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Timothy Doran

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Dragons, pirates, magic and deceit. Thac is no place for the faint of heart…
 
Grand Choosing: Kortiama longs to prove herself at the Day of Choosing. Yet that day will hold more for her than she ever bargained for, if she manages to survive.
Price of Honor: Seishin never expected to fall in love, nor that his love would hold a dark secret. The Pirate Coast is a dangerous place, one which might hold the key to his future, if it doesn’t kill him first.
Art of the Steal: Where did the enigmatic Donatello come from? Where did he learn to be a thief, artist, and swordsman? Who is the mysterious woman who broke his heart?
Fortune Tellers: Fran was not always blind, nor was she always a druid. It all came down to a fateful day and a run in with a certain blonde-haired, violet-eyed fortune teller.
Battle of Fish Eye Cove: Outnumbered two to one, Ves and Ruka engage in a desperate battle with a flight of evil dragons. Can the two dragon girls escape their deadly fate?
 
These and other thrilling tales are included here in this fantastic anthology from the world of Thac…
 

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Tales from Thac

A Collection of Short Stories and Novellas

F. P. Spirit

Shannon Pemrick

K. J. Fogelman

T. P. Doran

J. L. Price

First Edition

Copyright @ 2020

Timothy P. Doran The Battle of Fish Eye Cove (epilogue by Erik P. Wenson)

K.J. Fogelman Fortune Tellers

Shannon Pemrick Grand Choosing

Jeffrey L. Price Art of the Steal

F. P. Spirit The Emerald Blade, Price of Honor, Rescue at Redune

Cover Art by Jackson Tjota

Cover Typography by Amalia Chitulescu

Interior Design by Designs by Shannon

Edited by Sandra Nguyen

ISBN 978-0-9984715-5-6

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted without written permission from the publisher. You must not circulate this book in any format.

Thanks to Tim for creating the world of Thac, and for being kind enough to be part of this anthology of authors. Also, thanks to Kathryn, Jeff, Shannon, and Erik for participating in this ambitious endeavor. Finally, thanks to our friends and families for their support in the creation of this book.

Contents

World of Arinthar

The Emerald Blade

1. The Emerald Blade

Grand Choosing

1. Haunted

2. Birthright

3. A Sister’s Gift

4. Grand Choosing

Price of Honor

1. When You Least Expect It

2. Captive Heart

3. Living Legend

4. Dagger in the Night

5. Love and Honor

Art of the Steal

1. The Fagin

2. Lord Flynn

3. Miranda

4. The Black Pearl

Epilogue

Fortune Tellers

1. Fortune Tellers

Rescue at Redune

1. Rescue at Redune

The Battle of Fish Eye Cove

1. Fisheye Cove

2. Dragon Fight!

3. Dragon Halls

4. Storm God’s Revenge

5. Princess of Misfortune

6. Dragon Masters

7. Spirit Battles

8. The Ice Dragon

Epilogue

Story Continues

About F.P. Spirit

About Shannon Pemrick

About K.J. Fogleman

About T.P. Doran

About J.L. Price

Thac is a relatively small isle in the larger world of Arinthar. The mainland of Laurentia, for instance, could fit nearly fifty islands the size of Thac within its wide borders. Yet despite its insignificant size, many important events have occurred on this western isle. Seven hundred years ago, the Mad Emperor Naradon founded and ruled the third great human empire from the shores of Thac. His reach extended well into the great forest and the blasted plains. Five hundred years ago, the Elf/Human wars were fought here, driving the Galinthral elves into the depths of the Ruanaiaith, never to be seen again. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Thrall Masters’ powerful armies overran the isle. Yet their bid for world domination was stopped there as well. Thus, the tiny island has many stories to share, in many cases its influence extending even beyond its own borders…

- Lady Lara Stealle, High Wizard of Penwick

The Emerald Blade

F. P. Spirit

The Emerald Blade

The coastal waters shone a crystal blue, clear enough to see one’s reflection. The sun had reached its zenith in the sky, its golden rays warming the afternoon breeze. Lush jade treetops lined the shore on the eastern horizon. To the untrained eye, the scene appeared idyllic, but Gilis Stinvich knew better—these were pirate waters.

“What’cha broodin’ ‘bout, Gil?”

Harget Fitzwin. The lanky man swabbed the deck just a few feet away.

“Who says I’m broodin’?” Gil fired back as he finished knotting a line to a belaying pin.

The tall man’s face split into a toothy grin. “I’ve been sailin’ wit’cha long enough to knows when you’s broodin’.”

Gil had met Harget nearly fifteen years ago on a ship out of Palt. The two had struck up a fast friendship and had been inseparable ever since. There wasn’t a nautical mile along the north coast they hadn’t sailed together.

Gil snorted in response. “Fine, I’m broodin’. Ya just had to go and sign us up on this merchantman bound south.”

Harget’s face sank at the jab. “I said I was sorry. How was I supposed to know our last ship would leave Kaniron without us?”

Gil scowled at his tall friend. “Aye, you go on a bender, and we miss the only ship in port with a navigator that can thread the Vortex.”

Harget visibly shuddered at the mention of the giant storm.

The Vortex was actually two storms—twin maelstroms that sat on the coast north of Kaniron. Spawned by some unfathomable magic, they never moved or died out. A thin path of calm existed where the pair buffeted each other, but only the most experienced of navigators could traverse it safely.

Harget blessed himself with the sign of Zesstara, the goddess of the sea, before speaking again. “I—thought I was doin’ us a favor—figured it was better than takin’ the long way ‘round the Vortex.”

Gil continued to glare at his friend, then finally shrugged. Harget, empty-headed as he was, obviously meant well. “I think I’d have preferred the extra week to traveling through pirate waters.”

Harget gave him another toothy grin. “You need to learn to relax there, Gilly. The odds of us runnin’ into pirates is probably slim at best.”

Gil narrowed an eye at his optimistic friend, but any reply he might have had was abruptly interrupted.

“Ship astern!” came a shout from the crow’s nest above.

Gil let out an angry breath as he fixed Harget with a stare that screamed “I told you so.”

Harget glanced nervously toward the rear of the vessel, his voice catching in his throat. “J-jus’ ‘cause there’s another ship, don’t mean its pirates.”

Gil let out a rude laugh. “Ha! In these waters? The sun must be gettin’ to you if you think it’s anything else.”

Across the deck, the rest of the crew had all frozen in place. The captain came rushing out of his cabin and vaulted up the stairs to the quarterdeck. He hurried to the rear rail and pulled out a spyglass. The air was thick with tension as the entire crew drifted toward the back of the vessel.

