Roiniy didn’t like going down to the docks. She was only a small Usul, and often got pushed and shoved in the huge crowds. But she could live with that, and she understood it wasn’t out of malice. It was the pirates who really made her dread the daily trip.
Most of them were scarred, tough, solid-built Krawks, and they would jeer at the passers-by from their moored ship. Sometimes they would pick on her. “Oh, look, it’s a smelly old skunk! That’s where that stink was coming from!”
“I’m black-and-white,” Roiniy would mutter under her breath, but she never dared respond openly. It wouldn’t do to make an enemy of the pirates; complainers had a tendency to disappear. Sure, they turned up eventually, but they were trembling and ashen-faced and never quite themselves again.
Roiniy wished she could avoid the docks, but she had to get fish from somewhere. Roiniy was a shopkeeper, and her customers might have gone somewhere else if she stopped stocking fresh seafood. She’d tried to hire assistants to do the job for her, but none of them lasted very long. The tourists didn’t mind the occasional jibbing—or the “colourful pirate welcome” as the guidebooks described it—but being mocked every day wore you down fast.
So, at 6 o’ clock every morning, she’d steel herself in the mirror. “You’re not smelly,” she told herself. “And no one listens to those stupid pirates.” But as if their words were punches and kicks, she couldn’t guard herself against the pain by willpower alone. As a Usul, Roiniy cared deeply about how she appeared to others, and the pirates seemed adept at striking at the very core of others’ insecurity.
One morning, the abuse was worse than usual. It was pouring with rain, so the dock was free of tourists. Maybe the pirates were particularly bored, because not many boats to attack would be out in the stormy sea, or maybe they just didn’t have their usual range of victims to make fun of. Whatever the reason, as Roiniy hurried down to the fishmongers, they all leant over the side of the ship and called out insults.
“Hey, guys, can you smell that?”
“Someone call pest control!”
“Doesn’t the Grooming Parlour sell deodorant anymore?”
“Wanna come on our boat? You can scare off the sharks for us!”
Roiniy wrapped her coat closer around her, letting the rain mingle with her tears. Those also out in the stinging rain gave her pitying looks, but she knew they were relieved to escape the mockery themselves.
Then, a voice rang out: “Why don’t you all just shut up and leave the poor Usul alone?”
Roiniy couldn’t help but gasp. She whirled around, trying to see who had spoken, but all the passers-by looked just as bemused. Then she realised: the voice had come from the ship. And, more astonishingly, the pirates were slinking away off the decks, and down into the hold. Some of them looked back and glared at her.
“You okay, lady?” shouted the voice.
“Yes,” Roiniy said, timidly. “But where are you?” Then she saw the people around her were looking up, and she followed their gaze, to the crow’s nest, which was veering around precariously in the wind.
A red-hatted and ragged grey Usul, leaning on the side of the barrel, was grinning at her. “Thought you’d see me eventually!” He skimmed down the ladder, and strode over to the side of the ship. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
Roiniy stared at him. “No one’s ever stood up to the pirates before.”
The grey Usul said nothing, but his grin disappeared. He said nothing for a moment, then: “I know.” In one single fluid movement he leapt over the side of the ship, and came up beside Roiniy. “Walk with me.”
Roiniy wasn’t afraid of him. How could she be, when he had spoken out like that? For a little while, the only sound was their footsteps and the pattering rain.
“I will tell you about myself,” he eventually began, “so you understand why I did what I just did.”
He looked down at the wet darkened cobblestones. “My name is Aribual, and I was born on Krawk Island. My mother was a a barmaid at the Golden Dubloon, and I never met my father. Unloved and unwanted, that was my childhood. A sad story but one that's told by many a pirate.”
“I never thought of pirates as having families,” Roiniy admitted.
“You thought we just grew like weeds?” Aribual said, laughing. “Actually, in a way, we do. No one becomes a pirate if they have a family, you can depend upon that.”
“What of your mother?”
“Ah,” said Aribual. He sobered up. “Some people choose not to have a family. Myself, I didn’t think I needed one.” He sighed. “It’s funny, but I wasn’t always grey. My fur was yellow, once. Like the sunshine. I suppose they do say it darkens as you get older.”
Trying to be comforting, Roiniy put a hand on his arm, and noticed with a shock that he wore a hook where his left paw should be. Aribual gave a wry smile. “Hazard of the job. That was Scarblade, but I don’t like to talk about it.”
“I still don’t understand why you stood up for me.”
“For the same reason that I can be here, now, telling you this story,” Aribual said, tracing the outline of his hook with his hand. “Because there is something inside of me that still thinks I may have made the wrong decision. That perhaps captaining a pirate ship is not the way my life is supposed to go.”
“You’re the captain?”
Aribual touched his hat. “Aye. They listen to me, and that scares me. It makes me think, if I am so good with a sword, and so good at making the scarred and the angry obey, what other life could there be for me? You know, I have seen you before, and others too, be teased and mocked by my pirates. Yet this is the first time I have said anything. What does that make me?”
Roiniy stopped, and looked at him. Really, properly looked at him. Saw the scars all over his face, the ragged red shirt clinging to his wet fur, the sharp glinting hook. And looked past those, to see—what? Someone who was scared, and sick of fighting, and alone.
“Come back to my shop with me,” she said.
“Well,” Roiniy said, smiling at him, “it’s getting on near lunchtime, and there’s going to be a queue of customers outside the door. I sure could do with an assistant.”
So from that day on, Aribual hung up his pirate hat. His swordplay skills turned out to translate remarkably well to cooking and food preparation. He was quite happy to look after the shop while Roiniy went down to the docks, as well. She could now walk confidently, ignoring the resentful eyes of the pirates, knowing they were still afraid of their old pirate captain.
Aribual might still be grey, but see that faint smile on his face, and the new twinkle in his eyes? That’s something that comes with having a family, and friends, and being able to laugh and smile again. And the chef’s knife fits better in his hand than a sword ever did.