“Don’t worry, I’ll be on and back off before they have any idea what’s hit them.”
Those had been the last words Malik Zampieri had told his father before stepping aboard a sizable warship the day before. At the time, the warship was as beautiful a boat as Malik had ever seen — sails dyed the same color as a spring dawn atop a mast in brightly polished light wood, trimmed in gold paint that only showed the strain of sea and salt water where the touch-up artists couldn’t reach their brushes at port. He had smiled the whole day long, even as they tailed their target, to the great concern of several crewmen on board. Malik was just pleased that his sea legs were no where near as unsteady as his father had warned him they would be.
Malik had also used those same words he had given to the captain of said warship twenty minutes ago, before disembarking for his task on their target.
He had crossed through a canon hole to the side of the pirate ship, using to his advantage the rungs that were nailed into the ship’s side for easy access and cleaning. He made it past the initial fighting, over the strangely warm deck, and down into the galley without trouble. There, he set the carved rune that promised to track the ship whenever it entered Ampany’s ever-shrinking borders, and at least keep the old scourge off of their ports. Malik was in sight of the deck again before fate tossed his careless words back into his face.
Some thick wood hit Malik square in the face, and he fell back clutching his forehead. Before his vision cleared, he felt his hands wrenched behind his back and covered with some kind of fabric that was wrapped tightly around his fingers.
“Captain!” a young, probably male, voice shouted right by Malik’s ear. “He put something on the back bench. Couldn’t tell what. Where d’you want him?”
Malik’s eyes blinked back into focus in time to see a pair of legs stop just in front of him. This close, he could see the simple black shoes fastened under elaborate spats made to look like many-silver-buckled black leather boots that went almost up to the knees. The cotton pants above them were almost covered by a bright blue tunic and a clean white sash that defined a feminine waist.
“What’s your name, intruder?”
Malik did not answer.
“Captain asked you a question!” the boy who had caught him hissed.
“Never mind, Fritz. Get him tied to the mast for me. I’d like to take a look at him in the open. Then tell Juni to get the sails vented. We’re making a quick break. I’ll be at the back for this.”
Malik tried to look up, but found his head shoved forward by the boy, and was dragged away almost on his knees back onto the open deck. Fritz handed him over to two much larger men and a wiry woman who was significantly stronger than Malik would have guessed, along with the captain’s orders. They strapped Malik’s waist to the mast and tied his wrists behind the great wooden pole, keeping his hands fully encased in fabric as they did so. When they pronounced him secure, the woman said “Don’t try anything now,” and one of the men pulled a chain to his left. A platform rose up under Malik’s feet. He stumbled to stay atop it, knowing it was more comfortable beneath his shoes than between his legs. As he rose above the crowd on the deck, he looked for any signs of skirmish or aid still aboard. There were none. The pirates below were busy either dropping royal-painted planks over the side of their ship, or else gawking up at him. All at once, the ship lurched forward, and Malik felt a sudden wind whip back his hair and clothes. He choked on salty air as it rushed into his face, making his eyes stream.
The Royal Warship Esplande was built to be quick and light. Her crew was well trained, and her captain a man who had seen more battles than he cared to admit. Hunting pirates who preferred the grander ships that sailed under green and lilac sails seemed a waste of Esplande’s abilities to him. But he had been ordered by the Commander of His Majesty the King’s Naval Forces (a very weary man who deserved an early retirement) to clear the waters. So Captain Brennan had the ship cleaned and re-painted, then turned her to the open seas once again. Commander Zampieri’s son had even come along, with some new-fashioned tracking device. All Captain Brennan and his crew had to do was keep the pirates still long enough to place the thing.
Captain Brennan realized a little too late that pirates did not play by the same rules as noblemen.
The sturdy little ship across the water pulled up it’s sails very suddenly, and began to turn away. On the stern stood a woman, short enough to have been a child, but that her boots were intricate and her tunic too formal. She hurled some small thing to the Esplande, where it clunked on the deck by Captain Brennan’s surprised feet. She then saluted him irreverently, and threw her hands towards the water.
It parted with her motions, and in glittering waves, rolled the two ships apart. For the first time in Brennan’s memory, his sea legs gave out and he had to clutch the guardrail for support. The woman opposite him had no such problem. She stood steady on her deck, waving her arms like she was in control of some immense oars that Brennan could not see. The pirate ship departed with a speed like Brennan had never seen, and before the Esplande, the lightest ship in His Majesty’s possession, had steadied, the pirates had all but vanished.
“Yes, Daniella?” Brennan answered, his voice only a little steadier than his legs.
“Was Ambassador Zampieri supposed to stay with the pirates?”
Captain Brennan got a last, horrified look at the departing pirate ship and desperately wondered if anything could catch them up. Then it was gone into the mists of distant water in the early winter.
“We must hope so,” he replied.
Malik had long lost track how much time had passed when the pirate ship finally started to slow down. He wanted badly to rub his stinging face and eyes, and though he probably could have wrenched his hands free, his platform was still unstable and high enough to make wiggling around a dangerous endeavor. It was only once the sails around him had been lowered again that he was able to look around.
