Morning in the flatlands was warm and promised to blossom into a steamy day as the sun continued to rise. Falar was working the fields, tentatively fertile earth roiling beneath his bare talon-like feet as he scattered tiny seeds into a breeze of his own making. He was close enough to his workhouse to see his two guardbeasts dozing beneath the tall porch, already taking advantage of the shade. Close enough to see the only marked trail that led up the slight hill to the small building, the only capillary of Ryarna roadways that reached his little plot of land from the nearby town.
Close enough to see a two-wheeler and its brown-garbed rider nearly fly up that trail, half-hidden in a cloud of dust and coarse gravel, and slide-stop so neatly that the wheeler skidded under the porch and nearly killed the slower of the two guardbeasts. The rider was already across the wide porch and into the workhouse before the dust settled.
Falar froze, uncertain, his hold on the air around him lax. A stranger just rushed into his workhouse and he… should… do what? He was naked but for the harness that held his seed pouches, his hands and feet filthy with topsoil. Even the guardbeasts were confused, hissing and disconcerted. The younger hopped onto the porch and paced, but it made no move to push open the mesh door and enter the house.
Quietly, the sun-darkened rarra cinched his bag of seed shut and tucked its strap into his belt, then approached the workhouse, gathering more magic to him in case he were confronted with violence. As he crossed the seeded portion of the field, two other wheelers pulled up the trail and idled next to the workhouse, marked in the traditional colors of the Riders. One uniformed rarra was gesturing animatedly from the ground to the house, and the other was already dismounting.
“Hello there,” Falar called to the two lawkeepers. He kept his posture straight, refusing to let his discomfort at his immodesty be detected. He didn’t often receive visitors, and the temperature had been warm enough to warrant working naked; he tried not to regret it.
“There are the marks,” one of them said to the other, pointing to the skid lines that led beneath the porch, where the stranger’s two-wheeler was surprisingly well-hidden in the shadows. “So where is she?”
“What’s going on?” Falan asked, lifting his voice slightly to be heard over the hum of the two magic-powered vehicles. His thought processes still felt as slow as cold honey.
“Fugitive,” the second Rider said, flashing him a hard, half-sympathetic smile. “Suspected pirate. She was stealing food in town.” His voice gave away his sex, like the first speaker’s had given away hers, though Falar couldn’t see the either face past the sun-blocking riding goggles and fine chain-link veil protecting muzzles and throats.
The first Rider swung a long leg over the seat of her wheeler and dismounted, leaving the machine upright on its own power. “Look, she’s probably hiding in your house – do you mind if we look around?” She said nothing about the gathered haze of magic that he still kept close to his skin; either she didn’t notice, which was unlikely, or she didn’t begrudge him his wariness.
Falar couldn’t think of a good reason to refuse, nor was he sure he wanted a thief in his workhouse, so he splayed his long, tapering ears in a shrug and gestured towards the door. The two Riders entered, an invisible aura of ready-to-use magical energy surrounding the first, the second with his short-fingered hand on the hilt of a thin sword.
The door swung shut behind them, and Falar waited at the base of the porch steps, listening with his ears and his magic-sense to detect the first sign of a struggle. The older guardbeast sat next to him, huffing in the heat; he imagined it was still unnerved by its close call with the hard end of a well-crashed wheeler. The younger of the pair sat on the porch and stared down the door, thick tail thumping rhythmically against a post.
Half an hour later, the lawkeepers emerged, empty-handed and disgruntled. “She must have kept running,” the one said to the other, who looked dour.
“Nothing?” Falar queried, a worried expression crossing his face.
“Nothing,” the second Rider said. “Sorry to disturb you. We didn’t leave a mess.” He offered a warmer smile than the other rarra had, and Falar nodded as they mounted their wheelers and rolled down the trail.
