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 Six

Ace and the princess were quickly hustled below decks, their wrists tied tightly behind their backs, and into the captain's private quarters. "It's better this way," he said to them as his second in command tied their arms behind their backs. "If every sailor aboard knew how much money you're worth, I might have a mutiny on my hands."

"I'm not worth anything," the princess sputtered, finally getting a few words out. "My cousin has taken power and he won't pay you any ransom for me."

"Ransom?" The captain laughed, even harder this time. "Oh, no, he won't pay a ransom for you. You've got that right. But he's put a mighty fine bounty on your pretty head."

Princess Juliana gasped. "A bounty?"

"That's right, a bounty. So you are mighty, mighty valuable, little lady. Now this one," he said, jabbing a finger at Ace, "is useless to me. I may just make him walk the plank."

"No!" the princess cried out, looking desperately at Ace.

"You're right," the captain said. "I should wait until we're a little further east, where the sharks are really active."

"Okay, now, look," Ace said. "I think we can work things out."

"Do you, little monkey? Well, you better talk quick because I think we're getting closer to those sharks every minute."

"Look, Prince Victor doesn't want the princess. All he wants is something she's got. A book. If you bring him that, you're bound to get the bounty. No reason to harm the princess. In fact, you could just drop us off in the next port and be done with us."

"A book, huh? I seem to remember something about a book in the prince's decree, but I ignored that part."

"Well, I've got it."

"Ace, no!" Princess Juliana cried. "It's not worth it."

"Of course it's worth it," Ace said. "Release the princess and I'll give you the book."

The captain eyed Ace carefully. "How do I know you're not going to trick me?"

"We're on a ship in the middle of the sea. Where would I go? Please, just untie us and promise we'll be treated fairly until the next port, where you can let us go. And I'll hand over the book immediately."

The captain paused and then nodded at his second in command, who reluctantly untied first the princess' hands and then Ace's. "The book, now," he snapped at Ace.

Ignoring the desperate glares from Princess Juliana, Ace reached inside his coat and pulled out the copy of The Horse, the Key, and the Golden Blanket, which he held out to the captain.

The captain took the book, and glanced at the cover. "It's a kid's book," he scoffed.

"Look inside the back cover," Ace said.

The captain peeled open the back cover and found the folded up map. "Well, look at what we've got here." Then, quick as anything, he circled around behind Princess Juliana and held a knife to her neck. At the same moment, his second in command wrenched Ace's arms behind his back. The captain laughed harshly. "You didn't think I was really going to just trade a massive bounty on a princess for some beat up old map in a kids book, did you? We'll see if the prince wants it. But for now, it's down to the bilge with you."

Moments later, Ace and the princess found themselves tightly bound with their wrists behind their backs, and seated in the wet, dirty, bottom of the ship amidst floating potato peels and fish guts.

"Ace! How could you possible give that horrible man the map?" Princess Juliana wailed.

"I'm sorry," he said. "But you know your cousin will find the map and throw you in the dungeon as soon as he lays hands on you. Plus, the captain was going to make me walk the plank into shark-infested waters!"

"How is this better? If we do make it back to land, my cousin won't hesitate to kill you, too, you know."

"Have no fear, Princess Juliana, Ace-"

"-is here. I know, you keep saying that. But how on earth do you think you're going to get us out of this mess? And even if you do, we have no idea how to get to the Protector anymore since you gave away the map!"

"Oh, but Princess, I have a photographic memory. I memorized the map on the way from Miss Wilkins's house to the waterfront."

"Why didn't you say so?" the princess said, her sniffling subsiding a bit. "That's good news."

"Well, sure, but the more important matter at hand seemed to be how to get us out of here," Ace said. "If only we had a knife, or something sharp."

"Oh!" the princess cried so sharply that Ace toppled over in surprise, landing in the murky bilge water.

"I do!" Princess Juliana said, as Ace sat back up. "I have a dagger."

"A dagger! Why didn't you say so? Can you reach it?" He watched as she wiggled a bit, straining to move her arms.

"No," she finally said. "I don't think I can."

"Where is it?"

"It's concealed beneath my belt."

Ace paused for a moment, thinking. Then he said, "Do you suppose I can reach it?"

"Maybe," she said. "Can you get over here?"

It was awkward, but Ace managed to scooch himself across the floor, getting rather a lot of splinters as he did, until he was right next to Princess Juliana. She grasped with her fingers for the edge of her belt and shimmied it sideways so the whole belt shifted around her waist.

"It's there," she said. "Right at the edge of my waist. Try to grab the buckle."

Ace could see the metal glinting at the princess's waist and reached out, grasping at the buckle. "Okay," Ace said. "What now?"

"If you just pull on the buckle, you should release the dagger."

Ace struggled - his own wrists had been bound very tightly and it was difficult to maneuver his hands. But they had nothing but time anyway, and soon he felt the cool metal of the belt buckle give way beneath his fingers. He tugged, and soon he was holding a dagger.

"Ouch," the princess said. "Careful not to poke me."

"Ooops, sorry. If you're ready, I'm going to try to cut the rope now, okay? I'll go slow." Very carefully, Ace eased the blade of the dagger against the rough rope that bound the princess's wrists. She gasped a couple of times, but whenever he paused, she urged him to keep going. Finally, her wrists were free.

"Oh, Ace, you did it!" She then set about untying his wrists, and once his hands were free, they both set about rubbing the red welts that had spring up on their wrists. When they both had feeling back, the princess hugged Ace.

"I have no fear, because Ace is here," she said with a grin. "Good work. Now what?"

"There's a lifeboat tethered to the back of the ship," Ace said, the plan already forming in his mind. "We wait until nightfall and sneak off this ship."