A few moments passed before the captain spun about. He briskly strode back across the deck, barking out orders as he went. “Unfurl all the sails! Get the wind at our backs! Ready the cannons!”

“Is it pirates, captain?” a youthful sailor asked nervously.

The captain gave him a brief nod as he marched by. “Aye. Dasati.”

Harget gulped as he glanced at Gil. “Dasati? What does that mean?”

Gil’s mouth flattened into a tense line. “It means we’re being chased by the deadliest pirate clan on the high seas.”

The merchantman cleaved through the blue coastal waters like a fox on the run, but it was no match for the pirate vessel. The three-masted galleon slowly gained on them ‘til they could see its colors—an ebon stingray on a field of white. As it drew closer, they could read the name etched across its deep brown hull—Dark Halo.

There was a brief exchange of cannon fire as the vessels drew alongside each other, but the pirates were expert marksmen. They took out the couple of guns the merchantman carried in a few shots. After that, things moved quickly. The Dark Halo drew beside them, and hooked lines were used to draw the ships together. Fighting broke out at the starboard rail as groups of brigands swung across to engage the crew.

Gil and Harget were among those assigned to protect the cargo hatch. They stood there now, swords in hand, though neither was very good with them.

Harget squealed in terror as one of the sailors went down to a pirate’s blade. “We’re gonna die here, Gilly! I jus’ knows it.”

Gil cast a sidelong glance at his quaking friend. “Get behind me, Har. You’re no good to anyone with that pig-sticker.”

Harget grimaced as he shuffled behind him. “I’m—I’m sorry, Gil. It’s my fault we’re in this mess.”

Gil shrugged, not taking his eyes off the fighting. “No use blamin’ yerself now. What’s done is done.”

The sailor in front of Gil fell to another brigand’s blade. The pirate withdrew his sword, then set his sights on Gil. A wicked grin split his grizzled face as he slowly advanced on him.

Gil held his blade up stiffly, but he knew it was a lost cause. It wouldn’t be long now till both he and Harget were food for the fishes.

Just then a commanding voice boomed over the fracas. “Dasati, fall back!”

As one, the brigands halted in their tracks and withdrew a few steps.

Gil’s heart pounded in his throat. By some miracle, he and Harget had been spared from immediate death. But who was their mysterious benefactor, and what did he want?

The rest of the crew appeared as confused as Gil. They all watched with growing apprehension as a lone figure crossed over on a plank from the pirate vessel.

The newcomer was a squat, powerfully built buccaneer wearing a green coat and tricorne hat. Thick red hair covered most of his lower face and draped across his broad shoulders. The lone brigand strode with the utmost confidence onto the main deck. He finally stopped near the mainmast and glanced around ‘til his eyes fell upon Gil.

“Where’s your captain?” the pirate asked in that same deep, commanding tone.

The question caught Gil completely by surprise. Before he knew it, he was pointing up at the quarterdeck.

“I’m the captain.” The captain of the merchant vessel cautiously descended the stairs from the upper deck. His eyes darted around carefully as he approached the lone brigand, but no one accosted him. He drew within a few feet of the man, then stopped, his voice amazingly firm for the situation. “What are you planning on doing with us?”

The squat buccaneer regarded him carefully before speaking. “That depends. You travel our waters without paying tribute.”

The captain arched a single eyebrow, somehow finding the nerve to scoff at the newcomer. “Pay tribute? To pirates?”

“He’s gonna get us all killed for sure,” Harget whispered frantically. Gil hushed him with a wave of his hand.

The buccaneer appeared unfazed by the remark. “Pirate is such a harsh word. These waters are ours by the grace of Zesstara. Those who see the wisdom of this have an accord with us. Those who do not are trespassers and are dealt with accordingly.”

Those last words sounded like a death sentence. Unable to control himself, Harget squealed so loud that Gil had to clamp a hand over his mouth.

The blood drained from the captain’s face, yet he still managed to stand his ground. “So, do you mean to slaughter us all, then?”

A deathly silence fell over the deck as the squat pirate mulled over their fate. Gil felt beads of sweat form on his brow and trickle down the side of his face. After what seemed like an eternity, the red-haired buccaneer spoke again. “I will give you one chance to prove your worth. Face me in single combat and the rest of your crew will be spared.”

Harget pulled Gil’s hand away from his mouth. “Does this mean we ain’t gonna die?”

Gil hushed him again as the captain responded. “And what of my ship?”

A round of evil laughter broke out among the pirates, but the lone brigand silenced it with a single gesture. His expression remained stony. “If you win, you and your ship can go on its way.”

The captain eyed him with clear disbelief. “And I’m supposed to take your word for it?”

“I don’t see as you have much choice,” the brigand rumbled.

“Do you really think he’d let us go?” Harget whispered in Gil’s ear.

“Shhh.” Gil waved him off.

The captain swept his gaze around the deck. He clearly did not believe the pirate, but truly had little choice in the matter. “Very well.”

He drew his sword and fell into a fighting stance, waving the brigand forward. “Let’s have at it, then.”

Murmurs went through the crowd as both pirates and sailors made room for the two combatants. A hush fell over the crew as the squat buccaneer drew his sword.

The light of the afternoon sun glinted off what appeared to be a blunt-edged blade. As if that wasn’t curious enough, the blade was painted vivid green and decorated with violet lotus flowers.

“Is this some sorta joke?” Harget whispered, mirroring Gil’s own astonishment. Yet their skepticism quickly died as nervous murmurs spread among the crew.

“The Emerald Blade.”

“It’s the Emerald Blade.”

“No one’s ever beaten him.”

The captain visibly paled, but managed to hold his ground. The Emerald Blade set himself into a casual fighting stance, then waved the captain forward in turn. The captain eyed him uncertainly at first, but then set his jaw and lunged at the brigand. The squat man parried the captain’s blade with relative ease. The captain had obvious skill, but the pirate’s defenses were very solid.

The battle exploded into a whirling dance of flashing blades. Both men moved with amazing grace and dexterity. Lunges, feints, parries, and counters were all executed with expert skill. Parries were met with counter-parries. Counters were met with reverse-counters.

Gil had never seen anything like it. Both men seemed evenly matched until the Emerald Blade executed a lightning-fast move. He caught the captain’s blade with his own, then abruptly sidestepped. In one swift motion, he was through the captain’s defenses and his blunt-edged sword slammed into the man’s midriff.

The captain doubled over in pain as the wind was knocked out of him. Had it been an actual blade, he would have been cloven in half.

The captain’s sword clattered to the deck as he fell to his knees. Cheers rang out amongst the pirates, but quickly subsided as the Emerald Blade placed the tip of his sword underneath the captain’s chin. “Do you yield?”

