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The Adventures of Solaire I: The Ashes of History

The Incredible Yet Accurate Adventures of the Dread Pirate Captain Solaire Ravenheart

Otherwise known as

The Adventures of Solaire


Part Nulla

An Introduction From the Author


If you choose to embark upon the path of bardom, with plans to become one of those traveling minstrels and storytellers that the people love so dearly, you must suffer the company of bards. And if one suffers the company of bards, one quickly finds the same tired arguments played out over and over in every tavern from Dinas to Nestoria. These wearisome debates range the gambit of music composition, story structure, literary devices, and, by necessity, how to best sustain oneself when the only pay one has received in months is five silver pieces handed to you by a rather drunken gentleman who must have mistaken you for someone else. There is, however, a question that defies all category as it simultaneously monopolizes the conversation: what makes a great man?


Ask the question to a group of bards (something you should never do, as bards need little excuse to talk until your ears bleed) and you’re liable to get one of two answers. One: great men are born. They are blessed, or perhaps cursed, with the material of greatness. The very composition of their souls resonate with the essence of “great” and they can do little else but alter the course of history around them as they go through life. Two: great men are made. They are created via circumstance. By some stroke of fate, a great man happens to be born in the perfect cooking pot for greatness and will be shaped and molded by it until he comes out of the oven that is his childhood perfectly “great”.


I detest both of these explanations because they imply that there is some dowsing rod to detect greatness in men, the suggestion being that if all the variables are quantified and calculated, the next truly great man could be located and followed all his life, documented as he begins his assent into history. A bard’s wet dream, I’m sure. As for myself, I believe that there is no point in speculation. If people could be born great, then there we would have found the markers of it and employed them in following around the next great wave of revolutionaries for every baby step of their toddlerhood. If people could be made great, the rich would find tutors to “greatify” their children. As neither of these have happened, we must simply accept that, whatever the trigger is, it is rare and inscrutable, forever out of the reach of us mere mortals.


I bring this up because this debate is sure to spark when talking about the dread pirate Soliare Ravenheart. Was Solaire’s rise to infamy sculpted through his years among the upright and proper Ravenheart family, strengthened upon the death of his mother at an earlier age, and finally detonated upon the loss of his sister and his vow to save her? Or was the foul-mouthed, fleet-destroying, monster-killing, mutiny-crushing, back-stabbing bundle of chaos always there in his heart?


It is human nature to ponder these questions, but seeing as we will never have an answer, I propose a different solution: enjoy the ride instead. Great men are rare, and creatures like Soliare are even rarer. With this in mind, we should take the opportunities to watch these oddities with joy, leaving behind the ponderous debates and relishing in the moment. And even if you are forced to do so through the words of a page and not side-by-side on the deck of a ship as I got to, the statement still stands. Solaire is not a specimen to be studied, he is a singularity to appreciate while it lasts. Do this and the events truly become spectacular.


I speak from experience.


-Patience the Bard


***


Part I

The Ashes of History


Solaire took a few moments to adjust his appearance in the mirror of his room. He needed to make sure that his visage was properly tidied up for tonight. This was no moment of vanity or frivolity, as Solaire had taken to many a time before this night; no this was a matter of great importance. Tonight, he was to confront his father, and as weak-willed and spineless as his patriarch was, Solaire was still a lesser peer in his eyes. If he wanted to make sure he got the truth out of the old man, he would have to employ every trick he knew to inspire through intimidation, starting with making sure he was wearing the face of an angry soul and not of a frightened son.


He took in the features in front of him. The jet black hair on top of his head was nicely combed and straightened away. His eyes, a dark brown that bordered on the voided black of his pupils, flashed a hard and steely look of mercilessness. His snow-pale skin was forming beads of sweat, but he decided that was fine; he could easily pass that off as a sign of rage and not of nervousness.

The rest lay mostly in the details of his clothes: an all white-suit, with accents of black, covered with a long overcoat and a slightly-tilted top hat both done in the same style. The specific outfit wasn’t necessary, but it was an outfit that Solaire liked, so he wore it all the same.


Inspection complete, he turned to the two objects sitting on top of his dresser: a large accounting ledger and a larger revolver-style pistol, silver-plated and inlaid with ivory. One for the beginning of the night and one for the end.


For a brief moment, he contemplated what he was about to do. Was it necessary? Surely there were other channels to consider…


He mentally waved the thought away the way one would wave away a gnat. Tonight was necessary. Maybe not legally. Maybe not morally. But necessary all the same.


Grabbing both, he swung his door open and entered the long hallway leading to his father’s study.


***


Based on the architectural plans of the original mansion as well as my own visits to the Ravenheart ruins, I can say with great confidence that the hallway Solaire is currently walking down is ninety feet in length (the Ravenheart mansion was truly a spectacle in its day). If he were walking at the average speed of someone his age, he should reach the end of that hallway in roughly twenty seconds. But he’s not. No matter how calloused a person becomes, the weight of patricide is a heavy one, and Solaire has not yet become the devil-may-care creature that once spat in the eye of a kraken. This walk is his phoenix flight, the action that will ignite this transformation, but until then, it will take him a very, very long time to get to the end, so I will take this opportunity to relate some of the history surrounding him and the Ravenheart family in general.