"How do we know when it's nightfall?" Princess Juliana asked, looking dubiously around the bilge. There were no portholes and it seemed that noon would be as dark as midnight down there.

"Good point." It had been a long day since Ace had seen the princess by the fountain in the town square. He had followed her into the library, then met her outside town at the Sheepshearer's Inn, then traveled with her to the palace and on to Winifred Wilkins's house. They had to be fairly near to nightfall, but to be honest, he hadn't really noticed what time of day it had been when they'd gotten on board the ship. Now that he thought about all that, he was enormously hungry, too. But he shook that thought out of his head.

"I guess I should sneak above decks and see," he said, whispering. He didn't know why he was whispering. There was no one else in the bilge to hear them. But now that they had a new covert plan, it seemed the time for whispering.

"Let me," the princess said, standing up nervously. "I don't like that you're the one who always has to do the risky parts. It's my father we're trying to save. I can go."

But Ace wasn't having any of that. "No way," he said. "Don't you get it, Princess? I love all this. All the adventure. Not your dad being in danger. I'm sorry about that part. But I'm happy to make sure it's all clear above deck. So unless you really, really want to go up..."

"Oh no," the princess said, sitting back down. "Go ahead."

"Okay," Ace said. "If all's clear I'll let out a short whistle, like this." He demonstrated one of his best whistles. It sounded enough like a bird that if any sailors heard it they wouldn't be suspicious, unless they stopped to consider the fact that birds don't do much calling in the middle of the night.

"Got it," she said. "And then I come on up?"

"That's right. Otherwise, sit tight." With one last big grin at the princess, Ace headed up the rotting ladder that led, if he remembered correctly when they'd passed through the first time, into the galley. Sure enough, when he poked his head up through the opening, Ace saw himself looking at the cramped kitchen quarters of the ship.

What was more, the chef was seated at the table. Thankfully, he was snoring into a pot he must have been stirring when he fell asleep. Ace hoped the chef's slumber meant it was nighttime, but there were still no portholes, so he would have to go further up to find out. His stomach grumbling wildly, Ace took a moment to creep over and peek in the pot, which was full of some kind of stew peppered with chunks of meat and vegetables. In all honesty, it was probably a fairly terrible stew, made from salted beef that had been in the hold for ages, and completely wilted, nearly rotten vegetables. All the same, Ace was overtaken with a strong desire to wrestle the pot away from the sleeping chef and gulp its contents down. If he and the princess were about to set sail across the high seas in a rowboat, he would be needing strength, after all.

He tugged lightly at the pot, but the chef was resting his head on the edge, and if he pulled too hard, the chef's head would go slamming down to the table, which was sure to wake him up. Ace knew he shouldn't be wasting time on this, but he was so hungry. He reached a stealthy hand into the pot, right in front of the sleeping chef's nose and withdrew a handful of soggy meat and vegetables. That would have to do.

But just as he was pulling his hand out of the pot, the end of a bit of carrot grazed the tip of the chef's nose. Ace watched in horror as the chef sat up groggily and clapped his hand over his nose. But great relief overcame him as he watched the chef wipe his nose and then settle sleepily back onto the pot.

He had to focus. No more distractions. He went straight to the stairs that led out of the galley and slowly crept up. They opened up onto a long hallway that seemed completely abandoned, so Ace continued up the next flight of stairs, which led up to the open deck. The sky was pitch black, so night had indeed fallen. There was very little activity on board, though Ace could see one sailor manning the controls at the front of the ship. His back was turned, though, and Ace was fairly sure there was no one else on deck. If they were careful, they should be able to sneak into the rowboat tethered at the back of the ship.

Ace crept back down the stairs to the empty hallway, not wanting to whistle right next to the sailor on deck, or next to the sleeping chef in the kitchen. So he settled for a happy medium, letting out the bird call whistle he had demonstrated before, and then heading back up to the deck so he could have the boat ready when the princess reached him.

On deck, he checked to be sure the sailor at the helm still had his back turned, and then he sprinted for the back of the ship, where the rowboat was indeed tied. He climbed over the rail and into the boat, loosening the knots so they could lower the boat as soon as the princess was aboard.

Then he waited.

Had she heard his call? Had she had trouble in the kitchen with the chef? Perhaps she too had been unable to resist sneaking a bit of the stew. Ace was just about to climb out of the rowboat and go look for the princess when she appeared in the darkness, flushed and running for the rowboat. She jumped over the rail of the ship, very nearly tumbling into the black ocean water below, but Ace caught her.

Then he heard the chef. "Off this ship!" he bellowed. "Off this ship! We'll not have a woman on this sailing vessel!"

"We're going," the princess called out as Ace hurried to release the knots and lower the rowboat.

The angry chef appeared at the railing, brandishing the kitchen knife he'd been using to chop vegetables for the stew. "No wonder my stew wasn't turning out right!" he said. "A woman on board a ship!"

Ace began to lower the rowboat. "If you don't want her onboard," he said to the chef, "you'd better quiet down. The captain was the one keeping her in the bilge and he'll throw her down there again if we're discovered."

The chef's eyes grew wide but his mouth snapped shut. "Go, then," he snarled. "Get that woman off this ship."

"What's wrong, Farley?" came another voice from a good distance away. It was probably the sailor who'd been at the helm, Ace realized with a sinking heart. "What on earth are you going on about?"

"Nothing, nothing," the chef said, striding away from the rail while simultaneously motioning furiously at Ace to hurry up and lower the rowboat. "Nothing at all. Just getting a bit of fresh air. Stuffy down there in the galley, you know."

The rowboat hit the churning waters behind the ship with a splash, but Farley was still blustering on aboveboard, so Ace and the princess were heard by no one as they made their escape.

- End of Chapter Six -