King Elsa of Silmaria smiled to herself as she looked down on the supplicant before her. Her vision was returning slowly; she could only make out the vague shape of the shapeirian princess. Ruzhat.
Elsa’s weak eyes narrowed at the name. The princess had caused her much grief since her arrival weeks ago. The woman had tried to take over Ferrari’s business and buy Minos Island. The almost extinct Thieves’ Guild was brought back to life thanks to Ruzhat’s scheming. And the blackbird… Elsa’s prize from Spielburg had been stolen from under her nose by the thieving princess.
“Princess Ruzhat bin Daoud of Shapeir, charged with the crimes of working against the State, theft, and blackmail, you are sentenced to lifetime exile from Silmaria. If you are still on the island in twenty-four hours you will be shipped back to your father with an armed escort.” She gestured at the contingent of Silmarian guards at attention behind her.
It’s good to be the king, she thought to herself.
Ruzhat stood up proudly and stared Elsa in the eye. “So much for our agreement, hmm? Maybe I should tell the court about your affair?” Her words were cut off quickly.
“Even if anyone believed your ridiculous claims, you have no evidence to back them up. We do not want to see your face again.”
The king crossed her legs and watched in satisfaction as the princess coldly marched towards the doors out of the Hall of Kings. Today was going to be a good day.
* * *
Ruzhat angrily watched Abdim and Harami pack her possessions into travel bags. She would use her magic carpet to return to Shapeir and return to her horrid brother. The thought made her grimace. She hated Prince Bahman with a passion; he tried to rule her life and make her miserable.
If only there was a way to stay in Silmaria, she thought. This city is so much more enjoyable than my homeland. But she couldn’t think of a way to defy the king’s decree. Her temporary residence in an abandoned building on Nob Hill was short-lived; all of the empty houses (including the one she was in and Ferrari’s previous abode) were being sold to the people returning to the city.
Her two cronies finished their work and stood back from the bulging packs. The Princess of Shapeir never packed light.
She unrolled the magic carpet and watched her belongings get loaded onto the flying rug. Then, she stepped on and steered the carpet out of the door and into the sky. She called back to Harami and Adbim, “You’re in charge of the Guild now! Find somewhere safe for it!” Then she was out of hearing range and soon out of sight.
“Yeah, real easy to relocate a den of thieves,” Harami muttered sullenly.
“I would think that to be hard,” Abdim disagreed.
Harami didn’t reply.
* * *
All Ruzhat could see was water. She had been flying for hours and had soon left the cluster of islands behind her. And good riddance, she thought.
Nothing out of the ordinary had come up until several dark shapes loomed on the horizon. The forms were slowly moving toward her, toward Silmaria. It wasn’t for another minute or two until Ruzhat could discern masts and sails.
A fleet of ships? She thought of the blue-plated army and its armada, and hoped that what she saw wasn’t backup. Her curiosity overpowered her caution and she flew closer to see what was happening on deck of the leading vessel.
The shape of skull and crossbones shone brightly against patch of midnight hanging from the mast: pirates! Ruzhat realized. She had heard rumors of pirate raids on Silmaria before Hesparian mercenaries had driven them away. The corsairs must have heard of the Rites of Rulership and the new peace that reigned.
Pirates were notorious for spoiling peace. Since the Silmarian guard had not yet recovered from the Battle against the Beasts, the city-state was defenseless against a major fleet. Now was the time to strike.
Ruzhat briefly considered returning and warning the city, but pictured herself being locked away before the news reached the King. Instead she flew in closer, thinking she could use this to her advantage. If the pirates needed information on how best to enter the city, Ruzhat was more than willing to give it. Of course, she could give out the wrong information and receive accolades for saving Silmaria. She couldn’t decide which would benefit her the most.
It turned out that Fate didn’t want her to choose her path: even as the princess was pondering her course of action, she had lowered the carpet until the pirates were close enough to throw a net at her. And they did.
Ruzhat tumbled down to the deck with a thud and lay there, stunned. As air came whooshing back into her lungs, rough, unshaved, scarred faces peered over her. Most of them grinned.
“Looky here, fellows! We got us a pretty plaything! What’s say we test her out?” The leering pirate rubbed his cutlass against Ruzhat’s cheek in anticipation.
