Oh Henry Golomorth did not care much for The Surly Wench. Being the most reputable bar in Queen's Port did not necessarily mean his sort of good time would be there. Drink did not flow as quickly as it did in Pirata's heydays nor as cheaply. The women were harder to coax onto his lap. They wanted the guarantee of coin before they did anything. The wenches in Pirata loved the dance of words and kisses just as much as they loved the coin, but these uptight Tarymian lasses were no better than their noble-born superiors up in the castle. He should have gone to the more seedy bars tucked in the nooks and crannies of Queen's Port, but maybe after his meeting was finished, he could leave for one.
No, he'd definitely go for one.
Oh Henry held a full mug in one gloved hand and waited impatiently for a wench to decide whether or not to get on his lap when Michael Turnbull and the queen of Tarym slipped into The Surly Wench. Michael pushed off his hood, but she kept hers on. She may not be recognized in the barroom, but her cloaked female presence still stuck out among the ladies of the night roaming the place. Oh Henry was impressed by the way she ignored the looks directed at her. When the queen smiled at him as she settled on a stool between him and Michael, Oh Henry couldn't help the warmth that started in his belly and trickled through his veins.
"Sorry, dearie," he told the fickle wench hovering around him. "You missed your chance, now skimp off, will you?" The wench scowled at him. She flitted away with a toss of her auburn curls. Oh Henry felt the briefest space of regret as she swayed away from him toward a group of drunken card players. He sighed and turned to face the queen and Dread Robin's first mate. "Glad to see some familiar faces!" he said loudly above the buzzing voices and raucous laughter in the room. He tipped his head to Em. "Your Majesty."
"Please, dispense with the formality," Em muttered, but teasingly she gave him her hand. He obliged by jauntily taking the thin fingers and pressing a kiss on the back. "I am glad we were able to meet on such short notice, Oh Henry," she said. When she withdrew her hand, she waited for him to take a drink before surreptitiously wiping the back on her cloak. She caught the bartender's eye and shook her head. Oh Henry noticed her hand go immediately toward her stomach. On her other side, Michael ordered a drink.
" 'Tis not a problem meeting with a woman as lovely as you," Oh Henry said with a wink. "The messenger was the problem, but I set him straight with a tongue lashing."
"Yes, I heard he caught you at a bad time this morning." Em's mouth twitched. The messenger had not only caught Oh Henry in bed with a prostitute, but the pirate captain had a hangover from hell as well. "Unfortunately, I can't linger for a drink. We have a ferry waiting for us." She straightened her back, and dove into the heart of the matter for the meeting. "Oh Henry, my harbormaster tells me that you've asked for provisions to be delivered to you in a week's time. Is there anything in particular for which you are stocking up?"
Oh Henry took a swig from his mug, adding froth on top of his mustache. He shrugged as he licked it away. "What can I say? I'm getting Long Tom in a week, and I thought that would be a nice opportunity to head out to open sea."
"Wait," said Michael, speaking up for the first time. He leaned forward over the bar top so that he could see Oh Henry. "Why have I not heard of this?"
"Perhaps you should stop hanging around the castle," Oh Henry said bitingly. "I'm the captain of my ship so what I say goes. I don't need to answer to you."
"What will happen to Dread Robin and his crew?" Michael demanded. "I doubt he'd be readily marooned on Peralta. He'd be driven mad from being landlocked while he waited for his ship." He caught Em's eye and added, "No offense."
Em pursed her lips. "I can spare him accommodations in the city or in the castle," she said. "If anything, I could lend Dread Robin a ship to use as he wishes until his ship is finished."
"No, that's a terrible idea," Michael said. He turned at the bartender's whistle, and the man slid a frothing pint to him.
"Demitri expressed the same sentiment," Em muttered. Aloud, she asked, "Why is that, pray tell?"
