The Pirate’s Angel – Caroline Lee

“Yer Highness, what are ye wearing?” The dirty little girl standing in front of Isabel glanced down at herself. “One of Alex’s old kilts, milady. They’re ever so much more comfortable to run and play in than those silly gowns.” Trying to hide her smile, Isabel de Strathbogie, de facto Countess of Carrick, sank regally onto one of the many stone benches placed at inviting intervals throughout the gardens of Scone Palace. Lowering her chin, she held Princess Margaret’s gaze. “And does yer mother ken of this hobby of yers?” Margaret was only five, a year younger than Isabel’s son, Alex, but she had a wild streak twice the size of her playmate’s. Isabel was certain it had been the girl’s idea to dress in lad’s clothing, not Alex’s, but Margaret showed no remorse when she shrugged nonchalantly. With an impish grin—which showed off one missing tooth and a smear of dirt along one cheek—the little girl announced, “Mother told me no’ to tell ‘twas her who suggested it!” “Oh dear,” Isabel murmured with a straight face. “I shall keep yer secret—and Her Majesty’s—but what of yer nursemaids?” They were nowhere to be seen. “I cannae imagine they approve?” “They think me up in the nursery embroidering with my baby sister,” the Princess spat out, as she propped her fists on her hips and tilted her head back to stare up into the trees. “Maud cannae hold a hoop nor a needle, but Da says they’re determined to turn her into a royal Princess since they’ve failed so miserably with me.” Knowing Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, adored this daughter of his—and was likely at fault for her tendency to buck the rules—Isabel finally allowed herself to smile. “I think yer Da would be as impressed by yer ability to climb a tree as any gown ye embroider.” “He’s the King, ye ken,” Margaret declared matter-of-factly. “He gets to stab people with a sword.

Alex does too, but he told me he wasnae going to teach me how to do it.” “I think ‘tis likely wise, my dear. And where is my son?” “Someplace being stuffy, I think,” the little girl sniffed. Reaching out to straighten the wee plaid so the royal princess didn’t look quite so much like a ragamuffin, Isabel hummed concomitantly. “And is that a kind thing to say about yer playmate? A lad who lent ye his plaid so ye might climb trees with him more easily?” With a sigh, the little girl rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll apologize later. He was climbing that big tree by the walls.” She turned to point to the large oak which helped hide the secret door the Angels used when they needed to leave the palace surreptitiously. “We’re playing pirates!” “Pirates?” Princess Margaret bobbed her head excitedly.

“He told me all about”—she lowered her voice and leaned forward, as if imparting a grand secret—“the Black Banner!” “Really?” Isabel’s brows quirked up skeptically. “The scourge of the Minch and Western Isles? I dinnae recall ever telling him those stories.” Usually they were told to naughty children to keep them in line or force them to eat their vegetables. “What did ye learn of him?” Brandishing an imaginary sword, the girl began to leap about. “Alex told me the Black Banner captains a ship with all-black sails, and he wears a black kilt. This kilt is the Bruce kilt, but we’re pretending, see?” She held out the plaid, as if Isabel didn’t know what colors her son’s kilts were. “After we get done practicing our climbing, we’re going to practice attacking villages and pillaging! What’s pillaging?” Amazed by the little girl’s energy, Isabel hid her smile. “I think that might be a question for yer nurses. Or yer parents.” She didn’t want to have to be the one to explain pillaging to a five-year-old princess.

“Now, why are ye here if my Alex is still up a tree?” “Because he’s better at climbing up, but I’m better at climbing down!” “Oh really? And why do ye think that might be?” Isabel was peering around the little girl, searching for her son amongst the oak’s distant branches. “Because I just let go.” The crunch of gravel accompanied a new voice—with part fondness, part exasperation —and caused both Isabel and Margaret to spin around to greet the newcomer. Tis because you’re fearless, my love.” Queen Elizabeth of Scotland was approaching along the gravel path from the direction of the palace. She was accompanied by Liam Bruce, the captain of her guards and her husband’s cousin, as well as Lady Avaline. As always, Ava wore a slight frown as she followed alongside the Queen. Isabel could well imagine her friend had just spent the walk listing the reasons Elizabeth shouldn’t risk the outdoors. As the Queen gestured to her lady to stand back, Isabel rose to her feet to offer the Queen a curtsey. “Yer Majesty,” she murmured.

Princess Margaret, being cheeky, bowed instead. “Good afternoon, Isabel,” Queen Elizabeth of Scotland offered, waving her hand dismissively, even as she reached for her eldest child with her other. “Do stop bobbing up and down.” “Mother, I climbed a tree with Alex!” “So I heard.” The Queen bent at the waist to kiss an un-smudged spot on her daughter’s cheek and squeezed her hand affectionately. “And apparently you had to dress like a street urchin to do so?” “Auntie Charlotte said the same thing. She also said I’d make a fine spy, because nae one would suspect I could possibly be a royal princess, looking like this.” Her mother hummed and exchanged an amused glance with Isabel. “She would know, would she not?” the Queen murmured, as she lowered herself to sit on the bench beside her friend. “And she is right.

