Swallowing back her rising panic, Emma dismissed the messenger with the calmest voice that she could summon, which was still far more biting than he deserved. It was hardly his fault that the news he had brought not only put a foil in their plans, but bore a personal problem for her as well. In fact, they were lucky by far to have this news from a man of her own, rather than the official word from the emissary who was, they had just learned, due to ride out to meet them tomorrow. She was more grateful than she'd ever been for her mother's spies at other courts. At least she had time to...
To what? To figure out a way out of it? To just come to terms with the idea?
"I'd heard rumours that King George was looking for a wife," Graham said, breaking the silence. "Your parents believed that his search was in the north, not so close to home."
The two of them sat alone in her tent. The space was modest by royal standards, but she'd refused the usual fanfare, unwilling to add time and effort to an already taxing mission. She'd have laid her blanket on the earth by the fire like the rest of her men if she'd been able, but even she recognised that she had to make a good impression when she approached George, the king of the country that bordered the one her mother ruled over. Graham had been in her mother's service since long before her birth, and now he was just as much friend as he was capable bodyguard.
Their mission had been one of negotiation. Their relationship with George and his country to the east was a peaceful one, if sometimes strained, but she couldn't say the same of the lands to the west. The usual small raids on farms that skirted the western border had grown into more antagonistic ones on settlements and small towns, and so far King Arthur had ignored their requests for investigation. Worse of all, men in the colours of his own guard had been seen in such attacks. Unable to sit idle, Snow White was gathering her forces - but the years since the banishment of her stepmother had been peaceful, and they had been slow to realise that their forces were pitifully small.
Not so King George's army; he had more than enough men, they knew, but little with which to pay them. And thus had been their task. The use of men to stand against Arthur, to go to war if need be, in exchange for the gold George desperately needed to keep his kingdom from poverty.
It had been a simple enough undertaking, but the news her mother's spy had sent her made this impossibly harder. George had heard of their approach and their reason for it, and he was planning on countering her offer. He would give her his men readily enough, and he would take her promise of gold, a sample of which they carried in a chest hidden amongst her personal things on her carriage, but he also wanted something more from her, something she wasn't prepared to give.
"I won't marry him," she said, standing up and pacing as much as she could in the small space. She was aware that she sounded more petulant child than princess and royal representative, but she didn't have it in her to restrain her tone. "It's absurd."
Graham didn't speak straight away, and she could see the wheels turning in his head. "He mightn't see it so," he said carefully. "It's a good opportunity for both himself and for Snow. An alliance by marriage would be far stronger than the one they have now. You're past old enough to be partnered in such a match. He probably thinks he's doing you a favour."
She bit back her sharp retort that he was being ridiculous. In fact, he was saying only what she was too stubborn to put voice to herself - that this match made sense. Politically. In reality, she couldn't think of anything worse. "I don't need to remind you of what we know of him," she said quietly, stopping her pacing to look at him directly. "That he's callous, malicious, dangerous. I won't argue that I don't want to leave my home for his, or that he's old enough to be my grandfather. He is not a good man, Graham, and I will not marry him."
He didn't disagree with her, or tell her she was being childish or stubborn. "I'm not sure there's a simple way out of this. We still need his men. Snow wouldn't have sent us to beg for aid unless she deemed it necessary. If he doesn't think that gold for men is an even trade, then I think we have little else to offer him to tip the balance in our favour again. No doubt he has his eye on the whole of his country and yours together, for his children if not for himself."
Emma grimaced at the idea of bearing that man's children. "It's only going to make things harder for my parents. I'm not sure that there's a way out of this without offending him, Graham."
"And he's a proud man. If you decline his offer without good reason then he might not deal with you at all." Grimacing, Graham closed his eyes and rubbed at them roughly. Whatever formality they showed in public as befitting their stations as princess and guard was discarded in private. "Is nothing about this trip going to be simple?"
Of course, George wasn't the day's only problem. There was the man held under guard in the other, smaller tent, tied up and blindfolded until they decided what to do with him. An idea sprang to mind, a ridiculous, terrible idea. She held her breath as it formed, waiting for the fault in it to make itself known, for surely such a plan was too ludicrous to work. George would still likely be angry, but she'd have an explanation for her rejection of his offer. She just wouldn't consider what it meant for herself, not yet anyway.
Perhaps it was her silence, or the look on her face, but Graham's eyes were sharp as he came to stand before her. "What is it?"
Letting her breath out slowly, she forced a smile. "There may be a way out of this, after all."
