Rajakhan stood with his hands folded behind his broad back, staring at the preserved skeleton of the smilodon which stood in his trophy hall. It almost didn’t look feline, being nothing but bones held together by wire; so much of what made a cat was in the way they moved.
Outsiders rarely understood about Punaji and cats. Everyone assumed the pirate kingdom should put something nautical on their flag, but there was nothing on or under the sea that so perfectly captured the Punaji spirit. Cats offered respect and obedience to none, rejected all rules and pursued their own ends… But in their own, freewheeling way, they were loyal and devoted, fierce in the protection of those they loved. It remained one of the odd quirks visiting merchants and scholars shook their heads over. Punaji, like cats, didn’t feel a need to explain themselves.
This was his thinking pose, and the place where he most often came to do his thinking; the servants left him alone. They, at least, knew him well enough not to be intimidated by his imposing namesake beard, massive frame and tendency to scowl as a resting expression. He’d had to develop other signals to indicate when he didn’t wish to be disturbed. Maneuver, impression, appearance… Politics. It never ceased to gall him, having to care about such trifling things. A king’s lot was just not meant to be easy.
But there were worse things.
He drew in a deep breath and blew it out in a huff, glaring at the skeleton as if he could blame it for his worries. The weight of his nation’s troubles was a familiar one to him. What weighed on him now was far more personal, and harder on his equanimity.
Hearing her footsteps before she appeared, he turned to face the archway to the outer hall. Anjal entered with the force of someone slamming a door—impressive, given that there wasn’t one. She was a diminutive woman, lean and no taller than his collarbone, but her muscular frame and aggressive stride made an imposing sight even when she wasn’t glaring and clenching both fists at her sides.
“Well?” the pirate king asked after a moment in which she simply stood there, staring daggers at him.
“Nothing.” Anjal bit off her words, fairly quivering with fury. “She just sits. This is not normal. Children are supposed to be resilient—it has been three days! The windshaman is worried she will starve herself; it’s all we can do to make her drink water.”
Rajakhan heaved another sigh, stroking his beard with one hand, while Anjal glared at him accusingly. They had come a long way since their earliest meeting, as captains of opposing ships tearing into each other—he the prince of the Punaji nation, she the commander of the Punaji nation’s first organized rebellion against the crown. Anjal the Sea Devil met every situation with fire and steel, in her spirit if not in her hands.
That was what made him worry, now. She drew in a deep, shuddering breath, and the sudden crack in her voice made his heart ache. “I can’t fight this, Raja!”
He was across the room in two long strides, wrapping his arms around her, and for a wonder, she let herself be held, regardless that they were more or less in public. Anjal buried her face in his shoulder, leaning both clenched fists into his chest.
“Some things cannot be fought, my heart,” he said quietly, resting his chin atop her head.
“I don’t know what to do!” Her whole body was clenched tight with the effort of not breaking down. She would never forgive herself for showing such weakness. “Naphthene send me enemies, problems that can be killed. Our own daughter is withering away from within and…and what can we do? I can stand there and watch.”
She broke off, trembling, and he just held her in silence. In the privacy of their chambers, he would murmur soothingly, stroke her hair… In privacy, she would let herself weep. Rajakhan knew her well enough not to show her tenderness when she was trying to harden herself; it would only spoil her efforts.
Gradually, she relaxed, her furious tension easing into the more normal stiffness with which she faced the world. Anjal was no more to be taken for granted than the sea; after years of marriage, he was attuned enough to her to sense, even without seeing her face, when she had composed herself enough to carry on.
“I will go speak to her,” he rumbled.
She pulled back, staring up at him. Tears glistened in her eyes, but didn’t fall. “What can you say that we haven’t tried?”
“Duty,” he said firmly. “It is time to stop this indulgence.”
Anjal’s expression hardened all over again. “The child is in pain, Rajakhan. Yelling at her will do only more harm.”
“A captain need only raise his voice to be heard over the wind and rain,” he replied. “We have raised our daughter well, Anjal. She has a brave heart, and knows her duty. If soft words will not shake her out of this, a reminder of her obligations will. I have that much faith in her.” He softened his voice and expression when the skepticism on her face did not diminish. “What else is there to try, love?”
Anjal closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She gently pulled herself back and impatiently scrubbed tears from her eyes before opening them again. “Go, then. If this does not work…”
“It will have to,” he said, taking one of her slim, callused hands and lifting it to his lips. “Only her own strength will lead her through this, my pretty devil. She just needs a reminder.”
