An encore, so to speak from the (Love) Stories for 2020 project. It’s so very, very cold here, and I thought it might be fun to warm up with a tale about pirates, spies, and animal helpers.
Because nothing says Happy Holidays like pirates, spies and animal helpers. But it really is a Christmas story.
Heart of Pirate King
The first shot across the bow landed well beyond Sebastian’s ship. Deliberately, it was true. Even so, in its aftermath, a mist of seawater washed his face and kissed his lips.
That was Estella, through and through, her way of fluttering her eyelashes, of casting a sultry, come-hither glance.
Sebastian wasn’t falling for it. Indeed, he steeled himself against the onslaught of both cannon fire and feelings. The tiny part of his heart—the piece she hadn’t splintered beyond repair—had leaped at the sight of the Siren and her captain coming into view.
Right up until Estella ran the Jolly Roger up the mast.
A pink Jolly Roger.
With hearts for eye sockets.
“Your wife, Captain.”
His first mate had the uncanny ability of voicing the obvious without it sounding … obvious.
“My estranged wife,” Sebastian corrected.
He clutched the rail, grip tightening on wood worn smooth from years at sea, and licked the salt from his lips.
“She mocks me,” he said, ostensibly to his first mate.
“Aye, Captain,” Hadim replied. “She mocks us all.”
Sebastian cast the man a look, the sort that would wilt a weaker man’s soul.
“But mainly you,” his first mate amended.
Again, obviously. On the other hand …
“No.” His sigh was heavy, a waterlogged thing in his chest. “She mocks us all.”
When had it gone so wrong? When had Estella turned traitor? Or perhaps she’d always been one, and he’d simply failed to see the cracks in the façade, the clues to her deception.
The shout came from the lookout. The boy in the crow’s nest was leaning so far forward that Sebastian feared the lad might tumble to the deck below. The boy’s arm was outstretched, his face a mask of fear.
Sebastian followed the trajectory and saw reason enough to put fear in his own splintered heart.
The royal navy, in battle formation, bearing down on him.
A second shot whooshed across the bow, this one closer and filled with intent.
Ah, yes. Estella as bait for this trap—a deliberate distraction, something to keep his gaze pinned in one direction while neglecting all the rest.
Still … the entire royal navy? Well, he had ridiculed the pretender to the throne more than once, called out the king’s corruption. Sebastian let his gaze survey the sea, count the frigates, and calculated the odds—and then immediately dismissed them.
Was he not Sebastian Black, Pirate King? Did he not captain the Tyrant’s Bane?
“Come about!” he called, his crew snapping into action almost before the cry left his mouth.
He would take the fight to them—to Estella and the royal navy.
Or die trying.
* * *
What woke him, Sebastian couldn’t say. The gentle bob and sway of the plank beneath his chest and head? The insistent, if gentle, nudge against the small of his back every time his fingers lost their grip on the sea-soaked wood?
Or the chattering that sounded, in turns, like laughter, admonishment, and mockery.
Yes, it was the mockery that woke him.
The sun blazed hot in the sky above. Waves licked the burnt skin along his arms and back, bringing both agony and relief. His mouth was parched, his throat a dry husk.
The sight of fins circling in ever tighter loops sent his heart soaring. He strained to find purchase on the plank, its shattered and soggy edges crumbling beneath his fingers.
Then one of the creatures poked its head from the sea and filled his ears with more of that mocking chatter. A dolphin. An entire pod of them. They surrounded him, keeping him afloat, prodding the plank this way and that, like an expert navigator making minute but crucial course corrections.
“What happened?” His voice was little more than a croak. He asked the question rhetorically, certainly not to his constant companions.
Even so, a dolphin poked its head from beneath the surface. It was a tiny thing, no more than a pup. It regaled him with a stream of chatter that—if Sebastian didn’t know better—was a narrative of what had happened from the time he spotted the Siren until he fully woke, stranded at sea.
