I am a kid who does not like fairy tales. My own father was a woodcutter. One day he did not come home. In the forest a monster ate him. My mother used to keep our house pretty and clean, but now she has to work as a maid at a mean family's house. Their house is pretty and clean, and they have lots of food. Our house is dirty and we barely have food.
Fairy tales should be a safe place for kids to learn how ugly life can be. People get eaten, parents abandon kids, wrong decisions trap you, bad luck hurts you. I thought I already knew how ugly life could be. I thought I did not need a fairy tale. Then I met Redbeard.
My name is Mirt. I was the first student in Redbeard's Flying School for Wayward Children.
I was playing in the street with some other wayward kids when I heard shouting. We ran to look. A big ship had appeared in the river, in the park in the middle of town. How did it get there? There were low bridges across the river on both sides. It could not have sailed there. I saw the ship had a pirate flag and the name Abominable.
An officer of the town watch arrived. He yelled, "Redbeard the pirate, you are under arrest! Come out."
Someone who did have red hair and a red beard came to the railing. The ship's deck was high above us. Redbeard calmly shouted back, "On a ship its captain is the law. I will stay here, officer."
The officer yelled, "You are a pirate! You have stolen and murdered! You are under arrest!" Other watchmen arrived and stood by him.
Redbeard held a spyglass. He turned it in his hands slowly as he said with the same calm shout, "Let those whose family I have harmed accuse me. If I enter your town, arrest me. For now I stay here." Then he held the spyglass to his eye and said, "Let's see more about this town."
He looked through the spyglass at the watch officer. "You, sir, would be most alarmed if you knew what your son was doing right now."
He aimed the spyglass at another watchman. "Your gambling habit has gotten much worse this month. Get help, sir, before you ruin your family as well as your good name."
To an old woman: "Be careful, goodwife. Your love of gossip is about to tempt you to blackmail. That would be a dark path to start walking."
To a young man: "Well done, sir. You came to Arlinac Town to put your past behind you, and are now an example to any who might try."
The spyglass scanned the crowd. It pointed at me. "You, boy, hate how your parents disappoint you. But you disappoint your mother and do not care."
No one else had replied to Redbeard. But I did. I shouted, "Who are you to talk? What can you teach me?"
Redbeard lowered the spyglass. He put his hands on his hips and laughed. "Well said, lad. But you are used to hiding behind your anger. Are you really willing to come out and be taught? My ship is full of wonders, yet I can make space for a classroom. That would be a wonder too. Will you come aboard?"
It was foolish and reckless, but so was I. I nodded. He lowered a rope ladder.
On deck he shook my hand. "Brave lad," he said, as if agreeing with someone. "Keep your shoes on. Want lunch? After a surprise I get hungry. This has been a morning of surprises."
I noticed his clothes were slightly damp and smelled of sea water. There were puddles on the deck. Redbeard went through a door. I followed. It was a kitchen. He slumped at the table. Gone was the loud man who had just shouted a wall of words around his ship. He was still tall and calm, but at rest, like a ship at dock being repaired and restocked.
He pointed to another chair. I sat. He stood and used some thin rope to tie back his long hair before striding to the sink to wash his hands. "Cheese, oranges, and hard bread," he said as he took those out of a pantry. "After we eat I should get some meat. Have you ever hunted a land shark?"
"Of course not."
"I'll do the hard work," he said. "You can be bait."
When I came home that night my shirt was torn, I was wearing different pants, and I carried a large bag. My mother rushed to hug me. "Are you hurt? Are you okay? I was told you went onto Redbeard's ship this morning but the town watch saw and heard nothing all day. What happened to your clothes?"
I set down the bag. I hugged my mother, a better hug than I had given her in a long time. Then I opened the bag and showed her what was inside. "Smoked land shark meat! He has a magic smoker that works in only an hour. He says rich folk will pay a lot for this meat. We hunted it together. Try some. It's good."
I paused. I led my mother to a chair. She sat. I paced and talked—just like Redbeard had done all day.
"He has a portal stone in his ship. Normally only a village or town or city has one, but his ship does! After lunch he gave me a passportal belt, and told me how to pray to Achiever to get a grommet for his stone. Then he made a portal to some ruins in the middle of a forest. We hiked and he talked. Then he raced me to the top of a hill. He won. And he got his breath back faster. 'Pay attention,' he said. 'I am in better shape than you. Not because I won the race. Not because I was less out of breath after racing. But because I recovered quickly and you are still panting.' Then we hiked back."
"What did he talk about?" my mother asked.
