THE AOWDWEN, DYNARIUS, AND NIHUCCI did not have sea paper. If we had, the tragedy could have been avoided, even with conflicting Progenitor Sprigs.
The Saeire Insu did not know how to make sea paper until a full year later, under the urgent order of the king, who lent his own considerable Mathematical prowess to the effort.
Sea paper is literally that: it’s a thin layer of seawater converted to “paper” by means of aecxal chemistry. It’s desperately tricky to make, and takes a full month to produce a single sheet. After the disaster, the Mapmakers came into being: Dreamcatchers, Healers, and Mathematicians devoted to a single purpose: outfitting every single Saeire Insu vessel, no matter how small, with sea paper and a replacement scroll in case the first was destroyed or lost.
Along the way, the Mapmakers made concomitant discoveries, all of which were useful in our efforts to retool and rebuild our navy, and to prepare for our return to Aquanus.
Two of those discoveries were Arrowsparrows and their messages. The birds, which are in fact swallows, come from Earth. We aecxally manipulated and domesticated them. They Transform into arrows, and are capable of nearly unlimited flight at great speed. Using a hybrid form of sea paper and human blood, the message they carry can be conveyed quickly over the length and breadth of Aquanus without the need of Dreamcatchers or Soul Traces, both of which, to use modern parlance, can be “hacked” by sufficiently skilled and powerful Dreamcatchers.
Arrowsparrow messages come in two forms: Basic and Edible. Basic messages are by far the most common, and are what keep the Saeire Insu in touch with one another. They allow only for the most basic of messages, hence their name. The king sent his congratulatory message via a Basic message. Orders can be sent by them, or position, or vital news.
Edible Arrowsparrow messages are far rarer. Written in the blood of the sender, the message appears as a Basic one, but shows only one message to the recipient: Eat this.
The recipient eats the message, and then goes off to sleep. At that point, he or she and the sender “meet” via a completely secure Soul Trace contained entirely within the paper itself. The meeting can last up to two hours.
Every Saeire Insu warrior has a single scroll of Edible paper. I’m sure you understand why we are very protective of them. We get one chance to reach out to a loved one, and one chance only. After that, it comes down to Basic messages, which are prioritized almost entirely for military use, and only very infrequently for personal ones.
So you can imagine my surprise when I received a personal (Basic) Arrowsparrow from Carcaryn yesterday.
To read a Basic message, one need merely prick one’s finger and swipe the blood over the unrolled bit of paper. This I did after stroking the Arrowsparrow’s head, then sending her to the aviary. She launched off my shoulder and disappeared as the Captain came around the corner.
“No need to guess,” he offered with a grin. “Carcaryn?”
I gazed down at the message after nodding.
He waited as I read it.
quickly, even Quartermane impressed.
Miss you. Thinking of the Stang and your goofy grin.
The message faded away. I pocketed it, knowing that I would probably have very sore fingertips tomorrow, because I knew I would prick my fingers a dozen more times to read it again and again.
The Captain chuckled. “Shall I have a unit of plasma sent to your billet?”
I shook my head wistfully. “I suppose so, Captain.”
He grabbed my shoulder. “Come. I’ve got some information I want to share with you.”
He led the way to the stairs that ended at the bridge.
Most of the senior officers had gathered around the meeting table in the room next to his cabin, which was just below the bridge proper. He closed the door behind me and motioned for us to sit.
He looked around at us. “I received word from King’s Perch. We’ve been given the green light to go after this Dreamcatcher.”
The bosun, an intense, intelligent woman named Samise Ghaeng (pronounced “Geng”), asked the question all of us were thinking. “Captain, aren’t there other Saeire Insu in the area who are closer? We’re almost six hundred misons from Hieron-Tamus, and in the wrong ocean! Surely someone is closer!”
“That’s the problem,” said the Captain, “we are the closest to this Dreamcatcher. At least King’s Perch believes we are. The Imperium has ordered him to the Raped City. That’s what our Dreamcatchers are telling us. But they aren’t sure, because Imperial Dreamcatchers are wiping soul traces from Hieron-Tamus willy-nilly. The latest intelligence—and I just got this before you got your Arrowsparrow, First Watch—” he said, aiming his gaze at me—“is that they believe this Dreamcatcher is on an Imperial fast frigate named Vorddra, which weighed anchor, Command believes, the day before yesterday, and is heading this way.”
Nals Kiml, who serves as Senior Second Watch, spoke up. “What makes Command believe the Vorddra is heading south? Did they sail out of Virtua?”
The Captain nodded.
Virtua is the capital city of Hieron-Tamus, and is on the eastern side of the main island. It would make much more sense to head northwest, sail around the Sankyan Wilderness, then head southwest in order to bee-line along Ae Infinitus straight to Aquanicentra. But ...
“I’m guessing they are heading south for two reasons,” I offered. Several others had joined the proceedings since I’d walked in. All eyes were on me.
