So here it is, the official last chapter of my summer. Technically, I already started school, but I had to wait for my editor to give this back to me.
Thanks to everyone who reviewed this summer. You guys were so helpful in me and my muse's creative process. :D
I apologize ahead of time for the fast pace in the chapter. I didn't know how else to slow it down. Heh.
"Ah, Your Highness," Oh Henry called down to the main deck. He stood at the top of the portside staircase. "Good morn. So glad of you to finally join us day walkers!"
Roger, from his position in the helm's balcony, watched Em step away from the hatch. Louise appeared after her, carrying the long train of the dress that her mistress wore. A look of distaste marred Em's face, and Roger didn't blame her for it.
She wore a burgundy dress that Oh Henry had procured before they left Pirata. In normal dresses, the bodice was stringed at the back. That dress had strings down the front. Frills lined the bottom of the long skirt as well as the square neckline that hung low to show off Em's cleavage. Otherwise, the dress was very plain. As it was, the bust was loose. Ropes wrapped around her upper torso as well as her small waist. The skirt hung limp and straight without the usual cushions and hoops underneath it. Lastly, Em's long sleeves puffed at the top and ended narrow and tight around her wrist. The dress was the most conservative-looking that Oh Henry could find, but nonetheless, it obviously once belonged to a lady of the night.
Louise had tied up Em's shoulder-length hair with leather thongs she'd borrowed from Oh Henry. Two ringlets, which she curled from using the heated end of an iron-cast skillet, hung down either side of Em's face. Louise wore her sailing attire, which she appeared glad over.
Vast amusement colored Oh Henry's voice. "You look very lovely, Your Highness. Any man would pay top price for you."
Em's dark brown eyes slid up to the helm. Roger felt more than saw the portly pirate captain stiffen as her gaze pierced him. Roger smirked, impressed. He watched Em shake off Louise before walking over to the gangway.
They had arrived in Peralta's dockyard near noon. The pirate ship was abuzz with activity as men lowered the anchor and furled the sails around the masts. Down below on the dock landing, a thin wisp of a harbormaster waited to collect his fee. He eyed Em as she walked down the gangplank and greeted him with a small curtsey. His yellow eyes immediately plunged down her low neckline.
"Fifteen shillings," the harbormaster muttered.
"You will have your tax," said Em, "after you send word to the castle that the queen of Tarym has arrived."
The harbormaster squint his eyes and raised them up to Em's face. "Yeah? Y'mean you?"
"Yes, I do," said the queen of Tarym. "Send the message specifically to Baron Phoenicus, the King Regent."
"Lady, the Baron Phoenicus is no longer here," said the harbormaster.
"Is not here," Em repeated. "Where did he go?"
"Haven't you heard?" The harbormaster looked at Em distrustfully. "He's gone off to kill the dragon on the mainland."
"We're done here," came a dark and muffled voice from behind Em. She turned around to see Roger walk down the gangplank. He was accompanied by Oh Henry, Michael, Daryl, Louise, and Blika. When Roger reached the harbormaster, he gestured to Oh Henry, who promptly held up three shillings.
"Why did you do that?" Em demanded after the harbormaster sauntered off the dock landing, his pockets jangling.
Roger narrowed his eyes. "You're wasting my time," he said. "If you want to get back to your castle, stop waiting for a litter to pick you up and go there yourself."
Em lifted a hand and rubbed her face as he walked past her. Her head swam with the unexpected news of Demitri gone and the dragon in her country. Roger was right. She couldn't wait for a messenger.
Their group paid for horses at a nearby inn. Em and Louise shared a horse while Blika sat in front of Roger on his horse. Together, they rode out of the town. The smells of food from the inn had elicited a lightheadedness in Em. She hadn't eaten anything yet due to Louise's diligent preparation on her person, but she ignored the hunger and concentrated on riding her horse through the forest path.
However, they encountered the same trouble at the gates of the castle as Em did in the dockyard. She demanded to speak with the new King Regent, who she learned with shock was her cousin Leo, but the two soldiers standing on either end of the gates refused to relay her message.
"Go on away from here," said the soldier on the left. "No soliciting."
Em's face burned. "I am not here for that business!" she said. "I am Emelia, queen of Tarym!"
Both soldiers looked over her prostitute's dress and then laughed.
