A Birthday at Sea
“Rose! Rose!” Mistique, an adolescent speckled Acara cried, running around her house with a flapping piece of paper in her hand. “ROOOOSE!”
Rose’s head of straight, sunny brown hair popped out from behind the kitchen doorway.
“Yeah?” she asked.
“Guess what Issa wrote to me!”
Mistique rolled her eyes while Rose began frosting the newly baked cookies that lay on the kitchen counter before her.
“My pen pal, Rose!”
“Oh! Right,” Rose replied hastily, shaking her head. “So what did she have to say?”
“Nothing much...” began Mistique slowly, “except she invited me to visit her in Shenkuu!” The Acara was practically exploding with excitement.
Rose stopped frosting her precious cookies and turned to Mistique slowly.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah! I can go, can’t I?”
“Well,” said Rose hesitantly. “I dunno... Shenkuu is quite a distance, and it’s still rather unfamiliar to the rest of Neopia. Anything could happen to you out there!”
“Ro-ose!” Mistique whined. “It’s not that far—and besides, I’ll be staying with Issa and her family. It’ll be fine!”
Rose resumed her cookie frosting, deep in thought.
“It’s so close to your birthday,” Rose mumbled. “And you certainly can’t stay there during your birthday! That’s a time for celebration with your family.”
“Yes, I know,” Mistique said, exasperated with her owner. “But it would only be for two weeks, so I would get home several days before my birthday.”
Rose was quiet for a moment; she seemed to be trying to think of another reason why Mistique would not be able to go.
“Well... How would you get there, anyway?”
Mistique once again rolled her eyes.
“A flying ship, duh! Neopia Central now has several that go to Shenkuu. Haven’t you been reading the Neopian Times?”
Rose, realizing there was truly no way out of this, slowly nodded her head.
“All right,” she said warily. “You can go.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rose said I can visit you! I’ll be there in 5 days, just like you suggested. I will be taking a flying ship called the Pflying Pfish, so meet me at the dock in Shenkuu! I can’t wait to finally meet you—not to mention visit your beautiful country! See you soon!
Issa opened the letter and read it quickly, a smile spreading across her face.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Several days later Mistique was standing on the flying ship docks of Neopia Central, a lumpy suitcase at her feet and a stuffed backpack on her back. Her whole family was there to say goodbye—Mono was looking proud, Star a bit afraid, and Rose’s brown eyes were starting to water.
“Don’t worry, Rose!” Mistique said confidently, although she was beginning to feel butterflies in her stomach already. “I’ll be fine. It’s only two weeks, after all!”
Rose just nodded, her lips shaking slightly.
“Aw, Rose,” Mono said sympathetically, patting the back of her shoulder. “She’ll be back in two weeks. It’ll be before you know it!”
Rose nodded again, but her eyes continued to water. She was going to miss Mistique terribly.
Suddenly the whistle blew and Mistique knew she had only a few minutes, so she quickly hugged everyone, saving Rose for last.
“H... have fun,” Rose managed to squeak.
Mistique waved goodbye and boarded the airship. Rose’s tears were contagious; Mistique’s vision blurred as she stared out of the porthole next to her seat. All of a sudden the ship lifted off the ground and took off, and Mistique began her journey.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mistique found herself drifting off to sleep after several hours. She had at first enjoyed watching the beautiful landscapes of Neopia drifting peacefully by, but now it was an infinite mass of icebergs and snow, and the young Acara found it quite dull.
A day and a half later, after countless naps and several meals, Mistique found herself again staring out of the porthole. Below was still endless whiteness... But no! There was something in the distance—something Mistique couldn’t quite make out...
After several minutes of tedious squinting she finally realized what it was: hundreds of gigantic mountains shooting up into the sky. Some were so tall that Mistique couldn’t even see the tops of them! Then she noticed the captain, who had just emerged from a door directly in front of her.
“We are approaching Shenkuu,” he announced flatly, peering around at the sleepy passengers. “Prepare for landing.”
Several passengers cheered, and everyone began bustling about, collecting their belongings that had managed to scatter themselves into the most unlikely of places during the flight.
