OUR HEROES: Tira Wolfsdaughter Hank Woodman Gilead Haiku Odsdottir Persia

43. False Tribute

vents move swiftly after the surrender signal has been given. Tira, Persia, Haiku and Gilead are contacted by Commander Oba. Tira, Persia and Haiku are asked merely to volunteer for a mission for the city's defense, without being able to know precisely what it is. They cautiously agree. Gilead is simply ordered to report for special duty. He is grateful to be pulled from the grisly assignment of pulling bodies from the wreckage of the Shambles. A soldier's job isn't all battle and glory, apparently.

Hank in the meantime has been pulled from Dakota's service for a secret mission of his own. The others are unaware of this at the time.

Tira is glad to see Gilead at the meeting, but shocked by the look of emotional exhaustion on his face. He has seen a lot of dead people recently. There are a lot of other young people in the room; many wonder if they are to be the slave tribute called for by the demands of the Sky Pirates. A couple of people stand out from the crowd. There is a beast, a female rabbit (not Cinnamon), and another adept, who appears to be some sort of accountant. The beasts are a bit of a surprise, but apparently there ahs been some communication of which the party is unaware. There is a demand within the "Celestial City" for a few "exotics".

They are addressed by Commander Oba. He tells them that the lighting of the barge "was not an official act", which is open for multiple interpretations. However, he says that the city is going to try to take advantage of it.

They are to be offered up in tribute as a ruse. Since there will definitely be adepts in the tribute collection party, they must gather up actual treasure as well. The sword Annihilator is to be placed in Tira's care, by specific request of the Archon.

Gilead was chosen because he speaks Ancient English, which seems to be the lingua franca of the invaders. Also, being relatively new to the army, he has no vital information to reveal should he be captured. He begins to wonder if this is related to his rank of Corporal. Are they deliberately under-utilizing his talents?

Since the group is primarily made up of civilians, they are not expected to do any actual fighting. They are told there is a plan that will protect them. If things begin to get really bad, just jump overboard and swim in random directions. A large number of otters from the Tallon Navy will be deployed nearby to help them. Likewise, if the Sword of the City is actually in danger of capture, Tira is told to drop it overboard where again, otters will retrieve it. The reason that soldiers are not being tapped for this duty is that it is too difficult to find enough soldiers who fit the requirements of youth, strength and physical beauty and who yet have no vital knowledge of military deployment.

The group is detained overnight while a ship is readied for transport and a tribute barge is towed into position. In the morning, Tira is taken to a separate room where she receives Annihilator from Ningan personally. The Archon instructs her not to draw the sword. He tells her that she did once before and the consequences were so unpleasant that she had asked him to remove the memory of them.

The ship is the Waverunner, flagship of the Tallon navy under the command of Admiral Phoenix. They are all addressed personally by the Admiral, who thanks them and reinforces to them that they are not considered combatants. They should abandon the barge if things go badly.

The Waverunner soon takes them to the rendezvous point, not far past the mouth of the Theron Inlet. Here they are rowed out to the barge, along with numerous boxes of treasure. The treasure is genuine, as Tira and the other adept confirm. There are boxes of jewels, precious metals, and art. It is a vast variety of wealth, none of it capable of being destroyed by a brief immersion in seawater.

Once the boxes and people are loaded, the boats fall back, rounding the coast to the Waverunner, which lies in the waters of the inlet. Before long, the glass ship appears. It seems almost to melt out of the sky. There is clearly something unnatural in the way it can appear and disappear. Why it is visible during raids is something the worthies of Tallon have puzzled over for some time.

The ship descends until it settles in the waters adjacent to the barge. Soldiers with crossbows cover the prisoners. Others keep sharp lookout in all directions. Orders are barked in Merikian Anglish to the prisoners. They are to carry the tribute to the Glass Ship themselves. They will be covered by raiders at all times. Gilead and Haiku are first to go. They carry the heavy boxes over a glass gangplank that has been set between the vessels. They are made to repeat this several times. Gilead, Tira and the others watch meticulously for any clue or sign that could help them in their struggle. Tira's spirit sight sees it first. Something indefinable is moving inside one of the crates. She and the other adept looked at them all so carefully. Nothing enhanced or alive could have been smuggled in. Her answer comes very quickly. Within the box she can see the definite spiritual signature of Crystalwind, the sword of Iron John.

The animate bursts from the crate, his sword causing it to fly asunder. Before any of the stunned raiders can react, he has sliced the legs out from under the nearest of them, the one who was directing the transfer. Instantly the others turn upon him, but their swords are nearly useless and their bolts are pathetic. He looks about and identifies the commander. He relentlessly approaches while the others try to bog him down.

The commander exclaims in Ancient English, "One of the Hundred! Bearing a Crystal Blade!" Apparently creatures such as Iron John are known to the Celestial City. Then he barks out an order, "Carina! Maneuver 23!" Instantly the raiders begin to secure themselves to the deck with lines while the ship begins to perform a barrel roll. Iron John repays the commander with a decapitation before attempting to anchor himself to the Glass Ship by impaling Crystalwind into the deck. To his obvious surprise, Crystalwind fails to penetrate and he slides off into the water.

During al of this, Persia, Gilead, Haiku, Tira and a few others have been trying to take advantage of the confusion by attacking the raiders themselves. Most impressive is Gilead, who impales an opponent upon one of the spiky projections of the glass ship.

Eventually, the ship completes a barrel roll, but during this time, a flight of warhawks followed by Hank in the Raven come swooping down from the nearby cliffs. The others are surprised, believing the Raven to have been destroyed. They later learn he is flying the prototype. It is not nearly so robust as the Raven and breaks up while trying to pull out of the dive. Before it falls to pieces, though, Hank has accomplished his secret mission and delivered a payload onto the deck of the ship. Suddenly screams are heard all over the deck. Those upon the barge or in the water only find out later that the package Hank dropped was filled with myrmidons, tiny cheap golems designed to break up enemy formations and sew disorder. They are shaped like insects, with snapping, scissor-like jaws. They apparently keep the soldiers occupied while the warhawks circle about for another run. Sooner than any would have suspected, it is over. The raiders are all dead. The one Gilead was pulling from the water has successfully poisoned himself in the manner of the raiders at Fern Dock.

The tribute party is left upon the treasure barge. In the water below them lie Iron John and several crates of treasure. In the air above them floats the mysterious Glass Ship, now motionless.