"That morning he was out at sea and about to die. His ship's mainmast is one of Ephemeral's propellers. But months ago he did something that made Ephemeral mad. His ship only sails normally now. Portal stones do not work out at sea, either. A huge sea monster was going to sink his ship and eat him.
"He prayed for help. Not to Achiever, who would keep his name famous but not save him. Not to Yarnspinner, since the sea monster would be a good end to his story. Not to Ephemeral, who was still mad at him. Not to Little Humble, or Speleoth, or Builder, or Gnash—none of them would help. So he prayed to Maw Lute and asked, 'Maw Lute! I do not ask you to save me. But please save the treasures on this ship! Do not let them sink to the bottom of the sea. Take them somewhere for others to enjoy after I am gone.' Then poof his ship was in Arlinac Town.
"Anyway, hiking back he told me that being scared was like being in shape. When we hunted the land shark I would be scared. Anyone would be. But I should ready myself. I should tell myself that I need not stay scared. I could get over it quickly.
"Back on his ship he had a big cage. I got in and all sorts of straps kept me right in the middle. Otherwise, when the shark attacked the cage I would fall, and an arm or leg would stick out between the bars and get bit."
"You were bait!?" my mother shrieked.
"I was safe," I said. "Redbeard was the one in danger. He had some way to attract a land shark, and hid up in a tree. The cage was tied to the tree, but the land shark almost broke those ropes as it attacked. The straps even kept my head safe, which Redbeard said was important. And how he fought! He lept from the tree onto the land shark and stabbed it twice before it threw him off, and it lunged and he dove, and he stabbed it more and they fought until it was dead."
I grinned at my mother. "I soiled my pants. That's why I am wearing new ones. He said everyone does their first time."
I made shapes with my hands. "Then we took apart the cage and it bolted together a different way to make a wagon, and we hauled the dead land shark back to the nearby portal stone. Then he got his smoking rack from the ship. It was a lot of work to get the meat and dry it. But we did it, there in the forest because he did not want the blood and stink on his ship. Then we washed in a stream, and he gave me half the meat, and I came home."
I hugged my mother again. "I learned a lot about shark muscles and organs. At the end he said he can make a potion that make a person invisible for half an hour, but not their bones or muscles. Tomorrow I'll go back with some friends and he will set up an challenge course we'll do like that, to learn about our own bones and muscles."
My mother was about to say, "No you won't." But she looked at me and sighed. "You don't listen when I say not to spend time with your wayward friends. How can I keep you from a famous pirate? Promise me you will come back safe. I don't trust this one bit."
That night I had trouble falling asleep. I heard my mother praying to Ephemeral, the Power who oversaw second chances.
You might be smarter than me. I was almost asleep before I realized that Redbeard had seen with his magic spyglass that my father had been hunted and eaten by a monster, so he made me hunt and eat a monster. That day had felt unreal, like I was a character in someone else's story. It had not felt like revenge. But after I saw there was also a bit of revenge for my own story, I liked that too.
Mirt found me in a tree. I did not know him well. I knew he also had a home and a bed to sleep in, which many of us did not. I knew his dad was dead, and his mom was sad. That seemed better than my parents, who drank too much every night and if they were not yelling and hitting at each other were doing that at me.
I had also heard a rumor that yesterday Mirt had been kidnapped by Redbeard.
"Halen," he called. "Come down."
"Why?" I asked. I liked my tree.
"I am going back to Redbeard," he said. "Today he will teach me about muscles and bones."
He really had been with Redbeard? And was going back? I made a face, to not look like I cared. "He is going to put you in a pot for dinner, and use your bones for scrimshaw."
"I will be delicious," Mirt said. I had never heard him make a joke, or sound so happy. "Are you coming? Don't let it be just me and Hafold."
"Hafold? Why would you invite him? He is prig." I turned into a bird, flew to the ground, then became myself again. Mirt was also a Therion, but he was not yet old enough to have an animal form.
"He is a prig because he is a Bergtroll. But he has a tail, and I want the potions to show me its muscles and bones."
"And you invited me so you could see bird bones?" I asked. Potions?
He looked embarassed. "Yeah. That's it."
The way he said it told me that was only half the truth. Were we really going to see each other's bones? But most of the street boys, when we climbed trees or onto roofs, tried to see up my shirt if they were below me, or down my shirt if they were above me. Mirt didn't do that. If he wanted to see how our hip bones were different—well I did too now.
"The pirate Redbeard is really using potions to teach street kids science?" I asked. "That makes no sense."