There was only water visible in near any direction he looked.
His stomach was already dropping when the platform under his feet lurched, too. Malik almost lost his footing, and gave an involuntary shout as he was lowered back to the deck. The pirates were all gathered in a half-circle below him. The woman nearest him, standing assuredly in the front and center of the group, had her hands on her hips and a bright smile thrown crookedly over her face. He recognized her bright blue tunic and white sash from before. She whistled appreciatively as he came closer.
“Hold him three feet up there, Wes,” she called. “Let me take a look at that ass.”
Malik’s face went hot as the platform stopped again, with her face very near the level of his crotch. She took her time circling him, never once trying to meet his eyes, while the other pirates jeered her on.
“Fine clothes, intruder,” she called from behind him. “Much finer than a crewman’s would be. I’m going to ask your name again.”
Malik said nothing.
“Are you a mute, then? A great pity. We could use someone born rich like you to sing for us in the evenings. Do all the city boys have as fine voices as they say?”
“You are not worthy of my name,” Malik said, trying to twist around to see her again, as she had not reappeared from behind him. His voice was choked and hoarse from the salt air. The woman pinched his ass hard, then stepped back around to his front.
“Then I’ll have to give you a name we’re both worthy of,” she retorted. “One more chance, city boy.”
Malik did his best to sneer at her, though his throat went tight at the sight of her wicked smile.
“Very well,” she said. “Lads and ladies, we’ll be having a guest aboard for a short while. Usual rules apply. If you’ll be needing his help in anything, he’ll answer to “Pretty Boy”. Wes, would you and Juni strip him down and show him the captain quarters? Those clothes will trade for a few good meals for us all. Keep his hands tied for me now. We don’t know what they teach them in the cities these days.”
The platform Malik was standing on dropped the last three feet to the deck sharply enough to wind him. His captor turned back to him and continued in a lower voice.
“We won’t hurt you, Pretty Boy, so keep that lovely smile of yours,” she said. “Call for me if you get cold. I am Captain Eleanor of the Randolph Rebels. Welcome to the Ocean’s Peak.”
When the beleaguered Esplande returned to port in Kingston, there was a much larger greeting party than Captain Brennan had been expecting. At first, he had thought that some victory party was in order, or perhaps news of young Ambassador Zampieri’s final success in whatever mission he had been given.
This was not the case.
Weary, disgruntled Commander Nehemiah Zampieri’s first words were, “Where is my son?”
This alone would have been enough to make Brennan choke. But then he followed with, “Why did you set off our alarms?”
The wooden token was recovered and explained by the port guards. Nehemiah Zampieri had to hurry away.
The small round window in the captain’s quarters told Malik when the sun set, and showed him a clear night bedecked with more stars than he had ever seen. He looked at them shivering in nothing but his underwear, wondering if anyone was going to bring him food. He would have liked the choice to at least refuse it on principle.
His hands were still wrapped in what appeared to be a dishcloth, and a short length of chain bound his wrists to the bedpost. He had spent most of the past few hours curled up on that bed, trying to recover some part of his dignity. There was a desk with a lush chair that did not match at all and appeared quite old beside it. He couldn’t get close enough to see any of the half-finished missives on it, nor the incoming messages that zapped into place in a neat pile in a dip in the wood. Each came with a startling flash of color. Malik tried to remember every detail to report later. Whenever later happened to be.
He was definitely shivering by the time he was joined in the room. Captain Eleanor came in carrying only one plate of food, steaming warm in the cool evening, and cloth draped over her arm. Her sand-colored hair was, if anything, wilder than it had been on the deck. It sparkled like the moonlight had filled it with stars. Malik blinked away as she shot her crooked grin to him, his arms shaking with cold and his groin suddenly too warm.
“I’ve brought bribery,” she said, setting the plate down at her desk. “Ready to talk?”
“I can think of nothing I would like to say to you, pirate.”
“That’s ‘Captain’, if you like having a tongue.”
Malik paused, waiting to see if she was serious or not. She took a bite of steaming potato and ignored him.
“Captain,” he corrected.
“Better,” Captain Eleanor said. “Once again, your name is?”
“I think you told them I would respond to Pretty Boy.”
“Your parent-given name will get you off my ship faster,” she replied. “Unless you think they won’t pay a ransom?”
Malik did not answer. He knew that his father would pay. What he didn’t know was where the money would come from, and who they would have to return it to.
“What’s your color?” she asked after another minute.
“Don’t play daft. It makes you duller,” Eleanor said. “I can get it from your fingers if you won’t say. There isn’t any point in hiding.”
“Color from my fingers?” Malik asked again. “Why would anyone have color in their fingers. You don’t honestly believe nobles have blue blood, do you?”
Captain Eleanor raised one eyebrow skeptically as she looked Malik over. Her eyes paused a little too long on the one part of him that was still covered, and the corner of her mouth twitched. Malik pulled his knees up.
“Have you heard of my ship before?” she continued instead.
“Quickest steals in the sea. The Ocean’s Peak was an intentional target. Our merchants can’t take much more. Our lands are shrinking every year.”
