Chapter 29

Kel followed Vani as they wove their way to the helm of the ship. Ayden held grimly on to the great wooden wheel, staring at the pirate ship to starboard. Kel's brood had distributed themselves amongst the crew and were working valiantly alongside the other crewmembers. Tatsuya and Dan manned one of the Gift-catapults, while Fredrik stood ready to load the belowdeck Gift-manned cannons. A single flare of the Gift, no matter how small, would send a cannonball shooting out across to the enemy ship. Each of the six Gift cannons belowdecks were manned by a single Gifted crewmember. Akane, though knowing that the crow's nest would be the best place to rain down her shuriken, avoided the mast because of the risk of its toppling. She waited patiently as part of the Morning Sage's "welcoming committee," the group of crewmembers ready to receive the pirates who would swing over to board the ship.

There was a flash of light as the arm of the catapult on the deck of the Morning Sage snapped forward, sending an encapsulated ball of blazebalm onto the deck of the ship. Each of the blazebalm balls were constructed with two layers. A thin wooden shell would be filled with blazebalm and bits of broken glass and metal, and its outside coated in a powder mix called boomdust. On impact, the ball exploded on the deck of the ship, sending flaming shrapnel in all directions. The pirate crew scattered to avoid the rain of fire, and in retribution, opened the cannon-doors on the side of their ship facing the Morning Sage. With seven cannons to a side, the ship was deadly in its armament.

Light and smoke flared as cannonball after cannonball was launched between the ships. Akane watched detachedly as a cannonball ripped through railing and planks, only to glance the side of one of the crewmen. He screamed in agony as his left arm was torn to pieces and the force of the shot sent him into the water below. The two ships were side-by-side now, and Akane could see the pirates readying themselves to board the Morning Sage. They lowered broad wooden planks across to the other ship, and began swinging and climbing over. Akane bared her sais as the first wave of pirates attacked.

Tatsuya loaded a blazebalm ball onto the catapult and cranked the arm back with Big Dan's help. Once the arm was back to the angle they wanted it at, Tatsuya released the rope and the arm snapped forward. He stretched out his hands, guiding the ball as it flew through the air. It smashed onto the deck of The Hand of Hell, missing the mast by just a few feet. Flames caught, however, on a dry bit of rigging, and raced to the ropes. Pirates rushed to extinguish the flames. Dan grinned at Tatsuya wordlessly, his face streaked with grime and grease from getting the catapults to work. Tatsuya smiled back, baring his teeth in an almost feral grin. It was a deadly sort of target practice.

Fredrik panted as he wiped boomdust from his eyes. The Gift-cannon beside him was blistering hot. He wore thick leather gloves to protect his hands. Hefting the cannonball he held, he slid it down the barrel of the cannon, where it came to rest in a light puff of boom-dust. He peered through the cannon doorway, waiting to time his shot. The Gifted person standing beside the cannon was Evran, a young ten year old cabin girl who was adept at only minor healings. But all they needed was a flicker of her Gift, so she had provided it. They rolled the cannon forward, Evran surprisingly strong for her age. Fredrik lined up his shot, then began to count to himself. The girl behind him stood with her fingers just inches away from the fuse.

"3…2…1… FIRE!" Fredrik ducked to the side as Evran flicked her fingers and a flame of Gift appeared, immediately incinerating the magic-sensitive fuse. With a roar, the cannonball shot off, the cabin girl scrambling to avoid the cannon's rapid recoil. Fredrik glanced out the small porthole near the cannon to see how their shot fared. The cannonball crashed violently through the railing and across the deck, missing the helmsman and the wheel by inches. The cannonball did tear through a crewman, however, and sent him screaming to the ocean's depths. Huge wood splinters flew everywhere as another cannonball from the Morning Sage ripped through the side of The Hand, just above the water-line. A cannonball from the enemy ship tore through the cannon bay, and the Sage's crew scrambled for cover. Fredrik crouched behind the sheltering bulk of his cannon, covering Evran's huddled form with his own to protect her. He already had another cannonball close at hand.

