Kitsune Nights

Chapter 6: The Tengu Boy

He stood with rigid stillness. They were like beasts; if he moved they would attack. But if he froze he could become a simulacrum. At least, that’s what he prayed for each day.

Everything ached. There were bruises on parts of his body he hadn’t realised could even becoming discoloured. He could feel his pulse in his wings from all the times he’d been seized by them – all the times they’d plucked the valuable sun feathers from his tattered wings. One day he’d lose the ability of flight. Even the venture to this ship, anchored so near the coast, had seemed impossible.

And that’s why he wanted to freeze. If he could just vanish from their awareness, perhaps he could breathe. Not the quick shallow breaths of panic which frequently seized him, but a soothing deep inhalation.

Alas, it was not to be. For that capricious pirate captain had leapt from the quarterdeck and trod purposefully to the back ranks of the tengu army. And so he’d been seized by the firm pirate’s rugged hands and towed center stage.

There would be no reprieve. Not even the damn pirates could let him disappear. He didn’t even know why they were on these brigand’s vessel, let alone how the pirate had seen him huddled out of view.

Well, there was naught to do but brace himself for whatever anguish they wished to inflict on him. He brought his wings in close, not that it ever offered much protection. His eyes were downcast and his arms tightened across his chest.

The pirate captain released his shirt and addressed Corvidae in succinct terms. Whatever the captain had said, he failed to hear. It was better to detach oneself from the senses in such times. However, the collective gasp of the tengu ranks responded with returned him to reality. What had been said? He tried to recall what he’d just heard. It was something about a price.

“A jest, I presume,” Corvidae spoke.

Corvidae rarely spoke in front of non-tengus; he considered it beneath him. But whatever the pirate had said had been alarming enough for the tengu chieftain to vociferate his outrage.

“I am certain you will agree the price is weighed heavily in your favour,” the pirate standing next to the captain said. He had the arrogant posture of a former nobleman and his words were cadenced with a merchant’s precision.

Corvidae bellowed in laughter. “I cannot but assume you mean to humiliate the clan.”

“And I can assure you, this is a transaction and not a quip,” the pompous pirate replied.

“Speak your true price, I’ll not permit this mockery to persevere,” Corvidae snapped.

The pirate captain grabbed the chain from around his slender neck and slipped it to a concealed position beneath his shirt. “I want him or there is no trade,” the captain remarked dryly.

It was then that he realised they were talking about him. His gazed flicked to the crimson mask of the pirate captain, searching for meaning behind the inscrutable eyes. What would a pirate want with him? He didn’t have any particular value to the clan, let alone to this brazen pirate. His eyes flashed to the high elder.

“I presume there is no coincidence that you have set your eyes on this creature,” Corvidae scowled, deliberately avoiding looking towards the scrawny tengu boy the pirate captain so desired.

“I know of him,” the captain agreed. “And I have use of one with his pedigree.”

“What use can he be?” One of the tengu asked. The tengu in question also wanted to know the answer to that. He found himself, again, searching the eyes of the pirate captain.

The elder should have disciplined such a breech of etiquette, but he let the question stand.

The pirate captain snapped his finger and waited as a colossal woman arose from behind him. She was taller than even Corvidae, though she stood with a habitual stoop. The woman flipped through the pages in the book she had been reading during the tengu invasion and, without introduction, began to read an excerpt: “The electrum ring of High Elder Hugin was crafted as a commemoration of the high elder’s victory over the kitsune threat. Sealed within the ring are nine hairs, one plucked from each of the kitsune king’s tails after High Elder Hugin had slain him in combat.” As she read, the tengu boy watched the high elder’s brow moisten. He’d never seen Corvidae lose his composure. Not once. And this group of pirates had him trembling in anxiety. “The ring makes the wearer impervious to fire, even the strongest of kitsune magic cannot harm the wearer of the ring. It is with that protection that the high elders–“

At last, the tengu leader could take it no longer. “That record!” Corvidae exclaimed, “Where did you get that record?”

“Eh?” the tall woman looked at the cover of the tome and spun it around as though to inspect it. In a nonchalant tone, she continued saying, “It was requisitioned at the last port; where was that again?” She looked to the captain for an answer.

