Leona tied her horse to the hitching post and started to pick her way down the lane. Perhaps she could have ridden all the way down to the docks, but the lane was lousy with donkeys dragging carts, pigs wandering to and fro, chickens squawking underfoot, and dockworkers hurrying between dock and warehouse and pub. Her horse could have forced its way through the mess … but …
If she had done that, it would have been obvious to all that Leona du Lac, daughter of Lancelot, Duke of Avilion, had come to the docks. At the very least it would have been clear that Somebody Important had come to call. She would have gotten stares and whispers –not that her cloak wasn’t attracting enough of those already — and with her luck, she would have had to make a social call on Baron Ferreira to keep up the appearances. No, thank you.
Besides — and this was most important — she was trying to enter this world of docks and ships and sailors. A noblewoman couldn’t do that, almost by definition. The most a noblewoman could ever hope to be was a passenger on a ship, not its captain, not its admiral.
So Leona would simply have to leave as much of that noblewoman stuff at the door as she could. And if that meant walking, so be it.
Besides, the docks were hardly far away.
Leona quickened her pace, lifting her skirt from the trailing dirt and slush and dung. Spring was only a couple short months away, but you’d never guess it to look at the snow and the gray-and-yellow sky. But the docks knew. They hummed like a busy beehive, except that a beehive was at its busiest in the autumn, getting ready for the winter. Maybe the docks were busy too in the autumn, battening down the hatches before the first of winter’s storms. Now, though, the last of winter’s storms were just about over — knock on wood — and everyone was getting ready for the first ships to sail in the spring.
Her ship — Leona was thinking of it as her ship, even though it was technically the Royal Navy of Albion’s ship — had already been guided into this port to get all its last-minute repairs and final sprucing up before it sailed to the Twikkii Islands in the spring. And on the deck of that ship was just the man Leona was looking for.
Leona just wished he hadn’t been given so embarrassing a name. His first name, she had found by asking Baron Ferreira, was Christian. For some reason the names in conjunction always made Leona want to giggle, though she couldn’t for the life of her fathom why.
Still, if Captain Love had managed to rise up the ranks of Albion’s merchant marine and helm a ship with a name as frankly ridiculous as his — Captain Love! — then he certainly was the right man for the job. Baron Ferreira had recommended him for it especially. He had been Richard’s first mate on some of his early voyages and had, Richard swore, saved the ship on more than one occasion. And as soon as Richard had enough ships and enough trading contacts to not make voyages himself, he had put Love at the helm of his finest one and never regretted it for an instant.
Leona just hoped the older man thought of his transfer to the Royal Navy as a promotion and not the reverse. He’d accepted the post, and that had to mean something.
Unless it only means he figured he wasn’t allowed to refuse …
Well, there was only one way to find out. Leona straightened her cloak, tossed her hair over her shoulder, and set foot on board.
Captain Love turned his head as soon as he heard the first echo of Leona’s foot.
Leona froze like a rabbit before the hounds. She smiled — a desperate, hi-I-like-you-so-would-you-please-like-me-back? smile. But she did not fidget. She remembered too much of her father’s training. Knights didn’t fidget when standing tall and still was a sign of strength.
Captain Love didn’t smile back. He only watched her with one eyebrow lifted, a barely perceptible tilt that managed to communicate oceans of contempt. He didn’t stand still — but he didn’t fidget, either. Instead, his body seemed to rock from fore to aft in response to some rhythm only he could hear.
And then Leona felt it — the rhythm. The rhythm of the sea. They were in port, but nobody had told the waves and the ship that. Leona could feel the ship rock from port to starboard with every little swell. Slowly, she started to rock herself — trying to counterbalance the ship enough so that she seemed to be standing as still as her father had always taught her to stand.
At the very least, she hoped to not be knocked on her ass within five minutes of meeting Captain Love.
That seemed to affect Captain Love somehow. His eyebrow came down. But now his face was every bit as blank as the figurehead at the prow.
