Locke drooped over the little rail of their sleek little yacht as it swayed gently at its anchorage, a few hundred yards off the rocky coast. He was having one of those nights – not so rare anymore – where sleep wouldn’t come and sleepy wakefulness was unquiet. Perhaps the wine would help.
He’d some minutes past given up on using a glass and sucked Okanti Table Red directly from the bottle like sipping from a glass teat (the table was already gone, thanks to Jean). He watched nothing much, as there wasn’t much to see in the dark night. The stars and barest sliver of a single moon outlined the blacker silhouette of the rugged coastline against the slightly less black sky.
The heavens brightened somewhat to his right, the south, where Vel Virazzo hovered behind its stubby mountain peninsula. Tal Verrar lay far enough to the north that even its glut of alchemical night pollution was restrained to the merest yellow glow warming the horizon.
Here, in the no-man’s-land between the two cities, only the occasional lantern-lights studded the cliffs and rare flat spots where solitary homes and tiny villages clung to the rocks for their livelihoods. Those paltry lights, while pretty in their way, were even less of a distraction to Locke’s thoughts than the familiar stars overhead.
It was just, their lazy cruise was proving to be so lazy that it offered too much time for introspection. He lay awake most nights and wondered if every misstep in his heartbeat, every turn of his stomach, every caught breath, were signs of the beginning of the end.
He’d been through all that before with Stragos’s annoying fucking poison – so had Jean! But at least before they’d had the hope of returning to the archon’s welcoming arms for a sip of antidote. Now that hope was long gone, foaming at the mouth from Merrain’s poison.
And at least when they’d been aboard the Orchid, they’d had plenty of forced exercise to keep them dog-tired. Of the two of them, now, Jean was the one who slept the sleep of the exhausted and the just – or the relative-if-somewhat-criminal just, Locke amended to himself.
And why shouldn’t Jean do so? He’d taken over the bulk of Locke’s physical duties on their yacht. He was plainly hoping to spare Locke as long as possible from the effects of the latent poison he’d kept for himself. Along with that, he had–
Pah, the wine is gone. Locke tossed the bottle into the sea. He heard the splash, and then another splash shortly after. Strange. He’d been about to fetch another bottle, but p’rhaps he was drunk enough to have double hearing, like double vision? He was pondering whether the scattered lights he could see ashore were only half of what actually existed when he heard a clunk, as of wood on wood.
It could have been Jean and – but that would have come from inside the boat—
There came the scrape of metal, the thunk of boots on a witchwood deck.
“Oi! What’re you doin’ up here so late, little man? No matter. Rojan, kill his ass.”
“You kill his ass! I’m securin’ the boat, here.”
Well, not friendly local visitors, Locke thought. He fumbled for his dagger, dammit, dammit, and held it out towards the first speaker, a tallish and stoutish middle-aged man with heavy jowls under dense sideburns. “Get the hell off my–” Locke began. But the men ignored him in favor of arguing.
“And I’m securing the deck. That guy ain’t worth my attention.”
“Help me up, fucker,” said a rough but more feminine voice.
The men and women were arguing, Locke amended silently. Aloud, he said, “Who the fuck are you people and what are you doing here besides not killing my ass?”
“We’re friendly locals, like. Friendly local pirates. We saw your boat earlier, and it’s such a neat piece we decided to take it for ourselves.”
“You have got to be shitting me.” And ah, that was their own pirate lady, stomping abovedeck to save the day.
Ezri had clearly been roused from slumber. Or something. Her dark curls were unbound, haphazard about her shoulders. She held her sword in one hand – it shone wickedly, more than half as long as she was tall – and was yanking up her tight trousers with the other hand. Her loose shirt had not even yet been buttoned. Her breasts were a distraction even to Locke.
“Oho, another little one. Don’t kill her too quickly,” the first man said, licking his thick lips, also clearly not immune to the sight of Ezri half-naked.
“Are you gonna kill anybody, or just stand there jawin’ about it?” Rojan said, climbing aboard. He was shorter but no less wide than his companion on deck. His stoutness appeared to come more from muscle.
Ezri frowned and waved her sword, two sharp, opposing slices in the air. X marks the spot. Locke shuffled a few steps back, away from the impending action. “Clearly you assholes have not yet heard of Little Daisy.”
“Is that you, darlin’?”
“Hell, no. That’s my boat, you piss-sucking excuse for a pirate.”
“Haw haw! Little Daisy, what a n—urk,” the man said, his last words, as Ezri darted forward and slashed another X, this time across his throat and belly. He thudded backwards to the deck from the force of her blows, his eyes wide and throat gurgling.
