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A romantic, magical short story full of pirates by Ezra Hanning
The moon was high and full in the night, sending rays of white light into the ankle-deep waters that had risen to hug the base of the buildings in town, sparkling ripples of pure silver through the unfurling ocean. Ephraim might have stared at it for hours, lost in its shimmering, but he couldn't stop running. He didn’t see any of the figures that slipped through the alleyways and hissed on rooftops with pale faces and eyes like old embers, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. They were everywhere tonight.
Ephraim flew down a set of steps and turned into the darkest opening he could see, sticking to the shadows and panting worse than a dog in the summer heat. Ephraim was very aware of the inordinate amounts of noise he was making as he splashed his way through the partly submerged town. He had managed to lose the figure following him by diverting through Shiv’s Hole, but it would not be long before one of them found him again, especially with the racket the bird was making.
The feathery creature he had tucked under his right arm was squawking loud enough that its echo bounced off the buildings. He shifted its weight and haphazardly checked to make sure he wasn’t bending any of its ridiculously long feathers. But no, they all flowed out from his side like an iridescent tail.
Something splashed behind him and Ephraim ran faster. He didn’t look back. One misstep on the slippery cobblestones and he was done for. He didn’t have to look anyway, he knew what it was.
With a lurch, Ephraim turned onto Main Street, setting his eyes on the town bell. Just a few tolls and everyone would know they were under attack. He had his mouth open, the cry of ‘pirates’ ready to be shouted with the bell’s pealing when a blow landed on his back and he went sprawling. The bird screeched and Ephraim rolled over, hands covering his face. The figure loomed above him, and up close, Ephraim could see that its face was pure bone with a slit for the mouth and fire for the eyes. Instinctively he kicked at the pirate and it fell away for a moment, letting out a shocked grunt.
Ephraim lunged for the bird next to him and gripped it in his hands. If they wanted this, by Jove he wasn’t going to let them have it. He whispered the words quickly as he could, the well-practiced syllables flowing from his mouth in song. The bird let out one last indignant squawk, cut off as the seams of its feathers turned into night, the tips of its wings and beak and feet disintegrating into stardust. What used to be a bird floated upwards, Ephraim still urging it on in melodious tones, and the once-bird gathered into five points of light. The bone-faced pirate cringed away from the brightness, but Ephraim still squinted at it. He only finished his song when all traces of the bird were gone, just four new stars twinkling in the sky above in the shape of a winged constellation.
The figure looked up at it, eyes ebbing with faint red light. Ephraim tried to stand and run, though his legs protested. With a snap, the figure leveled a sword at him, the blade sharpened bone, the point a hair’s breadth away from Ephraim’s neck. Ephraim froze. The pirate growled and smoke curled from its gash of a mouth.
“Bring it back,” the thing rasped.
Ephraim said nothing. The tip of the sword flicked up and sliced across his cheekbone.
“Bring it back,” it repeated, words dripping with venom, “I won’t ask again.”
Ephraim said nothing, just splashed water at the figure. Its eyes extinguished, leaving dark pits and smoke billowed out of its mouth. It cursed and swung. The last thing Ephraim saw was the thin ocean water enveloping him.
An ache throbbed through his head. Ephraim cringed away, eyes still closed, but it didn’t leave. It thrummed again and then dissipated, and in this new lack of pain, Ephraim woke up. Everything was impossibly bright, but as he squinted, a tanned human face wavered directly in front of him.
Ephraim tried to back away, but the thick binds kept him from moving more than an inch. The world swayed. The person in front of him rocked back for a moment, annoyance clear across their features. Ephraim could see that they were clad in loose work clothes, similar to what the folks down at the dock wore, though these looked older, as if this fabric had seen much more action. The person tucked a long strand of hair behind their ear and leaned forward again.
“Don’t move,” they murmured low like a sea wave, “yer cut is deeper than it looks.”
Ephraim’s cheek stung with steady pain and he winced, turning his head away from their fingers.
