The purplish tint of dawn covered the whole sky. The endless seas turned red under it. The Flying Fish of Dawn was cruising at full sail, riding the winds and waves.
"Milord, Professor Balbo and his maidservant are awake. Right now, they're feeling rather confused and agitated," reported Howard as he got onto the deck.
Els and the guards had brought Professor Balbo -- the man who had cracked open the secrets of dwarven gunpowder -- and his maidservant, Swila, onboard the previous night in two sacks.
They had learned that the professor had no children, and had yet to build a family through Els's mate and current head of the syndicate, Jindoz. He did, however, have a young widow by his side. She had served as his personal maidservant for more than 20 years.
According to Jindoz, the relationship between Professor Balbo and Swila was a little ambiguous. Perhaps the difference in their status made the professor hesitate to take her as his wife. Despite this possible hesitation, they were quite close, to the point that the professor gave Swila his entire salary and let her manage his life.
Venus Academy ranked rather low when compared to other academies within Morante City. They were around 21st on the rankings. Professor Balbo's salary was also merely 3 gold Fordes a month. Coupled with the professor's tendency to research weird things, which cost him quite a bit, he didn't live a lavish life. Additionally, the professor didn't really like his job at the academy. He had expressed a desire to change his occupation more than once.
Initially, Lorist thought that it would be a piece of cake for him to recruit Professor Balbo. Little did he know that the professor was actually an advocate of liberty, and hated nobles to the bone. Lorist was even harshly condemned when he made a personal visit, and was chased out of the house by the professor with a broom.
Even though Lorist didn't know what grievances the professor might have with nobles, the limited amount of time he had didn't allow him to play around with the professor. He ordered Els to take a few men and knock the professor and his maidservant out cold. By the time they woke up, they would already be onboard and far out to sea. They would have no choice but to follow Lorist then.
"Alright, I'll go check on him and try to calm him down," said Lorist.
He didn't notice how Howard was rolling his eyes out of his sight.
The professor wasn't just agitated, he was on the verge of panicking! That was especially the case when he saw Lorist and realised why he was at sea. In a fit of rage, he uttered all the expletives he knew, much to the awe of those present, who found it hard to believe that a learned professor of an academy would act the way he did.
When the professor stopped to take a breath, Lorist said, "Professor Balbo, I didn't bear any ill intentions when I invited you here. I just want..."
"Forget it. I won't do as you wish. No matter what you do to me, I won't agree to your demands, you damned..."
The professor was not in the mood to hear what Lorist had to say. After that, he continued his cursing and even resorted to attacking Lorist personally by comparing his intelligence to that of a mule.
Lorist merely pretended he didn't hear all that, and let the professor continue. He looked at the maidservant Swila, and found that she was a little seasick. He quickly instructed Howard, who was standing outside the cabin, to bring some medicine from his cabin. He also had him make some tea for the professor to moisten his dry throat.
The professor was greatly annoyed at Lorist's thick skin. He had thought that he could anger Lorist to the point that he would give him a beating. The beating would give him the chance to prove his resolve. But Lorist simply ignored him completely, and even began to tend to his seasick maidservant.
"What in the world do you want, a ransom? I'm just a poor professor and I don't have much. Or is it knowledge? There are so many professors in Morante City who are far more accomplished than me for that. And didn't you hear about my misgivings with the academy? In the eyes of other professors, I'm just a weird, stubborn guy, who puts his efforts in researching oddities instead of proper fields of studies," said the professor after he took a few sips of his tea.
This time around, he didn't curse, and only held great suspicion of Lorist's intentions.
Lorist smiled. He was happy to finally have a chance to communicate with the professor.
"Professor Balbo, the reason I've looked for you is for the sake of gunpowder," said he.
"The dwarven gunpowder?" Professor Balbo muttered with suspicion, "That project of mine has long been completed. It was published in the journal last year. Didn't the Morante Daily write an article about it? You should be able to find it in a library. Everything's reported in the article and nothing was kept from them."
"No, professor, what I'm interested in is what you said about there being room for improvement. What I want is the perfected form of it."
The professor shrugged and said, "Then you should go look for the dwarves and get a ton of saltpeter from them. Only then can experiments be performed to refine the formula to perfection. The problem is that there is no saltpeter ore to be found in the human realm. Those shorties are also unwilling to sell any to us..."
After that, the professor cursed a few more times. But this time around, the target for his profanity were the dwarves.
"Professor, I don't have any saltpeter either. But I will be able to provide huge amounts of the nitrite you'll need for the experiments. That's the reason why I invited you to come with me," said Lorist.
