Rosais, Kingdom of Albion, 8th Day of Feoh, Year 6243
It was time to cast off.
Onboard the airship Actif, crewmen hauled in the gangplanks and secured the hatches. Out on the wooden pier, dockers unwound the mooring ropes and tossed them to waiting crewmen. With a creak and groan of straining wood, and a flap and crackle of canvas, the airship wafted slowly away from the pier. For a few minutes it drifted, hardly moving, until a gust of wind drove it on and away, over the rocky promontory and out into the open sky.
Tiffania Westwood stared back at the pier, unable to tear her eyes away. Standing at the stern gunwhale, the wind lifting her golden hair, she could see the port of Rosais, growing smaller and smaller as the airship levelled off. And just beyond, she could see the green fields and forests, shrouded in darkness.
One of those forests was the Westwood, where she had lived for as long as she could remember. Somewhere in there was the little log cabin that had been her home, the only home she had ever known.
Her heart ached, the way it had that morning, when she had bidden the place farewell, and joined her new companions in the carriage. Her companions had been kind, understanding even, as they helped her pack her few possessions and stow them on the carriage. They had talked pleasantly with her on the journey, and pointed things out to her as they passed; things she had never seen or heard of before.
It was a fine thing to have companions; so her mother had said, once long ago.
So then, why did her heart ache? Why did she look back with such longing, even as a flying ship bore her away, on the journey she had chosen for herself?
"Are you okay, Tiffa?"
"Oh!" Tiffania started, then settled as she saw the newcomer's face. "Saito...you startled me."
"Sorry." Saito Hiraga looked awkward as he stood there. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"It's all right." Tiffania smiled in spite of herself. "I was just...distracted, that's all."
"We were wondering where you'd gotten to," Saito admonished mildly. "That is...I've hardly seen you since we came on board."
"I'm sorry!" Tiffania pleaded, embarrassed. "I didn't mean to worry you all! I just..."
She trailed off. She knew what she wanted to see, but didn't know how to say it. Aside from Saito, she'd only ever had conversations with Matilda, who hadn't come to visit her since just before Saito had first arrived. She didn't know as many words as Matilda. She couldn't arrange them like flowers or pebbles, forming them into wondrous, beautiful shapes that could say exactly what she wanted to say.
"I just...wanted to be alone."
She felt bad for saying it. They had gone to all this trouble to come and find her, to help her come out into the world. Yet she had run away and left them. She was sure she was being rude.
"I know what you mean," Saito said, smiling gently. "I feel that way myself sometimes."
He stepped up to the gunwhale beside her, and rested his arms on it. His dark eyes stared out at the slowly shrinking Albion, the wind ruffling his black hair.
"You miss your home, Saito?" She couldn't stop herself from asking.
"Yeah, a little," Saito admitted wistfully. "I just get a little nostalgic sometimes."
"I feel…like I've lost something," Tiffania admitted awkwardly. "Something I can never reclaim."
"I know that one," Saito said. "I guess it's natural when something big like this happens. Leaving your home, going out into the world."
They stood silently for a while, gazing out over the stern. Albion had gone dark, a continent-sized silhouette against the setting sun.
"I don't know if I'll ever get used to this," Saito commented. "Flying ships, I mean."
"I've never been on one before." Tiffania looked down over the gunwhale, seeing the black morass of the ocean below. "I wonder how they work."
"Well, it's mostly by windstones," Saito explained. "I found out about them during the war. Apparently they're Wind magic that kind of crystallizes under the earth. They hold the ship up in the air, and they use some kind of mechanism with other stones to change how much magic they give out, so the ship can go up and down."
"Oh, I see." Tiffania wasn't at all sure that she did, but it sounded simple enough.
"Yeah," Saito rubbed the back of his neck again. "I'm not sure I understand it either."
The wind moaned, and the ship listed. Tiffania let out a squeak as she was thrown into Saito's unsuspecting arms. Saito yelled as he lost his footing, and fell to the deck with a crash, Tiffania slumping on top of him.
"Oh! Saito!" Tiffania tried to pull herself up. "Are you all right?" She sat up, and looked down at Saito. His face was all red.
"Ahhh!" he sighed. "The big ones…"
Toulon, Kingdom of Gallia
The port of Toulon was busy, as it generally was.
Like many ports, Toulon was built into a natural harbour. The first thing any approaching vessel saw was the long promontory that reached out over the harbour mouth from west to east, protecting all inside from the stormy sea as the bastions built on it protected them from enemy ships.
