The Shadows of Greatness
"Don't use the knife unless your life depends on it," Olli had told Cameron when he returned. Truth be told, she wasn't sorry about his reluctance to resort to violence. Do no harm: that was the heart of everything she did as a doctor, and she did her best to stay true to that principle. It was hard, working for House, to determine the path of least harm. There were no good choices, sometimes.
Today, it was clear. Kill or be killed. Harm or be harmed. But you must do no harm, she thought, acutely aware that she had been in life and death situations before yet somehow, knowing she was facing a human made a difference. That one thought was enough. She hesitated, and by the time she raised the knife, the pirate was upon her.
His eyes were empty, ferocious but lifeless, like a fire. Staring into those dilated pupils, she saw her own terrified expression reflected back. Then the world went dark.
Her life didn't flash before her eyes, but the last two days did. She smelled perfume.
Things had seemed simple enough when Olli returned from his excursion above deck.
"Was his staff everything you hoped it to be?" she asked.
Olli shrugged. "His wife's was bigger."
Thankfully, she'd finished off the seltzer and had nothing to choke on. She should have been used to comments like that, having been around House, but there was something disconcerting about Olli's cheerfulness. Which wasn't to say he looked the morose type. He acted exactly as she'd expect if she'd met him on the street, with a slight jaunt to his step and a glimmer in his eyes. But that sort of ease in life shouldn't translate to being kidnapped by pirates, especially ones from the 1700s.
He cupped his hand against the door and pressed his ear close. Satisfied no one was outside, he strode over to her and removed the dagger from his terra cotta outfit. "Do you have any storage places in your chair?"
Cameron flipped up the left arm rest to reveal an empty compartment. "You think I know how to use that?"
He dropped the blade in and flipped the lid shut. "They're not going to suspect you. We couldn't fight our way out anyway. Using that's going to require intelligence, not dexterity."
"And all you've got is charisma?" She understood his point and dropped her arm back in place and felt like she'd put it atop an ant's nest.
Olli laughed. "You'll forget about it soon enough."
"Maybe if you gave me another massage."
"Do you know how sore my arms are?" He plopped onto the lower bunk. "You should get some sleep. We have a long day tomorrow."
"A long day of captivity," she replied, but she knew that wasn't what he meant. Rolling herself over to the bed, she peered at him until he cracked up laughing.
"Ok, you got me. I 'let slip' that you're a doctor. Their alchemist wants to meet you. He's the guy who made all your drinks."
"Great, I can give him a few pointers."
"And maybe he knows some good mixers."
"Nothing like a good party to get all your captors drunk in order to commandeer their vessel!"
But impossible or not, Olli knew his way around people. The alchemist was at their door before sunrise. She didn't know this at the time, their cabin not having a window, but she did know she felt as though she'd just closed her eyes when the pounding on the door began. "Ermmf," she groaned. Her head felt heavy as an anvil, and her brain insisted she'd been struck by one, but she managed to wake by sheer force of will.
Olli opened the door as she dropped into the wheelchair. The alchemist looked like a snake with limbs, sliding into the room wearing silken garments that glimmered like scales. Everything about him screamed length and no width, from the cloth that dropped along his figure in straight lines to the gelled down hair and goatee. His face could give a horse's a run for its money, and not just any ordinary house, a Kentucky Derby winner at that.
"I am Sepehr," he announced, predictably drawing out the "s" at the ssstart of his name. "What a beautiful visage you have," he said, playing his abnormally-long fingers along her cheek like Chopin at the piano.
"Thank you," she replied, deciding to try Olli's method today. Besides, tired though she was, she found it hard to remain irritable at people who seemed genuinely friendly.
"Come, let me show you my experiments, but first--" He produced a glass of seltzer with the flick of a wrist. Cameron could believe he had it hidden in his substantial, draping sleeves, but she didn't know how he'd managed not to spill it. Once she took the drink, he glided around her to hold the handles of her wheelchair. Her armrest bounced as he pushed her across the uneven floorboards, and she slammed a hand down a little too hard. "Relaxsss," Sepehr said, patting her on the shoulder. "I will try not to jolt you too much."
"Yes, that's kind of you." She sipped the water to hide her grimace. "What time is it?" she asked as he pushed her past the darkened stairway.
"Five in the morning, but who needs sleep when there's such incredible things to disssscover!"
