Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 11: A Pirate Thing

~SOUNDTRACK: Mikky Ekko – Who are you really~

Ember didn’t know for how long she struggled on that man’s back, and he didn’t seem too bothered by that. Eventually, she got tired of fighting him off and she tried to make a plan.

Who was this man, anyway? Why show up in the middle of the night to kidnap a random girl? And so many things didn’t add up. He’d called her a fire breather. Repeatedly. It seemed as if she wasn’t just a random, and that he’d actually meant to kidnap her, specifically.

For tonight, I’ll be your personal nightmare.

Personal nightmare. The phrasing threw her off. He’d mentioned a ship. A crew. Was he a sailor? A pirate, even? What would a pirate want to do with a village girl, with a common thief?

She needed to craft an escape plan, and she needed to do that fast. If he’d truly take her on a ship, things would be a little more complicated, but she had faith in her swimming skills. The real problem would’ve been dodging an entire pirate crew, if this were truly the case. Maybe she could act innocent and scared and make a run for it or jump in the water the first chance she got. But she somehow doubted the pirate would’ve bought the act after she’d tried to attack him back in the woods. Not to mention that jumping blindly in the water would’ve been dangerous. Maybe she could’ve—

Before she got the chance to finish that thought, she felt herself lowered to her feet. She yelped but the sack on her head stayed in place. She felt motion, like they were on the move. One of the supposedly pirates reached to grab her hands and tied them in front of her, despite her struggles.

“Save your energy, love,” the one she’d fought off last night spoke near her ear. He had a hoarse voice, but in the way that gave away the fact that he was young and used to using that tone to woo women. “It’s pointless anyway. You might fall off the boat and I hear sharks aren’t as friendly as me.”

So they were on a boat, Ember thought. They were truly taking her to a ship. Oh, Lord. What had she gotten herself into now?

“Where are we going?” Ember hissed at him, and the pirate just chuckled.

“Why, on my ship, of course,” he replied lightly. “You’ve got a whole gang of fans and they’re eager to make your acquaintance.”

Such a pretentious language for a potential pirate. This man was more than he let show. Ember got the feeling this mess was a lot thicker than she’d anticipated.

“I don’t understand,” she meant to snap and hated that her voice was shaking. “What do you want from me? What would your crew want to meet me for? I’m no one. I’ve got nothing you could possibly want for me.”

The man surprised her again by clicking his tongue.

“That ain’t exactly true, little fire breather. You’ll see.”

There he went again with the fire breather. What did that have to do with anything?

After that, they fell into silence filled only by the sound of waves hitting the wood of the boat. The salty smell of the sea filled Ember’s lungs and she swallowed hard around the lump in her throat. Through the fibers of the sack she could see the first crack of dawn. Had they been on the move for so long? Lord, Kaleb must have been worried out of his mind when he realized she wouldn’t show up. What would become of her siblings? She needed to get away from these men.

After what seemed an eternity, she felt the boat stop and she was grabbed and moved and thrown around until she felt a solid floor beneath her feet. She heard voices, so many voices, groggy and slurred, and she figured she must’ve arrived on that ship she’d overheard the two men talking about.

A hand reached for the sack on her face and her whole body tensed. She narrowed her eyes at the light and when she finally opened them, she was met with one gorgeous sight, as painful as it was for her to admit.

It was the man from last night, except that now, in plain light, she could see him better. She’d been right to assume he was young, because he couldn’t have been older than 20, maybe 21. He had blue eyes that matched the shade of the sky and that of the wild sea, his black hair was ruffled and his beard was scruffy enough to make him annoyingly attractive, considering Ember wanted to beat the living hell out of him, just to wipe that smug grin off his face. He was wearing all black, from a shirt that looked dirty and ruffled to a black leather vest, black pants and black worn-off boots. He had all sorts of talismans and weird amulets around his neck and as he moved a few steps backwards, extending his arms, Ember noticed a tattoo on his wrist, but couldn’t see what it represented. She’d been right in every one of her assumptions.

“Welcome aboard, fire breather,” his voice boomed, husky and clear. He bowed mockingly in front of her. “Captain Maxwell Lockhart, at your services, m’lady.”

His eyes sparkled with amusement and the whole crew burst into obnoxious laughter. Ember pursed her lips and glared at him.

“You’re a pirate,” she spat.

The captain scowled.

“I prefer mercenary.”

When Ember glared incredulously at his choice of words, he rolled his eyes.

“Mercenary who happens to own a ship and a crew,” he complied.

“Call it as you may,” Ember growled at him. “I want nothing to do with your crew or our ship. I demand to be taken back to the shore.”

