It is a fact that the act of piracy is rendered ridiculous by the use of a dragon.
When I first dared to put my stamp on that venerable art, the opening move was a gambler's throw. I remember it well: how the salt air would sing with the tension of bows bending on both sides of a narrowing expanse of gray water, and – ah! the tumult and spray of that scaled neck bursting from the sea just aft of the prey, the crack of a splintered rudder if luck was with us! Hydra's bugle-cry was our call to battle. What followed then was sheer poetry: a flurry of shot and bolts filling the air, the screams and the twanging of bows loosed in wild panic. Ahoy! To the ropes, men! Swing across, swords out, and have to! Be bold but merciful, my lads; we're after loot not corpses!
I was young and rash. A cog capsized in its haste to quit the field, and another fight nearly cost me my dearest treasure. Digging a harpoon's barb from Hydra's jaw after that episode, swearing bloody vengeance, I realized we needed a different tack.
Our next act could only be described as slapstick.
I had the ship repainted and armored fantastically along the forecastle, an impressive array of black spines, scales, horns and party jewels plucked from past hauls. The captain's fancy, my men declared it, amused and clever with their own pun. Everyone knew Captain Faris was a dandy in jeweled boots and gilt-and-enameled pauldrons and a wing-collared great-coat that was practically a frigate all by itself. I needed a showy ship to match.
Here, then, is how we proceeded. Spotting a plump carrack riding low in the beam, we would drift alongside, meek as a dolphin. The other vessel's crew peered at us in dumbfoundment: was it a traveling circus, or some rich man's folly? I betook myself to the great dragon-head prow, set my boot on the 'sprit and my hand on my hip, and drew my rapier with a flourish. That was the signal to raise the pirate flag, for there are some niceties one should not forgo. Having thus informed all parties, I bellowed across the water (I do not shriek like a girl, whatever Bosun may say): "Surrender! We want only your goods, not your lives. You've thirty seconds to heave bows overboard and drop blades on deck, or my dragon will burn your ship to the keel!"
Incredulous merriment rang out. What dragon, they wanted to know, hooting and pointing at the theatrical figurehead. Fruitlessly my opposite number fought to restore order and turn her about. Enter dragon. My heart still leapt when Hydra erupted from the water (safely out of range) and arced straight over their ship in a rainbow of scale and spray, crashing into the waves on the far side. Their ship swayed as she thrashed her fins. Only once had a shrewd captain tested my claim that a sea dragon could breathe fire, and I thanked him for the drill: swords and sailors rust quickly out here. Today's victims were more docile. They cast their arrows into the sea along with their bows, and a few chucked their swords in, too, while the rest dropped steel with a clatter. The imp in me wondered if they would've dropped trousers, too, had I ordered it.
Transfer of goods was orderly and efficient. We left crew and captain tied up on deck, where also we left some of their cutlery for freeing themselves once we were away. Three hours later, my crew was still sorting through the day's takings, enjoying a fine brew meant for the king's tables in Walse, while Hydra cavorted around the hull near enough to rock us. Feeling the wheel humming against my gloves, the wind on my face sending my great-coat flapping and my beads jingling, I thought that life could be no finer.
We can't play this game for long, Hydra reminded me, surfacing in the wake. Soon they'll know us: the dragon ship with a peacock captain strutting about on deck. You should change the hull's color from time to time to throw them off. Or at least alter the rigging.
"What, shall I paint it bright yellow to mimic a chocobo? White, mayhap, with a great red ball dangling off the 'sprit like a fishing float? I'd sooner don petticoats and feign a floating brothel, " I said. "So what if they know us? We can catch them if they run."
I can catch them, you mean. Smug as only a lizard could be, she snaked her great head over the rails and presented her chin for scratching. I reached up to comb the dry scales behind her beard. A few sailors glanced up at the odd sight, but they were well used to it. A deck-hand came up with bucket and towel to wipe up Hydra's drippings. Just be careful. Remember your father's caution.
"I remember." I touched my parents' gift, the pendant hidden under my cravat. Father had warned me of bodies slung from the yard arm, royal navies mustered to quash pirates who overfished the seas.
