Author: Paul aka Darth Pacula
"You thought Shenj-do was a physician?" Willow hooted with laughter where she sat by Tara's bedside. Noticing the furious manner in which Tara was blushing, Willow tried, with difficulty, to modulate her laughter. In the end, she managed to restrict it to the occasional giggle. "He's the cook!"
"So he said," Tara replied wryly. "But I thought Cooke ..."
Willow broke into renewed peals of laughter. "You thought Cooke was the cook?!!" Realizing the depths of Tara's embarrassment, Willow choked back her guffaws. "Well, fair enough," she allowed. "Xander made the same mistake when he hired Cooke ... until he tasted the poor boy's first attempt at a stew."
Leaning forward, Willow continued in a conspiratorial tone of voice. "Personally, I suspect Xander was drunk when he made the decision. But Cooke's a good lad ... even if he isn't all there up on deck, if you catch my meaning."
"But I do wish that he was," continued Willow, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. "Shenj-do, that is. A tame healer on board would definitely come in handy at times."
"You make a habit of rescuing injured women from slavery then?" Tara shyly joked, a fractional smile on her lips as her flushed cheeks gradually dimmed.
Shaking her head, Willow shrugged. "Nah ... you're my first. But at times, it's a rough business I'm in." Reaching down, she pulled up the hem of her shirt, revealing an expanse of impressively taunt stomach. Tara surreptitiously gulped, abruptly spellbound by the sight. She found herself wanting to reach out and touch it, caress it, to learn if it was as smooth and warm and inviting as it looked, to feel those supple muscles move beneath her palm as she ...
"Yeah, some piker tried to skewer me a few years back," Willow explained, utterly oblivious to the effect she was having on Tara. The blonde was forcibly snapped out of her fantasy as her attention was directed to a knot of scar tissue on Willow's right side, a low mound of puckered and shiny flesh. Willow probed thoughtfully at the old wound. "That toff nicked me quite nicely with that rapier of his."
Shrugging again, Willow dropped her shirt. "Ah well, I'm still alive. The same can't be said for him." She grinned wickedly.
"You ... you ... killed him?" Tara gasped, the flames of her unexpected ardor extinguished as surely as if they had been pitched over the side of the Wild Rose into the sea.
Willow shook her head. "As I recall, I was busy lying on his deck, bleedin' like a stuck pig, tryin' ta keep my innards where they were supposed ta be. T'was Mockery that did for him. Took his head clean off with one blow, as I recollect. He tends to get a bit protective of me, you see."
"W..why?" blurted Tara, struggling to understand, confused by the dichotomy of the woman who had risked her own life to save her, and, thus far, been so kind to her, being the same woman who could speak so easily of another human being's violent demise.
"Why?" Willow repeated, clearly confused. "Why what?"
"Why was he trying to kill you?"
Willow's lips curved in an 'O' of surprise. "Ohhh! Well, we were sacking his ship at the time, so it was only fair."
"But ... but I thought you said you were a smuggler!"
Willow's brow furrowed. "I am ..."
"But you were just talking about committing an act of piracy!"
Shaking her head, Willow scoffed. "No, I was committin' an act of privateering. There's a difference, you see."
From the expression on her face, it was clear that Tara did not, in fact, see the difference, so Willow settled down to explain it.
"I have a writ from the Crown of the Starfall Isles. What it means is that I can attack, and plunder, any ship sailing under the flag of a foreign power that is currently considered to be enemies of the Crown, and it's all legal like."
"Oh, so it's legal murder," Tara tartly snapped. "That's soooo much better!" Even as the words left her mouth, Tara regretted them, slapping her hand over her mouth in shock at her temerity. But the damage was already done.
Eyes suddenly cold as steel, Willow shot upright, knocking the stool she had been sitting on aside. Lips tightly pressed together, compressing into an angry line, she made her farewells with a curt nod. "I've a ship to run. So I will leave you to your moral superiority."
Turning on her heel, Willow marched out, her back ramrod straight. Yanking the door open, she paused in the exit and looked back. "He was a slaver, you know. Had a hold full of pretty young things like yourself, on their way to market to be sold like cattle. Should I have left them to their fate?"
"Captain ... Willow ... I ...."
Tara's only reply was a slamming door.
Falling back into bed, Tara buried her face in her hands. What have I done?!
Things had seemed to be going so well the past week or so. She and Willow had been finally been nearing a level of comfort in their interactions. They had been meeting more and more frequently as the days passed, and Tara's strength grew. She was still weak though; while Shenj-do appeared satisfied with the improving condition of her feet, he had ordered Tara to remain abed for awhile longer.
So Willow had been coming to Tara, and her visits had been growing noticeably longer every day as the awkwardness between them eased. Not completely though. There was still an undercurrent of tension between them, an undercurrent of emotions restrained and words unspoken.
