It turned out that being an apprentice pirate wasn’t very exciting. There was no swashbuckling training or plunder practice, though I did get some fencing lessons. Ornery had contacted an old friend, named Rimares, about getting me an apprenticeship long before any of this had happened. Even though he wasn’t really a pirate, Rimares used to be first engineer on Ornery’s ship, the Decima. After Ornery retired his command, Rimares opened up a repair shop.
His former first engineer had been more than happy to impose me on his grandson, also named Rimares, as an apprentice. Whether the younger Rimares was happy with it was a different story.
Grandfather, son, grandson, and pretty much all the rest of the family, were mechanics. Mostly they repaired navy ships, but they also worked on pirate ships. If it flew or floated, they would fix it. They would even fix a land crawler … if you could figure out how to get it to the island that was home to their shop. They didn’t turn away anyone, as long as the money was good.
Grandfather and grandson were both almost as ornery as Ornery, each in their own way.
Ornery wasn’t really lying about being an apprentice pirate, not really. Part of fixing ships was testing them, which meant I had to learn how to drive, fly, and sail all sorts of things. I had to be able to clean, prep, and load the guns, and to understand everything that did anything on most any kind of ship fitted for battle. What sort of pirate would I be if I didn’t know how to do any of that?
But he didn’t really tell the truth either. Being a ship’s mechanic wasn’t the same as being a pirate, no matter how many times he pointed out that somebody had to keep the ship in repair.
Still, I would be working on pirate ships. How could I say no?
Having a pretty good sense that it would be dangerous to stay in Farport, at least for mom and me, Ornery got us packed and out of the city in a week. He was positive that somebody was out to get at him through us, and he wanted us some place safe.
A repair depot, well, more sort of an entire repair island, that kept the peace between the troops of the Imperial Navy, the Keryan Navy, the Grand Fleet of the Eastern Kingdoms, the Hongon Battle Fleet, the Freeland Fighters of the Archipelagos, and pirates, all of them pretty drunk while waiting for their ships to be repaired, was about as safe as it got, short of hiding in a deep hole in the ground somewhere in the Wastes. And there you had to worry about creatures that would eat you for a snack. The repair depot was a military center, armed to the teeth. No one on leave there while their ship was being repaired wanted to be blamed for accidentally starting a war.
Mom knew about the apprenticeship. It was supposed to have been my birthday present, except Ornery wasn’t sure it was a good idea, and with all the chaos from the day before and everything, all mention of it got pushed aside. You might think my mom would be the one to not like the idea of me being stuck in a military stronghold for an apprenticeship, but it was also supposed to be right in the middle of a tropical paradise, and she was coming along, all expenses paid.
After dinner, mom had really been talking to Howper about provisions for the trip, knowing it had to happen eventually. Because of him, I don’t think we paid for a single bite of what we ate for the entire journey. Neither did a good chunk of the ship’s crew.
There were lots of tearful goodbyes. I was going far away, to a small city of military barracks, repair shops, and resort hotels for the officers, on a small island called The Jewel. It was in the middle of nowhere in the independent islands that sat between the five great military powers of the largest inhabitable region on the entire planet. Aligned to no one and willing to do business with anyone.
It would be a long time before I saw any of my friends again.
Ornery didn’t skimp on moving us. Instead of an ox cart, he rented a motorized floater to haul our stuff to the docks. I’d only ever been in one twice before. He drove it himself.
We had an entire army of unusually sober pirates, mostly retired, helping us load things up, and not a single one tried to steal a thing, which was definitely better than hiring day laborers. Pirates turned out to be very good at packing things safely. After all, there wasn’t much point in looting if it was all damaged from an unexpected battle or two along the way to finding a buyer. Not that pirates did much looting and pillaging these days, but appearances needed to be kept up.
Being around that many sober pirates just felt wrong. It would be a long time before that happened again too.
Ornery did have another surprise for me. I realized something was up when we headed for the south docks instead of the north ones. There was no direct route to where we were going. The easiest way would be to travel down the coast of the empire to one of the southern ports, and then catch a passenger ship out. Going to the south port meant he had arranged another route. There was really only one other route of I knew of.
I was seated next to him in the small driver’s cabin of the floater. “Does this mean we’re going to the Eastern Kingdoms?” I’d never even seen more than the countryside around our city. I’d been excited to see another city of the empire, even if we never got past the docks, but was doubly excited at the idea of visiting a foreign country.
