“Max,” Mom said, gently stroking my arm. “Come on, Little Bear, it’s time to get up.”
I cracked one eye open—it was still dark. I sighed loud and long.
“It’s too early. The sun isn’t even up. Besides, what’s the point?”
I burrowed deep under my blankets. Every day had been the same as the day before for the past two months: unbearably ordinary. Chores and lessons with Mom, with nothing else to do around the farm. Boring. Hardly worth getting out of bed for.
“I’m staying in bed and reading today.”
“Max, you’ve got to get up!”
Mom tried to pull the covers off me, but I held on and resisted. My hand searched the small bedside table and landed on the book my father had brought me from the Summer Isle two summers ago: Secrets of the Twilight Djinn. I pulled it under my blanket—even though I’ve read it dozens of times already. It was the last book he had given to me, and when I read it, I could imagine some of the far-off ports my dad described when he came home.
I could hear Mom going through my trunk at the end of the bed. “I know it’s very early, but today we have a long journey ahead of us.”
I sat up quickly. “Journey?”
Mom smiled as she filled a large bag with my clothes.
“It’s a surprise. I already packed all our things and prepared food to take. We might get hungry on the ship.” She winked. “Hurry up. We must make it to the docks before daybreak.”
This was the best news.
Everyone thought Dad was dead—lost at sea. But I knew, in my gut, he was out there somewhere. Maybe he was hurt or stuck on an island. I had begged Mom countless times for us to go looking for him—but each time always ended in an argument. Until today.
The smell of eggs, bacon, and potatoes invaded my nostrils, drawing me out of bed. Mom finished packing my bag, and I joined her in the kitchen. Breakfast was laid out and looked fit for a king.
“Come sit down and eat,” Mom said as she scooped food onto my plate.
I ate as quickly as I could. “So, we’re going to search for Dad.”
Mom put her hands on her hips and sighed. “Max, we’ve been over this. He’s gone. And even if he wasn’t, where in the three seas would we search for him? There are over fifty different islands in the Spice Island chain. We can’t search them all.”
My excitement drained from me, and I pushed my plate away.
“Come on, Max. Don’t be like that,” Mom said, gently sliding my plate back in front of me. “I loved your father, but we must accept that he is not returning.”
I stood up from the table and returned to my room.
My mother followed behind me, sitting down on the edge of my bed. “I know . . . I know this has not been easy for you,” she said, looking down at her hands. “That is why I decided on this trip. You have never been on a long voyage, and I thought the open sea would do us both a lot of good.”
My interest was piqued. Mom was breaking the rules, which never happened.
“Are we going to Summer Isle?” I asked tentatively, afraid of getting my hopes dashed for the second time this morning. “I’ve always wanted to go there, but you’ve always said it was too dangerous for me on the open sea, because of my . . . condition. Is that where we’re going?” I itched my arm, just thinking of the sea breeze.
Mom sighed, patting my hand.
“No, we’re not going to the Summer Isle.” Her eyes dropped toward the floor a moment before meeting my gaze. “We are sailing to Sanctus.”
My friend Sammy had told me stories about Sanctus, but they weren’t happy bedtime sort.
“But the Midnight Men live there! They hunt and eat people. Why would you want us to go there?”
While Paradisi was boring and predictable, it was better than the fear and horror of Sanctus. I didn’t fancy becoming someone’s meal.
“No, no, Little Bear. Of course, I won’t take you somewhere dangerous,” said my mother in a soothing voice. “Sanctus is a magnificent and special island. You’ll love it there.” The corners of her mouth tightened. There was something more she still was not telling me.
“I’m sure I’d love the Summer Isle more,” I replied. The Summer Isle would be the perfect place to start looking for Dad. He often went there to trade. Sanctus, on the other hand, would be a terrible place to go because even the Spice Guild avoided it.
“Do you know why people call it Sanctus?” Mom asked, and I shook my head. “They call it Sanctus because it’s a sanctuary—a place where people go to be safe,” she explained. “The scary stories that surround it are part of what makes it safe. Those stories were created to keep the bad people away and protect the good people who live there. I would never take you somewhere where you could end up a snack for some hairy monster.”
She poked me, and a chuckle escaped, despite my irritation.
“The world isn’t safe,” Mom said as she put her arms around me. “But I’ll never let anything happen to you.”
I sighed and hugged Mom tight for a moment. A strange feeling curled in my stomach—something I had not felt before. A pressure grew below my ribcage. Perhaps it was the excitement of escaping my daily routine.
“What about my, uh . . . condition?” I asked, scratching at my arms.