Tara groaned aloud. And I just called her a murdering pirate ...
Willow stalked above deck with a face like a thundercloud, and a powerful urge to kick something ... or someone. How dare she! she silently ranted to herself. How damn-well dare she! How dare she judge me! That stupid, arrogant little ...
With an effort, Willow fought to curb her temper before she said something she would regret, even if spoken only in the privacy of her own thoughts. The crewmen of the Wild Rose scattered from her path as she strode towards the poop deck, their captain too wrapped up in her own fury to even notice their presence. Her footsteps were heavy as she stamped up the stairs, a staccato pounding set to the beat of her indignation and anger.
Leaning over the poop deck railing, Willow glowered sullenly at the horizon, her grip on the balustrade tightening until her knuckles were white and bloodless. Lips curling, she ground her teeth together.
It was only several minutes later that she registered what lay upon the horizon she was so fixedly staring at. The hazy, but unmistakable haze of land.
Willow whirled around, her eyes darting until they focused on Xander, who was chatting amiably with the sailor manning the helm. "Xander?" she hissed, her voice icy and flat.
He looked up with a dopey grin, apparently not recognizing the danger in his captain's tone. "Yeah Will?"
"What is that on the horizon?" Willow demanded, stabbing an accusing finger at the offending landmass looming in the distance. Xander blinked, still not realizing his peril. Behind Willow, Mockery stumbled to a halt in mid-ascension of the narrow staircase that led from the main deck. He knew the undercurrent of danger in Willow's voice all too well.
"Um ... it's land?" offered Xander, puzzled by the question. From the relative safety of his position outside of Willow's line of sight, Mockery shook his head frantically, flailing his arms in a signal to stop and mouthing the word 'No'. His efforts just left Xander more confused.
"It's ... land ..." Willow echoed, her eyes narrowing. In the background, Mockery's signals grew more frenzied .... to no avail.
"Yeah, Will," Xander replied, confusion equally evident in both his face and voice. "Kes? You know, our destination?"
"I know what Kes is," grated Willow. "What I don't know is why I'm only hearing about it now!"
Mockery threw his hands up in exasperation, and just settled back to watch the inevitable fireworks.
"Unless things have changed drastically without my knowledge, Xander, I'm still the captain of this ship!" Willow spat, and Xander recoiled from the full force of her wrath. "Nothing, I repeat, nothing is supposed to happen on my ship without my knowledge! And yet, we sight land ... how long ago now?"
"An hour or so ..." Xander answered in a small voice.
"An hour? An hour! A full bloody hour passes before anyone deigns to tell the bloody captain about it! Is that what passes for discipline on my ship now?"
"Of course not, Will!" Xander hurried to assure his furious captain. Willow leveled a ferocious glare at her first mate that nearly sent him flipping over the poop deck rail into the open sea. "I mean no sir! Err ... no ma'am!"
Spinning on her heel, Willow turned her back on him and marched back to the rail overlooking the main deck, where she immediately began haranguing her beleaguered crew. Xander sagged and wiped sweat from his brow as Mockery sauntered over to join him.
"What was that all about?" Xander muttered under his breath.
Mockery shrugged. "Buggered if I know. But somethin's jammed a burr in 'er breeches right 'n proper."
Shuddering, Xander wrapped his arms around himself as if warding off a sudden cold draft. "No kidding. I hate it when she gets all captain-y on me ... it's been years since she's yelled at me like that." He directed a sullen, hurt glance at his shipmate. "You could'a warned me, ya know."
Mocker snorted. "What do ya think I was tryin' ta do, ya twat? Practice interpretive dance?"
Xander stuck out his tongue. "Meanie."
"Fool," Mockery countered with a genial grin.
Several moments passed as Mockery regarded Xander with a raised eyebrow. When it became apparent that Mockery wasn't going to deliver a rejoinder, the younger man crowed in triumph. "Hah! I win!"
"Oh, I'm sorry," drawled Mockery, smirking. "I thought we were insulting each other, not delivering compliments."
"Oi!" Willow bellowed, cutting Xander off mid-comeback. "Don't you two feckless bastards have any work to do?" There was a dangerous glint in the redhead's eye that proclaimed it would be a bad idea to try her patience right now.
The grins on both mens faces soured, and Mockery elbowed Xander in the ribs. "You distract 'er," he hissed out of the corner of his mouth, "an' I'll run away."
"What?!?" blurted Xander, instantly regretting his outburst when Willow's eyes narrowed.
Mockery grinned. "Well, she's already mad at you, ain't she! No point in gettin' my 'ead bitten off as well, is there!"
The island of Kes jutted up from the waves of the Endless Sea like the finger bone of some great, long-dead leviathan. If viewed from above, a vista reserved for the countless flocks of gulls and other seabirds, Kes was a long, thin strip of land, slightly crooked, like a prizefighter's nose.
