Admiral Selachii watched with some measure of distaste as the crew of the smaller be Trobi vessel climbed aboard the Integer. They were clothed predominantly in rough brown kilts. Several of them had long mats in their hair and, indeed, seemed to have intentionally styled them to grow that way. He sniffed. "Lower your arms," he ordered his men. Wood and metal clicked as crossbows were lowered on behalf of the Navy, though no man removed the arrow from its notch. "Do you speak Morporkian?"
One of the Trob looked to the others and then back to the Admiral. "A little," he managed, though he spoke with a heavy accent and the deliberate slowness of one who feels uncomfortable with strange words.
Selachii nodded and made his way halfway down from the quarterdeck, leaning on the stair rail. "We mean you no harm," he said lazily. "It's mere necessity that we have brought you on board."
"Have all fish you want," the Morporkian-speaker said hurriedly. Selachii waved a hand.
"We do not want your fish." He looked down his nose to the man. "What do you know of pirates?"
"Pirates . . ." the man looked to Selachii warily. "Sea thieves?"
"Largely speaking, yes."
"We are not pirates!" The man took a step back, suddenly alarmed, his hands raised in supplication. Selachii sighed. "We steal nothing!"
"I am not accusing you of piracy, my . . . man. I am asking if you know of any pirates in this area."
The man nodded. "There are many. There is Ul'ae Ki –"
"No, not that kind," the Admiral snapped, scowling. "We don't care about your local petty thieves. Have you seen a black ship in these waters?"
"Black?" The man shrugged.
"Black? The color?" Selachii watched as the man turned the idea of a color called black over in his mind. Wearily, he removed his hat and held it out in front of himself demonstratively. He pointed and said slowly "Bl-ack. Black."
"That's hat," the man grumbled.
"It's a black hat, you idiot!" Selachii snarled. "The hat is black!" He almost sagged with relief as the man's eyes grew wide and he suddenly nodded vigorously.
"Black like shadow! Yes, black." He paused. "There has been black ship sometimes." He caught the Admiral's hungry expression and went on "Morporkian speakers on board. Captain spoke well with Trob."
Selachii nodded. "Good, good. And the captain, what did he look like?" The Trob cocked his head to the side, lips moving slightly. Selachii huffed impatiently. "His appearance, man! Tall, short, thin, fat, what did he look like?"
The Trob nodded. "Tall. Not as tall as Trob, taller than Morporkians," he added, gesturing to Selachii, whose scowl was growing deeper by the word. "He not eat much, look like," the man said, gesturing with his hands in an attempt to demonstrate the thinness of the Morporkian captain in question. One of the Trob crewmen, who had been watching attentively, added something in their tongue, and the speaker nodded. "Hair color of those," he added, pointing to the Admiral's white trousers. Selachii smiled.
"And what did he want with you men?"
The Trob shrugged. "Don't know. Asked about another Morporkian. Not sure of who."
"You mean you hadn't seen the other captain?" The Trob shook his head. "And do you know in which direction he headed afterwards?"
The Trob sucked on his teeth, waving his hands vaguely. "Do not know word. Swamps?" He watched as Selachii nodded. "He say swamps?" Selachii nodded to the man cordially, offering the slightest of half-bows.
"Well done, thank you sir." The Trob sagged with relief. "Men, show these fishermen back to their charming little vessel." He paused. "And take note of their cargo – take anything you might like." He turned back to the Trob leader, who was watching in confusion as two Morporkian sailors rifled through their day's catch, pulling out various exotic-looking fish. "You are a friend to Ankh-Morpork. Thank you." He turned away as the Trob were put back in their boat and waved off.
"We sail for the far side of the Counterweight Continent," he told Kevin. "Stay out from the shores – I doubt very much that Vetinari will stick close to them as he skirts their borders."
"Shall we keep a lookout to intercept them, sir?" Kevin asked, watching the Admiral's face carefully. "Or shall we set course for the swamps of Bes Pelargic?
"I doubt we'll run across them from luck alone, Kevin," Selachii snapped. "Vetinari wouldn't be the type to blunder into something like that."
"So Bes Pelargic then?
"No, Kevin," Selachii sighed deeply. "By the time we arrive there, he will have been long gone."
"Then your orders, sir?"
