Disclaimers, content warnings, etc: All characters and plotlines are my own. This is the third 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. This segment is narrated both by Darren (former broody merchant captain, now pirate queen) and by Lynn (slave girl, secretive about her past, enjoys raisins).
This story includes, among other things (deep breath): a largish amount of violence, threats of violence, discussions of past violence, including violence against children. (nothing that has not been forshadowed up to this point). Also purple velvet tights, pigeon pie, women in love, women not in love, women about to be in love, consenting adults in a sorta-kinda BDSM relationship, and an innovative use for a coconut.
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.
Afternoon, Day III
I guess I should have seen it coming. I guess, in a way, I did. But when you've been on the run for a while, you stop trusting the inner voice that tells you that it's time to panic. You stop trusting it because, if you didn't, you'd never do anything but retch and cower.
Or maybe I overcompensated. Sleeping with Timor, as I'm sure you can imagine, was not a prospect that I found exactly thrilling. You'd be able to imagine it even better if you'd seen the bastard up close. He had the over-smooth, over-starched look of a man who keeps his fantasies bottled- and that's the kind of man who tends to go overboard when he suddenly gets the chance to cut loose.
While Darren was yelling at me down in our cabin, I was more than a little distracted by the thought of what I was about to do. I have a pretty vivid imagination and the scene wasn't hard to picture: the weight of Timor on top of me, the rasp of his bristly face, his smell. (I'd caught a whiff of him earlier, and he wasn't the sort of man who kept a pomander in his pocket, if you know what I mean.) Taken as a whole, the image made my blood curdle. Every instinct I had, every last one, was screaming at me: Don't. Don't. Don't. And maybe if Darren hadn't been so priggish, so self-righteous, so goddamn noble , I would have listened both to her and to my own gut, and let her talk me out of it. But she wasn't. So I didn't.
Whatever. I didn't see it coming. As Latoya rowed us over to the Silver Hind , my insides were crawling, but my plan was set: I was going to finish it as fast as I damn well could and go back home to the Banshee. Maybe Darren would be over it by then. Maybe she'd still be sullen and I'd have to let her mope for a few days before she came to her senses. I could cope with that- a moping Darren is a living Darren and, in my book, that counts for something. When I swung onto the Hind's ladder and started to pull myself on board ship, I was tired, I was nauseous, I was pissed as all hell- but I wasn't really afraid.
This is not my favourite memory, so I'm going to make things easy on myself and keep it short. Besides, the memory itself is kind of blurry- you have to understand, it happened so fast.
Latoya went through the cabin door first, so she was the first one dropped. There was next to no warning- the faintest whirring sound as the cosh whipped round to take her on the back of the skull. She turned slightly as she fell; I remember her eyes, round and almost thoughtful, before they rolled into the back of her head. They grabbed me just as they hit Spinner. I didn't see him go down.
At some point I might have yelled for help, I'm really not sure. There wouldn't have been much time. I was hooded and bound within a few seconds. But those few seconds were enough for Timor to tell me what was going on. That he knew who I was, and who it was that wanted me.
That moment- that moment- was the thing I had been dreading since the day I escaped. I had pictured it happening in so many ways, in so many times and places. I'd woken so often in the middle of the night, sweating and gasping, and thinking that it had happened for real. It overpowered my imagination whenever I let myself brood. It was the single thing that had the power to scare me speechless.
So I should have seen it coming.
I just didn't, that's all.
Timor was the only one who opened the door of the tiny storeroom where I'd been locked up. When he came in, he would take the hood off briefly so I could eat- but even then it wasn't much use for me to try to speak.
“They're alive,” he told me, the sixth time I asked about Latoya and Spinner. “Least as far as I know. Which is more than they'll be if they try to follow you to Bero. So you'd better hope they're smart.”
He lost patience with my talking after that, and gave me a sharp cuff on the ear every time I tried.
On the third day (my guess- it was flat dark down there) he led me upstairs, and let me put my tied hands on the rail, and then pulled the hood away.
When my eyes stopped burning from the glare, I saw it all at once. The great cliff of white limestone. The white limestone castle that roosted at the top, like a pale gargoyle- its crenulations spiking up like teeth and claws. And surrounding us on every side were white-bannered war ships, gliding through the calm waters of the bay. It was the exact same view that I had stared at for over ten years, from one of the towers somewhere up on that cliff. But back then I saw it in reverse: first the battlements of the castle, then the harbour and warships, and beyond that, free and wild and wonderful, the ocean.
Of course, I had known from the start where Timor was taking me. But I'd kept the panic at bay by telling myself that I would never reach it. Something would get in the way. A freak lightning storm, maybe. An attack by a giant sea serpent. Failing that, I'd escape. I'd done it once, after all, four years before, and since then I'd learned some useful new skills. Like how to strangle a man with his own tongue. I could have inflicted some damage on Timor any of the times that he opened the door of the storeroom. Even if I couldn't see him, his boots clicked in the dark.
But I'd forced myself to bide my time. There wasn't any point in rocking the boat (so to speak) until the Silver Hind reached some place that was better suited to an escape attempt. Like oh, say, some place with land. The best plan was to act meek and innocent, in the hope that Timor and his men would have lowered their guard by the time my chance came.
A wise plan. A sensible plan. But my chance hadn't surfaced. In no more than two hours, I would be back in Bero. Back with her. And as soon as I saw the fortress on the cliff, my brain leapt straight out of my skull and started to shriek. Screw what was sensible, I was leaving !
I didn't give myself any time to think about it. I pivoted, braced my back against the boat's side, and drove my heel into Timor's knee. I didn't use quite enough force to break the cap, but still he folded, howling, and that gave me the time to deal out two more kicks, one to his other knee and one to the groin. He howled good and proper that time, but I barely heard him. I was trying to use the momentum to hurl myself backwards over the rail, into the bay waters.
On an ordinary day, I could have managed it. But my brain was in pieces, my vision blurry, my stomach shrivelled- they hadn't been feeding me much. I couldn't get the height. My spine rammed into the rail, and all the breath whooshed out of me; the pain made me see red sparks. Then there were hands there, sailor's hands, callused and rough, pulling me back onto the deck. They lowered me with a kind of gentleness, but at Timor's snarl, they let me drop.
Gasping, I sprawled on the sun-hot boards. Timor's face loomed above me, staring with acute dislike.
“What?” I panted. “You expected me to make this easy?
His eyes narrowed; that was all the warning I got but at least I had the chance to tense. His boot crashed into my stomach. I rolled to soften the impact, but he kicked again, this time at my back. The red sparks in my vision exploded into blood-red blooms of fire.
I screamed. Not much else to do in that situation.
Timor stood above me, his fist clenching and unclenching as he got himself under control. Then with a quick lunge, he grabbed the front of my tunic, hoisting me a few inches up. “You are damn lucky that your father wants you alive.”
“Yeah,” I managed to wheeze. “Lucky me.”
Timor let go, and I slumped. He shook his fingers, as if cleansing them of something filthy, then snapped them. The hood sank over my head again.
“Take her back downstairs,” I heard him say. “Chain her, this time.”
Down in the dark mugginess of the storeroom, I tried to cudgel my brain back into action. It wasn't happening. My thoughts went around and around in a tight, unhappy spiral: the pain in my back, the saltiness of my bleeding lip, the tightness of the hood's drawstring around my throat, the shackles rasping on wrists and ankles. The hood kept in the air, so my lungs were taking in nothing but my own stale, warm breath. But somehow, the cloth still let in all of the smells: musty wood, rotten meat.
None of that mattered in a long-term sort of sense, though. What mattered was that, with every minute that passed, I was getting carried ever more swiftly back to her.
Escape, I reminded myself. Escape. I'd done it before. The odds had to be better this time. This time, who knew, Darren might even try to come after me- but I shoved that thought down and away, fast. An attack on Bero would be monumentally dangerous, almost impossible. My bashful lover had never taken on something so difficult- but then again, who would?
The answer was obvious: the pirate queen. The tattoo on my shoulder marked me as her slave, and the pirate queen would rend whole cities apart to reclaim her property. But the pirate queen didn't exist. Not yet. The pirate queen was just an image, a picture, a hope for the future. She was what I had been helping Darren to become.
If I had only had a little more time...
But it was no use thinking about it. I couldn't afford to hope and wait- not again. And that meant that I couldn't wait for Darren. In the end, it always came down to your own will, your own wits. I would find a way. I was smarter this time, stronger, older; I wouldn't break or buckle, wouldn't crumble under the fear-
But even as I told myself that, I knew that I didn't believe it.
And then an invisible hand hoisted me to my feet.
“Timor,” I said. “Timor, Timor, Timor, listen.”
The hood was still tightly in place as I was jostled and dragged through the streets. The chain had been left on my legs so that I could only hobble, and I stumbled every other step. Before we left the ship, he had made me pull on a long, respectable woollen tunic over the shredded remains of my linen one. The weight and the length were both awkward, confining.
From the sounds and smells, I guessed that we were in the lower city, the part sloping down to the harbour. It was a long, uphill walk to the fortress. It couldn't be long enough for me. This was my last chance to make the man see sense.
“Timor...” I began again, through the thick cloth, but he caught me by the scruff of the neck and gave me a quick shake.
“Just keep your mouth shut, girl. You're not going to be my problem for much longer.”
“ Nothing's going to be your problem for much longer.” A fold of the hood wedged itself between my lips; I pushed it back out with my tongue. “It's safer to swim naked in boiling tar than it is to discover one of my father's secrets. Now that you know who I am- now that you've seen me- you think he'll just hand you a bushel of cash and send you on your way?”
There was no answer. Maybe he couldn't even hear me through the hood. Maybe that was why he'd put it on me in the first place.
“Timor,” I tried once more, but then my toe drove into a cobblestone and I tripped headlong. Timor grabbed me by the neck again and hauled me along a few paces until I could get my feet back under me.
Then we were moving from cobblestones to stone flags. The base of the path to the fortress.
My throat closed up, and I couldn't get another word out.
Higher and higher- up the hill, past the five concentric walls of the fortress (Timor nearly went hoarse, answering the questions of the guards at each one), through the inner wall of the castle itself, and at last through the door at the base of the keep. There, he finally unroped my hands, and unshackled my ankles, and pulled the hood off my head.
He appraised me- my sweat-soaked hair and bloodied lip. “You're not much to look at,” he said. “But it's not your face that they care about, is it?”
I swallowed bile.
“Up,” he said, his voice going ugly. “Now.”
This was it, and my head was swimming. This was the last leg of the trip. We headed up the spiral staircase, around and around and around. Wild thoughts swarmed around my brain- I would hurl Timor down the steps, I would bite through the walls, I would throw myself out a window screaming- but something inside me had gone very cold and weak. Another step. Another step.
Then there was a door on our right, familiar as my own skin. Stained cherry-wood, with a gilt knocker in the shape of a ram's head.
Timor knocked with his right hand, gripped my arm with his left.
“Enter,” came the voice from inside. And that was familiar too.
The room beyond, I didn't know as well- I hadn't spent much time inside the map-room. It had changed, too, since the civil war began. The walls were hung with charts, figures, diagrams- army rosters, notes on fortifications, pay schedules. The great sand-table, with its model of the islands, was dotted with tiny boats and figures of men. Someone was plotting troop movements.
And there he was: Iason of Bain, lord of Bero, standing by the sand-table, slowly revolving a tiny brass ship between his fingers as if he was fascinated by it. He wore a dressing-gown of violet silk, and his hair stood up in pale unruly tufts- it looked like he wasn't going to be holding court today. She wasn't there, and the pressure in my chest eased the smallest degree- but there was someone else waiting with Iason. A young woman- slightly older than me, slightly taller. Her face, I knew, was something like mine when it was bare, but now as usual it was powdered and rouged, and her blond hair was teased into a mass of ringlets. All the frills and flounces on her gown make her look like a giant meringue. She was slouched at Iason's desk, and her drumming fingers made his quill pens bounce in their cherry-wood cup.
Timor bowed; I didn't. “I brought her, my lord,” he said unnecessarily.
Iason's milky blue eyes came up to me. His expression, as always, was part fond, part wounded, part disappointed. It irritated me, and that stilled the panic. I spoke as if I was calm as a glacier.
“Hello, father,” I told him. Then I glanced at the girl. “Hello, Ariadne.”
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Afternoon, Day III
Pirates may not be what you would call masterminds, but they ain't exactly stupid. And the crew of the Banshee knew me well. So after Timor disappeared over the horizon with my woman, it didn't take them long to figure out that the mere mention of his name was enough to send me into a howling, stamping frenzy. Some of them, I think, mulled over the idea of repeating the name as often as possible just to see how far I'd go, but cooler heads prevailed. So it became routine to refer to Timor as “That Goat-Testicled, Slave-Stealing Sack of Shit.” “Goat-boy” for short.
It was three days after Goat-boy's escape that we met up with the Badger. This is what they tell me. I wasn't in a state to notice details. I hadn't slept since the night before Lynn was kidnapped- and ninety-six hours without sleep, coupled with wracking, ball-shattering worry, don't leave you at your most alert. By the end of them, I couldn't do much except twitch and curse. Regon had humanely propped me up against the mast so that I could snarl at crewmen who weren't moving fast enough, but that was about the limit of my powers.
So I was leaning on the mast, snarling and cursing and doing my best not to fall over, when he all of a sudden swung himself on deck. Grizzled and grey and stern-faced and ugly, half of his right ear missing and a scar crossing his face from chin to brow- it was my old helmsman, now captain of the Badger - Teek.
Just the sight of him made ten pounds of lead roll off my shoulders. I captained my first merchant boat when I was fourteen, so green that I didn't know the difference between my own ass and a marline spike. It was Teek who had saved me from disaster on that first voyage, Teek who had quietly ignored my shrill commands as I tried to ram us into every available rock. He was the first person I knew who would guide you from triumph to triumph, and then, forever afterwards, pretend that you'd done it all yourself. Lynn was the second.
“You old bastard,” I said, blinking at him through a fog of exhaustion. “Where were you a few days back?”
“Would'ha been here if I'd'ha known, captain,” he said.
“You don't call me captain, you're a captain now. And we'll see how you like it. Regon's brought you up to speed?”
“Got the gist of it. You need to get your girl out of trouble. As usual.”
Which was bull and he knew it- it was normally the other way around- but my pride appreciated the little white lie.
“And you're heading straight for Bero,” he continued. “Best defended island in Kila, circled by ships that could take on a kraken, and you're charging straight at it, banners flying. Ambitious of you, captain, but that was always your style.”
“I'm not charging straight at it,” I said defensively. “I know we can't just waltz into their harbour. We'll need another plan.”
“We'll need another plan soon , captain,” he said, gentle but insistent. “We're almost to their waters already. Lucky as I met up with you first. Won't do your girl any good if you end up four fathoms deep.”
“Mmph,” I muttered.
“Teek's right,” Regon said, stepping forward. “We can't put it off any longer.”
I glared. “You couldn't have asked me about this before?”
“I did, captain,” he said tactfully. “You threw a chunk of cheese at me, turned your pockets inside out, and then lay down on the deck and gurgled. You've been a bit funny the past day or so.”
“I am having,” I said, with an effort at dignity, “a very bad week.”
With a sigh, I looked off the starboard bow. The Badger was pulled up alongside us, balky and battered as ever. A lot like Teek himself, in fact. The image sparked something, and my fingers began to drum along my arm.
“Only real answer is to turn the ships around,” Teek was saying. “Go to the harbour, like, or to Freemarket, and think it out. Men been trying for years to break Bero without any luck. Can't expect the captain to come up with a plan in five minutes.”
“And that, Teek,” I said, rousing myself, “that is where you are wrong.”
I peeled myself off of the mast, staggered to the nearest fresh-water barrel, stuck my whole head in, burbled for a minute or two, and pulled out gasping and revived. “Get Jess and Latoya and Spinner, meet in my cabin. Broach a new cask of ale and pour me a tankard big enough to fell a buffalo. I know exactly what we're going to do.”
Late Afternoon, Day III
“Hello, father. Hello, Ariadne.”
There was silence for a few seconds, broken only by the tapping of Ariadne's nails.
Iason pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned forward. As though he had a nosebleed, or a terrible headache. All he said was, “Gwyneth...”
What he meant, of course, was that it just wasn't done for a bastard child to address her father as “Father.” But saying that out loud would kind of defeat the point.
He waved his fingers at Timor without looking at him. “You, man. Report to my steward; he'll give you what you're owed.”
Timor bowed hastily and went out with quick, impatient steps. I watched him go, knowing that I'd never see him again. There are many entrances to the dungeons on Bero, but the only exits are below the tide line. Now and then, the bodies wash up on shore, the corners of their burlap shrouds flapping. What can I say? I tried to warn him.
I had been doing my utmost not to think about her, but all at once the image flashed before me: Darren sewn into one of those burlap bags, a long lanky bundle among the other corpses. The sheer horror of the picture hit my brain like a flood of ice water- washed it clear and clean. Whatever happened, whatever happened, I had to keep Darren out of this.
We all listened to the clump of Timor's boots as they descended the stairway. Then, with a great effort, my father put on his oily smile. “It's good to see that you're all right, child.”
I snorted. “Is it?”
He sighed. “Things have been rocky between the two of us sometimes, Gwyn. But you must believe that I care what happens to you.”
My father's helpless-nice-bloke act was harder to take than his rages. I trained my gaze through the map-room's narrow window. We were about halfway up the tower, high enough to make out a patch of ocean. It was glassy green that day.
“Tell me what happened,” he said.
“What happened when?” I said wearily.
“What happened three years ago. When you left us.”
Left us - that was one way to put it, I supposed. I should have tried to placate him, but, as usual, my maverick side bobbed to the surface without any warning. “What's there to tell? I thumped Ariadne on the head, tied her up with her own petticoats, dressed in her clothes, and walked out of the castle. Stole her horse, sold it, used the money to pay for passage off the island. Since then, I've mostly been fishing. How the hell have you been?”
“You see ?” Ariadne said, breaking into the conversation for the first time. “This is exactly what I've been telling you, Father! That little peon laid hands on me, she assaulted me! She just admitted it!”
“Yes, Ariadne, I know.” Helpless-nice-bloke was giving way to highly-important-and-overstressed man. “It won't happen again. Your mother will take care of that.”
I had been braced for it but there are some impulses I can't crush down. The mention of Melitta made my heart pummel the walls of my chest as if it wanted to burst through. Automatically- just as I used to- I pinched the soft skin inside of my elbow as hard as I could. The pain helped me focus.
“ My mother ,” Ariadne was saying, “will do nothing of the kind. She obviously isn't able to keep the girl under control. If you insist on keeping her here at all, then you'd better let me deal with her. It doesn't seem like anyone else is able to cope.”
“Gwyneth was your mother's chambermaid for something like ten years.” Now he was using his pained-patience voice. “I assure you, Melitta can cope.”
I found my tongue. “Father- ”
“ Gwyneth, please. ”
“ ‘My lord',” I corrected myself grimly. “If you're going to keep me here, then, for the love of all the gods, stick me in the dungeon or something. Or the stables. Or the pigeon cote. Really, I'm not fussy. But if you send me back to Melitta...”
He waved a weary hand. “No histrionics, please. Melitta's strict, that I'll grant, but she's fond of you, in her way.”
“She hates my guts and you know it.” There was a tight knot in my throat. “ You have always bloody known it .”
His glance was tired, nothing more. “Don't swear.”
Ariadne jumped in again. “Too much hating and not enough real discipline, is the problem. Now if you let me handle her- ”
“Darling,” my father interrupted. “I appreciate the input but this is slightly outside your area of expertise.”
“Darling,” he repeated, “go to your room.”
She looked ready to launch an all-out tantrum- but Iason's eyes were hooded and she knew, as well as I did, that it was no use trying to cross him for the present. She flounced to her feet and headed out, her skirts bouncing around her.
“I'll see you soon,” she said warningly as she passed me. “ Very soon.”
“Can't wait,” I muttered.
The door shut behind her with a bang. My father stared at his sandtable. The parts that represented water were bare blue plaster. I looked at them and thought of waves, and typhoons, and ocean spray. The entire world that had been mine, just a week before.
“My lord, please,” I said. “If you're not going to let me go, please. Just don't send me back to her . ”
There were two reasons that I rarely asked my father for anything: first, it made me sound pathetic, and second, it didn't work. On this occasion he gave a pained grimace, as if it embarrassed him even to hear it. “You might try provoking her less often.”
“ I can't . I've tried. ” I could have howled. Four years of running, of fighting and scheming, only to end up back here. “You know that! You know damn well why I ran. ”
“And you,” he said, with rare honesty, “you know damn well why I can't let you leave.” He spread his dainty hands, palms up- a nobleman's version of a shrug. “So we're at an impasse. Except that one of us is lord of the house of Bain, and one of us is a runaway servant. So one of us is slightly more likely to get his way.” He flicked over one of the brass soldiers on his sand table, watched it wobble and fall. “I believe that we're done. You may go on up to Melitta's room.”
I wouldn't, I told myself. I would run, fight, break apart, fly-
“She's waiting for you,” he said more quietly. “And I don't think she'll be happy if she has to collect you herself.”
Somehow I made it back to the stairway. My feet seemed to have acquired a mind of their own. I certainly wasn't the one telling them to head up, step by step...
Two turns up the flight of stairs, and there was another door, this one of rosewood- the entrance to Ariadne's bower. Two more turns, and another door- Iason's room. He and Melitta had slept apart for years, further back than I could remember. Maybe since the day Melitta found out about my father's fling with a palace servant, the one that resulted in my birth. But maybe it had been even longer. The two of them couldn't stand each other. Which made sense. I couldn't stand either of them.
