Roberts did not return home until the early hours of the morning. Emerala is sure of this because she woke up with the dawn, her backside aching against the hard surface of the window ledge and her limbs frozen stiff. She glanced around the room, illuminated in sleepy gray hues, and tried to shake away the icy remnants of sleep that clung to her insides like frost. It was then that her eyes fell upon the bulge beneath the sheets of Roberts’s cot. Relief flooded through her veins, warming her as thoroughly as a piping hot cup of tea. It was immediately followed by annoyance.
What had he been doing at Mamere Lenora’s? He had no business going there, she was sure of it. Nothing from the fire at Toyler’s could have led him to the brothel so late at night. She had fallen asleep the night before wracking her brain for possibilities, and found that she was able to come up with exactly none. This, of course, led her to the only possible conclusion she could fathom.
Roberts was keeping secrets.
If there is one thing Emerala hates more than secrets, it is being left on the outside of a particularly juicy one.
“Are you going to purchase that?” The merchant’s voice is rough in Emerala’s ear. One askew plume of his feathered hat brushes against her cheek. She startles—places down the dagger she has been admiring. The sunlight that trickles down through the latticed tent overhead catches upon the iridescent hilt. She has lost herself in a daydream, replaying the quiet grey morning over in her mind.
“Oh,” she says to the waiting merchant. She takes a step back. “No.”
The merchant crosses his arms over his violet clad chest. He stares contemptuously down at her over the bridge of his hooked nose. “That’s what I thought,” he says with a sneer. “Now clear out—other customers are waiting. Customers with money.”
Emerala feels a scowl deepening upon her face. She turns away from the merchant without another word. She stares around the tent, sulking as she fusses with the olive cotton of her gown. Her wild black hair is a tousled mess of uncombed curls upon her head. One golden earring hangs in a hoop from her left earlobe. She glares at the idling parasol wielding ladies milling about her— studies their fitted jackets and their tight, lace collars—and scowls.
Today has been terrible. From the moment she awoke, it seems, those around her have been nothing but infuriating. First Roberts with his secret keeping, and now the merchant, feathered like a hen ready for plucking.
The tent is crowded—it was set up only the day before to house the newest arrival of goods. These are no ordinary goods, however. Unlike the rest of the shops that line the marketplace, this one has not been brought to Chancey from the Westerlies. The merchant has had his men prowling the street all morning spreading the word—these goods have been delivered from the island of Caira.
Caira. There is something enchanting about it. Emerala thinks of the stories that she heard as a child—stories of the Cairans of Chancey and the island from whence they hailed. The legends are resplendent in nature—magical in a way that Chancey will never be. Yet the stories are old, passed down from generation to generation. There is not a Cairan alive who can claim to have been there. Her people are so far removed from their homeland—their blood so tainted with the blood of Chancian commoners—that they might as well have severed all historical ties to the mysterious island of Caira.
It is a world that, now, only exists in the kind of stories children whisper to one another in the dark.
She is so deep in thought that she hardly notices the dark stranger watching her from one shaded corner of the tent. It is not until she hesitates before the opening to stare around at the chattering customers in contempt that she feels his eyes upon her flesh. Her gaze snaps towards the shaded figure. He is leaning against a splintering post, his brown moth bitten coat draping his lanky silhouette. From beneath a tilted black tricorn hat, two stark golden eyes stare pointedly at her. He realizes that she has seen him and he winks, one eye disappearing and reappearing like the flip of a coin.
Strange. The man is watching her with such familiarity, and yet she is sure that she has never before laid eyes on him. Ensnared by her curiosity, she moves back into the tent. There is a loud clamor at her back—the sound of glass shattering upon stone. The merchant is shouting at a customer, berating him for breaking a piece of his collection. Emerala glances over her shoulder, distracted, and turns back towards the post.
The dark stranger is gone.
Emerala frowns at the crowd mulling about her. Nowhere among them does she see a man wearing that same black hat. How could he have exited without her seeing? She only looked away for a moment. Her shoulders droop. Slowly, keeping her eyes peeled for any sign of the man, she exits the tent.
The street outside is far too crowded for Emerala’s liking. She shoves her way through the throng of Chancians that have fallen to meandering aimlessly from tent to tent. She studies each face as she passes, and yet none of the men she sees have those same bright golden eyes. She curses silently and allows herself to be swallowed by the mass.
She hears a familiar voice call her name. Orianna is running towards her through the horde of Chancians. Nerani is at her heels, her long brown locks streaming behind her. The draped fabric of her ivory gown is bunched within her fists. The girls are breathless—their chests rise and fall beneath their tightly laced bodices.
“There you are!” Nerani exclaims. “We’ve been searching for you all morning!”