Tears of pain streamed from the captain’s eyes as he stared up at the man who had bested him. The brigand prodded him with the tip of his blunt sword. “Do you yield?”

The captain nodded fervently as he gasped his response. “Yes… yes… I yield…”

“Good,” the pirate said simply as he sheathed his strange sword. The Emerald Blade then turned on his heel, his deep voice void of emotion as he strode back toward his ship. “Give them the lifeboats. Make sure no one is left aboard.”

A short while later, Gil and Harget found themselves in a long boat filled with a good portion of the crew. Three other long boats with the rest of the crew floated not far from them. The four boats had made it nearly halfway to the distant shore when the sound of cannon fire exploded behind them.

Harget nearly jumped out of his seat. “They’re firin’ on us!”

Gil spun around to see their ship in flames. “Easy, Har. It’s not us they’re firin’ on.”

The entire boat had stopped rowing. Everyone watched as the roaring fire overtook their vacated ship. In mere minutes, what was left of the charred hull had sunk beneath the waters.

After the last volley, the pirate ship set sail. Gil watched the dark vessel as it receded toward the horizon, thankful to still be alive.

The Emerald Blade let out a deep sigh as he trudged into his large cabin. Bright light flooded in from the array of windows at the back of the room. A long mahogany table stood in front of those windows, surrounded by a mismatched set of ornate chairs. A globe sat on a circular stand in a corner next to a tall bookcase. A plush cupboard bed was set into the opposite wall beside an elaborate mahogany wardrobe.

The broad-shouldered man doffed his green coat and hat, then unbuckled his sword belt. He briefly ran his hands over the decorative scabbard before hanging it on a stand next to the wardrobe.

Weariness washed over the Emerald Blade—yet it was not a failing of the body. He had barely broken a sweat during his duel with the other ship’s captain. Rather, the fatigue he felt was more of the spirit.

He had only been a pirate now for a couple of years, and the captain of this ship for maybe half of that. Yet it was not what he had wanted of his life. In fact, it was the polar opposite of what his life had been before.

“One must flow with the current of the river,” the stout man reminded himself as he plodded over to the row of windows. A line of miniature bonsai and dwarf lotus trees stretched along the wide sill. Some were a lush green, others grew small red berries, and a few bloomed with pale pink and violet flowers.

A watering can and small spade lay just underneath the sill. The weary man grabbed them, his mood picking up as he meticulously tended to each plant. When he was done, he put down his gardening tools, and turned to face the long table.

The rich mahogany surface was barely visible under the charts and books strewn across its length. The man’s eyes flitted across the parchments and tomes lain there, finally settling on a map of the vast mainland, Laurentia.

Bold lettering paralleled the shore on the southwest side of the great continent. The Pirate Coast. It was the unofficial home of the thirteen clans of the pirate nation. The pirate coast stretched five hundred miles along the shore, all the way from Kaniron down to Isandor.

Isandor. The stout man’s eyes drifted to the country that stretched across the southern end of Laurentia. Images flashed through his mind of a life that used to be.

Rows and rows of armored warriors lined up in front of him in perfect formation.

A robust man with surprisingly gentle eyes astride a magnificent throne.

An impulsive young boy with a mop of thick black hair, barely old enough to hold the wooden training sword in his small hands.

A sudden knock on the door interrupted his melancholy thoughts. “Captain?”

The Emerald Blade cleared his throat while wiping the stray moisture from his eyes. “Ahem. Come in, Mr. Siithe!”

The first mate of the Dark Halo stepped through the door. “Beggin’ yer pardon, Captain. We scoured the ship from top to bottom and took anything of possible value.”

“What cargo were they carrying?” the captain rumbled.

The first mate listed off a number of items they found in the hold, which included food stuffs, kegs of wine and ale, a few small chests filled with silver and gold coins, and a variety of lesser-valued items. In the middle of his tally, another knock came at the door.

“Come in!” the captain bellowed once more.

The cook entered the cabin carrying a steaming tankard in his hands. He scurried over to the captain and gingerly held it out to him, a stray eye going to the first mate as he did so. “Your—drink, Sir.”

A thin smile split the captain’s thick red beard as he took the tankard. He lifted it to his lips, blew on it, then took a brief sip. His smile spread wider, a faint sigh escaping his lips. “Ah, that’s excellent. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Captain.” The cook beamed as he turned to leave. His gaze strayed once again to the first mate as he scurried back out of the cabin.

Mr. Siithe watched the cook go with a single eyebrow raised. His glance briefly passed over the steaming mug, but otherwise he made no comment. The captain seated himself in an ornate chair and waved for the first mate to go on while he continued to sip from his tankard.

Mr. Siithe finished his litany of items they’d procured from the merchant ship. When he was done, the captain sat forward and placed his tankard aside. “Is everyone off the ship?”

“Just as you ordered, Sir.” Mr. Siithe nodded. “What about the ship itself?”

The captain gently stroked his beard as he mulled over the fate of the merchant vessel. “It’s rather slow… and it can’t hold more than two cannons on either side…”

His mouth wrinkled as he reached a decision. “Put some distance between us and sink her.”

Mr. Siithe grinned. “Aye, Captain.”

The captain reached for his tankard again as the door slammed behind his first mate. He took another sip as his eyes went back to the large map in front of him.

“What an awful way to drink one’s tea,” he murmured to himself.

Once a proud nation, the Saricordi’s lands had been poisoned and broken during the fall of the Baleful Moon. With the world in complete disarray, no one would take in a displaced people. They survived only by the grace of Zesstara, the goddess granting them dominion over the seas.

The clans of the Saricordi built a fleet of ships that stopped and demanded tribute of all those who traversed their watery territory. Unfortunately, their claim to the seas was disputed by most of the world. Thus, the clans took to force in order to gain what was rightfully theirs, and were soon labeled pirates of the coast.

With their questionable standing, the clans hid their homes from the rest of the world. Thus, the Dark Halo now glided through a well-hidden water cave that connected the seas to Loch Dasati.

The Emerald Blade stood at the prow of the ship, trusting his navigator to steer them through the dark, narrow waters of the cave. A flat smile graced his lips when they finally re-emerged into the sunlight. It was not exactly home, but it was still quite beautiful.

Before them stretched a long blue lake, its calm waters like some vast mirror seated in the earth. Its surface perfectly reflected the tall, craggy peaks that surrounded the loch on all four sides. Over on the western shore sat a comely town nestled at the foot of one of those peaks. It was Renere, home now for more than a thousand years to the Dasati clan.

Long docks jutted out from Renere into the still waters of the loch. A number of tall ships were moored there. The Emerald Blade recognized each and every one of them: The Black Cat, Red Cry, Honors Break, Blood Tears, and the flagship of the fleet, the Midnight Manta. A few ships were missing from their berths, but they were most likely out patrolling the open waters.

