Pirates of Shenkuu: Part One
Pirates. Just the word alone conjures up images of scarred and peg-legged pets in raggedy striped shirts, brandishing cutlasses and striking fear in every Neopet's heart. "Liberating" goods from merchant and passenger ships, weathering the great storms of the open seas.
"It's just the way things are, Aisheng," she says, leaning back against the counter and hiding a yawn. "Pirates are sailors. You can't be a sailor without the sea."
"Why don't you ask the Cyodrake's Gaze crew if they consider themselves sailors, then," I grumble. "See what they say. I'll bet you they'll throw a cutlass at you just for getting in their way--"
"Cutlasses aren't Shenkuuvian," she mutters, flicking her chocolate-colored tail.
"He has got a point, Nishi," says Panbu. I flash my best friend a grateful look for coming to my rescue. As usual, the plump black Bruce is seated at a table, gorging himself on food. This time it's fried noodles with artichoke and a tray of chokato dumplings.
The Brown Draik glares at him, fingering her sai. "Stop encouraging him, Panbu. It's about time Aisheng got a real job and stopped daydreaming about this pirate stuff."
"A real job? Like what? We can't all be assistants to the Weapons Master like you are."
Nishi smirks, flattered that I've remembered her job. "That's right, I am." To illustrate the point she flips the sai neatly into the air and catches it with her other hand.
"Show-off," I mutter under my breath to Panbu, and he nods in agreement. Nishi flashes us an annoyed look.
"You could work here at Dandan's Dishes, with me," Panbu suggests, but I wrinkle my nose. Slaving about all day in a hot, smelly kitchen is NOT my idea of fun.
"Well, you've got to do something," Nishi points out. "You could help out at Fanciful Fauna. . .wait tables at one of the restaurants. . .maybe if the Weapons Master is feeling generous, you can polish some of the weapons for a few NP." She flashes me a condescending smile, and I roll my eyes and look away.
"Panbu! What are you doing?"
The plump Bruce whirls around, a noodle stuck in his mouth. "Hezi?" He swallows guiltily and pushes the tray of half-finished dumplings behind his back. "I'm doing nothing, nothing at all."
The Gray Gelert steps forward, wringing his hands on his grease-splattered apron. "Stop eating the merchandise, Panbu. We're opening in a few minutes. Huanghua's sick today, so I need you to wait tables."
Panbu sighs guiltily and sneaks the last dumpling into his mouth before sliding his dirty dishes onto the counter. "Yes, Hezi."
The owner of Dandan's Dishes turns to us, already moving Panbu's plate and tray into a sink behind the counter. "Aisheng and Nishi, is it? Are you two going to be dining with us today?"
"No, we already ate at Exotic Foods," I say, and Hezi's face twists in displeasure.
"Everyone goes there," he mutters. "No one visits the smaller restaurants. Ever since that blasted Nimmo got back from his trip aboard that air ship--"
"The Cyodrake's Gaze," I say reverently. "The best air ship that ever was."
"Even they aren't safe from pirates though, eh?" Hezi murmurs, turning his face toward us. "No one around here is."
"Pirates?" I prick up my ears at that and immediately turn my attention toward the old restaurant owner.
"The only REAL pirates are at Krawk Island," Nishi sniffs, flipping her sai into the air again. This time she curls her tail around it and sends it zinging into the flimsy wooden walls. It trembles, lodging itself in the wooden slats.
"Watch it," Hezi says, glaring at the Draik, before turning his attention to me again. "Pirates aren't only found on the sea, young Scorchio. In fact, some of the best fly on the air."
"Well, of course there are those little black boats that rob merchant ships," Nishi interrupts. "But they're just wannabes. They aren't real pirates."
"She's right," I say, for once agreeing with Nishi. "A true pirate travels the world, seeing all of Neopia's greatest sights. Travel and excitement is more important to them than stealing from merchants or traders."
"Yes, well," Hezi says, turning his face away. "There are some that aren't as idealistic as you, Aisheng. Yes, there are little boats flying around here like Nishi says. They are mere annoyances. No, I'm talking about the greatest air pirate that ever lived."
"And who would that be?" Panbu asks, trying to distract Hezi so he can sneak around the Gelert and nab a piece of stuffed tofu.
