"Yes, yes, m'dear. I think you've finally gotten used to your numbers," Doctor Newbury said proudly as he watched his pupil. Four long years he had struggled with teaching Shanku her arithmetic and she was finally having only the slightest difficulty with it.
"Now if we can get you to manage your liquor, we'll be set!" She shook her feathery pen at him.
"The beast within cannot be tamed," he chuckled.
"I beg to differ, my good doctor," Shanku stood with hands on her hips in as a girl.
"Gadzooks, child!" Doctor Newbury flinched. And yet, after four years, he was not used to her habit of assuming different shapes. "Warn me before you do that!"
"Be warned that I'm continuing then!" Shanku laughed and shook her finger at him. "If I can tame myself, so can you."
"But you always return to being an animal. A poor argument, m'dear."
"Allow me to finish, doctor," Shanku said and sat on the desk. "I was hatched as a beast. And as it's natural, it does not impair my judgment. Children are born to milk, not bourbon. It makes more sense when you put milk in your tea than when you partake of that stout stuff. It's not natural!"
"I fear I've taught you too well," Doctor Newbury sighed in mock-sadness.
"So it would seem at times," Shanku giggled and resumed her seat.
"Now, let's finish that arithmetic and review some grammar!"
"Of course!" Doctor Newbury agreed and oversaw the rest of her studies for that afternoon.
Shanku had found her place on the ship. While all missed Dawson, each had come to accept Shanku in his own way. She struggled hard to do as well a job as she had seen Dawson do in his duties. During the day, she would watch the horizon for ships, obstacles, and distant land masses as he had taught her to do. In the mornings after a quick survey, she would stay on deck and help Templeton prepare some of the meals. Some afternoons, she would take her spear and fly out over the ocean to obtain a few fresh fish for their suppers. In the evenings, Shanku would study and debate with Doctor Newbury.
Doctor Newbury had come to mean the most to Shanku. He felt like a grandfather to her and she thrived on making him proud of her. His lessons were difficult, and she still had trouble grasping much of the material, but he never seemed disappointed with her and she tried all the harder to learn the fascinating things he had to offer.
Their trips to Mruha continued as usual and they often stopped in Ila-tyaq where Dawson now lived with Scarlet and their son Rangi. When she had the spare time, she would seek out Tesla for a tour of the cave with the glowing moths and fungi. They would sit in a shallow boat as he guided them through the water with a long stick. Some nights they were fortunate enough to see the white sea dragon that lived in the back of the cave. They kept a respectful distance and often offered him fish to be granted safe passage back out of the cave.
Trips also began to Janihi Kleust in southern Bhadarukia to carry new and strange materials, drinks, spices, perfumes, and cloths the Meriweather had previously never carried before.
Junaid and Zos were often found in Janihi Kleust as representatives of their home, Arbos. Junaid had made a good name for himself and had been nominated as the prime overseer of trade negotiations. Zos remained as a faithful bodyguard, although it could be argued Junaid's own prowess with a blade made a bodyguard unnecessary, and Zos often conducted trade on behalf of his people.
Captain Morgan and Zos could be found haggling over some of the new items the Jackal clan had to offer. Heatedly. The two usually managed something in the end.
Shanku didn't venture far from the ship as she usually did. The jungle was full of poisonous plants and some of the largest cats she had ever seen or heard about. The locals loved to tell tales about "maneaters", some of the fiercest tigers and panthers a person ever had the misfortune to be caught alone with.
This new trade with Bhadarukia coupled with their usual runs to Mruha, and also of bringing goods from L'aernth, brought enough profit to Captain Morgan that he was able to let the crew have three months ashore each winter to do as they wished. Doctor Newbury was one of those that chose to return to the comfort of his home to some quiet reading and pipe smoking, or seeing to having another one of his books published. Templeton was one of a few that would return home to spend time with the family he'd left behind. Most did as Whitten, staying with the ship to help with repairs and maintenance, and to spend the night with a good mug.
Shanku chose to travel. She would first visit the general store to gather her mail and write a reply to the Birchfields. Dai and his family were as content as they always were. Business with the Urych was good. The Heyen were well and had not had any more losses at the hands of Wynfall. Hinto was strong and showing promise, and the youngest child Bena was healthy and growing well. Shanku would tell briefly of her newest experiences and try to include a few sketches she had been learning to do from Doctor Newbury before giving her letters to the store owner for him to add to his pile of postage. The store keeper was glad to attend to her mail as he did for all sailors of the port.
With that accomplished, Shanku would haunt some of the local pubs until she came across Rhett Talbot. He worked regularly with Kyros the Nyre Guardian since the incident with the minocentaur, Kikeru. They had managed together to keep poaching mostly under control. Shanku would join them on their patrols in the forest.