His wife allowed this intimacy for a moment, a hint of a smile flickering across her eyes, before composing herself and pulling away. “Try it then, husband. Why are you still here?”
In spite of himself, in spite of everything, Rajakhan rumbled a low laugh, stepping back from her with a respectful bow. He turned and strode out.
The pirate king’s bulky frame made him look squat, belying his height and the long reach of his legs; he set a sharp pace, passing through the castle at a clip that made servants and courtiers scramble to keep up. It was to the better, for several reasons, that none accompanied him today. Those he passed were glimpsed only in the distance where halls crossed or doors opened into rooms. Sensing the mood and knowing some of what caused it, the domestic staff were taking pains not to be near him or Anjal. It suited him just fine.
Despite his set expression and rapid stride, he was dreading this. All too soon, he reached his destination, a door in the hallway just down from his own chambers. Rajakhan “Blackbeard” Punaji, King of Pirates, had to pause and steel himself before rapping on the door. That done, though, he pulled it open and stepped in without waiting for a response.
It was as bad as he had feared; at the first glimpse of his daughter, a crack formed in his heart.
Zaruda was a blocky, square-faced child. So had been his sister and cousins at that age, though, and they had grown into their frames; the women in his family were famed for being curvaceous and vivacious. She was likely to become a great beauty, which concerned him and her mother not at all. The sort of leadership strategies which used looks to influence people would not serve a leader among the Punaji. The young Princess had given her parents plenty of cause for pride, however; she was clever, rambunctious, aggressive, and fiercely affectionate.
Now, she sat on her bed, knees pulled up to her chest. Dark circles of sleeplessness ringed her eyes, a horrible sight on so young a face. Zaruda’s expression was hollow, empty, her shoulders slumped. Only seven years old, and she looked completely broken. She had for three days. The sight was almost enough to unman him completely; Rajakhan barely retained his composure in the face of it.
“Hello, Zari,” he said gently. Her eyes flickered to him, but she made no other acknowledgment. He glanced quickly about the room, taking stock. Zaruda wasn’t alone; her two cats both sat on the bed with her. Shashi, an expensive purebred Sifanese, was draped over her feet, while Fancy Hat, an orange tabby with a ragged ear whom Zaruda had insisted on rescuing from an alley, sat upright beside her, leaning firmly against her. In the last three days they had left her side only to eat and use the box. The sound of their purring was plainly audible even from across the room. And outsiders still tried to tell him cats were disloyal…
Aside from her rumpled bedclothes, the rest of the room was depressingly in order, a very bad sign. Zaruda was a walking mess, usually; things were clean in her presence only when she was asleep. His eye did settle on one thing out of place, however. A worn stuffed bear lay against the wall, face-down.
“What’s this?” he rumbled, bending to pick it up. The bear had been hastily but thoroughly laundered, yet its head was still marred by a large discolored patch. They had gotten all the blood out, but the well-loved toy could only submit to so much washing without falling apart completely. “And why is Commodore Bear on the floor? Is this how you treat a war hero?”
Zaruda glanced at him again, then cleared her throat. “’s just a stupid toy,” she said hoarsely. Her voice was raspy with thirst, with lack of sleep… But not from crying. That was the truly worrying thing. She had been watched closely enough that he knew she had not cried. Not once.
Rajakhan stepped into the room, pulling the door shut behind him. He crossed to her and sat down very carefully beside her on the bed, setting Commodore Bear on his other side and stroking Fancy Hat’s head. No matter the care with which he moved, the child-sized bed creaked and shifted under his weight.
He let the silence stretch out. For all his talk to Anjal, now that the moment was here, he found it embarrassingly hard to put his plan into action. His little girl was suffering, and all he wanted was to hold her and fight away her fears. But they had tried that, and she’d only retreated further into herself.
“You think I’m weak,” Zaruda said softly.
“What?” Rajakhan frowned at her. “Who told you this?”
“Nobody.” She shook her head. “I know, though. The windshaman thinks so. Mama thinks so.”
“You are wrong,” he said firmly. “You are not weak, and only a fool would believe you are.”
“I feel weak,” she whispered.
Rajakhan drew in a deep breath and let it out. Finally, he laid his large hand against her back, stroking her gently. “Tell me what’s on your mind, little Zari.”
It was long minutes before she answered. He didn’t repeat his command or push her; she wasn’t ignoring him. It took time for her to gather her thoughts.
