In Pirate's Promise, Torius Vin is perfectly happy with his life as a pirate captain, sailing the Inner Sea with a bold crew of buccaneers and Celeste, his snake-bodied navigator and one true love. Yet all that changes when his sometimes-friend Vreva Jhafae—a high-powered courtesan and abolitionist spy in the slaver stronghold of Okeno—draws him into her shadowy network of secret agents. Caught between the slavers he hates and a navy that sees him as a criminal, can Torius continue to choose the path of piracy? Or will he sign on as a privateer, bringing freedom to others—at the price of his own?
Chapter One: Auspicious Arrivals
Raucous laughter shook every cup and tankard in the bar. Windy Kate wiped ale from her chin and handed over a silver coin, having just lost a bet that she could drink a tankard without touching it with her hands or spilling any. Torius Vin leaned comfortably against the bar, close enough for a good view, but far enough to avoid getting wet.
"They're a noisy lot." The barkeep scowled as he refilled Torius's glass.
"Just a little well-deserved celebration." Torius sipped the fine spiced rum. The barkeep might not like Stargazer's boisterous crew, but he couldn't complain about the coin they were spending.
"We might be noisy, but we smell good!" Grogul drained his tankard and thumped it down on the bar, grinning at his captain. "Damn near forgot what it was like to be really clean. Thanks again, Captain."
"The least I could do." After a month at sea, springing for a stint at Trillia's Bathhouse for his entire crew had been worth every scarab. Besides, he could afford it.
Torius sipped, surveyed the well-mannered debauchery, and sighed in contentment. The scam they had just pulled off had been a near thing, but even after subtracting Vreva Jhafae's cut and the crew's shares, he had more gold than he could imagine spending. He could buy another ship and still have enough to live handsomely for years.
"A shame Celeste couldn't join us." Grogul accepted his refilled tankard and quaffed a third of it.
Torius doubted that Celeste regretted using all her daily transformation spells on the trip to Trillia's. Lunar nagas didn't sweat, and a quick swipe with a damp cloth was enough to cleanse her scales of dust and dirt, so their trip to the bathhouse had been a novel experience. He smiled as he recalled her look of delight as she immersed her human form into the hot, sudsy water, reveling in the luxury.
"She's busy planning our trip to the Observatory anyway."
More laughter rang from the betting circle. One of the caravan guards with whom the Stargazers were competing had spilled ale all over himself, and good-naturedly handed a silver back to Windy Kate. She wiped the ale from his chin with a sultry gleam in her eye amid the hoots of the onlookers.
"When you leavin'?" Grogul asked.
"Oh, not for a few days, at least. I need to discuss the alterations to Stargazer with Snick, and set up an account that she and Thillion can draw on for the work."
Grogul snorted. "Give that gnome free rein, and she'll spend you into the poorhouse."
Torius couldn't deny the truth of that. He'd already ordered Thillion to keep Snick's modifications under close supervision.
"And how long's this little vacation gonna take?" Grogul sipped his ale and narrowed his eyes at his captain, but Torius just grinned.
"A few weeks at least, more likely a month. Why? Are you bored already?"
"Just thinkin' about the crew sittin' in Katapesh for so long with nothin' to do. Boredom and money are a dangerous combination."
"Once Stargazer's back to her old self, Thillion could run a load of cargo up to Absalom or Sothis."
"Aye, that might keep 'em out of trouble." Grogul scratched his chin in thought. "Fenric should be able to handle the crew for a simple cargo run."
"Fenric?" Torius cocked an eyebrow. "And where will you be?"
"With you, of course. The desert's a dangerous place! Got a few others picked out to—"
A harsh shout and a crash brought the festivities to an abrupt halt.
"Uh-oh." Grogul slammed his tankard down, his eyes suddenly as sharp as the two kukris tucked through his sash.
Torius followed his bosun's gaze and saw Fenric with a bared cutlass in his hand. The Stargazers and caravan guards glared at one another across the tankard-littered table. Between them, Windy Kate slumped in a chair, spilled ale dampening her lap. Two more Stargazers sprawled in similar conditions nearby.
The hairs stood up on the back of Torius's neck. Something was wrong. Later in the evening, after much more drinking, passed-out crew members would not have been an untoward occurrence. But this early? Not a chance.
