Queen Tawnia knew whom they were going after. She should have expected Aslynn’s bond with her twin would be strong enough to sense the boy was in trouble.
“Guard!” she snapped.
If Aslynn sensed trouble, then her request had been acted on and it was too late to stop it.
The guard approached and saluted while the queen considered whether she should stop Aslynn.
But could the queen justify it if she brought Aslynn back under guard? It was an extreme action for what would appear to be a simple juvenile prank. And when Sebastian turned up missing, her actions would cast suspicion upon herself, while as it stood now, even if they found the boy, she had covered her tracks well enough; the trail would not lead back to her. As long as she remained calm.
“Your Majesty?” the guard asked when she did not speak.
“Never mind,” she snapped.
Sebastian was slow waking up, which—he was dimly aware—was not a good sign. He felt his body moving in a rocking motion, which also did not feel right. When he finally managed to open his eyes, he found himself in a dark room, and recognized the sound of water lapping against the hull of a ship.
He frowned, trying to remember something that would tell him why he was on a boat.
He received Meedo’s message just after feeding the horses and asked Master Jabari’s permission to go down to the docks. Then he went out into the fog, making his way carefully down to the harbor with Artemis, as ever, his faithful companion.
Sebastian had to stretch for memories of what happened next. Once he had managed to find the correct pier in the fog, a man had appeared in front of him, asking if he had a light for his pipe.
He sat up now, groaning at an ache in his head. When he reached to feel it, he was surprised to find shackles on his wrists.
Alarm bells began clamoring in his mind as he felt his head over. Indeed, there was a large lump just behind his ear.
Casting back into foggy memory, Sebastian recalled Artemis growling at something behind him as he spoke to the sailor. The last thing he remembered was turning, hand on knife, to see. Someone must have come up behind him and hit him on the head. With a sinking feeling, he realized the ship he was on was most likely a slaver. It seemed Mother Bette’s dire warnings of the dangers of going to port had come true.
His mind reeled, but his first thought was of Artemis: he hoped she was all right. The dog was being trained to fight, but without Sebastian directing her....
Escape was his second thought.
The shackles on his wrists were too tight to pull over his hands, though he spent several minutes pulling, straining, and tearing his skin. The shackles on his ankles proved just as binding. The chain securing them was rust free and strong, as was the ring and spike holding it to the wooden beam in the low ceiling.
Sebastian realized he wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
“Master Jabari!” Aslynn called as she and Adam burst into the courtyard.
The swordmaster looked up from the farrier’s work as they ran toward him.
“Princess, Lord Wingfield,” he said formally. “Aren’t you two supposed to be at lessons?”
She answered his question with one of her own. “Where’s Sebastian?”
“Down at port. He said he was to meet someone there.”
“He didn’t say, but I think he got a message. Come to think of it, he said he’d be back in time for lunch, but I didn’t see him.” Master Jabari frowned, his brown eyes showing concern. “Is something wrong?”
Aslynn nodded. “Worse than last time. I’m afraid, Master Jabari.”
Master Jabari did not hesitate. He turned on his heel and headed for the stables. “Come on,” he said. “You two are with me.”
Within minutes they were armed, mounted, and riding for the harbor, trusting the horses’ good sense to keep them on the road through the fog.
Once down among the docks—mostly deserted with the fog keeping the fleets in—they dismounted. Aslynn headed directly to the slots kept especially for visitors. It was not hard to pick Remini out from the two tallships moored beside her.
“Meedo!” she called, and felt Adam and Master Jabari come up to stand behind her.
The stranger appeared on deck, looking quite surprised to see her. “Princess,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“Have you seen Sebastian?”
“No, Your Highness. He was here yesterday, and left a note while I was gone, but I haven’t seen him since—”
“Did you not send him a summons this morning?”
“I did. But he never arrived.”