“Then perhaps what is left of Ampany should not be so quick to turn away those who could be her allies,” Eleanor sniffed.
“You would have us ally with pirates rather than our neighbor countries? That is the definition of madness.”
“When you next see whoever sent you on this doomed little tracking mission — oh yes, I recognize what you tried to do, and I removed the unwelcome addition to my galley. When you next see them, remind them that the Randolphs were once the most respected family in the country, and if they paid more attention to their land borders, they would not have such a scourge in the seas.”
“It’s a little late for preventative measures,” Malik said.
“It is never too late to prevent more cases like me.”
“Like… you’re Ampanian?” gasped Malik. “How dare you attack the ships of your king! How dare you turn against your home!”
“I am border-born, and that border has long since moved. Do not hold me loyal to a country that saw fit to abandon me,” Captain Eleanor spat. “Here. I have eaten already.”
She dropped the plate in front of him, but did not untie his hands so he could eat. Malik squirmed around, trying to use his feet to get the plate close enough so he could put his face against the food. Dignity be damned.
“If you will not allow me your ransom, then what good are you to me?” Eleanor continued, her tone even again.
“No good at all, so why don’t you drop me at the next port?” Malik muttered.
“If that is truly the case, I might as well just toss you over the side. It is what I have been taught that nobles will do when faced with an inconvenience.” Malik dropped to his knees on the ground to get his face as close as possible to the food. The angle was all but impossible. “But, I do not believe in needless waste,” Eleanor said, picking up a fork. She stabbed a chunk of potato and held it out for Malik. “When all someone needs is a little help, I like to make bargains instead.”
Malik’s stomach overrode his brain, and he realized only after he swallowed that he had probably agreed to some sort of illegal bargain. He chanced a glance up to his captor. She graced him with another wicked smile.
“Hungry, Pretty Boy?”
He took another bite from her fork, then another. He ate a hunk of warm bread directly from her hand, waiting for the guilt to overcome his hunger. The plate was clean before it happened.
“So, you have been safely housed and fed. What can you do for me?”
“I don’t know,” Malik said quietly, trying not to look at her. Fuck, he had been eating at the level of her lap.
“Have you no talents at all?” Eleanor laughed. “Can you cook? Are you good at climbing up and down the sides of ships? Do you know how to work a basic rigging cable? How are you at laundry? Surely you must do more at your home than sit around for other people’s viewing pleasure.”
“Oh!” Malik exhaled in relief while also flushing darker. “I thought… I am a suitable cook, and relatively strong.”
“So Rini and Wes tell me. Junior wouldn’t know. Never met a man who can match him for strength. Know your way around a ship?”
“Yesterday was the first I’d been on one,” Malik admitted.
Captain Eleanor swore. Then she said, “Oh close your mouth, Pretty Boy. Don’t give me ideas.”
Malik snapped his jaw shut at once.
“I need to talk this over with the crew. I can see that you’re shivering, so I’ll help you get these pants on—”
“I’m not going to be any help without my hands!” Malik interrupted.
“Do you imagine for one second that I’m going to trust you, Pretty Boy?”
“Well no, not, I suppose,” Malik stammered. “But where exactly do you expect me to go?”
“Poof?” Eleanor suggested with a wave.
“You are the most superstitious seaman I’ve ever met.”
“You yourself admitted you’d never been on the water before yesterday. Don’t be so quick to judge,” Eleanor reprimanded. “I do not accuse you of the impossible. I know what I am capable of, and wish only to make sure that you are not capable of the same.”
“You are capable of…” he imitated her gesture, “poof?”
“Are Ampany’s nobles now so under Norstoan’s heel that they know nothing of magic?”
Malik felt the color drain from his face, and the little warmth he had left leave his torso. He tried to stumble back from her but was caught by the chain and fell back on his ass.
“I have already given my word that you will not come to harm,” Eleanor reminded him.
“I am naked and chained!”
“Are you hurt?”
Malik frowned, trying to decide where to draw the line of harm in this instance.
“And you will not come to harm under my watch. If you expect me to trust your words, you must allow me to have the same expectations. Now, would you like some pants?”
“May I put them on myself?” Malik countered.
Under her grin, Malik felt the heat rush into him once more, though his legs and shoulders shook all the worse.
“It is not size that gives me shame,” he replied through gritted teeth.
“Don’t tell me you have a kink for being tied down. There’s too many ropes on my ship to be having with that.”
“Hardly,” Malik muttered. Eleanor’s grin widened, and Malik had a sudden image of her teeth on his neck.
“Sit very, very still, Pretty Boy, and let me put on precautions. Then you may dress yourself. Do we have a bargain?”
“Do we have a bargain?” she repeated.
Malik had no choice in the matter, unless he wanted to freeze. Captain Eleanor dug in her pile of clothes and pulled out two long gloves that were a little tight on Malik’s fingers. She insisted that they would stretch. The hands of the gloves were very worn, and the fabric stretched up to Malik’s elbows, tight on his skin. Through little loops at the upper end, Eleanor wound a length of chain, thin but strong enough, which she clipped to a leather band that wound around his neck. This she clasped with something very hot that Malik couldn’t see.
