Chapter 22: Crystal Maiden

When Kielanai was feeling stronger, she cast healing spells over herself and tended to her shipmates' injuries at the freshwater fountain in the dining loft. She gave Rindaalyn an extra big hug and a kiss for helping summon her father to their aid, which made the young Ashlander blush deeply beneath his gray-blue skin. Having used all their healing potions in this manner, Kielanai decided her first task should be to make more restoratives.

Taking a small knife from a chest on a shelf, she moved to the table and snipped the succulent leaves from the aloe vera plant growing there. Mid-way through the task, though, she cast an unhappy glance toward the sunless windows. "With all that fog out there, I doubt we're going to be seeing much sunlight. I should probably move all the plants into the ship's belly, so my grandmother's welkynd stones can help them grow. Could someone help carry them, please?" she requested as she picked up her potted aloe.

"No, there is no sunlight here." Tatsuya picked up one of the window boxes that had little radish plants growing in it. "Your mother would be very surprised to see how you have changed this piece of stinking driftwood into a sea-faring greenhouse."

Kielanai grinned at his compliment. "Oh, this is nothing compared to the lower deck."

"What did you do to the lower deck?" Leaning against a barrel of ale, Talvalo was curious.

"Come see." The bard grinned in a demure, catlike manner.

Rindaalyn grabbed the other window box containing miniature fennel, flax, and gensing plants and followed the bard and the samurai to the trap door leading down into the ship's belly.

Daerazal opened the door and propped it for them before following.

The dirty, cramped mid-deck barracks had been converted into a spacious training room. Bookcases lined the narrow hall, along with rugs, various shields, a few statuettes, and silk-ivy that almost looked real. "Sugoi na ..." Tatsuya muttered and peeked into a comfortable-looking bedroom. "It is a floating home now."

"I borrowed the idea from the Bloated Float. It's a ship that's been converted to an inn in the Waterfront District in Imperial City," she updated her father as she led them past the small washroom, past her own quarters, into a small cubby with display cases and another trap door. "I guess I was thinking I could do something similar to bring in visitors from Anvil once I had it fixed up."

"Like my Morrowind island?" Talvalo turned to Daerazal. "See, it's not such a dumb idea after all. People with money to waste will always look for unique and interesting ways to waste it."

Hands full with her aloe plant and clippings, she waited for Talvalo to open the second trap door before carefully descending.

"Do we need a light spell?" he asked.

"No," Daerazal grumped from behind and removed the Orc race charm to his pocket, so he could look like his normal Drow-self once more—a reminder to the battlemage about his light sensitivity.

"Light isn't necessary down here," she answered as she disappeared in a room awash with a pale-blue glow.

The others followed her decent. Potted trees lined the curved, wall planks near the ladder, and a small raised bed grew a cluster of tightly packed vegetables and berries. Beyond the open storage closet that was packed with crates and sacks of various supplies, behind ivory, lace curtains, two enormous welkynd stone clusters could be seen potted among various mushroom species. And beyond that at the back of the ship was a small alchemy lab affixed with an Ayleid lamp and more stones.

Kielanai set her aloe vera plant near one of the welkynd clusters and turned to accept the radish box from her father. "What do you think?"

"I think ... " Tatsuya turned around to see every inch of the magical garden. "I think your grandmother would be proud. She often wondered what secrets those stones held. She felt that if the Ayleids used this magic to light and guard their dark citadels, perhaps we could learn how to do it, too. It removed certain worries from her mind to study those crystals ... much the way your mother could lose herself for hours in her flower garden."

"Crystal Maiden ..." Talvalo mused at the ship's name. "I get it now."

"The energy in the crystals can be used to replenish magic in our weapons and ourselves," the bard explained, "but that same magical energy also generates a light that can grow plants and purify water. So, we don't need to worry about running out of food or fresh water," she assured them. "We just have to be diligent about harvesting and replanting when necessary." After setting the radish box on a shelf in her cramped alchemy lab, Kielanai accepted the herb box that Rindaalyn held. "By the way ... how long is this journey going to take?" she asked of her father.

"On the ocean it would take almost half a year, but you are traveling on a sea of spirits now. Maybe a month," Tatsuya predicted. "I can only take you to another mononoke hashi, though." He seated himself on a bench beneath a small maple tree potted near the ladder. "I cannot return to Akavir with you, but you carry the spirits of the Kawauta clan in your blood, and in your katana."