Akane entangled the cutlass of an incoming pirate with a deft twist of her sais. Locking her two blades together, she twisted down and outwards, and the cutlass went flying. The owner of the cutlass was a hulking pirate. His oily brown locks were pulled to the back of his head by a leather thong, while his scraggly beard still held traces of his last meal. The detached part of Akane's brain noted that his last meal had probably been mashed potatoes and lamb, from looking at his chin. The pirate had borne the brunt of many bludgeoning weapons- his entire frame was a patchwork of scars and still-angry looking welts.

Akane's opponent pulled out a long knife from his belt. He tossed it from hand to hand as he approached the smaller girl who had unarmed him. Akane stood ready, balanced on the balls of her feet. The shouts and screams around them seemed to dim as the Yamani girl's focus narrowed to the form of her opponent. Darting in, she knocked his second weapon out of his hands. His eyes narrowed.

With a furious roar, the huge man charged Akane, his ham-sized hands outstreched. Akane, misjudging a step, slipped in a puddle of spilled grease beside a catapult and stumbled. The man reared back a beefy hand and punched at her. Akane threw an arm up in a clumsy block. His hand solidly connected with her forearm, and her left-hand sai went flying, only to clatter dangerously into a container of blazebalm balls. He pulled back his other arm and punched her again, twice in rapid succession. She blocked with her arms, or let the blows fall on her back. He backhanded her with a vicious laugh. Akane herself sagged to the floor, clutching her arm. The large man laughed roughly in triumph, bringing up a spiked boot to kick Akane over the edge and into the sea with a number of broken bones. Swiftly, Akane ducked out of her curled-over position and lunged.

Her sai connected solidly with the man's thigh. He roared in pain and dropped to his knees. One, or a few of the muscles in his thigh had torn from Akane's stab and twist maneuver, and his right leg was useless. Akane, meanwhile, had darted over and retrieved her other weapon from the container of blazebalm balls. With a single lunge, she plunged one sai into the man's gut, cutting upwards. With the other she slit his throat. Disengaging her weapons from the man's body, she heaved his dying form into the sea. She had no time to contemplate the bloodiness of her victory, as a pair of pirates now drew close to her. Twirling her sais, she turned to face them.

Kel was occupied in a fight with a pirate swordmaster. He darted in with his rapier, slashing at Kel and dancing out of her range again and again. She parried his blows, waiting for an opening. Her opponent was a Marenite, with dark skin and black hair. His long hair was tied back in a horse-tail at the base of his neck, and a finely-groomed mustache and goatee completed his dashing features. His very clothes were expensive-looking, the red velvet coat of a pirate first mate reflecting off of his shiny black leather boots and soft white leather breeches. His wide black belt held another sword and a knife, buckling at the front with a large brass buckle that had been stolen off of a Tortallan Naval Officer's uniform- it held King Jonathan's crest. Someone had etched a large "X" through the crest. His white linen shirt was untied at the neck, leaving his chiseled upper body exposed for ladies' enjoyment.

His skills were honed. Kel ducked and parried, waiting patiently. She very quickly snapped her sword out towards the pirate's belt. Cut in half, it fell, pulling at his breeches. The pirate was not distracted, though. He pulled up his breeches with one hand and continued attacking with the other. The pirate's face reddened in anger as her eyes betrayed her amusement. He attacked with more ferocity, leaving Kel several openings. Wanting to take the man alive, she lunged in, distracting her opponent with her sword blade. She locked blades with him, pressing against the shorter man's form with all of her weight and one hand on her sword. Before he could feint to the side, she tightened her grip on the dagger in her hand and smacked the pirate in the temple with the pommel of the dagger. He crumpled to the ground, unconscious. She dragged him into the room under the poop deck, tying his limp form to a support column with quick, efficient seaman's knots. She tore a strip off of his fine linen shirt and gagged him, depositing Inkjet beside the prone form. Do you mind keeping an eye on him for me?Kel asked, her mind-voice crackling with faint amusement. .:It would be my pleasure:. The darking wrapped himself around the man's wrists, over his bindings. Kel surged to her feet and ducked back out onto the deck. The entire process of tying up the man had taken a matter of seconds. Locking the door behind her, she turned to face the melee on deck.

Tatsuya reached into the container of blazebalm balls, only to feel frantically around and find none. They had run out. Big Dan was cranking back the arm of the catapult.

"We're out!" Tatsuya shouted to the other man. Big Dan shook his head.

"No we ain't," he shouted back. From a pouch at his waist, he drew a small lead ball the size of a marble.