“Are you branding me?”
“I have not, but can if you would like me to. You could be a true pirate, Pretty Boy.”
Malik said no more. When Eleanor was done, she stepped back to admire him again. He waved his arms for her, and reached around to his back. Malik was surprised to find that she had given him a full range of motion, but he could figure no way to remove the gloves she had chained to him.
“The shirt will cover most of that contraption, but do feel free to leave it off. You are a sight and my eyes have been very sore of late.”
“May I get dressed now, Captain?” Malik grumbled.
Captain Eleanor tossed him the clothes.
“I’m going to leave you locked in a little longer, but I’ll be back within the hour. Maybe I can convince you to be the night’s entertainment yet.”
Malik threw on his clothes as soon as she was out the door. Still shivering on the bed, he wondered how he could masturbate with gloves on.
There was a small crowd outside the captain’s door when Eleanor stepped out. She tried to quietly shoo them away.
“You’re asking me to believe that you didn’t ravish that?” Rini hissed.
“Not with you lot at the door!” Eleanor retorted, waving them all back to the galley. “I’ll be giving up my virginity when and only when I can do so in privacy. Which I’m clearly not going to get aboard here.”
“Is he as good looking without clothes as he is with them?”
“He’s young for you, Livia Thompson.”
“Not for you, Captain,” Fritz sniggered.
“Is the teasing out of all our systems now?” Eleanor waited a moment for the eight people around her to stop giggling. “He claims ability to cook. It might be the only thing he can do.”
“Nothing wrong with a little decoration,” whispered Rini to Livia at her side. Both women found themselves on the receiving end of a captain’s glare, which only made their laughter harder.
“I’ve got his hands bound, just in case he’s lying about not having magic,” Eleanor continued. “I still don’t have a ransom name, and if anyone gets any ideas, please bring them up at once. In the meanwhile, can we stop as early as Provincal? We’re going to need more food sooner rather than later. I have a feeling he eats a lot.”
“Laurent might be the best we can do,” answered Livia. “If Kitey and Brick both just hit Provincal they’ll be on high alert for more.”
“Or they could be feeling secure,” countered Fritz.
“If all we want is food, we could disguise the ship, come in as a merchant. It’s worked before.”
“We don’t have regular goods for that. It’s a mishmash of trash in here,” Livia pointed out.
“Any chance we can pull in a decent haul of fish between here and port?” Eleanor asked.
“I’m not eating any more fish this week!” Wes whined. “I need some grains in my stomach.”
“And kings pay gold to put caviar on their toast,” Fritz sighed.
“We ain’t got no toast!” said Wes.
“Bread is on the shopping list, thank you, Wes,” Eleanor interrupted. “As is rice, and some sort of vegetable that isn’t mostly salt. I’m hoping we can trade fish for other goods. It might be all we get.”
“We’ll run the nets with the night crew,” Livia offered, hitting Wes in the arm to tell him she was including him in this proposition. “Let you know what we get in the morning.”
“Thank you. Fritz, would you look after the captive tomorrow? I think he’ll have the hardest time evading you.”
“He won’t go anywhere without me,” agreed Fritz. “I can keep my eye on that.”
“Watch his hands, lover boy, not his ass,” Rini chuckled.
“I happen to have a hard on for long fingers,” Fritz retorted. “Should be a very good day.”
Malik spent the next two days hounded by the skinny boy who had caused all this mess in the first place. The gloves and chains, he learned, did not come off even when he slept. That first night, when he had been told his orders, Captain Eleanor had left him alone in her bed, with an ankle hooked to the bedpost so he couldn’t leave. She had spent that night in the barracks with her crew. Malik had slept in his new pants, which were worn and comfortable, if a little thin for the season. He slept poorly, thinking of his parents and home, wondering what Kingston would think when word got out how badly he had failed.
He had to be set free in the morning, and was greatly teased by the pirate crew when he arrived for breakfast with the equivalent of a collar on. Though the shirt did hide his leashed gloves well, the looks of everyone who could see the leather at his neck told him that they knew his secret. The men and women alike made sexual gestures and kissing faces his way, until Malik was sure his cheeks were pitch black with his shame. His watcher, Fritz, pulled Malik’s long braids tightly into a knot and tied them at the base of his neck, insisting that they would get in the way. Malik refused to admit that the boy was probably right.
Everywhere on the ship, Malik could feel Eleanor’s eyes on him. He deserved that, he supposed, but it was unnerving to have her staring while he peeled the last potatoes (which were starting to sprout), while he scrubbed the tables clean (the only man or woman wearing a shirt while he did so), and while he pissed over the side of the ship. He did not let her watch him from the front there, though surprisingly she didn’t try. Eleanor seemed mostly to be ascertaining that he wasn’t going to jump over.
Where did she think he was going to go when land wasn’t in sight?
The second night, Malik spent in the barracks. He was once again tied to his bed, but with a much longer leash, and was given a special covered bucket in case he needed to relieve himself. The crew seemed to be running low on their desire to tease him by that point, particularly when it became clear that he wasn’t going to undress to sleep.
