Fights and Friends

Note: This is a [second] draft. The contents here may change or alter between now and publication.

Copyright 2023 Dax Murray – All Rights Reserved

Content Note:

This is a work of fiction. It contains depictions, scenes, and discussions of topics that some may want to avoid. I have tried to make this list as exhaustive as possible, but I cannot know everyone's possible triggers and sensitivities. Please know that this book handles mature topics and themes. This chapter contains:


< Previous || Next >

After leaving the shores of the Veil, the Ástfríður only wore her ahnhörn on their wedding day. Otherwise, she kept it in a small box, tucked in the back of a closet. It might seem crass to treat such a treasure that way. Half-forgotten, gathering dust, mingling with old coats, brooms and dustpans, the etcetera that one might collect over the years. It was moot; one could tell she was Ástfríður even without it. Her eyes were too round, almost too large. Her nose was softer, her chin sharper and her mouth smaller. The sun reflected off of her amber skin in rainbows, glimmers and flashes even from a distance. There was no mistaking her. She had boarded a pirate ship that was returning to Fayn. She expressed her desire to see more of the world to the captain and joined their crew. For some years, she accompanied this ship, and then joined the crew of another for several more years, partaking in the undiplomatic negotiations just as much as in the drinking. Until she met Caitlin.

Caitlin was settling accounts with the captain when she saw her. Everyone saw her. Everyone wanted to both stare at and look away from the Ástfríður disembarking from that ship; all wanted to bask in the iridescence of her skin, watching as she set down a crate, her hair sparkling in the wind. She was a star descended from the heavens. Caitlin wanted to catch her.

Caitlin struggled to stay focused, inspecting the crates, haggling with the sailors or, more often, pirates. Later, Caitlin would ponder if she always knew what would happen at this moment. The Ástfríður’s arrival on one pirate ship could mark her as a potential guide for other pirates wishing to navigate the maelstrom guarding the Isles. Most of those who came and went at Whick were respectable, or as respectable as pirates can be. Later, when she looked back, Caitlin would further chide herself for assuming that she knew those who came and went well enough to believe they wouldn’t harm Brenna.

The Ástfríður approached Caitlin as she finished her transactions with the captain. “They said you were the one to speak to… To be honest, I’m new to this town.”

Caitlin stepped back a little, mouth falling open. “I…” She wanted to come up with something witty. Later, of course, a thousand flirty replies would come to her. But for now, Caitlin was speechless. “Yes, I am the one who runs the shipping and trading around here. How can I help you?”

“I just arrived and am not wanting to go back out to sea right away. Are there places to stay here?” “Of course, there’s an inn about five blocks away. Down that road—” Caitlin changed her mind and took the Ástfríður to the inn herself. “I’ll show you the way.” It wasn’t because she was gorgeous, her smile confident, her chin high and her eyes gleaming. It wasn’t because Caitlin was already smitten with her. It couldn’t be because of that. Caitlin was welcoming, forging a relationship with a potential buyer or seller, or, at the very least, a new resident of Whick. It wasn’t because she kept trying to flirt with Caitlin.

Maria nodded in greeting to Caitlin before taking another round of drinks to a table full of regulars; the crew of the Red Sword. They weren’t the most boisterous of the pirates who came and went, but they were not far behind. The Ástfríður looked them up and down, almost imperceptible, but skilled merchants and business people were often excellent at discerning these sorts of things; haggling was an art. Caitlin led the Ástfríður to a table in a corner to wait for Maria to come back around. “So are you the…” the Ástfríður paused. “The mayor? Executive? Lord?”

“I’m a director of the port. The town doesn’t have its own government. We are on duchy lands, but mostly autonomous. We work on a consensus at town meetings.”

“Ah,” she leaned forward. “So, you do dealings with everyone here, resident or transient. A real gem, this town has.” This wasn’t the confident, playful flirting from the dock; it was soft, warm. “You’ve been here your whole life?”

“Yes, my fathers were both employees of different merchants, but kept running into each other and fell in love. They moved here to set up their own business together and have been here ever since. I started helping them before I even finished my schooling.”

“They are lucky to have you. And this is what you want to do?”

“I guess. What about you? You’ve come a long way from your home. What is your hope?”

“I am not sure yet; I’m copper. There are places out there I want to see, so for now, that’s what I am doing.” This was the first time that the Ástfríður displayed anything but confidence. She looked down at the table and her eyes were seeing something far away for Whick. “For years now, I’ve been traveling with sailors,” she said. “Seeing much of the coasts of Fayn, the coasts of Garcelon, of Sua—strange lot, those hell cats—and even as far away as Janeuq. But little of the lands.”

