Pirate Lady: Part Four
“You deserve it, I am sure,” Errol said. His tone was serious, but his dark eyes were twinkling. Ari shoved his arm playfully, and he stumbled a bit.
The two were in the indoor practice arena, the sole people occupying it at the moment. Although they were both in light practice armour and had already laid out wooden swords, neither felt much like doing any fighting, and so they were just lounging against the walls for the time being, talking.
“It’s strange,” Ari began thoughtfully, tugging at the narrow collar of her doublet, “that you were just gone, and here I am scurrying off now.”
“Not scurrying off,” Errol contradicted, righting himself. “Anyone deserves a break, Ari, and you of all people.”
“I’ll... I’ll miss you, Errol,” Ari said after a moment. The room seemed slightly blurry, and she could feel her eyes misting up. She swiped a hasty paw against them, turning to the wall.
“As I’ll miss you, my dear, fierce little gruslen,” Errol said tenderly, sliding an arm around Ari’s shoulders. He pulled her around to face him, and she raised her eyes to meet her friend’s, trying vainly to smile.
“I might not get it right, Errol,” Ari said. She leaned against him, searching his dark eyes for signs. “I mean, I might not get the job right. I know what to do here. I shan’t know what to do there.”
“Ari, Ari, you’ll be absolutely fine.” Errol gave her shoulder a slight pat. “I promise. You always know what needs be done.”
“That’s not true,” Ari contradicted. She reached out, tracing a pattern on the wall with one claw. “I didn’t know what to do when I came here. I was scared, Errol. Do you not remember?”
“Only for a few weeks,” Errol remarked fondly, playing with the edge of her hair. He smoothed it behind her ears, grinning. “After that, you practically ran the place!”
“Stop it,” Ari said sharply, batting away his paws. “I did not.”
“First girl to become King’s Champion,” Errol said, holding up his paws in mock surrender as Ari jerked her hair away. “I would say you conquered Brightvale, Ari darling.”
“Conquered Brightvale. Ha!” Ari grimaced, a sour taste on her tongue at the mocking reminder of her first days as King’s Champion. They had been interesting, to say the least. Some of the older, well-established knights had found their views on chivalry questioned when a girl took the office, and there were quite a few petty squabbles before things smoothed over.
“Ari, you’ll be absolutely fine.” Errol’s eyes were serious as he repeated this sentiment, staring deep into Ari’s own eyes. After a moment, Ari let her gaze drop.
“S’pose,” she mumbled, then let a slight grin twist her features, her mood already lightening. Errol did that to her. “I guess it’ll be my first time aboard a ship, huh?”
“Indeed, I had forgotten,” Errol exclaimed, his eyebrows jumping up in a show of completely innocent surprise.
“Forgotten, yes,” Ari said mockingly, attempting a swinging punch at him. “Ha! There’s no need to make fun of me just yet. Save it for later.”
“Indeed I shall,” Errol said, sidestepping neatly to avoid her punch, and grabbing her arm in his own strong paws. “Now I believe we should be practicing right now. Must make sure your skills are in their peak if you’re going off to some foreign land.” He grabbed the buttoned foil from the table and moved fluidly into the guard position. “En guarde.”
Ari banished all other thoughts from her mind as she set about neatly beating Errol.
The day was bright and clear, and the sun shone down merrily on South Brightvale’s docks. The wharf was crowded with people; merchantmen inspecting their imported goods, hardened sailors coming ashore to spend all their wages before their next voyage, keen-eyed businessmen looking to hire a ship, scrawny beggar children hoping to earn a penny by carrying baggage, lanky boys hoping to be recruited for a chance to journey far away and see Neopia.
It was a perfect day for a voyage; the wind had picked up nicely, and was blowing at a brisk clip. Shouts rang out across the docks, sellers called they that had Fish, fresh fish! Children ducked and ran, laughing about, stealing the purses from the more incapacitated men stumbling out of the pubs.
Ari had to keep from wrinkling her nose in disdain as she picked her way along the grimy wooden boards. The smell of rotting fish, sewage, salt, and tar blew straight in her face, and already there was much on her boots. It would not be long before it migrated onto her cloth-of-gold breeches. The wind blew her hair into her face, the salt turning it curly and unruly. She plucked a piece out of her eyes, and turned back to her escorts. The solid-looking Ixi and slender Techo were dressed in the uniform of Royal Business, green tunics and breeches embroidered with gold stripes. They wore caps that hid their eyes.
