The rat coin led to an entire afternoon of more questions and more city guards and more things being poked, prodded, moved about, and looked under, though no more furniture was broken. Or maybe it was all just sped up a little. Wyrds came by to scry and to do divinations and to take readings. I annoyed them by following them around, watching what they were doing, getting in the way, and asking questions. Cleaning people came and cleaned my room, taking some of the things away with them in little magicked paper bags marked “evidence”. Concerned friends stopped by to express their concern and were politely shooed away, though mom took the time to talk to some of them. Nosey people pretending to be concerned friends stopped by to snoop and were less politely shooed away. Important looking people came by and stood around looking important before leaving without doing much of anything at all.
Officer Puppy finally got up from his long nap and, after going outside to do the sort of things a dog needs to do, he came back and tried to politely stay out of the way. After a while he decided that the best way to do this was to hide in a corner, put his head under his paws, and whimper. If I was a dog I’d probably do the same thing. It was all noisy and crazy and loud with people coming and going, too much talk of rats and magick, and drunken pirates offering advice entirely unasked.
Mrs. Apothecary was devastated to hear about the rat coin and how she’d overlooked putting any sort of wards whatsoever on the chimney. She apologized to us for at least a half hour straight. Then she set about refreshing the wards, which also annoyed the other wyrds who were there trying to investigate things. She was upsetting the delicate flows of energy they were trying to feel out, in the same sort of way that a tidal wave might upset a sand castle. Mrs. Apothecary always firmly believed that if people were scrying for her wards they should see the place lit up like a New Year’s festival.
As the day wore on, Ornery was being ornery, the pirate Sojoe left after he decided there were too many city guards for him to have a chance of protecting anything at all from anyone, I was getting bored, and mom started making dinner. I helped, because I figured that it was a pretty safe bet we would be having some extra guests for dinner tonight, which meant more food needed making than normal, and because it was the sort of thing I did. Ornery was going to send me out to the market for more food, then thought better of it and got Officer Kirilyn to send one of the guards.
While we were making food, and fewer people were still around investigating fewer of the things they thought needed investigating, Howper showed up with a basket of the best meat and sausages his shop had to offer. He’d heard what had happened and was worried about me. I mean, he didn’t actually say he was worried about me. He asked if I was okay, looked relieved to see me standing there, and looked a little embarrassed because I was in nice clothes instead of my normal things while he was still in a blood-stained apron from work. He made alots of excuses about how his sisters had sent him over to check on me, and how everyone else was worried, and how if he’d been there he would have thrashed that murderer but good. Knowing he was worried about me made all the busyness much nicer to deal with.
When no one was looking, I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, just to watch him turn bright red. I turned back to my work grinning like a cat who had just taken down an ox and trying not to laugh. My mom, looking up from her cutting board to a beet red Howper and the look on my face gave me a dirty look. Then she laughed. That ruined it and I had to laugh too.
To steer clear of me and any other torments I might unleash on him without actually leaving, Howper got to work on roasting the meat he had brought on the hearth. He wasn’t about to let his best cuts of meat be cooked up on a stove. Howper left it to Officer Puppy to do most of the official taste testing, something Officer Puppy happily agreed to do. After a few very official reviews of choice bits of sizzling meat, Officer Puppy looked much less upset than he’d been while moping in the corner.
Soon the entire room was filled with the smells of cooking. The more the room smelled of dinner the more the talk moved away from the crime of the night before to every day chatter. By the time dinner was ready, everyone was famished, except Officer Puppy, but he tried very hard to pretend he still was. After all, what self-respecting dog would wander away acting all happy and contented when there was meat on the table?
Dinner was laid out on the finest plates Mrs. Apothecary could dig out of her closets. She claims they were made with real human bones, but I didn’t believe her. Who would make plates out of human bones? That’s just creepy. “Well, it would hardly seem that they are using them anymore,” she said, “So I’m sure they would be happy to know their remains did not go to waste.”
Serving plates and bowls were filled to overflowing with spring greens tossed in oil and vinegar, spicy seaweed salad, grilled squash, smoked sausage, fresh bread, bowls of sticky rice, perfectly seared steaks, steamed beans, boiled baby crab, pickled radishes, sliced fruit, fresh mint tea, and wine. Around the food sat Ornery, the pirate Thinker, Mr. and Mrs. Apothecary, Howper, Captain Kirilyn, two of her officers, mom, and me. A good thing there weren’t any more or the table would have been crowded.
