Still on the deck of the wooden ship, Raven eventually tore her gaze from the horizon and looked up at the vessel’s two masts. She counted eight sails in action.
“This is a schooner?” Raven asked Cisco, choosing to change the subject.
“Indeed,” answered Cisco, looking a bit surprised by Raven’s knowledge. “It’s a good compromise between size and speed.”
“And it’s Javelin’s?”
Cisco nodded. “He received it as a gift on his sixth birthday.”
It was Raven’s turn to be surprised. ‘A ship as a birthday present for a six-year-old?’
“I got one too,” Cisco added with a smile when he noticed Raven’s reaction. “The concept in itself is not that unusual, actually; most kids in this nation get some sort of sea vessel on their sixth birthday, normally it’s just not such a large one.”
Raven shook her head, once again opting to remain silent.
“You don’t say much, do you?” Cisco noted, but he didn’t seem too bothered about it. Quite the opposite actually. He remained next to Raven, observing the passing ships and distant island housings.
It didn’t take long before Javelin’s ship reached its destination. Cisco nodded towards the front of the ship – Raven followed his gaze and saw a huge circular building, standing alone in the ocean. It was built with white stone very similar to the whitestone cliff that separated the Earth Empire from the Sea Empire. The bright stone was very pretty, but the building’s construction was more like a fort’s than anything else. Judging by its size, quite a few soldiers lived inside.
Facing Raven was a large gate with metal bars suspended above it. Through this gate, several smaller ships were entering and exiting the fort, and inside Raven glanced at a huge war ship, clearly built to make use of the entire opening when it came and went.
“This is the Admiral’s base,” explained Cisco. “Since the navy is the largest part of Sea Empire’s military prowess, one could say that this is the core of all military operations. My father and his closest officers all live here, together with their families. Your crown prince is currently here as well.”
Raven could feel Cisco giving her a curious glance as he mentioned the Sky Empire’s future ruler, but whatever reaction he was expecting, he didn’t get it. Raven herself was too busy inspecting the fort in front of her to be bothered.
“An impressive construction,” commented Hoatzin from her shoulder – and Raven agreed with him; few would make it in uninvited.
“Reef the sails and prepare to dock,” shouted Javelin as the ship approached the gate. At once, all sailors on board sprang into action. The main and mizzen sails were hauled, leaving only the four foresails for maneuverability. Thick ropes were prepared at both the bow and the stern, ready to be tossed to the harbor workers who, no doubt, were waiting for them inside.
Raven watched with well-hidden amazement as Javelin masterfully steered his ship in through the gate and to his assigned spot in the port, using nothing but the foresails and a light aft breeze. Every now and then he would shout commands to the sailors, asking for changes to the sails.
‘When did he have the time to learn this?’ she wondered. Javelin had after all only been seven when he left for Sky Empire, but this type of skill with maneuvering a vessel was something that should require decades of training.
“Still as impressive as ever,” Cisco suddenly said, smiling. “You might not know this, but doing what Javelin is doing now is extremely difficult. While all of us Hake siblings could be considered genius spiritualists, neither Rowena nor I come even close to his knack for reading the sea and wind and using them in his favor. After father explained the basics, Javelin only needed a few practice runs on a smaller ship before he started coming with suggestions to the quartermasters and first mates on larger warships.”
Raven couldn’t help but smile at the image; she could easily see a toddler-sized version of Javelin, happily giving advice to sea-worn sailors. How frustrated those men must have been!
As soon as the ship came to rest at the harbor, a gangway was laid out and an attendant hurried up to the ship.
“Major Hake!” he called loudly, saluting towards the ship.
“Report,” Tetra replied, clearly understanding the man’s intentions.
“Yes, ma’am! Admiral Hake requests your presence in the commander hall. As for the young masters and mistress Hake, they are to prepare skirmish boats.” The soldier quickly stole a glance at Raven, who had joined the others at the port side of the ship. “The Sky Empire companion too.”
“Acknowledged.” Tetra dismissed the soldier and turned to her children. “You know what to do,” she said curtly before swiftly disembarking the ship.
