The Pirate Apprentice, Chapter 14: A submerged past

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Seji made her way through the ancient tunnels under the ruins behind the palace. That some Tubengu rats had moved in here was not lost on her. She knew full well the Tubengu were still around; they were impossible to not notice. She also knew she would probably have to face them and had come prepared. It had been a long time since she a good fight had come her way; it would be a nice refresher.

By the time she reached her destination, she was pleasantly surprised to find them largely absent, though there was a brief pang of disappointment at not getting to try out some of her new toys. In the time she took to reach the old cistern she had faced nothing but shadows scurrying away from her.

There had been some secret passageways Seji had found forced open on the way, but the cistern door was locked and unscarred. She dug a very old key out of a pocket, fit it to the lock and turned. She opened the door to the cistern and recoiled for a moment. Unscarred clearly did not mean undiscovered.

The smell coming from inside was awful, and the dim glow of a broken glow disk revealed a macabre scene. With her sleeve covering her mouth and nose she gathered herself and entered the room, locking the door behind her. It was clear that no one else who cared about breathing had come this way recently.

The room was littered with corpses, some having clearly been sitting there for days, if not weeks. Above what she took to be a garish parody of a throne a young female rat hung transfixed on a tripod of three spears—a warning, or a lost prize. Seji sighed, an unintended sympathetic gesture that was rewarded with a coughing fit in the face of the miasma. Tubengu succession battles were no concern of hers, though it did explain the lack of rodents in the tunnels and passageways. They were too busy fighting each other, and, as such, prone to run away unless they were in the safety of a pack.

Beyond the door she heard the rising war cry of just such a pack, the chitters distinguishing themselves from other noises as they grew in volume and made clear they were moving her way. She was sure the door would hold them long enough; she had built it herself.

Unless they had a key, which, given the scene before her, was certain.

Prepared or not, she wasn’t in the mood to waste time with a fight already surrounded by a thick miasma of stale death. The sooner she escaped this smell the happier she would be. She found a small depression in the cistern wall that looked like just a chip in the stone and pushed the old key into it. It slid smoothly into a keyhole that didn’t appear to be there. She turned the key with a smooth click that was drowned out by the sounds of the rats having reached the door.

After a short pause, there was a grinding noise. The entire room began to turn. She heard the screams of the rats who had been battering the door as the first door slid away from them. There was one horrible screech from a rat who perhaps thought they could stop the door from moving. Their failure ended in a crunchy gurgle. Then there was silence except for the distant sounds of the mechanisms turning the cistern, the rats squeals muffled by solid stone.

A new door was lined up with the way she had come in, and the rats resumed battering. Some of the other doors creaked for a moment and then burst inward under the pressure of the water behind them, sending splinters of wood crashing in to the wall to either side of her. It caught her off guard; the wood was more rotten than she had thought. She didn’t favor swimming with corpses, but at least they would get a decent burial at sea.

The floor began to descend, sinking into the lower part of the cistern below it, the added weight of the water saving her the effort of having to dig through the piles of dead rats to activate the next mechanism.

Seji dug a breather out of her shoulder bag and fitted it on before slipping under the surface to escape the offal dashing about on top of the swirling water.

By the time the Tubengu rats found a key to open the door, they were greeted by a wall of water. Those that survived that were greeted by the side-effects of a subterranean explosion a few moments later. None of her would-be attackers survived, solving the succession in favor of those who had thought it best to leave strange humans be.

***

Seji poked her head through the open airlock at the bottom of the ship. She slipped off her breather and sniffed the air. It smelled fresh, with a strong scent of Madame Flattery.

“There you are, child. Took you long enough.” Said a voice from out of sight at the top of the airlock in a language long forgotten in the history of this world. “Everyone paid in full and sent happily in their own separate ways?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said as she climbed the ladder up to the deck.

Madame Flattery was wearing an elegant set of satin and brocade coveralls and was half-buried under some large pieces of equipment, working on them, noisily. She had tastefully opted for a complicated but functional piece in twenty shades of black to better hide the grease and grime stains. She went back to ignoring Seji and focusing on things that needed fixing.

Seji pulled herself up into a small machine room that sat at the top of airlock in not-so-small submarine. Every inch of the room was clean, uncluttered, and utilitarian. It was a style she approved of. If only the rest of the sub were like that.

