Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 14: Where I'm Coming From

~SOUNDTRACK: Bret Levick – Sky is falling~

Ember was counting minutes until she’d be on shore again. Until she’d see her family. Until she’d see Kaleb. She spent the rest of those three days Max had granted her in solitude, locked in his cabin, not daring to go out again after the episode with the dead pirate from the party.

And to her surprise, the captain kept his distance, as well. His words kept ringing in her ears.

Are you scared of me, Ember?

You should be.

If she were to be entirely honest with herself, she was starting to feel a little scared. She’d threatened lots of lives during her years as a thief, but never had she seen someone get so brutally murdered in front of her eyes. And she held herself directly responsible for that man’s death, as despicable as he might have been. And she was painfully aware of the fact that she was the prisoner of a man who could kill in cold blood.

He’s a pirate, you imbecile, she scolded herself mentally. What did you expect? You shared one dance and a bottle of rum with him and you thought you knew anything about him? Silly girl.

The door of the cabin creaked and Ember flinched. In the doorstep stood the captain himself, holding a tray of food. Marvelous. More fish. Ember thought she was going to throw up if she ever saw sea food again in her life.

Max walked in and threw the tray on the wooden table with a loud thud, wordlessly. This past couple of days had been rather quiet in the cabin and she could tell the air had shifted between her and the captain. He wasn’t around as much and the little time he did spend with her down in the cabin was no longer filled with snarky comments or bickering or sassy remarks. It was better this way, Ember told herself. They had an agreement she wasn’t particularly fond of, but she’d keep her end of the bargain and pray to the Gods it all ended quick. Surely, it could all turn up to be easier said than done, but she was trying to be optimistic.

In all truthness, Max had noticed the change, too, and while he had no control over it, he knew was to be held responsible for it. He couldn’t help but remember the look in her eyes the night he’d killed Red-Beard Will, but that ginger bastard had had it coming. Max wasn’t going to tolerate that kind of behavior towards a lady on his ship, even if said lady happened to be a self-centered thief with an attitude. But then she’d looked at him so terrified and her whole body was shaking and she’d seemed on the verge of a breakdown. And Max didn’t know how to react to chicks breakdowns. He’d scared her. And while he was perfectly okay with that, he didn’t really know how to deal with her now. She wanted to make him the bad pirate? He could be the bad pirate. He was a bad pirate, truth be told.

He cleared his throat and she looked up from fidgeting with an imaginary stain on her cloak.

“By my estimations, we should be in Thebbington Abbey by dusk. I’ll come with you to your siblings. Like I said, you’ve got two hours to take care of everything, then we’re to return on board immediately and start seeking the cave of the treasure. Are we clear?”

Ember nodded reluctantly. Max sighed. He wanted to crack a joke. He wanted so badly to tease and bicker. He didn’t like playing harsh. Sure, he was dangerous and had no hesitation whatsoever when it came to killing and she had better keep that in mind. But it was exhausting to keep pretending he needed her to fear him. It was rather pathetic to keep up this charade.

So he took a chair and placed it next to her bed, turning it around so that he could rest his elbows on its back. He sat down and stared at her until she met his gaze.

“What?” she snapped eventually, and Max smirked at seeing this side of hers again. The one that wasn’t so easily intimidated by some slight murderous tendencies. Since she was sticking around, she’d learn that those were quite regular around this ship.

“I’ve got just one curiosity I have yet to satisfy,” he cocked his head to one side.

Ember bit her lip. “May I explicitly suggest places where you could stick that curiosity, captain Lockhart?”

Max laughed warm-heartedly.

“Oh, so you’ve still got snarky remarks boiling under,” he teased back. “I was afraid Red-Beard Will had gotten your tongue on his way off the ship.”

He noticed her expression darkening a little at the mention, but it was gone soon, and Max added this to the list of things he knew about Ember Blackthorn. She preferred to be stubborn rather than afraid. At least she had her priorities right.

“Tell me, little fire breather,” he spoke. “Where did you learn to fight like that? Girls your age are more concerned about ball gowns and shoes rather than hand to hand combat and knife skills.”

Ember blinked at him, having expected about anything except that. She considered actually keeping her promise and unorthodoxly telling him to stick it up his arse, but he looked so genuinely curious and so back to the pirate who hadn’t yet killed anyone from when she’d first met him, that she found herself reconsidering.

A pirate who hadn’t killed anyone, her conscience chided. Just kidnapped. And held a girl captive against her will. And threw her among a crowd of filthy pirates, flaunting her. But killing, no, not yet. Oh, well. Good to know you’ve got your priorities straight, Ember.

She cleared her voice and tuned down her mind.

“You could say it was self-education,” she shrugged like it was no big deal, and Max raised an eyebrow.

“You mean to tell me a, what, 16-year old girl managed to teach herself how to manage swords and knives?” he asked incredulously, and Ember glared.

