A/N: I don't even have an excuse. :| Except maybe trying to sound smart is really hard.

Unedited. Will come back to this maybe next week, so holler if you spot any mistakes. (Next chapter is maybe 65% done.)

Chapter Seven | The Creeping Shadow

Judging by the position of the stars when they finally exited the cave, they'd been inside for a bit over three hours.

After heading downstream, they were able to proceed without much difficulty that it was almost anti-climactic. Both Sinbad and the young lady easily agreed on which path to take whenever there were forks on the road, and there had been no further encounters with other dangerous animals, save a mysterious shadow in the river that was travelling upstream, but it had not bothered them, so they had not bother it. Valefor's power had been used to freeze the river when it started to go underground, and a path had been blasted through using Baal's lightning.

They had exited a little ways away from the port, where the river flowed into the open sea.

Fires lit the docks as the workers continued to haul goods from the ships into the warehouses. It looked even busier than it had in the day, and it seemed like everyone was double-timing as the seconds ticked down until the wedding.

"Oh! It's the young miss! Wait—what happened to you!?"

Claudia was recognized by practically everyone on the ports, and at one point they even thought they had kidnapped her, but the situation was eventually cleared up. They were able to hitch a ride back to the city with one of the porters about to go home, and they even received some snacks to carry them through the trip.

When they finally arrived at the Cornelius estate, it truly was a sight to behold. It was practically large enough to be called a palace, and considering that the owners were former royalty, it technically had been one, once upon a time. The structure was almost fortress-like, made almost entirely of clean white stone covered by ornamental stucco reliefs of twisting vines and floral patterns. The circular main building stood atop a tall hill overlooking the entire city, and smaller, separated annexes surrounded it at the base. Lush bushes of multicoloured blooms marked out paths across the sprawling property, and silver braziers stood at every few feet or so, with the ones leading to the main entrance lighted with burning coals. Combined with the dim light of the setting sun, the entire estate exuded an aura of mystery, giving the impression that it was a special and sacred space.

As they approached the building, they saw on either side of the main entrance two marble statues of larger-than-life figures—a man with a broadsword that had a bull's head as the pommel and a woman with a winged staff as tall as she was. Close-up, the man's armor was intricately detailed with twisting vines that formed the image of a cornucopia on his chestplate, and the broadsword he had raised was marked with the eight-pointed star found in the Metal Vessels. The draping of the woman's dress was masterfully carved, curving and folding like water at her feet. She had fine features, and looked a bit like an older version of the girl with them.

They were told that the two figures were the founders of the House of Cornelius and the Kingdom of Lavinium, Livius Cornelius I and Lavinia the Great.

When their party entered the foyer, they were welcomed by servants who fussed over their young miss. Claudia had ordered a bath to be drawn and fresh clothes for her guests, calling for their family doctor to look at Hinahoho as well.

"Dinner should be ready once we've all cleaned up," Claudia had told them. "Until then, please relax and allow us to care for you."

Before she left, Claudia met Sinbad's gaze, giving him an indulgent smile that obviously meant something else as the servants began gathering about them, intent on attending to their lady's guests' needs.

"Sin..." There was tentativeness in Ja'far's voice as he carefully watched his master's reactions to the people around them. Even Hinahoho had to give pause, for the similarity in features was too hard to miss.

There were plenty of people with violet-toned hair and golden eyes among those working in the estate, and it did not take a genius to work out that they were likely Parthevian prisoners of war sold into slavery. It made sense, considering the area's proximity to the border, but admittedly, these people did not look like the usual slaves they had seen before in Napolia, having healthier constitutions and being well-dressed with clean clothes, their eyes brimming with life and vivaciousness. Even their collars—the mark of slavery in Reim—looked more like beautiful necklaces instead, metal circlets that ended in the image of cornucopias, held together by three thin strings of chains.

A fair-haired man dressed in more lavishly-colored robes than most of the other servants came up to them, sweeping a hand towards a hallway to the west.

