Author's note: Well, to make a long story short, I learned to knit, graduated from college, and buried my grandfather, so I think it's time to take up the tale again. Not a whole lot of our beloved Prince in this chapter, I'm afraid. I'm building up to something important, after which I promise things will get more interesting. The material is also going to get a sight more mature. Nothing graphic, but we'll be exploring complex issues. I hope you trust me enough to come along. Enjoy!

P.S. How romantic is Pushing Daisies::swoon::

Chapter 14: It is the philosophers in their cities

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Study hard and go west,
You'll go far, little girl.
Now try hard and be the best,
The best in all the world.

"You're early." Valentine remarked as I approached. "Thought you were restin' up before."

"Honestly, I'd rather be here. Anything I can do to help?" I smiled beneath my mask.

"Well, most everything has been loaded already, but I can show you around now if you like."

I nodded and followed her up the gangplank onto the schooner. "I never asked you, what is it you do?"

"I'm the bosun."

I chuckled.

"What's so funny?" she asked, pausing with her hand on her hip.

"Nothing, I didn't mean any disrespect. You just don't seem the disciplinarian type."
"You haven't seen anyone cross me yet." her voice was light and airy, but there was steel in her eyes. "Well, you've seen the deck. Captain's quarters are below the forecastle deck. Of course you're familiar with the mainmast and foremast. The captain had the castle decks built special, Fortune didn't have 'em originally. He said it was for tactical purposes, but I think he just likes the way they look. It's not like we have archers or anything. A foredeck and quarterdeck would've done just fine..."

Her voice trailed off as she disappeared down the steps below deck. The crew's quarters were on the first level below deck; the quartermaster's on the starboard side of the bulwark toward the stern, Valentine's on the port side, with the first mate and the cook sharing the room on the starboard side below the captain's quarters.

"You'll be sharin' a room with the master gunner if the captain decides to take you on. Don't worry, she's nice."

We continued our descent to the second level below deck.

"And here's the galley." she said. "Nothin' like a good meal after a long day."

Valentine slipped onto a bench beside a gangly young Kalukwa boy. "And this is our cook, Bend."

"Hello." I smiled. He awkwardly returned my greeting, nervously fluffing his feathers. I looked around the room at the few other people.

"That's the quartermaster, Atir." Valentine pointed to a large handsome woman clad in leather leaning against a barrel. "Doesn't talk much. The skinny guy over there with the rings, that's Switch. He's mine. Then there's Angel and Eyebright, they're always loud, you get used to it. Eyebright's the master gunner, Angel's the first mate. Hey, Angel!"

Valentine caught her mark's eye and they began loudly conversing across the room, leading Bend to shove her off the bench with the suggestion she join Angel on his end of the table. I sat awkwardly to one side while the rest of the crew continued to banter. After a while the young man Valentine had pointed out as her boyfriend approached. "Mind if I join you?"

"Please, you would be doing me a service."

"Switch," he introduced himself, sliding onto the bench beside me. "I'm the navigator."

"Nice to meet you, I'm Yseult."

"Yes, I know. You seem to have impressed Valentine. Not an easy feat, mind you." he winked.

"And yet one you have managed as well, so it seems." I smiled back.

"I keep wondering how..." he stared off for a moment. "How rude of me not to offer refreshment. A black jack of our finest."

He handed me the tar-stiffened leather tankard which was full of dark liquid. I took a large drink, which proved to be a mistake. It burned like fire on the way down. Switched laughed at my sputtering. "A little strong for you?"

"Maybe just a bit." I laughed. "Good, though."

"Thanks. I brew it myself. The captain prefers having our own supply."

"Smart man."I took a careful sip. So what are we ferrying, anyway? Yebba's not exactly a trading post."

"No, but there are markets if you know where to look. We have a very wealthy buyer waiting for our product."

"And what exactly is the product, if I'm allowed to know?"

"You wanna see?" he raised an eyebrow and flashed a startlingly bright grin.

I nodded eagerly. He motioned for me to follow as he stood. We descended the stairs into the hold, where I saw stacks of crates lined up against the sides of the schooner. Switch pulled one of the crates out and set it down between us, then picked up a crowbar. He prised it's lid off, revealing a gleaming bed of pastel pearls. Reaching into the crate, he scooped up a handful and let them fall, one by one, into my outstretched hand.

"Are these what I think they are?" I asked, examining one pale blue specimen.

"Yeah, but don't talk about it. Can't be too careful."

The goats of Speckle Frew were a rare breed. Highly valued both for the iridescent fiber spun from their coats and the precious pearls they grew in their bellies, the small beasts were notoriously hard to catch, spending most of their time hiding from the island's more ferocious inhabitants. A single flawless pearl could fetch three paterzem, easy. Here were crates upon crates, each holding thousands of matched pairs in the softest shades. They were also highly illegal.