The Emerald Blade remained at the prow as the Dark Halo pulled into port. The docks bustled with activity. Plunder was offloaded from the moored ships, replaced with supplies for further voyages. Folks milled about at the edge of town—it was always an event when the ships came in.

The Emerald Blade’s eyes were drawn to a group of young teens chasing each other around the docks. They were still young enough to enjoy play, but only a few years from being inducted into a crew.

“Ahoy there, Captain,” a voice called from below.

The Emerald Blade glanced down to see a tall man staring up at him from the pier. Garbed in a blue coat with gold buttons and trim, the man had a commanding presence. Tharne Ozden.

Tharne was the Lord Captain of the Dasati. A hard man, he was merciless to his enemies, but fair to his men and those who surrender to him. He was a man the Emerald Blade could respect.

“Greetings to you, Captain Ozden,” the Emerald Blade replied.

Once the gangplank was lowered, Tharne made his way up onto the ship. Keen brown eyes darted across the deck from a well-weathered face. A sparse beard and mustache decorated the lower half of his features. Long locks of frayed brown hair overlaid the collar of his blue long coat.

Tharne strode over to join the captain as he surveyed the spoils waiting to be unloaded. “It seems you brought back a good haul.”

The Emerald Blade shrugged. “We did our best.”

Tharne laughed heartily, placing an arm around the stout captain’s shoulders. “Don’t sell yourself short, my friend. Your ‘best’ is typically better than most,” he dropped his voice, “and a sight less bloody, I dare say.”

The Emerald Blade merely nodded at the compliment. “Life is too short as it is. Why end that which will be gone tomorrow anyway?”

Tharne let out a sigh. “I wish you could teach that wisdom to the rest of my captains.” He headed back toward the gangplank, pausing at the top. “Anyway, when you are done here, I was wondering if you would join me for a drink? There’s a small matter I’d like to discuss with you.”

“Will there be tea?” the Emerald Blade asked hopefully.

A knowing smile crossed Tharne’s face. “Yes, my friend, there will be tea.”

“Then I’ll be there,” the Emerald Blade responded.

Tharne gave him a brief wave, then disembarked the ship.

Outwardly, the Emerald Blade remained stoic, but something about Tharne’s invitation made him feel uneasy. He sensed something more behind Tharne’s invitation than just a simple discussion. Still, he didn’t perceive anything threatening. Tharne had always been rather good to him. Two years ago, without knowing anything about him, Tharne had given him a place on his crew. A year later, it was Tharne who promoted him to captain.

Once the Dark Halo was unloaded, the Emerald Blade left the ship. At the edge of town, he passed by the group of teens who had been running around the docks. Two young women led the band—one with long black hair and a light tan complexion, the other nearly the twin of the first, except that her hair was light brown. He immediately recognized them as Kortiama and Solais—Tharne’s daughters.

Tharne had no children of his own, but adopted and raised the girls, nonetheless. The Emerald Blade respected that. Family was extremely important to him. In fact, his own nephew would be about the same age as them by now.

The girls suddenly darted away from the rest. The one wasn’t watching where she was going and nearly collided with him. The Emerald Blade caught her just in time.

Completely unfazed, Kortiama peered up at him with her dark bright eyes. Her smile lit her entire face. “Thanks for the assist, Captain.” Before he could respond, she was off again, the other teens chasing after them.

“Korti, that isn’t just any captain—that’s the Emerald Blade, you idiot!” he heard Solais admonish.

“Is it? He’s shorter in person.” Kortiama glanced over her shoulder and gave him another dazzling smile.

The Emerald Blade chuckled to himself. Tharne’s daughters are certainly full of energy.

A wave of homesickness abruptly washed over him. This Kortiama reminded him of his nephew. He continued to watch until the teens disappeared down the crowded docks. The stout man let out a long sigh and continued onward into town.

For the Lord Captain of the Dasati, Tharne Ozden’s house was a modest dwelling. Set behind a short fence on a busy street corner, the two-story home was lined with tall-paned windows. A wide porch wrapped around the front of the house, with a hexagonal tower rising over one end. A dormer jutted out of the roof next to the tower, which in turn was capped with a widow’s peak.

The inside of the house was not overly large. The first floor consisted merely of a center hallway, parlor, library, dining room, and kitchen. If there was anything ornate about the interior, it was the décor. Rich blue satin drapes framed the windows. The parlor contained a matching sofa and chairs arrayed in front of a wide fireplace. The dining room set was made of a vibrant cherry wood and had seating for twelve. A large cherrywood desk sat in the middle of the library surrounded by four walls of matching cherrywood bookcases. Trinkets lined most of those shelves with a few books scattered here and there.

Tharne turned out to be a gracious host. His cook had prepared a small afternoon repast of seafood delicacies for the two men. The conversation remained mundane, however, until they adjourned to the library.

Tharne sat behind his ornate desk, holding a glass of brandy in one hand. As promised, the Emerald Blade had been provided with a delicious cup of peppermint tea. Tharne sent all his servants home, leaving the two men alone with their drinks.

The Lord Captain took a sip from his brandy, then carefully laid the glass on his desk. His lips pursed as he fixed his guest with a curious gaze. “We’ve known each other for over two years now. How do you judge me?”

The Emerald Blade felt a tingling sensation in the center of his brow. Again, it was not threatening, but he sensed the need to be cautious here. He took another sip of tea, then responded in a measured tone. “I believe you to be a man of your word.”

The corners of Tharne’s mouth upturned slightly at the compliment. “More so, I’d wager, than when you first signed on.”

The Emerald Blade finished another sip. “That is a wager you would win.”

Tharne broke out into a full grin. He grabbed his glass, sat back, and finished his brandy. When he was done, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I’m not blind, you know. I can tell you’re not happy.”

The Emerald Blade’s brow twinged again. “Happiness is relative. Is a stone happy sitting in the sun? Is the water happy, lapping against the shore?”

Tharne let out a hearty laugh. “There you go again, waxing philosophical. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you used to be one of those priests from Isandor.”

A brief flash of anger welled up inside the Emerald Blade at the mention of the Isandorian priesthood. He quickly pushed it back down, his voice remaining even. “That is a wager I’m afraid you would lose.”

Tharne sat forward again, his eyes narrowing. “You know, I’ve been watching you for some time now.”

The twinging turned to pulsing in the Emerald Blade’s brow.

“You follow a strict code of honor. You never draw a real sword, and you handle that blunt-edged one like an expert.”

The Emerald Blade continued to calmly sip his tea, though the pulsing in his head had become pounding.