Over the course of the day, the pirate Thinker had worked hard to get Ornery to help guard enough of the mead that everyone was relaxed as they could be under the circumstances. Between that and the wonderful smell of food everyone was mostly in a good mood. Even Ornery was laughing while we ate.
Over dinner we talked about absolutely everything but the night before. Howper told us about working out a new spice blend for grilling meat with his dad. Captain Kirilyn started recounting some of the more interesting events in the city over the past week. When one of here officers protested that the public wasn’t supposed to know about a really interesting event she was describing, she laughed. “I would trust these people with my life. I think they can keep a secret.” Then she continued on. Mrs. Apothecary explained the history of every piece of dinnerware she had brought over, in detail. The adults all found it fascinating. I don’t know why. And the pirate Thinker told stories about adventures that he probably had never had. Ornery, mom, and I had heard them before, but we listened anyway. He was a good story-teller.
As dinner was winding down, and the pirate Thinker was winding down another story, he stood up, and almost fell over because by then he’d had too much to eat and even more to drink. He recovered without spilling a drop from the glass in his hand and raised it high. “A toast,” he said, “To your first kill! We’ll make a pirate of you yet!”
The room was so silent you could have heard a rat drop.
My mom gracefully stood up before anyone had time to get upset, and raised her glass. “I can’t say I agree with your sentiment,” she said softly, “But the truth will be what it is.” There was a pause. Then she let out a long breath. “May no one here ever have to bear the pain of outliving their own child.”
Everyone else stood up and slowly raised their glasses in silence. I stood up, but it didn’t feel like something to raise my glass to. It made the glass feel too heavy. Everyone drank. I lifted the glass to my lips but couldn’t drink what was in it. It sat there in the glass like rippling lead. Everything felt distant and time seemed to slow to a crawl, the glass stuck there at my mouth. The silence became so deep it felt like a noise all its own, like I was stuck in the glass with nothing but the pounding of my own heart. There was a shadow in the glass with me that seemed to grow until it loomed over me, threatening, coming closer, and bringing with it things I didn’t want to remember.
Mrs. Apothecary, who was sitting next to me, rested a hand on my shoulder and asked if I was all right. The shadow passed and the world sped back to normal. I nodded quietly, but I felt really dizzy and sat down. “You poor dear,” she said, “You must be quite exhausted after all this.” She looked around. “Right, I do believe it is time to wrap things up so this young lady can get some rest.”
“But I got to sleep in late,” I protested.
“And you had a hard day and an even harder night. You need to sleep it off.”
Her calling an end to the day gave the pirate Thinker an excuse to cover his embarrassment by taking his leave as fast as politeness allowed. Even the pirate Thinker could forget to think when he was drunk enough. Captain Kirilyn gathered what few things still needed gathering and left with her men, Mr. Apothecary left to check on the shop, and Howper was sent on his way. My mom went with him a short way to talk to him. We had cleaned out the larder and she said she needed to plan groceries for the week. Howper was a good meal planner. His dad was better, but his dad wasn’t at dinner.
While she was out, Ornery lit a pipe, looked at me a long time, and said quietly, “Congratulations on yer first kill. Are ya sure that’s the kind of life ya want to be living for the rest of yer days?”
I didn’t have an answer for him. I just squirmed uncomfortably in my chair and nibbled on some scraps already grown stale on my plate, trying not to look back at him. After looking at me a while longer, he harrumphed and wandered over to the hearth to look at the fire.
Just as I was about to silently excuse myself for bed, Mrs. Apothecary said, “Just remember, make the choices you have open to you wisely. They are far too few in number compared to the many things in your life, and in this world, where choosing won’t be an option. Even then, a wise choice can steer the course of fate a little, but never truly change it.” I didn’t really know if she was talking to Ornery or to me.
“There’s always choices,” Ornery said, “Ya just may not like any of the choices ya have. We pick the one we hate least and blame it on fate.”
“Well, you old pirate, you go on believing that if it helps, but both you and child do have some choices to make about how to deal with some things you have no choice in whatsoever. Even after last night, where and when may be still open to you. What never was.”
“I know my own business. Maybe ya should see yers.”
“Ornery, this is my business. I’m the one who spoke her fate for you. Then all you did was repeat the mistakes of others and try very hard to deny all you heard. You and I both know where that will get you.”
