Chapter Forty Four
Tell Me A Story
A foul stench hit him as soon as he entered his quarters and Killian stopped dead with one hand on the doorframe, his nose wrinkling in disgust while his belly twisted and lurched under his waistcoat. The smell was unmistakable, and revulsion was quickly replaced with concern as he rushed forward. Emma was bent over at the waist, retching into the porcelain basin that sat on the washstand with one hand braced alongside it and the other wrapped around her middle. He glanced down at the puddle of sick and bile quickly rose in his own throat, but as unpleasant as the smell and sight of it was, he was far more alarmed than repulsed.
"Easy, love, easy."
He laid a hand on her back, trying to offer what bit of comfort he could with his presence. It was hardly the first time Killian had witnessed someone vomiting from seasickness or spoiled rations, or, more frequently among sailors, from too much drink, and he knew there was nothing much that could be done for such afflictions except waiting for them to run their course. But Emma flinched under his touch, her shoulders hunching even more over the porcelain, and he swallowed back the sour taste in his mouth. His hand fell back to his side, opening and closing helplessly while she continued to empty the contents of her stomach. He had an inkling of what had made her so violently ill so suddenly, and it wasn't seasickness or an excess of grog.
The first time he'd been flogged he had borne the cut of the lash as stoically as he could in front of the jeering crew, knowing that his punishment would be made tenfold worse if he gave in to the fruitless urge to beg and plead for mercy in the midst of such unmerciful men. He had to take it like a man even though he was hardly more than a boy, lest he be branded with more than the marks carved into his back and he had, swallowing back his cries as each stroke fell and willing the tears not to fall along with them until the captain was finally satisfied that he'd had enough. Killian had felt empty afterwards, hollowed out as if a piece of his soul itself had gone missing and might not return. As painful as it was, he'd been strangely numb as well for hours on end, until he tried to eat the broth that Liam brought him and was immediately sick all over his poor brother as soon as he took a single spoonful.
Emma had sworn that she was fine, that his threats and taunts in front of the Evil Queen's men couldn't douse the flame of their love, but being paraded about on deck while he openly boasted about taking both her ship and her maidenhead by force had clearly sickened her right to her stomach.
"A pirate's always got to keep the best part of the treasure for himself, eh lads?"
That night was seared into his memory more indelibly than ink on parchment...the way her breath had hitched but her gaze hadn't faltered when he drew her nightdress slowly up her thighs with clear intent to have what he'd wanted for so long...stripping her fully bare at last and greedily drinking in every inch of fine white skin...her fear that it would hurt and his promise to be gentle, a promise kept because to do otherwise was unthinkable...the soft trail of her fingers down his back when he rolled his hips and she accepted the full length of him for the first time...drowning in the sensations and in a sea of words unsaid and almost confessing his deepest secret then and there, that he was hopelessly in love with her and would give her anything and everything she wanted if only she'd stay...
Killian had hated every word that had come out of his mouth on the deck and more than that, how easily it was to twist and turn what had happened between them on the Jolly Roger into a far more sordid and ugly tale, of a helpless lady caught in the rapacious clutches of a heartless brigand. Who would believe that she'd welcomed him into her bed, that what he wanted even more than the pleasures of her body was her heart? No, the tale he told was far more likely and it would spread as quickly as wildfire now that they'd made landfall. He'd wager that it would be halfway across the kingdom by sunset, carried from town to tavern in scandalized whispers and salacious grins.
"Did you hear about the princess and the pirate?"
She spat into the basin and staggered away, away from him, one hand still pressed just below the bodice of her gown while she wiped her mouth. That little voice in the back of his mind was back, chuckling darkly that her love was the one prize he could never try to take by force. It was hers and only hers to give as she saw fit and she could snatch it back from his unworthy hands at any moment.
"Nerves, I guess," she muttered, not quite meeting his eyes. "The waiting just got to be too much, I just...I just want this all to be over."
"Soon," he promised, ringed fingers flexing over the hilt of his sword and trying to quell that little bit of nagging doubt that her words could have another meaning.
His marriage proposal back on the fairy isle had been refused, after all.
The table was a cluttered mess, several books in a jumbled pile that was topped with a ball of wool that had a pair of knitting needles sticking out, the small chest where Emma kept hair ribbons and other feminine treasures sat open and had clearly been rifled through and wedged in between was the tray Fergus had brought earlier with the remains of the morning tea, along with an unfamiliar brown glass bottle that she pushed aside to lift the teapot and pour out what remained into the cup she preferred, the one painted with little pink rosebuds. She swished out her mouth while he retrieved her cloak from the peg on the wall.
"It's time," Killian said, draping it over her shoulders and fastening it at her throat. He carefully covered her hair with the hood, letting the deep folds mask her face. Another memory struck him then, of the day they'd first met. She'd been concealed by a cloak then too, hidden away until she'd thrown it off and her voice had rung out across the deck and drew the attention of all. Even then he'd known she was the real treasure, not the ship, not whatever cargo filled the hold, not even the priceless jewels that ringed her neck and could have retired his whole crew several times over. If they'd offered him anything else on board it would have been in vain, as soon as he caught sight of the beautiful woman staring back at him with such defiance, unbowed and unbent by what seemed like certain defeat, then all he wanted in that moment was her, with an ache a deep as the pull of the tides in his sailor's blood
"I will trade myself for their lives, Captain Jones."
"And who might you be?"
"I am Princess Emma, daughter of Queen Snow White and King David. Let the ship and my people go, and I offer myself as your hostage."
Her pale face looked up at him as it had then, when he'd extended his hand to bring her aboard his ship. That day her hestiance and uncertainty about the man she'd made a deal with was plain, but she'd accepted his offering and the bargain between them had been sealed. This time, she was the one who reached out first, slim, delicate fingers wrapping around his thicker, calloused ones in the stillness of the cabin they now shared. Emma had traded herself to him and yet somehow she'd ended up with his heart, body and soul as her unintended prize as well. It was far from an even exchange, but Killian was still a pirate, he always got the better half of any deal. The Fairy Queen had warned with those strange, violet eyes that there was darkness in him and he swore at times he could literally feel it, heavy and leaden in his chest. What was a scarred and blackened heart like his to a princess like her?
Still, he hoped she would be gentle with it, just the same.