“And the decorations on the blade, the violet lotus flowers—that is the mark of the House Kazari, first family of the finest clan of Shin Tauri clan warriors in Isandor.”

The pounding had now migrated to the Emerald Blade’s heart. Still, he managed to keep a calm demeanor. “That is a great compliment you pay me. To be compared to the premier warrior clan of Isandor is praise indeed.”

Tharne sat even farther forward, his voice dropping to a whisper. “It’s also interesting that you appeared about a month after the King of Isandor’s assassination. In fact, it was only a couple of weeks after Isandor’s greatest general, Draigo Kazari, was driven out by the priesthood.”

Anger rose inside the Emerald Blade again, but he immediately quelled it. His eyes dipped slightly as he mapped his exit route from the house. “You seem to know a lot about Isandor and this General—Draigo, was it?”

The side of Tharne’s mouth drifted upward. He waved a hand to the books on the shelves behind him. “These are all on the art of war. I’m a student of the craft, and General Draigo is a master tactician. As for my knowledge of Isandor, news gets around if you have the ear for it.”

The Emerald Blade grunted as he slowly put down his tea. “Hmm, I see. And these speculations of yours—have you shared them with anyone else?”

Tharne’s eyes danced with amusement. “Do you seriously think anyone else in this town reads, let alone cares about the politics of other nations?”

The Emerald Blade abruptly gave up the idea of running. His hand carefully edged toward the sword at his side.

Tharne, however, was quite observant. He caught the slight movement and immediately sat back with his hands up. “Hold on, my friend. There’s no need for that. If I’d wanted trouble, I wouldn’t be sitting here alone with you now.”

The Emerald Blade eyed him for a few moments, then withdrew his hand from his sword hilt. “So, what is it you want?”

Tharne’s mouth twisted sideways. He grabbed the bottle of brandy on his desk, and poured himself another glass. He then downed the whole thing in one long gulp. After letting out a slight gasp, Tharne put the glass down and wiped his sleeve across his mouth. “Ah, I needed that.”

His gaze turned back to his guest. Tharne’s expression appeared earnest, yet there was a twinge of desperation in his eyes. “The truth is, General Draigo, or not, you are still one of my best captains—and one of the few I trust.”

Draigo Kazari weighed Tharne’s words carefully. He sensed the ring of truth behind them. He was also curious as to Tharne’s motivation for bringing this up now. Still, he had not been ready to reveal his secret past to anyone. In the end, he decided to let this play out and see where it went.

Draigo met Tharne’s gaze evenly. “Trust has to go both ways.”

Tharne pursed his lips. “Indeed. You’re aware of my family situation?”

Draigo responded with a curt nod. “Your older brother, Rikton, feels he should be head of the Dasati.”

An ironic smile crossed Tharne’s lips. He slowly got up, clasped his hands behind his back, and started to pace. “Aye, that’s the truth of it. The only thing keeping my head from a pike right now is my wits and my dead brother’s wife.”

Liadha Rowan, the dark witch of the Ramulos clan—the widowed bride of Tharne’s eldest brother, the Pirate Warlord Eboneye. Liadha wielded a power blacker than the night. Every pirate in every clan feared her, even Tharne’s brother, Rikton.

“Liadha is a powerful ally,” Draigo agreed, still wondering where this was all going.

A hollow laugh escaped Tharne’s lips. “She’s just using me to further her own dark ends.” He stopped pacing and faced Draigo, his expression turning solemn. “I know your secret—now I’m going to entrust you with mine.”

Thirteen years ago, the pirate warlord, Eboneye, united the clans of the coast. He led them across the seas in a full-scale invasion of the wealthy city of Penwick. The clans sustained huge losses during that long, bloody raid, and in the end were driven out. Eboneye had fallen as well, but not before producing an heir—a girl born during the siege. Moreover, he named her next Lord Captain of the Dasati when she came of age.

Rikton had railed against the decree, thinking himself next in line. Yet he had been a supporter of the costly raid, in direct violation of the mandates of Zesstara. Tharne, who had been against the invasion from the very start, was chosen acting Lord Captain in his stead. However, not all agreed with Tharne’s selection, and thus a rift formed within the Dasati.

The rift left Eboneye’s heir in a precarious position. If anything were to befall her before coming of age, the title of Lord Captain would again come into question. Hence, Liadha hid the baby to keep her out of harm’s way.

Tharne let out a huge sigh as he sat back down and poured himself another brandy. For the first time that evening, Draigo noted the dark circles under his eyes. As Tharne downed another glass, a thought came to Draigo.

“Your daughters, Kortiama and Solais, they’d be about the same age as Eboneye’s daughter.”

Tharne put down his glass and fixed an eye on him. “Aye, they would be.”

Any unease Draigo felt abruptly drained out of him. He had been right to admire this man. All this time, he’d been carrying a heavy burden. Draigo’s voice was soft when he spoke. “Do they know?”

Tharne shook his head. “When we returned to Renere, Liadha secreted Korti to the orphanage amid a group of newly stolen waifs. A few years later, I adopted her along with Solais. So, only a few of us know her true heritage.”

Draigo’s lips flattened into a line. “Hmm. I imagine your brother suspects.”

Tharne’s mouth twisted sideways. “He does indeed, but he won’t touch either for fear of never finding the mandate.”

Draigo nodded thoughtfully. The mandates of Zesstara were more than just a set of abstract rules from the goddess. The lord captain of each clan possessed a mystical item from the goddess herself that signified their right to lead.

Tharne chuckled softly in his chair. “My dear brother had this house ransacked more times than I can count, but he never found it”—he leaned forward, his eyes glowing with intensity—“nor will he. No one will see it again, until the day of…”

The sudden slam of a door interrupted him before he could finish.

“Captain Tharne! Captain Tharne!” A young voice cried, the name accompanied by the sound of running feet.

Tharne shot out of his seat, his face filled with concern. “In here, lad!”

Draigo spun around as a young teen entered from the hall. Tall and lanky, he recognized him as one of the youths who had been chasing Kortiama and Solais around the docks.

The lad leaned forward, his breath coming in short ragged bursts. “It’s Korti… she’s gone… up to… the Ghoul’s Den…”

Tharne rushed from behind his desk across the room. He grasped the boy by the collar, yanked him up straight, and spat a single angry word. “What?”

Terror filled the boy’s eyes as he choked out his response. “It… it was Capt’n Rikton. He said… the ebon eye was up there…”

Draigo let out a soft whistle. The ebon eye—the legacy of Tharne’s brother. The size and shape of a human eye, it was that black artifact that had given him the power to unite the clans.