"Are you mad?!" shouted Tatsuya, ducking a blow from a pirate's axe. Reaching out one hand, he reached out with lightning bolts at the tips of his fingers. His hands crackled and the bolts charged with power before lancing from his fingertips and shooting into the pirate, sending him into convulsions on deck. The power jolted through the other man's frame, electrocuting him. Tatsuya returned his attention to the catapult. Big Dan had his hands wrapped around the small steel ball. As he drew his hands away, Tatsuya could see that he had ensconced the ball in several layers of his Gift, each layer a crackling shell of pure magic spelled for destruction, wood rot, and fire. After a few seconds, the ball widened to the size of Tatsuya's head. Big Dan pulled to the side and released the catapult arm.

The ball of his Gift shot through the air, wavering in its direction. Tatsuya sank into his magic, pulling up his reserve strength. Focusing his will on the Gift-ball, he pushed away the winds resisting the ball's progress while strengthening its speed and course. He flicked out his hands, sending the ball smashing into The Hand's mast. It tore a huge chunk out of the wood, leaving a hole that was almost as wide as the mast splintered and burning. A pirate plummeted from the poop deck as the huge mast shuddered and slowly fell to the side, its center weakened. Tatsuya could see the Pirates scrambled out of the way as the mast fell, shaking the ship. Vani saw the mast topple and killed her pirate quickly.

"All hands board ship!" She cried, and the Morning Sage's crew began to push towards the pirate ship. The pirates had no option but to flee back to their ship or be captured. Some put down their weapons and huddled together, sitting in a group on the deck of the Morning Sage. The others fought to the death, while others still fled to The Hand. Vani directed some of the crew to tie up those who surrendered, while she let the others board The Hand.

Kel lunged over to the enemy ship, questing for the captain. Akane landed with a thud beside her. The deck of The Hand was slippery with water and blood, and wood splinters were everywhere. She ducked between pirates and crewmen of the Morning Sage, her eyes scanning the crowd for a hint of who the nefarious pirate captain was. The large man shouting orders? No, that's first mate. How do you know? Kel asked incredulously. No proper pirate captain would leave himself such a large target at this point in the battle. Look. He's been killed. Wait- there's no chaos. Someone else took his place. That isn't the captain, then. That's what I've been telling you. What's that? Brie narrowed Kel's vision to a flitter of movement in the shadows. Kel stared at it, then began to fight her way to the corner in question, an area in front of the poop deck.

When she got to the spot, she looked around warily. Just as Brie warned, A presence, behind us- Kel felt two arms slip around her neck. Twisting in her captor's grasp, Kel stabbed back with her dueling knife, only to feel it knocked out of her grasp. She easily flicked out a knife from her wrist sheath, only to feel a cold blade pressed up against her neck. Kel's only response was to press the tip of her own knife gently into her captor's abdomen. A soft laugh echoed in her ear.

"Very clever." Kel masked her astonishment. The voice was female and Scanran- definitely not what she expected of the pirate captain. However, she was sure that this person was the captain.

"Not half as clever as I can be. Release me." The voice laughed again.

"But you have not yet seen the depths of my astonishing wit." Kel shrugged almost imperceptibly.

"So you and I are very clever. It seems we are at an impasse physically, though." The pirate nodded, her movement pressing her cheek against Kel's.

"It seems we are." Kel tightened her grip on her dagger, than shot out of her captor's hold, holding Gryphon up to point at the woman's neck. Her opponent drew a rapier from her belt. With a flick of her wrist, Kel struck the sword with Gryphon full on, breaking the rapier blade with strength alone. Gryphon's blade remained undamaged. With a startled look, the woman stared at the rapier's broken-off blade and hilt. Kel tilted her head to one side, keeping Gryphon trained at her opponent. The woman she faced was surprisingly young, perhaps younger than Kel herself but a year or two older than Akane. Beautiful auburn curls were pulled to the side and over the pirate's left shoulder. The other woman was lithe, her beauty like that of a cat, especially with her heart-shaped face and tanned skin. A black velvet coat with a high collar and white trim was secured over a white silk shirt and black cravat. Her leather belt was shiny black with a silver belt buckle.

