no sense and we all think Oreana is lying. I mean, we did find wee on his bed but it was always after she was inside, she is chamber maid and all. And Maelis looks really frightening, he was in the most fights of all of our warlords, but never reached rank higher than the squad captain, he always looks scary and rarely speaks. We think that Oreana is trying to frame him, because they dated each other for a while and he broke up with her."

"Wow. That's a little messed up." Zeph said.

"Speaking of messed up, there's a rumour that courtier Wintergreen, in charge of hat communications, has hidden and stalled a number of orders from the frontier. It's Tracy that says this, she said that she saw him hide order from local commander Schwanzkopf."  Random said. "I mean, before Maury, our thinkamancer, popped, we used hats extensively, or so I heard and there was, like, red hat line or something for urgent orders and commander Schwanzkopf had sent an order to attack the city of Deeday right now, that turn. Tracy says she saw Wintergreen hide the letter and she got to read it, but when she returned, there was just ashes left in the fireplace."

"What? He just... hid an order from his commander? Then destroyed it?" Zeph said, shocked.

'Well, yes, but Tracy is telling lies constantly, trying to get more important in the court hierarchy than she is." Random said. "Even if it was true and Wintergreen did hide it, it ended up for the best. Deeday was heavily fortified, if it was attacked that turn, with those forces, we would have lost. Instead, our forces attacked 4 turns later, with much more siege and Deeday had fallen. Still, to take the power of a warlord, to take... responsibility and subvert orders... If king knew, if we lost, Wintergreen would have been disbanded long ago. I mean, he is just a lowly hat clerk."

"And it would have been king's right to disband him. I mean... subverting command structure, it was practically treason! Even if it did end up for the best." Zeph said, still reeling from shock. To mess with the command structure, to disobey your superior, to disobey Charlie... it was unthinkable.

"Yeah, but still... He did what he thought was best for the side, if the rumour is true. And he got lucky." Random said. "Tracy said that she saw Wintergreen speak with the king during one of the banquets, which is nonsense. King Rodge barely knows that courtiers exist, why would he take time from his busy schedule to talk with Wintergreen, who is not important at all in the court hierarchy? Just more of her lies, I guess. Anyway, there's no more red hat line, since Maury popped, but there are still yellow and green lines, for other reports and orders and Wintergreen is still walking around with his head on his shoulders, so that's just another rumour."

"I guess." Zeph said, thinking about it. Then added. "We just sharply gained altitude then stabilised. Do you know what that means?"

"Yes, I know what gaining altitude means but that's not what you're asking, isn't it?" Random said. "As for why, I have no idea. I don't understand a lot about this ship."

"There are certain flying enemies which can fly and follow only on certain altitudes. Go above their max altitude and they can't follow, either bursting from pressure or something. Some creatures of the air even have the lowest altitude below which they can't go." Zeph explained. "We're probably evading something. Maybe even other archons!"  'I could try to escape! But... no. Not in this state. I can't overpower Random like this.'

"Maybe. I don't know." Random said cautiously. "They said nothing about archons, Julia and Partupass. They said something about feral gwiffons but nothing about archons. I... I really don't know."

"Ok." Zeph said, letting it go. If it were archons, she would just meet them after escape. "Any more rumours?"

"Well a few more, but they are not as juicy. Who hooked up with whom, who offended that noble and why at the feast and so on." Random replied.

"It's all so interesting. We don't have that sort of thing at Charlescomm." Zeph said and it wasn't entirely true. It was just kept low, as to not bother Charlie with nonsense. They wanted to make him proud with how professional they were. "Tell me more." she added.

And Random did. Zeph gave her some old stories and some fake stories, all of them from Altenstein in exchange and they talked about it until the end of the turn and the nightfall. It turned out that courtiers and archons with dollamancy special shared a similar expression. Who could have guessed?

***

The start of the next turn was different. Once Zeph opened her eyes, she found both Dollamancer and Random standing by  her bed.

"Try to walk to the bathroom, Zephyr. Please." Julia Avernes said and Zeph did. At least that part of their story was true; she felt completely healthy again and the unassisted trip was successful.

"Get dressed." Julia said to Zephyr then turned towards Random. "Get her dressed if she resists. Full uniform, the whole thing..."

