James Byron is halfway to the dungeons when something strange catches his eye. He pauses in the empty hallway, the ghostly echo of his footfalls carrying on in his wake. To his left is a narrow alcove leading into one of the king’s many wine cellars. The room itself is quite normal. Narrow bottles of dusty glass line the curved walls from the flagstone floor to the low hanging ceiling. The savory mineral notes of fermented grapes cling to the earthen room. The air is tight and stale. No breeze rolls in from the vaulted stained glass windows in the narrow hall beyond.
It is not the room or its contents that catch Byron’s attention.
It is the man within.
Byron vacillates in the doorway, staring at the dozing stranger that sprawls out across a low, stone bench. A goblet of the king’s fine wine is grasped tightly within his long, claw-like fingers. Wild black hair drapes across his face, fluttering before his nose as he gives a light snore.
His stained cotton undershirt—torn in places—is scarcely covered by a moth eaten black vest. He is entirely disheveled, from his head down to the peeling soles of his leather boots. A faint, alcoholic reek comes from somewhere on his person. On the bench next to him is an opened bottle of port. From the looks of it, only several drops of the crimson liquid remain in the glass flagon.
Byron clears his throat, hemming loudly. The noise falls flat within the cluttered expanse. The man before him continues to snore, giving only the faintest twitch of consciousness. Byron clears his throat a second time, louder. Again, the stranger remains fast asleep. Stepping further into the room, Byron nudges the man with his toes. Smacking his lips, the tall man bats sleepily at Byron’s boot.
Growing irritated with the man’s apparent inebriation, Byron leans forward and knocks the glass of port off of the bench. It falls to the floor with a jarring shatter, spattering red wine across the floor like blood. The stranger jerks upright, blinking wildly. His tousled black hair falls waywardly into vibrant golden eyes. His face splits into a grin at the sight of the guardian before him.
“General Byron. I was wondering when I might run into you,” he says. Byron is surprised to hear that the man’s words are crisp and clear. His sharp gaze is alert as he studies Byron’s insignia.
“Who are you?” Byron demands, momentarily ignoring the acknowledgment. “What are you doing in here?”
The stranger shrugs lightly, staring into the contents of his goblet. “I was left here to wait,” he says. His words resonate from deep within the chalice. He tilts the stem upward, draining the dregs of his glass.
The pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place as Byron glowers at the wine stained lips of the smirking stranger before him.
“You’re Anderson’s pirate,” he confirms aloud, recalling Eaton’s words in the barracks.
The stranger laughs at that, his eyes glimmering with mirth. “Aye, you could say that.”
“Do you have a name, pirate?” Byron inquires.
The pirate raises his arms up over his head in an exaggerated stretch. “Aye, I do,” he says mid-yawn. “Some people call me the Hawk.”
“The Hawk?” repeats Byron, wary of the Cairan title. The pirate’s sleeves are pushed up around his elbows and Byron studies the black inked bird that soars across his forearm. “And what does everyone else call you?” he asks.
“Ahh,” breathes the pirate. He scratches his scalp, his face scrunching up in thought. “Loads of things—none of them fit to be uttered within the walls of His Royal Majesty’s palace.”
He grins, allowing a breathy chuckle to escape like an exhale from between his teeth. Winking at Byron, he swings his long legs over the bench and rises to his feet. They are face to face in the cellar, their heads inches away from the low hanging ceiling.
“How do you know who I am?” Byron asks.
The Hawk’s eyes widen at that. “Everyone knows who you are, General. You’re a bit of a personage around this island—or didn’t you know that?”
“Everyone around here may know me,” Byron assents before adding, “But you’re not from Chancey, are you?”
The Hawk proffers a light shrug. “I was born here,” comes the glib reply.
“You weren’t raised here,” Byron shoots back. “Your accent is considerably westernized. You’re a foreigner—a thieving pirate—and I make it a point to keep from becoming too familiar with criminals.”
“It’s a shame,” the Hawk says, grinning. “We’re rather interesting.”
“How do you know who I am?” Byron asks again, growing thoroughly disenchanted with the pirate’s continued eschewal of the truth.
The Hawk exhales sharply. “See,” he muses, scratching idly at the dark scruff growing in upon his jaw. “I’m not certain it’s in my best interest to speak with you.”
Byron glares at him and says nothing.
The Hawk’s thick, black brows disappear beneath his tangled mop of hair, and he leans in as though he is about to share a secret. “We’re all alone, you see. No witnesses, and all that. You can understand my reluctance, can’t you, General? I think I’ll wait for Corporal Anderson to return before we carry on with this scintillating conversation.”
He flashes Byron a genial smile. “I’m expecting him back any moment,” he adds casually.
Byron wets his lower lip, frowning. Quiet paranoia whispers through his gut and he does his best to push it aside. If this pirate is affiliated in any way with Seranai the Fair; if he knows half the things she knows—
His thoughts trail into apprehensive silence as he studies the grinning pirate before him. The arrogant look in those golden eyes is enough to set his blood to boiling.
He can destroy me, if he wants to.
A deeper, darker voice within him reminds him that he’s already come undone. He curses himself silently for the decisions he’s made, feeling a creeping sense of regret beginning to take root within him. He is suddenly angry, although whether at the pirate or at himself, he cannot quite determine.
“Do you think Corporal Anderson can protect you?” he asks. His words are clipped with exasperation. The Hawk appears unfazed by the question.
Byron steps around the pirate, deliberately giving the wine soaked man a wide berth. He turns his back to him, maneuvering further into the wine cellar. “Whatever he’s promised you—whatever deal you’ve made with him—it’s impermanent, you can rely on that.”
He runs one finger along the dusty glass of a corked decanter before plucking it off the rack. It slides out in a cloud of fluttering motes, ferrying the earthy bouquet of dry wine in its wake. He turns his head to the side, aware of the Hawk’s golden eyes surveying his profile with bald imprudence.
“Corporal Anderson is a powerful man, but even his power has limitations. I am his superior officer. The moment I decide you are a threat to me or to His Majesty, I will have your head on a platter, is that clear?”
There is a pinging reverberation as the Hawk flicks the thin rim of his goblet.
“Clear as crystal,” the pirate sings.