Only a few hours ago she boarded a ship with a chest full of new dresses, fancy shoes, and other finery she knew she’d never get used to. It was a new wardrobe for a new mission. For the next two years she would be living as Ana Del Marchi. It was a part she had played before, but never like this.
Normally her alias was the Raven- the kingdom’s most wanted criminal. As the Raven she ran special missions for the General; all of which included antagonizing the usurper king- Algerron. On the rare occasion that she needed to step out of the shadows, she used Ana’s identity. The real Ana had died when Algerron and his men invaded from the north. So she liked to believe that Ana wouldn’t mind her utilizing her identity, so long as she was giving Algerron hell.
As the ship carried her away from Nasura, the sea seemed to rise up and swallow her city. No sooner had it disappeared from view then Gullmay Island appeared on the opposite horizon. Fitting, she thought as her true past faded away as her fictitious one appeared. As they drew near she took in every detail of the island she would be pretending was her homeland. As it was not their destination and having never set foot on the island, she supposed studying it from the ship would have to do. She tried to take note of everything, from the lush green landscape and bountiful fields of crops to the large busy ports and white stone castle on the bluff. Despite its grand appearance it wasn’t a real castle, that is, the man who lived there was not a king. Though the same could be said for the man living in the castle back in Nasura. Gullmay Island is ruled by the Del Marchi family, but in the past it had always considered itself under Nastralya’s rule. That was until eleven years ago when Algerron invaded; killing the true King and Queen and taking their infant daughter hostage. Since that night the Duke had adamantly and publicly opposed Algerron’s rule. Algerron knew he could never win a naval battle against Gullmay and the Duke never left the safety of his island, so Algerron was left with no option, but to begrudgingly endure the Duke’s opposition.
The thought made her smile. It was one of few things she enjoyed about impersonating the Duke’s daughter. She loved the look people gave her when she stated that she was Ana Del Marchi. That spark of hope in their eyes that someone, anyone, was opposing Algerron. There were others, of course, although they did it much less publicly. The General, whom she worked for, had collected and organized the surviving members of the late King and Queen’s court. The insurgent group had sworn to see Princess Rosaleen, the last of the Del Lamont family and the true heir of Nastralya, back on the throne. The Princess would be 18 in two years, and by law eligible to claim the throne. Before this can happen, the land must be reunited; thus her current mission. The General has sent her out masquerading as Ana Del Marchi to seek out the Lords of Nastralya, test their loyalties and determine if they will fight when the time comes.
Thomas shifted behind her and she was reminded of one of the reasons she did not like impersonating the Duke’s daughter. The General had insisted that Thomas escort her, despite the fact that the General knew she preferred to work alone. That she worked better alone. However, as inconvenient as it was, she knew the General was right. The Duke would never allow his teenaged daughter to travel across the country unescorted. So in order for her story to be plausible, Thomas, a middle aged solider, stood silently behind her. She almost felt sorry for him. He got saddled with a mission which was way below his rank, simply because he was one of the few soldiers who knew about her position as the Raven.
Taking one last look at the empty horizon where Nasura had disappeared beyond the waves, she turned to face Thomas. “I’m going below deck. I need a nap,” she informed him. Like a good solider, he didn’t say a word, but she could read the question in his eyes. The day has barely begun, how could you need a nap? Thomas however, had no way of knowing that in the past two days she had managed only a few hours of sleep. Two nights ago she had been on a mission for the General only to return to find she was being sent out again. The next day had been spent packing and being fitted for dresses. No one, not even the General, knew that she had slipped out again last night. She had needed to return something to a boy and repay him for helping her out when her mission had gone awry. This morning she’d only made it back in time to turn around and leave for the ship.
She needed to rest. This was the beginning of a very long journey. And with any luck it would end with freedom for her country.
Shoal Bay was the third port she stopped in and the second consecutive one in which she ran into Ashton Gray. She was all too familiar with the arrogant heir of Calston. They had crossed paths several times before, but this time was different. In the past they had just happened to be in the same place at the same time. This was the first time he had ever sought her out.
Ashton had shown up at Lord Orin’s estate, where the General had arranged for her to stay, and invited her to lunch. She’d been tempted to say no, but she was curious and he obviously had something to say. Possibly a message from his father and if that was the case, then it had to do with her mission. She had to go.
So here she was strolling down Main Street in the busy fishing town; people bustling all around. Some were shopping- arms loaded down with bags and parcels. Others were making deliveries; their small carts and wagons bumping over the cobblestones. Despite how busy everyone appeared to be, they all seemed to have time to smile at Ashton. Especially the women and she supposed she understood as he was obnoxiously attractive. However, she wasn’t sure which she found more irritating, the giggling ladies or the obvious pleasure he was getting from all the attention.
