With the aerocraft secured to the dock, the ram-horned man directed them to collect whatever personal belongings they had and make their way to the castle.
“And if we don’t?” Geraldine the banker demanded.
The ram-horned pirate put a hand on the butt of his firearm. “So long as you follow directions, you’re a hostage and will be well-treated. Cause trouble and you become a prisoner, and there’s a whole separate set of rules for prisoners.”
Anna and Michaela unbuckled their harnesses and got to their feet. Anna patted her shoulderbag, resting at her hip, making sure the Truename Spyglass was still where she’d tucked it.
Max escorted them down the dock. “Welcome to the Castle of the Pirate Ace Coalition. Or Castle PAC for short. Did you know it was built nearly seventy years ago by Baron Daniel Dennison as a vacation home? Weird sort of place to take a vacation isn’t it? But when it was done he refused to finish paying the workers, so the castle was sold to the King of the City. That’s King Gervase. And King Gervase turned it into a prison for air pirates.” He grinned at them, tongue lolling. “Wanna guess what happened next?”
Anna looked up at the massive stone structure sprouting from the hard stone island, then at the dog-faced pirate. “The pirates took over?”
Max laughed. “The pirates took over!”
They entered the castle through a small stone archway off the dock. From the dim antechamber, Max led them through a set of twisting rough-carved, stone hallways to a chamber with open-air windows looking over the water to a city in the distance, a glittering smudge against the horizon, and beyond that, faint purple mountains. There were cupboards and counters and basins and an oven set into one wall.
“I got you kitchen duty,” Max said with all the pride of a puppy with a tennis ball.
“Um, good?” said Michaela.
“All hostages have chores. Kitchen duty is, by far, the best,” Max said. “You don’t have to sweep or muck the bilge or anything. You get to be where the food is.”
“I don’t know how to cook,” Anna said.
“That’s all right,” said Max with a shrug. “Cookie will be along in a while. Dinner’s usually around seven, so there’s a couple hours yet.”
“Cookie?” said Michaela.
“Captain Tahoe’s personal chef. He trusts no one but Cookie to prepare his meals,” said Max. “Anyway, I’ve gotta go. Pirate duties you know.” The dog-headed boy hurried off.
“Oh, um…” Michaela called after him, but the dog-headed boy was already gone. She tightened the belt of her robe and cleared her throat.
“Something wrong?” asked Anna.
Michaela shrugged uncomfortably. “Well it’s just… I’m not exactly… properly dressed. I had just come out of a steam room after all.”
“Oh.” Anna blushed.
“Well, nothing I can do about it right now,” Michaela said. “Why don’t we… I don’t know… tidy up until Cookie gets here?” She gestured to the counter along the wall with the open-air windows. There were two large, stone basins set into the counter each piled high with dirty dishes. Remnants of meals were crusted on and a bevy of flies made a feast thereof.
“Gross,” said Anna. “But at least I know how to do dishes.”
Each stone basin had a handpump. It took a little doing, but soon cold, clear water poured forth.
“Where’s it come from? Do you suppose it’s a cistern?” said Michaela.
“It could be a well,” said Anna.
They found some scrubbing brushes and got to work.
Cookie did not, in fact, show up after a little bit. Or even a while after that. By the time they’d scrubbed the dishes clean and set them on and about an old wooden drying rack, nearly half an hour had passed, or so Anna reasoned.
“Now what?” said Michaela. “I really don’t have much experience in a kitchen. Though I have been told my chocolate chip cookies are pretty good.”
“Why don’t you see if you can find the stuff to make cookies and I’ll look around for anything else our inexperienced hands might be able to prepare.”
Michaela tightened her robe and poked around the crowded, disorganized cupboards under the counter. Anna looked around, noting an old black stove with a flat cooktop, a pile of pots and pans, a stack of firewood, an iron door in the stone wall, and daylight slanting in from around the corner.