Secured in the belt was a dagger with a surprisingly unadorned hilt. The woman's white leather breeches were tucked into knee-high black boots. A single ruby pin in the shape of a skull was nestled in the center of her cravat, winking eerily in the light. The coat's cuffs were wide, the white trim giving the whole coat a very elegant look. A scar ran diagonally across the woman's cheek, from the left side of her nose to wrap underneath her jawbone. To top off the image, a tricorn hat sat on the woman's head, its trim silver. Sweeping the hat off, the pirate captain gave an elegant bow.

"Normally I don't go into battle dressed like this, but I knew that this day The Hand would fall. I needed to look good for my captors." Kel was suspicious, refusing to lower her blade.

"And so you attacked us. That wasn't your best idea, I think." The pirate replaced the hat and lounged against a nearby barrel.

"You know, it wasn't my idea. I had the strangest dream. All I could remember was being approached by the spirit of my dead father, Captain Jack. He told me this- seek out someone. So I heard about the fleet and decided to tag along magically shielded. I sent over the ultimatum- request really, and got attacked. That's how the story goes. You wouldn't happen to be Keladry no-longer-of-Mindelan, Shang Phoenix, otherwise known as Suzumi Baura, would you?" Kel hid her astonishment again.

"Why?" The other woman shrugged.

"I was told to seek you out. It had something to do with destiny. Oh. Good ole Daddy Jack told me to show you this, too." Unbuttoning her shirt and coat, the woman pulled back her cravat to reveal a flame shaped marking in the center of her chest, between her breasts. "Apparently I'm supposed to introduce myself as 'The Marked One'". Kel's blood ran cold. Turning to Brie, she tried to keep panic from her mind-voice. Marked One? I thought that was Fredrik's job! He's the swordmaster of us. Why- Silence, Keladry. I am studying this girl. Kel shut up, keeping her sword level.

"We ought to stop the fighting, don't you think?" asked the pirate captain. Kel determined that the other woman meant her no harm and lowered her blade.

"We should. Do you have any suggestions?" The pirate drew what looked like a small collapsible spyglass from her pocket.

"Speak into this. Everyone will hear. Get up on the poop deck." Kel motioned for the pirate captain to precede her up the stairs. Drawing in a deep breath of air, Kel put the spyglass to her lips and shouted for all she was worth,

"STOP!" The sound roared over the two ships, and all motion ceased. The pirate captain came to stand beside Kel. She took the spyglass from Kel and spoke into it.

"Crewmen of The Hand, cease fighting. We have surrendered." There was a dangerous murmuring from the pirates. The pirate woman raised her voice. "I said, cease fighting! Put your weapons down, or by Mithros I'm going to shove them so far into you you'll never slouch again!" The pirates lowered their weapons. Kel took the spyglass back.

"Please, crewmen of the Morning Sage, put down your weapons. We have come to an agreement of sorts. I know I am not your captain, but for the sake of all our lives, please just listen to me." The crewmen of the Morning Sage then lowered their weapons as well. Vani, who had crossed over to The Hand, was livid.

"Baura, I do not know who you think you are, but you have no right-" Kel cut her off with an uplifted hand.

"I have taken the captain of The Hand. As punishment for their crimes, let us leave those pirates here on the ship, without a mast, in the open ocean. If they are still here when the Princess's ship catches up with us, then let them punish these pirates. But let us take the captain and begone from this place." Vani gave her a searching look.

"Fine. Crewmen of the Sage, return to ship! Leave the prisoners here. We don't have room for them, anyway." The very confused crewmen of the Morning Sage complied. Kel turned to the pirate captain.

"Let's get this mess sorted out." The woman nodded.

"I couldn't agree more."

The Morning Sage bobbed peacefully in the water beside The Hand of Hell. The water was eerily still, as was all noise. The ships were anchored, thanks to a nearby underwater mountain, and both crews were counting and mourning the dead. The pirates and crewmen of the Morning Sage worked side by side as they sewed up body bags and sent the deceased to the sea floor in a mariner's funeral. Soon the two crews were seated solemnly on the deck of the Morning Sage. Kel, the pirate captain Lissa, and Captain Vani had been debating over what to do. Lissa had shot down Kel's original idea, claiming that she would rather die before she saw her crew abandoned. Vani wanted to hang the lot of them, and Kel claimed that, as highest ranking government official of all parties involved, she had the right to capture and punish Lissa as she wished. Vani conceded to allowing Lissa to remain with Kel, but the problem of where to put the remaining pirates was still there.

