“I don’t believe it,” Kat mutters in sheer disbelief through a mouthful of fish-on-a-stick.
Turning a corner in the Goldharbour docks, Kat, Amara and Estelle come face to face — again — with the Bandits of Goldharbour. For a long, awkward moment, they stare in silence.
And the Bandits stare right back.
“You!” Alison Steel exclaims, pointing accusingly at Estelle with the remnants of her fish-on-a-stick. “You and Eyebrows beat up my Honey-Bear! Apologise right now!”
Estelle is entirely undaunted by the Bandits. “You should apologise for trying to steal Amara’s necklace.”
Alison Steel smiles a wolfish smile. “Oh, we’re still going to do that.”
“Over my dead body,” Amara answers bluntly.
“We’re bandits, not murderers,” Alison Steel muses, reaching for her sword. “But I suppose we can make an exception for you.”
Kat steps forward.
“Not going to happen!” she shouts.
Dirk Broadsword steps forward towards Kat. “Keep that up, Eyebrows,” he warns, deliberately emphasising the nickname. “And it’s not going to end well for you.”
At this point in her wild, strange life, Kat is well-acquainted with all sorts of nasty things trying to eat her, beat her up, steal her stuff, or catapult her into the sun, so the bandits’ threats are really no more than what she’s accustomed to dealing with most days.
Her eyebrows, however, remain a very sensitive subject.
“Of course,” Dirk Broadsword offers, sounding almost apologetic, you could just give us the necklace. There’s no need for this to get ugly.” He holds out his hand expectantly. “Those caterpillars on your face are already ugly enough.”
“Shut up,” Kat growls, smacking his hand away and diving at his legs to knock him to the ground.
Springing back to her feet, she turns to Estelle and Amara.
“Mom! Take Amara and get out of here. Find the guards!” she desperately tells them, “I’ve got this under control.”
She dodges Alison Steel’s sword and turns back to Estelle and Amara.
Estelle grabs Amara by the shoulder. “Come on, Amara, dear,” she says gently but urgently.
“But—” Amara begins to protest.
“Kat will be fine,” Estelle insists. “She may not like to admit it but, but she is her father’s daughter.”
“Right,” Amara says, letting herself be dragged away. “Follow me, Mrs. Darkstone: I know where we can go.”
Kat takes her eyes off the bandits’ flashing blades long enough to see Amara and Estelle disappearing around a corner. She breathes a sigh of relief for their sake, though she’s still pretty worried for herself. She turns back to the bandits.
“If you want Amara’s necklace,” she says, trying to sound confident. “You’ll have to go through me.”
“Sure,” says Alison Steel. “We can do that. Can’t we, Honey-Bear?”
“Whatever my Sugar-Blossom wants.” Dirk Broadsword says, as he turns back towards Kat.
“Listen, Eyebrows, how do you really think this is going to end for you? There’s two of us. And we have swords. And you’ve got, what, most of a fish-on-a-stick and those eyebrows of yours?”
“I’m not afraid of you two clowns,” Kat answers. She’s mostly bluffing, but hopes that the Bandits don’t realise that.
Brandishing her only weapon, a half-eaten fish-on-a-stick, Kat steps forward to contend with the Bandits of Goldharbour, hoping that their skill with their swords is comparable to their intellect.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to teach you a lesson, Eyebrows,” Dirk Broadsword notes.
“Stop calling me that!” Kat replies.
“Why?” he asks in a mocking voice and sneering widely. “Am I hurting your feelings, Eyebrows?”
“My feelings are fine. It’s you that should worry about being hurt,” Kat counters.
Kat dodges a blow from Dirk Broadsword, surges forward and hits him with the fish-on-a-stick, back-pedalling away from his counterattack.
He’s as bad with a sword as she expected, so she can see his attacks coming from a mile away. She loses count of how many times she hits him before he even hits her once.
Still, she’s distantly aware that if he gets lucky, he’ll do a lot more damage with his sword than she could ever hope to do with her fish-on-a-stick.
“Stop hitting me with that! You’re getting your fish-grease and mouth-germs on me!”
Hearing this, Kat decides to start aiming for his face.
“Stop it!” he insists desperately, his face starting to get covered with fish crumbs.
“Stop hitting my Honey-Bear!” Alison Steel yells from somewhere to the rear.
Kat glances over her shoulder to see the female bandit charging her. She dives out of the way as Alison closes in, sending her careening into her companion and dumping the Bandits of Goldharbour into a tangle of flailing limbs on the ground.
Kat takes a thoughtful bite of fish-on-a-stick as she contemplates the situation. She lobs the remnants of fish-on-a-stick at the sprawling Bandits.
“Catch me if you can,” she dares, dashing off in the opposite direction from where Amara and Estelle ran off.
“Hurry up, Honey-Bear!” Alison Steel urges. “She’s getting away!”
“You’ll have to move your elbow, Sugar-Blossom,” Dirk Broadsword groans, pinned between the ground and his companion. He winces as her elbow jabs him rather unpleasantly. “No, the other way.”
As Kat runs for her life, Amara and Estelle are navigating the labyrinthine streets of the dock district at an equally desperate pace.
“Which way now?” Estelle asks as she follows Amara.
“Left!” Amara calls over her shoulder as they come to an intersection.
“Right!” she calls at the next one.
“Past the fish guttery! Keep going!”
This kind of running is not part of Amara’s daily routine.
There is, she is coming to realise, a very good reason for that.
It is a nasty, brutish, uncomfortable and utterly plebeian thing to do.