“What have I done now?”
“You have to come,” Orianna chirps, ignoring her. She tugs roughly at her arm. Her fingertips leave red prints upon her flesh. “Quickly!”
They are far too excited for Emerala to play at being disinterested. Her curiosity aroused, Emerala allows herself to be led back through the crowd. As she walks she scans the faces around her one last time. There is no trace of those golden eyes—that dark, beckoning face. She tries to closet her disappointment. She focuses her attention instead on the girls before her. “What is it? Where are we going?”
“Pirates are in the square,” Orianna shouts to her over the rising volume of the crowd. Emerala catches Nerani’s gaze. Her cousin shrugs; smiles. Sure enough, as the girls make their way closer to the square, the crowd grows more condensed. Several people are shouting heatedly. Their voices overlap one another in a raucous roar that climbs towards the sky. Emerala strains her ears to listen. She cannot make out anything intelligible. The mass is pushing forward relentlessly, each onlooker more eager than the last. It is no use trying to shove their way to the front of the crowd. The girls keep to the outskirts, their backs against the cool brick of the surrounding shops.
“Damn you! Stand still!”
Emerala hears the incensed roar cut through the commotion like a knife. A gunshot ricochets through the square. At the sound, a collective gasp ripples through the crowd. Everyone falls silent at once.
“Stand still, I say!”
The girls have managed to make their way around the crowd and into a more sparse collection of stragglers. Before them stands an elderly man donned in an oversized red coat. On his head sits a black tricorn hat laced with gold. In one hand he holds a half empty pint of ale. In the other, a pistol. He stumbles forward, clearly heavily inebriated. Spittle flies from his lips as he bellows indistinctly, waving his pistol in a haphazard, jerking motion. The crowd draws back, frightened. The sight of a weapon, carelessly wielded, has robbed them of their bravado.
Emerala cranes her neck to see past the slobbering drunkard. There, perched upon the back of a fruit-laden cart, stands a smirking young man. His tricorn hat has been swept from his head in a grand gesture as he addresses the crowd nearest to him. Wild brown hair falls down into bright hazel eyes. His face is burnt from the sun. He hops down from the pushcart as the drunkard’s gun goes off again.
“Stop movin’, you bilge rat!” spits the man.
“If you weren’t three sheets to the wind, likely you would have shot me by now, mate,” the young man shouts back. He laughs at that, his hazel eyes twinkling. A few in the crowd laugh along with him. He has captivated his audience with a smile and a bow, this grinning visitor.
“Make way!” shouts a voice from beyond the crowd. There is the sound of shuffling feet. Heads crane each and every way in order to locate the source of the shout.
“Clear on out!” calls another. Emerala watches as one section of the crowd parts in nervous obedience. Silence has once again settled over the square and its inhabitants. General Byron is making his way towards the center of the commotion. His dark eyes scan the crowd. His jaw is set in an angry line. Behind him march five more guardians. Their weapons are drawn. Their expressions are like stone. Their golden cloaks gleam in the morning sun as they surge forward towards the brawling pirates.
“Emerala, it’s time to go,” Nerani hisses in her ear. She feels her cousin’s nails dig into her wrist. She ignores her, shaking her arm free from Nerani’s vise-like grip. Her green eyes are glued to the scene.
“Emerala, we’re going,” Orianna whispers. Her voice slips out from the shadows at Emerala’s back. They are already leaving. Neither of them is eager to stick around and risk exposure with the guardians so close. It’s understandable, but Emerala knows that she can take care of herself. She is far too captivated to walk away. She needs to see how this ends.
“Go on, then,” Emerala shrugs. “I’m staying.”
“Fine,” Orianna murmurs.
“Be careful.” Nerani’s voice barely climbs above a whisper. And they are gone.
Emerala studies the scene before her. The drunkard drops his pint of ale to the ground as he catches sight of the approaching Golden Guard. Several onlookers jump at the sound of shattering glass upon the street. His gun hangs limply at his side. He watches in silence as the guardians approach him, his eyes opening and closing as though he cannot quite believe what he sees. His lower jaw has gone slack against his face. General Byron slows to a standstill directly before the man. He raises one gloved palm above his shoulder. The Guardians behind him draw to an imme- diate stop. It seems to Emerala as though everyone in the square is holding their breath. Watching. Waiting. They have transformed from an unruly mob to a captive audience.
“State your name, foreigner.”
“J-jameson,” stammers the man. He clears his throat. “Jameson.”
“He’s a pirate!” Someone shouts from the crowd.
One eyebrow rises upon the general’s forehead. “Is that so?”
Jameson the drunkard is shaking his head wildly. His lower lip trembles like the drooping jowl of a hound. One stubby finger jabs at his chest. “Me? En’t got a clue what that bloke be on about.”
