Hats Aren’t A Currency ‘Round Here
“Who would you rather sleep with, Malley or Francis?”
“You’re a sick man, Benn... Malley.”
“It’s about bloody time.” Groaned Avery Benn as the meeting point shimmered into view.
“It’s about time I realised you were sick? Tell me about it.”
Sitting on the horizon the abandoned building looked frumpy and worn, the least likely meeting place for such an extraordinary group of people. It seemed to swim in the midday heat beating down on the travellers but at the same time it promised to be a solid shield against the blaze.
They weren’t your average travellers seeking respite from the midday heat however; these were pirate students taking their first step into adulthood. Flanking them were the teachers who had taught them their whole lives and prepared them for this moment and every second after.
The group had been on foot for the past few hours, their leader telling them it was the only way they were allowed to enter no-man’s land. Sam didn’t care about some past pact with an old foe though, right now he was sweating freely and he was very aware of it. With so many classmates surrounding him –and teachers too- hygiene was a pressing priority of his. A voice in the back of his head told him what was about to come would be worth the sweat stained shirt and aching legs.
“So come on then Sam,” said Benn, pulling his friend out of his worries, “what kind of guy do you want?”
Sam snorted at how easily that sentence could be taken out of context. Kicking a small rock over the desolated landscape he shrugged nonchalantly and pushed a strand of hair out of his eyes.
Note to self: Cut hair.
“Dunno really, maybe some eye candy? Not enough of that ‘round here.” He teased.
Ignoring the jibe, Benn focused his gaze on the enlarging building.
“Someone strong, but real nimble like. But they’re all like that, ain’t they? That’s what a ninja is I guess.” Benn said, talking more to himself then his best friend.
All around them Sam’s fellow students turned their conversations to the ninjas they’d shortly be meeting. It was funny really; no-one spoke much about them back at the academy so even the word “ninja” was like a taboo.
Yet now the taboo fell away, for today was the day they would chose their future companion. Some students were going through the qualities of their ideal ninja while others were trying to remember how many points they had. Sam could feel his heart rate increasing slightly with nerves and he slipped a hand into his trouser pocket. Inside was a queer assortment of objects, a piece of string; a metal ring; a bottle cap, a paper clip and a scrap of fabric. Without thinking his fingers closed around the bottle cap and he ran his thumb over the tiny groves. Feeling the familiar pattern in the plastic calmed his hammering heart somewhat.
Benn looked back at his friend just in time to catch him drawing the bottle cap from his pocket. The teenager grinned at the absentminded habit and said nothing of it.
“I wonder if they’ll have any chicks this year? They only had four last year, or so James told me. Remember him? First mate of the Chambercombe Crooks these days.”
Sam’s shirt was sticking to him now. “What did you say, Benn?”
Rolling his eyes, the future first mate waved it off as unimportant.
From up front of the human column came the rough bark of the Headmistresses’ voice, ordering a halt and calling them to her. Old in appearance, the woman was strict and formidable; she didn’t have a single flyaway hair in her mannerly bun. Despite having the visual features of a fifty year old, the woman was in fact in her late forties, a card she played well to her advantage. It was rumoured that she hid behind a façade of old age in case of an ambush. The last thing an enemy would suspect from an old woman was lightening fast reflexes and a blade just as sharp.
Swiftly the students gathered around her in a half-moon shape, whispers coursing through like ripples on the sea.
“Now, I expect impeccable behaviour from each and every one of you. Today you represent our academy and pirates everywhere, Lord help us. In a moment your teachers will take you into that building and we’ll beginning. First impressions are vital, these are beings you need to prove yourself to if they are to follow you.
And remember, we may have won the war and so perhaps you think first impressions are not all that important. Perhaps you think these ninjas will follow you based on the hierarchy alone? I disagree, from today you are the roots of new generation of leaders and you shall act like it. These ninjas will know their place from the moment you walk over that threshold.
A few feet shuffled awkwardly but no hand rose to meet the headmistresses’ challenge. Sam adjusted the cutlass hanging from his left hip, bothered by the unfamiliar weight of it. Sure he was used to fighting with it, but during his lessons at the academy the sword spent very little time in its sheath, feeling it bump softly against his thigh now was distracting.
