The Pirate's Lady - By Julia Knight

Chapter One

Van Gast eyed the man’s ring—emerald and diamonds. Very nice. He might have to steal it. No, not might, he would have to steal it. He glanced over at Holden, who was looking stern and disapproving, and suppressed a grin. Holden would have a whole litter of kittens, but it might be worth it just for that.

Van Gast’s swift brown hands juggled the cups over the makeshift table, swooping and swirling. He didn’t watch the cups, he didn’t need to, but kept his gaze on the mark. “Roll up, roll up, find the lady, win a prize.”

The mark with the emerald ring watched with sharp eyes. A merchanter by his clothes, all ruffles and brocade and pig fat slicking back his hair. The smart breeches were tight enough that Van Gast could tell the shape of his kneecaps. More importantly, he was a rich merchanter, if the ring was anything to go by. An opportunity not to miss. Van Gast made sure to fumble the cups a little—not too obvious, but enough that a sharp-eyed man would find the lady, win a prize. Enough to hook him like a fish.

The mark didn’t hesitate but pointed straight to the right-hand cup. Van Gast lifted it and feigned disappointment. A mermaid perched on a rock on the top of the bone die. “Well done, sir. Well done.”

Van Gast handed over the prize, two golden sharks to the silver seal the mark had laid down. No ordinary coins though. Holden’s face grew ever sterner as he watched the mark laugh it up with his colleagues and continue down the shabby street.

It took moments before the table was once again odd bits of planking. If only Van Gast could change from these drab gray clothes he’d been stuck with. One reason they’d stopped at Bilsen, to try to restock.

Only Bilsen was a cruddy little fishing village with not much to boast about except a stench that could make a grown man weep and a passable ale whose main attribute was it dulled the sense of smell. Van Gast had poked about and discovered that the town also had no guards, and currently most of the men were away to sea. More interestingly, some rich traders were wandering the muddy street who looked as out of place here as Van Gast would look in a temple. So, no nice new clothes for Van Gast, but an opportunity—and he never passed those up if he could help it.

He hadn’t a hope of scamming them on his own—Holden wasn’t yet a racketeer, not in his head, though Van Gast was intent on teaching him if it killed him, or both of them. He grinned at the thought of what Holden’s face would look like when he let him in on the plan—it’d look like a slapped arse, if he was any judge. About time he let himself have a little fun.

Fun had been thin on the ground just lately, and Van Gast was bored. Today looked like livening things up.

* * *

Three hours and several ales later, Van Gast and Holden stood outside a house that sat against a hill above the rest of the village.

“Tell me again,” Holden said, disapproval in the set of his mouth.

“We’re going to steal that ring, plus whatever else crops up. Look, like it or not, you’re a rack now, you’ve got to start thinking like one. You can sail, I’ll give you that, but you’re pretty shit at Find the Lady, either playing the cups or playing the shill. You can’t lie to save your life, so a good twisting con is out. Looks like theft is all you have left. Three rich merchanters, in this little village? No guards, no one really around, and at the least a very nice emerald ring. Maybe you could give it to Ilsa.”

Holden scowled at the mention of his wife. “She wouldn’t want a stolen ring.”

“You don’t tell her it’s stolen. Besides, I don’t think its current owner is being very legal. Why else would they be here in this backwater? Something secret or illegal, I’m betting. Or both. Look, here they come. Too late to back out now.”

Van Gast melted back into the shadows, pulling Holden with him. Four men, not three, came down the street. Excellent. All the more things to steal. The man they’d seen earlier wasn’t with them, but Van Gast knew he, and the ring, were in the house. The golden sharks he’d handed over had been specially