Two more turns. The topmost floor of the tower. Another door. It bronze handle was shaped like a lion's head. To the right of the door, a narrow alcove. I was determined not to look at it- but of course I did and my jaw locked. Resting on the alcove floor, as always, was a narrow pallet of straw and a wadded blanket. Had someone else been using it while I was gone? Or had Melitta kept it exactly as it was, waiting for me?
The door was open. I could make out a little motion- an arm in a green sleeve moving rhythmically up and down, up and down, as she brushed her hair.
My brain said, run. But somehow my feet took me forwards instead.
I didn't bother to knock- she knew I was coming. Her back was to me, her face to the mirror. She didn't turn around but I could see her eyes flicking over my reflection, taking me in.
Her hair was speckled with more grey than it had been when I escaped. Salt and pepper. She set her brush down gently on her vanity table. And she still didn't bother to turn before she spoke.
“So,” said Melitta. “You're back.”
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Late Afternoon, Day III
Once again, the cabin was crowded. But this time no-one tried to sit on the lid of the sea-chest, or even put an ale mug on top of it. I think they all knew that I would have slapped their heads off their necks if they had. That was Lynn's spot, and gods help me, I was going to bring her back there.
Little Spinner, his face still badged blue and purple from the hits he had taken on the Hind, poured out the ale. Mine had a sharp, funny aftertaste, but I put that down to exhaustion.
“All right,” I said, sticking my thumbs in my pockets. “The Goat-Testicled, Slave-Stealing Sack of Shit took Lynn. We all have a problem with that, yes? So we need to go after her.”
I unfurled the map, and they all leaned around me to see it. “We're here- about a day from Bero, as the gull flies. But there's a whole damn navy between us and the harbour. So that's a thing. Also, we know that Goat-Boy is taking Lynn to Lord Iason. That means she's being taken to the fortress on the cliff, here. Even if we can get to the lower city, we'll have to get past five or six enormous walls, manned by enormous numbers of archers, and enough swordsmen to choke the gates of hell. This is going to be just a little bit tricky, is what I'm trying to get at.”
Regon scratched his chin. “I don't know, captain. Maybe we need to go back and assemble the fleet. All twelve ships together, we could make a stand of it- ”
“Before we all died,” Jess said flatly. “All your ships and men put together couldn't make a dent in the forces of Bero.”
“Exactly.” I took another gulp of ale. “We can't bash our way through the defences, so we're going to have to sneak. Land a shore party- a small one- and pussyfoot up to the fortress.”
Jess looked deeply dubious. “And how are you going to get back off the island?”
“That?” I said. “I do not know. I cannot tell. But if we can reach Lynn, then she ought to be able to think of something. She always does. If we can't reach Lynn- well, then, I'm not leaving. Sorry, and all that, but I won't.”
They digested this. It was Latoya who spoke first. “How many? And who?”
“In the shore party? Three. And more than that and we'll stick out too much. Me and two volunteers. I won't take anyone who's unwilling. But you, Regon, and you, Latoya, you're the ones I want.” I glanced at the bruise that wrapped half around Latoya's sinewy neck. “As long as you're up to it. I'll understand if you're feeling a bit below par.”
“How about if I break your face?” she offered. “Then who'll be below par?”
“A good point. Regon? You in?”
“Oh, sure,” he said, from behind his ale mug. “Land on an island crawling with soldiers, with no idea how to get off again. That's all in a day's work, that is.”
“Glad to hear it. Any questions?”
“Aye.” Teek poked a stubby finger at the map. “You still haven't explained how you'll get on the damned island.”
“Ah. Right. That. That's where you come in, Teek. Obviously, we can't charge straight for the harbour, flags waving and swords flying. So instead, we'll do this. East of Bero, there are reefs.”
That was an understatement. There are reefs, and then there are reefs , and the rocks east of Bero fall into the latter camp. They're the gouging, jagged, ship-killing kind that can rip the bottom off a boat like the peel from an orange.
Teek knew all this, of course, and his face changed. “You're not serious, captain.”
“I'm dead serious, captain. We're going through the reefs. You'll go first in the Badger , to sight out a path, and the Banshee will hug your wake.” I drew on the map with my finger. “That'll get us within a few miles of shore.”
“But what then ?”
I told them.
There was silence for a few minutes afterwards.
“Did someone drop you on your head a bunch of times when you were a child?” Jess asked quite seriously. “I really don't think I can imagine a plan in which so many things could go wrong.”
“It's all I can think of,” I said. “And doing nothing is not an option. I have to get her back. You know I do.”
Or at least, that's what I tried to say. It came out as a sort of burble. Strange. My tongue felt kind of thick, and my mouth dry. I shook my head, trying to clear it.
Spinner measured me with a narrowed eye. “Looks like the stuff finally kicked in.”
“About damn time,” Regon said.
Now blackish pools were swirling in the centre of my vision. Bollocks. Just bollocks . I ran my finger along the side of my ale cup, and felt a damp, gritty residue. Dried herbs.
“Oh, you rotters,” I managed, as I dropped. Dimly, I felt Latoya catch me before I could hit the floor.
“You need your sleep, captain,” I heard Regon saying, as someone pulled off my boots. “Got to be well-rested if you're going to do the impossible.” And then, crisply, to the rest of them: “We've got our orders. Look alive.”
Evening, Day III
My pallet smelled the same as always- stale straw, must and mould. Different blanket though. Brown, not grey.
The stone floor was cold- there are always drafts, in castles- and Melitta was down at dinner. So, just like I always used to on cold nights, I crept inside her room and sat by the hearth, huddled in my blanket. The warmth lulled me to a doze. I hadn't realized until then how tired I was.
My name is Lynn now , I was telling myself. I have a life, I have a pirate; I can sail a ship and throw the long knife and throttle a man three times my weight. Sailors hop to attention when I clear my throat. I left this place; it's not who I am anymore.
But that was hard to believe. Everything was the same. The smell of the pine logs as they crackled in the coals; the reddish spot on the largest hearthstone; the way that violet curtains of Melitta's bed swayed in the draft through the door. And the sour dread, deep in my stomach, that this was the time that Melitta would catch me stealing her fire. I pinched the inside of my arm every few minutes to keep myself from falling properly asleep.
But the next sound I heard roused me completely.
Footsteps, soft slippered footsteps, were heading up the spiral staircase- and that was familiar too. Those footsteps had headed here once or twice weekly from the time I was eight, and they made a giant lump rise to my throat.
The footsteps grew faster as they came closer- a dark shape ghosted through the door- and all at once she had flung herself down by the pallet and her hands were on me. “Gwyneth!”
“It's all right, Ariadne,” I said, gripping her forearms. “I'm all right.”
“Like hell you're all right.” She was already inspecting me- tilting my head gently towards the fire to check for bruises. “What did that bitch do to you this time?”
“Shhhh. Nothing. She gave me the fishy stare for a while, then had me fill her washbasin, then she just sent me to bed...How long do we have?
“The banquet will go on for at least another hour, and both of them are dead drunk, so you can relax for now. Let me see your lip. Who bust it?”
I touched it gingerly. For some reason, it wasn't scabbing over. “Timor. We had some differences of opinion on the way back here.”
“Timor,” Ariadne growled, as she shook rags and vials out of her reticule. “That slimy, arrogant son of a bitch. Of all the people Father hired to go after you, he's one of the worst. And that's saying something. Here, take this.”
I pressed the damp cloth against my lip. It smelt acid and strong, and stung where it touched raw flesh. “How many did he hire?”
She was still sorting out her vials, and she didn't answer for a few seconds. Sometime since we met in the map room, she had washed off the powder and rouge. With her face bare, and her hair simply braided, she looked older, infinitely shrewder. This was her real face- the one that she never let her parents see.
“At least twenty,” she said at last. “It's been bad since you escaped. Every time they spoke about you, their eyes would glitter . As if they were rabid. Or mad.” She stared blankly at a tiny bottle of lavender oil. “I'm so sorry, Gwyn, I'm so, so sorry. I did everything I could think of to put them off the scent.”
“I know you did your best, Ariadne,” I said weakly. “Please don't.” It was selfish, I guess, but I couldn't take another of her fits of guilt- not right that minute.
There was silence for a few seconds, as she daubed at a bruise with a cloth dipped in some kind of sharp-smelling infusion. Arnica, probably. Then she went on, more quietly. “The way they looked when they heard that Timor was bringing you up. Mother's eyes went all hard, and Father paced around and around the room, with this smirk ...Gods, I hate them! I'm going to strangle them one day.”
“Could you strangle them today? Does today work?”
To my relief, she laughed- the soft snuffling laugh that meant she was crying at the same time. “I've missed you so much. It's so strange. I hoped they'd never find you- but it's so good to see you again.”
“Me, too. I mean, you.” I propped myself up (which hurt) so I could look at her face. “You've mastered the stone-cold-bitch act since I left, I see. For a moment in there, you almost had me worried.”
She laugh-hiccuped. “You like it?”
“What's not to like?” A thought struck me. “Hell- you got married, didn't you? What happened to Gerard?”
She waved that off. “Nothing much to tell. It was fine, I guess. Gerard was clean, even if he had fewer brains than a cream pudding. But he took a header from his horse a couple of years in and broke his neck. Father's still trying to negotiate a marriage deal with someone who has an equally good pedigree.”
“I'm sorry. That must have been rough, when he died.”
“Not really. I only saw him every other Monday, and all he did then was grunt for a while above me and then pass out.”
My next question stuck on my lips for a second- it was an awkward thing to ask, but I had to know. “You didn't get pregnant, did you?”
She grinned a humourless grin. “You know I didn't. If I had, would you be here?”
Yes, I had known that, but I guess some part of me had hoped...I stared into the orange coals, and then stiffened. “Damn it. I am really out of practice as a chambermaid.”
“Why? What is it?”
“Wood. I forgot to get more wood, and the fire's dying.” The copper woodbin next to the fireplace held only a couple of logs, and a scattering of bark dust. “I have to take care of that before Melitta gets back, or-”
I didn't elaborate on the “or”; I didn't have to. Not to Ariadne. She had patched me up countless times after the “or” happened.
“Well, there's no need for you to get up. You look like you've been run over by an ox cart.” Acres of silk flounced around her as she got to her feet. “Sit still and keep warm. I'll be back.”
Her skirts swished out of the room and I leaned against the cooling side of the grate. I wasn't worried that she would get caught. Everything that I know about being sneaky, I learned at the knee of my big sister.
Since the two of us were tiny, Ariadne had been my best friend, my partner in crime, my secret sharer. When my mother was still alive, I lived with her down in the kitchens- territory completely off-limits to a pint-sized princess. But somehow Ariadne always found a way in. Our games took us all around the servants' quarters, from the roofs of the stables to the beer cellars. Together we investigated manure heaps, chased stray pigeons and got hideously sick sampling the leavings of the brandy. After we were finished playing, she would brush herself off, adopt a princessly scowl, and flounce off to dinner, no-one the wiser.
After I became Melitta's chambermaid and got moved upstairs, the differences between us became far plainer- we lived on the same few floors of the tower but might as well have been on different planets. Her days were spent with her nurse, and later on with her tutors. Mine were spent at Melitta's beck and call- learning afresh every day exactly how much she hated me, long before I understood why. Officially, I wasn't allowed to speak with anyone except Melitta and, now and then, my father, and there were days when the loneliness seemed worse than anything else they could have done.
But my sister fought back. During that entire miserable ten-year stretch, she visited me as often as she possibly could. Usually two or three times a week, always late at night. Those hours were somehow all the sweeter for being stolen. Sometimes we talked and sometimes we played, but more often, she taught me all the things that I wasn't supposed to know. It was from her that I learned to read and write, to do simple arithmetic and geometry. She used to sneak up a lump of chalk and spell out words and figures on the flagstones under my pallet. I learned less serious things as well- Ariadne liked games, and she taught me any number of them, from koro to knucklebones. Besides that, there were practical lessons, like how to accidentally-on-purpose trip an aggravating man into the fireplace and look innocent afterwards. She also passed on a number of the foulest curses you can imagine. She used them to describe her parents every time she had to tend my cuts and bruises.
But Iason and Melitta never knew. Outside of her late-night visits, Ariadne was all royal sneers and haughtiness towards me. She didn't even glance at me if we passed each other in the corridor. Even at the age of eight, she had understood what the consequences would be if someone realized what was going on.
It was a long way, as I well knew, to the woodpile at the bottom of the tower, but Ariadne was a quick mover. In a very few minutes, she was back, wobbling under an armload of ready-cut logs. She stacked them neatly in the woodbin, and then brushed sawdust and beads of resin from her sleeves. “Ruined another dress. Oh, well. I'll have to have a tantrum and blame it on the laundry.”
She set a fresh log on the fire, and poked it, and the pearls around her throat seemed to burn orange as they caught the glow. “All right,” she announced, her tone all business. “We've got to get you out of here.”
It sounded so easy, just said like that. “They'll all be looking for me to pose as you again,” I warned her. “That trick won't work twice.”
“No,” she agreed. “We'll have to come up with something new this time. And it'll have to be good. The castle guard has tripled since the war began. And they'll be watching you closely.”
My face was turned to the heat. It was something about the warmth, and Ariadne's closeness, but I felt something in me start to crack, and I bit my lip hard to keep anything from coming out. “You know, honestly, I think they might just kill me this time.”
“You know better,” she said grimly. “They can't. No matter how much they want to. They need you too much.”
This was true, though not very reassuring.
The fire was flickering well, now. Ariadne flopped down on the pallet beside me, and her arms came around my shoulders.
“I like the haircut,” she said. “By the way, is it true about you and the pirate?”
I smiled painfully. It was still too hard to think about Darren. “It was true. Don't know whether it's still true. I think I managed to really piss her off, right before I got grabbed.”
“Why, what did you do?”
I sighed. It seemed so long ago. “I tried to seduce Timor.”
“Hmm.” I could see that she was trying to picture it. “I have to say, Gwyneth, that doesn't sound like your all-time-best-ever idea.”
I leaned back into her. Her dress smelt reassuringly of bark and pitch from the firewood. “That's the other thing. I go by ‘Lynn' now. Would you mind?”
“Lynn,” she repeated. “That suits you, doesn't it? ‘Gwyneth' always seemed sort of- I don't know- like lace and ribbons. Lynn is more-”
“Tough?” I asked ruefully. My head was beginning to throb again.
“Tough,” she agreed, as she began to stroke my hair. “Definitely, tough.”
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Morning, Day IV
The herbs plunged me into a deep void. It was forever, or so it seemed, before I surfaced enough to dream...
With Lynn sick, everything around the Banshee had ground to a halt. Meals didn't get out at the right time, the men on the dog watches were sullen, and none of us knew exactly what we were supposed to be doing. I wasn't the only one who noticed. Every time I came up the gangway stairs to the deck, a bunch of expectant eyes turned to me hopefully, and then fell away when they realized that it wasn't her.
I spent as much time as I could in our cabin, but I wasn't much of a nurse. My hands seemed too big, too clumsy. Lynn had to remind me, in her painful rattling voice, to wipe the sweat off her forehead, air out the damp blankets. But after a few days, I made up my mind to take some initiative, and I set my shoulders and gritted my teeth and marched into the galley.
It took a lot of effort and my eyebrows got burned off in the process, but I managed to make something that I intended to call soup. I was kind of proud of it, though I didn't know why it moved so gloopily in the pot, nor where all the little gritty bits at the bottom had come from. Never mind- it was hot and I was reasonably sure it wouldn't kill her so I scooped out a cup of it and headed for the cabin.
I dropped it as soon as I got there. Lynn had been better when I left her that morning. At least, her eyes could focus on something for more than five seconds at a time, and she could gingerly sip a little water. But now she was sprawled across the bunk, motionless as a dead girl, pale lips parted.
I leapt across the cabin and grabbed the bits of her that came most easily to hand. “Lynn Lynn Lynn Lynn LYNN! Talk to me! Are you all right?”
One eye fluttered open. “I am definitely not all right.”
“I have some soup for you- ” I began to say, looking blankly around for it, before I realized that it was now in a gloopy puddle by the door. I wondered if I could get it back into the cup without her noticing.
“Soup,” she said, “cannot help me now. Too great is my affliction. Pirate queen, mistress of my heart, I am so horribly, deathly bored that my brain is decaying into gruel. Have mercy on your powerless slave, and entertain me.”
“Huh,” I said, as I checked her forehead. It was definitely cooler. “Well, I'd love to help out, but I'm not much of a singer, and I haven't juggled in years.”
“That does put a damper on the idea,” Lynn admitted. “I suppose I'll just have to entertain myself.”
Gods on high, that girl could move fast. One minute she was stretched on the bunk- the next she had bounced up and onto me, clinging to my chest like a koala bear.
I staggered back, trying not to overbalance. “How the hell is THIS entertaining?”
“Well, I'm having fun.”
I twisted, bucked- it was no good. “All right, you're not sick anymore if you can hang on like that.”
“Victory is mine,” she said into my chest. “I have defeated the mighty Darren. I have freed the world from the scourge of her godawful cooking.”
“Just for that? You're not getting ANY of my wonderful soup. I'm going to go find a new slave and feed it to her.” I tried bouncing on my heels. She just clung tighter.
“If that's what you plan to feed your slaves, you're gonna see a big increase in escape attempts.”
“I need less picky slaves. Or maybe I should just buy a dog. Lynn, ow. You're hurting my back.”
She hopped off immediately, guilt in her eyes. “Whoops. Sorry, I didn't mean- ”
I pounced, grabbing her arms, shoving her backwards onto the bunk. In one hop, I was on top of her, straddling her chest. It took just one of my hands to encircle both of her skinny wrists, holding her hands immobile above her head.
“You're far too trusting, girl,” I snarled.
Lynn wriggled- not to get loose, just to arrange herself in a more comfortable position. “Far too trusting,” she agreed.
I put two fingers beneath her chin, forcing her to raise it. “You're uppity, too.”
“That's what happens when you leave me unattended.” She didn't bother to hide her smirk. “So, Mistress- if you're not going to feed me horrible soup- what are you going to do with me?”
I woke with a jump, as you do when your nerves are shot. Regon was squatting beside me, one hand on my shoulder; the other carried a cup that steamed.
“Storm's brewing on the east, captain, and we'll need you on deck.” He cleared his throat. “Hated to wake you- you were smiling.”
Morning, Day IV
I was awake by the second ting , and started to move without even opening my eyes. Rolled over, scratched the back of my neck, felt under the pallet for my spare shirt...
It wasn't there and that's when I remembered. My chest clamped and I curled up tightly.
Ting...ting...ting... that bloody bell. It was the noise that always woke me, from the time I was eight, as soon as Melitta was ready for me to come in to her and start my chores. After I escaped, it was hard to get used to waking up without it, and if that sounds like a complaint, it isn't. That first morning when I drowsed until noon and only woke when the sun was beating hard through branches above me, I opened my eyes with such a sense of peace and languor that I felt friendly to the entire world. When I realized the bell was gone, that's when I really knew that I had made it out.
Hearing it again was when I really knew that I was back.
Now what? I sat up, hugging my knees, thinking. It was the old, familiar choice. Jump when Melitta whistled, or hold my ground and make her fight for everything she got? Resisting her always fed my self-respect, for a while, but before long she'd turn the tables by making things painful or hard enough that I'd break completely. Then for a time I would barely able to speak without her say-so. My petty little rebellions were always doomed- and more than that, it sometimes seemed like Melitta enjoyed them. Sometimes, on days when I wasn't even trying to disobey, I would catch her looking at me with a kind of hunger. Give me a reason , she seemed to be saying, I want you to give me a reason .
Ting ting ting ting... she was getting impatient.
My heart was pounding now and I tried not to look at the door. This was insane. I wasn't a child anymore. I had escaped from the castle, crossed three islands, talked my way into a fishing village, learned to empty lobster pots and set drag nets, faced down marauders, seduced a pirate, built a navy- after all of that , was I just going to trot to Melitta's side as soon as she snapped a finger? Did they really think I would just fall in line?
They're counting on it, I could imagine Ariadne saying. They think that if they act like nothing's changed, they can make you forget...
Tingtingtingtingting ...I had to make the choice now or it would be made for me. Few things made her as angry as when she had to come and get me herself. What would Ariadne think I should do? Hell (and my stomach plummeted) what would Darren think I should do? Ariadne would never think less of me for giving in. In fact, she often begged me to. (“What are you trying to prove?” she had hissed at me more than once, in the dead of night, as she wrapped a bad cut or splinted a fracture.) But Darren ? Darren had never known me to back down. Not from anything. And I believed...I had to believe...that she liked it that way.
But Darren wasn't there. What happened next wouldn't make a difference to anyone except me. And I had to husband my strength, now. I would need all of it.
From beyond the door, there came the sound of an exasperated snort, and then the swish of the heavy bedclothes being swept aside, and her feet hitting the floor. Despite the decision I had just reached, it was that noise, more than anything, that made me scramble up from the pallet. I smoothed my tunic with one hand, my hair with the other, and I pulled the door open just as she was rising. I bowed my head, hastily, so I wouldn't have to look at her.
“I'm sorry, my lady,” I said.
No explanations, they never helped. I waited, not moving, and after a long stony pause, I heard the bedclothes rustle as she lay down again.
“Get started,” she said. “You know the routine.”
“Yes, my lady.”
I headed for the mahogany nightstand that held her slop-pail. As I walked, I dared a quick glance at her face. The smugness that I had expected was there, in the lines of her lazy smile. I stared fixedly at my hands, trying to get myself under control, as I pulled out the pot. Full today. I could smell it.
“Don't take too long,” she said.
“No, my lady.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her smile again, and acid trickled through my guts.
This was my brilliant plan? Doing exactly what the bastards wanted me to do? How could that be the answer?
But there was no right answer. There had never been a right answer. That was the whole point.
