The next morning, Liam was up with the sun as usual, and feeling less angry than he’d been the night before, having slept hard after all. Killian was still sound asleep, having burrowed beneath the blanket and turned away from the early morning sun piercing the room. Liam left the room and rummaged in his father’s wardrobe for something to wear. The civilian clothes he left behind no longer fit, and his uniform needed laundering and tailoring. He found an old linen shirt and breeches and slipped them on before taking the gold Killian gave him and heading down to the market for some food.
When he returned—bread, cheese, and some fresh fruit and milk stuffed in a small sack—Killian was waiting for him by the door.
The boy’s thick, dark eyebrows were arched over wide, blue-gray eyes, and the high cheekbones Liam didn’t remember being as pronounced last time he was home, were deeply flushed. Killian, in general, was far more narrow than Liam remembered, more knee and elbow than anything else. He shot a tentative smile at Liam and ducked his head, scratching at something behind his ear.
“Thought you’d left me, too,” he said, looking sheepish.
Liam felt horrible for not letting Killian know he was only going to be gone for a short time. He had let his stomach, which sank upon looking at Killian trying to hide his panic, think for him. Remembering how off-balance he had felt yesterday at being unexpectedly alone, he shifted his bundle to one hand and ruffled Killian’s hair. Killian let out a breath, and Liam felt his brother relax.
“Can’t get rid of me that easy, brother. Come, let’s go sit and have some breakfast. You can tell me of your adventures,” he said.
“I think I’d rather hear yours,” Killian said.
“Aye, and you will. But right now, yours are the more important ones. Get some plates down, would you?”
They’d reached the kitchen at the back of the house, and Killian pulled two earthenware dishes and mugs from the sideboard and placed them on the heavy wooden table in the center of the kitchen. Liam was slicing the bread and cheese on a cutting board when he gestured to Killian to sit on the long bench facing him.
“Let’s get on with it then,” Liam said. “What’s been going on in my absence?”
Killian grabbed a piece of the crusty bread and pulled a chunk away from it. Before he popped it in his mouth, he asked, “So what’s it like to be a Lieutenant?”
Liam sighed. Killian could deflect better than some of the old sea dogs on board when they were keeping secrets from the officers. He gave Killian just enough of an answer to sate his brother’s curiosity, but no more.
“I’ve got more men to order about, more opportunity to get in trouble, slightly better rations, and a rather large and inconvenient hat. Now,” he said as if ordering one of those men under his authority, “tell me what happened.”
Killian swallowed his bread and drained his mug of the milk while Liam sat, waiting as patiently as he could. He drummed his fingers on the table and raised his eyebrows at Killian.
“There’s not much to tell,” Killian said. “I came home one day from my lessons, and Father asked if I was ready to go sail the realms like we’d talked about doing when I was little. I thought it was a bit out of the blue, but missing my lessons for a while to go sailing with him sounded brilliant. I didn’t argue.”
Killian shrugged and had a bite of cheese.
Liam sat quietly, not wanting to disrupt his brother’s story or have to redirect him back to it if he decided to try to change the subject again.
Killian stared off toward the kitchen window above wash basin and continued his account. “Our first ship left that afternoon, and a few nights later we were in Newport harbor to board the next. That night we were at a tavern eating dinner, and not even half-way through the meal, he said it was time to leave. Hadn’t even finished my chicken. We went back to the Wildstar, and the next morning I woke up to find him gone,” Killian said, his voice laced with confusion and his eyes soft with a hurt Liam wished his brother didn’t know.
The news Killian shared was not necessarily good. Newport was well-known not just for its busy shipping industry, but for its smuggling of goods and people. Ships went in and out of the harbor all day, and roads diverged out of the town heading in all directions, the carriage traffic steady. You could go anywhere from Newport, and if you didn’t want a record of it, you didn’t have to have one. People vanished from Newport all the time never to be heard from again.
Liam frowned at the implication and tried to tamp the ire that was threatening to rise up again. How could he even think to bring Killian along if the situation was dire enough that he would need to leave him behind? What the bloody hell was going on?
He picked at his own food on the plate, tugging the leaves off a strawberry one-by-one. Not for the first time in his life, Liam felt he didn’t know his father at all. He knew his career well enough, and he respected his position within the Admiralty, but David Jones was not around much when Liam was growing up, and he couldn’t begin to get into his father’s head to solve this mystery. He pushed his plate to the side and looked at Killian.
“What happened next?” Liam asked.
“The first mate told me that someone was after Father, and they were searching the ship. Said it would be better for me if I hid. He wasn’t sure what they would do to a child, and he wasn’t having my blood on his hands. I could hear a man roughing up the night watchman trying to get information,” Killian said.
