Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 12: Children of the Wild Ones

~SOUNDTRACK: Royal Deluxe – I’m a wanted man~

Out of all the reactions she could have had, he had not foreseen this one. The minute the words were out of his mouth, the girl burst into a waterfall of giggles, shaking her head at him. The captain waited silently for her to calm down. Eventually, Ember stared him down with an amused expression on her face.

“Seriously,” she crossed her arms over her chest. “A dragon? A flying lizard that spits fire? Is this what you are wasting my time for? A children’s tale? I don’t know what’s in that rum of yours, Captain Lockhart, but it’s getting to your head.”

The captain clicked his tongue. So she was playing the denial card. Well, then it was rather fortunate he was such a good cards player.

“By all means,” he moved past her and leaned against the wooden table. “Call me Maxwell. Max, even, if you’d like. I would love nothing more than to part on friendly terms.”

Ember narrowed her eyes.

“I would love nothing more but to part, captain.”

Max chuckled. The girl had fire, he had to give her that. Regardless of the creature that spat flames at night, there was a flame in her green eyes here, in broad daylight, that could not be put out, and he believe that spark was the tether between the human and the dragon. Some fires just burn too bright. Like that story his mother used to tell him, about the sun burning so bright during the day that he would’ve scorched the earth, so his sister, the moon, had had to take over some of the light and illuminate the night, too. Ember had no idea of the power that was dormant within her.

“We’ll get to that, fire breather,” he mused. “Now, about the dragon—“

Ember groaned. “If I call you by your name, will you stop calling me that?”

Max smirked. If a member of his crew would’ve ever dared to take the liberty to address him so casually, he would’ve probably lost his tongue. But the girl had the guts to stand up to an actual pirate – mercenary –, and for that, Max respected her.

“Perhaps,” he complied. “So a children’s tale, you were saying? I’d say you’re clinging to a fool’s hope.”

“Look, Max,” Ember gritted her teeth, refusing to think about that time when she’d told Kaleb the exact same thing. “I do not know what you believe you know about me. But what you’re implying is beyond absurd. I am a girl. A thief. And there may be things that I do not comprehend, but to go to such lengths as to assume I’m a—“

She trailed off, the mere idea of that flying lizard the pirate was suggesting seeming hard to grasp. Her mind refused to even begin to understand the concept.

“A what?” Max looked at her through her lashes, shrugging. “A dragon? Well, it is true. But look, we don’t have to speak of it now, little fire breather. It’s been a long night and an even longer morning. Let’s get some rest and we’ll talk about all there is talk about after a long nap.”

Ember narrowed his eyes at him. While she was indeed exhausted, there were explanations to demand and to offer, gaps to fill in. And of those all, one thing and one thing only stuck with her.

“You said you’d stop calling me that if I called you Max,” she hissed.

Max simply shrugged and smirked, winking at her.

“I happen to like it. Get used to it.”

Ember rolled her eyes and clenched her fists. The urge to punch him was compelling and she actually considered throwing one punch, just one punch to get it out of her system. But then she reconsidered. However crazy his idea sounded, the man knew something. Maybe it wasn’t about dragon stories or fairytales, but whatever it was, it might have helped her figure out what she was. Not a dragon, for sure. Almost sure. Hopefully.

“And where am I supposed to sleep?” she snapped at him.

Max looked at her as if it were obvious.

“Why, my bed, of course.”

Ember’s eyebrows rose. There he went again with those innuendoes. Was this his idea of impressing a woman? Lousy attempts at seduction? Because all it did was make her uncomfortable instead of making an impression. Her facial expression must have shown precisely that, because Max chuckled once more.

“You needn’t worry, love,” he waved a hand. “I am a man of honor. I’m an obnoxious bastard with exquisite manners toward ladies.”

“I find that hard to swallow,” Ember muttered before she could stop herself, but if the remark upset Max, he didn’t show it. “I am not sharing a bed with you.”

“Didn’t say you had to,” Max grinned, clearly enjoying this little bicker of theirs. “I’ll take the floor.”

Ember wouldn’t have been able to hide his surprise if he’d told her that, aside from her being a dragon, he was a king frog who hunted down dragons. She froze and looked at him with an incredulous expression on her face, and for the first time today, Max looked rather offended.

