Chapter One

     The gentle rocking of the fishing ship did not bother Celia. If anything, it loosened her up. The swaying brought back memories of her childhood and she adjusted her weight automatically to compensate for the back and forth motions. She was born an aristocrat of Minkerra, but instead of high tea with debutantes she traveled with her father, the esteemed Silvan Grey, while he did important business for Minkerra around the world. She had learned to swim in the deep blue waters of Ruskia, watching her father barter with heavily bearded Ruskian Oligarchs. Her screams of childish delight echoed through hallways of Eruptian royalty while her father murmuring to Kings while she played with princes. The memories made her smile. How carefree she had been! Now, she was stepping into her father’s shoes and trying to prove herself in a world she was hardly welcome in.

     Minkerra was an impressive country with a far reach, thanks very much to the work her father did with foreign nations. Celia suspected he was a spy in his early days, but as he grew older he was just a respectable diplomat. It was this respect for her father that begrudgingly led to the King granting Celia status as a diplomat when her father fell ill. This voyage was a test to see if she had his skills.

     There was no doubt in her mind that Celia would make an incredible asset to Minkerra. She was trained by the best after all. The problem was the Minkerra Official of Commerce, Lord Deanan, sent her on a mission that seemed destined to failure. She was to meet a Sheik from Ala Qitar and garner favorable trade negotiations. She, a female, was to negotiate with a Sheik who viewed women as treasure to be hoarded for pleasure. Celia’s hands clenched the railing. How would she negotiate with a man surrounded by concubines? She suspected Lord Deanan wanted her to fail, but she was a Grey. Strong, stubborn, and conniving when need be. She would have that Sheik proposing marriage by the end of this trip!

     There had been many suitors as Celia attained maturity, but her father refused them all. Celia was his only child, a pure and innocent reminder of his late wife’s beauty and charm. To see Celia with a man was to give away the only connection to his beloved Amelie that he had left. Celia didn’t mind this attachment. It wasn’t that she had no interest, but the type of wife they desired didn’t suit her dreams. She wanted to live, not be trapped in a castle birthing baby after baby. Minkerra was evolving to include more women in traditionally male roles, but was still a far cry from being welcoming of them. This chance at becoming a diplomat was everything she wanted and romance was something she simply had no time for.

     “Lady Grey.” … “Lady Grey!” An exasperated sigh broke her from her nostalgic daydreaming. “Lady Grey, will you be dining with us?”

     Celia turned to the questioning attendant. He was gangly with thinning red hair. His expression was too revealing as well, he was not even trying to hide his exasperation in front of her. Ever since she had accepted this position there had been an annoying number of attendants following her every move. Watching her. She assumed they were reporting back to Lord Deanan on her progress. She smiled, confident eyes connecting to his petulant gaze.

     “No, but thank you. I will take my meal in my cabin.” She returned to facing the sea, stiff posture only relaxing again when she heard his retreating footsteps.

     The sea was the one true place she found comfort. She cast one more look towards the comforting blue before turning to walk towards her quarters. There was work to do in preparation for the meeting with Sheik Binal.

     Celia had just turned the handle to her room when a trumpet sounded the alarm. Her stomach dropped. Part of the reason for her trip was to discuss how to handle the pirate situation between the lands. For years pirates had been looting Ala Qitar naval ships as well as foreign merchant ships. This year had been particularly bad for Minkerra merchants and 12 ships had disappeared with a few being Naval Pentekontor ships. They had assumed a fishing boat would be left alone because they rarely carried loot but the echoing bell alarm chilled Celia to the bone. There had been no word from the missing ships. No slave auctions, ransoms, or survivors.

     Celia ran to her dresser. She kept a myriad of things there, but the item she searched for was her dagger sheathed in a hair pin. She hastily tied her long hair back and secured it with the dagger. Next she grabbed her lock picks and crammed them into her boots. She had heard of some pirates locking crew in crates and sinking them. With a hasty glance around she grabbed her seal and stuffed it between her breasts. This would act as proof to secure her a ransom if possible.    

     With a deep breath she walked from her quarters to the deck. It seemed surreal. She could barely see a speck in the distance. Had the crew overreacted? Looking to the crow’s nest she realized they hadn’t. The lookout, a burly man with his four fingers clutched around a telescope was stark white. Unadulterated terror shook him as he continued to beat the alarm with his right hand. She ran to the captain.

     “Captain! Is there a way to outrun them? They may just be checking us out. We are not in a merchant vessel so there’s a chance they will pass us by.”