The others nodded, grinning. Their hands advanced, only to freeze in midair as a commanding voice rang from behind. “Leave her be!”
The circle of faces broke to admit a new face. It was a woman’s face, with high cheekbones and a thin face. It would have been beautiful, if not for the scars that marred the nose, eyebrows, and cheeks. The face examined Ruzhat, who was still writhing from the fall. “You’ll live. Come with me.”
Ruzhat wobbled to her feet and picked up her carpet. Then, swaying slightly from the fall and the rocking of the ship, she shambled to the open cabin where the other woman had just disappeared.
The room had a table, bunk, chest of drawers, and a porthole. Ruzhat could almost taste the blandness and forced herself not to gag.
The woman shut the door and faced her. “Who are you? I am told that you were seen flying on that carpet, from the direction of Silmaria. Spies are not welcome on my vessel. Know that you are still alive because you might be valuable; you are not here out of the mercy of my heart.” Her eyes were steel.
Ruzhat paused before picking her words. This woman was strong and no doubt meant what she had said. Ruzhat would either have to be as forthcoming with her knowledge as possible or be convincing enough that the captain would believe lies. And the princess was a master at lying.
“I thank you for saving me from your men, whatever your reasons.” Ruzhat brushed herself off calmly, trying to give an air of strength to this powerful woman. “I should not like to think of myself as a prize, but to some I might indeed be called ‘valuable’.” She smiled sweetly.
“Make me glad I spared your life before ya start getting comfortable. Speak!” The woman drew a cutlass and pointed it at Ruzhat’s throat.
Ruzhat didn’t show any sign of alarm. Rather, her face showed a hint of annoyance. “Very well, if we must resort to threats… I have come from Silmaria, you are correct in that assumption. However, I am not a spy. I have recently been…persuaded to relocate. I have left that city forever. Furthermore,” she smiled, a plan creeping into her mind, “I hold no affection for said city. For the right reasons, I might be able to give up what I know of its secrets.”
The princess felt a momentary flicker of some foreign emotion, but it died almost before it had appeared. Ruzhat would not give away all of her knowledge, but she knew enough to harm the city and its king without destroying them. If the pirates wanted to make themselves a nuisance, let them. Ruzhat couldn’t stop them anyway. All she could do was profit from the situation.
The pirate woman didn’t seem to react to Ruzhat’s news. The sword was still pointed at the princess’ throat, and her mouth remained pointed down. “Tell me your ‘information’ and I’ll decide whether it’s valuable or no.”
Ruzhat complied, knowing that her life was far from safe at this stage of the game. She described the city’s layout, proving that she at least had been inside Silmaria’s walls without giving information that an outsider wouldn’t know.
“That’s nothing new ta me! Tell me about how many guards there are, and where they are posted. Tell me where the rich live and where their treasures are. Tell me something worthwhile!” The woman glared at Ruzhat impatiently.
Ruzhat pictured Minos island, deserted since its owner killed himself. More wealth was hidden away there than in the rest of Silmaria. King Elsa had not yet sent more than a few guards to ensure the island’s safety from looters. If she could somehow persuade the pirates to loot Minos, then return to Silmaria and warn Elsa of what was going on, she could get be rewarded by both sides before they realized the entire story.
“I know of an island not far from Marete that holds more money than the Sultan of Shapeir’s treasury. And it is not well guarded. You can take what you want from there before Silmaria knows what is happening.” Ruzhat could see the woman hesitate before demanding more answers. Soon she would have treasure from the pirates and recompense from Silmaria.
Sheba didn’t remember a life before crime. She had grown up an orphan in the city of Silmaria, scavenging for food on the docks. More than anything she wanted to leave her wasted life and sail into the endless ocean on one of the glorious ships docked across the dingy alleyways she called home. To escape from the waking nightmare that was her life meant leaving her past behind and making a new one; a new life on the seas.
As she grew, she learned to pickpockets in addition to begging. As she became more experienced in theft, she risked more; eventually she tried to break into a noble’s house and was thrown in jail. A man who claimed to be a pirate was in an adjoining cell and was sympathetic to her tales of woe. He promised to take her with him when he left, though she doubted whether either of them would be leaving in the near future.
