Kitsune Nights

Chapter 5: The Pirate Queen

Illyria stalked the length of the quarterdeck, with the exactitude of a soldier on sentry duty. Eventually, the shape of her boot soles would become embedded into the deck, of that she was certain.

It was not that she was prone to pacing, but rather, she found it impossible to stay still when she was anxious. And as the captain of a well-known pirate gang, she had a plethora of reasons to fret.

The neophytes had it easy; more effort was expended in trying to gain some fame than in extortion. Not to mention that the sheer anonymity meant you could berth anywhere simply by changing colours. But when you gained a stitch of celebrity, people began to take note. Whispers followed your passage, though eyes were always quick to turn away. Aside from your crew, no others could be trusted. You never knew when the price on your head would be high enough to yield temptation.

Alas, the notoriety of the “pirate queen” had proved too difficult an obstacle to overcome. There were simply not enough successful female marauders for Illyria to remain ambiguous. Her crew had found themselves pursued by every self-appointed thesmothete and libidinous bounty hunter sailing the four seas.

But even a decade after they’d extirpated their beloved ship and inculcated the rumour about the freebooter empress’s demise, Illyria found the pursuit relentless.

Not that she could ever wholly disappear. The trousers and buccaneer shirt could disguise her figure and the crimson mask, her face, but she could not conceal her nature. At least, not from one who knew what to look for. And, unfortunately for Illyria and her crew, once caught, she could no more conceal herself than change her gender.

That’s why she needed these sorts of jobs. The kind of work that made “friends” in high places. High places, of course, referring to residents of the Aquiline Peaks. In other words, the tengu.

She’d already been anchored off the shore of their territory for longer than she wished to remain moored.  

“Whatcha think, them fowl just sitting in the rocks watchin’ ya circle, eh cap’n?” one of the crew members asked.

“Naw, they ain’t coming,” another piped in.

“They’ll be here,” Illyria insisted. “I’m doing this one for free. Of course they’ll be here.”

“Cap’n, there ain’t anything for free.”

“For what I’m asking, it may as well be consider fr–”

Before she finished her reply, a sleek figure slipped down the mizzen to land softly on the deck. Eyes turned to the chiaroscuro figure.  “They’re fifteen minutes out,” the newcomer announced in a hushed tone.

Illyria didn’t bother to confirm the estimate. “Then below deck with you,” Illyria flicked her wrist in dismissal. “It’s bad enough rumours of the ‘pirate queen’ refuse to disperse; we don’t need anyone knowing there are seven.”

The girl bowed and then glided out of sight like a breeze on the sea.

It was time to put the plan into motion. Illyria glanced around her crew, searching for a particular visage. Of the dozen faces gathered to welcome their employers, one was notably missing. She should have realised this particular crew member would not have been present. With a grimace, she addressed her crew saying, “Somebody wake the Worm.” Her request was met with stifled groans and no one moved. It could have been easy enough to offer a threat to her instruction, but this duty was better rewarded than offered as a punishment, “Whoever does will get a double portion of mead tonight…”

There was some fumbling of feet as crewmembers weighed the decision, but in the end, it was her loyal second in command – the quartermaster – who departed. “Ye’ll be feeling this,” he swore to the rest of the crew. “I’ll not forget it.”

The Worm would be necessary for the successful execution of the upcoming negation, of this Illyria was certain. As she was something of a novelty herself, Illyria had discovered a talent in identify pirates in individuals who would never be considered acceptable by other captains. The Worm was one such example of Illyria’s foresight and had proven herself pivotal in the majority of negotiations. Alas, the Worm had also proven something of a nuisance when it came to life at sea and the crew avoided her whenever possible.

The Worm stretched her arms in a full-bodied yawn as she reached the deck. She was a tall woman, at least three centimeters taller than the largest man on Illyria’s crew, but she walked slightly hunched and with mincing steps as though she were unaware of her intimidating presence. She rubbed her eyes and blinked repeatedly at the noonday sun. “When did it get so bright?” she queried as she clamored forth. When she reached the quarterdeck, she seated herself in the shade of Illyria’s silhouette and offered a mumbled greeting saying, “Mornin’, Capt’n.”

Illyria contemplated a firm chastening of the Worm’s lackadaisical temperament, but elected to wait for a more opportune time. Perhaps when she wasn’t anticipating such intimidating company.