Melitta's slop-pail hardly deserved the name. Its rim was edged in gold and there were climbing roses painted all over the lid. Typical of nobles, to want something beautiful to piss in.
Out of sheer force of habit, I studied the twining roses as I tromped down the stairs towards the middens. For ten years, I had carried that pail downstairs first thing each morning, and I knew each flower, each leaf, each godsbedamned artistic frond. About the only thing that stopped me from smashing the stupid thing down on the stone steps was that I didn't want to foul my bare feet. The old refrain was ticking away in my head. I hate my life...I hate my home...I hate my life...I hate my home...
Down in the stableyard, I emptied the pail, letting the stuff plash into a pile of stale hay and manure. Dipping water from the rain-barrel, I rinsed it. Hostlers and stableboys tromped by incuriously, not even seeing me. IhatemylifeIhatemyhomeIhatemy- GODDAMIT! I took a deep, shuddering breath, as heat prickled behind my eyelids. Damned if I was going to cry. I pressed my forehead against the cool stone of the fortress wall, reorienting myself, and took a couple of breaths.
You remember the routine , Melitta had said. Well, the slop-pail was done. Next was to carry up wood, carry up water, heat water for Melitta's washing, empty the washbasin, bring up the breakfast tray, take down the empty one, brush yesterday's clothes, clean yesterday's shoes. Then the dusting, then the sweeping, then the scrubbing, then more wood, then more water...It took no effort at all to remember the litany. There was an alternative, of course...carry up wood, carry up water, go stark raving mad, charge out of Melitta's rooms, hide in the pigeon coop or the laundry, get hungry, sneak out to filch food, get caught, get dragged up to my father, endure a doleful lecture, get turned over to Melitta, get thrashed, inspect bruises, sleep fitfully, have double chores tomorrow. That routine was almost as familiar. But not today...not today. Saving my strength and waiting for an opportunity wasn't much of a plan, but it was all I had at the moment.
In my head, an imaginary Darren dropped her jaw in disbelief. I closed my eyes hard, banishing the thought.
Then I headed for the woodpile.
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Noon, Day IX
It was taking too bloody goddamn long. So long that I began to wonder whether all the gods in creation had decided to get their jollies that month by slowing me down. First there was the storm; even with all our sails reefed to the size of pillowcases, it blew us nearly a day off course. Then the slow, torturously slow creep through the reefs. Twisting and turning among the rocks, quanting off the large ones when we could, it sometimes took hours to make a few yards of progress towards Bero, and more than once I stormed down to the cabin, buried my face in the bunk, and screamed.
Every single minute that ground by, I imagined some different dreadful thing happened to Lynn. One minute she was murdered by an evil vizier- the next she was married off to a curly-haired prince with a soppy smile and enormous trousers. The next she was poisoned at a state dinner- the next, someone noticed my slave-mark on her shoulder and had it burned off her skin. Every second, she could be hurting, could be breaking, could be dying- and there was absolutely nothing I could do.
But it was no use howling at Teek. As usual, he was steering superbly, guiding the Badger between the murderous rocks like a shuttle through warp and weft. It was the bigger, heavier Banshee that was the problem, as we lumbered along in his wake. Really, it would have been better to take only the one ship. But I needed Teek to get us through the reefs alive- and he couldn't follow me and Latoya and Regon where we were going.
At long, long last, when my throat was scratched from screaming and my nails had dug eight crescent-shaped scars into my palms, the boats eased to a halt, a whisper away from the far side of the reef. The cliffs of Bero reared no more than a mile or so away, forested with sentry-towers.
If you ever see a captain or noble or soldier looking stone-faced and silent before a battle, you may think that they're being stoic, too-tough-for-all-that. Take it from me. They're just keeping their mouths shut because they know that they'll vomit, or gibber madly, if they don't.
I myself tend to do either or both. So I was particularly stone-faced and silent as I watched the horizon. (Watching the horizon is another good trick when you're scared to death; it keeps you from having to look at anyone and helps control the nausea. The fact that it makes you look like you're deep in thought is a side benefit.)
I didn't see the shape come up behind me, but I felt the sudden shadow. “Report,” I ordered.
“We're on,” Teek said. “Anchored by the end of the reef, standing out like a couple of great yellow boils on a great red arse. Another few hours, they'll send half a fleet by to see what's what.”
And they would know that the ships belonged to the pirate queen as soon as they saw the red sails. Things were coming together. I took a few deep breaths.
“Move your crew onto the Banshee ,” I said. I controlled my voice carefully, and it didn't squeak. “Then get the men up on the deck.”
Some first mates like to pipe the men to assembly with a stupid little whistle. Regon prefers to bawl the order at the top of his lungs and break a nose or two if he really needs to. It works just as well. Within a minute, fifty-eight pirates were more or less lined up on the deck, in ragged rows. I let my eyes travel over them. Mismatched clothes, scarred leather jerkins, red silk kerchiefs, bare brown feet. Stubble-faced men, smooth-cheeked boys, a woman here and there. Some I had known since I was a child, and some had clambered on board a month before, barely knowing where to look to find the crow's nest.
Blood is rank and blood is right, blood alone is rulership ...I had always known, at some level, that those tired old words were tripe. Noble blood wasn't holy, no matter what Kilans believed. But at the same time, I had somehow managed to convince myself that my own noble blood was the only reason my sailors obeyed me. Now I was beginning to think that I had been wrong. The faces in front of me all had a kind of fixed, almost frightening, intensity. You'll know that look if you ever see it. It means that, if you want to, you can ask your troops to follow you through ice and fire.
But I didn't want to.
And I wasn't going to.
Jess stood slightly to the side, her hands in the pocket of her landsman's tunic, and gave me an encouraging nod.
“Right,” I said grimly, to everyone and no-one. “Right.”
First I took off my open coat, folded it lengthwise and tossed it onto a crate. Then I loosened my belt buckle and slid off the clip that held my cutlass scabbard.
“Teek, Jess,” I ordered. “Front and centre, let's be having you.”
The grizzled helmsman pushed his way to the front instantly, standing soldier-straight in the front of the ranks. Jess drifted forward more warily, with a question in her eyes.
They had met already, but I did a brief introduction anyway, using the tip of my sheathed blade to point. “Teek, you remember Jess. She's my old girlfriend and she scares me to death, but she's very good at handling people. Jess, Teek- my old helmsman. He's the best sailor I've ever known.” I stepped back from them, and raised my voice. “I'm leaving these two in charge. If I don't come back, they'll decide what happens next.”
“What happens next?” Jess repeated. “With your fleet? Your resistance? The hundreds of people on the oceans who have sworn to obey you personally?”
“Yup,” I agreed, “them.”
“Captain, think this through,” Teek said worriedly. “I know you have to go to Bero, but you can't just-”
I reached deep, summoned everything that Lynn had ever taught me, and sneered a full-out pirate sneer. It actually made the burly helmsman step back. “I believe I just did,” I said. “You mangy dogs can save Kila just fine without my help. You can sail as well as me, fight as well as me, lead as well as me. So don't you dare try and keep me from where I'm needed. Lynn put herself in my keeping, and she comes first. ”
They didn't break out in cheers exactly, but I could see them taking it in. Jess, on the other hand, laughed in delighted disbelief. As though I was a slow student who had suddenly learned to count.
Only one of my sailors spoke up. “But captain,” said Spinner. “You're the pirate queen.”
“That all that's bothering you? Here-” I said, and I tossed him my cutlass. He caught it automatically around the middle. “Keep that from me until I get back,” I told him. “And if I never do, get used to bawling orders. Three cheers for the new king, everyone.” I raised my voice in the dead quiet. “WELL? Cheer, you whoresons, cheer !”
They cheered, loud and startled, and they went on cheering as Regon and Latoya and I swung down the rope ladder onto the deck of the Badger . They kept cheering even when they raised the anchor of the Banshee and set the sails. I stood on the deck of a tiny trading boat, watching my flagship slip away in the path between the reefs. Spinner was still frozen by the gunwales, clutching my blade, looking young and skinny and lost, but at the last moment he collected himself enough to cry out to me: “I'm not a goddamn pirate king!”
“So bloody what?” I called back.
It was what Lynn might have said.
Then they were gone, a shadow on the water, too far away to exchange any more words- and that was it. The Banshee , my fleet, the future of Bero- all the things I had fought for and prized- they were all suddenly out of my hands. And the astonishing thing was that I didn't really mind.
Regon tapped my shoulder. “Ready to be a hero?”
“No. Well, I mean, yes- but no really. Because there's a good solid chance that we're about to die grim and horrible deaths.”
Regon shook his head. “If we survive this, you're going to work on your pep talks.”
“And you're going to learn to wash regularly.”
Latoya didn't bother with the heart-to-heart- she had already picked up a hatchet and started work. I stepped over and joined her.
Evening, Day IX
“That's it, I guess,” I finished.
All the time I was talking, Ariadne had been perched beside me on the hearthstone, listening with total, furrow-browed attention. Not that I had been talking all that long. It was strange, and worrying, that my entire life with Darren could be summarized in half an hour. Fifteen minutes, if you cut out all the spicy bits.
Ariadne didn't comment, not right away, so I got up and put another log in the fireplace. The easiest way to measure time in the tower was to track the number of logs that had crumbled to embers. We had about an hour before Melitta returned from dinner.
As I settled back down, Ariadne spoke at last. “Darren's going to come for you.”
“Why so sure?”
Her voice climbed with princessly outrage: “Because if she doesn't I'm going to find her and I'm going to beat her silly head in, that's why so sure!”
“That's very sweet,” I said, poking the new log until its crumbling bark began to smoulder. “Now will you keep it down?”
She waved that off. “We're ten floors up from anyone who might be listening.”
“You don't know that. Keep quiet.”
“You're just on edge. I promise you, no-one's going to hear. Now will you please eat some more?”
I glanced at the greasy bundle she had brought, and swallowed carefully. “No, really, I've had enough-”
“ She doesn't let you eat anywhere close to enough, she never has. And I don't know when I'll be able to get up here again, so no arguments. Have the pigeon pie. If you can get through that, it'll keep you going for a week.”
I picked off a small bit of meat and pastry and went through the motions of chewing, hoping that would satisfy her. As always, Ariadne had only the best intentions, but she had never been really hungry herself- so she never could remember that rich food doesn't sit well on the stomach after days of dry bread and broth. There were uncomfortable gurgles going on down there already, the first stabs of cramps. I just hoped that I could hold off on throwing up until Ariadne went away. She didn't need something else to worry about.
While I dissected the pie, trying to make it look like I'd eaten more than I actually had, Ariadne played with the lacy sleeves of her gown. It was lilac that night.
After several minutes, she asked: “Melitta hasn't done anything...big...yet, has she?”
I crumbled some flakes of lard pastry between my fingers. “No. She's barely said two words to me, as a matter of fact. I've been doing my work and that's about it. Maybe Iason told her to lay off?”
“Maybe,” Ariadne agreed. “Or she might be waiting for you to slip.”
“Or that,” I admitted. The smell of the pie was making my stomach clench, so I stood up and paced around the room as if I needed to stretch my legs. “And if so, she'll get it before long. I've played the trotting lapdog for six days already. I can't keep this up.”
Ariadne snapped straight. “You have to, Gwyn- I mean Lynn. No, listen. If I know anything about my mother, she's set to deliver something brutal as soon as you step out of line...”
“You think I don't know that?”
“So please, please, please, I'm begging you, just keep your head down. Whatever that takes. It may take us a while, but we'll find a way for you to get out of here. I promise that I'll think of something- does your arm still hurt in the damp?”
I had been rubbing my right forearm without thinking about it. Now I took my hand away. “It's nothing.”
“Like hell it's nothing. That arm still hurts when the weather turns, doesn't it?”
Both of my arms were aching, but as usual the right one was worse. The pain in my left arm felt like tiny red threads criss-crossing the muscles; in my right, the pain was fat red ropes that throbbed. I shrugged.
“ Doesn't it? ”
A shrug and a glare were usually enough to stop Darren from asking questions. I'd almost forgotten how pushy my sister could be. “Yes, it hurts; yes, there's a storm coming; no, it's nothing new; no, there's nothing you can do about it and will you stop shouting? ”
Instead, she slapped her hand against the hearthstone, almost triumphantly. “This is exactly what I was talking about!”
“Just now! I'm the last person in the world who would defend my mother, but, Lynn, you know perfectly well she's insane. The day she did that to you-”
My right arm and my left arm got broken in two different incidents, on two different days, but we both knew the one that she was talking about. I was sixteen at the time and getting harder to handle. When the bone cracked, the noise was enough to bring my father storming up from his room below. Ariadne came up behind him, and the sight of her chalk-white face would have given away her feelings if either of her parents had been paying the least little bit of attention.
That time, they had no choice but to call for a healer. Some hours later, I lay on my pallet, still half-doped with the wine and opium I was given before the bone was set, and listened to Iason and Melitta arguing in the next room. In my foggy state, I couldn't make out any words, but I did hear it when the door banged open and Iason strode out. He went down the stairs very quickly, without looking back at me once. At that moment, even though I was drugged to a stupor, I knew that Melitta had won some kind of victory. She didn't do much to me while the bone was healing, but after that things got messy.
“What's your point?” I interrupted, before Ariadne could get into details.
“What did you do right beforehand? Right before she broke your arm?”
“I called her a heinous bitch. You know that.”
Ariadne slapped the hearthstone again, and I winced, imagining twenty palace guards galloping up inquisitively to find out what was going on. “Please stop it,” I told her. “Just cut it out...”
“You cut it out! You! Lynn, you cannot give her an excuse! None of it is your fault, none of it has ever been your fault, but if you can keep from being hurt, then put your pride in your pocket and bloody do it ! Do what she tells you, just behave! Because I am not going to see you with bone splinters coming out of your arm again!”
“Bones belong inside the skin! Not outside of it! Inside!”
“Shhh. Ariadne, just hush.” I sat back down beside her. “I've always done what it took to survive. Always. Sometimes that means that you have to let yourself get hurt. Sometimes that's the only way to protect something bigger, more vital.”
She had taken out a hanky of lilac lace, and was pressing it against her eyes as if she could push the tears back in.
I put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey.”
The hanky went down, exposing her face, flushed and grim. “One day she's going to push you too far and you're going to jump out the tower window. I know it.”
“I'm not going to jump out the stupid tower window. If I was going to do that, I'd have done it years ago. Calm down. Nothing's happened yet. My bones are all inside my skin. Why are you having fits?”
That just set her off again. “Because you're my sister, dammit! You're my baby sister!”
“I'm only four months younger than you, you drama queen.”
“Still counts! You're still the baby! Deal with it!” She drew a deep breath and scrubbed her face with the hanky, leaving it even more flushed than before. “I should get going. I'm leaving the food- eat as much as you can before she gets back. That's an order. From your older and far wiser sister.”
“Infinitely so. And better looking. Don't you forget it.”
As soon as her slippered footsteps had whispered down the stair, I gathered the rest of the food into a squashy bundle, pried the window open a crack, and lobbed it out. When I pulled my hands back inside, they were slick with raindrops. The ache in my right arm had turned into a steady, pounding throb. It was going to be a hell of a storm.
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Evening, Day IX
The rain began quickly. One minute it was fat, deliberate drops, and the next a heavy drenching downpour that made the horizon dissolve in a wash of grey. Here and there were glowing orange dots in the gloom: flames at the top of sentry-towers, along the cliff of Bero.
Latoya deftly rigged a sail into a tent, and, hunched beneath it, we had a makeshift meal of dried meat and groats. We weren't hungry, but we weren't sure when we would next get a chance to eat. Besides, it would help to keep us warm.
Beside us were three separate jumbles of wood and rope: sections of planking cut from the Badger's deck, lashed to sealed and empty casks. We were already carrying the rest of the gear. We each had a knife- two in my case- bound at the back of our belts; each of the blades was wrapped in cloth that had been smeared with pig fat, to protect the metal. Our boots would be tied to our waists. We couldn't take much more than that.
Regon and I sat on the wet deck to eat, but Latoya stayed on foot, her eyes roaming, restless. “We should go,” she reminded us. “No sense in waiting.”
“We're probably all about to die,” Regon said thickly, chewing his fifth biscuit. “Putting that off makes sense to me.”
She dismissed him with a flick of her eyes and looked to me instead. “The navy will have seen us, maybe sent scouts. We should go.”
Reluctantly, I got to my feet. “Get your lazy arse to the tiller, Regon. Make your course west by northwest.”
He crammed in the last of the biscuit, and licked his fingers. “West by northwest it is, captain. But couldn't you just say, ‘Head for the damn big rock over there?'”
“Could,” I admitted, “don't want to. Latoya. Set the sails.”
I watched her sidelong as we worked. Regon and I had been laughing too loud and making unfunny jokes all through the evening. Latoya had been calm as a closed oyster.
“Aren't you scared?” I asked abruptly.
“No point,” she said, making a knot fast. “If we die, we die.”
There wasn't much arguing with that one but it annoyed me regardless. “Don't you try that with me , sailor.”
“The ‘too tough for my shorts' act. I invented the ‘too tough for my shorts' act. Hell, I am the stinking shorts!”
That was enough to make her glance up, eyebrow raised.
“That might not have been the best phrasing,” I admitted.
“You spout crap when you're nervous,” Latoya said with interest. “Maybe you ought to gag yourself or something.”
“No, no...it's probably good that I'm getting it out of my system before I see Lynn again.”
I looked up, raindrops drumming on my face. The sails were billowing out now. The Badger was underway, for the last time.
“Heading for the big damn rock, captain!” Regon yelled from his spot by the tiller.
I could just make it out- a black humpbacked shape in the gloom. “You'd better get over here!”
He didn't bother to respond, but I heard him rustling back there and I knew what he was doing: lashing the tiller in place, then hurrying to join us amidships. Latoya and I were already waiting by the gunwales by the pile of planks and barrels. The three of us stood almost reverently, watching the rock loom larger and larger in the choppy sea.
“Will she keep together until we get there?” Regon said, largely to break the silence.
“She'll do,” I murmured, giving a fond stroke to the gunwale, and then, “Time to be stupid.”
We picked up one knotted mass of planks and barrels and heaved it over the side. It hit the water with a loud wet smack, but, I was relieved to see, floated immediately. Regon spat, rubbed his hands, and vaulted over the side himself. In two strokes, he caught up with the floating planks, pulled himself on top of them, and got a good grip on the ropes with fingers and toes.
Latoya and I tossed in the other two makeshift rafts, and then Latoya herself crashed down into the water. I stood at the gunwale waiting to make my own jump, and thought the thoughts that one thinks when one is about to jump into ice-cold water in the middle of a raging storm. Which can all pretty much be summed up as Oh, shit.
The rock was looming very large now.
I've never been religious, exactly, but an old sailor's prayer swam into my head as I looked at the shuddering waves. Lords of the deep, see our weakness; lords of the deep, allow us passage. Lords of the deep, know our need; lords of the deep, allow us passage.
Lords of the deep, let me find Lynn, I finished off, adapting the end of the prayer for the occasion. Lords of the deep, don't let her be too pissed at me -
In the first ten seconds after I hit the water, the Badger hit the rock. It hoved in the bow, and the little ship almost immediately began to take on water. That wasn't all the fault of the wreck; Latoya had done some careful work with the hatchet when she was down in the hold. The Badger would break apart or go to the bottom, and if any of Iason's ships came by to see what was what, that was all they would find: the shattered bits of my first boat. It was a good plan, sacrificing the Badger to put Iason's navy off the scent- but my throat almost closed as I watched the little ship flounder.
Pirates have their sentimental side. I'm no exception. Deal with it.
But I didn't have long to think sentimental thoughts- or rational thoughts, or plan-related thoughts, or indeed anything that you could call thoughts.
What was running through my head, at any given moment, was this: “Bad idea bad idea shit cold very cold shit dammit dying now bad idea bad idea ow was that a shark? shit cold stupid Darren bad bad bad bad BAD!”
For the million years that I was in the water, I did my best to focus on breathing. The trapped air in the casks kept me at the surface, more or less. But with whitecaps breaking over my head every few seconds, and solid sheets of rain bucketing down at the same time, that didn't seem to make much of a difference. With my mouth always open and gasping, I drank pints of seawater within a few minutes, and before long my throat was on fire, my stomach cramping, and my tongue swollen to a fat slug.
It was a toss-up which was worse, the thirst or the cold. Every now and then I would upturn my face to the rainy sky, trying to get a mouthful of fresh water. The drops smacked every part of my face, it seemed, except my salty tongue- and the rainwater was so much colder than the surrounding sea that within a few seconds I would dunk my head under the surface to get rid of the freezing slick.
Again and again, I raised my head and squinted desperately around, trying to make out the orange flames of the sentry-towers somewhere in the murk. Sometimes I thought I saw them in the distance, and sometimes up close, and sometimes I didn't know whether I was seeing towers, or the reflection of stars on the water, or fireflies, or death, or dreams. It was no good trying to swim properly, to make headway, and the three of us had made up our minds not to try. With an immense amount of luck, the tide would wash us up on shore. Without an immense amount of luck, we were dead anyway. But as the night wore on and I got more tired, the animal part of me came to the forefront. I found myself struggling madly, kicking and thrashing and yelling myself hoarse, for minutes at a time before I could force myself to go limp again.
It was hard to remember that two of my crew were somewhere nearby. Once- just once- a wave sent me crashing headlong against Latoya's raft. She looked like damp seaweed draped over a piece of flotsam until lightning flashed on her face, showed it calm and thoughtful.
“Ow,” she commented darkly.
And then the waves tore us apart again.