They reached the end of the corridor where fumes drifted through a doorway of silk curtains. Cameron caught the whiff of honey and copper and ground-up grass. Wooden boards had been nailed up all around the room as shelves, one set at knee-height, another at the waist, a third at the chest, and a fourth above the head. The room itself was about ten by ten feet in size and filled wall-to-wall with all variety of bubbling beakers and containers of preserved... things. Each glass was held in place by a nailed-down ring of steel and secured with string.
"Are those dried newts?" Cameron asked, wrinkling her nose as she pointed at a jar across the room on the highest shelf.
"Yes," Sepehr replied.
"Are those human eyeballs?" Olli said.
"Yahya," said Sepehr dismissively.
Olli's jaw dropped. "Really?" For the first time, he looked a little sick.
"Yahya!" Sepehr yelled.
"How many people have you killed!" Olli exclaimed.
Cameron grabbed his arm. "Calm down!"
"He killed people and plucked out their eyes!"
"I'm hearing him say the same thing!"
"TARDIS translator!" Cameron pointed at herself. "I speak English, but I'm hearing him say 'Yahya'! So if you're hearing 'ja, ja' in German, I should be hearing the translated affirmative in English, but I'm not. He's calling someone's name."
"Besides, those are obviously pig eyes." She grinned.
Yahya dashed into the room, nearly crashing into the wall as he skidded to a halt. A man of substantial size, his waistline continued moving long after the rest of him had stopped, brushing again a bubbling beaker before snapping back into place with a bit of jiggling afterward. Standing at full height, his eyes were on the same level as Cameron's, though a turban gave him a couple more inches, making his head look like an upside-down muffin.
"Sorry, sorry, I know you wanted me to watch the brew but Niki spotted Portuguese Man o' Wars off our port, and I knew you wanted some tentacles." He removed a pouch hanging along his right side and handed it over. Sepehr flicked open the flap, took a glance, and nodded.
"Excellent. That is an acceptable excuse, Yahya, especially since the draught is not yet ready."
"Draught?" Cameron asked. "What are you brewing?"
Sepehr moved aside to reveal a bubbling cauldron of transparent liquid on the second shelf. "I call it the draught of living death!"
"Harry Potter?" Cameron and Olli said at the same time.
"Nothing," they replied, glancing at each other.
"Odorless and tasteless, one drop, taken by itself or mixed into food or water, is enough to reduce a person's bodily functions to the point where they appear dead."
"Definitely Harry Potter," Cameron muttered.
"Or Romeo and Juliet," Olli replied, looking a little distant. "So romantic."
"They both died," she reminded him.
"In your English version."
"Aha!" Sepehr exclaimed. "Now it is ready." He pushed Cameron in front of it and dropped a box of empty vials on her lap. "Do me a favor and transfer the draught into these vials, please. The cork stoppers are between the dung beetle legs and the iron filings."
Olli peered at the two jars of tiny black bars. "How do you tell them apart?"
"One sticks to magnets and the other doesn't! Oh, Yahya, let me help you get that heavy box of broken glass all the way on the other side of the room down from the top shelf where you can't reach. Why are you so short?"
This is too easy, Cameron thought as she slipped the first vial of draught she filled into the other compartment of her wheelchair.
"Sepehr?" a soft voice called out from the doorway. Cameron nearly missed the vial with the ladle, but Olli pushed her hand into position at the last moment. As soon as she pushed the cork in, she turned her chair to see Niki enter with a bedraggled dove cupped in her hands. "I found DonyA."
"My goodness!" he exclaimed, throwing his arms up and causing the box of glass to fall on Yahya. "How in the Shah's name did you do that?" The dove flapped feebly in response to the gust caused by Sepehr rushing over to Niki's side but settled down as he began stroking her head.
Niki glanced at Cameron. "I have an affinity with birds."
"Yes, I suppose you do, little nightingale."
She tensed slightly. It wouldn't have been noticeable if she wore any respectable amount of clothing, but Cameron could see the movement of every muscle in her back. And everywhere else.
"Whoaaaa!" Yahya cried, still juggling the box to keep it from upending on him. Olli rushed over and steadied him before taking the box.
"She doesn't belong here," Sepehr said. "The fumes will make her ill."
"Would you spare some Golestan nectar?"