“Blast Rikton! He knows that place is dangerous.” Tharne shuddered with anger. All of sudden, his face fell. He dropped the youth, rushed to his desk, and frantically rummaged through it.

A few moments later, Tharne stood back and slammed the desk closed with exasperation. “Damn that Solais, it’s gone!”

Draigo narrowed an eye him. “What’s gone?”

“A dispel magic scroll,” Tharne sighed with exasperation. He fixed his gaze on the young teen. “When did they leave?”

The youth coughed as he rubbed his sore neck. “A little while ago, Capt’n.”

“Right,” Tharne nodded, his brow furrowing into deep creases. “Stay put, I’ve got a few more questions for you.” He grabbed Draigo by the arm and dragged him into the hall. Draigo could see the fear in his eyes as Tharne whispered a single phrase to him. “Go get your real sword.”

Draigo had not drawn a real blade since leaving Isandor. The Shin Tauri code of honor demanded that one’s true blade only be drawn in defense of king, country, or matters of life and death. Based on Tharne’s reaction, this seemed to be the latter.

For the first time in nearly two years, Draigo pulled out his true blade from its hiding place aboard the Dark Halo. The former general paused a moment. Mixed emotions played through his mind as he again held the emerald sheath adorned with violet lotus flowers. Visions of his old life briefly flashed through his mind, ending with an image of his impetuous nephew. Kortiama reminded him so much of the lad.

Kortiama!

The thought of the young woman’s peril roused Draigo from his musings. He swiftly fastened the sheath to his belt, then headed from the cabin and disembarked the Dark Halo. He found Tharne waiting for him with a pair of horses at the end of the dock.

“Just us?” Draigo asked as he vaulted onto his mount.

“‘Fraid so,” Tharne said, his expression grim. “I’ll explain on the way.”

The duo set off at a gallop, soon leaving Renere behind. There was little time to talk as they raced along the shores of Loch Dasati. At the south end, a winding path led up from the valley. Tharne explained the rest to Draigo as they climbed to the top of the southernmost peak.

“At the summit lies the Villa Dasati, the former home of my brother and his wife.”

“Eboneye and Liadha,” Draigo clarified.

“Aye, the same.” Tharne nodded. “After Berngal died, Liadha sealed the place with dark magic. There’s a barrier around the house proper that only one of her own blood can break.”

Draigo pressed his lips together. “Hmm. May I ask why?”

Tharne let out a hollow laugh. “It was sort of a red herring for Rikton. She knew he’d be searching for the mandate, and what better place than my brother’s home?”

“That makes sense.” Draigo noted the haunted look in Tharne’s eyes. “I’m guessing there’s more to I,t though.”

“There is.” Tharne’s expression darkened further. “Rikton sent a few expeditions up here. Almost no one came back.”

Draigo arched a single eyebrow. “Liadha left more than just a barrier behind.”

“Indeed.” Tharne grimaced. “Ghostly creatures patrol the grounds, killing anyone that gets too close.” He paused a moment, his voice growing soft. “I declared the place off limits, but that didn’t help much. Young folks saw it as a challenge—nicknamed it the Ghoul’s Den. Those that wanted to prove themselves would spend the night up there. Some lived to tell the tale,”—his voice caught in his throat—“Some did not…”

Draigo felt a wrenching in his gut. In his time as a general, he had grown accustomed to loss, but losing someone so young was never easy. Still, something nagged at the back of his mind. “Why didn’t you just ask Liadha to get rid of the creatures?”

Tharne sighed with exasperation. “I did. She told me I needed better control over my people.”

“Hmm, that seems a bit harsh,” Draigo rumbled.

“Have you met my sister-in-law?” The side of Tharne’s mouth twisted upward.

“Can’t say I have, nor that I want to,” Draigo responded with equal irony. “Still, your niece seems quite spirited. How is it she never came up here before?”

Tharne let out a short laugh. “Thankfully, I got a bit smarter with age”—he leaned toward him in the saddle—“I had magic wards put around the villa to stop folks from entering. Of course, anyone adept at magic, or with the right scroll, can still bypass them.”

“Ah, so that’s what the girls stole from your study.” Draigo nodded with understanding.

“Aye.” Tharne signed once more. “Between the girls and Rikton, they’ve managed to outflank me. My dear brother has been flashing a ‘magic’ amulet around town that’s supposed to bypass the barrier.”

Draigo frowned. “Is that possible?”

“Not even remotely.” Tharne shook his head. “Blood magic is the hardest to break.”

Draigo’s brow creased. Tharne was probably right. If the amulet was that powerful, Rikton would have used it already to gain entrance to the villa.

Tharne’s expression grew pained. “He bragged he was going to use it to claim our brother’s greatest treasure, the ebon eye itself—but it was all a ruse to tempt my niece and her crew. Sure enough, they fell for it. They nicked the amulet off him and took off for the villa shortly thereafter.”

Draigo only knew Kortiama from afar. While she did appear somewhat impulsive, he couldn’t fathom why she would put herself, and her friends, in so much danger. All at once, it dawned on him. “She wants to get the ebon eye before Rikton does—for your sake.”

Tharne hung his head. “Aye. I’m afraid so. If my brother were truly to find the ebon eye, he would wrest control of the clan from me, mandate or not.”

Tharne’s head was bowed, but Draigo could sense how torn he was over his niece’s misguided attempt to protect him. Draigo made up his mind then and there. He would do all in his power to save this heroic, if rash, young lady—even if it cost him his very life.

It was nearing sunset when Draigo caught his first glimpse of their destination. Before them laid a huge walled villa, half fortress and half palatial estate. The tiled roof was definitely orange, but even the smooth walls shone blood-red in the rays of the setting sun.

A feeling of foreboding washed over him as they spurred their horses forward. “Remind me again why it’s just the two of us?”

Tharne grimaced as they closed on the villa. “Anyone who knows anything about magic is sure to realize the amulet’s a fake. If they were to see Korti enter the house, they’d know for certain she’s Liadha’s heir.”

That secret won’t do her much good if she’s dead, Draigo thought. Still, saying as much wouldn’t do any good at this point.

When they reached the villa, the wards were down, as Tharne had surmised. The main gate stood wide open before them. The riders galloped straight through, but reigned in immediately beyond. A wide courtyard spread out before them, the entire place bathed in an eerie silence. Withered trees stood scattered around the yard, with not a single bird or animal in sight. What was once probably a lush garden lay across the yard, now overgrown with weeds and thickets.

The villa itself appeared rather ominous. Despite the falling night, the windows remained dark. A cold wind kicked up behind them, adding to the feeling of dread.

Without a word, the duo spurred their mounts across the yard. There was no sign of the teens or their horses, but the front door lay partially open. As they drew up in front of the villa, shouts emanated from somewhere inside.