"I don't know who put you up to this," said the soldier on the right, "but you're not getting paid enough for it. Now leave before we forcibly remove you from the premises."
Em felt a presence behind her and looked over her shoulder to see Roger.
"We shall not leave until we speak to the King Regent," Roger said.
The amusement wiped away from the soldiers' faces. They noticed Roger's weapons at his belt. After unsheathing their swords, they stepped toward Em and Roger. Roger grabbed Em's hand and discreetly brought it behind her to place it around the hilt of his cutlass. Em nodded and waited until the soldiers were within range before she unsheathed Roger's cutlass. She knocked away the sword of the soldier to the right and then pointed the cutlass at his face. At the same time, Roger pulled his pistol from its holster and pointed the barrel at the second soldier's chest.
Shouts erupted from the soldiers stationed on top of the gate. The two soldiers in Em and Roger's custody stared. Behind them, Oh Henry yelled an order to Daryl and Michael. Louise and Blika were pushed behind Em and Roger while Oh Henry, Michael, and Daryl unsheathed their swords and provided cover at the back.
"You should have taken me for my word," Em said quietly as orders above were issued to open the gates. In a louder voice, she called, "I demand to speak with Baron Leonce Odina!"
The entire group slowly made their way through the opened gates and into the main courtyard. By then, courtiers appeared at windows or streamed out of the great double doors that led into the castle. On the walls, soldiers trained their rifles and crossbows at the small brigade of invaders, but they didn't have a clear shot at the two who held their men.
By the time Baron Odina and the other twelve council members emerged from the double doors, every court member from servant to courtier filled the main courtyard. They and the soldiers gave Em's group a wide berth. Leo instantly recognized Roger before Em, and he raised his hands and yelled, "Hold your fire! The queen has returned!" A tremor ran through the entire main courtyard before the sounds of rifles and crossbows disengaging momentarily dimmed the exclamations and gasps from the courtiers. The thirteen councilmen rushed down the staircase. Em and Roger withdrew their weapons from the two soldiers. Em dismissed the pair with a sharp nod.
As she handed the cutlass back to Roger, Baron Wardmin demanded in his gravelly voice, "Your Highness, what are you wearing?"
"This, I am borrowing," the queen said curtly. "I had no intention of wearing this, I assure you."
"Where's your crown? Your seal ring?" Baron Odina asked in a strangled voice. Unlike the more conservative Baron Wardmin, Leo's cheeks were turning red from his attempt to keep from laughing aloud.
Em briefly shut her eyes and sighed deeply. "Regrettably, they have been lost to me," she admitted. When she opened her eyes, all of her thirteen remaining barons wore consternated expressions. "Gentlemen, there are more important matters to discuss, such as why Leo is in charge and not Demitri?"
The queen's councilmen nodded. Only Leo and Baron de Lessops stayed behind with the queen as the others turned around to make toward the castle. While Baron de Lessops joyously greeted Louise, Leo stuck out his hand to Roger.
"Good to see you again, mate." When Roger stared blankly at him, Leo's grin dropped and was replaced with a look of uncertainty. "What? Too proud to greet an old friend?"
"Leo," Em spoke up as confusion briefly visited Roger's pale face. "They're waiting for us." She nodded to the other council members, who'd stopped at the bottom of the staircase.
"Right." Leo glanced curiously at Roger before he looked to Baron de Lessops. "Let's go."
When Baron Odina and Baron de Lessops headed over to the staircase, Em turned to Louise. "Take our guests to my chambers. Bring them food. I'm sure they're hungry."
Louise curtseyed in her sailing attire. "As you wish," she murmured before her mistress turned around and followed the council members into the castle.
The thirteen barons led Em straight to the council room. While she stood in the middle of the three tables, the men took their seats. Baron Odina sat in his regular seat to the left of where the queen would normally be at the head table. Baron Phoenicus's empty spot appeared like a void.
"Despite the loss of my crown and the seal ring," the queen began, "I do have happy tidings. We were able to find Calypso and return her trident. She and Portunus have fought, and by all accounts, if you judged by the return of our normal moon at sea, She won."
The room was momentarily filled with applause and cheers until the queen raised her hand to silence everyone. "Politicka is still in a perilous state. Out of my brief stay there, I gathered that the northern and southern islands are closer to civil war than we originally thought. We will not take action until we assess what Calypso's return may do to the country's state of affairs."