“Stay still,” they admonished, a smile slow on their face, “unless ye want bleedin’ and infection.”
Ephraim moved his head back, leaning it against whatever he was tied to.
“Where am I?” he asked, the back of his throat scratching like old sandpaper.
“Give ye three guesses,” the person in front of him raised their eyebrows, but continued, “yer on board The Perdita. Ye were out for several hours, the Cap’m wacked ye good. Now—”
“What do you want?” If Ephraim had enough moisture in his mouth he would have spit.
“Me? Nothin’,” the pirate said, “but the Capt’n? Well, I’ll let her tell ye.”
“And ye were doin’ so well,” the person tutted, “now stop movin’ about, that includes yer mouth.” Ephraim tucked his lips into a frown. The pirate in front of him touched the tip of their finger to the cut on Ephraim’s face. He winced instinctively, but there wasn’t any pain. He tried to look, but of course, that gave him no help. There was just a warm sensation, like afternoon sand, but softer than that, like laundry after it had been beaten supple and left on the line all day, and there was no more pain.
Ephraim looked and he could see his own reflection against the dark of their irises. He didn’t look great, but the cut was completely gone. Not even a scar remained. Loosening his focus, Ephraim took in their whole face, the strong chin, wild hair, bright eyes, and umber skin. They were probably around the same age as himself, not even a fifth of a century under their belt.
“Who are you?” Ephraim grunted.
“Most folks call me Nilam,” the pirate grinned.
“Are you magic too?” Ephraim asked.
“Aye,” they said, “what else do ye think healed yer head? The seagulls?” Nilam looked around and then lowered their voice to continue. “I heard ye was might focused in the craft yerself.”
“And what can ye do?”
“None of your business,” Ephraim said.
Nilam seemed to find favor in that. “And what do they call ye? What be yer name?”
“Right fine name that is,” Nilam said, “though not—”
Ephraim never did find out what his name wasn’t because at that moment a loud voice boomed over the ship.
“Make yerselves lively and movin', we’ve got a need to sail due east fast as ye can. Hoist all sails and brace the foreyard.” As Nilam backed away, Ephraim could see the Captain stride into view. She was tall and wearing clothes much the same as the crew, though she had a necklace that shimmered the way that only a pure metal alloy can and a hat like buckshot in motion. As she turned to give more orders, Ephraim saw a familiar white face slung across her back on a rope, the eye sockets now flameless and empty. The mask was out of sight again in an instant as the Captain’s gaze found him.
“Oh, he’s up is he?” she asked, baring her teeth in what only an alligator could call a smile.
“Aye,” Nilam said, snapping to attention.
“Perfect,” the Captain drawled, then turned her attention to Ephraim, “listen here, boy, ye are gonna do what I ask, and if ye do, I’ll bring ye back ta yer town. I’ll let ye go. Do ye hear me?”
“What if I have no interest in doing anything for a pirate?” Ephraim asked.
“Ye met Nilam, right?” the Captain asked, then continued without waiting for an answer, “ye know what they can do. I can almost kill you a hundred different ways and they can keep ye goin’ long enough till ye see things my way.” Nilam stared resolutely down at the deck between their bare feet. “Do ye see what I mean?”
“What do you want me to do?” Ephraim asked.
“Since ye was so kind as ta put that bird in the sky instead of down here on the good green earth, I need ye ta take this ship up ter the same starry sky.”
Ephraim blinked. “What?”
“Ye heard me,” the Captain said, “if ye can place the bird up there, ye can bring us there too.”
“Do you really need the bird that badly?” Ephraim asked.
“Not when I have you,” she said.
Ephraim was confused by now, but the Captain was staring knives into him, waiting for an answer.
“I don’t think I can do that,” Ephraim said.
“Nilam,” the Captain called over her shoulder without taking her eyes off Ephraim, “bring me a saw, please, and be prepared ter work your magic on bone—”
“Wait,” Ephraim said, “I just don’t think it’s possible for me to—”
“I saw ye do it with the bird,” the Captain said, “ye can do it.”
