“Lots of ships have one, Julia,” Ben Garrison argued, spearing a broiled tomato and a slice of ham from the silver tray. “It’s not like he’s doing any harm. Just pranks, is all.”
“This isn’t a ship!” the stately woman snapped, scowling at her husband as she plucked a butter knife from the loaf of steaming bread at the center of the table. An identical knife thunked into the loaf, accompanied by a peal of impossibly high-pitched laughter. “It’s my home, and no place for a seasprite to be playing tricks. He’s setting a bad example for Cynthia!”
“I think he’s cute, Grammy!”Cynthia chirped, giggling as a six-inch sprite in loose pants and a tiny seaman’s shirt fluttered from hiding and circled her head once, before snatching up her butter knife and vanishing behind the china cabinet. “Mouse don’t mean no harm. He’s just a sprite.”
“Doesn’t mean any harm,Cynthia,” the matron of the house corrected. “Honestly, I don’t know where you pick up such poor grammar.”
“Probably from me, Mother,” Orin Flaxal said, entering the breakfast room with his usual aplomb, which was none at all, and tousling his daughter’s hair. She giggled and snatched a scone from the basket, bit off a corner and grinned at him through the crumbs. “She’s got a seaman’s manner, sure enough.”
“Cynthia! Put that down and use a knife and fork!” Julia snapped, prickling visibly at being called ‘Mother’ by her son-in-law. “I won’t have you acting like a sailor at this table!”
“I guess we’re in trouble, then, eh, Pop?” Orin said, taking a scone and slathering it with butter before sitting down and taking a bite. “Being sailors, I mean,” he added, grinning at his daughter through his own mouthful of crumbs.
“Aye, we better start actin’ like lubbers, I guess.” Ben tried to pick up his cup with a pinky sticking out, but failed and slopped blackbrew on the spotless white tablecloth. Another butter knife thunked into the bread. “Oops. Sorry, Julia.” He dabbed at the stain with his napkin, smiling sheepishly.
“I don’t know how you manage it, Daddy,” Cynthia’s mother said as she entered the room and gave her daughter a hug. Peggy Flaxal rounded the table and kissed her father on the forehead. “You can walk from poopdeck to forecastle in a full gale with a cup of blackbrew without spilling a drop. Put you on the beach and you’re all thumbs.”
“You know it takes me a fortnight to get my land legs, Peg.” He reached for the knife sticking out of the bread, but a fluttering streak of faerie wings plucked it away before his fingers touched it. The bread was starting to look a bit worse for wear, having been impaled half a dozen times this morning. “Ha! The little bugger’s quick, I gotta admit!”
“The thing is a nuisance and a bad influence on your granddaughter. I want him out of this house, Benjamin!” Julia demanded.
The recently pilfered butter knife thunked back into the bread.
“Mother, he’s just a—” Peggy started, as the little sprite flew from hiding and dove for the bread.
“Out this instant!” Julia screeched, her tone rattling the dishes. She swatted ineffectually at the fluttering faerie before he snatched the knife once again and darted off.
“Careful, Julia. Don’t hurt the little fella!”
“Hurt him! I’ll throttle the little imp if I get my hands on him!” She glared at the plate on the sideboard where the sprite was hiding. He peeked around the gilded rim and stuck his tongue out at her.
“Take care, Mother,” Orin said, his mien becoming serious. “It’s dreadful luck to hurt a seasprite on purpose. Why, ships have run up on reefs for it.”
“A poor excuse for drunken captains and bad seamanship, I’ll warrant.” She threw down her napkin in disgust. “Breakfast is ruined, thanks to that little monster! Why don’t you use those vaunted powers of yours to banish that little wasp!”
She stormed out of the room in a huff.
The silver butter knife thunked into the loaf of bread.
“Well, at least his aim is improving,” Orin said, snatching the knife before Mouse could swish back across the table to retrieve it. He buttered the rest of his scone and started breakfast in earnest.
“You won’t let Grammy hurt Mouse, will you, Daddy?” Cynthia chewed on a piece of ham and turned her head to watch the little seasprite circle the table, orbiting everyone’s head once before finding another butter knife to pilfer.