With a curt nod of the head, the headmistress indicated for the students to file in.
“Real charmer that one, can’t wait to be shot of her.” Whispered Benn.
Smothering a laugh, Sam pocketed his bottle cap and followed his friend into the building.
Passing the head teacher on his way in, he was careful to avoid her sharp eyes. He needn’t have bothered though, as she happened to be more interested in something beyond him. The corners of her mouth seemed to turn down for a second, but then Sam was past her and in the door.
Inside it smelt damp, with the faintest hint of BO from his fellow classmates and manure. Lovely.
But at least it wasn’t as hot in here. Three large, grubby windows let in a fraction of the daylight outside and for a moment Sam had to squint.
He was one of the few who didn’t inhale sharply when he spotted them. Lined up on a makeshift stage in the middle of the room was an assortment of about thirty ninjas blending almost perfectly into the background. Like stone they stood, gazes fixed dead ahead, arms locked sharply behind their backs. That was order for you.
“Kind of freaky.” Muttered Benn in an undertone, unable to keep from staring.
Sam just nodded, unsure what to say. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed their headmistress speaking with what appeared to be the headmaster of the ninja academy. If his pupil’s faces were stone, his was a diamond mask, utterly devoid of emotion as he greeted the woman with the customary kissing of the hand.
A sudden movement on his neck made the boy shiver. Reaching up his fingers touched the cool skin of what could only be-
Benn watched as Sam pulled the marbled salamander out from his collar, dimples emerging on his bemused face.
“Thought you left him with Marie?” He asked, referring to their friend back at the academy.
Shrugging, Sam addressed his pet directly, “Escape again, did you? You wait, when we get back Marie will be fuming trying to find you and blaming me. She probably thinks you blew up in one of Malley’s experiments. Couldn’t just wait for us to get home could you?”
Newt made no response surprisingly, except to blink lazily and try to wriggle free. Sam rolled his eyes and carefully placed the salamander in his shirt pocket.
“So who’d you like the look of, captain?” Benn’s attention was back on the ninjas, his eyes scanning them thoroughly as if he knew exactly what he was looking for. He didn’t.
Several of the ninjas looked too small by Sam’s reckoning –though he’d heard the academy liked that, made them less of a target or something- and one seemed to be the distant cousin of a giant. All this was made harder by the uniform, tight yet breathable blacks that made it impossible to see any flesh below the jaw. Above, balaclavas coiled protectively around the nose and mouth. Looking at them, Sam finally understood the phrase “Fear of the unknown...”
“Number twelve looks promising...” Mused Sam, “And stop calling me captain, I haven’t graduated yet, remember?”
Benn “Tsk”ed and scrutinised ninja seven. “Trust you to pick the skinniest one of the lot. Can’t see his biceps from here, he could be a real scrawny thing, especially if that chest is anything to go by.”
Silently Sam agreed, though there was something in number twelve’s eyes that made him stand out. Maybe he was imagining it, but they seemed a fraction less frozen then every other pair lined up on show. For an underling –as all ninjas were- this might turn out to be a bad thing, but at this moment in time it was different. And different was very curious.
Glancing further down the line a second ninja caught Sam’s eye, but for another reason. This one was sturdier in body and looked like he’d at least eaten a proper meal recently. It was hard to tell from this distance, but Sam fancied he had tawny eyes to match his long-ish hair. It was surprising his hair had been allowed to grow that long; while still short by pirate terms, ninjas usually had cropped hair. Sam realised he didn’t know why. The ninja –was he number twenty seven?- moved slightly on stage and the pirate teen found him wanting him to look his way.
Didn’t expect to find a hottie here.
Chuckled Sam in the privacy of his head. Might keep an eye on him, though he’s too low down in the ranking for me to go for...
“Students,” Barked the headmistress, turning away from her conversation, “now is the time for you to go on stage and examine the ones you like. Chose wisely, for they’ll be your responsibility for the rest for your life.”
As if an invisible line had been removed, the pirate students surged the stage, each eager to be the first to look. Sam found himself pushed forward in the current, momentarily separated from his friend. There were perhaps thirty future captains plus their future first mates attempting to get to the front of the queue and Sam could feel them all at his back.