"President Sinbad and company, the baths are this way," he intoned. "If you would please follow me. The young miss would be disappointed if she finds that her guests were not treated well. If you have any questions, I will be happy to answer them for you."

Sinbad only gave a low hum of agreement before walking down the hall indicated by the servant. Ja'far and Hinahoho followed wordlessly, and a small entourage trailed behind them, with majority of the other Parthevian slaves leaving them to attend to other things.

"Do those people all... work here?" Sinbad asked quietly.

"A large percentage of the slaves here in Lavinium are Parthevian citizens—soldiers and civilian prisoners of war," the man explained to them bluntly. "However, if you would care to know, here in Lavinium especially, due to the influence of the Cornelius family, it is not the amount of slaves which contributes to the status of their owners, but the quality. Those who are beautiful, educated, or capable are valued higher—if you ask me, it is not so different from the way people who are not slaves are treated. In fact, one can even argue that we are given better opportunities at advancing ourselves than regular citizens."

Sinbad furrowed his brows in confusion. "Opportunities? Does that mean... you are educated at the expense of your owners?"

"Have you heard of the Mariadel Company? It is a business that was started here in Lavinium before they moved their headquarters to Ria Venice Island. The Mariadel Company invests much in child slaves, training and educating them from an early age so that when they are ready to sell, they can fetch quite the pretty price," the man told them. "Prisoners of war do not have that kind of history, but they are given opportunities to learn and improve themselves nonetheless; if they hail from the skilled working class, they are given the option to study to further improve their craft. There are all kinds of people in the service of the families and businesses here, and if you work hard, you can carve out a position for yourself. If you prove that you have potential, it is not impossible that your master will take notice and invest in you—by letting you undergo formal lessons or having you learn under better maestros.

"The old kingdom of Lavinium was run by a monarchy, but there was no peerage system and official positions were assigned based on skill and capability—essentially, it was a meritocracy. That the Cornelius family has remained in power all this time is a testament to the ability of its members. The lives people live here are better than anything Parthevia could ever hope to offer."

"That... certainly is an interesting point of view," Sinbad started, "but that doesn't change the fact that you're considered property and not humans."

"In the world of today, property is treated much better than humans," the servant replied with a something between a smirk and a grimace playing on his lips. "And that Reim is far more prosperous than Parthevia is an obvious fact. Even you had left your birth country to come and look for better opportunities here, did you not, Sir Dungeon Conqueror?"

"Watch your mouth," Ja'far hissed, glaring at the blonde man as his fingers twitched toward his weapons.

"What Mister Cyrus says is true," one of the slaves trailing behind them pipe up. She was a bit of a mousy thing, with frizzy brown hair and beautiful golden eyes. She gave a start at the attention suddenly thrown at her, but she squared her shoulders, holding her head up high. "I come from northern Parthevia. I saw how'd the Parth' soldiers tr'at the prisoners they captured, and it was horrible, I tell ya. When we got captured by Reim's army, I was so scared I was at the point o' killing myself just so they couldn't torture me like I saw the Parth' soldiers did, but while the Reim people didn't welcome us with a feast 'n a party, at least they tr'at us with more humanity, even if they was gonna sell us off as slaves."

Ja'far inspected the girl who had spoken up—she had a thin frame with traces of bone jutting out in her shoulders and elbows. Her hair was frizzy and her skin was pasty, but her eyes were alive and there was a certain glow to her aura. In Napolia, he had seen slaves who were treated horribly, but there were also slaves who he had even mistaken as scholars or nobles at first glance. There was a wide disparity in the treatment depending on who their owners were, but the possibility was indeed there; he could not deny that.

Here in Lavinium though, the quality of life for a slave seemed higher than even the average citizen's in Parthevia.

Sinbad eyed the girl thoughtfully, not letting any emotion appear on his face.

"...Are you happy here?" he finally asked after a minute of tension that seemed to stretch for hours.

"Yes," the girl replied immediately and without any hesitancy. "And if ya ask the others here, they'd say the same. I know it."

