Warning: All characters and plotlines are my own. This is the second part of Shell Game and will make negative infinity sense if you have not read the first installment. Hopefully it will make some sense if you have. If not, feel free to chasten me by e-mail. You will note that this segment is narrated by Darren, formerly a broody merchant captain, and now pirate queen.
This story includes, among other things (deep breath): a violent civil war, kicks to the groin, pirates, piratical violence, onion bread, ropes, hickeys, swearing, references to sex between women, references to sex not between women, implied references to past abuse, two adult consenting women who are still in a sorta kinda BDSM relationship, and parsnip fritters. All feedback is very very welcome indeed. Yarr.
Feedback: email@example.com . If you would care to drop me a line, I will respond in your choice of salty pirate talk or series of haikus.
All right , I admitted to myself, I'm losing.
It's a bad idea to reach that conclusion in the middle of a fight. You make more mistakes when your confidence is rattled. Better to believe that you're a wizard, a sword saint, god of war, right up to the moment when someone slits you up the middle and your entrails come boiling out.
Except that we seemed to be nearing that point. I hadn't even marked Tyco yet, while his big sabre had carved a long bloody furrow along my side, and left a deep slash in my sword arm. It had come dangerously close to the tendon. I winced every time I tried to extend and even when I managed to slash or stab, Tyco batted my blade away with embarrassing ease. My own blood was streaming down into my right boot, making it squish when I took a step. We were beyond the denial stage. I was losing.
I'm not bad with a cutlass, but there's always someone better. I should have known that Tyco would be good. His ship, the Kraken , had struck three coastal towns over the past month, with a speed and ferocity that left little but red-churned soil in his wake. Before the war, he had been armsmaster to the House of Namor; now he was clearly enjoying the freedom that he had gained since the government crumbled and the seas turned wild. And his crew was much the same. Many of the sailors that I fought in those days had been ripped from their homes and sent to the warships against their will. Oftentimes they would fall at my feet in mid-battle and beg to be allowed to surrender. But not Tyco's men. They fought with bared teeth, snarling as often as not; the hilts of their weapons and the hems of their shirts bore a crust of dried blood.
Still, we weren't doing badly. My new flagship, the Banshee , had hooked Tyco's beast just before dawn. His crew managed to throw off the grappling hooks, but only after thirty of my best troops flowed over the side and onto the Kraken . On the deck below, they were slowly forcing back Tyco's wildmen. Near the bow, my quartermaster Corto was dealing beautiful strokes to the Kraken' s mate. Amidships, Latoya was fending off three bandits at once, making her length of heavy chain shrill as she whipped it through the air. Even skinny Spinner was holding his own. So what was the matter with me ?
I wasn't the only one wondering. Tyco had stopped fighting his hardest. Now he was toying with me, flicking his sabre in quick slashes that left my shirtsleeves in bloody ribbons. His grin was wide and ugly. When I lunged too far and overbalanced, he actually sent me stumbling with a boot in my rear.
That was just rude. I caught myself against the side, then tried to catch my breath.
“You know,” Tyco said, as he raised his sabre for the finish, “I expected more, from the pirate queen.”
“You're not the only one,” I muttered under my breath, and forced myself to lurch forwards.
I never planned to become a pirate queen.
But I also didn't plan to be stripped of my rank and title for kissing another woman in public. Nor did I plan for my homeland to get embroiled in the worst civil war since the days when dragons crawled the earth. And I definitely didn't plan to meet some cheeky kid of twenty who would demand to be chained to the mast of my ship and then refuse to be let go.
Plans change, is what I'm trying to say.
My arms were giving out. Each time I moved my right shoulder, my muscles screeched with agony. I was done, and Tyco knew it. He slapped away my last desperate strike and pulled back ready for a thrust. I should have ducked and rolled, but my reflexes had slowed to a crawl. I just gaped, and tried to remember whether I'd composed a set of heroic last words.
Then there was a flash of something in the air above Tyco's head. He could have saved himself, maybe, if his reaction had been instant, but he blinked, and that was enough. The next second, he stumbled, a gargling noise forced its way out of his throat, and his eyes bugged madly; fumbling fingers reached up towards his throat, feeling the thin leather braid that now encircled it. There was a jerk on the cord, and he was dragged up, still gargling, to the tips of his toes- then came a sharp crack as someone behind him delivered an expert kick to the back of his knees. The big man staggered forwards, falling, and the girl standing behind him let out enough slack on the cord that he crashed face-first into the deck.
I lowered my sword arm in utter relief. But the words burst out of me anyway: “I ordered you to stay on the damn Banshee , Lynn!”
“Did you, Mistress?” Lynn said vaguely, as she stooped to loosen the garrotte from around Tyco's neck. “That's not how I remember it. I think you ordered me to come save your hide when you were just about to get spitted.”
“Oh, really?” I shook out my aching hand.
“Mmm-hmm. I heard you distinctly. And what a wise and foresightful order it turned out to be.”
Lynn's eyes flicked over the scene, the struggling men on the lower deck, but as she watched, she unhooked a flask from her belt. “You also ordered me to bring the brandy.”
That was more like it. I grabbed for the bottle and took three long gulps. The heat sang all the way through me, and my numb limbs began to tingle.
“You ordered me to drink some myself, too,” Lynn went on, taking the bottle back and tipping it towards her mouth.
“Very considerate of me. How the hell did you get over here?” The Banshee was floating free, some thirty yards away.
“Swam,” Lynn said succinctly, and I should have known that from the way her clothes were plastered to her body. “Don't blame Regon. He tried to stop me; I threatened to belt him in the happy sack. Now can we get back to business? Slashing and screaming and saving the world?”
My brain took its time processing this. Battle- fight- bloody death- right. Every inch of me stung, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up on the deck with Lynn for a nap. But that would have to wait. Reluctantly, I gripped my cutlass by its red, sticky hilt.
“Will you stay out of the fight if I order you?” I asked Lynn, almost as an afterthought, and without much hope.
“Mistress, I always do what you order me to do.” Lynn's eyes fastened on Spinner, who was now hard pressed by his opponent. “It is, however, just possible that I will fail to hear you. I've still got some water in my ears.”
To be fair, Lynn did stay out of the worst part of the fighting. She made two darting sallies into the thick of things, to throttle men whose attention was elsewhere, and she pulped some knuckles with a well-aimed belaying pin. But when things were finally over, with the last of Tyco's men gurgling on the deck or crumpling to their knees, she bobbed up before me as fresh and unmarked as a lady's handkerchief.
“That could have been worse,” she told me, as I leaned, gasping, against the Kraken's side. “We didn't lose as many as I expected. And you seem to have all of your important bits still attached. Are you in a lot of pain?”
I waved a hand, trying to look nonchalant. “No. I'm fine, I just need to catch my breath. Or crawl into a corner and die for a while. Finish up for me?”
“I hear and obey. Naturally.” Taking my wrist, she guided my hand into place over the deep slash in my arm. “Spinner will be by to stitch you in a minute. Keep pressure there until he does.”
She gave my hand a squeeze, turned, drew up her shoulders- and then walked unhurriedly to the poop deck.
She was a study, the small person who called herself my slave. For the swim to the ship, she had stripped down to a linen shirt and open-kneed breeches. They were more or less dry by now, but they still made her look waif-like, especially since her feet were bare, and her hair close-cropped. Weaponless, unarmoured, she looked utterly out of place amongst all that leather and steel. Yet she picked her way between the pools of blood with unconcern.
She reached Tyco just as he was beginning to twitch and blink. “Latoya?” she called. “A little help?”
Latoya was a recent acquisition- we'd picked her up in a raid down south- and a very useful one. She was over six feet high and built like a rhino, and she faced down raiders and thunderstorms with the same unflinching calm. I had appointed her bosun of the Banshee , but she had quietly appointed herself bodyguard to both me and Lynn, and watched over us as if we were slightly stupid children.
She had been wielding a length of anchor chain through the fight; now she calmly coiled it, draped it over one shoulder, and jogged up the steps to Tyco. In one motion, she twisted his arms together behind his back, then forced him to kneel upright. It brought his face almost level with Lynn's.
“Tyco Gorgionson,” Lynn said to him softly, “you were warned that this would happen.”
He was beginning, dazedly, to struggle. That was pointless. Latoya's face didn't even twitch as she held him still. When he found his tongue, he was as eloquent as men usually are in such a position. “You fucking bitch,” he gasped.
“Ah,” Lynn said, “a poet. If only you had decided to explore that side of your personality during the war.”
Spinner appeared beside me, rapidly threading a needle with seal gut. “Don't get in my line of sight,” I muttered at him. “This is gonna be good.”
Tyco still hadn't learned. He was doing his best to thrash his way out of Latoya's iron hold, and flecks of foam were appearing on his lips. His eyes rolled wildly until they fastened on me. “I won't kill you, Darren!” he screamed. “You hear me? You won't be that lucky! I'll slice you up, and I'll do it in front of your little whore- I'll take your eyes, your fucking tongue, I'll-”
Lynn snapped then. She gave Latoya a nod, and Latoya hoisted the struggling man a crucial four inches higher. Lynn always kicked with her heel, rather than her toes, since she so rarely wore shoes. But that didn't affect her technique. With a quick snap of her leg, she applied her foot to the exact part of Tyco's groin where it would do the most good. He screeched then, tears spurting.
“You have a thing about slicing people up, don't you?” Lynn went on when he had quieted. “You did it just last week, to a girl of sixteen near Retlio, and my mistress had to sit with her as she died. My mistress couldn't even hold her hand at the time, because you'd taken those from her too. Ring a bell? You were warned, Tyco Gorgionson, you were warned. There's law in the islands again. One law. The law of my mistress.”
Tyco twisted so that he could look at me again. “You want to kill me, Darren?” he called. “Face me yourself!”
Lynn kicked him in the kidneys this time, and again he crumpled. “Why are you looking at her?” she asked. “ She's not going to be the one to kill you. Know why? Because you don't deserve to boast, in the underworld, that the pirate queen sent you. You'll have to tell them that you got finished by her slave. A girl. The least of her servants. Not much to brag about, is it, on the other side?”
Tyco's face had turned grey, and sweat ran down it freely. Lynn let him wait a few seconds.
“But my mistress doesn't create martyrs,” she said. “And she doesn't take rabid dogs more seriously than she has to. You won't die today, but I promise you won't enjoy what happens next. You're done, Tyco. It's over. Latoya, put him out for me.”
My hulking bosun gave a sharp rap to the top of Tyco's head, and he careened to the deck again. Dropping unconscious, as so many men had dropped in the past year, by Lynn's feet.
“Behold,” Lynn said, as she returned to my side. “Finished.”
“Almost,” I agreed. I had my breath back now. “One more thing. Now the unpleasantness is over, can I have my garrotte back?”
Her forehead wrinkled innocently. “What do you mean?”
I pointed. “That is my garrotte.”
She glanced at it absently. “Is it? I guess you put it in my pocket by mistake.”
“You don't have pockets. You were wearing it wrapped around your wrist.”
“I guess you wrapped it around my wrist by mistake. Really, Darren, that was very thoughtless of you. I can't always be carrying your weapons around.”
I put my free hand out. “Give it back.”
“Oh, no, that's all right,” she said, breezing past me as she wrapped it back around her wrist. “I don't mind suffering a bit in the service of my overlord. Corto, get us underway. We should drop these thugs off before evening.”
Corto automatically reached for the helm, but I glared at him. “I do still give the commands around here, don't I?”
Corto cleared his throat, and waited.
“...get us underway,” I muttered sulkily, and then turned to Lynn. “Does being an overlord mean that I don't get to do anything fun anymore?”
“Pretty much, yes,” she agreed. “I get to do the fun stuff. It's the meagre compensation I get for my selfless service towards you.”
“That and you get to steal my stuff.”
She gave me a comforting pat on the shoulder before she trotted away. Spinner gave a low whistle as he knotted off the thread in my arm. “Sometimes you have to wonder where that girl comes from.”
And that was the thing. I did wonder. I wondered every day.
Imagine this. You wake up, scratch, roll over, find yourself face to face with a sleeping woman, and realize that you have no idea who she is. How often does that happen to people?
Well- actually, now that I come to think of it, probably quite a bit. But those situations usually involve far too much wine, and maybe some mushrooms, and a number of slurred, drunken compliments, and, the next morning, an awkward race to find your trousers and escape before the sun comes up.
I, on the other hand, had woken up that way every day for sixteen months. Ever since I came across a scruffy, half-starved kid in a burned-out fishing village, who challenged me to a duel, lost resoundingly, and somehow ended up as my slave rather than my passenger. Which definitely had never been the plan.
But plans, as I say, change.
I always knew that she wasn't ordinary.
I knew it just from that first encounter. Ordinary peasants don't mouth off to the captain of a trading ship, who is likely to be a noble, as I was. Ordinary peasants scuff their feet and tug their forelocks and hope not to be noticed. Whereas Lynn shoved her way to the front of the crowd and demanded attention. As if she was used to it. As if she expected it.
That was the first warning. But it got more and more blatant as the weeks wore on.
I don't think she ever realized all the signs she gave. There were obvious ones- in particular, the fact that she could read and write. But it went further than that, much further. Little things- the words she used, the way that she walked. However secretive she tried to be- and she did- she couldn't hide the fact that she knew too much. She knew how the House of Torasan made most of its money; she could quote word for word the law against seducing a girl of good family. How she had ended up in a ramshackle fishing village, I hadn't a clue, but I was damned if she had been born there. If she would only let her hair grow out and put on a proper dress, I knew, she would look and sound like any of the girls that I had grown up with at the court of my father, Lord Stribos. And even when she was badly-fed, badly dressed, and chained up down in the hold, I couldn't shake the thought that she had grown up at court herself.
Then my ship was attacked by a deranged cousin of mine, who nearly slashed me to fish bait. And Lynn stepped in to distract her, at the last minute, with what was either a bald-faced lie or an even more bald-faced truth. And when the dust had settled, I knew two things.
First, it was just possible that the girl who called herself my slave was actually Ariadne, the only child of Lord Iason of Bain, heir to an absolutely obscene amount of wealth and power.
And second, if Lynn was Ariadne, she didn't want me to know.
I did my best not to pry, I really did. People end up on the sea for all kinds of reasons. A good part of the time, they're running from something. My own past involved a humiliating banishment and a painful break-up, both of which I was doing my best to forget when I met Lynn. She had made it very clear that she wasn't interested in getting interrogated. So I told myself to let it go until she was ready.
A virtuous goal. And one that I absolutely could not carry through with. Not when it was possible that she was Ariadne .
I had been born to a ruling house. In the law of Kila, I was as far removed from peasants as a ruby is from acorns. Yet there were other lords who were equally far above me in station. Back then, there were hundreds of Kilan nobles, but at any given time, there were only three or four families who truly mattered. And the House of Bain was one of them. It ruled the massive north island of Bero, which had the diamond mines and the best of the silver deposits. Its fleets were second to none. You were a fool not to be scared out of your wits if you saw ships bearing its white banners. But in one crucial area, the House of Bain was painfully fragile. Its lord, Iason, had only one child.