It was an unseasonably warm day even this far south and the short buildings lining the street offered no shade. The heat had her thankful she had chosen the silk sky blue dress to wear over the satin scarlet one. Still she would have preferred slacks and boots. It wasn’t the corset that was bothering her, she always wore one, even with slacks. No, it was the stupid shoes. They were pinching her toes and the heels made walking on the cobblestones outright hazardous. Even more annoying was the fact that so far Ashton hadn’t offered her anything more than extremely dull, all be it polite conversation. They had talked about the weather, the port, and the sea- then about her trip and if she liked traveling by boat.
“It’s a nice way to travel, I suppose, but I think I prefer horseback,” she answered, hiding her boredom behind a polite smile. Despite the fact that she usually only ran into him in the mountain pass, she was well aware of his love for ships, the sea, and sailing. But this was a dance of social courtesies, so she added, “What about you? You prefer ships, do you not?” She had to admit he looked like a sailor, with his sun kissed skin and his black hair that was just a bit too long, and a bit too unruly, for a future Lord. In fact only his fine clothing gave away his true station. Even his bright blue eyes reminded her of the sea.
“Yes,” he confirmed with a smile. “I’d be happy to spend my whole life at sea. Provided I had the right company of course.”
“Speaking of. Where is your entourage?” She made a show of glancing behind them. “I never see you without them.” It was true. There was always 2 or 3 young men orbiting the wealthy heir. Although she always suspected they were there more for their own personal gain than out of any sort of real loyalty to him.
“They had a rough night and didn’t wish to venture out so early,” he responded lazily. It was a blatant lie and everything from his tone to his sly grin told her he didn’t intend for her to believe him. So why say it?
“What about you?” he asked, the knowing grin still on his face as if they were sharing an unspoken secret. “I see you managed to slip out without your escort.”
It took her a step to realize he meant Thomas and another step to realize he thought she had snuck out. Annoyance flared and she had to bite her lip to keep her words from spilling out. Yes, she was a girl. Yes, she was underage. And yes, maybe it wasn’t appropriate for a Duke’s daughter to roam around a strange city unescorted, but she’d be dammed if she was going to admit it. “I am perfectly capable of walking the city streets alone in the middle of the day.” Or the middle of the night for that matter.
“Well, thankfully you’re not alone, you’re with me. But Ana, this isn’t your father’s island. You’re in an unfamiliar city. You could get lost or worse,” Ashton scolded with concern in his voice.
“I highly doubt that.” It came out a bit too cocky. However, before she could think of something else to say, he stopped in front of a whitewashed building with sunflowers in the window. Swinging the door open, he ushered her inside.
They were greeted by a pretty young waitress, who introduced herself as Becky. The way she greeted Ashton it was clear he had been there before. Without taking her eyes off of him, Becky led them up to the 3rd floor, chatting and giggling the whole way. The behavior seemed so nauseatingly absurd that Ana had the sudden urge to grab the waitress by her hair, drag her up to the roof and shove her off. Instead, she bit back her irritation and decided to study the flirting girl. Not that she could ever act so ridiculous, but still she noted how the girl angled her body towards him. Particularly her chest. How she smiled up at him while batting her lashes and how she slipped her hand out to touch his arm occasionally while she talked.
Becky led them to a balcony with a small table set for two with a lovely view of the bay. The waitress’s bubbly demeanor only faltered when Ashton turned his attention away from her. But it wasn’t the bay that had drawn his eye. His smile and his gaze had settled on Ana as she took in the view.
Standing at the railing she savored the salty breeze off the bay as is gently cooled her face and danced through her long black hair. It was a lovely sight; the bright blue sea glistening in the sunlight. However her bedroom at Lord Orin’s estate, on the east side of the bay, had much the same view. So instead of marveling at the bay, she used the vantage point to note the layout of the city. The city was laid out in a long thin strip, which hugged the curve of the bay. Only half a dozen streets sat between the water and where the city gave way to farm fields. She smirked thinking, I couldn’t get lost if I tried.
Ashton’s hand grazed her back as he helped her into her chair. Once he slid gracefully into his own, the waitress was at his side. “We will start with two teas,” ordered Ashton casually.
“Make mine a lemonade, please.” She had never cared for tea. The shocked look on Becky’s face was almost comical. When she glanced back to Ashton for his approval, Ana couldn’t help, but roll her eyes.
“On a warm day like this, lemonade sounds lovely,” he said with a grin. “Make it two lemonades.” The waitress bobbed her head and was gone. “My apologies, I remember now, you don’t care for tea. Do you?” he asked politely. However, she felt as if he’d been testing her all day and that this was somehow yet another test. Judging by the look on his face, it seemed he was pleased or at least amused by her performance so far.
