1001 Starry Knights: The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, chapter 20


The portal opened to a scene of carnage. Dozens of bodies of imperials lay scattered around a crowded bar-room. Llewellyn stood over one of them, wiping his sword clean on a dead Imperial’s jacket. The assassin turned, his eyes narrowing. “So, the rumors are true. You wrested the secrets of the Path to Victory from their makers. Was it the Fae, or the Angels? The White Scales were never entirely certain about its origins, or I might have been able to provide some clues for you to follow.”

“I’m afraid it’s still unclear. You can’t trust your eyes in this Empire, can you?” Sinbad smiled. “I’ve missed you, Llewellyn. Friends of yours?” He waved a hand at the carnage.

“Smugglers. In… unsavory substances. Things that would be dangerously addictive to human biology. I would recommend not eating any flowers you find in this room.” The man was, to say the least, pretty. Fair featured, slender, with soft lips and gentle eyes, despite the blood staining his white kimono. “You have come to bend me to your will. To destroy my goal, my duty, in the name of your own. I knew that this day was coming. I will not let you dishonor my brother’s death easily.”

“Do we have to fight?” Sinbad asked, his voice soft, his expression sad. “What the hell am I saying. Of course we have to fight. You’re of the Reptile Kingdom. You probably would feel the passion had gone out of our relationship if there was no violence.” Sinbad smiled. “Take a moment. You look winded after wiping out these punks. And I need to explain the reason this is happening to our friend.” Sinbad waved a hand, and Llewellyn leaned against the wall. The bar looked like one you could find on the Imperial Throneworld, although far seedier than most. A cloud of smoke still hung around the ceiling. What looked like a pool table had been set up nearby.

“You’re going to fight him?” the cabbie asked, his voice low. The two of them moved over to the bar, and the cabbie took a seat.

“You sound so shocked.”

“He’s a Dragon. He’s invincible in combat!”

“Ah, is that what you took from the stories?” Sinbad smiled. “No. The truth of being a dragon is that you’re far from invincible. You depend on your beliefs. And unfortunately, Llewellyn chose a belief that is inherently weak. It was sufficient for him to be dominant in the Empire, where passion has died, and few people have motivation. But trying to be strong by believing you are worthless, that your life has no meaning but to die for a glorious cause? That’s foolish.” The cabbie noticed the way that Llewellyn’s fists tightened as the snake leaned against the wall, although there was no other sign of anger. “After all, his brother died to save him from his own weakness. He’s never been able to grow past that. He’s been trapped by his own self-loathing for a long time, and he has the nerve to call it duty. It’d be pitiful if it weren’t so funny.”

“Uh, Sinbad-” The cabbie could see the way that the snake’s jaw was tensing. Llewellyn took his sword, and rammed it into the wall, up to the hilt.

“The worst part is, he can’t accept that he’s weak. He has to try to behave strong. No matter what happens, he’s afraid to show weakness. So the only way he can go with me is if I beat him. Challenge him, and humiliate him.” Sinbad smiled. “Not that it will be very difficult.” There was a rush, and the serpent uncoiled all at once. Llewellyn flew like an arrow, in a smooth arc that slammed Sinbad through the bar. A chunk of hardwood that should’ve been able to stand up to a wrecking ball crumbled around the two fighters as they rolled, and sprung back to their feet. A savage grin was on Sinbad’s face. “After all, he couldn’t even remember enough to keep back.”

“I don’t need to be subtle to break you.” Llewellyn’s voice was low, thick, the sound of someone who was trying to hold back pained tears. “You never did know when you were in over your head.” Then he lunged again, and there was no more speaking.

Sinbad had never described his own fighting. He was not proud of it. He clearly should have been, however. Llewellyn flew forward with knife-handed blows, striking at Sinbad’s throat, his temples, his solar plexus, trying to land solid blows. Each time, Sinbad’s palm caught the blows, diffusing them, and trying to grab hold. The grappling moves weren’t much use against Llewellyn, though. With the snake’s great weight, his balance was unbreakable.