“Aww, damn, Lurs. You’re going to pay for that,” Rojan said, raising a bolt-studded club and moving towards Ezri.
That had been a mistake. Ezri ducked under his thunderous swing and butted her head into his chin and her sword up and under his ribs. Rojan cried out and tumbled backwards through the gap in the rail from whence he’d climbed. There was a sound of wood cracking, of seawater splashing, and of several swearing, fleshy somethings as he hit below. Ezri’d battered him so hard she lost balance and almost tumbled over after him, but suddenly Jean was there, behind her, catching her bare foot.
“Let me take care of the rest of them, sweetheart,” he said. He pulled her back from the edge and gave her a hand up. She offered him a grateful grin and found time to add some up-and-down lasciviousness to it. Jean was less dressed than Ezri, even, wearing only muscles and trousers. Oh, and a handful of ship’s hatchets, which he proceeded to wing down into the boat to the consternation of its passengers, who were screaming at each other to get the hell out of here, yeah, hurry, duck, aww shit, urk.
“Three, four, five,” Ezri counted, watching over the side. “Nicely done. Oh, that one’s fallen overboard. You won’t get that hatchet back.”
“We’ll get more,” Jean reassured her with a goofy, besotted smile.
She gave him another smile back, and kept doing it. Their moment lasted so long and was so intimately tender that Locke’s chest hurt from watching it. Or was that the poison? He was more than happy for both of them, regardless. They deserved whatever ass-kicking joyfulness they could wring out of their lives.
“Ahem,” Locke said at last. He stumbled over to try and drag the erstwhile pirates’ leader over to the edge of the Daisy. Jean eventually stirred himself to help.
“Are you all right, Locke?” he asked, belated.
“Yeah. Untouched.” Because that’s not how people like them die, Ezri had said once. Jean had told him about it. “Though it’s a good thing I was up here, awake and moping, else they might’ve succeeded in being very bad pirates. Er, right?”
“Of course,” Ezri said in a laughing voice. “Lucky for us you’re such a fine moper.”
Between those two they took over disposal of the leader. Jean made sure the intruders’ boat was still tied to the Daisy – they’d have to figure out how to get rid of the boat in the morning – and Locke fetched another bottle of wine and three glasses. As well as a little bread and cheese: pirate-repelling was hungry as well as thirsty work, and there would be no more sleep tonight. If there ever had been.
They sat on the deck, Locke across from the cuddling Ezri and Jean, and celebrated quietly despite the lack of a table.
“Can’t blame the guy. The Little Daisy is a surprising name,” Locke noted at one point. When Ezri glared at him, he amended, “not that it isn’t lovely. But I’d supposed your bloodthirstiness might have come up with something more … bloodthirsty.”
“Daisies are hardy fuckers that survive the nastiest things nature throws at ‘em,” Ezri pointed out. “On Nicora.”
“Yeah, but they’re so pretty. Delicate-looking. Why not roses? Those have thorns, at least.”
“Too predictable,” Jean said. He’d told Ezri about how Locke was called Thorn of Camorr. He looked down at Ezri. “Though I admit, when I said you could name her, I thought you’d choose something else, too.”
Jean sipped his wine. “Hmm. How about the Stab Wound?”
“Ah, good one,” Locke said. “Hmm. The Archon’s Doom?”
“Alas, also too predictable,” Locke said.
“Ezri’s Fucking Revenge?” Ezri put in. She giggled.
Jean smiled at her. “The Fucking Fucker. The Fucking Stabby Death of Fuckers Every… where,” he managed before breaking down in snickers.
Locke and Ezri had both snorted their wine at that one. “Too long,” Locke choked out.
“Something a little sharper, anyway,” Jean said when he could breathe again.
Locked poured them all some more wine. He raised his glass in a salute at Ezri. “So why Little Daisy? Are you ever going to tell us?”
Ezri tilted her head sideways, looking thoughtful, as if assessing whether Locke were worthy or not of hearing the truth. Finally she nodded. “Well, it was mostly to annoy you.” He looked mock-affronted, and she laughed. “A joke, Lamora! I’m never going to be angry at you again.”
Ah, that sobered things up a bit. Jean frowned. Briefly, but still Locke saw it. And he still wasn’t sorry for what he’d done. Ezri’s presence was the only thing soothing Jean from the indignity of being unallowed to die horribly from poison. Locke was relatively sure she hadn’t seen him add the antidote to Jean’s wine, but she’d been the one to calm Jean when the truth was revealed. She’d held him, cried with him. And Locke had known, he’d seen: she’d wept mostly in sympathy, and gratitude and relief, that her man would remain intact.
