The Ninja Pig & Her Foster Child (a Virtuous Anne Radcliffe Story)
(Boochbeard had not guessed completely accurately why young Anne Radcliffe had been imprisoned by the Armada -- he had assumed she had assaulted an Armada officer while defending her friend’s honor. Although it was the sort of thing the loyal and impetuous Anne would do, in truth, she had never before seen a member of the Armada until that fateful day…)
The day was a joy of nature, a fine autumn day with splendid blue skies brilliantly contrasting the changing colors of the leaves. Two companions stopped their field labors as a fresh breeze shivered past. One was a ninja pig, an older female by the name of Mao Xue, whose given name meant ‘snow’. She sniffed the air with pleasure, her small bright eyes enjoying both the wild grace of nature surrounding the field and the piles of turnips the freshly turned earth had yielded. The pig looked affectionately at her companion, a human girl with brown skin and red hair. The girl was stretching her back, apparently appreciating the breeze more for cooling her sweaty self than for reflecting upon the harmony of the wind with the season.
“A fine harvest and I thank you for your help, Anne,” Xue said courteously, in the gravelly tones characteristic of the intelligent pigs of MooShu.
Anne nodded absently, her eyes focused on the distant clouds where she could just barely see a ship cresting the waves of air. How she wished she was out there herself!
Mao Xue’s bright gaze softened with old sorrow, misinterpreting the wistful expression on the teenager’s face. “You must be thinking of your parents,” she commented gently. “They were good friends, and good people.”
“But they were pirates?” Anne seized the opportunity to discuss something that had privately troubled her, pretending to be casual, picking up a sack gather the turnips.
The ninja pig was not fooled. “Ah, yes. I have heard of the title that some have given you in the village: Virtuous Anne.” Anne blushed, embarrassed but secretly pleased. “You are known to be honest and courteous, quick to defend others, and ready to give aid to any that need it. We are proud of you, Anne. You bring honor to our house.”
Anne blushed deeper, trying to hide her flaming face by gathering large piles of turnips for her sack, but she could not keep away the happy smile leaping to her lips at such praise.
Mao Xue also set herself to the task of gathering the harvest, rather more efficiently than Anne. “But now you wonder if you can be true to your parents as well to as yourself? Do not fear. Your parents were great explorers, eager for adventure, yet all that was honorable. When they joined the Resistance, they by definition became pirates - a title that the enemy conferred upon them.”
The pig sighed. “To be called a pirate is like unto that of being called a ninja. Yet as you know, my clan’s order of ninja was founded to serve the will of the emperor and go where the Samoorai could not. We were honorable in our own fashion, and always sought to obey the mandates of Heaven.”
“Still, even in the brighter days of the past it was easy to be tempted to use our powers for evil, to be as other ninja are. But now…” she shook her head. “These are evil times. Because our beneficent emperor lies under a malevolent curse, his Law is weak or corrupted. Often those who should serve the emperor serve now only their own selfish desires, and forget the Laws of Heaven.”
“So it is with the pirates of the Spiral. Honor is little respected; temptations are great and restrictions are few. Many are wicked. To find such like your parents would be difficult.”
Anne nodded obediently, but inwardly turned a deaf ear to her foster mother’s warning. She was sure she could find kindred spirits out there upon the winds.
But they had argued before on this matter, and to convince Mao Xue, she needed to choose her words carefully. Tying up the full sack of turnips, she strolled to the side of the field to pick up the outer clothes she had stripped off to protect from the dirt of heavy labor. Anne buttoned up her waistcoat, and slung on her coat, smoothing it down fastidiously. Both were tastefully adorned with fine embroidery, done by Anne herself, a skill she had learned as a small child from her mother. She buckled on her sword, which she had also left aside since it got in the way of farm work. Her dagger, of course, she wore all the time, as she had been taught. Mao Xue always wore her swords no matter what she was doing. Anne wondered if her foster mother even wore them in bed at night.
Anne decided a formal approach was best. She bowed towards Mao Xue as the pig raised an expectant eyebrow. “Honorable foster mother,” Anne began, “I think it is time that I too become a pirate, and seek out my destiny.”
The ninja pig repressed a sigh. She had heard it all before. “And why do you wish to be a pirate, young one?”
“So I can seek out the Resistance, and fight against the Armada.”
“To get revenge for my parents…” as soon as she said that, Anne realized she had made an error in judgment if she wanted to convince the ever philosophical pig. “I mean, to get justice for my parents.”
“Which do you want, revenge or justice?” came the cool rejoinder.
“Isn’t it the same thing?” Anne asked, puzzled.
“To seek revenge is to look to satisfy your needs. To seek justice looks to the needs of others.”
