Who: Zaire, Francesca, various NPCs
When: August, 871 RoK
Where: Duchess Rossi's Estate in Lake City
"They gonna hang us."
"C'mon Chaz. Maybe they ain't."
The younger of the Salvador brothers sighed as he threw the elder a withering look. "Ya keep telling y'self that, Jimmy."
"Shut up," Zaire ordered. "Both of ye." There was no need to make this any worse than it already was by voicing what they all knew would be the outcome here - especially for the only innocent one amongst them. Gunther had come a long way in the six months he'd been part of the crew, and Zaire couldn't help but think that Brandy would barely recognize the boy if she were to see him now. Still, that hardly meant that Gunther wasn't terrified of the predicament the four of them had found themselves in. Hell, all of them were.
Because the truth was, Chaz was right; there was no way any of them were walking out of this dungeon alive. The crew of the Siren's Song were wanted men all over Eventyr but nowhere more so than the West and the Duchess of the Plains would never pass up an opportunity to make an example out of one of the duchy's most notorious crews.
"Is it true, Cap'n?" Gunther asked softly, peering up at Zaire with wide eyes. "Are we gonna be hanged?"
Zaire wasn't sure how to answer, so he didn't. Instead, he sighed and tipped his head, prompting Gunther to scoot a little closer across the stone floor so he could lean against the captain's side. Gunther certainly didn't deserve to be hanged right along with the rest of them - he was only nine - but he was still technically a part of the crew and many wouldn't see a distinction even if Zaire did take the time to explain that the boy was innocent of any sort of wrongdoing.
Zaire's attention went back to Jimmy, sitting with his shackled hands limp in his lap and his blue eyes on his brother, who paced the length of his cell. The captain could see the guilt all over Jimmy's face, clear as a sunny afternoon on the water, and he knew that the kid was thinking he'd failed his younger brother. It hurt to see the normally boisterous boatswain so somber.
"Listen, aye?" Zaire said softly and three sets of eyes turned on him again. "We ain't gonna be 'er prize, 'er trophy. I'll figure out a way to get us outta this; you 'ave my word."
How he was planning to keep it, though? Zaire hadn't the foggiest. Not yet, anyway.
The dungeon's door swung open with the deafening squeal of metal-on-metal, casting light from above into the dim cells below. Two soldiers who had been monitoring the pirates since their arrival, both carrying torches, entered first, and spread out to light the space. There were only half a dozen cells.
When they stilled, the light clicks of a lady's shoes followed, and the Duchess of the West herself descended the steps. Her gown, a creamy white color, caught all the light from the flames and gave her the appearance of glowing. She was followed closely by her personal bodyguard, a man with handsome Southern features who seemed ill-equipped for the job since his short stature and small frame made him anything but intimidating.
Zaire was on his feet as soon as the door opened. While the guards were likely just delivering some stale bread and watery broth, Zaire refused to look up at his captors, despite the shackles around his wrists. He locked his gaze with Jimmy and then Chaz, silently telling them to keep their cool, then his eyes went to Gunther, who stayed right where he was on the floor.
This wasn't a meal delivery though, made apparent by the woman who appeared a moment later. And while she received a wary once-over - that contrast between she and her captives, and even her guards, was astounding - it was the man on her heels that had Zaire's interest. Young, lithe, everything about him said that he wasn't a threat, yet he positioned himself like a bodyguard rather than an advisor or lover. Curious.
The Duchess's blue eyes scanned her new prisoners, settling on each of the men for an uncomfortable moment. Then, her expression turned inquisitive and she addressed a guard: "You told me there were four?"
The soldier nodded and proceeded to count. "One," Jimmy. "Two," Chaz. "Three," Zaire. "Four," Gunther.
The child's existence seemed to surprise the Duchess completely, as if Gunther had been invisible to her until pointed out. "Why is there a boy?" She moved closer to the bars to peer in at the child, knees bending as she crouched low to examine him.
"He was arrested as part of the crew," the first soldier answered.
The Duchess shook her head. "I have no use for a child. Release him." The torch-bearing guard hesitated in confusion only a heartbeat, and then moved to unlock the cell door as the Duchess stepped away and continued her orders. "Give him a hot meal and send him on his way in the morning."
As the Duchess - for who else could she be? - questioned her guards, Zaire continued to hold his tongue. Watching, waiting, listening. He wasn't going to just offer up information, after all, but when she turned her attention to Gunther, the captain bristled and stepped in front of the boy. He opened his mouth to plead the the cabin boy's case: he was an orphan, taken in as a kindness and innocent of any crime . . .
But she was releasing him? Zaire's stomach twisted, his brows lowering in confusion and suspicion and he found Gunther looking to him for direction as the keys rattled in the lock. The instinct to put up a fight was strong, nearly too strong to resist, but if even one of his crew could get out of here safely then he felt compelled to allow it to happen.
Gunther knew what to do should they get separated, because there was always a contingency plan in place whenever the crew of the Siren's Song came ashore, complete with a decided upon meeting place, should something like this happen. Mr. Okeke had with been them when the guards had first approached and he'd managed to make his escape. Since he wasn't here in the dungeon with them, it could only be assumed that he'd made his way back to the ship and delivered the news, which meant the crew and the ship had fallen back to wait for word of their execution.
"Go," Zaire urged, stepping back away from the door as it swung open and one of the guards stepped inside. All he could do was hope that this wasn't some ruse, that Gunther would indeed be set free in the morning to find the crew.
With one final long look over his shoulder, Gunther did as he was told with reluctant footsteps. A beautiful young woman with dark skin and long, curling hair appeared at the top of the stairs to collect him.
"Cap'n!" Jimmy hissed. "We can't--"
"Shut it," Zaire snapped, but his eyes were locked on Francesca as if silently daring her to do differently than he willed. "He'll be fine. She ain't gonna harm 'im."
"I have you three for that." Francesca returned the pirate captain's challenge with a matter-of-fact statement, meeting his eyes as she spoke and her guard locked the door once again. The tone wasn't quite a threat, not quite a tease. Taking a half step closer to the bars between them, Francesca let her eyes wander down Zaire's form, as if she could see straight through his clothes… and when her eyes flickered back up to his, there was a certain interest in them. "I am disappointed that there are only three. I had hoped to execute the whole crew together - what a show that would be," she said wistfully. "I am sure it will be easier to track down Siren's Song with your help, now. Who do I want to speak to first…?"