“You said it was not far,” Ari said, unable to keep the irritation out of her voice. She was always more prone to irritability when her hair wasn’t behaving. She had not been to the docks before, and the sudden bustling, the crowds of unwashed peoples, made her feel self-conscious, and somewhat disturbed; she was definitely out of her element here.
“So I did, My Lady,” the Ixi responded mildly. “So it is. If Your Grace will look, it is just a few metres yonder.” She raised one hoof and pointed. Ari followed his gaze along the row of tied-up vessels bobbing gently in the swells of water, until her eyes came to rest on the one the Ixi was pointing to. Indeed, it was barely ten metres from them. It looked, to Ari’s inexperienced eyes, like any other ship, albeit slightly smaller and more pointed, like an arrow, than the fat merchant ships she normally saw. Her knowledge of aerodynamics battered faintly inside her head, telling her the shape would help the ship go faster. Although she knew nothing of ships, to her it looked like a rather fine specimen; its figurehead was a beautiful likeness of a water faerie, her wooden hair streaming out behind her in the invisible wind.
“That is it, My Lady,” the Techo chimed in. Ari was searching for something to say, but was saved by a chubby Bruce, who came waddling down the gangplank just then. He was a middle-aged man, with thinning grey hair and squinting eyes in a kindly face. He was quite stout, his watch chain was stretched tightly across his silk-covered belly, and his coat looked as though it could not meet to be buttoned, but he walked with an air of purpose Ari knew well.
“You must be Lady Arianwen,” the Bruce continued smoothly as he approached the party. He gave a stiff little bow, hardly bending at all. “Captain Atkins, at your service.”
“Captain Atkins.” Ari returned his bow with one of her own, slightly deeper. She would have curtsied, but such things looked strange in trousers. “I am very pleased to meet you. I assume this is your fine boat?”
“Ship, milady, ship,” the Bruce corrected, a slight frown creasing his features. “I assure you, the Eternal Saviour is no boat. She’s a square topsail-schooner, milady. Ah can tell ya her measurement off the top o’ my head, an’ her history’s somethin’ ta be proud of, I can tell ya – ”
“No thank you,” Ari interrupted hastily. She did not wish to be publicly humiliated any longer; she could see out of the corner of her eyes sailors pausing in their jobs and watching this spectacle of a clear landlubber trespassing upon their territory.
“Fine with me.” Captain Atkins shrugged a little. “Shall I show you aboard, then? I believe the young lady already here was a waitin’ for ya, no?”
“One Tamzin Herner?” Ari guessed.
“That’d be the one,” the Bruce captain agreed, nodding. He gestured with a flourish for Ari to precede him up the gangplank, and her escorts lost no time in hustling her along, though Ari might have dallied a bit longer. She wavered slightly as she walked up the long plank of wood. She glanced down once to see the dark, rippling mass of water under her, and felt slightly light-headed. She quickly returned her gaze to climbing aboard the ship.
Captain Atkins followed, and in a moment they were all standing on-deck. Ari was staring around her in undisguised awe; from on the docks, the ship had looked nothing special, up close, she began to realize just how complicated such a vessel might be. She craned her neck back, squinting against the sun, to get a good look at the ship’s sails. They were tied down with massive amounts of ropes, and she could see all sorts of little metal gadgets and complicated knots. Around her, crewmembers were busy doing all sorts of jobs; anything from tying knots to scrubbing the railing. They were all busy in their work, and didn’t seem to notice her.
The voice interrupted Ari’s thoughts, and she stumbled slightly as she swung her head back down. Tamzin stood on the deck in front of her, the Lupess looking surprisingly dashing. She was wearing roughened leather breeches and a loose linen shirt over which her sword belt was slung. Her feet were bare, her hair loose, and she wore an expression of contentment, coupled with a wicked grin. There was something different about the pirate girl, and it took Ari a moment to realize what it was. In the castle, Tamzin had always had a slightly detached, wary look. It was completely gone now. Tamzin looked, without doubt, to be absolutely in her element.
“So, this is the ship we’ll be sailing on, is it?” Ari said, trying to regain her composure after her startling realization.
“Aye,” Tamzin said with a slight grin, for the first time since Ari had known her using a ‘sailor’ term. It took Ari somewhat aback.
“Yes, er, yes,” Ari said, trying to be affirmative. She saw the crew staring at her in undisguised curiosity and what might have been amusement, and felt her control on the situation slipping perilously as Tamzin continued to grin at her in that infuriatingly wicked manner, as though she knew very well, and was enjoying, Ari’s discomfort. She was saved, fortunately, by the hearty bellow of Captain Atkins.