Being a pirate, Malik found on the second day, was significantly less fun than it sounded. He was starting to hate the vaguely nauseous feeling he had every time he took a step, and the smell of fish kept hitting him again at odd times, just when he thought he had become used to it. The tasks presented to him were monotonous, and no one else seemed to be doing anything more interesting. Even the captain could be seen climbing up the mast with Rini to fix the rigging on a sail that had started to sag, or scrubbing the tables with everyone else, a strip of cloth wound tight around her chest while her bright blue tunic lay in the pile with everyone else’s clothes.
By the third night, Malik’s clothes had started to smell.
Fritz kept him in the kitchen for a long time the next day, where they prepped for something that looked like a feast. All morning long, the others arrived one by one with sacks of fresh potatoes, rice, dried beans, and other goods. Junior even brought down a crate of eggs that Malik was instructed to hard boil for their breakfasts, as long as the eggs would last. Malik persuaded them to let him keep a few dozen for fresh scrambles in the first couple days. He was only released when Eleanor gave Fritz the go-ahead.
“Where did all that food come from?” he asked while she accompanied him up to deck to stretch his legs and take care of his bladder.
“Where all ships get their supplies, Pretty Boy,” Eleanor replied. “Port.”
“We docked?!” Malik cried.
“We were docked all morning,” said Eleanor, full of so much calm it read as mischief. “But I can’t trust you yet. Don’t fret your head. You didn’t miss a welcoming party. We’ve long left Ampany’s waters.”
“Where exactly do you intend to let me off?” Malik asked.
“Wherever you will be the most useful to me,” Eleanor said. “You are not currently causing more hassle than you are helping, so for the moment it behooves me to keep you around. That is not an invitation for trouble, mind. Even an hour out, the swim back to shore wouldn’t be an easy one. An hour in my ship covers much more ground than your arms will. You’re no good to anyone drowned, and I’d have a revolt on my hands if I let you off the ship so easy.”
Malik could only pout.
That evening, however, there was a small feast for a successful stop at port. Sitting as part of the large circle on deck, Malik learned that Rini and Livia could both play instruments, and Fritz had a high, pretty voice that led the dirtiest songs Malik had ever heard with a sort of sweetness that had him singing along, too. He was coaxed into teaching them a Midsummer dance (which it turned out several of the band knew already), and the captain laughed in a joyful bark as Malik was swung from crewman to crewman, a sort of handsome doll they all wanted to hold.
He felt an unwelcome sadness when Eleanor herself didn’t join until the line dances.
It was followed by an even less welcome joy when two dances later they finally linked arms. Malik was very, very glad for the low light and loose pants.
The fourth day went much as the first and second had, with more potatoes to peel, rice to cook, and dishes to clean. Malik, along with Wes, Junior, and Rini, was lowered down to scrub the side of the ship as well. The others did both a faster and a better job than Malik, who was weighed down by wet cloth on his arms and muscles sore from more days of labor in a row than he had ever done before. They teased him rather than punishing him, however, and Malik ended up cleaning much less of the ship than they did.
By the fifth day, Malik only very occasionally felt the sea under his feet or smelled the fish in the air. This was a very good thing, because it was on this day that he got his first true taste of being a pirate. He didn’t see the ship, being down in the galley cleaning pots with Junior at the time, but he overheard Fritz and Rini reporting back to Captain Eleanor.
“You’re absolutely certain,” she said.
“Three-C, I swear it. Saw a few of them myself. I’d forgotten what the crying was like.”
“How many would you guess?” Eleanor asked.
“A dozen, maybe?” replied Rini. “They can’t have much room for more. If we sneak over under darkness, we might be able to get them off with some of the grains, too, without having to engage.”
“Leave the grains if you can get a crate of the silver,” Eleanor replied. “We can’t cook much with grains on here. Silver we can disperse more widely.”
“We’re going to need more food if we are taking on a dozen more mouths,” Fritz said.
“They aren’t sick of fish yet,” Eleanor countered. “Get the kids, then the silver, then the grains. If you can clear out their whole lower deck, drinks are on me, but don’t risk your necks any more than you have to. You’re more important to me than all the silver in Norstoan.”
“Well shucks, Eleanor.”
“Hush, Rini. You know what I mean.”
Eleanor entered the kitchen soon after, and whispered something in Junior’s ear. He nodded his agreement, and she left again with nothing more than a crooked smile for Malik.
That night, Malik was invited back to the captain’s quarters, where Eleanor made him another deal.
“Fresh clothes and a bit more freedom to go about the ship, for the privilege of staying here again for a night.”
“There’s some part of this you aren’t telling me,” Malik observed.
“There are lots of things I’m not telling you,” Eleanor admitted easily. “But I will say I’ll lock you in, but leave you unhitched from the bed. It’s as much for your comfort as anything.”
“How long have you been caring about my comfort?”
“I don’t have time to argue all night, fun though it is,” said Eleanor with a small frown. “I need an answer. Will you agree to a more comfortable bed and private quarters for the exchange of not getting in the way?”
