Justin dogged a kid running after his dog and grinned. He had been that same kid at one point, only he was usually the one being chased. It seemed like forever ago that Tommy had found him cornered on this very wharf. He had been running from pirates when Tommy had confronted them and quickly sent them on their way. It was his first time to meet the legendary Black Panther and he had been more than a little shocked to see his hero standing before him. Still, he thought he had held up pretty well, at least, that’s how he intended to remember it.
“Under Mask Tavern,” Namid commented. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this dump.”
“Not long enough,” Maath muttered.
Justin grinned at their comments. The Under Mask Tavern was defiantly not the best that Ulrich had to offer, but it was where all the reliable information was. It was also the known hang out for Leon, an old contact of the Black Panther’s. While the rest of his crew was trying to get rid of all their hard stolen money at the more popular taverns, Justin was on a mission for information about pirate sweet spots along the merchant’s routes.
“You want me to make contact?” Maath asked, as the trio stopped outside the tavern door, which Justin noticed was almost completely off its hinges.
Leon could identify the Black Panther, so it had been decided that Justin would not be present at the meeting. He frowned at the annoyance of the whole thing, but nodded his head to Maath’s question. “We’ll be close by, Maath. Try not to attract too much attention”
Maath smiled. “Never.”
After he disappeared inside, Justin turned to Namid. “He’s going to get into trouble.”
Namid grinned. “Maath will be fine, just be glad you didn’t send Evyn inside.”
Justin laughed and moved off to the side of the tavern. “He’d have the whole place upside down five seconds after he walked in.”
Namid laughed. “If it took that long.”
A familiar sound caused Justin to pause. “Did you hear that?”
“No.” Namid looked around, immediately on alert.
“Sounded like a sword fight.” Justin frowned, looking around.
Evening was setting, but there was still plenty of light to see all around the area. The left side of the stone street was run down buildings, including the tavern. On the right, was the Ula Ocean and the seeder side of the Ulrich wharf. The waves lapped against the shore. Two ships could be seen further out in the water, one of which was his own. Justin headed towards the water and heard the clang of swords more clearly. The sound was coming from below the dock.
Justin glanced at Namid, put his hand on his sword, and moved to the beach. Namid drew his sword and carried where it was easily caught in the slowly dimming light. They moved past the edge of the dock to find an interesting scene.
Before them, two men were on the ground, seriously injured, while a third stood boldly in front of them. His sword was on the ground, but his position declared he wasn’t giving ground easily. Across from them, with their backs to Justin and Namid, was a group of five highly ticked off and heavily armed pirates. The man standing between his comrades and foes saw Justin and Namid, but his face gave nothing away.
Instead, he continued to speak, “… won’t find it and killing us won’t force me to give the secret up.”
“Not it, her!” The front pirate spat out, complete with brown spit.
“No,” was the calm reply.
“I’ll torture you for where she is. I know just how and I’ll enjoy it,” he snarled.
“You can try, but I’m the only one who knows her location and I won’t be giving it up,” he responded with no fear in his voice.
“She’s worth nothing to you! Why spare her? I’ll get what I need and you can have her little carcass back,” the pirate bargained.
“A true temptation,” he said in a voice that told he wasn’t tempted at all, “but her carcass isn’t what I want. I won’t let you hurt her.”
“You won’t have a choice,” the head pirate snarled. “Take him. We’ll take his ship and if she’s not there, we’ll torture him till we know where she is. Either way it will be fun and profitable.”
Justin looked at Namid and nodded. That was enough to establish the bad and good guys. It was time to step in.
“Might I suggest another time for this meeting? Your odds of winning just became non-existent,” Namid raised his voice and halted the movement of the pirates beginning to advance. Instead, they turned as one to face the new threat.
“This is none of your business! Be gone!” The head pirate shouted a warning.
“Funny, I’m pretty sure I just made it my business,” Justin replied smoothly, still not drawing his sword.
“Riftraft. You’re going to die if you keep talking,” the pirate shouted, more angrily.
Behind him, the man was urging his wounded comrades to move out of the way, while keeping an eye on the new action. It was obvious they weren’t going to move far.
Justin smiled. “Let me ask you a question before you decide who is going to die tonight.” He pulled his sword slowly from his side and used it to point out to the sea. “Do you see that ship out there?” He waited patiently while all the pirates turned in that direction. “Do you know the name of it?”
“What’s it matter?” The pirate growled.
“Its name is The Guardian Star and it belongs to me,” Justin stated as calmly as possible, though he could feel the pride in his statement. He could also feel Namid quick intake of laughter. It was the same statement that Tommy had used when he had rescued him all those years ago. It felt so good and right to use it as his own.
