Tail the First: In Which Our Hero Discovers the Price of Her Salt
The fizzle started low in Cinrak’s stout belly. It wove around her ribs, along her spine, and ruffled the fur on the back of her neck.
Teetering atop the orphanage’s great oak, the capybara instinctively turned her broad snout towards the silver sliver of harbour glimpsed through the straight-backed buildings of Ratholme. The oak tried to be as tall and graceful as possible for its charge, revelling at being a stand in for a pirate ship.
Cinrak shaded her eyes like she’d seen captains do. Dolphins? Wrong. An oncoming storm? No. The steady, warm nor’east wind had no intention of giving up its turn to its siblings.
Ah! There! Cutting around the headlands.
“Ship ahoy!” whisper-cried Cinrak to her ‘crew’ of oak leaves, who all shivered with anticipation.
What a beauty. For the purple thistle on white flag to be seen, the masts must be the tallest in the pirate fleet.
The harbour horns honked welcome, a harmony to the hammering of Cinrak’s heart. She didn’t recognize the complicated cadence, but it sang of just the importance Cinrak sought.
Could this be her ship?
As she did twice a sun since she ticked over into her fourteenth star-turn at the orphanage, she assessed her memorized packing list. A well-read, clean and handsome pirate was a good pirate, in Cinrak’s estimation.
She wouldn’t pack any of those awful frilly dresses Helet made her wear.
It wasn’t running away to sea. Taking one’s dream by the shoulders, speaking the words of apprenticeship with a clear and fierce voice, was a plan.
The kitchen door smacked open and the oak winced in sympathy for the courtyard wall.
Cinrak winced at the endearment.
Helet did not look up. She never looked up.
“Cinrak, darling. I need you to go down to the bookseller and the library.” The stout capybara matron stuck her head in the stables and the cool store. “Cinrak? Time to stop playing sillies now.”
Cinrak landed with a thump-clatter on the cobbles. Helet reeled back, forepaw to chest. “Cinrak! Dearest! Your dress! What would any of the anyone think if they saw you up there?”
Nothing, Cinrak presumed. Visitors to Helet’s orphanage weren’t interested in a loud voiced capybara who looked like a walking brick in a dress. All her friends of her age had already gone to apprenticeships or higher school. Some had even found families.
As Helet rattled on with her instructions, Cinrak rolled the word around in her mind: Family. Hers had been lost to a terrible influenza which had overtaken Ratholme just before Queen Lyola took the throne. She had been just a kit in arms, and what did names and faces of her herd mean if she didn’t remember them? She preferred to dream forwards, not backwards, of her pirate family. They didn’t have to be capybara either. She liked all species. Unlike Queen Lyola, who favoured rats above all, making things difficult at court, in trade, and in the streets. Wasn’t that what a good pirate did? Fight for the downtrodden and meek as well as the strong and silent?
Helet said her family was her and the orphanage kits, but it seemed more like Cinrak was the one acting like a mother before she even knew what being a kit meant. While Helet was busy giving sermons or lectures on her theological pride and joy, the Great Capybara Mother, Cinrak was soothing nightmares and scraped knees. That felt more like work, especially when those young ones found a family and forgot her quick.
“Cinrak? Sweetie? Are you listening to me? Get your head out of the clouds.” Helet folded her arms across her barrel chest. How did she manage to make dresses sit so nice on her broad frame? Cinrak couldn’t understand how they were of the same species. “Did you get all that?”
Cinrak counted off on her claws. “Requests to the library. Payment for the bookseller, divided based on the rarity of the book. First dibs on whatever comes off the new ship. Apothecary for cough medicine, analgesic powder, and herbs for Marilette’s fever. And absolutely no detours past the docks.”
Ah, the exchange of information. Going to collect books. This wasn’t work. That was an adventure worthy of a budding pirate.
“Good.” Helet nodded stiffly, lifting her voice for the neighbours to hear. “No kit of mine will be seen near that den of dull-skuggery and delinquency.”
Cinrak grimaced into the ruffles of her collar and edged towards the gate.
“And change your shoes, for Mother’s sake,” Helet sighed. “Those boots have mud all over them, and they don’t go with that dress at all.”
“‘Come as you are, you fit and feeble, dirty and deterge, you are all welcome in my kenning’,” Cinrak muttered, but Helet chose not to hear that particular quote from the Mother’s Text.
Hunched in the overhang of the market arch—it had only taken two tries to hoist herself up—Cinrak stewed over the questions she didn’t have answers to, and might never.
Why had Helet chosen to be an orphanage matron? Was it the good stipend from crown and council? Rumour had it Queen Lyola disdained kits, more especially those who weren’t rats, but she kept up appearances. Kits had repurposed an old rhyme, chanting in the markets “Lyola, Lyola, Lemon Face, be so ugly even cats won’t chase.” But even though Helet spoke fondly of the rat queen, especially in earshot of influential neighbours, she had yet to be invited to deliver a lecture on the Great Mother at court.
