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Warhost of Vastmark
Volume 3 of the Wars of Light and Shadow
Book 2 of Arc II: Ships of Merior
Excerpt from Chapter IV
Third Infamy

The capstan's pawls thumped as the Arrow was warped alongside her pirate captor. Talith heard the cheerful calls of crewmen, vying with each other in colorful, coarse phrases as a halyard was rigged through a block on a yard arm to arrange the offloading of spoils. Someone called orders to cast loose the bow lines.

To all appearance, the pirates were leaving.

Talith eased a sigh past her painfully constricted throat. Combed over by chills as the influx of fresh air fingered her crimped hair and dewed skin, she listened as the commotion above decks subsided. Soon nothing met her tense and waiting stillness but the slap of the waves against the hull, and the cranky, abandoned squeal as the opened locker door flopped on its hinges in time to the Arrow's lugubrious wallow. No invaders seemed in evidence. Thin through the creak of timbers and the flap of freed canvas, she could hear the sorry moans of the captain, left bound and gagged in his quarters.

The miracle seemed possible, through one searcher's negligence, that the Master of Shadow had withdrawn from his prize with the princess's cranny overlooked.

Threshed by a wave of sudden weakness, then by impatient struggles from the maid crushed breathless at her back, Talith wrestled to stay her impatience. She held until her last, savaged nerve gave way, and the hideous need to escape the stuffy locker became too overpowering to deny. She struck her arms through rank cloth and stumbled forward in blind instinct to claw free of confinement.

A courteous touch grasped her elbow and spared her a tripping sprawl onto her knees. "I'm overjoyed, Lady Talith," said a pleased, superb voice. "Welcome to the company of your closest kinsman by marriage."

Snapped erect by hot pride, eyes lambent with anger, Talith confronted the self-contained prince she recalled much too clearly from the tumultuous events that surrounded a failed coronation.

"You!" She jerked from his touch. "Sorcerer! Defiler! How many spells did you invoke to discover my presence on board?"

"My dear!" Arithon said in the acid-wiped sarcasm he wore like an armor of enamel; then he laughed. "Why trifle with sorcery? Arrow's partridge of a captain would scarcely sport trunks of silk dresses. Profits from tallow were never so grand that merchant's mates should toss lady's bracelets on the floor. Nor do they wear scent like attar of roses." This said, he tucked into her stiffened fingers the snagged links of gold the latch pin had torn from her wrist.

"This ship flies the colors of Cheivalt registry," Talith flared. "King Eldir's peace has been broken."

"Quite the contrary." Arithon s'Ffalenn drew her on in exquisite formality toward the open companionway. As checkered light from the hatch grating feathered across her flushed cheeks, he paused through a second of admiration. She had always been stunning, the more so now, with her fine hair tousled as though she had just arisen from tempestuous sport in a love nest. "The King of Havish's subjects are unharmed. This brig and her cargo are untouched. Your jewels were enough to satisfy us all, and your company I've claimed for myself." He cast a smiling glance behind as the oilskins rustled in the locker. "Tell your handmaid to come out. Nobody's planning to abandon her."

Talith narrowed her lashes in a glare to raise frost on hot iron. While her cowering servant emerged, softly sobbing, the princess bent in the douce, female pretense of smoothing down her rucked skirts. Mazed reflections sparked off a curved quillon. Her captor still wore the black sword she recalled from Etarra, paired now with a steel handled dagger slung at an angle by his hip. Before she could snatch to seize either weapon, Arithon's hold tightened over her wrist with a force to grind the marrow from her bones.

"Manners," he admonished through her gasp. "King Eldir's vassals are blissfully unwounded and no one forced you from hiding. I'd much rather keep things civil. Bloodshed at this point would upset all the niceties."

"You murdered the brig's helmsman!" Talith retorted.

Arithon smiled. "Come and see." He flourished an insolent bow, then handed her smartly through the passage.

Her pink-nosed, sniffling handmaid trailed after. The pirate prince allowed both women to pass into the open ahead of him. The courtesy was deliberate, as full sight of the deck brought Talith to a wrenching stop and shocked her distraught servant to screams.

Beneath the Arrow's abandoned wheel lay the victim of that fatal, first crossbow bolt. Not one of the brig's indifferent seamen after all, but the untried young captain from Avenor that Princess Talith had persuaded to lead her escort. In an uncontrolled sprawl that seemed all boyish knuckles, he rested on his back. His chin was tipped to the sky. The chest which had no tan, that no fool could mistake for a sailhand's, forever stilled in its blood from the quarrel which had severed his life untimely.

