Friday, August 13, 2010

In Which the Day is Saved By ... Well, Everyone Really

From the diary of Dulcie, Crown Princess of Bentlefay:

(continued from here)

There was a pause, and then the four of us went out on the deck, moving in a sort of rigid toddle which I would no doubt have found amusing had I not had a knife to my throat at the time.

The scene on the deck was everything I would have wished. The Norhammers lay about in heaps, either unconscious, bleeding freely, puffy and mottled with bruises, or some combination of the three. The crew of the Porteous, their honor now avenged, was doing most of the tying up, while the contingent of pirates looked on tolerantly, with the exception of Jock Masters, who stood astride a pile of three men with menace in his eye.

“Where is she?” he demanded as soon as he saw us, taking no notice of my plight. “I can’t get a straight answer out of any of these morons.” He gestured furiously at the three men under his feet, who were thoroughly unconscious. “Damn you, tell me where she is or I’ll start slitting their throats one by one.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Harker airily. “Not when every drop of blood shed henceforward by one of my men will be shed three times over by her majesty here.”

Masters cocked an eyebrow and I wondered if that was all that much of an incentive to him. To my relief, however, he strode over to where Long Bob had hold of Bleake and put the point of his sword to Bleake’s throat.

“How about you?” he cooed. “How much of your life’s blood would you like to sacrifice in exchange for three times as much from the princess?”

“She’s in the galley,” shouted Bleake, who then glared at Harker. “For god’s sake, you ass, why do you have to be like that? They were just going to find her anyway.”

I felt Harker shrug. “Not so much a strategist where your own neck is concerned, eh?”

Bleake started forward with murder in his eye and was caught more tightly by Long Bob, whereupon Harker caught me more tightly in response, and my neck was starting to hurt a little before Masters, who had been fumbling with the door of the galley, got it open and Lynde came bounding out like a savage tiger.

She had battle in her eye, but Masters clearly had his own opinion on the matter since he snatched her bodily and planted a toe-curling kiss, which went on long enough for her hands, which were all I could see of her, to register astonishment, impatience, tentative enjoyment, and then enthusiasm.

Those men who were still in possession of their wits looked on in gleeful surprise, and we all would have enjoyed ourselves very much if Harker, who evidently has no sense of romance except insofar as it involves his own personal legend, became impatient and cleared his throat.

“Very touching,” he said smoothly, “but shall we get down to business? I begin to grow weary of this spot of sea.”

Lynde leaped away from Masters, took in the situation with a glance, and then demanded – rather redundantly, I thought – “What does this mean?”

“It means that one may lose all one’s pawns but still win the game if one has the king in check, Mistress Falconer. I have your princess; she will die if you try to take her back. Therefore I must ask you to leave this ship and take yourselves back to Bentlefay along with my ultimatum.”

“And that is?”

“The princess’ hand in marriage and the annexation of the kingdom as Norhammer’s protectorate, or her severed head in a basket before the next full moon.”

He cocked his head in Bleake’s direction. “Oh, and you can take him with you if you like. I have no opinion on the matter.”

Lynde and Masters looked at each other and then at me. I began to realize the seriousness of the situation, which had so far been moving too fast for much thought. Harker was certainly not bluffing – I had all the evidence I needed as to his respect for human life. My breath began to catch shortly as I wondered if I would ever see Mother and Father again, or home. What had I thought was going to be so wonderful about adventure, anyhow?

I was well on my way to hysterics again, with who knows what repercussions, when I became aware that Lynde’s stare held more meaning than I had first given it credit for, and that her lips were moving slightly. It took a moment for me to puzzle out what she meant, but by moving my lips in the same shape I realized that she was mouthing “drill.”

Drill?

Drill!

In an instant Lynde’s plan became clear in my head – the only weakness being that for the first time in my life my safety lay in my own hands, and I was not at all certain I had the courage to defend it.

My mind seemed to move through panic as sluggishly as through mud, but thinking one step at a time I reasoned that if my study of military tactics had taught me anything, it was that to make oneself underestimated shaped any subsequent events to one’s advantage.

I wasn’t sure Harker could estimate me any lower, but to make doubly sure I decided to stage a mock half-faint. With a slight sigh, I made myself as limp as I could, forcing Harker to catch and support me.

“A weak royalty makes a weak nation,” he observed nastily. “And I had thought Bentlefay a worthy opponent. Ah well, at least your farmland is rich.” Bastard, I thought, but dared not move a muscle.

By the second tactical step, Harker needed to have his attention distracted elsewhere. I couldn’t do that myself, of course, but Masters was equal to the occasion.

“Look here,” he began in just the brash rudeness of tone which a bully like Harker would be most likely to respect, “what do you think we fight for? We wouldn’t have lifted a finger against you if we hadn’t been paid handsomely and I for one intend to be paid handsomely to stop.”

“I think you are forgetting –” Harker began but Masters cut him off.

“You may shed as much royal blood as you like,” he sneered, “it has no effect on me.”

“Now then, the princess is our kin,” Long Bob added to the discussion, dividing Harker’s attention further.

“She’s your kin,” said Masters. “If you want to keep fighting, do so by all means, but you’ll be having to fight me too.”

Harker turned his head from Masters to Long Bob and back. It was clear the situation had complicated itself beyond his ability to solve it by threatening me and as my value slackened in Harker’s mind, so did his grip on my throat. I estimated it only needed one more dig to take his mind off me altogether and Masters did not disappoint.

“In any case,” he said, turning back to Harker, “if you are na├»ve enough to think the pirate clans are respecters of nations, you should leave the sea for your own fishponds until you learn wisdom.”

“Listen, you puppet-king of a gang of no-account ruffians,” shouted Harker, confusion making him angry as it was bound to, “I am a descendant of merfolk; how dare you tell me my place on the sea? I’ll teach you your own place with my bare hands once I’ve done.”

Unconsciously he sketched a gesture with the hand holding the dagger and it was all the opening I needed. Springing swiftly to life, I crouched inside his reach, rammed my left elbow into his gut with all my weight behind it, dropped to one knee and shot my fist into his groin, backed by all the rage that had been building in me since the watch first called at the feast last night.

Harker froze, gave a short high-pitched moan, and toppled magnificently over like a falling tree, to be leapt upon by every available man from the pirate and Porteous crews.

The stalemate was over.

(continued here)

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