Kielanai was delighted to hear that, but then became troubled. "My conjuration skills aren't worth very much, I'm afraid. And what if I lose the katana?"

Tatsuya laughed. "Rindaalyn-kun can summon for you. But if you lose Masahiro's katana, he will come rant at you himself. You cannot lose us, Kielanai. We are part of you ... always. Even Masahiro." The rogue samurai laughed again.

She laughed and bowed her head in gratitude, then began snipping mushrooms with the small knife to make her potions. He probably didn't know she'd already lost her grandfather's sword in an Oblivion citadel, so she decided not to mention that.

As the storm continued to rage and rock the ship, Daerazal grabbed onto the nearby post and rubbed his stomach because of a queasy unease. "Being able to summon you will come in handy for finding our way to the Nightsong Desert. You said you knew directions."

"Hai, shittemasu. Sassubaa, Yonaki Sabaku, and just beyond there …"

Kielanai took the mushrooms she snipped to the desk in the mage's study. "Is Sassubaa a Tsaesci town?" The bard sorted the mushroom caps on the table and paused to adjust an Ayleid welkynd-lamp before preparing her alchemy equipment.

Tatsuya grunted in agreement and walked down the narrow hall of the swaying ship to join her. "All towns near Yonaki Sabaku are Tsaesci towns, but their culture is much like ours. Cover your head and keep to the ways I have taught you. That will help."

Talvalo took a seat on the bench between the miniature trees and stretched his long legs across the small walkway. "In a land of people with snake-like bodies, won't it be obvious we don't belong, no matter how we behave?"

The ship hit a bump forcing everyone standing to grab the nearby wall to steady balance.

"What was that?" Still paranoid from the previous battle, Rindaalyn set his hand on his axe.

"Sea demon," Tatsuya calmly answered. "The mystical ethers below us are full of demon spirits, too. They will hit the ship on occasion. It is best that you stay inside for the journey, or you will be at their mercy if you fall overboard."

"Lovely." The battlemage gave the bard a flat frown, again, for choosing this method of transport.

"You do not have snake bodies, but neither did we." The Akaviri samurai smiled. "Mukashi, mukashi ..." he began.

"Long, long ago ...'" Kielanai translated with a smile of her own. It was how he started her bedtime stories when she was a child.

"Humans used to rule the land that is called Tsaesci," the father of the bard continued. "But our ancestors captured beast races and turned them into slaves. Then, one of the snake-beasts was transformed by a vampire cat."

Daerazal almost laughed. "A vampire cat?"

"In Akavir, tigers and cats have a soul-recalling hair in their tails that allows them to bring dead souls back to life ... some as vampires. Then the disease spreads to others from the souls who are cursed. Enough of the snake-men became infected that one day the beasts realized they outnumbered their masters. After the snake-men drank human blood in a magic ritual, some were able to take on two-legged forms. When this magic was learned, they rebelled against their overlords in great numbers. In some cities, their taste for revenge was so strong they devoured all human captives. But other snake-men learned from this mistake. The smarter Tsaesci lords kept their humans alive to breed them as cattle and slaves.

"You will not be in danger for having two legs during your travels. But you will be in great danger if they think you are spies or slaves. Once you get past the pirate cove, hide your faces well and try to behave like two-legged shape-shifters, instead. Because of their magic, shape-shifters are highly respected and not questioned."

Kielanai glanced toward her crew of elves and wondered how in the world they could pass themselves off as a two-legged snake-men. "Is Kuroi-Dokuga typical of the two-legged shape-shifters?"

"Yes, in both appearance and mannerisms." The Akaviri man helped his daughter sort the mushrooms. "My father had many bitter quarrels with Kuroi-Dokuga that ended in harsh punishment at first. But my father said that when I was born, he learned selflessness and patience. He did as he was told, so no harm would come to me. I learned the same values with you.

"When the pirates planned to journey to the western continent, my father asked that his family be allowed to go as servants. He secretly hoped we could escape to freedom in the new land, but when we arrived, Kuroi-Dokuga put us to work building his pirate base. The pirates outnumbered us, so we could not fight them. And Kuroi-Dokuga always kept someone from our family in the ship's brig to be sure that no one tried to escape."

Kielanai grabbed her alembic and some empty bottles from the shelves. "Sounds like another slave overseer I know." She glanced toward Daerazal, but did not mention him by name because she was unsure what kind of reaction her father would have if he knew of the Drow's past. Then, she paused and realized she was beginning to think just like Mairiel, worrying about what her father would think.