"There's no need for that. I can do it myself." Zephyr said then removed the dainty nightie and put on her spotless Charlescomm uniform. She felt different, more secure in herself and her abilities. With the uniform on, she could bleed the world dry for Charlie. I can face them, I can take them now, the power has shifted. Zeph thought.

"You look fetching." Julia said, after looking her all over with professional interest. "Charlie certainly has style."

"He does." Zeph said. "Let me contact Charlescomm. I'm certain we can negotiate my freedom in a way which doesn't reveal your location or interferes with your mission."

"There is no such way." Julia said. "The moment you get in contact with Charlescomm is the moment Charlie realises you're captive of Albatross and he has enough previous info to realise how that could have happened. And then this mission might as well be cancelled, because there is no chance of success any more."

"That is false. It can be arranged." Zeph said.

"I won't gamble with that. " Julia said, then added in more ceremonious tone. "I'll ask you one more time. Zephyr Ford, archon of B++ class, codename Zap, will you pledge your permanent allegiance and Honor to the side of Albatross, so that you may serve and defend our kingdom and values?"

Zeph looked at Random and saw her frowning, a tiny sliver of hope in her eyes that she would turn but a lot more belief that she won't.

"No. I will not do such thing, Lady Avernes." Zeph replied, in the same ceremonial tone and stature.

"As you wish." Lady Avernes said, resigned. She was about to tell something else when Zeph interrupted her.

"The map... It has the tinker tanner foolsign seal on it. You bought it from the Bentrasi." Zeph said.

"Yes. The Unbound, the Thirteen, the Salt Spicers... They have many names but much is not known about them. Rumours, lies, exaggerations. It is said that they don't have the capital city. It is said that they are guided by Fate and Luck and good with Numbers. It is said that there are only thirteen of them, captains that sail Erfworld sea hexes with their personal stacks. It is also said to always buy whatever they offer you, no matter the price, because you'll need it later in your journey and whatever you're trying to do will be harder if you don't. That last one might be true. We met with them last turn and traded certain items. They gave us the map and some other things, things that were the solution to the Zephyr and Random problem." the caster said. "They were very interested about Charlescomm package. I asked why they don't trade with Charlie directly if it is that valuable to them but they said that they don't do that any more, not for a long while."

"They don't. Bentrasi told you the truth." Zeph said. Old briefing about the Bentrasi, codename Wanderers. Archons had orders to try to hail them and establish exchange. If that failed, the other orders were shoot on sight. The history... the last time Zeph was briefed about them, they were refusing all trades, which was odd, because they were one of Charlie's most reliable suppliers until that one turn. Then they just stopped, without a warning, with no indication any of her sisters had done anything to deserve it. In the following over 500 or so turns, 4 Bentrasi vessels were sunk, with loss of all hands, always at the cost of archon triads which did them in. After that, there were only occasional sightings and mysterious losses of triads and duos in the sea hexes which couldn't be explained the other way, what with their training and equipment. Zeph looked around the cabin and found that the map was now missing.

"Be that as it may, they were very interested about the equipment. I made two more copies for their pleasure. And they also were very interested in data about you, Zephyr. I didn't give them any and traded more Dollamancy work and juice for informations and stuff." Lady Avernes said.
"But I digress. If you're not going to turn... Cuffs and manacles."

They materialised from nowhere on her hands and ankles, steel cuffs and manacles connected with chain. They were heavy and their weight sapped almost all the confidence Zeph gained from wearing the uniform again.

"No more talking. You have left me no choice." the caster said, taking the length of the chain and starting to drag Zeph towards the door. "Let's go. Random, take the stuff you need from the quarters then follow us. Come on, the turn is short."