A few eternities later, when nothing was real to me but the salt and the cold and each gasp of air, some part of me became dimly aware that my shoulder was scraping against barnacled planks. I looked up. My raft was floating alongside a tall white warship. There were lights moving on deck. I flattened myself against the raft, waiting for the whistles and shouts, the roar from the sailors on board- but there was nothing. The tiny craft drifted harmlessly past.
That was the first of many encounters in that long stormy night. Again and again, the raft slipped through the ships of the mighty navy of Bero, invisible in the downpour. I couldn't see Regon and Latoya any more, and could only hope that they were having the same luck, in the rare moments that I had the energy to hope.
Then the storm was fading, and a grey glow lit the horizon-
And then without warning my knuckles were scraping rock.
I was so bleary after the bashing I had taken that it took me a good few minutes to realize where I was. The raft had washed up at the harbour of Bero, and I was draped across the rocks that steadied the dock pilings. Groggy as I was, I knew that I couldn't waste a minute getting undercover. I couldn't see anyone watching, but I couldn't see anything anyway, with my salt-scarred eyes. After a few tries, I managed to free my knife with a trembling hand, and cut the ropes that held the raft together. The planks and casks, I floated underneath the dock. With any luck they wouldn't be noticed soon. Then I slipped into the water and half-swum, half-staggered to the beach. The nearest shelter was a boat overturned for scraping, and I slipped underneath it.
Plan , I thought, need a plan -
That was as far as I got before I passed out.
“Captain, wake up. Captain- ”
Not very patient, that voice. With great reluctance, I opened my eyes.
Latoya and Regon were crouched beneath the overturned boat with me, both of them looking like they'd been stoned by a hostile crowd, and then drowned for good measure.
Latoya summed up the situation in her usual accurate way: “That sucked.”
There didn't seem to be much more to say about it. Latoya had lashed a skin of fresh water to the underside of her raft. We passed it round, swilling our mouths and spitting out the brine.
“All right,” I said when that was done. “Everybody functional?”
Regon winced and Latoya rolled her eyes. I counted limbs and shrugged mentally. It would have to do.
I cracked my knuckles. “First of all we're going to have to get into the city. So I think we should start by- Latoya? Pay attention to the fascinating things that I'm saying.”
She was peering under the bottom edge of the boat. “Don't think we need to get into the city.”
“What? Of course we do.”
She jerked her head. “Look there.”
I looked there. My heart stopped beating for a full five seconds, and then began to pound out a loud and triumphant tattoo. Lynn - it was bloody Lynn , blond hair almost white in the pre-dawn glow as she hurried across the beach. Her progress was halting- every other minute she stopped to glance behind a beached ship or a boathouse, obviously looking for something. Someone . Granted, she was in a dress that made her look totally unlike herself (mounds upon mounds of pale apricot silk) and there was something different about her hair- but that wasn't the point. She was there and I didn't think, not for a second.
I lurched out from beneath the boat. My legs almost buckled beneath me, but I got my balance back when I grabbed her. One hand on her head, the other at the small of her back, I pulled her in and kissed her with all my might. She froze a second, startled, but then relaxed into it.
It was only after the first ten seconds of mind-melting relief that I began to notice things. I wasn't bending over as much as I usually had to when I kissed Lynn. The shoulder I could see looked fleshy rather than muscled. And she didn't taste quite right.
That was also when I became aware that the girl in my arms was gently, ever-so-gently, pulling away.
I released her and took a step back, baffled.
“Thank you,” said the girl politely, “that was very nice. But I think you meant to give it to my sister.”
Morning, Day X
Something was definitely up.
When I came up the stairs with Melitta's breakfast tray, there was a green handkerchief wedged in the crack of Ariadne's bedroom door. This was a message in our old code, and meant simply, “ We need to talk. I'll find you later. ”
My father spent an hour in the maproom with his advisors, and when he left he was wiping his forehead on his sleeve. He looked tired, but pleased, so I figured that something must have gone right for him that morning.
But when I got back from dumping the washwater, he and Melitta were at it again, behind the closed door of her bedroom. I went partway down the stairs so that I could listen without being seen.
“...solves one thing,” Iason was saying. “But that's beside the point. I think you're being deliberately dense.”
Melitta's response was quieter- I could hear the venom in it, but couldn't make out any words until the very end, when her tone suddenly soared: “- that defiant , sullen little slut! ”
You never hear anything good about yourself when you eavesdrop.
Iason's voice was half highly-important-and-overstressed-man, half helpless-nice-bloke this time around. “Woman, listen to yourself. You don't need to go that far.”
“You have always said, you have ALWAYS said that it was my decision.”
“It was, it is, but Melitta. If you go too far, you'll kill her. And you know as well as I do what will happen if that girl dies!”
I pinched my inner elbow, hard.
Their voices sunk to murmurs. I considered going closer, but I couldn't rule out the possibility that one of them would suddenly yank open the door.
At last, Iason spoke hard and businesslike: “It seems like you have it all figured out. Why are you asking me?”
“I want you to say it, Iason.” Melitta's voice had grown even sharper now that she had almost won. “Tell me that I can do what I feel is necessary-”
The voices went quiet again. I strained my ears until my jaw hurt, but the next thing I heard was the door opening. It swung, it didn't bang, which meant that they had reached some kind of agreement.
Not good. Not good at all.
My father, Lord Iason, clumped down the stairway at a methodical pace, left-right-left-right. A tired man, a busy man, who wished that people wouldn't bother him with unnecessary drama. He gave me the merest glance as he passed.
“She wants you,” he said. “Go on now.”
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Morning, Day X
“ You're Ariadne?” I repeated for the fourth time.
“Yes, yes,” the noblewoman said impatiently. She was leading us through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways at high speed; the three of us had almost to jog to stay level with her.
“You're Ariadne,” I repeated again, for a total of five, “and Lynn is your sister ? But Iason only has one child- everybody knows that!”
“Everybody knows it, do they?” The scorn in her voice was stinging. “Well, you're daft if you think that the public knows everything about my father. He has any number of guilty little secrets, and Lynn is the biggest. Here we are.”
She ground to a halt by a low-slung plank building. It had a heavy, iron-clamped door with a bastard of a padlock, but the princess produced a key from somewhere in the billowing folds of her dress, and clicked it open. The door didn't budge when Ariadne tugged on the handle, but Latoya quickly joined her and wrenched it ajar with one hand. Beyond was the smell of musty straw and leather. A disused stable, it looked like.
“This used to belong to my husband,” she said breathlessly. “It was his hunting stable, and he's very dead now, so I suppose it belongs to me. Anyway, no-one will wander in here. You two- yes, you, the short man, and the other one that looks like a bear in trousers- you'll have to wait here. Darren- you are Darren, aren't you? Pirate queen, right? Darren will be back in an hour or so.”
Regon gave me a quick sidelong glance and I nodded my approval. The two of them slipped inside, and I heard the grunt as Latoya hauled the door back in place.
Ariadne tapped her foot. “Quick, we have to hurry.”
I didn't know how much hurrying she could manage, considering the yards of apricot-coloured silk that were draped around her- but she bundled her skirts up under one arm and trotted along gamely. Within a very few seconds we had emerged onto a busy, rain-soaked street, with soldiers and sailors and fishermen tramping on every side. I straightened my salt-streaked clothing and tried to act natural.
“I haven't got long,” Ariadne said over her shoulder as she picked her way through the puddles. “They know that one of your ships crashed on the reef last night; I heard my father talking about it this morning. I figured that you wouldn't come to Bero without some kind of plan, so I thought I'd better get down here in case you'd found a way into the city. I had to throw a really terrible tantrum to get out of the castle- said I wanted to go riding- slipped all six of my bodyguards and lord knows where they're looking for me. I've only time to show you the way.”
“Where are we going?” I panted, trailing after her. “Where's Lynn? How is she? Can you get me to her?”
“Halfway up to the wall. In the high turret. Pretty awful. And no. The guards on the towers have tripled ever since Timor got back with her. This is going to be a tough nut to crack.”
A brilliant thought occurred to me. “Wait- you can get outside, right? What if she pretended to be you, and-”
She gave a snort of the utmost impatience. “Did you honestly think we haven't thought of that? That's how we got her out three years ago, of course. But they're watching for it now. And no-one can know that I'm on her side, or- well, really, I'd rather not think about that. I think it's going to be up to you, this time.”
“Is it?” I said weakly. “Oh, good.”
There was silence then as she led me through a dizzying series of back-alleys and narrow streets, up stairways and down other ones. I gave up trying to figure out what was going on, and just tried to keep up. I'm not much of a runner. I mean, I'm in shape, and everything, but you don't get much practice jogging when you live on board ship.
“Ariadne,” I said at last, as I puffed along behind her. “I'm sorry about this, but if you don't explain to me exactly what's going on, then I'm afraid I'm going to scream. I'm sorry but I shall.”
“Lynn said you were smart,” she called, again over her shoulder.
“She's over-generous. Use small words.”
“Oh, fine.” She waited for me to catch up. “It's not complicated, really. It's the simplest of stories. The oldest of stories. My father is lord of the house of Bain and I am his firstborn, his heir. My father is also a selfish pig and while my mother was pregnant and he couldn't sleep with her, he used her handmaid instead. Elain, her name was. Nice lady. Liked cats. Before long it became clear she was pregnant. My mother Melitta- who is likewise a selfish pig, but nobody's fool- figured it out very quickly. She flew into a rage, dragged Elain twice around the keep by her hair, then threw her out. She went down to live in the lower city- here, in other words. Fortunately for her, she had an uncle here who was willing to take her in. And a few months later she had her baby...”
“Lynn,” I finished. “So Lynn is Iason's bastard. But why was he so hell-bent on finding her?”
Nobles aren't famous for restraint. Most lords have at least a few half-blood children scampering around the servant quarters. But it's well understood that they can never take the throne, or indeed, wield any real power. So their fathers either ignore them or get rid of them before they can cause trouble- tossing them into the army is a common trick. I'd never heard of anyone going to such lengths to get one back.
Ariadne knew all of this. She raised an expressive eyebrow. “Five-day fever.”
“What-” I began, and then, slowly. “Ohhhh.”
“My father caught it off of a Tyranese ambassador, and my mother from him and I from her. It didn't spread any farther, but that was bad enough. They had running scabs over half their bodies, so I'm told.”
“Oh lord,” I breathed. I had to slow to a halt, leaning on a nearby wall for support, as everything suddenly snapped into place. Five-day fever is about as ugly an illness as you can imagine, but it has one lasting effect that, to a noble, would matter more than any other. “ It left them both sterile .”
“Sterile as hot glass. I haven't seen for myself, of course, but apparently my father's balls actually withered . So you see. We need to go up here.”
I barely saw the stairs beneath my feet as I followed Ariadne. I can try to explain how a Kilan noble would feel about losing the ability to bear children- but unless you're a Kilan noble yourself, I doubt that you'll understand. Nothing meant more to nobles than the survival of their bloodline. Children meant continuation, immortality. Childlessness meant failure, dissolution, annihilation; it meant a once-great house would crumble, be eaten from within by rebellion and rivalries, and would finally die.
It had always been suspicious that Iason had only one daughter, and of course there had been rumours. But there are rumours about every lord in the islands- myths that breed the catcalls and insults that sailors swap in taverns. I had never for a moment thought that one of them could be true- that Iason of Bain actually was unable to father children. Just as I had never thought that Oropat of Jiras actually slept with turtles.
This changed everything. And obviously it had changed everything for Iason as well.
Sometime during my musing, we had emerged onto a stone porch that jutted from some high building- a temple, maybe- far above the streets. The lower city was spread out beneath us, and we had a good view of the castle up the cliff to the west. But I couldn't concentrate on that, not when things were finally beginning to make sense. “So if anything happened to you, the house of Bain would be completely wiped out.”
“It's worse than that,” she said grimly, resting her arms on the balustrade. “I had the fever as well, remember.”
“You mean, you're...well...” I couldn't quite bring myself to say it, but I gestured vaguely in the direction of her stomach, and she grinned.
“You're shy for a pirate. And I don't know whether I'm barren. Not for certain. None of us do. I had a much lighter case of the fever than either of my parents. No scarring, and I was only in bed for a week. But my physicians at the time said that there was a fifty-fifty chance.”
I was willing to bet that the physicians who had made that assessment hadn't lived long afterwards. “Is it true that you were married?”
“For a full two years,” she agreed, “and for all that time, I was being rutted as regularly as a prize mare. And nothing came of it but some medium-bad chafing. Now, that's not proof. Maybe Gerard was the one shooting blanks. But I wouldn't place any large bets on it.”
My jaw locked. “And that means...”
“That means that my mother and father can never have another child. And I probably can't have one at all. And you know that I won't be able to hold the throne if I'm childless. If the house of Bain, my father's line, is going to survive, then he needs grandchildren and there's only one place he can get them. There's only one person who has both my father's blood and a working womb. And that's- ”
Noon, Day X
“Gwyneth.” Melitta actually looked up at me when I entered the room. “Sit down.”
She was at the small tea-table; I sat opposite from her, warily. Something was definitely up.
The table held a tray of cakes, and hot spiced wine steaming in two silver tumblers.
“Please,” said Melitta, waving an airy hand towards the food. “Eat something. Wherever you've been, you can't have been fed well. You're a skeleton.”
The sheer hypocrisy of it made my bones itch, but I'd been sick three times the night before and hadn't been given breakfast that morning. The cakes were probably richer than was good for me, but I was hungry enough not to care. I took a cake and cracked it in half. It was filled with sweet almond paste, and that broke down the last of my resistance. I moved the tray closer to me and set to work. Within five minutes, half of the cakes were gone. The wine was strong and scalding. After a few mouthfuls, there was a comfortable burn all the way through my torso.
Melitta watched me indulgently as I ate. “Good, aren't they?” she asked. “When Iason conquered Gantra last month, he brought me back a new pastry cook. I've told him that he needs to conquer Retlio and bring back a new seamstress.”
I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. The wine had made me light-headed. “I'm not a pet, you know. You can't buy my love with food. Iason never really understood that, but I thought you were smarter.”
“It would be stupid you try to win you over that way, wouldn't it?” Melitta agreed. “Considering the history of our relationship. And we do have a lot of history, don't we? Go on and think about it.”
I didn't want to. “What's your point?” I asked, as I reached for my cup of wine again.
Her hand darted- I flinched back but her target was my wine-cup. She hit it backhand; the wine splashed over the table in a long stream, dripping from the table's edge. The next second, she had grabbed the tray of cakes and flung it against the wall. The tray clashed horribly; the cakes pattered onto the stones.
It didn't startle me, exactly. I was surprised that she hadn't done it earlier, and was glad that I'd eaten as fast as I had. But it was a sign that we were moving into a less pleasant stage of our conversation. Under the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms against my tunic.
“Gwyneth, I couldn't care less whether you love me,” Melitta began. “I care about one thing. Just one. Exactly one. I care about whether you do what you are told to do, when you are told to do it- instantly, perfectly, and respectfully. Because you haven't done that in the past, have you, Gwyneth? You're rude, or you're sullen, or you're slow, or you're lazy, or you talk back, or you go off and whimper to my husband. I don't think you know how much trouble you've given me, over the years. Do you think I enjoy having to straighten you out?”
“I'm sorry,” I said, because it seemed to be expected.
That seemed to excite her. “There, you see? That's it! That's the insolence! No matter what you're saying, there's never a grain of real respect, real...submission. You still fancy yourself a sort of princess, don't you? You still think that your attachment to Iason makes you special in some way. And that, my girl, makes you believe that you're too good to do what I ask of you. Too good to be a servant, too good to do chores for your keep, too good to run errands for Iason's wife, too good to bow your head to the lady of Bero...”
Her voice got higher as it got more spiteful. As if as an afterthought, she picked up her own glass of wine and took a long swallow. That seemed to calm her, and she gave a long, reflective sigh.
“Isn't that what you think?” she said, now smiling pleasantly. “That you're different?”
I knew I was making a mistake but couldn't help it; wine makes me blurt things out. “I am different, or you wouldn't bother with me,” I said. “Because Iason's my father-”
I literally slapped a hand over my own mouth, but the damage was done. Melitta's face turned ugly- as if a flat stone had been flipped over to reveal the crawling things beneath. I stumbled backwards, knocking over my chair, and started to scramble away, but she caught up with me in three long strides. This was the moment, back in the day, when she would have grabbed me by my hair, and sure enough she tried, but the short locks slipped out of her fist. Even in my panic, I felt a moment of triumph, but that was cut short when she snatched my right ear instead. Her thumbnail and the nail of her forefinger almost met as her pinch pierced the skin.
Some faint cool voice was telling me that I knew how to deal with this, how to fight back. But I was deep, deep, deep in trouble and that fact drove every other thought out of my brain. As the blows began to hammer down on my face and head, I launched a half-hearted kick at Melitta's shin, but that just made the force of the hits redouble. I shielded my head with my forearms as best I could and let the rest of me go limp. Sounds from somewhere far away buzzed in my ears.
Some time later, Melitta tossed me down. She was breathing through her nose, in short snorts, and she settled herself back into her chair gingerly, as though she was the one in pain. Tears stood out in her eyes, and her chin trembled. She was always like this afterwards. While she was composing herself, I picked myself up- very, very carefully- and stood my chair upright again, and waited alongside it, tasting the blood on my teeth.
A few minutes later, she smiled again, and waved a hand at my chair. “Please. Sit.”
I sunk down, my heart ticking painfully on my ribs.
“Iason's not your father,” she said, still smiling. “Because that would make me your stepmother. Which I'm not. I'm just your keeper. Iason gave you to me long ago, did you realize that? I have his blessing to do whatever I like with you, and if it wasn't for one thing, I would have thrown you out the tower window by now.”
She sighed, tracing the pattern on her wine goblet. “Blood. That unfortunate matter of blood. Something very precious, Iason's blood, is trapped inside you. It's as if you stole a giant diamond and swallowed the thing. You're holding all his descendants prisoner.”
If you want my blood, I thought for the thousandth time, cut me open and take it out, I don't care, I don't want it - The tightness of her smile then told me that she knew what I was thinking, and, more than that, she had considered it.
“So what does all of this have to do with almond cakes?” she said conversationally. “Well, Gwyneth, this is how it is. I'm sick of your defiance, so I've decided that it's never going to happen again. From now on, every moment that you are awake, you will be obedient, and attentive, and subservient. You will do what I tell you to do, and only that. You will live how and where I decide. You will do this because every moment of pleasure or comfort in your life- every moment that you spend without broken bones and lash marks- will be a gift to you from me. And you will get those gifts only when I'm satisfied. Iason is not going to intervene. No-one will. So you'd better start improving.”
“I'm not a child anymore,” I said. I had meant for it to be louder- a ringingly defiant proclamation. But it came out as a whisper instead and there was a hint of pleading in it.
“You're right,” she agreed. “You're not a child anymore. It's a great relief, have I told you that? You're not a little blond imp for whom Iason has a bit of a soft spot. You're a common, cheap sort of woman who is making life difficult for my family. Meaning that there are any number of things that I'd like to do to you. And I'm rather hoping that you'll make it necessary.”
My chest was getting tighter and tighter. “You need me. You need me to-”
“We may need you to whelp a couple of times, yes,” Melitta agreed. “Do you need both of your hands to bear children? Do you need both your feet? Do you need your hamstrings unsevered, do you need your ears attached? Look at me and tell me that I wouldn't do it.”
I didn't even try.
“So understand this clearly,” she said, as her fingers curled again around her goblet. “You obey me. That is all you do. Whether I order you to pour a glass of wine, or bow, or kneel, or knock your own head against the wall, or bed the stable boy. Your purpose in this life is to do as you are told. So remember. The next time you disobey me, I will beat you with an iron bar. And if you leave this tower without permission, then I will blind you with one.”
She broke off to take a swallow, then set the cup down with a click. “I prefer you with long hair. We'll have to take care of that.”
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Noon, Day X
Far beneath the stone porch where Ariadne and I were standing, sailors and soldiers trooped, unaware. I barely saw them.
“So you had the fever when you were little,” I said to Ariadne. “And Iason knew that it might have made you barren. All the way back then, he knew that you might never be able to give him an heir. So what did he do?”
“What do you think he did? He went and found Gwyneth- Lynn, I mean- and he had her brought up to the castle. She was two.”
“And her mother? Elain?”
“Oh, he brought Elain up as well. She became a scullion- rotten job, but at least it got her away from my mother. She lived in the kitchens with Lynn for about seven years.”
“What happened then?”
“She fell down some stairs. That's what I remember being told.”
I knew this story. “And it was very sudden and Elain was in perfect health beforehand and they buried her very very quickly?”
“Yeeesss...” she said, confused now, “why?”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “When somebody's existence is an embarrassment to a powerful man, and that somebody dies very suddenly, then chances are that it wasn't an accident. You must have thought of that before.”
I watched her eyes grow stricken.
“Apparently not,” I murmured.
“Are you saying,” she asked very slowly, “are you saying that my parents murdered Elain?”
“Can't be sure. It's not like I was peeking around the corner and taking notes at the time. But it seems the likely thing. It's what my father would have done. He would have killed Jess if we hadn't managed to- well.” I coughed. “Anyway.”
Ariadne was sporting an odd look by then. It seemed that she was turning over this new information, and weighing it, and then accepting it, and mentally scribing it on the thousandth page of a book entitled Why I Hate My Parents.
“She was always kind to me,” she said at last. She bowed her head, and long blond curls fell around it, shutting out her face from view.
I gave her, oh, two and a half seconds to mourn. We were in mid-crisis, after all. “What happened then?”
“Then Melitta took Lynn out of the kitchens, and brought her upstairs and took her as a chambermaid.”
“But Lynn must have been- what, nine years old?”