“Actually, I hate tea,” she replied leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms over her chest. For a moment they sat there, silently considering each other. It’s time to see just what kind of game we’re here to play, she thought to herself. “Just how long do you intend to string me along? You got me here. Alone. Let’s get to the point. What is it that you want?” His face flushed and his eyes widened. For a moment he looked truly uncomfortable. Good, she thought. She had been uncomfortable all morning. Mostly from her shoes, but this game of his hadn’t helped her mood any.
“What do you mean?” he asked when he recovered from his shock.
“Why are we here?” she asked.
“Ah, well I’m here at my father’s request,” responded Ashton, confirming her suspicions. He did have news from his father. Calston had been her first stop and her meeting with Lord Gray had gone quite well, as was expected. Ashton’s father had always contested Algerron’s rule, though not as boldly as Duke Del Marchi. That, however, was quite understandable given Calston’s close proximity to Nasura.
“Is there something wrong? Has your father changed his mind about- about what we discussed?” She had to choose her words carefully. This was politics. She hated politics. She was much more comfortable fighting with a sword than with words.
With a puzzled look Ashton asked, “What exactly did you and my father discuss?”
His question threw her. “If he didn’t tell you, then I am certainly not going to.”
He seemed disappointed, but amusement was glistening in his blue eyes again. “Well whatever it was, he was quite delighted by you.”
They paused their conversation as the waitress scurried in with two tall glasses of lemonade. This time Ashton consulted her before ordering. He highly recommended a buttered shrimp dish that Shoal Bay was famous for and after he insisted that this particular café had the best in the city, she consented. He grinned victoriously as he turned to the waitress and ordered two of the shrimp plates.
“So why did your father send you?” she asked once Becky was gone. Ashton leisurely took a sip of his lemonade and then another as if it were so good he couldn’t help himself. However, she could clearly see him formulating his response, considering his options and her reactions. “How about the truth?” she suggested casually sipping her own lemonade.
Everything going on behind his eyes stopped and they locked on her. Then suddenly he laughed. “All right,” he said as if he were agreeing to try some new game. Leaning forward, he folded his hands and rested them on the table. “The truth is I turn 18 in a few months. My father wishes for me to marry right way. You see he is quite anxious for grandchildren. He wants assurance that there will be someone to carry on the family name and to inherit Graystone manor.” He spoke as if he were outlining an intricate business proposal.
She sat silently, unconsciously fiddling with her necklace. She had expected some political scheme or financial negotiation. This is about grandchildren? she thought; her head tipping slightly to the side.
“He sent me to court you,” he clarified. “Like I said, you delighted him. And truthfully, I can see why.”
“That- that’s ridiculous. I uh…“ It was his turn to watch her blush and to enjoy her discomfort. But that incessant amusement in his eyes sparked her anger- quickly burning away her embarrassment. “Well I am sorry you wasted the trip. I am not of age and, unlike yours, my father is in no rush to marry me off. Please give Lord Gray my apologies if I mislead him in any way.” She got up to leave, but froze when the waitress walked in with their meal.
Ashton waved off her words. “No need for apologies. And no need to leave.” He motioned for her to sit back down, but she didn’t move. “Ana, trust me you don’t want to miss this,” he added then turned his attention to his plate.
She hovered there, unsure, as he started his meal. This has been such a waste of time. Still it would be extremely rude to let the food go to waste too. In the end it was the mouthwatering aroma, not good manners, that pushed her back into her chair. As she picked up her fork, she caught him smiling at her. When she looked into his bright blue eyes, she was quite sure whatever game she thought they were playing before was only just beginning.
The food was wonderful, just as he promised it would be. The awkwardness faded away quickly and she found herself laughing at Ashton’s stories. Just as she had always thought, the young heir was insufferably conceited, still, there was something else there too. Something almost endearing under his persistent arrogance.
As the conversation went on, she came to find they had spent more time together in the past than she had ever realized. Traveling through the Mountain Pass, people generally rode and camped in groups; it was safer. She was aware Ashton had always been around, but until they started reminiscing that she hadn’t realized they were practically friends.
When the meal was over she planned to make a quick exit. Though, before she could, he suggested they walk along the bay- claiming he wanted to show her his ship. There was no need. She knew his ship- the Morning Star. However, she couldn’t very well tell him she’d seen it several times when it was docked in Nasura. Not when she was pretending to be from Gullmay Island. At any rate, it was a good way to see more of the city and it was on the way back.
Unfortunately it didn’t take long for their little detour to prove to be a mistake. It was harder than she would have imagined to keep herself from darting down the nearest alley when she spotted one of the Kingsguard. She was the most wanted criminal in Nasura, not that anyone would have recognized her. So far she had managed to keep her identity a secret, yet every instinct, every inch of her screamed for her to run- to hide. Normally she trusted those instincts. They had kept her alive so far. The only thing that kept her moving forward was Ashton. How would she explain things to him if she ran? Still he must have noticed a change in her because he moved a bit closer.