"I know," Mirt said as we walked to Hafold's hideout. "But yesterday he said that Ephemeral was mad at him. I think if he can make Ephemeral happy then his ship will fly."
I was thinking out loud. "So he is trying to give street kids a second chance, sort of. And willing to use up some of his treasure to do it. Sure, I'm in."
Mirt smiled. I liked how he did not try to shake my hand or hit my shoulder. He would team up with a girl without touching her.
Bergtrolls normally lived in fancy castles inside giant caves at the tops of mountains. Hafold would not told us why he was an orphan or living in Arlinac Town. But his hideout was a tent painted to be a bit like a castle in a big abandoned building.
"Hafold!" I called into his hideout. We were not supposed to go in his "cave" unless he invited us. "It's Halen. Mirt is taking us his new friend, Redbeard the pirate. Come along!"
Hafold came out of his tent. He always had good posture. He would scrounge fancy clothes, but they never fit him well and were always wrinkled. "Please, m'lady," he said. "A social call to a pirate? That would show abhorrent manners."
Mirt tossed him something. "Fancy food for your refined taste buds," he said. "Land shark meat. And we're visiting the Abominable. You are thinking of the wrong pirate ship."
Hafold tasted the smoked meat. "Perhaps his table is fit for a Bergtroll. Will we luncheon with him?"
"Come on," I said. "When we get there you can plan a tea party too."
As we came to the pirate ship Redbeard was using a spyglass to look around. He looked at us too, then put it away. "Welcome aboard," he called down. He lowered a rope ladder but I flew up as a bird. I wanted to test a rumor that I had heard about Redbeard.
I flew around his ship's sails until I saw a loose thread, then pulled it off. Redbeard vanished. He was a Hiddenfolk. I had stolen from him, so I could not see him.
I landed and took my own shape again. I took the thread from my mouth and held it out to him. "Sorry," I said. "Too curious."
"I forgive you, lass," he said, and then was visible again. Mirt and Hafold finished climbing up.
He showed us the tasks to do in a challenge course. I noted he was clear about giving us permission to go to those places on deck, and to move those things. If not we would be trespassing or stealing, and as a Hiddenfolk he would have to keep forgiving us.
The tasks involved all sorts of moving. We would jump from one table to another. We would turn a screwdriver. We would pull a rope so a block and tackle lifted a heavy sack. We would throw darts. Lots of tasks. There was even a mirror for the trick where you try to slowly move the tips of your pointer fingers together while looking in a mirror while closing one eye.
"Now, about the potions," Redbeard said. "Time for more than I told Mirt before. You will be invisible except for your bones and bigger muscles. You might have nightmares about what your faces look like. So do not rush through the tasks. Do what you like. Maybe avoid the mirror. No need to look at each other if that is too bad.
"You can even hide in that dark closet if you cannot stand to see yourself until the half hour is done. Hide in the dark. Touch your skin and clothes to remind yourself they are there."
He touched his face. "Only bones and bigger muscles. So you will not see your hair, or eyes. Your faces would be much worse if all the tiny muscles that moved your eyes were there, or the tiny muscles for making faces. You will see how your muscles overlap in layers. You will only see the muscles on top, which also means you will not see your heart and other inside muscles."
Redbeard was not going to drink. "I have other work to do. I have been scary enough in my time, and seen too much of people's insides. Please do not throw up on my deck."
We drank the potions and became frightful.
Hafold could not stand it. "Too much! Too much!" he kept yelling. He hid in that dark closet.
Mirt and I stayed apart. At first I tried to only look at my arms. Using the screwdriver was neat. Then I got more used to it, and looked at myself more carefully. I could not really tell I was a girl. I was much more a monster. Most of my skeleton was hidden behind muscle. It took a long time to be calm with the mirror.
Later I went to Mirt and told him to stand still. We were very similar. "I want to see Hafold's tail," I said. We went over to the closet and knocked on its door.
Mirt spoke the way Hafold liked. "M'lord Hafold, would you place deign to grace us with your presence. No need to open your eyes. We just wish to admire the magnificence of your tail."
"Too much!" Hafold called. But he did come out. Some Bergtrolls had tails like mice. Others had tails like cows. Hafold had a mouse-like tail. It was neat to see.
Mirt was comparing Hafold to me. "Are you staring at my butt?" I protested.
"I'm staring...within. Not at. That's different," Mirt said. Then he asked Hafold to twitch his tail. Hafold did. That was neat too. But Hafold had enough and went back inside.
