“I am one of two —”
Lump hit him again, and this time he did roll down the steps to the deck. Strick followed. I withdrew the torch from my pocket and, along with it, the tinderbox. The oil in the torch would immediately light, if the tinderbox still had e
nough life in it to create a spark.
Below me, Strick tried a different strategy.
“If you are Jaron, tell me your parents’ names.”
“Eckbert and Erin.” He straightened up and glared at her. “I had an older brother too, Darius, but all of them are dead now.”
At Strick’s direction, Lump hit him again, which surprised me. There was no reason to have done it. Roden was still slumped over when Strick crouched beside him and took his right hand.
“There is no king’s ring.”
“I left it on the other ship.”
I glanced down at my hand. I’d pocketed the king’s ring when we were boarded, but I replaced it now. Then I reached into the tinderbox for a badly worn piece of flint.
But Strick smiled. “There is no evidence of a ring ever being on this hand. No discoloration of the finger, no impression on the skin.” She stood tall. “You are not Prince Jaron. What is your name?”
His shoulders hunched. “I am Jaron.”
“No, you are not.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “You are very brave, and what I’ve seen from you thus far is perhaps the most courageous act of any person on this deck. I want you to know that I sincerely regret having to kill you now.”
Now she turned to address her crew. “The first show of loyalty is to carry out my orders, so, pirates, I am giving you the chance to prove yourselves. Every one of you who gave me your oath today will administer one lash to this boy, this imposter, assuming he is still alive after everyone has had their chance.”
“No one will touch him!” I shouted, now standing on the lower beam. It had taken four strikes of flint to light the torch, but now it was bright in my hands. I raised it toward the nearest sail. “You will listen carefully and do everything I say, or I will turn this ship to ashes.”
Strick glanced up at me and folded her arms. “Prince Jaron, welcome to the Shadow Tide.”
I leaned in, certain I had not heard her address me correctly. “Pardon?”
She squinted. “I welcomed you here, Prince Jaron.”
“Ah. No, I’m King Jaron. I’m a king. We even had a ceremony to make it official. Which is a problem for you. To capture a king is an act of war.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m aware of that.”
“So you will release me and my friends, or —”
“We are not at war, Jaron.” She threw out a hand. “Could we discuss this in a more private place? I feel like I’m shouting to the entire sea.”
“None of us are going anywhere until we agree on terms. First, you will provide a lifeboat to Roden, Tobias, and Amarinda, well stocked with food, and get them safely off this ship.”
Strick frowned. “The Shadow Tide has only one lifeboat, and I won’t give it up for three people whose lives do not concern me. But I will guarantee their lives here at least until we reach our destination. Under two conditions. First is they obey my every command. Second is that Roden will give the same vow of loyalty that Tobias and everyone else on this ship did.”
Roden’s head turned sharply back toward her. “Only me, not Amarinda?”
“Her vow will be willingly given.” Strick turned back to me. “Your threats mean nothing, Jaron. You won’t set fire to a ship with three of your friends on board, unless …” She pointed at Roden. “… unless winning means more to you than their lives. Because this boy will pledge loyalty to me, or he will die here.”
I lowered the torch in my hands, calling back, “I will win before this is over, Captain. But Roden may do as he’d like now. He was never particularly loyal to me anyway.”
Strick smiled and said to Roden, “Well?”
Roden looked up at me for advice, and I subtly nodded back at him. What other choice did he have? Once he made his pledge, Lump untied Roden’s arms and he was ordered to sit with the rest of the men.
“I’ve kept my promise thus far,” Strick said. “Now will you keep yours and come down?”