Then he spoke. “Ye must be Lady Leona.”
“Aye, Captain!” Leona grinned and stuck out her hand before her. The Captain eyed it askance, then slowly took it in his own.
Leona gave it a hearty shake before he could get any silly ideas, like kissing her hand. Then she let go.
Captain Love took his hand back with a bemused look. “First time I ever shook the hand o’ a noblewoman,” he murmured.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever shaken the hand of a sea captain!” Leona grinned. “So I guess that makes us even!” Lord — why did her voice have to lilt like that at the end of every sentence? She sounded like a six-year-old hopped up on honey cakes and candy!
“I see.” He watched her for another few minutes. Leona imagined that he watched the horizon like that, scanning for a sign of a storm, so she tried to make her expression as clear and sunny as possible.
He sighed. “So. What is it ye were wantin’ ter meet with me fer, m’lady?”
“You can call me Leona, Captain,” Leona replied. For some reason this made his scowl. “But I just wanted to know the basics. The journey, the route you’ve mapped out, what kind of supplies we’re bringing, what we hope to trade in return, how many pirates you expect we’ll meet on the way –”
“I thought,” he interrupted, “that we were startin’ up a navy.”
“Well, yes! We are!”
“Last I heard, navies don’t trade. They takes what they needs, an’ whoever they took it from can jest live without.” He tried to make the comment sound offhand, maybe a little grumpy, but he kept watching Leona’s face for … what?
Well, the best she could do was be honest and hope he found what he was looking for. “Well, we want to get the favor of the Twikkii Natives, and Prince Tom and I talked it over, and we figured it’d be easier to do that with gifts and trading than with swords. Catch more flies with honey and all. You know?” Leona grinned.
The Captain only sighed.
“Is that wrong?” Leona asked innocently.
The Captain started and stared at her. “Ye’re axin’ me?”
“… Yes?” Leona squeaked. “I want to get this right — and that means taking advice from the people who know best!”
“Ye’re the noblewoman, though,” the Captain replied, surveying the undersides of his nails. “Surely all this dealin’ with folk — makin’ ’em happy an’ friendly an’ what-not — that’s more up yer alley than mine. Aye, m’lady?”
“You can call me Leona.” She thought she had told him that before, but perhaps she hadn’t. “And I was never much good at … at that part of being a noblewoman.” Best to leave it at that and not admit she’d never been much good at any part of being a noblewoman. “Besides, I’ve never been to the Twikkii Islands. And this is a goodwill voyage to boot. So I figure we … we ought to come in peace.” Leona grinned. “Right?”
“A goodwill voyage,” the Captain repeated.
“To show — to show who we are, and what we’re capable of, and that we’re — here!” Leona flung a hand out wide. The Captain jerked backwards to avoid being hit. “Whoops, sorry!”
“Don’t mention it,” he grumbled.
Leona wouldn’t. But now her smile was growing even more nervous. “Anyway, since you’re the expert, I was hoping … well, just that you would tell me what the plans are. If — if we could just go over the itinerary today,” Leona could hear her voice growing smaller and smaller with every word, “that would be … lovely …”
The Captain looked past Leona and sighed. “Good Lord!” he breathed. “The girl wants ter know an itinerary, an’ I don’t even know who’ll be commandin’ the bloody ship!”
“Eh?” Leona squeaked.
“Look,” the Captain replied, shrugging, “I signed on ter this voyage ’cause Baron Ferreira axed me ter, all right? An’ that’s the only reason why. If it had been anyone else — the answer would have been no.”
“… Oh,” Leona squeaked.
“An’ ye seem — ye seem like an’ all right kind o’ lass,” the Captain said, “so even if it gets me thrown inter the stocks, I’m gonna say this an’ have it said. If ye think ye’re gonna be commandin’ this ship, m’lady, ye’re mad. Barkin’ mad.”
“But –” Leona started.