I was about to tell Mirt that he better not ask me to wiggle. But Mirt caught me eye and wiggled his own hips, which made me laugh. Then we both were laughing. Later I wondered if the reason I never had nightmares about that time was the laughter. We were these two frightful things, but both laughing so hard we had to lean against the wall, even though it was not really that funny.
"I almost forgot about my bird form!" I said. How much time was left? I turned into a bird and flew to Mirt's finger.
Redbeard came out through a door. I guess he had seen too much of people's insides, but not with a bird. He must have been keeping an eye on us more than I knew. I let Mirt and Redbeard look at my bird muscles and skeleton, and I moved my wings and tail around.
After the potions wore off we talked a little. I said thank you twice. Those potions must have been expensive. Then we left. Redbeard did offer us food, but we could not eat so soon after what we had seen.
Then Redbeard sent us away. "Tomorrow I have something special to do. I need to get ready. You can come if you want. But I cannot promise you will be safe. We will be using a portal stone to rescue people from Conquest. You could help carry kids too weak to walk."
Hafold shuddered. Milt gulped. Conquest was the empire whose army captured towns and made the people slaves or worse.
"I'll come," I said. Every night I went to bed in a war zone, waiting for my parents to be done yelling and hitting. Of course I wanted to carry some kid to a safe place. I did not know enough.
The next day Hafold stayed home. Halen was at Redbeard's ship before me.
"Here is the plan," Redbeard said. "We travel to a portal stone. I will do all the fighting; you two wait. Once I say it is safe, help me search the village for people to rescue. Help them get to the portal stone. They will be starving and weak. Some will need help walking. There will be kids to carry. I will open a portal to another village where some of them have family. We all go through. Then we come home."
"That sounds simple," I said.
"Mirt, I pray it will be simple," said Redbeard. "But it will be hard. It will be worse than yesterday. You two did well with seeing bones and muscles. But you knew it was really you, and that you were safe and healthy. Today you will see worse."
"Yesterday was a test?" I asked.
"Yesterday was worth doing," said Redbeard. "Today is more so."
"What will be worse?" asked Halen.
Redbeard told us the history of the village. "When the army of Conquest came over the hills most people ran away. Only a few stayed to fight. But they did a new and clever thing. They dug under their village portal stone until it was in a big pit. Then they made the pit into a basement: a secret basement. Then they built a watch tower on top. They knew that once their village was taken most of the army would keep moving. Only a few enemies would stay to use the watch tower, and to use the village for keeping prisoners. My passportal belt has a grommet for that basement portal stone. I have gone there to spy. I know today is the best day."
"Why today?" I asked.
"Conquest has flying Therions that watch from the sky. I needed to wait for the army to move far enough past the village for those scouts to not notice our rescue right away. I can be sneaky and kill a few enemies in a tower. But we could not do the rescue if the main army noticed."
"So we are rescuing prisoners from other places?" said Halen. "Not from this village?"
"Yes. When the army of Conquest moves it takes prisoners with it, for the Ogres to eat."
Halen and I looked at each other.
Redbeard finished his answer. "Starving makes people's bodies partly shut down. Moving fast takes too much energy. Feelings take too much energy. So the prisoners will talk. They will ask where you are from. But they will seem sad. They will move slow. They will not say thank you. This does not mean they are not wanting rescue very much. But it will not look that way to you. You will see terrible things, and the people you rescue will not seem happy to get away from that terror even as you save them. That is why today will be hard."*
Redbeard was quiet. He looked at us for what seemed like a long time. "I would stay in the basement until I have killed our enemies. I will not try to make a rule that says 'Do not follow me.' I will be too busy to watch over you, and I do not like rules that no one will enforce. But there will be things in the watch tower you do not want to see. And there might be an enemy who returns to the tower from an outhouse."
Redbeard put on a pair of magic gloves. "These will make it silent near my hands. With them I can sneak up to enemies and fight with no noise."
He looked at us again. "Mirt, you have a passportal belt with a grommet to open a portal back here. Flee if the plan goes bad. Are we ready?"
The plan went well. Halen and I stayed in the basement for a few minutes that seemed like a very long time. Then Redbeard came back to get us. The first floor of the tower was one big room with door to outside and stairs going up. All the enemies had been in the tower. The village was safe.
There was blood on the floor, and little on the stairs. Redbeard had taken a body up so Halen and I would not have to see it. It took a few minutes for Redbeard to pray at the portal stone to open the right new portal. I decided to go upstairs and look at things. It did not seem right to be a part of this attack but not see even one body.
