Aya wasn’t exactly sure what the plan was.
Her father was missing, her brother… was alive and fine, purportedly, though there was something about her calling him her brother which people who knew him seemed to struggle with. She’d learned his name though, Dagga.
After all that though, she was still alone. Sure, there was Jesay and Kriofft, Shaquen too, though she didn’t really know him all that well. Aya was sure Jesay was going to leave after they mentioned they were planning on taking the Funky Bird in order to go searching for Aya’s dad.
“You got me here. Talvale. Figured you’d be gone…?” Aya had asked, letting the question trail out.
“Oh, aye. Should be. But I think I’ll make sure ya get to yer pa first. Delivered ya here, but he ain’t here.” Jesay shrugged. “Never been on an airship before, might like it.”
All of that was fine. Aya liked Jesay and didn’t want to see her go. However, they didn’t have the faintest idea where Aya’s dad might be. For all they knew, he was still in the city. They said they’d raked the city over in their search, but Talvale was large. Huge. It didn’t dwarf Rathuma, but it came close to it. Perhaps it was the varied levels, or the port below, but there was something about it that made Talvale feel even bigger than it was.
It would be impossible to search such a city, not definitively, not even with a crew of two dozen like the Funky Bird boasted.
Shaquen was convinced her dad wasn’t here though. He’d laughed when she offered to help search for him in the city though. He could tell it hurt her feelings, so he explained.
“Lass, this port be as close to home as most o’ the crew got. We got eyes an’ ears everywhere. Not just tha crew lookin’. Iffn he was ‘ere, we’d know.”
It was meant to be comforting, Aya knew that. However, it was anything but. If her father wasn’t in the city, how did they have any hope of finding him? It felt pointless. She wasn’t even sure why the Church was after her beyond the fact that she had some sort of power they either wanted to stop or control.
Aya’s first thoughts led her to Rido, the City-State controlled by the Church and effectively its capital. But if he’d already been taken there, they had little hope of getting him back. When she brought it up, Shaquen simply shook his head.
“Lass, the Captain would be a hard man to take. Aye, I’m sure they would try and get ‘im ta Rido iffn they could. But me money be on the Captain gettin’ away first. He’d go ta ground, bu’ may be we’ll know where ta find ‘im. Aye?”
Aya wanted to believe him. The quartermaster was an affable man, but he was shrewd too, she could see it. She could see why any man might trust him, but she didn’t know her father and she didn’t know him. She was being asked to trust a stranger about a stranger.
Jesay and Kriofft had been strangers too, though. She’d been forced to trust them, yet it seemed circumstances were similar here. She needed the help of Shaquen and his crew if she was going to find what was left of her family. Of family she had never known, but felt desperate to find.
It turned out that a ship, even an airship was crewed well enough without its Captain or First Mate. Of course, the Second and Third Mate were taking up those roles in the interim. The temporary Second and Third Mates weren’t terribly impressive to Aya, but she also didn’t know ships. They set off without issue in the dim evening light.
“Shouldn’t we wait until morning?” Aya had asked the new Captain, a man who went by Riggs. Though Aya had heard it from Kriofft that his name was Percy.
Riggs gave Aya a grin that she wasn’t particularly fond of. It was the sort of grin adults used when kids were sounding especially stupid. By appearances, Riggs was likely a year or two older than her at best.
“Mayhaps be safer, but safety ain’t what we need righ’ now. Iffn there’s a plot, good chance they’ll be watchin’ an’ they will be expectin’ us ta leave durin’ the day.”
Aya didn’t bother pointing out that if the Church really was behind all of this, they likely could spare enough eyes to watch the dock at all hours. All she knew was that leaving earlier meant they had a better chance of finding her dad sooner. It wasn’t much of a plan, but at least it was one.
Because of the time of day, there wasn’t much to see except the lights of Talvale growing smaller and smaller behind them. Aya turned in for the night and dreamed restless dreams about the dad she didn’t know.
When she woke the next morning, Aya went out to the deck to see what could be seen. Except the entire deck was shrouded in fog.
“Is this normal?” She asked.
This time it was the new First Mate, a man named Wes. “Some days, but it’ll pass soon enough.”
“How do you stop from flying into a mountain?”