“The men ain’t gonna listen ter ye,” the Captain went on, “and that’s the Lord’s honest truth. Ye’re a landlubber, a noble — an’ a woman to boot. D’ye have any idea how hard a time I’ve had findin’ a crew at all? Half o’ me best men won’t come near a ship what’s got a woman on it, never mind a woman helmin’ it!”
“It’s bad luck!” the Captain railed. “That’s what they say — that’s what they always said! An’ ye’ll never meet a bunch more superstitious than sailors! It don’t matter whether it’s really bad luck or not, so’s long as they believe ’tis!”
“But you’re the Captain!” Leona finally broke in.
“Yes, I know that,” the Captain snapped, “but –”
“That means you’re in charge!” Leona interrupted. “Sir. Honest. You — you’re the commander of the ship. Why wouldn’t you be? I don’t know a thing about helming a ship!”
“You’re in charge,” Leona hurried on, “and I’m — I don’t know. A Royal observer, we could say. I’m supposed to learn under you, and someday I’ll captain my own ship. But until I’m ready for that, you’ll be in charge.”
The Captain narrowed his eyes. “Why are ye sayin’ that? Is it jest ter get on me good side, so’s I’m tellin’ ye the right orders ter give?”
Leona scratched her head. “Because it’s true?”
“Sure, lass, sure.”
“And …” Well, she could always follow that statement up with another true one. “I don’t want to get myself and the crew killed? That wouldn’t be a great way to start Albion’s navy.”
The Captain rocked back on his heels and surveyed Leona down the bridge of his long nose. “Ye’re serious.”
“Ye’d be willin’ ter swear that — all o’ that — on the Good Book?”
“If you want.”
For the first time, Leona saw a grin spread across the Captain’s face. “Come on, lass. This calls fer a drink.” He stepped out, leading the way off the ship.
“An’ by the way,” he added as he stepped onto the dock — Leona stepped lively after him, even though the land seemed to rock and sway for a moment or two there — “all me friends are callin’ me Christian … Leona.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Christian,” Leona replied. Christian tossed her a smirk and led the way down the lane.
When they entered the pub — which was located quite conveniently across the lane from Baron Ferreira’s warehouse — Christian waved Leona to the bar and was following on her heels almost before she had a chance to look around. So, naturally, as soon as she took a seat, she had a good look around her.
It was perfect — everything she had ever imagined a real sailor’s pub to be and more. Worn, salt-eaten woods; a tang of fish in the air, oars and ships’ wheels and other sailing detritus lining the walls. The only thing missing, really, were the sailors — but it was still the middle of the day. They’d probably come in sometime in the evening … when Leona wouldn’t be around.
Well, someday or other she’d manage to be here when the sailors were here — if only by dint of becoming a sailor herself.
Christian hailed the barkeep. “I’ll be havin’ a frosty walrus. Which she,” he jerked his thumb at Leona, “won’t be havin’ if she knows what’s good fer her. So, what will be yer pleasure?”
It had been cold out there, and Leona had ridden a good couple hours to get here and would have to ride to the Ferreira manor soon. A spiced mead, warmed by the fire, would have been splendid. But … When in Reme, Leona told herself. “I’ll have an ale, please.”
She could always get her spiced mead when she got to Clarice’s.
“So, lass,” Christian started as the barmaid slid Leona’s ale to her, “if I’m gonna be in charge … what are ye gonna be?”
“Royal observer,” Leona replied. She watched the barmaid take the green bottle that was in front of Christian, shake it, and pour it into a tankard. “I’m there to learn. To get a feel for the ship, to –”
“To outrank me,” Christian interrupted, “but on ship matters, me word is final, aye?”
“Um — yes?”
