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The Princess and the Pirate

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Five days to the Wind Shrine, at least: without a carrying wind, I would not risk Hydra's constitution, however much the hanging sails warned me that the princess' tale was no lie. Lenna's frantic need beat on us more than the breezes. Powerless, silent, she never begged nor even asked, but Hydra sensed it and strove. I wondered at that, for as far as I knew, I was still the only one who could speak to the sea-dragon. The wind, was all Hydra would tell me. We go to find the wind. She swam valiantly. She did not like putting her head out of the water, into that stale gray sky.

Meanwhile, Bartz was a godsend, for my sailors were mostly idle and wondering what this errand was all about. He capered, he taught them new tricks with dice; he had them all roaring with stories of chocobo eggs and dung balls. Most of all, he helped with the mending, polishing, mopping and painting, for I had ordered the whole ship turned inside-out to keep idle hands occupied. Every time we paused to give Hydra a rest, I would order a space roped off between the masts for us to practice sword-play.

By the third day, Galuf had taken charge of drills for all four of us. I tolerated his gruff handling with flip insouciance before my crew, but in truth he was a hard taskmaster. I would not have tolerated his instruction else. At times I thought I might kill him before we reached the shrine, but if I did, I first would have to learn how.

"One!" Galuf hollered, tossing an apple at my head. "Four!" I parried up, then down, as Lenna obediently lashed at my ankle with her staff. "Seven!"

"How can he remember all that and not where he comes from?" Bartz groused, blocking my thrust amidships. He and I were using wooden practice-weapons now, weighted like my rapier and his gladius. I had restored their true weapons to them two nights ago, with a few upgrades.

"He's lost his history," I said, rapping Lenna's leg lightly as a reminder. "Not his craft. Mark my words, he's a military man."

"Less words, more focus!" Galuf barked, clouting me with a fishing rod. "One! Seven! Four!"

Tired, Hydra complained. Can we hunt something? I'm hungry.

"Hunt it yourself," I snapped, attention divided. Lenna's peck at my ribs glanced off, but Bartz's down-stroke caught my shin and dropped me hard as a boom. I swore a blistering oath and kicked his shanks out from under him. Lenna backed away, forgetting her follow-through. It amused me that sailor's speech could still daunt her. Abandoning the drill, Bartz and I rolled on the deck, wrestling. The hubbub behind us rose as my men traded wagers. As if their captain would lose!

"Tempers, lads," Galuf said. "Up, and again."

"Target Galuf," I growled, knowing better. Bartz winked, rolled off of me and flung himself at Galuf when I did. Lenna followed our lead. Roaring, Galuf wrenched her staff away from her and laid about himself like a loose beam until all three of us were crumpled at his feet, groaning. I rose first, ignoring the disagreeable throb across my tailbone, and touched my forelock. "You know, you'd be welcome among my crew when we've tied up this venture," I said, retrieving my fallen poker. "I fancy you could help me whip these idlers into shape." I flicked the tip towards some of the sailors who had gathered to gawk. They scattered, catching the glint of my glower. Once they had all scurried off to chores real or invented, I winked at Galuf and rubbed my backside.

He cracked a toothy grin. "Oh, I imagine you keep 'em in fine fettle, Captain. Tycoon and Walse are probably short on wine and salt as it is." Brow furrowing, he stooped abruptly beside Lenna, tilting her head back and manipulating it gently. She was out cold.

My mirth drained away. "Damn you, Galuf, she's just a kid."

"So are you, sonny-boy. You lead, but you don't think." His gnarled hands were tender as he sprinkled a tuft of phoenix down across her temples. I tapped a fingernail against the pommel, waiting tensely until she opened her eyes and gave him a dazed smile.

"Ooo." She brushed her knuckles against her forehead. "Too slow, wasn't I?"

"Nah, I swung wild. Here. You lie quiet a bit." Patting her cheek, he gathered her lightly as a lamb and carried her over to a bale of canvas, making her comfortable. Then he turned to Bartz. That knave had his eyes squeezed shut and played dead when Galuf nudged him. His protruding tongue was less than convincing. Galuf snorted and left him. "So." He turned to me and spread his hands. "You want me, boy? One on one, then. No innocents in the cross-fire."

