I felt the mana in the mana crystal flare up; I was forcing my will onto it— trying to drain it of all its mana at once. That would destabilize it, creating a violent dispersion of energy. It would not always result in an explosion, depending on the density of the mana inside of it.
I was not trying to force such a result regardless. My control over the mana crystal kept it teetering at the edge of destabilization, but not enough for it to fully shatter into tiny little shards. I just had to hold that feeling.
I raised my other hand, and I closed my eyes. I never once let go of the mana crystal, still maintaining the same amount of control over it; I copied over that feeling into my free hand, applying the same amount of pressure on the mana in the air.
A small green magic circle took shape, the air flickering where it formed. I watched the symbols and lines within its perimeter slowly begin to intersect, as I tried to emulate what I felt over the mana crystal.
The air around the spell circle grew visible to the naked eye, slowly coming together into the nebulous shape of a ball. It looked small enough that if I held it, I could completely wrap my fingers around it, but there was a constant rippling to it that made that seem like a bad idea.
I took a deep breath, and putting down the mana crystal, I exhaled. I shoved the rest of the mana in the air, forcing a rapid release. The compressed air… did not burst out into all directions, but instead fizzled out— almost like a spark being snuffed out.
Shaking my head, I put down the Inferior mana crystal and reached for my forehead. My head spun as the world around me turned to a blur, but after massaging my temples for a minute or two, my vision returned to normal.
I was tired.
After having spent a few hours last night doing the exact same thing before retiring to bed, I slept for a total of three hours before waking back up. I was… wary.
It was not easy to rest peacefully when I still wasn’t entirely certain whether I trusted these pirates or not. At the end of the day, they were criminals— very morally dubious. Sure, I was technically a criminal myself since I violated Holy Law every time I cast a spell. But the last time I gave my complete trust without any questions to a group of lawbreakers, I was… betrayed.
Or perhaps I betrayed them. Whatever it was, things did not exactly go so well, which meant I should at least be a little cautious when dealing with these pirates.
So I slept little, but I knew I couldn’t do that all the time. You did not go up against a large criminal organization and win overnight: my trip to Jahar’taw was ostensibly delayed for the foreseeable future. I was not sure how long I would be working with Ginah’s Crew, but I would prefer if I received my end of the deal before the end of the year. And considering that it was only Summer, I was not sure if that was a realistic goal.
I was in no rush; I had plenty of time to spare. My preferences however, pushed me to act sooner rather than later. I wasn’t going to wait around to be surprised by something I could have easily found out if I spent a few days or weeks prying around. Plus, I needed a break from practicing both my tinkering and my spellcasting.
I got out of bed and exited my room. The boat I was sleeping in was not fully beached onto the shore, and I still felt a slight swaying whenever I took a step. It was subtle, barely even noticeable, but still noticeable.
The wooden floors of the stairway creaked as I made my way up onto deck, before descending down the gangplank and onto the soft, white sand. I glanced about at the remains of the party that had been thrown— eyeing the few dozen drunken men and women passed out on the tables and chairs they had set out.
Whoever that’s going to clean that up is going to have a bad time, I thought. I had been to a number of parties before back on Earth, but apparently teenagers and young adults there were not nearly as rambunctious as fully grown adults here were.
I paused for a moment, trying to see if Gennady was in the pile of unconscious bodies, and was glad to see that he wasn’t. I hoped he managed to cheer up at least slightly after last night. It was not fun being the bearer of bad news, and it was even less fun to be incapable of doing anything to make the recipient feel better.
I started in the direction of the crude wooden structures in the corner of the cave. After seeing me to my room, Ginah brought Lisa and Jack to theirs too. I did not know exactly where they were, but I assumed they were sleeping in the same dormitory area that I was shown to yesterday.
I started in that direction, when I caught a glimpse of a light stirring. Braz pushed himself to his feet from lying face first in the sand, and wiped at his face.
“G’morning,” he said, yawning without covering his mouth. He blinked a few times, looking out the mouth of the cave. “Phew, it’s early. What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly. “I don’t have a clock or a watch.”
He nodded his head wisely a few times. Or at least, he probably thought he did. “Well, you should get one! It’s important to know the time if you want to be punctual.”