Anne was momentarily nonplussed. Still, she refused to be driven from her argument. “But, Mao Xue,” she continued in what she hoped were wheedling tones and not whiny ones, “I hardly get to do anything! My foster siblings are off on a mission and I am at home harvesting turnips.”
“Harvesting turnips is important work,“ the ninja pig reproved. “We will all be glad of them especially come winter. And piglets grow into maturity faster than human children,” she reiterated the old argument between them.
“But I am grown up! At least, grown enough,” Anne amended, biting her lip. Why couldn’t Mao Xue see how important this was to her?
The ninja pig critically assessed the human girl she had wanted to adopt as her own child, but had been forbidden by the clan to do so, as that implied the impartations of the secrets of the ninja pigs. She knew Anne yearned to seek her parents’ path in life, but that path had ended for them with cruel abruptness. Neither she nor her husband were willing to risk such a fate for this child -their- child, in truth if not in law. Yet ninja pig children one day had to take on their duties, and that meant facing danger and death. Anne was no ninja, but she was resilient, agile, and very fast. Was she ready? The girl still had so much to learn. But were they holding her back out of wisdom or out of fear? Mao Xue did not know the answer.
Sensing a weakening of resolve, Anne pressed harder. “You have trained me well, Mao Xue. If I never test the skills you taught me, instead of being called ‘Virtuous’, I shall soon gain the title Girl-Who-Does-Nothing-But-Stay-At-Home.” Her eyes glinted merrily, hoping to amuse.
Mao Xue snorted. “I doubt it.” The pig eyed the fading black eye that had so recently been a whopping shiner, and nodded towards the girl‘s left arm, healing nicely but still bandaged from a long slash along it. “It seems that you have been finding adventure quite well even in our little village,” the ninja pig commented dryly.
Anne grinned irrepressibly. “I didn’t go looking for trouble this time, truly,” she protested. After all, she had been out on the west hill outside the village simply to gather tiger lilies. “Two strangers were sore beset and outnumbered. I had to help them.”
“How many attackers?”
“I’m not sure. Several ran away when they saw we were winning. Oh, and Lu Sheng was their leader,” she casually dropped this bombshell.
“Lu Sheng, the son of Lu Wer, one of the village elders?” Mao Xue asked with a mild curiosity that hid her growing disquiet. Lu Wer was a corrupt leader who in recent months mysteriously had grown wealthy and well supplied with mercenaries and weapons.
“Yes, so of course I had to let him go after the strangers went safely on their way. The headman of the village would never imprison the son of Lu Wer.” Anne burst out laughing. “Oh, Lu Sheng was so angry! He said I would ‘live to regret this’ and I would be ‘sorry I ever interfered’,” she mimicked impishly. “Naturally, I just laughed at him,” she burbled merrily.
Mao Xue did not share her foster daughter’s amusement. Lu Wer’s rise to dominate local power had been a subject of concern among her clan. Indeed, her husband and adult children were presently on a covert mission to find out who the Lu’s patrons were. Although MooShu had plenty of its own power struggles, here the long fingers of the Armada were strongly suspected.
The Mao family had further worries. Nearly ten years previous, Anne’s parents had left their only child with their friends, the Mao family, knowing they were on a dangerous mission. They had never returned. Survivors from their ship brought the news of their deaths at the hands of Armada officers. The Radcliffes did have a habit of putting themselves into harm’s way, so their bloody deaths were not surprising, and there was no particular reason that the Armada should seek out their young child. However, the Armada often acted in violent and inscrutable ways, so the Mao family decided to take no chances, raising up the child in near seclusion in a remote village.
But if the Armada was the sinister patron of the Lu family, and young Sheng blabbed his story to them, it would take little digging on the Armada’s part to discover Anne’s history. After all, Anne and the village kids and piglets used to play pirates together on the rooftops. It was hard to keep secrets in a village.
Mao Xue finally realized that Anne was looking at her quizzically, wondering why her foster mother did not enjoy what the girl thought a hilarious story. She forced herself into a smooth, calm expression. “Did the strangers say what their business was here in MooShu?”
“O yes - I forgot to tell you,” excitement replacing amusement in the girl’s voice. “They said they were seeking the cure for our blessed Emperor’s curse. And one of them was a student from a place called Wizard City - a human, like me- casting magic such as I have never seen!”
The fine hairs on Mao Xue’s porcine skin all stood up on end. A good wizard from a land from which the perpetrator of the evil curse had originally come - surely this meant great hope for the Emperor. But there were those who would not want the strangers to succeed. It would not matter to them who her parents were: Anne would be hunted down and silenced - permanently.
If only she had known about this days ago! It had been foolish to assume Anne had just been in conflict with the youthful bullies of the village. Anne had to leave now.
