Chapter Forty-One

Of Mermaids and Monsters

Her first kiss had been at fourteen, not long after her breasts had begun to swell to womanly roundness under the bodices of her gowns and the lords of the court (both unmarried and not) started to watch her much more closely when she entered the Great Hall behind her parents or took the floor to dance with her father at a ball. He was a knight, bold and boastful, the first who'd asked for her token to carry with him to the annual jousting tournament for luck instead of her mother's. Three years her senior, he was tall and handsome and when he'd bent down and his lips had brushed hers Emma had felt her heart beat faster under the laces of her new corset and the flutter of a thousand butterfly wings taking flight in her stomach. That night she'd watched the stars from her balcony for hours, her mouth still tingling from his kiss and her head full of dreams. A horse with a gleaming chestnut coat and polished armour shining bright in the sun...a red rose tossed to the victor from the royal box in front of a cheering crowd….walking down the aisle on her father's arm in a white gown with diamonds in her hair and the bells ringing throughout the entire kingdom in celebration.

She'd thought she was in love, that a few chivalrous words and a single, stolen afternoon alone together in the gardens was enough to be certain. But a lace handkerchief carefully scented with perfume filched from her mother's vanity wasn't enough to win a joust and her bold knight had left the field empty-handed, sullen, and withdrawn when she'd sought him out that night after the feast and tried to comfort him as best she could. They'd kissed again in the shadows, with the music and the laughter from the revels fading away as her arms had slid around his neck and he'd pressed her into the wall behind them, the cold stone somewhat rough on her back but she hadn't cared, not when her heart was full and her body was aflame in new, unfamiliar ways. He'd left her that night with a whispered promise that she believed, just as she believed that her father really was the most charming prince in the land and her mother truly was the fairest of them all.

Two months later he married a girl from the village below the castle instead, a blacksmith's daughter with coal-dark eyes and a modest dowry of horseshoes and wagon wheels, whose belly was already round and swollen under the loose folds of her simple wedding dress. Emma had been young then, young and still innocent in many ways but not so naive that she hadn't already known that not everyone was like her parents, True Love with eyes for no one but each other even after so many years of marriage. The royal court was not without scandals about lords who were seen entering bedchambers not their own under cover of night and ladies who disappeared into darkened corners with handsome footmen during balls and masques while their husbands were otherwise occupied. She'd thought the young knight was noble, like her father, that his words were as true as the love he professed, but as she watched the wedding procession wind its way through the village to the church from behind the curtains of a plain carriage the butterflies turned to bile in her stomach as she realized he must have already bedded the blacksmith's daughter and got the girl with child long before he'd bowed to Emma like a gentlemen in the gardens and made such grand, sweeping promises about victory and marriage, flattering her vanity with his empty compliments about her beauty and grace. Maybe he had even meant what he said, or thought he did, they hadn't been lies exactly, but neither were they the truth. After the church bells had begun to ring she'd ordered the driver to return her to the castle before the newly wedded couple could emerge to a shower of flower petals and well wishes from the gathered villagers, hurrying to shut herself up alone in her chambers and telling no one of what had happened. She was too hurt and humiliated to seek solace from anyone and fearful of her heartbreak becoming the newest fodder for the entire court to gossip about behind her back. It was bad enough that rumours sprang like mushrooms whenever she smiled at a duke's unmarried son during a banquet or was seen talking to one of the kitchen boys sharpening knives in the courtyard, she couldn't bear the thought of the pitying looks and extravagant sympathy that would follow her for weeks if her secret was discovered. It had seemed so romantic to hide his courtship until he'd won a joust and could be presented to her parents as a champion, now she just felt like a fool. Her pillow had dried her tears at night instead of her mother or Red as she bore the sting of his betrayal alone, feeling it as a physical ache in her chest that seemed to burn while the rest of her was so, so cold.

Soft hair tickled the inside of her thighs like butterfly wings while callused palms fanned over her hips, large, and warm and gentle, but holding her firm in place. Killian was kneeling next to the bed, his head buried between her bare legs and his clever mouth pressed right to the aching flesh there that throbbed to the beat of her heart.

"There's a love, all pink and wet for me. No one else, Emma. Only me."

