We returned to a port in disarray, but our womenfolk and children were safe and hale, if shaken. They had sought shelter in the caves just in time. The meteor's fall had jostled the cove like a cask, sending harbor-waves crashing into the wharfs and docks. There was light damage, a few skiffs sunk, but no lives lost. It took a week and many hands to clear the flotsam and set the harbor to rights. We were resting a day before setting out when something even more momentous fell into my life: all five foot three of her.
I had just returned from filling potion-bottles from our magic spring when Hydra alerted me to intruders. I grabbed six men and raced back to the Dragoon. I expected to find nothing more than one of the younger lads having a bit of fun. Instead I found three strangers: a tall youth in riding leathers with his hand on my wheel, if you please; a shaggy old coot in armor even more ancient than he was; and a winsome waif in a gossamer gown that was more likely to distract foes with bared leg than turn a sword-point. I ordered my men to surround and disarm them. How the thieves had thought to pilot the ship without nautical knowledge nor wind I cannot imagine.
Pirates have an appreciation for fair things, so I greeted the maiden with a bow and a light kiss across the knuckles before inquiring whether it was brass or mere stupidity that had prompted their misguided attempt at piracy.
She blushed but did not cringe. "Allow me to apologize, Captain, for our unlawful attempt on your vessel. My name is Princess Lenna of Tycoon—"
The explosions of disbelief from her companions gave me a moment to collect myself.
"—and perhaps you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I fear my father is in danger, and I go to aid him. I beg you for passage."
"Your father, eh?" the old one said. "Well, I guess that's as good a reason as any."
"Why didn't you tell us, Lenna?" said the other, interested but not overawed.
"The princess?" I said, lounging against the wheel. "Now here's a prize. She'll command a fine ransom, won't she, boys?" My men's guffaws redoubled when I ruffled one of her strawberry blond ringlets. "A pity we're so hard up for cash. I should like a cabin boy."
There were a few wolfish whistles at that. Lenna batted my hand away, wrinkling her nose. The lad in chocobo leathers advanced upon me with his fists. Did he think the rapier at my hip was just for show? "You leave your hands off her, you treacherous, filthy, leering, piratey...pirate!"
I rolled my eyes. "What did the old man call you just now? Butz?"
"Please," said Lenna, "You will be compensated for your trouble. I formally petition that you convey us to the Wind Shrine before the winds fail altogether. Your own livelihood is at stake, Captain, for if we do not succeed, you will have no means to sail."
"Is that so?" I said, grinning down at her. A gleam caught my eye and drew my gaze lower, prompting a snort from the codger. He mistook my aim. Shining between a fine pair of pullets was a necklace twin to my own, minus the wear and tear. Even in sunlight, the blue-white tracery of a dragon's wing gleamed faintly on the metal disc.
Hydra! She's wearing my necklace!
Smugness filtered back through the link. Aren't you moving a little fast?
Batten it, you big gossip. That's not what I meant.
Gossip? I won't tell a soul. Except the girl, perhaps?
"Tie them up," I said, exasperated. "We'll see if the other two are worth a ransom somewhere."
My men bundled our newest trophies down to the brig, with a few leers towards Lenna. Brave girl! Braver than a pirate captain, if she only knew it. Thank the four winds she had bodyguards. I trusted my men, but still, they were pirates.
The ransom, now. I wondered, in retrospect, if holding the princess hostage would bring more grief than loot. My father had always warned against provoking Tycoon. That king of theirs was capable, and might not take kindly to a man who kidnapped his only daughter. Why pay ransom when you could hang the lot? Even with him gone, his underlings might have more access to soldiers than the royal coffers, and anyway they'd be anxious to atone for having mislaid their charge. On the whole, it might be best to divest the princess and her escort of valuables and send them on their way.
And what of that pendant of hers? I drew mine out to ponder it. The surface was only dull metal now, making me doubt what I had seen, had I not seen hers do the same. Mother had called it a good luck charm, but I had always thought it just a bit of plunder, the sort of bauble one gives youngsters before they learn to sort diamonds from glass. Had mine been stolen from a Tycoon vessel, and might that account for Father's caution concerning regal tonnage? I suppose I could ask the princess if any member of her household had ever been waylaid by pirates before.