“Knowing where we’ve been and knowing where we are.” Wes said with a smile that was far less indulgent than the smile Riggs had given her.
Seeing that Aya was nonplussed by the answer, Wes took her back over to the wheel where a crewman named Foss was at the helm. Aya couldn’t remember if Foss was the new Second or Third mate.
Beside the wheel, on a table, was a map of Enbrev and, sitting on the map, was a small replica airship. It was a rather gorgeous bit of craftsmanship. Aya was even more impressed when Wes showed her that the bottom of the ship was made of metal, then lifted the map to show that underneath was a magnet.
“Helps keep the ship in place, where we want it.” He explained.
Aya knew about magnets, had learned about them in school. They were essential tools in compasses, which navigators also used to help stay on course. But they were difficult to find and craft with, making them very expensive.
As Aya looked at the map, she noticed certain locations were marked, most of them near major port cities. Deadeye’s Cove was marked near Farum, Sun Sand Hideaway was near Meera, Hidden Cove was near Ilytom. Then there was Farweng Shyn near Akeu, Fief’s Hole near Tavalis, and, lastly, Breaker Cove itself was circled.
“Are those the places you think my dad might be?” Aya asked.
“The Captain? Aye, might be. Could be other places too, but we’ll check those places first.” He seemed to notice Aya’s panicked expression because he added, “don’t worry, we will find ‘im.”
Aya noted that most of the places were pretty far from Rido, with the exception of Sun Sand Hideaway near Meera. Though maybe Hidden Cove near Ilytom was a bit closer, it was difficult to tell.
“Which one first?”
Technically Deadeye’s Cove was the closest, but they would have to go over the mountains and they didn’t seem inclined to do so. Instead, they were following the Narrow Sea out to its mouth. Aya traced her finger along and then dragged it over the desert to Meera.
“This one?” She asked again, before Wes could answer.
He nodded, “Aye, from there the trip sort of makes itself. His finger traced from Meera to Ilytom, Akeu, then to Tavalis, Breaker Cove, and then across the sea to Farum.”
Aya nodded and stared at the map for a bit longer before she asked the next obvious question. “How long?”
“Well, iffn we traveled nonstop? Just a shy over half a week. However, once we get ta each place we’ll likely spend a few days. So we’re talking twice as long just sittin’ there. There’s always the chance we’ll need to weather a storm or such. So add a few days there. We’re talkin’… a couple of weeks most like. Though if we find ‘im early.” Wes shrugged.
It was shorter than the journey between Rathuma and Talvale, but that made sense. The airship could avoid most land obstacles, aside from mountains, and it traveled quite a bit faster as well. Aya spent most of the rest of the day just familiarizing herself with the different parts of the ship.
The propulsion systems worked off of steam power via coal or wood and could be used in the water, making an airship quite different from a true sailing ship. Being able to move under its own power meant the ship was far less reliant on good winds for travel. However, Aya noticed there were masts and rigging for sails, which she found stored below.
The Funky Bird was much bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside. It was full of holds and hideaways. There were crates, even, occasionally, cabinets built into the ship itself as well as chests and barrels and other means of storage.
Kriofft and Shaquen kept busy to themselves in the Captain’s quarters with Riggs much of the time. Aya only really saw them at meals. However, Jesay was generally around and available. There were a few women crew members, but most of the crew was comprised of men. What’s more, though they did seem to work with the women crew just fine, they treated Jesay and Aya with caution and distance.
“Nay part of the crew, see.” Jesay had said to Aya when she brought it up. “Sailors tend to be superstitious about women who’s not one o’ ’em, an’ seein’ as how neither o’ us are sailors, we’re definitely nay one o’ the crew.”
That was true enough. As keen as Aya was to learn how to operate a ship, there really didn’t seem to be anyone willing to teach her aside from Wes and occasionally the cabin boy, Po.
Po was a nice enough lad, about her age, perhaps a year younger but maybe just a bit slow. The other crew tended to make fun of him, but Aya had put a stop to that early on.
“He’s one of you!” She shouted at a red-headed sailor that sneered at her as she ranted at him, “he deserves your respect just like you give anyone else!”
Apparently her speech sat well with the Captain, who, when the crew looked to him, shrugged and simply said, “I’m nay arguin’ with ‘er. Leave ‘im alone.”
