I woke up in the morning curled up next to Officer Puppy. At the time, he wasn’t really willing to explain his absence the night before. I asked quietly and he just pretended to be asleep. Typical. If there isn’t something to run around barking at right then and there, dogs just aren’t very good conversationalists. And just try to get one to admit they made a mistake.
It was a clear morning with light streaming in the window. The brightness made the night before feel like a distant dream. I knew it had been real. I knew I should be curled up in the corner hugging the bed sheets, afraid to face the world in case another murderer was lurking behind the next door. But it was all a dim haze with no emotion attached to it.
I lay there, staring over Officer Puppy’s back, feeling blank, thinking that maybe Mrs. Apothecary had healed me a little too much. I didn’t even know she was that strong a healer, though I suppose it made sense if she was an apothecary. It’s one thing to heal people’s cuts and broken arms and things, but it’s just plain rude to heal people’s emotions without asking them first, even if they are upset and getting blood and tears and snot all over your nice nightgown.
Part of me flat out didn’t like being calm right then. It felt wrong. I tried to get upset about not being upset. It didn’t work. A bit of me I didn’t even realize was there whispered, “not again.” Not again what I asked myself, but there was no one to answer that question. Something in the back of my head told me I had felt this before, but I couldn’t remember when, just that it felt wrong, like some piece of me had gone missing somewhere, like a bit of my brain had stepped out for a cookie from a nearby baker and had forgotten to come back.
Little missing bits of the night began to slip in around the memory of the attack, but were interrupted when the mumble of voices in the great room got a little louder. I realized people were arguing, using those sorts of voices people use when they don’t want you to realize they’re having an argument in the next room, even though it’s pretty obvious that that’s exactly what they are doing. Most of the argument was happening between Ornery and Mrs. Apothecary, with my mom making an occasional comment.
From what I could tell, though I couldn’t make out the words, my mom was mostly trying to keep Ornery from being too … well, Ornery.
I silently untangled myself from Officer Puppy, crept out of bed, and snuck over to the door. I caught myself in the big mirror Ornery kept in the corner of the room. I still looked like a mess, but at least was wearing a clean night gown. I didn’t even remember putting it on. He liked to claim that the mirror was cursed, which is why it was in his room and not ours. It certainly looked cursed. Who would carve a mirror frame to look like that? I mean, I’m not dumb, but even I could never figure out what some of the maybe people and maybe demons were doing, except that it was probably illegal in a lot of places. I looked at myself in it. Something felt not right, but it was not something the mirror was willing to show me. Maybe it was cursed to make me look worse than I was in the morning, but probably not.
By the door I could hear a little better, if I was really quiet.
“That still don’t explain why ya let her come home last night,” Ornery said. It couldn’t be that bad an argument if Ornery was being that polite.
“I’m afraid it does. It’s just not an answer you want to accept.” Mrs. Apothecary sounded very annoyed, and she’s hard to annoy. I know. I’ve tried.
“Ya put her life on the line to prove yerself a point? That just ain’t right.”
“Oh come now, Ornery, she was never in any real danger—”
“Real danger!” Ornery almost shouted. I though for a second it was going to be a proper argument, but he dropped his voice again. “A drunken lunatic with an azure fire blade ‘gainst a little girl. Sounds perfectly safe to me.” Even at a loud whisper, I could hear the malice in his voice. He made one of his most menacing harrumphs. If it had been anyone but Mrs. Apothecary, it would have been followed by the noise of them flying at high speed into something across the room propelled by Ornery’s fist.
“Which she is at the moment, perfectly safe. At least no less safe than she was before.”
“Ya knew, and ya—” Ornery sputtered. I could feel how much he wanted to scream and almost shouted at him to go for it.
“Yes, I knew.” Those words perked my ears up. They echoed in my head, something in them telling me I was going to get to learn something about what happened last night.
“And I also know that the longer she stays here the more danger she’s in. Ornery, we can’t protect her forever. I needed to be sure—”
My mom chose that moment to open the door to check on me to make sure I was still asleep. It’s hard to be sneaky when someone hits you on the side of the head with a door handle, even if it isn’t very hard. It’s too easy to go “Ow!” and look injured, especially when it’s your mom hitting you with the door. It’s hard to outgrow that kid mode of “no I wasn’t doing anything oh look here you hurt me now be all nice to me” when a parent accidentally bumps you because you were in the wrong place.
But “ow” is also the universal parent code word for “quiet, the kid”. Parents have the ability to magically get us to bump into things, or trip over things, or knock things over at that very moment they are about to reveal some big adult secret. I think it’s part of some super secret mystical parent training they have to go through before they are allowed to get their certificate of parenthood.
The other room was silent, with all three of them staring at me through the partly opened door that had tried to attach itself to my ear.
“Well, look who’s awake,” Mrs. Apothecary said with a voice so pleasant it was like she hadn’t been annoyed by anything in weeks. She radiated her normal, calm, peaceful self. Really, I think it was her own adult version of the “ow” game. She fussed with her crisp, clean dress and smiled at me.