Master Jabari stepped forward. “Mind if we check your boat?” Aslynn had filled him in on the happenings leading up to the message, and Master Jabari had immediately become suspicious of the stranger’s motives, especially in light of recent events.
As Meedo looked him over, the boat began drifting closer to the dock. “You’ll be the swordmaster.” An easy assumption to make, given his height, ebony skin, and military bearing. “Believe me when I say I share your concern for the lad.” The boat rocked gently against the braided-rope dock bumpers. “Welcome aboard my Remini.”
“Wait here, Princess, Lord Wingfield,” Master Jabari said, giving Adam a look Aslynn assumed meant protect her.
Meedo gestured Master Jabari to precede him, and the two men disappeared below. Aslynn shivered in the fog; the sense of danger had not lessened. She shivered again, and Adam put an arm across her shoulders.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“This isn’t right,” she said. “He’s not here.” Until that moment, she hadn’t been entirely certain Meedo wasn’t involved in Sebastian’s disappearance. “But I definitely feel he is very near the sea.”
“Aslynn? How can you have these feelings? I mean, how can you know?”
“I don’t know how I know, I just know it was right in the past. Maybe because we shared the same wet nurse as babies. Maybe because we have been best friends since forever. Adam, I’m really frightened for him.”
Adam enclosed her in a full hug and she wrapped her arms around him, grateful for his presence. He was making this trial a lot easier to bear.
“We’ll find him, Princess,” he said softly into her ear. “We’ll find him.” With one last squeeze, he let her go before Master Jabari came back out and saw them behaving so inappropriately.
“As you can see, sir, there’s not much place to be hiding a mouse, much less a lad like Sebastian.”
Looking around, Jabari had to agree. Nevertheless, he poked his head into cupboards and under the bunks, just to be certain.
“How did you meet the children, anyway? The princess was not very forthcoming about it.”
“I was washed overboard in that big storm a few days back. The princess found me on the beach, while your lad, Sebastian, helped bring in my Remini.”
“Hmm,” Jabari said, suppressing a twinge of annoyance that Sebastian hadn’t told him.
“I owe them a blood debt, Master Jabari. I have already started trying to repay them.”
“Repay them how?”
“The princess told me the lad wants to know who his parents are.”
Even though he had been expecting the day would come, it still hurt to think he and Bette were not enough for the boy. “And you told them you can do this?”
“I have been known to figure a few things out now and again. It’s what I do, Master Jabari.”
“Be that as it may, this trail is fifteen years cold, Mr. Meedo. Do you really think you can pull it off? I mean, find the truth?”
“The time frame does present a challenge, but I’ve already found a clue.”
“Among the dead on that slaver was a young mother and her infant daughter.”
“So the girl’s father says before she died, she was approached by a woman who needed a wet nurse. The girl refused, but she disappeared that night, never to be seen until the wreck.”
“The girl described the woman to her father before she disappeared.”
Jabari eyed the stranger, unable to hide his respect for the man’s quick work. “You don’t waste any time, do you?”
“Well, it’s not much, but perhaps it is enough to get a fix when I take a reading on the lad, if we ever find him.”
“When we find him. A reading?”
“For want of a better word. I can see things other people can’t, Master Jabari. Both with my mind’s eye and logic to tie the clues together.”
“Well I’ll be.... Just like the boy, a gift from the sea.”
“Indeed.” Meedo chuckled. “Unless of course you believe in coincidence.”
“Not I.” Jabari did not smile.
“Unfortunately, my gifts aren’t any that will help locate the lad while we stand here—”
“Master Jabari!” Adam called from without, his voice urgent.
The two men looked at each other for only a moment before dashing toward the companionway and deck.
Out on the pier, there was trouble. Adam, sword in hand, was fighting off three sailors armed with wicked knives, while Aslynn, her back to Adam, faced one sailor with only her jeweled knife to give the big man pause.