Something in his voice made her shiver despite the heat that flooded through her, a hint of command in his tone even though he was the one on his knees paying her this homage. She obeyed his muffled order to open her thighs wider even as she pressed on the back of his head, urging him back down to where she needed him so badly and lifting her hips to meet him halfway. He knew what she wanted and he didn't deny her, lips suddenly closing around the swollen nub with a force that sent crashing waves of pleasure right down to her toes, her eyes closing helplessly against the onslaught of sensation and her grip tightening in his hair.

It was dark in the cabin and she could tell they were still aloft, there was no rocking from the sea underneath where she lay on the bunk or lap of the water against the outside of the ship. After he'd carried her to bed the evening before she'd managed a bit of dreamless sleep for an hour or two, drifting off in his arms with her head on his shoulder and his hand stroking her hair. Killian hadn't undressed and she knew he couldn't stay the whole night, not with the Jolly flying through the clouds over the ocean thanks to the magic of the fairy dust and a crew that would look to their captain to guide them on the strange voyage back. She'd sensed the moment he was gone, the creak of his boots on the planks reaching her even in slumber as he went back up on deck and the faint calls from the men when he confirmed their heading. Back to the Enchanted Forest, back home to the land where bold knights fought to wear her token and jousted to win her favour.

A kiss as soft as velvet was placed against her sensitive skin, and then another, letting her catch her breath for a moment before it turned hard and demanding again. It was bolder and more intimate than she could have ever dreamed of at fourteen, to lie naked and flushed in a man's bed with her lover on his knees before her, an unspoken promise in each flick and drag of his tongue as he searched out every last spot that made her gasp and tremble and only want more.

She'd woken fully after he left, the narrow bed far too large and empty without him. Leaving the shelter of the fairies' island for Regina's domain was daunting, to say the least, and Emma felt like a pawn on the chessboard, moving from queen to queen across vast squares made up of land and sea. A king had already fallen and toppled off the board but the game had yet to be won and the final gambit was almost at hand. Words of prophecy ran circles through her mind, darkness falling...happy endings...knights...queens...born to break a curse. She was awake, but time passed like in a dream, where minutes were hours and it felt like she'd only blinked, opening her eyes to find him back again. Only it must have been longer than that because he was naked in the moonlight, stripped right down to the skin and her gaze had trailed over hard muscle that could match any knight's, strong arms that lifted her easily as if she weighed nothing, large hands that could manipulate any blade from dagger to broadsword with deadly accuracy. Without the armour of his billowing shirts and pirate leathers to hide them she could see the marks and scars he bore from a life where he fought not for honour and glory on the tournament field, but for sheer survival on the high seas, each a hard-won victory that formed a map of the man he was now. His stomach flexed under her scrutiny, flat and tight as a drum save for the shadowed dip of his navel and she followed the line of dark hair that ran below it to the stirring manhood readying to claim the prize that was his not by force or captain's privilege, and her own body responded to the sight with a sharp pang and hot rush between her legs when he silently sank down to his knees and carefully spread hers apart.

The jousts of her childhood were theatre to entertain a crowd, wooden, breakaway lances and straw-filled dummies in place of steel weapons honed to kill and flesh-and-blood enemies. It was easy to be brave against an Evil Queen played by a preening actress in a black wig who tossed oranges to the stands instead of fire, easy to be a noble knight bending a chivalrous knee to a wide-eyed young princess who'd grown up on tales of charming princes and vanquished villains and longed to find a True Love of her own. Countless men had followed as she grew more in her womanhood, kneeling down at her feet and offering her the world, vast lands, grand titles, fabulous jewels. They'd all been dressed in their finest to court her, in elaborately decorated breastplates that had never seen battle, carrying finely-wrought swords too heavily encrusted with gems to actually wield. They vied among themselves to win her hand, feverently vowed to capture her heart, but it was all just words. Empty promises, easily made and even more easily broken for other heiresses, more favourable alliances as the winds shifted between kingdoms and royal houses rose and fell.