Mrs. Apothecary spoke my fate? I lost the thread of the conversation at those words. Besides, they had started talking about me like I wasn’t there. It was easy not to be.
Why would Mrs. Apothecary have spoken my fate? She was not even a Speaker. Speakers train all their lives to speak fates and nothing else and are only allowed to become Speakers when a panel of the most senior of Speakers agrees they are ready. Most of them are old and half mad by the time they are ready to speak fates. But they always speak true, at least if you can figure out the riddles and rhymes they speak in. Usually people only realize too late what the words meant. If they are lucky, they meant something good. If the speaking sounded like it was full of ill omens, people will destroy themselves trying to escape the fate that was spoken, only to run head long into it.
Mrs. Apothecary clearly couldn’t be old enough to have learned to be a wyrd, and an alchemist, and a Speaker, and who knows what else besides. That would take multiple life times for even the most gifted wyrd. Hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, before the any of the Pirate Wars, people claim there were natural-born Speakers, but if there were, no one has come forward in all that time to prove it. I mean, there are the Sisters, they can Speak too, but in the entire world, there are only three of them.
The Sisters are ancient crones, older than anyone can remember. Some people say they are immortal gods come to the earth to punish us for our past crimes. They are wise, all powerful, all seeing, cranky, spiteful, and entirely fed up with humans and their affairs. They hide out in the Great Wastes, where only pirates dare to tread, and avoid all contact with the human race. They are stooped with age, with wild hair that seems to have a life of its own, and eyes that look right through you, like your entire life, past and future, was on display in a glass case for them. If they show up speak your fate, it is to tell you your doom and laugh at your pathetic attempts to escape it. There are stories of them destroying entire cities because they were in a bad mood.
Outside of the pirates, no one in living memory has ever seen one of the Sisters, and most people are very thankful for that. At least if they’re anything like they are in all the story books. Ornery likes to say, “Girl, the Sisters are fairy stories to scare little children into bein’ good. Just like pirates!” Then he laughs.
Their discussion, or maybe it was an argument, it was hard to tell, was interrupted by a commotion outside the door, an argument between my mom and someone else. My mom opened the door to step in with Madame Flattery hot on her heels.
Madame Flattery was the owner of the fanciest brothel in the city, though she insisted people call it an “enstablishment of evening entertainments”. Anyone who tried to tell her the word was “establishment” would learn you don’t contradict Madame Flattery.
You didn’t even get to walk in the front door of her “enstablishment” unless you were of the right lineage and pedigree. Not that she was one to turn away money, there was a back door too. She was rich, and garish, and greedy, and gluttonous, and probably some other words beginning with G that I don’t know. She was built like she lived entirely off rich foods and expensive chocolates, and far too much of both. Though she could move her huge frame around with poise and elegance, like a giant panda who had gone on to become the world’s greatest ballerina. When she was in her best form, she could flow like liquid, with not a ripple to disturb a single one of her many layers of fat.
She was always dressed in the finest silks and satins that she somehow squeezed into without the fabric bursting. Howper used to joke that if the top of her dress ever burst, the explosion would level a city block. She never went out without perfect hair that had probably started as someone else’s, too much makeup, and way too much of whatever perfume was guaranteed to drive men mad with desire this month. Given how men responded to her, she was probably wearing a few spells too. To everyone else she was an annoyance and a painted cow, if an overly polite and elegant one.
She never crossed the canal unless she was in a sealed coach that was hurrying toward the gate and out into the provinces beyond. Having her here was definitely a surprise, especially since there was not a single one of her burly body guards around her. There were always at least three with her, massive men, shirtless, no matter the weather, oiled and tanned. They always looked very intimidating. Ornery just called them pretty boys and said they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.
“Dear child,” she called all women ‘dear child’, though people said she used different words for her girls when no one else was around, “I simply must insist you invite me in. I am here purely as a gesture of goodwill. I want to asssisssst you,” she said, drawing out the word, “here in your time of calumnity. It would be unendurably unpertinent to turn me away. I would be embarrassed and shamed beyond reconning. I simply must come in.”
My mom looked angry, and was trying to find a polite way to slam the door in her face. Slamming the door in Madame Flattery’s face was a hard thing. It might break the door on her hardened layers of makeup.
“Let her in,” Ornery said.
“Fine. Come in,” my mom said in an icy voice she usually only used when I was in really big trouble and doing a bad job of lying about it. She left the door open and stalked away to find a place to glare.
