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Puppets and Bilge Rats

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They kept the pirate in the dungeon, naturally.  The Queen had paid a hefty magical price to keep the bastard alive for questioning after the Swan woman and her offspring had gone.  The deckhand had known nothing of use, however.  Nearly two weeks of questioning had yielded nothing of substance.  Snow was furious over the waste of powerful magic, and it had cost her the life of her most valuable guard.  Even at the best of times, Charming wasn’t much in her favor, and now he found himself completely cut off.  He spent much of his newfound free time training the less experienced  guards or riding his horses aimlessly through the countryside.  When he wasn’t doing that, he either roamed the castle in frustration or simply sat idle and apathetic in his chambers.

Growing weary of this treatment day in and day out, and with Snow showing no interest in his presence, he made his way to the dungeons for a simple change of scenery.  The guards on duty at the entrance there held little respect for him, having been picked by Snow herself and well-kept.  But they usually did as he bade anyway for precisely that reason.  He was her right-hand man, after all.

“Purpose of your visit, sir?” one inquired mechanically.

Charming crossed his arms and glared. “I don’t answer to you.”

“Of course, sir.  All the same, sir, what is the purpose of your visit?” the other responded just as blandly.

With an irritated huff, he listed off whatever plausible reasons came to mind. “To check the conditions of the dungeons, discover whether Vera has had her child, question the pirate, and check in on our resident princess.”  He raised his eyebrows in challenge.

The guards exchanged a look, and Charming knew they would be informing Snow about his visit to the princess, ‘checking in on’ being the accepted term for ‘having one’s way with’ a prisoner.  “Very good, sir,” they said in unison and stepped aside.

Charming had no intention of having his way with anyone, but hoped it might inspire Snow to summon him soon.  And now that he’d given the guards a list, he thought he might as well follow through with the rest of it.  There was nothing better to occupy his time, presently.

The descent into the dungeon was a long and fragrant one.  Snow had ordered heavily scented flowers and oils to be set along the staircase in an effort to keep offending odors from wafting into the main castle.  Charming just found the resulting mix nauseating.  Thankfully, the perfuming attempt stopped at the last stair.  He wasn’t sure what the problem was, really.  As dungeons went, his was practically luxurious.  Every occupied cell contained a chamber pot and basin of water which were cleaned out daily, a bed of sheets and hay replenished by the week, and many cells were quite spacious for a single person.  Snow might turn up her nose at the very thought of visiting the dungeons, but Charming took some pride in them.  Truth be told, he was fairly certain Snow would disapprove of them on the grounds that it was ‘too good’ for her prisoners.  She never visited in person though, so her opinion be damned.  What set prisoners apart from each other was food and medical attention.  They could be kept in the cleanest cell imaginable, but it wouldn’t make them any happier if they starved or bled to death.  These decisions were largely his own to make.

As he came at last to the pregnant woman’s cell, he called out “Any baby in there yet?”

A small voice answered him quietly, “No, sir,” a pause and a pant, “but soon, sir, I think.”

He looked up from his hands, which he had been studying instead of looking through the small window in the wooden door. “Oh?”

She nodded from where she stood, supporting herself with one arm against the wall and the other under her sizable belly. “Yes, sir.”

She was clearly in labor.  “Fine,” he said casually. “I’ll send for a midwife.”

He saw her expression visibly clear as he turned to walk away. “Thank you, sir!”

He had never mentioned that she would be receiving any assistance in childbirth, and she wouldn’t have if it had begun without his knowledge.  But he wouldn’t knowingly leave a woman, prisoner or otherwise, to deal with it on their own.

Several minutes later, he came to the door of the princess Snow was holding for ransom.  He opened the locked window and peered inside.  She was gazing upward to where he knew a large spider had made its web.

“Princess,” he started, but she didn’t turn.  “Princess Iris.”

“Yes?” She still wouldn’t turn to face him, leaving him to stare at her back.  Her long brown hair hung in a loosely tied tail, knotted and ungroomed.  Her cell contained an actual cot and a small bundle of plain but clean clothing, which she had been refusing to accept over her own grimy but high-quality underthings.

He rolled his eyes, not willing to play at getting her attention.  “The guards have been told I’ve checked in on you.  It would be in your best interest to go corroborate.  Agreed?”  It wasn’t likely that she’d disagree, but it would certainly hurt his reputation if she did.  Not to mention make him an object of ridicule in Snow’s eyes.  But she knew the routine, and was generally willing to play her part.

“Yes, of course.” She deigned to look at him, finally.  There were dried tear tracks down her dirty cheeks, but her expression was merely curious. “Details?”