“Ahoy, mateys; ya ready t’ see this here ship?” The Bruce’s face was shining and hot, and he took out a small square of lacy white silk to mop his forehead. “A grand tour, shall we?”
“If you please,” Ari said, a little stiffly. The Bruce grinned widely.
“I present to you, the Eternal Saviour.”
As the tour progressed, leading them from the main deck to the helm to the foredeck, Ari began to suspect just what a terrible plan this had been. Although the crew members, busy at their jobs, remained silent as Captain Atkins escorted the group around the ship, occasionally looking up when the captain asked them to demonstrate something, Ari could feel their eyes on her back. She could almost hear what they were thinking as she stood unhelpfully by while Captain Atkins rattled off the ship’s specifics to Tamzin, who was listening in a sort of enraptured daze. Ari’s person escorts stayed silent and unmoving, looking around with a sort of bored half-interest, and the Gelertess knight found herself to be increasingly unhappy.
“An’ this here’s the galley, an’ our most wonderful cook, Calen,” Atkins was saying as he led them below deck and into the galley, gesturing around the tiny, cramped ship’s kitchen. The room was hot and full of steam, and through it Ari could barely make out the pinched, wizened old face of a pale yellow Aisha in a cook’s apron.
“Ya’ll the one’s as gonna be sailin’ this tub?” he demanded irately, thrusting his face so close to Ari’s that she recoiled almost without thinking. Her escorts moved slightly forward, but Ari waved them quickly back. There was no danger from this disgusting old man.
“Yer that little girl who dresses like a man, eh? The one that went gallivantin’ off to do a man’s job when she shoulda just as well stayed home an’ raised a passel o’ children; that’s all them womenfolk are good for, and ye know it,” Calen pronounced, his eyes narrowing. Ari let out a little gasp. As if by mutual agreement, the Techo and Ixi guards, who had followed like polite shadows the whole time, moved forward lightning fast, the Techo drawing his sword, and his colleague grabbing Calen by his collar, so quickly the Aisha didn’t even have a moment to be surprised.
“Now, now, there’s no need for this,” Captain Atkins interjected hastily, moving between the two and looking pleadingly at the Ixi of the Royal Guard, who looked straight back at him, impassive, holding Calen by the collar so that his feet were several centimetres off the floor. The cook was making quiet gasping and choking sounds, and waving the wooden spoon he was holding. Out of the corner of her eye, Ari saw Tamzin stiffen, her breath quickening. Her eyes were wide as they darted from Ari’s own to Calen’s.
“He has insulted Lady Arianwen,” the Techo proclaimed quietly, holding his sword up. The point glittered in the steamy light, and Atkins swallowed visibly. The Techo guard had been a mere shadow before, following Ari, but now he was a fearsome sight. He was quite tall and thin, with cold black eyes and a hooked nose. His brocaded uniform hung loosely on his lean frame as he moved with pointed ease to place the sword gently against Calen’s neck.
“It is a matter of honour; and, as the King’s Champion, Lady Arianwen is permitted to do as she will with those who insult her honour. It is an old rule.” He looked enquiringly at Ari. Atkins fidgeted and looked ready to say something, but seemed to think better of it, and shut his mouth, looking nervous and upset.
Ari felt herself shaking all over. Her vision was clouded with rage, and it seemed that all she could see were a hundred taunting faces of ten-year-old boys, laughing evilly as they teased her, hurt her.
“Shoulda stayed home, baby,” they all sneered. “Weakling. Girl.”
It was true...
“No!” Ari yelled aloud, her voice trembling. “No.” Quieter; she was in control now. “Amber, let him go.”
The Ixi frowned slightly, and opened her mouth, brandishing the asphyxiating cook. “My lady –”
“I said: let him go!” Ari roared, breathing hard.
“As you wish, My Lady.” The Ixi dropped the Aisha at once, and Calen crumpled into a dirty heap of rags at her feet. The Techo guard sheathed his sword.
“He’s an old man, nothing more. What do I care for insults? They are not delivered from an honourable knight, but from a filthy kitchen slave. Let us continue with our tour.” Ari turned on her heel and swept out of the galley, catching a glimpse of Tamzin as she did so. The pirate was looking at her with something like respect in her green eyes.