“That's ridiculous- ” I began, and then I stopped myself. It wasn't ridiculous. I had servants that young myself, once upon a time. With a pang, I remembered a fawn-eyed girl who used to bring the washwater to me and my siblings in the early morning. The jug was too big for her and she walked very slowly with it, swaying from one side to the other. If the water had cooled by the time she got to us, it was considered the done thing to give her a clump on the head. I didn't participate in the clumping, preferring to wash before the water grew even colder. But now it appalled me to remember how I used to turn my back on the whole scene, blocking out the girls' protests and yelps as I got dressed.
I had forgotten that entirely, put it out of my head. My entire adult life had been spent feeling guilt about the wrong things.
“Melitta used to beat the hell out of Lynn,” I stated rather than asked.
Ariadne's fingers drummed on the balustrade. She nodded.
“Anything else?” I said savagely.
“Yes. Of course. My mother is an innovative person. She could always find new ways to punish Lynn for being born. She humiliated her, she piled work on her, she wouldn't let her eat enough, wouldn't let her sleep. There's a closet in Melitta's room where she used to put her- Honestly, Darren, I can't talk about this. I may be sick.”
“But why ? Why ? Is it just because Melitta hates her?”
“Hates her, resents her, uses her to take out her anger at my father. Thinks that Lynn isn't fully human, because she's a bastard and therefore a peasant."
“But what about your father? Doesn't he care about all this?”
“Not he,” she said, scornfully. “Sometimes he plays the sorrowful-eyed innocent, but don't let that fool you- it suits him fine, the way my mother treats her. It would be a horrible loss of face for him if people knew about his- you know- ”
“His withered balls,” I contributed.
“Yes. Those. So he can never let anyone find out who Lynn is and what he needs her for. That means that he has to keep her close, but under control. Dependent and unambitious. Every now and then, when she was small, he used to spoil her a bit, just to keep her off balance. You know, he would give her sweets and fruit and let her play with my toys, that kind of thing. But she never bought the act. Not ever. One of the best moments of my entire childhood was when she took an apple from him and then used it to sock him in the side of the head.”
There was so much pride in her tone, I had to smile ruefully. The funny thing was that I had seen Lynn pull off the same manoeuvre myself. Except, that time, her opponent was a marauder the size of a gorilla and instead of an apple, she used a coconut.
“But say that you are barren- say that he needs Lynn to breed the next generation. Would he acknowledge her as the mother? As his child?”
“We've wondered about that,” Ariadne said absently. “There are a number of possibilities, of course. The most likely, I think, is that he would keep her hidden during her pregnancies, have me fake a big belly and morning sickness, and then smuggle the babies to me as soon as they were born. She would have to be well-hidden for that to work- maybe locked up. Or he could try to pass her off as a relative of his- cousin or niece or something- marry her to some minor nobleman and adopt her children when they were born. Or, if he's really desperate, he could get rid of me and have Lynn take my place. I don't think that last one is very likely, but it's possible.”
“My god, Ariadne- ”
She threw up her hands. “My parents are horrible people! This is what I've been trying to explain!”
“He expects Lynn to just go along with any of those plans?” I couldn't picture it for a second.
“He would have a hard time keeping her in line whatever he does,” Ariadne agreed. “So he must be counting on my mother to have her squashed good and proper by the time he's ready to start. Unless I miss my guess, my mother's been told to pummel her until she doesn't know which way is up. So you see, we don't have much time.”
I stared at her, not sure why she was so calm. Lynn, impregnated by force, locked away or beaten into silence- There were tremors of electricity up and down my spine. After a minute I recognized what they were: sheer, pulsing fury.
“I really need to get back,” Ariadne said suddenly. “Let's get to work.”
Ariadne spoke in rapid, clipped sentences, pointing out the important features of the lower city: guardhouses, armourers, sentry towers. Then she moved on to describing the castle, the parts of it that weren't visible from our perch. I was listening carefully, of course, but at the same time I couldn't stop myself from staring at her.
She really didn't look that much like Lynn, not when you were paying attention. The eyes and the hair colour were the same, the faces were a similar shape. And they both had the same breathless way of speaking, the same (I searched for a word) strong-mindedness. But Ariadne was at least three inches taller, curvy at the waist and hips where Lynn was scrawny; her hair was fuller and thicker, and her skin was unmarked.
They would have been almost identical, I realized, if Lynn had been decently fed and treated when she was a child. And now it seemed all too obvious: Lynn's waifishness was the pinched look of somebody used to the thin end of the stick. Jess was right. I had ignored the signs, because I wanted to believe that Lynn was a noble like me. That she came from the same place I did, that she was...as good as me?
I'm a moron , I thought dazedly. Lynn's in love with a moron.
“...and that's about it,” Ariadne finished up. “Have you got all that? Now, about getting you into the castle. Is there some clever pirate trick you can use?”
“Um,” I said, as I tried to think clever thoughts. “We could try going over the walls, I guess.”
She clucked impatiently. “That's always the first thing people try. Well, here's my idea. There's a guest coming to the castle soon, and he'll have attendants. My father's never seen him before, so with a bit of luck and a lot of violence you can sneak in on his coattails. What do you think?”
“I like all of it except the word ‘soon.' When is this guest coming?”
“The day after tomorrow. I know. I know. But Lynn's been sort of all right for almost a week now- ”
“You said she was awful.”
“ Pretty awful, I said. Look, here's what we'll do. See that tower?”
“The big bastard? Topmost bit of the cliff?”
“That's the one. The third window from the top? That's mine. At dawn tomorrow, and again the day after that, I'll fly a flag out the window. If it's blue, then things are going as well as can be expected and you should wait to sneak in with the guest. If it's red, then there's an emergency and you need to get your bony pirate rear into the castle. Immediately if not sooner.”
“Yes...but how ?”
Ariadne stomped her foot. “I cannot think of everything , Darren!”
She seemed on the verge of having a regular royal hissy fit, and I had seen those before, so I raised my hands, surrendering. “You'll need to tell me more about this guest.”
Exasperated, she glanced at the sun, checking the time. “I suppose so. I really need to get back. I don't suppose you can find your way back to the stable from here? Fine. Fine. We can talk as we walk.”
“Finally,” Ariadne gasped, when we reached the stable door. “My god, it's been hours. I'll have to lie myself blue in the face to explain this one. Look, I'm going to talk to Lynn tonight, tell her that you're on your way. Should I tell her something else from you?”
“Tell her- ” My mind went blank. Tell her I love her? Tell her I'm not mad about Timor anymore? Tell her that I'm sorry, as usual, for being a stupid chump, as usual?
“Tell her I'm coming as fast as I can,” I said at last. “And give her this.”
I dug in my pocket for the coil of leather, pressed it into Ariadne's hand, and closed her fingers over it. She inspected the thing, and then her eyes came up to meet mine.
“This is a weapon, right? A- a garrotte, you call it? Does Lynn know how to use it?”
“Lynn's an artist with it. I'd feel a hell of a lot better if I knew she had it with her.”
She winced. “If my mother finds it, things are going to get worse in a very big hurry.”
“It's a strip of sinew, it's easy to hide. Please, Ariadne.”
She still looked reluctant, but she tucked it somewhere into the piles of apricot silk.
“And now I really have to go,” she concluded. “Remember to watch for the flag. Oh, and Darren?”
She grabbed a fistful of my shirt and yanked me down to her. “You do plan to marry her, don't you?”
“Erg- ” I said, and then went with the safest, and only, answer. “Yes?”
She jerked me down further.
“Of course,” I added. And then, when that didn't seem to be working, “Very soon.” And then, “Next week?”
She released my shirt, and dusted her hands off like someone who had just performed an unpleasant but necessary task. Then she solemnly shook my hand.
“So glad to have met you,” she said. And then she was off, her blond curly head bobbing through the crowds.
My gods , I realized, there are two of them.
Maybe we did have a chance of winning.
Evening, Day X
“Come on, Ariadne,” I muttered to myself, pacing up and down Melitta's room. “Come on, come on, come on...”
It was late in the evening, and, for the first time in almost ten hours, I had been left alone. Melitta had kept me at her side all through the day. First I tailed behind her as she made a tour of inspection around the castle (and you can be sure that the servants all snapped to attention when they heard her coming), then I stood behind her chair when she and Iason ate lunch in their private dining room. Afterwards, we returned to her chamber and she handed me a heavy piece of embroidery to unpick while she sewed. She hadn't said another word to me in all that time; she would beckon to show where she wanted me, frown when I made a misstep.
I wasn't even made to go down the stairs for wood and water that day- a footman did that, slinging the buckets around with casual ease. It should have been a relief (toting an armload of logs up a hundred and twenty stairs is no joke), but wasn't. I would have taken that or any other job which would have gotten me out of Melitta's sight for a couple of minutes.
The only thing that had carried me through the day was the knowledge that Ariadne was coming that evening. We might be able to figure some way to deal with the crackdown, the two of us together. Just as the two of us together had been able to engineer my escape.
We had talked about running away, on and off, ever since my mother died and I was moved upstairs. But it was Ariadne's looming marriage that finally pushed us into action. Once married, she would either have children or she wouldn't. If Ariadne had children of her own, then I wouldn't be needed, and Melitta would make sure that I ended up in a burlap bag below the tideline. If Ariadne turned out to be barren, then I would be needed, and Melitta would make sure that what happened next was nowhere close to fun.
We knew it wouldn't be easy. We knew that they would come after me. But if I could manage to stay clear until Ariadne got pregnant, then they would stop looking. Surely. Even Melitta wouldn't track me across the known world, just for the pleasure of throwing me out a tower window.
“Don't take this the wrong way,” I told my sister, the day of the escape, as I was tying her into a chair with strips of cloth torn from her petticoat. “But I hope that you get pregnant very, very fast. Tomorrow, even. Does that make me an awful person?”
“Don't worry about it. I actually- ” She fidgeted, as best she could, considering that she was bound hand and foot with all of the best knots that I knew. “I actually want children. Not for the greater glory of the house of Bain, I mean. I just want- you know- children. I want to be a mother. And maybe I never can be.”
That brought me up short. I had come to think of babies as things that you had only because someone else forced you to. If someone had offered to cut my womb out, I'd have thanked them with tears in my eyes. But what the hell. People want different things.
“If you want children, you'll have them,” I told her. “Somehow. Even if you turn out to be barren, there's always another way. Right?”
“That's what we're hoping,” she agreed. “Now gag me before I start to snicker. You look truly ridiculous in that dress, have I mentioned that? Remind me again why we chose the pink one?”
There's always another way , I reminded myself as I paced up and down the tower room. I knew that it was true; I just hoped that we could find the way in time.
“About time you got up here,” I snapped when I heard the door open. “Now tell me what was so important- ”
I turned, and my voice, quite simply, died.
It was her , it was her , it was Melitta; the candle she was holding made a demon-light leap in the pupils of her eyes. “I can't say that I'm disappointed,” she said slowly. “Because I expected this, of course. But oh Gwyneth, little Gwyneth, this is something you should not have done.”
All the blood in my body surged down towards my feet. “I didn't- I haven't- ”
“Hush, Gwyneth, hush,” she said, as though it was meant to be soothing; she set the candle down on her nightstand. “I know perfectly well what's going on, so don't dig yourself in any deeper. Sit down.”
My legs folded beneath me, and I started to sit on the floor. Melitta snapped her fingers impatiently. “Beside me, on the bench. That's right. And now we can wait together, can't we, my Gwyneth? We can see who it is that you're so eager to meet with.”
Her long fingers reached out and snuffed the flame of the candle. We were left in the flickering firelight. Her hand found mine and clutched it tightly, her nails digging into my palm.
“You'll need to be quiet now, Gwyneth,” she said, and her voice was still light, dreamy. “Quiet as a mouse...”
The fire snapped in the hearth. Melitta's breathing was quick and eager beside me. On the stairs below, dead silence. I felt my hand, the one in Melitta's grip, growing clammier and colder.
It would be fine, I told myself fiercely. Ariadne would burst in any moment, but she would lie or bluster her way out of it. Or even if she couldn't, what would happen to her? Ariadne never got punished. She would be sent to her room, maybe. Maybe . And only if Melitta was in an especially bad mood.
Footsteps. Soft, slippered footsteps as someone took the stairs two at a time. Melitta's grip on my hand grew even tighter, crushing my fingers together. Her breathing rasped louder. She was excited; the energy of it was pulsing from her. And I knew-
I knew it didn't matter that Ariadne wouldn't be punished. I had just given Melitta the opening that she had waited for, longed for. If she found out about my friendship with her daughter, then it didn't matter whose fault it was. I would be the one to bleed for it...
The footsteps began to head up the last landing.
“ She's here !” I yelled- the words ripped out of me. “ She's here, she knows, go, run! RUN! ”
Melitta was on her feet and so was I- she stalked for the door and I threw myself in the way; she brushed me aside, wrenched the thing open and took a cursory look around- but she already knew what I knew. Those few seconds had been enough of a delay; the person mounting the tower stairs had heard me, the footsteps had fled back down. Ariadne was gone, the blood sang in my ears, and Melitta's face was a plaster mask as she closed the door again.
“That was pointless,” she commented, moving towards the fire. “I'll find out who it was soon enough.”
“He'll never be back here,” I said wildly- as a bluff, it was probably too little and too late, but anything to muddy the trail. “He's not stupid- ”
“Then he's got a damn sight more brains than you have.” She had the fireplace poker now, and was carefully raking over the logs. They hissed, steamed.
“I'm leaving this room now,” I said, as if by saying it I could make it happen. “I'm going to go to bed.”
“No,” she said, giving the logs another thoughtful poke. “No, I don't think so. I don't think that you're leaving this room. You've been getting up to all kinds of things in the dark hours- that much is clear. It seems that I've been giving you entirely too much freedom. Especially at night. That will have to change. You've been running wild, my girl, and the only thing to do about it is to shorten your leash.”
Just those few quiet words, and I felt myself slipping. I knew that she meant it. She wouldn't leave me alone in the tower anymore, wouldn't leave me alone , wouldn't give Ariadne any chance to reach me. And with that, the one thing that made life bearable in the castle would be gone. Just like my mother- who I now barely remembered- just like Darren -
“I won't let you do this,” I said, to her and myself. “ I won't .”
She turned, still holding the poker. “Gwyneth, Gwyneth. We've discussed this, don't you remember? You have that tendency, that unfortunate habit, of thinking that you're special. But you're not, Gwyneth, are you? You're my servant; you belong to me just as my horse and hound and falcon do, except that you weren't nearly as expensive. You tame a horse by breaking its will, and you tame a hound with whippings and a falcon with darkness and hunger. I'm not sure what will work best on you, but I'm prepared to try them all. For as long as it takes, Gwyneth. Until you sit or kneel or run or hunt on command. Until you are able to remember what you are. I wonder what would help to jog your memory? Perhaps if you sleep at the foot of your mistress's bed- ”
“YOU are NOT my MISTRESS!”
I screamed it, louder than anything I've screamed before or since, and her eyes seemed to go wide for a second, but perhaps that was just a trick of the light. An instant later, certainly, her face was the same as ever- pale, faintly amused, faintly scornful.
“Get on your knees,” she said, and the tip of the poker twitched. “Go on now- ”
I launched myself at her. It was pure fury, no trace of method, but I think I meant to go for her eyes. She stepped out of the way nimbly, the tip of the poker weaving patterns in the air.
“Every second, you're making it worse,” she said. “Every second that you disobey me, you're getting in deeper. You've been here before, Gwyneth, you know how it ends. This is pointless; you know how it ends- ”
There was a fierce pain tearing at my chest and I knew I was close to breaking down. I went after her again, but this time there was no real strength in my fists. I pounded her chest harmlessly, three times, four times- the blows wouldn't have dented a pound of butter. Then, without any effort, it seemed, Melitta caught me by the back of the neck and tossed me down on the floor. The poker glinted in the firelight as she raised it over her head.
It came down, it came down, it came down, it came down, and in the next minute, I lived sixty different violent lives and died sixty ugly deaths. The pain was crimson wells, it was dragons' teeth, it was singing birds and it was tines of lightning. I screamed, I went numb, I thrashed, I couldn't move, I begged her to kill me, I begged her not to; I blacked out and woke up and screamed again through tears, my face was a mask of mucus.
At last the blows stopped; I curled, waiting, and flinched when there was a gentle touch on my face- Melitta wiping it clean with her own handkerchief.
“This can happen for as long as it needs to,” she said softly. “This will just keep happening until you learn. Now get up .”
I didn't think that my legs could possibly carry me, but the poker twitched in her hand and I somehow lurched upwards.
“You are not going anywhere,” she said. “ Say it .”
There was no conscious thought involved; I blurted: “I'm not going anywhere.”
“You belong here.”
Another twitch. Gleam of fire along the metal. “I belong here.”
“You belong to me.”
“I belong to- ” The words stuck in my mouth for a moment, no more, but that was too long. The end of the poker crashed on my elbow. I don't know how hard a hit it was that time, but it seemed to crush nerves that scorched all the way up my arm. The scream that came out of me didn't even sound human.
I staggered, nearly fell- but she pointed the tip of the poker at my chest, as if it was a sword. “GET- UP!”
I straightened, gasping for air.
“Step back. Twice.”
She must have opened the closet door when I was unconscious. Two hobbling backwards steps took me into it. The walls closed in on either side.
Melitta was a dark shadow, framed by the door. “You belong to me,” she repeated. “And you are not going anywhere. Get used to it.”
The door crashed shut.
And it felt like another one crashed shut in my own mind.
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Morning, Day XI
“I don't care if it's traditional, I'm not gonna say it!”
Lynn's eyes danced. “You've forgotten about my superhuman powers of persuasion, have you?”
“Oh-ho-ho, no.” I clawed my way out of the bunk, wrapping the blanket around me. “No more persuading. You've been persuading me for hours now. I love being persuaded and all, but I think I pulled a muscle in a very important place . Besides, it's my turn; I still haven't done you.”
Lynn propped herself up on an arm, lounging across the narrow wooden shelf. She was completely bare- I'd taken the only blanket- but that never bothered her. “Mistress, the sky is not going to fall if I take two turns in a row. You're the boss, remember? Besides, I'm enjoying myself.”
“I hate being a taker.”
“You have to take things sometimes. You took me , right? Where would you be if that hadn't happened?”
That was easy. “Dead.”
“Exactly. But if you're really feeling guilty, then why don't you get off your piratical high horse and say it already?”
There was just no way I was going to win this one. I let out a feeble sigh, and kicked the deckboards with my toes.
“Shiver my timbers,” I muttered, and then hurried on. “Lynn, it just sounds ridiculous. What is that even supposed to mean?”
“Well, your timbers are your legs,” she said, slipping off the bunk. “As for the ‘shiver' part-”
“Captain- captain- captain- ”
“What, what, what?” I snapped, rubbing my eyes. “Dammit, Regon, there ought to be a rule against waking your captain in the middle of a very good dream.”
Heavy shutters fit over the stable windows, so the light was dim, but I could make out the grim lines on my first mate's face. “The flag is up at the tower. And captain- ”
I didn't need him to finish. Hurriedly I pulled myself out of the pile of stale straw where I'd been sleeping. We had found out the day before that you could get to the stable roof quite easily by pulling yourself up on a railing and using the lintel as a step. I did so now, kicking away a couple of offended chickens who were nesting in the thatch.
Latoya was already up there, and she gave me a curt nod without moving her eyes from the tower. The flag that Ariadne had promised was there, almost too tiny to make out, a bright speck against the white stone. Red.
“Oh, for the love of- ”
My vocabulary got a work-out then. I used every curse that I knew. The thatch of the roof shuddered around me as I went at it. Latoya waited patiently until the torrent slowed.
“Better?” she asked.
“...on a stick !” I roared, finishing. “I knew this would happen. She could be dead , Latoya, she could be dying, she could be- ”
“Anything,” she agreed. “So we need to get to her. How?”
That was the question I had dreaded. I sucked my back teeth.
“We can't,” I admitted at last. “Not yet. We tried to hash this out yesterday. None of us has any sliver of an idea how to get into the castle, unless we go with Ariadne's plan. The walls are too high for climbing, and we don't have the time for digging, and all the supplies that go up the hill are triple-checked for stowaways. We could poke around and try to think of something else, but if we keep tramping around the city, then sooner or later someone will realize we don't belong here. And we're all that there is, Latoya. Lynn has no-one else to come after her. We are IT. She loses her only rescuers if we charge in blindly. We need to wait for our chance.”
She nodded slowly. “Which of us are you trying to convince?”
“Me,” I said miserably. “I'll go down and tell Regon. We need to do something useful while we're waiting.”
We didn't. Our clothes were still salty and battered from our raft-ride, so we collected strange looks whenever we went out the door. We couldn't afford to be questioned by guards, so we huddled in the stable, not talking much. Around noon, it began to rain again, and a puddle collected below a leak in the roof. Every few seconds, a drop of rainwater smacked into its centre, and the reflections on the water rippled, as if forming a different horrible picture. Drip - and Lynn was writhing in Melitta's grip, her left arm broken. Drip - and she was thrown into an oubliette under the walls. Drip - and she was raped by a grinning soldier. Drip -
As the minutes crawled, I pounded my brain, trying to think of some way, any way, to get up the castle that day. The massive white walls loomed in my imagination, stark and blank.
When the rain started to come down harder, Latoya and Regon left me to my mood, slipping out into the grey streets. They came back with armloads of plunder: a few loaves of bread, melons, oranges, a wedge of sheep's milk cheese. Dinner the night before had been a few handfuls of wizened hazelnuts that we'd found at the bottom of an abandoned saddlebag, so I did my best to get through my share. Every bite tasted like ashes.
I slept very little that night and woke with a pounding headache; stumbled over Regon's prone body as I staggered to the stable door. He gurgled in protest.