After that, Po seemed to watch after her and make sure no one on the ship bothered her. Occasionally, he would also answer her questions about ship procedures, or the names of things. Including a large pin that looked like a ribbed club, which he stated was a belaying pin.
Aya spent most of her time with Jesay though. The two of them had no duties, which again made Aya wonder why the woodswoman had decided to accompany them. She didn’t question it much though. As silent as she had been during parts of their trip, she and Aya seemed to have survived enough together that she opened up.
They reached Sun Sand Hideaway the second day. They could see the city of Meera across Salt Cap Bay. However, the reverse wasn’t true. Sun Sand Hideaway was built into the sand dunes of the desert that met up with the water’s edge. The buildings themselves were made of stone and baked mud bricks, but then covered with sand into dunes.
Certainly, quite a few Meerans knew of the Hideaway and where it was. But it was a place for transients and extralegal transactions. As a result, it needed to be somewhat hidden in order to maintain discretion. In fact, as Kriofft explained as they began to land, there were dozens of empty buildings in the Hideaway. Every so often, the tenants of the occupied buildings would simply move. The entire Hideaway was over 10 miles in radius, making searching it an utterly daunting effort if one didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.
It turned out that no one in the Hideaway had seen her dad in over a year. Nevertheless, the crew split up into search parties and checked all of the buildings, occupied or otherwise. They found a number of interesting things, including a snake breeder who had holed up in an abandoned building, as well as a slavemaster who was using another empty building to store a dozen or so slaves that they freed.
Aya was able to try fermented mare’s milk which she found rather revolting, to the amused delight of the more permanent residents of the Hideaway. Some of the sailors agreed with her, but others partook of the delicacy with relish. Drunken and happy, the crew left the Hideaway feeling rather good about themselves in spite of the lack of progress in locating their Captain.
“Well, that was a bust.” Aya said as she leaned over the railing of the Funky Bird and watched the Sun Sand Hideaway retreat in the distance.
“Well, he’s only going ta be in one o’ the places, aye? So most o’ ’em will be like that. Doesn’ mean we won’ find ‘im.” Jesay offered in an attempt to comfort, perhaps.
Aya sighed, but did her best to offer a smile to Jesay, “it would have been nice to get some information about him at least.”
“On where he is or who he is?” Jesay asked, giving Aya a look.
Aya covered her face and turned away, as if that could hide the thoughts and feelings which she so clearly wore where everyone could read them. Eventually she responded, “both.”
“We’ll get more o’ that too. But keep in min’ that your pa be layin’ low. He’s nay like ta broadcast where ‘e is ta everyone.”
Still, while Jesay’s words were sound and wise, Aya found herself trying to find fault with them. After all, if her dad was trying to let the crew find him, wouldn’t he leave clues? Cryptic, perhaps, things only the crew could make sense of, but surely he would leave them some sort of information?
Their experiences were repeated at Hidden Cove, which was a small town that existed in the cleft of a cliff in a small, almost enclosed cove from the larger Whitewash Bay. It was full of shabbily constructed huts and hovels that were easy enough to search in the space of an afternoon. Jesay took Aya through a secret tunnel in the cliffs that deposited them next to Ilytom which they visited for the day.
Ilytom was a city known for its excellent food and sightseeing ventures. It boasted the world’s tallest cathedral spire from its Sava Morlin Cathedral, which towered an astonishing fourteen stories tall. Aya thought maybe some of the singular spires in Talvale might have been higher, but none of them were cathedrals, so Sava Morlin’s record was safe.
The sailors had recommended a cafe in Ilytom known as The Bistro, so Jesay, who tended to avoid cities as a rule, and Aya, who hadn’t been to another city outside of Rathuma until Talvale. They didn’t have much coin, but Jesay was able to get a stuffed partridge and Aya ordered a sandwich with sliced duck, water cress, and a zesty sauce to pull both together.
Before too long though, it was time to return back to the ship, which left port promptly. It only occurred to Aya later that her venture out with Jesay had been a bit risky. They were likely somewhat safe in the hideouts, especially with the crew. But venturing into an actual city, especially one with a strong presence from the Church, was dangerous at best.