After they’d been gone for a few minutes, Falar looked at the wheeler under the porch, then at his workhouse. “You come with me,” he told the younger guardbeast. It rose, all bristly hairs and patches of armored skin, and entered the house first when he opened the door. He followed the shambling creature into the unlit hallway that led through the belly of the building. It was still dark and cool inside.
“Um, whoever you are – they’re gone. They didn’t see your wheeler. I–” Falar stopped talking when he felt the chilling touch of steel glide across his throat. The guardbeast turned several seconds too late, snarling, but it stopped its charge when Falar lifted a warning finger. His hands were shaking.
“Thanks for not squealing,” a smooth voice purred in his ear. He shivered. “Curious, though – why say nothing? I could kill you now. Didn’t you think of that before they went on their merry way?”
Falar tried to keep his voice from going shrill as sweat crept down his back. Even his mastery of air magic would not stop a knife from cutting through his flesh at such intimate range. “People who steal food normally need it. People who murder for money are a different story.” As an afterthought, he added, “I don’t have much money.” He wondered if he could rip the air from her lungs before she could put that blade into him and calculated that, at best, it would end with both of them dead.
The thief – pirate? – chuckled richly and removed her dagger from his throat, then stepped back with a click of clawed feet on the wooden floorboards. “Keen ear, that.” Falar slowly turned and looked up at the taller rarra.
Scars lined her fog-grey skin like creases in fabric, and a few discolored patches of fine hairs suggested old burn wounds near her neck and shoulders. The thin horn that arced upwards from her forehead was broken at the tip, an ugly disfigurement that bespoke a rough past. She was lean and muscular and nothing like the townsfolk and ranchwomen that he’d seen – especially considering the half-dozen weapons she wore on her person like he wore seed pouches. Her clothing was leather, a rare thing on Ryarna, tailored to fit her and designed to provide limited armor over vulnerable areas. There was a ship’s ID patch stitched on her vest, but he couldn’t make out the faded letters in the dim hallway.
“I’ll take my wheeler and go,” she said with a hint of a smile, meeting his wide eyes. “You keep your animals off me, and you can go back to your fields. Sound good?”
Falar considered her reasonable offer, not exactly eager to pit his magic against her steel and unwilling to risk his sturdy guardbeasts against what seemed to be an experienced intersun fighter. He surprised them both when he asked, “Are you really a pirate?”
The grey-skinned woman considered this a moment, long ears erect in surprise. “What?”
Falar straightened self-consciously, but now that the two of them were separated by a few feet of space, he was feeling more confident that his air magic could keep him from dying by knife. “The Riders said you were suspected to be a pirate. Are you one?”
Her angular face transformed in slow motion from disbelief to laughter, a carnivorous flower opening to the sun. “Bold kit!” she chuckled, all sharp teeth and flared whiskers. “Yes, I am a pirate.” Her eyes sparkled as she leaned in (and he leaned back): “In fact, I’m the captain of a pirate ship.” She grinned wickedly and tapped the well-worn badge on her vest.
“Oh,” Falar managed, his security swept away again. “That’s–”
The situation changed quicker than a heart could beat; her knife was drawn and striking towards his flesh, and Falar forgot his worry and his immodesty– before that daggertip could bite into his skin, he conjured a blast of air that pushed her back against the door to the porch and moved him well out of arm’s reach. The guardbeast shoved past his long legs and positioned its bristling bulk between the two rarra, hissing fiercely and poised to maul.
The pirate captain rolled her shoulders back and pushed away from the door, a smile creasing her scarred muzzle. “You’re pretty good,” she said approvingly, sheathing the thin-bladed weapon once more. She ignored the guardbeast’s threatening display; both of them knew it wouldn’t attack unless he gave the command.
“I’m not going to go report you to the Riders,” Falar snapped, tightening his grasp on all the air in the house; he could feel the shapes of their lungs as the three of them breathed in and out. The wind whistled nervously outside the walls. “Why’d you try to stick me?”