With your hair unrestrained like that, you could be a lad.” “Auntie Charlotte says I look like a wee beggar boy, even though this is the Bruce plaid. But I want to be a pirate! And I told Alex I need more dirt to be a pirate,” Margaret declared matter-of-factly. “And I told her no’ all lads are dirty,” came a new wee voice. “And pirates arenae dirty at all, because they live on the water!” Isabel didn’t bother hiding her delighted smile when her son—the light of her life— strolled up the gravel path from the oak. Since he wasn’t covered in dirt, like his royal playmate, she opened her arms to him. As always, the feeling of his small body—warm and so full of life—pressed against hers made her heart swell. The Scottish Court might be full of intrigue and worry, but as long as she had her love close by, she knew they would be able to weather any storm. After inhaling his sticky-sweet scent, she forced herself to release him in order to allow him to straighten and greet his Queen properly. But she kept hold of his hand, cupping it gently, as if she could protect him always.

“Am I to understand you and my daughter are playing pirates?” Elizabeth asked fondly. “Aye, Yer Majesty.” The lad’s normally serious features twitched into a smile as he glanced at his younger cousin. “Since I got to be the Black Banner last time, Margaret is being him today.” “We’re pretending that oak is the big tall mast, Mama!” the princess piped up. “We’re practicing climbing since Alex won’t teach me to stab people.” Queen Elizabeth gravely inclined her head to Alex. “’Tis because he’s a smart lad and knows he needs his sovereign’s permission to do such a thing, dastardly pirate or not.” As the Queen questioned the children about their activities, Isabel watched with a proud smile. He might only be six years old, but ‘twas obvious her son understood how to acquit himself properly.

He was tall for his age, and although scholarly, would one day become a warrior and a leader she would be proud of. After all, he was his father’s son. The sobering thought—and the memories—eased her expression into a neutral one. Which was good, because when the Queen asked, “Are the two of you out here alone?” Alex glanced at Isabel for support. Knowing how to interpret her son’s guilty look, she gently squeezed his hand. “Alex, love, we’ve discussed how ye cannae escape yer guards. Their role in life is to protect ye, and they cannae do that if ye hide from them.” As if knowing pouting would be beneath him, the lad straightened his shoulders. “I will protect Margaret from any harm. And besides, we are within the palace walls, and the guards patrol the walls.

” Isabel nodded. “This is true, but the garden isnae as secure as the rest of the palace.” She should know; she and Ava and Brigit had snuck out often enough. “Ye must consider how much harm ye might do.” His little face blanched. “I would never cause harm to Maggie! I will protect her with my life!” “Nay!” the little girl screeched, socking his upper arm with her fist. “I will protect ye!” ‘Twas her mother who gently corrected her, taking both of the wee girl’s hands in hers. “Listen to me, Margaret,” the Queen began intently, “you are— both of you—quite possibly the hope for Scotland’s future. As a member of the royal family, your role is to be protected. Alex is not just your cousin, but your father’s vessel as well.

It might rankle to allow him to protect you if necessary, but even were you a lad, he’d do the same thing.” Margaret frowned thoughtfully. “ ’Tis no’ just because I’m a lassie?” “I promise ‘tis not.” The Queen glanced up, this time looking toward Avaline, and Brigit, who’d joined her friend and now paced, being as full of energy as Ava was still and serious. When she turned back to her daughter, her English accent reminded Isabel of how much this one woman had overcome in her life. “Lassies and ladies can be fierce and determined, and even deadly, but your father and I—and all of Scotland really—need to know you’re safe.” The little girl sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine. But since ye’re here, and Uncle Liam and Aunt Isabel and a dozen guards, can we go play now? Just for a wee bit longer?” Smiling indulgently, the Queen pulled her eldest closer for another kiss on the cheek. “Just for a wee bit longer.

But if you fall and scrape your knee, ‘twill be the kilt’s fault. Gowns protect your legs.” Alex nodded seriously. “But ye can piss easier in a kilt.” His younger cousin’s eyes lit with excitement. “Show me!” As the two of them scampered back toward the oak, the Queen stifled a sigh, as Isabel murmured, “Oh dear.” “I suppose if the next monarch of Scotland refuses to wear a gown and pisses standing up, there are worse things,” the Queen admitted. Isabel glanced at her. “With the way things are going, I suppose ‘twould be seen as almost normal.” Her friend snorted quietly and placed a hand on her stomach.