Regina's ships had guided them to a port not far from the castle that was Emma's childhood home, although none of her vessels had docked alongside the Jolly and stayed anchored out instead just beyond the mouth of the harbour. Blocking them in, Smee had noted in a low tone under his knitted cap, and Killian had agreed with a silent nod. The Evil Queen was taking no chances, it seemed, cutting off any last minute attempts to escape back out on the open sea. It was said that she was cunning, and Snow White's warning not to let his guard down around her was at the forefront of his mind when he'd steered them those last few leagues into the waiting net. The port itself was strangely deserted, when they went above deck there wasn't a soul to be seen even though the docks should be thick with people, fishermen bringing in the early morning catch, peddlers pushing barrows of oysters, longshoremen hauling cargo, alongside the pickpockets and whores who always flocked to the ships in search of likely marks and customers. But there wasn't so much as a single drunkard sleeping off a night of overindulgence and all the buildings lining the wharves were all shut up tight, even the taverns, shockingly enough, with drawn curtains and closed shutters as far as the eye could see. It appeared that everyone had either fled or gone to ground, battening the hatches and hunkering down as if preparing to ride out an incoming storm. But the waters were calm and the sky was clear straight out to the horizon so whatever it was the locals feared, it wasn't coming from the sea.
A lacquered black carriage that looked decidedly out of place next to the weathered timbers and sun-bleached planks was waiting for them when they disembarked, Killian's hand firm on Emma's elbow and his men flanking them on all sides. Several knights on horseback were positioned strategically around the carriage, heads turned to watch their approach. But these weren't the noble champions of Emma's tales, the ones Fergus begged to hear every chance he got. Their faces were completely hidden behind pitch-black masks that, coupled with their dark armour, made them look more like spectres conjured from a realm of nightmares than men. The Evil Queen's famed Black Knights, subject of far more lurid stories than the ones Emma told. Killian had heard a few of them over the years in smoky taverns, alongside tales of witches who ate children for their tea and rumours about the mysterious and powerful Dark One. It was said that Regina kept their hearts by her side in a jewelled casket like other queens collected gems, binding them to her with magic and ensuring their loyalty could never waver.
Slavery, of a different sort than the indentured servitude he and his brother had been sold into once upon a time.
One dismounted and pulled something from his saddlebag. It came loose with a metallic rattle and Killian saw it was a set of heavy iron manacles, two cuffs joined together by a thick chain. Beside him, he sensed more than saw Emma tense up under her cloak. The knight halted a few feet away and addressed them with the faintest dip of his chin, voice slightly muffled by the mask and completely devoid of emotion.
"Her most gracious and beloved majesty, Regina, undisputed Queen and Sovereign, welcomes you most warmly to her lands, Captain Killian Jones, and has sent us to escort you and the prisoner safely to her castle."
"Her castle?" Emma scoffed, and he tightened his fingers on her arm in silent warning. She said no more, but Killian could feel her fury, a rage that he shared when the knight stepped closer and lifted the manacles that were obviously meant for her wrists.
"And just what, pray tell, do you think you're doing?"
In one motion Killian was in front of Emma, his men fanning out protectively on either side of them and his hand on his sword. He didn't match the knight's indifferent tone, it came out with an edge that was as sharp as any blade and twice as dangerous. From behind him, Killian felt the faint touch of Emma's hand to his back while she peered at the knight over his shoulder, a tiny weight but enough to give him an anchor, something to ground him and keep his rising temper in check.
"Her Majesty has instructed that Princess Emma be brought to her in chains," the knight said, in that same flat unaffected monotone.
Emma gave a sharp inhale and pressed a little closer while Killian glared at the masked face, weighing his shrinking number of options. They had to maintain the ruse that she was nothing but a bargaining chip to him for as long as possible and why would he care if she was clapped in irons for the journey? The knights might be masked, but the clearly weren't blind. Any hint of softness from him would be seen as weakness and he couldn't afford to be weak, not now. He had to be the man they expected him to be, the hard, greedy pirate unwilling to relinquish any control over his valuable prize.
"Let me make one thing abundantly clear. The princess is my prisoner, not the Queen's, not until she has fulfilled our deal. For all I know those are enchanted to take her directly to the dungeon and my reward will be oh so conveniently forgotten by her most gracious and beloved Majesty. I'm a pirate, don't even attempt to double cross me. Try to shackle her and I will run you through where you stand."
The knight looked down at the manacles in his hands and while he might be heartless, Killian's own was beating madly under his waistcoat. In truth, he did fear there was some sort of hidden trick to the iron cuffs like the poisoned apple the Evil Queen had given to Snow White all those years ago, but that wasn't the main reason for his refusal.
He'd sworn to himself that no one would put Emma in chains, not as long as he still had breath in his body and he was damned if he was going to break that oath now.
"Your prisoner must be restrained for the journey to the Queen's castle, Captain," the knight insisted. "Her Majesty is not willing to risk any chance of escape."
Killian made a grand show of looking the knight up and down and then loudly counted off the ones waiting by the carriage. "You think a mere slip of a girl is capable of escaping so many of Her Majesty's finest? No wonder you're all too coward to show your faces. Put those damn things away, if it's so bloody important I'll restrain her myself and believe me, there will be no heroic attempts at an escape, not when I'm this close to getting my reward."
"You tell the bastard, Captain!"
"Damn right! You'll have to go through all of us first!"
Killian's men all started to chime in and faced with a seething pirate in front of him and an equally incensed crew who were all armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight, the knight obviously decided that perhaps the Queen's orders could be amended just a tad. The manacles were put back in the saddlebag while Fergus was sent to fetch a length of rope from the ship. Killian took it from him and wrapped it around Emma's wrists, fingers making quick work of it even though he rarely did this himself anymore.
"There's no one who can tie a knot like a sailor can, it's the first thing you're taught when you join your first crew and board your first ship. Isn't that right, Fergus?"
Fergus's eyes widened a bit as he picked up on the meaning behind his captain's words and he nodded his agreement and said, "Aye, Captain!"
"My young crewman here learned his knots from the very best. Me."
Killian said it with a wink, looking straight into Emma's eyes as he finished tying the rope and let the tail end fall between her bound hands. The knot was a sturdy one, thick against her slim wrists, and it looked impossible to untie quickly.
But looks were deceiving.
It was a quick release knot, designed to come apart with nothing more than a single tug. The same knot that had once saved her from a terrible fate at the hands of a man who was now dead by Killian's hand, with nothing left of him but bones picked clean at the bottom of the ocean.
The first blood he'd drawn to keep her safe.
First, but not the last, and more was sure to be spilled before all was said and done.
With Emma suitably restrained by the rope, or so it seemed, he took her by the arm again and began leading her towards the carriage. The crew started to follow, but two of the knights immediately moved to cut them off with a flick of the reins, their large stallions whinnying a challenge and forming an imposing barrier between the wharves and the dock that led back to the safety of the Jolly.