"No fighting!" the barkeep bellowed over the growls of the crowd.
"I'll handle this." Torius strode forward, Grogul at his flank. "What's going on here, Fenric?"
The bosun's mate pointed his cutlass at one of the caravan guards, a swarthy man with short-cropped hair and a long, angular jaw. "That motherless son of a scrub slipped somethin' in Kate's ale! She's out like yesterday's bilge water! Troy and Fenthis, too!"
"That's a load of camel dung!" the man protested. "They just can't hold their booze!"
One glance and Torius knew the man was lying. But why would they be drugging his sailors? He bristled with rage when he considered that they might be slavers out to supplement their stock by preying on the unwary. Whatever they were, they were outnumbered. Though Torius had no doubt that his score of pirates would prevail over a dozen caravan guards, a fight would be bad. Katapesh was their home port, and the Zephyr Guard enforced the laws of the Pactmasters with unwavering efficiency. A little diplomacy was called for.
"Stow your blade, Fenric." The man dutifully slid his cutlass into its sheath. Torius nodded toward the door as he glared at the caravan guards. "Now, you all move on to another bar. We don't like your tricks and we're not going to play your games."
"You move on! We were here first!" Spittle flew from the leader's bared teeth, and his hand edged closer to the hilt of the gleaming axe at his hip.
"Now friend, you really don't want to start something you can't finish." Torius nodded to his grim-faced crew. "We don't want trouble, but—"
Six more Stargazers suddenly crumpled to the floor, taking the pirates' numerical advantage with them. Torius's stomach clenched, and as he reached for his cutlass, he realized just how much trouble they were in.
The leader's eyes gleamed with malice as his face and form changed. His jaw elongated and opened wide, baring prominent canines dripping with saliva. Thick fur sprouted from his skin, and his legs bent backward into the limbs of a bipedal canine.
"What in the name of Gozreh?" Torius doubted if even the sea god could give him an answer. He recognized the features and coloration of the jackals he'd seen in the wildlands around Katapesh. Only those were much smaller and didn't clutch weapons in claw-tipped hands.
The leader's axe flashed as the werejackal lunged at Torius.
"Stargazers!" As Torius drew his cutlass to parry, a kukri flashed past his ear to cut a deep line in the werejackal's neck, ruining the creature's aim. Torius turned his parry into a slash that opened the other side of his assailant's neck, and the beast went down in a spray of blood.
The barkeep's high-pitched shouts rose over the din, but none paid heed. Accustomed to fighting in tight quarters and on uneven footing, the pirates reacted as a single unit. Fenric kicked the table into two more charging werejackals and fought off a third, while the remaining Stargazers formed up to protect their unconscious comrades.
Grogul snatched up the fallen werejackal's axe and stepped to Torius's side. "Come on!" His bellow shook the walls and, from the sudden doubt in the eyes of the leaderless werejackals, their morale as well.
In the brief lull, Torius considered reining in his pirates, but the werejackals had obviously been trying to kidnap some of his people, either to sell as slaves or to have for dinner. To let them go without a proper lesson simply wouldn't do. Torius grinned at the snarling creatures. "It's time we taught these curs how to heel! Have at 'em, Stargazers!"
The pirates leapt to the attack, battle cries rising from their throats. The werejackals met the assault with blades and gnashing teeth. Torius's new opponent was a quick creature wielding a jagged scimitar and a set of fangs capped with sharpened steel. Parrying the scimitar with his cutlass, Torius drew his fighting dagger and plunged the blade into the toothy maw. Teeth like sabers raked the back of his hand, but the tip of the blade pierced the back of the creature's throat. Hot blood gushed out over Torius's hand and the werejackal fell twitching to the floor. To his left, Grogul's axe reduced his opponent's skull to a spray of shattered bone and meat, while to his right, Fenric scored a deep gash in his adversary's arm.
In no time, half of the werejackals were on the floor, either bleeding or dead. The survivors disengaged and dashed for the exits. The Stargazers let them go, chasing them only with a resounding cheer of victory.
"For Stargazer!" Torius thrust his cutlass high in the air.