Ten minutes later Mistique’s ears began to pop as the floating ship descended into the mountains, and she smiled to herself excitedly.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mistique glanced around sleepily, clutching her suitcase. A beautiful faerie Xweetok was jumping up and down excitedly, waving an arm in the air. Mistique grinned and headed over to where her pen pal stood.
“Issa!” Mistique cried, dropping her suitcase hastily and running to hug Issa for the first time. She then glanced around, blinking. Shenkuu was... breathtaking, to say the least. Its lush mountaintops were covered with colorful buildings. Serene pathways spiraled around the mountains, in and out of groves of flowering trees and gardens of exotic plant life. The citizens of Shenkuu wore unique and beautiful garments of clothing—Mistique spotted several people wearing vibrant, oriental robes. Some people seemed to be bearing battle gear that consisted of flat panels that hung over the chest, back, and below the waist, although Mistique did not know why—did anyone fight here, in the most peaceful of places?
“Come,” Issa said, her silky voice interrupting Mistique’s thoughts. “I will show you to my home.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Issa’s home was as beautiful as the rest of Shenkuu, from its scarlet roof to its garden of plants and flowers Mistique had never seen before.
“My parents are merchants,” Issa had told her friend, “like many other people of Shenkuu. They sell herbs and spices in a stall a short way down this mountain.”
Issa had immediately bombarded Mistique with gifts of Shenkese herbs, spices, minerals, and jewelry. Mistique felt rather ashamed; she had only brought two gifts from Neopia Central for her friend: a package of multi-flavored Neodrops from the Chocolate Factory, and Rubber Plant seeds, since they were not native to Shenkuu.
The girls spent their days wandering about the mountaintops of Shenkuu. Issa seemed to know almost everyone, and she introduced Mistique to all of her acquaintances, some of which did not seem at all excited or happy to see the visitor.
“Some people of Shenkuu believe we should have remained hidden,” Issa had said, referring to the fact that Shenkuu had only been recently discovered. “It is nothing against you personally.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Shenkuu is great! It’s only been a week but I already feel at home here! The people are nice for the most part, and Issa’s family is so welcoming. I would write more but Issa and I are going to visit the Cyodrake’s Gaze, so I have to go soon. I just wanted to write so you knew I was safe and happy!
Mistique quickly sent off her letter and then joined Issa to head to the Cyodrake’s Gaze. She was very excited—she had heard all sorts of stories about it but had never gotten the chance to see it for herself.
When the girls arrived at the ship, Mistique was surprised; it looked very dark and gloomy—not at all what she had expected in such a legendary ship. She looked sideways at Issa, who, to Mistique’s surprise, also appeared to be quite confused.
“I came here several months ago,” said Issa. “And I’m quite sure it looked very different...”
They soon found out why it looked so different—it was not the Cyodrake’s Gaze at all.
“PIRATES!” cried a terrified Gnorbu to their left, knocking the girls over as he pushed past them to save his life.
Mistique did not understand; pirates? In Shenkuu? How was that possible?
But her doubts were proved wrong by Issa’s terrified voice.
“What are you waiting for? Run!”
Mistique’s heart raced as Issa pulled her to her feet and they began sprinting away from the pirate flying ship. Mistique glanced back and saw indeed that many malicious-looking pirates were now emerging from the ship, swords in hand. She gasped as she saw a large Skeith catch her eye and grin. He began flying towards them, cackling.
“Faster!” Mistique gasped, but to no avail. Within seconds both she and Issa were plucked off the ground and were securely in the arms of that terrifying pirate. They were brought back to the ship where their wrists were immediately bound behind them—Issa’s wings were also tied tightly together.
Mistique was in a daze as she and Issa were shoved below deck and into a dark cage. The gate was locked shut and Mistique and Issa were left alone, panting.
After several minutes of horrible silence, Mistique managed to find her voice.
“What just happened?” she asked hoarsely. She had never heard of pirates in Shenkuu before... Was this what Rose had been afraid of?
“I... I dunno,” Issa whimpered. “There have never been pirates here before. Not in my lifetime, anyway.”
“So why did they come now?” Mistique asked, knowing full well it was an unanswerable question.