Something Hydra had said earlier struck me. "Hydra? What did you mean you'd tell the girl? Did she speak to you?"
Of course not. Hydra sounded muzzy. I had a vague impression of her great bulk coiled loosely around the hull like a cockatrice guarding its egg, rocking gently on the ocean's swell. She didn't see me. But she reminds me of you.
"Ha." I shucked off my greatcoat and laid it across the foot of the bed, with my rapier over it. "I'll credit her for pluck, but she needs a fair bit of schooling to qualify as a pirate princess."
Gratified by Hydra's assessment, I decided to postpone the ransom— for now— and humor Lenna's petition. Mayhap we could gain a reward instead of a ransom, and the favor of Tycoon for keeping her safe. A fat chest of gold at the other end of the venture, perhaps? There, a course plotted between shoals. Satisfied, I bolted the door, snuffed lights and slept soundly.
The men were confounded on the morrow when I ordered the captives freed, but my crew were good lads and hopped to it. I had some sport with our guests over our departure.
Lenna came hurrying up to me amidst the bustle of casting off ropes and weighing anchor. To thank me, I supposed, but all she said was, "How are we to sail in this wind?"
Smart lass; she had noticed the reefed sails. "Curious one, aren't you?" I raised my voice, more for her sake than the dragon's. "Hydra, come up and greet our bonny princess! It's time she met our first mate."
Bartz was jogging up to us in belated haste to play bodyguard. I had a clear view of his goggle-eyed gape when Hydra surfaced off the bow and trumpeted skywards. She always put on a brave show.
It was Lenna's reaction I wanted to observe. She clapped her hand over her mouth, stifling a small scream, but her eyes were shining after the first shock. Unconsciously she drifted to the bulwark, eagerly stretching her fingers towards the river of scales streaking upwards just beyond reach. I could see the charm-necklace dangling, glittering as it twirled, but its face was unmarked now like mine.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" I said, leaning past her to cup Lenna's hand and draw her back. She was liable to lose the skin off her fingertips doing that without gloves. Bartz made an exasperated sound. Releasing her, I left the pair standing there watching the dragon leap in the sun. Truly, Hydra's scales sparkled like a thousand emeralds and sapphires in the early morning light. Picking up my mood, the dragon shook herself joyously like a dog, spattering them before plunging back down to take up the tow-harness. I grinned and hastened aft and took up my post at the wheel. A light side-to-side wiggle let Hydra know we were ready, and she set to with a heave.
Once we had cleared the harbor and were running on the open sea, I handed off the wheel to my second mate and came forward to check on our guests. They were making a late meal in the forecastle talking over their travels. I slowed my pace to hear something of meteors and the old man's memory problems— what, had he survived getting hit on the head with that sky-rock? – before they noticed my eavesdropping.
"What?" Bartz said. He made a show of letting his hand hover near a knife in his boot. I would have to speak to my sailors about double-checking for concealed weapons.
"Thought I'd apologize for the shower. Hydra's a playful soul." I directed the comment towards Lenna, who was nibbling a biscuit with elbows propped on the horns of the dragon-head prow. It jutted out like half a crow's nest, serving as a lookout post for those who dared stand on the planks bolted to the bowsprit, or my pulpit for our piratical performances. The princess stood there fearlessly in her dainty heeled sandals, leaning out to glimpse Hydra plowing the sea below. Her pale blue gown and gold fringed sash streamed behind her, mostly dried already from the wind of our passage.
She started. I could see the gooseflesh on her bare arms. "Captain?"
"You're like to catch a chill, standing up here in your nightie. Come down to the hold; I'll loan you some gear." I gestured back towards the hatch. "I've got garb for lads that should fit you."
"I'm not cold," she said softly, and turned her eyes back towards the horizon.
I rolled my eyes. "Yes you are, and you're not dressed for adventure, neither. Come on, love. You festoon the rail most fetchingly, but you're distracting the crew."
"And the captain, I'd wager," the old coot said.