     He gave her a look as if she’d grown three new heads. “Lassie, this is not a lookout vessel.. this is him. Once you see him, you will see nothin’ else again.”

     Celia scoffed. “Well not with that attitude!! Turn us toward the East into the wind. It doesn’t make sense to keep course now. Let’s focus on losing them. Throw out any cargo weighing us down. We can fish for food. Did I stutter?! Do as I say!!!”

     The Captain blinked only once before bellowing out her orders, “YOU HEARD THE LADY! MOVE!”

     It seemed to be working. Within hours the black sails were almost invisible. Only the keenest eyes could see the ship in the distance and it seemed they were turning away.

     Celia smirked. ‘Pirates, take your last look! I will stamp you out with this trip, just watch me.’

     Darkness was approaching now but she didn’t want to give up the tailwinds. “Captain, no matter what, keep us at full speed. It’s a cloudy night so the moon will give us scant light. I don’t want to be surprised at dawn.”

     His tone had changed to a begrudging respect, “Yes m’Lady. I didn’t think a woman on board was a blessing until today!”

     His toothless grin was charming and Celia ached for her father. “Thank you for listening. I will retire now. Send someone if I am needed.” With a nod Celia retreated to her rooms.

     How was she supposed to sleep? The moon was hidden and they had forbidden any lamps to be lit. It was going to be a restless night. Celia slid into bed, her clothes bunching uncomfortably under her. She dared not remove them, she wanted to be vigilant and not waste any time dressing in case of emergency. She was also rebelling against the frilly nightgowns she had found packed for her. Wearing dresses on board a dirty fishing boat was pointless. Instead she wore trousers she’d cut at the calf and a sleeveless long, tunic cinched at her waist with spare rope she’d found. Sometimes she kept a dagger tucked into the belt but it seemed to offend the attendants so she’d removed it after one too comments made her want to use it.

     Celia slid her dagger pin from her hair and laid it next to her pillow. Her hair fell to her waist and pooled around her. Though she dreamt of the days she could cut her hair and pretend to be a man during these negotiations, she knew the reality of her body would betray her. Large breasts and hips refused to stop growing and before she knew it, Celia had grown into quite a voluptuous woman. She longed for the lean willowy bodies of the courtesans and wives she often met but that’s why she was a diplomat and not some Lord’s wife. She was different in nearly every way from those Queens. Her hair she kept long for her father, it reminded him of her mother’s hair. She fingered through it, missing home as she fitfully drifted to sleep.

     Heat. She was hot. Celia groaned and fidgeted to remove her jacket. She opened her eyes and was surprised at the glow around her. Had she left a lamp burning? How wasteful! She turned to the windows that usually showed the blue sea but saw only black. It was still night. No, was it morning? Billowing black smoke streamed from the deck partially obscuring her view of a towering ship pulling along their port side.

     Celia knew she was going to die someday, but today was not it! She grabbed her favorite weapon, a glaive from her time in the Eastern lands. The long staff gave her short arms more reach and the curved blade could slice through anything. She ran to her door but the doorknob had melted. Celia was beginning to panic, but there was a large window she could fit through so she threw her chair through it. Bodies burnt beyond recognition floated in the waters below. Vomit spewed onto the floor as fear began to take over her thoughts. She’d heard no screams. No horn signaling an attack. What was happening? She continued hacking the remaining glass out of the window. The fire made the tinkling glass look like diamonds as it fell and she saw a figure on the pirate ship take notice. With a hurried motion she began opening the hole and trying to squeeze herself through it. There was enough wreckage in the water where she could float until another ship came through… maybe? Anything besides burning to death on this ship!

***

     Merrick was doing what he often did, raiding merchant ships who dared to sail his seas. He was Captain of these seas, and his reputation for destruction was well earned. This ship had caught his eye because it was a fishing boat without any gear to fish these waters. It was so obviously a disguise that he had to know what they were hiding. When they tried to outrun him, he knew they had to be smuggling slaves or intel. Merrick let them get further away as if he was turning but instead sped towards them in the darkness. They shot the guards with arrows first, then set fire to the deck. It was over before it began.  

     At first, Merrick and his brother Avery thought this might be a slave ship and avoided setting fire where the storage would be. It turned out they had hardly anyone on board. This meant they were transporting someone, or something, of importance. He never dreamed it would be a woman, yet he knew it was her when he saw her determined swings with that massive glaive. She was a woman on a mission, and Merrick knew she was the prize on this ship. She mesmerized him. Merrick nudged Avery with his elbow. “Avery… look at her. Do you see her, brother?! She is someone important. I think we need to investigate what she knows.”