The cabbie didn’t even notice the tail winding around Sinbad’s leg. Sinbad didn’t either, until it was too late. There was a thump, and the man was on the ground, the muscular tail wrapped tightly around him, pinning his arms to his side. “You know, perhaps I will take you along with me, Sinbad!” Llewellyn roared, his eyes flashing red. “I could change you! Make you into a woman again, make you swear fealty to me! It would be no less than you deserve after this insult! Thinking you have the right, the power to insult… me…”

Llewellyn’s words were growing strained. The cabbie realized why a moment later, as the coils began to loosen. Sinbad was straining with all of his might, and he was breaking out of the snake’s grip. That wasn’t merely improbable, or physically impressive. It should have been impossible. He was working against his own body’s limitations. He was working against strength that dwarfed his own. As the snake strained and hissed, Sinbad continued to push. Llewellyn pulled away, his hands up, as Sinbad bounced to his feet. A flurry of punches in a boxer’s stance swung out, slamming into the serpent’s midsection. Each blow sent a rumble through the building. Llewellyn turned, his tail slapping down at Sinbad’s feet, temporarily knocking him on his back, as the snake retreated to where his sword hung in the wall. He ripped it free, its edge shining.

Sinbad stood up, planting his feet again, as he faced Llewellyn. “You know, you taught me not to fear that sword.” His stance was tense.

“I also taught you to respect it.” Llewellyn darted forward. The blade swung in smooth, controlled arcs, stabbing forward, forcing Sinbad to retreat constantly. The advantage in reach and the speed of the Ryujin’s blows were forcing Sinbad on the defensive, as each thrust came closer. The blade glimmered in the light. Sinbad was already visibly breathing hard.

“You know, you never told me the story behind the sword. Isn’t that supposed to be tradition? I thought that you’d tell me it was forged in the heart of a dead star, or stolen from a great warlord. What’s the deal?” He ducked low, and back-flipped over the pool table, lifting a cue. It deflected a blow from the sword, splitting the wooden cue cleanly in half. He spun the two sections of wood in his hands, using them to turn away the blows, buying him a little time.

“This weapon was forged with a million others like it, and given to a child. It has no story, and no glory. It was the sword my brother held, and it killed him, and that is all there is to it!” Llewellyn lunged forward, and with a deft movement of his wrist, flicked the half-cues out of Sinbad’s hand. The spacefarer dodged back a bit further, as Llewellyn coiled, and then vaulted over the table, sword outstretched.

Sinbad’s fists came together, not quite evenly. They slammed into the blade from either side in different places, and there was a cacophony of sound as the blade shattered between his palms. It should have flexed, or broken Sinbad’s hands. But the shards flew into the air, creating a brief flurry of rainbow flecks in the dim light of the bar room. The Cabbie, Llewellyn, and Sinbad all stood still for a moment, the shock palpable, hanging in the air. Sinbad recovered first, and grabbed Llewellyn by the throat. The serpent swung his fists, landing half a dozen ugly blows on Sinbad’s mid-section. Seemingly unfazed, the spacefarer hefted. Llewellyn left the floor slowly, at first, and then faster, raised into the air. With a single massive heave, Sinbad slammed the snake head-first into the wall.

There was a moment of silence, as Sinbad panted. The cabbie relaxed, now that the prospect of being struck by an errant blow was no longer imminent. Both of them watched the dust settle from the destroyed wall. “Bastard!” screamed an unfamiliar voice.

She slithered out from the dust, an angry expression on her face. “You did this, didn’t you?! Screwing with my flames, changing me! Do you know what a pain in the ass it’s going to be to get this undone?” The cabbie realized it was Llewellyn. Not quite the same as he’d been before. Among other things, those were a phenomenal pair of breasts. Not to mention the soft, feminine features. Sinbad looked at least as surprised as Llewellyn did.

“I did no such thing! Why on earth would I?”

“Obviously some perverse human desire! Wanting to see me weakened and embarrassed, and to make me just another one of your fawning little- partners!”

“That’s-” Sinbad shook his head, trying not to laugh, a grin appearing on his face.

“What exactly is so funny?!”

“It’s your voice. You sound all… breathy. It’s really quite charming.”

There was a moment of silence, and then she smacked him. Then, they both laughed. The laughter echoed through the bar for quite a while.