Things up ahead, with the Kingsguard, were clearly not going well. Ashton gradually shifted them to the far side of the street. She couldn’t help, but notice most of the people on the busy port street were doing their best to avoid the situation as well. She tried to keep her head down as they neared the altercation, but once she got a clear view of what was going on, she couldn’t tear her eyes away.
“Sir, sir. I told you I already paid my taxes,” pleaded an elderly fisherman with sun worn skin and bleached white hair.
“You didn’t pay me,” growled the Kingsguard. He was a thick bear of a man and obviously one of Algerron’s Northmen. He grabbed the elderly man by his shirt, pawing at him until he came up with the man’s coin purse. He then shoved the man to the ground, and pocketed the money. The old man cursed like the sailor he was.
She wasn’t sure when her feet started to move, but the Kingsguard got in a punch or two before she reached him. “Stop! Stop it!” She yelled with as much authority as she could muster; shoving her way between the two men. However, before she could do anything she caught the guard’s fist across her jaw and crumpled to the ground. Despite the searing pain, she scrambled over to protect the old man. The guard hovered over them, but didn’t advance. Anger still raged on his face, but he seemed a bit lost as to what to do next.
Without touching the guard, Ashton tactfully slipped between them. “Ana, darling are you all right?” he asked pulling her to her feet as if she had simply tripped. Only his eyes showed his true concern as he pushed back her hair and assessed the damage to her face.
“I’m fine,” she said anger flaring in her voice.
“Do you have any idea who she is?” Ashton demanded, finally turning his attention to the guard. “This is Duke Del Marchi’s daughter.”
She wasn’t sure if dropping that name was going to help or hurt the situation, but with her own anger raging she didn’t really care. Her fingers itched for the blade she had strapped to her thigh. A quiet, but stern voice in the back of her head reminded her not to blow her cover.
“She interfered,” the guard snarled past Ashton at her.
“This man’s done nothing wrong. You have no right to beat him,” she insisted stepping forward, holding her already bruising chin high. It wasn’t an act; she truly wasn’t afraid of the beastly man. She had too many years of training for that.
“He was being disrespectful.” The guard was still glaring at her, but he had reined in his temper.
“It seemed appropriate given the situation.” She saw rage flair in his black eyes, but she pushed on. “The king’s tax has already been collected for this quarter. What’s your name sir?”
There was a long pause while they stared each other down. Finally, through his teeth he said, “Malturez.”
“Well, Malturez, I assure you Duke Tyson will hear about this.” She was vaguely aware that everyone on the busy street had stopped to stare at them. “I suggest you be on your way.” Not waiting for his reply, she turned her attention back to the old man. She found him wide-eyed with his mouth gaping, but he was on his feet and seemed to be in one piece. She linked her arm with his and turned him away from the guard, headed anywhere but there. Ashton followed half a step behind.
Picking a random corner a few blocks away, she turned them off the busy street. She glanced back only once to make sure no one was following them. “Are you all right?” she asked once she knew they were alone.
“Yes. Fairies bless you child,” he said looking at her as if he wasn’t quite sure she was real.
Her stomach tightened at the old saying. No one said that any more. The fairies all died or disappeared the night Algerron invaded, but not before one had saved her life. Her parents had been killed and she was alone in the warring city, when a fairy found her and took her to the General. She had already been blessed by the fairies.
“Next time just give him the money, Ivan. You’re getting too old to take the beating,” Ashton said lightly.
Ivan didn’t seem to have heard Ashton. “What’s your name child?” he asked never taking his gray-green eyes off her.
“Ana Del Marchi,” she replied.
Confusion washed over his face and panic punched her in the stomach. He doesn’t believe me. Somehow he knows. He knows I am not Ana.
She glanced fearfully at Ashton, but he didn’t seem to notice. He pulled out a few coins and pressed them into the old man’s hand. “I think it’s time you cut and run.”
Ivan nodded. “Thank you, thank you both.”
Before she could respond, Ashton was escorting him back down the alley toward the pier.
When he returned, she expected him to be furious or flabbergasted that she could have done something so reckless and stupid. To her surprise, he didn’t say a word. He simply slipped his finger under her chin, gently tipping her head to inspect the bruise. In the shade of the alley his eyes were a much darker blue. Earlier they had practically matched the bright blue of the bay. Now, as she watched them study her face, they were the color of a storm. His eyes traced along her jaw line to her lips, to where he held her chin. She felt his fingers twitch just before he released her.