Luckily, he was swept over in ninja twelve’s direction and he was able to get a good look at the boy. Tall, (5”8 maybe?) short dark hair, powerful legs but a weak torso. How he managed that, Sam would never know. Walking behind him, Sam observed weak arms with a significant lack of muscle, a disappointment honestly.
Circling back to the boy’s front, Sam asked “What’s your area of expertises?”
Not wasting a second the ninja listed several types of weapons as well as poison mixing. Sam nodded, running his eyes over the ninja one last time. He didn’t have much to go on, he realised. How were the student expected to pick someone with such little knowledge on them?
“Oi Sam!” Called a voice behind him.
Turning, Sam came face to face with a clearly happy Benn. “Just found the guy you want, didn’t I? Problem is Phillipson wants him too.”
Greg Phillipson was a month older then Sam and the direct bloodline decent of an ancient family, usually that alone was a pain in the ass but today it would be worse.
At the ninja auction, students bid on ninjas based on a point system and that alone, real money didn’t come into it. They had earnt points depending on what final grade they got in the captain exam, the higher your final mark, the more points you have to barter with. Being students on the verge of graduation, Sam and his fellow future captains had all sat and passed their exam. Of course, points were also used later for buying supplies and anything luxury his crew might want when they leave the school. Sam hadn’t planned to spend all his points on a ninja, but it seemed he might not be able to help it. Ancient family members like Phillipson sometimes found extra points in their accounts - donations if you will- that made the auctions a hell of a lot more biased then it should be. As if they weren’t privileged enough.
“I was hoping he would spend his extra on a second ninja. Or surgery to reduce his swollen head.” Sighed Sam.
Benn wasn’t listening; instead he was looking over his shoulder, almost on tip-toes trying to find something.
“There he is! Number seven.”
Craning his neck to look, Sam spotted Benn’s ideal ninja. To his surprise the guy looked decent, slim-ish but with muscles. There was no doubt this guy could hold himself in a fight, despite ninjas being mainly guerrilla fighters.
“He’s a good build, looks like he could hold his own in open combat. Why’d you pick him?”
Benn opened his mouth but for once he didn’t seem to have the words. Instead he settled for a shrug at Sam’s raised eyebrow.
“He’s going to cost something, Benn. Being seventh best on the list doesn’t help either.” The pirate boy reasoned.
Scratching the back of his neck sheepishly Benn said, “Yeah I know, but still it’s worth a shot ain’t it? Pity we can’t get our hands on more points.”
“Yeah,” replied Sam grinning, “we could always sell my captain hat, if I hadn’t lost
Benn rolled his eyes at Sam’s empathises on “lost” and took it for “left-it-crumpled-in-a-dark-closet-somewhere”. His captain could never abide anything but hair and a bandana on his head.
“Mate, hate to break it to you but hats aren’t a currency ‘round here.” He joked, earning himself a poke in the ribs.
“Whatever, Irish boy.”
Laughing quietly, Sam pretended to examine number twelve again when really he’d spotted number twenty-seven in his peripheral vision. It was something of a running gag between the boys to reference the other’s ethnicity every now and then, with one being Irish and the other Scottish.
“Students, off the stage, the auction is about to commence.” Announced the pirate headmistress.
Diligently they marched off and flocked eagerly around the platform. The general hubbub died down almost the second the headmistress took the stage for herself. Scanning the crowd she let them sweat for a moment under her gaze before introducing the ninja academy head teacher.
As if he wasn’t famous in his own name.
Thought Sam as the man took the stage for himself.
Zalador Gahn was a striking man both in body and character. His slight form easily surpassed six foot but it was tense, like a mouse surrounded by cats. Most of his body was covered head-to-toe, with the exception of his hands and the upper half of his face. As well as the standard all black ninja attire, his shoulders bore a thin midnight blue cloak completed with inky hemming. Sam’s first impression was immediate caution and intimidation; he knew under those fine layers of fabric there were enough weapons to kill every pirate student in the building. Not to mention the headmistress too, if he moved fast enough.
We both have to enter no-man’s land on foot, but each side can still carry as many weapons as they like? Someone’s got their priorities mixed up.
“-at lot one, working our way up the line until every ninja has been bought. Is that clear?”
With a jolt Sam realised he’d not been paying attention. Crap.
