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The Princess and the Pirate

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Halfway up the tower, I began to understand that Lenna was gifted with a particularly maddening form of courage.

We had paused to regroup after an overgrown avian had tried to carry off Galuf. My guess is that it wanted to use his beard to line its nest. He seemed only a little worse for wear, but we needed our mainstay in one piece, so we halted to salve his wounds. That had been Lenna's task up till now. However, Galuf requested I take a turn as nursemaid, lest we fall into the commonplace of treating the only lady in the crew as our token healer. Astonished (and, I may say, pleased) as I was by this novel philosophy, I could hardly object— not openly, at least. Yet I suspect he had simply spotted me divesting jewels from a wall hanging at our last check.

Meanwhile, Bartz was sniffing all over the dusty floor looking for prints or any traces of the king's passage. Lenna stood still to keep from pacing. She had drawn out her pendant for contemplation, and I was just about to chide her as a negligent lookout, when she gave a little cry and darted past Bartz into the next archway. The sound of her footsteps dwindled upwards. Galuf and I emitted dueling oaths and gave chase. In the unlit stairwell, I noted a glow under my neckerchief, much fainter than when Hydra had espied the passing wind-drake a fortnight ago.

This was no wind drake. A pair of greater white serpents coiled around two stout pillars flanking the head of the stair. Framed between them was Lenna, poised on tiptoe with one hand raised to the larboard snake as if inviting a hound to sniff her fingers. Fearless — quite mad, but fearless — she stood her ground, murmuring sweetly as the serpent hissed and began to uncoil itself from the pillar. I drew my rapier to hurl it.

Bartz barreled past me with a warning shout. Galuf and I were lumbering too slowly, he from age and I from unfamiliarity with the shallow pitch of these gods-be-damned stairs. Quick as a windlass, the snake unwound itself and flung two loops around the princess. Galuf bellowed and swung his axe to stopper the jaws gaping over her head. Bartz, eel-quick, moved in with his gladius to jab at belly-scales until Lenna's bonds loosened. I would have charged in to haul her to safety, but the second snake was advancing. "Hold it off!" Galuf barked.

Cursing, I turned to meet it. Only a fool would engage a full-grown serpent alone, but I knew something of dragons. I set my rapier darting against its snout, palate and throat, driving the beast back along the landing. Goading was a dangerous game. The serpent swelled and reared. I sidestepped, offering the swirl of my coat-tails as a decoy. Dust rose up where the head struck the floor. I stabbed, but could not sever. Dodging again, I was keenly aware of the plunge at my left hand: hard marble five fathoms down, where I had grown lazy with the safety hatch of the sea during naval skirmishes. Luckily, this brute lacked the ken to push me over the balustrade.

Fiercely we danced, rapier to fangs, bruising weight to fencer's guile. At last, as I was threading my blade up its gullet, it succeeded in flinging a heavy coil around my torso. I dropped and rolled out of the tightening loop, but found myself pinned against the balustrade as I had feared. The serpent's full mass crashed down upon my head and backside. Stars sparked in my eyes. My career might have taken a poor turn just then, had Lenna not sailed in from somewhere. I swore with relief as she skipped past me with strikes and blows to distract the beast. She bought me time. Still gasping for breath, I sprang up and trebled my attack. My thrusts were wild now, my footwork inexcusable, but we started to make headway. Scales and blood flew. We had almost brought the beast to heel when Galuf and Bartz barged in to help carve it into snake steaks. Exulting, I swept the princess off her feet and deposited her beyond the spreading gore. I may have been giddy from lack of air.

In the next room, Lenna salved our bruises and bites with shaking hands. Draped against a broken pillar, I woozily declaimed a few words of wisdom for her enlightenment. "You should know, lass, if you want to be a dragon's best mate: not all snakes are drakes, and some dragons are merely worms."

She looked up from the puncture-wound she was treating, perturbed. "I see that now," she said.

"For," I added, slipping into a drowsy singsong, "wind-drakes are windbags, airheads and scallywags, while sea serpents are the serpents to be."

"Sounds like the captain took a hard knock," Bartz said, laughing. "I'll keep watch; I don't think he can."

"Just a moment," Lenna said, tying off the binding on Galuf's shank. "Captain Faris, please, hold still."

"As her ladyship commands," I said. I was too sleepy for a proper riposte.