Once again, Latoya was on the roof before me. This time she was sitting cross-legged in the damp thatch, studying the distant flag.
“Red again,” she observed.
“Right,” I said, and bit my hand in frustration.
“Bigger today,” she went on.
That was true. The red speck in the distance had become a long red tail billowing from the window. Ariadne must have tied together every red piece of cloth that she owned.
“Things are bad,” I said, translating the obvious message. “Things are very bad- buggering fuck . I don't know what to do. I'm empty here. Completely dry. I don't do the plans, Lynn does the plans, I just yell at people. And sometimes I snarl. If you can think of anything, Latoya, anything at all, then hell on a biscuit would it ever be a good time to say so.”
Latoya never hurried, never seemed rushed, but her brow furrowed and her grey eyes turned to slits. The signs of deep, deep thought. I waited, chewing my lip.
At last, she said, “What's that on the end?”
“What's what on the end of what?”
“The end of the flag. Look.”
I glanced up, hassled. The tip of the red banner was divided in two, like a snake's tongue. “That's a pair of bloomers. Silk ones.”
“A pair of what ?”
“Underwear. Fancy underwear.”
“That... that ...is underwear?” I could see Latoya mentally measuring the size of the billowing knickers. Her head was cocked to the side in fascination.
“Underwear for a noblewoman. The richer you are, the more important, the more layers they make you put on.”
“But why ?”
“Probably because it makes it more difficult to get ‘em naked that way. Extracting a noblewoman from her clothes is a little like getting at the meat of a crab. You can do it, but you need a lot of patience, sometimes some special equipment...” I shook away old memories. “Does this help us? Like, at all?”
“No,” she admitted. “I've just never seen anything like that before.”
“Fine,” I announced to an uncaring sky. “Fine. Wonderful. Lovely. I'll go see whether Regon can pull a rabbit out of his ass- ”
“It's a figure of speech, Latoya.”
“How do you get a girl?”
It was the softest thing I had ever heard coming out of her barrel of a chest, and even in my panic, it stopped me short. “How do you get- you mean, how do you get a girlfriend? A partner?”
She gave a small, embarrassed shrug.
It was the first time in my life that anyone asked me for advice about women, and I had never in my life felt less qualified to give any. But Latoya had followed me to virtually-certain death, so it wouldn't have been fair for me to respond with a snarl and a well-aimed boot. I rubbed the back of my head and tried to think.
“Well, in my experience...you wander the seas rescuing peasants and fishermen until a girl storms out of nowhere and challenges you to a duel. Then you haul her on board your ship, tie her to your mast, and within a few days she's running the place. Is that helpful?”
An honest woman was Latoya. “I guess...I guess...you try to recognize the right one when you meet her, and you try to hold on to her afterwards. And if you don't let her get kidnapped by a goat-testicled slave-stealing sack of shit, then you're doing better than me.” I poked the woman in her beefy shoulder. “Come on, let's get inside.”
Latoya confiscated all our knives, and put a fine edge on each of them. The slow, measured sound of the honing rasped on my second-last nerve. Regon whistled tunelessly, and that rasped on my last one.
After an epoch of waiting, I pulled a shutter ajar for the thousandth time and saw that the sun was finally down.
“Let's move out,” I ordered, with vast relief, and tickled my palm with a fresh-honed knife point.
All the streets in the lower city were narrow; space is at a premium when you live in a fortress town. The three of us were crouched in alleyways that let out on the main road. From my post, I could have reached out and touched the leg of any passing horse.
Ariadne's planning was perfect. It was an hour after sundown, just as she had calculated, when the carriage came rattling up the narrow street. The moonlight glistened on its gilt trim, and on the silver buttons of the coachman. The coachman, two footmen- they were all the attendants that I could see. I glanced to the other side of the street, where Latoya and Regon were waiting, for confirmation. Latoya nodded, holding up three fingers.
Three men was a ridiculously small escort for a lord as important as this. But- as Ariadne had told me- Iason was so afraid of assassination attempts that he didn't allow even his most important visitors to bring their own troops and bodyguards into the city. For once, his paranoia would work in our favour. I cracked my knuckles and waited.
When the carriage came abreast of us, we all struck at once. Regon bounded up onto the shafts, his knife a silver flash as he cut the traces. The horses, spooked, began to bolt free; Regon thrust the knife between his teeth and raced after them. The carriage box skidded to a halt. The gaping coachman sat frozen, holding the ends of the useless reins; he was still gaping when I put him out with a chop on the neck. From behind the carriage, I could hear the muffled thuds as Latoya took care of the footmen. Pounding each of their heads against the cobblestones, from what I could tell.
While all of this was going on, a piping, peevish voice within the carriage was shrieking its objections. As soon as I got the carriage door open, I found the face that fit the voice: a young man whose downy face was cranky, whose hands dripped with gold rings, and whose plum velvet suit must have cost as much as the average warship.
“Lord Jubal?” I asked him. “Jubal of Orapat?”
“What?” he said, surprised. “Yes!”
“Good,” I answered, and swung my homemade cosh. It was a rock tied into the end of a rag, nothing more than that- cheap and very effective. One quick blow sent him snoring.
After that there was no need to discuss anything. Latoya stuffed the three prone bodies into the box of the carriage, Regon brought back the horses and repaired the traces with a few bulky knots. We ghosted back to the stable through the quiet streets, hauled the bodies out onto the stable floor, stripped them, and tied them up with old pieces of harness.
For once, it had all gone right. I just hoped that we hadn't used up our entire store of luck yet.
An hour later, I sat in the gently rocking carriage as it rolled through the last of the castle gates. I was about as uncomfortable as a person can possibly be when sitting on a plush velvet bench. My breasts were tightly bound so that I could fit into Jubal's fine shirt, and I was encased from the waist down in his foppish purple hose. All I'd been able to keep of my own clothing was my leather gambeson. It didn't match the rest of the outfit even remotely, so I had to wear Jubal's mink-lined cape on top. Breathless, overheated, and sweaty, I was almost miserable enough to forget what we were doing.
Regon, on the other hand, was smirking wide as the moon as he opened the carriage door. The coachman's uniform fit him well enough, though we'd had to cut off the ends of the trousers. “Captain, you look good enough to eat with a silver spoon.”
“Thanks for that,” I muttered to him, stepping down into the courtyard. “I still think you should be playing Lord Jubal.”
“I couldn't hack it, captain. No-one would be convinced.”
“How am I going to make a more convincing Lord Jubal than you? I'm not even a man!” A palace steward was bustling over to us across the courtyard. I directed a patronizing little nod in his direction.
“You're a noble,” Regon hissed under his breath. “Or you were once. That's all that they'll see.”
True enough. I hadn't been to court in years, I'd believed that part of my life was over for good. But now, just the feel of the velvet and gold against my skin was causing old instincts and feelings and understandings to flock back. I was remembering the thousand habits and mannerisms that nobles absorb as a matter of course during their upbringing.
So when the steward came panting up, and bowed so low that his forehead nearly touched his pointy shoes, I didn't even acknowledge him. Instead, I sneered around at the castle courtyard as if it wasn't nearly as big as I had expected.
“Lord Jubal,” the steward said reverently, and bowed even further, almost tipping. “We are most honoured that you have chosen to favour the Lady Ariadne with your courtship.”
“Naturally,” I said, with a sniff. “That being the case, why is it that I'm being welcomed by Iason's butler rather than the man himself?”
The steward coloured. He had obviously been dreading this question. “My apologies, my lord- my deepest apologies- but Lord Iason receives guests only in his own chambers. He will make no exceptions. If you will follow me, I will take you to his private dining room for refreshment.”
I sniffed again, and stalked past him, so the tubby man had to scamper to take up a position in front of me. Lord Jubal wouldn't have looked back at his servants, so I didn't turn back either. I'd have to trust Regon and Latoya to keep close.
A private dining room on the fourth floor. What a stupid way of showing off.
The steward prattled on as he trotted in front of me. Back where I came from, I mused idly, a servant who talked so much would be given a good whipping- then I caught myself. Where the hell did that come from?
“And here we are, my lord,” the steward said at last, bowing me through an open door. “May I humbly wish you the best of luck in your wooing.”
Wooing. Right. I was supposed to be wooing Ariadne. A thought that was so wrong on so very many wrong levels...but there was no other way, so I gave the steward one last sniff and stalked through the doorway.
The room beyond glistened , there's no other way of putting it: with silver plate and candles, with gold-edged doublets and jewelled brooches. It took a few seconds of blinking before I could even make out the people. There was Lord Iason, ensconced at the head of the table, so splendid in his crown and brocade that you didn't notice all at once how short he was. There was Ariadne to his left, primped and powdered into a kind of doll, though the eyes that glared out from under the curly bangs were keenly sharp. Further down the table were a clutch of other men- generals, perhaps, or minor lords. And at Iason's right-
The only thing I could think of, looking at the Lady Melitta, was...ordinary, ordinary, ordinary. Dark hair, a pleasant-enough face, lined around the eyes and cheeks. Her green gown was sleeveless, in the new, fashionable style, and the flesh of her arms was soft, drooping a bit with middle age. This was the demon of Lynn's childhood? The youngest of my sailors could have knocked her to the ground without breaking a sweat. Lynn had fought experienced soldiers before, had fought them barefoot, with no weapon except a coiled garrotte and a small sharp blade. She had pressed her every advantage, pounced on their every weakness, forced them to respect her. How could this fleshy old broad give her any trouble?
I knew that Lynn wouldn't be in the dining room- chambermaids didn't serve at supper. Nevertheless I cast a quick glance along the row of servants who stood motionless against the wall, waiting for orders. An older woman whose knees trembled as she waited, a tall attentive man- he would be Iason's body servant- a sallow dark-haired girl, a plump little boy- sure enough, no Lynn. I resigned myself to an evening of awful and awkward conversation, and made my bow.
Lord Iason had remained seated when I entered. The house of Bain ranked above the house of Orapat in the hierarchy of the islands, and the niceties had to be maintained. But now he did rise and come towards me, and Ariadne came with him.
I'll spare you an account of the back-and-forth that nobles exchange when they meet on a formal occasion. Life's too short to spend repeating that drivel. But after we had called down blessings from all the appropriate gods, and smarmily praised each other's houses and our own, Iason finally nudged Ariadne forwards. “And this is the greatest treasure of the house of Bain- my daughter.”
“My lady,” I murmured, and bent to kiss her hand. While I was down there, she found my nose and gave it a vicious pinch and a twist. It took all my self-control not to yelp. Instead I just straightened up and handed her a dirty look.
“My lord,” she tittered. “I'm delighted to meet you. Positively delighted that you're here. I've been so eagerly anticipating your arrival. In fact, I had hoped that you would get here earlier ?”
Her voice turned hard at the end. I hoped that Iason wasn't watching too closely. “A thousand apologies,” I said. “I came as fast as I could.”
Iason laughed the kind of breezy, meaningless laugh that I've always hated. “My daughter has been without a man for far too long,” he said. “And now, Lord Jubal, will you sit?”
He pointed to a seat beside Ariadne's; I bowed again, took her arm, and led her around the far side of the table.
“Seriously,” I muttered, hoping we were out of earshot. “I came as fast as I could.”
“Tell that to Lynn,” she hissed.
By that time we had reached our chairs; I was pulling Ariadne's out, ready to seat her, but I leaned close and asked, “Where?”
For a second it seemed that she hadn't heard me, or that she had chosen not to respond. Then, as if casually, she tossed a glance towards the back wall where the servants waited. I looked myself, saw nothing, was about to tell Ariadne so when one of the servants- the sallow girl- lifted her head.
I almost fell out of my seat. It was Lynn. They had dyed her pale hair, and not very well- it was now a piebald kind of brown that made me think of liver-spots and mange. A long tunic covered most of her, including her storm-petrel tattoo, the slave mark. There were a few bruises I could see on her neck; a large one, dark mahogany, over her cheekbone, and someone had blacked her right eye. But those were details. The real difference was in her bearing. This wasn't the girl who had throttled Tyco Gorgionson, who had outbluffed, and then drowned, Mara of Namor. This wasn't the girl who planned the strategy of an entire fleet of ships and whispered unrepeatable things to me late at night. This wasn't the girl who-
“Gwyneth.” Lady Melitta didn't have a loud voice, but it carried. “Eyes.”
This must have been a command of some sort, because, without any hesitation, Lynn bowed her head again. Yet she must have seen me. I studied her out of the corner of my eye, and saw her tongue come out to wet her lips, her fists flex. She had seen me, all right. She knew who I was.
But I hadn't known her, not in her cowed state. She looked like a servant and I had looked right through her. I felt like snatching up a silver platter from the table and beating my head against it. But it wasn't quite the moment for that.
Iason clapped his hands. Dinner began.
I tried to catch Lynn's eye while the servants were passing around finger-bowls and pouring wine, but she either didn't realize or was ignoring me. When she wasn't going the rounds of the tables, she waited at the back wall. Melitta didn't have to warn her again to keep her head down. Could she actually be frightened? Or was she just that pissed off?
It stunned me so that I could barely keep my mind on what was passing for conversation around the table. Again and again, I lapsed into a dark daze, and there were awkward pauses that even Ariadne, labouring mightily, couldn't fill.
At last, Iason appeared to make a determined effort. He leaned across the table to me. “Lord Jubal, tell us about your younger brother. How is Haddrian getting on?”
“Haddrian,” I repeated carefully. “Well, Haddrian is...fine. Really fine, absolutely fine. Very very fine, actually.”
Ariadne hissed beneath her breath, and I couldn't blame her. I wasn't exactly carrying off the impersonation with aplomb. But Iason seemed satisfied. He leaned forward even further, and asked, “So he's no longer planning to give up his title and go off to become a travelling musician?”
“No,” I said, “that turned out to be a passing phase.”
“He doesn't keep you up until all hours of the night, playing improvisational drum solos?”
“No, he's over that now.”
“And he's no longer in a relationship with a lobster?”
“No...um...he broke up with the lobster after...ah.” Iason's features were no longer looking friendly, and at long last I clued in. “I don't have a brother Haddrian, do I?”
“Lord Jubal of Oropat certainly doesn't,” Iason said, his tone still dangerously light. “Perhaps you do. Whoever you are.”
An utter silence fell over the dining hall. There was just the barest clink as Ariadne set down her spoon. There were no guards in the room- not obvious ones- but the tall servant at the back of the room was watching carefully, and his hand had begun to stray to the back of his belt.
My mind raced- or, more accurately, it tried to start running and fell flat on its face. Plan, plan, I needed a plan, I needed someone who could plan, I needed Lynn -
And then it hit me. I had her.
Not the living person of Lynn, I mean. That Lynn hadn't even looked up yet. She seemed half-dead, or drugged, as she leaned on the wall with downcast eyes. But I didn't need to talk to her. I already knew what she would tell me.
If you don't know what to do , she used to say, then do something. Anything. If you stand around gaping like a stuffed dummy, everyone's going to know that you don't have a clue. If you're doing something, as long as you do it with a bang, everyone will think that it's what you meant to do from the start.
I did it all in one motion: threw back my chair and leapt up on the tabletop, kicking over a bowl of fruit and flowers on the way. Jubal's silly purple cape fluttered to the ground, revealing my leather armour, and I ripped the longer of my knives from its sheath. There were a couple of shrieks around the table.
Nothing scares an opponent like confidence. You can never, never go into a fight thinking that you're going to lose. With every motion, every word, every gesture, tell your enemies that they don't have a chance. Make them believe it.
Iason was beginning to rise from his chair. I gave him a nasty, feral smile, in warning. He hesitated, and that's when I kicked his wine goblet into his lap. It landed with a thud and a splash, soaking his pale blue hose, and he stumbled back into his seat.
You think that you can't be a hero, Lynn's imaginary voice ground on. You think you're not good enough. But nobody's good enough. You, O my mistress, you are just decent and stubborn and stupid enough to keep trying to do the impossible. And that's why you got stuck with the hero gig, gods help you. But remember, you're not alone in this.
“Who exactly are you?” Iason asked tightly, murder in his eyes.
“Me?” I said. “I'm the pirate queen.”
I sauntered up and down the table once or twice, to make sure that no-one was moving for the time being, and to give myself time to think. Sooner or later they would figure out that they could mob me. But if I could scare them badly enough, then no-one would want to be the first to move.
In the end, it was Iason who broke the silence. “Well, you've gone to great lengths to ruin a formal dinner, so you might as well tell me what you're here for.”
He was impressively calm. I was beginning to think that Lynn inherited her courage from her father, as well as her blond hair and her sneakiness.
Before I answered Iason, I bent, speared an apple with my long dagger, brought it to my lips, and bit off a piece. This kind of thing always looks good, but it takes some serious leather to do it casually. I'm always scared that I'm going to cut my tongue in half. I chewed the fruit as I strode up and down, taking my time.
When I was good and ready, I said: “It's nothing big. Nothing dramatic. I'm just here to collect a piece of lost property.” I waggled the apple in Lynn's direction.
Iason followed my line of sight, and then, just for a moment, his mouth fell open.
I grinned toothily. “What, she never told you what she was doing while she was away?”
Obviously not, from the way that Iason and Melitta traded a grim glance.
“I picked up that girl in a fishing town a couple of years back,” I went on. “She's nothing special, you understand, but she got to be a habit. Then she ran away juuuuust as I was getting her broken in. Talk about frustration.” I took another cautious bite of apple, and spoke with my mouth full, spraying bits of pulp. “So if you'll just hand her over, then I'll get out of your way.”
Iason steepled his fingers. “Why should I do that when I could simply nail you to a stake and have your throat cut?”
It was a valid question. I was still trying to think of a suitably piratical answer when there was a soft twang , and then a thud , and then a black-feathered arrow was reverberating in the oak panelling to the right of Iason's head.
Latoya had a fine sense of timing, and even better aim. She rose from her crouch by the door, nocking another arrow to the bow she'd somehow found. Regon was behind her, sighting down an arrow of his own. He was a lousy archer, but Iason didn't need to know that.
Give Iason credit, he barely flinched. “If you harm anyone in this room,” he said, “then you'll pray for death for months before it's granted to you.”
I shrugged. “Duly noted. But you'll be dead first, and you don't want that. Besides, aren't you making a bit much of this? I don't think I'm being unreasonable. All I want is the girl. A chambermaid, a nothing. Why are you making such a fuss over her?”
There were murmurs at this. The others in the room- courtiers and the like- had no idea who Lynn was, and why Iason needed her. All they saw was pointy objects aimed at their heads. And Iason couldn't explain without blowing his secret wide open. I saw him realize it, saw his mouth open and shut twice before he thought of an answer.
“That girl,” he said, “is an orphan under my protection. And I won't abandon her to you.”
“ That girl ,” I corrected him, “is mine, and I really don't see the issue. Why are you making such a song and dance about a peasant slut who's no better than she ought to be? She's hardly irreplaceable. You really want to go to the wire for her when I've got arrows aimed at your family?”
At that moment, Ariadne let out a snivelling kind of wail. She was quite the performer.
I was beginning to feel almost good. Planting myself right in front of Iason, I sneered down at his frozen face. “What say we try to work out a civilized compromise? How would that be? Doesn't that sound better than having a hole drilled right between your eyes?”
Being the pirate queen, I should tell you, is a lot like being in a relationship. One minute everything is rattling along fine, then you take your eye off the ball and before you know it, everything's gone to shit.
Latoya didn't even have time to loose another arrow- that was how fast it was. A hand snaked out at viper-speed and grabbed me around the ankle. Melitta might not have been all that strong, but she was strong enough, and viciously determined besides. The yank that she gave threw me off balance. I took a few staggering steps, arms wheeling wildly. Then I fell off the table and landed flat on my face.
Pandemonium. Regon and Latoya were trying to fight their way inside, closer to me, as the panicking courtiers tried to fight their way out. Iason was on his feet, screaming to everyone and no-one: “Kill her! Kill the bitch! ”
It's always the same. Just once, I'd like someone to point at me and scream: “ Give her a foot massage! Give a foot massage to the bitch !”
It took a few moments for me to scramble upright, with Regon's help, and by that time we were surrounded by a group of grim-faced men: the generals and captains, the more muscular of the servants. Latoya had snatched up a chair and was swinging furiously to keep them at bay, but already people were streaming out the door, and they would fetch reinforcements.
And then I saw another pair on the move. Melitta had her arm around Lynn's shoulder, and Lynn was moving like a sleepwalker as she let herself be escorted away.
“Get away from her!” I yelled. “Let go of her, now !”
Melitta was not going to be drawn into a debate, that much was clear. She cast a single dark glance at me, and then carried on with what she was doing: whispering softly, unceasingly, into Lynn's ear, as she backed the two of them towards the door.
Latoya and Regon were flanking me now. The chair Latoya was swinging was a whistling hurricane, and Regon had the coachman's short sword. It left me free to focus.
“ Lynn ! Get over here! Get clear of her, I'm right here!”
It would be so simple. A hard stomp to Melitta's foot, enough to break the smaller bones, a chop to the ribs, a backwards elbow into Melitta's face...I'd seen Lynn do that kind of thing dozens of times. Hundreds even. But not that day. She shuffled along dutifully where Melitta led. And now they were almost at the door.
Now bear in mind: I hadn't had a good night's sleep in almost two weeks, and I hadn't been eating enough to keep a rat alive. Nothing was really keeping me upright but anger and adrenalin. Bile burnt my throat. I know that doesn't excuse what I said next, but maybe it helps explain it.
“Lynn, don't you dare ignore me! Don't- you- dare ! You belong to me , girl, you do what I tell you, and I will tan your hide if you don't get over here right now ! Lynn, fight ! I am ordering you to fight! ”
Lynn's head finally came up- and it was only then that I realized my mistake. There was total misery in her eyes, a darkness so deep that it roared. Humiliation, and shame, and an emptiness that I had never seen there before. She had nothing left- that was the bottom line. It didn't matter what I asked of her, because there was nothing there she could give.
