"I see what you meant, Angus," Ardyn said, smiling as the wind skipped off Sapphire Sound. "This ship is a wonderful blockade runner!"
"It shares certain characteristics!" Angus protested. "It was never used for that purpose and was not designed to perform it!"
"You're not foolin' anyone, laddie," Corlane said, grinning at the young man. The three stood poised on the bow as they nosed in toward MacTavish Town, as the settlement around the Estate was known. "This is just the kind of ship a pirate would carve his other eye out for."
"No one in my family has ever been a pirate," Angus growled. "Not a one! We are upstanding citizens, and the timing of the pirate surge around the Sounds with our entrance into the shipping business is entirely coincidental-"
"As is the fact that those pirates never targeted MacLoughlin's ships?" Ardyn teased.
"Exactly!" Angus glared at her. "One more word and I'll talk to my father about keelhauling you, MacTavish."
"Oh." She put on her best frown. "I thought you made damsels walk the plank."
Angus threw his hands in the air. "Maybe we should! You won't let that go, will you?"
"I noticed the cannons on the weather deck, Angus," Ardyn said mildly. "Are they for fishing?"
"Every merchant ship carries some manner of self-defense. It's only logical!" Angus thrust his hands back in his coat pockets. "And that's all we are. Seafaring merchants, like MacTavish itself. That we're better at it than the competition is hardly our fault."
"'That those coincidental pirates happen to scourge the competition while we go unmolested can hardly be ascribed to us,'" Ardyn said in a sing-song voice. "'Lies, accursed lies and statistics!'"
"Woman!" Angus raised his fist with an overly threatening expression. "One more word!"
"Have a go," she invited, holding up one of her knitting needles. "If you dare."
"I'm starting to think Little John betrothed the wrong MacTavish," Ardyn's father mused, which made her drop her needlework entirely.
"What? No!" She started to crouch, leaning on the railing, but Angus bent over and swept all her effects up before she had a chance. "Thank you, rapscallion."
"You knit yourself a gag, why don't you?" Angus asked. "You nagging siren!"
"Pirates know all about sirens!"
"Well I don't know a thing, then!"
"I knew that already, but it takes a big man to admit it-"
Corlane burst out laughing, clutching his gut as he nearly bent double.
"In seriousness," Ardyn said, hiding her red cheeks with the brim of her hat, "it's a very nice ship, Angus. It certainly makes the journey fast, and it has all the creature comforts anyone could desire."
"I'll make sure to tell the captain," Angus promised. He looked red, too, Ardyn noted with a little flush of sadistic glee. If she had to suffer her father's attempts to embarrass her, at least the pirate was in Hell with her.
Then he glanced side to side, and Ardyn had to take a deep breath.
"The Ambassador's necklace was a silver lantern, you say?" he asked. Ardyn nodded.
"With a purple gem."
"I heard something about a death cult that uses those necklaces," the young man said. "They worship the Gifted, especially a man called Vaneer. They say he's the Messiah or something, here to save the world from threats only he can foresee."
"Nutters," Corlane growled. "And the Ambassador's one of them?"
"She had the necklace," Ardyn said. "I can't imagine why else she would. And her correspondence with Princess Marona mentioned the name Vaneer a couple of times."
"It did?" Angus asked.
"Yeah, it did," Corlane said. "We went over the bloody chaff the night before we left. Weren't you paying attention, boy?"
"A lot of it," Angus snapped, "considering I was with my father and my brother meeting King Truman!"
"...right," Corlane mumbled. "Well, you should have told me that before I got on your case about it."
"I did tell you-"
"The point, Angus," Ardyn said, "is that the Ambassador's dialogue with one of the Marona princesses back in Rosa - I'm sorry, I've quite forgotten which one."
"The youngest one," Corlane said. "I remember that, quite clearly. It was the youngest, Leila."
"No, she's the middle girl," Angus protested. "The youngest is Luna."
"Right. That name sounds right. Her name was definitely something celestial." Ardyn relocated her thoughts with some difficulty. "So, the Ambassador was exchanging letters with Luna, the youngest Marona, talking about some Jason fellow, though they veered from specifics like professionals. I think the lady is here to meet up with him and organize some kind of coup over the Highlands."
"You know, I really miss the days I thought MacDonald was full of crap when it came to Nurem," Angus sighed. "What about the encoded thing?"
