Ahme’s father never lied to her. Rees answered her every question with enthusiasm and detail. Sometimes too much detail. Even a gifted storyteller like her father could be boring form time to time. Rees was so open with his daughter that one day, while scrubbing the floors of the sternhouse, Ahme was astounded not just by the secret compartment she accidentally discovered under her father’s hammock, but by his awkward refusal to reveal its contents.
“That’s none of your business,” he said, avoiding his daughter’s eye. He leaned over a bamboo table, busily sorting through a small library of scrolls and tablets.
Ahme looked from her father back to the hatch disguised to resemble floorboards. She wouldn’t have noticed it except that the soapy water from her scrub brush had seeped through, foaming along the edges of the hatch. Ahme spotted a chink in the corner of the bubbling rectangle. She hooked her finger into the indentation and pried up the secret hatch.
A blue chest sat snugly in a small compartment. The box was crossed with thick chains clasped with a stout iron lock.
“What’s in there?” Ahme asked, brimming with excitement.
“Nothing,” her father snapped. “Odds and ends. Put the hatch back.”
Rees snatched a tower of clay tablets and moved it across the table. In his haste, he slammed the stack down on his fingertips. He yelled out in pain.
“Throg butts!” he shouted, stuffing his fingers into his mouth.
This behavior was too much for Ahme. Her father, always calm, was hilariously flustered by her discovery. She felt an overpowering urge to open that chest, with or without her father’s permission.
“Where is the key?” she asked, spying out the lock.
Rees plucked the fingers from his mouth.
“On me,” he said, then added defiantly. “To my watery grave.”
Without, Ahme thought.
Disappointed, she began to restore the hatch to its resting place, but not before surveying the lock. It was the size of a small pear, but black and polished. It had been cast to resemble a plump parrot. The iron chains wrapped around the crate were clenched in the bird’s massive beak. The parrot’s eye gazed greedily at its meal. There was a keyhole as wide as Ahme’s thumb just below the parrot’s folded wing.
“Tha hath!” mumbled Reese around a mouthful of fingers..
Ahme put back the hatch. Father and daughter returned to their tasks, the latter excitedly scheming in her head.
Rees had put in at Vel’s Wreck for repairs but seemed to have forgotten the repairs part of their visit. Apart from some light cleaning, the salhulk had sat neglected in the village docks for the last four days. While Ahme did her best to clean the decks and tend to the animals, her father divided his time between his two favorite activities. Writing and napping in his cabin. Ahme did what work she could, but with the salhulk empty of cargo and her father absent from his duties as both a captain and a parent, she had ample time to plan and scheme, as well as enjoy the small settlement hosting her ship.
Enjoy was a strong word, as Ahme did not particularly care for Vel’s Wreck, as the loggin was called. A loggin was one of the countless fishing villages that dotted the coves and shallows of the Thaya River. Raised on stilts or stacked on abandoned barges, loggins endured the sudden rise and fall of the tempestuous river. Their people were hardy and humble. They valued the extra coin brought in by salhulk crews seeking safe harbor. The people of Vel’s Wreck tolerated Ahme’s peculiar father, although few were friendly to the northman and his daughter.
Despite a less than hospitable reception, Ahme noticed that Vel’s Wreck was the only loggin that Rees would visit regularly. She tried to puzzle out why. It certainly was beautiful here. Nestled in a crescent cove along the east shore of the Thaya, it was bordered by watery hedges of papyrus, swooping coconut groves, and tangled islands of moss. Harbored in this lush oasis, Ahme lost sight of the desert surrounding it. There were cliffs hidden to the east, her father said, that kept the locals safe from desert raiders and bandits, not to mention softened the blow of sandstorms. In the center of the cove, rooftops blossomed with dried palm fronds and thatch covering the forty or so huts intertwined by undulated docks and sagging rope bridges.
Perhaps it was for Yogo’s benefit that they frequented Vel’s, for here the cold-loving beast found respite from the endless heat of the desert kingdom. The loggin mayor was an enterprising leader who valued a safe place to pasture livestock and consequently hired crocodile wranglers to keep the cove free of the lethal predators. Such measures allowed Yogo to escape her cramped paddock and roam the shallows of the cove. Since their arrival, Yogo had luxuriated in the shade of the coconut palms, bathed in sandy waters, and mingled with the village cows and oxen. Yogo certainly enjoyed Vel’s Wreck, even if Ahme didn’t.
To the girl’s dismay, she realized the yak possessed more friends amongst the locals than her human keepers. Ahme was reminded as much the day after discovering her father’s hidden chest. While Yogo frolicked (as much as a half-ton beast can frolic) in the waters with a herd of water buffalo, Ahme stood alone on the deck of her salhulk, feeding the ship’s birds.
“I shall call it the Parrot Caper,” she declared with satisfaction to her feathered audience. Ruby glanced sideways up at the girl daydreaming above. The duck’s bright plumage flopped over its beady eye. The other ducks and hens ignored Ahme as they pecked at their breakfast.
Ahme was unperturbed by her flock’s rudeness. She focused on the red duck as it continued to stare dumbly into its own feathers.
“A caper, Ruby, is a theft. A clever scheme, if you will. Like in the old stories… the Purloin of the Magic Opal! Oh, and the Cake Thief of Hagda.”
The duck aimed its other eye at her excited lecturer.
“It requires brilliant planning!” Ahme continued, grinding her fist against her open palm.
“Careful preparations must be made. Patience is required. Accomplices vital-”
A chorus of laughter cut Ahme off mid-sentence. A small group of children stood on the dock above her salhulk, spying on the girl as she fed her birds. Their leader, a wiry, bare-chested boy the same age as Ahme wore a cold grin as he called down to his embarrassed target. She knew his name to be Dral, and that he was best avoided while anchored at Vel’s.
“Who are you talking to?” he asked, eager for the absurd answer.
Ahme did not hesitate.
“Oh, my goodness!” she declared with pity. “You don’t know?!”
Dral’s smile wavered.
“Are you certain? Can’t you see I’m talking to my birds?”
The boy refastened the smile to his lips.
“Ha! You speak to birds.”
His friends chuckled then stopped as Ahme countered.
“Obviously, I am talking to these birds. It is so obvious, I am concerned you had to ask.”
“I don’t have to ask anything, river rat!”
Dral’s smile was gone, although his teeth flashed like he was a hungry dog.
“Quick!” Ahme called out to the boy’s minions. “Guide Dral to the healer. His vision fades. Soon he will be blind and feeble witted.”
The other children nervously eyed their leader. Dral’s fists were clenched at his sides, his face red with fury. Despite her outward calm, Ahme feared the boy was about to leap down and pummel her. To her hidden relief, the anger drained from Dral’s face.
“Come on,” he smirked. “Leave the birdbrain with her friends. Let’s go play Three Step.”
Eager to salvage victory from this awkward encounter, the gang agreed. They laughed extra hard as they followed at their leader’s heels, abandoning Ahme to her egg-laying coterie.
Ahme grimaced as she watched them leave. She was unaware that the smallest of the gathering had remained behind. Only when he spoke, did she spot the boy perched on the edge of the dock, his legs dangling over the edge of Ahme’s ship.
“I can be your accomplice.”
Perhaps seven or eight years old, the boy was small for his age. His hair was long and unkempt, while his clothing, a white tunic with bright yellow trim, was rather expensive for a loggin peasant. The boy’s small brown eyes shone like polished bronze.
Smarting from Dral’s clumsy mockery, Ahme was suspicious of this straggler.
“Who are you?” she asked. She recognized most of the children of Vel’s Wreck, but had never noticed this tiny boy before.
“Pethos,” he said. His voice was crisp and confident, like that of an older child.
“How do you know my name?”
“Everyone knows the Northman and his daughter. Everyone says you’re strange.”
Ahme felt her cheeks redden. Pethos noticed.
“They say I’m strange, too.”
She was doubtful of such a claim. Pethos was a member of Dral’s gang, after all.
The boy seemed to hear her thoughts.
“They let me tag along because my father is dock master.”
Ahme understood, relaxing some. Dock master, even the dock master of a humble loggin, was a prestigious position. Only the loggin mayor held more power in the village. Bullies like Dral would not tempt the wrath of Pethos’ influential father by tormenting his peculiar runt of a son.
“What are we stealing?”
The boy’s boldness made Ahme smile.
“Look, Pethos! Thanks for the offer, but I’m doing this one alone.”
“But you said you need accomplices.”
“I don’t know you.”
The boy blinked.
“I am Pethos,” he repeated, as if the name was proof enough of his trustworthiness.
“Like I said before. No.”
The boy persisted.
“It is very boring here. I can help rob your father.”