Lynn , I thought in a daze, oh Lynn, what in hell have they done to you .
I didn't say it out loud. Didn't have a chance. Melitta and her captive had slipped out the door. The next second, I became aware again of the chaos boiling around me, the fists and swords and boots. Regon was panting heavily, and even Latoya was slowing down. There was the tell-tale tramp tramp of hobnails from the hallway outside. Iason's soldiers were on their way, just as the last few drops of my energy ran out.
It was over; we had lost. Lynn was about to lose her last chance at a rescue- just as I realized how much she needed one.
Then there came a determined tap on my shoulder.
I wheeled, raising my knife, but pulled back before I could use it. It was Ariadne who was standing behind me, and her face was white, but she didn't hesitate. She spun, pressing her back into me, then grabbed my wrist, and guided my knife into place against her own throat.
I gaped down at the top of her head. I was so out of it, by then, that I wouldn't even have been able to pronounce the word hostage , let alone remember what one was used for. But I wasn't the only one in the room. One of our attackers- burly man with a tooled leather tunic; he looked important- pulled back immediately. “Keep back, watch for the princess!”
It was like a lodestone pulling shards of iron, how they all leapt away from me. Weapons clattered down to the stone floor and hands were clasped behind heads. And I could have howled with the sheer stupidity of it all. It wasn't Ariadne they were protecting, it was the House of Bain: the all-important royal line, which they thought was bound up in her blood. If they knew the truth- that she was barren as a kiln brick, her womb destroyed by a fever while she was barely more than an infant- then not one of them would jump to her defence.
Latoya and Regon didn't miss a beat. They each grabbed one of my shoulders and hurried me out of the room, past stock-still generals and wide-eyed servants, my knife still quivering at Ariadne's throat. Once we were halfway down the corridor, she ducked out and under my arm. “And now,” she said, with dangerous calm, “we've got to run.”
Evening, Day XII
It had never been so hard to make it up the tower steps. Melitta held me at her side, helping me up each one, and every time I wobbled, I clutched at her hard to keep myself from going over backwards.
“That's it,” she kept repeating. “Almost there now, keep going. Good girl. Good girl, good girl.”
When we reached her room, I was staggering, spent; my eyes had closed and I let her lead me.
“Sit. Sit down, Gwyneth, it's all right-”
It took a few seconds. My knees didn't seem to want to bend.
Melitta sat beside me; one arm encircled my shoulders, the other took my head, holding it softly against her. I relaxed into her, numbly; my mind was nothing but cobwebs and dust, her voice just kept going-
“It's all right now. Good girl. You did so well, so very well. That's right. That's right. Good girl. You're all right now-”
And I don't like to admit it, but it's true: the tears started rolling out of me, in choking sobs. Melitta held me tighter, stroking my head with great gentleness.
“That's my girl,” she whispered, “there, that's the worst of it over. Everything will be better now, everything. Shhh, calm down, I'm here. There's nothing you need to do now. Just relax-”
She disentangled herself from me, carefully; the warmth of her was gone from my side and I felt a flutter of unreasoning fear. My eyes were still closed, but somewhere in the room there was a swishing sound, a heavy cloth being pulled back, and a door creaked open.
I knew what the sounds meant, somewhere in some dim part of me, but the broken bits of my mind could do nothing with the knowledge. I just sat, and breathed through the tears, and thought nothing at all until Melitta's hands were back, coaxing me up, leading me across the room.
“Nothing you need to do,” she repeated, “you're safe, you're safe, I've got you, I'll take care of everything. All right, in you go. Now, sit. That's it, good girl. Just sit. I'll be back.”
I slid to the stone floor of the closet. My back rested against one wall; my bare toes touched the other.
Melitta stroked my head, one last time, and then she took a step back, and closed the cupboard door on me. The key grated in the lock.
For a second, there were glimmers of light in there, a yellow spark that was the keyhole and a shining line beneath the door. Then the tapestry swished back to its place in front of the closet, and even those winked out.
I put my hands on my knees and stared ahead into nothing.
Just sit , I repeated to myself. Just sit. Just sit, just sit ...
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Evening, Day XII
Ariadne almost flew as she led the way. The castle, like the lower city, was a maze of narrow passageways and hidden staircases and secret doors. I didn't even try to pay attention to where we were going, just jogged behind her numbly.
We charged through a bake-house where the ovens still glowed red, down another short flight of stairs, and through a must-smelling wine cellar. Then there was a blast of cold air on our faces, and grit underfoot- we were outside, in the castle courtyard, our backs against the outer wall of the fortress. A stack of drying firewood the size of an average house stood in front of us, shielding us from view. There Ariadne ground to a halt, wheeled, and slapped me across the face with all her strength.
Regon leapt forward, but I waved him off, panting. The slap had felt almost good- waking me, focusing me, jump-starting my thoughts. “It's all right- all right. I deserved that.”
“Damn straight you deserved it,” Ariadne said crisply. “You muffed that one good and proper, didn't you? And who do you think you are , talking to my sister that way?”
“It was a mistake,” I said. “It was a stupid, idiotic mistake which I'm not about to repeat. But try to understand. I've never seen her that way before. Never.”
“Haven't you?” Ariadne asked grimly. “I have.”
She was contorting herself, reaching for the hooks that held her pale green gown closed at the back. It clearly wasn't working, because she stomped a small foot. “You- the terrifyingly enormous woman- help me get out of this thing. I can't move in it worth a damn.”
There was near-panic on Latoya's face as she began to unhook Ariadne's bodice with her large, calloused hands. The princess angled to let her get on with it, and kept talking.
“Lynn usually sleeps on the floor outside my mother's room. But for the past few days, my mother's been keeping her locked in the room itself. That's probably been where she's been taken. The room's on the top floor of the high tower, which is that one on the right.”
Latoya had lost patience with the finicky hooks. She gave a good yank and they all popped free. Ariadne climbed out of the ruined gown, not missing a beat. “There are a bunch of soldiers out front, as you can see, but none of the guard-houses face the back of the tower. Which means that you might be able to climb it. Could you get up to that top window?”
I measured the distance with my eye and thumb. On an ordinary day, the answer to Ariadne's question would have been “No.” Or, more accurately, “Hell, no!” with perhaps a hysterical laugh thrown in. But this wasn't an ordinary day.
“I'll need a rope and grapnel,” I said in the end, evading the question itself. “Latoya, see what you can find.”
She peeled off obediently, though she glanced backwards at the princess, who was shedding several layers of petticoats. Regon looked worried. “No rope on earth is going to reach to the top of that beast.”
“Yeah, I know. I'll have to do it in stages.” I tried to stay nonchalant. “You know- climb to each window in turn, and sit on each ledge while I throw the grapnel to the next floor. Nothing to it.” I blew on my cold hands, and tried desperately to persuade my dinner to get back down where it belonged. “But what if Lynn isn't up there?”
“Then come down again,” Ariadne directed. She had gotten rid of most of her underwear by then- now she was left in a white linen sheath which still covered more skin than almost anything that Lynn liked to wear. “We'll have to find my mother and convince her to tell us where Lynn is.”
“Convince her,” I repeated. “I don't know if I want to have to convince that bitch of anything.”
“We could always use the magic stick,” Regon suggested, his bushy eyebrows twitching upwards.
“The magic stick?” Ariadne asked. “Is that some kind of pirate thing?”
I gave Regon a withering glare before I answered. “Um. Yes. It's not a magic stick so much as a normal stick which is- oh, how to explain- used in an innovative way.”
“Does it hurt ?”
“Um. Yeah. A lot. Relax, I wouldn't do that to your mother.”
Her eyes were flinty. “Why not? I would. As long as no sex was involved.”
This wholly disturbing line of discussion was cut short when Latoya slipped back behind the stack of firewood, a long coil of grass rope draped over her shoulder. I transferred it to my own, and took a few deep breaths.
“All right,” I said, “I'm going.”
Ariadne looked at me, then up at the tower, and for the first time there was some doubt on her face. “Can you do this?”
“I don't have a choice,” I told her. “So yes, I can.”
Evening, Day XII
For a long time I floated, unthinking, in a place where I wasn't aware of anything- hunger or cold or memory or pain. What tore me out of my beatific state was noise.
First there was a crash- glass breaking- and then a second one, as metal hit stone. In my sluggish state, it took me at least a minute to reach the obvious conclusion: someone had thrown something through the tower window. And by then I could hear something else: the scraping of boots against stone as someone climbed. Overlaying the scraping sound- nearby, and coming nearer- was a voice which spoke in short, breathless spurts. It sounded something like this:
“Stupid... pant... ”
“Tower... pant ...”
“Stupid... pant... ”
“Slave... pant... ”
“Oh... pant ...sod... pant ...this...”
“For... pant ...a... pant ...sodding... pant ...game ...pant ...of... pant ...soldiers...”
A final pant, a final scrape, and then, so far as I could tell, a gasping body flung itself over the windowsill. Then, once again, there came the sound of glass breaking. And a yelp.
“Blasted motherbollocking son of a TWAT!”
Darren had different curses for different occasions. That one meant that she had cut her finger. When she spoke again, it was muffled, and I knew she was sucking the wound.
“Lynn, are you there?”
I held my breath, said nothing, and waited, hoping the distraction would vanish. Nothing for five seconds- but Darren's voice just bored in again. “Lynn. Please. We need to move, fast. I know you're ticked, but we can deal with that once we're out of here. Where the hell are you?”
The voice was beginning to take on that edge of theatrical desperation. The one that meant that she had taken on more than she could handle. That was Darren- she would take all the problems of the world on herself, and then look around vaguely for a place to offload them.
“ Lynn . Please . We have to- we need to- ”
I closed my eyes tightly. She didn't get it. I couldn't save her. Not this time.
There were footsteps- she seemed to be turning in a small, bewildered circle.
“All right,” she said, more softly, and then, “all right. How about I just talk for a while? You can jump in any time you like.”
Rope springs creaked as she sat down on Melitta's bed. I winced at the thought.
“I'm sorry that I wasn't here earlier,” she began. “No excuses. I'm so sorry.”
I pressed my face into the top of my knees, trying to control my breathing. But in my head, I answered her: Kind of late for that now, pirate queen.
“Melitta is the biggest bitch that I've ever encountered.”
“If I'd grown up with her, then I- I don't know what I would have done. I don't know if I would have made it.”
This just made the nausea surge again. I bit my lip and rocked.
“I really hope that you can hear me, by the way. It's going to be bloody annoying if I have to repeat this in all the corners of the tower-” She caught herself. “But whatever time it takes for this to happen, that's fine. Because this is it , you know. This is it. The most important thing. And nothing matters more. Nothing.”
I heard her weight shift, and her boots touch the floor. She was beginning to prowl around the room, slowly- I could picture her checking under the furniture.
You need to get out of here.
“You remember when we met? When I cold-clocked that thug Hasak, and then you challenged me to a duel and almost twisted my ear off?”
It was the tension, maybe, or just the mental image- but I couldn't help it; I sniggered. I caught it almost at once, but Darren had heard; her feet were silent on the flagstones outside the closet. Then, very slowly, taking her time, she started to come nearer.
“At the time, I just figured you were insane.”
Not so far from the truth.
“But these past few days, you know, I've been thinking-”
Sounds painful .
“And I think I figured something out. I think I did. And I hope- I hope that I'm right, because I kind of like to imagine that this is what happened.”
Her voice was nearer, nearer- she was right on the other side of the door. Light prickled through the keyhole as she nudged the tapestry aside- and I stiffened- but she didn't touch the handle. Instead, she slowly sat down on the other side of the door.
That sent the panic surging- Iason's men would come charging up here while she was still crooning at me through a keyhole. Melitta would come back, and if she found Darren here, she would...I couldn't picture it; just the thought hit my stomach so hard that I thought I'd been stabbed. My tongue still felt too thick to speak, but I thought the words at her harder: You really need to go, you really, really need to go. Right bloody now.
“So what I was thinking was- oh, by the way, I'm touching the door now. Right below the keyhole.”
Darren could be stupidly mushy sometimes. What was I supposed to do? Touch the same spot on the door, only on the other side? Pretend that I could feel her through the wood? Embarrassingly soppy. I snorted. And did it anyway.
“So what I was thinking was this,” she went on. “I think that, all through your childhood, you were completely powerless. Right? Getting thrashed whenever you spoke up. And you fought it as much as you could- because you're you, and you're the bravest person I've ever known. But there was no way you could win, in the end.”
I closed my eyes. Her voice was as gentle as I'd ever heard it. I let my fingernails scritch against the wood.
“You were just a kid. There was no way you could win.”
Then why do I feel so guilty ?
“But when you met me, even that first day- well, you can tell me if I'm wrong here. I think, I believe, that you trusted me from the start. That you felt safe with me from the start. Or at least-” and her tone turned wry- “you knew you could take me, any day of the week.”
And twice on Tuesdays .
“You knew I would never hurt you.”
You couldn't , you stupid bint.
“So you could stand up to me. You could yell and scream and say that you were pissed off, and pound me and bite me- and still know that you were safe. You could let me take the lead, you could let me make the choices- and not panic. For the first time. So what I'm trying to say is- thanks. For trusting me so much.”
I licked my dry lips, my blood sounding painfully in my ears.
“So here's what I'm asking you for, Lynn- and I know it's a lot. Do you think you can trust me again? Here, now, today? Can you trust me to get you out of this fucking pisshole? Because this time, it won't be your job to prop me up, you know. You won't have to reassure me or cajole me or soothe me. You don't have to be the strong one. Not this time.”
Silence, then softer: “Lynn, please. Tell me to open this door.”
Just sit , Melitta had said, just sit, just sit- the words slipped out almost by accident. “If they catch us- ”
There was no sign of surprise in her voice. “Then horrible things will happen. I know.”
“No, you don't,” I said, harshly. “You don't, you can't. This is different, this is- you couldn't possibly understand.”
A short pause, and a great effort: “All right. I guess I don't understand. Because I haven't lived what you've lived. But that's why I have to take the lead this time. That's why it's my turn.”
“Do you have a plan ?”
“Well...” She had been hoping, clearly, that I wouldn't ask that question. “Not a plan as such , no. Things have been working out so far.”
“You want me to charge blindly out of here, looking for an escape route that probably doesn't exist. Knowing that all of this will probably end with you dead, and me locked in a kennel somewhere, with stumps where my thumbs ought to be. How does that make sense, Darren? Tell me how.”
“It doesn't make sense,” Darren admitted softly. “It never does make sense to fight when there's no way to win. But you do it anyway. You always have.”
I didn't answer. Light through the keyhole. Void roaring in me. The words, my keeper's last order, still ringing: just sit , just sit, just sit, just sit ...
A scraping sound on the flagstones. Darren was sliding something under the door. I felt for it, picked it up- the ridges, the small scalloped shape. A shell.
I folded the thing in my palm. Squeezed it hard.
“Darren,” I said, my voice oddly loud.
Tense now: “Yes?”
“What, you just happened to have a shell in your pocket?”
“Well- yes, as a matter of fact. Why, is there anything wrong with having a shell in your pocket? When I was a kid-”
“Darren,” I interrupted her, “open this fucking door.”
She was brought up short. “Did you say-”
“Open the door,” I interrupted again- the small space was crashing in on me all of a sudden, the air was too warm and there wasn't enough of it. “Open the door, open the door, open this goddamned fucking door!”
She was already on her feet and light winked out in the keyhole; Darren had thrust the point of her dagger there, forcing the lock. The door was flung open. I was trying, awkwardly, to get to my feet, expected Darren to reach into the closet and hoist me up by the front of my tunic- but instead, she bent, got an arm around my shoulders and another under my knees, and hefted me like a small child. Staggering a little under the weight, she made her way across the room and set me down on Melitta's bed as if I was a bruised peach. I forced down the instinct to jump straight back off of it.
Darren was doing her best not to blanch at the sight of my face, but it wasn't going well. She had that panicked, searching expression- she always gets it when she's looking for a way to change the subject, and it always ends disastrously.
I waited for it.
Her eyes went wide, and she blurted, “I kissed your sister. With tongue.”
I only smacked her six times for that one. The rest were because she showed up so damn late.
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Night, Day XII
After Lynn was finished venting her frustration, I rubbed my aching arms and took stock.
She looked far worse at close quarters, and I had to do my best not to stare. She knew, and her battered face was hot with embarrassment, but she tried to speak normally: “So, what's first?”
“First,” I said, all business, “you need to strip.”
I led the way myself, unlacing my leather gambeson and tossing it aside, then pulling off my shirt. Lynn watched me, forehead wrinkled.
“I'm happy to see you, and all,” she said. “But is this really the moment?”
I shoved my shirt at her. “To change clothes? Yes, it is. Because I'm damned if you're going to wear something that bitch put you in for an instant longer than necessary.”
I think I can say, that's the moment when I first honestly, seriously astonished my slave. A smile broke out on her bruised face; it looked like another wound. “You had a good idea,” she said, wonderingly. “When did you start having good ideas?”
In three and a half seconds, she was out of her long respectable tunic and into my shirt. It hung down to her mid-thighs, and after she cinched it tight with Jubal's belt, it fit her well enough. Which is to say, it looked nowhere near respectable, and far more like Lynn. I pulled my gambeson back on over my bare skin, doing my best not to think about how badly I'd chafe the next day. One thing at a time.
As I was lacing it up, Lynn used her teeth to tear a long strip from her servant's tunic. She knotted it into a pouch with a few deft jerks. Then she toured the room as quickly as her battered body could handle, filling the pouch with objects off the shelves and dressing table. There didn't seem to be any reason or pattern behind her choices- I saw her grab a snuff-box, two small bottles of perfume, a little elephant carved of ivory, and a paperweight, among other things. But I wasn't about to argue. If Lynn wanted trophies, more power to her. I'd try to get her one of Melitta's fingers to add to the bag later on.
While she was at it, I retrieved the grappling hook, coiling the rope neatly- it wasn't long enough for us to climb back down. We finished at about the same time.
“Stairs, right?” she asked. “You'd better let me carry that. You'll probably be fighting.”
True enough. I handed the coil of rope off to her, unsheathed Jubal's rapier, and led the way out of the room.
Outside the bedchamber was a small alcove, where a straw pallet and crumpled blanket rested on the floor. From what Ariadne had said, this was where Lynn used to sleep, and the sight affected me more than I would have expected. It looked like a kennel; all that was missing was a water dish and a leash. I was beginning to realize that nothing in the way Lynn had been treated was simple neglect or cruelty- every last aspect of her life was designed to keep her small, and shamed, and powerless.
Lynn very studiously didn't look in the direction of the alcove, so I didn't mention it, and we just hurried to the stairs.
“Damn,” Lynn muttered before we got more than a few steps down.
I tensed. “What?”
“Listen. But keep moving.”
I listened and I kept moving. It took three turns down the stairway before I heard what she had heard- the clicking of soldiers' hobnailed boots against the flagstones.
“Damn,” I concurred wearily. “Stay behind me. We've got the high ground, that's something.”
These old stairways are all designed the same way, to favour the defender. If you're coming down, you have free play for your sword; if you're coming up, you're hampered by the central post, slamming into it every time you swing.
It wasn't much but it was something, so when I saw shadows flickering on the stairs beneath us, I hurried to get past the landing. I wanted to meet them where they couldn't come at me at once.
There were only two in that first wave, and the first was stupid and eager enough to race up the stairs ahead of his comrade. I ducked under his blow and smashed the rapier hilt against his temple, and he dropped, rolling limply down the stairs. The next one gave me some more trouble, but while we were still clashing back and forth, a snuff-box flew past my shoulder and struck him full on the forehead. It didn't put him out- he just staggered- but that gave me the chance to slice his inner thigh. Blood spurted, and he went down quickly.
“Thanks for that,” I tossed back at Lynn.
“Don't mention it.” She was already digging more ammunition out of her pouch.
There were four in the next cluster, and though they were all weak swordsmen, there were enough of them to give me a few very bad moments. Lynn had thrown the ivory elephant, and the paperweight, and several other items of bric-a-brac, before even the first of them dropped. But there was a lull in her throwing while I was battling the last one. Long enough that I almost forgot she was there, and focused on other things: my arm muscles, which felt like burning bits of string, and the sweat running into my eyes. Her shout burst out of nowhere, and it made me jump:
“You were NEVER SUPPOSED to SEE me this WAY!”
Lynn punctuated this remark by throwing the perfume bottles. Three of them bounced off the luckless soldier's forehead, and the last smashed solidly into his crotch. He gurgled weakly as he went down.
“What way?” I asked, hopping over the body.
“You know what way!” Her voice was high-pitched, and I knew she was having trouble keeping it together. “I never wanted you to see me as some kind of victim- some pathetic, mewling, helpless little kid .”
Another few soldiers came charging up the stairs, and I tiredly raised the rapier again. “Is that why you never told me who you really were?”
Her response, when it came, was so soft that I barely heard it over the clanging swords. “Sort of. Maybe. I guess. I never wanted you to picture me like this.”
“Lynn, you crackpot,” I panted. “You really thought that I would respect you less because that bitch used to beat you?”
The last soldier was pressing me hard. I ducked; Lynn took the cue, and smashed the grappling hook into his face. He sagged and we kept heading down.
“I didn't really think it over,” she admitted. “I hoped that it would never matter, because I'd never be back here again, and I just wanted- I just wanted to leave it all behind.”
“But you never even told me about your sister.” More footsteps on the stairs. I shook out my aching fingers before I gripped the rapier again. “And she was a huge part of your life.”
“I know. I know. It's all so screwed up. But it was hard to think about her when I thought that I would never see her again.”
