It wasn’t until they had been at sea for some time that Slate, Pilotte, or Hatty realized they weren’t alone on the sloop Jean Bee. Sometime after breakfast, but before high noon, a small cacophony started emanating from the Captain’s cabin. First was a thud and a shattering of glass, then there was a boom, and then a constrained moan of pain that found release in the salty air when the cabin door burst open and the pirate captain fell out onto the deck. He was obviously very hung-over, if not still drunk, and he smelled as awful as he looked.
“It’s the captain!” Slate called to Hatty. “He’s awake!”
Hatty set the wheel and came down from the sterncastle, laughing.
“Well, well. Looks like we have a stowaway!” he said.
“What’s all this?” the captain barked, confused by the open sea around him. “Who are you two?” he demanded, trying to appear in charge of the situation and himself.
Pilotte lifted his head, observed the fumbling captain, yawned, and went back to sleep.
“Who are we?” Hatty asked. “Might I ask, who are you? And what are you doing aboard our ship?”
Slate didn’t miss a beat. “Indeed. And why is it you should be in our cabin, sir?” he asked.
The usurped captain looked pathetically confused as he spun to and fro around the deck, moaning softly and trying to make sense of what was happening. “Command me? But I’m the captain of the ship. Who do you think you are?” he asked. “Where is everyone else?”
“Oh, see, he must not be well,” Hatty said with an affected sigh. “He thinks he’s the captain of our ship.”
“I am Captain Verialus Cointer, I am in charge of this sloop, and I take my governance from no one but myself,” the captain growled with a grimace as he reached for the thunder stick tucked in his belt. He fumbled and dropped the heavy object onto the deck, where Hatty easily kicked it out of his reach and retrieved it.
“Well, Captain, it seems as if you’ve just issued yourself your termination papers,” Hatty said as he tucked the implement into the sash sitting high around his waist. “Your services aboard this vessel are no longer required.”
“What is that, anyways?” Slate asked Hatty.
“This here is a quickshot,” Hatty said. He lifted the apparatus up over his head and pulled its trigger to demonstrate how it was used. The device went off with a loud bang and a poof of smoke.
“What’s the point of such a horrible thing?” Slate asked.
“Well, it’s not just noise and smoke, see...” Hatty said. He aimed the quickshot at the door of the captain’s cabin. With a second explosion, Slate saw that the device actually launched projectiles, as evidenced by two smoldering holes through the door.
“Pretty fancy, eh?” Hatty asked. “Terrible weapon, though. Cowardly.”
“What, have you never seen a quickshot before?” Verialus asked Slate. He was now sitting cross-legged on the deck, wearing a pitiful look of defeat. “I’ve been overtaken on my own ship by a boy who has never even seen a quickshot before,” he moaned to the sky.
“Sir, perhaps you should return to bed until your senses are stronger,” Slate said to the former captain.
“I don’t wish to! You cannot tell me how to act!” the captain said obstinately. “This is my ship!”
“But oh, it’s not, and yes, we can,” Hatty said, gripping the quickshot menacingly.
“But! But!” the captain sputtered, until he finally stood up, threw his hat down, paused to steady himself, huffed, and then tottered into his quarters. A loud thud and the sound of snoring followed soon after.
“That’s pretty ingenious, really,” Slate said of the quickshot. “May I see it?”
“Well now…” Hatty said with a deep breath. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible.”
“Why not?” Slate asked.
“Because if you had it,” Hatty said, “Then I wouldn’t, and that just wouldn’t be smart. To give you all that power.”
“What, don’t you trust me?” Slate asked.
Hatty smiled and shook his head no.
“But you’ve no reason not to,” Slate said.
“Debatable, but I can trust myself,” Hatty explained. “See, I’d let you see it if I had another for myself, but as long as there is only one, I prefer it stay in the hands of someone I know intimately.”
Slate understood what Hatty meant, but still, so long as Hatty had the weapon, and was awake, Slate felt under his subjugation. Hatty seemed benevolent though, and maybe even trustworthy, sacrificing himself as he had to help escape the island. In any case, Pilotte, though injured, wasn’t going to let anything happen, anyways.
Later in the waning afternoon, the sun bore down hot as Slate tended to the wulf’s injuries.
“Poor thing,” Slate said, pouring strong alcohol onto a particularly nasty sore on the Pilotte’s neck.
The wulf winced and howled softly.