She blushed at that. "Oh, well—"
"I'm coming too," Bartz announced, hopping to his feet.
"Suit yourself," I said, "but you'll wait outside like a proper gent, same as me. My lady?" I offered my hand. She had good sea-legs, but it would be lubber's luck if she pitched over the railing balancing on those quills.
We went below, with Bartz amiably nipping at my heels. "I didn't know pirates collected etchings. Or is it stamps?"
We ambled through the dark-panelled passage smelling of lamp oil and tar, my steps sure while my guest adjusted their eyes to the ship's lanterns. There was a moment's trepidation at my cabin door: on my part more than Lenna's, truth be told. Had I hid away all tell-tales? Banishing doubts, I flung open the door and stepped aside. "In there, if you please, my lady. Closet's starboard, and you'll find a few things to fit. Remember we're liable to meet monsters if there's any trouble at the tower."
"I know." She had a bodkin, I recalled. I would be interested to discover if Tycoon made sure its princesses knew how to defend themselves. After the door had shut behind her with a clack, latch thrown, I turned back to Bartz.
"So, you're her champion, and I take it you've saved her from a few scrapes already," I said, lowering my voice. "Can she fight at all? Aught other skills? There's beasties around the Wind Shrine that could trample her flat."
"Champion? Hardly. I'm just tagging along." He relaxed a little. "Sure, Lenna can fight. Don't underestimate her."
"I'm the last to do such a thing, believe me. But if we're to run into any trouble, I want to know my allies' mettle."
"In that case, give us back our weapons, and we'll show you." He eyed my rapier meaningfully.
I nodded. "When we reach our destination. I'd rather not give our bonny princess another chance at commandeering my ship."
He chuckled. "That pet dragon of yours would stop us."
"I don't underestimate anyone," I said with a bow. "Speaking of which, who's the old dog?"
"Oh, Galuf?" He shook his head. "Met him on the road. No idea. Wildman of the woods, I guess, some kind of hermit. Lost his memory. Must've fallen and hit his head during the quakes that meteor set off."
"Hm." Galuf's armor was weathered and battle-scarred, but the beaten leather spoke of a custom job and fine workmanship. He had been somebody important once.
"He's good enough for two in a fight," Bartz said, "Fuzzy memory or no. Fought off four goblins bare-handed when he was still groggy from the knock. Probably a retired mercenary."
"In whose army?" I laughed. "Doesn't seem the type to take orders, and that's not Tycoon's livery or Karnak's. Ah, well, I'll learn the cut of your jib soon enough. I can spare only ten days for your princess' errand, mind; I've got a boat to catch in a fortnight."
He groaned. "Pirates."
"At your service."
The door opened tentatively. We turned and drew ourselves straight like boys found too near the apple-barrel. Lenna had chosen sensible leathers, rust-red hunting gear that Karnak had given me for a falconry outing. The princess and I were of a size, I observed, despite my greater height.
"That's better," I said. "Later, we'll find you some pins to practice sparring."
"Thank you, Captain." She gave me a troubled look, one that nagged me all the way up into the sunshine. Had I left some never-you-mind out in the open for her to find? Preoccupied, I returned to the wheel to relieve Bosun. Bartz headed forward to brief Galuf, but Lenna lagged behind. Stealing close, she murmured with mild reproach, "What happened to your last 'cabin-boy'? She's not on the boat now, is she?"
Ah, so that was it. "My lips are sealed," I said, eyes twinkling, "But I assure you, princess, she fares very well. I trained her to look after herself, and she's making her way in the world."
"I see." The princess pursed her lips, then fixed her eyes on the horizon with pinched, sad determination. "Train me."