The doctor checked on Hinahoho, applying a salve on his wounds and wrapping him in fresh bandages. He assured them that since the Imuchakk had a sturdier grit, the anti-coagulant should fully exit his system within a few hours. They were cleaned and dressed in new clothes, their dirtied ones carted off for washing. That they managed to procure a set of robes even for Hinahoho in such short notice was impressive.

Once they were presentable, Cyrus led them to a small, private triclinium. The cushioned couches were angled upward towards the center and placed in a U-shape, filling practically the entire room. On the table in the middle was set a golden cornucopia as a centerpiece, with jeweled crops spilling out of it. The blonde slave left as soon as they had entered the room, assuring them that someone was on his way to serve them refreshments, asking them to wait just a while longer for their hostess to arrive.

Sinbad thanked and dismissed him kindly.

"What is this, a bedroom?" Hinahoho asked out loud when the three of them were finally left alone. "Are those beds? I thought we were going to eat?"

"It's a formal dining room," Sinbad said as he climbed onto the middle couch. "In Reim, eating while lying down is the fancy thing to do. The Master took me along to a dinner party like this once."

"Eh? Won't that cause indigestion?" the Imuchakk asked with furrowed brows as he and Ja'far hesitantly followed their lord's lead, sitting down on the couch Sinbad pointed to.

"I got used to it by the end," Sinbad shrugged, lying down and grabbing one of the pillows to place under him.

Since the Imuchakk was too large to lie down, he simply sat. Another servant came into the room carrying a shining silver pitcher and matching goblets. They were poured cups of wine, which Sinbad heartily helped himself to.

"The young miss will soon arrive," the servant informed them. "Please wait a while longer."

"This is hard," Ja'far grumbled as he tried to drink while lying down. "And don't get drunk so early."

"The trick is to lie on your side, and not flat on your stomach," Sinbad told him.

"This really is good stuff though," Hinahoho said as took a sip. "A lot of the fine wines come from this area, right?"

"Lavinium provides nearly 60% of Reim's agricultural produce, and their specialty product is wine," Ja'far said. "The wedding ceremony is on the first day of their harvest festival, the Vinalia Urbana. They bless and sample the last year's wine, and ask for good weather until the next harvest. That girl also mentioned some kind of drinking competition, right?"

"Drinking competition?" Sinbad repeated, his golden eyes flickering.

Ja'far narrowed his eyes. "Don't even think about it."

"The old guy from the temple was the undefeated champion though, right?" Hinahoho added. "Like, forty years running or something."

"That man doesn't enter the competition anymore, but the reigning king has been undefeated for five years now."

The three of them turned their heads to door, where Claudia was assisting an elderly man who walked with a limp. He was adorned in rich purple robes lined with gold at the hems, and he carried a cane of dark wood with a golden bull's head as the handle.

"If you want to challenge him, you're more than welcome. I don't think anyone can beat Mzali, though," the man said with a chortle.

Another servant followed behind them, carrying a cushioned stool and placing it in front of the table.

"Careful now, Grandfather," Claudia said as she assisted the man onto the chair.

Ja'far blinked. If that girl called this man 'Grandfather,' then that meant—

"Sir Claudius, I am greatly honored to meet you." Sinbad was already off the couch and bowing to the man. His subordinates quickly followed suit.

Claudius Cornelius was a man who had aged well, keeping his face clean-shaven and having near to no age lines despite being in his mid-sixties. His gray hair was almost inseparable from the dull blonde his natural color had regressed to, and all in all, he did not look like someone who was getting along in the years.

He looked around the room, carefully examining each of them with his bright, blue-green eyes.

"President Sinbad, please. I am the one who is honored to meet the legendary dungeon capturer," Sir Claudius said, gesturing for them to rise. "King Rashid notified me that you would be coming in his place. When I heard my granddaughter had brought you to our home, I just had to come. This girl is quite a handful. I hope she didn't give you any trouble?"

