Read Crane Online

Authors: Jeff Stone

Tags: #General, #Speculative Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Animals

Crane (18 page)

BOOK: Crane
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Seh suddenly sat up, instantly awake. “Hok!” he whispered. “I sense something.”

“Yes,” Hok replied. “River pirates.”

Hok scanned the river ahead of them and didn't like what she saw. Three sleek boats were anchored in a line across the width of the river. Each boat held four men wrapped head to toe in black cloth. The only thing visible was their eyes, which were staring in Hok's direction down
qiang
barrels.

“I sense a lot of negative energy,” Seh said. “How many pirates are there?”

“Twelve,” Hok replied, “and they all have
qiangs.”

“What do you think our chances are?” Seh asked.

“We don't have a chance,” Hok said.

The pirate in the bow of the center boat waved his
qiang
and called out to Hok, “Steer toward me and prepare to be boarded!”

Hok lowered her voice to a whisper. “What should we do?”

“Do what they say,” Seh replied. “Unless you have a better idea. Remember what PawPaw said about them.”

Hok frowned. She was out of ideas. They were going to be boarded.

The center pirate boat was anchored with its bow facing upstream, and Hok pointed the bow of Paw-Paw's skiff at it. She let the strong current carry them downstream. The pirate boat was coming up fast.

“Slow down,” the pirate leader called out.

Slow down?
Hok thought.
How am I supposed to do
that
?

The pirate leader raised his
qiang.
“Slow your vessel down immediately.”

“I don't know how!” Hok said.

“Do you expect me to fall for that?” the pirate leader said. “Slow down and turn to port.”

“I have no idea what ‘port’ is,” Hok shouted back. They were getting dangerously close to the pirate leader's boat. “Help me!”

“Port is left!” the pirate said. “Turn to port now, young lady! Men, cut the lines and heave us to port, too! We're in opposition. We'll swing around each other.”

“Hang on, Seh!” Hok cried, and she shoved the rudder with all her might to the left. The skiff made a sharp turn—to the right. She had forgotten that the rudder steered the boat in the opposite direction. They were going to collide! Hok slammed her eyes shut.

THUMP!

“Arrgh!” the pirate leader shouted as his vessel rocked violently sideways. Hok opened her eyes and watched the bow of PawPaw's skiff scrape along the side of the pirates’ boat. Hok avoided eye contact with the scrambling pirates, who were close enough to touch.

Hok felt PawPaw's skiff begin to slip away from the pirates’ boat, and she straightened the rudder. The skiff began to nose its way downriver again with Seh at the bow, gripping the sides like his life depended on it.

“After them!” the pirate leader shouted. “Perimeter sailors, take aim! Vessel One, fire at will!”

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!

Four shots rang out. Hok heard two
qiang
balls slam into the bow of the skiff a hand's-width from Seh.

“No!” Hok cried. She looked back at the pirate leader's advancing boat. The three men with him were paddling frantically, trying to catch up with her and Seh. She heard the pirates shouting to one another in a different language.

“Vessel One, reload!” the pirate leader commanded.

“Stop it!” Hok shouted. “Please! I didn't mean to ram into you! It was an accident!” The pirate leader's boat was gaining on them. Hok looked at the pirate leader's masked face, and they locked eyes. Hok nearly tumbled out of the boat. His eyes were round and blue as the sky, just like Charles’.

“Vessel Two, prepare to fire on my command!” the pirate leader roared.

“No!” Hok said. “Why are you doing this?” She heard more shouting in another language.

“On my mark!” the pirate leader shouted.

“NO!” Hok screamed. She had to think of something. She heard more foreign language shouting and saw several pirates point toward the sky. A shadow passed overhead and Hok looked up to see a large crane flying straight toward the pirates that were taking aim with their loaded
qiangs.
The bird appeared frightened, probably startled by the
qiangs
that had just been fired. A black-and-white sticky goo began to pour from beneath its tail feathers, and several pirates shouted angrily as their heads and shoulders were splattered with globs of the foul stuff. One of the men yelled a string of words that Hok didn't understand, finishing with the word
crane.

