The Chernagor Pirates

by Dan Chernenko


Not for the first time—not for the hundredth, either—King Lanius wondered what it would be like to rule Avornis. His ancestors for a dozen generations had been kings. They’d ruled. He, on the other hand…

He, on the other hand, sighed and went on poking through the royal archives. Avornis was a proud and ancient kingdom. That meant it had been accumulating scrolls and codices and sheets of parchment and the occasional (often broken) potsherd for centuries. Lanius, fascinated by history, dug through them as eagerly as a miner went after a rich vein of gold.

The King—well, one of the Kings—of Avornis looked more like a scholar than a ruler. He was a tall, thin, weedy man in his midtwenties, with dark brown hair that needed combing and a beard with a chunk of dust in it down low on his right cheek where he couldn’t see it and flick it away. Instead of royal robes, he wore an ordinary—in fact, rather grubby—linen tunic and baggy wool trousers. The servants had complained that he always came back from the archives covered in dust and dirt, and that robes so smirched were impossible to clean. Lanius didn’t like to cause people trouble when he didn’t have to.

Dispirited sunbeams came through the dusty skylights set into the ceiling. Motes of dust Lanius had kicked up danced in the light. Somewhere off in the distance, far beyond the heavy doors that shut the archives away from the rest of the palace, a couple of serving women shrilly squabbled over something or other. Lanius smiled—he couldn’t make out a word they were saying.

He bent for a closer look at the latest parchment he’d unearthed. It talked about Yozgat—the great southern city where the barbarous Menteshe held the Scepter of Mercy for their master, the Banished One—back in the lost and distant days when Yozgat was not Yozgat but rather Prusa, an Avornan town.

Lanius sighed. “Why do I bother?” he muttered under his breath. Prusa had been made into Yozgat more than five hundred years before, when the wild Menteshe horsemen rode out of the hills and took the southern part of the kingdom away from an Avornis wracked by civil war. It had housed the Scepter of Mercy, once the great talisman of the Kings of Avornis, for four centuries. All efforts to reclaim the Scepter had failed, most of them horribly.

Maybe some clue in Prusa-that-was would yield a key to Yozgat. So Lanius hoped. In that hope, he kept going through the manuscripts in the archives one after another. If he didn’t look, he would assuredly find nothing.

“And if I do look, I’ll probably find nothing,” he said, and sighed again. Odds were, all his efforts were futile. The Banished One might have been cast down from the heavens to earth below, but he remained much, much more than a mere mortal man. He’d spent the intervening years fortifying Yozgat against assault. Even if an Avornan army fought its way to the place, what could it do then? Lanius hoped he would find something, anything, to tell him.

Not on this parchment, which was a tax register and said very little about Prusa’s geography. The next one… The next one talked about a border squabble between Avornis and the Chernagor city-states at the opposite end of the kingdom. No one could be sure how, or if, the archives were organized.

One of these days, I’ll have to do something about that. Lanius laughed at himself. He’d had the same thought ever since he started coming into the archives as a youth. It hadn’t happened yet. He didn’t intend to hold his breath waiting for it to happen. He put down the parchment that didn’t interest him, got up from the chair where he’d been sitting for a long time, and stretched. Something in his back popped. With a glance over his shoulder, as though to say he’d be back, he left the archives.

Servants bowed. “Your Majesty,” they murmured. Their respect might have shown that Lanius was the ruler of Avornis. It might have, but it didn’t. All it showed was that he was the descendant of a long line of kings.

As though to underscore his lack of power, one of the servants said, “Oh, Your Majesty, King Grus wants to see you.”

Not, King Grus wants to see you at your convenience, or anything of the sort. No one worried about Lanius’ convenience—Grus certainly didn’t. “Where is Grus?” Lanius asked. He seldom used the other king’s royal title—as seldom as he could get away with, in fact.

“He’s at the entranceway to the palace, Your Majesty, enjoying the fine spring day,” the servant replied.

Lanius couldn’t quarrel with Grus about that. Spring had come late to the city of Avornis this year. Now that it was finally here, it was worth savoring. “I’ll meet him there, then,” Lanius said.

If he hadn’t gone, Grus wouldn’t have done anything to him. His fellow sovereign wasn’t a cruel or vindictive man. Lanius would have had an easier time disliking him if he were. The rightful King of Avornis—so he thought of himself—still managed it, but it was sometimes hard work.

Serving women smiled at him as he went past. Sleeping with even a powerless king might let them escape a life of drudgery. Lanius passed the chambers where he kept his white-mustached monkeys and his moncats. He didn’t have time for the menagerie now, either.

Unfiltered by dusty, dirty glass, the sunlight streaming through the open doors of the palace made Lanius first blink and then smile. Bird-song came in with the sunshine. Warblers and flycatchers and other birds were finally coming back from the south. Lanius hadn’t realized how much he’d missed their music until he started hearing it again.

Storks were coming back from the south, too, building great ramshackle nests in trees and on rooftops. They didn’t sing—their voices were raucous croaks—but most people took them for good luck.

Grus stood in the sunshine, not so much basking in it as seeming to cause it. He had a knack for attaching to himself anything good that happened. His royal robes, encrusted with jewels and pearls and shot through with golden threads, gleamed and glittered as though they had come down from the heavens to illuminate the dull, gross, all-too-material earth. Their splendor made Lanius in his plain, dirty clothes seem all the shabbier by contrast.

Turning at the sound of Lanius’ footfalls, Grus smiled and said, “Hello, Your Majesty. Meaning no offense, but you look like a teamster.”

“I was in the archives,” Lanius said shortly.

“Oh. I’m sorry.” In spite of the apology, Grus’ smile got wider. “That means you want to clout me in the head for dragging you out.”

Lanius didn’t care to think what would happen to him if he tried to clout Grus in the head. The other king was about twice his age and several inches shorter than he. But Grus, despite a grizzled beard, was solidly made and trained as a fighting man. Not much in the way of muscle had ever clung to Lanius’ long bones, while he knew far less of fighting than of ancient dialects of Avornan. And so, while he might think wistfully of clouting the usurper, he knew better than to have a go at it.

“It’s all right,” he said now. “I’d come out anyhow. What can I do for you?”

Before Grus could answer, a priest whose yellow robe displayed his high rank walked in through the entrance. He bowed to Grus, murmuring, “Your Majesty.” He started to go on by Lanius, whose attire was anything but royal, but then stopped and stared and at last bowed again. “Your Majesties,” he corrected himself, and walked on.

A real teamster with a couple of barrels of ale in a handcart came in right after the priest. Intent on his work, he noticed neither king. “Let’s find some quiet place where we can talk,” Grus said.

“Lead on,” Lanius said. You will anyhow, he thought glumly.

King Grus sat down on a stool in one of the several small dining rooms in the palace. Servants ate here; royalty didn’t. Grus watched with some amusement as Lanius perched on another stool a few feet away. Perched was the right word—with his long limbs and awkward gait, Lanius put Grus in

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