With that muse, Francesca turned away from the captain and regarded the other two pirates. As she approached the bars of their cell, she waved for the guard to bring the light closer. "Up," she ordered Jimmy.
The Duchess took a long moment to decide, seeming to compare the two's physical attributes - both were handsome young men under the grime from their imprisonment, the blonde had a very impressive build but it was the brunette's sweet face that sealed the deal. Before she spoke, she sent Zaire a knowing smirk. "I will take this one," she said, and pointed to Chaz.
Adrenaline surged through Zaire's veins, his heart rate kicking up as Francesca turned her attention from him to Jimmy and Chaz. Fuck! It was too much to ask, he knew, that she let them go, as well. Both were young men, but adults nonetheless, and they'd made the decision to enter into the pirate life of their own free will. They knew the consequences, just like every other man who served aboard the Siren's Song, but none of that stopped Zaire from wanting to protect his crew. They were his responsibility.
The Captain stepped closer to the bars, eyes flicking toward his men as Jimmy reluctantly did as he was told, moving up to stand beside his brother. He looked unsure - scared, if Zaire were being honest - and why shouldn't he be? Still though, his chin was held high and his jaw set against the scrutiny.
Chaz wasn't so easily intimidated into silence though. "What the fuck is this?" he demanded, face going pale in the flickering torchlight as the guards unlocked their cell. "Fuck you! I ain't goin'!"
Chaz's outburst seemed to spur Jimmy into action and he stepped in front of his younger brother, aggressively shoving a shoulder into the first guard to step inside. With both brothers shackled, the scuffle was short-lived and in the end Chaz was manhandled roughly out of the cell and Jimmy left bleeding on the floor. "Don't you fuckin' hurt 'im!" Jimmy screamed, wiping blood out of his eye with an angry swipe of his hand. "I'll fuckin' kill ya!"
Zaire hadn't even realized how close he was to the bars until he noticed that his hands were gripping them, white knuckled and helpless to do anything aside from watch as Chaz struggled against the guards' hands. "Chaz," he said, putting every ounce of authority he could into his voice but when those brown eyes landed on him, Zaire found himself without reassuring words.
"I'll go," the captain insisted, eyes darting to the Duchess though he knew that it wouldn't make any difference in the end. They'd all be hanged but maybe he could save his men - his brothers - the agony of being tortured. "Take me instead."
While the guards scuffled with the pirates just inside the cage, the small man behind Francesca stepped up to her side. He touched her elbow and glancing backward, wordlessly encouraging her to head back up the stairs, but she shook her head, watching the brief fight with great interest where he seemed determined not to look once fists started flying.
"You will get your turn, Captain," Francesca promised, ominously and dismissively. As Chaz was brought out of the cell, she paused a moment to study him closer, her hand lifting to brush his hair from his forehead, run a finger along his jaw…
Chaz's lip curled and he jerked his head back in a useless attempt to rid himself of her touch but his glare never wavered. He may have been the younger brother, the one Jimmy had physically protected while the two were growing up, but there was no doubt that he was the more dangerous of the two. Jimmy would never hesitate to defend himself, his brother, or a crew mate, but it was Chaz's willingness to kill in cold blood that made him a part of the vanguard. "Fuckin' whore," he ground out from between clenched teeth.
Then her eyes slid back to Zaire, the tension in his muscles, the grip of his hands on the bars. He was desperate, and maybe she could use that to make everyone's lives a little easier… well, perhaps not those safely aboard the Siren's Song!
"If you want to help him…. you can order him to cooperate," Francesca offered. "I am sure this will be much less difficult if he knows he won't be disappointing his Captain."
"He ain't disappointed me yet," Zaire answered, staring past the Duchess to meet Chaz's eyes. It was an affectionate thing to say, of course, a vocal declaration of how proud he was of the man Chaz had become, but to the younger pirate the words would mean far more: Don't tell her where the ship is. Protect your brothers. I know you'll do the right thing.
A strangled noise came from Jimmy, sitting again on the stone floor of his cell, and with one last glance at Chaz, Zaire went to the bars separating him from the older Salvador brother. There wasn't much he was willing to say in front of the Duchess or the guards but he turned and put his back to the bars, sliding down to sit on the floor so he was back to back with Jimmy. "He'll be back," he said softly. While he was sure that Chaz would come back - killing them privately would defeat the purpose of their executions - he couldn't guarantee that he'd be whole when he did . . .
The Captain's refusal was clear and Francesca sent Chaz an almost apologetic look. "Such high expectations… let's see how well you meet them," the Duchess said, turning to ascend the stairs again, followed by her silent bodyguard, and Chaz with the other guards in tow. Before the door closed, the Duchess' musical voice echoed, "Feed him. He will need his strength…"
To be continued....
The West never really got cold but after three days in a damp dungeon, Zaire could feel that chill deep in his bones. It prompted him to pace, the movement helping to keep his mind off the temperature, the ache in his bad shoulder, the skin rubbed raw around each wrist from the heavy shackles, the fact that right this very second his crew could be fighting off the King's Navy, that tonight was his night to be interrogated . . .
Pausing next to the bars that separated them, Zaire took a second to study the brothers on the other side. He'd expected missing teeth or fingers, skin flayed from their backs, but instead they'd come back clean and fed with the only physical damage being small incisions on their pulse points, neatly cleaned and bandaged.
There were other ways to torture someone though and the holes in their memories, not unlike the morning after a night of too much rum, were enough to keep both awake with worry. Had they told the Duchess where the Siren's Song was anchored? Had they condemned the rest of the crew to death? No matter how much Zaire had pressed them to remember, neither was sure of what they'd said and it was clear by their haunted expressions that the guilt was eating them both alive.
The squeal of hinges was a familiar sound now, heralding the arrival of the guards and Zaire found his heart thudding in his ears as he watched them unlock his cell and gesture him forward. "The Duchess would like a word, Captain," the guard sneered. "Come along now."
Zaire could hear Jimmy and Chaz moving in their cell but neither spoke as he did as he was told, putting just a touch of saunter in his gait as he fell into step with the guards. He kept his eyes ahead as he was led through the castle, focusing instead on the footsteps of the guards; even if he had a path to escape, taking it without his men was completely out of the question.