Oh Henry said, "A pirate captain needs a ship of his own. Dread Robin especially won't take a borrowed ship. I mean, you should know him better than I, lass." He shrugged when Em threw him a dirty look. "If I were in his shoes, I'd commandeer a ship and leave that way—not that I anticipate that happening!" he said hastily when the dirty look was replaced with a stricken one. Awkwardly, Oh Henry reached over with his free hand and patted Em's shoulder. "He was promised a full ship, and he won't leave until he's got it. Mark my words."
"Thank you, Oh Henry," the queen said stiffly. "You've given me a lot to consider." She stood up. "Michael, shall I wait outside for you to finish your drink?"
"Wait, we're done already?" he exclaimed. "I just got my drink now!"
"I told you, we were only coming here to chat with Oh Henry." Em rolled her eyes when Michael raised a finger before he tilted his head back. She watched his throat bob up and down as he chugged his pint. He set the cup on the bar with a bang.
"I shall see you later, mate," Michael said to Oh Henry as he slipped off the stool. The two men shook hands before Michael followed Em outside. "Don't pay heed to what Oh Henry said about Roger stealing a ship," he told her as they made their way toward the harbor. Twilight was nearing its end, and only the crescent moon watched them travel through the winding streets. Michael leaned forward to see Em's face underneath the hood. He saw furrowed brows and the droopy corners of her lips. "Really," he insisted, "I agree that he will want his ship."
Em shook her head. "Oh no, I am not fretting over Roger taking one of my ships. 'Tis his potential landlocked madness that I'm more worried about." She refused to meet Michael's blue gaze. "Anyway, thank you for coming here with me," she said. "Leo insisted on accompanying me, but he wouldn't want to be seen with Oh Henry." Her dark brown eyes flitted upward to the starless sky. "How angry was Roger?"
"Oh, irritated is more accurate. Don't feel guilty. He needs to get used to me not being around. He keeps Blika close so I don't foresee any immediate problems." He grinned. "At this rate, Blika will know all of Roger's secrets before he's ready to be first mate."
Em frowned. "I don't see how Blika can be first mate once you leave. Roger can't possibly think that the boy can start right away."
"Of course not. Someone will hold the spot for Blika until he comes of age." Michael kicked aside a coil of rope in his way as they walked onto the harbor. Everyone was gone for the night, either in their respective ships or in tavern lodgings. Somewhere in the harbor, a ship's bell rang lazily over the sounds of lapping waves and groaning wood. Michael sighed. "I will admit, Roger is having trouble adjusting to my imminent departure."
"Fits? Broken things?" Em asked.
Michael's lips twitched upward. "When he's not trying to convince me to stay, he broods."
"That's not unlike him," Em said. "Not at all." She shook her head and finally looked over at her companion. "My apologies. With my visit with Demitri and Oh Henry, I've become a bit—"
"Cantankerous?" Michael suggested, earning more rolled eyes from her.
"I was going to say cross, but thank you nonetheless. I would not have considered myself ever being cantankerous at this age until now."
"Why, no problem, Your Highness. I live to serve. Even when your strength is no more and your beauty has faded, I will still serve you dutifully." He stepped to the side to avoid her swinging fist.
"I am with child! I'm not old yet!"
Their boat floated between two larger fishing vessels. A lantern hanging off the ship's prow illuminated the shining bald top of their ferryman. He had a great bushy beard to replace what he lacked above. When they drew closer to notice his grey eyes glaring at them, Michael and Em quickened their pace down the dock. "Y'know it's been a bloody hour since everyone else turned in. I been freezin' me arse waitin' for you both t'come back!" he shouted as Michael helped Em aboard the boat.
"My sincerest apologies, Rodrick," Em said loudly. The ferryman was going deaf from too many years as a gunner in the Royal Navy. She could do without his foul mood, but his deafness attracted her for private matters. Em discovered that Rodrick couldn't pick up low tones, and so speaking to Michael in front of him wasn't as much a concern as it would have been with an abler man.