It was surprising, to say the least. For any Kilan noble, the highest and purest duty was to secure the survival of his line. Most would have as many children as their wives could breastfeed without being chewed raw, and a few more for good measure. I myself had somewhere in the neighbourhood of twelve siblings (they were hard to count, they moved around so fast.) To only have one child was an act of supreme hubris. And it was dangerous to boot. If Ariadne was lost, then Iason was finished, doomed to be toppled from his throne by the more ambitious of his dukes and generals. The girl must have spent her childhood swaddled safely away from everyone and everything.
So if Lynn was Ariadne, how the hell had she ended up in the fishy little town where I had found her? And what the hell was Iason doing about it now?
In the weeks and months after Mara's attack on the Badger , you can be sure that I kept my ears open. I never heard any report that Iason's daughter was missing or that he was hunting for her. But of course, if you were a supreme lord who had lost your only heir, you wouldn't exactly announce it from the rooftops.
I could put it out of my mind for days at a time. When Lynn was stripped to the waist, scrubbing the deck with the rest of the crew, or taking her turn at the dirtiest jobs (no-one else cleaned the head as thoroughly) it was easy to forget what her birthright might be. I could even forget about the hundreds of painful and creative things that Iason would do to me if he found out what I was up to with his daughter.
It was at night that I really thought about it. Or, more correctly, in the early morning. When I would wake up and scratch and turn over, and come face to face with her, and each time I would realize: I had no idea who she really was. And sometimes I would even say it out loud, repeating the question that I had once asked her in the darkness of the hold:
“Is it true, what you said? About you and the House of Bain?”
And I would remember the only answer she had ever given me:
“No. And yes. And no.”
All of this probably makes it sound as if I did nothing during those months but fret and wring my hands and watch Lynn scrub the head. Let me assure you, I kept busy.
My transformation into a pirate queen was more than half accidental, but once it began, it moved swiftly. Mara's vessel became the first of my war galleys. Only a few weeks later, we took another while its sailors otherwise engaged. (A word of advice to would-be captains: never let your entire crew amble off to the brothel at the same time.) Lynn named it the Banshee and it became my flagship. And just like that, I had a fleet.
Not that it was easy. For one thing, I had to find captains for each of my ships- and, more than that, captains that I trusted. In the end, I taught the basics of navigation to the crew of the Badger , the men I'd known the longest, and parcelled them out one by one. Monmain became the captain of the Idiot Kid ; Geraint took the Sea Horse. For a long time, I couldn't stand the thought of losing Teek, my best helmsman, but in the end I gritted my teeth and entrusted the Badger to him. I still had a strong sense of affection for the stinking little tub; at least I knew that Teek wouldn't run it into a reef. I refused to give up Regon, so he stayed on the Banshee as first mate, and I kept Spinner too, because he made Lynn laugh. Other than that, my original crew was all gone to the winds, and I was faced with the task of finding dozens- hundreds- more sailors.
That was tricky. No matter what you've heard, and no matter what you think, sailors are not gentle giants with rough exteriors and hearts of gold. It's an uphill job just finding a set who are sober more than three hours in the day. I chose the best I could find, and kept order in the usual way, with screamed insults and threats and the judicious application of a very pointy boot here and there.
What I had truly dreaded was the task of keeping them away from Lynn. She wasn't the only woman on my ships, but she was the smallest, and the youngest, and the best looking. Even her clothing was different- she wore shades of cream or brown or red, and they made her stick out, warm and exotic, among all the dim colours. More than once, I wondered desperately whether I would have to keep her in a small metal box to protect her from the others. But Lynn never allowed me to protect her. She had a sharp tongue, and a level head, and a strong sense of pride, and she gamely took on the job of carving out her own place on board ship. She did let me show her what parts to kick on the human body to inflict maximum pain, but that was about the limit of what I was allowed to do.
Over time, things sort of worked themselves out. Some of my sailors got to like her, and some got to respect her, and the rest came to see her as a kind of mascot. It helped that sailors are the most superstitious people alive. (If you don't believe me, try getting one to change his lucky shirt before a battle. Just try.) As the months rolled on and we grew stronger, and richer, and better-equipped, Lynn became a talisman, the embodiment of our luck. Every time we got hold of a new ship, my sailors would chase after Lynn to get her to name it. Sometimes she was enthusiastic, and came up with names like the Sea Horse and the Cormorant. Sometimes she was not, which was how we ended up with the Name It Yourself This Time and the Oh, Sod Off .
I still got the shakes every time I left a safe harbour and headed back to Kila. But Lynn always knew, and Lynn was always there. Sometimes it was very casual- she would just be somewhere nearby, coiling a rope or scaling a fish or studying a chart. But she always knew when it was time to drift to my side and find a hand to hold.
And every time, I would whisper, “You know, I'm really not a pirate queen.”
And every time, she would whisper back: “As long as they think you are, that doesn't matter.”
The Kraken , Tyco's ship, was the twelfth that we took for my fleet.
If you capture ship after ship after ship, then you have an ongoing problem: what to do with their sailors. You can absorb some of them into your own crew, if you're good at picking out men who won't try to stab you at the first opportunity. (Lynn was. I wasn't.) But at the end of the culling process, you're left with a surly bunch of backstabbers that you have to dispose of somehow. Tradition holds that you throw them overboard, but I had balked at that. Fortunately, as Lynn pointed out, the sea is crammed full of islands that make perfectly serviceable prisons. With the added bonus that you don't have to feed or supervise the prisoners yourself. At the beginning of everything, I didn't like this thought much either, but, as Lynn said, what was the alternative?
I got used to it. Before long, I was flinging gangs of untrustworthy sailors onto desert islands every few weeks, and thinking no more of it than of tossing fish bones over the side.
For Tyco's men- none of whom I was prepared to take on- we'd selected a real winner of an island. Bare and rocky, with only two meagre clusters of trees. My sailors ferried the crew of the Kraken there just as they were- unconscious, or bleeding, or bound. I watched from on board the Banshee . The beach was too distant to make out details, but I knew what was going on. Latoya and Corto would stick two knives into the sand so that the sailors could free themselves once they were gone. Beside the knives, they would deposit a cook-pot, a flint, a saw, a spade, and a few sacks of seed. Next, Corto would explain things to the Kraken 's crew. They could survive for several months on shellfish and the eggs of seabirds. If they wanted to live beyond then, they would have to raise crops. If they worked like blazes, enriching the soil with bird dung and food scraps, then they would survive. Maybe.
I was out of earshot, but I could see mouths opening and shutting furiously. I could imagine the kind of language currently being used over there. I had heard it often enough.
There was a sound behind me- Regon softly clearing his throat.
“I've put a prize crew of ten on Tyco's ship,” he said. “With Benam in command. They'll sail east, meet up with the Idiot Kid , and take the galley to the coast to be manned and overhauled.”
“Fine,” I said, breaking from my funk. “Did Lynn name it?”
“She did, yes,” he answered slowly. “It's to be the One Law .”
It was a surprisingly solemn name for Lynn, and I knew why. The history of the Kraken had been so brutal, I would have been ticked if she had tried to make it into a joke- and she understood that. Even though, given her druthers, she probably would have named it the Kumquat or the Up Yours, Tyco! Or something of the kind.
“Fine,” I said again. “It's your watch. Once everyone's aboard, head for the Freemarket- we're low on supplies.”
None of my men ever bothered to salute, and I'd have smacked them if they tried, but Regon gave me a wink and a nod that served the same purpose, and went to talk to the helmsman.
I took a last look back at the barren island. Latoya and Corto were rowing back to the Banshee , with long, slow strokes. Tyco was staggering up and down the beach, screaming something that I was too far away to hear.
You'd think that a moment like this would make me happy. That there would be a little victory glow. Or at least that the blackness would lift for a minute- the heavy, choking blackness that had descended on me when I first heard about the barbarity of Tyco's raids. But it didn't happen. I was glad to be alive, I was glad we hadn't lost, I was glad Tyco was through- but I felt no real sense of triumph. Just the fact that Tyco existed meant that there were others like him. One more down. Thousands more to go.
Plus I was cold, and in pain, and I stank. I flexed my arms and they moved awkwardly- my leather jerkin was stiff with congealed blood, and it stuck to the skin beneath. Sooner or later, that night, I would have to haul up a few buckets of freezing, fishy seawater and try to scrub off the worst of it.
It wasn't an attractive thought. To put off the evil hour, I wandered into my cabin.
Gone were the old days of sleeping in the hold with my crew, hearing their every groan and snore and fart. The Banshee had a proper captain's cabin, practically big enough to swing a cat. After years of life on small ships, it was a glorious thing to be able to go into my own space and lock the door. Made even better by the identity of my roommate.
As I had expected, Lynn was in the cabin already, curled up on the bunk we shared. The bunk wasn't big enough for one person in the first place, and it was ridiculous to even try for two, but Lynn was determined. And bendy.
At some point, she had traded her sweaty clothes for a clean tunic. It was sleeveless, and exposed the tattoo on her right shoulder: a storm-petrel in flight, etched in lines of black ink. She had chosen that symbol as my personal mark not long after we first met. Now it was emblazoned on the flag of every one of my ships, and I used it as a signature on the rare occasions when I had to write letters. On Lynn's shoulder, it was supposed to act as proof that I owned her. The trouble was that a number of my men had aped Lynn and gotten the same mark. She was incensed when she first found out- I have never, repeat never , heard someone scream so long without taking a breath- but over time she got to accept the development. She did insist, though, that her tattoo was the prettiest.
She was also studying a paper of some kind.
“What are you doing?” I asked as I hung my sword-belt on a peg.
“Checking the map,” she said, looking up. “I try to keep track of which islands we've used. Not that that matters, does it?”
“What do you mean?”
She rolled the map and tossed it into the open sea-chest. “Well, when you say ‘What are you doing?' in that tone of voice, it means that you know perfectly well what I'm doing but you'd like me to stop because you want attention.”
“You always. But that's fine. I want attention too.” She swung her legs off of the bunk. “So- Tyco's marooned, all's well with the world?”
“All is certainly not well with the world.”
“All is slightly more well with the world.”
“All is marginally less screwed up with the world.”
“Keep a sense of proportion, Mistress. We're alive, and the night is yet young. Want to ravish me?”
I looked blankly at my stained and sticky hands. “Um...sure, I guess. Listen, Lynn-”
“ ‘Um, sure, I guess'?” Lynn repeated, eyebrow arched. “You sweet-talker, you. No wonder you scored so much tail during your misspent youth.”
I flushed. “I didn't really.”
“I can't think why,” Lynn said seriously. “And you can calm down, Darren. I was just pulling your infinitely pullable leg. I know what you need right now.”
The blessed girl had a pail of hot water ready, and rags and soap. The laces of my jerkin had gummed together, and she began on the tricky task of coaxing them loose without cutting them.
Why is it that, when people imagine mortals with divine powers, they always picture them being able to fly, or chop off lots of heads very quickly, or walk through fire? Lynn's own magical ability was far more miraculous and ten times as useful: she could give a complete bath to a filthy and reeking pirate queen using only a single basin of water. It took her full attention, and I closed my eyes as she worked: first peeling off the clotted jerkin, then the ruined shirt, then the rest of my clothes down to the boots; scrubbing off the bloodstains with one warm cloth, wiping off the pink soapy liquid with another, slowing where the skin was gashed or stitched.
The steady motions first lulled me to a doze, making me sway on my feet. Then- as she worked her way over me again, this time with a clean dry cloth- they began to stir me up. She was taking her time with this pass, letting her hands trail over sensitive spots as if by accident. The room suddenly seemed very warm, and my breath rasped faster and faster. Once I gasped.
“Should I stop?” Lynn said, pausing.
“Sweet fucking mother of- NO!” I ground out, not quite coherently.
She resumed, more slowly still. “You're loving this,” she commented, as she worked on one of my calves. “Not just the bath, I mean. You love having me serve you.”
“What's that supposed to- ” I began, and then I gasped again.
“I mean- Mistress- that you like being reminded that I belong to you. That I'm yours. That you can go ahead and use me.”
I probably would have said something in reply if I'd been able to breathe.
She wrung out the last cloth and set it gently in the basin. “This part makes you nervous,” she said. “But it's so simple. You only have to ask. And you can ask for anything you want.”
She rose to her feet. Her hands rested loosely at her sides, and her eyes rested on my collarbone. Her posture was- waiting, that's all, waiting for instructions, without any demanding or baiting. It was a very familiar stance. Not just because I had seen her take it countless times, but because I had seen servants in it from the moment that I knew what servants were. And it made my blood surge, and all at once I found my tongue.
“Take your clothes off,” I whispered.
She must have been waiting for that, considering how quickly her tunic slithered to the ground.
The moment after I woke up, I felt a sense of such total peace and wellbeing that I thought I was about to float.
Two moments after I woke up, the pain crashed in. There was the sting of the sewn cuts, the web of scratches, the duller ache of the bruises, and then a throbbing in the muscles of my sword-arm, which I had overused the day before. Plus a throbbing in other muscles which I had overused the night before.
Three moments after I woke up, my brain came into gear. It started buzzing away with a kind of fizzy unease, circling around the mistakes I had made when we attacked the Kraken , listing all the things that I needed to accomplish that day.
Lynn was still sleeping, her right arm flung out of the bunk and dangling over open air, her left knee drawn up almost to her chest. It looked like a horribly uncomfortable position and I thought of waking her- but then she breathed deeply and a fold of her flimsy tunic fell back, exposing her chest. I recoiled.
When you're- you know- in the moment, you don't think about how these things are going to look when you're- you know- done. The marks were vicious, like giant purple-red bruises. They started at her neck and worked their way downwards. In between were smaller scrapes, fresh and glaring, as well as (I groaned) bite marks. One was right beneath the tattoo meant to stamp her as mine. A band around each wrist was mottled red- oh gods, the ropes. I remembered putting each of those marks on her- why was it so easy when my blood was up? I buried my face into the pillow before I could see anything else.
Why the hell do I do these things to her? I wondered. Why the hell does she let me ?
The first thing that Lynn did when she woke was to streeeetch, in one long motion, arching her feet down to the bottom of the bunk, and then shaking her whole body out. Her face bore the dreamy smile of someone who had nothing to do in the next four hours that required her to get out of bed.
“I dreamed about armadillos,” she said. “You might want to make a note of that. Probably very meaningful. What's the matter?”
She always knew. I bit my lip.
“Darren,” she said warningly. “Spill. You brood ten times more than is healthy in a person of your size and weight. Let's have it.”