She liked the stories he told her, though, and would listen to accounts of faraway places and people for hours. Her favorite was of an eastern queen named Sheba who held much power. Never having been called anything but ‘thief,’ she adopted the imaginary queen’s name. Her friend said it suited her; she would one day be powerful like her namesake.
The man wasn’t lying when he said he would take her with him when he left; a few scant days after Sheba had been thrown in jail, her pirate friend was liberated by fellow shipmates. He freed her and offered to teach her all he knew.
Years followed on the pirate ship. Sheba learned how to handle a ship as well as defend herself from attackers. Life wasn’t safe for a young woman on a male dominated ship, and without her friend’s assistance she would most likely have been sold to slavers. As it was, her friend turned out to be the captain of the ship and became her teacher and lover. He protected her from the other pirates, though she didn’t need his protection for long. With intense training she became feared throughout disreputable circles.
Thus when her teacher was murdered by an ambitious first mate for the title of captain, she challenged her new commander to a dual. Thoughts of her former friend filled her head as she plunged her sword into the captain’s chest.
And now she was captain of The Ocean Queen, renamed to suit her style. In fact, the entire ship and crew was changed to suit her; she was now in control of her life as she had dreamed.
Now she was returning to her birthplace to lay to rest her childhood nightmares: she wanted revenge on the city which had created her, a weak orphan who slept in gutters. Flashbacks from her early years plagued her; the only way to put them to rest was to confront their origin.
And now, this Ruzhat, this treacherous princess, placed an obstacle in her path. The princess assumed that greed motivated Sheba’s actions as surely as they motivated her own. Doubtless the crew would want to go to this rich island and plunder everything in sight. This raid would alert Silmaria’s defenses and make it harder for Sheba to enter the city.
Thus when she responded to Ruzhat’s revelation of treasure on Minos Island, she tread carefully. If Sheba didn’t appear interested in the treasure, Ruzhat would tell the rest of the crew and a mutiny might occur. But if she let Ruzhat direct her to the island, there would be no hope of returning to Silmaria.
“What do you get out of this treasure hunt?” No doubt the princess would try to gain as much profit as possible, and her loyalties were not apparent.
“I want a share of the money, of course. I would not have dared steal when I was a loyal subject of King Elsa, but now that I am in exile, I have no qualms over a bit of larceny.”
“King Elsa?” Sheba had not heard of Silmaria’s new ruler. As far as she knew, King Justinian still ruled.
“Our glorious new king. She won the Rites of Rulership recently. Our history has not,” Ruzhat smiled wryly, “been the most amicable.”
A female king here, ruling the city where Sheba used to wish for a better life. A woman who must have been brave and strong to win the Rites. Sheba suddenly wanted to talk to this king; she felt as if Elsa was a kindred soul she had never known existed until now. To do so, she would have to ignore Minos’ wealth and focus on entering the city. And that would not be something her crew would like.
It was hard enough for the pirates to accept a female captain; often Sheba feared that her underlings would resent her ruler ship and replace her with a man. She was always strict; she would not let an opportunity of weakness on her part give the men an excuse to overthrow her.
Her only support was the ship wizard, Bas, who was a refugee from South Fricana. Sheba found him during one of her raids on the coast of North Fricana; he had been caught stealing by the looted village and was locked away in a small hut. In return for his freedom, Bas had pledged himself to Sheba’s service until he had repaid the debt. He would defend her with spells if necessary; sometimes Sheba wondered if this was all that kept her in power.
* * *
As Sheba tried to find a way to convert Ruzhat’s information of money into knowledge of King Elsa, a slave from the galleys was trying to find a place to hide. He had broken free of his rusted chains and managed to make his way above deck without anyone noticing his absence.
He snuck behind a stack of crates and watched for any sign of realization that a rower was missing. The crates were piled under the poop deck and allowed anyone nearby access to Sheba’s quarters. Those quarters happened to have a porthole which had carelessly been left open when Ruzhat arrived. The slave could hear the women’s conversation from behind the crates and unconsciously eavesdropped.
Sheba was now trying to get Ruzhat to forget the idea of Minos Island and give up information on Silmaria. She wasn’t getting very far.
The slave, named Muzad, absorbed the dialogue and tried to digest the information. He had been born in Hesparia and lived as a fisherman most of his life. He had only been captured a few months back, and separated from his wife and children. Every waking moment was spent thinking of ways to return to his family and most of his dreams placed him safely in his home, only to wake up in a living nightmare.