“This ship is a great deal larger than the bird,” Ephraim said.
“And yet ye turned something in ter stars,” the Captain said, “that is already impossible.”
Ephraim didn’t have anything to say to that except his gut was telling him he wouldn’t be able to do it. Somehow he thought that the Captain wouldn’t accept his feelings as having any real effect on the matter.
“I’ll do it,” he said. The Captain nodded.
“Make pace up ter seven knots,” she yelled in Ephraim's face, but for the crew’s benefit, “we’re setting sail towards the night.” There was a chorus of ‘aye-ayes’ and the Captain walked away past Ephraim.
The crew bustled about, not a single one of them standing still for an instant, and Ephraim became very aware of the nature of ships, particularly the rocking. Everything in his line of sight was moving and his own stomach rolled with the waves beneath the hull. He grit his teeth. He was not going to throw up, not when he hadn’t anywhere to be sick but his lap.
Ephraim looked to the heavens to steady his sight and noticed the sails on this ship. They weren’t the normal canvas, spotted with odd fabric patches and stitching, no, every inch of the sail was covered in long iridescent feathers. They sifted in the light from dark blue to vivid green and they numbered so many that Ephraim couldn’t see how they were held together, or if there was even a sail underneath it. It was as if the ship had wings. He locked eyes with Nilam, asking a silent question. They just dropped their gaze to something on the deck and Ephraim followed it. A red thing that might have once been a bird ran past, beak open in a squawk, completely bald with naked, it’s wrinkly skin well past sunburned.
It wasn’t until several hours later that Ephraim could very much sympathize with the state of the deck bird that still ran about, redder than a boiled lobster and just as bumpy. Ephraim could feel the sun cooking into his skin, burning him away slowly. He tried to lower his head, but that didn’t help much. The ship was sailing into the night and the sun they were putting behind them beat straight into his face.
Ephraim heard someone approach but didn’t look up. He could see from the feet that it was Nilam. They cleared their throat.
“So, are ye really gonna stay all tied up all day?” they asked.
Ephraim felt at the sound of their voice like a ray of sunlight turned kind and warmed his chest with a gentle light, but also annoyed at their ridiculous question.
“I do not have much of a choice, do I?” he answered. Nilam shrugged.
“I could let ye go and ye could help me an’ the cook with supper,” they said.
Ephraim was about to tell Nilam where they could stick it but instead what came out was—
Nilam shrugged again. “We need another pair a hands and ye need ter get out o’ the sun.”
Ephraim weighed his options before he finally answered. “Ok, I’ll help.”
Nilam grinned. “Perfect. Now promise you won’t try runnin’ away,” they said, “just cause I think ye might actually be that stubborn an’ stupid ta try it.”
“It’s not—it wouldn’t be stupid,” Ephraim said, catching himself at the last second.
“Aye, it’d be right stupid,” Nilam repeated, “where are ye gonna run?”
Ephraim conceded that much. Looking at his options, he could either take a trip to the stars and then back home, or a swim in the ocean as far as he could before drowning. One was significantly better than the other.
Ephraim sighed. “Fine, I promise.”
Nilam pulled out their sword without a flourish and slashed at Ephraim’s side. He jumped at the suddenness and Nilam smiled. The ropes fell away and Ephraim could feel the blood beginning to flow back into his hands.
“Come on then,” Nilam said, turning and walking down into the ship, “the kitchen’s this way.”
After a few wobbly steps, and nearly falling into Nilam from behind, Ephriam had serviceable sea legs. One through the doorway, Ephraim felt the shade of being indoors like the evening breeze that swept from clouds down through the mountains to meet the waves on the beach in the moonlight. He must have sighed aloud because Nilam paused a moment to look at him.
“Ye all right, mate?” they asked.