"There was, in fact, a third order from the Queen that I'd neglected to mention, Captain. You and the princess are to be escorted to Her Majesty's castle alone. None of your men may accompany us, and that is not a condition that can be waived under any circumstances."
It came from the knight who'd been serving as spokesman, his hands folded placidly in front of him and that masked face blank and inscrutable. Killian paused, trading a quick glance with Emma. He'd planned to take several of the crew with them to the Evil Queen's castle to serve as backup, just in case, and this was a complication he hadn't anticipated.
"Captain?" Smee piped up from behind them, the concern clear in his voice. "Your orders, Sir?"
If he gave the command then they would fight, he had no doubt about that, but the knights held the high ground on them, looking down from their mounts with swords already half-drawn from their scabbards in anticipation. The dark armour covered them from head to toe, leaving almost nothing exposed, it would be difficult for a blade to make contact and draw blood. Still, his hand started to drift towards the hilt of his sword as he stared at the Queen's man.
She was the real enemy, not the faceless men who rode under her flag, and he smiled, showing his teeth in lieu of his sword. He'd have to forfeit this battle to win the war.
"A private parlay with Her Majesty then. Much more...intimate, that way, I suppose. Stand down men, and go back to the ship. We'll all get our reward soon enough."
Killian muttered the last more to himself than to them as the knights parted to let them through and the coachman swung down to open the door to the carriage. He bent stiffly at the waist and extended a hand to assist Emma inside, a hand she couldn't take with her own bound. Killian roughly shouldered the man aside and lifted her in himself, hands circling her waist. Before he followed he glanced back and saw they were all still watching and waiting on the dock, Smee's squat figure, Doyle's taller, broader one with one arm holding Fergus back, the boy warring with the man he would become. Keswick and Murray stood to the side, the leg Emma had healed for him showing no sign of the injury that had almost killed the sailor he'd taken to join his crew. Above them the Jolly Roger rose proudly against the clear blue sky, her sweeping lines and bold curves as beautiful as a woman's. His ship was much more than just a vessel, it was his home. A familiar tightness settled across his shoulders at the prospect of leaving her behind for an unknown length of time, while the sea was volatile and mercurial at times he knew it as intimately as a lover. The forest was something else entirely and all he had to guide him now wasn't a sextant and the stars above, there was only a handful of half-forgotten memories from his childhood.
"The Jolly is yours, Mr. Smee. Keep her safe for me until I return."
He swung himself up into the carriage and the door closed behind him, followed almost immediately by the soft click of a lock being turned. There was a crack of a whip a moment later and he flinched at the sound for the first time in years, while the carriage started to roll forward with a jolt that forced them both back into the bench seat in a tangled heap.
"Bad form," Killian swore, trying to find a comfortable position for his legs. The carriage was elegantly appointed with silk-padded walls and thick velvet upholstery, but it was still a tight fit and their knees jostleted when he turned to Emma and pushed the hood back so he could see her face properly. He couldn't be sure if the coachman could hear them or not so he only dared to whisper, "You alright?"
She still looked too pale to his eye, no roses blooming in her cheeks when he brushed his thumbs over them and her lips thin and bloodless. Her eyes fluttered shut and he held his breath, thinking she was going to be sick again all over the Queen's finery, but after a moment they opened again and she nodded. Since the curtains were drawn and no one could see in he twisted in the seat and pulled her onto his lap, leaning back so she could rest her head comfortably against his shoulder. The carriage rumbled underneath them and from the outside came the rhythmic clip-clop of hooves against the cobblestones, dampened somewhat by the silk hangings. After some time the timbre of it changed and Emma straightened up, listening intently for a moment.
"We've turned onto the forest road," she said.
Killian pulled back the drape and peered out of the little window. It was rounded like a porthole, but the docks and the sea were both long gone. All he could see at first was a moving wall of green and he blinked a few times, his eyes finally focusing enough to make out that the "wall" was actually trees, growing so thick that there was hardly any space between them and so tall that even with craning his neck back he couldn't make out the tops. Cobblestone streets had given way to hard-packed dirt underneath, a long brown ribbon that would through the dense thicket like a narrow strait. Emma was also looking out of the window on the other side and he slid across the bench, letting his cheek brush hers as he glanced out as well. The view was practically the same, nothing but trees and brush to be seen as they bumped along. There were ancient oaks twice the width of the Jolly's main mast and new saplings as slender as reeds, while scattered throughout was the occasional fat stump. They passed by one that looked old and weathered, grey moss clinging feebly to the side and the top deeply cracked with age. It was clearly long dead, but a bit of life remained in the form of tiny yellow flowers that grew from the split in the wood.
"My parents met on this road."
She lifted her hands and touched a fingertip to the glass, a hint of wistfulness in her voice.
"Did they?" he asked. "Tell me the tale then, Princess."
Killian kept his own tone deliberately bored and indifferent just in case the coachmen could hear. Let him think the pirate was simply casting about for a way to pass the time on the way to the Evil Queen's castle and nothing more. But he already knew this tale and he knew it was Emma's favourite, the telling of it would be her anchor, to steady her against what lay ahead.
"Once upon a time there was a handsome prince, and one day he went for a carriage ride through the forest while carrying his most prized possession, his beloved mother's wedding ring. She had told him that True Love followed the ring wherever it went, and he planned to gift it to his betrothed, the princess he was expected to marry. But a bandit lurked in the woods, watching the road in hopes of valuables to steal, and unknown to the prince the bandit was hidden in the trees above as his carriage went by, waiting for just the right moment to strike..."
Her voice washed over him like the roll of the tides as she recounted the story, a siren's song rendered in prose instead of verse that drew him in and he could picture it all so clearly. A cloaked figure high in the trees, watching, and waiting. The young prince, promised to a woman he did not love but was honour-bound to wed. Their paths crossing on this very road in a chance meeting that changed them both forever.
"...the dust from a Dark Fairy, powerful magic…"
"...a trick, of the Evil Queen's magic mirror…"
"...and it was with the magic of True Love's Kiss that Prince Charming awakened Snow White from her death-like slumber…"
It infused the tale right from the beginning but it hadn't ended there, with the defeat and banishment of the Evil Queen and the Happy Ending for the kingdom at last. Magic had sent Emma across his path, altering his course in more ways that just the change to the Jolly's heading when he first spotted her ship in the distance. Magic had sparked between them, in that first look, that first touch. Magic had flowed from her, healing injuries and defeating enemies in astonishing displays of power that many unscrupulous souls would kill to possess and control for their own. Magic filled the carriage now like the wind filling the sails, propelling them ever forward on their own tale, when a pirate who thought his heart had been lost forever fell in love with a princess and vowed to take her home. Maybe it wasn't the equal of such grand heroics that had enthralled entire kingdoms and the realms beyond, but it was theirs.