He thought a moment, wondering what was most believable.  “Hmm, Your mouth.”  He pointed to the far wall. “Over there.”

She nodded and lowered the leather strap in her hair, pulling loose a few strands. “Sufficient?” she asked, arms back at her sides.

He looked her over.  There wasn’t really any other way to ‘prove’ the incident, though the tears were a convenient addition.  “Don’t wash your face.”

She brought her fingers to her cheek, seemingly forgetting she had cried, then lowered them again and nodded.  As he made to close the window, she suddenly called out, “David, wait!”

He did, cringing inwardly at the use of his proper name. “What is it?”

She sat stiffly on the edge of the cot.  “Will she release me?”

He shrugged, but said, “It depends on your parents at this point.  They need to decide whether they value their daughter more than an uninhabited island.  Once they give up the island, you’re free to go.  If they don’t, well…” He held up his hands to indicate he had no say in the matter.  She looked at the ground as he closed the window on her.  He had no interest in politics.

At last, after another, shorter flight of steps downward, he came to the location of his final chore.  The cells down here were smaller, generally darker, had bars instead of walls on three sides, and held a lingering damp.  He avoided it when he could, as it left him with a chill for hours after any extended time there.

The pirate’s cell was as small and musty as one might expect for the Queen’s least favorite prisoner, and someone had removed the basin of water and sheet from the cell.  Charming’s eye twitched in annoyance, but he ignored it for the moment.  The prisoner himself sat on the scattered hay of his destroyed bed, one ankle chained to the back wall, hunched over and staring at his bare, filthy feet.

“Jones,” Charming said sharply, startling the man upright.  He laughed at that, but it was a hollow sound.  Snow’s interrogation of the pirate had been quite a physical one, and it was clear that no care had been provided after.  He displayed a barely-fading blackened eye and bruised gash at his cheekbone.  Dried blood crusted at his hairline, flaking down onto his forehead.  Any other marks were hidden by the ridiculous leather clothing he still wore.  Charming couldn’t help but think that was a punishment in itself.  Nearly a fortnight without changing out of the same bloody, soiled leather.  The man had to be crawling out of his skin.  Snow knew what she was doing.  “Stand up,” he ordered.

Jones pushed himself to his feet shakily, not putting weight on the chained leg.  Standing, Charming could see a ring of raw skin around the top of the foot and noticed for the first time that the hook which stood in for the man’s hand had been removed.  It made sense, he supposed, though he found the sight strange.  Without the hook, he looked even less imposing than he had as a bumbling deckhand.

“Jones,” he began again. “The Queen is very unhappy with you.”

“So I’d gathered.” He didn’t raise his eyes, but there was a hint of spite in his raspy, underused voice.  Charming didn’t like it.

“Do you know why?”

“I know nothing.” He said too quickly, as if reciting, bitterness in his tone.

Charming nodded. “And you are nothing.  She tried to ransom you and salvage something from this mess.  Did you know?  Nobody wanted you.”  He watched the pirate’s face for a reaction and was rewarded with a fleeting expression of sadness, but it was mastered quickly.  “Was it worth it?” he prodded, “helping those two escape?  That insane Swan woman and her brat?  What did it get you in the end?”  When no answer was forthcoming, Charming stepped up to the bars of the cell, anger beginning to rise in his chest for this useless man who had caused him so much trouble. “Do you know what it got me?”  Slamming his hand into the metal, he suddenly shouted, “nothing!” as the bars rattled.  “Nothing!” he repeated as he found his resentment at Snow’s cold shoulder flowing out at a new target.  “Less than nothing.”  His tone turned menacing as he continued, “It’s your fault any of this is happening, pirate.  If you hadn’t stupidly run off to help the madwoman in the tower, none of this would be happening.”

Jones looked him in the face at last as Charming drew out the heavy keys from a leather pouch at his waist, eyes widening in growing fear, earlier hint of defiance gone.  As the cell door loudly scraped open, Jones’ hand raised in a placating gesture, his other arm instinctively across his midsection.  “Whoa, mate, there’s no need for – “

Mate!?” shouted Charming, moving into the other man’s space in less than two strides.  “Mate!?” he spat and shoved the pirate hard in the chest, sending him back into the wall with a thud.  “Fine choice of words there, ‘mate’,” he repeated angrily.  “You go and free the woman, help her escape when we catch you, don’t even have the decency to DIE properly, sentence ME to being even lower in Snow’s eyes, and you think ‘mate’ is going to help you?”  Charming sent his fist hard into Jones’ gut and watched him slide down the wall, breathless.