All motion in front of them ceased, including the men attempting to move to safety. The man between the two groups looked at him in general curiosity, but the pirates faces raged with different degrees of fear.
“The Black Panther!” One of them whispered, not so quietly. The name sent an obvious affect through the pirates.
Justin brought his sword back around to face them. “Precisely. Now, who would like to fight? I’m bored.”
No one moved, until someone shoved the head pirate forward just a little.
“You’re too young to be the Black Panther,” he muttered, in a not so convinced voice.
“Try me and find out,” Justin replied.
He nodded, as if that was just what he would do then pushed the man next to him between them. “Rat, take him out.”
The man steadied his sword and eyed Justin, who simply waited. The man lunged forward and Justin moved to the right. The man moved his sword in a fluid motion downwards to Justin’s knees and he blocked it just in time. Then, Justin ran his own sword up the man’s and grabbed his wrist. Twisting hard, he forced the man to drop the sword on the left, even as his sword when to the man’s throat.
“Had enough?” Justin asked quietly.
The man started to nod, but stopped quickly when the sword cut into him causing blood to drip onto it.
“Ah, now look, you dirtied my sword. And I just had it cleaned from the last idiot I had to kill.” He moved his sword down and wiped the blade on the pirate’s shirt. In one quick motion, he moved out of the way and yanked the man hard, forcing him to fall to his knees. As he fell, Justin hit him in the back of the head with the hilt of his sword, causing him to collapse unconscious.
Justin straightened and stared at the pirates. “That was no fun. The next one I get to kill.”
“Not me!” One of them shrieked and took off running. The others were not far behind.
The head of the pirate gang looked from Justin to his fallen crewmember and finally to the man he had first challenged. “This isn’t over. I will still win in the end.”
“I’ll stop you every time,” he responded.
The man growled, but after a look at Justin, followed his crew. Immediately, the man they had just helped turned back to his friends.
“Kavan, Greger, we’ve got to stop that bleeding,” he said.
“Aye, Captain, but its not quite that easy,” one wheezed.
“Cap, I’ve broken ribs too,” the other stated, holding his side.
“Great,” their captain said sarcastically.
“Namid, help them,” Justin commanded.
Namid nodded, sheathing his sword, and going over to kneel at their side, instantly began to make a mixture of wet sand. Only after the captain was sure Namid was truly going to help did he turn to Justin.
“Thank you, Black Panther. That could have turned out very badly.”
“I could tell.” Justin sheathed his own sword. “What was that all about?”
The captain shook his head. “I know where a girl is that they would like to use as ransom against her father.”
“Is she safe?” Justin asked.
“For now,” was the reply.
“You’re not a pirate,” Justin stated.
The captain grinned. “No. I’m a trader. I go where the sea takes me and make my living off of the wares she brings in.”
“Sounds like an interesting life.” Justin grinned.
He laughed. “No more than a pirate, I suspect.” He held out his hand. “Conlan Rider. It’s good to meet the famous Black Panther.”
Justin shook it. “It’s good to meet a friend.”
“I owe you.”
“Captain!” Maath’s voice called out from behind them.
Justin turned and motioned him over. “You missed the excitement.”
“I can see that. Next time, save some.” Maath grumbled with a smile.
“Sure. You arrived for the hard part though. We need to get these soldiers back to their ship. Give Namid a hand.”
“Aye, aye,” Maath responded, going over to his friend.
Conlan shook his head. “Now I owe you twice.”
“Good. I’m sure you can repay me someday,” Justin replied.
Conlan nodded. “If you ever need her, The Hero’s Choice is at your service.”
“Hero’s Choice. I like it.”
“Let’s get you to your ship, Captain Conlan, and we’ll see if we can’t make this a permanent friendship.”
Conlan laughed. “Sounds like a plan. The Black Panther on my side. That would make life interesting indeed.”
“You have no idea,” Justin responded with a grin.
Conlan, it turned out, made quite a good living for himself. His ship was as fit as The Guardian Star and his crew just as trained. It didn’t take long to discover the two had much in common, besides being the same age, though Conlan seemed to have a direction and purpose that Justin found himself envying. Justin’s life was all about proving himself to be worthy as the Black Panther and not some street rat that could be shoved aside and forgotten. Yet, Conlan seemed to prove that simply by having confidence in himself and what he did. Still, Justin thought there might be more to it than just that, but he didn’t ask what.