Emma approached the tent on the other side of the small clearing with purpose, knowing that her part had to played well from now on or their plan would fall flat. Graham had argued against it, going so far as to say that her parents would never approve of such a thing, but had quietened before she'd had to embarrass them both by pulling rank on him. When she reached the tent she bid him wait for her outside, ignoring the tightening of his features and doing her best to make her own expression one of suppressed eagerness. Slipping inside the tent, she closed and fastened the flap quickly.
Straightening, she made herself turn around, surprised by the sudden reluctance she felt. She'd seen him when her sentries had brought him in, arms tied firmly behind his back and his hair and clothes dishevelled, not to speak of the blackening of the skin around his left eye. When their eyes met across the clearing it felt like time had stopped just for them. His lips had parted, his brow softening, his eyes clearing from a challenge to something she wasn't sure she could put a name to. For that long moment, he was the boy who she had known in her childhood, her companion, her best friend. Then the guards had hustled him out of sight, leaving her mind cloudy and her breath short.
Her prisoner sat in the middle of the small space, and her heart felt like it would beat out of her chest as she took him in. Killian Jones had changed much in the ten years since she'd last laid eyes on him. Gone were the fine clothes of a lord's son and, later, the smart uniform of a lieutenant in the King's Navy. Now he was all black and leather, the clothes fitted well enough to show off a well muscled figure. The biggest change wasn't the clothes, however, nor the growth on his cheeks that far surpassed what he'd been able to managed at seventeen. When he'd first been brought in his arms had been tied behind his back - that had been changed, perhaps for comfort, so that a length of rope tied his wrists tightly together before him. In the place of his left hand was a heavy looking brace. They'd removed his hook, of course. Killian - Captain Hook - had a reputation now, after all.
Looking at him now, Emma felt the long-suppressed memories of his last days at court come flooding back. His father had been a favoured lord, a close friend of her own father. When his elder brother, a captain in their navy, had died in battle, David had ceded the loss and retreated. Killian had been furious, at his brother's loss of life and at David's assurances that retribution would be had - but only when it was the right time. Killian had wanted action then and there, and when his own father had advised patience he'd fled the city in a stolen ship to seek his own vengeance. No one had seen him since. There'd been rumours, certainly, but not everyone had made the connection between the mild-mannered young lieutenant and the fierce, infamous Captain Hook.
It had taken a long time for her to accept that he wasn't coming home. She figured that he would have his vengeance and return to court, and then things could go back to how they'd been before. A month had passed, then a year, then two then three then four, and eventually she had put him out of her mind and closed her heart. It had hurt too much to do otherwise. One day, the ship that he'd taken had appeared again in their harbour, and her father had told her that one of their other vessels had come across pirates while on a mission at sea. They had managed to reclaim the Jewel of the Realm, although now she was just as well known as the Jolly Roger. Several men had been injured, but most of the pirate crew had managed to escape uninjured. Emma had thanked him politely for the explanation, but told him she had no interest in ships or pirates.
Killian must have known that someone was standing before him, but he gave no indication of the fact. Finding no words of her own (or rather, too many to choose from), she swallowed down her nerves and walked over to stand behind him, untying his blindfold and tucking the length of cloth into her belt. He remained silent until she returned to stand in front of him, forcing her expression to one of neutrality.
He did a far better job of that than she did. He almost looked bored. Whatever emotion had been in his eyes when he'd looked at her across the clearing was certainly gone now. Finally, his lips twisted into a grimace that looked somewhat self-deprecating. "Your Highness," he said, bowing as well as he was able.
Did he truly feel as indifferent to her as his tone implied, or was it just an act to push her away? She'd been able to tell the difference, once. "I didn't think the mighty Captain Hook could be caught," she said, keeping her back straight and her voice even. If he didn't feel overwhelmed at seeing her again, she could at least pretend that it was the same for her.
His grimace shifted into a smirk, and for a moment he looked almost like the boy she remembered. Almost. The Killian she'd known had never had such a hardness in his eyes. "Oh, on the contrary," he said, sounding more than pleased with himself. "Keeping me is a different matter. Don't think that taking my attachments from me is going to detain me any longer, either," he added, lifting his joined arms to show off his brace. "I am a pirate, after all. But I forget - you're not likely to see much of my kind in your pretty little castle, Your Highness."
He was teasing her, and it made her feel sick. Sick and angry. Clenching her teeth together, she counted to ten, taking a deep breath as subtly as she could before she did something stupid like argue with him like they had when they were children. Or slap him - she wanted to do that, too. "You've forgotten much, if you think I'm ignorant of the world," she said steadily, clasping her hands together behind her back.