"That's impossible!" the professor exclaimed in shock, "How are you able to procure so much nitrite? If you could, you should've told me that the first time you came to see me..."
Lorist smiled and shook his head before he said, "Professor, you must understand that gunpowder is an incredibly destructive substance and even has the potential to overturn the battleforce-driven world of Grindia. I don't want to become an eyesore for those involved. Nature on the other hand, is full of wonders. Even though saltpeter ore cannot be found in the human realm, I have a method that I can use to gather the nitrite that's found within saltpeter. So far, only I have noticed that method. If you're patient, you will be told the method when you arrive at the dominion of my house."
"Can't you just tell me about it here?" asked the professor impatiently.
Lorist shook his head.
The professor glared hatefully at Lorist, but he merely smiled in return.
"Fine, I'll trust you just this once. You better not be lying," said the professor in resignation.
There wasn't much he could do anyway, since they had already set sail. There was nowhere for him to run to.
"Ships sighted up ahead, battlestations!" shouted the lookout.
"Professor Balbo, Miss Swila, please rest well for a few days on the ship and enjoy the view. When we reach the dominion, I trust that you'll come to understand that not all nobles are that darned. If you have anything you need, just notify the guards here. I will satisfy your demands to the best of my ability. Well, I'll have to take my leave for now," Lorist said as he lowered his head and rushed out onto the ship's deck.
"There are two large-class, three-masted merchant vessels, four middle-class, two-masted merchant vessels, and six middle-class, two-masted armed ships heading our way in a fan formation! They seem to bear hostile intent! No, wait, they're flying the sword and barrel flag! They're the fleet of the Chikdor Merchant Guild! They're the enemy!"
As the lookout continued to shout at the top of his voice, the ships appeared clearer and clearer in his vision.
Lorist got onto the deck quickly, and saw Old Jack mumbling while using a weirdly-shaped ruler to measure a rope that was left flying freely on one mast.
"Captain!" Old Jack called out, "We're traveling against the winds at only eight knots while those bastards over there are traveling with the wind. Half of them are fast-sailing ships and they're almost traveling at ten knots! Based on that, there's no way we'll be able to carry out huge turns as evasive maneuvers. They'll be right on our tail in ten minutes or so."
"What's going on?" Lorist shouted.
"Milord, it's obvious that those Chikdor ships over there aren't coming in peace. Their commander of the fleet is also really experienced. They've laid their formation in preparation to capture us. No matter which direction we rush towards, we'll end up being sandwiched by their ships. The moment they destroy our sails with their ranged weapons, this ship will no longer be able to unleash its potential in speed, and we'll be at their mercy. I had wanted to turn tail to escape, but the keel of our ship is too deep in the water, which means that we'll have to make a huge turn to change direction. By then, the enemy will already be next to us," explained Captain Wilson.
"Evade the two large ships first. Travel in a Z-shaped path and pass between the two ships on our left. Josk, shoot down the sails of those two ships. Els, use fire bolts with the ballistae, and have them fire at will against those ships," decided Lorist after giving it some thought.
Josk stood at the bow of the ship with his green longbow curved into a full moon. A thunderous twang rang out as a bolt of green was let loose from Josk's hand. In a flash, the two-masted ship sailing at breakneck speeds towards them roughly 60 meters away seemed to have been hit by an invisible fist. The mast at the back of the ship wobbled twice before it collapsed forward.
Josk had broken a ship's mast with only one arrow. The middle-class ship slowed down after that, and even began to twirl around in the sea in circles, causing a mess to break out on board. It opened a gap in the formation that Lorist's ship could use to pass through.
As Josk began aiming at the next ship, it began to move evasively, zig-zagging back and forth. Some of the crew even gathered at the front of the ship and began to fire their own arrows in an attempt to distract Josk's aiming.
Josk calmed himself and treated the arrows that were flying at him as if they weren't there. However, his second arrow only brushed past the mast he was aiming at without causing it any damage. The crew cheered at his failure. The distance between the two ships had decreased to less than 40 meters. Lorist was already able to see the crew of the enemy ships loading their large ballistae and lighting their flaming projectiles clearly. They were preparing to destroy the sails.
Josk took a deep breath before his bow twanged again. The crew of his target ship was sent into another fit of terror. Four to five of the sailors at the front of the ship, who were firing with their bows, clutched their throats before collapsing lifelessly. Not one of the sailors at the front of the ship remained standing. Feeling the sudden emptiness left by their collapsed comrades, the remaining sailors looked for a place to hide hurriedly. They hadn't expected the enemy's Gold ranked marksman to be this powerful. The skill he showed could almost be considered divine and out of reach of mortal men.
