And after the holiday break, I'm back with the first chapter of Betrayal!
Instead of publishing four shorter chapters I've decided to divide Betrayal into two long chapters so that we can move faster to Victory (where, as you know, lots of exciting things will happen).
I hope you will enjoy this chapter! I see the number of visitors and views grow every day and I'm so grateful for all of you reading my story! It would be great to know your thoughts about it!
A gentle wind had started to blow from the East when the dagron rider began to scream.
Mantus had promised the dagron was tame and ready for its first ride. It had turned out that for once Mantus was wrong.
The beast was truly docile at first. It hadn't protested when Mantus had saddled it, and it had stood still as the rider mounted. It had let the man kick its flanks and following his order he had soared up in the sky. Like a well-trained dog, he had turned right and left, It had halted, dived and spun around.
Then, swift as a snake, it had jerked its head back and buried its fangs into the rider's leg.
The man was now screaming and fighting to pry the jaw from his flesh without truly succeeding. Bloth watched as he punched and scratched at the dagron's snout, but there was not much fists and nails could do against the thick skin of dagrons.
Then the dagron yanked him from the saddle. "Kill it," the man bellowed. "Kill it."
Bloth wouldn't give the command. Dagrons were a scarce commodity and there were good chances the beast might return to the Maelstrom after consuming its meal.
The dagron circled around the ship one more time,before it flew away, the rider still squirming and shrieking in its jaws,
A cunning, scheming beast. Bloth was almost amused.
"Mal maktoi!" Mantus slammed his fists into the railing.
Bloth turned to face his second in command. "How very disappointing, Mantus. Normally your training efforts yield better results."
Mantus lips quivered in rage but he kept his mouth shut.
Bloth paced to the other side of the Maelstrom and leaning against the rail he shot a look down.
The cage swung and slammed against the hull. The ecomancer trapped in it was poking the sea with that annoying rattling stick of his. His curved back and trembling limbs made a pitiful sight.
"And as for you, Teron," Bloth called out. The man looked up through the bars, his sad eyes squinting in the sunlight. "You promised me clear skies today, I want the same tomorrow."
The ecomancer bowed his head down and went back to poking the water. Not talking to the captain when he was in a bad mood was a lesson everybody on the Maelstrom learned fast.
"My Lord!" Mantus appeared at his side, Bloth hadn't heard him approach. "We'll need more dagron riders to expand our range of scouting."
Dagron riders were as rare as they were expensive. It was mostly sea scum who could be bought with the promise of fifty pieces of gold a ride, some of them even got away with more. But it was a risky job, every ride a bet against death; one that no man with half the brain of a barnacle would take.
"Do whatever it takes to get the boy-" Bloth stopped mid-sentence. Something in the air smelled wrong. "Borka paste?" he wondered out loud.
"What does Bloth want done with these new shipwrecked?" It was the new brigmaster. The man was dragging two prisoners in chains. The unfortunate souls were covered from head to toes in borka paste.
"Can I suggest eel dipping or starfish baiting?" The brigmaster went on.
Mantus had recommended the man after the previous brigmaster's untimely demise, and Bloth had once again trusted him. Mantus knew Bloth's crew better than him. While Bloth spent most of his time alone, his second in command talked to his shipmates, drank with them, gambled with them.
"And I might suggest your immediate withdrawal?" Mantus intervened. "Bloth is not amused at being disturbed!"
"Mantus, don't frighten the man!" Bloth chided him. "After all, the old brigmaster used to interrupt me as well." He glared down at the brigmaster. "And we were the best of friends. Before his," Bloth paused, drinking in the sight of the man's fear. "Accident, of course."
The brigmaster's eyes grew as big as the moons. "I'll stow them in the Kramadorm until further notice!" He hurried away yanking the prisoners along.
"How long till Janda Town?" Bloth asked.
"Two days," Mantus replied.
"Make it one, or I'll find another second in command."
Bloth retired to the captain's quarters, slamming the door behind him. He let himself fall into the chair and poured a generous amount of wine into his goblet.
He was surrounded by idiots. It was no wonder Ren was still alive. Ren. That boy, that jitatin boy. So brave, so cunning; Bloth almost regretted having to kill him. Almost.
Bloth gulped the whole wine at once, barely tasting it.
When the monkeybird had dropped the son of Primus on the deck, Bloth had thought about finding him a place on board. The boy was strong, brave enough to defy the captain, and handsome. Handsome could go long ways.
Bloth still wondered how did he miss the resemblance. The look, the golden hair, and the eyes. Those were the eyes of Primus. Bloth longed to carve them out.
At least Primus was dead, Bloth could rejoice about that. Long live the king.
He refilled his goblet, deciding to enjoy his drink slowly this time. He let the wine brush against his lips, he savored its scent and texture. It was good, rich, meant to be sipped and not guzzled down like water. Bloth swirled the goblet in his hand, eyes lost in the shade of glistening red, the same way she used to do.