Hok could hardly believe her ears. She realized the pirate hadn't said the word
crane
in Mandarin or even Cantonese. He had said it in Dutch.

Something clicked inside Hok's head, and many of the words the men were shouting to one another began to make sense. The pirates spoke her father's language!

“Take aim!” the pirate leader bellowed, raising one arm high.

“NEE!” Hok shouted at the top of her lungs. “NEE! NEE! NEE! NO! NO! NO!”

The pirate leader's body went rigid, and pirate
mouths across the river dropped. Hok stared at the pirate leader, desperation on her face.

The pirate leader lowered his arm and spoke to Hok in Chinese. “What did you just say?”

Hok answered in Dutch. “I said,
no
?”

The pirate leader's eyes narrowed. “Pull alongside them, men!” he ordered, and the men in his boat eased their vessel alongside PawPaw's skiff.

Hok watched Seh release his grip on the skiff and form snake-head fists with both hands. He sat perfectly still, his snake writhing beneath his sleeve.

The pirate leader stared hard at Hok, and he spoke in Dutch. “So, you understand me, girl?”

“Yes …,” Hok replied, struggling to remember words she hadn't used in more than nine years. “I … understand some. Chinese is better for me, though, if you please.”

The pirate leader switched back to Chinese. “Why didn't you say something when the men were shouting among themselves in Dutch?”

“I don't know,” Hok replied. “It all happened so fast. I didn't realize they were speaking Dutch until the crane flew overhead. I have not used the language in many years.”

“Who taught you to speak it?” the pirate leader asked.

“My father.”

“What is his name and occupation?”

“His name is Henrik,” Hok said. “He is the captain of a trading ship.”

The pirate leader's eyebrows went up. He glanced around at his men. “Lower your
qiangs!”
he shouted. To Hok he said, “Remove your turban.”

Hok did as she was told. She felt the warmth of the rising sun wash over the brown stubble on her head.

The pirate leader nodded. He turned to the perimeter boats and made an announcement. “Crewmen of Vessel One, you will remain anchored here with all hands aboard. For you, it's business as usual. Crewmen of Vessel Two, go clean the bird droppings off yourselves and the boat and get back here on the double.” He looked at the men in his boat. “You three are coming with me. It appears we have a special delivery to make.”

“Aye, sir!” the men in all three boats responded.

The pirate leader turned to Hok. “Do you think you can follow us in your skiff—without the ramming this time?”

Hok felt her face begin to blush. “I can try.”

“Come on, then,” the pirate leader said. “I know someone who would very much like to see you.”

T
wo hours later, Hok found herself navigating awkwardly between an unbelievable number of boats. Everything from large seafaring junks to tiny one-person vessels bumped and banged against one another as they vied for limited dock space at the Jinan wharf.

Hok followed as close behind the pirate leader as she dared, trying not to ram him. She was both relieved and a little concerned when she saw him begin to steer toward an empty dock guarded by several large foreign men. It appeared to be a private dock with no other boats around, so docking there would be relatively easy. On the other hand, the foreigners guarding it all carried
qiangs
and every man
was staring at her and Seh, pointing and talking. One of the men ran off the dock, onto the shore, and disappeared up a crowded street that ran parallel to the wharf.

The pirate leader eased his boat up to the far side of the dock and climbed up a short ladder while his men secured the vessel. He stepped onto the dock and motioned for Hok to tie up on the opposite side. As Hok neared, the pirate leader gave her simple directions to help her approach the dock broadside. It was difficult work for her, not only because she didn't know what she was doing but also because she was anxious. She couldn't stop thinking about what the pirate leader had said earlier about someone who would like to see her.