I had a life before I was a pirate queen. I captained trading ships once upon a time; I was a member of a royal house and represented it in councils and conclaves. I've haggled and bargained in half the major cities on the continent. I've critiqued a baron's fiscal policy so brutally that he dissolved into tears right there at the table. Yet somehow, when I try to have a conversation about that kind of thing , I always end up stammering and gulping like a half-wit child trying to recite the times-table.
“I just- you see- well, Lynn- You know, sometimes, you know, it's the morning after, and we- you know- the night before, and it just makes me wonder whether I- you know, whether I-”
“This again.” She rolled to face me. “For the thousandth time, Darren, you're just fine in bed, and you'll be even better once you learn to relax.”
“It's...not... that ,” I said stiffly. “I just mean...I want to make sure...Is this what you want , Lynn? Are you getting anything out of this?”
She didn't answer right away, but gave a deep sigh- then tossed the blankets aside and hopped out of the bunk. My heart plunged. “You aren't, are you? You're humouring me, or I pressured you somehow, or-”
“Hang on,” she said, coming back to the bunk with my wine-cup filled. “I think you need to get at least a little squiffy if we're going to talk about this.”
I took the cup, stared at the glassy gold surface. “Why?”
“Because you're shy. Take three good swallows, and then I'll answer you.”
I had to force the stuff down. It was the godawful kind spiked with pine resin, and had a bitter, oily tang. Lynn wiped a drop from the corner of my lip before she went on.
“Mistress, a good rule of thumb for the future. If a girl is yelling ‘More, more, more' while clawing all the skin off your back? Odds are, she's getting something out of it.”
I rolled my shoulders. Now that she mentioned it, my back did sting a little. “But-”
“Look at me, please.”
She didn't wait; she lifted my chin gently with two fingers. “What did you and Jess do in bed?”
My eyes slid away, tried to find anything to focus on but her face. Is it normal to have to tell your new lover what you did with your old one? “The usual, I guess. She would...and then I would...and then we would...well, you know...together. It was...nice.”
“I'm glad. Darren, listen. It's all right to want something other than ‘nice'.”
Maybe the boat was about to sink, I mused. Better yet, maybe I could sink it. Anything to get me out of this conversation. Almost unconsciously, I looked around for a hatchet.
“Did you enjoy what we did last night?” Lynn continued, unmoved.
I found a fascinating piece of lint on the blanket to pick at.
“I'd like you to answer out loud, please. It'll only take one word. One syllable. Three letters at most.”
It took a minute or so, but I did manage it. “Yes.”
I snapped. “A lot. All right? A huge unhealthy hell of a lot.”
“Thank you,” she said solemnly. “So did I. So much that I'll probably go around the ship today wearing a large silly grin.”
I snorted softly. Her hand found its way into mine, soft and cool. “We both want this, Mistress. We both get something out of it. We never do anything that I haven't agreed to. So what in flaming hell is the problem?”
There was a loud, squawking chorus of voices in my head (they sounded partly like seagulls, partly like my maiden aunts)- and they all seemed to agree very heartily that there was a problem. Then again, neither seabirds nor my elderly relations had a tendency to give good advice. My quick-witted, self-assured partner, on the other hand, did.
“I guess you're right,” I said.
She tugged a lock of my hair. “I generally am.”
Someone gave two sharp raps at the door. “Coming up on Freemarket, captain!”
The Freemarket wasn't exactly a market, and it sure as hell wasn't free. It was a mid-sized island, some distance south of the seven larger land masses which made up Kila proper. Every inch of its coastline, at that time, was taken up with docks and harbours, and every inch of its dry land with shops, taverns, and food vendors. The purpose of every single person that lived there was to separate you from your money as quickly and pleasantly as possible.
The prices there were as dizzyingly high as any you could ever hope to scream at, and the quality of the goods was nothing to celebrate- the ale was sub-par, the wine unspeakable. Yet it was always rammed with ships desperate to pour money into its coffers. The whole region, you see, was covered by a strict truce that had stayed intact since the beginning of the war. Within the harbours of the Freemarket, you could dock next to a captain whom you'd cheerfully strangle on any other day, and both of you would still be kicking in the morning. You could meet your worst enemy in the fish market, and both of you would nod your heads grimly and pass by without a weapon being drawn. You paid for the truce through the nose, as you paid for everything else- a stiff tax to the island's harbourmasters and local watch. But it was worth it to be able to rummage through a cheese stall without forever looking over one shoulder. I'm very partial to a bit of cheese myself.
It was a bright, breezy, dew-fresh morning when Lynn and I came up on deck. Regon had already docked and moored the Banshee . The vendors' tents were not far distant, rippling in the light wind. They were of all colours from turquoise to lemon-yellow to scarlet to emerald, and carnival-bright banners streamed from their central poles. Smells came rippling from them: chicken, cumin, fresh-baked bread, honey, garlic, tomatoes. I breathed as deeply as I could without falling over backwards.
But Lynn was frowning, rubbing at one of her elbows. “There's going to be bad weather today. I can feel it.”
I frowned myself. “I thought it was your right arm that ached before a storm?”
“Actually, they both do. The right one is a little bit worse most of the time, that's all.”
“Why is that, anyway? Did they get broken?”
“A long time ago.” She took a deeply suspicious look at the cloudless sky. “You should get on with it. Shopping isn't going to be nearly as much fun once it starts pissing down.”
“Yeah, I'm going. Want to come this time?”
I said this very casually, and waited for today's threadbare excuse.
“I'd like to, Darren, but you know...” She moved her sore arm limply. “I should probably rest this. I'm starting to get a headache, too. I'll stay and watch things here.”
Freemarket had a remarkable ability to provoke headaches in Lynn. Fifteen visits in the past year, and she'd never even set a foot on shore. I suppressed a sigh.
“Don't sulk,” she said, mistaking my expression. “You can manage to buy a few barrels of biscuit without me. I have full confidence. But just in case...”
I was wearing my good blue coat that day; a little swagger never came amiss in Freemarket. Lynn held me at arm's length so that she could inspect me, adjusted the cloth here and there, did up a button that had come undone, and then carefully took me by the lapels.
“Lynn,” I objected.
She just ignored that. “If anyone recognizes you as an exile and gives you a hard time, what do you do?”
“Give them the hairy eyeball,” I recited, a bit sullenly.
“And if that doesn't work?”
This was too humiliating for words. A few of my sailors were standing about smirking; Regon was leaning against the mast, clearly loving every second. I made a mental note of the name of every man watching so that I could pound some respect back into them later. So what if Lynn tyrannized over me every now and then? It was still my damn fleet, wasn't it? Me am boss .
“Darren,” Lynn repeated, in the don't-mess-with-me-I've-seen-you-naked voice. “What if the hairy eyeball doesn't work.”
I surrendered. “I find the nearest watchman and offer him a ten-percent bonus to make them bleed a lot. I can handle myself, you know.”
“No, Mistress, you can't,” she corrected me, with a pat on the cheek, “and you shouldn't be allowed to try. Take Latoya, and a detail of ten men, and don't sneak away from them this time.”
Regon's smirk was diabolical by then, but it was wiped instantly off of his face when Lynn wheeled on him. “And you ! What are you doing still up? Your watch was over hours ago! You think my mistress has the time to come and pick you up if you faint and pitch overboard? Get the hell to your hammock, now !”
“Going!” he blurted, with hands upraised in surrender. “Going, going. Gone.”
“ Pirates ,” Lynn muttered, as he shuffled for the stairs. “If you had brains, you'd be dangerous.” Then she cast another glance at the sky. “I'm serious about the weather, Mistress. You really should get going. And be careful, please?”
“I'll be careful,” I promised. “Don't you worry about it. Just rest. Put something cool on your head, huh?”
“Why would I want to put something cool on my- ” she began automatically, and then clued in. “Oh, right.” She laid a hand unconvincingly against her forehead. “Right, yes, I'll do that, right.”
“Headache,” I snorted, as I strode into the market beside my bosun. “Does she think I'm a moron, Latoya?”
Latoya wisely chose not to answer that. Or maybe she was out of breath, since she was lugging a haversack of coins which was about as heavy as a good-sized pig. My other bodyguards were further back, moving casual-like through the crowds just in case anyone got too interested in me.
At the moment, the crowds all seemed to be busy with the Freemarket's other attractions. It was only ten in the morning, but the hawkers were already setting out lunch. Every stall held giant wooden trays crammed with food: grilled chicken hissing hot on skewers, chunks of spicy sausage dusted with herbs, cherry pastries, onion bread. All of which I ignored. You could easily spend more in a morning at the Freemarket than you could earn in nine lives, if you didn't keep yourself on a very tight leash.
“It's not a good excuse to begin with,” I went on, to take my mind off of the plaintive gurglings in my stomach. “The fifteenth time around, it's pathetic. It's not like Lynn to be so feeble. And what's the point? Lynn likes food, she likes people, she likes bossing me around. Why wouldn't she want to come to the market with me?”
“Afraid,” Latoya said bluntly.
This made me grind to a halt in the middle of the street. I'd never expected her to answer. Most of the time, talking to Latoya was like talking to a wall. A wall that happened to be wearing trousers for some reason. “You mean, she's afraid? Afraid of what?”
“Don't know,” Latoya said, “but she must be.”
She said it as if it was obvious, and with a jolt, I realized that it was.
The question was, afraid of what?
We didn't spend much time at the shipbroker, but it was enough to almost empty Latoya's haversack. Stocking one of my ships, in those days, took a back-breaking load of hard-earned (or more likely, hard-stolen) coin. A far cry from the days when my old lover Jess and her new lover Holly would supply me with ropes and paint and oil and wine and biscuit and mutton, just out of the goodness of their landlubber hearts. But they couldn't be asked to stock twelve ships, and some part of me was grateful to be free of their charity.
Or at least part of their charity. Jess and Holly still maintained the secret harbour for us, and found homes for some of the refugees we rescued. But regardless, my life no longer consisted of a series of short hops between their valley and the coast of Kila. The distance made me feel good, less dependent. As if I had finally proved, to myself and everyone else, that I wasn't hung up on Jess anymore.
But that wasn't on my mind as we bought supplies for the Banshee that day. It was the job of Corto, the quartermaster, to do the actual bargaining; it was Latoya's to inspect the goods and count out the cash. Mine was to stand with crossed arms and scowl, and add a little sneer every now and then as I thought appropriate.
As I stood and scowled and sneered at the right moments, I thought, as usual, about Lynn. If she was afraid of coming to the market, why didn't she just tell me? Did she trust me that little? Or did she really believe that I was too thick to figure it out? Or maybe (and my thoughts wheeled around in the other direction) maybe she did know I would figure it out, maybe she wanted me to figure it out. Why else would she come up with such shabby excuses?
Maybe she was hoping that she wouldn't have to tell me herself.
All right. (I aimed a particularly savage sneer at a porter, and he gulped and ducked his head.) What about the market made Lynn afraid? Was it the fact that it was on shore? But we visited islands and deserted coasts all the time. Lynn didn't exactly dance down the gangplank, but she didn't seem unnerved by the experience, either.
Was it the people?
I almost dismissed that one. Lynn spent her entire life surrounded by sailors, vagabonds, roustabouts. Why should she be afraid of the vendors and shipbrokers at the market? At least they were respectable-
Respectable . My eyes shot wide open. That was it. So simple.
Lynn was afraid that she'd be recognized.
“Finished here, captain,” Corto said as he loped over. “Will we be taking the boxes straight back to the ship, then?”
“ You are. Take the others and get a move on. I'll follow along shortly.”
He put his thumbs in his pockets and waggled them worriedly. “Alone?”
There was no real risk that he'd disobey me- the Kilan commoner who can stand up to a noble is one in a thousand- but I snapped the words out anyway: “You heard me, you mutinous dog! If there's to be any more discussion, it'll be between you and a rope's end.”
“Aye, captain,” Corto said hurriedly, “aye. Understood.”
“Good,” I snarled. “Move your carcass.”
He moved, but I also heard him mutter, “Your slave is going to kill us for this.”
“It'll be good for you,” I called after him, “it teaches humility.”
Then I twiddled my thumbs and tried to look natural until they tramped out of sight.
As soon as the door swung shut behind my bosun, I picked my target. One of the merchants Corto had dealt with was a little fat man with beady, calculating eyes. The perfect informant is easy to threaten and easy to bribe, and the little man looked to be both. I put on a suitably forbidding expression and ambled up to him, taking my time.
The merchant was busy flicking the beads of an abacus and muttering under his breath, and for the first minute he pretended not to notice me, but I could see the sweat beading at the back of his neck. At last, he deliberately, oh so deliberately, set down his stylus. “Is there something more that I can do for you, my lady?”
I laid both my palms flat on his counting-table, and leaned over. “I need to speak with you. Privately.”
He didn't seem nearly as frightened as I would have liked. “My lady, I'm- ” he coughed- “well, I'm flattered, frankly. But I'm a married man, and- ”
Oh, for the love of sainted trout . I got a good two-fisted grip on the front of his florid green shirt and hauled him up.
“Ah,” he said, talking more quickly, “ah. Right. I can see we aren't looking for love. But you do remember the truce, right? The truce which will have your head on a stake in the harbour if you don't make an effort to be civil?”
That was true, and it severely cut down my options. I gave him a little snarl anyway as I let go of his shirt, but it wasn't one of my best. Then I reached inside my shirt, grabbed one of the heavy red-gold coins that I keep there for emergencies, and slapped it into his chubby hand.
He glanced at it casually, and then for just a second his eyes flickered wide. Then he stowed it swiftly in his bulging money pouch and ushered me to a small office at the back of the building.
“What can I offer you?” he said, broad and expansive, once we were back there. “Wine? Ale? Tea? I could send out for fig juice. Meat pies? Parsnip fritters! A girl? A boy? Or both at once? No? I could throw in some warmed oil. Perhaps a sheep?”
“I would settle for a heaping bowl of you shutting up right now, thanks ever so.” I threw myself into a hide-covered chair. “All I want is information. What's your name?”
“Ballard,” he said, inclining his head. “Was that the only information you wanted?”
Smug little ass. Moments like this I feel a lot more sympathetic to the people who wander around casually gutting merchants. I pushed it all back, forced one of my uglier smiles, and said, “What do you know about Lord Iason's daughter?”
Not much. That was the first fact that emerged, although he tried to hide it with bluster.
I waited impatiently as he waffled for five minutes, and then cut him off. “Everyone knows that Ariadne is his only child. Details, Ballard. What does she look like?”
“Look like,” he murmured worriedly. “Well, of course she's been cloistered, she doesn't move in public, I've never seen her- ”
“But you've heard things. Talk.”
He pulled nervously at his lip. “Well, they do say that Ariadne takes after her father.”
I had seen Lord Iason only once, and that from a distance, at the wedding of my second cousin four times removed. Everyone had been half-mad with delight and terror to have him on the guest list, and for the entire week of festivities, he'd been surrounded by drink-stewards and dancing girls. Though I could still picture him vaguely, I didn't want to trust my memory on a point like this. “And what does Lord Iason look like?”