Since when was he Benn? Turning to said daydreamer, Sam was mildly surprised to see him watching the head teacher with rapt attention. Well at least one of them knew what to do next.
“We’ll start with number one.” Stated Gahn.
Sam waited it out as the first six ninjas came forward one-by-one, demonstrated a skill and had bids placed on them. It seemed simple enough, just call out the amount of points you bid and wait for someone to raise you. The skills on show made the whole process take longer then Sam would have liked however, entertaining as it was to watch ninja four perform a concise bout of parkour he couldn’t help but wish it would hurry up.
Number five seemed to take even longer, displaying his sparring abilities with another ninja. This caught Sam’s interest as he wondered how they’d been allowed to fight with real swords, until he noticed they were just wooden imitations painted a cold steel hue.
“Are they all going to do demonstrations? I want to get back before it gets dark, there’s a comet going past tonight.” Whined Benn softly.
By the time number seven came forward Sam was twirling the bottle cap between his fingers again. At this point most ninjas had been sold for around 400 points, then again the first were the best of their year, their academy’s finest students and they were worth the price. Sam had only 448 points in his account; no-one had seen fit to bolster it unfortunately. He’d set aside one hundred for extras so that meant he had a slightly shabby amount of points to get Benn’s pick.
“Number seven, he’s from the south of France but you’d never know from his accent. He’s slim, yes, but unyielding
. He’ll snap your neck before you can break him. Bids start at three hundred points.”
Wait. Scope out the competition. Know your rivals.
“French huh?” Muttered Benn, “Marie will like that.”
Somewhere on his left a person shouted “Three hundred and twenty!” Sam recognised him as a student who was bidding almost his limit trying to get his ideal ninja.
“What’s Will playing at? He won’t be able to afford anything else with what he’s got left. Only got himself three hundred and fifty points, didn’t he?” Benn hissed into Sam’s ear.
Sam swatted him off and cleared his throat quietly.
“Three hundred and twenty, any advance on that?” Called the headmaster. “Going once...”
“Three hundred and forty.”
Heads swivelled his way for a split second but Sam had eyes only for the man on the stage. The headmaster nodded in acknowledgment and his gaze seemed to falter on Sam for just a second longer then he would have liked.
“Three forty, still not enough for a ninja of this level.” Taunted the man, eyes now sweeping the crowd.
Fist closing around the bottle cap, Sam almost forgot to breath. Somehow his brain reasoned that if he just stayed very still and didn’t make a sound, no-one else would take any notice of the ninja.
“Once,” Began Gahn, “twi-”
“Four hundred and forty.” Came a controlled voice.
Inhaling sharply, Sam cursed himself for forgetting Phillipson. Bloody spoilt brat.
How the hell could he buy number seven now?
Benn apparently was of the same mind as his friend, muttering “Dick” under his breath. Shifting his weight to his left foot the seventeen year olds face morphed into a frown. “Bet you he only did that ‘cause he knew you wanted that guy.”
Sam was about to point out that Phillipson had had his eye on number seven before Sam had even seen him, but stopped mid-sentence as Newt crawled out of his pocket and onto his shoulder. The salamander was looking at him as though wondering why his master was mentally defending a scumbag like Phillipson. Deep down a voice in his head reasoned that his peer hadn’t needed to put in such a high offer. Not when the last lot had sold for 393 points. Newt seemed satisfied with this thought and relaxed on the shoulder.
Unsurprisingly, no-one put in a higher bid and number seven was sold seconds later. Great. Now what?
“So now who’re you going for?” Asked Benn, giving Sam’s consciousness a physical voice. “I overheard Zack saying they were going for number nine, so that’s probably not a good move. But then I guess they think he’s good so maybe he’s wor-”
“Let me think.”
A quick, sidelong glance at his future captain had Benn holding his tongue for once. Being friends since they were both four, he knew every quirk and slope to his friend’s personality: One of which being that Sam was quite competitive and something of a sore loser.
While Sam mentally compared the remaining ninjas in his head Benn tried to distract himself by pulling at a lose thread on his shirt. Just as he’d liberated it Sam “Hmm”ed to himself and did a half turn towards his friend.
“I’m going for number twelve.”
