Hodges blinked at his blood-stained blade and then at the empty rail. "I did it. I actually did it!"
Slate let a small smile spread across his face. "Congratulations, Captain Hodges."
Dampier scowled. "You can't decide that. We ain't your Navy."
"You got another nomination, Dampier?" Hodges turned, clutching his sword. "Give it. But keep in mind I have a plan for better booty." He stalked straight to Cain and DG. Cain curled both his fists. "The Army crossed the desert after their precious princess; I'm sure they'll pay dearly for her safe return." No one said anything. "Change course for Mount Cove." DG realized she could hear beyond the blood pounding in her ears.
Bonnet heaved the wheel to the right and the ship turned east.
Hodges grinned hard enough to move the left half of his lips, and stared Cain in the eye. "As for you, forty kisses from the Captain's daughter."
"No!" This time Drake held Spencer back. "You can't whip him!"
"I will see that slave bleed!" Hodges snarled. "Keep quiet or you'll be joining him, Pingareen!"
Lafitte twisted the hatchet in his hands. "He's got a point, Captain." He gulped when he saw Hodges' glare. "His mug is on the poster too. We shouldn't damage what they'll probably pay a pretty penny to have back. More than just a princess alone."
"That depends on whether he was supposed to be planting in the princess's garden," Jones laughed. "If not, we might be doing them a favor."
DG shook and tried to get in front of Cain. He held her back, so she yelled around him. "You will not hurt him!"
"We're not your subjects, your Highness," Hodges sneered. "But everything has a price." He reached to touch her, but Cain stepped them out of reach. "What's his hide worth to you? Every night in the Captain's bunk until we reach Mount Cove?"
DG's jaw dropped. She was so repulsed, she didn't know what to say even if she wasn't too pissed to form words. "Don't you dare agree to that," Cain said in a low, icy tone. He had turned to look at her and keep Hodges in sight. "I'd rather be whipped than see you raped to protect me."
"It's not rape if she agrees," Hodges said.
"And you wouldn't be using threats if it was consensual," Cain growled.
"No deal," DG said before Cain made the pirate madder at him. "You will not hurt him or Spencer or anyone else."
Hodges smirked. "You don't have any servants on the Nonestic, Princess. So you'll have to suffer the consequences of your decisions." He gestured to Jones and Lafitte. "Strap him to the mast."
Something cold settled in DG's stomach when Jones grabbed Cain's arm. "Suffer the consequences is all I ever do!" A blue glow shot from her out flung hands. Jones, Laffite, and Hodges flew back and skidded across the deck. A golden dome settled over their group.
"You little bitch!" Hodges' sword bounced off the golden light.
Energy sparked off her, and she ignored how even Cain backed away from her. "You will not hurt those I care about!"
"You can't keep that up forever! And when it drops, the O.Z. will get a princess back missing a few pieces!"
"Hodges!" Everyone's head swiveled to the quarterdeck. A soaking wet Betsy strode to the steps. A red smear trailed down her untucked white shirt from the slice in the black leather bodice. She brought up her sword in her left hand. "We're not finished."
Hodges raised his cutlass with a growl. "I will send you to hell!" He ran toward the steps.
"Prepare my quarters while you're waiting." Her right hand raised and the antique gun fired. Hodges rocked back, falling on the deck with his head in pieces.
Cain grabbed DG and pressed her against his chest, so all she could see was his black shirt. Jenkins muttered something that sounded like a prayer. DG squeezed Cain's arms, and moved to watch Betsy. The golden dome over them vanished.
The Captain's face was white. She marched down the steps, brandishing both weapons, and her glare swept over the deck. She stopped at Hodges' feet. "I am Captain Blood-rage Bobbins, and I fear nothing on this god-forsaken ocean!" She inhaled deeply to keep screaming. "No man of flesh or living rock will stop me from taking back what is mine, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart! Who's the next worthless cur who wants to listen to his sweet, empty promises?" She pointed her sword at Slate, while she turned to see all the crew, even Bonnet at the wheel. "Who's willing to cross my steel to earn Slate's favor and finish the deed he doesn't have the balls to attempt?"
She turned again. "Who wants to bring the fate of Pingaree to their home?" Spencer balled his fists but didn't respond. Betsy marched again, stopping in front of Jones, Lafitte, and Bonny. "You saw what was done, what was blamed on pirates." She stopped in front of Slate, extending her cutlass to touch his chest. "What Thomas Slate blamed on pirates."