“I am going to burgle my father. Not rob him. Robbery requires violence. I’m not going to hurt Rees!”
Ahme concluded her lecture. Pethos was unimpressed.
“Don’t you want to be friends?” he asked.
She most certainly did want to be friends. Yet Ahme hesitated. The idea that Pethos was working on behalf of Dral to torment her lurked in the back of her thoughts. It did not occur to her until later that Dral was too dull to launch such an insidious plan.
“No thanks,” she stated.
His eyes shining, Pethos did not seem particularly disappointed. He considered Ahme for a moment, blinked twice, then shrugged.
“Let me know if you change your mind,” he said.
“I live by the Wreck. The hut with a purple door.”
“Fancy!” Ahme dryly remarked. She watched the boy mosie off. Pethos seemed in no particular hurry. He wandered slowly, his hands thrust into his waistline, casually inspecting Ahme’s salhulk. Once he had disappeared around the corner, Ahme felt a pang of regret. The boy seemed sincere. Still, she did not want to endure the scorching sound of mocking laughter.
“What did that boy want?”
Ahme turned to find her father leaning out of the sternhouse window. He frowned with sad disapproval. His daughter wilted and looked away.
“To play, I guess.”
“Why did you chase him away?”
“Don’t you want to play?”
“He is with that bully, Dral.”
Rees was quiet. Ahme looked up and found her father gazing thoughtfully at the dock where Pethos had departed.
“He seems friendly to me,” her father said after a moment. “You need to learn to trust people.”
“You don’t trust people,” Ahme countered.
“No, I just don’t like people very much. There’s a difference.”
“Maybe I don’t like people, either.”
Rees flinched. Ahme did not understand why, but the sadness on her father’s face deepened.
“Well, if you’re not in the mood for company,” her father began, “I have a new chore that needs doing. All by yourself.”
The famously wise Khet Turoy called lemon mussels the plague of the riverbottom. The shellfish flourished in the shallow waters of the Thaya, afflicting passing ships like a disease. If ignored, the crustaceans would gnaw away at its host until it floundered and sank.
The priests of Sporus claimed that their god created the irksome shellfish as punishment for human pride. The Mother of Fish was jealous of the canals and locks that allowed ships to navigate around the great Shimmer Veil, a waterfall her own watery brood could not pass.
Rees was less grandiose in his hatred for the crustaceans, which he crudely described as the constant pain in his ship’s wooden behind. Lemon mussels slowed down his salhulk, costing Rees time and money.
An afternoon spent scraping lemon mussels off the hull convinced Ahme that the clever khet, petty fish worshippers, and her resentful salhulk captain all had valid points. Lemon mussels were awful.
Removing them was dangerous work. Armed with a metal scraper and a pair of leather goggles with glass lenses, she worked while holding her breath beneath the ship. The purple shells bristling along the underside of her ship defended themselves with brutal efficiency. As she dug in with her scraper, bright yellow sacs exploded from between the purple shells, batting away Ahme’s tool and bruising her knuckles. Trying to avoid broken fingers on one hand, Ahme pressed up with the other to avoid floating into the jagged shells bristling above. She could only scrape for a few moments before her lungs threatened to burst. She surfaced constantly for air. Swimming back and forth beneath the salhulk, battling an upside-down army of shellfish, was exhausting.
While she fought shellfish underwater, a woman and man patrolled the loggin border for crocodiles. The wranglers, armed with twenty-foot long spears and walking on bamboo stilts, strode like giant insects across the calm waters on the edge of the little harbor.
Ahme admired their graceful strides as she caught her breath. She watched them through her leatherbound goggles, standing shoulder deep in the shaded waters beside her salhulk. Pinching the iron scraper between her thighs, Ahme rubbed her aching wrists. Hungry gulls spiraled above her, swooping down to seize upon the broken mussels floating by on their inflated sacs. Lemon mussels were poor eating for humans, but the gulls could not seem to get their fill.
Her thoughts returning to the blue chest locked away in her father’s cabin. As she considered the obstacles standing before her quest to break into the secret box, Ahme idly reached out and grabbed a floating clump of lemon mussels. The bulbous yellow sacs were smooth but surprisingly tough. As she rotated the bloated conglomeration of shells and inflated membranes, Ahme spotted a small, unprotected shell no bigger than the tip of her pinky. Curious, she pinched the shell between her thumb and forefinger. Instantly, a yellow bulb shot out, flinging her fingers away.
“Yow!” Ahme yelped, although she was more surprised than hurt. She dropped the mussels, marvelling at the power contained in so small an animal.
“How are those bubble butts treating you?”
Ahme peeled off her goggles and gazed up at her father as he peered over the ship’s railing. The horseshoe of hair encompassing the back of his head had been combed and his face washed. His bald spot looked polished. Even more disturbing was his clean clothing, or rather, his clothing with the fewest stains. Rees only wore his good tunic with the red lining when he wanted to impress locals.
“Where are you going?” she demanded.
“To visit an old friend of mine. His name is Nefaar.”
Ahme gave her father a suspicious look.
“You have a friend?” she asked, sweeping her arm through the air, gesturing at the docks and huts of the loggin. “Here!”
“Did I not just say so?”
Ahme drummed her hands against the surface of the water as she bit her tongue.
“Do you need to visit the healer to have your ears checked?”
“No,” she sneered.
“Do you want to come?”
Ahme did her best to appear nonchalant. She was eager for her father to leave so she could break into his chest.
“Hmm, no,” she said. “You go ahead. I’m enjoying my work here.”
To emphasize her point, she snatched a floating hunk of inflated muscles and held them up with a smile.
“Much to do!” she said, then cried out in pain as a lemon mussel exploded in her hand.
“Indeed,” her father replied, unimpressed. He reached into his tunic and hooked his thumb around a string knotted around his throat. In addition to the crocodile tooth that he constantly wore, Rees revealed that a metal key had been added to his necklace. He chortled with evil satisfaction.
“I am not a fool,” he bellowed. “Beware that chest. Peril! Grave peril to all who seek its contents.”
His chuckle grew into a maniacal laugh, then ended abruptly.
“All jesting aside,” he said calmly, “There’s nothing in there for a child your age.”
Ahme grimaced. Her father went on.
“Dinner is on your own, unless you change your mind and decide to join me. Nefaar lives at the center of the loggin, in the hut with the yellow curtains. You can’t miss it.”
Rees departed, a sly expression on his face.
Ahme waited, tracing the sound of his footsteps across the salhulk, over the gangplank, onto the village dock. When he was gone, she tossed the scraper and heavy goggles onto the ship’s deck. She scrambled up a rope ladder dangling down the side of the ship.
Her bare feet smacked against the planks, leaving a trail of wet footprints leading to the sternhouse. Ahme flung open the door to her father’s cabin, a mischievous grin on her face.
Stepping inside, her smile twisted with terror as she collided with a waist-high cyclone of fur, scales, and teeth. Ahme leapt into the air as Biteface spun and gnashed. The dimwitted monster, confused equally by his new home and its sudden intruder, acted accordingly. He tried to eat his way out of confusion.
“Down, Biteface! Down!”
The throg lunged at her ankle. Ahme threw herself onto her father’s table, knocking scrolls across the floor. His lust for blood unsatisfied, Biteface went after his own tail. Ahme watched from above as the plumpy monster tumbled and rolled after its own backside. Girth and lack of flexibility eventually defeated the throg. Biteface collapsed exhausted onto the floor, his tail miraculously intact.
Ahme crawled into a sitting position on the tabletop and grimaced. Not only did Rees wear the key to the chest, he had placed Biteface on guard over the hidden compartment. It was an aggressive strategy. The throg was usually kept isolated in the ship’s hold, protecting cargo and devouring vermin. Allowing Biteface onto the top deck put the other animals on board at risk, especially Ahme’s cats. There was nothing tastier to a throg than a well-fed, succulent feline.
A leap and door slam later, Ahme emerged safely from the sternhouse. The sun was beginning to set as the girl stood fuming on deck. She had never been bitten by her salhulk’s throg, but her last encounter was frighteningly close. Angrily determined to let her father know as much, Ahme decided to find Rees and tell him off. The man had gone too far.
Usually, Ahme was excited to leave her salhulk and explore the larger settlements along the Thaya. In cities she could blend into the crowd, a stranger among strangers. No one bothered her. Venturing through loggins and small farming villages made the girl nervous. In places like Vel’s Wreck, Ahme felt she was on display.
Still, Ahme was naturally curious and after a while, making her way through the haphazard maze of docks and bridges, she was distracted from the villagers watching her. She was engrossed by the fascinating sights and sounds of the loggin.