"The captain's stoned, but he's got a point. What put that into your pretty head, Lenna?" Galuf said, more fond than scolding. "If you want a pet dragon, I'm sure your Daddy can buy you an egg to hatch."

"Dragons are not pets," I grumbled.

"No, they aren't," Bartz said. "Lenna, you've got to be less trusting. There's all manner of beasties out here, and most of them would as soon crunch your bones as—"

"Leave off, you two," I said, clarity snapping back into place as Lenna pressed a potion-drenched cloth against my scalp. I leaned against her hand, still stewing as the drowse cleared and left me with a galloping headache. The boy spoke sense, the kind that kept a body's guts inside its skin. Hadn't I said the same? So why did it trouble me to see Lenna's lowered lashes trembling like a few petals of innocence falling away?

I chucked her cheek. "She's a fast learner. Got a few stout blows in, Galuf, did you see?"

Lenna sighed and sat back. "I...I'm sorry. I just thought, if Father had come this way, maybe these dragons had seen him, and would show me some sign."

"Well, actually, they did," said Bartz. "That one the captain challenged— did you notice it had only one eye? The other was just a bloody socket. The wound looked recent. I didn't do that, Faris, did you?"

"Nay," said I. "I was aiming for its gizzard."

Galuf clapped his knee. "There you are. The king's ahead. Let's hurry."

"Three days ahead," she said, biting her lip. "Yes, let's. But first...Captain Faris, are you not hurt? When that thing fell on you—"

I stepped away as she reached for my greatcoat's buckles, although my ribs ached as much as my noggin. "Sprained me pride, that's all." I picked up her staff and offered it to her with a bow. "A body could find himself a laughingstock to his crew, for relying on a wee princess to bail him out of a fix. Try not to make a habit of it, lass."

She brightened a little. "I make no promises, Captain."

"I knew it," I said. "You're half a pirate."

Floor by floor, we scoured that glorified lighthouse and served warning to all trespassers. A brace of goblins gave Lenna more practice, and me enough gil to reckon the venture worthwhile. All the same, by the time we gained the top floor, I had grown to hate every last seam of that accursed tower. It wanted riggings.

Finally, we fetched up against a pair of magnificent double doors that were fair dripping with jewels. A few dripped into my pockets, when I and Bartz set our shoulders and heaved. The doors yielded, grumbling. Galuf stood ready with his axe, Lenna with her stave. Nothing leapt out. Eyes peeled for ambush, we entered a high vaulted chamber well-nigh as black as a ship's hold. Tall slit windows of varying heights let in scant light. Were the winds not throttled, they might have played a piping melody, but now their music was fled. Our very breath seemed a blasphemy. No torches danced in ironwork sconces, nor burned the legendary light of the crystal we had come far to see. There was only an eerie green panel on the back wall that swirled and cast no light beyond its plane. The focal point of the room was a stepped dais ornamented in airy silver filigree. Crowning its platform was— nothing. Nothing at all.

"The crystal!" Lenna hurried forward. Bits of glass tinkled under her feet. Her pace faltered and slowed as she crossed the barren floor. Reaching the dais, she collapsed slowly on the bottom step. "It's gone. We're too late."

"Are we?" I followed, scanning the gloom for hidden shoals. "Your father's not here. That means he departed under his own power. The sooner we find him, the sooner we'll find that crystal, I'll warrant." A note rang out as my boot struck something hard that went spinning across the floor. "Ow!"

Bartz knelt to retrieve it, a jagged chunk of crystal. "Well, there's your problem," he said with a forced chuckle. "And here's another. Think we can glue them back together?"

"Not missing.... broken," Galuf said. "Ah...that's bad." He mopped his forehead. "Why? Why can't I remember?"

"Easy, old man." Seeing little profit in mooning over broken glass, and even less profit if the winds were gone for good, I bent to collect a few shards. The first fragment I touched was like a live coal, scalding my palm right through glove's leather.

A booming voice flared in my mind. Courage, the essence of flame...

"Neptune's beard!" I swore, dropping my prize. The heat remained, a molten tide flooding my veins. My heart pounded. Even my sword seemed bewitched, hot against my hip. Abruptly I was seized by a martial thrill. I sensed secrets coursing through my sinews. There was a presence in that crystalline fragment, some ghost or spirit, a doughty fighter imparting to me the bodily knowledge of parries, sweeps and lunges that I longed to attempt. Of a sudden it dawned on me: these shards were not mere flotsam, but weapons, gifts of fire to a warrior brave enough to seize them! I raised my head to exhort the princess, but she was already absorbed in contemplation of a softly-glowing chip. By its light between her laced fingers, I saw the care and strain melt away from her face. The smile that blossomed there softened my heart as much as magic had ignited it.