"Because you're a scourge on the water." He clasped his hands behind his back.
"There's an evil sailing but it's not pirates. You left a witness who recognized the Relentless."
Slate's eyes darted around the audience.
"What?" Dampier stepped closer. "The Island Navy was behind the slaughters?"
"Aye. Slate needed a reason to order more ships for the Island Navy's fleet. So he made his own 'growing pirate problem.' But the Steward's son wasn't satisfied with a military answer. He wanted to find out why pirates started killing off cities and towns." Betsy's eyes never left Slate's face. "Slate couldn't let Malachite Granite ask questions and learn the pirates didn't know what was going on either. So he and Pyrite used Malachite's love of lore to create an expedition to discover if the legend of the Nome King was true."
Slate's thick lips turned down into his black stubble.
Betsy's calm stare was more unnerving than her shouting had been. "Malachite and his heir never returned from that expedition. But you saved your own hide, and left your best friend and a baby behind. And now you've got the last step. The Steward has named you his new heir. All island kingdoms would be under attack from your expanded navy until they submitted to your rule."
"You can't prove any of it!" Slate's nostrils flared.
"I'm not bothering with proving anything, I'm just going to fix it." She looked over the crew again. Many of them stared back at Slate with ugly glints. "Is this the future you want? We hoisted the colors to stay free from the tyranny Slate promises!"
Read shook his head. "I'm with you, Captain. I grew up on Volcano Isle. One of the first places hit with no survivors."
Bonnet turned the ship's wheel. "Returning to the original heading, Captain."
"I'm with you, Captain," Morgan added with an echo from Dampier, Drake, and Spencer.
"That just leaves you three mutineers." Jenkins circled around Jones, Lafitte, and Bonny. They laid their hatchets on the deck.
"Ransom is easier than waging war with the Nome King," Jones said. "And it looked like the only way we'd get Mount Cove back." Laffite and Bonny muttered an agreement. "But Slate won't leave us any free port if he becomes Steward. We're in till the end of this voyage."
"And you've kept the Slayer of the Sorceress enslaved," Laffite added.
Betsy didn't bother hiding her triumphant smile while turning back to Slate.
The Commandant met her gaze levelly. "Take your revenge. Give me pirate justice and right the wrongs between us."
"Your fate isn't for me to decide. Your crimes were against the Steward and you will have to answer to him."
"The old man will be dead within the week. You expect me to judge myself?"
"Awfully positive about that diagnosis; did you poison him too?" Slate's eyes widened, but Betsy ignored him. "Morgan!" She passed the antique pistol to him. "There's one shot left, but aim for something non-vital if he gives you any trouble. Take him down to the damn brig, chain him down, and gag him. The next person he speaks to will be the Steward of Kingsport."
Morgan shoved Slate down the main stairs and Betsy leaned against the mast. Jenkins abandoned glowering at the mutineers. "Damnit, Betsy! You're still bleeding."
"Stop fussing, it's only a flesh wound." Betsy laughed. "I'm gladder we're not in shark-infested waters."
Jenkins didn't look mollified. "Cain." DG didn't need any encouragement to go along with her Tin Man. "Get the Captain to her cabin while I settle thing up here," the quartermaster ordered.
Betsy let DG carry her sword so she could lean on Cain without stabbing him. "Like a little blood loss is gonna stop me," she muttered as Cain maneuvered them down the main stairs.
"It's the continuous bleeding you have to worry about." Cain's tone was so conversational, both women did a double take. "That and gangrene."
"You are strange, Mr. Cain." Betsy shook her head. "And I'm going to have words with the Shaman for neglecting to mention you're famous too."
"How did he get one of those posters?" DG asked as they walked through the cannon room.
"From Slate," Cain answered as he opened the door.
"How did he get one?"
"The Sorceress magicked her notices to the islands. At least, that's what they told me," Betsy said before Sprite collided with her. "Fuzzy, that doesn't promote healing."
Sprite glared. "Captain deserves ouchies. Scared me." Cain helped Betsy sit on the bed while Sprite untied the black bodice.
"Sprite, if you lecture, there won't be anything left for Jenkins to yell about." The lifted bloodstained shirt revealed a jagged three-inch incision across Betsy's side starting at her bottom rib and almost reaching her waist.
"You tore it climbing the rope," Sprite said.
Betsy inhaled as the Viewer child's hands pressed over the wound. "How else was I getting up there? You missed my dramatic entrance and the impressive magic tricks."
DG found the scabbard and sheathed the cutlass. "I warned him."