"Let me think a minute, man!" the Admiral snapped. Kevin nodded and stepped back, awaiting word of a course or orders. At length, the man spoke. "Kevin, we have an agent on the rimwards coast of the Empire, outside the wall, do we not?"
"I believe Lord Rust placed Agent Pteppic there a few years ago, sir."
"Good." He nodded to the first mate. "Send a pigeon to the man, tell him to expect us. We will make berth by his outpost until we receive word."
"Yes, sir." Kevin paused. "Word, uh, word of what, sir?"
"Which brings me to the second part," Selachii said, a sort of dark glee creeping in at the edges of his voice. "Prepare to dispatch a second pigeon to our agent in Bes Pelargic, to be sent as soon as I write the letter. Duty to the city calls, alas, for all of us."
Kevin blinked, thought over the order for a moment, and then smiled in a not very nice way at all. "Oh, very good, sir. Right away, sir."
Yards away now, the boat full of Trob and less full of fish watched as the sails on the Morporkian ship were unfurled. The speaker, standing in the bow of the boat, looked from the ship to the nearly empty sack of fish on the floor of their own hollowed-out canoe. "Mo'okiano ilio," he growled, and then spat into the sea.
Sam concentrated on rowing during the quiet trip back to the ship. He and Bart only occasionally exchanged glances around the giant bag of kale nestled between them, Josiah said nothing outside of directions and Vetinari hadn't said a single word since leaving the cabin. The lights in the swamp had settled by now, and were sitting quietly, dimly on the shores.
"That's quite a bit of kale," Vetinari said abruptly, totally unprompted. Bart started.
"Er, yes?" he agreed, twisting around to try and get a glance of the captain, and perhaps a guess as to the man's mood or feelings re: the kale. "Yorba is, er, very generous."
"Hmph," was all the response that managed to draw. Vetinari plucked a leaf from inside the bag and twirled it between his fingers, taking it in in the dim light of the swamp and now, closer to the edge, the stars that managed to peak through the foliage. "Why, again?"
Bart shrugged as he rowed. "I dunno, strength, she says."
"S'mentioned in the folk stories around Mithos, isn't it, Josiah?" Vetinari asked, still staring intently at the kale leaf.
Josiah blinked. "I, er, I think so," he said, as Vetinari pulled a run bottle out of his coat. He uncorked it and dropped the leaf down into the liquid. It swayed to the bottom. The captain watched it as he swilled the bottle around once or twice. "The mariners eat heapin' portions a'fore they go out to sea to fend off evil spirits, an' for strength in times o' danger." He sniffed. "Not sure o' the background to those stories though; might've been a folk hero or a prophet o' theirs or somethin'."
"Very interesting." He looked Bart over, re-corking the rum after taking a swig and tucking it back into his coat. "Can you vouch for it?"
"Huh? No, I mean, I'm not sure," the younger pirate stammered. "Might have worked, I dunno."
"Well you're certainly not as weedy as you once were," the captain mumbled, looking over the side to the clear waters below. Silvery fish darted out of the way as the prow of the boat cut a wake in the glass-still surface. "And what sort of souvenir did you pick up, Sam? Aside from the face-painting."
Sam looked down to the vial on his chest. "A necklace," he said, leaning back against the weight of the oar in the water. "I, um, I don't know what's in it."
"Of course you don't," the captain said, waving a hand dismissively. "You know, she painted you all up to protect you from that damn Keebep, right after she says she can't ward it off." He scowled.
"S'prob'ly all crock, sir," Josiah said loyally.
Vetinari looked from the old sailor to Sam. "What else did she say it was for?"
"Magic and arrows," Sam answered. "Oh, and swimming, but I'm not sure she was serious." Sam twisted to look at Vetinari. "That's alright, isn't it?"
Vetinari looked at him for a long minute, eyebrow raised. Then, delicately, he pulled a crossbow out of his coat. Sam's eyes widened, as did Bart's and, less measurably, Josiah's. "Sir, er, what are –" Josiah started slowly, cautiously.
Vetinari loaded a bolt into the weapon and cocked it. "I've always been curious if anything Yorba does is legitimate or not," he answered. "Seems we have the ideal opportunity to find out, hmm?"
"Ye can' jus' shoot him!" Josiah protested.