And just like that, Zeph found herself beyond the door and in the steel hallway. The belly of the beast, as it were, because the metalic hallway was tight and claustrophobic. Lady Avernes led her through some parts of the ship, telling her what the doors were leading to, but she might have been lying, because they were mostly crew quarters and larder and storage.
One lead to observation deck and they made a detour there, to see the ship firing the shockamancy onto the island hexes.
"Lots of ferals in there." Julia explained. "We're slaughtering them for rations. We don't want them to croak you two and you'll have rations to pay for your upkeep, so the king has no reason to disband Random."
After the shooting stopped, they walked some more and came to a wider area, with some wooden boxes tied to the walls and some armed guards, at least six. There were no double-sided windows here, like on observation deck.
"This is the docking bay. Stand here." The caster told her, pointing at the part of the floor that looked nothing special, absolutely the same as the other parts of the floor. There were no openings or doors towards outside. Zeph looked around, taking it all in and Random entered soon enough, with some things in a sack in her hands, tied to the left hand with an odd strip of cloth material. She was wearing one of Rainment ponchos, turned green and yellow, the colours of Albatross, with the sheen of material similar to the one the ship was made of. Julia removed Zeph's cuffs then put the similar poncho on her, this one Charlescomm blue, before cuffing her again. Zeph didn't try to fight her, because, what was the point? There was no way she could win with these odds.

"I modified those ponchos, made them more waterproof with gummi michaelin. And you'll need it, because the variable weather hex of the island we're throwing you in is in rain phase now." Lady Julia said.
As she spoke, Random slung a Charlescomm backpack on Zeph's back and tightened the straps, part of them oddly going on her legs; they modified it, somehow. Lady Avernes herself tightened the straps on Random's. She turned to Zeph again.

"Last chance. Would you kindly turn to Albatross, Zephyr?" she asked her. Zeph shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts.

"No." She said with finality and her voice didn't betray her.

"I'm sorry Random." Lady Avernes said. "But it has to be this way. I'll do my best to get back for you two once the mission is over. I promise. Maybe hire one of the Bentrasi again or something."

"I know. I'm sorry too." Random said then hugged the caster before moving to stand closer to Zeph and taking her by the hand. "Goodbye, Jules."

"Goodbye, Dent. Remember your orders. Keep her on the island." Lady Julia said, then pulled a lever.

They dropped through the hole that opened in the floor and the air was suddenly rushing to meet them, as they fell uncontrollably towards the beach hex of the island, turning this way and that in the air. Without her flying special, Zeph couldn't control her fall and was barrelling to her death. Wait... We trained for this. Yeah, we did. Training scenario Weird Valley... that's right. Just spread your arms and legs, control your descent. Just as if Weirdomancer took your flying special away in the middle of the battle, just like we trained.

Zeph tried to do what she learned but there's a difference between theory and practice and sometimes even greater difference between practice and the real thing. Some things became clear very fast: she was still cuffed and manacled, with a heavy backpack on her back. She couldn't do anything of what they taught her! As the beach hex got nearer and nearer, the ground approaching fast with the finality of croaking from fall damage getting more certain every second, Zeph did the only thing she could: let out a scream of frustration and rage.

Then there was a sudden tug on the straps of the backpack, her whole body shook, as if from impact, then a sharp turn and the world got darker from the shadow above. Zeph's descent slowed considerably. She looked around and saw a bell of blue cloth above her head which seemed to be slowing her fall. Random was slightly below her and to the right, with a bell of cloth of her own, this one green, and a sack in her hands.

"Whee!" tore out of Zeph's throat, the sensation of gliding without the flying special overwhelming. This was actually fun, now that she was not going to croak from it.

They landed on the beach, first Random then Zeph. Random landed ok, with a running start. Zeph stumbled, fell and got tangled in the ropes of the device that slowed her descent, with the strange cloth covering her body and blocking her vision. No matter how much she fought, she couldn't set herself free. A few minutes later, she could feel Random touching her body, searching for something, then a cutting feeling and sounds of tearing and removing of material. Then Random helped her back on her feet and put the pieces inside Zeph's backpack on her back.

"Archons are not the only ones who train." Random said, with a sack at her feet. "The fallsacks catch the air rushing by you and slow your descent. You need to train how to land properly though and those manacles and cuffs couldn't have helped matters. Just a minute."

Random got a map from the sack and looked at it before putting it back. Then she took a resized hat from one of her pockets and a piece of vellum and some sort of graphite wooden pen from the sack and wrote something on it.

"Wanna see?" She said to Zeph and showing it to her. "Landing accomplished. Preparing to move and set up camp in the next hex. Maury-Vater's map fully functional. Watchlufts in place." was what she wrote, before sending it away with a word. The reply was immediate and Random displayed it to her:

"Proceed with the plan. Moving away from the island. Good luck. Lots of love, Julia."

