“Walk with me,” Melena commands shrilly, her smile wide. She takes Emerala’s arm, prying it easily from Derek’s grip. Emerala chances a look at Lachlan as the woman leads her away. He nods once, the decline of his chin almost imperceptible in the speckled shade that dances across his face.
“Men can be so dull,” Melena titters into her ear. Her breath stirs Emerala’s hair, causing the thick curls to tickle the side of her face. She feels the hair on the back of her neck stand erect as unease creeps through her.
They walk a ways in front of Derek and Lachlan without saying a word. The occasional shrill screech of the glossy raven is only noise that cuts through the viscous heat of the dying afternoon. Emerala listens intently for the sounds of boots crunching against thick foliage, reassured by the fact that the men are just behind them. She does not dare to turn around. She attempts to look prim—a little frightened, even. Surely a lady of such a fine upbringing as Katherine Montclay of Toholay would be frightened in the company of gypsies.
Emerala the Rogue—herself a gypsy—is frightened here, among the alien sights and smells of the jungle, far from home and in the company of a woman who listens to the whisperings of ravens.
“So, which one do you think it is?” Melena asks, drawing Emerala in close. Her eyes widen to impossible circles and she bites her lip, an ever-present giggle barely restrained upon her tongue.
“Sorry,” Emerala mutters, confused. “What are we talking about?” She fights to keep her voice sedate but finds that annoyance with the Cairan woman is winning the battle for her words.
“The pirates that accompanied you and Derek,” she titters, flashing a look at Emerala as though it should be obvious. She glances over her shoulder to see if the men behind them are within listening distance. Her tresses tickle the mossy undergrowth as she does so. When she looks back at Emerala, her gaze is positively wicked. “Which one do you think fancies you?”
Emerala stiffens, stumbling slightly against the untamed roots that snake in and out of the rich soil. “I don’t believe one does,” she mumbles, catching her feet in time to keep from falling.
The raven gives off a lilted screech. Cocking its head completely to the side, it ogles Emerala through marble eyes. Melena clicks her tongue, tut-tut-tutting reproachfully at Emerala. The raven mimics her, clicking its beak together as it shoots her an admonishing glare.
“Don’t lie to Melena,” the woman sings, touching Emerala lightly on the tip of her nose. “They couldn’t bear to let you out of their sight.” She leans in, lowering her voice to a whisper. “How terribly dramatic of both of them.”
At that she gasps aloud, startling the raven into taking flight. It circles above their heads with an unsettling cry before returning with a fluttering thud to Melena’s shoulder. “Perhaps both of them fancy you—wouldn’t that make for the perfect tragedy?”
Emerala clears her throat, feeling her cheeks growing hot. “I’m quite happily engaged to be married, if you’ll recall.”
“No you’re not,” Melena quips, that singsong voice lilting upwards towards the treetops. Emerala fights the growing urge to slap the woman across the face. She looks at the curled, black talons of the raven and thinks better of it.
“But we can keep pretending you are, if it suits your fancy,” Melena says with a simper. “I adore games, and this one is delightful.” Her eyes twinkle with a knowing gleam. She drags Emerala forward through the jungle at a quickening pace, and Emerala finds herself struggling to keep her footing in the dense undergrowth. She can no longer hear the footfalls of Derek and the Lethal at their backs.
Next to her, Melena sighs. “Pirates are just hopeless romantics at heart, don’t you think?” she asks, and giggles. “You’d have to be, to have a love affair with something as fickle as the sea.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Emerala replies darkly. Up ahead she can just make out a looming, rectangular silhouette pressing through the trees. She stares into the vegetation, trying to fathom what they could possibly be approaching this far out in the jungle.
“It’s their fatal flaw,” Melena snickers. “Take Lachlan the Lethal, for example.”
Emerala hesitates, her eyes drawing away from the oblong structure beyond the tangled, grey tree trunks. Overhead, something hoots in alarm. The sound echoes three times in succession before fading away into silence. There is an audible rustling—the reverberation of something heavy climbing through the branches. Emerala shivers, glancing over her shoulder. Derek and the Lethal are nowhere to be seen.
“How do you know him?” Emerala asks, buying time. Somehow, she can’t imagine anyone choosing the phrase hopeless romantic to describe the gruff, old murderer.
