"Dread Pirate Robin, captain of The Jolly Roger."
The ruckus inside the queen's antechamber preceding the announcement died away. All eyes fell on the Pirate King as he entered through the double doors. His pale face was inscrutable, but his black eyes flashed dangerously and the jagged scar on the left side of his lips burned red, exacerbating the rising tide of terror that washed over the noblewomen. Moments before, they had been pacing fretfully around the opulent waiting room not unlike the last time the pirate had been there, but now, they were frozen like statues.
The more frail-hearted women looked toward the guardsmen entering the antechamber after the pirate for reassurance. The soldiers posted themselves around the room. The ends of the soldiers' rifle barrels had been trained on the unwelcomed visitor the moment he'd entered the guardroom.
Lady Helen rounded on Lady Louise. The former had retreated to the side of the nearest officer, as other women had done. "You sent for him?" Helen hissed. "Of all people, why?"
Lady Helen came from a family of higher status and wealth than all of the women there, but the beautiful woman was by no means the leader. The plain Lady Louise stood her ground. She stepped away from the huddled mass of ladies-in-waiting that had converged upon her at the first sight of the pirate. "The queen trusts him," Louise told the other woman. Under shocked looks or scandalized stares, she hurried up to Roger.
"Praise Helena you are here," she told him as the real problem at hand returned to the forefront of her mind.
Roger scowled as she neared him. The black expression caused not only her to recoil and stay at a safe distance from him, but the rest of the women, who felt its power, cowered.
"Lady Louise," whispered Lady Rhea.
Suddenly, the room filled with the sounds of hammers clicking into place and feet shifting their weight. Dread Robin ignored the fine line he crossed as he glared down at the plain-looking woman trembling underneath his burning gaze.
"To what purpose this time have I been summoned?" he demanded. "Lose your charge again? I am not her keep—"
"No, no!" Louise interjected, rallying her courage under the intense scrutiny of her peers. "She's just inside—"
"Then what is the bloody problem?" Dread Robin demanded. Indignant gasps filled the room, created by his uncivil discourse with the lady. "Do you people not think I have more important things to do than play court for the queen's pleasure?"
Growing more terrified of his rising temper, Louise dove headfirst into explanation, speaking quickly so that the pirate didn't have a chance to interrupt her.
"My Queen returned about an hour ago from the night's council meeting. Something must have happened that greatly upset her, for as soon as she stormed into her bedroom, everyone was ordered outside. When we heard the door's bolt slide into place, everyone present proceeded to hear a loud crash from within, and then more along with the queen's screams, as if a violent spirit had sprung out from inside the room and started attacking her."
One of Roger's charcoal eyebrows rose but not in concern, not even with amusement. "You sent for me because your mistress had a royal tantrum and destroyed all her nice furniture?" he enunciated slowly. The pirate watched the lady standing before him turn pink in the face at his description, and when he looked up, her peers were either in the same condition of embarrassment or were on the opposite pole of indignation. Roger shook his head and placed his hands on his hips. "I don't hear anything now—"
"That is what concerns us, sir," interrupted Lady Louise. Her hazel eyes were careful to avoid any contact with his black ones. "The noise stopped after a while, but when we entreated the queen to open the door, we were met with no reply. None of us or the guards can get the door open."
"Cut to the part where you all decided I was a suitable candidate who could make a difference," Dread Pirate Robin said.
"None here but Lady Louise chose to call for you," spoke up an angry voice. All eyes turned to Lady Helen. She had ventured forth but still stayed close to her soldier's side. The beauty avoided the pirate's penetrating gaze as well and redirected her disdain on the plainer woman. "You should not have done that behind our backs," she reprimanded her counterpart.
A few of the women nodded, but others did dissent.
One woman with bright blue eyes, Lady Constance, timidly ventured, "Why don't we give him a chance? It won't hurt, and My Queen seems attached to him."
"She's right," murmured some.
Lady Beatrice, in her high-pitched voice, swiftly countered, "Surely, what can he do for us or for our queen now? He's just a pirate. All he knows is pillaging and murder."
Dread Robin's eyes narrowed to slits. The women seemed to be trying their best to ignore him at the moment. Only the soldiers hadn't forgotten Roger. Their crooked fingers were hooked inside the trigger piece, waiting for him to make a fatal mistake. Well, he certainly wouldn't allow them the pleasure, and so the Pirate King reined in his irritation toward the whole situation.
Lady Helen's imperious voice rose up above the mutterings of her peers. "Send him away, Louise," she ordered. "I'll send for someone to find either Cecil Leyal or Baron Phoenicus."
At the mention of the second name, Roger's entire body stiffened almost against his will and jealousy reared its ugly green head from the cavern inside his chest. Calypso damn them by tidal wave, he thought viciously.
Lady Louise turned to Lady Helen, her face a bright red now. "Dread Pirate Robin—"
"Is finished here with you squabbling bitches," the Pirate King's muffled voice cut across the beginnings of the woman's defense of him. "How your queen endures this constant bloody shit-circus, only the gods know."