“Well aren’t you going to be pretty for the party?” he teased as he took her arm and linked it with his. He must have seen the confusion on her face. “Lord Orin’s yacht party tonight. You’re going aren’t you? You are staying at the man’s house after all.”
Stars! She had forgotten all about the stupid party. She would have much rather gone out as the Raven tonight.
The short carriage ride from Orin’s estate to the pier, where his yacht was docked, seemed more than a bit unnecessary. The Lord had insisted, just as he had insisted on commissioning a special dress for her to wear. So here she was in a dress Lord Orin picked out, climbing into his carriage, headed to his party. The things I do for my country, she grumbled to herself as Thomas climbed in behind her.
“I found him,” Thomas informed her once the carriage was in motion. She raised her eyebrows when he didn’t immediately continue. His eyes searched her face, for what, she wasn’t sure. Probably more bruises “He was at an inn on the west side of the bay, having dinner. Left the city about an hour ago.”
“Headed?” she demanded.
“North. Conch Road.”
She sighed and turned her gaze to the window. She could already see the pier. Pointless party. Pointless carriage ride. And pointless lunch with Ashton, she stewed. She hadn’t been on a proper mission in over a month and she was ready to do something- something that actually mattered.
“What is this about?” he asked still studying her.
“What is it always about?” She kept her voice calm, despite her annoyance that he was questioning her motives. This isn’t about revenge. At least not revenge for my sore jaw. She knew that’s what he thought. “It’s about ridding our land of Algerron’s cruel Northmen. It’s about protecting our people.” She knew she sounded like the General, but she didn’t care.
“Yes.” She hadn’t given him the details earlier. The General always said ‘Soldiers only need to know what they need to know, nothing more.’ But she could see Thomas was going to need more. And she wasn’t the General; she couldn’t command blind obedience. “He robbed an elderly fisherman, claiming he was collecting the king’s tax. After he took all of the man’s money, he then proceeded to beat him.”
“And that?” His eyes slid to the bruise on her jaw.
“He said I interfered with his job,” she said as the carriage rocked to a stop.
“How long?” he asked.
“I’ll need to be here for a few hours.” Her attention on the crowd of people headed towards the pier. “Three. Give me three hours,” she said letting the driver help her down.
Yards of sheer navy blue fabric poured out of the carriage like water flowing from a glass and for once she was grateful for the helping hand. Understandably she had been apprehensive about Lord Orin’s taste in dresses. However, when the maid brought it in, she had been awestruck. It was beautiful. The design was quite simple, a navy blue corset and plain skirt. What made it breathtaking was the outer layer of sheer flowing fabric covered in glittering silver stars. A solid navy blue sash cinched it at her waist. Her first thought was of a midnight sky, however, once she had it on, the ruffles floating around her feet looked like the sea.
When she reached the yacht the real stars weren’t out yet. The sun was just setting, casting the sky and the bay in reds, oranges, and yellows. Everything was a wash of warm color; everything except for one pair of bright blue eyes. Ashton’s gaze was locked on her from across the deck and he smiled when she gazed back. It was obviously too hot for a proper jacket and waistcoat. Instead he had on a loose white dress shirt, crisp black pants and polished black boots. As he stood there, his shaggy hair blowing in the breeze, he looked like the perfect mix between nobleman and pirate.
“Ana dear, you look marvelous!” Lord Orin materialized in front of her. “You simply must permit me the first dance.”
“Of course,” she replied with a polite smile. She managed an apologetic glance at Ashton as Lord Orin whisked her out onto the dance floor in the center of the deck. Lord Orin looked to be almost forty. His short blonde hair appeared sun bleached, but up close she could see he was starting to gray. He was tall and lean. She supposed he was a rather attractive man. I wonder why he’s not married, she thought to herself as he whirled her around the dance floor.
“Rita did a splendid job, it’s hardly noticeable,” he said glancing pitifully at her bruised jaw and she had to bite back a laugh. The bruise was hardly anything, but noticeable. Rita had tried all sorts of creams and powders in order to conceal the discoloration, but the only thing the maid had managed to do was cause a bunch of unnecessary pain. How Rita made it out of the room without a matching bruise would forever be a mystery. Despite her efforts, once Rita was gone, Ana just washed it all off. Opting instead to simply let her long dark hair fall across her face.
“I hope that nasty incident today didn’t put you off our charming little bay?” asked Lord Orin warmly.
“Not at all. It’s a lovely city. It reminds me of home.” It truly did. Nasura may not be in a bay, but it was a port city. The salt in the air, the creaking of ships and the sounds of the rolling sea were all reminders of home. Lord Orin, however, would think she was speaking of Gullmay Island.