The Ravenhearts have been situated, for the most part, on the Verdune Isle in Dinas. Dinas itself is made up of many islands large and small, as well as the huge continential landmass in the center. The area is famous for its large deposits of mineral and metallurgical resources, but it comes at the cost of its agricultural options. This is especially true when compared to its nearby neighbor of Nestoria, who’s overabundance of the rare flora and fauna used in alchemical preparations and wizard foci created a natural boom in Nestoria’s magical prowess.


Dinas, eager to bridge the gap, turned its attention to technology, ushering in such modern inventions as the magnetic compass and gunpowder firearm. But the area of study most interesting to Dinan scientists was that of transport, for they quickly realized that the gold and silver plentiful on their land was rare in others and that if they could just find a reliable and cheap way to move it, they could make a fortune. They’ve had multiple pet projects, such as the disastrous glider experiments and their own fascination with the newly-created “steam engine”, but the tried and true method they all came back to was sailing by sea.


This is the world that Captain Jebidiah Ravenheart was thrust into. Up until this point, the Ravenheart name was a clan of nobodies, appearing in history as infrequent recordings of arrest for petty crimes (with the bizarre exception of one Samuel Ravenheart, who had the note “he knows what he did” written in the arrest warrant). Jebidiah was a man with dreams of ascension, who envisioned leaving his offspring a station in life better than his own. The best way to do that was to join into the rough and dangerous world of sea-captaining, so Jebidiah managed to gain a captain's position at the small shipping company of Wherther, Hershall, and Clarke.


On the surface, Jebidiah was the perfect captain for a sea vessel. He was sharp and commanding, allowing no mischief on his ship and enforcing the rule through pure force of will alone. He was also level-headed, to a degree that was unusual for a sailor. Oh, he was still superstitious, no doubt about that; he made sure to cross himself every time he stepped onto land and would do his best to stay in port if there was a red sky that morning, even if it only was to make sure he didn’t tempt fate. But when something went wrong, he was more likely to try to find the mundane cause, an over-tightened rope, a ripped sail, a warped rudder, than blame the furies or the fates. Yes, overall, he was the perfect candidate for the up-and-coming shipping company’s paybooks, with the exception of one small problem:


Jebidiah was cursed.


At least, that’s what the sailors under him believed. Jebidiah had a strange habit of crashing the ship at some point in the voyage and there was no other explanation they could accept. It was fairly obvious, especially considering that he openly scoffed at the idea of the wind furies and rolled his eyes as he paid tribute to the Sea Foam Mother. Jebidiah might commit to the supernatural safety measures, but his open disbelief also invited disastrous vengeance. Jebidiah had other explanations, of course. According to him, it was his cheapskate bosses trying to pinch pennies on the ships they bought. The canvas for the sails wasn’t thick enough, the chains holding the anchors were too flimsy, and the rudder mechanism was always shoddily built and liable to getting stuck. To his credit, he also had a reputation for getting the product delivered, shipwrecks be damned, going as far as to once row three chests of gold bars eighteen miles in a small lifeboat to complete a voyage, which is why the company kept him on even as his infamy continued to grow.


And grow it did. Sailors are sailors, after all, and the mere hinting of a curse is enough to make them uneasy. Werther, Hershall, and Clarke ended up having to use drastic means to recruit enough sailors for the voyage, first by offering substantial wage bonuses for any man willing to join Jebediah’s ship, but when they no longer had enough money to do that, they resorted to lying at recruitment and disguising Jebidiah with various costumes, which he could only take off once they were far away enough from shore that no sailor would attempt to jump off and swim back.


(If you’ll permit me a small tangent, this did lead to one rather amusing situation when a traveling poet was woken in the night by the sound of screaming men far across the ocean. Disturbed, he asked the tavern owner about it the next morning, and the owner gave a knowing smile and said “that’s the sound of damned men realizing they’re on Jebidiah’s ship.” The following night, he penned “The Fate of the St. Christopher”, which told the story of Captain Jebidiah and his ghost ship. Upon returning to the same port, Jebidiah realized that he had become a legendary specter, despite being alive, and this infuriated him so much he spent two whole months trying to disprove the story, mostly by stumbling into taverns and shouting “I’m not dead, dammit!” Even today, one can still find mentions of “Damned Jeb” by modern sailors, especially around the port towns of Verdune.)


Everything reaches a breaking point, though, and when a particularly expensive transport ship sunk into the waves because, depending on who you ask, the rigging was done far too tight or the Sea Foam Mother had finally had enough of being called a “watery tart”, Wherther, Hershall, and Clarke decided that they had enough of Jebidiah’s sinking vessels and fired the crumugnoedny captain.

Jebidiah was far from pleased at this. He cursed out his employers, his crew, and an eldery monk who happened to be standing nearby, then declared “I’ll prove you all wrong!” and stormed off.


***


Soliare took a second to readjust the pistol in his hands. He kept trying to justify the heaviness of the gun, rationalizing it as a simple truth from the design of it. It was a logical claim; the gun was a massive object, weighing nearly twenty pounds and resembling more a shrunk-down cannon than a gentleman’s revolver. The whole thing was inlaid with various water-patterned carvings and coated with silver leaf and the grip and barrel had inserts of ivory set into it. Taken all together, the thing inspired equal parts terror and elegance.


Which had been the point, after all. The Ivory had been commissioned by Jebidiah himself, back when the gunpowder contraptions had been strange and luxurious prototypes. This large revolver, named the Ivory, was the result of years of design, and though Soliare hated most everything the Ravenheart name was attached to, he enjoyed how much the pistol was like him: fancy enough to be taken to polite society, yet large and loud enough to make everyone in the room nervous.