The ferryman flared his nostrils at Michael before bending down to untie the mooring line. The younger blond man settled beside Em in very back of the boat with a grimace. "Everyone headed to Hypnosis's ferry an hour ago, but I stayed here because you insisted on payin' me after I brought you back!"
"I know, I know!" said the queen. "I will compensate for your generosity. Now if you please, let us get on home!"
The mooring line soared into the front of the boat. Rodrick followed after, rocking the vessel and forcing Em and Michael to grab onto the sides. Once he settled in the middle, he took the oars from the bottom, jabbed the ends into the dark waters, and began their journey back to the capital island.
Halfway across the stretch of sea, Em said, "For the last week, Louise has been disappearing from my presence every other day." Em looked straight ahead, but out of the corner of her eye, Michael reached up to rub the back of his neck. "I didn't notice at first, but Lady Rhea made a comment about Louise needing to go to the chamber pot more than usual. She thought Louise had succumbed with child as well."
Michael cleared his throat. "Ah, yes, well…I don't believe she would be pregnant—"
"Of course not. I am, she's not," said the queen of Tarym. She rubbed her round abdomen for emphasis. Em finally turned her head to look at Michael. "You know, it would be nice for you to drop by and say hello to me instead of you taking Louise away. I do miss you."
"I'm sorry, Em." He reached over to pat her hand. "I will find the time during the next visit."
She nodded. "I've actually wondered how you are able to sneak up to the castle so much," Em continued. "I thought you are training Blika to replace you?"
"Roger keeps taking him to the harbormaster with his maps underarm, so that frees up my time exponentially." Michael glanced at their ferryman, who concentrated hard on his rowing in front of them, before he leaned his head toward Em. "About my visits…it seems Roger's taken a bad impression of them."
Em half smiled at the serious expression on Michael's face. "Bad impression? Not surprising considering that his first mate is leaving him for hours at a time to moon over a lass. Although, I don't see why he's putting the blame entirely on you. He's the one who's taking away your apprentice, as you say."
"No, Em." Michael shook his head. Deep lines furrowed his brow. "He thinks I'm visiting you."
Em rolled her eyes. "For all his perception, he can be entirely daft when it comes to me and other men."
Michael nodded. "We were speaking about my retirement, and he told me to stop dreaming about a life in the castle unless my plans to capture the queen's heart were to actually work."
Em scowled. "Stultus," she muttered.
A ghost of a smile flitted across Michael's lips. "Yes, he is a fool, but he has his own way of showing that he's concerned. Even if he's completely wrong about the situation," he added with a shrug.
Em's frown deepened. "He is a fool, but he is right about a future for you in the castle. Michael, I am happy for both you and Louise, but her family entirely disapproves."
"I am quite aware that they are not happy of where I am coming from," Michael said flatly. "She is not completely happy with the situation too."
Em raised a brow. "Oh? She seems willing enough to disappear when you call."
Michael rubbed the back of his neck. "She seems willing, but she's really berating me for visiting. Louise is loyal to you, and she cannot have happiness while you are in pain."
Godsdamn, keep it together woman, Em thought as the feeling to cry suddenly overcame her. "I won't be in pain for another four months," the mother-to-be said. When Michael shot her a look, she said, "I'll speak to her. She shouldn't suffer on my behalf. One of us has to be happy while the other waits and hopes Roger will be back to normal." Em sighed. "You two remind me of the song, My Jolly Sailor Bold."
"Don't tell me, I'm the jolly sailor bold, right?" Michael yelped when Em elbowed him in the side.
She couldn't help singing a stanza of the song.
His fortune doth exceed
And he frowns upon his daughter
Who loves a sailor bold
"Now there's a pretty voice," their ferryman said loudly, startling them. "Were you a mermaid in your past life, miss?"
Em smiled. "I was probably a nightingale." She looked over at Michael who tried to return her smile but only achieved twitching the corners of his lips. "Thinking about Louise's family?"
