While living among the pirates, I could observe them and make for myself a pretty good idea of their qualities and flaws.
For example, they enjoyed drinking. A lot. Alcohol I mean, no water, it would make them rust, as Davy-Three-Ears was saying. But I could not use that to my advantage because most of them could stand it and keep drinking all night long without getting into this blurry phase where pink twin air krakens would be flying all around the ship.
Another point was their greediness. The more they stole, the more they wanted, and sharing was always a tense moment, when everyone was eying their neighbour to make sure they wouldn't get a bigger portion of the plunder than themselves. This, maybe, could be used against them.
Stemming from that, lots of them were very short-tempered and quick to draw a pistol or a sword as an argument against their opponent in a verbal fight. And usually, that was resulting in a death or two as they were all quite good shots. You would think it meant that the crew was slowly getting thinner, but some new recruits were regularly acquired during the raids, and even though they were not as skilled as their predecessors, they would soon be going through a sped-up training to keep the high standard.
I was also considered as a new recruit, eighteen months ago, but the Captain had big plans for me. I was the smallest on board and had proven my ability to sneak around unseen (well almost), and this made him think I would be more useful during special raids on highly protected buildings into which one could enter only through spyholes of some sort or tiny sewer plugs.
I did go on a few raids like that, and my role was to get in, disengage the security system and unlock the main door to let the others in, without getting caught. I would also do the look-out on other missions, hidden in a bush nearby.
I know what you think, that I could have escaped a thousand times while being left alone during those raids. But what you don't know is that the Captain was a clever brigand. He may have spared my life, but he was no fool and knew I would take the first occasion to run away. He had noticed Flynn perking from my pocket and understood how much I cared about him. He had taken him as a hostage on the grounds that he would be happier to stay in his cabin with his own falcon pet, assuring he would make sure they did not fight.
I was tied up, could not leave Flynn behind even if I had a chance to get off the ship.
That complicated the matter a bit, but I was not giving up hopes yet. I would need to craft my plan more carefully and maybe count on Chance to give me a little help.
That help came a few days later under the shape of a sea pirates' ship.
Sir Hawker (the Captain made us call him "Sir", even though he definitely did not deserve that title) enjoyed nothing more than coming upon sea pirates ships to cast fear and terror on the unsuspecting crew. He believed that the huge shadow drawn by his airship onto its sea-bound counterpart was a last sight every sailor would be happy to die with. He also claimed that it was their duty somehow, to assist natural evolution by destroying the less adapted pirates, for the air riders were the ultimate step in piracy.
Thus, after hearing reports of a pirates ship cruising beneath us, he got naturally overjoyed and started shouting orders to prepare for the fight. All the men jumped on their feet straight away and ran merrily towards their post, as they loved their Captain and were happy when he was.
Soon enough, the airship was diving down onto the floating vessel, canons loaded and ready to fire. For the occasion, the Captain had even offered me a beautifully carved dagger "to finish off the wounded" he said with a toothy grin. I noted, though, that he did not entrust me with a firing weapon. I guess that is how he became a Captain. By flattering his men, giving them an important role, but cautiously enough not to give them too much power. That is what I would do anyway! Others would say he became a Captain by killing all of those who disagreed with him. Well, that was probably the case too...
Anyway, thanks to Sir Hawker's glorious mood, I now owned a blade, and to top it all, I had learnt that we were actually flying above the Vernian Sea, New Babbage strong as ever waiting for me to cross the water between us. Thousands of ideas began to take shape in my mind as to how I could use this weapon to cut open a road to freedom, but I had the time to develop none of them for a loud "bang" resonated suddenly, followed by a dangerous swaying of the airship.
Everyone was sent rolling onto the deck, and I could hear the Captain cursing harshly. The ship down there had shot their cannons right at us, even before we could do it ourselves.
For the first time in his life, Sir Hawker was being challenged with fierce resistance from one of his preys.
Another "bang", and the airship was sent quickly sinking right onto its opponent without anything we could do to stop it. I could see pirates sliding down the deck and falling over board, screaming, or being rolled over by cannons that were not tied up correctly and were giving a hand to gravity by gathering at the bow of the ship.
I did slide too, but could find a pole to cling to and I managed to climb on it, tightening my grip in foresight of the shock that would shake the ship when we would reach the sea.
The shock did happen and was a violent one. The bow of the airship cut deep into the seaship, creating huge splinters all around, and drilling a hole in the other side, through which water came flooding in. Our ship then broke in the middle, its bow still pinned up to the other one, and its stern falling backwards on the sea pirates' ship's own stern in a mess of flying pieces of wood and metal.
