Since I was unable to journey to campus to join the Faculty Reading series today for Writers’ Week, I thought I’d post what I would have read up here for your enjoyment. I first wrote the series of long stories called Crowns of Gold way back in the late 1990s, and am just now getting up the gumption to edit, refurbish, and get them on their way to publication. Any of you who are writers, editors, or enjoy-ers of pirates and thieves, please feel more than free to leave me critique in the comments here or on facebook. This is a section of the story called “Romance Among Thieves.” All illustrations you see here are done by yours truly.
A tetch of explanation: this world is a pseudo-1740s Europe, which in the real world was the Golden Age of piracy. It is in this world too, apparently. Famous pirate captain Gemmanalia Jonquil is the scourge of the high seas. In Meutrier, handsome red-headed gentleman thief Jack the Fox prowls his fellow nobility in the guise of his real name and title, Lord John Renard de Trouinard. So there’s, like, colorful rogues aplenty going on here.
In the below scene, we join our POV character (Jack the Fox) on a tour boat–a cruise, you could say, where he has been plying his trade. In the previous scene, he has just bedded a lovely redhead. Please to enjoy. Also, please to comment. ~Jenn
I am dreaming of mermaids. They are playing a game of squash with bubbles they blow themselves. The more I try to walk towards them, the farther away my steps take me. All at once, one of the mermaids turns to me and purses her lips into a pout. She is the jet-eyed, black-haired beauty from the Marquis’ party. She opens her mouth, and shouts.
With a slam, I am awake. The noise above is terribly loud. Something is wrong. I thrash into my clothes. Lamondine is gone. I make my way up the stairs, buckling on my sword. I hear a burst, then a clash of blades. The ship lurches. I catch myself roughly on the wall of the staircase, then ease my way up slowly, so as not to be spotted.
Fighting. The crash of a splintered barrel. Shouts on all sides. I creep farther up the stairs, holding myself steady from the jerking floor. I peek my head warily up.
The deck is aswarm with pirates. Startled, I catch sight of a flag, pure red, hoisted from a sloop anchored to our tour boat by ropes. I swallow coldness in my throat. The red flag, when hoisted by a pirate ship, means No Survivors.
The noble tourists are shot, stabbed, their bodies left red on the deck, their pockets rifled as I watch. A towering man, black of skin, huge of haunch, and gold ear-hooped, hurls his bulk to leap on our Captain. My hand moves to my sword. Well. My fishing-pond has been muddied. Only one thing left to do. Swim to the neighboring one.
No one in the melee has noticed me yet. I gauge the pirate sloop, calculating my path there, the length of the jump it will take, the duck and roll to avoid detection…
In a moment, I make my way to the pirate ship, slipping my way in and out of fights with the same skill I use with party crowds. But, just before I take the final leap…
Lamondine. A thin strip of a pirate boy, his head covered with a red cloth, grabs a handful of her ginger curls. She weeps with fright. I freeze.
The young sea-brigand whips out a ruby-handled dagger, and slices her throat swiftly from ear to ear. Neat as paint. Then, he lets her fall.
A sharp pain in my left shoulder brings me to myself again. A striped-shirted, black-stubbled rogue has attempted to skewer me, yet was caught off-balance by the lurch of the rapidly topsiding boat. Fool. In one-and-a-half well-executed moves, I dispatch the man, piercing him through the belly. Blood spots my white linen at the shoulder. I flex the joint. Not bad.
Let anyone say a nobleman carries a sword merely for decoration. Let anyone also speak if they can name any man has ever bested Lord John de Trouinard in a duel.
In a trice, the huge dark pirate I had seen before leaps what looks like half the deck to face me. He growls. I laugh. They trussed my fair pigeon well, but they shan’t truss me. We fight. This man, though extremely powerful of arm, shows his every move in his eyes. Not the way to play, my duck…I easily disarm him with a feint and envelopée. With a final deep lunge, I thrust the tip of my blade through his sword-hand at the palm. He roars.
Quite simultaneously, the boat heaves almost to its side. The rogues must have knocked out the bottom, like the bilge-rats they are. I am thrown completely off-balance. I fall, crashing my ribs on the rail, leaving my sword in the buccaneer’s hand. Unarmed, I take a flying leap and land, crouching and rolling, on the deck of the pirates’ sloop.
I look for a hiding place. Too late–I hear orders bellowed, and many bare feet clump to the deck. Ropes are unhooked. We drift away from the ransacked Omnibus. Three stinking brigands grab me. One of them is the pirate whose hand I just spliced. His eyes are red. I cannot wriggle free. He spits in my face.
“Yer a lucky cur,” he growls bear-like, low as the breakers, in my close ear. “The Cap’n wants a fight. You be our last survivor. ‘Tis time to fight fer yer life, lubber.”
I must admit, I am thoroughly surprised. I twist my neck to look at the three large men who hold me as one would hold a prize fowl to take home for dinner. I find my voice. “This is how your Captain gets his fencing practice? Catch a wild goose, and use him as a target?”
