Voyage of the (Air)spacemen! Part 1

Dollamancer Julia Avernes once again surveyed "The So-Far-Unnamed Vessel", her greatest and, if Fate would have it, not the last of her achievements. She ran methodically through designed checks, testing every seem and nook and critical piece of cloth on the list, then retesting them. If something went wrong during the naming ceremony, it would mean her life and that knowledge strengthened her focus considerably.
'Would anyone mourn for Julia Avernes if she was executed?' Julia thought as she checked, the same thoughts she had every night.
Her friends, of which were exactly two, called her Jules, and they might mourn, in secret, for they had court status to keep. For the rest of her side, she was "That annoying pest, the abomination that replaced our beloved Dollamancer, Uli Severnaja, may she rot in Heck!" or "That piece of evil that should have been left to decay!" then spitting on the ground. For court matters, when somebody actually had to speak with her, Julia was forced to respond to the name of Sack, under threat of torture. And nobody would mourn for Sack.

Yet, the dream of unlimited movement made king Rodge take a long, hard look at his available resources and send for her after three hundred turns in the dungeon, breaking his solemn promise that she won't see the light of day ever again and will croak of Signamancy decay with needle in her hands.
"Never say forever, never say never, for forever is such a lot of time and never-gonna-happen things happen with surprising regularity!" were the first words of her new Chief Caster Alphonse Vaterheim, after introduction and Julia's question of
"Why? My sentence is not over. It was supposed to be never that I'll see the light of... that." while the sun blinded her, after so many turns in darkness.
"It always gives proper punishment to all units to take away their excessive pride. It takes something fitting from the units to teach a lesson to the boastful. That is Fate." Vaterheim replied to her. "And it came to the king in the form of loss. It took away his favorite chief caster, Florist Treekin, and the king was forced to change. And who knows more about change than me? Now come, we have a lot of things to do." Vaterheim said and made her follow him. He was probably right, for Al Vaterheim was Changemancer and he knew a lot about Fate and Change. And things change in three hundred turns.

"Sack, stop with the checks and get over here. We're out of time." Aron said from down below, as Julia nervously did them for the third time. He was the leader of the axeman squad whose only job for the last 50+ turns was to watch over her and execute her at the first sign of trouble and he hated her for it. There was no glory or experience gained in watching a prisoner on your own side who kept her head low and didn't even try to escape.

"Just a moment, I need to check this." Julia said, rushing.

"No. Right now, Sack, or I'll come in there and drag you out." Aron growled at her and Julia was forced to get out of the hull and get down to the deck of "Faithful", where Lanned and Vaterheim and Maury and the rest of the crowd were already waiting.

"What took you so long?" Vaterheim hissed. "The ceremony is about to start."

"Sorry Chief. Last minute checks." Julia said, then went to the left and far behind, into the third row of courtiers and at far end of it, where she belonged. The other casters stayed in front row, in the place of honor, which was where they belonged.

Not two minutes later, the fanfare was heard, the noise of the crowd stopped and king Rodge climbed the deck of the ship.

"My friends. We have gathered here to name the greatest invention since our side's founding! Hopefully, there will be more to follow, but right now, there is only one of it and that makes it precious. And because it is precious to our side, it should have a precious name. So that will be the name of the vessel. I present to you 'Crystal Gem'!" King Rodge said, to wild applause. He raised his right hand after a while and the crowd went quiet again.

"But what is it really? you might ask, for this vessel was top secret. What kind of thing justifies the release of the murderer of our beloved Uli from our dungeon and suspension of her deserved punishment? What kind of vessel would set the thing which calls itself Julia Avernes free?" King Rodge continued, to expected Boo!s and spitting to the ground and croaking looks in Julia's direction. The king let it go on for a couple of minutes before raising his left arm.