So all in all, it made perfect sense that the pistol should feel this heavy.


It didn’t explain the weight of the ledger, though.


Soliare sighed and took another moment to readjust his grip on both objects.


***


The act of admitting one is wrong is never an easy act to do, so it must have been a particularly painful realization for Wherther, Hershall, and Clarke when their hot shot new captain came back with his third sunken ship report. Worse still, he had allowed a rather large shipment of precise and expensive gears to sink to the bottom of the sea and the reputation of “cursed” was transferring from Jebidiah to their own company. The business men agreed that, colorful though he was, Jebidiah was still the best man for the job, so they set off to find him and beg for forgiveness.


What they hadn’t realized, though, was that Jebidiah was not one to bury grudges easily. While on the hunt for the man, they heard from several people that Jebidiah had spent his time since being fired working on a project he only referred to as “my revenge.” If they wanted to find him, the best place to start was to head down to the port where he kept it, which only gave a feeling of unease to their search. Understandably, they tried to meet Jebidiah at any location other than port, but when it became clear that he wasn’t moving from his spot, the reluctant trio headed there to meet him.


It’s hard to imagine what exactly the three men thought was waiting for them down at the docks, but I don’t think they expected to see a luxury ship.


This, Jebidiah told them with equal parts excitement and anger, was his revenge: proof that he had been right the whole time. He had spent every penny of his savings and a few more besides working long nights at the docks to construct a ship the right way, with decent sails, good rigging, anchors that don’t threaten to snap, rudders that don’t jam up, and so on and so forth. Jebidiah demanded that the three men take a ride with the “cursed” captain, realize the error of their ways, and publicly apologize that they had ever insinuated that the blame rested with poor captaining and not miserly practices.


The men agreed and boarded, and Jebidiah set off, going on and on about how good construction was necessary as the boat danced across the water. None of them heard him, though. They were all too enraptured with the beauty of the vessel. Jebidiah wanted a monument of their shame, and in doing so he had made something that demanded to be looked at. The entirety of the ship was done in a stunning black acacia wood and carved into the sides were beautiful depictions of nymphs, mermaids, and soaring birds. He had even done over several details in gold leaf. The ship was by far the most gorgeous thing they had ever seen and it was only accentuated by the former captain’s smooth piloting around rocks as it sped through the waves.


Jebidiah ended the tour with a satisfied grin, asking them if they had any questions.


Hershall asked what the ship’s name was.


Jebidiah took off his hat and scratched his head. After a few moments, he decided that it was named the Raven’s Revenge.


Werther asked how much they could buy it for.


Though no one had expected it, Jebidiah walked away from the transaction having made up the money he had spent and gone into debt with plus quite a bit more, still unemployed, and therefore free as a bird.


But Jebidiah’s fortune was everyone else’s misfortune. The Raven's Revenge was immediately implemented into the shipping fleet, and it was there that their new captain, one Jorris Forey, fell in love with it as well. So much so that when he was told that he had to give it up so that it would become Wherther’s personal vessel, he challenged the man to a duel over it. Wherther accepted, but as he was a simple business man and not a weathered captain used to dealing with pirates, he lost the duel rather spectacularly: by taking so many rapier stabs that he bled out before anyone realized he was in any danger. Jorris wasn’t able to enjoy his blood prize, however, because the very next day he was served a legal notice that Mr. Wherther was indeed the rightful owner and he needed to turn the vessel over forthwith. But with no Wherther alive to turn it over to, the boat fell into bureaucratic limbo as Hershall, Clarke, and the surviving Wherthers fought tooth and nail over possession of it. This caused the company of Wherther, Hershall, and Clarke to split into the individual companies of Wherther, Hershall, and Clarke, each quickly going bankrupt without the others’ support.


Jebidiah couldn’t care less. The sale had made him quite a bit of money, and with it, he decided to take a stab at truly upping his station in life, using the capital to start his own ship-construction business. He landed his first client fairly quickly, an established business man by the name of Joseph Barnabas, who had seen the Raven's Revenge as it sailed through the water and wanted something just as flashy and graceful to show off to his friends. Jebidiah constructed the Bolt for him, a wonderfully golden and tiny ship that was the fastest thing to sail the waters of Dinas. Joseph was delighted and immediately showed the boat off to his brother-in-law, Trimbly Mathers, who agreed with Joseph about it being a fine boat, so much so that he stabbed the poor man to death and stole it for himself. Unfortunately for Trimbly, he had committed this act only a few miles away from port, so it wasn’t long before concerned citizens let the Naval Guard know about the act. Murder being murder, he soon had a whole fleet of guardsmen chasing him, and Trimbly, who was not accustomed to the quick speeds the Bolt could reach, crashed his ship upon the cliffs only minutes after gaining it and joined Joseph in the great port city in the sky.


Needless to say, the whole affair became quite the talk of the town for quite a while. But as the stories were told in taverns and ship holds, from Jebidiah’s swearing of revenge to Trimbly’s spectacular screw-up, a certain ritual began to take hold during the telling. For once it was over, someone in the crowd would almost certainly say, “Isn’t that cursed Jebidiah?”, prompting another to go “Yeah. You know, he always blamed the ships for the crashes…” and there would be a nodding and chorus of grunting affirmations, as if the room was full of philosophers who just realized something vital about existence. No press is bad press, as they say, and this definitely wasn’t bad press.