“Just tell me this,” I said. My rapier thrust through a man's shoulder, and I raised my voice over his scream. “Was it because of anything I did?”
“Was what because of anything you did?”
“That you couldn't tell me the truth.” I got nicked on the shoulder and flinched, but another paperweight came flying over my shoulder, smashing my opponent's throat. His eyes bugged like a sick frog.
“No, it wasn't because of you,” Lynn said. “But I always kind of thought that you would get ten times as guilty and bashful if you knew. That you'd treat me like some kind of delicate flower- or like a kid who didn't know her own mind. And you'd get all Darren-knows-best and overprotective, and you'd think it was your duty not to exploit me, and you'd refuse to do anything in bed other than cuddle. Darren, hang on. Don't kill that one.”
My rapier point froze an inch from the soldier's throat. “Why not?”
“I know him from before- he carried some wood up the stairs for me. A few times. When I couldn't do it on my own. When my arm was broken.”
It didn't seem like much, set against everything that had been done to Lynn in this castle, but oh well. I reversed the rapier and smashed him with the pommel, and Lynn quickly bent, tying his thumbs together with a strip of rawhide. When she was done, I cupped her chin. “Look. I may be a slow learner, but there are two things that I've managed to figure out. One is that you're stronger than I'll ever be. And the other is that you know what you want. The two of us decide what goes on in our bed. All the people who don't like it can go, collectively, to hell.”
Her smile was pained, but it was a smile. “Thanks, Mistress.”
“...We're not getting out of this one, are we?”
I looked down. We were only a couple of turns of the staircase above the tower door. But even after we emerged, we were going to have to figure out how to get out of the fortress- when Lord Iason knew we were there, and the entire army of Bero had been turned out to track us down. I didn't dare tell Lynn that I'd been counting on her for an exit plan. I just said, “We're not done yet.”
“Stupid optimism,” she noted, as we headed down the last few stairs. “See, I always said that you were the hero.”
This next part, I admit, is a little dim in my memory. Horns had begun to ring in the gloom, army drums pattered warnings; torches moved at a fast clip in the darkness; the tramp of soldiers' boots was everywhere. It was like the last part of a hunt, the seconds before the fox is torn apart or the stag is brought to its knees.
We met up with the other three; they were still behind the woodpile. All our faces were chalk-white, I don't suppose I looked any different, and we stared around at each other blankly.
“The cellars,” Ariadne said at last. “We can hide there until things cool down.”
Things weren't going to cool down and every one of us knew it, but we roused ourselves and followed her once more. Lynn's hand was in mine- small and cold as a that of a dead child.
Through the wine cellar and through another passage, Ariadne still pattering on in front. “By the way,” I asked Lynn. “What was your mother like?”
Her mouth opened, but she never got a chance to answer. Torchlight suddenly blared in our faces and my stomach plunged to somewhere in the neighbourhood of my feet. Once I'd blinked the orange flares from my vision, I saw them- rows on rows of soldiers, choking the narrow passageway; shadows of swords and spears cast along the wall. Too many to count; too many to fight. The guard that Lynn had asked me to spare back in the tower was there, and I thought I saw him give me an apologetic shrug.
Regon had his short sword out. “Lynn,” he promised, “they'll only come at you over our dead bodies.”
“Thanks,” Lynn said half-heartedly, “that's very comforting.”
The rows of guardsmen parted as if split with a knife, and Iason and Melitta both walked through. Iason didn't look small now, not with fury pouring off of every square inch of his body, and Melitta looked anything but ordinary. Seeing her that moment, I got a tiny taste of what Lynn used to have to face every day, and I wondered all over again how she'd made it.
“Father,” Ariadne was saying, through false tears. “You have to get back, you have to leave- they'll kill me, they've said that they'll kill me- ”
“Ariadne,” Iason said. “Do not ever again make the mistake of thinking that I'm an idiot.”
Somewhere nearby, water dripped from the ceiling.
The princess's voice was weakening. “But you don't understand- ”
“Darling,” he said, but not as if he meant it. “I do understand. You've had a rush of blood to the head and started consorting with criminals. Very well. We all commit acts of appalling stupidity now and then. But it changes nothing about what is going to happen. Come here this minute.”
“Don't move,” Lynn said immediately. “Ariadne, you can't- ”
She sounded desperate and I knew why- Iason's two daughters were acting as human shields, keeping the soldiers from rushing us. We were dead as soon as they moved away. Ariadne knew this, she must have known it, but her face crumpled, and her strength along with it. Maybe she had given up hope, I thought. Or maybe she too, in her way, had been so badly hurt by Iason and Melitta that she couldn't stand up to them. Whatever the reason, she walked unsteadily over to her father, and he snatched her wrist and swung her behind him.
Lynn hissed, then pushed in front of Regon and Latoya and I, her wiry arms outstretched as if she could use them to block crossbow bolts. Iason shook his head, with something like pride.
“Very well,” he said. “Melitta, over to you.”
Melitta smiled slightly, and her eyes focused on Lynn. “Gwyneth,” she began.
Her hand found its way back to me, and I gripped it. It was all I could do.
“Gwyneth,” Melitta said again. “It's time to end this.”
“Don't listen,” I said to Lynn, and she gave a quick sharp nod. Her eyes were tightly closed.
“Oh, Gwyneth,” Melitta said, sounding hurt. “You know better than this, you truly do...You can't sacrifice yourself to save them. Things are going to work the other way around. They are going to die. You're not. Whatever happens in the next five minutes, it ends with you coming back upstairs, with me.”
I could feel the pulse in Lynn's wrist- a racing, skipping beat. “If I were smart,” she said to me, “then I would ask you to cut my throat right now.”
“But you're not going to, are you?”
“No,” she said softly. “In spite of everything- it's still not my style.”
“Just as well. I couldn't do it even if you did ask me to.”
Melitta's face was darkening; her voice sharpened as the pitch soared higher. “Gwyneth, I'm only going to say this once more- ”
“You aren't going to say anything more, you hoary old bitch,” I told her, hefting the rapier in my free hand. “If you're going to murder us all down here, then let's bloody well get on with it already. But, fair warning. If you don't kill this girl, then she'll crush you in the end. Because she changes the world, just by living in it, and she changes people, just by knowing them. And I don't believe that you can break her, not for good.”
Melitta's smile glinted. “Ah, well,” she said lightly. “I can try, anyway.”
The voice that spoke up then was halfway between a sob and a snarl, with an edge of desperation thrown in.
“Wrong,” it said. “ You won't.”
I had seen this before- the flash of something in the air above Melitta's head, and, an instant later, a line drawing itself across the woman's throat as the cord was yanked tight. But it wasn't Lynn doing it this time- Lynn was beside me, gaping just as I did at Melitta choking, at the white foam that dripped from her lips. The soldiers to the left and right of her stood dumbstruck, Iason stumbled backwards, as Melitta struggled for breath. A strangling death isn't a pretty thing when it's being done by an amateur, and it seemed a long, long time before Melitta finally crashed to her knees. Behind her stood Ariadne, tear streaks in the dust down her face as she pulled the garrotte still tighter.
For once I didn't hesitate. I threw down my rapier, grabbed a knife from the back of my belt, flipped it to grab the blade, and hurled it with all my might. Iason had just enough time to widen his eyes before the knife thunked solidly into the centre of his chest. His delicate white fingers splayed, tracing patterns in the air; and then he wheezed, and went down, folding on the floor of the tunnel. His eyes drifted shut.
The soldiers didn't react to that as quickly as you might expect. There were too many disbelieving stares trained on Ariadne, and she was turning pale in the face of them.
“They deserved it,” she announced, her voice shaking mightily. “They deserved it, they deserved it, they asked for it fifty times over! They killed your mother, Lynn, did you know that?”
“I know,” Lynn said, softly, so softly.
“And they killed my husband, poor stupid Gerard. Didn't they? Got him out of the picture, so no-one could ask why I wasn't getting pregnant. Didn't they ? They used people, they broke them and bent them and tossed them away.” She was getting properly hysterical now. “You don't understand! The things that they did to my sister - and I couldn't do anything but watch !”
That cracked it. She crumpled on the stones, put her face in her shaking hands, and then she started crying. Not delicate maidenly blubbing, but full rolling sobs that made her entire chest shake. The soldiers who surrounded her shuffled their feet. They were a bit embarrassed, perhaps a little regretful, but it changed nothing. Ariadne had killed her own mother, in the full view of witnesses. She had put herself outside the bounds of the law. She could never take the throne of Bero now- her rank and title would be stripped from her, just as mine had been from me. Exile was the best future she could hope for. Execution, more likely.
We had seconds before the guardsmen came back to life. Their lord was dead, his heir a criminal- no-one, least of all me, knew what was going to happen next. As I bent to pick up the rapier, all my muscles screeching their protests, I tried to cudgel my brain into thinking up one- more- plan.
But there was a soft touch on my wrist.
“It's all right, Mistress,” said Lynn. “I've got this one.”
Except her voice was her own again, really her own, and relief flooded me in a warm wave. Lynn, my Lynn, was back.
Morning, Day XIII
When I walked forwards, the eyes of the soldiers flicked over me quickly, looking for a weapon. A few hands tightened on sword-hilts, but no-one moved.
As I passed Melitta's body, I gingerly prodded her side with a bare toe. It wasn't meant to be an insult, I just had to know. There was no motion from the prone figure- she was really, truly gone. It was strange, I remember thinking, that I didn't feel more.
Ariadne was still crumpled, shaking. I nudged her to her feet, then moved her the few steps back to the others.
“Take care of her, Latoya,” I directed. The burly sailor blinked, nervous, but she bent over my sister, and, though she looked like an oak next to a sunflower, her hands were gentle as she took hold of Ariadne's shoulders. That was all it took. The next second, Ariadne had flung herself, bawling, into the bosun's arms.
“Stand down, all of you.” One of the soldiers had finally found his tongue. “In the name of the house of Bain, you are under arrest for treason, and murder, and...and sedition, and...”
I singled out the soldier who was speaking. I should have known. It was the soldier I had asked Darren not to kill, and searching in the corners of my mind, I found that I did know his name. “Captain Whytock, there is no House of Bain. It's over.”
“You have killed our lord,” he said- and he was speaking too loudly, as if trying to compensate for his own confusion. “You must be arrested; we have no choice.”
“Wrong,” I said, “you just think you don't. You can kill all of us, it doesn't change the facts. Iason is dead. His line is snuffed out. Before long, the generals and the minor lords will figure it out, and you'll be in for a power struggle that will make the war in the islands look like a chess match between neighbouring girls' schools.”
Whytock tried to forge on anyway. “You are all under sentence of death- ”
“So are you. You'll all be swept into different factions and you'll spend the next year fighting pitched battles up and down Bero. Civil wars are the bloodiest conflicts out there. How long do you think you can survive? And what will your death purchase? At best, you'll have moved some idiot baron an inch closer to the throne of Bero. An idiot baron who doesn't deserve it. Most of the people who'll be fighting for the crown shouldn't be trusted with a puppy, let alone a kingdom. Your lives should mean more than that.”
I was talking too fast, but I had them, I could tell. Not one of them was moving to attack.
“I know how it is,” I told them. “You're doomed if you just follow the rules, so you'd better get used to the idea of breaking them. You don't have to let this happen. You don't have to let things come apart. You can save yourselves if you're brave enough, if you have enough imagination. Here and now, you can create a new lord.”
You wouldn't believe unless you've seen it, how suddenly freedom can happen. A day before, I'd been a captive servant, and an hour before, I'd been facing execution. But in the faint flow of the pre-dawn, with Lord Whytock striding before us, we passed unchallenged through gate after gate.
Ariadne had a thing for poetry when we were still quite small. There was one that she would repeat to me endlessly- “in hope”, she would always say. Forgotten the fear that once held me in thrall , it began. And my bonds have become light as dreams...
It used to make me roll my eyes. But as I walked through the walls that had shut me in for most of my life, with Darren beside me, her face radiant in the pink light, all I could think was- well, exactly.
Ariadne had collected herself, more or less. She was talking to Whytock at high speed as we descended through the lower city. “You can keep the barons under control as long as you hold the tax coffers,” she was saying. “Put your most trusted men in that department, and pay them well enough to keep them from taking bribes. And hire a different steward- the old one listens at doors.”
I watched Whytock out of the corner of my eye, trying to assess how he would do as lord of the most powerful state in Kila. I didn't know much about his brains or his talent. But he had taken a load of wood from me once when I was too tired even to stagger. That was a straw in the wind.
“How are you doing?” Darren said, interrupting my thoughts.
I squinted up at her sideways. She looked exhausted. Her leather armour was slashed and crumpled. Threads of blood etched the right side of her face. She was beautiful.
Instead of answering her question, I announced: “I am never going to have children. Ever.”
She shrugged. “Lynn, it's your damn body. Your choice. Besides, there's a war on, right? Orphans everywhere. If we ever decide that we want a kid, then we can pick up a slightly used toddler.”
“Ha. Not for me. But Ariadne, maybe...she really does want to be a mother. Go figure...”
Latoya was pacing alongside Ariadne, looking protective. Every so often, she would touch my sister's sleeve with a gentle fingertip, as if reassuring herself that she was still there.
“I think my bosun's head over heels for Ariadne,” Darren noted.
“Of course. Didn't you see it coming? After all, my sister is a lady.” I gave her a crooked grin. “And Latoya is a gentleman.”
When we got down to the wharf, I sucked in air as fast as I could. Salt and seaweed and fish and damp wood. Darren's hand tightened on mine, giving it a squeeze to let me know that she shared my delight.
“All right,” Darren said, in her I-suppose-I-ought-to-take-charge-now voice. “Whytock- I mean, Lord Whytock- can you loan us a ship? Nothing fancy, just something that'll get us off the island.”
“A ship,” Whytock repeated, as though he'd never heard the word before. “Yes, I suppose so. There's a wreck that they pulled off the reefs a few nights back- they've just patched the hull. It isn't much. Bit of an old tub, I'm afraid. Called, uh- the Badger , or something. Do you think that'll do?”
Darren denies it, but I'll swear on a stack of gold nobles that high that there were tears in her eyes as she caressed the Badger's gunwale.
“I swear,” I told her, “you love this ship more than me.”
“Do not,” she said. “I sunk the damn thing so that I could come after you- doesn't that tell you anything?”
“Just that you were getting randy. Let's face it, there are some things that ships can't do.”
Latoya and Regon both grinned at that- they were stowing the supplies that Whytock had provided- and Regon gave me a sly wink. I nodded graciously back, accepting the tribute.
We were ready to go- only Ariadne was still down on the dock, in the middle of a fevered conversation with Whytock. I was about to come after her when they broke apart. Whytock whispered something more, and then stood back politely.
“What was that all about?” I asked warily.
Ariadne's face was pinched and grey. “He said that I'm welcome to stay, if I want. He'll cover up the murder so that I can remain here as his advisor.”
“ Do you want?”
“I don't know,” she said unhappily, with a glance back over her shoulder. “Let's face it, court intrigue is what I'm good at. It's where I really belong.”
“That's total rubbish. You belong anywhere you want to be. Right now you belong on a pirate ship. I'm already figuring out where to put your hammock.”
“But I don't know a thing about sailing.”
“Darren's got sailors,” I pointed out. “What she doesn't have is a ship's surgeon.”
“But I'm not- ”
I looked at Darren. “She knows about herbs and specifics, she can bandage and split with the best of them, and she knows when to back off and let nature take its course. Plus, she can sew.”
Darren cocked an eyebrow. “Did she ever stitch you up?”
“Well, not exactly- but she's done a hell of a lot of embroidery.”
“It would be nice to have someone on the Banshee who could put in stitches properly,” Darren said thoughtfully. “Spinner's been doing that, and he's got hands like- well, like a sailor.”
Ariadne looked ragged and tired, with her face streaked with mud and streams of lace dripping from what was left of her gown. “But I know Bero. I could maybe ease the transition. Stop some of the conflict. Don't I really have a duty to the people? To stay?”
The silence crawled, and then Darren rubbed her face fiercely. “It's what I would have done,” she admitted. “Ow. Lynn. Don't kick me, I wasn't going to stop there. I can't make this decision for you, Ariadne. All I can say is- duty is kind of overrated. Wherever you go, you can find people who need help. But you have to take love where you find it.”
Ariadne looked back at the castle.
And then back at me.
“The hell with it,” she announced.
And in two great bounds, she was up the gangplank, and took me into a crushing embrance.
Darren of Torasan (Pirate Queen)
Morning, Day XIII
There was a freshening wind from the south as we pulled out of the harbour. It would be a long trek to find the Banshee . But for once I didn't feel tired. It felt like the beginning of one of my early voyages, when every square inch of the ocean was new, and death was something that happened only to other people.
Regon had the tiller, and Lynn and I worked together to deal with the sails. It was no good asking Ariadne and Latoya to do anything. They were huddled together by the side, Latoya's arm wrapped around the princess. Every now and then, she cast a sort of “how'm-I-doing?” glance over her shoulder.
“So,” I said to Lynn, “I've been thinking.”
She peeked around the sail. Definitely concerned, if not panicked. “Have you?” she hedged.
I clucked my tongue. “Ye of little faith. I've been thinking that we should revise our long-term plan.”
“Revise what part of it?”
“The part that involves me becoming the High Queen of Kila after we're done with this whole civil war thing. I fret and panic enough when I'm in charge of twelve ships. I don't need an excuse to take all of the sins of the nation on my back.”
She thought about that as she tied off a rope. “Hmm,” she said. “You might have a point- and frankly, the queen business seems sort of labour intensive. I'm not interested in having you work twenty hour days.”
“Exactly. Besides, there's a better person for the job now.”
“That's the one.”
“But then, what would we do? After the war?”
I angled my head back and felt the sun on my face. “I thought that we would just keep doing this,” I said. “Forever. Unless we get sick of it and decide to do something different.”
She studied me. “You know? I think that is a well-conceived plan.”
“Glad you agree. Now go and use your superhuman powers of persuasion on my lazy bosun. Get her to come over here and handle the sails. Because you and I are going down to the hold and we are not coming up until both of us are good and ready.”
“We don't have a cabin down there.”
“I'll build you one. Did it before.”
“What if I refuse?”
“Well then, girl, I have my own powers of persuasion.”
“Watch it, babe.”
“Don't you mean ‘Mistress'?”
“Don't push your luck. Now are you going to get your bony pirate ass below, or do I have to kick it down the stairs?”
I grinned. “Lynn, oh come on. I know better than to try and cross you, by now.”
Epilogue- Six Years Later
Now they talk about a time that seems as shapeless as a dream,
When the stars all spiralled backwards, and the rivers ran upstream,
In the middle of a war that brought our nation to the brink,
When nothing ever worked out in the way that you would think.
For they say there was a girl, back in the maelstrom of the war,
Who was whipped and shamed and tortured for the royal blood she bore-
But as a nameless slave girl on a vicious, war-torn sea,
Bound and branded by her lover, she found pride and dignity.
And her lover was an exile who had known a bitter time-
An unrepentant criminal, a kiss her only crime,
Who always stood the steadiest when tossing on the foam,
Who, had she not been banished, would have never found her home.
And they say a shining princess in a castle high above
Kissed her father out of hatred; killed her mother out of love.
And from that bloody murder, a new hope began to spring-
And a pirate and her slave girl were the source of everything.
Now I'm not much of a scholar, but it's clear to even fools
That sometimes there's no fairness ‘til you start breaking the rules-
And it isn't really justice to treat everyone the same-
And if you've got no way to win, it's time to change the game.
So we're here now to start twisting things like bits of linen thread;
We'll bend the laws all back to front, turn ethics on their head;
For no matter what the jurists and philosophers assert
There's just one human duty: it's to help more than you hurt.
We'll be wiser than our parents, question everything they knew-
And we'll hope like hell our children will be wiser than us , too.
The world must turn and change, whatever gloomy prophets say-
And if you can't accept that? Get the hell out of my way.
“Are you ever gonna put out the lamp?”
Ariadne, high queen of Kila, laid her pen down on top of the completed poem, and glanced out the window. White electric threads of lightning whipped across the purple sky, like cracks in a dark stone. “I'm worried about them,” she admitted.
“Don't be,” Latoya said, propping herself up on one elbow in the canopied bed. “It'd take more than a bit of a storm to sink the Banshee .”
“I know, oh I know,” Ariadne said. “But it might slow them down, and I'm going to have the biggest tantrum in the history of time if they're not here for the birth. Seriously, it'll be epic. You'll be able to sell tickets.”
Latoya yawned and settled her head back down. “Is it raining like a bitch?”
“Are the waves whitecapped and horrible?”
“Does the whole sea look like a scene from a nightmare?”
“They'll be here tomorrow morning,” Latoya predicted sleepily. “Doing the impossible is kind of what they do.”
There was no denying that one.. Ariadne stared at the frothing sea. Somewhere out there was a pirate ship, its red sails streaming water, and a storm-petrel flag streaking out against the sky. Darren would be on deck, bawling orders, and Lynn would be at her side, blond hair plastered back with rain, eyes alive with delight. Or maybe they weren't on deck at all- maybe Lynn's arms were aching in the damp weather, so they were down in their cabin, and Darren was diligently rubbing out the sore muscles. Or maybe-
“Ariadne,” Latoya groaned from behind the curtains.
After a last glance at the ocean, Ariadne blew out the lamp, kicked off her slippers, pulled off her robe, and slipped into bed. The coverlets were mounded over Latoya's bulging stomach, and Ariadne touched the top of it gently- right on cue, felt a kick.
There's always another way , Ariadne thought, with drowsy happiness, and settled her head on Latoya's shoulder, her arm around the pregnant belly. Ten seconds later, they were both asleep.
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