Authors: Justin Somper
Tags: #Parenting, #Pirates, #Action & Adventure, #Vampires, #Juvenile Fiction, #Mothers, #Seafaring life, #Fantasy & Magic, #Fiction, #Family & Relationships, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Twins, #General, #Motherhood, #Horror, #Brothers and sisters
"Go back to the vision," Sally said. "What did you see?"
"I was sitting there, seeing it all through your eyes," Grace said. "Next, I -- you -- were in the long cabin at the bottom of the ship. You were sitting on the donors' side of the table. You looked to one side and saw Lorcan and Shanti. Shanti winked at you."
"Shanti," Sally said, smiling. "Dear, sweet Shanti. Such a good friend. I should love to see her again. Do you know her? Well, you must -- you recognized her, after all!"
Once more, Grace ran the risk of hurting her mother very badly. How could she tell her mother her friend was dead? She decided to brush over it for now. "Let's come back to Shanti later," she said.
"Yes, all right," Sally said. "Go back to your vision, Grace."
"You turned back and waited for your donor to arrive. I was expecting to see Dad. But instead, it was Sidorio who sat down opposite you. And he said --"
But before Grace could continue, Sally spoke his exact words. "So you're my new donor! Funny little thing, aren't you?" She had never forgotten them.
Grace nodded. "I let go of your hand, Mother, and the vision ended. I wasn't ready to see any more. But I can't get what I did see out of my head." She turned to Sally. "What was Sidorio like when you knew him? What was it like being his donor?"
Sally closed her eyes for a moment, and Grace wondered if she was too weak to continue. But then her mother's eyes opened, brighter than before. "If you want to know the shocking truth, Grace -- and it is shocking when I think of everything that happened later -- I rather liked Sidorio in the beginning."
"You liked Sidorio?" Grace shook her head in disbelief.
Sally shrugged and smiled. "No question, there was always something dark and brooding about him. I suppose I always knew he had the" -- she searched for the right phrase -- "the possibility of violence about him. But I thought he was very handsome. And I suppose I was swept up in the dark romance of it all. Here I was, aboard a ship of Vampirates, and he was to be my partner. It was like a marriage, of sorts." She shrugged. "At least that's how I saw it in my foolish little head." She paused. "Is there any water left in that pitcher? I'm parched."
Grace filled a glass and passed it to her mother, eager for her to continue her story.
"I had heard about Sidorio's connection with Julius Caesar, and I thought it gave him a certain epic quality. It made him all the more attractive to me." Sally's green eyes danced in the candlelight. "Oh, Grace, you're clearly a very sensible young woman. You have your head screwed on just right. But I was a different sort altogether, full of strange ideas. And I confess that as I got ready for my first Feast Night I felt as if I was going on a date."
"A date!" Grace exclaimed. "With Sidorio?" Grace had never imagined she'd even hear those two words in such close proximity. It was hard for her to even contemplate someone thinking about Sidorio in that way.
"Of course, when I arrived at the Feast, it was a complete letdown. I took my place opposite Sidorio and waited for him to begin to ask me some questions. I thought he'd be as keen to get to know me as I was him. Around me, I could hear the chatter of other Vampirates and their donors. But after a few opening words, Sidorio remained stonily silent. It seemed that he had no interest in getting to know me at all."
Sally turned to Grace. "I realized that all I was to Sidorio was a source of blood, nothing more. My poor foolish delusions! After the feast, we went to my cabin for the sharing. And actually, he was surprisingly gentle and precise. Certainly, he only took the prescribed quantity of blood. Afterward I slept. I don't know how much you know about the sharing, Grace, but it is customary for donors to need to sleep afterward. Generally, the Vampirates remain with their partners at this time. It's a mark of respect for the gift."
Sally shook her head. "Only Sidorio didn't stay with me. Not that night, nor any other -- with one exception." She sighed. "When I awoke, I was on my own. And I confess, I have never felt so alone as I did then, in that small cabin on that strangely silent ship."