“Oh, I do thank you ever so much. You won’t regret this fellatious courtesy” Madame Flattery waltzed gracefully in, or started to. As she tried to step across, she startled, tripped over the doorway, and nearly fell in. There wasn’t even anything there for her to trip on. Maybe the door just didn’t like her coming in. The stumble added to her state.
Mamame Flattery was always in a state, usually somewhere between fainting and exploding in a burst of nervous energy. Most of the madams in the city were always in some state or another. I guess it is what was expected of madams. I think it was supposed to be endearing or maybe to fool men who were too distracted to see the rabid wolves behind their eyes into thinking they were soft and easy to haggle with.
Officer Puppy knew she wasn’t soft. He was very politely not growling or barking or biting her leg, though you could see he wanted to. If he could’ve gotten away with it, he might have peed on her leg, or maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to dirty his pee like that.
“Now, what can we do for ya, Miss Fattery,” Ornery said. Ornery said it with such sincerity that it was a few seconds before I was trying very hard not to giggle. Madame Flattery, full of even more nervous energy than normal, didn’t seem to notice.
“Well, I do realize this may be an undescribably importune time for you, but, honestly, nothing like bad news to motivate a person to take action, don’t you agree? I came right over because I wanted to give my most sincere heart-felt sympathies to the terrible tragedies of the past few days. I am sure it has been stressful on all of you, especially this dear child here.” I dodged her hand as she came toward me. I think it was supposed to be some creepy gesture of kindness. I understood the creepy part.
She paused, unflustered. I think. It was hard to tell. She glared at Mrs. Apothecary while she put her next sentence together.
“But I have also come to render what assistance I can to you in your hour of need. After much careful and studiful delubrication I am most certain I can assist in providing your darling young daughter here a safe haven free from such horrible and rather nasty threats as the last two days have brought on this household.”
Ornery harrumphed. “She ain’t my daughter,” he said levelly, though he clearly wasn’t happy where this was going.
“Yes, indeed, of course, but the child does need a trade does she not? And the entire city sees her as your relation, your pregeny, which even you must confess deinclines them to offer a proper apprenticeship to her. What is a young girl to do with no future, lost in the shadow of the great and infamous pirate Ornery?” She made a play of acting a bit faint to emphasize her point. “Most certainly, she can apply herself to further study and acquire a wide penelope of knowledge, but to what end? To what end? After all, what use does this world have for another unemployed academic?” She tittered at her own humor.
“No,” said Ornery and my mom, almost at the same time.
Madame Flattery just started talking faster, to keep them from getting any more words in, especially really short ones. The faster she talked, the more made up words she used. It would have been funny, in a different situation.
“Now, I can certainly understand your miscomfort at such a preposition, but I run one of the safest, cleanest enstablishments in the empire. She will be under careful guard at all times. Not only wards, but real, flesh and blood guards who don’t take kindly to abusive clients.
“The libelity others perceive in her would be nothing but an asset under my tuteling. Just think, her age, child of an infamous pirate. I would have the wealthiest nobles in the empire lined up at the door for an importunity with her. Why, I have three standing orders for a chance to deflower a young pirate in this city alone, the most recent bidder offering triple what all my darling girls normally make in a month put together. I could pass her off at least that many times before anyone noticed. No matter their prederections, rarity and exoticism always commands top dollar. I mean, everyone has to be child at some point in their life, but only pirates get to be pirates. Yes, yes, I know, she has tested negative, but the sashay of your name would more than cover for that. You know full well that allusion is all about giving people what they have already chosen to believe anyway.
“If the amounts on those standing offers are any mendication, she could be an independent operator within two years. And just look at her. Androgyny is in fantastically high demand these days. It is the new look in all the eristrocratic circles. Women are falling all over themselves to look like little boys, and she has the look down pat. She is an utterly natural.”
My mom looked like she was about to go look for a knife to stage a dramatic reenactment of the night before for our guest. I was slowly moving away from her. I didn’t like what she was saying one bit, but this felt wrong in a way that was deeper, and darker. Something deep down inside me told me that Madame Flattery was scared. Something had made her come down here alone to make a deal and now she was panicked that the deal was going to fall through. I felt the shadow from the dinner toast filling the room, looming over her and reaching for me. Officer Puppy had started growling softly. Mrs. Apothecary was checking her nails with careful disinterest, and Ornery seemed too calm, in a cold, dark way.