His crew cheered and waved their weapons in menacing arcs, more inebriated by their victory than the ale and rum they'd imbibed. Only two Stargazers had taken wounds, neither serious. Torius wiped his sword clean on the tattered shirt of the werejackal leader, snapped it into its scabbard, and bellowed for a round of drinks. The barkeep was nowhere to be found, however, so Torius took the liberty of grabbing a bottle of rum from behind the bar and emptying it into the cups and tankards of his cheering crew. The ones who had fallen unconscious roused easily enough, though they were upset at having missed the fun. Windy Kate, Troy, and Fenthis blinked in confusion, unsure of what had happened.
Torius raised his cup high and shouted for silence. "To the crew of Stargazer! Best damn buccaneers in the whole Inner Sea!"
Torius quaffed his rum amid the cheers of his crew and started pouring the next round, but their celebration was interrupted by a hard-toned shout from the tavern's entrance.
"Drop your weapons in the name of the Zephyr Guard!"
As one, the Stargazers turned toward this new threat. Torius heard a low growl from his bosun's throat, but he knew instantly that this was not a fight they could win. A half-dozen troops flanked the Zephyr Guard squad leader, who had not even drawn her sword. She had no need to. The monstrous aluum that ducked low to enter the tavern ensured her safety. Humanoid in shape, but twice the height of Grogul, the aluum eyed them passionlessly. Created and controlled by the Pactmasters, the virtually indestructible magical constructs were powered by the bound souls of executed slaves and prisoners, and knew no mercy.
"Stand down, Stargazers." Torius waved his crew back and strode forward, executing a respectful bow to the squad leader. She wore no badge of rank other than the gleaming blue gem dangling around her neck. She needed no other badge, for that trinket commanded the hulking aluum. "I'm glad you arrived. We were beset by these creatures and had just managed to fight them off." He waved a hand at the dead werejackals.
"He wrecked my bar!" The barkeep advanced from behind the Zephyrs. He pointed at the broken furniture, blood, and gore that littered the floor. "I'm ruined!"
"Oh, you're not ruined, man," Torius argued. "Nothing that a carpenter and a little soap and water won't fix! And we didn't do any of the wrecking! Three of my people were drugged, several more rendered unconscious, and we were attacked. You saw it happen!"
"I saw nothing of the kind!" A gleam of avarice outshone the despondency in the bartender's eyes for just a moment, but long enough to show Torius the game he would play. The werejackals were long gone, so the only source of gold left was Torius. "These ruffians were loud and drunk and looking for a fight!"
"We were not." Torius turned to the Zephyr Guard squad leader. "Please, ma'am, my name is Captain Torius Vin. I'm a guildsman in good standing, and these are my crew. Ruffians we are not! We were simply celebrating our arrival in port, and ended up defending ourselves from these creatures. This was not our fault, but since the guilty parties have fled, I'll be happy to pay for the damages."
"I'm pressing charges!" The barkeep folded his arms over his skinny chest in defiance. "It'll take a month to put this place to rights, and I'll lose my lease if I can't bring in customers. My livelihood is ruined!"
Torius refused to even look at the man for fear that he couldn't keep his hands from around his lying throat. "That's a complete fabrication. My crew can have this place spit and polish by tomorrow evening, and I'm willing to do so out of my own pocket. He's after more than his due."
"And what about the rumors? My business will be ruined when the whole city finds out that there were murders here!"
"Nobody's been murdered!" Torius rounded on the man, so furious at the accusations that his hand slipped unthinkingly to the hilt of his sword. "You're lying just to get more money out of me, and I won't stand here and—"
"Enough!" The Zephyr Guard squad leader's shout rivaled Grogul's. Everyone fell silent. "Master Helwek, Captain Vin has offered to pay for damages and repair your establishment out of his own pocket. That sounds fair to me. Will you not have an end to this without bringing the guard into it?"
"I'm pressing charges!" the bartender repeated, his face red. "Disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, destruction of property, and loss of livelihood due to wanton negligence."
"Public drunkenness? Gozreh's guts, man, it's a tavern!"
"Arrest this man! I insist!" He pointed a shaking finger at Torius.
Torius seethed, but managed to compose his face before turning to the squad leader. "My people want no trouble with the Zephyr Guard, ma'am. We'll go quietly, but you better add one more charge to that list."
The woman's brow wrinkled in confusion. "What charge might that be, Captain Vin?"
