The Hawk and prince, they fought at sea.
The prince brought all his grand navy,
its pennants bright for all to see
and bristling thick with weaponry.
The prince sank one…
the Hawk sank three.
-From the Perditan folk rhyme, Herrick the Hawk
For a long moment, nobody said a word. Warm wind whipped across the sails and rigging above. The sailors behind me began to prod us toward the poop deck, our chains dragging across the deck. Then the Auspicio lurched as the invigoration suddenly dropped out of its sails. I stumbled, bumping into Mailyn, who shocked me with an inadvertent arc of electricity - she was as scared as I was.
"Are they gonna kill everybody?" she whispered.
"I don't know," I whispered back.
A sailor behind me grumbled, "We gotta get this lot back to the hold and fast…" With a rough tug, he pulled me back and clamped shackles around my wrists before moving to Mailyn.
All along the deck, every lantern had been lit. The sailors shuffled about, grasping their weapons, peering out into the darkness for any indication of the pirates beyond the imagination of a single lookout. Certainly, I couldn't see anything out in the dark. Then the ship appeared, ghostly in the night, fifty meters off the portside bow, simply fading into existence from seemingly nowhere, a black and violet flag whipping high above the mainmast…
They weren't pirates.
I suppose there may be a few pirate ships sailing around the Perditos, but if so, they're exceptionally rare because the waters are so well-patrolled. The waters are well-patrolled by privateer ships bearing the Flag of Floria, a seven-pointed violet darkstar against a black background, ships in the employ of Nurass, the Tyrant of Floria. While Floria does have a proper navy, there are nearly as many privateers. Floria's privateers boast a hundred autonomous ships and small flotillas, each under the command of a fearsome Shadow. Sometimes more than one Shadow. While many merchants liken what the privateers do to open seas piracy, I have been boarded by pirates before and can affirm that there's a world of difference.
If pirates take your ship, it will usually be after a pursuit, at which point they will make a big production of the boarding process - gangplanks, sabre-rattling, lots of macho posturing (they are almost all men). They will make threats and demands, and soon thereafter discover that the pleasure barge they thought was easy prey is entirely crewed by Collegium Greycloaks who didn't spot them on account of them all taking a siesta after a bit too much fruit wine. Then the pirates will realize their horrible mistake and there will be lots of pleading and probably a little pants-wetting. You'll usually get one or two pirates jumping into the water, mantis sharks be damned. That experience may be specific to me and the folks I tend to sail with - your knottage may vary.
If you're boarded by Perditans, there's a very good chance that it will be at night and you won't see them coming. Suddenly, their ship will be there, waiting in the dark like a great pale anglerfish dappled with lures. There will be no gangplanks. There will be no show of power or machismo. Suddenly, there will be two dozen dark-clad people on your ship, and their leader will make demands. They may be reasonable demands or they may not - it depends entirely upon the Perditan captain, what they think of you, and possibly what they had for breakfast. You will either meet those demands and you will go on your separate ways or you will have a very bad time of things.
"Hail, Auspicio," a voice came, loud and clear. Suddenly, a tall, slim man stood upon the forecastle, looking out over the main deck with a pearly smile. Whatever sailors had been up there hadn't made a peep. "You find yourself in Floria's waters, and yet, alas, I have no Auspicio upon my register. I am Herrick the Hawk, and you will find no more equitable captain in these seas. With whom do I have the pleasure of parley?"
Several sailors made a move to intercept the Hawk, but were immediately denied as dark-clad figures crept out of the shadows and over the gunwale, and suddenly there were a full sixteen figures strategically spread across the Auspicio's deck.
"I am Captain Hortzinio Chirar of the GRM Auspicio, Sir Shadow," the captain stated. He paced toward the forecastle, and the Perditan 'pirates' made no move to intercept him. He stopped several steps short and offered a deep, formal bow, like a nobleman making obeisance to the monarch of a foreign country. "We were not aware that we sailed in Perditan waters, but I am willing to make reasonable concessions."
"Oho! Reasonable concessions! Our captain is a man of reason," the Hawk chuckled, and his crew chuckled with him. "Very well, let us use our reason, then. You did know you were sailing in our waters, and that is why you were sailing dark…"
"They say imitation is the highest form of flattery," one of the Hawk's officers observed with a chuckle. Perditan ships almost always 'sail dark' at night, meaning they do so with absolutely no lighting above decks and any rooms with interior lighting must be shuttered.