Hezi slaps Panbu's hand away and places his hands on the table, his eyes glowing. "Ah, that is quite a tale," he murmurs. "They say the ship only flies on the blackest of nights, in the darkest of storms. It's a legend that makes the tale of the Cyodrake's Gaze look like a children's story. For as long as the pets of Shenkuu can remember, the Black Dandan has roamed the skies, striking terror in the hearts of traders."
"I haven't heard of the Black Dandan," Nishi scoffs. All the same, her hand tightens around her sai.
"I think I might have," Panbu muses, dipping his hand behind his back to hide the stolen tofu. "Grandmother told me a black ship flies in the storms to steal children who won't go to sleep. I thought she was making it up, though."
"Duh, Panbu," Nishi snaps. "She just wanted you to go to sleep."
"Well, I didn't know," the Bruce says defensively, throwing his hands up.
"Ask any trader," Hezi goes on, looking desperate to recapture our attention. "The captain of the ship's name--though few know it--strikes fear in the heart of every trader. Merchants flee before him."
"Come to think of it, I have heard of thefts among food merchants lately," Panbu says thoughtfully. "Some of the restaurants have been running out of my favorite food."
"You would pay attention to the food," Nishi snorts.
Hezi opens his mouth, about to say something when the front door opens. A family of three walks into the restaurant, laughing and joking with each other. The mother folds her parasol, leaning it carefully against the opposite wall. The father lifts his small son into the air, as the little one shouts with glee.
"Well," Nishi says grandly, "I'd best be getting to work. The Weapons Master doesn't like to be kept waiting." She strides past us, looking for all the world like the empress with her haughty expression and prance-like step.
"You'd think she was the Weapons Master herself," Panbu comments, his mouth half-full with tofu. "Look, Aisheng, don't feel too bad about the whole pirate thing. I mean, I'm sure you could do it--you're the best in fighting class with the practice fans, and I've seen you with your father's ship."
"Yeah," I say sadly. "It's just the matter of getting a ship."
"And a crew," Panbu points out. Hezi is already in the kitchen, bickering with the assistant cook.
"Would you be in my crew?" I ask hopefully. "You're not half-bad with steering a ship, either. I mean, I know your parents aren't traders like mine, but. . .you're still pretty good."
"Sure, Aisheng. You know I'd be in your crew." Panbu sighs with contentment. "I'd love to see the world. All the food out there. . .Altador's salads and breads. . .Terror Mountain's slushies and cocoa. . .I'd love it."
"I know you would." I smile, but then it falters as something occurs to me. "But two isn't much of a crew. And besides, there's still the matter of a ship." We fall silent, and I put my head on my hands, resting my elbows on the counter. "I wouldn't steal anything," I murmur. "So I guess I wouldn't be your ordinary pirate. No. But I'd take down the bad pirates, like the Black Dandan, and go exploring. See the world. I'd love to get out of Shenkuu."
"It's not half bad. Pretty good food." Panbu yawns, glancing toward the kitchen. Hezi's busy yelling at the cook.
I nudge him and grin. "There's more to life than food, Panbu. Anyways, I'd better get back home."
The Shadow Bruce nods, and I'm almost out the door when he yells something at me.
"What?" I ask, struggling to make myself heard over the clamor. Dandan's Dishes has never been the most crowded of places, but today business is booming. It must have something to do with the new shipment of food they got in--boxes of fresh Chokato and other fruits from Meridell's farmlands, and exotic berries from the Lost Desert. People around here seem to like foreign food.
"I said, what are you going to do?" Panbu leans forward on his stool. "If you can't be a pirate, and you don't want to work in one of the shops or restaurants. . ."
I sigh. "I guess I'll have to be a trader like my dad," I mutter.
"That ought to be fun! You'll still get to steer a ship, right?" Panbu points out.
I shake my head. "It's not the same. My dad's boat is too small to take for long journeys, so I'd be stuck in Shenkuu, carrying the same old supplies back and forth between the same old shops and restaurants. The boat's small and goes slow, so I'd be at the mercy of the 'pirate wannabes', as Nishi calls them."
Panbu pats me on the shoulder. "Don't be so down, Aisheng. At least you'll get to have a ship."
"I guess," I mutter, shrugging his hand away. I walk quickly through the crowded aisles of the restaurant, ducking out the door and into the cold mists outside. Ahead I can see my father's trading ship, tottering in the air like a Naleap in a bad storm.
No, more like a Naleap stuck in a cage. Eyes as wide as the world and ready to catch the winds of foreign lands on its wings, but too small, too weak, too trapped to do so.
To be continued...