Time on the ocean was nice, and it was thrilling to visit other places, but it was not as refreshing as being back between familiar trees and getting familiar dirt between her toes. The subtropical climate allowed them to sleep under the trees more often than further north in the Nyre where she was from. Of course, there were still nights of frost and chill, but some nights were warm enough they only needed a fire.
Sometimes they would come across a lost farmer or hunter. Rhett would tend to any injuries they might have and Shanku would seek out some game to send with them back home. Shanku was careful to keep her Kurach shape hidden from the lost men they found. Those of Port Tephras were not that familiar with her kind, despite any familiarity some had with the story of a strange girl on the Meriweather, and she didn't wish to alarm them.
As Rhett would return them to town, Shanku would take the opportunity to visit Grubber and Gremmy. She had taken up part of Kyros' duties in seeing after the little goblin. Grubber quite enjoyed the added company for fairy watching and to have somebody to talk to about the fairies. He would introduce her to any new friends he had made while she was away, and even little Gremmy had managed to obtain a few fluttery dance partners.
Grubber had gotten more work done on his log home and now had a nice burrow underneath. He had made sure to make enough room for Shanku to visit with him and kept a stool just for her to sit on and tell him stories about her travels.
The burrow was almost like a second home to her when away from the sea. Grubber even allowed her to keep a chest in his burrow full of her letters she received from her friends in Wynfall and the tunic her mother had made for her so long ago. In return, she would brings gifts to him. Tools and supplies to make his life easier, sweet treats to eat, and she had bought a blank book.
In the book, she would use the sketching skills taught to her by Doctor Newbury to make a picture book for the goblin. She would try to add a new drawing every few nights for him, usually of the fairies he was so fond of, but also of various plants and animals both in the Nyre and in the faraway places she went. Once, Shanku was able to convince him and Gremmy to sit still long enough to try to draw their likeness. Grubber had been very happy and kept it in the chest she left behind for her letters. Gremmy, of course, was very fidgety and relieved when the sitting was over.
Rarely, she would catch the scent of a fellow Kurach. Shanku would look around wistfully, searching for one of her kind, but never could find them. To some extent, she found it amusing. As if the Peridæ were making sure she still knew she was in exile and refused to speak to her.
So passed the winters for the Meriweather crew. With the coming of spring, the crew would return to the ship once more. The hull would be filled with goods from L'aernth to be sold or traded abroad. Then it was time to sail, as in years past.
With slightly less trouble from the sirens these days, of course. The sirens were often mischievous merfolk trying to distract the crew of various ships from their journey. Shanku would have none of it. She would find whatever rock the siren was perched on, fly out, and land right on top of them.
"Listen 'ere, ya two-bit hussy, this is my crew, understand!?" she would hiss, snarl, and threaten each one she could catch.
Sometimes the sirens were in fact a kind of winged women known as harpies, but unlike Shanku, the harpies were more bird than woman. Harpy sirens were a greater danger to the crew as they were prone to carry some men away from other ships. For what purposes none knew, but they did know they were never returned. For this, Captain Morgan began to feel having Shanku aboard was not such a bad idea after all. She was proving to be a hard worker and dedicated part of the crew just as much as the others he had carefully chosen and allowed aboard his ship.
Sometimes a pirate ship would give chase. It was Shanku and O'Hare's primary job to keep an eye out for them. On most occasions, the Meriweather was able to outrun them and get away. When they weren't, the crew would gather their weapons and wait. Shanku learned that her diving technique for catching fish worked just as well for attacking pirates. Many times she had dove from the sky and quickly slashed the throats of archers who threatened her crew. It was dangerous, but she often moved too quickly for a surviving archer to shoot her down.
One pirate crew had been particularly determined to board the Meriweather. By the end of it, a few of the Meriweather had been injured, and all but a few of the pirates were dead. After a meeting with the pirate captain, it was determined that the ship had been captured. The surviving pirates were lead to the brig, and Captain Morgan sent half his crew to man the pirate ship and bring it in to port. They were all rewarded handsomely for their feat. A few times more they managed this.
Times were good for the Meriweather.
But nothing lasts forever.
"Hmmm..." Shanku peered through her spyglass one afternoon at a distant brigantine. Slim and trim. Possibly ballistae. Fast... No flags or trappings. She spread her wings and glided down to the deck.
"Captain, an unmarked ship is approaching," Shanku warned her captain as he steered the ship.
"No flags?" he asked pensively.
"Keep an eye on her," the captain nodded.
"Yes, sir," Shanku quipped stood dutifully by the rails as she continued to watch the approaching ship.
Aboard the Brelland Seacat stood a Kurach and one of the jungle cats of Bhadarukia. The Kurach was a Sylvan with black hair and brown forelocks. His feathers were white with black tips, and his primary flight feathers were all black. He had his arms crossed over his bare chest and the wind tugged at his loose breeches.