He said nothing, simply raised his eyebrow at her mockingly. This was all wrong, his words and tone and actions filling her with a confusion she hadn't expected. It had been so long since she'd thought of him, but now that she stood before him she was confronted again with all of the lonely years since he'd left. Perhaps she hadn't forgiven him just yet.
If he was hiding behind his new persona, this arrogance and exuberance that felt rather different from what she remembered, then she would stick to the role he quite clearly wasn't willing to see past. Perhaps he really did care as little as he appeared. That was fine - she didn't need him to care. Just to listen to her offer.
"As adept as you say you are at escaping capture, you'll find that there's no need. My party and I have a matter to bring before King George, and we'll not delay ourselves by bearing a prisoner along with us. I need to know why you were watching our camp, and then I have a matter to put to you. If your answers prove satisfactory then I'll let you go."
There was a sudden glint in his eye and he leaned forward slightly. "Trust me, darling, I'll be sure to satisfy you in any way you require."
Her arm moved before she could stop herself, darting out to slap him sharply with the palm of her hand. His head turned with the blow but he didn't flinch, despite that the bruise around his eye must have left him already feeling sore. She'd surprised herself with the act that was quite out of character for her, but she didn't dwell on things like guilt right now - she was still too angry and frustrated. "Will you just shut up so I can tell you I need your help," she said, the words spilling out of her before she could bite her tongue against them. She was starting to feel distressed. She'd thought it would be better if he bore no resemblance to the young man she'd known, but watching this stranger in his skin almost felt like more than she could bear. She wasn't sure at all that she'd get much cooperation out of him, but formality was getting her nowhere so she must try something else.
Taking a step back to put some space between them, she set the situation out for him: the disputes on the border Misthaven shared with Camelot, the lack of a well trained army. She thought that last part might have angered him, to know that David had let things slip after the battle his brother was involved in, but he didn't react. Perhaps he knew already. He hadn't looked at her since she'd struck him, but she kept on talking, spelling out King George's financial troubles and their hope to negotiate with him.
"You weren't our only arrival since we set up camp," Emma told him, still watching his face carefully for a reaction. Although he hadn't spoken, she was starting to feel more like herself again, more in control, if only because she had a plan to focus on. "We received word from a source at George's court that he's learned of the offer we plan to present to him, and is sending a delegation to meet us tomorrow with a counter offer. He plans to accept, on the added assurance that I will become his wife."
Killian jerked as though he'd only just been struck, sucking in his breath with a sound like a hiss. "You can't marry him," he said, startling her with the intensity of his words. His eyes, finally on her again, were wide and adamant, his back very straight. "You don't know the kinds of things he's done. King or not, he'll not put his hands on you."
She didn't ask why he thought it was his right to have an opinion on the matter, or what he'd do about it if she saw fit to accept George's offer. "I need his men," she said instead. "I can't offend him just by turning down his offer with no reason - politically it's a great match, and he knows it as well as I do. There's no reason to decline other than that I simply can't stand him. We can't have war on one border and unrest or worse on the other because I do this indelicately. As it is, my few options are heavy handed enough. But they might still work."
He'd regained his control while she'd spoken, for the most part anyway. The strange blaze of fury in his eyes had been restrained, leaving only a scowl to show how he felt. She couldn't guess what the cause was for the intensity of his reaction, and she wasn't going to ask. It certainly couldn't be that he was concerned for her welfare, despite his sharp protest. That would imply that he actually cared an inch about her, and he'd more than proved that wasn't the case. Perhaps he had his own reasons for hating King George. When he spoke, his voice was calm. "I can see that you have a plan. Spell it out, then."
This was the part of it that made her stomach twist into knots. The words were hard to find. Finding that she was unable to look at him, she dropped her eyes to the ground. "We were friends, once. Before what happened with your brother. I was... sad, when you left, and that was noted by more than a few at court. It wouldn't be hard to convince them that there was more to it than friendship."
She saw him shifting on the edge of her vision. "I -"
For the first time, there was a gentle familiarity in his voice. That was the one thing she wanted least of all. "Please let me finish," she said quietly, and he fell silent. "A story of lovers separated and then reunited would be believable. A chance reunion in the woods; a reconciliation. You've enjoyed your years of rebellion but couldn't keep away from court any longer, couldn't keep away from... me. I forgive you your absence and your actions, as long as you'll stay by me. We've wasted enough time. We could be married before nightfall, and when George's emissary arrives in the morning it will be with a heavy heart that I must deny his request, for a woman can only be married to one man. It's a pretty lie, is it not?" Damn it, but what was that wobble in her voice at the end? She lifted her chin to look down at Killian, determined not to look weak in front of him.