“Then why cut your stay so short?” There was something more than polite curiosity in his question. The night before she and Lord Orin had sat down to a private dinner to discuss his role in the future of Nastralya. She had been optimistic when he informed her he hated Algerron and yearned for a new ruler. The more they talked, the more it seemed he would support anyone who could promise change. Anyone. She found it a bit disturbing that he could throw his loyalties around so casually. When she finally did mention the Princess, his previous eagerness sank like a stone.
“I have a long journey ahead and with things here being settled,” she started, then paused a moment studying him, half waiting for him to contradict her. But he didn’t. “Then I should move on.”
“I told you last night, I’m all for change. I just have little faith in a girl- a child, who has been locked away and raised by… him.” He kept his voice low, so no one could hear him over the band.
“I understand your concern, but she will not be alone in the task. She-”
“Doesn’t your father have a claim to the throne?” he asked, cutting her off. Clearly he did not wish to hear about the Princess.
“He is the late Queen’s cousin. But the line of succession goes to the Queen’s daughter before her cousin. Princess Rosaleen has my father’s full support,” she added unsure if it were entirely true. She had never met the Duke, but it seemed to be the only thing that might satisfy him.
“And like I said, your father has mine, but that’s as far as I can go.”
She bit down her retort. There was nothing more she could say; the man had made up his mind. What that exactly meant, she wasn’t sure.
The sun was almost down and servants were rushing about lighting candles in glass jars, yet Orin still guided her around the dance floor. She didn’t completely mind as he was a fine dancer.
“Lord Orin, you are not being a very hospitable host,” Ashton interrupted. “You cannot monopolize the prettiest girl here all night,” he said giving Orin a rueful smile. “Mainly because that had been my intention.” He winked at her and held out his hand. “May I?”
Orin chuckled. “Of course you may, dear boy.”
She bobbed a quick curtsey to Lord Orin before she placed her hand into Ashton’s. He moved forward, slipped his hand under her shoulder blade and stepped right into the beat.
“You look exquisite,” he whispered into her hair.
“Despite my face?” she asked tipping her head back to look up at him.
“Well,” he started with a mocking grimace. “As a gentleman, I would never have said so.”
“A true gentleman would have denied it,” she said pinching his arm playfully.
Lord Orin had been a sufficient dance partner, but Ashton was better. He danced with the same easy confidence that he did everything. In the past she had always found his swagger acutely annoying, tonight however, it was oddly comforting. She lost herself completely. Wholly at ease, she let him guide her as her mind drifted away with the music. She loved music. Loved the way it could take her far, far away from the troubles of the world. How it made her feel as if she could do anything. Music was the only thing that made these parties tolerable. There was never music in the fort as the General saw no point in it.
The songs blended into each other and everything else faded into the background. The bay, the ships, the other guests all disappeared. The only thing she was fully aware of was the music- and Ashton. And just how close they were as he held her against him. She could feel the heat coming off his body, his breath in her hair and the thumping of his heart in his chest. Or maybe that was the beat of the music. Maybe she was imagining it all.
She was so lost, adrift in the melody, she almost didn’t hear Ashton’s breathy whisper, “Dance with me forever.” It took two more turns for his words to sink in.
Everything stopped. She stopped and stepped back from him. “I- uh- It’s awfully hot.” She panted, fanning her face with one hand and rubbing at her corset with the other. She had seen many women do this when their corsets were too tight and they were struggling to catch their breath. She didn’t know the feeling; she never cinched herself in that tight. She did know, however, the gesture nearly always got results and this was no exception.
Immediately Ashton had her by the elbow and was leading her out of the crowd. He procured them a spot at the ship’s bulwark. The sea breeze gently slipped through her hair, cooling her. Pressing her hands against the cool metal railing, she avoided Ashton under the pretense of taking in the bay. The dark tranquil water reflecting the stars looked very much like her dress.
“Are you feeling better?”
Not trusting her voice, she nodded that she was. She could feel those intense blue eyes of his on her, but she couldn’t look at him. They needed a change of topic. She needed it. “Is Ivan’s ship still here?” she asked.
Finally he turned his gaze away from her and out to the bay. “Yeah it’s that one, there.” He pointed, finding it immediately. “He didn’t want to fight the tide so he decided not to leave until morning. But at least he’s not a total fool, he moved his ship off the pier and out into the bay.” She could hear the worry in Ashton’s voice and realized she didn’t like this topic either.
“Do you know all the ships in the bay?” she asked with a challenging grin and his eyes lit up with acceptance. She pointed out a dozen ships and he not only named the ship and her owner, but what they hauled and where they hailed from.
Finally she turned to him, pursed her lips to the side and narrowed her eyes at him.
“What?” he asked with a laugh.
“Are you making this all up?”
His head tipped back as he laughed again. “Dear lady I would never.”
“Truth?” She asked and the word had an oddly sobering effect on him; one she hadn’t expected.
“Then you must truly be a sailor at heart.”