She stood naked and dripping on the cold deck, having abandoned everything else except a head lamp, some keys, and the contents of a waterproof shoulder bag in the cistern. The rest was well protected by the explosion that had collapsed the cistern after she was well clear of it. If the rats had overrun it, there was always a risk of them, or others, finding what else was down there.

Seji was trim and young, with jet black hair and dark eyes. She had a sharp, severe face and a stance to match. Even naked, she stood like she was at an important business meeting, waiting for the business to get started. She took great pride in being the opposite of Madame Flattery in every way she could manage. She found herself annoyed as her rigid stance slipped and she began to shiver, the cold of the swim settling in now that she was in the air again. She was also annoyed that Madame Flattery didn’t at least offer her a towel.

“Towels stored with the utmost of care in the locker to your immediate left,” Madame Flattery said, “and a most splendid uniform in the next. Why, there may even be a full change of clothes there. Not that I have any complaints with your current choice in fashion. I have it on good authority the wet look is in this year, though I do presume there should be more than just water involved. Otherwise all those scrumptious designers would be quite unemployed.”

Madame Flattery tittered at her own humor.

Seji dug a towel out of the designated locker, and dried herself vigorously. While she was drying off, Madame Flattery stopped wrenching and grinding and pounding for a short bit as a thought struck her. “You know dear, you could probably get nice wyrd to make you a stunning ensemble entirely out of water. I’m certain it would look simply dashing on you. Probably not so much on me, but I’m willing to give it a go if you are. We’ll just have to get them to make mine opaque.” With an indifferent shrug she went back to making noise in a passably successful pantomime of repairing things.

Seji retrieved some overly-complicated black coveralls and some underwear out of the next locker over. She gave the coveralls a cold look. The two of them would never see eye to eye on fashion. Half of the complications were useful features, it was a uniform meant for survival, but half were just part of a fashion that hadn’t been fashionable in recorded history, and even then had been in questionable taste.

“You’ve lost weight,” Seji said, perhaps a bit more testily than she had planned, “death becomes you.” It could hardly be denied that Madame Flattery did look much trimmer than she had at the beginning of the week.

“Oh tush, no lip from you, child. I sit still too long and I increase both in gravity and indolence, just like the rest of the world.”

“You’ve always been fat,” Seji said from under a towel, as she worked it through her hair again, trying to get more of the salt water out.

“God’s aren’t fat, child, they are pleasingly plump, perhaps even Rubenesque … though I suppose no one has used that word in a few thousand years now, have they?” Madame Flattery sighed. “Now there is an artist I miss. We tried so hard to preserve so much, and failed far too often.”

“You also aren’t a god.”

“Not a god?” Madame Flattery made a play at sounding indignant. “Why, you’re right! I am a goddess! An immortal being, an eternal flame unquenchable, a force of pure seduction, a veritable fount of wisdom, and a creature of intriguing mystical powers. Though being a powerful enough god to actually smite people would be rather nice as well, don’t you think? Outliving people who crossed you does get rather lackluster after a while.”

Seji decided not to pursue the argument. Although better than listening to another endless lamentation of things lost, it was still a debate they had rehearsed many times.

While pulling on her coveralls, Seji asked, “The old cistern was overrun with Tubengu rats. How did you get here?”

“Me?” As if there was anyone else. “I swam.”

Seji grunted at the typical non-answer.

Madame Flattery contemplated the question aloud in time to her assaulting the things she had decided were broken. “The most wonderful part of being dead is it that leaves you with so much time on your hands. No appointments, no commitments, no obligations, no nothing. So I had a nice swim far out to sea, just to unwind a bit, and then followed the deep sea tunnel back up to the station. It was quite an exemplary workout, if I do say so myself. Though I would most decidedly not recommend it to anyone who might feel the need to breathe. I must confess, not breathing for hours on end did hurt quite a bit.”

“You could have used a breather.”

“Nonsense child, I was in quite a terrible mood, and the inconvenience helped it immensely.”

Madame Flattery banged vigorously on the piece of troublesome equipment she lay prostrate under. There was a loud squeal and it started purring softly above her. Madame Flattery made a contented noise from underneath it.

“We really must fix that door at the tunnel entrance someday,” she said, after satisfied with the hum of the equipment. “It is rather obvious stuck wide open like that. It never ceases to amaze me that they still haven’t reinvented submarines, being a mostly sea-faring civilization and all. I suppose between the wyrds and never having really lost air travel this time around no matter how far their civilizations sank is to blame for that.”

