2. The Claw of the Man

    The Sky-Bender, designed for travel in comfort, was almost five times the size of Jupiter’s Revenge, designed for speed and stability, yet she was still quite large for her model. Having three tall masts with old yellowed sails, a deck that would take a whole day to swab and wooden framed wings that kept her in the air, Jupiter’s Revenge may have appeared like any common airship, but she was hailed as the fastest ship in the open air. Flying off with un-matchable speed, the fair boat carried away her passengers and their stolen goods in no time.

Hataru looked around with wide eyes. Men ran to and fro around the ship completing their everyday chores like clockwork, while cotton clouds dashed by in seconds. It took her a moment to realize that she was still holding the captain’s hand. He didn’t seem to be bothered by this though, and she could have sworn she heard him grunt with displeasure when she gently pulled away, her cheeks reddening. She studied his face as he proudly watched his crew; the sparkle in his good eye gleaming brightly. Aware of her eyes on him, he looked down and smiled warmly to her.

Eyes fluttering, Hataru’s stomach finally caught up with her. She clutched her stomach and moaned in pain. Levi’s expression melted into concern like a thin sheet of ice on a scorching hot day. Fatigue overtook her, and as if her bones were replaced by gelatin, she collapsed into his strong, sturdy arms. After recovering from his surprise, Levi carried the girl to his quarters where she could rest, undisturbed. Lying her on his own bed and seeing that she would be fine, he left to go complete his duties as captain, deciding to check up on her later. When she awoke, he was sitting in a chair by the bed.

“So, Hataru, what is a pirate to do with a princess he finds locked up on her own ship?” he asked playfully, leaning closer to look into her brilliant blue eyes.

Pink cheeked, she mumbled unconvincingly, “I... I’m not a princess. I’m just a serving maid on the kings ship.”

“Is that so?” he asked knowingly. “Then you wouldn’t mind me looking at your hands, pretty one.” He reached down and grabbed both her hands in his. The metal of his claws felt like ice, sending shivers up her spine, and for the first time she noticed that he was missing a hand.

“What happened?” she gasped, pulling her own hands away, “to your hand, I mean, what happened to it?”

Cocking his head back and smiling to himself, he answered, “That, my dear Hataru, is a long story. Come, sit, have a bit of tea, eat some bread ─  I’m sure you’re hungry ─ and I’ll tell it to you.” Guiding her to a small table with an extravagant china set, he pulled his chair over to join her.

Once she was seated comfortably and had started on her bread, Levi began his tale, “I lost my hand when I was only 13 years old. 'The age when a young boy begins to flirt with Destiny and tries to befriend Reality, for if he is not your friend, Reality will surely be your enemy.' That’s what my father told me, at least, I never believed him until that fateful day in the forest.

“We had docked in a port city to restock with supplies, but while the crew loaded the ship, my father, the captain, took me out into a nearby forest for some good old ‘father/son bonding time.’ Now that might sound like a strange thing for a pirate to be doing with his kid, but my father wasn’t like most pirates. A normal pirate probably wouldn’t even stick around for the child’s birth. But not my dad! My parents were happily married, actually. Sadly, my mother died in labor, so my father raised me by himself. He taught me about virtues and good character and the difference between right and wrong. Of course, he was a pirate, after all, so his ideas about good and evil might sound a bit twisted, but I don’t think so. He believed that we are all given the duty to take care of those less fortunate than ourselves, but those of great wealth usually forget about this. We, in a sense, help them fulfill their duty, while at the same time accomplish ours by taking the matter into our own hands. In my father's view, stealing from the those who are not in want is justified when you give it to those who are. I myself believe the same and continue to follow in his footsteps.

“Anyways, my father and I were having a great time together in the forest. We just walked around, making our own path through the undergrowth with our swords and stopping when we needed a rest. We went fishing in a calm river that we came across, gathered wild berries and nuts, and killed a few squirrels for our lunch. Then we set up a small fire in a clearing. I sat and watched the flames dance, just kissing the flesh of our squirrels, toasting their tender meat, but soon I grew bored and decided to do a little exploring by myself, sneaking off when my father's back was turned. On my way back, however, I got lost with not a single landmark to point me in the right direction. I began to panic.

“I trudged through mud, sticks, and leaves; I fought through thickets of thorns and jumped over snake pits. I survived plenty dangers trying to find my way back, but the greatest and most horrific obstacle I was forced to overcome was The Beast. I had been searching for hours without finding a single clue as to where our lunch had been roasting on the open fire. My father was most definitely aware of my absence, searching for me, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had the whole crew scaling the forest. Sipping the last drops of water from the old, leather canteen I had brought along with me, I racked my mind for any bit of information that could help me. Nothing. My mind was completely blank. It didn’t matter though, because at the next moment the bush behind me rustled. I shivered in fear. First I watched an immeasurable, midnight black nose rise out of the shrub, followed by a hairy snout, a mangled maw with the most frightening set of teeth I had ever laid eyes on. Taller and taller, the beast seemed to grow from the foliage until it towered over me. Covered in brown, shaggy, matted fur, I identified the beast to be none other than a monstrous silvertip grizzly bear!”