“Very fair, my lady,” Ballard said. “Pale blond hair, pale skin.”
I pictured the girl I had left on the Banshee this morning, her hair almost white in the sun. She was as tanned as any of my sailors, but the inside of her wrists looked like milk.
“Slight of stature,” Ballard continued. “Short, for a man.”
Lynn barely came up to my shoulder; I could lift her with one hand. “How old is she?”
Ballard counted on his fingers. “I believe she would be twenty-one- there were great celebrations several years back for her eighteenth birthday. Perhaps you remember them?”
I didn't. That was around the time that I was being thrown out of my home for being a bit too affectionate with a certain lady beekeeper. “Do you know anything about her personally? Her character?”
He winced, thinking hard. “The only thing that comes to mind is that she's said to be- well, very outspoken. She has the stubbornness of a woman, so they say.” He saw my expression and quickly amended: “A young woman, I mean. But that may have changed since her marriage.”
At that moment, it felt like a stone the size of my head had dropped into the pits of my stomach, and then bounced back up to my throat. “Since her what ?”
“Her marriage, my lady,” Ballard said, surprised. “She was married shortly after she turned eighteen. To Lord Gerard of Saupon.”
Gerard. I had met him, long, long ago, when he visited the stronghold of Torasan. He might have been the heir to a powerful house, but he was also a snivelling, useless boy, with a face like a flour weevil. He thought that his rank gave him the right to grope our serving girls, until one of them got sick of it and threw him in the fish pond- for which she was soundly whipped, while Gerard watched and glowered. It was impossible to imagine gallant little Lynn putting up with him for a second.
“This happened shortly after she turned eighteen?” I asked slowly.
“About three years ago, yes. But then Gerard was killed some time afterwards. A riding accident, I believe. I don't recall exactly when. There were no children from the marriage.” He squinted. “I don't remember hearing any news of Ariadne after that. She has not yet remarried, that I know. Does that answer your question?”
I was still trying to process. Lynn, my Lynn, was really a noblewoman. Lynn had been a wife; Lynn was now a widow.
“That's all,” I said, shaking myself from my stupor. “You can keep the change; you've been very helpful.”
He lifted his silly hat. “All my thanks, my lady.”
I debated with myself for a minute, shrugged inwardly, and then grabbed his shirt again, pulled him in close, and gave him the most absolutely foul look that I could muster. “Don't go offering me any sheep the next time I'm here.”
“I wouldn't dream of it, my lady,” he said, gently detaching himself. “I wouldn't dream of it.”
I walked slowly on my way back to the ship, a sack of the more expensive and delicate supplies on my shoulder. As I went, I tried to match up the dates. Lynn- Ariadne- was married at eighteen. Sometime in the next two years, she had run away and ended up in a miserable little fishing village without so much as a pair of shoes or a spare cloak. When did she run, and why?
It was probably Gerard, I decided. Gerard would make anyone want to head for the hills. Particularly someone as fiercely free-thinking as Lynn. Her duty after marriage would have been to whelp as many children as she possibly could. No surprise that she balked at it, especially since every pregnancy would have begun with a conjugal visit from the Maggot of Saupon. That's what she must have been running from- but what was she running towards? Did she intend to spend the rest of her life in that squalid village? Surely not. Maybe she had something better in mind, but the war scuppered her plans and she got stranded in the wilderness. She would probably have died there, except that she ended up on my ship. Where she was still.
Her parents- her parents must have kept it a secret that she was missing. Not too difficult, considering the isolation in which she must have lived. No-one would even think it strange that she wasn't popping out children, since her husband was now dead. Iason was probably looking for her, but he was doing it very, very quietly. Too quietly to get results, under the circumstances. You had to hand it to Lynn- she knew how to hide. First she buried herself in the poorest, most miserable village she could find, and then she became a slave on board a pirate ship. Not exactly where you would look for a princess.
So they wouldn't find her, and sooner or later the truth would come out, and Iason would be deposed and some other bastard would take his place. I couldn't make myself care much about the prospect. Iason's daughter obviously didn't.
The thought cheered me. I was in the harbour now, running a professional eye over every ship that I passed. The Almathea looked leaky, but that could be fixed with a good scraping and caulking. The Silver Hind - a large galley with a milky-eyed doe as its figurehead- was almost new; I like a ship that's weathered a few storms, myself. Chances were, some of the ships now lying so peacefully along the docks would come under my hand in the coming months. I gave them a piratical grin as I strolled along. See you soon, my pretties.
Me and Ariadne- an exiled noble and a runaway princess, turned pirate and slave. Quite a pair.
From a long way off, I could make out the red sails of the Banshee , and a small figure pacing restlessly in front of them. I checked my pace a little. I had forgotten that I would be in trouble.
Lynn clumped down the gangplank to meet me, and folded her arms. “I know you have an explanation,” she said. “I know it's going to be thrilling. ”
“I'm sorry, all right?” I said, as we boarded the Banshee together. “I know you were right about bodyguards, I just get edgy having people at my elbow all the time. I won't do it again.”
“Hmph,” she said, but she sounded mollified.
I took the opportunity to distract her further. “Report. Everything all right with the ship?”
“The ship,” she said, “is well. A couple of thugs have been standing on the dock there, peering at us inquisitively and scratching themselves where they shouldn't. I put the harbour patrol on notice. And Regon had a rush of blood to the head and challenged Latoya to arm wrestle. I expect him to make a full recovery. Eventually. Oh, you bought apples!”
“I bought apples,” I confirmed, leaning over so she could snag one from the top of the pack. “Not giant rubies, as you would expect from the price of them, but apples. They better be good. Or I'll have to go back and snarl at the shopkeeper.”
She was already halfway finished eating her first, but she paused. “Sorry, should I not have taken one?”
“No, it's fine. Just...take your time with it. Savour.”
I slung the sack to the deck, took an apple myself, and perched on the gunwale beside her. The water and sky were orange and gold. The water lapped softly against the standing ships. Somehow, beautiful moments make me feel awkward. As if I'm stealing something I have no right to, because I've done nothing to earn them. Lynn, ever the pragmatist, would point out that it didn't matter whether I'd earned them, because I needed them to keep going. If you don't love the world, she would say, you won't fight for it.
I examined her sidelong. She was eating the second half of her apple in slow, deliberate bites, licking drops of juice from her fingertips. That was Ariadne of Bain, I told myself- supreme royalty, my mark of ownership stamped on her shoulder, wholly content as she munched a piece of fruit. The idea should have terrified me. Instead, I found myself warmed. She had a world of other options, but I was the one she wanted.
“I'm sorry I had that panic attack this morning,” I said.
She waved that off. “You have panic attacks at regular intervals, Mistress. It saves me the trouble of checking to see that you're still breathing.”
“Yeah, well.” I rolled my own apple between my fingers. “What does it- Why do you- I mean- How does it make you feel?”
I congratulated myself for getting the words out without stammering, but, maddeningly, she came right back with, “How does what make me feel?”
“When I- you know-”
“When you tie me up?”
She took a small, thoughtful nibble, her eyes on the horizon.
“Cherished,” she said.
I grinned in spite of myself, but I aimed it downwards, towards the water. “You never feel scared?”
“Erg- no, Darren.” She kept her tone as serious as possible, which wasn't very. I knew what Lynn sounded like when she was trying not to laugh. “No, pirate queen, for some reason I'm never scared of you. Go figure.”
And why would she be scared of me, I reflected. Even at my worst, I was twenty times better than Gerard.
My edginess of the morning had vanished. Every part of me was suffused with peace. No more mysteries; I knew what was going on. Now, if she could only admit it to me...
That was how far my thoughts had gotten when a shadow fell over me. I twisted back to see a woman of my own height, dressed in the long split tunic of a landsman. Her amber hair- hair that I used to run my fingers through, once upon a time- was in a braid wound around her head, and she wore travelling boots rather than her usual calfskin shoes. This was clearly a woman with a mission.
“Guh buh buh wah?” I stammered.
If you can think of a better thing to say when your ex-lover suddenly shows up aboard your pirate ship, feel free to share.
“Hello,” said Jess, “do you have a minute?”
“I decided that I needed to get hands-on with this business,” Jess told us later, after she'd refreshed herself with three of my very expensive apples. “You've been sending refugees through the valley for years now, and the numbers are piling up. I just didn't feel that I knew enough to help them properly. I thought that if I joined one of your ships and snooped around for a while, I could get a better idea the long-term plan should be.”
“How did you get to Freemarket?” I asked, just as Lynn asked, “Was Holly all right with this?”
“Holly agrees that it's necessary,” Jess said. “Though she did tell me to warn you, Darren, that she's going to gut you with a clam fork if you let anything happen to me.”
I acknowledged the threat with a grunt and a wave of my hand. I am used to them, though I'll never understand why people always hold me responsible.
“And I got to Freemarket on a cattle boat,” Jess went on. “ That was a mistake. I don't think I'll ever be able to look at sirloin the same way. I know I've sprung this on you, but is it all right?”
I was opening my mouth to say something along the lines of Actually, not really, now that you mention it , but naturally Lynn jumped in. “That's fine. You can sail with us for as long as you want.”
Jess did at least have the courtesy to look at me for confirmation. I sighed. “After all that you've done for me, Jess, it's the least I can do.”
It was true, so I tried hard to mean it. But I was already feeling the first twinges of an ulcer.
Jess and Lynn spent most of that evening catching up, while I sat nearby, sharpening my cutlass and feeling left out. It was slightly freakish, how well they got along. Every now and then people ask me about this, so I should come clean: I don't know how you can make your old lover and your new lover get along if they don't want to. Any more than I know how you can stop them from getting along if they do want to. Either way, you're probably out of luck. Grit your teeth and find a cutlass to sharpen. It really does help to release the tension.
I left Jess about a year before I met Lynn- and the breakup wasn't what you would call smooth. I don't think that “smooth” is an option when your lover catches you sneaking out in the middle of the night, with your boots tucked under your arms.
I tried to explain that it was my duty as a Kilan noble to protect the peasants during the war. So the fact that I was leaving her forever had nothing to do with my personal feelings.
That didn't go down well at all.
For the next month, my face sported a bruise the exact size and shape of a wooden spoon.
Later, Lynn insisted that Jess had forgiven me. Which I found very comforting until I realized that Lynn had reached that conclusion without once speaking with the woman.
The first time the two of them met face to face was early in my piracy career- this was when we were shipping in the Idiot Kid , and we had come to the secret harbour to restock. It was Holly, Jess's wife, who normally met us there. But on this day, it was Jess who was waiting by the dock, and even from hundreds of yards away I could see the thunderclouds in her face.
My first impulse was to go and hide under a pile of fish guts and have the crew tell Jess that I'd been eaten by landcrabs. I'm not ashamed to admit it.
But I was an adult, and a noblewoman, and a fearsome pirate, so I screwed my courage to the whatevering place and tromped down the gangplank once it was lowered. Then I got a close-quarters look at Jess, and wanted to tromp straight back up again.
“Where is she?” Jess demanded, without any preamble.
“What?” I said, confused. “You mean Lynn?”
“Don't play games with me, Darren. I want to know what you're doing with that girl.”
“What girl?” said Lynn, popping up in that startling way of hers. “You mean, the girl who has almost perfect hearing and doesn't like to be talked about behind her back? That girl?”
Jess took her in, and I could feel the heat rising to my cheeks. It was a warm day and Lynn wasn't wearing particularly much; added to that was the fact that she was at least ten years younger than Jess herself.
“Heroics aren't enough entertainment for you anymore, Darren?” Jess asked. “You've turned to keeping a concubine?”
“I- uh- ah- ” I looked desperately at Lynn for help, and she pressed my hand reassuringly.
“You must have heard about me from Holly,” Lynn said. “And Holly understands that I want to be with Darren.”
“My wife,” Jess said, “light of my life though she is, can be appallingly stupid sometimes. She doesn't see any problem with this. And that is something that I simply do not understand.”
Lynn shrugged. “Why?”
“Why is there a problem with this? Because I'm Darren's slave?”
For just a minute, Jess was lost for words, and her jaw swung freely. Then she collected herself. “Well, yes, that would cover it, actually.”
“Why?” Lynn said again. “This is Darren that we're talking about. It's not like she's going to sell me to corsairs, or clap me in irons.” She glanced at me, and muttered: “Not unless I beg her to, anyway.”
Jess gingerly placed her hands on her ears. “I did not in any way need to hear that.”
“Well, you raised the subject, so you're going to have to cope. Look, what are you afraid of, specifically?”
Jess's face twitched- I don't think she'd expected so much resistance- but she stopped to think.
“You're giving up so much power,” she said eventually. “Women like us, we so rarely get the chance to make our own choices, to control our own lives. I know that Darren didn't force you into this. But the fact that you want it in the first place- I'm sorry, that just seems bizarre.”
“You want me to be able to make choices?” Lynn said.
“In essence, yes,” Jess said. “I suppose.”
Now she's in for it, I thought. Lynn's face was still solemn, but her eyes gleamed. I stood back and prepared to enjoy myself.
“Let's try a little experiment, shall we?” Lynn said. Clam-shells littered the beach around us. Lynn picked out three of the biggest, crouched, and set them side by side on top of a flat rock. “Darren, I need something small. Your ear-cuff, the silver one?”
I pulled it off with a wince, and tossed it to her. She slipped it under the middle shell, and then began to shuffle them, sliding them around each other on the smooth stone.
“I know what this is,” Jess said, bending over Lynn to watch. “I've seen hucksters do it on side-streets.”
“Beauty and brains,” Lynn said approvingly, as she swapped the shells around one last time. “All right. So you know the point of this. Where's the ear-cuff? And this is a crucial question, because that's the only piece of jewellery that Darren ever wears.”
“It's the only thing I've found that isn't too girly,” I pointed out, but neither of them paid the slightest bit of attention.
“Choose a shell,” Lynn said.
Jess frowned. “But- there's no point, is there?”
Lynn shrugged. “Well, that's how the game works.”
Jess glanced at each of the shells in turn- her eyes flicked up to Lynn's, questioning, but Lynn just smiled pleasantly back at her.
At last, Jess reached out and set a finger on the middle shell.
Then she looked at Lynn again. “It isn't there, of course.”
“Of course not,” Lynn agreed, as she plucked the ear cuff out of her sleeve. “Here you go, Darren- no, careful, don't drop it- oh, you're hopeless, let me.” She clipped the thing back in place. “In a shell game, whatever you're trying to find is up the huckster's sleeve. So you can't choose the correct shell- it's impossible.”
Jess's voice grew sour. “I knew that.”