At the moment, the girl Conlan was trying to save was his future bride whom he had only met twice. Once was to accept the proposal and the second time to spirit her away to safety. The two captains exchanged vows to help the other in any way they could, Justin by keeping eyes and ears out for any trouble Conlan might encounter and to come to aid if needed and Conlan by being on the lookout for The Dandy. By the time both ships parted Ulrich, the two captains were fast friends and Justin was on his way to pick up his own little pixie and take her to her sister’s estate.
Justin looked across the carriage to Salena and Dabria who were both sitting quietly. He had never in his life seen either of the girls do that. They had both been subdued when he had arrived to pick them up, and now that they were on their way to the ship that had not changed. He had stayed silent for most of the ride, wondering if they would let him in on what was going on, but now he was getting impatient and wanted to find out. He was also worried. It was so unlike them to be silent and still.
“Are you both all right? I’ve never seen you act like this before,” Justin admitted worriedly.
Dabria looked up at him, but Salena kept her unfocused gaze looking out the window.
“We’re fine, Justin. Just tired. Mom had my sixteenth birthday ball last night and we were up really late. She wanted to have it before we left. It’s a good thing, you arrived earlier.”
“Sorry, I hope I didn’t spoil any of your plans,” Justin said, only half serious.
“No, you know we are always ready to go with you. Salena and I have been packed for weeks. Um, don’t tell Mom that,” she added slowly, after thinking for a few minutes.
“You are acting very strange. Are you sure you’re just tired? I’ve seen you after parties before, you’re never this bad.” Justin was sure he was missing something.
“She doesn’t usually dance with every single available man at the party,” Salena put in, apparently paying attention to the conversation after all.
“Salena!” Dabria wailed.
But Salena just shrugged and said, “It’s true.”
“What is she talking about?” Justin asked suspiciously. “She can’t mean every guy, can she?”
Dabria sighed. “Just about. I am the sister to a duchess after all and the sole heir of my parent’s plantation. I’m not exactly a bad catch.”
“You are not a ‘catch’!” Justin spouted angrily.
Dabria and Salena both turned to look at him in surprise.
“Okay, so I’m not the most beautiful girl and I have been sick a lot, but that doesn’t mean I won’t make a good wife someday. Thank you very much!” Dabria spouted.
“That’s not what I mean, Dabria,” Justin sighed.
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” Dabria said angrily. “You don’t have a whole lot of say in the matter anyway. I’m sixteen and I can make my own choices. And the men I know happen to think I am a choice for them!”
Salena shifted her gaze between the two of them, but wisely stayed silent.
“The men you know are still boys. You are beautiful Dabria, but you are not ready to think about marriage!” Justin protested.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Dabria whispered furiously, “in our society that is exactly what girls are raised for. Most girls have started thinking about marriage long before now. Half my friends even have a fiancé. So do not lecture me about what I can and cannot think regarding boys!”
The carriage rolled to a stop, but Dabria was already halfway out the door. Salena cast Justin a look that told him that had not been a smart move, then she too exited, hurrying to catch up to a very miffed Darbria. Justin sighed. That had not gone as planned at all.
“Has he lost his mind?” Dabria spouted angrily, slamming the door of the cabin behind her.
Salena opened the door again as she entered and calmly closed it behind her. She watched Dabria angrily storm around the room. “Deep breath, please,” she said calmly.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Dabria snapped. “Don’t even try.”
“I would not dream of it,” was Salena’s slightly sarcastic reply.
Dabria spun on her friend. “There is no need for that tone! You heard him out there! He thinks I’m not marriage material!”
“And this has you so upset because…” Salena allowed her voice to trial off.
Dabria stared at her. “What?”
“You heard me,” Salean replied calming, crossing to her bed and sitting down. “Why are you so high and tight over this? I seem to recall you saying last night before the ball that you weren’t ready to marry anyway. Justin says the same thing and you fly off the deep end.”
“This is different,” Dabria muttered.
“I can tell, but I asked you why.” Salena drew her legs up under her and waited patiently for Dabria to answer, as if she had all the time in the world.
“He..he..” Dabria sputtered, suddenly at a loss for words.
“That is what I thought. Will you please sit down, so we can discuss this, before you end up jumping ship again. I have no wish to be punished,” Salena’s words were spoken soothingly, but her amusement was evident in her eyes.
Dabria glared at her. “Why is it everyone seems to love recalling that?”
“Because it has become ship legend,” was the simple reply.
Dabria glared at her again.
“Oh, stop looking at me like that. It won’t change any facts.”
“Why are we having this conversation?” Dabria complained.