"Well, I assure you, it was not an easy decision. And maybe 'Crystal Gem' is not really worth it." the king continued "But Fate has an unmistakable way to show us direction in which we should go. And, to my utmost revulsion, after Treekin's croaking, it pointed towards Julia Avernes. After the surprise discovery of that wonderful material gummi michaelin, it turned out that our beloved Nautilae had in her deepest dungeon the only Dollamancer able to work with it. And trust me, we have tried to find someone else in the Magic Kingdom, anyone but her and yet we have failed." the crowd was silent now. Julia was getting only occasional uncertain glances from few members of the crowd now, but that was it. The news were news to her too. She didn't know she was that special.

"And it may be that was for the better. After her release, discoveries followed one after another. The aethero element, the fallsacks, the watchlufts, the autoharpoons... They have all given more utility to our side then a thousand dolls made in the darkness ever could. And yet, Crystal Gem has the potential to surpass them all a hundredfold. Observe." king Rodge said. Fifty stabbers, some with seafarer special but most without, climbed into the vessel. Vaterheim and Lanned followed. The triple-weaved gummi michaelin roof of Crystal Gem started to stretch as the chambers began to fill with aethero. And then, slowly, it took off the ground, gaining flying special. The crowd went wild as it became obvious that Faitful has lost some of her move, but not nearly enough as it should have after losing 50 members of the crew. Then Lanned slipped down the metal line and stacked again with the ship. It gained the full worth of his move, which was not supposed to happen.
"By moving crew from Crystal Gem to Faithful, Faithful gains extra move. We did some tests in secret. The limit comes to 100 hexes range for Faithful, no matter how many crew we stack in Gem." king Rodge said. "And still, Crystal Gem has no move itself. Not until a certain simple Turnamancy item is attached."

'Titans, I hope this works.' Julia prayed silently, not daring to breathe in. She tested the mechanism again and again, but she couldn't be certain.

Finally, after an eternity of waiting, one of the hatches on the engine area between the left and right nacelle opened and attached propeller was revealed. Crystal Gem became a vessel, gained move. The same move ratio from the crew as if it was the worst of boats they popped in shipyard, true, but it had flying special. The metal lifeline was released and pulled into the Crystal Gem and then the air-space-ship circled around the Faithful then left the hex, only to return a minute later and attach itself back. The crowd was sufficiently awed and went wild. Julia breathed in again.

"Good job, Sack. I stand corrected. I guess there is indeed more inside of you than just crap." Aron the axeman told her. "The party is starting; let's go for a drink. I darn well need it and you look you need a lot more than one. You've been sweating like crazy since before the king came, gotta get all that fluid back somehow."

Julia realised that, as ugly a person as he was, Aron was right. Her dress was sticking to her skin by her own sweat and she felt the coldness of the wind. She didn't even notice she was sweating until he pointed it out, she was under so much pressure.

"Are you sure you want to be seen drinking with an abomination like me, Aron?" Julia said nervously.

"Sure, why not. Apparently, you're Little Miss Special now. Might as well get a head start in getting in your good graces." he joked. "It's just a drink, Sack. And I have to keep an eye on you anyway,  I should have some fun while doing it."

And just because he could, Aron took her by the forearm and manhandled her off the ship and into the party building.The other 4 guards followed behind them.

The noise level inside the building surprised her. There were so many people, people she didn't notice were there during the naming ceremony, she was so focused on demonstration. Julia felt self-conscious all of a sudden. Her dress wasn't made for gala balls or banquets of this size, it was a working, unassuming dress. For Dollamancer to be underdressed for the occasion was extremely shameful occurrence. Aron started to lead her deeper into the crowd and towards a buffet table set for the common infantry when a court lady she didn't know stopped him.

"Sir, please stop." the court lady said to him. "We have a special table set up for Julia Avernes and her guard. King's orders."

"Back to the fool table again?" Aron sounded annoyed. "I'm sick of..."
"No sir. Different table this time." the court lady said. "Please follow me."

The woman lead them all to the table in T stitching to the main one, where the king and his inner circle sat. It was not the 2nd best table, because warlords sat there, but definitely the 3rd best one. The odd thing about it was the undeniable fact that it was completely empty of guests and loaded with food, the sort of foodstuffs Julia couldn't even dream about. The court lady moved to the head of the table and got the only chair out; the movement revealed that there was a medium-sized hole on the bottom on her sleeve, the sort of hole you get when your sleeve gets stuck on something in the regular course of work and you don't notice and pull.

