“Ships, money, fine jewels, rare cloths—”
“Ships, that sounds good,” I said, picking the biggest-sounding item from his list. “If I win, you give me ships.”
“Ship,” he countered, his eyes narrowing speculatively. “A ship. A sloop.”
I had no idea what a sloop was, but so long as it wasn’t a rowboat, it sounded like a good bet. “You’re on.
again, Captain Corbin.”
He was surprisingly good, light on his feet, his ripostes following lightning fast after his parries. Although I hadn’t fenced in years, the muscles in my quadriceps complainingly obliged when I assumed the correct fencing stance—elbows in, knees bent, wrist straight, toes slightly turned out, back straight. The rhythm of advance, retreat, advance, retreat—with occasional lunges thrown in to try to score a point—quickly returned, as did the reason I quit fencing.
I really, really disliked it.
“Tiring already?” Corbin asked as I sluggishly parried a particularly quick lunge.
“Not even,” I answered, rallying a riposte that had him stumbling backwards. His men sat on nearby tables, yelling encouragement as we danced the peculiar advance, retreat fencing dance. After about five minutes of traditional fencing, he suddenly went Errol Flynn on me, leaping onto a nearby table and yelling a war cry as he flung himself off it. I, having had a fencing instructor who was also an expert in self-defense, stuck my foot out and tripped him. Yes, it was a move clearly against the rules of classical fencing, but so were wild leaps off tavern tables.
Stunned silence filled the room as his two henchman sat in disbelieving horror.
“I’d like my ship delivered now, please,” I said as Corbin rolled himself over onto his back. His entire front side was coated with dirt from the unfinished floor, a tiny trickle of blood from his nose indicating that he’d hit the ground harder than I’d anticipated. The tip of my rapier pressed against the flesh of his neck, right next to where his pulse beat strong in his jugular vein.
He spoke very carefully, without moving a single muscle. “If you reach into the leather pouch hanging from my belt, you’ll find a deed to a ship named the
” I said happily, pulling a battered bit of parchment from the pouch strapped to his hip. The handwriting was difficult to make out, but the name of the ship and a pen-and-ink sketch of her were legible. “I like it.”
“It suits you,” he answered, still not moving. “You cheated.”
“So did you, Errol.”
He started to protest but I added the tiniest bit of pressure to the tip of the blade. His eyes opened wide. I enjoyed the moment for as long as I thought prudent, then swept the blade from his neck with a grand gesture.
“Well, this has been fun. Am I an officer now?” I asked the two still silent crewmen. They stared from the sword I held to their captain, who had risen from his prone position and was dusting himself off.
“Eh . . . ye beat the cap’n,” the one who was grossly misnamed Bald Bob said, blinking in surprise. “None has ever done that afore.”
A rush of air swished around me as someone flung open the door. “Hoy, Corb, scrape the barnacles off yer ass and let’s get crackin’. Bart and his crew will be back . . . Well, hello, there, m’lady.”
The man in the doorway had shoulder-length curly brown hair and an eye patch and wore long brown monk’s robes. He bowed to me, sweeping his hand in an elegant gesture that wasn’t at all matched by the lascivious grin on his face. “First mate Holder McReady at yer delectable service, ye toothsome beauty. I did particularly well with the rags, yes, yes, I did. Don’t you think I did well, Corb?”
“No. Go away, Holder.”
“Your first mate is a priest?” I asked Corbin.
“No, he’s not. He’s mad. Ignore him.”
“Oy!” the monkish mate protested. “Don’t be mockin’ the monk’s robes. I’m thinkin’ this is the best outfit yet. Ye wouldn’t believe the sense of freedom it gives ye to have yer block and tackle right out in the open—”
“Yarr. Me apologies. Now, then, what’s been goin’ on here while I’ve been out stockin’ the ship?”
“An omen as black as the inside of the devil’s belly is what’s been happenin’,” Leeward Tom said. His eyes narrowed on Corbin. “The cap’n has been beaten in a duel. Never has a wench done such a thing. It fair boggles the mind. Ye be soft on the lass, Cap’n? Ye be
Holder’s dark eyes widened as he looked from me to Corbin. “What? Someone beat the cap?”
“Aye, Mr. Holder, the wench there,” Tom said, turning his gaze on me. “Be she a witch, do ye think?”