Malik lost the staring contest, and had to agree. Even in fresh clothes, with piles of blankets, he felt cold the whole night. He kept waking up to the clunks and creaks of the ship, which sounded fuller than before, and was plagued the whole night by dreams that hadn’t been so vivid since puberty. Every time he woke, he could feel Eleanor like she had just left the bed, and he was searching for the warmth that stayed in her wake.
The Norste merchant ship never saw how their goods were stolen out from their own underbelly. It wasn’t until the next day, when food was taken down to the captives, that anyone noticed anything was wrong. The cells were empty, and the crates were gone, as though they’d never been there. No scrapes lined the wood floors that hadn’t been there before, even the cell doors were still shut, with every iron cuff still in place on the wall, locked tight.
Sixteen caster kids, three crates of silver, another five of grain, as well as ten barrels of beer, and a bucket of coal. All gone without a trace.
“Only way in and out is through that little porthole!” the poor guard cried. “Otherwise they’d have to go past me! I was here all night! Could hear em crying all night! Not a wink! No way crates went through that porthole. The kids maybe, but no one and nothing bigger than them.”
The grains had been a good steal, as the Ocean’s Peak’s current supply would not have lasted another sixteen malnourished children’s bellies more than three days. Malik was once again locked below deck when they made the first stop two days later. Four children vanished after that. Another two went the next day, swapped onto another Randolph Rebel ship headed the other direction. This ship was larger, and headed by a tall, thin woman with hair like coils of steel. She had a sharp face and red clothes that had started rich and become torn.
“Hah! I know your face, kid!” Captain Kite Randolph shouted to Malik. “Get a good ransom on that one, Eleanor. He’s a Kingston boy. Some relative of the Commander. Send a note direct his way, and arrange a pick-up. Brick can get the gold and you can drop the boy wherever you please. He’s a pretty one, isn’t he?”
“Pretty useless,” Eleanor snapped back. “Got no note without a name, Kitey, as you know well. Get me one of them, and you can set any price on his head you like.”
“You’ll run by Pickett if you keep this course. Send another couple kids with her, and you can drop the rest in Tourenne. Think you can make it that far?”
“I’ll trade you a barrel of beer for one of rice?” Eleanor replied.
The exchange was made with such ease that Malik wondered if the crews hadn’t known what their captains would say in advance. His later asking resulted in Livia telling him, “Junior is one of Kite’s sons. He tested all the barrels when we first brought them on and labeled them. You see we’ve got four left with ‘x’s on them, and then two through five there.”
“What does that mean?”
“We gave Kite barrel one, since she would take it to be either the first or the best. It is the best of the numbered ones. The x’s are the ones we keep for ourselves at any cost.”
The newcomers aboard the ship were at least has helpful as Malik, which embarrassed him quite a lot. A girl who couldn’t have been older than ten was a better cook than him, and nearly all of them put more effort into their cleaning, each trying to prove themselves the most useful. Whenever he was shown up, Malik could count on one of the crew patting his shoulder hard and saying, “Well, you’re still our Pretty Boy.”
He spent the next two nights in the captain’s quarters again, locked away from the children. Eleanor stayed in the barracks with them, which he heard from the rest of the crew was normal for her when they got three-c’s in.
“What does that mean?” he finally had to ask.
“Child, caster, captive,” Fritz told him. “I was in a group of ‘em when I got here, but my brother was the caster, not me. He’s in Alais now, sends me letters through the harbormaster sometimes. Eleanor’s good for the kids. Shows them that there’s more to what they can do than fear, or power. It’s a tool, same as a hammer. It can kill you if you don’t use it right, or it can build a house for ten. She teaches the kids to build houses.”
Malik caught her at it the next night after dinner. He was coming up with Livia to hold the sail cords while she tied them up for the night. Eleanor was on the deck, showing a huddle of kids something that shone through the darkness at their feet. It cast a bright blue light over all their faces, and twinkled in Eleanor’s hair and clothes. The hands of every child shone in a similar way, but none as bright, and all in different colors, here a green, there an orange, beside that a pink so light and bright it was like the girl held dawn in her palm.
That night, locked alone, he dreamed of being naked with her, surrounded by an icy light that warmed them both. He woke up hot and sweating when the dream said his name.
Malik woke late the next morning, as no one had called for him. He banged on the door to no effect, and tried shouting out the window. He was stuck in the room for a little more than an hour before the door finally clicked open.
“There you are, I thought you’d forgotten…”
Eleanor was at the door, looking serious, but she was not the person who had opened it. A tall, older woman, with the same thin face as Kite Randolph, but with pure white hair cropped short above her shoulders was staring down at him. Her clothes were definitely rich, in royal blue and pale brown, with a gold ornament in her hair that Malik was certain he had seen somewhere before.
“Definitely,” the woman said. “He’s their spitting image. Drop him anywhere, Eleanor. They’ve put out the calls on every port. Good of you to keep him hidden all this time. Brick can get a good ransom from this. I can guarantee your crew thirty-five percent. I’ll do my damnedest to make it fifty.”