And Jebidiah helped by being Jebidiah. The swearing, gnarled, grumpy old sailor had no problem talking about his boats, or his clients, or his views on said boats and clients. Whenever he was inevitably asked about the fates of his two first clients, he would respond with “That ain’t no concern of mine. The ships are beautiful, the ships are smooth, and that’s my job. It’s your job to associate with people who won’t kill you over a boat.” He had also said the gem “Ships are like women. The good ones are strong and steady. The great ones will get you through a storm. But the best ones do all that while being beautiful and gorgeous.” This was a comment that landed him in quite a bit of hot water with the housewives of Verdune, but, as he once confided with a wink, the housewives weren’t the ones buying the boats, and tracing back the sudden upsurge in ship orders coinciding with the publication of this statement, it’s hard to argue against that logic.


Within the span of two short years, Jebidiah was a man transformed. Before, the man was hardly given a sideways glance unless it was to whisper about his failings. Now, the rich and powerful were flocking to his doorstep, practically begging him to make them a vessel. He spent the remainder of his years filthy rich and loving it, savoring his sweet, sweet revenge.


Solaire knows none of this. By the time he was born, the Ravenhearts had done everything possible to scrub his great-great grandfather from existence. A shame, really. If there ever was an heir to Jebidiah, there would be no man more deserving than the future dread pirate captain.


***


As Soliare continued down the hallways, he took a moment to ponder the aftermath. How would he feel after he killed his father?


Of course, he was hoping he wouldn’t have to find out. Maybe this had all been a big misunderstanding. Maybe the charge in the ledger was something else, totally innocuous, some strange coincidence that they could laugh over one day. Yes, that would be preferable.


But being hopeful is not the same as being a fool. Yes, he wanted that outcome, but he also knew that it wasn’t going to happen. It was far too obvious what that charge in the ledger meant, and this was mostly a formality to rule out the impossible before doing what needed to be done.


So the question remained: how would he feel? Would there be remorse? Probably not; he was doing this in cold blood, after all. Would he feel sadness? Again, unlikely. There was little redeeming about the spineless wonder pretending to be a man currently sitting in his study. Maybe it would be pity. Yes, that was most likely. Pity over the sad creature his father had become, the same one would feel when putting an old dog down.


The pistol at his side softly chimed in with quiet tinks and clicks, more than happy to agree.


***


The phrase “it’s always greener at the next pasture” is a common one amoungst the shepherds of Nestoria. It means that things you want are always more appealing than the things one has. That particular quirk of human nature was exemplified in the next “great” Ravenheart, Alphonse Ravenheart.


Alphonse was not the child of Jebidiah; that distinction fell to Hassan. Hassan was seven when Jebidiah began his construction of the Raven's Revenge, so he knew the significance of what his father had done. He remembered the cold nights spent in his tiny shack of a home, trying to fall asleep so he could forget about the grumbling of his belly, hoping that whatever new shipwreck awaited his father would not be the one to do him in and dreading the month-long wait to hear from him again. Then Hassan woke up one day to discover his father was rich. All of those concerns were gone, now becoming things that happened to other people. He never forgot that, and so dedicated himself to pouring just as much of his soul into the company as his father did before him. Under Hassan, the Ravenheart Shipwriting Industries grew tenfold as he hired mastercraftsmen and apprentices alike, pouring over the accounting reports to find ways to efficincize, enrich, and overall enlarge the business. By the time he was ready to pass the helm along to his son Alphonse, the Industries were truly a powerhouse.


But Alphonse didn’t have his father’s suffering. All he had was his own: the teasing remarks by his peers, the patronizing manners of the men his father did business with, the quiet whispers of “he’s a Ravenheart, you know” when they thought he wasn’t listening. Alphonse was tired of being rich; what he really, really wanted was to be powerful.


So once the company was in his hands, he set about making it respectable. First, he cut down on the “regular” line of ships, focusing their efforts and capital on the luxury ships. Then he started creating the trappings of an aristocratic family. He commissioned the Ravenheart Mansion Solaire is currently walking down, designed his own coat of arms, and hired enough servants to staff the militia of a small city. Finally, he capped it off with a particularly Ravenheart commodiety: he designed and had built the second Raven's Revenge, larger, grander, and more spectacular than the original in every way.


Once that was done, he set about the arduous task of rubbing elbows with society, no small feat when society treats you with as much respect as they do their stableboy. Alphonse was getting nowhere until he, quite by chance, happened to run across the Lord Minister of Dinas himself, Sir Balaby Wallop. Balaby was quite the outgoing character and he found that the position of elected ruler of the kingdom suited him perfectly; the kingdom really just ran itself, giving him free reign to galavant across the country and be bombastic to everyone he met in the name of “connecting with the people”. Alphonse was one of those people, and once he realized the potential in such a friendship, he insisted on creating and gifting a custom craft for the Lord Minister, the Golden Iris, which he could sail down the coast to meet all of his adoring supporters. The Lord Minister thought that this was just wonderful, just wonderful old boy, and when the Golden Iris turned out to be seconded in beauty only to the Raven's Revenge itself, it wasn’t long until the highest authority in the land was shouting about his great friend Alphonse and he made this for me, didn’t you know?


Society changed its tune then. Begrudgingly, for the establishment can not accept any change non begrudgingly, but changed all the same. After all, no amount of hang ups or rumors about grandfathers could change the fact that this man knew the Lord Minister. That was worth more than gold, and Alphonse loved watching those who hadn’t wanted to give him the time of day ask if he wanted to join them at the old lodge this Saturday.