That night, Jesay found Aya leaning over the railing, watching what she could see of the waves below as they left for Farweng Shyn. Until now, they had either been over land or in sight of land. However, this leg of the journey had them cross the Crossing Sea, which meant they’d spend at least half a day surrounded entirely by ocean.
“What’s on yer mind, lass?” Jesay asked as she drew up next to Aya.
“Just wondering… what will we do if he’s not at any of the hideouts?”
“Then we’ll look other places, I imagine.” Jesay answered. “What are ya thinkin’?”
“Just that maybe we should pick up my brother. Maybe he can help find our dad.”
Jesay looked away from Aya, perhaps thinking on her response because she lapsed into silence. Below, the waves were merely wrinkles on the surface of the water, revealed only by the pale half moonlight above.
“Might be he could help, aye. But seems they think your… brother… will be safer off where he is. Can’t say as I see them being wrong. I know ya want ta meet him, and ya will, but I’m honestly not surprised they want ta keep ya separate at the momen’.”
Aya felt it was difficult to argue that point, but it still went against the feeling she had inside that meeting her brother was so important. She remembered a lesson that her philosophy teacher had taught her in her second year of finishing school. Feelings cannot replace facts. But was it a fact that her brother was safer where he was? Being with some random pirate crew didn’t seem particularly safe to Aya.
“Where is my brother, anyway? Didn’t Shaq- the Quartermaster mention something about him being dropped off somewhere?”
Jesay shrugged in answer to Aya’s question, “dunno, lass. They been keepin’ me in the dark same as you. Need ta know orders, I suppose.”
Aya needed to know. So she left the railing and struck for the Captain’s cabin. Inside it was only Kriofft and Shaquen, which meant that Riggs was at the helm.
“Did you say my brother was still with the pirates? Or did they leave him somewhere?” She demanded.
Shaquen glanced at Kriofft and then back to Aya. “I don’ suppose you’ll be lettin’ this go?”
Aya narrowed her eyes and shook her head, her jaw set. She didn’t have time to play coy or dance around things. This was about her brother, she needed to know.
Shaquen sighed, “yer nay going to like it. They’re on tha Isle o’ Skulls.”
Aya opened her mouth to reply, but Shaquen waved his arms and cut her off, “it’s nay what ya think. I promise, it’s the safest place for them. Keeps ’em away from tha Church, an’ we’ve got friends there. Ya will be joinin’ soon enough, but, fer now, it would be much appreciated iffn ya could stay with us.”
Aya didn’t think she really had a choice, all things considered. However, she had plenty of freedom about the ship and in port. For some reason she had a feeling that would change if she tried to make a run for it. Even if she did break from them, who would take her to the Isle of Skulls, how would she protect herself once she got there?
The idea that the dangers of the Isle of Skulls might be propaganda from the Church and the Empire weren’t outside the realm of possibility. However, the facts she knew were that almost no one went to the Isle of skulls, and of those that did, few came back. In addition to territorial tribes of indigenous peoples, there were strange and fantastic creatures, many of which were little known and often quite deadly.
No, running wasn’t an option. When Aya returned to Jesay by the starboard railing, she could see the curiosity in the woodswoman’s features.
“Isle of Skulls,” Aya said, sounding as despairing as she felt. “Why would they send him there?”
“Church won’t go within sight o’ that land.” Jesay said with a chuckle, “Not after what happened to the Natharantha.”
Aya tilted her head, “The Natharantha?”
“Not surprised they wouldn’t teach about it. The Natharantha was the Church’s first airship and it was everythin’ a flagship should be. It led a fleet of sea-bound ships for the Isle of Skulls on a mission to bring religion and culture to the natives there.”
Jesay paused for a moment, perhaps to let Aya follow better. “Well, anyway, tha sea-bound ships landed and the Church unloaded their missionaries with the Natharantha providing cover. They never imagined a people they saw as so backwards as bein’ able to attack tha airship. But the peoples of the Isle of Skulls were nay as barbaric as they thought. They rode creatures that could fly and hurled spears tha’ pierced the air balloon until it lost buoyancy an’ fell from the sky.”
“Wow…” Aya said, it was incredible to think that the Church had been denied on anything. The Church’s story was one of rightness and virtue, and divine blessing. If one truly subscribed to their system of belief, then the Church failing at anything was impossible.