“This is what many citizens of Shenkuu feared,” Issa said quietly. “This is why we remained a secret for so long. I wish...” Issa’s voice was now heavy with sobs. “I wish this country had never been discovered by outsiders!”
“But... then I wouldn’t have met you,” Mistique replied in a small voice.
“I don’t care!” Issa burst out, banging her head against a dirty wall. “This would never have happened! Who cares about some penpal when you’re about to die?!”
Mistique said nothing but turned away, hurt. Issa only thought of her as “some penpal.” The Acara’s blue eyes began welling up with tears, and she was glad it was too dark for Issa to be able to tell.
After almost two hours of complete silence, the girls felt the ship vibrate with the heavy stomping of pirate boots as they returned to their ship.
A while later the stomping stopped and Mistique felt the ship jerk as it lifted off the ground. Mistique closed her eyes, completely and utterly miserable. Issa’s words continued to pound in her ears, and she was convinced that the fact that she was a prisoner on a pirate ship meant her life was soon to be cut short.
Both girls jumped and looked at each other. What was that?
“Hello, and welcome to the Shadow Nova!” came a voice.
Mistique and Issa glanced around, utterly confused. Then a lantern was lit somewhere and the dark face of a young shadow Zafara was now visible. The face grinned at the baffled prisoners.
“Oh come on,” he said cheerfully. “Don’t look so glum! Brighten up!”
“Who are you?” Mistique demanded.
“The name’s Cole,” the Zafara replied. He was sitting on the dirty wooden floor directly in front of the cage in which Mistique and Issa sat.
“And... Why are you so exuberant?” Issa asked angrily. “We are on a pirate ship.”
Mistique said nothing but silently agreed.
“You should be excited too! You’re passengers of the greatest airship there is!”
“Passengers?” Issa chuckled coldly. “No, I think you mean prisoners. See this rope?” She tried moving her wings to show Cole they were bound.
“Of course you’re prisoners now,” Cole said as if it were obvious. “I was at first, too. But now look at me—a fully fledged member of the Shadow Nova!”
“So you’re a pirate,” Issa spat.
Suddenly Cole wasn’t so cheerful. He seemed to change his focus quite quickly.
“No,” he said darkly. “Pirates choose to be here.”
Mistique was now more confused than ever.
“So... You’re a prisoner.”
Cole sighed loudly, rolling his eyes.
“No!” he said, standing up. “I’m a cabin boy. They captured me two years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.”
“And they don’t let you off?” Mistique inquired, concerned.
“Well, originally they had to watch me at all times... But then I proved to them I wasn’t going anywhere. I have nowhere to go, anyhow.” He stood up and leaned against a wooden post and folded his arms across his chest.
“Why don’t you run away?” Issa asked, her anger seeming to deteriorate.
“Like I said, I have no place to go,” Cole replied, steadily staring at the girls. “But it’s okay, b’cause now you two can become cabin girls, and we’ll all be happy!”
“Um... I don’t think so,” Issa replied, disgusted. Her anger was returning as quickly as it had left. “We have to get out of here!”
“Ha! Like you’ll be able to!” Cole said, throwing his hands up. “These pirates are more cunning than you’d think, and Captain Stargill is the cleverest. You’ll never get off this ship.”
And with that the cabin boy blew out the lantern and left the girls in the darkness.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mistique stirred; she had been trying (and failing) to sleep curled up on the floor, her wrists still tightly bound behind her back.
“What?” she replied coldly. She was still upset about what Issa had said.
“How are we going to escape?”
“We’re not,” the Acara replied, intentionally trying to scare Issa. “We’re going to be stuck here forever.” She heard Issa groan and lean against the wall.
“But I have to get home!” Issa said shrilly. “My parents must be worried!”
“Your parents!” Mistique spat. “What about my owner? She didn’t want me to visit you to begin with. Turns out she was right. You’re just... ‘some pen pal.’” She spoke the last two words with particular spite.
Issa seemed to catch the hint immediately.
“Mistique, you’re not still mad about what I said!” Issa said worriedly. “You know I was just scared!”
“Please, Mistique, I didn’t mean that! I barely knew what I was saying...”