Her smile widened. “Well, boy, I wanted to see what you’d do. I’m no mage myself, but I can tell you’ve got magic on you, and I wanted to know what you’d do with it.”
Falar’s ears fell, halfway between disappointment and disapproval. “You’re serious? That was a test?”
The captain chuckled, a richer and darker sound than he’d ever heard from a rarra, and leaned her shoulders against the door, arms folded across her chest. She exuded fearlessness and nonchalance, and he envied that. “Yes.” Her eyes took a leisurely stroll up and down his body, and Falar resisted the urge to cover himself with his empty hands. “You know, I could use an air mage with reflexes and self-control like yours.”
Falar sputtered and couldn’t bring himself to say anything. The pirate smiled again. “My name’s Masya. What’s yours?”
“Falar,” he said, tensing as she took a step closer. The guardbeast gave a warning snap of its saurian jaws.
“Would you move your pet, Falar?” Masya asked, sparing the creature an unimpressed glance. “You have enough skills to hold me off on your own.”
He had no idea why he complied, but he did, and the guardbeast obeyed by sitting and quieting, although its amber gaze remained locked on the intruder. Falar swallowed as Masya stepped up to him, her hands conspicuously far from any of her weapons. “Ever dreamed of travel?” she purred, leaning in until he took a step back. She laughed throatily. “Ever wished for adventure? Freedom? Family that you got to choose?”
“I’m quite happy here,” Falar retorted, the lie hollow in his ears, and chased it away with a piece of truth: “I could get a position as an air mage on any respectable merchantship if I wanted.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Masya agreed smoothly. “So why haven’t you?” She reached out and took his hand, rubbing a padded fingertip across the dirt lining his palm. “Do you like playing with filth and fleshies?”
Falar recoiled, but didn’t quite snatch his hand away. “You just met me. Why would you want me on your crew?” he asked, resorting to logic as his last defense.
Masya smiled. “I’m a good judge of character,” she said in a half-mocking tone. “Or maybe I heard about your wasted talent and came to recruit you personally.” The smile faded into a show of long fangs. “Willingly or not.”
Falar stared at her, unable to figure out if she was teasing, or lying, or deadly serious.
The silence stretched between them, punctuated by the raspy breathing of the guardbeast. “Come with me into town,” Masya said after a while. “Meet my second and some of my crew. We’re staying at one of your inns on the far side of town.”
Falar knew it was a bad idea, but he agreed to do it against all logic and self-preservation instincts. Masya was grey where the local rarra were golden-skinned; she stood out like a fleshie among animetals, and she would easily be identified as the thief by patrolling Riders. Spirits, they might even encounter the same two Riders that had been at the workhouse earlier, and if that happened, Falar would be taken to jail to pay for his duplicity. If the Riders were harsh in their demands on his days, he might miss the narrow window of planting for some of his crops.
He stood on the porch with a bucket of water drawn from his well, rinsing the soil from his fingers and talon-like feet. Masya was below him, extricating her wheeler from the soft dirt beneath the porch; she grunted with the effort of moving a machine three times her weight, but she didn’t ask for help, so he didn’t offer it. When he was done washing, he returned to his sleeping quarters in the workhouse to find clothing, leaving her outside to dust the vehicle off.
“I liked you better without,” Masya said when he emerged again, dressed in green-grey leggings and vest. She smirked at his startled look, straddling her wheeler. “Come on. It’s already midday, and I haven’t eaten yet.”
“What about the food you stole?” Falar asked, not sure if he wanted to know the answer. He descended the porch steps, told the guardbeasts to stand watch, and settled himself behind the taller rarra.
Masya patted the padded seat beneath them, indicating the storage space inside the wheeler’s metal body. “That’ll be breakfast for me and mine. And you,” she said, leaning the wheeler upright and ticking the speed dial upwards. They slid forward and down the trail, heading towards civilization.