“You came back to find me.” Llewellyn said, finally, when the laughter had died away. She wiped a tear out of the corner of one of her eyes, although whether it had been from laughing or from pain, the cabbie couldn’t say.

“Yes.”

“You know that I can’t fight like this.” Sinbad raised an eyebrow, and she sighed. “Not because you turned me into some buxom plaything. I mean… You’ve broken my certainty. Destroyed my confidence in my own worthlessness. I feel happy, genuinely happy, for the first time in years. But now, I can’t help you to save your family.”

“I didn’t do this because I needed you to help me save my family. I did it because I want you to be happy. I don’t know if you’d want to stay around me, but-“

“Oh, I assure you. I will make you bear responsibility for giving me happiness. A careless deed that you will pay for.” She smiled softly. “You really did care.”

“How could I not? You were there for me, when I was helpless. You saved my life. You gave me the strength to keep going. If I hadn’t met you, none of this would be possible.”

Llewellyn was silent, her head lowered. “Where next, then?”

Sinbad was silent for a moment. “I told you about Jeeves, didn’t I? Jeeves and Hope?”

Llewellyn nodded. “During the training. The two Construct Kingdom who merged. Them next, then?”

“Yes. The thing is… They’ll have been alone. For quite a long time.” He frowned. “I hope they’re okay. The last time I left, they pushed me away without ever giving me a chance to speak to them. They never even let me say goodbye.”

The cabbie frowned. “Are you sure that they’re going to want to see you again, then? Maybe they pushed you away because they really didn’t want you to come back.”

“I thought that too, for quite a long time. I felt hurt. Frustrated, even. Angry. But I realized, at a certain point, why they did it. They didn’t push so that I’d leave, or so that I’d hate them. I think they did it because they wanted to leave things unfinished.” Sinbad raised a hand, and ran his fingers through the air. The path to victory opened. “And this is a time for finishing things.”

I paused, and looked over at Kry. She had an annoyed look on her face. “For what it is worth, I have heard that in the time since, Llewellyn regained his- or her- confidence, and rejoined the White Scales, stronger and more certain than ever. Though reports have clashed on his gender. Some say that he regained his original shape. Others say, well, otherwise. Losing your purpose isn’t fun, but it’s hardly the end for a Dragon. There’s always a new ideal to follow.”

The corridors of the ship were dimly lit. There was only a hint of light, more of a suggestion of shapes than anything else. As the cabbie stepped out of the portal, he banged his toe against a wall, and swore violently. The varied curses echoed through the empty passage, like a particularly unpleasant set of fans at a baseball game. Sinbad frowned as he looked around. “This is odd. This is the ship, but she hasn’t come to see us. I was sure that she would know the moment we arrived.”

Llewellyn frowned, studying their surroundings. “Perhaps she ran out of power. You said that her engines were damaged. It could be that the reactors failed. She might be running on low power, to avoid draining her reserves and shutting down. We should look for the bridge.”

Sinbad nodded. And they began to walk through the shadows. The cabbie watched as the dim lights flickered on and off. There was a sense of weight, of decay, hanging throughout the vessel. Like a house that has been abandoned, it seemed to show its neglect. There was no dust, no sign of animal life, because the ship was empty. But he could feel the weight of entropy on the place. The ship felt like it was ready to die. None of them spoke, any more than they would speak while walking through a tomb. They just kept moving. And soon, they saw the glow. It was green, with a hint of red. The cabbie couldn’t help but feel a nostalgic twinge for Christmas as a child.

The control room was small. Cramped, in fact, might be the right word. A sphere of metal sat on the floor, its display burned out, artificial arms laying splayed around it. In the corner stood a woman. She was beautiful, made up of panels and stripes of green hanging in the air, and a red bowtie hanging around her neck. She was also dim, nearly black, with only a hint of that coloration still remaining. Her eyes were closed “I thought I wouldn’t see you again.” The greeting didn’t sound happy. More annoyed, disappointed

“You pushed me away, Dio.”