“Find out soon enough,” was all he said. It was the longest answer I got to any of my questions on the ride by at least four words.
Ornery had stayed on the side streets to avoid traffic, but had to pull into Market Square eventually to get into the port. As we turned into its wide open space, floating along over the heads of people doing their shopping below, I could see there were three ships docked in the upper births. We didn’t get too many airships in the south port anymore. They were expensive things, expensive to build, expensive to fly, and expensive to maintain. They were normally only used for expensive cargo and expensive people.
They weren’t freighters or passenger ships. They weren’t the overly decorated playthings of some wealthy noble who needed to prove how much money they could afford to waste on their way out to a picnic somewhere. They were meant for battle.
I just stared at them. If I hadn’t been staring, I might have noticed there were other people staring too. Some of them were also mumbling, some even grumbling, and most scurrying about just a little faster than normal. Those ships looked uncomfortably out of place in the port.
Ornery saw me staring. He harrumphed, then leaned over and pointed so I could see along his arm. “That one.” The ship he pointed at was the largest one of the three.
From my perch on the floater, puttering along so close to the ground that Ornery had to dodge the occasional vendor’s stall that was flying a banner on top, it looked like a dragon had invaded the port. It was all blackmetal, wood the color of rich mahogany, and brass. Its prow was in the shape of a giant, angry-looking serpent’s head, the hull was narrow and sleek, and the engines set out to the sides like tiny wings that could never hold up a beast that large. Even in the afternoon sun, you could see the gold-green throb of the engine panels holding the ship up there.
Looking at it from below, it was easy to see that the hull was shaped to float in the sea, not in the air. The curved hull that sliced through the water so well was wasted on an airship, which just needed to be sleek enough for the air to know which direction to get out of the way. It was clear that it was parked up there just to show off its beauty and to make people look.
The sails were furled, but even down here I could see they were trimmed in a rich crimson, and atop the tallest of its three masts flew a simple black flag with no emblem or seal. It was not a ship of any state. It was a ship named the Black Dragon, an independent operator, a privateer, a pirate ship. Ornery had called in some favors.
If I had another word to say before we stopped moving by the loading elevators, I don’t remember what it was.
The upper berths on the docks were big and high up. They had to be to clear the tallest masts of the ships below. They towered over anything else in the city. People in the city would use them to get their bearings, trying to catch sight of them when lost on unfamiliar streets. They sat atop a spindly metal skeleton of a tower along with a too big building that was full of customs offices, waiting lounges, and taverns for the sailors. There were even some fancy restaurants for those who were into dining in the clouds. Around the building were berths for airships, piled high with cargo. More than anything, it looked like it should fall over in a light breeze.
I knew it would float away on the breeze before it fell over. It was held up by the same engines that held the airships up there in the air. It really was a giant airship, anchored to the ground with a tower that carried elevators up and down. That didn’t make it less scary.
I’d never been higher than the roof of the apothecary. Riding up the big, open platform of the freight elevator, I stayed as close to the middle as possible, with the floater and lots of things not properly tied down. The entire thing wobbled in the winds coming off the sea. Ornery just stood on the very edge and took in the sights.
At the top we were hustled through customs by city guards, some of them friends, some of them happy to see us gone, some of them both, and through lounges and waiting rooms toward the Black Dragon. When we stepped out the doors onto the dock, the ship stood before me, twice as large as it had looked from the ground. From here I could see the people on deck, how tiny they looked, and how far away the gangplank was, across a swaying platform made of light metal grating that let you see the tiny world so far down below you. There wasn’t even a railing for me to grab on to.
I couldn’t even walk out across dock to the ship without holding tightly on to my mother’s arm. She had done this before, and though clearly not at home in the air, she wasn’t more than maybe a little nervous. I could feel the entire thing rocking underneath me like a boat on rolling seas. Halfway to the ship, Ornery snuck in close from behind and whispered, “Never make it as a pirate like that.” I almost jumped out of my skin.
He just laughed and walked past us toward the ship.
I wasn’t going to let Ornery show me up. I let go of mom, but just found myself grabbing on to Officer Puppy’s collar. He seemed totally at home all this way up in the air. I walked the rest of the way, holding on to his collar for dear life, trying my best to look like I was just restraining him so he didn’t chase a rat of the edge or something. For his part, he dragged me along so I never had a chance to stop before he’d dragged me right across the narrow gangplank and on to the ship. Ornery just stood at the bottom of the gangplank and, as Officer Puppy dragged me past, saluted with a wicked smirk on his face.