"You just don't want to row," Vetinari said idly, fingering the trigger. Bart looked quickly from the captain to Sam, who seemed to have frozen in place.
"But he's the doctor!" the younger man said quickly, speaking up in Sam's defense. He wilted as Vetinari turned his attention – and the crossbow – to him. "I mean, if you shoot him, fine, but if he dies then we won't have a doctor anymore and, er, that sort of thing will be all up to you again, sir." He swallowed. "With all due respect and er, yeah."
"True," the captain mused, looking to the crossbow. Then he pulled the bolt from the notch and squirreled it away back into some unknown recesses of his coat. "Sam, you had best thank your lucky stars that Bart is quicker on his feet in the face of edged weapons than you are." He regarded the boy for a minute. "You need to work on that."
"Uh, yessir," Sam said faintly.
"I'll pull a knife on him at every opportunity," Bart added.
"Good, that's the spirit," Vetinari said while Josiah snickered in the back of the boat. Sam turned around and resumed rowing, watching the roots of the mangroves drift past on his side. "I suppose I won't get to test any of Yorba's hexes then," Vetinari muttered, sounding extremely disappointed.
"Not this time, sir," Josiah said, sounding equally put-out.
Sam, feeling like there was another current of conversation going on here, glanced around the boat. The other three occupants were looking at him expectantly. "I mean, I'd really rather you don't shoot me," he said cautiously.
"Anyone know any magic? No?" Vetinari asked as the other two shook their heads. "Well that's just disappointing."
"We could wait to get back to the ship, sir, an' see if Spalding could whip anything up," Josiah suggested.
"What?" Sam whimpered, alarmed. "Please stop trying to kill me."
"No, that's true, that might kill him as well, unless it didn't," Vetinari considered. "And I would really rather we didn't test the Keebep," he went on, "so I suppose that rather exhausts the possibilities, doesn't it?" He looked long at Sam, who was painfully aware that Bart and Josiah were smiling at him in a most unsettling fashion.
"Please don't push me into the water," he said with a sigh, resigned to his fate.
"Oh, right," Vetinari said, brightening. "Push him in the water then, gentlemen."
Sam had the sense, at least, to take a deep breath before Bart reached across the narrow rowboat and shoved him over the side into the still black water. The cool water closed over his head and body, leaving him curled in a 'c' shape, floating, suspended, on his back. He squeezed his eyes open, and was surprised to see a small school of silvery fish peering at him curiously. Then he flailed out with his arms, striking toward the surface. He erupted from the water amidst a splash and a slurry of bubbles to see that Bart had rowed the craft several yards up the inlet. "I hate all of you," he announced, damn the consequences. Then he realized that, totally subconsciously, he was treading water and keeping his head quite suitably above the surface. Unable to help feeling a little proud and a little smug, he struck out for the boat with a respectable freestyle stroke.
Josiah and Vetinari exchange a glance. "Has he been practicin'?" Josiah hissed to Bart, who was watching, eyebrows raised.
"No," Bart answered. "At least, not that I know of."
"So no," Vetinari concluded. "Very interesting."
"So I guess it worked," Sam gurgled as he got closer, hooking an arm over the side of the rowboat. "Now let me back in." Bart snickered and reached an arm out to Sam, hoisting him into the boat with some help from Josiah. "Is everyone satisfied with that turn of events?"
Bart chuckled. "Intrigued, sure."
"Now the question becomes whether or not Sam's protection from the Keebep extends to the rest of the crew." Vetinari shifted on the narrow bench. "Still something I'd rather not test, given the option."
"Las' thing we'd want would be fer all of us to get sucked into the brine while he rides away on the bloody thing's back." He winked at Sam as the boy rowed. Vetinari coughed behind them.
"No, obviously that's not something we'd like."
A shaft of moonlight splashed across Josiah's face, and he pointed between the two rowers. "There she is, all quiet, looks like. Row on, boys, not long left."
When the little rowboat broke free of the mangroves, Sam and Bert steered it alongside the ship, hulls dully thunking together. A rope ladder was tossed down over the side of the larger ship, but there wasn't any further sign of life above. Vetinari and Josiah shared a look.