"Still working on it," Ardyn said. "I'll figure it out in time. I'm good at puzzles."
"We may not have time," Angus pointed out, which Ardyn could hardly deny.
They were silent as the Buried Treasure pulled into MacTavish Town's harbor.
"No! That one goes there, and that one goes there!" Ardyn's father clutched his head. "You bleeding idiots don't know the way from the Estate to the Town, do you?"
"Sir, you are telling us to put your daughter's clothes with the cannonballs." The porter looked confused.
"No! I know what my daughter's trunks look like!" Corlane waved. "They're right there!"
"Master Corlane, those are trunks of cannonballs."
"Don't you question me, laddie! I know what I'm about! I packed all of this stuff the one way and we got there fine!"
"Should we do something?" Angus asked. Ardyn shook her head.
"Dad's got the magic touch," she said. "Besides, he'll bite our heads off if we interrupt him. They'll go around in circles, and then the man will prove him wrong and everything's fine."
"Ah." Angus nodded serenely. "You know, Ardyn, it occurs to me that we're not helping a lot, just standing here watching everyone unload."
"Are you suggesting we help?"
"I'm suggesting we get out of these fine workers' way," Angus said. "I think there's a nice little harbor overlook about half a mile down that way, isn't there?"
"I think so, Angus," Ardyn agreed. "Do you think I should ask my father's permission before getting kidnapped by a pirate?"
"Excuse me?" Angus glowered for a moment. "Best not to disturb him, I think. He looks like he's having a moment."
"He's having a day."
"He's having a life."
"That's a wee bit more like it," Ardyn agreed, nodding. "Off we go then, Angus: nice and casual."
"Sir, that is full of grape shot."
"No! That's all the crap we were going to give Saoirse MacPhearson when she got elected, and look how that turned out!"
"Somehow, I think he blames that poor man," Angus muttered.
"Oh, they'll work it out," Ardyn demurred brightly. "I'm sure no punches are getting thrown. They're all too scared of Dad, and Dad's too busy trying to work out whether he's right or wrong about the cases. It'll be a great laugh down the line."
"I'm sure." Angus adjusted his collar. "So, about the Ambassador..."
"I should have known you had ulterior motivations!" Ardyn threw a hand to her forehead. "Here I think I'm getting five minutes to sit and not do anything that'll make me fret, and you start asking serious questions!"
"She didn't hurt you, did she?" Angus pressed. Ardyn paused to glance.
"No," she soothed. "The Ambassador got all up in my face, and I almost thought she was going to bite me, but I'm fine. Why?"
"Just checking," Angus said. Ardyn tilted her head.
"What?" she asked. "I appreciate you checking up on my health, Angus...but what are you really after?"
MacLoughlin stopped as they reached a semicircular protrusion from the waterside: a wooden platform that poked out into the Sound just far enough that salty spray flicked up with the breeze every moment or so. Ardyn took in the view, even though she had to clutch the brim of her hat to keep it from making an escape.
The Sound certainly deserves its name, she thought, eyes flicking across the horizon and the sparkling blue. I love water.
"Did she say anything about Kacey?"
Ardyn nodded slowly. "She told me to find her. No use to her lost."
"But she didn't know anything?"
"Angus," Ardyn said. "One: I would have told you if she did. Two: I'm pretty worried about her too. Three..." She leaned against the rail, gaze boring into him. "Three: you still haven't told me why you were betrothed."
"Laird John wanted me to protect her," Angus repeated. "I swore to him I would. I'm not exactly doing but so great of a job, am I?"
"Don't you blow me off!" Ardyn chastised. She reached out and thumped his chest with the back of her hand. "I'm the brains of the three of us, remember? Uncle John had ulterior motives. And you know what they were."
"Ardyn..." Angus shifted his weight. "Ardyn, Laird John swore me to secrecy."
"Uncle John is...not going to take offense anymore," Ardyn said, stumbling over the lump in her throat. "Angus, I think I deserve to know what made him so certain to-"
"Ardyn!" Angus cut her off, standing very still. She paused...but only for a moment. She felt it too, and she turned to the street.
"We're being watched," she mumbled, before Angus had a chance to continue.
Coming across the street with a pack of mates was a tall, broad-shouldered man Ardyn had only seen before once in her life.
But she'd never forget those green eyes.