Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 13: Bad Habits

~SOUNDTRACK: The Kooks – Bad habit~

Ember absent mindedly inspected her poorly bandaged hand and she was vaguely aware of the fact that she was being talked to. She heard Max’s voice in the background, but her whole attention was focused on the fact that, beneath that dirty cloth soaked in rum, there was a gash that was supposed to be deep and ugly, supposed to have hurt like hell. No, not a gash. A scratch. One she might as well have gotten from Bandit. All of a sudden, so many things made sense. The rock that Kaleb’s father had hit her in the head with the other day should have had her bed-ridden for days, and yet, she’d been up and about in less than hours. Throughout these years, she’d always thought that her healing fast was perfectly normal, but in hindsight, she realized it was just a twitch above natural.

A dragon.

Could it really be? It still felt hard to grasp, but she couldn’t ignore the facts. There was something beyond ordinary going on here, and whether it had something to do with her growing wings and fangs and claws and scales at night, it was equally scary.

“Oy,” Max waved a hand before her eyes, catching her attention. “Fire breather, are you even listening to me?”

Ember rubbed the back of her sore neck and sighed heavily.

“I’m sorry. I must have lost focus for a minute. You were saying?”

Max glared a little at her for having let him rambled on when she wasn’t even paying attention. Eventually, he scowled and went on with what he’d been talking about.

“I was saying that we’ll make it to Thebbington Abbey in three days. You’ll have two hours to take care of the situation with your family. Naturally, I’ll never leave you out of my sight. Can’t let a gem like yourself get away now, can I?”

Ember shook her head and stopped him.

“Wait. Three days? It only took half a night to get me here. Why would the trip back take us three days? It makes no sense. My siblings can’t make it without me for three entire days.”

Max shrugged like he couldn’t be bothered.

“They’ll have to. I’m not risking my crew’s safety and being seen by some royal navy. I’ve granted you enough as it is.”

Ember groaned and took a deep breath to stop herself from jumping at his throat. And ripping it out. With her teeth. When she spoke, however, she was having a hard time hiding the venom from her voice.

“Captain,” she spat. “I cannot risk my siblings’ safety, either. I know routes safe enough to keep you and your ship hidden from sight. Can’t you trust me on this?”

The pirate seemed to think for a second, before pursing his lips in mockery, and Ember knew this was a fight she could not win.

“I’m afraid I don’t, love. Call it a bad habit. I happen to have severe trust issues. Even I’d shoot myself in the leg, should the opportunity arise and should the price be worth it. So you can see why I can’t put my trust in anyone, really.”

He threw himself on the bed, looking up at her and smirking with his arms folded beneath his head and his legs crossed. The black shirt clung to his body, showing off ripped muscles that he had undoubtedly gained throughout his time sailing. Perhaps she couldn’t stand his guts, but Ember had to admit the way those blue eyes stared deep into her core, looking her up, may or may not have awoken some senses in her. Luckily, he was a complete moron, so there was no danger of falling prey to such cheap pirate charms.

“I suggest you make yourself comfortable, love,” his hoarse voice broke her train of thoughts. “You and I are going to keep each other company for the next three days.”

Knowing there was no point in arguing with him any longer, Ember simply sighed.

“So it would seem,” she mumbled. “Any more bad habits I should know about, while we’re at it?”

Max burst into obnoxious laughter, as if he knew some sort of secret she wasn’t a part of.

“Patience, love,” he shook his head at her amused. “Tonight, we’ll show you exactly what bad habits this ship has.”

Ember frowned and tensed in anticipation. “Why? What’s tonight?”

Max stood up from the bed and circled her, moving close enough for Ember to smell the rum on his breath, then he moved a lock of her hair and whispered in her ear.

“Tonight, we party like only sailors know.”


Ember spent the whole day alone in the captain’s cabin while he went on deck to keep his sailors in check and prepare whatever pirate gathering he had going for tonight. Ember dreaded such event. She longed for that night at the Covington’s ball, when she had danced at Kaleb’s arm. She wanted to go home. She had maddened herself with worry for the little ones and with missing Kaleb. But if being a part of the captain’s games would entertain him enough to make him take her home, then she’d be his personal buffoon. She just wanted this charade over. God, how would she tell her siblings and Kaleb she’d have to be on her way again? That she had no idea for how long she’d be missing?

She sat around in the cabin sulking all day, not daring to go out. In all truthness, Max’s sailors scared her a little. And she hadn’t failed to notice she was the only woman on board, and those men looked at her as one would hungrily look at a piece of meat. She shuddered at the thought. So she stayed put, counting the minutes until she’d be on shore again. She loathed the smell of fish, of sweat, of disgusting food and the salty smell of the sea filling the air.

Around dusk, the door to the cabin opened and Max walked inside, grinning from ear to ear.

“Greetings, fire breather,” he shot her a wink. “How does life on the sea suit you?”

Ember glared. “I’m seasick, bored to death and worried for my family. Thank you for your concern.”