“Don’t look so surprised, love.”

“You’ll sleep on the floor in your own cabin?” Ember inquired reluctantly.

“Would you rather we share the bed, after all?”

“No,” she hurried to clarify.

She was certain her cheeks were embarrassingly red and it came as no surprise that Max was laughing to himself at the sight. He took great delight in tormenting her with these small exchanges that toyed with her head. But he refused to fall victim to his games.

So without a word, she took off her cloak and climbed into the bed. She instantly missed the safety that the fabric of that old, worn-off cloak provided, but her back was turned on the captain and she didn’t want to crack and turn around again for the cloak. She heard Max’s footsteps around the cabin for a few more minutes and her muscles were tense. She doubted she’d be able to get any rest with him only a few feet away from him. She didn’t trust him, and with good reason. As charming and playful he wanted to come across as, he wanted to use her and whatever powers he believed she had to find some random treasure.

Before she could finish the thought, she heard him move towards her bed. She tensed and her breathing stopped. If he’d attempt anything, anything at all, if he even dared to lay a hand on her, she’d cut off his fingers one by one and feed them to the—

She stopped mid-thought. With the corner of her eyes she caught sight of some red fabric and realized with a shock that it was her cloak. Max laid it gently over her shoulders and moved away without as much as a tentative touch.

“’S chilly down here,” he muttered. “I need you intact. Now try to get some rest, fire breather. We’ve got great plans ahead of us.”

Right. Great plans. He needed her intact. But for some reason, Ember couldn’t get a single minute of sleep after that.


~SOUNDTRACK: Mikky Ekko – We must be killers~

When Max woke up, the sun was up in the sky, so it must’ve been well past noon. He rubbed his eyes and groaned. His back was sore from the hard floor, but he wasn’t one to complain. After all, his moral code – or whatever was left of it, anyway – forbad him to deny a young lady the comfort of a good sleep.

He got up in a sitting position and, when he glanced at said young lady sleeping in the bed, he could tell that she wasn’t exactly sleeping. Her eyes were closed and her features were calm enough. He took a second to appreciate the sight. She was one gorgeous gal. Delicate and all that, but fierce and unstoppable. He loved that in a woman. In fact, she was the kind of girl he would’ve taken to bed after his drunken nights in some roadside inn, had the stakes not been so high regarding her. But right now, with her eyes closed, he realized she was really something. A pretty something. Her oval face, pointed chin and little nose, elongated lips and eyelids that hid green cat-like eyes.

More like dragon-like eyes. He knew what this beauty held. Beneath that creamy skin, she kid scales. Her long, delicate fingers turned into claws. And those lips that curved into a devious smile bared fangs.

It was the breathing that gave her away. Max stood up and went to stand near her bed. She was breathing frantically and he saw her pulse point vibrating with the accelerated beat of her heart. She was faking it. He almost snorted. He wondered if she’d managed to get any sleep this couple of hours. Probably not, considering she was used to keeping her guard up and to not trusting people.

Before he could call out on her pretense, she opened her eyes and it all happened in the blink of an eye. She got up from the bed swiftly and came at him with a knife that she must have had on her beforehand. It seemed rather silly that she hadn’t used it so far, but Max didn’t have time to think about that. Still, he was faster than her once again. He caught her wrist, then her shoulders and spun her around just like he’d done yesterday, until he ended up sitting on the bed, her back against his chest. He still held her wrist so that the knife in her hand faced her throat, but before the blade could meet skin, her other hand flew up and caught the knife mid-air. The steel dug into flesh and blood dripped on their laps.

“Not bad, dragon, girl,” Max whispered in her ear, his grip on her tight. “But still not good enough.”

But Ember thought it further this time. She sent her free elbow flying backwards as hard as she could into his side and when he heard the captain grunt in pain, she also felt his grip weaken. She took advantage of it and pushed him backwards. They both fell off the bed and on the floor, Ember landing on top of him.

“Bloody hell, fire breather,” he grunted, that ever-present grin never leaving his lips. “Color me impressed.”