Sheba continued unsuccessfully to wheedle Ruzhat; her temper was shortening and she wasn’t getting anywhere. Ruzhat was also getting frustrated, though she kept her emotions better hidden than the captain. She sensed that her “host” wanted something, but could not discern what it was. Finally Sheba lost any remaining scrap of patience and sent Ruzhat away to have a chance to think.
Muzad quickly ducked away from the porthole and moved out of sight. When the captain was alone again, she pondered her situation aloud.
“That woman is intent on keeping me from my goal! If she wasn’t so insistent on her own interests I might convince her to take me to…to Silmaria.” Her eyes stared at nothing as she remembered a filthy urchin huddled in shadow and watching ships come and go.
She hardly knew what she was saying; her trance held her as if Bas had placed a spell on her. She hugged herself protectively and her face lost its steeliness. “I must go home- no, it’s not my home. My home is here among my men…My men who would betray me as soon as obey me. I can’t tell them about what that Shapeirian thief tries to entice me with. They would never let me stand in the way of plunder.” She shook herself and straightened her back. As if a new person altogether, the pirate queen strode out of her room and barked orders to the closest men.
All the while Muzad kept quiet and came to a decision; this turn of events gave him a chance, however slim, to escape. If he could somehow get to the rest of the slaves and convince them to slip the location of Minos’ treasure to the pirates, they would mutiny and give Muzad an opportunity to escape to Silmaria and gain a way home.
He left the shadows and was noticed by a sailor. He almost smiled as the whip gouged his back; when he returned to his chains he would have the ticket to freedom with him.
* * *
Elsa was alone at last. Toro had to admit that she was strong enough to take care of herself without his protection, and he had taken up his job as Guild Master again. Calypsokles and his guards had backed off and focused on patrolling the city and getting the populace back on its feet.
She had even managed to get Baron Ritter to return to his homeland, which bordered Spielburg. He had wanted to stay and trace the “vampire” Dark Master Katrina and slay her, but when he was faced with the fact that the no longer undead woman was on a state-sponsored mission to exterminate the current Dark Master, he backed down. He was sworn not to harm innocents, and since Katrina posed no threat to anyone (or so Elsa claimed) he had no reason to pursue his prey. Plus, he would have to go against Silmaria if he continued his search.
His offer of marriage to her was still refused, and he knew that the king’s stance would not be changing anytime soon. He and his mount left on the next ship sailing North.
The city was thriving; the damage from the Battle of the Beasts was fixed and new merchants were coming in since there was no more sign of danger. Elsa could relax a little.
Calypsokles came running in. “My King, tritons have reported pirate ships coming towards the isles! There is an entire fleet! What are your commands?”
Elsa stared at the soldier and clenched her mouth shut. She didn’t know what would happen if she said something. Counting to fifty, she breathed in deeply, held the breath, then exhaled slowly. She felt slightly better.
“Get the commanders ready. I will meet them in half an hour. I must prepare myself.” For what she didn’t say, instead opting to leave the unsaid words hanging ominously. He acquiesced and left, leaving her to stare at the wall, seething with frustration, bitterness, and a shimmer of relief. She had not yet planned what to do with the peaceful city; another threat would give her time to form some new policies for the land.
It never occurred to her that she might not win against this threat.
Sheba sat in Elsa’s throne with relish. She ran her hands over the armrests while slouched back in the plush purple cushions. She laughed to herself. Never in a million years had she expected this. An orphaned, impoverished child of Silmaria now sat on the King’s throne. She thought of the past week and how she had risen to her new position.
* * *
As soon as she had ended the fruitless conversation with Ruzhat, she ordered the fleet to move into a secluded area between small isles to the south of Marete. She needed a chance to think things over.
Bas had come almost as soon as she called for him; his presence was always slightly unnerving for her. She was not used to magic, and the Fricanan draped his power like a second robe. None of Sheba’s men tangled with Bas, and he in turn didn’t interfere with their business.
The mage listened to the captain’s plan and nodded quietly. He rarely said anything if words were not necessary. He was a loner by nature and kept to himself, even with the captain. He stalked away, quiet as death, and Sheba repressed a shiver.