There was only one potential problem: his children. Alphonse had married a respectable woman, because he saw that’s what an aristocrat does. Then he noticed that the aristocrats all have heirs, so a child was quickly conceived. Those Saturday hunting lodge boys also liked to talk a lot about how the youngest child was so different from the older one, so plans were also drawn up for a second one as soon as they were finished with the first.


But children are not like coats of arms, where one can make one, hang it on the wall, and forget about it until company comes over and compliments it, and worse still, they could be chaotic and unpredictable. Alphonse had worked hard for this station and he wasn’t about to lose it because one of his sons decided to stuff a ferret down the trousers of the Duke of Verdan, so he wasted no time integrating the children into daily life.


And by that, I mean terrify into submission.


Leonardo and Danby Ravenheart were raised into a world of fear and perfection, where obedience was demanded and the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork was the difference between life and death, for Alphonse had little patience for failure. The switch became his favored method of communicating with his sons, and though this most definitely scarred both boys for life in more ways than just one, it worked: Leonardo and Danby were the most respectable children in all of Dinas. They were polite, respectful, reserved, courteous, well-groomed and dead inside. It was all Alphonse could have ever wanted.


You may think that I am exaggerating, or that I am being too harsh on Alphonse and his supposed motives, but consider this anecdote for a moment: Alphonse once loudly told a group of friends at a dinner party “It’s such a shame that we have to go through this whole ‘heir’ business, giving our hard work over to someone else to screw up later. If I could commission the mage’s college to create a young copy of myself to take over the business when I died, I would.” This statement was overheard by both of his sons, and moreover, he knew they had heard him, because they were standing completely still in the empty, unlit room right next store, waiting for their father to call them into the party so that he could introduce his friends to them.


***


Solaire was staring at a painting on the wall and he had to stop.


Not because it was a bad painting; far from it, it was a stunning depiction of a ship on the waves, tossed about by a storm while one man, presumably the captain, clung to the masts and shouted into the wind. It had been painted by the genius artist De Capis Morgulete and the skill practically leaked from the canvas into the real world. One could almost see the ship bob and hear the winds howl.


This had been a particular favorite of him and his sister’s game of “Stories”. When they were truly bored (something that happened far more often than either would admit), they would walk through the halls and stop at the various masterwork pieces on the walls, each taking a turn describing what was going on and how it had gotten to this point. Most of these were portraits of family that offered little inspiration (with the exception of the legendary rivalry between Hassan the Cabbage Farmer and Alphonse the Chicken Rancher, a tale more spectacular than master bard Leonard Wallace’s “Epic of Florentine”), but this was a classic. The man in the portrait had been a long lost lover, a pirate, a father, a whaler, a prisoner, and a navy captain, and yet here he was, still stuck in the storm.


And here was Solaire, still staring at the painting. He could tell that this was the last shred of civility desperately clawing at his brain, trying to convince him to stay, look at the nice painting, have we ever talked about how great it is to not kill your father? Were he a poet, or a bard, or really anyone with a scrap of romanticism in his soul, Solaire would appreciate the symbolism of the storm and the man inside, but Solaire was not any of these things, and so he was mostly just annoyed at the inconvenience of his ingrained human decency.


But maybe, the little civility shred piped up, we could think about this. I’m sure we could find a way to…


The silver gleam of the Ivory caught his eye, and the water-swirling patterns appeared in his vision.

Solaire moved on.


***


It’s hard not to wonder about how things might have been different sometimes, and the character of Leonardo Ravenheart inspires such questions. What would have happened if fate had chosen a different man to fill in that place in the Ravenheart genealogy? Or indeed, any man at all? For you see, Alphonse had raised a son, but not an heir.


Not that an heir was really needed. By the time the fourth Ravenheart had taken his seat at the helm of Ravenheart Industries, there was really very little for him to do. Jebidiah’s machinations were still working soundly, Hassan’s improvements had made the whole company basically run itself, and Alphonse had climbed it to the top rung it could. The only goal left to achieve was to sit around and wait to become and “old money” family. But until that point, there were a few things that needed to be done, one of which being finding a wife. A respectable woman from respectable society, so that they may be respectable together. And here is the only thing that Leonardo ever did right in his lifetime: he married Caroline Matthelide.


Caroline was a rare creature, especially in the stuffy world that is aristocracy. She was funny, and cheerful, and rarest of all, fun. She was also the daughter of a political family empire, so she was a perfect candidate of respectability, even if she had a bad habit of making the proper men of the hunting lodges blush and mutter under their breaths. He pursued her nonstop until she said yes (I believe that represented the vestigial traces of Leonardo’s spine), and so they were married in a grand fashion and the whole wife business was attended to.


Next, an heir. The relationship was consummated, and it wasn’t long until Caroline’s stomach bulged with the signs of a growing child. Both were overjoyed, and Leonardo was more than content to commit to one child, to spend all of his time and energy on just one son, but the son turned out to be a daughter, and a daughter is not an heir, so Leonardo was ordered back to the bedroom by his dead father. You might think that the last part is a joke, but I have seen Leonardo’s journal squeeze in the words “would have” to the statement “my father told me today” after the fact so many times that I do believe he was actually haunted by the memory of the man (and before you ask, no, it wasn’t a real ghost; Alphonse was cremated). Quite a torture, when you think about it. Soliare would become quite the expert in cruelties, yet I don’t think even he could dream up a fate worse than the inclusion of your dead, disappointed father in your marital bed. I certainly can’t.