"Of course, of course. It is the jar to the doctor's left, third shelf. You know where the bowls are."
"Thank you." Niki approached Cameron with a smile. "Are you feeling better?"
"The seltzer helped." She nodded. "What happened to the bird? DonyA, is that her name?"
"Yes." Niki pulled out a ceramic bowl the size of her own palm. It was decorated with blue writing circling the rim. The liquid she poured into it was amber but flowed more like water than honey. Putting the dove by the bowl, she smoothed down some of her wing feathers before letting her start drinking. "You were unconscious--I am sorry about--"
"I don't blame you," Cameron said.
"That is kind, but my participation was my choice. Though I objected, I must take responsibility for my actions." She patted Cameron on the shoulder and pulled up a chair. "As I was saying, you were unconscious, but the blast from Singapore caused significant distress to the ship. We keep a dovecote aboard the ship--it is stocked with birds from every port we've visited from here to Bandar-Abbas so we can send messages to our contacts. Several cages broke open during the turbulence, and the birds escaped."
"But DonyA isn't a messenger pigeon," Cameron said.
"Exactly. We keep her for different purposes. She is very much a friend, and we feared she'd been blown away by the winds of the explosion. However, she found her way home."
"Sounded like you somehow called her back," Cameron said.
Niki pressed her lips together for a moment. "That would be quite magical."
"Which you're implying is impossible without actually saying so."
"I've seen many things I thought were impossible."
"But you're misdirecting me without lying."
She shrugged. "Maybe."
"You really should put on more clothes." There was a thud behind her as Olli almost tripped.
"I appreciate your concern, but this crew is like family."
"But it's demeaning--"
Niki drew herself up. "I choose to wear these clothes. I find it comfortable. Nobody is forcing me to wear these outfits."
Cameron didn't say anything. She was wondering whether she had jumped to conclusions too fast when Niki added, "You must admit, wearing less is more comfortable in this climate so long as you are careful about the sun. Perhaps you would like to take off--"
"No, no, I'm fine, thank you!" Cameron said, throwing up her hands as Niki reached toward her shirt.
"But these flames, they make the cabin so stuffy."
"Now you're just toying with me."
"Can't you ever give me a definitive answer?"
"Perhaps these answers make sense to me, and it is your own perception that prevents you from understanding."
Cameron corked another vial and slipped it into an iron holder. Putting down her ladle, she looked Niki in the eyes and said, "Then help me see things from your perspective."
Niki poured a little more nectar out for DonyA. "When I was a child, my father told many stories. He's not on board--I know you were going to ask, but refrain from questions for now. There will be answers this time. Bousseh and Kouros are not the only relations aboard, and as I said before, we are all close as family, but I alone did not grow up on the Caspian. I am the only one with no ties to this crew by blood or by law.
"My father is a powerful man and wealthy beyond imagining, yet he did not have any say over my departure. On the eve of my thirteenth birthday, he made a tragic mistake. To explain that, you must know the tale of Cyrus the Great."
"I do. I took an elective in Persian history in college."
"Of course. You are learned and speak our language well."
"That's not-- well, suffice it to say, I probably know enough."
"If you have studied history, you have seen the trends. Great people rise, civilizations thrive, and then they fall. Over and over again, the glory and the decline. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Persia, which thus far endures to remember our legacy. We have seen not one but two men who shook the world to its foundations. We have conquered and been conquered, assimilated a thousand different cultures, yet our root traditions remain unbroken. Strings of greatness run through the empire, and their power binds us to the past and the future, no matter how much our present conditions change.
"Persia is lucky. To others, we might say we are favored by a higher power, but the truth is that anyone with a grasp of history and the world knows we have simply had an unusual run of powerful leaders, and in the end, it will end.
"Do you know why? To define greatness, it must collapse into defeat. We are faced with choices. We can choose to cry out defiant and seize the world by the neck, knowing we do so facing our own mortality, or we can choose to live forever and stagnate, gloating in our own existence and knowing nothing of the universe.
"We chose greatness. We will always choose greatness. It is a curse. It is a blessing. It is us. But sometimes, it must be tempered by wisdom, and we must know when we reach for too much. My father learned this lesson in the most painful way, but I consider my accident a fortunate thing, for it prevented greater tragedy, and he will not make that mistake again.