“You know, I really dislike being talked about like I’m not here,” I said. “And for the record, I am perfectly capable of winning on my own. I was the alternate for the college fencing team three years in a row, and you don’t get that unless you’re a pretty darn . . . sufficient . . . fencer. So let’s have none of that ‘be lettin’ her win’ crap, and more telling Erika if she’s now an officer.”
“Nay, ye’re not,” Tom said, back to watching Corbin.
Holder blew a low whistle, his eyes also on Corbin. The two seemed to be exchanging some sort of meaningful glances, the translation of which I wasn’t privy to. Fine. Let them gaze at each other all they wanted. I had things to do, people to see, legs to hoard. “Oh. Pooh. I suppose I have to do the leg collecting before I reach that level?” I asked, setting the sword on the table before retrieving my wooden leg. “Well, then, I’d best get to it. Later, gentlemen.”
As I strolled to the door, Holder said, “Ye just goin’ to let her go?”
“Holder, keep out of this,” Corbin snapped.
“No one is letting me do anything,” I tossed over my shoulder. “I make my own destiny, thank you.”
Holder gave his captain a not very subordinate shove. “Go on, ye great lug, say somethin’ before ye blow it.”
“Will you stop it? I do not need your help—”
“Hoy, lass? Erika, was it?” I paused at the door and looked back to where Holder was standing. “Ye wouldn’t happen to fancy our cappy here, now, would ye?”
I rolled my eyes. “What I fancy is a couple more legs.”
“Eh,” he said, glancing at the leg in my hands. “Kind of an odd hobby, but we can work with it.”
“It’s not a hobby,” I said at the same time Corbin snarled to his mate, “No, we can’t. Now, go away, ye rat-infested bilge bucket.”
“Whatever,” I said and opened the door, intending to go find myself some more legs, but Corbin’s voice stopped me.
“Don’t make yourself too comfortable on my ship, lass. I’ll be wantin’ her back . . . as well as a few other things.”
Holder slapped a hand to his forehead and shook his head in mock sorrow. “No style. I’ve tried to teach him, but he remains utterly clueless.”
“Pricked your pride, did I?” I grinned, ignoring Holder to salute Corbin with the leg, a tiny bit surprised at how much I’d enjoyed the encounter with the computer pirate. “I think you’ll survive the blow to your ego, Corbin. It’s a game, after all. None of this really matters. It’s all just pretend.”
“Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not,” he said mysteriously as I marched out the door into the bright tropical sunshine.
—Ibid, Act I
Corbin’s comment rang in my ears despite its soft delivery. What did he mean by it? Was it some sort of a virtual reality reference?
I paused in the middle of the busy square and looked around, admitting to myself that the game designers really had outdone themselves with the creation of a virtual world. The noise of a couple of dozen people talking, laughing, shouting, and generally just getting on with the business of living filled the air, as did the accompanying sounds of donkeys, dogs, geese, sheep, and pigs. I closed my eyes for a minute to block out the computer visions, and drank in the environment.
The sun beat down hot on me, so hot it made a line of sweat prick to life on my forehead. The air was rich with the heavy scent of tropical flowers, counterparted pleasantly—and not so pleasantly—by the heady odor of spices that came from a market stall, and the more earthy smell left by a passing donkey.
Even the salty breeze that swept up a slight hill from the harbor and caressed me, sending my gauzy rags fluttering in its wake, seemed real.
“Sight, sound, scents, touch—it’s all here. I wonder if the glasses send some sort of signal to my brain to make me think I’m experiencing all of this? Regardless, this virtual reality guy really outdid himself,” I said aloud.
“Who would that be, dearie? Ah, ye’re new here, ain’t ye?”
I turned to look at the soft voice at my elbow. A tiny, wizened woman in a tattered skirt clutching an equally tattered shawl to her chest smiled at me, exposing several brown, rotting teeth.
“Yes, I am. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could get another leg, do you? I need it to become an officer.”
She glanced from me to the leg I held clutched in one hand, her lips pursing ever so slightly. “Ye have yerself an extra leg there already.”
“Yes, I know; I took it off a dead man. But I assume I need a couple of them to become an officer. Would you know where I can find others?”
Her lips pursed even harder. “Ye’re lookin’ a mite lost, and I’m doubtin’ ye’re anxious for the type of attention yer clothes is attractin’, not with the trouble that’s brewin’ hereabouts with Bart and Corbin about to knock heads. Come with me, and we’ll sort out yer problem.”
