“Look, I’m just trying to find somebody,” said Matilda, edging away from the side of the boat. “To talk to them, just to talk to them, not to stab them.”
“Then why’s your hand on your knife hilt?” asked Captain Swale.
Matilda glanced down, then let go of the knife. “Habit,” she said.
The captain scowled.
“No, no, I can keep from stabbing.” Matilda swallowed. “I’ll give up my knife.”
The pirates gasped.
“Just for the trip,” said Matilda. “You can keep it.”
The captain didn’t look convinced.
“And I’ll pay you twice the regular rate for the passage. Three times the regular rate. Four times?”
The captain thought about it, then finally nodded and stepped back.
“Put your knife down and kick it over,” she told Matilda.
Matilda pulled her favorite knife from its scabbard and gently lowered it to the planks.
“Now the sword on your back,” said the captain.
Matilda grumbled, but pulled the sword out of its back sheath.
“And the knives in your boots,” said the captain.
By the time time Matilda has divested herself of all arms, there was a pile of weapons at her feet.
“Take it all to the ship safe,” Captain Swale ordered one of her men.
“I’ll get it back when we get to Port Royal?” asked Matilda.
“No,” said the Captain. “The governor can keep your weapons safe for you while you’re there. Now, the money.”
Matilda grumbled, but paid.
“And you’ll need to stay in your cabin for the whole trip,” said Captain Swale. “I don’t want you to accidentally choke someone to death, or throw them overboard, or gouge out their eyes.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Matilda. But then she thought back to her last card game. “Oh, yeah, I would do that.”
“Take her to the brig,” said the captain. “What, you thought I was just going to take your word for it that you’d behave?” Swale shook her head. “I’m not a fool.”
Matilda looked around at the armed pirates who encircled her. It would be fun to take them all on, she thought. But then she’d never get to Port Royal. None of the regular merchant ships would go there. She’d already checked.
“Fine,” she finally said. “I’ll stay in the brig.”
The pirates kept their distance from her as they led her down to one of the lower decks.
“It’s not too bad in here,” said Iron Fists. “It’s actually a decent cabin. You get your privacy, three meals a day, and all the reading material you could want.” He stepped inside the cabin, folded down a table, and put a lantern down on it. Then he pointed to a chest on the floor under the bunk. “Spare blankets and pillows are in there.”
The door locked shut behind her and Matilda looked around. There were two bunks in the room, but the other one was folded up against the wall. There were shelves on the walls, with strips of wood across them to keep the books from flying off in turbulent waters. She peered at the titles.
“Kingdom of Pirate Hearts.” “Sin and Sea Serpents.” “Kiss of the Pirate King.” “Love in the Time of Pirates.” The books had cheap paper covers with woodcut illustrations of naked male chests.
Matilda was deep into “Whips and Chains on the High Seas” when a knock came at the door.
“It’s me, Wanda. You decent?” Without waiting for a reply, Wanda opened the little window set into the top of the door and peered in. “How are you doing in there?”
“I’m fine,” said Matilda. “Just catching up on my reading.”
“Sorry about that,” said Wanda.
“And how are they treating you?”
“I’m good.” Wanda’s face disappeared for a second. “I think we’re clear. Do you want me to try to get you out?”
Matilda thought about it for a second. “Nah, don’t bother. As long as we’re headed in the right direction, I might as well stay down here. Have you learned anything?”
“Iron Fists cheats at cards,” said Wanda. “Taft and Marston have some kind of thing going on. Captain Swale likes having her feet rubbed.”
“Any actionable intelligence?”
“The feet thing could come in useful,” said Wanda. “But other than that… not yet.”
“Well, keep me posted,” Matilda said. She picked up the book again. Where page was she on?
“Wait,” said Wanda. “I actually came down here for a reason. She put her hand through the opening in the door and pointed at the shelf. “The boys wanted me to grab a couple of the books for them.”
Matilda put down “Whips and Chains on the High Seas” and stood up. “Which ones?”
“‘The Last Sexy Pirate,'” said Wanda. “And ‘How to Plunder a Pirate’s Heart.’ I guess they use the brig as the library when nobody’s in it.”
Wanda left and Iron Fists stopped by, looking for a book, and stopped to chat about the battle at the bridge over the river Krim and happily discussed disemboweling techniques until Taft and Marston stopped by. They all crowded into her cabin with her and they played cards and gossiped until Marston had to go to his shift. And another pirate took his place, bringing a bottle of grog with him that he passed around. “Heard there was an illegal card game down here,” he said. “Those are the best kinds.”
“So cards are illegal on this ship?” Matilda asked. “Why? You’re pirates.”
“No, that’s just the thing,” said Iron Fists. “We can play cards all we want. On other ships, if you’re on shift and there’s nothing for you to do, you swab the decks or something, so you have to play in secret, where the captain or first mate can’t see you. But here, Captain Swale doesn’t care much. So it takes all the joy out of it.”
Hale peered out into the hallway, then ducked back into the brig. “We’re not supposed to be in here,” he whispered. “You could overpower us and take over the ship.”
“Nah,” said Matilda. “I don’t know how to sail, and I don’t know where we’re going. You boys are safe.”
“I think all three of us could take you,” said Hale.
“Don’t tempt me,” said Matilda. “I said I don’t know how to sail. Maybe next time you guys are in Krim City we’ll have a little throw down.”
“I’m looking forward to that,” said Hale. “Prepare to be disemboweled!”
“No, you prepare to be disemboweled,” said Matilda.
“Not if I disembowel all of yous first,” said other pirate, and they all laughed and laughed.
