The ship listed to the side as they tacked, the crew busy yelling and pulling ropes and cursing every swell of wind, until they managed to make the turn. The overcast sky sagged overhead like a sail in port, but the storm hadn’t brewed just yet so Luisella didn’t plan to bother with it until it became a problem. There were more important things to do at the moment anyway.
“Here, Mutsu! Look, you want it?” She held up a treat, showing it to the dragon who pranced on the railing in anticipation. A pause, just until his bright red eyes settled on the prize in her fingers, and then she tossed the snack behind her.
In a flash Mutsu scampered over her crossed legs where they were resting on a barrel; his claws clamped onto her shoulder for a brief moment before he launched himself after the apple seed. The seed disappeared into his maw and Mutsu returned to his perch with a contented stretch of his mouth, rubbing his pearly green scales against Luisella’s boots.
“Better than those weird fish sticks you were eating with that duchess, right?” Luisella mused, watching him curl his tail around the banister to keep his balance.
“Captain! Ship to the west!” The watchguard’s call reached her despite the sizable distance between the crow’s nest and her lounging spot near the stern of the ship. It must have been urgent if Simmons had decided to bellow instead of whistle the message down.
Taking out her spyglass, Luisella leaned further back in her chair to gain a clear line of sight over the port side and glimpse the sails of the approaching ship. The vessel in question wasn’t familiar but the blue flag at the top of its main mast was. Emblazoned with the golden skull and crossbones, the sight brought a small smile to Luisella’s face. They had parted only a week ago—it wasn’t time to have another date for at least a fortnight. Not that she’d mind seeing Knitty again, but it was highly irregular. They had a solid respect for one other’s independence—the odds of running into each other by accident were almost zero considering their careful division of the territory surrounding the Isles.
“Hold our course. We’ll see what they want if they can catch up to us.”
Taking her seat again, she watched as the ship drew within a league of them. It was a large brigantine, the two square sails puffing out like the breast of a soldier. The figurehead at the front was painted in ostentatious shades of red and bronze. This wasn’t Knitty’s usual flagship, but perhaps she’d switched for a change of pace.
Luisella returned to her task of tossing seeds for Mutsu until the bow was barely three ship-lengths away. The sight of it distracted her enough to end up pegging Mutsu in the snout with her last throw, but she couldn’t ignore the fact that Knitty would never approach their ship like this. For one, there was no friendly cannon fire. No barely heard taunts on the wind, threatening disembowelment as soon as they came on board.
“Make ready. We don’t want to let ourselves get tricked that easily,” she ordered Edsel, sending the first mate below-decks to prepare the rest of the men. She cocked her gun as the ship drew alongside them, heart freezing at the sight that greeted her on board the Golden Skull.
The motley host of sailors had been replaced by those wearing a simple uniform, the sigil of a rearing horse clearly visible on each crewman’s chest. At the helm stood Knitty, her expression as stormy as the weather, while a man clad in bright red kept a stiletto leveled at her neck.
“Hello Lovely Luisella, I must say it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” The man’s voice was hearty and loud, the type of timbre heard at garden parties in a palace calling for a rousing game of cricket or egging the dogs on during a hunt. It fit him perfectly.
“And who the hell are you?”
“You may call me Captain Zara. Miss Nitika here has been enjoying my company for the past few days. She makes for beautiful entertainment. You’ve heard the sound of her singing, I’m sure,” Zara said, a private smile tucked into the corner of his mouth.
Luisella leveled her gun, feeling Mutsu’s claws dig into her calf as he started climbing his way to settle around her neck. His tiny breaths smelled of burnt cider as she sighted along the barrel at Zara’s immaculate profile.
“Now, now. I think I have you a little outnumbered here. You wouldn’t want to make a bad move.” Zara tipped his head towards the main deck of the Golden Skull and a quick glance revealed the troop of sabered sailers ready to jump at a moment’s notice. “How about this: you come aboard without any fuss and your crew go free. I don’t need some band of reckless nutcases to share any spoils with, and you’d rather they stay alive, so I think we all have something to gain from this.”
“And if I decide to just shoot you anyway? Knitty happens to be a competitor of mine, one less sea-slug in my way.”
“I’d hazard you don’t give the same treatment to all your competitors as you do to Nitika here. If so, I wouldn’t mind a taste,” Zara suggested lightly, scraping his gaze down Luisella’s form as though weighing her on an unseen scale. His polite smiles were starting to grate on Luisella’s own composure.
“You think yourself a competitor? The Isles are already claimed.” Luisella could remember the fight that had erupted out of it, Knitty had her pinned to the cabin door within seconds but they’d figured it out in the end.
“I’m well aware. But I understand if you need proof of the seriousness of my intentions. Allow me to demonstrate.” Zara drove the blade of his dagger into Knitty’s shoulder, spearing her against him. The pained grimace that flashed across Knitty’s face for a second was enough.
“I was going to try for her bounty but even if she dies it means I have, as you said, ‘one less sea-slug in my way’.”
“I get it,” Luisella snarled and let her weapon drop from her fingers. A pair of Zara’s uniformed men threw a rope across the gap as she approached the port side with a queasiness in her stomach. The swing over took barely a second, and the moment her feet touched the planking of the Golden Skull he pushed Knitty forward for Luisella to catch, though her hands were swatted away before she could hold her up.
“I get poked a little bit and you just roll over? Come on, where’s that reputation you’re always going on about?” Knitty asked, pulling herself to her feet with an iron grip on Luisella’s elbow. Her black hair was knotted into a thick braid that hung down her back and her free hand was pressed against the wound, blood oozing onto her shirt despite her efforts.