All she could do now was wait for Bas to work his magic, so she returned to her cabin, thoughts of Silmaria filling her mind. It wasn’t long before her mage entered the room and nodded. He had fulfilled his task. Now it was time to let the crew know of her plans.
* * *
Muzad saw the faces of his companions flicker with hope as he described what he had heard in Sheba’s quarters. The older slaves barely paid him any attention; their hope had died after years of captivity. The newer, younger ones who thought of families left behind were eager to listen. As soon as he finished his story, Muzad was swarmed with suggestions on how to overthrow their captors. Soon, everyone below decks was working on a plan.
* * *
Ruzhat sat in the cell that the mage had created for her. It was “for her protection,” or so he claimed. She didn’t want to get in the crew’s way, or, she thought, the captain’s. She realized that Sheba’s interests were diverging from the crew’s, and that Ruzhat held the knowledge that would separate the captain from her men once and for all. She could almost admire the captain’s strength if it were not for the fact that she was locked in a magically sealed cabin.
Plus, the captain had underestimated Ruzhat. “And that is the beginning of the end for you, my dear Sheba,” she muttered as she got to work on the door. She knew where her magic carpet was being held, and she would soon be on her way back to Silmaria. King Elsa would be grateful to hear news of a pirate attack coming to her kingdom.
Ruzhat smiled. Everything always turned out right, if one put one’s mind to the task.
* * *
Elsa stood on the town wall looking out to sea. It was Calypsokles, however, who first spotted the ships. “Pirates!” The announcement brought the frozen onlookers to life; guards ran to their stations as Elsa consulted with Shakra.
The magic shop owner had agreed to help Elsa defend the city from the invaders if necessary. He had prepared battle spells for the ships and was ready to counter any magical attacks the fleet might use on Silmaria.
A small shape lifted away from the ships and flew toward the city. Elsa took out her telescope and directed it to the object. She gasped and clenched her fingers tightly over the glass. She should have known that Ruzhat would bring trouble to her.
The princess soon came into plain view, making guards whisper to each other. “Should I hold her?” Shakra held his hands up, magical energy emanating from them faintly.
“No, I will deal with her. We have some things to talk about.” Elsa grinned tightly, no humor in her face.
Ruzhat soon landed her carpet on the wall and bowed to Elsa. “My King, it is good to be home again,” she embellished. “I have urgent news to tell you. Might we speak in private?” She looked at the guards significantly.
The king narrowed her eyes and gritted her teeth. “Certainly, loyal citizen. I would like a chance to catch up with an old friend.” I can match her sarcasm if that is what she wants, she thought to herself as she led the princess to an unoccupied corner.
“How dare you show your face here after bringing the pirates to my city! Give me a reason why I shouldn’t have you executed on the spot!”
“Here’s one: I know what the pirates plan on doing. I can give you a detailed plan of their attack plans. I know how many men are on each ship. And how many women.” She smiled at Elsa’s look of surprise and continued. “I bet you didn’t know you’re about to be invaded by the one and only pirate fleet led by a woman. Funny how things work out, huh? The first female king is attacked by the first pirate queen. I’m just glad I can be a part of this historic moment. And that you’ve decided to renege on exiling me.”
“But you will if you want my information. Otherwise I’ll let these pesky buccaneers have whatever plunder they want from your beautiful Silmaria.”
“All right, all right, you can stay here, but on penalty of death if you ever break one law. I don’t care if you pick one little pocket or make all of the bank’s wealth disappear, you will die. Is that clear?”
“Of course, my beloved monarch. Now that the pleasantries are over, shall we get down to business. You want some information, am I correct?”
“Don’t get smart with me, give me what I want.”
* * *
Sheba looked at the familiar sight of her homeland. Had she really been gone for so long? The ‘shining city by the sea’ was the same she had always known, but larger. More buildings, more ships, same memories. She repressed a sudden surge of images that threatened to overwhelm her. Was this what she really wanted? Did she want to go home?
She thought her actions over, so totally engrossed that she didn’t hear the crew come up behind her. It wasn’t until they grabbed her did she realize what was happening, and by then it was too late.