As they walked, the hallways became wider, the ceilings higher, and the decor far more opulent, but it wasn't until the doors in front of him were opened to reveal a round room with sunken tub set into the floor that Zaire knew for sure he was walking in the footsteps of both Jimmy and Chaz. They'd both remembered the bath, with it's marble tiles and pretty maids eager to help them wash and Zaire watched the girls with a wary eye as they stepped forward and began pulling his filthy clothes off.
Both were lovely to look at - one with raven hair and the dark gold skin of the far South and the other as pale and red-haired as his Brandy-love - but it was impossible to enjoy their sweet flirtations or the way the hot water soothed the aches from his joints, when he knew what was to come next . . .
The dark-haired girl proved to be as chatty as she was pretty and verbalized every thought that popped into her mind - everything from flirty comments about Zaire's muscles, to the offensive when she wondered what was "wrong" with his coloration, to a confused ramble when she misplaced the soap that turned out to be sitting just behind her. The ginger girl didn't say much since her job was mainly to bring more boiling water when the tub cooled, but she wasn't complaining because she hardly wanted to be pulled into her companion's stupid orbit. The guards even began to visibly tune out, hovering watchfully but occasionally striking up their own brief conversations.
It was this girl - Sasha, she introduced herself - who was tasked with feeding Zaire after he dressed. "The food here is always awful; they didn't do that special for you," Sasha said as she led the pirate captain to the next room, an interior parlor without windows except for the skylight above from which they could see the half moon shining. There was a plate of steaming food for Zaire - literally, steaming and steamed, potatoes, greens, chicken, all boiled. Lowering her voice, Sasha whispered, "The Duchess is terrified of getting fat, so there is no sugar, no butter, nothing in the kitchens. The cooks do their best but I wish sooo much I could just have a nice cake once in a while…"
While the guards may have tuned out Sasha's rambling, Zaire was hyper aware of everything being said around him. Any word out of the girl's mouth could potentially be useful - though most of them weren't - but when the guards spoke softly to each other, the pirate's ears tuned to them instead, hoping for any stray tidbit of information that he could use to his advantage. His own answers, when they were needed, were taciturn, never saying more than needed to convey his thoughts. Was the water comfortable? Aye. What's wrong with your skin? I'm cursed.
It wasn't until he was dressed in clean clothes - a concerted effort between the guards and the dark haired girl due to the shackles still hanging from his wrists - that Zaire saw a glimmer of hope. A faint glimmer, maybe, but that little sparkle was enough for him to latch on to.
He raised a surprised eyebrow as he sat down at the table, taking in the veritable feast set out before him - in comparison to what he had been eating, anyway. "Fat?" he repeated, thinking of what he'd seen thus far of the Duchess. Zaire was an equal opportunity lover, his tastes ranging all over the place depending on his options, but if he were to choose the body type that got his blood singing, it would surely be one with more curves than angles. A woman like his wife, like Brandy, soft enough to contrast his own hard edges. Zaire couldn't help but think that the Duchess would only benefit from a bit of added weight.
"T'is a shame," he continued, stabbing a potato with his fork. "Food is t'be enjoyed." He glance toward the door, then let his eyes drift over the girl, allowing a bit of interest to show in their brown depths. "What other sort've pleasures are ya denied?" he ventured, thinking that this conversation could have had far more impact if it had happened while he was still naked.
Sasha lit up, delighted when the pirate's minimal responses finally became engaged questions. Not that she had any plans to stop rambling - it was pretty clear the man in front of her was dead meat and therefore she could say whatever she wished - but this did make the conversation more fun!
Until she got a little stumped, when she actually tried to formulate an answer. Not the brightest torch in the barn by any stretch of the imagination, the processing time it took Sasha to put together a response was the longest stretch of silence since Zaire had met her. She made an effort to smile, though, and the interest in Zaire's dark eyes did cause her posture to shift forward a bit, twist a lock of midnight hair around her finger, and send her thoughts in a sexual direction that seemed to help her finally find a response.
"Weeeell," Sasha said, "Last night, I wanted Jimmy." From her tone, it was clear that she meant want in a carnal way, and the easy way she said as much spoke volumes about the sort of household the Duchess ran. "But they said he had to go back to the dungeon. I didn't understand that - aye, he might have been tired, but I do not think he woulda said no!" She huffed and crossed her arms. "I do not understand this whole business at all, just executing handsome young men. And it doesn't seem at all like our Duchess to be so wasteful…" And then, her total lack of filter tripped up again and she blurted out, "Oh no - are you rapists? That's the only thing Duchess Rossi cannot abide."
It took a startling amount of self control for Zaire to keep his attention on the girl as the silence stretched between them. He ate the bland food but as he did, his eyes never strayed far from her, appropriately - or inappropriately, depending on one's perspective - dipping to her breasts when she straightened and put them on display. Feigning interest in every move she made would hopefully help to sell his apparent attraction to her . . .
And just when he was beginning to think that he'd read her incorrectly and she wouldn't answer, Sasha spoke up and Zaire's eyebrow lifted again. "You're right, love. He wouldn't 'ave said no." It was a lie though. Zaire knew the boatswain well enough to know to that his only desire at that point would have been to get back his brother, so unless satisfying Sasha's hunger was the means to do that, Jimmy'd have likely been too distracted to keep it up.
Sasha was still talking though, the words rattling around her mouth like a loose wheel on a carriage, and it was her final question that had Zaire hesitating. Rapists? "We ain't rapists," he shook his head, perhaps a bit offended by the accusation. Okay, so maybe some of them had been in the past but that sort of behavior certainly wasn't encouraged, or even accepted, aboard the Siren's Song.
He was allowing himself to be distracted from the implication in her words though, those things left unspoken. Zaire and his crew were criminals - thieves and murderers, make no mistake - and criminals were tried and executed for their crimes; it was the law of the Kingdom. Could it be a law that the Duchess didn't quite follow? What would Duchess Francesca Rossi get out of not hanging pirates, aside from the potential ire of the King? The King that rumor said she was fucking . . .
Washing down a bite of chicken, Zaire leaned closer to Sasha, intimately close, and with one elbow resting on the table, he asked, "What do you mean, 'wasteful'?"
"Wasteful," Sasha repeated, taking Zaire's movement as an invitation and giving his thigh a gentle, suggestive squeeze. "I can think of so many things I would rather do with you than hang you from a rope…"
The door opened again and the Duchess entered, casting a final meaningful glance at the papers in her hand, entered. She was dressed much less formally in a slip of a dress made of thin, filmy fabric, pink with a gold shine. The skirt reached her gold-slippered feet, but the shoulder straps were no wider than a finger, leaving her arms bare.