Jesay nodded at her, still grinning a little. “The peoples of Skull Isle have a more ancient civilization than Rathuma or the Church. They migh’ nay ‘ave the same technology we do, bu’ assumin’ they be jus’ savages was a severe miscalculation tha’ the Church made. Not that they would admi’ it.”
That night, Aya dreamed of her mother and a man without a face. The man was dressed like a sailor and had a brown beard, but his face had no other features. Still, the two of them seemed happy enough. Aya could see her mother’s smile at least, and it was good to see. For at least a little while, it was as though her mother was alive again, something Aya desperately wanted to believe.
When she woke up in the morning, the realization that it was a dream finally dawned on her and she wept, alone in her cabin. The breakfast that morning was flapjacks with a tropical sort of nut added to them that gave them a richer, earthier flavor and a bit of crunch added to the texture.
“We should be at the next stop by tomorrow.” Jesay stated.
“Tomorrow? I thought we would be there today?” Aya was confused, no one had told her of a change.
“Did ya look out port side when ya left yer cabin?” Jesay asked.
Aya shook her head. So she quickly finished her flapjacks and let Jesay drag her back out to the deck. The woodswoman pointed out port side and Aya saw it. A massive storm was brewing, the dark clouds swirling around a central point.
“That be what they call a hurricane.” Jesay said, “so the Captain says we will be flyin’ around tha storm as best we can. It’ll slow us down, but we shoul’ be fine. More importantly, we should be safe.”
Aya nodded, but she clenched her fists as she realized that they were going to lose a day. What if that one day was all that prevented her from finding her father before the Church caught up with him? What if one delay led to another delay until they just lost him forever?
She spent the rest of the day bouncing between her cabin and back out on the deck to watch as the storm drew ever closer. It appeared that the plan was to angle the Funky Bird so that it would spend the least amount of time in the storm, but avoiding it entirely seemed unlikely.
For one thing, the storm was absolutely massive. Aya realized she was only seeing a portion of it, yet the storm still seemed to span the entirety of the horizon.
The seas beneath the ship began to get choppier, the water agitated by the storm off in the distance, even this far out. The wind was picking up too. It wasn’t much more than a few strong gusts, but it was noticeable and Aya eyed the approaching storm with apprehension.
Riggs sought her out towards the end of the day.
“I’ll need ya ta stay in yer cabin for the storm, lass.” He said, “we gotta keep the deck clear for sailors, an’ I don’ wan’ ta lose ya overboard or nuthin’.”
Honestly, Aya wasn’t going to argue with it. By then, the wind picking up was becoming more constant and it plastered the skirts of her dress against her leather leggings. The sea below was becoming more and more chaotic with waves foaming and crushing against one another even out here in the open ocean.
Jesay joined her in her cabin, Aya figured the woodswoman didn’t want to be alone in the storm. Aya didn’t blame her. The crew no doubt had experience with this sort of thing, but neither of them did. Even the anticipation of it was painful, but the stories Aya had read of what it was like inside a hurricane made her dread what the experience of it would be like as well.
Aya wasn’t sure if it would be gradual or sudden when they entered the hurricane’s periphery. However, aside from a bit of trembling, there really wasn’t much of a change at all. When a crewman knocked on her door to let Aya know that it was over, she almost felt let down.
“That was it?” She asked, turning to Jesay.
Jesay’s hands had been gripping Aya’s bed, white knuckled, but she’d long since let go and now she let loose a laugh as well.
“Suppose it is.” She replied.
Aya shook her head and plopped back down onto the bed. “I was expecting the fury of the Underworld unleashed upon this ship. Instead, we’d hardly a summer’s gale.”
“We must have clipped off only a small portion of it.” Jesay offered. “I mean, they were tryin’ to avoid it.”
That turned out to be exactly what happened, Aya found out over dinner. However, when she awoke the next day and found they were docking in Farweng Shyn. It turned out that the name meant Hidden Door as they found the hideout in a community behind a sturdy seagate. It was protected by towering cliffs on all sides and the Funky Bird was forced to switch to its sea-faring mode to enter.