“Of course I did. I wanted to save the man I loved. It was the only choice. I explained all of this to you. And it’s no less true now than it was then. I can’t return to Imperial space. I have to stay here, and wait to die, slowly. It’s not very fun, but it’s worth it.” She smiled, and opened her eyes. Bright red. “It was nice to see you again, but this hurts, you know. So, I think you should go-“

“I thought about that last moment. The way you pushed me away. Without giving me time to say goodbye, without giving me time to argue.” Sinbad had taken a seat on the old command chair, leaning back into the padding.

“I didn’t want to let it linger. I thought you’d miss me less if you were pushed away.”

“Yeah, I don’t believe that for a moment. See, you know human personalities. You know me. Back in those days, I was pretty torn. Trying to find a way to save my family, trying to earn back the respect of my government. I accepted that sacrifices had to be made. It was easy for me to believe that you were right, when you said you could never come back to the Empire. If I had stayed, and tried to persuade you, you could’ve argued with me. And well. I would’ve had no choice but to accept that you were right. And I probably would’ve started to believe it, over the years. I would’ve accepted that you were happy with the way things had turned out, and if I ever had the choice, I might have decided to leave you out here, drifting in the darkness, because I thought you were right.”

“Well, then-“

“And that would’ve been stupid. Of course you weren’t right. Of course you wouldn’t be happy, here. What would you be protecting? Humanity? You don’t owe humans any favors. You were trying to protect me, because you believed that what I wanted, more than anything else, was to save my family. You treated yourself like a tool, and accepted that the only way you could help me was to sacrifice yourself. You gave it all up, and you tried to convince yourself that you were doing it for the noblest of reasons, to save my species. You wanted to believe that so much. But you couldn’t.”

“I’m not that… pathetic.” There was a strained quality to Dio’s voice, as she looked down.

“Aren’t you? I knew both sides of your personality. You didn’t want to destroy yourself. You’d do a lot to endanger yourself, especially to protect me. I can’t deny that. But if there was a chance of surviving, I believe you’d take it. So you shoved me away, because you wanted me to save you. You wanted the brave hero to come back, saving the day and bringing you back. It was a sustaining thought.” He paused for a moment. “You’re suffering, here. How are your systems doing?”

“I am on auxiliary power. Memory-storage and very basic life support only. No sensors, no engines, nothing. I am just… existing. Waiting for my end to come. But not you, Sinbad. You have gotten unpleasantly arrogant. What makes you think you know what’s best for me? What makes you think that you can know what my plans are? That is terribly prideful.”

“Yes. One might almost call it awfully manipulative.” Sinbad leaned back in the chair, and gestured with one hand. “You made a lot of decisions about what was best for me. I never hated you for them, because that’s how we behave, we people. We think we know best, and we act according to that. Sometimes, we’re wrong. Very rarely, we even admit that we are wrong. I know you may hate me for this. I know you may never forgive me for it. I have to do it, nonetheless.”

“Damn it!” Her voice was harsh, her eyes narrowed. “Don’t do this! Don’t- give me hope!” She slumped down, brushing her eyes. “It can’t be anything other than what it is, Sinbad. This information could shatter kingdoms. It could destroy the fragile peace. If anyone ever captured me, they could-“

Sinbad rose from the chair, and approached her. She flinched instinctively as his hand came up, and then her expression melted as his hand rested on her cheek. He leaned his head forward, and spoke very softly. “Do you think that I would let anyone hurt you? Do you think that anyone could hurt you, with me determined to protect you?”

“We’re tools. We’re not supposed to be protected.” Her voice was bitter. “My programming-“

“You’re not a tool. You’re a person. And you don’t have any programming. Remember? There’s nothing that’s keeping you from accepting this but your own pride.”

She was silent for a few moments. Then she pulled away. “I’m sorry. I can’t accept this. If anything happened to you, to your race, because I wasn’t strong enough to die alone…”

“Then I hope you’ll forgive me for this. Turn on your sensors.”

Her eyes widened. “You-” The cabbie noticed lights flickering on.

“I hope you’ll appreciate the satisfaction I take from transporting you against your will for your own good. The Path to Victory can be quite mobile, when it wants to be.” Sinbad frowned. “If you hate me, if you want nothing to do with me, if you want to flee from the Empire again, then I won’t try to stop you. But I wanted to remind you what it felt like to be under the sun again.”