"Lady Avernes, if you please. This is your place." she said to Julia, waiting.

"Is that so?" Julia asked her, still not sitting down. "And what's your name? How should I call you?"

"I am Random Nomen. I am assigned to you as your personal server. I am to seat you and cater to your every whim this evening. Any food on this table is yours to do as you please, whether you want to eat it or pass it down the line." court lady replied. Aron started to seeth on Random's words, because it seemed Julia got a huge promotion and there were no chairs for him or the rest of the guards. He would be forced to watch Sack eat and have no food himself.

"Any nicknames, Random?" Julia asked, with a smile, as she reached to Random and took her hand then spent some juice to fix her dress. It was made of interesting mixture of fabric, a dud, and only slightly better than Julia's own. Shame to wear it during ball, really, but a good set of working clothes nevertheless. Random was probably popped with them.

"Well, some of my friends call me Dent, lady Avernes." Random said, stunned. Lady Severnaja never spent any juice on courtiers, it was below her station, the juice was too expensive a resource to use it to make courtier clothes, let alone fix them when the holes were getting fixed at dawn anyway!
"I dented a wall with Sir Sterling's head during the last siege of Faranco. I hit him with a frying pan and knocked him out, causing his capture. They transfered me from Faranco to the capital after that." Random replied, obviously uncomfortable. Juilia let go of her hand but didn't seat herself.

"Well, Random, I'll need you to do me a favor before I can sit here. Are you up for the task?" Julia asked her, with another slight smile.

"Of course, Lady Avernes. For this evening, your wish is my command." Random replied.

"Take two of my guards and bring six more chairs to this table. And another six plates and cuttlery sets." Julia said then waited until it was done. Then she turned to her bemused guards and Random.

"This is far too much food for me to eat alone and I have no idea what half of these things even are. Aron, would you please sit on my right side? Random, you sit on my left and eat with me, you can tell me what these dainties are. The rest of you, have a seat too." Julia said, finally lowering herself on the chair at the head of the table. They remained standing, uncertain what to do. This was going against the court protocol, Julia knew, for the king had chosen to put a single chair for this table for his own reason. In a way, she was going against king's will.

"Sit. Pretty please?" Julia added, while cutting the leg of some roasted bird and putting it in her plate, for she was suddenly starving.

"I know you don't spend too much time on court business S-Lady Avernes but this...This... is not how it is supposed to work, Lady Avernes." Random finally spoke, sounding somewhat mousy. "I'm supposed to stand by your side and wait on you and do whatever you tell me to. Bring you more wine when you ask, another plate of food, more bread, sing for you, that sort of thing."

"And I'm telling you to have a seat and join me. " Julia replied, then she remembered that she wasn't supposed to be nice, not in King Rorge's court. Uli, whose face she still dreamed of and saw every day in the mirror, was rarely nice, and that's why she was loved by all, because that was proper court etiquette. "So sit already, because I'm starving and you'll get in trouble if you don't obey my order. That goes for all of you, Aron and Michael and Gabriel and George and Yokko."

Reluctantly, with a lot of sideways glances, they obeyed her, Random first and Aron following, then the rest.

"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Julia said, after swallowing her first bite. "Take whatever you like. This is a party, let's act like it. Now, someone pass me the wine, please. Thank you."

It was awkward at first, Julia ate the meals in the order they came and was full much sooner than she expected, even though she only took a few bites of most things. Some of them, when Random wasn't otherwise occupied and no one at the table wanted, she sent untouched to the fools and jokulators' table. By the end of two hours, Random called her Jules and she called Random Dent, because they were fast friends.  Even Aron stopped calling her Sack and being perpetually angry, which was truly one of Titanic miracles; he called her Julia instead, which was huge improvement indeed. Three glasses of strong red wine each of them had might have helped with that.
In short, they were having fun, almost as if they were her personal guard and friends and not as if she was their prisoner they had to croak if she tried to escape. Almost, but not quite there.