They reached the outskirts of the small town quickly, and Falar wished he could bury his face in her back to hide his identity from the men and women who had known him all his life. They were still moving too swiftly for anyone to easily recognize him, but it was obvious that a local was riding with a stranger on a rented wheeler, and he did not want to know what the rumors might say about that. Did the townsfolk know the grey rarra was a thief, a pirate? Would the Riders have told them to be on watch for a foreigner?
Masya stopped the wheeler with painful suddenness and precision, and Falar barely managed to avoid impaling one of her ears with his blade-like horn. “What are–” he started to say, then snapped his mouth shut.
Just ahead of them were the same two Riders that he’d seen that morning, both astride their idling wheelers on the side of the main street. One of the Riders glanced over, gaze skimming them both, and looked back to her partner without batting an eye.
“Quiet,” Masya hissed over her shoulder, then drove discreetly past the parked lawkeepers. Falar was silenced by his befuddlement, let alone her command, until she paused again at the edge of the main marketplace, the Riders left behind.
“How–?” he tried to ask, but she lowered her ears warningly.
“Let’s just get to the inn.”
“It’s not far. Hang tight, boy.”
The wheeler zipped along the streets, avoiding passers-by with mere inches to spare. Falar clung to Masya’s back and kept his mind on the air currents, using them on occasion to push a person just a little farther out of the wheeler’s path. He didn’t think Masya would have hit anyone without his intervention, but he felt better for his efforts all the same.
On the other side of town, they reached the ramshackle inn, which looked as though it had gone out of business but was brightly lit from the inside. Masya pulled over and parked the wheeler, dismounting and stretching. The inn’s main door open and an older woman emerged, as silvery as Masya, as tall and as lean, dressed in similar brown leathers, and only slightly less scarred. Her horn was unbroken.
Masya smiled and gave the other woman a warm hello. “This is the air mage,” she said, gesturing to Falar, who still sat on the wheeler and watched them blankly. “He’s much sharper than he looks,” she added with a low chuckle.
“Spirits, Captain,” the older rarra swore softly, approaching Falar and peering into his eyes. He didn’t bother moving backwards this time. “How much juice did you spend on him?”
Masya’s grin soured slightly. “Not so much that he isn’t aware of what we’re saying. I’ll stop entirely if you approve of him.”
“What makes you think he can keep up?” the second-in-command asked, skepticism written all over her age-whitened face.
“I tried to knife him and he didn’t spill a drop,” Masya answered. “All reflex, no thought, but enough control that he didn’t choke me in response. Whoever trained him did a damn fine job. And he’s a low-eared farmer.” She snorted.
The older rarra looked surprised. “If you tried to get him and didn’t, I’m impressed. I’ll give you my approval, daughter. Now get your fog out of his eyes so he can make the choice himself.”
Masya smiled ruefully and let her psychic hold fade away. Falar shook his head, eyes and mind slowly sharpening back to normalcy as seconds ticked past, and after a few moments, he realized fully how he’d been played.
He dismounted the wheeler calmly and turned to face both pirates. “I will not leave my land and join a pack of thieves led by a woman who manipulates people’s thoughts,” he snapped, pulling enough magic to him to deal with anything they might try. He had no idea what the second-in-command’s specialty was, but she didn’t wear weapons, and that usually indicated enough magic training that she didn’t need them.
Inside, he was reeling. He wanted nothing more to get home and lay out this tangled situation until he could understand it fully. He felt so used.
Masya studied him for a long moment, then nodded. “I can respect that,” she said simply. “Do you want a ride back?”
“No.” Falar’s face was hard, his grip on the wind tight. The other rarra were forced to breathe shallowly. “I will walk.”
The older woman flicked an ear in wordless comment. “Want some food, at least?” she asked.
It was a reasonable offer. He hadn’t broken his fast yet, either, and it would be nearly night by the time his feet carried him home. He was hungry, and thirsty, and hot even without an undershirt. But Falar lowered his ears in refusal.
“We’ll be here for a week,” Masya said as he turned away and began walking back into town.