“He sure trusts you,” Hatty said from the sterncastle.
“He should,” said Slate. “He’s one of my best friends and I’d do anything for him.”
“You’re lucky to have each other.”
“It’s awful the way they treat animals. Awful the way they treat everyone, really. Even themselves.”
“Yeah, well, they are pirates, aren’t they?”
“Well. I set them all free,” said Slate. “Let all the animals out. When I saved Pilotte. I saved them.”
“You think you saved them?” asked Hatty.
“Sure I did. I let them out and, now they’re free. You should have seen them going after the pirates on the beach.”
“That was probably amusing for a while, I’m sure. In any case, free or dead. I’m sure you expedited their deaths.”
Slate hadn’t considered as much.
“Yes, I’m sure they’re all on the butchers block by now,” continued Hatty. “Exotic meats for the trading day.”
“Oh,” Slate said. “Well now I feel awful.”
“Slate, it’s better you set them free. They were being forced to fight, were dying slowly anyways. Better free or dead. Remember that.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Slate. But he wasn’t sure.
The rest of the trip to Jaidour was hastened by an early Searching Season storm system that blew up from the southern sea. Under pitch-black clouds which poured their fury down on the sloop, Slate and Hatty made small talk about trivial things to pass the time. Pilotte regained much of his strength during the journey, and the three became something almost like friends, though the quickshot and Hatty’s aloofness kept them from growing too close.
On the fifth day out from the Passage Islands, the beacon from the lighthouse of Jaidour pierced through the sheeting rain in pulses as it illuminated the angry atmosphere, calling the Jean Bee out from the madness of the storm to harbor along the sandy cliffs of the western Protersian coast.
“We’re going to have to time this right, if we hope to go unnoticed,” Hatty told Slate. “Jaidour is under near-lockdown lately, with what is happening in Opal Pools. They won’t be expecting any ships during Searching Season, but that doesn’t mean the coast will be unguarded. From where the patrol boats sit outside Jaidour, the glare from the ocean will be at its brightest in about an hour. And the best place to hide in the ocean, is the brightest. Hopefully we can get close enough to the calmer waters by that time that we can ditch the sloop and row the rest of our way.”
“And if we can’t?” Slate asked. “If they see us?”
“Well, if they capture us, we’re likely to be jailed indefinitely. So we’ll have to come up with something else if that’s the case,” Hatty said matter-of-factly.
The rain subsided completely as the sun rose higher and the clouds dispersed. As Hatty prepared a rowboat, Slate got to steer the sloop himself, something he had been eager to try since leaving the islands. A fortuitous current of air filled the headsail as Slate dropped it, which sent the sloop sailing swiftly toward the landmass on the horizon.
It was just as the lighthouse of Jaidour itself became visible on the spit ahead that Verialus Cointer fell out of his cabin again, obviously refreshed in his drunkenness. He began to load his own lifeboat with small goods, mainly bottles of wine.
“Captain?” Slate asked, watching the man struggle against himself. “Captain Cointer?”
“Don’t captain me, young man. Never seen so much disrespect in my life,” the pirate grumbled. Slate wondered what respect a pirate captain should expect.
“What, uh…” Hatty began, trying not to laugh at the drunken captain, “What you doin’ over there, Verialus?”
“It might behoove you sea dogs to know that there are three ships approaching from the coast, at great speed. In case you might be concerned,” Verialus sniffed. “But what would I know about anything?”
“What is talking about?” Hatty asked. A quick look through his binoculars explained what the captain meant.
“What is it?” Slate asked, unable to see anything looming ahead with his naked eye.
“Well…” Hatty said, “I can’t… Yep… Three ships, I think three… they aren’t flying any flags, though. That I can see, anyways.”
“Those are government ships. The only ones allowed to not identify themselves. Though it kind of gives them away, doesn’t it?” the captain said with a cackle. “I’m sure any one of them would love to bring in the Jean Bee.” He started lowering the rowboat down into the water on the ship’s winch, but lost control. The boat dropped into the ocean with a great splash.
“You’re just going to abandon ship? Honorable to the end,” Hatty said. “Let him go, Slate. We don’t have time for his nonsense. Take your position.”
Captain Cointer then saluted and threw himself off the Jean Bee. Luckily, he and managed to land in his rowboat. He must have knocked himself unconscious in the fall, too, because the boat drifted off with the current, the captain slumped over his precious bottles of wine.