The three men grin, and nod. One of them calls across the deck, “Cap’n! Time to oil up yer sword! We’ve found a good’un, that we ‘ave!”
I am regaining confidence now. If they save me for one-on-one, I shall not die after all.
“What happens to the man who loses to your Captain?” I am so bold as to inquire.
The three ruffians chuckle, and one jerks a thumb over the rail.
“I see. And to the man who wins?”
At this, they laugh outright, and the wounded one rumbles, “There be none o’ them, mate.”
I open my mouth. Before I can respond, they look to a figure behind me. “Cap’n!” they cry. “Here’s today’s practice for ye!”
They oblige me to stand, and turn me around.
The person I see nearly takes my knees out from under me. It is the skinny boy, the one that cut Lamondine’s throat without so much as a by-your-leave. He stands facing me, as tall as I, legs akimbo, hands set on his hips, his shirt-neck unbuttoned…not a boy.
Male garb aside, the cut of that slender form is decidedly feminine. I can trace her breasts under the white linen. This is no audacious stripling I face. This is a woman.
My voice is hoarse. “Gemmanalia Jonquil, I presume.”
She smirks, and bows, flourishing her sword. “A pleasure,” she answers. Her voice is low, rich, full of color. She addresses an iron-haired, round old man standing at attention between us. “Jack O’Napes, kindly hand the gentleman his sword, if you would.”
The man called O’Napes brings me my own sword I left in the hand of the one who now pinions me. Captain Jonquil nods. The three men release me to flex my stiff muscles. The grip I hold is so familiar to me, it might be a part of my palm growing there. It will be a great shame to kill this lovely princess of the high seas. Ah well, one more heroic adventure for the nobles to amuse each other over on night trips…the thought makes me frown.
“I ought to tell you,” I remark with my customary cold charm as I and the lady Captain square off, “You killed a beautiful young redhead on that ship.”
She smiles with one side of her mouth. “And I shall kill another, on this one.”
At that, she attempts a cut to my shoulder. Too simple. I parry it easily, and return with a downward diagonal to her leg. She parries it almost as though she were expecting it. She thrusts for my other shoulder, and I bind her blade around, hoping to dislodge her balance enough to–ho! Here’s a surprise! At the bottom of the bind, she suddenly angles up, muscling my blade away, bringing hers up toward my groin. I change-beat her blade, but not fast enough to escape the nick it leaves on my thigh. How is this possible?
“One blood, Jack O’Napes?” she calls to whom I now assume is her first mate.
She is panting, and smiling. I feint twice, very rapidly, to her right shoulder. That catches her off-guard, but she is able to parry the quick move nonetheless. She then brings her sword around in a moulinet that I am hard pressed to catch in time. Our blades clash. I am laughing. We foil each other up and down the deck. I swipe for her belly–she ducks aside for a riposte to my wounded shoulder. I turn in a volte, and, despite her uncanny quickness, tap a bare slice across her upper arm. She makes a noise like a laugh and a growl mixed.
Gasping for breath, I remark casually, “We, fair mistress, are a match.”
Jack O’Napes verifies my observance by shouting, “One for him, Cap’n!”
She glares at him, then lunges at me. The only sound for the next few moments is the shuffle of our feet (mine kid-leather-shod, hers bare), the tick-tock-tang of our swords, and our haggard breathing. Her arched brows draw together in concentration. I am grinning like a village idiot. I have never fought for so long, in such earnest, in all my life as a swordsman.
She echoes my thought by gasping, “How is it, sir, you fight so flawlessly?”
“I could ask the same of you–ouf!” I dodge her particularly intricate, unexpected thrust. Once unscathed, I add, “No man has ever bested me.”
“Nor me.” Three moves more, and she laughs in her throat. “Perhaps it takes a woman to best you then,” and she ducks, quick as a fish, under my sideswipe, and points her sword at my abdomen.
“Perhaps,” I pant, then send her blade shirling away with an envelopée she never quite expected. She dives for it. I catch her right arm, twist it behind her, and place my blade’s good edge down on the beating veins in her neck. She utters a cry of pain, and shoots me venom through her dark eyes. I wrench her arm mercilessly. She killed my prize pigeon, after all. She hisses, her back rigid against my chest. I whisper in her ear, “And, perhaps not, mademoiselle. Do you give?”
She twists her full mouth into a sneer, and, seemingly from nowhere, whips out a miniature dagger with her left hand and pokes it between my legs.
“Aii!!” Fool that I am. I should have known she’d hide a knife in her belt.
There we sit, gasping for breath, our respective blades poised to the death of the other. She has a scent of musk about her. We kneel like this for several long minutes. The crew is immobile.
“It seems, mademoiselle, that we are at an impasse,” I murmur through my teeth.
“So it would appear.”
I take a breath. “Unless we plan on sleeping here, I suggest that on my mark, we release each other, for to discuss this like civilized people.”