Lessons started at midday, while we unyoked Hydra for a few hours to let her feed and rest. The princess knew some footwork, and she was downright vicious in close quarters. Someone had taught her how to mortally inconvenience a body standing behind her or trying to hale her away. I was glad she had not tested her training on my crew. But she was timid about striking out; she might let a beast latch onto her leg before she hurt it. Also, she wanted more muscle before she could wield a sword. So I gave her a belaying-pin for a dirk, and we began a game of slice-and-harry around and around the mast. Circling like kites, we feinted and darted, focused on each other's knees and shoulders for the signals I was teaching her. Off-duty sailors soon gathered around to heckle. Lenna's cheeks reddened at some of their suggestions, but she only came after me the fiercer. At last, she struck my wrist under the vambrace hard enough to jar my grip. My pin fell with a clatter. A huzzah rose from the spectators. At last, a smile on that wan face! I tugged my forelock, conceding the touch while celebrating a private victory.
A plank creaked behind me. Pivoting, I came near to punching old Galuf in the nose, thinking it was Bartz creeping up to play a prank.
Galuf stepped back spryly and shook his head. "Useless," said he, "Unless you're trying to turn our princess into a gnat. What good is a dirk against troll-hide or hard scale? Give the girl a staff. Doubles for casting, if she ever learns spell-work."
"I can heal, a little," Lenna gasped, wringing her hand as if the blow had stung her fingers.
"There you are," Galuf said. "If you please, Captain?"
"All right," I grumbled, heading for the harpoon rack, "But why every drill sergeant thinks the lasses should fight with a rod rather than a brand, I'm blowed if I know. Here. This should be long enough." I pulled out a broken spear with no barb and checked it for splinters, then tossed it over. Galuf examined it too, hefting it for balance, then put in into the girl's hands and began adjusting her grip. I retired to the mast again with arms folded, watching them.
Bartz, lounging on a crate, hopped down and walked over to the rack to pick up a long hook used to grapple a dock or enemy ship. "Captain?" he said with an easy grin. "I could use training, too."
"Like as not," I said, joining him and selecting another, "But you're no naif, and I'm not fool enough to take you for one. Ha!"
He dodged my swipe easily, hooking a stay to lift himself up and aim a boot at my gut. Excellent. I much preferred brawling. Fending off the rope to push him aside, I darted away and clattered up to the forecastle to give Galuf and his student space without distractions.
"You're vexed at old Galuf, aren't you?" Bartz asked, sweeping at my calves.
"How's that?" I said, hopping over the grapple and aiming a jab with the butt-end of mine at his codpiece.
"Taking—ack! Lenna off your hands." Bartz moved fast when he needed to.
His hook snarled in my great-coat, just missing the back of my knee. I spun away to let the tails fly for a screen. "What of it?" I said. "Old man's lost his tackle, but he's still got experience. Two score o' years on you and me, at least. Save us having to babysit her when we get there."
"Ah." There was a lull in our speech while we danced a jig, weaving around the forecastle and trading bruises. At length, Bartz herded me right out onto the bowsprit into the dragon-head's cage. I vaulted up onto the snout just as the ship heaved. Bartz stumbled. Kicking off, I added the ship's upward lurch to my own jump. My feet landed less than square on his chest, but he went down under me all the same. Both of us struck the deck hard enough to have the wind kicked out of our chests. Just as well; I was too breathless to give myself away with the wrong sort of laughter. We were still lying there like upturned sea-turtles when I heard light feet on the ladder and a little gasp of "Oh!"
I picked myself up to find Lenna hurrying towards us, Galuf following with a mild scowl.
"I thought you two had fallen overboard!" Lenna said. She knelt by Bartz. "Did the captain hurt you much?"
"Nope. Captain...cheated!" that rascal said, croaking for air but cheerful. "Dragon moved the ship."
I never, Hydra told me.
"She's not hitched up, remember?" I held out an arm. "Here, lad, up with you. You just need sea legs. I reckon I'd be out of my depth fighting from choco-back."
"Thanks." Swaying to his feet, he cocked his head at Lenna and Galuf. "So, how'd it go?"
"She'll toughen up," Galuf allowed.
Lenna stamped. "I hit him. Twice."
"That she did," Galuf said, grinning, "Though the first time would've left her wide open for a blow, and she'd never have landed the second." He yawned. "Oh, I'm that tuckered. Sea air makes a body sleepy."
"She wore you out, old man," Bartz said. "Maybe you need a nap."