Her quartermaster, however, never missed an opportunity to ensure proper respect was paid. “Oy! On yer feet,” he commanded, “they’ll arrive at any moment.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the Worm nodded through bleary eyes though she didn’t move, except to withdraw a book from her pocket. Illyria stalked away, moving her arms to an akimbo position and the Worm blinked as she was suddenly exposed to direct sunlight. She was likely the only pirate who could maintain a wan pallor.

All thoughts of the unconventional pirate were lost, however, as the tengufinally descended. Not bothering to maintain etiquette in their entrance, the black-winged people fanned out along the ship’s circumference. Armed guards dropped down to positions across the deck and on the masts so that the ship seemed plagued with an insect pestilence. When the buzzing of the soldier ranks ceased, the great Beelzebub plummeted to the quarterdeck like a cannonball.

Illyria seemed a pair of stick legs and arms next to the hulking tengu chieftain, but she held her chin up proudly. As he walked, the dozens of gold chains he wore on his neck and wrists jangled. The sheer mass of glitz was hardly aesthetic to anyone but a tengu. He planted himself before Illyria and peered into the slots of her mask.

This was the first time she’d laid eyes on the tengu chieftain and she hoped he lacked the discernment occasionally bestowed upon the crow-goblin high elders. If he did have that gifting, this whole venture would useless. Concealment was her only hope of success.

The chieftan continued to peer into her eyes, but said nothing. Not willing to be the first to break the silence, Illyria stared back.

When a voice finally broke the silence, it came, not from the chieftain himself, but from behind him. “The wise chief Corvidae has heard that you bear a rare treasure,” the voice stated.

“Cease this coyness,” Quell, Illyria’s quartermaster, said as he came to stand beside her. The rough timbre of his speech disappeared as he assumed the dulcet patois of the merchant class. Quell’s father had founded one of the largest trade organizations in the known world, as such he’d been educated in the speech of the upper echelons. But, when Quell had found his inheritance as the 47th son of a too-wealthy man displeasing, he had taken to piracy. Recognizing the talents of such a man, Illyria had delighted at utilizing his education against the so-called “honest” work of merchants. And Quell had found the notion of a female captain too alluring to resist. It hadn’t been long before he’d been promoted to quartermaster and had become her voice to clients. “It was we who approached you,” Quell continued. “Do not act as though you were unaware of the offer we presented. We do, indeed, have the legendary electrum ring of the high elder.”

The tengu chieftain showed no emotion as he spokesperson responded saying, “The merciful chief Corvidae wishes to see evidence of your claim.”

Illyria tugged at the chain around her neck, pulling the strung ring into sight. She held it before the chieftain, but did not move closer to him. Not that there would have been much room to maneuver, he had drawn intimately close upon arrival. She wondered if he thought his presence was more intimidating with a nearer proximity.

Though the chieftain betrayed no emotion, the wings of his subordinates fluttered nervously. Illyria saw it all. Whatever came next she knew she had gauged the worth of the ring correctly. These flying bastards would be willing to trade as long as she kept the price low enough – low enough to make an assault seem too much effort.

The chieftan turned to face his spokesperson. If they were communicating, it was voiceless. A moment passed and the spokesperson addressed the pirates once more: “The honourable chief Corvidae desires to know the price of this treasure.”

Illyria spun on her heel and stalked to the edge of the quarterdeck. She vaulted over the ledge to the main deck, tengu parting as she passed through their ranks. She found her quarry near the back.

His eyes flashed in terror as her hand approached. She had intended to grab his shirt back, but his haggard wings twitched and pity redirected her aim. She tugged at his collar pulling him towards the quarterdeck. The tengu let them pass, unsure of her motive.

By the appraisal she had received, the ring she had “acquired” was worth a hundred or more ingots of gold. It was an heirloom of an ancient tengu high elder renowned for his defeat of kitsune oppressors. A hundred generations of tengu had worn the ring until it had been stolen; stolen by a foolish young pirate band too green to know the value of their chouse.

Of course, even when she’d been a novice, Illyria had understood that certain artefacts were too recognizable to be pawned. She was glad of her discretion when the tengu became militant in their pursuit of the illusive thieves who had cheated their leader. But even though tengu memories were long, they were not long enough. Seven centuries had passed and the pirate queen had gambled it was finally the time for the ring to resurface.

Illyria released the dishevelled, cowering tengu she had plucked from the back ranks as she returned to her position in the center of the quarterdeck. “My price,” she said in a deepened voice, “is him.”

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© Mara Jule