Michael nodded. "Her father does frown upon her loving me, but I can't be detracted by his disapproval." He placed his hands behind his head. "I've thought about signing up for the Royal Navy." He frowned. "I hesitate only because I don't look forward to starting off as a swabbie."
"Even then, it'd take years for you to move up the ranks," said the queen of Tarym. "As well, there's the fact that you'll be at sea for many months or years. A wife-in-waiting would make neither you nor Louise happy."
"Yes. But somehow I need to achieve a position equal or close to what her family wants." He dropped his hands. He turned his head to Em. She stared straight ahead at Peralta, slowly growing bigger as they rowed nearer.
In a dazed voice, she asked, "Michael, have you ever wondered how it would be like to live as a baron?"
He looked at her quizzically. He stared at the smile forming on her lips. "Am I going to like what you have to say, or will it cause immeasurable difficulties for me?"
Em glanced at him briefly. "How does both sound?"
Em and Michael were silent when they arrived in Peralta. As soon as the boat slid beside an empty dock, the ferryman hopped out and began tying down the mooring line to one of the posts. Michael helped Em onto the wooden platform before he followed. She had to grab his arm as he stumbled onto his feet.
Chuckling, Em said, "Be careful about those sea legs. They need to get used to being on land." She let go of him and turned to the ferryman. From a small purse, she produced a dozen clinking gold coins. "As I promised. My compensation for you waiting for us," the queen of Tarym said loudly as the coins trickled from her hand and into the ferryman's. He ducked his head low in a small bow. Em turned to Michael, who offered his arm to take. With a nod, Em grabbed onto the limb, and they walked away from the ferryman and his boat. "I will take you to the Goliath," she said. When Michael started to protest, she said, "I can get my horse from the inn without your help."
"I'm supposed to be the gentleman and make sure nothing happens to you."
"Nothing will." She patted the side of her hip where a dagger was belted.
"Fine, but if I hear that you've been kidnapped or mugged, my head stays on my shoulders, you got it? I don't want your cousin coming after me with a mob bearing pitchforks and torches."
"Of course not. You're not a witch. They'll bring nooses appropriate for a pirate."
The Goliath loomed halfway down the dockyard from where their ferryman had dropped them off. The white sails were furled into their beams. No light burned except the stern where the windows of the captain's quarters glowed a dim yellow. "Roger must be still up—no surprise," Michael muttered. He turned his head at Em.
When they reached the bottom of the gangplank, he stepped away from Em until she released him.
"I want to say goodnight to Blika," Em said before Michael could bid her farewell.
"He might be sleeping right now." Michael glanced over his shoulder toward the glowing windows at the stern. "Or he might be with Roger where in that case, I wouldn't bother their planning."
Em shook her head. "Can I still try to see him? 'Tis always you visiting in the castle. Even then, you only want to see Louise. I thought I'd take the chance to see him in case…" She bit her bottom lip hard.
Michael reached up with both hands and placed them on Em's shoulders. "Look, Roger won't take a ship and disappear. Don't worry. He'll stay for his ship." Again, his blue eyes flashed over his shoulder. "Why don't you head back to the castle, and next time I visit, I'll bring Blika along and we'll both drop by to see you?"
Em opened her mouth but a sigh escaped instead of a protest. "That's fine. I miss him, is all."
Michael pulled her to him for an embrace. "I know you miss him, Em," he said into her hair. He squeezed her lightly before letting go. "Goodnight. Tell Louise I bid her the same."
Em laughed softly as she stepped away. She waved a hand idly before heading up the dock. Michael watched her until the shadows enveloped her, and even then, he stood before the gangplank for a few minutes, staring into the darkness of the dockyard.