"You are dismissed," Francesca told Sasha, with a bit of an amused smirk at the scene. Sasha was perfect for this role - friendly, flirtatious, but without a thought in her head. Exactly the sort to set the prisoner at ease and help avoid those blathering hesitations about poison or potions...
Sasha slid to her feet and excused herself, taking the long way around the table to stay as far away from the Duchess's bodyguard - silent as ever - as she possibly could.
"Finish your meal, Captain Visser," Francesca said, her words more an order than an invitation, delivered as she crossed the room. Sitting down beside Zaire, she slid the paper in her hand across the tabletop. It was a mess of a document - a confusing mix of words and x's, water spots, splotches of ink, dark brown smears that might have been blood. "The signatures of your men who survived. They will be here in two days' time, I am assured."
With the arrival of the Duchess, it was easy for Zaire to abandon Sasha, though as her hand slipped away from his thigh he regretted not being able to get more out of her before they were interrupted. She was now beneath notice, however, and he didn't spare another glance at the girl as she made her way to the door and disappeared through it, his undivided attention instead going to the blonde and her silent shadow.
Pushing the plate away, Zaire leaned back in the chair, his shackled hands resting on his thighs. Calm, calculating, watchful. And certainly not about to eat another bite. Without meaning to, he found his eyes drifting over the Duchess' body, thinking about what Sasha said about the woman being afraid to get fat and standing by his earlier determination that an extra ten to fifteen pounds would have done her good. And an extra fifty of muscle would have done wonders for her bodyguard.
He didn't move as she approached but when the parchment was set on the table in front of him, Zaire's eyes were naturally drawn to it. Jahid Abadi, written in the accountant's scrawling penmanship. Einar Larsen, messy and jagged, as if the Master Carpenter had been writing it under duress. A scribble that almost looked like Chione Mostafa, though Zaire was sure someone else signed it for her since as far as he knew his Master Gunner could neither read nor write. Bosede Okeke. Jacob Alby. Henry Gladstone . . .
They were all there, though Zaire hadn't needed Francesca to confirm that at least a handful were missing. Without a doubt, his crew had put up a fight and there had been enough casualties to convince the rest to surrender. The room was spinning, making him regret eating anything at all, and still he asked, "How many were lost in the fightin'?"
Francesca caught the Captain's errant glance downward, but she did not react to it. Her tone remained formal, matter of fact. "By the numbers of signatures," Francesca shrugged as she took the seat at an arm's length from the Captain, "Against the estimates I received from your men downstairs… maybe ten. It is hardly an exact science, and we won't be sure until the survivors arrive." The dungeon was going to be crowded with the better part of a whole pirate crew, but that was hardly Francesca's problem…
Maybe ten. It was ten too many, in Zaire's opinion. There were always casualties, oft times unavoidable ones; a sailor's life was fraught with danger but this wasn't a misstep while taking a prize or a cannon ball ripping through the hull and taking off a man's head. It wasn't even a fever or a man being swept overboard. No, this was Zaire's fault. He should have forced the guards to kill him rather than arrest him but how was he to know that the Duchess wouldn't simply try them and hang them?
There was no other option for him other that doing what he could to fix it but Zaire knew that there was something he was missing, some niggling feeling at the back of his mind that he couldn't quite label. Here the Duchess was, with three members of the Siren's Song crew - one being the Captain - and she went to the trouble of torturing his men, possibly following Gunther, sending not one, but likely a pair, of ships out to enter into certain battle with his crew--
And then it clicked.
Zaire lifted his eyes from the page in front of him, his focus suddenly sharp as he settled his unwavering gaze on the Duchess. "Tell me, darlin'," he started with a calm sort of confidence, as if he were talking to a slighted whore in a seedy brothel. "What did I an' my crew do to get'cher panties in a twist?"
The sudden turn from the Captain - from despair to confidence, and anger and hatred to banter - caught Francesca's interest. Perhaps, she wondered, he had noticed how bored this easy victory had made her or that her servant girls' complaints had reached her ears...
"You stole from a lover of mine," Francesca answered, honestly, making no effort to hide her selfish interests here behind law or greater good. None of that mattered - only personal slights and personal favors did. "Medicine. Your theft caused the painful death of his daughter, a mere maiden." She hadn't even brushed her curious fingers against her potential yet, and her life was snuffed out like a sneeze against a candle... With a saucy smile, Francesca concluded, "It's important to me that my panties stay very happy."
He was right; this was personal. Francesca wasn't acting simply to enforce the law, which meant that, just maybe, there was a bit of wiggle room here. The hope that had only seemed a glimmer earlier was now shining like a tiny star, beckoning Zaire to chase it and there was no doubt he would - but carefully. Oh so carefully.
He nodded as she explained, knowing just which prize she spoke of. They'd taken the Wayfarer haul last month and the shipment of medicine had been the most valuable part of the cargo. Later, they'd put it to a vote and the crew had decided not to sell it, but rather to bring it home to the Island of Pirates to take care of their own. Zaire's own son had gotten a dose of that very same medicine and it had saved the life of Mr. Gladstone's wife. But in the same way that Zaire didn't give a single shit about some dead noble, maiden or not, he knew that the Duchess wouldn't care about the people on the island who had benefited from that medicine.
"As sorry as I am to 'ear 'bout the daughter of your lover," he lied, "ain't nothing I can do to bring 'er back. Even if I could somehow conjure the medicine into bein', it's too late t' save 'er." They were empty words though: condolences for her loss, an acknowledgement of the position she'd found herself in - but not one of guilt.
This time, when his eyes ran over her, prompted by all this talk of her panties, of course, Zaire didn't focus on whether she was too skinny or not. Instead he took in her creamy skin and the faint hints of her body under the flimsy fabric of her dress, letting his appreciation for those teasing glimpses darken his eyes. He leaned forward in his chair, the shackles jingling with the movement, and suggested, "Perhaps we can work out a way t' keep your panties 'appy all the time?"
Francesca nodded at his not-apology. That was precisely why justice was necessary - a crime that took a life could never be undone, and Francesca made sure never to disappoint her allies. She knew well that she was not a good Duchess. Her lands were infested with zombies and vampires ran amok, pirates had an entire island off her shores where they thrived with impunity, manors stood empty without her appointment of new nobles… but the one thing Francesca did, flawlessly, was protect her friends. And this mass-execution of the Siren's Song would be probably the only thing she did for her economy all year! Merchants, farmers, and performers would come to make money off the crowds, and the people would feel a little safer for a little while.