“Stop calling me that,” Ember hissed at him, wishing she’d had the common sense of holding to that knife in the fall. “Even if it were true, how could you know what I am?”

Max smirked up at her and, before she could snap at him again, he rolled them both over so that her body ended up trapped beneath his.

“I would tell you, if you just stopped lashing out on me for a second. I’m trying to help you, Ember.”

Perhaps it had been the way he’d looked at her, so intense and serious for the first time, any trace of amusement gone from his eyes. Perhaps it had been the way he’d called her by her name. But Ember stopped struggling. She let out a breath and relaxed her muscles and, slowly, Max’s grip on her wrists above her head weakened, too.

“That is a little disconcerting coming from a man who wants me to get him a treasure.”

And just like that, he was back to the smug pirate she wanted to beat the living hell out of. He let go of her wrists and stood, extending a hand to help her up on her feet, as well. But Ember could play the arrogant prick card, too. She clenched her jaw and held up her chin, standing up on her own. Max took his hand back, looking as if he was fighting hard not to smile.

“Then think of it like a mutual agreement. Us pals helping each other out,” he commented at Ember’s remark.

Ember rolled her eyes. “We’re not pals, captain Lockhart.

Max chuckled, shaking his head. This woman was the most stubborn and infuriating creature he’d ever encountered.

“Aye,” he clicked his tongue. “Not yet. But you’re underestimating my irresistible charm.”

“Doubtful,” Ember retorted.

“Give it time, fire breather. I’m a pleasure to be around. Now let’s take care of that nasty cut and I’ll answer whatever questions you may have.”

Ember inspected her right palm. In the rush, she forgot she had caught the knife with her hand and the blade had dug rather deep into her flesh. It didn’t hurt as much as she expected, although her whole hand was covered in dry blood, but she blamed it on the heat of the moment.

She sighed and sat on a chair. She saw Max take a bottle of rum from the table and he removed the cork with his teeth. He took her hand gently in his and held the bottle hovering over the wound. Ember’s eyes widened and she yanked back her hand when she realized what he meant to do.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Max rolled his eyes. “Cleansing.”

“Gods above, no,” Ember shrieked. “I will not die of infection on a pirate ship.”

Max groaned and ran a hand over his face, as if it physically pained him to keep dealing with her.

“Mercenary ship. And it’s alcohol, Ember. Alcohol will clean the wound. Now give me that.”

He grabbed her hand again before she could object and poured the rum over the cut. Ember hissed in pain. Then he took a cloth, soaked it in rum and began wiping away the blood, cleaning the wound from inside out. It stung, but it was nothing too unbearable.

“Do you truly believe it?” she blurted out eventually, and Max gazed at her questioningly. “Do you truly believe I’m… that I am a dragon?”

She spoke the word tentatively, trying its weight on her tongue, still making sense of what it implied. It still seemed surreal.

“I saw it happen with my own eyes,” Max replied. “As I live and breathe.”

Ember let out a shaky breath. Could she truly be that thing? It would somewhat explain the disappearing, the waking up in the woods, the memory losses. But a dragon? All the tales painted dragons as merciless, ruthless, cruel creatures that torched villages and killed people. Ember shuddered at the thought. She wanted to deny it. She wanted to claw Max’s eyes out and call him a liar. But something in his expression, so bored and careless on the surface, was genuine. And she couldn’t help but believe him.

I saw it happen with my own eyes. As I live and breathe.

“Did you truly not know?” it was Max’s turn to ask.

Ember shook her head. “I’m still not sure that I do. I wake up in the woods with no recollection of what happened or how I end up there. I figured there could be another explanation, a simpler one. Sleepwalking, maybe. But this? I’m having a hard time believing this.”

She noticed Max had stopped working on her hand and, instead, he held it out for her to inspect it. Ember frowned at first, but when she realized what he meant to show her, she gasped.

She had seen the knife dug into flesh. She had felt the blade cut through. The wound should have been deep and ugly and would have most likely left a nasty scar. Gods, there had been so much blood. But instead, running the length of her palm was a superficial cut that looked like a mere scratch, at the very most.

“It’s already healing,” Max explained. “That’s the dragon inside you enhancing the speed of the healing process.”