"Here." I drew my flask from my coat and passed it over. "Try this. Puts hair on the chest. Not that you need it, old man, but choco-boy here could use the help."
"So says the dandy who's not old enough to shave," Galuf said, but he downed a good swallow and smacked his lips. "That's good. They don't make that stuff in... in..." He wrinkled his forehead. "Dangit."
I snorted. "Merry shipmates you've brought me, princess."
We settled down against the bulwarks to catch our breaths. Bartz picked up the ship-hook and turned it idly in his hands. "So, Captain, why are you helping us, anyhow?" he said. "Helping her?"
"Looks and loot," Galuf said, ticking off his fingers promptly.
"He'd get more loot if he'd held out for ransom," Bartz pointed out. "I guess it's looks."
Lenna blushed again. "That's enough, you two."
"Maybe I buy the princess' story about the Wind Crystal," I retorted. "I can sail all over this puddle with Hydra's help, but there's not much profit in it if everyone else is becalmed."
"There's an honest pirate," Galuf said, handing the flask to Bartz. "The wolf guarding the ewes so he'll have lambs next spring."
Bartz spluttered over the strong drink and passed it hastily onto Lenna, who stared at the leather-wrapped bottle uneasily before taking a very small sip. She was too polite to spit it out, but I saw the wince before she returned it to me. It was nothing like the vintage shipped from Thule to Tycoon for the king's banquets, as I had cause to know.
Lenna looked troubled. "Do you... kill people when you...?"
"Does your father kill when he makes war? I'm a pirate, not a flower-seller," I said. "Not if we can avoid it, though: there's no market for corpses, and wine from a dead man tastes fouller than that stuff." Her shoulders relaxed subtly at my words, and she took another sip. "Most ships will share their cargo with a bit o' persuasion. Hydra helps. We give 'em a good scare, and they're happy to part with some barrels and crates for their lives."
It was Galuf's turn to look indignant. "You've turned a dragon to piracy?"
"So?" I waved a hand. "It's all a game to her! What else would she do with herself, pose on battlements looking important?"
Moat monster, Hydra supplied, popping up behind us with a messy splash over the prow. I laughed out loud.
Galuf shook his head. "'S not proper," he grumbled.
"Says the man who can't remember," I chuckled. "Why, I bet Tycoon uses wind drakes for window washers on all those big towers, and you've just forgotten."
"Hiryuu, my father's dragon—" Lenna looked wistful. "They were raised together, like you and Hydra. He keeps my father safe."
"So how do you know your father's in trouble?"
The princess shrugged helplessly. "I... I don't know. The meteor..."
"But you ran away from Tycoon Castle before the meteor fell," Bartz pointed out.
Lenna shook her head. "I can't explain it. I've felt something awful's on its way, ever since the wind began to fail. It's like a storm building, you know? But father wouldn't let me come with him and Hiryuu."
"A wind drake for the king of Tycoon," Galuf mused. "And a sea dragon for a pirate captain. Are such things common?"
"Of course not," Bartz snickered. "Wow, must be weird going through life without knowing anything."
"At least I have an excuse," Galuf harrumphed, "Unlike some."
"Can you—" Lenna ducked her eyes towards the waves— "Does Hydra talk to you?"
The question caught me off-guard. My crew never asked: I was the lad who had tamed the great sea-beast, and that was enough for them. They seemed to think I wielded some kind of power over the sea, enough to make me captain after old Onis had his sides staved in during a brawl. "We understand each other, I reckon," I said.
"Hm." She wrapped her arms around her shoulders. "My...my father could, too."
"Can," I said heartily. Slapping my knee, I arose. "So. Time for us to be moving on, eh? My lady." I sketched a courtly bow. "Hold ye fast; she's apt to pitch when we start off." Heading aft, I nearly tripped down the ladder as Hydra put her head in the harness and tugged, hard.
Falling for her, Hydra chortled.
Stow it, you big lamprey.
Clear blue skies, the open sea, the crew bustling about on the day's chores with a salute and a "Cap'n" on every lip, the ship skimming above and Hydra below, and the fairest maid in the Inner Sea adorning the forecastle... what could possibly go wrong?