“You knew that,” Lynn repeated, “and you chose a shell anyway. Because it's hard not to make a choice that someone is telling you to make. But oftentimes, it's making that choice that leaves you powerless. It takes a hell of a strong will to refuse to play the game, or to twist it, and introduce your own rules. Enough that you actually stand a chance of winning.”
“So you're comparing your life to a shell game.”
“That's what it was for a long time. But then I learned to fiddle with the rules.”
An unbelieving smile was beginning to crack Jess's face. “So what would you have done if I'd asked you to choose a shell?”
“Something you wouldn't have seen coming. I would have overturned the rock that the shells were resting on, maybe. Or distracted you with a naked dance. Pretended to be a rabid dog? I don't know. Whatever I did, it would have made me look insane to an impartial observer- like this fine, upstanding citizen here.” She rubbed my arm. “People always seem kind of bizarre when they do something unexpected. But if you don't break out of the rules of the game, then the choices that you make aren't really choices at all.”
She stood up. “I'm going to go say hello to Holly- we'll probably get some supper started. This one forgets to eat if somebody doesn't make her.”
“I know,” Jess said softly.
“I suppose you would, wouldn't you?” Lynn agreed, and it sounded like a peace-offering. “We'll call you for dinner in an hour or so. Assuming that I haven't seduced your wife and run away with her by then. I can be very convincing when I try.”
She headed off into the trees, threading carefully between broken branches in her bare feet, and Jess followed her with her eyes until she was out of sight.
“I like your slave,” Jess said simply.
And from then on, they were friends.
Like I say- go figure.
We hung a hammock for Jess in a quiet corner of the Banshee , and got to our bunk fairly late.
I woke an hour later to a distant rumble of thunder, and then the hissing of rain on the planks overhead. As usual, Lynn's aching arm had been right about the change in the weather. I lay with my head propped up for some time, but in the end, decided not to go up on deck. Regon was fully capable of handling the Banshee, even in foul conditions. And I was drowsy, and warm, and didn't want to move Lynn's head from my shoulder.
But I did take the opportunity to unwind my garrotte from her wrist, and stow it back in my own pocket.
The movement made her stir and groan. I ran a finger very gently down her cheek. Lynn had callous in all the same places that I did, but her face was soft as peach skin.
I wondered what kind of rules she had grown up with in the castle on the island of Bero, and how she had learned to twist them.
“When are you going to tell me the truth, Ariadne?” I asked her.
Her eyes didn't open, but her whole face contorted, as though she was about to cry. “Ar-i-ad-ne,” she said haltingly.
She wasn't awake, that I knew. Lynn talked in her sleep, though it usually didn't make any sense. Just the other day she had sat bolt upright, her eyes blank, and said solemnly: “But I don't want to be a sandwich.”
Tonight things sounded more promising, so I held still and waited. Her lips kept moving, but for some minutes all that came out were mumbles. Then she frowned, and snuggled into me, and the words became clearer.
“...selling...glorp...in...big buckets...” she murmured.
Not exactly what I had been hoping for, but I tried to encourage her. “Sounds good, but where would we get that much glorp in the first place?”
“...so why don't we...arm...the kittens?”
“If you can find any kitten-sized cutlasses around here, then you go right ahead.”
“...I hate my life.”
I straightened up a little. “What did you say?”
Her eyes opened. “I hate my life,” she said again.
My throat felt dry. “Why the hell do you say that?”
No answer. She was staring straight ahead, her eyes glassy.
“Lynn, are you awake?
Still no answer. I passed my hand a few times in front of her eyes. Not a blink, not a twitch.
She was scaring me with that dead-codfish glare. I reached out a hand to shake her shoulder, but to my relief, her eyes slipped shut again, and she let out a long sigh.
Would I wake her if I touched her? I edged a little closer instead, my face a few inches away from hers. “I hope you're all right,” I whispered to her in the dark. “I hope I'm giving you what you need. Because I don't have the faintest clue what that is. How can I, when you won't level with me?”
Lynn murmured something.
“What was that?”
She went on murmuring, very fast and so quiet that it sounded more like a buzz than anything else. Carefully, so carefully, I manoeuvred so that my ear was just above her lips.
Over and over and over and over. There was no emotion in it- she was saying it as matter-of-factly as the alphabet. And yet it somehow seemed like the most honest thing I had ever heard her say.
I lay down beside her again, biting my lip. “Sleep,” I told her uncomprehending face. “Sleep. It'll get better.”
I slept badly after that, which made me short the next morning. Lynn herself seemed fine, chatting breezily in our cabin as I pushed my porridge around and around the bowl. She probably noticed my black mood, but if so, she didn't mention it. She talked about the news that Jess had brought us, and Kilroy's aching hip, and the watch schedule for the next seven days. Then she grimaced, as if remembering something, and tugged at one of the longer locks of her hair.
“I'm going to need it cut again soon,” she said.
I grunted over the top of my cider cup. “You don't need to keep it that short. You're not a convict.”
“We've been over this a million times. I keep it short because I like it that way.”
“Whatever. I still don't understand it.”
I expected her to snap at me, and was feeling just curt enough that I wanted her to. But instead, she glanced over at the wall, her expression one of fierce concentration.
“Let's say,” she began slowly, “that hypothetically- I mean purely, totally hypothetically- let's say that once upon a time, someone made you wear your hair long. Would you understand it then?”
I pictured Lynn- Ariadne - in full court dress, with hair down to her waist. I didn't like the image as much as I had expected. It didn't seem like her, somehow. “I guess,” I hedged. “Depends on why you were told to do it.”
What I had in mind was an overprotective father who wanted his only daughter to look like a girl. But that didn't seem to be it, judging from the way that she was fidgeting.
“Well, let's say,” she began again, “and this is all sheerly hypothetical, remember- let's say that someone liked to grab it.”
“Your hair. My hair. Long hair. Whatever.”
I can't be sure, but I think I gawked. “Who grabbed you by your hair?”
She held her hands up defensively. “We're talking hypothetically, remember? Purely hypothetically! You do know the meaning of the word, right?”
“Of course,” I said haughtily, hoping that she wasn't about to ask me to define it.
“Hypothetically! As in, ‘Let's say, hypothetically, that I was raised by baboons'!”
I was completely lost. “What does this have to do with your hair?”
She clutched her head and made a strangled noise. “ If, and I say if , someone used to grab you by your hair...”
“Then I guess maybe I'd wear my hair short, yeah.”
“There! You see? That's all I was looking for.”
She took a fierce swig from her cider cup, and then fiddled with the hem of her tunic, not looking me in the face. I tried to sort through what she had said. If someone used to kick her around, then her husband was the likely culprit. Hardly an unusual story. Why couldn't she just say it out loud?
I set my own up down with a clink. It was time.
“Lynn,” I said. “Tell me your name.”
She raised her head, and then an eyebrow. “It's ‘Lynn',” she answered. “If you don't know that by now, then there isn't much hope for you.”
“I mean, your real name.”
I hissed, frustrated. “Your birth name, then.”
Lynn set down her empty bowl, placed her empty cup in it, set her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands, and said two words, slowly and distinctly: “Stop it.”
“I said ‘Stop it,' and I said it very clearly. Hopefully, this is where you give in and back off. You never used to snoop. I liked it better that way.”
“It's been more than a year. I've done my best, but I'm sick of hints and hypotheticals. Let's get it over with.”
She waved an impatient hand. “Mistress-”
“Don't call me that when we're arguing.”
“...dickhead, then. Why are you so obsessed with my past? Everybody has one, and mine is no more interesting than Corto's or Regon's. You know that Regon had a twin brother who died of five-day fever when they were nine?”
“Yes,” I lied sullenly.
“Regon had the fever too- it went straight to his balls. He can get it up, with an effort, but he can't get a girl pregnant. Now that's a story.”
It was new information, and it distracted me for a second. No wonder women fought over Regon at every brothel. But I shook my head and refocused. “Stop changing the subject. I want to know who you are.”
She sighed. “I'm yours, you dozy bint. Does anything else have to matter?”
“Yes, actually, it does. Because it obviously matters to you. And I can't help you with it until I know. And helping you with it is my job. So you're going to tell me, Lynn. Right now.”
Up until that point, she had been annoyed, nothing more. At that point, her face shut down. It was as if her entire self was a door which was slamming shut, and it did so in the time it took her drumming fingers to rattle twice on top of her knee.
“You don't tell me what to do,” she said quietly.
“I just asked- ”
“You didn't ask, you demanded. And you don't do that. You have no right to.”
“Excuse me?” I said, beginning to get ruffled. “You're the one who insists on dressing like a slave and acting like a concubine. I didn't ask you to call me ‘Mistress' or brand my damn mark into your arm!”
“Exactly. You didn't ask. I decided, Darren- me . And if I want you to tell me what to do, then I'll bloody well tell you what I want you to tell me to do!”
Despairingly, I flung up my hands. “ARGH!”
“Oh, poor baby. Is the fact that I think for myself giving you a rash?” She stalked over to the sea chest, and pulled out a fistful of maps with shaking hands. “Get out of here already. It's past ten, and I've got better things to do than to listen to you sulk.”
Jess's face had a look of faint unbelief.
“Wait, hang on, let me get this straight,” she said. “Lynn accused you of sulking...”
“And that made you mad...”
“So you decided to come up here and sulk some more?”
Grumpily, I tossed a few biscuit crumbs over the side. The water swirled as fish snapped them up. “I wouldn't put it that way.”
“No, you wouldn't , would you?”
It was three hours since our spat, and Lynn still hadn't emerged from the cabin. I had spent the time lurking around the rest of the ship, inspecting things that didn't need inspecting and yelling at sailors that didn't need to be yelled at. At last, Regon told me in the nicest possible way that I was being a horse's ass and should take a time out. Which was why I was standing by the gunwale throwing biscuit crumbs to fish and letting my old girlfriend rake me over the coals.
I've had better afternoons.
“I think she's made it perfectly clear that she'll tell you about herself when she's ready. Why can't you just wait?”
“Because it's getting ridiculous! I already know everything that she's going to say, more or less. What's she waiting for? Why can't she just trust me? Haven't I earned that from her by now?”
Jess rolled her eyes, and hugged her cloak more tightly around herself. There was a chill in the air. “Trust can be earned, Darren, but it can't be owed. You're just making things worse by demanding it.”
I tossed the rest of the biscuit over the side, more violently than necessary. Why did everyone in my life treat me like a moron or a child? “I'm not asking for much here. She doesn't have to tell me her life story. All she has to do is to admit that she's Ariadne!”
“Has it occurred to you,” she said slowly, “you inestimably stupid person, that maybe Lynn isn't Ariadne?”
“All the evidence supports it- ”
“No, Darren.” She freed a hand from her cloak so that she could tap my chest in emphasis. “You only see the evidence that supports it. Everything else, you ignore.”
I caught her poking finger and pushed it away from me. “What do you mean, everything else?”
“Her scars , for one thing.”
You can't live on board ship and be shy about your body. Just about everyone I sailed with must have seen the tracery of white marks on Lynn's skin. Mainly on her back and thighs and belly. Nobody on board paid much attention to them- probably because just about all my sailors were patterned the same way.
I shrugged. “What about her scars? They're rope burns. And that kind of thing. I have them too. You can't avoid them when you're a sailor.”
“But Ariadne is an only child, right? She wouldn't have lived on board ship.”
This was true. Ariadne, unlike me, wouldn't have been shoved out to captain merchant boats as soon as she turned fourteen. Lucky dog. “So she got them after she left home. Gods know how long she was in that fishing town. She must have picked them up there. Probably from working on the skiffs-”
At this point, Jess was forced to take a couple of deep breaths. “Have you looked at those scars?”
“I've seen them, of course. I don't hold a candle up to them and ogle inquisitively. Why would I want to do that?”
“ To learn something, you clot. The lines of those scars are broken up.”
“So? SO? So she got them when she was still growing. Someone beat the holy hell out of her when she was a kid. How does that fit in with your precious theory?”
“Huh,” I said, and then “well, there must be a way to explain that.”
Jess threw up her hands. “Why? Why does there have to be a way to explain that? Because Darren of fucking Torasan likes the idea that her lover is royalty, so she won't bloody well let it go! Drop the theory and start from the facts. She's badly scarred. She's scrawny- probably didn't get enough to eat when she was little. She's a schemer and a survivor, and has nightmares, and she pushes you around unmercifully, because she's scared numb at the thought of someone else controlling her. Are you starting to get a picture here?”
Being told off makes me surly. I just grunted, though my stomach was beginning to sour.
“She's no pampered little princess, Darren. Someone messed with her, badly. I don't know how or who or when or why, but that much is obvious. And she's as much of a commoner as I am. You think a noblewoman would be willing to black your boots or gut your fish? I'm sorry if all this offends your aristocratic tastes, but- ”
“Now that's not fair,” I snapped. “I never gave a damn that you were a peasant.”
“But you'd like it if Lynn turned out not to be.”
I was floundering. “I just don't think that she is! You didn't see the village where I found her. Gods on high, I can still smell the place.”
“Watch it, Darren,” Jess warned me quietly, “just watch it. Chances are, you're talking about her hometown. I was chatting with her last night...”
“Were you?” I said grimly. “Sounds cosy.”
“Stop it, you hopeless letch. We all know, I'm not her type. The point is, I asked her whether she missed anything from home.”
I was bristling. “I'm sure she does. That village was terrible scenic. The piles of rotting whitebait; the dung-filled hovels; the hordes of raiders, their armour glinting faintly in the summer sun...”
“If you don't shut up I'm going to hurt you. Darren, she said that she misses her sister.”
I was so jolted, I forgot to pretend I wasn't. “But...Ariadne is an only child.”
“Finally sinking in, is it?”
It took a while. “Lynn has a sister.”
A seabird skimmed the surface of the ocean nearby. Its cry seemed very loud.
I ran my tongue along my teeth. “Her sister- her sister wasn't one of the kids that we picked up in her village, was it? None of them looked anything like her.”
“That's what I asked. She said no- and then she clammed up. So I didn't push it.”
I snorted. “Well, that was damned inconsiderate of you, wasn't it? Now I'm going to have to spend a bloody age getting the goods out of her myself.”
“She was crying,” Holly said frostily, “so I don't advise it.”
“She never cries in front of me,” I muttered, parenthetically, and then my train of thought abruptly changed direction. “HANG ON! Did you imply back there that Lynn is your type?”
That time I thought she really was going to go after me with her bare hands, but instead she just stalked off to the other side of the ship, making strangled noises. By the time she got back, she was more or less under control. “Your brain,” she told me tightly, “is composed entirely of soft unripened cheese. So it's in a spirit of charity that I tell you this. Every person in Lynn's village- every person except the handful you rescued- was snatched by some army or faction or bunch of thugs. If Lynn's sister was in that village, then she got taken. And she's most probably a camp whore, if she's still alive.”
I was going limp all over. “But if that's true then- why hasn't Lynn said so? I could do something, maybe, I could help!”