Ephraim cleared his throat and pushed past them, even though he had to stop a few feet ahead because he didn’t know where he was going. Nilam slipped by him and in the tight corridor, Ephraim could smell something like salt and oranges, but it was gone too soon to really tell. After a few deep breaths to steady himself, Ephraim followed.
Ephraim chopped carrots with abandon, not because he wanted to, but because the chef right next to him was wielding a huge knife to cut up the onions and his face seemed permanently contorted in a glower. Nilam was rather relaxed though, there wasn’t any danger for them, and they were deftly skinning the bird that had once been on the deck. They gave the bones to the chef who deftly snapped the thin white sticks and added the marrow to the stew.
“See, we don’t like ter waste any part ‘o the bird,” Nilam said grinning. Ephraim swallowed. Sure, his family raised and bred birds, but he never had to butcher one, never even eaten one before. All his family’s birds were for selling, and with that money, they could buy three more dinners. It was weird to see a bird so still and practically turned inside out.
The cook let out a yelp and Nilam leaned over to press a hand to his arm. Now with this perspective, Ephraim could see a faint yellow glow on Nilam’s hands as they healed the cook of his recurring chest pains. The light was like a dance. Nilam caught Ephraim looking.
“What do ye think?” they asked.
“You know, if the Captain just wants that bird, I can bring it back,” Ephraim said, not really answering their question, and definitely ignoring the flush that Niliam’s gaze brought to his cheeks, “we don’t have to go up there.”
“It’s like she said,” Nilam picked up the knife again, “she don’t need the bird if we got ye.”
“Then why are we going up there?”
Nilam leaned in, a spark in their eyes. “Let me tell ye why: the Capt’n is in love with a star.”
“What?” Ephraim said.
“Aye, tis the truth. Her lover’s a star, or a group ‘o stars anyway. She lost her up there years ago—”
“How does that happen?”
“Capt’n won’t say. She’s gonna go up there and find her, ta be with her again.”
Ephraim didn’t know what to say, so he stood in stunned silence until the cook shoved him to keep chopping. He shook his head. “The Captain is crazy, and so are you.”
“And yer the one who turned a bird the likes ‘o this one in ter a constellation,” Nilam pointed out, “that makes ye crazy, an’ a witch too.”
“And you can heal people, what does that make you?”
“A healer,” Nilam said simply.
Ephraim couldn’t really argue against that and finished the carrots before moving on to the celery. With a conspiratorial glance at the chef, Nilam dug around in their pockets, which crinkled with the movement, then held out their fist to Ephriam. Nilam smiled, daring Ephraim to extend his hand, again checking that the chef had his back turned. Ephraim couldn’t not accept. Nilam dropped a small object in his hand and then returned back to the carcass in front of them. Ephraim inspected the thing. It was round and gritty, covered with a brown grainy substance with a slight stickiness to it. Ephraim tried to catch Nilam’s eye but they avoided him. Though they did bring out another object from their pocket and slipped it into their mouth. Not totally convinced, Ephraim licked it and found only sweetness. Whatever it was, it was sugar-coated. He bit it and the taste of sweetened orange juice slipped over his tongue. Ephraim swallowed then cleared his throat before speaking again.
“I think you can help me,” he said, “help you.”
“Oh,” Nilam said, “how?”
“I think you can help me get this ship in the stars, lend me your magic,” Ephraim said.
“Lend ye me magic?”
“Yes. And it would benefit you to see your Captain happy.”
“Right then,” Nilam agreed, finishing the breast and turning to the arms, “but by the logic you keep tryin’ ter spin here, me magic would be too different from yers ter work.”
“Worth a try, right?” Ephraim said.
“Aye, and ye might be more like us pirates than ye realize.”
“No,” Ephraim snapped.
“Yes’un,” Nilam said, “yer startin’ to think like one.”
“Take it as a compliment,” Nilam said.
“No, thank you,” Ephraim responded.
