Why yes, I have an ulterior motive in posting this excerpt from my story in the e0book Like a Treasure Found from Circlet Press. I'm sure you can figure it out.
This is a very long excerpt, but the story itself is a good deal longer. I'm sorry to say that the erotic parts all come later, mostly after battles have been won and a prisoner rescued, but that's the way it goes. I'll add that there are two historical figures in the story--well, three, if you count the one in a newspaper clipping. Madame Lai Cho San, the Dragon Lady of Bias Bay, was an actual "Pirate Queen" during the 1920s and into the 30s. The other historical character is the rescued prisoner, but even at the end of the story I don't reveal her name. I'm sure you can figure it out.
First, the info about the poll, which will determine which stories are chosen for Circlet's 20th anniversary print anthology:
Best of Circlet’s Digital Library Poll
This year marks Circlet Press’s twentieth anniversary of “celebrating the erotic imagination” with the best offerings in erotic science-fiction and fantasy. From the earliest days of chapbooks stapled together and sold by word-of-mouth on convention floors to embracing the cutting-edge ebook technology of today, Circlet has endured thanks to our passionate and discerning readership. In celebration of our anniversary and your continued support, we’re happy to announce our plans to publish the best of Circlet’s digital library in a print anthology this fall. And since we couldn’t have lasted this long without you, we want your input!
The list below contains stories from each of our ebook-only anthologies, short-listed for their excellence by the editors at Circlet Press. Now it’s your turn to honor your favorites. Please vote for up to five stories you would like to see in the printed anthology. Your votes and the consideration of Circlet staff will determine which stories will ultimately appear in this anthology and which are truly the best of the best. The author of the top rated story will receive a prize of $250. Second and third place stories’ authors will each receive a prize of $100. All authors whose stories appear in this anthology will be receiving $50.
Voting on this poll will remain open until March 15th, 2012. We will be announcing the complete list of included stories on April 5th, 2012.
The Pirate from the Sky
In Seok-Teng’s dream, a great pale dragon twined through a labyrinth of shifting clouds. Opaline scales shimmered through intervals of sunlight, slipped into invisibility, and then flashed out again in dazzling beauty. Its long, elegant head swung from side to side, tongue flickering like sensuous lightning.
A distant hum arose, a subtle, tantalizing vibration that teased at Seok-Teng’s mind and flesh. A song? A warning? A summons? In all her dreams of dragons, never had she been aware of sound. She strained to hear, to understand. But the hum became steadily louder, swelling to a growl, tearing her from sleep into darkness and sudden, stark awareness. If the roof of the captain’s cabin had been high enough she would have bolted upright.
Still the sound grew. This was no dragon, nor yet thunder, nor storm winds.The sea spoke to Seok-Teng through the ship’s movements, as it had to her forbears for generations beyond counting; tonight it gave no cause for alarm. Japanese patrol boats? When she had taken her crew so far out of the usual shipping channels to avoid such pursuit? No, she had come to know that sound all too well. This one was different—yet not entirely unknown.
The cabin’s entrance showed scarcely lighter than its interior. Now it darkened. Han Duan, the ship’s Number One, squatted to look within.
“An aircraft,” Seok-Teng called, before the other could speak.
Han Duan grunted in agreement. “Not a large one, but low, and coming close. Who would fly so far from any land?”
“It is nothing to do with us.” Seok-Teng wished to resume the dream. She wished also to avoid resuming discussion of why a pirate ship would sail so far from any land, when it was accustomed by tradition to plying the coasts along the South China Sea.
“The Japanese have many planes,” Han Duan said.
“And better uses for them than pursuing us this far. We are very small fish indeed.” That was a tactical error, Seok-Teng realized at once. Evading a Japanese navy angered by the plundering of several small merchant ships off Mindanao had been her stated excuse for sailing so far to the east.
The small islands and atolls of the Mariana and Marshall groups were technically under Japanese control, but surely the eye of Nippon was bent too fiercely on the conquest of China to pay much attention to every far-flung spit of sand. On some of those islets distant relatives from Seok-Teng’s many-branched heritage still lived, and on others there were no permanent habitations at all. Good places for her crew to find or build a refuge while the world at large descended into war and madness—if a refuge was what they truly wanted.