“Like I told you, I would be happy to sail around forever,” he began, turning his gaze back to the bay and the ships. For a heartbeat she had a strange twinge of jealousy. “If I wasn’t Ashton Gary, heir to Calston, I would sail off at dawn and let the wind take my sails. I would travel the world, fish, and run goods. Whatever would pay, just so long as I could keep sailing.” He paused and his wistful grin faded as he sank back to reality. “But I can’t. I have to learn the family business and someday govern Calston. I will be tethered to my home.”
The air grew heavy around them and in that moment she saw a very different Ashton. She had spent so long thinking him a spoiled rich boy, using his father’s business as an excuse to go gallivanting around the country. When really he had been trying to postpone a future he didn’t want.
Letting out a hopeless, breathy laugh he turned back to her. “What about you? What would you do if you weren’t bound by blood and duty? If you weren’t who you are?”
Stars, he couldn’t even comprehend the enormity of what he was asking, she thought while turning away. It was her turn to gaze at the vast sea and consider a future that she could never have. Only she couldn’t. First of all I am not who I pretend to be. But I am no less bound by blood and duty; that part she could answer truthfully. She felt she owed him that much. “My life may not be one I would have chosen for myself, but I try to make the best of what time I have and do what I can while…”
Before she could finish he slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her towards him. Startled and a bit off balance she grabbed at him; her hands landing on his solid chest. He pressed his lips to hers. There was something unintentionally gratifying about the kiss. Like carrying a heavy load and dropping it out of pure exhaustion yet savoring the reprieve.
He pulled back slightly. His arms still around her, lips just inches from hers. Waiting. She opened her eyes, but knew better than to meet his. Her pulse was drumming in her ears so loud it drowned out the band. “Ash,” He sucked in a breath, but she could only say what she knew was true. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“You shouldn’t be so enchanting,” he said with his usual savvy. Pushing away from him, she punched him in the arm, just hard enough to sting, but he only laughed. “And decidedly unpredictable.”
The sound slammed into her chest. Before she could move, Ashton was pulling her down behind the bulwark. Her ears were ringing and fear was flailing around in her chest. Still she struggled to free herself from his grasp. She needed to see. Grabbing the rail she pulled herself up.
“Ana, no…” he started as he stood up next to her, but his words died at the sight of the burning remains of Ivan’s ship. The yacht began to rock in the wake and she clung to the rail, turning her knuckles white, but it wasn’t for balance. It was rage and fear. And a guilt that threatened to swell up and pull her under. Suddenly it was there again, the calm demanding voice of the General in the back of her mind. ‘Focus. Control your emotions and do what needs to be done.’ First she pushed the fear away. It was always the easiest to ignore. The guilt the General would have had her dismiss completely, but she knew she couldn’t do that. So she tucked it away for later. The rage she would use.
She left Ashton standing stunned at the rail and ran as fast as she dared across the rolling deck. Most of the guests were still gawking at the flames in the bay. A few, however, had decided to flee to shore, bottlenecking at the gangway. She blindly tossed out a ‘pardon me’ here and there as she pushed her way through.
Once she broke free of the crowd she ran up the bank to Thomas and the carriage. His face was blank as his eyes looked her over. She saw the tension in his shoulders relax just a bit when he realized she wasn’t hurt. “Malturez.” was all she said when she reached him. His eyes shifted to something behind her and she spun around.
“Ana,” Ashton called out as he rushed after her. “Ana,” he repeated out of breath. “Wait.”
“No Ashton leave me alone.” Her tone, sharp as a knife, but her anger was not meant for him. Trying to soften her voice. “Please Ashton I have to go,” she begged, letting just enough of her emotions bubble to the surface to tear her eyes. “I’ve made a terrible mess of things.”
His blue eyes locked with hers, shocked for just a second then they softened. “Ana this isn’t your fault.”
“Of course it is. I interfered.” She spat the word out, anger creeping back into her voice.
“Ana, you…” he began, reaching for her arm.
“No.” she snapped and his hand hung there frozen in the air. “Go away Ashton.” She turned on her heel and climbed into the carriage. There was a short scuffle outside the carriage before Thomas shouted to the driver and swung in behind her. They were moving before he was even seated.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You didn’t hurt him did you?”
“Not as much as you did.”
“Malturez blew up Ivan’s boat,” she said ignoring his words and how much they stung as she began braiding her hair back. Her dress shoes were already off and bouncing around on the floor of the carriage.
“The fisherman?” Thomas asked. “Let me go with you.”
“No. Take the rest of our things and make sure the ship is ready to sail. I want to be well out to sea before the sun comes up.” Thomas looked as if he wanted to argue, but he didn’t. He only nodded his understanding. When they reached Lord Orin’s estate, she gathered up her skirt and leapt from the carriage before it even stopped.