Now it was the bartender's turn to look confused. "But I wasn't—"
Torius doubled up his fist and cut the bartender's protest short by laying him flat out on the floor. Turning back to the Zephyr Guard squad leader, he dusted off his hands and smiled. "Lead on to the gaol! I hope you've got room for all of us, because Stargazers stick together! Grogul, get Windy Kate and the others."
Amid another round of cheers, the boisterous pirates hoisted their still-woozy mates onto their shoulders.
The squad leader only shook her head and said, "This way, Captain."
∗ ∗ ∗
Vreva paused for a moment at the second landing, just out of sight of the room below, and took a deep breath to still her pounding heart.
*You ready for this? You seem nervous,* Saffron said from the crook of her arm, keeping his meows low.
She looked into the bright yellow eyes of her friend and familiar and smiled. "You're such a worrier," she whispered back. "Of course I'm ready."
She took another breath, and her body responded to the long-practiced technique, calming her singing nerves. Raising her head and moving with majestic grace, she continued down the sweeping marble stair that led to the opulent entry hall of the Inn of the Eighth Sin.
A joyful shout brought all eyes to her, and impromptu applause rose from the crowd. Vreva beamed in the light of their adoration, sweeping an appreciative gaze across the crowd as if astounded that all this fuss was for her. At least fifty Okeno notables—some clients, some not—and a scattering of unknowns crowded the room. It was enough to turn any woman's head, if that woman wasn't more worried about her head ending up in a noose.
"Quopek, you sly dear." At the bottom of the stairs, Vreva playfully slapped the innkeeper's shoulder. "A surprise welcome-home party for me? How sweet of you!"
"Nothing but the best for Okeno's foremost courtesan!" The fat man quivered with excitement. Of course he was happy to see her; he earned ten percent of her profits, and her long absence had undoubtedly cut into his cash flow.
Vreva curtsied with consummate grace and waded into the throng, accepting kisses from those she knew, and proffering her hand to those she did not. Everyone jostled to catch her eye. Her reputation, it seemed, had grown during her sabbatical.
"Absence apparently does make hearts grow fonder," Vreva whispered so quietly that only Saffron could have heard her. None could understand their secret language, but talking to a cat could draw attention. They'd long practiced the art of conversing covertly, even in crowds, her whispers seeming nothing more than an owner's senseless endearments to a beloved pet.
A callused hand caressed the curve of her buttocks, and she barely suppressed the urge to slap it away.
*Absence evidently makes the heart grow randy, too.* Saffron's hiss at the slaver captain needed no interpreter.
"Oh, be civil, Saffron!" Vreva chided. She kissed her familiar on the head, then whispered, "You forget yourself! Now scout the room and report back!" Dropping the cat to the floor, she turned to her groper with a smile. "My apologies, Captain. We've been aboard ship for the better part of a week, and my poor kitty is in a snit."
"No offense taken, Mistress Jhafae," the slaver gushed, giddy with her attention. "We've got cats aboard Hell's Razor, you know. Keeps the rats from chewing up the merchandise!"
Vreva laughed at the supposed witticism, bestowed a smile and subtle caress sufficient to leave him dazzled and momentarily speechless, and continued circulating through the crowd.
"You look gorgeous, my dear. Absolutely gorgeous!"
"Where have you been? It seems like you've been gone for ages!"
"Mistress Jhafae, you simply must put me at the top of your calendar. Even my wife has complained about how edgy I've been, and only you ..."
Compliments, promises, pleas, and questions battered her like waves against a rocky shore, but Vreva responded with the glib dissemblance she had perfected long ago. The physical contact, however, set her teeth on edge. A hand on her arm or a kiss on the cheek roiled her stomach, while the more intimate caresses forced her to suppress violent reprisals. Weeks among pleasanter company had dulled her ability to block the revulsion she felt for these people.
I never thought I'd miss Torius and his boatload of pirates so much!
Vreva caught an empathic flush of urgency, then a flash of delight, and the flavor of seasoned meat flooded her mouth. Someone had dropped a tidbit, and Saffron had pounced. Quashing the sensation with a sip of wine, she broadcasted a thought of stern disapproval.
You have a job to do. Do it! He couldn't actually hear her thoughts, but would get the gist.
"I hope you are quite finished traipsing all around the Inner Sea, Mistress Jhafae."
Vreva recognized the voice and turned to the rotund slave merchant behind her.