"Indeed, Mister Barber," the Hawk replied. "We might not have spotted you at all, Captain Chirar, but for the fact that your crew began lighting lanterns like it was St. Sygmund's Eve and then somebody fired off your mage-cannon. I'm most curious to know what was behind that little amuse-bouche."
"Night exercises, Captain Hawk. Name your price, sir, and I will endeavor to pay it-"
"Ten qattrokronos," the Hawk interrupted him.
"I… I will see if we can put that together. I may have to beg from my passengers…" Captain Chirar backed a step away.
"I think not, captain. Have one of your men see to it. You and I shall stay where we are," the Hawk said. With deceptive ease, he hopped over the rail and landed in front of Chirar, two and a half meters down and several forward, as easily as if he was traipsing down the stairs. The Hawk was at least half a head taller than the robust Chirar, his skin several shades darker than mine, his eyes a striking, icy blue. When Chirar looked about to object, the Hawk casually rested his hand upon the nasty, barb-tipped sword he kept at his side. "I call my sword Talon," he said casually. "I have no clue what the Wext admiral who owned it before me called it."
Meanwhile, the Hawk's crew crept about the deck, disarming the sailors and ushering them toward the stern of the ship. One of them, a tall slim woman in sleek black garb, drew near to us, accepting our guards' knives and hatchets as they tossed them to the deck. She pulled the dark mask from her face, but her displeasure would have been evident from the anger in her pale blue eyes alone.
"Why are these children in chains?" she demanded.
"They…" the nearest sailor mumbled, taking a step toward the stairway down - it was perhaps the worst thing he could have done. The woman strode past him with an almost casual indifference, taking a long look into the cramped quarters below. "Children in chains and a dead body." She scuffed a black boot against the deck. "And fresh blood on the deck. Hey, Hawk! I think these are slavers! And there's a dead man down below - looks like a stab wound."
"Slavers," the Hawk repeated, his expression quickly shifting from false amiability to cold anger.
When he took a step forward, Captain Chirar moved to intercept him. "I swear, Sir Shadow, these are indentures, every last one of them. I have papers, documentation of their crimes… each has a brand. Several of them attempted a mutiny…"
"They're children!" the woman shouted back. In a flash, her sword was out and pressed at the nearest sailor's throat - not just pointed, for it drew a small pearl of blood. "Give. Me. The. Keys."
"I… I…" the sailor pissed himself, dank urine trickling down his leg and pooling at his feet. "Don't have none. They're bolted…"
"Bolted," she said, the disgust thick and laden in her velvety voice. "I see." Her sword whipped out, blindingly fast, and I felt something pulse in the air. Something cracked rapid-fire like a string of holiday poppers. For a split second, I thought she'd killed the sailor, crunched right through his bones with her sword. But then I saw the chain links clattering across the deck and watched, mouth agape, as Mailyn's chains dropped free from her hands as if by magic… no… by magic. "Unbolt them, or that'll be you."
"Problems, Rose?" the Hawk called out.
"No problems, Hawk," she replied. "Just straightening things up."
"Again, Sir Hawk…" Chirar bowed again. "These are prisoners and criminals, every one of them. Under Gionian law…"
"We ain't criminals!" Mailyn shouted. "They put me in for two years 'cause I nicked somebody's hankie, and put on ten more when we tried to escape!"
"And they drowned our friend, Lenschel! Tossed him right overboard!" I added.
Rose spun on her heels and turned to me. "What?"
I forced myself to meet the intensity of her eyes. "When he admitted that he helped us plan the escape, the captain put him in heavy chains and tossed him overboard. It wasn't more than five minutes before you guys got here."
"Show me your prisoner records," the Hawk said gravely. The captain nodded to Commander Barzono, who ran below to fetch the records just as the quartermaster arrived with the ten qattrokronos 'fee' the Hawk had asked for. The Hawk quickly examined the coins before stuffing them in a small pouch, seemingly satisfied. When the prisoner records came out, he flipped through a few of them like a dilettante paging through poetry.
"This is all of them?" he asked.
Barzono nodded. "Yes, sir," Chirar said.