Daerazal kept silent on the matter and sat down on the bottom step of the ladder to quell his nausea.

"Your grandfather worked hard to gain Kuroi-Dokuga's trust, and eventually the pirate decided to use his human slave to spy on the Emperor himself. The pirates attacked Imperial vessels to make trouble on the Gold Coast, then released my father to run to the Emperor as an escaped prisoner offering help. The Emperor agreed to use him as a Blades agent, so Kuroi-Dokuga had no choice but to allow him the outward appearance of freedom on the island. But he still always kept one family member imprisoned."

Kielanai set her items on the table and frowned. "So ... you weren't really Blades, after all? You really were helping the pirates?"

Tatsuya sighed. "We were allied with the pirates pretending to be Blades, and then allied with the Blades pretending to be pirates. I can't blame the Blades if they did not feel they could trust us once they knew the truth. The Emperor promised us freedom as soon as the pirate ring could be crushed without provoking further attacks from Akavir. But whether he meant to keep his promise or not, no one could have protected us from the pirates' vengeance that night.

"Kuroi-Dokuga found out about my father's treachery and killed the member of our family held captive on this ship. Our hope of freedom had failed." He paused, but then smiled with pride. "Yet your mother still freed you, and you returned to us with the highest honor a servant of the Empire can earn—dragon armor. It is significant that a slave of Akaviri blood should wear it, I think."

Kielanai was quiet for a moment. She didn't realize she had been born a slave, too. The bard sat down in the chair at her desk and stared blankly at her collected ingredients. "Who was the family member held on the ship?" she quietly asked.

Tatsuya hesitated to answer. "At first, your grandmother was used to keep us from running."

Kielanai's face pinched in confusion. "But ... she lived on the island among us. She was always in her magic room studying these crystals."

Tatsuya nodded. "Because when you were born, she was given back to us. They took Kiumiko, instead." His expression changed to one of regret, and it became clear he was fighting his own emotions to admit it.

Kielanai had never heard that name before. "Kiumiko?"

"Your twin sister."

Kielanai stared at her father ... stunned. "I had a sister? A twin?"

Tatsuya drew a breath and tried to explain. "She was older by a few minutes. We named her for the spirit of the open sea and the freedom that we hoped to gain for her. But they took her from your mother's arms—a tiny baby, imprisoned in place of your grandmother. When you came, we named you Kielanai, in hopes that you would not also disappear."

"Kieru … Kienai … Kie-ra-nai ..." The bard had always thought her name was rather strange, but now she understood the eerie meaning hidden within the sounds.

"We were allowed to visit her, but we were afraid how you would react if you knew what was happening to her. Children's fears ... they complicate things. I'm sorry we never told you."

"Did she know about me?"

"The pirates spoke of you often to poison her mind against us. They told her we chose to keep you, and gave her away. They told her how you played in the sun and had sweets to eat. She grew jealous and accused us of hating her." Tatsuya bowed his head for a moment. It was a hard thing to discuss, even now. "We could not save her, but you have made a fitting memorial. This dark, lonely place below the sea is where she was kept. But you have turned it into a beautiful garden full of light and life."

The bard's jaw clenched in anger at the suffering her sister and grandmother must have gone through being confined to the Tsaesci ship. "Where is her spirit now?"

"She was killed in the doujou ... before our eyes ... by Kuroi-Dokuga's hand. For a long time, her soul was bitter and vengeful in that place. She haunted the pirates and tried to harm them. When you killed them, your revenge silenced her. I don't know where her spirit resides now. I have not felt her presence since then. I pray she is finally at peace."

Kielanai couldn't blame her sister for hating her. Distraught at the news and cupping a hand to her mouth, the bard stood and rushed past everyone in the lower deck, nearly tripping over Talvalo's legs to climb up the ladder and excuse herself to the washroom.

))((

Tatsuya sighed heavily and sat down in the chair at Kielanai's desk. "Gomennasai, minasan," he apologized to his daughter's crew mates for delivering such heavy news on top of such a heavy journey. Then the warrior wiped a hand over his own eyes to dry them. "Gomennasai, Kiumiko," he apologized to his tortured child … wherever she was now.

))((

Time passed slowly for the crew of the Crystal Maiden. Without sunlight or moonlight to mark the passage of time, each day began to feel like the one before it. Daerazal complained that even the sunless depths of Menzoberranzan had the magic pillar Narbondel to track days, but this ship's only timepiece was a small hourglass meant for brewing potions and cooking.