He slammed the goblet down onto the table, the wine sloshing over the rim and spraying over his jerkin. His hand curled into a fist, nails digging deep into the flesh. Bloth wouldn't think about her. Thinking about her hurt. It hurt so much he couldn't breathe and it felt like he was drowning.
Bloth closed his eyes and inhaled a deep breath. The Maelstrom would never sink. He had to focus. Focus. They were headed to Janda Town where they would soon meet Konk and get the Compass and the Treasure.
Primus' stubborn son believed he could stand against Bloth and his Maelstrom. History had taught him nothing, but soon he would learn.
Tula recognized the walls of Janda Town from several leagues away. They were exactly as she pictured them based on the stories she'd heard.
It hadn't taken a lot of asking around in Pandawa to find out that during a bloody uprising in the main square a short peg-leg and two large men had stolen a boat and headed East.
The Wraith was fast enough to burn the miles Konk had managed to put between them. Tula and Ioz hadn't slept much, and she hadn't believed her own eyes when she'd finally spotted Konk's boat dead ahead.
"So, this is where the piglet has been scurrying to?" said Ioz.
"Only the scum of the sea drop anchor here."
"Careful, woman!" Ioz looked at the island ahead, a strange softness in his eyes. "My fondest memories remain in Janda Town!"
Konk's boat sailed past the walls.
"The piglet will burrow in until Bloth comes to his rescue," said Ioz. "We should have more than enough time to reclaim the First Treasure and the Compass. Then nothing will stand between us and the other Twelve Treasures of Rule."
Ioz sounded confident, too confident for his own sake. Tula felt genuinely sorry for him. Ioz was a strong, skilled fighter, but he couldn't sense spiders weaving their nets in the darkness and that weakness would get him killed one day.
"And what better place than Janda Town to celebrate that?"
"Think about someone besides yourself, Ioz!" Tula scolded him. "Your greedy impulses will have to wait until we finish Ren's quest!"
Saying his name out loud hurt.
"Well, maybe. Just for the time being," said Ioz.
Tula hadn't allowed herself to think about him, but now for one short moment she put her shield down and felt the scorching flames of guilt and shame. Ren had saved her life back in the Atanis realm of caves and mold. She had repaid him by leaving him behind to die. She could have stayed, she could have fought by his side, that was what she was meant to do, after all, fighting. He could be alive now, they could be sailing from Pandawa this very moment to carry on their quest.
Or she could be dead too. And how many lives will end with mine? Dying was not an option for Tula. She had to stay alive and she had to focus.
How many times had Daron scolded her for her lack of focus? How many times had he repeated that her poor concentration will get her killed one day?
Ren was gone. She had to make peace with that and focus on the target ahead.
The Wraith sailed past the rocky walls of Janda Town, and the ill-famed city appeared in front her eyes in all of its mighty chaos.
The harbor looked neverending and one could not possibly count the number of ships and boats docked in there.
Ioz ordered her to take the wheel while he climbed into the rigging. Tula did as she was bid, and the closer the ship got to the docks the more details of the town she was able to take in.
Behind the harbor was a market packed with stands and people. Already from the distance, the winds carried the shouts and the scent of spices, borka paste, and ale.
The rest of the island overflowed with buildings that went all the way up to the hills.
No wonder Janda town was the port of choice for pirates and other scoundrels. Tula cursed. Konk could get easily lost in that infernal mess.
They were able to find Konk's stolen boat, but it didn't help them much. The craft had been hastily abandoned in the port, they hadn't even bothered to drop anchor. Smart choice, there was no point in caring for a boat when the Maelstrom was on her way to their rescue.
A cacophony of noises enveloped the market. The merchants screaming about deals and the superior quality of their merchandise, men and women fighting, drunken sailors singing.
Tula felt suddenly lost and couldn't help but follow Ioz around. He was asking merchants about a peg-leg and two brutes running around while, in the chaos of the market, Tula heard a squawk.
She jerked her head towards the sound, her heart pounding like a drum. It was a parrot, a red tiny little thing perched on the top of a fishmonger's stand. Her mind wandered to another much bigger bird with the same ruby red plumage, and she wondered what had become of Niddler. The horrendous thought that he might have been sold back into slavery sent a cold shiver down her back.
Tula looked back at the Wraith docked in the harbor, the red of her wood clearly visible from the market. She couldn't man the boat alone.
A hand clutched her shoulder, she turned to meet Ioz glaring down at her. "While you were contemplating the lovely sky I found out where pig-face is running to. Care to join?"
"Lead the way."
Focused, she had to stay focused on her mission.