She noticed that, just like at any other fishing village, the end of the day was accompanied by a rush of activity as the fishing boats returned from the river. While Ahme walked, she watched a small fleet of sleek crocbacks and rippleskidders returning to the cove. Women and men laughed and called out to their families as they piloted their fishing boats through the forest of stilts below their homes. They tied off their vessels below their huts and hauled baskets of shimmering catch up ladders to kinfolk above. Families worked together cleaning and salting rows of fish set out to dry. Empty nets were spread over every surface, draped across the docks or tacked to the hut walls for mending. The stench of fish guts warred over Ahme’s nostrils with the aromas of stew and baking bread.
At the heart of the loggin, she arrived at Vel’s Wreck itself. Ahme had never seen it before, although she knew the ship’s story from her father. One day nearly a century ago, the greedy and selfish Khet Velnem demanded a new royal pleasure barge. Food supplies had been running low in the capital and the khet was tired of listening to hungry peasants demand food outside the palace gates. A cruise up the great river on her own private ship was the perfect way to just get away from it all. Within hours of her decree, the royal shipwrights began drawing up plans for the most spectacular vessel to ever navigate the Thaya.
By the time the ship was launched and four-hundred oarsmen began rowing the barge upstream, famine ravaged the entire kingdom. As far as Khet Velnem was concerned, her vacation had begun just in time.
The ship was five stories tall, wrapped in private balconies and polished tile promenades. The entire structure appeared to have been dipped in white paint and peppered with gold. Inside were banquet halls decorated with jade and ivory statues. The walls of the guest quarters were draped in bright tapestries and mirrors. The ship’s main kitchen and pantries would allow Velnem’s crew and party guests to feast for months. The kennels housed the khet’s hunting dogs and hyenas, her prized cheetah, dairy cows and goats, a half dozen horses, and two elephants.The top deck housed a lush garden fed by reflective pools and fountains. In the center of the garden was the khet’s dais, a lustrous marble platform shaded beneath a silk canopy dyed the color of the sun.
To Khet Velnem’s terrible inconvenience, the bloated ship ran aground less than a month into its first voyage. It never sailed again. Over time, as the river shifted the sands below, the abandoned barge tipped like a set of uneven scales. Its stern flooded and sank while the bow climbed into the sky.
Any other ship tipped at such a sharp angle would have immediately snapped in half, yet Vel’s Wreck endured. That was because, in addition to being the most magnificent and splendid vessel to ever navigate the Thaya, the barge was the most enchanted.
As Ahme gazed upon it, the ship was over a hundred years old yet it had not aged a day. Its painted walls and polished decks were as pristine as when they set sail. Magic kept the pleasure barge youthful and whole.
Soon after the ship was abandoned local fishermen moved in. They tried at first to live in the bewitched palace. The problem was there was not much usefulness to a home with tilted floors. Walking in it was a pain. The locals abandoned the ship itself and built a loggin around it. The wreck was useful for storing fishing gear, but mostly it served as a giant playground for the village children.
Laughter and cheers echoed inside the wreck as Ahme made her way around it, searching for a hut with yellow curtains. She walked briskly, worried that Dral and his pals might emerge onto one of the slanted balconies or peer through the bottom corners of one of the wreck’s diamond-shaped windows. She felt like unfriendly eyes were following her progress along the dock.
Ahme was relieved when she spotted a sagging two story house with yellow curtains billowing in its windows. Her relief gave way to curiosity as she realized this house was unlike any loggin dwelling she had ever seen.
The large house had an overabundance of strange decorations. Metal and bamboo wind vanes fought for air atop the shingled roof top, while old fishing nets formed a meshwork over timber walls. Combined with dozens of old anchors and rusty hooks dangling from the eaves, the house reminded Ahme of an old beggar she had once seen wrapped in a tattered mess of tunics held in place by a broken set of armor. The curtains, she realized, matched the wreck’s silk canopy. It was as though the owner of this swollen, garish hut was trying to mimic the grandeur of the royal barge sitting across the way. Ahme snorted.
In order to reach the front door, she had to scale a creaking staircase and cross a small jungle enveloping the front porch. Lizards fled her arrival amongst the potted plants and thick curtains of vines. Birds, some caged, others nesting in the eaves of the roof, squawked at her arrival. This, Ahme realized nervously, was not a normal loggin hut. Wherever Rees went, he seemed to find the unusual and bizarre. This habit tended to result in embarrassment for his twelve-year-old daughter.
Wary of what odd encounter she was about to have, Ahme exchanged guarded looks with a bright red parrot sitting on top of a nearby wine jar. The bird spread the fragments of its clipped wings as if to shrug and say, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Pausing before the door, Ahme leaned into the dull murmur of voices floating through the windows. The familiar tones of her father’s muffled voice confirmed she had arrived at the right place. She raised her hand to knock then paused again.
The door was purple.
She tapped her knuckles, wondering if the dock master or his son would answer. Neither did.
“Cool evening,” greeted a beautiful woman with a bald head and friendly creases around her eyes. She extended a hand covered in gold rings and bracelets.
“You must be Ahme,” she said, flashing a set of ivory dentures held together with gold wire.
“Cool evening,” Ahme replied as she took the woman’s warm hand. As she spoke, the woman gave off an aura of kindness that made Ahme completely forget her anxiety of knocking on a stranger’s house.
“I am Meera,” the woman continued. “Welcome to my home. Come in, come in.”
Ahme was ushered through the door. She took two steps and froze, overwhelmed by the spectacle inside.
Meera’s home was a jumbled hodgepodge of stuff. Jars and baskets overflowed with everything from scrolls to ceremonial spears, yarn, leather armor, and seashells. There were stacks of glassware, blankets, straw hats, bags of feathers, sandals, bolts of cloth, copper plates and silver bowls. Mousetraps sat beside jewelry on tables littered with dried gourds, magestone, and time coils. Mountains of furniture, old and new, buttressed the crooked walls, seemingly preventing them from collapsing inward.
Narrow pathways lead toward the back of the house, shimmying between the foundations of Meera’s possessions. It was as though Ahme had entered one of the mazes from her father’s stories.
Hearing the door slam behind her, Ahme worried her startled expression might have offended her host. Meera was wrestling a stack of maps that, perhaps reading their own ink and letters, seized at their own chance for escape. Their owner captured and quickly returned the charts to their pile. She gave Ahme a smile.
“We don’t want to lose those,” said Meera. “Like so much in here, they’re quite valuable.”
Meera’s gaze swept lovingly over the room. Ahme arched an eyebrow at the claustrophobic and shabby collection.
“Did the dock master seize all this?” she asked. Perhaps Nefaar took payment in goods from captains wishing to lay anchor in his cove.
“This is the mayor’s trove,” Meera stated proudly. “It is passed down from mayor to mayor, to be distributed or sold for the benefit of our people.”
“Nefaar is also the mayor?” asked Ahme.
“That trusting bumpkin?! Mayor!”
She laughed some more.
“My husband isn’t the mayor,” she said. “I am.”
Ahme looked at Meera again. In addition to her glow of kindness, the girl saw Meera’s powerful air of confidence and dignity. This was the woman with the foresight to keep the cove free of crocodiles and allow foreign traders to visit her loggin. Meera was an ambitious mayor. Ahme was impressed.
“Let’s go find your father.”
They moved cautiously through the room. Ahme crept along gingerly, clenching her shoulders out of fear she might brush one of the piles and cause a junk slide. She came close more than once. The hold of her salhulk had never been so overpacked.
Ahme was relieved to discover that the next room was almost bare in comparison to the front of the house. Meera brought her to a tidy little kitchen with a stone-lined fire pit surrounded by bamboo stools with goosefeather cushions. As Meera sat down to tend the fire, Ahme stood waiting for her father to notice her arrival.
Rees and Neefar occupied a stool across from one another, using a third stool between them as a card table. Each man held cards in their hands but seemed to have forgotten their game as Rees’ shared a story about a two-legged Mantochian cat that climbed ladders, only ate imported broccoli, and spoke seven languages.
It was a silly tale Ahme had heard countless times before. Yet Meera and Nefaar were transfixed by her father’s words.
“The cat’s full name was the Splendiferous Lord General Sleuthy Paws, for obvious reasons, of course…”
She ignored her father’s words and watched his audience. Nefaar was handsome, with strong shoulders, thick hands, and leg muscles carved by countless hours spent balancing on the gunnels of his fishing boat on choppy waters. His thick black hair was oiled back against his scalp and the wrinkles fanning out from his eyes were as deep and friendly as Meera’s. Nefaar’s winsome smile appeared at the smallest hint of humor or mischief. Ahme was impressed by how often the man lit up with joy while listening to Rees prattle on.