It would have been better if the wise ninja pig had shared her fear and urgency. But the long habit of being secretive, and a reluctance to shadow the girl’s light-hearted spirit kept Mao Xue silent. Instead she spoke in a mild voice, “I see that you are now rather beyond defending the piglets’ sweets from bullies. I don’t think you are fully grown -- yet I do not know humans to tell for certain,” she admitted. “But perhaps, as you say, you are grown up enough.”
Anne stood very still in hopeful expectation.
“I still have much that I have not yet taught you,” Mao Xue continued cautiously, “but perhaps you are right. It is time for you to have other teachers and start taking your place in life.”
Anne gave a delighted whoop, jumping into the air. “I could go to the Imperial City?” she shouted with joy. “Or - maybe, even Valencia? O, to go to Valencia, land of such great learning and culture!“ She did a happy double pirouette while her foster mother looked on with tolerant amusement. “Valencia, home to the greatest school of sword work in the Spiral! Can you imagine?” Anne stopped dancing around to perform an elegant fencer’s bow to the ninja pig. “I could be Virtuous Anne Radcliffe, Brilliant Swordswoman!”
“And that would be a mouthful,” Mao Xue replied dryly, earning a giggle from the girl. Suddenly serious, the pig frowned. “But as for Valencia, I doubt you should go there. Yes, the Valencians are renowned for their science, scholarship, and art. Perhaps rightly they take great pride in their developed intellect. But are they wise? After all, it was the Valencians who built the Arma…”
Mao Xue suddenly bounced to her feet, drawing the sword strapped on her back with one smooth motion, deliberately sniffing the air around her. Anne gripped the hilts of her sword and dagger, looking around warily. But she sensed nothing. No leaf was out of place, no peculiar noise tickled her ears. Yet she had long ago grown wise to the senses a ninja pig possessed.
“What is it?” Anne whispered.
“I smell… metal,” she murmured back, scarcely audible. The ninja pig nodded almost imperceptibly towards the stand of trees to the north, close to them. “There. Anne, I want you to casually walk south. Don’t worry about me. Once you reach the woods, run as fast as you can. And Anne, always remember, I love you.”
“But…” Fear shivered along Anne’s nerves. There was a terrible finality in that combination of words. The discipline of the ninja pigs demanded obedience, yet Anne could not bear to leave her foster mother to face some deadly menace alone. “But what about the turnips?” It was a daft excuse, but all she could think of.
“Forget the turnips!”
Suddenly through the trees appeared a slender, graceful form clad in an elegant coat of a somewhat old-fashioned Valencian style. But it was the chalk white face that stunned Anne into simply staring at the apparition. It had the appearance of a doll, a doll considerably taller than Anne, with a beautifully chiseled male face framed by a formal white wig, as if he was preparing to attend a ball. But unlike the friendly-seeming inset glass eyes of the doll Anne had treasured through her childhood, the creature had black sockets where eyes should be, making it more eerie than lovely. An instant later Anne noted with intense alarm that while the clothing of the creature might be seen as slightly antique, the long, slim white fingers held a very modern, up-to-date energy rifle.
Mao Xue wasted no time staring in confusion, but of course, she knew exactly what it was. She leapt upon it with all the energy of her short, fat body behind her, and gave the thing a blow with her sword that knocked it backwards.
Or, so it seemed. Anne’s instinctive revulsion changed into a horror of the unnatural thing as its back snapped back far further than a human’s could endue, then with a clicking, ratcheting noise, snapped immediately back into position. It fired its weapon, but the nimble pig evaded the shot. Moving almost too fast for the human eye to detect, it mechanically adjusted its aim and before Anne‘s stunned gaze, fired again at Mao Xue. This time it hit.
Anne’s shocked senses began to register that Mao Xue was yelling at her. “Anne! Run! By the Emperor of Heaven, get out of here!” the ninja pig swore in desperation.
“No! I won’t leave you!” Collecting her wits at last, Anne drew sword and dagger, leaping toward the attacker and slashing at its arm to deflect its aim. Her blade practically bounced off the hard surface of the creature’s limb. With jerking movements it swiveled to gaze down at her as it pulled away from her attack.
“Scout mission successful,” it announced in a cool, oddly inflected tone. “Surrender now, or face termination.”
Its demands were ignored. Gritting her teeth, Anne pushed against it as hard as she could with her sword, stabbing into its coat sleeve with her knife to tangle its other arm. She succeeded for only a moment, but it was enough for Mao Xue to get a blow in to connect hard with the creature’s neck. It fell, twitching, with spurts of electricity sparking from its blank eye holes.
“What was that?” Anne breathed, wide-eyed, shakily sheathing her blades.