"Which brings us back to the eve of my birthday. He faced... challenges and sought divine intervention. When he could not find answers in the Qur'an, he turned to older traditions. He summoned a djinn to grant his wishes, but you cannot control a wild djinn and the ancient arts of binding them are lost--a good thing, in my opinion, for it was wrong to do so. The djinn was evil and escaped.
"I stayed up late that night because I was excited for the celebrations the next day. Unable to sleep, I wandered the halls of my home and became the first living being the djinn encountered in its flight. Thinking my youth made me a good vessel, it took possession of my body, but I've been told I am unusually strong-willed. I resisted. It could not take over, and perhaps instinctively, I knew something so evil could not be released back into the world. The conflict sent me into a trance that lasted five months."
"Niki, I'm sorry for interrupting. Far be it from me to challenge your beliefs, but that sounds like an explanation for a serious medical condition."
"In all those months, no one touched me except to turn me and clean me and feed me. I have never had a significant relapse. The worst physical symptom I have experienced is minor trembling, like when you're cold. The djinn is still within me now." She paused, studying Cameron for a reaction and finding none. "It speaks to me, shows me visions sometimes. When I saw you and your friends for the first time, I saw things, more intensely than I ever had before."
"I noticed you shaking," Cameron said. "But that--"
"--is not a medical condition. I told you I have seen impossible things." A sly smile crept onto her face. "I will even submit to any tests you wish to administer. My father called the best physicians after I woke. You will find nothing wrong with me. If anything, you will find me more healthy than expected; the djinn protects me from physical illness, fearing it is so bound to me that if I perish from anything but old age, it will die with me"
"I will take you up on your offer." Cameron hesitated. "What did you see when you met us?"
"A shadow falling over everything. Time tied in a knot. The moon shattered. A blue box."
Cameron's eyebrows went up a little at the last item. "Sounds ominous."
"The djinn tends to see life's darknesses, but I find ways to interpret its skewed view. I've learned a lot from it."
"So your father believed you were possessed and exiled you?" Cameron asked.
Niki burst out laughing, causing DonyA to flap her wings in surprise. "I'm starting to think you have a djinn in you as well, you are so quick to assume the worst. No, my father loves me very much. My departure was my decision. I spent a year with the Zoroastrian priests, learning calming techniques to focus my mind. The djinn's chances of seizing me are greater when I lose control of my emotions. Once I had learned to do so, I began prying into the djinn's memories. Thinking me young and immature, it let slip more than it intended. I learned about future events that required my immediate presence in Bandar Pahlavi. There, I met the crew of Mashghul e, this vessel."
"Niki!" Sepehr exclaimed. "The draught is burning! Stop distracting the doctor!"
"She's bottled enough to knock out the entire court in Shiraz," Niki retorted.
"I want to take out the whole city!" Sepehr whined.
"That's enough stories for now. I apologize for throwing so much philosophy at you, but between my education and the djinn, I find that if I do not impose silence upon myself, I will speak until everyone is sick of me."
"Your outlook on life is fascinating," Cameron replied. "But you promised to answer all my questions, and there's a burning one in my mind."
"Who is your father?"
She scooped up the dove and placed her on her shoulder. "I hope we will become friends. For that to happen, I fear his identity must remain a mystery."
"I've found honesty is the best course."
"Honesty at the wrong time is as bad as a lie."
As she departed, Olli dropped into the chair she'd left behind. "I agree completely. If she admitted right now that she wants to be more than friends with you, that probably wouldn't go over well."
"What?" Cameron said.
But at that moment, the cauldron squealed and began melting, preempting Cameron's impending interrogation.
After the cleanup, the rest of the day consisted of Sepehr quizzing her on the medical properties of all 3,758 ingredients on board. In truth, they only got through about a tenth of them, but she didn't think Sepehr would forget to follow up in the days to come. She did convince him to move a number of bottles onto the deck for their discussions and spent half the day being pushed around by Olli, learning the names of various crew members when Sepehr had to go back below to retrieve new ingredients. Niki had locked herself away with Kouros and Bousseh plotting who knew what, and she only saw her again briefly at suppertime when she said hello and ran off again.
They met Farrin, a thief who'd once raided the Shah's own treasure vault. She was Jannat's sister, and the two made quite a pair with Jannat towering over everyone and Farrin tiny and lithe. Farrin vanished into shadows, and Jannat made them (then beat up the rogues who hid in them).
