Tin Man: Pirates of the Nonestic

Chapter Twenty-five

It took a while to fall asleep after DG's confession. Cain couldn't decide who he was angrier with: the Prince or her family. How did she turn out so brave and selfless; influence of her nurture units perhaps? And forget the royal rigmarole, why did they make it impossible for DG to trust them? Ahamo had noticed DG was hurting, but what had he done about it but scare her silly? Raw was right to hold the whole damn palace in contempt.

Morning came too soon.

She woke up with him before dawn. He stifled his yawn. "You can sleep in."

"I don't need to." Even her slide out of the bed was perky. She paused in sorting their clothes. Spencer had finished their trunk while they had gone ashore to Kingsport. A circled star and a triangle formed by parallel lines were carved into the lid. "Are you okay?"

"Just tired. It's been quite the week."

His wan smile didn't shake her serious expression. "You stayed up all night because of what I told you."

"Would you rather I didn't give a damn?" He reached for his pants. "I want you to trust me because I care."

She pulled her bodice laces tight. "Are you going to trust me too?"

"I do, but you still need to learn how to negotiate." Cain pulled his pale blue shirt off his head after she threw it.

Dani squawked before standing up on her nest. "That was productive." She peered at the eggs before resettling.

"We can have eggs for breakfast?" DG headed for the chicken with a mischievous expression.

"Back off, human!" Dani's feathers ruffled. "Now is not the time to give into egg-sucking desires."

"I thought eggs were allowed. Are they fertilized?"

"What kind of questions is that?"

DG glanced at Cain with an expression he remembered as preceding it's different on the Other Side and he stepped in before the chicken took revenge on their sheets. "We wouldn't eat your chicks, Dani."

"Right civilized of you." Dani's tone didn't sound mollified. "What about your bullets? Do you eat them right before battle?"

"We don't eat bullets," DG said.

"By Billina's moltings, don't you humans know what you're heading into? I'm not trusting my feathers to just two no matter what the stories say." Her orange eye blinked at DG. "And if you don't have anything more to do than regret your past and mate, I'd suggest practice your magic."

"Hey! You don't know anything about me!"

Dani's feathers smoothed. "Thank my tail feathers. All I have to do is make sure your empty head stays breathing."

DG dropped to be face to face with chicken. "This empty head has the recipe for fried chicken in it, so lay off the insults."

Cain felt sick. "Sweetheart…."

"What? I dropped pieces any time the Hilltop's kitchen was short staffed. I'd rather have chicken pot pie or chicken 'n dumplings but I don't know those recipes."

"You ate chickens on the Other Side?" Cain's stomach rolled.

"They don't talk in Kansas." She climbed back to her feet.

"Your nurture units fed you chicken?"

DG winced. "Wyatt, you're turning green."

A knock hit the door, and she answered it. "Hi, Mr. Jenkins."

"Oh good, you're up." The older man peered over DG's shoulder and frowned at Cain perched on the bed. "Is he seasick?"

Cain waved away the concern. "What do you need?"

"The Captain's ready to try the astrolabe, so we need Mrs. Cain on deck."

DG nodded and grabbed Cain's hand as they followed Jenkins. "I haven't had any for a year, annual. And I wouldn't eat a smart Animal like Dani. I… I just wanted to threaten her with something!"

"It's okay, but don't talk about it ever again." The suns hadn't risen yet to warm the winds, and he missed his coat. More of the crew was up with this morning's stars than Cain had remembered seeing on any other morning. Betsy and Sprite waited at the quarterdeck's railing. Bonnet steered again.

Betsy greeted them with a wry smile. "I hope this thing delivers the fireworks they're expecting." Her head jerked toward the crew. "Otherwise, we'll never get them out of bed again." DG shrugged. Betsy turned the black-haired young woman to face the bow. "Here goes everything." She dropped the astrolabe into DG's hands.

A silver bubble expanded out of the metal disc to surround DG and Betsy and almost reached the steering wheel. The voice that sounded like it had rocks for teeth boomed.

"Beware the deceptive Nome King,
underneath the detached mountain,
ensnarer of all living things
blundering into his domain.
Those he beholds with hard affection,
join for all time his collection.

Beware the restless Nome King,
underneath the detached mountain.
Forswear the fort sailing
persistently throughout the world's fountain.
He hides driven by rage and fear.
Dawn ceases his trek, now steer!"

DG glanced at the Captain. "You could've warned me about creepy rhyme time."