“I’m 18, thank you very much,” she snarled at him. “And I’m pretty decent with a bow and arrow, too. Or throwing solid punches. One does not need weapons in order to protect one’s self.”

“Huh,” Max clicked his tongue, doing his best not to sound impressed and failing miserably. “How, though?”

Ember shrugged again, trying not to make a big deal out of it, but it was clear from the way her cheeks were slightly pinker that she knew exactly how much of a deal it was. And she was damn smug about it.

“Hard work,” she stated simply and Max scowled.

“Come on, dragon girl, work with me. I need details. My curiosity’s one greedy bastard.”

Ember bit her lip against a smile. Killer, she reminded herself. Murderer. Kidnapper. Pirate, her conscience was quick to judge. But the laughter building in the middle of her chest couldn’t help but admit he was a charismatic prick.

“Oh, well,” she played coy. “They don’t call me the Crimson Dagger for nothing.”

Max’s eyes widened so much, she though they were gonna come out of their orbits. He tripped over his tongue a few times before being able to speak.

“You,” he muttered a little breathlessly. “You’re the Crimson Dagger? But you’re—“

“Yes?” Ember narrowed her eyes at him, prompting him.

“But you’re a girl!”

“And you’re a sexist pirate.”

Max shook his head incredulously. “No, but wait. I’ve been hearing stories about the Crimson Dagger for months. Years, even. I was so sure it must have been a mature man. How can a girl who self-trained in combat skills be the threat of this land?”

“You’d be surprised by what a 14-year old girl can do when she’s facing the starvation of her family. It puts things into perspective.”

Max was silent for a few moments, taking in the information. He knew she was a thief and he knew she had her siblings to care for. He hadn’t even fathomed things looked so bad for them.

“So that’s why you’re so keen on getting to your siblings,” he remarked and Ember nodded.

“We’ve been orphans since I was 12,” she explained with resignation and endless sadness to her green eyes. “They’re all I have.”

“I see,” Max decided not to push her further, since she was clearly not comfortable talking about this. “But still, your combat skills are quite remarkable. Did you really have no help whatsoever?”

She shook her head. “I relied a lot on instinct. I understand why now, what with the, umm, dragon thing. And it wasn’t always easy. I’ve had my arse handed back to me quite a few times before I got the hang of it.”

She smiled half a smile and Max found himself laughing whole-heartedly at the picture she’d painted in his head.

“And what exactly were you stealing back then?”

“I began by stealing art tools,” she chuckled, her eyes having a dreamy tinge in them as she recalled. “Textiles, paint, whatever I could get my hands on. It worked well for keeping me motivated. Then I got better at it and came up with a strategy to get money and food. I fought trees and invisible soldiers for years until I got good at it.”

“Huh,” Max rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “Are you still stealing art tools?”

Ember’s face grew a little sadder. “No, I don’t, not anymore. I haven’t in years, maybe. I’ve got other priorities to take care of.”

“Well, that’s a shame, fire breather,” he surprised her with a warm smile, a genuine one and quite the change from the smirks and smug grins. “I like to live by one single rule. And that is, you’ve got to hold on to the things that make you feel alive. For me, it’s the sea. Once you lose the liberty of being happy, there’s not much else that can matter.”

Ember tried and failed to suppress a grin.

“Was that pirate wisdom?” she picked the words on purpose to toy with him.

“I’m not playing this game again with you,” Max rolled his eyes and she chuckled.

“Well, not all of us can afford that liberty, captain,” she shrugged sadly. “My family makes me happy. And while taking care of them may be my burden, it doesn’t mean that carrying it doesn’t bring me joy.”

Max watched her thoughtfully. He had to give her that, it was a well-dressed lie and he almost bought it. But the pirate wisdom saw past the fancy words. There was nothing in all that she’d said that could’ve brought happiness. But he wasn’t here to bond with Ember Blackthorn and to lick her wounds. He was here to talk her into leading the way to a hidden treasure.

He stood up from the chair and glanced down at her.

“Then let’s go make sure someone takes care of your burden for you while you’re gone, shall we?”

~SOUNDTRACK: Ella Eyre – Home (Live) – Stripped (Vevo LIFT UK)~

When Ember’s feet touched solid ground, she let out a loud breath and broke into a wide smile. She was so close to home again. So close to her family. She couldn’t wait to see the little ones again. She wondered if there’d be enough time for her to at least see Kaleb and let him know she would come back to him eventually. To tell him to wait for her. To let him know she was fine.

“We’re on a clock, dragon girl,” Max caught her elbow and prompted her to walk. “Leave the homesickness to when you’re actually home.”

She gulped and nodded and they started making their way through the woods around Thebbington Abbey, careful to avoid curious eyes. In less than an hour, Ember was walking down the path that led to her dirty hut. And she was happy because of it. Because that dirty hut, as modest and lacking as it might have been, it was still home, and it was still her safe haven.