Yes, it had been a rout from the start—the entire fleet against the Tyrant’s Bane. Without warning, without support from any other quarter. In the past, they’d always counted on advance notice, a whisper network of fishermen and dockworkers, disgruntled guards, the townsfolk who observed comings and goings.
But for weeks now, nothing.
Other than betrayal and surprise, obviously.
Worst of all? He hadn’t crossed sabers with Estella. Oh, he’d been looking forward to that. Not their first dual, naturally, but Sebastian had vowed to make it their last. He would’ve gladly gone down with the Tyrant’s Bane if only he could have taken her treacherous heart with him.
But if the Tyrant’s Bane had sunk, he possessed no memory of it. A concussion, perhaps? His head felt clear. When he probed his skull with careful fingertips, nothing ached, and his skin came away free from blood.
“So, where are we headed, little one?”
The dolphin chattered away in between leaping up and over waves. They were undoubtedly headed somewhere. Away from the trade routes, it seemed. Although, from his vantage point, here in the heart of this vast, cerulean sea, he had no true way of knowing.
Call it instinct, born from years traversing the seas. The water around him tasted wilder, salt sharp on his lips. They were heading toward the edge of the known territories and into the uncharted seas.
Which would make the odds of rescue infinitesimally slight.
Sunset brought relief to his eyes and skin, if not his worries. Even when he spotted the bump on the horizon, Sebastian shut his thoughts against the onslaught of hope. Weary, dehydrated, weak from hunger. His mind was primed to welcome a mirage.
And yet, the bump grew larger, the landscape more defined. Cliffs jutted from the sea, palm trees swayed in the breeze, and in a wide, sweeping bay, water lapped against the shore.
The dolphins’ chatter increased, as did their insistent nudging against the plank. His toes touched sand the same moment the sun kissed the horizon behind him.
Before he released his grip on the wood, before he clambered to shore, the dolphin pup swooped by him one last time and bussed his cheek.
Sebastian staggered the few feet to dry land and sank gratefully into sand toasted warm by the day’s sun.
* * *
A breeze stole over his skin, one cool enough to wake him but with a scent that promised heat. Sebastian rolled, sat up, and took in the quiet of the island around him.
It was time to take stock of his new home.
On his person, he possessed breeches—and nothing more. No shirt, never mind scabbard and saber. Oh, how he mourned the loss of the latter. Where was it now? At the bottom of the ocean, most likely. Or perhaps clutched in Estella’s tiny—but surprisingly strong—grip.
No matter. Sebastian had battles to fight here. He doubted the immediate ones required a saber.
Fresh water. Shelter. Food. In that order. He plowed his way through the sand until he reached the tall grasses and lush vegetation beyond the shore. Once there, he discovered a path.
Overgrown, to be sure, clogged with snaking vines and underbrush that threatened to obliterate it from existence. But a path, nevertheless. Sebastian followed it into the thick, leafy interior.
Large fronds shielded him from the sun’s unrelenting glare. Cool mist bathed his skin, and he licked his lips, sucked in deep breaths as if that alone might sustain him. Above the birdsong and the buzz of insects, something else babbled.
He was nearly upon it before realizing what that sound was. Water, tumbling over rocks. A waterfall, and beyond that, a wide, clear pool that looked perfect for bathing.
Sebastian knelt at the water’s edge and scooped a handful, touched his tongue tentatively to the liquid already slipping through his fingers, ready to recoil at the taste of salt.
It was fresh.
He fought the urge to gulp, to greedily slurp all that he could. Control. Tiny sips. Fresh did not mean pure, necessarily. In any event, he had no wish to inhale a gallon’s worth, only to regurgitate it across the jungle floor.
He ventured farther along the water’s edge and inspected the pool. Was there anything lying in wait, something with teeth as sharp as sabers? He eased one foot in, and then another, and then because he was Sebastian Black, Pirate King, threw himself into the pool.
It didn’t do to be overly cautious, after all.
Free of salt and sand and sweat, he continued his exploration. There were coconuts, of course, more than he had hope of consuming. All manner of tropical fruit. With each step, hope kindled in his chest. With each discovery, he moved with speed and purpose.