Toulon was port both of trade and of war. Cargo ships moved in and out by the dozen every day, carracks and fluits from the north, galleys and galleasses from the south and east. Ships from northern Gallia and Tristain, from the decadent city-states of the Yspano peninsula to the far east, and from the Ausonia peninsula to the west, the domain of the holy city of Romalia.
In the military docks sat the warships of the Royal Navy, tasked with protecting the sea lanes from pirates and the petty navies of the Yspano cities, not that there was always much difference. The kingdom's military airships were serviced in the Tour Royale, a rather understated name for the mighty fortress that loomed over the harbour from a natural bluff to the east.
The ship that approached Toulon that fine morning was not like any of them.
Its name was Drinker of the Wind, in the language of those who had built it. It was narrow and low-slung like a galley but had no oars, its three lanteen sails carrying it gracefully into the harbour. Its crew were about their work, calling to one-another in a language somewhat familiar to the people of Toulon, but utterly alien to other Halkeginians.
If one could meet an Arysian anywhere, it would be in a place like Toulon.
The man who stood on the foredeck, gazing out over the harbour, was well aware of that fact. The port of Tyrus, from which they had begun their journey, was similar in that respect.
If only in that respect.
Majid did his best to keep his face straight, and to not wrinkle his nose. The rumours about Halkeginians and their personal hygiene, or lack thereof, were apparently true. He began to wonder, not for the first time, if this journey had been such a good idea.
"Majid look! A dragon-rider!"
The joyous cry drew his attention to his companion. The boy standing next to him was dark-skinned like himself, but with white-blond hair as opposed to his black, a strip of white cloth tied around his brow. His eyes sparkled with excitement as he pointed up at the sky. Majid followed his gesture, and there indeed was a dragon, wings spread wide, taking off from the fortress overlooking the harbour, a tiny human figure just visible on its back.
"It's the first I've ever seen!" the boy went on, almost bouncing for joy. "I've heard that they ride dragons, but I never thought I'd see one!"
Majid's face was unchanged, but a part of him inwardly smiled at his young charge's pleasure. Suleiman Reza Al-Karim had been the centre of his world for as long as his life had been worth living. His happiness was Majid's happiness.
"What a wonderful adventure this will be!" Suleiman proclaimed happily. "Don't you think so, Majid?"
Majid did not reply. He could not, for something terrible had blazed up inside him, blotting out all other thoughts.
He hated it. He hated allof it. He had hated having to spend weeks on that wretched ship, forcing down the muck they called food only to puke it all up every time they ran through some heavy seas, the sailors laughing at him all the while. He hated the thought of wandering through the ugly-looking, foul-smelling city to which he was being delivered. He hated the thought of what was likely happening back in Arysia, what he and Suleiman had no choice but to run from.
Worst of all, he hated the fact that his young master was there to share it with him. They had slept together on hard planks under a single blanket, eaten from the same pot, and drank the same water. It was hateful. It was unbearable. It was never meant to be like this.
He mastered himself, and his anger turned to shame as he saw Suleiman looking up at him, obviously worried.
"Forgive me, young master," Majid said. "My…mind wandered." Suleiman looked away, and Majid knew with a wrench of his heart that his attempt had failed.
"I know, Majid," he said, suddenly sorrowful. "I know this isn't what you wanted. I know you didn't want to leave Arysia. I just thought…I hoped this could be fun all the same."
"Young master." Majid felt ashamed of himself. "My only concern is your safety, and my only wish is your happiness. It was Mansahdar Silat who bade us leave, and I trust his judgement."
He pictured his old mentor. In his mind's eye he saw the hard, narrow face, and the gimlet eyes that seemed to bore into his soul, the eyes that had glared down upon him through all those agonizing hours. Every time he thought he couldn't continue, that he could never succeed, it had been those eyes that drove him on.
"As you say, Majid." He felt his heart lift as the smile returned to his young master's face. "But let's have fun while we're at it, shall we?"
"Yes, young master." Smiling, Majid looked up as Drinker of the Wind manoeuvred itself in towards one of the docks.
He could cope with the smell, he decided, if the trip made his young master happy.
This is a redone prologue, based on advice and criticism on Sufficient Velocity. It was argued that something like this would introduce the characters and situation much better than the old version, and I'm inclined to agree.