There were tears in Grace's eyes. She hated to think of her mother in such distress. She reached out to squeeze Sally's hand and felt her squeeze hers back. She paused, expecting, but not wanting, a fresh vision to come. But thankfully, this time her head remained clear. She remembered Mosh Zu's words about Sally having unfinished business. Maybe her story needed to emerge in its own rhythm. Enough secrets had been shared for one day.
"I'm so sorry, Grace," Sally said. "This must all be very hard for you."
Grace smiled through her moist eyes. "I'm sure it's not exactly a walk in the park for you, either."
"No," Sally agreed. "But I want to make things right for you, before ... Well, I just want to make things right for you. And for Connor, too. Where is he, anyhow?"
Grace considered this question but decided not to cover up the truth. "He left," she said, "earlier today."
"Because of me?" Sally asked.
Grace hesitated again. "In part," she said. "Because of what you began to tell us. That we are connected to the Vampirate world, that we always were." She looked at her mother sadly. "Connor doesn't want that."
"Whether he wants it or not is irrelevant," said Sally. "It isn't something he can escape from."
"I know," Grace said with a sigh. "But that won't stop him from trying. Even now, he's gone in search of a pirate captain to ask her to sign him up on her crew."
Sally shook her head. "He can run as hard and as far as he likes, but the truth will catch up with him. It always does."
These ominous words were Sally's last before she drifted off to sleep once more. Grace remained at her bedside for a time. She was still shocked by Sally's revelations, but at the same time she felt strangely calm. She marveled at how connected she and her mother were by the paths they had taken in life, by the ship they had sailed on and the people they had both encountered there. It made her feel less alone, somehow.
At last, quietly so as not to disturb her mother's much-needed rest, Grace climbed down from the bed. She smoothed out the bedspread so Sally would be covered from the chill evening air. Then she blew her mother the gentlest of kisses and made her way back toward the door.
Connor wove his way through the shipyard, doing his best to follow the instructions he'd been given at the reception gate. It was late afternoon, but the sun was still blisteringly hot, and as he walked along the pier beads of sweat formed on his forehead and trickled down his neck and shoulders. He had changed into a fresh T-shirt after the arduous sail, but already a deep V of perspiration had formed over his chest.
In spite of the intense heat, everywhere he glanced was a hive of activity. Men and women worked away tirelessly on ships, from those in the early stages of construction, resembling a whale's skeleton on display in a maritime museum, to others that were almost complete, being given a final sanding or coat of varnish. He watched a pair of shipwrights hoisting a taut new mainsail. Connor was used to battered sails and rigging heavy with salt and tar. He'd never seen canvas or rope as new as this before. He inhaled deeply. Fresh-cut timber. Drying paint. The shipyard exuded the heady scent of new beginnings.
At last he came to a vast dry dock where a tall, elegant ship seemed to float on air. Connor couldn't help but gasp as he took in the pure majesty of the vessel. His pulse began to race. He felt an instant connection with the ship, as though his own veins and sinews were part of the rigging, as if its lanyards and sheets were clipped onto his heart. He hoped that one day very soon the ship would be his new home. It seemed all but complete, ready to break free from its shell of scaffolding. Standing on one of the uppermost platforms, a man was carefully painting the ship's name in gold paint. Connor squinted to read the words, but the sun was too dazzling to make it out.
"What a beauty!" exclaimed a woman's distinctive voice.
Connor turned and found a tall, elegant woman at his side. She was a vision in white, from the pristine shoes on her petite feet to the precisely cut bob of white hair. Connor wondered if it was naturally white; she didn't look that old. Her lightly tanned face was stretched as taut as the sail he'd seen hoisted onto the ship just now. Her expression of mild disdain barely altered as she addressed him in a superior drawl. "Jacinta Slawter, editor at large, Ship Shape magazine." She fixed Connor with a glare. "And you are?"
"Connor Tempest," he said, shaking her hand.