Killian lifted his head from between her thighs, hair mussed from her fingers, face dark in the shadows, and crawled into the bunk, settling his weight over her while she gripped his biceps and looked up at him. He'd not only stripped himself of his clothes, he'd also wiped the kohl from his eyes and removed all of his rings and the necklace he normally never took off. The hands that touched her were completely bare and the dagger and skull charms didn't settle between her breasts the way they usually did whenever they lay like this. Emma touched a thumb to the little notch in the hollow of his throat, a pleasant languor stealing through her limbs as she slid a foot up and down the back of his calf. His legs were so much longer than hers, she had to rise up on her toes to kiss him in the mornings before he went up on deck. Killian braced himself on his elbows and leaned down, brushing his lips over hers even as she continued to draw little patterns on his skin with her fingertips. It wasn't her first kiss, when love was butterflies and bedtime stories, and he wasn't a knight courting a princess in a garden bower before riding off to a joust with her handkerchief pinned to his sleeve.

He was only a man.

When dawn broke he'd don the mantle of captain and pirate once more and she'd be his royal hostage, but together in the dark there was no rank, no titles, there was nothing between them but this, the all-consuming need that had her slick with readiness and arching under him while he was firm and eager, pressed hot to the inside of her thigh. Emma guided him across that final bit of distance that separated them, wrapping a leg over his hip and pulling him to her as he sank inside with a quiet groan, his eyes falling shut so that his auburn-tipped lashes slanted against his cheeks.

She was known across the kingdoms of the Enchanted Forest for her beauty just as he was known across the seas for his piracy, but if a man could be called "beautiful" then Killian was, his finely cut features even sharper in the glow from the moon that was so much brighter high above the clouds. The planes and angles of him shifted with his movements, face going from boyish charm to a lover's passion, his shoulders and arms flexing and his back bowing to press in even deeper, a ravishment she welcomed with her legs hitching up higher on his waist.

"Love."

It was a soft exhale against her neck, a whispered endearment into the night while she crossed her ankles at the base of his spine to tether them even closer together like two ships. The ache continued to build low in her belly with each roll of his hips into hers, each thrust of hard, male flesh and the soft press of her breasts to his chest, the hair there damp and silky with the heat of their lovemaking. He was hard, tall and strong and she was soft and delicate and yet they fit together perfectly, his hands sliding under her and lifting her up with the strength that years of hoisting sails and hauling rope had given him, letting them join together flush while she cradled him close to her breast and kissed away the salt from his brow. His lips sought hers again, tongue flicking against the bow of them until she opened for him. Killian wanted everything from her and it made her light-headed, almost drunk from sheer giddiness. She'd kissed men before in the moonlight, received offers of marriage and been lavished with costly gifts, but she'd never been naked with a man before him, never known the bone-deep pleasure of a man's body inside hers, never had a man swear his fealty to her and her alone with a sword that was more than ornamental. Killian Jones had given himself to her, in all the ways he could, offered her his ship and his sword and his own name when everything else had been taken away from her by the shifting winds of fate. It was exhilarating, and terrifying, and she wanted it all, wanted it more than she could put into words.

The wave crested white against her vision and she fell apart underneath him, her cry muffled by his kiss and feeling him stiffen as he quickly followed her into the bliss, both of them sinking down into the mattress in a limp and boneless tangle with his dark head coming to rest again on her breast, over the heart that beat now for him. In these hours between dusk and dawn when the ship was the quietest and the world outside was held at bay she didn't feel like a princess,

a prize to be won by a knight or a lord or even a pirate. In her lover's bed lying skin-to-skin with the echo of him a pleasant throb between her legs and his warmth surrounding her on all sides, she was a woman who had found home.

Emma felt herself drift, not quite awake and not quite asleep, wishing the night would never end. She thought a hand might have brushed her cheek, soft and gentle as a feather, and a voice whispered, "mine" but she wasn't sure if it was him or her who'd spoken.

Maybe it was both.

"We've landed."

The two words pierced the quiet and the pleasant fog surrounding her receded away as she opened her eyes again and wondered if it had really happened or if it had just been a rather vivid dream. Killian was fully dressed save for his coat, in his leathers and a shirt with a high collar, open at the throat and worn under a black waistcoat with heavy silver fastenings. Rings gleamed on almost every finger and a dark gem hung from his ear. The kohl was back, dark slashes around his eyes that made the ocean blue of them all the more startling. He looked the way he had the day they'd first met, an imposing figure clad in black. She remembered what she'd thought of him then, that he was a heartless villain, seeking nothing but treasure and infamy on the open sea.

