Reading time: 8 min

chapter three With spring comes December

On a not-quite-so-cold day, late in the spring, if you could call it that, Tishian practiced her martial arts with some of the Sisters of Kril in the rocky flat outside the monastery. It was an easy place to slip, stumble, or fall, making it an ideal practice ground. She has been practicing with them for nearly a year. At first the acolytes had much to teach her and she has much rust to shake off, but today she was leisurely fending them off as they came at her in waves. It had taken some time to convince them to not hold back, but today the rocky plain glistened with sweat, blood, and the deep scoring of deadly magicks. The blood was mostly hers, she was going easy on them, but their healers would still be getting plenty of practice when this was done.

She was about to call for a break when she was nearly taken down by an especially agile acolyte as she was distracted by two people walking toward them from the north.

The acolytes, seeing the target of her gaze, all stepped to a safe distance, bowed respectfully, and hurried as one into their home to prepare it for guests, be they friend or foe. A series of whistles and chirps, bird song oddly out of place in so barren a land, followed them in as they passed information and commands back and forth in their own private language.

Tishian stood and waited, her clothes tattered, but herself whole. The old woman approaching her, moving with a strong, confident stride in spite of her ancient demeanor, was not one to stand on formality. The wild shock of gray hair that swathed her made it hard to tell the state of anything she might wear underneath, though Tishian knew it was a simple wool robe, now gray with age. She knew that under that robe and hair was much more youth than either would ever confess to. However, the man who walked beside her gave her some concern. There was something distinctly wrong about him. Tishian could feel it, but not define it.

The woman walked right up to her and gave her a big hug then pushed her back to arms length to look at her. “Tishian, wonderful to see you here too. Allow me to introduce the pirate Shadow. Neither of them know it yet, but he has some business with your mother.”

As he bowed gracefully and kissed her hand, her vision danced for a moment and it fell into place.

Mother was going to be very angry.

“December, you didn’t!” Madame Flattery did not so much drop the book she was carrying as bodily fling it at the floor with enough force to snap the binding. “How could you?”

“I didn’t,” said the old woman, her hair now tied back to reveal an ageless face marred only by a scar that covered one broken eye socket. “I’m afraid you will have to blame Belle for this one.”

“Belle? Why would she? She is the one who ordered them destroyed! And we all agreed!” Tishian decided to move safely away from her mother, as far across the room as possible, near the door. The storm brewing in her eyes spelled danger, though Tishian could not tell if it was directed at December or the pirate Shadow. Not that she could do much harm against either of them, but Tishian wanted to avoid getting involved in her mother’s affairs. The very look on her mother’s face when she had first seen him had almost made Tishian dive for cover.

“Yes, and she helpfully relieved you of them so you couldn’t have second thoughts with a promise that she would take care of things herself.” December sighed. “But did she ever confirm to you or to any of us that she had done so?”

Madame Flattery deflated a little. “Why would Belle betray me with my own handiwork after all this time?”

“Now, now, betray is too strong a word,” tutted December. “Each of us has made our moves toward the same end game. Belle just made certain none of us could predict victory with any certainty until the game was fully played out. Very like her.

“You, on the other hand, until now, have been very silent. We’ve missed you, you know. No one knows what you have been up to.” December picked up the large book that lay broken between them. With a smooth gesture, she straightened the twisted thing between her hands and it was whole again.

“I most decidedly resent the imputation that I am playing at anything except trying to peacefully retire, at least, to the extent that one can retire for all of eternity. I even made an only slightly problematic replacement so people would stop pestering me about some contrived notion of duty, and even without her interference all my duties have been solidly covered in my purported absence. I had happily and successfully written myself entirely out of everything until some people decided to write me back into their plans. Stopping by for tea would have been so much more pleasant. But if some people want plans, I am more than happy to oblige. I wrote my own!”

“And might those plans to be found here?” December leafed idly through the pages, now quite full of Madame Flattery’s scribblings.

Madame Flattery looked disappointed at the total lack of drama she had caused, but the opportunity to change the topic to herself perked her up again. “Yes, yes, and a most wonderful Speaking if I do say so myself. I can’t swear all the original prophecies are the same as the first edition, but I really would like to think of that one as a first draft anyway. This one is so much more definitive about all that passes between now and the end of the world, and the poetry is utterly sublime. A most thrilling bit of work. Now, if only I could understand what any of it meant.”

Madame Flattery took a moment to look politely vexed before continuing on. “To think it all started with the smallest little moment of Speaking with a little ditty about the need for my last chapter to finally be written. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I accidentally spoke it out loud and the girls all avoided me for days, so it certainly must have made an impression. But really, who wants to write a chapter when you can write the entire book? Some of the bits may even be about me, but who can say, really.”