I was on the stern part and could see Sir Hawker sliding down the bow part to land smoothly onto the deck of the other ship, a pistol in each hand, ready to meet the sea pirates who were approaching. Nobody was paying attention to me, they were all too busy fighting, and I took the chance.
I ran in direction of the Captain's cabin, which luckily was located on the stern, and slammed the door open. Scanning quickly the room, I spotted Flynn, curled up against the bars of a little cage secured by a chain hanging from the ceiling, Sir Hawker's falcon standing right outside the opposite edge of the cage and eying him with interest.
I hurried towards the chest of drawers they were installed on and waved my dagger in front of me to scare off the bird of prey. He stared at me, his golden eye challenging me, but backed off a little when I cut the air right before him. Flynn was now jumping up and down in his cage, chattering excitedly, while I tried to open the lock with the tip of my knife. It did not resist long to my recently achieved skills and I could soon cuddle my little squirrel under the disapproving glance of the Captain's falcon.
When I got out of the cabin, Flynn hiding in the little bag hanging from my belt, there were flames everywhere. I could hear screaming and gunshots on the deck below us, but all of it was smothered by the roaring noise of the progressing fire.
I darted back inside to pick up a piece of fabric that I held in front of my nose and mouth before running through the smoke, my left hand clutching my dagger. I jumped over the bodies and barrels, eyes blinking from fire-induced tears, trying to find my way in the middle of the chaos.
My idea was to find a raft of some sort and jump into the sea before getting killed by the fire or a pirate. I eventually managed to reach the bottom ship, slaloming around the obstacles, avoiding the fights, but my run was suddenly interrupted. Two of the masts had fallen either side of me, gigantic flames engulfing them, and in front of me, the deck was taken into a storm of whirling brands, making it impossible for me to go on. The spot was becoming very dangerous to stay in and I was wondering how to find a way around it.
- This way! A voice called from behind me.
I turned abruptly to notice a lean silhouette beckoning me over through the suffocating smoke. I did not really have time to think twice and I started into that direction, hoping I was not heading right into another trap.
The silhouette revealed to be a cabin boy, just a few years older than me, certainly coming from the sea pirates ship. We did not have the time to talk as everything was crumbling down around us, and I followed him through a maze of burning crates and ropes hanging across our way until we reached the ship's rail. He grabbed a barrel, miraculously spared by the flames, and threw it overboard before jumping after it. I climbed up the rail and looked down. The sea was not as far as I had thought, the ship having sunk quite a bit already, but I was dreading the maritime depths and it took the cry of warning the teen gave me to glance above my shoulder and dive before a scruffy pirate could catch me.
Upon entering into contact with the water, I closed my eyes, pinching my nose, and then paddled hard to come back to the surface and take a deep breath, spitting to get rid of the strong salty taste on my tongue. Still kicking to stay afloat, I reached swiftly for the little bag on my side and released a coughing Flynn to perch him on my shoulder.
- Here, the pirate boy said, holding onto one side of the barrel he had thrown into the sea.
I wrapped my arms around the opposite side of it, right in time for a big wave to take birth from the sinking ship and carry us with speed far away from the disaster, before leaving us bopping on top of calmer wavelets.
- Well, that one wasn't my fault... I muttered, clinging to the floating barrel while both ships were disappearing into the blaze, painting dusk into warm tones of scarlet and brass.
- What did you say? Asked the boy, tearing himself from the contemplation of the wreck to look at me.
- Oh, nothing important, I replied. What's important is, what are we gonna do now? I underscored, looking at the water surrounding us.
- There is a small island we just passed by with the ship, he informed me, his eyes scanning the sealine behind me. It must not be very far from where we are. Let's just swim into that direction and hopefully we'll find it.
- Which direction? I asked, raising my eyebrows.
- Oh, there it is! He exclaimed. I can see it. Look!
I turned my head and squinted but it was hard to distinguish anything in the growing darkness.
- I'll take your word on it, I declared, glancing back at him.
After a few dozen of minutes that seemed to last hours, paddling with our legs, the barrel held in front of us like a buoy, we finally reached the shore of the small island.
The beach was of sand, and we both stayed laying there for a while, exhausted, the waves coming to die at our feet.
Suddenly, a loud explosion noise made us jerk up from our rest to see the blazing sky and sea speckled with flying pieces of ships. The fire had certainly reached the cannon powder storeroom. It was even surprising that it did not happen earlier. Startled, Flynn had jumped on my shoulder and was now hiding in my hair, curled up against my neck. His fur was wet and it made me realize that I was frozen stiff.