The princess spun to confront her hysterical handmaid. "Be quiet!" She struck the flighty woman on the cheek to stop the sobbing. Regal despite her extreme pallor, her every movement scored in light by the dazzle of gold thread embroidery, the princess went on to upbraid the Master of Shadow in stinging fury. "What you have done is an outrage! I see no reason and no right for you to slaughter my guard captain outright."

The dangerous, deep glitter to Arithon's eyes acquired a glint like a forge spark. "Your captain at arms received his due, madam. You should have been proud. He refused to stand down with his fellows. Certainly my bolt was an easier death than the punishment your prince would mete out to an officer who allowed you to place yourself at risk."

Before her fired, speechless rage could erupt, he cut back in withering irony. "What? No scathing defense of the vaunted s'Ilessid justice? Should I write his Grace a letter absolving your other guardsmen of incompetence? Rusty weapons can't defend. Warped shafts in the hands of this brig's sorry archers are no use at all against shadow." His voice whetted to a bard's stabbing satire, he added, "Your young idiot of a captain got what he deserved, but the fault lies with you, Princess, for your choice of a ship with slack discipline and ridiculously inadequate defenses! With the rumor of your passage all over the south reaches, you're much more than lucky it's my hospitality you'll come to suffer for your folly."

Taut in every tendon, Talith felt her cheeks flame pink. No male alive ever dealt her such a verbal public thrashing. The novelty made her strike out to slap for sheer insolence. Arithon could have ducked the blow with ease. He chose not to; her hand cracked his cheek and left stinging imprint, and his cold-cast expression never changed. Clad in a sailor's bleached cottons, his untrimmed hair tied back with a loop of leather thong, Arithon s'Ffalenn had never looked more the product of his heritage as the mountebank by-blow of a sea raider.

The trick was galling, that for one disjointed second, Talith thought she saw something more. Almost, she believed his barbaric sally was meted out against her as chastisement, as if he cared whether she took harm from ruffians for her rash impulse to rejoin her husband's company.

Then her hauteur came back like poured frost as she recalled just who this man was; what power he strove to gain in his bid to steal her as hostage. "You won't get away with this."

"Quite the contrary." The nasty lilt of hilarity had returned. Arithon grasped her elbow again, his touch unnerving for its gentleness through the sheathing silk of her sleeve. He drew her past the corpse by the wheel, across sun-striped planking, his step cat sure against the rise of the swell. A board had been laid beneath the Arrow's spooled rail to span the open slice of water to his brigantine. Two bronzed, grinning seamen knelt to steady each end.

Talith surveyed the uncertain bridge, then the heaving blue well that slopped and spat spray from the pinched off motion of the wavecrests.

Before trepidation could weaken her pride, Arithon bent, caught her up behind shoulders and knees, and lofted her into his arms. They were matched in height and bone. The fact her trimmed skirt and petticoats draped a choking froth about his knees had small impact on his balance. While Talith stiffened, then thrashed, he slung his thigh across the rail, perched to swing his other leg clear, then straightened, poised with her bundled over air. Unwilling to risk a wetting, Talith let him bear her, though she cursed like a sailor against his neck while he footed his way across to his vessel. He set her down as his prize on the deck, where her chests of belongings sat waiting.

She found herself greeted by a thunderous cheer from his crewmen.

Regal in arrogance, from the looped snags of hair unreeled like gold wire in the breeze, to her high cheekbones and milk pale profile, to the tigerish, black-lashed eyes that no man could meet and not ache to possess, the princess snatched her skirts against the slap of the wind. She presented the leering men the stiff line of her back, while her shrieking maid was bundled across the gap by a sailhand and deposited unharmed beside her.

Despite every warning, the brigantine's seamen slacked off their duties to gawk at Lysaer's royal wife.

Arithon met their lapse with invective that sent men aloft like scalded rats. Others jumped at orders to fetch Talith's belongings to a cabin, then to retire back to the brig and cut one of the Arrow's hands loose. In seamless, brisk discipline, the last lines that warped the brigantine to her quarry were cast off.

Arithon entrusted Khetienn in the care of his first mate to make sail and bear straight offshore.

"You're harsh with your crewmen," Talith said as the plank was stowed away by a sailor still scarlet from his captain's raking rebuke.