"Bit weird, wouldn't you say?" The old sailor nodded as the captain watched the railing. Sam and Bart, busy making the little dinghy fast to the ship, exchange nervous glances. He lowered his voice "Look alive, boys. Altogether now, one right after the other." He looked back to them, already half out of the boat, and barely managed to repress a sigh. "Sam, what have we told you about weapons in your mouth?"
"Thorry thir." He spat the knife and tucked it into his belt, sheepish.
"Stick close behind me," Bart whispered as he swung onto the ladder behind Josiah. "Captain's right – something's up up there."
As Sam climbed the ladder, he strained to quiet his own breathing, listening intently for any sound up above. There was nothing, no conversation or even footsteps across the deck. His breath hitched and slowly, between rungs, he reached to his belt and pulled out his knife, carrying it carefully in his hand as he swung up the ladder. Vetinari was nearly level with the deck of the ship now, and his hand likewise drifted to his own weapon. He motioned something to Josiah, and the other pirate shimmied up the ladder next to the captain. Cautiously, Vetinari peeked over the edge of the deck.
Sam didn't realize how anxious he was – how much he was expecting that crossbow bolt to fly through the railing – until it didn't happen. He practically sagged off the ladder and back into the rowboat when Vetinari swung up the rest of the way, over the railing. "The hell is going on up here?" Josiah followed suit, and Bart and Sam scrambled up behind them, Bart helping Sam over the rail as the ship rocked a little in a wave.
Drumknott was standing there, rigidly at attention. "We were boarded while you were absent, sir."
Sam wasn't sure you could reasonably call a one-person boarding party as "being boarded," but he wasn't prepared to argue the point. Behind Drumknott, one pirate on either side, was a girl – no, Sam corrected himself as his eyes plunged to just below her neckline, a young woman – her hands bound behind her back. The whites of her eyes sparkled in the lamplight, bright points against her dark skin. She must have caught Sam looking, because she smiled broadly and then it wasn't just her eyes shining in the light – each of her front teeth were capped with gold points, and her serrated shark smile glinted.
Drumknott must have said something while Sam was distracted, because Vetinari stepped forward toward her and she shifted her attention to him. "We can't get her to say anything," Drumknott informed him.
"Are there any casualties?" Vetinari's tone was disinterested as he strode around her, eyebrows raised.
"She didn't even draw a sword, sir. Simply climbed aboard and started yelling at Bledsoe." Drumknott shrugged. "I'm afraid I didn't hear her, and no one recognized the language."
"Hm." The captain leaned back, watching her for a minute. She flashed that smile at him again, and he raised an eyebrow. Then he rattled off something in a language Sam had never heard before and certainly didn't understand. The girl barked out a laugh and stomped her foot, causing the two sailors on either side of her to tighten their grips on her upper arms.
"Maka abda adakad seperti pandai sebagaimana yang mereka katakan!" She was shaking her head, still chuckling. "I am honored, then, and not embarrassed – my errand hasn't been in vain."
"And what sort of errand might that have been?" His eyes narrowed. "And I should remind you that I don't much like the idea of what you've done this evening."
She shrugged. "Understandable. I have been sent by the elders of my nation." She flashed another smile. "They have felt the Keebep stir."
"Have they?" He smiled glassily. "I wasn't aware there was anybody keeping an eye on her movements – would they mind terribly calling her off?"
"Ha! Funny." She shook her head. "We don't command the Keebep, Captain, we merely take an interest in its movements. The elders tell us she is a god sent to protect the world's treasures from falling into the hands of men. Which is more or less accurate."
"The world's treasures, hm?" He cocked his head. "That wouldn't happen to be why you people are even interested in the Keebep in the first place, would it?"
"Of course it is. But not for the reason you are thinking. We are . . . similarly inclined to believe that some things are better off hidden." This statement was made with a tone as pointed as her teeth.
Sam's breath hitched in his chest; Spalding was still the only other crewmember to know exactly what they were looking for, and Vetinari had seemed fairly determined to keep it that way. The conversation was skirting those waters now, perilously close to spilling the name of what they sought. Sam glanced to her, and back to the captain. The man's body language, of course, betrayed nothing, and his expression didn't waver from the politely interested. The rest of the crew was watching him as well, the night air hung thick with the question 'What is she talking about?'
Finally, Vetinari broke the silence. "Are you intentions hostile?"