“B-But—“

“It might only leave a tiny scar,” Max continued. “But it’s completely healed within minutes. You believe me now?”

“I-It’s not possible,” Ember muttered, still staring wide-eyed at her shaking hand.

Max sighed, exasperated.

“Listen up, fire breather. The sooner you get it, the sooner I’ll have my gold, the sooner you get to leave. Simple as that. I’d say you move through the shock a little faster and skip to the part where you lead the way to my treasure.”

Ember gulped and he took her hand again, fastening the cloth dipped in rum around her hand, tying a knot with steady fingers that he tightened with his teeth.

“Wouldn’t want you to die of infection now, would we?” he winked, letting go of her hand.

Ember ignored his silly fooling around and let out a shaky breath, running her healthy hand through her hair.

“I don’t know what treasure you’re talking about,” she snapped, exasperated. “I don’t even how to swallow all that you keep throwing at me.”

“Well, I’d hurry to figure it out if I were you. That is, unless you enjoy my humble company so much that you intend to buy some more time with me.”

“Is this a joke to you?” she threw her hands up. “I cannot lead you to a treasure if I don’t even know how to be this dragon you want me to be or whether I can be that at all. Max, I don’t remember anything.

Max shrugged indifferently, like he couldn’t be bothered less by the fact. Ember was just more and more infuriated by this carelessness of his. Wasn’t it his interest that he pursued here? Shouldn’t he have shown a little more distress?

“I’ve got all the time in the world, love. I’ve been hunting down a dragon’s lair for a while now. I can wait a little longer. I presume we’ll have to wait until the next time you turn.”

The words made something snap inside Ember. She froze, feeling a veil as it was being lifted off her eyes. Max had all the time in the world. She didn’t. She remembered again. Kaleb. The kids. Gods above, what had become of them? Kaleb must have gone out of his mind when she didn’t show up at home last night or this morning. What would he think of her? And he couldn’t care for the kids all the time. He had a home to go to and a ruthless father to fear. Who would look after the children? Lord, she could not waste time here. She did not have the time to stay here and play with pirates. There were people depending on her back at home.

“No,” she whispered breathlessly. “No, there could be weeks until that.”

“So be it,” Max replied. “Weeks shall it be.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Ember raised her voice. “I cannot wait that long. I’ve got siblings. Four little siblings. Max, they can’t manage without me. You have to take me back.”

Max frowned slightly as if the whole thing was a mere inconvenience.

“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” he shrugged. “Villagers love a good charity case. They’ll look after four helpless children.”

Ember tried to tame down her rage before replying. Now was not the time to snap at him, if she wanted to make it home to the kids. Gods, she felt despair creeping in and she prayed she wouldn’t break with panic in front of the pirate.

“No, you don’t get it. They won’t care for the sibling of the village’s thief. Max, please. They’re all I have.”

Max pursed his lips. Bollocks, he hated when this happened. Young girl, lips pouted, teary eyes and shaking hands, pleading and appealing to his soft side. He knew his best interests in this. But could he be the monster who’d deny the girl the right to make sure her siblings were safe?

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“I can take you back to them,” he muttered barely audible, and continued when the girl’s eyes lit up and she was about to break into a wide smile. “On one condition.”

Ember nodded fervently. “Anything.”

“Careful with that word, love,” he raised an eyebrow. “Commitments you can’t fulfill come back to bite you in the arse.”

Ember gulped. “For them, I’ll make whatever commitments.”

“Very well,” he sighed. “I can take you to them. But only for you to see them, make sure they’re okay and leave them in the care of someone you trust. I can even give you some money that you can offer to said person. After that, we’re on our way to find the treasure. And you will do whatever it takes to get me to that treasure. Do we have a deal?”

Ember considered his offer. She should’ve known he wasn’t going to let her go so easily. But she couldn’t afford being picky at the moment. She had to get to the kids, at whatever cost. And if Max would give her money, she could ask Clarissa to look after them while she was gone. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best she could pull off. If she couldn’t get out of this, she had to at least make sure they were safe.

So she swallowed hard and nodded.

“We’ve got a deal.

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