Some days were just as stormy as the first; others were calm. But beyond the thick layer of mist above and below, nothing was revealed about any progress toward their destination.

Daerazal spent most of his time with Rindaalyn teaching him sword fighting techniques in the padded training room. Talvalo wasted many hours reading the books from the collection in the mid-deck hall and captain's cabin, while Tatsuya spent most of his time at the helm of the ship, seated in deep meditation. His memories of Akavir were what guided it.

During meals, Kielanai told her father all about her life growing up near Imperial City with Gwenyth. She also told him of her recent adventures with the Oblivion Crisis. Talvalo explained the Nerevarine Prophecy and why Chizrae's disappearance was more than a personal quest to find his wife. Then, Daerazal briefly explained the Llothain desire for revenge on her.

Kielanai thought of her sister every time she entered her magical garden in the lower deck—moreso because of the mizuko writhing beneath the vessel. When the ride became bumpy, she sang songs to the lost children's souls, in hopes it would calm them ... in hopes that Kiumiko was not among them.

One day, Rindaalyn climbed down the ladder to the lower deck looking for the bard and found her in the narrow passage between the vegetable beds and the storage shelves. "Kielanai? Talvalo wants you to look at some ingredients upstairs before he decides to season a dish that he's making."

The bard set down her retort. "Dish? What dish?"

"Well, I told him it was stupid to waste fire salts on the potatoes, but he says he misses spicy foods."

"Fire salts! I'll admit Talvalo has learned to cast some powerful magic, but he has not learned the delicate art of alchemy." The bard stood from her chair and pushed past him to hurry up the ladder.

Rindaalyn smirked and followed. He couldn't wait to remind the battlemage that he had told him so.

In the dining loft, Kielanai found the Altmer chopping onions, garlic, gensing, and arrowroot together. "What are you doing?" she accused snatching the jar of fire salts and peeking inside. "These were very hard to come by. Don't use them for cooking."

"Then don't store them in the kitchen. Why do you think I sent Rin to ask about it?" He quirked a brow of irritation at her and returned to his chopping. "If you don't want my spiced potatoes, I'll give your portion of dinner to Daerazal. Or is it breakfast? I can't even keep track of meals anymore."

"Ugh, no." The Drow had one arm stretched across the tabletop and clutched at his stomach with the other. He was still feeling queasy thanks to the constant motion of the waves.

Talvalo stopped chopping and paused thoughtfully. "All I know is that I want food with a really spicy punch for a change."

"I'll give you a spicy punch if you use my alchemy ingredients for potatoes." She took the remaining gensing root as well.

"Why in the name of Azura would you keep them in the kitchen if you don't intend to eat them?"

"This is the only level with windows and direct heat. I keep them here so the sunlight and cooking fires dry them out."

"What sunlight? There's nothing out there but water vapor and slimy, ugly, little babies waiting to eat our souls if one of us happens to fall overboard."

"Don't call them that! My sister might be out there!" she angrily returned.

"The boiled potatoes are beginning to look like their empty little eye sockets, and I won't say what their empty little mouths remind me of," the battlemage continued to grouse.

Daerazal grunted in disgust and quickly let himself out the cabin door to be sick again.

Rindaalyn chuckled to himself as he strode toward Talvalo and opened his mouth.

"Shut up!" both of the other elves snapped at him before he could say anything.

))((

The Drow knew it was dangerous to be on the deck, but he headed to the rail and leaned over it, bowing his head into the crook of his arm. He hoped the little miscreants wouldn't surface to stare at him while he lost his breakfast. Dark elves weren't meant to live on oceans. That was all there was to it.

"The demons in these waters would probably frown upon you vomiting in their ethers again, Daerazal-kun." Settled on a pillow in the middle of the deck, Tatsuya opened his eyes.

"Better than facing Kielanai if I vomit all over her table," he weakly retorted.

Tatsuya laughed. "Hai, wakarimashita, na. Tempers grow short as days grow long." He rose and moved to the rail to stand beside Daerazal. "Kielanai's mother never liked it when I cleaned slaughterfish at her table. I used to leave the insides out because Kielanai liked playing in the leftovers. She was fascinated with fish intestines and heads. She used to poke the eyes inside-out to see what was behind them."