“Did you get a look at him?” Liam asked.
“No. Not from where I was hiding,” Killian said, shaking his head. “Eventually he left without any information, I’m guessing, since no one had any for me either, and I was much nicer about asking.”
Killian went on to tell Liam about how he’d stuck around town for a couple of days, skulking about, trying to see if he could spot their father or learn of his whereabouts, but there was nothing. He did hear that the King’s Fleet was returning to its homeport, and he knew he needed to get back before Liam shipped out again. It took a short while, but he found a merchant ship heading back toward home that would take him as a passenger. They stopped in Portsmouth first, and it was there Killian saw some suspicious looking men at the docks, and he decided to sneak off and walk the rest of the way home, keeping to the woods parallel to the main road.
Liam was impressed with Killian’s resourcefulness. He shook his head and smiled at the boy.
“You are a wonder, little brother.”
Killian blushed to the tips of his ears and fidgeted his fingers against the table. “Not like we haven’t been to Portsmouth before. Getting home was more tiresome than difficult,” he said, sounding more than a little surprised at his assessment.
They had been to Portsmouth before, but usually by sea, not land. Killian’s understatement was amusing, but Liam let it go without comment in favor of another question.
“Do you remember anything strange before Father whisked you off?”
Killian looked down at his plate, contemplating for a few moments before answering.
“Perhaps? He’d been short with me a few days before we left, which was kind of unlike him. He seemed distracted, too. But that was only for a day and then he was back to normal. He was up late every night, though, in his study. Found him asleep at his desk one morning with his head on a map and a piece of paper clutched in his hand. Didn’t get a look at it though. He shooed me out of there pretty quick.”
“Huh,” Liam said. He wondered if maybe that pile of papers in his father’s study was more useful than he first thought.
“Had anyone been by to visit him here?” Liam asked next.
“Just the usual messengers from the King and the Admiralty. At least when I was home. No idea if someone was here while I was at my lessons.”
Liam was becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of information that would help him figure out what to do next. He had so many questions and it was looking more and more like maybe his father wouldn’t be back to answer them. And he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to take care of Killian without help. It wasn’t like his father planned to be gone for a few days and Liam needed to make sure Killian ate and bathed and went to bed. He found himself currently and wholly responsible for another person, and he was terrified of failing Killian. He’d barely begun learning to take care of himself when not at sea, never mind a child.
He took comfort in the knowledge that Killian wasn’t just any child. He was bright and capable the majority of the time. And far more mature for a lad his age than he probably should have been. Still, he tried to picture Killian sneaking about looking for their father and couldn’t quite manage it.
“Tell, me, brother, how did you avoid being found out while you were in Newport looking for Father?”
“I pretended to be a blacksmith’s apprentice looking to make a delivery to Secretary Jones.”
“I bought a cutlass with some of the gold, wrapped it up in a rag, looked like I knew where I was going, and walked quickly as if I were going to get the lash if I slowed down.”
Liam shook his head. “A cutlass, eh?”
Killian shrugged. “It’s more my size than a regular sword. You know, in case I needed to defend myself.”
“Fair point. Do you even know how to use it?”
“Aye,” Killian said, affronted.
“Did you bring it home with you?”
“Well, then, go retrieve it, and let’s go see what kind of swordsman you are, little brother.” Liam hoped some proper activity would help him clear his head and maybe shake something important loose from Killian’s.
“If I beat you, you have to stop calling me that. I’m not little. I’m younger.”
“Aye, you are that, too. Let’s head down to the beach so we don’t wreck the house.”
Killian practically snorted. “Who’s going to care if we do?”
Liam hoped maybe their father still would, if he came back. And if he didn’t, and he and Killian were all that were left of their family, the house would still belong to them, to Liam. This was always going to be their home, and right now it was the only constant in their lives. It was also the only place Liam could still feel any trace of his mother, whom he had adored. No, he wasn’t about to take out his frustration on the house.
“I might,“ he said firmly. He gave Killian a push out of the kitchen. "Now go.”
There was a small, raised, kitchen garden out back his mother had tended to once, now left fallow, and beyond that, a sandy path that lead to the beach where Liam and Killian learned to swim and sail. Both the path and garden were in the midst of blooming and looking unkempt. As Liam pushed the growth out of the way, he wondered if he was going to have to hire a caretaker for the house. And possibly Killian. The thought bothered him more than he cared to admit.
The brothers reached the seawall and jumped down onto the soft, thick, sand, each with a weapon in hand. They faced off, and before Liam could get the teasing remark he was going to open with, Killian gave him an almost feral grin and advanced, swinging his blade in a downward slash. Liam retreated a step, but deflected Killian’s attack easily.
