Forelands outside City of Cero, T'sarae
In the darkness to the east of the city a lone ship sped across the white expanse.
The Sword of Dawn, betraying its namesake, was a jet black steam craft, its form sleek as an arrow, its ethersails like shadowy wings beating against the night.
Dmitri stood at the helm, frozen hands gripping the wheel, his bright yellow Omestrian eyes resolute as they focused on the shining horizon dominated by Cero's massive crystal aegisdome. He was shorter than most men, and didn't look like much a soldier. For a decade he had trained for this. Behind him, his master sat on the deck cross-legged, shirtless.
Even knowing that Master Ilya had spent all those years in the Red Seminary, seeing the young inquisitor sitting there near naked, defiant against the violent cold, was unnerving to the Omestrian soldier. Dmitri knew the cold, as all soldiers did, but to treat it with such disdain as Master Ilya did, here outside the aegis' protection, bordered on insanity. And yet Ilya sat there, his bare skin bathed in the aegisdome's intensifying light, smiling.
Master Ilya had been gone too long, and the man that returned was not the boy who left.
The sun began to break through the clouds just as the Sword neared the Ceroan forelands. In the pale light of morning the black ship appeared like a dark serpent on the ice. A tiny serpent, for it was a speck compared to the hundred or so Varyan steam ships floating on the frozen water outside the city.
The Second Armada wasn't as grand as the First, but seeing the black and steel vessels dotting the Ceroan coast was both a grim and empowering sight. Several months from now, these ships would follow Master Ilya's own ark, the Karamzina, eastward. The second invasion wave... Dmitri wondered if it would even be needed.
A gruff voice, tinged in the southern lilt of T'sarae, spoke through the radio, bringing him out of his thoughts. It demanded to know the Sword's docking credentials. In response Dmitri offered a sixteen-letter code. The voice on the other end of the radio remained silent for a moment.
"Welcome to Cero, Your Reverence" it spoke before guiding Dmitri to the nearest open dock.
It had been a short yet arduous journey, and Father Ilya's mood had been as mercurial as the water that he lazily shifted to and fro while standing at the deck's edge. In the first few days, during their journey southward and across the hallowed sea that stretched between Varya and Lanostre, Ilya had been bored and restless. Sailing across what the Lanostrans called The Wounded Sea, through the final resting place of thousands of soldiers and dozens of inquisitors-- Dmitri thought it would be enough to rouse the young lord from what he called his "post-Graduation stagnancy", but alas, Ilya spent most of the journey through the Wounded Sea in his cabin.
It wasn't until the Sword had to sail through the ice tides east of the Wounded Sea that Ilya returned to his usual self. The bright season was fast approaching and thus the sea itself was changing. Crossing the tides during the summer wasn't something even the most seasoned Lanostran sailor would willingly do, but Father Ilya Bjornley wasn't an ordinary navigator, and the Sword of Dawn wasn't an ordinary ship. With an entire glacier plateau breaking apart around them and a particularly vicious summer hail storm threatening to perforate the ship's tiny but powerful aegis, the Sword barely made it through the tides. It had been an afternoon of non-stop sailing since then, and Ilya's blood still ran hot.
He needed a drink.
"Leave it to the natives," Ilya said as he stepped off the Sword's deck and onto the first solid ground he had been on for the better part of a week. He was still shirtless, for the increase in heat within the aegis bothered him, or so he claimed. His pale blue eyes looked across the busy port. It didn't take him long to find the tavern he was looking for.
Dmitri looked to his master with uncertainty, his arms hefting a large crate full of Ilya's belongings.
"I don't trust these folk. I will unpack the ship, my lord."
Ilya approached him, his crooked smile widening.
"Don't worry. There's nothing here of importance," the young inquisitor said, placing a surprisingly warm hand on Dmitri's shoulder. "To be honest, I don't care if they toss it all into the sea. Now, let's go drink."
With that, Dmitri sighed and shoved the crate on to a passing T'saraen sailor's arms.
"This is the ship of Father Ilya Bjornley, Inquisitor of Warband Leviathan. See to it that all his belongings are safely delivered to his chambers aboard the VSS Karamzina. If anything should go missing I will personally come and find you, T'saraen," Dmitri spat to the sailor, staring down the lad.
"A-Aye, sir. It will be done," the sailor stuttered before yelling at a group of uniformed men to follow him onto the ship.
"Right then. Let's go get drunk," Ilya said before walking in the direction of the tavern, not bothering to wait for Dmitri to catch up.
It was a nice enough place, Ilya thought. He had spent the last decade of his life getting drunk in secret with passing SA soldiers at the Seminary. Thus sitting down at an actual pub was a lot nicer than sneaking around in dark hallways where Marius couldn't find him.
It was shameful, a sin according to some clerics, to partake in alcohol while serving under the shadow of the Red Shrine, but Gods what else was he supposed to do in the Seminary? Ilya was not meant for such places. He was meant for the battlefield and the sea, to be among soldiers. As he walked through the pub, Varyan soldiers saluted him. This is more like it.