All traces of anger and mockery had faded from his face, leaving something far too complex in his eyes for her to put a name to. She met his stare evenly despite the tightness in her chest. His arms lifted slightly, then fell back down to his lap. "Emma," he said.
It might have been the ten years of tenderness in his voice, or simply that it was the first time he'd called her by name, but it was too much. "It's a believable story," she snapped. "Surely believable enough. I know that being stuck in the castle isn't what you want, that you find it stuffy and boring. I know I must be stuffy and boring after all the adventuring you've been doing since you left. But it's the only thing I can think of aside from marrying George or putting my family and home in danger. It needn't be forever - a year, two at most, long enough to make it look real. And you can have your ship back," she added, knowing it might not be enough of a bargaining tool, not wanting to think of how much he'd have to hate her to turn her down once she offered him his prize back. "I'll have Father make a gift of it. A... wedding gift." She forced herself to say it. And she wouldn't think of her father's reaction, nor her mother's, when she returned home not only with a husband, but a pirate.
The silence stretched out between them for so long that Emma's nerves felt stretched enough to split in two. She was about to fall to her knees before him and beg her case again when he spoke. "All right. I'll play the part for you. For a time."
She couldn't read his face at all now. But it didn't matter. Her shoulders drooped as the tension went out of them. "You'll not just have to play the part," she told him briskly as she strode over to him, biding him to stand. She started to pull at the ropes around his wrists to loosen them. "You'll have to play it convincingly. To everyone, not just George."
"I can be convincing," he said quietly, and her eyes darted up quickly to see that his face was a look closer to hers than she'd thought. She felt his breath on her lips when he spoke. "Can you?"
They stared at each other until Emma became aware of the hammering in her chest. She was clutching tightly to his wrists, and she made herself loosen her grip to finish untying the rope. Suddenly it was very hard to look at him. "It'll be fine. Just stay here until I come back. I have things to organise."
Her heartbeat was still pounding in her ears when she left the tent, and the cool breeze of the late afternoon was refreshing on her face. Damn him, for making her feel so jittery.
She was so deep in her thoughts that it took her a moment to notice Graham's presence, his tall form standing directly by her shoulder. "A word, please, Your Highness?" he said stiffly, and she was sure that if not for protocol and the guards standing on either side of the tent flaps, that he would have grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away himself.
As it was, she followed him away from the tent and out of earshot. "He's agreed to my offer," she said, lifting her chin and meeting his eye in a semblance of calm. When she went through the motions of calm and control it was usually enough to make it real, but today she couldn't quite get her mind under control. It felt too simple, too fast. He's agreed to my offer fell something short of he's agreed to be my husband. No matter than it was a means to an end - in a very short time she'd be married. "We'll need to do it soon. At dusk would be best. And before the camp. You should let it slip in front of Happy - then the whole lot of them will know before dinner."
She saw the clenching and unclenching of his fist. "This isn't a good idea, Emma," he said quietly, his eyes darting between hers and the people closest to them, making sure they weren't close enough to overhear. "He's no good - a pirate, a scoundrel. And it's personal. Don't pretend it's not. He's already broken your heart once." The concern was plain on his face.
She was touched by it, but she'd made up her mind. "I'm not a fifteen year old girl anymore, Graham," she told him. "Besides, it was never like that between the two of us. We were friends, only. I know he's not ideal, but he has a good enough bloodline to be a contender. Not that my parents married for anything but love," she reminded him.
"You're going to have to be good if you plan to convince your mother that you're in love with him," Graham said dryly. "I doubt even you can keep him tame for long enough for it to work."
Emma smiled at him faintly. "Once, he was a good man. Once, a nobleman, a promising star in the King's Navy. Once, he was a good man." She only hoped he could at least pretend to be one again.
As dusk turned the sky pink and purple and grey, Emma stood at the edge of the camp under a large oak tree, dressed in her finest travelling gown with her hair braided around her head like a crown. Her back was straight and her smile broad, if a little forced. Across from her stood Killian Jones, his own expression solemn, but at least he did a fine job of making sure his eyes never left her face. As the most senior knight present, Graham spoke the words that tied their lives together, at least for the foreseeable future, placing her hand in Killian's and pronouncing them husband and wife. And if any of the members of their party thought it all a strange turn of events they were dismissed when they saw the way their princess's new husband put his arms around her and held her tightly, as she stood on tiptoe as she leaned up to him as they shared their kiss of celebration.