If he could survive, then he could be rescued. If he could be rescued?
Well, then. He could wreak revenge, for his crew, the Tyrant’s Bane—and his heart.
The path led around the pool and back toward the sea. Before he reached the shore, Sebastian stumbled upon a shelter. In need of repair, but its bones were strong, a sleeping pallet already fashioned. And did his eyes deceive him, or was that an actual tinderbox?
The shelter was several yards up the coast from where he washed ashore, tucked in a cove that would protect him from the worst of the tropical storms. At the ocean’s edge, the rocky outcroppings provided numerous tide pools filled with shellfish and crabs. The latter waved their claws as if daring him to pluck them from the sea for the day’s first meal.
Sebastian shielded his eyes and surveyed his domain. He had fresh water and a means to sup whenever he liked. Here on this island, a banquet was spread before him, every last item a delicacy on the mainland. Yes, he would feast like a true pirate king.
And last, but certainly not least, he possessed a ready place to lay his weary head. Things, he mused, could be much, much worse.
It was then that he turned his attention toward the shelter and spotted the skeleton.
* * *
“Have I ever told you about my wife?”
The skeleton, beneath the shade of a palm tree, didn’t respond. But then, it never did.
Sebastian considered his word choice and amended, “My estranged wife. No? Oh, my friend, I suspect you’re lying to me.”
He sat in front of his shelter, that evening’s meal bubbling on the cook fire. In addition to the tinderbox, he’d uncovered a pot and few makeshift utensils. The rich aroma of shellfish and wood smoke laced the air. A breeze brought the scent of salt that lingered on his tongue.
He was never without salt or the slight but constant grit of sand between his molars. Such was the price of living in paradise.
“You can’t possibly want to hear the story again,” he said, ostensibly to the skeleton. “What? You do? Oh now, my friend, I believe you’re humoring me.”
At first, Sebastian thought to give this poor soul a proper burial. That meant digging without a shovel, which he was more than willing to do. It meant carrying the bones bleached white from wind and sand and sun.
This, too, didn’t disturb him. As a pirate king, he’d seen—and dispensed—his share of death.
No, the simple fact was the skeleton seemed at peace where it was. As if this sailor had settled beneath a favorite palm one evening, closed their eyes, and never opened them again.
The skeleton itself was a tiny thing, and Sebastian suspected it may be a she rather than a he. With no way of knowing, he referred to his constant companion simply as my friend.
In any event, he felt only slightly less foolish speaking aloud. His captive audience had no way of protesting. Sebastian had no reason not to voice his woes about his current state, his shattered heart, Estella’s treachery, and his … confusion.
“It started off quite well, my friend. The way a pirate love story should.”
Oh, but it had. Their courtship had been as fierce as their rivalry. Estella’s Siren was faster, more nimble than the Tyrant’s Bane. Sebastian commanded far more power. The sight of the Jolly Roger running up the mast of his ship struck terror in the hearts of the so-called sovereign’s tax collectors, greedy merchants, and navy frigates alike.
Truth be told, the king’s men were far more cutthroat than Sebastian’s crew had ever been. He liked to think of it as righting wrongs, restoring what belonged to those who could not defend themselves.
And, well, yes, Sebastian and his crew certainly helped themselves to the surplus. Under King Thaddeus’s reign, there was more than enough surplus to be had.
Estella had a way of getting there first, swooping in on the Siren and collecting that surplus. Her crew was small and ferocious, not a man among them. She commanded them not with an iron grip but with skill and intuition. She matched tasks to sailors, and even the unlikeliest crewmember flourished aboard her ship.
The first time Sebastian had spotted her on the bow of the Siren, his heart had seized. Her hair was the color of black silk and flowed like the Jolly Roger above her head. Her skin glowed in the sunshine, the exact color of damp sand.
The first time they crossed sabers, he had—to her surprise and his own—stolen an ill-advised kiss. He left that encounter with a gash along his cheekbone—and without his heart.