“Well don’t beat around the bush.” Benn responded with a casual grin.
Ignoring the reply, Sam continued, “I know he looks weaker in the upper body, but his legs are powerful and there’s something in his eyes.” Seeing the look in Benn’s eyes he allowed himself a grin here, “No, not like that
. He just seems...less robotic then the others. Maybe they forgot to remove his soul? Anyway, he’s lower down on the line so he’ll be cheaper too.”
Benn shrugged as if to say “Whatever, you’re the captain.”
Once more fiddling with the bottle cap, Sam looked back at the stage and began the wait.
Not ten minutes passed and Gahn was now listing number twelve’s talents. The younger ninja stepped forward on the balls of his feet, moving like a dancer. Sam was taken by surprise, this boy had the look of one who would be powerful and firm in his walk, yet he was watching him step out as if on a tight rope, each step careful, dainty and precise.
I wonder if he
can walk the rope.
Sam caught himself thinking, before realising Gahn was calling for bids.
Looking around again for competition Sam was only mildly surprised to see that no-one was willing to start the bids on this weak looking teen. Appearances were important for pirates, especially young ones seeking their first bounties. A fearsome looking ninja spoke not only of the power of his captain, but of the money spent on him too. And money is power.
“Three hundred and ten.” Called Sam, careful not to sound too eager.
He might have lost the last ninja, but he knew how to play this game. Look like you want something too much and someone else will take it, if only to discover the interest it holds. Adjusting his sword belt, the youth tried to seem unfazed.
“Will anyone give me three hundred and thirty? No? Three twenty?”
Gahn’s eyebrows knitted together as he realised number twelve wasn’t getting the interest he was apparently due.
“This boy is very talented, surely someone can see his potential?”
Stop trying to sell my ninja and call the freaking numbers.
Sam growled internally, mouth setting in a hard line.
But everyone seemed wary of this muscle-deprived boy and there were still twenty more capable ninjas to come in any case. Why take the risk?
“Three hundred and twenty.” Called an unknown voice, posing the sentence as more of a question then statement.
Sam grit his teeth and reasoned that this new player probably didn’t know what he was doing and was just bidding hoping to get a bargain. He waited a few seconds as if pretending to gauge ninja twelve’s worth and to make this new bidder doubt himself.
“Three thirty.” He offered before Gahn could start heckling.
If we go much higher I’ll need to use the luxury points and the crew would kill me for over spending on a weak looking ninja.
As if he knew Sam was near his limit again, the ninja head teacher said, “Will anyone give me three forty?”
The unknown bidder stayed silent this time, apparently deciding to go for a stronger looking ninja.
“Once....twice.....sold!” Said Gahn, dragging out each word as if it were a sentence.
Allowing his shoulders to slump down in relief, Sam high-fived Benn, forgetting the bottle cap was still in his fist. It fell out of his hand and rolled away through the turmoil of legs and feet. Sam let it go, knowing he didn’t need it anymore.
Flicking his tail unhappily at the sudden movement, Newt crawled back into Sam’s front pocket and finally settled there. Sometimes Sam thought his pet had more trouble keeping completely still then he did.
“Well he’s not that impressive to look at or anything, but wait ‘til we tell the crew the price we got him for!” Laughed Benn, glee written on his face.
“Yeah, like I’m going to get a chance to open my mouth before you’ve told everyone.” Teased Sam light-heartedly.
Tension rolled off him in droplets and not once did he notice the unpleasant looks being given to him by Zalador Gahn. But why would that bother him? Even a ninja head master was lower down on the hierarchy then a future pirate captain.
So instead he amused himself by watching the rest of the demonstrations and grinning when ninja twenty seven was sold to a guy he knew.
“Wonder when we’ll see them again? They go back to their academy now, but I would have thought we’ll see them again before we graduate.” Said Sam.
“Actually no, Sam.” Answered a voice behind him, making him jump.
The owner of the voice was Mr Lynch, the sword fighting teacher at the pirate academy. He wasn’t a particularly notable man aside from the bespoke cane he now lent upon. Another ruse, Lynch’s cane was simply a sheath for his sword. The pirates here were just as sly as the ninjas.
“You won’t see them for a while, so I suggest if you have anything to say to your new crew member, say it now.” He finished.