She expected a snarky comment back, but he actually laughed.

“Well, I strongly suggest you leave this attitude down here, love. Sailors could break into mutiny if their captain happens to bring a sulking self-pitying girl up on deck. We’re quite protective over our parties.”

Ember rolled her eyes. “That’s so hypocrite coming from someone who vandalizes other ships. I never knew protectiveness came with the pirate package.”

This time, Max didn’t correct her when she mentioned him being a pirate. Instead, he laughed at her and threw her a head scarf.

“And that’s even more hypocrite coming from a thief,” he mocked right back. “The scarf’s for blending in.”

Ember sighed, but seeing as there was no getting out of this, she tied the scarf around her head and looked up to find the captain grinning from ear to ear.

“Well, bloody hell, fire breather. You look like a true pirate.”

“I thought you were mercenaries.”

Max wrinkled his nose, that smirk of his never leaving his face.

“You got me there. Let’s get this party started, shall we?”

~SOUNDTRACK: The Script – Paint the town green~

Max extended his hand to her and Ember took it reluctantly, allowing him to take her on deck.

She didn’t know what she could’ve expected of a pirate’s party. But whatever her expectations might have been, what she found on deck was beyond them.

It involved accordions, dancing and rum. A lot of rum. The crew was gathered around a few sailors with accordions and guitars who were singing some song, others were dancing along, others were playing some games with cards and dices, and the rum never stopped flowing.

Before she could fully take in the settings, Max left her side and went to join his crew for a song.

I am not a pirate, but I long to be,

Sailing by the stars across the seven seas,

Living with no earthly cares, my mates and me—

The envy of all worldly men, who are not free.

A song to sing for beggars, a song to sing for saints,

A song to sing for wealthy men all wrapped and bound in chains!

Our treasure's not in gold, or in our piety.

Our wealth is in an answered call, the longing of the sea!

Ember found that it was easy to fall prey to his contagious joy and in no time, she was smiling along with him. She still didn’t like the man, but seeing him so carefree, she had to give him that much – she respected his love for life and for the sea. Soon enough, she was tapping her foot to the rhythm of the song. The small gesture didn’t go unseen by Max and as soon as he caught sight of her, he wiggled his eyebrows and moved to her side, never ceasing to sing along.

When he reached her, he took her hand and pulled her into the crowd, never breaking the song.

“Max,” she shrieked, mortified. “What are you doing? Max, let go.”

“Dance with me, dragon girl,” he shouted over the music, but Ember kept staring at him with wide eyes.

“I don’t dance! Max, let me go or I will kick your bloody arse.”

“Look at her, already cursing like a sailor,” the captain chuckled, spinning her around.

Ember shrieked as he spun her a few times, then she landed straight into his arms and he started to dance with her.

“Besides,” she whispered into her ear. “I’d love to see you try, little fire breather. It would seem I’ve already kicked yours. Twice.”

Despite herself and how pissed she wanted to be at him, Ember found herself smiling mischievously.

“They say third time’s a charm, captain Lockhart,” she mocked right back, and Max chuckled.

He wouldn’t admit it, but he quite enjoyed this playful banter. Though she seemed on edge all the time and for good reason, considering she’d been kidnapped and she was worried about her family, the girl was rather entertaining when she allowed herself to. Sure, she liked to throw tantrums and she was spoiled like a little girl, cocky and whatnot, but Max was having the time of his life testing her limits.

But then, just to toy with those limits of his, as well, Ember broke from his arms, raised her skirts and danced around him, her feet moving fast, dizzying him, that damn arrogant grin never leaving her face. She was clearly teasing him, so Max couldn’t give in to a little village girl. He crossed his hands behind his back and danced around her as well, until they were caught in a game of dominance while his crew cheered.

And Ember would’ve lied if she said she wasn’t having fun. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d danced, and here she was, challenging a pirate and beating him at his own game in front of his men.

When the song ended, the whole crew burst into cheers as Max and Ember panted. He offered her a bottle of rum and, this time, Ember took it from his hand and actually took a sip. She scoffed as the alcohol burned her airways but a few seconds later, when it started kicking in and her head started to feel lighter, she burst into giggles as she handed the bottle back to Max. He took a sip, too, grinning down at her and still breathing heavily.

“You held your own out there, little fire breather,” he screamed over the noise of the crew. “Consider me impressed. I believe you’ve just won over my crew.”

Ember laughed back, surprised at how much fun she was actually having.

“I will get us a refill,” Max told her, pointing to the bottle. “Wait here. I believe we’re due for a rematch.”

He winked before he left and Ember rolled her eyes. It was good to know that, even with alcohol running through her system, she was still immune to his pathetic attempts to charm her. She felt pity for those girls who did fall victims to these charades.

~SOUNDTRACK: Tribe Society – Kings~

Once Max was gone, Ember felt suddenly self-conscious under the gazes of his whole crew. Most of them bowed their heads in front of the only lady on deck, but most of them stared her down, biting their lips with lust in their eyes and Ember shivered. She just wished the captain would hurry with that rum.