Feeling even more nauseated than before, Daerazal lifted his head to blink at the other warrior for a long, unsteady moment. "More than I wanted to know."

The Akaviri warrior chuckled. "I thought you might be interested to learn about her childhood."

The Drow put his head back down. "I'm only interested in her legs."

"Oi," Tatsuya unhappily warned again.

"Yeah, I know. She's your daughter; none of that," the Drow muttered.

Amused at the elf's seasick demeanor, Tatsuya leaned on the rail, too. "Kielanai thinks highly of you."

Daerazal snorted at the irony in that statement. "Your daughter thinks I'm a baka ronin."

Tatsuya laughed again. "Her mother used to call me such. She often told me my jokes were stupid, but she laughed anyway because she said they made her heart happy." He looked out over the endless stretch of gray, foggy nothingness. "The way Kielanai spoke of you when telling about the Oblivion Crisis, I could tell she has been trying to understand you for a long time. She may say you do foolish things, but she remains at your side because your foolishness makes her heart happy."

The Drow lifted his head and shifted his eyes toward the Akaviri human. "My foolishness?"

"Whatever that may be."

Daerazal turned his attention back to the mist. "So how did a human slave trapped on a pirate island manage to marry an Altmer elf?" he bluntly asked.

"Eilynae was taken from one of the Imperial ships the pirates sank. The Tscaeci imprisoned their captives with their slaves. Eilynae said she found comfort in my company." Tatsuya smiled at the memory of his wife, but then saddened and was quiet for a long moment. "She also said I looked like a kawaii koinu."

The Drow's eyes shifted toward the other warrior again. "Ko-inu?"

"Cute puppy." Tatsuya grinned to cheer himself, then quickly followed it with a hushed, stern tone. "But beware words like, 'kawaii koinu'. If Kielanai uses these words, you don't listen, ne? These words mean she wants to do 'cute' things—like dress you in certain preferred clothing."

Daerazal's brow quirked in suspicion. "What about the word 'dapper'?"

The samurai sucked air through his teeth as he winced. "'Dappa' ha kakko ii, na. Sou, sou, sou. Dame da,'" he grumbled to himself. "Very bad word. That one is worse than 'cute'. That means she wants a high class lord—very expensive word."

"And uncomfortable," Daerazal agreed. "You can't walk because you've got a pair of hose all riding up your ass."

Tatsuya laughed and pulled the wide legs of his hakama tight to mimic the style he had seen worn among Tamriel's humans. "Like this?"

"And those stiff waistcoats …" Daerazal pulled his collar high around his neck, so that his shoulders hunched and his neck shrank. "Those were the most scratchy, god-awful—"

Kielanai chose that moment to step outside, but as she blinked at the two warriors in their odd postures, they snapped to attention and released their bunched clothing.

She held up a hand to shush them before they could explain. "Never mind. I don't want to know. I'll just ask the cult freak and the fireball chef to move the chest out of storage for me, instead." Turning around, she shut the door behind her.

))((

When the long voyage finally came to an end, Tatsuya called the crew together on the deck and gestured for his daughter to take the helm. "Remember, you must enter Akavir alone, but I am always with you in spirit."

Kielanai smiled. "Doumo arigatougozaimashita." She bowed respectfully for his aid, then gave him a heartfelt hug. "I'd like to ask one more favor, though ... if I may."

"If it is in my power to grant your wish, I will do what I can."

"Is it possible for you to sail the Crystal Maiden back to Kojima and stand watch over her? I've changed my mind about taking her to the Tsaesci dock. I don't want the pirates to have her again."

This decision greatly concerned Tatsuya. "You will not be able to return home."

"It would be dangerous to come back this way, and we have other magic for our return. The ship would be abandoned at the pirate cove, and I wouldn't want grandmother and Kiumiko's memorial garden to fall into anyone else's hands."

The Akaviri warrior nodded in agreement with her sentiment.

"Bridge dead ahead!" Rindaalyn shouted and pointed from his perch in the crow's nest. Though it was difficult to tell the difference between where the impenetrable mist ended and the dark gray clouds began, they were approaching a red bridge similar to the one they left back in Tamriel.

"Are you ready?" Kielanai looked to Talvalo and Daerazal as the battlemage stepped up to the wheel to help steer the vessel toward the bridge.

"No," Daerazal answered, but he took the race generator from his pocket and slipped it over his neck anyway. He still wasn't comfortable with the transformation that took place, but he grasped a rope in his strong, green hands and lowered one of the skiffs.