"It was just a little holiday, Master Werreg." She accepted his kiss of greeting and did not flinch as his pudgy fingers caressed her hip. Werreg might be a fat lecher, but he was also an important member of the local merchants' council, and a font of information.
"I heard that you were spirited away by the Ruby Prince himself!" Looking pleased by his attempt at flattery, Werreg gave her an ingratiating smile. "I was worried that you'd succumbed to his charms and gone away for good!"
"How could I ever leave my dear friends here?" Vreva caressed his sweaty cheek, tracing the nerve along his jaw. "It was not the Ruby Prince whose company I kept. Just a ...special friend who asked a favor." That was true enough. Torius was a friend, or as close to one as she had. And Quetaal, the commander of the Sothis Guard, with whom she'd kept company there, had been like a breath of fresh air compared to these sniveling traders in human flesh.
"A toast to your favors." Werreg raised his glass, leering openly at her. "May they never run short of supply!"
Laughing, Vreva lifted her own glass in acknowledgment, but as her lips touched the rim, panic surged through her. Then a jolt of pain between her shoulders snapped her head back.
Saffron! The glass trembled in her grasp, and her vision glazed over as she concentrated on Saffron's mental cries. Rage, panic, fear ...trapped!
"Are you all right, Vreva?" Werreg's voice snapped her attention back to a circle of concerned guests.
"Yes, I ...I'm fine. Just a moment's fatigue." Sipping her wine, she attempted to quell the emotional onslaught from her familiar before it overwhelmed her. Considering her arsenal of spells, she silently cursed. Her magic was subtle, tailored to the boudoir, not the battlefield, and certainly not a room full of people. She had to disengage herself from this crowd and find Saffron. Vreva handed off her glass and made her excuses. "I've yet to recover from my voyage. The wine, I'm afraid, is going to my—"
"Is this yours?"
Vreva turned to the unknown man. He wore a snug headscarf in the Keleshite manner, and his beard was trimmed to a neat point. His clothes were rich, and the long whip at one hip and the scimitar at the other gave him a rakish appearance. She might have thought him handsome, except that he dangled Saffron by the scruff in one large, callused hand. The sight sent a surge of ice water through her veins.
"I caught it running loose." He held the cat out, sneering as if he'd just as soon wring the feline's neck.
"Saffron!" The familiar's relief echoed her own as she took the panicked cat in her arms. The ice water turned to fury, and Vreva glared at the man. "I don't know you, sir, but molesting my pet is not a means to garner my favor."
*He smells like blood!* Saffron spat and hissed, mewing dangerously. *His boots and that snake at his belt stink of it! I only sniffed, and he grabbed me!*
"My pardon, Mistress Jhafae." The man nodded and touched his forehead with a flourish. "I am Captain Heclech, master of Sovereign Chain out of Katheer. You must forgive my reaction, but where I'm from, animals belong in cages or on plates, not running free to soil a man's boots."
"My pardon, Captain Heclech, but I must not forgive you." Vreva was dismayed at the harsh words and acerbic tone that tumbled from her lips, attributing them to the waves of rage from Saffron that surged through her mind. "This is not your home, but mine, and in my home, my pet is afforded the same regard as any guest."
*‘Pet' my pink, puckered ass!* Saffron hissed.
"Shhh." She stroked his chin to ease his temper.
"Your home?" Heclech looked around the inn's opulent hall. "I was under the impression that this was Master Quopek's establishment. He keeps many men and women of your sort, does he not?"
"Master Quopek does not keep me, Captain. I come and go as I please." She tried to keep her tone civil, but could not disguise her dislike for the man.
"A fact that has left us all pining for the last many weeks, Captain," Werreg interjected from beside her.
"Yes." Heclech's eyes flicked to the merchant with a sneer of distaste. "This is why I came here, to see this woman who commands such obedience from men."
"I do not command anything, Captain Heclech." Vreva regained her composure and gave him a sultry smile. "They offer their respects willingly."
"Along with a good bit of gold." Werreg laughed, obviously trying to diffuse the situation. "I daresay we're all a bit richer for her recent absence, but I for one intend to pay my respects to her as soon as she'll have me."
"Where I'm from, women of her ilk do not have the respect of men." Heclech turned his eyes to Werreg and grinned a challenge. "And men who curry the favor of such women are little better than dogs."