“You were mad about Justin and your lack of quality to be a good marriage match,” Salena replied as if discussing the ship’s masts.
Dabria’s hands became fists. “That’s right! How dare he say that!”
“And off we go again,” was Salena’s bored comment.
“He just shoved me aside, like I was… nothing,” her voice took on a quite tone, unlike her ranting only seconds before. She fell into the chair closest too her. “Like I was nothing at all.”
Salena sat up straighter. “And the real problem emerges.”
Dabria glanced at her friend. “What are you going on about?”
“Come on, Dabria, you are upset not because of what Justin said, but because it was Justin who said it,” Salena spoke gently as if trying to reveal something hard, without hurting her friend.
“I don’t understand,” Dabria whispered.
“Or you don’t want too,” Salena replied, but kindly. “Dabria, why is it you are so astute about relationships, but you can’t figure this out?”
“I don’t know,” was her soft reply.
“Think about it,” Salena urged.
Dabria winced. ~ I am thinking about it. I can’t seem to stop. I’ve tried. ~ She thought furious with herself. She sighed and studied the rug on the wood floor. ~ Justin is so different. He’s strong and he knows what he wants. He’s not afraid to go after it, either. He cares though too, I mean, he can be mean and rude, but he’s also been gentle with both Salena and I. The rug, look at it, and the whole room. What guy at the parties we have been to would even consider doing something like this for us? Not a single one. ~
“Hmm?” She didn’t look up still following her tail of thoughts.
“What are you thinking?” Salena asked curiously.
Dabria felt herself blush. She wasn’t sure why, but for the first time in her life, she did not want to share her thoughts with her best friend. ~ It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them, but… I don’t know, I don’t understand myself. What is going on? I don’t want to explain, yet I refuse to lie to her either. ~
Dabria sighed. “I wish I knew. But I think I am still trying to figure it out myself.”
“Figure out what?”
~ Why is it she never lets me get away with the easy answer? ~ “Figure out what I think, I guess.” Dabria shook her head and finally looked at her best friend, “Salena, what I think…” she shook her head helplessly, “I can’t explain, I’m sorry.”
Salena nodded sympathetically. “It’s not easy growing up.”
“That is the largest understatement you have ever made,” Dabria complained.
Salena laughed. “No, that would be understating your ability to go too far.”
“Ha, ha.” Dabria made a face.
“So what are you going to do?” Salena asked, suddenly serious again.
“Do? Do about what?” Dabria asked, playing innocent.
“About Justin,” Salena replied calmly.
Dabria heaved. “What can I do? I’m his ‘little sister.’ You know that.”
“But you feel differently now,” Salena clarified.
“No!” She paused. ~ How did we get back on this and what did I just admit too? ~ She wondered briefly, before letting her mind form a coherent answer to Salena’s comment. “It’s not that I feel differently per say, its more like…” she shrugged. “He’s so unlike any of those dumb boys at our parties. And yes, they are boys. Justin isn’t, at least, not anymore.”
“He’s not perfect either,” Salena frowned.
Dabria shook her head. “I never said he was. I mean, have you ever heard him talk about God? We are on his ship how often and he never mentions Him. And at Kiliki’s he listens when we talk about God, but he never participates in the discussion. I think it’s because he doesn’t have anything to say. I don’t think he’s ever experienced an actual relationship with Jesus.”
“I’m upset about that too,” Salena said getting off the bed and coming over to Dabria to put her arms around her. “Please don’t sound so sad.”
“I’m upset with him so often, Salena. But, if he really doesn’t know Jesus I’m suppose to be an example. How can he be so amazing and still not know Jesus? Doesn’t he understand what he’s missing?” Dabria asked softly.
Salena pulled out the second chair and sat down next to her. “I don’t know. Maybe no one ever told him about Jesus. Though I would have thought Tommy would have said something. I mean, he lives it ever day.”
“Yeah, but Tommy wouldn’t push it either. Oh, I don’t know!” Dabria put her head in her hands and stayed silent for a moment, while Salena waited patiently. Finally, Dabria’s voice came from her still bent head, “But even with him not being a Christian he is still ten times better than the others we have met.”
“You’re using him as a standard,” Salena voiced.
Dabria looked up with a question in her eyes. “Yes, I guess I am. Is that bad?”
Salena thought for a moment, before answering carefully. “I don’t think so, as long as you remember to include being a strong Christian, and realize that Justin may get you so upset because you care about him, but he is also not perfect.”
Dabria nodded. “Yes, I know there is more to it. And of course, I couldn’t marry someone who didn’t love Jesus like I do. That would be too awkward.”