“Oh, he’s too quick for her, Cynny. Don’t you worry.” Orin filled his cup and shared a concerned look with his father-in-law.
“Not to worry, Cyn,” the old sailor said, patting his granddaughter’s hand. “I’ll talk to your grammy.”
“Thanks, Grampy!” She giggled again as another butter knife hit the bread. “Wow, Mouse! That’s eight in a row!”
The seasprite flew out from behind a gravy boat and landed on the lacerated loaf, striking a pose as if he’d slain it single-handedly.Cynthia clapped and cheered the little hero, and he bowed deeply before extracting his knife and sawing off a slice as his just desserts.
The whole family laughed and smiled, even Orin, despite his genuine concern about his mother-in-law’s ill intentions.
“Please, Julia. Orin knows what he’s talkin’ about. It is bad luck to hurt a seasprite.”
“Hogwash!” she retorted, checking the linen closet for wrinkled napkins and poorly creased tablecloths. “There’s no such thing as bad luck, or good luck for that matter. There’s only hard work and reward, and you should know that, Benjamin.” She flicked the corner of a napkin and clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Or laziness and due punishment. Marta! Marta, this linen cabinet is a mess. Take everything out and iron it, then see that it’s all folded properly. I won’t have wrinkled napkins at my table.”
“Yes, Mistress Garrison,” the maid said with a curtsey. She started taking out the linen as Ben smiled apologetically and pulled his rampaging wife aside.
“Julia, I’m serious about this. Orin is a seamage. He knows this isn’t something to be trifled with. Seasprites are one of Odea’s favored creatures, and she’s a vengeful goddess when her toes are trod on.”
“Then Orin better figure out a way to get the little insect out of my house,” she said coldly. “This is my house, Benjamin Garrison. You have your ships, and you said this household would be mine to govern as I saw fit the day I agreed to marry you. You wouldn’t have a single ship to your name if it weren’t for my inheritance, and don’t you forget it.”
“I haven’t forgotten it, Julia. How could I?” His tone stated that she reminded him all-too-regularly of that fact. “But I have a dozen ships now, and more than that many river barges. This house was built with profits I made with those ships. Your inheritance has been doubled, redoubled, and redoubled again.”
“I fail to see your point, Benjamin,” she said with a haughty sniff. “This is still my household, and that sprite is an unwanted guest. See that it is removed, or I will do so myself.”
She turned to leave, but Ben’s strong hand encircled her arm. Her gasp may have been pain or simple surprise. Either way, he relaxed his grip a trifle, but he did not let her go.
“I’m not asking, Julia,” he said in the tone he used at sea, where he was sole master of life and death. “I’ll see if Orin can coax Mouse down to one of the ships, but the sprite’s taken a shine to little Cynthia. If he won’t leave, I don’t want you doing anything drastic.”
Her eyes narrowed and lowered to his grip on her arm, her mouth pursing in distaste, as if his sailor’s hands offended her in some way. Her gaze slowly rose, as much steel in her eyes as his.
“See that the creature is removed, Benjamin, and there will be no need for me to do so myself,” she said.
He held her eyes for another moment, then released her arm. “I will see what I can do, Julia, but I warn you, do not bring Odea’s wrath down on this house.”
She turned without a word and walked away.
Ben stood for a while, wondering what had happened to the woman he’d married. Time had worn them thin, it seemed. Time he’d spent at sea building his floating empire.
“A master of ships…” he mumbled, staring down at his broad, scarred hand. How fragile it all is, he thought, flexing his fingers. His empire, his family and his life could all fall apart in an instant if Odea so chose.
Orin Flaxal stood on the quarterdeck of the largest galleon in the Garrison fleet, the first rays of morning sun warming his face. The ship teemed with activity, but he wasn’t really paying attention to the bustling crew or the shouting boatswain. The ship was Peggy’s Pride, the gem of the fleet, and the only two things his father-in-law loved more were the woman it was named after and little Cynthia, his only grandchild. That was why Orin and Ben got along so well: they had their loves in common. Right now, he was making sure that nothing would come to harm those things he loved most, not even the source of his own powers.