“Ye could though, surely ye don’t think we’re all that bad?” Nilam said, sneaking another candy up to their lips. Before he could stop himself, Ephraim wondered if Nilam tasted like oranges and sugar. Ephraim coughed, nearly choking.
Nilam looked up, concern written across their features. Ephraim waved them off.
“No, I guess not all of them,” Ephraim said, the color rising in his cheeks, “but still, flying to the stars?”
“Oh, come off it, wouldn’t ye do the same if ye were in the Cap’n’s position?” Nilam was leaning over the bird, paying close attention to the work, but as they looked up, Ephraim noticed their face was very close to his. For a moment, it rather felt like Ephraim had something fluttering around in his stomach, making his heart beat a little faster. Ephraim dropped his eyes back to the celery, saying nothing.
Nilam rocked back and turned their eyes to their task again, a thin smile breaking through their lips. “I would.”
Seeing as they were making good time traveling away from the sun, night fell fast and dark. Ephraim was back on deck now, and the free air felt more than good in his lungs. The smell of salt and cooling brine was so strong he could taste it. It tasted at the same time as when his hometown was half-submerged and like something new on the horizon, something that was drawing him in more than he wanted to admit. Something like freedom. Nilam caught him lifting his face into the wind and they smirked. Ye might be more like us pirates than ye realize echoed through his mind. He lowered his eyes to the deck. Maybe that wasn’t so bad, not if it felt like this.
The crew was busing themselves with running the ship, like usual, but every time Ephraim’s back was towards them, he could feel their stares, the whispers almost blending into the sound of the waves against the sideboards. Almost.
Nilam didn’t try to hide it though, they walked right up to Ephraim and clapped a hand on his shoulder. Ephraim didn’t twist out of the way like he might have, all too aware of the pulsing electricity that shot through him at the touch. It wasn’t Nilam’s magic. Well, not their healing magic.
“Are ye ready?” they asked, “the Capt’m’s got the ship almost in position.”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Ephraim said.
“So, not ready.”
“Hopefully with your help, I will be,” Ephraim said, glancing out of the corner of his eye at Nilam’s reaction.
“Ye can do it,” Nilam said confidently, eyes set where the dark sea met the darker night.
Ephraim hesitated, words waiting on the crest of his tongue. He let them roll.
“We can do it.” He looked again at Nilam to find them looking right back.
“Aye,” they said, lower than Ephraim had ever seen the tide. They leaned in closer, Ephraim still very aware of their hand on his back. “If ye’ll have me.”
Ephraim opened his mouth but the words wouldn’t quite surface. Something about Nilam’s soft warmth being so close to him melted everything he could have said.
“Look alive!” the Captain yelled, “we’re gettin’ on close, stay awake fer yer orders. We’ll be in them stars soon, ladies.” The crew cheered. Nilam stepped away as the Captain approached and Ephraim felt the chill anew without them.
“Alright, laddie,” the Captain spat, “are ye up for a bit o’ singin’?”
“Yes,” Ephraim swallowed, “where exactly in the stars do you want to go?”
The Captain spun him around and pointed up into the sky, her fingertip trying its best to touch a tight cluster of seven stars miles and miles away. “Do ye see?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Right then,” the Captain said, “all ye gotta do is get us some leverage—up in the sky, ya keen, I’ll do the rest o’ the steerin’ and such. Wait fer me mark.” She sauntered back to the steering wheel, calling out more orders to the crew as she did so.
“Did I mishear the Capt’n, or do ye sing yer magic?” Nilam grinned at Ephraim, and he had to stop the same smile from rising with the flush in his cheeks.
“Mayhaps,” Ephraim said, “just focus on giving me your magic as best you can.”
Nilam cracked their knuckles and wriggled their fingers.
The Captain yelled from behind them, “When’er yer ready, boy!”
Nilam locked eyes with Ephraim and held out their hand. Ephraim’s breath got caught in his chest.
“Fer the sharin’ the magic,” Nilam said, a playful expression betraying their half-truth.