"That wasn't a critique," Betsy said as she wiped her skin with her ruined shirt.
Sprite glared at the pink scar. "Be easy. Could bust it again."
Betsy nodded before looking at DG. "Why didn't you use the magic earlier?"
"They had Spencer."
"They're good at being bad, which I'm sure Slate counted on." Sprite dropped one of the dull golden towels on Betsy's head. "Thanks, Fuzzy."
DG bit her bottom lip. "The Royal Army of the O.Z. invaded Mount Cove?"
"According to Slate." Betsy's answer was muffled as she dried her hair. "We haven't verified it."
Cain winced. "I forgot to tell you."
"Forgot? How could you forget something like that? I thought you said Ahamo wouldn't let anyone chase after us?"
"That was also before you sent a distress call to your sister."
"So it is my fault again."
Cain frowned at her bitter tone. "What are you so worked up about? Tell them you're fine and send them back to Central City before they cause a diplomatic incident."
"Oh that's all. I can count on one hand all the people I've met who actually do what I ask them." DG stalked to the open window in the stern of the ship and swung it shut. "All princess does is to make me a kidnapping target." She clenched her fists.
"Stop asking." Betsy draped the towel on her shoulders. "People don't really need that many pleases. Give orders, followed by thank you's or magic blasts. How do you think I made Captain? And I don't even have any magic." She took the clean clothes Sprite pulled out of her trunk to the bathroom.
Cain put his hands on DG's shoulders. "They have to listen to you."
She wanted to believe him, but this had been drilled into her by every Palace servant. "They have to obey my mother."
"You think she crossed the Deadly Desert?" His fingers dug into her shoulders to loosen the muscles. "You are the only member of the Royal Family present and that puts you in charge. Now, it's probably better to leave battle planning to the ones who have trained for it, but they have to listen to you."
"Even if my mother's orders are to pack me back to the Palace no matter what I say?" Cain's lips twitched and he didn't answer. "And you know that's what orders she gave out. Hell, it's the orders she gave you!" She tried to pull away, but Cain hugged her closer.
"Then you'll just have to do what she's afraid you'll do: exert your status." She tilted her head up and Cain met her confused expression. "You're one of the Saviors of the O.Z., sweetheart. If how they acted around me was bad enough, the soldiers at my base hardly dared to say your name." He squeezed her. "If we have to use that, we'll use it. Okay?"
"Okay." She hugged him. "But let's have a speedy getaway ready when we deal with them."
"That we can do."
Betsy exited her bathroom with her damp, brown hair braided and wearing a new set of black pants and white shirt with a red bodice. "Are you two better now?"
"Panic attack averted." DG let go of Cain. "What happens now?"
"We sail through the Teeth and go meet the Nome King and get my family back. Don't think that your duties have changed just because you're famous."
"Prefer it actually," Cain said.
Sprite was counting with her fingers. "Down six now, and no port."
"What does that mean?" Cain asked.
"We may need you on the ropes or the cannons." Betsy held up her hand before his frown exploded. "Under certain conditions. Two people can sail the ship, but that also depends on no one shooting at you. The Navy doesn't usually sail west of the Teeth, though."
"We'll do what needs to be done." Cain focused his annoyed face on DG, who shrugged. "You're in no hurry to end up dead either," she added.
"I love how you pick and choose when that applies." But he didn't elaborate on that grumble as they went up to the deck.
The rest of the crew and Jenkins adjusted the sails. Betsy hurried to take the helm from Bonnet. Hodges' body was gone and the deck boards scrubbed clean. DG went to the rail. The span of ocean ahead of the ship was filled with rocks, some almost as tall as the ship. The water churned as the waves broke over and against the stone. Betsy steered the ship to a thin channel of a deeper blue snaking through the froth.
Spencer joined DG at the rail. He handed her the folded poster. "So you're a Princess of the Outer Zone."
"Not because I had anything to say about that, but yeah, Princess Dorothy Gale. Please just call me DG."
"Everybody on this ship has a secret. I'm sorry yours got told."
"I could care less. Secrets have caused me nothing but trouble. I just don't want the your Highness crap to start."
He smiled despite his swollen lip. "The bowing and the compliments only because they want something. You don't have to worry about that from me." DG was about to thank him when he continued. "It's all a ranking game, and I'm the Crown Prince of Pingaree." His left eye winced. "I suppose I'm King; I haven't thought about that." He smirked at her gaping mouth. "Well, it only seemed fair to tell you my secret."