"Good." Herrick the Hawk loomed over the chest of papers, his expression brooding even more than before, and with a gesture and a pulse of thaum strong enough for my undeveloped senses to pick up from half a ship away, ignited the lot in a great blaze of white flame that, somehow, left only minor charring on the deck boards. "There are no slaves in Perdita," he stated. "And, make no mistake, we are in Perdita. We're taking this ship, and there will be an accounting…"
Suddenly, Captain Chirar - obsequious and groveling to that moment, lunged toward Hawk, spitting with anger. "Y-you can't! The prince will have your blood!"
"Then he can choke on it," the Hawk said. He stepped to the side as easily as if he was ballroom dancing and, with a little flick of his wrist, tossed the lunging captain to the deck, the large man's sabre clattering across the boards. One of the Black Swan's crew deftly intercepted the weapon, kicked it up into her grip and, after a moment of appraising inspection, slid it neatly into her own sword sheath, offering her old sabre to one of her crewmates.
Satisfied with things thus far, Hawk planted his foot on Chirar's back and turned to his first mate. "Barber, please put the prisoner in chains."
"Of course," Barber said.
Captain Chirar struggled against him, but with the Hawk's foot upon his back, Barber managed to fit the man in heavy chains without much trouble. The Hawk's lieutenant was, perhaps, a bit rougher than he had to be, to which the captain objected: "I'm an officer of the prince! I have the right to fair treatment and a trial!"
"Very well… you captain a slave ship. You sentenced children to slavery. You chained a child and threw him overboard to his death. There are multiple witnesses present, and a dead prisoner below decks, as attested by Rose Argent, my armsmaster and second. How do the officers of the Black Swan find the defendant? Thumbs up for innocent and down for guilty. On the charges of slave trade? Hmm… four thumbs down. What about trafficking in children? Four more down. What about the murder of a prisoner? Four thumbs down again. Now… who among you object to the finding of these officers, Collegium graduates one and all? Who can exculpate these crimes? Any among you? Speak up, men of Gionia - your captain stands convicted of serious crimes, and you stand guilty of negligence by association." Hawk paced over to the quartermaster, fresh up from scrounging for coins. "What do you say - is there reason for clemency for Captain Chirar or for the actions of the crew under him, yourself included?"
"Truly? No, sir," the quartermaster said. "We were following orders, and our mission is ordinary enough, but what we've done is against your law, even if we are blameless in the eyes of the prince."
The Hawk nodded. "I see. In that case, since you are not in your prince's waters, you are not under your prince's law and I act on behalf of Nurass's justice. I shall pass sentence. Lieutenant Argent, what is your recommendation?"
"Hmm…" Rose said - Rose Argent, apparently. "Two years press-gang for the crew."
"A heavier penalty than I would have passed, but very well - but, if this ship sails into Mizzen with no obstinance or rebellion, I will take six months off of each man's sentence. I hope this punishment will impress upon you the injustice of indenture contracts. And, as for the captain… Lieutenant Barber, what is your recommendation?"
"It seems to me the aggrieved party should have a say," Barber chuckled.
"The children?" The Hawk chuckled. "Yes, that seems right. What do you say, children? Does Captain Chirar deserve clemency?"
"What's clemency mean?" Mailyn whispered.
"It means mercy," I said.
She shook her head angrily. "Throw the bastard over!" Mailyn shouted - the angriest I'd ever seen her so far, eyes flickering aglow, sparks flitting across her skin.
The rest of us were soon shouting, those of us still in chains rattling them for effect. "Throw him! Throw him!"
Hawk nodded curtly and stepped away from the shackled captain, letting Barber pull the man to his feet. "I concur. Rose, you may pass the sentence."
Rose smiled - it was a grin of deep satisfaction sewn through with cold hatred. One moment, she was next to me and, in a flash too fast to see, she was six meters away, her blade out and poking into Captain Chirar's belly just enough to draw blood. I don't know if she somehow knew he'd done that to Lenschel… maybe it was just kismet. In any case, she pressed Chirar back to the gunwale, stumbling and clanking in his chains as he retreated from her, terror plain in his wide-eyed face.
"Wai-" he started to shout.
Then her leg shot out, her kick hitting him square in the chest and flipping him right over the rail. Chirar let out half of a surprised scream before he disappeared beneath the waves, never to emerge.
The Hawk nodded, satisfied that justice had been served. "Barber, go see to our Black Swan. The rest of us will work on unraveling this mess."