Kitsune Nights

Chapter 7: Questions

“That book you gave Corvidae, is that how you learned about my father?” Branson pressed.

“Naw,” the Worm brushed his comment away with a hand gesture. “Munin lived a millennium ago.”

“So, how do you know about my father?”

“Like I said, I read about him,” the Worm smiled. She chuckled to herself, enjoying some private joke. After the moment passed, her eyes softened. “You don’t remember him, do you? He died when you were a toddler.”

Branson felt his eyes drop to his feet again. Even worse, he began to roll his foot anxiously. He hated when his body betrayed his emotions. And even though he had planned on being invisible, he couldn’t help but want to know how this woman knew his father. No one had ever mentioned anything about his parents; what he’d learned he’d overheard, listening at doors when he ought to have been working.

“Well, anyways, I’m sorry about your mom and dad,” the Worm offered.

“But why do you know about them?”

“About that,” the Worm replied, “I don’t think I’m at liberty to say. Illyria will tell you, when she’s ready to.”

Sensing the futility of pursuing the topic, Branson committed the name “Illyria” to memory; he’d find her and beg her to tell him more. “Who is Illyria?”

“Oh,” the Worm scratched her head, clearly trying to formulate a lie. “You’ll meet her soon enough. When she deems you ready. If you want to meet her, you have to impress her. So, how about we give you a ship orientation and then Rum’ll train you in your duties. Did Quell tell you not to ask about his name? He’ll sock you if you do.”

She didn’t wait for him to respond, just started the tour. She took him to the various holds on the ship and when that was completed, she brought him above deck. Rum came to collect Branson as the Worm was explaining the different masts. He listened to the lecture for a moment before snorting in laughter. “Don’ listen to her. She might sound like she know what she sayin’, but she can’ even tie a knot proper.”

If the Worm was perturbed by the insult, she failed to display it. “This here’s Rum,” she introduced the sailor, “He’s like your big brother from now on. If you need something, he’ll take care of you. But, make sure you don’t learn his attitude or you’ll be stuck at the bottom training recruits forever. Just like ole Rummy here.”

“Shut it, Worm,” Rum snapped, but though his words were harsh his tone held no sting to it.

“Aw, don’t worry about him,” the Worm chuckled. “He’ll look after you. In any case, it’s as he said. My talents lay elsewhere and the captain wants you trained as quick as possible. So, Rum’s your man from here on out.”

“I bet ye’re just gonna slink off deck to sleep agin, ain’tcha? Just like a worm, gotta burrow yerself down below,” Rum teased.

“Oy! It’s not my fault. Captain had me memorize that book overnight. I’d like to see you read a whole book in one night, mister. My eyes are burning; I need rest.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he nodded. He leaned in nearer to her and whispered, “I got the middle watch tonight; so find me if ye’re in need of some comp’ny.”

She departed shaking her head, but paused to flash a coy smile at her verbal-sparring partner.

Branson felt his cheeks rouge, feeling, somehow, that he shouldn’t have seen the exchange.

“Alright,” Rum declared, “Time fer ye to be useful.”

The tengu flinched as Rum’s gruff hand seize him. He felt his stomach tense, this is what he’d been afraid of. He’d slipped from one cruel master to another. They’d work him until he died, of that he was certain. As if they were not cruel enough, the pirates were teasing him with knowledge of his parents. Even the tengu had not been sadistic enough to offer him a measure of hope.

Rum released Branson when they reached the bow spirit. He gestured to the entirety of the ship, “Ye see all that?” He asked. “Tha’s yers – to clean, that is. Ev’ry day ye’ll scrub the deck ‘til it shines. When ye wake, ye’ll go to the galley and peel or pluck or whatever Cook needs. Then ye’ll come aloft an’ start yer washin’ on the quarterdeck. Always do the quarterdeck first; Cap’n always gets first. At one bell ‘til noon, get back t’ peelin’ and pluckin’. When Cook says yer done, ye’ll come up an’ scrub th’ main deck and then this ‘ere forecastle. Ye should finish in time to ‘elp Cook fer supper. An’ then ye’re free t’ do as ye please ‘till yer watch. Ye’ll eat wit’ yer watch and sleep wit’ yer watch. An’ until ye learn it, I’ll come find ye. T’night we’re middle watch. So, make sure ye get ‘nough rest. Ye go’ any questions?”