     Avery rolled his eyes. “Brother drool is pooling by your feet. Are you sure her body isn’t what you want investigated?” He sigh. “Get her if you want, I doubt a woman will tell you anything. She dies if she causes trouble.” His flat tone belied the fact that while Avery was extremely capable in combat, he despised killing women or children. Unfortunately for their targets, he despised Minkerra more. Still, there was something about her. He had made up his mind.

     “See you in a bit!” He shot his grappling hook across the littered sea below to bury into the panels above her window and zipped across. Avery’s stern gaze bore into his back but he didn’t care. Avery was his younger brother, but Merrick was the Captain and he had final say in what they took from these ships. There was nothing he wanted more than this squirming woman trying to hack herself an escape route.  

***

     A glimpse of metal whirred past Celia’s head as she turned to see harpoons with lines being shot at the burning ship. A man began skimming the line towards her. She waited until he had crossed midway before severing the line in one slice with her glaive. He slammed against his ship with a loud grunt as his shipmates dragged him up. She turned to look for something that would float in the water and provide her something to hang onto. Her eyes were too clouded with soot to find something once she jumped. She was running out of time!

     A strong arm wrapped around her soft belly pulling her close. “I’d love to hear you scream but for now, can you swim princess?” She sucked in her stomach. How dare this man!

     “No.” No need to reveal anything that could be useful later. If they thought she couldn’t swim, then maybe they’d let her have more space. If she lived.

     “What is your name, Princess?” His breath was warm and she swore she felt his lips graze her ear. She wanted to vomit again.  

     She began to struggle. “Unhand me! It’s rude to touch a woman without her consent. I am not a toy.” The rage in her words was not surprising, considering the circumstances, but the confidence in her tone was.

***

     Merrick was intrigued. “Oh, so sorry,” he squeezed her tighter to him, “I guess I’ll take you with me as an apology. I wasn’t looking for a toy but you make it sound so alluring.” He ripped her glaive from her and tossed it to the sea. “If you do something to annoy me while we cross ships, I will happily bring you to the deck and watch you burn alive. Do you understand me? You can burn alive or live. What will it be … princess?” He tied a rope to her waist and attached it to his return line. They would pull her across. He bound her hands and feet so she couldn’t get too creative and slip away on the journey. She flinched away from him, but didn’t fight him.

     The muffled screams from above deck worked in his favor. He took her silence as acceptance of the terms and gave the signal to be pulled back across. His harpoon had landed through the smoke above her window when her back was turned. Merrick had been impressed she could think through the fear he’d seen in her eyes. He was further surprised when he saw the papers on her desk. While she traveled to his ship he pocketed the maps and documents on her makeshift desk. This woman was more than she seemed. Interesting.

     Hands groped Celia everywhere as they pulled her over the deck. “Mmm, soft.” “Me first!!” A whip cracked and they dropped her unceremoniously to the deck.

     “Ow! You idiots!!” She was outraged but they paid her no mind.

     The person with the whip was eyeing them all carefully. “The Captain has plans. Put her in his cabin and do not harm her. If a single hair is ripped from her head, your head will be ripped from your body.  Is that… clear?” He took his time looking every man in the eye. It was clear.

     Was now her chance to escape? She swung her head around wildly looking for something to use in an escape plan.

     “Young lady please stop pretending that you have somewhere you can go. Walk with these ‘gentleman’ quietly or I’m sending you back to your burning pile of scrapwood. Yes?”

     This was obviously the second in command. He was tall, tanned, and looked like the younger brother of the Captain who had captured her. His eyes were black and cold. He was beautiful but scared her. Celia heard snickers but tears blinded her vision.

     “Awww she’s cryin—“

     Her voice was steady “I am not crying, I am mourning the loss of valiant men with families who will now starve because they have nobody to provide for them. I am not a helpless woman to be laughed at, I am a diplomat. Now take me to my room and bring me water. I am thirsty and you have already begun to bore me.”

     Merrick laughed. He’d landed just to hear the end of her speech. “Oy, Avery! I’ve found us a live one, right?”

     He dipped his head to see his prisoner more clearly. She was plump, clearly having lived a life of luxury by her words. Maybe royalty out for a little adventure? The thought made him want to throw her overboard. But first he would have fun breaking her.

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