I should probably begin at the beginning, shouldn’t I? I mean, not from the very beginning—when the Sisters, who came before all things, were walking about in the barren void and probably decided that more than anything they were really bored—but the beginning of the story.
Stories work best from the beginning. Starting from the other end just confuses people. And if I don’t start from the beginning you’ll never know why the pirate Pirate was chasing us, or even how he ended up with a stupid name like the pirate Pirate. Yes, I could just plain out tell you why, but that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?
This story begins three years ago on the fifth day of the Second Planting—not that we did much planting in the city, but there probably weren’t many big cities around when they named it.
This particular day began with a knife and a doorframe in what was, maybe, the most boring day of excitement ever. I like to call it “The Day of the Knife”. It works better with a weird voice and spooky hand gestures.
Now, the doorframe wasn’t very exciting. It was a smallish, rough cut, crooked, wooden doorframe attached to a once whitewashed wall of one of the oldest buildings in the city. It was down a cheerful little side alley behind an apothecary. No really, compared to most side alleys it was pretty darn cheerful. It was well-lit with a big glow disk up high, no garbage, no rats, no one passed out drunk, and generally pretty safe as long as the city guard didn’t decide it was a nice, private place to ask you some questions.
The doorframe was one I had to look at every day and I knew every little imperfection and every little way in which it was exactly the wrong shape and size—it framed the door to my home.
We had three whole rooms in our home and a private toilet with real running water and a heated washtub big enough for even Ornery to soak in. There was a walk-in pantry bigger than some of my friends bedrooms, an elegant little alcove for the household shrine with doors that closed so you could use it as a meditation space, and actual closets. There were glow disks in every room bright enough to read by, actual paper books to read, and comfy things to sit on when reading them. And there was a big fire place that framed a big log magicked by a wyrd to never be consumed by the flames.
That may not sound like much to you, but for a family living on the wrong side of the canal, we lived like royalty. Well, like really poor royalty. Okay, maybe not like royalty at all, but my friends were jealous anyway—even the ones who had bigger places to live, usually with a lot more people living there. Ornery could have found us a nicer place, but he didn’t want to. He liked being a nobody hidden behind the Apothecary’s shop. And the Apothecary was nice and paid me to clean his shop. The place was clean and cozy and, except for the ugly front door, just the right size. It was home.
I lived there with my mom, Ornery, and my dog, Officer Puppy. Mom and I had one cozy room to sleep in, Ornery another, and the big room was where we lived our days. I mean, unless we wanted to hide in our rooms because we had a grump or something. Officer Puppy lived behind a big chair by the hearth when he wasn’t out protecting the city from the devious schemes of evil rats.
The walls inside were always whitewashed and bright, except where smoke from the hearth would smear them, none of the furniture was broken, all the pillows were stuffed plump with feathers and batting, the beds had platforms to keep them off the floor, and there were no bugs in the blankets. Ornery claims he started his pirate career as a cabin boy and some habits never go away. I don’t think he was ever really a cabin boy, since he only ever tells that story when trying to get me to do my chores.
It was a busy little home. In spite of being ornery, Ornery had plenty of friends, some of whom were almost as ornery as he was. They would visit at least a couple times a week. People thought they were pirates, and they were … once.
Retired pirates like to hang out with other retired pirates so they can talk about pirate stuff and make up stories about adventures they didn’t ever have. They were rough and loud and drank and laughed a lot. Sometimes it made it hard for my mom. Not because they were bad guests—someone always brought a keg to share and they paid for anything they broke when getting too involved in telling a really dramatic, or drunken, story—but because people who were afraid of pirates avoided her.
Why were they afraid of pirates? Because they didn’t understand. Or maybe they were jealous. Pirates are … different. You are either born a pirate or you aren’t. Though Ornery likes to say everyone has some pirate in them, at least when not trying to convince me I can’t be a pirate.
Every child in the empire gets tested for whether they are a pirate at an early age. There are blood tests, and skills tests, and wyrds casting divination and scrying spells, and all sorts of neat stuff. If they find something that hints at pirateness, those children tend to disappear not too much later. I always liked to think they were taken off somewhere to learn how to be pirates, but Ornery would just shake his head and say nothing. I was tested as six, and again at seven, and again at eight, nine, ten, and eleven. Then they refused to test me anymore, no matter how much I insisted, even if Ornery was my uncle.