"How long?" she asked.

"'Bout an hour ago."

Her voice shook, despite her best efforts to hide it, "What happens now? Do I go back to the...brig?"

She also remembered being forced to her knees in surrender under his smirking gaze and that first night locked up in a tiny cell, crying herself to sleep with the enchanted mirror clutched tight in her hand and wondering if she'd ever see home or her parents again. A pained expression crossed Killian's face and he looked away, shaking his head and sinking down onto a stool by the bunk while she turned onto her side and propped her head on her hand.

"No," he said at last, "I will never do that to you again, Princess, not even if the Evil Queen herself suddenly appears on deck. You will remain in my quarters and stay out of sight for now, and when we are in public we have to act as if you are my prisoner and utterly despise me. No more "Killian," only "Captain" from now on and the crew have all been ordered to stop calling you mistress - although Fergus might forget."

She smiled a bit at that, thinking how Fergus had stumbled over her title and how to properly address her when she'd first come on board. "I've never seen a princess before."

"Killian?"

It might be the last time she got to say it for a while and he turned to face her, taking the hand she held out to him and clasping it in his. Time was slipping away and she could sense the moment of calm was about to end soon, too soon, she wanted to just stay like this with him forever and the words she wanted to say were caught in her throat. All she could manage to get out was a whispered, "I'm scared."

It wasn't a tournament of knightly jousts and roses that awaited them outside the quiet of the early dawn, a real battle loomed like a dark spectre that no light could reach. Shadows watching from behind the mirror, poisoned apples as red as blood, the nightmare that had plagued her for months and followed her right across the ocean.

Red as blood.

Killian's hand tightened on hers, a lifeline that she clung to desperately against the fate that awaited her outside the door. Her parents were the heroes, not her, all knew the tale of Snow White and Prince Charming and how True Love's Kiss had broken the queen's curse and saved the kingdom at last. It was a legend, a bedtime story, and she was just...Emma.

He was watching her closely, eyes narrowed and lips set in a thin line, "Aye," he said, "My first battle my knees were knocking together so hard from fear I had bruises on the inside of my legs afterwards. Didn't even feel it at the time. You were scared of me when we first met, weren't you?"

She nodded, she had been afraid of him back then. Pirates were villains in every tale she'd been told of them, like Wicked Stepmothers and the Dark One. Of course now her feelings towards him were a tad more congenial, lying in his bed with the echo of him between her legs, and from his wry smile and the brief drop of his gaze down to where the careless drape of the sheet left one breast exposed, he was probably thinking similar thoughts.

"But you still fought. You used the only weapon you had and you fought back, even though you were scared, and you bested me. One woman against a crew of pirates, no magic, none of this great destiny...just you. Alone. I know the Evil Queen is a formidable foe, more than any we've faced, but if you trust me now then trust that you will not go into this battle by yourself. I will be by your side and I will fight for you, Emma, I swear it."

"Captain! Captain, we need you on deck!"

They both looked up at the shout from above and Killian stood, his face hardening in a blink. One hand immediately found the hilt of his sword in a gesture that was a natural to him as breathing. A pirate, but not a villain. Not anymore.

"Wait."

She rose from the tangle of sheets before he could leave, wrapping the linen around herself and making for the washstand. The planks were cold and hard under her bare feet, but she barely felt them as she picked up a green ribbon that had been left sitting next to her hairbrush.

"I'll bring you back some ribbons for your hair."

Emma ran her finger down the length of velvet. She'd given one of her ribbons to Fergus once as a knight's token, a carefree gesture that had turned out to have more significance than any of them knew at the time. The Dark One's prophecy had stated that a queen would be the one to defeat Regina, a queen guarded by a loyal knight. Fergus was loyal to his captain above all else and had been tasked to guard her in his absence. King George had fallen and his subjects had declared her their queen, including Killian, swearing an oath and laying his sword at her feet. Her destiny had been decided before she was even born and she'd been a pawn on a chessboard moved by an unseen hand for who knew how long, but this was still hers to give.