“So, if I’m understandin’ ya right, ya want to offer Peri here an apprenticeship?”
Madame Flattery seemed genuinely relieved. “Yes, exactly, an apprenticeship. I am most certain that with some proper coaching she could be the finest courtesan in the empire for select patrons. I am so glad we understand one another. I am most sincerely doing this from the kindness of my heart. No child should have to face the horrors this dear child has faced just because she is from a pirate family. But under my sewardship, we could easily turn this pediment into a horribly useful opportunity. With my marketing skills she could be one of the most desirable new properties in years. We could capitalize on her infirmy and turn it into an unquillified asset.”
“Peri ain’t going to be a prostitute for yer brothel.”
Madame Flattery did her best to look properly offended. It was hard for her to do without trying to play coy at the same time. “I will have you know that I do not employ prostitutes and my house is not a brothel. My enstablishment hires only the finest courtesans and mistresses for the most exclusive of clientele. Not that I’d expect some unemployed pirate to understand that.”
“Apologies then, I didn’t mean to insult ya. I have a great respect for a good whore, having hired many of them in my day.” Ornery paused to give Madame Flattery’s face time to turn red and the flames to start licking around the edges of her eyes. Just as her lips started to press into that line that would turn into a sharp reply, he continued, “But ya see, she’s already got an apprenticeship somewhere.”
“Impossible!” Madame Flattery almost exploded. “I have my ear to every channel in the city, and there is not a person that would touch her. You’ve tainted her. And now you’re going to ruin my—her last chance.”
Ornery harrumphed. It was a very smug harrumph. It made me a little less afraid of her.
“Ya know what is kinda queer? That a woman like yerself, who never waits for an invitation from anyone, wanted us to invite ya in. What were ya afraid of?”
“Common courtesy,” Madame Flattery almost hissed.
Ornery gave her a long, hard look, hard enough to bruise most faces, but her makeup was too thick to be injured so easily. “Anyway, she can’t hardly be an apprentice pirate and workin’ under yer customers at the same time. Wouldn’t be proper.”
Officer Puppy was growling loudly now, stalking up around Mrs. Apothecary and sidling into position for a clear shot at Madame Flattery’s neck, if he could find it under all the chins and satin.
Mrs. Apothecary just looked at Madame Flattery sweetly, “Tell me, how is that new girl you just hired … what was her name, oh yes, Hiro. How is Hiro doing? She seemed so promising.”
“Hiro? I—” Madame Flattery looked stunned. She recovered and laughed nervously, like she was covering for a bad joke. “I have no idea—”
Seeing the look on Officer Puppy’s face, framed by a stance ready to lunge, she thought better of another reply. Seeing that Ornery, my mom, and Mrs. Apothecary all looked perfectly ready to not call him to heel, she made her step toward the door. Then there was another step, and another, and she threw open the door and hustled out.
Safely outside, she turned and shouted, her face red with rage, “People do not cross me and the certainly do not say no to me! I have friends! Important friends! You will be hearing from them!” And with a dramatic harrumph of her own, she stormed off like she was being pursued by ghosts. It may have been her best attempt, but her harrumph didn’t even merit a passing mention in the Secret Order of Harrumphers.
Officer Puppy, standing next to Mrs. Apothecary, stopped growling. She was scratching his ears. “I smell a rat too,” she said.
There were a thousand questions we could have asked. Why did Madame Flattery show up right then? Was she really serious about hiring me as one of her girls? Did she have some other, darker reason? What was she afraid of? Did she know something about the murder attempt? Was she involved? Who was Hiro?
The only question that got asked was mine. “Apprentice pirate?”
“Sounds to be what I said, don’t it?”
I expected my mom to protest, to raise a fuss, to reprimand Ornery for making a joke. What she said was, “It’s about time you made up your mind.” Her voice was still dripping with anger, but if any of it was aimed at Ornery it was only for letting that woman come in.
“Past time,” Mrs. Apothecary agreed.
I had to ask for her. “That was a joke to drive her away, wasn’t it? I mean, I wouldn’t want to work for that cow, doing … that, but there are no apprentice pirates, you said so.”
“Then ya can be the first.”
At that moment, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an apprentice pirate. If Ornery was expecting me to be excited, he was disappointed. I was scared. I had a feeling he liked it better that way.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.