When all of them finished their meals and most of the food on the table was gone, the regular background musicians stopped playing and entertainment started. Some dishonoured nobles and courtiers came out, six in total, and started roasting and ribbing at each of the troupe in turn, some the jokes funnier than the rest, to the wild amusement of the crowd. Then one of them, a man in ill-matching green suit with red pants started singing a song about hedgehog, badly, while the rest commented on his style or words, every time he missed a note, which was often. They were earning their upkeep and Julia even managed to laugh 4 or 5 times during those 30+ minutes they were in front of the crowd, while the crowd laughed uproariously all the time. She just couldn't do it, because she remembered when target of their jokes was a certain Dollamancer now seated in a place of honour. Humiliation still stung.

Then came more music, a music to dance to, and some units were coupling for a dance, George and Yokko among them. Awkwardly, Aron asked Random to join him on the fourth dance and she accepted gladly, after getting a permission from Julia first, which was a very odd feeling; no one needed a permission from Julia to do anything before and getting a permission for anything from Sack was out of question. They had fun, while Michael and Gabriel watched them and talked with Julia and drank another glass each, this one of white wine, mixed with aethero water. Not all applications of aethero were military and this one was more fun, improving wine taste.

Julia didn't dance, she had some of Uli's memories and Uli hated dancing and was bad at it, it was probably one of the things they shared although she didn't have a chance to test it.
They returned after 7th or 8th dance, to catch their breath and prepare for the customary last 10th dance, taking glasses of cold fizzy aethero water that was brought to the table by servants while the couples danced. Except, there was to be no tenth dance. King Rodge got up, waved his hand and the music stopped immediately while the sounds from the crowd died slightly slower. Vaterheim tried to tell something to the king, but he waved him into silence too. Julia realised that the king had drank too much.

"Lords and ladies. As a special treat, our beloved Uli would occasionally sing to the court. It was a rare occurrence, but her voice was crystal clear and the songs she sang always inspiring. After she croaked, that custom naturally stopped and we have had no singer take her place." the king said.

"We have here someone who looks a lot like Uli and claims to have her memories. Her murderer, actually. Julia Avernes, get up and sing us a song. Uli's favourite, you know which one, or so you claim." King Rodge's smile went ugly. "And you know well the consequences if you refuse. So, sing us a song and I better like it or else!" he added, pointing at Greg, one of his guards, who stood behind him holding a huge axe, one of few allowed weapons in the hall. The others were warlords and Julia's guard.

Nervous, her clothes starting to stick to her body as she began to sweat, Julia got up and faced the crowd. She didn't notice before, but it became clear now: the positioning of the table was very deliberate because soon all eyes in the hall were looking at her. She spoiled it slightly by bringing in more chairs, but was still at the center of attention. Malicious attention at that, noticing her plain dress and stance and looks and bad hair and sweating...

Julia took a deep breath to calm her nerves and faced the crowd. Uli's favorite song was a very devious song indeed and she never sang it as a first song in the night, for a very good reason. And, it sounded best when it was sang as a duet, with Maury as a backup vocal... This was going to suck, a deliberately calculated humiliation, just as she was beginning to feel safe and liked.

"As you command, my king." she replied meekly to him then concentrated, silently dreading the part after her first stanza. Julia positioned herself slightly away from the table, so the others could see her even more clearly. There would be no music accompaniment, which was yet another bad thing stacked against her.

"C. Can you feel.. Can you..?" she started uncertainly, stuttering, then went silent under the withering glare of the crowd. This was something Uli used to do and they loved her for it and she was infringing on her territory and trying to replace her and they hated her for it...

Julia turned towards the dais, towards the main and the best table, to her Chief Changemancer and Maury and Lanned and gave them all a pleading look; make it stop. Vaterheim didn't make it stop, but he gave her a significant look of his own and spent a smidgen of his juice to change the colour of his wine from red to green. Maury, who was Uli's best friend until she croaked, gave her a small, almost invisible nod and a wink. Go ahead, that's what both of those signs meant. You will not offend us.