“Skirmish boats?” Raven asked when she noticed the glee that appeared within the eyes of all the Hake siblings.
“Father has prepared a mock battle for us,” explained Javelin, smiling widely. He motioned for Raven to follow him ashore. “We will each pilot a smaller, spiritualist adapted boat and, in accordance with the rules that Father set, we will fight – either together or against each other. Other spiritualist will also participate.”
Cisco who was walking ahead of them slowed his pace. “Do you think you have what it takes to beat me now, baby brother?” he asked mockingly as Javelin and Raven caught up to him.
Javelin snorted, but Raven gave Cisco a quizzical look. “I thought you said Javelin outclassed you when it came to nautical maneuvers?”
Cisco laughed. “He does – but that is with sailing ships. The boats we use during skirmishes are a bit different since they rely so heavily on spirit essence to move.”
“But that doesn’t mean that a main-lander like you stands a chance,” hissed Remora as she cut Raven off, just as they were about to walk around a bend in the wharf.
“Don’t mind her,” Javelin sent mentally. “My sister is just not so fond of change.”
‘More like competition, if you ask me…’ Raven thought, but kept it to herself. Suddenly, a lopsided smile crept across her lips; Raven’s senses had picked up on the construction of the small boats waiting just ahead. She suppressed a chuckle; while it was true that she would be worthless piloting a sailing vessel, these boats were another story entirely.
“Don’t worry, Jav; I’ll be fine.”
Less than fifteen minutes later, a cluster of small boats were swaying up and down with the waves, just outside of the Admiral’s fort.
Javelin had at first been a bit nervous for Raven; she had required several attempts just to get her boat going, and even more tries before managing to steer it out of the harbor. However, there had been no traces of her portrayed frustration in her transferred emotions and, just before they parted ways to their assigned positions, Raven had even given him a quick wink. Whatever doubts he had, disappeared in that moment.
So, no longer worried, Javelin instead soaked in the almost palpable excitement in the air.
“I’ve really missed this!” he thought and gazed out over the gathered vessels.
Counting his own, their were twenty boats present, spread out evenly in a neat grid. The vessels were truly small, just large enough to barely fit one seated person, and their proportions were a lot more short-nosed than usual.
Apart from their compact and sail-less hulls, each boat only contained three crystal orbs, ranging in size from a plum to a cantaloupe. The largest orb was placed in the center – where one would normally expect to find the steering wheel – and it was by pouring spirit essence into that orb that the boats were both powered and steered.
As Javelin made note of who and where all the participants were, the boats smallest orb started glowing and his father’s familiar voice filled the air.
“Attention! Today’s skirmish is a double-pronged free-for-all; last remaining, unmarked boat wins, but, as long as more than three people remain, at least two boats must attack in unison to mark another boat.”
Javelin was surprised; free-for-all skirmishes weren’t rare, but the double attackers were. He couldn’t help but glance in Raven’s direction.
“Interesting,” commented Hoatzin while he soared through the air high above all the boats. “Will people form alliances?”
Javelin shook his head.“Working in set pairs won’t be flexible enough when so many boats are participating. Then again, that is under the assumption that there is no communication between the boats. . . .”
“Then . . ?”
“Let’s just see what happens,” interrupted Raven, sounding a bit coy.
Javelin’s father didn’t have anymore instructions; “As for the victor’s reward,” he said, pausing slightly, “I will listen to one personal request.”
Even with the distance between the boats, one could almost hear the collective intake of air. A personal request from the navy’s highest officer – what wasn’t that worth? Javelin couldn’t help but light up. ‘It’s a long shot, but still. . . .’
“The skirmish commences in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . go!”
At once, all participants activated their spirit essence, pouring it into the largest orb. Underneath the boats, a strong force pushed backwards against the water, instantly propelling the vessels forward.
Javelin carefully surveilled his surroundings as he moved, careful not to end up in the line of fire between two boats at the same time. Moments later, Javelin had already managed to maneuver around a less observant sailor, efficiently boxing him in between himself and another participant.