"Not at all, my lord," Sinbad replied with a smile. "The Lady Claudia has been nothing but kind to us."

"I see. That's good, that's good," the old man mumbled. He raised a hand, snapping his fingers. "Come now, Servius. Bring in the food for our guests."

Sinbad went back up to the middle couch, from where he could face the head of the Cornelius family. Ja'far and Hinahoho were on the couch to his left, and Claudia had settled herself on the one across theirs, to Sinbad's right.

A wave of servants came into the room, carrying all sorts of dishes. Everything was laid onto the table, within arm's reach of the diners. Once Sir Claudius dug in, the rest of them followed. A round of pleasantries and introductions was made, and some idle chat followed.

"Oh, Sir Hinahoho is the National Chief's son-in-law? The Imuchakk products have a good reputation here in my city, especially the food," Sir Claudius said. He threw his granddaughter a quick glance. "This girl here has unmatched taste in seafood, and she's been shouting about the eel for ages. You wouldn't perhaps be interested in submitting them for the Seal of the Golden Bull, would you? The recommendation process is over, and the new panel is to be gathered in two months, but I can probably write you down last minute..."

"My lord is too generous," Sinbad replied with a wide smile. The Seal of the Golden Bull was the ultimate seal of approval a service or good could ever receive, and anything that bore it would become highly sought after, not only in Reim but also in the foreign countries that traded with it. Though today it was officially issued by Reim's Ministry of Trade, it was originally a royal warrant given by the Cornelius family when Lavinium was still an independent state. Even until now, their company headed the panels and they still essentially had the final say.

If the recommendation came from this man himself, then it was practically guaranteed that they passed.

"Well then, Servius, make sure to give them the forms before they leave," Sir Claudius told his assistant. Turning back to them, he said, "Read them over and prepare everything once you get back to your company. I'll tell them to make processing your submission a priority. It should make it to the panel if the paperwork is finished within the month."

"Ah, please hand it to Ja'far, and he'll take care of it," Sinbad told the servant.

"Yes, my lords."

"Oh? You would leave such a matter to such a young man?" Sir Claudius questioned, glancing between him and the white-haired boy. Ja'far stilled for a moment as the elderly man's eyes landed on him, his scrutiny giving even a former assassin chills.

"He might not look it, but Ja'far is one of my senior officers and most trusted confidantes," Sinbad smiled. "It shouldn't surprise you, Sir Claudius, for the president himself is only sixteen."

"Hmm, I heard the rumors, but I suppose I should ask for confirmation," Sir Claudius said, his eyes shimmering. "Is it true that your company is a congregation of juvenile misfits? He hides them, but I know those weapons. Someone once tried to kill me with something similar, when the war with Parthevia was still at its peak. This boy with you is a Shamlash assassin, is he not?"

Both Hinahoho and Ja'far gave a start, the mentioned assassin even choking slightly on his food, but Sinbad didn't miss a beat.

"Yes, Ja'far is a former assassin, but I must also correct another thing you said," the dungeon conqueror smoothly replied. "My company is not simply 'juvenile' misfits, for there are also much older people who lend us their knowledge and experience. It is true that we mostly comprise of the next generation, but in essence, we are people who want to change the world."

"You speak as if that is a simple task," the elderly man commented airily. "I have to say though, that's quite ambitious, even for a dungeon conqueror."

"You of all people should know the true power of a dungeon conquer, my lord," Sinbad responded. He stole a quick glance the blonde girl who was busy with arraging several slices of different cheeses on a flat piece of bread, for all eyes looking fully absorbed in her task. "Your granddaughter has told me much of the history of this place, and your family."

Sir Claudius set an elbow on the armrest of his chair, leaning his cheek against the back of his hand.

"And tell me, boy, how much of that power have you unlocked?"

"As you might suspect, not nearly enough for my true purpose," Sinbad said. "And that is why I come to you for help."

"Do tell," Sir Claudius replied, "what this old man could possibly offer you, and what good it would do to hand it over."