Her first instinct was to laugh the Captain off. After all, he had nothing to lose and his bargaining was likely no more than part of his mourning process. It was only the sudden heat in his eyes that stopped the bubbling amusement in her throat - grief she could dismiss but that emotion, she always took seriously.
"What are you proposing, Captain?" Her eyes dipped to the shackles when they clinked noisily.
Zaire was watching her carefully, taking in even the minute hints of amusement in her blue eyes, and he noticed when those eyes lowered. Leaning forward was the first half of the movement that would bring him to standing and, with a flicker of eyes toward her bodyguard, he rose to his feet. It brought him close to her, almost inappropriately so, and with her still half leaning on the table, meant he was able to look down at her.
"Y'see, darlin'," he started, "you are in the very fortunate position of havin' a crew of immensely capable sailors willin' to barter for something rather important t'them - their lives." And yes, he was speaking for himself as well. If he could survive to sail another day, even if it meant making some concessions, he certainly wasn't eager to pass up the opportunity. "Bein' able t'walk away from the noose breeds a certain . . ." he paused, leaning in to reach past her for the cup of wine Sasha had provided, then gestured with it, "gratitude." He took a swallow, still holding her gaze, "Gratitude that could be capitalized upon by one who was willing t'entertain the idea."
"I am always willing," Francesca responded, her voice a touch lower, and showed no objection when Zaire moved to stand so he could look down at her. Francesca's desires were endlessly adaptable to her partner's, and so she sank a bit, putting her full weight on the table, placing a hand behind her so she could lean back, lengthening her torso and lifting her chest. "And I do enjoy entertaining…"
Her bodyguard reacted - but not offensively. He watched the Captain closely, but never quite made eye contact, always looking at his chin or over his shoulder. With an upturned palm in a silent order, he called the guard at the door, a statuesque man, well over six feet tall, with dark, curly hair, over, who deposited his keys into the Southern man's hand before departing.
Zaire was a bit surprised when the Duchess didn't move away from him, but instead put her body on display, seemingly welcoming him to touch. It was tempting and his eyes raked over her form but he also wasn't unaware of the danger presented by her bodyguard, whose movement had the captain giving the young man more attention than he otherwise would have. Dark eyes tracked the exchange of the keys, hopefully a sign that freedom was within his reach . . .
The Captain's idea - so charmingly raised - was intriguing to the Duchess. They were capable men, with few scruples… and if she sent them to work and they failed, it was no sacrifice of hers. Her mind turned over with enemies she could send them to kill, or - oh - illegal blasting powder she needed shipped from a friend in the North...?
The possibility did not come without its risks. Pirates were also dangerous and not known to keep their promises, except to one another. So, it seemed, Captain Visser's interrogation would be of a different sort that she expected, but the procedure was the same, familiar and well-rehearsed.
Just when the evidence approached insurmountable that the bodyguard was completely mute - not uncommon, as many nobles punished commoners for dissention by cutting out tongues - he began to hum. It was such a low, quiet tune that had it not held a hypnotic quality to it that Zaire was all too familiar with, it might have gone completely unnoticed.
"But how could I ever know that I could trust you?" Francesca asked, watching the Captain's face closely. The power of the vampire's spell was as sure to sap his ability to lie as it was to stoke his desire. "You - and your remaining men - must hate me."
The lust rising in the pit of his belly wasn't completely out of place, there was a gorgeous woman lounging across the table in front of him, but that it was accompanied by the soft humming of the bodyguard had the pirate's neck prickling uncomfortably. It brought back memories of frigid air, impossibly strong hands, teeth tearing into his neck . . .
Fear washed away the desire but Zaire's control was iron-clad as he offered his shackled wrists to the bodyguard, all of the pieces falling into place but not making much sense for it. The small incisions on his men's necks and wrists, the otherworldly beauty the bodyguard possessed; it all added up to a picture that couldn't be denied no matter how improbable it seemed. Francesca had a vampire working for her.
Fighting the sudden urge to reach up and touch the scars on the side of his neck, Zaire instead rubbed at the split skin on his wrists, his eyes going back to the Duchess. He was crazy for even considering making a deal with this woman, that much was clear, but what choice did he have? He'd promised Jimmy and Chaz that he'd get them out of this and instead all he'd managed to do was get the rest of his crew captured as well.
"Tell the vampire t'stop," Zaire ordered, distracted - and a bit surprised - by the firm thigh under his hand. He hadn't meant to reach for her but his newly freed hands seemed to have a mind of their own, pushing the gown up over her knees until he could maneuver himself between them. "If you wanna negotiate," he continued, struggling to keep his train of thought as he pulled her closer, "then I need a clear 'ead to do it."
Francesca's hand on Zaire's shoulder gave her stability as he shifted her on the table, but when he dared to give her an order, those light fingers brushed the obvious scars on his neck in a silent reminder who was in charge here. She could only imagine how he had survived such an attack - usually, by the time anyone had fangs in their throat, they ached for the sweet, satisfying orgasm of death. It was almost a religious experience. His quick recognition made her wonder if his crew had been by his side during the attack, and how many of the men headed toward her dungeon would know what they saw when they saw it.
The pirate's body sent very different signals than his mouth, and Francesca froze up a moment, her head tilting curiously. Pearly white fangs were already appearing over the captain's shoulder, and she had to make a - difficult - split-second decision to obey Zaire's order. Seo-jun was going to be pissed at her about it, she knew, but Francesca didn't need or want to sleep with someone who did not want her in return. The vampire's spell complicated that, and the creature in question obviously had no qualms about using it, but the Duchess made a slicing gesture at her throat that immediately stopped the vampire's voice.
The silence, then, was all hard breath and beating hearts… except the vampire behind Zaire, who knocked over a porcelain vase, shining with gold trim, spilling broken shards and roses across the floor.
In shoving Zaire away, the unused shackles clankered their way to the floor, and Francesca paid them no mind. There was no shackle stronger than a single word from Seo-jun's mouth, and no threat of dungeon stronger than one of being turned. The Duchess hopped off the table and poured herself a goblet of wine, and her voice returned to the matter-of-fact tone she had entered with. "I did not need to tell you my soldiers captured your crew. I do not need your crew. I do not need to bed you." She took an angry - but somehow conservative - sip. So, what did she need Zaire for? A glance toward the tense vampire stalking back and forth answered that clearly.