The captain laughed at her as if her demands were the funniest joke he’d heard all day. He leaned on a barrel and crossed his arms over his chest, looking at her through his lashes. Perhaps under different circumstances, the gesture would’ve made her swoon, but it only enraged her more, making her see red at the edges of her vision.

“Sorry, love,” he shrugged. “No can do. I’ve got plans with you.”

Ember felt like strangling him right now. She groaned, exasperated, and raised her voice, feeling her whole body shake with anger.

“What plans?” she practically screamed. “I’m a poor girl with four little siblings and a cat that are waiting for me, that depend on me. I can’t just come play pirate.”

“Mercenary,” the captain corrected calmly.

“I don’t care,” Ember yelled back. “I want to go back. There’s nothing you could possibly want from me! Is it because I’m a thief? Are you collecting outlaws?”

Captain Lockhart laughed at her and moved to stand in front of her.

“Not at all,” he shrugged. “I don’t give a worthless penny of your thieving legacy, fire breather. My plans are a little grander than that. And you’re not fooling a soul, love. You say you’re no one, but I know exactly what you’re worth.”

He moved away, looking at her amused.

“But just so you don’t say I’m the bad guy,” he announced loud enough for the entire crew to hear. “You get to fight for your freedom.”

Ember’s eyebrows rose suspiciously.

“Excuse me?”

“I saw the fire and the passion in you last night,” he lowered his voice, coming closer once again. “You’ve got some combat skills in you. If you can beat me, you’ll have earned your freedom and I shall take you back to the shore myself.”

Ember frowned incredulously.

“You want to spar over my freedom?”

“Aye,” captain Lockhart nodded, smiling excited like a child who got to play with his new friend in the dirt.

“And you’ll let me go if I beat you?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Ember narrowed her eyes at him and considered his offer. He was a pirate, after all, and she could tell he had more experience in hand to hand combat than her. After all, her experience consisted of low-key noble boys who liked to wiggle some swords in their free time. But she was confident in her self-training. And she knew how to use her physical traits and her environment to her advantage. Yes, she could actually win this. So with a click of her tongue, she shot the pirate a wicked smile and extended her hands that were still tied up to him.

“Do you mind?” she prompted. “There’s a pirate whom I need to make swallow up his own words.”

The captain chuckled and took his knife out from his boot, cutting off the ropes. Then he went and picked up two swords, handing one to her.

“Swords?” Ember raised an eyebrow. “It’s like you want to get rid of me.”

She took the position and waited for him to do the same, but he just stood there, the sword on his shoulder, a hand in his pocket. It all just infuriated Ember even more.

“Well?” the captain prompted when she didn’t move. “We ain’t got all day, love. You gonna swing or not? I’m even giving you a head start, since you’re so willing to humiliate me in front of my crew.”

Ember frowned and pursed her lips. Oh, she was gonna have so much fun shoving those smart comments down his throat. She hesitated no longer and took the first swing that the captain was quick to dodge. They waited for a second, their swords crossed, the captain smirking smugly at her and Ember estimating his skills before making her next move. He was fast, really fast. She hadn’t even seen the length of his movement as he blocked her kick. He shouldn’t have been able to. And she noticed that he was left-handed, so that would’ve been something she could use to her advantage. With a frown, Ember realized it could also be something she could stumble over, too.

She rolled on her left foot and tried to hit his right side, but he was quick once again and dodged it, only this time he did more than block and elbowed her in the ribs. Ember gasped, but tried to hold her own. The captain simply shrugged and circled around her. Ember was already flushed with anger and was having trouble calculating her movements. It was all so much easier when she was fighting imaginary opponents, or when the other guys were too scared or intimidated or not enough prepared to represent a real threat.

The steadiness in her feet faltered when she made her next move. She went again for his right side, hoping to find it less guarded. Her first mistake. The captain already saw it coming and blocked it easily. She was so shocked at the swiftness of his movement that she didn’t pull back right away, staying in position. Second mistake. Because this time, the captain didn’t waste any second and riposted, catching her wrist and twisted it enough to make her drop the sword. Then he turned her around so that her back was against his strong chest, one hand was around her shoulder and the other held a sword against her throat.

Ember gulped and the captain chuckled.

“Not bad, little fire breather. But not good enough.”

He released her and she stumbled on her feet a little before regaining balance. She looked around to find the pirates hollering and laughing at her and her breathing became even more frantic. The captain followed her gaze and noticed that his people were making her uncomfortable. And Ember was surprised to see something shift in his gaze at the acknowledgement.

