Ace and the Flaming Tail

Ace has no idea that picking a bright purple handkerchief would send him to the adventure of his life.

But will he be able to defeat a gigantic eagle, conquer ape warriors, outsmart an evil Prince while saving Princess Juliana and her kingdom in time?

Chapter 01 Chapter 02 Chapter 03 Chapter 04 Chapter 05 Chapter 06 Chapter 07 Chapter 08 Chapter 09 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12

Chapter Five

As they drew closer to the waterfront, Ace could see the princess growing more and more nervous, constantly looking over her shoulders and startling at the smallest sounds.

"Stop here," he told her, as the water came into view, the tall masts of the greatest ships jutting into the sky. They were passing by the last few shops where the sailors bought supplies before heading out to sea. Ace pointed to a nearby building, and the princess led Chocolate into the alley behind it.

"All right then," she said, turning around in the saddle. "What's the plan?"

Ace grinned. "Prince Victor and his rebels are going to be looking for Princess Juliana. Not Julian, the deckhand."

"Who's Julian the deckhand?"

"You are. Or at least you will be after I head inside the general store and buy you a pair of trousers and a hat."

He winked and Princess Juliana's eyes grew wide, her brain catching up to Ace's words. It only took Ace a few minutes before he was back in the alley with a shopping bag containing a pair of trousers and simple shirt, plus a sailor's hat he hoped would be big enough to cover Princess Juliana's long ponytail. He opened the bag and dumped the contents in the dirt, and then proceeded to stomp around on top of the clothes, grinding them further into the ground.

"Hey!" the princess exclaimed. "I have to wear those!"

"I know," Ace said. "And you want to look like an experienced, rugged deckhand, not a girl playing dress-up."

Though she didn't much like it, the princess could see his point. When Ace deemed the clothes sufficiently abused, he handed them over and the princess transformed rather impressively into a scruffy, sea-going boy, right before his eyes.

"It's perfect," Ace said. "Now, you wait here. I'll sneak down to the waterfront and see what I can see. I'll try to find us positions on the next boat heading east."

"Why can't I come with you? I'm all disguised now."

"People are more likely to notice two deckhands they've never seen before than one. Plus, I'll have an easier time eavesdropping alone. Anyway, you need to find a place to stash Chocolate, because she's not coming on the boat with us. You take care of that, and I'll meet you back here."

Ace strode off in high spirits. Of course, he knew they were on a life and death mission. But that didn't change the fact that he was having the time of his life. Death defying leaps out of windows, high speed horse chases, and now he was going to get to go to sea. Never mind that Ace had never set foot on a boat - he was more than up to the challenge.

The waterfront was bustling, filled with sailors moving back and forth between ships, preparing to set sail on ships of various sizes tied up at the docks. Ace walked the length of the docks, trying to look casual, but listening carefully.

"Please," he heard someone saying. "Please, I'll do anything. I just need to get on a ship."

He stopped and crouched down on the other side of an enormous coil of rope so he could listen. Peering over the top of the rope, he could just see that the job seeker was a young woman around the age of the princess, though she had none of the princess's refinement and sophistication. Her cheeks were red and wind-chapped, she kept her hair cropped short, and she had the look of someone who had grown up at sea.

"No women on my ship," barked the man to whom she spoke.

"But Captain," she said, "I've been a deckhand since I could tie my shoes. Besides that, I can cook. I'm worth ten of any of these boys you'll find!"

"I don't need ten. I only need one. And if you've grown up at sea, then you know as well as I do that a woman is considered serious bad luck on board a sailing vessel. I won't bring that upon my men no matter how skilled you may be. No, sir. Or ma'am."

The girl scowled and stalked off. Ace considered offering his services to the captain, but the captain had been clear that he only needed one deckhand, so Ace moved a little further down the dock.

"Have you found anyone yet?" he heard another captain bark at his second in command. "We've got to head out before sundown!"

"I'm trying!" the other sailor called back. "Just give me a minute. It's harder than you'd think to find two qualified deckhands with no warning."

Two? Perfect. Ace straightened up and strutted over to the sailor seeking two deckhands.

"Excuse me," he said. "I overheard you're looking for two deckhands to set sail immediately?"

The sailor looked him up and down. "There's only one of you."

"I've got a friend I can fetch. He's just up at the general store."

"You got experience?" The man looked doubtful.

Ace swallowed hard. "I was born on a ship."

"Really?" Ace was scrambling to make up a story when the man went on. "Never mind. I don't care. I'm in a hurry. If you and your friend are back here in five minutes, you're hired."

"We'll be here."