The rest of the tour interested Ari little, although there were no more incidents. Captain Atkins made every visible effort to include Ari in his explanations, and the rest of the crew treated her with a kind of awed reverence, as though she were some sort of deity, but despite all, it ended up that he was talking to a nodding Tamzin, and Ari was looking on, feeling irritated, and, she admitted privately, a little lonely. This was a world to which she did not belong. No matter how courteously they treated her, no matter how she was made to feel in-charge, Ari was a stranger in this land, and she knew no more about it than what she had read in books. She had had this feeling before, but it was sharper now, returning with intensity only matched by that she had felt upon entering the castle as a page.
By the time they reached the end of the Grand Tour, Ari was more than a little tired, and annoyed to realise she knew less about ships than she had upon embarking. At least then she had known, or thought she knew, the basics. Now, having discovered that ships were infinitely more complicated than she ever could have imagined, it seemed to her she knew less about them than ever before. She could barely keep the names of the decks straight, let alone the ship’s specifics. At least the crew seemed to have forgotten the cook-incident, and were less cowed and fearful-looking when Captain Atkins called them to line up to meet their new ‘Mistress and crewmates’. Though they would formally answer to Ari as Commander in Charge, the Gelertess could already tell it was merely another useless title. She had no more authority here than the smallest cabin boy.
Ari trudged up onto the foredeck with the rest of the little party, and there the line of crewmen, stretching from one end to the other, stood. They were all dressed much alike in ragged, sea-roughened clothing, and most wore hats and bandanas to keep the sun from their eyes. Captain Atkins led the way to the end of the line, and started to introduce them.
Ari was somewhat hot and tired; the sun was by now high overhead and beating down on her in a blisteringly hot manner. She was bitterly regretting her choice to wear her entire formal clothing, and merely nodded, unfocused, as the Captain introduced each of the crew.
The name startled Ari from her hazy daydream, and she blinked to see a dusky blue-grey Blumaroo standing in front of her. The Blumaroo wore knee-high breeches and a tunic that was cut off sharply at her thighs. She had several pouches hanging off of her swordbelt, and a golden hoop through one ear. She winked at Ari with one shockingly blue eye.
“Mary Elizabeth!” Ari was shoved aside as Tamzin flung herself toward the Blumaroo and wrapped her in a tight embrace.
“Easy, easy,” Mary Elizabeth laughed as they broke away. Tamzin let go, panting, and shoved her hair behind her ears. She had a wild, joyful look on her face.
“You found a crew that weren’t pirates to take you?! I don’t believe it!”
“Toldja I would, didn’t I?” Mary Elizabeth said, her lips twitching. “You still got a lot to learn about Mary Elizabeth, girl.”
There were tears in Tamzin’s eyes, Ari saw incredulously, and the Lupess didn’t seem to care.
“I do,” Tamzin admitted, her voice breaking slightly. Ari shifted from one foot to the other, uncomfortably aware she was caught in the middle of a reunion. She noticed her two guards and Captain Atkins standing slightly off to the side, tactfully looking away.
“Pardon us,” Mary Elizabeth said quickly, seeming to notice Ari’s discomfort. “I am sorry, My Lady. We haven’t seen each other in many years.”
Ari nodded, feeling slightly wistful. Tamzin knew this girl. How much Ari didn’t know about Tamzin.
“A girl in the crew?” Ari asked, after an awkward moment. All the rest of the crew had been men, as was usual. Women weren’t usually allowed aboard ships; they were believed to be bad luck. It wasn’t a woman’s job.
“The only one, mate,” Mary Elizabeth replied with a wry grin. She pulled off a jerky salute. “Until Tamzin comes to join us, of course. Elizabeth Mary Turner, First Mate, at your service, Arianwen. And don’t you go forgettin’ it.” She grinned amiably.
“Mary Elizabeth, this is Lady Arianwen,” Tamzin hastily corrected, turning to Ari. She gave a little bow. “I’m sorry, Lady.” To Mary Elizabeth, she gave a glare as the Blumaroo hastily apologised for her untactful remark. But Ari caught the slight sarcasm in Tamzin’s tone, and the little amused glance the two shared, and suddenly felt incredibly left out. They were having a joke at her expense!
“Oh,” Ari said, trying not to show her disappointment and anger. She would not let herself be humiliated further today.
“Well, and this here’s Berenjay,” Atkins broke in, gesturing at the next crewmember in line. A purple Mynci greeted them politely and doffed his hat to Ari, who sunk once more into her dazed stupor of nodding and looking attentively polite. Would that this day was over now.
To be continued...