“Cheeky little bastard, you are!” he laughed.
“For the last time, I’m not little,” Killian reminded him again as he went back on the offensive.
“Yes, yes. So you keep saying. Now be quiet and fight!”
For the next several minutes, the boys moved their way up and down the small inlet, Liam letting Killian lead the fight, while occasionally throwing in a more advanced technique to see how his brother responded. Killian was far better than Liam expected him to be. He was obviously taking lessons. He wasn’t really a match for Liam, with his many years of experience over the boy, but still, Killian was going to be formidable if he kept up his practice.
Liam disarmed Killian at one point, and Killian changed tactics by running at him with a yell, to throw Liam off. It worked for a moment (if only because Liam began to laugh), and Killian was able to kick at Liam. Liam grabbed Killian’s ankle before he could make contact with Liam’s knee, and set him off balance and down into the sand.
“What you lack in size, brother, you make up for in recklessness.”
“I’m going to be at least as big as you someday, Liam. You’ll see,” Killian warned.
Liam laughed and held his hand out to Killian to help him upright again. “Those are some promising fighting skills you’ve acquired, little brother,” Liam said.
“Aye, Father’s been teaching me…” Killian said as he worked to catch his breath.
“Thought I recognized some of his fighting style. Although I noticed you’ve added your own flair to it. With a longer sword, someday you’ll be as dangerous as Father was, too.”
Killian looked down and pushed his shoe deeper into the sand. “You’re talking about him like he’s already dead,” Killian said, flatly.
“I know he’s not dead,” Liam assured him, even though he wondered if that were a lie, “but his sword fighting days aboard ship have been over for quite some time. That’s all I meant.”
Pursing his lips and frowning, Killian countered, “If he was so ‘dangerous,’ why didn’t he stay and fight whoever was after him?”
"I dunno. It doesn’t make sense to me either.” Precious little was making sense the last couple of days, and Liam had never felt less familiar with the man he’d been calling “Father” his whole life than he did at that moment.
The two brothers hopped up on the wall to take a break, and sat in silence, watching the gulls circling and sweeping the shore for clams to crack open for their meal. The sun was high overhead, and Liam could feel a trickle of sweat roll down the middle of his back and down past the waistband of his breeches. Summer would be in full swing soon enough, and Liam would be grateful for the ocean breeze gusting across the decks of The Sovereign.
“Liam?” Killian broke into his thoughts.
“Did I do something wrong?” Killian asked in a quiet voice.
Liam considered his brother, who, at that moment, was looking more like the guileless lad he’d left behind almost a year ago, and not the young man Liam could see him becoming.
“Something wrong? What do you mean?”
“Did Father leave me like that because he didn’t want me anymore?”
Liam’s heart was breaking, and not just because he could see how deeply Killian was hurt by what their father had done, but because he wondered the same thing about himself. Was he not the son his father had been proud of after all? Were he and Killian not worth staying and fighting to be with? What could have been more important than his children?
Throwing his arm over Killian’s shoulders and pulling him close, Liam gave him a quick squeeze.
“No, brother, it wasn’t you. You did nothing wrong.”
“Then why? Why did he leave me alone in a strange place that way?”
Liam sighed, his sadness for Killian transforming to anger with his father. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. He looked down at his brother and smiled. “I do know that you proved yourself to be resourceful and a keen navigator, even on land. You made it home, on your own. That is not something every boy your age would be able to do. Father must have known you had it in you to survive, Killian. I can’t believe he would really leave you alone if he didn’t think you could handle it.”
Killian smiled sadly and kicked his feet against the sea wall. “I didn’t like being left alone like that, Liam. I felt like a boat untethered from its mooring,” he said.
“I felt that way when Mother died.”
“Aye. You were probably too young to remember much. But it was hard for me to lose Mum. Before you were born, Father was at sea quite a bit, and it was just the two of us. Then she was gone and a big part of me went with her.”
“Oh,” was all Killian said.
“But you know what?”
Killian looked up at Liam, hope shining in his eyes. “What?”
“Well, you started growing up and following me around everywhere, and it was like having some of Mum with me again. You remind me of her sometimes. And, when you are not being a right shit, I enjoy your company.”
Liam put his hand on the back of Killian’s head and pushed him gently until Killian lost his balance and had to hop down from the wall into the sand.
“Who’s the right shit now, brother?” Killian said with a smile and one eyebrow cocked in question.
“Tsk, tsk! Language,“ Liam admonished with a wag of his finger. "What would father say if he heard such a thing from you?”
“‘Bad form, Killian,’” he mimicked.