Killian held onto that thought, as the shadows lengthened and the light began to wane while the forest only grew thicker, turning deeper and darker around them as the ocean did far from the safety of shore.
They came to a halt shortly before sunset, the castle was too far from the coast to make the journey in an afternoon. The carriage door opened to reveal they'd stopped at a rather tumbledown cottage instead of a village or a roadside inn, and the knights had dismounted and were already at work gathering wood for a fire and hauling up water from the well. Half-forgotten memories of another humble cottage, another life, started to surface and he quickly tamped them back down while he kept a firm hand on his prisoner and lifted Emma down from the carriage. She shook the wrinkles from her gown and cloak as best she could with her hands still bound, while he kicked the dust from his boots and rolled his shoulders, shaking off the long hours of confinement and taking surreptitious stock of their surroundings. The cottage was clearly abandoned and had been for some time, the garden was overgrown with weeds and one side of the fence had collapsed. The thatched roof was in desperate need of patching and tools had been left to dull and rust out in the elements. It looked like whoever had lived here had left in a hurry, had they fled when Regina seized power over the kingdom, taking only what they could carry and disappearing into the woods?
The Fairy Queen's warning of a dark curse threatening the land whispered in the back of his mind and his hand drifted closer to the hilt of his sword.
Provisions were produced by the knights from another saddlebag, dark bread, cured meat, hard cheese, and a handful of shiny red apples.
"And the Queen offered Snow White an apple red as blood, and a choice. She could save herself, or save the man she loved."
Emma visibly blanched at the sight of them, turning away while Killian asked in an arch tone, "Her Majesty's gracious hospitality, I take it? How are any of you even going to eat with those things over your mouths, anyway?"
There was no reply to either question from the knight, still hidden away behind his mask, but it was clearly meant as a pointed message from the Queen as they drew closer and closer to her stronghold. He left the apples untouched and took the rest, guiding Emma to sit on a fallen log and laying the food out on his knee. She refused it all with a haughty lift of her chin, turning her head away to stare up at a fat bluebird perched in a nearby tree instead. He washed down the meal with rum from his flask, old experience had taught him to eat whenever he could, since food might be scarce later. The bird whistled, trilling a jaunty song that filled the air until it finally flew away in a rustle of tiny wings when the sky turned indigo and the sun was almost set. Before there was any mention of sleeping arrangements for the night Killian took matters into his own hands, hefting Emma bodily into his arms without warning while she let out a squeak of surprise and struggled instinctively against him. The door to the cottage gave way under one swift kick from his boot and he carried her over the threshold, leaving the knights and the coachman outside with a tart comment that he didn't desire an audience. Thankfully the door had a thick iron bolt on the inside and after being locked up in the carriage by the Queen's men he too grim pleasure in locking them out instead.
"I'm sorry, my love, that this was necessary."
He whispered it in her ear and tugged off her bonds, letting the rope fall to the floor. He'd left it as loose around her wrists as he dared but a few marks had appeared anyway, where it had chafed and scraped against the delicate skin and he cursed himself for not having Fergus fetch the salve. There was clearly nothing similar left in the cottage, it was comprised of a single room, dusty and sparse, with a few sticks of furniture, a table, a low stool, and a bed in the corner that had been stripped down to nothing but the straw tick. Shelves stood empty and there was no logs left in the hearth to start a fire, just some cold ashes, but a stub of a candle sat on the table. Before darkness enveloped them completely Killian pulled out a flint and striker to light it. His fingers kept slipping and it refused to catch, frustration boiling in his gut more and more with each failed attempt.
If he couldn't even light a bloody candle, then how in the hell was he going to stop the Evil Queen if Emma faltered? What good was a lone pirate so far from the sea, with nothing but a sword and a sharp tongue in the midst of this clash of magical queens?
He was on the verge of throwing flint, striker and the table against the wall in a fit of rage when a small hand settled lightly on his wrist, stilling his movements. Emma closed her eyes and her face creased in concentration while she made a cupping motion with her other hand, over the nearly flattened wick. Killian scarcely dared to breathe, feeling the air around them change. The flare of the candle springing to life was echoed under his skin, prickling like gooseflesh and making the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Magic. All it took was a single spark from her fingers and a tiny bit of light and warmth bloomed, but it was enough to chase away the darkness.
Long before he was a pirate, or even a sailor, he'd been a small boy who was terribly afraid of the dark.
The silence was broken by a faint growling sound that he was also more than familiar with from the darker days of his childhood, of which there were many, only it wasn't coming from him this time. Unlike the way everything else was going, he could do something about this and he went searching through the deep pockets of his coat for the hardtack he'd tucked away before leaving the Jolly. It was still wrapped securely in a handkerchief, none the worse for wear after the journey, and he broke off a piece and handed it to Emma with a stern look.
"You need to eat something."
He also had some boiled sweets left from their last sojourn in port, a particular weakness of hers, but he thought the more bland biscuit had less chance of upsetting her stomach again.
"Is that an order, Captain?" she asked.
There was a glimmer of amusement on her face in the yellow candlelight as they shared what had started out as haughty defiance and mellowed over time into a private jest between them.
"Aye, Princess," he answered, firm and unyielding at first. Then he lifted her hand and pressed a feather-light kiss to the inside of her wrist. "For me?" he added, knowing she wouldn't refuse him if he phrased it like that. A pirate wasn't above playing dirty to get what he wanted, and right now he wanted Emma to keep her strength up. Once she gave in and started nibbling at it he laid his coat aside and unbuckled his sword, making sure to leave it within reach, just in case.
They didn't talk much after that, each lost in their own thoughts as the candle burned down and shadows flickered on the dusty walls. Killian imagined all sorts of things in the twisting shapes, noble princes and devious kings, royal castles and proud ships, fairy queens and evil queens each with their own conflicting agendas centred around the woman he loved more than anything, his queen. One wanted a sacrifice to her vengeance, the other a saviour for the realm, two destinies that had been laid out long before she'd even been born and the same path had led to both ends, but whose desire would ultimately prevail?
The shadows all gradually merged into one and his silent question was left unanswered.
At some point during the night they turned to each other with the same wordless need, bedded down on the lumpy straw tick with Emma's cloak serving as a makeshift blanket. Lips met frantically in the dark, the candle had long gone out but the fire within was burning hotter than any flame and a groan rumbled deep in his chest as he rolled half on top of her and captured her wrists again, thumbs pressed to her fluttering pulse and his hips nudging hers with clear intent.