With significantly less landmass than the other island nations that dotted the Endless Sea, and the smaller population such a fact entailed, Kes was not a great naval power in the Game of Thrones. As one of the closest islands to the mainland, this left the people of Kes, the Keshani, in a precarious position. To avoid the overdue influence of their ever hungry neighbors on the mainland, or indeed, outright annexation, the Keshani chose to walk a dangerous path.
Ruled over by a council of hereditary barons, Kes maintained its independence by playing it's stronger neighbors against each other. A labyrinthine maze of treaties and trade agreements meant that everyone had more to gain by Kes remaining a sovereign power, rather than a client state. If any one country moved against the Keshani, they would earn the ire of at least three others as their own interests were threatened.
It was a knife's edge path to travel, but it was one the barons of Kes had successfully traversed for five centuries.
A beneficial side effect of their scheming was that Kes had become a mercantile nexus for the region. While the great markets and countless warehouses this entailed could not quite match Devastapol for variety, or depravity, they came a close second.
As such, the Wild Rose was a common visitor to the harbors of Kes. Common enough that Willow could not risk the chance that Keshani customs officials might find the hidden cargo they carried for the Arkady syndicate.
It was this reason that saw those chests of stolen jewels offloaded into one of the Wild Rose's longboats, under Mockery's sharp-eyed supervision. With a trio of handpicked sailors, Mockery would bring the longboat in under the cover of darkness, seeking landfall several leagues further down the coast, while Willow and the Wild Rose docked at the main harbor of a small city called Napeth.
By such means, Willow hoped to sneak her highly illegal cargo past the irritatingly competent Keshani authorities, and rendezvous with both it and Mockery several days later. It made Willow slightly fretful to let the cargo she was personally responsible out of her control for such a period. Not that she didn't trust Mockery, but ... Willow hated to surrender control over any facet of her life.
And if this job went pear-shaped .... heads would roll. Including hers.
Some element of her apprehension must have shown on her face though as Mockery was saying his farewells.
"Ah, don't be fretting yerself, cap'n," he suggested. "T'ain't the first time we've done this, now is it. What could go wrong?"
Willow squeezed her eyes shut. "Don't say that!" she moaned through gritted teeth. "Are you trying to jinx us?"
With a smirk and a jaunty wave, Mockery slipped over the side into the longboat gently rocking on the waves.
Scowling, Willow shouted after him, "You did that on purpose, you bloody bilge rat!" But despite herself, Willow couldn't help a tiny grin breaking out.
For Willow, the next few days passed with excruciating turgidity as her irritation mounted. It wasn't that her days were empty, far from it. There were any number of tasks to complete before the Wild Rose would be able to return to the open sea. Their supplies of food and fresh water needed to be replenished, and their cargo offloaded and delivered to the factor of the merchant for whom they had been transporting it. New cargo had to be secured then for the outbound voyage, for an empty hold would earn them no coin, and Willow's sailors didn't work for free.
There were also a myriad of other small tasks to done as well, ranging from the inconsequential to the vital, and while any of these could have been delegated to Xander, or even one of the more responsible of her men, Willow did them all herself. Driven by a reckless energy and fueled by anxiety, Willow was the inevitably the first to rise each cold, gray morn and last to retire at night.
And not once did she return to her own cabin. If Tara found her past deeds so unspeakably heinous ... well then, Willow would no longer inflict her unwanted presence upon the blonde. It was a hasty decision, one sparked by hurt feelings and injured pride, and Willow regretted it in those few quiet moments when she was left alone with her thoughts. Thoughts in which images of Tara lingered uncomfortably.
Which is why she worked so hard to keep herself busy.
In the end, when it came, Mockery's message that he had arrived at the tavern that was their agreed upon rendezvous, Willow was only too happy to rush to meet him.
The meeting with their contact took place in a deserted drinking hall on the outskirts of the docks district. A two story structure with a slightly decrepit facade that spoke wistfully of long past days of glory. Even still, most every night this drinking hall would be packed to the rafters with sad-faced dock workers drowning the sorrows of their banal lives in cheap ale and watered down wine. But at mid-morning all those selfsame drinkers were hard at work.
Willow's contact, Ronan, had secured their meeting place with particular ease, given that he secretly owned a majority share of the property. With the manager and what few dedicatedly pathetic bar flies remained unceremoniously banished, the building was all theirs.
Ronan had set up shop at the far end of the hall, behind a ten-foot long trestle table of ale-stained oak, seated behind it like the king of the drunkards holding court. He was a man of average height, but nail thin, with a long, narrow face. He typically wore a blank smile that settled on his features like an ill-fitting coat, and it never, ever, touched his eyes.