- I'll look for wood, the teen said, getting up on his feet. We can light a fire then.
I nodded, bracing myself while the cold air on my humid skin was sending shivers down my spine.
It did not take long until the young cabin's boy came back from the edge of the forest lining the beach with a few logs rested on his forearms. Just long enough for me to wander around and collect some dry-looking high herbs covering a dune nearby.
He crouched on the sand and installed the logs in a pile, spreading my herbs beneath it, before taking a look around. I reached for the little bag hung on the side of my belt and brought a small metal box out.
- You're looking for that? I suggested, handing him over the box.
He glanced at me, perplexed.
- You've got matches in there?
- Yep! I affirmed. That's a special box, they shouldn't be damp inside.
The boy's face lightened up and he took the box.
- That's pretty handy!
I smiled, watching him open the box and picking up a match from inside :
- Yes, it's proven quite useful of late.
He lit up the match and approached it carefully to the dry herbs he had placed beneath the logs, protecting the flame against the wind with his other cup-shaped hand. The fire grew quickly and soon the logs were burning, producing a much appreciated wave of heat in the surrounding area. I sat close to it, Flynn perched on my shoulder, and glanced at my companion.
I could see him better now, in the light of the fire. He was a tall and rather skinny teen, about fifteen years old, and was wearing a big tricorn hat on top of his messy brown hair. His eyes were of a deep green, and freckles were sprinkled about his straight nose and pale cheeks.
- So, what's your name anyway? He enquired, looking at me.
- I'm Myrtil, and that one is Flynn, I introduced my squirrel and I.
The boy grinned :
- He's called Flynn? Well I'm called Fly. Well met critter!
Flynn answered with a serie of clicking sounds while enthusiastically waving his bushy tail.
- He likes you, I observed, slightly surprised.
- Of course, he does, Fly bragged. I'm very likeable.
He glanced at me :
- I remember having a sibling somewhere, who would be 'bout your age I gather. But she was a girl.
- So am I, I replied calmly.
I was used to being mistaken with a boy and did not always bother correcting my interlocutor's assertion, but this time, for some reason, I felt like it.
- Are you?
The lad looked puzzled.
- You should comb that hair of yours and wear a dress if you don't want people to think you're a boy.
- I don't really care what people think, I shrugged.
- Alright, Fly grinned. Though you'd get more luck at begging if people think you are a girl. Blond curls are also an advantage, and blue eyes of course, but you've got none of those.
He leaned backwards and squinted, as if he wanted to take a wider glance at me.
- Yeh, he concluded with a serious face. You look like some kind of small wild animal. I wonder how you managed to survive on the streets all those years.
- Well I did, I replied between gritted teeth, anger slowly rising from within. I've got lots of friends and we all look out for each other. You don't have many friends, do you?
Fly chuckled :
- Calm down, fierce girl, I was just kidding. I do have a friend, but only the one.
I looked up at him, ashamed to have let myself getting upset by what he was saying.
- You've got two now, I stated with a smile.
The boy smiled back to me.
- I've got a friend who is just like that, I admitted after thinking a bit about what he had said. Long blond hair and blue eyes. All the ladies of New Babbage swoon when he passes by.
Fly laughed again.
- It can be a blessing or a curse. You know, you're right not to let people know you're a girl. Most of the time it's far from being a good thing in this world.
I glanced at him, unsure of what he meant. His mood had seemed to darken and his gaze was lost in thoughts.
- That friend of mine I told you about, he started in a soft tone, she is a proper girl. A grown woman even now. She does have the blue eyes and curly hair, but I'd rather have her ugly and happy than pretty and...
He paused and clenched his fists.
- I hate what she's become. Even though she didn't really have the choice.
- You always have the choice, I replied instinctively. A good friend of mine told me that once...
- I wish you were right, Fly muttered, turning towards me, but you don't know what you're talking about.
I tilted my head, observing him in silence while he was brooding, eyes fixed upon the fire, light and shadow fighting gracefully about his face.
- Will you tell me, then? I eventually asked, my patience having reached its limits.
Fly broke from his contemplation of the dancing flames and looked up at me hesitantly.
- Why not... he shrugged. You might as well know. But I'll have to start the story a while back for you to understand it fully.
I looked up at the starry night sky and then beyond the fire, towards the dark sea, across which New Babbage was still standing after escaping once more one of those horrible fates that seemed to rain on her every so often.
- I am in no hurry, I assured. I've been away for more than a year, a few more hours won't make any difference. We'll have time in the morning to figure out a way to sail back to the City.
The boy nodded thoughtfully.
- Very well then, he sighed. Here's my story.