They shoved their way out of the market just to end up in a cramped and stinky maze of streets and alleys. Tula couldn't tell one from the other, and again it was no wonder outlaws seemed to like Janda Town so much. Ioz, however, knew where he was headed.
After turning into the umpteenth alley they ended up in a square where a big building towered in front of them. At first, Tula thought it might be the palace of some rich merchant,but then her eyes fell on the bright sign hanged above the entryway. It was a gamehouse.
Ioz sidled around the building stopping in front of one of the small windows on its side.
"What are you waiting for? If the piglet is in there let's go get that Compass and Treasure."
"I like to be careful, woman."
That was new. "By Daven's beard, there's more than one way to take the bristles off that little gantha pig!"
"Your curse is very original, but I know this gamehouse. Take a look inside."
She did. The glass of the small window could have used some washing, everything she could see was undefined patches of colors and shapes dancing around. Too many shapes, the gamehouse was as packed as the street market.
"That's no leviathan worship service," Ioz answered.
Maybe one day she'd tell him there were no leviathan worshippers left in Andorus. If Ioz ever cared to listen.
"So what's your point? I suppose you have some brilliant plan now, don't you?"
"No, I just said that I know this gamehouse." And it would appear somebody in the gamehouse knew Ioz. Somebody Ioz wasn't in a hurry to meet again. Tula had no time to pry.
"How well?" she asked.
"I may have a plan after all," she answered.
Tula approached the main door of the gamehouse.
"I swear on my giddy aunt," a humanoid was saying to a big redhead standing in the way. "I have no more weapons, Zoolie!"
"I believe you, Strant!" the man answered cheerfully. "Go, and may luck follow!" He placed a hand on the humanoid's back, a little over his waistband to invite him inside.
As the guest stepped inside the gamehouse a knife had appeared in the man's hand. "Smool brain!" he chuckled as he tossed the blade behind his back. It hit the floor with the loud sound of steel against steel.
Ioz had warned her about Zoolie, the owner of the gamehouse, and his one rule nobody could break: no weapons were allowed in his gamehouse.
Tula stepped forward.
"Now, now! Top of the morning, young beauty!" the man smiled. "Coming to grace Zoolie's gamehouse?"
"I am," Tula smiled as she cocked her head. Her hair moved out of the way to reveal her neck.
"Be welcome, my dear. But first, hand me that pretty sword. You might hurt somebody with that."
Tula unsheathed her sword and handed it to him.
His long, frizzy locks were tied on top of his head in five tails, they were the same bright red of coral. Aldian's red was a darker shade, but she thought about him nonetheless. At times she missed him; she missed his calm and composure. She longed to have his ability to stay focused no matter what.
"Good girl!" Zoolie turned to gently place her sword on the floor behind him, giving her a glimpse of the room. It was a small space, its floor scattered over with blades of every shape and form; there were also bows, crossbows, whips, a lance and a gas pistol. It was the first time she ever saw one.
"Now, my dear, why won't you give me your dagger?"
Tula forced her lips to curve into a smile. "All yours," she said taking the knife from her boot. "But be careful with this one, it was a gift from my father."
"Daddy must be proud of you! Now dear girl, anything else you want to give me?"
Tula sighed and grabbed the throwing knife hidden in her waistband. "Can I go now?"
"Of course my dear, go and may luck follow!"
She took a long deep breath and stepped inside.
Entering in Zoolie's gamehouse was like traveling to a different world made of bright colors, laughter, and chaos. Her ears were immediately assaulted with the barking laughter, curses and the sound of rolling dice.
Tula knew that wherever she went eyes followed. Her beauty and the power that came with that weren't a mystery. Men's eyes, women's eyes, they all looked and stared. This time though, not a single pair of eyes focused on the beautiful girl stepping in the overly crowded gamehouse. The guests were too busy eating, drinking from the Cohol Vines and gaming.
The main room was large and packed with furniture. The only empty spot she saw was the grudge pit in the center of the room.
She could see countless gaming tables and fortune wheels, and on the western side of the room was the longest bar counter she'd ever seen.
An enormous humanoid towered behind it, he was squeezing the content of the Cohol Vines hanging down from the ceiling into the cups of the guests seated around it. She had never drunk the nectar of the Cohol Vines, but she knew enough about its effects to know those men would soon be talking to imaginary fairies.
Tula advanced slowly, cautiously, studying every corner, every table. Konk was there but in that crowd, it wasn't an easy task to find him.
"Double reef, pay!" somebody shouted.
"Noy jitatin jitat!"
"Double or nothing?"
"Had enough, need a drink."
Tula wondered how many of those men had managed to sneak a weapon in the gamehouse, like her. A knife was still hidden in a secret pocket of her jerkin between her shoulders. It was enough, she didn't need to fight them all, just one, Konk. He and his shipmates, but Ioz would take care of them.