“That man,” she said softly. “He had a mama and a papa too. Maybe brothers and sisters. Maybe a wife. Somebody loved him.”
“Likely so,” Rajakhan replied. “Most people are connected to somebody.”
“And they’re hurt now because he’s gone,” she whispered.
He nodded slowly. “Yes.”
“I didn’t mean to kill him.” Her voice was achingly hollow, echoing with pain she was too tired to feel except distantly.
“I know, Zari,” he rumbled. “But you were in the right. He broke into your room; he meant harm to your family, possibly to you. When someone attacks you, it’s right to defend yourself.”
“I know.” She closed her eyes. “Everyone’s said that to me.”
He let the silence hang for a moment before prompting her. “But?”
“I don’t feel right. I feel… Wrong. A man is dead and nothing will ever bring him back.” Finally she opened her eyes again, and the emptiness in them was haunting. “And that’s why I’m weak.”
“Why is that?” he asked softly.
“You’ve killed people. Mama has. Everyone… All those stories, of battles and wars and raids… The Punjai fight to live, we kill our enemies.” She slumped, sinking into herself. “I can’t call myself Punaji.”
“Now you hear this,” Rajakhan said firmly. “I will never hear those words out of your mouth again. Is that clear?”
He stared down at her, leaving no room for ambiguity in his tone. She finally looked up, meeting his eyes, and nodded.
“My little Zari,” he said with a sigh, stroking her hair. “You are not weak. You have just learned a very hard lesson, and don’t yet have the perspective to see it all in context. Do you know how rare it is for a child your age to think things out as clearly as you have? To feel them as deeply?”
She shook her head, dropping her eyes.
“It is rare,” he said. “Many grown men and women don’t have the brain or the heart to do either. Weak? Pah. This is how I know you will be a great Queen someday. You think things through, farther than most do. You have a heart big enough to hold the whole world, and that’s why you feel the pain of all those you may have hurt.”
“I don’t want to,” she whispered.
“Don’t wish for that.”
“I can’t be a queen,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut. Finally, tears brimmed between her lashes. “I just sit here and… I can’t think of anything but that man’s death.”
Rajakhan heaved a deep sigh. “You can, Zaruda. You just have not yet learned how. Now listen up: I have orders for you.”
He waited for her to open her eyes and look up at him before continuing.
“Tonight, you will cry. I know you’re trying to be strong and fight back the pain, but this is the wrong way to do it. It must hurt, little minnow. Pain is a poison; you must get it out of you. If you hold it in, it will just rot you out from the inside. You know how your mama and I, and all the Punaji heroes in the stories, have lived as long and fought as hard as we have?” He draped his huge arm around her hunched shoulders. “We make time to mourn, when it is time to. Do you understand?”
She nodded slowly. “…yes, sir.”
“Good. I am not done. Tomorrow, you will wake up, wash yourself, eat breakfast, and then we will hold a feast. All the captains will be invited, and they will all be told the story about Princess Zaruda, the fiercest scion of the Punaji bloodline, who killed her first enemy when she was seven. And at this feast, you will boast, and laugh, and show them how ferocious you are. You will be proud, and revel in your first kill.”
She had stared up at him with consternation growing on her face the longer he talked. Finally, she burst out, “Papa! I can’t!”
“Can’t?” He did not raise his voice, but poured every ounce of command into it. “You can’t? You were not asked a question. This is what you will do. I expect my orders to be followed.”
Zaruda swallowed heavily, then again. Her expression was of panic and pure misery.
“Do you understand,” he said more gently, “why I am ordering you to do this?”
She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out; all she could do was shake her head, the tears beginning to run down her cheeks at last.
“Because this is the craft of our family,” Rajakhan explained. “Our trade. You know that professions are passed down from parent to child. We have soldiers, fishermen, craftspeople of all kinds, scholars, windshaman. All of them are necessary for our nation to function. What do we make, Zaruda? What does this family provide that people need?” He held her gaze for a moment; she stared up at him without replying. “We rule. We provide leadership to our nation. The time has come for you to begin training in this trade. That means, among other things you will learn, that sometimes you have to push aside what you feel and show your people what they need to see. The Punaji need to know that our bloodline is strong, that the future is secured. They need to know that their Princess, their future Queen, is powerful, clever, and fierce. They will not see you hiding in your room, wallowing in your pain. They will see you standing before them, reveling in your victory.”