Anna rounded the corner to find a courtyard and in the courtyard a set of wooden boxes making a vegetable garden. She recognized tomatoes and peppers, but the rest was a mystery to her. At the end of the courtyard was a rickety wire fence housing a coup and at least two dozen chickens. They made an immediate racket when they saw her. Anna didn’t know anything about chickens, but she knew animals needed to be fed and felt certain that’s what they wanted. She lifted the lid of a wooden bin nearby and found a sack still half full of grain and a metal scoop half buried. With the chickens insistent, Anna tossed several scoops of grain into the pen.
Anna went back inside to see Michaela had collected a set of tins of various powders ranging from white to brownish-white and a basket with a few eggs.
“I could make cookies with this. I think. There’s some dried fruit, but no chocolate chips or anything.”
“Better than nothing.”
A faint chiming caught their attention. Anna looked out across the water. It rippled faintly, glittering and blue, reflecting the bright summer sky. And the glittering smudge on the horizon, Cape Lynette presumably. Anna realized it was the same chiming pattern she’d heard from the clock tower on the other side of the fog just that morning.
And at the end of the pattern, a rhythmic six chimes sounded
“Six o’clock,” Anna said.
“Dinner is in an hour,” Michaela said.
“And Cookie still isn’t here. How long does it take to bake cookies?”
“Is there even an oven?”
Anna nodded at the metal door in the wall by the black iron stove. “I think that’s an oven, but I’m pretty sure it takes a wood fire to get it going. No gas or electricity I’m guessing. They really picked the wrong girls to make them dinner.”
Michaela giggled. “Do you suppose that mean old lady was right? Will they eat us if we fail to make dinner?”
“Surely not,” said Anna, though she wasn’t certain at all. “But since the cook isn’t here, we should try to do something. I know how to cook eggs and there’s a bunch of chickens in the courtyard.”
Michaela pursed her lips “We’ve got an hour to cook eggs and cookies for thirteen hostages, seven pirates, and one cook and one captain. That’s twenty-two people. At least.”
“Let’s assume at least double the number we’ve seen. That’s, forty some people. I don’t think we’ve got enough eggs. But there’s the vegetables, I suppose.”
“Let’s start some fires.”
There were stacks of split wood in one corner with bundles of thinner bits and a pair of stones. Michaela stacked wood in the belly of the stove then clacked the stones, expertly igniting a spark. Anna was impressed and said as much. Michaela winked at her, then set a fire in the stone oven in the wall.
They collected all the eggs they could find from inside the coop, under the coop and in the corners of the pen. While Anna washed the eggs, Michaela mixed flour and whatnot into a dough. Anna picked peppers, tomatoes, and with some trepidation pulled up a few plants which turned out to be onions and garlic. She washed and chopped the vegetables before putting a little oil in a mostly clean pan and setting the pan on the stove. The oil sizzled after a while.
“I think I’m ready to cook,” Anna said.
“And I think the dough is ready to bake,” said Michaela.
Anna cracked eggs and mixed them with the chopped vegetables while Michaela set out scoops of dough on metal sheets. After a while, Anna realized she had too much food for one pan and oiled a second.
“Who’s cooking in my kitchen!”
Anna started and turned to the entryway, spatula held in front of her like an talisman. A thunderous grouch emerged from the. He was taller than any man Anna had seen before. He had a great bushy beard, thick hair on his arms and poking from the collar of his shirt. His eyebrows were shrubs clinging to the cliff of his face. Even his ears sprouted hair like crabgrass. And all of it was cobalt blue against sun-dark skin. His height was matched by his barrel chest and he moved with a faint, shuffling limp. If he’d been cursed with the head of an animal, Anna couldn’t figure out which one.
“Who are you?” he demanded, voice filling the room.
“Hostages,” Anna said. “We were assigned to the kitchen. It’s nearly seven and you weren’t here, so…”
The giant man sniffed, stumped to a nearby cabinet, opened it with a bang, and withdrew a large wooden spoon. He advanced upon Anna who backed up quickly, ready to react should he take a swing at her. Instead, he prodded at her scrambled eggs, then took some in his spoon and brought it to his face. He inhaled slowly and his enraged expression eased. He put the food in his mouth, chewed thoughtfully, and swallowed.
“Well then. Not bad.” He pointed the spoon at Michaela who backed up several steps. “What have you got in my oven?”