Maybe the fear of pirates comes from people worrying about another Pirate War, but the Pirate Wars—well, the last of the Pirate Wars—ended over four hundred years ago, long enough that most people didn’t remember much about what any of them were about. Since then, the human race has mostly been beating up on itself while the pirates went off to do pirate things and profited off people needing weapons and mercenaries to beat up on each other with. These days, most pirates spend their time fighting other pirates and helping to protect the various empires and kingdoms, and anyone else with the money, from external threats.
But pirates enter this story later. The important thing at this point is the knife. It was a long and elegant knife, finely crafted with a hilt that was maybe made of real gold. I wan’t really allowed to look at it close enough to tell, but it looked really ceremonial. No one puts a fancy hilt like that on a knife meant to be used in a fight, no matter how good the blade.
The doorframe may have been an easy to ignore doorframe, but the knife started a ruckus.
Not the knife itself, but the fact it was stuck in someone’s back. Knives happen when you live in the poor districts of the city, but this was an unusual knife to begin with and it was helping to keep the body propped up against the doorframe to my home and to the home of an infamous pirate, now retired. It did this by the pointy end being stuck through the dead man’s body and into the wood beyond. Someone should have heard a blow that strong, or felt it shake the wall. No one did.
We discovered it when my mom opened the door on the way to the market in the early morning to get some fresh vegetables and stopped suddenly with the clatter of her basket hitting cobblestones, a stunned pause, and a stifled scream. Then she shooed me away from the door so as not to upset me and let Ornery deal with it. She was very upset. After all, she had almost walked right into the left shoulder of a corpse pinned to her doorframe because she was too busy figuring prices at the market and what she could probably haggle them down to.
It is a good thing I never told mom about sneaking down to the south docks with friends in the early mornings before school to look for dead sailors in the ditches and channels. Well, really, we were looking for forgotten pirate treasure, but so far we always had to settle for dead sailors. She would have been angry. I mean, she didn’t even let me go to the public executions on weekends. I told Ornery about the dead sailors once. He harrumphed, “Don’t tell your mom.” Then he scratched the permanent stubble that decorated his chin the way he does and said, “and take care of yourself down there,” without a hint of harrumph at all.
The south docks were almost on the way to school. We had to cross the canal at some point and, unless we were planning on trying to steal an apple or two, the docks were more interesting than people setting up stalls in the markets by the central bridges for the day. There were lots of back alleys and routes that weren’t even alleys at all to sneak through. There was never anyone around but us, and, if there was, they usually scurried away like discovered rats. It was an adventure.
When we found a dead sailor in some forgotten ditch behind some forgotten warehouse near the docks, usually between the docks and the bars and the brothels, we would poke them with sticks to see if they were properly dead and poke them with sticks just to poke them with sticks. It was the sort of thing kids did on boring mornings before school in the city. It was more fun than poking dead rats.
Sometimes we would get really lucky and find coins in the pockets of the dead sailors, or, more likely, the pockets of dead non-sailors. Then we would go buy ourselves freshly baked rolls in the market. I even knew some of the really good fences, ones who respected me because of Ornery and asked no questions, for when even better things came out of their pockets or elsewhere. But usually they had no money, no pockets, no nothing—just pale, naked corpses in some filthy water in a ditch.
So really, the person stuck to our doorframe was no big thing. He was not only dressed, but nicely dressed in dark clothes that didn’t show the blood much, even if there was an awful lot of it pooled around his feet. For all you could tell in a passing glance, he could just have been standing there in a weird-colored mud puddle doing nothing but admiring the woodwork up close. I don’t know why someone would admire wood that close. Maybe he had a thing about wood.
I didn’t even try to sneak out and find out if he had any money in his pockets. I was very respectful to our unexpected guest. It is not proper to steal from guests, even if they are dead.
I was disappointed that I couldn’t go get my friends to show off the dead body at my door. I would be the empress of the tribe for days with a find like that. Instead, Howper, making his morning deliveries, got to run off to tell people and got all the credit, even though it was my door. At least I got to make up stories to tell my friends the next day.
Howper was why people began to quickly gather, all trying to nose into that tiny alley for a closer look. He probably told everyone he met. It was all those people pushing past each other for a glimpse of something to gossip about that was the fuel for the ruckus.
The ruckus wasn’t really about the knife, or the dead body. Like knives, dead bodies happen on the wrong side of town. If it was just a body, it would have earned nothing more than people going:
“Oh, and did you hear a dead body was found in the alley behind the apothecary’s?”