“We’ll keep your skin covered whenever you’re on deck. I believe we can keep you healthy, as long as you follow my rules.”
The Rules. I hated the Rules. Every day she reminded me that I couldn’t let my skin get cold—not even a little bit—or else a rash would form all over my body, as though I could forget.
I had to stay out of the cold. I had to cover my skin when it was raining. I had to dry off quickly after a bath. I had to stay in when it was snowing. I had to keep the fire going at all times during the winter. The list of Rules never stopped. All because of my skin condition. If I didn’t warm up right away, my skin itched and swelled. One time, when I snuck off to build a snow fort, the rash covered my face and neck, and I had trouble breathing. The healers warned me I could die. Since then, anytime it rained, snowed, or was even a little windy, I had to stay indoors. Even though I hated the Rules, I hated my itchy skin more, and so I obeyed. At least, most of the time, I did.
“Yes, Mom. I know the stupid rules. It’s so unfair.”
Mom frowned. “The ship we’re going on won’t have healers, so that’s why the stupid rules are important.”
“Fine . . . fine. I’ll follow the rules. What kind of ship is it anyway?”
The corner of my mother’s mouth twisted into a grin.
“That’s the best part. We’ll be sailing on a pirate ship! Now, help me hook up Tully and pack the wagon.”
The low light of predawn illuminated the docks. Ships were being prepared for early fishing crews, and other merchant vessels were loaded for travel to faraway exotic ports. Mom pulled our small wagon in front of the blacksmith’s shop. Red coals glowed inside the forge, but the blacksmith was missing.
“Wait here with Tully, Max,” Mom said, as she tied the reins to a post. “I’ll be back as soon as I speak with the captain. No talking to strangers, okay?”
“I’m going with you!” I grabbed my pack and stood up.
“It’s not safe where I’m going,” she replied. “Besides, I need you to watch after Tully and the wagon.”
“No, but Momming me, Max. You need to do what I am asking you to do.”
I dropped my pack and slumped back into the space behind the bench.
“Fine, I’ll watch Tully. Just don’t be long, okay?”
“I need to go to the Grog Blosson to meet with the captain, and then we’ll be on board before daybreak,” Mom promised. “I don’t want to attract any attention to our wagon—too many thieves in that part of town.”
“Then why are you going alone? You need me to protect you.”
Mom reached over the edge of the wagon and patted my leg. “I’ll be fine, Max. The captain will be watching for me. I need you here to protect Tully and our bags.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m sure. Now, I need to get going.”
As I crawled under the extra horse blanket in my makeshift bed, Mom leaned over the side of the wagon and kissed me on the head.
“Don’t leave the wagon and don’t talk to anyone.”
“Yes . . . I get it.”
Mom grabbed the lantern hanging on the hook next to the bench and disappeared around a corner. I opened The Secrets of the Twilight Djinn and read the next passage by lantern light.
Many years ago, the island of Harsu was a mighty empire, for the land was rich with gems and precious metals mined from caverns deep and vast. It was the center of trade of the three seas, and everyone who lived there was wealthy beyond reckoning. For more generations than anyone could count, Harsu was ruled by the Malamud dynasty, with the firstborn son inheriting the kingdom from his father. The Malamuds lived in the grand Jade Palace on the eastern shore of Harsu in the center of the town of Shafara.
The dynasty’s line remained unbroken until Sultan Karak Malamud and his wife, Queen Nephu, found themselves without a son. They had a daughter, Zenobia, but Nephu could not conceive any more children. Only a male could rule as sultan, and therefore, Zenobia could not sit upon the throne. Whomever Zenobia married would become the sultan, and she would be his consort.
If the Malamuds could not produce a son, the dynasty would be broken for the first time in five centuries, and a different royal family would take their place. News of the barren Queen Nephu traveled across all the island nations while Harsu was on the brink of war. Royal families would take control of Harsu by marriage or by force.
Many leagues to the south of the Jade Palace, across the harsh desert sands, lay the lush, dense Niman Jungle. Dense trees covered half of the island of Harsu, a stark contrast to the arid northern region. Within the Niman Jungle lived the Witch Queen, a dark and powerful enchantress, in her stone pyramid temple.
The Witch Queen was feared for her magic and her gift of prophecy. Even though her power was great, she seemed to have little interest in the world beyond her jungle home. When she had arrived on the shores of Harsu, the entire island was a desert. The Witch Queen used her magic to grow Niman Jungle, and her daughters, the dreaded harpies, built her temple. Thick barabond trees, never before seen on the island, grew outward from the temple in a matter of weeks. Within the dense foliage, all manner of creatures appeared—even the dreaded drop snakes. Most people who entered rarely returned, and so the jungle was thought to be cursed. An uneasy treaty was formed—no one from Shafara would enter the Niman Jungle, and the Witch Queen would leave the desert region for the Malamuds to rule.