The first time he intercepted one of the king’s frigates bearing down on the Siren, Estella had sent over chests of coin and barrels of wine—enough to keep his crew happy and well in their cups.
As for Sebastian himself? An invitation to sup in her cabin aboard the Siren.
In short order, they joined forces, joined hearts, joined in marriage.
“The rest should have been history, don’t you agree?” Sebastian stirred the stew with a stick, testing the bits of meat for tenderness. “I thought we were of one mind, one heart.”
Ridding the realm of King Thaddeus? Restoring order and fairness to the seven lands and their many seas? With their share of the cut, they could lower the Jolly Roger and sail into the sunset, eventually landing on an island much like this one.
“Perhaps with a few more amenities.” Sebastian rubbed his chin. The beard was thick and truly magnificent. Although, in truth? He longed for a shave, for a shirt, and for a clean pair of trousers.
“And then, as you know, she betrayed me.”
Possibly it was a trick of the setting sun, the light glinting just so off his silent companion. The skull took on a skeptical expression as if it doubted this part of the tale.
“Perhaps I am wrong.”
But he couldn’t be. With his own eyes, he witnessed Estella on the palace balcony, her arm linked with the king’s. Although Sebastian stood far back in the crowd—and in disguise as well—he’d detected the possessive glint in Thaddeus’s eye, the lift of the chin that spoke of triumph.
Estella herself was nearly lost in a profusion of pink silk and satin with enough lace that it was a wonder she could walk.
“If not betrayal, then what?”
He longed to know. Estella cared nothing for fancy gowns and the niceties of court life. The sea was her home, the Siren and its crew her heart.
If the skeleton had an opinion, certainly Sebastian would have found relief rather than fear in its words. But his companion merely stared out to sea as if the answers were there, lost among the waves.
“If not betrayal, then what?” He spoke the refrain softly, a thin sliver of smoke rising from the fire as if to capture the words. Perhaps there was no answer, at least not one he would ever know.
Sebastian knelt next to the fire and eased the stew from the flame. Yes, he would sup like a king tonight, but he would sup alone, as he had for the past month.
Without his pirate queen.
* * *
The ship on the horizon dipped in and out of view. Behind Sebastian, at the jungle’s edge, sat a stockpile of firewood. He held a fistful of kindling in one hand, the tinderbox in the other, his grip so tight, he risked slicing his palms with both.
And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to start the fire.
Was this rescue or arrest? The sun glinted off the water, the glare stinging his eyes. He had no hope of knowing which until it was too late.
His crew wouldn’t rest until they found him—dead or alive.
But then, neither would the royal navy.
And so he stood, the kindling biting into what little tender flesh remained in the center of his palm.
When he noticed the gentle gliding of the albatross, Sebastian couldn’t say. It soared high above the sea unperturbed by the ship behind it or the island before it. From its beak, something swung.
He shielded his eyes against the day’s brilliance and tracked the bird’s progress as it drew ever closer.
The albatross released its payload with the precision of an expert artilleryman. The item tumbled from the sky, landing within feet of Sebastian. As for the bird, it looked enormously relieved to be free of its burden—and a bit cheeky, as if it knew something Sebastian didn’t.
Since he’d been stranded nearly two months now, the entire realm no doubt knew things he didn’t.
He dropped the kindling and pocketed the tinderbox. Armed with a slender piece of driftwood, he approached.
A satchel lay on the damp sand, close enough to the sea that the tide might steal it if he didn’t move fast enough. He looped the driftwood through the strap just as a wave licked the edge of the bag.
For a long moment, Sebastian surveyed the satchel. Then he poked at it, prodded it with his bit of driftwood. The bag remained still. Besides, it was far too slender to hold much of consequence. He didn’t discount poison, but then the albatross had appeared hale and healthy.
Then curiosity overrode vigilance. Sebastian drew the satchel toward him and undid the flap.
It didn’t do to be overly cautious, after all.
The first item to greet him was his own image under the phrase:
Wanted: Dead or Alive.