“So, where do you hope to travel next?”

She brought her hand to her chin, looking up. “No clue. That’s the thrill, isn’t it?”

“I guess,” Caitlin said; she’d never considered that the sporadic nature of pirates’ travels could be thrilling in their own right. “I’ve never traveled, or at least not much.”

“Would you like to change that?” The Ástfríður grinned, eyes alight, fire reflected from metal. An invitation, but Caitlin couldn’t tell how serious that invitation was.

“I must run the business here. I can’t.”

“Does this business consume your life? What do you do for you?”

“I have a lot of responsibilities. It doesn’t leave much time for anything like traveling.”

The Ástfríður cocked her head and squinted at Caitlin. “It doesn’t have to be traveling. How do you spend your free time?”

Caitlin almost spat out her drink.

“Why are you laughing? It wasn’t a joke.” She was serious, leaning over the table to get closer to Caitlin.

“I go over inventory, schedules for shipments, accounts, negotiations.”

Her shoulders sagged. “Why? Why do you do all of that? All?”

“My fathers trust me; who else would do it?”

“Anyone else! You can train others; you can delegate some of that responsibility.” Caitlin shifted in her seat and pulled at a stray thread in her sleeves. The Ástfríður backed away. “Look, I’m sorry, Caitlin; I didn’t mean to get like that.”

“It’s fine,” Caitlin said.

“Do you play poker? I got a deck of cards on me.”

Caitlin laughed. “How much money are you willing to lose, Ms.…?”

“Brenna. Just Brenna. And you have no right to be asking that, Ms. Mayor.”

Caitlin had learned how to play so she could entertain the crews of ships; hospitality went a long way to building favorable relationships. But Brenna was more than a skillful player that she was hoping to do business with.

“Another winning hand,” she said, scooping the coins from the center.

“Is this how you paid your way around?” Caitlin asked, setting her cider down. “How you fulfilled your obligations on that ship?”

She winked at Caitlin. “Sometimes I sing or dance, too. You don’t have to keep throwing your hands. I like you too much to have my pride hurt.”

Caitlin had been throwing a lot of them. She was exceptionally good at that sort of flattery; let the captains and crew think they had at least one thing over the person they wanted to swindle.

Caitlin won the next four rounds. “That’s m’girl,” Brenna said. She looked into Caitlin’s eyes and smiled. “That’s m’girl. You don’t need to be so shy.”

“Alright then.” Caitlin grinned and raised an eyebrow. She sat taller. “Let’s keep going then.” Something in Brenna’s eyes inspired a confidence that had nothing to do with impressing clients for the sake of business. She was incredible at haggling, fantastic at asserting herself to get the better deal, to impress a captain or crew. Caitlin wanted Brenna to like her and like her for herself.

The table filled with more people, pitchers and rounds. Brenna out-drank them all and won more matches than anyone else. She received requests from more than one person to share a room that night. And when Maria came by and informed the two that the entire inn was full, no beds at all, they offered more earnestly.

“I have a guest room,” Caitlin said.

“Well, who can refuse that offer?”


She knows she needs to study politics with haste, paying attention to more than just which nobles might be interested in purchasing what goods. She needs fluency in the language of the upper class; to dress the part of a socialite and gentry, a different sort of formal than the kind she used to conduct business. She needs to memorize the names of nobles and be able to recall the names of both their compatriots and those they quarreled with, if possible. While she has no desire to entertain a courtship with the prince, she intends to make the most of this party as a businesswoman. And she knows only one person she could ask to help her with this.

The sign above the door engraved with the sigil of Andraste makes no sound as Caitlin pushes it open, finding the waiting room empty.

“Who is it?” Diarmuid calls from the back.

“It’s me!” Caitlin says, walking to the back to see him, glad that she isn’t interrupting anything. He forces a half-smile and throws down a dirty towel on the table he had been cleaning. “I’m still swamped, you know.”

Caitlin looks back at the empty waiting room but doesn’t call him on his lie. “I just wanted to see you.” “Really?” he scoffs.

“Yes, really. Diar, what is wrong?”

“You would not understand.” He slumps into one of the waiting room chairs.

“You’re my friend; I hope you know you can tell me anything.”

He chuckles. “That’s just it, isn’t it?”


He looks up from the chair into Caitlin’s eyes. “You have more important people in your life than me.”

“Diar. Tell me.”

“You’re about to have new friends, anyway.”