“What’s a reputation worth if my nemesis is dead?”
“Not much of a nemesis if you have to rescue me,” Knitty retorted.
“What’s this?” Zara loomed up beside them and snatched Mutsu from around Luisella’s neck. His claws caught in her ear as he was dragged away from her, the scratches stinging from the force of his struggles. His usual chirps morphed into a high-pitched squealing, the sound sharp in Luisella’s ears as Mutsu frantically writhed and squirmed.
“Stop!” She lunged toward him but Knitty’s hold on her kept her from getting any closer without sending Knitty slumping to the ground.
“Ah, I’ve heard stories about this little creature. Stole it from a duchess, I believe.” Zara held up Mutsu, grasping the little dragon by the front legs and leaving him to dangle from his arm like a sodden coat. “Pretty coloring, a rare shade of green if I remember correctly. But it’s a shame it doesn’t have any wings. I wonder if it can swim.”
He continued his musings as he strolled toward the side of the ship while Mutsu tried to curl up into a ball with little success.
“It’s not an especially useful animal, is it? Rough pirate lord like you’re famed to be and you keep a pet that can be tossed overboard so easily.” He flung his arm out over the railing, meaning to knock Mutsu away and send him flying over the side. Mutsu sank his fangs into Zara’s thumb, clinging to his hand as he was almost dislodged.
“Even its bite can barely be felt,” he said, laughing as Mutsu finally slipped and fell to the deck in a heap.
“Mutsu, good boy,” Luisella murmured, watching closely as Mutsu shook himself off and regained his footing before scampering towards her. A heel came down on his flicking tail, Zara keeping him pinned to the boards.
“He really is a perfect playtoy, but he doesn’t belong on the sea. The Duchess would be happy to have him back. He’ll look wonderful on a studded leash,” Zara mused. “Or maybe as a pet for her daughter. She’s such a precious little thing; I hear she has plenty of dogs to have fun with.”
He frowned as he inspected his finger. The bite had an odd purple bruise spreading from it and his breaths came in quick rasps, their pace increasing by the second.
“You’re right,” Luisella said, smiling at him when he looked up in confusion. “Mutsu used to be a duchess’ pet— he’s an apple dragon after all. They make for adorable little rascals. Harmless unless you feed them the right thing.”
“You fu-“ He choked over his own words as he fell to his knees with his chest heaving from the effort it took for him to keep breathing. Mutsu scrambled out from underneath his boot and hid behind Luisella, his snout the only part of him remaining visible. Soldiers rushed from their posts at the rigging and the helm. Their unsheathed swords spurred Luisella to drag Knitty over to the railing where the rope still lay thrown across the polished wood.
“Mutsu!” She pulled Knitty close, her grip rough but at least she was sure she wouldn’t drop her while they crossed. “This’ll be a bit painful.” Mutsu scrabbled up her coattails as she stepped up to balance on the banister, and before she could consider how likely it was they would end up in the choppy seas, she’d kicked off.
A shot cracked behind them, splinters of wood catching in Luisella’s collar and Knitty’s hair as they swung out and away from the Golden Skull. They crashed to the floor once Luisella let go, but what breath was knocked out of them was also what kept them down when the firing really started.
Whistling one piercing note, Luisella curled over Knitty’s prone form and hoped Edsel had followed her orders. The ship erupted with sailors crawling from below-decks, armed in anticipation of a friendly skirmish; the sight of the bristling uniformed pirates on the other ship sent them scurrying to the cannons and sails.
“This is quite possibly the worst way we’ve met up,” Knitty muttered, voice muffled from being pressed against Luisella’s chest. “Not that I mind the view.”
“I’ll make it up to you on our next date. Someplace nice on land, maybe a café for once,” Luisella promised, pushing Knitty up to lean against a tool crate. Peeking over at the Golden Skull, she was glad to see they were pulling away slowly but surely. The bullets had stopped as a shot from one of their cannons blew up the Golden Skull’s aft deck and the sailors hurried to the mizzenmast that looked in danger of tipping. “No excitement, no danger.”
“Sounds boring. But I wouldn’t mind if there was less stabbing.”
Not for the first time, Luisella was thankful she’d picked her flagship based on its speed. Even as the Golden Skull labored to gain wind to its sails, they were already clipping along at a brisk few knots. Once she couldn’t see the figures milling around on board anymore, she allowed herself to look back at Knitty.
“You know the ladies love scars, right?” Luisella asked, motioning towards the ones that crossed Knitty’s collarbone in jagged white lines on her dark skin.
“No, one lady likes scars. And even then, I don’t think I’d call her a lady.” Knitty prodded Luisella in the stomach when Mutsu jumped into her lap, nudging against her fingers until she gave him a scratch along his scales. “And here’s the real hero of the day. Make sure you give him some tasty rat meat.”
“I think he prefers his apple seeds,” Luisella said as she stroked Mutsu’s head lightly. Now that they were away from the commotion for the moment, her thoughts turned to more important matters.
“We need to discuss the elephant in the sea, as it were.”
“Zara has more men. He mentioned as much during his… stay. My fleet’s scattered to the winds, but he’s already making bids for the rest of the Isles.”
“Will you join me, then?” Luisella asked in one breath, knowing what she wanted the answer to be but keeping her hope as tightly furled as a docked ship’s sail. Knitty stayed silent for several moments, her shirt slowly staining red down her front.
“Yes. I’ll always be your nemesis,” Knitty said fondly. “But we have a bigger fish to catch now.”