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Authors: Kate Hill

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Lock

BOOK: Lock
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KNIGHTS OF THE RUBY ORDER: LOCK

An Ellora’s Cave Publication, February 2004

 

Ellora’s Cave Publishing, Inc.

PO Box 787

Hudson, OH 44236-0787

 

ISBN MS Reader (LIT) ISBN # 1-84360-790-5

Other available formats (no ISBNs are assigned):

Adobe (PDF), Rocketbook (RB), Mobipocket (PRC) HTML

 

KNIGHTS OF THE RUBY ORDER: LOCK © 2004 KATE HILL

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission.

 

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. They are productions of the authors’ imagination and used fictitiously.

 

Edited by
Sheri Ross Carucci
.

Cover art by
Syneca
.

 

Knights of the Ruby Order:
Lock

Kate Hill

 

For Mum

 

Prologue

The Archipelago of SothSea shone like green jewels upon rippled blue satin. The most beautiful islands in the world existed in that tropical sea, but their name alone raised fear and apprehension in the strongest men and women. The Archipelago was home to the Pirates of SothSea, the largest group of thieves and murderers in the tropics. Their reputation extended to lands far north, into waters of ice and kingdoms scattered across the tundra. If the Pirates of SothSea organized, they would rival the conquering kingdom of Zaltana, but the seafaring warriors were too independent and greedy to unite under one ruler, though some were looked to as unspoken leaders during times of crisis. A few were grudgingly respected for their prowess and cunning, but only one was feared by even the worst of the lot.

Lock the White, tall, long-limbed, with a body formed of big bones and hard muscle, stood on the water’s edge of a secluded cove behind his home on SeaSpider Island, south most in the Archipelago. Cutoff trousers covered his legs just past the knee. As waves broke on shore, they buried his bare feet and splashed his calves, pasting sparse, dark hair to the curve of muscle and bone. Lock’s face remained stoic as he stared at the sun-speckled water, his eyes, the same clear, pale blue as the sea, a stark contrast with his dark brown skin. His face was a sculpture of sharp angles and planes, his cheekbones like those of some great cat, his forehead broad. Tendrils of long, kinky hair grabbed the muscles of his perspiring chest. He wore a beard, wiry in spite of constant trimming. Though Lock had only recently past his thirty-first year, white streaks had seeped into his bark-colored hair and beard a decade earlier and had continued to spread each year since, inspiring his name among the Pirates of SothSea.

The scourge landed hard across Lock’s broad back. The blow upon already torn and bleeding flesh should have staggered him, but his posture remained straight, only his pale eyes blinking slowly with each strike revealed that his mind was not floating in some merciful trance.

The whip fell again. Blood sprayed into the sea, dripped down his back, and stained the waist of his trousers, belted around his narrow waist with a rope of braided leather.

“That’s enough,” said Karl, the dark-skinned, green-eyed first mate of Lock’s ship. The man dropped his arm to his side, the bloodied whip dragging across the packed, wet sand.

Lock turned, his blue eyes glistening like broken glass. “You’ll stop
when I say
. Raise that scourge, or it will be the last thing you ever feel on your own body!”

Karl knew better than to hesitate. Lock’s threat wasn’t empty, and if his order was disobeyed, he wouldn’t hesitate to have his first mate whipped to death.

Turning back to the sea, Lock counted ten more blows before he jerked the whip from Karl’s callused hand. He tossed the leather device back at the seaman and motioned with his head for Karl to disappear.

The darker man melted into the jungle, his thickly muscled body soon indiscernible through the trees and vines as he took the quickest route to the village.

Lock stared into the water for a moment, willing his heartbeat to slow. He knew what came next, understood the pain, as he’d felt it so many times before. He strode directly into the sea, gasping as his lacerated back immersed in salt water. He felt momentarily dizzy from the pain, but recouped quickly and waded in deeper. The water would cleanse his wounds and help prevent infection.

He knew his sailors and servants thought his self-punishment was madness, but to Lock it was a way of life. Pain tolerance was required to survive in a vicious world. He’d begun with small tests, burning with hot wax and candle flames, scarring with needles. During his travels to the Kennas, he learned a system of empty-handed fighting arts and practiced barefoot on the rocky shore at the opposite side of the island until his soles were tough enough to walk across beds of hot coals. For the past five years he’d trained himself to tolerate flogging, pushing himself to endure past the moment when he needed to scream, but kept his silence. He’d had a nightmare years before -- a nightmare so real that he’d awakened gasping, drenched in sweat, his entire body trembling. He’d been amidst a crowd of foreigners, shackled to a platform in a village square while bounty hunters’ whips slashed him nearly senseless. Others were punished with him, but women paid their fines and bought them as slaves, taking away their freedom, but also their pain. No one made a motion to pay for Lock, and the bounty hunters waited to hear him shriek…

They’ll never have the pleasure
, Lock thought, stepping out of the ocean. He climbed over sand dunes and rocks to his home overlooking the dock where his ship, The Shana Whore, spitefully named after his mother, awaited its next trip to pillage.

Speaking of his mother, he and his servants had a delivery to make to her brothel. His last excursion had been a pleasant success without even sailing out of the Archipelago. He’d taken an Empress’s ship laden with silks, spices, and precious metal that could be melted down, made into weapons, or sold. After he’d taken what he wanted, he’d ordered the ship’s sails ripped and the crew left drifting. He’d run the Captain through with his own sword, just to warn others who dared venture into the Pirates of SothSea’s domain. He might have spared the man had he not flung useless threats. He’d acted like a single magistrate attempting to arrest a thousand thieves in their own den. Royalty and those who served them were so smug, so self-assured, though most of them thieved as much as any pirate. How often had he been paid handsomely by queens, mistresses, kings, and emperors to steal and plunder one another’s kingdoms? They smiled and made treaties to each other’s faces while secretly raiding the land of sworn allies.