Fortunately for Leonardo, the next one was a son (which is good; I don’t think his sanity could take the creation of another child). And since Caroline had gotten to name the first one, he got to name this one. This is how River and Solaire came to be.


But amidst the joy, fate decided to take one more cruel twist. Caroline, the radiant beautiful creature, had gotten ill whilst carrying Solaire, and she never truly recovered. She soldiered on as best she could, but by the time Solaire was six, she could soldier no more; she had become bedridden and delirious and the doctors were no closer to curing or even understanding the ailment than when she had first contracted it. Solaire’s only memory of his mother was standing by her bedside during one of her rare moments of lucidity, River holding his hand, both shedding tears as Caroline struggled to look at each of them.


“You take care of him,” she told River.


“I will, mom” she replied.


“And you take care of her,” she said, turning to Solaire. “There is no bond more important than family.”


He hadn’t been able to respond. All he could manage was more tears.


Leonardo was heartbroken, but as his Bible, “The Guide to Proper Gentlemanship” told him, it is only acceptable to be a widower if it has happened twice in unsuspicious circumstances, so he began to pursue courtship once the proper amount of mourning time had passed (seven weeks, Alphonse helpfully reminded him). And it’s here more speculation arises. What if Caroline had never died? What if he had finally used this moment to throw off the chains and make his own decisions? What if he had married anyone else in the world other than Matilda Dotz? A garden slug, perhaps. At least there would have been more brains in the family that way.


You see, Matilda was from an “old money” family. In fact, the money was so old no one really remembered how they got it, which was a shame because that meant that no one remembered how to make more of it. Mr. and Mrs. Dotz had therefore thrown the standard alarm bells of aristocracy in such situations, which was to make sure as many children married rich families as possible. Matilda was thrilled with the plan. She was raised on a steady diet of champagne and finger sandwiches from social parties. She loved to dance. She loved to gossip. She was born and raised for the ball, and being married to a rich man would mean that she would get to go to more.


She practically stalked Leonardo after his wife died, and after sensing that he was open again, she threw herself into his arms, doing everything short of stripping in front of the man to make him desire her. It didn’t quite work; Leonardo never really became attracted to or interested in the woman. But she was quite obviously open to the idea of marriage, and he was never one to let something as trivial as “self-integrity” stand in his way, so a second wedding took place.


Much of this happened in the background of River and Solaire’s lives, the same way the weather happens to us. Once Caroline had died, the two were mostly left to their own devices. Leonardo would just mumble things like “oh, very nice, that’s good” to them until they left the room, sometimes without even realizing that his children weren’t trying to talk to him, and Matilda was too busy organizing another party to even realize they existed. And so they grew up with quite a bit of money, little to do, and no oversight.


Now history tells us that, in the case of such upbringings, the only guarantee is that the child will grow up to be a wild troublemaker. It certainly worked with Soliare. The boy thrived on disobedience the same way a wizard thrives on a lack of sunlight and it was near impossible to get him to do anything unless the thing was something you very specifically wanted him not to do. In fact, he was so consistent in this that the servants had what was known as a “troublepool”, in which they placed bets on what the newest complaint would be. Popular choices included “stealing from Darthow’s orchard”, “getting into a fist-fight”, “shoplifting from the market square”, and “black powder explosion”, which, though it only happened once, was so spectacular that it made the pool every time afterwards.


River, though, seemed to be cut from a different cloth. The tall, slender, occasionally shy girl spent her days alone, reading alone in her room or out in the nearby meadows sketching landscapes. Her tutors noted her intelligence and quick learning of the creative arts, drawing, piano, prose and poetry, but such comments were wasted on the Ravenheart family; if anyone tried to let her parents know about her potential, they would find Matilda with company and Leonardo not listening. It’s quite a testament to River’s abilities that any of them tried, as most were probably too preoccupied with the fact that Solaire had set fire to his practice books again.


When they weren’t being schooled or pursuing their individual interests, the two spent time together, though those moments are few and far between as the childhood of most brothers and sisters often resemble less the romantic ideals of family than the activities of two enemies forced to share a common roof. And yes, Solaire and River had their fair share of those moments between them. But sometimes opposites make good compliments, and that rule held more often than not for the young Ravenhearts. Whenever Solaire’s adventures journeyed outside the realm of simple boyhood scuffles and into the territory of real trouble, his first call for help always went to his older sister River. And should River retreat from reservedness to withdrawal, it was only Solaire who noticed and only Solaire who found a way to fix it. This is also to say nothing of the invisible ties siblings accrue as they age: the small favors, the preferential treatment, the secrets kept and the inside jokes shared.


One such moment came on a summer afternoon when Solaire came home more battered than usual, so much so that he knocked on his sister’s door for assistance. He had become accustomed to stitching small tears and bandaging cuts, but this was beyond his usual level of expertise. River opened the door, saw her younger brother bleeding onto the nice carpeting, and immediately pulled him inside, washing the wounds out, wrapping the cuts, and attending to the bruises. Only once Solaire was fully attended to medically and she turned her attention to repairing his clothes did she stop and ask what had happened.


“Johnny Mannow and his friends were saying stuff about you. He said you were a ‘stuck up bitch who’s heart was so cold you probably got off with icicles.’”