“…vowed to have his revenge on the daring Sleuthy. He sent his most devious assassin, the custom-privy merchant, Nostrils Kettlebottom…
More impressive to her was the scrolls’ worth of words pouring out of her father’s mouth. Ever talkative with Ahme, Rees kept to himself around others. He was obviously very comfortable sitting in Meera’s kitchen, regaling his hosts with anecdotes and punchlines that brought the three adults in the room to tears. Despite her doubts about Rees’ claim of friendship, it was obvious the three adults knew each other well.
“Sleuthy Paws was not fooled. ‘Build me your finest privy,’ he told Kettlebottom. ‘But,’ he added, ‘let it only be reached by climbing three ladders.”
Meera and Nefaar laughed aloud. Their boy sitting in the corner, however, was not amused.
Ahme turned her back on the the adults and walked up to Pethos. He sat against the wall, his legs crossed around a small pile of rocks.
Pethos looked up from the rocks. If he was surprised by Ahme’s appearance after her rejection of his friendship, he did not show it.
“Cool evening,” he said politely. His expression was empty of any emotion.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
They both looked down at the rocks. There were half a dozen pieces of black stone with pale red specks.
“That’s magestone,” Ahme said, glancing over her shoulder.
“Do your parents know you have that?” she whispered.
“They don’t care.”
Pethos held his small hands over the pile of stones, as though warming himself over a fire. He spoke a mysterious language, lowering his voice as he did so.
“Patu marata, neck pie!”
They waited for a moment. Pethos pulled back his hands.
“What was supposed to happen?” Ahme asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“What did those words mean?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy.
“Where did you hear them?”
“A Lumian merchant. I asked him what magic he knew. He told me to repeat that phrase over some magestone.”
A cynical expression pinched Ahme’s face. She had had a few encounters with enchanters and mages. They did not hand out spells to small children. In fact, she had never heard a magic user utter a sound while performing their mystical craft.
“I think he was having fun. You said he was a merchant, after all. Not an enchanter.”
“He was Lumian,” replied Pethos.
“Just because he was Lumian, doesn’t mean he knows magic.”
Pethos’ bland features took on a look of mild surprise.
“I did not know that.”
“Most peasants don’t,” Ahme said.
The boy paused to take mental notes.
“You are a snob,” he said after a moment.
There was no anger in his voice. Pethos was sharing his observation, and while it hurt to hear it, Ahme did not feel angry receiving it from such a plain spoken, sincere child.
“In some ways, I am,” she admitted. “Sorry about that.”
Ahme jerked her thumb over her shoulder.
“I blame him,” she said.
They watched Rees for a moment. Her father was standing now, his cards raining down from his hands as he reached the high point of his tale.
“Mad with rage, Nostrils Kettlebottom hunted Sleuthy up the final ladder, the assassin’s hands slippery with brown…”
Nefaar hooted with laughter as Meera flashed her gold-rimmed teeth.
“They can be so childish,” stated Ahme.
“Yes,” agreed Pethos.
Ahme called out to her father. He waved her off.
“Rees!” she called again.
“Don’t interrupt,” he said.
“How long is Biteface staying in your cabin,” she demanded. “He’s going to eat my cats.”
“Until we set sail,” he said. “Now go play or something. I’m at the climax.”
Rees continued regaling Meera and Nefaar, the three adults shaking the kitchen with their laughter. Ahme clenched her jaw with frustration. She turned to Pethos.
“Will you help me rob my father?” she asked.
“Burgle,” Pethos replied. “A robbery is different.”
“Come to the ship in the morning,” she said. “We’ll make a plan.”
Her new friend smiled. She did the same.
“I know how to get past our throg,” said Ahme. She was lying on the bow rail, legs dangling to either side, her face covered by one of her father’s floppy straw hats. The sun beat down from above while a hot breeze blew over the cove. Pethos was sitting on the deck, petting Ruby as the rest of Ahme’s fowl pecked at their seed trays.
“Do you know how to pick a lock?”
She folded the brim back from her eyes so she could see Pethos. Her new partner-in-crime was stroking the feathers on the duck’s neck. Ruby arched her head back, a satisfied gurgle escaping her gullet.
“No,” said Pethos.
“I don’t either.” She returned the brim to her face when a thought occurred to her. Ahme shot upright, startling Ruby and the rest of the flock.
“But I know how to break one,” she declared. “We will need a replacement to cover our tracks. But where will we find a lock shaped like a parrot?”
Disappointed, her shoulders slumped forward.
As Ruby turned to her breakfast, Pethos leaned back on his elbows, watching Ahme.
“I think one of the salhulks tied sunward has a locksmith. She might have one shaped like a parrot.”
“Cool breeze! We’ll go see as soon as Rees takes a nap.”
“How long until that happens? It’s still morning,”
“Rees naps all the time. He’s very lazy.”
“He doesn’t seem so lazy to me,” said Pethos.
“Trust me. He sleeps like a lion.”
Ahme flinched as she and Pethos turned toward the sternhouse. Rees had emerged from his cabin, grinding his fists into his eyes. He looked up at the children conspiring at the far end of his salhulk, stifling a yawn as he awaited Ahme’s answer.
“Yogo,” she replied with a forced smile. “Whenever we head downstream.”
“She does at that,” he said, pulling a hat over his bald head. “Pull upstream, sleep down. Not a bad life for a yak.”
He surveyed the cove.
“Speaking of, where is that hairy cow? I haven’t seen her for two days. Oh, there she is.”
The children followed Rees’ gaze across shallow waters to a grove of coconut palms. Yogo was wallowing in a shaded mud hole. As they watched, the yak snorted happily as a pair of loggin ox stood nearby, watching their strange brethren with cool detachment.
“Where are you going?” asked Ahme, suspicious of her father’s unusual emergence so early in the day. His attire was equally intriguing. In addition to his usual tunic, he wore sandals and a leather vest covered with pockets bristling with writing tools, brushes, and small chisels. A satchel stuffed with papyri scrolls hung at his side.
“I have to run an errand. After that, Nefaar is taking me to some ruins east of the cove. I expect to be gone all day.”
Rees made his way to the gangplank leading to the dock.
“Wait!” Ahme called after her father. “What about me?
“You and Pethos have fun,” he replied without looking back.
In a moment, Rees was gone, leaving behind his bewildered daughter.
“What is wrong?” asked Pethos.
She did not reply. Ahme turned thoughtfully to the sternhouse.
“He’s onto us,” she whispered, before shouting out to her partner. “Come on!”
Ahme leapt down from the railing and charged the back of the ship. Pethos followed, his short legs struggling to keep up.
Knowing that Biteface would lunge at her toes the moment she stepped inside, Ahme went to the window beside the sternhouse door. As Pethos joined her side, she lifted the corner of the window blinds. Together they peered inside.
Biteface was sleeping on the hatch beneath Rees’ hammock. Besides the throg, nothing inside her father’s cabin appeared altered.
Ahme lowered the shade.
“Well?” asked Pethos.
“Nothing has changed,” she said, feeling unconvinced.
“Okay, then. Why are you worried?”
“He’s up to something,” she replied. “I know it. I wonder what his little errand is all about.”
They thought for a moment.
“There’s no use worrying about it,” Pethos concluded. “Let’s find the locksmith.”
Reluctantly, Ahme agreed. She dreaded what additional surprises her father had in store. Rees was onto her caper. She was certain of that.
After a short walk along the loggin’s outer dock, the novice burglars found the salhulk with the locksmith. Before reaching their destination, however, Ahme noticed they were being followed by a child dressed in a white cloak. A hood hid their follower’s face.
“It’s Dral,” whispered Pethos after hearing Ahme’s description. Dral had slipped out of sight as Ahme and Pethos pretended to not search for him.
“What shall we do?” her partner asked.
“One problem at a time,” she said. “Let’s go.”
The locksmith’s salhulk was identical to her own. It had been built in the same shipyards, by the same shipwrights, perhaps even blessed by the same river priest and given enchantments by the same wood mages. But even with blessings of good fortune and preservative magic, two-hundred year old ships wear down and age. Standing on the dock, looking down her own vessel’s twin, Ahme saw that this salhulk had received much better care of the years.
Its hull was brighter and free of lemon mussels. The roof of the sternhouse had a fresh roof of dark green palm fronds, and its railings were polished and free of gouges. Most noticeable to Ahme, who envied the salhulk’s superior state of repair, was the worn canvas sail neatly bundled and carefully secured to its yardarm. The captain of this ship was not afraid to drop sail and ride the desert winds.