In an act of desperation, Sultan Karak violated the treaty and sent an armed battalion to ask her to use her magic to help his wife bare a son.
Tully’s neighing shocked me from slumber. My book was lying open to the page I was reading beside me.
“Come on, ye old nag,” said a voice near the front of the wagon. “Ye be a good girl and come with me.”
The wagon lurched, and I banged my head on the back of the bench. Even though my mom told me not to strangers, she also told me to protect the wagon.
“Let me just release this buckle, and then ye can come home with me.”
I stood up from my bed with my fists on my hips. “You get away from Tully! She’s my horse. You better back off.”
I picked up a leather crop from the bench since it was the only weapon handy. I waved it at the two men standing before the wagon, but they stared at me, unimpressed. I was tall for a twelve-year-old, and my arms and legs looked like sticks. I was strong but not muscular.
The two men were filthy and wore tattered clothing. The taller of the two held Tully’s reins, and the smaller, portly man was unhooking Tully from the wagon.
“Look at what we have here,” said the taller man. “It’s a young cub.”
Both men laughed, showing their rotten, black teeth.
“You get away from her right now. My mom and . . . and . . . dad will be back any minute. You better leave before they get back, or you’ll get a whipping!” Standing tall with my arms crossed, I glared down at the men.
“Is that so?” said the portly man as he loosened the buckle on Tully’s yoke. “I very much doubt we will be troubled, cub. Your mum’s not comin’ back.”
Tully bucked in an attempt to try to get away from the men, and the movement made me plop down hard on the bench.
“What do you mean, my mom’s not coming back? How do you know my mom?” I asked, scrambling to stand.
The portly man grinned with his broken, black teeth. Something was wrong—very wrong. Seagulls cawed high above in the blue sky, signaling morning was well underway. Had I been reading for that long? My heart pounded hard in my chest. Where was Mom? She should have been back already.
Tully was loose from her yoke, and the tall man pulled her reins hard. Tully tried to rear back, but she was too old and weak to make too much of a fuss.
“Ah, ye old nag,” the tall man said. “Ye won’t be worth much at market, but maybe a butcher will take ye and sell ye fer dog food.” Both men cackled.
“Listen,” the portly man said, “be a good lad and hand us yer bags from the wagon there. Yer coming with us. We may make some coin, after all.”
“I’m not some dull boy—you can’t boss me around. You need to hook Tully back up this instant . . . or . . . or . . .”
“Or what?” mocked the portly man. “Listen here, ye whelp, ye don’t understand what I’m sayin’. Either ye come down here with yer bags, or I’ll come up there, and then we’ll see how well ye swim.”
The tall man led Tully away in the same direction mom had gone hours before. The portly man grunted as he pulled himself onto the bench and reached for me. But I was a wild animal on fire. I rushed the short, round man with swinging with my crop, catching him by surprise. He toppled but then regained his balance. He grabbed the crop with one hand, tugging hard, then he drew back his other hand to hit me. But there was a loud crack, and the portly man slumped over the bench.
Standing behind the unconscious thief was a man dressed in all black. His beard had a braid in the center with a gold ring pushed up to his chin, and wore a gold and red sash as a belt tied around his long coat, trimmed with silver buttons. On his head was a tri-corner hat with a single white plume. He clutched the handle of a busted oar.
“Ye must be Master Max. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Cornelius Cinn—captain of the Saucy Pig—at your service.” Cinn took off his hat briefly and bowed.
I stood paralyzed.
“Yer Max . . . Max Daybreaker, right?” asked Cinn as he straightened and took a step closer.
“Uh, yes, sir. But my mom . . . she told me not to talk to strangers.”
“Yes, yes. Sage advice. Yer mom is a very sharp woman, Master Max,” he said, looking around. “Might ye know where she be?”
Before I could answer, I heard Tully nicker. The tallest and most powerful-looking man I had ever seen approached with Tully in tow. He wore a thick leather tunic, and his britches looked to be made from waxed sailcloth. He had a bald head, and his skin was the color of moonless midnight. He stood a good foot taller than Captain Cinn and was covered in thick muscles that look like taut rope. I backed up in the wagon a bit and searched for anything I could use to protect myself.
“Oh, good show, Piers, good show. Any problems?”