“Cookies,” Michaela said quickly. “Um, I couldn’t find chocolate chips, so I used the dried fruit. I hope that was all right.”
“Which dried fruit?” Less angry, more curious.
“A bit of each.”
Anna couldn’t be sure through the thudding of her heart, but she thought she heard the chimes across the bay ringing.
“It’s seven o’clock,” she said. “Dinner’s going to be late.”
“Bah!” The giant man waved his hand. “Dinner’s always late. It’s tradition.” He took a few moments more, deliberating, before he said, “All right then. Scrambled eggs for dinner, cookies for dessert.” He stomped to another drawer and withdrew a large wrapped package, diminutive in his hands. “And bacon,” he said. “Scrambled eggs need bacon.”
Anna and Michaela got over their fear of the man, who eventually introduced himself as Cookie, as he continued to complement their efforts while directing them about the kitchen efficiently. Less than half an hour later, they had several piles of scrambled eggs with chopped vegetables; stacks of crispy, greasy bacon; fluffy pancakes with jugs of syrup; a large wedge of cheese with a knife stuck through its middle; and plates of mixed-berry cookies.
Cookie roared incomprehensibly down the hallway and moments later animal-headed pirates in grease-stained work clothes and hostages in simple garb came in to carry the plates from the kitchen.
“Haven’t had good help in a while. You’ll come back in the morning?”
“Sure,” said Anna, looking at Michaela.
Michaela nodded. “I don’t know much about cooking though, Mr. Cookie.”
He grunted. “You did fine on your own and you follow directions well. Come on, let’s have dinner. “
They followed the giant down the hall to a massive dining hall. There were two long wooden tables and several small round tables all festooned with mismatched chairs, plates, and cutlery. Jugs of beverage were passed around in equal measure as the food. True to promise, the hostages weren’t passed over for food. Everyone was allowed as much as they wanted, and everyone had plenty of food piled on their plates.
Anna noted they’d done a decent job of estimating the number of people as there were just under thirty-some pirates. At pride of place was a tall, fox-headed individual with dark-lidded eyes and a smooth smile and orange hair to match his fox fur pulled into a multitude of braids festooned with gold and gems. Captain Tahoe was a svelte, pretty man wearing a bright red coat done in silver embroidery, a long-handled sword at his hip and a ring on every finger.
When he noticed Anna looking at him, he smiled and nodded. “Ladies and gentlemen, let us not forget our distinguished guests this evening, your cooperation and patience is appreciated.”
He bowed with a flourish and the Pirate Ace Coalition, some still in flight gear, some in worn t-shirts and jeans, some in tattoos and shorts, hooted and hollered and cheered.
Anna ended up with a mug before her. It was bitter and smelled funky, but there was nothing else to drink, so she tried it.
“Little girls shouldn’t drink beer.”
Anna blinked at Geraldine, the cranky banker sitting across the table from her.
“I think I’ll make that determination myself, thanks,” Anna snapped back.
The bacon was salty, the eggs were pretty good, and the cookies were downright wonderful. Anna managed to get herself two and washed it all down with a few swallows of beer, pointedly not looking at Geraldine.
There didn’t seem to be any formal end to dinner. When folks were done, they picked up their plates and carried them to the kitchen. So when Michaela nudged her, Anna nodded and they followed suit. They were quickly joined by Max, eager as ever.
“Good job with dinner tonight. Cookie likes you. He wants you back in the morning.”
“Excellent,” said Anna.
“I can show you to your room. There’s extra clothes if you want to change, but laundry’s on your own time. No word yet on your ransom, but the Witch of Money has been made aware of our demands.”
He led them through the castle to a long stone corridor with curtains hung at regular intervals. He stopped at one and pushed it aside.
“Um, sorry,” he said. “I thought I could get you bunk beds, but…”
The room was bare stone floor, walls, and ceiling with a window looking over the ocean away from the city. In a walled off nook was a modern toilet with a curtain for privacy. There was an armless wooden chair with a worn, patched cushion tied to the seat. There was a plain wooden chest of drawers that had been painted, worn, and repainted several times. And there was a single bed. It was wide enough for two, especially if the two were as skinny as Anna and Michaela. There were two pillows and two blankets.