“I don’t care where, what is that record? That information should never have left the tengu archives!”

“Oh, it was written by the exiled tengu Munin. He records all sorts of tengu secrets. I suppose you haven’t heard of him though. The tengu council of his time had his name stricken from all–“

“Enough,” Corvidae commanded, bringing about silence across the pirate ship. He stomped towards the pirate captain, looking as though he could assault him at any turn. Just as quickly, he pivoted and approached the large woman. Mesmerized by their leader’s indecisive actions, the tengu could but watch as he paced around. Corvidae’s fist clenched at his sides until he finally decided a course. He turned away from the pirates and snapped a few abbreviated instructions to his attendants. When he was finished, he spread his great wings and launched into the air, not even offering the pirates a second glance.

And while the tengu were uneasy with the display of rage by their leader, the pirates seemed hardly perturbed. They waited with patient anticipation as Corvidae’s attendants debated their instructions.

Eventually, Corvidae’s spokesman stepped forward. He seemed nervous, likely because he was accustomed to speaking from behind his master and not representing him. Nevertheless, he managed to perform with the same terseness as when the negotiations had begun, “The illustrious Corvidae had tarried long enough with your extortionist ways. He will leave you the boy in exchange for the ring and that record.”

To everyone’s surprise, the captain removed the ring from the chain around his neck without qualm. Gathering the book from the tall woman, he handed over both artifacts without another word.

The tengu boy gaped. If that ring really was as valuable as Corvidae was making it out to be, the pirate should have sued for a better price. Why trade it and the book, both highly coveted, for him.

Now that the tengu had secured their prizes, the spokesman uttered a final threat, “This concludes our negotiations. If you are caught near tengu territory again, do not expect mercy.”

The winged force was signalled with a succinct hand gesture and then there was a great winnowing as the tengu company lifted off.

Had the tengu boy wanted to join them, which he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to, he would have been halted. A firm hand on his shoulder prevent any attempts at flight. From aboard the deck, he watched as his tormentors – his family – departed without a whim of concern for his welfare.

The pirates said nothing, merely observed the departure. All of them, that is, except for the captain. He watched over their newly won prize with a studious eye.

Their eyes met and the tengu boy dropped his gaze. It was better to disappear than to become the property of another tyrant. He would do his best to become invisible.

“Alrigh’ gents, we’re settin’ sail,” a voice bellowed. The tengu boy was shocked to see it originated from the sweet-talking, pompous pirate who’d been so prevalent in the negotiations.

He couldn’t help it, but his eyes flicked back to the brigand leader. The captain looked to his second in command and nodded some form of instruction. Then he departed below deck.

The tengu boy had never considered himself clever, but he realised that something had occurred during the transaction. Something that Corvidae was not wise enough to fathom. Not that the tengu boy was any better, but at least he had an inkling of it. The pirates were up to something and somehow he mattered. He couldn’t help but cringe at the thought though, he just wanted to disappear. What was going to happen to him now?

When the captain had departed, the pompous pirate turned to those who remained on the quarterdeck, “What’re ye standin’ ‘round for? I told ye there’d be revenge fer making me wake the Worm. Get ye to work or I’ll have ye doing double watches t’night.”

The remaining pirates scrambled to their duties, leaving the tall woman stretched out on the ground. “I’m going below deck too,” she announced. “Wake me at the next port.”

“Ye can lend a ha–“ the commanding pirate stopped himself. It was better to just let her go; she’d be too much trouble on deck.

When they were alone on the quarterdeck, the pirate turned his attention back to the tengu. “So, what’s yer name, son?” he asked.

The tengu’s eyes dropped to the deck and he said nothing.

“Ye deaf? I asked fer yer name? Or ye want me to call y’ Crowchild?”

“Don’t have one,” the tengu replied. That wasn’t strictly true, he’d been named “Bastard” a few times as well as a number of other unseemly terms.

“Well, ye’ll get one soon ‘nough if ye don’ pick one for yerself.”

The tengu boy looked up at the brash pirate.