A panel flicked on. The bright sun of Tabit flared in the sky. The ship lay in the sands on the edge of the small, abandoned village. “You bastard.” Her voice was soft, her eyes closed. “You know I can’t leave.” She turned, and wrapped her arms around him, burying her face in his chest. Her body was wracked with sobs, though there were no tears. They stood together for a long time, before Dio let go.

Sinbad turned towards the cabbie. “We’ve got one last stop.”

“Do you want help?” Llewellyn and Dio asked, at the same time. Sinbad smiled wanly.

“I’m afraid not. Not this time, anyway. I don’t want you two to see what happens, this time.”

Llewellyn snorted. “What could you possibly do that we would be ashamed to see?”

Sinbad smiled softly. “I’m afraid that this time, I may fail.” He raised a hand, and the path swallowed him and the cabbie.

I paused. “Of Dio- Well, I don’t know anything about what she’s done since then. Which, I suppose, says it all. Wherever she’s gone, she hasn’t been captured, and the information she was willing to die to protect hasn’t been released. She did not need to sacrifice everything, which is as happy an ending as you could ask for.”

“I heard a saying, once. Have you ever been in a bakery? And smelled the fresh bread, hot and just out of the oven? There’s a special smell, yeasty and satisfying. It’s one of the best things that you can smell. But if you spent too long in that bakery, sooner or later, you’d stop smelling it. It’s not just a human phenomenon. Burnout is characteristic of sapience. If you spend long enough doing anything, no matter how good it feels, eventually, it loses its luster.”

The two of them stood in the control room. The wooden throne and the slender tiara were where they had last left; Beneath and atop the young woman. The blue ribbon sat where it had been left, too, under a thick layer of dust, discarded, worthless, meaningless to the Dolorosa. She stared into space, her jaw dropped, a line of drool running down her chin. Sinbad bent forward, and wiped it away softly. The cabbie frowned. “You don’t think you can wake her up? But- I mean, the things you’ve seen….”

“Are amazing. I’ve seen more of this galaxy than almost anyone. I have stories that most people couldn’t even imagine. But she is an abyss of time. She was there at the beginning of the Empire. She was there at each war with Heaven. She has seen romances that rocked the stars, and been betrayed in ways that we could scarcely believe. To even be wrested for a moment from sleep, she requires the sacrifice of a young woman and everything that woman is.” Sinbad looked down at the comatose form. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Then why are we here?”

“Because I have to try. Even if it were hopeless. I owe her that much. Once, there was a young man…”

This young man thought that he had known pain. He was embarrassed by his brother and under-appreciated by his parents, and surely he was the only man who had ever felt this way. He lived in a harsh society where much was demanded of him, and surely none of the other millions of youths who were raised alongside him knew his pain. And yet, the youth soldiered bravely on. He found himself becoming a captain, and gaining a commission. He thought this was happiness, and ignored the pinpricks in his soul that told him that he was unfulfilled. Because what was the point in striving to be rewarded by his society if he started to doubt it after the fact?

In time, his brother did something incredibly noble, and saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. For this, the young man resented him, because this immense sacrifice weighed also on the young man, and their parents. What right did his brother have to cause him all of this trouble? And yet, there was nothing for it; Family was family, and the young man had to journey out to save his brother with the greatest reluctance. A greedy Colonel had seen the wonders and terrors that the stars held, and decided that the former would be used to combat the latter.

There was a great civilization. It had been even greater in the distant past, but now, it was dying. There was a chance for it to survive, but men like the Colonel feared it, and not without reason. It had consumed many lesser races over the ages, and humanity was nothing if not lesser. So the colonel struck a bargain with the young man, that he never truly intended to see through. The young man would journey out into the stars, and find things that would make his people strong, and the Colonel would forgive the brother’s crime of preserving life at the cost of momentary material gain. It was not a fair bargain, but the young man was very familiar with unfairness.