On a horse ‘borrowed’ from Lord Orin, she flew west across the country side. The weight of Ivan’s death pressed heavy on her, but she felt much better in her black Raven gear- thick pants, a light shirt and custom made corset. She hadn’t bothered with her hood. It was too hot for a cloak and she wasn’t worried about concealing her face anyway. In fact, she wanted him to see it. To know it was her, who came to kill him.
The horse was panting hard when they reached Conch Road. As they turned north she let him slow to a trot. The gravel road made their progress noisier than she would have liked, but her anger demanded speed. After only a few miles she came across a particularly straight stretch of road. Up ahead, just before the next bend, she could clearly see a campfire. Reining in the horse she surveyed the quiet darkness. The horse fidgeted under her. “Yeah, I smell a trap too,” she whispered to the horse and he let out a soft snort. After evaluating the options, she turned the horse off the road. It was slow going navigating the woods in the dark, but it seemed the best option.
Once she could see the glow of the campfire she dismounted and tied off the horse. Creeping through the darkness she felt oddly exposed without her hood to conceal her. The night was abnormally quiet and lifeless. The only sound was the snap and pop of the campfire. There were no critters scurrying about. No sounds of birds or bugs. Even the leaves in the trees were motionless. It was as if the wind itself was holding its breath. Where are you? she thought drawing her dagger.
The soft crunch of leaves caught her attention and she whirled around only to spot a horse tied up by the road. For a moment the horse just looked at her; the firelight shining in his eyes. Then his ear flicked and she heard a click she knew all too well. She dove for the nearest tree, but the arrow grazed her arm. Despite the pain she stayed silent. But Malturez didn’t; he cursed and grunted. Hearing him reloading his crossbow she smiled. Not only had he given away his location, but now he was struggling to reload.
Darting out from behind the tree she threw her dagger. Satisfaction pulsed though her when she heard him yell out in pain and the crossbow clatter to the ground. Not bothering with sticking to the shadows she stalked towards him, drawing another dagger.
“You?” he snarled at her, leaning against a tree. Probably the same tree he’d been hiding behind. He was hunched to his left where his arm hung oddly.
She almost laughed when the hilt of her dagger, lodged in his shoulder, flashed in the fire light. A few inches lower and to the right and this would have ended all too quickly. Still not bad for a blind throw. She held back the laugh, but let the smirk surface. “Yes, me.”
“I expected your boyfriend. Or that servant who tailed me all night.” He managed to wipe some of the shock from his face. “Guess you saw my fireworks?”
Her stomach heaved at the thought of Ivan. “I was already coming for you,” she said trying to sound flip, as if what he’d done hadn’t mattered.
“Oh,” he faked a pout. “Because I bruised your pretty face?”
“No.” she smiled sweetly. “I had decided to kill you before you ever saw my face.”
“I’d like to see you try,” he snarled and launched himself at her drawing his sword.
She easily side-stepped his charge. When he spun back around, he swung his sword wildly and she dodged that as well. His limp arm threw off his balance. Still his reach combined with his longsword put her, with her dagger, at a disadvantage. However, she had him beat when it came to speed. “Does your King know how lousy you are with a sword? Or does he know and that’s why you’re no longer one of his tax collectors?” she taunted as she danced around evading and blocking his swings. “Did your uselessness get you discharged?”
“Useless? I blew up your friend’s ship didn’t I?” he grunted, pausing his attack. The man’s chest was heaving and the front of his shirt was soaked with blood, but his grin was still venomous. “Guess I am good at something.”
Her blood was about to boil, but she smiled at him. “I’m good at a lot of things.” She flipped the dagger in her right hand and leaned back as if she were about to throw it. Thinking he had the upper hand, he charged again. But that was precisely what she was inviting him to do. This time she moved only enough to avoid the full impact of his blade. The tip of his sword ripped her shirt, but the blade glanced off the metal plates imbedded in her corset. Momentum carried Malturez forward where her dagger was waiting for him.
It happens so fast, but it’s always the same. A slight resistance as the tip pierces the clothing first then the skin, gasping as the blade sinks smoothly in- stopping only when the blade hits bone or the hilt hits the body. Hot blood pours out, the life drains from their eyes and it’s over.
Just as she had directed they were well out of sight by first light. Standing at the stern of the ship, she stared blindly at the empty sea. She was vaguely aware Thomas was loitering about on the deck behind her. She had let him bandage her arm, but other than confirming that the mission was a success, they hadn’t spoken a word. She had changed and washed up, but she could still feel warm, thick blood on her fingers. ‘Things will have to get much worse before they can get better.’ It was one of the General’s favorite lines and she supposed it was true. After all there was a war coming and she was lining up the opponents.