A single candle that was no more than a pitiful mound of wax shared its light with the dark room. Its brothers had all burned out hours ago, and the poor taper was all the remained of the prince’s night long study. With deep bags beneath his flaming red eyes, Tarin Vallor scoured the maps spread out across his table, desperately trying to pinpoint the next landing spot of The Black and White Assassin. From the setting to the rising sun he had planted himself in the bridge and refused to leave until he could completely think through a new plan of action to find his family’s dagger. Unfortunately, the prince could not fathom a single idea as to where the thief might turn up next, and his energy levels had all but depleted. Many a man on his ship, the elegant Azure Conquest, had asked, pleaded, begged for him to return to his cabin and get some rest, but he had sent them all away with a stern, commanding voice that could have come across a bit too harsh in some cases, for instance, when he shouted at one fellow ─ who couldn’t have been past his mid-thirties ─ that he would have the man’s pet dog, which he had so kindly allowed on board, sent to the local butcher in the subsequent city they landed in if he didn’t leave him alone, which had been a total bluff, of course, but still unfairly spiteful. Making a note to apologize to the old chap later, he tried to focus on the task at hand.
The problem was, he couldn’t. All evening he’d been racking his brain for a single clue as to where the assassin might travel next, but his mind continued to drift elsewhere ─ to the warmth of his own bed back at the palace, to the delectable meal the ship’s cook had prepared for him, and more often than not to the lady he had met atop The Place Where Earth and Sky Kiss. He barely knew a thing about her, but he couldn’t keep her out of his head. Something regarding that girl just felt... familiar, as if they’d met once before, yet he couldn’t put his finger on it. It couldn’t have been her face that had evoked this feeling in him, for most of it had been concealed behind an air mask. Might it have been her slender form that he’d noticed while walking with her? Or maybe it was her supple voice? Then again, the girl had given the impression that she had never even heard of him till he introduced himself, and if she hadn’t a clue as to who he was, how could they have possibly met before?
Just as Tarin trying to recall under what circumstances he might have met the lass, the door to the navigation room slammed open and a young woman trotted in, interrupting his train of thought. She stood with perfect posture, adding an inch to her short stature of five feet. Hugging her lithe frame, her royal blue tailcoat extended just past her knees, and the black leather, pointed-heel boots she wore rose all the way up her legs, covering most of her thighs and revealing only a small portion of her white knit pants. The morning sun glittered behind her, causing her straight, ginger bob to shimmer in its light.
“Elden,” the prince said warmly, drowsily smiling, “what a wonderful morning it is.”
“That’s Captain Stirling, to you,” the woman snapped sternly, “Just because we’re old friends doesn’t mean you have the privilege to address me by my first name. And besides, how would you know how wonderful the morning is? It could be dreary outside for all you are aware of, since you’ve impounded yourself in here from dusk till light!”
Unrepentant, he asked, “Do you require my presence for something, Captain Stirling, perhaps my dexterous leadership and deft decision making skills?”
"Deft? More like daft. Do you think I would be here if I didn't?"
"Oh, no of course not. Why in the world would I assume that my good pal from Orville's Aerial-Naval Academy might barge in on me for any reason other than business? It would be quite preposterous!"
Tilting her head slightly to the side and staring straight into his eyes with her brows raised and a joking smirk poised on her lips, she replied, “Exactly. Now, if you are done ruining your health by the light of a single candle, I’ve something you might want to take a look at.”
“What is it?” he inquired as he stood up, his curiosity peaked.
“We’ve spotted a ship on our tail, Prince. Come see.”
Practically galloping out of the bridge, Tarin stumbled to the starboard side of the ship and peered out at the clouds. Though his tired eyes made his vision bleary, there was no mistaking what he saw. A great ship, slightly smaller than the Azure Conquest, floated half a mile away, slowly making headway towards them. Prince Tarin noted the brilliant blue and gold banners with an insignia of a wolf, proudly waving in the wind, that matched those on his own ship as well as his uniform. It wasn’t hard to conclude, this ship in pursuit belonged to his country’s armada, his father’s armada, and that was not a good thing for Tarin at the moment.
“How long has it been following us?” the prince of Marcelia asked.
“I’m not sure, could be days, could be weeks. They must have something rather important to say if they’ve been tracking us all this way from the capitol. My men are prepared to stop and meet them at your order, Prince Tar─”
“No,” he objected, “I don’t want to meet with them, and whatever they have to say is not something I want to hear. Lower the ship beneath the clouds.”
“You want me to what?” The captain was astounded by his command.
“You heard me!”
“But, you hate dismoun─”
As the ship drew closer, Tarin grew more frantic. “You think I don’t know that? Just lower the ship beneath the clouds, already!” he snapped; though, he soon regretted it when he saw the shock and hurt in his companion’s eyes, caused by his sharp words. Sighing, he continued, “Look, I’m sorry, Elden. I haven’t been completely honest with you about the exact reason I wanted to undertake this expedition. I promise I’ll explain everything, but, right now, I need you to do as I say!”