“We have to get out of here.” Mao Xue grabbed Anne’s arm and began to run. It was the first time Anne had seen the ninja pig truly frightened. “Where there is one of those monsters there are-”
Something electric passed by Anne’s ear, making her hair fly out wildly. She had the merest instant to wonder what it was when she suddenly realized it had struck her foster mother. Mao Xue jerked backwards violently, then slumped to the ground.
“Mother!” Anne screamed, jumping down to kneel beside her. The ninja pig did not move or make any sound, lying on the ground with frightening stillness. “No!” Anne gave a choked sob, trying to gather the utterly limp Mao Xue into her arms, not knowing what to do.
“How touching,” came a mocking, well-modulated, male voice. Consumed by shock and grief, Anne had practically forgotten she was in mortal danger. Long training rather than conscious effort sent her into a forward roll, drawing her weapons as she leaped to her feet to face her enemy.
‘No‘, her mind corrected her. Her ‘enemies‘. Anne’s spirits plummeted even farther as she stared at the scene before in utter despair. Six of the doll-like riflemen surrounded her, their weapons pointed at her, while directly before her stood what must be their leader. He was built on a more robust frame than the others, taller, and trimly built rather than slender. His suit was of the highest fashion, somber yet exquisite, the dark blue waistcoat, coat and breeches made of the finest wool. The dark colors were relieved by elegant gold braid and gold buttons, and by the finest white Alencon lace that fell gracefully from neck and wrists. A black cloak fastened with a large gold clasp and an imposing cocked hat completed his ensemble.
But the mask-like face of this one could not be mistaken for that of a doll. Formed with broader, harsher lines, it gave the appearance of brutality and a more profound strangeness than the others -- he had no mouth, though he spoke well enough. In his right hand he held a pistol of peculiar manufacture, surrounded still by the faint haze of its recent firing. Anne felt a stab of agony in her own heart as she realized this was the hand that had just taken Mao Xue’s life.
“Greetings, child of pirates,” he continued in the same cold, sardonic fashion. “I am called Deacon. I am certain I will get to know you quite well indeed.”
“Surrender now, and you may yet live,” he continued in the same tone.
A rising hatred banished a little of the chill of grief. “Murderer!” Anne spat passionately. “I will never surrender to you!”
The carved alabaster-white mask showed no expression, but the words spoken dripped with scorn. “Foolish child.” Deacon nodded to the marksmen behind him. “Take her.”
Her wits still sluggish with shock, Anne struggled to leap to the attack, but the first volley caught her easily. The charges were neatly gauged to incapacitate rather than kill, but Anne could not appreciate this. To be hit with one charge was very painful; to be hit with many at once was beyond excruciating. Mercifully, she was quickly rendered senseless.
Anne knew nothing more until awakening as she was dragged into a cold, barren prison cell. She became aware of the most horrible stench. As her mind began to make sense of her surroundings, she realized with a sick horror that she was not entirely alone in her dismal prison. Hanging miserably in chains were the not-yet-dry bones of the last living inhabitant of the cell.
And then they left her in the dark.
“Aye, Captain, some watch you are making lost in your thoughts like that.”
Anne jerked herself to the present to regard her first mate, Bonnie Anne, who regarded her with sympathy mingled with a mild reproach. “You are right, Bonnie. I should be more careful.”
“Ach, weel, it is a quiet night and a quiet sky. I expect you needed some time to think. But you should have wakened me for my watch sooner,” the fox woman added as she joined Anne at the ship’s rail, which bobbed gently up and down with smooth air currents of the nearly cloudless night. “What weighs upon your mind this eve?” she continued gently.
“I was thinking of Deacon, when he captured me in MooShu. He…” Anne swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. “He murdered my foster mother.”
The fox woman put her lightly furred hand on the human girl’s smooth one. “I am sorry.”
The two women stood in companionable silence for a little while. “But one thing puzzles me,” Anne continued reflectively. “The Armada is known to murder anyone they please. I don’t know why they were looking for me, but Deacon could have easily killed me as he did Mao Xue. As the Armada killed my parents. But he didn’t. He took me prisoner instead, but I can not imagine why.”
Bonnie Anne shrugged. “No doubt to no good purpose, but it worked for the best. You’re alive, aren’t you? You could’na be the thorn you are in the Armada’s side today otherwise!”
Anne drew herself up. Her grey eyes sparkled in the moonlight. “O, I plan to be much more than a thorn in the Armada’s side, Bonnie.”
The first mate gave a toothy grin. “To get your revenge, then?”
Anne shook her head. “No. I think I understand now what Mao Xue tried to teach me. I hope I no longer care about revenge. But after seeing what has become of Valencia, I know what to do.”
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