"You're a little sweaty, Connor Tempest," said Jacinta Slawter, swiftly withdrawing her hand and reaching into her clutch bag for a cloth. "Well, never mind that. More to the point, where's your equipment?"
"My equipment?" What was she referring to?
"Your cam-er-a," said Jacinta Slawter, breaking up the word as if he was a complete idiot or perhaps new to the English language.
"My camera?" Connor stared at her blankly.
Though her expression did not change, Jacinta Slawter was clearly growing impatient. "Now look, Connor Tinpot or whatever you name is, I'm here to do a profile of Cheng Li and her ship. It's a print exclusive for the August issue. And I assume you're here to shoot the pictures for the seven-page spread?" She articulated every syllable of the words. "Which prompts me to ask the question, where is your apparatus?"
Connor shook his head, grinning. "I'm not a photographer," he said. "I'm an old friend of Cheng Li's."
"A friend?" Jacinta Slawter's voice changed instantly. She produced a small gold pencil from behind her ear and a notebook from her bag. "Care to share any special memories or insights?"
"Maybe later," Connor said, pointing up to the prow of the ship where Cheng Li stood, hands resting on her hips, resembling a bird of prey surveying the world below.
"Connor!" she called down. "What a nice surprise! And Ms. Slawter. You're here! Why don't you both come on up?"
She temporarily disappeared from view, and Connor followed in Jacinta Slawter's slipstream as she power walked around to the gangplank. He felt a momentary flash of vertigo as he made his way across it, but he controlled his breathing and kept his focus straight ahead. He wasn't about to show any weakness in front of Jacinta Slawter, of all people. Cheng Li was standing on the other side, watching him. This was a further inducement to remain calm and strong.
"Welcome aboard," Cheng Li said, extending a hand to help Jacinta Slawter down onto the deck.
"Thank you, Captain Li," drawled the editor at large.
"Oh, I'm not a captain for a few more days," Cheng Li said. Connor could see she was glowing with pride and excitement.
"Cool ship!" he said.
"Isn't it?" Cheng Li smiled.
Connor wondered if he should hug her, but he missed the moment as Jacinta Slawter started up again. "Mistress Li, I'm terribly sorry, but there seems to have been a mix-up with my photographer. I'm sure it's easily explained, but --"
"Yo, Slawter!" came a voice from up above. "Strike a pose!"
They all craned their necks up to the crow's nest. A camera clicked several times in rapid succession from high above. "Beautiful!" called the voice.
"Fabrizio? Darling, is that you?" drawled Jacinta Slawter.
"The one and only," called the photographer, a muscular man with long black hair in a ponytail. He nimbly descended the rigging, several cameras dangling from his tanned and toned limbs. "What took you so long?" he asked, jumping down onto the deck. "I'm almost done here."
"I wasn't sure who they were sending. I thought we were meeting at three," Jacinta drawled. "Don't rush off, darling. I'd like to get a few shots of myself with Cap -- with Mistress Li. Oh, and perhaps with this young man, Connor Pestilence." She hissed to Fabrizio. "Apparently, they're old friends."
"Fabalous!" said Fabrizio, not wasting any time and shooting several shots of Cheng Li and Connor there and then.
"Well," said Cheng Li. "Who's for the grand tour?"
"Lead the way!" drawled Jacinta Slawter, managing to inject just a hint of excitement into her voice.
As Connor followed Cheng Li, Jacinta Slawter, and Fabrizio around the ship, he was awed at every turning. It really was an amazing piece of craftsmanship. Cheng Li had, unsurprisingly, been highly involved in the ship's design. As she pointed out its key features, she talked with complete assurance about why certain decisions had been made and how the craft married the best of the old traditions with cutting-edge innovation.
Jacinta Slawter nodded authoratively and scribbled furiously, while Fabrizio leaped about here, there, and everywhere, snapping away. Connor found a new level of respect for Cheng Li as he listened and observed her. She seemed to grow in stature each time they met.