“Good. Thank’ee, love,” Christian added to the barmaid as she slid the tankard to Christian. The green bottle disappeared somewhere under the bar. Meanwhile, Christian seemed to brace himself before tossing about half his tankard’s contents down his throat. “Aaah,” he breathed when it was done. Glancing at Leona, he nodded to the drink. “Comes from Bledavik, this drink does. Best thing ter warm the bones on a snowy day.” He turned the tankard in his hands, watching the light play against the liquid inside. “They say ye can always know a native of Bledavik by how he orders his frosty walrus.”
“You’re a native of Bledavik?” Leona gasped.
“Hell no,” Christian replied. He knocked back the rest of his drink — and seemingly exhaled most of it in a sputtering cough. “The natives,” he wheezed, “order doubles.”
Leona raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
“So. Royal Observer. What is it ye’ll be observin’, lass?”
“The whole operation,” Leona replied, realizing a moment too late that didn’t sound overly helpful. “I mean … I guess what I mean is that the Prince and I are still looking at possibilities. So … so I’ll be along for the ride, both to just see what there is to see, and to see how many of my principles I can put into practice.”
“Yer principles?” Christian’s eyebrow went up.
“Oh, yes! I studied navigation at Camford — and cartography, and astronomy, and –”
“Book-learnin’,” Christian scoffed. “Won’t last ye a minute out there, mark me words.”
Leona shrunk into herself. “Admiral Morrel also donated his logs from the first trip he took to Smina to the university … I got to study them …”
Christian blinked. “Did ye, now,” he whispered. “What I wouldn’t give ter see those logs.”
Leona grinned. “Well, maybe someday, Christian — once we’ve made the Albionese navy a force to be reckoned with — we can go to Camford, you and I, and we’ll look at the logs ourselves.”
“Here’s ter that!” He raised his tankard, and Leona raised hers. “But the fact remains,” he continued as soon as the tankards came down, “that ye don’t know much o’ nothin’ about sailin’.”
It was never good form to argue with the captain — even when you were on dry land. But Leona had to stand up for herself. “I know as much as I’ve been given the opportunity to learn. And I hope to learn more.”
“Then ye’d best start now. That cloak ye’re wearin’, now,” he nodded at it, “ye plannin’ on wearin’ that on the voyage?”
Leona looked down. “Um …”
“Silks an’ velvets in the salt spray?”
“I’ll get another cloak made,” Leona promised. “Wool. Or leather. Something sturdy, that won’t get ruined.”
“An’ what will ye be wearin’ under the cloak, eh?”
That, at least, she had an answer for. Leona tossed him a withering look. “I have some tunics. Family surcoats I use for training. I can get more if you don’t think that would be appropriate.”
“Ye sure ye want all the sailors starin’ at yer legs?” he replied.
“They’ll stop after I throw the first one overboard,” Leona shrugged.
“Ha! Ye think ye’ll be able ter do that, lassie? These are sailors! Some’ve ’em have been haulin’ rope an’ brawlin’ with their mates since before ye were born!”
“And I train with knights — including my father — who has been fighting other knights every bit as good as him since before I was born. It’s just a question of knowing how to use their strength against them,” Leona replied.
“Ye really believe that,” Christian replied.
“It’s worked for the du Lacs for generations.”
“Hmph.” Christian shook his head. “Well, far be it from me ter tell ye no — but know this, lass. If ye’re the one what gets tossed overboard, I ain’t comin’ in after ye.”
“Fair enough.” But Leona could see the way Christian was eying her up and down, measuring her strength with every glance. She had seen that look on enough men to know an impressed one when she saw him.
“Ye know,” Christian mused, “I must say … I were convinced, when I first got talked inter this, that this mission were gonna be a … hmm. How ter put this? Unmitigated disaster, aye, that’s how ye lot would say it.”
“And now?” Leona asked.
“It’ll still probably be a disaster,” Christian shrugged. “Most voyages are. But we should survive.”
Leona giggled. “Then I’m glad for your vote of confidence, Captain.”
He slid off his stool, and Leona followed. He stuck out his hand, and Leona took it. “An’ I,” he replied, “am glad ter be havin’ ye aboard, Lady Leona.”