“That sounds like Solais!” Tharne cried in dismay.

Both men leapt off their mounts, drawing their blades as they ran for the house. They slowed only to push against the door, which creaked eerily as it swung inward.

The inside of the villa was pitch black, the sun now set behind the mountains. The shouts had stopped as well, the house grown deathly silent. Draigo felt an unnatural chill in the air. Goosebumps formed on his arms despite his firm resolve.

A dim light suddenly sprang up around them. Tharne held a solitary lantern in his off hand.

A wide foyer extended around them, its ceiling hidden in the darkness above. A black and white checkered floor extended across the room past two side entrances. A circular stairwell rose on either side of the back wall, then met at a long landing before climbing out of sight.

Draigo noted this all in an instant, his eyes riveted to the bodies scattered around the room. A pair of ghostly black-robed figures hovered above the two in the center. More ghost-like forms dragged the rest out of sight.

“Korti! Solais!” Tharne cried, his voice filled with anguish. He charged past Draigo straight for the two downed girls.

The hovering figures turned their attention toward them. No faces could be seen inside those thick hoods, but a skeletal hand reached for Draigo as he lashed out with his sword. The hand grazed his arm as the blade passed through it. It met little resistance, yet the figure recoiled, nonetheless. A horrible screech emanated from beneath its hood before it spun around and fled up into the darkness.

Draigo’s shoulder felt ice-cold at the point where the figure had touched him. He shook off a momentary wave of weariness as Tharne drove off the second creature. “What were those things?”

“Wraiths,” Tharne hissed.

Wraiths? That explained why his blade went through it. Wraiths were like ghosts—they could pass through solid objects and vice-versa.

Draigo planted himself over the two girls as Tharne bent down to check on them. He could sense their energy, though it seemed rather weak.

“How are they?” he asked while scanning the darkness above and around them.

“They’re alive”—Tharne breathed a sigh of relief—“which is more than I can say if those wraiths latch unto us. If they do, they’ll drain your life-force in a matter of minutes.”

That was why Draigo suddenly felt so weary. How do you fight something that you can’t touch and can’t let touch you? Still, he had felt something when he swiped at it. Maybe it has to turn semi-solid in order to attack?

Years of training and battle experience formulated into a strategy in his mind. “Quick, stand back-to-back around the girls,” Draigo urged his companion. “Don’t swing at a wraith until it reaches for you.”

Tharne grumbled as he stood and turned his back to Draigo. “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

The two men waited wordlessly, eyes fixed on the edge of the darkness. Abruptly, a wraith reappeared, hurtling at them with frightening speed.

“Here it comes again!” Draigo warned.

“And the other one!” Tharne hissed.

A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed the second wraith was diving at them. Draigo tilted his head so he could see each creature out of the corner of an eye.

“Wait for it.” Draigo cautioned. The wraiths were almost within striking distance.

“Wait for it,” Draigo repeated. Skeletal hands appeared from under each wraith’s robe.

“Now!” Draigo shouted.

He swung at the dark figure, his blade connecting with something almost solid. The wraith flinched backward and uttered an inhuman scream. Its body shook, then abruptly evaporated. All that lingered was its fiendish cry that also faded after a few moments.

Draigo glanced behind him just in time to see the second wraith retreating back into the darkness.

“Dragon dung!” Tharne swore. “The blasted thing got me!”

“Keep your guard up,” Draigo warned. As the words left his lips, two more wraiths came flying down at them.

“How many of these things are there?” Tharne cried in frustration.

“As many as there are,” Draigo responded in a matter-of-fact tone. “Now concentrate.”

They repeated the same tactic. This time both wraiths dissolved into nothingness.

“Wah-hoo!” Tharne cried with exultation. “Take that, you bilge rat!”

“Concentrate,” Draigo admonished as two more wraiths swooped down toward them. At the same time, a third one flew in from the side.

“Now that’s just not playing fair!” Tharne protested.

“Just focus on one of them,” Draigo directed his companion.

“What about the third?” Tharne griped.

“I’ll take care of it.”

“You better!”

They used the same strategy. Draigo dispatched the nearest wraith with one slice, then immediately swung about. Of the two remaining creatures, one retreated to the shadows, but the other had latched onto Tharne.

Draigo caught the creature with a vicious upswing. It shrieked, but clung tenaciously to Tharne. In the blink of an eye, the expert swordsman changed directions, bringing his blade down on the stubborn wraith.

Finally, the creature let go its grip. It arched its back and let out a horrific scream as it dispersed into oblivion.

In the meantime, Tharne had visibly paled. The tall pirate staggered where he stood. “I—I don’t feel so good. I think—I need to sit down.”

Draigo helped the man to the floor next to the two passed-out girls. Just as he had seated Tharne, two more wraiths came flying down at them from opposite sides.

Draigo firmly planted himself between the two girls and Tharne. With a deep breath, he stilled his mind in the way of the Shin Tauri. His breathing slowed, and with it the world around him. He could feel his spirit. The energy surged out from his abdomen and into his arms and legs.

The wraiths must have sensed it as well. They came straight for him, ignoring the figures on the ground at his feet. The creatures drew within striking distance, two bony skeletal hands reaching for his still form.

All at once, Draigo lashed out. With seemingly impossible speed, he sent his blade spinning in complete circular arc. It sliced through first creature, then continued on, slashing through the next. Both wraiths recoiled, their twin shrieks echoing through the room as they disappeared into nothingness.

Draigo breathed a heavy sigh, hoping that was the last of them.

“Is it over?” Tharne mumbled at his feet.

Draigo’s response died on his lips. Something huge floated at the edge of the darkness—something that made the hair on his neck stand on end.

A giant, black-robed creature glided into the light. Easily ten feet tall, it looked similar to the other wraiths, but this one wore no hood. Its skeletal head was uncovered except for a dark crown. Two glowing yellow eyes fixed themselves on him, sending a chill up Draigo’s spine.

“Wraith Lord…” Tharne mumbled beneath his feet. “Worse than… a broadside from a Man of War…”

Draigo didn’t doubt Tharne’s words. The wraiths were dangerous enough, but this thing looked like it could decimate an entire crew.

The wraith lord came toward them, but unlike the others, it did not rush. It seemed quite sure of itself. Draigo could sense the energy the creature exuded. From what he could feel, it had every right to be confident.

Retreating would have been the best course of action, but moving Tharne and the girls was out of the question. With no other recourse, Draigo took a firm stand in front of the downed pirate and his daughters. This will take everything I have. Hopefully it’s enough.