Her parents always said she was free to choose, and while she chose the wrong man at fourteen and been too afraid to risk her heart like that again ever since, she'd made her choice the day Killian Jones came into her life and stole her away on his ship.

"I know it's not much and this may sound a bit silly, but will you take this? I want you to carry something of mine with you."

Killian nodded, a hint of a smile lifting the corner of his lips, and stood completely still save for the slight rise and fall of his chest while she tucked the ribbon inside his waistcoat, using a bit of magic that sprang easily from her fingertips to hold it in place. It was easier to summon the power than it had ever been before, she didn't even have to think about what she wanted and it was already done. Whether it would be enough to defeat the Evil Queen and win back her kingdom remained to be seen, but for now she smoothed the leather back into place and rested her hand on it for a moment. Knights usually wore their tokens openly, displaying them proudly to the crowd so that everyone would know they'd been graced by a lady's favour. But he was a pirate, not a knight, and she had to hide hers away where it wouldn't be seen. She traced the place where it lay with her finger for a moment before pulling back.

"I love you, Killian."

Emma didn't know when, or...if, she'd get to say it again. Their eyes met and he opened his mouth as if he was going to say more when the call came again from above.

"Captain!"

He hesitated, clearly torn and she forced a smile, whispering, "Go. Your crew needs you, Captain."

But before he did he leaned down and kissed her, soft, and sweet, resting his forehead to hers and his voice a promise against her lips.

"I love you. Whatever happens next, Emma, I will love you until the tides stop turning and the seas themselves run dry."

She didn't need her gift to know that every last word he spoke was true.

...

...

...

Land was not yet visible on the horizon nor were there any ships in sight of his spyglass, so Killian gave the order to hold their course to the east for now. The ocean was calm, placid, but the water was dark as obsidian and the sky a mass of heavy grey cloud like smoke, a warning of possible storms ahead. There was a prickling feeling at the base of his neck that refused to go away, another sign of potential dangers lurking unseen that he'd felt more than once in his life and he'd long since learned to trust his instincts when it came to such things. The sea was a harsh mistress that every sailor knew to heed, those who didn't quickly learned the error of their ways at considerable cost. Lookouts were posted in the crow's nest to signal at the first sign of either friend or foe in the distance and the men were all on high alert, eager, even, at the prospect of a battle so soon at hand. The idyll of the time spent in the fairy queen's realm had faded away like a half-forgotten dream and the crew seemed harder, sharper, than they had only a day or so ago.

Killian felt it too. Harder. Sharper. Softness was weakness, especially for the captain of a pirate ship. He needed to be hard, he needed to be sharp for what lay ahead and he would be, he had to be.

No matter what it cost him.

Emma was tucked away safe down below and her parents were still billeted in Doyle's quarters while the carpenter slept in a hammock slung up in his workshop. Lieutenant Courtice was guarding the door, and so long as he stayed out of Killian's sight then he didn't care if the man was guarding the head, Courtice might be more honourable than he was but in his experience honour only led to death and loss and he had no intention of losing.

"Fergus!"

It came out as a bellow that made McIntyre flinch and back away a few paces even as the cabin boy in question scurried forward, his face somewhat pinched and paler than usual under his thick blond mop. The childish roundness had started to fall from his cheeks and his voice was beginning to change, cracking and breaking on some words and sounding more like the fully-grown man he would one day be on others.

"Captain?" Fergus ventured, a bit timid and uncertain. The shift in the captain's demeanour had clearly not gone unnoticed by the crew, his moods had been as mercurial as the seas before Emma had come on board and not a man among them ever wanted to get caught unaware on the wrong end of his somewhat volatile temper. His sword caught what light there was through the clouds when he pulled it from the sheath at his hip, the edge freshly sharpened and the metal polished to a mirror shine. Killian caught a quick glimpse of his reflection in it for a moment, grim-faced and unsmiling, before he looked away. His own face was the last thing he wanted to see right now.

"The enemy is at hand, draw your blade and prepare to engage."