The likeness was passable, although it lacked the magnificent beard he now sported. Beneath his name was an outlandish reward, enough coin that Sebastian might consider turning himself in—and worry about keeping his head later.
Next was a second wanted poster, this one for the captain of the Siren. The artist had drawn Estella with an exaggerated hand, turning her into little more than a sea hag. The entire realm knew of Estella’s beauty, and such an illustration would do little to deter treasure hunters.
His fingers shuffled the remaining contents—letters with the royal seal, battle plans for the navy, all manner of correspondence. All of it pointed to one objective. The concerted and concentrated effort to capture one man:
Sebastian Black, Pirate King.
Chatter drew his attention from the papers in his hand to the sea beyond. There, the ship on the horizon still bobbed, no closer, no farther away. Except now, a rowboat headed toward the island.
A single occupant leaned forward in the bow as if will alone could propel the boat. But no, it was the chattering pod of dolphins that took up the task, nudging and pushing the rowboat closer and closer to shore.
His gaze tracked the boat until Sebastian could make out the black hair that flowed like silk, skin the very color of damp sand, dark eyes that lit with delight at the sight of him.
Oh, yes. Quite the sea hag.
“Sebastian! My love!” Estella leaped from the boat before it fully came to rest on a sandbar.
The dolphin pup bussed her cheek as she waded to shore through waist-deep water. She held a bottle of wine aloft in one hand and pushed through the sea with the other.
“My love!” she called again. “Merry Christmas!”
Was it? Mentally, he counted the days since becoming shipwrecked, and well, yes, he was missing a day or two. But indeed, it could be Christmas.
This could also be a hallucination, brought on by a bad bit of shellfish, perhaps.
Estella halted three feet from him, soaked to the skin. She offered up the bottle of wine. When he refused it, she shrugged and set it on the sand. She unlaced her sleeves from her bodice, pulled off her boots, and placed both on the beach to dry.
“How do you like the island?” she asked.
Sebastian remained silent.
“It was my grandmother’s,” she continued as if he’d responded. “It’s where she came to rest, in the end.”
His gaze traveled up the shore, toward the shelter and his silent companion.
“Yes, exactly,” Estella said.
He didn’t demand. He didn’t rage. He didn’t kick sand or fling the wine bottle out to sea (really, the latter would be a terrible waste). Sebastian merely stood there, stony. True, after a long moment, he folded his arms across his chest. He may have tapped his foot.
Estella sighed, the light in her eyes fading to sorrow. “Oh, my love, I cannot apologize. I can only explain.”
When he continued his silence, Estella grimaced.
“I suppose I deserve this.” She gnawed her lip, a sign she was searching for the right words, not false ones. “Several months back, my spies brought word to me that the crown planned on marshaling their forces to capture you, convict you, and see you hanged from the neck.”
She gestured toward the satchel, and he nodded. That much, he had ascertained.
“And my spies?” he said, finding his voice at last. “They brought me no word of this.”
“Your spies had been infiltrated, my love. Indeed, so had members of your crew.”
This? This was news. News he wanted to deny; news he felt the truth of deep in his bones. Had not his whisper network gone silent? Had not he detected a false glint or concealed fear in the eyes of the townsfolk and even his crew?
“And yours had not?” he countered.
“And why is that?”
“My spies are invisible.”
He barked a laugh. Yes, this was his Estella, through and through, outrageous and audacious.
“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
“Forgive me, my love, but how often do men notice the woman scrubbing the palace floors, or the ones sweeping the hearth and laying the fire? Do they notice the serving wench except to slap her bottom? Or think nothing of babbling to those who work in the royal pleasure houses?”
Oh, she had him there. Her network had always produced better intelligence than his own ever did.
“What are you telling me, then?” he said. “That you arranged all this?”
Some of that delight returned to her expression, those dark, soulful eyes glowing with it. “With a little help.”
“Why not simply tell me?”
“Again, forgive me, my love, but your temperament is—” She paused again, a hint of teeth against her lip. “Legendary.”