Anna set her shoulderbag on the chest, the Truename Spyglass thunking against the wood. She looked at Max who winced and looked away. She looked at Michaela who bit her lip and looked at Max.
Anna nodded. “It’s all right, buddy. You got us the best job in the castle, other than being a pirate of course, and Michaela and I, we’re friends. We can share a bed.”
Max heaved a sigh of relief, slumping with the effort. “Good. I was afraid you’d be mad at me.” He bid them good night and pattered off.
“If you like,” said Anna, “I could take the chair.”
“No,” said Michaela. “It… it’s fine. I’ve never shared a bed before, but… I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Okay,” said Anna.
“Okay,” said Michaela.
Anna looked away, blushing, to find Geraldine standing in the doorway, arms crossed firmly.
“I suppose you two are comfortable. Everyone else seems to think this is a lark. I’d hoped for a bit more common sense amongst my fellow prisoners.”
Anna glanced at Michaela who glanced at her and they both turned their attention to Geraldine.
“I’m talking about escape, of course,” Geraldine said. “I know they can be charming and they make all sorts of promises. Outlaws, thieves, murderers. We need to escape.”
“Do you have a plan?” Anna asked.
Geraldine straightened and gave almost a hint of a smile. “Well, not yet. Except to say we should all keep our eyes and ears open for an opportunity.”
“We are on an island,” Michaela said. “I don’t know anything about sailing or flying. Do you?”
“We should be careful,” Michaela continued. “If it’s obvious we’re thinking of escape, we’ll be transferred from the hostage cells to the prison cells and, for right now at least…”
Geraldine nodded. “Sensible. As one of her bankers, I’m valuable to Lady Sabina. Once she’s negotiated my freedom, if you’ve been valuable to me, I’ll see to it you’re released as well.” She left with a small, self-satisfied smile.
Anna closed the curtain after her.
“Does she seems all that clever to you?” Michaela asked in a low whisper.
Anna snorted. “Miss Geraldine is only looking out for herself and is trying to convince everyone else to do so as well.”
There were extra clothes in the chest of drawers. Anna turned her back to change into one of the provided nightgowns as Michaela did the same.
Michaela sighed. “It feels good to be wearing something I don’t have to be afraid will fall open at any moment.”
“Which side do you want?” Michaela asked.
Anna shrugged. “No idea. I’d think being next to the wall would be uncomfortable.”
“I like it,” said Michaela. “At home, my bed’s against the wall.”
They climbed into bed, Michaela first, and when they lay side by side on their backs, each with their own blanket and pillow, there was an inch or so of clearance between their shoulders and another between Anna and the edge.
“She’s not wrong you know,” Michaela said. “Admittedly, Max is a very good boy and Cookie is only slightly terrifying, and Captain Tahoe is… enthralling. But we should think about how we’re going to get away. I didn’t get the impression the Witch of Money is especially generous. While Geraldine might be valuable to her, I very much doubt we are. Plus, my parents will worry and Baba… Baba will be angry.”
Anna nodded. “Kenny and Sarah have been very kind to me. I don’t want to worry them. My… Violet, well, Violet does nothing but worry, but she does her best and I don’t want to make things hard for her.”
“You know,” said Michaela, “there is another option. Rather than attempting escape or waiting around, we could… join the pirates.”
Anna turned on her side to look at the other girl and Michaela did the same. Their noses only inches apart.
“Are you serious? Do you know how to fly a plane?”
“No, but I’ll bet I could I learn. Cookie and Max already like us. Maybe there’s an internship or something.”
Anna laughed. “Yeah, maybe.”
Michaela’s dark eyes shone like rubies in the last of the light from the window. Her skin was velvet shadows and bright peaks. Her great mass of auburn curls, which she’d pulled from their tight bun, draped over her shoulder and massed into an ocean on the bed behind her.
Anna swallowed hard.
Michaela sighed and flopped onto her back. “Good night, Vivianna.”
“Good night, Michaela.”