"I bought you maybe two minutes," and then he won't listen to me, Francesca did not say.
As the last note of the vampire's song faded, Zaire's mind cleared and seconds later fear crashed through the pirate again, flooding his system with adrenaline that had him visibly flinching at the sound of the shattering vase and the clatter of heavy iron manacles falling to the floor. Oddly enough, the outburst made him feel like a child again, carefully navigating his father's temper and, on the heels of that sensation, came the unavoidable need to gain some semblance of control over this situation.
He was acting before he realized it, snatching the fork from his abandoned plate and circling around the table, putting as much distance between himself and the pair as he could in the confines of the room. He didn't raise the utensil like a weapon, though his hand did tighten around it as he watching the pacing vampire, but he immediately felt better holding it as he listened to Francesca's words.
"I told ya I wanted t'negotiate and I'll offer both myself and my blood if that's what it takes." Because if he did it, then maybe his men wouldn't have to. Zaire's lip curled into a snarl as he continued, "But not like this. Bespelling me an' drainin' my blood, forcin' me to fuck ya, ain't gonna prove y'can trust me."
Francesca floated away from the pirate in his frantic fear, but also kept her distance from the vampire whose eyes had, now, swollen veins of red through them. The glass of wine in her hand was a convenient prop, but as often as she raised it to her lips, she didn't drink. She just watched Zaire handle that fork like a… confused child, perhaps, Francesca concluded, for she could find no rhyme or reason.
Her brows raised at Zaire's words. He had clearly faced a vampire before, if those scars meant anything. And if he had survived, he knew that a bite without the spell was agony. Of course, she had given the impression that she intended to inflict real torture on these pirate prisoners, but she had little appetite for that in action. Who wanted to cut out tongues that her servant girls fantasized about? Or fingers that could make themselves oh, so useful…?
Her eyes fell to the neglected plate of food. With how little nutrition, rest, exercise the captain had of late, she seriously doubted he would survive Seo-jun's feeding…
So when the vampire jumped after the captain, Francesca glanced away, wandering absently toward a lovely painting of her mother - fair, blonde, with her ribcage still yet intact… The sucking, slurping noises accompanied now by pained moans instead of pleasured ones did not sit well with Francesca, who could not interrupt but whose posture tightened and stomach turned…
There was no exchange of terms, no warning, before the vampire was on him and even without a more effective weapon than a fucking fork, Zaire was no match in speed or strength for a healthy, well fed vampire. This time there was nothing clumsy or ill-timed about the strike, fangs sinking painfully into his neck right where the vampire intended them . . .
Captain Zaire Visser was in no way a stranger to dangerous situations and there had been many times in his life where he was sure he was going to die - that only a miracle would save him - but he'd never felt the raw terror that he did with those deceptively strong arms wrapped around him. Every swallow brought with it pain that tugged all the way to Zaire's toes, but as much as he wanted it to be over and done, he kept his crew in the forefront of his mind. If there was even the slightest chance that him keeping still and letting the vampire feed could save his men, then he'd do it a million times over. This was his punishment for getting them into this situation and he'd see if through til the end.
And, finally, when that terror was threatening to burst from his muscles in a flurry of frantic fighting, the vampire released him.
Zaire sank to his knees, his hand automatically coming up to poke at the new punctures on the opposite side of his neck, small and neat compared to the mess the other vampire had made, with blood still trickling. He felt lightheaded, woozy from blood loss, and in that moment he would have given anything to have his wife pull him into her arms, to gently tend his wounds and kiss away the nightmares that were sure to follow.
But he was alive and unturned.
Lifting his eyes, Zaire found Francesca again. "Aye?" he asked, the words sounding hollow even to his own ears. "Are ya satisfied?"
Francesca turned back when she head the man-sized clatter of limbs to the floor - and brows raised in surprise to see he was still conscious. Her eyes lifted to Seo-jun, wondering if he had held back - he might have been a creature but he wasn't a sadist. Just like humans, he liked to enjoy his food.
"Almost," Francesca responded with a forced smile that alluded to sympathy as Seo-jun pulled the knife at his waist - the only weapon he carried, no longer than his hand. The vampire dropped to one knee at Zaire's side, pulled the captain's hand back from the wound, and carefully sliced into his skin, turning those neat punctures into a regular old incision. Once it healed, there would be no indication a vampire had been there. Then, he licked the knife - rather obscenely - and backed away.
Only then did Francesca return to the table until she stood over the pirate captain, and the irony of the imagery was not lost on her - in a twisted way, this was nothing more than a subject kneeling before his lady. Francesca extended her hand, both as an offer to help him up but also to accept his bargain. "Perhaps I can make use of a pirate crew, if your men have half your fortitude."
Zaire's stomach flip flopped as the vampire leaned in again, knife in hand, and cleaned up the evidence and it was only will power, and the surety that if he moved away too fast he'd pass out, that kept the pirate right where he was throughout. Fuck but he hated vampires.
As Francesca stepped forward and offered her hand though, Zaire lifted dark eyes to her face and realized that he hated her too. Her compliment meant little to him aside from the implication that she was willing to negotiate and that was what he focused on. Well, after the monumental task of lifting himself off the floor and stumbling into a chair was completed, anyway.
"My men 'ave that and more," he assured her, though the declaration may have lost a bit of its impact due to the fact that it was delivered with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. Zaire was pretty sure he was going to throw up but still, he continued, "As appreciative as I am 'bout not being bled dry or turned, an' about my crew not bein' hanged, if this is to be a mutually beneficial arrangement, we'll need some compensation eventually."
Settling gently down into the seat beside the captain, Francesca gave him time to pull himself together. That much blood loss had wider effects on the body than just the pain - rapid, weak pulse, quick breaths… all effects that went so nicely with that orgasmic glow that most victims, even those who survived, did not pay them much mind. But not this particularly stubborn captain…
When he spoke, Francesca laughed, out of surprise as much as amusement. Compensation? Dodging death wasn't enough for a pirate, they were so greedy…
That sparked an idea that sent a cheshire smile across the Duchess's face, and once the possibility danced in front of her eyes that they might actually be successful, a new excited energy shot through her and she straightened before sending Seo-jun to the door with an order. "Tell the girls to bring soup." Zaire needed to refresh his fluids, soon, and that would likely be the least objectionable way to do so. The vampire, finally calming down, headed to the door.