“I want a receipt of that. And I’ll be keeping an ear to the ground for how much they say it was,” Eleanor replied. “Thank you, Pickett. Anything else I can do for you?”
“Give me your worst beer with the four kids. I’ll get you some more eggs. We just got a load and I’m right sick of them.”
“Tell Junior and it’s done.”
The woman, Pickett, left just as Malik realized who she was. Eleanor shut the door behind her.
“That circlet is the right of Ampany’s royalty,” he stammered to her.
“That is the queen of the Randolph Rebels,” Eleanor retorted, “and Ampany has long ago replaced her lost jewelry.”
“Replacements are not the same as—“
“Where do you get your loyalty from, Malik Zampieri?”
Malik’s voice died in his throat.
“That is your name then? Pickett knew of the rewards posted for information about you. I was not lying when I said we had no welcoming parties awaiting us. Perhaps they thought we traded you to our superiors or simply tossed you over. Brick will negotiate a transfer.”
“She told you to drop me anywhere,” Malik pointed out.
“And so I shall,” said Eleanor. “Most likely, I’ll drop you with the rest of the children, and the stir you cause will allow them to slip in to the city with less notice. Many will be refugees after all. But there are enough captain’s kids in Tourenne for me to know they will be housed.”
“Captain’s Kids?” Malik repeated, momentarily distracted.
“The ones who can contact me if they run into trouble,” Eleanor said. “The ones I’ve resettled out of slavery in the past.”
Malik bit his tongue, the thought of going home washing over him like a cold bath.
“Tourenne?” he asked.
“You have a day and a half, tops. And you only get one set of pants. We hardly have enough clothes for ourselves around here.”
She left without another word, locking the door once again behind her. Malik pounded on it for twenty minutes with no answer.
It was Livia who finally let him out for dinner, well after Queen Pickett and the four children she had taken with her were gone. Malik had tear-stains on his cheeks when she found him, which she helped him to wipe away.
“This is no life for one who still loves part of the land,” she whispered. “To be separated from the ones you love, those who are your family, there is no greater sorrow.”
She was very confused when this made him cry all the harder, and brought him a plate of dinner to have on his own. She left the door unlocked for him, so after he had eaten, Malik went up to the deck, to look at the incredible stars that Kingston never showed him one time more.
Eleanor was there, with the six kids that remained, showing them more of her icy sparkle. Malik waited in the shadows, watching her play with them for a long time. His tears dried and started again, before Eleanor packed up her last few spells and ushered the kids back downstairs. Only once they were gone did she acknowledge Malik.
“I don’t have your old clothes,” she told him.
“I never thought you would,” he replied. “Eleanor—”
“I thought we had agreed on ‘Captain’.”
“I think I’m in love with you,” he blurted out before he could hesitate again. Eleanor scoffed.
“I think you are the worst case of cabin fever in the history of this ship,” she told him.
“Please, it’s not—”
“Have you a lover, back on shore?” Eleanor interrupted again.
“I did,” Malik answered.
“Mischa broke it off with me weeks before I came here,” Malik said too quickly for Eleanor to cut him off. “This feels different.”
“That’s because it’s a syndrome. We’re all stuck together. It’s part of the bonding process,” Eleanor replied.
“Then why do I only feel this way about you?”
“Maybe you like taking orders more than you realize. There are places in the city that can accommodate that, although rumor has that any noble-born wife would do.”
“I’m trying to say I’m going to miss you!” Malik moaned.
“And I am trying to tell you that in a week you will hate me,” sighed Eleanor in return. “You will remember the facts and not the emotion. You will look back on this as an adventure through which you persevered despite our cleverest wiles. And to some small extent you will be right. But know that it is our kindness that kept you here, not your efforts.”
“You think I couldn’t tell how much better that eight-year-old boy was at scrubbing deck than me?”
“If it’s any consolation—”
“Yes, yes, I’m still your Pretty Boy,” Malik groaned.
Finally, Eleanor laughed.
“You may sleep without chains tonight if you wish, in the barracks. I’ll be awaiting a letter on my desk that tells me to release you.”
“If I kept the chains on, would I be allowed to sleep with you?” he asked.
“On the floor, perhaps,” Eleanor teased.
They walked below the deck side by side, and Eleanor pulled him into the captain’s quarters with her, where she removed his shirt brusquely. She tossed it over her desk, wrinkling her nose at the smell, then stepped behind him to undo the chains.
“Look at the difference just a week can make. You’ve lost all your city fat. Nothing but muscle and bone now,” she said.
“I didn’t have much to lose,” Malik chuckled.
“Perhaps not, but if you had looked like this the first time I saw you shirtless, I wouldn’t have called you Boy.”
“I’ll have to take up some sort of training regimen to keep in shape until someone kidnaps me again,” Malik said.
It hurt when she stripped the gloves form his arms, peeling away the material like a second layer of skin. It was grimy and smelled of sweat inside the gloves and on his arms. Eleanor gave him a bucket filled with salt water and soap, along with a sponge to scrub clean, while she heated the gloves with magic to sanitize them. The smell of his body lingered in the air. Though she tossed him another shirt, one with stains and holes and hardly anything left of the sleeves, Malik used it only to dry off.