Random pointed towards the center hex, which was a jungle hex with lots of foliage and heavy rainfall.
"We should build camp in there. Raise the tent, put our things and us under it. Here, I'll remove your leg manacles." Random said then did just that then started to walk towards the hex. "Wanna help with the building process?" she said back at Zeph, behind the shoulder.

"Why should I? In fact, why should I even listen to you? It would only make it easier for you to guard me if you had shelter." Zeph said but she still followed behind Random. 'I'm only interested what else she has in that sack, nothing else. Besides, I have to retrieve the rest of Charlescomm property.' Zeph lied to herself, trying to excuse her behaviour.

"Because it's nearly the end of the turn and you'll need a bit more time to plan your escape? Besides, courtiers are easier to croak at night, they are more vulnerable, everyone knows that who knows anything about courtiers. And you don't know yet what watchlufts are and how to use the Maury-Vater's map properly." Random said, waiting on the edge of hex. Zeph dropped her backpack and turned around and started to walk, fast, away from Random. She stopped on the shore and stood still, giving waves and beach hex and air above the beach a wistful look. I should try to escape right now, run into the sea. She has no seafarer special, she won't be able to follow. Zeph thought. I could return later and croak her, shock her and steal the sack, contact Charlescomm...

And yet, it was hard to think that way. That little courtier did her no harm. In fact, she did her best to help her, to make it alright, to go beyond the call of Duty. In fact, she saved her life. And the hug... what was with that? And the laughter? Why? How? 'She is the enemy, Zephyr.' Zeph reminded herself. 'She is the only reason you're not free right now. She made you Naggie. She has to pay for that. And yet... Why is it so hard?'

Zeph heard Random dropping the sack and the backpack and... Removing the poncho? Whatever. She heard her walking closer to the shore, her shoes making soft sounds on the sand. "Cuffs." Zeph heard her say and the weight of iron disappeared. Zeph immediately removed the Rainment too, to have her arms free.

"Please. Don't start right now. Wait until tomorrow." Random said and she was now close enough to touch her. She chose not to. "But, if you're going to do it this turn, do it quick and don't torture me. Just end me quick."

"I'm thinking about it." Zeph replied, frowning.
"Why?" Random said, disbelieving. Her tone said it all. 'What's there to think about? I'm the only one standing between you and freedom. I'm lowly courtier, barely level 3, non-combatant. You're knight class, battle-popped, battle-hardened and battle-ready archon, level 5, with shockamancy special. You can croak me easily enough.'

"I'm thinking about it too." Zeph said.

"Well, in that case, you should croak me tomorrow. I took some items from the ship, put them in the sack. Clothes, signaller, food. With raisins. We could share, if you like. If you would help me build the shelter. Please. Leave it for tomorrow. Or the night, in my sleep." Random said, with a hopeful smile. Zeph could almost see it.

"With raisins? You took the cookies?! You could have taken any other thing from the vessel and you took the nearly-stale cookies instead of something else?! You do realise that sack and you have max encumbrance?! And you actually took the cookies?!" Zeph said, incredulous.

"Yes. All of them." Random said and she was smiling for sure now. Odd girl. "But you can't have them unless you help me. No work, no food."

"You must have been whacked in the head with a wet sock too many times." Zeph said, turning to look at Random. She was indeed smiling, a wide grin. Even worse, it seemed sincere. "Tell me again, how many cookies did you take?"

"All of them. The rest of the crew can suffer without sweets for the rest of their journey. Serves them right for stranding me here with you." Random said. So.. She did it for petty revenge in a way that didn't conflict with her Duty?! Why... why would you do that when it's going to be croak or be croaked situation and... she took cookies?

"Wet. Sock! That's why you're so loopy. Whacked in the head with the wet sock. There's no other explanation." Zeph said then shook her head. 'I might as well stay for a turn or two. Their mission has nothing to do with me.' She let out a sigh, resigned to her fate. "Now, where did you say you want that tent?"

*End of part 2 * (fullsized image can be found here , the story of the image can be found here.  Enjoy.)

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