I ignored his unsolicited advice, and cocked my head at him. “Didn’t you drink a lot last night? Don’t you have a hangover or something?”
“Oh I do.” He gave me a carefree grin and spoke in a tone that betrayed his next few words. “It’s absolutely terrible. I feel like my head’s about to explode!”
“I’m sure there’s a potion or medicine for that.”
“There is,” he said, finally standing up and dusting himself off of sand. “But we don’t own any. We’d be broke if we had to keep a constant supply of those.”
I raised my shoulders in a shrug. “Why do you guys have to throw parties?”
Braz paused, as if he was seriously considering my rhetorical question. Then he brought a hand up to his chin, and scratched it uncertainly. “…morale?”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. “I don’t actually care. You guys can spend your resources however you want, as long as we put a stop to this enuim trade and you guys keep your end of the deal.”
“Hey!” Braz shot a hand up, and patted me on the head. “Don’t worry, we aren’t liars.”
I just gave him a blank look. “That’s what a liar would say.”
“Well, maybe,” he said, not losing any of his cheerful demeanour. “Guess you’ll just have to trust us.”
“Mhm,” I gave him a noncommittal sound in response. Then I turned towards the wooden buildings in the near distance. “Where’s Lisa? Or Jack?”
“Dunno about Jack.” Braz scratched the back of his head. “He wasn’t at the party last night, but Lisa was there briefly. Saw her retire to those rooms over there.”
“Thanks.” I quickly bowed my head and started in the direction he pointed.
I wanted to speak with Lisa; after all the chaos that happened yesterday, we didn’t have time to discuss our agreement. I wanted my gold back, of course. And I was sure Gennady would prefer to have it back too after he lost his bike— I hoped it would have been somewhat of a consolation to know he could keep his gold to buy the parts to make another one.
I pushed the door of the first building so that it was open slightly ajar, and peered in. I saw about a dozen women sleeping in a line, but could not pick out Lisa from among them. There were a few kids— only two, and they were young. Less than half my age in this world. I furrowed my brows as I considered the danger these kids’ parents were putting them in by bringing them in a fight against the Elise.
I shook my head and walked to the next building. I was just about to step in when the door opened up. I blinked as Lisa glanced down at me, and cocked her head.
“Oh, Ari— I mean Melas. What are you doing here?” she asked.
I paused only for a moment, still unused to being called by my real name, but managed to snap myself back to reality quickly enough. “Lisa,” I said, gesturing away from the building, “can we talk?”
“Sure, uh, just give me a minute. I’m going to freshen up, ok?”
I nodded, and pointed back at the ship. “Could you meet me in my room?”
“Of course!” The young woman headed to a makeshift bath as I returned to the boat.
More people were waking up now, and it was starting to get a little crowded; I did not plan to do anything against Ginah’s Crew, but I wanted to fish for more information as well as covertly get back my gold. That meant I had to do it in private rather than in public.
I waited for a while in my room, just sitting in my bed. Eventually, I heard a knock and a voice called in.
“Come in,” I said, standing up.
Lisa entered, dressed in a plaid shirt and pants, looking very different from the robed young woman I had gotten used to seeing for the past few days. She smiled her usual smile as she approached me.
“Did you need something?”
“Yes.” I nodded my head and put a hand out. “My gold. I want it back.”
She immediately froze; the smile on her face slipped as she took a step back, and twiddling her thumbs, she spoke out slowly. “Y-your gold? Come on now, Melas. Jack and I lost our ship and our crew. We don’t really have anything left.”
I just stood there, arm still outstretched. I continued staring into the young woman until she heaved a sigh.
“Fine,” she huffed, and procured a bag of coins from a pocket. “Here.”
I gladly accepted my money back, then nodded. “Thank you.”
She scowled. “Was that all you wanted? Because I feel like I just came into your room to get robbed.”
“Seems like you’re a little bit low on gold,” I said, pointing out the obvious.
Lisa snorted. “No thanks to you.”
“Well,” I started, pulling out a few coins from the pouch. “What are you willing to do to make some of it back?” I grinned underneath my mask as I watched her eyes light up.
“That’s an interesting proposal. What do you want?”
I counted out ten gold coins, and placed it on the wooden table next to my bed. “I want to know everything there is to know about Ginah’s Crew.”