"Bastard," I said, aching to join my prone comrades. Following him to the far side of the mast, I dipped my sword in salute and braced myself for the gale. Galuf picked up a couple of belaying pins, twirled them like battle axes and came at me hammer-and-tongs.

Soon, I promised Hydra, dancing madly to save my skin while I struggled to find an opening. I'm sorry, old friend. Have a bite and a snooze. We'll cover a few more leagues today, but we'll rest as long as you like at the Wind Shrine.

On the eve of the following day, we dropped anchor in the lee of a green headland from which the tower rose like a crag. If lee one could call it: the sea was quite becalmed. Flat gray waters reflected a looming wall of dark forest marching right down to the shingle. Wisps of white mist clung low, flat as a lens, upon the bay's whaleskin surface. Lenna was eager to put ashore, but Bartz was unexpectedly sensible: he persuaded her that camping with somebody on watch all night for wild beasts was not worth the hour or so we would gain before sunset. "Your father won't thank us if he finds naught but a hairpin lying by a fire-ring," I added. She yielded reluctantly.

After the evening's mess, I took a last circuit of the decks to check on my men's several stations and shoo my guests below. Then I made my way to the figurehead. Assuring myself that no idlers were watching, I stripped off my coat and my rapier and hung them from the ship's horns. I had just sat down to remove my boots when a light tread on the ladder alerted me. I hopped to my feet and stepped into the shadow of the ship's lanterns.

Lenna ghosted up onto the forecastle, clad again in her pale blue frock. I supposed she had taken my words to heart about it being no more than a night-shimmy. "Captain?"

Her downcast eyes gave me a start. Uneasy, I glanced down at my own feet for any unusual tokens. But toes were toes, as far as I could see. "Milady?"

"Please," she said, "Tell Hydra thank you for us."

"Tell her yourself." I beckoned her over to the rail beside me and swept a gloved hand seaward. "There she be."

Lenna approached and leaned out, straining to see the dark shape looped below us in the shallows. Being a gentleman as well as a pirate, I ignored the comely bare sweep of neck and shoulder-blades that presented itself to me, else I might have rested an arm there. "Thank you," she called.

There was a bray like a smashed bagpipe in answer. The ship buzzed with a faint vibration of scales and claws: Hydra had been snuggled against the ship's beak as a pillow. Now she rose up, dripping, black and shaggy against the darkening sky. Yielding my spot to the princess, I watched as Lenna reached out, clicking her tongue coaxingly, until Hydra crooned and leaned in to be scritched.

"There now," I said. "Hydra says you're welcome."

My dragon snuffed happily as the two of us curried her dry scales in tandem. At length I patted the great head and stepped back, feeling an odd sense of déjà vu. "And now ye should be abed, princess. We start early."

Lenna shook her head, still grooming the scratchy hide. "FIrst my kidnapper, now my keeper? I don't believe you're old enough to be my father, Captain."

"Not a bit," I said, seeing her eyes go to the dark silhouette of the tower upon the headland, "But I intend to deliver you safe to your father and collect a reward."

"Ah," she said, a trifle crestfallen. "And then you'll leave?"

"This ain't a ferryboat, love. But I'll see to it you've a way off this miserable rock, before we hoist anchor."

"Thank you." She sighed and pushed away from the rail, collecting herself. "Well, goodnight, Captain."

I jumped up on the rail, bracing myself against the stays, and set a hand on my hip for a flourish and bow. "Goodnight, Princess."

She peered up at me, startled into a smile.

Swinging a leg over Hydra's neck, I drew my knees in tight and took a firm grip of the frilled fan with one hand, waving with the other. The dragon arched and dove. I caught hold with the other hand just as we struck the flat and went under. Arr! Cold! But the water coursing against my skin was a heady draught, reminding me of the flesh I denied all day. Hydra's muscle and scale flexed under my legs. She bobbed up again, gave me a breather, then heaved down and up until the ship's lanterns disappeared into the mist. At last she canted onto her side and spread out in a tangled net of hummocks and fins. I rolled over too, cradled on the loops of her coiled body to watch the stars come out.

"Are you all right, my friend?" I asked, scratching her mane. "I've used you poorly on this voyage, and I haven't thanked you enow."