“Well you could’ve apologized, then!”
Mistique did not know how to react, so she simply grunted and turned away. After several more long minutes of silence she could no longer stand it, and finally spoke up.
“We’re going to get out of here,” she said determinedly. “I promise.”
Issa smiled, finally hopeful.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next few days passed by slowly and dreadfully. They were fed three skimpy, rotten meals a day—just enough to keep them relatively healthy. Cole was always the one to deliver their food, but he did not say another word to them. He seemed to be angry at the fact that Issa and Mistique were not going to become “cabin girls”.
Finally, after three horrible, boring days, Cole opened the gate for them one late morning.
“Time to meet the captain,” he said dully. He shoved them up the stairs and onto the deck, where the sun practically blinded them. After blinking several times Mistique saw the entire crew, which consisted of roughly thirty hands, standing on the deck, glaring at them. A tall camouflage Ruki stood wearing a large black hat that was too big for his slender head. He grinned maliciously, displaying an array of glinting gold teeth.
“Welcome, m’ ladies,” he growled, bearing the typical pirate accent, “to the Shadow Nova. This here is the crew—I know you’ve already met Slugarm here.” He gestured toward the Skeith who had captured them. He also grinned and waved a hand, his eyes fiery. “Now it’s time to discuss my terms,” Stargill said, dragging out the “R”. “First o’ all—”
“Let us go!” Issa burst out. “Those are the terms!”
The captain froze and for a moment he looked quite furious, but then he broke out into a booming laughter which the rest of the crew mimicked, except for Cole, who simply remained miserable looking.
“What a funny girl, this one is!” Stargill said, still chuckling. “But she’ll need to be gagged, o’ course.”
A shrimpy Buzz flew forward with a piece of cloth in his hand—he tied it around Issa’s mouth so she couldn’t speak. Mistique kept her mouth shut—she knew she would regret saying anything.
“Now, as I were sayin’,” Stargill continued. “Terms. First o’ all, you do what whatever I or any o’ the crew says. Second o’ all, you do nothin’ without gettin’ permission from me or the crew. Third o’ all, you follow these two rules or yeh walk the plank! Arrrr!”
“Arrr!” all the pirates repeated, clearly having fun.
“Oh yes, and I forgot somethin’,” the captain said lazily. “You’ll be workin’ for us as cabin girls.”
Cole finally appeared to be happy.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Issa and Mistique spent the next week working as cabin girls. They cleaned the flying ship until it was spotless—not a Spyder in sight.
The Shadow Nova stayed in the air for days, drifting peacefully above the waters of Neopia. Then one day the scrawny Buzz called out, “land ho!” from the bird’s nest, and the ship began its descent. Mistique and Issa glanced over the edge of the ship and realized they were headed straight for Krawk Island.
“Is the Shadow Nova in allegiance with the Black Pawkeet?” Issa asked Cole, who had been quite friendly since they had been dubbed cabin girls.
“Oh no,” Cole replied, leaning on his mop. “No, no, no. The two ships are deadly enemies. Right now we’re dropping in for a surprise raid.”
Mistique and Issa looked at each other. Was this their chance to escape?
Unfortunately the captain seemed to read their minds. After crying, “All hands on deck!” he added, “Oh and Cole, lock ‘em cabin girls up. Wouldn’t want them escaping now, would we?”
“Aye, sir!” Cole replied enthusiastically, saluting. He pulled the girls down to their dark cage.
“You’re not really locking us up, are you, Cole?” Mistique asked.
“Captain’s orders,” he replied simply, as if that justified his actions.
“But Cole, we’re your friends!” Mistique persisted.
Cole led them into their prison and locked the gate, avoiding their gaze.
“Look,” he said, staring at his feet. “My time on the ship has been... It’s been nice having you here, is all,” he finished lamely. “I... I don’t think I could take it if you escaped. I’d go mad!”
“Then escape with us!” Issa cried, exasperated. “You hate it here as much as we do!”
“SO WHAT IF I DO?” Cole cried furiously at the flinching girls. “I already told you! I—have—no—place—to—go!”
He turned and began walking up the stars to the deck.