“Why?”

“Eh? ‘Cause ye gotta work to eat on a pirate ship, boy.”

“No, I mean, why am I here?”

Rum chuckled a bellowing laugh. He slugged the slender tengu boy jovially and it sent Branson stumbling a few steps. Old habits surfaced, and Branson tightened his wings to his body in protection. “Look boy,” Rum said, “if there’s one thin’ ye’ll learn aboard this ‘ere ship it’s that Cap’n knows. Cap’n always got a plan and Cap’n’s always right. But, I ‘spect no one knows wha’ the Cap’n’s got planned. So ye be withou’ doubt that Cap’n’s got a reason an…” He stopped himself, noticing the mistrust in Branson’s expression. “Whasamatter boy?”

“Yesterday, I was nobody. Not a soul would have noticed if I’d disappeared. Suddenly, your captain shows up with some ancient treasure and buys me. And you’re telling me, the captain did that just to make me scrub the deck?”

Rum guffawed again and could only offer a shrug in response.

Frustrated with the pirate’s lack of response, Branson snapped, “Who’s Illyria?”

“Eh? Where’d ye hear that name?” The brawny pirate’s eyes widened.

“The tall woman,”

Rum shook his head, “She’s gonna get ‘erself in trouble, she is. Ye’ll learn who Illyria is if she choses to tell ye and no’ a minute sooner, I c’n guarantee tha’. But ‘nough of this ‘ere chit-chat. If Quell sees us gabbin’, he’ll tan us. I’ll show ye how to scrub an’ then ye get to work ‘til I fetch ye to help Cook.”

* * * * *

Rum watched his new apprentice with a studious eye. The day must have been long for the newcomer, but he’d done his work without complaint. Rum had been occupied during their watch’s lunch, but he could observe the tengu boy during supper. The boy reminded him of a mouse, shoveling food in his mouth as rapidly as possible, ready to scurry away at the first sign of intimidation.

Of course, Rum mused, he’d been the same way when he’d first come aboard the Errant.

Regardless, the boy had adapted to his tasks hastily; apparently, he’d been no stranger to labour. And while Quell had instructed Rum to warn Branson that the twins would shoot him down if he tried to escape, Rum knew this boy wouldn’t try. There was no point in threatening him more. He had enough fear in him.

The crew had made no attempts to converse with the recruit, which suited Branson just fine. For he had huddled himself into a corner as he devoured his supper.

Jeering across the room brought Rum out of his reverie; the Worm had just entered the mess. The boys were always quick to tease their newest female crewmember. She had to hunch to get through the door, but once inside she straightened so as to tower over the teasing pirates. “You boys sure are talking big tonight, you trying to impress the new chap?” she quipped.

Rum raised a single eyebrow at her brazen behaviour. She could read the incredulity in his expression from across the galley.

She gestured with her hand for him to wait a moment as she left the main host of gormandizers and scooped herself a large portion from Cook’s preparations. She seated herself across from Rum with her bountiful plate.

“Ye know, we have a sayin’ aboard this ‘ere ship. Ye gotta work to eat.”

She kicked him from under the table. “Not you too,” she growled. “I told you, I did my part already.”

“You did a part,” he agreed.

She sighed, “So, what’s Quell got for me now?”

He placed a small container on the table. It slid over to the Worm as the ship rocked. She slapped a hand over it before the ship undulated in the opposite direction. “Is this for the kid?” she inquired.

“Better from a woman, I think.” Rum smiled. “At least, that’d be my preference.”

“Oh, I’m a woman now? Not an invertebrate.”

“Don’ you be usin’ them big words thinkin’ ye’re outsmartin’ me.”