“Because you're so in love with your own stupid fantasy! It practically radiates out of you, what you're hoping for. Lynn knows damn well that you're not ready for the truth.”
My brain was sparking all over with frustration. “Well, if you're so in tune with her emotions, why don't you ask her? Just ask her flat out whether she's Ariadne!”
Jess's grey eyes burned into mine. “I did.”
Ten seconds of silence; then I found my voice. “And what did she say?”
A tiny shrug. “She said ‘No'.”
Lynn didn't cook that night. The new casks of salt beef proved to be maggot-ridden, so the men chewed cold biscuit and looked gloomy. To make it up to them, I had a barrel of ale hauled up to the deck. Before long, they were staggering about with drink-misted eyes, restored to grinning, back-slapping cheer. It wasn't particularly good for ship's discipline or for my mood, but I'll take drunken sailors over mutinous sailors most days. To keep casualties to a minimum, I had a lantern lit, and seated myself on a crate by the helm to keep a watchful eye on the festivities.
As I watched, I fretted. Should I tell Lynn that I knew about her sister? Offer to go looking for her? But surely Lynn would tell me if that was what she wanted. And wouldn't she have mentioned something earlier? No, the best approach was probably to swear up and down that I wouldn't ask more questions for the next million years. Maybe I'd have to buy her some presents, as well. I wondered if peasant girls liked getting flowers.
I was so deep in thought that I didn't see Lynn approaching until she plonked herself on my lap.
“Rejoice, O Mistress,” she said, settling herself comfortably. “For I am over it. Come ye out of the doghouse, and bask in the sunshine of my smile.”
I perked up instantly. “You're not mad?”
“I needed to cool down, but no, it's all right. I'm still breaking you of a few bad habits. It's an ongoing process.”
She smiled lopsidedly, snaking an arm around my shoulders. With that touch, the tension all floated out of me in a big puffy cloud, and I smiled back.
“I'm sorry,” I said, “I know I was being an ass. I won't try to pump you again.”
“Yeah, she said that you wouldn't.”
“Jess put in a good word for you. She said that you take a while to learn things, but once you do, you take them to heart.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Like a horse?”
“Like a parrot,” she suggested.
“Like a pirate queen.”
“Now you've got it.”
Lynn showed no sign of wanting to budge from my lap, and my legs were asleep before ten minutes had passed, but I still remember that as a perfect evening.
The largest cask of ale I had bought at the Freemarket turned out to taste a little better than goat piss, for a change, and we celebrated by drinking just about all of it. Somewhere halfway down the cask, people got to dancing, and if you haven't seen a drunken pirate do a staggering jig, then you're missing something in your life. Jess didn't get into the action, but she sat near the mast, flickers of lantern-light on her hair, and her eyes sparking with amusement and interest. Sometimes Lynn talked and sometimes she drank and sometimes she sang, loudly and tunelessly. But whatever she was doing, she kept her right hand on me- rubbing her thumb back and forth against my shoulder, or drawing small circles on the skin of my back. It was like an unspoken promise that the next thing to happen would be even better than the last.
Times like that never last, do they?
There was no warning. Lynn had been telling (with great gusto and accompanying hand gestures) a fairly shocking limerick about a walrus in a brothel. All at once, she glanced up, and her body froze. If you think of a doe grazing, who suddenly snaps to high alert when a noise sounds nearby, then you'll have the right idea. I had seen her do this before, and had learned not to question it. Motionless, I waited.
Her head tilted ever so slightly as she listened to something that only she could hear- and then she reached above her head, flicked open the door of the lantern, and pinched out the flame.
Twenty different conversations, bawdy jokes, and peals of laughter went out with the light. Wind whispered, a board creaked underfoot. Lynn's voice sounded cool and calm in the darkness. “Weigh anchor, set the sails. Quietly . If anyone makes unnecessary noise, then my mistress will stuff your own feet down your throat.”
I scowled around, to let the crew know that I would do just exactly that, but then realized that no-one could see me in the moonless night. Anyway, there was no need. Regon and Corto were swiftly prodding the sailors into place. Ropes creaked as men sprang up the rigging, and then came the rattle of anchor chain. Lynn, meanwhile, had peeled herself off my lap and hurried to the Banshee' s starboard side.
I joined her there. “What is it?” I hissed.
Instead of answering, she took my index finger and used it to trace a patch along the horizon. A dark patch, a ship-shaped shadow where the stars were blotted out. There was no way to see detail, but it seemed like a large one. I swore very softly.
She angled her head and spoke directly into my ear. “The big question is whether it's going to follow.”
The rattle of the anchor chain had given us away, and the other ship was moving almost as soon as we were. The wind dropped bit by bit throughout that long night, and though we crowded on more sail, I could feel the Banshee slow almost to a crawl in the water. Again and again, I lost sight of our pursuer and felt a great bound of hope- but each time Lynn would shake her head. Shortly afterward, I would see the telltale silhouette against the starry sky, often much closer than I had thought.
If Lynn hadn't ordered half the men below to sleep, I don't think I would have thought of it. She herself refused to go down. By dawn, I was moving at half speed, almost drunk with fatigue. Lynn still looked fairly fresh and whole, though every so often her right eyelid twitched.
By now we could see the pursuer. It was a war galley, a new one, with its sides still gold with varnish. The grappling hooks were coiled along its side, grim and threatening as ever but also somehow surgical, neat, precise. The figurehead was-
“That's the Silver Hind, ” I told Lynn, when I recognized the deer's head. “I saw it at the Freemarket. The bastards followed us.”
“Not good,” she murmured. “Ten different kinds of not good.”
At that moment, there was a flap- flap- flap above us, the tell-tale sign of a loose sail. The red canvas flopped against the mast in limp folds, heavy and empty.
The wind had died completely.
“Eleven,” Lynn amended.
Big enough for two, the cabin was cramped when we'd all crowded in. Jess, Spinner, and Regon fit side-by-side on the bunk. Latoya took up a position by the wall, feet shoulder width apart and arms clasped. Her expression promised a dreadful fate for anyone who asked her to sit down. Lynn was perched on the closed lid of the sea-chest. That left just enough room for me to pace two steps back and forth.
“All right,” I said, to open the session. “Suggestions.”
Regon spoke first as usual. “Do nothing. Keep watch, wait for the calm to end. The Banshee will run away from those bastards under a fair wind.”
“We don't know that,” I said, pacing.
“The Badger and the Sod Off are somewhere nearby,” he insisted. “They could arrive here any time.”
“Not in a calm. Besides, how do we know that they're not waiting for reinforcements? They followed us for a reason. They probably didn't plan to take on the pirate queen alone. And I doubt they plan to let us just leave. Spinner, your turn.”
He shrugged. “Spike and scuttle?”
By this, he meant a tricky, near-suicidal manoeuvre that involved a small picked party swimming or rowing to the enemy ship, then sinking it by way of a slow leak. I shook my head impatiently. “They'll be on the watch for something like that. Not like they have anything else to do. Latoya.”
She cracked her knuckles. “Fight.”
I might have known. “Too risky. The Hind ships somewhere around seventy crewmen, judging from the size...”
“We have fifty,” she continued, implacable. “You and I could handle ten each of theirs.”
I wasn't at all sure of that myself, and was grateful when Lynn's head snapped up. “Absolutely not,” she said. “No out-and-out battle. We don't have a single advantage here- no intelligence, no element of surprise. We can't even manoeuvre. If we go into a hack-and-slash, half of us are going to die, whether or not we win. I won't tolerate those odds.”
Privately, I agreed, though I didn't know whether we had a choice. “Lynn, it'll make me very happy if you say have a plan.”
“Buy him off,” she said simply. “That's the ship of a man who likes money. If he's being paid to go after the Banshee , then make him a counter-offer. One that doesn't involve him risking his hide.”
“That makes us look weak,” Latoya objected. “He'll be spurred to attack.”
“Not if the offer's good enough. We can afford it. Anything else is too damn risky.”
I mulled it over. It wasn't quite in keeping with the pirate queen's fearsome reputation. But there are times when staying alive just has to come first.
Jess cleared her throat. “For what it's worth, I would agree.”
That clinched it. “Fine. Lynn, talk to Corto, do an inventory, fill a chest with shiny stuff. Regon, the parley flag. And Latoya, stop sulking. You'll get another chance to kill things soon enough.”
It took half an hour of shouting and flag-flapping to get the Hind to agree to a parley. It took the better part of four hours to decide where it would be held.
I had tried to cut the discussion short by offering to go to the Hind myself. Lynn had responded with a flat “No” which was obviously meant to cover any other noble, self-sacrificing suggestions I might make.
“We can't make it that easy for them,” was how she put it. I had never heard of an envoy being seized during a parley. It was against all the laws of the sea- and those laws may be unwritten and unspoken, but they're enforced viciously by the people who know them. But as Lynn patiently reminded me, I was an exile, and so it was the right of any Kilan to kill me on sight if we met outside a truce zone. I couldn't fault the logic, but I could grumble and I did. She patted my cheek and told me not to be a brat.
Finally, after a long, sweaty time of waiting, a longboat began to inch over from the Hind.
During the wait, Corto had prepared the deck for the envoys' reception. Biscuit boxes had been stacked into a kind of lounge shape at one end of the deck, and a crimson cloth draped over it to form a throne. Sitting on the thing, I felt, would make me look like twenty kinds of twat, but what the hell. It wouldn't be the first time that I had humiliated myself in order to feed the legend of the pirate queen. It wouldn't be the last.
Unless this thing went south and the men of the Hind cut us all to pieces, I thought morbidly. Then it would be the last.
Spinner bustled around the deck, setting goblets ready on an upturned barrel, but I roused myself from my funk when he produced a bottle of wine. “Not that stuff,” I protested. “That's the foul kind that tastes of pine juice. Go get some of the red. Where's Lynn?”
“She went below,” he told me, as he fussily dusted the goblets with his sleeve. “To change, she said.”
“Thank the gods,” I muttered fervently. I wasn't so stupid as to want to go through the parley without Lynn, but my spirits rose several notches at the thought that she would be wearing the same drab clothes as the rest of the crew, showing only a few square inches of skin.
But she hadn't resurfaced by the time that the longboat bumped against the side, and seven men from the Hind pulled themselves on deck.
They made my mouth go dry, if you want to know the truth. There's one thing in confrontations that matters more than anything else, and that's confidence, self-assurance. It doesn't matter how strong you actually are. If you're going in, go in with a swagger and that may be enough to end the fight. Birds know this, with their colours and plumage; lizards and moths know it, and above all, Lynn did. Even I know it, and it's saved my life more times that I can count.
But I'm not immune to the trick just because I understand it. They looked so bloody confident.
The one in the middle was obviously in charge, three sailors on either side flanking him. Dressed simply, in black jerkin and high boots, he wore no obvious weapon. Nor did he bother to glance around the deck, where my crew stood or sat in silent clumps. Without waiting to be asked, he seated himself on the stool that had been placed facing my throne.
“Darren of Torasan,” he said by way of greeting. “You have been busy.”
I inclined my head briefly. “Your name?”
He smiled. “Timor,” he said- and nothing more.
It's a soft kind of snub to refuse to give your lineage or rank or allegiance when asked your name. It's also a way to deny your questioner any useful information. Timor's face and clothes gave no sign of what he was- noble or merchant, hired man or mercenary. I couldn't remember a lord named “Timor” but there are too many of us to keep track.
I didn't rise to the insult- after all, Lynn had been insulting me that way for over a year. Instead, I leaned back, folded my hands, and waited.
As I had expected, he grew impatient after a few moments of silence. “Well?” he said. “You suggested this- surely there's something you want to discuss?”
“Since you ask so politely, there is,” I said. “I'd like to discuss how we can stop this situation from erupting into stupidity.”
He looked politely baffled. “I can't think what you mean, Lady Darren. Or- forgive me- is there another term of address for pirates?”
Slimy bastard. “If you know my name, you should also know that I don't like beating around the bush. If you want to talk, talk straight. Otherwise, get the hell off my ship, and later on we'll meet in a less friendly setting.”
His smile glinted, as if he was immensely pleased. “You can end this parley at any moment you choose, my lady. But of course, we both realize that you would regret that decision more than I would.”
It was tense, and growing tenser. With six of his crewmen towering around him, Timor looked calm and assured, utterly at his ease. I had attendants of my own- Regon stood at my right hand, Spinner at my left, and behind me loomed Latoya, her massive shadow leaving my whole body in the shade. Jess lurked amidships, her face grave and stony with concentration. But the person I chiefly needed was still nowhere to be seen. Where the buggering fuck was Lynn?
I desperately wanted to call a time out and go hunt for her. But I quelled the longing and pressed ahead. “Let's make this simple. Someone, I don't care who, hired you to hunt me down.”
“Correct, in essentials,” he admitted, with another polite smile.
“Then surely they gave you the litany.” Ever so slightly, I adjusted my weight in the chair, letting light glint along my cutlass. “Mara of Namor, Gorax the Savage, the hillmen of the eastern islands, the Tawran Beast, to name a few. Most recently, Tyco Gorgionson. All people who underestimated me. All dead, or wishing very fervently that they were. Do you want to be added to that list?”
“Your concern for my safety is very touching,” he said. “But I don't quite see the point of it.”
“I'm offering to make this easy. Five hundred crowns-”
He gave a startled laugh.
“- if you walk away,” I finished. “Not what your employer is offering you, I'm certain-”
“Nowhere close,” he said, amused. “You're underestimating what you're worth on the global market, my lady. I don't know if your ship could carry enough precious metal to make up the purchase price.”
He rose. “I've enjoyed our conversation, my lady, and I'll enjoy meeting you again later, I'm sure.”
He turned to go, and his sailors turned with him. Spinner gave me a frantic, desperate look- and I stared stonily back until he got the message. Scoffing at an offer, feigning disinterest, is the heart of bargaining. Timor's amusement at the bribe could well be an act, put on to drag a higher price from me. I had taken that possibility into account when fixing the amount of my first bid.
I waited until Timor had his hands on the rail, ready to pull himself over, and then I commented, “I might go as high as six hundred.”
He looked over his shoulder, and his grin was cheery. “You really do underestimate your worth, pirate queen,” he said, and hopped up on the side.
I gnawed the inside of my own cheek. There was also the possibility that his amusement wasn't an act at all.
“Watch yourself, girl!”
Something had bumped against Timor just as he was about to swing onto the rope ladder. He caught himself before he fell, looked around wildly, and caught the arm of the culprit.
I rose halfway out of my throne. Timor was clutching Lynn's upper arm, almost making her drop the wine-jug she carried. But it wasn't that which made my eyes bug out. She had gone below to change clothes, so Spinner had said, and that was true. She was now clothed- if you could call it that- in a piece of white linen, barely bigger than a handkerchief. It was caught at her shoulders with two brass buttons, and belted with a girdle of white rope. A coppery pattern played around the bottom edge, and a thin copper bracelet encircled each of her wrists.