“Is this about the party?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Diar, I invited you to go to it with me. You said you couldn’t. I told you that I wanted you there.” “Not your fathers’ party. The Connal’s party. You were invited and you’re going to attend.”

“You have heard about… How… What about it?”

“How? The entire city knows. He wants the whole country to know that he has a new target. You’re about to have many people more important than me. How can the object of the prince’s affection have any time for a physician?”

“I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want him. I could count the reasons I want nothing to do with that spoiled brat, but that would take more time than you have.”

“You are strange, Caitlin.” He raises an eyebrow, rises from the chair, and storms back to the exam room. “You’ve given everything to your fathers, to their business; why would you not stop at giving your hand to someone to further their business dealings?”

“Giving what?” She rushes into the exam room behind him, throat tight and hands balled into fists. “What? First, the prince won’t propose. Second, my fathers would never ask me to, even if that happened.”

“They don’t have to ask you. You’ll do it, anyway. You don’t want this, they know you don’t want it. But you’ll going to do it, anyway, if you think it will help their business.” He grabs a cloth and wipes down instruments, turning his back on her.

She struggles to find words to both deny his accusations and ask him for the same comfort he had given her last week; she had sat in the waiting room while he finished his last patient, and somehow, he knew why she was there and had hot chocolate prepared. Her fathers had left her house, and she ran not far behind them, racing to Diar’s clinic, in such a rush that she did not even clear the table. He knew somehow that her dinner with her fathers would not go well. He held her while she cried and cried and cried. She never even told him what she was crying about. And yet. She wants that comfort again now. But she can’t ask for it from the Diar that is standing before her now. She swallows the lump in her throat. “You aren’t being fair to me.”

His head drops. “And you’re not being fair to yourself, either. Listen, I am sorry, Caitlin. I had a rough day, and I was taking it out on you. I know that isn’t an excuse, but—”

She does not want to consider what Diarmuid was suggesting any more than she already has. “I need to go home. I have work to do before the night is over.”


The dice scatter on the table, and Caitlin pulls the coins on the table towards herself. “Surely these dice are weighted,” Diarmuid says, frowning as the silver pile in front of Caitlin doubles.

“Me? A cheater?” Caitlin says, grinning. “Never, absolutely never.”

“I’m sorry, what’s the correct terminology, then?”

“It is ‘lucky bastard.’”

“You’re a lucky bastard.”

“Yes, I am. Thank you!”

“You can be insufferable. I’m done with losing my money for the day. Why don’t I grab us lunch with my last gold coin?” He stands and offers her his arm.

Caitlin, glad that the awkwardness between them had dissipated, accepts it.

Diarmuid leads them from his clinic, locking the door behind him, and to a tavern that she had never noticed before, but Diarmuid seems to be acquainted with everyone there, nodding and smiling and waving to every other person before they sit down.

A young Calla approaches their table and plops a plate of potatoes and vegetables down in front of Diar. The Calla’s ears are flat, and the azure fur on the Calla’s tail is puffed up, but the smile on their felinesque face could almost pass as genuine. “You haven’t been around lately,” the Calla says to Diar, ignoring Caitlin. A statement. A question. An accusation.

“I’ve been busy, Jocelyn.”

The Calla flicks her tail and glances at Caitlin. “With that?”

“Her name is Caitlin.”

“Do Sharidan or Valen know?” Jocelyn fidgets with the pendant on the long, silver necklace she is wearing, a blooming lily, the same as Diarmuid wears on his coat.

“This isn’t the sort of relationship that they need to know about.”

Caitlin raises an eyebrow and crosses her arms.

Diarmuid runs his hands down his face. “Jocelyn, please. We can talk later. But for now, here.” He pulls an envelope out of his pocket and hands it to her, along with some coins.

“Sure. Fine. Whatever. Whenever you’re done in the hay with your lass, make sure you’ve picked it all out of your hair before you come to talk to anyone.” She spins on her heel and saunters away.

“I’m sorry about that, Caitlin.”


“No, oh goodness, no. She’s from—I’m in a club, I guess. Haven’t been to the meetings lately. Been too busy with work and with—”

“—me. Too busy with me. And Sharidan? Valen?”

“Club leaders. Don’t worry, I’m not hiding a family.”

“What kind of club?”

“It’s more of a social thing. But for some, the club is family. Especially for those that don’t have any other.”

“I see.” Caitlin leans back slowly in her chair and taps her forefinger on the table.

“Tomorrow, then, I suppose,” he says as he gestures for her to take the food.