"Barkeep! I will pay for everything," he said to the T'saraen tavernkeeper as he passed him by. The Varyan soldiers cheered him on in approval.
"Your Lady Mother would never approve of this," the young Omestrian warned as Ilya took a seat at a table at the front end of the tavern.
"Approve of what, man? Her darling son celebrating his Culmination? Perhaps me drinking in honor of the successful maiden voyage of her newest, most shiny steamcruiser would be enough for her to turn a blind eye."
"You are an inquisitor, Master Ilya. A champion of the Varyan people. And this place is... beneath you. It is disreputable. The city is crawling with men from the Imperial Chronicle, if they see you in here--"
"Let them see me! Look at my abs! Look at these arms!" Ilya yelled, laughing out loud, flexing his well-toned muscles. He took a swig of his drink.
The shame on Dmitri's face was palpable.
"Sit down, why don't you? I don't see you for ten bloody years, then Mom forces us on that ship without giving us a moment to catch up... but now we're finally here. We can relax, take it easy for a while," Ilya spoke, his pale eyes regarding his young servant warmly.
"Have a drink with me. Or several."
Dmitri leaned in, his lips inches from Ilya's ear.
"You very well know that I can't do that. Now please, at least put a shirt on."
Ilya smirked in response and said nothing more. He continued to drink as the hour passed. He invited soldiers and T'saraens both to his table, drinking merrily with them, asking for the latest gossip. He learned of rumors regarding a black-haired summoner who had escaped imprisonment in Sapharan, and of the whispers surrounding the destruction of the small Varyan fleet patrolling Lanostre.
His eyes stared unblinking as he heard tell of these rumors. Dmitri remained silent.
"What about you, Reverence? Are you excited for the journey?" a young Varyan conscript asked him.
"Pft. Of course I am! Wouldn't you be?"
The conscript looked around cautiously. He took a drink and took his time placing the glass back on the table.
"I... I think... If I may speak freely?"
"I think it's a mistake. There is... darkness across the sea. It's a place of demons and devils and... people who consort with such monstrosities. Our Lord has already brought all of the peoples of the world under His protection. This strange place beyond the storm -- the people there, why do we need to bring them into our flock? They are no better than the Omestrians," the young conscript spoke in measured words, his eyes falling on Dmitri with disgust.
Ilya's smile disappeared from his face.
"Hm. I'll have you know that I have served with Omestrians and I can vouch for their strength and tenacity. They worshiped the wrong God, of course, but they themselves aren't so bad."
The conscript cleared his throat, and once again stared at Dmitri.
"I didn't mean any disres--"
"Dmitri here has served my family since he was a child. He was born in the pipeworks. His parents died in them, giving a lifetime's gift of their ether to us. He was destined to do the same, until my parents saw in him a calling for something greater. Do you know what that means?"
The conscript stared back, unsure of how to answer.
"For an Omestrian to rise above cattle, they must prove themselves of having extraordinary potential. Thus, if you ever come across an Omestrian who is free of his chains and serving the Empire proudly, nod to them in reverence, for each one of them is a treasured pearl worth several of us Varyan men."
A derisive laugh rang out loudly from a table at the far end of the tavern. The pub immediately fell to silence, and all collectively turned to face the one who would dare laugh at a Varyan inquisitor.
A dark-haired man sat alone at a table, sipping from a martini glass. He was dressed in ordinary civilian's clothes, but there was no mistaking him.
Ilya smiled. "Father Hassan," he said, his voice reaching throughout the quiet interior. The T'saraen inquisitor stared back silently. He was leaning back in his chair, the shadows were still around him, his lightning blue eyes like two sapphires in the dark.
"I didn't notice you come in," Ilya cried out.
"You don't seem to notice a lot of things," Hassan answered, chuckling to himself.
Ilya rose from his seat. He found that he had become... cold for the first time since entering the aegis. He glanced at Dmitri, and immediately the servant removed his own officer's coat and draped it around Ilya's shoulders.
Hassan was on his feet. His lips were curved into that dagger smile of his and as he began to walk towards Ilya the Varyan inquisitor felt his ether begin to surge within himself, a natural instinct, but when Hassan greeted him with a warm embrace, Ilya allowed the magic in his veins to dissipate.
"It's been a while. Shame you didn't join us on the journey down here," Hassan said, clasping Ilya on the shoulder.
"Believe me, I wanted to. But... family obligations," Ilya answered, glancing at Dmitri.
"This your man-servant?" Hassan asked, turning to regard the Omestrian with a curious gaze. "Ah. You have clear eyes. Not as sunlit as most I've seen. They're very pretty. Take care of those," he added, winking at the servant before turning back to Ilya.
"Come on then. We have much to discuss."
Without turning back, Hassan walked out of the bar.