'What do I have to lose anyway?', Julia thought and turned to face the crowd again. She took a deep breath and this time, her voice sounded strong and clear, confident.

(*** for your better enjoyment of the next part, please listen to this song before reading the text below. You can find it at this Did you do it? Good :) ***)

"Can you feel the river run?" she sang, dreading the next part.
"Waves are dancing to the sun
Take the tide and face the sea
And find a way to follow me."

She could see the fiddlers mimicking the playing on their instruments, but they didn't have the guts to actually play; this was supposed to be public humiliation after all. And this was the part Julia was dreading, for this was the point others were supposed to join for the refrain, and she wasn't allowed to sing it and the crowd was giving her only croaking, unamused looks.

"Song of the sea
Gold on the sails
Song of the sea" Greg suddenly sang, after a too long silence, getting croaking looks of his own.
"Gold on the sails" Random and Aron joined, followed by Michael, Gabriel, George and Yokko on
"Song of the sea
Sending the melooo-dies."

Encouraged, Julia continued, relief spreading through her chest like a warmth of a strong wine, her voice gaining melodic cadence that Uli once had.
"Leave the field and leave the fire
And find the flame of your desire
Set your heart on this far shore
And sing your dream to me once more."

This time,  her table was joined by those sitting by the king's side, Maury, Vaterheim, Lanned... after them joined the warlords and the other of king's guardsmen. Some of the others in the crowd followed Vaterheim's and Lanned's example. And nothing sounded sweeter.
"Song of the sea
Gold on the sails
Song of the sea
Gold on the sails
Song of the sea
Sending the melodies."

As the refrain died down, Julia could hear the music, a single fiddle at first but the rest joined in soon enough. It made things a lot easier and she was thankful for that.
"Now the time has come to leave
Keep the flame and still believe."
Maury joined in, in a duet and Julia let her take over until the end of stanza.

"Know that love will shine through darkness
One bright star to light the waves."

This time, almost the whole hall exploded in song.
"Song of the sea
Gold on the sails
Song of the sea
Gold on the sails
Song of the sea
Sending the melodies."

Julia took over again...
"Lift your voice and raise the sail
Know that love will never fail
Know that I will sing to you
Each night as I dream of y..." Julia sang when...

"Enough!" the king interrupted and his silent order behind the words shut them all up. He sounded furious, like if he was going to disband her on the spot, followed by disbanding of goodly piece of his own court.

"It appears that the dark Dittomancy that has created you has also given you another of Uli's gifts to use for nefarious purposes besides dollamancy, to corrupt everything you touch. Her voice was a beautiful thing, to hear it again from the throat of her murderer is cruel beyond measure, even coming from Fate." the king said, his eyes hard and sharp as a flint. "I hoped that you would decay in our dungeons, as any other Dupe does eventually, but that didn't happen, not after five turns, not after three hundred! Even worse, Chief Vaterheim tells me I cannot disband you, or some horrible things would come this Side's way, sent by Fate itself." King Rodge sighed then gave a wolfish smile, all teeth, incisors especially. Ugly smile, from an ugly soul. "I know all that and that's why I won't do it. But there's more ways to remove the corruption than disbanding." The king turned to his casters. "I'm going to do what you told me not to, Vaterheim. How can something that feels so good be bad for the Side? Yet, you tell me I'll be tempting Fate by trying it. Well, let's test Fate, and test it truly. You are all forbidden to use your juice to try and save her. This is between Julia Avernes, Fate and me."

Vaterheim had enough presence of mind to remain silent, but the look in his eyes was pitch black. He gave the king a short, sharp nod.

"As you command, my king." Maury replied instead, rather faintly. She looked as if she was going to be sick.

"Father." the prince started, but was shutdown.

"You too, Lanned. No Chief Warlord orders to the king, no gallant tries to save her. As I said, this is between Julia Avernes, Fate and me." the king interrupted him brusquely. He pointed to Michael and Gabriel. "You two, make her kneel in front of everyone. Greg, execute her." he added to his guard. Michael and Gabriel took Julia by the arms, moving almost like dolls, lead by the king's order, though she could feel their heart wasn't in it.
As the court watched in eerie silence, Julia more walked to her execution than they dragged her, any trace of alcohol in her body had seemingly disappeared, leaving her perfectly sober. By the king's order, she couldn't use juice to save herself and what good would it have done even if she tried? She knelt in front of everyone instead, moving her hair out of the way, so they could all see her neck.