Approaching the gangplank, Ahme searched the ship for its captain. The deck was crowded but tidy. A pair of siblings, a lanky brother and sister on the edge of adulthood, were hunched over the deck, sanding it with stones. A man, perhaps an uncle, stood by the ship’s kiln, covered in sweat. He wore a leather apron as he clutched an iron hammer in one hand and a thick bundle of heat pads in the other.
Ahme called out to him.
“Cool morning to you, captain,” she said. “Permission to come aboard?”
The siblings kept sanding as they glanced at the girl and her small companion. The man by the kiln looked over as well, wiping his brow with his sleeve.
“I’m not the captain,” he said. “What do you want?”
“We’re looking for the locksmith.”
The man raised his hammer toward the sternhouse.
“She’s set up shop down the way,” he said.
They looked down the dock. A dark red canopy had been extended from the side of the sternhouse over the wharf, forming a tent.
Ahme thanked the man and made her way to the dark pavilion.
Slipping through the folds of the entryway, they entered a shop full of wooden shelves and tables covered mostly in strongboxes, chests, and locks. The store looked like a permanent establishment, except that the canopy gently glided up and down as the salhulk bobbed on the water. That, and the port windows of the sternhouse made up the back wall of the makeshift store.
“Greetings,” a woman’s voice called out. Ahme searched amongst the shelves and tables for the speaker.
Ahme looked through one of the salhulk windows. A woman with wispy gray hair and leathery skin greeted her with a bright smile.
“Hello, there,” she said. “I am Captain Fulhal. How can I help you this fine day?”
Like Meera, Fulhal was a woman of great ability. Salhulk captains often acted as merchants, but the master of this particular salhulk was a builder and repairer of locks as well.
“We are interested in locks,” said Ahme.
Fulhal nodded her head knowingly.
“No wonder, in these hard times. Thieves and burglars abound throughout the kingdom.”
The merchant looked deeply concerned.
“I have many locks for sale,” she said. “On the center table, there, are some common but sturdy examples, as well as a few of my own design. I happen to be a locksmith, and offer my services in that regard, if you require.”
Ahme smiled politely as she and Pethos made their way to the center table. She quickly found an iron parrot identical to the one on her father’s chest, although it was less scuffed and better polished.
“How much for this one,” she said, holding aloft the metal bird.
“Ah, a fine choice!” replied Fulhal. “A Greed Bird, iron cast with sturdy bronze workings. Very resistant to picking. For you, twelve nebs!”
Familiar with merchant haggling up and down the Thaya, Ahme shot back without hesitation.
Fulhal shook her head, her eyes shimmering like deep wells of sadness.
“My crew would starve if I were to part with hard-earned goods for so little. I must insist upon the twelve full pieces of silver.”
“Five nebs, and a basket of nectarines.”
The merchant’s expression hardened.
“Why, you little river rat,” she snapped, her friendly manner cast off her face like steam from a hot kettle. “How dare you haggle me like that. Take that river prawn with you and be off.”
Pethos searched about before pointing a finger at his own chest.
“River prawn?!” he said.
“Go, go, go!” Fulhal dismissed them with her hand then disappeared from the window.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Ahme shook her head.
“She’ll be back,” she said confidently.
Her companion looked doubtful.
“She was giving us a loggin bargain,” explained Ahme. “I countered with a ridiculously low price to show that I know I’m being cheated, plus exotic fruit to reveal I’m not some witless local.”
“Are all salhulkers so snobby?” sneered Pethos.
Ahme smiled sheepishly.
“What happens next?” he asked.
“She comes back, offers us ten or eleven nebs. We settle on eight or nine.”
“Do you have nine nebs?”
Ahme laughed. She leaned down to her friend’s ear.
“What kind of thief would I be, paying for a lock.”
“Then why are you bargaining?” asked Pethos.
“I’m not bargaining for us,” she whispered, tilting her head to the entrance to the tent.
They both looked over. Between the canvas folds they could see the pointy shadow of a hooded child standing just outside the shop.
Pethos smiled, a wide, devilish grin that was mildly frightening on his smooth, often emotionless face.
Just as Ahme predicted, the merchant locksmith returned to the salhulk window. Falhul puffed her cheeks and tossed her head with exasperation.
“Still here?” she said. “Very well. You may have the lock for ten nebs.”
“Eight nebs!” Ahme smiled.
“Eight!” Falhul slapped her palms on the windowsill.
“Eight pieces of silver!” she cried. “Stealing! If I agreed to that, I would be stealing from myself. I would have to lop off my own hands for stealing from myself.”
The merchant scoffed as she peered into the sternhouse at something hidden from her customers’ view. From the corner of her eye, Falhul stole the briefest of glances at Ahme, measuring the girl’s expression.
“Who are your parents?” she asked slyly.
“Rees,” Ahme said, her confidence wavering. “The Northman.”
“I’ve heard of him,” she said. “He has raised a shrewd one, hasn’t he. Did he send you?”
“Shrewd and bold.” Falhul nodded approvingly.
“Nine nebs,” she said. “Final offer.”
“Deal!” Ahme said, before adding loudly. “I will return tomorrow with the silver.”
The merchant frowned.
“What is this?” she asked. “You bargain like a Golian silk merchant, then botch the deal like a coppersmith’s apprentice?”
“Will you hold the lock for me?” Ahme asked.
“I will not!” said Falhul. “But then, what are the odds someone else will come searching for a lock shaped like a parrot?”
“See you tomorrow,” Ahme nearly shouted as she tried in vain to hide her mischievous expression under a veil of innocence.
Falhul watched suspiciously as the boy and girl slowly backed away from the table, almost as though they were feared to leave the shop.
“Why are you shouting?” she asked. “I’m right here.”
“Cool morning to you,” Ahme said. She grabbed Pethos’ shoulder and together they fled the tent. As she predicted, there was no sign of Dral outside. She hoped the boy could scrape together nine silver pieces.
“That was clever thinking,” Pethos remarked as they made their way back to Ahme’s salhulk. The sun was still low in the sky. They had only been gone an hour.
“But how do we get the lock from Dral?” he asked.
“A caper has many complex steps,” Ahme admitted. “Plans within plans.”
“That doesn’t make much sense.”
“That’s just how capers are,” Ahme said. “I suppose a great caper is meant to be complicated.”
Pethos did not look convinced.
“Dral will want to show off the lock. He won’t give it to us.”
“We have to trade him for it,” said Ahme. Her eyes lit up. “Or bet the lock and beat him at a game. What games does Dral like to play?”
“The usual games. Hide and Seek, Khet’s Tomb, Dead Monkeys…”
Ahme cut off her friend.
“He plays Three Step!”
Pethos shook his head.
“He’s a master of Three Step. The best in the village. Better than most grownups, even. You can’t beat him at Three Step.”
If there was one way to make Ahme determined to do something, it was to tell her she couldn’t.
“I’m not half bad at Three Step,” she said coyly.
“You need to be half good,” said Pethos. “Plus a whole good. Plus two amazings. That’s two amazings plus a good and a half if you want to beat Dral at Three Step.”
Ahme laughed as her friend cracked a smile.
As they approached the salhulk they spotted Rees departing the vessel.
“I thought you left already,” Ahme shouted after her father.
Rees spun to face his daughter but kept walking backward.
“I just had to drop something off,” he said. “I’m off to the ruins. Goodbye!”
Ahme and Pethos exchanged worried glances.
“Come on,” she said, running toward the gangplank.
They made their way to the window next to the sternhouse door and peeked through the blinds.
Biteface was seated under the hammock, munching fleas off his back. The hatch was in place beneath the throg. It took Ahme a moment to notice the large cage hanging in the stern window beyond Rees’ hammock. Inside the green bamboo container sat a Grey parrot, perhaps ten inches tall, with powerful claws locked around its perch, brandishing a thick beak as dark as obsidian. The bird was the color of volcanic ash, save for sandy white patches around its marble eyes, and pale red tail feathers hanging down like stalactites. The bird was still as a statue.
“Why did he get a stuffed-parrot?” she asked aloud.
Hearing her voice, the bird cocked its head and locked its bright marble gaze on the children peeking beneath the blinds.
“SNEAKS!” it squawked, its shrill voice tearing the air. “SNEAKS! Children! SNEAKS!”
The throg jumped up and growled.
Ahme dropped the window blinds as she and Pethos hunkered down behind the wall.
The parrot’s scream continued.
“SNEAKS! Mind the gold! Mind the gold! SNEAKS!”
“Oh, no!” Ahme clapped her hands over her ears. Her father had put in an alarm.
“That’s Oggy,” said Pethos. “My father bought him from an old merchant who used the parrot to guard his strongbox.”
“Rees must have asked to borrow him.”
“I hope he keeps him,” Pethos replied. “Oggy is very annoying.”
“How do you make him shut up?”