The ship quivered. I opened my mouth to scold Hydra for leaning her weight on the wales, then realized the cause came above, not below. The wind had slackened. Our sales luffed, belled, gasped for breath and caught again, but only halfway, fluttering on a weak breeze. There was no thunderclap, no boiling seas, no pillar of fire lighting the sky to herald the world's doom — those came later — but that extraordinary hush under a clear blue sky magnified every ship's creak to a portent. Hydra fretted above me, grooming her whiskers.
"Storm brewing?" I said, scanning the cloudless horizon.
Not that kind of storm. Ribbons of fear skittered down my neck over the link. That alarmed me: what could frighten a dragon? She keened her distress against my fingertips, twisted away and dove. A moment later, I felt the ship's shudder as she put her head in the tow-harness and began to swim. Disquieted, I took a firm grip of the wheel with both hands, holding us steady against her lunges. She had my leave to steer.
The second mate had noticed. Approaching the ladder, Bosun gave a sharp salute and looked up at me.
"Change of course, Cap'n?"
"A prospect of pigs in the next one's inventory, Bosun," I said. "She's smelt bacon on the wind."
He gave me a skeptical look. "'Tain't likely we'll run into shipping that way; there's no port southwest but ours."
"Wait and see."
That was the first omen.
The second came at midnight. Under a waxing moon, I found myself walking off sleeplessness after claiming another man's watch. Hydra was still agitated, making straight for our secret haven. Pacing the deck in thought, I was engrossed in composing a speech to mollify the crew for missing our next mark. Gradually I became aware of a blue-white glow seeping through the silk scarf at my throat. Moonbeams? Too much moonshine?
Flicking the scarf aside, I found the source. My pendant! It was the one plain thing I wore, a tarnished, pitted disc like pewter that dully reflected the moon. Not so plain now! Faint lines of a stylized wing-emblem had appeared under its patina, gleaming like molten lace. Hydra's splashing jarred me from contemplation as she pressed me to look up, up! I looked. For an instant I spotted a sinuous dark shape flitting across the moon with a flash that might have been armor. It was gone in an eye-blink, heading north.
"What was it?" I said.
Hiryuu. A wind drake, a prince.
"Oho! Want me to hail him for you?" A touch of arrogance on my part. The unknown drake was too distant to reach, and Hydra was the only dragon I had ever spoken to, besides the S.S. Dragoon, of course.
Hiryuu, she said again, troubled, and submerged.
The third omen came at dawn with a roar of thunder.
It roused me from a bundle of nets where I had bedded down, unwilling to go below with Hydra in such a state. A spike of warning jarred me awake. I opened my eyes to see a long red streak, a diabolo cast from some celestial slingshot, ripping across the sky straight north to south. Men were shouting, falling to the deck and covering their heads as I jumped to my feet. The white-hot fireball cast off burning sparks as it progressed through the upper air in eerie silence like a shark cutting the water. At length it sank over the horizon. The crew gave more cries of wonder and terror as a fireball billowed up and spread outwards in a plumed column of smoke rising to the very clouds.
Pandemonium was breaking out. I was inclined to join those making a run on the rum barrel, but it was my job to bluster and laugh at mere lights in the sky.
"What are you seal pups whimpering about? It wasn't aimed at us," I said. "Or if it was, we're not home."
"Home!" Bosun said. "The Queen o' Karnak's gone and sent a fireball to our hideout!"
"That she didn't. Get a hold of yourself, man. Think. Whoever shot that flaming arrow could have put all the fires of Karnak in a pipe and smoked 'em." Besides, although I was too discreet to note it, the Queen had fond memories of a pirate captain who had landed in her dungeons after a misunderstanding with the portmaster. I could not believe that she had come to rue that dalliance— why, she'd probably yet to miss the jewels I'd nicked! No, whatever that fiery missile was, it came from above.
Hydra's sensible notion was to keep well out to sea until the conflagration burned itself out. However, some of my crew were anxious for their women and children. Cowardice was not one of my flaws, and to refuse their petition would invite mutiny. So I coaxed and soothed and held Hydra to her course.
By such innocent choices we chain our course to fortune's whirlpool. So I bound my fate to that of the princess, at the cost of ship, dragon, and everything else I held dear.