“The Imperium is losing a lot more boats in the Verisimilius than down here in the Senecum. There are too many choke points between Virtua and August. But down here, past the Gateway, there’s nothing but wide open ocean all the way to the Gyss. There’s lots more space to get lost in down here than by the northwest route.”
The Captain held up in contemplation. “Let me guess the second reason—misdirection. Simple tactics.”
“Or,” said Ghaeng, “or ... there is something this Dreamcatcher needs in, say, Saturnius along the way, or Cliffdom, or Galen.”
“What’s the added distance northwest compared to southwest?” the Captain asked. “Anyone know?”
“If they hug the Sankyan,” spoke up Orilo Seng, the senior Helmsman, “they’ll add at least eighteen hundred misons to their trip.” He shook his head doubtfully. “That’s just an estimate. It also assumes that they take enormous chances with their lives by getting up close and personal with the Sankyan’s shores!”
The Captain stayed silent. The rest of us waited. We had become used to his cues: the way he looks away; the manner in which he scratches his chin. He didn’t want to be interrupted.
“Let’s assume both possibilities,” he said. “The Vorddra is going to hug the Sankyan, and it is going to drop anchor at least once before it gets to Imperium Centrum. Saturnius is the closest island to the Sankyan in the Senecum heading west, is it not?”
Seng shook his head. “No, sir. Chrienthsos is. By just a few misons. At least by way of Infinitus.”
“Chrienthsos straddles Infinitus!” I exclaimed. “The Vorddra would have to sail over a thousand estimated misons north-northwest just to get there! Saturnius would be a relatively straight shot due west from the estimated southern tip of the new Sankyan. It would potentially save them days, maybe even weeks!”
The Bosun’s Mate, a strongly built Pyrrhonian named Aineo Venysa, rumbled, “That’s still a tremendous area of open water we’d have to patrol. I believe the Gaian term ‘needle in a haystack’ applies here.”
“Does it?” said the Captain. He glanced at Seng. “How accurate are our maps of the new Sankyan? Can we rely on them?”
Orilo shook his head. “No. The maps we’ve got were plotted by Imperials. They are as clueless as we are, even considering how long they’ve had to map it compared to us. We just don’t know—and neither do they. Our sea paper doesn’t even give us a good estimate. We’ve tried expanding the map function to give us an outline of the Sankyan. The results are always indeterminate and vary widely one reading to the next. We won’t really know until we get close to it. By that point, we’ll be risking our lives as well.”
“Sea paper loses accuracy over distance,” said Venysa. “At a hundred misons it’s only about sixteen percent accurate. It starts blurring or giving outright incorrect information. If it didn’t, we could simply expand ours and see where the Vorddra is right now, then just go and get her!”
There was a single scroll of sea paper vastly more powerful than ours, but it belonged to a Saeire Insu Courier named Kaza Lucanson, who was, I believed, thousands of misons south of us. His scroll was ancient and wasn’t made by the Saeire Insu, but was used as the template when we struggled to learn how to make our own. Whoever made that one (I couldn’t recall just then) had much more time to refine it and tweak it.
It was all academic anyway. I knew what the Captain was thinking, so I spoke up. “Let’s consider heading to the southernmost point of the new Sankyan, get as close as we dare, and wait. If the Vorddra is indeed headed this way, eventually it will intersect with that point as well. That’s when we take her. Sixteen percent is better than zero.”
The Captain nodded in that manner that told us we were about to go whole hog on this.
“We’ll have only one shot at them,” I said. “If that. If we’re wrong ...”
“If we’re wrong,” said Samise, “then the fleet just found itself with a potentially fatal problem. We can’t let that happen. We’re going to need an obscene helping of luck. We’re sailing on nothing but hopeful conjecture here.”
“Agreed,” said Captain Tiderider. “Obscene? Most definitely.”
We’re on our way to hunt down and sink the Imperial Vorddra, and to capture her Dreamcatcher.
We received another communiqué from King’s Perch. It will be solely up to us to get this Imperial bastard. We’re alone. The fleet cannot spare another Rogue. It’s spread out too much already as it is.
The Vorddra is, apparently, the fastest Imperial attack craft in the Verisimilius. Cays, amazingly, did slave duty aboard it just after it was commissioned. It has a crew of just under one hundred fifty, including three demons. He gave us the full poop the day before yesterday. That was the day we spied an Imperial heavy cruiser and decided to let it go. That was a first. The crew understood—the Captain had informed them of our new mission—but that didn’t make them any happier. Failure letting an Imperial bucket survive? Outrageous!
I gripped a forward mainsail rope and watched that big evil tub sail right on by, its demons circling protectively overhead. I said a prayer for the slaves aboard it. We couldn’t help them.
Failure wasn’t built for speed. She was built for sheer toughness and her explosive Peacemakers. We plotted the likely position of the Vorddra and dropped all canvas. At full bore it would take us, we estimated, slightly more than an Aquanian week (eight days) to get there. If we failed to sink the Imperial and snatch this Dreamcatcher, the Saeire Insu’s revolution would very likely end long before we or the Apprentice made it to Aquanicentra.