A loud cry of terror rang out as two of the lower sails of the two-masted ship began to contort when the wind blew against it. The four arrows Josk just fired had broken the knot holding them in place. The sails fell on the tub containing the flaming balls, and caught fire. Smoke began to billow from the approaching ship. The lookout in the crow's nest stared at the flames for a moment before jumping into the ocean, desperate to escape his fiery fate.
Captain Wilson turned the wheel hurriedly, and directed the Flying Fish of Dawn past the flaming ship. They had successfully broken out of the Chikdor Merchant Guild's blockade. By the time the other ships turned around against the wind to give chase, the Flying Fish of Dawn would have long left them in the dust.
"Release!" Roughly 100 meters away at the deck of one of the large-class, three-masted ship, five balls of fire were launched from the boat. The ballistae didn't have the range, though; the balls splashed into the water a dozen meters short of the Flying Fish of Dawn.
A brutish, purple-faced man looked to the Flying Fish of Dawn in the distance and calmly said, "Don't fire any more fireballs, it's a waste if they're not in range. Send out the sea swallows to inform the third young master of our failure. Also, inform the third interception fleet and have them be careful of the impressive Gold ranked marksman. It was due to that marksman alone that they were able to break through our blockade and cause us to lose a ship. Leave one ship behind to save the survivors. As for the rest, turn around and tail them. I hope the third interception fleet will not disappoint us."
"Understood, Admiral," said a shipmate before he hurried to relay the orders.
Nearby, another huge man asked, "Elder brother, that ship is incredibly weird, just like a loach. It's too swift and sneaky and will be hard for us to catch up to."
"No worries, we'll just do what we can. The third young master was unable to forget his desire to possess that ship precisely because of its speed. Had the ship stopped and agreed to ferry the third young master to Morante City, he wouldn't have been eliminated as a candidate for succession. The third interception fleet has Blademaster Kumori with them, and their admiral is also incredibly experienced. If they receive our report, they will know how to deal with that ship. And if it turns back in an attempt to escape, we'll be right behind it. It's impossible for them to escape."
Sounds of cheering echoed on the empty sea from the Flying Fish of Dawn. The marines and guards were elated that they were able to evade their enemy without a single casualty, and were incredibly spirited.
Lorist looked at the flaming balls that fell into the ocean behind them and furrowed his brow as he asked, "What are those?"
Captain Wilson turned back and was just in time to see the last ball fall into the ocean. "Oh, that's a fireball, milord. It's the main ranged weapon used at sea. It's a bunch of mixed clay, fine sand, some hemp, and fuel. It's held together by wine glue. It's set aflame before being placed on a large ballista and fired. Its range is roughly 100 meters.
"It's usually fine if those things don't hit us. But if they do, it'll be really troublesome. The flames can't be put out simply by dousing it with water and it'll roll all over the place on the ship. Sometimes a single lucky shot will be able to set a whole ship on fire. I've asked in the past why our ships weren't outfitted with those, but the response I received was that those are too old-fashioned and that we have even better and more advanced ranged weaponry."
Just as Lorist as about to say something, he could hear Els curse as he walked out onto the deck.
"Milord, these steel ballistae are not of much use at all," said Els.
"What's going on? Is there a problem?" asked Lorist.
"Milord, even though we can shoot far with the ballistae, we aren't able to aim accurately. We're not on land and the ship frequently heaves up and down. Also, our targets aren't soldier formations which we can easily hit by roughly aiming in that direction. Ships at 200 or so meters away are only as large as a palm, and they're located quite far from each other, making them incredibly hard to hit. Of the ten shots I made, only 2 hit their targets. One of them merely landed on the ship without causing much damage while the other pierced a hole through their sail and is nowhere to be seen," complained Els.
Lorist realized with shock that he had taken the whole thing too lightly. He understood now that the ballistae used on carriages were unfit for use at sea, and were even inferior to the flaming balls used by the Chikdor Merchant Guild's fleet.
"Milord, the ideal combat distance at sea is around 30 to 50 meters. Beyond that, half of the shots fired will have to depend on luck alone. After all, we're all in the ocean and moving nonstop. A long firing distance does not offer much advantage. The most common mode of combat at sea is boarding and fighting up close. If the enemy has advantage in numbers, ranged attacks won't help us much either," added Captain Wilson.
Lorist nodded and said, "Thank you for your pointers, captain. When we arrive home, let's have another discussion about which armaments are best suited for our ships..."
Before he even finished, the lookout shouted, "Ahead... There's another fleet up ahead!"