When he finally turned around and walked onto the ship, Em breathed a sigh behind the pile of barrels where she had hidden. She waited until the top of Michael's head disappeared further onto the main deck to step out. She lifted the cloak from around her feet so as not to trip on the hem before scurrying down the dock and up the gangplank. Before her head became level with the top of the gangplank, Em stopped and crouched down. Craning her neck, she peeked over the top.
Michael had gone down the hatch, leaving the Goliath's main deck as completely empty of human life as a graveyard. Not even a watchman lingered amid the jungle of beams and lines up above. The only light illuminating the deck was from the crescent moon above. The boards creaked underfoot as Em made her way sternward toward the captain's quarters. A thin line of light glowed at the bottom of the door. She paused for a moment in front of the door and took a deep breath. Then, she grabbed the knob and twisted.
The door revealed Roger and Blika around the captain's writing table. The former stood directly behind the table, towering over the schematics he had drawn up meticulously for his new ship. The Afrikaansian boy sat on a stool to the older man's left side, holding a ruler and stick of graphite in his hands. The taper on the table that had given the windows its light shined on their faces as well as the detailed drawings.
Blika looked up as Em stepped inside the doorframe. She waved a hand at him, and he returned it with a solemn nod.
" 'Tis about time you came back from being knight to Her Royal Nuisance." Roger didn't lift his gaze from the schematics. When he held up a hand, Blika placed the graphite stick on the upturned palm.
Em rolled her eyes as the sounds of light scratches filled the otherwise silent room. No wonder that he liked Blika's presence. They're both ghosts. In a pleasant voice, she said, "Well, if you think of me in that fashion, you won't be happy about the conversation about to be had." Satisfaction rippled through her chest when the graphite stick stilled, stopping the scratches. Em repressed the urge to shudder when Roger snapped his head up and pinned her with his black eyes. The graphite stick clattered on the desk. Em lifted her chin as he marched up to her. His black eyes flicked behind her head to the main deck as he stopped in front of her. When they fell on her, she said, "I must speak to you."
A charcoal eyebrow rose. "Obviously, or why else would you be here? And you couldn't send a messenger instead of gracing this humble gentleman of fortune with Your Majesty's presence?"
"I was on my way back from Queen's Port. I spoke with Oh Henry while I was there," Em said calmly, ignoring his unpleasant tone. "He says he will leave in a week's time."
"I am aware."
Underneath the resentment, Em could hear the longing in his tone. In a soft tone, she asked, "Have you made arrangements for where you will stay when he is gone?" Roger lifted his arms. Instinctively, Em stepped back until she was outside the door. Roger placed his arms against the doorframe. He loomed over her cloaked figure like a weeping willow, complete with his wild hair framing either side of his pale face.
"That is not any of your concern, Your Highness," Dread Robin said. "I can survive just fine without your charity." Before Em could respond, he stepped forward. Alarmed, she moved back. He continued after her until he cleared the door and they were close to the mizzen mast. "Leave now, Your Highness. You shouldn't be around such disreputable company or else it will get around that you consort with riffraff like pirates."
Em pressed her lips together into a thin line. Then, she said, "I know you don't remember, so I will only say that I am known to favor the pirates. Don't worry for my sake."
The smirk that flitted across her face annoyed Roger. His hands flexed on either side of him but he forced himself to stop them from latching around her throat. "As I said, get out of here."
The smirk disappeared and was replaced by a frown. She looked like she was searching for another word, another lifeline to keep her to Roger, but in the end, she hung her head. Turning around, Em trudged over to the gangplank. Heavy footsteps followed after her. When she reached the top of the gangplank, she spun around to face Roger. "Why are you following me?" she demanded.
"I'm making sure you go away," Roger said roughly.
Em bit her bottom lip. She remembered similar words he had said to her, inside a doorway on a different land so many ages ago. "Do you not remember caring about anyone else besides Michael?" she blurted. She watched a brief expression of surprise flit across Roger's pale face before he lowered his brows. "I loved a man who did not believe he was a man," Em began. "I know he's more a man than any I've ever known."