The barons nodded.
By the end of her report, black spots had appeared in Em's eyes. The figures of the thirteen men appeared slightly blurred in their chairs. She blinked rapidly until her vision cleared and refocused. In a brisk voice, she demanded, "Now, will someone explain how and why my appointed King Regent has gone to hunt a dragon currently turning my country into ashes?"
The men glanced at each other before Baron Odina spoke. "Six months ago, I received word that the entire village of Linecorn was destroyed by the dragon. No one quite knows how it managed to come through the Feo Mountains and into Tarym undetected, but once it made its presence known, the beast moved down to Cola province."
"What happened to the residents of the camps?" the queen of Tarym demanded.
"They fled into my lands," said Baron Odina wryly. "We've moved them, along with many other communities in the western countryside, to the east and south. 'Twas Baron Phoenicus's orders to include the half-Draconian refugees, Your Highness."
"Where is the dragon now?"
"The last report from Baron Phoenicus came two weeks ago," explained Baron Odina. "Their last bout with the dragon happened in Hesper. It appears to be moving toward Baron Arlov's province—for new ground to burn, no doubt," Leo added with a dark note. "Baron Phoenicus and a specialized unit trained especially to hunt down the dragon left nearly four months ago," he informed the queen.
Her eyebrows immediately lowered, and her brow furrowed. "Four months?" she repeated. "Four months, and no results? Have you not considered sending reinforcements?"
Lord Wardmin spoke up in his gravelly voice. "We have raised the possibility with Baron Phoenicus in our last letter, but his return missive specifically stated at the end of his report that we would only send in reinforcements when the huntsmen have completely failed to kill the dragon."
The queen shook her head. Anger bubbled in her gut. "No, he is being foolish," she said. "A man who would rather protect his pride and die with it intact than lose face. We will send reinforcements as soon as possible."
"My Queen," said Baron Odina. "If his dying wish would be to keep his pride intact, then let us honor it. I, for one, have confidence in his success. You have also fought with him. You believe so as well."
Em did. Deep down, beneath her worry and anger, she believed in what Demitri was doing. Her shoulders sagged, and the men breathed a sigh of relief.
The queen turned to Baron Phillas. He was the Minister of the Exchequer, who oversaw every economic and financial matter in the kingdom. His experience had been so valuable to Annalyn during her ill-fated reign, as well as his protection of the Delta Point province, that she could not risk losing him.
"Baron Phillas," said Emelia, the current queen of Tarym. "We"—she made sure to use the royal address—"have several debts to pay. Oh Henry is to have a new Long Tom for the one he lost, and Dread Pirate Robin is to have a new ship for the one he lost." The queen braced herself as the councilmen immediately objected to her announcement.
"The Treasury is depleted as it is!" said Baron Arlov.
"—won't see last of our monies go to pirates!" shouted Baron Wardmin.
"Your Majesty, perhaps you can offer a better—?"
"Would you rather have me not return?" the queen thundered, abandoning all royal pretenses. When her barons fell silent, she continued. "That situation was the prospect I stared at in Pirata. Dread Robin lost his ship in our pursuit for Calypso and Her trident. Oh Henry's services were bought for a pittance compared to what would have been the price had I not found passage back to Tarym! I repay those who are loyal, gentlemen. And who better to keep loyal than paying back a gentleman of fortune?"
The queen swept her dark brown eyes across the tables. Her head pounded like a war drum. Yet triumph settled into her body at the sight of the men, one after the other, bowing their heads in sullen acquiescence.
"Now, I know many other pressing issues must be dealt with, but they can wait until I've eaten something," said the queen. "This meeting is adjourned."
When Em stepped outside, Louise and several ladies-in-waiting stood in the corridor. In contrast to the beautiful and brightly-colored dresses that the other noblewomen wore, the crooked-nosed woman's drab sailing clothes were an eyesore.
"Lady Louise, I'm frankly surprised neither your mother nor your sisters tried to dress you properly as soon as you stepped foot into the castle," said the queen as she swept down the corridor. Her ladies followed behind.
Louise bowed her head. "My apologies, My Queen. I had not the time after I situated the pirates, as you requested."