The crew of Peggy’s Pride had worked through the night to load a cargo that was probably not going to earn the Garrison family a single ounce of gold. The hold full of copra and breadfruit had been purchased hastily, and the markets to the north had been soft of late, but this trip had very little to do with making a profit. If Ben Garrison broke even on the cargo’s sale and everything else worked as planned, he would count himself fortunate.
If everything worked as planned; that was where Orin’s skills came into play.
He stood and closed his eyes and started humming a tune low in his throat, for all the world looking like a man simply enjoying the sunrise. Beneath that guise, he wove a gentle compulsion, a song of the sea to woo one particular seasprite into joining him for a little cruise. He wove the salt spray, the rolling swell and the steady trade winds into his song. He added the crack of canvas filling with wind, the creak of spars and the howl of wind in the rigging. He blended it all together and sent it up the hill to waft through the open windows of the estate. He sent it to the little sprite Mouse, where he played with Cynthia on the floor of the sunroom.
He felt a little tug, not unlike that of a fish taking a hook, and he knew Mouse had taken the bait. A seasprite loved little in the world more than sailing, and Mouse had sailed with Orin many times. A smile touched his lips as he felt the tug again. His little friend was hooked.
The boatswain shouted, “All ashore what’s goin’ ashore! Secure the main yard! Dog down that hatch and make ready the tops’ls!”
His timing was perfect.
“Where you goin’, Mouse?”Cynthia cried as the little sprite leapt into the air and flashed around the room, his gossamer-crystal wings a blur in the morning sunlight. “We were just about ready to play!”
She snatched up one of the dolls she had been transforming from a little girl dressed in a frilly gown to a naked mermaid. The doll’s dress had been stripped away, and her little legs were bound together with green ribbon. Grammy didn’t like it when she played sharks and mermaids with her dolls, but they were her dolls. But just as they were ready to venture out into the yard in search of a decently sized puddle, Mouse threw off the little wooden fin that she’d strapped to his back and swooped into the air.
“Mouse! Don’t go! I won’t hold you underwater again, I promise!” She was honestly sorry about the last time she’d done that—who would have thought that a seasprite couldn’t breathe water? But her shouts had no effect, and the next thing she knew, he’d flown out the window and vanished.
“Well, fine! I can play sharks and mermaids on my own!” She pouted and got up to look for another doll, one that she could transform into an adequately convincing shark, maybe with a strip of material from the hem of one of her mother’s dresses. Daddy always said that sailors liked shorter dresses anyway…
“Ship the boats, if you please, Mr. Brael. Sheet the tops’ls as she comes about and set the main and mizzen when all’s secure. And well done to the boat crews.” Ben Garrison smiled as the deck officer relayed his orders and the boatswain’s deafening bellow drew the boats in. All was well; at least, all under his control. He cast a glance to his son-in-law and cocked an eyebrow. “Well?”
“He’s coming, Ben. Don’t worry.”
The boats thumped aboard, and the great mainsail dropped from the yard and cracked full in the freshening breeze. Despite his worry, the sight of it made his heart rise in his chest. Ben Garrison smiled and snapped off orders for the helmsman and the deck officer. Peggy’s Pride came around smartly and started to make way.
“There,” Orin said with a smile, nodding to the silvery streak of a seasprite swooping through the rigging. Several sailors cried out with joy, for though a seasprite was an irksome presence, they were considered good luck. “We’d best be well away before he smokes out our plot, Ben.”
“Aye. Set what canvas she’ll bear, Mr. Brael. We’ve got weather coming in by my son’s reckoning, and I want to beat it to deep water.”
“Aye, Captain!” The deck officer smiled in understanding. He shouted orders to set additional sails, and by the time his breath was out, Peggy’s Pride was making good headway toward the harbor mouth.
All the while, Orin looked to the skies. The officers and crew would think him concerned about the weather, but his attention focused only upon the little streak of silvery wings darting around the sailors in the rigging, tugging at shirts and ponytails.
“Cynthia! What in the name of the Gods of Light and Darkness are you doing!” Julia strode off the porch and across the lawn to glower down at her granddaughter. “You’ve ruined your best dolls, and you’re soaked!”
“I’m playing sharks and mermaids!” she said, holding up the two sopping wet dolls, one wrapped from the waist down in green ribbon, the other bound head to foot in strips of silvery cloth with the tiny triangle fin strapped to its back. “You wanna play, Grammy?”
