The trip back to Beorn’s to pick up Marak and Taanen was largely uneventful.
Illene was filled in on the Knight’s campaign to save her, starting with their initial encounter with her father and ending with the destruction of the Vis. She was worried Blanrus might return to seek vengeance but Horace assured her in confident tones that nothing could have survived the final explosion.
Marak was astonished and relieved to see Illene. After freeing him and Taanen from their temporary jail, they thanked Beorn for his help then, headed back to Gaia.
The Sky Hawk settled down on the same pond where the Knights had first seen her. They broke out several collapsible rowboats and rowed ashore. It took them some time to gain the trust of the villagers, which was understandable since the Sky Hawk’s last visit had been anything but pleasant. Eventually, they were able to recover three of the horses that had been left behind when the Sky Hawk was so precipitously hurled into space. Marak, Taanen, and Illene were outfitted with supplies and turned loose.
“We’ve fulfilled our bargain,” Aaren told them. “You’ve paid us the money we were promised. You’ve got your daughter alive and well. Everyone’s debt is paid. There’s nothing left between us. Agreed?”
“There’s still the matter of locking us up,” Marak growled, “but other than that, agreed.”
Illene put her hand on his forearm. “Father.”
He sighed and his shoulders slumped. “Alright, sweetheart.” He looked at Aaren. “All debts between us are extinguished.” His voice turned cold. “But don’t expect any special treatment or mercy if we meet again.”
Aaren nodded, equally cold.
The three Carrzulmans wheeled their horses and spurred them away. They rode back toward the road where the Knights had first found their destroyed caravan. The six friends stood on the shore of the millpond watching until they were out of sight, then rowed back out to the Sky Hawk in silence.
“Do you think we did the right thing?” Elric wondered aloud as they prepared to lift off. “Should we have let them go like that?”
“We had a contract,” Jon said firmly. He paused for a moment, then continued in a more subdued tone of voice, “But I’m not real happy about it. Marak is determined to make trouble for us in the future no matter what Illene says. You could see it in his eyes.”
“Yeah.” Katrina began tuning her lute. “From now on, let’s dig into people’s background a little more deeply before we make a deal with them.”
“I think she’s hit the nail on the head,” Horace nodded. “It’s not the contract that’s the problem, it’s the people. The job was fine, it’s Marak who was the problem.”
“Fine,” Mira said, “next time we’ll be more careful who we work for.” She leaned on the ship’s wheel, having laid claim to being the main pilot for the ship.
Jon hopped up to sit on the railing beside it. “What makes you think we need to work for somebody?”
She gave him a funny look. “What do you mean?”
“Do you know how much money we have in the treasury?”
She shook her head. “How much?”
He told them.
Horace whistled. “That’ll take care of the crew’s wages for a whole year with plenty left over for us.
Jon nodded. “And we still haven’t sold the engines and controls from the mind flayer ship or the one that’s still floating out there from the pirate ship, so you see, we don’t have to work for anyone. We can work for ourselves.”
“And do what?” Katrina wondered, strumming idly.
“We could deliver Altman’s load of Pyrite to Xyrn,” Mira suggested.
Aaren frowned at her. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’m serious. He said his ship, the Tamerin, was delivering it to a planet called Xyrn, but he never mentioned anything about the mind flayers taking the cargo. It might still be out there in the wreckage of his ship. Salvage rights apply out in space, don’t they? What’s to stop us from taking the cargo and delivering it ourselves?”
Jon laughed shortly. “Do you have any idea how unstable that stuff is? When I was trying to get a hold of Sithfarith I overheard some people talking about it. If you drop a piece of Pyrite from more than a couple of cubits it blows up in your face! That stuff practically explodes if you look at it wrong!”
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Horace interjected. “Altman’s ship is lost somewhere in the void. We couldn’t find it in a million years.”
Katrina shook her red tresses. “Not necessarily. Altman brought the Tamerin’s logbook with him and it’s still in the navigator’s cabin. He never had a chance to get it back,” she grinned wickedly. “I think I can plot a course that’ll take us awfully close to where it should be by now. We might have a pretty good chance of tracking it down.”
Aaren was astonished. “You mean you could find it!?”
“Maybe. I’m not saying it would be easy or anything, but sure, with a little luck, I don’t see why not. Altman taught me enough of the basics to give me a general idea of how it’s done.”
“A general idea?” Horace looked askance at her. “Do you know how long that could take?”
She shrugged lightly. “No, but what’s your hurry? You already said yourself we have enough money for a whole year.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to spend it searching for a needle in a haystack, which is what we’d be doing.”
A strange feeling crept over Aaren, an odd certainty that if they looked for the Tamerin, they would find it in considerably less than a year.
“Not necessarily,” he drawled slowly. The tiny holy symbol hanging from his neck began glowing softly as he spoke. “If Katrina thinks she can find the Tamerin, she can. And the Pyrite is there. Count on it. All that remains is to ask ourselves if that’s really what we want to do.” The glow faded and died.
Awe was writ large on their faces and even Horace quailed before that obvious manifestation of the Lord of Light’s favor. “Uh . . . well, maybe it wouldn’t take that long after all. Couldn’t hurt to think about it, I guess.”
Katrina smiled shyly at Aaren. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
He smiled back at her and tapped his holy symbol, then changed the subject abruptly. “How about a quick trip to Thorginbelt to see our friends and family before we head out again?”
A rousing chorus greeted that suggestion and Aaren ordered them into the air.