The people we rescued asked where we were from. "Arlinac Town," we said. I did not know why they asked. We led them, or carried them, to the basement so they could escape through the portal. This went on and on. There were a few dozen of them, and only three of us. The ones strong enough to walk wanted to lean on my shoulder. I thought I would need Halen's help to carry an adult, but they weighed so little. The children were hardest to look at and seemed to weigh nothing at all.
At the end we also went to the new village. There was crying and hugging and music and juice to drink. The people at the new village thanked us again and again. They also asked us where we were from. I stayed with children who looked like skeletons, trying to get them to drink juice. I got to see people from the new village stop by to smile at the children, touch them, and hold their hands as they rested or slept.
Finally we went back to Redbeard's ship. It had not really been much work, but I was really tired.
Redbeard looked at Halen and me. "You two will have to stay on my ship tonight. We probably got some bad germs. In the morning I will make potions so we do not get sick or make your families sick." He showed us a place with hammocks, blankets, and pillows. "Try to sleep if you can," he said. "I had already made plans that while we were gone your parents to be told you would not be home until morning." He shook our hands, then went to his cabin.
Halen and I did not talk. We barely looked at each other. But we worked together to make a nest with blankets and pillows. We lay down on our backs, side by side, shivering a bit even with plenty of blankets on us.
Halen spoke first. "There is no way my parents can understand today."
"There is no way anyone can understand," I agreed.
"Would you do it again?" Halen asked.
"Of course. Immediately."
We were quiet for a bit. I was glad there was enough light from the moon that the room was not all dark.
"Why did they ask where we were from?" I asked out loud
Halen took my hand in hers. "We were Arlinac Town. They needed to know they were not forgotten. Some place valued them. Some place remembered them. Some place cared."
"But no one in Arlinac Town knew about them," I said. "It was not true."
"It was true as soon as you and I knew we would do it again," Halen said. "It was true as soon as we saw them. That is all that matters."
Thinking about what I saw upstairs in the tower made me shiver more than before. Halen squeezed my hand and asked, "What?"
"On the second floor...the Ogre had a kitchen. He was not eating all the prisoners. He was starting with the kids."
Halen turned towards me, then was crying on my shoulder. "I just realized why the kids were the most starving. The parents gave them less of the food. They wanted their kid to be skinniest."
Halen and I held each other for a long time, shivering and crying. It was not really hugging. We did not want each other. I wanted to be myself. But I was still Arlinac Town that valued and remembered and cared. Being Arlinac Town by myself was too much for me. So I held Halen tight, and we were Arlinac Town together, which made it hurt less.
I did not think I would be able to fall sleep. But I did.
In the morning, when I woke up, Halen was already awake.
"Yesterday seems a bit like a dream," she said, "even though I remember everything."
"Yes. I think I am just Mirt again. Or mostly just Mirt. It was so hard being Arlinac Town." I did not know if she would understand.
"Yes," she said. "But we did it."
Then she looked at me, and pushed herself away. "But if you are just Mirt now, I don't want to be hugging a boy!"
"Go fly in the sunshine," I said. "I'll be okay."
When I went up to the deck I saw Redbeard. He took me to the kitchen. There were potions to drink, and breakfast.
My mother was waiting for me at home. I ran to her and hugged her tight. I cried some.
"What is wrong, Mirt?" she asked, very worried.
"Nothing is wrong," I said. "The world is much more big and terrible and beautiful than I knew."
"Are you okay?" she asked as I cried some more.
"No," I said. "You are so brave and strong. I had not understood. When father died...it was easier to run from that. I did not like your new job. I thought you were weak. But I was the weak one. You kept us going. You valued and cared about him and our family. I'm so sorry."
"I do not understand," she said. "But whatever it is, of course I forgive you."
"I remember him so clearly," I told her. "But sometimes the opposite is remembering is ignoring, not forgetting. I can choose to ignore less. I can choose to remember better."
My mother went to work. I went to try to talk to Lord Zathan, the noble who owned the Sellsword District land. He was a famous monster hunter who founded Arlinac Town. I did not think a boy would be able to see him. But maybe I could give one of his gate guards a message.
When I told the gate guards my name, they took me right away to Lord Zathan, who was sitting in his garden.
Lord Zathan was a Bergtroll. Years make them bigger. He was very tall and strong. His face and hands had scars. I gulped.
Lord Zathan sent the guard back to the gate. "So, Redbeard's first student. Why come here?"