Sitting up, Sinbad crossed his legs, placing his hands on his knees.

"If I may be so presumptuous to say, what I dream of is something similar to what your family has achieved, Sir Claudius," Sinbad started with a smile. "For years now, your company has been the bridge that connects the western and eastern continents. These two sides of the world have remarkably different cultures and ideals—not just as individual entities, but also within themselves—and yet they are all able to acknowledge, accept, and befriend each other. They learn from one another, and share their strengths and resources. True, it has not been without any troubles, but is not the merchants' world a symbol of what we can achieve? Why can't countries create pacts and agreements instead of trying to kill and conquer each other through force, harming thousands of lives in their wake?

"I admit that it's not possible for everyone to share the same kinds of thoughts, but the trade industry proves that they can at least understand and come into agreement with each other. And that is the kind of world that I dream of. To bring about peace, I want to create a country that can mediate between the warring nations and lead them to acknowledge each other. The reason I became a merchant is not only to gather the funds necessary to build a country, but also to learn how this world works so that I can apply it on a larger scale. I am still weak, and I know that. I am a dungeon conqueror, but that's not enough. The power of one person alone can't move the world."

Seafoam met gold.

"Sir Claudius, will you not lend me your knowledge and experience so than we can achieve true peace?"

The older man sighed lightly, giving the boy in front of him a small smile.

"Well, I suppose it's a nice, moving speech."

The dungeon conqueror blinked.

"Boy, you say you want to rid the world of conflict, but do you even know why there is conflict in the first place?"

Sinbad steeled his gaze. "Because people have differences. They have differences in ideals and cultures, and it leads them to value different things. I want to make the people of the world accept and acknowledge those differences between them."

"I see..." Sir Claudius sighed lightly, standing up from his seat. A servant was immediately by his side. "You're on the right track, but you're not quite there yet. You asked for knowledge and experience, so consider this a lesson: the merchants' world is not the whole world, and you still have not seen that thing you want change. There is no one, all-in solution for what you want to achieve. But the possibility is within you. You are special. You know it, and I recognize that.

"I am willing to give you what you ask, but you must earn it. Only when you have figured out what it is we are truly up against will I lend you my full support. There is conflict in this world because there are different people trying to achieve different things, not only because they have differences in ideals, cultures, and beliefs, but because they are different on a much baser level. That is why they naturally go down a path so far from our own. If you wish to achieve your goal, you would need to do more than change someone's thoughts or their way of thinking."

The head of the Cornelius family gave them a grim smile. He set a hand on the doorway, turning to look at the dungeon conqueror one last time.

"However, I have high hopes for someone as... ah, unique as yourself, Sinbad. A good night to you all."

Sir Claudius nodded once before disappearing into the hall.

"Well," Claudia started, speaking up for the first time since the meal started. "That was a half-pass, I guess?"

Turning his head, Sinbad smiled slowly at the girl who had led them around by their noses.

"I had the gut feeling that meeting someone like the Lady Claudia was no coincidence," Sinbad told her, and the statement was more genuine than even he expected it to be.

Claudia plucked a grape from a bunch on a plate in front of her. "It wasn't a coincidence, but I'm afraid it wasn't quite planned either."

The corner of his lips twitched up, a grin threatening to break onto his face. This girl was always full of contradictions. She kept jumping from one end of the spectrum to the other, yet still her scales remained perfectly balanced. It was different from the careful line-treading act most of the powerful people he had met until now did—that he and her grandfather did. One moment she was an entitled brat who didn't know how to shut up, and the next she was this meek little thing who he forgot was even in the same room as him. The only thing that remained constant about her was her observant gaze—her blue-green eyes that watched intently and purposefully, like the sea that immersed everything into its depths. It kept her balanced despite the various shifts in her demeanor, and it gave the impression that she was innocent enough to be someone honest, though certain kinds of people may have read it differently.

Whether it was something good or bad was something he still hadn't decided on, but it was refreshing in a way, and the challenge she posed was something he found himself drawn to, for better or worse.