After examining him with scrutinizing eyes for an instant, the ship’s captain finally relented. “Fine, but I’m only doing this because you are my prince ─ and my friend. However, I do expect a thorough enlightenment from you as soon as we are through.” With that, she briskly turned on her heels and began violently barking orders at her crew, and expeditiously, like a submarine diving beneath the icy waters of the ocean, the Azure Conquest vanished from sight into the chilling mist of the clouds, blanketing the ship’s deck with thick soup-like vapor.
“Brace yourselves!” someone shouted through the haze as the ship sank with more haste. Not needing to be told twice, Tarin sank to the floor, grabbing hold of the rails with a death grip. The only thing that made this plunge bearable for him was the comfort in knowing that no one could see his distorted facial expressions through the fog.
He had always hated descending from the air ever since he was young; it always made his insides yearn to become his outsides, and it took everything he had to keep from giving in to his body’s wish. That was probably the reason why he was never able to pass the final exam back at the academy, not once out of all the thirteen times he’d attempted it, as compared to Elden Stirling, aviator extraordinaire, who’d sailed through the test with flying colors on the first go ─ puns intended. He’d never harbored any feelings of envy toward her, though, only raw inspiration and awe. When he had entered the institution as a first year, he was just an unenthusiastic, royal rascal, attending the school solely because it was his duty as crown prince. That all changed when he saw Elden, a second year, performing in a simulation module in which she was required to govern her ship while fending off a band of unforeseen pirates. He watched as she put all of her energy into it, and from that point on, he was captivated by her passion and charisma. Tarin worked hard to make high marks in every class in order to get closer to her, peer to peer, and once they finally met, they were immediate friends. She gave him helpful tips about managing a ship that she learned in her more advanced classes, and in return he offered special swordplay techniques. They were a team without equal in all of the school’s history; nothing could beat them. That is, until Elden graduated and received her RCD ─ Royal Captain’s Diploma ─ leaving Tarin alone for all of his final year. Without his comrade by his side, his barophobic tendencies recurred, his fear of gravity and its effects rebounding stronger than ever, and now, even after being united again with Captain Stirling, alighting still caused him to drift into this sickly state of nausea.
Less than a minute later, the prince was still curled up against the ship’s handrails. When he finally pried his squinched eyes open, he was met with a pair of boots that he recognized instantly. His vision followed the boots upward till he was looking at the face of a choleric, cross-armed captain, her face stating plainly that she wanted answers, and she wanted them now.
“Get up,” she growled, her right foot drumming away at the floor.
Like a dog with his tail between his legs, Tarin stood tall to face her. Despite his height advantage over her, he still had reason to be afraid; Elden knew all of his moves ─ with his words and with his sword. There was no phasing her, and that was a very scary thing in a moment such as this. Her wrath was worse than that of any foe’s.
“Now, talk.” There was a severe absence of clemency in her merciless voice.
He took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Well, where to begin? I─”
“Don’t you dare try any of your pussyfooting with me. Get to the point.” the captain’s words stung like a child’s rump after a hard spanking.
Apprehending that she really wasn’t going to stand for it this time around, he bowed his head to her and obeyed. “Okay,” he sighed. “This little odyssey of mine isn’t really about finding the dagger."
"I guess I have what some might call an ulterior motive?" he grimaced.
"Go on." The woman's hazel eyes were glued to the prince like a hawk.
"My parents asked me to attend a meeting that I don't have much interest in taking a part in. I tried to refuse, but they were going to force me into the conference whether I agreed to it or not. Then, I heard about the break in and the stolen dagger. I saw my opportunity, my window of escape, and I took it."
"You called me out to help you play hooky?" she gasped. "I can't believe you, you slither-outer!"
He took the heat radiating from her scorching words with an accepting silence, and then he poured cooling water over them with his words of admittance. "Yes, I did, and I'm sorry for not explaining this all to you before we set off. I can't thank you enough for accompanying me on this journey." The left corner of his mouth pulled upward forming a grateful half-smile.
The hiss of steam from her extinguishing flames of asperity escaped through her mouth in the form of an acquiescing sigh as she ran her fingers through her hair. "Of course I came with you," she murmured, looking anywhere but at the prince. "How could I say no to my best friend? Especially when he comes to me with a job with a refreshing adventure built into it? Ha! It reminds me of the time when we─" Captain Stirling’s tongue turned to stone when her an object in the distance caught her stare. Her fingers stopped their perpetual twiddling with her pumpkin locks as she produced a spyglass from a pouch tied to her belt.
“What is it?” he questioned, squinting his eyes in attempts to locate the mysterious object.
She handed the miniature telescope to him, and, as he peered through it to see an airship adorned with black sails she said, “It appears that we have located what you have lost so much sleep over, my prince. We have found Krono’s Return.”