“We wouldn’t want that now, would we?” Liam asked, laughing at Killian’s imitation.
“S’ppose not,” Killian admitted. “But you cuss plenty. Doesn’t seem to bother him any.”
“That’s because I’m a grown man with a career. Father doesn’t really have much say over me anymore.”
“Well, he’s not exactly here to have any say over me either, is he?” Killian said, indignation seeping into his words.
“S’ppose not,” Liam agreed. “But I am. No cursing until you are… eighteen.”
“Bloody hell,” Killian muttered, ducking his head as he tried, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that he was rolling his eyes again.
Liam laughed. “You are quite the rule-breaker, little brother.”
Later that day, the brothers combed their father’s study looking for clues for where he might have gone, or who may have upset his study. There were none. Just an extra large pile of ash in the small fireplace. Liam felt like his father truly did not want to be found, whether it was by him and Killian or someone else.
There was one more place to look for something that might shed some light on his father’s disappearance.
When Liam turned eighteen, his father showed him where he kept valuables: hidden behind the portrait of Liam and Killian’s mother above the fireplace. Liam looked up at her likeness: dark hair and light dress windblown as she stood on the shore before rough seas, her blue eyes and mischievous smile so much like how he remembered her, he felt the pang of her loss for the second time that day.
He swung the painting away from the wall, revealing an opening that held an iron strongbox. On first inspection, the box looked like it had no lid or lock. It was rectangular, decorated in silver with the image of an octopus, its tentacles wrapping around each side as if it were holding its treasures close. Liam’s father had paid handsomely for it on one of his missions long ago. It was no ordinary strongbox. What had made it so expensive was the enchantment put upon it that would only allow an immediate blood relative to open it.
Liam touched the box, feeling the smooth silver of the octopus cool beneath his fingertips. The tentacles began to shift and slide until they pulled back enough to uncover a latch. Pulling the latch up, Liam opened the box. It was empty, save for a sheaf of official-looking papers: his father’s will. It was recently updated. Liam scanned the contents of the pages in his hand, and was unsurprised to see his father had left everything he owned to Liam — the house, a small sloop berthed in the harbor, and whatever money his father kept in the bank — with the stipulation that half would go to Killian upon his eighteenth birthday. Killian was to be placed under Liam’s care as well until he came of age.
He folded up the papers, placing them back in the box. Then he closed it and returned the portrait to its proper place with care.
"What was in there?” Killian asked, trying to look over Liam’s shoulder.
“Just Father’s will.”
Liam could hear the unasked question in Killian’s voice. Would they be alright? He hoped so. But he didn’t really know for sure, and he didn’t want to make promises to Killian he didn’t know he could keep. He may look like his father, but he wasn’t going to behave like him anymore.
Reading the will made everything going on right now seem far too real. The idea of being accountable for not just their estate, but his brother, did not sit well with Liam. He wanted to be an Admiral some day, to make a name for himself that had nothing to do with his father or any other Jones before him. The only commitment he truly wished for was the command of a ship.
Liam knew he was running out of time to find someplace for Killian to live until he was of age. He needed to return to duty in 48 hours unless he could get an extension, but that would mean transferring to another ship. The Sovereign was starting to become like a second home to him, and the men on it like family. He’d been earning their respect and was getting more opportunities to lead. There was no guarantee another ship would afford him the same opportunity. Still, Killian was the most important person in his life and he needed to figure out what to do with his brother. His options were limited, and none of them were ideal.
He sighed. All Liam wanted was for Killian to stay safe while he was at sea. He couldn’t leave him alone in the house, and he didn’t think he had time or money to hire a proper governess long-term. The only other family they had was a great Uncle of their mother’s, but maybe he could help.
Liam put both hands on the back of the chair, leaning against it for his own sense of support, and tried to sound more confident than he felt.
“Listen, brother, I’ve been thinking. Maybe I should write to Uncle Marcus and Aunt Helena to see if they would take you in for a bit.”
Killian groaned, dropping his head back to look at the ceiling in utter frustration. “Now you’regoing to abandon me, too? Bloody brilliant, Liam. You may as well kill me.”
“Hey, now. Don’t say things like that.” Liam felt like he was still recovering from the idea that it was all too possible to lose his brother and he didn’t care to keep revisiting it.
“There’s not so much as a small pond where they live, and the two of them are at least three-hundred years old. I swear to you, I’ll run away before the day is out if you send me there.”
“You’re being dramatic, Killian. I only mean for you to stay with them until we know more about what’s going on with Father. I’m only trying to keep you safe.”