"Mine!" he practically growled in her ear, nipping the lobe between his teeth and relishing the way her head tipped back to give him more access to the long column of her throat, letting him nuzzle along the length of it. The delicate line of her collarbone was the perfect match to the sharp line of his jaw, her soft, rose-petal skin meeting the prickly thorns of his whiskers as his exhale was echoed by her inhale, rising as he fell, falling as he rose, the swell of her breasts pressed against his chest and her skirts tangled around his legs like a net.
He'd captured her, but he was caught fast in return.
With the enemy so close at hand they hadn't risked undressing, he was still in his trousers and shirt and she had only loosened the laces of her gown before they'd laid down for the night. Killian went up on his knees, letting go of Emma's hands to wrench open his leathers and shove them down to mid-thigh, freeing himself from the confinement and letting out a hiss as the cooler air touched his heated flesh. He was already hard and aching and more than ready to claim his royal prize. Her skirts were quickly bunched to her waist and he felt her legs fall open on either side of him in what seemed like a lady's hopeless surrender to a pirate's unbridled lust. There was some fumbling in the dark and then his hips were positioned square between her thighs, a mere heartbeat away from satisfaction.
It wasn't the gentle and tender lovemaking of courtly romance, nor was it the violent ravishment the Queen's men undoubtedly imagined was taking place. Emma was slippery with want and the hands that clutched his shoulders pulled him closer instead of pushing him away when he found home in a single, deep thrust. A low curse tumbled from his lips as she accepted the full length of him, a sensation that never failed to arouse him even more and the burn in his belly was at a near fever pitch. Far from surrendering, she had clasped him tight in her silken bondange and he went willingly, plunging deep with every stroke. There was a pounding in his ears like the roar of the absent tides, drowning out everything except the join of his body to hers. This was their story, their tale, writ between them in the fierce embrace and wordless cries while the rest of the world was held at bay outside the locked door. Let them all see him as nothing but a pirate, they could believe the falsehoods, the deception, embellish the details or tell it completely wrong, nothing else mattered than what had been sworn by solemn oath and pledged on the very blade that guarded them now.
"Emma," he gasped, burying his face into the crook of her neck. Her gown had slipped further down her shoulder and her legs tightened around his hips, holding him in place while he pinned her to the bed and took his pleasure. Killian knew he wasn't going to last much longer, but he managed to hold off until he felt her shudder under him and the dig of her nails even through his shirt, marks he'd gladly bear. Only then did he give in, spilling hot with one final thrust and even though the ground beneath them was flat and unmoving, he could still feel the rock of the distant ocean waves in her arms. Sea legs, he'd told her once.
The captain's bunk on the Jolly was narrow, built only for one. The bedframe was much wider, with room to spare, but they stayed in a tangle of limbs as if they were still on the ship with her head finding his shoulder in the dark and her hand laid on his chest, burrowing under his half-unbuttoned shirt to rest on the bare skin underneath instead. Emma's breathing changed as she fell asleep and her hold on him went slack, letting his thoughts drift from drowsy satisfaction into more troubled waters again. While he was glad that she was managing to find some rest, along with a not insignificant amount of male pride, slumber eluded him as unwanted pieces of the past kept clutching at his sleeve with icy fingers that refused to be pried away and sent back where they belonged, into the deep alongside the men who had died by his blade.
Emma knew pieces of his story, from the day he'd first haltingly told her about his brother and spoke Liam's name aloud for the first time in longer than Killian could remember.
"Once upon a time there had been two brothers, as close as any could be, seeking glory and adventure together on a secret mission from their king…"
He'd told her the tale of Liam's death and how he'd turned from naval lieutenant to lawless pirate and became captain of a ship he renamed the Jolly Roger, a tale of loss and betrayal and revenge. But that was the middle, not the beginning, and his story had really begun years prior just as Emma's started with a chance meeting on a forest road. For the first time in a long time Killian let himself go further back, before Neverland, before the brothers Jones had set off together on the Jewel of the Realm and only one came back, not shying away from the memories surfacing back up from the depths of his mind.
"Once upon a time there had been a father with two small sons, boarding a ship for what he promised was a new start in a new land for all of them…"
"Once upon a time there had been a family of four, poor but proud, and happy, so happy…"
And then it would come to that part, as it always did in his tales.
He always sensed when water was near, like most sailors who had more saltwater in their veins than blood and told time by the movement of the tides. Killian looked out of the carriage window and caught a glimpse of what looked like the sea on first glance, making him start in surprise. He quickly realized that it was actually a lake, a large one and clearly deep, with water the same rich shade of blue as the sea diamond. Above it, a castle rose like a ship that had set permanent anchor, grey stone walls serving as the weathered hull, tall spires in place of masts piercing the sky and flags snapping taut in the wind. They were further inland than Killian had been in years and yet he'd found sea and shore both at the place his princess called home.
The carriage came to an abrupt halt that jolted them both forward again and the coachman opened the door to his black scowl as he unfolded himself and climbed out, turning to lift Emma down and keeping one hand on her back and the other on the hilt of his sword once she'd found her footing. She was the demure prisoner one more, quiet and biddable with her hands bound in front of her as per the Queen's command. Or as much of the Queen's command as he was willing to follow. The expected audience for their little show was absent, however, as there was no one in the empty courtyard to meet them and the knights swiftly departed without a word, accompanying the now empty carriage back through the gate at a swift clip and leaving the two of them alone.
"Not much for long, drawn out farewells then," Killian said with a shake of his head. In truth, he'd found the Black Knights more unsettling then he'd let on, with their flat, emotionless voices and identical masks that concealed any hint of the men underneath. For all the times in his life that he'd been accused of being heartless, to be forced to exist without one's heart as little more than a puppet to an absent master pulling the strings was a fate he wouldn't wish on any enemy.
He turned, trying to shrug off his disquiet as he swept his gaze over the narrow windows and scanned the empty parapets above, seeing no guards on watchful duty or curious servants attempting to sneak a peek from behind a curtain. Did the Evil Queen expect them to just cool their heels outside like beggars at her gate until she deigned to receive them? But just as he was about to bang on the doors and demand entrance they opened, seemingly of their own volition in a sudden gust of wind that raked through his hair like a lover's touch and lingered a moment too long inside his collar.
As magic infused the famous tale of Snow White and her Prince Charming, it also permeated their castle and when they crossed the threshold into the entryway the doors closed behind them with no one on the other side and a heavy looking beam immediately slid across to bar both entry and escape. Emma's magic was light and warmth, as delicate and effervescent as champagne bubbles. The feeling in the air now was heavy, oppressive, cold and clammy against his skin like sailing through a bank of fog and Killian almost expected to see his breath when he exhaled. It was shadowed and dim inside the castle, the windows were heavily draped against the daylight outside and still nobody appeared to guide them to wherever the Evil Queen was obviously enconsed somewhere within.