Expecting Zaire might be more comfortable with the distance, Francesca waited a few footsteps before speaking. "I will pay you with your lives - and your ship - for one…" Francesca's head tilted back and forth in contemplation as she tried to choose a word, and the fact that she hesitated was telling. "Errand."
Aside from a slightly exasperated lifting of his eyebrows, Zaire didn't react to the laughter. He'd done as she'd asked and she'd agreed that a deal could be worked out between her and his crew, so asking for compensation for future business transactions was only--
Oh. Zaire lifted his head from his hands, taking in her smile with a scrutinous narrowing of his eyes. One hunt and then they were square? He'd been expecting a more long term arrangement but if he could shake off the yoke of Duchess Francesca Rossi after one hunt, in exchange for their lives and ship, then he wasn't about to waste the opportunity.
"Details, darlin'," he prompted, reaching for the goblet of wine still sitting on the table. "What are we huntin'?" he asked, sure it would be one hell of a prize with the way she hesitated.
"I am sure you've heard the tale, probably even told it to your cabin boy a time or two," Francesca said, knowing it was a popular tale among adventurers, but a wistful one that sailors had stopped seeking a hundred years ago. "A ship, loaded heavy with precious raw metals and jewels from the mines in the North, commissioned by a Southern Duke Qasim Nimr commissioning artists to make exquisite jewelry." The duke in question was the most famous figure of the South, the warrior and diplomat who lost to King Paxton the First in their duel for the crown but won the right to appoint his family over the rest of Eventyr. These were the days when the South was wealthy beyond comprehension; now, the region had a reputation for being a desolate desert populated with too many scholars and not enough farmers.
"A storm sank the ship off the Western coast. It was so sudden and terrible that stories at the time speculated it was conjured by a witch, angry that she had not been given a duchy she felt she deserved."
"Common wisdom suggests the remains were swept out to sea, as no expedition to find it has returned..." Good sailors knew how far off the coast you could go - not unlike the deserts in the South or the forest in the East, a traveler could only go so far before they were lost. Some said this was where creatures came from, and the few that terrorized Eventyr were those who wandered too far from home themselves. Others said you would lose your mind in the solitude… and others would just shrug and say that the world ended.
"I happen to know where the ship is. It was not swept to sea," Francesca concluded, "because it was rescued by a sea dragon."
Francesca wasn't wrong; Zaire knew the story well. It was a tale every pirate told but long considered just that: a bit of fantasy to entertain on a quiet evening. No one actually believed it and, right up until her conclusion, the pirate had listened with a slightly bemused expression on his face, just waiting for the opportunity to tell her that she was wrong. She'd been lied to and the treasure didn't exist - at least not somewhere even slightly attainable - but her final words had him hesitating, calculating eyes regarding her over the rim of his cup.
Could it be true?
She seemed so sure of herself and, he supposed, if anyone were to know the alleged location of the largest lost treasure in Eventyr it did make sense that it be a noble with access to historical records. And if it were in the talons of a dragon, then that could explain why any royal expedition to retake it had never been successful in the past. And with the rumors of King Philip's royal brain deteriorating, it would likely be the last thing on His Majesty's list of things to do - far below choose a child-bride and not bother to rule.
"Let's say, for a moment, that yer right and the treasure does exist. Let's say, darlin', that you even know where it can be found," Zaire started, setting his goblet aside and folding his arms atop the table. "We talkin' 'bout goin' up against a dragon." A dragon that he wasn't even sure existed. "We'll need supplies - food and fresh water, new sails and rope. An' I'll need a beach to careen the Song unmolested." He arched an eyebrow, "And you've left me light on blood, darlin'. I'll need at least a fortnight 'til I'm up for facin' a dragon, and that's without me knowin' what sort'uv shape your men left my vanguard."
Francesca nodded - it might have been almost certainly a suicide mission, but if there was any chance they could actually succeed, it was worth making the necessary concessions. It required a measure of trust on her part - after all, the pirates could take their fully-stocked ship and escape - but Francesca doubted neither Zaire's greed nor his commitment to his men nor his solid understanding of the consequences of crossing her now. He would attempt the feat, and the cost of the supplies far outweighed the potential benefit. "The treasure has been lost for two centuries. We can spare two weeks in preparation."
Her promise made, Francesca sipped her wine again and leaned forward, meeting the captain's dark eyes with her condition in return, outlining the story that Zaire and his crew would need to tell in order for her reputation to be sufficiently covered: "The ten men lost in the battle were actually captured and executed by my Navy for the Wayfarer crime." She paused, as if to silently insist that even those who had been on board must tell this tale faithfully. "If not for the intervention of that tempting of mermaids, you all would have been brought to justice."
Zaire's smile came with an amused huff of breath and he shook his head, reaching for his drink again. It was a sound option though, spreading as many rumors as possible to confuse the information, since by now he was sure word had gotten around that Captain Visser had been apprehended. But if his body hadn't been strung up in the square and his banner still flying at the stern of his ship, then his capture was all nothing but rumor, right?
"Of course, darlin'," he agreed, liking the implication that he could summon merfolk help from the depths. Those were the sort of tales that boosted a reputation, after all. Straightening in his chair, Zaire placed a solemn hand over his heart, "We who were there will swear it so."
It was unusual for the Duchess of the Western Plains to be awake in daylight hours, but on this particular day, Francesca Rossi had forced herself to stay present. It was an important one - either the Siren's Song would return with an unimaginable prize or she would execute the three pirates she kept as insurance on the morrow. Her prisoners had the utmost belief in their captain, as well they should have, and that proved faithful.
The Duchess made her way out onto the marble steps of her estate, watching as crate after crate was carried past her, each loaded with ancient treasure. Her eyes fought a perpetual battle - curious about the prize, but more curious about the pirates who managed to win it…
With one final word to his Quartermaster, who would continue working with Francesca's soldiers to transport the treasure, Zaire broke away from the group and turned his attention to the Duchess waiting on the stairs. She looked as lovely as ever, he noticed, her skin pale in the sun and her hair shining like the gold packed away in chests and sacks.
Chaz was a step behind, his arm in a makeshift sling while his broken collarbone healed. "Cap'n?" he asked, brown eyes pleading.