The topic that they had been avoiding for the last month. Caitlin shivers. The reason they were meeting every day, the reason that he was filling her in on how cruel the various nobles were. They’d been acting like he was telling her for no reason; acting like she isn’t about to attend a formal party at the personal invitation of the crown prince. “Tomorrow.”

The subject of their conversations since their argument has skirted the unwanted predicament Caitlin is in. The list of the prince’s many love affairs and romances is long. Some lasted a few months, maybe a year. No one is placing bets on Caitlin being the one he would marry; not because of her lack of nobility, nor her background, nor even the fact that she is a widow. There is simply no point in betting at all anymore. He might keep up this game, this hunt, of ferreting out the most beautiful, or the most alluring, or the merriest woman until he can no longer put it off as the crown is now on his head. Many lamented the fact that his father will most likely not be attending his wedding.

This is both reassuring and terrifying. Nobles have flung their daughters at him, hoping for a proposal. Or hoping for maybe a few months of extreme favor. Soon they all realize what the game is, yet keep sending their daughters in. That daughter is always later offered to a duke or a duchess as a consolation, still a most advantageous arrangement for families looking to rise in the ranks. Caitlin knows her fathers would never ask of her that sacrifice. They would not ask her to be a pawn, to be passed around to curry favor. If this prince only treated women as a fad, he would grow tired of Caitlin. She is sure that she will be no more than that commoner woman he tried to flirt with at a party. Forgotten within the month.

It will be easy to push him away as she had done at her fathers’ party. Doing so while not insulting the others at his garden party would be the hard part. Looking rude and uncultured would not be helpful in currying her own favor on behalf of the business. This garden party will be a business venture, nothing more.


“My elusive lady,” the prince says as he approaches Caitlin at the entrance, taking her arm and leading her inside. “I am so glad you accepted my invitation.”

This is a new sort of diplomacy, a change from any of the varieties or tactics Caitlin previously employed with a customer, to barter, to complete a deal, to prevent a brawl. There will be no bartering fabrics or ceramics; no discussing their weights, their worth, and if rivals show up here, she is not in any danger from swords or fists, but these nobles wield weapons just as lethal. The currency here is intangible but perhaps far more valuable.

Those she dealt with in the past were no more ‘proper’ than she was. Her peers, for all that you could be peers with captains, traders, travelers, pirates, and privateers, never cared much for flowery flattery.

The grass is almost too well kept to be real, the roses nearly too perfect in their blossoming. The fountains reflect rainbows onto the immaculate walkways, and the tree branches create the ideal amount of shade. She usually has no opinion on decorations, interior or exterior. Though everyone else is spending much of their time airing their own opinions.

“I was most happy to receive and accept your invitation, your Highness. As heir to Peddigree Shipping, I would never turn down an opportunity to talk business with those who wish to do so. Where is the honorable count today?”

His head tilts ever so slightly, an eyebrow-raising imperceptibly. But he quickly draws himself up. “A lady who is loyal to her family and does not shirk her duties. So, the rumors are true.”

Caitlin knows he is baiting her. Having no experience chasing men and, to her knowledge, no experience being chased by them, she has nothing to go by to gauge the caliber of his attempt. “I am a businesswoman through and through.”

“And what does a businesswoman do in her spare time? Surely you must have some leisure time.” His hand slides behind the small of her back, and leads her away from the crowd, instead of toward it. More than a few words, none that a noble lady should know but part of the standard vocabulary of a sailor, claw at her throat.

“As you have said yourself, I do not shirk my duties.”

“Your responsibilities cannot be so great that you cannot enjoy time away from them.”

“And yet they are.” She closes her eyes, hoping she is playing this correctly. She is a hard-working woman; she must appear to the upper classes as the professional businesswoman they will happily transact with if her fathers—soon to be her—business is to grow. But she must act plain enough that the prince will drop her within the week.

“Ah, I see the weight of them on your shoulders. Gentle lady,” he stops and turns her to face him, his hand not leaving her back. Flinching away from his stare, his face too close, is not something she can do, though she wants to slap him and run. She meets his gaze. “Gentle lady, I insist you take more time for yourself. You found time to be my guest here; surely you can find time to do so again.”

“I came here most selfishly, my lord. I came here on business.” Her years as the wife of a pirate taught her quickly how to show no weakness, to keep a straight face while nervous. Though this is the first time in over a decade that she must put effort into this façade.

He takes a step away from her, his hand leaving her back, and throws his head back in laughter. It is not the polite chuckle of the nobility; the only thing Caitlin has to compare it to is the laugh of a captain after pulling a prank on his rival.