A near-riot ensued as they settled into the harbor waters at Thorginbelt. The whole city, both cities, had seen the Sky Hawk flying overhead on their landing approach and came running get a closer look at it. Skyships were unknown to most people and rare even to those who knew about them. The sight of the Sky Hawk sailing overhead drew huge crowds of curious onlookers to the docks. It took several hours before the crowds finally dispersed and the Knights were able to follow Horace to his parent’s house.
They’d sent messengers to Mira’s father and Katrina’s mentor, Oren, to meet them. Aaren had also invited High Priest Rymorn from the Towers of Kicce´ to dine with them as well. Garrick and the crew had opted to take advantage of their popularity as crewmen on a flying ship and were accepting free drinks, and room and board that was being shoved at them from every angle.
The dinner party at Horace’s house was loud and boisterous. The Knights took turns telling the story of their exploits, often interrupting each other to add one point or another. There was laughter, horror, and awe at various places as they related their first days in space, the battle with the dreaded mind flayers, the weirdness of the fancy fops, Altman and Rontoffer, meeting Ryal and the sauroids, and their running battle with Blanrus and The Sword on Harpel, ending with the explosive destruction of the Vis on the Biqah Prairie.
Oren shook his head decisively. “I ain’t gonna believe a beholder was tending bar,” he told Katrina. “I know you wouldn’t lie to me but that’s too much to swallow.” Others had similar reactions to some of their adventures; shock mingled with disbelief mixed with horror.
The gold they’d brought back couldn’t be argued with though. Each of the Knights handed out a portion of their cut to their family and friends. Horace was especially proud of being able to contribute mightily to his family’s fortune.
Aaren pulled Rymorn off to the side with Mira and asked if he’d officiate their marriage while they were in town. He agreed and the news was greeted with a rousing cheer when they told their friends.
“About time!” Katrina yelled. “You two have been mooning over each other for years.”
“We have not,” Mira laughed. “It’s only been a few months.”
Rymorn told them a Ghibbore from Elder Earth had recently outlined a new wedding ceremony that was supposedly in widespread use on that fabled planet and it was fast replacing the old Giain traditions. After hearing what it entailed, Mira was enthusiastically in favor of it. “I like that one husband, one wife idea,” she exclaimed. Katrina quickly agreed, casting sidelong glances at Elric, who blushed furiously.
It took a few days to make all the arrangements and when it finally happened, it was a double wedding, Aaren and Mira, and Elric and Katrina.
While the four of them took a few days for their honeymoons, Horace and Jon sold rides on the Sky Hawk for a silver sovereign apiece. Every time the ship went up, it was packed to the gunwales. People screamed in mock fear as the ground fell away beneath them, then exclaimed over how far they could see, and went into raptures of delight when they sighted their own house from the air. The crowds were lined up around the block to take the short ride they offered.
Prince Abend even graced the ship with his royal presence. When he discovered they had a skengine, life chest, star engine, ship wheel, and controls in their hold available for sale as a set, he purchased them immediately without even haggling over the price. “Fleyniria is getting too large to oversee,” he explained. “But with a flying ship, it can be done, even expanded.”
By the time Aaren, Mira, Elric, and Katrina returned from their respective honeymoons, the Knights had four times as much gold as when they landed. They proceeded to give even more to their friends and family before they took off into space again.
After parking the Sky Hawk in orbit over Gaia, they gathered in Aaren and Mira’s cabin to discuss their options. Their flush financial situation gave them the freedom to pick and choose their course of action.
Elric came up with his own suggestion, prompted no doubt by his new wife, Katrina. “Why don’t we go exploring? There are hundreds of star charts down there in the navigator’s cabin, why don’t we see where some of them take us? We could even strike out on our own if we want to; head for parts unknown and make our own star charts. How about it?”
A buzz of conversation broke out.
Jon’s voice finally broke through the din. “Are you crazy?” he yelped. “We’ve barely gotten used to flying between Gaia and Heraup and Harpel without getting lost! We’ve never even gone to any other planets in our own solar system and you want to go barging off into the unknown? Interstellar space? You’re out of your mind!” He looked imploringly at his companions. “Tell him you guys, tell him he’s crazy! Tell him!”
There was a long silence during which his friends looked thoughtful but not overly concerned about Elric’s relative sanity. In dawning horror, he realized they were actually considering the idea.
“Well,” Mira said at last, “it’s kind of what we wanted to do in the first place. You know, ‘go barging around and see what attacks us’. It’s almost the definition of adventure.”
Jon groaned and buried his face in his hands.
Horace clapped a friendly hand on his shoulder. “Give it up, little buddy. You’re fighting a losing battle. Adventure is in our blood.”
Jon shook off his hand in mock anger. “Yeah? Well in case you’ve forgotten, adventure spills our blood too.”
It took several hours of discussion but at last, they agreed to Mira’s previous suggestion that they search for the Tamerin and deliver its cargo of Pyrite to Xyrn before striking off into the unknown. Jon was slightly mollified they’d be heading for a known, if new to them, destination. He wasn’t happy about it being an interstellar journey though, and told them so in no uncertain terms, resulting in a round of boos and mocking laughter.
As the Sky Hawk put Gaia behind them, Aaren and Mira stood together on the aft deck watching it dwindle before turning toward the stars. He draped an arm around her, pulling her close. She snuggled against him contentedly. “We’ve got everything we need,” she sighed him happily, “friends, health, a good ship, and all the heavens at our feet.”
Aaren nodded as he reached for the controls. “And we’ll explore it together.”
The Sky Hawk sprang for the distant stars.