River sighed. “You aren’t even supposed to know what those words mean.”


Solaire stared at the floor, unable to meet her eye.


She returned to sewing the sleeve back to Solaire’s jacket. “What on earth possessed you to fight him anyways? He’s five years older than you.”


“Not just him!” he piped up. “I went up to all of his friends, and I went ‘Hey! You need to take those things you said about my sister back right now!’, and he just chuckled and punched me, so I punched him back, and then they got around me in a circle and started shoving…”


They?! Who else did you fight?!”


Solaire looked up at the ceiling as if he was calculating a math problem. “There was Tommy, and Briant, and Zelne, and that one kid who looks like he has a dead pumpkin for a face…”


“You could have gotten yourself killed!”


“I had to! He was talking about you to everyone! I couldn’t just…”


“Listen to me,” River said, putting down his jacket and clasping his hands in hers, “don’t do that again. I don’t care what they say about me, alright? All people like that want is attention, Solaire. They insult people who are weaker than them so that the weak people try to fight back, and when they can’t, they get to feel strong. You refuse to play that game and they deflate like an angry balloon. All I care about is what happens to you. So no more fighting Johnny Mannow, okay?”


Solaire nodded.


“Good. Besides, Johnny is such a moron he probably needs an instruction manual to piss.” She handed him back his jacket and Solaire giggled.


***


There was no hesitation when Solaire had gotten to the doors of the study; he had used all his hesitation up. Instead, he shoved the heavy woods open with so much force that they banged against the walls as he strode in.


“Please don’t do that Solaire” the thin bespectacled frame of Leonardo muttered without looking up. He was bent over a large ledger, writing down lines of tiny neat numbers.


Solaire strode up right to his desk and stared down at him. “Where is River?”


“Hmm?” He looked up at his son. “Don’t you remember? She was married off to Sir Ravenby Dulges of the Dulges family. With the ongoing war with the Kellian Empire, our luxury ships are no longer in demand, and with an alliance to the blackpowder…”


“Blackpowder-manufacturing-family-whose-services-are-required-in-war-we-will-save- ourselves-in-the-short-term-and-set-up-a-powerful-alliance-in-the-future. Yes, I know. I heard you say it a million times when you were convincing River to sell her soul for the sake of the family.”


“Well then, there’s your answer.” He smiled and returned to his ledger.


Solaire slammed his palms into the desk. “Look at me when I’m talking to you, old man!”


Leoardo jumped and stared at his son with wide eyes, throwing his ledger in front of him like a shield. After a moment, he squeaked “I-is this about Dulges? Because I assure you, he’s a perfect gentleman…”


“No this isn’t about Dulges! Gods know what River saw in him to think that this was okay, but she went along with it. No…” he leaned over until he was mere inches away from his face, “this is about the fact that Dulges hasn’t seen her, his own wife, in several months, and when I asked him about it, he said that Matilda told him that River wasn’t feeling too well and that she was staying here, with us, until she got better.”


“You really shouldn’t call her by her first name like that.”


Soliare lunged and grabbed his father by the collar of his shirt, dragging him to his feet. Leonardo yelped. “Alright, alright, I can explain, just put me down please!”


Solaire pushed him, forcing the man to collapse in his chair. “Good. Start with this.” He flopped the ledger onto the table. “Page 149, column 16, row 5.”


“Ah. That.” He pushed the ledger away from him with the tip of his pen as if it was a dead animal. “That would be the payment labeled ‘River’ for 700,000 gold, right?”


Solaire stared pure death at him.


“Right, well, that was a… um… very… large, very generous, reverse-dowry from the Dulges family. All the rage with high society these days. Very nice of them, don’t you think? So why don’t we go down to the garden and....”


He began to rise, and as he did, Solaire raised the large silver revolver until it was pointed right at his face.


Leonardo dropped back into the chair and issued a sound that resembled a mouses’ gasp. “O-o-or n-not! We c-could just… sit here and enj-joy the quiet comforts of the study!”


Solaire cocked back the hammer of the gun. “Tell. Me. The. Truth.”


“I…” Leonardo gulped. “The war with Kellia hit us harder than we thought it would. We all thought it’d be over by the end of the year, but when it didn’t, the orders started dropping faster than we could adjust for. I looked over our expenses and tried to convince Matilda that we needed to buckle down, cut back until things were rosier, but she made quite the observation! She pointed out that River was around the age where she really should be getting married, and that Duldges had taken quite a fancy to her, and that surely everyone needed black powder now that we were all fighting! Quite ingenious, don’t you think?”


Solaire didn’t say anything.


“R-right… Well, we had the big wedding, and then Matilda went to the Senior Duldges with the proposition that we should all have a big ball to celebrate the union between these two powerful families; you know how she loves parties and balls, heh heh… Ahem. Anyway, he said no, because we were at war, and they needed to use all of their capital to expanding production so they could help out the Dinan Navy. I mean, good for him, have to respect a patriotic man, but that put us in quite the pickle, didn’t it? We still had quite a bit of money we needed to make up. A-and that’s when Matilda remembered that one of her friends visiting from Nestoria had told her that there were certain… markets that specialized in hard to sell commodities, and that there were always a… demand… for well educated… pale skinned…”


“You sold her” Soliare interrupted. His tone wasn’t angry, or in disbelief, but instead a depressed resignation, like a man hearing the news that a loved one had finally passed away from a terminal disease. “You sold her into slavery.”