It was a lot of gold, but I was pretty sure things like information were worth a lot— especially in the underground. And since Lisa was someone who was experienced with such deals, I knew I was at a disadvantage here; I had no idea what was a good price, and ten gold seemed like a decent amount to start off with.
Lisa raised an eyebrow. “Well,” she started, keeping her voice neutral. “I feel like if you want me to tell you everything about Ginah’s Crew, you might want to fork up some more gold.”
“I’m not playing this game, Lisa,” I lied. “This is all you’re getting back from me. So either speak up, or walk away empty handed.”
This was a gambit. If she did not bite on the bait, I’d have to concede and give her more than I wanted to. I was prepared to say goodbye to all the gold she had returned me considering I had already given it away in the first place. However, I’d have preferred if I did not spend so much on things I didn’t need to.
Shuffling her feet, the young woman took a deep breath and sighed. “Fine,” she said, putting up her hands, “you caught me. That’s more than enough. And it’s not like there’s anything interesting to tell you anyway.”
I relaxed slightly upon hearing that. “So what is there to know?” I asked.
“As I told you yesterday, Ginah’s Crew is considered to be one of the better pirate groups around. Everyone knows if you’re in hard times and considering to turn to criminal activity, but don’t want to do anything egregious, Ginah’s Crew would probably accept you.”
“Wait,” I cut her off, “why would you even want to do that?”
“What do you mean?” Lisa frowned.
I paused, choosing my next words carefully… or stupidly. It felt like a mix of both, considering I had to ask the question in the first place. “Why would you… turn to crime? Can’t you just find another job?”
“Do you even read the news, Melas?”
I hesitated. “No?”
Lisa looked at me inquisitively, but did not comment any further. “Laxis, as a country, hasn’t been doing so well for the past few decades,” she explained. “You at least know about the Free War, right?”
At my nod, she continued.
“During the Free War, the Holy Xan Empire claimed that any country that aided them in invading the Free Lands would be rewarded, but those that did not would not be punished. Since Laxis did partake in a moderate amount of trade with the Free Lands, the King at the time decided to remain neutral. Stay out of the war.”
I drew my lips into a thin line as I realized what happened. “And when the Holy Xan Empire was forced back to their continent, they blamed you guys.”
“They blamed everyone who did not offer them support,” Lisa corrected me. “And that’s not just Laxis. It was Elius, Puer, and a handful of small countries too. However, what makes our country stand out was what happened before the Holy Xan Empire left.
“The Holy Xan Empire realized they could not maintain their supply lines, and demanded all countries that had chosen to remain neutral to switch sides or face punitive consequences. Our King thought that if all the countries that chose to remain neutral refused this demand, the damage the Holy Xan Empire could do would be negligible. Much to his surprise however, more than half of the countries acquiesced, and only the few countries that stubbornly refused now face punishment, at first through naval blockades, but now it’s just a trade embargo.”
“So now,” I said, extrapolating from what I had just learned. “The country is in an economic crisis. That’s why people are turning towards crime.” It was also the reason why the donations to Jay’s orphanage dried up around this time. The timeframe lined up with how things had to have gone down.
“Right,” Lisa confirmed. “That’s why people turned to piracy. That’s what happened with Ginah’s father. 15 years ago, he was the most feared pirate around Luke. But Ginah didn’t like how her father did things. She didn’t like how cruel and terrible he was, so she killed him.”
“Just like that?” I asked, blinking.
“Just like that.” She nodded. “You have to understand, Ginah was trained to be a natural born killer since she was a little girl. And when she beat her father in combat and killed him, she reformed his original group, calling them Ginah’s Crew.”
“But wouldn’t some of them be unhappy about that?”
“They would,” Lisa said. “And they were.” She gestured out the porthole, towards the people outside going about their day. “What you see out there is not even a tenth of the original group. Many of them mutinied, but Ginah won. And now, she’s formed a crew of people she can help. People who trust her.”
I slowly let the information sink in, trying to glean any sort of inconsistency with what was said; I could not find any, so I decided to go for a different approach.
“And what’s your relationship with them?” I asked. “Allies out necessity since you both dislike the Elise?”