“No, I do not want to play! Now come with me this instant and we’ll get you some clean clothes.” Julia’s iron grip encircled Cynthia’s arm and the child fairly levitated from the puddle that had served as her south-sea lagoon.
The girl yelped at the treatment, but her protests that she wasn’t finished, and that the sharks were just about to get the mermaids (which was how most of her games of sharks and mermaids ended) went unheeded. Her feet barely touched the ground all the way to the sunroom, where Julia stripped off the girl’s dress and applied towels to her muddy underclothes. The maids were called, and a pot of piping hot water appeared, as well as a cake of soap.
“But Grammy, I just took a bath yesterday!” Her determined little face began sprouting tears. First Mouse had flown away, now her grandmother was forcing her to bathe! “This ain’t fair!”
“Isn’t fair, Cynthia. And you should have thought about fair before you raided the sewing cabinet, ripped out the hem of your mother’s dress, ruined your dolls and got yourself soaking wet! Now hold still!”
“Your mother has gone to town, Cynthia, so stop your complaining.” She wiped at the water on the girl’s face, but more gushed from her eyes. “Now, this really isn’t worth crying about. What’s the matter?”
“Mouse flew away!” she shrieked, struggling free of the maids’ grasping hands. “We were going to play sharks and mermaids, and he flew away!”
“Well, thank the Gods for that, anyway! Best if the little insect never came back!”
“Stop it! Stop it!”Cynthia screamed, slapping at the hands of the maids. “Lemme go! I’ll go find Mouse myself!”
The girl dashed out of the circle of women, nimble as a cat, and through the door to the yard, all the while screaming in her shrill little voice, “Mouse! Mouse! Where are you, Mouse?”
The maids ran after her to the hawking cries of, “Bring her back this instant!” and “Cynthia Marie Flaxal, you come here!” which had no effect at all on the girl. It was about time someone laid down some discipline in this household.
Julia snatched up a broom one of the maids had dropped and strode after them, a jabbering juggernaut in a twenty-one button corset.
“Uh-oh,” Orin mumbled, just as the Peggy’s Pride rounded the breakwater and the first swells of the trade winds took her on the port quarter. “What’s gotten into the little bugger now?”
“What? What’s wrong?” Ben stood beside him, his eyes searching the rigging for the elusive little seasprite.
“There’s something wrong with Mouse. I don’t know, but he’s stopped flying about. He’s sitting on the main-tops’l yard just looking around. It’s almost like he hears something.”
The two men looked at one another, and sudden worry passed between them. Both looked over the taffrail toward the estate that dominated the hill to the east of Southaven. There, barely discernible in the distance, several figures trundled down the expansive lawn toward the low wall that girded the estate. One, a small one in white, dodged and evaded the others, then broke for the wall.
“Oh no!” Orin said, looking back up at the rigging. Mouse stood rapt, his eyes locked onto the distant spectacle. “He’s onto something. I think that’s Cyn up there, and it looks like the maids are chasing her around the yard. Knowing my Cynny, she’s screaming her lungs out. If he hears her…”
“I think you’re right, Orin. Look.” Ben pointed. Mouse had snatched a rigging knife from a sailor’s belt. It wasn’t much bigger than a butter knife, but it was a lot sharper. The faerie flew twice around the quarterdeck and set out for the distant cliffs and the Garrison estate.
“Damn!” Orin swore, cracking his fist down on the taffrail. He watched every hope of keeping Mouse out of his mother-in-law’s way vanish into the distance.
“Cynthia, you come down from there this instant!” Julia screamed, brandishing the broom and taking another step closer.
“NO!”Cynthia shrieked, stomping her feet on the top of the three-foot wall that surrounded the estate. “I won’t!”
The girl was in no real danger from a fall; if she fell forward, the maids would catch her, and if she fell backward, she would land in foot-deep scrub grass as soft as any featherbed. But that didn’t dissuade her from stomping and kicking and screaming every time one of the ladies tried to grab her. Her face shone red as a beet, and her hair rivaled any dandelion in the realm, but her voice was her real weapon, and it rose to screeching heights that threatened deafness to anyone who dared approach.