A hand slammed on her shoulder. "Ahoy, lady!" He was a man, eyes fogged by either ale or the nectar of the Cohol Vines. Maybe both. "I buy you a drink!" he slurred.
She removed his hand from her shoulder. "Maybe another time, sailor."
The man slurred something about Tula drinking from his vine, and before her hand could reach for the knife she hurried away. She couldn't afford to pick up extra fights.
The more she adventured into the room the stronger the smell of ale and sweat grew, and then she saw them. They sat at a table, looking completely at ease among their own kind.
She braced for the upcoming fight.
"Hi, boys!" she said.
Konk gasped. "There's one! Stop her! Where the other?"
"Ioz?" she said. "He's smilge tossing somewhere. I can handle the three of you alone!"
"Is that so, woman?" the piglet grunted. "Fetch!"
The two brothers charged at her, not nearly fast enough.
Tula jumped high, she grabbed one of the chandeliers dangling from the ceiling and flung herself on top of a gaming table. Dice and coins went flying around.
Now all eyes were on her, and not because of her pretty face. That should have created enough distraction for Ioz to act.
The brothers were coming for her. Tula bent down to seize a pouch full to the brim with coins and tossed it to the floor. It burst open sending the coins flying all around. The men launched themselves at the coins like starving seagulls with a crab.
She grabbed another pouch and tossed it away before jumping down the table and spring towards Konk who was now sitting unguarded.
Tula was so close when the first dart struck. It plunged into the table where Konk sat at. She turned.
Zoolie was approaching, a dart pistol in both his hands. "Now, freeze, warriors! This is my gamehouse," the man's voice was still friendly which made him sound even more menacing. Tula knew he would shoot if they gave him a reason.
Where is Ioz?
"Take your squabble to the fighting den down the street!" Zoolie said, "Or-"
The man suddenly looked down at his feet. "By Daven's beard-"
Tula heard the thud coming from under the floor. "Noy jitat, you overfed, corpulent son of a sea-mule!"
She recognized the voice. She should have never trusted Ioz with anything.
Zoolie moved away as he secured the pistols to his belt. He bent down and stuck his big hands in the gap between the boards trying to pry them free. Cursing, Tula joined.
They managed to remove the board, to find Ioz standing there.
"What are you doing under my gamehouse, you half-masted-"
"Move!" thundered Ioz, as he climbed up. "You rudderless, barnacle-brained. Last time I was here, these boards were loose!"
"Aye! And I nailed them back down after you sneaked away without paying your bill!" Zoolie stepped closer to Ioz, pointing a finger at his chest.
"You two know each other?" Tula asked.
"He owes me money!" they both answered at the same time. And then both men burst into laughter and hugged each other.
"I see all your hair's grown back in, Zoolie!" said Ioz, patting the man on the shoulder.
"Oh, one little deck fire can't hurt me!"
Tula felt her lips curve up into a smile, and for a moment allowed herself to laugh together with them. It felt refreshing, comforting.
When was the last time I truly laughed?
Her heart ached at the memory. It was in the Wraith's dining quarters, with Ren.
And suddenly she remembered about their quest. She shot a look behind where Konk had stood. The peg-leg wasn't there anymore. Not a trace of him, not a trace of the brothers.
"Noy jitat!" she roared. "Konk has escaped!"
Ioz turned, his nostrils flaring. "I swear, that Treasure and Compass are cursed! See you in another ten years, Zoolie!"
They were already on their way when Zoolie spoke.
"Not so fast, mate. Are you after these trinkets?"
Tula couldn't keep herself from gasping when she saw the Compass and Treasure in Zoolie's hand.
"How-" she gaped. "When did you-"
"Konk never pays for his drinks, so I took a... Deposit!"
"You sneaky son of a barnacle!" Ioz moved to retrieve the gems.
"You are welcome, mate! Ioz, I've grown tired of civilization here. Are you still in need of someone to cover your flanks?"
A flicker of surprise crossed Ioz' face. "Funny you should ask, friend. We're about to kick Bloth's backside across all twenty seas."
"Getting in trouble with Bloth again. I see Ioz, you'll never change. And neither will I. I'm in!"
The men patted each other on the shoulders again.
"Let me gather my stuff Ioz, will you?" asked Zoolie. "Mars!" he then called out to the barkeeper. "Keep our civilized brethren in harness when I'm gone. I might live through this one!"
The barkeeper shrugged. "Have fun, Zoolie!"
Another crewmate, it was something to be happy about. They would need many more to complete Ren's quest.
Tula had to fake another smile. Zoolie's adventure wouldn't last long, that much she knew.
Bloth and Tula are my favorite POV-characters, that's probably why they're always so hard for me to write. l love telling the story from their perspectives and yet I'm never fully satisfied with the way I write them. The struggle is real :/
The next chapter of Betrayal will be up on January 10.