Her smile betrayed her sense of conquest.

Rum wasn’t going to let the matter rest at that. “Invertebrates c’n be females too, ye know.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she rolled her eyes. “I think that’s the first four-syllable word I’ve heard you say. And you managed to enunciate it without that terrible slur of yours.”

“I don’ need fancy words, simple ones‘re fine ‘nough.”

The Worm shook her head, conceding to his incorrigibility. “So, how’s the kid doing?”

“Works hard.”

“That’s good, at least.”

Rum gathered his plate, cup, and cutlery in his hands and then rose. “I’ll be leavin’ it to ye. Cap’n wants a report; I best not make ‘er wait.”

“Middle watch, right?”

He smiled and dropped a hand to her shoulder, giving it a brief squeeze. Then he dropped his tableware in the wash tub before departing.

The Worm moved to sit where Rum had been perched, from that vantage she could better watch the tengu kid. She palmed the small vial that had been entrusted to her. It was the last they had, of that she was certain.

She couldn’t help but question the captain for bargaining so much for one scrawny tengu boy. But, then again, when Illyria had found her she must have looked worse. Ten years living off scraps and sleeping in a nook of the governor’s library – she must have looked sullener than a cat caught in downpour.

She looked at her plate and the mountain of potatoes suddenly seemed too large a portion. She picked at it slowly, feeling her belly fill. She shouldn’t have been so greedy, but she’d finish what she’d taken.

When the last bite had disappeared, she took her dinnerware to the wash station. She scrubbed her dishes and a few others in the bin. It was not that she didn’t want to help the others, but she had another role aboard the ship. Learning to sail had never been prescribed to her.

The tengu boy’s eyes were wandering around the galley, probably looking for Rum. She waved to get his attention and then gestured for him to come. He did so, but he seemed incapable of making a step without glancing to the rowdy sailors.

“When you’re finished, you can wash the dishes here,” she told him. “We all pitch in when we can. That way, if the captain or Quell needs something of you, you can drop your dishes and hurry to meet them.”

The tengu nodded and reached into the murky water without hesitation They scrubbed in silence for a while. Eventually, the other pirates began to leave the table and so they took the place of the Worm and Branson.

“Come with me for a bit,” the Worm told him. He followed her as they returned to the sleeping quarters. It wouldn’t be long until middle and morning watch retired for their rest, but she should have enough time.

“Come here,” she gestured for Branson to sit on the lowest bunk in the set where she’d been sleeping. “It’s Bill’s bunk, but he’ll be playing cards for awhile.” Branson grew tense as she moved closer to him. She pulled out the vial Rum had given her and touched a finger to the ointment within. She pressed the ointment to one of the bald patches on his wings.

He jolted up at the cool touch on his sensitive wings.

“It’ll help heal them,” the Worm explained. “Now sit back down.”

He glared at her, but as the cool sensation slowly warmed, he sat back down.

“Spread them out,” the Worm instructed and he obeyed. She targeted the vital areas first. There were certain feathers which were necessary for flight and the bastards who’d tormented him had come awfully close to removing them. There likely wasn’t even enough ointment for half the damage. But she’d do her best.

Branson didn’t know what to do as she ministered to him. He couldn’t recall a time when someone else had tended to his wings. His head felt fuzzy as she smoothed the ointment on the sore spots. He kept himself from jumping at each touch, never knowing where the ministration would be next.

“Why?” he couldn’t help but ask. “Why are you doing this?”

“Something has to be done,” she replied coolly. “Your wings look like they’re only a few feathers away from becoming permanently flightless.”

“Why do you care?”

The Worm smiled despite herself. But she offered no reply. When she finished, she resealed the container and passed it to Branson. “There’s still a bit left. Save it, just in case. I know I didn’t get everywhere, but some places matter more than others. And that’s the last of it, so don’t squander it.”

Branson looked at the vial in his hand. “What is it?”

“A tengu remedy,” she smiled. “Something that Cap’n’s hoping you’ll learn to make some day.”

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