Jabari did not hesitate. He drew his own sword and leapt into the fray, concentrating on helping Adam, who was in greater need. Aslynn was taking great care with her foe and, despite his larger size, he thought she could keep him at a distance. The sailor couldn’t escape, blocked as he was on three sides by water and on the fourth by the brawl.
Meedo had no weapon—his had been lost in the storm and he’d not yet replaced it, but he had something that might work as well—or better. He ran back below decks.
Aslynn watched the sailor’s chest, letting her periphery catch his every move so she could counter. Only once did she glance up to the man’s eyes, seeing a glitter of something that would have terrified her had she taken time to think about it.
She was aware of Adam fighting behind her, and when Jabari entered the fight, she could have shouted in relief had she not been so busy.
The sailor lunged again, and Aslynn shifted the knife, slashing down hard on his forearm. He growled in pain as blood began dripping down his arm, but he did not back off.
Adam happily let Master Jabari take on two of the sailors. He pulled his concentration to the big and rough looking sailor to his left, who was enough of a challenge. He already had a good scratch from the long knife in his left hand.
Having the longer reach, Adam should have had the advantage, but this sailor was obviously well versed in fighting a swordsman with his blade. Then again, this sailor had not been taking lessons from the greatest swordmaster in all the Bonnie Isles.
In a bold move he pulled off with at least half as much luck as skill, he flicked his sword across the man’s wrist and flipped the knife out of the sailor’s grip. But as Adam drew back to make a final thrust, the sailor slipped inside his reach and bowled into him with his greater weight, knocking the two of them back into the princess, who just managed to leap out of the way. Adam’s sword clattered to the dock as they tumbled together.
Wrestling was familiar ground, and Adam was quick to be sure he didn’t allow his heavier opponent to pin him.
On his right, he heard a splash, and Master Jabari laughed.
“It’s the swordmaster!” one of the sailors cried. The man wrestling Adam kicked him off and jumped to his feet.
“What other 'Master Jabari' did you think he was calling, you sea dog?”
Adam retrieved his sword and scrambled to his feet, but the two remaining sailors disappeared into the fog, the sound of their footsteps quickly muffled, as was the splashing of the sailor Master Jabari had knocked off the dock.
They turned together to help the princess and found the final sailor frozen in a lunge while the princess walked around him, chin on her fist. Meedo jumped off Remini, stashing something in his pocket. Adam thought he saw the glint of a fine metal chain, and recalled bedtime stories his nanny told him about magicians who could cast binding spells using such a chain and Ley magic or arcane words.
“Hmm,” Aslynn said, turning to him. “Magic.” Then concern filled her voice. “Oh, Adam, you’re hurt!” She hurried to his side and pushed back his torn sleeve to reveal a long, narrow slash down his forearm.
“It’s just a scratch,” he said, but made no move to stop her examination.
“Maybe, but it’s bleeding.” She bent down, tore a strip of cloth from her petticoats, and began wrapping his arm. The pain of his wound had only just started to be felt when she finished her ministrations with quick a kiss, full on the lips. “That is for saving my life.”
Surprise and pleasure temporarily replaced the throbbing of the wound.
“He won’t stay like this for long,” Meedo said, unraveling the rope he’d brought. “I suggest we tie him securely.”
“What happened?” Master Jabari asked Adam as he and Meedo began tying the sailor up.
“We were waiting here for you when these men came out of the fog,” said Adam. “I assumed they were going to the tallships there, but I tried to stay between them and the princess, just to be safe. And then…I don’t know, it happened so fast. One of them made a remark about the princess, and before I knew it, he’d lunged at her. It was all I could do to keep the other three away until you got here.”
“You did well, Lord Wingfield,” said Jabari, putting a hand on his shoulder. “We haven’t yet started lessons on fighting against knives, yet you not only held off three, but managed to disarm one. Not bad at all. Though, I will broaden the scope of your lessons, in the event this should happen again.”