A surprisingly strong hand clamped around my wrist, tugging me through the doorway of the building in front of which I’d been standing. I rallied my wits together as I ducked to enter the low doorway. “I’ve met Corbin. He is definitely trouble, although he’s a little less trouble now that I took him down a peg or two. What trouble is brewing between him and this Bart person, if you don’t mind me asking?”
The old woman chuckled as she hauled me into a small outer room. Three women in low-cut bodices sat clustered around an open, glassless window, sewing what looked to be long white dresses. They looked up as we entered the room. “Ye’re full of questions, ain’t ye? ’Tis the way of it. Those be me girls—Mags and Suky be the biddies on the left, and that be Sly Jez on the right. Reggie, some as patronizes me business calls me, but me rightful name is Renata.”
I had no more time than to nod at the three women who eyed me curiously as I was pulled through the room toward a long dirty red curtain that hung in the doorway.
“I’m Earless . . . eh . . . Amy Stewart, and I’m delighted to meet you, Renata. And your daughters as well. None of them have spare legs, do they?”
Renata chuckled again as we passed through a tiny dank room with an open fireplace and a couple of sorry-looking couches. She paused outside a door, giving me a long look. “Nay, they don’t. Wouldn’t be popular with the customers if they did, ye see.”
“Not really,” I said, working hard on my “go with the flow” policy. “But that’s okay; it’s probably somewhere in the game documents. Where exactly are we? I mean, does this place have a name?”
“Aye. Ye be on the Turtle’s Back now, dearie.”
“Turtle’s Back,” I said, looking down at the floor. There were no turtles to be seen.
She laughed as she pushed open the door and waved me inside. “Nay, Turtle’s Back be the name of the island we’re standin’ on. I’m imaginin’ that ye’d be likin’ some real clothes, though, not those rags that are showin’ all yer God-given assets to any who has eyes in his head.”
I looked down at myself and brushed absently at the rags. “Oh, man, I would so love some clothes! Not that I’m a prude or anything, but I shudder to think of the sort of idea people will get about me if I wander around looking like a hooker.”
“Hooker?” Renata grunted as she squatted stiffly next to a small wooden chest that sat next to a rickety-looking bed. “Ye make rugs, then?”
“Not that kind of hooker,” I said, kneeling next to her. “I meant the business-girl kind.”
She blinked at me.
I dredged up a couple of piratey-sounding synonyms. “Tarts. Trollops. Ladies of the evening.”
“Ah?” Renata looked away, gesturing at the trunk. “There be some things in here that ye can use. Belonged to one of me girls who ran off with a captain. Ye look to be about her size. Tch. Looks as if the other girls have been goin’ through it. All that’s left is a pair of stripy breeches, a bodice, and a wee nothin’ of a skirt.”
I looked at the garments she was offering me. The green and white striped breeches—nothing more than a pair of clamdigger pants—didn’t look too bad, but as I held up the green cloth skirt and brown leather bodice, I could see the latter was cut to act as a push-up bra. “Thanks. They’re a bit . . . but anything is better than these atrocious rags. I appreciate them. I . . . er . . . I don’t think I have any money.”
She waved an airy hand. “Not many folks hereabouts have reales, despite the mine. We mostly barter for the things we be needin’.”
“Ray-all?” I asked, confused by the word she used.
“Aye. ’Tis a Spanish word for the piece of silver that be used for coin hereabouts.”
“Ah. Gotcha. Well, I’m realless at the moment, and I can’t give up my leg because I need it to get to the officer level, but I’m sure if we think hard, I can find something to barter for these things. Er . . . I have a masters in financial management. I don’t suppose you run a business of any sort?”
She made a faintly distressed sound. I turned my back and shucked the revealing rags, slipping into the skirt, matching linen shirt, and leather bodice. The skirt definitely covered more than the rags, reaching almost to my knees, but the bodice . . . well, it definitely lifted, separated, and presented my breasts in a way that faintly alarmed me. Not having been overly endowed in the breast area, I found it a bit of a novelty to suddenly have apparently abundant cleavage. I tried a trial bend to make sure I wouldn’t pop out, and when I was satisfied that I wouldn’t, glanced back to the silent Renata. “Sorry; just wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be shocking anyone. Did you say you had a business?”