"I didn't know about creepy rhyme time." Betsy pointed to brighter spots in the translucent silver bubble. "I think that's the Dawn Treader. Bonnet, east to port, a quarter turn."

"Aye, Captain." The olive-skinned man turned the wheel and the ship responded. When the constellations above the horizon matched the silver dots, the bubble shrank into the astrolabe with a flash.

Betsy took the astrolabe from DG. The first sun peeked over the horizon behind them. "Stay on this heading until tomorrow morning, Mr. Bonnet."

"At this speed, we'll reach the Teeth by tomorrow." Hodges glared as he hung from the rigging.

"Aye, but we know the routes." Betsy's brown eyes surveyed the crew below her. "Why not state plainly what you fear, Mr. Hodges?"

He bristled at the implied insult. "No one said anything 'bout this voyage dealing with creatures of legend." He let go of the rigging and stood as some of the other sailors muttered. "We should've been told."

"Did we put it to a vote when we attacked Evna?"

"Well, no…."

"Did we put it to a vote when we sacked Congee?"

"No, but…."

"Did we put it to a vote when we plundered Elbow Island, Shell City, or Mulgravia?" Betsy planted her hands on her hips. "No. Have I ever steered us into a fight we couldn't win? Have you ever not profited from a target I picked? Don't let tales from your mothers' lips cloud your judgment. There was once a Nome King to fear, but nothing lives forever, men. Nothing."

Cain remembered how old the Ancients' writings in the cave were, and figured Betsy was being awfully naïve about the nature of all things under the two suns. But it was what the crew needed to hear, so he stayed silent.

The grumblings of the crew didn't stop after the Captain's declaration. Benavides hunkered over his breakfast remains in the galley. "I ain't saying the Captain don't know her business, but what kind of treasure could the Sleeping King have?"

Spencer stood with his bowl in hand. "I was always told that gnomes knew where all jewels in the ground were."

"Aye, I suppose if we're guided by nursery tales, we should ask the ones closest to the nursery." Hodges leered as Spencer's skin darkened. The boy brought his dishes to DG before disappearing down the stairs. The scarred man sneered. "Was it something I said?" The other crew members around the table roared.

"Nursery tales or not," Dampier added as he stood, "I trust the Captain, but I'd feel better knowing exactly what we are after." Most of the crew agreed with that sentiment as they left.

DG gathered the scraps onto a plate with some bread. "I'll go feed Dani."

Cain nodded as he cleaned. The crew would not be happy to learn Betsy was after something as simple as her husband and child. That wasn't something you could spend in the next tavern. Betsy knew the men under her command, and would have a contingency plan. He hoped it wasn't to turn the pirates loose on the gnomes. At some point, he had to corner Betsy on what she expected at Rock Fort so he could plan how best to protect DG.

Dishes dried and put away, Cain headed down into the cold storage to gather the next meal's ingredients. The force of the explosion above threw him off his feet and into the strapped-down crates.

He picked himself up with a groan. Sunlight poured in through the trapdoor hatch. He blinked at it for a few seconds before he realized what was wrong and charged up the ladder. A mostly round hole opened the galley to the blue sky and water. His eyes widened at the splintered edges as the ship vibrated with returning fire.

He turned and saw that the cannonball had mangled the stair's wooden supports. He cursed, plunging into the crew quarters on this deck. DG had gone below and hadn't returned. He met Sprite at the main stairs, and she struggled with four sets of metal balls, pairs connected by a thick chain. Her outstretched arms blocked his descent. He clenched his jaw.

"Mate fine, has magic up. Help me!"

Cain plucked two of the sets off her arms, and amazed at the weight she had carried. "What's happening?"

"Relentless hid with magic. No warning. Trying to board." Sprite huffed as she led the way to the main deck. "Get chain shot to gunners." She dashed to the men working the cannons on the starboard side.

Cain moved to the next pair of cannons. The Relentless loomed over them and men dressed in blue shirts and white pants dropped onto the You and What Navy?'s deck from the higher rigging. One landed in front of Cain with a war cry. He caught the metal balls Cain swung and he fell to the floorboards before drawing a weapon.

"A new use for chain shot!" Drake laughed. "You are a man of hidden depths, Cain."

Betsy turned her blood-splattered face to them. "Bring those masts down, Drake!"

"Aye, aye, Captain."

"Keep the boarders off the gunners." She pressed a revolver into Cain's hands. A shout of "Slate!" went up near the bow of the You and What Navy?. Betsy ran after it with a look of murderous glee.