Melena is watching her with a knowing grin. “Everyone has heard of him, of course. I’m surprised you don’t know that, since you’re so firmly pretending to be a Westerly bride.”
“Oh,” Emerala sniffs, unsure of what to say. Melena leans in closer, and Emerala notices the raven on her shoulder is gone. She feels a shiver of unease go down her spine. She had not heard or seen the bird take off.
All around them, the jungle is suddenly void of wildlife. The dissonant sounds of life that buzzed and fluttered incessantly on their journey have faded into silence. The sun is drawing closer to the earth, the crisp gold of the afternoon giving way to an ambiguous halo of red that splinters through the leaves like spilt wine. The world around the women is cast in dangerous hues of olive and violet.
“There is an old story about Lachlan the Lethal—one almost as notorious as the stories of his misdeeds.” Melena straightens, her gaze searching. That same smile is still pressed into her lips—is still a permanent, irritating fixture upon her face. “You do know that your pirate friend is a convicted murderer, I assume.”
“So I’ve heard,” Emerala murmurs. She can feel the looming presence of the structure before her and wonders if this is where the man they called the architect resides. A prickle of anticipation sends her pulse fluttering.
Melena does a little dance, her feet shuffling lightly against the earth.
“His fate, it was set, his rights, they were read, and Lachlan was hung by his neck ‘til dead,” she sings, stringing two fingers around her neck like a noose. Emerala stares at her and says nothing.
“He wasn’t always a killer, you know.” Melena’s eyes are shining in the dying light. The muddled red sun paints her face the color of blood. “Have you heard of the four wind women of the seas?”
Melena giggles loudly, the sound spilling away from her like water. It saturates the silent space around them, the echo of her laughter rolling down the branchless trunks of the leaning trees and colliding with Emerala’s sticking skin.
“Another mistake,” Melena whispers, nearly hopping with excitement. “Mistake after mistake, it isn’t good if you’re hoping to win our little game.”
Emerala scowls. Through the trees she can hear the crunch of a boot against brambles and feels a surge of relief rush through her. Melena moves so close to her, then, that her blue eyes double before Emerala’s vision. Her breath is tinged with the crisp scent of mint leaves.
“They say it is only a great fool that falls in love with an immortal woman of the wind,” she whispers. “Lachlan the Lethal has been called many things in his first lifetime. A fool was never one of them.”
She draws back with a wink, her hair fluttering into her eyes. Emerala glowers at her in silence.
“It’s a lovely story,” Melena says, “You should ask him to tell it.”
She lets out a cackle at that, setting off once again to dancing. Emerala watches with relief as Derek and Lachlan break through the tangled trees and emerge into the clearing. Their faces are slick with sweat. Lachlan’s cutlass is drawn. He lowers it at the sight of Emerala, his expression unreadable. The white scar that runs down the length of his face appears fresh and red in the fading light.
“And down came the wind with a wretched old shriek and bade, then, the dead man to rise up and speak,” sings Melena as she twirls away from Emerala. In the dusky, violet shadows of the trees, Lachlan the Lethal freezes. His gaze darkens as he fingers the blade of his cutlass, studying the spinning figure of the woman. His lips are pressed together in a tight, white line.
Melena pauses, peering out at them from behind a tree with eyes that glitter like jewels. Her haunting voice croons softly in the twilight. “The story is old, the whispers, they grow. Where Lachlan is now, the dead men will know.”
Lachlan scowls, ignoring her. “Are ye alright?” he calls out to Emerala. His voice is hoarse.
“Fine,” she calls back, unnerved by the expression that flashes across his face. The cutlass in his hand catches the dying sun, throwing fragments of ruddy light across his features.
“We’re here,” Derek says. He approaches Emerala slowly, watching her through reserved eyes. He pulls her into a hug, letting his lips graze against her ear. “Be careful,” he whispers.
“She knows,” Emerala whispers back. “She knows we’re pretending.”
Derek pauses for a long moment. When he speaks, his voice is tense. “It doesn’t matter. We’re too far now to turn back. There’s nothing to do but keep playing along.”
He draws back from her, and the warning look in his eyes is frightening. “It’s the only way we’ll get out of here alive.”