We returned to the galley, where Angel was standing on one leg on the table, flapping his arms and cawing. Valentine looked over her shoulder, black eyes sparkling, as she laughed.

"There you two are. Sneakin' off without me, Switch?" she walked over, embracing the navigator.

"I would never be so rude as to not invite you." he replied.

The heavy sound of boots coming down the stairs heralded the captain's arrival. "Well, are ye havin' a tea party or are ye ready to sail?"

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

For somebody who don't drive
I've been all around the world.
Some people say I've done all right
For a girl.

I had always enjoyed taking trips to Yebba with my uncle. Sailing the familiar waters I hadn't traversed in so long was comforting and a bit bittersweet. We passed Yzil on the port side, covered with its brilliant forests and shining like an emerald in the sea, the warm wind carrying the scent of musky, exotic flowers to us.

Finally, the great silhouette of the Yebba Dim Day broke the horizon. As we grew closer, I could make out the people, tiny as insects, scurrying about their business. The whole gave the impression of a swimming giant with a case of parasites. I busied myself with checking the rigging and other small tasks until we were close enough to begin docking in the small harbor between the torso and the arm of the giant.

The slow approach into the harbor was interminable, and pregnant with the promise of discovery. All it took was for an officer to do a search of the vessel and we'd be spending the next century chained to wall. Or worse. The schooner pulled up smoothly to the dock, and I helped secure her to it while the captain headed down the gangplank and cut a swath through the thick crowd. After I lost sight of him, I turned to Switch.

"We're carrying illegal cargo, how are we going to get by the customs officials?"

"Well, the fact that one there happens to be our illustrious captain's twin brother might work in our favor." he flashed me conspiratorial grin. "Police Officer Branx."

I looked across the busy dock at where the captain had gone. The officer he stood talking with only resembled him in coloring and build, in every other way he was the straight-laced antithesis of the jovial captain. His grim expression did nothing to set me at ease. I had the feeling that the captain had neglected to inform his cousin about our "business" until that very moment. The captain produced a swollen bag from his coat, pressing it into the officer's hand. It had the intended effect. The officer wrote something hastily onto a yellow slip of paper, which he handed to Captain Genet. The captain laughed and clapped his cousin on the back, though the latter didn't seem at all amused. Looking over his shoulder, the captain gestured for us. I took my place opposite Eyebright, one of the large crates between us. We bent down, hooking our fingers under the box.

"Ready, on three..." Eyebright counted and we hoisted the heavy crate up. I felt a twinge in my back. "Easy there, Yseult, ya got it er what?"

"I've got it." I breathed through clenched teeth. Eyebright backed slowly down the gangplank. I adjusted my pace to match hers. Somehow we managed to maneuver the thing all the way up the dock to the mainland where Captain Genet waited.

"Set 'er down."

We complied. I looked back at the ship and saw the others engaged in a similar dance, although they seemed to manage more gracefully that I had. Valentine winked at me as she deliberately picked up her stride, causing Switch to stumble.

"Hey, careful, sweetheart." he complained. She laughed.

I stared up the steep incline that led to the nearest entrance into the Head. Switch joined me. "Pretty steep."

"That's an understatement." I looked over at him.

"Hope you had a big breakfast." Valentine's voice at my other shoulder surprised me.

"Wait, we're carrying these things up there?"

"You're not slacking off on us, are you?"

"No, but that is a really long..." my words were cut short by the arrival of the Captain with an official transport car.

"Well," he said, "don't just stand around, start loading 'em up."

Valentine and Switch began laughing.

"So we don't have to carry them up?" I asked.

"No." Valentine replied, wiping a tear.

"But you should have seen the look on your face." Switch grinned.

"Pure evil." I shook my head.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It's there that no one will stare
At your jaws and your long hair,
The claws on your fingers.

I sank to the deck, swinging my legs out on either side of the bowsprit. We were approaching Yzil again, this time on the starboard side. Staring at it's bright foliage, I thought about the Princess Breath and the various demi-gods of the islands. The familiar and comforting rhythm of the schooner as it crested the waves lulled me into a meditative state. The troubles of the past months; Carrion, the unrest in the Isles sparked by the girl and her friends, the consequences of all on my sisters. They all seemed so far away. Mama Izabella was cradling me with the same gentleness She had when I was five in the Boudicca. I was pulled from my trance by Valentine tapping my shoulder.

"Oh, hello." I blinked up at her.

"Are you alright?" she sat beside me, the two of us dangling our legs over the side. "I mean, you seem sad."

"I'm fine, really. I just have a lot on my plate right now."

"You know, you can take the mask off, if you like." she gave me a brief smile. "I don't mind. After bein' on the Fortune this long, I've pretty much seen it all."