When she was right at the corner of her hut, Max pulled her in a bush and they waited for some by-passers to move on.

“Remember,” his warm breath tickled her ear. “Two hours and we’re on our way, whether you’re done or not.”

“I will be,” she replied fiercely. There was no chance she would leave things unfinished when it came to her siblings’ safety.

They quickly made their way out of the bushes and to the front of Ember’s house, making sure no one saw them. Ember closed her fingers around the doorknob and pushed the door open, anticipation making her skin prick from being finally at home. She’d underestimated how much a safe shelter can change your perspective. Whatever comes your way, as long as you know there’s one place where you can go, one place where you’re needed and missed, one place where there’s someone waiting for you, that’s enough to make you cherish the journey back.

She and Max hurried inside and she saw her siblings in a corner, playing with Bandit. The cat was the first who saw her. He started hissing, his fur standing up and he arched his back at her sight. Well, so much for being missed.

“Huh,” she heard Max mutter by her side. “Glad to know there’s someone else who shares my feelings.”

Ember glared at him and, right then, the little ones heard the voices and turned around. Their little eyes widened and started to shine at the sight of their older sister and they all hurried to her side, hugging her.


“Ember, you’re back!”

She chuckled and kissed the tops of their heads, feelings a few tears pricking her eyes.

“Hey, little monkeys. You missed me?”

A chorus of ‘yes’es surrounded her and she laughed breathlessly. She crouched in front of them, putting on the big sister mask and she was surprised by how fast the kids grew serious, too.

“Listen, monkeys, I don’t have much time,” she stated speaking fast. “I’m not here to stay. I’ve got a very, very important mission. You have to find Clarissa and give her a note I’m going to write for you right now, along with some money and have her take care of you while I’m gone. Do you understand me?”

Four heads nodded reluctantly and Ember tried not to cringe at how sad their little expressions were.

“Will you be back?” Charles whispered timidly, and Ember sighed and ruffled his hair.

“Of course I’ll be back, Charles. This is temporary. You’ve just got to promise me you’ll look after your sisters while I’m gone, will you?”

Charles nodded with a little more energy and Ember leaned in to kiss his forehead.

“I knew I could count on you,” she encouraged him, offering a smile. “Now tell me, have you seen Kaleb?”

The twins started giggling and Ember had her answer. It was amazing how attached the little girls had grown to the jeweler’s boy.

“Several times a day,” Lizzie answered. “Nana brought us food and he slept here with us every night. He should be back here any minute now.”

Ember bit her lip. Sweet caring Kaleb. He must have been worried out of his mind and yet, he had put all of his energy into caring for the little ones. She couldn’t even fathom the trouble he must have gone through with his father, and to involve Nana too… God, she would never be able to repay him for everything he did for her. Part of her wished he’d hurry showing up so that she could see him one more time to remind herself what she was coming back to. But on the other hand, it was enough that she was leaving the little ones; she wasn’t sure she could’ve brought herself to leave Kaleb, too, let alone to explain to him that she was running away on some treasure hunt with pirates.

“Who are you?” Mary glared at Max, who was sitting idly a few feet away from them, watching the scene detached and tapping his foot impatiently. Ember had completely forgotten he was even there.

“That’s, umm,” she began, and trailed off, not knowing exactly how to explain Maxwell Lockhart to four innocent children. “That’s Max. He will play with you while I write the note to Clarissa.”

“Oh, no, fire breather, like blood—“

“Language,” she hissed at him, and was surprised when Max actually trailed off. “Now shut up and play with them.”

Max rolled his eyes and still crouched in front of the kids, who looked at him with wide eyes. Ember even saw Bandit purring and jumping on the pirate’s shoulder and Max reached up and started petting his stripped fur.

“Traitor,” Ember mumbled under her breath, not knowing which one in particular she was addressing.

She searched for a piece of paper for her note, the conversation between Max and the kids amusing her to no end.

“Are you courting Ember?”

“God, no.”

“Will you marry her?”

“I’d rather marry a shark.”

“She already has a suitor, you know.”

“I shall give the poor bastard my condolences.”

“Max!” she scolded him, but he was just grinning mischievously and the little ones actually burst into giggles so that Ember couldn’t keep a straight face, either, for too long.

Eventually, as she got to writing the note, Max pulled some coin from his vest and started rolling it around his fingers, keeping the kids entertained. Ember was surprised at how fast her siblings had taken up to him. He was a pirate, after all, and his whole look screamed danger. But as she glanced over her shoulder, taking in his ruffled hair and his beard and his rough features and the lines between his brows or around his mouth that he’d undoubtedly gotten due to many harsh years on the sea, she tried to look at him through eight innocent eyes. He was a new, exciting presence, and she had to give him this much, he knew how to get under your skin.