Em waved her hand to excuse Louise. Their small conversation was only a formality. The camaraderie they'd shared on the high seas vanished like fog when they stepped onto land. The previous roles they'd placed aside were reinstated.
The queen led her ladies straight to her chambers. The soldiers in the guardroom needed a double take before they straightened to attention when she swept inside. Michael, Daryl, and Blika sat on one of the benches lined up against the walls. Small tables had been placed in front of them with food that Louise had ordered on top. The three males started to stand at the sight of Em, but she waved her hand before walking deeper into her chambers.
In the antechamber, the opulent room that served as the last defense mechanism to Em's bedroom, Oh Henry and Roger stood waiting for her. She waved back her women into the previous room in order to be alone with the two pirate captains and the soldiers stationed around the room.
"Our bargain is set," said the queen. "The Treasury will pay for your Long Tom"—Em looked at Oh Henry before turning to Roger—"and your ship." A smile flickered across her lips when Oh Henry sighed in relief and Roger nodded. "You and your crew are guaranteed free lodgings in Peralta. The innkeepers will very gladly give up the rooms if only to claim they are the purveyors of the crown."
"No," said Roger curtly. "I shall stay on the ship."
Oh Henry shook his head at the much taller and thinner pirate captain. "You're mad to pass up Her Majesty's hospitality." He turned to Em and gave her a sweeping bow. "I shall take up your offer, Your Highness."
"Oh Henry, how many times must I repeat myself? You may call me by my name." Em smiled, but her eyes stayed mute as she looked at Roger. He stared back with a blank expression on his pale face. "Then you may take your leave, captains," said the queen. "Once I send word to you that every monetary transaction is settled, you may approach my head general, Baron Odina, and direct him to what you need."
Oh Henry bowed once more. Roger merely jerked his head forward before both he and Oh Henry walked past Em toward the doorway behind her. She raised a hand and pressed it against her forehead. The skin was hot. The pounding inside her head felt like hammers.
Suddenly, a piercing pain seared into Em's head, like a hot knife driven into it. She cried out and collapsed onto the ground.
Oh Henry and Roger spun around at the same time the guards in the room erupted in shouts. Oh Henry immediately dove for Em and pulled her unconscious body into his arms. Roger looked up and pointed to the nearest soldier approaching.
"Get her doctor," Dread Robin ordered.
"What do I do with her?" Oh Henry shouted as the soldier that Roger pointed to ran out of the antechamber. The remaining guards closed in on Oh Henry and the queen. With the disappearance of the guardsman came the appearance of the queen's attendants, Michael, Daryl, Blika, and the queen's lieutenant leading more soldiers. The antechamber quickly became crowded and cacophonous from the sounds of soldiers yelling and women screaming.
Daryl emerged from the chaos and ran to Oh Henry's side. He bent down and placed his fingers against Em's neck. "She's feverish!" he declared, and for a moment, the room silenced. "We need water and a towel, now! Let's get her into the bedroom!"
Louise stepped forward. She pointed to a blond woman standing beside the lieutenant. "Lady Katherine, retrieve a pan of water. Bring Lady Rhea with you for towels." Louise returned her attention to Oh Henry and Daryl. Oh Henry stood with Em dangling in his arms. Louise led them to the other side of the room where the door opened into Em's private bedroom.
"Make way! Make way!" The soldier whom Roger sent returned with the royal physician, a lanky man with receding silver hair, on his heels.
When the pair disappeared into the bedchamber, everyone heard the soldier attempting to evict Daryl, but he shouted, "I'm staying, and that's final! I've been attending to Her Majesty!"
"Clyde, he'll assist me," said the physician.
"Michael, Blika." At Roger's call, the two appeared by his side. "Let's escape this circus." The three departed for the guardroom, where many of the soldiers had already filtered into. At the same time they arrived, the thirteen council members, headed by Baron Odina, strode through the double doors. Each man wore an expression crumpled with worry. None of them noticed the three pirates as they hurried deeper into the queen's chambers.
As Blika and Michael retook seats on one of the benches against the wall, Oh Henry emerged red-faced into the guardroom.
"Such madness!" he exclaimed. Spying the half-full goblet on Daryl's little table, the portly pirate captain took the cup and downed its contents. "I'll admit, the little queen looked terrible. She better not die and leave us out of our bargain."
"Oh Henry, put aside greed for a moment," said Michael angrily.