Before he could talk sense into his brother, Killian stalked out of the room. Liam waited a few moments, cursing himself and his father yet again. Then he followed after Killian, knowing exactly where he’d go: the widow’s walk. Liam used to take Killian up there and sit in the little room, teaching him how to read the clouds and sky to predict changes in weather.
When they were young, and their father was home between missions, he would bring them there to show them how to find home using only the stars in the night sky. Sometimes, if they were having trouble falling asleep, he would bring them there, where it was quiet, and regale them with tales of young sailors who faced great adversity only to save the day and become heroes. The boys had dreamed of their own “hero’s journeys,” and fantasized how they, too, would bring glory to the Jones family.
Those days felt very far away now.
When Liam got to the top of the narrow staircase, he found Killian slumped in one of the rickety cane back chairs, an equally old—and currently dusty—sextant resting loosely in his hands. It was the one his father had used to teach them to navigate.
Killian sighed when Liam sat down in the chair beside him anyway. The sun wasn’t quite setting yet, but the sky was turning from the bright blue of afternoon, to something paler and softer before licks of orange and lavender rose up from the horizon.
“I’m sorry, Killian. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset,” Killian said as he placed the sextant back on the window sill. “I’m angry with Father for leaving us alone like this, and for not telling us anything. He lied to me.” He turned to meet Liam’s gaze. “Part of me doesn’t want to find him. I don’t care how sorry he is.” Killian’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I don’t think I can forgive him, Liam.”
There was a part of Liam that agreed wholeheartedly. How his father could abandon them—Killian especially—was beyond him. But he was their father. Obviously, something out of the ordinary was going on, but it didn’t really excuse his father’s actions, and it now fell on Liam to make decisions he didn’t ever think he’d have to make; what to do with Killian being at the top of the list. This was not the kind of responsibility he was looking to have and he felt guilty for it.
“I know, brother. I’m angry, too. But I can’t leave you home alone while I’m at sea, and I can’t give up my commission. I’m not good at anything else,” he pointed out.
Killian leaned forward toward Liam. The sudden excitement on his face told Liam he’d obviously been thinking about this particular problem as well. “Then bring me with you. Back on The Sovereign.”
Liam sat back and laughed. “As what? A bloody powder monkey?”
“No, as a midshipman,” Killian said practically between clenched teeth. “You know I’m old enough now.”
“I can do it. So what if I’m younger than most. I’m a good sailor and you know it. Let me join, Liam.”
Somehow Liam didn’t think this is what his father meant when he charged Liam with Killian’s well-being.
Liam shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest. “I don’t know, brother. I don’t like the idea of dragging you along with me. It’s dangerous even in the most peaceful of times. And the Admiralty frowns upon siblings serving together on the same ship. I couldn’t look out for you.”
Killian shrugged. “I can take care of myself. Think I just proved that, didn’t I?” Killian asked, sitting back and crossing his arms over his narrow chest as he ran his tongue along the inside of his bottom lip and stared defiantly at Liam.
If he weren’t so discomfited by the idea of Killian getting killed on a ship away from him—or worse, in front of him—he would have teased Killian for his cockiness.
Aside from that, Killian wasn’t entirely wrong. Lots of career Navy enlisted as Midshipmen when they were quite young, like Killian. Liam was a few years older when he obtained his commission, but his father had some pull at the time. Liam had less than no pull, and if Killian didn’t get in now, he might not get the chance, not without someone to back his commission. Liam was going to have to move quickly if he were going to go through the proper channels.
“Go find your best clothes. Tomorrow we’ll go to the Admiralty and see if they will grant our request. Perhaps father’s position there will be enough to recommend a favorable response.”
Killian’s face lit up. “Really?”
“Really. And take a bath, too. You’re filthy.”
The chair almost fell over in Killian’s haste to get out of it and down the stairs. He paused long enough to squeeze Liam’s shoulder.
“You won’t regret it, brother. I promise I will be the model sailor.”
Liam smiled. “You had better, little brother, or you will be swabbing decks and catching bilge rats for the rest of eternity.”
When Liam stood, he noticed a messenger coming up the lane toward the house. By the time he got downstairs, the man was approaching the front door.
Liam opened it to find the messenger was from the King. The wiry man, wearing livery in the blue and silver of the King’s crest held out an envelope. Liam took it, and the messenger turned and went back the way he came before Liam could respond.
Carefully tearing open the thick, gray envelope, Liam pulled out a card addressed to his father. The King was requesting his presence at the castle first thing in the morning.
“Bloody hell,” Liam said. He and Killian were going to have to stop there first before visiting the Admiralty. He would need to explain why their father would not be making the appointment himself. Looked like Liam was going to need a bath and a fresh uniform himself.