Not that Lock didn’t appreciate a good betrayal, but he couldn’t be bothered with lies, not when he had the power to live as he chose, to take what he wanted, and defend himself with sword and hand. It was simpler to be loyal only to himself, and no one had ever given him reason to believe otherwise. He’d learned long ago, before he was old enough to take up a weapon in defense, that if he didn’t take first, he’d be taken from—and more likely than not left for dead.

* * * * *

Two floors fashioned from clay, wood, and colored tiles made the bordello. The roof was shaped at a wide slant, like the caps worn by the village fisherman. Narrow wooden porches surrounded both floors. Women of all ages, shapes, and coloring lingered outside dressed in sheer pantaloons and multi-colored scarves barely covering their breasts. Some wore nothing at all, just long hair draped over their shoulders, their breasts bouncing in the sunlight as they waved at patrons. Several young men wearing scanty loincloths strutted among the women, parading their wares to those who preferred masculine flesh. Lock knew from experience how many of the pirates paid for the use of boys as often as women. His childhood had been spent catering to their desires while his mother, then a simple working whore, had collected a fee from the madam each time Lock had been rented. Lock had left the bordello when he was twelve years old, after slitting the throat of a patron who had used him many times before. Afterward, he’d signed on a ship as a cabin boy and learned the ways of the sea and pirating.

As he approached the bordello, the mingling smells of perfumed oils, pipe smoke, and sweat struck him with the force of a whip, except flogging didn’t sour his stomach as much as the odor of the whorehouse.

He strode past several women who called to him, wiggled their hips, and shook their bosoms, more as a joke than a solicitation. It wasn’t that Lock didn’t use whores when the mood took him, but he was not a man to be lured by anyone or anything, except the desires of his own dark heart. Everyone in the Archipelago knew about Lock, and most cleared the path when he passed. His temper was as foul and spontaneous as a tropical storm, and no one wanted to be caught in the vicinity of either.

The front door of the bordello led to a main hall where more women waited, some sharing chairs with patrons, others sipping the wine and smoking the pipes arranged on a wooden table at the back of the room.

Lock’s mother—who was also the madam—sat on a chair by the winding staircase leading to the bedchambers. Though a woman of late middle-age, she retained a youthful body, full, firm breasts, and blue eyes lovely enough to sink a man to the bottom of the sea. Like Lock, she was tall and long-limbed with dark brown hair she regularly treated with herbal dyes to wash out the patches of gray. Her hair wasn’t as sensually streaked as her son’s, and several times she’d revealed her jealousy over his curly, two-toned locks.

She stood upon seeing him, her voluptuous body draped in a sheer black gown adorned with a silver girdle.

“My crew is carrying in the silks,” Lock told her. “You can pay me as soon as you’ve inspected them.”

“Hello to you, too,” she said in a husky voice, approaching him and stopping so close that their bodies almost touched. She tilted her face up to his, her eyes tracing the shape of his lips while her fingertip trailed down one of his sharp cheekbones.

“Do you want to inspect the goods or not?” he demanded.

“I thought I was.”

Lock took a step back, his features arranged in his usual impassive expression. He wondered if his disgust was apparent in his eyes.

“You weren’t gone very long this time,” she continued. He didn’t reply. She took a step closer and slid her arms around him, her palms slipping up his back, her fingers gripping solid muscle.

He drew a sharp breath, her touch sending a streak of pain down his lacerated back. She took his gasp for one of desire and smiled.

Lock grasped her shoulders and shoved her back into the chair, nearly sending both her and the delicate piece of furniture crashing to the floor. “When you’re ready, I’ll be outside with the cargo. Don’t take too long. I don’t want to spend the rest of the night in the village, and there are plenty of other people on these islands willing to pay for what I have.”

“You always did have a way of bringing the best price.”

“I wonder where I got that from?” Lock snarled over his shoulder as he left the stinking bordello, drawing deep breaths of the hot, but fresh, air outside.

* * * * *

In the jungle behind Lock’s home flowed a freshwater cascade. That night, Lock stood naked beneath the fall, his eyes closed. Cool water crashed over his face and body, numbing the discomfort on his back and cleansing away the reek of the bordello. Swimming in the cascade was one of the only real pleasures Lock felt in his life. He made a point to limit his happiness. Contentment bred complacency, and complacency caused death. It made a man lose his drive, desert his skills, and sink into the illusion that life was good.

He stepped out of the water, tugged on cut-off trousers, and walked the pathway home.

His house, like the bordello, contained two floors made of wood and clay. It didn’t reek of perfume, pipes, and wine, however, but smelled of the surrounding jungle since he’d ordered his servants to keep all the windows open, except during a storm. He liked the wind. He liked the feeling of freedom that accompanied it, which was why he liked sailing so much. In truth, he felt better at sea than he ever did on land. He’d overheard old sailors talking in the village tavern, heard his own crew when they thought they were alone on deck or below. So many sailors said they hadn’t chosen the sea, but the sea had chosen them. It was part of their soul—if pirates had souls. Lock often wondered. What was a soul, anyway? No one could see it or touch it, yet most people believed it existed. Even the bloodiest thieves and cutthroats he’d ever known mentioned their souls when death neared. How many men had he heard call upon gods and goddesses in times of crisis?

BOOK: Lock
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