Confused by Typhon stamping on its spine, the Cetus misunderstood and put on speed. It threshed its long, lizardly tail and sped down the narrow strait and out into open water. There was time to pull Stheno to safety out of the water, time to see the Lamia and Scylla swept into the whirlpool, time to see Hylas and Thoősa perched, out of reach of rescue, high on the cliff-face.
But not time enough to see them jump.
It was the vessel following along behind that put about, fought the current with creaking oars, and threw down ropes to the girl and boy in the water. The children’s arms were useless with cramp, and it took someone on board to plunge in and wind the ropes around them. His wet, fur-gloved hands slapping against them like cheerful sea otters.
It was Xyno, the seedy fixer and fetcher.
“First ship heading the same way, it was, so I signed on,” Xyno explained in a high whispery whine. “I’d never consort as a rule. Pirates are the dirtiest dogs of all.”
Suddenly they were a parcel being scraped up the side of the ship, between flailing oars and over the bulwarks to sprawl on the deck at the feet of their rescuers. So they made the acquaintance of the crew from the feet upwards.
Pirates wear their riches all over their bodies, in case of shipwreck – dangling from their ears, stitched to their clothes, sewn inside their hats. These ones had seized many ships and murdered many crews, to lay hands on the cargoes. But luck had never brought them any ships worth the taking. All they had ever captured was cloth and ribbon, dyes, olive oil, spices and wicker. So the crew were well dressed, colourful and sweet smelling. The beribboned mast of the Trambelus was festooned with wicker baskets and cradles; the decks had a shiny, red, lacquer, as if regularly painted with blood. But nothing had eased the itch in the pirates’ palms: they were as greedy as ever for loot.
“Couldn’t leave you, could I?” Xyno whispered, untangling the children from the wet ropes. “Couldn’t leave the Big Man’s boy in among the paws and claws, could I? Gotta take care of Heruckulees’s boy, han’t I? So I followed on behind. Just as well, by the looks. Scratch me there, will you? Just between the blades.” And he chafed his sodden back against Hylas’ elbow.
There was another friendly face aboard the pirate ship. It greeted them, unexpected as a landslide, burying them in heavyweight fur. No one could explain where the big black dog had come from – not even the pirates – for no one had rescued it from the water or even seen it swimming around the ship. It had simply turned up, and being large and a dog, none of the crew had risked annoying it. The superstitious called it a ghost dog, but ghost dogs don’t cock their legs against the mast, and there was nothing ghostly about the messes it left around the deck.
Thoősa recognised the Laelaps at once.
Being a dog, it did not offer any helpful suggestions or escape plans, but they were very glad of it as a blanket that night.
Xyno had wheedled his way aboard by tempting the pirates with talk of a boatload of monsters who would make the Trambelus the terror of the seas. But then Hylas – almost literally – fell into their laps, and Xyno had a better temptation to offer them. He told them they had accidentally taken hostage ‘Typhon’s Lucky Boy’: there was no limit to the price they could ask for his safe return.
Hylas and Thoősa found themselves tied to the mast with strong cord. “Can’t risk losing the Lucky Boy,” said the Captain, checking the knots.
“How do they know who Hylas is?” Thoősa hissed. “Did you tell them, Xyno? You must have told them! How could you!”
Xyno produced the answered in an instant. “Planning to throw you to the sharks, weren’t they. So I spoke up. Saved ‘em killing you, dinnit?”
The pirates were discussing their options.
“We could swap him for a monster-lady with a big bust, and use it for a figurehead,” said one of the pirates.
“We could have ‘em lick the barnacles off the hull,” said another.
“We could ask for a new ship,” said a third, and his daring fetched gasps from his cronies.
“Ask for the winged Pegasus,” snapped Xyno unable to hide his impatience. When Hylas and Thoősa glared at him, he slipped them a whisper. “Know how you love that ‘orse, girlie. Like it for your own, wouldn’t you?”
Thoősa was both astonished and touched. She had thought herself invisible alongside Hylas: a thing of no concern to anyone. And yet here was the little fixer-and-fetcher trying to reunite her with Pegasus. Perhaps, too, they could escape astride the winged horse.
“Besides,” sneered Hylas. “Pegasus can take you to the Spring of Hippocrene, can’t he, Xyno?”
“There is that.”
But the Pirate Captain had no time for winged horses. The Captain’s calling was money. Precious objects. Treasure. Just once, in a gale, her and his crew had come close to boarding a Colchean treasure ship, only to see it founder in front of them and take its cargo to the seabed. It had nigh broken his heart. The memory of that ship laden with lapis, jasper and gold, slipping from of his outstretched grasp and plunging under the waves, had snared the Captain’s heart in its trailing ropes and carried all his thoughts to the bottom. Now he lay awake at night and thought of the treasure from all of the shipwrecks in the world and how they must have ended up in the treasury of the Sea God, shineless out of the sunlight.
“Poseidon’s Treasure,” he said suddenly, picking up Xyno by the scruff of his neck and carrying him away along the deck. “These Uglies – if they exist – let them steal the Sea God’s stash of treasure and deliver it up to us. If they want their Lucky Boy back, that’s our price. Poseidon’s sweepings. Understood?”
Xyno squirmed in midair; his limbs went rigid, his spine flexed and he whimpered. But it was not with pain. When he was set down on his feet again, he bowed low enough to kiss the Captain’s kneecaps. “Genius,” he crooned, and scratched the base of his spine luxuriously against the water butt. “Geen-eee-yus.”