Later in the day, there was a sparring match between Omeed and Akbar. Omeed stuck to his staff, but Akbar was unique in that his mustache extended four feet in both directions and was braided to be as thick as Jannat's arm. Foregoing all weapons, he used his mustache to beat opponents down. After losing, Omeed explained that when in battle, Akbar spiked the braids with razor blades, so although he exercised incredible control over his attacks, it was still best to stay far away during a fight. Then he grabbed Olli, and they went off to train with Jannat.
Navid was the navigator who liked to tinker with machines with Yahya and Bousseh in his free time. Marmar was the expert on all things combustible and joined the crew with her husband Jafar after burning down a marketplace. Jafar was the son of Kouros, and he was the cook, which was good because he alone had the authority to ban Marmar from the kitchen. Unfortunately, there was another source of open flames: Sepehr's lab, but she had a deal with Sepehr to stay away as long as he provided her with Greek fire whenever she asked.
And there were many others, but Cameron had a hard time keeping track of everyone between remembering which species of mushroom was poisonous and finding a way to explain that Sepehr had discovered penicillin two hundred years early without screwing up history.
Night came as a minor relief from the blazing tropical heat, but she was so exhausted she didn't linger. They found a bath waiting for them in their room and took turns washing before turning in. Cameron fell asleep immediately but not before thinking that for the first time in days, she was looking forward to tomorrow.
So of course, she woke the next morning to screams and Omeed kicking open their door.
"What's going on?" she asked after falling out of the bed. Omeed picked her up and dropped her in the wheelchair. Then he tossed a smaller staff to Olli.
"Stay behind me unless you want to find out how much you've learned," he said. "We're under attack."
Olli caught the staff and started pushing Cameron with his other hand. As they reached the door, the far wall exploded, sending them flying into the hall amidst a burst of wood scraps. She glanced back and saw half the upper wall was gone.
"Hey, we have a window now," Olli said as he helped her back up. Blood trickled down his face, but the cut along the upper cheek looked superficial.
"Damn Chinese," Omeed growled.
"Why are the Chinese attacking us?" Olli asked.
"That's not the right question," Farrin said, descending the stairs three steps at a time. She unsheathed two daggers as she landed in front of them, one in each hand. "The right question is 'How do we kill the Chinese so we can live to ask why they're attacking us?'"
Omeed grunted and sidled past her to return above deck. Farrin pointed down the hall with her left dagger, and Olli took Cameron that direction. Halfway down, the door to their right opened and Jafar gestured for them to enter. The three of them ducked into the kitchen and shut the door behind them.
"Normally I'd object to babysitting," Farrin said. "But a thief doesn't brawl, and you--" She ran a finger down Olli's chest and then down some more. "You are no baby." She leapt backward in time for Jafar to push a table between them and barricade the door.
Cameron rolled herself to the window--a real one, not one made by a cannonball--to peer at the approaching vessel. It had just passed the Mashghul e and was turning to make another pass, this time closer than before. "They're getting ready to board us."
"But why?" Olli asked. "I know they're pirates, but that ship's smaller than this one!"
"Ships shouldn't be out here," Jafar said. "The port we're heading toward is too small to be of interest to ships at a major trading hub like Singapore. But currents go toward it. The only reason ships would head for it--"
"--is if they were damaged and drifting toward a place to repair," Farrin concluded. "The Chinese are preying on survivors."
"How would they know what happened to Singapore?" said Olli.
"They wouldn't," Jafar replied. "Assuming anyone got a bird out, we're still less than halfway there. They couldn't have reached us in time because you can't send a pigeon to a ship at sea."
Farrin scowled. "Someone tipped them off."
"Well, they're in for a surprise, because we're not damaged." He reached under the stove and brought out something that looked like a harpoon. Only then he lit a match, put it against the blunt tip, and ignited a pilot light.
"Is that a flamethrower?" Cameron asked.
"I love being married to Marmar. She's such a fiery woman."
"Is it a good idea to set that off inside the ship?" Olli said.
"We have flame retardant on the walls," Farrin explained. "A necessary precaution that comes in handy sometimes. Oh, and Cameron might want to move away from the window."
Cameron pulled on her wheels, moving backward. "Why?"