PawPaw's skiff bumped against one of the dock's massive support piers, and the pirate leader began to secure the skiff to the dock with several ropes. Her work complete, Hok gazed up at the pirate leader's face. He had removed his mask more than an hour ago, but this was the first time she had a chance to get a good look at him. She was surprised to see that he had a strong, very kind face.

When the pirate leader finished, he helped Hok climb onto the dock. Hok, in turn, leaned over the skiff to help Seh. The pirate leader shot her a quizzical look.

“He's blind,” Hok said. She glanced at Seh and saw his jaw tighten.

“You don't say?” the pirate leader said. “I would
never have guessed. He appears so … comfortable. I'll help him out.”

The pirate leader leaned in front of Hok and reached for Seh's arm, but Seh jerked away. At the same time, Seh's snake poked its head out of his sleeve and hissed at the pirate.

The pirate leader jumped back. “What the devil?”

“I'll get out myself, thanks,” Seh said.

Hok watched the pirate leader's expression as Seh quickly climbed onto the dock unassisted and stood. The man was clearly impressed.

Seh's snake pulled its head back beneath his robe, and Seh glanced in Hok's direction. “Ready to go ashore?” he asked. “I am.”

“Just a moment,” Hok said. She got down on her hands and knees and reached into the skiff, grabbing her turban. She also removed the lid from the basket and took out one of the large floppy hats, plus a container of dried fruit. Hok replaced the lid and stood.

“Here,” Hok said, placing the hat over Seh's thick black hair. “It will help hide your identity, just in case.”

“It's better to be safe than sorry,” Seh said, pulling the rim down low over his eyes.

“Good thinking,” the pirate leader said.

Hok tied the turban back over her brown stubble and ran her eyes over PawPaw's skiff.

“It's a lovely craft, isn't it?” the pirate leader said. “Old, yet strong, as your ramming proved. My men will keep an eye on it for you, as well as your basket.”

“Thank you,” Hok said. She stretched and looked around, scanning the surrounding docks closely for the first time. There were many more large junks than she would have expected. They were still quite some distance from the sea. The boats were either being loaded or unloaded with untold quantities of merchandise. It was a trader's paradise. However, Hok's gaze didn't stay long on the junks with their large, fixed sails reinforced with bamboo. She was looking for her father's foreign-designed ship with its numerous masts and multiple billowing sails. Unfortunately, she couldn't match the image of the ship she had in her head with any of the vessels here.

“Are you all right, Hok?” Seh asked. “I sense that you are tense.”

“I'm just a little nervous,” Hok replied. “I haven't seen my father since I was three years old.”

“Your father?” the pirate leader said. “What makes you think he's here?”

Hok's face flushed. “You mean he's not here?”

“No. He's away.”

“But I thought you said—”

“I said that I know someone who would like very much to see you,” the pirate leader interrupted. “I never said that it was your father.”

“This had better not be some kind of cruel joke,” Seh hissed. “Do you even know her father?”

The pirate leader laughed. “Do I know her father? I am his first mate!”

Hok stared at the man. “But that would mean that my father is a …”

“Pirate?” the pirate leader offered.

“Yes,” Hok said. “That can't be true.”

“No?” the pirate leader asked. He pointed toward shore, up the crowded street. “Why don't you ask
him
? He's the person I was referring to.”

A familiar voice called out to Hok in heavily accented Chinese. She looked over and saw a pale teenager running toward them with something in one hand.

“Is that Charles?” Seh asked.

“Yes,” Hok replied.

The pirate leader cleared his throat. “I can see that the three of you have
a lot
of catching up to do. I'll be leaving now. Nice meeting you both.” He nodded and walked to shore, heading up the street with two of the dock guards in tow. He nodded to Charles as they passed each other, and Charles nodded back.

Hok put her face in her hands. “I can't believe this, Seh. My father is a pirate captain.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better,” Seh replied, “your father can't be any worse than my mother.”

Hok shook her head. She wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or cry.

BOOK: Crane
7.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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