Off in the distance behind them, the hurricane loomed on the horizon. They had only just made it in time, Aya discovered, as the community there was busy reinforcing the sea gate, meaning it would be stuck shut while riding out the storm. Shopkeeps and other building owners were boarding up their windows and reinforcing their doors, and ships were being secured with extra moorings while also taking down parts that would be vulnerable if exposed, such as their balloons or, for ships that had them, masts.
It turned out that Farweng Shyn was particularly prepared for these sorts of storms because they were a seasonal menace in that region.
Even after all of the extra preparations, which the crew of the Funky Bird also took, the vast majority of those who lived in or stayed in the hideout ended up retreating toward the caves higher up in the cliffs.
All thoughts of searching for the Captain seemed to be on pause as the crew labored to protect the ship and then get everyone and everything they could up into the caves. Even Aya and Jesay were conscripted help, which is how Aya found herself lugging up a particularly heavy chest with a young woman who went by the name Soli Fawna.
Fawna was a small, petite thing, yet she still possessed plenty of strength. While the young woman helped Aya with the chest, Aya found out that Fawna was an acrobat whose skills were often hired by others in thieving operations.
In spite of her profession, Fawna seemed to care deeply about her appearance and wore quite a bit of makeup, tastefully done, along with a long tunic that almost looked like a dress with shimmering cloth which was studded with actual gems. Though the tunic fell to Fawna’s knees, there were waist-high slits on either side, revealing the poofy, comfortable-looking leggings underneath. But what Aya admired most was the spiraling buns on either side of the young woman’s head, keeping her very long hair up and out of the way.
Fawna was definitely a woman of Qihoan descent, but she spoke impeccable Rathumese, allowing the two to comfortably converse.
“I’m looking for my dad,” Aya mentioned as they lugged the chest up a spiraling stair built into the natural cave around them. She gave Fawna a brief description, one that she herself had been told as she had never seen him herself. “Fair complexion, lightly tanned. Light brown hair with a close-cropped beard. Eyes like mine, a slightly crooked nose.”
Aya rested her end of the chest on the stair for a moment, so Fawna set it down against her legs. Aya reached up and said, “about this tall.”
Fawna appeared thoughtful as she listened. It was a longshot to assume that the young woman would have seen her father. The crew figured he likely wouldn’t have made his way to the unfamiliar territories of Qiho.
“I may have seen this man.” Fawna said in the slightly lilting accent of her people. There wasn’t much of an accent when she spoke, but Aya could still pick up on it whenever Fawna spoke.
Aya had been bending down to pick the chest back up, but paused at Fawna’s admission. It actually wasn’t the first time that a man matching her father’s description had been spotted. The description was very general, and a lot of men fit it. However, here in Qiho, that seemed to be less likely.
Reaching up to indicate an area around her left shoulder up to her neck, Aya continued, “tattoo of a Manticore here. A Manticore-“
But Fawna interrupted her, “I know this Manticore. We call it the Sha’la. Let me think… tattoo he may have had but I don’t recall.”
Hiding her disappointment as best she could, Aya picked up the chest once more and they continued up the stairs.
They had only gone up a few steps when Fawna continued, “he had tattoo of a Yuwena Masha though… on his forearm, just here…” She indicated her right forearm. “Yuwena Masha meaning Fire Bird, Phoenix.”
Aya almost dropped the chest at that. Did her father have such a tattoo? She didn’t recall it when he had been described to her, but the Phoenix was rather a significant creature for her, as it was, as far as she knew, her Companion animal. She could still recall the dream in which she’d first met the creature.
“…only saw because his sleeves rolled up, he helped Yi Shaoshen load up his caravan to cross the Garub Desert. Think he went with them.” Fawna continued.
They still needed to bring the chest up, so Aya did her best to contain her building excitement as they finished the job. Still, she peppered Fawna with questions that the young woman couldn’t really answer. What was he like? Did he see you? What was his smile like? Did it reach his eyes?
Fawna received the questions with grace, though it was clear she couldn’t provide Aya with the answers she wanted. Once they finished getting the chest up where it was headed, Aya practically dragged her new friend to Kriofft and Shaquen. They produced one of the few sketches that had been drawn of her dad.
The Qihoan woman pursed her lips together as she studied the sketch. Her brow furrowed and it was clear that she was doing her best to remember, to give Aya the answer she wanted, but not give her false hope.
“Yes…” Fawna said at length. “Yes, this is him.”