“Can you escape the ships?” Slate asked Hatty, refocusing on their new threat.
“No, I don’t think so. The fire power on those ships wouldn’t let us get more than five leagues,” Hatty said, scratching his beard.
“Hatty!” Slate cried, suddenly very worried. “What are we going to do?”
“Well… I’ve got an idea,” Hatty answered. “You ever fired off a blastporter before?”
“I haven’t, no,” Slate answered. “You’re not thinking of fighting those titans, are you? There are three of them!”
“Not fighting, just distracting,” Hatty murmured.
He spun the Jean Bee around to where the starboard side paralleled the three ships now nakedly visible on the horizon.
“Follow me!” Hatty shouted to Slate, leaping from the sterncastle and grabbing onto a nearby line, which he rode down to the deck. There, he began readying one of the seven small blastporters that poked their charred heads through the portals along the side of the sloop.
“I said come on! Let’s go!” he shouted at Slate, who was frozen in terror at the sight of the ships approaching. Slate snapped to attention and raced down the boards to the third blastporter, where Hatty was preparing its charge.
“Like this!” Hatty shouted with hurried anxiety, demonstrating to Slate how to pack the weapon. He poured from a nearby store of gunpowder a fair amount of the explosive, and then packed it down with a long-bristled swab, before rolling a heavy sphere that strained his neck muscles to bulging into the chamber. Slate moved on to the fourth blastporter to do the same, and soon the rest were ready.
“Now what do we do?” Slate asked.
“We wait,” Hatty answered.
“Until they’re in firing range.”
“And then we fire?” Slate asked.
“It’d be a good time,” Hatty answered.
“What of the men onboard?”
“What of them?” Hatty asked. He began waving his arms to the ships as if asking for help. “They are coming for us, Slate. The shells should only disable or slow them down, they aren’t explosive. Now, wave your arms, like this.”
“And then we turn back, or head north?” Slate asked, raising arms in the air.
“No. You’ll see. On point now, they’re coming closer. Keep waiving.”
It was still another ten minutes or so before the warships were within firing range. The time spent waiting was agony; Slate just wished they could hurry up, to get whatever was about to happen over with as quickly as possible.
When the ships were very near indeed, they turned parallel to the little sloop and began to lift their sails and slow down.
“Okay, here we go. They’re moving into position. Take this,” Hatty said to Slate as he handed him one of two sparkboxes, “Get those fuses lit!”
Slate ran to the first of the seven blastporters and sparked the fuse as Hatty returned to the wheel. Just as the seventh fuse was lit, the first of the blastporters went off, with a huge plume of smoke and a noise like a clap of thunder. The force sent the blastporter rolling back across the deck of the sloop.
“You were supposed to secure them!” Hatty shouted as the other blastporters erupted.
“I didn’t know!” Slate screamed back.
The first three shells from the Jean Bee missed the government ships completely, but the fourth and rest hit the closest square in the hull. This sent the warship careening off to the south, pushing the other two ships along with it as they strove to avoid collision.
“Ha ha!” Hatty shouted. “What a hit! Load ’em up again!”
Slate found the blastporters extremely hot to the touch, and seared his hand when he first attempted to re-load. He fumbled a bit with his burn but was able to overcome the set-back and had all seven blastporters reloaded in little time.
“Spark ’em when they’re ready! We gotta hit ’em one more time before they split!” Hatty cried.
He had maneuvered the Jean Bee a bit southward to compensate for the government ships’ relocations, and so the second volley of shells was able to directly strike all three of the ships, though the widespread meant they were less effective than before. In fact, there was nothing in this second round of shells to dissuade the approaching ships at all; the sloop had lost its element of surprise. Soon the massive ships were separated and moving into attack position.
“We’re going to have to press forward!” Hatty cried. “Sailing right through them is our only hope. They’re too big to turn around, and we have to hope they won’t shoot toward each other.”
“Right through them?” Slate gasped, the sloop gaining speed and bouncing wildly along the ocean under Hatty’s ace navigation. “But we could die!”
“Captivity isn’t for me, Slate. And it shouldn’t be for you or anyone else! Free or dead!”