Fergus relaxed a fraction at the familiar opening gambit to one of their sparring sessions before a closer glance at his captain made him draw up straight again, groping quickly for his own weapon. The much-longed for sword had been his reward all those months ago when Emma had been taken from the ship and Killian had felt his own heart shatter neatly to pieces in his chest even as white-hot rage had lanced through him like lightning, suddenly throwing everything around him into sharp relief. He felt it again as he watched Fergus fumble with the pommel before finding his grip and freeing the sabre that was a near twin to the one he held, not the heartbreak of that terrible day when he feared for her life and her honour in the clutches of one who cared nothing for either, but the bone-deep certainty that blood would be spilled by his own hand and the ultimate price would be paid for what he had lost.

For what had been taken from him.

Never steal from a pirate.

Fergus fell into a fighting stance, blowing the hair from his eyes with a quick puff. Knees bent, shoulders down, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet in order to move more quickly when the first strike came. They frequently sparred to a scenario Killian made up on the spot and usually it was rather lighthearted and sometimes fantastical, the Jolly was unlikely to be attacked by a kraken or swarmed by a horde of hungry ogres, but today the game took on a different edge.

"Black knights, sworn in service to the Evil Queen. The most ruthless and feared in the whole of the Enchanted Forest. They've boarded the Jolly Roger and are about to engage her crew in hand-to-hand combat. Are you ready to fight in your ship's defence, Master Fergus?"

A bead of sweat rolled down the side of Fergus's face and he swallowed hard, lifting his sword into position. This was not a boy's fantasy of grand sea battles against strange beasts, this was what really awaited them at the end of their journey. They were sailing straight towards blood and fighting and death, he had no illusions that the Evil Queen would receive his message and merely invite him into her parlour to negotiate over tea. She wanted Emma, and everyone around her would merely be cannon fodder to her rage. But Killian was not about to go down quietly, and neither would his crew.

The blades met in the air with a clang that echoed across the deck and made the bones in his wrist vibrate from the force of it. He usually held back considerably during a spar with the lad, but he couldn't afford such indulgences now. Fergus grimaced, clearing not expecting the sheer power behind the blow. He recovered quickly though, pivoting back on his heel and attempting a strike from the other side. Killian blocked it, losing himself in the familiar feel of the tempered steel in his hand. His vision narrowed to nothing but the sword and his opponent, the blood singing in his veins with each jab and parry. He was only dimly aware of everything else, the rest of the crew were mere shadows in the corner of his eyes. This was what he knew as intimately as a lover, the curve and flex of his arm with each swing, the firm press of his thumb on the grip, the weight of the sword he wielded like it was as much a part of himself as one of his own limbs. The Evil Queen had magic, dark and powerful, she was a foe unlike any he'd ever faced before. Killian imagined her in his mind, every tale had said that she was as beautiful as she was dangerous and he pictured an enchantress like the beckoning sirens who sang to passing ships from the rocks, seductive and comely of face and form but bloodthirsty and as deadly as a shark.

Would her royal blood be red when he sank his blade into her heart, or black?

"There's darkness in your heart."

Killian felt his lip curl in a snarl as the Fairy Queen's voice whispered in his ear. The men who had fallen to his blade had all begged and pleaded for their lives and he'd been unmoved by their cries, widowing their wives and orphaning their children without a second thought. Honour was the currency of fools, he took what he wanted no matter the price and to hell with anyone who tried to stand in his way.

Fergus faltered, losing ground against the onslaught until he was finally forced back against the mast. His sword clattered to the deck as he lost his grip and Killian stepped close and pressed his advantage, flipping his blade so that the blunt edge rested right against the boy's neck.

"Do not expect any mercy from your enemy and grant none, do you hear? That's an order."

His dark eyes were huge, lips white and bloodless as he stared up at his captain. The slender throat bobbed as he finally swallowed and nodded. Their faces were nearly level, Killian didn't need to stoop down nearly as far as he did the day he'd first taken Fergus aboard and into his service. Boys grew up fast at sea, it was a harsh life that gave little quarter to the weak and helpless. He'd learned that lesson young and never forgotten it.

"What are you?"

Fergus's voice didn't crack, "I'm a pirate!"