“S-sorry!” he gasped, hunched over. “I’m sorry!” He raised his hand defensively, cowering.

Charming stepped back and took several deep breaths, bringing himself under control.  He hadn’t expected his anger to burst out like this.  It was rare that he allowed himself to be swept up by an emotion or act out on a violent whim.  It was actually one of Snow’s issues with him.  Despite Snow removing his heart, he was never as bloodthirsty as his brother had been.  But at least she had given him power.  She kept him around because he was a mirror of James, at least physically.  She would never love him, but he could settle for tolerance.  Now, because of this filthy, cowardly pirate, he didn’t even have that.  She held him responsible for the price paid to bring Jones back, as he had struck the fatal blow.  He took another step back, mentally collecting himself. He regretted having let himself rage, even if reaching such an emotional edge had been something of a thrill.  It was one of the few emotions he could manage to properly feel anymore.

“Did she do it?”

The quiet voice almost didn’t register, and he refocused. “What?”

“Emma.  Did she do it?  What she was trying to do?” The voice was hesitant but hopeful.

“Did she…” Charming gaped down at him incredulously.  “No, she didn’t do what she…are you insane?  Did you even speak to the woman?  She was completely deranged!  Did she actually convince you that fairy tale was true!?  How stupid are you?” He stared down at the man, genuinely wondering if he was serious.  “Does this look like another land to you?  Does this strike you as being ‘better’?”  He could feel his control slipping again.  “Do you know what she told us?” Jones didn’t answer.  He had been there.  Of course he knew.  Charming recounted it anyway.  “She told us that she was the daughter of Snow and myself.  That she was a child of True Love.”  He barked out a humorless laugh.  “Do I look old enough to be that woman’s father?”  The pirate just stared.  “Do I look old enough to be that boy’s grandfather?”  He paced the small cell in agitation.  “Do you think Snow would ever consider having a child by me?  An insufficient copy of my brother?”

“I…”  Jones trailed off, watching Charming fearfully.

“No, Jones,” he said, forcing himself to stop pacing and face the crumpled man.  “No,” he repeated, again pressing down the simmering anger in his chest, now tainted with shame.  He realized as he reined himself in that he had unwittingly revealed too much of himself.  Most knew he was Snow’s right-hand man, Captain of the guard and occasional bedfellow of the queen.  Almost nobody knew the details of their relationship, and nobody knew how he felt about it.  Except this bilge rat.  “She and her pathetic son were killed just hours after I killed you.”  He paused a moment and glared.  “The first time.”

It gave Charming a strange sense of triumph to see the pirate’s bloodshot blue eyes begin to well up as he muttered, “Oh.”

“So you see, pirate,” he said quietly as he lowered himself to eye-level, “This is all there is for you now.  No ‘other’ life.  No mysterious madwoman improving your circumstances.  Just this cell, in this dungeon, and me.”

The pirate made no reply, but turned his face away, eyes tightly shut.

Charming stood and watched the wreck of a man for a moment, and then made his way out of the cell, locking it behind him.  As he ascended the short flight of stairs again, he heard a muffled sob from below and smiled to himself.  Good.  Someone ought to share his misery.

Other prisoners tried to catch his attention on his way out, but he wasn’t interested.  The pregnant woman was moaning in her cell as he walked by, but  he was still too full of anger and shame to offer any words of encouragement.

He didn’t register anything but the flash of a rat’s tail on his way back up the perfumed stairwell.  Once at the doorway, he shoved the keys back into their pouch.

“Everything to your liking, sir?” said a guard as he passed, bringing him up short.

“What?”

“Was everything as expected, sir? Up to your standards?”

He rounded on the guard, who looked slightly taken aback.  “No, Lawrence,” he bit out.  “No, it wasn’t.  The pot in the first corridor corner cell needs emptying.  Vera is in need of a midwife.  There are rats in the stairwell.  And,” he added the last reluctantly, “the pirate is to be given a sheet for his hay and his water basin back.  We have a reputation to uphold.”  He turned to walk away again but added, fighting the disgust in his throat, “And bring him food.  We have more questions.”

“Yes, sir,” said the guards with more deference than usual as he strode away.

Charming summoned the midwife himself, not trusting the guards to do so, before retiring to his chambers and sprawling onto the crimson bedding.  He should not have gone to see the pirate.  All he had accomplished was to expose his own insecurity and hurt his hand.  The damned man had too many buttons.  His best course of action, he decided, was to ignore that particular thorn in his side and wait for a summons from Snow.  Sooner or later, she was bound to come around.