"Well, at least you've got the grumpy mannerisms of an Orc down pat," Talvalo commented.

"That's Captain Orc, to you. And you look like you want to swab the deck." The Drow-Orc frowned with his threat.

"Is that a bit of lettuce between your teeth? Oh, my mistake. It's just your lips wagging between your horker tusks," the Altmer returned.

Kielanai looked up to the youth in the crow's nest. "Rindaalyn!" She gestured for him to come down.

The scout descended the mast with agile ease to join them on the deck.

"Did you have the other amulet we talked about?" she asked of the Drow-Orc.

Daerazal reached into his pocket and pulled out a second charm.

"What's that?" Rindaalyn asked.

"Chizrae's language amulet. You'll need it to explain who we are." Daerazal draped the chain of the necklace over Rindaalyn's head.

"Onamae ha nan desu ka?" Kielanai asked the Ashlander.

Rindaalyn was astonished that he understood her perfectly and lifted the sapphire between his fingers to see that it was enchanted. "Rindaalyn desu," he answered with ease as the words shaped themselves in his mind.

"Ii yo." Kielanai smiled. "The grandson of a Tsaesci pirate needs no disguise. You will be our translator from Kuroi-Dokuga's crew."

His brows rose with concern. "Demo, watashi ha Danmaa desu."

"Daijoubu da yo," she assured him and then looked to Talvalo. "Anata ha?"

"Hm?"

"You're going to be an Orc disguised as an elf, remember? We talked about this. You need to make sure your fake race amulet is visible in case anyone doubts whether you are under an enchantment."

"Oh. Yes, actually I was thinking I'm more suited to playing a Nord than an Orc." The Altmer removed his jeweled hair clasp and bent over to shake out his long, auburn hair in a wild manner. Then, he straightened and removed his mage robe, shirt, and rings, tucking everything into his travel bag, so the magical glow of the calming charm was in plain view at his throat, as was the wolf skull and crossbones tattooed on his shoulder.

Kielanai had not expected that much of a strip-down. "We ... only needed to see the charm."

He pointed to his tattoo. "This is from the Sea Wolf—the ship I was on in Solstheim," he reminded her. "I'll look more like a Nord barbarian if they can see this."

"No, you still look like a weak-ass Atlmer mage," the Drow-Orc impatiently gruffed.

Though his expression registered no emotion, the battlemage lifted a hand to display sparks jumping from his finger tips, then touched the Drow-Orc's arm sending a jolt through his system.

"Iblith! Nindel jivviim, dos mal'ai!" Daerazal pounded a heavy, green fist into the mage's chest, then glowered at him as he rubbed away the tingling pain in his arm.

"That's more like it. Just be yourselves, and pretending we're a bunch of thugs should be a cinch." Kielanai rolled her eyes and went to dig through her pack for her own disguise. She fastened her water-walking amulet around her neck, thinking it was the most practical. "Ta-daa! I'll be the Orc-Altmer, then."

"Kielanai ..." Talvalo left the irritated Drow-Orc's side to crouch next to her. "I don't mean to intrude upon your ingeniously diabolical plan to fool the Tsaesci pirates, but ... why would an Orc crew be disguised as elves while the captain remains an Orc? Are you sure about this?"

"Like I said before, if you have a better idea, let's hear it."

"Invisibility," he answered in one succinct word.

Kielanai was quiet for a moment and considered how Daerazal used the Chameleon potions to wade through the entire Mythic Dawn Cult. Perhaps Talvalo was right. She was certain she could act the part of a female Orc, but she had her doubts about whether the other gold elf could convince anyone he was really a Nord. "Okay, scrap the fake amulets idea, but hold that thought."

Without delay, she hurried back into the cabin and down to her alchemy lab to check her potions. She had no idea how much they would need, so she grabbed them all and tucked them into her pack. Back up on the deck, she divided them equally between herself and Talvalo.

"What about us?" Daerazal complained, watching the battlemage get half of the bottles.

"I don't have enough for everyone to remain unseen for a long time. You and Rindaalyn look enough like a real Orc and Tsaesci to keep up your pretenses. Talvalo and I will silently follow until we're beyond the cove. That should at least get us past the thick of it."

Daerazal was still doubtful. "So a lone Orc and his Dunmer-Tsaesci translator show up in the middle of the ocean on a rowboat at a Tsaesci pirate cove because ..."