She herself was torn by the desire to take part in the battle, to join forces with China’s defenders as pirates in the past had often done. In her small packet of private belongings was a small photograph, cut from a newspaper, of Soong Mai-ling, the beautiful wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and a leader in her own right. Seok-Teng longed to serve her in some fashion, but the way was not clear.The old pirate practices might suffice for the harrying of merchant ships, but the modern military craft of the Japanese were another matter.
Han Duan grunted again and stood, with just enough of a stoop to clear the low roof. The plane was nearly overhead now. Seok-Teng slid a hand under her pillow, ran a finger delicately along the undulating blade of her kris, then gripped its hilt. Both blade and hilt were warm. The dream, then, had been no accident, but a promise—or a warning. Seok-Teng would have spoken to the dagger if her Number One had not been present. Instead, she rolled from her bed into a crouch, pressed her brow to the weapon in mute homage to the ancestors from whom it had come, and, still stooping, emerged onto the deck of the She-Dragon.
Han Duan’s head tilted back as she stared upward. Seok-Teng straightened and stepped to the rail. Along the eastern horizon lay just the faintest hint that day might come, but overhead a low, sullen cloud cover obscured the stars. The airplane, now directly above them, could not be seen, though its roar seemed so tangible that Seok-Teng raised her hand, whether to grasp or fend it off she did not know. She had even forgotten that she held the kris, which now pointed into the sky.
“Would your demon blade lead us now even into the heavens? Let it fly then by itself!” Han Duan raised her voice to be heard over the noise of the plane. Her own scarred face seemed demonic in the light of a single swaying lantern.
The eight crewmembers with their bedrolls on deck, already roused by the turmoil, watched this drama with great interest. More heads emerged from the hatchway, jostling for a view. Some preferred the privacy of the hold for their sleep or other nocturnal pursuits, but they were still alert for any excitement from above.
Seok-Teng allowed her arm to descend very slowly, while the blade pointed ever toward the unseen aircraft moving away into the distance. Her tone was harsh as steel on steel. “Has my kris ever led us to less than a rich prize?”
“Not yet.” Han Duan’s fierce expression relaxed into a wry grin, defusing the conflict. “And if you can manage to fly after this target, then so can I. So can we all. Just as soon as you leap aloft and lead the way.” A few muffled laughs came from the bedrolls. She leaned closer to Seok-Teng and spoke in a lower tone. “But your demon has always led us to women, as well as treasure, to be rescued or taken into the crew. You will find no woman in a ship of the air.”
“Who knows? Many would be even more certain that a pirate ship could not be crewed by women.” Seok-Teng’s hand dropped to her side, but still she gazed into the eastern sky.
“Well, what will come, will come,” Han Duan said. “For now, that craft has passed beyond our reach. Perhaps we will yet come upon her crashed onto a coral reef, laden with gold and gems and a princess worth a great ransom. Enough even to buy our peace with Madame Lai Choi San.”
Seok-Teng frowned. A subtle motion of her head led the other to follow her back into the cramped cabin, where they reclined on woven floor mats. Whatever speculations might entertain the crew, these days the two old shipmates shared the low bed only during the fevered revels that followed each successful—and profitable—raid. Too long an interval since the previous occasion might well have had something to do with the tension that shortened tempers in recent days. Han Duan had many an eager outlet for her energies among the crew, when she chose, but Seok-Teng’s authority as captain of the She-Dragon depended on a degree of aloofness. Beyond that was an unspoken truth between them; only in each other could their deepest needs be met.
“With enough booty our crew, and even you, might purchase old Mountain of Wealth’s pardon,” Seok-Teng said, “but no treasure will ever cause her to let me live. More passed between us than I have told, though you may well guess. Better that our youngsters do not know how fiercely her hatred of me burns. They have seen Japanese soldiers only from a distance; the fury of the Dragon Lady of Bias Bay is far more real to them.”
Han Duan drew a long breath and blew it out slowly. “So it is not only the Japanese we flee. I thought as much, though not that you had fallen from Madame’s favor so far that gold could not pave the way back.”