"Throw!" a muffled voice called from above. A number of glittering objects arced across the diminishing distance between the ships. They flashed all the colors of the rainbow as they fell, and then a bright light shot forth, accompanied by a snap, and they flew apart.
The Chinese pirates standing at the railing ready to swing across collapsed screaming. A tinkling sound like marbles falling on pavement played against the kitchen window, and cracks appeared across the glass panes.
"Glass shards tied to firecrackers," Farrin said. "Enhanced firecrackers."
"So that's what Yahya was doing with the glass yesterday," Olli muttered.
"Ship that size, show a few claws and they should flee," Jafar said.
He was wrong. The ship turned, but it angled for the Mashghul e.
"Incoming!" Farrin cried, pinning Cameron and her chair against the wall. The other vessel struck them near the kitchen. The window shattered, pots and pans flew across the room, and Olli and Jafar grabbed a nearby rack that was bolted to the wall to keep from tumbling away. Wood creaked and groaned as the two ships ground to a halt beside each other, rocking back and forth.
Then the hull of the other ship opened. Panels slid aside, revealing pirates ready to leap through the holes they'd blasted in the Mashghul e's side.
"Camel's lips!" Jafar cursed, pressing the trigger. A jet of flame roared through the window into the other ship. As men went down, they heard footsteps from the hall, and the barricade shuddered as men pounded against the door. "I can't hold off both sides. Change of plans!"
"We have solid choke points here!" Farrin protested.
"Thieves don't brawl!" Jafar snapped. "Go!" At that moment, the upper half of the door shattered. Jafar swung the flamethrower toward the newcomers but not before the closest pirate got a musket shot in. Blood burst from Jafar's shoulder, but he ignored the injury, stomping toward the entrance with the gas valve opened fully.
Farrin unlatched a nearby pane of metal and pulled it open to reveal a dumbwaiter. Together, she and Olli lifted Cameron's wheelchair into the shaft and leaped in. There was just enough room left for Jafar, who sent one more wave of fire into the Chinese ship before climbing in and hitting the release on the weight.
The dumbwaiter launched upward, and Cameron was afraid they'd crash into the top, but deceleration kicked in before her thought was complete, and they slid to a smooth halt. They exited into Kouros' planning room. No one was around, but they could see people fighting outside. Jafar ran to the door, kicked it open, and let loose a semi-circle of fire. "Stay here!" he said as he stepped onto the deck. Beyond him, Cameron caught sight of Akbar wrap his mustache around someone's torso and toss her over the side while smacking a second pirate across the temple.
He had left for less than a minute when a pirate spotted Olli trying to close the door and ran for them. Olli dodged inside and as he followed, Farrin stepped out from behind and slid one dagger into the base of his neck. The pirate crumpled without a sound.
"That is how a thief fights," she said as she wiped the blade clean. At that moment, Niki ran in.
"Can you take another one, but knock him out this time?" she asked.
Farrin nodded. "Sexy man, go be bait again."
Olli rolled his eyes and obeyed. This time, Farrin caught him in an arm hold and tilted his head until he lost consciousness from lack of oxygen. Throwing him across the table, she kicked the door shut. "All yours."
Niki placed her hand against his forehead. His eyes snapped open, and Cameron and Olli both moved to grab him, but Farrin grabbed both of them by the collar.
"Don't interrupt," she said in a hushed voice.
The man began shaking, and his eyes rolled into his head. All four limbs flailing like a puppet in a gust of wind, his skin grew pale and a red glow appeared around him, an aura that shimmered with waves of light like the aurora. When Cameron looked more closely, she saw the light encompassed Niki too, faint all around but growing stronger near the hand she had in contact with the pirate. It was as though she were the source of light, and it cascaded from her like a waterfall to pool around the man.
She pulled away, and he fell still. Farrin glided over and snapped his neck before Cameron could voice a protest.
"Was that necessary?" she said. "He was no threat."
Farrin grabbed a pendant hanging from the body's neck and snapped it loose. "Do you see this insignia? It is the symbol of the Sea Dragons, a pirate clan that flays its captives alive for fun. We may be pirates, and we may appear ruthless, but we do not take killing lightly. But in this case, a quick death is more than any of our attackers deserve."
"There is more," Niki said. "I confirmed my suspicions. They are possessed."
"So they weren't tipped off."