“That’s not—” She broke off. Punaji children learned at a very young age not to protest that anything was unfair. They were a nation of sailors; their lives were dedicated to the tempestuous ocean and its fickle goddess. Nothing was fair. Asking for it to be was asking to be punished.
“It is fair, though,” the king said firmly. “Who do you think has paid for every meal you have ever eaten? Your clothes? Your teaching, your toys? You are royalty, Zaruda; you live on the taxes levied on your people. That is what it means to rule. The Punaji have paid you to do a job from the moment you were born. Will you cheat them of their honest trade? Would you show the world such dishonor?”
“No, sir.” She shook her head. Her expression was still pained, but now thoughtful as well.
“It’s a hard thing, little one,” he said, stroking her back. “You have a lot to learn, and this is only the beginning. I promise you, though, it will get easier as you grow to understand more about the world.”
“Why can’t you just tell them what you said to me?” she asked plaintively. “If feeling the pain of others makes me a good Queen…”
Rajakhan sighed heavily. “Because, little minnow, that is wisdom, and it’s hard-won. Not everyone understands that. Most people will not understand it. They will see your true strength as weakness, and see strength in killing and boasting about it. Never forget that those people are fools.”
“If they’re fools, why do we care what they think?” she demanded sullenly.
He rumbled a low laugh. “Because there are a lot of them, and because the stupider a person is, the louder they are. Fools make enough noise that even people who ought to know better listen to them. This is part of the craft you are going to learn, Zari: managing fools, just as you must manage all sorts of people. It’s a delicate line to walk, at times, but it is what we must do.”
She nodded, dropping her gaze. Finally, though, she uncurled herself, extending her legs to dangle them over the side of the bed. Shashi, disturbed from her place, muttered a soft complaint, but climbed back into Zaruda’s lap. Rajakhan watched the life and spirit visibly returning to her with a degree of relief he had never imagined he could feel. They weren’t there yet, but it was a start.
“Part of the careful balance is knowing when and how to hurt,” he said. “In the eyes of the world, you must be the bravest, the strongest, the loudest. Your allies and enemies alike must see you as dangerous, or they will never respect you. But as I have said, you cannot shove all your pain down inside yourself. It must come out. Just…never in front of the world.” He rubbed her gently. “You understand?”
She nodded. “Be strong for others, and suffer alone. It… It sounds hard, Papa.”
“It is hard,” he agreed solemnly. “But you have missed an important part. You needn’t suffer alone; that is no way to do it. Sharing your weakness with others is a vital part of being human, Zari. You can’t live if you wear the mask every minute. Only family can be trusted. When you cry tonight, you will have me and mama here, plus Shashi and Fancy Hat. And Commodore Bear,” he added, smiling.
“You won’t live forever,” she said quietly, not looking at him, and another pang struck his heart. She was far too young to have thought so much about death.
“That’s true,” he acknowledged. “No one does. But that doesn’t mean you will ever be alone. Blood is an accident, Zaruda; it just happens. Family are the people you would give your life for. You keep that big heart open, and you will always have family. I guarantee it.”
She nodded, then leaned against him. Between them, Fancy Hat purred furiously, seeming not to mind being the meat in a Punaji sandwich. Rajakhan breathed deeply for what seemed the first time in days, feeling the terrible tension in his chest ease. His daughter was going to be all right.
“I’m hungry,” she said after a few minutes.
“Then I’ll have some food brought to you.”
“Thank you, Papa.”
“And now,” he rumbled, picking up the stuffed bear and holding it in front of her, “I think you owe someone an apology.”
“I’m sorry, Commodore Bear,” she said dutifully, taking the toy from him. Then she wrapped her arms around it, pressing a kiss to the Commodore’s head, right atop the scrubbed-out bloodstain.
Rajakhan squeezed her once more before standing up. “Remember your orders, sailor.”
“Yes, sir.” She managed a smile at him, and he let himself believe everything would work out.
“I’ll be back in a little while. Mama too.”
As he slipped out and made his way back through the castle to find his wife, the pirate king felt weak, drained in a way he rarely had; wrung-out, both physically and emotionally. Of course, he kept his scowling mask firmly in place, kept his stride steady and strong. His advice to Zaruda had been from lessons he himself had learned, no less painfully than she.
What a terrible, wonderful thing it was to be a parent—very much like being a king, but so much more intimately. He could only do his best, knowing all the while that he was fumbling his way in the dark, trying to provide answers he didn’t truly have.
And though he had never been so proud of her, it seemed that nothing would ever hurt so much as the day his daughter started to grow up.