“Nay. I do not trust a cutpurse.”
I have killed men for using that word in reference to me. I cannot quite hide the fact from my voice as I snarl, “And I do not trust a cutthroat.”
She stiffens. Her blade thrusts against my privates. I torque her arm harder, and press the flat of my blade on her throat. She arches.
Another immobile moment, then she calls huskily, “Jack O’Napes!”
“Aye, Cap’n!” He shuffles to our side.
Her tone is remarkably cool. “Would you please count to three, slowly, for us, good O’Napes? I must relieve me of this crick in my neck, and this gentleman of his no doubt uncomfortable erection.”
Jack O’Napes counts, “One…two…three,” and on ‘three’, we both whirl around. Our blades clash together.
We face each other that way, on our knees, close enough to kiss, for what feels like several minutes. She murmurs, “A match…” Then, slowly, her face upturns into a smile. She stands. She offers me her hand, and hoists me to my feet.
“I haven’t had a good fight in years and years,” she states.
I bow. “My compliments. What a pleasure to have an opponent for once, not a pudding.”
She turns her shining black eyes to me, and unties her red headcloth. Long ebony hair streams out, straight and glossy, down to her waist. She shakes her fingers through it, and turns to her crew. Something about the black hair, the dark, dark eyes. I am reminded of–the thought makes me choke.
The woman in red satin at the Marquis’ gathering, of course! Why did I not see it?
“You are my honored guest on this ship,” she announces. “Pray introduce yourself to the crew.”
I swallow. “Most call me Jack the Fox. A pleasure, gentlemen.” I bow.
A ripple of surprise echoes from man to man of the assembled crew. I see they know the stories of the illustrious of their kind. Captain Jonquil whirls around to me, eyes wide in astonishment.
“You?” Her expression softens. “I see,” she murmurs to herself. “That would be why…” then she addresses me. “I recognize you, of course.” Suddenly, as though she had been interrupted, she shouts to her crew, “What ye be standing around for, yer birthdays? Step lively! Haul to! Man the rigging! All hands now! Mister Tomminy, you know our course, now set it!” As she bellows orders, the men nod, scramble, climb, pull, and get the ship moving.
“Did you kill the Marquis then, mademoiselle?”
She turns her eyes to me in a slow look that I am sure is the last sight many men live to see. After a while, she responds, “No.”
“You will try again?”
“Audacious, aren’t we, Lord John?” Dangerous she is. I smile without meaning to.
“Barbarian,” I utter, with infinite pleasure.
Without a word, she stalks off toward her cabin.
“Oh, Cap’n Jonquil, ma’am?” I call after her.
She turns, a look of disgust on her face. “What is it now?”
“You’ve forgotten your little knife.”
“Yes; it has found its way into my pocket.” I fish it out, and hand it to her. I grin sheepishly. “I am sorry, it’s a bad habit of mine, it’s just that I’ve lost mine own, and it’s such a dainty little piece…”
As I continue my apology, she moves slowly to me, closer and closer, a look of outrage on her face. She holds me by the arms as though she would embrace me. Then, she jerks her sharp little knee viciously into my groin.
I fall to my knees, the wind quite knocked out of me. Blinding, white-hot pain washes down my thighs. My stomach churns. I clutch myself, all semblance of grace no doubt gone. When I am able to gasp a trembling breath, I croak,
She crouches, grabs me by the tip of my beard. “What?” Her mouth is close to mine. Her breath is sweetened with rum. The air is in flames. “You speak to me of fairness? You? A master thief? And I am unfair? No.”
“I only take from the affluent–”
“O how noble of you.” Her pout twists with sarcasm. Her words are blades. “You are a lord. You are one of the ‘affluent.’” I open my mouth to respond, but she cuts me off. “Those pigs are your friends and family.”
That, I will not endure. “You are wrong, cutthroat,” I whisper.
She searches my face with an unpenetrable expression. The air shivers with electricity. Then, she smiles a warm, sweet smile. All pain leaves me. She speaks, still facing me, her voice directed elsewhere, “Tomminy, my love!”
“Aye, Cap’n,” rumbles the answer.
She smiles into my eyes. I cannot speak. She croons, “Toss him overboard.”
Huge arms pinion me and drag me to the edge of the rail. I see the shore of Meurtrier’s smaller port close by. However, it would be at least a twenty-minute swim. I am caught between bursting into red anger, or laughter. I do neither, but stare at her with a look I hope is as cryptic as I can make it.
She bestows her smile upon me a third time, and in her low, rich voice, says, “Swim, my pretty.”
What can I do? I draw her ruby-handled dagger out of my belted shirt, and place it in my teeth. I jump. I hear her curse blue fire before I hit the water. Well, what does she think, that I wouldn’t keep her good dagger for myself?
When I have swum a safe distance away, I raise a hand and shout around the knife in my mouth,
“I’ uz a p’easure to mee’ oo, Genna Zhonquee!”
I cannot see her reaction.