"The ones who attacked Singapore wanted no survivors. Looks like their reach is greater than we guessed."
"That explains why they're fighting to the last man."
"I must bring this news to Bousseh." Niki slipped back out into fray, no weapon on her at all. After what Cameron had seen, she suspected she didn't need physical weapons.
"Still don't believe in djinns?" Olli asked.
"I don't know," she replied. "It's not high on my list of priorities right now."
"Put it one spot lower," Farrin said. She pointed toward the dumbwaiter, which was belching black smoke. Closing it reduced the output, but a lot continued leaking through.
Olli knelt down and put a hand against the floorboards. "No heat. The kitchen isn't burning."
"They're smoking us out, and it's going to work." Farrin peered outside. "Looks clear for now. Guess Sepehr's acid spray did the job."
The thief led the way, and Olli pushed Cameron out. Her eyes were watering from the smoke, and the blaze of sunlight outside didn't help. The other two must have been having the same trouble because they didn't notice an attacker sneak up until he was almost on them. Farrin threw one of her daggers into his raised arm, slowing him long enough for Olli to knock him down with his staff. That left no one holding Cameron's wheelchair, and at the same moment, the other ship detached from the Mashghul e. The entire crew had thrown themselves aboard, leaving no one to keep the ships together. The deck tilted, and Cameron was rolling away before she could catch the wheels.
She screamed as the railing rushed toward her. The impact threw her upward, but she caught the bars in time to keep from going overboard. Falling back onto her seat, she spun the chair around in time to find herself alone. More pirates had cut off Olli and Farrin, and the next closest friendly face was Kouros who was near the wheel, scimitar flashing as he fended off two opponents.
One pirate noticed her. She had the dagger in her armrest. She knew he was ruthless. He was a Sea Dragon. He was possessed, his eyes like an arsonist's fire, lifeless and burning with someone else's hatred. She couldn't do it. She couldn't bring herself to take a life, and he was upon her. She flinched, eyelids pressing shut, but the expected blade didn't come. Nothing ran her through, tearing flesh and muscle and overloading her nervous system with pain.
Cameron opened her eyes and saw blood, but it wasn't hers. Just inches away, Niki stood in front of her, a sword protruding from her back. The pirate pulled the sword out and blood followed in a gushing fountain. Niki fell to her knees, and the pirate stepped around her, raising his blade for Cameron's killing blow. One moment he was in control, and the next he was dead, his guts spilling out through a rend in his abdomen. Cameron didn't remember the killing slash, but the dagger was in her hand, and she knew she had moved.
There was no time to worry about her actions. Dropping the blade, she slid out of the chair to kneel beside Niki. Olli and Farrin arrived only seconds late but too late nevertheless.
"Allah have mercy," Farrin said, applying pressure to the front as Cameron did the same to the back.
"It's not enough," Cameron said, her mind racing. Then she remembered. "Olli, keep pressing down here."
When he took her place, she reached for the other armrest. Removing the vial she'd stolen, she pulled out the cork and poured the contents into Niki's mouth. To be honest, Cameron knew it wouldn't take effect in time, but she had a glimmer of hope. She too had seen many impossible things.
The bleeding slowed almost as soon as Niki swallowed, and Cameron knew she hadn't lost enough blood to die yet. She let out a ragged breath.
Sepehr ran up to them, though Cameron didn't see where he'd come from. "What happened? Is she all right?"
"Is your lab safe?" Cameron demanded.
"Yes, the threat is contained. I-- did you give her the draught of living death?"
Olli cut in before Cameron could reply. "Yes, I've been stealing items and hiding them in her wheelchair. I told her when the battle started in case she needed them."
"You di--" she glanced at Olli, but there wasn't time to argue these points. "Get Niki down there, have Jafar boil water to sterilize any medical equipment you have: needles, blades, stitches. The draught slowed the bleeding, but we don't have much time. I need to sew her up now!"
To their credit, the others reacted immediately. Olli lifted Niki up while Farrin maintained pressure on the wounds, and Sepehr rushed below deck to prepare for the surgery. Cameron climbed back into the wheelchair, and Omeed arrived in time to carry her down.
The next hours passed in a blur. The cut of the blade was clean, but it had damaged many organs. The equipment the Persians had was remarkably close to what Cameron could've expected in a modern hospital, and Sepehr and Yahya both had medical training. She didn't bother to question how they'd come by such advanced knowledge. All she felt was gratefulness and a fear that it wouldn't be enough.
