True Value: Part One

A Two Lions Tale.

Jihanna thrust her passenger behind her and raised her cutlass, threatening the three Imperial soldiers who faced her over the dead bodies of her crewmates. Her long dark legs stood wide and braced against the rolling of the sloop’s deck, and she tossed the black ropes of her hair over her shoulder, her eyes sparkling with excitement.

“You’ll find me more difficult prey, lads. Agw√© knows I’ve gutted more than my share of you cowardly toads.”

The din of combat had only just died away; screams still echoed across the deck of the Indigo Fifty and here and there the dying moaned in agony. Behind the soldiers facing Jihanna she could see the enormous junk that had come alongside her ship, spelling doom for the sloop’s crew. The passenger, a lady who’d come aboard at Konogoro, gasped as the only other surviving crewmember, Captain Thornbury, spun away from a slashing sabre, only to spit his over-eager opponent with a well-timed thrust.

Jihanna took advantage of the distraction to leap forward, her blade in blurring motion. She feinted high and cut low, the classic trick, and the edge of her cutlass tore open one soldier’s inner thigh. He fell, shrieking, but before he hit the blood-slick planks, she spun, thrusting upwards into the second soldier, who never even got to make a sound before her blade found his heart.

She whipped the blade free as she stood and grinned at the last soldier.

A cry from across the deck drew their attention as Captain Thornbury leapt aboard the junk alongside. He lunged at a tall figure in dark robes, aiming a terrific blow, but his sword shattered at the moment of impact, and the Captain reeled backwards.

The tall figure turned, revealing a sneering white face.

“You think some ordinary peasant’s blade can harm ME? Me, a servant of the East Chamber? You backwards foreign scum. Now that I have what I came for –”

The sneering official gestured as his soldiers brought aboard a pair of beautiful golden statures, formed in shape of crouching lions, each the size of a brandy cask.

“– I have no further interest in you, or your rat-infested scow. Begone!”

The last Imperial soldier tried to take advantage of Jihanna’s interest in the confrontation aboard the other ship, but as he moved forward the girl extended one arm without even looking, her swordtip pointed directly at his eye.

He reconsidered and ran for the junk. Jihanna paused, then followed, but she was too late.

Captain Thurnbury drew his boot knife and tried once more, his face a mask of rage.

“You butcher! You killed–”

His cry cut off in a choking gurgle as the official flicked one hand in his direction, and the captain tumbled from the rail of the junk to crash heavily onto the deck of the Indigo Fifty.

“Captain!”

Jihanna rushed across the deck as the junk cast off and began immediately to drift away.

“Captain!”

Captain Thornbury was dead before she reached him, with an iron spike buried in his chest. The butt of the spike was thicker than Jihanna’s thumb, and the squared-off sides were lined with strange runes. She grabbed and yanked at the eldritch thing, but it lay too firmly embedded in the dead man’s chest.

The passenger, a young woman in green and yellow brocade, the mass of her hair pinned up with a jade brooch, came up beside where Jihanna knelt.

“That man slew my family. Burned my estate.”

Jihanna turned hazel eyes up and studied the angry woman beside her. Commands bellowed from the junk came across the water, and spars rattled as the sails were raised and caught the wind. A faint voice nearer at hand begged for water.

The two women stared at each other, surrounded by death, each filled with her own particular rage. As one, they turned to watch the junk pulling away, now too far to consider leaping aboard.

“I never got your name, girl.”

“Pak Siu-Wai. I’m hardly younger than you, madam”

Jihanna chuckled, then rose, now towering over the Imperial girl, and crossed to the dying man who had called out. She poured a little water for him.

“Who is that bastard?”

“I know not his name. But he and his fellow sorcerers have destroyed every remnant of the Empire. The Jade Throne sits vacant now, and even the Emperor’s most loyal warriors are dead or gone forever.”

“Pah. What care I of your Empire? Revenge pays slight coin.”

The well-dressed woman watched Jihanna minister to her crewmate, then close the man’s eyes as his last breath rattled forth.

“Surely you saw those golden lions carried aboard? Those are the last treasures of my family. I intend to get them back.”

Jihanna turned in surprise at the girl’s steady tone, and then burst out laughing, standing and arranging the flamboyant silks she wore. She tugged at her swordbelt, and strode easily towards the other girl, grinning with savage glee.

“I like this idea. He leaves us behind, sure we pose no threat. Pah.”

The spike buried in poor Captain Thornbury’s chest gave off a sudden sickly radiance, a phosporescent green that grew quickly to a searing brightness. As they fell back from the sorcerous eruption, the captain’s body convulsed and then split apart in a gory mess, as ropy, muscled arms clawed outwards, as though reaching up from a deep crevasse, and a hideous toad-like monstrosity emerged, from what alien space no sane mind could contemplate.

Jihanna and Siu-Wai stared; the thing was bigger than either of them, with tremendous powerful arms and squatting hindquarters, slimy with gore and ichor. It reached out, teeth-filled maw agape, but even as its claws opened Jihanna was in motion, her cutlass blurring free of its sheath as she whirled, mid-air, shrieking her wild battle-cry and her blade came down, severing one tree-trunk arm just below the elbow.

Siu-Wai slipped sideways, dodging the other arm’s grasp. The deck erupted at her feet as the thing scrabbled, tearing up planks and beams beneath it. She flung herself up and over, grabbing hold of a stay as she passed and flipping herself up onto the boom of the mainmast.

Jihanna kept spinning, whipping herself around in one circle after another as the thing screeched and slapped at her with its one remaining hand. It flopped and slobbered across the deck, demolishing much of the ship as it went. Siu-Wai had to grab hold of her perch as the demon-frog lurched into the mast, cracking the enormous timber at its base.

“Fiend! In the name of the six-armed god I spit on you!”

Jihanna had taken a few heavy slaps in her pursuit of the creature but she stayed on the offensive, putting one cut after another into its rubbery hide. Her rage carried her too far, however, and Siu-Wai cried out as the thing’s good arm caught the pirate girl a sharp blow, sending her tumbling in a long-legged tangle across the half-destroyed deck.

The noblewoman leapt from the boom, knife in hand, and landed squarely astride the thing’s broad head, robes fluttering in the steady sea breeze as she flew. She planted the blade as she landed, driving it deep through hide, through bone and into the thing’s skull, but she did not kill it.

Expensive silk ripped as an enormous taloned hand grabbed her, hurling her overboard. Siu-Wai disappeared with a splash, and the beast slapped at its own head, flailing to yank the dagger out of its head.

Jihanna got to her feet, rolled her shoulders back and shook her hair back.

“You loathesome thing. Back where you came from!”

She charged, cutlass high, and though the demon saw her before she reached it, it was too slow, perhaps too injured, perhaps too fearful, to save itself. Her blade sank hilt-deep into its throat and with a mighty heave Jihanna yanked sideways, spilling blood and throat-guts over herself and the remains of the Indigo Fifty.

Siu-Wai spluttered to the surface, grabbed for a hand and found herself pulled aboard the tiny lifeboat. The sloop nearby settled in the ocean to the gunwales.

Jihanna busied herself raising the little longboat’s sail, then crossing to the rudder and squinting after the disappearing junk.

“They’re making back to Konogoro, I’ll wager. Hmph. Imperial sailors know little enough seamanship. We’ll beat them there, and be waiting.”

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