"They have a cub of their own, Ryoichi," the Kurach remarked to the jungle cat.
"Really now?" asked Ryoichi. He was a golden yellow, with dark blue stripes. A notch was missing from his left ear and he had a gold earring in the right. A red bandana was tied to his left forearm. Ryoichi sat perched on a barrel as was his wont. "That's the infamous Meriweather then? We should drop chase. The others were captured while trying to take her."
"None of those other ships had Kurach like our ship," Turai said smugly.
"I don't think will end well," moaned Ryoichi as his ears drooped.
The call came from their captain to hoist the colors and the deck was full of life as the pirates prepared to engage their target.
"Red roger!" Shanku shouted out to the captain as the pirates raised their traditional skull and cross bones, but this one had a red field instead of a black one.
"Pirates, again? Will they not learn?" Captain Morgan asked sadly and shook his head. "Alert the men. We'll take her and see her crew hanged."
Shanku wasted no time dropping below decks to stir the crew. A jolly roger was worrying enough to see, but a red roger meant that the pirates would have no mercy and would sink the ship.
"Whitten! Marley! Ed! Smith! All of you, up! We've got pirates on our tail!" Shanku yipped into the crew quarters.
"Let them come," Whitten growled and withdrew his sword. He was not an archer, but he and Clements were especially skilled with swordplay.
The smaller brigantine gained on the heavy fluyt and the ships soon were running parallel. Unbeknownst to the other, each Kurach lay in wait in their masts, preparing to dive down into the opposite crew.
Shanku waited intently as the captain gave orders to his men. When she heard the cue, she dove down after the first volley of arrows. With the pirates distracted by the projectiles, Shanku was easily able to dive in and slit the throats of the archers near the deck railing. She flew up to one of the masts on the brigantine. With a flash of anger, she saw the bodies of Templeton, Marley, Arrington, and Patton by the railing as the pirates prepared to board. Where's their captain? Furious, she searched the deck, and finally spotted him. There!
Turai angled his wings and coasted higher into the air to watch the archers of the Meriweather fall as he performed the same attack on them as his younger counterpart. To his frustration, he saw that his ship had lost the same amount of men. Even worse, there stood the black-winged devil he'd heard about, and she was preparing to dive at his captain! He swore under his breath and launched in her direction.
Shanku was very close to the captain and just about to plunge her dagger into his back and have her revenge when suddenly she was hit broadside. She hit the deck hard, lucky to not be impaled on her dagger.
A cub? Turai raised an eyebrow and stared at the Kurach he had just knocked down.
A Slyvan? Shanku stared in surprise at her adversary.
Turai and Shanku crouched on their hands and knees, slowly beginning to circle the other.
This changes nothing! Shanku shook her head and made a dash for the pirate captain.
Cub or not, this changes nothing! I'm not letting her out of my sight! Turai lunged again and pinned Shanku down.
"Let go of me!" Shanku snapped and struggled against him.
"Can't do that, you've killed too many men," Turai snarled and struggled to keep hold of her. "Be still before you break a wing!"
"What do you care?" Shanku snarled. Half her feathers were split around his arm as she squirmed and wriggled to be free. It would certainly be a mess to preen later on. She grabbed her dagger and plunged it deep into his leg. "Worry about yourself!"
Turai cried out and immediately let go. Shanku took off and left him behind to clutch his leg and try to get the bleeding to stop. Then she heard a cry that made her blood turn cold. She froze and spun around to look back out over the Meriweather. "Doctor!"
Shanku leapt over the deck railing and flew back the Meriweather. Doctor Newbury was laid out on the deck, a red stain spreading across his jacket. Shanku knelt at his side, her hands shaking.
"I'm afraid... I can no longer teach you... m'dear..." Doctor Newbury said weakly.
"No... Doctor Newbury..." Shanku mumbled, horrified. "No..."
She was barely aware of the two thick arms that grabbed her and began to carry her off. "Be glad I need you, brat," Turai growled as he took her away.
"Don't die, Doctor!" Shanku reached out to Doctor Newbury as he became still. In a daze, she was unaware that she was brought back aboard the Brelland Seacat. A yellow light began to grow before her eyes and slowly she realized the Meriweather had been set on fire.
"Set sail!" came the triumphant command from the pirate captain.
Her last view of the once beautiful fluyt was of the masts and sails ablaze as she roughly shoved below decks and locked away. Shanku hid her head under her wing and cried bitterly as she realized what had happened and what she had lost.
The sun began to sink as the brigantine slowly sailed away, leaving behind the Meriweather as it slowly burned and sank into the sea, along with all but one of the crew.