Foamy water that came up like a hand over the side of the sloop, smacking Slate hard on the back and soaking the store of blastpowder he was scooping from. As Slate struggled to move across the slippery deck toward drier powder, the sloop came up against a huge wave, one that lifted its front up at a near forty-five-degree angle. The Jean Bee groaned and moaned as it strained against the sea, before the wave collapsed on itself and the sloop sank back down, deep into the water, then rolled over far to the left, its masts nearly horizontal, then the right, before coming level. The rocking almost dumped the ship’s crew into the ocean, but they managed to hang on, as the blastporters slid about the deck.
When the sloop began to surge forward again, the blastporters chased Slate and Pilotte across the deck, as Hatty did his best to fight against the wind-battered ocean in the sterncastle. The ship bounced and skipped like a rock cast from the shore, its planks and beams groaning and crying out as they struggled to remain together.
One of the government vessels was able to move swiftly enough in the gaining wind that it could position itself for firing. Slate watched the smoke trace the ship’s shells’ way to the sloop, those first missed making a neat line of one-two-three-splashes in the water before the rest connected and sent pieces of the Jean Bee exploding upwards and outwards. Through the dust and debris raining down from the explosions, Slate could see that the damage was severe, possibly too much for the sloop to bear.
“I think we’re taking on a lot of water!” Slate shouted up to Hatty, who was locked to the wheel with a look of fierce determination.
“I can tell!” Hatty shouted back.
As the sloop slipped between the great government ships, Slate could hear the crews onboard them calling and shouting. The Jean Bee grew sluggish with all the water it had taken on accumulating, leaning to the starboard side. Though the spit reaching out from Jaidour was so close now, it didn’t seem like the boat was going to make it.
“What are we going to do?” Slate begged of Hatty.
“We’re going to have to beach her!” Hatty shouted back.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, hang on tight!” Hatty shouted.
Though the boat was water-logged losing speed, it was obviously still moving fast enough to where an impact with the coastline was going to be catastrophic.
“We’re going to crash! Hatty! What should I do?” Slate shouted helplessly.
“Hope for the best!” Hatty shouted back. He roped the wheel into locked position and leapt up to catch hold of some rigging. “Try to hold on to something that moves!”
Slate spun around looking for something to hold on to. He saw Pilotte bracing himself, and then his bag, washed into a corner. Just as he had made it to his bag and wrapped one hand around its handle, another round of shells sounded from the government ships, seconds before the sloop collided with the shore, hard. The whole of the already weakened ship buckled under the impact, splitting the deck into a ‘v’. Pilotte disappeared through the splintered deck as the force of the crash catapulted Slate into the air.
He soared high, up past Hatty, who was snapped back by the rigging as if on a leash, up past shells flying through the debris of the exploding ship. For a brief moment, he could see Jaidour, and then his body twisted in the air and he saw the three ships on the ocean, and then the rocky spit below him. How suddenly it was all going to be over, he thought. His trajectory arrested, he began his descent to the jagged rocks below, closed his eyes, and prepared to die.
With a loud thwack of taught canvas his eyes popped back open, as he bounced off one of the sloop’s sails like it were a trampoline, just as the mast wedged itself into the sandy coastline. He fell back to the canvas and bounced again, this time neatly and gently off onto the beach. Pilotte appeared, somehow unscathed from the wreckage, and raced to make sure Slate was alright.
Hatty hadn’t been as lucky, which Slate discovered when he climbed to where his bag was dangling from the splintered mast. Slate found the poor rogue nearly split in two himself, splayed across rocks and broken wood.
“Hatty!” Slate cried, rushing to the pirate’s side.
“You had better get out of here quickly,” Hatty gurgled as he closed his teary eyes.
“Hatty,” Slate said, assessing the pieces of the pirate as if he might somehow be able to put them back together. “Hatty, I’m so sorry…”
“No, Slate. Don’t worry about me. I’m almost free. Now run! Run, Slate!”
With this, Hatty stopped breathing, and his splintered limbs stopped twitching shortly thereafter.
Slate wiped his eyes and managed to stand up. It was hard to move quickly with grief weighing so heavily, but he knew he had to. He knew those three ships weren’t acting alone, that others would surely be dispatched to the scene of the crash. Pilotte urged him to keep moving, and the two raced through pieces of the exploded ship toward the lighthouse ahead. As fleetly as wisps they flew past it, before disappearing deep into the waiting jungle on the other side.
Slate ran for what seemed like lengths, until he stumbled upon a cave. He charged deep into the cave and hid, with Pilotte at his side. The two stayed there, waiting for cheated death to come searching, until the sun went down, and through the dark night.