“No, Captain,” Piers replied in a deep, rich voice.
“Well, Max, yer safe, and we have yer horse. Now, where be ye mother?” Cinn asked.
“You know my mom?” I squinted at Cinn. How could such a strange man know my ordinary mother?
“Aye. She was supposed to meet me at the Grog Blossom hours ago. A dreadful place that be. Their food is bland, makin’ me wonder if they cut old potatoes to look like fish. Awful, don’t ye think?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never eaten there,” I replied.
“Of course, ye haven’t. That’s no place for a young boy. It’s full of all kinds of rogues, even . . . pirates.” Cinn grinned, showing his pearly-white teeth with a top front tooth capped in gold.
“Pirates, yes . . . Mom mentioned pirates. She said we were going sail on a pirate ship.”
“She’d be correct. The Saucy Pig is the terror of the high seas, lad.”
I stepped off the wagon for a closer look at Cinn. “So, you’re a Spice Pirate?” I asked, looking him over.
“Aye, but don’t say that so loud,” whispered Captain Cinn. “I’ve a reputation to keep in these parts. I can’t be seen helping boys and their ponies. Why I’d be a laughingstock.”
I bristled, puffing up to show I wasn’t some little kid. I was almost thirteen, and while I didn’t have a beard yet, I was practically a man.
“I don’t know how much help I can be. Mom told me to wait for her, then she left. I knew I should have gone with her. She was meeting with a . . . Well, I guess she was meeting you. But that was hours ago when the sun was still down.”
Tears clouded my vision, and so I squeezed my eyes shut. The strange sensation I had felt earlier returned—a pressure under my ribs, except this time heat rose through the center of my body. It was as if I’d stepped out of the shade into direct sunlight—waves of energy pulsed through my arms and legs. My fear of losing my mom became desperate anger.
I opened my eyes to see Captain Cinn gripping his throat. His eyes were red and bulging, and his skin started turning a muddy purple.
“What . . . What’s happening?” Captain Cinn gasped. Piers slipped an arm around the captain and supported his sagging weight.
“Are you all right?” I asked. Heat drained from my body, and I felt instantly cold and sick to my stomach. Cinn took in a deep breath, and his color turned to a pale pink.
“Captain, are you okay?” Piers asked in a concerned tone.
The captain held up his hand and brushed his jacket. “I’m fine. Just fine. I haven’t eaten a proper meal, is all. Ye know how I can get when I haven’t eaten in a few hours. I get all lightheaded and cranky.”
I felt queasy and leaned against the wagon. After a few deep breaths, the sick feeling passed.
There was a moaning sound from the wagon.
“Where is the other one?” Cinn asked.
“I tied him in an alley near the Grog Blossom,” replied Piers.
“Aye. If this boy doesn’t know where Bettina is, I bet these two know somethin’—and I intend to find out what it be. We need to be finding Bettina and sail soon. The Pig is too exposed in the harbor,” said Cinn.
“I’m coming with you.” I hooked Tully back to the wagon.
“Let me be clear, Master Max. Yer mom promised me something precious for providing safe passage, and I intend to collect that payment. First, we need to find her, and so I suppose that means ye should be comin’ with us, but ye must do exactly as I say without question.”
“I will. I promise.” I was unsure about making deals with Spice Pirates, but I was following Mom’s lead since she was the one who booked a passage with them.
Every time Dad left port, he made me promise to take care of Mom. Before he left two months ago, I’d made that promise again. Mom was missing, and I failed my duty.
My only other family was Uncle Einion. He had a leather shop on the other side of the docks, but I didn’t like him very much. He had been anything but friendly to me. The terrible scar stretched across his cheek only added to his unpleasantness. He never liked my dad and insisted I needed more discipline—that I was too weak.
But I wasn’t weak. I would find the courage to find my mom, and if that meant joining with Spice Pirates, then that is what I would do.
My dad told me tales of Spice Pirates, who were the bane of the Spice Guild. They attacked guild ships, stole their cargo, and then sold the spices at the floating market. They lived their life on the three seas but had no island to call home.
“Pirates live by a code, Max,” my dad had said. “Even though they are thieves, they don’t violate their code. If they give their word, they keep it, or risk being banished.”
None of those stories mentioned pirates helping kids finding their parents. Cinn seemed most interested in getting paid by Mom, although I could not fathom what she had promised them. We lived a simple life and did not have much of value—especially to a Spice Pirate.
I needed to find Mom, and then when we sailed with Captain Cinn, we could find Dad. My parents depended on me, and these pirates were my best chance of finding them.