“Well, once he gets to know you, he’ll stop calling you a sneak. A few weeks.”
Frustrated, Ahme dropped her hands into her lap.
“I can’t wait that long,” she groaned.
“Well, if you cover his cage, he keeps quiet.” Pethos said, before adding. “Mostly.”
They sat for a while, pondering this latest obstacle to their caper. The bird eventually grew quiet inside the stern house.
As calm returned to the salhulk, Ahme listed the challenges ahead.
“To get to the chest, we have to sneak past my father, subdue a throg, and keep a shrieking bird quiet.”
Her partner-in-crime nodded.
“Get the lock from the village bully so we can replace the one you somehow are going to break. All without your father noticing.”
“Well, it seems that this caper is already a great success,” Pethos said dryly. “It is super complicated.”
Ahme grudgingly agreed.
The next part of their plan relied on either Dral approaching them with the lock, or finding him the next morning. The aspiring burglars both had chores to do and decided to meet again in the evening.
Armed with her scaper and goggles, Ahme spent the afternoon scouring lemon mussels from the hull. She quickly grew more efficient at the task, avoiding the explosions of yellow air sacs and keeping her fingers and knuckles unbruised. The warm waters of the cove were preferable to the sultry air, and the girl found that while the work was hard, she found satisfaction in the challenge of holding her breath and clearing parasites off her home.
Her happy mood was disturbed toward evening when, while popping up from the water to catch her breath, she spotted Dral sitting on the rail of her salhulk, the filthy soles of his feet dangling above her head.
“Hi,” the boy said with a smile.
Ahme pulled her goggles down over her nose so that they hugged her neck like an oversize necklace.
“You can’t do that,” she snapped.
Dral’s smile evaporated.
“What?” he asked defensively.
“You can’t board a ship without the crew’s permission,” she explained angrily. “Everyone knows that. It’s rude.”
“You’re the rude one,” Dral said, banging his heels on the salhulk. “There is no one up here to ask permission. And I have something for you.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a hunk of black metal no larger than an apple. Dral brandished the lock triumphantly.
Ahme hid her satisfaction.
“I know you want this,” he said uncertainly. “I heard you talking to Pethos.”
Ahme did not reply at first. She tucked her scraper into her tunic and pulled herself up the rope ladder, onto the salhulk. Not until her feet were planted firmly on the deck of her own vessel did she respond.
“What do you want for it?” she asked.
She was surprised by the strange look of disappointment on the bully’s face.
“I thought you’d be happy to see this,” he said.
“Do you have the key?” she asked snidely.
“Very well,” Ahme placed her hands on her hips, striking her most defiant pose. “I challenge you to a game of Three Step. Here, on my salhulk. Winner gets the lock.”
Dral was baffled.
“What? Why do you want to play Three Step?”
“To win the lock!”
“Win the lock?” he asked.
“Yes, you big bully!”
Dral’s confusion turned to pain.
“I’m not a bully.”
Ahme scoffed, her sneering dismissal angering Dral. The boy hopped down from the railing.
“Would a bully help you make a cape?”
She opened her mouth, ready to wield her sharpened tongue, then stopped.
“Make a cape?” she asked, confused.
“I came here to give you this,” Dral sulked as he held up the metal parrot. “To help you two make your cape and break into your father’s chest.”
Dral stood pathetically, staring at his own toes as his shoulders slumped like they were made of mud. Ahme wouldn’t have thought it possible, but she had obviously hurt the boy’s feelings.
“I’m not a bully,” he moaned, his eyes watering.
She looked around to see if any of Dral’s minions were watching. The dock was abandoned. Save for the animals on her salhulk, the pair were alone.
“You made fun of me,” she said softly. “You made your friends laugh at me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s so boring here. I get mean when I’m bored.”
Ahme was dumbfounded.
“When I saw you visit Pethos’ house, I decided to see what you were up to.”
As he spoke, Ahme recalled the sense of being watched when she approached the mayor’s house. Dral continued.
“I overheard your plan to make a cape…”
“Caper!” Ahme tried to sound friendly as she corrected the boy. “It’s called a caper.”
“Okay,” he sniffled. “Make a caper… I wanted to help. But I was mean to you. I thought if I got you the lock, you’d let me help.”
Standing there, defeated and sad, Dral no longer looked like the towering, brawny champion of the loggin kids. Ahme saw the boy for what he was, a thin, lonely child about her age. She still smarted from Dral’s attempt to ridicule her in front of his gang, but she knew it was better to forgive than harbor a grudge.
“I’m sorry I called you a bully,” she said.
“I’m sorry I called you a river rat and a birdbrain,” Dral said, before adding, “Even though I think it’s weird you talk to chickens.”
“It’s not so weird,” Ahme said, although she was not upset that Dral disagreed.
“It would be great if you helped us with the caper,” she said.
Dral’s head shot up as his shoulders straightened.
“Really?” he said.
Ahme nodded then spoke with a conspiratorial whisper.
“Not just with the lock,” she said, igniting an excited gleam in the boy’s gaze. “I have another brilliant, complicated idea to add to our scheme.”
Dral grinned as he shook his head.
“If you say so. I’m glad I get to play too. I love wearing capes.”
Later that afternoon, Pethos and Ahme stood in the jungle at the edge of the cove, discussing the final details of their plan. The latter did so while searching through some bushes with an empty beetle globe in her hands. Pethos sat astride Yogo, scratching the yak’s giant neck while the creature stood in waters reaching up to its belly, happily chewing its cud.
“I said it before. You can’t beat Dral at Three Step!”
“I can too,” Ahme shot back from underneath some palm fronds. Not finding what she wanted, she looked up from the bush.
“That’s not the point, though. The game is a distraction.”
Pethos drummed his tiny palms on the yak’s head. Yogo didn’t mind.
“It seems unnecessary,” he mumbled.
“It is completely necessary!” Ahme said as she made her way to a tree snarled with vines. “In the stories, the caper happens during a great event. Everything falls into place at the same time.”
Her partner was doubtful.
“I’ve heard some of those caper stories,” he said. “Something always goes wrong. What if Dral betrays us?”
“Ah-ha!” Ahme shouted, diving into the tangled vines. While Pethos and Yogo watched, she emerged triumphantly from the foliage, a giant tarantula in her hand.
“Found one!” she said, dropping the hairy spider into the glass bowl.
Pethos stuck out his tongue.
“Yuck! I’m glad that is your part of the plan,” he said. “I hate spiders.”
“Your role is just as difficult,” she said. “You have to have the skill of a monkey.”
The boy sighed.
“I know it.”
“And Dral won’t betray us,” she said. “He already handed over the lock. He’s excited to do the rest.”
Rees returned after dark. Ahme was eating supper by the kiln. She sat on the stone dais that prevented the oven from setting fire to the rest of the ship. She had put out a few beetle globes along the gangway and back of the ship, so that she dined while illuminated in the electric green light.
“How were the ruins?” she asked as her father sat down beside her. His face was grimy with sweat and dust.
“Incredible!” he said. “Looters have been at, of course, but they left what’s most valuable.”
Rees patted his satchel. Where it once overflowed with blank sheets of papyri, the leather case was filled with neatly bound scrolls filled with her father’s handwriting.
“The royal scholars would envy my discoveries,” he said.
He turned to his daughter, his smile fading into concern.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Fine,” she said with a shrug. “I like your new bird.”
Her father’s face lit up.
“Oh, do you, now!” Rees chuckled. “I thought we could use a new pet. Clever little guy! Nefaar is tired of him. Can you believe he wanted to cook him?”
Ahme thought for a moment.
“Yes,” she admitted.
Her father laughed.
“Well, get used to Oggy.”
He stood up and made his way cabin door.
“Grey parrots can live for sixty years. He’s going to be with us a long time.”
Ahme shook her head. She knew what her father was implying. Oggy was now a permanent member of the crew. The parrot would continue guarding the secret compartment after they departed Vel’s Wreck.
“Cool night, Rees,” she said, trying to hide her own satisfaction. She must have failed, for before stepping inside the sternhouse, her father gave his daughter a curious look.
“Is there something you wish to tell me?” he asked.
She thought for a moment before replying.
“Now that you mention it,” she said, pretending to have just thought something. “I need your help in the morning.”
“Help with what?” he asked, watching his daughter stand up.
“It’s a surprise,” she said. “Sleep well!”
She departed for the bow.
Her father’s voice caught up to her.
“Sleep well, clever one!”
The next morning, Rees emerged from the sternhouse, his mouth dropping like a drawbridge as he discovered a dozen children outside his door, flanking his daughter like warriors gathered around their chief.
“What is this?” he asked, blinking his weary eyes.
His daughter spoke calmly.