"You'll think of something," she patted his big shoulders with confidence. "And if you get in trouble, we'll have your backs."

"Kielanai," Tatsuya spoke as his daughter started to follow the Drow-Orc down the side of the ship into the skiff. "Ki wo tsukete, ne."

She knew that telling her to take care, probably only made him realize how helpless he was to make the rest of the journey safe for her. "Un. Jaa ne," she smiled, kissed his cheek, and hugged him once more before climbing down the rope ladder.

Kielanai and Talvalo settled on the center floor of the small boat while Daerazal and Rindaalyn took the seats. Daerazal, being the bigger of the two, took the oars. Kielanai knew better than to look down into the sea of vengeful spirits, but she did it anyway and spotted the face of a mizuko staring back at her from beneath the vapor-laden waters. The bard immediately tore her gaze away to watch her father pull up the skiff ropes and anchor.

He waved goodbye, then both he and the ship faded into the thick mists. Or at least that's what she thought was happening. The mists around them had actually begun to thin and meld with real waves. The large, invisible snake form that sucked them into the void appeared once more to spit them back into the mortal realm.

Within minutes, they found themselves tossed about on a choppy expanse of sea under a stormy downpour. Kielanai looked nervously at the unstable, dark water beneath them. Her father had told her tales about what kinds of fish lurked in Akaviri waters—sharks, giant squid, octopus ... whales. Trying not to think about them, she lifted her eyes to the distant shore that awaited them.

The evergreen trees along the rocky beach reached long, twisted branches east and west instead of high into the sky. Arched rocks twisted and looped in unusual shapes, too. Large blackbirds with strange, loud caws flew in the rain overhead as they searched for fish to scavenge near the docks. The realization that she was finally approaching the land of her ancestors began to bubble her blood with effervescent excitement, but Kielanai had to remind herself this place was not like her island home. She was a stranger to these shores, and her arrival would draw more weapons than welcomes.

The Akaviri pirate boats in the cove bore a resemblance to large boxes on a long hull. The docks were roped off by floating glass balls that marked the areas for ships to stay away from. Beyond the docks, the buildings of the pirate cove had colorful corrugated, tile roofs, slanting at asymmetrical angles and turning up around the corners just like the minka and main estate on Kojima.

"I think it's time," Talvalo broke the uncanny silence and lifted a bottle of Chameleon potion.

Kielanai nodded and pulled a bottle from her own bag. Tapping his in mock toast, both of them drank it down and faded from view. "Don't drink the next one until we're on shore," she reminded him.

"Right," he agreed. "We'll meet you two at the end of the dock," he told Daerazal and Rindaalyn.

))((

Though the Crystal Maiden remained hidden within the mists of the mononoke hashi, the skiff was quickly spotted by the Tsaesci pirates loading and unloading cargo. In response, their serpentine bodies slithered across the pier with speed and ease to block the two-legged passengers from docking. "Dare?" one of them demanded, drawing the long, black katana strapped to his back.

Though he couldn't see her, Rindaalyn felt Kielanai's eyes on him, so he stood to translate for Daerazal. "He wants to know who we are."

"Urgog ma-Bol," Daerazal introduced himself, providing the cold stare and impersonal snarls necessary to hold up his Orc act. "I was on my way to help the Nords of Solstheim attack ships coming out of Morrowind, when I met a Tsaesci pirate named Kuroi-Dokuga. He said the Tsaesci of Sassubaa were planning to invade Morrowind soon … found a new way to breech the border from within." He gave a sly grin that displayed his sharp tusks. "I want a piece of the action, or my contacts in Skyrim and Solstheim might be tempted to dump this news in the Empire's lap just in time to warn them."

At the mention of Kuroi-Dokuga's name, the Tsaesci began hissing and whispering between themselves. Then, one of them faced the Orc again. "Kuroi-Dokuga no fune ha doko?"

Rindaalyn hesitated, then faced his captain. "They want to know where his ship is."

"He's taking it back to Anvil," Daerazal answered in annoyance. "If his fleet attacks from the south, the Nords attack from the north, and someone in Sassubaa knows of a way to aim straight for the heart, Morrowind's isolation and removal from the Empire can happen in no time flat. Leave Morrowind for the northern pact ... you get the rest," he proposed.

The Dunmer scout turned to translate for the Tsaesci pirates. Though they glared menacingly at him as he spoke, he couldn't help but be fascinated by their slender, flexible forms.