“Some friend you are!” Mistique yelled after him. She heard him pause for a moment, but then continue on without saying a word.
The Shadow Nova crew were successful in their raid of the Black Pawkeet, and they were celebrating noisily all through the night. Mistique could not sleep anyway—she had come to the conclusion that she and Issa truly were stuck here forever, and the thought of never seeing her family again brought great pain to her heart. That, and the fact that she had just remembered tomorrow was her birthday.
Finally the jolly pirates calmed down, and the soaring ship was silent. Mistique felt her eyelids getting heavy.
“Happy birthday, Misti,” she managed to whisper to herself before drifting off.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The days came and went quickly, and soon Mistique and Issa realized it had already been two weeks since their arrival on the ship.
Their friendship with Cole was growing every day, despite that night when he had said he wouldn’t let them escape. The trio was now closer than ever, and they trusted each other. Cole no longer locked the cage every night before bed like he had previously done, and almost every night the three of them would stay up late exchanging ghost stories and playing cards.
It wasn’t long before the scrawny Buzz was calling out, “land ho!” again and the pirates were planning another raid—this time on an innocent Happy Valley airship that was carrying supplied to go to Neopia Central. This time Issa and Mistique didn’t even think of trying to escape.
When the Shadow Nova came up alongside the small airship—the Snowflake—the pirates swung across to it by thick ropes. Issa and Mistique stayed on deck and watched, while Cole proudly steered the ship, waiting for the pirates to return from their mission.
“Is anyone going to get hurt?” Mistique asked as she watched the pirates chase a terrified Chia around the other ship.
“Nah,” Cole replied confidently. “Not unless someone fights back, which doesn’t happen too often. This one’ll be a quick, harmless raid...” His voice trailed off.
“What?” Issa said, noticing. “What is it?”
“How much do you miss your families?” Cole asked suddenly, his eyes glinting.
“Well... A lot, I guess,” Mistique replied. Issa nodded in agreement.
Cole didn’t reply for a while. He seemed to be finding the courage for something...
“When they get back,” he said abruptly, his voice low, “crawl across the plank and jump onto the Snowflake.”
“W-what?” Issa stuttered.
“You heard me,” Cole said seriously. “I’ll steer the ship in closer so the plank reaches...”
Cole did as he said; the end of the plank was now less than a foot away from the edge of the other ship.
“But... what about you?” Mistique asked.
“I’ll be right behind you,” Cole replied, avoiding her eyes.
Before anyone could say anything else there were victorious cries; the pirates were returning.
“Go!” Cole hissed.
Mistique and Issa bent low and snuck to the plank. They waited for all the grinning pirates to swing back onto the Shadow Nova, then they immediately began the terrifying crawl over the narrow wooden plank that was their only protection from the stormy waters below. Mistique tried to look backwards to make sure Cole was following but almost lost her balance in doing so, so she finished the long journey across the plank before turning back.
Suddenly the Shadow Nova jerked away from the Snowflake, where the girls now stood. Cole was furiously spinning the helm so the ships drifted farther and farther apart.
“No!” cried Mistique as Cole’s sad face could no longer be seen. “Cole!”
But it was too late. Cole and the pirate ship were long gone, never to be seen again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mistique and Issa returned safely to their homes, with the help of the flustered captain of the Snowflake. The two friends promised to continue writing to each other. Although they were relieved to be back home, their return felt rather sad and empty without Cole, who had proved to be a great friend after all. He had given up his happiness for the safety of his only two friends, and Mistique knew she would never forget that.
Rose had showered Mistique with hugs and kisses upon her return (“I told you you had to be home for your birthday!” Rose had scolded her).
After a few days back at home, after things had returned to normal, Rose had remembered that Mistique still had unopened gifts from her birthday.
“Oh, and you just got this one in the mail,” Rose said, handing Mistique a small black box with a silver ribbon tied around it. “It’s probably from Issa.”
Mistique opened it eagerly, but immediately knew it was not from Issa. Inside lay a small rolled up, yellowing piece of paper with a simple sketch scribbled messily on it: a black Nova—or, as Mistique saw it, a shadow Nova.