They sat in silence, both thinking of the woman they had served. Lai Choi San ruled the most powerful pirate fleet in Macao with an iron hand untempered by any velvet glove. Most of her wealth came from “protection” schemes and ransomed captives who, if their families were slow to pay, would return with fingers or ears missing, but her influence extended far beyond the coasts of Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Smaller fleets and individual ships in which she held a share cruised as far as the coast of Vietnam to the southwest and Luzon in the Philippines to the southeast, sending her tribute and perpetual interest on her investments. One of these had captured the young Seok-Teng in her own small smuggler’s boat on the waters of Vinh Ha Long, Bay of the Descending Dragon, where China gives way toVietnam. The girl had fought so valiantly and viciously, and her beauty had been of so a fierce a nature, that a wise captain had seen in her a value beyond the ordinary and taken her to Macao to offer to Lai Choi San herself. He had even presented her captured kris along with her, knowing well that the spirits with which such blades were imbued could bring luck to their rightful owners and fatal misfortune to others.
Seok-Teng sighed, wishing she had not been reminded of those times. She had, indeed, risen high in Madame’s favor. For two years she had served as one of two amahs, companions and bodyguards to their pirate mistress. There had been rare moments of kindness and much education in the ways of pirating, as well as occasional instruction in service of a more intimate nature. And there had been Han Duan, who had come to the same position by a different route, passing as a man for years on the Macao waterfront until one day she overheard plotting among rival pirates and came before Lai Choi San to warn her.
“Duan, old friend, why did you follow me?”
In the dimness only shapes and movements could be discerned. Han Duan’s bowed head would have hidden her expression in any case. Seok-Teng pushed on.
“Madame would have given you your own ship, with the pick of captured women to sail her. Indeed, this entire crew would have joined you, given the option. Or she would have given you the management of her fan-tan casinos in Macao. I know she offered.”
Lai Choi San had been practical enough to know when her strong-willed amahs had reached the limits of service to a domineering mistress. She had agreed to finance a ship for Seok-Teng, crewed by captured women who had experience on fishing boats, and were in any case too unattractive or combative to be sold to the floating brothels. As long as enough profit came her way, what did it matter whose pillaging had procured it? Besides, it amused her at times to pit the female pirates against men she wished to humiliate. This aspect of their duties had not, however, amused Seok-Teng, and had driven her to range farther and farther until her ship had become independent in all but the payment of more than adequate tribute.
Even that had come to an end. There was no going back to Bias Bay and Macao now, or to any waters under the influence of the Dragon Lady, after the last bitter clash of wills. Seok-Teng would no longer be a party to the sale of captured women into slavery. Far to the east now, beyond the Philippines, the Marianas, and nearly to the Marshall Islands, Seok-Teng had no regrets save that her closest friend might have done better to stay behind.
Han Duan looked up with a grin, and the early rays of dawn through the cabin’s entrance glinted on white teeth. “How could I leave my guns and cannons to your bumbling care? No one alive knows the ways of ships and the sea as you do, but when it comes to any weapon beyond a blade, you might as well be gambling at fan-tan yourself.” Then she sobered, glancing sidelong at the an- cient kris lying on Seok-Teng’s pillow. “Yet I would follow you even without the guns. Yes, even though you steer by dreams sent through a blade. Such a captain might be thought to traffic with demons or djinns.”
“Or to be insane?”
Han Duan shrugged. “Nearly as dangerous.” She looked past Seok-Teng to the cabin door. A sleek young woman had just knelt to set down a tray with the morning meal, tea and bowls of rice flavored with dried cuttlefish. Her long, wet hair was evidence of an early swim.
“Thank you, Amihan,” Han Duan said formally.The girl ducked her head and backed away, smooth cheeks flushed with more than reflected sunrise. A sidelong glance at her captain as she left deepened her rosy glow.
“So you’ve had the pair now?” Seok-Teng was glad of the diversion. “Dalisay was blushing last week, I noticed.”
Han Duan considered it one of her duties to “initiate” any new recruit who was receptive to such things. Not until they had become accustomed to their surroundings, and none more than once, to avoid an appearance of favoritism that would interfere with discipline, but it had become a tradition. Even those who were at first not so inclined often came to indicate an interest, even if only out of curiosity or communal sentiment, and none seemed disappointed when they emerged from her closet-sized cabin in the bow of the hold.
“I do not fault your blade’s taste in women,” Han Duan conceded.