Werreg paled, his blubbery chins quivering with rage, but he obviously knew better than to take up the man's challenge.
"And in this city, Captain, it's considered rude to insult a lady." The voice over Vreva's shoulder was low with a slight rasp, like well-oiled steel sliding across a fine whetstone.
She recognized the speaker even before Saffron said, *The wine man's behind you.*
Vreva felt a hand settle onto the small of her back and urge her aside. She didn't know whether to be relieved or agitated.
"And this particular lady has friends in very high places." Her champion stepped forward. His dark hair, pale complexion, and richly brocaded clothing marked him as Chelish, while the hand on the gleaming rapier at his hip marked him as a swordsman. Vreva knew that he was neither, but something else entirely.
"If you wish to do business in Okeno, Captain Heclech, and not be shunned like a plague-carrying rodent, you should apologize, and reconsider your opinion of Mistress Jhafae."
"And you are?" Heclech's hand drifted to the scimitar at his waist.
"Captain Fieson Templeton of Devil's Dawn." He made a short, courtly bow, and nodded to Vreva. "Chelish merchant and close personal friend of the lady."
"And by whose authority do you threaten me?"
"Threaten?" Fieson laughed, but his mirth didn't reach his eyes, and his gaze never left Heclech. "Oh, that was no threat, Captain, just a bit of advice. If you treat the lady with contempt, her friends will see to it that you do no business here. It's that simple." He shrugged. "Insult her again and I will personally feed you your own testicles. Now that," he added in a helpful tone, "was a threat."
"Gentlemen, please, you mustn't—"
"She's nothing but a high-priced prostitute!" Heclech stepped aggressively forward, and Vreva eased back a step, realizing the futility of attempting to placate the two men. "And you pay for her favors because you could never earn the attention of—"
The sounds of tearing silk and a wet plop on the marble floor interrupted his tirade.
Heclech's eyes flung wide, his voice caught in a strangled cry. Fieson stepped back as the larger man collapsed to his knees, hands clutching at the flood of crimson down his legs. The crowd gasped, and Vreva turned away, pressing a hand to her mouth in feigned shock. She knew Fieson did not threaten idly and, while he might not be skilled with a sword, he was entirely apt with the stiletto he wore strapped to his forearm beneath his sleeve. His cut had both gelded the man and severed one of the large arteries in his leg.
*Good!* Saffron purred as the man fell into the spreading crimson pool. *Now he smells like his own blood!*
"Captain Templeton! What is the meaning of—" Quopek stepped through the onlookers and gaped. "Abadar's key, man, what have you done?"
"The man insulted our guest of honor." Fieson casually cleaned and sheathed his blade. "After I warned him about his conduct, he insulted me with his hand on his sword. With Mistress Jhafae so near, I had no choice but to carry through with my warning. For her safety, of course." He bowed to Vreva, then the innkeeper. "My apologies to Mistress Jhafae, and to you, Master Quopek, for the mess. I'll be more than happy to pay for the cleanup."
"Well!" Quopek assessed the dead man, the stained marble floor, and the crowd. "I really should call the city guard about—"
"Please, Master Quopek." Vreva stepped forward, fanning herself with her hand as if she might faint. The blood affected her not one bit, but she had a façade to maintain, and needed to avoid calling official attention to the incident. "Captain Templeton was only defending my honor. I've never seen this man before, and I wonder at his motives for coming here. He picked the fight, sir, and he picked it with the wrong man."
A buzz of confirmatory assertions swept through the crowd, lauding Captain Templeton. In the end, Quopek merely called for a flock of slaves to clean up the mess, and shifted the reception to the common room. Vreva sighed with relief as she allowed Templeton to escort her to the new venue. Envious glances followed them as the captain leaned in close.
"I have a present for you, Vreva."
She beamed up at him. "How sweet of you, Captain. And in gratitude for your gallant defense of my honor, you shall have my first appointment. Is tomorrow afternoon good for you?"
"I am at your disposal, my lady," he said with a satisfied smile.
Chris Jackson is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Pirate's Honor, as well as the short story "Stargazer," also starring Torius, Celeste, and the rest of their bold crew. For information on his many other award-winning novels and novellas, check out jaxbooks.com or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisAJackson1.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.