“My instincts screamed to run, but some small voice in the back of my mind whispered, ‘You don’t have to flee. FIGHT! You could win, or are you a coward?’ Like a fool, I listened to the whispering voice. Standing slowly, I drew my sword and prepared to duel. The bear attacked first, swiping his humongous paws at my head. I easily ducked, my heart pounding with adrenaline. Stab. Slash. Growl. Scream. We fought ruthlessly, each of us going for the kill. Minutes passed, by then my adrenaline rush was wearing thin. Blood was everywhere, the ground, the tree trunks, the branches, the leaves, in my hair, on my face, soaking into my clothes,  oozing between my fingers, dripping from the end of my sword, and matted in my opponent’s fur. I knew I only had one more chance, and then the battle would be finished, in one way or another. Charging with all of my remaining energy, I ran straight at the beast, aiming for his heart. Impossibly intelligent, he blocked my blow by merely knocking it aside, and then counter attacked by using his claws to tear apart my sword hand. The pain was unimaginable! My arm was burning with the fire from hell itself. I fell to the ground, the sound of a dying man escaping my mouth, louder than any noise I’d ever made. My opponent and I both knew who had won, and it wasn’t me. My body gave up, started shutting down, it would all be over soon. The bear circled its prey like a cat with a mouse. As I closed my eyes and fell into the beckoning darkness, I heard men storming through the forest towards us. I do remember smiling as my father's crew came into view. The monster was smart enough to know that he didn’t stand a chance against all of the men, so he wisely ran off. The last thing I remember from that day was my father holding me in his arms, crying for me to stay with him. It took all of my willpower, but I whispered back to him, ‘Always, Father, always.

“Three days later, I woke up in a bed at a local inn. My father was snoring in a chair at my side. I didn’t want to wake him, so I laid back down, staring at the dark ceiling, wondering how I was still alive. When he awoke, I sat up slowly, and we stared at each other for a moment, the silence enveloping our existence. Then, we found ourselves in a tight embrace. I cried into his shoulder when I realized that I had lost my right hand, my sword hand ─ all that was left was a bloody stump in a bandage. How would I fight, or even protect myself, now? Why had I listened to that glory-seeking voice? I had been so stupid! I felt as if my life was over, but really, it was only just beginning.

“That afternoon, we set sail again, and I was charged with two weeks of agonizing bed rest. I wasn’t allowed to help man the ship, not even when five of the men caught pneumonia from working out in the rain tomorrow and we were low on staff. The most I was permitted to do was take a daily stroll around the main deck to help me stay strong, then I had to rest. I do say that the only good that came from those two accursed weeks was that I learned how to take care of myself with one hand, but the boredom was almost more than I could bear. Luckily, my father allowed me to accompany the crew to the market in the next city we stopped in. While I was distracted by my change of surroundings, my father was on a little quest of his own. He hired a blacksmith and a scientist to create a mechanical hand, which he had designed for my use, instead of giving me a standard hook. It cost him a great deal of gold and silver, but like I said, he truly did care for me and wanted the best for his son.

“Once it was finished, he lead me to the blacksmith's shop, telling me that he had a surprise for me. I was hopping up and down with excitement, but the second I laid eyes on my new hand, my blood ran colder than a mountain snowstorm. You see, my father had designed this hand to look like bear claws, metal bear claws. Flashbacks of the fight swam through my brain, I might have passed out if he hadn’t urged me forward to try it on. The strange object fit perfectly to my arm, unfortunately I had no control over the movement of my new fingers. They just flopped around whenever I moved my arm. My father, wiser than he might have appeared, had expected this, so he then took me to a physician who had access to the latest technology and left his pocket as empty as a fool’s noggin. I went under an excruciatingly painful surgical operation that evening; my father never left my side once. After many tears had been shed and screams of agony cried, the surgery was over, and I could move my sharp metal claws.

“While I was in recovery, my father finally expressed how disappointed he was in me. He explained that my greatest mistake was when I decided to run off on my own, and that choosing to fight the bear was my second. The consequence for the latter had taken care of itself in a traumatic way, he told me, but the punishment for sneaking off would be up to him. I held my breath, waiting for him to scold, shout, or even slap me, but I heard not a single word. Like a snail, he reached over and grasped my metal fingers in his. I looked up and was caught in his gaze. Speaking words that I will never forget in a calm voice, he gestured to my hand, ‘I choose to punish you by giving you a gift, it will be both a blessing and a curse.' I waited for an explanation. 'A blessing because it is a tool that can help if you learn how to use it correctly. A curse, because it is a constant reminder of that day, a day that will haunt you for the rest of your life. When you look at these claws, I want you to remember why they are there; not just because the bear took your hand form you, but because you chose to run away and then to fight when there was no need. Use this gift wisely, my son.’ And with that, he got up and left me in my bed, staring at my mismatched hands in shame.

    “Over the next months, I trained myself to sword fight with my other hand by practicing with the men on the ship, and slowly discovered how to use the claws to my advantage in battle, as my father had suggested. Over the next few years, I mastered techniques he’d helped me create. Now, I have taken over the ship after his unexpected death; many of the crew who served under him stayed, although a handful did choose to leave. I captain Jupiter’s Revenge as my father did before me. Not once have I forgotten the day I lost my hand to a monster, nor the day my father gave it back to me. And I will continue to do so, he was right, it is both a blessing and a curse.”

Flabbergasted with eyes wide in awe, Hataru stared at the man sitting before her. Her tea had grown cold, for not only was he a talented swordsman, but also a skilled storyteller. However, her bread was all but crumbs on her plate, being that she hadn’t eaten in many days. Full of pity and concern she took both of his hands in hers and looked him the eye, not saying a word, but making her feelings known.

            “Oh, don't feel bad about it; I've had almost eight years to adjust to adjust to this. Besides, it was my poor choices that got me into this situation, so I don't really have anyone to blame but myself.” Casually, he flipped her hands over and studied her palms. “Ah ha!” he exclaimed, “I knew you weren’t a serving maid! Your hands aren’t calloused or bruised enough to be the hands of a servant. I can guess that you’ve lived a pampered life because your hands are soft, but you had some sort of mishap in your childhood due to this old scar," he pointed to the faintest line of a past wound running down her palm, " Maybe you aren’t a princess, but you most definitely are not a serving maid.”

The End

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