I laughed slightly. What the hell... I turned my face partly away from her and slipped the mask off, laying it beside me on the deck. It's silver surface reflected the bright Noon-day sun coming off Yzil to the east. I looked over at Valentine.

"See," she said softly, "That's not too bad, is it?"

She brushed the hair back off my face. "Valentine, I..."

"Am I paying ye to get yer hair played at now?" Captain Genet thundered onto the bow. Quickly I replaced my mask and stood.

"So I am to be payed, then?"

He smiled. "Aye, yer to be payed. Ye did better than I thought ye would. Truth be told, I half expected my last deckhand to come crawlin' back once her meal-ticket saw the size of her belly. But ye'll do just as well, as long as yer careful. We'll be docked in Hobarookus for a day or so, and then we have business in Tazmagor. We'll be there a week. It won't be too bright for ye, Nightdweller?"

"I'll manage."

"That ye will." he smiled and held out a small bag. "Yer wages."

I opened the bag and dumped its contents into my palm. There were a dozen of the luminous pearls glinting in the afternoon sun. The captain looked over his shoulder as he returned to the foredeck.

"Remember, we leave this time tomorrow, with or without you."

"I'll be here." I pocketed my wages and turned to go ashore while the others returned below deck. Valentine caught my arm as I started down the gangplank.

"You don't have to be so guarded." she chewed her lower lip. "You can trust me, Yseult."

I nodded, swallowing thickly.

"Valentine!" Switch called.

"Coming..." she glanced at me once more before hurrying over to him. He waved at me, smiling that sun-bright smile. I felt a fishhook snag my heart. Careful, then.

It was rush hour down at the docks, with boats racing to snag a place to put in until morning. I used my short stature to my advantage, sliding between people quickly to get back home.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The ostrich and the egret
Had a very fine flat to let.
Figurine hutch, the place wasn't much,
But they got a peacock.

"Fina, Xandra!" I tossed my jacket onto the chaise in the front room.

"Hey, you're home." Fina's head poked around the corner from the kitchen. "How did it go?"

"It went like this." I handed her the bag of pearls. "Where's Xandra?"

I heard the bag hit the floor as I looked down the hall. Turning around, I saw Fina on her knees, hastily scooping the pastel jewels back into the bag.

"Where did you get these?" Fina hissed. "Do you know how much trouble..."

"Yes, I do. Don't worry. This is Hobarookus, there are plenty of places you can exchange them at. And there's more where that came from." I strode down the hall to my room. "Things are finally looking up for us. We'll be able to put away a good amount of money..."

"Since when is money so important to you?" Fina asked, one elegant eyebrow arched.

"You know as well as I do that it's the only form of security left to Nightdwellers. We need to be able to afford to disappear if we have to." I opened my valise and began transferring clothes from my dresser.

"Yseult!" Xandra caught me from behind in an embrace. "How was it? Do you like the other sailors? Did you bring me anything back from Yebba?"

"It was fine, the other sailors are nice, and I brought you this." I handed her a lavender pearl. "Buy yourself something pretty."

Xandra squealed in delight. Fina gave me a skeptical look. "I thought we're supposed to be saving up."

"Let her enjoy herself a bit, Fina." I turned back to my packing. "Anyway, it's kind of a bribe."

"A bribe?" Xandra asked. "For what?"

"We're leaving for Tazmagor tomorrow. I'll be gone a week."

"A week? But you just got back." Xandra protested.

"It's fine. We'll be fine here." Fine placed a hand on Xandra's shoulder. "Are you hungry? I stopped by the market on the way home."

I nodded and continued packing a few changes of clothes while they went to the kitchen. The sound of their idle chatter floated down the hall. Closing my valise, I noticed Carrion leaning against the door frame.

"My lord." I inclined my head in acknowledgement.

"Your 'interview' went well, I take it."

"Yes, it did. And it pays well, which should please you, with all your ambitious plans." I looked away.

He crossed the room and sat on my bed while I lifted the valise onto the floor. He caught my arm as I passed him and pulled me to stand before him. I felt decidedly uncomfortable, standing there with him holding my wrist, piercing my gaze.

"Something is going on with you, child, isn't it?" he asked softly, more to himself than to me. "There's a change in you. What is wrong with your eyes? Why can't I see myself in your eyes?"

I tried pulling away. "There is nothing wrong with my eyes, my lord."

His grip tightened. "Have you betrayed me?" the menace in his voice was unmistakable.

"No, my lord! Never!" I wrenched my arm out of his grasp.

"Keep your secrets, then. I'll find them out in my own time." he swept out of the room.

I sank onto my bed, catching my breath. Unbidden, the look on Valentine's face as she brushed my hair back swam into my mind.