A friend of his extended family gave him a ride from the middle of town to his plot; Falar thanked the old man and sat on the porch, now shivering in the dusk-cooled air. The older guardbeast huffed and sprawled next to him, its prickly hide scratching at his bare arm. Falar patted its armored shoulder absent-mindedly, the calluses on his fingers and palm protecting him against the serrated roughness of its skin.
She had used mind-magic on him. Rarra didn’t use mind-magic. Rarra didn’t learn mind-magic. It was a morally filthy domain, best left to other races with less honest cultures and less independent individuals.
She had tricked him into following her into town and she, she had blinded the Riders to their presence, and she had probably laid confusion on him and his guardbeasts the instant she ducked into the house, she had lied and…
…no, she hadn’t lied. And she had released her hold on him. She could have gotten him into her crew, onto her ship. She could have kept up that kind of low-level influence indefinitely. But she didn’t. She let go. She let him go.
Falar thought of her face, her scars like wrinkles, her eyes of a green unlike that of anything he’d ever grown. Her body had to be hard, he thought bitterly, as hard as her mind and heart, to be a pirate captain. To command loyalty from those with no ties. To hold together a fickle, feckless family in the void between suns. To run a ship and run it well.
Falar thought of the touch of her hand on his. Her fingertips had been no less callused than his own, though his were from tools and hers were from weapons. She had said he had talent. Wasted potential. She had been impressed with his skills, when no one else had ever been, save his old teacher. Save the teacher who told him that any intersun ship would want him as a permanent crew member.
The old guardbeast snored raggedly at his side, and Falar didn’t go inside until the sun rose and warmed him again.
Falar washed himself in the dawn’s light, left both guardbeasts outside on the porch to bask in the warm morning, and took himself inside once the sun had dried his skin. “I like this life,” he told the creatures in lieu of a goodnight, the words tingling on his tongue with uncertainty.
He kicked aside the coarse blanket covering the low, rounded mattress on the floor near the fireless hearth. His makeshift bed had never been comfortable, but he’d come to like its lumps and scratchy sheets all the same. “I would hate it in the void,” he muttered, curling up and pulling the blanket over him. It was still cool in the workhouse.
Falar imagined himself as the well-paid and invaluable air mage of a credible merchantship. Dressed in warm clothes to shield against the biting cold of the void, breathing air that grew ever more stale until they could dock over a new world and refresh their supply. Tending the wealth of flora that made the lower deck of any ship a veritable forest, because without those plants, no one on the ship would be able to breathe. Serving as the failsafe, just in case any pirates managed to pop a hole in the hull; without an air mage to keep the air from escaping into the void, everyone would suffocate within minutes.
The intersun ships might be able to sail on the void-winds, but no one could breathe them.
Falar sighed, rolled onto his other side, and took the next mental step: imagining himself as a pirate. A man who could rip the air from a protected ship and let those in it die. A man who could keep tiny bubbles of air around the bodies of his fellow pirates while they crossed from ship to ship to loot their target, once its passengers had stopped being a threat. A man who killed to get what he wanted – the very opposite of a farmer, who created life instead.
He fell asleep somewhere in the middle of wondering what it would be like to serve under Masya, wondering if someone who stole food, not money– if someone who let him go free, knowing he could turn the Riders on her– if someone like that would be as cruel as he thought all pirates must be.
That evening, when he woke, Falar dressed himself in his most durable clothing, from footwraps and leggings to undershirt and vest, and took his two guardbeasts into town. It was a long walk, and he could have used the ramshackle wheeler parked out back, but no fleshie could keep up with a machine– so he walked, flanked by his only companions.
Night had fallen and took the temperatures with it by the time Falar reached the old inn where Masya and her second were staying. Masya’s wheeler was nowhere to be seen, and he studied the darkened windows of the aging building. So she did lie, he thought to himself. That cinched it; he turned away, the old guardbeast yawning as it trundled next to him, bumping his hip with every other step.
