“The foal stays with its mother,” decreed the Queen, “but the owners of the father have equal say in all dealings with the animal.”
Prince Charming shifted on his throne in anticipation. This was the last case being presented to the royals for their personal judgment (well, for Snow’s far more than his own) today. All Snow had to do was stand and he’d be free from this hell for another month.
The doors to the throne room flung open wide and a young woman dressed in comfortable hunting gear strode in, flanked by two large men hauling an even larger man between them. The prisoner was shackled and sullen, dragging his feet, while his guards looked as if they (like Charming) would rather be anywhere else.
The young woman, on the other hand, was flushed with success. Her long blonde hair was held off her face in braids wrapped around her head to prevent anyone taking advantage. Her green eyes sparkled, her lips held an inappropriately delighted grin, and the strut in her step made Charming's hopes sink.
Holding back the groan at the edge of his tongue, he instead glared furiously at the young woman. She smiled sunnily back at him. Snow turned her attention to the newcomers and Charming spared a rueful thought for the comfort of his bed.
“Proceed,” she said.
Dropping into a deep bow, the woman said, “Your Majesties, I bring before you the bandit leader Thomas Greyhaven.”
The prisoner behind her snarled.
Snow raised an eyebrow. "Have you proof?"
The woman produced several scrolls from beneath her leather jerkin and brought them forward for Snow’s attention. “These are artist’s renderings of Greyhaven based on eyewitness accounts. In addition,” the woman grabbed Greyhaven’s arm and pulled up his sleeve, revealing an elaborate tattoo of a half naked mermaid decorating his forearm, “this tattoo is mentioned on all wanted posters for the criminal.”
Snow perused the images (for far longer than necessary, Charming thought impatiently), then gestured for the prisoner to be brought closer. She thoroughly examined the man’s face and tattoo before nodding decisively. “We accept this evidence,” she said. “What are the charges?”
“Banditry, obviously,” the young woman said, “theft, destruction of private property, vandalism, willful disobedience of the state, etcetera.”
“Do you have any defense?” Snow asked Greyhaven directly. The woman tensed, her eyes tightening, then smoothing away so quickly that Charming would not have noticed had he not been so attuned to her movement.
Greyhaven said nothing, only stared at Snow. Then he drew himself up and spat at her.
The blonde woman moved so fast no one saw it. Only that one moment she was standing still, and the next she had the prisoner in a headlock. She pulled her arm tight around his throat and snarled, “Do it again, I dare you -”
Snow raised a hand at the guards moving forward. “Release him.”
The woman glared at Snow, then stepped away from the prisoner. “What’ll it be then?” she asked.
Charming shifted. She was being reckless again.
Snow waited for several long, quiet moments, before decreeing, “Fifteen years hard labour. Take him to the mines.”
The gavel came down and Charming sighed, relaxing. The young woman watched the guards drag Greyhaven from the room, her excitement gone. The few remaining members of the audience straggled out after them, quiet murmurs rising and falling, until at last the three of them were alone.
“Well,” Snow huffed, getting up from her throne. “Aren’t you even going to say hello?”
The young woman turned back to them. Her expression cleared and she all but ran to Snow, smiling. “I’m sorry, Mother,” she said, wrapping Snow in a hug. “I was miles away.”
Charming stood too and hugged his daughter tight. “We were starting to worry, Emma,” he chastised gently. “No word for three weeks!”
“I’m sorry,” Emma apologised, still smiling, “he was a slippery one, Greyhaven. But I’m back now, and all is well.”
Snow and Charming exchanged a look.
“What?” Emma asked immediately. “What’s going on?”
Snow sighed. “Let’s not discuss it now,” she said, sounding tired. “It can wait until dinner.”
“Mother,” Emma began. Charming glared pointedly at her and she stopped herself. “At dinner, then.”
It had always been difficult to arrange family meals for the whole royal family. As far as the kingdom and, in fact, the world were aware, it was just Queen Snow and Prince Charming. Emma’s identity was a closely guarded secret, and as such she could not be seen spending too much time with her parents. Their abundance of powerful enemies had led the Queen and her consort to pretend that their only daughter had died at birth, allowing her to grow up without fear of being kidnapped or killed at a moment’s notice.
