The last thing Westley had said to me before he left was, "Fare well, Captain, and remember which side is starboard, and I hope we never see each other again."
It was, perhaps, a strange thing to say, but ours had never been a relationship lacking strangeness. But it made sense when I heard the rumors: that Humperdinck had (depending on the source) lost his mind, or lost his health, or died by his own hand. or run away, or joined the circus, but in any case was generally not suited to the crown; and that Buttercup had been appointed successor, by virtue of (depending on the source) the love of the king and queen, the love of the general population, the abridged marriage to the Crown Prince, or an army of Finnish reindeer-mounted gnomes.
Some sources, obviously, were more reliable than others. But the basic situation, as far as I could tell, was that Buttercup ruled with a loving hand, and Westley was her faithful shadow, and all was well with Florin. And the ruling couple did not need a pirate, even a Dread Pirate, as an official contact.
Which is why I was surprised to receive a letter summoning me to them.
Palace security turned out to be more attentive than I expected; I was only halfway through sneaking in when a large hand descended on my shoulder.
"It's not what you think," I said automatically, and then turned and looked up, and then up a bit more. "Oh. Perhaps it is."
"You were sneaking in to the palace," Fezzik said with a frown. He didn't seem to recognize me. The mask I was wearing probably didn't help.
"I'm here by request of the king and queen," I said carefully. What I didn't say was: Hi, Fezzik. Long time no see. Please don't execute me on sight.
I didn't need to worry, apparently, because after a moment a gigantic grin split his face. "Then keeping you out would be..." He paused, searching for the right word. "Mean."
And abruptly, I was enveloped in a hug. And by enveloped, I mean completely; from any outside perspective I'm sure I disappeared into his embrace. "Erk," I said. "Kinda can't breathe--"
"Oh, sorry," he said, and released me, changing his welcome instead to a clap on the shoulder that staggered me. "Hullo, Inigo."
"How did you find me, anyway?" I asked. "I am particularly good at sneaking."
"You are," he agreed solemnly. "But I am very good at finding you."
He led me into the palace through a route that was direct enough to make me uneasy; but then again, I was still in a sneaking mindset. People in general tended to get suspicious when they see a masked man -- I wear a navy mask, since Westley will forever be the man in black as far as I am concerned, and no one will ever replace that, but it is still a mask, and still identifies me as Someone Who Is Up To No Good -- but no one questions the royal chief of security. Especially when it's Fezzik.
And then I was in the throne room, which was empty. "They do not spend much time here," Fezzik explained, "except when they have to."
It made sense to me.
So he disappeared to find them, and I waited, wandering around the room to admire the tapestries (they were, after all, fine tapestries) and statues.
"You're not supposed to touch those," said a voice from behind me.
I whirled, one hand going to my sword out of habit, though I did not draw it. Staring at me was a cherubic boy, about four years of age, with fine blonde hair and wide sea-blue eyes.
"At least," he continued, "I'm not supposed to touch them, and if I can't, then neither can you. Who are you?"
It was hard to find fault with his reasoning; I smiled. "I am the Dread Pirate Roberts," I said, wondering whether he would be more in awe (as pirates were, generally speaking, a point of interest) or afraid (as pirates were also, generally speaking, not very nice people).
As it turned out, neither. His eyes narrowed, and he said "Nuh-uh you ain't. I know all about the Dread Pirate Roberts. He's ten feet tall, and has four arms, and tentacles all over, and he breathes fire like a dragon, and he can fly, and he's invisible, except when he isn't, and he wears black." That having been said all in a rush, the boy scowled at me. "You aren't any of those things."
...He did have me there.
"So." He folded his arms across his chest. "Who are you?"
Westley's familiar voice heralded his presence, and answered for me by way of greeting: "Inigo, my dear friend." His embrace was rather less overwhelming than Fezzik's had been.
To the boy, Westley said, "You aren't bothering our guest, are you?" in a tone of voice that was as much warning as question.
"He's fine," I said, at the same time as the boy said, with a child's impatience, "Of course not, Daddy."
"Good." Westley drew him close and kissed the top of his head (I took advantage of the moment to mouth 'daddy?' at him, and he gave me an unrepentant grin) before shooing him off.
"Your son?" I said, when the child was gone. Westley nodded. "He has your eyes. And," with a suppressed smile, "Buttercup's intelligence."
"I'm not sure whether to be insulted by that," he said, and I smiled at him, but the smile faded quickly.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I hadn't known you had children," I said softly, "let alone one that old. Has it truly been that long?"
He smiled, wry and a touch wistful. "Children have a way of changing time," he said. "They make it go faster and slower all at once."
It didn't give me an excuse, as I hadn't been around children, but I let it slide. "So, then. You wanted me for something?"
"Ah. Yes." He sat upright, face solemn, more a prince than a casual friend. "We seem to have a problem."
Westley's face was completely impassive. "The Dread Pirate Roberts has been attacking Florin vessels."
My first reaction was an outraged "Inconceivable!", which made me think of Vizzini, and his tendency to overuse that word. I rephrased it to, "That is, I have not heard of such things."
He relaxed, almost imperceptibly. "I know." I almost felt resentment that he had even considered that I would be responsible, given our agreement, but that melted in face of an awareness of what his news meant.
There was another Dread Pirate Roberts out there.
Reluctantly, I pointed out, "Neither the name nor the concept is, technically speaking, ours."
"No," Westley said. "But true Dread Pirates Roberts know better than to un-retire, as that would threaten the secret that all of us hold. And," he said sourly, "he is attacking Florin vessels."
We had made an agreement, unofficial but as binding as our friendship: I would not attack Florin vessels, and Florin's naval forces would leave me in peace. Both, of course, purely by coincidence, as Dread Pirates were piratical and official navies were anti-pirate, but it worked out well for both of us.