His cover was as a semi-prosperous merchant who specialized in fine wines. Whereas some men in a similar situation might have let such a business suffer, given that it was just a facade to disguise the true manner in which he earned his income, Ronan approached it with the same dispassionate financial acumen that made him an excellent fence. Not to mention that he fancied himself something of a wine connoisseur.
Willow and her followers were forced to approach Ronan as if they were supplicants to a royal court, walking down the length of the hall under the watchful gaze of a quartet of brawny bodyguards. It was an intentional move on Ronan's part. In the fence's experience, even such a simple piece of manipulation could put the other party on the back foot.
The architecture of the building lent itself to Ronan's ploy; the second story was little more than a wide balcony encircling the inside of the building where you could drink with some small measure of privacy while still looking down upon the main floor. The high vaulted roof that resulted gave the hall a small measure of grandeur, more than what most of the drunken wastrels who frequented the establishment would ever experience.
The smugglers were used to such blatant chicanery however, and chose to counter it with an aura of cavalier nonchalance. Willow had purposefully added a extra bit of sway to her hips as she strode, and left the throat of her blouse unlaced lower than usual, placing her modest décolletage even more on display than usual. If Ronan wants to play his little games, so will I!
Ronan inclined his head briefly as they arrived at his table. "Captain," he murmured in greeting.
Rather than return his greeting, Willow flicked her hair back with a toss of her head, the beads woven into her braids rattling fiercely. Settling into a chair placed directly opposite Ronan, she stretched her legs languorously, supple muscles shifting beneath the tight green silk of her breeches.
Willow knew that Ronan's bodyguards were staring at her with open admiration and other ... less polite sentiments in their eyes, but the fence's eyes never flickered. Based on their prior encounters, Willow expected no less ... but it still left her feeling a little miffed. A girl always likes to be noticed ... even if I wouldn't touch a man with a ten-foot pole.
Mockery dropped into the chair beside her with all the grace of a sack of potatoes, munching on a half-eaten apple he'd swiped from one of the other tables as they walked in. A trickle of juice ran down his chin as he gave Ronan an insolent grin and propped his booted feet up on the table.
Ronan's smile tightened slightly, as if a tiny man were turning a crank in the back of the fence's head to stretch his face tighter across his skull. "You have my merchandise, I trust?"
Sighing, Willow gave a tut of disapproval. "But of course, Ronan. Have I ever failed you?"
"No," Ronan admitted. "But there can always be a first time."
Willow gave a wave, and the two of her sailors carrying the chest moved forward and deposited it on the table in front of Ronan.
The fence extended his hand. "The key?"
This chest was thoroughly secured by not one, but two separate locks built into the chest itself. Willow had received one of the two keys required to unlock it when the chest had been delivered to the Wild Rose, and now fished her key out from between the valley of her breasts where it had been dangling on a silken cord.
"And my payment?" asked Willow, the key dangling from her fist just outside of Ronan's reach.
Ronan nodded, and one of the bodyguards lumbered forwards to deposit a pair of bulging money pouches on the table in front of Willow. They clinked as they hit the wood, pregnant with coinage. Willow lightly tossed the key to Ronan, but didn't bother to check the money. She'd been dealing with Ronan for long enough that she trusted him not to rip her off ... on this transaction at any rate.
"Pleasure doin' business with ya," declared Willow as she secreted her pay away inside her vest. She started to rise, but Ronan gestured for her to remain seated.
"A moment of your time, captain?" he requested. "There is another matter of business I would like to talk to you about."
Willow shrugged, settling back in her seat. "Can't fault the color of your gold, so go ahead."
"Before we start ..." Lifting one arm, Ronan snapped his fingers. A sad-faced serving wench scurried out from the kitchen with a tray supporting a cluster of goblets and an open wine bottle. She placed a goblet in front of Willow and Mockery, but was waved off when she offered one to Willow's three sailors. The serving girl poured a generous portion of wine into each goblet before scurrying back out of the room.
"Would you care to try my latest find?" Ronan offered. There was a flicker more life than usual in his cold, sharp-edged face as he spoke of his passion. "A drink to celebrate our continuing business association? I assure you, it is quite a pleasant vintage."
"Why not," agreed Willow. Holding the goblet up to her nose, Willow took a deep, appreciative sniff, and crooked a eyebrow at Mockery. "Smells a proper drop, that does," she pronounced, taking a sip.
Mockery was less subtle, taking a deep swig that left a sheen of moisture on his lips. Wiping it clean with his sleeve, he gave a hearty belch.
"Now then, what's this new business proposition, Ronan?" Willow asked, settling back in her seat, goblet in hand.
"Ahh ..." Steepling his fingers in front of his face, Ronan narrowed his eyes. "About that ... I'm afraid that I must bring our partnership to an end. Permanently."
Willow frowned. "Oh? Why's that?"
Ronan's smile sharpened, and for the first time in Willow's experience, it was echoed in his eyes. "I rather imagine it has something to do with the poison you just drank."