Jaws fell open or mouths were covered in shock. Two of the most delicate women swooned and had to be caught either by their fellow women or a nearby soldier. Even the men had been sideswiped completely by the pirate's vulgar language in front of the noblewomen. Dread Robin's fiery black eyes then swept across the entire room, eliciting shudders and whimpers from those people, women and soldiers, who had the misfortune to meet his reaper's gaze. Louise, the closest of anyone to him in proximity, stepped away from him.
Amid the deafening silence that followed his cold words, Roger turned sharply on his heel and stalked out of the antechamber.
The queen of Tarym sat in a messy heap at the foot of her grand four-poster bed. Her back leaned against its carved footboard. Her gown lay eschew on her weary frame, wrinkled, where her hands had clutched the material too much, and stained, from different colors of ink. Her hair had come undone from its knot, and it hung limply around her head. Bloodshot eyes stared at the full moon hanging in the star-filled night sky outside her window. The white orb peeked into her room as if to make sure for itself that her rage had abated finally and she was all right. Crimson red during Annalyn's short reign, the moon had returned to normal shortly after the war ended.
Em gave a minute start when the sudden sound of a whiny creak intruded upon the gloom in the bedroom. Soon, a tapestry hanging on the wall to the right of her bed was pulled aside. Em sighed deeply. She sat up straight and looked over her shoulder. She watched Roger shut the door through which he'd just passed. It was one of the six secret passages that expressly led into her bedroom. She had shown them to him the night she moved into the queen's apartments.
As the pirate turned around, the queen leaned back on the footboard and idly remarked, "I heard you yelling at my attendants. I couldn't clearly catch your words, but telling from the way you said them, that'll definitely land you forever in their bad graces."
Instead of hearing the familiar sound of him scowling, silence met her musings. Em looked at him again and saw with slight amusement that Roger was surveying the devastation of her room with appreciation in his eyes. She supposed the damage caused all by herself was something to consider remarkable.
The queen's bedroom had been turned upside down because of her fit of unbridled passion. Anything she could get her hands on hadn't been spared. Furniture, some heavy, had been tipped over or thrown against the wall, leaving dents of various depths. The furniture in turn, depending of the size, was either smashed to pieces or large portions of paint and wood had chipped off. Of the paintings, they were ruined. Em had ripped them away from their perches and had thrown them onto the ground. The floor was strewn mostly with everything that had come off Em's writing desk. Papers, pens, quills, and inkpots were everywhere. The dyes of the last item could be seen on the walls, the carpet, and the queen herself. Shattered pieces crunched underfoot, along with other debris. Of this wreckage, only the bed, the tapestries, and the glass panels of the windows had been spared.
Roger stuck his hands in his pant pockets and whistled low. Then he walked over to Em, who had stopped watching him before his observation ended and had returned her gaze to the moon. When he stood before her, Roger wondered aloud, "Was your reaction after I left you on Swiftling Island just as catastrophic?"
A ghost of a smile flickered across Em's face. Her bottom lip had split and bled a little during her rampage. "There had been more tears, less mess," she admitted. The spirit of her smile returned to its grave, and the expression on her face was just as somber. Em turned her head as Roger sank onto his haunches. A raised charcoal eyebrow indicated he was waiting for her explanation.
Em took a deep breath. "Edeson told us during the meeting that you all were preparing to leave the harbor tonight," she said. "I sent someone to check, and he confirmed it. One or two of the ships had already cut loose."
Roger nodded. His pale face, illuminated by the attentive rays of the moon, was unreadable, but when he spoke, his words were touched with anger. "I stayed behind."
He stared at Em for a moment before he held out his hands to her. She placed her ink-stained fingers in his palms and was pulled onto her feet. Roger brought her to the bed. By her gentle coaxing, he laid down beside her on top of the brocade sheets. She nestled up against his side, her head on top of his thin chest and his arm holding her body to his.
Quietly, Em told him, "I signed Annalyn's death warrant yesterday. She'll be executed in three days." Em shuddered. Roger rubbed the arm lying across his chest with his hands. "Cecil already sent a messenger to the city of Ferrum on the mainland. Ferrum breeds our best blacksmiths," she informed him tersely. "The messenger is to retrieve the best swordsman from there." Before the last words left her lips, Em's body shook with the tears welling up inside her.
Roger wiped away the dew gently from her eyes. "You did the right thing."
"Did I?" Em wondered aloud in a shaky voice. "I am taking a life—"
"For the price of peace—"
"What sort of peace?" Em returned. "The Draconians are hiding in the mainland, trying their best to elude capture. They are at our backdoor. Let's not forget the ones in the water. What sort of peace have I bought with Annalyn's blood?" she demanded.
"Internal peace," Roger responded. He ignored the sardonic chuckle that forced its way out of Em's lips. "Your throne will be secure from familial threats. Leo's house poses no threat now, or, it won't if you tweak your stance a bit about taking reparations from them."
"So you want me to be more lenient on his house?"
Roger raised an eyebrow. "I don't presume to tell you how to lead your country as I know you would never have the audacity to tell me how to manage my ship," he said.