Greg Leganic, her executioner, moved from his post behind the king which was his place as the king's guardsman and readied his enormous axe.
"Any last curse, abomination, any last plea? Any last words to remember you by, Jules?" he asked, his voice rumbling steel, emotionless.

"None." Julia replied, her senses taking a good look at the carpet below her, remembering every weave, every knot and colour, every single shape of it's pattern, every piece of cloth... Strange thing, mind, looking at every detail when it is about to perish, trying to catch all the beauty in it's surroundings because it was last time, trying to... Greg swung his axe wildly and lowered it at speed at her neck.

Julia didn't see what happened next from her position but she had certainly heard it. Everybody did, a loud snap, like the breaking of the world, a burst of light illuminated the room, like lightning. And the axehead was now stuck in the wall by the king's neck, still trembling, while Greg held smoking piece of wood in his hand, shocked. King Rodge's hand moved shakily to his reddened neck. He had lost a single hitpoint but it was enough to move him to the core. His golden chain of office fell to the ground with a loud clang, cleanly severed, hot on the edge where the axehead hit.

"Fiery finger of Fate." Lanned whispered, rather faintly. He almost became the king, over thirty hexes away from the nearest enemy. Maury turned to the other side, behind the table and noisily threw up.

"I... I tried to... I tried to warn you, your highness." Vaterheim stuttered, recovering from shock. "Fate... is not mocked. Please h-heed her warning... Or try again. Your call, m-my liege." Seeing previously always certain and profound Vaterheim stuttering had a deep negative impact on morale of every unit that saw it.

"We will do as you planned, Vaterheim." King Rodge said, slowly and deliberately. "I will retire to my quarters, to think about everything that happened this evening." He turned to the guards, still standing above Julia. "I will not have her in here for the rest of the celebration. Throw that thing in the dungeon until the morning. The rest of you, you can continue with the party." then he left, slightly shaking.

Greg helped her get up and Michael and Gabriel lead her out of the hall five minutes after the king was gone, so they won't meet him in the hallway. As they left, she heard Lanned say "Excuse me, I gotta go for fresh air a little." and follow them.

"Belay that order. Get Julia to my quarters. I'll be there with you shortly." he said to the guards then went back to the party.

Gabriel, Michael and Greg obeyed him and lead Julia deeper into the city and into one of the towers. As large as they were, prince's quarters were sparsely furnished, almost spartan. There was a table and six chairs, though, the only thing that wouldn't fit in the quarters of a regular warlord.

"Sit." Greg said and Julia obeyed him, sitting the furthest from the door. They didn't have to wait long, maybe five minutes in all, before the door opened. Julia turned and was surprised to see Vaterheim instead of prince Lanned. He was carrying king's golden chain in his left arm and a bottle of ethero wine in his right.

"Julia." he said, oddly pleased to see her.  He was calm now, not stuttering or anything. "Care for a drink? You seem like you need it."

"No, sorry." Julia said. "Chief, wh- what happened back there?"

"A contingency plan. Nothing more." Al said, lowering the chain and the bottle on the table and fetching six glasses. He sat to the left of the head table position, slightly to the right and opposite Julia. "You have more friends than you know of, Julia Avernes. But that story will wait for Lanned to show up." he started to fiddle with the broken chain, before saying a few words and fixing it, a miniscule expenditure of juice. And was quiet, just sipping his wine.
Maury entered a few minutes later, sat on the opposite side of Vaterheim and took a glass of her own.
"So. It worked." she said, after long, uncomfortable silence.
"Yes. It did. I told you it would." Vaterheim replied.
"What worked?"Julia asked. Maury didn't say anything, just drank some more of her wine. Not a minute later of silence has passed when Lanned entered his quarters, with Aron and female warlord Julia didn't know. He pointed them to sit then seated himself at the head of the table.