By the time the Barnacle arrived at Port Royal a day later, Matilda had made a substantial dent in the ship’s book collection and had picked up a couple of tips she planned to try out the next time she was in a romantic situation and had access to an astrolabe and a cavalry hat.
Captain Swale, Wanda, Iron Fists and a couple of other pirates disembarked along with Matilda and a crate full of her weapons.
The pirates turned over the crate to the port’s customs officer, who gave Matilda a receipt for the property. He also required her to pay a good conduct bond before setting foot on land, which took nearly all of the money she had left.
“You’ll get the money and weapons back once you leave,” he said. “As long as you don’t break the rules.”
There was a sign hanging on the wall of his office that listed the chief prohibitions, which included murder, assault, rape, unlawful imprisonment, theft of property, cheating at cards and spitting on the sidewalks.
Matilda didn’t plan to stick around any longer than she had to.
“There are pamphlets by the door with a full list of rules and regulations,” said the customs officer. “I suggest that you pick one up and memorize it if you want to get any of your bond back.”
Matilda ignored the pamphlets, but did pick up a few tourist brochures, including a guide to Port Royal taverns and gambling dens.
Captain Swale had her own business with the customs officer to conduct, but it was finished before Matilda had looked through all the pamphlets. The captain nodded briefly to her as she walked past, then left the customs office.
Wanda stopped next to Matilda. “I know I said I was going to help you look for the guns and for those rich people who got kidnapped,” she said in a low voice. “But, well, Halley and I have kind of hit it off. I have to see if this leads somewhere. You know what I mean?” She glanced at the door. “She could be the one.”
Matilda turned away from the brochures. “You sure it’s not just the romance of the high seas?”
“I don’t know,” said Wanda. “Maybe. Or maybe the pirate life is calling to me. Anyway, we’re heading down to the market. I’ll keep an eye out. If I hear of anything, I’ll find you and let you know.” She paused. “Where are you going to be?”
Matilda held up a brochure titled “Cheap Rooms and Lodgings of Port Royal” and leafed through it. “Probably the Soiled Swan,” she said. “It only has one coin next to its name.” She flipped back to the map on the first page. “And it’s near several gambling dens.”
“Thanks.” Unexpectedly, Wanda leaned forward and gave Matilda a hug. “Good luck with your search.”
Matilda stepped back and patted Wanda on the shoulder. “And you,” she said. “Good luck with your… you know, romance and all that.”
Wanda left the customs office and hurried after the pirates. As the door swung shut, Matilda turned back to the tourism brochures. Gambling dens. Historical landmarks. Piracy museum. Guided walking tours. She picked up one of each. She felt naked without all of her weapons. If she had to, she could roll up on the brochures and stab someone in the eye.
She glanced at the stack of pamphlets titled “Port Royal Rules and Regulations,” paused, then picked one up and looked for the section about unlawful imprisonment.
She walked back to the customs officer’s desk. “I’ve got a question about imprisonment,” she said.
“What if I already have a prisoner? Say I kidnapped somebody and am holding them for ransom?”
The customs officer held up a finger. “Hold on,” he said. “I’ve got a rate sheet somewhere.” He rummaged through the papers on his desk and finally held one up. “Here it is. How many prisoners are we talking about?”
“So prisoners are allowed?” she asked.
“Well, we don’t like to use the word prisoner,” said the customs officer. “We prefer to call them guests of the port. There’s a small fee that you would pay when you arrive. There’s a discount if you have more than ten. Then, depending on the size of the ransom you plan to collect, you can choose from several wonderful facilities. The Bearded Dragon is an excellent choice if you’re on a more modest budget. If you’re expecting a more handsome ransom, may I suggest the Golden Grotto Inn? I would also recommend the guided historic walking tour, and, after your guests have worked up an appetite, take in a meal at the Laughing Squid.”
“What if the… uh… guests… try to run away?” said Matilda.
“Run away? I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” said the customs officer.
Maybe the prisoners were being held on the pirate ship that captured them, Matilda thought, walking out onto the docks. She breathed in the salty air. Freedom felt good.
She looked around. Several ships flying pirate flags were tied up at their berths. The prisoners could be on any of those. She’d have to sneak in, once she got her hands on some steel, and free them. Once she found out where they were. Well, one thing she was sure of. Everybody liked to drink. She’d find loose-tongued pirates in the taverns, and someone somewhere would let it slip that they had Royal Season captives on board.
Then one ship in particular caught her eye. She’d seen it docked in Krim City just before she left. It was a merchant ship.
She approached it just as its captain, Rikke Markussen, was disembarking.
“I thought you didn’t know where Port Royal was and had never been here?” Matilda said.
The captain backed away from her and chuckled nervously. “You must have me confused with someone else.”
“No, I just saw you,” Matilda said. “You said you’d never heard of Port Royal.”
“I must have misheard you,” said the merchant captain. “Anyway, this isn’t Port Royal. It’s … Port Rollins.”
Matilda pointed back at the customs office, where a big wooden sign proclaimed, “Welcome to Port Royal.”
“Oh, my goodness me,” said Captain Markussen. “I must have gone off track and came here by mistake.”
Matilda glanced up at the ship, where sailors were setting up a hoist and opening the cargo hatch. “You’re getting ready to unload freight,” she said.
“Right, thanks for reminding me. I need to talk to the customs agent. Got to rush.” As the captain brushed past her, Matilda reached for the knife that she no longer had. She briefly considered trying to stab the captain with a brochure.
“You lied to me,” she called after the captain. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
The captain paused and glanced back at Matilda, then sped up her pace.
“I can’t wait to get back to civilization,” Matilda grumbled, then checked the brochure and stomped off towards the nearest tavern. “I’ll kill everybody.”