“Ye won’t be the first either,” he let the ghost of a smile reach his lips. “They call me Quell. I got a hoity toity legal name somewhere, but ‘tis bigger ‘n me. So, one day some crew member thinks he’s being clever an’ calls me Quartermaster Quell. Says I be stopping their fun. An’ I tell ‘em, that’s m’ job. They’d be no piratin’ if I din’. Well, the cap’n heard that and soon he is callin’ me Quell too. So I been Quell e’er since. ‘Nyways, ye think of a name ‘r it’s gonna be Crowchild.” The pirate stopped speaking and watched the tengu. His brow rose when there was no reply. “When yer cap’n or quart’rmaster gives ye a command, ye say, ‘Yessir!’”

Not wanting to receive a beating, the tengu was quick to reply, “Yes, sir.” But with less enthusiasm than Quell had hoped for.

“Now, I’m gonna take ye to yer quarters and introduce ye to Rum. Tha’s his real name, by the bye. His momma tol’ him it’s cause that’s what she nursed ‘im with. Don’ tease ‘im ‘bout it though, he’ll slug ye real fine. One ‘r two boys ‘round here been bloodied fer talking ‘bout Rum’s momma.”

The tengu followed in silence as he was led below deck to the communal quarters of the crew. He wondered what would have happened if he had just flown off as soon as he’d been released. Did they have the ability to bring him down? Not that he’d try. He didn’t have the courage or the will to stand up for himself. It was better to disappear. Though, he doubted these pirates would let him.

The darkness below deck was somewhat soothing though. The rocking of the ship, however, was not. “There’s the galley, back there’s the cap’n’s quarters, mine ‘r ove’ there.” Quell pointed in the appropriate directions. Not that the tengu boy was really paying attention. “And these,” Quell gestured to the bunks lining the walls, “are yer quarters.”

The bunks were stepped three high. The top bunk had less than a meter of space between the top of the mattress and the ceiling.

“Yer here,” Quell gestured to a top bunk at the far back of the room. “Don’ step on them’s sleeping below ye if ye don’t wanna make enemies. Ye can store yer stuff here,” he pulled out open a drawer at the foot of the bottom bunk. Quell pulled something from his pocket and placed it in the tengu’s palm. “The cap’n’s got the other key and we check for contraband, so don’ be doin’ nothing foolish. Ye can’t bring drink or snuff aboard; cap’n don’t care so much what ye do on land. But on ship ye only drink what’s allotted.”

The tengu stared at the contraption in his hand as though he found it unfathomable.

Quell studied the reaction and came to a conclusion after the moment dragged on. “Worm, wake up,” he shouted into the dormitory.

“Awww Quell, I was just about to sleep,” the tall woman groaned as she sat up. She was across the room from the tengu’s bunk on the top row.

“Time fer ye to do some work here,”

“But I did as the cap’n instructed. I got through that whole tome before the tengu took it and I helped with the negotiations. I’ve done my part and–“

“And ye’ll be helping this ‘ere tengu get to know the ship,”

“I thought that was Rum’s job,”

“Rum’ll teach him to sail, but ye know the rules here. Ye were trained by Rum, now ye’ll train the new recruit.”

“Ah, alright.” She groaned and climbed down from the bunks, careful to step on the small ledge at the foot of the beds. There was no one sleeping below her, but, apparently, it was wise to get into the habit regardless.

“This is the Worm,” Quell introduced. “The cap’n gave her that name as well,”

“It’s because I read a lot,” the Worm was quick to add. “Nothing to do with the invertebrate. And what do I call you?”

The tengu shrugged.

“Says he ain’t got a name,” Quell explained.

“Alright, then it’ll be Branson, until you give me another name. So, let’s get you trained quickly so I can get back to my nap.”

Without thinking, the tengu’s hand reach out and snatched the Worm’s arm. “Branson?”

“Eh?”

“What is that?” He persisted. “Branson…”

“Well, your father was named Bran. So, that would make you Bran’s son, right?”

“You knew my father?”

The Worm shrugged, “I’ve read of him.”

Quell watched the tengu’s eyes widen at the news. He had been right to involve the Worm. “Well,” he concluded, “I’ll leave ye in the Worm’s care. An’ welcome to piracy, Branson.”

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