"That was too dramatic for my liking." Lanned said."He lost a hitpoint. That was not supposed to happen."
"Sorry sire. I can only protect against croaking, not against harm and incapacitation." Vaterheim replied. "But it worked. The mission is a go."
"That is so." Lanned replied. He turned to speak to Julia.
"Julia Avernes, you have more friends than you know of. This warlord is Partupass. Although she is technically a stabber, she can wield all weapons, a little. An oddity, like you and Greg and... others." he said then turned to Vaterheim. "Al, brief her."

Al Vaterheim gave small cough and finished his drink.
"A lot of things happened while you were in the dungeons, Julia." he started. "Thirty turns before Treekin croaked, a very strange things began happening. Things that have connection with unit popping." It sounded ominous.

"Albatross is naval power. Our strength comes from ships and the strength of a ship is its crew. Odd things started happening whenever we popped a stack with Seafarer special. That's how it started: all red-haired units in the stack, conjoined fingers on left hand, first on one unit in the stack of six, then in all units. Units popping without weapons, with misshapen feet, toes where fingers should be, fingers where toes should be. I used my juice to fix those units, so they could be useful. Then, one turn, an odd thing happened. Instead of a stack of six, popped 3 Sailors, larger than usual, with extra arms and legs. It took a lot of juice to fix." He took more wine from the bottle, put it into all other glasses.
"Two turns after that, popped... a unit. Misshapen blob with multiple heads, arms... horrible looking, non-functional, but with upkeep of stack of Sailors. I could do nothing about it, not with all my juice. I... cannot call it human. It suffered, so we croaked it, because it wouldn't disband. The turn after that, all the stacks of sailors that popped that turn were... blobs. We kept at it for two turns, before king stopped popping sailors." Vaterheim drank some more. "Then, it started happening to stabbers, then pikers, then the axemen, the whole infantry. The same cycle, first small imperfections, then... blobs, only it was much faster this time. As if someone was taking parts, properties of what made a soldier unit... well, unit, taking them out and replacing them with something... undefined. Albatross is not popping infantry any more. We still pop one stack from time to time, just to test things, but they all turn out to be... blobs."  He drank more wine, Maury and Lanned and Aron followed.
"Greg is one of the units that popped oddly, when corruption spread to axemen, his stack was him, large as 3 axemen, and 3 other axemen. I looked at odd units, him included. We even called barbarian predictamancer to double check. They all have mark of Fate on them." Al said softly. "You have mark of Fate too. Random Nomen, the court lady that served you tonight, has one as well. And the units with that mark have survived some amazing things that they shouldn't have. Random, knocked out high level warlord with a frying pan. Greg, survived 3 dire bears alone. There's stack of six stabbers, all of which had webbed hands and red hair when they popped, which survived 6 random encounters, unlead, and returned safely to the city. There are more."

"We have asked Charlie for the information of how it was done, after he offered it." Lanned interjected "He asked for 2.5 million schmuckers, the worth of the whole side, except for me, the king and the Capital and two small cities. I refused. We negotiated to something smaller. The name of the side for... not receiving the 1.000 schmuckers per turn he paid for the information about you."

"What?" Julia asked, surprised.

"We, like Helloar before us, supplied the information about you, every turn, what food popped, how you behaved, whether there were signs of signamancy decay... to Charlie." Lanned said. "Helloar's Dittomancer did it before we did, while you were still with them. For some unknown reason, Charlie was very interested in you."

"You... are a Dittomancy abomination, Julia." Maury said, not unkindly. "Dupe of an enemy caster, imperfect, which didn't depop after single turn, or even after five turns, with memories of the original caster. Apparently, Helloar's Dittomancer linked with an unknown caster to create you."

"We went over this. Dick Tallman didn't tell me who he was linked with." Julia replied."It could have been weirdomancer, or carnymancer, or signamancer, that's all he said."