“I challenged Dral to a Three Step match,” she said, motioning to the boy standing at her shoulder. Dral nodded nervously.
“He’s really good,” she continued. “To make the game fair, we decided I should choose the location.”
She pointed down at the empty hold.
“May we?” she asked.
Rees rubbed his palm vigorously over his bald spot. It was a funny little gesture that his daughter recognized as a sign of surprised delight.
“Of course!” he said. “Your friends are welcome to play here.”
“Will you judge the match?” she asked. “Keep it fair.”
“Yes, yes!” Rees said eagerly. “And afterwards, I’ll bake honey cakes!”
Her father beamed as an excited murmur rippled through the children.
“None for the losers,” he said, then hastily added. “I am just joking, of course. Let’s play!”
The children clamored into the hold, swinging and jumping down like hairless monkeys. As Ahme was about to join her team, her father reached out and gently squeezed her shoulder.
“I’m so happy you’ve found some playmates,” he whispered. “But where is Pethos?”
“He’s not much of a stepper,” Ahme replied. “He said he would watch. He’s probably on his way.”
“Good! Now make sure you have fun down there.”
“Oh, I will!”
Despite its innocuous name, Three Step was a deliriously fast and dangerous sport. Played in an enclosed space, the number of teams and players were limited by the size of the room. The sport was popular up and down the Thaya. Adults and children alike would compete amongst the columns of ancient ruins and in the empty holds of ships. Dral and his peers preferred to play in the cavernous ballrooms and rowers’ galleries inside their enchanted barge. Such spaces allowed for huge teams of twenty players. For a salhulk hold, the loggin children were reduced to two teams of four.
The game was simple. Teams bounced a disc off the walls of their arena. The goal was to hurl the disc into the opposing team’s basket. If a player caught a disc, they were required to take three steps and throw. No more, no less. The disc was made of wood, was very hard, and frequently caused injury. Broken fingers were common. Head wounds, possible. Such dangers did not intimidate Ahme. Indeed, for this particular match, she wanted a frightful injury.
Ahme and Dral had prepped the salhulk hold earlier that morning. In addition to baskets suspended from the top deck at opposite ends of the hold, the pair tied thick ropes at various odd angles throughout the play area. When they were finished, the interior of the ship looked like it was home to the world’s largest spider.
The rivals took position in the center of the hold, standing to either side of the salhulk’s mast. Rees stood between Ahme and Dral, the disc in his hand. Above the arena, spectators watched from the top deck. As Ahme’s father prepared to drop the disc and commence the match, the girl whispered to Dral.
“Play to win!” she said.
Dral’s face hardened with determination.
“You think you’re good, huh?”
“You bet I am!”
The boy sucked his lower lip between his teeth.
Rees raised the disc above his head as he prepared to throw.
“Ready?” he asked.
Ahme and Dral both nodded.
A rounded blur smacked against the wall and bounced off the floor as the teams lunged forward. The match had begun.
All the players were exceptional. Dral had made the teams, selecting the best children in the loggin. Ahme was better than most of them, but barely. One of her teammates named Clu, a girl with a long braid that snapped behind her head like a whip whenever she threw the disc, was faster than Ahme and flipped over the ropes as she ran between catches. Her speed was rivalled by the brute strength of Tolpet, a blacksmith’s son with gorilla arms that made the disc bounce endlessly with a single throw. Ahme was nervous to catch her first pass from her hulking team member, but Tolpet softened his throws to his teammates. They soon made a great pair, with Tolpet’s steady assists to Ahme as she ran up the score. The final member of her team was Menmen, a fearless kid whose paddle-like hands would sweep at any disc fired at the basket above his head.
Dral was exceptional as well. Ahme hated to admit it, but the boy was a better stepper. He was a little stronger, faster, and just as bold. His disc bounced off the sloping walls of the hold with geometric precision, ricocheting at predetermined angles into the hands of his teammates or into the basket itself.
The match was fierce, so much so that Ahme almost forgot the plan. She had just scooped up a disc that had flopped wonky to the floor after twanging a rope like a bowstring. As one of Dral’s teammates charged at her, Ahme shuffled her feet three times then whipped the disc at the wall behind her. It bounced from port to stern, returning past Ahme on its way to Clu. Snatching the hard slab of wood in her tough fingers, Clu bounded three steps down the hold and shot.
“Point!” Rees shouted above, his voice growing hoarse from excitement. “Seventeen points even. The game is tied!”
The spectators cheered. Ahme’s team had been trailing all game. The first team to twenty-one points were the victors. As Ahme made her way to the mast for another disc drop from the judge, she was elated to think she might win.
Her opponent brought her to her senses.
“Don’t you think it’s time?” he whispered.
She was almost sad to abandon the match. Playing with the loggin children was wondrously fun.
“You’re right,” she muttered. “Let’s do it!”
The disc dropped between them. Ahme got hold of it first, took three steps toward her own goal, and launched the wooden plate to Tolpet.
She turned back toward Dral’s basket, shooting her opponent a knowing glance. As Tolpet fired the disc up the hold, Ahme and Dral charged forward, side by side. They both leapt for the disc, elbows banging off one another as they sailed over a rope line. As Dral caught the disc, Ahme hooked her shin on the rope below and toppled forward. She hit the deck with a sickening bang. Ahme wailed.
“Peace!” Rees shouted.
She rolled onto her back, pulling her knee to her chest and clutching her wounded shin. A nasty scrape began to ooze red as tears rolled from her eyes.
Rees and the other players huddled around her. Ahme’s father bent down and inspected his daughter’s leg.
“That is a nasty scrape,” he said. “How does it feel?”
Ahme threw her arms around her father’s neck. She sobbed, her voice lurching out of her throat like a noisy wagon with a broken wheel.
She squeezed her father, making him gasp. The other players gathered closer, her teammates and Dral patting her back.
“My-le-e-g!” she cried.
“It’s okay,” her father cooed. “You played like a champion. That was a great game.”
Ahme felt a double-pat on her back. She bottled up her tears and pushed back from her father’s chest.
“The game isn’t over,” she said sternly, turning to Dral. “Pick a replacement. Someone good so my team has a chance.”
Dral looked up at one of the spectators perched on the edge of the hold. Since the game had begun, other villagers had heard the commotion echoing from the salhulk and come to watch. At least twenty children and half as many adults stood around the edges of Rees and Ahme’s ship.
A boy with long wild hair and a pale scar splashed across his cheek smiled as Dral called out his name. He dropped into the hold beside Ahme’s confused father.
“I thought we might call the match!” Rees said, looking to his daughter. “A tie seems like a great conclusion. Winners all around!”
Ahme shook her head.
“Three Step is played to twenty-one points,” she said. “You will have to keep judging. I’ll watch from the topdeck.”
Her father, concerned for his daughter’s pride, leaned down and whispered into Ahme’s ear.
“Are you certain?” he asked. “It’s my ship. I can end the game if you want.”
“That wouldn’t be fair,” she said. Ahme smiled. “I don’t want to disappoint my new friends.”
Rees helped his daughter hobble up the aft stairwell to the top deck. He tried to guide her to a seat overlooking the match, but Ahme resisted.
“I want to sit over there,” she said, pointing at Yogo’s pen. “In the shade.”
“You can’t see the game from there!”
“I’m hot. After I cool off, I’ll slide over to the edge.”
Her father puckered his lips thoughtfully.
“Good idea. Drink some water, too.”
Rees deposited the girl in the shade of their yak’s enclosure.
“We’ll wrap up this game, then I have to send these folks away. You need to rest.”
Ahme nodded sadly.
She watched her father descend into the ship’s arena. His shout was followed by the crack of the disc bouncing off the bulkhead. Spectators cheered. Ahme thrust her hands into a pile of straw beside Yogo’s pen and yanked out a beetle globe. The startled tarantula crouched inside as Ahme leapt to her feet. She scrambled to the stern-house door.
“Pethos!” she hissed.
The boy’s head popped up from his hiding place on the roof.
“Ready!” he said.
Pethos disappeared. Ahme waited, hand on the door, counting to ten in her head. It was the duration they had to agreed to beforehand, the amount of time, Pethos believed, it would take him to hang off the back of the ship and slide a blanket over Oggy’s cage. She hoped he was right.
“Point! Eighteen to Seventeen!”
The score was met with a cheer.
Ahme pushed open the door and slipped inside the sternhouse.
A thick brown blanket was draped over the birdcage. Pethos hung just outside the stern window, his dark hair hanging like a paintbrush as his cheeks flushed red from being upside down. He smiled triumphantly.
She didn’t have time to share his success. As soon as Ahme slid through the door, Biteface leapt to his feet, spun in a snarling circle of indignation and rage, and lunged at her ankles.