Still, old habits died hard. Deep within their private rooms in the royal palace was the private dining room where the royal family usually dined together. There, they made their own food and served themselves. Fewer servants meant less opportunity for spies. Any servants allowed in the private rooms were carefully and thoroughly vetted, both by regular and magical means. And Snow had never allowed mirrors.
“So what is it?” Emma asked the moment they sat down to eat. Charming and Snow groaned simultaneously.
“Honestly, Emma,” Charming said, “we’re both starving. Can we please have five minutes just to -”
“I've waited three hours,” Emma hissed across the table. “I just want to know what’s going on!”
Snow and Charming traded looks. Finally, Charming sighed and set his cutlery down while Snow began eating as quickly as possibly.
“It’s really not a big deal,” Charming said. “We’ve just had reports of pirates raiding the coast.”
Emma perked up immediately. “Pirates?”
Charming sighed. “Yes, but you can't go after him,” he said. “This one’s different.”
“Different how?” Emma asked.
“We think he’s immortal,” Snow said through a mouthful of food.
Emma’s eyes lit up. Charming groaned.
“Tell me everything,” Emma said excitedly.
“There really isn’t much to tell,” Charming said, doing his best to keep Emma’s enthusiasm under control.
“His name’s Captain Hook,” Snow said over the top of her husband, having finished her meal with alarming speed. “Records from several centuries ago indicate that he was once a lieutenant in the navy. He mutinied against his captain, killed him and stole the navy’s best ship, turned to piracy and proceeded to raid the kingdom for several years. Then he disappeared abruptly, leaving no trace of his treasure or his ship.”
Emma raised an eyebrow. “How can he possibly still be around?” she asked disbelievingly.
Charming shrugged. “Rumour has it he travelled to a land where time passes differently. To be honest, I’m not sure I believe it myself. But this man matches his description right down to the hook and the ship he travels in, and if the rumours are true…”
Emma leaned back in her chair, her meal lying forgotten before her. “Then clearly someone needs to find out the truth,” she said, eyes sparkling. “Perhaps by capturing a fugitive?”
“Out of the question,” Charming said. “Hook is dangerous, Emma. As a sailor in the navy, he was an accomplished swordsman and a daring tactician. With a few hundred years of experience under his belt, a man like that is bound to be a formidable enemy. Besides, we’ve had no reports of actual piracy just yet. As far as we can tell, he’s just wandering around.”
“I thought you said he’d been raiding towns,” Emma recalled.
Charming shrugged. “Only one or two, and those from certain mayors we know are… how shall I put this… prone to exaggeration. As yet, we have no proof of any harm done to the realm or any residents.”
“No doubt he’s out looking for easy targets,” Emma pointed out. “As the future ruler of the realm, I have a duty to make sure my people are protected from all threats, both present and potential.”
“It’s not exactly our policy to put out warrants for people who haven’t actually done anything,” Snow said, fair as always. “We don’t have any actual proof that he is the pirate from the records. And he really hasn’t done anything yet, Emma.” She frowned at her daughter. "We are not in the practice of making arrests without evidence."
Emma leaned forward again. “Then let me investigate,” she said. “I’ll find out who he is, I’ll find out where he came from, and if he is this Hook then I’ll capture him and bring him in to face the queen’s justice. What do you say?”
Charming and Snow shared a look. Snow could sense Charming’s resolve to keep their daughter safe crumbling in the face of her enthusiasm. And, to be honest, Snow was quite willing to let Emma risk herself. She was still young, only twenty five years of age, but she could take care of herself as Snow had, all those years ago. Besides, Emma had all sorts of advantages that Snow had never had. Snow had never been trained in how to defend herself, how to use the resources of the land around her, how to disguise herself. Emma had been taught all that and more - necessary lessons for the secret heir to a much-envied throne.
“Fine,” Charming sighed.
Emma sprang to her feet and kissed both of them on both cheeks. “You’re the best,” she declared, and made as if to run from the room.
“Oh no you don’t,” Snow cried. “At the very least finish your dinner before you go rushing off to save the world.”
Emma sighed and returned to the table. Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow a new adventure would begin.