Ace took off back up the dock and sprinted toward the general store. He was about to go around back when he heard a whistle. He turned and saw a glum looking boy sitting on the curb in front of the store. It took him a minute to realize the boy was Princess Juliana.

"Hey, you look great!" he said. "Come on, I've got us jobs, but we've got to hurry."

The princess got up and followed him, and even as they trotted along, Ace could see that she looked sad. "What's wrong?"

"I just hate saying goodbye to Chocolate. I hope she'll be okay."

"Where'd you leave her?"

"I found a feed store and paid the owner triple his normal rate to board a horse."

"Then she'll be fine," Ace said. "You know much about boats?" he asked as they headed down the docks.

"Ships," she corrected. "And yes, I've been on a few."

"Good, because here we are."

They were standing in front of an enormous boat, or ship, rather, and Ace felt suddenly intimidated. Still, he couldn't let the princess know he was nervous. This had been his idea, after all.

The sailor who'd hired them waved to Ace from up on the top deck and hollered at them to climb on up.

"After you," Ace said, motioning to the princess to climb up the gangplank.

She went ahead but hissed over her shoulder, "Remember not to treat me like a lady anymore, though."

Ace nodded, grunted, and knocked her in the shoulder like he might with a buddy. The princess lost her balance and would have fallen straight off the side of the gangplank and into the water, if Ace hadn't reached out and grabbed her in time. "Oops. Sorry."

The captain was waiting for them at the top, examining them grimly. "You're my deckhands? That one can barely walk," he said, pointing at the princess, who flushed a deep crimson.

"Nah, Julian's got the strongest sea legs you'll ever find," Ace said. "He just stumbled over a loose board. You should have that looked at." Then he took the princess's hand and tugged her over to a bucket filled with soapy water. They both immediately got down on their knees and began to scrub.

"Shouldn't we wait until they tell us what to do?" the princess asked. She had no idea, really, never having done a day's work in her life, but that seemed to be the proper way to do things, at least from the books she'd read and what she'd observed with the servants in the castle.

"Nah, they like to see initiative," Ace said. "No one's stopping us."

"So where's this boat headed?" the princess asked when her tender knees began to ache, which didn't actually take very long.

"No idea," Ace said.

"Then how are we going to get to the Protector's island?"

"Have no fear, Ace is here," he said with a grin. "Look, I don't know exactly, but I figured our first order of business would be to get on a boat. Maybe we sneak off in the lifeboat later. For now, let's just get out to sea."

So out to sea they went. Soon the wind was whipping through Ace's hair, the salt air stinging his nose, and he almost forgot the seriousness of their mission with the thrill of the moment. Maybe after they saved the kingdom he would head back out to sea. In spite of his aching knees, this really was the life.

He might have expected the princess to struggle, having been so pampered during her previous years in the palace, but he was impressed to see that Julian the deckhand more than did his part. After they scrubbed the decks, they were put to work peeling potatoes in the kitchen, and then they were set to gutting the fish back up in the fresh, sea air.

While it would have been completely understandable if gutting fish had been repulsive to the princess, it turned out that Juliana was exhilarated by doing the kind of good, honest work she'd never known, and by feeling like she was actually doing something that might get her closer to saving her father. She did such a good job that the second in command took notice.

"You're quick," he said, pausing to admire how quickly Julian got through one fish and on to the next. "Nice work," he said, and then he reached up and tugged on the brim of Julian's cap. It was meant to be friendly gesture, but because Princess Juliana had piled her long ponytail inside the sailor's cap, the little bit of jostling brought the whole cap tumbling off her head. Which meant, in turn, that the hair of her ponytail came tumbling out of the cap. "Oy!" the sailor said, jumping back. "You're Princess Juliana!"

With that, he whirled around and called for the captain. Ace looked wildly around, but there didn't seem to be anywhere for them to go. Then, before he could formulate any kind of plan, the captain stood before them.

"Well, well, well," he said, reaching out to touch Princess Juliana's hair. "Julian, is it? Was that really the best you could do?"

The princess opened and shut her mouth, and at the same time turned as white as the ship's sails.

"Okay, okay, you caught us," Ace said. "This here's my sister. But she's an excellent deckhand. You've seen already that-"

"If she's your sister, then that makes you a prince," the captain said, narrowing his eyes at Ace. "Are you a prince? Because this here is Princess Juliana."

Princess Juliana swayed on the spot and Ace reached out an arm to steady her. "Okay, yes, she's Princess Juliana," he admitted. "And she just wanted a bit of adventure. You know, see the world? Get outside the palace gates? Is that so bad?"

The captain chuckled. "Not bad at all. In fact, I'm delighted to have you on board, Your Highness." With that he swept into a low bow. "Because you're about to make me a very rich man.

- End of Chapter Five -