On a desert world, the young man sought to find the secret to kidnapping children. These children would become fighting ships and warriors for his race, enslaved for a second time by a species that saw them only as a means to an end. Before he had the chance to follow through, fate intervened. The young man found himself knocked out of the sky, the sole survivor of a crew of good men. He found himself in the desert, and fell in love with a witch. To call it love is not quite true; The young man never truly knew love. He only knew loneliness, and pain, and the desire to forget himself for a time in the arms of another. Eventually, he drove himself away from this woman, and fled back into the stars, cursed with three blessings, for the woman was far kinder than he.

As the young man traveled to find warriors who would betray their people for his, he found himself accompanied by a device that was programmed to love him, unconditionally. Fate intervened to throw the strange pair across the stars, where they found themselves stranded and at the mercy of Hope, someone who saw humanity for what it truly was. Hope desired nothing more than to prove that humans were not the true saviors of the Empire. She was disappointed by the universe itself, which stated in no uncertain terms that they were. In a fit of despair at discovering the truth, Hope tried to kill those who knew, because truth is useless without people to speak it. She failed, not because of the young man, but because of the one who had unconditional love for him. Two died that day, and neither of them deserved it. And the young man ran away once again.

In a dark place, darker even than the Far and Sunless Land, he found a woman who loved him, because she thought he was wise, though he was not. She had a child with him, and praised him for all that he did for her people, though he did little. He was drawn away from this place, and his child, because he believed there were more important things, even if he never admitted it.

In his darkest moments, he had his body snatched away from him, and was nearly killed, only to be saved. A great warrior saw the pain inside of the young man, and tried to help him, and for his efforts, was given heartache and pain, and found himself forced to flee once again. The young man saved the Empire, but he realized he had no goal which he could hope to achieve.

In a desperate action, the young man walked between the stars, and found himself somewhere Else. He found Paradise, and destroyed it, all for the sake of knowledge.

But in his whole lifetime of regrets, there was one thing he regretted above all others. Early in his journeys, the young man had traveled to a distant land. He had met a girl, and he had thought her foolish. She was young, and idealistic, and like all foolish young men, he thought that this made her an idiot. He believed her dreams were silly, but he enjoyed the way she made him feel, so he stayed around her, and encouraged her to pursue her dreams. This young woman had a great and terrible destiny upon her. She had spent her entire life knowing that she would die, and so thoroughly that it would be as though she’d never existed. The young man believed he had known pain, and he had let it make him sour and uncertain. But this young woman was stronger than words could say, because of the brutality which she had experienced.

And so it was, there came a time when the young woman was forced to embrace the fate which the young man had dismissed. Something horrible had happened. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, just the cruelty of the universe made manifest. But the only way to save the lives of thousands was to sacrifice the young woman, and awaken her mother for a brief period. The young woman did not want to die, and she trusted the young man. She begged him to make sure that he would save her from this fate, to awaken her from death itself. She placed all of her faith in him because she did not understand that he was a fraud.

And the man had no choice, because he was weak. He could not save this girl, and he realized for the first time how much he hated that feeling of powerlessness. He would feel powerless again, but this is the moment when he realized what it could cost him. Because the young woman was far wiser than he had ever been, and far more noble, for she had died to save him. And so he traveled, and found the secret to true power. A weapon that had belonged in the hands of Heaven. The perfect weapon, one that could let him succeed at any task. The Path to Victory, which would show him where he had to be to make things work. And…

Sinbad fell silent. The cabbie watched the girl. “I think she moved.”

“No, she did not.” Sinbad’s voice was heavy, his head hanging forward. “And the young man failed in the last quest, because while he had learned many things, and sought great power, there were still things that he could not do.” Sinbad stood up slowly.

“You’re just going to give up?”

“No. I cannot save her as I am now. I have to keep going. To try to find whatever it is that will shake her free of the sleep of ages. To find the story that will wake her up.” Sinbad sighed softly. “I knew that this might happen.” He stood up, and drew his hand across the fabric of reality, and the two left the girl sitting in the throne.

“Wait. He didn’t save her?” Brie asked, frowning. “What the hell kind of an ending would that be?”

“It is the truth. Sinbad saved many people, but he was not a god. There were some things that he couldn’t do. I know it’s not happy, but…” I shrugged. “Sometimes, endings aren’t. That’s life. Of course, that wasn’t the ending of the story. There was one last stop for Sinbad to make.”

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