Tired, she said. But the wind is sick. I smell it. You've come to cut it free.

"Aye, if we can. I hope Lenna's father has some clue how." I chafed my numb arms. Our pirate cove's waters were warmer than this northern bay. "Speaking o' the king, what reward should I demand? You've earned the first portion of any booty on this voyage, darlin'."

Maybe he has pigs? she said, plaintive. Sheep?

"That's it." I slapped her flank. "I'll ask for a whole flock o' sheep, and a dozen fat hogs. If he won't give 'em, I'll steal 'em. How's that sound?"

Good. Then we're even. She snuffled thoughtfully. Lenna smells like you.

I laughed. "By what measure? 'Tain't many girls who'll dare approach you, my friend. Nor lads, for that matter. You're the fierce dragon o' the sea."

Like you, Hydra insisted. Will she stay with us?

"Nah, she's back to Tycoon when this is over, I reckon. And I hope her father doesn't lock her up in a garret forever for daring a breath of fresh air."

Hydra keened softly, picking up something in my tone. Kidnap her?

"Eh? Why?" I smiled. "No profit in it, my friend; all we'd earn is bounty hunters chasing us all over the main. I'll see her to the top of the tower, and that's the end of it. That shipment from Torna's a-waiting."

The four of us beat a path through the forest at first light. Our caution proved well-founded. A colony of bird spiders, the kind that could haul off full-grown chocobos, had taken up residence in the shadows of the trees. We cut through them, swords to webs and staves and axes to the fat bodies that dropped in our midst. Lenna proved less timid about bashing those than comrades in drill-practice, although more squeamish after the fact. Their innards stank.

With that hearty warm-up, we marched up the steps and into the old ruin with its crumbling masonry and jewel-encrusted pillars I had no time to pick. Lenna was shocked to find monsters infesting that holy place. I was not. Tycoon had a handful of sentries posted there, but their job was ceremonial. All the same, they tried their best to be a nuisance. We were barred from entry by a squad of six aged men in ceremonial armor more showy than functional.

"We are the guardians of the Wind Shrine. State your business, strangers, for none but the King of Tycoon may pass herein."

"I am Princess Lenna Charlotte Tycoon," said the princess, stepping forward and lifting the pendant from her bosom, "Daughter of King Alexander—"

"Princess Lenna!" Their spears uncrossed. "Why, your father did not mention you were coming."

"My father?" she said. "He is here?"

My mind reeled. She had flashed the pendant as a token of the royal family. All my father's warnings to avoid Tycoon were suddenly, painfully clear. Some prince must have fallen to the swords of pirates: Lenna's own brother, perhaps. Had my father killed him, or had Captain Onis? And why saddle me with a clear token of blood-guilt?

"Indeed, he arrived three days ago. Come, my lady, partake of our sacred well, refresh yourself and your servants—"

"Three days?" she pressed. "I must see him at once."

"Forgive us, lady," the man said, leading us as the soldiers fell into place around us, eying Galuf's scraggly beard and my own outlandish attire. "He entered the shrine, but he has not come down. Since then, a tide of monsters have penetrated the tower from the forest—"

"Haven't you gone and looked for him?" Bartz said.

"The King ordered us to remain at our posts," the guard said.

"The hell he did!" I bellowed, roused from reverie. "You lily-livered whelps! You've been cowering down here, scared spitless to tackle the monsters yonder, haven't you? Safe as barnacles next to your handy healing well. Let's fill our tankards, lads, and be off! We'll find the king ourselves, you mice!"

"But, princess," the man said, stung. "The danger— your father would say—"

"Captain Faris," Lenna said, drawing herself up to my chin. "These are retainers of Tycoon who have guarded this post all their lives, honorably and faithfully. You have no right to upbraid my people, any more than I should venture to critique your crew's customs." She bowed her head to the graybeard. "My apologies, captain. His sword is even sharper than his tongue. I assure you, I am well-guarded."

Her tongue was sharper, the scamp. Biting back an ill word, I nodded. "Oh, fine. Let's find your father."

Bartz winked at me over the rim of a large copper standing in the corner. He dunked his canteen in the pungent brew, then ambled towards the staircase. "Yo ho ho and a bottle of potion. Shall we?"