"I..." I took a deep breath. His eyes were friendly, even if he was big and scary to look at. I thought about Hafold's tail muscles. "M'lord, I know I am young, but I want to join the town watch. I could watch for monsters from the town wall. Or run messages."
Lord Zathan rose from his chair. He walked to me, knelt down, and looked at my face carefully. "Tell me more. Something has made a mark on you."
An idea hit me. Lord Zathan had also been Arlinac Town, when it was new. He would understand. I told him about yesterday. I told him about what I did, and what it meant. I told him that a small part of me was still Arlinac Town, and that part would not go away.
Lord Zathan gave me warnings. He said the town had some lazy people on the town watch. But the ones like me were doomed to work hard. I must exercise to make my body strong. A strong body was needed to carry the bit of Arlinac Town in me, which would either get heavier or make me feel empty and sad.
He ended by saying, "You said the world is much more big and terrible and beautiful than you knew. Are you sure you want to keep learning more about that? You could just watch for monsters from the town wall."
I looked at his scars. I pointed to the biggest one on his face. "Please, m'lord, tell me about that one."
That is the end of my true fairy tale. I did not go back to Redbeard. I did not start spending time with Halen. I joined the town watch. I saved up some money, so my mother could quit her job for a few weeks and find a nicer family to work for as a maid.
Maybe I grew up and had adventures—but those would be different stories and not a fairy tale. These three days where when, as a kid, I had a safe place to learn how ugly life can be. Maybe I wrote it well enough that the world seems more terrible and beautiful to you now, without you getting marked as I was.
The next day I did heard the end of the story.
Halen found me and was very excited. She flew down as a bird, then changed to herself. "Mirt, listen to what I saw!"
She said yesterday she did not want to go back to Redbeard. But she could not stay away. She flew as a bird and spied on him all day. After lunch Lord Zathan came near the pirate ship and called out.
"Redbeard the Pirate," he bellowed, "we must talk."
Redbeard came to look over the deck's railing. He stood tall and calm, and shouted back politely. "Lord Zathan, to what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
"A boy came to me to apply for a job on the town watch," said Lord Zathan. "I do not like what he told me. It is wrong to roughly take a way a child's innocence."
Redbeard answered, "He lost his innocence the day his father was eaten. I showed him that the terror and horror he already knew were very large, but not large enough to deserve defining him."
Lord Zathan said, "Their personal horrors are real, and just as big as before."
Redbeard answered, "Their burdens weigh no less. But the fulcrum has moved."
Lord Zathan said, "They are children. You almost broke them."
Redbeard answered, "They were lost. I brought them home."
Lord Zathan said, "I do not like how you handle terror and horror as calmly and casually as a merchant handles cloth or clay."
Redbeard answered, "I do not like that either. But you and I are old. We have made so many choices that now we have very few choices left."
Lord Zathan said, "Do not take me lightly, Redbeard. You feel safe on your ship. You have magic items and traps and think you are clever and safe. But I made my name hunting monsters in their lairs, who also were clever and magic and thought they were safe."
Redbeard lifted his magic spyglass and looked at Lord Zathan. But he only looked for a moment, and quickly lowered it. "No, m'lord. I will not take you lightly."
Lord Zathan asked, "Do you plan to have more students? I would prefer to have you and your ship out of my town."
Redbeard was silent for a minute. Then he asked, "M'lord, would you pray to Ephemeral on my behalf? I could leave if my ship's propellor would work again."
Lord Zathan frowned. "Was all you did with the kids about that? You tried to give them a second chance to make Ephemeral happy, so your ship could fly?"
Redbeard scoffed. "The rescue had to happen yesterday. I had the plan and the needed grommet. Ephemeral and I have a long history. I cannot tell you more. Conquest has many spies. Ephemeral works in strange ways."
Lord Zathan said, "Your ship has a portal stone. Once your crew numbered a hundred."
Redbeard sighed. "Choices made years ago. Lives ago."
Lord Zathan looked around at Arlinac Town. Then he prayed to Ephemeral. As a bird flying above I could not hear what he said. But Ephemeral must have heard. The pirate ship rose out of the river water.
Lord Zathan and Redbeard saluted each other. Lord Zathan went home. The Abominable flew away.
Redbeard and his ship return every few months, but to the docks, not the middle of town. Other wayward kids, in Arlinac Town and other places, get their own true fairy tales. They learn that the world is much more big and terrible and beautiful than they knew. When I see them I can tell who they are. I can see how it makes a mark on them, like how Lord Zatham saw it made a mark on me. We nod, or clasp hands. It is enough.