"Now what?" he bit out, and as if in response another door swung open in a squeal of hinges to reveal a deep corridor. They both turned towards the sound, expecting someone, anyone, but there was only darkness and silence.
"Where does it lead?" he asked Emma.
"The Great Hall," she answered, a deep furrow between her brows. If even he could sense the Dark Magic in the air, then what was she feeling? He couldn't ask, not when they were clearly being observed, somehow. The pretense had to be maintained for a while longer.
He kept one hand firm on his sword as they proceeded down the long gallery, lit by torches that flared to life as they approached and died as soon as they passed, illuminating only the few steps in front and a sliver of the stone walls on either side. They were hung thick with rich tapestries and fine paintings but almost all of them were in a ruin. The finely woven scenes had been defaced with jagged slashes that had torn them almost in half in parts and there was what looked like burn marks on the portraits, the subjects scorched beyond recognition. Or almost, Killian recognized the distinctive hilt of the sword King David had wielded during their spar on the Jolly hanging from the waist of a now headless man in a red jacket, and Queen Snow White's coal-dark hair on a woman whose face was nothing but a melted blob of pigment that ran down an elaborate feathered gown. The amount of sheer, unbridled ragethat had gone into the destruction was palpable and it was obvious the Queen had staged this all because she wanted Emma to see it. She'd sent chains to bind Snow White's daughter, apples to taunt her, and now she'd forced her to walk a gauntlet of everything she knew and loved torn literally to shreds at her feet.
Emma stared straight ahead throughout their long walk, her head held high with that regal, unbowed posture he'd observed in her right from the beginning. As delicate and fragile as she looked, she was made of sterner stuff than the Queen knew and her pace never faltered at his side.
The gallery eventually opened up into a cavernous space that was undoubtedly the Great Hall, site of many a royal ball and banquet from Emma's tales. But there were no lords and ladies come to make merry and pay court, the vast chamber was nearly empty save for a tall mirror set in the middle of the room, a large rectangle of costly glass in an ornate frame. The mirror was flanked by two torches, the only source of light, and Killian could see their reflections in it, two small figures, one dark, one fair, growing larger and larger with each step. They seemed to ripple and undulate with their approach, as if he was looking into water instead of glass.
A feminine voice that was laced with amusement suddenly chimed in from behind them.
"Sorry I'm late."
The mirror reflected a swirl of purple smoke and they both whirled around, Killian drawing his sword on instinct and pointing it at the woman who stepped out of the cloud as easily as if she'd just stepped through an open door. She had raven hair that was piled up high above her forehead, revealing a face that was heavy with cosmetics. Lashes thick as feathers under dark arched brows, cheeks slashed with rouge and crimson lips curled in a smirk. Gems almost the size of plums hung from her ears and she wore a narrow gown that clung to her like a glove, lavishly trimmed in black lace. The effect was both severe and seductive, she was far younger than the aged crone Killian had expected and in truth, she couldn't actually be all that much older than her former stepdaughter, Snow White.
"Regina," Emma breathed beside him, sounding as startled by the sight of the famed Evil Queen herself in the flesh as he felt.
One arched brow quirked even more and displeasure was clear in her tone when she replied, "That's a bit informal, don't you think? I prefer Your Majesty."
She glided towards them and Killian tensed, his sabre held in a defensive position that seemed to turn her annoyance back into amusement when her gaze flicked down to it.
"Come now, Captain Jones, there's no need for weapons here. We are allies, after all."
He found himself grasping empty air, with a flick of her wrist the sword disappeared and his arm dropped at the sudden loss of weight. Emma's eyes went wide with shock and the Queen chuckled, moving past them with that unhurried, languid stride. Another wave of her hand made a sideboard appear next to the mirror, with a crystal decanter and two goblets set on top. He maneuvered himself in front of Emma while the Queen's back was turned, confused that she seemed to be scarcely paying them any mind as she poured out ruby red wine. She picked up both goblets and held one out to him in her slim hand, her long, pointed nails varnished nearly black.
"A toast," she trilled. "To commemorate this long awaited victory. For the both of us, I hope."
Killian wasn't quite sure what she meant by that, but he accepted the drink and tapped his cup against hers, nothing the way her dark eyes roamed over him from head to toe with a calculating look before she took a sip. The goblets were solid gold, studded all over with jewels and had to be worth as much as a small ship apiece. Under any other circumstances he would have tried to nick one when she wasn't looking, but now was not the time for a spot of petty thievery. Something was definitely amiss, the Queen had barely spared Emma more than that single glance when she'd addressed her by her given name, an odd reaction given the lengths she'd gone to find her. He silently cursed that she'd taken his sword, he could have run her right through himself before she finished her wine and been done with it once and for all.
Better the blood be on his hands than Emma's, anyway.
But with no blade he could do nothing except play the role the Queen expected, so he put on his own smirk and rolled the stem of the goblet between his fingers. "Thank you, Your Majesty. Normally I prefer spirits to wine, but that was an excellent vintage."
"Spirits?" she repeated, her voice taking on a new, playful inflection. "What is it that pirates are said to drink? Rum, if I'm not mistaken."
The decanter was joined on the sideboard by a smoky glass bottle and his goblet turned into a tumbler more suited for drinking liquor instead of wine. It was done in barely a blink, she seemed to wield magic as effortlessly as breathing and it only made him more wary.
"Help yourself," she offered. "Ordinarily my valet would be here to serve, but, well, that position has been vacant for some time now."
She glanced away for a moment, her gaze cast towards the floor and fingers smoothing a non-existent wrinkle from her gown while out of the corner of his eye Killian thought he saw a faint glow coming from between Emma's hands, still wrapped in the rope. The plan had been for him to get them close enough so she could quickly stun the Queen with magic, enough to render her unconscious. Then she would be taken immediately to the dungeon, where a cage that had once held the Dark One himself would bind her power and keep her from escaping. Everything hinged on the element of surprise, to catch her unaware before she could retaliate and the perfect opportunity had just presented itself. He flicked his gaze between them, trying to signal without words for Emma to strike and to strike now.
But the glow faded away instead, her magic turning mercurial again at the worst possible moment and she shot him a helpless look while he cursed silently inside his head. This was what he'd feared the most, that she wasn't yet ready to take on the Queen and he'd brought her straight into the viper's nest with no chance of escape. All he could do now was try to buy her some more time, so he made a show of swaggering over to fill his new cup and keep the Queen's attention on him, away from Emma.
"Will you join me for a tipple?" he asked, lifting the bottle with one finger through the handle and letting it swing back and forth. "Savour the victory some more?
