Sharludyt 8, 14343 (Day 180)

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Although late, the Vibrius made it to the original trade ports as he worked his way back into the Ventali imperial waters. The sun was just bringing light to the day when the familiar coastline of Vental came into view.

Cheers went up on the bridge that carried out across the decks. All of the crew rushed topside to take in the sweet sight and smell of home.

“We’ve done it.” Reinvo patted Ardlee on the shoulder.

Lieutenant Metallo stepped over. “We’ll make the outer port marker in a couple of hours, sir.”

“Splendid, Lieutenant. Make sure everything is ready,” he ordered.

“What are we going to tell them when they ask where we’ve been?” Commander Ardlee asked quietly.

“I’m not entirely sure. We’ll need to chart a careful course on that subject.”

Ardlee didn’t answer, so Reinvo glanced back. The commander stood, his eyes fixed on the distant landmarks of the capital city. His face was tense, and his brows bunched together as he stood arms crossed.

“Lady Janali will be able to sort out this mess,” Reinvo reassured Ardlee. “Helm, take us in, one-quarter speed when we reach the outer marker.”

“Aye, Captain!” the helmsman said.

Ardlee finally relaxed. “You know, I think she will at that.” He opened the communication tube to the engine room and blew hard. “Engine room, we are approaching Vental. Prepare for port in two hours.”

“Maybe they’ll believe us; maybe they won’t. That doesn’t matter, ‘cause Mistress Janali will know the truth of it. And I’ll bet you a month’s salary, she’ll even have an idea or two on what to do about it.”

“No bet here, sir,” Ardlee commented.

Captain Reinvo chuckled as he grabbed his cap and fixed it in place. Slipping his sea-coat on against the chilled winter morning, he stepped out of the bridge to smell the clean salty air of home.

The skies continued to lighten as the winter day dawned. Lieutenant Metallo stepped up next to him.

“Sir, it feels amazing to be back. Without you we...What is that?” Metallo pointed upwards.

In the western sky near the center of the impressive cluster of bright stars that were the Western Sky Domain of Star Empresses Gwenna Duianna, a shimmering light three or four times brighter than any other star flared brilliantly. Its disk just wide enough his thumb could hide it.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe the Star Empresses are signaling our return. Considering where we’ve been and what that might mean, they were clearly with us on this voyage.”

Reinvo’s mind turned to all the good men that died on this voyage, and he couldn’t bring himself to agree. The Vibrius’s engines vibrated the deck below him as he regarded the bright new star. The starlight finished flaring and settled down to a dazzling new point of light. The new star was at least twice as bright as any other in the western sky.

“Perhaps, Metallo. Perhaps.”

He prayed the new light was the Star Empresses celebrating the return of the Vibrius. But at the same time, it had looked too much like an explosion, and the hair on the back of his neck was standing tall. He knew in his gut something was wrong about that new light in the sky.

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