Em smiled sadly. "I shall take your generous advice into consideration," she said. "In truth, I don't want to antagonize Leo, nor do I want to make him resentful of me so early in my reign." She breathed in deeply his scent. His steady heartbeat anchored her roiling emotions. Slowly, Em said, "The peace we talk of is not true peace, Roger. It is the illusion of peace. I take the singular antidote where I need the panacea."
A contemplative silence followed these words. Then Em broke it by whispering, "Will you watch when it happens?" She reached up and lightly traced the scar across his cheek. The stitches had been removed.
"The Jolly Roger is leaving first thing tomorrow morn," said Roger monotonously. His black eyes stared unrepentantly into Em's widening dark brown eyes. She retracted her hand as if burned by the contact of his skin. Roger continued as if he hadn't noticed. "We were going to sail tonight with the others, but your lady's urgent message reached us just as everyone else was starting to sail out from the harbor. My ship hadn't raised anchor yet." Almost bitterly, he added, "You could say divine providence had a hand in it. I signaled to the other pirate captains to leave and then headed to the castle."
Em ripped away from his arms. She sat up and stared down at Roger. In the pits of her eyes, her earlier rage was returning like oil thrown on a feeble flame. She hissed, "You were not going to tell me of your departure? Not even leave me a farewell? You cowardly blight—"
"I have my reasons," Roger interrupted. He sat up and leaned back with his hands propping him from behind. "The main reason being that I merely took your warning about Black Death into fruition." He shrugged nonchalantly despite the struggle between anger and the need for restraint playing across Em's face. "It presented the opportunity for our departure. The Politickans wanting Black Death's head, as you told me, required secrecy and careful planning. Had whatever spy not informed your head general about our departure, none of you would ever have known until the morrow, and even then, Black Death would be long gone before the Politickans could track him down."
"But you stayed," Em whispered.
Roger put his boot firmly down on the neck of hope. "Not for long."
"Please stay," Em implored. "At least until Annalyn is put to death. You can leave after, but I just can't do go through with it by myself. All I ask is for you to stay when it happens."
"That is too long. I must be gone," the Pirate King insisted. "I've already overstayed by allowing myself to be convinced to come up here by this third summons. Who knows how far the Draconians are now—"
"Damn them to Hell, Roger," Em hissed. "Faethm Ocean will not be sucked into a black vortex if you delay your departure for three more days."
Roger shook his head. "I wanted to avoid this situation," he confessed in dark tones. He looked into Em's distressed face. "You need to be strong," he told her. "You have come so far to just fall to pieces at this critical juncture of your nascent reign. You can't be selfish. You have to mind your people—"
"What do you think I have been doing these past three weeks?" Em cried. "Since my coronation, I have done nothing but taken care of the business of state, all for my people!" Em pressed her hands over her stinging eyes. A whimper escaped her trembling lips. Her hard breaths of air came in and out through her nostrils. When she had regained control of herself, she lowered her hands and regarded him with glazed eyes. In a quieter voice, she said, "The only times that I found safe harbor amid the storm of council meetings and displaying myself in court like a porcelain doll were in the other two times you have been here, Roger."
With monumental effort, the Pirate King hardened his heart against the queen of Tarym. With a sharp edge to his deep, muffled voice, Dread Pirate Robin said, "I am duty bound to Calypso to rid the Faethm Ocean of its Draconian infestation. As well, I must prepare for the gods' war now that our mortal one is over, as you should." He watched Em slide off the bed through narrow eyes. "Neither of us can ill afford to sit here complacent. We both have responsibilities, and I cannot stay here on your mere whim and weak spirit—"
"Get out," Em hissed.
The queen of Tarym stood at her full height, chin raised and eyes blazing. In one of the few times since she first met Dread Pirate Robin, Em held the gaze of those bottomless black depths without fear or revulsion. She pointed to her bedroom's main door and repeated her command.
Roger got off the bed, his eyes never breaking contact with hers. They were upon the trembling young woman when he bowed to her stiffly at the waist. The black orbs still stared at her as he navigated backward toward the door, unlocked it, and stepped out into the antechamber amid stunned gasps and cries of alarm from the queen's ladies-in-waiting and another round of clicking hammers from the guardsmen.
Em, galvanized by the sounds of shock, made for the door. Her attendants were trying to enter, demanding to know how the pirate had gotten into her bedroom, when the queen's fierce expression on her approaching scarlet face scared the women back outside. The door slammed in their faces, and then the bolt once more slid into place.
Em spun away and went over to her favorite window. It overlooked the sea, whose uneven surface still reflected the full moon in the sky above it. The ocean was calm tonight. No wind blew its chilly breath, but Em didn't wrap her arms tightly around herself because of cold. Hot tears cascaded down her face. Her entire body shook. The pain grew in her chest, making it difficult for her to breathe. Her heart was breaking all over again.
Em managed finally to swallow down her sorrow and took a grateful gasp of air.
She whispered to the ocean, "First my mother. Now you take him from me?"