“Could you have playacted the role?” She didn’t let him answer. “For the plan to work, you, your crew, including the various spies, had to be convinced that I had turned traitor. There was no other way.”
“And if I don’t forgive you? If I strike you down here, right now?”
“I would gladly do it all again. I would lose your love and my life if only I could save yours.”
It struck him then, hard and fast, like a blow to the gut. Not betrayal—at least, not the sort that mattered. But a crafty, well-executed plan that her clever mind and courageous heart put into action.
“And you fooled Thaddeus as well?” Another counterpoint, weak as it was.
Estella laughed and rolled her eyes in disdain. “You’ve seen my wanted poster, have you not?”
Yes, the act of a petulant child. And yet, Sebastian was still at a loss. How did they proceed? As if nothing had happened? As if his heart hadn’t been splintered beyond repair?
“What is it we do now?” His words were more musing than question.
“Oh, my love.” She spread her arms wide, and her smile was brighter than the midday sun. “We celebrate Christmas!”
She headed for the rowboat, turning every few steps to urge him to follow. “Come, come see what I brought.”
Without recourse, Sebastian followed.
* * *
A tiny fir tree sat well back from the cook fire. Red and gold ribbons bedecked its boughs, and all manner of gifts surrounded its trunk—lumpy parcels wrapped in brocade and tied with even more ribbons. One was definitely the size and shape of Sebastian’s saber.
Estella knelt next to the fire, stirring something she claimed was fudge, although it was far too soupy for that. When he dared mention the fact, she merely eyed him.
“And when was the last time you ate chocolate?”
She had a point. He’d gladly toast the holiday with the dark sludge rather than the wine that sat cooling in the tropical shade.
“Who waits for us,” he asked with a nod toward the horizon. Yes, he had also dared utter the word us, dared to hope, dared to believe in the schemes of this pirate queen. “Is it the Siren?”
“It is, with Miriam at the helm in my absence.” She gave him a sly smile. “And Hadim as her first mate.”
“In fact, they’d like you to marry them once you’re restored to the Tyrant’s Bane.”
“Marry … them?”
“As captain, can you not perform the ceremony?”
“I … well, yes. Of course. But Miriam and Hadim?”
Estella glanced away. He had the distinct impression she—once again—rolled her eyes. Then another thought struck him.
“The Tyrant’s Bane?”
“Being repaired by your crew.” She removed the fudge from the fire and set it to the side to cool.
“Then it didn’t sink.”
“The Tyrant’s Bane? I doubt it could.”
Sebastian sat back, the onslaught of both thoughts and feelings threatening to overwhelm him.
“Estella.” Her name emerged from his throat rougher than he intended. “What do we do now?” This time, his words were more question than musing.
She turned toward him, and oh, her eyes were so tender. She inched across the sand, drawing nearer to him.
“First, we celebrate Christmas. Don’t you see the gifts beneath the tree?”
“I’m afraid I have nothing for you.”
“Oh, I’ve accounted for that.”
Of course, she had. “And then?”
“Then, I thought we could get reacquainted.” She drew a finger along his cheekbone, the one where she’d left a scar so many months ago. “Although perhaps you could shave first.”
“And perhaps I won’t. Besides.” He nodded toward the skeleton. “I’m not sure we should in front of your grandmother.”
Estella laughed, the sound light and airy and like bells at Christmas. “And then we’ll spend the week immersed in plans and strategies and tactics. On New Year’s Day, we shall row out to the Siren prepared.”
Sebastian took her chin between forefinger and thumb. It was the prelude to a kiss, and he wanted to savor the moment. “And then what, my love?”
“We take the fight to them.”
He kissed her then, and it was both gentle and rough and fierce as both their rivalry and their courtship. In his chest, he felt the splinters of his shattered heart mend. They entwined together until not a single fracture remained. His heart, now whole once again, nestled securely beside that of his pirate queen.
Heart of a Pirate King was written especially for the (Love) Stories for 2020 project.