Another uniformed man rushed toward them with a raised sword. Cain's shot killed him. Drake and two others worked the cannon to shift its blasting angle. The rest of the cannons were positioned the same way. "Fire broadside!" Drake bellowed.

The cannons recoiled as the metal balls and chains exploded out of each with a flash and smoke. Each chain wrapped around a mast on the Relentless, chewing through the wood like the teeth of a saw. The pirates cheered as the sails and their supports collapsed.

"Cut the lines!" Jenkins bellowed from the You and What Navy?'s wheel. Drake grabbed a small hatchet as he rushed to the rail. The blade split one of the ropes connecting the two ships.

Cain faced the rest of the ship while the gunners cut. One uniformed man threw Sprite off his back and lunged at the Viewer child with a knife. The impact of the bullet knocked him off his feet. Sprite scrambled up and wrapped her arms around Cain's waist. "You okay?" She nodded, but didn't slacken her hold.

The two ships pulled apart. The gunners reloaded their cannons with regular cannonballs and delivered another broadside to the Relentless's hull before the wind pushed them out of range. Then they began hand-to-hand combat with the remaining uniformed men.

Another one dropped from the rigging. Sprite spotted him first and tugged Cain out of the way. Cain shot him before he landed on the deck. "These guys are 'bout as bad as Eastern Guild fighters." However, that one appeared to be the last, so the attention of everyone turned to the duel at the bow of the ship.

Betsy dodged Slate's slashing sword before catching his blade with her own cutlass. She pressed the offensive, driving the dark-haired man around the mast. The other pirates parted to allow them to pass.

Slate lunged forward, intent on stabbing. She twisted her black leather bodice out of reach and slid her sword across his torso. The sweaty man retreated with an oath. She chuckled. "Language, language, Commandant. That's barely a scratch."

Slate panted, "You sea bitch! You'll pay for that."

"You owe me a shirt." Betsy grinned as she circled him. Slate lunged forward, only to move back from her parries. "You're out of practice, Slate."

He growled, pressing his attack. "I will not be beaten by you!"

Betsy pivoted from his slash, moving behind Slate. Her elbow slammed into his back. He stumbled out of his stance, and she grabbed his sword arm. A twist caused Slate to drop the sword with a yell. She kicked him aside before rolling over the deck. Slate recovered his footing and whirled. Betsy pointed both swords at his neck. "Well, Commandant, I'm afraid you're going to have to impose upon our hospitality for the rest of the journey. Seeing how far apart our ships are now."

The crew laughed as Slate whirled to see the Relentless floating behind them without any sails. "Damn you, Bobbins! What about my men?"

"If you were stupid enough to set sail without provisioning, you better pray one of your other Navy ships finds them." She gestured, and Read and Bonny seized Slate's arms. She smirked as she sheathed her sword. "But if that fails them, we'll be sure to send out a rescue party when we return to port."

Slate's furious glare swept over the group surrounding him until he found Cain's face. Cain's eyes narrowed as Slate's unchanging expression stayed aimed at him. Slate turned back to Betsy. "There will be no port in the storm for you, Bobbins. The Royal Army of the O.Z. has invaded Mount Cove."

Betsy rested the blade of Slate's cutlass on her shoulder. "Really? Those slavers bet too much on no one noticing they crossed the desert for merchandise." She tsked. "Stow him down below, men."

Sprite uncurled from around Cain's waist. "Slate scheming. Cain better go see mate." She pulled him toward the main stairs.

"Shouldn't you tell the Captain?"

"Captain knows. What 'asking for it' mean?"

Cain didn't answer until the two sailors and Slate had thrust themselves into a door on the stern side of Spencer's workshop. "Usually means doing something stupid that blows up in their face."

The Viewer child nodded. "Captain says Mount Cove was asking for it. Not our problem."

"If you say so." Cain opened the door to his and DG's room. A golden dome covered Dani, a cowering Spencer, and the defiant DG in front of them. "It's over, sweetheart. We won."

The golden dome vanished as DG buried her face against his neck as she hugged him tight. "Are you okay?"

"Fine, darlin', just fine." He lifted her up as he squeezed her. "Is Spencer okay?"

Sprite petted the boy's black hair. "Will be. Slate will pay for Spencer's island."

Dani ruffled her feathers and spoke as they smoothed again. "Sounds like this Slate fellow's being cooped up."

Spencer lifted his head. "We captured him?"

"The Captain did," Cain answered. "You missed the fancy sword fighting. You up for hammering?" Spencer nodded and stood up. "They put a couple of holes in the galley for starters."

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