"While I intend to savour this victory to the fullest, Captain, I don't do rum. No offense."
"None taken," he replied with a shrug. "More for me then."
Instead of pouring the rum into the glass, Killian tossed it over his shoulder and lifted the bottle to his lips instead. He took a healthy swig, feeling the all too familiar burn of the liquor in the back of his throat but far from savouring it, he barely tasted anything at all. He did note the close way the Queen was observing him with her head tilted slightly to the side and a familiar smile playing at the edge of her vermillion lips. He could play this game and play it very well, so he rolled his tongue over his teeth and returned her grin.
"Delicious," he said, slowly drawing out the word.
"Flavoured with just a hint of apple. Did you know that it can take up to ten years for an apple tree to finally bear fruit after planting?"
It would be an innocuous statement from anyone except Snow White's stepmother. She continued on, her gaze locked on his and her voice dripping with insinuation. "Ten years...can you imagine sinking in your teeth for that first bite, after waiting so long for satisfaction? To finally have what you've been denied for so many years at long last. Wouldn't you agree?"
He pretended to mull it over for a moment before giving a careless shrug. "I suppose so."
"I thought you would."
Despite his easy posture his nerves were drawn tight as a bowstring, wondering if what he feared was correct and she intended to repeat history with another poisoned apple. Would his own kiss be enough to wake Emma if she fell into the same death-like sleep her mother had? He loved her more than anything, but only the power of True Love's Kiss would break that curse, the rarest magic of all, and tendrils of doubt started to curl around his heart.
His momentary lapse in focus was enough to lose the Queen's interest as she focused back on Emma while her silky voice took on a more dangerous edge.
"Tell me, little princess, do you know the truth of what your mother did to me? Or did she finally learn to keep a damn secret in the end and weaned you instead on those silly tales for children, that I was nothing but vain and jealous of her beauty?"
Each word made the air between them crackle like the lash of a whip, but while she might be unable to summon her magic, Emma was still the woman who had faced him down at his worst without it and she did the same to the Evil Queen herself, meeting her fury head on.
"She told me that the man you loved died, and in your grief you turned to dark magic in search of revenge."
"Died?" the Queen shrieked, her regal composure clearly starting to crack. "Died?" He was murdered! His heart was ripped out and crushed before my eyes, and it was all because of her! She swore she wouldn't tell and as soon as my back was turned she broke her promise like it was nothing. Like he was nothing, when he was everything to me!"
Snow White had also told him in confidence about the Queen's lover, a man of low birth with whom she'd tried to run away before her marriage to the king. Omitted from all the tales, few even knew about his existence and the real reason for her descent into villainy and vengeance.
"We were happy...but that spoiled brat just had to have her own way, didn't she? The great hero, Snow White, champion of the people...she stole that happiness away from me. She was a sneaky little thief long before she was a bandit, and somehow I was the one who was called evil for thinking she should be punished for it."
She drew herself up to her full height with her magic at the ready and gowned in dark splendor, painted and jewelled, he saw nothing but the Evil Queen of tale in all her terrible glory.
"Any last words before I punish you in her stead, Princess Emma?"
"I'm sorry, Regina. I know you probably don't believe that, but I truly am."
The simple apology made her stiffen, freezing her in place. "You're sorry," she repeated, her lips twisted in a sneer. "Snow White's daughter is sorry. She said that too, that she was sorry. How nice. Only sorry doesn't bring back the dead."
"No," Emma agreed, perfectly calm in the eye of the gathering storm. "It doesn't. And whatever it is you're planning to do to me won't bring him back either."
"Oh, but it will make me very happy."
Emma's voice echoed slightly in the large, empty chamber. "Are you happy now, Your Majesty?"
When the Queen didn't reply she pressed on. "You won. This is your great victory at last. You hold the keys to the kingdom and everyone bows to you, the castle is yours and my parents are...my parents are gone. You got everything you wanted in the end and did any of it make you really, truly happy? Was any of it enough?"
Killian could tell from the furious look on her face that Emma had struck a nerve, just as she'd done when she'd thrown his own words back in his face and, like then, she did it without any regard for her own safety. A ball of flame suddenly appeared in the Queen's palm.
"Let's find out," she snarled, and before all hell could break loose he stepped between them.
"Now, now," he chided with a click of his tongue, putting two fingers carefully on her wrist and pushing her hand to the side. "They'll be no damaging the goods, at least not until I get what was promised to me. We had a deal, you and I, remember?"
For a moment he thought her fury would turn on him instead, but after a long moment she gave a clipped nod and pursed her lips to blow the flame out instead. Relief flooded through him, more welcome than the rum.
"How could I forget. Of course, you want your reward."
The coquette was back again, her sneer turning to a simper while she reached out a hand to toy with the lapel of his coat, running a finger along it until her arm was draped over his shoulder and those painted lips pressed to his ear.
"But first, tell me something. Did you enjoy her, Captain?"
Far from a discreet whisper, it was said loudly enough for Emma to hear and she stared back at them, mouth turning to a thin line and a crimson flush rising at once on her pale cheeks. The Queen's breath was warm against his skin but all Killian could feel was ice in the pit of his stomach.
"Aye," he answered, trying his best to sound indifferent. "She was my prize and it was my right as captain. Besides, I'd never had a princess before and you can hardly blame a man for wanting to crown himself king for a night...or several."
"That's what I thought," she murmured, clearly pleased with the callousness of his answer. She tipped her head back and laughed with one hand resting lightly on his chest.
"A far cry from that insipid, so-called "True Love" your mother and father share, or shared, I should say, wasn't it, little princess? You know what? You're right, none of my victories made me happy, but I'm going to change all that and making you suffer day after endless day, now that's just what I need to make up for having the satisfaction of getting to watch Snow White die taken from me."
Emma's eyes were bright with unshed tears in the torchlight, shimmering like gemstones. Magic be damned, if the Queen hadn't taken his sword he would have it at her throat by now to show her just how dangerous it was to goad a pirate and insult his lady.
"I have a proposition for you."
She pulled back and went to pour herself more wine while he fought madly to control his temper. When this was finally over he'd go down on his knees and beg Emma's forgiveness, be the man she loved again, the man he'd wanted to be ever since that spark had ignited between them, and not this cruel imitation who gave the Queen a knowing look and a lascivious smirk at her suggestive offer.
"Oh? And just what exactly are you proposing?"
"Something for our mutual benefit, I assure you. Let me tell you a story, almost twenty years ago I'd planned to enact a curse, one that would take everyone in the kingdom to a new land, a faraway realm where the name Snow White would be forgotten at last and I could finally find the happiness that eluded me here."