A gentle voice, motherly and kind: Compassion, the essence of water...

"Whoa." Bartz was squinting at another pair of shards. "is it normal for the Wind Crystal to talk back, or did the accident make it chatty?" Deaf to fate's clarion, he tossed them in the air and juggled them with jaunty irreverence. "So, what's our course, princess?"

Seeking, the essence of wind...

"I reckon it's trying to guide us," Galuf said. "And there's power still in these shards, so that's something. All we have to do is figure out how to restore 'em."

Hope, the essence of earth...

I had not quite lost my wits to gems nor ghosts. Something loomed the dais above the princess. A shape, no more than a glint of spikes and a patch of denser darkness, sent me reaching for my sword. "Lenna! Get back!"

She scrambled up and away, but a whisper froze her. "Len...na..." The hairs on the back of my neck prickled.

"Father!" she said, turning back.

"'Hang on," Bartz said, interposing himself. "Might be a trap, you know."

We stared till our eyes watered, trying to make out that tall figure in the murk, more sensed than seen. I had a hazy impression of a dragon-spiked helm and armor, a heavy cloak or robes falling to the floor like a fluted column. There was something too familiar in that shrouded shape. I wanted to call out to it, but knew not what or why.

A kingly voice chanted in a hoarse whisper:

"Heed me now, warriors four,
Crystal-bearers, chosen ones.
Imperiled are the essences:
Fire, water, air and stone
Embodied in crystal,
Aegises of our world.
Already one is shattered.
Winds die. Three remain.
Four must guard them.

Save them, Light's Warriors,
From one who seeks doom
To sunder the stones
And return us to darkness
The Void....the Void...the Void..."

The man's shape flickered, began to writhe in the distorting shimmer of a roiling cloud of purple mist.

"Father!" Lenna cried. Bartz restrained her, or she might have rushed straight into the violet miasma. The sinister aura faded, along with the king's shadow. No sign of him remained. But his fading voice reached us from afar:

"Go forth, Warriors of Light.
Defend the blessed stones.
"

"No!" Lenna struggled against Bartz's hands. "Father, wait."

Every shard upon the floor suddenly pulsed with light, shining like fallen stars. We swayed again, swamped by overpowering currents. Other voices washed over us. The dark chamber was suddenly thick with ghosts, and now we could see them: a puissant knight with bright sword and a dragon-scale shield, an ivory-clad goddess whose hands offered solace, a twisted black figure in a peaked hat and mask whose robes crackled with sorcery, a bent crone in nun's robes whom a typhoon could not budge, an imp-eyed girl tumbling gold pieces and pearls over deft fingers, and a gangly scarecrow of a man in blue robes and a tall pointed hat mumbling something about harpies and unicorns. Clutching our shards, we stood transfixed, passive vessels into which other souls poured. Warriors of Light, fate's servants—

"Phew," Bartz said. "Don't take no for an answer, do they?"

"And since when does a pirate take orders from a king?" I demanded.

Lenna's shoulders bunched. She was rooted, still staring at the place where her father had disappeared.

"Not from a king, maybe, but when Lady Fate comes calling, you do as you're told," Galuf said, sharper than his wont.

Her father. It smote me suddenly: here was I, kith to those who had killed her kin, yet her father had entrusted me with a fool's quest on which I must guard her life. Did he have any idea what he had asked— or whom? I was a pirate, fate's own changeling. I took what I wanted, and I made no promises.

Certainly not to her, this wayward princess who'd run away from home to commandeer a pirate's ship. My ship, if you please! Guileless babe, so soon out of swaddling-cloths that she'd stick her hand in a dragon's maw to ask for directions! Of course, I'd dare as much for booty, for glory, for a ship to call my own. She did it for love. And I wanted to make sure those pretty hands of hers weren't chopped off, gods help me.

"Lenna," I said, ignoring the old nun's ghost chortling in my ear.

"Captain." She bowed her head, words falling soft and quiet without an echo in that breathless hall. "There should be a warp panel on the far side of the chamber that will return us to the ground floor. Come. I believe the Captain's filled his pockets enough that we need not retrace our steps, yes? Follow me."