"My errand is not one of violence or theft, if that's what you're asking. The elders have sent me with a proposition regarding that which you seek." She glanced from the captain to the crew, her eyes hanging on Sam for just a beat longer than anyone else. "If you don't mind terribly, I would like to put my question to you in a more secluded area. There is no need to reveal more than is necessary about my goals, or my people."
"What are ye, a secret society?" Josiah demanded.
The crew looked to Vetinari, waiting for him to make the next move. "What's your name?"
"Very well, than, Rahsia. Unhand her, gentlemen." He sighed and waved to the sailors who were holding her, their expressions thoroughly bewildered. "Follow me, we'll hear what your little business proposition is."
"What the hell is he doing?" Bart murmured to Sam, and the sentiment seemed to be shared amongst most of the crewmembers. "He's lost it."
Sam watched Rahsia walk away, rubbing her wrists. "Did he have it to begin with?" Both jumped as a heavy hand landed on each of their shoulders. Josiah leaned his head between the two of them.
"Best not t'speculate on that. Now break up the sewing circle, ladies – there's work to be done!"
It was much later that night before Sam and Bart could find ten minutes to slip off to some part of the ship together, the better to have a quiet conversation without prying eyes or ears. Sam settled on a barrel of water, back in the hold, by the partition that kept the engines separate from the rest of the ship. Bart sat across from him, on the lip of a giant ice tub for storing fish, and glanced over his shoulder at the stairs.
"Where's the captain?"
"Still talking to that girl at the helm." Sam gnawed off a hunk of brown bread and chewed for a minute. "So."
"Alright, keep your voice down." He dipped his own bread into a mug of ale. "So what do you know? I've seen you listening in, I know you have to know something."
Sam shook his head. "Not much. Vetinari has some map or something to the treasure, and it's something bad, I guess. Anyway, it's cursed, apparently – I think that whatever he has sort of acts like a . . . like a lighthouse for the Keebep. Spalding seems to think he's an idiot."
Bart shook his head. "It's not whatever Vetinari has, it's the spot. I talked to Josiah a little while you were washing up at Yorba's – the person seeking the treasure that the map or whatever leads to gets the Black Spot. It's a marker for the monster."
"So what's the treasure? Where's the map go?"
"That's the thing, there's no telling if it's a map." He looked reflectively into the gold eyes of one of the goats. "Josiah always tells all these stories, some of them have the Spot in it. There's a million things out there that can get you the Spot – maps, crowns, keys, discs, whatever, you name it. The Keebep guards all of them, he said. They're old stuff – toys the gods made and got bored with, threw down to the Disc. They're powerful too, usually; why else would there be a monster to guard them?
The big story goes that hundreds of years ago, a pirate found one of the treasures: a chest of gold coins and bars, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of money; he would have been rich. But more than that, there was a ring in the bottom of the chest that can disguise someone, hide them from Death and Life for . . . well, forever if you wear it forever. Never-ending youth, never-ending life. Anyway, the pirate wore it, obviously, and everything worked out. He was the worst pirate on the planet, and not worst like bad, worst like terrible and malicious and power-hungry, you know? He had a whole fleet of ships, countries . . . Supposedly Krull was his colony, founded by him."
"Hang on, we're talking about Bloodskull? That is the pirate we're talking about?"
"So you know the story!"
"Well," Sam stammered, "well yeah. But it's a kids' story . . . it's a myth." Bart raised an eyebrow. "Yeah he . . . he stole Io's eyes. I mean, seriously, it's ridiculous."
"Well whether or not it's true, that's where the Keebep comes from. Bloodskull steals the Eyes of Io, gains all-seeing power over men, gets his arse stomped eight ways from Octeday, and Io puts the Keebep in the sea to prevent any pirates from stealing any of the gods' old playthings again."
Sam nodded and looked reflectively to the soggy floorboards. He took another bite of bread, stared reflectively into his ale for another minute and asked "But what happened to the ring? Io made a monster – which I guess was the Keebep – to protect all the treasures, but the story never said what happened to the ring. I always assumed he'd had it melted down . . ."