"And how many men have you known, Your Highness?" Roger asked, finally regaining his voice.
Em glared up at him. "Not enough, never enough to satisfy you," she said. "You always feared that I would find someone better than you because you didn't trust my inexperience, but for once, you were wrong." Before Roger could object, Em said, "You are moody and bloodthirsty. I cannot deny your flaws. But I watched you mourn over the deaths of your comrades after battle. I heard you recite the most touching poetry that I've ever heard. I touched the warmth from your body, knowing that you weren't as cold-blooded as you appear to be. Now you are aloof and cold and harsh, but before you lost your memories, you loved me as I love you."
Quickly, Em closed the distance between them. She placed her finger right on his scar. He winced, and a shudder drove through his body. Before he could recover, Em switched her finger for her lips. Roger's body stiffened underneath hers. His lips lay unresponsive, and if anything, she felt them press into a thin line.
Then, Roger raised his hands and closed them around her neck.
Em yanked back her head in a gasp. She grabbed his wrists. Her eyes watered and her neck burned. His face…Roger's face was emotionless and still as he tightened his hold. His scar burned red. The edges of her vision turned black slowly. Em let go of his left wrist and grabbed the dagger on her belt. In a flash of silver, she struck the side of Roger's head. His fingers leaped away from her neck to the right side of his head. A hiss escaped his scarred lips. Em barely prevented herself from crumbling to the floor. She grabbed her throat with her free hand and massaged air back into the passageway. Her other hand held the dagger aloft, just in case Roger retaliated, but when she looked over at him, she saw a different situation. In front of her, Roger stumbled back in a zigzagged line, shooting curses at her. He was hunched over, his head bent low. His hands clutched his head.
Em raised her head when a shout came from the other side of the ship. Michael stood before the hatch, his blue eyes wide. When he looked beyond the angry pirate captain to Em, saw her disheveled appearance, he said, "Godsdamn, I knew something was afoot when you left right away!" He ran across the deck, but as he came close to Roger, the latter threw out a bloodied hand to ward him off.
In a rough voice, Dread Robin commanded, "Stay back, Mr. Turnbull. And you." He straightened his back and rounded on Em, but the motion to spin around made Roger stagger. Michael was at his side in an instant, but when he took Roger by the arm, the latter pressed his free hand on Michael's chest and shoved him away. Em shouted when she saw the crimson handprint on Michael's white shirt. She looked down at her dagger. The two inches of the blade closest to its hilt was stained red. She had meant to hit Roger with the hilt but had gotten him with the blade as well. Em raised her head to meet the fiery black eyes. The right side of his temple was smudged with his blood, and a trickle of it slid its way down his face despite his other hand's attempt to staunch the flow.
Roger shakily raised his free hand and pointed at her. "If you ever come near me without my permission again, I will surely be hanged for regicide."
"Captain," Michael said, but he was interrupted by the sound of the dagger dropping onto the floor. He turned to Em. Tears cascaded down her face. Before Michael could stop her, she spun around and ran down the gangplank. "Em!" Michael leaped around Roger and ran up to the gangplank, but he could not see Em anywhere on the deck.
"Leave her," Roger hissed. When Michael spun around to face him, he said, "You are now forbidden to go to the castle until your service to me is done. Do you understand?" To both his fury and amazement, Michael refused.
"I understand alright, but I won't obey. Consider my services no longer required." Michael froze as his brain fully processed what had just come out of his mouth. Roger's wide black eyes mirrored Michael's shock.
However, Dread Robin straightened up to his full height and narrowed his eyes at Michael. "I see," he said. "Make merry as the queen's lapdog." He turned sharply on his heel toward the captain's quarters. Some of his dignity was lost when he staggered his way back to the staircase, both his hands now pressed against his head. Michael started forward, but Blika rushed out of the captain's quarters to help Roger inside.
Michael watched, numbed, until the door closed behind the two before he hurried off the ship.