That was all. But that was enough. The linen was thin as a sigh, almost sheer. It whispered. It clung. It did other things that made it hard for me to breathe. And Timor released her arm as though it was made of hot iron.
“Watch yourself,” he repeated, more gently this time.
“Forgive me, lord,” she answered. “Will you take a cup of wine before you go?”
He hesitated no more than a second, and then he swung back onto the deck. A part of me couldn't blame him. But that part of me was drowned out by the much greater part of me which now wanted to pound him into the deck until nothing was left but stains and bloody rags.
Lynn poured, deftly and silently, and handed Timor his goblet first. Her slave tattoo, the storm-petrel, was clearly visible, and Timor's eyes flicked to it. I gripped the hilt of my cutlass so tightly that its ridges cut into my palm. It seemed a long time before Lynn was at my side, pouring my own drink.
I spoke to her through gritted teeth: “And what in hell do you think you're doing?”
“Not now,” she whispered, “trust me.”
She bowed her head, ceremoniously, as she passed the wine to me, and I gave a little ceremonial wave of my hand in reply, hoping that would end it. Maybe now she would vanish back downstairs and change clothes again...
I should have known better. As soon as Lynn's hands were free, she turned in Timor's direction. Then, without the least trace of hesitation or shame, she knelt at the foot of my throne.
It was pure shock, I think, that prevented me from jumping up and yelping. That, and the knowledge that I was embroiled in a tremendously difficult negotiation, and that jumping up and yelping would be about as appropriate as farting during an execution. But I had to fake a coughing fit to give myself a few spare seconds.
“I hope you're not ill, Lady Darren,” Timor said in his oily tone. “It can't have been the drink. It's very fine.”
This with his eyes fixed somewhere beneath Lynn's collarbone. Every last drop of my blood began to steam. I had to end this fast or I really would kill the man.
“Six hundred and fifty crowns,” I said flatly. “In milled coins, full weight. I won't go higher. You can take it, or you can lose half your strength and maybe your head trying for more.”
I gestured with my right hand as I said this, and my fingers brushed against something soft- Lynn's hair. Had she put her head in the way? I was about to pull back my hand, embarrassed, but Timor's sharp eyes were there, all over us. I let my hand rest where it was, cupping the top of Lynn's blond head.
“Six hundred and fifty,” Timor repeated softly.
“Six hundred and fifty that you don't have to bleed for. Be sure to factor that part in.” I took a furious gulp of wine with my free hand. “Has anyone ever told you what I do to the men I defeat? Because it's gripping. I intend to write a book.”
Lynn's head dipped forwards, then tilted to the side. It made my hand slip down past her hair to her neck, as though I was- oh gods, it looked like I was stroking her. As if that wasn't bad enough, Lynn let out a little sigh as she pressed back against my hand. Exactly like an adoring pet. Red-faced, smouldering, I swigged more wine.
“Six...hundred...and...fifty,” Timor said again, and it was clear that he was thinking about anything but the number. “It still seems a little inadequate, Lady Darren.”
That was it. I was tired of this stupid dance. I uncrossed my heels, ready to surge to my feet and throw the man headlong from my ship, parley be damned- but that's when Lynn spoke up.
“Mistress,” she said, her eyes still downcast. “May I speak?”
I hesitated for three full seconds. Her hand found its way back to my ankle and squeezed hard. Trust me .
“Very well, girl,” I said gruffly. Oh, but she was going to pay for this later.
Lynn raised her head and sat up on her heels, looking Timor full in the face. “If you don't think the payment is enough, lord,” she said, “then we could discuss it when I deliver the gold on behalf of my mistress.” She paused delicately. “In depth.”
My heart clenched into a fist-sized ball of stone.
“Ahhhhh,” Timor said, leaning back. “Ah.”
His smile this time was less mocking, more knowing, and it was all I could do not to go for his throat.
“I have to admit,” he said gravely, “this gets more tempting by the minute.”
No. No. Absolutely not. Now I did get to my feet, and Timor, startled, did likewise. Lynn stayed where she was, kneeling on the floor between us.
“You're a little too hasty,” Timor warned me. “I never said that I agreed.”
And you won't get a chance to agree, you slimy son of a so-and-so . I was opening my mouth to tell him exactly where he could go and exactly what he could do when he got there, when Lynn's hand touched my ankle again. It was almost apologetic, this time. Trust me .
The air hung heavy around me, waiting.
“Seven hundred,” I whispered.
Timor nodded. “Done.”
The crew was stone silent after Timor left. Lynn pulled herself to her feet and headed below without looking at anyone. I took a few deep breaths before I went after her.
When I entered our cabin, she had the sea-chest open and was rifling through its contents. Maybe she was searching for something. Maybe she just didn't want to face me.
I bolted the door and rubbed my hands. “All right,” I asked her. “What's the plan?”
She glanced back briefly over her shoulder, but returned her attention to the contents of the chest before she answered. “I'm going to go over there with the money.”
“And then I'll come back.”
“And in between?” I prodded. “You had me worried for a second there- but I know you're not planning to sleep with him. I know you better than that.”
Now she did turn around, slim and pale in her skimpy tunic and copper jewellery. “Do you?” she asked simply.
There was no answer to that, really. The silence in the cabin stretched and stretched.
“Why?” I managed to say at last. It came out a lot louder and harsher than I had intended. “Why would you do that? Do you think you're some kind of whore? Do you think that I think of you that way?”
Lynn reflexively pulled off her bracelets, then pulled them back on. “I know damn well I'm not, and I know damn well you don't.”
“Then why ? Why did you even start the sex-kitten act? I had things under control!”
“He was bored, and you were losing him,” Lynn said flatly. “That's not control. We had to sweeten the deal.”
“That doesn't mean you have to be the sweetener! Hell, we could have offered him Latoya!”
“Men tend not to go for Latoya.”
“How is that better? Darren, if this has to happen, why shouldn't it be me?”
“Because- ” I began without thinking, and then stopped myself.
“Because I'm yours,” Lynn finished the thought. “But that's not a good enough reason. Everyone on this ship is a person. Nobody deserves this.”
My brain was spinning with that familiar reckless heat. “So let me do it!”
Lynn sorted slowly through linen shirts. “You can't, Darren. He doesn't want you. And don't get ruffled- that's not your fault. I'm little and I look helpless and that's what he's interested in. It's pretty obvious.”
To my horror, I realized that tears were beginning to prick in the corners of my eyes. “For the love of the gods, Lynn, you can't possibly want to do this!”
She slammed the lid of the chest. “Of course I don't,” she snapped.
“Then don't! We'll find another way! We'll take our chances in a hack-and-slash! Anything's better than delivering you to that bastard gift-wrapped !”
“Anything's better?” she repeated in disbelief. “How do you figure? Every time we attack a ship, I have to cope with the idea that you might end up headless. You think I like sending you out to collect another set of scars? How is this different?”
“Because it's different! Getting wounded in battle- it's clean. It's nothing like having to lie there and take- that. ”
“'That' has a name. It's sex. It's just sex. It's as much of a weapon as anything else. Don't make too much of it.”
“Do not you fucking tell me that I am fucking making too much of it! It matters, all right! It fucking matters!”
“ Nobles ,” she muttered viciously to herself, her forearms resting on top of the sea chest. “My god, your priorities. Blood. Descendants. Family purity . You sit up straight at the table and you observe codes of honour and you tremble at the thought of getting your hands dirty. Darren, this is how it works in the real world. You think I've never had to do something like this before?”
I gaped. “Oh, Lynn. Oh Lynn, I'm so sorry- ”
She rubbed her eyes fiercely. “Stop. Stop. Don't get maudlin on me again . I'm just trying to tell you- this is life . Timor may be creepy and unclean, but you know what? I'd sleep with him every day of the week. And twice on Tuesdays. If that's what it took to keep you alive.”
I slammed my hand down on the bunk. “What if I told you I'd rather die?”
“For one thing, I wouldn't believe you,” she snapped, as she got to her feet. “For another, I wouldn't care. I don't let people die for stupid reasons. ”
My words to her, on the day we met. My words when I told her that I was going to force her to leave her burnt-out village, whatever that took. I set my jaw.
“ Besides, Darren,” Lynn went on, “you're not the only one at stake here. I'd fuck Timor to save Latoya's life. Or Spinner's, or Regon's...Hell, it may not be customary to admit it, but I would fuck him to save my own.”
“Then fuck him to save your own life! Leave me out of it!”
We were facing each other now, our chests heaving. Then, with an effort I could almost see, Lynn gathered up her anger and pushed it away.
“Fine,” she said, low and weary. “That's what I'll do.”
She brushed past me on her way to the steps. My anger had evaporated. I just felt cold.
But even through the numbness, I felt something tugging at my brain. Nobles, Lynn had said, you nobles ...
So Lynn wasn't a noble. Jess had been right after all.
And maybe, I thought dimly as I headed after her, maybe that's why we had such different reactions to this. Maybe we were too different, deep in our core...
Nothing had been done when we got to the deck. The longboat was still waiting in the hoists; the chest of gold hadn't been loaded. Most of the crew was gaping at me with the same fixed, unbelieving expressions.
“Well?” I growled. “What are you bastards waiting for? A sign from heaven?”
They moved then, slowly. The longboat juddered down in the hoists, onto the surface of the sea. Lynn kicked the rope ladder over the side and, without a word, climbed down, hand over hand. I stood staring at her as she took up the oars.
Regon looked from her to me, his mouth round with shock. “Captain!-”
If he hadn't spoken up, I'm ashamed to say, I would have let Lynn board the Hind alone. But Regon's words revived some of my senses. “Latoya, go with her,” I said, my voice cracking. “Spinner, you too.”
They nearly flung themselves over the side. Lynn didn't seem happy to see them. She climbed forward into the bow, letting Latoya take the oars; drew her legs up, and hugged them with her bare arms.
Latoya began to row, step by steady stroke. Spinner's hand rested protectively on top of the chest of gold. The longboat cut a clean furrow in the water.
It was quiet as death over there.
The crew had wisely allowed me my space. I stood alone at the gunwales, shaving off slivers of wood with the edge of my dagger. I would have skewered any of my crew who defaced the ship in this way, but it was my damn boat and I was angry and if they didn't like it then I would happily toss them overboard. Me am boss.
A shadow, a presence behind me, and Jess joined me at the rail. “Aren't you cold?”
I grunted, not interested in pleasantries. Though, now that she mentioned it, there was a chill breeze now that the sun was down.
A chill breeze- I glanced up at the sails, saw them flutter. The calm had ended- well, wasn't that perfect. We could be running now, running before the wind, the Hind leagues away; Lynn and I could be squashed together in our tiny bunk, ignoring the entire rest of the world. If only she hadn't done it...
“I know what you're thinking,” Jess said.
I grunted again. “You always think you know what I'm thinking.”
She ignored that. “Maybe you're right, maybe we could have escaped, but maybe you're wrong. Timor might have attacked as soon as the wind rose. We can't know for certain.”
I rested my elbows on the gunwale, and my chin in my hands. There were lanterns moving about on the deck of the other ship, pools of orange light. Any minute Lynn would appear there. Any minute, surely...it had been so long already.
“Do you know why it took Lynn so long to get back up to the deck?” Jess said abruptly.
“She was getting dressed. Picking out the outfit most likely to seduce that revolting rat-bastard-”
“She was throwing up. Repeatedly. Or so Corto tells me.”
I stared blankly at my hands. “Are you blaming me for that?”
“Because I didn't want her to do this.” I felt the tears coming, and could only keep them at bay by speaking more savagely. “I didn't ask her to do this. I begged her not to! Why the hell couldn't she just listen to me?”
Jess smiled sadly. “Because she loves you.”
I carved off another chip of wood and tossed it over the side. “So what?”
“What do you mean, so what?”
“She did it because she loves me. I asked her not to do it because I love her. We're partners, for fuck's sake! Doesn't my vote count?”
“Yes, but Darren, it's her body. You can plead and argue and cajole, but if she doesn't change her mind, that's it. She made her choice.”
My gorge was rising. “So she can do whatever she damn well pleases, and I get to sit and take it- is that what you're saying?”
Jess's voice was filled with strain. “Of course you don't have to sit and take it. Any more than she has to cope with your temper tantrums. You could leave each other. Any time. For any reason. But if you don't- let me finish, Darren. If you don't choose to leave her, then you're choosing to deal with what happens- I said , let me finish. I'm not saying that what Lynn is doing is right, but she's doing it with courage and love, and she's doing it to protect all of us. You don't have to be grateful for that, but try to respect it.”
“But I didn't want her to-”
“And now you're just whining! Darren, the girl you adore just rowed out to risk her life- and the gods know what else- with her heart in her mouth and all her senses on overdrive. Soon she'll be back, and when that happens, what will you do? Chew her out because she didn't do what you wanted? Mope because someone else had a chance to play with your favourite toy?”
“That's not fair.”
“None of this is fair. The point is that she'll need you. More than ever. I hope to heaven that you realize that.”
I dug the tip of my dagger into the wood and wiggled it, making a deep hole. I knew that Jess probably had a point, but the bitterness in my stomach wouldn't go away. It felt like gall was eating away at the edges of a torn, jagged hole.
Suddenly Jess stiffened beside me. “Something's happening on the Hind. ”
An instant after she said it, a door banged over there- shut or open, I couldn't tell, because just at that minute, all their lanterns went out. Every one of my hairs stood on its end, my entire body poised, waiting for trouble.
“Captain?” Regon called to me. I should have known he wouldn't be far away.
“Look alive,” I told him. “Wake the watch below, get the men at their posts. If that ship so much as twitches, then we're coming down on Timor like the bloody hand of god.”
The men turned out silently, many of them still pulling on their trousers or fastening their belts as they hurried into position. Jess's eyes were wide.
“This is bad, isn't it?”
Twenty different sarcastic responses occurred to me at that moment. I pushed them all aside and went with “Yes.”
One minute, two minutes- no sounds, nothing. I made my decision.
“Regon, get the Banshee underway. We're taking our people back.”
Barely had I finished talking when a door banged on the Hind banged open again. But this time it was followed by the sound of hurried feet. Though the deck was almost invisible, I could just make out a cluster of men approaching their starboard side. Approaching it, and carrying something in their arms. A long, struggling bundle-
Then they bent, and heaved, and threw it over the side-
A second of no-time, a scream of fury- the struggling body crashed into the water. The sailors of the Hind didn't even wait to see whether it hit. They were already springing into action, already moving- the Hind was moving, setting its sails, preparing to run.
“Move, move , MOVE!” I screeched, dancing from one side of the deck to the other. “GET IN THE WATER, YOU USELESS DOGS!”