Zaire didn't slow his stride, but he did reach out and clasp the boy's good shoulder. "Wait 'ere."
"Aye, Cap'n." Chaz relented as he drew to a stop.
Zaire could understand the Carpenter's worries because he shared them. The Duchess had given her word that this errand would clear the debt owed when she granted their freedom but whether she would keep her word remained to be seen. Either way, Zaire wouldn't leave this meeting without his men.
Despite all of that though, Zaire and the crew were in good spirits. They'd confronted a dragon, killed it, and appropriated a treasure that had been deemed nothing but a legend. If Duchess Francesca Rossi did go back on her word, Zaire had seen to it that his crew would go down in history.
"Good morn, m'lady," he greeted, stopping at the bottom of the stairs and offering her a pleased smile. "T'is a pleasure." One hand came to rest of the pommel of his sword as he continued conversationally, "Ya look lovely in the sun, darlin'; you should get more'uv it."
Francesca's eyes skimmed the pirate in return as he broke from his crew to approach - if not for the distinctive pattern to his skin, she mused that this could have been an entirely different man from the beaten-down, desperate but defiant prisoner locked away in her dungeon a month ago. Now, he was all swagger, charm, and confidence - that he had more than earned - and frankly it was attractive as hell. The way he grasped his sword might have been a subtle threat (and indeed one guard took a step forward), but Francesca's mind went somewhere else entirely and mirth lit in her eyes.
"Thank you, Captain," Francesca returned with a smile of her own. He wasn't wrong; she did feel differently in the sunlight. Perhaps it was just the warm glow on her skin, or maybe it was the freedom from the cloud of having a Creature always at her side. She had a certain immunity to the vampire's spell... but without knowing how or why, exactly, it was only in the sunshine that Francesca could be absolutely certain her thoughts were her own.
"Perhaps we should meet in the garden, then," Francesca invited as she gestured for Zaire to follow her and tossing over her shoulder, "Antonio will take good care of your weapons while we speak."
Francesca's request wasn't a surprise - Zaire hadn't expected to be able to keep his weapons anyway - but he wasn't too worried. He did still have his newly pilfered key in his possession, after all, hanging from a cord around his neck and tucked safely into his shirt next to the locket that housed his mermaid's pearl.
So Zaire acquiesced without a word, shrugging out of his baldric and passing it to Antonio in a movement that was a bit stiff - a clear indication that he was favoring an injury. The knife from his belt followed, along with the one from his boot, and then he was mounting the stairs to fall into step with the Duchess.
"I'd like t'see my men, darlin'," he said, tucking a thumb into the wide belt at his waist as they walked. He assumed they'd been left in the dungeons, which was understandable, but he did expect them to be well-fed and unharmed.
The Duchess led the way down a cobbled path around the imposing house, canopied with blossoming vines and grapes with their wide and therefore shade-bearing leaves. Soon, that gave way to a small plaza that looked designed to host a modest-sized dinner party with well-groomed trees, colorful bushes of flowers, and a half dozen sculptures - unsurprisingly, all nudes.
"Of course," Francesca answered, but she addressed her command not to the guards familiar to Zaire from the dungeon but to the red-haired serving girl who was just finishing placing out an assortment of fruit and a hot pot of coffee. "Find our pirates and let them know their captain would like to see them in the garden."
Settling into her seat and gesturing for Zaire to do the same, Francesca helped herself to a cup of coffee and then passed the pot in offering to the man she was treating much more like a guest than not. In explanation, she said, "Your men were so sure you would be back, I found soon after your departure that I did not need to imprison them. And you did not disappoint." Watching him closely over her fine, porcelain cup as she took a sip, she concluded, "Impressive work, Captain."
Eloise had grape vines back at their home on the Island of Pirates, an entire canopy of them hanging from the trellis above the courtyard and Zaire couldn't stop himself from reaching up as they walked and running his fingers over the leaves. It was like a little slice of home in this otherwise unfamiliar place and reminded him, painfully, of just how long it had been since he'd seen his wife and children.
By now word would have gotten back that the Siren's Song had come under attack; that ten of his crew had been executed and the rest of them only survived by the miraculous intervention of a tempting of mermaids - or was it a tempest? Or maybe another pirate crew? Either way, no one had seen sign of the Song in so long that it was likely Eloise thought the ship lost and him dead.
Sitting down in the chair offered him, Zaire arched an eyebrow at Francesca's words to the red-haired servant girl and while the Duchess's explanation came quickly enough, it didn't stop him from turning her words over in his head. Of course his men had expected the crew to return for them but that she allowed them what sounded like free rein of her household was unexpected, to say the least.
"Thank ye, darlin'," Zaire answered, though it wasn't clear if he were thanking her for the compliment or the coffee she passed his way. He poured himself a cup, his other hand absently cradling bandaged ribs as he continued, "As y'can now see, I wasn't fibbin' when I said we were capable . . ."
"Indeed not," Francesca said, her eyes dipping to the captain's torso briefly, noting the discomfort in his posture. She was surprised he was not more injured, in fact, and that spoke to the truth in his statement. Setting her cup down on the saucer in front of her, Francesca affirmed that she would uphold her end of the bargain "You and your men are free to go, as soon as the… heavy lifting is finished."
"However, if you are still interested in an arrangement, then please, stay the day as my guest." He well might not have continued to be interested, she acknowledged, seeing as she had been the cause of death for ten of his men, essentially pressed him into a suicide mission, and fed him and his men routinely to her bodyguard vampire. But she was interested, as unprecedented as it might have been for a Duchess to strike bargains with pirates, and so she went on. "I will feed your men and restock your ship while we discuss terms."
Some would say that the smart thing to do would be to walk away - to collect his men, count his blessings,and leave the Duchess in their wake - but there was an opportunity to be had here and one that Zaire couldn't simply turn his nose up at. Being able to sail away from here to continue their lives was no small thing but to be able to ensure that they could continue unmolested? Well, that was worth exploring.
"It ain't simply up to me," he explained, taking a sip of his coffee. Making a deal in the heat of the moment, while bargaining for their lives, was one thing but this was gearing up to be a potential business arrangement and with that came a certain expectation to stick to procedure. "It'll 'ave to be put to a vote. But I'll need terms to bring back t'my crew, of course." With a glint of interest in his dark eyes, Zaire gave a charming smile, "Duchess, I believe it's time t'introduce ye to my Quartermaster . . ."