There were many other ships, of all shapes and sizes, anchored in the crescent bay of the Passage Island into which the pirate sloop sailed, and hundreds of men and women swarming over the beach. The island was lush, as teeming with tropical birds and flowers as the vibrant corals of the bay were with schools of multi-colored fish and pods of dahlphins. It seemed a paradise, and sad to Slate that it had been co-opted by such villainous people. Surely it hadn’t been the natural beauty of the islands that the pirates had come looking for when they chose the place for home, but its great distance from the reach of the law.
When the sloop dropped its anchor, the real work began: a long afternoon slogging up and down the sandy beach, carrying plunder up to the safe point, out of reach of the highest tide, and from there into a deep, ferny grotto. Slate managed to stash his bag full of books during one such trip, but found poor Pilotte had been taken away while he was gone. He knew had to find him, somehow, as soon as there was free time.
After the work was finished, the pirates dispersed, some of them climbing up a long stairway to sleep in the camp overlooking the bay, others to the freshwater pools for fishing, but most to one or another of the numerous slapdash taverns on the tiny island. When it seemed sure that he wasn’t going to be missed, Slate grabbed his bag from its hiding place and slipped away, disappearing into the foliage to further explore and find where Pilotte had been taken.
He found a cave, hidden behind a waterfall and flowery vines. Inside the cave, piles of gold and treasure glittered like hot iron across the reflective striations in the stone. Slate was only just growing accustomed to the dimness when he heard something approaching outside him. He dove breathlessly into a pile of silk.
From hiding, Slate watched a thin-limbed shadow on the wall reach out an arm toward one of the mountainous silhouettes of plunder. Slate leaned so far forward from his hiding place as he looked on that he tumbled right out of it and into a pool of light, noisily scattering a stack of jut drinking cups across the cave floor as he fell.
“Who is it?” the shadowy figure across the cave gasped.
“Doney? Caloran? Hey, I was just... just checking, making sure I had put all of my take from today into the store…” the intruder fumbled. “Yep, yep. Looks good,” he said nervously. “Everything looks good here, so…
“What do you mean, you were just checking?” Slate asked, assuming the role of prosecutor, figuring that’s how the other pirates would act in the situation.
“I was… Hey, who are you, anyway?” the pirate barked. “And what are you doing in here?”
“I’m looking for someone.”
The pirate scoffed. “Oh? Someone? In here?”
“Not a person, I’m looking for the snarlingwulf we brought in today,” Slate said.
“In the loot cave? He’s out with the other animals, near the pit.”
“Oh, right,” said Slate. “Of course.”
“Bloody barbaric, that.”
“The fighting. Pitting those poor creatures against each other.”
“They’re going to make the wulf fight?”
“Of course they are.”
Slate tried not to look too upset.
“But that’s what you get when you work with pirates, isn’t it?” the man said with a shrug.
“Work with pirates? What, you aren’t a pirate yourself?”
“Nah, I’m my own man,” the gangly, greasy pirate answered. He pulled his suspenders regally and added, “I’m an independent contractor.”
“Really. Isn’t there better work you could find?”
“Better work? What, at one of the new mines? In politics? Why are you here, if there’s better work?”
“It’s different for me, I’m only…”
“Listen, we all go to different lengths to justify our behaviors. I only need to justify my actions to me, see? I don’t care about what anyone else thinks. That’s most everyone else’s problem. Why should anyone care about what all the other fearful, ignorant monkeys think about what they do? I could never understand.”
“You don’t think people should care about what anyone else thinks?” Slate asked. “At all?”
“No, sir. I think everyone should follow their own path. I know I’ve never stood in anyone’s way as they followed theirs.”
“Aren’t you noble, slaughtering silk traders.”
“Slaughter? Listen, I’ve taken some old lady’s jewelry, sure, I’ve threatened frightened women and children and men, and I don’t feel pride about it, but I’ve never killed anyone. Never stolen from the poor.”
“You’ve stood by while others did, though,” Slate said.
“You haven’t? I can see the scarlet proof that says otherwise right there on your shirt.”
“You really don’t understand,” Slate said.
“Oh, get a load of the self-importance with this one. “I’ve got my own high-minded excuse to tell myself, too. The way I see it, the whole riotous crowd we call society wants to go off to war and destroy themselves lately, and we’re going to need at least one of us to stay out of the fray. Who else would rebuild after they blow everything up?”
“You really believe that humanity is hopeless?” Slate asked. “A lost cause?”
“This generation. Yes, I do.”
“And what if it’s not?”
“What if the clouds were made of pink sugar fluff? Dreams.”
“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find my wulf and get out of here.”
“Out of where?”
“Off this island.”
“How do you plan to do that?”
“Any way I can.”
The pirate swayed in the stagnant cave air and scraped at a scab beneath his greasy, thin beard for a while, wearing a look of dull bewilderment. “Alright, sunshine,” he finally said, “Tell you what. I’ve been thinking about getting out of here myself for months now, and taking my fair share of the plunder with me. But my plan needed a partner. Now, if you help me, I’ll help you. We can get out of here together. What do you say?”
Slate looked the pirate over and considered the offer. He surely didn’t trust the man, but also didn’t feel that he was being dishonest. “You’ll really help me?” he asked.
“If only to help myself,” the pirate answered, with a broken smile.
“Well alright,” Slate said. “I really hope I’m not making a huge mistake. In any case, my name is Slate.”
“Slate, my name is Hatty. Good to meet you. Now, you better follow through, or it’ll be both our necks. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know, I know,” Slate said, wiping the nervous sweat from his forehead. “Now, where did you say I can find my wulf?”
“You’re wulf? You’re not a pirate at all, are you?” Hatty asked. “This is your first time here, isn’t it?”
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” Slate answered. “Please, where can I find my wulf?”
“On the other side of the beach, behind the viryall grove,” Hatty answered. “But you should wait until tomorrow to go looking for him. There’s a trade day tomorrow, so it’ll be your best distraction. We’ll both get up early, you’ll go get your wulfy, and I’ll commandeer us a sloop. We’ll meet on the beach, just before sunrise. But you’d better follow through, Slate, because if I get caught alone, I’m telling them all about you.”
“Listen, I’ll be there. Just make sure you are, too.”
“I will be, I will be.”
“Alright. Sunrise,” Slate confirmed, before leaving the smirking pirate in the cave and wondering what on Alm he had just agreed to.