Ephraim took their hand in his, feeling again the warmth radiating from their rough palm.
He looked to the stars, setting in his sights the constellation. As he began to sing, notes both strong and subtle, he noticed that Nilam looked rather surprised, mouth gently open, but he kept his attention on the syllables that were convincing the wooden deck to slip into a starry form, allowing the rope and rigging to turn to the shapely darkness of deep space. The incantation crested and fell, unfurling from Ephraim just as much as he was pushing it out. Nilam’s hand grew even warmer, the feeling rising up Ephraim’s arm and into his voice. He could feel the stars they were searching for, even from this distance, he could tell it was a person up there, a woman.
He kept singing as the ship that was more stardust than not followed its new nature and rose, leaving the water for wispy clouds and then the higher nightly sky. The Captain whooped in joy and the crew answered in kind, awed and exhilarated by their familiar Perdita flying them to the stars. Ephraim whispered his song now, letting go slowly as the ship found its new place, and began to sail through the night as if it had been born to.
When he let his voice finally rest, he sagged a little, out of breath and worn out. The field of stars swayed a bit in front of him, but he wasn’t sure if it was the ship or not. Nilam took no chances and let go of Ephraim’s hand to hold onto his arms, steadying him.
Ephraim mumbled a muted thanks. Nilam gave a little squeeze.
They both stared at the constellation growing in their view, the stars getting brighter, twinkling like they knew the ship was coming.
It was when they were almost right on top of it when Nilam whispered “I think ye might have to call her here.”
Ephraim swallowed. He started singing again, and before he had even gotten more than a few words out, the stars unstuck themselves from the sky and spun, leaping down towards them, she wanted to be found. As the sparkling stars neared, they dissolved into shining dust that fluttered to the ship. As the shimmering powder touched where the deck used to be, it fused in a pulse of light into a woman.
Her dark hair coiled and shifted in the solar wind as her soft tunic billowed.
“Aliya?” she asked with a sound like bells.
The Captain rushed from behind the wheel and swept Genevieve up in an embrace so sweet that Ephraim had half a mind to turn away. The Captain traced Genevieve’s jaw with the same finger she had used to point her out to Ephraim and, hooking that finger under Genevieve’s chin, pulled her in for a kiss. The crew cheered, a few of them sharing a similar embrace.
Ephraim did turn away now, a flush rising to his face that only intensified when he saw Nilam watching him with a steady smile.
“What?” Ephraim said.
“Ye know,” Nilam drawled, pausing for a moment, “it’s not right fair for them to be the only one’s celebratin’. Ye did all the work.”
“You’ve got a point,” Ephraim said, turning to face them fully, “though you helped me do it, so we ought to celebrate, together.”
He thought for a moment that Nilam hadn’t understood him, but then they leaned in slowly, lips parted just enough for Ephraim’s to fit between them. That warmth that had coursed through his arm and voice had been nothing compared to this. It bloomed in his head and he didn’t think he would ever be cold again. Nilam’s lips tasted like oranges and sugar and sea breeze and freedom. He drank in that warmth until they pulled away, leaving only a fraction of space between the two of them, both breathing the same air.
The crew had started up a lively tune, raising voices and playing both pipes and something stringed. Nilam gave a breathless laugh and bit their lip, glancing at the Captain dancing on the starry deck with Genevieve.
“After they have their first go at it,” they said, “would ye dance with me?”
Ephraim nodded. “Only if you kiss me again.”
And they did.
Ezra Alexander Hanning (He/Him/They/Them) is an enthusiastic reader, errant baker, thief of oranges, novice rollerblader, silent swimmer, and optimistic writer. At this point in time, he is very nearly nocturnal and has tea running in his veins. His work has been published in the Start literary journal and Navigating the Maze and he wants to grow his list of publications even more! They live in central Virginia and have been known to respond to greetings and devour copious amounts of apples.
Copyright © 2023 by Ezra Alexander Hanning
Published by Orion's Beau
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