My mother pushed the door gently open the rest of the way, politely but firmly forcing me to step back out of the way. I could see by her face that she wasn’t buying the “ow” game. But she wasn’t angry either. She looked relieved, but whether because I was okay or because Ornery and Mrs. Apothecary couldn’t argue any more was not something she ever shared with me. “And how long have you been hiding there?”
“Not long,” I said, trying to sound dejected to see if I could turn the conversation back to my “ow”. She gave me one of those looks that said, “I believe you, but you’re getting too old for that distraction so give it up.” Then she gave me a great big hug.
When she didn’t let go, I realized she was crying. There was really nothing me to do in a situation like that but cry too. Not hard, just get all bleary-eyed and sniffly. It would be bad form to stand there being strong when my own mother was crying on my shoulder. It made the blankness from the previous night feel a little less blank.
Ornery just looked at us and harrumphed. It would be poor form for Ornery to not harrumph too. The Secret Order of Harrumphers might have had to kick him out of the club and find a new hero to worship if he didn’t remain properly aloof when the “wimmen folk” were getting all emotional and stuff. But he stood there quietly, staring at the ground, acting lost in thought, instead of going and looking for something to do, so it was clear he was touched by the scene too.
By the time my mom was ready to let go, Mrs. Apothecary had used the interruption as an excuse to leave and Ornery had chased out a city guard who had tried to step in with a stern warning to the guard that no one could talk to me yet.
I took a nice long bath at my mother’s insistence and got myself all properly cleaned up. In the meantime, two of Ornery’s retired pirate friends had shown up with some flagons of the best mead they could find and made it clear they were there to guard the treasure so nearly plundered the night before. Ornery harrumphed at them in a way that said he hadn’t decided whether they were welcome or not, but he didn’t chase them away. They settled in to protecting two chairs by the fire and making up stories about what must really have happened the night before and how it would have worked out different if they had been there.
Then, dressed in nice clothes, without even my cap to protect me, they sat me down at the table so the city guard could talk to me. It was okay, almost fun, Captain Kirilyn had come to question me herself.
She was a ranking officer in the district, grew up here, and everyone liked her. She was also the type who would never leave a dead sailor in a ditch somewhere. She might rough them up a bit, but would then dutifully turn them in to their captain or the port authority. If their captain turned around and left them as another dead sailor in a ditch afterward, that wasn’t really her problem, unless she got stuck with the paperwork. She probably came because people knew Ornery would be more polite to a woman, and more polite still to someone he knew when she was still a kid. That and she knew how to be not intimidating. Most of the men in the guard never really mastered the not intimidating thing.
She was built like a long-distance runner, all athletic, tall and trim, with dark hair, a lean face, and dark, piercing eyes. She could outrun anyone else in the city guard in full armor. She was agile in body and mind. She taught some of my self defense classes when I was younger. Ornery had specifically requested her classes for me.
In her classes, boys quickly learned being a girl didn’t mean being weak. She was more polite teaching them that than I was. Some of the people in her classes even went on to join the Imperial Guard. It was a badge of honor to be a good enough trainer for your students to be hand picked by the Imperial Guard. She could have joined herself, but she was proud of her city and didn’t want to get lost in the empire.
We talked over lunch, since it was lunch time by then. I’d been allowed to sleep very late. I didn’t have much to tell her that hadn’t already been told by Mrs. Apothecary. I probably learned more from her about the night before than she did from me. There isn’t much to say about being attacked by a drunken shadow in the dark, but she needed to be sure. There were times when she was very annoyed that Mrs. Apothecary had soothed over my wounds a little too well, because a lot of memories went with them.
It was near the very end of the interview with Kirilyn that one of the retired pirates, who had been protecting too much mead by then, said aloud, “Hey Ornery, thar be rat prints around your hearth. Should do sumpin’ about that. Rats ain’t nice.”
That was the pirate Thinker, emeritus. He got his name from thinking too much. He was a famous pirate scholar who could speak like a famous scholar should speak to other famous scholars at important scholarly events, but when drunk he liked to talk like normal people thought pirates talked. Get him drunk enough and he would even start shouting “Yarrr!” and laughing like a pirate is supposed to laugh. He thought it was funny.
He also thought it was funny to wear tweed and smoke a big pipe carved in the shape of his own head. What kind of pirate wears tweed? And there are clean shaven pirates, and pirates with fancy mustaches, and pirates with all sorts of different beards, long, scraggly, bushy, knotted, wild, curly, or teased into shape like a palace garden shrub. But the pirate Thinker insisted that his mustache and beard always be trimmed and perfectly groomed. To his dying day, his pirate friends would greet him with, “Hey Thinker, when ya gonna grow a beard? Ya should be old enough by now.” It did make him more welcome at scholarly non-pirate parties though.
Most of his adventures took place in ancient ruins and dimly lit libraries, which had nothing to do with the ones he told stories about, except maybe in some of the ruins. He studied pirate history, which took him to dangerous places where sometimes he discovered dangerous things. He wrote long, beautiful poems and dry scholarly papers about his discoveries. It was interesting, even if most of what he discovered and wrote about were empty ruins. I learned a lot from him when he was visiting Ornery.