"Nevertheless, Charlie was very interested in you. But, it doesn't matter, because we gambled with negotiation some more." Lanned said. "Info for info. For all the information we have on gummi michaelin and aethero element, Charlie was willing to give us more details."

"The side: Altenstein, the name: their weirdomancer Frank Funk in trilink with someone, the way: undisclosed. But he has to be in touch with water hex to do his magic, so he has to be in harbour city. There's four of them in Altenstein, each of them 5 turns away with Crystal Gem." Vaterheim continued.

"We have started manufacture of more vessels like Crystal Gem, by using units with fabrication and sewing specials. It will take time for them to be complete. Fourteen turns for 10 Gem vessels. Maury and Vaterheim will stay here to organize gummy michelin and aethero production. You will lead this mission." Lanned said.

"Your mission: equip Crystal Gem and make it battle ready. You have five turns for that. Then penetrate deep into the enemy territory, scare their weirdomancer so he leaves the waterfront, croak him if possible. Give us more time to build ships and air space ships and crew them. Then we can crush their newfound sea supremacy once and for all. Your resources: A Crystal Gem, carrack Smiling Wind which will dock in two turns, fifty crew members, 10 dolls, 3 warlords. Secondary objective: find new sources of informations, capture and interrogate them,  chart unknown hexes, set up watchlufts in them and bravely go through the airspace where none of our speaking units have gone before. " Maury debriefed her, her voice cool and professional. A cold shiver went through Julia's spine.

"That... can't be done. Not in five turns." she replied quietly. "The cloth protection, armour, guns! Watchlufts, aethero and juice batteries... it can't be done. Not in five turns, not in 10! Maybe in 15."

"You have six. On the seventh turn, Crystal Gem will go on a voyage, with or without you, ready or not. If it is not ready, then it goes without you cause you'll be executed." Lanned said.

"But... Fate?! What happened this evening?!" Julia replied, shivering openly from just remembering it.

"I modified Greg's weapon. He only had to push a special ornamental part and turn it a bit for the axe to self-destruct. All the weapons that I have cast at have spells against croaking Albatross units. " Al Vaterheim said. "The king wore enchanted golden chain of office, made to protect him from croaking, as an extra protection. The self-destruct still clipped a single hit point from him. That was an unexpected bonus."

"We knew dad would try something." Lanned added. "We prepared a contingency plan for when he did. You survived because of that, a friendly conspiracy to keep you from croaking. If you don't finish preparations in six turns, there would be no conspiracy to save you on the seventh turn, Julia Avernes. Now, Greg will lead you back to your new designated quarters. You have a lot of think about. Still, sleep well, because preparations start tomorrow."

Shocked into silence and still shivering, Julia got up and shakily followed Greg out, her mind doing hasty calculations of the worrying kind. It was only after they were almost there that Julia noticed that the large axeman lead her to the different quarters than her usual ones near the harbour. These were closer to granaries, far away from the barracks and had only two guards in front of them. Even stranger, Random was already waiting for her inside, with freshly made nightie and some warm water inside steel bath for her to wash herself with.

"I'm leaving Jules to you, Dent. Take a good care of her. See you both in the morning." Greg told to Random than left, closing the doors of the room behind himself.

Random looked at Julia's still dazed expression and slightly trembling stance, said "You need a warm bath, my lady"  and started to gently and professionally undress her. She helped her get into the bath and carefully scrubbed her from head to toe, then started washing her hair. Julia burst into tears at some point during the process, blubbering "thank you" and "sorry, so sorry" and some other nonsense words, and Random was forced to calm her down and soothe her. She helped the still upset caster get dressed and put her into double bed, then covered her and turned off the lights, preparing to sleep in the chair.

Julia woke up a four times in the night, old night terrors, old words on her lips, shivering from dungeon cold of her nightmares. After second time, Random snook into the bed with her and was there to hold her in a hug until she fell asleep again, always, after every nightmare, all night long. And the next turn, after breakfast, they started working on Crystal Gem improvements. It turned out that Random had fabrication special and learned how to cook in those few turns she was in the capital. Just as well; the breakfast was delicious and there was a lot of work to be done.


*Continued in part 2*