A deathly silence filled the room, as if it were a cat settling in to watch an injured bird.


Leonardo’s face softened. “Look, Solaire…”


He turned to face his father.


“I know you two were close, but she’s probably fine. They said the people who…”


Solaire squeezed the trigger and the pistol exploded into an earth-shattering roar, rattling the windows in their frames and causing the loose papers in the room to take flight into the air. As they did, the top half of Leonardo’s head disintegrated into pink mist. For a second, the half-decapitated body leaned backwards, almost as if it was turning to look up at the new crimson layer painting the back wall of the study, before falling forward onto the desk, pouring a lake of blood onto the surface. He let the arm holding the pistol fall to his side as his body filled with a quiet rage.


So that’s how it felt.


For a moment, he thought about beating the body, swearing at his late father for being a disgusting waste of human material, but the Ivory had proven catharsis enough. There was only one person left to deal with and somehow he doubted he’d feel anything killing her.


***


Matilda was in the ballroom, staring intently at a pink vase with blue flowers and a blue vase with pink flowers. Soliare walked in, sat down on one of the chairs, and waited for her to turn around, but after waiting a minute and realizing that she wasn’t going to, he cleared his throat.

Startled, she turned around and saw him. “Oh! Saltmare! I’m glad you’re here! There’s something very important I need to talk to you about.”


“Solaire,” he corrected.


“Right, right, now…” she held up the two vases. “Which one do you think looks better? Be honest, the color scheme hinges upon this decision.”


He regarded the vases for a moment. “Blue vase.”


“Really?” She furrowed her brow and put it back on the table.


“Matilda, do you think River is alright?”


“What?” She sat down next to Solaire and hugged his shoulders. “Of course she is. I know what’s going on is scary and that you’re worried about your sister, but everything’s fine.” She gave a warm smile and walked off to another table, humming to herself.


Solaire sighed and stood up. “Of course. I don’t know what I was expecting.”


Matilda laughed. “It’s alright. It’s perfectly natural for you to be concerned about your sister, now that she’s married and out of your…” She turned around to see Solaire pointing the massive gun straight at her stomach, all color draining from her face.


“I figured maybe I could get an explanation, a reason why, but there is none, is there? Might as well not drag this out.”


“Solaire, please…”


“Please what? Give you a chance? Maybe I should try marrying you off before checking an estimate on the slaver’s market, see if either of those are more profitable than just killing you?”


Matilda was now crying. “Please, just put the gun down. We can talk about this. Don’t kill me with your family’s own pistol.”


“Hmm? Oh don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you with the Ivory.” He raised the pistol just high enough to put the barrel out of range of his step-mother.


Relief washed over Matilda’s face.


“Tell father I’ll be down after I fetch River.” The pistol swung down and exploded once more as a large hole materialized in the center of Matilda’s stomach, sending her flying backwards to land and slide on her own blood and viscera, spreading a long streak of red and dark-brown as her body slid across the smooth wood floor, stopping to rest with a shocked expression in her glassy eyes.


Solaire held the pistol up to the light, watching it dance over the water-pattern engravings on its surface. It was now the Ivory River, and that, he thought, was a small but important difference, because that meant that it was his, and no longer beholden to any other Ravenheart.


Much like himself.


***


For the sake of brevity, I will skip over the next few hours or so: the long washing period Solaire spent riding his clothes and skin of blood, the meticulous spilling of alcohol, the long journey down to the meadows and the backbreaking eternity spent digging the hole. Instead, I will skip to this moment, as Solaire finishes covering the hole that now hides most of his family fortune under feet and feet of dirt.


He stood, wiped off his hands, and searched for his lantern nearby. It was dark out, but fortunately it managed to glint of the light provided by the burning Mansion Ravenheart. He grabbed it and headed towards the family docks.


The plan was simple. Find River. Once he had her back, he’d set her up as the head of the family Ravenheart and let her live her life, the way she should have in the first place. In the meantime, Danby could manage the business. He could at least run it without resorting to human trafficking, even if it would be a tiny bit smaller when he got back. River could decide if she wanted to have a go with that whole Duldges thing if the loss of money upset her. And should he die, the note in his jacket and the treasure he buried should assure she got rescued anyway. No way anyone in their right mind would turn down that amount of money, and the only way they could get it was if they asked River where their favorite spot to play was. Not that he planned on dying; the only way he could make sure this whole rescue didn’t get screwed up was if he did it.


As a breeze wafted over the ocean, bringing with it the sweet smell of salted waves, Solaire couldn’t help but smile. Yes, he was still upset over the whole affair, but he could also taste something else, the same way one tastes a strange content after indulging in a long cry. It was the taste of independence. No more ledgers, or balls, or polite society, or proper english, or blackpowder families. Just his wits and his luck, alone together to make or break himself, and though he doesn’t know it, he is heading the siren’s call of the sea that Jebidiah and countless other sailors have answered before him: the beaconing of true freedom.


He shook his head. Not now, he needed to focus. There hadn’t been much of a paper trail, so this was going to be a long road ahead. After climbing aboard the Raven’s Revenge (Forlorn Rose, he decided, it’s mine now, so it’s called the Forlorn Rose), he held the lantern up and read the page from the ledger he had confronted his father over a lifetime ago.


“River, 700,000 gp, added to Ravenheart Family Fund. Paid by X, Cosigned by Mr. Weiss.”


Mr. Weiss. That was a start, at least.

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