The portly pirate shrugged. "Sorry, lad, but I'm in the business of gold, not charity."
"Then you can stay," said Roger. "I cannot stand to be here any longer." He turned sharply on his heel and left through the doors.
"What happened to her?" asked Michael.
"She fell," Oh Henry said simply. "Fainted. When I got a hold of her, she was burning up with a fever."
Oh Henry, Michael, and Blika's heads swiveled to the door that led deeper into the queen's chambers. They heard the muffled sounds of a commotion growing in volume from the other side. A rising tide of male shouts and female screams moved closer to the door. Slowly, they heard one voice distinguish itself from the rest, demanding, "Out of my way! Move!" Then the door burst open, and the din it had barricaded spilled into the guardroom.
Michael jumped to his feet as a scarlet-faced Baron Odina charged through the door.
"Where is he?" he shouted, his dark eyes searching the room. "Where is that son of a dragon's whore?" When his eyes fell on Michael and Oh Henry, the enraged King Regent marched up to them. His hands flew and he grabbed onto the front of Oh Henry's shirt. "Where is Dread Robin?"
"He's gone," said Michael as Oh Henry yelled and struggled in Baron Odina's grip. "Will Em be alright?"
"Of course not!" Leo shouted. "She is with child!"
The pronouncement carried such a weight that even the soldiers stationed around the guardroom moved with horror at the news. Oh Henry froze.
"W-With child?" Michael stammered. His mind raced. They all knew who the child belonged to. Michael spun around and leaped toward the double doors. Baron Odina yelled for him, but Michael's ears were already beyond the nobleman's vocal range. He sped through the castle's maze of hallways and stairs, dodging or shoving past the courtiers that crowded the corridors, waiting for news of the queen's health.
When Michael reached the main courtyard, he yelled for the stable boy. He waited impatiently as his horse was brought out. As soon as he took the reins, Michael leaped into the saddle and shot out of the gates.
A multitude of thoughts ran through his head as he flew down the road, but the one that grabbed the most attention was his need to find Roger. He saw Roger when the latter was reaching the outskirts of town. Michael called out, but the wind he rode past carried his words behind him. He goaded his horse to run faster, and slowly Roger grew larger. Michael shouted again, and Roger finally looked over his shoulder. He pulled onto his horse's reins, and his transport reared up on its hind legs before turning around to face the approaching Michael.
"Well, what is it?" Roger asked irritably as Michael drew nearer. "I assume by your being here that she is fine."
"More than that," Michael panted. "Roger, she is with child! Your child."
A long silence filled the remaining space between the two men. Finally, Roger shook his head and said in a brisk voice, "No. 'Tis not mine. I have no recollection of ever lying with that wench."
"Roger, just because you don't have the memory doesn't mean the child is not yours," said Michael. "The child will have Draconian blood because of you. He or she might have fangs or maybe scales, something that will confirm to everyone that the babe is yours."
"That child is an abomination," Roger hissed. He tossed his head and reined back his temper. In cooler tones, he said, "But one I don't have to deal with. I will be long gone by the time its ill-fated birth comes. It will be her burden to bear."
"The child is equally yours as much as it is Em's," Michael insisted. "You're the father despite your belief that Em and I are lovers."
Roger's nostrils flared. He knew where Michael learned that accusation from. Before he could say anything in his defense, Michael said, "Many years ago, you once threw out that same accusation to Em, but for another man. Cicero. You fell in love with Em, but you mistakenly believed she and Cicero were lovers. History is repeating itself, Roger. With or without your memories, you still love Em. Your heart knows it."
Roger's angry response was so visceral that both horses stamped away from each other nervously. "I harbor no such feelings for that wretched woman! I say it is a blessing that I don't remember someone so weak and helpless! She is an annoyance I can't wait to get rid of! I despise her!"
"She is not always helpless," Michael retorted. "She saved you from Black Death, did she not? She even killed him with her own hands. You cannot say she is w—Roger!" Michael's call was wiped out when Roger's horse reared up on its hind legs with a great cry. Its rider turned it toward the sea. Leaving a huge cloud of dust in his wake, Roger sped into the town. Michael helplessly watched him go.
I will be on hiatus until December. I hope to have at least one chapter during Thanksgiving (in late November), but we'll see. The first week of school already kicked my ass with a LOT of readings _