“You keep bringing it back to your business. Your fathers really should be proud; they would hand the business over to you even if you were not blood, I should think. Well, in any case. If you do not take time off yourself, I shall have to order you to do so. Next week we shall have fun; I shall teach you what leisure feels like.”

“My lord, I am quite serious—”

“You are very serious, yes. Overly so. If I, in all my royal duties, can find time to attend parties and go hunting and ride through the countryside, how can you not? It is a royal order.” He pulls her closer to him again and tilts her head up to face his. “You are so beautiful.”

Caitlin swallows as he holds her longer than would be proper for any noble to court another. Smirking, his eyes hold the same mix of joviality and cunning as captains playing cards. But none of their camaraderie.

“My lord?”

“Ah, well. I suppose you will want to speak to the count.”

Cataloging inventory is easy—silks, spices, metals, clay, raw materials, or finished products; the ever-shifting contents of any shipment, any item in any of the storehouses. The names, the numbers, the weights, the worth of so many things, and tomorrow those numbers will change again.

Cataloging people is difficult, though at first it may seem like such cataloging would present no issues.. People rarely change; their names often stay the same, their relations generally remain consistent, their residence and homelands and accents rarely diverge. Surely it would be easier than keeping inventory. But meeting so many people in a few hours does not lend itself to accurate and comprehensive internal ordering.

He leads her to Count Seamus, and it is soon clear that the reason for the invitation was pre-textual. They find the count having a conversation with Lord Allil, Duke of Hern, the prince’s uncle. He excuses himself promptly. The count has a fascination with foreign oddities. Knick knacks and bobbles. He wants to purchase trinkets, if the business has any. He has heard they travel most of the world now, and he regales her with many stories of his own travels as assistant to the ambassador and the baubles he purchased in Alsha Dhabu and Arrinhu. This is not about commerce; it is an interest in collectibles, the same as he might express at a Sunday market.

The prince leads her to countesses and earls, to third daughters hoping yet to make a place for themselves, second sons who want to gain more favor to compensate for their lesser title. They eye her under hooded lids and assess the extent of her interest in the party—many asking about business but not paying any attention to the details. People have less curiosity about recently found artifacts of gold and gems than they do for her. Caitlin is the rarity. Caitlin is the oddity.

The prince’s presence at her side distracts everyone from actual conversations with her about trade deals; everyone now knows her invitation is just a pretense for the prince to show off his latest quarry. While most of the gossip at this party revolves around Caitlin, the party-goers speak of other matters, too.

“I heard they were planning to raid—”

“Same men as last time—”

“—and no one knows how many got away—”

They speak in hushed whispers when they think the prince can not hear them.

“They need to learn their place.”

“They are lazy; they shouldn’t complain.”

“This is how it has always been; this is how the priests and priestesses tell us it should always be. They should realize they are insulting the gods.”

“If they want a rebellion, we will give them the defeat that comes with it.”

“The king is far too forgiving of them. Their children should watch every one of them hang.”

The wine now tastes like poison, and the cake like ash. She has been evaluating the monetary worth of the flatware and the plates. Calculating how much it can sell for, and how much the count paid for them. The figures in her head were based on material goods.

But these lords were calculating lives. The palace was far from Whick, far from any consideration Caitlin had to make previously; the only need for interactions with the government was sorting out incorporating a business, buying the license to sell and trade, paperwork to leave these shores and return to them. In all the business dealings, in all internal abstraction, never was a life considered collateral.

Brenna. Her Brenna. Her wife. Her face appears in Caitlin’s mind, though this is not the place. This is not the place.

Prince Cian takes her hand. “You seem to have struck my guest speechless, Lord Seamus. Caitlin, you have never heard of stag hunts? Fox hunts?”

“Oh, oh. No, my lord. I haven’t.” She blinks and shakes her head.

“Ah! I know what we will show you on Saturday. Do you have anything sturdier? We will be outside; I would not want you to stain your gorgeous gown. For then, you might have to take it off.” He laughs at his own terrible joke.

“I have something that will suit.” There was no way out of this now. She sighs and looks away from him.


The party ends, and the prince finds every reason to tarry, to stay just a moment longer, but eventually concedes that she must return to her fathers. She ignores them when they ask her how it went; she ignores them when they ask her what is wrong, and she ignores them when they shout after her, asking her where she is going.

She wants to ask them for help, ask them to send her back to Whick, to hide her from him, to send her overseas, somewhere, anywhere but here. Instead, she locks herself in the guest room, tears off the dress, and sobs.

Previous || Top || Next