"Then it must have been fate."

Claudia's eyes flickered. "Maybe. In any case, you're all welcome to stay the night, but if you'd prefer, I can have someone safely accompany you back to your lodgings instead."

"The young lady has already shown us the utmost generosity. We cannot possibly ask for more," Sinbad said. He met her eyes with his head still bowed slightly, his mouth curving at the ends. "I suppose we'll next see each other at the wedding?"

Three agonizing seconds ticked by before she mirrored his expression.

"I suppose we will."

Home was beautiful as always.

"It's a breathtaking sight," a girl exclaimed. She was young, no older than thirteen, dressed in heavily embroidered robes with her red hair decorated with sparkling jewels. She stood at the helm of the ship, staring at the skyline of the city they were approaching while the wind blew in her face. "The architecture is completely different from what I'm used to in Kou and Shiraz. So this is the western continent!"

"Lavinium is the first great civilization to rise in the known world," the dark-haired woman beside her said. She was also fairly young, with intelligent amber eyes and porcelain skin. She covered herself in swathes of pale orange cloth lined with black and long tassles at the ends. She gazed at the same scenery as the younger girl, "Its history goes back nearly a thousand years, and it's still counting."

"I have heard some stories from my honorable husband, as well as from my esteemed elder brother, Lord Kouen," the red-haired girl, Princess Koujun, replied. "They both share an interest in Torran scriptures, and Lavinium is a valuable source of reading materials for them."

"The original language of our people was Torran, as we had adopted it from the settlements close by, down to the south," the dark-haired woman replied. "It is what most of our oldest documents are written in. We only began widespread usage of the common tongue after being absorbed into the Reim Empire."

"The truth is, my honourable husband wanted to attend this wedding very much, if only to have the chance to visit Lavinium," Princess Koujun whispered diabolically. "But His Majesty, King Rahim, is attending, so my husband, the Crown Prince, needed to stay in the kingdom to look after it. That is why he sent me instead, to experience what he could not—and to buy him souvenirs."

"The Crown Prince did seem to enjoy discussing Lavinium's history with my stepson," the dark-haired woman smiled. "It seems Scipio would get along well with your elder brother, too."

"Brother Kouen simply loves to read," Princess Koujun gushed. "He's always holed up in either the library or his study, poring over whatever scrolls or tablets he can get his hands on. It drives Brother Koumei mad with worry when he forgets to return to his room for the night. But recently, I heard Brother Kouen has been undergoing special training with our Oracle. Still, I know he would have loved to come and visit Lavinium as well."

"Lavinium's ports are open to all. If ever your elder brother wishes to visit and study, let him know that we will welcome him at the Cornelius Estate."

"Lady Maren is too kind," Princess Koujun demurred. "I will send my brother a letter telling him so, along with souvenirs from your wonderful home. He will be overjoyed."

"Not at all, Princess. I am fond of learning as well, so seeing the younger generation so eager to learn about history and their roots brings joy to my heart," Lady Maren replied. "And I had heard of Kou's esteemed Oracle. It is a boy much younger than Oracle Abril, and he is even touted to be one of the Three Legendary Magi, is he not?"

"Yes, Oracle Judar is but a boy of five, but his power is beyond human comprehension, the Empress tells us," Princess Koujun said. "I do worry about Brother Kouen, but it seems he was chosen by the Oracle for a great task, and I have faith in his abilities. The Crown Prince Hakuyuu and Second Prince Hakuren also endorsed him for this task, I heard."

"Oh? That sounds most interesting," Lady Maren smiled. "Pray tell, what is this 'great task' you speak of?"

"I do not know the details," Princess Koujun admitted. "I have not heard much news from my country other than what my siblings relay to me in letters, and it is mostly about their own concerns. The Empress occasionally sends me notes and gifts as well, bless her gracious soul. She is the one who told me about the Oracle choosing Brother Kouen and the start of his training—she is also the one who suggested I send souvenirs from Lavinium to Brother Kouen. She said he was green with envy after hearing I would be visiting it for the marriage ceremony!"