“Yes, I did. The city really should do something about cleaning our streets of all these criminals. Criminals cleaning each other up always leave such a mess.”
All said as nothing more than an afterthought over a cup of tea.
The ruckus was because the unusual knife was stuck in a body that belonged to a wanted criminal that no one had ever dared to touch. Not that he was using the body anymore. Everyone knew him, and avoided him, on sight. Seeing him pinned to the door like that had many people invoking the Sisters and other gods and spirits, making prayers and casting signs to ward off evil from their households—which, of course, explains why they entirely failed to move to a safe distance somewhere really far away while doing so.
There was talk that he was the bastard son of some important noble in the city. Everyone was afraid to touch him because of it. That was the sort of thing that got you an invitation to the weekend executions. There was talk that he did the dirty work for many other important nobles in the city. People who ignored that kind of talk usually joined the dead sailors in the ditches, if they were lucky. There was even talk that he had pirate blood in him and could come back from the dead. Everyone was really afraid to touch him because of that.
Not that pirates can come back from the dead, but they are very good at being left for dead and showing up again not really all that dead after all. If he were a proper pirate, instead of hanging there dead, he probably would have turned to my mom and politely asked, “Excuse me, miss? Sorry to upset you with this rather rude intrusion, but would it be too much bother to help me with this rather ornate bit of cutlery that appears to be stuck in my back? I am afraid it has left a mark in your most excellent door frame as well. I have been admiring it since before the sun came up.”
I would think pirates would have better taste than that in door frames though.
But no one doubted that he was a thief, and a murderer, debaucher, rake, cad, miscreant, and a bunch of other horrible things besides. People didn’t like him much, even the people who liked that sort of person. He would have got along great with the pirate Pirate. Maybe they were drinking buddies once. On the other hand, the pirate Pirate might have seen him as a threat for the title of lowest of the low. The pirate Pirate was not a pirate to be out-stooped.
Having a notorious rogue show up dead one morning, stuck to the side of the door, was a little awkward, even if there were many people who were happy to find him dead. There were also people who would be unhappy to find him dead and who would be asking lots of questions, or even worse, not asking any questions at all.
More awkward still, the knife not only stuck him to the door frame, but also stuck a note to him. Someone clearly didn’t know what killing someone to send a message means. The note arrived in a once white envelope, carefully positioned to not let the blood stain the contents too much, and clearly addressed to Ornery in a beautiful, now blood-stained script.
Bodies were just bodies, even notorious bodies, but notes spoke of mystery and maybe conspiracy. And a conspiracy involving the dead body of a notorious miscreant pinned to the doorframe of an equally notorious pirate, retired or not—that was something to gossip about.
After mulling for a while over whether he might be tampering with evidence, Ornery pulled the note from the knife and shoved it into his pocket. No one got to see it after that, not even the city guard. Then Ornery stood there silently, leaning against the bodiless side of the doorframe, idly glaring at the growing crowd like only he could, and protecting the corpse so no one could loot it before the city guard arrived. There was a full coin purse hanging from the corpse’s belt right there in plain sight—it turned out to hold more money than many of our neighbors made in a year—but nobody was about to mess with Ornery.
Even the city guard didn’t mess with Ornery, and they could be pretty bold, if not downright nasty. They were probably the ones leaving dead sailors in ditches that hadn’t been stripped of everything.
If so, they were responsible for some warm, tasty, fresh-baked rolls being eaten by street urchins like me, a really nifty pocket knife I always carry around, and a birthday present for mom. I told her Ornery had helped me get it. Maybe I should write them a thank you note.
I spent The Day of the Knife stuck in my room and not allowed outside. Mom even went and got me my schoolwork so I had something to do. I think I was less thankful than I could have been.
There was no one but Officer Puppy to keep me company. He’s bigger than I am, so maybe I’m more his human than he my dog. He’s warm and furry, but doesn’t talk much and refused to help me with my schoolwork on that particular day. Between you and me, I don’t think he was ever very good at maths anyway.
For all the excitement, with city guards stopping by and asking questions, wyrds scrying about for clues, and an endless procession of important and self-important people at the front door and in the front room, it was very boring.
Still, the boredom was nowhere near as terrible as the horrible tragedy that happened the next day. In all the commotion about the knife, everyone forgot it was my thirteenth birthday.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.