This is how Seetha the shark hunter raced the Brazen Armada to save her people.
Malleus, he of the red-plumed hat and the whispering tattoos, commanded the pirate fleet’s raids throughout the Cloudy Archipelago, pillaging stores and killing all who resisted. The small navies of Greater Insalata and the Cherubi Straits gave chase, hunting for the Armada’s brassy sails. But the pirates were swift and Malleus was cunning; they flew to their hidden strongholds and hid while the navies searched in vain.
In time, Malleus’s eyes turned to the fringes of the archipelago, where the Tu’olo people lived in peace.
The Tu’olo dived for gleaming pearls and juicy sea slugs. They brought down broad-winged seabirds with their darts. They tended to cliff vines groaning with plump hafich-fruit. And they hunted sharks from the backs of tamed kilshada, the sea serpents of the archipelago.
The best of the Tu’olo hunters was Seetha, who tamed the great serpent Shrillsong at just thirteen. Eighteen now, she was still a lean runt with nut-brown skin and broad swimmers’ shoulders. Her catches were legendary. Hooting and whistling from Shrillsong’s back, she could bring down a shark as big as eight drunkards laid head to toe.
It happened that an emissary from the inner islands sailed her skiff to the Tu’olo islands, ahead of the Brazen Armada. Mochai Vale was red-faced and ginger-blonde, with an Insalatan’s well-fed bulk. She came bearing gifts of yellowgrass wine and spicy cheese, but also a warning. “The Brazen Armada is coming,” she warned the Tu’olo elders. “They will steal what they can and kill what they cannot. You must flee.”
The Tu’olo people were too proud to ask their rich cousins for help, but they were not so foolish as to discount the emissary. They packed their goods and moved to the cliffs, where caves offered uncomfortable shelter from the raiding pirates.
True to Mochai Vale’s promise, the Brazen Armada came in their ships with gleaming sails and blackwood hulls. They spilled ashore and plundered what the Tu’olo were unable to secure.
But the pirates were angry, for Malleus had promised them pearls on strings, pickled birds, and potent jugs of fermented hafich-juice. They found nothing so grand. In their wrath, they burned down the birthing huts and ancestor shrines of the Tu’olo.
In their arrogance the pirates thought nothing of Seetha and the other shark-hunters. As they pushed their little-boats laden with Tu’olo trinkets into the waves to rejoin their brass-sailed sloops, the kilshada boiled up from the surf in attack. They coiled about the little boats and crushed their timbers. The Tu’olo shark-hunters cut the throats of flailing pirates. The kilshada ate their skins and made a reef of their bones.
Watching from his flagship, the Hammer of Winds, Malleus raged. He signalled his fleet to loose their arrows on the serpent-riders, but as the deadly rain fell, the Tu’olo drew deep breaths and drove their steeds below the surface.
The pirates gave chase in their fury; their sails filled with spell-summoned winds. The harpooners on their bows speared the kilshada stragglers as they surfaced to let their riders breathe. The Tu’olo serpent-riders sliced themselves open so they could not be taken, and sank with their steeds.
Seetha and the other Tu’olo led the Brazen Armada away from their islands. Though the pirate vessels were swifter, the kilshada-riders knew the waters well and evaded their hunters all through a night and into the next day.
One vessel outsailed the others and caught up to the Tu’olo shark hunters. Seetha wheeled Shrillsong about and prepared to sink the small boat but she spied Mochai Vale on its deck instead. Vale carried another warning. She said, “Your beasts are clever but they will tire long before Malleus’ anger ebbs.”
Seetha said, “The pirates should have stayed far from our islands.”
“But they didn’t, and you’ve killed some of them. Now Malleus must kill you to save face before the rest.” Mochai Vale smiled. “But I have a plan, if we both are brave enough to challenge the Brazen Armada.”
Mochai Vale sailed to the Hammer of Winds under a flag of parley, to present an offer to Malleus. She said, “The Tu’olo challenge the Brazen Armada to a race. One hundred miles from here to the Thumbtip Islands. If the Armada wins, then the serpent-riders will join the pirates and fill their bellies with shark meat forever. If the Tu’olo win, you will leave these waters and never return.”
Malleus agreed to these terms. A race would amuse his pirates and so strengthen his hand. He struck Mochai Vale down and threw her in a hold. His flag-master signaled the Tu’olo: “Let the race begin.”
The serpent-riders fled and the Armada gave chase. Seetha, who with Shrillsong could dive deeper and swim faster than the rest, pulled ahead of the others. The pirates followed; their arrows flew constantly, and with improved luck. One by one the Tu’olo fell behind, exhausted or struck, until only Seetha and Shrillsong remained.
Seetha beat them to the Thumbtip Islands, a dozen dozen knobbly spouts of grey stone rising from mist and churning waves like the hands of drowning giants. Though the race was won, Seetha knew they would not honour the terms of their deal.
As they closed, she nudged a piercing cry from Shrillsong. At once the sea came alive with dozens of kilshada fingerlings: Shrillsong’s brood. They flung themselves onto Malleus’ deck and lashed out at his crew with teeth and the deadly whipping bodies.
The pirates drew swords as the fingerlings wriggled and bit.
Distracted, they didn’t see the Insalata Navy spring from the Thumbtip forest to surround them. Navy Captain Vale shortly emerged to accept Malleus’ surrender.
Seetha called the last baby serpents to follow her home to Tu’olo. As they parted, she told Vale, “Don’t come back to Tu’olo.”
But the Tu’olo people are hospitable, and so she added, “At least, not without more wine.”