By then Tishian had snuck away to find something to eat in the kitchen. She was not entirely unsurprised to find the pirate Shadow right next to her as she finished digging some fresh bread out of a cabinet. It would be a while before mother would safely forget him.

“Would it be importune for me to inquire what that was about?”

Tishian realized that he had not understood a word of the conversation, all in old tongues, long dead. She chided herself for not thinking of it sooner. Her mother had been too long speaking nothing but the local vernacular.

Still, she was impressed, for someone clearly in a state of distressed confusion about why someone would go into a rage at the very sight of him, the pirate Shadow could honey coat his words more thickly than even her mother. Her mother had inspired in her a healthy distaste for honey-dipped words, so all she saw was a man who, until a few minutes ago, thought he had all the answers and was firmly in control of his fate and was now trying to avoid learning something.

“That?” Tishian shrugged in the general direction of the other room while cutting a large chunk out of the loaf. “So far as I can tell, you’re supposed to be dead, or at least not alive, destroyed before you were let loose in the wild. You don’t look like a failed experiment, so I assume that means you are dangerous. Or perhaps you were a failed experiment because you were, or are, dangerous.”

“I don’t think I appreciate being referred to as a failed experiment.”

“You’ll get used to it. She had so many.”

“So many?”

“Experiments. Especially failed experiments. They were her art. I’m surprised December didn’t tell you anything beforehand if she bothered to bring you all the way out here. I wonder what her game is this time.”

She contemplated the bread and decided it didn’t really need anything extra. She bit a piece off in a careful, efficient manner and chewed slowly while contemplating the pirate Shadow. A smooth talker, but someone who knew when it was time to stop and think before opening his mouth again. That, at least, was a good sign.

“Tell me about your childhood,” she asked, feeling the pause had gone on a little too long.

“My childhood?” He looked at her with an incredulous, dark annoyance. She ignored him in favor of her bread until he decided to oblige her. “Right. If it will make you happy, my childhood…” Looking for some reaction, he found none. “What would you like to know?”

“Tell me about your parents.”

He thought for a second. “I’m afraid there is not much to tell you. We, my sister and I, were found orphaned after some sort of accident in the wastes. I don’t remember my parents, or, to be honest, anything that came before the accident, and no one could figure out where we—”

A shock of emotions worked its way across his face. “Ah. Well, I suppose it’s as a good theory as any then,” he said, trying to restore his nerve. “I don’t suppose you would care to elaborate?”

She silently watched him fume for a bit while she worked on her bread.

“Well, if nothing else, I would think any pirate worth their weight should welcome being labeled dangerous,” he said with a warm smile, decidedly lacking in innocence. She guessed it was an attempt at humor, but he did a poor job of covering his confused annoyance. He made her think of nothing so much as her mother as a strapping young man, both as equally full of themselves. He even deflated the same way.

“Perhaps,” she replied. “But there are dangerous things and there are things dangerous enough to give even the Sisters pause.”

He digested that for a short while as Tishian finished the last bite of her bread. “And this woman that December is treating as if she were an equal, might I ask who she is?”

Tishian grunted. If he was always this formal, she might have to slap him. “My mother? I just answered that question.”

Tishian did not bother to excuse herself as she left to go clean up from the day’s workout.

The pirate Shadow walked another hundred paces from the monastery and tried again. Still nothing. Much further and he would be swimming.

Note to self, he thought while swearing under his breath, the Sisters of Kril, as young and attractive as they all might appear to be, can shut him out of the Away. Or perhaps it was that Tishian woman and her mother. It seemed impolite to ask.

December had insisted he come along to meet someone important, someone that would give him the final piece of some puzzle he knew nothing about. It was a piece that provided no useful information. It didn’t even make anything clearer, except the clarity of the bitter taste in his mouth. Nor were any of them willing to explain the details of anything. All that woman had said when confronted was, “Shush, child. All the pirates come from the same stock. You were just a special case where perhaps we maybe were just a teensy bit too creative.” Then she went back to prattling on with December about what appeared to be a book of prophetic doggerel she had just written in whatever odd language they were going on in.

At first he thought she was rudely acting like he wasn’t there, then it sank in that she was acting like she could actively will him out of existence by ignoring him. Given that he obliged her and left, perhaps she could.

He most decidedly disliked the woman already, even if December made it clear that, at least for now, they were all on the same side. For an ally, he hadn’t even been offered a hand and a name. Her daughter Tishian, however, he would definitely like to get to know better. If she had any answers to give, that would only sweeten the pot.

The pirate Shadow walked out into the surf and finally felt the shadows of the Away tugging at him. He didn’t realize until that instant how uncomfortable he felt without them about him, like some part of him had gone missing. How had he not noticed until its return? He quickly stepped Away, and was back aboard ship before anyone noticed his absence.