“I guess?” The young woman paused for a moment to think. She glanced up at the ceiling, placing her index finger right at the tip of her chin. “We’ve always had a fairly good relationship with Ginah’s Crew. We’ve done a few jobs for them in the past. But it was only when the Elise showed did we start working closer together. Then they were driven out a few months back, and… well, you know how Jack and I have been ever since.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Interesting, so you always were enemies of the Elise? As in, you never liked them?”
“Not really, no. And we weren’t enemies, per se. We just didn’t work jobs for them because we disagreed with their business practices.”
“That’s really interesting,” I repeated myself. I walked around my room, lowering a hand down to my waist. “You know, that’s almost a different story than what you initially told me a few days ago?”
Lisa’s eyes widened as she immediately paled. “Wait, no— what do you mean?”
I studied the young woman as her eyes darted between meeting my eyes and the dagger sheathed on my belt. “You told me that Jack refused to work with the Elise because he was… a speciesist. Not because of anything they did in specific, like diffusing the enuim among the populace. In fact, I found your tone and language about them back a few nights ago to be quite favorable. That’s quite the drastic change, don’t you think?”
There were many varying possibilities here. I did not like most of them, but I wasn’t about to slit her throat just because of this one inconsistency. However, if I did not get a satisfying explanation, I was going to have to speak with Gennady about this, and we would then reconsider our arrangements with Ginah.
She waved her hands placatingly. “Calm down, Melas. That was just…” she trailed off as I tapped a finger impatiently on my dagger’s hilt.
“What is it?” I asked. “Are you paid off by the Elise then? Was that an attempt on Jack’s life which you failed? Or was the Elise looking for some petty revenge against Gennady because he beat up a bunch of their men the other week by accident?” I listed out all the possibilities, but Lisa quickly denied it all.
“No!” she exclaimed. “I swear I didn’t do anything! I’m just…” She chewed on her lip as she was still hesitating.
“Out with it,” I nearly snapped.
“I just like money, okay?” Lisa spoke hurriedly. She balled her hands into a fist, and continued speaking through gritted teeth. “I don’t care about all these stupid principles everyone has. It’s just as you said yesterday: we’re already breaking the law aren’t we? Why does it matter if we smuggle the enuim or if we smuggle something else? It’s all the same, isn’t it?”
“No it isn’t,” I said simply. “But that doesn’t matter. I just have to know: will you betray us?”
“I won’t!” Lisa took a step back, and lowered her head. A pink shade came over her cheeks as she spoke softly, almost in a whisper. “I will never betray Jack. I became his partner for a reason, after all. He’s just so stubborn sometimes, but I wouldn’t go against him. If I wanted to, I’d have done that months ago.”
I cocked a brow, but I decided not to press her any further; I had learned what I wanted, and I would prefer not to pass any sort of judgement now. I needed to discuss this with Gennady first, then maybe pass it on to Ginah— just so she could watch her back. Lisa’s explanation made sense, and her feelings appeared genuine, but I still did not fully trust her.
“Fine,” I said. “I believe you. But you do realize that lying to me hasn’t won you any points, right? If Ginah or Jack get upset that I won’t help them in fighting the Elise, I’ll point their ire in your direction.”
“I know.” Her brows arched darkly on her forehead. “Just… please don’t tell Jack about how I feel. I’m not ready for him to know just yet.”
I folded my arms. “I won’t. And I don’t care about either of your interpersonal relationships. I just want to get to the Taw Kingdom. Now please leave my room. I want to gather my thoughts for a moment before I speak with Gennady.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. She spun around and pushed the door open. She paused for a moment and she turned back to face me. “And Melas,” she added, as I gave her a sidelong glance, “I may not have had any reason to dislike the Elise before, but know that I do have one now. Take that as you may.”
And with that, Lisa left.
I waited for a few moments, as the footsteps on the wooden floor slowly got further and further away until I heard nothing. Then I sighed.
“Now, what do I do with this information?”
I had not learned what I wanted to about Ginah’s Crew, and that might have been a good thing; however, the fact that Lisa was a liar and opportunist did not alleviate any of the concerns I had. And even if I was glad that I caught a liar in the act, I really wish I didn’t have, as that would not help me sleep any easier than I did last night.
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