Bart's hole-pocked smile didn't glint; there was no light down here for that. But it was a pale ashen crescent in the darkness of the hold, and he chuckled. "That's one of the endings, yeah. Probably the truth, if there is a truth in a story. The other story is that he took the ring and locked it in a chest and cast it back to the Disc to some obscure, impossible location and threw the key to the chest to the bottom of the ocean. Made it impossible for any man or troll or elf or whatever to get ahold of it."
Sam choked back a laugh. "Yeah, sure, the Black Iron Key, every kid knows that story. You find the Key, you rule the world, right? But you'd have to find the treasure, first of all, and second of all, it's a fake story."
"Is it?" The boys jumped as the accented, clipped words drifted to them down the stairs. "So why does it persist?" Gold shimmered dully while she spoke, and her footfalls were silent on the stairs.
Sam couldn't hide his chuckle this time. "Because stupid people still go looking for it. And it's a good story, I guess."
Rahsia shooed the goat away and sat next to Sam, brushing the non-existent dust off the crate of lemons before she did. "Never underestimate the power of a good story. After all, the best stories are sometimes true. A little bit, at least."
Bart scoffed. "Another teaching of your elders? Where're you from anyway? And why are you still on the ship?"
"Your captain's decided to allow me passage with you to your destination. It's part of our deal."
Sam inhaled as her arm brushed across his chest, right before she plucked the remaining hunk of bread from his fingers. "So he took your deal."
"Bits and pieces. His talent was wasted in politics, you know." She raised a delicate eyebrow, just visible in the dark. "You Morporkians never realized how safe you were."
Bart raised a hand. "So you're saying the story's true?"
"I never said that."
The lighter glows of Bart's eyes narrowed. "What are you doing on this ship?"
She sat back, chewing and swallowing in her own time. "The agreement is confidential. As I said, I will travel with you to your destination. You needn't know more than that. Nor do you need to worry that I will do anything to compromise the goal of your mission. Just that I will be joining your crew." Icy silence settled over the trio. "Your captain and I have . . . similar interests and intentions," she elaborated. And that seemed to be all she was going to say on the matter, because she sunk her shark teeth into the bread and smiled cheerfully at the other two.
"We were having a private discussion," Sam muttered, not meeting her eyes.
"About children's stories, yes, I heard you. What are your names?" She sighed around the mouthful of bread. "Boys, there is no need for suspicion – I'm legitimate, trusted by your captain. I would not harm you."
"Bart," the older of the two grumbled. He shot Sam a look. "She's going to find out eventually. If Vetinari didn't already tell her."
"He didn't, but your trust that he won't be underhanded about his own crew is endearing." She turned to Sam. "And you?"
"Sam. Sam . . . Never mind. Just Sam." He glowered in the dim gold smile. "I don't have to tell you."
"It would have been less awkward when I used your surname, Samuel Vimes, but suit yourself."
"He did tell you!"
"He did not." She rose. "Suffice to say, Sam, that the Keebep is not the only thing the elders choose to keep their all-knowing Sight on. Thank you for your bread, and for your company, boys. I do so love stories."
"You know what we're sailing after then, don't you?" Bart called, when she was halfway up the stairs. "What Vetinari's after?"
Even in the dark, Sam could see she looked surprised. "Of course I do. The elders would not have sent me for anything less."
"So it's important."
"Important enough for them to send me, yes."
The question spilled from his mouth before Sam could stop himself. "Is it the Key?"
A zig-zag of gold. "Is that even possible – that shadow of a children's story? It's not my business to tell you what you're hunting, boys. In time, you will find out. Pleasant dreams." And with that, her presence vanished from the hold, and Sam and Bart once again sat alone in the mess of cargo.
The special silence of a ship settled around them. The boards creaked, cargo slid and rumbled across the floor, the machinery groaned on the other side of the partition and the glass bottles clinked suggestively. A goat bleated. But it was silence, in its way.
Finally, Bart sighed and tossed his bread to Sam. It bounced off the other boy's skinny chest, but Sam fumblingly managed to catch it before it fell to the floor. "Sam, how is it everyone knows something about you?"
"I don't know." He sunk his teeth in to the bread with a little more force than necessary. "But I damn well hope they tell me sooner rather than later."
HO-OLY SHIT I UPDATED SOMETHING WHAT THE HELL.
REVIEWS FUEL ME LIKE PIMPJUICE.