“I think it would be more than that, but yeah, that about sums it up,” Salena half-agreed. Dabria shot her an odd look, but Salena just asked, “So, what is it you are going to do again?”
Dabria shrugged. “Nothing as far as he is concerned. That boy owes me an apology. And after that, I don’t know. I’m certainly not going to tell him. I’m just his little sister and he has always been like a big brother to me. I don’t want to wreck that.”
“You sound really mature,” Salena stated, and then looked at her suspiciously. “What is really going on?”
Dabria laughed. “I’m growing up too you know. Besides, I’m allowed to be mature sometimes. Actually, I think I was figuring things out as I talked.”
“So does that mean you’re going to apologize to Justin for blowing up?” Salena asked.
Dabria looked at her in shock. “What! No way! He was wrong! I am marriage material for somebody even if it’s not him. And he could at least think of my feelings before he opens his big mouth!”
Salena laughed. “And life returns to normal. Guess Justin isn’t perfect.”
“I don’t remember saying he was, he just happens to be better than the rest,” Dabria paused then grinned almost wickedly, “for now.”
“I don’t care,” Justin replied tiredly.
“But, Captain…” the crewmember started again.
Justin glared at him.
“Yes, Captain,” he said meekly and hurried away to do the job he had been trying to get out of.
Justin sighed. He desperately needed to get into more action and less managing. He was so bored. When the girls were on the ship he avoided anything that resembled danger. He liked his life too much to tempt fate by putting them up against any threat. Still, it made for a boring trip. Or at least it would, if it wasn’t for a certain girl on board.
Justin still hadn’t spoken to her. That wasn’t an easy accomplishment on a ship and he had avoided her for three days. Though whether that was to give her room to calm down or give him time to think of an excuse or apology he wasn’t positive. He did realize he had to talk to her soon, but it was so much easier to put it off and the crew coming to him constantly with mundane problems gave him such a great escape.
“So if you ignore me for a week what does that get you?” her voice came from below him.
He looked over the rail of the quarterdeck down to her. “You’re talking?”
Dabria heaved a sigh and gave him a disgusted look. “One of us had too.”
He watched her uneasily as she climbed the steps to stand next to him. “You were pretty steamed.”
“Who said I’m not still?” She asked, looking out over the ship. “I love this view.”
“You’re talking to me calmly.”
“Salena kicked me out of the room,” Dabria admitted.
Justin laughed. “And why would she do a thing like that?”
Dabria shrugged innocently. “I have no idea.”
“I’ll bet you don’t,” Justin smiled at her, and then sighed. “Pixie, we should probably talk.”
“Unless you are apologizing I don’t want to talk about it.” Dabria crossed her arms.
“So you think I should apologize?”
Dabria looked at him sullenly.
“I never meant to hurt your feelings, Pixie,” Justin said soothingly.
“But you did and what you said wasn’t even right.”
Justin sighed. “Okay, I’m sorry your feelings were hurt. That was never my intention.”
“But you are not sorry for your words,” Dabria clarified, looking at him sourly.
“Why is it you have to always pick up on what is not said?”
“Why aren’t you sorry for your words?” She asked, ignoring his comment.
“Because what I said was true,” Justin quickly added, “in a manner of speaking,” when he saw her glare.
“Explain…please,” she added as an afterthought.
“I said that you are not ready for marriage and I meant it. The guys who know you are all just kids. And you’re too young too,” he tried to explain.
“Oh, yes, I am just a simple girl of sixteen, who couldn’t possible be ready for marriage when all her friends are picking out their fiancés. I hate to break it to you, Justin, but if I don’t find a husband soon, the good guys will all be gone.”
“Good based on what?” He questioned. “You are not serious about finding a husband just because they are there are you?”
Dabria watched him for a long moment, before finally shaking her head no. “No, but it was fun watching you squirm for a minute.”
“You are a stinker, Pixie.” Justin shook his head at her.
She grinned back at him then became serious. “Justin, you do realize I’m growing up right? I mean, I might not be getting married anytime soon, but I might have a boyfriend. Whether you want to admit it or not, I am a good catch for any guy and the boys, as you so enjoy calling them, are interested in me too.”
Dabria just shrugged. “I’m just telling you to get use to the idea. After all, you never know.”
Dabria grinned at him then swished her skirt and walked down the steps. Justin watched her go amazed the he had just had a serious discussion with his little Pixie about boys. Justin shook his head and put the whole thing out of his mind. No matter what Dabria thought no one was going to let her get involved with a boy.