Five hours later, the surgery was complete. As far as she could tell, it couldn't have gone better, but Niki's chances of survival were still low. The setting sun, the blood and bodies everywhere, the smell of charred flesh, they all compounded her feeling of doom. Every time she heard the splash of a Chinese body hitting the water, she wondered if Niki's would follow. At some point, Sepehr and Yahya disappeared to rest. Olli came by, trying to get her to do the same, but she ignored him, and eventually he gave up.
When Sepehr reappeared, he informed her it was noon. She must have fallen asleep at some point because she didn't remember so much time passing, but she couldn't remember waking up either. Her heart nearly stopped when she saw Niki still wasn't breathing, but Sepehr put a hand on her shoulder.
"I gave her another dose, smaller this time. We need to ease her out of the sleep or her blood pressure will rise too fast and kill her."
Cameron nodded. "I should've thought of that."
"You would have if you got some sleep. I'll track her dosages, you go rest. It'll be days yet before she wakes."
"I'm sorry," she said to Niki, touching her hand for the first time since the surgery. Flecks of blood dropped from Cameron's fingers like dust. That was when she noticed a silver chain wrapped around Niki's limp fingers. She moved her hand over it, shifting the links enough to see it was a necklace with an anchor pendant.
"Olli came by and left it. A prayer for good luck," Sepehr explained. Studying her, he said, "No one blames you. Truly, it was not your fault."
"But you're all under orders from some mysterious person."
"Niki is bound by no orders. Our... benefactor wouldn't dare."
Cameron gave him a questioning look.
"I know she doesn't want you to know. Sometimes she is so secretive I think she is ashamed."
It was a cliche out of every legend, but Niki had as good as admitted the Persians lived in one. "Her father is the Shah."
Sepehr didn't answer, but he didn't say no. She turned the chair, and as she reached the door, he said, "If you have the strength, Kouros and Bousseh would like to speak with you. They are in your room."
Of course, she thought. When she arrived, the hole from the cannonball was still there, and the breeze was hot and humid and salty. Olli sat on the lower bunk while Bousseh sat on the chest, back facing the ruined wall. Kouros leaned against the doorway and gave her a tight smile as she rolled past.
"I hope you're not too tired," he said. "We won't keep you long. We've moved beds into our map room, and the two of you may stay there until we reach Persia."
Cameron raised an eyebrow. "Thank you. That's kind of you."
"And now for the other issue," Bousseh said. "We knew you stole Omeed's dagger and Sepehr's draught. We set you up to do so."
Olli shrugged. "Nevertheless, we had a choice."
Kouros' eyes narrowed. "In your position, I would've done the same. Don't pretend--"
"I'm not pretending anything, I'm merely pointing out your side of the argument."
"Why would you let us steal them?" Cameron asked. She knew the answer--years with House made it hard not to understand how to manipulate people--but she didn't want them to know that. "Those were dangerous items."
"You planned on an escape attempt," Kouros answered. "Better to deal with known quantities. If we'd guarded you too well, you might have tried something desperate. No one wants you hurt, and that is the point. We are your captors, but we don't have to be enemies."
"We are grateful for your actions during the battle," Bousseh said, though she sounded like she was getting her teeth pulled. "And we recognize them to be sincere. As a result, we will be sincere with you. Must we continue to play these games?"
"You've met us," Kouros added. "You will continue to be among us, though you will be watched if you don't accept our offer. We hope we've proven we are honest people."
"So if we say we promise not to escape..." Cameron waited for their offer.
"You get free reign on the ship. We will train you to defend yourselves. You may carry weapons on you. We trust you as one of our own. If you are not ransomed by the time we reach Persia, you must stay with us, but so long as you do not leave our established boundaries, which will be lax, then the same applies."
"That's... a generous offer for two words."
"Why?" Olli asked. "I mean, why did you kidnap us in the first place? Who is your benefactor and what has he offered you? If you're such generous and honest people--which I'm mostly willing to accept from what I've seen--why turn to piracy?"
Cameron nodded. Understand a person's motivations and you could figure everything else out. The question was, would the pirates tell them?
They did, and when they were done, Olli and Cameron both said, "I promise." They meant it.