"Well then, we would have to make sure that we are able to get the best souvenirs for both him and the Crown Prince Mardan," Lady Maren said, placing a hand on the younger girl's head and smoothing down some stray strands of hair. "Ah, my stepdaughter, Claudia, should also be in attendance. She's good at things like choosing gifts, so we can get her to help us with searching for souvenirs."

Princess Koujun smiled widely. "I have heard much of Lady Claudia from Lord Scipio. I feel like I have known her my whole life. Lord Scipio mentioned that she was well-read in Torran scriptures? She is also someone who would get along well with Brother Kouen and my honorable husband, I think."

"Claudia can get along with anyone and everyone," Lord Scipio interrupted their conversation, going over to them with a bright smile on his face and a sleepy-looking Fanalis trailing behind him. "She's sweet and smart, and beautiful and talented, and kind and generous. Being in her presence is like basking in sunlight. She is a star whose light is never extinguished. She will forever continue to shine brightly and blaze gloriously. Crown Prince Mardan and Lord Kouen would definitely fall in love with her at first sight! The Princess Koujun will, too! I'm sure that my soon-to-be wife is already enamored with her!"

"I'm sure that she is a wonderful person for Lord Scipio to speak of her as such," Princess Koujun recited.

"She is! She's wondrous, marvelous, fabulous, stupendous!" Scipio enthused. "Right, Mzali!?"


"I heard from Lord Gaius that she was the talk of the capital when she arrived!" Scipio gossiped. "She had the Alexius heir searching all over Remano for her when he heard news of her arrival! I confirmed it with Lord Vernus of the Marcellus Company when he was here on a business trip."

"The Alexius family is quite prominent in Reim, is it not? I do not know much of Reim's political climate, but I do know that they are influential people," Princess Koujun said.

"She is sure to become Vestalis Maxima one day. Claudia is great! She's magnificent! Right, Mzali!?"

"The young miss is amazing, yes."

"I know, right!?"

"We're almost anchoring at the port, " Lady Maren piped up, placing the hand of the grinning Kou princess in the crook of her elbow and steering her away. Looking over her shoulder, she told her stepson and his guard, "Mzali, take Scipio to his father; he's fetching Their Majesties, King Rahim and Queen Guzalnur, and will be accompanying them as they disembark. Princess Koujun and I will fetch and accompany the Oracle and her retinue, alright?"

The Fanalis placed a hand on his excitable master's shoulder, egging him towards the cabins.

"Yes, madam."

It was the middle of the afternoon and the sun hung high in the sky. Claudia leant against the railing on the lookout point of Mount Olympos, staring at the ugly black patch that lay just beyond the vineyards of Lavinium. It was a stretch of charred land wherein death permeated its very soil, killing everything that tried to live in it. It was a dangerous place that brought sickness to any who tried to come near it, and for years it had been cordoned off, unapproachable by normal citizens.

It was a stain in the beautiful and rich territory of her family, and the weakening power vested in their blood could no longer fix it.

No, that wasn't quite right. After entering the service of the High Priestess and being enlightened in the ways of magic and magicians, she now better understood upon seeing it once more.

It wasn't that Haagenti's blessing could no longer reach the Black Spot—something was preventing Haagenti's power from reaching it.

Claudia clutched the wooden railing, leaning forward. There was something there—in that mass of death, something was alive.

She could sense it, beating and fluttering, a faint buzz echoing in her ears. The more she tried to identify the feeling it gave her, the more it felt like an incessant siren's song was filling her head, clouding her mind and confusing her even further. It reminded her somehow of the rukh that supposedly made up all things, but it was still different—this was something else entirely, she understood that much.

But most of all, it was familiar.

"Claudia, don't let go."

The sound of a horn blared from somewhere in the distance, and she turned her head towards the sea. A ship was coming in from the horizon, a shadow against the light of the sun.

The party from Shiraz was here.