General Byron appears unconvinced. “What is your business in Chancey, Mr. Jameson?” he enunciates. His dark, unblinking gaze is trained upon the man. He is the picture of propriety in his golden uniform, standing tall beneath the midmorning sun.
“Sellin’ goods,” hiccups Jameson.
“Ah,” the general breathes. “So you’re a merchant?”
“Aye, that I am. A merchant.” Jameson flashes the general a toothy grin.
“I suppose, then, you wouldn’t happen to be the similarly named Captain Jameson of the brigand ship Red Skull that my men and I took into custody earlier this morning?”
The grin is rapidly fading from Jameson’s face. He is silent. A silver haired guardian steps forward, a polite smile imprinted upon his face. In his free hand he dangles a pair of golden shackles. The sound of the cuffs clattering against one another resounds loudly throughout the square.
“You see, Jameson, the captain was not present with his crew when we boarded the ship,” the guardian with the silver hair is saying. “The crew was surprisingly amiable towards the good general and I. They were not feeling well—they’d fallen ill to a bout of scurvy at sea. They needed supplies—food and water. Said that the captain gambled away their goods and they had nothing left to trade. It’s a sad story, truly. They gave quite the description of their fearless captain—a description that I’d say you fit rather nicely.”
He snaps his gloved fingers together, grinning. “Private Provence, wouldn’t you say this man looks just like the Captain Jameson they described?”
“Yes, sir,” barks a young guardian that has positioned himself at General Byron’s left shoulder.
“Really, the resemblance is uncanny,” General Byron marvels. “Could it be there are two Captain Jamesons wandering around our island?”
Before him, Jameson sputters wordlessly. His gun trembles within his fist. “I’d wager not,” Corporal Anderson offers.
“If you’re lookin’ to arrest anyone, arrest him—the thievin’ bastard!” Jameson shouts, gesturing his free hand wildly in the direction of the pushcart. General Byron glances over his shoulder. Emerala follows his gaze. The young pirate that stood there only moments before is gone. Another disappearing act, Emerala considers, intrigued. He had been in full view the entire time, and yet she had not seen him depart from the square.
“I’m afraid there’s no one there, Captain,” General Byron points out.
Jameson’s mouth is agape. “He were there only moments ago!”
“And you claim that this mystery man was a thief?” Asks the silver-haired guardian.
“What did he steal?”
Jameson hesitates. Winces. “I en’t able to tell you that.”
At this, General Byron smiles. “Of course you aren’t. Men, arrest him.”
The guardians surge forward, ignoring the wild protests of the pirate as they clap him in irons. Emerala watches in silence with the rest of the crowd as the guardians drag a protesting Captain Jameson around the corner and out of sight. General Byron is the only guardian that remains behind. He stares wordlessly at the throng of people before him. They stare back.
“Well?” he snaps at last. His voice projects through the crowd. “The show is over. Move along.”
It is as though the onlookers have been set free from a spell. All at once, everyone is moving and chatting as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Emerala falls back against the brick buildings, watching. From the shadows, she studies the general. He is standing in the midst of the commotion, his cold gaze trained upon the shattered pint glass upon the street. His fists are clasped in a tight ball at the small of his back. She tries to imagine what it is he is thinking—standing there alone—and if it is the same thought that led him down to the waterfront the day before.
He looks up, then, and she wonders if he has somehow heard her thoughts. His dark eyes scan the crowd—he is watching for someone—waiting. His gaze alights upon her face. His lips deepen into a frown.
Time to go, she thinks. She veers to her left, ducking sharply into a narrow alleyway between the shops. The air within the cramped lane is thicker somehow—heavier. Speckles of dust drift down in broken shafts of sunlight. The crumbling brick swallows the commotion of the crowd in the square.
She surges forward into the shadows, eager to avoid a run-in with the general. Her frame collides into a figure that lurks beyond the reach of sunlight.
“Watch where you’re going,” she snaps, startled.
“I see the Cairan hospitality hasn’t changed a bit since I’ve gone.” A laugh slips out from between the stranger’s lips—tickles the curls at the top of her head. She backs away, uncomfortable.
“Come into the light where I can see you,” she demands of the shaded figure.
Obliging her, the man steps into a shaft of sunlight that spills down onto the hay-ridden dirt path beneath their feet. Two golden eyes twinkle merrily out from a handsome face as he grins down at her.
You again. With all of the commotion in the square, she had nearly forgotten about her brief interaction with the golden-eyed stranger in the tent earlier that morning. The nervous excitement that winds through her veins curls her toes upon the earthen street.
“Who are you?”