“Hey,” a low voice called from the upper floor. Falar turned to see Masya’s face parting heavy curtains, a thin stream of light snaking between her ears. “Want to come in?” He nodded, silent, and cast about to gain control of the air within the building. He could feel the weight of the dust inside; it must have been abandoned some time last year.
Masya opened the inn’s door and beckoned him in; he entered, followed by his guardbeasts, and blinked at the firelit brightness of the common room. A dozen people were present, sitting or eating or lounging or talking, and he identified four different species before he could draw his second breath.
Masya studied him, unfazed by one of the guardbeasts wedging its bulk between them protectively. The younger one still distrusted her. “What brings you here?” she asked.
He met her gaze and didn’t smile, although part of him wanted to. “Tell me a story,” he said, resting a hand on his guardbeast’s humped shoulder.
The grey rarra blinked. “A story? What kind of a story?”
“A story about you and your ship,” he answered, eyeing the room again. Two Lo’hês, a halasshi, a human, several rarra, two buthines, and a lumbering chelyi. There was even a little gnit perched on the chelyi’s massive spiked shell. “I want to know what kind of pirate you are.”
Masya smiled faintly. “Sit down, grab a cup, and listen up, then. And keep your animals from biting anyone.”
They didn’t sleep for a very long time; Masya spun him tale after tale, frequently interrupted by her crew as they added their own points-of-view to hers. Some stories were told by the second-in-command, whose name was Lasna, Masya’s sharp-witted and sharp-tongued mother. When one of the buthines wanted to tell a story, the entire room quieted so its breathy, clicking voice could be clearly heard.
There were no spare rooms in the small inn that weren’t already occupied by pirates, so Falar and his guardbeasts slept in the common room once the crew and its captain retired shortly before dawn. The dusty rug laid in front of the dark hearth was no less comfortable than his own bed, and the guardbeast on either side of him kept him warm enough in the drafty room.
The next morning, awake first at the call of the rising sun after only a few hours of rest, Falar started a fire and boiled water. He left the old guardbeast to sleep and walked with the younger to the nearest merchant who sold brew mix; by the time the pirates had roused themselves, he had a small cauldron of morning brew simmering and steeping.
Masya joined him at the small table where he sat, sipping a mugful of hot liquid. “Up fast,” she commented. He slid her an empty mug, and she rose to fill it before returning to her chair.
“You haven’t touched me since I left, have you?” Falar asked, knowing she could lie, knowing he would not be able to tell if she did.
The pirate captain smiled ruefully and met his eyes, vivid green to dark brown. “No, I haven’t. Though I can’t really prove it.”
Falar flicked an ear in wordless comment, studying her face. She ignored his inspection, drinking her brew, ears a-twitch as other pirates came down to the common room. Most of them found glasses or mugs to use for the brew; only the buthines and the chelyi refrained from partaking.
“You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” Masya asked, breaking the silence between them. “That damn well better be what you want – I’ll not be responsible for your decision if you change your mind later.”
“How do you know?” he asked, gaze returning to her; he had been watching one of the Lo’hêsalo wrap its prehensile tailtip around a glass and drink with admirable precision, despite its lack of hands. “Are you–”
“No,” Masya chuckled, “I’m not in your head. I’m making a guess.”
“You guess, huh?” His voice was skeptical, but not cold.
“Aye, I guess. I’ve been guessing the whole time with you, wondering if I was getting it right or terribly wrong.” She met his eyes. “So, what’ll it be, Falar?”
Falar felt the guardbeast pressed against his legs, its breath rocking him gently, just like Masya’s did, though they were a tabletop apart. He could feel the air in every pirate’s body, and it felt no different than the air inside his own. Without answering, he extended his hand across the table, palm up.
Masya broke into a wide grin; she reached into one of her pockets and withdrew a spare ship ID badge, dropping it into his outstretched hand.