Arithon turned his attention from the men on the yard arms and regarded her. Clear through the rattle of the main sheet's slackened blocks, he said, "I do no less than I must."

His match for cool distance, Talith showed her contempt. "Then what motive prompts my abduction, necessity or whim?"

Charcoal-dark eyebrows turned up, and a curl of amusement flicked his lips. No word did he say, but his study of her turned intent.

Talith stood firm. Beauty was her weapon, used to cut or cajole or emasculate. She had handled randy suitors enough to welcome the edge. But this man's gaze traced her face for too long. She colored; and his eyes raked down into detailed regard of her pearl crusted neckline, jerked now to the heave of her breath. His study lingered over her fine shoulders, her breasts, her gold cinctured waist, then traveled lower, where the arrowed folds of her airy silk skirts lay pressed to her thighs by the shameless play of the wind.

On a paper-thin edge of courtesy, Arithon struck. "My motive is scarcely yours to question, is it?" He fingered a strand of her taffy-gold hair and tucked it behind a loosened pin. "The shame won't be mine, dear lady. You disobeyed your husband's instructions for your safety. Now you've no choice at all but to answer the ugly score."

"You've no born right!" Talith stiffened, unable to resist his baiting innuendo. His eyes mocked her, drove her to a thoughtless, defensive step back. "You dare not."

"Dare not do what? Touch you? Who'll stop me? Certainly not your gullible young guardsmen." Arithon caught her arm and swept her across the deck, through the jarring smells of tar and new varnish, and the stinging clean scent of the sea. He added, thoughtful, "Aren't you going to claim the courtesy of kinship?"

Talith stepped beside him, her regard stony topaz with bored scorn. "Do I look to be pleading you for mercy?"

"Magnificent as that sounds, it won't be necessary," Arithon said in that maddening friendliness that defied all opening for riposte. "You've merely been foolish. My need is for gold. To that end, you're nothing but a tool offered readily to my hand. Lysaer shall have you back, scolding and virtuous, but the ransom he shall pay for my forbearance will be to the coin weight what you're worth."

Stabbed through by outrage, astonished that his callous, quick reduction of her allure to a flat price in bullion should sting her breathless, Talith ground her jaw, beyond speech. She scarcely heard, through her wrath, the instructions Arithon delivered to the clever little steward who served him. Nor did she find words as she was installed in lavish comfort in the nicer of the Khetienn's two stern cabins.

Aware from the second the door shut behind her that the quarters were Arithon's own, and no refuge at all from the exacting mind left above decks, Talith snatched in a harrowed breath.

However hard she searched for some trait to revile, for some noisome proof of dire charms and dark sorceries, her effort was stymied by order. The tiny cabin was as bare of frivolous ornament as the man. The furnishings were selected for functional efficiency, in mirror image a forceful statement of a commander's expectations of performance from his crew and his ship. No trace could be found of carelessness in the rolled charts, the folded blankets, or the firmly inked lines of the log book braced on the ledge by the locker employed for a desk.

Talith slammed the ship's record shut in savage irritation. A sparkle of silver hooked her glance in the gloom: the lined, taut strings of the Masterbard's lyranthe, lashed with soft ties to its pegs in a glass-fronted cabinet.

That one silent testimony to the art behind the pirate made the pain of her predicament intolerable.

"Damn your black heart to Sithaer!" she cursed her absent captor. For his subtleties were deep, and ever cruel. Talith knew he would apply every leverage her straits could inflict upon Lysaer. Love and hurt cracked her last veneer of poise. The princess hid her face, the unwanted tears she had held through the worst threading helplessly down her proud cheeks.

When she blinked and raised her eyes, she found her handmaid just arrived and staring in helpless, dumb misery. Laid open by the Shadow Master's reprimand, scared to anguish for the strain set against her new marriage, this last, ignominious breakdown grazed Talith's nerves like flung acid.

"Oh, get you gone!" she cried in snapped temper.

The maid started, gave a cry, then hesitated, uncertain where else she should go.

"Take your foolish face and get out of my presence!" Talith shouted. "I'll not have you underfoot like some starving, stupid lapdog. Leave me alone, and at once!"

The handmaid only crumpled to her knees and dissolved into deep, injured sobs.

That moment, Lady Talith, Princess of Avenor, held the traitorous sharp wish that her own servants would respond to her orders with the fearful efficiency just witnessed on Arithon's quarterdeck.

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