The curse that Emma's parents had feared for all these years and the Fairy Queen had warned against, the one that was supposed to take away all the happy endings. The curse that the Dark One had prophecy had said Emma would break...on her twenty-eighth birthday, still almost a decade away.
"Think of it," she said, soft and enticing. "A new land full of undiscovered treasures just waiting for a man like you to find them."
"Plenty of undiscovered treasures still left here," he countered, wondering why it sounded like she was trying to convince him of the merits of this new land.
"Ah," the Queen conceded with a dip of her chin. "True, however even with my signature on a royal charter naming you my subject and giving assent for your activities, you will always been seen as nothing more than a lowly pirate. I know a little bit about that, you see, they call me Queen but I will always be the interloper, the usurper, the one who stole Snow White's rightful crown. Much as we may wish to, we can't escape our pasts."
Deserter. Turncoat. Pirate.
Every eiptath that had ever been thrown at him whispered again in Killian's ear, inescapable even aboard his own ship thanks to the open contempt of Lieutenant Courtice. More were also sure to come, now that he'd freely boasted of bedding and deflowering the beloved princess of the realm.
It took him a moment to focus back on the Queen, still talking between sips of her wine. "I found it curious that you didn't ask for the reward I offered for Princess Emma, very curious for a pirate of your renown. Yes, I know who you are, Captain Killian Jones. But then I figured out what it was you really wanted. Legitimacy. With my curse I can provide much more than that. It shouldn't even be called a curse, it's really a clean slate. A chance to start over. Everyone will be given a new life, new memories, and the Enchanted Forest will be nothing more than a dream you forget as soon as you wake up. Of course, some of these new lives will be more pleasant than the others, and I can ensure your life there is extremely pleasant, you'll have wealth, power, be admired and envied by all you encounter. I'll put you in a position that commands respect, where no one will remember all those dirty little secrets you've tried to keep hidden. Now, does that sound like such a terrible curse?"
She addressed it to him with an expectant look that soured when it was Emma who answered instead.
"It sounds like one of the Dark One's deals, and my parents taught me that those always come with a price."
The Queen's tone turned from velvet to venom. "I wasn't talking to you. Was she this insolent aboard your ship?"
Emma's insolence aboard the Jolly had driven him absolutely mad and highly amused him both in equal measure. Frequently at the same time. He shot her a stern look though, to keep up the ruse. "She learned to obey my orders in the end. Didn't you, darling? But if you're not going to kill her, then what do you plant to do with her, Your Majesty?"
He steered the conversation back to what really mattered, trying to get as much information as he could without arousing her suspicion. Keep Emma as her prisoner? Torture her for the sins of her mother? He'd have to figure out how to spirit her away from the castle without getting them both killed and figure it out quickly, take her back to the ship and attempt to outrun the reach of the Queen's curse. If such a thing was possible, it would only be possible aboard the Jolly.
The Queen smiled at Emma through lips the red of apples and fresh-spilled blood.
"Like I said, some lives in my new land will be more pleasant than others. There'll be no more royal trappings, no title, no servants there to wait on her hand and foot. No more pretty gowns or princes begging for her hand, no one coming to save her. Ever. She'll be alone, completely and utterly alone, and then she'll finally understand what it's like to live without love, without hope, without happiness. You could even keep on enjoying her, if you like, as much as you want, since you certainly earned your reward. Snow White's precious little princess turned into nothing more than a concubine to a pirate. Yes, that will make me very happy indeed."
He felt a shock run right through him at that, meeting Emma's wide-eyed gaze across the room. They had all thought the Queen was going to try to kill her before casting this mysterious curse, but if she was willing to both spare Emma and give her to him in this land where he would have power and prestige, then he could shelter and shield her with the Queen being none the wiser for it. She said they wouldn't remember, but there was no realm in which he wouldn't love Emma, his princess, his swan, memory be damned, and she fell in love with him once despite all the many reasons why she shouldn't. He could win her heart again in the new land, he was sure of it.
"Would it really be so terrible, Princess?" he asked. She looked back at him and there was nothing but the two of them in that moment, no Evil Queen, no kingdom in peril, nothing but the beat of his heart in his chest and his silent vow to follow wherever she led.
"You are my queen, and to you I pledge my sword and my fealty."
Another voice chimed in, deep and rich with the accent of a distant shore. But the chamber was still empty save for the three of them, and Killian realized it was coming from inside the mirror. The reflection had disappeared completely and a face emerged from what looked like stormclouds, trapped somehow within the glass. It was clearly a man's face, though he lacked any form beyond his strange, grey visage. From faceless knights under her absolute control to a man who was nothing but a face in a mirror, was there no end to the Queen's dark magic?
The face spoke again, "Your other guest has just arrived, Your Majesty."
Other guest? Killian's confusion was reflected on Emma's face while the Queen was clearly pleased by the news, setting her goblet down on the sideboard in a swish of her fine gown and moving with purpose.
"I have a gift for you, Captain," she said, pausing to draw her nail under his chin and turning his head so that he was facing the doors. "You brought me one, and I thought it only fitting that I return the favour."
She flicked her wrist and they opened with a flourish. Torches blazed to life and two of the Black Knights entered, dragging a third man between them. Killian caught the barest glimpse of his face before he was shoved unceremoniously inside and fell to the floor in a heap with his head bent, his thick dark hair shot through heavily with silver. The man was tall, as tall as his brother had been, broad in the shoulders under a coarse linen shirt. Killian felt his heart beat faster at the sight of him and a sickening lurch in his belly. No. No, it couldn't be…
The Queen's voice cut through the haze that suddenly surrounded him, ordering the knights out and looping her arm through his to urge him forward.
"Snow White betrayed me in the worst possible way, by making me believe she could be trusted. It's a terrible thing to be betrayed by family, isn't it? The wound never truly heals no matter how much time passes. Five years, or ten, or sixteen…"
Sixteen years ago. Sixteen years ago he'd been a lad of eleven.
"Once upon a time there had been a father with two small sons, boarding a ship for what he promised was a new start in a new land for all of them…"
"Your Majesty, I swear I've done nothing, please. Please," the man begged in a voice that was familiar and unfamiliar both, thinner and watery with age. Killian's fingers curled against his thigh and he swallowed hard against the sudden lump in his throat.
The Queen ignored the desperate pleas and continued on as if he hadn't spoken. "Allow me to make the introductions. Princess Emma, daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, meet Brennan Jones."
The shaggy head lifted at that and his gaze settled on Emma, thick brows that were twin to Killian's own knitting in confusion. The face was older, more grizzled and lined than the last memory Killian had of the man who knelt in front of him now.