It began with an act of thievery. Art was the cause of it. She had slipped into Lundon anonymously, hoping to pick up supplies—supplies meaning some of that wonderful coffee at the Coffee Bar that she'd developed such a fondness for. But then she spotted the apple-seller.
He was a red-nosed gentlemen and sneezed frequently into his filthy sleeve, and between sneezes he'd bawl at the raggedy children who'd scamper up to his counter in the hopes of snagging an apple or two. Art had watched them for a while, then seen a fancy coach approaching—one surreptitious slap to the horse's rear sent the creature careening into the apple vendor's stores. Spilled apples for Art and the children spelled trouble for the young coachman who now found himself blamed for the mess.
But the poor fellow was faultless, a victim of circumstance—nothing more. Still the man wearing frills who'd just stumbled out of the coach and had an apple under each foot shook him till his teeth rattled and he looked ill and dizzy, then released him with such promptitude that the coachman went sprawling, whimpering with pain.
"Check the horse, dem you!" said Frills.
The trembling coachman did as he was told, but the horse was a little annoyed itself and voiced and showed its displeasure with a piercing neigh and bared teeth.
"Hurry up!" Frills' gold cane descended on the coachman's shoulders. "I'm in a hurry, dontcha know!"
"Oh…please," gasped the coachman, catching at the horse's bridle and steadying it while simultaneously trying to avoid the blows rained upon him. This resulted in the cane's landing rather forcefully on the mighty steed's hooter, and it reared back in wrathful indignation before plunging forward and charging down the main street, carriage rattling along behind it and Frills' relatives shrieking with terror.
Frills' face was absolutely lavender in his anger and the poor coachman seemed drained of even the will to flee.
"Bert!" cried Frills, with a menacing look.
Art paused, stolen apple still in hand, when she saw what appeared to be that distinguished gentleman's equally distinguished manservant. He swung a long whip with a thick handle of smooth, polished silver.
"What is it, my Landsir?" he inquired.
"That—that beast," said Frills, pointing at the coachman who still stood there like a deer caught in our modern-day headlights, gaping. "Look what he's done!"
"Done away with your coach, looks like, sir," said Bert.
"Oh!" moaned Frills with a sob.
The coachman now attempted to redeem himself, bowing most humbly to the irate landsir.
"It simply was not my intention to…ow!"
The manservant had taken advantage of this low-class person's bent back to strike at him with the whip. The coachman shrank a step or two back, then stood firmly and foolishly, looking at them both with a rebelliousness born of a pessimistic sense of defeat.
"Do as ye will, then," he said, falling out of his well-practiced, civilized English to a more barbaric manner of expressing himself. "I wouldn't give two-pence for the admiration o' either of you puffer-fish!"
The two gentlemen's jaws dropped. Art's eyes narrowed. Puffer-fish?
A small crowd had gathered about them now. Frills, spluttering, turned to his manservant.
"I want his hide, Bert. I want it now."
"As you wish, your Landsirship."
The coachman was stripped to the waist and promptly kicked flat. He held still, squaring his narrow shoulders with an air of deliberate disdain and directing this look specifically at Frills.
"Hurry up!" said Frills.
It would've begun instantly—indeed, Bert already had raised his whip and roused all his strength in order to deliver a hearty blow to the lunatic coachman. But he was stopped by a hand catching hold of his, and found himself looking at Art.
"Lovely day, isn't it, sir," she said. Her gray eyes were a sight colder than even the dull winter sky above them.
"How dare you intervene!" roared Frills. "Get back, you…"
It was the coachman who'd spoken last. His tone was reverential, awe-struck, to say the least. Worshipful. He met her eyes briefly, then looked away.
"Piratica, is it?" said Frills, sneering but not altogether certain that this was she, having only seen messy, cartoon-like sketches of her. "Well, well! Queen of the Sea you may well be, girl, but you're not the Queen of England. Away with you! Be off! Punishment must be served. Even you, as a captain, know that discipline is needed."
Art released Bert's hand and stood over the coachman, looking down at him.
"Well, sir," she said, "it seems that punishment has, indeed, been served—and more than once, at that."
She was looking at the coachman's back. It was crisscrossed with whip-marks, some mere scars and others painfully fresh, but all of them quite obvious against the oddly darkish color of his skin. Frills blinked.
"Why, I never did that…not on my life, only had him flogged once before…." He looked about him a little nervously as the watching peasants murmured their disapproval. "I swear I didn't!"
"He's tellin' the truth." The coachman had risen and now stood facing Art.
Art's brow creased. "Others…?"
He held out his hand to her. "Should you grant me the honor of taking ye to—the Coffee Bar?—I'd be willing to explain all."
Frills was very indignant. "But the coach! I need a coach."
"Go after it, then," said his coachman with a sniff.
Frills took him by the shoulders, shook him as he had before. "You're still in my employment! Do—as—I—"
"Funny," said Art. "I rather thought this was a free England."
The grumbling of those who stood about gawking, all of their remarks seeming to be in favor of this wretched pirate, caused Frills and Bert to back off swiftly. Not before they had issued a few threats and curses, but still! They were gone.
Art gave the coachman a smooth bow and he did likewise, picking up his coat (which had been tossed aside before) from where it rested on a few icy cobblestones and pulling it on with a shiver.
"Much too cold," he commented, "t'be going about like this."
Art nodded, then stepped forward. "Come along. The Coffee Bar isn't all that distant, sir."
The coffee slid warmly down his throat and the coachman heaved a sigh, propping his elbow up on the table and leaning his chin on the palm of one callused hand.
"The Unwelcome Stranger, you say," he said, "docked at Ports' Mouth? 'Tisn't that chancy of you, Captain Blastside?"
Art smiled, swallowed some of her own drink. "I find I can take such chances, sir," she said, "when these good people seem so taken with the likes of us."
"Ah!" he said. "Then pirating's taking a turn for the better, aye?"
"Pirating hasn't in and of itself gained me such admiration," Art said.
The coachman nodded, drumming his fingers. "Yes. Tricks and cleverness, innit? That's what you do. Never hurt a fly in your life—save Goldie." He eyed her narrowly.
Art put down her mug. "We've talked enough of me," she said, her expression now wary. "What of yourself, sir? Who are you?"
The coachman shifted a little in his discomfort, took a longer sip of his coffee, and said in one great rush, "Captain-Crow-at-your-service-Captain."
Art had been drinking again. Now she was choking. "What?"
"Captain," he repeated, carefully, "Crow. 'Tis my name."
"Surely your parents didn't name you 'Captain.'"
"Nay." This odd coachman gave her an odd look. "But surely ye've heard of me, Piratica. In the days before there was one such as you to give us a better name, there was witnessed the rise (and quick fall) of one Captain Crow."
"Surely you jest…"
"'Tis no jest. Wish it were, almost—for 'twas a vow of mine to kill you."