"Aye!" Killian smiled, clapping him on the shoulder, "And now you're a full crewman. Retrieve your blade and take your new place, we all sail as men and we fight as men under no flag save our own."

The crew welcomed Fergus with more slaps on the back and gruff cheers when he went to join them as an equal at last, finally a full member of the crew with all the privileges as the rest. But the celebration that normally accompanied such a promotion would have to wait and the Jolly kept carrying them forward, cutting through the rolling swells like a hot knife through butter. Calm sea had given way to choppy waves that broke white at the hull, a sign of an oncoming storm. But there was no clap of thunder or flash of lightning in the clouds, just the threat hanging over them as they held their course towards the Enchanted Forest. Killian tasted the salt in his throat and his coat snapped in the wind, his blade sheathed again at his hip. Every man was fully armed, pistols, knives, and swords at the ready, every last one watching the horizon.

"Captain!"

He turned towards the shout, expecting to see another ship in the distance. But McIntyre was pointing towards the sea instead, where a familiar shape was just barely visible beneath the waves. It had feminine curves and a long tail, and Killian frowned in recognition even as McIntyre yelled out, "Mermaids!"

There was more than one, the second was a length behind the first and the men began to point and shout as more surrounded the ship. A tail broke the waves to a gasp before the mermaid dived back under, kicking up a spray of drops like diamonds into the air almost as high as the deck. They easily kept pace with the Jolly, swimming alongside her whitewashed keel with quicksilver grace and astonishing speed.

A single mermaid was a rare enough sight, even for Killian, who'd spent more time at sea than on land. To see what appeared to be a whole school of them was startling, a clear omen that had the crew exchanging glances reaching for the charms and talismans they carried to ward off ill fortune. Mermaids were dangerous creatures, and he knew of more than one man who had drowned in pursuit of them and the magic they possessed.

"Don't you bloody dare."

The order made Keswick and McIntyre drop the net they had picked up with guilty faces, clearly intending to try to snare one. Killian glanced down at the bare spot on his finger out of habit, thinking of the old legend of a sea princess who had loved a sailor even though they were of two worlds that could never be one. A faint sound carried on the wind, sweet and enticing, and every last man on deck stopped and ceased to breathe for a moment, straining to hear the song that came from beneath the waves. They were singing, the most beautiful melody that Killian could imagine and one he felt he could listen to forever. Strangely though, he had no urge to follow, even as the rest of the men drifted towards the stern and watched them gradually fall back, the tails slowing and the song fading away. He pulled his spyglass again and climbed the rigging, holding on with one hand and watching the little spots of white churning on the water that marked where each one was lurking underneath. One by one they started to disappear, as he supposed the mermaids were diving back down to the fathoms deep from whence they had came. Maybe there was still some fairy magic clinging to the Jolly that had drawn their attention up to his ship, but whatever it was they hadn't tried to attack by leading them astray or conjuring a storm to lash down rain like a whip at the sails and the deck. If anything the skies had cleared, clouds receding and the sun shining down on water as blue as sapphires.

He caught a glimpse of a tail, brilliant green and so bright that it almost hurt to look at. It was gone so quickly that he thought at first he must have imagined it, but then he felt a tiny weight against his chest that shifted when he moved and his gaze fell again to where a ring had once sat on his finger until he'd given it away without a second thought. His greatest treasure, a gem so rare that he'd only ever even seen the one.

A bell rang, and it took a moment for him to recognize the sound as another cry went up around the deck.

"Ships! Ships!"

There were three in the distance, two sloops flanking a larger vessel flying a dark sigil with silver markings. It was not the flag of any kingdom that he knew, and he'd taken prizes from dozens of them. He twisted his spyglass and brought the flags in focus to see that the markings formed a crown, one that was feminine in both shape and design.

It was the flag of a queen, and it was one that he'd seen once before.

"Captain! Orders?"

Killian lowered the glass and felt a smile spread across his face, as dark and maniacal as one on the flag raised high on the Jolly's own mast.

"Hold our course, lads, and load the cannons."

They went to carry the orders out while he watched the ships approach and muttered under his breath, "It's time to introduce ourselves to the Evil Queen."