The next several seconds Eleanor spent sorting the letters at her desk. Malik watched as she scribbled notes on a pad, sticking the letters in between its pages or else in a drawer which she opened with a spark rather than a key. His mind, filled with bawdy pirate songs and romantic starlit nights, pictured her scrubbing tables with her crew, strong bare arms and nothing but a strip of cloth binding her chest. As his erection built, so did his imagination, till his ears could hear nothing but his name in her voice.
He wished he’d told her immediately.
In the same thought, he wished she’d never found out at all.
“Brick’s already done,” she said, finally finding the letter she had been searching for. “Might as well stay here, then, and I’ll go with the kids one more…”
Eleanor’s voice trailed off as she looked Malik over, her eyes widening at the level of his pantswaist.
“What am I supposed to do with that?” she said.
“Anything,” Malik replied, his voice coming out higher than he had meant it to.
“If your royal parents didn’t want me dead already,” Eleanor barked.
“I would never let them.”
A grin pulled at one side of her mouth as she continued watching his hips.
“First you wouldn’t let me put your pants on…” she teased.
He let her take them off. He begged, actually, after she was done cupping his ass and lapping at his neck. Totally naked, he sat back on the bed and urged her into his lap, where both their fingers between her legs got Eleanor to Malik’s level of arousal. The flush in her cheeks made her seem younger and sweeter, and when he finally asked her age, he was surprised and delighted to find it very near his own, which he shared at once. Eleanor laughed and let him help with her tunic.
Malik had done this a few times before, but never with so much enjoyment. Mostly, it had been a friend’s drunken sister with her mouth around him, or one of the girls paid to be at Philip’s coming of age party, where everyone’s hands had been down everyone’s pants, Malik’s most of all. The pleasure had been good, but never exquisite. When Eleanor climbed over him on her plush bed and straddled his hips, Malik could think of nothing beyond her, her sandy hair and tanned, tough arms, her flushed neck and skin that sparkled with magic that poured out of her like sweat.
In that moment, Malik had never wanted anything more in his life.
The singular moment lasted very little time at all, of course, two inexperienced people trying their best. But they tried again once laughter had subsided into kissing, Malik on top while Eleanor wrapped her legs over his waist, rubbing herself while Malik thrust for all he was worth. And a third time after that, with Malik standing at the edge of the bed to get as far into her as he could, while Eleanor bit at her sheets to keep herself quiet.
Malik needed time to recover by then, but he knelt between her legs while Eleanor put a pillow over her face and spilled all down his front as he licked at her. He didn’t stop until she told him, gasping, that she couldn’t take any more.
They slept until sunrise, tangled and smelly, then Malik knelt before her again. Eleanor told him off while using both hands to pull his face closer, and spilled twice before urging him up again, and impaling herself once more. Only when they were done did she open the window to air out her room. They helped each other scrub down with the salt water and soap from the night before, and Eleanor let Malik re-tie the band around her chest before she replaced her pants and tunic. The last thing she did was pull his hair free of the knot Fritz had wound it into a week before. Taking a knife from her desk, Eleanor cut a lock from a strand that had come loose just behind his ear. She twirled it around her finger, then tucked it carefully into the smallest drawer in her desk, folded in paper.
“Is that where you keep all your conquests?” he joked.
“It might be, one day,” she returned.
Malik noticed with some embarrassment that Eleanor got quite as much teasing at breakfast as he did, though she handled it much better. It was very soon after the meal that they docked in Southern Libanira, and Malik found himself dragged down the plank with all six remaining children, Fritz, Junior, and Wes. Rini and Eleanor were already half-way up the mast, repair tools in their pockets and their mouths as they climbed. Malik tripped over his feet repeatedly, trying not to lose sight of her.
He lost sight of his companions on the ground instead, and in trying to find them, realized that this had probably been intentional on their part. He raced back to the docks, only to see the ship taking off, Eleanor at it’s prow. With a crooked grin, she saluted him then turned back to her ship, and vanished into the winter mists.
It took Malik two hours to find the Denaurd castle. After that, it was only fifteen minutes until he was home.
The tearful reunion at the Zampieri household did not last nearly as long as Malik had hoped it might. His mother swore vengeance on anyone who had touched a hair on his head. As Malik had developed a certain fondness for Fritz, who was really just a boy, and something much more for Eleanor, he did not take well to these threats on their lives, and said so.
“They are pirates! They deserve no more than the hanging they are due!” Amna Zampieri said in a low voice that dared no argument.
“You know nothing of them,” Malik pleaded anyway.
“They kidnapped you!”
“I was trying to track their ship—”
“To bring them to justice!”
“To kill them!” Malik shouted. “You would have done the same. Any of you. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t mistreated. The captain—”
“We know of Captain Eleanor of the Ocean’s Peak,” his father interrupted. “You know she was once Ampanian. A traitor to—”
“I LOVE HER!”
Malik was not allowed out of the house for the following three days, until his mother believed she had restored some sense to him.