The Shin Tauri master slowed his breath, then reached inside to find his spirit. A low hum came from his throat as he brought the energy forth. The sound slowly rose in crescendo as the energy coursed up through his arms. It expanded out into his blade, the air around it catching fire. Yellow flames danced up and down the shaft, yet that wasn’t all—trails of intense blue lightning arced between the flames.

The giant wraith paused at the sight of the brilliant sword, but a second later resumed its inexorable march toward them. It closed to within a few yards, then lashed out with frightening speed.

Draigo was ready for it. He side-stepped the great skeletal hand and sliced through its wrist with his flaming blade.

A petrifying wail echoed through the foyer. As Draigo recoiled, another giant hand swatted at him. He managed to deflect it with his blade, but the large fingers grazed him nonetheless.

A tingling sensation, like ice-cold daggers shot up his arms. Draigo’s eyes grew heavy. They nearly closed all the way until he shook himself alert. This is no time to nap.

The wraith lord must have sensed his weakness. It drew closer, its long arms growing more insistent.

Draigo was hard pressed to keep those giant hands at bay. Thankfully, they recoiled from his flaming blade, but neither could he land a decisive strike without being touched. The creature slowly drove him back. If he wasn’t careful, he would trip over Tharne or the girls, and that would be the end for all of them.

If one path doesn’t work, try another. The words crystalized a desperate plan in Draigo’s mind. As the next giant hand reached for him, he drove it back, then dove beneath it.

Tucking and rolling, Draigo came up behind the hands still on the move. Blade beside him, he strafed it across the wraith’s body as he ran past.

A terrifying scream burst from the huge wraith. Draigo turned around in time to see it shake in agony, yet it did not disappear as he had hoped. Instead, it set its sights on the three prone figures in front of it.

The weakened lord captain stared up at the huge wraith towering over him. With a herculean effort, he forced himself to his feet. Barely able to stand, Tharne cursed the dark creature. “Do your worst, you bloody ghoul—you won’t have my girls!”

Draigo knew he’d never reach them in time. There was only one way he might save them. The Shin Tauri master sheathed his sword.

Tharne’s eyes went wide with disbelief. “What in the seven hells are you doing?”

Ignoring Tharne’s cry, Draigo slowed his breath and gathered his spirit. The energy coursed through him, flowing to all his limbs at once.

The giant hands had nearly closed on Tharne when Draigo grasped his sword hilt. In a movement almost too fast to see, he shot across the intervening space, drew his sword, and sliced through the wraith lord in a single devastating strike.

The creature halted in its tracks. It floated there for a moment, mere inches away from Tharne. Suddenly, it arched its back and let out a bloodcurdling shriek. Its huge form shook, then without warning exploded in all directions.

Draigo shielded his eyes. When he finally uncovered them, the wraith lord was gone.

The night was clear outside the northernmost tower of the Villa Dasati. Draigo stood at a tall window looking out over the loch far below. The lights of Renere twinkled brilliantly along the western shore. The glow extended out onto the lake where a half-dozen ships were moored.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Tharne asked in a hushed voice. He drew up next to him, still somewhat hobbled from their encounter with the wraiths.

“Indeed,” Draigo rumbled gently. The stout man glanced behind him at the two four-poster beds that occupied this room. Kortiama laid quietly in one while Solais tossed fitfully in the other. From what he could feel, their energy levels had begun to recover. “They should wake up sometime tomorrow.”

Tharne nodded, his expression grateful. “Thank Zesstara for that”—his brow furrowed—“though Korti is going to have a tough time dealing with the deaths of her friends.”

After the battle they had searched the rest of the villa. The wraiths were all gone, but they had found the bodies of the other teens—all completely drained of their life force.

Draigo closed his eyes and grimaced. “As a war veteran, I’ve had some experience dealing with grief. If you want, I can stay up here and counsel the both of them.”

Tharne smiled at him appreciatively. “Thank you, my friend. I can never repay you for all you have done, but I have an idea that might benefit both of us.”

“Oh?” Draigo lifted both eyebrows.

Tharne glanced back out the window. The lights of Renere still twinkled off in the distance. “As I said before, I know you are not thrilled with the pirate life. What if I told you there was a way you could retire?”

Draigo pressed his lips together. “I’m listening.”

“You know of the Day of Choosing?”

“I’ve heard of it,” Draigo admitted. Once every three years, during the time of the harvest moon, there came a day of great celebration amongst the clans—the Day of Choosing. That day, those youths who had come of age would be chosen to join a ship’s crew.

Tharne gazed at Draigo, a haunted look in his eyes. “Four years from now, Korti will be of age. It is then she will be revealed to all as the new Lord Captain. Rikton will surely call for a Grand Choosing.”

“Hmm.” Draigo nodded thoughtfully. “He will challenge her for the title.”

Tharne’s grimace was so pronounced that Draigo could feel his pain. “Yes. It is well within his rights. No one will be able to intervene, not me, not Liadha.” Tharne’s voice sounded hollow. “It will be a slaughter. No one can stand against my brother with a blade—no one except perhaps you.”

Draigo suddenly understood where Tharne was headed with this. “You want me to train her.”

“Aye.” Tharne closed his eyes and nodded. “So, what if I were to tell folks the Emerald Blade died saving me and my girls?”

“Go on,” Draigo rumbled, his curiosity piqued.

“I’ll put up the wards again and tell folks the place is off limits—only my family and the caretaker will be allowed up here.”

“Caretaker?” Draigo raised an eyebrow.

“The simple gardener, Iro.” Tharne’s mouth twisted sideways.

Draigo breathed a deep sigh. “Trade my sword in for a hoe? That would be heavenly.”

Tharne chuckled softly to himself. “You are a strange man, my friend.”

Draigo shrugged. “To each his own. So, how are you going to cover the fact that Korti took down the barrier?”

Tharne’s smirk widened. “My brother’s already seen to that—I’ll just blame it on the amulet.”

They had found the worthless piece of jewelry on Kortiama. Tharne now hefted it in his hand. “As long as no one else sees this, they won’t be able to say it’s not real.”

“Rikton will know,” Draigo reminded him.

Tharne casually flipped the amulet between his fingers. “That changes nothing. He won’t openly attack them without the mandate.”

Draigo pressed his lips together and nodded. “Fair enough. Still, now that the barrier’s down, what’s to stop him from coming up here to look for it?”

“Absolutely nothing. He’s part of my family, and he’s welcome up here anytime—at least, that’s what I’ll tell him.” Tharne winked.

Draigo nodded appreciatively. If Rikton thought there was nothing to hide here, he would most likely lose interest. “That’ll take the wind out of his sails.”

Tharne’s mouth spread into a grin. “Indeed, my friend. Indeed.”