Javelin got eye contact with the participant opposite the trapped sailor and, in the next instant, both of them reached out and touched their third, mid-sized, orb. Bright flashes of light appeared as two streams of spirit essence lunged at the middle boat, hitting it simultaneously. Just a heartbeat later, the hit boat ground to a halt, unable to move any further.
Javelin smiled but then paled as he, out of the corner of his eye, saw Raven’s boat, motionless and trapped between his sister and two other vessels.
“Shit!” Javelin swore under his breath and swerved his boat sharply to the side, even though he knew he would never get to Raven in time. Just as the three boats were about to launch their attack, Raven looked up – seemingly startled by the pending loss – and panicked. Desperate, she chose to just pour her spirit essence into all the orbs at her disposal and, as luck would have it, the sudden burst of essence caused the boat to shoot forward, barely scraping between the two who were assisting Remora.
Raven was free, but it didn’t end there. The three attackers had already initiated their shots, and even Raven had managed to fire off a round. The bright flashes of four simultaneous shots momentarily blinded him, but, once the light had faded, Javelin stared at the two motionless boats that now formed a small barrier between Raven and Remora.
‘What the . . .’
In the air, Hoatzin started laughing madly and suddenly Javelin had an odd premonition.
Back in the fort, standing in front of a large stone desk, were Tetra and her husband, Admiral Devario Hake. They silently observed the movements of several small, glowing dots that swirled around on the desk’s surface – every now and then a light would go out, symbolizing yet another eliminated participant.
Eventually Tetra glanced up at her husband. “Why would you promise such a reward?” she eventually asked. “If Javelin wins . . .”
“He won’t,” laughed Devario and pointed to two dots which were moving fairly synchronized across the board. “Look at our two oldest; they are sure to win.”
“And if they don’t?” Tetra pushed, unable to embrace her husband’s confidence. “You know what Javelin would request, but there is nothing you can do – the Emperor . . .”
Devario held up his hand to silence her. He himself remained quiet for a while and then sighed. “I only said I would listen.”
Tetra stared at her husband in shock. For him to use such an underhanded trick, against his own child no less, was highly unlike the man she had married. Admiral Hake wouldn’t be devious if his life depended on it.
“Don’t worry, Tetra; it won’t come to that,” Devario reassured, but his wife clicked her tongue disapprovingly.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” she said and tapped one of the glowing dots, her perfect nails clicking against the stone surface.
Devario Hake frowned. “The foreign girl? Her cultivation might be impressive for her age, but she’s been surviving this skirmish purely on luck. It won’t hold.”
Tetra her head. “Your own words, darling: always expect the unexpected.”
The sea skirmish continued for over half an hour.
“Damn it,” swore Remora not-so-quietly as she, for seemingly the hundredth time, managed to just miss Raven’s boat. She couldn’t believe the luck of this little mainland girl who clearly had no prior experience with neither boats nor the sea, yet constantly made the wrong move at the right time.
Just like before, Remora’s initially perfect shot, missed its intended target and smacked into the vessel that had been helping her instead.
Remora almost snarled. By now, only a handful boats remained, leaving the Hake siblings, two other sailors and, by some work of miracle, Raven Nightingale. Suddenly, the latter turned to face Remora, a sweet smile on her face.
Remora lost it; “You cheating little brat!” she shouted loudly, pointing at Raven. “Javy must be giving you instructions, using that bond-thing!”
“Sister!” Javelin, who had clearly overheard her, shouted back in a reprimanding tone, but Remora wasn’t listening.
“Oh?” replied Raven, suddenly activating her spirit essence and swirled around on the spot, in a turn so tight that Remora didn’t think was possible. “Well, if you’re already assuming things, these cheating brats might as well go all out – don’t you think, Javy.”
“It’s Javelin,” her brother corrected before Remora had a chance to bark at Raven for her insolence. She glanced back at Javelin and, for a moment, Remora didn’t see her baby brother – she saw her father, ruthless and domineering, as he commanded the nation’s navy into war.
A shudder ran down Remora’s spine. The eyes that had met hers were nothing like the ones she was used to; these were cold and relentless.