Julia had just about had enough.
“This is the result of a house with too little discipline,” she explained more to herself than the three puffing maids. She withdrew a small pen-knife from a pocket and handed it to the nearest of her charges. “Lori, cut me a switch. It’s just about time someone laid down the law in this household.”
“Yes’m,” the maid said, taking the tiny knife with wide eyes, clearly in shock that the mistress intended to meter out punishment without Lady Peggy present. But she answered to Mistress Garrison, and turned to cut a switch.
She didn’t make three steps before Mouse flew in to the rescue. His little rigging knife flashed, and in a blink he’d cut the maid’s apron strings and pulled the garment up and over her head.
“Mouse!”Cynthia squealed in sudden delight. “You came back!”
The little sprite landed on the befuddled maid’s head, danced a little jig, sketched a bow and darted off just as Julia’s broom came crashing down. The maid screamed at the blow, though she was not really hurt.
Now Mouse had his true enemy in his sights, and he darted in for the kill.
In a flash of gossamer-crystal wings and steel, two of Julia’s pearl buttons were snipped off. The broom swung, but he flew like a flash of greased quicksilver, streaking in for another slash and two more buttons. A peal of high-pitched laughter followed him as he circled her head and hacked a third of the bristles from her broom in one lightning pass.
“Hold still, you little insect!” she raged, swinging the broom in a broad arc, to no avail.
Mouse snipped three more buttons before she could even swing back again. He laughed and lunged, carved a quick “M” into the broom’s handle and darted away before she could even gasp.
“Yay, Mouse!” little Cynthia cheered, dancing out of reach of the maids again and laughing. The spoiled little monster was enjoying this even more than her inane little games.
Julia’s corset risked rupture with every breath she drew and every button that flew, but now she knew she could not hope to hit the little sprite. She wasn’t fast enough. But she was smarter than any sprite, or she would sell her good name and all her worldly possessions to any pauper for a penny!
She swung again, gasping as she missed, and the sprite darted in. Another pair of buttons fell free, and the strain proved too much for the bedraggled bodice. The remaining buttons popped free in a ripping volley not unlike a full broadside of catapults fired from a man-o-war. Julia fell to her hands and knees, gasping and crying out. Her maids were at her side instantly as the sprite cheered in its screeching little voice and flew to Cynthia.
“Wait,” she told her maids, glaring them to silence as she gathered her legs under her skirts. “Just wait.”
The sprite circled Cynthia once, dropped the knife and joined hands with the little girl for a spinning cheer.
“Now!” The maids pulled her up, broom in her hands and her corset flapping in the breeze. As the child and faerie spun in a laughing, dancing circle of merriment, Julia timed her swing perfectly.
Broom met sprite with a sound like a crystal goblet striking stone.
Mouse flew in a flat trajectory, trailing glittering bits of fractured wing fragments. The low stone wall stopped his flight short and he fell, leaving more bits of gossamer-crystal stuck to the stucco.
“NO!”Cynthia screeched, her voice rivaling that of any sprite. “You killed him!” She started to dash to the fallen sprite, but the two maids grabbed her arms, holding her fast between them. “I hate you! I hate you!”
“Now, Cynthia…” Julia’s diatribe on the necessity of her attack fell short, however, as thunder boomed from far out to sea. No storm darkened the horizon and no lightning flashed, but the thunder continued to rumble.
“Odea!” one of the maids murmured, aghast.
“Nonsense!” Julia hefted her broom and turned back to the fallen sprite, but Mouse had managed to stand and now fluttered unsteadily into the air. He didn’t fly straight, and he didn’t fly fast, but he flew. He flew over the wall and vanished into the shrubbery. “Now, where did that little insect go?”
Thunder ripped again, this time closer, and still the sky shone clear.
“Perhaps we’d best move inside until this strange weather passes,” Julia suggested.
The maids needed no encouragement. They took little Cynthia back to the house as peal after peal of thunder sounded from a clear sky and a teary eyed sprite sat in a shrub and nursed his broken wings. Mouse was crying, but he wasn’t crying for himself, or even for his shattered wings; he was crying for poor Cynthia.
Orin Flaxal was right; there was a storm on the way.