She gasped and jumped when she felt two large hands at her hips and sliding down her legs.

“Such a sweet thing,” a rugged voice whispered in her ear, the smell of rum and dirty breath making her gag. “How can a beast hide under such soft skin? Come on, lizard, entertain us just like you entertain our captain. He seemed happy with your services. Why don’t you come by my cabin, too, tonight, eh, lizard?”

Ember gritted her teeth. If the captain believed for one second she’d just stand here and be passed between his men like she was some dispensable piece of meat, he was so wrong. She wasn’t anyone’s whore. So when the man’s hands wouldn’t stop touching her body, she reached for the knife just to remember that it wasn’t there. Well, wasn’t this convenient.

She clenched her fists. Not that she needed a knife to knock down a drunken pirate.

She was about to swing at him when she saw the tip of a blade approaching her.

She gasped. Was Max really coming at her? Did he plan on killing her? For what? For tempting his men? Ember was calculating moves to get away from the sword, but she knew she wouldn’t be fast enough. She closed her eyes and waited for the blow. But when it didn’t come and she felt the sailor from behind her moving away, she opened her eyes.

In front of her, Max was standing with a stern look on his face. And his sword wasn’t pointed at her. It was pointed at the man behind her and Ember had just been inconveniently standing in its trajectory.

“Hands off, sailor,” Max spoke fiercely, and Ember shuddered at the sudden shift of his tone. The music had stopped and no one moved a muscle, so that his voice and the waves were the only things breaking the silence of the night.

The drunken pirate moved away in an instant, but Max didn’t put away his sword, keeping it pointed at him. The sailor gulped.

“Captain, I’m—“

“Unless the explanation can justify why you were feeling up our guest, then I suggest you shut your mouth and jump off the ship yourself, mate.”

The pirate forced a chuckle. “G-Guest, captain? She’s-She’s just leverage. A lizard, is all.”

Max was silent for a minute. Ember actually thought he was going to shrug it off and agree with his man, allowing him to have his way with her. But she should’ve known better. From the little she’d learned about him, she knew that Maxwell Lockhart was many things, but while most of them were too unorthodox to be mentioned, he was also a man of honor. Well, as much honor as a pirate can have.

The captain moved closer with steady steps until the blade of his sword was against the pirate’s throat. She noticed that the whole crew was holding their breaths.

“Leverage,” Max spat. “A lizard. I treat lizards with more respect than that. It is rats like you I like to step on.”

“B-But, captain,” the poor man tried to excuse himself. “What choice did I have? She’s flaunting herself at us like that. She was throwing herself at me. I couldn’t—“

Ember wanted to interject and speak for herself, to tell Max she had never done anything to incite his man, but he beat her to it and interrupted the pirate.

“I don’t care if she was parading naked in front of you,” he sneered. “This is my ship. These are my rules. And I ordered that not a single hair on her head be touched. You disobeyed me, sailor. You know what happens when I am disobeyed.”

“Captain, please,” the pirate tried to beg, but Max was pressing the blade so hard against his throat that a drip of blood had already started to drip down his neck.

“Do you, mate?” Max hissed again.

“C-Captain—“

“I get very mad. And we all know what happens when I get mad.”

Without waiting for the pirate to beg for his life again, Max started moving his sword to his right.

At first, Ember was confused as to why he was drawing back his blade after all the show he’d put on by threatening the man. But then she saw that the more the sword moved, the more obvious became the red it was stained with.

Her breath hitched. Blood. He was drawing it back covered it blood.

And then she heard the pirate’s choking sounds and she saw the blood spurting from the wide gash on his throat. His body began to fall forward when Max grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him off board. The body hit the water with a loud thud.

“That’s what happens when I get mad,” he turned to his crew and announced, resting his sword on his shoulder. “Bloody hell. I liked this vest. Now I’ve got blood on it.”

While the crew gulped and awkwardly returned to their party as if their captain randomly murdering one their own was not out the ordinary, Ember was having trouble breathing. Her eyes were wide when Max planted himself in front of her, and she was breathing heavily.

“W-Why would you do that?” she meant to snap at him, but it came out as a lame whimper.

“My ship, my rules,” he replied casually. “I thought I made that clear. You should be thanking me, really.”

“T-Thank you?” she tried to raise her voice, but she couldn’t seem to stop it from shaking. She’d just seen a man murdered in front of her eyes. Because of her.

Max took a step closer towards her and she instinctively took one backwards, away from him. The expression on his face seemed to turn even harsher.

“Are you scared of me, Ember?” he spoke slowly and fiercely.

Ember held up her chin, looking him straight in the eyes, but she couldn’t hide her shaky hands. So she cursed her voice for breaking when she replied.

“N-No,” she mumbled, but it didn’t sound at all believable.

Max clicked his tongue and shoved his sword at a member of his crew to clean it up.

“Too bad,” he replied, starting to walk away from her. “You should be.”

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