“The Hawk, at your service.” He sweeps his tricorn hat from his head and dips into a theatrical bow. Unwashed black hair tumbles into his face. Emerala scowls at his use of a title. He is not a Cairan. He is a foreigner. He should have no understanding of the way the gypsy titles work. Even so, she finds that she is afraid to ask for his true name. Cairan custom requires her to offer her name in exchange for his. She does not know how much he knows. She is not willing to risk such personal information to find out.
“Why are you following me?” she demands, narrowing her eyes.
He shrugs. “I’m not.”
“How entirely arrogant of you to think so. I suppose I should expect as much.”
“What does that mean?”
A smirk stretches across the Hawk’s face. “I brought you something,” he says, ignoring her question. He holds out one dirty hand. His long fingers are wrapped around a familiar looking object. The sunlight catches on the rounded, iridescent surface. It is the dagger she had admired earlier that morning beneath the merchant’s tent.
“What is this?” She asks. It is not one of the hundred questions that bubble within her chest, and yet it is the only one that manages to find a voice.
“I can’t take that.”
“Aye, you can. It’d be rude not to.”
She hesitates, her eyes traveling hungrily along the glistening silver blade. It is thinner than paper—as fragile-looking as the trilling rim of a wine glass. Yet she is certain that, if wielded correctly, the blade could be deadly. Rob would never approve of her having such a weapon.
That is exactly why she covets it.
“What do you want for it?”
Another laugh. “If I wanted something in return, it’d hardly be a gift now, aye?”
“Nothing comes for free,” she retorts.
“Indeed,” the Hawk agrees, grinning. He replaces his tricorn hat, his golden eyes drifting down towards the knife in his hands. One idle finger runs along the blade. It makes Emerala uncomfortable to see the ease with which he handles the weapon. She feels suddenly helpless— trapped before the stranger in the narrow shade of the alleyway.
“Tell me,” the Hawk says, “where is it you get those lovely green eyes?”
“Sorry?” She is caught off-guard by the question.
“Your eyes—it’s not common to see eyes that color in a Cairan.”
Emerala is silent. He is right, of course—most Cairans have blue eyes. It is the color, the Mames always said, that the gypsies brought with them on the long journey from Caira. Those that are half-blood—the offspring of both Chancians and Cairans—will often sport brown eyes, maybe even hazel, but not green. Emerala has never before seen anyone with eyes quite like hers and her brother’s. It’s a distinguishing feature, and one that she is proud of. It is what sets her apart.
But how can he know that—this stranger to the island?
“I just couldn’t help wondering if those eyes came from your mother or your father?” he asks again, trying to elicit a response. He has moved closer to her without her even noticing. She keeps her attention trained upon the blade of the dagger. The tip rests dangerously close to her bodice. She can see the warped reflection of her faded olive gown within the surface.
“What does it matter?” Emerala asks, suddenly suspicious.
“It doesn’t matter a lick, I’m just curious is all.”
“Well it’s none of your business.”
“I suppose it’s not.” He smiles widely, and she can see one golden tooth rooted within his bottom jaw. “Do you want the dagger or not?”
She hesitates, chewing at her lip.
“It’d be wise, I think, to have some protection. Keep yourself safe.”
“What do I need to be kept safe from?” she retorts.
“Guardians,” he says and shrugs. “Pirates.” The crooked grin upon his face stretches wider.
His golden eyes twinkle with mirth. “Times are changing—getting dangerous. See for yourself.” He nods towards the square at her back.
She watches him, unmoving, reluctant to turn her back to him in order to look into the square.
“Look,” he says again, gesturing this time with the point of the dagger.
Her curiosity getting the better of her, she turns. Her green eyes seek out the object of his gesticulation. There, in plain view, his body bound by rope to the rotting wood of a post, is the corpse of a familiar looking young man.
Harrane the Hostile.
So that’s why General Byron was so close to the square with all of his men that morning, she realizes. She feels as though she is going to be sick. His blood has dried upon his flesh in the sun. It is cracked like red mud baked by the summer heat. A crow perches idly upon his exposed shoulder, pecking hungrily at his ear lobe. Tears prick in Emerala’s lower lids at the sight of him.
“It’s good to be armed in times like these.” She can feel the Hawk’s breath hot against her neck. She feels him press the dagger firmly into her hand. He closes her fingers around the hilt— holds them there. Her heart seizes up within her chest.
He releases her hand—moves away. She turns, wrenching her eyes from Harrane’s hanging carcass, but the Hawk is gone. The alleyway around her is empty.
She is alone. She stares down at the dagger in her fist. She thinks again of the body in the square and her blood surges with the heat of rebellion.
She will wait for General Byron to go, and then she will have to act fast.