Five men plunged overboard even before I could finish talking. Jess, more composed, readied a coil of rope to throw. I pulled off one boot, getting ready to go in myself, but then realized I couldn't do much in the way of commanding from that position. Instead, I waved the boot for emphasis as I screamed. “Lights! LIGHTS! ”
Someone rushed to the side with a lantern, casting a glow on the men in the water. Regon had been the first one overboard, and he had already reached the struggling swimmer. It was Spinner- half his face covered with a purple-black bruise, probably from a cosh. Regon held him steady on the surface and I saw the reason for his thrashings- his wrists were bound together. His ankles too, from the way he floundered.
Spinner was in the water. Lynn, and Latoya, were still on the Hind. The Hind had gathered speed, flying goosewinged into the wind. Regon had hold of the rope now and the swimmers were making their way back to the ship. But it was taking too long, too goddamned long- I nearly howled in relief when the last was finally aboard. Then I couldn't make any sound at all. I pointed furiously after the fleeing ship, and Regon, his dark hair slicked back with seawater, took up the call for me: “After them, you lazy scum!”
I stormed my way to the prow- with the breeze rushing behind me, I could convince myself that we were going a little faster than we actually were. I would kill Timor, I promised myself, I would pop his eyes like chestnuts, shred his skin, knot his guts into ornamental baskets; if he had touched Lynn with one fat finger then I would do far worse...
It wasn't an illusion- we were gaining. The Hind was looming larger. I rocked back and forth, with eagerness and terror- yesyesyesyesyes-
No. There was more movement by the side of the Hind . NO. Another body being carried out- far larger and this one was motionless. I knew what was going to happen, could picture it all perfectly in the moments beforehand. They didn't throw this body. They rolled it over the side, and it crashed into the waves like a sack of wet sand.
Latoya. Dead? If she wasn't, she soon would be. But if we stopped for her now- I pounded the rail in fury, not caring whether I broke the rail or my hand.
“Captain?” Regon's cry was desperate. We were already approaching the spot where she had fallen, and there was no sign of her- the water was bare and black. She had already sunk.
I shut my eyes, gripped my cutlass hilt- “Oh gods...”
The obvious thought occurred to me.
I considered it. I'm not going to pretend that I didn't.
But the next second I gave the order, Regon bayed it back in total relief, and the Banshee swung about. Again, the lanterns were trained on the surface; again, there were splashes as my sailors plunged over the side. This time they had to dive, and the sea was full of bobbing heads, gasping for breath before they plunged back beneath.
The Hind was gaining ground, flying. I tore out a literal chunk of my hair, and hurled my boot down to the deck.
All my instincts screamed for me to leap over the side and go after Lynn myself. Instead, I stalked amidships to find Spinner. He was sprawled by the mast, and now I saw that, besides the bruise on his head, he had an ugly wound across his stomach, blood pulsing from it steadily. Jess was kneeling beside him, matter-of-factly folding rags into makeshift bandages.
But Spinner was talking, rasping out the words. “Latoya,” he gasped, “Latoya- is she alive?”
“No idea yet,” I said tightly.
“They coshed her,” he said, his tone falling to a whisper. “Back of the head- soon as we were below- ”
The bastards had always intended to run. They were waiting for the wind. We were being played from the beginning- the question was, why ?
Unless, of course...Timor's face swam up in front of me. Someone hired you to hunt me down , I had said. Correct, in essentials , he had said.
He had been hired to hunt someone down.
But not me.
“Spinner,” I said, “what did they do with Lynn?”
His eyes rolled until all I could see was the whites. Jess stopped packing the rags against his stomach long enough to hold a flask to his lips. He gasped, then swallowed.
“Let him rest-” Jess tried to say, but Spinner's eyes fluttered open.
“He didn't touch her,” he managed to say. “Timor- he didn't-”
I grabbed his wrist. “Spinner, tell me or I swear on your mother's grave I will kill you myself!”
“He d-d-d-d-d-d-didn't hurt her,” Spinner stammered, his whole body trembling. “He said- he said-”
“Don't try to talk yet,” Jess cut in. “Take a moment first-”
“Gods' teeth, let him talk!” I roared.
Spinner's eyes rolled up to me. “He said: It's time for you to come home. She said- she said: O gods. Then she tried to talk, but he- he-”
“He said- shit, it's cold- He said, Save your strength. It's a long way to Bero.”
I caught him by the shirt. “Bero! BERO? You're sure?”
“Sure,” he rattled out. “Sure-”
I staggered to my feet. Bero, the northmost island in Kila. Bero, the stronghold of the most powerful royal family in Kila. Bero, home of the House of Bain.
Spinner's body was giving little lurches now. “He s-s-s-said- ”
“Save your strength,” Jess put in quickly. “Darren, let him rest.”
“Said,” Spinner persisted, “he said: Lord Iason can't wait to have you back.”
My brain convulsed, reeled, splintered. In the next few minutes, some part of me knew that my crew was hauling Latoya back on board, and then that Regon and Corto were hurling themselves on her chest and stomach, forcing out the water. I even noted it, vaguely, when she started to cough and choke. But all of it was happening at an impossible distance.
Jess must have finished with Spinner's wound, because when I next could notice anything, she was standing there, silent beside me, her hands stained red past the wrists.
“He'll live,” she said softly. “If you let him rest a while before you do more interrogations.
The words grated out painfully. “You said Lynn couldn't possibly be Ariadne.”
Never mind that I had reached the same conclusion on my own- I needed someone to blame.
It was the first time I had seen Jess truly baffled. “She can't be,” she murmured. “And yet- I suppose she must be. But she can't be! It doesn't make any sense! But then,” she caught herself, “it doesn't really matter, of course.”
“No,” I agreed hollowly, “it doesn't really matter.”
The last of Latoya's rescuers swung over the gunwale and squelched to the deck. Regon snapped upwards. “Ready, captain!”
Those were probably the longest three seconds of my life.
Images from the past year flooded me: Lynn, chained to the mast of the Badger and dozing; Lynn's shoulder, bruised and bloody, the day that she was tattooed; Lynn sick as a dog during an eight-day storm the winter before; Lynn, just that afternoon, kneeling at my feet, head bowed.
I shut my eyes.
“Bring her about,” I said hoarsely. “We're going south.”
There was a chorus of smothered sound. Disbelief and confusion. The fury soared to my head, and I spoke in a snarl: “ Move, you puking scuts! You heard me!”
They scattered, most of them. Regon still stood in front of me, his hands clenching and unclenching, and Jess's mouth was open and round.
“Turn about,” I said again, just so there would be no mistake. “Let them go.”
Maybe, I thought, maybe giving up lovers was something that got easier the more often you did it.
By this time I was safely down in our cabin- my cabin, I corrected myself, my cabin, mine mine mine. It was astonishing how few traces of Lynn there actually were in there now that she was gone. Once I'd closed the sea chest to hide her clothes, the space was as dour and bare as on any ship I'd ever commanded.
My brandy flask was half empty now. I took a long, rattling pull.
In the weeks and months after I left Jess, when I was wandering around the islands half-wild with fear and guilt, I used to do this just about every night. Sit and drink and think about her and get disgusted with myself. As the months went on, the memory of that time seemed more and more rose-tinted, and more and more dreamlike. I mean, honestly. Darren, formerly of the House of Torasan, learning to tend beehives? It had been soul-renewing, in a way, and I would always be grateful for it. But it had been doomed from the start.
My time with Lynn- Ariadne - had been just the same. A blip in her life as the all-privileged daughter of an all-powerful man. I wouldn't forget about her, certainly, but the wound would scab over and become an ordinary kind of scar. She had given me new energy, a new purpose, and that's what I would remember. So it wouldn't really matter (my throat seemed to be dry; I swallowed hard) that Ariadne would come to her senses once she got back home.
They would ask her what she had been doing for the past couple of years.
“Oh, you know,” she would say, scratching the back of her neck, “stuff.”
And then quickly change the subject to horses or jewellery.
I downed the last of the brandy, and realized that I hadn't drunk nearly enough to render me unconscious.
I could always beat my head against the wall, I supposed.
And then there was a knock at the door.
“Go ‘way,” I said dully.
There seemed to be a whispered consultation going on out there. I pulled off my other boot and hurled it at the planks. “Go ‘way, I sss-ss-aid! Geddout of it, or, by crumbs, I'll have your heads!”
The whispers grew a little softer.
Then there was a great splintering WHAM and the door flew inwards in two separate pieces. Latoya shook out her hand and stepped through. She was still unsteady on her feet. After her, there filed in Jess, and Regon, and Spinner, who flopped to the ground as soon as he got inside.
I glared murderously at each of them in turn. “And whaddid I tell you?”
“Begging your pardon, captain,” Regon said gently. “But you never told us not to smash in your door.”
“Goddamned technicalities,” I muttered, and took another pull at the brandy bottle, forgetting that it was empty.
They were all glancing at each other, as if trying to appoint a spokesman- Jess won out, and she took a step forward. And said, “Darren, you total bastard, what in hell do you think you're doing?”
I blinked at her owlishly. The brandy was going to my head more than I had thought. “Iss perfectly simple,” I explained. “Me am boss.”
“You am- WHAT?”
Latoya actually had to catch Jess's arm to prevent her from leaping at me. “What the hell do you mean, Darren?” she was yelling. “Did you even think this through?”
“I did,” I said, insulted. “Four reasons.” I counted them off on my fingers. “Four reasons why. One, iss better for her. Two, iss better for me. Three, iss better for the ship. Four...” Well, I couldn't remember four, so I just waved the fourth finger around emphatically. “Sssso there.”
Jess's mouth was opening and closing, but the noises coming out were totally incoherent. Regon took hold of her, carefully, and moved her to the door.
“Right,” he said. “I don't see us getting any farther until we take some drastic measures.”
He and Spinner and Latoya exchanged a knowing look.
“Long drink,” Latoya said succinctly.
“Wait,” I said, feeling much more sober all of a sudden. “I don't think that's necessary- no, I really don't- oh, you bastards! YOU BASTARDS!”
Latoya caught me around the middle, and hauled me dispassionately up to the deck as I did my best to pound her grip loose. Once I was there, all my crewmen busily whistled and looked the other way while Regon tied a rope around my waist. Then, for the third time that night, a body went crashing into the cold water.
They let me thrash around for a few minutes, swearing and yelling, until the last of the brandy had oozed from my pores. Then they hauled me up, gasping, freezing, soaking, and horribly clear-headed.
Jess had a blanket ready, I'll say that much for her, but her eyes hadn't softened any. As soon as I had coughed up my lungful of water, she resumed as if nothing had happened: “You were saying?”
“Jess,” I said through chattering teeth, “you bleeding she-demon- ”
“Long practice, continue.”
“My leaving you- that turned out to be right . For both of us. Even Lynn thought so. Because you needed- whatever you needed- and I needed to go and do my work.”
“Don't you dare try to use your work as an excuse,” she said, “don't you dare. Because Lynn accepts your work, she's part of your work, you couldn't do a fraction of what you do without her!”
“I KNOW THAT, JESS!” I yelled to the moon. “It's time that I stopped fucking taking from her!”
“You heard me! That man, Timor, he was sent by Lynn's father. Sent by Lynn's father because Lynn's father wants her back. And what did he find when he got to us?” I didn't have anything to throw or kick, so I smacked my thigh. “ He found Ariadne kneeling beside me like a goddamn terrier! He found me whoring that girl out to save my own skin! ”
“Captain,” Regon put in. “Captain...”
“Don't you ‘captain' me! I've been groping around in the dark, because she won't tell me anything! The only things that she does say are riddles or lies! I don't know how to help! I'M ONLY MAKING IT WORSE!”
The crew had stopped pretending to ignore me. There was a ghostly circle of faces all around. I pressed a hand to my heaving chest.
“Ariadne's being taken home to Bero,” I went on, more quietly. “We couldn't reach her there anyway. Not without risking all your lives a thousand times over- and that's something that she wouldn't want. She'll be better off with her family. They have every reason on earth to treat her well.”
It was Spinner, of all people, who spoke up. “So why was she so afraid?”
There was such total silence, I could hear the drops of water as they slid from my clothes and hit the deck.
“She was terrified, captain,” Spinner went on. “Totally green. A hair's breath away from puking her guts out. From the moment that that man Timor mentioned the word ‘home.' Of course I could only see her face a few seconds before they put the hood over her head- ”
“Before they put the what over her what ?”
“Hood. Head. A thick cloth bag. And they tied her hands. Then lashed them to her waist.”
Drops of water on the planks.
“You couldn't have told me this before?” I floundered.
“As usual, Darren,” Jess said, “you hear only what you want to hear. Why are you so ready to believe that Lynn is better off without you?”
I looked off at the dim horizon. The Silver Hind was far out of sight.
“Captain,” Regon said, “you'll forgive us for going so far. We wouldn't, if it was only to protect your happiness. But this is Lynn's life, if you take my meaning.”
“We know you have trouble believing it,” Spinner took up the thread. “But she's happy with you. More than happy. There's joy there. That's not easy to find.”
Jess nodded. “Maybe she's Ariadne and maybe she isn't. I don't pretend to understand it anymore. But we know perfectly well what she wants- ”
“Would you all, PLEASE, just shut up for ONE moment?” I asked, my eyes tightly closed.
Deep in my mind, rusty gears were finally starting to turn.
You can ask for anything you want , Lynn used to reassure me. But what had she ever asked me for?
Nothing, directly. But what if she was just as bad as asking for things as I was? What if she had to use hints, sideways nudges?
Why did she make me tie her to the mast, the first day we met? Why did she insist for so long that I had to keep her chained? Why had she tattooed my signature on her shoulder? What had she been saying? Only one thing, really: You have to keep me with you.
And what about the things she had done to me? Why did she prod me towards building a fleet? Why did she help me create an army? Why did she turn me into a pirate queen? Because she believed in my mission to help Kila? That was part of it, I was sure. But Lynn had always said that she wasn't a selfless person. Was there something in it for her as well?
I'd seen Lynn face down bounty hunters and raiders, lightning storms and ocelots, but if Jess was right, she was running from something that, for some reason, she couldn't cope with. What if- what if - she had been slowly, determinedly turning me into a person who was strong enough to protect her?
If that was true, my first instinct was to quit the job. I obviously wasn't doing well. I hadn't even made sure that Lynn had a weapon when she rowed off to the Silver Hind - I had delivered her up, easy pickings. The guilt spiked, so familiar- but all at once I crushed it down. My guilt had never done anything for anyone. It was just another thing that Lynn had to carry for both of us.
Lynn had always done the believing in our relationship. And now it was my turn to take a leap of faith.
I opened my eyes.
The stars on the horizon were tiny points of ice. My chest felt tight and hard.
“We're going to tear that girl from the bosom of her family,” I rasped. “And we're going to drag her back into slavery, where she belongs.”
Jess nodded. “That's more like it.”
END OF PART TWO.
TO BE CONCLUDED IN PART THREE: WHIPPED .
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