Ugh, her lectures. Cinrak felt like her fur would melt from boredom. Perhaps Helet chose the matronage life to have a dedicated congregation. “Get them young,” as she said about pirates.
Cinrak wanted to talk about these Very Important Things, but Helet said she had to wait until she was grown up. On the other paw, Helet was always tasking her with Grown Up—boring—jobs, telling her to grow up, be a young lady, stop climbing the oak. Ugh. At what point was Grown Up enough?
She took a bite of her stolen green apple, and her spirits lifted. Today’s lightpaw attempt was a win! Foncruter had marked her a solid six out of ten when she went back to pay. The ex-pirate who taught her these tricks had never given her anything above a five before. Why anyone would give up piratry for selling produce, Cinrak did not understand, though she did enjoy the air of mystery around the old ferret.
As she left, Foncruter’s granddaughter Cassilly had blushed in her general direction. Cinrak didn’t know how she made young girls blush, but she did, and she enjoyed it.
The docks bustled to bursting point. People in frilly clothes conducted business discreet, frivolous, wanton, or intriguing depending on the agent’s intent. The fishmongers called barter shanties, throwing wrapped fish to customers. The taverns were already bursting with cheer, sea paws searching for a good meal and a bath. Shouts ahoy guided crates of wondrous stuffs from afar onto carts.
Somewhere in that mess must be the person who would teach Cinrak how to pirate, to fight and to curse.
Helet’s stockist of esteemed theological texts had not received their shipment yet. The ship had barely begun unloading, and non-perishables were well down the list.
What a shame, Cinrak thought. She would just have to find another way to procure Helet’s textbooks.
A rat stood at the bottom of the gangplank, twirling their tail. Every now and then they’d toss an inventive curse at the handlers or squint at the frenetic activity surrounding one of the more salacious taverns, but otherwise boredom was writ large on their rusty brown features.
Cinrak triple-checked her garb. With her baggy pants tucked into boots, frilly, if frayed, shirt, and a belt with an oversized silver buckle (procured from the Theatre Rat-oyal’s scrap bin), she thought she made a passable cabin kit.
Cinrak scrambled down, stood as straight as the oak had taught her, took a deep breath, then sauntered into the crowd. Exhilaration bubbled in her belly much like her strange fizzle. She was one of them, a real pirate, blending like salt into the ocean!
The bored rat looked Cinrak up and down with one keen eye, the other a silver scar from hairline to jaw. Stripped of her fur, Cinrak shivered.
“Greets. Yer a bit young to be ‘round here.” Their voice was rough and warm like a summer storm.
All feeling left Cinrak’s tongue. “Old enough. Business. To be doing with. Likes of you.”
A knife-like smile slid across the rat’s face, twisting the scar. The sun hustled from behind a cloud, making everything too sharp. Shadows once warm with promise now were cold flashes with watchful eyes. The water slapped against the dock and ship impatiently. Ropes creaked warily.
The rat’s smile softened, and the world snapped back into a single frame. “Eh, alright smarty pants. I like a sharp tongue on a young ‘un. Shows they got wit.” They held out a forepaw. “I be Mereg.”
Sweet, delicious air flooded Cinrak’s broad chest.
The rat hadn’t given a gender signifier, so she switched her own dialect to Civil, to give her own gender signifier. “My name is Cinrak. Don’t have any other name.”
Having practised with the oak, she grasped Mereg’s paw firmly, but the pi-rat switched the greeting, clasping wrists.
“That be the pirate way. Cinrak, eh? No other name by design or because ye still choosin’?”
“Because I didn’t get one.” One could choose a name? Helet said names were ordained by the Great Capybara Mother, and stuck for life.
“Aye, understood lass.” Mereg wrapped their very long tail around their wrist. This close, Cinrak could see a light dusting of silver in their ear fluff too. “Now, what busy-ness you be wantin’ with the Cry Havoc, feared by many, home to the loyal, decent few.”
Cinrak loved pirate ship names, and this one was a beauty! The vessel was a wonder of rock candy, railings sunset yellow atop planks of midnight purple, doors and roofing blood red. The colours were not affectations of paint jobs renewed each season, but ingrained in the wood. A mer figurehead pinned the whole ship together, red hair whipping, green eyes shrewd and far-seeing.
“I have, uh, a client very interested in any books you have in your inventory. About theology. The Great Capybara Mother in particular.”
“The Great Mother, eh?” Mereg eyeballed Cinrak like they were stripping the meat from her bones. They rubbed the digits of one paw together. “An’ what sorta fee we talkin’ if I let ye be first to dig through them crates.”