"Shall we leave them on the ocean?" Lissa slammed a fist down on the table between them, incensed.

"Nay, no one shall harm my crew. I shan't go anywhere, and we can start fighting again if that's the case, Mithros help me!" Kel raised both her hands.

"Ladies, please, let's stop this." Fredrik, who was standing nearby, harrumphed.

"That's why we need a male captain around these parts." Kel, her nerves already frayed by the current situation, lashed out one arm in controlled anger. A shuriken darted from her hand and pinned Fredrik's shirt to the mast by his collar.

"Fredrik. Be quiet." She said with deadly calm. He immediately tugged free and scrambled away from the women towards Tatsuya, who was helping tend the injured of both crews. Akane, having snuck up to stand behind Kel, offered her suggestion.

"A blood oath would hold the pirates. And they could replace the missing crew on the Morning Sage. Or you could hold them as prisoners, but that would take up space that we don't have. Make them swear a blood oath of fealty to you, or Tortall's crown, or the Island's Emperor, and you ought to be safe from any mischief." Kel nodded gratefully at her young charge. Vani pondered the tabletop as she turned the idea over in her mind, and Lissa looked at the quiet girl with surprised respect.

"I do think that's a good idea- most of my men were unwilling pirates, anyhow." Vani turned her attention to the pirate captain.

"What do you mean?" Lissa shrugged.

"Most of my men were captured from other ships. When The Hand of Hell takes a ship, we give the survivors two options. Remain on their sinking ship with provisions enough to last two men four days, or come on The Hand as crew. So most came on as crew. If we had too many, we'd take 'em to the slave ports in Jindazhen or Scanra- sell the useless ones. My father also used to make stops in Carthak, but that stopped when the new Carthaki Emperor came around." Vani turned her head and spat with disgust, expressing her opinion of the slave trade and piracy in general. Lissa's gaze turned icy.

"What? Did you think I could just up and reform? I like a life of adventure and combat- its all I've been raised to. Most corporate merchant ships don't take on women captains or sailors, and they never take women merchant marines. Mercenaries are an overly bloody bunch, and what's my only other option? Fealty to a single government? Tortall is too regular and strict, not to mention the fact that only those land-riding Queen's Riders take in women. Do you see women in the Tortallan Navy? I don't. And there is no bloody way I'm becoming some man's wife. You were lucky enough to find this ship- there aren't many independent merchant ships sailing the seas these days. Other than the Morning Sage, I know of only a few other independent ships, and I'd only need to use one hand to name them all." Vani drummed her fingers on the countertop.

"Hmph. Well, I agree with Akane here. We'll do the blood oath idea, with swearing fealty to the Tortallan crown, and if they're on the Sage, whoever is captain at the time." The crew won't like sailing with pirates, and if any of the pirates get uppity, I do own a cat'o'ninetails. Once we get to Tortall, we'll see about getting proper sailing careers for them. If they do get belligerent and try and return to piracy, the blood oath will get 'em, or we'll take them to be hanged." Kel rubbed her chin thoughtfully, her only outward sign of emotion.

"The idea is good. Thank you, Akane. Let us see it implemented right away. I believe Marcus is the best suited to fix the spell and write the oath to be signed. Where is he?" Vani stood and looked around for her chief healer.

"Hunh- I don't see him. Maybe he's belowdecks. Evran, come here." The cabin girl came up to the women.

"Go find Healer Lyons, please. We think he may be belowdecks." Evran nodded and ran off. As she left the poop deck, the young man Davy Hibbert came up, clutching a roll of parchment. He bowed slightly and handed it over to Vani, saying,

"The count of the dead, Captain." Vani unrolled it and scanned the paper. Her face hardened.

"Amongst the dead, we have lost Lathur Edmunsson, head cook. Evran Grimulf, first mate. Ayden Godshome, helmsman. Prabha Tamizhmani, assistant quartermaster. Wevaran Tobias, second rank crewman. Amongst the missing, we have Erich Waterstone, quartermaster, and…" Her voice faltered. Kel looked up.

"Who? What is it, Vani?" The captain took up the paper again, starting from the beginning.

"Amongst the missing, we have Erich Waterstone, quartermaster, and Marcus Lyons, Healer."