“Let us pray Robert’s left me with a lad this time.” Gasping in excitement, Isabel threw propriety to the winds and hugged her dear friend. “I will light a candle for ye, Elizabeth! This might be the bairn all of Scotland is praying for!” The Queen returned the embrace but sighed as they split apart. She’d been pregnant more than a few times over the last six years, but only Margaret and Maud had survived. Without a male heir, the Bruce’s kingdom—which he and all of Scotland had struggled so hard to attain—was in jeopardy. Which is why Alex, as the Bruce’s nephew—albeit illegitimate—was so vital to the crown for now. One might think Isabel would wish Elizabeth to keep bearing daughters so Alex’s claim to the throne would be stronger, but Isabel was no fool. She knew her son’s life was fraught with danger as ‘twas, just from being merely a possible heir. If he were ever to be declared Robert’s absolute heir, he would likely not survive to adulthood. And she would not allow such a travesty.

Luckily, her position in court, and the skills she’d acquired over the last years—thanks mainly to Elizabeth’s spymistress, Lady Charlotte Bruce—would ensure she could protect Alex until he was old enough to protect himself. Apparently taking the children’s departure as an invitation, the Queen’s bodyguard— and Lady Charlotte’s husband—stepped forward. “Yer Majesty, if ye feel protected here…?” Elizabeth nodded regally, gesturing toward the oak. “My Angels will not fail me, Liam. But I’m certain you’ll be able to find a position from which you might watch me and the children.” He clasped his fist to his chest, bowed quickly, and moved into the shadows. Once he was gone, Brigit pulled Ava forward. “Can I fetch ye aught, Yer Majesty?” Smiling softly, Elizabeth gestured for the newcomers to sit with her. “Nay, but my thanks, Brigit. We have only a few minutes before I must retire to repair my appearance.

” “Court this afternoon?” Ava asked, with her habitual worried expression firmly in place. The Queen nodded. “Aye, and I’d like you all by my side. With Robert gone again, the entreaties are bound to be boring, and I trust you to remember the signal.” Ava sighed. “The escape clause? Ye cannae expect that to work again?” Hiding her smile, the Queen raised a brow. “When I drop my fan, one of you find a moment to whisper in my ear, and I’ll pretend ‘tis vital I leave at once. It has worked many times.” “Aye, and one time more might be too many,” Ava snapped, in that dour way of hers. “Someone is bound to notice.

” Isabel leaned forward and caught Ava’s eye. “Then when she drops her fan, ye fake trouble breathing and fall over. ‘Twill work to distract everyone.” Chuckling, Brigit nodded, bracing her elbows on her knees. “ ’Twould work wonders methinks. Lady Avaline never makes a spectacle of herself. Mayhap I should be the one to scream and flail about as if I have a bug down my bodice. It worked in Jedburgh remember?” Ava rolled her eyes. “Only because the abbot was already interested in looking down yer bodice.” Brigit winked good-naturedly, looking more like the servant lass everyone thought her to be than the Queen’s agent she actually was.

“ ’Tis what made it so effective.” As Ava and Brigit bickered about past missions, Isabel caught the Queen’s indulgent smile but wondered at the twinge of wistfulness evident in the monarch’s eyes. Was it because her first Angels—Courtney, Melisandre and Rosa—weren’t at court with her? Five years ago, after Elizabeth’s return from captivity in England, she’d befriended Lady Charlotte MacLeod, after Charlotte—posing as the notorious pirate, Black Banner— attacked her ship. ‘Twas how Charlotte had found Liam, the Queen’s bodyguard, and after they’d married, she’d moved to court. Elizabeth had then offered her a role coordinating a network of secret agents for the Crown—not Robert’s warriors, but Elizabeth’s ladies-inwaiting. The Queen’s Angels. The first three women had been handpicked by the Queen herself. Courtney, an exthief who’d been moldering in jail, had devoted her skills with a bow and other weaponry to protect the Queen and her team. She was now married to Ross Fraser, one of the Queen’s bodyguards, and the only time one or the other wasn’t at her side, was when Charlotte sent them on a mission. Lady Melisandre—Mellie—had been a friend of the Queen’s, and her recruitment to the Angels had been based on logic: she was a vivacious, beautiful young woman who knew how to get men to tell her their secrets.

Isabel, however, had seen her unhappiness over the years, but now that she was married to Laird Lachlan Fraser, and a mother to his young daughter, Mellie seemed to be thriving. The last Angel was Lady Rosalind, a brilliant dark-skinned scholar, whom Isabel greatly admired, even before she’d realized Rosa was one of the first Angels. Rosa was now married to Cam Fraser, the laird’s younger brother, and the pair were devoted to Charlotte’s schemes and espionage.

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