* * *
Elsa looked at the lineup of prisoners. Sheba stood at the beginning with various lowlifes following, the scum rejected by the earth and forced to live on open water. Then there were the former slaves…
The king had set all of the slaves free after capturing the fleet, and invited all who had no family to stay in Silmaria to build a new life. The remaining slaves were given money to book passage to their own countries and find their families. The leader of the slaves, Muzad, expressed his gratitude to the king and promised to spread the word of Silmaria’s kindness to his native land, Hesparia. Perhaps this unintentional diplomatic act would bring the two nations together.
The pirates were forced to work to make new farms on the rocky island or go to jail, a fitting punishment for those who had forced slaves to work for them. But Sheba…
Elsa shook her head. She didn’t know what she was going to do with the former pirate queen. True, she had wanted to invade Silmaria, but at the same time Elsa felt a tie of kinship with her; it wasn’t often a woman would rise to that position. And Shakra has said she told the truth when she explained her motives. Elsa could sympathize with a young girl brought up by rogues, she had been one herself.
She sighed. “Sheba will come with me. Send the rest away.” The pirates trudged off to begin their new lives solemnly. Sheba followed Elsa back to the palace, escorted.
On the way Elsa thought of the battle, if it could be called that. After Ruzhat had given her information on the fleet Silmaria prepared for war. However, what would later be understood as a mutiny occurred on the ships; this distraction allowed Silmaria’s small navy to capture the pirates with the help of the Sea Folk. The pirates were taken captive and the slaves freed, a reversal of roles.
When the two women were alone in the Hall of Kings, Elsa looked at her former rival. This could have been me if I hadn’t been saved by Devon, she thought to herself.
Aloud, she said “Clean yourself up. We will have a talk tomorrow, but we’ve both been through much these past few days. I need rest, as I assume you do. I shall see you in the morning.” She walked out quickly before traitorous thoughts made her turn back and send the pirate to join her men.
Sheba smiled uncertainly, not knowing if this act of mercy was a sign of things to come, or a trick. Then she walked off to the baths. This was nothing like the Silmaria she remembered.
* * *
Sheba got out of Elsa’s throne when a voice behind her appeared. “So, you like my seat?”
Sheba blushed and turned to Elsa. “I have always wanted to see what it felt like to sit here, in the king’s throne. Ever since I was a little girl.”
“It was…rather stiff.” She hoped Elsa wouldn’t be insulted by her words. The last thing she wanted was to anger her benefactor.
“Yes, so it is with power. A ruler can do so many things, but her own life is uncomfortable. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, though.”
Sheba nodded, her thoughts drifting away. She remembered Bas, and his words of caution that made her crew lock her away instead of outright death. The wizard placed a spell of protection on her and watched over her until she was rescued by King Elsa. It was almost as if he knew what would happen, for minutes before the pirate ship was seized, he had entered Sheba’s cell and said farewell.
“You saved my life once, and the debt is now repaid. My thanks to you for all your kindnesses and the hope you have given me. I wish to return that hope to you. Do not despair; the King of Silmaria is just and will help you as best she can.” She? Sheba had wondered. “I must go now, for my fate would not be as gentle as yours if I were to be captured. Until we meet again, my captain.” And he was gone.
Soon a Silmarian soldier’s face would be peering down at her and yelling to his commander, and she would be shackled with her mutinous men. But Bas’ words filled her head and she was not afraid. And it turned out that his prediction had come true.
King Elsa, seeing a kindred spirit, had decided to keep Sheba in Silmaria, under what she considered house arrest. The former pirate could not leave the Hall of Kings without the king’s permission, and she would act as an advisor to the female king.
Elsa smiled at Sheba. The woman had been through much in her short life yet had managed to come out on top. She hoped some of Sheba’s guidance would lead her in the right direction as king. She would need all the help she could get.
* * *
Ruzhat set her bags down in the guild. “It’s good to be back. Nothing new since my ‘vacation?’”
Harami shook his head. “All’s quiet. I heard tell that the pirate queen is staying in the palace, though. Why can’t you get us something like that, eh? ‘Sabout time we were recognized for our hard work.” He dangled a stolen locket from his hand as he spoke.
Ruzhat smirked to herself. If the pirate queen could become Elsa’s political advisor, so could she. She had a feeling Elsa would need all the help she could get.
Back to Resurrection
Part Four: Beginning of the End