Sam thanked his teacher for his advice and turned back to see ninja thirty throwing knives as part of his show.
Not long later the final ninja was bought and a scribe was subtracting the points the students had spent from their overall total, making sure no-one had cheated.
“Settle down.” Ordered the pirate headmistress as the building started to get louder. “This will be your only chance to talk to your ninja before graduation. You are expected to give them your name, your crew’s name and the mark of your crew.”
For a moment Sam wondered what “the mark of your crew” was until he remembered it was each crew’s individual jolly roger on a piece of fabric. In the pirate world a jolly roger was not unlike a family coat of arms, used to separate one crew from the next. Sometimes pirate captains would trade or acquire new crewmembers and these members were given the mark to wear to show their alliance. Captains usually wore their mark on their shirt, embroidered onto a pocket or over the heart.
Digging around in his pockets a final time Sam grabbed his scrap of fabric. Proudly he looked down at his little creation, a skull and crossed bones with a bandana and three golden doubloons in the skull’s jaw. By the records no other pirate crew had a design just like it. Once his ninja had it, it would be replicated and sewn onto a piece of clothing, ready for everything that was to come post graduation.
“I still think you should have added a star in there. Y’know like we’re raising stars? It’s symbolism.” Said Benn, glancing over Sam’s shoulder.
Fist closing tight around the fabric, Sam met Benn’s eyes with a chuckle. “Yeah, it’s got nothing to do with the fact you’re obsessed with stars. And isn’t symbolism a bit of a big word for you?”
“I’m not obsessed, I’ve not even mentioned them today.” Protested Benn jokingly.
“You mentioned some comet earlier.” Sam pointed out.
Benn sighed laboriously, as if he were trying to teach an infant the different between numbers and the alphabet. “A comet is completely different from a star, you can’t navigate by them for a start and-”
“-As much as I’d love to know the difference between a comet and a star, we need to go find our ninja.”
Mentally marking the squabble down as his win, Sam followed the steady tide of his classmates onto the stage a second time. For a moment he made to head towards number seven, then realised his mistake and made for number twelve. However there seemed to be a rip tide going on in the crowd that Sam hadn’t been told about and suddenly he was behind Phillipson and ninja seven.
“-twelve. Understood? ... What do you want, Rapparee Sam
?” Phillipson spat his nickname out like it in itself was an insult, “come to see what you missed out on? Bet you wish you did better in the exams now. Of course, exams aren’t that important anyway, not when you have the right people wanting you to succeed.”
Raising his hands in mock surrender Sam felt the hot tendrils of anger cling to him. He knew exactly how the right people
were helping Phillipson succeed.
“I’d rather do it myself actually, Phillipson. I don’t need the right people supporting me to buy a ninja or anything else. But I’m glad you’ve always got Daddy and Mummy to help you when it gets to be too much for you.”
Leaving Phillipson spluttering in humiliation Sam plunged back into the cascade of bodies and fought his way over to Benn and ninja twelve.
“Where’ve you been? I had to do the introductions.” Whined Benn.
Ignoring his friend again, Sam pushed his pirate crew mark into number twelve’s hand. “I’m Sam, future captain of the Wildersmouth Wreakers and you’ve met Benn, our cabin boy.”
Sam regretted the last comment only when Benn stomped on his foot. “Stop joking around, the head is watching.”
Over his shoulder Sam could see Benn was right, the head had been looking their way for a second or two. Shrugging it off, he reasoned she probably couldn’t hear him over the din everyone else was making.
“You’ll meet the rest of the crew on graduation day,” he continued as if he’d never been interrupted, “and we –uh- don’t have a ship yet.”
Trailing off he looked closely at the mute boy and wondered if he was as uncomfortable as him. If the boy hadn’t been looking at him, Sam wouldn’t have known if he had even been listening.
“Students! That is all, make your way off the stage and we’ll be departing momentarily.” Came the headmistress’ voice, cutting through the noise.
Sam went to shake hands with his new crewmember but hesitated and settled for a wave. As they stepped down of the stage and bumped shoulders with everyone Sam decided all in all, the day hadn’t been as bad as he first thought it would have been.
“So where were we then? Oh yeah. Would you rather sleep with Bernadette or Marie?”