“Please Heaven it will not happen again,” Aslynn said firmly. “Explaining this to my father once will be bad enough. I don’t suppose you’d consider—”
“Princess, your father needs to know about this.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.” She seemed to resign herself to the fact.
Meedo, who had been watching their captive all the while, spoke up. “Do you think it was a random attack, or were they after the princess because of who she is?”
Aslynn came to stand beside him. “Why would they attack anyone?”
“I could make a guess,” said Jabari, looking at Meedo.
“Slavers,” they said together. “He’s coming around,” Meedo added.
The captive groaned and his eyes rolled to the back of his head before coming to focus on Aslynn. “You little b—” he began, but Adam stepped forward, striking him hard across the mouth.
“Easy,” said Jabari, surprised by the youth’s protectiveness. It made him wonder about the kiss Aslynn had given him. “He won’t be able to talk with a broken jaw.”
“Well.” Adam looked ready to strike again regardless.
Jabari crossed his arms and gave the sailor a level look. “What were you and your friends up to this day?”
The sailor turned to Jabari and narrowed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Havin’ us a stroll, your lordship. Takin’ the airs.”
Within him, there was a kind of hatred Jabari hadn’t sensed in years. The people of Fair Haven and most of the Bonnie Isles had come to accept Jabari’s differences, but this man had the same attitude of those who had tricked him away from his family and brought him here in the first place.
“Indeed?” he said, working to contain his own dislike. “And your attack on the lady?”
“What lady? All I saw was this little siren workin’ her charms on the boy. I just wanted me a little, too.”
Jabari had to hold the boy back from striking the sailor again. “What ship do you sail with?”
“I’m between jobs now, thanks to you lot.”
The sailor didn’t answer.
“Meaning his ship will sail without him now,” supplied Meedo.
“In this fog?” asked Adam.
“How better to hide a slaver’s departure?” Meedo said. “I’d wager that’s where the lad is.”
“Yes!” said Aslynn. “It must be.”
“Where are they sailing from?” Jabari asked the sailor, who straightened his shoulders a little in his resolve not to answer. “Answer or I’ll have your hide for a saddle blanket!”
At the sailor’s continued silence, Meedo stepped up. “Remember how it felt, just moments ago?” he said softly into the man’s ear. “Remember? It hurt, didn’t it? I can do worse, you know.”
The man still did not answer, and Meedo grasped his chin, forcing him to look in his eyes. The sailor grudgingly spoke up. “Not half what the captain will do if I tell.”
Meedo smiled; the look enough to give even Master Jabari chills. “I wouldn’t be so sure.” Meedo’s eyes narrowed, and the sailor grunted, hunching forward. “Hurts, doesn’t it?”
The sailor only growled.
“You didn’t need him for further questioning, did you, Master Jabari? He’ll be quite useless before I’m through.”
Jabari realized what Meedo was doing, and though he detested the game, he played along. “If I thought he’d answer, I’d question him. But as it is, it would be a waste of time.”
More than half of the game involved convincing the man Meedo’s intentions would be the most awful fate he could suffer in order to make him think answering a few questions would not be so bad. And Meedo apparently had a trick or two to help convince him.
“I thought you would agree. I suggest you take the children away. This won’t be pretty.” The sailor grunted again, doubling over in pain.
“Wait!” he cried out. “We did take a boy this morning,” he said. “He’s on board already.”
“What ship?” snapped Meedo.
“The Star Trader,” the sailor gasped. “Please, Captain will kill me—”
“You’ll wish you were dead if you don’t tell us where she’s moored,” Meedo pressed. The man dropped awkwardly to his knees, gasping in pain.
“Lord Wingfield,” Jabari said, “take the princess up to the castle and ask the king to mobilize the guard. I’ll get the warship prepared. We’ll find her when she sets out. And we’ll be certain the captain knows who told us.”“Mercy!” cried the sailor. “Please, I’ll tell you where, just stop!”