“Are you a pirate?”

Ember froze and turned around with wide eyes. She could not believe her ears.

Max scowled.

“Well, while your beloved sister would claim so, I would much rather call myself—“

“Cathy,” Ember breathed out and she saw that Charles’ and the twins’ expressions mirrored hers. Cathy hadn’t uttered a word in six years. Had her first words in so much time been truly spoken to Maxwell Lockhart? Had he truly managed to lure her out of the cage within herself?

“What?” Max looked around, from face to face, confused. Ember crouched in front of her sister.

“Cathy,” she repeated, clearing her throat and trying not to give in to the emotions. “What did you just say?”

It took a minute. Ember actually thought she hadn’t heard right or that Cathy wasn’t going to repeat it. But after heavy silence, the little girl opened her mouth again.

“He looks like a pirate,” she spoke clearly, blinking and tilting her head to one side. Ember laughed whole-heartedly, clutching her sister’s hand tightly in hers, a river of emotions flooding her.

“He does, doesn’t he?” she agreed, and she heard Max scoff.

“A little,” Cathy nodded, and Ember could hardly believe she was having a conversation with her. She thought she’d never get to do that again. She though Cathy’s voice had been gone for good. “He is funny, though.”

Ember rolled her eyes and Max huffed.

“I’m hilarious,” he offered, and the little ones chuckled again. Even Bandit purred from his shoulder.

Ember raised her finger at him and was about to throw some snarky remark of threat his way, when his face fell and he caught her hand in his forcefully. Ember frowned.

“What are you doing?” she pulled her hand back, but he just took it again, raising it to her eye level.

“Ember,” he spoke fiercely. “What’s this?”

~SOUNDTRACK: The Wright Brothers – Blood on my name~

Ember blinked up at him, confused by the sudden change in his mood. Even Charles and the girls looked a little scared. But then she looked down at her hand and gasped out loud. The back of it was covered in open gashes and the flesh looked like it was rotten. It was as if someone had put burning coals on her hand and had let them there for hours. And she noticed that the tips of her fingers were actually turning a little blue.

“I-I don’t know,” she muttered. “I must have caught something. Perhaps the bushes were poisoned? Sea food sickness?”

“Ember,” Max hissed again, and to her utter shock, he looked genuinely concerned. “This isn’t coming from some poisoned bushes or bad fish.”

She gulped. She wanted to brush it off and to shrug and say it was the only reasonable explanation, but seeing Max so disheveled, it occurred to her that perhaps she was supposed to be a little more worried.

She opened her mouth to say something, but her words died in her throat. Instead, she started choking and she felt her airways being blocked. She tried coughing, but all that came out was blood. She vaguely heard her sibling yelp, but she couldn’t think of anything else but the blood pooling out of her mouth and onto her clothes, on the floor, and about the gashes on her hands that were starting to burn like they were on fire.

“M-Max,” she managed to mutter, and he reacted in no time. He grabbed a cloth and wiped away the blood off her face and her clothes, the proceeded to grab her elbow.

“We’ve got to leave,” he prompted, panic clear in his voice. “Now.

Ember started shaking her head, trying to tell him that she couldn’t leave until she knew things with her siblings were clear.

Ember. We can’t stay here. We’re endangering your siblings. This isn’t random, Ember. You’ve been hexed. And the longer we stay, the greater the danger of you passing the curse to the kids.”

“H-Hexed?” Ember frowned, feeling already dizzy. “B-But—“

“Yes, Ember, hexed. Focus,” he raised his voice. “Witchy bloody stuff. We can’t waste time. I would take the children with us on the ship, but there’s no time.”

Without waiting for her to reply, he crouched in front of the kids, who looked at him wide-eyed; the poor souls had no idea of the danger lingering in the corners of this very room. There was some dark business going on and Ember was clueless, too.

“Listen,” he tried to soften his voice. “Ember is very sick. I will take her to see a physician and it might take a while until she gets better. Charles, take that note and go to the Clarissa your sister spoke of. Give her these.” He pulled out a little sack filled with golden coins and put in into Charles’ shaky hands. “Man up, mate. Your sisters need you. Be a brave lad and take care of them, alright?”

Charles nodded vehemently at the encouragement and Max ruffled his hair, turning on his heels and putting a hand around Ember’s waist and placing her arm over his shoulders to support her weight.

“N-No,” she tried to argue. “K-Kaleb.”

“Sorry, love,” Max ignored her. “There’s no time for a romantic rendezvous. I’m trying to save your life.”

“But the kids—“

“We’ll come back for them, Ember,” he cut her off. “When this is all over, I’ll deliver you to them. But for now, just please, shut up and let me save you.”

He carried Ember away from her little hut despite her protests and into the woods. He had no idea what their next move was, but the fate of the game had been just turned upside down.

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