And Locke himself: he was grateful. Lucky, all things considered, to have a new companion. Not as lucky as Jean, never, but considering the hell his last weeks of life could have been, fortunate indeed. Ezri had humor, and wit, and she was cute as hell.
–maybe she doesn’t have Sabetha’s wit or beauty, but then, who does? I’ll come to love Ezri, I know, like a sister, I’m halfway there already, and it’s good she’s not Sabetha because Jean can have her one hundred percent with my blessing, Oh, Sabetha, cruel to never see her again–
Locke shook himself mentally. Ezri, yes, the one who was here. She was also a badass, an effective fighter and defender of love and ship and honor, more so than Locke had ever been. The way she’d caught that shipbane sphere, godsdamn, diving across the open hold and snatching both the sphere and its fuse, unignited, from the dying Utgar’s treacherous hands. And only see their current situation! A boatload of dead pirates and them, safe and whole. She would make one hell of a Bastard.
“I’m … glad to hear it,” Locke said aloud at last, smiling at her. “Though I don’t believe it for a second.”
“Plan on it, Lamora,” she said, narrowing her eyes. But not in an angry way. Not at all. She shifted her head sideways and tilted her face at Jean, who obliged her by tilting his lips down to give her a lingering kiss. Locke’s chest hurt not at all to see it: it swelled.
“Ahem,” he said after a bit. “Speaking of plans. We should do some of that. Since we’re awake anyway. Plan.”
Ezri seized on the opportunity to change the subject further than she’d managed already. She gave Jean one last peck on the lips and then nodded and turned to face Locke. She broke off some of the bread and cheese and shoved them into her mouth. “I agree. We’ve already decided to head north. How far north do you want to go? I’ve always wanted to see Balinel.”
“Me too,” Jean said.
Locke sipped more wine, enjoyed the bit of head-swimming. “While I was moping, I was thinking if we did that, we should make a trip up the Cavendria for supplies. But with our circumstances less flush than we’d hoped, we’ll have to come up with a good way to get them. Lots of supplies, that is.”
“You weren’t just moping. You’re drunk,” Ezri said, noticing at last. Sharp girl.
“So?” Locke said. “We’ve made excellent plans while far drunker than I am right now.”
“I don’t think you’re remembering correctly,” Jean said. “Someone else concocted the plans while we were drunk.”
Locke was too busy thinking to be too offended. Yes, yes … When one was drunk, others took them lightly, underestimated them. And everyone would underestimate Ezri to begin with. Between here and the Cavendria, they could get some nice clothing in a petite size, surely. “Sho. I think we could probably concoct something involving a fancy Nicoran lady. Think we can find one of those?”
“I happen to know one intimately,” Ezri preened.
“Do you speak Vadran?” Jean asked.
She pursed her lips, then shook her head slightly. “Not much. Schoolgirl Vadran. My tutor in that language was a real ass.”
“I can tutor – Er, I mean, Jean can tutor you,” Locke said. “We have a few weeks, after all. I hope.”
And dammit, dammit, Locke was indeed drunk, or he’d’ve managed not to return attention to his own predicament. Jean frowned at him. Locke saw Ezri squeeze Jean’s knee.
“S’okay, he can tutor me, love—” she began, but Jean shook his head.
“You are drunk. And … who knows what else. You should go to bed. We’ll let you have it all to yourself. And plan later.”
Fuck that. Bed offered Locke nothing but more worry, more twitching and sweating. “But I wanna plan now,” Locke whinged. “I was just coming up with a good one, too.”
“’Wine warms the soul, and warms the ideas that spill forth from soaked lips,’” Ezri quoted.
Jean’s eyes crinkled at the corners as he looked at her. “’Wine tells what temperance keeps hushed.’ Oh, that’s a terrible line, from a terrible play.”
“And yet you knew every word. Hypocrite,” Ezri said. She offered Jean a kissy-face.
Locke moaned. “Augh, augh! If I thought I could sleep, I’d go to my hammock right now. When you two shink sho low as to quote Ausifoss at each other, that’s my cue to, to, exeunt.”
“Ha ha! I take pity upon thee. No more Ausifoss,” Ezri said.
Jean nodded. “And no more planning tonight. It’s almost morning, anyway. We’ll worry about that tomorrow night, when we’re far from here.”
“Staying far from Tal Verrar on the way,” Ezri added.
Jean squeezed her, and she snuggled into the circle of his arms. Jean watched her with utmost contentment. Still, he spared a sad glance at Locke, above Ezri’s head, where she couldn’t see it. “We’re all of us agreed on that, I think?”
“All of us,” Locke said, raising his near-empty glass in one final toast. All of them.
The new Gentleman Bastards sat quietly, together, and watched the dawn prick the sky.