Madame Flattery slid gracefully out from under the equipment she had been working on. Her face looked younger and more radiant without all those layers of makeup, even if it was now smeared with grease, and there certainly fewer chins to count.

She gave her daughter a warm smile.

***

After Madame Flattery had cleaned up a bit, they retired to an elegantly appointed conference room at the back of the bridge. For a room they hadn’t set foot in for at least a hundred years, it was in remarkably good condition. The leather seats would need some repairing, but it was usable. They both fell into their customary chairs, equally tired from a long day.

“So what, may I ask, motivated you to burn down the brothel?”

“No one injured, I hope?”

“Everyone got out safely.”

“Oh good. They were wonderful little girls. It would be a shame if anything happened to them. And the bouncers, well, I wish I could have brought at least one along for those long, cold nights.”

Seji gave her mother a long look.

“Reasons. Yes. Reasons.” Madam Flattery made a great show of composing herself. “Well, someone had just killed me and from what I could uncover before and after my death, put an immense amount of effort into framing me for one murder, another attempted murder, and a few other things besides. It seemed a good time to disappear. I am still not entirely clear yet on how they charmed me into arranging to set myself up—”

“Money,” Seji interjected. “You were bragging endlessly about how much money they were offering you the entire day before.”

“Yes, there is that,” Madame Flattery said pensively. She made a sincere attempt to look as sheepish as she could manage, landing on the look she used to get customers to pay twice as much as initially agreed upon. “It was an immense sum. It was our operating budget for half a year. And a quarter of that just for making the attempt to address the request. Now, I really should have asked for that full quarter up front. And all for the opportunity to deflower a young, virgin, pirate girl, and well … there was one available.”

Seji resisted the urge to scream. Instead she buried her face in her hands in frustration, pushing her fingers up into her hair as if to make ready to start tearing it out should the need arise.

Madame Flattery continued on, talking faster. “It was a simple enough business proposal. Most households would happily sell a daughter for what I could have offered them. Most households would be simply flattered that I would notice a child of theirs enough to make an offer. But then I arrive to find two recent crimes against the household in recent days, which I suppose I knew about but was entirely unclear on the severity of, which I suppose you’re going to tell me is what I get for ignoring the gossip from that side of the canal, while the girl, she turns out to be the former admiral’s daughter, and even worse, that woman just sitting there, cool as could be, watching me make a fool of myself. Which I helped with immensely by starting to panic, entirely losing my usual shrewd business acumen to stage fright. That bitch was probably quietly laughing the entire time.”

Madame Flattery began to turn red with a mixture of embarrassment and rage. Seji looked at her cooly from under the little peaked fortress of her hands. “And which bitch would that be? I recall so many.”

“That apothecary!”

“That apothecary?” Seji drew a blank. She looked at her mother’s look of slow, simmering mix of shame and rage. “Wait. You blundered face first into something involving Nona?”

Madame Flattery squirmed a little in her chair, shame beating out the rage for the moment. “It wasn’t intentional.”

“And is there any chance this customer knew who you were?”

Madame Flattery regained enough composure to look indignant. “Child, would anyone who knew who I was bother to try to kill me, except perhaps on a dare of some sort? Though I do concede that the poison combination most certainly felt like it was crafted to keep even your average pirate from ever considering the option of getting up again, so he was clever enough to know there was something appropriately special, if not otherworldly, about me. At least he didn’t hang around to gloat. I hate it when the hang around to gloat. Makes me want to get up and slap them silly.”

When Seji didn’t say anything, Madame Flattery continued on, “You know, I am rather envious of the pirates. They live to a ripe old age, most of the time, and then happily pass on. I’m getting rather bored of leaving my fortunes to a distant relative who is really just me. Someone else should get a turn.”

“Mother. I think we need to work on your greed. And your tendency to burn your bridges a little too quickly behind you.”

“Nonsense! It seemed an appropriately fitting grand finale. Besides, people were beginning to wonder how I kept my youth and stunning beauty after all those wonderful years. It was time to move on anyway.”

Seji decided she wasn’t going to get any meaningful answers. Usually she could read her mother like a book, but right now all she read under her mother’s protective fluster was that she had a secret and was proud as a peacock about it. She would have to wait for her mother let something slip in one of her more flippant moments.

“So where are we moving on to then?”

“I thought I put that in my note. Someone owes me some money. I intend to see that they pay. I’ll settle for blood.”


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