"He is a pirate," I pointed out, reasonably enough, but I knew what Westley's response would be. Attacking Florin vessels was just salt on the wound; the true injury was that someone had stolen an identity that we had rightfully proprieted.
Westley's eyes glittered. "Not the right one."
"So how do we find him?" My mind raced with possibilities. We could go out in a ship flying Florin colors-- but that wouldn't guarantee an attack. We could ask if anyone had seen him around-- but of course he didn't leave survivors, and besides, we'd probably run into people who had seen us. We could--
"I have a plan," he said.
Of course he did.
"It involves miracles," he said, and grinned at me.
The small room was filled with about twenty clocks, all set to different times and different speeds; the noise was enough to make anyone crazy. "He's branched out," Westley yelled to me as explanation.
"Into what, insanity?"
"I'm not deaf, you know," Max shouted. "Or insane. Or in need of a royal commission. And who's he?" he added, squinting at me without recognition.
Westley just looked amused. "He is the man who once hired you to bring me back to life."
"Also, he is the Dread Pirate Roberts."
"Oh," Max said, and grimaced and shrugged. I raised one eyebrow in Westley's direction; clearly the old man wasn't actually listening. But he just shrugged back.
"Please," I said, vaguely remembering it working the last time, "we need your help."
He harrumphed suspiciously. "What, another resurrection pill? I'm fresh out of chocolate coating, I'll warn you, but I do have some nice strawberry flavor..."
"Max!" Westley put his arm around Max's shoulders and tugged him in close. "We need to find somebody."
"Oh, is that all. No problem." He bustled creakily over to a cupboard that was overflowing with papers, which he rummaged through, muttering to himself all the while, and then came back empty-handed. "All right. Yes. Okay. I'll need this person's name, last known address, any identifying information...."
"We're looking for the Dread Pirate Roberts," Westley said brightly.
Max went very very still, and then looked at me, and then stared up at Westley. "I thought you said he--"
"He is," Westley said, at the same time as I said, "I am," and both of our expressions said, so he had been listening.
"Fine. He's right next to you. Case closed, now go away. Your Highness."
"It's the other one we need to find."
"I didn't know there was more than one."
"Neither did we," Westley lied cheerfully. "But there's a fake Roberts out there, and we need to find him. What can you give us that will help?"
Max muttered to himself for a while, and then sighed. "You want to find this guy?"
"More than anything in the world?"
"Yes," I said. It was sort of a stretch, but then again, my reputation was at stake. Well, the Dread Pirate Roberts' reputation, anyway.
"I have just the thing," he said, and disappeared.
"So," Buttercup said to us (or, rather, to Westley, with a smile in my direction) when we returned to the palace. "Any luck?"
I gave Westley a very eloquent look, that in theory communicated /is she aware of what's going on, and the whole thing with the Roberts identity, and is it safe to talk to her, and by the way she is still a very beautiful woman/. In practice, I probably just looked more confused than anything.
"Yes, actually," he said, and tossed her the item Max had eventually dug up for us.
She frowned down at it. "A non-working compass?"
"Oh, it works. It points to whatever you want the most. I can't use it myself, because it will point unfailingly to you, but Inigo here--" He cut a pointed look in my direction, which told me very little. "-- has every reason to want to find the fake Dread Pirate."
Buttercup handed the compass to me, head tilted to one side, considering. "That's ridiculous," she said finally, but she was smiling. "But if you think it will work..."
"It will," Westley promised her.
"...then I'm coming along."
Westley shook his head. "This is pirate business, darling."
"What, and women can't be pirates?" Her eyes narrowed dangerously.
"You would make a lovely pirate," Westley assured her, "but think of the country. We can't have both the King and the Queen on a risky and not-very-well-disguised pirate-related outing."
"Darling," Buttercup said, and the edge hadn't left her voice. "That's what ministers are for."
"Think of the children, then, with their parents both gone -- what if something should happen? Suppose the ship sinks; do you truly want to leave them orphaned?"
"Hmm," Buttercup murmured, "I suppose you're right."
"I almost always am."
"Then it's settled." She looked satisfied. "All four of us will go."
"--I-- what?" Westley said, and Buttercup smiled serenely, and I couldn't help laughing.
It didn't end up being all of us, of course, although I did spend a while entertaining images of Buttercup dressed up as a pirate. But in the end it was just me, with the bizarre little compass that Max had dug up for us, and Westley, and the open sea.
"I miss this," he commented at one point, leaning on the ship's railing and gazing out over mostly quiet waters.
"What, being a pirate?"
He ducked his head and flashed a smile. "Not that so much as having something to be a pirate for." I shook my head in bemusement, and he elaborated: "All the time I spent as Dread Pirate Roberts, I had one goal only: to win Buttercup back. The rest of it, oh, it had its moments, but it was all about Buttercup. And now that I ... well, you know," he said, and I did.
I joined him at the railing, and lowered my voice, even though the only possible eavesdroppers were eels. "I spent almost all of my life in pursuit of a single goal. When that was complete, a very wise man told me what to do."
"Yes?" Westley asked obediently, suppressing a smile. "And what was that?"
"Jump out of a window." I blinked, looked down at the compass in my hands, and grinned. "You didn't make up this whole other Dread Pirate Roberts just to have something to do, did you?"
"Good, because I think we're about to have company."
He turned and saw the pirate ship approaching, and under the black mask, his face lit up with anticipation.
"Let them come," he said fiercely. "They will see what a true Dread Pirate Roberts is made of."
After a moment, I said, "Can either of us be considered a true Dread Pirate Roberts?"
"Shut up," he said, which I took to mean yes.