He once said to me, “Give them the illusion they want see so they never have to face reality, and that will make them happy.” He said it was the greatest wisdom he could give me and that I should remember it and thank him when I found out how wise he was. He was really drunk at the time.
Captain Kirilyn gave the retired pirates a dirty look and then turned to my mom. “Liiza,” she said, which was my mom’s name. Bet you didn’t know my mom had a name, did you? Okay, I suppose you knew that. It would be weird if everyone just called her “mom”. Anyway, Captain Kirilyn said, “Liiza, silly question, but do you have wards on your chimney?”,/
“I don’t think so. It’s such a tiny flue. Never needed a big one with a mostly magick fire.”
Officer Puppy hadn’t told me about the rats yet, that was much later, so I didn’t have anything to add to the answer right then and there.
Mom looked sort of shocked as a thought hit her. “There’s no way he could have come in that way.” “Unless he was small as a rat,” Captain Kirilyn finished.
She almost leapt out of her chair to go inspect the hearth. The pirates moved their chairs away from the hearth a little to better protect them from her. Ornery pushed in beside her, since it was his hearth, while my mom crept forward slowly, gently wringing her hands, and trying to look over the two tall people in front of her.
There were clearly rat prints, or tiny prints of some kind around the hearth, scattering a few ashes and tracking what little soot the hearth fire made. The tracks just led a little ways out of the hearth and stopped next to one of the chairs the pirates were protecting.
“Hey Sojoe,” Ornery said, “De-ass the chair.”
Figuring he wasn’t going to be able to protect the chair from the person who owned it, Sojoe moved over and joined me at the table. He gave me a look that clearly said he was now officially protecting me, even if he would rather be protecting a comfortable chair. And it was a comfy chair, made of solid wood with big comfy cushions.
After Ornery and Captain Kirilyn looked at the chair, poked that chair, shook the chair, picked up the chair, and tipped over the chair, Ornery picked it up and smashed it against the stone of the hearth. Out of the splinters bounced enough loose change to buy lunch and another coin that really didn’t look like a proper coin at all.
“Was that really necessary?” mom asked. Sometimes Ornery annoyed her with his abrupt manner.
“Faster,” was all he said.
“I’m going to agree with Liiza on this one,” Captain Kirilyn said, “you didn’t know anything was actually hidden in the chair and you may have destroyed some evidence.”
Ornery just harrumphed.
The pirate Sojoe, retired, looked sadly at the chair he’d failed to protect. Then he protected some more mead.
Ornery bent down and picked up the coin that wasn’t a proper coin.
“Careful! That could be dangerous,” cautioned Captain Kirilyn.
“That might be why I’m pickin’ it up before anyone else is crazy enough to.” Ornery turned it over in his hand. He harrumphed at it a few times. “Nope, safe. Pretty though.”
He took Captain Kirilyn’s hand and dropped the coin into it. She startled, but nothing happened.
When nothing had continued to happen for a safe amount of time, she examined the coin closely. It looked like there was writing of some sort etched into it, but I was too far away to see much. “I’ll have some people back at the main office look at this,” she said.
“Better idea,” Ornery said, and grabbed the coin out of her hand too quick for her to stop him. “Hey, Thinker, got a research project for ya.”
“Splendid, I haven’t had one of those in a while. I mean- Yarrr! What ya be needin’ matey?” He made it pretty obvious he was trying to make me laugh. He got a small giggle out of me.
“Bite down on this.” Ornery held the coin up in the pirate Thinker’s face.
The pirate Thinker looked as it suspiciously. “Is it safe?”
“Sounds good to me.” The pirate Thinker bit down on the edge of the coin. Only now there wasn’t a pirate Thinker in the chair, but a rat, holding the coin in its mouth. The pirate Thinker was so surprised that he dropped the coin out of his mouth, and was the pirate Thinker again. Mind you, he wasn’t in the right position to be sitting the chair anymore and proceeded to fall out of it very dramatically.
The coin went flying away as the pirate Thinker fell. Ornery’s hand shot out and caught it faster that you could see.
Ornery harrumphed. “There ya go. Answer.”
The pirate Thinker leapt back to his feet, looking very excited. “That was fascinating! I have never encountered anything resembling that little fetish. I don’t suppose, by chance, that there would be a way for me to acquire that device for proper research and study. I haven’t had an opportunity such as this since I unearthed that cache of ancient medical ledgers detailing the existence of vitro facilities specifically for cloning in the ruins of Ordos. Just a detailed interpretation and proper genealogy of the runes inscribed upon it could very well earn me the keynote at some major conference or another. Shapeshifter magick of a questionable provenance. What an incredible find, and right here in this house. Quite illegal for home and personal use is it not?”
Ornery gave him a long look. “Have another drink.”
“Right. Yes. I do think I will. Indeed, indeed.” He sat down, and had a very long drink. He was so excited that it was the better part of an hour before he could talk like a pirate again.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.