Ahme slid backwards against the door. She dumped the tarantula onto the ground between her and the murderous beast. Biteface slid to a halt, his squashed little snout sniffing the hairy spider. Frightened, Pethos covered his eyes.
Biteface glanced to the side and let out a whimper. Ahme sighed. Ever since the throg nearly ate himself to death while dealing with an infestation of boka spiders, Biteface had developed a fear of larger arachnids. Ahme wasn’t sure a tarantula was big enough to remind the throg of his overstuffed belly and horrible indigestion. As Biteface retreated into a pile of dirty laundry, Ahme felt a mixture of triumph and guilt regarding the defeated beast.
“Sorry, Bitey,” she whispered, continuing to the hatch.
Pethos uncovered his eyes. His face was as red as a pomegranate.
“Hurry,” he said.
Ahme slid on her knees to the hammock and set down the beetle globe. She removed the hatch from the floor.
The blue chest was still there, waiting like a present wrapped in metal ribbons. Ahme pulled the replacement lock from the glass bowl. The night before, she had scuffed and scratched the device to match her memory of the older model on her father’s chest. Holding the new lock up to the old, she was pleased that the birds were a close match.
She plucked a final item from the beetle globe; an undisturbed lemon mussel no larger than the tip of her pinky. Ahme slid the shell into the keyhole of the chest lock. She shook the metal bird. There was a popping noise as the yellow sac inflated inside. The bird’s beak popped open.
“It worked!” she called out. Startled by her own voice, Ahme slapped a palm over her hand.
She looked up to her partner. Pethos was gone, his noggin no longer hanging like a coconut.
Ahme didn’t dwell on her friend’s sudden disappearance. She was too overwhelmed by her success. The caper had worked! Magnificent secrets were hers to behold! Trembling with excitement, she flipped back the lid of the chest.
Her parched gaze drank in the revealed treasures, leaving her thirsty.
“What is this?!” she said, crestfallen.
The chest was filled mostly with scrolls. Official-looking documents with royal stamps and insignias. There was a small stone tablet with a salhulk relief carved below the inscription House Aser – 1268.
Ahme dug through the paperwork, wondering what her father wanted to keep hidden. There were a few odd knicknacks in addition to the documents. A small figurine, a couple of metal bracelets, but nothing amazing. The only thing of value was a pouch full of gold and silver nebs. It was hardly a treasure’s worth. Rees kept as much coin in his own purse.
So disappointed was Ahme, that she failed to notice that Pethos had resumed his bat-like pose outside the back window.
“Ahme!” he hissed. “We are in trouble.”
“What do you mean?” Ahme looked up at her friend. Outside, her father shouted.
“Twenty to eighteen! One point from victory!”
Pethos waited for the cheers to die down.
“The locksmith is on her way!” he said. “I can see her storming down the dock. She looks furious.”
“Why would she be fur-…”
Ahme trailed off as fear took hold of the girl. Pethos hair swung back and forth as he nodded his swollen head.
“Dral must have stolen the lock.”
It made sense. The boy was a peasant, no wealthier than the daughter of a salhulk captain or the son of the village mayor, neither of whom could scrape together eight silver pieces to pay for a new lock. Caught up in the fun of planning their caper, Ahme had let herself overlook such economic realities.
“Should we give up?” Pethos asked. The boy reached for the blanket covering Oggy’s cage.
She looked down at the chest. As she stared at its dull secrets, Ahme realized that it did not matter what was inside the secret compartment hidden beneath her father’s bed. In all the caper tales Rees told his daughter, the ending was always the least interesting part of the story.
A burst of cheers outside and she knew the game was nearing its conclusion. Dral was no doubt trying to stretch out the match, giving Ahme and Pethos more time.
“No!” she said. “The caper isn’t over yet.”
She reached inside the pouch below and pulled out a gold neb.
“Get ready to pull the blanket,” she said.
Ahme closed the chest then dragged the chains over the lid. Snapping the new lock in place, she gathered up the old lock and stuffed it into her tunic. Using the beetle globe as a scoop, she frantically gathered up the wary tarantula. Somewhere beneath the pile of soiled clothes, Biteface groaned.
She flew from the sternhouse, whipping the door shut with one hand while sliding the glass bowl across the deck with the other. The beetle globe disappeared into the hay beside Yogo’s pen as Ahme sprinted to the gangway. Falhul, her face puckered as though she was forced to eat ripe lemons, stood at the far end of the narrow plank. Seeing Ahme running toward her, the angry merchant paused.
“Listen, you…” she began.
Falhul cringed as Ahme leapt upon her.
“Here is your money,” the girl whispered, “Plus extra for your troubles.”
The merchant glanced down at the square of gold pressed into her palm. Before she could speak, the hold of the salhulk erupted with a cacophony of jubilation. Rees’ bellow rode upon the din.
“That’s game!” he shouted excitedly.
“What under Sorna is going on here?!” exclaimed Falhul.
“Cool day to you, Master, uh, Captain Locksmith!”
Ahme fled up the gangplank. As her father’s head appeared rising from the stairs, Ahme threw herself forward, sliding feet first to the edge of the hold. Just as she was about to plummet off the deck, the girl caught hold of the edge and lurched to a stop. Rees stopped as he spotted his daughter.
“What a match!” he said, a giant smile splitting his face. “I’m sorry your team did not win.”
Ahme wiped the sweat from her brow.
“I did not know you enjoyed sports,” she said.
“Normally, I do not,” Rees admitted. “Watching muscle-headed troglodytes flex their egos is not my thing. Still, that game is more grace and finesse than brute strength. Wits and strategy, a must. That’s what I like to see! You using your head.”
As Rees spoke, a curious gleam invaded his eyes. Ahme wondered if her father was still talking about the Three Step match.
She glanced at the sternhouse. To her relief, the door hadn’t bounced open when she slammed it shut. Pethos stood by Yogo’s pen, nudging hay into a pile with his toe while a breathless Dral chatted with his teammates. The game was over and the spectators were trickling off the ship. The caper appeared to be over.
“Permission to come aboard, captain!”
Ahme cringed as Rees turned to the gangplank. Falhul waited, tapping her foot.
“Come over,” he beckoned.
Ahme held her breath as she glanced at her co-conspirators. Pethos had stiffened into a little statue as he watched the salhulk captains approach one another. Dral, in a desperate attempt to seem innocent, whistled as he searched the sky. His teammates shot each other confused glances.
“Dral?” one asked. “Are you well?”
“Cool day to you,”said Falhul. “I am Captain Falhul Themenose.”
“Greetings, Captain Themenose,” replied Rees. “I am Rees. What brings you to my ship this splendid day?”
For a moment, Ahme’s teeth and fists competed to see which could clench the hardest. Falhul would surely accuse her of stealing. Her father would be furious, plus he would uncover her scheme. The caper was lost.
The master locksmith put on a friendly smile.
“Two of my ships are anchored sunside,” she said. “I am short handed and hoped your daughter could help with repairs. Perhaps her two friends here could help as well.”
She gestured at Pethos and Dral, the former petrified with fear. Dral’s whistle sputtered into a dry, blowing sound, like a dried lemon sac squashed beneath an elephant’s foot. Ahme’s nails dug deeper into palms while her jaw began to ache.
Rees turned an inquisitive eye at his daughter. After a moment, he frowned.
“Of course,” he said, turning back to Falhul. “She would be happy to help. I cannot speak for those two, however. You must speak with their parents.”
The wizened salhulk captain smiled and nodded her head.
“Of course. Thank you, Captain.”
Rees nodded. Falhul turned and made her way off the ship. As she reached the far end of the gangplank, she snuck a knowing glance at Ahme. The merchant captain departed.
“That was strange,” whispered Rees as he rejoined his daughter.
The tension drained from Ahme’s body. Pethos reanimated and joined Ahme’s side. Dral followed, his lips sputtering into silence.
“What a great game!” Pethos declared.
“Great fun,” he added.
“Thanks for being the judge,” she said to Rees.
Rees’ grin reappeared.
“I make a great judge, don’t I. I have a very keen eye.”
Pethos and Ahme exchanged smirks.
“Indeed, no one is as observant as I.”
“Okay, Rees,” Ahme said, growing annoyed. “That’s enough.”
“A falcon’s eye, they say.”
She shook her head.
“No one says that.”
“Someone might,” Rees said, looking bruised.
“No. Not ever.”
They looked at the other players leaving the ship.
“Where is everyone going?” Rees shouted. “Honey cakes for everyone!”
The village children cheered. Ahme smiled up at her father. The peculiar glint had returned to Rees’ eye as he winked down at her.
The caper was a success.