Her hair is being blown and jostled out of shape. Her dress is splattered with mud from the streets. She’s covered in sweat and starting to stink. Her legs hurt and her lungs are on fire, and she is wearing the worst possible shoes for running for her life.
She will not be satisfied until the Bandits of Goldharbour are made to account in the harshest possible terms for causing her this distress and begriming.
After running for altogether too long and too far and too fast, Amara leads Estelle around the last corner, up the marble steps to the imposing, be-gargoyled facade of the Headquarters of the Goldharbour Guard.
It is, to the constant frustration of the members of the Guard, the second-biggest building in the Dock District, after only the Red Admiral’s Groghouse.
The Guard has never liked to admit that an establishment founded and frequented by the more piratical elements of Goldharbour’s population casts a larger shadow over the Dock District than their own venerable headquarters.
Amara is familiar enough with the workings of the Goldharbour Guard to know which of Goldharbour’s finest will be on desk duty.
Shouting the name, Amara bursts through the door.
The force and sudden, dramatic quality of her entrance causes the unsuspecting Guardsman Jenkins to give a yelp of surprise, nearly jumping out of his chair and sending his Crossword Puzzle and pen tumbling through the air.
Amara smooths out her hair and clothes in an attempt to make herself as presentable as possible, though nowhere near as presentable as she’d like.
“I would like, Guardsman Jenkins,” she says breathlessly, “if I may, to see my uncle.”
The guard pulls himself far enough off the ground to peer over the top of his desk. “Your uncle?” he repeats.
Estelle steps forward to explain the situation on behalf of the breathless Amara, though she is mostly out of breath herself.
“The Captain,” she says. “We’re having a small crisis and would very much like to speak with him. If it’s not too much trouble, could we see him, please?”
The guard becomes slightly less dumbfounded, though still largely obscured by his desk. He turns to call over his shoulder. “Hey, Captain Valdus? Could you come out here for a minute?”
In the span of a heartbeat, the door of the Captain’s office swings open and out comes the Captain of the Goldharbour Guard, frustration on his face and a napkin stuffed into his collar.
“This had better be good, Jenkins,” he grimly informs the guard at the desk. “With all this Bandit nonsense, do you know how hard it is to find ten minutes for a lunch break?”
He stares, and as he stares, his indignation is replaced by bemusement.
“Why are you on the floor?”
Before he has a chance to further chastise his hapless subordinate, Amara interposes herself between the two guardsmen. His eyes widen at the uncharacteristically rumpled and sweaty state of his niece.
Something must be terribly wrong if Amara has actually had to stoop to physical exertion.
“Amara? What in the name of the Powers happened to you?”
“I have information concerning the location of the Bandits of Goldharbour,” she declares.
“It’s a long story,” Estelle urgently interjects. “And I’d rather not let them hurt my daughter.”
The Captain wheels towards Estelle. “What?”
“It is a dreadfully long story, Uncle. Frankly, we don’t have time for it.” Amara says, beginning to tug on his sleeve. “I can tell you on the way. But right now, Katherine needs help.”
“Right,” the Captain says. He turns to the guard at the desk. “Jenkins, spread the word. I want every guardsman we can spare on this,” he instructs.
“And my hat, please.”
“Yes, Captain.” Jenkins rises from the floor with a salute.
Captain Valdus’ hat goes from rack to hand to hand to head. Jenkins goes from desk to barracks to spread the word, quickly reappearing with a whole contingent of guardsmen, eager to finally bring the Bandits of Goldharbour to justice.
Followed by his guardsmen, the Captain boldly strides out of the Guard Headquarters. “Lead the way, Amara,” he instructs as he buckles his sword belt around his waist.
As they step out into the sunlight, Guardsman Jenkins speaks up hesitantly, “Uh, Captain?”
“What is it now, Jenkins?” the Captain asks crossly, rounding on Jenkins with narrowed eyes and wrathful mien.
“Your napkin, sir,” Jenkins quietly says, gesturing towards his collar. “It’s still there.”
Captain Valdus looks down at his own collar, where the napkin from his interrupted lunch is still sticking out. With a single motion, he tears away the napkin, crushes it into a little ball and tosses it into the nearby waste bin.
“Good man, Jenkins,” he says, giving his subordinate a hearty pat on the back before hefting his sword. “Now, let’s hunt some bandits.”
Mostly, Kat decides, as the chase through Goldharbour continues, she needs a better plan.
She can’t run forever, especially when she doesn’t know anything about the streets of Goldharbour to begin with. There’s nothing to stop her from blundering down a dead-end street or into some longshoremen.
And that would be bad.
As she continues to run with the Bandits hot on her heels, Kat realises that she needs to find the Goldharbour Guards and get them to deal with the Bandits. Of course, she doesn’t know where their headquarters are.
She can only hope that someone has noticed that the Bandits are after her, that they’ve informed the Guards and that the Guards are currently coming to her rescue.
She trips on a loose cobblestone, which sends her tumbling towards the few shallow steps leading to the door of a big red building.
“Ow,” Kat says as she falls onto the first step.
“Ow,” she says as she bounces to the second step.
And the third.
And through the building’s door.
Even bruised, disoriented and sprawled on the floor, Kat recognises a familiar voice.
“Kat? Dad, that’s Kat!”
Kat pushes herself to her knees and looks up to see Dunstana standing up on a stage in the middle of a crowd of pirates. She opens her mouth to ask where she is, but is interrupted by the sound of the door bursting open.
“Found you!” Alison Steel exclaims. “Now we can finally—”
The door bursts open again, and Kat hears another familiar voice.
“We’re here, Katherine!” Amara says. “We brought help!”
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