Onboard it was easier to forget I was in the air. There were high railings around the deck, and solid wood under foot. It also seemed to sway less than the docks did. There were people all around working on things, carrying things, talking like normal people talk. I was able to relax a little.
My mom came up behind me onto the ship and rested a hand on my shoulder to let me know she was there. Then a short bit later Ornery followed. The instant his foot hit the deck, there was a loud call of “Admiral on deck,” and everything stopped.
There was a sudden rush of motion and 50 pirates stood at attention, in two perfect lines to either side of the deck. I looked about for an admiral and didn’t see anyone else. Ornery, standing behind me, harrumphed. “Since when did ya rats all join the Imperial Navy?” A voice coming from behind us on the gangplank said, “Give them a break, Admiral. They’re just hired hands.”
We all turned around to see a man on the gangplank. Tall and trim, the dark skin someone from the southern lands of the Hongon Republic or the Archipelagos, clean shaven except for a rakish mustache curled lightly at ends, with hair such a dark, rich purple that it looked black, and dark violet eyes. He was elegantly dressed in a crimson silk shirt, black leather pants and boots, black gloves, and a deep violet hat with a white plume that clearly said to everyone that he was the one in charge. He was gorgeous. My heart skipped a beat just looking at him.
“The troops are in the customs house deep in critical negotiations with a bartender or two,” he said. “How many days ‘fore we see them back?” asked Ornery.
“They should be along shortly. I made them leave their purses on board and paid the tab in full, in advance. They shouldn’t be able to negotiate more than one more round. Oh yes, sorry, at ease!” He shouted those last two words and everyone got back to work.
“Ladies,” Ornery said. He never called us ladies. Clearly this was a formal event. I wasn’t dressed for a formal event. I was in comfortable traveling clothes. “Ladies,” he said, “Allow me to introduce ya to the pirate Shadow.”
“And you two must be our enchanting cargo,” said the pirate Shadow. “A pleasure to meet you both.” He whipped off his hat, did an impossibly complicated bow, and managed to kiss us both on the hand, in one elegant move. Then, hat back in place, down on one knee, he patted Officer Puppy on the head. “And you too,” he said.
“Did you just call Uncle Ornery Admiral?” I finally managed to ask.
“Yes, indeed, apprentice pirate Peri,” the pirate Shadow said to me. That was the first time anyone ever made me blush just my saying my name. “First Admiral Ornery of the pirate fleet, second only to the Pirate Queen herself.”
“Retired,” Ornery added.
“Okay, okay,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand, “First Admiral Ornery, retired, once second only to the Pirate Queen herself. Now just in denial.” The pirate Shadow laughed. “We’ll get him to tearfully admit he misses us all yet, I promise.”
Uncle Ornery was an admiral? I though he was just plain ornery. Nobody ever tells me anything.
It turned out that part of the reason I didn’t know that Uncle Ornery was really Admiral Ornery was that pirates never, ever, ever say who their officers are when there are others around, unless they are drunk. It’s just not the done thing. There are individual ship captains, who are only in charge because it’s their ship, the Pirate Queen, and, outside of their private circles, that was it.
Another part of the reason is when Ornery declared himself retired, he made it perfectly clear what would happen to those who went blabbing about who he used to be. With him only being my uncle, I didn’t have a reason to know just how much weight his words carried.
But the biggest part of the reason was they were pirates. Being an admiral didn’t mean a thing over pints of good ale, or when sharing a feast. It only mattered when there were orders to be given, and there really were only orders to be given if they were facing battle. Pirates would rather be drinking than fighting any day, so why remind themselves of that bit of their lives when you didn’t have to? Most pirates were of the opinion that if someone was pulling rank on them it was because a fight was brewing, and if there wasn’t, well then, they would just have to provide one themselves.
Not that people didn’t know Ornery used to be an admiral, they just thought it would be rude to bring it up, either out of courtesy or fear. Though it did explain why people always wanted to party at our place. After all, they got to rub elbows with Admiral Ornery, retired, one of the most notorious pirates to ever sail the big wide blue.
I still had a lot to learn about Uncle Ornery.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.