He was quick to cover it with half a smirk.

“Looks like you’re stuck with me then, love,” he shrugged, handing the two swords to a member of the crew. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?”

He turned around and started walking away, not waiting for her to reply. Ember considered making another scene and trying to reason with him or something, but considering he’d left her there, on deck with a bunch of dirty obnoxious pirates, she figured she had no alternative but to follow him. She put her arms around herself, feeling naked in front of those men despite the layers of clothes she was wearing and the cloak. She felt exposed.

The captain led her away from the crew into a room that must have been his cabin and closed the door behind him. Ember took it in. It looked just like one would picture a pirate cabin. There was a simple bed, lots of empty bottles of rum on the floor and so many more full bottles of rum on a table, and under them were a few maps. No pictures or personal belongings other than a few clothes scattered around. The similarity with the hut where she lived hit Ember like a brick, but she tried to shrug it off. She didn’t want to draw parallels between her and the pirate.

“Do I get an explanation now?” Ember snapped at him.

The captain threw himself in a chair and opened a bottle of rum. He took a sip and offered it to her, but she shook her head in disgust.

“Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug at her refusal and took another sip. “Look, love, the deal is simple, aye? There’s only one thing I want from you, and the sooner I get it, the sooner you’re free to go.”

Ember’s eyes widened. Was he implying what she thought he was implying? She’d heard stories of pirates who took women from their families and turned them into whores just to use them until they got bored of them. But somehow, as despicable and frustrating as Maxwell Lockhart seemed, she couldn’t see him as such a repulsive human. But still, instinctively, she shuddered and pulled the cloak tighter around herself.

The captain didn’t miss the gesture and threw his head back laughing like the idea amused him to no end.

“Don’t look so scared, love. I didn’t mean what you think I meant. I may be a despicable outlaw, but I’ve still got my morals. I would never take a woman to bed unwillingly. Well, unless you’re willing, in which case…”

He trailed off and winked, leaving the rest to her imagination, and Ember was sure she’d turned about a dozen shades of red. The captain’s grin grew wider at her reaction.

“I think I’ll pass,” she spoke loud and clear, surprising even herself. “I just want to go home. What is it that you need from me?”

The captain stood from his chair, taking the bottle of rum with him. He stopped in front of her, his head tilted to one side. His clear blue eyes traveled across her slim silhouette and stopped on the same level with her green eyes.

“I know your kin,” he spoke with a new intensity filled with shades of greed that she hadn’t heard him use until now. She shuddered and he continued. “Your kin hoards gold, a lot of gold. I’m sure you have a whole treasure hidden somewhere around these lands. Take me to it and I’ll deliver you to your family myself, safe and sound.”

Ember frowned and took a step back. There he went again with all of those words she didn’t understand. Nothing he said made sense. Kin? Gold? Treasure? Was he mad? If she had a treasure, would she be living in misery?

“My kin?” she shrieked. “What are you talking about?”

The captain studied her for a few more seconds and Ember became oddly self-conscious under his gaze, but she held it nonetheless. After the humiliating defeat on deck, in front of an entire crew, she needed the small victories. But she didn’t get this one, either. Because captain Lockhart didn’t break her gaze. Instead, he kept gazing into her eyes as if searching for something only he knew, and whether he found it or not, Ember did not know.

“You have no idea what you are, do you?” he whispered, and Ember felt the rum on his breath. She willed herself to not move away.

“I am a thief. I am a sister. I am an outlaw, but I am a poor villager. What do you think I am?”

The captain chuckled and shook his head incredulously as if he hadn’t heard her.

“I heard you say that before, but I thought you were just trying to throw me off track,” he commented, suddenly unaware of Ember’s presence. “I thought it wouldn’t be possible for someone to not know at this age. But I see it now. You are clueless.” He turned to her. “What’s your name, little fire breather?”

Ember clenched her fists. “Stop calling me that,” she snarled at him. “My name is Ember. Ember Blackthorn.”

“Ember,” the captain whispered, and Ember hated to admit that the way he’d said it, so long, so tentative and suave sent a chill down her spine. “Tell me, Ember. What do you remember of those nights preceding the mornings in which you wake up in the woods?”

Ember froze. Her body betrayed her and she started to shake again. Her eyes widened and her lower lip trembled.

“H-How do you… What are you—“

The captain chuckled as if her trouble amused him.

“Little fire breather,” he commented again, moving a strand of hair beneath Ember’s ear and ignoring the fact that she was shying away from his touch. “You are, in the most literal way, a fire-breathing dragon. And you will take me to your treasure.”

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