Pirates will be pirates.
“Five percent above what you’d sell them to market.”
The words shot out like Cinrak practised. She marvelled at how the rat, someone low in the crew to be pulling watch like this, kept a sloth-face.
“Seven, with first look at your next shipment.”
Mereg smirked. “Ye pretty good at this for a young ‘un. Almost think ye got a bit o’ pirate blood in ye.”
Cinrak’s spine crickled as she stood tall.
“A’ight.” Mereg held out their paw again. “Ye have a deal. Come aboard, an’ let’s get crackin’.”
Cinrak’s rear paws tingled like the ship itself welcomed her on board.
“Ye ever bin on a pirate ship before, lass?” Mereg squinted as they descended into the gloomy hold.
Good pirates needed a little dastardliness. But Helet said good girls weren’t liars. She wasn’t a good girl for coming aboard the ship. She couldn’t imagine such regret. How could one know their truth until one experienced it? Grown-ups could be so stupid.
“Nay.” Cinrak gave in to her better side. “Treated with traders with my matron, but never been up close.”
Mereg nodded. “Second rule of the ship is honesty. I appreciate that. If yer ma wants to have at about it, she can come to the cap’n first.”
“Not me ma,” Cinrak muttered. Helet facing up to a pirate captain? That would be a treat!
“What that, lass?”
“I said, what’s the first rule?”
“Loyalty to yer crew.” Mereg adjusted some fairy-glow lamps to brighten their hue.
“Doesn’t that cause conflict because everyone has different ideas and opinions?”
“Yer a sharp one. Aye, it does. The cap’n appreciates that in the crew. We all have to work an’ live an’ sleep in the same space. Gotta be comfortable in consensus.”
“Queen Lyola could learn a thing or two from pirates,” Cinrak muttered.
“Aye, she could.” Mereg chuckled, making notations in a ledger as Cinrak chose from the crates. “But Lyola ain’t on these ships. This here is our domain. An’ if she don’t like the way we work, then she ain’t getting any o’ the spoils.”
Cinrak planted her rearpaws against the slight at-rest roll of the boat. The planks felt more solid to her than land, though they’d only been acquainted for a short time.
“This is not what I’ve been taught about piratry.”
“Some folks be havin’ strange notions about us. Can be a headwind into a hurricane, lass.” Something deeper than the ocean settled in the dark pool of Mereg’s eye. They blinked it away with a smile as wicked as the rapier strapped to their hip. “Ye sure ye not from another boat? Not one of them spies from the anti-unionists, eh? Wouldn’t put it past them to try evil on someone so young.”
“Yes. I mean, no. I mean, yes, never been on a ship. No, I wouldn’t know how to be a spy, let alone a pirate. Why do you ask?”
Mereg raised then lowered her whiskery nose as she gestured Cinrak to lead the way up the stairs. “Fer a first timer on a ship, yer doing ackseptshunally well. Tell ye what, lass, ye keep that seven percent fer yerself.”
Cinrak’s hackles bristled. “Whatever for?”
“Settle yer fur.” Mereg patted the air. “I jus’ saying ye ken yer stuff. Crew always trips down these hold ladders first time.” Mereg gestured rearpawwards as they headed up. “An’ ye know ye way round them books, theology an’ nowt. I see ye got yer eye on that one o’ human tales. Not many cabin kits ken haggle e’en in their first star-turns. That deserves acknowledgement. How many star-turns ye have on ye?”
Cinrak blinked in the sunlight and raised her blunt snout. “Sixteen.”
Mereg laughed. “Good eye, but not a very good tongue fer lies.”
Cinrak sniffed. “Fourteen.”
“Better. On the young side, but we seen younger here onboard.”
“What d’ya mean by—”
Cinrak swung her face ocean side, eyes narrowing until the bay became a silver-blue blur in her vision.
A sly smile twitched Mereg’s scar. “What it be, lass?”
“Wind coming,” Cinrak said. “Not till after dark. You’ll be wanting to loosen the rope...thingie...there, tighten at that end. Lash down that...thingie...there.”
“Ya mean to make sure our good girl here don’t turn an’ bash the dock. An’ there’s no fancy word for the wheel.” Mereg sniffed the air and nodded. “Ye can smell it, aye?”
Cinrak shrugged. “Can always tell the tides and weather change without looking. What does that mean?”
Mereg’s teeth flashed sharp and shining. Even with their good eye closed, it seemed like they could see everything. “Got that pirate salt in yer blood.”
A shiver danced down Cinrak’s spine.
Stammering her thanks and regards to Mereg’s captain, Cinrak barely remembered to breathe as she pounded down the gangway and back to the safety of home.