"Well, can we dock here, or can't we? This damn rain is going to wash us away if we sit in it too much longer," the Drow-Orc complained. "Ask 'em where Sassubaa is," he demanded.

Rindaalyn was beginning to dislike taking orders, but he continued his translation efforts without remarks about it. "Sassubaa ha doko desu ka?"

"Kouzo ... anta ha harufu Tsaesci?"

Rindaalyn was cautious at the unexpected question. "Hai, half-Tsaesci." He was only one-quarter Tsaesci, but with his golden snake-eyes and long, thin fangs, the pirates had no way of knowing that.

"Okaasan, daaku erufu? Morowindo kara?"

"Yes ... my mother was a dark elf from Morrowind," the youth confirmed with a nod.

"Omoshiroi, na?" The Tsaesci chuckled in a lewd manner amongst themselves. "Kuroi-Dokuga no musuko-san?"

Rindaalyn frowned. "I am not—tch!" He felt a sharp pinch on the back of his arm from the invisible bard. "Hai, musuko desu," he begrudgingly corrected. He had to endure whispered comments and hisses of laughter about Kuroi-Dokuga bedding his dark elven mother. But once they decided that the son of the pirate king was a worthy guest, the Tsaesci blocking them slithered to one side and lowered his weapon to let them dock their skiff and pass.

"Koko kara Sassubaa ha kita da," the snake man directed. "Ano michi, massugu ike."

Rindaalyn faced Daerazal. "He said Sassubaa is north from here. Take that road and go straight. I guess he means the north road out of the cove."

))((

Kielanai felt Talvalo tap her arm just before he slipped over the side of the boat into the water. When she saw the slight silhouette of his body in the ripples, she hesitated, but then grabbed her pack and joined him. The water was bitter-cold and blinding-dark, so she clasped a hand to her water-walking amulet and reached for Talvalo's unseen hand. The magic of the amulet lifted both of them to the surface of the water, so they could walk on the surface of the waves around the crowded pier toward the sandy shore, still trying to avoid notice.

))((

The stormy weather was wearing down the water-logged crew of the departed Crystal Maiden and the snake-men, as well. So, they seemed relieved when Rindaalyn had no further questions.

The Dunmer-Tsaesci and the Drow-Orc climbed out of the skiff. Rindaalyn glanced behind them, but couldn't tell if their invisible companions were no longer there. "Doumo arigatougozaimsu," Rindaalyn gave a bow and walked through the gathering snake-men to the other end of the pier.

"Kielanai? Talvalo?" Daerazal asked under his breath once they were well beyond the pirates.

"I didn't see them leave the skiff," Rindaalyn answered when no one else did, but then he nearly jumped out of his skin as a cold, wet, unseen arm slipped around his.

"We're here," Kielanai whispered.

The youth tried hard to regain his composure. "Don't don't that!" he hissed through clenched teeth. He could hear the bard chuckling to herself at his side.

"We should find a place to wait until nightfall," Talvalo suggested from behind him.

"Sore ha yokatta ne, Rin-kun," the bard playfully complimented the youth's efforts and tousled his copper hair.

The elves walked away from the encounter unscathed and picked up the pace to hurry through the downpour toward the large gateway that they could see above the other buildings. It was tempting to find some place in the town to wait out the rain, but better judgment kept them moving.

Outside the pirate cove, waves crashed brutally into the large rocks that lined the shore, but the elves eventually found a seashore cavern that wasn't flooded from the incoming storm tide. The cavern was cold and damp like the land beyond, but at least it offered temporary shelter. Pink flowers with large, open petals grew here among the patches of tall grass, so Kielanai excused herself from the company of her friends to pick one and take it to the water's edge. There, she became visible as she set it adrift on the choppy waves and bowed to say a prayer.

"What in the world she doing?" Talvalo asked, teeth chattering, as he also became visible once more and pulled a dry shirt from his pack.

"She's going to get washed out to sea." Rindaalyn dropped the damp kindling he'd been gathering along the way, then dropped to a cross-legged position on the ground. Huddling close to the pile, he tried to cast one of the few spells he knew to ignite a small campfire.

"She's asking her sister to forgive her, so they can both be at peace." The Drow-Orc removed his race enchantment so he could be just an ordinary Drow once more.

Rindaalyn frowned thoughtfully to himself, then fanned his flames to feed them. Maybe someday they could do something like that for Tatsuya and his own ancestor guardian … supposing he ever found out who he was.